- CHAPTER XIX THE STARRY NIGHT
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THE STARRY NIGHT
"THE whole world is asleep," said Walter Race.
"It is the hour of dreams!" said Phosie.
It is days and days since I saw you dancing in the theatre."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because I hate to think of it."
"You were not pleased with my success?"
"On the contrary, I was delighted with your success. But it all seems hollow, useless, ugly compared with this! The flaming lights, the noise, the smoky air! I feel as if I had seen a bright bird beating its wings in a gaudy cage, or a fresh flower drooping in the fumes of gas. Now the bird is free and the flower blooms."
They had turned out of the street where Miss Sapio lived into a wider road, with a row of trees on either side, like great sentinels shaking their lofty spears of bare forked branches. The nipping air was still, and the heavens were strewn with stars.
All the beauty, all the mystery of night was wrapped about them.
"Do you know the air is full of dreams?" she asked, smiling up into his face.
He shook his head and drew her a little closer to his side.
"I can see them," said Phosie. "Beautiful, secret dreams. They swim on the waves of the wind, over us, beside us, and through us as we walk. Some of them | | 174 have travelled from far, far distant lands. Some of them are dreams of the past, like faded pictures in a haunted house. Some of them fly on airy wings, or march like soldiers with a steady tramp. Some of them are only bunches of flowers, or snatches of song, or the echoes of a well-remembered voice—"
She stopped abruptly, half-ashamed of her fanciful mood.
There was no sound but their own footsteps. He lifted her hand to his lips. It returned lightly, confidently, to the shelter of his arm.
"How long have we known each other?" he said.
"Three days," said Phosie.
"No, no! It is three years—thirty years—since the world began," he murmured.
"Then I must be very old," said Phosie.
She drew her hand quickly from his arm, glanced over her shoulder to make sure they were alone, and began to dance down the street in front of him, while her laughter rang out like a peal of silver bells.
Walter, after one minute of surprise, leapt forward, caught her round the waist and joined in the dance.
They whirled into the middle of the road. It was hard and slippery beneath their feet, a perfect floor! Walter had danced at many balls, but never with such abandon. He held her for the first time in his arms, but she was so light and the swing of the waltz so rhythmical, that even the sense of touch seemed evanescent; she was so near, but so far, from his wildly-beating heart.
He looked into her eyes and a wave of her hair touched his cheek. She lifted her hand from his shoulder to push it behind her ear, and he felt as if she had half escaped—only the tips of her fingers in his, only his light clasp round her waist. Her hand returned, he swung her off her little feet, but she hardly noticed it. He could have danced for an hour in the vigour of his strength. He realised that he had never danced before.| | 175
It was Phosie who stopped, as suddenly as she had begun, made him a demure little curtsey, and returned to the pavement as calmly as if it were a general custom for young ladies and gentlemen to waltz down the middle of London roads together at two o'clock in the morning.
They walked on slowly, without saying a word about the dance, winding their way through a labyrinth of streets. The same gentle thought, after a while, occurred to them both.
"I think we are strolling over the meadows in mid-July," said Walter.
"I can feel the soft grass under my feet!" exclaimed Phosie.
"Tiny feet! Look how the daisies underneath them dip and rise again," he answered.
"Just now I trod on a piece of wild thyme, did you smell the sweet perfume?" she asked.
"Yes. Where did you gather the honeysuckle and meadowsweet? It makes a lovely wreath on your sunny hair."
"Do you think so? Here's a corn-flower for your buttonhole."
"Will you put it in for me?"
"No, that old shepherd driving his flock is staring at us."
There was silence while the old shepherd, who was wearing the uniform of a policeman, passed them by.
"Listen! Can you hear the skylarks and the wood-pigeons in that little copse of beeches and willows, Phosie?"
"Of course I can hear them."
Her tone of conviction broke the spell.
"I believe you can!" exclaimed Walter.
"But I have never lived in the country," she replied. "I'm a London sparrow, you know, chirping about on the roofs and in the gutters. I've never seen the sea, and I can never afford to go out of town."| | 176
"Dear little girl—poor little child—fairy—moonbeam!"
She raised her eyes at the sound of his caressing voice. He was looking at her with an expression she had never seen on his face before.
Her words had moved him to a new tenderness. He thought of her youth and simplicity, and he was suddenly glad to have her alone, not to flatter and influence her pliant nature, but to win her confidence, to deserve her sweet trust.
He forgot his joy in the dance. Wild as it had been, it was nothing to this minute of perfect sympathy. Their hands met, gently, freely, each was clasped in each. Their hearts were exalted in the starry night. The swift love of their youth was touched to fine issues.
Strains of unheard music stirred their inner sense of hearing. Soft colours gathered and dissolved to their inner sense of vision. The man's spirit broke the veil of an aimless life which hung about it like a lurid mist, and he was conscious of one of those strange, unfathomable waves of emotion, as fleeting as they are rare, in which the love of self—desire, passion—is merged in the greater love of the Infinite.
Illumination flashes into the soul, and it sees, in less time than a heart-beat, that the most tender human ties, the most inspired human work, the most glorious human victories, but reflect the attributes of the Creator of them all.
Walter Race, when this rare minute of spiritual light had flown as quickly as it came, looked at Euphrosyne with the half-admiring, half-amused earnestness which she already knew so well.
Having always flattered himself on a thorough knowledge of his own character, he was trying to solve the problem of her fascination.
He knew, having proved it a hundred times, that he was a man of self-control, not imprudent, scornful of | | 177 sentimentality, no longer swayed by boyish impulse, but yet—but yet—he intended to marry this girl. Marry her! Marry her for the sake of a charm which, he told himself, was probably half illusion, for the sake of a gay laugh, for the sake of a pretty face.
He wished he had never seen the little sparkling jewel, but having seen it, he was willing to pay any price to call it his own.
Such thoughts as these, but less definitely conceived, flitted through Walter's mind in the reaction from his minute of rapture.
He talked to Phosie as a lover talks, for his mind was made up and there was no need for concealment. Radiant words of a starry night! They would lose their lustre in repetition, but Phosie cherished them in her heart—never repeated, never forgotten—through all the changing years of her life.
She parted from him at the door of her house
He bent and kissed her hands again and again, held them for a second against his breast, and let her go. She softly turned the key in the lock, looked over her shoulder, and then the black door closed behind her.
Walter Race, seized with an impulse of divine madness he was never to know again, turned his back on the narrow streets and silent houses.
He could not go home. His walls would have seemed like a prison. Sleep was impossible. He had never felt so keen, so virile, so strong.
On and on he tramped, untired and untiring, until the night was fading into dawn. The stars went out, and the pale, silvery-pink light of a new day stole like a mist through the grey clouds in the east.
Walter stopped at last, looking towards the city, on a windy stretch of open country.
He felt like a man who had just awakened from a | | 178 vivid dream, but shudders to find himself a little cold, a little weary, lying on the bare ground.
"Euphrosyne!" he murmured, as if she were there to hear. "Euphrosyne, my heart!"
Then he smiled at himself with a shake of his big shoulders.
"Oh, Phosie!" he said, "what a fool a woman can make of a man—Phosie! Phosie!"
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