Amy Levy.

The Romance of a Shop online

. (page 11 of 13)
Online LibraryAmy LevyThe Romance of a Shop → online text (page 11 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


turning, went slowly back to his own quarters.

Gertrude came forward into the light.

"You must not come in, Lord Watergate."

Her mind worked with curious rapidity; she saw that a meeting between
the two men must be avoided.

"I cannot let you go alone. You do not know - - "

"I am prepared for anything. Lord Watergate, spare my sister's shame."

She had passed him, with set, tragic face. He saw the slim, rapid
figure, in the black, snow-covered dress, make its way down the passage,
then disappear behind the curtain which guarded the entrance to the
studio.

Gertrude had entered noiselessly, and, pausing on the threshold, hidden
in shadow, remained there motionless a moment's space.

Every detail of the great room, seen but once before, smote on her sense
with a curious familiarity. It had been wintry daylight on the occasion
of her former presence there; now a mellow radiance of shaded,
artificial light was diffused throughout the apartment, a radiance
concentrated to subdued brilliance in the immediate neighbourhood of the
fireplace.

A wood fire, with leaping blue flames, was piled on the hearth, its
light flickering fitfully on the surrounding objects; on the tiger-skin
rug, the tall, rich screen of faded Spanish leather; on Darrell himself,
who lounged on a low couch, his blonde head outlined against the screen,
a cloud of cigarette smoke issuing from his lips, as he looked from
under his eye-lids at the figure before him.

It was Phyllis who stood there by the little table, on which lay some
fruit and some coffee, in rose-coloured cups. Phyllis, yet somebody new
and strange; not the pretty child that her sisters had loved, but a
beautiful wanton in a loose, trailing garment, shimmering, wonderful,
white and lustrous as a pearl; Phyllis, with her brown hair turned to
gold in the light of the lamp swung above her; Phyllis, with diamonds on
the slender fingers, that played with a cluster of bloom-covered grapes.

For a moment, the warmth, the overpowering fragrance of hot-house
flowers, most of all, the sight of that figure by the table, had robbed
Gertrude of power to move or speak. But in her heart the storm, which
had been silently gathering, was growing ready to burst. For the time,
the varied emotions which devoured her had concentrated themselves into
a white heat of fury, which kindled all her being.

The flames leapt, the logs crackled pleasantly. Darrell blew a whiff of
smoke to the ceiling; Phyllis smiled, then suddenly into that bright
scene glided a black and rigid figure, with glowing eyes and tragic
face; with the snow sprinkled on the old cloak, and clinging in the
wisps of wind-blown hair.

"Phyllis," it said in level tones; "come home with me at once. Mr.
Darrell cannot marry you; he is married already."

Phyllis shrank back, with a cry.

"Oh, Gerty, how you frightened me! What do you mean by coming down on
one like this?"

Her voice shook, through its petulance; she whisked round so suddenly
that her long dress caught in the little table, which fell to the ground
with a crash.

Darrell had sprung to his feet with an exclamation. "By God, what brings
that woman here!"

Gertrude turned and faced him.

His face was livid with passion; his prominent eyes, for once wide open,
glared at her in rage and hatred.

Gertrude met his glance with eyes that glowed with a passion yet fiercer
than his own.

Elements, long smouldering, had blazed forth at last. Face to face they
stood; face to face, while the silent battle raged between them.

Then with a curious elation, a mighty throb of what was almost joy,
Gertrude knew that she, not he, the man of whom she had once been
afraid, was the stronger of the two. For one brief moment some fierce
instinct in her heart rejoiced.

Phyllis, cowering in the background, Phyllis, pale as her splendid
dress, shrank back, mystified, afraid. Her light soul shivered before
the blast of passions in which, though she had helped to raise them, she
felt herself to have no part nor lot.

Reckoned by time, the encounter of those two hostile spirits was but
brief; a moment, and Darrell had dropped his eyes, and was saying in
something like his own languid voice -

"To what may I ascribe this - honour?"

Gertrude turned in silence to her sister -

"Take off that - - " (she indicated the shimmering garment with a pause),
"and come with me."

Darrell sneered from the background; "Your sister has decided on
remaining here."

"Phyllis!" said Gertrude, looking at her.

Phyllis began to sob.

"Oh, Gerty, what shall I do? Don't look at me like that. My dress is
there behind the screen; and my hat. Oh, Gerty, I shall never get it on;
I am so much taller."

With rapid fingers Gertrude had unfastened her own long, black cloak,
and was wrapping it about her sister.

"Great heavens," cried Darrell, coming forward and seizing her hands;
"You shall not take her away! You have no earthly right to take her
against her will."

With a cold fury of disgust she shook off his touch.

"Oh, Sidney, I think I'd better go. I oughtn't to have come." Phyllis'
voice sounded touchingly childish.

Something in the pleading tones stirred his blood curiously.

"Do you know," he cried, addressing himself to Gertrude, who was
deliberately drawing the rings from her sister's passive hands, "Do you
know what a night it is? That if you take her away you will kill her?
Great God, you paragon of virtue, don't you see how ill she is?"

She swept her glance over him in icy disdain; then going up to the
mantelpiece, laid the rings on the shelf.

"I swear to you," he cried, "that I will leave the house this hour,
this minute. That I will never return to it; that I will never see her
again - Phyllis!"

At the last word, his voice had dropped to a low and passionate key; he
stretched out his arms, but Gertrude coming between them put her strong
desperate grasp about Phyllis, who swayed forward with closed eyes.
Darrell retreated with a muffled exclamation of grief and rage and
baffled purpose, and Gertrude half led, half carried her sister from the
room, the hateful satin garment trailing noisily behind them from
beneath the black cloak.

A tall figure came forward from the doorway; the door was standing open;
and the white whirlpool was visible against the darkness outside.

"She has fainted," said Gertrude, in a low voice.

Lord Watergate lifted her gently in his arms. At the same moment Darrell
emerged from the studio, then remained rooted to the spot, dismayed and
sullen, at the sight of his friend.

"You are a scoundrel, Darrell," said Lord Watergate, in very clear,
deliberate tones; then, his burden in his arms, he stepped out into the
darkness, Gertrude closing the door behind them.

Half an hour later the brougham stopped before the house in Upper Baker
Street.

Lord Watergate, when he had carried the fainting girl upstairs, went
himself for a doctor.

"I think I have killed her," said Gertrude, before he went, looking up
at him from over the prostrate figure of her sister; "and if it were all
to be done again - I would do it."

Mrs. Maryon asked no questions; her genuine kindness and helpfulness
were called forth by this crisis; and her suspicions of Gertrude had
vanished for ever.

[Illustration: Decoration]


[Illustration: Decoration]




CHAPTER XX.

IN THE SICK-ROOM.

_A riddle that one shrinks
To challenge from the scornful sphinx._
D. G. ROSSETTI.


The doctor's verdict was unhesitating enough. Phyllis's doom, as more
than one who knew her foresaw, was sealed. The shock and the exposure
had only hastened an end which for long had been inevitable.
Consumption, complicated with heart disease, both in advanced stages,
held her in their grasp; added to these, a severe bronchial attack had
set in since the night of the snowstorm, and her life might be said to
hang by a thread. It might be a matter of days, said the cautious
physician, of weeks, or even months.

"Would a journey to the south, at an earlier stage of her illness, have
availed to save her?" Gertrude asked, with white, mechanical lips.

It was possible, was the answer, that it would have prolonged her life.
But almost from the first, it seemed, the shadow of the grave must have
rested on this beautiful human blossom.

"Death in her face," muttered Mrs. Maryon, grimly; "I saw it there, I
have always seen it."

Meanwhile, people came and went in Upper Baker Street; sympathetic,
inquisitive, bustling.

Fanny, dismayed and tearful, appeared daily at the invalid's bedside,
laden with grapes and other delicacies.

"Poor old Fan," said Phyllis; "how shocked she would be if she knew
everything. Don't you think it is your duty, Gerty, to Mr. Marsh, to let
him know?"

Aunt Caroline drove across from Lancaster Gate, rebuke implied in every
fold of her handsome dress.

"I cannot think," she remarked to her friends, "how Gertrude could have
reconciled such culpable neglect of that poor child's health to her
conscience."

Gertrude avoided her aunt, saying to herself, in the bitterness of her
humiliation: "It is the Aunt Carolines of this world who are right. I
ought to have listened to her. She understood human nature better than
I."

The Devonshires, who had not long returned from Germany, were
unremitting in their kindness, the slackened bonds between the two
families growing tight once more in this hour of need.

Lord Watergate made regular inquiries in Baker Street. Gertrude found
his presence more endurable than that of the people with whom she had to
dissemble; he knew her secret; it was safe with him and she was almost
glad that he knew it.

Gertrude had written a brief note to Lucy, telling her that Phyllis was
very ill, but urging her to remain a week, at least, in Cornwall.

"She will need all the strength she can get up," thought Gertrude. She
herself was performing prodigies of work without any conscious effort.

Frozen, tense, silent, she vibrated between the studio and the
sick-room, moving as if in obedience to some hidden mechanism, a
creature apparently without wants, emotions, or thoughts.

She had gathered from Phyllis' cynically frank remarks, that it was by
the merest chance she had not been too late and that Darrell had
returned to The Sycamores.

"We were going to cross on our way to Italy that very night," Phyllis
said. "We drove to Charing Cross, and then the snow began to fall, and I
had such a fit of coughing that Sidney was frightened, and took me home
to St. John's Wood."

Gertrude, who had received these confidences in silence, turned her head
away with an involuntary, instinctive movement of repugnance at the
mention of Darrell's Christian name.

"Gerty," said Phyllis, who lay back among the pillows, a white ghost
with two burning red spots on her cheeks, "Gerty, it is only fair that I
should tell you: Sidney isn't as bad as you think. He went away in the
summer, because he was beginning to care about me too much; he only came
back because he simply couldn't help himself. And - and, you will go out
of the room and never speak to me again - I knew he had a wife, Gerty; I
heard them talking about her at the Oakleys, the very first day I saw
him. She was his model; she drinks like a fish, and is ten years older
than he is - - I put that in the letter about getting married, because I
didn't quite know how to say it. I thought that very likely you knew."

Gertrude had walked to the window, and was pulling down the blind with
stiff, blundering fingers. It was growing dusk and in less than half an
hour Lucy would be home. It was just a week since she had set out for
Cornwall.

"Shall you tell Lucy?" came the childish voice from among the pillows.

"I don't know. Lie still, Phyllis, and I will see if Mrs. Maryon has
prepared the jelly for you."

"Kind old thing, Mrs. Maryon."

"Yes, indeed. She quite ignores the fact that we have no possible claim
on her."

Gertrude met Mrs. Maryon on the dusky stairs, dish in hand.

"Do go and lie down, Miss Lorimer; or we shall have you knocked up too,
and where should we be then? You mustn't let Miss Lucy see you like
that."

Gertrude obeyed mechanically. Going into the sitting-room, she threw
herself on the little hard sofa, her face pressed to the pillow.

She must have fallen into a doze, for the next thing of which she was
aware was Lucy's voice in her ear, and opening her eyes she saw Lucy
bending over her, candle in hand.

"Have you seen her?" she asked, sitting up with a dazed air.

"I am back this very minute. Gertrude, what have you been doing to
yourself?"

"Oh, I am all right." She rose with a little smile. "Let me look at you,
Lucy. Actually roses on your cheek."

"Gertrude, Gertrude, what has happened to you? Have I come - Oh, Gerty,
have I come too late?"

"No," said Gertrude, "but she is very ill."

Lucy put her arms round her sister.

"And I have left you alone through these days. Oh, my poor Gerty."

They went upstairs together, and Lucy passed into the invalid's room,
Gertrude remaining in the outer apartment, which was her own.

In about ten minutes Lucy came out sobbing. "Oh, Phyllis, Phyllis," she
wept below her breath.

Gertrude, paler than ever, rose without a word, and went into the
sick-room.

"Poor old Lucy, she looked as if she were going to cry. I asked her if
she had any message for Frank," said Phyllis, as her sister sat down
beside her, and adjusted the lamp.

"You are over-exciting yourself. Lie still, Phyllis."

"But, Gerty, I feel ever so much better to-night."

Silence. Gertrude sewed, and the invalid lay with closed eyes, but the
flutter of the long lashes told that she was not asleep.

"Gerty!" In about half an hour the grey eyes had unclosed, and were
fixed widely on her sister's face.

"What is it?"

"Gerty, am I really going to die?"

"You are very ill," said Gertrude, in a low voice.

"But to die - it seems so impossible, so difficult, somehow. Frank died;
that was wonderful enough; but oneself!"

"Oh, my child," broke from Gertrude's lips.

"Don't be sorry. I have never been a nice person, but I don't funk
somehow. I ought to, after being such a bad lot, but I don't. Gerty!"

"What is it?"

"Gerty, you have always been good to me; this last week as well. But
that is the worst of you good people; you are hard as stones. You bring
me jelly; you sit up all night with me - but you have never forgiven me.
You know that is the truth."

Gertrude knelt by the bedside, a great compunction in her heart; she put
her hand on that of Phyllis, who went on -

"And there is something I should wish to tell you. I am glad you came
and fetched me away. The very moment I saw your angry, white face, and
your old clothes with the snow on, I was glad. It is funny, if one comes
to think of it. I was frightened, but I was glad."

Gertrude's head drooped lower and lower over the coverlet; her heart,
which had been frozen within her, melted. In an agony of love, of
remorse, she stretched out her arms, while her sobs came thick and fast,
and gathered the wasted figure to her breast.

"Oh, Phyllis, oh, my child; who am I to forgive you? Is it a question of
forgiveness between us? Oh, Phyllis, my little Phyllis, have you
forgotten how I love you?"

[Illustration: Decoration]


[Illustration: Decoration]




CHAPTER XXI.

THE LAST ACT.

_Just as another woman sleeps._
D. G. ROSSETTI.


It was not till a week or two later that Gertrude brought herself to
tell Lucy what had happened during her absence. It was a bleak afternoon
in the beginning of December; in the next room lay Phyllis, cold and
stiff and silent for ever; and Lucy was drearily searching in a cupboard
for certain mourning garments which hung there. But suddenly, from the
darkness of the lowest shelf, something shone up at her, a white,
shimmering object, lying coiled there like a snake.

It was Phyllis's splendid satin gown, which Gertrude had flung there on
the fateful night, and, from sheer repugnance, had never disturbed.

"But you must send it back," Lucy said, when in a few broken words her
sister had explained its presence in the cupboard.

Lucy was very pale and very serious. She gathered up the satin gown,
which nothing could have induced Gertrude to touch, folded it neatly,
and began looking about for brown paper in which to enclose it.

The ghastly humour of the little incident struck Gertrude. "There is
some string in the studio," she said, half-ironically, and went back to
her post in the chamber of death.

In her long narrow coffin lay Phyllis; beautiful and still, with flowers
between her hands. She had drifted out of life quietly enough a few days
before; to-morrow she would be lying under the newly-turned cemetery
sods.

Gertrude stood a moment, looking down at the exquisite face. On the
breast of the dead girl lay a mass of pale violets which Lord Watergate
had sent the day before, and as Gertrude looked, there flashed through
her mind, what had long since vanished from it, the recollection of
Lord Watergate's peculiar interest in Phyllis.

It was explained now, she thought, as the image of another dead face
floated before her vision. That also was the face of a woman, beautiful
and frail; of a woman who had sinned. She had never seen the resemblance
before; it was clear enough now.

Then she took up once again her watcher's seat at the bed-side, and
strove to banish thought.

To do and do and do; that is all that remains to one in a world where
thinking, for all save a few chosen beings, must surely mean madness.

She had fallen into a half stupor, when she was aware of a subtle sense
of discomfort creeping over her; of an odour, strong and sweet and
indescribably hateful, floating around her like a winged nightmare.
Opening her eyes with an effort, she saw Mrs. Mary on standing gravely
at the foot of the bed, an enormous wreath of tuberose in her hand.

Gertrude rose from her seat.

"Who sent those flowers?" she said, sternly.

"A servant brought them; he mentioned no name, and there is no card
attached."

The woman laid the wreath on the coverlet and discreetly withdrew.

Gertrude stood staring at the flowers, fascinated. In the first moment
of the cold yet stifling fury which stole over her, she could have taken
them in her hands and torn them petal from petal.

One instant, she had stretched out her hand towards them; the next, she
had turned away, sick with the sense of impotence, of loathing, of
immeasurable disdain.

What weapons could avail against the impenetrable hide of such a man?

"She never cared for him," a vindictive voice whispered to her from the
depths of her heart.

Then she shrank back afraid before the hatred which held possession of
her soul. The passion which had animated her on the fateful evening of
Phyllis's flight, the very strength which had caused her to prevail,
seemed to her fearful and hideous things. She would fain have put the
thought of them away; have banished them and all recollection of Darrell
from her mind for ever.

It was a bleak December morning, with a touch of east wind in the air,
when Phyllis was laid in her last resting-place.

To Gertrude all the sickening details of the little pageant were as the
shadows of a nightmare. Standing rigid as a statue by the open grave,
she was aware of nothing but the sweet, stifling fragrance of tuberose,
which seemed to have detached itself from, and prevailed over, the
softer scents of rose and violet, and to float up unmixed from the
flower-covered coffin.

Lucy stood on one side of her, silent and pale with down-dropt eyes;
Fanny sobbed vociferously on the other. Lord Watergate faced them with
bent head. The tears rolled down Fred Devonshire's face as the burial
service proceeded. Aunt Caroline looked like a vindictive ghost. Uncle
Septimus wept silently.

It seemed a hideous act of cruelty to turn away at last and leave the
poor child lying there alone, while the sexton shovelled the loose earth
on to her coffin; hideous, but inevitable; and at midday Gertrude and
Lucy drove back in the dismal coach to Baker Street, where Mr. Maryon
had put up alternate shutters in the shop-window, and the
umbrella-maker had drawn down his blinds.

Gertrude, as she lay awake that night, heard the rain beating against
the window-panes, and shuddered.

[Illustration: Decoration]


[Illustration: Decoration]




CHAPTER XXII.

HOPE AND A FRIEND.

_Alas, I have grieved so I am hard to love._
SONNETS FROM THE PORTUGUESE.


Gertrude was sitting by the window with Constance Devonshire one bleak
January afternoon.

Conny's face wore a softened look. The fierce, rebellious misery of her
heart had given place to a gentler grief, the natural human sorrow for
the dead.

This was a farewell visit. The next day she and her family were setting
out for the South of France.

"I tried to make Fred come with me to-day," Constance was saying; "but
he is dining with some kindred spirits at the Café Royal, and then going
on to the Gaiety. He said there would be no time."

Fred had been once to Baker Street since the unfortunate interview with
Lucy; had paid a brief visit of condolence, when he had been very much
on his dignity and very afraid of meeting Lucy's eye. The
re-establishment of the old relations was not more possible than it
usually is in such cases.

"How long do you expect to be at Cannes?" Gertrude said, after one of
the pauses which kept on stretching themselves baldly across the
conversation.

"Till the end of March, probably. Isn't Lucy coming up to say 'good-bye'
to a fellow?"

"She will be up soon. She is much distressed about the over-exposure of
some plates, and is trying to remedy the misfortune. Do you know, by the
by, that we are thinking of taking an apprentice? Mr. Russel has found a
girl - a lady - who will pay us a premium, and probably live with us."

"I think that is a good plan," said Conny, staring wistfully out of
window.

How strange it seemed, after all that had happened, to be sitting here
quietly, talking about over-exposed negatives, premiums, and
apprentices.

Looking out into the familiar street, with its teeming memories of a
vivid life now quenched for ever, she said to herself, as Gertrude had
often said: "It is not possible."

One day, surely, the door would open to give egress to the well-known
figure; one day they would hear his footstep on the stairs, his voice in
the little room. Even as the thought struck her, Constance was aware of
a sound as of some one ascending, and started with a sudden beating of
the heart.

The next moment Matilda flung open the door, and Lord Watergate came,
unannounced, into the room.

Gertrude rose gravely to meet him.

Since the accident, which had brought him into such intimate connection
with the Lorimers' affairs, his kindness had been as unremitting as it
had been unobtrusive.

Gertrude had several times reproached herself for taking it as a matter
of course; for being roused to no keener fervour of gratitude; yet
something in his attitude seemed to preclude all expression of
commonplaces.

It was no personal favour that he offered. To stretch out one's hand to
a drowning creature is no act of gallantry; it is but recognition of a
natural human obligation.

Lord Watergate took a seat between the two girls, and, after a few
remarks, Constance declared her intention of seeking Lucy in the studio.

"Tell Lucy to come up when she has soaked her plates to her
satisfaction," said Gertrude, a little vexed at this desertion.

To have passed through such experiences together as she and Lord
Watergate, makes the casual relations of life more difficult. These two
people, to all intents and purposes strangers, had been together in
those rare moments of life when the elaborate paraphernalia of everyday
intercourse is thrown aside; when soul looks straight to soul through no
intervening veil; when human voice answers human voice through no medium
of an actor's mask.

We lose with our youth the blushes, the hesitations, the distressing
outward marks of embarrassment; but, perhaps, with most of us, the
shyness, as it recedes from the surface, only sinks deeper into the
soul.

As the door closed on Constance, Lord Watergate turned to Gertrude.

"Miss Lorimer," he said, "I am afraid your powers of endurance have to
be further tried."

"What is it?" she said, while a listless incredulity that anything could
matter to her now stole over her, dispersing the momentary cloud of


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13

Online LibraryAmy LevyThe Romance of a Shop → online text (page 11 of 13)