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Easton Down) again the sea's face was blurred with mist.

As he went on westwards the mist kept pace with him, gradually
diminishing the view he had hoped to see. And as it shifted and closed
round him, his movements became labyrinthine, then circular.

And now his view was all foreground; he was simply walking through
circles of moor, enclosed by walls of fine grey fog. He passed through
these walls, like a spirit, into smaller and smaller circles; then,
hopelessly bewildered, he stopped, turned, and walked in what he took
to be a contrary direction, feeling that the chance of going over the
cliff-side lent an agreeable excitement to a pastime that threatened
to become monotonous. This was assuming the cliff-side to be somewhere
near; and he was beginning to feel that it might be anywhere, under
his feet for all he knew, when the fog lifted a little from the high
ground, and he saw that he had lost his bearings altogether. He had
been going round and round through these circles without returning to
the point he started from. He went forward less cautiously in a larger
round, and then he suddenly stood still. He was not alone.

His foreground had widened slightly and a figure stood in the middle
of it. There was something familiar in the blurred outlines, traced as
if by a watery finger on the wall of mist. An idea had taken shape
stealthily behind him and flung its shadow there. The idea was Lucia
Harden. The fog hung in her hair in drops like rain; it made her grey
dress cling close about her straight, fine limbs; it gave its own
grandeur and indistinctness to her solitary figure.

She turned, unstartled, but with an air of imperfect recognition. He
raised his hat; the hat with the green ribbon on it.

"I beg your pardon, but can you tell me the shortest cut to Harmouth?
I think I've lost my way."

She answered absently. "You are all right. Turn to the left, and
you'll find the path along the cliff. It will bring you out on to
Harmouth beach."

He followed the path she had pointed out. Still absently she looked
after him, a dim figure going down into the fog, and it occurred to
her that she had sent him on a dangerous way. There were rabbit wires
and pitfalls on that path; places where the cliff was eaten away under
its curling edge of turf, and for Mr. Rickman, who didn't know his
ground, a single step might mean death.

She could not see him now. She called to him; "Mr. Rickman!" but there
was no answer; only the sound of Mr. Rickman going down deeper. She
called again, a little imperiously, and yet again. The last time her
voice carried well, for there was the vibrating note of terror in it.
He turned and saw her coming down the path towards him.

"I forgot," she said, still with the slight tremor of fear in her
voice. It seemed to draw out and intensify its sweetness. "That path
isn't safe in a fog like this. You had better go round by the road."

"Oh, thanks. You shouldn't have troubled. I should have got on all
right." They were climbing up the moor together.

"I'm afraid you wouldn't. I wasn't thinking, or I would never have
sent you that way."

"Why not? It was a very good way."

"Yes. But you were going down into the thick of the fog. You might
easily have walked over the cliff - and broken your neck."

He laughed as if that was the most delightfully humorous idea.

"I don't know," said he, "that it would have mattered very much if I
had."

She said nothing. She never did when he made these excursions into the
personal. Of course it would not have mattered to Miss Harden if he
had gone over the cliff. He had been guilty, not only of an
unpardonable social solecism, but of a still more unpardonable
platitude.

They had reached the top of the cliff, and Lucia stood still.

"Isn't there another short cut cut across the valley?" he asked.

"There is; but I don't advise you to try it. And there is a way round
by the road - if you can find it."

He smiled. Had he tried to approach her too soon, and was she
reminding him that short cuts are dangerous? There was a way round - if
he could find it. If indeed!

"Oh, I shall find it all right," said he, inspired by his double
meaning.

"I don't think you will, if the fog lasts. I am going that way and I
had better show you."

Show him? Was it possible?

She led the way, all too swiftly, yet with a certain leisure in her
haste. He followed with a shy delight.

He was familiar enough by this time with her indoor aspect, with her
unique and perfect manner of sitting still; now he saw that her beauty
was of that rare kind that is most beautiful in movement. He would
have liked that walk to last for ever, for the pure pleasure of
following, now the delicate poise of her head, now the faint ripple of
her shoulders under her thin coat, now the lines of her skirt breaking
and flowing with the almost imperceptible swinging of her hips.

Her beauty, as he now reflected, was of the sort that dwells less in
the parts than in the whole, it was subtle, pervading, and profound.
It rejected all but the finer elements of sex. In those light
vanishing curves her womanhood was more suggested than defined; it
dawned on him in tender adumbration rather than in light. Such beauty
is eloquent and prophetic through its richness of association, its
kindred with all forms of loveliness. As Lucia moved she parted with
some of that remoter quality that had first fascinated, then estranged
him; she took on the grace of the creatures that live free in the
sunlight and in the open air.

The mist shut them in with its grey walls. There was nothing to be
seen but the patch of grass trodden by her feet, and her moving
figure, grey on grey.

The walk was somewhat lacking in incident and conversational openings.
Such as occurred seemed, like Kitty Palliser's hat, to be packed with
meaning. There was the moment, the dreadful moment, when he lagged
behind and lost sight of her. The moment, his opportunity, when an
enormous bramble caught and pinned her by the feet and skirt. She
tried to tread on it with one foot and walk away from it with the
other, a thing manifestly impossible and absurd. Besides, it
hurt - horribly. He knelt before her on the wet moor, unconscious of
his brand-new trousers, conscious of nothing but the exquisite moment;
and, with hands that trembled violently, freed first her delicate feet
and then her skirt. He breathed hard, for the operation was intricate
and took time. That bramble seemed to have neither beginning nor end,
it branched out in all directions and was set with multitudinous and
powerful thorns. Lucia stood still, being indeed unable to move, and
watched his long, slender fingers adroitly disentangling her.

"I'm afraid you're hurting yourself," said she.

"Not at all," said Mr. Rickman gallantly, though the thorns tortured
his hands, drawing drops of blood. His bliss annihilated pain.

"Take care," said she, "you are letting yourself get terribly torn."

He took no notice; but breathed harder than ever. "There, I've got it
all off now, I think."

"Thank you very much." She drew her skirt gently from his detaining
grasp.

"No - wait - please. There's a great hulking brute of a thorn stuck in
the hem."

She waited.

"Confound my clumsiness! I've done it now!"

"Done what?" She looked down; on the dainty hem there appeared three
distinct crimson stains. Mr. Rickman's face was crimson, too, with a
flush of agony. Whatever he did for her his clumsiness made wrong.

"I'm awfully sorry, but I've ruined your - your pretty dress, Miss
Harden."

For it was a pretty, a very pretty, a charming dress. And he was
making matters worse by rubbing it with his pocket-handkerchief.

"Please - please don't bother," said she, "it doesn't matter." (How
different from the behaviour of Miss Walker when Spinks spilt the
melted butter on her shoulder!) "You've hurt your own hands more than
my dress."

The episode seemed significant of the perils that awaited him in his
intercourse with Miss Harden.

She went on. The narrow hill-track ended in the broad bridle-path that
goes straight up Harcombe (not Harmouth) valley. He wondered, with
quite painful perplexity, whether he ought still to follow at a
discreet distance, or whether he might now walk beside her. She
settled the question by turning round and waiting for him to come up
with her. So they went up the valley together, and together climbed
the steep road that leads out of it and back in the direction they had
just left. The mist was thinner here at the top of the hill, and
Rickman recognized the road he had crossed when he had turned
eastwards that morning. He could now have found his way back perfectly
well; but he did not say so. A few minutes' walk brought them to the
place where he had sat down in his misery and looked over Harmouth
valley.

Here they stopped, each struck by the strange landscape now suddenly
revealed to them. They stood in clear air above the fog. It had come
rolling in from the south, submerging the cliffs, and the town, and
the valley; and now it lay smooth and cold and blue-white, like the
sea under a winter sky. They might have been looking down on some
mysterious world made before man. No land was to be seen save the tops
of the hills lashed by the torn edges of the mist. Westward, across
the bay, the peaks of the cliffs showed like a low, flat coast, a dull
purplish line tormented by a livid surf. The flooded valley had become
an arm of that vague sea. And from under the fog, immeasurably far
below, there came the muffled sound of the mother sea, as if it were
beating on the invisible floor of the world.

"I say, that's rather uncanny, isn't it?" So uncanny did it seem to
him that he felt that it called for remark.

She looked at him with that faintly interrogative lifting of the
eyebrows, which always seemed familiar to him. He remembered
afterwards that Horace Jewdwine had the same trick. But in her,
accompanied as it was by a pretty lifting of the corners of her mouth,
it expressed friendly interest, in Jewdwine, apathy and a certain
insolence. And yet all the time she was wondering how she should break
it to him that their ways must now diverge.

"There's a horrible unconsciousness about it," he went on, pursuing as
usual his own fancy. "If you _could_ get bare nature without spirit,
it would look like that."

"It _doesn't_ look quite real," she admitted. (After that, there must
be no more concessions. They must separate.)

"It hasn't any reality but what we give it."

"Hasn't it?"

(A statement so sweeping challenged contradiction.)

"You think that's only my Cockney view?"

"I think it isn't Nature. It's your own idea."

"It isn't even my own idea; I bagged it from Coleridge. P'raps you'll
say he muddled himself with opium till he couldn't tell which was
Nature and which was Coleridge; but there was old Wordsworth, as sober
as a churchwarden, and he knew. What you call my Cockney view is the
view of the modern poets. They don't - they can't distinguish between
Nature and the human soul. Talk of getting near to Nature - we wouldn't
know Nature if we saw it now. Those everlasting poets have got so near
it that they've blocked the view for themselves and everybody else."

"Really, you talk as if they were a set of trippers."

"So they are! Wordsworth was nothing but a tripper, a glorified
tripper. Nature never looked the same since he ran his Excursion-train
through the Lake country - special service to Tintern and Yarrow."

"This is slightly profane."

"No - it only means that if you want Nature you musn't go to the poets
of Nature. They've humanized it. I wouldn't mind that, if they hadn't
womanized it, too."

"That only means that they loved it," she said softly.

"It means that they've demoralized it; and that now it demoralizes us.
Nature is the supreme sentimentalist. It's all their fault. They've
been flinging themselves on the bosom of Mother Earth, and sitting and
writing Stanzas in Dejection on it, and lying down like a tired child
on it, and weeping away their lives of care, that they have borne and
yet must bear on it, till they've saturated it with their beastly
pathos. There isn't a dry comfortable place left for anybody else."

"Perhaps that's just the way Nature inspires poets, by giving out the
humanity it absorbs."

"Perhaps. I can't say it inspires me."

"Are you a poet?" she asked. She was beginning to think it must be a
case of mistaken identity; for this was not what she had expected of
him.

He did not answer at first, neither did he look at her. He looked at
the beautiful face of Nature (the sentimentalist), and a wave of hot
colour rushed again over his own.

"I don't know whether I am or not."

"Let us hope not, since you want to make a clean sweep of them."

"I'd make a clean sweep of myself if I stood in my own light. Anything
for a good view. But I'm afraid it's too late." His tone dropped from
the extreme of levity to an almost tragic earnest. "We've done our
work, and it can't be undone. We've given Nature a human voice, and
now we shall never - never hear anything else."

"That's rather dreadful; I wish you hadn't."

"Oh, no, you don't. It's not the human voice you draw the line
at - it's the Cockney accent."

Lucia's smile flickered and went out, extinguished by the waves of her
blush. She was not prepared to have her thoughts read - and read aloud
to her - in this way; and that particular thought was one she would
have preferred him not to read.

"I daresay Keats had a Cockney accent, if we did but know; and I
daresay a good many people never heard anything else."

"I'm afraid you'd have heard it yourself, Miss Harden, if you'd met
him."

"Possibly. It isn't what I should have remembered him by, though. That
reminds me. I came upon a poem - a sonnet - of yours - if it was
yours - this morning. It was lying on the library floor. You will find
it under the bronze Pallas on the table."

Mr. Rickman stooped, picked up a sod and examined it carefully.

"Thank you very much. It _was_ mine. I was afraid it was lost."

"It would have been a great pity if it had been."

Mr. Rickman dropped his sod.

She answered the question that appeared in his eyes, though not on his
tongue. "Yes, I read it. It was printed, you see. I read it before I
could make up my mind whether I might or not."

"It was all right. But I wish you hadn't."

To look at Mr. Rickman you would have said that all his mind was
concentrated on the heel of his boot, as it slowly but savagely ground
the sod to dust. Even so, the action seemed to say, even so could he
have destroyed that sonnet.

"What did you think of it?"

He had looked up, when she least expected, with his disarming and
ingenuous smile. Lucia felt that he had laid an ambush for her by his
abstraction; the question and the smile shot, flashed, out of it with
a directness that made subterfuge impossible.

The seriousness of the question was what made it so awkward for a lady
with the pleasure-giving instinct. If Mr. Rickman had merely asked her
if she liked his new straw hat with the olive green ribbon (supposing
them to be on terms that made such a question possible) she would
probably have said "Yes," whether she liked it or not; because she
wanted to give pleasure, because she didn't care a straw about his
straw hat. But when Mr. Rickman asked her how she liked his sonnet, he
was talking about the things that really mattered; and in the things
that really mattered Lucia was sincerity itself.

"I thought," said she, "I thought the first dozen lines extremely
beautiful."

"In a sonnet _every_ line should be beautiful - should be perfect."

"Oh - if you're aiming at perfection."

"Why, what else in Heaven's name should I aim at?"

Lucia was silent; and he mistook her silence for distrust.

"I don't want you to judge me by that sonnet."

"But I shouldn't dream of judging you by that sonnet, any more than I
should judge that sonnet by its last two lines. They're not the last
you'll ever write."

"They're the last you will ever read."

"Well, it's something to have written one good sonnet."

"One swallow doesn't make a spring."

"No; but it tells us spring is coming, and the other swallows."

"There won't be any other swallows. All my swallows have flown."

"Oh, they'll fly back again, you'll see, if you wait till next
spring."

"You weren't serious just now when you asked me if I was a poet. _I_
was serious enough when I said I didn't know."

Something passed over Lucia's face, a ripple of shadow and flame, some
moving of the under currents of the soul that told him that he was
understood, that something had happened there, something that for the
moment permitted him to be personal.

"What made you say so?"

"I can't tell you. Not natural modesty. I'm modest about some things,
but not about that."

"Yet surely you must know?"

"I did yesterday."

"Yesterday?"

"Yesterday - last night; in fact up to eleven o'clock this morning I
firmly believed that I had genius, or something uncommonly like it. I
still believe that I _had_ it."

He seemed to himself to have become almost grossly personal; but to
Lucia he had ceased to be personal at all; he had passed into the
region of realities; and in so passing had become intensely
interesting. To Lucia, with the blood of ten generations of scholars
in her veins, the question of a man's talent was supremely important;
the man himself might not matter, but his talent mattered very much;
to discuss it with him was entirely natural and proper. So she never
once stopped to ask herself why she was standing on Harcombe Hill,
holding this really very intimate conversation with Mr. Rickman.

"The things," he continued, "the things I've written prove it. I can
say so without the smallest conceit, because I haven't it now, and
never shall have it again. I feel as if it had belonged to somebody
else."

Mr. Rickman was losing all likeness to his former self. He spoke no
longer impulsively, but in the steady deliberate tones of unalterable
conviction. And Lucia no longer heard the Cockney accent in this voice
that came to her out of a suffering so lucid and so profound. She
forgot that it came from the other side of the social gulf. If at any
point in that conversation she had thought of dismissing him, she
could not have dismissed him now. There was very little use in having
saved his neck if she abandoned him to his misery.

Instead of abandoning him she sat down on a rough seat by the roadside
to consider Mr. Rickman's case in all its bearings. In doing so she
found herself for the first time contemplating his personal appearance
as such; and that not altogether with disapproval. Though it was not
in the least what she would have expected, he showed to advantage in
the open air. She began to perceive the secret of his extravagant and
preposterous charm. There was something about him - something that he
had no right to have about him, being born a dweller in cities, which
none the less he undeniably and inevitably had, something that made
him one with this moorland setting, untamed and beautiful and shy. The
great natural features of the landscape did him no wrong; for he was
natural too.

Well, she had found his sonnet for him; but could she help him to
recover what he had lost now?

"I hope you won't mind my asking, but don't you know any one who can
help you?"

"Not any one who can help me out of this."

"I believe it must have been you Sir Joseph Harden used to talk about.
I think he saw you once when you were a boy. I know if he were alive
he would have been glad to help you."

"He did help me. I owe my education to the advice he gave my father."

"Is that the case? I am very glad."

She paused, exultant; she felt that she was now upon the right track.
"You said you had written other things. What have you written?"

"A lyrical drama for one thing. That sonnet was meant for a sort of
motto to it."

A lyrical drama? She was right, then; he was Horace Jewdwine's great
"find." If so, the subject was fenced around with difficulty. She must
on no account give Horace away. Mr. Rickman had seemed annoyed because
she had read his sonnet (which was printed); he would be still more
annoyed if he knew that she had read his lyrical drama in manuscript.
He was inclined to be reticent about his writings.

Lucia was wrong. Mr. Rickman had never been less inclined to
reticence in his life. He wished she had read his drama instead of his
sonnet. His spring-time was there; the swift unreturning spring-time
of his youth. If she had read his drama she would have believed in his
pursuit of the intangible perfection. As it was, she never would
believe.

"I wonder," she said, feeling her ground carefully, "if my cousin
Horace Jewdwine would be any good to you?"

"Mr. Jewdwine?"

"Do you know him?"

"Yes, slightly. That is - he knows - he knows what I can do. I mean what
I've done."

"Really?" The chain of evidence was now complete. "Well, what does he
say?"

Rickman laughed as he recalled his last conversation with the critic.
"He says I'm one-seventh part a poet.

"Does he? Then you may be very sure you are a great deal more. My
cousin is most terribly exacting. I should be glad if I succeeded in
satisfying him; but I don't think I should be seriously unhappy if - if
I failed. Did he say anything to discourage, to depress you?"

"Not he. I don't think I should have minded if he had. I felt strong
enough for anything then. It was this morning. I was sitting out here,
looking at all this beautiful inspiring scenery, when it came to me,
that notion that I should never do anything again."

"Is it - " her hesitations were delightful to him - "is it the want of
recognition that disheartens you?"

He laughed again, a healthy honest laugh. "Oh, dear me, no! I don't
worry about recognition. That would be all right if I could go on. But
I can't go on."

"Have you ever felt like this before?"

"N - no. No, never. And for the life of me I can't think why I should
now."

"And yet you've been making catalogues for years, haven't you?"

Lucia had said to herself, "It's that catalogue _raisonné_, I know."

"Do you like making catalogues?"

"Well, under ordinary circumstances it isn't exactly what you'd call
exciting. But I'm afraid that hasn't got anything to do with it this
time."

"It may have everything to do with it - such a dreadful kind of work."

"No. It isn't the work that's dreadful."

"Then perhaps it's the worry? And I'm afraid I'm responsible for
that."

He started, shaken out of his admirable self-possession by that
glaring personality. "How could you be?"

"By insisting on engaging you as I did. From what you told me it's
very evident that you had something on your mind, and that the work
has been very dreadful, very difficult."

"I _have_ something on my mind and - it _has_ been difficult - all the
same - "

"I wouldn't have pressed you if I had really known. I'm very sorry. Is
it too late? Would it be any good if I released you now?"

If she released him!

"Miss Harden, you are most awfully good to me."

"_Would_ that help you?"

He looked at her. Over her face there ran again that little ripple of
thought and sympathy, like shadow and flame. One fear was removed from
him. Whatever happened Miss Harden would never misunderstand him. At
the same time he realized that any prospect, however calamitous, would
be more endurable than the course she now proposed.

"It wouldn't help me. The best thing I can do is to stay where I am
and finish."

"Is that the truth?"

"Nothing but the truth."

("But not the whole truth," thought Lucia.)

"Well," she said, rising, "whatever you do, don't lose heart."

He smiled drearily. It was all very well to say that, when his heart
was lost already.

"Wait - wait till next spring comes."

He could put what meaning he liked into that graceful little
commonplace. But it dismissed at the same time that it reassured him.
The very ease and delicacy with which it was done left him no doubt on
that point.

He was not going to accept his dismissal then and there. A bold
thought leapt in his brain. Could he - might he - ? She had read his
sonnet; would it do to ask her to read his drama also? To be sure the
sonnet had but fourteen lines, while the drama had twice as many
hundred. But the drama, the drama, his beautiful _Helen in Leuce_, was
his ultimate achievement, the highest, completest expression of his
soul. And what he required of Lucia Harden was not her praise, but
fuller, more perfect comprehension. He stood in a cruel and false



Online LibraryMay SinclairThe Divine Fire → online text (page 11 of 52)