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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBeyond The City - Chapter VI - AN OLD STORY
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Beyond The City - Chapter VI - AN OLD STORY Post by :james_allen Category :Long Stories Author :Arthur Conan Doyle Date :June 2011 Read :2385

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Beyond The City - Chapter VI - AN OLD STORY

CHAPTER VI - AN OLD STORY


But this was not to be the only eventful conversation which Mrs.
Westmacott held that day, nor was the Admiral the only person in the
Wilderness who was destined to find his opinions considerably changed.
Two neighboring families, the Winslows from Anerley, and the
Cumberbatches from Gipsy Hill, had been invited to tennis by Mrs.
Westmacott, and the lawn was gay in the evening with the blazers of the
young men and the bright dresses of the girls. To the older people,
sitting round in their wicker-work garden chairs, the darting, stooping,
springing white figures, the sweep of skirts, and twinkle of canvas
shoes, the click of the rackets and sharp whiz of the balls, with the
continual "fifteen love--fifteen all!" of the marker, made up a merry
and exhilarating scene. To see their sons and daughters so flushed and
healthy and happy, gave them also a reflected glow, and it was hard to
say who had most pleasure from the game, those who played or those who
watched.

Mrs. Westmacott had just finished a set when she caught a glimpse of
Clara Walker sitting alone at the farther end of the ground. She ran
down the court, cleared the net to the amazement of the visitors, and
seated herself beside her. Clara's reserved and refined nature shrank
somewhat from the boisterous frankness and strange manners of the widow,
and yet her feminine instinct told her that beneath all her
peculiarities there lay much that was good and noble. She smiled up at
her, therefore, and nodded a greeting.

"Why aren't you playing, then? Don't, for goodness' sake, begin to be
languid and young ladyish! When you give up active sports you give up
youth."

"I have played a set, Mrs. Westmacott."

"That's right, my dear." She sat down beside her, and tapped her upon
the arm with her tennis racket. "I like you, my dear, and I am going to
call you Clara. You are not as aggressive as I should wish, Clara, but
still I like you very much. Self-sacrifice is all very well, you know,
but we have had rather too much of it on our side, and should like to
see a little on the other. What do you think of my nephew Charles?"

The question was so sudden and unexpected that Clara gave quite a jump
in her chair. "I--I--I hardly ever have thought of your nephew
Charles."

"No? Oh, you must think him well over, for I want to speak to you about
him."

"To me? But why?"

"It seemed to me most delicate. You see, Clara, the matter stands in
this way. It is quite possible that I may soon find myself in a
completely new sphere of life, which will involve fresh duties and make
it impossible for me to keep up a household which Charles can share."

Clara stared. Did this mean that she was about to marry again? What
else could it point to?

"Therefore Charles must have a household of his own. That is obvious.
Now, I don't approve of bachelor establishments. Do you?"

"Really, Mrs. Westmacott, I have never thought of the matter."

"Oh, you little sly puss! Was there ever a girl who never thought of
the matter? I think that a young man of six-and-twenty ought to be
married."

Clara felt very uncomfortable. The awful thought had come upon her that
this ambassadress had come to her as a proxy with a proposal of
marriage. But how could that be? She had not spoken more than three or
four times with her nephew, and knew nothing more of him than he had
told her on the evening before. It was impossible, then. And yet what
could his aunt mean by this discussion of his private affairs?

"Do you not think yourself," she persisted, "that a young man of six-
and-twenty is better married?"

"I should think that he is old enough to decide for himself."

"Yes, yes. He has done so. But Charles is just a little shy, just a
little slow in expressing himself. I thought that I would pave the way
for him. Two women can arrange these things so much better. Men
sometimes have a difficulty in making themselves clear."

"I really hardly follow you, Mrs. Westmacott," cried Clara in despair.

"He has no profession. But he has nice tastes. He reads Browning every
night. And he is most amazingly strong. When he was younger we used to
put on the gloves together, but I cannot persuade him to now, for he
says he cannot play light enough. I should allow him five hundred,
which should be enough at first."

"My dear Mrs. Westmacott," cried Clara, "I assure you that I have not
the least idea what it is that you are talking of."

"Do you think your sister Ida would have my nephew Charles?"

Her sister Ida? Quite a little thrill of relief and of pleasure ran
through her at the thought. Ida and Charles Westmacott. She had never
thought of it. And yet they had been a good deal together. They had
played tennis. They had shared the tandem tricycle. Again came the
thrill of joy, and close at its heels the cold questionings of
conscience. Why this joy? What was the real source of it? Was it that
deep down, somewhere pushed back in the black recesses of the soul,
there was the thought lurking that if Charles prospered in his wooing
then Harold Denver would still be free? How mean, how unmaidenly, how
unsisterly the thought! She crushed it down and thrust it aside, but
still it would push up its wicked little head. She crimsoned with shame
at her own baseness, as she turned once more to her companion.

"I really do not know," she said.

"She is not engaged?"

"Not that I know of."

"You speak hesitatingly."

"Because I am not sure. But he may ask. She cannot but be flattered."

"Quite so. I tell him that it is the most practical compliment which a
man can pay to a woman. He is a little shy, but when he sets himself to
do it he will do it. He is very much in love with her, I assure you.
These little lively people always do attract the slow and heavy ones,
which is nature's device for the neutralizing of bores. But they are
all going in. I think if you will allow me that I will just take the
opportunity to tell him that, as far as you know, there is no positive
obstacle in the way."

"As far as I know," Clara repeated, as the widow moved away to where the
players were grouped round the net, or sauntering slowly towards the
house. She rose to follow her, but her head was in a whirl with new
thoughts, and she sat down again. Which would be best for Ida, Harold
or Charles? She thought it over with as much solicitude as a mother who
plans for her only child. Harold had seemed to her to be in many ways
the noblest and the best young man whom she had known. If ever she was
to love a man it would be such a man as that. But she must not think of
herself. She had reason to believe that both these men loved her
sister. Which would be the best for her? But perhaps the matter was
already decided. She could not forget the scrap of conversation which
she had heard the night before, nor the secret which her sister had
refused to confide to her. If Ida would not tell her, there was but one
person who could. She raised her eyes and there was Harold Denver
standing before her.

"You were lost in your thoughts," said he, smiling. "I hope that they
were pleasant ones."

"Oh, I was planning," said she, rising. "It seems rather a waste of
time as a rule, for things have a way of working themselves out just as
you least expect."

"What were you planning, then?"

"The future."

"Whose?"

"Oh, my own and Ida's."

"And was I included in your joint futures?

"I hope all our friends were included."

"Don't go in," said he, as she began to move slowly towards the house.
"I wanted to have a word. Let us stroll up and down the lawn. Perhaps
you are cold. If you are, I could bring you out a shawl."

"Oh, no, I am not cold."

"I was speaking to your sister Ida last night." She noticed that there
was a slight quiver in his voice, and, glancing up at his dark, clearcut
face, she saw that he was very grave. She felt that it was settled,
that he had come to ask her for her sister's hand.

"She is a charming girl," said he, after a pause.

"Indeed she is," cried Clara warmly. "And no one who has not lived with
her and known her intimately can tell how charming and good she is. She
is like a sunbeam in the house."

"No one who was not good could be so absolutely happy as she seems to
be. Heaven's last gift, I think, is a mind so pure and a spirit so high
that it is unable even to see what is impure and evil in the world
around us. For as long as we can see it, how can we be truly happy?"

"She has a deeper side also. She does not turn it to the world, and it
is not natural that she should, for she is very young. But she thinks,
and has aspirations of her own."

"You cannot admire her more than I do. Indeed, Miss Walker, I only ask
to be brought into nearer relationship with her, and to feel that there
is a permanent bond between us."

It had come at last. For a moment her heart was numbed within her, and
then a flood of sisterly love carried all before it. Down with that
dark thought which would still try to raise its unhallowed head! She
turned to Harold with sparkling eyes and words of pleasure upon her
lips.

"I should wish to be near and dear to both of you," said he, as he took
her hand. "I should wish Ida to be my sister, and you my wife."

She said nothing. She only stood looking at him with parted lips and
great, dark, questioning eyes. The lawn had vanished away, the sloping
gardens, the brick villas, the darkening sky with half a pale moon
beginning to show over the chimney-tops. All was gone, and she was only
conscious of a dark, earnest, pleading face, and of a voice, far away,
disconnected from herself, the voice of a man telling a woman how he
loved her. He was unhappy, said the voice, his life was a void; there
was but one thing that could save him; he had come to the parting of the
ways, here lay happiness and honor, and all that was high and noble;
there lay the soul-killing round, the lonely life, the base pursuit of
money, the sordid, selfish aims. He needed but the hand of the woman
that he loved to lead him into the better path. And how he loved her his
life would show. He loved her for her sweetness, for her womanliness,
for her strength. He had need of her. Would she not come to him? And
then of a sudden as she listened it came home to her that the man was
Harold Denver, and that she was the woman, and that all God's work was
very beautiful--the green sward beneath her feet, the rustling leaves,
the long orange slashes in the western sky. She spoke; she scarce knew
what the broken words were, but she saw the light of joy shine out on
his face, and her hand was still in his as they wandered amid the
twilight. They said no more now, but only wandered and felt each
other's presence. All was fresh around them, familiar and yet new,
tinged with the beauty of their new-found happiness.

"Did you not know it before?" he asked. "I did not dare to think it."

"What a mask of ice I must wear! How could a man feel as I have done
without showing it? Your sister at least knew."

"Ida!"

"It was last night. She began to praise you, I said what I felt, and
then in an instant it was all out."

"But what could you--what could you see in me? Oh, I do pray that you
may not repent it!" The gentle heart was ruffled amid its joy by the
thought of its own unworthiness.

"Repent it! I feel that I am a saved man. You do not know how
degrading this city life is, how debasing, and yet how absorbing. Money
for ever clinks in your ear. You can think of nothing else. From the
bottom of my heart I hate it, and yet how can I draw back without
bringing grief to my dear old father? There was but one way in which I
could defy the taint, and that was by having a home influence so pure
and so high that it may brace me up against all that draws me down. I
have felt that influence already. I know that when I am talking to you
I am a better man. It is you who, must go with me through life, or I
must walk for ever alone."

"Oh, Harold, I am so happy!" Still they wandered amid the darkening
shadows, while one by one the stars peeped out in the blue black sky
above them. At last a chill night wind blew up from the east, and
brought them back to the realities of life.

"You must go in. You will be cold."

"My father will wonder where I am. Shall I say anything to him?"

"If you like, my darling. Or I will in the morning. I must tell my
mother to-night. I know how delighted she will be."

"I do hope so."

"Let me take you up the garden path. It is so dark. Your lamp is not
lit yet. There is the window. Till to-morrow, then, dearest."

"Till to-morrow, Harold."

"My own darling!" He stooped, and their lips met for the first time.
Then, as she pushed open the folding windows she heard his quick, firm
step as it passed down the graveled path. A lamp was lit as she entered
the room, and there was Ida, dancing about like a mischievous little
fairy in front of her.

"And have you anything to tell me?" she asked, with a solemn face.
Then, suddenly throwing her arms round her sister's neck, "Oh, you dear,
dear old Clara! I am so pleased. I am so pleased."

Content of CHAPTER VI - AN OLD STORY (Arthur Conan Doyle's novel: Beyond the City)

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