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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Crown Of Life - Chapter 35
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The Crown Of Life - Chapter 35 Post by :BrandysVenture Category :Long Stories Author :George Gissing Date :May 2012 Read :3424

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The Crown Of Life - Chapter 35

CHAPTER XXXV

"The 13th will suit admirably," wrote Helen Borisoff.

"That morning my guests leave, and we shall be quiet--except for the popping of guns round about. Which reminds me that my big, healthy Englishman of a cousin (him you met in town) will be down here to slaughter little birds in aristocratic company, and may most likely look in to tell us of his bags. I will meet you at the station."

So Irene, alone, journeyed from King's Cross into the North Riding. At evening, the sun golden amid long lazy clouds that had spent their showers, she saw wide Wensleydale, its closing hills higher to north and south as the train drew onward, green slopes of meadow and woodland rising to the beat and the heather. At a village station appeared the welcoming face of her friend Helen. A countryman with his homely gig drove them up the hillside, the sweet air singing about them from moorland heights, the long dale spreading in grander prospect as they ascended, then hidden as they dropped into a wooded glen, where the horse splashed through a broad beck and the wheels jolted over boulders of limestone. Out again into the sunset, and at a turn of the climbing road stood up before them the grey old Castle, in its shadow the church and the hamlet, and all around the glory of rolling hills.

Of the four great towers, one lay a shattered ruin, one only remained habitable. Above the rooms occupied by Mrs. Borisoff and her guests was that which had imprisoned the Queen of Scots; a chamber of bare stone, with high embrasure narrowing to the slit of window which admitted daylight, and, if one climbed the sill, gave a glimpse of far mountains. Down below, deep under the roots of the tower, was the Castle's dungeon, black and deadly. Early on the morrow Helen led her friend to see these things. Then they climbed to the battlements, where the sun shone hot, and Helen pointed out the features of the vast landscape, naming heights, and little dales which pour their tributaries into the Ure, and villages lying amid the rich pasture.

"And yonder is Hawes," said Irene, pointing to the head of the dale.

"Yes; too far to see."

They did not exchange a look. Irene spoke at once of something else.

There came to lunch Mrs. Borisoff's cousin, a grouse-guest at a house some miles away. He arrived on horseback, and his approach was watched with interest by two pairs of eyes from the Castle windows. Mr. March looked well in the saddle, for he was a strong, comely man of about thirty, who lived mostly under the open sky. Irene had met him only once, and that in a drawing-room; she saw him now to greater advantage, heard him talk freely of things he understood and enjoyed, and on the whole did not dislike him. With Helen he was a favourite; she affected to make fun of him, but had confessed to Irene that she respected him more than any other of her county-family kinsfolk. As he talked of his two days' shooting, he seemed to become aware that Miss Derwent had no profound interest in this subject, and there fell from him an unexpected apology.

"Of course it isn't a very noble kind of sport," he said, with a laugh. "One is invited--one takes it in the course of things. I prefer the big game, where there's a chance of having to shoot for your life."

"I suppose one _must shoot something," remarked Irene, as if musing a commonplace.

March took it with good nature, like a man who cannot remember whether that point of view ever occurred to him, but who is quite willing to think about it. Indeed, he seemed more than willing to give attention to anything Miss Derwent choose to say: something of this inclination had appeared even at their first meeting, and to-day it was more marked. He showed reluctance when the hour obliged him to remount his horse. Mrs. Borisoff's hope that she might see him again before he left this part of the country received a prompt and cheerful reply.

Later, that afternoon, the two friends climbed the great hillside above the Castle, and rambled far over the moorland, to a windy height where they looked into deep wild Swaledale. Their talk was only of the scenes around them, until, on their way back, they approached a line of three-walled shelters, built of rough stone, about the height of a man. In reply to Irene's question, Helen explained the use of these structures; she did so in an off-hand way, with the proper terms, and would have passed on, but Irene stood gazing.

"What! They lie in ambush here, whilst the men drive the birds towards them, to be shot?"

"It's sport," rejoined the other indifferently.

"I see. And here are the old cartridges." A heap of them lay close by amid the ling. "I don't wonder that Mr. March seemed a little ashamed of himself."

"But surely you knew all about this sort of thing!" said Mrs. Borisoff, with a little laugh of impatience.

"No, I didn't."

She had picked up one of the cartridge-cases, and, after examining it, her eyes wandered about the vast-rolling moor. The wind sang low; the clouds sailed across the mighty dome of heaven; not a human dwelling was visible, and not a sound broke upon nature's infinite calm.

"It amazes me," Irene continued, subduing her voice.

"Incredible that men can come up here just to bang guns and see beautiful birds fall dead! One would think that what they _saw here would stop their hands--that this silence would fill their minds and hearts, and make it impossible!"

Her voice had never trembled with such emotion in Helen's hearing. It was not Irene's habit to speak in this way. She had the native reticence of English women, preferring to keep silence when she felt strongly, or to disguise her feeling with irony and jest. But the hour and the place overcame her; a noble passion shone in her clear eyes, and thrilled in her utterance.

"What barbarians!"

"Yet you know they are nothing of the kind," objected Helen. "At least, not all of them."

"Mr. March?--You called him, yourself, a fine barbarian, quoting from Matthew Arnold. I never before understood how true that description was."

"I assure you, it doesn't apply to him, whatever I may have said in joke. This shooting is the tradition of a certain class. It's one of the ways in which great, strong men get their necessary exercise. Some of them feel, at moments, just as you do, I've no doubt; but there they are, a lot of them together, and a man can't make himself ridiculous, you know."

"You're not like yourself in this, Helen," said Irene. "You're not speaking as you think. Another time, you'll confess it's abominable savagery, with not one good word to be said for it. And more contemptible than I ever suspected! I'm so glad I've seen this. It helps to clear my thoughts about--about things in general."

She flung away the little yellow cylinder-flung it far from her with disgust, and, as if to forget it, plucked as she walked on a spray of heath, which glowed with its purple bells among the redder ling. Helen's countenance was shadowed. She spoke no more for several minutes.

When two days had passed, March again came riding up to the Castle, and lunched with the ladies. Irene was secretly vexed. At breakfast she had suggested a whole day's excursion, which her friend persuaded her to postpone; the reason must have been Helen's private knowledge that Mr. March was coming. In consequence, the lunch fell short of perfect cheerfulness. For reasons of her own, Irene was just a little formal in her behaviour to the guest; she did not talk so well as usual, and bore herself as a girl must who wishes, without unpleasantness, to check a man's significant approaches.

In the hot afternoon, chairs were taken out into the shadow of the Castle walls, and there the three sat conversing. Someone drew near, a man, whom the careless glance of Helen's cousin took for a casual tourist about to view the ruins. Helen herself, and in the same moment, Irene, recognised Piers Otway. It seemed as though Mrs. Borisoff would not rise to welcome him; her smile was dubious, half surprised. She cast a glance at Irene, whose face was set in the austerest self-control, and thereupon not only stood up, but stepped forward with cordial greeting.

"So you have really come! Delighted to see you! Are you walking--as you said?"

"Too hot!" Piers replied, with a laugh. "I spent yesterday at York, and came on in a cowardly way by train."

He was shaking hands with Irene, who dropped a word or two of mere courtesy. In introducing him to March, Mrs. Borisoff said, "An old friend of ours," which caused her stalwart cousin to survey the dark, slimly-built man very attentively.

"We'll get you a chair, Mr. Otway----"

"No, no! Let me sit or lie here on the grass. It's all I feel fit for after the climb."

He threw himself down, nearer to Helen than to her friend, and the talk became livelier than before his arrival. Irene emerged from the taciturnity into which she had more and more withdrawn, and March, not an unobservant man, evidently noted this, and reflected upon it. He had at first regarded the new-comer with a civil aloofness, as one not of his world; presently, he seemed to ask himself to what world the singular being might belong--a man who knew how to behave himself, and whose talk implied more than common _savoir-vivre_, yet who differed in such noticeable points from an Englishman of the leisured class.

Helen was in a mischievous mood. She broached the subject of grouse, addressing to Otway an ambiguous remark which led March to ask, with veiled surprise, whether he was a sportsman.

"Mr. Otway's taste is for bigger game," she exclaimed, before Piers could reply. "He lives in hope of potting Russians on the Indian frontier."

"Well, I can sympathise with him in that," said the large-limbed man, puzzled but smiling. "He'll probably have a chance before very long."

No sooner had he spoken that a scarlet confusion glowed upon his face. In speculating about Otway, he had for the moment forgotten his cousin's name.

"I _beg your pardon, Helen!--What an idiot I am Of course you were joking, and I----"

"Don't, don't, don't apologise, Edward! Tell truth and shame--your Russian relatives! I like you all the better for it."

"Thank you," he answered. "And after all, there's no harm in a little fighting. It's better to fight and have done with it than keeping on plotting between compliments. Nations arc just like schoolboys, you know; there has to be a round now and then; it settles things, and is good for the blood."

Otway was biting a blade of grass; he smiled and said nothing. Mrs. Borisoff glanced from him to Irene, who also was smiling, but looked half vexed.

"How can it be good, for health or anything else?" Miss Derwent asked suddenly, turning to the speaker.

"Oh, we couldn't do without fighting. It's in human nature."

"In uncivilised human nature, yes."

"But really, you know," urged March, with good-natured deference, "it wouldn't do to civilise away pluck--courage--heroism--whatever one likes to call it."

"Of course it wouldn't. But what has pluck or heroism to do with bloodshed? How can anyone imagine that courage is only shown in fighting? I don't happen to have been in a battle, but one knows very well how easy it must be for any coward or brute, excited to madness, to become what's called a hero. Heroism is noble courage in ordinary life. Are you serious in thinking that life offers no opportunities for it?"

"Well--it's not quite the same thing----"

"Happily, not! It's a vastly better thing. Every day some braver deed is done by plain men and women--yes, women, if you please--than was ever known on the battle-field. One only hears of them now and then. On the railway--on the sea--in the hospital--in burning houses--in accidents of road and street--are there no opportunities for courage? In the commonest everyday home life, doesn't any man or woman have endless chances of being brave or a coward? And this is civilised courage, not the fury of a bull at a red rag."

Piers Otway had ceased to nibble his blade of grass; his eyes were fixed on Irene. When she had made a sudden end of speaking, when she smiled her apology for the fervour forbidden in polite converse, he still gazed at her, self-oblivious. Helen Borisoff watched him, askance.

"Let us go in and have some tea," she said, rising abruptly.

Soon after, March said good-bye, a definite good-bye; he was going to another part of England. With all the grace of his caste he withdrew from a circle, in which, temptations notwithstanding, he had not felt quite at ease. Riding down the dale through a sunny shower, he was refreshed and himself again.

"Where do you put up to-night?" asked Helen of Otway, turning to him, when the other man had gone, with a brusque familiarity.

"At the inn down in Redmire."

"And what do you do to-morrow?"

"Go to see the falls at Aysgarth, for one thing. There's been rain up on the hills; the river will be grand."

"Perhaps we shall be there."

When Piers had left them, Helen said to her friend

"I wanted to ask him to stay and dine--but I didn't know whether you would like it."

"I? I am not the hostess."

"No, but you have humours, Irene. One has to be careful."

Irene knitted her brows, and stood for a moment with face half averted.

"If I cause this sort of embarrassment," she said frankly, "I think I oughtn't to stay."

"It's easily put right, my dear girl. Answer me a simple question. If I lead Mr. Otway to suppose that his company for a few days is not disagreeable to us, shall I worry you, or not?"

"Not in the least," was the equally direct answer.

"That's better. We've always got along so well, you know, that it's annoying to feel there's something not quits understood between us. Then I shall send a note down to the inn where he's staying, to appoint a meeting at Aysgarth to-morrow. And I shall ask him to come here for the rest of the day, if he chooses."

At nightfall, the rain-clouds spread from the hills of Westmorland, and there were some hours of downpour. This did not look hopeful for the morrow, but, on the other hand, it promised a finer sight at the falls, if by chance the weather grew tolerable. The sun rose amid dropping vapours, and at breakfast-time had not yet conquered the day, but a steady brightening soon put an end to doubt. The friends prepared to set forth.

As they were entering the carriage there arrived the postman, with letters for both, which they read driving down to the dale. One of Irene's correspondents was her brother, and the contents of Eustace's letter so astonished her that she sat for a time absorbed in thought.

"No bad news, I hope?" said Helen, who had glanced quickly over the few lines from her husband, now at Ostend.

"No, but startling. You may as well read the letter."

It was written in Eustace Derwent's best style; really a very good letter, both as to composition and in the matter of feeling. After duly preparing his sister for what might come as a shock, he made known to her that he was about to marry Mrs. John Jacks, the widow of the late member of Parliament. "I can quite imagine," he proceeded, "that this may trouble your mind by exciting unpleasant memories, and perhaps may make you apprehensive of disagreeable things in the future. Pray have no such uneasiness. Only this morning I had a long talk with Arnold Jacks, who was very friendly, and indeed could not have behaved better. He spoke of you, and quite in the proper way; I was to remember him very kindly to you, if I thought the remembrance would not be unwelcome. As for my dear Marian, you will find her everything that a sister should be." Followed sundry details and promise of more information when they met again in town.

"Describe her to me," said Helen, who had a slight acquaintance with Irene's brother.

"One word does it--irreproachable. A couple of years older than Eustace, I think; John Jacks was more than twice her age, so it's only fair. The dear boy will probably give up his profession, and become an ornament of society, a model of all the proprieties. Wonderful I shan't realise it for a few days."

As they drove on to the bridge at Aysgarth, Piers Otway stood there awaiting them. They exchanged few words; the picture before their eyes, and the wild music that filled the air, imposed silence. Headlong between its high banks plunged the swollen torrent, the roaring spate; brown from its washing of the peaty moorland, and churned into flying flakes of foam. Over the worn ledges, at other times a succession of little waterfalls, rolled in resistless fury a mighty cataract; at great rocks in mid-channel it leapt with surges like those of an angry sea. The spectacle was fascinating in its grandeur, appalling in its violence; with the broad leafage of the glen arched over it in warm, still sunshine, wondrously beautiful.

They wandered some way by the river banks; then drove to other spots of which Otway spoke, lunched at a village inn, and by four o'clock returned altogether to the Castle. After tea, Piers found himself alone with Irene. Mrs. Borisoff had left the room whilst he was speaking, and so silently that for a moment he was not aware of her withdrawal. Alone with Irene, for the first time since he had known her; even at Ewell, long ago, they had never been together without companionship. There fell a silence. Piers could not lift his eyes to the face which had all day been before him, the face which seemed more than ever beautiful amid nature's beauties. He wished to thank her for the letter she had written him to St. Petersburg, but was fearful of seeming to make too much of this mark of kindness. Irene herself resumed the conversation.

"You will continue to write for the reviews, I hope?"

"I shall try to," he answered softly.

"Your Russian must be very idiomatic. I found it hard in places."

Overcome with delight, he looked at her and bent towards her.

"Mrs. Borisoff told me you had learnt. I know what that means--learning Russian in England, out of books. I began to do it at Ewell--do you remember?"

"Yes, I remember very well. Have you written anything besides these two articles?"

"Written--yes, but not published. I have written all sorts of things." His voice shook. "Even--verse."

He repented the word as soon as it was uttered. Again his eyes could not move towards hers.

"I know you have," said Irene, in the voice of one who smiles.

"I have never been sure that you knew it--that you received those verses."

"To tell you the truth, I didn't know how to acknowledge them. I never received the dedication of a poem, before or since, and in my awkwardness I put off my thanks till it was too late to send them. But I remember the lines; I think they were beautiful. Shall you ever include them in a volume?"

"I wrote no more, I am no poet. Yet if you had given a word of praise"--he laughed, as one does when emotion is too strong--"I should have written on and on, with a glorious belief in myself."

"Perhaps it was as well, then, that I said nothing. Poetry must come of itself, without praise--don't you think?"

"Yes, I lived it--or tried to live it--instead of putting it into metre."

"That's exactly what I once heard my father say about himself. And he called it consuming his own smoke."

Piers could not but join in her quiet laugh, yet he had never felt a moment less opportune for laughter. As if to prove that she purposely changed the note of their dialogue, Irene reached a volume from the table, and said in the most matter-of-fact voice:

"Here's a passage of Tolstoi that I can't make out. Be my professor, please. First of all, let me hear you read it aloud for the accent."

The lesson continued till Helen entered the room again. Irene so willed it.

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