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The Return - Chapter 7 Post by :hotlinkz Category :Long Stories Author :Walter De La Mare Date :May 2012 Read :1666

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The Return - Chapter 7

CHAPTER SEVEN

Her husband turned wearily once more, and drawing up a chair sat down in front of the cold grate. He realised that Sheila thought him as much of a fool now as she had for the moment thought him an impostor, or something worse, the night before. That was at least something gained. He realised, too, in a vague way that the exuberance of mind that had practically invented Dr Ferguson, and outraged Miss Sinnet, had quite suddenly flickered out. It was astonishing, he thought, with gaze fixed innocently on the black coals, that he should ever have done such things. He detested that kind of 'rot'; that jaunty theatrical pose so many men prided their jackdaw brains on.

And he sat quite still, like a cat at a cranny, listening, as it were, for the faintest remotest stir that might hint at any return of this--activity. It was the first really sane moment he had had since the 'change.' Whatever it was that had happened at Widderstone was now distinctly weakening in effect. Why, now, perhaps? He stole a thievish look over his shoulder at the glass, and cautiously drew finger and thumb down that beaked nose. Then he really quietly smiled, a smile he felt this abominable facial caricature was quite unused to, the superior Lawford smile of guileless contempt for the fanatical, the fantastic, and the bizarre: He wouldn't have sat with his feet on the fender before a burnt-out fire.

And the animosity of that 'he,' uttered only just under his breath, surprised even himself. It actually did seem as if there were a chance; if only he kept cool and collected. If the whole mind of a man was bent on being one thing, surely no power on earth, certainly not on earth, could for long compel him to look another, any more (followed the resplendent thought) than vice versa.

That, in fact, was the trick that had been in fitful fashion played him since yesterday. Obviously, and apart altogether from his promise to Sheila, the best possible thing he could do would be to walk quietly over to Widderstone to-morrow and like a child that has lost a penny, just make the attempt to reverse the process: look at the graves, read the inscriptions on the weather-beaten stones, compose himself once more to sleep on the little seat.

Magic, witchcraft, possession, and all that--well, Mr Bethany might prefer to take it on the authority of the Bible if it was his duty. But it was at least mainly Old Testament stuff, like polygamy, Joshua, and the 'unclean beasts.' The 'unclean beasts.' It was simply, as Simon had said, mainly an affair of the nerves, like Indian jugglery. He had heard of dozens of such cases, or similar cases. And it was hardly likely that cases even remotely like his own would be much bragged about, or advertised. All those mysterious 'disappearances,' too, which one reads about so repeatedly? What of them? Even now, he felt (and glanced swiftly behind him at the fancy), it would be better to think as softly as possible, not to hope too openly, certainly not to triumph in the least degree, just in case of--well--listeners.

He would wrap up too. And he wouldn't tell Sheila of the project till he had come safely back. What an excellent joke it would be to confess meekly to his escapade, and to be scolded, and then suddenly to reveal himself. He sat back and gazed with an almost malignant animosity at the face in the portrait, comely and plump.

An inarticulate, unfathomable depression rolled back on him, like a mist out of the sea. He hastily undressed, put watch and door-key and Critchett's powder under his pillow, paused, vacantly ruminated, and then replaced the powder in his waistcoat pocket, said his prayers, and got shivering to bed. He did not feel hurt at Sheila's leaving him like this. So long as she really believed in him. And now--Alice was home. He listened, trying not to shiver, for her voice; and sometimes heard, he fancied, the clear note. It was this beastly influenza that made him feel so cold and lifeless. But all would soon come right--that is, if only that face, luminous against the floating darkness within, would not appear the instant he closed his eyes.

But legions of dreams are Influenza's allies. He fell into a chill doze, heard voices innumerable, and one above the rest, shouting them down, until there fell a lull. And another, as it were, from afar said quite clearly and distinctly, 'But surely, my dear, you have heard the story of the poor old charwoman who talked Greek in her delirium? A little school French need not alarm us.' And Lawford opened his eyes again on Mr Bethany standing at his bed.

'Tt, tt! There, I've been and waked him. And yet they say men make such excellent nurses in time of war. But you see, Lawford, what did I tell you? Wasn't I now an infallible prophet? Your wife has been giving me a most glowing account. Quite your old self, she tells me, except for just this--this touch of facial paralysis. And I think, do you know' (the kind old creature stooped over the bed, but still, Lawford noticed bitterly, still without his spectacles)--'yes, I really think there is a decided improvement. Not quite so--drawn. We must make haste slowly. Wedderburn, you know, believes profoundly in Simon; he pulled his wife through a dangerous confinement. And here's pills and tonics and liniments--a whole chemist's shop. Oh, we are getting on swimmingly.'

Flamelight was flickering in the candled dusk. Lawford turned his head and saw Sheila's coiled, beautiful hair in the firelight.

'You haven't told Alice?' he asked.

'My dear good man,' said Mr Bethany, 'of course we haven't. You shall tell her yourself on Monday. What an incredible tradition it will be! But you mustn't worry; you mustn't even think. And no more of these jaunts, eh? That Ferguson business--that was too bad. What are we going to do with the fellow now we have created him? He will come home to roost--mark my words. And as likely as not down the Vicarage chimney. I wouldn't have believed it of you, my dear fellow.' He beamed, but looked, none the less, very lean and fagged and depressed.

'How did the wedding go off?' Lawford managed to think of inquiring.

'Oh, A1,' said Mr Bethany. 'I've just been describing it to Alice--the bride, her bridegroom, mother, aunts, cake, presents, finery, blushes, tears, and everything that was hers. We've been in fits, haven't we, Mrs Lawford? And Alice says I'm a Worth in a clerical collar--didn't she? And that it's only Art that has kept me out of an apron. Now look here; quiet, quiet, quiet; no excitement, no pranks. What is there to worry about, pray? And now Little Dorrit's down with influenza too. And Craik and I will have double work to do. Well, well; good-bye, my dear. God bless you, Lawford. I can't tell you how relieved, how unspeakably relieved I am to find you so much--so much better. Feed him up, my other dear; body and mind and soul and spirit. And there goes the bell. I must have a biscuit. I've swallowed nothing but a Cupid in plaster of Paris since breakfast. Goodnight; we shall miss you both--both.'

But when Sheila returned, her husband was sunk again into a quiet sleep, from which not even the many questions she fretted to put to him seemed weighty enough to warrant his disturbance.

So when Lawford again opened his eyes he found himself lying wide awake, clear and refreshed, and eager to get up. But upon the air lay the still hush of early morning. He tried in vain to catch back sleep again. A distant shred of dream still floated in his mind, like a cloud at evening. He rarely dreamed, but certainly something immensely interesting had but a moment ago eluded him. He sat up and looked at the clear red cinders and their maze of grottoes. He got out of bed and peeped through the blinds. To the east and opposite to him gardens and an apple-orchard lay, and there in strange liquid tranquillity hung the morning star, and rose, rifling into the dusk of night, the first grey of dawn. The street beneath its autumn leaves was vacant, charmed, deserted.

Hardly since childhood had Lawford seen the dawn unless over his winter breakfast-table. Very much like a child now he stood gazing out of his bow-window--the child whom Time's busy robins had long ago covered over with the leaves of numberless hours. A vague exultation fumed up into his brain. Still on the borders of sleep, he unlocked the great wardrobe and took out an old faded purple and crimson dressing-gown that had belonged to his grandfather, the chief glory of every Christmas charade. He pulled the cowl-like hood over his head and strode majestically over to the looking-glass.

He looked in there a moment on the strange face, like a child dismayed at its own excitement, and a fit of sobbing that was half uncontrollable laughter swept over him. He threw off the hood and turned once more to the window. Consciousness had flooded back indeed. What would Sheila have said to see him there? The unearthly beauty and stillness, and man's small labours, garden and wall and roof-tree idle and smokeless in the light of daybreak--there seemed to be some half-told secret between them. What had life done with him to leave a reality so clouded? He put on his slippers, and, gently opening the door, crept with extreme caution up the stairs. At a long, narrow landing window he confronted a panorama of starry night-gardens, sloping orchards; and beyond them fields, hills, Orion, the Dogs, in the clear and cloudless darkness.

'My God, how beautiful!' a voice whispered. And a cock crowed mistily afar. He stood staring like a child into the wintry brightness of a pastry-cook's. Then once more he crept stealthily on. He stooped and listened at a closed door, until he fancied that above the beating of his own heart he could hear the breathing of the sleeper within. Then, taking firm hold of the handle with both hands, he slowly noiselessly turned it, and peeped in on Alice.

The moon was long past her faint shining here. The blind was down. And yet it was not pitch dark. He stood with eyes fixed, waiting. Then he edged softly forward and knelt down beside the bed. He could hear her breathing now: long, low, quiet, unhastening--the miracle of life. He could just dimly discern the darkness of her hair against the pillow. Some long-sealed spring of tenderness seemed to rise in his heart with a grief and an ache he had never known before. Here at least he could find a little peace, a brief pause, however futile and stupid all his hopes of the night had been. He leant his head on his hands on the counterpane and refused to think. He felt a quick tremor, a startled movement, and knew that eyes wide open with fear were striving to pierce the gloom between them.

'There, there, dearest,' he said in a low whisper, 'it's only me, only me.' He stroked the narrow hand and gazed into the shadowiness. Her fingers lay quiet and passive in his, with that strange sense of immateriality that sleep brings to the body.

'You, you!' she answered with a deep sigh. 'Oh, dearest, how you frightened me. What is wrong? why have you come? Are you worse, dearest, dearest?'

He kissed her hand. 'No, Alice, not worse. I couldn't sleep, that was all.'

'Oh, and I came so utterly miserable to bed because you would not see me. And Mother would tell me only so very little. I didn't even know you had been ill.' She pressed his hand between her own. 'But this, you know, is very, very naughty--you will catch cold, you bad thing. What would Mother say?'

'I think we mustn't tell her, dear. I couldn't help it; I felt much I wanted to see you. I have been rather miserable.'

'Why?' she said, stroking his hand from wrist to fingertips with one soft finger. 'You mustn't be miserable. You and me have never done such a thing before; have we? Was it that wretched old Flu?'

It was too dark in the little fragrant room even to see her face so close to his own. And yet he feared. 'Dr Simon,' she went on softly, 'said it was. But isn't your voice a little hoarse, and it sounds so melancholy in the dark. And oh'--she squeezed his wrist--'you have grown so thin! You do frighten me. Whatever should I do if you were really ill? And it was so odd, dear. When first I woke I seemed to be still straining my eyes in a dream, at such a curious, haunting face--not very nice. I am glad, I am glad you were here.'

'What was the dream-face like?' came the muttered question.

'Dark and sharp, and rather dwelling eyes; you know those long faces one sees in dreams: like a hawk, like a conjuror's.'

Like a conjuror's!--it was the first unguarded and ungarbled criticism. 'Perhaps, dear, if you find my voice different, and my hand shrunk up, you will find my face changed, too--like a conjuror's.... What then?'

She laughed gaily and tenderly. 'You silly silly; I should love you more than ever. Your hands are icy cold. I can't warm them nohow.'

Lawford held tight his daughter's hand. 'You do love me, Alice? You would not turn against me, whatever happened? Ah, you shall see, you shall see.' A sudden burning hope sprang up in him. Surely when all was well again, these last few hours would not have been spent in vain. Like the shadow of death they had been, against whose darkness the green familiar earth seems beautiful as the plains of paradise. Had he but realized before how much he loved her--what years of life had been wasted in leaving it all unsaid! He came back from his reverie to find his hand wet with her tears. He stroked her hair, and touched gently her eyelids without speaking.

'You will let me come in to-morrow?' she pleaded; 'you won't keep me out?'

'Ah, but, dear, you must remember your mother. She gets so anxious, and every word the doctor says is law. How would you like me to come again like this, perhaps?--like Santa Claus?'

'You know how I love having you,' she said, and stopped. 'But--but...' He leaned closer. 'Yes, yes, come,' she said, clutching his hand and hiding her eyes; 'it is only my dream--that horrible, dwelling face in the dream; it frightened me so.'

Lawford rose very slowly from his knees. He could feel in the dark his brows drawn down; there came a low, sullen beating on his ear; he saw his face as it were in dim outline against the dark. Rage and rebellion surged up in him; even his love could be turned to bitterness. Well, two could play at any game! Alice sprang up in bed and caught his sleeve. 'Dearest, dearest, you must not be angry with me now!'

He flung himself down beside the bed. Anger, resentment died away. 'You are all I have left,' he said.

He stole back, as he had come, in the clear dawn to his bedroom.

It was not five yet. He put a few more coals on his fire and blew out the night-light, and lay down. But it was impossible to rest, to remain inactive. He would go down and search for that first volume of Quain. Hallucination, Influenza, Insanity--why, Sheila must have purposely mislaid it. A rather formidable figure he looked, descending the stairs in the grey dusk of daybreak. The breakfast-room was at the back of the house. He tilted the blind, and a faint light flowed in from the changing colours of the sky. He opened the glass door of the little bookcase to the right of the window, and ran eye and finger over the few rows of books. But as he stood there with his back to the room, just as the shadow of a bird's wing floats across the moonlight of a pool, he became suddenly conscious that something, somebody had passed across the doorway, and in passing had looked in on him.

He stood motionless, listening; but no sound broke the morning slumbrousness, except the faraway warbling of a thrush in the first light. So sudden and transitory had been the experience that it seemed now to be illusory; yet it had so caught him up, it had with so furtive and sinister a quietness broken in on his solitude, that for a moment he dared not move. A cold, indefinite sensation stole over him that he was being watched; that some dim, evil presence was behind him biding its time, patient and stealthy, with eyes fixed unmovingly on him where he stood. But, watch and wait as silently as he might, only the day broadened at the window, and at last a narrow ray of sunlight stole trembling up into the dusky bowl of the sky.

At any rate Quain was found, with all the ills of life, from A to I; and Lawford turned back to his bondage with the book under his arm.

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