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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWatersprings - Chapter 21. The Awakening
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Watersprings - Chapter 21. The Awakening Post by :lordg Category :Long Stories Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1228

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Watersprings - Chapter 21. The Awakening


Howard spent the rest of the morning in very bitter cogitation; after luncheon, during which he could hardly force himself to speak, he excused himself on the plea of wanting exercise.

It was in a real agony of mind and spirit that he left the house. He was certain now; and he was not only haunted by his loss, but he was horrified at his entire lack of self-control and restraint. His thoughts came in, like great waves striking on a rocky reef, and rending themselves in sheets of scattered foam. He seemed to himself to have been slowly inveigled into his fate by a worse than malicious power; something had planned his doom. He remembered his old tranquillities; his little touch of boredom; and then how easy the descent had been! He had been drawn by a slender thread of circumstance into paying his visit to Windlow; his friendship with Jack had just toppled over the balance; he had gone; then there had come his talk with his aunt, which had wrought him up into a mood of vague excitement. Just at that moment Maud had come in his way; then friendship had followed; and then he had been seized with this devouring passion which had devastated his heart. He had known all the time that he was too late; and even so he had gone to work the wrong way: it was his infernal diplomacy, his trick of playing with other lives, of yielding to emotional intimacies--that fatal desire to have a definite relation, to mean something to everyone in his circle. Then this wretched, attractive, pleasant youth, with his superficial charm, had intervened. If he had been wise he would never have suggested that visit to Cambridge. Maud had hitherto been just like Miranda on the island; she had never been brought into close contact with a young cavalier; and the subtle instinct of youth had done the rest, the instinct for the equal mate, so far stronger and more subtle than any reasonable or intellectual friendship. And then he, devoured as he had been by his love, had been unable to use his faculties; he could do nothing but glare and wink, while his treasure was stolen from him; he had made mistakes at every turn. What would he not give now to be restored to his old, balanced, easy life, with its little friendships and duties. How fantastic and unreal his aunt's theories seemed to him, reveries contrived just to gild the gaps of a broken life, a dramatisation of emptiness and self-importance. At every moment the face and figure of Maud came before him in a hundred sweet, spontaneous movements--the look of her eyes, the slow thrill of her voice. He needed her with all his soul--every fibre of his being cried out for her. And then the thought of being thus pitifully overcome, humiliated and degraded him. If she had not been beautiful, he would perhaps never have thought of her except with a mild and courteous interest. This was the draught of life which he had put so curiously to his lips, sweet and heady to taste, but with what infinite bitterness and disgust in the cup. It had robbed him of everything--of his work, of his temperate ecstasies in sight and sound, of his intellectual enthusiasm. His life was all broken to pieces about him; he had lost at once all interest and all sense of dignity. He was simply a man betrayed by a passion, which had fevered him just because his life had been so orderly and pure. He was not strong enough even to cut himself adrift from it all. He must just welter on, a figure visibly touched by depression and ill-fortune, and hammering out the old grammar-grind. Had any writer, any poet, ever agonised thus? The people who discoursed glibly about love, and wove their sorrows into elegies, what sort of prurient curs were they? It was all too bad to think of, to speak of--a mere staggering among the mudflats of life.

In this raging self-contempt and misery, he drew near to the still pool in the valley; he would sit there and bleed awhile, like the old warrior, but with no hope of revisiting the fight: he would just abandon himself to listless despair for an hour or two, while the pleasant drama of life went on behind him. Why had he not at least spoken to Maud, while he had time, and secured her loyalty? It was his idiotic deliberation, his love of dallying gently with his emotions, getting the best he could out of them.

Suddenly he saw that there was some one on the stone seat by the spring, and in a moment he saw that it was Maud--and that she had observed him. She looked troubled and melancholy. Had she stolen away here, had she even appointed a place of meeting with the wretched boy? was she vexed at his intrusion? Well, it would have to be faced now. He would go on, he would say a few words, he would at least not betray himself. After all, she had done no wrong, poor child--she had only found her mate; and she at least should not be troubled.

She rose up at his approach; and Howard, affecting a feeble heartiness, said, "Well, so you have stolen away like me! This is a sweet place, isn't it; like an old fairy-tale, and haunted by a Neckan? I won't disturb you--I am going on to the hill--I want a breath of air."

Maud looked at him rather pitifully, and said nothing for a moment. Then she said, "Won't you stay a little and talk to me?--I don't seem to have seen you--there has been so much going on. I want to tell you about my book, you know--I am going on with that--I shall soon have some more chapters to show you."

She sate down at one end of the bench, and Howard seated himself wearily at the other. Maud glanced at him for a moment, but he said nothing. The sight of her was a sort of torture to him. He longed with an insupportable longing to fling himself down beside her and claim her, despairingly and helplessly. He simply could not frame a sentence.

"You look tired," said Maud. "I don't know what it is, but it seems as if everything had gone wrong since we came to Cambridge. Do tell me what it all is--you can trust me. I have been afraid I have vexed you somehow, and I had hoped we were going to be friends." She leaned her head on her hand, and looked at him. She looked so troubled and so frail, that Howard's heart smote him--he must make an effort; he must not cloud the child's mind; he must just take what she could give him, and not hamper her in any way. The one thing left him was a miserable courtesy, on which he must somehow depend. He forced a sort of smile, and began to talk--his own voice audible to him, strained and ugly, like the voice of some querulous ghost.

"Ah," he said, "as one gets older, one can't always command one's moods. Vexed? Of course, I am not vexed--what put that into your head? It's this--I can tell you so much! It seems to me that I have been drawn aside out of my old, easy, serene life, into a new sort of life here--and I am not equal to it. I had got so used, I suppose, to picking up other lives, that I thought I could do the same here--and I seem to have taken on more than I could manage. I forgot, I think, that I was getting older, that I had left youth behind. I made the mistake of thinking I could play a new role--and I cannot. I am tired--yes, I am deadly tired; and I feel now as if I wanted to get out of it all, and just leave things to work themselves out. I have meddled, and I am being punished for meddling. I have been playing with fire, and I have been burnt. I had thought of a new sort of life. Don't you remember," he added with a smile, "the monkey in Buckland's book, who got into the kettle on the hob, and whenever he tried to leave it, found it so cold outside, that he dared not venture out--and he was nearly boiled alive!"

"No, I DON'T understand," said Maud, with so sudden an air of sorrow and unhappiness that Howard could hardly refrain from taking her into his arms like a tired child and comforting her. "I don't understand at all. You came here, and you fitted in at once, seemed to understand everyone and everything, and gave us all a lift. It is miserable--that you should have brought so much happiness to us, and then have tired of it all. I don't understand it in the least. Something must have happened to distress you--it can't all go to pieces like this!"

"Oh," said Howard, "I interfered. It is my accursed trick of playing with people, wanting to be liked, wanting to make a difference. How can I explain? . . . Well, I must tell you. You must forgive me somehow! I tried--don't look at me while I say it--I have tried to interfere with YOU. I tried to make a friend of you; and then when you came to Cambridge, I saw I had claimed too much; that your place was not with such as myself--the old, stupid, battered generation, fit for nothing but worrying along. I saw you were young, and needed youth about you. God forgive me for my selfish plans. I wanted to keep your friendship for myself, and when I saw you were attracted elsewhere, I was jealous--horribly, vilely jealous. But I have the grace to despise myself for it, and I won't hamper you in any way. You must just give me what you can, and I will be thankful."

As he spoke he saw a curious light pass into the girl's face--a light of understanding and resolution. He thought that she would tell him that he was right; and he was unutterably thankful to think that he had had the courage to speak--he could bear anything now.

Suddenly she made a swift gesture, bending down to him. She caught his hand in her own, and pressed her lips to it. "Don't you SEE?" she said. "Attracted by someone . . . by whom? . . . by that wretched little boy? . . . why he amuses me, of course, . . . and you would stand aside for that! You have spoken and I must speak. Why you are everything, everything, all the world to me. It was last Sunday in church . . . do you remember . . . when they said, 'Whom have I in heaven but thee, and there is none upon earth' . . . I looked up and caught your eye, and wondered if you DID understand. But it is enough--I won't hamper you either. If you want to go back to the old life and live it, I won't say a word. I will be just your most faithful friend--you will allow that?"

The heaven seemed to open over Howard, and the solid earth reeled round him where he sate. It was so, then! He sate for a moment like a man stunned, and then opened his eyes on bliss unutterable. She was close to him, her breath on his cheek, her eyes full of tears. He took her into his arms, and put his lips to hers. "My dearest darling child," he said, "are you sure? . . . I can't believe it. . . . Oh my sweetest, it can't be true. Why, I have loved you with all my soul since that first moment I saw you--indeed it was before; and I have thought of nothing else day and night. . . . What does it all mean . . . the well of life?"

They sate holding each other close. The whole soul of the girl rose to clasp and to greet his, in that blest fusion of life which seems to have nothing hidden or held back. She made him tell her over and over again the sweet story of his love.

"What COULD I do?" she said. "Why, when I was at Cambridge that week, I didn't dare to claim your time and thought. Why CAN'T one make oneself understood? Why, my one hope, all that time, was just for the minutes I got with you; and yet I thought it wasn't fair not to try to seem amused; then I saw you were vexed at something--vexed that I should want to talk to you--what a WRETCHED business!"

"Never mind all that now, child," said Howard, "it's a perfect nightmare. Why can't one be simple? Why, indeed? and even now, I simply can't believe it--oh, the wretched hours when I thought you were drifting away from me; do men and women indeed miss their chances so? If I had but known! Yet, I must tell you this--when I first came to this spring here, I thought it held a beautiful secret for me--something which had been in my life from everlasting. It was so, and this was what it held for me."

The afternoon sped swiftly away, and the shadow of the western downs fell across the pool. An immense and overpowering joy filled Howard's heart, and the silent world took part in his ecstasy.

"You remember that first day?" said Maud. "I had felt that day as if some one was coming to me from a long way off drawing nearer. . . . I saw you drive up in the carriage, and I wondered if we should be friends."

"Yes," said Howard, "it was you on the lawn--that was when I saw you first!"

"And now we must go back and face the music," said Howard. "What do you think? How shall we make it all known? I shall tell Aunt Anne to-night. I shall be glad to do that, because there has fallen a veil between us. Don't forget, dear child, how unutterably wretched and intolerable I have been. She tried to help me out, but I was running with my head down on the wrong track. Oh, what a miserable fool I was! That comes of being so high-minded and superior. If you only knew how solemn I have been! Why couldn't I just speak?"

"You might have spoken any time," said Maud. "Why, I would have walked barefoot to Dorchester and back to please you! It does seem horrible to think of our being apart all that time, out of such beautiful consideration--and you were my own, my very own all the time, every moment."

"I will come and tell your father to-morrow," said Howard presently. "How will Master Jack take it? Will he call you Miss?"

"He may call me what he likes," said Maud. "I shan't get off easily."

"Well, we have an evening and a night and a morning for our secret," said Howard. "I wish it could be longer. I should like to go on for ever like this, no one knowing but you and me."

"Do just as you like, my lord and master," said Maud.

"I won't have you talk like that," said Howard; "you don't know what you give me. Was ever anyone in the world so happy before?"

"There's one person who is as happy," said Maud; "you can't guess what I feel. Does it sound absurd to say that if you told me to stand still while you cut me into little bits, I should enjoy it?"

"I won't forget that," said Howard; "anything to please you--you need not mind mentioning any little wishes you may have of that kind."

They laughed like children, and when they came to the village, they became very ceremonious. At the Vicarage gate they shook hands, and Howard raised his hat. "You will have to make up for this dignified parting some time," said Howard. "Sleep well, my darling child! If you ever wake, you will know that I am thinking of you; not far apart! Good-night, my sweet one, my only darling."

Maud put one hand on his shoulder, but did not speak--and then slipped in light-footed through the gate. Howard walked back to the Manor, through the charmed dusk and the fragrance of hidden flowers, full of an almost intolerable happiness, that was akin to pain. The evening star hung in liquid, trembling light above the dark down, the sky fading to a delicious green, the breeze rustled in the heavy-leaved sycamores, and the lights were lit in the cottage windows. Did every home, every hearth, he wondered, mean THAT? Was THAT present in dim and dumb lives, the spirit of love, the inner force of the world? Yes, it was so! That was the secret hidden in the Heart of God.

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