The Wave: An Egyptian Aftermath Part 45

This vivid detail kept the heavier memories back at first; somehow the long review of his brief Egyptian winter blocked each time against a pair of stooping shoulders and a pair of yellow cotton gloves.

During the voyage of four days, however, followed then the inevitable cruel aftermath of doubt, suspicion, jealousy he had fancied long since overthrown. A hundred incidents and details forced themselves upon him from the past--glances, gestures, phrases, such little things and yet so pregnant with delayed or undelivered meaning. The meanings rose remorselessly to the surface now.

All belonged to the first days in Egypt before he noticed anything; the mind worked backwards to their gleaning. They had escaped his attention at the time, yet the mind had registered them none the less. He did not seek their recovery, but the series offered itself, compelling him to examine one and all, demanding that he should pa.s.s judgment. He forced them back, they leaped up again on springs; the resilience was due to their life, their truth; they were not to be denied. There was no escape. . . .

All pointed to the same conclusion: the month spent alone with Tony had worked the mischief before his own arrival--by the time he came upon the scene the new relationship was in full swing beyond her power to stop it.

Heavens, he had been blind! Ceaselessly, endlessly, he made the circle of alternate pain and joy, of hope and despair, of doubt and confidences--yet the ideal in him safe beyond a.s.sault. He believed in her, he trusted, and he--hoped.

The most poignant test, however, came when port was reached and the scented land-wind met his nostrils with the--Spring. He saw the harbour with its white houses shining in the early April sunshine; the blue sea recalled a wide-sh.o.r.ed lake among the mountains: he saw the sea-gulls, heard the lapping of the waves against the shipping. . . .

He took the train to a little town along the coast, meaning to stay there a day or two before facing London, where the dismantling of the Brown Flat and the search for work awaited him. And there the full-blooded spring of this southern climate took him by the throat. The haze, the sweet moist air, the luscious fields, the woods and flowery roads, above all the singing birds--this biting contrast with the dry, blazing desert skies of tawny Egypt was dislocating. The fierce glare of perpetual summer seemed a nightmare he had left behind; he came back to the sweet companionship of friendly life in field and tree and flower.

The first soft shower of rain, the first long twilight, the singing of the thrushes after dark, the light in the little homestead windows--he felt such intimate kindness in it all that the tears rose to his eyes.

He longed to share it with her . . . there was no joy in life without her. . . . Egypt lay behind him with its awful loneliness, its stern, forbidding emptiness, its nightmare sunsets, its cruel desert, its appalling vastness in which everything had already happened. Thebes was a single, enormous tomb; his past lay buried there; from the solemn, mournful, desolate hills he had escaped. . . . He emerged into a smiling land of running streams and flowers. His new life was beginning like the Spring. It gushed everywhere, reminding him of another Spring he had known among the mountains. . . . The 'sum of loss' he counted minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. He began the long, long reckoning. . . .

He felt intolerably alone. The hunger and yearning in his heart seemed more than he could bear. This beauty . . . without her beside him, without her to share the sweet companionship of the earth . . . was too much to bear. For one minute with her beside him in the meadows, picking flowers, listening to the birds, her blue veil flying in the wet mountain wind--he would have given all his life, his past, his future, everything that mind and heart held precious. . . . In the middle of which and at its darkest moment came the certain knowledge with a joy that broke in light and rapture on his soul--that she _was_ beside him because she was within him. . . . He approached the impersonal, selfless att.i.tude to which the attainment of an ideal alone is possible. She had been added to him. . . .

CHAPTER x.x.xIII

The silence, meanwhile, was like the silence that death brings.

He clung tenaciously to his ideal, yet he thought of her daily, nightly, hourly. She was really never absent from his thoughts. He starved, yet perhaps he did not know he starved. . . . The days grew into weeks with a grinding, dreadful slowness. He had written from the steamer, explaining briefly that he was called to England. He had written a similar line to Tony too. No answers came.

Yet the silence was full of questions. The mystery of her Egyptian infatuation remained the biggest one of all perhaps. But there were others, equally insistent. Did he really possess her in a way that made earthly companionship unnecessary? Had he lasting joy in this ideal possession? Was it true that an ideal once attained, its prototype becomes unsatisfying? Did he deceive himself? And had not her strange experience after all but ripened and completed her nature, provided something she had lacked before, and blended the Mother and the Woman into the perfect mate his dream foretold and his heart's deep instinct prophesied?

He heard many answers to these questions; his heart made one, his reason made another. It was the soft and urgent Spring, however, with its perfumed winds, its singing birds, its happy message breaking with tumultuous life--it was the Spring on those wooded Mediterranean sh.o.r.es that whispered the compelling truth. He needed her, he yearned.

An ideal, on this earth, to retain its upward lure, must remain--an ideal.

Attainment in the literal sense destroys it. His arms were hungry and his heart was desolate. Then one day he knew the happy yet unhappy feeling that she suffered too. He felt her thoughts about him like soft birds. . . .

And he wrote to her: 'I should just like to know that you are well--and happy.' He addressed it to the Bungalow. The same day, chance had it, he received word from her, forwarded from the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo.

She wrote two lines only: 'Tom, the thing I had to tell you about was-- Warsaw. It is over. As you said, it is better written, perhaps, than told. Yours, L.'

Egypt came flooding through the open window as he laid the letter down; the silence, the desert s.p.a.ces, the perfume and the spell. He saw one thing clearly in that second, for he saw it in a flash. The secret of her trouble that last day in Luxor was laid bare--the knowledge that within a few hours she would be free. To Tom she could not easily tell it; delicacy, modesty, pride forbade. Her long, painful duty, faithfully fulfilled these many years, was over. Her world had altered, opened out.

Values, of course, had instantly altered too; she saw what was real and what ephemeral; she looked at Tony and she looked at--himself. She could speak to Tony--it was easier, it did not matter--but she could not so easily speak to Tom. The yellow gloves of cotton! . . . His heart leaped within him. . . .

He stared out of the window across the blue Mediterranean with its dancing, white-capped waves; he saw the white houses by the harbour; he watched the whirling sea-gulls and tasted the fresh, salt air.

How familiar it all was! Of her whereabouts at that moment he had no knowledge; she might be on the steamer, gazing at the same dancing waves; she might be in Warsaw or in London even; she might pa.s.s by the windows of the Brown Flat. . . .

He turned aside, closing the window. Egypt withdrew, the glamour waned, the ancient spell seemed lifted. He thought of those Theban Hills without emotion. Yet something in him trembled; he yearned, he ached, he longed with all the longing of the Spring. He wavered--oh, deliciously . . .!

He was glad, radiantly glad, that she had written. Only--he dared not, he could not answer. . . .

Yet big issues are decided sometimes by paltry and ign.o.ble influences when st.u.r.dier considerations produce no effect. It is the contrast that furnishes the magic. It was contrast, doubtless, that swayed Tom's judgment in the very direction he had decided was prohibited.

His surroundings at the moment supplied the contrast, for these surroundings were petty and ign.o.ble--they drove him by the distress of sheer disgust into the world of larger values he had known with her.

Probably, he did not discover this consciously for himself: the result, in any case, was logical and obvious. Values changed suddenly for him, too, both in his outlook and his judgment.

For he was spending a few days with his widowed sister, she who had been playmate to Lettice years ago; and the conditions of her life and mind distressed him. He had seen her name in a hotel list of Mentone; he surprised her with a visit; he was received with inexplicable coldness.

His tie with her was slight, her husband, a clergyman, little to his liking; he had not been near them for several years. The frigid reception, however, had a deeper cause, he felt; his curiosity was piqued.

His sister's chart of existence, indeed, was too remote from his own for true sympathy to be possible, and her married life had not improved her.

They had drifted apart without openly acknowledging it. There was no quarrel, but there was a certain bitterness between them. She had a marked _faiblesse_, strange in one securely born, for those nominally in high places that, while disingenuous enough, jarred painfully always on her brother. G.o.d was unknown to her, although her husband preached most familiarly concerning Him. She had never seen the deity, but an Earl was a living reality, and often very useful. This ba.n.a.l weakness, he now found, had increased in widowhood. Tom hid his extreme distaste--and learned the astonishing reason for her coldness. It was Mrs. Haughstone.

It took his breath away. He was too amazed to speak.

How clearly he understood her conduct now in Egypt! For Mrs. Haughstone had spread stories of the Bungalow, pernicious stories of an incredible kind, yet with just sufficient basis of apparent truth to render them plausible--plausible, that is, to any who were glad of an excuse to believe them against himself. These stories by a round-about way, gathering in circ.u.mstantial detail as they travelled, had reached his sister. She wished to believe them, and she did. Certain relatives, moreover, of meagre intelligence but highly placed in the social world, and consequently of great importance in her life, were remotely affected by the lurid tales. A report in full is unnecessary, but Mary held that the family honour was stained. It was an incredible imbroglio. Tom was so overwhelmed by this revelation of the jealous woman's guile, and the light it threw upon her role in Egypt, that he did not even trouble to defend himself. He merely felt sorry that his sister could believe such tales--and forgave her without a single word. He saw in it all another sc.r.a.p of evidence that the Wave had indeed fallen, that his life everywhere, and from the most unlikely directions, was threatened, that all the most solid in the structure he had hitherto built up and leaned upon, was crumbling--and must crumble utterly--in order that it might rise secure upon fresh foundations.

He faced it, but faced it silently. He washed his hands of all concerned; he had learned their values too; he now looked forward instead of behind; that is, he forgot, and at the same time utterly--forgave.

But the effect upon him was curious. The stagnant ditch his sister lived in had the result of flinging him headlong back into the larger stream he had just left behind him; in that larger world things happened indeed, things unpleasant, cruel, mysterious, amazing--but yet not little things.

The scale was vaster, horizons wider, beauty and wonder walked hand in hand with love and death. The contrast shook him; the trivial blow had this immense effect, that he yearned with redoubled pa.s.sion for the region in which bigger ideals with their prototypes, however broken, existed side by side.

This yearning, and the change involved, remained subtly concealed, however. He was not properly conscious of it. Other very practical considerations, it seemed, influenced him; his money was getting low; he had luckily sublet the flat, but the question of work was becoming insistent. There was much to be faced. . . . A month had slipped by, it was five weeks since he had left Egypt. He decided to go to London.

He telegraphed to the Club for his letters--he expected important ones--to be sent to Paris, and it was in a small high room on the top floor of a second-rate hotel across the Seine that he found them waiting for him.

It was here, in this dingy room, that he read the wondrous words.

The letter had lain at his Club three days, it was dated Switzerland and the postmark was Montreux. It was in pencil, without beginning and without end; his name, the signature did not appear:

Your little letter has come--yes, I am well, but happy I am not.

I went to the Semiramis and found that you had sailed, sailed without even a good-bye. I have come here, here to familiar little Montreux by the blue lake, where we first knew the Spring together.

I can't say anything, I can't explain anything. You must never ask me to explain; Egypt changed me--brought out something in me I was helpless to resist. It was something perhaps I needed.

I struggled--perhaps you can guess how I struggled, perhaps you can't. I have suffered these past weeks, I believe that I have expiated something. The power that drove me is exhausted, and that is all I know. I have worked it out. I have come back. There is no blame for others--for any one; I can't explain. Your little letter has come, and so I write. Help me, oh, help me in years to find my respect again, and try to love the woman you once knew--knew here in Montreux beside the lake, long ago in our childhood days, further back still, perhaps, though where I do not know. And, Tom-- tell me how you are. I must know that. Please write and tell me that. I can bear it no longer. If anything happened to you I should just turn over and die. You have been true and very big, oh, so true and big. I see it now. . . .

Tom did not answer. He took the night train. He was just in time to catch the Simplon Express from the Gare de Lyon. He reached Montreux at seven o'clock, when the June sun was already high above the Dent du Midi and the lake a sheet of sparkling blue. He went to his old hotel. He saw the swans floating like bundles of dry paper, he saw the whirling sea-gulls, he obtained his former room. And spring was just melting into full-blown summer upon the encircling mountains.

It was still early when he had bathed and breakfasted, too early for visitors to be abroad, too early to search. . . . He could settle to nothing; he filled the time as best he could; he smoked and read an English newspaper that was several days old at least. His eyes took in the lines, but his mind did not take in the sense--until a familiar name caught his attention and made him keenly alert. The name was Anthony Winslowe. He remembered suddenly that Tony had never replied to his letter. . . . The paragraph concerning his cousin, however, dealt with another matter that sent the blood flaming to his cheeks. He was defendant in the breach of promise suit brought by a notorious London actress, then playing in a popular revue. The case had opened; the letters were already produced in court--and read. The print danced before his eyes. The letters were dated last October and November, just before Tony had come out to Egypt, and with crimson face Tom read them. It was more than distressing, it was afflicting--the letters tore an established reputation into a thousand pieces. He could not finish the report; he only prayed that another had not seen it. . . .

It was eleven o'clock when he went out and joined the throng of people sunning themselves on the walk beside the lake. The air was sweet and fresh, there were sailing-boats upon the water, the blue mountains lifted their dazzling snow far, far into the summer sky. He leaned over the rail and watched the myriads of tiny fishes, he watched the swans, he saw the dim line of the Jura hills in the hazy distance, he heard the m.u.f.fled beat of a steamer's paddle-wheels a long way off. And then, abruptly, he was aware that some one touched him; a hand in a long white glove was on his arm; there was a subtle perfume; two dark eyes looked into his; and he heard a low familiar voice:

'One day we shall find each other in a crowd.'

Tom was amazingly inarticulate. He just turned and looked down at her, moving a few inches closer as he did so. She wore a black boa; the fur touched his cheek.

'You have come back,' he said.

There was a new wonder in her face, a soft new beauty. The woman in her glowed. . . . He saw the suffering plainly too.

'We have both found out,' she said very low, 'found out what we are to one another.'

Tom's supply of words failed completely then. He looked at her--looked all the language in the world. And she understood. She lowered her eyes.

'I feel shy,' he thought he heard. It was murmured only. The next minute she raised her eyes again to his. He saw them dark and beautiful, tender as his mother's, true and faithful, as in his boyhood's dream of years ago. But they were now a woman's eyes.

'I never really left you, Tom . . .' she said with absolute conviction.

'I never could. I went aside . . . to fetch something--to give to you.

That was all!'

THE END

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