The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions - HTML preview

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Chapter V

Even more curious than that the commonplace dripping of an ordinary water-tap should have tallied so closely with an actually existing air was another result it had, namely, that it awakened, or seemed to awaken, in Oleron an abnormal sensitiveness to other noises of the old house. It has been remarked that the silence obtains its fullest and most impressive quality when it is broken by some minute sound; and, truth to tell, the place was never still. Perhaps the mildness of the spring air operated on its torpid old timbers; perhaps Oleron s fires caused it to stretch its own anatomy; and certainly a whole world of insect life bored and burrowed in its baulks and joists. At any rate Oleron had only so it quiet in his chair and to wait for a minute or two in order to become aware of such a change ion the auditory scale as comes upon a man who, conceiving the mid-summer woods to be motionless and still, all at once finds his ear sharpened to the crepitation of a myriad insects.
And he smiled to think of man's arbitrary distinction between that which has life and that which has not. Here, quite apart from such recognisable sounds as the scampering of mice, the falling of plaster behind his panelling, and the popping of purses or coffins from his fire, was a whole house talking to him had he but known his language. Beams settled with a tired sigh into their old mortices; creatures ticked in the walls; joints cracked, boards complained; with no palpable stirring of the air window-sashes changed their position with a soft knock in their frames. And whether the place had life in this sense or not, it had at all events a winsome personality. It needed but an hour of musing for Oleron to conceive the idea tat, as his own body stood in friendly relation to his soul, so, by an extension and an attenuation, his habituation might fantastically be supposed to stand in some relation to himself. He even amused himself with the far-fetched fancy that he might so identify himself with the place that some future tenant, taking possession, might regard it as in a sense haunted. It would be rather a joke if he, a perfectly harmless author, with nothing on his mind worse than a novel he had discovered he must begin again, should turn out to be laying the foundation of a future ghost! . . .
In proportion, as he felt this growing attachment to the fabric of his abode, Elsie Bengough, from being merely unattracted, began to show a dislike of the place that was more and more marked. And she did not scruple to speak of her aversion.
"It doesn't belong to to-day at all, and for you especially it's bad," she said with decision. "You're only too ready to let go your hold on actual things and to slip into apathy; you ought to be in a place with concrete floors and patent has-meter and a tradesman' lift. Nd it would do you all the good in the world if you had a job that made you scramble and rub elbows with your fellow-men. Now, if I could get you a job, for, say, two or three days a week, one that would allow you heaps of time for your proper work--would you take it?"
Somehow, Oleron resented a little being diagnosed like this. He thanked Miss Bengough, but without a smile.
"Thank you, but I don't think so. After all each of us has his own life to live," he could not refrain from adding.
"His own life to live! . . . How long is it since you were out, Paul?"
"About two hours."
"I don't mean tp buy stamps or to post a letter. How long is it since you had anything like a stretch?"
"Oh, some little time perhaps. I don't know."
"Since I was here lat?"
"I haven't been out much."
"And has Romilly progressed much better for your being cooped up?" "I think she has. I'm laying the foundations of her. I shall begin the actual writing presently."
It seemed as if Miss Bengough had forgotten their tussle about the first Romilly. She frowned, turned half away, and then quickly turned again.
"Ah! . . . So you've still got that ridiculous idea in your head?"
"If you mean," said Oleron slowly, "that I've discarded the only Romilly, and am at work on a new one, you're right. I have still got that idea in my head." Something uncordial in his tone struck her; but she was a fighter. His own absurd sensitiveness hardened her. She gave a "Pshaw!" of impatience.
"Where is the old one?" she demanded abruptly.
"Why?" said Oleron.
"I want to see it. I want to show some of it to you. I want, if you're not woolgathering entirely, to bring you back to your senses."
This time it was he who turned his back. But when he turned round again he spoke more gently.
"It's no good, Elsie. I'm responsible for the way I go, and you must allow me to go it--even if it should seem wrong to you. Believe me, I am giving thought to it. . . . The manuscript? I was on the point of burning it, but I didn't. It's in that windowseat, if you must see it."
Miss Bengough crossed quickly to the window-seat, and lifted the lid. Suddenly she gave a little exclamation, and put the back of her hand to her mouth. She spoke over her shoulder:
"You ought to knock these nails in, Paul," she said.
He strode to her side.
"What? What is it? What's the matter?" he asked. "I did knock them in--or rather, pulled them out."
"You left enough to scratch with," she replied, showing her hand. From the upper wrist to the knuckle of the little finger a welling red wound showed. "Good--Gracious!" Oleron ejaculated. . . . "Here, come to the bathroom and bathe it quickly----"
He hurried her to the bathroom, turned on warm water, and bathed and cleansed the bad gash. Then, still holding the hand, he turned cold water on it, uttering broken phases of astonishment and concern.
"Good Lord, how did that happen! As far as I knew I'd . . . is this water too cold? Does that hurt? I can't imagine how on earth . . . there; that'll do-----" "No--one moment longer--I can bear it," she murmured, her eyes closed. Presently he led her back to the sitting-room and bound the hand in one of his handkerchiefs; but his face did not lose its expression of perplexity. He had spent half a day in opening and making serviceable the three window-boxes, and he could not conceive how he had come to leave an inch and a half of rusty nail standing in the wood. He himself had opened the lids of each of them a dozen times and had not noticed any nail; but there it was . . .
"It shall come out now, at ll events," he muttered, as he went for a pair of pincers. And he made no mistake about it that time
Elsie Bengough had sunk into a chair, and her face was rather white; but in her hand was the manuscript of Romilly. She had not finished with Romilly yet. Presently she returned to the charge.
"Oh, Paul, it will be the greatest mistake you ever, ever made if you do not publish this!" she said.
He hung his head, genuinely distressed. He couldn't get that incident of the nail out of his head, and Romilly occupied a second place in his thoughts for the moment. But still she insisted; and when presently he spoke it was almost as if he asked her pardon for something.
"What can I say, Elsie? I can only hope that when you see the new version, you'll see how right I am. And if in spite of all you don't like her, well . . . " he made hopeless gesture. "Don't you see that I must be guided by my own lights?" She was silent.
"Come, Elsie," he aid gently. "We've got along well so far; don't let us split on this."
The last words had hardly passed his lips before he regretted them. She had been nursing her injured hand, with her eyes once more closed; but her lips and lids quivered simultaneously. Her voice shook as she spoke.
"I can't help saying it, Paul, but you are so greatly changed."
"Hush, Elsie, he murmured soothingly; you've had a shock; rest for a while. How could I change?"
"I don't know, but you are. You've not been yourself ever since you came here. I wish you'd never seen the place. It's stopped your work, it's making you into a person I hardly know, and it's made me horribly anxious about you. . . . Oh, how my hand is beginning to throb!"
"Poor child!" he murmured. "Will you let me take you to a doctor and have it properly dressed?"
"No--I shall be all right presently--I'll keep it raised----"
She put her elbow on the back of the chair, and the bandaged hand rested lightly on his shoulder.
At that thought an entirely new anxiety stirred suddenly within him. Hundreds of times previously, on their jaunts and excursions, she had slipped her hand within his arm as she might have slipped it into the arm of a brother, and he had accepted the little affectionate gesture as a brother might have accepted it. But now, for the first time, there rushed into his mind a hundred startling questions. Her eyes were still closed, and her head had fallen pathetically back; and there was a lost and ineffable smile on her parted lips. The truth broke in upon him. Good God! . . . And he had never divined it!
And stranger than all was that, now that he. did see that she was lost in love of him, there came to him, not sorrow and humility and abasement, but something else that he struggled in vain against--something entirely strange and new, that, had he analyzed it, he would have found to be petulance and irritation and resentment and ungentleness. The sudden selfish prompting mastered him before he was aware. He all but gave it word. What was she doing there at all? Why was she not getting on with her own work? Why was she here interfering with his? Who had given hr this guardianship over him that lately she had put forward so assertively?--"changed?" It was she, not himself, who had changed. . . .
But by the time she had opened her eyes again he had overcome his resentment sufficiently to speak gently, albeit with reserve.
"I wish you would let me tke you to a doctor."
She rose.
"No thank you, Paul," she sad. "I'll go now. If I need a dressing I'll get one; take the other hand, please. Good-bye----"
He did not attempt to detain her. He walked with her to the foot of the stairs. Halfway along the narrow alley she turned.
"It would be a long way to come if you happened not to be in," she said; " l'll send you a post card the next time."
At the gate she turned again.
"Leave here, Paul," she said, with a mournful look. "Everything's wrong with this house."
Then she was gone.
Oleron returned to his room. He crossed straight to the window-box. He opened the lid and stood long looking at it. Then he closed it again and turned away. "Tat's rather frightening," he muttered. "It's simply not possible that I should not have removed that nail...."