LADIES IN LAVENDER
As soon as the sun rose out of the sea its light streamed through a white-curtained casement window into the whitest and most spotless room you can imagine. It shone upon two little white beds, separated by the width of the floor covered with straw-coloured matting; on white garments neatly folded which lay on white chairs by the side of each bed; on a white enamelled bedroom suite; on the one picture (over the mantel-piece) which adorned the white walls, the enlarged photograph of a white-whiskered, elderly gentleman in naval uniform; and on the white, placid faces of the sleepers.
It awakened Miss Ursula Widdington, who sat up in bed, greeted it with a smile, and forthwith aroused her sister.
“Janet, here’s the sun.”
Miss Widdington awoke and smiled too.
Now to awake at daybreak with a smile and a childlike delight at the sun when you are over forty-five is a sign of an unruffled conscience and a sweet disposition.
“The first glimpse of it for a week,” said Miss Widdington.
“Isn’t it strange,” said Miss Ursula, “that when we went to sleep the storm was still raging?”
“And now—the sea hasn’t gone down yet. Listen.”
“The tide’s coming in. Let us go out and look at it,” cried Miss Ursula, delicately getting out of bed.
“You’re so impulsive, Ursula,” said Miss Widdington.
She was forty-eight, and three years older than her sister. She could, therefore, smile indulgently at the impetuosity of youth. But she rose and dressed, and presently the two ladies stole out of the silent house.
They had lived there for many years, perched away on top of a projecting cliff on the Cornish coast, midway between sea and sky, like two fairy princesses in an enchanted bit of the world’s end, who had grown grey with waiting for the prince who never came. Theirs was the only house on the wind-swept height. Below in the bay on the right of their small headland nestled the tiny fishing village of Trevannic; below, sheer down to the left, lay a little sandy cove, accessible farther on by a narrow gorge that split the majestic stretch of bastioned cliffs. To that little stone weatherbeaten house their father, the white-whiskered gentleman of the portrait, had brought them quite young when he had retired from the navy with a pension and a grievance—an ungrateful country had not made him an admiral—and there, after his death, they had continued to lead their remote and gentle lives, untouched by the happenings of the great world.
The salt-laden wind buffeted them, dashed strands of hair stingingly across their faces and swirled their skirts around them as they leaned over the stout stone parapet their father had built along the edge of the cliff, and drank in the beauty of the morning. The eastern sky was clear of clouds and the eastern sea tossed a fierce silver under the sun and gradually deepened into frosted green, which changed in the west into the deep ocean blue; and the Atlantic heaved and sobbed after its turmoil of the day before. Miss Ursula pointed to the gilt-edged clouds in the west and likened them to angels’ thrones, which was a pretty conceit. Miss Widdington derived a suggestion of Pentecostal flames from the golden flashes of the sea-gulls’ wings. Then she referred to the appetite they would have for breakfast. To this last observation Miss Ursula did not reply, as she was leaning over the parapet intent on something in the cove below. Presently she clutched her sister’s arm.
“Janet, look down there—that black thing—what is it?”
Miss Widdington’s gaze followed the pointing finger.
At the foot of the rocks that edged the gorge sprawled a thing checkered black and white.
“I do believe it’s a man!”
“A drowned man! Oh, poor fellow! Oh, Janet, how dreadful!”
She turned brown, compassionate eyes on her sister, who continued to peer keenly at the helpless figure below.
“Do you think he’s dead, Janet?”
“The sensible thing would be to go down and see,” replied Miss Widdington.
It was by no means the first dead man cast up by the waves that they had stumbled upon during their long sojourn on this wild coast, where wrecks and founderings and loss of men’s lives at sea were commonplace happenings. They were dealing with the sadly familiar; and though their gentle hearts throbbed hard as they made for the gorge and sped quickly down the ragged, rocky path, they set about their task as a matter of course.
Miss Ursula reached the sand first, and walked over to the body which lay on a low shelf of rock. Then she turned with a glad cry.
“Janet. He’s alive. He’s moaning. Come quickly.” And, as Janet joined her: “Did you ever see such a beautiful face in your life?”
“We should have brought some brandy,” said Miss Widdington.
But, as she bent over the unconscious form, a foolish moisture gathered in her eyes which had nothing to do with forgetfulness of alcohol. For indeed there lay sprawling anyhow in catlike grace beneath them the most romantic figure of a youth that the sight of maiden ladies ever rested on. He had long black hair, a perfectly chiselled face, a preposterously feminine mouth which, partly open, showed white young teeth, and the most delicate, long-fingered hands in the world. Miss Ursula murmured that he was like a young Greek god. Miss Widdington sighed. The fellow was ridiculous. He was also dank with sea water, and moaned as if he were in pain. But as gazing wrapt in wonder and admiration at young Greek gods is not much good to them when they are half-drowned, Miss Widdington despatched her sister in search of help.
“The tide is still low enough for you to get round the cliff to the village. Mrs. Pendered will give you some brandy, and her husband and Luke will bring a stretcher. You might also send Joe Gullow on his bicycle for Dr. Mead.”
Miss Widdington, as behoved one who has the charge of an orphaned younger sister, did not allow the sentimental to weaken the practical. Miss Ursula, though she would have preferred to stay by the side of the beautiful youth, was docile, and went forthwith on her errand. Miss Widdington, left alone with him, rolled up her jacket and pillowed his head on it, brought his limbs into an attitude suggestive of comfort, and tried by chafing to restore him to animation. Being unsuccessful in this, she at last desisted, and sat on the rocks near by and wondered who on earth he was and where in the world he came from. His garments consisted in a nondescript pair of trousers and a flannel shirt with a collar, which was fastened at the neck, not by button or stud, but by a tasselled cord; and he was barefoot. Miss Widdington glanced modestly at his feet, which were shapely; and the soles were soft and pink like the palms of his hands. Now, had he been the coarsest and most callosity-stricken shell-back half-alive, Janet Widdington would have tended him with the same devotion; but the lingering though unoffending Eve in her rejoiced that hands and feet betokened gentler avocations than that of sailor or fisherman. And why? Heaven knows, save that the stranded creature had a pretty face and that his long black hair was flung over his forehead in a most interesting manner. She wished he would open his eyes. But as he kept them shut and gave no sign of returning consciousness, she sat there waiting patiently; in front of her the rough, sun-kissed Atlantic, at her feet the semicircular patch of golden sand, behind her the sheer white cliffs, and by her side on the slab of rock this good-looking piece of jetsam.
At length Miss Ursula appeared round the corner of the headland, followed by Jan Pendered and his son Luke carrying a stretcher. While Miss Widdington administered brandy without any obvious result, the men looked at the castaway, scratched their heads, and guessed him to be a foreigner; but how he managed to be there alone with never a bit of wreckage to supply a clue surpassed their powers of imagination. In lifting him the right foot hung down through the trouser-leg, and his ankle was seen to be horribly black and swollen. Old Jan examined it carefully.
“Broken,” said he.
“Oh, poor boy, that’s why he’s moaning so,” cried the compassionate Miss Ursula.
The men grasped the handles of the stretcher.
“I’d better take him home to my old woman,” said Jan Pendered thoughtfully.
“He can have my bed, father,” said Luke.
Miss Widdington looked at Miss Ursula and Miss Ursula looked at Miss Widdington, and the eyes of each lady were wistful. Then Miss Widdington spoke.
“You can carry him up to the house, Pendered. We have a comfortable spare room, and Dorcas will help us to look after him.”
The men obeyed, for in Trevannic Miss Widdington’s gentle word was law.
It was early afternoon. Miss Widdington had retired to take her customary after-luncheon siesta, an indulgence permitted to her seniority, but not granted, except on rare occasions, to the young. Miss Ursula, therefore, kept watch in the sick chamber, just such a little white spotless room as their own, but containing only one little white bed in which the youth lay dry and warm and comfortably asleep. He was exhausted from cold and exposure, said the doctor who had driven in from St. Madoc, eight miles off, and his ankle was broken. The doctor had done what was necessary, had swathed him in one of old Dorcas’s flannel nightgowns, and had departed. Miss Ursula had the patient all to herself. A bright fire burned in the grate, and the strong Atlantic breeze came in through the open window where she sat, her knitting in her hand. Now and then she glanced at the sleeper, longing, in a most feminine manner, for him to awake and render an account of himself. Miss Ursula’s heart fluttered mildly. For beautiful youths, baffling curiosity, are not washed up alive by the sea at an old maid’s feet every day in the week. It was indeed an adventure, a bit of a fairy tale suddenly gleaming and dancing in the grey atmosphere of an eventless life. She glanced at him again, and wondered whether he had a mother. Presently Dorcas came in, stout and matronly, and cast a maternal eye on the boy and smoothed his pillow. She had sons herself, and two of them had been claimed by the pitiless sea.
“It’s lucky I had a sensible nightgown to give him,” she remarked. “If we had had only the flimsy things that you and Miss Janet wear——”
“Sh!” said Miss Ursula, colouring faintly; “he might hear you.”
Dorcas laughed and went out. Miss Ursula’s needles clicked rapidly. When she glanced at the bed again she became conscious of two great dark eyes regarding her in utter wonder. She rose quickly and went over to the bed.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said, though what there was to terrify him in her mild demeanour and the spotless room she could not have explained; “don’t be afraid, you’re among friends.”
He murmured some words which she did not catch.
“What do you say?” she asked sweetly.
He repeated them in a stronger voice. Then she realised that he spoke in a foreign tongue. A queer dismay filled her.
“Don’t you speak English?”
He looked at her for a moment, puzzled. Then the echo of the last word seemed to reach his intelligence. He shook his head. A memory rose from schoolgirl days.
“Parlez-vous français?” she faltered; and when he shook his head again she almost felt relieved. Then he began to talk, regarding her earnestly, as if seeking by his mere intentness to make her understand. But it was a strange language which she had not heard before.
In one mighty effort Miss Ursula gathered together her whole stock of German.
“Sprechen Sie deutsch?”
“Ach ja! Einige Worte,” he replied, and his face lit up with a smile so radiant that Miss Ursula wondered how Providence could have neglected to inspire a being so beautiful with a knowledge of the English language, “Ich kann mich auf deutsch verständlich machen, aber ich bin polnisch.”
But not a word of the halting sentence could Miss Ursula make out; even the last was swallowed up in guttural unintelligibility. She only recognised the speech as German and different from that which he used at first, and which seemed to be his native tongue.
“Oh, dear, I must give it up,” she sighed.
The patient moved slightly and uttered a sudden cry of pain. It occurred to Miss Ursula that he had not had time to realise the fractured ankle. That he realised it now was obvious, for he lay back with closed eyes and white lips until the spasm had passed. After that Miss Ursula did her best to explain in pantomime what had happened. She made a gesture of swimming, then laid her cheek on her hand and simulated fainting, acted her discovery of his body on the beach, broke a wooden match in two and pointed to his ankle, exhibited the medicine bottles by the bedside, smoothed his pillow, and smiled so as to assure him of kind treatment. He understood, more or less, murmured thanks in his own language, took her hand, and to her English woman’s astonishment, pressed it to his lips. Miss Widdington, entering softly, found the pair in this romantic situation.
When it dawned on him a while later that he owed his deliverance equally to both of the gentle ladies, he kissed Miss Widdington’s hand too. Whereupon Miss Ursula coloured and turned away. She did not like to see him kiss her sister’s hand. Why, she could not tell, but she felt as if she had received a tiny stab in the heart.
Providence has showered many blessings on Trevannic, but among them is not the gift of tongues. Dr. Mead, who came over every day from St. Madoc, knew less German than the ladies. It was impossible to communicate with the boy except by signs. Old Jan Pendered, who had served in the navy in the China seas, felt confident that he could make him understand, and tried him with pidgin-English. But the youth only smiled sweetly and shook hands with him, whereupon old Jan scratched his head and acknowledged himself jiggered. To Miss Widdington, at last, came the inspiration that the oft-repeated word “Polnisch” meant Polish.
“You come from Poland?”
“Aus Polen, ya,” laughed the boy.
“Kosciusko,” murmured Miss Ursula.
He laughed again, delighted, and looked at her eagerly for more; but there Miss Ursula’s conversation about Poland ended. If the discovery of his nationality lay to the credit of her sister, she it was who found out his name, Andrea Marowski, and taught him to say: “Miss Ursula.” She also taught him the English names of the various objects around him. And here the innocent rivalry of the two ladies began to take definite form. Miss Widdington, without taking counsel of Miss Ursula, borrowed an old Otto’s German grammar from the girls’ school at St. Madoc, and, by means of patient research, put to him such questions as: “Have you a mother?” “How old are you?” and, collating his written replies with the information vouchsafed by the grammar, succeeded in discovering, among other biographical facts, that he was alone in the world, save for an old uncle who lived in Cracow, and that he was twenty years of age. So that when Miss Ursula boasted that she had taught him to say: “Good morning. How do you do?” Miss Widdington could cry with an air of triumph: “He told me that he doesn’t suffer from toothache.”
It was one of the curious features of the ministrations which they afforded Mr. Andrea Marowski alternately, that Miss Ursula would have nothing whatever to do with Otto’s German grammar and Miss Widdington scorned the use of English and made as little use of sign language as possible.
“I don’t think it becoming, Ursula,” she said, “to indicate hunger by opening your mouth and rubbing the front of your waist, like a cannibal.”
Miss Ursula accepted the rebuke meekly, for she never returned a pert answer to her senior; but reflecting that Janet’s disapproval might possibly arise from her want of skill in the art of pantomime, she went away comforted and continued her unbecoming practices. The conversations, however, that the ladies, each in her own way, managed to have with the invalid, were sadly limited in scope. No means that they could devise could bring them enlightenment on many interesting points. Who he was, whether noble or peasant, how he came to be lying like a jellyfish on the slab of rock in their cove, coatless and barefoot, remained as great a puzzle as ever. Of course he informed them, especially the grammar-equipped Miss Widdington, over and over again in his execrable German; but they grew no wiser, and at last they abandoned in despair their attempts to solve these mysteries. They contented themselves with the actual, which indeed was enough to absorb their simple minds. There he was cast up by the sea or fallen from the moon, young, gay, and helpless, a veritable gift of the gods. The very mystery of his adventure invested him with a curious charm; and then the prodigious appetite with which he began to devour fish and eggs and chickens formed of itself a joy hitherto undreamed of in their philosophy.
“When he gets up he must have some clothes,” said Miss Widdington.
Miss Ursula agreed; but did not say that she was knitting him socks in secret. Andrea’s interest in the progress of these garments was one of her chief delights.
“There’s the trunk upstairs with our dear father’s things,” said Miss Widdington with more diffidence than usual. “They are so sacred to us that I was wondering——
“Our dear father would be the first to wish it,” said Miss Ursula.
“It’s a Christian’s duty to clothe the naked,” said Miss Widdington.
“And so we must clothe him in what we’ve got,” said Miss Ursula. Then with a slight flush she added: “It’s so many years since our great loss that I’ve almost forgotten what a man wears.”
“I haven’t,” said Miss Widdington. “I think I ought to tell you, Ursula,” she continued, after pausing to put sugar and milk into the cup of tea which she handed to her sister—they were at the breakfast table, at the head of which she formally presided, as she had done since her emancipation from the schoolroom—”I think I ought to tell you that I have decided to devote my twenty-five pounds to buying him an outfit. Our dear father’s things can only be a makeshift—and the poor boy hasn’t a penny in the pockets he came ashore in.”
Now, some three years before, an aunt had bequeathed Miss Widdington a tiny legacy, the disposal of which had been a continuous subject of grave discussion between the sisters. She always alluded to it as “my twenty-five pounds.”
“Is that quite fair, dear?” said Miss Ursula impulsively.
“Fair? Do you mind explaining?”
Miss Ursula regretted her impetuosity. “Don’t you think, dear Janet,” she said with some nervousness, “that it would lay him under too great an obligation to you personally? I should prefer to take the money our of out joint income. We both are responsible for him and,” she added with a timid smile, “I found him first.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with it,” Miss Widdington retorted with a quite unusual touch of acidity. “But if you feel strongly about it, I am willing to withdraw my five-and-twenty pounds.”
“You’re not angry with me, Janet?”
“Angry? Of course not,” Miss Widdington replied freezingly. “Don’t be silly. And why aren’t you eating your bacon?”
This was the first shadow of dissension that had arisen between them since their childhood. On the way to the sick-room, Miss Ursula shed a few tears over Janet’s hectoring ways, and Miss Widdington, in pursuit of her housekeeping duties, made Dorcas the scapegoat for Ursula’s unreasonableness. Before luncheon time they kissed with mutual apologies; but the spirit of rivalry was by no means quenched.
One afternoon Miss Janet had an inspiration.
“If I played the piano in the drawing-room with the windows open you could hear it in the spare room quite plainly.”
“If you think it would disturb Mr. Andrea,” said Miss Ursula, “you might shut the windows.”
“I was proposing to offer him a distraction, dear,” said Miss Widdington. “These foreign gentlemen are generally fond of music.”
Miss Ursula could raise no objection, but her heart sank. She could not play the piano.
She took her seat cheerfully, however, by the bed, which had been wheeled up to the window, so that the patient could look out on the glory of sky and sea, took her knitting from a drawer and began to turn the heel of one of the sacred socks. Andrea watched her lazily and contentedly. Perhaps he had never seen two such soft-treaded, soft-fingered ladies in lavender in his life. He often tried to give some expression to his gratitude, and the hand-kissing had become a thrice daily custom. For Miss Widdington he had written the word “Engel,” which the vocabulary at the end of Otto’s German grammar rendered as “Angel”; whereat she had blushed quite prettily. For Miss Ursula he had drawn, very badly, but still unmistakably, the picture of a winged denizen of Paradise, and she, too, had treasured the compliment; she also treasured the drawing. Now, Miss Ursula held up the knitting, which began distinctly to indicate the shape of a sock, and smiled. Andrea smiled, too, and blew her a kiss with his fingers. He had many graceful foreign gestures. The doctor, who was a plain, bullet-headed Briton, disapproved of Andrea and expressed to Dorcas his opinion that the next things to be washed ashore would be the young man’s monkey and organ. This was sheer prejudice, for Andrea’s manners were unexceptionable, and his smile, in the eyes of his hostesses, the most attractive thing in the world.
“Heel,” said Miss Ursula.
“‘Eel,” repeated Andrea.
“Wool,” said Miss Ursula.
“Vool,” said Andrea.
“No—wo-o,” said Miss Ursula, puffing out her lips so as to accentuate the “w.”
“Wo-o,” said Andrea, doing the same. And then they both burst out laughing. They were enjoying themselves mightily.
Then, from the drawing-room below, came the tinkling sound of the old untuned piano which had remained unopened for many years. It was the “Spring Song” of Mendelssohn, played, schoolgirl fashion, with uncertain fingers that now and then struck false notes. The light died away from Andrea’s face, and he looked inquiringly, if not wonderingly, at Miss Ursula. She smiled encouragement, pointed first at the floor, and then at him, thereby indicating that the music was for his benefit. For awhile he remained quite patient. At last he clapped his hands on his ears, and, his features distorted with pain, cried out:
“Nein, nein, nein, das lieb’ ich nicht! Es ist hässlich!”
In eager pantomime he besought her to stop the entertainment. Miss Ursula went downstairs, hating to hurt her sister’s feelings, yet unable to crush a wicked, unregenerate feeling of pleasure.
“I am so sorry, dear Janet,” she said, laying her hand on her sister’s arm, “but he doesn’t like music. It’s astonishing, his dislike. It makes him quite violent.”
Miss Widdington ceased playing and accompanied her sister upstairs. Andrea, with an expressive shrug of the shoulders, reached out his two hands to the musician and, taking hers, kissed her finger-tips. Miss Widdington consulted Otto.
“Lieben Sie nicht Musik?”
“Ja wohl,” he cried, and, laughing, played an imaginary fiddle.
“He does like music,” cried Miss Widdington. “How can you make such silly mistakes, Ursula? Only he prefers the violin.”
Miss Ursula grew downcast for a moment; then she brightened. A brilliant idea occurred to her.
“Adam Penruddocke. He has a fiddle. We can ask him to come up after tea and play to us.”
She reassured Andrea in her queer sign-language, and later in the afternoon Adam Penruddocke, a sheepish giant of a fisherman, was shown into the room. He bowed to the ladies, shook the long white hand proffered him by the beautiful youth, tuned up, and played “The Carnival of Venice” from start to finish. Andrea regarded him with mischievous, laughing eyes, and at the end he applauded vigorously.
Miss Widdington turned to her sister.
“I knew he liked music,” she said.
“Shall I play something else, sir?” asked Penruddocke.
Andrea, guessing his meaning, beckoned him to approach the bed, and took the violin and bow from his hands. He looked at the instrument critically, smiled to himself, tuned it afresh, and with an air of intense happiness drew the bow across the strings.
“Why, he can play it!” cried Miss Ursula.
Andrea laughed and nodded, and played a bit of “The Carnival of Venice” as it ought to be played, with gaiety and mischief. Then he broke off, and after two or three tearing chords that made his hearers start, plunged into a wild czardas. The ladies looked at him in open-mouthed astonishment as the mad music such as they had never heard in their lives before filled the little room with its riot and devilry. Penruddocke stood and panted, his eyes staring out of his head. When Andrea had finished there was a bewildered silence. He nodded pleasantly at his audience, delighted at the effect he had produced. Then, with an artist’s malice, he went to the other extreme of emotion. He played a sobbing folk-song, rending the heart with cries of woe and desolation and broken hopes. It clutched at the heart-strings, turning them into vibrating chords; it pierced the soul with its poignant despair; it ended in a long-drawn-out note high up in the treble, whose pain became intolerable; and the end was greeted with a sharp gasp of relief. The white lips of the ruddy giant quivered. Tears streamed down the cheeks of Miss Widdington and Miss Ursula. Again there was silence, but this time it was broken by a clear, shrill voice outside.
The sisters looked at one another. Who had dared intrude at such a moment? Miss Widdington went to the window to see.
In the garden stood a young woman of independent bearing, with a pallette and brushes in her hand. An easel was pitched a few yards beyond the gate. Miss Widdington regarded this young woman with marked disfavour. The girl calmly raised her eyes.
“I apologise for trespassing like this,” she said, “but I simply couldn’t resist coming nearer to this marvellous violin-playing—and my exclamation came out almost unconsciously.”
“You are quite welcome to listen,” said Miss Widdington stiffly.
“May I ask who is playing it?”
Miss Widdington almost gasped at the girl’s impertinence. The latter laughed frankly.
“I ask because it seems as if it could only be one of the big, well-known people.”
“It’s a young friend who is staying with us,” said Miss Widdington.
“I beg your pardon,” said the girl. “But, you see my brother is Boris Danilof, the violinist, so I’ve that excuse for being interested.”
“I don’t think Mr. Andrea can play any more to-day,” said Miss Ursula from her seat by the bed. “He’s tired.”
Miss Widdington repeated this information to Miss Danilof, who bade her good afternoon and withdrew to her easel.
“A most forward, objectionable girl,” exclaimed Miss Widdington. “And who is Boris Danilof, I should like to know?”
If she had but understood German, Andrea could have told her. He caught at the name of the world-famous violinist and bent eagerly forward in great excitement.
“Boris Danilof? Ist er unten?”
“Nicht—I mean Nein,” replied Miss Widdington, proud at not having to consult Otto.
Andrea sank back disappointed, on his pillow.
However much Miss Widdington disapproved of the young woman, and however little the sisters knew of Boris Danilof, it was obvious that they were harbouring a remarkable violinist. That even the bullet-headed doctor, who had played the double bass in his Hospital Orchestral Society and was, therefore, an authority, freely admitted. It gave the romantic youth a new and somewhat awe-inspiring value in the eyes of the ladies. He was a genius, said Miss Ursula—and her imagination became touched by the magic of the word. As he grew stronger he played more. His fame spread through the village and he gave recitals to crowded audiences—as many fisher-folk as could be squeezed into the little bedroom, and more standing in the garden below. Miss Danilof did not come again. The ladies learned that she was staying in the next village, Polwern, two or three miles off. In their joy at Andrea’s recovery they forgot her existence.
Happy days came when he could rise from bed and hobble about on a crutch, attired in the quaint garments of Captain Widdington, R.N., who had died twenty years before, at the age of seventy-three. They added to his romantic appearance, giving him the air of the jeune premier in costume drama. There was a blue waistcoat with gilt buttons, calculated to win any feminine approval. The ladies admired him vastly. Conversation was still difficult, as Miss Ursula had succeeded in teaching him very little English, and Miss Widdington, after a desperate grapple with Otto on her own account, had given up the German language in despair. But what matters the tongue when the heart speaks? And the hearts of Miss Widdington and Miss Ursula spoke; delicately, timidly, tremulously, in the whisper of an evening breeze, in undertones, it is true—yet they spoke all the same. The first walks on the heather of their cliff in the pure spring sunshine were rare joys. As they had done with their watches by his bedside, they took it in turns to walk with him; and each in her turn of solitude felt little pricklings of jealousy. But as each had instituted with him her own particular dainty relations and confidences—Miss Widdington more maternal, Miss Ursula more sisterly—to which his artistic nature responded involuntarily, each felt sure that she was the one who had gained his especial affection.
Thus they wove their gossamer webs of romance in the secret recess of their souls. What they hoped for was as dim and vague as their concept of heaven, and as pure. They looked only at the near future—a circle of light encompassed by mists; but in the circle stood ever the beloved figure. They could not imagine him out of it. He would stay with them, irradiating their lives with his youth and his gaiety, playing to them his divine music, kissing their hands, until he grew quite strong and well again. And that was a long, long way off. Meanwhile life was a perpetual spring. Why should it ever end?
One afternoon they sat in the sunny garden, the ladies busy with needlework, and Andrea playing snatches of dreamy things on the violin. The dainty remains of tea stood on a table, and the young man’s crutch rested against it. Presently he began to play Tschaikowsky’s “Chanson Triste.” Miss Ursula, looking up, saw a girl of plain face and independent bearing standing by the gate.
“Who is that, Janet?” she whispered.
Miss Janet glanced round.
“It is the impertinent young woman who was listening the other day.”
Andrea followed their glances, and, perceiving a third listener, half consciously played to her. When the piece was finished the girl slowly walked away.
“I know it’s wrong and unchristianlike,” said Miss Widdington, “but I dislike that girl intensely.”
“So do I,” said Miss Ursula. Then she laughed. “She looks like the wicked fairy in a story-book.”
The time came when he threw aside his crutch and flew, laughing, away beyond their control. This they did not mind, for he always came back and accompanied them on their wild rambles. He now resembled the ordinary young man of the day as nearly as the St. Madoc tailors and hosiers could contrive; and the astonishing fellow, with his cameo face and his hyacinthine locks, still looked picturesque.
One morning he took Pendruddocke’s fiddle and went off, in high spirits, and when he returned in the late afternoon his face was flushed and a new light burned in his eyes. He explained his adventures volubly. They had a vague impression that, Orion-like, he had been playing his stringed instrument to dolphins and waves and things some miles off along the coast. To please him they said “Ja” at every pause in his narration, and he thought they understood. Finally he kissed their hands.
Two mornings later he started, without his fiddle, immediately after breakfast. To Miss Ursula, who accompanied him down the road to the village, he announced Polwern as his destination. Unsuspecting and happy, she bade him good-bye and lovingly watched his lithe young figure disappear behind the bounding cliff of the little bay.
Miss Olga Danilof sat reading a novel by the door of the cottage where she lodged when the beautiful youth came up. He raised his hat—she nodded.
“Well,” she said in German, “have you told the funny old maids?”
“Ach,” said he, “they are dear, gracious ladies—but I have told them.”
“I’ve heard from my brother,” she remarked, taking a letter from the book. “He trusts my judgment implicitly, as I said he would—and you are to come with me to London at once.”
“By the midday train.”
He looked at her in amazement. “But the dear ladies——”
“You can write and explain. My brother’s time is valuable—he has already put off his journey to Paris one day in order to see you.”
“But I have no money,” he objected weakly.
“What does that matter? I have enough for the railway ticket, and when you see Boris he will give you an advance. Oh, don’t be grateful,” she added in her independent way. “In the first place, we’re brother artists, and in the second it’s a pure matter of business. It’s much better to put yourself in the hands of Boris Danilof and make a fortune in Europe than to play in a restaurant orchestra in New York; don’t you think so?”
Andrea did think so, and he blessed the storm that drove the ship out of its course from Hamburg and terrified him out of his wits in his steerage quarters, so that he rushed on deck in shirt and trousers, grasping a life-belt, only to be cursed one moment by a sailor and the next to be swept by a wave clean over the taffrail into the sea. He blessed the storm and he blessed the wave and he blessed the life-belt which he lost just before consciousness left him; and he blessed the jag of rock on the sandy cove against which he must have broken his ankle; and he blessed the ladies and the sun and the sea and sky and Olga Danilof and the whole of this beautiful world that had suddenly laid itself at his feet.
The village cart drew up by the door, and Miss Danilof’s luggage that lay ready in the hall was lifted in.
“Come,” she said. “You can ask the old maids to send on your things.”
He laughed. “I have no things. I am as free as the wind.”
At St. Madoc, whence he intended to send a telegram to the dear, gracious ladies, they only had just time to catch the train. He sent no telegram; and as they approached London he thought less and less about it, his mind, after the manner of youth, full of the wonder that was to be.
The ladies sat down to tea. Eggs were ready to be boiled as soon as he returned. Not having lunched, he would be hungry. But he did not come. By dinner-time they grew anxious. They postponed the meal. Dorcas came into the drawing-room periodically to report deterioration of cooked viands. But they could not eat the meal alone. At last they grew terrified lest some evil should have befallen him, and Miss Widdington went in to the village and despatched Jan Pendered, and Joe Gullow on his bicycle, in search. When she returned she found Miss Ursula looking as if she had seen a ghost.
“Janet, that girl is living there.”
“Polwern. He went there this morning.”
Miss Widdington felt as if a cold hand had touched her heart, but she knew that it behoved her as the elder to dismiss her sister’s fears.
“You’re talking nonsense, Ursula; he has never met her.”
“How do we know?” urged Miss Ursula.
“I don’t consider it delicate,” replied Miss Widdington, “to discuss the possibility.”
They said no more, and went out and stood by the gate, waiting for their messengers. The moon rose and silvered the sea, and the sea breeze sprang up; the surf broke in a melancholy rhythm on the sands beneath.
“It sounds like the ‘Chanson Triste,'” said Miss Ursula. And before them both rose the picture of the girl standing there like an Evil Fairy while Andrea played.
At last Jan Pendered appeared on the cliff. The ladies went out to meet him.
Then they learned what had happened.
In a dignified way they thanked Jan Pendered and gave him a shilling for Joe Gullow, who had brought the news. They bade him good night in clear, brave voices, and walked back very silent and upright through the garden into the house. In the drawing-room they turned to each other, and, their arms about each other’s necks, they broke down utterly.
The stranger woman had come and had taken him away from them. Youth had flown magnetically to youth. They were left alone unheeded in the dry lavender of their lives.
The moonlight streamed through the white-curtained casement window into the white, spotless room. It shone on the two little white beds, on the white garments, neatly folded on white chairs, on the white-whiskered gentleman over the mantle-piece, and on the white faces of the sisters. They slept little that night. Once Miss Widdington spoke.
“Ursula, we must go to sleep and forget it all. We’ve been two old fools.”
Miss Ursula sobbed for answer. With the dawn came a certain quietude of spirit. She rose, put on her dressing-gown, and, leaving her sister asleep, stole out on tiptoe. The window was open and the curtains were undrawn in the boy’s empty room. She leaned on the sill and looked out over the sea. Sooner or later, she knew, would come a letter of explanation. She hoped Janet would not force her to read it. She no longer wanted to know whence he came, whither he was going. It were better for her, she thought, not to know. It were better for her to cherish the most beautiful thing that had ever entered her life. For all those years she had waited for the prince who never came; and he had come at last out of fairyland, cast up by the sea. She had had with him her brief season of tremulous happiness. If he had been carried on, against his will, by the strange woman into the unknown whence he had emerged, it was only the inevitable ending of such a fairy tale.
Thus wisdom came to her from sea and sky, and made her strong. She smiled through her tears, and she, the weaker, went forth for the first time in her life to comfort and direct her sister.