THE HEART AT TWENTY
The girl stood at the end of the little stone jetty, her hair and the ends of her cheap fur boa and her skirts all fluttering behind her in the stiff north-east gale. Why anyone should choose to stand on a jetty on a raw December afternoon with the wind in one’s teeth was a difficult problem for a comfort-loving, elderly man like myself, and I pondered over it as I descended the slope leading from the village to the sea. It was nothing, thought I, but youth’s animal delight in physical things. A few steps, however, brought me in view of her face in half-profile, and I saw that she did not notice wind or spray, but was staring out to sea with an intolerable wistfulness. A quick turn in the path made me lose the profile. I crossed the road that ran along the shore and walked rapidly along the jetty. Arriving within hailing distance I called her.
She pivoted round like a weather-cock in a gust and with a sharp cry leaped forward to meet me. Her face was aflame with great hope and joy. I have seen to my gladness that expression once before worn by a woman. But as soon as this one recognised me, the joy vanished, killed outright.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said, with a quivering lip.
“I am sorry, my dear,” said I, taking her hand. “I can’t help it. I wish from my heart I were somebody else.”
She burst into tears. I put my arm around her and drew her to me, and patted her and said “There, there!” in the blundering masculine way. Having helped to bring her into the world twenty years before, I could claim fatherly privileges.
“Oh, Doctor,” she sobbed, dabbing her pretty young eyes with a handkerchief. “Do forgive me. Of course I am glad to see you. It was the shock. I thought you were a ghost. No one ever comes to Ravetot.”
“Never?” I asked mildly.
The tears flowed afresh. I leaned against the parapet of the jetty for comfort’s sake, and looked around me. Ravetot-sur-Mer was not the place to attract visitors in December. A shingle beach with a few fishing-boats hauled out of reach of the surf; a miniature casino, like an impudently large summer-house, shuttered-up, weather-beaten and desolate; a weather-beaten, desolate, and shuttered-up Hôtel de l’Univers, and a perky deserted villa or two on the embankment; a cliff behind them, topped by a little grey church; the road that led up the gorge losing itself in the turn—and that was all that was visible of Ravetot-sur-Mer. A projecting cliff bounded the bay at each side, and in front seethed the grey, angry Channel. It was an Aceldama of a spot in winter; and only a matter of peculiar urgency had brought me hither. Pauline and her decrepit rascal of a father were tied to Ravetot by sheer poverty. He owned a pretty villa half a mile inland, and the rent he obtained for it during the summer enabled them to live in some miraculous way the rest of the year. They, the Curé and the fisher-folk, were the sole winter inhabitants of the place. The nearest doctor lived at Merville, twenty kilometres away, and there was not even an educated farmer in the neighbourhood. Yet I could not help thinking that my little friend’s last remark was somewhat disingenuous.
“Are you quite sure, my dear,” I said, “that no one ever comes to Ravetot?”
“Has father told you?” she asked tonelessly.
“No. I guessed it. I have extraordinary powers of divination. And the Somebody has been making my little girl miserable.”
“He has broken my heart,” said Pauline.
I pulled the collar of my fur-lined coat above my ears which the north-east wind was biting. Being elderly and heart-whole I am sensitive to cold. I proposed that we should walk up and down the jetty while she told me her troubles, and I hooked her arm in mine.
“Who was he?” I asked. “And what was he doing here?”
“Oh, Doctor! what does it matter?” she answered tearfully. “I never want to see him again.”
“Don’t fib,” said I. “If the confounded blackguard were here now——”
“But he isn’t a blackguard!” she flashed. “If he were I shouldn’t be so miserable. I should forget him. He is good and kind, and noble, and everything that is right. I couldn’t have expected him to act otherwise—it was awful, horrible—and when you called me by name I thought it was he——”
“And the contradictious feminine did very much want to see him?” said I.
“I suppose so,” she confessed.
I looked down at her pretty face and saw that it was wan and pinched.
“You have been eating little and sleeping less. For how long?” I demanded sternly.
“For a week,” she said pitifully.
“We must change all that. This abominable hole is a kind of cold storage for depression.”
She drew my arm tighter. She had always been an affectionate little girl, and now she seemed to crave human sympathy and companionship.
“I don’t mind it now. It doesn’t in the least matter where I am. Before he came I used to hate Ravetot, and long for the gaiety and brightness of the great world. I used to stand here for hours and just long and long for something to happen to take us away; and it seemed no good. Here I was for the rest of time—with nothing to do day after day but housework and sewing and reading, while father sat by the fire, with his little roulette machine and Monte Carlo averages and paper and pencil, working out the wonderful system that is going to make our fortune. We’ll never have enough money to go to Monte Carlo for him to try it, so that is some comfort. One would have thought he had had enough of gambling.”
She made the allusion, very simply, to me—an old friend. Her father had gambled away a fortune, and in desperation had forged another man’s name on the back of a bill, for which he had suffered a term of imprisonment. His relatives had cast him out. That was why he lived in poverty-stricken seclusion at Ravetot-sur-Mer. He was not an estimable old man, and I had always pitied Pauline for being so parented. Her mother had died years ago. I thought I would avoid the painful topic.
“And so,” said I, after we had gone the length of the jetty in silence and had turned again, “one day when the lonely little princess was staring out to sea and longing for she knew not what, the young prince out of the fairy tale came riding up behind her—and stayed just long enough to make her lose her heart—and then rode off again.”
“Something like it—only worse,” she murmured. And then, with a sudden break in her voice, “I will tell you all about it. I shall go mad if I don’t. I haven’t a soul in the world to speak to. Yes. He came. He found me standing at the end of the jetty. He asked his way, in French, to the cemetery, and I recognised from his accent that he was English like myself. I asked him why he wanted to go to the cemetery. He said that it was to see his wife’s grave. The only Englishwoman buried here was a Mrs. Everest, who was drowned last summer. This was the husband. He explained that he was in the Indian Civil Service, was now on leave. Being in Paris he thought he would like to come to Ravetot, where he could have quiet, in order to write a book.”
“I understood it was to see his wife’s grave,” I remarked.
“He wanted to do that as well. You see, they had been separated for some years—judicially separated. She was not a nice woman. He didn’t tell me so; he was too chivalrous a gentleman. But I had learned about her from the gossip of the place. I walked with him to the cemetery. I know a well-brought-up girl wouldn’t have gone off like that with a stranger.”
“My dear,” said I, “in Ravetot-sur-Mer she would have gone off with a hippogriffin.”
She pressed my arm. “How understanding you are, doctor, dear.”
“I have an inkling of the laws that govern humanity,” I replied. “Well, and after the pleasant trip to the cemetery?”
“He asked me whether the café at the top of the hill was really the only place to stay at in Ravetot. It’s dreadful, you know—no one goes there but fishermen and farm labourers—and it is the only place. The hotel is shut up out of the season. I said that Ravetot didn’t encourage visitors during the winter. He looked disappointed, and said that he would have to find quiet somewhere else. Then he asked whether there wasn’t any house that would take him in as a boarder?”
“Well?” I enquired.
“Oh, doctor, he seemed so strong and kind, and his eyes were so frank. I knew he was everything that a man ought to be. We were friends at once, and I hated the thought of losing him. It is not gay at Ravetot with only Jeanne to talk to from week’s end to week’s end. And then we are so poor—and you know we do take in paying guests when we can get them.”
“I understand perfectly,” said I.
She nodded. That was how it happened. Would a nice girl have done such a thing? I replied that if she knew as much of the ways of nice girls as I did, she would be astounded. She smiled wanly and went on with her artless story. Of course Mr. Everest jumped at the suggestion. It is not given to every young and unlamenting widower to be housed beneath the same roof with so delicious a young woman as Pauline. He brought his luggage and took possession of the best spare room in the Villa, while Pauline and old, slatternly Jeanne, the bonne à tout faire, went about with agitated minds and busy hands attending to his comfort. Old Widdrington, however, in his morose chimney-corner, did not welcome the visitor. He growled and grumbled and rated his daughter for not having doubled the terms. Didn’t she know they wanted every penny they could get? Something was wrong with his roulette machine which ought to be sent to Paris for repairs. Where was the money to come from? Pauline’s father is the most unscrupulous, selfish old curmudgeon of my acquaintance!
Then, according to my young lady’s incoherent and parenthetic narrative, followed idyllic days. Pauline chattered to Mr. Everest in the morning, walked with him in the afternoon, pretended to play the piano to him in the evening, and in between times sat with him at meals. The inevitable happened. She had met no one like him before—he represented the strength and the music of the great world. He flashed upon her as the realisation of the vague visions that had floated before her eyes when she stared seawards in the driving wind. That the man was a bit in love with her seems certain. I think that one day, when a wayside shed was sheltering them from the rain, he must have kissed her. A young girl’s confidences are full of details; but the important ones are generally left out. They can be divined, however, by the old and experienced. At any rate Pauline was radiantly happy, and Everest appeared contented to stay indefinitely at Ravetot and watch her happiness.
Thus far the story was ordinary enough. Given the circumstances it would have been extraordinary if my poor little Pauline had not fallen in love with the man and if the man’s heart had not been touched. If he had found the girl’s feelings too deep for his response and had precipitately bolted from a confused sense of acting honourably towards her, the story would also have been commonplace. The cause of his sudden riding away was peculiarly painful. Somehow I cannot blame him; and yet I am vain enough to imagine that I should have acted otherwise.
One morning Everest asked her if Jeanne might search his bedroom for a twenty-franc piece which he must have dropped on the floor. In the afternoon her father gave her twenty francs to get a postal order; he was sending to Paris for some fresh mechanism for his precious roulette-wheel. Everest accompanied her to the little Post Office. They walked arm in arm through the village like an affianced couple, and I fancy he must have said tenderer things than usual on the way, for at this stage of the story she wept. When she laid the louis on the stab below the guichet, she noticed that it was a a new Spanish coin. Spanish gold is rare. She showed it to Everest, and meeting his eyes read in them a curious questioning. The money order obtained, they continued their walk happily, and Pauline forgot the incident. Some days passed. Everest grew troubled and preoccupied. One live-long day he avoided her society altogether. She lived through it in a distressed wonder, and cried herself to sleep that night. How had she offended? The next morning he gravely announced his departure. Urgent affairs summoned him to Paris. In dazed misery she accepted the payment of his account and wrote him a receipt. His face was set like a mask, and he looked at her out of cold, stern eyes which frightened her. In a timid way she asked him if he were going without one kind word.
“There are times, Miss Widdrington,” said he “when no word at all is the kindest.”
“But what have I done?” she cried.
“Nothing at all but what is good and right. You may think whatever you like of me. Good-bye!”
He grasped his Gladstone bag, and through the window she saw him give it to the fisher-lad who was to carry it three miles to the nearest wayside station. He disappeared through the gate, and so out of her life. Fat, slatternly Jeanne came upon her a few moments later moaning her heart out, and administered comfort. It is very hard for Mademoiselle—but what could Mademoiselle expect? Monsieur Everest could not stay any longer in the house. Naturally. Of course, Monsieur was a little touched in the brain, with his eternal calculations—he was not responsible for his actions. Still, Monsieur Everest did not like Monsieur to take money out of his room. But, Great God of Pity! did not Mademoiselle know that was the reason of Monsieur Everest going away?
“It was father who had stolen the Spanish louis,” cried Pauline in a passion of tears, as we leaned once more against the parapet of the jetty. “He also stole a fifty-franc note. Then he was caught red-handed by Mr. Everest rifling his despatch-box. Jeanne overheard them talking. It is horrible, horrible! How he must despise me! I feel wrapped in flames when I think of it—and I love him so—and I haven’t slept for a week—and my heart is broken.”
I could do little to soothe this paroxysm, save let it spend itself against my great-coat, while I again put my arm around her. The grey tide was leaping in and the fine spray dashed in my face. The early twilight began to settle over Ravetot, which appeared more desolate than ever.
“Never mind, my dear,” said I, “you are young, and as your soul is sweet and clean you will get over this.”
“Never,” she moaned.
“You will leave Ravetot-sur-Mer and all its associations, and the brightness of life will drive all the shadows away.”
“No. It is impossible. My heart is broken and I only want to stay here at the end of the jetty until I die.”
“I shall die, anyhow,” I remarked with a shiver, “if I stay here much longer, and I don’t want to. Let us go home.”
She assented. We walked away from the sea and struck the gloomy inland road. Then I said, somewhat meaningly:
“Haven’t you the curiosity to enquire why I left my comfortable house in London to come to this God-forsaken hole?”
“Why did you, Doctor, dear?” she asked listlessly.
“To inform you that your cross old aunt Caroline is dead, that she has left you three thousand pounds a year under my trusteeship till you are five-and-twenty, and that I am going to carry off the rich and beautiful Miss Pauline Widdrington to England to-morrow.”
She stood stock-still looking at me open-mouthed.
“Is it true?” she gasped.
“Of course,” said I.
Her face was transfigured with a sudden radiance. Amazement, rapture, youth—the pulsating wonder of her twenty years danced in her eyes. In her excitement she pulled me by the lapels of my coat——
“Doctor! DOCTOR! Three thousand pounds a year! England! London! Men and women! Everything I’ve longed for! All the glad and beautiful things of life!”
“Yes, my dear.”
She took my hands and swung them backwards and forwards.
“It’s Heaven! Delicious Heaven!” she cried.
“But what about the broken heart?” I said maliciously.
She dropped my hands, sighed, and her face suddenly assumed an expression of portentous misery.
“I was forgetting. What does anything matter now? I shall never get over it. My heart is broken.”
“Devil a bit, my dear,” said I.