Read CHAPTER XXV of Muslin, free online book, by George Moore, on ReadCentral.com.

Lord Dungory dined at Brookfield that evening.  He noticed that Olive was nervous and restless, and he reminded her of what a French poet had said on the subject of beauty.  But she only turned her fair head impatiently, and a little later on when her mother spoke to her she burst into tears.  Nor was she as easily consoled as usual, and she did not become calm until Mrs. Barton suggested that her dear child was ill, and that she would go upstairs and put her to bed.  Then, looking a little alarmed, Olive declared she was quite well, but she passionately begged to be left alone.  As they left the dining-room she attempted to slip away; Alice made a movement as if to follow her, but Mrs. Barton said: 

’Leave her to herself, Alice; she would rather be left alone.  She has overstrained her nerves, that is all.’

Olive heard these words with a singular satisfaction, and as she ascended the stairs from the first landing, her heart beat less violently.  On the threshold of her room she paused to listen for the drawing-room door to shut.  Through the silent house the lock sounded sharply.

‘I hope none of them will come upstairs bothering after me,’ the girl murmured to herself.  ‘If they do I shall go mad;’ and standing in the middle of the floor she looked round the room vacantly, unable to collect her thoughts.  The wardrobe was on her right, and, seeing herself in the glass, she wondered if she were looking well.  Her eyes wandered from her face to her shoulders, and thence to her feet.  Going over to the toilette-table she sought amid her boots, and, having selected a strong pair, she began to button them.  Her back was turned to the door, and at the slightest sound she started.  Once or twice the stairs creaked, and she felt something would occur to stop her.  Her heart was beating so violently that she thought she was going to be ill; and she almost burst out crying because she could not make up her mind if she should put on a hat and travelling-shawl, or run down to the wood as she was, to meet the Captain.  ‘He will surely,’ she thought, ’have something in the carriage to put around me, but he may bring the dog-cart, and it looks very cold.  But if Alice or mamma saw me coming downstairs with a shawl on, they’d suspect something, and I shouldn’t be able to get away.  I wonder what time it is?  I promised to meet Edward at nine; he’ll of course wait for me, but what time is it?  We dined at half-past seven; we were an hour at dinner, half-past eight, and I have been ten minutes here.  It must be nearly nine now, and it will take me ten minutes to get to the corner of the road.  The house is quiet now.’

Olive ran down a few steps, but at that moment heavy footsteps and a jingling of glasses announced that the butler was carrying glasses from the dining-room to the pantry.  ’When will he cease, when will he cease; will he hang about that passage all night?’ the girl asked herself tremblingly; and so cruel, so poignant had her suspense become, that had it been prolonged much further her overwrought nerves would have given way, and she would have lapsed into a fit of hysterics.  But the tray-full of glasses she had heard jingling were now being washed, and the irritative butler did not stir forth again.  This was Olive’s opportunity.  From the proximity of the drawing-room to the hall-door it was impossible for her to open it without being heard; the kitchen-door was equally, even more, dangerous, and she could hear the servants stirring in the passages; there was no safe way of getting out of the house unseen, except through the dining-room.

The candles were lighted, the crumbs were still on the tablecloth; passing behind the red curtain she unlocked the French window, and she shivered in the keen wind that was blowing.

It was almost as bright as day.  A September moon rose red, and in a broken and fragmentary way the various aspects of the journey that lay before her were anticipated:  as she ran across the garden swards she saw the post-horses galloping in front of her; as her nervous fingers strove to unfasten the wicket, she thought of the railway-carriage; and as she passed under the great dark trunks of the chestnut-trees she dreamed of Edward’s arm that would soon be cast protectingly around her, and his face; softer than the leafy shadows above her, would be leaned upon her, and his eyes filled with a brighter light than the moon’s would look down into hers.

The white meadow that she crossed so swiftly gleamed like the sea, and the cows loomed through the greyness like peaceful apparitions.  But the dark wood with its sepulchral fir-tops and mysteriously spreading beech-trees was full of formless terror, and once the girl screamed as the birds flew with an awful sound through the dark undergrowth.  A gloomy wood by night has terrors for the bravest, and it was only the certainty that she was leaving girl-life ­chaperons, waltz-tunes, and bitter sneering, for ever ­that gave courage to proceed.  A bit of moss-grown wall, a singularly shaped holly-bush, a white stone, took fantastic and supernatural appearances, and once she stopped, paralyzed with fear, before the grotesque shadow that a dead tree threw over an unexpected glade.  A strange bird rose from the bare branches, and at that moment her dress was caught by a bramble, and, when her shriek tore the dark stillness, a hundred wings flew through the pallor of the waning moon.

At the end of this glade there was a paling and a stile that Olive would have to cross, and she could now hear, as she ran forward, the needles of the silver firs rustling with a pricking sound in the wind.  The heavy branches stretched from either side, and Olive thought when she had passed this dernful alley she would have nothing more to fear; and she ran on blindly until she almost fell in the arms of someone whom she instantly believed to be Edward.

‘Oh!  Edward, Edward, I am nearly dead with fright!’ she exclaimed.

‘I am not Edward,’ a woman answered.  Olive started a step backwards; she would have fainted, but at the moment the words were spoken Mrs. Lawler’s face was revealed in a beam of weak light that fell through a vista in the branches.

‘Who are you?  Let me pass.’

’Who am I?  You know well enough; we haven’t been neighbours for fifteen years without knowing each other by sight.  So you are going to run away with Captain Hibbert!’

’Oh, Mrs. Lawler, let me pass.  I am in a great hurry, I cannot wait; and you won’t say anything about meeting me in the wood, will you?’

’Let you pass, indeed; and what do you think I came here for?  Oh, I know all about it ­all about the corner of the road, and the carriage and post-horses! a very nice little plan and very nicely arranged, but I’m afraid it won’t come off ­at least, not to-night.’

‘Oh, won’t it, and why?’ cried Olive, clasping her hands.  ’Then it was Edward who sent you to meet me, to tell me that ­that ­What has happened?’

’Sent me to tell you!  Whom do you take me for?  Is it for a ­well, a nice piece of cheek!  I carry your messages?  Well, I never!’

‘Then what did you come here for ­how did you know? . . .’

’How did I know?  That’s my business.  What did I come here for?  What do you think?  Why, to prevent you from going off with Teddy.’

‘With Teddy!’

‘Yes, with Teddy.  Do you think no one calls him Teddy but yourself?’

Then Olive understood, and, with her teeth clenched she said, ’No, it isn’t true; it is a lie; I will not believe it.  Let me pass.  What business have you to detain me? ­what right have you to speak to me?  We don’t know you; no one knows you:  you are a bad woman whom no one will know.’

’A bad woman!  I like that ­and from you.  And what do you want to be, why are you running away from home?  Why, to be what I was.  We’re all alike, the same blood runs in our veins, and when the devil is in us we must have sweethearts, get them how we may:  the airs and graces come on after; they are only so much trimming.’

’How dare you insult me, you bad woman?  Let me pass; I don’t know what you mean.’

’Oh yes, you do.  You think Teddy will take you off to Paris, and spoon you and take you out; but he won’t, at least not to-night.  I shan’t give him up so easily as you think for, my lady.’

’Give him up!  What is he to you?  How dare you speak so of my future husband?  Captain Hibbert only loves me, he has often told me so.’

’Loves nobody but you!  I suppose you think that he never kissed, or spooned, or took anyone on his knee but you.  Well, I suppose at twenty we’d believe anything a man told us; and we always think we are getting the first of it when we are only getting someone else’s leavings.  But it isn’t for chicks of girls like you that a man cares, it isn’t to you a man comes for the love he wants; your kisses are very skim milk indeed, and it is we who teach them the words of love that they murmur afterwards in your ears.’

The women looked at each other in silence, and both heard the needles shaken through the darkness above them.  Mrs. Lawler stood by the stile, her hand was laid on the paling.  At last Olive said: 

’Let me pass.  I will not listen to you any longer; nor do I believe a word you have said.  We all know what you are; you are a bad woman whom no one will visit.  Let me pass!’ and pushing passionately forward she attempted to cross the stile.  Then Mrs. Lawler took her by the shoulder and threw her roughly back.  She fell to the ground heavily.

‘Now you had better get up and go home,’ said Mrs. Lawler, and she approached the prostrate girl.  ’I didn’t mean to hurt you; but you shan’t elope with Teddy if I can prevent it.  Why don’t you get up?’

‘Oh! my leg, my leg; you have broken my leg!’

‘Let me help you up.’

‘Don’t touch me,’ said Olive, attempting to rise; but the moment she put her right foot to the ground she shrieked with pain, and fell again.

’Well, if you are going to take it in that way, you may remain where you are, and I can’t go and ring them up at Brookfield.  I don’t think there will be much eloping done to-night, so farewell.’