Read CHAPTER II of The Invader A Novel , free online book, by Margaret L. Woods, on

Parties in Oxford always break up early, and Milly had a good excuse for carrying her aching, disappointed heart back to Ascham at ten o’clock, for every one knew she was working hard. Too hard, Mr. Fletcher said, looking concernedly at her heavy eyes, mottled complexion, and the little crumples which were beginning to come in her low white forehead. Her cousins, however, had more than a suspicion that these marks of care and woe were not altogether due to her work, but that Ian Stewart was accountable for most of them.

The Professor escorted her to the gates of the Ladies’ College; but she walked down the dark drive alone, mindful of familiar puddles, and hearing nothing of those mysterious whispers of night which in Ian Stewart’s ears had breathed a “ground” to his troubled thoughts of her.

She mounted the stairs to her room at the top of the house. It was an extremely neat room, and by day, when the bed was disguised as a sofa, and the washstand closed, there was nothing to reveal that it served as a bedroom, although a tarnished old mirror hung in a dark corner. The oak table and pair of brass candlesticks upon it were kept in shining order by Milly’s own zealous hands.

Milly found her books open at the right place and her writing materials ready to hand. In a very few minutes her outer garments and simple ornaments were put away, and clothed in a clean but shrunk and faded blue dressing-gown, she sat down to work. The work was Aristotle’s Ethics, and she was going through it for the second time, amplifying her notes. But this second time the Greek seemed more difficult, the philosophic argument more intricate than ever. She had had very little sleep for weeks, and her head ached in a queer way as though something inside it were strained very tight. It was plain that she had come to the end of her powers of work for the present and she had calculated that only by not wasting a day, except for a week’s holiday at Easter, could she get through all that had to be done before the Schools!

She put Aristotle away and opened Mommsen, but even to that she could not give her attention. Her thoughts returned to the bitter disappointment which the evening had brought. Ian Stewart had been next her at dinner, but even then he had talked to her rather less than to Mrs. Shaw. Afterwards well, perhaps it was only what she deserved for not making it plain to poor Mr. Toovey that she could never return his feelings. And now the First, which she had looked to as a thing that would set her nearer the level of her idol, was dropping below the horizon of the possible. Aunt Beatrice always said and she was right that tears were not, as people pretended, a help and solace in trouble. They merely took the starch out of you and left you a poor soaked, limp creature, unfit to face the hard facts of life. But sometimes tears will lie heavy and scalding as molten lead in the brain, until at length they force their way through to the light. And Milly after blowing her nose a good deal, as she mechanically turned the pages of Mommsen, at length laid her arms on the book and transferred her handkerchief to her eyes. But she tried to look as though she were reading when Flora Timson came in.

“At it again, M.! You know you’re simply working yourself stupid.”

Thus speaking, Miss Timson, known to her intimates at Ascham as “Tims,” wagged sagely her very peculiar head. A crimson silk handkerchief was tied around it, turban-wise, and no vestige of hair escaped from beneath. There was in fact none to escape. Tims’s sallow, comic little face had neither eyebrows nor eyelashes on it, and her small figure was not of a quality to triumph over the obvious disadvantages of a tight black cloth dress with bright buttons, reminiscent of a page’s suit.

Milly pushed the candles farther away and looked up.

“I was wanting to see you, Tims. Do tell me whether you managed to get out of Miss Walker what Mr. Stewart said about my chances of a First.”

Tims pushed her silk turban still higher up on her forehead.

“I can always humbug Miss Walker and make her say lots of indiscreet things,” Tims returned, with labored diplomacy. “But I don’t repeat them at least, not invariably.”

There was a further argument on the point, which ended by Milly shedding tears and imploring to be told the worst.

Tims yielded.

“Stewart said your scholarship was A 1, but he was afraid you wouldn’t get your First in Greats. He said you had a lot of difficulty in expressing yourself and didn’t seem to get the lead of their philosophy and stuff and and generally wanted cleverness.”

“He said that?” asked Milly, in a low, sombre voice, speaking as though to herself. “Well, I suppose it’s better for me to know not to go on hoping, and hoping, and hoping. It means less misery in the end, no doubt.”

There was such a depth of despair in her face and voice that Tims was appalled at the consequence of her own revelation. She paced the room in agitation, alternately uttering incoherent abuse of her friend’s folly and suggesting that she should at once abandon the ungrateful School of Literae Humaniores and devote herself like Tims, to the joys of experimental chemistry and the pleasures of practical anatomy.

Meantime, Milly sat silent, one hand supporting her chin, the other playing with a pencil.

At length Tims, taking hold of Milly under the arms, advised her to “go to bed and sleep it off.”

Milly rose dully and sat on the edge of her bed, while Tims awkwardly removed the hair-pins which Mrs. Shaw had so deftly put in. But as she was laying them on the little dressing-table, Milly suddenly flung herself down on the bed and lay there a twisted heap of blue flannel, her face buried in the pillows, her whole body shaken by a paroxysm of sobs. Tims supposed that this might be a good thing for Milly; but for herself it created an awkward situation. Her soothing remarks fell flat, while to go away and leave her friend in this condition would seem brutal. She sat down to “wait till the clouds rolled by,” as she phrased it. But twenty minutes passed and still the clouds did not roll by.

“Look here, M.” she said, argumentatively, standing by the bed. “You’re in hysterics. That’s what’s the matter with you.”

“I know I am,” came in tones of muffled despair from the pillow.

“Well!” Tims was very stern and accented her words heavily, “then pull yourself together dear girl. Sit up!”

Milly sat up, pressed her handkerchief over her face, and held her breath. For a minute all was quiet; then another violent sob forced a passage.

“It’s no use, Tims,” she gasped. “I cannot cannot stop. Oh, what would !” She was going to say, “What would Aunt Beatrice think of me if she knew how I was giving way!” but a fresh flood of tears suppressed her speech. “My head’s so bad! Such a splitting headache!”

Tims tried scolding, slapping, a cold sponge, every remedy inexperience could suggest, but the hysterical weeping could not be checked.

“Look here, old girl,” she said at length, “I know how I can stop you, but I don’t believe you’ll let me do it.”

“No, not that, Tims! You know Miss Burt doesn’t ”

“Doesn’t approve. Of course not. Perhaps you think old B. would approve of the way you’re going on now. Ha! Would she!”

The sarcasm caused a new and alarming outburst. But finally, past all respect for Miss Burt, and even for Lady Thomson herself, Milly consented to submit to any remedy that Tims might choose to try.

She was assisted hurriedly to undress and put to bed. Tims knew the whereabouts of the prize-medal which Milly had won at school, and placing the bright silver disk in her hand, directed her to fix her eyes upon it. Seated on her heels on the patient’s bed, her crimson turban low on her forehead, her face screwed into intent wrinkles, Tims began passing her slight hands slowly before Milly’s face.

The long slender fingers played about the girl’s fair head, sometimes pressed lightly upon her forehead, sometimes passed through her fluffy hair, as it lay spread on the pillow about her like an amber cloud.

“Don’t cry, M.,” Tims began repeating in a soft, monotonous voice. “You’ve got nothing to cry about; your head doesn’t ache now. Don’t cry.”

At first it was only by a strong effort that Milly could keep her tear-blinded eyes fixed on the bright medal before her; but soon they became chained to it, as by some attractive force. The shining disk seemed to grow smaller, brighter, to recede imperceptibly till it was a point of light somewhere a long way off, and with it all the sorrows and agitations of her mind seemed also to recede into a dim distance, where she was still aware of them, yet as though they were some one else’s sorrows and agitations, hardly at all concerning her. The aching tension of her brain was relaxed and she felt as though she were drowning without pain or struggle, gently floating down, down through a green abyss of water, always seeing that distant light, showing as the sun might show, seen from the depths of the sea.

Before a quarter of an hour had passed, her sobs ceased in sighing breaths, the breaths became regular and normal, the whole face slackened and smoothed itself out. Tims changed the burden of her song.

“Go to sleep, Milly. What you want is a good long sleep. Go to sleep, Milly.”

Milly was sinking down upon the pillow, breathing the calm breath of deep, refreshing slumber. Tims still crouched upon the bed, chanting her monotonous song and contemplating her work. At length she slipped off, conscious of pins-and-needles in her legs, and as she withdrew, Milly with a sudden motion stretched her body out in the white bed, as straight and still almost as that of the dead. The movement was mechanical, but it gave a momentary check to Tims’s triumph. She leaned over her patient and began once more the crooning song.

“Go to sleep, M.! What you want is a good long sleep. Go to sleep, Milly!”

But presently she ceased her song, for it was evident that Milly Flaxman had indeed gone very sound asleep.