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

Maxwell Davison settled in Oxford for six months, in order to see his great book on Persian Literature through the press. His advent had been looked forward to as promising a welcome variety, bringing a splash of vivid color into a somewhat quiet-hued, monotonous world. But there was doomed to be some disappointment. Mr. Davison went rather freely to College dinners but seldom into general society. It came to be understood that he disliked meeting women; Mrs. Stewart, however, he appeared to except from his condemnation or rule. Ian was his cousin, which made a pretext at first for going to the Stewarts’ house; but he went because he found the couple interesting in their respective ways. Some Dons, unable to believe that a man without a University education could teach them anything, would lecture him out of their little pocketful of knowledge about Oriental life and literature. Ian, on the contrary, was an admirable producer of all that was interesting in others; and in Davison that all was much. At first he had tried to keep Mrs. Stewart in what he conceived to be her proper place; but as time went on he found himself dropping in at the old house with surprising frequency, and often when he knew Ian to be in College or too busy to attend to him.

He had brought horses with him and offered to give Mildred a mount whenever she liked. Milly had learned the rudiments of the art, but she was too timid to care for riding. Mildred, on the other hand, delighted in the swift motion through the air, the sensation of the strong bounding life almost incorporated with her own, and if she had moments of terror she had more of ecstatic daring. She and Davison ended by riding together once or twice a week.

Interesting as Mildred found Maxwell Davison’s companionship, it did not altogether conduce to her happiness. She who had been so content to be merely alive, began now to chafe at the narrow limits of her existence. He opened the wide horizons of the world before her, and her soul seemed native to them. One April afternoon they rode to Wytham together. The woods of Wytham clothe a long ridge of hill around which the young Thames sweeps in a strong curve and through them a grass ride runs unbroken for a mile and a half. Now side by side, now passing and repassing each other, they had “kept the great pace” along the track, the horses slackening their speed somewhat as they went down the dip, only to spring forward with fresh impetus, lifting their hind-quarters gallantly to the rise; then given their heads for the last burst along the straight bit to the drop of the hill, away they went in passionate competition, foam-flecked and sending the clods flying from their hurrying hoofs.

A mile and a half of galloping only serves to whet the appetite of a well-girt horse, and the foaming rivals hardly allowed themselves to be pulled up at the edge of a steep grassy slope, where already here and there a yellow cowslip bud was beginning to break its pale silken sheath. At length their impatient dancing was over, and they stood quiet, resigned to the will of the incomprehensible beings who controlled them. But Mildred’s blood was dancing still and she abandoned herself to the pleasure of it, undistracted by speech. Beyond the shining Thames, wide-curving through its broad green meadows, and the gray bridge and tower of Eynsham, that great landscape, undulating, clothed in the mystery of moving cloud-shadows, gave her an agreeable impression of being a view into a strange country, hundreds of miles away from Oxford and the beaten track. But Maxwell’s eyes were fixed upon her.

The wood about them was just breaking into the various beauty of spring foliage, emerald and gold and red; a few trees still holding up naked gray branches among it; here and there a white cloud of cherry blossom, shining in a clearing or floating mistily amid bursting tree-tops below them. They turned to the right, down a narrow ride, mossy and winding, where perforce they trod on flowers as they went; for the path and the wood about it were carpeted with blue dog-violets and the pale soft blossoms of primroses, opening in clusters amid their thick fresh foliage and the brown of last year’s fallen leaves. The sky above wore the intense blue in which dark clouds are seen floating, and as the gleams of travelling sunshine passed over the wooded hill, its colors also glowed with a peculiar intensity. The horses, no longer excited by a vista of turf, were walking side by side. But the beauty of earth and sky were nothing to Maxwell, whose whole being was intent on the beauty of the woman in the saddle beside him; the rose and the gold of cheek and hair, the lithe grace of the body, lightly moving to the motion of her horse.

She turned to him with a sudden bright smile.

“How perfectly delightful riding is! I owe all the pleasure of it to you.”

“Do you?” he asked, smiling too, but slightly and gravely, narrowing on her his inscrutable eyes. “Well, then, will you do what I want?”

“I thought you were a fatalist and never wanted anything. But if you condescend to want me to do something, your slave obeys. You see I’m learning the proper way for a woman to talk.”

“I want you to remove the preposterous black pot with which you’ve covered up your hair. I’ll carry it for you.”

“Oh, Max! What would people think if they met me riding without my hat? Fancy Miss Cayley! What she’d say! And the Warden of Canterbury! What he’d feel!”

She laughed delightedly.

“They never ride this way. It’s the ‘primrose path,’ you see, and they’re afraid of the ‘everlasting bonfire.’ I’m not; you’re not. You’re not afraid of anything.”

“I am. I’m afraid of old maids and most butlers.”

Maxwell laughed, but his laugh was a harsh one.

“Humbug! If you really wanted to do anything you’d do it. I know you better than you know yourself. If you won’t take your hat off it’s because you don’t really want to do what I want; and when you say pretty things to me about your gratitude for the pleasure I’m giving you, you’re only telling the same old lies women tell all the world over.”

“There! Catch my reins!” cried Mildred, leaning over and holding them out to him. “How do you suppose I can take my hat off if you don’t?”

He obeyed and drew up to her, stooping near, a hand on the mane of her horse. The horses nosed together and fidgeted, while she balanced herself in the saddle with lifted arms, busy with hat-pins. The task accomplished, she handed the hat to him and they cantered on. Presently she turned towards him, brightening.

“You were quite right about the hat, Max. It’s ever so much nicer without it; one feels freer, and what I love about riding is the free feeling. It’s as though one had got out of a cage; as though one could jump over all the barriers of life; as though there were nobody and nothing to hinder one from galloping right out into the sky if one chose. But I can’t explain what I mean.”

“Of course you don’t mean the sky,” he answered. “What you really mean is the desert. There’s space, there’s color, glorious, infinite, with an air purer than earthly. Such a life, Mildred! The utter freedom of it! None of this weary, dreary slavery you call civilization. That would be the life for you.”

It was true that Mildred’s was an essentially nomadic and adventurous soul. Whether the desert was precisely the most suitable sphere for her wanderings was open to doubt, but for the moment as typifying freedom, travel, and motion all that really was as the breath of life to her it fascinated her imagination. Maxwell, closely watching that sunshine-gilded head, saw her eyes widen, her whole expression at once excited and meditative, as though she beheld a vision. But in a moment she had turned to him with a challenging smile.

“I thought slavery was the only proper thing for women.”

“So it is for ordinary women. It makes them happier and less mischievous. But I don’t fall into the mistake which causes such a deal of unnecessary misery and waste in the world the mistake of supposing that you can ever make a rule which it’s good for every one to obey. You’ve got to make your rule for the average person. Therefore it’s bound not to fit the man or woman who is not average, and it’s folly to wish them to distort themselves to fit it.”

“And I’m not average? I needn’t be a slave? Oh, thank you, Max! I am so glad.”

“Confound it, Mildred, I’m not joking. You are a born queen and you oughtn’t to be a slave; but you are one, all the same. You’re a slave to the ‘daily round, the common task,’ which were never meant for such as you; you’re a slave to the conventional idiocy of your neighbors. You daren’t even take your hat off till I make you; and now you see how nice it is to ride with your hat off.”

They had been slowly descending the steep, stony road which leads to Wytham Village, but as he spoke they were turning off into a large field to the right, across which a turfy track led gradually up to the woods from which they had come. The track lay smooth before them, and the horses began to sidle and dance directly their hoofs touched it. Mildred did not answer his remarks, except by a reference to the hat.

“Don’t lose it, that’s all!” she shouted, looking back and laughing, as she shot up the track ahead of him. He fancied she was trying to show him that she could run away from him if she chose; and with a quiet smile on his lips and a firm hand on his tugging horse, he kept behind her until she was a good way up the field. Then he gave his horse its head and it sprang forward. She heard the eager thud of the heavy hoofs drawing up behind, and in a few seconds he was level with her. For a minute they galloped neck and neck, though at a little distance from each other. Then she saw him ahead, riding with a seat looser than most Englishmen’s, yet with an assurance, a grace of its own, the hind-quarters of his big horse lifting powerfully under him, as it sped with great bounds over the flying turf. Her own mare saw it, too, and vented her annoyance in a series of kicks, which, it must be confessed, seriously disturbed Mildred’s equilibrium. Then settling to business, she sprang after her companion. Maxwell heard her following him up the long grass slope towards the gate which opens into the main ride by which they had started. He fancied he had the improvised race well in hand, but suddenly the hoofs behind him hurried their beat; Mildred flew past him at top speed and flung her mare back on its haunches at the gate.

“I’ve won! Hurrah! I’ve won!” she shouted, breathlessly, and waved her whip at him.

Maxwell was swearing beneath his breath, in a spasm of anger and anxiety.

“Don’t play the fool!” he cried, savagely, as he drew rein close to her. “You might have thrown the mare down or mixed her in with the gate, pulling her up short like that. It’s a wonder you didn’t come off yourself, for though you’re a devil to go, you know as well as I do you’re a poor horse-woman.”

He was violently angry, partly at Mildred’s ignorant rashness, partly because, after all, she had beaten him. She, taking her hat from his hand and fastening it on again, uttered apologies, but from the lips only; for she had never seen a man furious before, and she was keenly interested in the spectacle. Maxwell’s eyes were not inscrutable now; they glittered with manifest rage. His harsh voice was still harsher, his hard jaw clinched, the muscles of his lean face, which was as pale as its brownness allowed it to be, stood out like cords, and the hand that grasped her reins shook. Mildred felt somewhat as she imagined a lion-tamer might feel; just the least bit alarmed, but mistress of the brute, on the whole, and enjoying the contact with anything so natural and fierce and primitive. The feeling had not had time to pall on her, when going through the gate, they were joined by two other members of the little clan of Wytham riders, and all rode back to Oxford together, through flying scuds of rain.