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

The summer was reaching its height. The weather was perfect. Night after night hot London drawing-rooms were crowded to suffocation, awnings sprang mushroom-like from every West End pavement; the sound of music and the rolling of carriages made night, if not hideous, at least discordant to the unconsidered minority who went to bed as usual. Outside in the country, even in the suburbs, June came in glory, with woods in freshest livery of green, with fragrance of hawthorn and broom and gorse, buttercup meadows and gardens brimmed with roses. It seemed to George Goring and Mildred as though somehow this warmth, this gayety and richness of life in the earth had never been there before, but that Fate and Nature, of which their love was part, were leading them on in a great festal train to the inevitable consummation. The flame of life had never burned clearer or more steadily in Mildred, and every day she felt a growing confidence in having won so complete a possession of her whole bodily machinery that it would hardly be in the power of Milly to dethrone her. The sight of George Goring, the touch of his hand, the very touch of his garment, gave her a feeling of unconquerable life. It was impossible that she and George should part. All her sanguine and daring nature cried out to her that were she once his, Milly should not, could not, return. Tims, too, was there in reserve. Not that Tims would feel anything but horror at Mildred’s conduct in leaving Ian and Tony; but the thing done, she would recognize the impossibility of allowing Milly to return to such a situation.

Ian, whose holidays were usually at the inevitable periods, was by some extraordinary collapse of that bloated thing, the Academic conscience, going away for a fortnight in June. He had been deputed to attend a centenary celebration at some German University, and a conference of savants to be held immediately after it, presented irresistible attractions.

One Sunday Tims and Mr. Fitzalan went to Hampton Court with the usual crowd of German, Italian, and French hair-dressers, waiters, cooks, and restaurant-keepers, besides native cockneys of all classes except the upper.

The noble old Palace welcomed this mass of very common humanity with such a pageant of beauty as never greeted the eyes of its royal builders. Centuries of sunshine seem to have melted into the rich reds and grays and cream-color of its walls, under which runs a quarter of a mile of flower-border, a glowing mass of color, yet as full of delicate and varied detail as the border of an illuminated missal. Everywhere this modern wealth and splendor of flowers is arranged, as jewels in a setting, within the architectural plan of the old garden. There the dark yews retain their intended proportion, the silver fountain rises where it was meant to rise, although it sprinkles new, unthought-of lilies. Behind it, on either side the stately vista of water, and beside it, in the straight alley, the trees in the freshness and fulness of their leafage, stand tall and green, less trim and solid it may be, but essentially as they were meant to stand when the garden grew long ago in the brain of a man. And out there beyond the terrace the Thames flows quietly, silverly on, seeming to shine with the memory of all the loveliness those gliding waters have reflected, since their ripples played with the long, tremulous image of Lechlade spire.

Seen from the cool, deep-windowed rooms of the Palace, where now the pictures hang and hundreds of plebeian feet tramp daily, the gardens gave forth a burning yet pleasant glow of heat and color in the full sunshine. Tims and Mr. Fitzalan, having eaten their frugal lunch early under the blossoming chestnut-trees in Bushey Park, went into the Picture Gallery in the Palace at an hour when it happened to be almost empty. The queer-looking woman not quite young, and the little, bald, narrow-chested, short-sighted man, would not have struck the passers-by as being a pair of lovers. A few sympathetic smiles, however, had been bestowed upon another couple seated in the deep window of one of the smaller rooms; a pretty young woman and an attractive man. The young man had disposed his hat and a newspaper in such a way as not to make it indecently obvious that he was holding her hand. It was she who called attention to the fact by hasty attempts to snatch it away when people came in.

“What do you do that for?” asked the young man. “There’s not the slightest chance of any one we know coming along.”

“But George ”

“Do try and adapt yourself to your milieu. These people are probably blaming me for not putting my arm around your waist.”

“George! What an idiot you are!” She laughed a nervous laugh.

By this time the last party of fat, dark young women in rainbow hats, and narrow-shouldered, anæmic young men, had trooped away towards food. Goring waited till the sound of their footsteps had ceased. He was holding Mildred’s hand, but he had drawn it out from under the newspaper now, and the gay audacity of his look had changed to something at once more serious and more masterful.

“I don’t like your seeming afraid, Mildred,” he said. “It spoils my idea of you. I like to think of you as a high-spirited creature, conscious enough of your own worth to go your own way and despise the foolish comments of the crowd.”

To hear herself so praised by him made the clear pink rise to Mildred’s cheeks. How could she bear to fall below the level of his expectation, although the thing he expected of her had dangers of which he was ignorant?

“I’m glad you believe that of me,” she said; “although it’s not quite true. I cared a good deal about the opinion of the world before before I knew you; only I was vain enough to think it would never treat me very badly.”

“It won’t,” he replied, his audacious smile flashing out for a moment. “It’ll come sneaking back to you before long; it can’t keep away. Besides, I’m cynic enough to know my own advantages, Mildred. Society doesn’t sulk forever with wealthy people, whatever they choose to do.”

She answered low: “But I shouldn’t care if it did, George. I want you just to go right away with you.”

A wonderful look of joy and tenderness came over his face. “Mildred! Can it really be you saying that?” he breathed. “Really you, Mildred?”

They looked each other in the eyes and were silent a minute; but while the hand next the window held hers, the other one stole out farther to clasp her. He was too much absorbed in that gaze to notice anything beyond it; but Mildred was suddenly aware of steps and a voice in the adjoining room. Tims and Mr. Fitzalan, in the course of a conscientious survey of all the pictures on the walls, had reached this point in their progress. The window-seat on which Goring and Mildred were sitting was visible through a doorway, and Tims had on her strongest glasses.

Since her engagement, Tims’s old-maidish bringing up seemed to be bearing fruit for the first time.

“I think we’d better cough or do something,” she said. “There’s a couple in there going on disgracefully. I do think spooning in public such bad form.”

“I dare say they think they’re alone,” returned the charitable Mr. Fitzalan, unable to see the delinquents because he was trying to put a loose lens back into his eye-glasses. Tims came to his assistance, talking loudly; and her voice was of a piercing quality. Mildred, leaning forward, saw Mr. Fitzalan and Tims, both struggling with eye-glasses. She slipped from George’s encircling arm and stood in the doorway of the farther room, beckoning to him with a scared face. He got up and followed her.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, more curious than anxious; for an encounter with Lady Augusta in person could only precipitate a crisis he was ready to welcome. Why should one simple, definite step from an old life to a new one, which his reason as much as his passion dictated, be so incredibly difficult to take?

Mildred hurried him away, explaining that she had seen some one she knew very well. He pointed out that it was of no real consequence. She could not tell him that if Tims suspected anything before the decisive step was taken, one of the safeguards under which she took it might fail.

They found no exit at the end of the suite of rooms, still less any place of concealment. Tims and Mr. Fitzalan came upon them discussing the genuineness of a picture in the last room but one. When Tims saw that it was Mildred, she made some of the most dreadful grimaces she had ever made in her life. Making them, she approached Mildred, who seeing there was no escape, turned around and greeted her with a welcoming smile.

“Were you were you sitting on that window-seat?” asked Tims, fixing her with eyes that seemed bent on piercing to her very marrow.

Mildred smiled again, with a broader smile.

“I don’t know about ‘that window-seat.’ I’ve sat on a good many window-seats, naturally, since I set forth on this pilgrimage. Is there anything particular about that one? I’ve never seen Hampton Court before, Mr. Fitzalan, so as some people I knew were coming to-day, I thought I’d come too. May I introduce Mr. Goring?”

So perfectly natural and easy was Mildred’s manner, that Tims already half disbelieved her own eyes. They must have played her some trick; yet how could that be? She recalled the figures in the window-seat, as seen with all the peculiar, artificial distinctness conferred by strong glasses. The young man called Goring had smiled into the hidden face of his companion in a manner that Tims could not approve. She made up her mind that as soon as she had leisure she would call on Mildred and question her once more, and more straitly, concerning the mystery of that window-seat.