Read CHAPTER VI. of An Unknown Lover , free online book, by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey, on ReadCentral.com.

When Grizel sailed down to dinner two hours later, it would have been difficult to recognise in her the pallid traveller of the afternoon.  She was gorgeously attired in a robe of golden net covered with an embroidery of the same hue.  The golden sheaf clung round her, and trailed heavily on the ground; encased in it her body appeared of an incredible slimness, yet from head to foot there was not one angle, not one harsh, unlovely line.  Nymph, elf, fay, she was all rounded curve and dimple, from satin shoulder to arched and tiny feet.  Though one might marvel that a human being could live in such wand-like form, thin was a word which could never occur.  Grizel was no more thin than Katrine herself.  Her soft, mouse-brown hair was waved loosely back, and twisted in a fashion which preserved the shape of the head,-a rare and wonderful sight at a time when nine women out of ten carried a cushion-like appendage standing out many inches behind the ear.  Grizel was too wise to disguise herself by any such freak of fashion; an artist would have noted with delight that she invariably respected the natural “line” of the body.  Neck and arms were bare of ornament, her cheeks were still pale, but with a warm, cream-like tint which had no trace of ill-health, her honey-coloured eyes reflected the golden lights of her dress.  The scarlet lips made the one contrasting note of colour.

Katrine stared blankly at the entrance of the apparition, the inevitable admiration largely tinged with reproach.  How ridiculous, and unsuitable, and altogether Grizelish to choose such a dress for a quiet home evening!  It was probably the first that had come to her hand, and she had put it on without a thought.  When there was a dinner party, and the most important people in the neighbourhood were assembled to meet her, she would just as likely as not appear in a simple muslin.  Katrine had lived through such experiences before, and had suffered much aggravation thereby.  She stared with exaggerated surprise, whereupon Grizel gurgled, quick to appreciate the criticism.

“Yes, ma’am.  My very best!  Ain’t I a pr-etty ittle did?”

“It would be very suitable for a Court ball.  What possessed you to put it on to-night?”

“I felt like it,-in a golden mood!  I always dress to suit my moods.  Besides it’s quite new, and the dear thing wanted its turn.  It is my Sheba dress, but you aren’t nearly so appreciative as Aunt Griselda. She bowed down before me.”

“I’m not going to bow down, but it’s a marvellous frock!” Katrine felt a depressing consciousness of the shabby black net which had done duty for home wear for several winters in succession, and woman-like reflected with a pang that the price of that golden sheaf would probably equal that of her entire summer outfit.  How would it feel to own a fairy purse, and bid Paquin do his best?

For a moment she was rent with envy, then curiosity claimed its day.  She crossed the room, and peered with awe and admiration at the elaborateness of the dress, the chiffon skirts poised one upon another, which softened the glare of the satin slip, the exquisite design of the embroidery, the rare and varied beads with which it was intermingled.

“Grizel-what gorgeousness!  Every bead is a treasure.  It must have taken months to work.  And on a piece of perishable net.  I have read about such things, but I’ve never seen them...  Mrs Brewston would read you a lesson on wanton extravagance-”

Decadence,” interrupted Grizel firmly.  “You must always call it decadence.  And I should perfectly agree.  But the poor lambs had embroidered it, so some one had to pay, and Aunt Griselda might as well do it as any one else.  I wouldn’t have dreamed of giving the order!”

“Humbug!  Quibbler!-Is there any possible way of getting into it, or do you wriggle in at the neck?  There’s nothing of you, my dear, but you are modelled so considerately-plump in the right places! ...  The sleeves are a trifle attenuated, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps they are, but it’s the fault of my arms.  They are so pretty!  Look at that ikkle, ikkle dimple...  You wouldn’t have the heart to hide it!” returned Grizel, shutting one eye so as to peer with the other at the soft, infantile dents above the elbow.  In praise or blame she was always markedly honest as regarded her own appearance.  Even when Martin made his appearance at the door, and came to the sudden stand as if dazzled by the glittering apparition in the middle of the dark room, Grizel seemed to see no reason for changing her pose, but continued to peer and to crane with undiminished interest.

“I’m showing Katrine a bonnie wee dimple...  This side, to the west!  I can just peer at it like this, but it’s beautiful viewed from the side, I wear my sleeve cut short `a pupos.’ ...  This is the dress that the Duck wears, Martin, the night she’s engaged.  He hadn’t intended to speak so soon, but when he saw her in it he couldn’t resist-”

“I’m sure he couldn’t !”

Martin’s echo came back with what his sister considered a painful banality.  She flinched before it, as at a desecration.  When one is accustomed to regard a man as seated on a permanent pinnacle of grief, it is a shock to find him condescending to the ordinary barter of compliment, but Martin was oblivious of her frown, for Grizel had opened her closed eye, and peered upward into his face with her sweet, lazy smile.

He gave her his arm, led her in to dinner, arranged her chair, and groped under the table for a footstool, leaving Katrine to follow, alone and unnoticed.  Never in all the years they had lived together had he thought of a footstool for his sister’s feet!  As there was only one of these articles in common use, she was obliged to do without the ordinary support, and the feeling of discomfort lasted throughout the meal.

The curtains were undrawn, leaving a vista of garden sloping upward to the knoll, the low panelled room was already dim, and the table was lighted by candles in tall silver stands.  A bowl of beautifully cut old glass was piled high with roses, and the meal was dainty and well chosen, for Katrine was on her mettle before Grizel’s quizzical eyes.  Martin sat at the head of the table; he had the long thin face, the deep-set eyes, the sensitive lips, which carry the mind instinctively to the days of old.  For him a stock and a fob would have seemed more appropriate than twentieth-century attire.  His eyes looked particularly dark to-night; he held himself buoyantly erect.

Grizel rested both elbows on the table, and began feeding herself with fragments of bread, before the soup was served.

“Excuse my bad manners.  They’re so fashionable!” she mumbled in explanation.  She attacked her soup with a zest which one would hardly have expected from so fragile a creature, and took little part in the conversation until it was finished.  Then once more she rested her elbows on the table, and smiled across at her host.

“And so,” she said lazily, “to-morrow is the Duke’s bean-feast.  It’s no end of a way, isn’t it?  How do we go?”

“Martin has engaged a car.  Several neighbours wanted us to share, and it was really quite a blessing to be able to refuse.  Last year we went with the Morlands, and they stuck to us like glue to the bitter end.  This time we shall be free.”

“We three, and a second man.  Who is the second man?”

“We three, and no other man!”

Grizel dropped her hands on to the table, and stared with distended eyes.

“But, my child, how absurd.  I’m the most unexacting of critters but I make it a principle, never to share a man!  There must be an odd bachelor in the neighbourhood who’d be glad of a lift!  A presentable, flirtable creature to make up the four!”

The youthful parlour-maid jerked at the sound of that second adjective, and scurried from the room, soup plates in hand, leaving Katrine to whisper hasty reprisals.

“Grizel, please!  Wait until afterwards.  It’s a young girl I am training.  She belongs to the Y.W.C.A.”

Grizel’s stare changed to a smile.

“I don’t object, dear.  I really don’t.  So long as she’s pleased, I assure you I won’t let it make any difference!”

“But that’s just what I want it to do!  Do please be sensible until dinner is over, and for mercy’s sake don’t talk about flirts.  She’ll be so shocked.”

“Then she’ll be the first Y.W.  I’ve ever met who was.  And I don’t believe she will, neither.  There’s a tilt to her cap-”

The door opened to admit the Y.W., bearing in her hands the fish, and on her face that expression of concentrated vacuity which denotes acute curiosity.  Every householder has suffered such moments, and knows by experience the painful pause which ensues before one of the diners bursts vivaciously into impersonalities, but to-day there was no pause.  Grizel was too nimble-witted to permit such discomfiture.  There was not the slightest break in the continuity of her speech, her words flowed on in a smooth unbroken stream.

“-The which I take to typify a certain temperamental tendency towards the ornate, coupled with a desire to please, and be appreciated by those whom Providence has appointed lords among us, against which tendency all the restrictions of that admirable society-”

“Grizel!  Idiot!  Eat your fish.  You talk too much!”

Martin had burst into a roar of laughter, in which Katrine perforce was obliged to join.  The Y.W. marched stolidly round the table.  She was by no means so dense as she appeared, was perfectly aware that the visitor had been reproved in her absence, and suspected a personal application in the long-winded speech.  She disappeared in search of sauce, and to report the progress of events to the eager cook.

“I’ll make a compact with you,” whispered Grizel eagerly.  “I’ll talk like a tract to the end of my stay, if you can induce her not to puff down my back!  Principles I respect, but draughts I abhor.  Just make it perfectly clear!” ...

The Y.W. returned, and puffed vigorously the while she handed the sauce, whereat Katrine suffered a moment of acute suspense, but Grizel only wriggled her white shoulders, and remarked sweetly: 

“Chill, isn’t it, for the time of year!”

Katrine hastily turned the conversation.

“Grizel, did you know that Martin’s last book is already in its third edition?”

“No.  Is it?  How very good.”

The words were irreproachable but there was something lacking in the tone.  Katrine frowned, Martin looked across the table at the sparkling golden figure, who sat with head on one side, and brows arched, like a penitent child asking for forgiveness.  Their eyes met, and he smiled in reassuring sweetness.

“Martin’s books are a forbidden topic at Martin’s table.  After dinner, Grizel, I’ll take you to see my roses.  They are much more interesting.”

“In that dress!  In those slippers!” gasped Katrine outraged.  As neither of her hearers volunteered a reply she considered the proposition ruled out of court, but after coffee had been served it was necessary to retire to her room to write an order to the stores, and upon her return, lo! the room was empty, the French windows stood apart, and in and out between the bushes of the knoll passed a shimmer of golden light.

Katrine’s first sensation was one of shocked surprise at the recklessness of garden promenades in a costly new gown, her second an impulse to go out in her turn, and make one of a party to enjoy the fragrant dusk.  She had gathered up her skirts, was on the point of stepping through the window, when like a dart came the remembrance of Grizel’s words, her avowed dislike to “sharing a man”; of Martin’s evident agreement.  She drew back, seated herself on the nearest chair, and digested the unwelcome thought.

They would not want her!  They had probably chosen the moment when she was out of the room to start on their ramble alone.  If she were to join them now, her presence would form the proverbial “trumpery.”

Katrine could have understood it, could have sympathised frankly if it had been a case of love; lovers naturally wished to be alone, but Martin and Grizel were merely friends, not even intimate friends, since Grizel’s visits had come at long intervals during the past years.  They could have no sweet secrets to discuss.

Sitting alone in the room looking out into the dusk, a memory darted back out of the years.  Just so had she sat during her first visit to the house, in that brief summer of Martin’s wedlock.  She had been a young girl then, lately released from school.  She recalled anew the loneliness which had fallen upon her, while Martin and Juliet roamed the garden paths, and she sat alone, listening to the soft burst of laughter, watching the flit of the white dress.

A white dress, ghost-like, transparent; a light, slight thing, as befitted the youthful wearer.  Grizel’s dress was gold; it flashed an opulent orange and red.  There was nothing ghostly about it; it was warm, and human, and alive.  It drew the eye with an irresistible allure.

How could he!  How could he!  Along the very paths which he had paced with Juliet.  Beside the flowers which her hands had planted!  Once again Katrine suffered the pang, the repulsion.  All these years she had suffered at the sight of Martin sorrowful and lonely, now-mysterious, but incontrovertible fact!-she suffered afresh at the sight of him consoled.

Without, in the garden, Grizel was flitting from tree to tree like a big gold moth, bending her head to drink in the heavy perfume.  The curve of the neck, the curve of the cheek half hidden against the leaves, the reed-like figure bent low from the waist, they were the very epitome of grace.

“Martin!  Martin!  I must have some of these to take up to my room.  There’s magic in the scent of red roses... real country roses, living on their own stems.  It has something different from all other scents.  These are the trees which little Juliet planted?  How sweet she was that day, when they were planted, and she was so happy, so dirty, like a pretty child in her big pinafore!  They ought to be sweet!”

Martin winced.  He did not reply, but taking a knife from his pocket cut off one or two of the best blooms, carefully pruning the thronged stems.  For the first months after Juliet’s death her name had been continually on his lips, he had loved to talk about her, to hear her discussed; later on the reference had become rarer, more strained; now for years it had been avoided as elaborately as though it had belonged to a criminal, a prodigal.  The young fair face still hung on the walls, but in the house where she had lived no one mentioned Juliet’s name.  Only Grizel, an outsider, talked of her still, naturally, simply, with a transparent pleasure in the remembrance.

Martin was not sure whether the reference more pleased or jarred.  Yes! he remembered!  He should never forget that bright autumn day, the laughing crowd of spectators, the picture of his girl wife in her short garden skirt, waving her spade in triumph.  He could never forget, but the personal significance had faded.  There seemed little connection between himself and that boyish bridegroom; it was an effort to realise that that sweet child had truly been his wife.

The present moment seemed far more real, more vital.  Himself, the man, occupied with the matured work of life; Grizel, the woman, instinct with the lure of her sex.  He held the roses towards her that she might enjoy their fragrance, and for a minute they stood in silence, side by side.  Then Grizel raised her head, and looked into his face with a long, penetrating glance.  This was the real moment of their meeting, and both silently recognised it as such.

“How goes it, Martin?” she asked in her soft rich voice.  “How goes it?”

“Haltingly, Grizel, haltingly!” his smile flickered, and died out.  “We’ll talk of that presently; you are the one person to whom I can talk on that subject, but first of all there is something else.  Prisoner at the Bar.-Why don’t you like my book?”

His voice was gentle, bantering, almost tender in tone.  There was not the faintest touch of offence, but Grizel’s discomfiture was as naïve and undisguised as that of a child.

“Martin! you said that we were not to discuss-”

“Not in public; not at meals, not even before Katrine, but certainly when we are alone.  There’s no getting out of it, Grizel.  You said nothing, it was only a tone, but as it happens I understand your tones.  The book may run through a dozen editions, but for you it has failed.  Why?”

She stood before him, slim and straight, her face puckered in thought.

“I-don’t-know!  Everything,-or was it nothing, Martin?”

“Can I help you to find out?  A few leading questions perhaps...  Is it clever?”

“Very clever.”

“Original?”

“Original!”

“Interesting?”

“Quite interesting.”

“Clever, original, and interesting, and already in its third edition!  What would you have more, Mistress Critic?”

Grizel lifted her right hand, and lightly tapped her heart.

“Clever, interesting, original, but it didn’t touch!  The craft is good, Martin; you are a skilful workman-I think you grow more and more skilful, but-”

“Go on, Grizel; don’t be afraid.  Tell me the whole truth.”

Grizel faced him in silence.  It was not often that so grave and thoughtful an air was seen upon her sparkling face.  Her eyes gazed past his, far away into the night.

“Once,” she said dreamily, “there was a painter.  He painted marvellous pictures, but it was the depth and tone of his colouring which made him celebrated over all the world.  And of all his colours there was one in particular which appeared in all his pictures, and the secret of which his fellow-artists tried in vain to discover.  It was a red, Martin, a red so rich, so warm, so kindled, that all who beheld it felt warmed in their souls, and his fellow-artists questioned and pondered, and tried in vain to produce the same glow upon their own canvases-and the years passed, and they grew old and weary, and still they failed.  At last one day the great man died, and those who tended him for his burial were amazed to find a wound, an open wound, above his heart.  And then at last they understood.  The red of his pictures, the glow which had warmed the world, had been painted with his own blood!”

There was silence in the garden.  The scent of roses hung heavy upon the air.

“And I,” said Martin slowly.  “I write in ink.”

Grizel made no reply.  She turned from the rose-bed, and passed along a winding path which led round the herbaceous border to the slope of the orchard beyond.  It was a narrow path, too narrow for two to walk in line, so that Martin, following, could not see her face.  It was like Grizel, he reflected, to have chosen that path at this moment.  She divined that he could speak more openly unseen.

“And even, Grizel, if I wrote in your painter’s medium, my reds would have no glow!  One cannot give out what one does not possess.  While I am cold myself, how can I give out warmth?  It is so long, Grizel, since my heart was warm!”

A sigh floated back to his ears.

Pauvre!” breathed the deep voice, but she did not turn her head; the gleaming figure flitted before him down the darkening path.

“I flattered myself that I had made a brave pretence.  It was a good enough sham to delude the world, but You have found me out.  Don’t think that I regret it-I am thankful to Heaven that some one understands.  To be praised for what one knows to be false is a bitter pill.  Sometimes I wonder, shall I throw it all up?  Settle down comfortably into the rut, and-grow roses!  I could grow good roses, Grizel; the best of their kind.  There would be no need to be ashamed.”

In the twilight he saw her shake her head.  A fold of the golden robe escaped her hands, and trailed on the ground.  They stooped together to lift it up, and she smiled up at him with her sweet gay smile.

“But you couldn’t, Martin; you couldn’t do it!  You might make a hundred resolutions, but you’d begin again.  There’s no escape that way, dear man.  You must write, as you must breathe, therefore it follows that you must get warm.  Chills are depressing things, but they are dangerous only when they are allowed to settle.  This old house of yours has its back to the sun.”

“I can read your parable, Grizel, but circumstances-like houses-are not easily turned round.  Life has made chains for me from which I cannot escape.  Katrine-”

“I rather-suspect,” interrupted Grizel drawling, “that Katrine’s chains are slackening!  Some one, or something, has been supplying the oil.  Another creak or two and she will be breaking loose, and going off at a tangent which will surprise your innocent mind!”

“Symbols again!  I don’t follow so easily this time, but if the signs are good, I am uncommonly thankful.  I can talk openly to you, Grizel, for you won’t misunderstand.  Katrine is-on my mind!  Perhaps it would be more honest if I said on my nerves!  I’ve a suspicion that I’m on her nerves also, and the mischief of it is, that things are growing worse.  There’s nothing definitely wrong, and yet there’s-everything!  I feel an utter brute.”

To his astonishment, to his relief, Grizel laughed; a blithe and comfortable laugh.  They had reached the summit of the orchard by this time, and had paused to look down at the twinkling lights of the village before turning back to the house.

“Poor, dear, conventional brute!  Am I expected to be shocked?  I’m not one bit, and I can’t pretend to be.  It’s not your fault, and it’s not Katrine’s.  You have both done your laborious bests to accomplish something that has never been accomplished by effort since the world began, and you are both overcome with Remorse because it has failed.  I’d like to present you with a putty medal apiece to the memory of a successful failure.  You have lived together, two utter strangers, who happen to have been born brother and sister, for eight long years without once descending to violence.  It’s magnificent, it’s incredible!  You ought to be intoxicated with pride!  It’s the most unique quality on earth which enables two people to live in happiness and understanding, and what constitutes it, the dickens only knows.  We’ve got it,-my old Buddy and I. We are at opposite ends of the poles, we can on occasions quarrel like cats, but in the main we understand; we fit!  You and Katrine don’t touch within miles.  There’s no credit, there’s no blame.  Fate placed us together, not choice.  I have succeeded because-please realise this!-I didn’t need to try.  You, poor lambs, have tried away what little chance you had.  It is affectation to pretend that it is your fault.  The only blame would be to go on living in a false condition.”

“I know it, I know it!  I’ve been feeling it more and more strongly.  It’s not fair to Katrine; it’s not fair to me or to my work.  But what can I do?  I brought her here, she has given up her youth to looking after me, there’s no other home open, to her-I don’t pretend that her happiness is bound up in mine, but she thinks that it is, and that’s virtually the same thing.  She would feel desperately aggrieved-”

“Oh, you unselfish people, there’s no dealing with you!” Grizel shrugged impatiently. “Let her feel aggrieved!  If it’s a case of smarting for a week, or freezing for life, then let her smart!  Can’t you make up your mind just for once in your life to speak the bold, blatant truth? `Katrine, my dear, we are getting sick of each other- let’s cut it, and part!  I’ll give you an allowance-go off and pay visits, or set up a crib of your own, enjoy yourself in your own way, but for Heaven’s sake let me be happy too!’”

Martin shook his head.

“I couldn’t, Grizel; I couldn’t!  It may be the right thing to do, but I’m a coward.  I can’t face it.  Not that way!”

Grizel looked at him whimsically.  Men-the best of men, were so apt to believe that so long as the words were not actually spoken, their feelings remained concealed.  And woman,-the pity of it!-could read the meaning of a sign.  This woman already had read the signs.  Undoubtedly, inevitably, a change was at hand!