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

Katrine’s efforts to bring Bedford and Keith together seemed doomed to failure.  She managed the introduction indeed, but the attempts at conversation which followed were not promising for future relationships, and for the rest of the day the two men avoided each other sedulously.  It was duty, pure and simple, which made Katrine waylay Keith after dinner, and appear to take it for granted that he would give her his society for the customary half-hour’s promenade round the deck, when in reality her only longing was to escape, and enjoy a continuation of her talk with the newer friend.  Keith was in a black mood also; grim, unsmiling.  His haggard eyes surveyed her with a scrutiny that was the reverse of friendly.

“Still busy at your Reform Bill, I see!  I had no idea you could be so persistent!”

“Don’t be nasty!”

“Nasty!” he laughed harshly.  “What a bread-and-butter Miss it is, with her `nice’ and `nasty,’ and little cut-and-dried maxims and beliefs!  One can just see the English village where you have lived, and the worthy Victorians who have lived around.  You knew about six families in all, I presume, and lived in terror of what they would say; and they also lived in terror of you.  There is no monarchy so absolute as the Mrs Grundy of a country town.  And you went on Sunday to the Church- rather a low church I should say, breathing forth enmity equally against ritualism and dissent-went twice a day-”

And Sunday School!  Don’t forget Sunday School.”

“Ah!  Sunday School.  I’d forgotten the existence of Sunday Schools.  That revives old memories.  I went to one myself in prehistoric times.  Seems odd, doesn’t it?  Can you imagine me a small, curled darling in a Sunday School class?  It was a dank, underground cellar of a place, shaped like an amphitheatre, with seats rising one above another.  We infants sat bunched together in a corner, and the teacher stood before us on the flat.  She was a plain soul, with three large warts on one cheek.  I used to gaze at them fascinated, and ponder what could be done.  The warts interested me more than her words, but I made gallant attempts at attention.  We were bribed to attend,-one little card with an illuminated text for good behaviour and attention; so many cards, one small book; so many small books, a prize at Christmas.  I actually won one prize.  Can you imagine me gaining a Sunday School prize?”

Katrine regarded him thoughtfully with her deep blue eyes.  The slighting, almost contemptuous tone in which he spoke seemed to hurt her more for his sake than for her own, as proving the invariable bitterness of his mind.  She was the only soul on board who had sought his friendship, and even to her-

“Do you ever think ?” she stammered, confused and shy, yet possessed by a gallant resolve to improve the occasion.  “Do you ever remember the things you heard?”

“Bible stories!” He laughed again, his harsh, unmirthful laugh.  “My good girl, is it possible to forget?  They are too terribly true.  I’ve seen them acted before my eyes.  I’ve lived through them myself.  Heavens! how many of those old stories I’ve lived through!  I’ve eaten of the fruit of knowledge-a liberal repast, and as a result been turned out of my Eden; I’ve wandered in far lands; I’ve defrauded my neighbour, and sold my birthright for, not gold, not silver, not even a mess of pottage-for a foaming poison which has killed body and soul!  I’ve sung my penitential psalms-and, gone on sinning!  I’ve sung my Song of Solomon, also, I must not forget that!”

He met Katrine’s eyes, widely questioning, and replied with a defiant flash.  “You are astonished!  You did not associate romance with such a death’s head of a man!  Nevertheless it is true.  There was a woman:  one woman, only one!  I worshipped her for five long years; I worship her still, but all the same I did her to death.  Oh, let me explain!  It was nothing actionable.  I am not a prisoner fleeing from justice.  There is no escape from the court before which I shall be tried.  I would have killed myself a thousand times over sooner than have lifted a hand against her.  She was my wife, you see, and I loved her, but I broke her heart.  I believed that in the joy of her I could break loose from the devil which possessed me.  I did go free for a few months, and she married me, poor child! knowing nothing.  Then, He came back, mightier than before.  The first time she saw me-I may live through a thousand hells, and know nothing more awful than the memory of those eyes!  She told me herself, weeping in my arms the next day, that she could not love, she could not even endure, `_that man_!’ If he came back-if she saw him again.-I promised; I swore.  A hundred times over I promised and a hundred times over I failed, and her love changed to fear, fear and dread, and a shrinking of flesh.  She was a frail thing, and she lived in terror of `_that man_.’  In terror of him she died.  When she drew her last breath he was drunk, lying helpless downstairs-”

“Oh, don’t!” gasped Katrine painfully. “Don’t tell me!  I didn’t ask.-I don’t want to hear...  Don’t remind yourself-”

Remind!  Do you think I can forget?  I am not harrowing myself by conjuring up sleeping ghosts.  That kind of ghost never sleeps.  It makes no difference to me whether I speak of it, or am silent.  I have told you for-” he turned towards her with a twisted smile, “your own sake!  You are a good girl, but crude.  When you have had time to think for yourself, you’ll make a fine woman.  You’ve been living in a shell. Let yourself go!  Forget what you’ve been taught, and think things out for yourself.  Meantime, I appreciate your good intentions, but-leave me alone!” Suddenly his eyes blazed.  “Great Heavens!  If She couldn’t help me, what can you do!”

He wheeled round and strode away, leaving Katrine to pass through some of the most poignant moments of her life.  Never before had she come into such intimate touch with human misery.  Compared with this anguish of remorse, Martin’s grief over the loss of his girl wife seemed a sacred and beautiful thing.  Never before had she realised at once so overpowering a longing to help, and so profound a conviction of helplessness.  To be of use to a soul in such straits, one must needs have suffered also, have struggled, and overcome:  have risen to a height far beyond that on which she now stood.  Katrine knew it, acknowledged it to her own soul, with a humility which was in itself a prayer.

She made her way to the quietest part of the deck, and leaned over the rail, trembling with emotion.  Twenty-six years of placid, uneventful existence, of calm looking on at life, and then suddenly here she was, in the maelstrom, each new day bringing with it some new and poignant emotion!  She felt dazed, bewildered; filled with humiliation.

When presently Bedford strolled up nonchalant and smiling, a cigarette in his mouth, his expression changed swiftly as he saw her, and Katrine flinched before his glance.  Could she have seen herself she would have been astonished, as he was, at the beauty of the pale, tremulous face.

To her relief he asked no questions, but averting his eyes talked easily on matter-of-fact subjects, not waiting for replies, but content simply to fill in the time till self-possession returned.  Katrine divined as much, and did not trouble to listen.  She also was waiting for self-possession, but only so as to be able to confide and be comforted.  That Bedford could invariably find the right panacea for a wound was a fact already acknowledged with delight, and to-night the need of him was pressing.  Her inattention grew increasingly obvious, until at length he ceased speaking, and looked down at her with questioning eyes.

“You don’t want to talk!  Shall I stay, and be quiet, or would you rather I went away, and left you alone?”

“Stay, please, and talk-only, for the moment my mind is so full of one thing, that I can’t think of anything else.  That poor man! he’s been telling me his story.-I can’t repeat it, but he has also been scorching me for my interference.  I deserved it, I suppose, for my self-sufficiency, but-it hurt!  Growing pains!  Do you remember?”

“Poor little girl!” he said simply; so simply, so kindly, that there could be no offence in the familiarity.  “I was afraid you had given yourself a stiff road to hoe.  I’ve had experience in these cases, and know something about the difficulties.  The trouble is that like many reformers you are beginning at the wrong end, trying to doctor his mind, whereas it’s his body that is sick.  Drink is a physical disease, and it’s hard luck on its victims that public opinion refuses to realise the fact.  Imagine a fellow being called a beast-a degraded beast, disgraceful, disgusting-all the usual terms, because he was suffering from tuberculosis or heart disease!  It’s unthinkable, but a poor wretch who has to fight against a physical craving as fierce as the claws of a wild beast, tearing him, literally tearing, not to be quenched except by the very poison which is going to set him craving again,-for one kindly, pitying thought, he gets a hurricane of abuse!  You and I know better.  We don’t judge; we pity the poor fellow from the bottom of our hearts, but I say-” suddenly his voice changed to a crisp, boylike note, “don’t let’s talk about him to-night!  It’s such a ripping night.  We can do him no good.  Then why spoil our own time?  Let’s talk about happy things!” He threw away his cigarette as he spoke, leaned his arms on the rail, and turned his face towards hers with a twinkling appeal.  They were close together, and the smiling interchange of glance seemed a good and pleasant thing.  Katrine was almost ashamed of the speed with which the mental load slipped away, and disappeared; one glance into the keen grey eyes, and it had vanished into space.

It was good to stand in the warm night, looking out at the glory of the star-lit heavens, at the ripple of phosphorous on the water, but the beauties of nature were but a secondary cause for the content which enfolded her.  The primary cause was the presence of the man by her side, the big man with the grave face, and the clear, boylike eyes.  Katrine was not given to hasty friendships, but in this case there seemed no preliminary stages to live through, for the moment of meeting had acclaimed a mental understanding, which years of intimacy might have failed to ensure.  She forgot that she had been unhappy, and laughed a soft, girlish little laugh, the tinkle of which struck strangely on her own ears.  Such a girlish laugh!

“Oh, yes!  Let’s!  That will be nice...  What shall we talk about?”

“Ourselves, of course,” he said promptly; and at that they laughed again.  Katrine tilted her head, and met his eyes with a frank, gay glance.

“Wasn’t it Isabel Carnaby who said that there was really no other subject to talk about but ourselves, just as there was really no other dish than bacon for breakfast?”

“What about Lloyd George?”

They laughed gaily, laughed into each other’s eyes with a sense of intimacy which sent the spirits racing upwards with a mysterious intoxication.

“Oh, well,” Katrine allowed, “that’s true!  But Isabel lived before his days.  Did you ever play a game of making up Isabel Carnaby conversations?  It’s rather fun.”

“Not I...  Couldn’t to save my life...  Far too difficult.”

“Oh, it’s easy enough, given the right people, and the right hour.  It would be no use starting it at the beginning of an evening when every one is stiff and strained, but it goes splendidly after supper.  Isabel begins by giving a definition of some well-known term, and invites every one else to follow suit.  It is a favourite game of Grizel’s, my sister-in-law.  We always make her Isabel for she is such a beguiling little thing that she is not only witty herself, but spurs up every one else to be witty too.  One night we took `_Bores_’ for a subject, and she said:  `A bore is a person who remembers all that I say on Sunday, chews a mental cud over it, and throws up masticated morsels of my own conversation to confound my inconsistency on Wednesday.’  Then we all said:  `That is quite true!’ and `Quite so!’ and she addressed each of us and asked:  `And what is your idea of a bore, Mrs Seaton?  Johanna, give us your definition of the term?’ and we each scintillated to the best of our ability, and then mentally adjourned into the kitchen and interviewed the old servant in her turn.”

“I should be so devoured with anxiety thinking out my own sally that I shouldn’t be able to appreciate my neighbour’s brilliance...  Bores are a pretty prolific subject.  I should like, just for curiosity, to hear your definition.”

“`Katrine! let us now have your definition of the term,’” quoted Katrine mockingly.  “There, you see, you are already starting the game on your own account.  Why do you want to know?”

“So that I may act contrariwise, of course.”

“It is true...  Isabel was right.  Here you are already, back at our bacon!  I am afraid, Captain Bedford, that you are very much absorbed in yourself.”

“Devoted to him!  Of course.  Why shouldn’t I be?  Know him so well, don’t you know-understand his ways!  Capital fellow, when you know him.-A woman asked me once whom I loved best in the world.  I said:  `Myself, of course.’  It was the bed-rock truth; it is the truth about most solitary people, if they would only admit it, but she was shocked.”

“I’m shocked, too.  Even if it were true, I don’t think one should admit-”

“I don’t say it now.  It would not be true.  That was some time ago.”

Katrine’s thoughts flew back with instant recollection to the day before, to the quiet pocketing of the tortoise-shell trifle.  She waited silently, holding her breath in the intensity of her anxiety, but no explanation was vouchsafed.  She tossed her head with a restless gesture, and said tentatively: 

“You-you are not in the least what I expected.”

“What precisely did you expect?”

“N-othing precisely, but everything different!  I thought you’d be older for one thing, and would look more worn.  Captain Blair said you were shy and silent.”

“Blair would say anything but his prayers.  As a matter of fact I was paralysingly shy at dinner that night!  Glad I concealed it so well.  It was rather a formidable occasion meeting an-”

“Unknown girl!  Was I?” Katrine hesitated on the verge of a question, eager yet bashful, and her companion concluded the sentence with mischievous assurance.

“What I had expected?  Well! to an extent.  I had seen your photographs, and they are as good as photographs can be, but the original always comes as a surprise.  You look younger, and-there’s some red in your hair, isn’t there?  It pretends to be dark, but this morning when you were sitting in the sun, I’ll swear it was red!  And- if you’ll forgive me-your nose isn’t quite so classic as it was represented!  I suspect that photographer of fakes.”

“He filled in the dips,” said Katrine tracing with a finger tip the delicate irregularities of her nose.

“I like dips,” said Bedford, and they laughed again.  Katrine wondered if he also approved of the ruddy lights which the sun had revealed in her hair.  She had noticed them once or twice as she stood before her mirror on bright spring mornings, but no one else had commented on the peculiarity.  She herself had admired the dull-red gleam, she hoped he had done the same, but it was with an air of forced resignation that she spoke again: 

“Very well, then, it is settled that I have red hair, and a bobbley nose.  Please observe that I remain serene and unruffled.  That proves that I have a sweet and modest disposition, and don’t care a pin how I look!”

“Or what you wear, or whether that gauzy thing round your head is arranged at a becoming angle or not!  Can I help in any way?  It seems troublesome to arrange!” said Bedford coolly as for the third time Katrine’s hand went up to pull forward the chiffon hood.  She flushed in the moonlight, and pushed it back with an impetuous jerk.

“Now my hair will get rough.  It’s not my fault if it blows into ends.”

“I like ends,” said Bedford once more.

Katrine thanked Providence that her ends curled, and did not blow over her face in lanky streaks as did the ends of other women.  Sometimes when she had been out in the wind she had felt it a pity to brush them back.  She felt a glow of thankfulness for her own fair looks, which was inimitably removed from an ordinary conceit.  To look pleasant in the eyes of others-that gave one joy.  To-morrow she would wear a blue dress...

“It’s against my upbringing to be untidy,” she said demurely.  “At home I have walked between a double fire.  The vicar’s wife on one side, and my Sunday School girls on the other.  Both would have been scandalised by `ends,’ both expected me to be a model of neatness and decorum.”  She heaved a great sigh of relief.  “Oh, I’m so thankful not to be a model any more!  It’s lovely to begin life again, away from criticism, to be free to do and think what I like!”

He stared at her, his eyes intent and searching beneath puckered brows.  It was a handsome, almost a beautiful face into which he looked:  the softened light, the happy mood, even the floating ends of hair combined to give it an air of unusual youth.  Nevertheless there were lines written thereon which told their own tale.  Katrine noticed his scrutiny, and questioned him thereon: 

“What are you thinking about?”

“You,” he said simply.  “We are talking about ourselves.  You are so young in many ways, younger than your years, but you look-”

“Older?”

“Yes,” he said again, serenely unconscious of offence.  “It’s not a girl’s face.  There are the marks of trouble, of suffering...”

Katrine sighed.  On her lips flickered a smile which was strangely pathetic.

“Or of lack of trouble!” she corrected.  “Oh, I mean it.  It sounds incomprehensible to a man, but a woman would understand.  Trouble would be easier to bear than the grey, monotonous routine month after month, year after year, which women have to live in small country towns.  Trouble is educational and ennobling; monotony cramps growth at the roots.  I am twenty-six, but there were women ten years older, still young, still pretty, jogtrotting along the same path, year after year, year after year. Nothing had happened to them!  No man can understand all that that means. Nothing had happened!”

Bedford straightened himself significantly.

“They should make things happen!”

“Perhaps in time to come they may, when they are more developed-they, and their parents!  Many well-to-do parents think that their daughters ought to be contented to stay peacefully at home and arrange the flowers.  I had a real duty, but in some families nearby there were three or four women-girls pottering!  I went to see one of them on her birthday last year.  When I wished her many happy returns she shrank, as if I had hurt her. `Another year!’ she said. `Three hundred and sixty-five days... And all alike!’ It was fear that she felt, poor soul; fear of the blank!  You can’t understand.”

“Personally, no.  Monotony has not been my cross.  When a man is knocking about the world he is inclined to envy the people who can vegetate peacefully at home, but thirty-six years of stagnation is a killing business!” He looked down at her with steady scrutiny.  “I am glad you had courage to cut yourself free before it came to that point.”

“But I am different...  I told you so.  I had my work,” protested Katrine, flushing, “and moreover something did happen.  Fate came to my aid, and practically forced me away!”

“Yes?”

Once more Bedford leaned his elbows on the rail, and bent towards her with a keen interrogative glance.  “Is it permissible to ask in what form?”

Why on earth need she blush?  Katrine mentally railed at herself, but the more she fumed the hotter blazed the colour in her cheeks.  Plying such a flag of betrayal it seemed obviously absurd to reply by a prim:  “My brother married, and no longer required my services,” and in Bedford’s equally prim “Quite so,” the scepticism seemed thinly veiled.  There was silence for several moments, while both gazed fixedly ahead.  Without looking in his direction Katrine knew exactly the expression which her companion’s face would wear.  The lips closed tight, drooping slightly to one side.  The chin dropped, the eyes unnaturally grave.  Strange how clearly his changes of expression had already stamped themselves upon her mental retina!  She knew how he would look, what she could not guess was what he would think ...  What would he think!  That preposterous blush would surely suggest a reason more personal than a brother’s marriage.  A love affair, a lover, but mercifully a lover in England, since she had already explained that Jack Middleton and his wife were her sole friends in India.  Yes! that would be the explanation, a persistent lover-a lover who had been refused, a lover left behind to recover at his ease.  Katrine’s self-possession was restored by this assurance.  Certainly she had had lovers...  She adopted what was evidently intended to be an “Isabel Carnaby air,” and demanded lightly: 

“And now, Captain Bedford, it is your turn to confess your troubles.”

“I have none,” he said instantly.  He looked full into her face with his twinkling eyes.  “Or if I had-I have forgotten.”