Part II: Nature's Graduate
Chapter 6
 

The lodgings were taken for three weeks, and more than half the time had now elapsed.

Jessica, who declared herself quite well and strong again, though her face did not bear out the assertion, was beginning to talk of matters examinational once more. Notwithstanding protests, she brought forth from their hiding-place sundry arid little manuals and black-covered notebooks; her thoughts were divided between algebraic formulae and Nancy's relations with Lionel Tarrant. Perhaps because no secret was confided to her, she affected more appetite for the arid little books than she really felt. Nancy would neither speak of examinations, nor give ear when they were talked about; she, whether consciously or not, was making haste to graduate in quite another school.

On the morning after her long walk with Tarrant, she woke before sunrise, and before seven o'clock had left the house. A high wind and hurrying clouds made the weather prospects uncertain. She strayed about the Den, never losing sight for more than a minute or two of the sea-fronting house where Tarrant lived. But no familiar form approached her, and she had to return to breakfast unrewarded for early rising.

Through the day she was restless and silent, kept alone as much as possible, and wore a look which, as the hours went on, darkened from anxiety to ill-humour. She went to bed much earlier than usual.

At eleven next morning, having lingered behind her friends, she found Tarrant in conversation with Mrs. Morgan and Jessica on the pier. His greeting astonished her; it had precisely the gracious formality of a year ago; a word or two about the weather, and he resumed his talk with Miss. Morgan--its subject, the educational value of the classics. Obliged to listen, Nancy suffered an anguish of resentful passion. For a quarter of an hour she kept silence, then saw the young man take leave and saunter away with that air which, in satire, she had formerly styled majestic.

And then passed three whole days, during which Lionel was not seen.

The evening of the fourth, between eight and nine o'clock, found Nancy at the door of the house which her thoughts had a thousand times visited. A servant, in reply to inquiry, told her that Mr Tarrant was in London; he would probably return to-morrow.

She walked idly away--and, at less than a hundred yards' distance, met Tarrant himself. His costume showed that he had just come from the railway station. Nancy would gladly have walked straight past him, but the tone in which he addressed her was a new surprise, and she stood in helpless confusion. He had been to London--called away on sudden business.

'I thought of writing--nay, I did write, but after all didn't post the letter. For a very simple reason--I couldn't remember your address.'

And he laughed so naturally, that the captive walked on by his side, unresisting. Their conversation lasted only a few minutes, then Nancy resolutely bade him good-night, no appointment made for the morrow.

A day of showers, then a day of excessive heat. They saw each other several times, but nothing of moment passed. The morning after they met before breakfast.

'To-morrow is our last day,' said Nancy.

'Yes, Mrs. Morgan told me.' Nancy herself had never spoken of departure. 'This afternoon we'll go up the hill again.'

'I don't think I shall care to walk so far. Look at the mist; it's going to be dreadfully hot again.'

Tarrant was in a mood of careless gaiety; his companion appeared to struggle against listlessness, and her cheek had lost its wonted colour.

'You have tea at four or five, I suppose. Let us go after that, when the heat of the day is over.'

To this, after various objections, Nancy consented. Through the hours of glaring sunshine she stayed at home, lying inert, by an open window. Over the tea-cups she was amiable, but dreamy. When ready to go out, she just looked into the sitting-room, where Jessica bent over books, and said cheerfully:

'I may be a little late for dinner. On no account wait--I forbid it!'

And so, without listening to the answer, she hurried away.

In the upward climbing lanes, no breeze yet tempered the still air; the sky of misted sapphire showed not a cloud from verge to verge. Tarrant, as if to make up for his companion's silence, talked ceaselessly, and always in light vein. Sunshine, he said, was indispensable to his life; he never passed the winter in London; if he were the poorest of mortals, he would, at all events, beg his bread in a sunny clime.

'Are you going to the Bahamas this winter?' Nancy asked, mentioning the matter for the first time since she heard of it at Champion Hill.

'I don't know. Everything is uncertain.'

And he put the question aside as if it were of no importance.

They passed the old gate, and breathed with relief in the never-broken shadow of tangled foliage. Whilst pushing a bramble aside, Tarrant let his free arm fall lightly on Nancy's waist. At once she sprang forward, but without appearing to notice what had happened.

'Stay--did you ever see such ivy as this?'

It was a mass of large, lustrous leaves, concealing a rotten trunk. Whilst Nancy looked on, Tarrant pulled at a long stem, and tried to break it away.

'I must cut it.'

'Why?'

'You shall see.'

He wove three stems into a wreath.

'There now, take off your hat, and let me crown you. Have I made it too large for the little head?'

Nancy, after a moment's reluctance, unfastened her hat, and stood bareheaded, blushing and laughing.

'You do your hair in the right way--the Greek way. A diadem on the top--the only way when the hair and the head are beautiful. It leaves the outline free--the exquisite curve that unites neck and head. Now the ivy wreath; and how will you look?'

She wore a dress of thin, creamy material, which, whilst seeming to cumber her as little as garments could, yet fitted closely enough to declare the healthy beauty of her form. The dark green garland, for which she bent a little, became her admirably.

'I pictured it in my letter,' said Tarrant, 'the letter you never got.'

'Where is it?'

'Oh, I burnt it.'

'Tell me what was in it.'

'All sorts of things--a long letter.'

'I think that's all nonsense about forgetting my address.'

'Mere truth. In fact, I never knew it.'

'Be so good as to tell me,' she spoke as she walked on before him, 'what you meant by your behaviour that morning before you went to London.'

'But how did I behave?'

'Very strangely.'

Tarrant affected not to understand; but, when she again turned, Nancy saw a mischievous smile on his face.

'A bit of nonsense.--Shall I tell you?' He stepped near, and suddenly caught both her hands,--one of them was trailing her sunshade. 'Forgive me in advance--will you?'

'I don't know about that.' And she tried, though faintly, to get free.

'But I will make you--now, refuse!'

His lips had just touched hers, just touched and no more. Rosy red, she trembled before him with drooping eyelids.

'It meant nothing at all, really,' he pursued, his voice at its softest. 'A sham trial--to see whether I was hopelessly conquered or not. Of course I was.'

Nancy shook her head.

'You dare to doubt it?--I understand now what the old poet meant, when he talked of bees seeking honey on his lady's lips. That fancy isn't so artificial as it seemed.'

'That's all very pretty'--she spoke between quick breaths, and tried to laugh--'but you have thrown my hat on the ground. Give it me, and take the ivy for yourself.'

'I am no Bacchus.' He tossed the wreath aside. 'Take the hat; I like you in it just as well.--You shall have a girdle of woodbine, instead.'

'I don't believe your explanation,' said Nancy.

'Not believe me?'

With feigned indignation, he moved to capture her again; but Nancy escaped. Her hat in her hand, she darted forward. A minute's run brought her into the open space, and there, with an exclamation of surprise, she stopped. Tarrant, but a step or two behind her, saw at almost the same moment the spectacle which had arrested her flight. Before them stood two little donkeys munching eagerly at a crop of rosy-headed thistles. They--the human beings--looked at each other; Tarrant burst into extravagant laughter, and Nancy joined him. Neither's mirth was spontaneous; Nancy's had a note of nervous tension, a ring of something like recklessness.

'Where can they come from?' she asked.

'They must have strayed a long way. I haven't seen any farm or cottage.--But perhaps some one is with them. Wait, I'll go on a little, and see if some boy is hanging about.'

He turned the sharp corner, and disappeared. For two or three minutes Nancy stood alone, watching the patient little grey beasts, whose pendent ears, with many a turn and twitch, expressed their joy in the feast of thistles. She watched them in seeming only; her eyes beheld nothing.

A voice sounded from behind her--'Nancy!' Startled, she saw Tarrant standing high up, in a gap of the hedge, on the bank which bordered the wood.

'How did you get there?'

'Went round.' He showed the direction with his hand. 'I can see no one, but somebody may come. It's wonderful here, among the trees. Come over.'

'How can I?--We will drive the donkeys away.'

'No; it's much better here; a wild wood, full of wonderful things. The bank isn't too steep. Give me your hand, and you can step up easily, just at this place.'

She drew near.

'Your sunshade first.'

'Oh, it's too much trouble,' she said languidly, all but plaintively. 'I'd rather be here.'

'Obey!--Your sunshade--'

She gave it.

'Now, your hand.'

He was kneeling on the top of the bank. With very little exertion, Nancy found herself beside him. Then he at once leapt down among the brushwood, a descent of some three feet.

'We shall be trespassing,' said Nancy.

'What do I care? Now, jump!'

'As if you could catch me!' Again she uttered her nervous laugh. 'I am heavy.'

'Obey! Jump!' he cried impatiently, his eyes afire.

She knelt, seated herself, dropped forward. Tarrant caught her in his arms.

'You heavy! a feather weight! Why, I can carry you; I could run with you.'

And he did carry her through the brushwood, away into the shadow of the trees.

At dinner-time, Mrs. Morgan and her daughter were alone. They agreed to wait a quarter of an hour, and sat silent, pretending each to be engaged with a book. At length their eyes met.

'What does it mean, Jessica?' asked the mother timidly.

'I'm sure I don't know. It doesn't concern us. She didn't mean to be back, by what she said.'

'But--isn't it rather--?'

'Oh, Nancy is all right. I suppose she'll have something to tell you, to-night or to-morrow. We must have dinner; I'm hungry.'

'So am I, dear.--Oh, I'm quite afraid to think of the appetites we're taking back. Poor Milly will be terrified.'

Eight o'clock, nine o'clock. The two conversed in subdued voices; Mrs. Morgan was anxious, all but distressed. Half-past nine. 'What can it mean, Jessica? I can't help feeling a responsibility. After all, Nancy is quite a young girl; and I've sometimes thought she might be steadier.'

'Hush! That was a knock.'

They waited. In a minute or two the door was opened a few inches, and a voice called 'Jessica!'

She responded. Nancy was standing in the gloom.

'Come into my room,' she said curtly.

Arrived there, she did not strike a light. She closed the door, and took hold of her friend's arm.

'We can't go back the day after to-morrow, Jessica. We must wait a day longer, till the afternoon of Friday.'

'Why? What's the matter, Nancy?'

'Nothing serious. Don't be frightened, I'm tired, and I shall go to bed.'

'But why must we wait?'

'Listen: will you promise me faithfully--as friend to friend, faith fully--not to tell the reason even to your mother?'

'I will, faithfully.'

'Then, it's this. On Friday morning I shall be married to Mr Tarrant.'

'Gracious!'

'I may tell you more, before then; but perhaps not. We shall be married by licence, and it needs one day between getting the licence and the marriage. You may tell your mother, if you like, that I want to stay longer on his account. I don't care; of course she suspects something. But not a syllable to hint at the truth. I have been your best friend for a long time, and I trust you.'

She spoke in a passionate whisper, and Jessica felt her trembling.

'You needn't have the least fear of me, dear.'

'I believe it. Kiss me, and good-night!'