Chapter XVI. Struggle and Victory.
 

Elma hurried home full of intense misgivings. She dreaded having to meet her mother's eye. How on earth could she hide from that searching glance the whole truth as to what had happened in the wood that morning? When she reached home, however, she learned to her relief, from the maid who opened the door to her, that their neighbour, Mr. Gilbert Gildersleeve, the distinguished Q.C., had dropped in for lunch, and this chance diversion supplied Elma with a little fresh courage to face the inevitable. She went straight up to her own room the moment she entered the house, without seeing her mother, and there she waited, bathing her face copiously till some minutes after the lunch bell had rung. For she felt sure she would blush crimson when she met her mother; but as she blushed habitually when strangers came in, the cause of it might thus, perhaps, she vainly flattered herself, escape even those lynx-like eyes of Mrs. Clifford's.

The great Q.C., a big, overbearing man, with a pair of huge burly hands that somehow seemed to form his chief feature, was a little bit blustering in his talk, as usual; the more so because he had just learned incidentally that something had gone wrong between his daughter Gwendoline and Granville Kelmscott. For though that little episode of private wooing had run its course nominally without the knowledge or consent of either family, Mr. Gilbert Gildersleeve, at least, had none the less been aware for many weeks past of the frequent meetings between Gwendoline and Granville in the dell just beyond the disputed boundary line. And as Mr. Gildersleeve disliked Colonel Kelmscott of Tilgate Park, for a pig-headed esquire, almost as cordially as Colonel Kelmscott disliked Mr. Gildersleeve in return for a rascally lawyer, it had given the great Q.C. no little secret satisfaction in his own soul to learn that his daughter Gwendoline was likely to marry the Colonel's son and heir, directly against the wishes and consent of his father.

Only that very morning, however, poor Mrs. Gildersleeve, that tired, crushed wife, had imparted to her lord and master, in fear and trembling, the unpleasant intelligence that, so far as she could make out, there was something wrong between Granville and Gwendoline. And this something wrong she ventured to suggest was no mere lover's tiff of the ordinary kiss-and-make-it-up description, but a really serious difficulty in the way of their marriage. So Mr. Gildersleeve, thus suddenly deprived of his expected triumph, took it out another way by more than even his wonted boisterousness of manner in talking about the fortunes of the Kelmscott family.

"I fancy, myself, you know, Mrs. Clifford," he was saying, very loud, as Elma entered, "there's a screw loose just now in the Kelmscott affairs--something rotten somewhere in the state of Denmark. That young fellow, Granville, who's by no means such a bad lot as his father all round--too good for the family, in fact; too good for the family--Granville's been accustomed of late to come over into my grounds, beyond the boundary wall, and being anxious above all things to cultivate friendly relations with all my neighbours in the county, I've allowed him to come--I've allowed him, and I may even say to a certain extent I've encouraged him. There at times he's met by accident my daughter Gwendoline. Oh, dear no"--with uplifted hand, and deprecating lips--"I assure you, nothing of that sort, my dear Mrs. Clifford. Gwendoline's far too young, and I couldn't dream of allowing her to marry into Colonel Kelmscott's family. But, however, be that as it may, he's been in the habit of coming there, till very recently, when all of a sudden, only a week or ten days back, to my immense surprise he ceased at once, and ever since has dropped into the defensive, exactly as he used to do. And I interpret it to mean--"

Elma heard no more of that pompous speech. Her knees shook under her. For she was aware only of Mrs. Clifford's eyes, fixed mildly and calmly upon her face, not in anger, as she feared, or reproach, but rather in infinite pity. For a second their glances met in mute intercourse of soul, then each dropped their eyelashes as suddenly as before. Through the rest of that lunch Elma sat as in a maze, hearing and seeing nothing. What she ate, or drank, or talked about, she knew not. Mr. Gildersleeve's pungent and embellished anecdotes of the Kelmscott family and their unneighbourly pride went in at one ear and out at the other. All she was conscious of was her mother's sympathetic yet unerring eye; she felt sure that at one glance that wonderful thought-reader had divined everything, and seen through and through their interview that morning.

After lunch, the two men strolled upon the lawn to enjoy their cigars, and Elma and her mother were left alone in the drawing-room.

For some minutes neither could make up her mind to break the ice and speak. They sat shame-faced beside one another on the sofa, like a pair of shy and frightened maidens. At last Mrs. Clifford braced herself up to interrupt the awkward silence. "You've been in Chetwood Forest, Elma," she murmured low, looking down and averting her eyes carefully from her trembling daughter.

"Yes, mother," Elma answered, all aglow with conscious blushes. "In Chetwood Forest."

"And you met him, dear?" The mother spoke tenderly and sympathetically.

Elma's heart stood still. "Yes, mother, I met him."

"And he had the snake there?"

Elma started in surprise. Why dwell upon that seemingly unimportant detail? "Oh yes," she answered, still redder and hotter than ever. "He had it there. He was painting it."

Mrs. Clifford paused a minute. Then she went on, with pain. "And he asked you, Elma?"

Elma bowed her head. "Yes, he asked me--and I refused him," she answered, with a terrible wrench.

"Oh, darling; I know it," Mrs. Clifford cried, seizing both cold hands in hers. "And I know why, too. But, Elma, believe me, you needn't have done it. My daughter, my daughter, you might just as well have taken him."

"No, never," Elma cried, rising from her seat and moving towards the door in an agony of shame. "I couldn't. I daren't. It would be wrong. It would be cruel. But, mother, don't speak to me of it. Don't mention it again. Even before you it makes me more wretched and ashamed than I can say to allude to it."

She rushed from the room, with cheeks burning like fire. Come what might, she never could talk to any living soul again about that awful episode.

But Mrs. Clifford sat on, on the sofa where Elma left her, and cried to herself silently, silently, silently. What a mother should do in these hateful circumstances she could hardly even guess. She only knew she could never speak it out, and even if she did, Elma would never have the courage or the heart to listen to her.

That same evening, when Elma went up to bed, a strange longing came across her to sit up late, and think over to herself again all the painful details of the morning's interview. She seated herself by her bedside in her evening dress, and began to think it all out again, exactly as it happened. As she did so, the picture of Sardanapalus, on his bed of fern, came up clear in her mind, just as he lay coiled round in Cyril Waring's landscape. Beautiful Sardanapalus, so sleek and smooth and glossy, if only she had him here now--she paused and hesitated. In a moment, the wild impulse rushed upon her once more. It clutched her by the throat; it held her fast as in a vice. She must get up and dance; she must obey the mandate; she must whirl till she fell in that mystical ecstasy.

She rose, and seemed for a moment as though she must yield to the temptation. The boa--the boa was in the lower drawer. Reluctantly, remorsefully, she opened the drawer and took it out in her hands. Fluff and feathers, fluff and feathers--nothing more than that! But oh, how soft, how smooth, how yielding, how serpentine! With a violent effort she steadied herself, and looked round for her scissors. They lay on the dressing-table. She took them up with a fixed and determined air. "If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off," she thought to herself. Then she began ruthlessly hacking the boa into short little lengths of a few inches each, which she gathered up in her hands as soon as she had finished, and replaced with care in the drawer where she had originally found them.

After that her mind felt somewhat more at ease and a trifle less turbulent. She loved Cyril Waring--oh yes, she loved him with all her heart; it was hard to give him up; hard not to yield to that pressing impulse in such a moment of doubt and despondency. The boa had said to her, as it were, "Come, dance, go mad, and forget your trouble!" But she had resisted the temptation. And now--

Why, now, she would undress, and creep into bed, like any other good English girl under similar circumstances, and cry herself asleep with thoughts of Cyril.

And so she did in truth. She let her emotion take its natural outlet. She lay awake for an hour or two, till her eyes were red and sore and swollen. Then at last she dropped off, for very weariness, and slept soundly an unbroken sleep till morning.

At eight o'clock, Mrs. Clifford knocked her tentative little knock at the door. "Come in, mother," Elma cried, starting up in her surprise; and her mother, much wondering, turned the handle and entered.

When she reached the bed, she gave a little cry of amazement. "Why, Elma," she exclaimed, staring her hard and long in the face; "my darling, what's this? Your eyes are red! How strange! You've been crying!"

"Yes, mother," Elma answered, turning her face to the wall, but a thousand times less ashamed than she had been the day before when her mother spoke to her. "I couldn't help it, dearest." She took that soft white hand in hers and pressed it hard in silence. "It's no wonder, you know," she said at last, after a long deep pause. "He's going away from Chetwood to-day--and it was so very, very hard to say good-bye to him for ever."

"Oh yes, I know, darling," Mrs. Clifford answered, eyeing her harder than ever now with a half-incredulous look. "I know all that. But--you've had a good night in spite of everything, Elma."

Elma guessed what she meant. They two could converse together quite plainly without words. "Well, yes, a better night," she answered, hesitating, and shutting her eyes under the bed-clothes for very shame. "A little disturbed--don't you know--just at first; but I had a good cry very soon, and then that mended everything."

Her mother still looked at her, half doubting and half delighted. "A good cry's the right thing," she said slowly, in a very low voice. "The exact right thing, perfectly proper and normal. A good cry never did any girl on this earth one atom of harm. It's the best safety-valve. You're lucky, Elma, my child, in being able to get one."

"Yes, dear," Elma answered, with her head still buried. "Very lucky indeed. So I think, too, mother."

Mrs. Clifford's eye fell aimlessly upon certain tiny bits of feathery fluff that flecked the floor here and there like floating fragments of thistledown. In a second, her keen instinct divined what they meant. Without one word she rose silently and noiselessly, and opened the lower drawer, where the boa usually reposed among the furs and feathers. One glimpse of those mangled morsels showed her the truth at a glance. She shut the drawer again noiselessly and silently as she had opened it. But Elma, lying still with her eyes closed tight, yet knew perfectly well how her mother had been occupied.

Mrs. Clifford came back, and, stooping over her daughter's bed, kissed her forehead tenderly. "Elma, darling," she said, while a hot tear or two fell silently upon the girl's burning cheek, "you're very, very brave. I'm so pleased with you, so proud of you! I couldn't have done it myself. You're stronger-minded than I am. My child, he kissed you for good-bye yesterday. You needn't say yes, you needn't say no. I read it in your face. No need for you to tell me of it. Well, darling, it wasn't good-bye after all, I'm certain of that. Believe me, my child, he'll come back some day, and you'll know you can marry him."

"Never!" Elma cried, hiding her face still more passionately and wildly than before beneath great folds of the bed-clothes. "Don't speak to me of him any more, mother! Never! Never! Never!"