Chapter VIII. Elma Breaks Out.
 

Mrs. Clifford returned from Chetwood Court that clay in by no means such high spirits as when she went there. In the first place, she hadn't succeeded in throwing Elma and Granville Kelmscott into one another's company at all, and in the second place Elma had talked much under her very nose, for half-an-hour at a stretch, with the unknown young painter fellow. When Elma was asked out anywhere else in the country for the next six weeks or so, Mrs. Clifford made up her mind strictly to inquire in private, before committing herself to an acceptance, whether that dangerous young man was likely or not to be included in the party.

For Mrs. Clifford admitted frankly to herself that Cyril was dangerous; as dangerous as they make them. He was just the right age; he was handsome, he was clever, his tawny brown beard had the faintest little touch of artistic redness, and was trimmed and dressed with provoking nicety. He was an artist too; and girls nowadays, you know, have such an unaccountable way of falling in love with men who can paint, or write verses, or play the violin, or do something foolish of that sort, instead of sticking fast to the solid attractions of the London Stock Exchange or of ancestral acres.

Mrs. Clifford confided her fears that very night to the sympathetic ear of the Companion of the Militant and Guardian Saints of the British Empire.

"Reginald," she said solemnly, "I told you the other day, when you asked about it, Elma wasn't in love. And at the time I was right, or very near it. But this afternoon I've had an opportunity of watching them both together, and I've half changed my mind. Elma thinks a great deal too much altogether, I'm afraid, about this young Mr. Waring."

"How do you know?" Mr. Clifford asked, staring her hard in the face, and nodding solemnly.

The British matron hesitated. "How do I know anything?" she answered at last, driven to bay by the question. "I never know how. I only know I know it. But whatever we do we must be careful not to let Elma and the young man get thrown together again. I should say myself it wouldn't be a bad plan if we were to send her away somewhere for the rest of the summer, but I can tell you better about all this to-morrow."

Elma, for her part, had come home from Chetwood Court more full than ever of Cyril Waring. He looked so handsome and so manly that afternoon at the Holkers'. Elma hoped she'd be asked out where he was going to be again.

She sat long in her own bedroom, thinking it over with herself, while the candle burnt down in its socket very low, and the house was still, and the rain pattered hard on the roof overhead, and her father and mother were discussing her by themselves downstairs in the drawing-room.

She sat long on her chair without caring to begin undressing. She sat and mused with her hands crossed on her lap. She sat and thought, and her thoughts were all about Cyril Waring.

For more than an hour she sat there dreamily, and told herself over, one by one, in long order, the afternoon's events from beginning to the end of them. She repeated every word Cyril had spoken in her ear. She remembered every glance, every look he had darted at her. She thought of that faint pressure of his hand as he said farewell. The tender blush came back to her brown cheek once more with maidenly shame as she told it all over. He was so handsome and so nice, and so very, very kind, and, perhaps, after this, she might never again meet him. Her bosom heaved. She was conscious of a new sense just aroused within her.

Presently her heart began to beat more violently. She didn't know why. It had never beaten in her life like that before--not even in the tunnel, nor yet when Cyril came up to-day and spoke first to her. Slowly, slowly, she rose from her seat. The fit was upon her. Could this be a dream? Some strange impulse made her glide forward and stand for a minute or two irresolute, in the middle of the room. Then she turned round, once, twice, thrice, half unconsciously. She turned round, wondering to herself all the while what this strange thing could mean; faster, faster, faster, her heart within her beating at each turn with more frantic haste and speed than ever. For some minutes she turned, glowing with red shame, yet unable to stop, and still more unable to say to herself why or wherefore.

At first that was all. She merely turned and panted. But as she whirled and whirled, new moods and figures seemed to force themselves upon her. She lifted her hands and swayed them about above her head gracefully. She was posturing she knew, but why she had no idea. It all came upon her as suddenly and as uncontrollably as a blush. She was whirling around the room, now slow, now fast, but always with her arms held out lissom, like a dancing-girl's. Sometimes her body bent this way, and sometimes that, her hands keeping time to her movements meanwhile in long graceful curves, but all as if compelled by some extrinsic necessity.

It was an instinct within her over which she had no control. Surely, surely, she must be possessed. A spirit that was not her seemed to be catching her round the waist, and twisting her about, and making her spin headlong over the floor through this wild fierce dance. It was terrible, terrible. Yet she could not prevent it. A force not her own seemed to sustain and impel her.

And all the time, as she whirled, she was conscious also of some strange dim need. A sense of discomfort oppressed her arms. She hadn't everything she required for this solitary orgy. Something more was lacking her. Something essential, vital. But what on earth it could be she knew not; she knew not.

By-and-by she paused, and, as she glanced right and left, the sense of discomfort grew clearer and more vivid. It was her hands that were wrong. Her hands were empty. She must have something to fill them. Something alive, lithe, curling, sinuous. These wavings and swayings, to this side and to that, seemed so meaningless and void--without some life to guide them. There was nothing for her to hold; nothing to tame and subdue; nothing to cling and writhe and give point to her movements. Oh! heavens, how horrible!

She drew herself up suddenly, and by dint of a fierce brief effort of will repressed for awhile the mad dance that overmastered her. The spirit within her, if spirit it were, kept quiet for a moment, awed and subdued by her proud determination. Then it began once more and led her resistlessly forward. She moved over to the chest of drawers still rhythmically and with set steps, but to the phantom strain of some unheard low music. The music was running vaguely through her head all the time--wild Aeolian music--it sounded like a rude tune on a harp or zither. And surely the cymbals clashed now and again overhead; and the timbrel rang clear; and the castanets tinkled, keeping time with the measure. She stood still and listened. No, no, not a sound save the rain on the roof. It was the music of her own heart, beating irregularly and fiercely to an intermittent lilt, like a Hungarian waltz or a Roumanian tarantella.

By this time, Elina was thoroughly frightened. Was she going mad? she asked herself, or had some evil spirit taken up his abode within her? What made her spin and twirl about like this--irresponsibly, unintentionally, irrepressibly, meaninglessly? Oh, what would her mother say, if only she knew all? And what on earth would Cyril Waring think of her?

Cyril Waring! Cyril Waring! It was all Cyril Waring. And yet, if he knew--oh, mercy, mercy!

Still, in spite of these doubts, misgivings, fears, she walked over towards the chest of drawers with a firm and rhythmical tread, to the bars of the internal music that rang loud through her brain, and began opening one drawer after another in an aimless fashion. She was looking for something--she didn't know what; and she never could rest now until she'd found it.

Drawer upon drawer she opened and shut wearily, but nothing that her eyes fell upon seemed to suit her mood. Dresses and jackets and underlinen were there; she glanced at them all with a deep sense of profound contempt; none of these gewgaws of civilized life could be of any use to supply the vague want her soul felt so dimly and yet so acutely. They were dead, dead, dead, so close and clinging! Go further! Go further! At last she opened the bottom drawer of all, and her eye fell askance upon a feather boa, curled up at the bottom--soft, smooth, and long; a winding, coiling, serpentine boa. In a second, she had fallen upon it bodily with greedy hands, and was twisting it round her waist, and holding it high and low, and fighting fiercely at times, and figuring with it like a posturant. Some dormant impulse of her race seemed to stir in her blood, with frantic leaps and bounds, at its first conscious awakening. She gave herself up to it wildly now. She was mad. She was mad. She was glad. She was happy.

Then she began to turn round again, slowly, slowly, slowly. As she turned, she raised the boa now high above her head; now held it low on one side, now stooped down and caressed it. At times, as she played with it, the lifeless thing seemed to glide from her grasp in curling folds and elude her; at others, she caught it round the neck like a snake, and twisted it about her arm, or let it twine and encircle her writhing body. Like a snake! like a snake! That idea ran like wildfire through her burning veins. It was a snake, indeed, she wanted; a real live snake; what would she not have given, if it were only Sardanapalus!

Sardanapalus, so glossy, so beautiful, so supple, that glorious green serpent, with his large smooth coils, and his silvery scales, and his darting red tongue, and his long lithe movements. Sardanapalus, Sardanapalus, Sardanapalus! The very name seemed to link itself with the music in her head. It coursed with her blood. It rang through her brain. And another as well. Cyril Waring, Cyril Waring, Cyril Waring, Cyril Waring! Oh! great heavens, what would Cyril Waring say now, if only he could see her in her mad mood that moment!

And yet it was not she, not she, not she, but some spirit, some weird, some unseen power within her. It was no more she than that boa there was a snake. A real live snake. Oh, for a real live snake! And then she could dance--tarantel, tarantella--as the spirit within her prompted her to dance it.

"Faster, faster," said the spirit; and she answered him back, "Faster!"

Faster, faster, faster, faster she whirled round the room; the boa grew alive; it coiled about her; it strangled her. Her candle failed; the wick in the socket flickered and died; but Elma danced on, unheeding, in the darkness. Dance, dance, dance, dance; never mind for the light! Oh! what madness was this? What insanity had come over her? Would her feet never stop? Must she go on till she dropped? Must she go on for ever?

Ashamed and terrified with her maidenly sense, overawed and obscured by this hateful charm, yet unable to stay herself, unable to resist it, in a transport of fear and remorse, she danced on irresponsibly. Check herself she couldn't, let her do what she would. Her whole being seemed to go forth into that weird, wild dance. She trembled and shook. She stood aghast at her own shame. She had hard work to restrain herself from crying aloud in her horror.

At last, a lull, a stillness, a recess. Her limbs seemed to yield and give way beneath her. She half fainted with fatigue. She staggered and fell. Too weary to undress, she flung herself upon the bed, just as she was, clothes and all. Her overwrought nerves lost consciousness at once. In three minutes she was asleep, breathing fast but peacefully.