Chapter IX. And After?
 

When Elma woke up next morning, it was broad daylight. She woke with a start, to find herself lying upon the bed where she had flung herself. For a minute or two she couldn't recollect or recall to herself how it had all come about. It was too remote from anything in her previous waking thought, too dream-like, too impossible. Then an unspeakable horror flashed over her unawares. Her face flushed hot. Shame and terror overcame her. She buried her head in her hands in an agony of awe. Her own self-respect was literally outraged. It wasn't exactly remorse; it wasn't exactly fear; it was a strange creeping feeling of ineffable disgust and incredulous astonishment.

There could be but one explanation of this impossible episode. She must have gone mad all at once! She must be a frantic lunatic!

A single thought usurped her whole soul. If she was going mad--if this was really mania--she could never, never, never--marry Cyril Waring.

For in a flash of intuition she knew that now. She knew she was in love. She knew he loved her.

In that wild moment of awakening all the rest mattered nothing. The solitary idea that ran now through her head, as the impulse to dance had run through it last night, was the idea that she could never marry Cyril Waring. And if Cyril Waring could have seen her just then! her cheeks burned yet a brighter scarlet at that thought than even before. One virginal blush suffused her face from chin to forehead. The maidenly sense of shame consumed and devoured her.

Was she mad? Was she mad? And was this a lucid interval?

Presently, as she lay still on her bed all dressed, and with her face in her hands, trembling for very shame, a little knock sounded tentatively at the door of her bedroom. It was a timid, small knock, very low and soft, and, as it were, inquiring. It seemed to say in an apologetic sort of undertone, "I don't know whether you're awake or not just yet; and if you're still asleep, pray don't let me for a moment disturb or arouse you."

"Who's there?" Elma mustered up courage to ask, in a hushed voice of terror, hiding her head under the bed-clothes.

"It's me, darling," Mrs. Clifford answered, very softly and sweetly. Elma had never heard her mother speak in so tender and gentle a tone before, though they loved one another well, and were far more sympathetic than most mothers and daughters. And besides, that knock was so unlike mamma's. Why so soft and low?

Had mamma discovered her? With a despairing sense of being caught she looked down at her tell-tale clothes and the unslept-in bed.

"Oh, what shall I ever do?" she thought to herself, confusedly. "I can't let mamma come in and catch me like this. She'll ask why on earth I didn't undress last night. And then what could I ever say? How could I ever explain to her?"

The awful sense of shame-facedness grew upon her still more deeply than ever. She jumped up and whispered through the door, in a very penitent voice, "Oh, mother, I can't let you in just yet. Do you mind waiting five minutes? Come again by-and-by. I--I--I'm so awfully tired and queer this morning somehow."

Mrs. Clifford's voice had an answering little ring of terror in it, as she replied at once, in the same soft tone--

"Very well, darling. That's all right. Stay as long as you like. Don't trouble to get up if you'd rather have your breakfast in bed. And don't hurry yourself at all. I'll come back by-and-by and see what's the matter."

Elma didn't know why, but by the very tone of her mother's voice she felt dimly conscious something strange had happened. Mrs. Clifford spoke with unusual gentleness, yet with an unwonted tremor.

"Thank you, dear," Elma answered through the door, going back to the bedside and beginning to undress in a tumult of shame. "Come again by-and-by. In just five minutes." It would do her good, she knew, in spite of her shyness, to talk with her mother. Then she folded her clothes neatly, one by one, on a ohair; hid the peccant boa away in its own lower drawer; buttoned her neat little embroidered nightdress tightly round her throat; arranged her front hair into a careless disorder; and tried to cool down her fiery red cheeks with copious bathing in cold water. When Mrs. Clifford came back five minutes later, everything looked to the outer eye of a mere casual observer exactly as if Elma had laid in bed all night, curled up between the sheets, in the most orthodox fashion.

But all these elaborate preparations didn't for one moment deceive the mother's watchful glance, or the keen intuition shared by all the women of the Clifford family. She looked tenderly at Elma--Elma with her face half buried in the pillows, and the tell-tale flush still crimsoning her cheek in a single round spot; then she turned for a second to the clothes, too neatly folded on the chair by the bedside, as she murmured low--

"You're not well this morning, my child. You'd better not get up. I'll bring you a cup of tea and some toast myself. You don't feel hungry, of course. Ah, no, I thought not. Just a slice of dry toast--yes, yes. I have been there. Some eau de Cologne on your forehead, dear? There, there, don't cry, Elma. You'll be better by-and-by. Stop in bed till lunch-time. I won't let Lucy come up with the tea, of course. You'd rather be alone. You were tired last night. Don't be afraid, my darling. It'll soon pass off. There's nothing on earth, nothing at all to be alarmed at."

She laid her hand nervously on Elma's arm. Half dead with shame as she was, Elma noticed it trembled. She noticed, too, that mamma seemed almost afraid to catch her eye. When their glance met for an instant the mother's eyelids fell, and her cheek, too, burned bright red, almost as red, Elma felt, as her own that nestled hot so deep in the pillow. Neither said a word to the other of what she thought or felt. But their mute sympathy itself made them more shame-faced than ever. In some dim, indefinite, instinctive fashion, Elma knew her mother was vaguely aware what she had done last night. Her gaze fell half unconsciously on the bottom drawer. With quick insight, Mrs. Clifford's eye followed her daughter's. Then it fell as before. Elma looked up at her terrified, and burst into a sudden flood of tears. Her mother stooped down and caught her wildly in her arms. "Cry, cry, my darling," ahe murmured, clasping her hard to her breast. "Cry, cry; it'll do you good; there's safety in crying. Nobody but I shall come near you to-day. Nobody else shall know! Don't be afraid of me! Have not I been there, too? It's nothing, nothing."

With a burst of despair, Elma laid her face in her mother's bosom. Some minutes later, Mrs. Clifford went down to meet her husband in the breakfast-room.

"Well?" the father asked, shortly, looking hard at his wife's face, which told its own tale at once, for it was white and pallid.

"Well!" Mrs. Clifford answered, with a pre-occupied air. "Elma's not herself this morning at all. Had a nervous turn after she went to her room last night. I know what it is. I suffered from them myself when I was about her age." Her eyes fell quickly and she shrank from her husband's searching glance. She was a plump-faced and well-favoured British matron now, but once, many years before, as a slim young girl, she had been in love with somebody--somebody whom by superior parental wisdom she was never allowed to marry, being put off instead with a well-connected match, young Mr. Clifford of the Colonial Office. That was all. No more romance than that. The common romance of every woman's heart. A forgotten love. Yet she tingled to remember it.

"And you think?" Mr. Clifford asked, laying down his newspaper and looking very grave.

"I don't think. I know," his wife answered hastily. "I was wrong the other day, and Elma's in love with that young man, Cyril Waring. I know more than that, Reginald; I know you may crush her; I know you may kill her; but if you don't want to do that, I know she must marry him. Whether we wish it, or whether we don't, there's nothing else to be done. As things stand now, it's inevitable, unavoidable. She'll never be happy with anybody else--she must have him--and I, for one, won't try to prevent her."

Mr. Reginald Clifford, C.M.G., sometime Administrator of the island of St. Kitts, gazed at his wife in blank astonishment. She spoke decidedly; he had never heard her speak with such firmness in his life before. It fairly took his breath away. He gazed at his wife blankly as he repeated to himself in very slow and solemn tones, each word distinct, "You, for one, won't try to prevent her!"

"No, I won't," Mrs. Clifford retorted defiantly, assured in her own mind she was acting right. "Elma's really in love with him; and I won't let Elma's life be wrecked--as some lives have been wrecked, and as some mothers would wreck it."

Mr. Clifford leaned back in his chair, one mass of astonishment, and let the Japanese paper-knife he was holding in his right hand drop clattering from his fingers. "If I hadn't heard you say it yourself, Louisa," he answered, with a gasp, "I could never have believed it. I could--never--have--believed it. I don't believe it even now. It's impossible, incredible."

"But it's true," Mrs. Clifford repeated. "Elma must marry the man she's in love with."

Meanwhile poor Elma lay alone in her bedroom upstairs, that awful sense of remorse and shame still making her cheeks tingle with unspeakable horror. Mrs. Clifford brought up her cup of tea herself. Elma took it with gratitude, but still never dared to look her mother in the face. Mrs. Clifford, too, kept her own eyes averted. It made Elma's self-abasement even profounder than before to feel that her mother instinctively knew everything.

The poor child lay there long, with a burning face and tingling ears, too ashamed to get up and dress herself and face the outer world, too ashamed to go down before her father's eyes, till long after lunchtime. Then there came a noise at the door once more; the rustling of a dress; a retreating footstep. Somebody pushed an envelope stealthily under the door. Elma picked it up and examined it curiously. It bore a penny stamp, and the local postmark. It must have come then by the two o'clock delivery, without a doubt; but the address, why, the address was written in some unknown hand, and in printing capitals. Elma tore it open with a beating heart, and read the one line of manuscript it contained, which was also written in the same print-like letters.

"Don't be afraid," the letter said, "It will do you no harm. Resist it when it comes. If you do, you will get the better of it."

Elma looked at the letter over and over again in a fever of dismay. She was certain it was her mother had written that note. But she read it with tears, only half-reassured--and then burnt it to ashes, and proceeded to dress herself.

When she went down to the drawing-room, Mrs. Clifford rose from her seat, and took her hand in her own, and kissed her on one cheek as if nothing out of the common had happened in any way. The talk between them was obtrusively commonplace. But all that day long, Elma noticed her mother was far tenderer to her than usual; and when she went up to bed Mrs. Clifford held her fingers for a moment with a gentle pressure, and kissed her twice upon her eyes, and stifled a sigh, and then broke from the room as if afraid to speak to her.