Chapter II.
 

Next afternoon, about two o'clock, Alan called with a tremulous heart at the cottage. Herminia had heard not a little of him meanwhile from her friend Mrs. Dewsbury. "He's a charming young man, my dear," the woman of the world observed with confidence. "I felt quite sure you'd attract one another. He's so clever and advanced, and everything that's dreadful,--just like yourself, Herminia. But then he's also very well connected. That's always something, especially when one's an oddity. You wouldn't go down one bit yourself, dear, if you weren't a dean's daughter. The shadow of a cathedral steeple covers a multitude of sins. Mr. Merrick's the son of the famous London gout doctor,--you must know his name,--all the royal dukes flock to him. He's a barrister himself, and in excellent practice. You might do worse, do you know, than to go in for Alan Merrick."

Herminia's lip curled an almost imperceptible curl as she answered gravely, "I don't think you quite understand my plans in life, Mrs. Dewsbury. It isn't my present intention to go in for anybody."

But Mrs. Dewsbury shook her head. She knew the world she lived in. "Ah, I've heard a great many girls talk like that beforehand," she answered at once with her society glibness; "but when the right man turned up, they soon forgot their protestations. It makes a lot of difference, dear, when a man really asks you!"

Herminia bent her head. "You misunderstand me," she replied. "I don't mean to say I will never fall in love. I expect to do that. I look forward to it frankly,--it is a woman's place in life. I only mean to say, I don't think anything will ever induce me to marry,--that is to say, legally."

Mrs. Dewsbury gave a start of surprise and horror. She really didn't know what girls were coming to nowadays,--which, considering her first principles, was certainly natural. But if only she had seen the conscious flush with which Herminia received her visitor that afternoon, she would have been confirmed in her belief that Herminia, after all, in spite of her learning, was much like other girls. In which conclusion Mrs. Dewsbury would not in the end have been fully justified.

When Alan arrived, Herminia sat at the window by the quaintly clipped box-tree, a volume of verse held half closed in her hand, though she was a great deal too honest and transparent to pretend she was reading it. She expected Alan to call, in accordance with his promise, for she had seen at Mrs. Dewsbury's how great an impression she produced upon him; and, having taught herself that it was every true woman's duty to avoid the affectations and self-deceptions which the rule of man has begotten in women, she didn't try to conceal from herself the fact that she on her side was by no means without interest in the question how soon he would pay her his promised visit. As he appeared at the rustic gate in the privet hedge, Herminia looked out, and changed color with pleasure when she saw him push it open.

"Oh, how nice of you to look me up so soon!" she cried, jumping from her seat (with just a glance at the glass) and strolling out bareheaded into the cottage garden. "Isn't this a charming place? Only look at our hollyhocks! Consider what an oasis after six months of London!"

She seemed even prettier than last night, in her simple white morning dress, a mere ordinary English gown, without affectation of any sort, yet touched with some faint reminiscence of a flowing Greek chiton. Its half-classical drapery exactly suited the severe regularity of her pensive features and her graceful figure. Alan thought as he looked at her he had never before seen anybody who appeared at all points so nearly to approach his ideal of womanhood. She was at once so high in type, so serene, so tranquil, and yet so purely womanly.

"Yes, it is a lovely place," he answered, looking around at the clematis that drooped from the gable-ends. "I'm staying myself with the Watertons at the Park, but I'd rather have this pretty little rose-bowered garden than all their balustrades and Italian terraces. The cottagers have chosen the better part. What gillyflowers and what columbines! And here you look out so directly on the common. I love the gorse and the bracken, I love the stagnant pond, I love the very geese that tug hard at the silverweed, they make it all seem so deliciously English."

"Shall we walk to the ridge?" Herminia asked with a sudden burst of suggestion. "It's too rare a day to waste a minute of it indoors. I was waiting till you came. We can talk all the freer for the fresh air on the hill-top."

Nothing could have suited Alan Merrick better, and he said so at once. Herminia disappeared for a moment to get her hat. Alan observed almost without observing it that she was gone but for a second. She asked none of that long interval that most women require for the simplest matter of toilet. She was back again almost instantly, bright and fresh and smiling, in the most modest of hats, set so artlessly on her head that it became her better than all art could have made it. Then they started for a long stroll across the breezy common, yellow in places with upright spikes of small summer furze, and pink with wild pea-blossom. Bees buzzed, broom crackled, the chirp of the field cricket rang shrill from the sand-banks. Herminia's light foot tripped over the spongy turf. By the top of the furthest ridge, looking down on North Holmwood church, they sat side by side for a while on the close short grass, brocaded with daisies, and gazed across at the cropped sward of Denbies and the long line of the North Downs stretching away towards Reigate. Tender grays and greens melted into one another on the larches hard by; Betchworth chalk-pit gleamed dreamy white in the middle distance. They had been talking earnestly all the way, like two old friends together; for they were both of them young, and they felt at once that nameless bond which often draws one closer to a new acquaintance at first sight than years of converse. "How seriously you look at life," Alan cried at last, in answer to one of Herminias graver thoughts. "I wonder what makes you take it so much more earnestly than all other women?"

"It came to me all at once when I was about sixteen," Herminia answered with quiet composure, like one who remarks upon some objective fact of exernal nature. "It came to me in listening to a sermon of my father's,--which I always look upon as one more instance of the force of heredity. He was preaching on the text, 'The Truth shall make you Free,' and all that he said about it seemed to me strangely alive, to be heard from a pulpit. He said we ought to seek the Truth before all things, and never to rest till we felt sure we had found it. We should not suffer our souls to be beguiled into believing a falsehood merely because we wouldn't take the trouble to find out the Truth for ourselves by searching. We must dig for it; we must grope after it. And as he spoke, I made up my mind, in a flash of resolution, to find out the Truth for myself about everything, and never to be deterred from seeking it, and embracing it, and ensuing it when found, by any convention or preconception. Then he went on to say how the Truth would make us Free, and I felt he was right. It would open our eyes, and emancipate us from social and moral slaveries. So I made up my mind, at the same time, that whenever I found the Truth I would not scruple to follow it to its logical conclusions, but would practise it in my life, and let it make me Free with perfect freedom. Then, in search of Truth, I got my father to send me to Girton; and when I had lighted on it there half by accident, and it had made me Free indeed, I went away from Girton again, because I saw if I stopped there I could never achieve and guard my freedom. From that day forth I have aimed at nothing but to know the Truth, and to act upon it freely; for, as Tennyson says,--

'To live by law
Acting the law we live by without fear,
And because right is right to follow right,
Were wisdom in the scorn of consequence.'"

She broke off suddenly, and looking up, let her eye rest for a second on the dark thread of clambering pines that crest the down just above Brockham. "This is dreadfully egotistical," she cried, with a sharp little start. "I ought to apologize for talking so much to you about my own feelings."

Alan gazed at her and smiled. "Why apologize," he asked, "for managing to be interesting? You, are not egotistical at all. What you are telling me is history,--the history of a soul, which is always the one thing on earth worth hearing. I take it as a compliment that you should hold me worthy to hear it. It is a proof of confidence. Besides," he went on, after a second's pause, "I am a man; you are a woman. Under those circumstances, what would otherwise be egotism becomes common and mutual. When two people sympathize with one another, all they can say about themselves loses its personal tinge and merges into pure human and abstract interest."

Herminia brought back her eyes from infinity to his face. "That's true," she said frankly. "The magic link of sex that severs and unites us makes all the difference. And, indeed, I confess I wouldn't so have spoken of my inmost feelings to another woman."