Mrs. Jackson was feeding her ducks at the beck behind the house. But the kitchen door stood open, and she not only heard her name, but recognised the voice which shouted it.
“It’s Mr. Gordon,” she said to the servant who was with her, and she bustled through the kitchen into the parlour, drying her hands with her apron as she went.
David Gordon stood by the window, looking dreamily out across the fields. He turned as she entered the room, and shook hands with her.
“I have given you a surprise,” he laughed.
“You have, indeed, Mr. Gordon. I never expected to see you again at Wastdale Head. You should have written you were coming.”
And she proceeded to light the fire.
“I didn’t know myself that I was coming until yesterday.”
“It is three years since you were here.”
“Three years,” Gordon repeated slowly. “Yes! I did not realise it until I caught sight of the farm-house again.”
“You will be wanting breakfast?”
“The sooner, the better. I have walked from Boot.”
“It didn’t seem really far;” and a smile broke over his face as he added—
“I heard my marriage bells ringing all the way across Burnmoor.”
Mrs. Jackson retired to the kitchen to prepare breakfast and to ponder over his remark. The result of her reflections was shown in the unusual strength of the tea and in an extra thickness of butter on the toast. She decked the table with an assortment of jams, and carefully closed the door which opened into the lane, although the April sunlight was pouring through it in a warm flood. It seemed as if Gordon had gained an additional value and herself an additional responsibility. She even took a cushion from the sofa and placed it on his chair, and then waited on him while he breakfasted, nodding and smiling a discreet but inquisitive sympathy.
On Gordon, however, her pantomime was lost. His thoughts no longer chimed to marriage bells. For Wastdale, and this farmhouse in particular, were associated in his mind with the recollection of two friends, of whom one was dead in reality, the other dead to him; and always vividly responsive to the impression of the moment, he had stepped back across the interval of the past three years, and now dwelled with a strange sense of loneliness amidst a throng of quickening memories.
The woman, however, got the upper hand in Mrs. Jackson, and she suggested, tentatively—
“Then maybe, Mr. Gordon, you are going to be married?”
“You can omit the ‘maybe,’” he laughed.
“Well, I should never have thought it!” she exclaimed.
“Time brings in his revenges,” said he.
“The way you three gentlemen used to rail at women! Well, there!”
“But, then, they weren’t women. They were Aunt Sallies of our own contriving— mere pasteboard. We were young and we didn’t know.”
Mrs. Jackson inquired the date and place of the ceremony. At Keswick, she was told, and in a week’s time. She floated out garrulous on a tide of sentiment. She hoped that Mr. Gordon’s two friends would follow his example and find out their mistake, not noticing the shadow which her words brought to her lodger’s face. She dropped the name of Hawke and the shadow deepened.
“I rather fancy,” he said abruptly, “that Mr. Hawke found out the mistake at exactly the same time as I did myself.”
Mrs. Jackson was a quick woman, and she took his meaning from the inflection of his voice.
“He was your rival!”
“I have not seen much of him lately.”
She thought for a moment and said, “Then it’s just as well he’s staying at the Inn.”
Gordon sprang to his feet.
“At the Inn?” he exclaimed.
“Yes,” she answered. “He still comes to climb at Wastdale every Easter. But he has always stayed at the Inn, since you and Mr. Arkwright have stopped away.”
Gordon stood drumming with his fingers on the table-cloth. A sudden impulse of a sentimental kind had persuaded him to spend his last week of bachelorhood alone in the familiar privacy of this spot, and he had obeyed it on the instant, thoughtlessly it now appeared to him. He might have foreseen the likelihood of Hawke’s presence. After all, however, it could not matter. It would be, perhaps, a little awkward if they met, though, indeed, it need not be even that. Their actual rivalry had ended with the announcement of his engagement two years ago. Hawke could gain no end by sustaining the feud. There was, in truth, no reason why they should not shake hands over the matter. So he argued to himself, desire pointing the argument and stifling certain uneasy reflections as to the tenacity of Hawke’s nature.
He sat down to resume his breakfast. The third member of the trio which for years had made the farmhouse the resort durmg Easter vacations claimed Mrs. Jackson’s attention.
“And Mr. Arkwright? “she asked.
“He’s dead,” Gordon replied after a pause. “He died last year in Switzerland. It was an accident. I was with him at the time.”
He spoke with spasmodic jerks and ended with something like a sigh of relief. But if Mrs. Jackson loved marriages, she hankered after violent deaths, and so, while she expressed unbounded pity, she insisted upon details. Gordon submitted reluctantly.
“It happened in the Oberland,” he said, and Mrs, Jackson took a chair. “We were coming down a mountain towards the evening—Arkwright, myself, and a guide. We chanced to be late. The descent was new to us, and knowing that we should not get off the snow before dark we looked out for a spot to camp on. We came to a little plateau of rock just as the night was falling, and determined to remain there. The guide had a bottle of wine left out of our provisions. We had kept it back purposely.”
Gordon paused for a moment and then went on again with a certain dehberateness of speech as though the episode fascinated him in the telling of it.
“Arkwright volunteered to draw the cork. The neck of the bottle burst and cut into his arm. It severed the main artery just above the wrist. I sent the guide down to the valley, but, of course, no help came until the morning. He was dead then.”
“And you stayed with him all the time?”
“Yes!” said Gordon, and he rose from the table.
Mrs. Jackson, however, failed to take the hint. She wanted a description of his feelings during that night of watching, and she persisted until she had obtained it.
“I wonder you can bear to speak about it at all!” she said almost reproachfully when he had finished.
Left to himself, Gordon became the prey of a singular depression. The sensation of horror which the recital of the incident revived in him was intensified, not merely by its sombre contrast with the former liveliness of his thoughts, but by the actual surroundings amongst which he stood. The room itself was so suggestive of reminiscences that it seemed instinct with the presence of his dead friend. For the fact that he had but lately entered it after a lapse of years gave a fresh vividness to his memories. It was as if the dust had been suddenly swept from them by a rough hand.
He walked over to the oak chest which stood against the wall by the fireplace. A book in a red cover lay upon it and he took it up. It was a novel which Arkwright had written at the farmhouse, and it contained an inscription to that effect from the author’s hand.
“I seem likely to pass a pleasant week,” he said to himself, and taking his hat, stepped out into the clear sunshine.
But his thoughts ran ever in the same channel. Each familiar object that he passed recalled his friend, and the remembrance of that night in the Alps hung like a black cloud about his heart. He tried to thrust it aside, but the more earnestly he tried, the more persistently it chained his attention, until in the end it seemed to shadow forth something sinister, something almost of menace. For some distance he followed the bed of the valley and then struck upwards to the right, on to the slopes of Scafell Pike. After a while he stopped to light his pipe, and, turning, saw over against him the track mounting in sharp zigzags towards the summit of the Styhead Pass. It was as clearly defined on the hill-side as a pencilled line on paper, and his eyes followed its direction mechanically until it bent over the edge of the Pass and disappeared from view. Then equally mechanically he began to picture in his mind its subsequent course. He had traced it past the tarn and half the way to Borrowdale, when of a sudden a smile dawned through the gloom on his face, “The path to Keswick!” he thought. He traced it consciously after that; he saw it broaden out into a road, and his imagination set a dainty figure in a white dress and a sailor hat at the end of it.
Gordon had met Kate Nugent for the first time some three years before at Hawke’s home in London, and from the outset of their acquaintance she had commenced to dominate his thoughts, not so much on account of her beauty as from a certain distinctness of personality which appealed to him at that time with a very peculiar force. For she came to him at a somewhat critical period in his life. Left an orphan while yet a child, David had spent his boyhood alone in the north of Scotland. His guardian—an uncle with a seat in Parliament and an estate near Ravenglass —he never saw; his tutor—an unpractical scholar of the old-fashioned type—he neglected, in order to follow the marsh-lamps of his own dreamy and somewhat morbid imagination. And so dividing his time between the study of the more exuberant poets and solitary rides along the bleak sea-coast, he mapped out the world for himself upon a purely fanciful plan. He first came into contact with actual life on his migration to Oxford. He was brought face to face with new facts and new experiences, which, strive as he might, he could not fit in with his theories. And, besides, he seemed to see all around him men actuated by the interests of truth toiling noisily at the overthrow of creeds and erecting nothing in their place. As a consequence, his false idealism crumbled beneath him, he lost his self-reliance, and felt hemmed in by a confused tangle of truth and falsehood which there was no clue to help him to unravel. The step between an intellectual scepticism and personal cynicism is an easy one for most men to take. Gordon strode over the intervening gaps unconsciously the moment he ceased to trust himself, since his own sensations had, of necessity, been the one standard by which he judged.
His meeting with Kate Nugent, however, changed the whole tenor of his mind. She appeared to him the one real thing that he had found in his journey through a world of shadows. He pictured her standing out white and clear from a background of shifting haze, and his very self-distrust diminished since he referred his thoughts and actions to his conception of her as to a touchstone for the testing of them.
After their engagement, she became almost his religion. He re-fashioned a second world in her image, faith coming to him like a child bom from the joining of their hearts. His ambitions, so long dulled to inaction, sprang into new vigour and he followed their lead with a confident patience. There was, in fact, an element of quaint extravagance in his devotion, such as one finds mirrored in the love-poems of the seventeenth century.
Hence it came about that as he walked home in the fall of the afternoon, matching the sunset with the colour of his thoughts, the sight of the white Inn walls, prominent in a dark clump of firs, recalled to him not only the fact of Hawke’s proximity, but his desire to put an end to their estrangement. The desire grew as he dwelled upon it, until he began to feel an absolute repulsion from the prospect of starting along this new stage of his life at enmity with an old comrade.
He determined to make the overture, and continuing his way onwards to the Inn, inquired for Mr. Hawke. He was out, they told him. He had waited until the postman came at twelve, and had then set out for the fells. Gordon rummaged in his pockets and unearthed a card. He scribbled on it a request that Hawke would visit him during the evening, and turned back to the farm-house in a glow of satisfaction. A wild fancy shot through him that Hawke and himself had been designedly brought together into the seclusion of the valley. He laughed it aside for the moment.
But it returned to him afterwards with overwhelming conviction.