THE NINTH WAVE
That night Keith dined alone with his hostess — as had indeed been that lady's intention from the first. Idalia and Marcus were to come up afterwards. Nothing was said about Ione.
"Better let the mater have her fling," commented the dutiful son, as his wife and he were passing through the garden, "it will be all the easier sledding for Harford after. The more mother sees of him just at first, the sooner she'll let up on him."
Ione did not accompany Marcus and Idalia. For that night she was infinitely weary and, as it seemed to herself, she had done with life. Instead she stretched herself upon one of the little low beds, like hospital cots, which garnished the ascetic guest chambers of the Garden-House. These had indeed been originally furnished with an eye to the needs of certain Gentile and unregenerate bachelor friends of Marcus, rather than for the guests to whom at present they gave domicile and harbourage.
It was therefore well over in the next afternoon before it was the hap of Keith Harford to meet Ione. They found each other in a still and enclosed garden fastness, made apparently for lovers' converse and security. Even at this late season it was fragrant with blossom, and sonorous with the song of birds welcoming a fallacious spring in the short and fitful sunshine of an English Indian summer.
The girl had suddenly come upon her lover as she loitered listlessly round a curve of the green privet wall. Whereupon Keith had run to her, eager and impulsive as a boy.
“Ione—Miss March,” he cried, “forgive me for calling you that. But when a man owes his life to a friend, he does not stand upon ceremony with him. Tell me of yourself. Do you know you are looking quite pale and ill? I fear what you suffered for me has proved too much for you."
He seized her hand and held it firmly in both of his, gazing meantime into her face as a condemned man might upon that of an angel of mercy suddenly alighted before him with a message of love and hope from another world.
"Thank you," said Ione brightly, removing her hand and putting it for safety into the side pocket of her housewife's morning apron (for she had been helping Caleb with his cookery). "But really I am quite well, and enjoying myself hugely."
"Why then are you so pale — so thin? The wind on these cliffs will blow you away if you venture up there!"
"Oh, as to that," she answered," I always was a rake. There's no putting good flesh on ill bones, as my father used to say. But you — I think the fine sea air straight from France must be doing you good already! Can't you almost smell the patois in it, the blue houses, the white tilted carriers' carts (how I love them!), the maid-servants with their wide goffered caps? — Oh, there is no country in the world like France - "
"And yet you have chosen England!"
"To make my living in—yes, certainly," said Ione wistfully, "but not to live in — not to holiday-make in. Fancy the delight of a walking tour in France - "
"A walking tour," said Keith, sighing a sigh of melancholy remembrance. "I don't feel as if ever I could walk again. I am exactly like the gentleman of your ancient national 'chestnut' who was ‘born tired’!"
"Exactly," cried Ione, glad to see his spirits brightening; "yet I can fancy a walking tour with you as guide — "
"Can you?" ejaculated Keith, with his heart beating rarely and a new light shining in his eyes.
"Why, yes," said Ione, stoutly declining to be drawn into frivolous side issues; "I can fancy you as the leader of a walking party — elsewhere, of course, than among your beloved Alps. You would have all the knapsacks beautifully arranged. We arrive at the station. We disembark on the platform. But, alas, there, ranged at the 'Sortie' are carriages, voitures, victorias, what you will!
"'Let us get in,' you say; 'Providence has manifestly sent us these as the reward of merit. We shall begin our walking-tour when the horses give out.' There — is not that your idea of a walking tour? It is pretty much mine!"
"At present I fear it is something like it. But you — you look ill and tired. Ione, I know what wonderful things you did for a man sick unto death. Oh, if I were truly a man and not a broken-down weakling, I might thank you. As it is — as it is, I can only kiss your hand."
And before she could resist, even if she had wished, gently and very respectfully (much too respectfully) Keith raised Ione's hand to his lips.
Now there is no woman who desires an overplus of deference in the man she loves. He may reverence, in the antique phrase, the very ground she treads on. He may kiss (though the good custom has become obsolete with the evanescence of the ‘princess robe,’ that most becoming of all dresses for a woman with a figure) the hem of her garment. But these are the early stages. When the tide rises to flood and like an overflowing reservoir suddenly let loose, his love takes its way, she desires no deference or holding back.
Rather, like a besieged city, she chooses to be taken by storm and to make an end amidst the fierce delight of battle, not to be sapped by mine and countermine or dominated by slow circumvallation. And with all her yearning for work and freedom Ione was a woman. Keith, on the other hand, was a man adept in many things, but ignorant of the very A B C of love. He had explored the mysteries of pure reason. But the heart of a woman, in which (thank God) is almost always purity but very rarely reason, remained shut to him. He had not even approached its intimate fastnesses. He had not explored its hidden ways. So now, instead of clasping Ione in his arms and taking vehement possession of her love for time and eternity, discreetly and coldly he kissed her hand.
Ione stood a moment irresolute, leaving the hand in his keeping. Then with a certain quick returning self-possession as cold and firm as his own, she drew it in to her again, and looked at the man for whom almost she had laid down her life.
"Not yet," she thought, "is it fitting that he should know all."
Yet better than most women she could appraise exactly the delicate reserve of his withdrawal. She knew that Keith's scrupulous honour was a finer and rarer thing than a stronger man's most insistent passion. But she was a woman like others, and in her heart of hearts she desired to be wooed, not by formal observance or delicate restraint, but impetuously, directly, almost as the soldier-citizens of Rome wooed their Sabine brides. This man with his reverence, his high ideals as to what a man ought to possess before asking a woman to share his lot, appealed strongly to her. But chiefly with pity for the blindness that could not see the equal-glowing love which had grown up in her heart — and with something of contempt too for the weakness which could not take advantage of the yielding in her eyes.
Ione knew that Keith Harford's heart was all hers. What else indeed (save the secret of her own) had she learned during those weariful head-tossing nights when she had sat and watched him? What else had she listened to in the days when the gates of life were drawn back and all the cords of a man were unloosed. She smiled as she looked into Keith's eyes. They seemed to worship her as a divinity set far off. She wondered, with that irritant perversity of mind which comes to women in desperate situations, what would happen if she were to say "Keith — Keith Harford, listen. I, Ione March, love you. I have loved you ever since the first day I saw you!"
But she resisted the temptation to say these words aloud and walked on. Keith followed at her side, slowly growing conscious of the fact that it was now her mood not to be spoken to. Yet he had a sense that something tremendous was about to happen.
Suddenly, as if she had been alone, she began to hum very low the words of the song he had sung on his bed of delirium.
"John Anderson, my jo, John,
When we were first acquent" --
At the first bar Keith Harford stopped and looked at her. The words came to his ear with a strange indeterminate familiarity, bringing with them also the perfume of a woman's most intimate presence. Where had he heard them before, he asked himself? Why should they lie so close to his heart?
“Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonny brow was brent."
Then a belated breaker from the great sea of unconsciousness, the ninth wave of the tide of love swept over him. In a moment he had taken Ione's hand and drawn her to him. Words of ferventest devotion rose unbidden to his lips. In a moment more he would have pleaded his love face to face unashamed and unafraid. But there, at a turning of the path within a few feet of them, stood Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy with a countenance red as any peony. All her eighteen stone of ascetic adipose quivered with indignation like a shaken jelly. At first she could not speak for agitation. Growing slowly almost purple with indignation, she stood brow-beating the two culprits on the path before her. Keith's arm dropped disgustedly from Ione's waist. The effect of the interruption upon the girl was characteristically different. A flush of irritation, mingled with an irresistible smile at the humour of the situation, rose and flushed Ione's cheek and brow. Her lips curled, and in another moment she would have laughed outright.
But Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy turned slowly away with a stamp of her foot, muttering explosively certain words which sounded like "Toad! Snake! Viper! Traitor!" Then she marched majestically out of the garden, and locked the private door behind her.
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.