chapter thirty five
A LIFE FOR A LIFE
It was a stormy morning some weeks after these occurrences and the wind was careering and rioting up the Channel. Seen from the cliffs above Rayleigh the sea looked all silver-grey like frosted glass, so closely did the short chopping waves follow each other, and so thin, gauzy and almost invisible was the sea mist which was being driven shoreward in fleecy streams. The wind now whooed and now trumpeted in the stout Scotch firs, which Grandfather the Founder had with happy forethought planted along the edge of the down to withstand the first breaking fury of the gale.
Ione had put on her cloak, and as the fashion of woman is, had fastened a soft cap on her head by transfixing it with a pin great and perilous. She had no fear of the wet, and a certain dull ache in her brain produced after a while a feeling of intolerable restlessness and oppression indoors. So she went out and walked upon the cliffs, following the wind-swept paths, her hands fully occupied in restraining the manœuvres of her flapping and billowy mackintosh. Sometimes the rain dashed riotously in her face, and then a feeling of resistance and struggle strengthened her soul.
She loved Keith Harford — she acknowledged it even to herself now. Keith Harford loved her, that she had known long ago. She did not argue about either fact, for she was persuaded that though their loves might find little expression, they loved each other once and for ever, with a love that was far beyond Jane Allen's strenuous self-sacrifice or Idalia's pretty nestling petulances. With such thoughts in her heart Ione was waging a good warfare with the Channel gusts upon the path nearest the cliff edge, when she became aware that some one was approaching from the opposite direction. She caught glimpses of a tall form bearing down upon her through the swaying branches of the trees. As the man came nearer, she looked up, and there before her was Mr, H. Chadford Eaton. His small eyes were fixed upon her with a hideous sneer, a look at once of thwarted vengeance and concentrated hatred. The seaward path was narrow. Ione, though her heart was beating fast, kept firmly to it. She grasped her unopened umbrella with one hand and put the other into the pocket of her waterproof to keep it tight about her. Eaton glanced once over his shoulder as if to see if he were observed. A woman was approaching at right angles through the woodland pathways. With a growl almost like that of a baffled beast, the dismissed clerk turned aside and strode away through the pines in the direction of the village which nestled in the hollow behind the cliffs on which towered the vast wind-beaten bulk of the Abbey.
As he passed Ione he gave her one look so ugly and hateful that her knees trembled under her. The girl's heart rose in thankfulness as she looked towards the woman whose opportune arrival had saved her from (at least) an unpleasant interview.
It was Mrs. Arminell Howard-Hodge, the High-Priestess of the latest New Religion, presently supreme at Rayleigh Abbey.
She approached slowly, seeming instinctively to avoid the trees and the little inequalities of the path, and keeping her eyes fixed on those of Ione with a certain curious persistence. Her face, even in the fitful morning sunshine which alternated with the gusty blasts of driving rain, was grey and colourless. The salt scourge of the wet sea-wind did not whip the blood into her cheek. The lips scarcely showed of any other colour than that of the sallow dried-up skin about them.
As the woman came near Ione felt the brisk forcefulness of the description of Marcus, who constantly averred that only to glance at Mother Hodge gave him the crawls down his spine. "She looked," he cried, "as if she had been buried three days, and had gone about ever since regretting she had been dug up." On the present occasion Mrs. Howard-Hodge came and held out a hand to Ione, in which there was a curious tingling power — some electric force which Ione felt resentfully yet was obliged in some measure to submit to.
"Miss March," said the Seeress, "I have been wishing for a chance to speak to you for some days. It was with that purpose I ventured out into this brutal turmoil of the elements. Your face has dwelt with me ever since I saw it. The others are as nothing to me. No tragedy hides behind their brows. You are soulful. You possess the deep eyes of one for whose spirit the gods and demons are at wrestle. You have had strange sorrows and sad experiences."
"If you mean that I am a girl alone in the world, earning her own living — of course I have," said Ione, striving to keep this dangerous woman on a more ordinary level of conversation.
Mrs. Arminell Howard-Hodge smiled, and laid her hand on the girl's arm impressively.
"Come," she said, "better trust me. You are hemmed in here. I will be your best friend, if you will let me. I know that a friend and an enemy are both here — the man who loves you and the man who hates you. Is it not so? You are silent. Did not the one slink past you with a fiend's grimace only a moment or two ago? Did you not come hither with the hidden hope in your heart that you might meet the other?"
Ione walked on without speech — half in astonishment, half in annoyance. It was certainly strange, yet after all the woman might have found out so much by casual gossip or acute observation.
"You do not trust me — you do not believe! Well, you shall hear yet more, and then you will know that I am your friend. I see the crisis of your life fast coming upon you. You cannot escape from it — the day that shall test whether you are of gold like those rare ones, alas! too few, or dross like the common multitude."
She paused for a moment. Her eyelids drooped, her eyes turning inwards, as if in intense self-communion.
"You have nursed the man you thought to meet to-day. You have sat beside his pillow. You have hearkened to the words of his passionate love. Do not deny it! I can see you sit there with joy and sacrifice in your heart. I can hear the prayer which you thought only the Power-giver listened to in the silence of the night. ‘Take my life for his!' so you prayed. 'Take my life for his!' Girl, your prayer was answered. In your face, when first I saw you, I read the Doom written. There is no escape, and, to do you justice, you desire none. You shall die in his stead!"
Ione was pale now to the lips. She could no longer deny to the woman a certain strange knowledge. How much she might have obtained from information, how much guessed by keen intuition, she did not stop to disentangle. The woman had certainly spoken her very soul, spelling it out, as it were, letter by letter.
Mrs. Howard-Hodge went on again, keeping her chill blue eyes all the time vigilantly upon Ione.
“Ah, you believe me now! You are willing to trust me. Your prayer then is answered. It remains only for you to pay the price. Death and falling on sleep — what are they? A light thing, the ceasing of a breath, a slave's emancipation. But yet there remains a time, and a time, and half a time. Take and enjoy every golden hour — they are milled coin from the mint of the gods; days of perfect love they shall be, for which many lonely and loveless ones would give their immortal souls."
And so, leaving Ione standing there in the streaming mist which came boiling up from below and hissing over the cliff-edge, the Seeress abruptly vanished among the red boles of the trees, leaving them gleaming wet and spectral amid the salt sea-smother.
With her nerves shattered by this strange communication, Ione turned towards the garden-gate, still hoping to see Keith Harford on her way. Nor was she again to be disappointed. It was not long before she saw him come towards her with a new spring and alertness in his gait. It seemed indeed as if, the bargain of life for life once struck and acknowledged, the Fates were henceforth to be favourable.
He held out his hand frankly and boyishly, yet with some of the old quickly vanishing shyness in his eyes.
"I am glad to see you walk like that," said Ione, smiling back at him. "I have not seen anything like that stride since Grindelwald. How long ago that seems!"
Keith ranged himself close at the girl's elbow, and looked fondly and yet wistfully down at the thinness of her oval cheek. He went on to admire the crisp curls of her hair, which, being natural, the wind and wet had divided and multiplied into a thousand glistening ringlets.
He would have given all that he possessed (so he said to himself) for the right to touch the least of these circlets with his hand. But the next moment he laughed within him to think how little he had to give. As for him, he could only look and long.
Meanwhile Ione spoke not at all, the mystery of the unknown oppressing her. Her feet seemed shod with leaden clogs. Her heart felt unaccountably weary and old. A sense of on-coming and irresistible Doom for the first time in her life daunted her. She longed to be alone that she might cast herself on her bed and forget in unconsciousness the sick disappointment and the dull incessant ache.
Keith Harford could no more follow a woman's mood than he could read the secret of the stars or commune with such intelligences as may inhabit them. He was one of the unfortunate and unsuccessful men who reverence women so much that they never understand them.
"Goodbye," said Ione, without holding out her hand, as they came to the foot of the ivy-grown staircase; "I am going in now. And you oughtn't to be out in a day like this, you know."
Whereupon to be avenged for his disappointment at her swift departure, Keith Harford went and walked long upon the cliff-edge, thinking of Ione amid the drumming of the tempest and the thresh of the rain, until he was wet through from head to foot.
But Ione lay on her narrow hospital bed, and communed hopelessly with her own soul. For she knew not that Keith and she were as two electric clouds that cannot be united till after the bursting of the storm, till the levin bolt has flashed and the answering thunder diapasoned between them.
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First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.