Wednesday, 3 June 2015

At a Month's End: part 3

Continuing with part 3 of At a Month's End: leaves from the diary of a man of the time, told in three parts in London Society magazine in 1887: one of the less findable Bertha Thomas stories I decided to rescue from archive limbo, in part for its Devon interest.

The story so far: Hubert Lane (better known as the novelist "Lanerton Lee") has come to the South Devon village of Conington to value the book collection of the impoverished Captain Lister. Lister as hidden his insolvency, as well as his plans for the whole family to quit Britain, from his possibly unstable niece Ella, fearing her reaction. Ella is initially hostile to Lane, suspecting him to be a crooked book dealer, and is shocked to find she has misjudged him, when his identity as the famous Lanerton Lee is accidentally outed by a visitor. Their relations become more cordial - until Captain Lister breaks to Ella the news of their situation, and the move. After she needs to be talked down from possible suicide at a clifftop, Ella vows that she won't leave Conington.

Text out of copyright. Credits to Google Books for scan used for transcript.

A Monthly Magazine of light and amusing literature for the hours of relaxation.
London, F. V. White and Co.,31 Southampton Street, Strand, W.C.
Volume 52, 1887
At a Month’s End
pages 307, 452, 564

Leaves from the diary of a man of the time.
A story in three parts.
By Bertha Thomas,
Author of “The Violin Player,” “Proud Maisie,” etc., etc.


“Seulette,” Normandy, October 2.—I had expected to find the uninhabited villa at Conington a cheerless, lifeless spectacle. Instead, the bright flower garden, raised blinds, furniture exactly as usual, library unentered since I left it last week, made one forget the nest was vacant, the birds flown. I expected to hear Lister humming a tune, according to his habit, in the passage, Jack shouting to Bob in the garden, Ella's hand on the door. The crone who lodges at the ruins gave me the house key. I was free to remain till nightfall if I chose.
        I proposed to spend an hour or two in the library, looking through some columns of oddities as yet unexplored. Well alone in the house, I could not yet fix my attention. The Lister children, more especially Ella, were fond of assuring me the library was haunted. I could believe it this time. Dr. Lister's shade came and looked over my shoulder; the bookcases creaked; I was aware of strange intermittent raps and rustlings. I knew it was merely because the dead silence, as at night, brought out sounds that get lost in the hum and stir of day. Distinctly I seemed to hear Ella's low laugh in the garden. Here was witchcraft Her image fastened on my imagination with a kind of obsession. There was no moral obligation to resist it just then, I assured myself, since she was already far off. I dwelt long on the bewildering personality of one whose strength seemed in part the result of her singular deficiencies, and who had exerted all her power of personal attraction to carry me out of myself for a moment with an audacity that had succeeded; then came the puzzle of her subsequent avoidance.
        My distraction was complete. I was neither reading nor writing when, after a lapse of time of which I could give little account, a slight rustling in the bushes against the window made me look up. No ghost, but Ella, looking in at me out of the daphne sprigs behind the glass with eager and imperious eyes. With a quick movement she lifted the sash, sprang in, and stood beside me, saying in her old bright, resolute way:
        “Take me with you.” Had I been expecting the apparition? I could not even feign the surprise that in reason I should have felt.
        “I said I should haunt this place,” she said with a cool disdain and a careless glance round. “I have come to bid good-bye.”
        “Good-bye?” I repeated confusedly.
        “To it—not to you.” As she spoke, with a sudden change of voice—murmuringly, caressingly, I made an involuntary movement of my arms towards her. Like a dart she flew there, clung to me like a twining plant, in her face that absolute joy that is sufficient to itself—that will look no further. Neither did I. I kissed her fervently. Once of her own will she touched my lips with hers, lightly, almost reverently, at the same time throwing a passionate, imperious glance into mine, and saying:
        “Take me with you!”
        “Ah—you refuse ?” In an instant she had freed herself and stood before me with flashing eyes and a sort of wild anger that became her better than sweetness becomes most women.
        “What is your good pleasure ?” I asked unsteadily.
        “Listen,” she said, falling into a persuasive tone, and she laid her head on my shoulder, saying in a soft whisper that was like a kiss in itself: “You are to be fond of me for a little while—a little while—there, where there is nothing to come between us.”
        “Ella,” I faltered, “you will make me mad.”
        “Like me!” and she laughed. “I wish to. For a little while, I said, and then I ask nothing more; I am not afraid to look beyond. Need you?”
        I gazed at her, abandoning all attempt to fathom the mystery of a mature apparently simple, yet whose workings and motives eluded me even now. Who had unlocked for her those secret chambers of the soul, of whose very existence one supposed her unsuspicious—an ignorance which the least scrupulous of mankind would feel bound religiously to respect? She asked with triumph,
        “Isn’t it well done? It is just four days since I heard that that sick woman at Brighton was suddenly worse and couldn’t have me immediately. I never told them. I wrote back that uncle would be willing for me to sail with them and that I had arranged everything. So nobody knew. When, where the railway follows the coast, I saw across the sea-wall the masts of the steamer out on her way, I felt I was free. I left the train at a station six miles off and walked here across the fields. I met nothing. No one saw me come in. No one will ask after me, or know, or care to know, any more than if you caught that swallow darting about the lawn its mother would ask what had become of him. Take me with you to Normandy to-night.”
        “To Normandy?”
        “You are to think of me and nothing else for a month. Let me be your bride for that time. After that you are to forget me for ever.”

* * * * * *

    The Mouette, a small French vessel, left Dartcombe for Petit Port that night. The crew were all foreigners; the passengers —there were but two—remained on deck throughout the stillest and warmest of autumn nights. A dead calm out at sea, a light fog filling the air—now and then a black-masted, dark-sailed ship loomed suddenly out of the mist, phantom-like, close alongside. Looking back, the journey seems unreal—one long vivid impression of strangeness and wonder. I sit here in my study at Seulette, which we reached but an hour ago, journeying straight on from Petit Port, where we landed at noon. But that Ella, who, resting after a night and day of travel, has fallen asleep on the ottoman and is there before me, I could declare, even now, that our flight was a dream.

* * * * * *

Seulette, November, 1880.–Ella had her will. For the space of time that now began I lived for her alone, dead to the existence of a world outside her presence—satisfied to find my world in her eyes and lips—an interlude, cut off on every side from past and future, —like an island in the sea. We had taken a trip from the earth to a star. Only we could not annihilate the earth nor stay in the star. The first would reclaim its truant subjects; the second cast us out sooner or later as runaway aliens, and then for a rude and dismal awakening. But if ever the shadow of forethought, afterthought or perplexity crossed my mind, Ella, quick to detect it, would resent it with mastering vehemence.         “Haven’t I forbidden you to think? Haven’t you promised to forget there are such things as a world and society, and work and fame? For a little while, remember. You are to forget me afterwards.”
        “The first one can promise, Ella,” I said, “but the second--—”
        “I will take care of that,” was her reply.

        She too had her rare moments of musing and brooding. Where did her mind go to ? Of regret and anxiety never a trace. For her, will was paramount, to legitimatize desire—scruples, doubts, fears, hesitations not only scouted but annihilated. She shook off the sheath of social convention and custom and stepped forth as free and wild as the Russalka to which my fancy had likened her. Fresh as forest leaves in the spring time, wild and bright as the birds, perfect as a creature, full of natural but intractable intelligence, yet to whom certain common sympathetic qualities are utterly foreign. One of those in whom weakness excites no pity but cruel contempt. Self-absorbed, they will see their neighbour's house burn and sit by warming their hands. In revolt against the restrictions of a common-place lot, they will break through them to have their romance out, no matter the cost. And yet I think she had counted it.
        Her brief sovereignty was complete and assured by the singlemindedness of her self-devotion. She would pour forth all the treasure of her bright young spirit, all the attractions of her beauty to keep me to herself for an hour. The passion of admiration thus roused entangled reason and silenced it. But for her passion and reason were in unison—she shrank neither from looking back nor looking onward.
        One evening was wild and stormy. We did not take our usual ramble on the cliffs—grander and more desolate than those of Devonshire, but stayed in the châlet, which lay in a sheltered hollow on the side of a promontory. Ella stood at the window watching the lightning on the sea. I was at the table bending idly over some sketches of the coast. Suddenly I felt her beside me. She could be noiseless in her movements as a snake. She slid her arm round my neck. I drew her down on the ottoman where I was seated—she looked at me, bright and a little fierce, saying:
        “Are you mine still?”
        “Ella,” I said, in playful entreaty, “what are you going to do with me? I thought I was yours when we came—I know now I was not—you had made me forget all but you—you have made me despise it.”
        She laughed contentedly, leaned her head on my shoulder and looked up into my face. Was it a little panther that had taken a fancy to come and nestle in my arms, to caress and be caressed, yet remaining as untouched by sentimental influences as the wildest specimen of its race?
        I grew idle, as regardless as a lotus-eater of the lapse of time; whilst she seemed to prize and cling to every passing instant, as if determined to crowd the sensations of years into a single day. I had given up speculating, puzzling about her—she had forced me to take her and love her as to me she was—passionate, adoring, a little Lucifer of pride withal, but enchanting so long as you were satisfied to suffer her thus to hold you in thrall.
        Most of the fine autumn evenings we spent in exploring the lonely shores. She seemed insensible to cold or fatigue. Sometimes we sailed on the sea—her will prevailing over my judgment, for the coast is notoriously unsafe. But the rougher the weather, the crankier the boat, the greater for Ella the enjoyment. Once we had a narrow escape. Scudding along, we were approaching a dangerous sunken reef, and I barely noticed the breakers in time to call to Ella, who was steering, to shift the rudder. Quickly she looked up, saw, wavered; and then she was about, so I thought, to run us deliberately on the rocks. I threw myself forwards, and with difficulty, by good luck, averted a catastrophe, our boat just grazing the sunken reef.
        “Ella, are you mad?” I exclaimed.
        “Don’t!” she said, disarming sternness by her imploring tone and glance; then, presently, after we had sailed some minutes in silence: “You forget what a little while I have left me,” she said quite seriously, “but every moment counts. You are right; I should be mad to throw one away.”
        Then she talked and laughed in a merrier strain, setting herself to draw off my thoughts from the incident, until, looking back on it, it appeared insignificant. She had contrived to lay the ghost of a misgiving that never again started up until one evening, ten days later, she made me a strange scene.
        It was late, nearly midnight, but we were still sitting up downstairs in the châlet, I leaning back on the sofa, idle-headed, like the fainéant I had become, watching Ella as she moved about. I saw her take a bunch of flowers, gathered yesterday, from the vase where she had placed them, to throw them away.
        “Why destroy them?” I asked. “I hate to see things I like fade,” she said. “It is better to kill them off before they begin to look ugly.” And she threw them into the fire. She stood for some moments abstractedly watching them shrivel and crackle. I was absorbed in watching the blaze's play on her face, with its vivid colouring, and the rich auburn tints in her hair. She came up to me and sat on a cushion at my feet, saying:
        “Do you know when we came here, how long ago?”
        “Not in the least,” I replied. “Was it yesterday—or last year, perhaps?”
        “That is right,” she said approvingly. “Not too long—that means it has been long enough.”
        “Long enough?” I repeated vacantly.
        “Did you think I should wait until you got tired of it and of me, to make an end?”
        “Of what ?”
        She looked at me gravely, with something very like tenderness in her countenance, and said, almost wistfully:
        “And so you have really forgotten who you are, and that you do not belong to yourself, nor to me, nor could you ever.”
        “Ella,” I said, “you are certainly a witch. For I have entirely forgotten that life and I had anything to say to each other until a month ago.”
        The confession seemed singularly to content her. Her manner had something in it now of the generosity of the victor.
        “Well,” she said, coming closer, and speaking with an odd mixture of archness and sadness, “I must remind you. You were born one of the things they call men of the time—they crowned you long ago. You have your worshippers everywhere—oh, I know—I was one.”
        “Was?” I repeated, in playful reproach. She gave a provoking smile, and continued:
        “Of course the world will call you back, and you will want to go. I asked you to throw everything aside for me. For a little while —I said I would be your bride for a month—I was nobody— nothing—that you should care for me more than that. It was not much, but it was a thousand times better worth having than anything my life would ever bring me—it was all you could possibly give me, you know.”
        “Nay, Ella—” I began. She checked my reckless protest, saying:
        “You would not then, you could not now. Why should you try? Because you would not like another person to suffer through you?”
        “Who would?” said I.
        “I should not mind,” said Ella clearly. “But you are not to think of me as suffering. Look at me now-do I look unhappy, Hubert?”
        The face she turned to me was radiant—nay, exultant.
        “Then why, Ella,” I asked, “will you talk as though we could part?”
        Her reply was a passionate embrace. It was her way thus to lead your reason a dance, pique you on to an argument, then confound you by some unexpected turn, leaving you to surmise that she had been laughing at you.
        One o'clock—we were still there. Ella seemed possessed by a very demon of gaiety and wild spirits: she lit all the Chinese lanterns in the study, flitted about the room like an odalisque; she sang songs, wild old airs she had caught up from the fisherfolk, played fitful snatches on the piano. We watched the falling stars and meteoric lights from the window, then as I reclined on the sofa she pretended to mesmerize me with the light touch of her hand on my forehead.
        “Are you tired ?” she said in a hushed voice. “Sleep a little.”
        I sank into a deep sleep. Waking suddenly, as it were from an unremembered dream, I was conscious of a slight jarring shock, as though I had been struck. All was still, the wind had sunk— no sound in the châlet. I took out my watch, I had slept some hours; the Chinese lanterns had burnt out, but there was light in the room, for dawn was breaking. Ella was not there. Nor was she to be found anywhere in the châlet. There was nothing alarming in that. It would be just like her to finish up a nuit blanche by walking out at daybreak. I started off along the slope of the promontory. The sun was still below the horizon, but it was now fully light. From the point above, where there was a wide view, I could not fail to see, and should soon overtake her. But the single figure thence visible was that of a bent, decrepit old peasant woman gathering mushrooms in a meadow. I hastened towards her; she anticipated my inquiry:
        “Monsieur is looking for Madame?” she said.
        “You have seen her pass?”
        “I saw her come out of the châlet an hour ago. It was hardly light, but for the moon, which had not dropped. I said, Madame is early. She said she wanted, for once, to see the sun rise from the sea, but would not wake you. As she walked quickly along, near the cliff's edge, I called to her to have a care—my poor nephew Pierre lost his life there, the ground gave way, he fell into the abyss and was never seen again. Madame listened and nodded, but laughed as if she mocked my caution. All you English are thus—so full of temerity, I said to myself, and returned to my work. When next I looked she was out of sight. Which way she went I could not tell you. Is Monsieur anxious?”
        I strode on to the end of the promontory. Up and down the cliffs I looked. No sign of human life, nor visible trace of recent accident or disturbance of the soil.
        The sun rose up in splendour, flooding the waves that sparkled and glistened; then the light caught the fields, shedding glow and luminance over sea and shore.
        A single sea-bird was flying out eastward, as it were towards the sun. My eyes followed the flash of its white wings till to the dazzled sight it was lost in the golden blaze.
        Some words of Ella's had come suddenly back on my mind, spoken one day when we were watching the petrels, gannets and tern in one of their favourite rocky haunts:
        “When I am dead I should like my soul to go back into one of those sea-birds.”
        “Go back?” I repeated, laughing.
        “Yes,” she said musingly, following with envy their wild flight, as they skimmed the waters, or, soaring upwards, alighted on inaccessible crags; “I am sure it was from one of those that it came to me.”
        “You may say more,” I rejoined playfully, “for I think, Ella, the metamorphosis is incomplete.”

Search was fruitless. Fears, first, of some fatal piece of rashness; then, the darker fear that she had voluntarily given up her life as the only end she could accept for herself to our brief madness, leaving me her memory safe and pure, as a legacy of intolerable regret for her loss, met with no scrap of direct confirmation.
        Returning to the châlet, I found the old servant who came daily to do the work of the house, and who had been there, it appeared, since sunrise. Ella had not come in.
        I walked into the sitting-room. Some word of writing or sign left behind might yet end the suspense. None; except that on the table by the sofa there lay a fresh white carnation flower, plucked that morning, for it was still wet with dew. She had gone out to gather it whilst I was sleeping, and placed it there— a token of farewell.

*  *  *  *  *  * 

[The journal breaks off here. The following note appears to have been added five years later.]

London, December, 1885.
It was some six weeks after this that the first and last news—if news it can be called—came to me of Ella in a letter from Captain Lister, in New Zealand, to my London address. It found me still at Seulette, where the futility of my unremitting inquiries had well-nigh forced me to abandon hope and them.
        Captain Lister, in the course of his letter, related incidentally that the family had scarcely set foot in their new abode than they had been thunderstruck by a communication from Ella, despatched apparently immediately after their departure, and informing them of her extraordinary resolution, unsuspected for a moment by her relations, to bury herself in a French convent. She had concealed her intentions in order to avoid useless attempts at dissuasion. Further clue that might help to the discovery of her whereabouts she had given absolutely none. She was legally her own mistress; no one had the right to interfere, nor was there any one at hand to do so to any purpose. The death of her aunt at Brighton had occurred shortly after the Listers’ departure for the Antipodes. The captain, over there, had his hands full, and already when he wrote he and his were beginning to get over their surprise, and to recollect that Ella had always been eccentric—the very girl for a coup de tête such as this. That the inquiries he talked vaguely of making would lead to nothing was a foregone conclusion. Mine, which were now actively renewed, especially at Bordeaux, and other towns to which boats went from Petit Port, proved entirely unavailing.
        Five years ago now. I shall never know more. No; though the door has been left open to surmise, to stray conjecture. Only last autumn, passing through A—, in the heart of France, I listened to the idle town tittle-tattle concerning a certain large Sisterhood there established, and one among them, reputed to be of English origin, but who, according to the current gossip, bade fair to dominate the community, as the community by their successful activity in education and nursing and other public services practically dominated the town. But the strict rules of the Order stood in the way of any attempt I might be prompted to make to find here a solution of the mystery. Be this as it may, our union, by her own unfettered choice, was ended that morning she left me as irrevocably as though I knew what I surmise—that her life was cut short the same hour.


Text transcribed from Google Books scan of London Society, Volume 52, 1887.
- Ray

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