All this clearly indicated that Gundred’s interference was urgently needed in the cause of holiness. Day by day she watched the situation, feeling more and more certain that her mission was the rescue of her husband. He, meanwhile, bore hourly, with increasing pain, the tantalizing torments of his paradoxical proximity to the thing he had so long looked for and now had found in vain. Ivor Restormel wondered at his good fortune, and only occasionally noticed the crochets of Kingston and Gundred. Of the two, Gundred had by far the more tactful temperament. Her dislike, now fast verging towards religious horror, was not to be discerned except by an eye far more keen than Ivor Restormel’s. A serene gravity, a cool calm were so much the dominant characteristics of her nature that the exaggeration of her gravity, the additional chill in her calm passed unnoticed by one so little practised in observation. The restless eagerness of Kingston was more plain and more distressing. Ivor Restormel sometimes wondered what it was that he did or failed to do that so roused disappointment and annoyance in this friend who never really seemed a friend, and yet had gratuitously done so much for him. However, he was not of a temper to let such matters oppress him. He put them behind him, and disregarded any tension that he might ever be inclined to discern in his relations with his employer or his employer’s wife.
So the days passed unsatisfactorily by, until the time came for the family’s removal to Ivescar. Deep in his heart Kingston had a dim hope that the sight of Ivescar might once more rekindle a flash of memory in the boy. It was with trembling anxiety that he watched the first impressions that Ivor received from his first sight of the Yorkshire moors. Would the veil lift again, for even the briefest glance from the soul that dwelt behind? Brakelond had roused the sleeping personality in the boy; surely it was only to be expected that Ivescar, where so much had happened, could do no less? And Ivor gratified Kingston’s hope up to a certain point—only, as before, in doing so to rouse a keener desire. For from the first sight he instinctively loved the mountain-country, entered into its charm, appreciated the solemn majesty of it. He felt, he said, as if he had known it all his life, as if he and the hills were friends of long standing. And Kingston, hearing this, listened with quiet face but with a heart agonized in suspense. The door seemed to be drawing ajar for a greater revelation. The very next moment might bring some recognition. Kingston would not admit to himself the hopelessness of his hope. Eagerly he waited for what the boy might say next. And the door opened no further, but closed again as fast as ever. Never again could that hidden consciousness of Ivor’s wake to know itself. The expectation that it ever would was groundless, tormenting, delusive as all the pleasures held out by false desire. Kingston suffered more than ever, as each fresh disappointment grew more painful than the last, though more and more surely anticipated. The boy knew nothing; no veil could be lifted from his eyes; he enjoyed his surroundings simply, boyishly, without any sense of deep memories out of which they were built.
And then, into the midst of these unhappy combinations was precipitated the new element of Jim Darnley’s presence. Jim Darnley at fifteen was unfeignedly glad to find a companion not so very much ahead of him in years. Ivor Restormel was young for his age; Jim Darnley, as an only son, was inclined to be older than his; and the instant fellowship that was established between the two set the last seal on Gundred’s righteous indignation. Kingston did not care whom or what the earthly Ivor Restormel might care for, so long as his company might still hold out hopes of glimpses from the past. Moreover, he was glad that Jim should have a companion, and should, by taking so comfortable a fancy to him, justify his father in the choice of a secretary. As a man, and as a man already preoccupied with other matters, he had no sort of inclination to be jealous of his son’s friendships. With Gundred, however, the case was altogether different. She loved her only child with the fierce and almost savage affection often felt by a woman who cannot understand the object of that affection. Naturally the fact was the last thing that she would allow her soul to face, but in the jealousy with which she regarded all new factors in his life might be read her unacknowledged fear that her intimacy with him might not be as strong as she made a point of believing it to be. She was one of those women who are by nature more mother than wife, and in the fullness of uneventful years had insensibly come to transfer a good deal of her old urgent passion for Kingston to the child that she had borne him. In connection with Gundred, mild and cool, ferocity and passion are words that sound oddly, and yet, under the suave mildness, the dispassionate decorum of her manner, her feelings for her son had a certain definite passion, and even ferocity. That the boy never knew it was the misfortune of his mother’s training; she would not betray the fact of her love, and had no thought that by so betraying it she might be able to supplement, in his eyes, the deficiencies of her understanding.
For Gundred was incapable of any true companionship with her son. He admired her, he loved her distantly and diffidently, but he shrank from her, and had nothing intimate or warm to say. That she was not conscious of this flaw in their relation may be called the compensating mercy of that weakness in herself which had developed that flaw. She was by now almost entirely devoid of intuitive intelligence. Or, rather, perhaps, she had so diligently trained herself that, in the long course of time, she had drilled her mind out of any faint tendency to perceive and analyze that it may ever have possessed. Her sense of decency commanded her to live entirely on the surface of things; prying into secret motives and feelings she considered vulgar and indecent. Accordingly, if lip-kisses were properly exchanged, and superficial affection reigned, she made a point of considering that the soul-relations thus symbolized must be eminently satisfactory. She looked no further than the symbol, and disliked the idea that kisses and terms of endearment may, after all, not stand for the love whose emblems they are—may even, at a pinch, be used to disguise the lack of that love. And yet her hidden, shamefaced jealousy may be taken to have been the last flickering phantom of the natural woman’s insight into domestic relations. All his life she had grudged her son his friendships, gently nipped them with the frost of her criticism, sedulously taught him to find fault and be captious.
The education had borne no fruit in Jim, except a bitter one for Gundred. His nature was too warm and sunny to have any real communion with his mother’s frosts, and as soon as he found that she always had something coldly unpleasant to say of everyone he liked, he had responded, not by discarding his friends, but by drawing farther and farther away from his mother. With the merciless clear-sightedness of the young, so vivid, if so limited, he had judged his mother by her own precepts long since, and found her wanting. She endlessly preached the loveliest morality, the tenderest forbearance towards all the world, the most sedulous avoidance of harsh or censorious comment. And yet she was always sure to pick some fatal flaw in all his friends, to discover and expose some blemish, to insist on some fault or weakness. And the very fact that her criticisms were always more or less just militated, in the end, against her influence. For Jim found that he liked his friends more than he disliked their failings, and, taking their side accordingly, he gradually came to look upon his mother’s unerring eye for other people’s shortcomings as the worst enemy of his own happiness. Thus pitiably, by the exaggeration of her own virtues, through the keenness of her own maternal love, Gundred laid up for herself inevitable disappointment in regard to the one thing that her heart desired, and innocently prepared for herself a dark version of the mother’s tragedy. By now Jim had his friends and his life to himself; outside that precinct, walled and guarded, stood his mother, alone, too proud to admit that she stood outside, too wilfully blind to see the unbroken wall that fronted her, and, in any case, too proud to clamour for admittance.
But the friendship that immediately arose between Jim and Ivor Restormel was to Gundred as a sudden light of revelation, laying bare the fact of her exclusion from her son’s life. Characteristically, even to herself, she would not admit what she saw, but attributed the novel pain to her anxiety for Jim’s welfare. That Jim should have friends of his own age had been grudgingly conceded as an odious necessity, to be cavilled at and snubbed, but impossible to deny. Now, however, that the pernicious influence that had so mysteriously gripped her husband threatened to enthral her son as well, Gundred told herself that all her maternal duties, no less than her conjugal, commanded her to take the field against the powers of darkness. Her jealousy masqueraded as pure motherly zeal, and its very bitterness was masked from her own sight by the disguise of duty. Her feeling, too, was intensified by the failure of all her usual weapons to discredit Ivor Restormel in the eyes of his new friend. Jim generally sat and answered her in submissive affirmatives, while she gently dissected his friends and pointed out how entirely unworthy they all were of approval, though not, of course, of pity; now, however, he could not even give her criticism the courtesy of apparent acquiescence.
He rose up in defence of Ivor, instead of, as usual, listening pleasantly and then going his own way undeterred—a course which long experience had taught him was the wisest, especially as his mother was quite unable to notice that her advice was disregarded, if only her advice had been politely received. In vain she pointed out to him that Ivor Restormel’s mind was cheap and crude; that his orthodoxy was tepid, his manners unnecessarily enthusiastic, his whole deportment lacking in finish and refinement. Jim could not listen in respectful silence; he protested, he pleaded. He had become all of a sudden disloyal and treacherous to his mother. Gundred regarded all opposition from her son as unfilial, and could not conceive the possibility of his having any right to hold an opinion at variance with hers. She claimed to provide him with all his thoughts, henceforth and for ever, on the ground of having in the distant past provided him with a body to hold them. That her son was an individual she could never recognise, and on the rare occasions of his overt revolt, felt the indignant astonishment of Balaam when he discovered that his ass had a voice of its own. Accordingly, if Jim now opposed her criticisms, it was only a treason and a sin engendered in him by this evil spirit that had captured him, and every word that he said in Ivor’s favour only served to deepen his mother’s feeling that she was certainly called upon to rid her son and her husband of this threatening danger that had already produced such dire results in the disaffection of her nearest and dearest.
‘I cannot have you running about the hills all day with Mr. Restormel, dear,’ said Gundred blandly, but with decision.
‘But why not, mother?’ protested Jim, who, in normal circumstances would probably have said, ‘No, mother,’ and gone all the same, Gundred never knowing.
‘Because I say not, dear,’ replied Gundred inadequately. ‘You must let mother be the best judge of your companions, dear. Mother knows best—yes?’
‘I say, you know, I think it is awfully hard lines. Ivor is the best fellow going. You don’t know him, mother.’
‘Don’t call him Ivor, Jim,’ reproved Gundred. ‘It is not respectful. He is older than you. And that is another reason why I do not like to see you wasting your time with him. He is not good company for you.’
‘Yes; but you always say that. What is there wrong with poor old Ivor?’
Having nothing definite to allege, Gundred, of course, found it necessary to become sibylline and pompous.
‘You must trust mother, dear,’ she answered. ‘There are many things you are too young to know. It is enough for you to remember that mother does not wish you to see too much of Mr. Restormel. You must avoid him as much as possible—though, of course, without being rude and unkind.’
But Gundred’s solemn implication of mysterious knowledge had been played off so frequently that it had long since lost its effect. Jim knew well that it only concealed her invariable jealousy.
‘No,’ he said; ‘I am awfully fond of old Ivor. I don’t see why I should make myself nasty to him. Father likes him no end.’
This did not serve to mollify Gundred.
‘You should always do what mother wishes, without asking questions,’ she rejoined. ‘And what father may do is no concern of yours. Your father may be taken in like everybody else. But you ought to think it a privilege to obey your mother. Think of what you owe her—yes?’
Like many women, Gundred believed that, having engendered a child, entirely without regard for that problematical child’s wishes, must necessarily give her a lifelong claim on his gratitude. Like many women, she insisted on the debt, everywhere and always, until, by ceaseless demands, she had come near to exhausting the supply. Accordingly the conference continued for a while, unsatisfactorily. Jim for once had lost his grip on that lamentable diplomacy which an unwise mother’s exactions so early engrain into her children. He could no longer even acquiesce. He became warm in Ivor’s defence, and, with every word, Gundred felt more certainly that his disloyalty was the crime of the evil force that possessed him. That force must unquestionably be combated and dispossessed. And soon she found that she was incapable of coping with Jim. Worse, she could not even have recourse to the secular arm in the person of her husband, for her husband was equally under this incalculable diabolical sway. She grew more angry in her demands as the demands were refused. And Jim, flushed with opposition, verged on rudeness, would not be brought to promise the abandonment of his new friend, and treated his mother’s ultimatum with ominous cheerfulness.
‘You would not like to have to choose between Mr. Restormel and mother, would you—no?’ suggested Gundred with the supreme imprudence of excitement. And this weapon, too, had lost its efficacy with too frequent use. Jim had heard it too often now to retain any illusion as to its dramatic value.
He was very uncomfortable, though, as he answered: ‘Oh, rot, mother; you know that is impossible. I wish you would not say such things. You don’t want to make me out a beast to you, do you, just because I don’t want to be a beast to Ivor? It’s all rot finding fault with him, you know. He is a jolly good fellow, and father would not have got him here if he had not liked him too. So he must be all right, anyway.’
With a fatal lack of tact, Gundred went off on a side issue, and began protesting against the unnecessary crudeness of her son’s language—a crudeness which she made haste to attribute to Ivor’s degrading influence.
‘Well,’ replied Jim, ‘if there is nothing else to say against poor old Ivor than that! He isn’t the first person in the world who has said “rot,” and I don’t imagine he will be the last.’ And on that hit he rose and made his escape, despite his mother’s attempts to restrain him with loving arms, and exact, by kisses, a more satisfactory termination to the dialogue.
Gundred was left alone, feeling solitude as she had very rarely felt it in her life before. This intruder had destroyed the harmony of her home, had blighted her relations with her submissive subjects, had sapped loyalty, filial piety and honour in the hearts of all who owed her duty. This influence was altogether evil, and must be defeated without loss of another day. It was a blessed work this that Heaven had appointed her to do, and it must be done briskly, whole-heartedly, without any lookings-back from the plough, or weaknesses of any kind. Gundred began to revolve measures, and plans at last grew definite in her mind. She faced her course of action boldly. Ivor must be got rid of—somehow, anyhow. Qui veut la fin, veut les moyens.
And at this point she suddenly grew frightened. This road that she was treading, into what grim and stony places would it lead her? Gundred, for the first time in her life, began to feel afraid of herself. The intense fire of the righteous passion that consumed her, well, it was alarming, although it was so righteous. So righteous? A very faint flicker of hesitation dawned in Gundred’s mind. Was this passion of hers so righteous? It was carrying her, she felt, toward actions that sooner or later might be dark and dreadful; all the more important, then, to make sure beforehand that it was an inspiration of Heaven, not, by any chance, a temptation from Hell. Hitherto Gundred had never doubted that the Almighty had created her for a shining instance of the soul which is temptation-proof; now, however, she began to waver in her belief that she, alone of mortal beings, was set above the wiles of evil. After all, she was human; it was just barely imaginable that this uplifting ardour that she felt might proceed from the Powers of darkness rather than from those of light. That anger and hatred are often laudable she knew well, but this anger and hatred of hers were so devastating, so tyrannous that she could not, in all candour, feel herself absolutely certain of their celestial origin. She felt, as she pondered the matter, that she was indeed showing proper conscientiousness, an almost unworthy tenderness towards that Amalekite of an enemy; but the question was so important, so much hung on it, that no labour could be wasted in making sure as to the rights and wrongs of the case.
After all, though, would the Almighty have allowed her to entertain such passions if He had not meant her to indulge them? Yet even the greatest saints had been tempted by the devil. Indeed, the greater the saint the greater the temptation. The problem was nice, and required careful weighing. In any other case she would readily have conceded that such a passion might have been inspired without the connivance of the Almighty; in her own she was so perfectly, though so humbly, convinced that she lived and spoke as the mouthpiece of Heaven itself that she could hardly conceive it possible but that any feeling she nourished must, of necessity, be just and holy, through the very fact that it was she, the Lady Gundred Darnley, who had engendered and developed it. However, a pious doubt now besieged her, and she dutifully cast about in her mind for means to solve this riddle that her scrupulous sense of right had set before her. Until this was decided, she felt that it would be unfair to proceed to extremities even against Ivor Restormel. But how to decide it?
Prayer, Gundred felt, was the only obvious method. The Almighty must be asked to declare as to the sanctity of the crusade that she was meditating. Gundred, filled with the consciousness of holiness, would, nevertheless, go to Heaven to have that consciousness confirmed. In all ways she was clean and blameless, worthy of the celestial attention. She looked doubtfully for a moment at the little fair curls that lay on her dressing-table. But after all, they could not really be called a fraud on the Almighty, for were they not built up out of her own hoarded combings? And, for the rest, there was no other spot of deceit or frailty anywhere in her. So she knelt in confidence, and prayed. If her hatred for Ivor Restormel were wicked, would God give a sign by causing it to die immediately? On the other hand, if it continued to thrive in her heart, she would take its persistence as a sign that it was very pleasing in the sight of Heaven, and might be pursued to its ultimate extremities. She laboured the point once more, so that Heaven could not possibly fail to grasp it. If to-morrow she still hated Ivor Restormel, she would understand that her hatred was pious and profitable; if she should awake feeling filled with love and pity for him, then she must believe that her previous inspiration had been a temptation of the Evil One. Filled with a sense of imminent revelation, Gundred went to bed, and could hardly sleep for anxiety as to the morrow, and the sentiments that the morrow would show forth.
It was late when she woke from tardy and troubled dreams. Over her soul for a minute or two there brooded a heavy weight of mystery. Something wonderful was immediately to happen. But for a moment she could not discern what it was. Then she remembered her prayer, and fell to scanning her morning’s feelings for its answer. The revelation was at hand. But it would only burst upon her fully when she had come face to face with her imagined enemy. In a ferment of anxiety she had herself dressed, then hurried downstairs, her colour perceptibly heightened and her demeanour almost ruffled by the tense anxiety of her expectation. Into the morning-room she hastened, eager to find Ivor Restormel. There he was; she paused upon the threshold watching him, and waiting for the miraculous guidance that Heaven would certainly vouchsafe. Had her feelings for him changed during the night? In a flash of satisfaction the answer came, admitting no further question or cavil.
For she hated him as much as ever. Yes, certainly as much as ever—even more, perhaps. And nothing could so clearly prove, after her prayers, that her hatred was pleasing to the Almighty. If it had been evil, He would, of course, have annulled it, according to request. God evidently meant her to hate Ivor Restormel, and to doubt any more would be nothing short of wicked infidelity. Triumphant in perfect satisfaction, in self-complacency restored and enhanced by this prodigious proof of God’s approval, Gundred addressed herself quietly to everyday life once more. Strengthened in her Heaven-sent attitude of mind, she advanced towards the breakfast-table with an added majesty of calm, and scattered greetings with a fair assumption of benevolence. With the answer to her prayer a sense of rest had come upon her and made it easier for her to be kind even to Ivor Restormel. She found the others of her party busy discussing some new and interesting point. Jim made haste to enlighten her.
‘The Rovers are going down Long Kern this morning, mother,’ he exclaimed. ‘And Ivor says he is going with them. I am awfully keen to go, too. Don’t you think I might?’
Gundred instantly avenged herself for the suffering that her son’s perverse disloyalty had been so long inflicting upon her.
‘Most certainly not,’ she replied. ‘I have a perfect horror of such places. You would not wish him to go, Kingston—no?’
‘There can’t be any danger,’ replied Kingston; ‘they will have efficient ropes and things. And Weston says there are the most wonderful caves at the bottom.’
‘Are you really going, Mr. Restormel?’ asked Gundred, without paying further heed to Jim’s protests or Jim’s disappointment. She saw in a second how brilliantly God had answered her prayers for help. Long Kern was a small but deadly rift in the limestone of the hill above, which dropped three hundred feet of narrow shaft sheer down to unfathomable caverns below. Gundred saw clearly that the whole problem of her life was to be solved by a miracle. For Heaven may make a miracle out of any particularly happy coincidence. And what coincidence could possibly be more happy, more miraculous than this? For God clearly meant to destroy Ivor Restormel underground.
Ivor, meanwhile, declared that he was eagerly looking forward to the exploration. The Rovers, about a dozen of them, were to make the descent at midday, and meant to stay in the caves down below until they had unravelled, as far as possible, the labyrinth of their passages. As for precautions and methods, they were to use rope-ladders and guiding wires, so that no real risk of any sort could be anticipated.
Gundred listened with a wise smile. She knew better. Ivor Restormel might take as many precautions as he pleased; nothing could avail him against the combined weight of Gundred’s prayers and Heaven’s attention to them. This scheme of his was quite obviously the direct inspiration of the Powers above, working in Ivor to his destruction, as they had worked so many years ago for the fatal hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Egypt. Gundred blandly acquiesced, and lent an unusually pleasant countenance to the young man’s exposition of his plans. As he was so evidently doomed, she might fairly relax the righteousness of her wrath against him. Even for one merciful moment she thought of interposing, of saving Ivor’s life by deprecating his scheme. But the moment passed—she saw how irreverent it would be to counter Heaven’s design. And to oppose Ivor’s plan would necessarily be to oppose Heaven’s also. So Gundred piously resigned everything into God’s hands, and stood aside to let matters take their course.
Jim, meanwhile, was pressing her with pleas that he also might be allowed to join the party. His father, too, did not seem disinclined to grant his request. Gundred returned briskly to the immediate present. No, no; this complicating element must on no account be introduced. She could trust Heaven to look after Ivor Restormel when once he was inside Long Kern, but she was not at all inclined to trust It to discriminate between the innocent and the guilty, when it came to arranging the rock-fall or the sudden rush of water which she anticipated with a certain holy complacency. All Ivor’s companions would almost certainly perish with him. On no account, then, must her own precious child run any risk of being included in the Evil One’s condemnation. She looked at Jim, so eager, so young, so brilliant.
There was nothing in the world her hidden nature loved so hungrily. By comparison even her great love for Kingston was very much a matter of pride and habit. But Jim was her own, of her own body, of her own blood, the crowning achievement of her life, the visible evidence of Heaven’s approval. In himself he was altogether lovely and delightful. And beyond all that again, beyond his own personal qualities, he stood to Gundred for the other thing she most venerated and cherished in the world—the glory of March and Brakelond. When he grew up he was to resume his mother’s name, and unite the resplendency of the Mortimers with the money of the Darnleys; and then, when her father died, it was an open secret that the dignities of the House would be revived in the person of her son. Gundred felt that through her own wifely and motherly virtues she had been privileged to support the banner of March and Brakelond. It was because she had always been so humble, so devout, that such an honour had been vouchsafed her, and her son was doubly precious in her eyes, not only in himself, but as the Duke of her own providing, who should continue, from his high place, to set an example of Evangelical piety to the people of England. She shuddered at the thought of allowing her jewel to run into danger, and made haste to make it very certain to Jim that in no circumstances would he be allowed to share Ivor’s descent of Long Kern.
‘You don’t want to get wet and cold right down there in the horrid dark—no?’ concluded Gundred ingratiatingly.
‘But it won’t be wet,’ protested the boy. ‘Father has had the stream dammed about two hundred yards above the hole. Otherwise they would not have been able to go down at all. They would all have been drowned. The water is very high just now, after the rain. But, as it is, it will be quite dry down in the caves.’
But Gundred, strong in her private foresight of Heaven’s intentions, could not be swayed from her decision. Kingston was forced into the contest, and found himself compelled, for the sake of peace and dignity, to endorse his wife’s prohibition. Jim subsided at last, flushed with resentful disappointment. Gundred, meantime, was eating her egg dispassionately, with her usual seraphic tranquillity, while her heart was filled with strange, conflicting feelings. She looked across at Ivor Restormel with secret curiosity. She knew that he was doomed, and in the last moments could not stifle a certain pity which struck her as being faintly irreligious and painfully human. But he was so young and so beautiful, however evil and pernicious. To die down there in the eternal darkness, caught like a rat in a trap by the vengeance of Heaven, that was a pitiable fate. That it would assuredly descend Gundred could no longer entertain a doubt, and, when she remembered that it was her own prayers that had jogged Heaven into this intervention, she felt a dim pricking of remorse. During the few hours that remained she would be kind to the predestined victim. Ivor was pleasantly surprised by the suavity with which Lady Gundred offered him a second cup of tea.
‘Do have some more,’ pleaded Gundred; ‘you will want to be properly prepared for this wonderful expedition of yours. Shall I tell them to make you up a little lunch?’
In her heart of hearts she knew that he would never need lunch on earth again, and her economical temper grieved to think of the hard-boiled eggs and the cress sandwiches that would be wasted if her offer were accepted. But, as he could not be expected to know how profitless Heaven intended to make any packets of lunch that she might provide, she felt that the kindness must in common decency be offered.
Ivor, however, replied that he hoped to be back at Ivescar in plenty of time for tea, and that he would not trouble about food till then. Gundred smiled and sighed to think how tragically he was mistaken. Her feelings were firm and rigid. Long thought and long anxiety had crystallized now into a mystic ecstasy of certainty. In the previous weeks she had known sore vacillations and distresses. But now the friendly Powers had made everything plain once more. Until this morning she had felt a certain weakness and need of earthly counsel; as a sound Evangelical Protestant, she had, of course, a proper pious horror of the priesthood and the confessional; and yet there had been times when she would have liked to pour forth her troubles to a fellow-creature. Had she consulted a doctor rather than a priest, he might have told her that an idée fixe is not the healthiest companion for a woman of self-contained and secret nature, and that the previous generations of March and Brakelond, feeble-minded or eccentric, held out a special prospect of disaster when such an idée fixe was cherished by herself. However, by now, the time for warnings and advice was past. Gundred was fully possessed by the mania that had arisen so naturally from her devout habits and her weak mind, wrought on by jealousy and by a tyrannous consciousness of being herself the chosen of Heaven. Now she faced what she foresaw to be the punishment of her enemy, with the cold calm of Jael. She was glad that Heaven had taken the affair so promptly into its own hands.
Once before, her Celestial Ally, she remembered, had intervened by a miracle to relieve her from the perilous presence of Isabel Darrell. Now the same prodigy of favour was to be repeated in a different form, and who was she to carp at the tender mercies of the Almighty? With folded hands and placid heart she sat by to let matters take their appointed way. Nothing in all the world would so utterly have horrified her as the statement that she desired the death of Ivor Restormel. She repeated to herself again and again that she wanted nothing of the sort, but had perfect trust in the wisdom of the All-wise. She had no desires of any kind; nothing but pure faith. And to wish for anyone’s death, how very abominable and unchristian and unwomanly! Far, far from her gentle mind was any such truculent passion; the utmost that she would own to herself was that she would find it impossible to grieve when Heaven had taken her enemy to its mercy. And, as for altering the course of events, that was clearly out of the question. She could only await what Heaven should send. She now forgot that she herself, as it were, had given Heaven a nudge in the matter. She deliberately disclaimed all responsibility, and plumed herself on the mildness and resignation that her conduct showed. Stiff and calm in what by now was nothing short of monomania, the unfortunate woman sat and smiled, as her own damnation passed onwards to its accomplishment.
Meanwhile, however, her husband was making a suggestion. She came back out of her dream to hear it.
‘Why shouldn’t you and I and Jim go up to Long Kern and watch them go down?’ he said, anxious to indemnify Jim as far as possible for the disappointment which his mother had inflicted. As soon as Gundred understood the proposition she gasped. This seemed almost too heavy a trial for her to bear. Then she suddenly understood that this was the sanctifying sacrifice that Heaven demanded of her. She must stand by and watch the fulfilment of her prayers so as to make the intervention of Heaven complete and holy. She signified her assent.
‘But we must be back in time for lunch, dear,’ she conditioned, living her dual life as ever, one-half of her personality dwelling perpetually in dining-rooms and drawing-rooms, while the other soared into the high domains of religious frenzy. Then, breakfast being over, she rose and went her way mechanically upon her household duties, pending the awful consummation of her destiny, at which she was so soon to assist.
At the appointed time she was ready for the start. The others were waiting for her in the hall, and they proceeded silently up towards the hills. Jim was too excited to talk much; a scheme that demanded all his attention was budding in his brain; Gundred, by now, was moving in a remote world far above earthly speech, in communion with the invisible. Ivor himself vaguely discerned some strange exaltation beneath the restraint of Gundred’s mood, and was reluctant to intrude his conversation. And Kingston himself was so sick and tired of his long struggle to achieve the impossible recognition that he had not the heart nor the temper to say much to the perverse human individuality that intervened so bitterly between him and the eternal memory it contained. So they surmounted the long ridges of limestone, and came out at last upon the stretches of moor above that undulated gently upward towards the steep skirt of the Simonstone. The air that morning was clean and pure, filled with a white light and a bracing virility of tone; much rain had fallen in the last two days, and the atmosphere was moist and brilliant in colouring; great snowy ranges of cloud went sailing gloriously across the wet azure of Heaven, and the great mountain above towered high overhead in soft masses of brown and purplish green, while before them the moorland rolled away in waves of rust-coloured velvet, to where it suddenly ceased, in a sharp line that seemed the rim of the world, beneath which, far below, lay the broad valley and the plain-lands. The surface of the fell had folds and dimples and crests, but in the huge monotony of the expanse it appeared a waved sea of colour. Down the little gullies ran here and there a stream, riotous after the rains of over-night; here and there in the levels lay a small peat-pool that glittered like a forgotten silver shield among the sedges. And then they came at last to a deeper, steeper cañon, which soon broke off in a blind hollow, ringed in by precipitous banks of heather. And here it was that the stream which filled the channel disappeared. Long Kern was impressive in its very unimpressiveness. It was but a short and narrow slit between two masses of flat white limestone, and across the orifice a fallen boulder made a bridge. Hardly two yards intervened between the one lip and the other. And in that space yawned a solid shaft of black night. Sheer down and down fell the water that filled the chasm, three hundred feet and more, to the rayless labyrinth of caverns that made the heart of the mountain. Coming suddenly across this rift in the moorland one would at first have thought it nothing, a drop, perhaps of a fathom or so. It was terribly inconspicuous and prosaic. Then, stepping along the rocky bridge that crossed it, one might be struck with a suggestion of its possibilities, and, throwing a rock into the darkness, might hear, after a long pause, the crashing rumble of its impact far below, as it bounded and dashed from ledge to ledge and side to side of the gulf, till it sent faintly up to the listener’s ear its last remote thunderous echoes from the black lake three hundred feet below, where the dim roar reverberated along the walls and ramifications of the cavern.
On the brink the party paused. Ordinarily the place was lonely and desolate, but to-day there were signs of occupation and activities. Beams were stretched across the narrow gulf, and coils of rope were lying ready. The Rovers were scattered about, making their preparations for the descent. They were a club of professional men from the neighbouring large manufacturing towns, who amused themselves by exploring the recesses of the caves that honeycombed the Simonstone. On many previous occasions Kingston had made their efforts easier. And to-day, for the exploration of Long Kern, he had given them indispensable help by having the rain-swollen stream dammed off. The bed of the river was now nearly dry, and the water diverted into another channel. Otherwise, as Jim had said, the descent would have been impossible. The Rovers were very grateful, accordingly, for this spirited collaboration, and gave the Darnleys a warm welcome. To all four they extended an offer to make the descent, and when it appeared that Ivor Restormel was the only one who would accept their invitation, they showed a little disappointment. With Jim especially they pled to accompany them, tantalizing him cruelly, and were only made to desist at last by the unequivocal firmness of Lady Gundred’s hostility towards the proposal. And so they set about the last preparations. Gaily talking and laughing among themselves, they proceeded to the fastening of ropes and the final arrangements for the descent.
Suddenly Gundred could bear the ordeal no longer. The matter-of-fact, innocent cheerfulness of it all was too much for her, with her terrible secret foreknowledge. She knew that Heaven had doomed every one of those happy people, so as to make sure of Ivor Restormel. Of course, he alone might fall, or strangle, or have a stone dropped on his head. But, on the whole, it was far more likely, far more in accordance with Scriptural precedent, that guilty and innocent should all perish together. So much the worse for the innocent! Her mystic exaltation did not go the length of protesting against their fatal plan at the eleventh hour, but it was not quite firm and faithful enough to bear the grim spectacle unmoved. She turned hastily and moved away up the empty bed of the stream, leaving Jim and her husband to watch the descent. From the bend in the river-bed she turned to take a last look at her enemy. He was still chattering and smiling with his friends, adapting the rope, adjusting satchels and packages. Kingston was saying something at which they both laughed. Then Gundred, very sick and heavy at heart, in spite of her sense of sacred ecstasy, turned the corner and was out of sight of the pothole.
Kingston eyed the narrow gulf of darkness with unspoken dread. Now, at the last moment, he disliked Ivor’s determination to share the descent. He hated the idea of watching the boy disappear into that night below. It seemed too symbolic of that eternal night into which the restored memory must one day pass again. And yet, the granting of his own importunate desire, what had it brought him except the bitterness of a yet fiercer, more insatiable desire? For a while he would even be glad to have rest from his tormenting, baffling intimacy with the secret thing that could never hear the cry of his voice. Let the boy go down, then, into the darkness, carrying with him that wonderful mystical thing that he enshrined. Kingston’s fingers were raw and bleeding, his whole soul broken and agonized with long fruitless plucking and battering at the locked doors of that shrine. Let it go, then, for half an hour, and leave him at peace. As it had returned to him once before, out of the greater darkness of the grave, so, in the course of a few moments, it would come back to light again from the darkness of the pit, and all his torments would be renewed, growing ever keener and fiercer towards the dim end that he dared not try to foresee. The knowledge of doom was black and heavy upon him as he watched the boy preparing for his disappearance, and, in the concentration of his bitter mood, he hardly heard the voice of Jim, now once more raised in eager pleading to be allowed the joy of the descent.
Gundred meanwhile was wandering on in a stupor, not thinking, not daring to think. The whole of life seemed to her to be hanging in suspense. The next half-hour was to vindicate her righteousness and make dreadfully manifest the majesty of Heaven. Her brain oscillated in coma, and she was no longer conscious of any pain or any feeling at all. Everything passed from her mind except the actual physical pleasure of the moment, the keen freshness of the air, the lovely colours of life, the myriad little voices that haunted the world. Then suddenly they were all merged in one vehement, rushing murmur. She looked down. She had arrived at the dam that diverted the stream.
A bank of turf and stones had been built, and against its barrier the brown water surged and ravened angrily, in a froth of white bubbles and spume, eager to take its old way down into the pothole and the caverns below. Disappointed, however, of its hope, it must needs go foaming and scolding along an unaccustomed course, over green grasses, drenched and streaming in its current, and down a slope of rush and sedge. Soothed unconsciously by its hum, Gundred sat down and idly watched the raging swirl of the water. It was well that the stream had been thus firmly held back and diverted, for a huge mass of water it was that made it so turbulent. After two days’ rain on the Simonstone, all the waters of the mountain were in flood, and the Long Kern should naturally have been filled with a roaring spate. Suddenly Gundred’s human consciousness was vaguely aware of an alteration. Something seemed to be shifting, the noise of the fretted torrent changing its note. Then she saw a filament of water percolating. As she watched, it widened. The dam was not strong enough to bear the surging wrath behind it. The dam was breaking; Gundred awoke with a violent start. She rose and turned impulsively towards the pothole—on the point of running, of shrieking a warning, of doing something helpful or human. Then, in an instant, she understood that she could do nothing—understood what it was that Heaven had achieved for her. Her prayer had been answered. She must give thanks, and stand aside.
Firmly, decidedly, with head carried high, and the fanatic’s mad light in her eyes, Gundred turned away from the stream and walked swiftly home across the moor. What came after was the work of Heaven. Heaven must take full responsibility. Heaven had broken the dam; Heaven might easily have ordained that the descent should not yet have commenced. Gundred had done nothing. Heaven had done it all. She could only go quietly home and trust in the wise mercies of Providence. In an hour or so she would hear what had happened.
But, though she did not know it, the strain on her endurance was fearfully heavy. She found her mind perpetually wandering back to the Long Kern, wondering in an agony whether the explorers had already embarked on their adventure when that roaring volume of brown water had swept thunderously down upon them—wondering whereabouts in that perilous chasm it had caught them, what it must feel like to be so suddenly, so fearfully battered out of life, and swept away into the abysses of the Underworld. Her brain was a sickening chaos. Fire and water, fire and water; the two great moments of her life had come to her through fire and water. Through the roaring waters of that broken dam she vaguely remembered the roaring fires of Brakelond. Isabel—Isabel—in a way, had given her life for Gundred; and Gundred?—Gundred, after many years, had, in a way, stood by and watched the taking of other lives. Dimly, instinctively, she could not refrain from comparing the two catastrophes, from feeling a blind, illogical sense that they stood in some mystic relation to each other. And so, alone, she came at last to Ivescar.
Her training stood her in good stead, and enabled her to go subconsciously through the routine duties of her day. She did not put off lunch when her husband failed to return, but ate it in solitary state, and heartily—recognising that it was always her duty to sustain her body. Her soul, however, was very far away. In her inmost heart she knew that Ivor Restormel was dead. She did not dare to face the knowledge and understand it, but it was there, gnawing, persistent. She steeled herself to bear the terrible news that Jim and Kingston must soon be bringing back. And lunch must be kept hot for them. As the hours went by and brought no certainty to end her growing suspense, the pandemonium of clamouring voices in Gundred’s brain grew louder, more confused, more frightening. She seemed on the very edge of something very horrible—she, the favourite, the chosen, the glorified of Heaven. Something very horrible was surging into sight. In another moment she would see it. Terror—mysterious, ghastly—seized and gripped her. Then in the silence she heard approaching footsteps. The Horror was at hand. Gundred rose, pale and trembling, exerting all her forces, even in this last moment, to preserve the outward decorum of her demeanour. The door opened, and her husband came into the room. She stared at him in dumb dread. For a moment he could command no words. In silence his eyes met hers. His voice was low and husky and shattered, when at last he had gathered strength to speak.
‘Gundred,’ he whispered—‘Gundred....’
She interrupted him. Now, in the fulfilment of her destiny, a dreadful courage flowed back to her.
‘Something terrible has happened,’ she said; ‘tell me quickly.’
He was too busy with his own grief to notice that she seemed prepared for what she was about to hear.
‘The dam,’ he answered—‘the dam. It broke. It burst as soon as they had gone down.’
Gundred clasped her hands tightly to prevent their trembling from being observed. She spoke as if in a dream.
‘And Ivor,’ she asked, unconsciously using the Christian name—‘Ivor, is he safe?’
Kingston laughed bitterly.
‘Safe?’ he cried—‘safe? Ivor is dead. They are all dead. I waited till they had got the bodies up. The flood soon subsided, and the men were able to get down and find the bodies. That is why I waited.’
Gundred moaned. The reality was more crushing than she had ever feared. God had granted her desire, but in a terrific way, and its granting brought her small joy. She almost ceased to feel holy.
‘Oh, Kingston,’ she murmured.... ‘Kingston, how awful! Too shocking to think of—too shocking to think of.’ She shook her head, covering her eyes as if to shut out the vision of those wretched adventurers caught and swept away by the flood which her prayers had loosed upon them. In that moment she felt a murderess. And the sanctity of the murder faded from her mind. Then she turned to the one spot of comfort in the whole disaster. What a merciful interposition of Heaven it was that had prevented her from allowing Jim to make the descent. That preservation in itself showed the special favour of the Almighty. He had set her son apart from the catastrophe that He had ordained. Her voice was calmer as she uncovered her face and spoke again.
‘And Jim?’ she asked. ‘What have you done with him? I do pray he did not see this dreadful sight. Poor little Jim! What an awful shock it would have been!’ Then she caught her husband’s eye, and paused in sudden terror of what she saw there.... ‘Kingston?’ she cried. He could give no answer. ‘Kingston?’ she repeated sharply, her voice rising to a shrill note of anxiety. ‘Kingston, what is it?’
‘Jim went down with the others,’ said her husband in a low, colourless tone. ‘He wanted so much to go. I said he might. Jim went down with the others.’
Gundred gave a short cry.
‘Then how did you succeed in saving him?’ she gasped. ‘How was it he was not drowned with the others? Kingston, how did you succeed in saving him?’
‘I did not,’ answered Kingston very quietly. ‘Jim is drowned. They are bringing back his body now with the others.’
‘No,’ said Gundred, in a fearful stupefaction of calm—‘no, it is not possible. Jim is not dead. God must have saved him. It is not possible.’ Then her quiet cracked like glass. ‘Kingston,’ she screamed, ‘say it is not possible. Jim is safe.’
The father shook his head. ‘Jim is drowned,’ he repeated. ‘Drowned with the others.’
A deadly silence fell between them. Gundred pressed both hands to her head. The brain inside was a fiery wheel of agony, blinding her with the coruscations of its anguish. Then at last her hands sank to her sides and she looked up. Her face was fixed and ghastly, her voice unnaturally stolid as she spoke.
‘There!’ said Gundred very slowly and deliberately. ‘That is what comes of disobeying one’s mother!’ Then she broke abruptly into peal on peal of high laughter. Shrieking with horrible merriment, she fell back upon the sofa, rocking to and fro in the convulsion of her madness. Kingston dropped into a chair, and hid his head in his hands. It seemed as if that fearful noise would never cease. And yet he could see nothing, hear nothing. He was alone for ever in the black darkness. Everything was gone. And still Gundred sat and laughed.