9. Love at first sight
Shortly after Gladys reached home after her visit to the Vicarage, a young man with a serious expression somewhat out of keeping with his jaunty walk, entered the gate of Pine Cottage, and came to an abrupt halt.
"Well," he ejaculated, "this is a pretty place, and what's more—for dozens of houses and gardens are pretty—it's artistic!" In front of him stretched a miniature avenue of chestnut trees, which was rendered striking, even to the most casual observer, probably, not only on account of the irregular mounds of moss-covered stones that occupied its intervening spaces, but also, by reason of the masses of wild flowers (great clumps of which were springing up in the crevices of this impromptu wall) that lent to it an appearance half negligent, but wholly and entrancingly picturesque. Here, undoubtedly, was art. That did not astonish the young man. All avenues, in the ordinary sense, are works of art; and the mere excess of art he saw manifested did not surprise him; it was the character of the art that had brought him to a standstill and held him spellbound. And the longer he looked the more he became convinced, that whoever had superintended the arrangement of this scenery was an artist—an artist with a scrupulous eye for form.
The greatest care had been taken to keep the balance between neatness and gracefulness on the one hand and picturesqueness on the other. There were few straight lines, and no long uninterrupted ones; whilst at no one point of view did the same effect of curvature or colour appear twice. Variety in uniformity was the keynote.
At last tearing himself away from this one spot—where he felt he could have spent centuries—he turned to the right and then again to the left—for the path had now become serpentine, and at no moment could be traced for more than two or three paces in advance. Presently the sound of water fell gently on his ear, and in the shadiest of diminutive forests, amidst the interlacing branches of elm and beech, he caught the glimpse of a fountain. For an instant the wild thought of forcing his way through it, of plunging his burning forehead in its cooling spray, well-nigh mastered him. But his better sense conquered, and he kept to the path. Another turn, and he caught his first glimpse of a chimney; another—and the summit of a gable showed above the trees. The sun, which had been hitherto obscured, now came out, and suddenly—as if by the hand of magic—the whole scene was a brilliant blaze of colour. He had arrived at the end of the avenue, where the path forked; one branch turning sharply round in the direction of a side entrance to the house, whilst the other led with a gentle curvature to the front.
Facing the building was a broad expanse of velvety turf, relieved occasionally, here and there, by such showy shrubs as the hydrangea, rhododendron, or lilac; but more frequently, and at closer intervals, by clumps of geraniums, or roses—roses of every variety. There was nothing pretentious in the garden, any more than there was in the adjoining edifice. Its unusually pleasing effect lay altogether in its artistic arrangement; and one could hardly help imagining that the whole scene had, in reality, been called into existence by the brush of some eminent landscape painter.
The cottage itself was constructed of old-fashioned Dutch shingles—broad and with rounded corners—and painted a dull grey; a tint which, when contrasted with the vivid green of the tulip trees that overshadowed the entrance to the house, and reared themselves high above it on either side, afforded an artistic happiness perfectly intoxicating to its present visitor. The architecture of the cottage was—if not Early Tudor—something equally pleasing. Its roofs were divided into many gables; its windows were diamond paned and projecting, whilst oaken beams ran latitudinally and vertically over its grey shingle front. Encompassing the whole base of the exterior were masses of flowers—pinks, carnations, heliotrope, pansies, poppies, lilies, wallflowers, roses and jasmines; and besides the latter several other creepers had been planted beneath the walls, but had not yet attained to any height.
Shiel Davenport, for it was he, could not resist the temptation of peeping in at the windows; and he saw that the interior of the cottage was artistry and simplicity itself. At the windows, curtains of heavy white jaconet muslin, not too full, hung in sharp parallel plaits to the floor—just to the floor. The walls were papered with French papers of rare delicacy—to match the seasons; (spring, summer, autumn and winter were all most effectively depicted), and the furniture though light, was at the same time costly. And here again was the same effect of arrangement—an arrangement obviously designed by the same brain that had planned the building and grounds. Shiel could not conceive anything more graceful. Flowers—flowers of every hue and odour were the chief decoration of the cottage. On almost every table were vases—in themselves beautiful enough—yet filled to overflowing with the finest roses. Ox-eye daisies, hollyhocks and forget-me-nots clustered about the open windows. And every puff of wind, every breath of air transmitted scent—the most delicious medley of scent imaginable.
The young man drew in deep draughts of it; he threw back his head, and, opening his mouth, revelled in the joy of feeling it steal softly down his throat and permeate his lungs. He was thus engaged when the sound of a voice brought him sharply back to earth.
In the open doorway of the house, an amused expression in her violet eyes, stood a girl—so wondrously pretty, that at the sight of her Shiel was again overcome, and could only gaze in helpless admiration.
"Do you want to see my father?" she inquired. "He is getting ready to go out, but I daresay he will see you first."
"I—I am sure he will," the young man replied, "I'm Shiel Davenport. I've come to tell him my uncle died at four o'clock this morning."
"Oh, dear!" the girl exclaimed, "I am so sorry—sorry for you, and for my father. I'm sure he will be terribly upset. I'm Gladys Martin, perhaps you've heard of me—I knew your uncle."
"Often," Shiel said, "And I think my uncle's description of you an excellent one."
"His description of me!"
"Yes! he always spoke of you as the Queen of Flowers, and said you had a mania for all things beautiful, which was not surprising, seeing how beautiful you were yourself."
"That was very nice of him," Gladys said, looking amused again. "Won't you come in? If you will wait here"—she led him to the drawing-room—"I'll tell my father."
She disappeared, and Shiel heard her run lightly up the stairs.
"By Jove," he said to himself, "she's the loveliest girl I've ever seen. From being so much among flowers, she has become one herself. Violets, roses, and heliotrope have all had a share in her creation! What eyes, what a mouth! what teeth! what hands! Surely I have found here, not only the perfection of all things beautiful, but the perfection of all things natural, the perfection of natural grace in contradistinction from artificial grace. Moreover, she is a romanticist. There is an expression of romance, of unworldliness, in those deep-set eyes of hers, that sinks into my heart of hearts. 'Romance' and 'womanliness,' and the two terms appear to me to be convertible, are her distinguishing features. She is an artist, an idealist, and, over and above all—a woman! Hang it! I'm in love with her!"
More he could not evolve, for his meditations were abruptly cut short by the entrance of a servant, who ushered him, straightway, into the presence of John Martin.
The latter, though visibly affected by the news of his friend's death, was a man of the world, and, consequently, came to business at once. Much had to be discussed—arrangements for the funeral, the examination of correspondence relative to the firm, and plans for the immediate future.
"You don't know how my uncle's affairs stand, I suppose?" Shiel asked somewhat nervously.
"Yes," John Martin said, "I do. May I ask if you have any private means at all—or are you solely dependent on what you earn? By the way, what is your calling?"
"I am an artist," Shiel said. "No, I've nothing beyond what my uncle was good enough to allow me."
"An artist!" John Martin murmured, "how like Dick! Have you entertained the idea of inheriting a fortune? Have you any reason to suppose that your uncle was well off and had made you his heir!"
"I gathered so, sir, from the manner in which he lived and his attitude towards me."
"Well! we won't talk it over now—leave it till after the funeral. Are you bent on continuing painting? There is very little remuneration in it, is there?"
"Not much," Shiel answered gloomily, "but I shouldn't care to give it up—unless of course it is absolutely necessary for me to do so."
"Being an artist you wouldn't be much good in business."
"At all events, you are candid. Well! I don't see any good in our dallying here—I had best go back with you to Sydenham. I've got a letter to write first, but I shan't be long."
He was long enough, however, for Shiel to have another chat with Gladys. "Do you believe in dreams?" she asked him. "I had such a queer one last night, about trees and flowers; and, oddly enough, my father also dreamed of trees and flowers, and of the very same ones too. I am going into Town to-day to consult a firm that has just set up, called the Modern Sorcery Company Ltd. They profess to interpret dreams, and I am anxious to see whether they can."
"In Cockspur Street, aren't they?" Shiel asked. "I saw their advertisement in one of the papers. I presume you are not going there alone?"
"No!" Gladys laughed, "I shall go with a friend, though I often do go into Town alone. I can assure you I am quite capable of looking after myself. In that respect, at least, I am quite up to date. Probably you are more accustomed to French girls?"
"Yes! I have spent most of my life in Paris," Shiel said. "But how could you tell that?"
"Oh! I guessed you were an artist—and had probably spent some time in Paris"—Gladys rejoined, "by the way you looked at the house and garden. I could read appreciation in your eyes and gesture; such appreciation, as I knew, could only come from an artist. G.W. Barnett helped me in planning this cottage and the garden."
"What! Barnett the landscape painter! I am a great admirer of his work. Were you a pupil of his?"
"Yes, he was one of the visiting R.A.'s at the Beechcroft Studio in St. John's Wood, where I worked for three years. We were then living in Blackheath—St. John's Park—a hateful place. Mr. Barnett was awfully good, when I told him we were moving, and that I wanted to live in really artistic surroundings—he suggested that I should be my own architect, and promised to do everything he could to assist me."
"And your father hadn't a say in the matter," Shiel commented, with an amused smile.
"Not in that," Gladys said complacently, "though there are one or two things in which he has a very decided say. Father can be very self-willed and obstinate, when he likes. But as I was remarking when you interrupted me—"
"I beg pardon!" Shiel murmured.
"Mr. Barnett promised to assist me. He came over here with me, and we chose this site."
"Is he an old man?" Shiel inquired, a trifle anxiously.
"Not much more than middle aged—fifty perhaps!" Gladys said, "though he looks much younger. He is still very good-looking. Well! he came over here—we chose this site, and—"
"Is he married?"
"No! Really you seem very interested in him. Perhaps you will meet him some day: he comes here a good deal. As I was saying, we chose the site together, and he supervized the plans I drew up for the garden and cottage; I don't think, perhaps, I should have thought of that avenue if it hadn't been for him!"
"At all events it does you both credit," Shiel remarked, "for a more charming house and garden I have never seen. I should like to live here all my life. I should like—" but he was interrupted by John Martin. "Come, it's time we were off," the latter called out brusquely, "time and trains wait for no man!"
"A young ass!" John Martin whispered in Gladys' ear, as the trio passed through the entrance of the railway station on to the platform, "not a bit of good to me. Don't encourage him, whatever you do!"
"Encourage him!" Gladys retorted indignantly, seeing that Shiel, who had his ticket to get, was out of hearing. "Do I encourage any one? All the same," she added defiantly, "I rather like him. It isn't every one's good fortune to be as smart as you, John Martin. Quick—hurry up! That's your train—and the guard's about to blow his whistle."
With a vigorous push she hustled her father into the first compartment they came to, and Shiel sprang in after him as the train moved out of the station.
An hour later Gladys, looking extremely demure and proper, was rapping with a daintily gloved hand at the inquiry office in the great stone lobby of the Modern Sorcery Company's building in Cockspur Street.
"Have you an appointment, madam?" the commissionaire, in a bright blue uniform, asked.
"No," Gladys replied. "Is it necessary?
"The firm are unusually busy," the man explained, "and unless you have made an appointment with them some days beforehand, it is doubtful whether they will be able to see you. However, if you will step into the waiting room and fill in one of the forms you see on the table, I will take it to them. Which member of the firm have you come to consult?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," Gladys said. "I want to have a dream interpreted."
"Then, that will be Mr. Kelson," the man observed "he does all that kind of thing—tells dreams, characters, pasts, and reads thoughts. Mr. Curtis solves all manner of puzzles and tricks; and Mr. Hamar divines the presence of metals and water. There is a lady in the waiting-room now, come to have a dream interpreted. She's been there nearly an hour. This way, madam!"—and he escorted, rather than ushered, Gladys into a large, elaborately furnished room, in which a dozen or so well dressed people—of both sexes—were waiting, looking over the leaves of magazines and journals, and trying in vain to hide their only too obvious excitement.
Having filled in the necessary form, and given it to the commissionaire, Gladys looked round for a seat, and espying one, next to a strikingly handsome girl, she at once appropriated it.
There was something about this showy girl that had attracted Gladys. She was one of those rare people that have a personality, and although this was a personality that Gladys was not at all sure she liked, nevertheless she felt anxious to become more closely acquainted with it. Both girls suddenly realized that they were staring hard at one another. The girl with the personality was the first to speak. With a smile that, while revealing a perfect set of white teeth, at the some time revealed exceedingly thin lips, she remarked, "It's most wearisome work waiting. I've been here nearly an hour. I shouldn't stay any longer, only I've come from a distance. London is so hot and stuffy, I detest it."
"Do you?" Gladys observed. "I don't. I find it so full of human interest—indeed, of every kind of interest. Not that I should care to live in it, but I like being near enough to come up several times a week. I live at Kew."
"Then you're lucky!" the girl said, "I'd live at Kew if I could. But I can't—I'm one of those unfortunate creatures who have to earn their living."
"I sometimes wish I had to," Gladys remarked.
"Do you! Then you don't know much about it. It isn't all jam by a long way. I loathe work. I've been spending my holiday at Kew. I've just come from there."
"Are you by any chance Miss Rosenberg?" Gladys asked.
"That's my name," the girl replied with a look of astonishment. "How do you know?"
Gladys explained. "I've just been to the Vicarage," she said, "and Mrs. Sprat has told me about the verses. Did you really dream them?"
"Of course! I shouldn't have said so if I hadn't," Miss Rosenberg replied angrily. "I don't tell crams. Besides, I've never composed a line of poetry in my life. The verses were repeated to me in my sleep by some occult agency—of that I am quite certain. They were so vividly impressed on my mind that I had no difficulty at all in remembering them—every one of them, and I got up and wrote them down. Of course they must mean something."
Gladys was about to make some observation, when the commissionaire, opening the door of the room, called out, "Miss Rosenberg;" whereupon, with a sigh of relief, Miss Rosenberg took her departure.