There was a field of wheat not so far from The Weir. It was approached by a stile from the roadway and a narrow path went through it to the Clieve-don Woods as evenly as a canal divides a landscape. At the further end there was another stile and a bank of low trees, with a hollow and a slope overgrown with green grass and a myriad of wild flowers beloved by bees. A grass meadow with a little stream creeping through it, and here and there a tuft of rushes; behind all the long high ridge of the woods—these are the details of which one becomes aware when one has begun to recover from the vast wonder of the field of wheat.

Josephine was not wearing a hat. She had merely picked up a crimson sunshade after breakfast on the Monday, and had gone alone strolling through the garden, a magazine under her arm. She had given her maid instructions to be ready to start for town after lunch—the other guests, with the exception of Pierce Winwood, had already taken their departure, and Pierce Winwood had gone to Marlow with Lady Severn and Amber. That was how Josephine came to be alone, and to be glad to be alone. She had become aware of the fact that she had something to think about, and she hoped that half an hour on the green shorn breadths of grass with the river at her feet and the whisper of the weir in her ears would be a relief to her.

She strolled down the lawn to the river, but a steamer with people aboard drinking out of bottles and playing on banjos, when the sexes had duly exchanged hats, was hooting for the lock-keeper, so she turned away to the upper part of the garden. She found that she had more to think about than the garden would contain, so she passed out by the little gate to the silent road and stood for a moment looking along its dusty curve to where it got lost in the dimness of overshadowing trees, and then, in the other direction, where it twisted round by the boathouse at the bridge. She began to walk in this direction, slowly and listlessly, and when she came to the stile leading to the wheatfield, she mounted it, and remained for some time on the topmost step gazing along the surface of that yellow flaming plain lost in the marvel of it, when there came a wind too light for her to feel upon her face, and fanned the moveless breadth of flame into a thousand flickers, and the whole wide field of a hundred acres became quickly alive, and full of the whisperings of newly acquired vitality.

She felt that she had never seen anything so beautiful before. She leaped down from the topmost step to the path, with all the delight of the swimmer springing into the sea. The waving mass closed on her head for a moment but when she recovered herself she was head and shoulders above the grain. She strolled along the flat track by the side of the little bank, with blue wild flowers on one hand and flaring poppies on the other, breathing of the fresh warm sunlight that seemed to be enclosed between the green bank and the serried lines of the ripe grain.

And then, where a space had been cleared by the reaping-machine, and the bundles of grain lay at regular intervals along the ground, there arose from under her very feet a flock of blue and white wood pigeons, and flew for a few dozen yards ahead, then fell in an exquisite curve, the sunlight gleaming for a moment upon every white feather in succession until all had dropped at the brink of the field.

When she reached the farther stile with the woods at her back she seated herself, feeling that she never wished to get back to the world again,—that she had at last reached a spot where all the joy of life was to be had. There was nothing better than this in all the world—this breathing of warm air, this listening to the hum of insects, this watching of the myriad butterflies, fluttering, and flitting and poising over everything that was sweet smelling on the bank and in the grass, this gazing on the rippling flames that burned yellow into the distance where no ripple stirred. The beauty and the quietness of it all! The satisfied sense of waiting without emotion for the heat of the noontide, of waiting, without longing, for the poppy sunset—for the sounds of the evening, the cooing of the wood pigeons, the cawing of the rooks, with now and again the rich contralto of a blackbird’s note.

And then the warm silence of a night powdered with stars, as the soft blue of the sky became dark, but without ceasing to be blue! Oh that summer night!

The thought of it all as she could imagine it, meant rest.

That was what every one needed—rest; and she felt that she had wandered away from man and into the very heart of the peace of God.

The thought that she had a thought which was not one suggested by the landscape irritated her. She felt that she had a good reason for being irritated with Ernest Clifton who was responsible for her failure to continue in this dream of perfect repose. She felt irritated with him just as one is with a servant who blunders into the room where one is in a sleep of divine tranquillity.

During the ten days that had passed since he had surprised her—for a few moments—by giving her the release for which she had asked him, only to impose upon her a much stronger obligation, she had been thinking over his trickery—the word had been forced upon her; she felt quite shocked at its persistent intrusion but that made no difference: the word had come and the word remained with her until she was accustomed to it.

But it was not until now that she asked herself the question:

How could I ever have fancied that I loved the man who could thus juggle with me?

She knew that what she had told him on that Sunday at Ranelagh was quite true: she had been greatly troubled for some months at the thought that she was guilty of deception—a certain amount of deception—in respect of her engagement to him. The deception of her father and mother had become at last unendurable to her. She began to despise herself for it all and to feel humiliated every time she was by the side of Ernest Clifton when the eyes of people were watching her. She had to act as if he was nothing to her, and this dissimulation had become unendurable, so that she had sought for the opportunity of telling him that he must release her.

She thought that she cared for him even then—she thought that the first step apart from him was taken by her when she perceived that he did not believe what she had said to him at that time. She knew that he did not believe that it pained her to deceive her father and mother—she knew that he was thinking “Who is the other man?” and then she was conscious of taking the first step apart from him.

But it was not a mere step that she had taken away from him on that evening on the Italian terrace of the Kensington garden when she had recovered from her surprise at his generosity only to discover that he had tricked her—that he had substituted a new bondage for the old from which he had released her—it was not a mere step: she became conscious of the fact that he and she were miles asunder—that she detested him so much that she could scarcely realise that she had ever cared a jot for him. And now——

Well now she was irritated that the thought that she had yet to free herself entirely from him, came upon her shattering with a note of discord her crystal dream of peace.

She would write to him—no, she would see him face to face before another day had passed, and tell him that she perceived how he had juggled with her, and that she declined to be bound to him by any tie. It was a comfort to her to reflect that she had need only to tell him to go to her father and ask his consent to her promising to marry him, and her separation from him would be complete, for she knew something of the ambition of her father, and that he had other views respecting her future than to marry her to a man who though perhaps possessing some power as the wire puller—the stage manager, as it were—of a political party, was far from being a match for the daughter of a man who hoped for a peerage. Mr. Clifton himself had been well aware of this fact, or he would not have imposed upon her that bondage of secrecy which had become so irksome to her.

Yes, she would tell him that unless her father gave his consent, she would consider herself bound in no way to him—not even by that subtle silken cord of mutual faith, “mutual confidence holds us together,” was the phrase that he had employed.

She laughed at the thought of it.

Does it—does it?” she thought, through her laugh. “Well, perhaps—but——

And then she started, hearing through the hum of the wild bees about the sweet briar of the grassy bank, the sound of a step on the track leading from the stile through the woods. She started and then her face flamed like the poppies at her feet, though she must have seen in a moment that the man who had vaulted over the rails of the stile was no stranger but only Pierce Winwood.

And then he too started and his face—but his face being already the colour of a copper-beech was not susceptible of any poppy tint, although there is an inward blushing, just as there is an inward bleeding—far more fatal than the other.

Then they both laughed, with their heads thrown back, after the manner of people who give themselves over to a laugh.

It seemed that she was under the impression that an apology for her presence there was necessary, for there was more than an explanatory note in her voice while she said:

“I had no idea that—why, I thought that you had gone to Marlow—I was in the garden but there was a horribly crowded steamer with a terrible Hampsteading crowd aboard and a whistle. I came out on the road and was amazed to find that I had never heard that a wheatfield is the most beautiful thing in the world. How is it that the people here have been talking on any other subject during the past few days? What else is there worth talking about in comparison with this?”

She made a motion with her sunshade to include all the landscape. He did not look at the landscape: he was too busy looking at her.

“I wondered what it could be compared to,” she resumed with great rapidity. She did not show her disappointment at his disregard of the glory of mellow growth which he had taken the trouble to indicate. “Oh, what is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as this?... But how did you come here from that direction?”

“I crossed the river by the bridge and took a stroll through the woods,” said he. “I was not sure that I should find a path through this field, but when I saw the stile I had hopes.”

“That is how people come upon the best things that life has in store for them—by the merest fluke,” said she, and she made a movement as if she understood that they were to walk together to The Weir.

“Don’t let us go away for another minute,” said he, without moving.

She turned her head only, with the sunshade over it. An enquiry was on her face.

“Don’t go away,” he repeated. “I was going to put those words of yours to the test.”

“What words? Did I say anything? Oh, the beauty of the wheatfield? I will not have it analysed by any canon of criticism. If you say that it is too yellow I shall never speak to you again.”

“I will not say that, and yet perhaps you will never speak to me again.”

The smile faded away from her face at the tone of his voice.

“I will listen to you,” she said resolutely.

He looked into her face for a few moments and then he took a step or two away from her, actually turning round to do so. His eyes were fixed on the ground.

“You said that people come upon the best things in life as—as I came here—to you, and I am going to find out whether I have come upon the best or the worst thing that life has to offer me, for I am going to tell you that I love you and to ask you if you can give me any hope that you will one day think of me as loving you.”

He was now standing face to face with her. He spoke in a low voice but not in even tones, until she gave a little cry—it sounded like a sob—when he was half way through his sentences, making a motion of protest with one hand; then his voice became quite steady—steady almost to a point of coldness.

She did not answer him at once. But there came a silence, through which they could both hear the hum of the wild bees on the green bank.

Two sulphur butterflies danced above them in the air.

She watched the butterflies, and then glanced at the bank.

“There is sweet briar about here I am sure,” she said, as if they had been discussing the herbarium.

He thought he appreciated her mood of the moment.

“Yes,” he said; “I think there must be sweet briar somewhere.”

He did not stir hand or foot. His hands were in the pocket of his jacket.

She took a few steps to the bank; then her sunshade slipped from her shoulder and fell awkwardly on the ground behind her; for she had no hand to hold it; she was holding both her hands to her face sobbing in them.

He made no move. He did not even recover her sunshade, sprawling there a mighty crimson thing among the crimson poppies and the pink. He could not understand her tears; he only felt that she could not be indifferent to him. There are only two sorts of tears; they never come from indifference.

And then she seated herself on the bank and wiped her tears away with her handkerchief. He saw how the sunlight was snared among the strands of her hair. He had never known that it had that reddish gold tinge among its masses of rich brown. It maddened him with its beauty; but still he could not move. He had a feeling that it would be fatal for him to make the least movement.

He had ample time to admire this newly-discovered charm of her hair, for she did not look at him nor did she speak until several minutes had passed.

Then she tossed from her the handkerchief that she had rolled into a round mass, as a child flings its ball away, and the recklessness that the act suggested was prolonged in her voice, as she said:

“What a fool I am! Why should I cry because I know that you love me when I too know that I love you, and that whatever happens I shall marry you—you—you—and not the man whom I promised to marry? What a fool!”

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