Of course he knew—no man better—that he hadn’t a ghost of a chance, he hadn’t an earthly. The very idea of such a thing was preposterous. So preposterous that he’d perfectly understand it if her father—well, whatever her father chose to do he’d perfectly understand. In fact, nothing short of desperation, nothing short of the fact that this was positively his last day in England for God knows how long, would have screwed him up to it. And even now… He chose a tie out of the chest of drawers, a blue and cream check tie, and sat on the side of his bed. Supposing she replied, “What impertinence!” would he be surprised? Not in the least, he decided, turning up his soft collar and turning it down over the tie. He expected her to say something like that. He didn’t see, if he looked at the affair dead soberly, what else she could say.
Here he was! And nervously he tied a bow in front of the mirror, jammed his hair down with both hands, pulled out the flaps of his jacket pockets. Making between 500 and 600 pounds a year on a fruit farm in—of all places—Rhodesia. No capital. Not a penny coming to him. No chance of his income increasing for at least four years. As for looks and all that sort of thing, he was completely out of the running. He couldn’t even boast of top-hole health, for the East Africa business had knocked him out so thoroughly that he’d had to take six months’ leave. He was still fearfully pale—worse even than usual this afternoon, he thought, bending forward and peering into the mirror. Good heavens! What had happened? His hair looked almost bright green. Dash it all, he hadn’t green hair at all events. That was a bit too steep. And then the green light trembled in the glass; it was the shadow from the tree outside. Reggie turned away, took out his cigarette case, but remembering how the mater hated him to smoke in his bedroom, put it back again and drifted over to the chest of drawers. No, he was dashed if he could think of one blessed thing in his favour, while she… Ah!… He stopped dead, folded his arms, and leaned hard against the chest of drawers.
And in spite of her position, her father’s wealth, the fact that she was an only child and far and away the most popular girl in the neighbourhood; in spite of her beauty and her cleverness—cleverness!—it was a great deal more than that, there was really nothing she couldn’t do; he fully believed, had it been necessary, she would have been a genius at anything—in spite of the fact that her parents adored her, and she them, and they’d as soon let her go all that way as… In spite of every single thing you could think of, so terrific was his love that he couldn’t help hoping. Well, was it hope? Or was this queer, timid longing to have the chance of looking after her, of making it his job to see that she had everything she wanted, and that nothing came near her that wasn’t perfect—just love? How he loved her! He squeezed hard against the chest of drawers and murmured to it, “I love her, I love her!” And just for the moment he was with her on the way to Umtali. It was night. She sat in a corner asleep. Her soft chin was tucked into her soft collar, her gold-brown lashes lay on her cheeks. He doted on her delicate little nose, her perfect lips, her ear like a baby’s, and the gold-brown curl that half covered it. They were passing through the jungle. It was warm and dark and far away. Then she woke up and said, “Have I been asleep?” and he answered, “Yes. Are you all right? Here, let me—” And he leaned forward to… He bent over her. This was such bliss that he could dream no further. But it gave him the courage to bound downstairs, to snatch his straw hat from the hall, and to say as he closed the front door, “Well, I can only try my luck, that’s all.”
But his luck gave him a nasty jar, to say the least, almost immediately. Promenading up and down the garden path with Chinny and Biddy, the ancient Pekes, was the mater. Of course Reginald was fond of the mater and all that. She—she meant well, she had no end of grit, and so on. But there was no denying it, she was rather a grim parent. And there had been moments, many of them, in Reggie’s life, before Uncle Alick died and left him the fruit farm, when he was convinced that to be a widow’s only son was about the worst punishment a chap could have. And what made it rougher than ever was that she was positively all that he had. She wasn’t only a combined parent, as it were, but she had quarrelled with all her own and the governor’s relations before Reggie had won his first trouser pockets. So that whenever Reggie was homesick out there, sitting on his dark veranda by starlight, while the gramophone cried, “Dear, what is Life but Love?” his only vision was of the mater, tall and stout, rustling down the garden path, with Chinny and Biddy at her heels…
The mater, with her scissors outspread to snap the head of a dead something or other, stopped at the sight of Reggie.
“You are not going out, Reginald?” she asked, seeing that he was.
“I’ll be back for tea, mater,” said Reggie weakly, plunging his hands into his jacket pockets.
Snip. Off came a head. Reggie almost jumped.
“I should have thought you could have spared your mother your last afternoon,” said she.
Silence. The Pekes stared. They understood every word of the mater’s. Biddy lay down with her tongue poked out; she was so fat and glossy she looked like a lump of half-melted toffee. But Chinny’s porcelain eyes gloomed at Reginald, and he sniffed faintly, as though the whole world were one unpleasant smell. Snip, went the scissors again. Poor little beggars; they were getting it!
“And where are you going, if your mother may ask?” asked the mater.
It was over at last, but Reggie did not slow down until he was out of sight of the house and half-way to Colonel Proctor’s. Then only he noticed what a top-hole afternoon it was. It had been raining all the morning, late summer rain, warm, heavy, quick, and now the sky was clear, except for a long tail of little clouds, like duckings, sailing over the forest. There was just enough wind to shake the last drops off the trees; one warm star splashed on his hand. Ping!—another drummed on his hat. The empty road gleamed, the hedges smelled of briar, and how big and bright the hollyhocks glowed in the cottage gardens. And here was Colonel Proctor’s—here it was already. His hand was on the gate, his elbow jogged the syringa bushes, and petals and pollen scattered over his coat sleeve. But wait a bit. This was too quick altogether. He’d meant to think the whole thing out again. Here, steady. But he was walking up the path, with the huge rose bushes on either side. It can’t be done like this. But his hand had grasped the bell, given it a pull, and started it pealing wildly, as if he’d come to say the house was on fire. The housemaid must have been in the hall, too, for the front door flashed open, and Reggie was shut in the empty drawing-room before that confounded bell had stopped ringing. Strangely enough, when it did, the big room, shadowy, with some one’s parasol lying on top of the grand piano, bucked him up—or rather, excited him. It was so quiet, and yet in one moment the door would open, and his fate be decided. The feeling was not unlike that of being at the dentist’s; he was almost reckless. But at the same time, to his immense surprise, Reggie heard himself saying, “Lord, Thou knowest, Thou hast not done much for me… ” That pulled him up; that made him realize again how dead serious it was. Too late. The door handle turned. Anne came in, crossed the shadowy space between them, gave him her hand, and said, in her small, soft voice, “I’m so sorry, father is out. And mother is having a day in town, hat-hunting. There’s only me to entertain you, Reggie.”
Reggie gasped, pressed his own hat to his jacket buttons, and stammered out, “As a matter of fact, I’ve only come… to say good-bye.”
“Oh!” cried Anne softly—she stepped back from him and her grey eyes danced—”what a very short visit!”
Then, watching him, her chin tilted, she laughed outright, a long, soft peal, and walked away from him over to the piano, and leaned against it, playing with the tassel of the parasol.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, “to be laughing like this. I don’t know why I do. It’s just a bad ha—habit.” And suddenly she stamped her grey shoe, and took a pocket-handkerchief out of her white woolly jacket. “I really must conquer it, it’s too absurd,” said she.
“Good heavens, Anne,” cried Reggie, “I love to hear you laughing! I can’t imagine anything more—”
But the truth was, and they both knew it, she wasn’t always laughing; it wasn’t really a habit. Only ever since the day they’d met, ever since that very first moment, for some strange reason that Reggie wished to God he understood, Anne had laughed at him. Why? It didn’t matter where they were or what they were talking about. They might begin by being as serious as possible, dead serious—at any rate, as far as he was concerned—but then suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, Anne would glance at him, and a little quick quiver passed over her face. Her lips parted, her eyes danced, and she began laughing.
Another queer thing about it was, Reggie had an idea she didn’t herself know why she laughed. He had seen her turn away, frown, suck in her cheeks, press her hands together. But it was no use. The long, soft peal sounded, even while she cried, “I don’t know why I’m laughing.” It was a mystery…
Now she tucked the handkerchief away.
“Do sit down,” said she. “And smoke, won’t you? There are cigarettes in that little box beside you. I’ll have one too.” He lighted a match for her, and as she bent forward he saw the tiny flame glow in the pearl ring she wore. “It is to-morrow that you’re going, isn’t it?” said Anne.
“Yes, to-morrow as ever was,” said Reggie, and he blew a little fan of smoke. Why on earth was he so nervous? Nervous wasn’t the word for it.
“It’s—it’s frightfully hard to believe,” he added.
“Yes—isn’t it?” said Anne softly, and she leaned forward and rolled the point of her cigarette round the green ash-tray. How beautiful she looked like that!—simply beautiful—and she was so small in that immense chair. Reginald’s heart swelled with tenderness, but it was her voice, her soft voice, that made him tremble. “I feel you’ve been here for years,” she said.
Reginald took a deep breath of his cigarette. “It’s ghastly, this idea of going back,” he said.
“Coo-roo-coo-coo-coo,” sounded from the quiet.
“But you’re fond of being out there, aren’t you?” said Anne. She hooked her finger through her pearl necklace. “Father was saying only the other night how lucky he thought you were to have a life of your own.” And she looked up at him. Reginald’s smile was rather wan. “I don’t feel fearfully lucky,” he said lightly.
“Roo-coo-coo-coo,” came again. And Anne murmured, “You mean it’s lonely.”
“Oh, it isn’t the loneliness I care about,” said Reginald, and he stumped his cigarette savagely on the green ash-tray. “I could stand any amount of it, used to like it even. It’s the idea of—” Suddenly, to his horror, he felt himself blushing.
Anne jumped up. “Come and say good-bye to my doves,” she said. “They’ve been moved to the side veranda. You do like doves, don’t you, Reggie?”
“Awfully,” said Reggie, so fervently that as he opened the French window for her and stood to one side, Anne ran forward and laughed at the doves instead.
To and fro, to and fro over the fine red sand on the floor of the dove house, walked the two doves. One was always in front of the other. One ran forward, uttering a little cry, and the other followed, solemnly bowing and bowing. “You see,” explained Anne, “the one in front, she’s Mrs. Dove. She looks at Mr. Dove and gives that little laugh and runs forward, and he follows her, bowing and bowing. And that makes her laugh again. Away she runs, and after her,” cried Anne, and she sat back on her heels, “comes poor Mr. Dove, bowing and bowing… and that’s their whole life. They never do anything else, you know.” She got up and took some yellow grains out of a bag on the roof of the dove house. “When you think of them, out in Rhodesia, Reggie, you can be sure that is what they will be doing… ”
Reggie gave no sign of having seen the doves or of having heard a word. For the moment he was conscious only of the immense effort it took to tear his secret out of himself and offer it to Anne. “Anne, do you think you could ever care for me?” It was done. It was over. And in the little pause that followed Reginald saw the garden open to the light, the blue quivering sky, the flutter of leaves on the veranda poles, and Anne turning over the grains of maize on her palm with one finger. Then slowly she shut her hand, and the new world faded as she murmured slowly, “No, never in that way.” But he had scarcely time to feel anything before she walked quickly away, and he followed her down the steps, along the garden path, under the pink rose arches, across the lawn. There, with the gay herbaceous border behind her, Anne faced Reginald. “It isn’t that I’m not awfully fond of you,” she said. “I am. But”—her eyes widened—”not in the way”—a quiver passed over her face—”one ought to be fond of—” Her lips parted, and she couldn’t stop herself. She began laughing. “There, you see, you see,” she cried, “it’s your check t-tie. Even at this moment, when one would think one really would be solemn, your tie reminds me fearfully of the bow-tie that cats wear in pictures! Oh, please forgive me for being so horrid, please!”
Reggie caught hold of her little warm hand. “There’s no question of forgiving you,” he said quickly. “How could there be? And I do believe I know why I make you laugh. It’s because you’re so far above me in every way that I am somehow ridiculous. I see that, Anne. But if I were to—”
“No, no.” Anne squeezed his hand hard. “It’s not that. That’s all wrong. I’m not far above you at all. You’re much better than I am. You’re marvellously unselfish and… and kind and simple. I’m none of those things. You don’t know me. I’m the most awful character,” said Anne. “Please don’t interrupt. And besides, that’s not the point. The point is”—she shook her head—”I couldn’t possibly marry a man I laughed at. Surely you see that. The man I marry—” breathed Anne softly. She broke off. She drew her hand away, and looking at Reggie she smiled strangely, dreamily. “The man I marry—”
And it seemed to Reggie that a tall, handsome, brilliant stranger stepped in front of him and took his place—the kind of man that Anne and he had seen often at the theatre, walking on to the stage from nowhere, without a word catching the heroine in his arms, and after one long, tremendous look, carrying her off to anywhere…
Reggie bowed to his vision. “Yes, I see,” he said huskily.
“Do you?” said Anne. “Oh, I do hope you do. Because I feel so horrid about it. It’s so hard to explain. You know I’ve never—” She stopped. Reggie looked at her. She was smiling. “Isn’t it funny?” she said. “I can say anything to you. I always have been able to from the very beginning.”
He tried to smile, to say “I’m glad.” She went on. “I’ve never known any one I like as much as I like you. I’ve never felt so happy with any one. But I’m sure it’s not what people and what books mean when they talk about love. Do you understand? Oh, if you only knew how horrid I feel. But we’d be like… like Mr. and Mrs. Dove.”
That did it. That seemed to Reginald final, and so terribly true that he could hardly bear it. “Don’t drive it home,” he said, and he turned away from Anne and looked across the lawn. There was the gardener’s cottage, with the dark ilex-tree beside it. A wet, blue thumb of transparent smoke hung above the chimney. It didn’t look real. How his throat ached! Could he speak? He had a shot. “I must be getting along home,” he croaked, and he began walking across the lawn. But Anne ran after him. “No, don’t. You can’t go yet,” she said imploringly. “You can’t possibly go away feeling like that.” And she stared up at him frowning, biting her lip.
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Reggie, giving himself a shake. “I’ll… I’ll—” And he waved his hand as much to say “get over it.”
“But this is awful,” said Anne. She clasped her hands and stood in front of him. “Surely you do see how fatal it would be for us to marry, don’t you?”
“Oh, quite, quite,” said Reggie, looking at her with haggard eyes.
“How wrong, how wicked, feeling as I do. I mean, it’s all very well for Mr. and Mrs. Dove. But imagine that in real life—imagine it!”
“Oh, absolutely,” said Reggie, and he started to walk on. But again Anne stopped him. She tugged at his sleeve, and to his astonishment, this time, instead of laughing, she looked like a little girl who was going to cry.
“Then why, if you understand, are you so un-unhappy?” she wailed. “Why do you mind so fearfully? Why do you look so aw-awful?”
Reggie gulped, and again he waved something away. “I can’t help it,” he said, “I’ve had a blow. If I cut off now, I’ll be able to—”
“How can you talk of cutting off now?” said Anne scornfully. She stamped her foot at Reggie; she was crimson. “How can you be so cruel? I can’t let you go until I know for certain that you are just as happy as you were before you asked me to marry you. Surely you must see that, it’s so simple.”
But it did not seem at all simple to Reginald. It seemed impossibly difficult.
“Even if I can’t marry you, how can I know that you’re all that way away, with only that awful mother to write to, and that you’re miserable, and that it’s all my fault?”
“It’s not your fault. Don’t think that. It’s just fate.” Reggie took her hand off his sleeve and kissed it. “Don’t pity me, dear little Anne,” he said gently. And this time he nearly ran, under the pink arches, along the garden path.
“Roo-coo-coo-coo! Roo-coo-coo-coo!” sounded from the veranda. “Reggie, Reggie,” from the garden.
He stopped, he turned. But when she saw his timid, puzzled look, she gave a little laugh.
“Come back, Mr. Dove,” said Anne. And Reginald came slowly across the lawn.