The May evening drew towards sunset. Flame descended on the valley, striking athwart the opening which leads to its furthest recess, superbly guarded by the crags of Bowfell, and turning all the mountain-side above the cottage, still dyed with the fern of ‘yesteryear,’ to scarlet. A fresh breeze blew through the sycamore leaves, bringing with it the cool scents of rain-washed grass. All was hushed—richly hued—expectant—like some pageant waiting for its king.
Alas—poor king! In the full glory of the evening light, a man alighted from a wagonette at the foot of the cottage hill, and dragged his weary limbs up the steep ground. He opened the gate, looking round him slowly to right and left.
Then, in the porch, Fenwick saw his wife. He walked up to her, and gripped her wrists. She fell back with a stifled cry; and they stood there—speechless and motionless—looking into each other’s eyes.
Phoebe first withdrew herself. In that first moment of contact, Fenwick’s changed aspect had pierced her to the heart. But the shock itself brought self-control.
‘Come in,’ she said, mechanically; ‘Miss Anna’s gone out.’
He followed her in, glancing from side to side.
‘She—she’ll be here directly.’
Phoebe’s voice stumbled over the words.
Fenwick understood that the child and Anna Mason were leaving them to themselves, out of delicacy; and his exhaustion of mind and body recoiled impatiently from the prospect of a ‘scene,’ with which he felt himself wholly unable to cope. He had been sorely tempted to stay at Windermere, and telegraph that he was too ill to come that day. Such a course would at least have given him the night’s respite. But a medley of feelings had prevailed over the impulse; and here he was.
They entered the little parlour, and he looked round him in amazement, muttering, ‘Why, it looks just as it did—not a thing changed.’
Phoebe closed the door, and then turned to him, trembling.
‘Won’t you—won’t you say you’re glad to see me, John?’
He looked at her fixedly, then threw himself down beside the table, and rested his head on his hands.
‘It’s no good to suppose we can undo these twelve years,’ he said, roughly; ‘it’s no good whatever to suppose that.’
‘No,’ said Phoebe—’I know.’
She too sat down on the other side of the table, deadly pale, not knowing what to say or do.
Suddenly he raised his head and looked at her, with his searching painter’s eyes.
‘My God!’ he said, under his breath. ’We are changed, both of us—aren’t we?’
She too studied the face before her—the grey hair, the red-rimmed eyes, of which the lids fluttered perpetually, shrinking from the light, the sombre mouth; and slowly a look of still more complete dismay overspread her own; reflected, as it were, from that half-savage discouragement and weariness which spoke from the drawn features, the neglected dress, and slouching figure, and seemed to make of the whole man one sore, wincing at a touch. Her heart sank—and sank.