It was a night indeed which left Rachel with that sense of strange illuminations, of life painfully enlarged and deepened, which love and suffering may always bring to the woman who is capable of love and suffering. She had spent the hours in writing to Ellesborough, and in that letter she had unpacked her heart to its depths, Janet guessed. When she received the letter from Rachel on the morrow, she handled it as a sacred thing.
The frost held. A sun of pearl and fire rose over the hill, as the stars finally faded out in the winter morning, and a brilliant rime lay sparkling on all the pastures and on the slopes of the down. The brilliance had partly vanished from the lower grounds when Janet started on her way; but on the high commons, winter was at its gayest and loveliest. The distant woods were a mist of brown and azure, encircling the broad frost-whitened spaces; the great single beeches and oaks under which Spenser or Sidney—the great Will himself—might have walked, shot up, magnificent, into a clear sky, proudly sheltering the gnarled thorns and furze-bushes which marched beside and round them, like dwarfs in a pageant.
Half way up the hill, Janet came across old Betts bringing down a small cart-full of furze for fodder, and she stopped to speak to him. A little later on, nearer to the camp she overtook Dempsey, who rather officiously joined her, and assuming at once that she was in quest of the Camp Commandant, directed her to a short cut leading straight to Ellesborough’s quarters. There was a slight something in the manner of both men that jarred on Janet—as though their lips said one thing and their eyes another—furtive in the case of Betts, a trifle insolent in that of Dempsey. She with her tragic knowledge guessed uncomfortably at what it meant. Dempsey—as she had made up her mind after ten minutes’ talk with him—was a vain gossip. It had been madness on Rachel’s part to give him the smallest hold on her. Very likely he had not yet actually betrayed her—his hope of favours to come might have been sufficient to prevent that. But his self-importance would certainly show itself somehow—in a hint or a laugh. He had probably already roused in the village mind a prying curiosity, a suspicion of something underhand, which might alter Rachel’s whole relation to her neighbours. For once give an English country-side reason to suspect a scandal, and it will pluck it bare in time, with a slow and secret persistence.
Well, after all, if the situation became disagreeable, Rachel would only have to choose Ellesborough’s country as her own, and begin her new life there.
Supposing that all went well! Janet’s mind went through some painful alterations of confidence and fear, as she walked her bicycle along the rough forest-track leading to Ellesborough’s hut. She believed him to be deeply in love with Rachel, and the spiritual passion in her seemed to realize in the man’s inmost nature, behind all his practical ability, and his short business manner, powers of pity and tenderness like her own. But if she were wrong? If this second revelation put too great a strain upon one brought up in an exceptionally strict school where certain standards of conduct were simply taken for granted?