“I must go,” he said, standing up.
“Yes—tradition sends one home on Christmas Day.”
He moved towards the door, and she followed him, glowing and majestic in the shadows of the firelit room. Outside, the sky was washed with a strange, fiery green, in which the new kindled stars hung like lamps.
They stood for a moment on the threshold, the warm, red house behind them, before them the star-hung width and emptiness of the Marsh. Martin blocked the sky for Joanna, as he turned and held out his hand. Then, on the brink of love, she hesitated. A memory smote her—of herself standing before another man who blocked the sky, and in whose eyes sat the small, enslaved image of herself. Was she just being a fool again?—Ought she to draw back while she had still the power, before she became his slave, his little thing, and all her bigness was drowned in his eyes. She knew that whatever she gave him now could never be taken back. Here stood the master of the mistress of Ansdore.
As for Martin, his thoughts were of another kind.
“Good-bye,” he said, renouncing her—for her boldness and her commonness and all that she would mean of change and of foregoing—“Good-bye, Joanna.”
He had not meant to say her name, but it had come, and with it all the departing adventure of love. She seemed to fall towards him, to lean suddenly like a tree in a gale—he smelt a fresh, sweet smell of clean cotton underclothing, of a plain soap, of free unperfumed hair ... then she was in his arms, and he was kissing her warm, shy mouth, feeling that for this moment he had been born.
“Well, where have you been?” asked Sir Harry, as his son walked in at the hall door soon after six.
“I’ve been having dinner with Joanna Godden.”
“The deuce you have.”
“I looked in to see her this morning and she asked me to stay.”
“You’ve stayed long enough—your saintly brother’s had to do the milking.”
“Gone to the carols with the rest. Confounded nuisance, these primitive religious impulses of an elemental people—always seem to require an outlet at an hour when other people want their meals.”
“They’ll be back in time for dinner.”
“I doubt it, and cook’s gone too—and Tom Saville’s coming, you know.”
“Well, I’d better go and see after the milking.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve finished,” and a dark round head came round the door, followed by a hunched figure in a cloak, from the folds of which it deprecatingly held out a pint jug.
“The results of half an hour’s milking. I know I should have got more, but I think the cows found me unsympathetic.”
Martin burst out laughing. Ordinarily he would have felt annoyed at the prospect of having to go milking at this hour, but to-night he was expansive and good-humoured towards all beasts and men.