Shelton tried to speak, but something kept him silent—submission to what was coming, like the mute submission of the fields and birds to the menace of the storm.
He watched her go, and went back to his seat. And the silence seemed to grow; the flowers ceased to exude their fragrance, numbed by the weighty air. All the long house behind him seemed asleep, deserted. No noise came forth, no laughter, the echo of no music, the ringing of no bell; the heat had wrapped it round with drowsiness. And the silence added to the solitude within him. What an unlucky chance, that woman’s accident! Designed by Providence to put Antonia further from him than before! Why was not the world composed of the immaculate alone? He started pacing up and down, tortured by a dreadful heartache.
“I must get rid of this,” he thought. “I ’ll go for a good tramp, and chance the storm.”
Leaving the drive he ran on Toddles, returning in the highest spirits.
“I saw her home,” he crowed. “I say, what a ripper, isn’t she? She ’ll be as lame as a tree to-morrow; so will the gee. Jolly hot!”
This meeting showed Shelton that he had been an hour on the stone seat; he had thought it some ten minutes, and the discovery alarmed him. It seemed to bring the import of his miserable fear right home to him. He started with a swinging stride, keeping his eyes fixed on the road, the perspiration streaming down his face.
It was seven and more when Shelton returned, from his walk; a few heat drops had splashed the leaves, but the storm had not yet broken. In brooding silence the world seemed pent beneath the purple firmament.
By rapid walking in the heat Shelton had got rid of his despondency. He felt like one who is to see his mistress after long estrangement. He, bathed, and, straightening his tie-ends, stood smiling at the glass. His fear, unhappiness, and doubts seemed like an evil dream; how much worse off would he not have been, had it all been true?
It was dinner-party night, and when he reached the drawing-room the guests were there already, chattering of the coming storm. Antonia was not yet down, and Shelton stood by the piano waiting for her entry. Red faces, spotless shirt-fronts, white arms; and freshly-twisted hair were all around him. Some one handed him a clove carnation, and, as he held it to his nose, Antonia came in, breathless, as though she had rushed down-stairs, Her cheeks were pale no longer; her hand kept stealing to her throat. The flames of the coming storm seemed to have caught fire within her, to be scorching her in her white frock; she passed him close, and her fragrance whipped his senses.
She had never seemed to him so lovely.
Never again will Shelton breathe the perfume of melons and pineapples without a strange emotion. From where he sat at dinner he could not see Antonia, but amidst the chattering of voices, the clink of glass and silver, the sights and sounds and scents of feasting, he thought how he would go to her and say that nothing mattered but her love. He drank the frosted, pale-gold liquid of champagne as if it had been water.