Howard followed with Miss Merry, and talked wildly about the future of English poetry, till they drove in under the archway of the Manor and his penance was at an end.
Howard spent some very unhappy days after that, mostly alone. They were very active at the Vicarage making expeditions, fishing, playing lawn-tennis, and once or twice pressed him to join them. But he excused himself on the ground that he must work at his book; he could not bear to carry his despondency and his dolorous air into so blithe a company; and he was, moreover, consumed by a jealousy which humiliated him. If Guthrie was destined to win Maud’s love he should have a fair field; and yet Howard’s imagination played him many fevered tricks in those days, and the thought of what might be happening used to sting him into desperation. His own mood alternated between misery and languor. He used to sit staring at his book, unable to write a word, and became gradually aware that he had never been unhappy in his life before. That, then, was what unhappiness meant, not a mood of refined and romantic melancholy, but a raging fire of depression that seemed to burn his life away, both physically and mentally, with intervals of drowsy listlessness.
He would have liked to talk to his aunt, but could not bring himself to do so. She, on the other hand, seemed to notice nothing, and it was a great relief to him that she never commented upon his melancholy and obvious fatigue, but went on in her accustomed serene way, which evoked his courtesy and sense of decorum, and made him behave decently in spite of himself. Miss Merry seemed much more inclined to sympathise, and Howard used to intercept her gaze bent upon him in deep concern.
One afternoon, returning from a lonely walk, he met Maud going out of the Manor gate. She looked happy, he thought. He stopped and made a few commonplace remarks. She looked at him rather strangely, he felt, and seemed to be searching his face for some sign of the old goodwill; but he hardened his heart, though he would have given worlds to tell her what was in his mind; but he felt that any reconstruction of friendship must be left till a later date, when he might again be able to conciliate her sisterly regard. She seemed to him to have passed through an awakening of some kind, and to have bloomed both in mind and body, with her feet on the threshold of vital experience, and the thought that it was Guthrie who could evoke this upspringing of life within her was very bitter to him.
He trod the valley of humiliation hour by hour, in these lonely days, and found it a very dreary place. It was wretched to him to feel that he had suddenly discovered his limitations. Not only could he not have his will, could not taste the fruit of love which had seemed to hang almost within his reach, but the old contented life seemed to have faded and collapsed about him.