The Incomplete Amorist

Part 4 - The Other Man

E. Nesbit

Chapter 25 - The Forest


Nothing lifts the heart like the sense of a great self-sacrifice nobly made. Betty was glad that she could feel so particularly noble. It was a great help.

"He was mine," she told herself; "he meant to be - And I have given him up to her. It hurts - yes - but I did the right thing."

She thought she hoped that he would soon forget her. And almost all that was Betty tried quite sincerely, snatching at every help, to forget him.

Sometimes the Betty that Betty did not want to be would, quite deliberately and of set purpose, take out the nest of hungry memories, look at them, play with them, and hand over her heart for them to feed on. But always when she had done this she felt, afterwards, a little sorry, a little ashamed. It was too like the diary at Long Barton.

Consciously or unconsciously one must make some concessions to every situation or every situation would be impossible. Temple was here - interested, pleased to see her, glad to talk to her. But he was not at all inclined to be in love with her: that had been only a silly fancy of hers - in Paris. He had made up his mind by now who it was that he cared for. And it wasn't Betty. Probably she hadn't even been one of the two he came to Grez to think about. He was only a good friend - and she wanted a good friend. If he were not just a good friend the situation would be impossible. And Betty chose that the situation should be possible. For it was pleasant. It was a shield and a shelter from all the thoughts that she wanted to hide from.

"If she thinks I'm going to break my heart about him, she's mistaken. And so's He. I must be miserable for a bit," said Betty bravely, "but I'll not be miserable forever, so he needn't think it. Of course, I shall never care for anyone ever again - unless he were to love me for years and years before he ever said a word, and then I might say I would try. - And try. But fall in love? - Never again! Oh, good gracious, there he is, - and I've not begun to get ready."

Temple was whistling Deux Amants very softly in the courtyard below. She put her head out of the window.

"I shan't be two minutes," she said, "You might get the basket from Madame; and my sketching things are on the terrace all ready strapped up."

The hoofs of the smart gray pony slipped and rattled on the cobble-stones of the hotel entry.

"Au revoir: amuse yourselves well, my children." Madame Chevillon stood, one hand on fat hip, the other shading old eyes that they might watch the progress of the cart up the blinding whiteness of the village street.

"To the forest, and yet again to the forest and to the forest always," she said, turning into the darkened billiard room. "Marie, beware, thou, of the forest. The good God created it express for the lovers, - but it is permitted to the devil to promenade himself there also."

"Those two there," said Marie - "it is very certain that they are in love?"

"How otherwise?" said Madame. "The good God made us women that the men should be in love with us - and afterwards, to take care of the children. There is no other use that a man has for a woman. Friendship? The Art? - Bah! When a man wants those he demands them of a man. Of a woman he demands but love, and one gives it to him - one gives it to him without question!"

The two who had departed for the forest drove on through the swimming, spinning heat, in silence.

It was not till they reached the little old well by Marlotte that Betty spoke.

"Don't let's work to-day, Mr. Temple," she said. "My hands are so hot I could never hold a brush. And your sketch is really finished, you know."

"What would you like to do?" asked Temple: "river?"

"Oh, no, - not now that we've started for the forest! Its feelings would be hurt if we turned back. I am sure it loves us to love it, although it is so big - Like God, you know."

"Yes: I'm sure it does. Do you really think God cares?"

"Of course," said Betty, "because everything would be so silly if He didn't, you know. I believe He likes us to love him, and what's more, I believe He likes us to love all the pretty things He's made - trees and rivers and sunsets and seas."

"And each other," said Temple, and flushed to the ears: "human beings, I mean, of course," he added hastily.

"Of course," said Betty, unconscious of the flush; "but religion tells you that - it doesn't tell you about the little things. It does say about herbs of the field and the floods clapping their hands and all that - but that's only His works praising Him, not us loving all His works. I think He's most awfully pleased when we love some little, nice, tiny thing that He never thought we'd notice."

"Did your father teach you to think like this?"

"Oh, dear no!" said Betty. "He doesn't like the little pretty things."

"It's odd," said Temple. "Look at those yellow roses all over that hideous villa."

"My step-father would only see the villa. Well, must we work to-day?"

"What would you like to do?"

"I should like to go to those big rocks - the Rochers des Demoiselles, aren't they? - and tie up the pony, and climb up, and sit in a black shadow and look out over the green tops of the trees. You see things when you're idle that you never see when you're working, even if you're trying to paint those very things."

So, by and by, the gray pony was unharnessed and tied to a tree in a cool, grassy place where he also could be happy, and the two others took the winding stony path.

A turn in the smooth-worn way brought them to a platform overhanging the precipice that fell a sheer thirty feet to the tops of the trees on the slope below. White, silvery sand carpeted the ledge, and on the sand the shadow of a leaning rock fell blue.

"Here" said Betty, and sank down. Her sketchbook scooped the sand with its cover. "Oh, I am hot!" She threw off her hat.

"You don't look it," said Temple, and pulled the big bottle of weak claret and water from the luncheon basket.

"Drink!" he said, offering the little glass when he had filled it.

Betty drank, in little sips.

"How extraordinarily nice it is to drink when you're thirsty," she said, "and how heavenly this shadow is."

A long silence. Temple filled and lighted a pipe. From a slope of dry grass a little below them came the dusty rattle of grasshoppers' talk.

"It is very good here," said Betty. "Oh, how glad I am I came away from Paris. Everything looks different here - I mean the things that look as if they mattered there don't matter here - and the things that didn't matter there - oh, here, they do!"

"Yes," said Temple, making little mounds of sand with the edge of his hand as he lay, "I never expected to have such days in this world as I've had here with you. We've grown to be very good friends here, haven't we?"

"We were very good friends in Paris," said Betty, remembering the letter that had announced his departure.

"But it wasn't the same," he persisted. "When did we talk in Paris as we've talked here?"

"I talked to you, even in Paris, more than I've ever talked to anyone else, all the same," said Betty.

"Thank you," he said; "that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me."

"It wasn't meant to be nice," said Betty; "it's true. Don't you know there are some people you never can talk to without wondering what they'll think of you, and whether you hadn't better have said something else? It's nothing to do with whether you like them or not," she went on, thinking of talks with Vernon, many talks - and in all of them she had been definitely and consciously on guard. "You may like people quite frightfully, and yet you can't talk to them."

"Yes," he said, "but you couldn't talk to a person you disliked, could you? Real talk, I mean?"

"Of course not," said Betty. "Do you know I'm dreadfully hungry!"

It was after lunch that Temple said:

"When are you going home, Miss Desmond?" She looked up, for his use of her name was rare.

"I don't know: some time," she answered absently. But the question ran through her mind like a needle drawing after it the thread on which were strung all the little longings for Long Barton - for the familiar fields and flowers, that had gathered there since she first saw the silver may and the golden broom at Bourron station. That was nearly a month ago. What a month it had been - the gleaming river, the neat intimate simplicity of the little culture, white roads, and roses and rocks, and more than all - trees, and trees and trees again.

And with all this - Temple. He lodged at Montigny, true. And she at Grez. But each day brought to her door the best companion in the world. He had never even asked how she came to be at Grez. After that first, "Where's your party?" he had guarded his lips. It had seemed so natural, and so extremely fortunate that he should be here. If she had been all alone she would have allowed herself to think too much of Vernon - of what might have been.

"I am going to England next week!" he said. Betty was shocked to perceive that this news hurt her. Well, why shouldn't it hurt her? She wasn't absolutely insensible to friendship, she supposed. And sensibility to friendship was nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary.

"I shall miss you most awfully," said she with the air of one flaunting a flag.

"I wish you'd go home," he said. "Haven't you had enough of your experiment, or whatever it was, yet?"

"I thought you'd given up interfering," she said crossly. At least she meant to speak crossly.

"I thought I could say anything to you now without your - your not understanding."

"So you can." She was suddenly not cross again.

"Ah, no I can't," he said. "I want to say things to you that I can't say here. Won't you go home? Won't you let me come to see you there? Say I may. You will let me?"

If she said Yes - she refused to pursue that train of thought another inch. If she said No - then a sudden end - and forever an end - to this good companionship. "I wish I had never, never seen Him!" she told herself.

Then she found that she was speaking.

"The reason I was all alone in Paris," she was saying. The reason took a long time to expound. - The shadow withdrew itself and they had to shift the camp just when it came to the part about Betty's first meeting with Temple himself.

"And so," she said, "I've done what I meant to do - and I'm a hateful liar - and you'll never want to speak to me again."

She rooted up a fern and tore it into little ribbons.

"Why have you told me all this?" he said slowly.

"I don't know," said she.

"It is because you care, a little bit about - about my thinking well of you?"

"I can't care about that, or I shouldn't have told you, should I? Let's get back home. The pony's lost by this time, I expect."

"Is it because you don't want to have any - any secrets between us?"

"Not in the least," said Betty, chin in the air. "I shouldn't dream of telling you my secrets - or anyone else of course, I mean," she added politely.

He sighed. "Well," he said, "I wish you'd go home."

"Why don't you say you're disappointed in me, and that you despise me, and that you don't care about being friends any more, with a girl who's told lies and taken her aunt's money and done everything wrong you can think of? Let's go back. I don't want to stay here any more, with you being silently contemptuous as hard as ever you can. Why don't you say something?"

"I don't want to say the only thing I want to say. I don't want to say it here. Won't you go home and let me come and tell you at Long Barton?"

"You do think me horrid. Why don't you say so?"

"No. I don't."

"Then it's because you don't care what I am or what I do. I thought a man's friendship didn't mean much!" She crushed the fern into a rough ball and threw it over the edge of the rock.

"Oh, hang it all," said Temple. "Look here, Miss Desmond. I came away from Paris because I didn't know what was the matter with me. I didn't know who it was I really cared about. And before I'd been here one single day, I knew. And then I met you. And I haven't said a word, because you're here alone - and besides I wanted you to get used to talking to me and all that. And now you say I don't care. No, confound it all, it's too much! I wanted to ask you to marry me. And I'd have waited any length of time till there was a chance for me." He had almost turned his back on her, and leaning his chin on his elbow was looking out over the tree-tops far below. "And now you've gone and rushed me into asking you now, when I know there isn't the least chance for me, - and anyhow I ought to have held my tongue! And now it's all no good, and it's your fault. Why did you say I didn't care?"

"You knew it was coming," Betty told herself, "when he asked if he might come to Long Barton to see you. You knew it. You might have stopped it. And you didn't. And now what are you going to do?"

What she did was to lean back to reach another fern - to pluck and smooth its fronds.

"Are you very angry?" asked Temple forlornly.

"No," said Betty; "how could I be? But I wish you hadn't. It's spoiled everything."

"Do you think I don't know all that?"

"I wish I could," said Betty very sincerely, "but - "

"Of course," he said bitterly. "I knew that."

"He doesn't care about me," said Betty: "he's engaged to someone else."

"And you care very much?" He kept his face turned away.

"I don't know," said Betty; "sometimes I think I'm getting not to care at all."

"Then - look here: may I ask you again some time, and we'll go on just like we have been?"

"No," said Betty. "I'm going back to England at the end of the week. Besides, you aren't quite sure it's me you care for. - At least you weren't when you came away from Paris. How can you be sure you're sure now?"

He turned and looked at her.

"I beg your pardon," she said instantly. "I think I didn't understand. Let's go back now, shall we?"

"For Heaven's sake," he said, "don't let this break up everything! Don't avoid me in the little time that's left. I won't talk about it any more - I won't worry you - "

"Don't be silly," she said, and she smiled at him a little sadly; "you talk as though I didn't know you."