‘Come on, lazybones,’ said Jane. ‘Sally says she won’t wait for you unless you hurry up.’
Then he remembered what had happened. His heart sank, and, half out of bed already, he stopped; he did not know how he was going to face her; he was overwhelmed with a sudden rush of self-reproach, and bitterly, bitterly, he regretted what he had done. What would she say to him that morning? He dreaded meeting her, and he asked himself how he could have been such a fool. But the children gave him no time; Edward took his bathing-drawers and his towel, Athelstan tore the bed-clothes away; and in three minutes they all clattered down into the road. Sally gave him a smile. It was as sweet and innocent as it had ever been.
‘You do take a time to dress yourself,’ she said. ‘I thought you was never coming.’
There was not a particle of difference in her manner. He had expected some change, subtle or abrupt; he fancied that there would be shame in the way she treated him, or anger, or perhaps some increase of familiarity; but there was nothing. She was exactly the same as before. They walked towards the sea all together, talking and laughing; and Sally was quiet, but she was always that, reserved, but he had never seen her otherwise, and gentle. She neither sought conversation with him nor avoided it. Philip was astounded. He had expected the incident of the night before to have caused some revolution in her, but it was just as though nothing had happened; it might have been a dream; and as he walked along, a little girl holding on to one hand and a little boy to the other, while he chatted as unconcernedly as he could, he sought for an explanation. He wondered whether Sally meant the affair to be forgotten. Perhaps her senses had run away with her just as his had, and, treating what had occurred as an accident due to unusual circumstances, it might be that she had decided to put the matter out of her mind. It was ascribing to her a power of thought and a mature wisdom which fitted neither with her age nor with her character. But he realised that he knew nothing of her. There had been in her always something enigmatic.
They played leap-frog in the water, and the bathe was as uproarious as on the previous day. Sally mothered them all, keeping a watchful eye on them, and calling to them when they went out too far. She swam staidly backwards and forwards while the others got up to their larks, and now and then turned on her back to float. Presently she went out and began drying herself; she called to the others more or less peremptorily, and at last only Philip was left in the water. He took the opportunity to have a good hard swim. He was more used to the cold water this second morning, and he revelled in its salt freshness; it rejoiced him to use his limbs freely, and he covered the water with long, firm strokes. But Sally, with a towel round her, went down to the water’s edge.
‘You’re to come out this minute, Philip,’ she called, as though he were a small boy under her charge.
And when, smiling with amusement at her authoritative way, he came towards her, she upbraided him.
‘It is naughty of you to stay in so long. Your lips are quite blue, and just look at your teeth, they’re chattering.’
‘All right. I’ll come out.’
She had never talked to him in that manner before. It was as though what had happened gave her a sort of right over him, and she looked upon him as a child to be cared for. In a few minutes they were dressed, and they started to walk back. Sally noticed his hands.
‘Just look, they’re quite blue.’
‘Oh, that’s all right. It’s only the circulation. I shall get the blood back in a minute.’
‘Give them to me.’
She took his hands in hers and rubbed them, first one and then the other, till the colour returned. Philip, touched and puzzled, watched her. He could not say anything to her on account of the children, and he did not meet her eyes; but he was sure they did not avoid his purposely, it just happened that they did not meet. And during the day there was nothing in her behaviour to suggest a consciousness in her that anything had passed between them. Perhaps she was a little more talkative than usual. When they were all sitting again in the hop-field she told her mother how naughty Philip had been in not coming out of the water till he was blue with cold. It was incredible, and yet it seemed that the only effect of the incident of the night before was to arouse in her a feeling of protection towards him: she had the same instinctive desire to mother him as she had with regard to her brothers and sisters.
It was not till the evening that he found himself alone with her. She was cooking the supper, and Philip was sitting on the grass by the side of the fire. Mrs. Athelny had gone down to the village to do some shopping, and the children were scattered in various pursuits of their own. Philip hesitated to speak. He was very nervous. Sally attended to her business with serene competence and she accepted placidly the silence which to him was so embarrassing. He did not know how to begin. Sally seldom spoke unless she was spoken to or had something particular to say. At last he could not bear it any longer.
‘You’re not angry with me, Sally?’ he blurted out suddenly.
She raised her eyes quietly and looked at him without emotion.
‘Me? No. Why should I be?’
He was taken aback and did not reply. She took the lid off the pot, stirred the contents, and put it on again. A savoury smell spread over the air. She looked at him once more, with a quiet smile which barely separated her lips; it was more a smile of the eyes.
‘I always liked you,’ she said.
His heart gave a great thump against his ribs, and he felt the blood rushing to his cheeks. He forced a faint laugh.
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘That’s because you’re a silly.’
‘I don’t know why you liked me.’
‘I don’t either.’ She put a little more wood on the fire. ‘I knew I liked you that day you came when you’d been sleeping out and hadn’t had anything to eat, d’you remember? And me and mother, we got Thorpy’s bed ready for you.’
He flushed again, for he did not know that she was aware of that incident. He remembered it himself with horror and shame.
‘That’s why I wouldn’t have anything to do with the others. You remember that young fellow mother wanted me to have? I let him come to tea because he bothered so, but I knew I’d say no.’
Philip was so surprised that he found nothing to say. There was a queer feeling in his heart; he did not know what it was, unless it was happiness. Sally stirred the pot once more.
‘I wish those children would make haste and come. I don’t know where they’ve got to. Supper’s ready now.’
‘Shall I go and see if I can find them?’ said Philip.
It was a relief to talk about practical things.
‘Well, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, I must say.... There’s mother coming.’
Then, as he got up, she looked at him without embarrassment.
‘Shall I come for a walk with you tonight when I’ve put the children to bed?’
‘Well, you wait for me down by the stile, and I’ll come when I’m ready.’
He waited under the stars, sitting on the stile, and the hedges with their ripening blackberries were high on each side of him. From the earth rose rich scents of the night, and the air was soft and still. His heart was beating madly. He could not understand anything of what happened to him. He associated passion with cries and tears and vehemence, and there was nothing of this in Sally; but he did not know what else but passion could have caused her to give herself. But passion for him? He would not have been surprised if she had fallen to her cousin, Peter Gann, tall, spare, and straight, with his sunburned face and long, easy stride. Philip wondered what she saw in him. He did not know if she loved him as he reckoned love. And yet? He was convinced of her purity. He had a vague inkling that many things had combined, things that she felt though was unconscious of, the intoxication of the air and the hops and the night, the healthy instincts of the natural woman, a tenderness that overflowed, and an affection that had in it something maternal and something sisterly; and she gave all she had to give because her heart was full of charity.
He heard a step on the road, and a figure came out of the darkness.
‘Sally,’ he murmured.
She stopped and came to the stile, and with her came sweet, clean odours of the country-side. She seemed to carry with her scents of the new-mown hay, and the savour of ripe hops, and the freshness of young grass. Her lips were soft and full against his, and her lovely, strong body was firm within his arms.
‘Milk and honey,’ he said. ‘You’re like milk and honey.’
He made her close her eyes and kissed her eyelids, first one and then the other. Her arm, strong and muscular, was bare to the elbow; he passed his hand over it and wondered at its beauty; it gleamed in the darkness; she had the skin that Rubens painted, astonishingly fair and transparent, and on one side were little golden hairs. It was the arm of a Saxon goddess; but no immortal had that exquisite, homely naturalness; and Philip thought of a cottage garden with the dear flowers which bloom in all men’s hearts, of the hollyhock and the red and white rose which is called York and Lancaster, and of love—in-a-mist and Sweet William, and honeysuckle, larkspur, and London Pride.
‘How can you care for me?’ he said. ‘I’m insignificant and crippled and ordinary and ugly.’
She took his face in both her hands and kissed his lips.
‘You’re an old silly, that’s what you are,’ she said.