But he wrenched the pang from his heart. He thought of Sally, with her kind blue eyes; and his lips unconsciously formed themselves into a smile. He walked up the steps of the National Gallery and sat down in the first room, so that he should see her the moment she came in. It always comforted him to get among pictures. He looked at none in particular, but allowed the magnificence of their colour, the beauty of their lines, to work upon his soul. His imagination was busy with Sally. It would be pleasant to take her away from that London in which she seemed an unusual figure, like a cornflower in a shop among orchids and azaleas; he had learned in the Kentish hop-field that she did not belong to the town; and he was sure that she would blossom under the soft skies of Dorset to a rarer beauty. She came in, and he got up to meet her. She was in black, with white cuffs at her wrists and a lawn collar round her neck. They shook hands.
‘Have you been waiting long?’
‘No. Ten minutes. Are you hungry?’
‘Let’s sit here for a bit, shall we?’
‘If you like.’
They sat quietly, side by side, without speaking. Philip enjoyed having her near him. He was warmed by her radiant health. A glow of life seemed like an aureole to shine about her.
‘Well, how have you been?’ he said at last, with a little smile.
‘Oh, it’s all right. It was a false alarm.’
‘Aren’t you glad?’
An extraordinary sensation filled him. He had felt certain that Sally’s suspicion was well-founded; it had never occurred to him for an instant that there was a possibility of error. All his plans were suddenly overthrown, and the existence, so elaborately pictured, was no more than a dream which would never be realised. He was free once more. Free! He need give up none of his projects, and life still was in his hands for him to do what he liked with. He felt no exhilaration, but only dismay. His heart sank. The future stretched out before him in desolate emptiness. It was as though he had sailed for many years over a great waste of waters, with peril and privation, and at last had come upon a fair haven, but as he was about to enter, some contrary wind had arisen and drove him out again into the open sea; and because he had let his mind dwell on these soft meads and pleasant woods of the land, the vast deserts of the ocean filled him with anguish. He could not confront again the loneliness and the tempest. Sally looked at him with her clear eyes.
‘Aren’t you glad?’ she asked again. ‘I thought you’d be as pleased as Punch.’
He met her gaze haggardly. ‘I’m not sure,’ he muttered.
‘You are funny. Most men would.’
He realised that he had deceived himself; it was no self-sacrifice that had driven him to think of marrying, but the desire for a wife and a home and love; and now that it all seemed to slip through his fingers he was seized with despair. He wanted all that more than anything in the world. What did he care for Spain and its cities, Cordova, Toledo, Leon; what to him were the pagodas of Burmah and the lagoons of South Sea Islands? America was here and now. It seemed to him that all his life he had followed the ideals that other people, by their words or their writings, had instilled into him, and never the desires of his own heart. Always his course had been swayed by what he thought he should do and never by what he wanted with his whole soul to do. He put all that aside now with a gesture of impatience. He had lived always in the future, and the present always, always had slipped through his fingers. His ideals? He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect? It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.
He glanced quickly at Sally, he wondered what she was thinking, and then looked away again.
‘I was going to ask you to marry me,’ he said.
‘I thought p’raps you might, but I shouldn’t have liked to stand in your way.’
‘You wouldn’t have done that.’
‘How about your travels, Spain and all that?’
‘How d’you know I want to travel?’
‘I ought to know something about it. I’ve heard you and Dad talk about it till you were blue in the face.’
‘I don’t care a damn about all that.’ He paused for an instant and then spoke in a low, hoarse whisper. ‘I don’t want to leave you! I can’t leave you.’
She did not answer. He could not tell what she thought.
‘I wonder if you’ll marry me, Sally.’
She did not move and there was no flicker of emotion on her face, but she did not look at him when she answered.
‘If you like.’
‘Don’t you want to?’
‘Oh, of course I’d like to have a house of my own, and it’s about time I was settling down.’
He smiled a little. He knew her pretty well by now, and her manner did not surprise him.
‘But don’t you want to marry ME?’
‘There’s no one else I would marry.’
‘Then that settles it.’
‘Mother and Dad will be surprised, won’t they?’
‘I’m so happy.’
‘I want my lunch,’ she said.
He smiled and took her hand and pressed it. They got up and walked out of the gallery. They stood for a moment at the balustrade and looked at Trafalgar Square. Cabs and omnibuses hurried to and fro, and crowds passed, hastening in every direction, and the sun was shining.