The Night of Temptation

Victoria Cross

Preview: Issue 1 of 25

CHAPTER I - HOME

She lay in a quiet corner of the Rectory Garden, looking up at the majestic white clouds, that sailed across the blue of the summer sky, like Viking ships under full sail, speeding along over the deep blue of a limitless ocean. How glorious they were! How wonderful to contemplate these summer nimbi, in their immaculate, fleecy whiteness, in their shadowy recesses, in their glistening summits. They were pure and radiant, even as the girl's soul was, and by their affinity with it they seemed to call it up to them, to lift it up away from the sordid Rectory, with its harsh, unloving father, its dejected, stupid mother, its quarrelling daughters; away from the horrible village, full of vice, squalor and disease; away from the narrow stone church, in which a yet narrower creed was weekly preached. Away from all these, to the contemplation of the pure and the beautiful, these glorious clouds called her, and she loved them, the friends and companions of her thoughts through many a lonely hour. Now, in the hush of a hot afternoon, she lay very still under the gold rain of the laburnum-trees, looking up at the towering snowy masses in a rapture of delight.

Stossop Rectory lay, in its old-fashioned country grounds, inland from the sea about two miles on the south coast of Devon, and a very beautiful old place it was, long and low, containing many rooms, and having a deep gabled roof of Titian-red, that showed above the wealth of white and delicately pink roses that veiled its face; and if the Rectory from without looked the typical, peaceful English home, so within was it the really typical English home, full of disunion, pettiness, quarrelling, hatred and discontent. The English are perhaps of all humanity the greatest humbugs; they love, more than anything in the world, pretence; and the farther away the reality is from the sham they create out of their imagination the more dearly they love the sham; hence those amazing pictures of the domestic hearth, the happy, rosy-cheeked children, the smiling mother, the loving, protective father; the gentle temper, the sunny cheerfulness, the air of rest and peace and safety pervading all. Has anyone ever been the inmate of, or the visitor to, such a home? Let all who read these lines recall their recollections of home, their own and those they have seen. Whoever it was who wrote "Home, Sweet Home," one feels the author must have been an orphan and brought up at a school. The home in reality is the place where everyone feels they can display their bad temper and their bad manners, as they can wear their oldest, ugliest clothes and their surliest expressions. The heroic manly brothers of the story-book spend their time in pulling their sisters' hair and kicking them under the table; the gentle sisters hate them secretly in return; the father grumbles at his wife, the wife scolds the servants; and so the dreary round of home life goes on. The boys escape from it as soon as they can; the girls rebelliously long to follow; the unhappy wife and mother hopes vaguely for some relief that never comes; the father cherishes in his heart the memory of his last visit to town, on business , and looks forward eagerly to the next, enlivening the dull and stupid time that intervenes by bullying his wife.

Such is the average home, and such was it at Stossop Rectory, and, but for the enchanted garden, Regina Marlow, the Rector's youngest daughter, who was of totally different stamp and mould from the rest of the family, could never have supported life in it at all.

Some really golden moments in Mrs. Marlow's life, in which the Rector had no part--being away on one of his business visits to town--accounted for Regina. She was the child of love and passion, as the others were of distaste and dislike, for Mrs. Marlow entertained for her husband that solid dislike which is the basis of most marital relations. And the elder daughters, conceived and nurtured in it, had hate engrained in every fibre of their bodies. It showed in the spiteful gleams of their eyes, in the downward turn of their mouths, in their incessant wrangling with each other. Beautiful they were, for Mrs. Marlow was beautiful, but the nine months of inward revolt from her husband that she had suffered in each case while they were being fashioned within her, of her blood and her bone and her brain, had given them both the terrible curse of the hating soul. But Regina, born of love, of that sweet tenderness like the spring zephyr, of that wild passion like a summer storm, that the gods have given to man to illumine the darkness of the earth, Regina showed love and joy in every line of her face and form. Her mouth was always smiling; its curves were upwards, not downwards. Her voice was soft with all the notes of love and sex in it; her eyelids were sweetly arched; her blue eyes overflowed with tenderness and smiles; her soul was filled to the brim with what the Rector would have termed the "grace of God," and not untruly, since God is love. All through Regina's creation her mother had dwelt on love and on its sacred memories, and naturally enough the embryo conceived and reared in love and loving thoughts came into the world fitted out and equipped for love. Ah, how little do women think of the evil they commit when they give themselves to husbands they do not love! The hideous crime it is, blacker than any, to give life to beings burdened with evil souls, do they ever think of it? That hate they feel for the father, do they not realise how it bears fruit in the evil tempers and passions of the child? Mrs. Marlow, deep in her inmost heart, always thought of Regina, the gay, loving, radiant Regina, as the child of sin. No small voice ever whispered to her that the elder children, fretful, vicious, unhealthy, malicious, reflections of her own state of mind when bearing them, were children of a greater sin--against themselves, against society, against the human race.

She never thought about these things; she believed herself to be a thoroughly good woman, who had sinned once in her life, but sincerely repented.

She had dismissed her lover; she had turned a deaf ear to the passionate entreaties of the man who really wanted her, and had remained to do her duty to her husband, who would have been so thankful to be free from her--duty, which consisted, according to her ideas, in counting his shirts when they came home from the wash, presiding over the flannel club he had started in the village, seeing that he had three meals a day and that the Rectory was cleaned up twice a year, and disliking him extremely the whole time.

Year by year her face hardened and her intellect diminished under the cramping influence of the hating habit; now and then the lines of her mouth would soften and her eyes glow tenderly as she thought of Regina's father, but she immediately chased the warmth of love out of her heart as most improper, and hastened off to fold her husband's clothes or put his books in order, with the proper feeling of repulsion, hatred and disgust to which she was accustomed.

Whether such a state of living and being would really be acceptable to the one who said, Love one another, and Blessed are the pure in heart, she never stopped to ask herself. That she would have been accounted by him the "whitened sepulchre" never occurred to her.

Regina's presence she could not bear, the girl reminded her too vividly of what she was always trying vainly to forget; and so, while her mother busied herself more and more with old women's charities and parochial meetings, Regina was left more and more to her own studies, and for her pleasures to the enchanted garden. The enchanted garden belonged to an unoccupied villa by the sea called "The Chalet." The owner had left it in charge of a caretaker and a gardener, but had begged the Rector to visit both house and garden occasionally and see that things were kept in good order. The Rector being very busy had gradually allowed this duty to devolve on Regina, who possessed herself of the keys, made friends with the gardener, and undertook to report on the property from time to time to the owner. In this way a great joy had come into her life. She fell in love with the garden at first sight of it, and her visits there soon became a passion of delight to her. In both winter and summer the garden was almost equally beautiful. From its extraordinarily sheltered position no winds could get into it to riot there. Rain and snow to fall upon its velvet ground had to filter through a maze of foliage which neither withered nor fell through all the dizzy circle of the seasons. The garden was sunk slightly below the level of the green, grassy, sheltered and little-frequented road that lay on one side of it, and from which it was screened by masses of tamarisks grown into splendid trees and banks of wild red roses, the tree stems of which were as thick as a man's arm; on the other side of the garden, enclosing all the magic space, was a low stone balustrade, and through its interstices glittered the dancing blue of the sea; over the balustrade, and far above it, towered great aloes, with their spiky leaves, and auricarias, and more red climbing roses, and ever here and there their gentle sprays parted and let through them a vision of the wide sea and the blue and violet lines of distant hills on a far-off coast. In the centre of the garden rose in its stately majesty a single palm, and stretched its benign and glorious branches widely and evenly on every side, catching the rosy light of the dawn, the red glow of the afternoon and the crimson of the sunset through the procession of the hours; for the garden lay to the south, and the sun made it his resting-place through all the golden day; beneath the palm, cool in its shade, lay green turf, emerald-coloured, velvety, wonderful; and on this without order, except the gracious order of nature, stood at wide intervals standard rose-trees bearing blossoms of every shape and hue--white and amber and cream, red, crimson to blackness, blush-pink like a maiden's cheek, yellow and deep orange--and all of them were scented. Unlike the over-cultivated roses of some rich man's garden, where excessive culture has induced extravagant size at the expense of the flower's natural mystic charm, its perfume, these flowers were all comparatively small, but rich both in colour and fragrance. So sweet was the breath of the roses that for half-a-mile before one reached the garden its divine scent drifted out to the wayfarer and, as in Damascus, the whole air and every breeze whispered of the rose.

To Regina these rose-trees standing on the green grass, not in lines, or rows or circles, not in beds nor borders, seemed less like plants than living figures; they seemed to her fancy to stand like beautiful girls in a ballroom waiting for their partners to dance with, and the perfume diffused by them in the air seemed like the music of their innocent conversation. She never tired of watching them and noting the graceful attitudes in which they stood, and how sometimes two or three would bend together as if to murmur their confidences.

Round the great oval of the green turf, with its standing roses, ran a narrow path, and this towards the western end of the garden met other little paths, and these all ran, together or separately, now side by side, now widely diverse through thickets of tamarisk, aloe and rose, under other thick branching palms, where it was so dark at noon under tangled creeper and vine that it seemed like evening; and yet, dark though they were, all these winding, hidden paths led at last out to the porphyry balustrade and the glittering purple sea.

The effect of this garden on Regina's artistic, poetic, beauty-loving nature was like magic. However sad or irritated, nervous, ill or angry she might be when she came there, once the gate of the garden was passed a deep peace fell upon her. All here was silence, rest and fragrance; the perfect harmony of light and shade, the mystic presence of beauty; and all her cares and troubles, and the annoyances of the petty world in which she lived, fell from her; her soul seemed to unfurl its wings and soar through radiant spaces, and everything was forgotten but the beauty of the earth and the glory of light and colour and the laugh of the joyous sea.

To the girl lying gazing up at the white clouds this Sunday afternoon the thought of the garden came sweetly, and she got up and shook out the folds of her cambric gown and took the winding path through the Rectory garden which led to the old road to the coast. She had no hat, and through the lace of her white parasol the sun streamed down warmly on her thick and waving hair, hair itself sun-coloured and light-filled, and on the pale rose of her cheeks and the blue of her eyes softly shaded by their curling lashes. Tall, erect and graceful, in the first glory of her youth, Regina Marlow walked that afternoon with the step and carriage that her name implied. As she walked, she was thinking; she had a small black scholarly-looking book clasped in her hand, but to-day she was not thinking of her studies: her thoughts clustered round an approaching event which was coming to disturb the even discomfort of the Rectory, and which had been the sole topic of conversation at luncheon that day. A friend of the Rector, a junior chum of his in Oxford days, had been invited and was coming to stay at Stossop with them, and Regina wondered very much within herself whether he would be interesting or not. She had heard that he was immensely rich, but that did not interest her at all, though the whole family had nearly fallen into a violent quarrel amongst themselves as to the exact amount of his income and the number of his country houses, much to Regina's amusement, who could not see what it mattered to them whether he were once or three times a millionaire. She had heard that he had travelled a great deal, which attracted her, but chiefly, she understood, for sport, which repelled her. That he was a very brilliant individual, much sought after, courted and fêted in society, impressed her, but only vaguely, since the world of men and their judgments and opinions were very far away from Stossop.

Her query to the Rector as to his appearance had been answered by: "Oh yes; Everest was the best-looking fellow at Oxford," a phrase that left her equally uninformed, since she had no idea what the men at Oxford were like. If they resembled the average individual she saw at Stossop, the Rector's words would not necessarily mean much. And out of this chaotic non-knowledge of him in her mind, and from the incessant chatter of her sisters about him, a very splendid and glowing vision of the stranger had gradually grown up, and she looked forward to this evening, when he was going to arrive, with a joyous sense of elation and interest which was impersonal in its nature and very different from the anxious, calculating hopes that inspired the rest of the family.

To Regina's intense and secret amusement she saw that her sisters had quite made up their minds that Everest Lanark, his unusual rent-roll and indeterminable number of country houses, should be captured by one or other of them; and the Rector, while professing to be entirely disinterested, really fell in with this idea, while her mother openly exerted herself about the girls' wardrobes, and fussed over their new evening dresses, warning them against burning their complexions, and urging them to practise their drawing-room songs before his arrival. To Regina's keen intelligence the idea that a man of large resources, of wide travel, of immense experience, who had reached the age of forty-six or seven, untouched by all the beauty that, according to all accounts, had always been at his feet, should immediately succumb to the attractions of an ordinary, country girl, without rank, title, wealth or any of those things to which he was accustomed--without talent or charm of any sort except youth and a pretty face--seemed improbable in the extreme.

For her sisters Regina felt that sort of marvelling wonder that the naturally clever and gifted individual feels for the ordinary person, and which is far greater than any admiring wonder that the limited brain of the ordinary person can conceive for the clever one.

Why did they not do something--and something well--she often asked herself. They did nothing, and wanted to do nothing; they knew nothing, and wanted to know nothing.

To Regina, always learning, always acquiring, always thinking, always doing something, it seemed truly marvellous.

In the Rectory there was a splendid library, full of books in all kinds of languages, treating of all countries, religions and philosophies; yet neither of the elder girls had opened one of them. They hardly realised that any other religion than the Christian existed, barely knew whether the world was round or square, knew no language but their own, had no conception of what was conveyed by the words Roman Empire, and had never heard of Troy. They played a very little on the piano and sung a little less, badly and out of time. They went to church regularly and visited the poor, because their parents insisted on their doing it, in their quality of the Rector's daughters, and Regina often wondered what the "poor" thought of them. The rest of the time they spent reading some novel that dealt exclusively with English life, for they could not understand any other; fashioning and refashioning their costumes, and hoping vaguely for the wealthy individuals they thought they deserved to come to the Rectory and insist on marrying them!

To Regina, who was up with the light of the dawn to read and study and work, who had absorbed already the learning of a quarter of the library, who had mastered Greek and Latin and read in five modern languages besides, though she had no opportunity of speaking them, who played really well and was endued with a natural gift for painting, the ignorance and apathy of her sisters were beyond understanding.

She did not know that her own splendid health and energy, her capacity for hard work and concentration, her quick and eager mind, all came from that golden source: the passionate love that had formed her being. Had she known the heavy handicap laid upon her sisters at their birth she would have pitied them even more than she did now, and wondered at them less.

Read The Night of Temptation today
in Serial Reader