Oke of Okehurst; or, the Phantom Lover
To COUNT PETER BOUTOURLINE, AT TAGANTCHA, GOVERNNMENT OF KIEW, RUSSIA.
MY DEAR BOUTOURLINE,--Do you remember my telling you, one afternoon that
you sat upon the hearthstool at Florence, the story of Mrs. Oke of
You thought it a fantastic tale, you lover of fantastic things, and
urged me to write it out at once, although I protested that, in such
matters, to write is to exorcise, to dispel the charm; and that printers'
ink chases away the ghosts that may pleasantly haunt us, as efficaciously
as gallons of holy water.
But if, as I suspect, you will now put down any charm that story may
have possessed to the way in which we had been working ourselves up, that
firelight evening, with all manner of fantastic stuff--if, as I fear, the
story of Mrs. Oke of Okehurst will strike you as stale and
unprofitable--the sight of this little book will serve at least to remind
you, in the middle of your Russian summer, that there is such a season as
winter, such a place as Florence, and such a person as your friend,
VERNON LEE. KENSINGTON, July 1886.
Oke of Okehurst, or, the Phantom Lover
THAT sketch up there with the boy's cap? Yes; that's the same woman. I
wonder whether you could guess who she was. A singular being, is she not?
The most marvellous creature, quite, that I have ever met: a wonderful
elegance, exotic, far-fetched, poignant; an artificial perverse sort of
grace and research in every outline and movement and arrangement of head
and neck, and hands and fingers. Here are a lot of pencil-sketches I made
while I was preparing to paint her portrait. Yes; there's nothing but her
in the whole sketch-book. Mere scratches, but they may give some idea of
her marvellous, fantastic kind of grace. Here she is leaning over the
staircase, and here sitting in the swing. Here she is walking quickly out
of the room. That's her head. You see she isn't really handsome; her
forehead is too big, and her nose too short. This gives no idea of her. It
was altogether a question of movement. Look at the strange cheeks, hollow
and rather flat; well, when she smiled she had the most marvellous dimples
here. There was something exquisite and uncanny about it. Yes; I began the
picture, but it was never finished. I did the husband first. I wonder who
has his likeness now? Help me to move these pictures away from the wall.
Thanks. This is her portrait; a huge wreck. I don't suppose you can make
much of it; it is merely blocked in, and seems quite mad. You see my idea
was to make her leaning against a wall--there was one hung with yellow
that seemed almost brown--so as to bring out the silhouette.
It was very singular I should have chosen that particular wall. It does
look rather insane in this condition, but I like it; it has something of
her. I would frame it and hang it up, only people would ask questions.
Yes; you have guessed quite right--it is Mrs. Oke of Okehurst. I forgot
you had relations in that part of the country; besides, I suppose the
newspapers were full of it at the time. You didn't know that it all took
place under my eyes? I can scarcely believe now that it did: it all seems
so distant, vivid but unreal, like a thing of my own invention. It really
was much stranger than any one guessed. People could no more understand it
than they could understand her. I doubt whether any one ever understood
Alice Oke besides myself. You mustn't think me unfeeling. She was a
marvellous, weird, exquisite creature, but one couldn't feel sorry for
her. I felt much sorrier for the wretched creature of a husband. It seemed
such an appropriate end for her; I fancy she would have liked it could she
have known. Ah! I shall never have another chance of painting such a
portrait as I wanted. She seemed sent me from heaven or the other place.
You have never heard the story in detail? Well, I don't usually mention
it, because people are so brutally stupid or sentimental; but I'll tell it
you. Let me see. It's too dark to paint any more to-day, so I can tell it
you now. Wait; I must turn her face to the wall. Ah, she was a marvellous
You remember, three years ago, my telling you I had let myself in for
painting a couple of Kentish squireen? I really could not understand what
had possessed me to say yes to that man. A friend of mine had brought him
one day to my studio--Mr. Oke of Okehurst, that was the name on his card.
He was a very tall, very well-made, very good-looking young man, with a
beautiful fair complexion, beautiful fair moustache, and beautifully
fitting clothes; absolutely like a hundred other young men you can see any
day in the Park, and absolutely uninteresting from the crown of his head
to the tip of his boots. Mr. Oke, who had been a lieutenant in the Blues
before his marriage, was evidently extremely uncomfortable on finding
himself in a studio. He felt misgivings about a man who could wear a
velvet coat in town, but at the same time he was nervously anxious not to
treat me in the very least like a tradesman. He walked round my place,
looked at everything with the most scrupulous attention, stammered out a
few complimentary phrases, and then, looking at his friend for assistance,
tried to come to the point, but failed. The point, which the friend kindly
explained, was that Mr. Oke was desirous to know whether my engagements
would allow of my painting him and his wife, and what my terms would be.
The poor man blushed perfectly crimson during this explanation, as if he
had come with the most improper proposal; and I noticed--the only
interesting thing about him--a very odd nervous frown between his
eyebrows, a perfect double gash,--a thing which usually means something
abnormal: a mad-doctor of my acquaintance calls it the maniac-frown. When
I had answered, he suddenly burst out into rather confused explanations:
his wife--Mrs. Oke--had seen some of
my--pictures--paintings--portraits--at the--the--what d'you call
it?--Academy. She had--in short, they had made a very great impression
upon her. Mrs. Oke had a great taste for art; she was, in short, extremely
desirous of having her portrait and his painted by me, etcetera.
"My wife," he suddenly added, "is a remarkable woman. I don't know
whether you will think her handsome,--she isn't exactly, you know. But
she's awfully strange," and Mr. Oke of Okehurst gave a little sigh and
frowned that curious frown, as if so long a speech and so decided an
expression of opinion had cost him a great deal.
It was a rather unfortunate moment in my career. A very influential
sitter of mine--you remember the fat lady with the crimson curtain behind
her?--had come to the conclusion or been persuaded that I had painted her
old and vulgar, which, in fact, she was. Her whole clique had turned
against me, the newspapers had taken up the matter, and for the moment I
was considered as a painter to whose brushes no woman would trust her
reputation. Things were going badly. So I snapped but too gladly at Mr.
Oke's offer, and settled to go down to Okehurst at the end of a fortnight.
But the door had scarcely closed upon my future sitter when I began to
regret my rashness; and my disgust at the thought of wasting a whole
summer upon the portrait of a totally uninteresting Kentish squire, and
his doubtless equally uninteresting wife, grew greater and greater as the
time for execution approached. I remember so well the frightful temper in
which I got into the train for Kent, and the even more frightful temper in
which I got out of it at the little station nearest to Okehurst. It was
pouring floods. I felt a comfortable fury at the thought that my canvases
would get nicely wetted before Mr. Oke's coachman had packed them on the
top of the waggonette. It was just what served me right for coming to this
confounded place to paint these confounded people. We drove off in the
steady downpour. The roads were a mass of yellow mud; the endless flat
grazing-grounds under the oak-trees, after having been burnt to cinders in
a long drought, were turned into a hideous brown sop; the country seemed
My spirits sank lower and lower. I began to meditate upon the modern
Gothic country-house, with the usual amount of Morris furniture, Liberty
rugs, and Mudie novels, to which I was doubtless being taken. My fancy
pictured very vividly the five or six little Okes--that man certainly must
have at least five children--the aunts, and sisters-in-law, and cousins;
the eternal routine of afternoon tea and lawn-tennis; above all, it
pictured Mrs. Oke, the bouncing, well-informed, model house-keeper,
electioneering, charity-organising young lady, whom such an individual as
Mr. Oke would regard in the light of a remarkable woman. And my spirit
sank within me, and I cursed my avarice in accepting the commission, my
spiritlessness in not throwing it over while yet there was time. We had
meanwhile driven into a large park, or rather a long succession of
grazing-grounds, dotted about with large oaks, under which the sheep were
huddled together for shelter from the rain. In the distance, blurred by
the sheets of rain, was a line of low hills, with a jagged fringe of
bluish firs and a solitary windmill. It must be a good mile and a half
since we had passed a house, and there was none to be seen in the
distance--nothing but the undulation of sere grass, sopped brown beneath
the huge blackish oak-trees, and whence arose, from all sides, a vague
disconsolate bleating. At last the road made a sudden bend, and disclosed
what was evidently the home of my sitter. It was not what I had expected.
In a dip in the ground a large red-brick house, with the rounded gables
and high chimney-stacks of the time of James I.,--a forlorn, vast place,
set in the midst of the pasture-land, with no trace of garden before it,
and only a few large trees indicating the possibility of one to the back;
no lawn either, but on the other side of the sandy dip, which suggested a
filled-up moat, a huge oak, short, hollow, with wreathing, blasted, black
branches, upon which only a handful of leaves shook in the rain. It was
not at all what I had pictured to myself the home of Mr. Oke of Okehurst.
My host received me in the hall, a large place, panelled and carved,
hung round with portraits up to its curious ceiling--vaulted and ribbed
like the inside of a ship's hull. He looked even more blond and pink and
white, more absolutely mediocre in his tweed suit; and also, I thought,
even more good-natured and duller. He took me into his study, a room hung
round with whips and fishing-tackle in place of books, while my things
were being carried upstairs. It was very damp, and a fire was smouldering.
He gave the embers a nervous kick with his foot, and said, as he offered
me a cigar--
"You must excuse my not introducing you at once to Mrs. Oke. My
wife--in short, I believe my wife is asleep."
"Is Mrs. Oke unwell?" I asked, a sudden hope flashing across me that I
might be off the whole matter.
"Oh no! Alice is quite well; at least, quite as well as she usually is.
My wife," he added, after a minute, and in a very decided tone, "does not
enjoy very good health--a nervous constitution. Oh no! not at all ill,
nothing at all serious, you know. Only nervous, the doctors say; mustn't
be worried or excited, the doctors say; requires lots of repose,--that
sort of thing."
There was a dead pause. This man depressed me, I knew not why. He had a
listless, puzzled look, very much out of keeping with his evident
admirable health and strength.
"I suppose you are a great sportsman?" I asked from sheer despair,
nodding in the direction of the whips and guns and fishing-rods.
"Oh no! not now. I was once. I have given up all that," he answered,
standing with his back to the fire, and staring at the polar bear beneath
his feet. "I--I have no time for all that now," he added, as if an
explanation were due. "A married man--you know. Would you like to come up
to your rooms?" he suddenly interrupted himself. "I have had one arranged
for you to paint in. My wife said you would prefer a north light. If that
one doesn't suit, you can have your choice of any other."
I followed him out of the study, through the vast entrance-hall. In
less than a minute I was no longer thinking of Mr. and Mrs. Oke and the
boredom of doing their likeness; I was simply overcome by the beauty of
this house, which I had pictured modern and philistine. It was, without
exception, the most perfect example of an old English manor-house that I
had ever seen; the most magnificent intrinsically, and the most admirably
preserved. Out of the huge hall, with its immense fireplace of delicately
carved and inlaid grey and black stone, and its rows of family portraits,
reaching from the wainscoting to the oaken ceiling, vaulted and ribbed
like a ship's hull, opened the wide, flat-stepped staircase, the parapet
surmounted at intervals by heraldic monsters, the wall covered with oak
carvings of coats-of-arms, leafage, and little mythological scenes,
painted a faded red and blue, and picked out with tarnished gold, which
harmonised with the tarnished blue and gold of the stamped leather that
reached to the oak cornice, again delicately tinted and gilded. The
beautifully damascened suits of court armour looked, without being at all
rusty, as if no modern hand had ever touched them; the very rugs under
foot were of sixteenth-century Persian make; the only things of to-day
were the big bunches of flowers and ferns, arranged in majolica dishes
upon the landings. Everything was perfectly silent; only from below came
the chimes, silvery like an Italian palace fountain, of an old-fashioned
It seemed to me that I was being led through the palace of the Sleeping
"What a magnificent house!" I exclaimed as I followed my host through a
long corridor, also hung with leather, wainscoted with carvings, and
furnished with big wedding coffers, and chairs that looked as if they came
out of some Vandyck portrait. In my mind was the strong impression that
all this was natural, spontaneous--that it had about it nothing of the
picturesqueness which swell studios have taught to rich and ¾sthetic
houses. Mr. Oke misunderstood me.
"It is a nice old place," he said, "but it's too large for us. You see,
my wife's health does not allow of our having many guests; and there are
I thought I noticed a vague complaint in his voice; and he evidently
was afraid there might have seemed something of the kind, for he added
"I don't care for children one jackstraw, you know, myself; can't
understand how any one can, for my part."
If ever a man went out of his way to tell a lie, I said to myself, Mr.
Oke of Okehurst was doing so at the present moment.
When he had left me in one of the two enormous rooms that were allotted
to me, I threw myself into an arm-chair and tried to focus the
extraordinary imaginative impression which this house had given me.
I am very susceptible to such impressions; and besides the sort of
spasm of imaginative interest sometimes given to me by certain rare and
eccentric personalities, I know nothing more subduing than the charm,
quieter and less analytic, of any sort of complete and
out-of-the-common-run sort of house. To sit in a room like the one I was
sitting in, with the figures of the tapestry glimmering grey and lilac and
purple in the twilight, the great bed, columned and curtained, looming in
the middle, and the embers reddening beneath the overhanging mantelpiece
of inlaid Italian stonework, a vague scent of rose-leaves and spices, put
into the china bowls by the hands of ladies long since dead, while the
clock downstairs sent up, every now and then, its faint silvery tune of
forgotten days, filled the room;--to do this is a special kind of
voluptuousness, peculiar and complex and indescribable, like the
half-drunkenness of opium or haschisch, and which, to be conveyed to
others in any sense as I feel it, would require a genius, subtle and
heady, like that of Baudelaire.
After I had dressed for dinner I resumed my place in the arm-chair, and
resumed also my reverie, letting all these impressions of the past--which
seemed faded like the figures in the arras, but still warm like the embers
in the fire-place, still sweet and subtle like the perfume of the dead
rose-leaves and broken spices in the china bowls--permeate me and go to my
head. Of Oke and Oke's wife I did not think; I seemed quite alone,
isolated from the world, separated from it in this exotic enjoyment.
Gradually the embers grew paler; the figures in the tapestry more
shadowy; the columned and curtained bed loomed out vaguer; the room seemed
to fill with greyness; and my eyes wandered to the mullioned bow-window,
beyond whose panes, between whose heavy stone-work, stretched a
greyish-brown expanse of sere and sodden park grass, dotted with big oaks;
while far off, behind a jagged fringe of dark Scotch firs, the wet sky was
suffused with the blood-red of the sunset. Between the falling of the
raindrops from the ivy outside, there came, fainter or sharper, the
recurring bleating of the lambs separated from their mothers, a forlorn,
quavering, eerie little cry.
I started up at a sudden rap at my door.
"Haven't you heard the gong for dinner?" asked Mr. Oke's voice.
I had completely forgotten his existence.
I FEEL that I cannot possibly reconstruct my earliest impressions of
Mrs. Oke. My recollection of them would be entirely coloured by my
subsequent knowledge of her; whence I conclude that I could not at first
have experienced the strange interest and admiration which that
extraordinary woman very soon excited in me. Interest and admiration, be
it well understood, of a very unusual kind, as she was herself a very
unusual kind of woman; and I, if you choose, am a rather unusual kind of
man. But I can explain that better anon.
This much is certain, that I must have been immeasurably surprised at
finding my hostess and future sitter so completely unlike everything I had
anticipated. Or no--now I come to think of it, I scarcely felt surprised
at all; or if I did, that shock of surprise could have lasted but an
infinitesimal part of a minute. The fact is, that, having once seen Alice
Oke in the reality, it was quite impossible to remember that one could
have fancied her at all different: there was something so complete, so
completely unlike every one else, in her personality, that she seemed
always to have been present in one's consciousness, although present,
perhaps, as an enigma.
Let me try and give you some notion of her: not that first impression,
whatever it may have been, but the absolute reality of her as I gradually
learned to see it. To begin with, I must repeat and reiterate over and
over again, that she was, beyond all comparison, the most graceful and
exquisite woman I have ever seen, but with a grace and an exquisiteness
that had nothing to do with any preconceived notion or previous experience
of what goes by these names: grace and exquisiteness recognised at once as
perfect, but which were seen in her for the first, and probably, I do
believe, for the last time. It is conceivable, is it not, that once in a
thousand years there may arise a combination of lines, a system of
movements, an outline, a gesture, which is new, unprecedented, and yet
hits off exactly our desires for beauty and rareness? She was very tall;
and I suppose people would have called her thin. I don't know, for I never
thought about her as a body--bones, flesh, that sort of thing; but merely
as a wonderful series of lines, and a wonderful strangeness of
personality. Tall and slender, certainly, and with not one item of what
makes up our notion of a well-built woman. She was as straight--I mean she
had as little of what people call figure--as a bamboo; her shoulders were
a trifle high, and she had a decided stoop; her arms and her shoulders she
never once wore uncovered. But this bamboo figure of hers had a suppleness
and a stateliness, a play of outline with every step she took, that I
can't compare to anything else; there was in it something of the peacock
and something also of the stag; but, above all, it was her own. I wish I
could describe her. I wish, alas!--I wish, I wish, I have wished a hundred
thousand times--I could paint her, as I see her now, if I shut my
eyes--even if it were only a silhouette. There! I see her so plainly,
walking slowly up and down a room, the slight highness of her shoulders
just completing the exquisite arrangement of lines made by the straight
supple back, the long exquisite neck, the head, with the hair cropped in
short pale curls, always drooping a little, except when she would suddenly
throw it back, and smile, not at me, nor at any one, nor at anything that
had been said, but as if she alone had suddenly seen or heard something,
with the strange dimple in her thin, pale cheeks, and the strange
whiteness in her full, wide-opened eyes: the moment when she had something
of the stag in her movement. But where is the use of talking about her? I
don't believe, you know, that even the greatest painter can show what is
the real beauty of a very beautiful woman in the ordinary sense: Titian's
and Tintoretto's women must have been miles handsomer than they have made
them. Something--and that the very essence--always escapes, perhaps
because real beauty is as much a thing in time--a thing like music, a
succession, a series--as in space. Mind you, I am speaking of a woman
beautiful in the conventional sense. Imagine, then, how much more so in
the case of a woman like Alice Oke; and if the pencil and brush, imitating
each line and tint, can't succeed, how is it possible to give even the
vaguest notion with mere wretched words--words possessing only a wretched
abstract meaning, an impotent conventional association? To make a long
story short, Mrs. Oke of Okehurst was, in my opinion, to the highest
degree exquisite and strange,--an exotic creature, whose charm you can no
more describe than you could bring home the perfume of some newly
discovered tropical flower by comparing it with the scent of a
cabbage-rose or a lily.
That first dinner was gloomy enough. Mr. Oke--Oke of Okehurst, as the
people down there called him--was horribly shy, consumed with a fear of
making a fool of himself before me and his wife, I then thought. But that
sort of shyness did not wear off; and I soon discovered that, although it
was doubtless increased by the presence of a total stranger, it was
inspired in Oke, not by me, but by his wife. He would look every now and
then as if he were going to make a remark, and then evidently restrain
himself, and remain silent. It was very curious to see this big, handsome,
manly young fellow, who ought to have had any amount of success with
women, suddenly stammer and grow crimson in the presence of his own wife.
Nor was it the consciousness of stupidity; for when you got him alone, Oke,
although always slow and timid, had a certain amount of ideas, and very
defined political and social views, and a certain childlike earnestness
and desire to attain certainty and truth which was rather touching. On the
other hand, Oke's singular shyness was not, so far as I could see, the
result of any kind of bullying on his wife's part. You can always detect,
if you have any observation, the husband or the wife who is accustomed to
be snubbed, to be corrected, by his or her better-half: there is a
self-consciousness in both parties, a habit of watching and fault-finding,
of being watched and found fault with. This was clearly not the case at
Okehurst. Mrs. Oke evidently did not trouble herself about her husband in
the very least; he might say or do any amount of silly things without
rebuke or even notice; and he might have done so, had he chosen, ever
since his wedding-day. You felt that at once. Mrs. Oke simply passed over
his existence. I cannot say she paid much attention to any one's, even to
mine. At first I thought it an affectation on her part--for there was
something far-fetched in her whole appearance, something suggesting study,
which might lead one to tax her with affectation at first; she was dressed
in a strange way, not according to any established ¾sthetic eccentricity,
but individually, strangely, as if in the clothes of an ancestress of the
seventeenth century. Well, at first I thought it a kind of pose on her
part, this mixture of extreme graciousness and utter indifference which
she manifested towards me. She always seemed to be thinking of something
else; and although she talked quite sufficiently, and with every sign of
superior intelligence, she left the impression of having been as taciturn
as her husband.
In the beginning, in the first few days of my stay at Okehurst, I
imagined that Mrs. Oke was a highly superior sort of flirt; and that her
absent manner, her look, while speaking to you, into an invisible
distance, her curious irrelevant smile, were so many means of attracting
and baffling adoration. I mistook it for the somewhat similar manners of
certain foreign women--it is beyond English ones--which mean, to those who
can understand, "pay court to me." But I soon found I was mistaken. Mrs.
Oke had not the faintest desire that I should pay court to her; indeed she
did not honour me with sufficient thought for that; and I, on my part,
began to be too much interested in her from another point of view to dream
of such a thing. I became aware, not merely that I had before me the most
marvellously rare and exquisite and baffling sub- ject for a portrait, but
also one of the most peculiar and enigmatic of characters. Now that I look
back upon it, I am tempted to think that the psychological peculiarity of
that woman might be summed up in an exorbitant and absorbing interest in
herself--a Narcissus attitude--curiously complicated with a fantastic
imagination, a sort of morbid day-dreaming, all turned inwards, and with
no outer characteristic save a certain restlessness, a perverse desire to
surprise and shock, to surprise and shock more particularly her husband,
and thus be revenged for the intense boredom which his want of
appreciation inflicted upon her.
I got to understand this much little by little, yet I did not seem to
have really penetrated the something mysterious about Mrs. Oke. There was
a waywardness, a strangeness, which I felt but could not explain--a
something as difficult to define as the peculiarity of her outward
appearance, and perhaps very closely connected therewith. I became
interested in Mrs. Oke as if I had been in love with her; and I was not in
the least in love. I neither dreaded parting from her, nor felt any
pleasure in her presence. I had not the smallest wish to please or to gain
her notice. But I had her on the brain. I pursued her, her physical image,
her psychological explanation, with a kind of passion which filled my
days, and prevented my ever feeling dull. The Okes lived a remarkably
solitary life. There were but few neighbours, of whom they saw but little;
and they rarely had a guest in the house. Oke himself seemed every now and
then seized with a sense of responsibility towards me. He would remark
vaguely, during our walks and after-dinner chats, that I must find life at
Okehurst horribly dull; his wife's health had accustomed him to solitude,
and then also his wife thought the neighbours a bore. He never questioned
his wife's judgment in these matters. He merely stated the case as if
resignation were quite simple and inevitable; yet it seemed to me,
sometimes, that this monotonous life of solitude, by the side of a woman
who took no more heed of him than of a table or chair, was producing a
vague depression and irritation in this young man, so evidently cut out
for a cheerful, commonplace life. I often wondered how he could endure it
at all, not having, as I had, the interest of a strange psychological
riddle to solve, and of a great portrait to paint. He was, I found,
extremely good,--the type of the perfectly conscientious young Englishman,
the sort of man who ought to have been the Christian soldier kind of
thing; devout, pure-minded, brave, incapable of any baseness, a little
intellectually dense, and puzzled by all manner of moral scruples. The
condition of his tenants and of his political party--he was a regular
Kentish Tory--lay heavy on his mind. He spent hours every day in his
study, doing the work of a land agent and a politi- cal whip, reading
piles of reports and newspapers and agricultural treatises; and emerging
for lunch with piles of letters in his hand, and that odd puzzled look in
his good healthy face, that deep gash between his eyebrows, which my
friend the mad-doctor calls the maniac-frown. It was with this expression
of face that I should have liked to paint him; but I felt that he would
not have liked it, that it was more fair to him to represent him in his
mere wholesome pink and white and blond conventionality. I was perhaps
rather unconscientious about the likeness of Mr. Oke; I felt satisfied to
paint it no matter how, I mean as regards character, for my whole mind was
swallowed up in thinking how I should paint Mrs. Oke, how I could best
transport on to canvas that singular and enigmatic personality. I began
with her husband, and told her frankly that I must have much longer to
study her. Mr. Oke couldn't understand why it should be necessary to make
a hundred and one pencil-sketches of his wife before even determining in
what attitude to paint her; but I think he was rather pleased to have an
opportunity of keeping me at Okehurst; my presence evidently broke the
monotony of his life. Mrs. Oke seemed perfectly indifferent to my staying,
as she was perfectly indifferent to my presence. Without being rude, I
never saw a woman pay so little attention to a guest; she would talk with
me sometimes by the hour, or rather let me talk to her, but she never
seemed to be listening. She would lie back in a big seventeenth-century
arm-chair while I played the piano, with that strange smile every now and
then in her thin cheeks, that strange whiteness in her eyes; but it seemed
a matter of indifference whether my music stopped or went on. In my
portrait of her husband she did not take, or pretend to take, the very
faintest interest; but that was nothing to me. I did not want Mrs. Oke to
think me interesting; I merely wished to go on studying her.
The first time that Mrs. Oke seemed to become at all aware of my
presence as distinguished from that of the chairs and tables, the dogs
that lay in the porch, or the clergyman or lawyer or stray neighbour who
was occasionally asked to dinner, was one day--I might have been there a
week--when I chanced to remark to her upon the very singular resemblance
that existed between herself and the portrait of a lady that hung in the
hall with the ceiling like a ship's hull. The picture in question was a
full length, neither very good nor very bad, probably done by some stray
Italian of the early seventeenth century. It hung in a rather dark corner,
facing the portrait, evidently painted to be its companion, of a dark man,
with a somewhat unpleasant expression of resolution and efficiency, in a
black Vandyck dress. The two were evidently man and wife; and in the
corner of the woman's portrait were the words, "Alice Oke, daughter of
Virgil Pomfret, Esq., and wife to Nicholas Oke of Okehurst," and the date
1626--"Nicholas Oke" being the name painted in the corner of the small
portrait. The lady was really wonderfully like the present Mrs. Oke, at
least so far as an indifferently painted portrait of the early days of
Charles I. can be like a living woman of the nineteenth century. There
were the same strange lines of figure and face, the same dimples in the
thin cheeks, the same wide-opened eyes, the same vague eccentricity of
expression, not destroyed even by the feeble painting and conventional
manner of the time. One could fancy that this woman had the same walk, the
same beautiful line of nape of the neck and stooping head as her
descendant; for I found that Mr. and Mrs. Oke, who were first cousins,
were both descended from that Nicholas Oke and that Alice, daughter of
Virgil Pomfret. But the resemblance was heightened by the fact that, as I
soon saw, the present Mrs. Oke distinctly made herself up to look like her
ancestress, dressing in garments that had a seventeenth-century look; nay,
that were sometimes absolutely copied from this portrait.
"You think I am like her," answered Mrs. Oke dreamily to my remark, and
her eyes wandered off to that unseen something, and the faint smile
dimpled her thin cheeks.
"You are like her, and you know it. I may even say you wish to be like
her, Mrs. Oke," I answered, laughing.
"Perhaps I do."
And she looked in the direction of her husband. I noticed that he had
an expression of distinct annoyance besides that frown of his.
"Isn't it true that Mrs. Oke tries to look like that portrait?" I
asked, with a perverse curiosity.
"Oh, fudge!" he exclaimed, rising from his chair and walking nervously
to the window. "It's all nonsense, mere nonsense. I wish you wouldn't,
"Wouldn't what?" asked Mrs. Oke, with a sort of contemptuous
indifference. "If I am like that Alice Oke, why I am; and I am very
pleased any one should think so. She and her husband are just about the
only two members of our family--our most flat, stale, and unprofitable
family--that ever were in the least degree interesting."
Oke grew crimson, and frowned as if in pain.
"I don't see why you should abuse our family, Alice," he said. "Thank
God, our people have always been honourable and upright men and women!"
"Excepting always Nicholas Oke and Alice his wife, daughter of Virgil
Pomfret, Esq.," she answered, laughing, as he strode out into the park.
"How childish he is!" she exclaimed when we were alone. "He really
minds, really feels disgraced by what our ancestors did two centuries and
a half ago. I do believe William would have those two portraits taken down
and burned if he weren't afraid of me and ashamed of the neighbours. And
as it is, these two people really are the only two members of our family
that ever were in the least interesting. I will tell you the story some
As it was, the story was told to me by Oke himself. The next day, as we
were taking our morning walk, he suddenly broke a long silence, laying
about him all the time at the sere grasses with the hooked stick that he
carried, like the conscientious Kentishman he was, for the purpose of
cutting down his and other folk's thistles.
"I fear you must have thought me very ill-mannered towards my wife
yesterday," he said shyly; "and indeed I know I was."
Oke was one of those chivalrous beings to whom every woman, every
wife--and his own most of all--appeared in the light of something holy.
"But--but--I have a prejudice which my wife does not enter into, about
raking up ugly things in one's own family. I suppose Alice thinks that it
is so long ago that it has really got no connection with us; she thinks of
it merely as a picturesque story. I daresay many people feel like that; in
short, I am sure they do, otherwise there wouldn't be such lots of
discreditable family traditions afloat. But I feel as if it were all one
whether it was long ago or not; when it's a question of one's own people,
I would rather have it forgotten. I can't understand how people can talk
about murders in their families, and ghosts, and so forth."
"Have you any ghosts at Okehurst, by the way?" I asked. The place
seemed as if it required some to complete it.
"I hope not," answered Oke gravely.
His gravity made me smile.
"Why, would you dislike it if there were?" I asked.
"If there are such things as ghosts," he replied, "I don't think they
should be taken lightly. God would not permit them to be, except as a
warning or a punishment."
We walked on some time in silence, I wondering at the strange type of
this commonplace young man, and half wishing I could put something into my
portrait that should be the equivalent of this curious unimaginative
earnestness. Then Oke told me the story of those two pictures--told it me
about as badly and hesitatingly as was possible for mortal man.
He and his wife were, as I have said, cousins, and therefore descended
from the same old Kentish stock. The Okes of Okehurst could trace back to
Norman, almost to Saxon times, far longer than any of the titled or
better-known families of the neighbourhood. I saw that William Oke, in his
heart, thoroughly looked down upon all his neighbours. "We have never done
anything particular, or been anything particular--never held any office,"
he said; "but we have always been here, and apparently always done our
duty. An ancestor of ours was killed in the Scotch wars, another at
Agincourt--mere honest captains." Well, early in the seventeenth century,
the family had dwindled to a single member, Nicholas Oke, the same who had
rebuilt Okehurst in its present shape. This Nicholas appears to have been
somewhat different from the usual run of the family. He had, in his youth,
sought adventures in America, and seems, generally speaking, to have been
less of a nonentity than his ancestors. He married, when no longer very
young, Alice, daughter of Virgil Pomfret, a beautiful young heiress from a
neighbouring county. "It was the first time an Oke married a Pomfret," my
host informed me, "and the last time. The Pomfrets were quite different
sort of people--restless, self-seeking; one of them had been a favourite
of Henry VIII." It was clear that William Oke had no feeling of having any
Pomfret blood in his veins; he spoke of these people with an evident
family dislike--the dislike of an Oke, one of the old, honourable, modest
stock, which had quietly done its duty, for a family of fortune-seekers
and Court minions. Well, there had come to live near Okehurst, in a little
house recently inherited from an uncle, a certain Christopher Lovelock, a
young gallant and poet, who was in momentary disgrace at Court for some
love affair. This Lovelock had struck up a great friendship with his
neighbours of Okehurst--too great a friendship, apparently, with the wife,
either for her husband's taste or her own. Anyhow, one evening as he was
riding home alone, Lovelock had been attacked and murdered, ostensibly by
highwaymen, but as was afterwards rumoured, by Nicholas Oke, accompanied
by his wife dressed as a groom. No legal evidence had been got, but the
tradition had remained. "They used to tell it us when we were children,"
said my host, in a hoarse voice, "and to frighten my cousin--I mean my
wife--and me with stories about Lovelock. It is merely a tradition, which
I hope may die out, as I sincerely pray to heaven that it may be false."
"Alice--Mrs. Oke--you see," he went on after some time, "doesn't feel
about it as I do. Perhaps I am morbid. But I do dislike having the old
story raked up."
And we said no more on the subject.
FROM that moment I began to assume a certain interest in the eyes of
Mrs. Oke; or rather, I began to perceive that I had a means of securing
her attention. Perhaps it was wrong of me to do so; and I have often
reproached myself very seriously later on. But after all, how was I to
guess that I was making mischief merely by chiming in, for the sake of the
portrait I had undertaken, and of a very harmless psychological mania,
with what was merely the fad, the little romantic affectation or
eccentricity, of a scatter-brained and eccentric young woman? How in the
world should I have dreamed that I was handling explosive substances? A
man is surely not responsible if the people with whom he is forced to
deal, and whom he deals with as with all the rest of the world, are quite
different from all other human creatures.
So, if indeed I did at all conduce to mischief, I really cannot blame
myself. I had met in Mrs. Oke an almost unique subject for a
portrait-painter of my particular sort, and a most singular, bizarre
personality. I could not possibly do my subject justice so long as I was
kept at a distance, prevented from studying the real character of the
woman. I required to put her into play. And I ask you whether any more
innocent way of doing so could be found than talking to a woman, and
letting her talk, about an absurd fancy she had for a couple of ancestors
of hers of the time of Charles I., and a poet whom they had
murdered?--particularly as I studiously respected the prejudices of my
host, and refrained from mentioning the matter, and tried to restrain Mrs.
Oke from doing so, in the presence of William Oke himself.
I had certainly guessed correctly. To resemble the Alice Oke of the
year 1626 was the caprice, the mania, the pose, the whatever you may call
it, of the Alice Oke of 1880; and to perceive this resemblance was the
sure way of gaining her good graces. It was the most extraordinary craze,
of all the extraordinary crazes of childless and idle women, that I had
ever met; but it was more than that, it was admirably characteristic. It
finished off the strange figure of Mrs. Oke, as I saw it in my
imagination--this bizarre creature of enigmatic, far-fetched
exquisiteness--that she should have no interest in the present, but only
an eccentric passion in the past. It seemed to give the meaning to the
absent look in her eyes, to her irrelevant and far-off smile. It was like
the words to a weird piece of gipsy music, this that she, who was so
different, so distant from all women of her own time, should try and
identify herself with a woman of the past--that she should have a kind of
flirtation-- But of this anon.
I told Mrs. Oke that I had learnt from her husband the outline of the
tragedy, or mystery, whichever it was, of Alice Oke, daughter of Virgil
Pomfret, and the poet Christopher Lovelock. That look of vague contempt,
of a desire to shock, which I had noticed before, came into her beautiful,
pale, diaphanous face.
"I suppose my husband was very shocked at the whole matter," she
said--"told it you with as little detail as possible, and assured you very
solemnly that he hoped the whole story might be a mere dreadful calumny?
Poor Willie! I remember already when we were children, and I used to come
with my mother to spend Christmas at Okehurst, and my cousin was down here
for his holidays, how I used to horrify him by insisting upon dressing up
in shawls and waterproofs, and playing the story of the wicked Mrs. Oke;
and he always piously refused to do the part of Nicholas, when I wanted to
have the scene on Cotes Common. I didn't know then that I was like the
original Alice Oke; I found it out only after our marriage. You really
think that I am?"
She certainly was, particularly at that moment, as she stood in a white
Vandyck dress, with the green of the park-land rising up behind her, and
the low sun catching her short locks and surrounding her head, her
exquisitely bowed head, with a pale-yellow halo. But I confess I thought
the original Alice Oke, siren and murderess though she might be, very
uninteresting compared with this wayward and exquisite creature whom I had
rashly promised myself to send down to posterity in all her unlikely
One morning while Mr. Oke was despatching his Saturday heap of
Conservative manifestoes and rural decisions--he was justice of the peace
in a most literal sense, penetrating into cottages and huts, defending the
weak and admonishing the ill-conducted--one morning while I was making one
of my many pencil-sketches (alas, they are all that remain to me now!) of
my future sitter, Mrs. Oke gave me her version of the story of Alice Oke
and Christopher Lovelock.
"Do you suppose there was anything between them?" I asked--"that she
was ever in love with him? How do you explain the part which tradition
ascribes to her in the supposed murder? One has heard of women and their
lovers who have killed the husband; but a woman who combines with her
husband to kill her lover, or at least the man who is in love with
her--that is surely very singular." I was absorbed in my drawing, and
really thinking very little of what I was saying.
"I don't know," she answered pensively, with that distant look in her
eyes. "Alice Oke was very proud, I am sure. She may have loved the poet
very much, and yet been indignant with him, hated having to love him. She
may have felt that she had a right to rid herself of him, and to call upon
her husband to help her to do so."
"Good heavens! what a fearful idea!" I exclaimed, half laughing. "Don't
you think, after all, that Mr. Oke may be right in saying that it is
easier and more comfortable to take the whole story as a pure invention?"
"I cannot take it as an invention," answered Mrs. Oke contemptuously,
"because I happen to know that it is true."
"Indeed!" I answered, working away at my sketch, and enjoying putting
this strange creature, as I said to myself, through her paces; "how is
"How does one know that anything is true in this world?" she replied
evasively; "because one does, because one feels it to be true, I suppose."
And, with that far-off look in her light eyes, she relapsed into
"Have you ever read any of Lovelock's poetry?" she asked me suddenly
the next day.
"Lovelock?" I answered, for I had forgotten the name. "Lovelock, who"--
But I stopped, remembering the prejudices of my host, who was seated next
to me at table.
"Lovelock who was killed by Mr. Oke's and my ancestors."
And she looked full at her husband, as if in perverse enjoyment of the
evident annoyance which it caused him.
"Alice," he entreated in a low voice, his whole face crimson, "for
mercy's sake, don't talk about such things before the servants."
Mrs. Oke burst into a high, light, rather hysterical laugh, the laugh
of a naughty child.
"The servants! Gracious heavens! do you suppose they haven't heard the
story? Why, it's as well known as Okehurst itself in the neighbourhood.
Don't they believe that Lovelock has been seen about the house? Haven't
they all heard his footsteps in the big corridor? Haven't they, my dear
Willie, noticed a thousand times that you never will stay a minute alone
in the yellow drawing-room--that you run out of it, like a child, if I
happen to leave you there for a minute?"
True! How was it I had not noticed that? or rather, that I only now
remembered having noticed it? The yellow drawing-room was one of the most
charming rooms in the house: a large, bright room, hung with yellow damask
and panelled with carvings, that opened straight out on to the lawn, far
superior to the room in which we habitually sat, which was comparatively
gloomy. This time Mr. Oke struck me as really too childish. I felt an
intense desire to badger him.
"The yellow drawing-room!" I exclaimed. "Does this interesting literary
character haunt the yellow drawing-room? Do tell me about it. What
Mr. Oke made a painful effort to laugh.
"Nothing ever happened there, so far as I know," he said, and rose from
"Really?" I asked incredulously.
"Nothing did happen there," answered Mrs. Oke slowly, playing
mechanically with a fork, and picking out the pattern of the tablecloth.
"That is just the extraordinary circumstance, that, so far as any one
knows, nothing ever did happen there; and yet that room has an evil
reputation. No member of our family, they say, can bear to sit there alone
for more than a minute. You see, William evidently cannot."
"Have you ever seen or heard anything strange there?" I asked of my
He shook his head. "Nothing," he answered curtly, and lit his cigar.
"I presume you have not," I asked, half laughing, of Mrs. Oke, "since
you don't mind sitting in that room for hours alone? How do you explain
this uncanny reputation, since nothing ever happened there?"
"Perhaps something is destined to happen there in the future," she
answered, in her absent voice. And then she suddenly added, "Suppose you
paint my portrait in that room?"
Mr. Oke suddenly turned round. He was very white, and looked as if he
were going to say something, but desisted.
"Why do you worry Mr. Oke like that?" I asked, when he had gone into
his smoking-room with his usual bundle of papers. "It is very cruel of
you, Mrs. Oke. You ought to have more consideration for people who believe
in such things, although you may not be able to put yourself in their
frame of mind."
"Who tells you that I don't believe in such things, as you call them?"
she answered abruptly.
"Come," she said, after a minute, "I want to show you why I believe in
Christopher Lovelock. Come with me into the yellow room."
WHAT Mrs. Oke showed me in the yellow room was a large bundle of
papers, some printed and some manuscript, but all of them brown with age,
which she took out of an old Italian ebony inlaid cabinet. It took her
some time to get them, as a complicated arrangement of double locks and
false drawers had to be put in play; and while she was doing so, I looked
round the room, in which I had been only three or four times before. It
was certainly the most beautiful room in this beautiful house, and, as it
seemed to me now, the most strange. It was long and low, with something
that made you think of the cabin of a ship, with a great mullioned window
that let in, as it were, a perspective of the brownish green park-land,
dotted with oaks, and sloping upwards to the distant line of bluish firs
against the horizon. The walls were hung with flowered damask, whose
yellow, faded to brown, united with the reddish colour of the carved
wainscoting and the carved oaken beams. For the rest, it reminded me more
of an Italian room than an English one. The furniture was Tuscan of the
early seventeenth century, inlaid and carved; there were a couple of faded
allegorical pictures, by some Bolognese master, on the walls; and in a
corner, among a stack of dwarf orange-trees, a little Italian harp-
sichord of exquisite curve and slenderness, with flowers and landscapes
painted upon its cover. In a recess was a shelf of old books, mainly
English and Italian poets of the Elizabethan time; and close by it, placed
upon a carved wedding-chest, a large and beautiful melon-shaped lute. The
panes of the mullioned window were open, and yet the air seemed heavy,
with an indescribable heady perfume, not that of any growing flower, but
like that of old stuff that should have lain for years among spices.
"It is a beautiful room!" I exclaimed. "I should awfully like to paint
you in it;" but I had scarcely spoken the words when I felt I had done
wrong. This woman's husband could not bear the room, and it seemed to me
vaguely as if he were right in detesting it.
Mrs. Oke took no notice of my exclamation, but beckoned me to the table
where she was standing sorting the papers.
"Look!" she said, "these are all poems by Christopher Lovelock;" and
touching the yellow papers with delicate and reverent fingers, she
commenced reading some of them out loud in a slow, half-audible voice.
They were songs in the style of those of Herrick, Waller, and Drayton,
complaining for the most part of the cruelty of a lady called Dryope, in
whose name was evidently concealed a reference to that of the mistress of
Okehurst. The songs were graceful, and not with- out a certain faded
passion; but I was thinking not of them, but of the woman who was reading
them to me.
Mrs. Oke was standing with the brownish yellow wall as a background to
her white brocade dress, which, in its stiff seventeenth-century make,
seemed but to bring out more clearly the slightness, the exquisite
suppleness, of her tall figure. She held the papers in one hand, and
leaned the other, as if for support, on the inlaid cabinet by her side.
Her voice, which was delicate, shadowy, like her person, had a curious
throbbing cadence, as if she were reading the words of a melody, and
restraining herself with difficulty from singing it; and as she read, her
long slender throat throbbed slightly, and a faint redness came into her
thin face. She evidently knew the verses by heart, and her eyes were
mostly fixed with that distant smile in them, with which harmonised a
constant tremulous little smile in her lips.
"That is how I would wish to paint her!" I exclaimed within myself; and
scarcely noticed, what struck me on thinking over the scene, that this
strange being read these verses as one might fancy a woman would read
love-verses addressed to herself.
"Those are all written for Alice Oke--Alice the daughter of Virgil
Pomfret," she said slowly, folding up the papers. "I found them at the
bottom of this cabinet. Can you doubt of the reality of Christopher
The question was an illogical one, for to doubt of the existence of
Christopher Lovelock was one thing, and to doubt of the mode of his death
was another; but somehow I did feel convinced.
"Look!" she said, when she had replaced the poems, "I will show you
something else." Among the flowers that stood on the upper storey of her
writing-table--for I found that Mrs. Oke had a writing-table in the yellow
room--stood, as on an altar, a small black carved frame, with a silk
curtain drawn over it: the sort of thing behind which you would have
expected to find a head of Christ or of the Virgin Mary. She drew the
curtain and displayed a large-sized miniature, representing a young man,
with auburn curls and a peaked auburn beard, dressed in black, but with
lace about his neck, and large pear-shaped pearls in his ears: a wistful,
melancholy face. Mrs. Oke took the miniature religiously off its stand,
and showed me, written in faded characters upon the back, the name
"Christopher Lovelock," and the date 1626.
"I found this in the secret drawer of that cabinet, together with the
heap of poems," she said, taking the miniature out of my hand.
I was silent for a minute.
"Does--does Mr. Oke know that you have got it here?" I asked; and then
wondered what in the world had impelled me to put such a question.
Mrs. Oke smiled that smile of contemptuous indifference. "I have never
hidden it from any one. If my husband disliked my having it, he might have
taken it away, I suppose. It belongs to him, since it was found in his
I did not answer, but walked mechanically towards the door. There was
something heady and oppressive in this beautiful room; something, I
thought, almost repulsive in this exquisite woman. She seemed to me,
suddenly, perverse and dangerous.
I scarcely know why, but I neglected Mrs. Oke that afternoon. I went to
Mr. Oke's study, and sat opposite to him smoking while he was engrossed in
his accounts, his reports, and electioneering papers. On the table, above
the heap of paper-bound volumes and pigeon-holed documents, was, as sole
ornament of his den, a little photograph of his wife, done some years
before. I don't know why, but as I sat and watched him, with his florid,
honest, manly beauty, working away conscientiously, with that little
perplexed frown of his, I felt intensely sorry for this man.
But this feeling did not last. There was no help for it: Oke was not as
interesting as Mrs. Oke; and it required too great an effort to pump up
sympathy for this normal, excellent, exemplary young squire, in the
presence of so wonderful a creature as his wife. So I let myself go to the
habit of allowing Mrs. Oke daily to talk over her strange craze, or rather
of drawing her out about it. I confess that I derived a morbid and
exquisite pleasure in doing so: it was so characteristic in her, so
appropriate to the house! It completed her personality so perfectly, and
made it so much easier to conceive a way of painting her. I made up my
mind little by little, while working at William Oke's portrait (he proved
a less easy subject than I had anticipated, and, despite his conscientious
efforts, was a nervous, uncomfortable sitter, silent and brooding)--I made
up my mind that I would paint Mrs. Oke standing by the cabinet in the
yellow room, in the white Vandyck dress copied from the portrait of her
ancestress. Mr. Oke might resent it, Mrs. Oke even might resent it; they
might refuse to take the picture, to pay for it, to allow me to exhibit;
they might force me to run my umbrella through the picture. No matter.
That picture should be painted, if merely for the sake of having painted
it; for I felt it was the only thing I could do, and that it would be far
away my best work. I told neither of my resolution, but prepared sketch
after sketch of Mrs. Oke, while continuing to paint her husband.
Mrs. Oke was a silent person, more silent even than her husband, for
she did not feel bound, as he did, to attempt to entertain a guest or to
show any interest in him. She seemed to spend her life--a curious,
inactive, half-invalidish life, broken by sudden fits of childish
cheerfulness--in an eternal day-dream, strolling about the house and
grounds, arranging the quantities of flowers that always filled all the
rooms, beginning to read and then throwing aside novels and books of
poetry, of which she always had a large number; and, I believe, lying for
hours, doing nothing, on a couch in that yellow drawing-room, which, with
her sole exception, no member of the Oke family had ever been known to
stay in alone. Little by little I began to suspect and to verify another
eccentricity of this eccentric being, and to understand why there were
stringent orders never to disturb her in that yellow room.
It had been a habit at Okehurst, as at one or two other English
manor-houses, to keep a certain amount of the clothes of each generation,
more particularly wedding-dresses. A certain carved oaken press, of which
Mr. Oke once displayed the contents to me, was a perfect museum of
costumes, male and female, from the early years of the seventeenth to the
end of the eighteenth century--a thing to take away the breath of a
bric-a-brac collector, an antiquary, or a genre painter. Mr. Oke was none
of these, and therefore took but little interest in the collection, save
in so far as it interested his family feeling. Still he seemed well
acquainted with the contents of that press.
He was turning over the clothes for my benefit, when suddenly I noticed
that he frowned. I know not what impelled me to say, "By the way, have you
any dresses of that Mrs. Oke whom your wife resembles so much? Have you
got that particular white dress she was painted in, perhaps?"
Oke of Okehurst flushed very red.
"We have it," he answered hesitatingly, "but--it isn't here at
present--I can't find it. I suppose," he blurted out with an effort, "that
Alice has got it. Mrs. Oke sometimes has the fancy of having some of these
old things down. I suppose she takes ideas from them."
A sudden light dawned in my mind. The white dress in which I had seen
Mrs. Oke in the yellow room, the day that she showed me Lovelock's verses,
was not, as I had thought, a modern copy; it was the original dress of
Alice Oke, the daughter of Virgil Pomfret--the dress in which, perhaps,
Christopher Lovelock had seen her in that very room.
The idea gave me a delightful picturesque shudder. I said nothing. But
I pictured to myself Mrs. Oke sitting in that yellow room--that room which
no Oke of Okehurst save herself ventured to remain in alone, in the dress
of her ancestress, confronting, as it were, that vague, haunting something
that seemed to fill the place--that vague presence, it seemed to me, of
the murdered cavalier poet.
Mrs. Oke, as I have said, was extremely silent, as a result of being
extremely indifferent. She really did not care in the least about anything
except her own ideas and day-dreams, except when, every now and then, she
was seized with a sudden desire to shock the prejudices or superstitions
of her husband. Very soon she got into the way of never talking to me at
all, save about Alice and Nicholas Oke and Christopher Lovelock; and then,
when the fit seized her, she would go on by the hour, never asking herself
whether I was or was not equally interested in the strange craze that
fascinated her. It so happened that I was. I loved to listen to her, going
on discussing by the hour the merits of Lovelock's poems, and analysing
her feelings and those of her two ancestors. It was quite wonderful to
watch the exquisite, exotic creature in one of these moods, with the
distant look in her grey eyes and the absent-looking smile in her thin
cheeks, talking as if she had intimately known these people of the
seventeenth century, discussing every minute mood of theirs, detailing
every scene between them and their victim, talking of Alice, and Nicholas,
and Lovelock as she might of her most intimate friends. Of Alice
particularly, and of Lovelock. She seemed to know every word that Alice
had spoken, every idea that had crossed her mind. It sometimes struck me
as if she were telling me, speaking of herself in the third person, of her
own feelings--as if I were listening to a woman's confidences, the recital
of her doubts, scruples, and agonies about a living lover. For Mrs. Oke,
who seemed the most self-absorbed of creatures in all other matters, and
utterly incapable of understanding or sympathising with the feelings of
other persons, entered completely and passionately into the feelings of
this woman, this Alice, who, at some moments, seemed to be not another
woman, but herself.
"But how could she do it--how could she kill the man she cared for?" I
once asked her.
"Because she loved him more than the whole world!" she exclaimed, and
rising suddenly from her chair, walked towards the window, covering her
face with her hands.
I could see, from the movement of her neck, that she was sobbing. She
did not turn round, but motioned me to go away.
"Don't let us talk any more about it," she said. "I am ill to-day, and
I closed the door gently behind me. What mystery was there in this
woman's life? This listlessness, this strange self-engrossment and
stranger mania about people long dead, this indifference and desire to
annoy towards her husband--did it all mean that Alice Oke had loved or
still loved some one who was not the master of Okehurst? And his
melancholy, his preoccupation, the something about him that told of a
broken youth--did it mean that he knew it?
THE following days Mrs. Oke was in a condition of quite unusual good
spirits. Some visitors--distant relatives--were expected, and although she
had expressed the utmost annoyance at the idea of their coming, she was
now seized with a fit of housekeeping activity, and was perpetually about
arranging things and giving orders, although all arrangements, as usual,
had been made, and all orders given, by her husband.
William Oke was quite radiant.
"If only Alice were always well like this!" he exclaimed; "if only she
would take, or could take, an interest in life, how different things would
be! But," he added, as if fearful lest he should be supposed to accuse her
in any way, "how can she, usually, with her wretched health? Still, it
does make me awfully happy to see her like this."
I nodded. But I cannot say that I really acquiesced in his views. It
seemed to me, particularly with the recollection of yesterday's
extraordinary scene, that Mrs. Oke's high spirits were anything but
normal. There was something in her unusual activity and still more unusual
cheerfulness that was merely nervous and feverish; and I had, the whole
day, the impression of dealing with a woman who was ill and who would very
Mrs. Oke spent her day wandering from one room to another, and from the
garden to the greenhouse, seeing whether all was in order, when, as a
matter of fact, all was always in order at Okehurst. She did not give me
any sitting, and not a word was spoken about Alice Oke or Christopher
Lovelock. Indeed, to a casual observer, it might have seemed as if all
that craze about Lovelock had completely departed, or never existed. About
five o'clock, as I was strolling among the red-brick round-gabled
outhouses--each with its armorial oak--and the old-fashioned spalliered
kitchen and fruit garden, I saw Mrs. Oke standing, her hands full of York
and Lancaster roses, upon the steps facing the stables. A groom was
currycombing a horse, and outside the coach-house was Mr. Oke's little
"Let us have a drive!" suddenly exclaimed Mrs. Oke, on seeing me. "Look
what a beautiful evening--and look at that dear little cart! It is so long
since I have driven, and I feel as if I must drive again. Come with me.
And you, harness Jim at once and come round to the door."
I was quite amazed; and still more so when the cart drove up before the
door, and Mrs. Oke called to me to accompany her. She sent away the groom,
and in a minute we were rolling along, at a tremendous pace, along the
yellow-sand road, with the sere pasture-lands, the big oaks, on either
I could scarcely believe my senses. This woman, in her mannish little
coat and hat, driving a powerful young horse with the utmost skill, and
chattering like a school-girl of sixteen, could not be the delicate,
morbid, exotic, hot-house creature, unable to walk or to do anything, who
spent her days lying about on couches in the heavy atmosphere, redolent
with strange scents and associations, of the yellow drawing-room. The
movement of the light carriage, the cool draught, the very grind of the
wheels upon the gravel, seemed to go to her head like wine.
"It is so long since I have done this sort of thing," she kept
repeating; "so long, so long. Oh, don't you think it delightful, going at
this pace, with the idea that any moment the horse may come down and we
two be killed?" and she laughed her childish laugh, and turned her face,
no longer pale, but flushed with the movement and the excitement, towards
The cart rolled on quicker and quicker, one gate after another swinging
to behind us, as we flew up and down the little hills, across the pasture
lands, through the little red-brick gabled villages, where the people came
out to see us pass, past the rows of willows along the streams, and the
dark-green compact hop-fields, with the blue and hazy tree-tops of the
horizon getting bluer and more hazy as the yellow light began to graze the
ground. At last we got to an open space, a high-lying piece of
common-land, such as is rare in that ruthlessly utilised country of
grazing-grounds and hop-gardens. Among the low hills of the Weald, it
seemed quite preternaturally high up, giving a sense that its extent of
flat heather and gorse, bound by distant firs, was really on the top of
the world. The sun was setting just opposite, and its lights lay flat on
the ground, staining it with the red and black of the heather, or rather
turning it into the surface of a purple sea, canopied over by a bank of
dark-purple clouds--the jet-like sparkle of the dry ling and gorse tipping
the purple like sunlit wavelets. A cold wind swept in our faces.
"What is the name of this place?" I asked. It was the only bit of
impressive scenery that I had met in the neighbourhood of Okehurst.
"It is called Cotes Common," answered Mrs. Oke, who had slackened the
pace of the horse, and let the reins hang loose about his neck. "It was
here that Christopher Lovelock was killed."
There was a moment's pause; and then she proceeded, tickling the flies
from the horse's ears with the end of her whip, and looking straight into
the sunset, which now rolled, a deep purple stream, across the heath to
"Lovelock was riding home one summer evening from Appledore, when, as
he had got half-way across Cotes Common, somewhere about here--for I have
always heard them mention the pond in the old gravel-pits as about the
place--he saw two men riding towards him, in whom he presently recognised
Nicholas Oke of Okehurst accompanied by a groom. Oke of Okehurst hailed
him; and Lovelock rode up to meet him. 'I am glad to have met you, Mr.
Lovelock,' said Nicholas, 'because I have some important news for you;'
and so saying, he brought his horse close to the one that Lovelock was
riding, and suddenly turning round, fired off a pistol at his head.
Lovelock had time to move, and the bullet, instead of striking him, went
straight into the head of his horse, which fell beneath him. Lovelock,
however, had fallen in such a way as to be able to extricate himself
easily from his horse; and drawing his sword, he rushed upon Oke, and
seized his horse by the bridle. Oke quickly jumped off and drew his sword;
and in a minute, Lovelock, who was much the better swordsman of the two,
was having the better of him. Lovelock had completely disarmed him, and
got his sword at Oke's throat, crying out to him that if he would ask
forgiveness he should be spared for the sake of their old friendship, when
the groom suddenly rode up from behind and shot Lovelock through the back.
Lovelock fell, and Oke immediately tried to finish him with his sword,
while the groom drew up and held the bridle of Oke's horse. At that moment
the sunlight fell upon the groom's face, and Love- lock recognised Mrs.
Oke. He cried out, 'Alice, Alice! it is you who have murdered me!' and
died. Then Nicholas Oke sprang into his saddle and rode off with his wife,
leaving Lovelock dead by the side of his fallen horse. Nicholas Oke had
taken the precaution of removing Lovelock's purse and throwing it into the
pond, so the murder was put down to certain highwaymen who were about in
that part of the country. Alice Oke died many years afterwards, quite an
old woman, in the reign of Charles II.; but Nicholas did not live very
long, and shortly before his death got into a very strange condition,
always brooding, and sometimes threatening to kill his wife. They say that
in one of these fits, just shortly before his death, he told the whole
story of the murder, and made a prophecy that when the head of his house
and master of Okehurst should marry another Alice Oke, descended from
himself and his wife, there should be an end of the Okes of Okehurst. You
see, it seems to be coming true. We have no children, and I don't suppose
we shall ever have any. I, at least, have never wished for them."
Mrs. Oke paused, and turned her face towards me with the absent smile
in her thin cheeks: her eyes no longer had that distant look; they were
strangely eager and fixed. I did not know what to answer; this woman
positively frightened me. We remained for a moment in that same place,
with the sunlight dying away in crimson ripples on the heather, gilding
the yellow banks, the black waters of the pond, surrounded by thin rushes,
and the yellow gravel-pits; while the wind blew in our faces and bent the
ragged warped bluish tops of the firs. Then Mrs. Oke touched the horse,
and off we went at a furious pace. We did not exchange a single word, I
think, on the way home. Mrs. Oke sat with her eyes fixed on the reins,
breaking the silence now and then only by a word to the horse, urging him
to an even more furious pace. The people we met along the roads must have
thought that the horse was running away, unless they noticed Mrs. Oke's
calm manner and the look of excited enjoyment in her face. To me it seemed
that I was in the hands of a mad-woman, and I quietly prepared myself for
being upset or dashed against a cart. It had turned cold, and the draught
was icy in our faces when we got within sight of the red gables and high
chimney-stacks of Okehurst. Mr. Oke was standing before the door. On our
approach I saw a look of relieved suspense, of keen pleasure come into his
He lifted his wife out of the cart in his strong arms with a kind of
"I am so glad to have you back, darling," he exclaimed--"so glad! I was
delighted to hear you had gone out with the cart, but as you have not
driven for so long, I was beginning to be frightfully anxious, dearest.
Where have you been all this time?"
Mrs. Oke had quickly extricated herself from her husband, who had
remained holding her, as one might hold a delicate child who has been
causing anxiety. The gentleness and affection of the poor fellow had
evidently not touched her--she seemed almost to recoil from it.
"I have taken him to Cotes Common," she said, with that perverse look
which I had noticed before, as she pulled off her driving-gloves. "It is
such a splendid old place."
Mr. Oke flushed as if he had bitten upon a sore tooth, and the double
gash painted itself scarlet between his eyebrows.
Outside, the mists were beginning to rise, veiling the park-land dotted
with big black oaks, and from which, in the watery moonlight, rose on all
sides the eerie little cry of the lambs separated from their mothers. It
was damp and cold, and I shivered.
THE next day Okehurst was full of people, and Mrs. Oke, to my
amazement, was doing the honours of it as if a house full of commonplace,
noisy young creatures, bent upon flirting and tennis, were her usual idea
The afternoon of the third day--they had come for an electioneering
ball, and stayed three nights--the weather changed; it turned suddenly
very cold and began to pour. Every one was sent indoors, and there was a
general gloom suddenly over the company. Mrs. Oke seemed to have got sick
of her guests, and was listlessly lying back on a couch, paying not the
slightest attention to the chattering and piano-strumming in the room,
when one of the guests suddenly proposed that they should play charades.
He was a distant cousin of the Okes, a sort of fashionable artistic
Bohemian, swelled out to intolerable conceit by the amateur-actor vogue of
"It would be lovely in this marvellous old place," he cried, "just to
dress up, and parade about, and feel as if we belonged to the past. I have
heard you have a marvellous collection of old costumes, more or less ever
since the days of Noah, somewhere, Cousin Bill."
The whole party exclaimed in joy at this proposal. William Oke looked
puzzled for a moment, and glanced at his wife, who continued to lie
listless on her sofa.
"There is a press full of clothes belonging to the family," he answered
dubiously, apparently overwhelmed by the desire to please his guests;
"but--but--I don't know whether it's quite respectful to dress up in the
clothes of dead people."
"Oh, fiddlestick!" cried the cousin. "What do the dead people know
about it? Besides," he added, with mock seriousness, "I assure you we
shall behave in the most reverent way and feel quite solemn about it all,
if only you will give us the key, old man."
Again Mr. Oke looked towards his wife, and again met only her vague,
"Very well," he said, and led his guests upstairs.
An hour later the house was filled with the strangest crew and the
strangest noises. I had entered, to a certain extent, into William Oke's
feeling of unwillingness to let his ancestors' clothes and personality be
taken in vain; but when the masquerade was complete, I must say that the
effect was quite magnificent. A dozen youngish men and women--those who
were staying in the house and some neighbours who had come for lawn-tennis
and dinner--were rigged out, under the direction of the theatrical cousin,
in the contents of that oaken press: and I have never seen a more
beautiful sight than the panelled corridors, the carved and escutcheoned
staircase, the dim drawing-rooms with their faded tapestries, the great
hall with its vaulted and ribbed ceiling, dotted about with groups or
single figures that seemed to have come straight from the past. Even
William Oke, who, besides myself and a few elderly people, was the only
man not masqueraded, seemed delighted and fired by the sight. A certain
schoolboy character suddenly came out in him; and finding that there was
no costume left for him, he rushed upstairs and presently returned in the
uniform he had worn before his marriage. I thought I had really never seen
so magnificent a specimen of the handsome Englishman; he looked, despite
all the modern associations of his costume, more genuinely old-world than
all the rest, a knight for the Black Prince or Sidney, with his admirably
regular features and beautiful fair hair and complexion. After a minute,
even the elderly people had got costumes of some sort--dominoes arranged
at the moment, and hoods and all manner of disguises made out of pieces of
old embroidery and Oriental stuffs and furs; and very soon this rabble of
masquers had become, so to speak, completely drunk with its own
amusement--with the childishness, and, if I may say so, the barbarism, the
vulgarity underlying the majority even of well-bred English men and
women--Mr. Oke himself doing the mountebank like a schoolboy at Christmas.
"Where is Mrs. Oke? Where is Alice?" some one suddenly asked.
Mrs. Oke had vanished. I could fully understand that to this eccentric
being, with her fantastic, imaginative, morbid passion for the past, such
a carnival as this must be positively revolting; and, absolutely
indifferent as she was to giving offence, I could imagine how she would
have retired, disgusted and outraged, to dream her strange day-dreams in
the yellow room.
But a moment later, as we were all noisily preparing to go in to
dinner, the door opened and a strange figure entered, stranger than any of
these others who were profaning the clothes of the dead: a boy, slight and
tall, in a brown riding-coat, leathern belt, and big buff boots, a little
grey cloak over one shoulder, a large grey hat slouched over the eyes, a
dagger and pistol at the waist. It was Mrs. Oke, her eyes preternaturally
bright, and her whole face lit up with a bold, perverse smile.
Every one exclaimed, and stood aside. Then there was a moment's
silence, broken by faint applause. Even to a crew of noisy boys and girls
playing the fool in the garments of men and women long dead and buried,
there is something questionable in the sudden appearance of a young
married woman, the mistress of the house, in a riding-coat and jack-boots;
and Mrs. Oke's expression did not make the jest seem any the less
"What is that costume?" asked the theatrical cousin, who, after a
second, had come to the conclusion that Mrs. Oke was merely a woman of
marvellous talent whom he must try and secure for his amateur troop next
"It is the dress in which an ancestress of ours, my namesake Alice Oke,
used to go out riding with her husband in the days of Charles I.," she
answered, and took her seat at the head of the table. Involuntarily my
eyes sought those of Oke of Okehurst. He, who blushed as easily as a girl
of sixteen, was now as white as ashes, and I noticed that he pressed his
hand almost convulsively to his mouth.
"Don't you recognise my dress, William?" asked Mrs. Oke, fixing her
eyes upon him with a cruel smile.
He did not answer, and there was a moment's silence, which the
theatrical cousin had the happy thought of breaking by jumping upon his
seat and emptying off his glass with the exclamation--
"To the health of the two Alice Okes, of the past and the present!"
Mrs. Oke nodded, and with an expression I had never seen in her face
before, answered in a loud and aggressive tone--
"To the health of the poet, Mr. Christopher Lovelock, if his ghost be
honouring this house with its presence!"
I felt suddenly as if I were in a madhouse. Across the table, in the
midst of this room full of noisy wretches, tricked out red, blue, purple,
and parti-coloured, as men and women of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and
eighteenth centuries, as improvised Turks and Eskimos, and dominoes, and
clowns, with faces painted and corked and floured over, I seemed to see
that sanguine sunset, washing like a sea of blood over the heather, to
where, by the black pond and the wind-warped firs, there lay the body of
Christopher Lovelock, with his dead horse near him, the yellow gravel and
lilac ling soaked crimson all around; and above emerged, as out of the
redness, the pale blond head covered with the grey hat, the absent eyes,
and strange smile of Mrs. Oke. It seemed to me horrible, vulgar,
abominable, as if I had got inside a madhouse.
FROM that moment I noticed a change in William Oke; or rather, a change
that had probably been coming on for some time got to the stage of being
I don't know whether he had any words with his wife about her
masquerade of that unlucky evening. On the whole I decidedly think not.
Oke was with every one a diffident and reserved man, and most of all so
with his wife; besides, I can fancy that he would experience a positive
impossibility of putting into words any strong feeling of disapprobation
towards her, that his disgust would necessarily be silent. But be this as
it may, I perceived very soon that the relations between my host and
hostess had become exceedingly strained. Mrs. Oke, indeed, had never paid
much attention to her husband, and seemed merely a trifle more indifferent
to his presence than she had been before. But Oke himself, although he
affected to address her at meals from a desire to conceal his feeling, and
a fear of making the position dis- agreeable to me, very clearly could
scarcely bear to speak to or even see his wife. The poor fellow's honest
soul was quite brimful of pain, which he was determined not to allow to
overflow, and which seemed to filter into his whole nature and poison it.
This woman had shocked and pained him more than was possible to say, and
yet it was evident that he could neither cease loving her nor commence
comprehending her real nature. I sometimes felt, as we took our long walks
through the monotonous country, across the oak-dotted grazing-grounds, and
by the brink of the dull-green, serried hop-rows, talking at rare
intervals about the value of the crops, the drainage of the estate, the
village schools, the Primrose League, and the iniquities of Mr. Gladstone,
while Oke of Okehurst carefully cut down every tall thistle that caught
his eye--I sometimes felt, I say, an intense and impotent desire to
enlighten this man about his wife's character. I seemed to understand it
so well, and to understand it well seemed to imply such a comfortable
acquiescence; and it seemed so unfair that just he should be condemned to
puzzle for ever over this enigma, and wear out his soul trying to
comprehend what now seemed so plain to me. But how would it ever be
possible to get this serious, conscientious, slow-brained representative
of English simplicity and honesty and thoroughness to understand the
mixture of self-engrossed vanity, of shallowness, of poetic vision, of
love of morbid excitement, that walked this earth under the name of Alice
So Oke of Okehurst was condemned never to understand; but he was
condemned also to suffer from his inability to do so. The poor fellow was
constantly straining after an explanation of his wife's peculiarities; and
although the effort was probably unconscious, it caused him a great deal
of pain. The gash--the maniac-frown, as my friend calls it--between his
eyebrows, seemed to have grown a permanent feature of his face.
Mrs. Oke, on her side, was making the very worst of the situation.
Perhaps she resented her husband's tacit reproval of that masquerade
night's freak, and determined to make him swallow more of the same stuff,
for she clearly thought that one of William's peculiarities, and one for
which she despised him, was that he could never be goaded into an
outspoken expression of disapprobation; that from her he would swallow any
amount of bitterness without complaining. At any rate she now adopted a
perfect policy of teasing and shocking her husband about the murder of
Lovelock. She was perpetually alluding to it in her conversation,
discussing in his presence what had or had not been the feelings of the
various actors in the tragedy of 1626, and insisting upon her resemblance
and almost identity with the original Alice Oke. Something had suggested
to her eccentric mind that it would be delightful to perform in the garden
at Okehurst, under the huge ilexes and elms, a little masque which she had
discovered among Christopher Lovelock's works; and she began to scour the
country and enter into vast correspondence for the purpose of effectuating
this scheme. Letters arrived every other day from the theatrical cousin,
whose only objection was that Okehurst was too remote a locality for an
entertainment in which he foresaw great glory to himself. And every now
and then there would arrive some young gentleman or lady, whom Alice Oke
had sent for to see whether they would do.
I saw very plainly that the performance would never take place, and
that Mrs. Oke herself had no intention that it ever should. She was one of
those creatures to whom realisation of a project is nothing, and who enjoy
plan-making almost the more for knowing that all will stop short at the
plan. Meanwhile, this perpetual talk about the pastoral, about Lovelock,
this continual attitudinising as the wife of Nicholas Oke, had the further
attraction to Mrs. Oke of putting her husband into a condition of
frightful though suppressed irritation, which she enjoyed with the
enjoyment of a perverse child. You must not think that I looked on
indifferent, although I admit that this was a perfect treat to an amateur
student of character like myself. I really did feel most sorry for poor
Oke, and frequently quite indignant with his wife. I was several times on
the point of begging her to have more consideration for him, even of
suggesting that this kind of behaviour, particularly before a comparative
stranger like me, was very poor taste. But there was something elusive
about Mrs. Oke, which made it next to impossible to speak seriously with
her; and besides, I was by no means sure that any interference on my part
would not merely animate her perversity.
One evening a curious incident took place. We had just sat down to
dinner, the Okes, the theatrical cousin, who was down for a couple of
days, and three or four neighbours. It was dusk, and the yellow light of
the candles mingled charmingly with the greyness of the evening. Mrs. Oke
was not well, and had been remarkably quiet all day, more diaphanous,
strange, and far-away than ever; and her husband seemed to have felt a
sudden return of tenderness, almost of compassion, for this delicate,
fragile creature. We had been talking of quite indifferent matters, when I
saw Mr. Oke suddenly turn very white, and look fixedly for a moment at the
window opposite to his seat.
"Who's that fellow looking in at the window, and making signs to you,
Alice? Damn his impudence!" he cried, and jumping up, ran to the window,
opened it, and passed out into the twilight. We all looked at each other
in surprise; some of the party remarked upon the carelessness of servants
in letting nasty-looking fellows hang about the kitchen, others told
stories of tramps and burglars. Mrs. Oke did not speak; but I noticed the
curious, distant-looking smile in her thin cheeks.
After a minute William Oke came in, his napkin in his hand. He shut the
window behind him and silently resumed his place.
"Well, who was it?" we all asked.
"Nobody. I--I must have made a mistake," he answered, and turned
crimson, while he busily peeled a pear.
"It was probably Lovelock," remarked Mrs. Oke, just as she might have
said, "It was probably the gardener," but with that faint smile of
pleasure still in her face. Except the theatrical cousin, who burst into a
loud laugh, none of the company had ever heard Lovelock's name, and,
doubtless imagining him to be some natural appanage of the Oke family,
groom or farmer, said nothing, so the subject dropped.
From that evening onwards things began to assume a different aspect.
That incident was the beginning of a perfect system--a system of what? I
scarcely know how to call it. A system of grim jokes on the part of Mrs.
Oke, of superstitious fancies on the part of her husband--a system of
mysterious persecutions on the part of some less earthly tenant of
Okehurst. Well, yes, after all, why not? We have all heard of ghosts, had
uncles, cousins, grandmothers, nurses, who have seen them; we are all a
bit afraid of them at the bottom of our soul; so why shouldn't they be? I
am too sceptical to believe in the impossibility of anything, for my part!
Besides, when a man has lived throughout a summer in the same house with a
woman like Mrs. Oke of Okehurst, he gets to believe in the possibility of
a great many improbable things, I assure you, as a mere result of
believing in her. And when you come to think of it, why not? That a weird
creature, visibly not of this earth, a reincarnation of a woman who
murdered her lover two centuries and a half ago, that such a creature
should have the power of attracting about her (being altogether superior
to earthly lovers) the man who loved her in that previous existence, whose
love for her was his death--what is there astonishing in that? Mrs. Oke
herself, I feel quite persuaded, believed or half believed it; indeed she
very seriously admitted the possibility thereof, one day that I made the
suggestion half in jest. At all events, it rather pleased me to think so;
it fitted in so well with the woman's whole personality; it explained
those hours and hours spent all alone in the yellow room, where the very
air, with its scent of heady flowers and old perfumed stuffs, seemed
redolent of ghosts. It explained that strange smile which was not for any
of us, and yet was not merely for herself--that strange, far-off look in
the wide pale eyes. I liked the idea, and I liked to tease, or rather to
delight her with it. How should I know that the wretched husband would
take such matters seriously?
He became day by day more silent and perplexed-looking; and, as a
result, worked harder, and probably with less effect, at his
land-improving schemes and political canvassing. It seemed to me that he
was perpetually listening, watching, waiting for something to happen: a
word spoken suddenly, the sharp opening of a door, would make him start,
turn crimson, and almost tremble; the mention of Lovelock brought a
helpless look, half a convulsion, like that of a man overcome by great
heat, into his face. And his wife, so far from taking any interest in his
altered looks, went on irritating him more and more. Every time that the
poor fellow gave one of those starts of his, or turned crimson at the
sudden sound of a footstep, Mrs. Oke would ask him, with her contemptuous
indifference, whether he had seen Lovelock. I soon began to perceive that
my host was getting perfectly ill. He would sit at meals never saying a
word, with his eyes fixed scrutinisingly on his wife, as if vainly trying
to solve some dreadful mystery; while his wife, ethereal, exquisite, went
on talking in her listless way about the masque, about Lovelock, always
about Lovelock. During our walks and rides, which we continued pretty
regularly, he would start whenever in the roads or lanes surrounding
Okehurst, or in its grounds, we perceived a figure in the distance. I have
seen him tremble at what, on nearer approach, I could scarcely restrain my
laughter on discovering to be some well-known farmer or neighbour or
servant. Once, as we were returning home at dusk, he suddenly caught my
arm and pointed across the oak-dotted pastures in the direction of the
garden, then started off almost at a run, with his dog behind him, as if
in pursuit of some intruder.
"Who was it?" I asked. And Mr. Oke merely shook his head mournfully.
Sometimes in the early autumn twilights, when the white mists rose from
the park-land, and the rooks formed long black lines on the palings, I
almost fancied I saw him start at the very trees and bushes, the outlines
of the distant oast-houses, with their conical roofs and projecting vanes,
like gibing fingers in the half light.
"Your husband is ill," I once ventured to remark to Mrs. Oke, as she
sat for the hundred-and-thirtieth of my preparatory sketches (I somehow
could never get beyond preparatory sketches with her). She raised her
beautiful, wide, pale eyes, making as she did so that exquisite curve of
shoulders and neck and delicate pale head that I so vainly longed to
"I don't see it," she answered quietly. "If he is, why doesn't he go up
to town and see the doctor? It's merely one of his glum fits."
"You should not tease him about Lovelock," I added, very seriously. "He
will get to believe in him."
"Why not? If he sees him, why he sees him. He would not be the only
person that has done so;" and she smiled faintly and half perversely, as
her eyes sought that usual distant indefinable something.
But Oke got worse. He was growing perfectly unstrung, like a hysterical
woman. One evening that we were sitting alone in the smoking-room, he
began unexpectedly a rambling discourse about his wife; how he had first
known her when they were children, and they had gone to the same
dancing-school near Portland Place; how her mother, his aunt-in-law, had
brought her for Christmas to Okehurst while he was on his holidays; how
finally, thirteen years ago, when he was twenty-three and she was
eighteen, they had been married; how terribly he had suffered when they
had been disappointed of their baby, and she had nearly died of the
"I did not mind about the child, you know," he said in an excited
voice; "although there will be an end of us now, and Okehurst will go to
the Curtises. I minded only about Alice." It was next to inconceivable
that this poor excited creature, speaking almost with tears in his voice
and in his eyes, was the quiet, well-got-up, irreproachable young
ex-Guardsman who had walked into my studio a couple of months before.
Oke was silent for a moment, looking fixedly at the rug at his feet,
when he suddenly burst out in a scarce audible voice--
"If you knew how I cared for Alice--how I still care for her. I could
kiss the ground she walks upon. I would give anything--my life any day--if
only she would look for two minutes as if she liked me a little--as if she
didn't utterly despise me;" and the poor fellow burst into a hysterical
laugh, which was almost a sob. Then he suddenly began to laugh outright,
exclaiming, with a sort of vulgarity of intonation which was extremely
foreign to him--
"Damn it, old fellow, this is a queer world we live in!" and rang for
more brandy and soda, which he was beginning, I noticed, to take pretty
freely now, although he had been almost a blue-ribbon man--as much so as
is possible for a hospitable country gentleman--when I first arrived.
IT became clear to me now that, incredible as it might seem, the thing
that ailed William Oke was jealousy. He was simply madly in love with his
wife, and madly jealous of her. Jealous--but of whom? He himself would
probably have been quite unable to say. In the first place--to clear off
any possible suspicion--certainly not of me. Besides the fact that Mrs.
Oke took only just a very little more interest in me than in the butler or
the upper-housemaid, I think that Oke himself was the sort of man whose
imagination would recoil from realising any definite object of jealousy,
even though jealousy might be killing him inch by inch. It remained a
vague, permeating, continuous feeling--the feeling that he loved her, and
she did not care a jackstraw about him, and that everything with which she
came into contact was receiving some of that notice which was refused to
him--every person, or thing, or tree, or stone: it was the recognition of
that strange far-off look in Mrs. Oke's eyes, of that strange absent smile
on Mrs. Oke's lips--eyes and lips that had no look and no smile for him.
Gradually his nervousness, his watchfulness, suspiciousness, tendency
to start, took a definite shape. Mr. Oke was for ever alluding to steps or
voices he had heard, to figures he had seen sneaking round the house. The
sudden bark of one of the dogs would make him jump up. He cleaned and
loaded very carefully all the guns and revolvers in his study, and even
some of the old fowling-pieces and holster-pistols in the hall. The
servants and tenants thought that Oke of Okehurst had been seized with a
terror of tramps and burglars. Mrs. Oke smiled contemptuously at all these
"My dear William," she said one day, "the persons who worry you have
just as good a right to walk up and down the passages and staircase, and
to hang about the house, as you or I. They were there, in all probability,
long before either of us was born, and are greatly amused by your
preposterous notions of privacy."
Mr. Oke laughed angrily. "I suppose you will tell me it is
Lovelock--your eternal Lovelock--whose steps I hear on the gravel every
night. I suppose he has as good a right to be here as you or I." And he
strode out of the room.
"Lovelock--Lovelock! Why will she always go on like that about
Lovelock?" Mr. Oke asked me that evening, suddenly staring me in the face.
I merely laughed.
"It's only because she has that play of his on the brain," I answered:
"and because she thinks you superstitious, and likes to tease you."
"I don't understand," sighed Oke.
How could he? And if I had tried to make him do so, he would merely
have thought I was insulting his wife, and have perhaps kicked me out of
the room. So I made no attempt to explain psychological problems to him,
and he asked me no more questions until once-- But I must first mention a
curious incident that happened.
The incident was simply this. Returning one afternoon from our usual
walk, Mr. Oke suddenly asked the servant whether any one had come. The
answer was in the negative; but Oke did not seem satisfied. We had hardly
sat down to dinner when he turned to his wife and asked, in a strange
voice which I scarcely recognised as his own, who had called that
"No one," answered Mrs. Oke; "at least to the best of my knowledge."
William Oke looked at her fixedly.
"No one?" he repeated, in a scrutinising tone; "no one, Alice?"
Mrs. Oke shook her head. "No one," she replied.
There was a pause.
"Who was it, then, that was walking with you near the pond, about five
o'clock?" asked Oke slowly.
His wife lifted her eyes straight to his and answered contemptuously--
"No one was walking with me near the pond, at five o'clock or any other
Mr. Oke turned purple, and made a curious hoarse noise like a man
"I--I thought I saw you walking with a man this afternoon, Alice," he
brought out with an effort; adding, for the sake of appearances before me,
"I thought it might have been the curate come with that report for me."
Mrs. Oke smiled.
"I can only repeat that no living creature has been near me this
afternoon," she said slowly. "If you saw any one with me, it must have
been Lovelock, for there certainly was no one else."
And she gave a little sigh, like a person trying to reproduce in her
mind some delightful but too evanescent impression.
I looked at my host; from crimson his face had turned perfectly livid,
and he breathed as if some one were squeezing his windpipe.
No more was said about the matter. I vaguely felt that a great danger
was threatening. To Oke or to Mrs. Oke? I could not tell which; but I was
aware of an imperious inner call to avert some dreadful evil, to exert
myself, to explain, to interpose. I determined to speak to Oke the
following day, for I trusted him to give me a quiet hearing, and I did not
trust Mrs. Oke. That woman would slip through my fingers like a snake if I
attempted to grasp her elusive character.
I asked Oke whether he would take a walk with me the next afternoon,
and he accepted to do so with a curious eagerness. We started about three
o'clock. It was a stormy, chilly afternoon, with great balls of white
clouds rolling rapidly in the cold blue sky, and occasional lurid gleams
of sunlight, broad and yellow, which made the black ridge of the storm,
gathered on the horizon, look blue-black like ink.
We walked quickly across the sere and sodden grass of the park, and on
to the highroad that led over the low hills, I don't know why, in the
direction of Cotes Common. Both of us were silent, for both of us had
something to say, and did not know how to begin. For my part, I recognised
the impossibility of starting the subject: an uncalled-for interference
from me would merely indispose Mr. Oke, and make him doubly dense of
comprehension. So, if Oke had something to say, which he evidently had, it
was better to wait for him.
Oke, however, broke the silence only by pointing out to me the
condition of the hops, as we passed one of his many hop-gardens. "It will
be a poor year," he said, stopping short and looking intently before
him--"no hops at all. No hops this autumn."
I looked at him. It was clear that he had no notion what he was saying.
The dark-green bines were covered with fruit; and only yesterday he
himself had informed me that he had not seen such a profusion of hops for
I did not answer, and we walked on. A cart met us in a dip of the road,
and the carter touched his hat and greeted Mr. Oke. But Oke took no heed;
he did not seem to be aware of the man's presence.
The clouds were collecting all round; black domes, among which coursed
the round grey masses of fleecy stuff.
"I think we shall be caught in a tremendous storm," I said; "hadn't we
better be turning?" He nodded, and turned sharp round.
The sunlight lay in yellow patches under the oaks of the pasture-lands,
and burnished the green hedges. The air was heavy and yet cold, and
everything seemed preparing for a great storm. The rooks whirled in black
clouds round the trees and the conical red caps of the oast-houses which
give that country the look of being studded with turreted castles; then
they descended--a black line--upon the fields, with what seemed an
unearthly loudness of caw. And all round there arose a shrill quavering
bleating of lambs and calling of sheep, while the wind began to catch the
topmost branches of the trees.
Suddenly Mr. Oke broke the silence.
"I don't know you very well," he began hurriedly, and without turning
his face towards me; "but I think you are honest, and you have seen a good
deal of the world--much more than I. I want you to tell me--but truly,
please--what do you think a man should do if"--and he stopped for some
"Imagine," he went on quickly, "that a man cares a great deal--a very
great deal for his wife, and that he find out that she--well, that--that
she is deceiving him. No--don't misunderstand me; I mean--that she is
constantly surrounded by some one else and will not admit it--some one
whom she hides away. Do you understand? Perhaps she does not know all the
risk she is running, you know, but she will not draw back--she will not
avow it to her husband"--
"My dear Oke," I interrupted, attempting to take the matter lightly,
"these are questions that can't be solved in the abstract, or by people to
whom the thing has not happened. And it certainly has not happened to you
Oke took no notice of my interruption. "You see," he went on, "the man
doesn't expect his wife to care much about him. It's not that; he isn't
merely jealous, you know. But he feels that she is on the brink of
dishonouring herself--because I don't think a woman can really dishonour
her husband; dishonour is in our own hands, and depends only on our own
acts. He ought to save her, do you see? He must, must save her, in one way
or another. But if she will not listen to him, what can he do? Must he
seek out the other one, and try and get him out of the way? You see it's
all the fault of the other--not hers, not hers. If only she would trust in
her husband, she would be safe. But that other one won't let her."
"Look here, Oke," I said boldly, but feeling rather frightened; "I know
quite well what you are talking about. And I see you don't understand the
matter in the very least. I do. I have watched you and watched Mrs. Oke
these six weeks, and I see what is the matter. Will you listen to me?"
And taking his arm, I tried to explain to him my view of the
situation--that his wife was merely eccentric, and a little theatrical and
imaginative, and that she took a pleasure in teasing him. That he, on the
other hand, was letting himself get into a morbid state; that he was ill,
and ought to see a good doctor. I even offered to take him to town with
I poured out volumes of psychological explanations. I dissected Mrs.
Oke's character twenty times over, and tried to show him that there was
absolutely nothing at the bottom of his suspicions beyond an imaginative
pose and a garden-play on the brain. I adduced twenty instances, mostly
invented for the nonce, of ladies of my acquaintance who had suffered from
similar fads. I pointed out to him that his wife ought to have an outlet
for her imaginative and theatrical over-energy. I advised him to take her
to London and plunge her into some set where every one should be more or
less in a similar condition. I laughed at the notion of there being any
hidden individual about the house. I explained to Oke that he was
suffering from delusions, and called upon so conscientious and religious a
man to take every step to rid himself of them, adding innumerable examples
of people who had cured themselves of seeing visions and of brooding over
morbid fancies. I struggled and wrestled, like Jacob with the angel, and I
really hoped I had made some impression. At first, indeed, I felt that not
one of my words went into the man's brain--that, though silent, he was not
listening. It seemed almost hopeless to present my views in such a light
that he could grasp them. I felt as if I were expounding and arguing at a
rock. But when I got on to the tack of his duty towards his wife and
himself, and appealed to his moral and religious notions, I felt that I
was making an impression.
"I daresay you are right," he said, taking my hand as we came in sight
of the red gables of Okehurst, and speaking in a weak, tired, humble
voice. "I don't understand you quite, but I am sure what you say is true.
I daresay it is all that I'm seedy. I feel sometimes as if I were mad, and
just fit to be locked up. But don't think I don't struggle against it. I
do, I do continually, only sometimes it seems too strong for me. I pray
God night and morning to give me the strength to overcome my suspicions,
or to remove these dreadful thoughts from me. God knows, I know what a
wretched creature I am, and how unfit to take care of that poor girl."
And Oke again pressed my hand. As we entered the garden, he turned to
me once more.
"I am very, very grateful to you," he said, "and, indeed, I will do my
best to try and be stronger. If only," he added, with a sigh, "if only
Alice would give me a moment's breathing-time, and not go on day after day
mocking me with her Lovelock."
I HAD begun Mrs. Oke's portrait, and she was giving me a sitting. She
was unusually quiet that morning; but, it seemed to me, with the quietness
of a woman who is expecting something, and she gave me the impression of
being extremely happy. She had been reading, at my suggestion, the "Vita
Nuova," which she did not know before, and the conversation came to roll
upon that, and upon the question whether love so abstract and so enduring
was a possibility. Such a discussion, which might have savoured of
flirtation in the case of almost any other young and beautiful woman,
became in the case of Mrs. Oke something quite different; it seemed
distant, intangible, not of this earth, like her smile and the look in her
"Such love as that," she said, looking into the far distance of the
oak-dotted park-land, "is very rare, but it can exist. It becomes a
person's whole existence, his whole soul; and it can survive the death,
not merely of the beloved, but of the lover. It is unextinguishable, and
goes on in the spiritual world until it meet a reincarnation of the
beloved; and when this happens, it jets out and draws to it all that may
remain of that lover's soul, and takes shape and surrounds the beloved one
Mrs. Oke was speaking slowly, almost to her- self, and I had never, I
think, seen her look so strange and so beautiful, the stiff white dress
bringing out but the more the exotic exquisiteness and incorporealness of
I did not know what to answer, so I said half in jest--
"I fear you have been reading too much Buddhist literature, Mrs. Oke.
There is something dreadfully esoteric in all you say."
She smiled contemptuously.
"I know people can't understand such matters," she replied, and was
silent for some time. But, through her quietness and silence, I felt, as
it were, the throb of a strange excitement in this woman, almost as if I
had been holding her pulse.
Still, I was in hopes that things might be beginning to go better in
consequence of my interference. Mrs. Oke had scarcely once alluded to
Lovelock in the last two or three days; and Oke had been much more
cheerful and natural since our conversation. He no longer seemed so
worried; and once or twice I had caught in him a look of great gentleness
and loving-kindness, almost of pity, as towards some young and very frail
thing, as he sat opposite his wife.
But the end had come. After that sitting Mrs. Oke had complained of
fatigue and retired to her room, and Oke had driven off on some business
to the nearest town. I felt all alone in the big house, and after having
worked a little at a sketch I was making in the park, I amused myself
rambling about the house.
It was a warm, enervating, autumn afternoon: the kind of weather that
brings the perfume out of everything, the damp ground and fallen leaves,
the flowers in the jars, the old woodwork and stuffs; that seems to bring
on to the surface of one's consciousness all manner of vague recollections
and expectations, a something half pleasurable, half painful, that makes
it impossible to do or to think. I was the prey of this particular, not at
all unpleasurable, restlessness. I wandered up and down the corridors,
stopping to look at the pictures, which I knew already in every detail, to
follow the pattern of the carvings and old stuffs, to stare at the autumn
flowers, arranged in magnificent masses of colour in the big china bowls
and jars. I took up one book after another and threw it aside; then I sat
down to the piano and began to play irrelevant fragments. I felt quite
alone, although I had heard the grind of the wheels on the gravel, which
meant that my host had returned. I was lazily turning over a book of
verses--I remember it perfectly well, it was Morris's 'Love is Enough'--in
a corner of the drawing-room, when the door suddenly opened and William
Oke showed himself. He did not enter, but beckoned to me to come out to
him. There was something in his face that made me start up and follow him
at once. He was ex- tremely quiet, even stiff, not a muscle of his face
moving, but very pale.
"I have something to show you," he said, leading me through the vaulted
hall, hung round with ancestral pictures, into the gravelled space that
looked like a filled-up moat, where stood the big blasted oak, with its
twisted, pointing branches. I followed him on to the lawn, or rather the
piece of park-land that ran up to the house. We walked quickly, he in
front, without exchanging a word. Suddenly he stopped, just where there
jutted out the bow-window of the yellow drawing-room, and I felt Oke's
hand tight upon my arm.
"I have brought you here to see something," he whispered hoarsely; and
he led me to the window.
I looked in. The room, compared with the out door, was rather dark; but
against the yellow wall I saw Mrs. Oke sitting alone on a couch in her
white dress, her head slightly thrown back, a large red rose in her hand.
"Do you believe now?" whispered Oke's voice hot at my ear. "Do you
believe now? Was it all my fancy? But I will have him this time. I have
locked the door inside, and, by God! he shan't escape."
The words were not out of Oke's mouth. I felt myself struggling with
him silently outside that window. But he broke loose, pulled open the
window, and leapt into the room, and I after him. As I crossed the
threshold, something flashed in my eyes; there was a loud report, a sharp
cry, and the thud of a body on the ground.
Oke was standing in the middle of the room, with a faint smoke about
him; and at his feet, sunk down from the sofa, with her blond head resting
on its seat, lay Mrs. Oke, a pool of red forming in her white dress. Her
mouth was convulsed, as if in that automatic shriek, but her wide-open
white eyes seemed to smile vaguely and distantly.
I know nothing of time. It all seemed to be one second, but a second
that lasted hours. Oke stared, then turned round and laughed.
"The damned rascal has given me the slip again!" he cried; and quickly
unlocking the door, rushed out of the house with dreadful cries.
That is the end of the story. Oke tried to shoot himself that evening,
but merely fractured his jaw, and died a few days later, raving. There
were all sorts of legal inquiries, through which I went as through a
dream; and whence it resulted that Mr. Oke had killed his wife in a fit of
momentary madness. That was the end of Alice Oke. By the way, her maid
brought me a locket which was found round her neck, all stained with
blood. It contained some very dark auburn hair, not at all the colour of
William Oke's. I am quite sure it was Lovelock's.