"The Covered Way of Love…" (Part Five)
Now that we were strolling in the open along the river, Maud had traded me the basket for the parasol once more: she was twirling it on her shoulder, and I was swinging the basket and whistling a little tune. We would have made a great double act for vaudeville, I think, back on the London stage. As we stretched our legs to begin walking uphill from the river toward the great meadow, I began to feel quite giddy. The day really was splendid; the sky was cloudless, the warm afternoon sun had begun to cast lovely shadows, and the gentlest of breezes drifted across the grass. I thought I might jump out of my skin with happiness, and so I turned to Maud, touched her arm, and said, "Let's race to the Tree!" This was a grand oak, standing all alone, almost midway up the slope ― it had been a favourite destination of Gentleman's, when he was pretending to teach Maud how to paint landscapes. The only thing that had made those sessions bearable for me was the singular character of this tree: I had spent many a tedious afternoon resting between its roots, idly tracing its burls and lightning-scars, and craning my neck trying to spot the family of robins that nested in one of its branches.
Maud scoffed at me then, and shook the parasol, protesting, "I can't run with this! You'll beat me, no doubt!" I was so eager to run that I grabbed the parasol from her and held it up, together with the basket. "Here you are, then! I'll take these both, and I'll still beat you! Now, are you ready? Come and catch me!"
I turned and started to run, though I almost immediately regretted my challenge: for one thing, my skirts kept getting underfoot, and I had no free hand to lift them; and for another, I was lurching from side to side with each step, because the parasol hardly balanced out the basket. But nevertheless I enjoyed the feeling of motion, of freedom, as the blood churned through my body, and the breeze tugged on my hair. I looked back to see Maud bobbing along after me, laughing ― but, just before I reached the Tree, I noticed that her face was very flushed, and I felt suddenly guilty that I had subjected her to so much exertion in one day. Now that I thought about it, this was likely her first outing in months, perhaps the first since we last had walked together! As I slowed my pace to turn to her, I tripped over a hole in the ground, and fell flat on the ground. Maud reached the tree first, after all; but as soon as she realised what had happened, she staggered, with a heaving chest, a few feet downhill to help me up. She bent over, with her hands on her knees for support, and stretched a hand out to me.
"Are … you … alright?" Maud panted. I took her hand, nodded, and started to pull myself up. "Well … at least … I gave you … a run … for your money!" she said, with a wide grin, as I brushed myself off and tested my arms and legs. I didn't let go of her hand, however, and once I had straightened up, I shook it vigorously and did my best imitation of a racer who'd just been bested. "Nicely played, miss," I said; "lend us a hand, will you?" She jauntily scooped up the basket and the parasol and offered her arm to guide me the few remaining steps to the Tree.
I leaned against the great trunk while Maud laid out a thin cloth under the shady canopy, and then she reached up to me and pulled me down to the ground. Both of us sat still for several long moments, trying to catch our breath, until I leaned over and kissed her briskly. She laughed and reached forward to take up the parasol, which she opened, and then placed on one side so as to block our view of the river. I began to protest, but she quieted me with a piece of fruit and a wink, saying, "I'd like to enjoy the day, Sue, without worry. Wouldn't you?"
Some time later, we had finished our little picnic, removed our shoes and a few other unwanted items of clothing, and were lying, exhausted and happy, under the old robins' nest. I was running my fingers through Maud's long hair, no longer concerned about painful tangles, or lingering touches, or secret desires. I wondered how anyone, man or woman, could go through life without knowing that intense pleasure, that feeling of smooth skin beneath a silky cascade.
At length, Maud lifted her head from my shoulder and propped her head upon her hand so that she could gaze down at me. Her face was so open, so frank and close, that I couldn't help kissing her, more deeply than I had meant to do. But the drumming of my heart and the surge in my ears overwhelmed me, so that I pulled away suddenly, needing air. In the heat of that moment I felt a sudden flush of fear, or rage. I would sometimes mark this peculiar lightning in the early days after I returned to Briar, and to Maud: usually, it would strike and then pass, all in the same instant. Once or twice, it made me feel sick. Now, the first time it struck, I looked up into the lovely face of the woman who had betrayed me, and I felt as if the world held its breath. Would I retch? Would I run away? Or, worst of all, would I feel nothing? Could my hate blot out my love?
Instead, I felt it all wash together ― the love and the hate, the fear and the hope. That was the rub of it, you see: I loved Maud even more for her betrayal. It proved that she's hot-blooded like me, and shrewd; not the china doll I'd feared to break. I wouldn't have wanted a pigeon this much, not for long anyway. I saw then that our past was a chain around us, but a golden one, and its lock couldn't be picked by no-one, not even by me in my best days as a sharper. The lightning never frightened me again after that day, even though it still struck from time to time for a few years afterwards.
The moment passed, then, but it had jangled my nerves a bit, and made me bold. So I opened my eyes, which I had closed, like a character "deep in the throes of passion," in one of Maud's books ― and I cackled, and rolled her over so that I was above her and pressing into her. Maud's eyes got wide, like her smile, and she challenged me: "Go on then! Take your revenge!"
I couldn't fool her, then, after all; but that was the point. I had met my match, and she hers.