Author of "The Divine Fire," "Superseded," "Audrey Craven," Etc.
New York Henry Holt and Company 1907 The Quinn & Boden Co. Press Rahway, N.J.
It was four o'clock in the morning. Mrs. Walter Majendie still lay on the extreme edge of the bed, with her face turned to the dim line of sea discernible through the open window of the hotel bedroom.
Since midnight, when she had gone to bed, she had lain in that uncomfortable position, motionless, irremediably awake. Mrs. Walter Majendie was thinking.
At first the night had gone by her unperceived, black and timeless. Now she could measure time by the dull progress of the dawn among the objects in the room. A slow, unhappy thing, born between featureless grey cloud and sea, it had travelled from the window, shimmered in the watery square of the looking-glass, and was feeling for the chair where her husband had laid his clothes down last night. He had thought she was asleep, and had gone through his undressing noiselessly, with movements of angelic and elaborate gentleness that well-nigh disarmed her thought. He was sleeping now. She tried not to hear the sound of his placid breathing. Only the other night, their wedding night, she had lain awake at this hour and heard it, and had turned her face towards him where he lay in the divine unconsciousness of sleep. The childlike, huddled posture of the sleeper had then stirred her heart to an unimaginable tenderness.
Now she had got to think, to adjust a new and devastating idea to a beloved and divine belief.
Somewhere in the quiet town a church clock clanged to the dawn, and the sleeper stretched himself. The five hours' torture of her thinking wrung a low sob from the woman at his side.
He woke. His hand searched for her hand. At his touch she drew it away, and moved from under her cramped shoulder the thick, warm braid of her hair. It tossed a gleam of pale gold to the risen light. She felt his drowsy, affectionate fingers pressing and smoothing the springy bosses of the braid.
The caress kindled her dull thoughts to a point of flame. She sat up and twisted the offending braid into a rigid coil.
"Walter," she said, "who is Lady Cayley?"
She noticed that the name waked him.
"Does it matter now? Can't you forget her?"
"Forget her? I know nothing about her. I want to know."
"Haven't you been told everything that was necessary?"
"I've been told nothing. It was what I heard."
There was a terrible stillness about him. Only his breath came and went unsteadily, shaken by the beating of his heart.
She quieted her own heart to listen to it; as if she could gather from such involuntary motions the thing she had to know.
"I know," she said, "I oughtn't to have heard it. And I can't believe it,—I don't, really."
"Poor child! What is it that you don't believe?"
His calm, assured tones had the force of a denial.
"Walter—if you'd only say it isn't true—"
"What Edith told you?"
"Edith? Your sister? No; about that woman—that you—that she—"
"Why are you bringing all that up again, at this unearthly hour?"
"Then," she said coldly, "it is true."
His silence lay between them like a sword.
She had rehearsed this scene many times in the five hours; but she had not prepared herself for this. Her dread had been held captive by her belief, her triumphant anticipation of Majendie's denial.
Presently he spoke; and his voice was strange to her as the voice of another man.
"Anne," he said, "didn't she tell you? It was before I knew you. And it was the only time."
"Don't speak to me," she cried with a sudden passion, and lay shuddering.
She rose, slipped from the bed, and went to a chair that stood by the open window. There she sat, with her back to the bed, and her eyes staring over the grey parade and out to the eastern sea.
"Anne," said her husband, "what are you doing there?"
Anne made no answer.
"Come back to bed; you'll catch cold."
"How long are you going to sit there in that draught?"
She sat on, upright, immovable, in her thin nightgown, raked by the keen air of the dawn. Majendie raised himself on his elbow. He could just see her where she glimmered, and her braid of hair, uncoiled, hanging to her waist. Up till now he had been profoundly unhappy and ashamed, but something in the unconquerable obstinacy of her attitude appealed to the devil that lived in him, a devil of untimely and disastrous humour. The right thing, he felt, was not to appear as angry as he was. He sat up on his pillow, and began to talk to her with genial informality.
"See here,—I suppose you want an explanation. But don't you think we'd better wait until we're up? Up and dressed, I mean. I can't talk seriously before I've had a bath and—and brushed my hair. You see, you've taken rather an unfair advantage of me by getting out of bed." (He paused for an answer, and still no answer came.)—"Don't imagine I'm ignobly lying down all the time, wrapped in a blanket. I'm sitting on my pillow. I know there's any amount to be said. But how do you suppose I'm going to say it if I've got to stay here, all curled up like a blessed Buddha, and you're planted away over there like a monument of all the Christian virtues? Are you coming back to bed, or are you not?"
She shivered. To her mind his flippancy, appalling in the circumstances, sufficiently revealed the man he was. The man she had known and married had never existed. For she had married Walter Majendie believing him to be good. The belief had been so rooted in her that nothing but his own words or his own silence could have cast it out. She had loved Walter Majendie; but it was another man who called to her, and she would not listen to him. She felt that she could never go back to that man, never sit in the same room, or live in the same house with him again. She would have to make up her mind what she would do, eventually. Meanwhile, to get away from him, to sit there in the cold, inflexible, insensitive, to obtain a sort of spiritual divorce from him, while she martyrised her body which was wedded to him, that was the young, despotic instinct she obeyed.
"If you won't come," he said, "I suppose it only remains for me to go."
He got up, took Anne's cloak from the door where it hung, and put it tenderly about her shoulders.
"Whatever happens or unhappens," he said, "we must be dressed."
He found her slippers, and thrust them on her passive feet. She lay back and closed her eyes. From the movements that she heard, she gathered that Walter was getting into his clothes. Once, as he struggled with an insufficiently subservient shirt, he laughed, from mere miserable nervousness. Anne, not recognising the utterance of his helpless humanity, put that laugh down to the account of the devil that had insulted her. Her heart grew harder.
"I am clothed, and in my right mind," said Majendie, standing before her with his hand on the window sill.
She looked up at him, at the face she knew, the face that (oddly, it seemed to her) had not changed to suit her new conception of him, that maintained its protest. She had loved everything about him, from the dark, curling hair of his head to his well-finished feet; she had loved his slender, virile body, and the clean red and brown of his face, the strong jaw and the mouth that, hidden under the short moustache, she divined only to be no less strong. More than these things she had loved his eyes, the dark, bright dwelling-places of the "goodness" she had loved best of all in him. Used to smiling as they looked at her, they smiled even now.
"If you'll take my advice," he said, "you'll go back to your warm bed. You shall have the whole place to yourself."
And with that he left her.
She rose, went to the bed, arranged the turned-back blanket so as to hide the place where he had lain, and slid on to her knees, supporting herself by the bedside.
Never before had Anne hurled herself into the heavenly places in turbulence and disarray. It had been her wont to come, punctual to some holy, foreappointed hour, with firm hands folded, with a back that, even in bowing, preserved its pride; with meek eyes, close-lidded; with breathing hushed for the calm passage of her prayer; herself marshalling the procession of her dedicated thoughts, virgins all, veiled even before their God.
Now she precipitated herself with clutching hands thrown out before her; with hot eyes that drank the tears of their own passion; with the shamed back and panting mouth of a Magdalen; with memories that scattered the veiled procession of the Prayers. They fled before her, the Prayers, in a gleaming tumult, a rout of heavenly wings that obscured her heaven. When they had vanished a sudden vagueness came upon her.
And then it seemed that the storm that had gone over her had rolled her mind out before her, like a sheet of white-hot iron. There was a record on it, newly traced, of things that passion makes indiscernible under its consuming and aspiring flame. Now, at the falling of the flame, the faint characters flashed into sight upon the blank, running in waves, as when hot iron changes from white to sullen red. Anne felt that her union with Majendie had made her one with that other woman, that she shared her memory and her shame. For Majendie's sake she loathed her womanhood that was yesterday as sacred to her as her soul. Through him she had conceived a thing hitherto unknown to her, a passionate consciousness and hatred of her body. She hated the hands that had held him, the feet that had gone with him, the lips that had touched him, the eyes that had looked at him to love him. Him she detested, not so much on his own account, as because he had made her detestable to herself.
Her eyes wandered round the room. Its alien aspect was becoming transformed for her, like a scene on a tragic stage. The light had established itself in the windows and pier-glasses. The wall-paper was flushing in its own pink dawn. And the roses bloomed again on the grey ground of the bed-curtains. These things had become familiar, even dear, through their three days' association with her happy bridals. Now the room and everything in it seemed to have been created for all time to be the accomplices and ministers of her degradation. They were well acquainted with her and it; they held foreknowledge of her, as the pier-glass held her dishonoured and dishevelled image.
She thought of her dead father's house, the ivy-coated Deanery in the south, and of the small white bedroom, a girl's bedroom that had once known her and would never know her again. She thought of her father and mother, and was glad that they were dead. Once she wondered why their death had been God's will. Now she saw very clearly why. But why she herself should have been sent upon this road, of all roads of suffering, was more than Anne could see.
She, whose nature revolted against the despotically human, had schooled herself into submission to the divine. Her sense of being supremely guided and protected had, before now, enabled her to act with decision in turbulent and uncertain situations of another sort. Where other people writhed or vacillated, Anne had held on her course, uplifted, unimpassioned, and resigned. Now she was driven hither and thither, she sank to the very dust and turned in it, she saw no way before her, neither her own way nor God's way.
Widowhood would not have left her so abject and so helpless. If her husband's body had lain dead before her there, she could have stood beside it, and declared herself consoled by the immortal presence of his spirit. But to attend this deathbed of her belief and of her love, love that had already given itself over, too weak to struggle against dissolution, it was as if she had seen some horrible reversal of the law of death, spirit returning to earth, the incorruptible putting on corruption.
Not only was her house of life made desolate; it was defiled. Dumb and ashamed, she abandoned herself like a child to the arms of God, too agonised to pray.
An hour passed.
Then slowly, as she knelt, the religious instinct regained possession of her. It was as if her soul had been flung adrift, had gone out with the ebb of the spiritual sea, and now rocked, poised, waiting for the turn of the immortal tide.
Her lips parted, almost mechanically, in the utterance of the divine name. Aware of that first motion of her soul, she gathered herself together, and concentrated her will upon some familiar prayer for guidance. For a little while she prayed thus, grasping at old shadowy forms of petition as they went by her, lifting her sunken mind by main force from stupefaction; and then, it was as if the urging, steadying will withdrew, and her soul, at some heavenly signal, moved on alone into the place of peace.
It was broad daylight outside. A man was putting out the lights one by one along the cold little grey parade. A figure, walking slowly, with down-bent head, was approaching the hotel from the pier. Anne recognised it as that of her husband. Both sights reminded her that her life had to be begun all over again, and to go on.
Another hour passed. Majendie had sent up a waitress with breakfast to her room. He was always thoughtful for her comfort. It did not occur to her to wonder what significance there might be in his thus keeping away from her, or what attitude toward her he would now be inclined to take. She would not have admitted that he had a right to any attitude at all. It was for her, as the profoundly injured person, to decide as to the new disposal of their relations.
She was very clear about her grievance. The facts, that her husband had been pointed at in the public drawing-room of their hotel; that the terrible statement she had overheard had been made and received casually; that he had assumed, no less casually, her knowledge of the thing, all bore but one interpretation: that Walter Majendie and the scandal he had figured in were alike notorious. The marvel was that, staying in the town where he lived and was known, she herself had not heard of it before. A peculiarly ugly thought visited her. Was it possible that Scarby was the very place where the scandal had occurred?
She remembered now that, when she had first proposed that watering-place for their honeymoon, he had objected on the ground that Scarby was full of people whom he knew. Besides, he had said, she wouldn't like it. But whether she would like it or not, Anne, who had her bridal dignity to maintain, considered that in the matter of her honeymoon his wishes should give way to hers. She was inclined to measure the extent of his devotion by that test. Scarby, she said, was not full of people who knew her. Anne had been insistent and Majendie passive, as he was in most unimportant matters, reserving his energies for supremely decisive moments.
Anne, bearing her belief in Majendie in her innocent breast, failed at first to connect her husband with the remarkable intimations that passed between the two newcomers gossiping in the drawing-room before dinner. They, for their part, had no clue linking the unapproachably strange lady on the neighbouring sofa with the hero of their tale. The case, they said, was "infamous." At that point Majendie had put an end to his own history and his wife's uncertainty by entering the room. Three words and a look, observed by Anne, had established his identity.
Her mind was steadied by its inalienable possession of the facts. She had returned through prayer to her normal mood of religious resignation. She tried to support herself further by a chain of reasoning. If all things were divinely ordered, this sorrow also was the will of God. It was the burden she was appointed to take up and bear.
She bathed and dressed herself for the day. She felt so strange to herself in these familiar processes that, standing before the looking-glass, she was curious to observe what manner of woman she had become. The inner upheaval had been so profound that she was surprised to find so little record of it in her outward seeming.
Anne was a woman whose beauty was a thing of general effect, and the general effect remained uninjured. Nature had bestowed on her a body strongly made and superbly fashioned. Having framed her well, she coloured her but faintly. She had given her eyes of a light thick grey. Her eyebrows, her lashes, and her hair were of a pale gold that had ashen undershades in it. They all but matched a skin honey-white with that even, sombre, untransparent tone that belongs to a temperament at once bilious and robust. For the rest, Nature had aimed nobly at the significance of the whole, slurring the details. She had built up the forehead low and wide, thrown out the eyebones as a shelter for the slightly prominent eyes; saved the short, straight line of the nose by a hair's-breadth from a tragic droop. But she had scamped her work in modelling the close, narrow nostrils. She had merged the lower lip with the line of the chin, missing the classic indentation. The mouth itself she had left unfinished. Only a little amber mole, verging on the thin rose of the upper lip, foreshortened it, and gave to its low arc the emphasis of a curve, the vivacity of a dimple (Anne's under lip was straight as the tense string of a bow). When she spoke or smiled Anne's mole seemed literally to catch up her lip against its will, on purpose to show the small white teeth below. Majendie loved Anne's mole. It was that one charming and emphatic fault in her face, he said, that made it human. But Anne was ashamed of it.
She surveyed her own reflection in the glass sadly, and sadly went through the practised, mechanical motions of her dressing; smoothing the back of her irreproachable coat, arranging her delicate laces with a deftness no indifference could impair. Yesterday she had had delight in that new garment and in her own appearance. She knew that Majendie admired her for her distinction and refinement. Now she wondered what he could have seen in her—after Lady Cayley. At Lady Cayley's personality she had not permitted herself so much as to guess. Enough that the woman was notorious—infamous.
There was a knock at the door, the low knock she had come to know, and Majendie entered in obedience to her faint call.
The hours had changed him, given his bright face a tragic, submissive look, as of a man whipped and hounded to her feet.
He glanced first at the tray, to see if she had eaten her breakfast.
"There are some things I should like to say to you, with your permission. But I think we can discuss them better out of doors."
He looked round the disordered room. The associations of the place were evidently as painful to him as they were to her.
They went out. The parade was deserted at that early hour, and they found an empty seat at the far end of it.
"I, too," she said, "have things that I should like to say."
He looked at her gravely.
"Will you allow me to say mine first?"
"Certainly; but I warn you, they will make no difference."
"To you, possibly not. They make all the difference to me. I'm not going to attempt to defend myself. I can see the whole thing from your point of view. I've been thinking it over. Didn't you say that what you heard you had not heard from Edith?"
"From Edith? Never!"
"When did you hear it, then?"
"From some one in the hotel?"
"From whom? Not that it matters."
"From those women who came yesterday. I didn't know whom they were talking about. They were talking quite loud. They didn't know who I was."
"You say you didn't know whom they were talking about?"
"Not at first—not till you came in. Then I knew."
"I see. That was the first time you had heard of it?"
Her lips parted in assent, but her voice died under the torture.
"Then," he said, "I am profoundly sorry. If I had realised that, I would not have spoken to you as I did."
The memory of it stung her.
"That," she said, "was—in any circumstances—unpardonable."
"I know it was. And I repeat, I am profoundly sorry. But, you see, I thought you knew all the time, and that you had consented to forget it. And I thought, don't you know, it was—well, rather hard on me to have it all raked up again like that. Now I see how very hard it was on you, dear. Your not knowing makes all the difference."
"It does indeed. If I had known——"
"I understand. You wouldn't have married me?"
"I should not."
"Dear—do you suppose I didn't know that?"
"I know nothing."
"Do you remember the day I asked you why you cared for me, and you said it was because you knew I was good?"
Her lip trembled.
"And of course I know it's been an awful shock to you to discover that—I—was not so good."
She turned away her face.
"But I never meant you to discover it. Not for yourself, like this. I couldn't have forgiven myself—after what you told me. I meant to have told you myself—that evening—but my poor little sister promised me that she would. She said it would be easier for you to hear it from her. Of course I believed her. There were things she could say that I couldn't."
"She never said a word."
"Are you sure?"
"Perfectly. Except—yes—she did say——"
It was coming back to her now.
"Do you mind telling me exactly what she said?"
"N—no. She made me promise that if I ever found things in you that I didn't understand, or that I didn't like——"
"Well—what did she make you promise?"
"That I wouldn't be hard on you. Because, she said, you'd had such a miserable life."
"Poor Edith! So that was the nearest she could get to it. Things you didn't understand and didn't like!"
"I didn't know what she meant."
"Of course you didn't. Who could? But I'm sorry to say that Edith made me pretty well believe you did."
He was silent a while, trying to fathom the reason of his sister's strange duplicity. Apparently he gave it up.
"You can't be a brute to a poor little woman with a bad spine," said he; "but I'm not going to forgive Edith for that."
Anne flamed through her pallor. "For what?" she said. "For not having had more courage than yourself? Think what you put on her."
"I didn't. She took it on herself. Edith's got courage enough for anybody. She would never admit that her spine released her from all moral obligations. But I suppose she meant well."
The spirit of the grey, cold morning seemed to have settled upon Anne. She gazed sternly out over the eastern sea. Preoccupied with what he considered Edith's perfidy, he failed to understand his wife's silence and her mood.
"Edith's very fond of you. You won't let this make any difference between you and her?"
"Between her and me it can make no difference. I am very fond of Edith."
"But the fact remains that you married me under false pretences? Is that what you mean?"
"You may certainly put it that way."
"I understand your point of view completely. I wish you could understand mine. When Edith said there were things she could have told you that I couldn't, she meant that there were extenuating circumstances."
"They would have made no difference."
"Excuse me, they make all the difference. But, of course, there's no extenuation for deception. Therefore, if you insist on putting it that way—if—if it has made the whole thing intolerable to you, it seems to me that perhaps I ought, don't you know, to release you from your obligations——"
She looked at him. She knew that he had understood the meaning and the depth of her repugnance. She did not know that such understanding is rare in the circumstances, nor could she see that in itself it was a revelation of a certain capacity for the "goodness" she had once believed in. But she did see that she was being treated with a delicacy and consideration she had not expected of this man with the strange devil. It touched her in spite of her repugnance. It made her own that she had expected nothing short of it until yesterday.
"Do you insist?" he went on. "After what I've told you?"
"After what you've told me—no. I'm ready to believe that you did not mean to deceive me."
"Doesn't that make any difference?" he asked tenderly.
"Yes. It makes some difference—in my judgment of you."
"You mean you're not—as Edith would say—going to be too hard on me?"
"I hope," said Anne, "I should never be too hard on any one."
"Then," he inquired, eager to be released from the strain of a most insupportable situation, "what are we going to do next?"
He had assumed that the supreme issue had been decided by a polite evasion; and his question had been innocent of all momentous meaning. He merely wished to know how they were going to spend the day that was before them, since they had to spend days, and spend them together. But Anne's tense mind contemplated nothing short of the supreme issue that, for her, was not to be evaded, nor yet to be decided hastily.
"Will you leave me alone," she said, "to think it over? Will you give me three hours?"
He stared and turned pale; for, this time, he understood.
"Certainly," he said coldly, rising and taking out his watch. "It's twelve now."
"At three, then?"
They met at three o'clock. Anne had spent one hour of bewilderment out of doors, two hours of hard praying and harder thinking in her room.
Her mind was made up. However notorious her husband had been, between him and her there was to be no open rupture. She was not going to leave him, to appeal to him for a separation, to deny him any right. Not that she was moved by a profound veneration for the legal claim. Marriage was to her a matter of religion even more than of law. And though, at the moment, she could no longer discern its sacramental significance through the degraded aspect it now wore for her, she surrendered on the religious ground. The surrender would be a martyrdom. She was called upon to lay down her will, but not to subdue the deep repugnance of her soul.
Protection lay for her in Walter's chivalry, as she well knew. But she would not claim it. Chastened and humbled, she would take up her wedded life again. There was no vow that she would not keep, no duty she would not fulfil. And she would remain in her place of peace, building up between them the ramparts of the spiritual life.
Meanwhile she gave him credit for his attitude.
"Things can never be as they were between us," she said. "That you cannot expect. But—"
He listened with his eyes fixed on hers, accepting from her his destiny. She reddened.
"It was good of you to offer to release me—" He spared her.
"Are you not going to hold me to it, then?"
"I am not." She paused, and then forced herself to it. "I will try to be a good wife to you."
It was impossible for them to stay any longer at Scarby. The place was haunted by the presence and the voice of scandalous rumour. Anne had the horrible idea that it had been also a haunt of Lady Cayley, of the infamy itself.
The week-old honeymoon looked at them out of its clouds with such an aged, sinister, and disastrous aspect that they resolved to get away from it. For the sake of appearances, they spent another week of aimless wandering on the East coast, before returning to the town where an unintelligible fate had decided that Majendie should have a business he detested, and a house.
Anne had once asked herself what she would do if she were told that she would have to spend all her life in Scale on Humber. Scale is prevailingly, conspicuously commercial. It is not beautiful. Its streets are squalidly flat, its houses meanly rectangular. The colouring of Scale is thought by some to be peculiarly abominable. It is built in brown, paved and pillared in unclean grey. Its rivers and dykes run brown under a grey northeastern sky.
Once a year it yields reluctantly to strange passion, and Spring is born in Scale; born in tortures almost human, a relentless immortality struggling with visible corruption. The wonder is that it should be born at all.
To-day, the day of their return, the March wind had swept the streets clean, and the evening had secret gold and sharp silver in its grey. Anne remembered how, only last year, she had looked upon such a spring on the day when she guessed for the first time that Walter cared for her. She was not highly endowed with imagination; still, even she had felt dimly, and for once in her life, that sense of mortal tenderness and divine uplifting which is the message of Spring to all lovers.
But that emotion, which had had its momentary intensity for Anne Fletcher, was over and done with for Anne Majendie. Like some mourner for whom superb weather has been provided on the funeral day of his beloved, she felt in this young, wantoning, unsympathetic Spring the immortal cruelty and irony of Nature. She was bearing her own heart to its burial; and each street that they passed, as the slow cab rattled heavily on its way from the station, was a stage in the intolerable progress; it brought her a little nearer to the grave.
From her companion's respectful silence she gathered that, though lost to the extreme funereal significance of their journey, he was not indifferent; he shared to some extent her mourning mood. She was grateful for that silence of his, because it justified her own.
They were both, by their temperaments, absurdly and diversely, almost incompatibly young. At two-and-thirty Majendie, through very worldliness, was a boy in his infinite capacity for recoil from trouble. Anne had preserved that crude and cloistral youth which belongs to all lives passed between walls that protect them from the world. At seven-and-twenty she was a girl, with a girl's indestructible innocence. She had not yet felt within her the springs of her own womanhood. Marriage had not touched the spirit, which had kept itself apart even from her happiness, in the days that were given her to be happy in. Her suffering was like a child's, and her attitude to it bitterly immature. It bounded her; it annihilated the intellectual form of time, obliterating the past, and intercepting any view of a future. Only, unlike a child, and unlike Majendie, she lacked the power of the rebound to joy.
"Dear," said her husband anxiously, as the cab drew up at the door of the house in Prior Street, "have you realised that poor Edith is probably preparing to receive us with glee? Do you think you could manage to look a little less unhappy?"
The words were a shock to her, but they did her the service of a shock by recalling her to the realities outside herself. All the courtesies and kindnesses she owed to those about her insisted that her bridal home-coming must lack no sign of grace. She forced a smile.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know I was looking particularly unhappy."
It struck her that Walter was not looking by any means too happy himself.
"It doesn't matter; only, we don't want to dash her down, first thing, do we?"
"No—no. Dear Edith. And there's Nanna—how sweet of her—and Kate, and Mary, too."
The old nurse stood on the doorstep to welcome them; her fellow-servants were behind her, smiling, at the door. Interested faces appeared at the windows of the house opposite. At the moment of alighting Anne was aware that the eyes of many people were upon them, and she was thankful that she had married a man whose self-possession, at any rate, she could rely on. Majendie's manner was perfect. He avoided both the bridegroom's offensive assiduity and his no less offensive affectation of indifference. It had occurred to him that, in the circumstances, Anne might find it peculiarly disagreeable to be stared at.
"Look at Nanna," he whispered, to distract her attention. "There's no doubt about her being glad to see you."
Nanna grasped the hands held out to her, hanging her head on one side, and smiling her tremorous, bashful smile. The other two, Kate and Mary, came forward, affectionate, but more self-contained. Anne realised with a curious surprise that she was coming back to a household that she knew, that knew her and loved her. In the last week she had forgotten Prior Street.
Majendie watched her anxiously. But she, too, had qualities which could be relied on. As she passed into the house she had held her head high, with an air of flinging back the tragic gloom like a veil from her face. She was not a woman to trail a tragedy up and down the staircase. Above all, he could trust her trained loyalty to convention.
The servants threw open two doors on the ground floor, and stood back expectant. On such an occasion it was proper to look pleased and to give praise. Anne was fine in her observance of each propriety as she looked into the rooms prepared for her. The house in Prior Street had not lost its simple old-world look in beautifying itself for the bride. It had put on new blinds and clean paint, and the smell of spring flowers was everywhere. The rest was familiar. She had told Majendie that she liked the old things best. They appealed to her sense of the fit and the refined; they were signs of good taste and good breeding in her husband's family and in himself. The house was a survival, a protest against the terrible all-invading soul of Scale on Humber.
For another reason, which she could not yet analyse, Anne was glad that nothing had been changed for her coming. It was as if she felt that it would have been hard on Majendie if he had been put to much expense in renovating his house for a woman in whom the spirit of the bride had perished. The house in Prior Street was only a place for her body to dwell in, for her soul to hide in, only walls around walls, the shell of the shell.
She turned to her husband with a smile that flashed defiance to the invading pathos of her state. Majendie's eyes brightened with hope, beholding her admirable behaviour. He had always thoroughly approved of Anne.
Upstairs, in the room that was her own, poor Edith (the cause, as he felt, of their calamity) had indeed prepared for them with joy.
Majendie's sister lay on her couch by the window, as they had left her, as they would always find her, not like a woman with a hopelessly injured spine, but like a lady of the happy world, resting in luxury, a little while, from the assault of her own brilliant and fatiguing vitality. The flat, dark masses of her hair, laid on the dull red of her cushions, gave to her face an abrupt and lustrous whiteness, whiteness that threw into vivid relief the features of expression, the fine, full mouth, with its temperate sweetness, and the tender eyes, dark as the brows that arched them. Edith, in her motionless beauty, propped on her cushions, had acquired a dominant yet passionless presence, as of some regal woman of the earth surrendered to a heavenly empire. You could see that, however sanctified by suffering, Edith had still a placid mundane pleasure in her white wrapper of woollen gauze, and in her long lace scarf. She wore them with an appearance of being dressed appropriately for a superb occasion.
The sign of her delicacy was in her hands, smoothed and wasted with inactivity. Yet they had an energy of their own. The hands and the weak, slender arms had a surprising way of leaping up to draw to her all beloved persons who bent above her couch. They leapt now to her brother and his wife, and sank, fatigued with their effort. Two frail, nervous hands embraced Majendie's, till one of them let go, as she remembered Anne, and held her, too.
Anne had been vexed, and Majendie angry with her; but anger and vexation could not live in sight of the pure, tremulous, eager soul of love that looked at them out of Edith's eyes.
"What a skimpy honeymoon you've had," she said. "Why did you go and cut it short like that? Was it just because of me?"
In one sense it was because of her. Anne was helpless before her question; but Majendie rose to it.
"I say—the conceit of her! No, it wasn't just because of you. Anne agreed with me about Scarby. And we're not cutting our honeymoon short, we're spinning it out. We're going to have another one, some day, in a nicer place."
"Anne didn't like Scarby, after all?"
"No, I knew she wouldn't. And she lived to own that I was right."
"That," said Edith, laughing, "was a bad beginning. If I'd been you, Anne, whether I was right or not, I'd never have owned that he was."
"Anne," said Majendie, "is never anything but just. And this time she was generous."
Edith's hand was on the sleeve of Majendie's coat, caressing it. She looked up at Anne.
"And what," said she, "do you think of my little brother, on the whole?"
"I think he says a great many things he doesn't mean."
"Oh, you've found that out, have you? What else have you discovered?"
The gay question made Anne's eyelids drop like curtains on her tragedy.
"That he means a great many things he doesn't say? Is that it?"
Majendie, becoming restive under the flicker of Edith's cheerful tongue, withdrew the arm she cherished. Edith felt the nervousness of the movement; her glance turned from her brother's face to Anne's, rested there for a tense moment, and then veiled itself.
At that moment they both knew that Edith had abandoned her glad assumption of their happiness. The blessings of them all were upon Nanna as she came in with the tea-tray.
Nanna was sly and shy and ceremonial in her bearing, but under it there lurked the privileged audacity of the old servant, and (as poor Majendie perceived) the secret, terrifying gaiety of the hymeneal devotee. The faint sound of giggling on the staircase penetrated to the room. It was evident that Nanna was preparing some horrid and tremendous rite.
She set her tray in its place by Edith's couch, and cleared a side table which she had drawn into a central and conspicuous position. The three, as if humouring a child in its play, feigned a profound ignorance of what Nanna had in hand.
She disappeared, suppressed the giggling on the stairs, and returned, herself in jubilee let loose. She carried an enormous plate, and on the plate Anne's wedding-cake with all its white terraces and towers, and (a little shattered) the sugar orange blossoms and myrtles of its crown. She stood it alone on its table of honour, and withdrew abruptly.
The three were stricken dumb by the presence of the bridal thing. Nanna, listening outside the door, attributed their silence to an appreciation too profound for utterance.
They looked at it, and it looked at them. Its veil of myrtle, trembling yet with the shock of its entrance, gave it the semblance of movement and of life. It towered in the majesty of its insistent whiteness. It trailed its mystic modesties before them. Its brittle blossoms quivered like innocence appalled. The wide cleft at its base betrayed the black and formidable heart beneath the fair and sugared surface. These crowding symbols, perceptible to Edith's subtler intelligence, massed themselves in her companions' minds as one vast sensation of discomfort.
As usual when he was embarrassed, Majendie laughed.
"It's the very spirit of dyspepsia," he said. "A cold and dangerous thing. Must we eat it?"
"You must," said Edith; "Nanna would weep if you didn't."
"I don't think I can—possibly," said Anne, who was already reaping her sowing to the winds of emotion in a whirlwind of headache.
"Let's all eat it—and die," said Majendie. He hacked, laid a ruin of fragments round the evil thing, scattered crumbs on all their plates, and buried his own piece in a flower-pot. "Do you think," he said, "that Nanna will dig it up again?"
Anne turned white over her tea, pleaded her headache, and begged to be taken to her room. Majendie took her there.
"Isn't Anne well?" asked Edith anxiously, when he came back.
"Oh, it's nothing. She's been seedy all day, and the sight of that cake finished her off. I don't wonder. It's enough to upset a strong man. Let's ring for Nanna to take it away."
He rang. When Nanna appeared Edith was eating her crumbs ostentatiously, as if unwilling to leave the last of a delicious thing.
"Oh, Nanna," said she, "that's a heavenly wedding-cake!"
Majendie was reminded of the habitual tender perfidy of that saint, his sister. She was always lying to make other people happy, saying that she had everything she wanted, when she hadn't, and that her spine didn't hurt her, when it did. When Edith was too exhausted to lie, she would look at you and smile, with the sweat of her torture on her forehead. He knew Edith, and wondered how far she had lied to Anne, and what she had done it for. He had a good mind to ask her; but he shrank from "dashing her down the first day."
But Edith herself dashed everything down the first five minutes. There was nothing that she shrank from.
"I'm sorry for poor Anne," said she; "but it's nice to get you all to myself again. Just for once. Only for once. I'm not jealous."
He smiled, and stroked her hair.
"I was jealous—oh, furiously jealous, just at first, for five minutes. But I got over it. It was so undignified."
"It didn't show, dear."
"I didn't mean it to. It wouldn't have been pretty. And now, it's all over and I like Anne. But I don't like her as much as you."
"You must like her more," he said gravely. "She'll need it—badly."
Edith looked at him. "How can she need it badly, when she has you?"
"You're a good woman, and I'm a mere mortal man. She's found that out already, and she doesn't like it."
"Wallie, dear, what do you mean?"
"I mean exactly what I say. She's found it out. She's found me out. She's found everything out."
"Found out? But how?"
"It doesn't matter how. Edie, why didn't you tell her? You said you would."
"Yes—I said I would."
"And you told me you had."
"No. I didn't tell you I had."
"What did you tell me, then?"
"I told you there was nothing to be afraid of, that it was all right."
"And of course I thought you'd told her."
"If I had told her it wouldn't have been all right; for she wouldn't have married you."
Majendie scowled, and Edith went on calmly.
"I knew that—she as good as told me so—and I knew her."
"Well—what if she hadn't married me?"
"That would have been very bad for both of you. Especially for you."
"For me? And how do you know this isn't going to be worse? For both of us. It's generally better to be straight, and face facts, however disagreeable. Especially when everybody knows that you've got a skeleton in your cupboard."
"Anne didn't, and she was so afraid of skeletons."
"All the more reason why you should have hauled the horrid thing out and let her have a good look at it. She mightn't have been afraid of it then. Now she's convinced it's a fifty times worse skeleton than it is."
"She wouldn't have lived with it in the house, dear. She said so."
"But I thought you never told her?"
"She was talking about somebody else's skeleton, dear."
"Oh, somebody else's, that's a very different thing."
"She meant—if she'd been the woman. I was testing her, to see how she'd take it. Do you think I was very wrong?"
"Well, frankly, dear, I cannot say you were very wise."
She lay back wondering. Doubt of her wisdom shook her through all her tender being. She had been so sure.
"How would you have liked it," said she, "if Anne had given you up and gone away, and you'd never seen her again?"
His face said plainly that he wouldn't have liked it at all.
"Well, that's what she'd have done. And I wanted her to stay and marry you."
"Yes, but with her eyes open."
She shook her head, the head that would have been so wise for him.
"No," said she. "Anne's one of those people who see best with their eyes shut."
"Well, they're open enough now in all conscience. But there's one thing she hasn't found out. She doesn't know how it happened. Can you tell her? I can't. I told her there were extenuating circumstances; but of course I couldn't go into them."
"What did she say?"
"She said no circumstances could extenuate facts."
"I can hear her saying it."
"I understand her state of mind," said Majendie. "She couldn't see the circumstances for the facts."
"Our Anne is but young. In ten years' time she won't be able to see the facts for the circumstances."
"Well—will you tell her?"
"Of course I will."
"Make her see that I'm not necessarily an utter brute just because I——"
"I'll make her see everything."
"Forgive me for bothering you."
"Dear—forgive me for breaking my promise and deceiving you."
He bent to her weak arms.
"I believe," she whispered, "the end will yet justify the means."
He didn't see it; but he was convinced that there could hardly be a worse beginning.
He went upstairs, where Anne lay in the agonies of her bilious attack. He found comfort, rather than gave it, by holding handkerchiefs steeped in eau-de-Cologne to her forehead. It gratified him to find that she would let him do it without shrinking from his touch.
But Anne was past that.
For once in his life Majendie was glad that he had a business. Shipping (he was a ship-owner) was a distraction from the miserable problem that weighed on him at home.
Anne's morning face was cold to him. She lay crushed in her bed. She had had a bad night, and he knew himself to be the cause of it.
His pity for her hurt like passion.
"How is she?" asked Edith, as he came into her room before going to the office.
"She's a wreck," he said, "a ruin. She's had an awful night. Be kind to her, Edie."
Edie was very kind. But she said to herself that if Anne was a ruin that was not at all a bad thing.
Edith Majendie was a loving but shrewd observer of the people of her world. Lying on her back she saw them at an unusual angle, almost as if they moved on a plane invisible to persons who go about upright on their legs. The four walls of her room concentrated her vision in bounding it. She saw few women and fewer men, but she saw them apart from those superficial activities which distract and darken judgment. Faces that she was obliged to see bending over her had another aspect for Edith than that which they presented to the world at large. Anne Majendie, who had come so near to Edith, had always put a certain distance between herself and her other friends. While they were chiefly impressed with her superb superiority, and saw her forever standing on a pedestal, Edith declared that she knew nothing of Anne's austere and impressive attributes. She protested against anything so dreary as the other people's view of her. They and their absurd pedestals! She refused to regard her sister-in-law as an established solemnity, eminent and lonely in the scene. Pedestals were all very well at a proper distance, but at a close view they were foreshortening to the human figure. Other people might like to see more pedestal than Anne; she preferred to see more Anne than pedestal. If they didn't know that Anne was dear and sweet, she did. So did Walter.
If they wanted proof of it, why, would any other woman have put up with her and her wretched spine? Weren't they all, Anne's friends, sorry for Anne just because of it, of her? If you came to think of it, if you traced everything back to the beginning, her spine had been the cause of all Anne's troubles.
That was how she had always reasoned it out. No suffering had ever obscured the lucidity of Edith's mind. She knew that it was her spine that had kept her brother from marrying all those years. He couldn't leave her alone with it, neither could he ask any woman to share the house inhabited, pervaded, dominated by it. Unsafeguarded by marriage, he had fallen into evil hands. To Edith, who had plenty of leisure for reflection, all this had become terribly clear.
Then Anne had come, the strong woman who could bear Walter's burden for him. She had been jealous of Anne at first, for five minutes. Then she had blessed her.
But Edith, as she had told her brother, was not a fool. And all the time, while her heart leapt to the image of Anne in her dearness and sweetness, her brain saw perfectly well that her sister-in-law had not been free from the sin of pride (that came, said Edith, of standing on a pedestal. It was better to lie on a couch than stand on a pedestal; you knew, at any rate, where you were).
Now, as Edith also said, there can be nothing more prostrating to a woman's pride than a bad bilious attack. Especially when it exposes you to the devoted ministrations of a husband you have made up your mind to disapprove of, and compels you to a baffling view of him.
Anne owned herself baffled.
Her attack had chastened her. She had been touched by Walter's kindness, by the evidence (if she had needed it) that she was as dear to him in her ignominious agony as she had been in the beauty of her triumphal health. As he moved about her, he became to her insistent outward sense the man she had loved because of his goodness. It was so that she had first seen his strong masculine figure moving about Edith on her couch, handling her with the supreme gentleness of strength. She had not been two days in the house in Prior Street before her memories assailed her. Her new and detestable view of Walter contended with her old beloved vision of him. The two were equally real, equally vivid, and she could not reconcile them. Walter himself, seen again in his old surroundings, was protected by an army of associations. The manifestations of his actual presence were also such as to appeal to her memory against her judgment. Her memory was in league with her. But when the melting mood came over her, her conscience resisted and rose against them both.
Edith, watching for the propitious moment, could not tell by what signs she would recognise it when it came. Her own hour was the early evening. She had always brightened towards six o'clock, the time of her brother's home-coming.
To-day he had removed himself, to give her her chance with Anne. She could see him pottering about the garden below her window. He had kept that garden with care. He had mown and sown, and planted, and weeded, and watered it, that Edith might always have something pretty to look at from her window. With its green grass plot and gay beds, the tiny oblong space defied the extending grime and gloom of Scale. This year he had planted it for Anne. He had set a thousand bulbs for her, and many thousand flowers were to have sprung up in time to welcome her. But something had gone wrong with them. They had suffered by his absence. As Edith looked out of the window he was stooping low, on acutely bended knees, sorrowfully preoccupied with a broken hyacinth. He had his back to them.
To Edith's mind there was something heart-rending in the expression of that intent, innocent back, so surrendered to their gaze, so unconscious of its own pathetic curve. She wondered if it appealed to Anne in that way. She judged from the expression of her sister-in-law's face that it did not appeal to her in any way at all.
"Poor dear," said she, "he's still worrying about those blessed bulbs of mine—of yours, I mean."
"Don't, Edie. As if I wanted to take your bulbs away from you. I'm not jealous."
"No more am I," said Edie. "Let's say both our bulbs. I wish he wouldn't garden quite so much, though. It always makes his head ache."
"Why does he do it, then?" asked Anne calmly.
Her calmness irritated Edith.
"Oh, why does Walter do anything? Because he's an angel!"
Anne's silence gave her the opening she was looking for.
"You know, you used to think so, too."
"Of course I did," said Anne evasively.
"And equally of course, you don't, now you've married him?"
"I have married him. What more could I do to prove my appreciation?"
"Oh, heaps more. Mere marrying's nothing. Any woman can do that."
"Do you think so? It seems to me that marrying—mere marrying—may be a great deal—about as much as many men have a right to ask."
"Hasn't every man a right to ask for—what shall I say—a little understanding—from the woman he cares for?"
"Edith, what has he told you?"
"Nothing, my dear, that I hadn't seen for myself."
"Did he tell you that I 'misunderstood' him?"
"Did he pose as l'homme incompris? No, he didn't."
"Still—he told you," Anne insisted.
"Of course he did." She brushed the self-evident aside and returned to her point. "He does care for you. That, at least, you can understand."
"No, that's just what I don't understand. I can't understand his caring. I can't understand him. I can't understand anything." Her voice shook.
"Poor darling, I know it's hard, sometimes. Still, you do know what he is."
"I know what he was—what I thought him. It's hard to reconcile it with what he is."
"With what you think him? You can't, of course. I suppose you think him something too bad for words?"
Anne broke down weakly.
"Oh, Edith, why didn't you tell me?"
"What? That Wallie was bad?"
"Yes, yes. It would have been better if you'd told me everything."
"Well, dear, whatever I told you, I couldn't have told you that. It wouldn't have been true."
"He says himself that everything was true."
"Everything probably is true. But then, the point is that you don't know the whole truth, or even half of it. That's just what he couldn't tell you. I should have told you. That's where I bungled it. You know he left it to me; he said I was to tell you."
"Yes, he told me that. He didn't mean to deceive me."
"No more did I. If my brother had been a bad man, dear, do you suppose for a moment I'd have let him marry my dearest friend?"
"You didn't know. We don't know these things, Edith. That's the terrible part of it."
"Yes, it's the terrible part of it. But I knew all right. He never kept anything from me, not for long."
"But, Edith—how could he? How could he? When the woman—Lady Cayley—She was bad, wasn't she?"
"Of course she was bad. Bad as they make them—worse. You know she was divorced?"
"Yes," said Anne, "that's what I do know."
"Well, she wasn't divorced on Walter's account, my dear. There were several others—four, five, goodness knows how many. Poor Walter was a mere drop in her ocean."
Anne stared a moment at the expanse presented to her.
"But," said she, "he was in it."
"Oh yes, he was in it. The ocean swallowed him as it swallowed the others. But it couldn't keep him. He couldn't live in it, like them."
"But how did she get hold of him?"
"She got hold of him by appealing to his chivalry."
(His chivalry—she knew it.)
"It's what happens, over and over again. He thought her a vilely injured woman. He may have thought her good. He certainly thought her pathetic. It was the pathos that did it."
"Yes. Did it. She hurled herself at his head—at his knees—at his feet—-till he had to lift her. And that's how it happened."
Anne's spirit writhed as she contemplated the happening.
"I know it oughtn't to have happened. I know Walter wasn't the holy saint he ought to have been. But oh, he was a martyr!" She paused. "And—he was very young."
"Edith—when was it?"
"Seven years ago."
Anne pondered. The seven years helped to purify him. Every day helped that threw the horror further back in time—separated it from her. If—if he had not been steeped too long in it. She wanted to know how long, but she was afraid to ask; afraid lest it should be brought nearer to her than she could bear. Edith saw her fear.
"It lasted two years. It was all my fault."
"Yes, my fault. Because of my horrid spine. You see, it kept him from marrying."
"Well, but it couldn't have happened if he had married. How could it? How could it have happened if you had been there? You would have saved him."
She paused on that note, a long, illuminating pause. The note itself was a divine inspiration. It rang all golden. It thrilled to the verge of the dominant chord in Anne. It touched her soul, the mother of brooding, mystic harmonies.
"You would have saved him."
Anne saw herself for one moment as his guardian angel, her mission frustrated through a flaw of time. That vision was dashed by another, herself as the ideal, the star he should have looked to before its dawn, herself dishonoured by his young haste, his passion, his failure to foresee.
"He should have waited for me."
"Did you wait for him?"
A quick flush pulsed through the whiteness of Anne's face. She looked back seven years to her girlhood in the southern Deanery, her home. She had another vision, a vision of a Minor Canon, whom she had loved with the pure worship of her youth, a love of which somehow she was now ashamed. Ashamed, though it had then seemed to her so spiritual. Her dead parents had desired the marriage, but neither she nor they had the power to bring it about.
Edith had never heard of the Minor Canon. She had drawn a bow at a venture.
"My dear," she said, "why not? It's only the very elect lovers who can say to each other, 'I never loved any one but you.'"
"At any rate," said Anne, "I never loved any one else well enough to marry him."
For, in her fancy, the Minor Canon, being withdrawn in time, had ceased to occupy space; he had become that which he was for her girlhood, a disembodied dream. She could not have explained why she was so ashamed of him. What ground of comparison was there between that blameless one and Lady Cayley?
"Edith," she said suddenly, "did you ever see her?"
"Never," said Edith emphatically.
"You don't know what she was like?"
"I don't. I never wanted to. I dare say there are people in Scale who could tell you all about her, only I wouldn't inquire if I were you."
"Did it happen at Scarby?" She was determined to know the worst.
"I believe so."
"Oh—why did I ever go there?"
"He didn't want you to. That was why."
"Where is she now?"
"Nobody knows. She might be anywhere."
"No, not here. My dear, you mustn't get her on your nerves."
"I'm afraid of meeting her."
"It isn't likely that you ever will. She isn't the sort one does meet—now, poor thing."
"Who was she?"
"The wife of Sir Andrew Cayley, a tallow-chandler."
"Oh, how did Walter ever—"
"My dear, one meets all sorts of funny people in Scale. He was a very wealthy tallow-chandler. Besides, it wasn't he that Walter did meet, naturally."
"How can you joke about it? It makes me sick to think of it."
"It made me sick enough once, dear. But I don't think of it."
"I can't help thinking of it."
"Well, whenever you do, when it does come over you—it will, sometimes—think of what Walter's life was before he knew you. Everything was spoiled for him because of me. He was sent to a place he detested because of me; put into an office which he loathed, shut up here in this hateful house, because of me. And he was good to me, good and dear. Even at the worst he hardly ever left me if he thought I wanted him—not even to go to her. But he was young, and it was an awful life for him; you don't know how awful. It would have been bad enough for a woman. It was intolerable for a man. I was worse then than I am now. I was horribly fretful, and I worried him. I think I drove him to her—I know I did. He had to get away from it sometimes. Won't you think of that?"
"I'll try to think of it."
"And it won't make you not like him?"
"My dear, I liked him first for your sake, then I liked you for his, now I suppose I must like him for yours again."
"No—for his own sake."
"Does it matter which?"
"Not much—so long as you like him. He really is angelic, though you mayn't think it."
"I think you are."
Edith was not only angelic, but womanly and full of guile, and she knew with whom she had to do. She had humbled Anne with shrewd shafts that hit her in all her weak places; now she exalted her. Anne had not her likeness in a thousand. She was a woman magnificently planned, of stature not to be diminished by the highest pedestal. A figure fit for a throne, a niche, a shrine. Edith could see the dear little downy feathers sprouting on Anne's shoulder-blades, and the infant aureole playing in her hair.
"You're a saint," said Edith.
"I am not," said Anne, while her pale cheek glowed with the flattery.
"Of course you are," said Edith, "or you could never have put up with me."
Whereupon Anne kissed her.
"And I may tell Walter what you've said?"
It was thus that she spared Anne's mortal pride. She knew how it would shrink from telling him.
Anne went down to Majendie in the garden and sent him to his sister. They returned to the house by the open window of his study. A bright fire was burning in the room. He looked at her shyly and half in doubt, drew up an arm-chair to the hearth, and left her there.
His manner brought back to her the days of their engagement when that room had been their refuge. Not that they had often been alone together. She could count the times on the fingers of one hand, the times when Edith was too ill to be wheeled into her room. It had been nearly always in Edith's room that she had seen him, surrounded by all the feminine devices, the tender trivialities that were part of the moving pathos of the scene. She had so associated him with his sister that it had been hard for her to realise that he had any separate life of his own. She felt that his love for her had simply grown out of his love for Edith, it was the flame, the flower of his tenderness. It was one with his goodness, and she had been glad to have it so. There was no jealousy in Anne.
It came over her now with a fresh shock, how very little, after all, she had known of him. It was through Edith that she really knew him. And yet it was impossible that Edith could have absorbed him utterly. Anne had not counted his business; for it had not interested her, and to say that Walter was a ship-owner did not define him in the very least. What remained over of Walter was a secret that this room, his study, must partially reveal.
She remembered how she had first come there, and had looked shyly about her for intimations of his inner nature, and how it was his pipe-rack and his boots that had first suggested that he had a life apart and dealings with the outer world. Now she rose and went round the room, searching for its secret, and finding no new impressions, only fresh lights on the old. If the room told her anything it told her how little Majendie had used it, how little he had been able to call anything his own. The things in it had no comfortable look of service. He could not have smoked there much, the curtains were too innocent. He could not have sat in that arm-chair much, the surface was too smooth. He could not have come there much at any time, for, though the carpet was faded, there was no well-worn passage from the threshold to the hearth. As far as she could make out he came there for no earthly purpose but to change his boots before going upstairs to Edith.
The bookcase told the same story. It held histories and standard works inherited from Majendie's father; the works of Dickens, and Thackeray, and Hardy, read over and over again in the days when he had time for reading; several poets whom, by his own confession, he could not have read in any circumstances. One Meredith, partly uncut, testified to an honest effort and a baulked accomplishment. On a shelf apart stood the books that he had loved when he was a boy, the Annuals, the tales of travel and adventure, and one or two school prizes gorgeously bound.
As she looked at them his boyhood rose before her; its dead innocence appealed to her comprehension and compassion.
She knew that he had been disappointed in his ambition. Instead of being sent to Oxford he had been sent into business, that he might early support himself. He had supported himself. And he had stuck to the business that he might the better support Edith.
She could not deny him the virtue of unselfishness.
She remembered one Sunday, three weeks before their wedding-day, when she had stood alone with him in this room, at the closing of their happy day. It was then that he had asked her why she cared for him, and she had answered: "Because you are good. You always have been good."
And he had said (how it came back to her!), "And if I hadn't always? Wouldn't you have cared then?"
She had answered, "I would have cared, but I couldn't marry you."
And he had turned away from her, and looked out of the window, keeping his back to her, and had stood so without speaking for a moment. She had wondered what had come over him.
Now she knew. He had not been good. And she had married him.
At the recollection the thoughts she had quieted stirred again and stung her, and again she trampled them down.
She faced the question how she was going to build up the wedded life that her knowledge of him had laid low. She told herself that, after all, much remained. She had loved Walter for his unhappiness as well as for his goodness. He had needed her, and she had felt that there was no other woman who could have borne his burden half so well. Edith was too sweet to be thought of as a burden, but it could not be denied she weighed. In marrying Walter she would lift half the weight. Anne was strong, and she glorified in her strength. That was what she was there for.
How much more was she prepared to do? Keeping his house was nothing; Nanna had always kept it well. Caring for Edith was nothing; she could not help but care for her. She had promised Walter that she would be a good wife to him, and she had vowed to herself that she would live her spiritual life apart.
Was that being a good wife to him? To divorce her soul, her best self, from him? If she confined her duty to the preservation of the mere material tie, what would she make of herself? Of him?
It came to her that his need of her was deeper and more spiritual than that. She argued that there must be something fine in him, or he never would have appreciated her. That other woman didn't count; she had thrust herself on him. When it came to choosing, he had chosen a spiritual woman! (Anne had no doubt that she was what she aspired to be.) And since all things were divinely ordered, Walter's choice was really God's will. God's hand had led him to her.
It had been a blow to Anne's pride to realise that she had married—spiritually—beneath her. Her pride now recovered wonderfully, seeing in this very inequality its opportunity. She beheld herself superbly seated on an eminence, her spiritual opulence supplying Walter's poverty. Spiritually, she said, it might also be more blessed to give than to receive.
Their marriage, in this its new, its immaterial consummation, would not be unequal. She would raise Walter. That, of course, was what God had meant her to do all the time. Never again could she look at her husband with eyes of mortal passion. But her love, which had died, was risen again; it could still turn to him a glorified and spiritual face; it could still know passion, a passion immortal and supreme.
But it was an emotion of which by its very nature she could not bring herself to speak. It could mean nothing to Walter in his yet unspiritual state. She felt that when he came to her he would insist on some satisfaction, and there was no satisfaction that she could give to the sort of claim he would make. Therefore she awaited his coming with nervous trepidation.
He came in as if nothing had happened. He sank with every symptom of comfortable assurance into the opposite arm-chair. And he asked no more formidable question than, "How's your headache?"
"Better, thank you."
"That's all right."
He did not look at her, but his eyes were smiling as if at some agreeable thought or reminiscence. He had apparently assumed that Anne had recovered, not only from her headache, but from its cause. To Anne, tingling with the tension of a nervous crisis, this attitude was disconcerting. It seemed to reduce her and her crisis to insignificance. She had expected him to be tingling too. He had more cause to.
"Do you mind my smoking? Say if you really do."
She really did, but she forbore to say so. Forbearance henceforth was to be part of her discipline.
He smoked contentedly, with half-closed eyes; and when he talked, he talked of the garden and of bulbs.
Of bulbs, after what he had discussed with Edith upstairs. She would rather that he had asked his question, forced her to the issue. That at least would have shown some comprehension of her state. But he had taken the issue for granted, refused to face the immensity of it all. She had had her first taste of sacrificial flames, and her spirit was prepared to go through fire to reach him. And he presented himself as already folded and protected; satisfied with some inferior and independent secret of his own.
She felt that a little perturbation would have become him more than that impenetrable peace.
It would make it so difficult to raise him.
The bell of St. Saviour's had ceased. Over the open market-place the air throbbed with a thousand pulses from the dying heart of sound. The great grey body of the Church was still; tower and couchant nave watched in their monstrous, motionless dominion, till the music stirred in them like a triumphant soul.
As they hurried over the open market-place, Anne realised with some annoyance that she was late again for the Wednesday evening service. She dearly loved punctuality and order, and disliked to be either checked or hastened in her superb movements. She disliked to be late for anything. Above all she disliked standing on a mat outside a closed church door, in the middle of a General Confession, trying to surrender her spirit to the spirit of prayer, while Walter lingered, murmuring profane urbanities that claimed her as his own.
He had perceived what he called her innocent design, her transparent effort to lead him to her heavenly heights. He had lent himself to it, tenderly, gravely, as he would have lent himself to a child's heart-rending play. He could not profess to follow the workings of his wife's mind, but he did understand her point of view. She had been "let in" for something she had not expected, and he was bound to make it up to her.
There had been a week of concessions, crowned by his appearance at St. Saviour's.
But that was on a Sunday. This was Wednesday, and he drew the line at Wednesdays.
Oh yes, he saw her drift. He knew that what she expected of him was incessant penitence. But, after all, it was difficult to feel much abasement for a fault committed quite a number of years ago and sufficiently repented of at the time. He had settled his account, and it was hard that he should be made to pay twice over. To-night his mood was strangely out of harmony with Lent.
Anne slackened her pace to intimate as much to him. Whereupon he lapsed into strange and disturbing legends of his childhood. He told her he had early weaned himself from the love of Lenten Services, observing their effect upon the unfortunate lady, his aunt, who had brought him up. Punctually at twelve o'clock on Palm Sunday, he said, the poor soul, exhausted with her endeavours after the Christian life, would fly into a passion, and punctually would rise from it at the same hour on Easter Day. For quite a long time he had believed that that was why they called it Passion Week.
She moaned "Oh, Walter—don't!" as if he had hurt her, while she repressed the play of a little, creeping, curling, mundane smile.
If he would only leave her! But, as they crossed to the curbstone, he changed over, preserving his proper place. He leaned to her with the indestructible attention of a lover. His whole manner was inimitably chivalrous, protective, and polite.
Anne hardened her heart against him. At the church gate she turned and faced him coldly.
"If you're not going in," said she, "you needn't come any further."
He glanced at the belated group of worshippers gathered before the church door, and became more than ever polite and chivalrous and protective.
"I must see you safely in," he said, and took up his stand beside her on the mat.
Her eyes rested on him for a second in reproach, then dropped behind the veil of their lids. In another moment he would have to go. He had already surrendered her prayer-book, tucking it gently under her arm.
"You'll be all right when you get in, won't you?" he said encouragingly.
"Please go," she whispered.
"Do I jar, dear?" he asked sweetly.
"You do, very much."
"I'm so sorry. I won't do it again."
But his whispered vows and promises belied him, battling with her consecrated mood. She felt that his innermost spirit remained in its profanity, unillumined by her rebuke.
Once more she set her face, and hardened her heart against him, and removed herself in the silence and isolation of her prayer.
Through the closed door there came the rich, confused murmur of the Confession. He saw her lips curl, flower-like, with emotion, as her breath rose and fell in unison with the heaving chant. He watched her with a certain reverence, incomprehensibly chastened, till the door opened, and she went from him, moving down the lighted aisle with her remote, renunciating air.
The door was shut in Majendie's face, and he turned away, intending to kill, to murder the next hour at his club.
Anne was self-trained in the habit of detachment. She had only to kneel, to close her eyes and cover her face, and her soul slid of its own accord into the place of peace. Her very breathing and the beating of her heart were stayed. Her mind, emptied in a moment, was in a moment filled, brimming over with the thought of God. To her veiled vision that thought was like a sheet of blank light let down behind her drooped eyelids, and centring in a luminous whorl. It fascinated her. Her prayer shot straight to the heart of it, a communion too swift to trouble or divide the blessed light.
In that instant her husband, the image and the thought of him, were cast into the secular darkness.
She remembered how difficult it had once been thus to renounce him. Her trouble, in the days of her engagement, had been that, thrust him from her as she would, the idea of his goodness—the goodness that justified her through its own appeal—would call up his presence, emerging radiant from the outermost abyss. Inferior emotions then mingled indistinguishably with her holiest ardours. Spiritually ambitious, she had had her young eye on a hard-won crown of glory, and she had found that happiness made the spiritual life almost contemptibly easy. It was no effort in those days to realise divine mysteries, when the miracle of the Incarnation was, as it were, worked for her in her own soul; when she heard in her own heart the beating of the heart of God; when his hand touched her with a tenderness that warmed her place of peace. She had hardly known this flamed and lyric creature for herself. It was as if her soul, resting after long flight, had contemplated for the first time the silver and fine gold of her wings.
It was the facility of the revelation that had first caused her to suspect it. And she had thrown ashes on the flame, and set a watch upon her soul, lest she should mistake an earthly for a heavenly content. She could not bear to think that she was cheated, that her pulses counted in her sense of exaltation and beatitude. She desired, purely, the utmost purity in that divine communion, so as to be sure that it was divine.
Now, having suffered, she was completely sure. Her wound was the seal God set upon her soul. It was easy enough now for her to achieve detachment, oblivion of Walter Majendie, to pour out her whole soul in the prayer for light: "Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, O Lord, and by Thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night."
Her hands, as she prayed, were folded close over her eyes. Having annihilated her husband, she was disagreeably astonished to find that he was there, that he had been there for some time, in the seat beside her.
He was sitting in what he took to be an attitude of extreme reverence, his head bowed and resting on his left arm, which was supported by the back of the seat in front of him. His right arm embraced, unconsciously, Anne's muff. Anne was vividly, painfully aware of him. Over the crook of his elbow one eye looked up at her, bright, smiling with inextinguishable affection. His lips gave out a sound that was not a prayer, but something between a murmur and a moan, distinctly audible. She felt his gaze as a gross, tangible thing, as a violent hand, parting the veils of prayer. She bowed her head lower and pressed her hands to her face till the blood tingled.
The sermon obliged her to sit upright and exposed. It gave him iniquitous opportunity. He turned in his seat; his eyes watched her under half-closed lids, two slits shining through the thick, dark curtain of their lashes. He kept on pulling at his moustache, as if to hide the dumb but expressive adoration of his mouth. Anne, who felt that her soul had been overtaken, trapped, and bared to the outrage, removed herself by a yard's length till the hymn brought them together, linked by the book she could not withhold. The music penetrated her soul and healed its hurt.
"Christian, doth thou see them, On the holy ground, How the troops of Midian Prowl and prowl around?"
sang Anne in a dulcet pianissimo, obedient to the choir.
Profound abstraction veiled him, a treacherous unspiritual calm. Majendie was a man with a baritone voice, which at times possessed him like a furious devil. It was sleeping in him now, biding its time, ready, she knew, to be roused by the first touch of a crescendo. The crescendo came.
"Christian! Up and fight them!"
The voice waked; it leaped from him; and to Anne's terrified nerves it seemed to be scattering the voices of the choir before it. It dropped on the Amen and died; but in dying it remained triumphant, like the trump of an archangel retreating to the uttermost ends of heaven.
Anne's heart pained her with a profane tenderness, and a poignant repudiation. Her soul being once more adjusted to the divine, it was intolerable to think that this preposterous human voice should have power to shake it so.
She sank to her knees and bowed her head to the Benediction.
"Did you like it?" he asked as they emerged together into the open air.
He spoke as if to the child she seemed to him now to be. They had been playing together, pretending they were two pilgrims bound for the Heavenly City, and he wanted to know if she had had a nice game. He nursed the exquisite illusion that this time he had pleased her by playing too.
"Of course I liked it."
"So did I," he answered joyously, "I quite enjoyed it. We'll do it again some other night."
"What made you come, like that?" said she, appeased by his innocence.
"I couldn't help it. You looked so pretty, dear, and so forlorn. It seemed brutal, somehow, to abandon you on the weary road to heaven."
She sighed. That was his chivalry again. He would escort her politely to the door of heaven, but would he ever go in with her, would he ever stay there?
Still, it was something that he should have gone with her so far. It gave her confidence and an idea of what her power might come to be. Not that she relied upon herself alone. Her plan for Majendie's salvation was liberal and large, it admitted of other methods, other influences. There was no narrowness, any more than there was jealousy, in Anne.
"Walter," said she, "I want you to know Mrs. Eliott."
"But I do know her, don't I?"
He called up a vision of the lady whose house had been Anne's home in Scale. He was grateful to Mrs. Eliott. But for her slender acquaintance with his sister, he would never have known Anne. This made him feel that he knew Mrs. Eliott.
"But I want you to know her as I know her."
He laughed. "Is that possible? Does a man ever know a woman as another woman knows her?"
Anne felt that she was not only being diverted from her purpose, but led by a side tract to an unexplored profundity. On the further side of it she discerned, dimly, the undesirable. It was a murky region, haunted by still murkier presences, by Lady Cayley and her kind. She persisted with a magnificent irrelevance.
"You must know her. You would like her."
He didn't in the least want to know Mrs. Eliott, he didn't think that he would like her. But he was soothed, flattered, insanely pleased with Anne's assumption that he would. It was as if in her thoughts she were drawing him towards her. He felt that she was softening, yielding. His approaches were a delicious wooing of an unfamiliar, unwedded Anne.
"I would like her, because you like her, is that it?"
"It wouldn't follow."
"Oh, how you spoil it!"
"My inference. It pleased me. But, as you say, the logic wasn't sound."
Silence being the only dignified course under mystification, Anne was silent. Some men had that irritating way with women; Walter's smile suggested that he might have it. She was not going to minister to his male delight. Unfortunately her silence seemed to please him too.
"Never mind, dear, I do like her; because she likes you."
"You will like her for herself when you know her."
"Will she like me for myself when she knows me? It's extremely doubtful. You see, hitherto she has made no ardent sign."
"My dear, she says you've never been near her. You've never come to one of her Thursdays."
"Oh, her Thursdays—no, I haven't."
"Well, how can you expect—but you'll go sometimes, now, to please me?"
"Won't Wednesdays do?"
"Yes. It wasn't half bad to-night. I'll go to every blessed Wednesday, as long as they last, if you'll only let me off Thursdays."
"Please don't talk about being 'let off.' I thought you might like to know my friends, that's all."
"So I would. I'd like it awfully. By the way, that reminds me. I met Hannay at the club to-night, and he asked if his wife might call on you. Would you mind very much?"
"Why should I mind, if she's a friend of yours and Edith's?"
"Oh well, you see, she isn't exactly—"
"Isn't exactly what?"
"A friend of Edith's."
There is a polite and ancient rivalry between Prior Street and Thurston Square, a rivalry that dates from the middle of the eighteenth century, when Prior Street and Thurston Square were young. Each claims to be the aristocratic centre of the town. Each acknowledges the other as its solitary peer. If Prior Street were not Prior Street it would be Thurston Square. There are a few old families left in Scale. They inhabit either Thurston Square or Prior Street. There is nowhere else that they could live with any dignity or comfort. In either place they are secure from the contamination of low persons engaged in business, and from the wide invading foot of the newly rich. These build themselves mansions after their kind in the Park, or in the broad flat highways leading into the suburbs. They have no sense for the dim undecorated charm of Prior Street and Thurston Square.
Nothing could be more distinguished than Prior Street, with its sombre symmetry, its air of delicate early Georgian reticence. But its atmosphere is a shade too professional; it opens too precipitately on the unlovely and unsacred street.
Thurston Square is approached only by unfrequented ancient ways paved with cobble stones. It is a place of garden greenness, of seclusion and of leisure. It breathes a provincial quietness, a measured, hallowed breath as of a cathedral close. Its inhabitants pride themselves on this immemorial calm. The older families rely on it for the sustenance of their patrician state. They sit by their firesides in dignified attitudes, impressively, luxuriously inert. Their whole being is a religious protest against the spirit of business.
But the restlessness of the times has seized upon the other families, the Pooleys, the Gardners, the Eliotts, younger by a century at least. They utilise the perfect peace for the cultivation of their intellects.
Every Thursday, towards half-past three, a wave of agreeable expectation, punctual, periodic, mounts on the stillness and stirs it. Thursday is Mrs. Eliott's day.
The Eliotts belong to the old high merchant-families, the aristocracy of trade, whose wealth is mellowed and beautified by time. Three centuries met in Mrs. Eliott's drawing-room, harmonised by the gentle spirit of the place. Her frail modern figure moved (with elegance a little dishevelled by abstraction) on an early Georgian background, among mid-Victorian furniture, surrounded by a multitude of decorative objects. There were great jars and idols from China and Japan; inlaid tables; screens and cabinets and chairs in Bombay black wood, curiously carved; a splendid profusion of painted and embroidered cloths; the spoils of seventy years of Eastern trade. And on the top of it all, twenty years or so of recent culture. The culture was represented by a well-filled bookcase, a few diminished copies of antique sculpture, some modern sketches made in Rome and Venice (for the Eliotts had travelled), and an illuminated triptych with its saints in glory.
Here, Thursday after Thursday, the same people met each other; they met, Thursday after Thursday, the same fervid little company of ideas, of aspirations and enthusiasms.
It was five o'clock on one of her Thursdays, and Mrs. Eliott had been conversing with great sweetness and fluency ever since half-past three. That was the way she and Mrs. Pooley kept it up, and they could have kept it up much longer but for the arrival of Miss Proctor.
There was nothing, in Miss Proctor's opinion (if dear Fanny only knew it), so provincial as an enthusiasm. As for aspirations (and Mrs. Pooley was full of them) what could be more provincial than these efforts to be what you were not? Miss Proctor disapproved of Thurston Square's preoccupation with its intellect, a thing no well-bred person is ever conscious of. She announced that she had come to take dear Fanny down from her clouds and humanise her by a little gossip. She ignored Mrs. Pooley, since Mrs. Pooley apparently wished to be ignored.
"I want," said she, "the latest news of Anne."
"If you wait, you may get it from herself."
"My dear, do you suppose she'd give it me?"
"It depends," said Mrs. Eliott, "on what you want to know."
"I want to know whether she's happy. I want to know whether, by this time, she knows."
"You can't ask her."
"Of course I can't. That's why I'm asking you."
"I know nothing. I've hardly seen her."
Miss Proctor looked as if she were seeing her that moment without Fanny Eliott's help.
"Poor dear Anne."
Anne Fletcher had been simply dear Anne, Mrs. Walter Majendie was poor dear Anne.
Her friends were all sorry for her. They were inclined to be indignant with Edith Majendie, who, they declared, had been at the bottom of her marriage all along. She was the cause of Anne's original callings in Prior Street. If it had not been for Edith, Anne could never have penetrated that secret bachelor abode. The engagement had been an awkward, unsatisfactory, sinister affair. It was a pity that Mr. Majendie's domestic circumstances were such that poor dear Anne appeared as having made all the necessary approaches and advances. If Mr. Majendie had had a family that family would have had to call on Anne. But Mr. Majendie hadn't a family, he had only Edith, which was worse than having nobody at all. And then, besides, there was his history.
Mrs. Eliott looked distressed. Mr. Majendie's history could not be explained away as too ancient to be interesting. In Scale a seven-year-old event is still startlingly, unforgetably modern. Anne's marriage had saddled her friends with a difficult responsibility, the justification of Anne for that astounding step.
Acquaintances had been made to understand that Mrs. Eliott had had nothing to do with it. They went away baffled, but confirmed in their impression that she knew; which was, after all, what they wanted to know.
It was not so easy to satisfy the licensed curiosity of Anne's friends. They came to-day in quantities, attracted by the news of the Majendies' premature return from their honeymoon. Mrs. Eliott felt that Miss Proctor and the Gardners were sitting on in the hope of meeting them.
Mrs. Eliott had been obliged to accept Anne's husband, that she might retain Anne's affection. In this she did violence to her feelings, which were sore on the subject of the marriage. It was not only on account of the inglorious clouds he trailed. In any case she would have felt it as a slight that her friend should have married without her assistance, and so far outside the charmed circle of Thurston Square. She herself was for the moment disappointed with Anne. Anne had once taken them all so seriously. It was her solemn joy in Mrs. Eliott and her circle that had enabled her young superiority to put up so long with the provincial hospitalities of Scale on Humber. They, the slender aristocracy of Thurston Square, were the best that Scale had to offer her, and they had given her of their best. Socially, the step from Thurston Square to Prior Street could not be defined as a going down; but, intellectually, it was a decline, and morally (to those who knew Fanny Eliott and to Fanny Eliott who knew) it was, by comparison, a plunge into the abyss. Fanny Eliott was the fine flower of Thurston Square. She had satisfied even the fastidiousness of Anne.
She owned that Mr. Majendie had satisfied it too. It was not that quality in Anne that made her choice so—well, so incomprehensible.
It was Dr. Gardner's word. Dr. Gardner was the President of the Scale Literary and Philosophic Society, and in any discussion of the incomprehensible his word had weight. Vagueness was his foible, the relaxation of an intellect uncomfortably keen. The spirit that looked at you through his short-sighted eyes (magnified by enormous glasses) seemed to have just returned from a solitary excursion in a dream. In that mood the incomprehensible had for him a certain charm.
Mrs. Eliott had too much good taste to criticise Anne Majendie's. They had simply got to recognise that Prior Street had more to offer her than Thurston Square. That was the way she preferred to put it, effacing herself a little ostentatiously.
Miss Proctor maintained that Prior Street had nothing to offer a creature of Anne Fletcher's kind. It had everything to take, and it seemed bent on taking everything. It was bad enough in the beginning, when she had given herself up, body and soul, to the spinal lady; but to go and marry the brother, without first disposing of the spinal lady in a comfortable home for spines, why, what must the man be like who could let her do it?
"My dear," said Mrs. Eliott, "he's a saint, if you're to believe Anne."
Even Dr. Gardner smiled. "I can't say that's exactly what I should call him."
"Need we," said Mr. Eliott, "call him anything? So long as she thinks him a saint—"
Mr. Eliott—Mr. Johnson Eliott—hovered on the borderland of culture, with a spirit purified from commerce by a Platonic passion for the exact sciences. He was, therefore, received in Thurston Square on his own as well as his wife's merits. He too had his little weaknesses. Almost savagely determined in matters of business, at home he liked to sit in a chair and fondle the illusion of indifference. There was no part of Mr. Eliott's mental furniture that was not a fixture, yet he scorned the imputation of conviction. A hunted thing in his wife's drawing-room, Mr. Eliott had developed in a quite remarkable degree the protective colouring of stupidity.
"How can she?" said Miss Proctor. "She's a saint herself, and she ought to know the difference."
"Perhaps," said Dr. Gardner, "that's why she doesn't."
"I'm sure," said Mrs. Eliott, "it was the original attraction. There could be no other for Anne."
"The attraction was the opportunity for self-sacrifice. Whatever she's makes of Mr. Majendie, she's bent on making a martyr of herself." Miss Proctor met the vague eyes of her circle with a glance that was defiance to all mystery. "It's quite simple. This marriage is a short cut to canonisation, that's all."
Then it was that little Mrs. Gardner spoke. She had been married for a year, and her face still wore its bridal look of possession that was peace, the look that it would wear when Mrs. Gardner was seventy. Her voice had a certain lucid and profound precision.
"Anne was always certain of herself. And since she cares for Mr. Majendie enough to accept him and to accept his sister, and the rather triste life which is all he has to offer her, doesn't it look as if, probably, she knew her own business best?"
"I think," said Mr. Eliott firmly, "we may take it that she does."
Miss Proctor's departure was felt as a great liberation of the intellect.
Mrs. Pooley sat up in her corner and revived the conversation interrupted by Miss Proctor. Mrs. Pooley had felt that to talk about Mrs. Majendie was to waste Mrs. Eliott. Mrs. Majendie apart, Mrs. Pooley had many ideas in common with her friend; but, whereas Mrs. Eliott would spend superbly on one idea at a time, Mrs. Pooley's intellect entertained promiscuously and beyond its means. It was inclined to be hospitable to ideas that had never met outside it, whose encounter was a little distressing to everybody concerned. Whenever this happened Mrs. Pooley would appeal to Mr. Eliott, and Mr. Eliott would say, "Don't ask me. I'm a stupid fellow. Don't ask me to decide anything."
Thus did Mr. Eliott wilfully obscure himself.
To-day he was more impregnably concealed than ever. He hadn't any opinions of his own. They were too expensive. He borrowed other people's when he wanted them. "But," said Mr. Eliott, "it is very seldom that I do want an opinion. If you have any facts to give me—well and good." For he knew that, at the mention of facts, Mrs. Pooley's intellect would retreat behind a cloud and that his wife would pursue it there.
"I suppose," said Mrs. Eliott, "there's such a thing as realising your ideals."
Her eyes gleamed and wandered and rested upon Mrs. Gardner. Mrs. Gardner had a singularly beautiful intellect which she was known to be shy of displaying. People said that Dr. Gardner had fallen in love with it years ago, and had only waited for it to mature before he married it. Mrs. Gardner had a habit of sitting apart from the discussion and untroubled by it, tolerant in her own excess of bliss. It irritated Mrs. Eliott, on her Thursdays, to think of the distinguished ideas that Mrs. Gardner might have introduced and didn't. She felt Mrs. Gardner's silence as a challenge.
"I wonder" (Mrs. Eliott was always wondering) "what becomes of our ideals when we've realised them."
The doctor answered. "My dear lady, they cease to be ideals, and we have to get some more."
Mrs. Eliott, in her turn, was received into the cloud.
"Of course," said Mrs. Pooley, emerging from it joyously, "we must have them."
"Of course," said Mrs. Eliott vaguely, as her spirit struggled with the cloud.
"Of course," said Dr. Gardner. He was careful to array himself for tea-parties in all his innocent metaphysical vanities, to scatter profundities like epigrams, to flatter the pure intellects of ladies, while the solemn vagueness of his manner concealed from them the innermost frivolity of his thought. He didn't care whether they understood him or not. He knew his wife did. Her wedded spirit moved in secret and unsuspected harmony with his.
He had a certain liking for Mrs. Eliott. She seemed to him an apparition mainly pathetic. With her attenuated distinction, her hectic ardour, her brilliant and pursuing eye, she had the air of some doomed and dedicated votress of the pure intellect, haggard, disturbing and disturbed. His social self was amused with her enthusiasms, but the real Dr. Gardner accounted for them compassionately. It was no wonder, he considered, that poor Mrs. Eliott wondered. She had so little else to do. Her nursery upstairs was empty, it always had been, always would be empty. Did she wonder at that too, at the transcendental carelessness that had left her thus frustrated, thus incomplete? Mrs. Eliott would have been scandalised if she had known the real Dr. Gardner's opinion of her.
"I wonder," said she, "what will become of Anne's ideal."
"It's safe," said the doctor. "She hasn't realised it."
"I wonder, then, what will become of Anne."
Mrs. Pooley retreated altogether before this gross application of transcendent truth. She had not come to Mrs. Eliott's to talk about Mrs. Majendie.
Dr. Gardner smiled. "Oh, come," he said, "you are personal."
"I'm not," said Mrs. Eliott, conscious of her lapse and ashamed of it. "But, after all, Anne's my friend. I know people blamed me because I never told her. How could I tell her?"
"No," said Mrs. Gardner soothingly, "how could you?"
"Anne," continued Mrs. Eliott, "was so reticent. The thing was all settled before anybody could say a word."
"Well," said Dr. Gardner, "there's no good worrying about it now."
"Isn't it possible," said the little year-old bride, "that Mr. Majendie may have told her himself?"
For Dr. Gardner had told her everything the day before he married her, confessing to the light loves of his youth, the young lady in the Free Library and all. She looked round with eyes widened by their angelic candour. Even more beautiful than Mrs. Gardner's intellect were Mrs. Gardner's eyes, and the love of them that brought the doctor's home from their wanderings in philosophic dream. Nobody but Dr. Gardner knew that Mrs. Gardner's intellect had cause to be jealous of her eyes.
"There's one thing," said Mrs. Eliott, suddenly enlightened. "Our not having said anything at the time makes it easier for us to receive him now."
"Aren't we all talking," said Mrs. Gardner, "rather as if Anne had married a monster? After all, have we ever heard anything against him—except Lady Cayley?"