THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
NEW YORK—BOSTON—CHICAGO DALLAS—ATLANTA—SAN FRANCISCO
MACMILLAN & CO., Limited
THE MACMILLAN CO. OF CANADA, Ltd.
THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL
BY MAY SINCLAIR
AUTHOR OF "THE DIVINE FIRE," ETC.
New York THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1914
By MAY SINCLAIR
Set up and electrotyped. Published June, 1914.
THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL 1
THE GIFT 25
THE FAULT 59
WILKINSON'S WIFE 81
MISS TARRANT'S TEMPERAMENT 97
THE WRACKHAM MEMOIRS 177
THE COSMOPOLITAN 221
THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL
"Stephen K. Lepper, Pork-Packing Prince, from Chicago, U. S. A., by White Star Line, for Liverpool." Such was the announcement with which the Chicago Central Advertiser made beautiful its list of arrivals and departures.
It was not exactly a definition of him. To be sure, if you had caught sight of him anywhere down the sumptuous vista of the first-class sleeping-saloon of the New York and Chicago Express, you would have judged it adequate and inquired no more. You might even have put him down for a Yankee.
But if, following him on this side of the Atlantic, you had found yourself boxed up with him in a third-class compartment on the London and North-western Railway, your curiosity would have been aroused. The first thing you would have noticed was that everything about him, from his gray traveling hat to the gold monogram on his portmanteau, was brilliantly and conspicuously new. Accompanied by a lady, it would have suggested matrimony and the grand tour. But there was nothing else to distract you from him. He let himself be looked at; he sat there in his corner seat, superbly, opulently still. And somehow it dawned on you that, in spite of some Americanisms he let fall, he was not, and never could have been, a Yankee. He had evidently forged ahead at a tremendous speed, but it was weight, not steam, that did it. He belonged to the race that bundles out on the uphill grade and puts its shoulders to the wheel, and on the down grade tucks its feet in, sits tight, and lets the thing fly, trusting twenty stone to multiply the velocity.
Then it would occur to you that he must have been sitting still for a considerable period. He was not stout—you might even have called him slender; but the muscles about his cheeks and chin hung a little loose from the bony framework, and his figure, shapely enough when he stood upright, yielded in a sitting posture to the pressure of the railway cushions. That indicated muscular tissue, once developed by outdoor exercise, and subsequently deteriorated by sedentary pursuits. The lines on his forehead suggested that he was now a brain-worker of sorts.
Other lines showed plainly that, though his accessories were new, the man, unlike his portmanteau, had knocked about the world, and had got a good deal damaged in the process. The index and middle fingers of the left hand were wanting. You argued, then, that he had changed his trade more than once; while from the presence of two vertical creases on either side of a large and rather fleshy mouth, worn as it were by the pull of a bit, you further inferred that the energy he must have displayed somewhere was a thing of will rather than of temperament. He was a paradox, a rolling stone that had unaccountably contrived to gather moss.
And then you fell to wondering how so magnificently mossy a person came to be traveling third-class in his native country.
To all these problems, which did actually perplex the clergyman, his fellow-passenger, he himself provided the answer.
He had taken out his gold watch with a critical air, and timed the run from Liverpool to Crewe.
"Better service of trains than they used to have," he observed. "Same old snorer of an engine, though."
"You seem to know the line."
"It's not the first time I've ridden by it; nor yet the first time I've crossed the herring-pond."
"Are you making any stay in this country?"
"I am, sir."
He lapsed into meditation evidently not unpleasing; then he continued: "When you've got a mother and two sisters that you haven't seen for over fifteen years, naturally you're not in such a particular durned hurry to get away."
"Your home is in America, I presume?"
"My home is in England. I've made my pile out there, sir, and I've come to stay. Like to see the Chicago Advertiser? It may amuse you."
The clergyman accepted the paper gratefully. It did amuse him. So much so that he read aloud several paragraphs, among others the one beginning "Stephen K. Lepper, Pork-packing Prince."
It was a second or two before the horror of the situation dawned on him. That dawn must have been reflected on his face, for his fellow-passenger began to snigger.
"Ah," said he, "you've tumbled to it. Sorry you spoke? Don't apologize for smiling, sir. I can smile, myself, now; but the first time I saw that paragraph it turned me pretty faint and green. That's the way they do things out there. Of course," he added, "I had to be put in; but I'm no more like a prince than I'm like a pork-packer."
What was he like? With the flush on his cheeks the laughter in his eyes he might have been an enormous schoolboy home for the holidays, and genially impudent on the strength of it.
"Fact is," he went on, "you didn't expect to find such a high personage in a third-class compartment. That put you off."
"Yes, I suppose it was that." It did seem absurd that a pork-packing prince, who could probably have bought up the entire rolling stock of the London and North-western, should be traveling third.
"You see, I never used to go anything but third on this old line or any other. I'm only doing it now to make sure I'm coming home. I know I'm coming home, but I want the feel of it."
He folded the Chicago Advertiser and packed it carefully in his portmanteau. "I'm keeping this to show my people," he explained. "It's the sort of thing that used to make my young sister grin."
"You have—er—a young sister?"
"I had two—fifteen years ago."
The clergyman again looked sorry he had spoken.
"All right—this time. They're not dead. Only one of them isn't quite so young as she used to be. The best of it is, it's a surprise visit I'm paying them. They none of them know I'm coming. I simply said I might be turning up one of these days—before very long."
"They won't be sorry to have you back again, I imagine."
He smiled sweetly and was silent for some minutes, evidently picturing the joy, the ecstasy, of that return. Then, feeling no doubt that the ice was broken, he launched out into continuous narrative.
"Going out's all very well," he said, "but it isn't a patch on coming home. Not but what you can overdo the thing. I knew a man who was always coming home—seemed as if he couldn't stop away. I don't know that his people were particularly glad to see him."
"How was that?"
"A bit tired of it, I suppose. You see, they'd given him about nine distinct starts in life. They were always shipping him off to foreign parts, with his passage paid and a nice little bit of capital waiting for him on the other side. And, if you'll believe me, every blessed time he turned up again, if not by the next steamer, by the next after that."
"What became of the capital?"
"Oh, that he liquidated. Drank it—see? We've all got our own particular little foibles, and my friend's was drink."
"I don't wish to appear prejudiced, but I think I should be inclined myself to call it a sin."
"You may call it a sin. It was the only one he'd got, of any considerable size. I suppose you'd distinguish between a sin and its consequences?"
"Most certainly," replied the clergyman unguardedly.
"Well. Then—there were the women——"
"Steady, my friend, that makes two sins."
"No. You can't count it as two. You see, he never spoke to a girl till he was so blind drunk he couldn't tell whether she was pretty or ugly. Women were a consequence."
"That only made his sin the greater, sir."
"Ye—es. I reckon it did swell it up some. I said it was a big one. Still, it's not fair to him to count it as more than one. But then, what with gambling and putting a bit on here, and backing a friend's bill there, he managed to make it do duty for half a dozen. He seemed to turn everything naturally to drink. You may say he drank his widowed mother's savings, and his father's life insurance; and, when that was done, he pegged away at his eldest sister's marriage portion and the money that should have gone for his younger sister's education. Altogether he reduced 'em pretty considerably. Besides all that, he had the cussedest luck of any beggar I know.
"Not that he cared for his luck, as long as he got enough to drink. But he wore his friends out. At last they said they'd get up a subscription and pay his passage out to the States, if he'd swear never to show his ugly face in England again. Or at least not till he knew how to behave himself, which was safe enough, and came to the same thing, seeing that they didn't believe he'd ever learn. He didn't believe it himself, and would have sworn to anything. So they scraped together ten pounds for his passage, intermediate. He went steerage and drank the difference. They'd sent on five pounds capital to start him when he landed, and thought themselves very clever. The first thing he did was to collar that capital and drink it too. Then he went and worked in the store where he'd bought the drink, for the sake of being near it—he loved it so. Then—this is the queer part of the story—something happened. I won't tell you what it was. It happened because it was the worst thing that could have happened—it was bound to happen, owing to his luck. Whatever it was it made him chuck drinking. He left the store where the stuff was, and applied for a berth in a big business in Chicago. It was a place where they didn't know him, else he wouldn't have got it.
"Then his luck turned. If it wasn't the same luck. Just because he hadn't an object in life now—didn't care about drinking any longer, nor yet about women, because of the thing that had happened, and so hadn't got any reasonable sort of use for money—he began to make it. That's the secret of success, that is. Because he didn't care what he called a tinker's cuss about being foreman he was made foreman—then, for the same reason, manager. Then he got sort of interested in seeing the money come in. He didn't want it himself, but it struck him that it wouldn't be a bad thing to pay back his mother and his sisters what they'd lost on him, besides making up for any little extra trouble and expense he might have been to them. He began putting dollars by just for that.
"I suppose you think that when he'd raked together enough dollars he sent them home straightaway? Not he. He wasn't such a blamed idiot. He knew it was no manner of good being in a hurry if you wanted to do a thing in style. He pouched those dollars himself and bought a small share in the business. He bought it for them, mind you. You'd have thought, now he was interested and had got back a sort of object in life, that his luck would have turned again, just to spite him. But it didn't. He rose and he rose, and after a bit they made him a partner. They had the capital, and he had the brain. He'd found out that he'd more brain than he knew what to do with. Regular nuisance it was—so beastly active. Used to keep him awake at night, thinking, when he didn't want to. However, it dried up and let him alone once he gave it the business to play with. At last the old partners dropped off the concern—gorged; and he stuck to it. By that time he had fairly got his hand in; and the last year it was just a sitting still and watching the long Atlantic roll of the dollars as they came tumbling in. He stuck till he'd piled them up behind him, a solid cold five million. And now he's ramping on the home-path as hard as he can tear. The funny thing is that his people are as poor as church mice—three brown mice in a fusty little house like a family pew. But that's the house he's going to. And that five million's just as much theirs as it is his, and perhaps a little more."
"Ah," said his fellow-passenger, "that's pretty. That sort of thing doesn't often happen outside a fairy tale."
"No," said Stephen Lepper simply, "but he made it happen."
"Well? Do you think they'll be sorry to see him? I don't mean because of the dollars—they won't care about them."
"Of course they won't. My dear sir, it's fine—that story of yours. It's the Prodigal Son—with a difference."
"A difference? I believe you!"
At this point Stephen Lepper was struck with a humorous idea. It struck him on the back, as it were, in such a startling manner that he forgot all about the veil he had woven so industriously. (His companion, indeed, judged that he had adopted that subterfuge less as a concealment for his sins than as a decent covering for his virtues.)
"That prodigal knew what to do with his herd of swine, anyhow. He killed and cured 'em. And I reckon he'll order his own fatted calf—and pay for it."
He stood revealed.
The clergyman got down at Rugby. In parting he shook Mr. Stephen K. Lepper by the hand and wished him—for himself a happy home-coming, for his friend a good appetite for the fatted calf.
His hand was gripped hard, so that he suffered torture till the guard slammed to the door of the compartment and separated them.
Mr. Lepper thrust his head out of the window. "No fear!" he shouted.
The clergyman looked back once as the train moved out of the station. The head was there, uncovered, but still shouting.
He saw the gray hat waved wildly, but the voice was ravished from him by the wind of the train.
The train reached Little Sutton at seven. Just as he had traveled third-class, so he had preposterously planned to send his luggage on by carrier, and plod the five miles between town and station on foot. He wanted to keep up the illusion.
The station, anyhow, was all right. They had enlarged it a bit, but it was still painted a dirty drab (perhaps there used to be a shade more yellow ochre in the drab), and the Virginian creeper still climbed over the station master's box, veiling him as in a bower. If he could have swallowed up time (fifteen years of it) as the New York and Chicago Express swallowed up space, he might have felt himself a young man again, a limp young man, slightly the worse for drink, handed down to the porter like a portmanteau by the friendly arm of a fellow-passenger, on one of those swift, sudden, and ill-timed returns that preceded his last great exodus. Only that, whereas Stephen Lepper at thirty-nine was immaculately attired, the coat of that unfortunate young man hung by a thread or two, and his trousers by a button; while, instead of five million dollars piled at his back, he had but eighteenpence (mostly copper) lying loose in his front pockets. But Stephen Lepper had grown so used to his clothes and his millions that he carried them unconsciously. They offered no violence to the illusion. What might have destroyed it was the strange, unharmonizing fact that he was sober. But he had got used to being sober, too.
The road unrolled itself for two miles over the pale green downs. It topped the spine of a little hog-backed hill and dipped toward the town (road all right). To his left, on the crest of the hill, stood the old landmark, three black elms in a field that was rased and bleached after the hay-harvest. They leaned toward each other, and between their trunks the thick blue-gray sky showed solid as paint (landmark all right).
In the queer deep light that was not quite twilight things were immobile and distinct, as if emphasizing their outlines before losing them. The illusion was acute, almost intolerable.
Down there lay the town, literally buried in the wooded combe. Slabs of gray wall and purple roof, sunk in the black-green like graves in grass. A white house here and there faced him with the stare of monumental marble. In the middle a church with a stunted spire squatted like a mortuary chapel. They had run up a gaudy red-brick villa or two outside, but on the whole Little Sutton was all right, too. He had always thought it very like a cemetery—a place where people lay buried till the Day of Judgment.
The man he had been was really dead and buried down there. It was as if a glorified Stephen Lepper stood up and contemplated his last resting-place. The clothes he wore were so many signs and symbols of his joyful resurrection. If any doubted, he could point to them in proof. Not that he anticipated this necessity. To be sure, his people had once regarded the possibility of a resurrection as, to say the least of it, antecedently improbable. They had even refused to accept his authentic letters, written on the actual paper of a temperance hotel, as sufficient proof of it. He had not altogether blamed them for their Sadducean attitude, being a little skeptical himself.
Nevertheless, the resurrection was an accomplished fact. There had been a woman in it. She was to have been his wife if she had lived. But she had not lived, and her death was the one episode as to which he had been reticent. She was the sort of woman that drives men to drink by marrying them; for she had a face like an angel and a tongue like a two-edged sword, sheathed in time of courtship. The miracle had happened so long ago that it had passed into the region of things unregarded because admitting of no doubt. He had never been what you might call a confirmed drunkard—he hadn't been steady enough for that—and fifteen years of incontrovertible sobriety had effaced the fitful record of his orgies. So it never occurred to him now that his character could be regarded otherwise than with the confidence accorded to such solid and old-established structures as the Church or Bank. He dreaded no shrinking in the eyes of the three women he had come to see. But supposing—merely supposing—anything so unlikely as a mental reservation or suspension of judgment on their part, there was that solid pile of dollars at his back for proof. And because the better part of five million dollars cannot be produced visibly and bodily at a moment's notice, and because the female mind has difficulty in grasping so abstract an idea as capital, he had brought with him one or two little presents—tangible intimations, as it were, of its existence.
He had had two hours to spare at Liverpool before his train left Lime Street. They had flown in the rapture of his shopping. To follow his progress through Castle Street and Bond Street, the casual observer would have deemed him possessed by a blind and maniac lust of miscellaneous spending. But there had been method in that madness, a method simple and direct. He had stalked first of all into a great silk-mercer's and demanded a silk suitable for an old lady, a satin suitable for a young lady, another satin for a lady—not so young. Then, suddenly remembering that his mother used to yearn even in widowhood for plum color, while Minnie (who was pretty and had red hair) fancied a moss-green, and Kate (who was not pretty) a rose-pink, he neither paused nor rested till he had obtained these tints. Lace, too—his mother had had a perfect passion for lace, unsatisfied because of its ideal nature—a lace of her dreams. He had decided on one or two fine specimens of old point. He supposed this would be the nearest approach to the ideal, being the most expensive. Then he had to get a few diamond pins, butterflies, true-love knots, and so on, to fix it with. And, while he was about it, a diamond necklace, and a few little trifles of that sort for Minnie and Kate. Then their figures (dimly dowdy) had come back to him across the years, one plain, the other pretty but peculiar. He accounted for that by remembering that Kate had been literary, while Minnie was musical.
So he had just turned in at a bookseller's and stated that he wanted some books—say about twenty or thirty pounds' worth. The man of books had gauged his literary capacity in a glance, and suggested that he had better purchase the Hundred Best Books. "Well," he had said (rather sharply, for time was getting on), "I reckon I don't want any but the best." In the same spirit he had approached the gentleman in the piano-forte emporium and ordered a Steinway Grand to be forwarded when he knew his permanent address. For as yet it was uncertain which county contained it, that princely residence—the old manor-house or baronial hall—in which henceforth they would live together in affluence. He didn't exactly see them there, those three queer, dowdy little women. God forgive him, it was his fault if they went shabby. He remembered how they used to stint themselves, eating coarse food and keeping no servant, so that Kate had never any time for her books nor Minnie for her music. He would change all that now.
As he walked on he dreamed a dream.
In the foreground of his dream (rich parqueterie) three figures went to and fro, one adorable in plum color and point lace; one, the one with the red hair, still beautiful in green; and one, not beautiful, but—well—elegant in pink. Now he saw a dining-room sumptuously furnished, a table white with silver and fine linen, and the same figures sitting at it, drinking champagne and eating the fool messes that women love to eat, queer things cooked in cream, and ice-puddings, and so on. And now it was a lofty music room, and Minnie taking the roof off with one of her So-nahters on the Steinway Grand; and now a library (the Hundred Best Books had grown into a library), and Kate, studious, virgin, inviolate in leisure. Then slap through it all went the little mother driving in her own carriage, a victoria for fine weather, a brougham for wet. (It was before the days of motor-cars.) Somewhere on the outskirts of his dream (moorland for choice) there hovered a gentleman in shooting clothes, carrying a gun, or on the uttermost dim verge, the sky-line of it, the same vague form (equestrian) shot gloriously by. But he took very little interest in him.
Ah, there were the cross-roads and the Bald-faced Stag at the corner. Not a scrap changed since the last time he visited it—day when he rode the Major's roan mare slap through the saloon bar into the bowling-alley. Did it for a bet, and won it, too, and bought his mother a stuffed badger in a glass case with the money, as a propitiatory offering. Only another mile.
His road ran into the lighted High Street, through a black avenue of elms as through a tunnel. Reality assailed him with a thousand smells. No need to ask his way to the North End.
He turned off through an alley into a dark lane, bordered with limes. The thick, sweet scent dropped from the trees, a scent dewy with the childhood of the night. It felt palpable as a touch. It was as if he felt his mother's fingers on his face, and the kisses of his innocent girl-sisters.
He went slowly up the lane toward a low light at the end of it. At the corner, where it turned, was a small house black with ivy and fenced with a row of espalier limes. The light he made for came from the farthest window of the ground floor. Through a gap in the lime fence he could see into the room.
The house was sunk a little below the level of the lane, so that he seemed to be looking straight down into a pit of yellow light hollowed out of the blackness. Two figures sat knitting at the window on the edge of the pit. His mother and Kate. A third, in the center of the light, leaned her elbows on the table and propped her head on her hands. He knew her for Minnie by her red hair. Beyond them a side window was open to the night.
There were two ways by which he could approach them. He could go boldly in at the iron gate and up the flagged path to the front door. Or he could go round to the side, up the turning of the lane, where the garden wall rose high, into the back garden. Thence, through a thick yew arch into a narrow path between the end of the house and the high wall. By the one way they would be certain to see him through the front window. By the other he would see them (through the side window) without being seen. Owing to a certain moisture and redness about his eyes and nose he was not yet quite ready to be seen. Therefore he chose the side way. Sitting on a garden seat in the embrasure of the arch, he commanded a slanting but uninterrupted view of the room and its inmates.
There, in the quiet, he could hear the clicking needles of the knitters, and the breathing of the red-haired woman. And he longed with a great longing for the sound of their voices. If one of them would only speak!
"The question is"—it was the red-haired girl who spoke, and her tone suggested that the silence marked a lull in some debate—"how much do you mean to advance me this year from the housekeeping?"
The younger of the two knitters answered without looking up.
"I've told you before; it depends upon circumstances."
"I see no circumstances."
"Don't you? I thought it was you who were so sure about Stephen's coming home?"
"That makes no difference. If he doesn't come I shall go away. If he does I shall go away and stay away. In that case I shall want more money, shan't I? not less." Minnie dug her sharp elbows into the table and thrust out her chin.
"You'll have to want," said Kate. "You know perfectly well that if he is here none of us can go away. We must keep together."
"Why must we?"
"Because it's cheaper."
"And suppose I choose to go? What's to keep me?"
"To keep you?"
"I see. You mean there won't be a penny to keep me?"
Kate was silent.
"If it hadn't been for Stephen I could have kept myself long ago—by my music. That's what I wanted."
"Well, you didn't get what you wanted. Women seldom do."
"I want to go to the Tanquerays. There's no reason why I shouldn't get that."
"You can't go to the Tanquerays as you are."
Minnie gazed at her clothes, then at her reflection in the opposite looking-glass.
She wore a shabby, low-necked gown of some bluish-green stuff, with a collar of coarse lace; also a string of iridescent shells. Under the flame of her hair her prettiness showed haggard and forlorn.
"Yes, you may well look at yourself. You must have new things if you go. That means breaking into five pounds."
Minnie's eyes were still fixed on the face in the looking-glass.
"It would be worth it," said she.
"It might be if you stopped five months. Not unless."
"Look here, Kate. It's all very well, but I consider that the house owes me that five pounds. Mayn't I have it, Stephen or no Stephen?"
"It's no use asking me now. It will depend on Stephen."
"And Stephen, I imagine, will depend on us."
"Probably. Do you hear what Minnie says, Mother?"
The old woman's hands knitted fiercely, while her sharp yellow face crumpled into an expression half peevish, half resigned.
"I hear what you both say, and I think I've got enough to worry me without you talking about Stephen coming home."
Her voice was so thin that even Minnie, not hearing, had missed the point. As for the man outside, he was still struggling with emotion, and had caught but a word here and there.
Kate's voice was jagged like a saw and carried farther. It was now that he really began to hear.
"Do you suppose he's made any money out there?"
"Did you ever hear of Stephen making money anywhere?"
"If he has he ought to be made to pay something to the housekeeping. It's only fair."
"If he's made anything," said Minnie, "he's spent it all. That's why he's coming. Look at the supper!"
The table before her was laid for the evening meal. She pointed to the heels of two loaves, a knuckle of ham, a piece of cheese, and some water in a glass jug. Oatmeal simmered on a reeking oil-stove in a corner of the room.
"How much will it cost to keep him?"
Kate's narrow, peaked face was raised in calculation. Kate's eyes became mean homes for meaner thoughts of which she was visibly unashamed.
"Ten shillings a week at the very least. Fifty-two weeks—that's twenty-six pounds a year. Or probably fifteen shillings—a man eats more than a woman, at any rate more butcher's meat—that's thirty-nine pounds. That's only what he eats," she added significantly. "What did you say, Mother?"
The old lady raised her voice, and the man outside took hope. "I say I think you're both very unfeeling. For all you know, poor fellow, he may be quite reformed."
"He may be. I know the chances are he won't," said Kate.
"How do you know anything about it, my dear?"
"I asked Dr. Minify. He has a wide enough experience of these cases."
Minnie turned fiercely round. "And what made you go and blab to him about it? I think you might wash your dirty linen at home."
"It's only what you'd have done yourself."
"Not to him."
There was terror in Minnie's face. "He knows the Tanquerays."
"Well—it's your own fault. You went on about it till it got on my nerves, and the anxiety was more than I could bear. The porridge will be boiling over."
"Well, I can't mind porridge and my knitting at the same time."
Minnie threw herself back, pushing her chair with her feet. She rose and trailed sulkily across to the stove. As she moved a wisp of red hair, loosened from its coil, clung to her sallow neck. She was slip-shod and untidy.
She removed the porridge abstractedly. "What did he say?" she asked.
"He was extremely kind and sympathetic. He treated it as a disease. He said that in nine cases out of ten recovery is impossible."
"Well, I could have told you that. Anything more?"
"He says the chances are that he won't hold out much longer; his health must have broken up after all these years. I don't know how I can stand it, if it is. When I think of all the things that may happen. Paralysis perhaps, or epilepsy—that's far more likely. He's just the age."
"Is he? How awful! But, then, he'll have to go somewhere. You know we can't have him epilepsing all over the place here."
The old lady dropped her knitting to raise her hands.
"Minnie! Minnie! Have a little Trust. He may never come at all."
"He will. Trust him."
"After all," said Kate reflectively, "why should he?"
"Why? Why?" The girl came forward, spreading her large red hands before her. "Because we've paid all his debts. Because we've saved money and got straight again. Because we're getting to know one or two decent people, and it's taken us fifteen years to do it. Because we're beginning to enjoy ourselves for the first time in all our miserable lives. Because I've set my heart on staying with the Tanquerays, and Fred Tanqueray will be there. Because"—a queer, fierce light came into her eyes—"because I'm happy, and he means to spoil it all, as he spoilt it all before! As if I hadn't suffered enough."
"You? What have you suffered?" Kate's sharp face was red as she bent over a dropped stitch. Her hands trembled. "You were too young to feel anything."
"I wasn't too young to feel that I had a career before me, nor to care when it was knocked on the head. If it hadn't been for him my music wouldn't have come to an end as it did."
"Your music! If it hadn't been for him my engagement wouldn't have been broken off—as it was."
"Oh that? It was the one solitary good day's work Stephen ever did."
The old lady nodded shrewdly over her needles. "Yes, my dear, you might be thankful for that mercy. You couldn't have married Mr. Hooper. I'm afraid he wasn't altogether what he ought to be. You yourself suspected that he drank."
"Like a fish," interposed Minnie.
"I know"—Kate's hands were fumbling violently over her stitch—"but—but I could have reclaimed him."
Her eyes lost their meanness with the little momentary light of illusion.
Minnie laughed aloud. "If that's all you wanted, why didn't you try your hand on Stephen?"
But Minnie did. "Fred Tanqueray doesn't drink; I wouldn't look at him if he did. What's more, he's a gentleman; I couldn't stand him if he wasn't. Catch him marrying into this family when he's seen Stephen."
"Minnie, you are too dreadful."
"Dreadful? You'd be dreadful if you'd cared as much for Charlie Hooper as I do for Fred Tanqueray."
"And how much does Mr. Tanqueray care for you?"
A dull flush spread over Minnie's sallow face; her lips coarsened. "I don't know; but it's a good deal more than your Hooper man ever cared for anybody in his life; and if you weren't such a hopeless sentimentalist you'd have seen that much. Of course I shan't know whether he cares or not—now."
And she wept, because of the anguish of her thirty years.
Then she burst out: "I hate Stephen. I don't care what you say—if he comes into this house I'll walk out of it. Oh, how I hate him!" Her loose mouth dropped, still quivering with its speech. Her face was one flame with her hair.
But Kate was cool and collected.
"Don't excite yourself. If it's only to influence Fred Tanqueray, he won't come," said Kate.
Then the red-haired woman turned on her, mad with the torture of her frustrate passion.
"He will come! He will come, I tell you. I've felt him coming. I've felt it in my bones. I've dreamt about it night after night. I've been afraid to meet the postman lest he should bring another letter. I've been afraid to go along the station road lest I should meet him. I'm afraid now to look out of that window lest I should see him standing there with his face against the pane."
She crossed to the window and drew down the blind. For a moment her shadow was flung across it, monstrously agitated, the huge hands working.
The man outside saw nothing more, but he heard his mother's voice and he took hope again.
"For shame, Minnie, for shame, to speak of poor Steevy so. One would think you might have a little more affection for your only brother."
"Look here, Mother" (Minnie again!), "that's all sentimental humbug. Can you look me in the face and honestly say you'd be glad to see your only son?"
(The son's heart yearned, straining for the answer. It came quavering.)
"My dear, I shall not see him. I'm a poor, weak old woman, and I know that the Lord will not send me any burden that I cannot bear."
He crept from his hiding-place out into the silent lane. He had drawn his breath tight, but his chest still shook with the sob he had strangled. "My God!" he muttered, "I'll take off the burden."
Then his sob broke out again, and it sounded more like a laugh than a sob. "The dollars—they shall have them. Every blessed one of the damned five million!"
He looked at his watch by the light of the gas-lamp in the lane. He had just time to catch the last train down; time, too, to stop the carrier's cart with the gifts that would have told the tale of his returning.
So, with a quick step, he went back by the way he had come, out of the place where the dead had buried their dead—until the Day of Judgment.
He had not been near her for two months. It was barely five minutes' walk from his house in Bedford Square to her rooms in Montagu Street, and last year he used to go to see her every week. He did not need the reminder of her letter, for he had been acutely aware, through the term that separated them, of the date when he had last seen her. Still, he was not sure how much longer he might have kept away if it had not been for the note that told him in two lines that she had been ill, and that she had—at last—something to show him. He smiled at the childlike secrecy of the announcement. She had something to show him. Her illness, then, had not impaired her gift, her charming, inimitable gift.
If she had something to show him he would have to go to her.
He let his eyes rest a moment on her signature as if he saw it for the first time, as if it renewed for him the pleasing impression of her personality. After all, she was Freda Farrar, the only woman with a style and an imagination worth considering; and he—well, he was Wilton Caldecott.
He would go over and see her now. He had an hour to spare before dinner. It was her hour, between the lamplight and the clear April day, when he was always sure of finding her at home.
He found her sitting in her deep chair by the hearth, her long, slender back bent forward to the fire, her hands glowing like thin vessels for the flame. Her face was turned toward him as he came in. Its small childlike oval showed sharp and white under her heavy wreath of hair—the face of a delicate Virgin of the Annunciation, a Musa Dolorosa, a terrified dryad of the plane-trees (Freda's face had always inspired him with fantastic images); a dryad in exile, banished with her plane-tree to the undelightful town.
She did not conceal from him her joyous certainty that he would come. She made no comment on his absence. It was one of her many agreeable qualities that she never made comments, never put forth even the shyest and most shadowy claim. She took him up where she had left him, or, rather, where he had left her, and he gathered that she had filled the interval happily enough with the practice of her incomparable art.
The first thing she did now was to exhibit her latest acquisitions, her beautiful new reading-lamp, the two preposterous cushions that supported and obliterated her; while he saw (preposterous Freda, who had not a shilling beyond what the gift brought her) that she had on a new gown.
"I say," he exclaimed, "I say, what next?"
And they looked at each other and laughed. He liked the spirit in which Freda now launched out into the strange ocean of expenditure. It showed how he had helped her. He was the only influence which could have helped a talent so obscure, so uncertain, so shy.
It was the obscurity, the uncertainty, the shyness of it that charmed him most. It was the shyness, the uncertainty, the obscurity in her that held him, made it difficult to remove himself when he sank into that deep chair by her fireside, and she became silent and turned from him her small brooding face. It was as if she guarded obstinately her secret, as if he waited, was compelled to wait, for the illuminating hour.
"It's finished," she said, as if continuing some conversation they had had yesterday.
"Ah." He found himself returning reluctantly from his quest.
She rose and unlocked the cabinet where her slender sheaves were garnered. He came and took from her a sheaf more slender than the rest.
"Am I to read it, here and now?"
"If you will."
He sat down and read there and then. From time to time she let her eyes light on him, shyly at first, then rest, made quiet by his abstraction. She liked to look at him when he was not thinking of her. He was tall and straight and fair; his massive, clean-shaven face showed a virile ashen shade on lip and chin. He had keen, kind eyes, and a queer mouth with sweet curves and bitter corners.
He folded the manuscript and turned it in his hands. He looked from it to her with considering, caressing eyes. What she had written was a love-poem in the divinest, the simplest prose. Such a poem could only have been written by his listening virgin, his dreaming dryad. He was afraid to speak of it, to handle its frail, half-elemental, half-spiritual form.
"Has it justified my sending for you?"
It had. It justified her completely. It justified them both. It justified his having come to her, his remaining with her, dining with her, if indeed they did dine. She had always justified him, made his coming to see her the natural, inevitable thing.
They sat late over the fire. They had locked the manuscript in its drawer again, left it with relief.
"How many years is it since I first saw you?"
"Three years," she said, "and two months."
"And two months. Do you remember how I found you, up there, under the roof, in that house in Charlotte Street?"
"Yes," she said, "I remember."
"You were curled up on that funny couch in the corner, with your back against the wall——"
"I was sitting on my feet to keep them warm."
"I know. And you wore a white shawl——"
"No," she entreated, "not a shawl."
"A white something. It doesn't matter. I don't really remember anything but your small face, and your terrified eyes looking at me out of the corner, and your poor little cold hands."
She wondered, did he remember her shabby gown, her fireless room, the queer couch that was her bed, the hunger and the nakedness of her surroundings?
"You sat," she said, "on my trunk, the wooden one with the nails on it. It must have been so uncomfortable."
He said nothing. Even now, when those things were only a remembrance, the pity of them made him dumb.
"And the next time you came," said she, "you made a fire for me. Don't you remember?"
He remembered. He felt again that glow of self-congratulation which warmed him whenever he considered the comfort of her present state; or came into her room and found her accumulating, piece by piece, her innocent luxuries. Nobody but he had helped her. It was disagreeable to him to think that another man should have had a hand in it.
Yet there would be others. He had already revealed her to two or three.
"I wonder how you knew," she said.
"How I knew what?"
"That I was worth while."
He gave an inward start. She had made him suddenly aware that in those days he had not known it. He had had no idea what was in her. She had had nothing then "to show" him.
It was as if she were asking him, as if he were asking himself, what it was that had drawn him to her, when, in the beginning, it wasn't and couldn't have been the gift? Why had he followed her up when he might so easily have dropped her? He had found her, in the beginning, only because his old friend, Mrs. Dysart, had written to him (from a distance that left her personally irresponsible), and had asked him to look for her, to discover what had become of her, to see if there was anything that he could do. Mrs. Dysart had intimated that she hardly thought anything could be done; that there wasn't, you know, very much in her—very much, that is to say, that would interest Wilton Caldecott. They had been simply pitiful, the girl's poor first efforts, the things that, when he had screwed his courage to the point of asking for them, were all she had to show him.
"I was too bad for words, you know," said she, tracking his thought.
"You were. You were."
"There wasn't a gleam, a spark——"
They laughed. The reminiscence of her "badness" seemed to inspire them both with a secret exultation. They drew together, uncovering, displaying to each other the cherished charm of it. Neither could say why the thought of it was so pleasing.
"And look at you now," said Caldecott.
"Yes," she cried, "look at me now. What was it, do you think, that made the difference?"
That he had never really known.
"Oh, well, I suppose you're stronger, you know; and things are different."
"Things?" she repeated. Her lips parted and closed, as if she had been about to say something, and recalled it with a sharp indrawing of her breath.
"And so," she said presently, "you think that was it?"
"It may have been. Anyhow, you mustn't go getting ill."
"I don't think," she said, "there's any need. But don't be frightened. It won't go away."
They laughed again. It was their own name for it.
"I wasn't thinking of it. I was thinking of you."
"It's the same thing," said she. "No. It won't go. It can't go. I've got it fast."
He rose. He looked down on her; he seemed to hesitate, to consider.
"I wonder," he said, "if I might ask my friend, Miss Nethersole, to call on you? She's Mrs. Dysart's niece."
She consented, and with a terse good night he left her.
She, too, wondered and considered. She knew that she would some day have to reckon with his life, with the world that knew him, with the women whom he knew.
Freda and Miss Nethersole had met several times before the remarkable conversation that made them suddenly intimate.
That she would have, sooner or later, some remarkable conversation with Miss Nethersole was an idea that had dawned upon Freda from the first. But until the hour struck for them their acquaintance had been distant.
It had the fascination of deep distance. Freda had not been sure that she desired to break the charm. It seemed somehow to hold her safe. From what danger she would have found it hard to say, when Miss Nethersole covered her with so large and soft a wing. Still, they had come no nearer to the friendship which the older woman had offered as the end of their approaches.
It was as if Miss Nethersole were also bound under the charm. When Freda allowed herself to meditate profoundly she divined that what drew them on and held them back was an uncertainty regarding Wilton Caldecott. Neither knew in what place the other really held him. The first day they met each had searched, secretly, the other's face for some betrayal of his whereabouts; each, it had seemed to Freda, had shrunk from finding what she looked for; shrunk even more from owning that there might be anything to find.
And he had hoped that she would "like Julia."
If reticence were required of them, Freda felt that her poor little face could never rival the inimitable reserves, the secure distinction of Miss Nethersole's. There was nothing, so to speak, to take hold of in Julia's dark, attenuated elegance; nothing that betrayed itself anywhere, from the slender brilliance of her deep-lidded, silent eyes, to her small flat chin, falling sheer from the immobile lower lip. Miss Nethersole's features and her figure were worn away to the last expression of a purely social intention. Quite useless to look for any signs of Wilton Caldecott's occupation. Freda was convinced that, if the lady possessed any knowledge of him, she would keep it concealed about her to the end of time. She was aware of Miss Nethersole's significance as a woman of the larger world. It was wonderful to think that she held the clue to the social labyrinth, in which, to Freda's vision, their friend's life was lost. She knew what ways he went. She could follow all his turnings and windings there; perhaps she could track him to the heart of the maze; perhaps she herself was the heart of it, the very secret heart. She sat alone for him there, in the dear silent place where all the paths led. The very thickness and elaboration of the maze would make their peace. Freda's heart failed her before the intricacy of Miss Nethersole's knowledge of him, the security of her possession. Miss Nethersole was valuable to him for her own sake, it being evident that she had no "gift."
It was her personal sufficiency, unsustained as she was by anything irrelevant, that made Julia so formidable.
She had never seemed more so to Freda than on this afternoon when they sat together among the adornments of her perfect drawing-room. Everything about Miss Nethersole was as delicate and finished as her own perfection. She was finely unconscious of all that Freda recognized in her. It seemed as if what she chiefly recognized in Freda was her gift. She had been superbly impersonal in her praise of it. It was the divine thing given to Freda, hers and yet not hers, so wonderful, compared with the small pale creature who manipulated it, that it could be discussed with perfect propriety apart from her.
And to-day Wilton Caldecott's name had risen again in the discussion, when Julia had the air of insisting more than ever on the gift. It was almost as if she narrowed Freda down to that, suggesting that it was the only thing that counted in her intimacy with their friend.
"Yes," said Freda, "but the extraordinary thing is that I hadn't it when first he knew me."
"He saw what was in you."
"He said the other day he saw nothing. I was too bad for words."
"Oh, I know all about that. He told me."
"What did he tell you?"
"That you were like a funny little unfledged bird, trying to fly before its wing feathers were grown."
"I hadn't any. I hadn't anything of my own. Everything I have I owe to him."
"Don't say that. Why should you pluck off all your beautiful feathers to make a nest for his conceit?"
"Is he conceited?"
Freda said to herself, "After all, she doesn't count. She doesn't know him."
Miss Nethersole smiled. "He's a male man, my dear. If you want him to have an even higher idea of your genius than he has already, tell him—tell him you owe it all to him."
"Ah," said Freda, "you don't know him."
"I have known him," said Miss Nethersole, "for fifteen years. I knew him before he married."
She had proved incontestably the superiority of her knowledge. Freda felt as if Miss Nethersole were looking at her to see how she would take it. There was an appreciable moment in which she adjusted her mind to the suddenness of the revelation. Then she told herself that there was nothing in it that she had not reckoned with many times before. It left her relations with Wilton Caldecott where they were.
There was nothing in it that could change for her the unique and immaterial tie. She was even relieved by the certainty that it was not Julia Nethersole, then, after all. She had an idea that she would have grudged him to Julia Nethersole.
Julia was much too well-bred to show that she had the advantage. She took it for granted that Miss Farrar was also acquainted with the circumstances of Wilton Caldecott's marriage.
"That," said she, "is what makes him so extraordinarily interesting."
"His marriage"—Freda hesitated. She wondered if Miss Nethersole would really go into it.
"Some people's marriages are quite unilluminating. Wilton's, I always think, is the key to his character, sometimes to his conduct."
Freda held her breath. She saw that Miss Nethersole was about to go in deep.
"He has suffered"—Miss Nethersole went on—"all his life, from an over-developed sense of honor. He could see honor in situations where you wouldn't have said there was the ghost of an obligation. His marriage was not an affair of the heart. It was an affair of honor. The woman—she's dead now—was in love with him."
"Did you know her?"
"No. She was not the sort of person you do know. She was simply a pretty, underbred little governess. He met her—on the staircase, I imagine—in some house he was staying in, and, as I say, she was in love with him. She was a scheming little wretch, and she and her people made him believe that he had compromised her in some shadowy way. I suppose he had paid her a little ordinary attention—I don't know the details. Anyhow, he was so fantastically honorable that he married her."
"Poor thing. It must have been awful for her, to be married in that way—for honor!"
"She didn't consider it awful in the least. She didn't mind what she was married for, so long as she was married. She was that sort. Do I bore you?"
"No. You interest me immensely."
"Of course they were miserable. He couldn't make her happy. Wilton is, in his way, a rather spiritual person, and his wife was anything but. Marriage can be an awful revelation to a nice woman. Sometimes it's a shock to a nice man. Wilton never got over his shock. It left him with a morbid horror of the thing. That's what has prevented him from marrying again."
Miss Nethersole drew a perceptible breath before going in deeper.
"I've heard people praising his faithfulness to his wife's memory. They little know. He was loyal enough to the poor woman while she lived, but he's giving her away now with a vengeance. Several very nice women would have been more than willing to marry him; but as soon as he knew it——"
"Knew it? How could he know it?"
"Well, the ladies were very transparent, some of them. And when they weren't there was always some kind person there to make them so. And when he saw through them—he was off. You could see the horror of it coming over him, and his poor terrified eyes protesting—'I'd do anything for you—anything, my dear girl, but that.'"
Julia paused, as if on the brink of something still profounder. Evidently she abhorred the plunge, while Freda shrank from the horrible exposure of the shallower waters.
"And those women," said Julia, after meditation, "wondered why they lost their friend. They might have kept him if they'd only kept their heads."
It was at this point that Freda felt that Julia was trying to drag her in with her.
"How awful," said she, "to feel that you'd driven a man away!"
"It might be more awful," said Julia, "for him to feel he had to go."
"That's it," said Freda. "Had he?"
"Well, if he was honorable, what else was there for him to do?"
"To stay by those women, and see them through—if he was honorable."
"Oh—if they'd have been content with that. But you see, my dear, they all wanted to marry him."
"If they did," said Freda, "that shows that they didn't really care."
"They cared too much, I'm afraid."
"Oh, no. Not enough. If they'd cared enough they'd have got beyond that. However much they wanted it, they'd have given it up, rather than let him go."
As she said it she felt a blessed sense of relief. The deeper they went the more the waters covered her.
"You'll never get a man," said Julia, "to understand that. If he cares for a woman he won't be put off with anything short of marrying her. So he naturally supposes——"
Julia had now gone as deep as she could go.
"Yes," said Freda. "It's in the things he naturally supposes that a man goes so wrong."
"Is it?" Julia paused again. "I don't know whether you realize it, but you and I are the only women Mr. Caldecott ever goes to see. I dare say you were surprised when he told you about me. I was amazed when he told me about you. I've no doubt he made each of us think we were the one exception. You see, we are rather exceptional women, from his unhappy point of view. He knows that I understand him, and I'm sure he thinks that he understands you——"
"So he feels safe with me?"
"Gloriously safe. You are a genius, above all the little feminine stupidities that terrify him so. From you he expects nothing but the unexpected. You're outside all his rules. I'm so much inside them that he knows exactly what to expect. So he's safe with both of us. It's the betwixt-and-between people that he dreads."
Julia rose up from the depths rosy and refreshed. Freda panted with a horrible exhaustion.
"I see," she said. And presently she found that it was time for her to go.
The cool, bright air out of doors touched her like a reminding hand. She turned awkwardly into the street that led from Bedford Square to her own place. Wilton Caldecott and she had often walked along that street together. She felt like one called upon to play a new part on a familiar stage, where every object suggested insanely, irrelevantly, the older inspiration.
Not that her conversation with Julia, or, rather (she corrected herself) Julia's conversation with her, had altered anything. It had all been so natural, so unamazing, like a conversation between two persons in a dream. They had both seemed so ripe for their hour that, when it struck, it brought no sense of the unusual. Only when she lit her lamp in her room, and received the full shock of the old intimate reality, did it occur to her that it was, after all, for Julia Nethersole, a rather singular outpouring. The more she thought of it the more startling it seemed—Julia's flinging off of the reticence that had wrapped her round. Freda was specially appalled by the audacity with which Julia had dragged Wilton Caldecott's history into the light of day. Her own mind had always approached it shyly and tenderly, with a sort of feeling that, after all, perhaps she would rather not know. To Freda Julia seemed to have taken leave suddenly of her senses, to have abandoned all propriety. One did, at supreme moments, leave many things behind one; but Freda was not aware that any moment in their intercourse had yet counted as supreme.
Could Julia have meant anything by it? If so, what was it that she precisely meant? The beginning of their conversation provided no clue to its end. What possible connection could there be between her, Freda's gift, such as it was, and Wilton Caldecott's marriage?
But as she pieced together, painfully, the broken threads she saw that it did somehow hang together. She recalled that there had been something almost ominous in the insistence with which Julia had held her to her gift. Julia's manner had conveyed her disinclination to acknowledge Wilton's part in it, her refusal to regard him as indispensable in the case. She had implied, with the utmost possible delicacy, that it would be well for Freda if she could contrive to moderate her enthusiasm, to be a little less grateful; to cultivate, in a word, her independence.
It was then that she had gone down into her depths. And emerging, braced and bracing from the salt sea, she had landed Freda safe on the high ledge, where she was henceforth to stand solitary, guarding her gift.
It was, in short, a friendly warning to the younger woman to keep her head if she wished to keep their friend.
Freda remembered her first disgraceful fear of Julia, her feeling that Julia would presently take something—she hardly knew what—away from her. That came of letting her imagination play too freely round Wilton Caldecott's friend. What was there to alarm her in the candid Julia? Wasn't it as if Julia, in their curious conversation, had given herself up sublimely for Freda to look at and see for herself that there was nothing in her to be afraid of?
It was possible that Julia had seen things in her. Freda had a little thrill of discomfort at that thought; but she rallied from it bravely. What if Julia did see? She was not aware of anything that she was anxious to conceal from her. Least of all had she desired to hide her part in Wilton Caldecott. It was, if you came to think of it, the link between her and Julia, the ground of their acquaintance. She could not suspect Julia of any vulgar desire to take that away from her.
If there had been any lapse from high refinement it had been in her own little cry of "Ah, you don't know him," into which poor Freda now felt that she had poured the very soul of passionate possession. But Julia had been perfect. She had in effect said: "I see—and you won't mind my seeing—that your friendship for Wilton Caldecott is your dearest and purest possession, as it's mine. I'm not ashamed to own it. And I'll show you how to keep it. Take care of the gift—the gift. It'll see you both through." Julia had been fine. What else could she be? Of course she had seen; and she had sacrificed her reticence beautifully, because it was the only way. It was, said Freda to herself, what she would have done if she had been in Julia's place, and had seen.
Having reconstructed Julia, she unlocked the drawer that held the hidden treasure, the thing that he had said was so perfect, the last consummate manifestation of the gift. They had found between them the right word for it. It was only a gift, a thing that he had given her, that if he chose he could at any moment take away. What had come from her came only through him. She owned, with a sort of exultation, that there was nothing in the least creative in her. She had not one virile quality; only this receptivity of hers, infinitely plastic, infinitely tender. What lay in the lamplight under her caressing hand had been born of their friendship. It was their spiritual child.
She bowed her head and kissed it.
She said to herself: "It is not me, but his part in me that he loves. If I am true to it he will be true to me."
As she raised her head her eyes were wet with tears. She looked round the room. Everything in it (but the thing that lay there under her hand) seemed suddenly to have lost its interest and its charm. Something had gone from it, something that had been living with her in secret for many days, that could not live with her now any more. It had dropped into the deep when Julia stripped herself (it now seemed to Freda) and took her shining, sacrificial plunge.
"What, after all," said Freda, "has she taken from me? Nothing that I ever really had."
It was Sunday afternoon. Caldecott made a point of going to see Miss Nethersole on Sunday afternoons. He felt so safe with Julia.
This particular Sunday afternoon was their first since Julia had become acquainted with Miss Farrar. It was therefore inevitable that their talk should turn to her.
"Your friend is charming," said Julia.
"Yes," he said, "yes." He seemed reluctant to acknowledge it. Julia made a note of the reluctance.
"You must be very proud of her."
He challenged the assertion with a glance which questioned her right to make it. Julia saw that his mind was balancing itself on some fine and perilous edge, and that it was as yet unaware of its peril.
"Of course you're proud of her," said she, in a voice that steadied him.
"Of course I am," he agreed.
"Is it really true that she owes everything to you?"
"No," he said, "it isn't in the least true."
"She says so."
"Oh, that's her pretty way of putting it."
"She thinks it."
"Not she. If she does it's because she's made that way. She's awfully nice, you know."
"She's too nice—to be allowed to——"
"To throw herself away."
"She isn't throwing herself away. She's found the one thing she can do, and she's doing it divinely. I never met a woman who was so sure of herself."
"Oh, she's sure enough, poor child."
"I say, you don't mean to tell me you don't believe in her? Not that it matters whether you do or not."
"Thank you. I'm not talking about her genius, or whatever the thing is. I've no doubt it's everything you say. If she'd only keep to that—the one thing she can be sure of. Unless, of course, you've made her sure."
"What do you mean?"
"Ah, if I only knew what you meant."
"What I mean?"
"Yes, what you mean to do."
He laughed. "I don't mean to 'do' anything at present."
"Why, what do you suppose I ought to do?"
"I don't know that it's for me to say."
"You may as well, while you're about it."
"If I could only make you see——" She mentally drew back.
"Well? What do you want to make me see?"
"What you've done already to that unhappy woman."
"Unhappy? She's considerably happier than she was when I first knew her."
"That's it," she said, "that's just it. Where are your eyes? Can't you see she's in love with you?"
He did not meet her advancing gaze.
"What makes you think so?" he said.
"The way she talks about you."
He smiled. "You don't allow for picturesque exaggeration."
"My dear, when a woman exaggerates to that extent it generally means one thing."
"Not with her. She wouldn't do it if it meant that. She'd be afraid to let herself go. And she isn't afraid. She just piles it on because she's so sure of herself—so sure that she isn't what you say she is."
"I don't say she knows she's in love with you. She doesn't know it."
"Can you be in love without knowing it?"
"She could. If she knew it, do you think she'd have let me see it? And do you think I'd have given her away? I wouldn't now, only I know what you are, and she doesn't."
"No, indeed. You're right enough there."
They paused on that.
"You're quite sure," she said, "that you can't——"
It was as if she probed him, delicately, on behalf of their tragic friend. She turned her eyes away as she did it, that she might not see him shrink.
"No," he said. "Never again. Never again."
She withdrew the pressure of the gentle finger that had given him pain. "I only thought—" she murmured.
"What did you think?"
"That it might be nice for both of you."
"It wouldn't be nice for either of us. Not nice at all."
"Well, then, I can only see one thing."
"I know. You're going to say I must leave off seeing her?"
"No. I don't say that."
"I do, though. If I were sure——"
"You may be sure of one thing. That she doesn't know what's the matter with her—yet. She mustn't know. If you do go and see her, you must be careful not to let her find out. I did my best to hide it, to cover it up, so that she shouldn't see."
"What do you think we're made of? The truth—the truth."
"If this is the truth, I mustn't, of course, go near her. But I know you're mistaken."
"Have I ever been mistaken? Have I ever told you wrong?"
"Well, Julia, you're a very wise woman, and I'll admit that, when you've warned me off anybody, you've warned me for my good."
She colored. "I'm not warning you 'off' anybody now. I've warned you before for your own sake. I'm warning you this time for hers."
"I see. I see that, all right. But—you never saw a woman like her, did you? I wonder if you understand her."
"I do understand her. You can't look at her and not see that she has a profound capacity for suffering."
Of course he knew. Hadn't he called her the Musa Dolorosa?
"Just because," said Julia, "she has imagination."
He had said good-bye and was going; but at the doorway he turned to her again.
"No," he said, "you're wrong, Julia. She's not like that."
Julia arched her brows over eyes tender with compassion—compassion for his infinite stupidity.
"Oh, my dear!" she cried, and waved him away as a creature hopeless, impossible to help.
He closed the door and stood with his back to it, facing her.
"Well," he said, "you may be right; but before I do anything I must be sure."
"How do you propose to make sure?"
"I shall go and see her."
"Of course," said Julia, "you'll go and see her."
He went on to Montagu Street, so convinced was he that Julia was mistaken.
Freda knew well what she was going to say to him. She had chosen her path, the highest, the farthest from the abyss. Once there she could let herself go.
He himself led her there; he started her. He brought praises of the gift.
Other people, he said, were beginning to rave about it now.
"I wish they wouldn't," said she. "It makes me feel so dishonest."
"As if I'd taken something that didn't belong to me. It doesn't belong to me."
"It—the gift! I feel as if it had never had anything—really—to do with me."
"Ah, that's the way to tell that you've got it."
"I know, but I don't mean that. I mean—it does belong so very much to somebody else, that I ought almost to give it back."
He had always wondered how she did it. Now for one moment he believed that she was about to clear up her little mystery. She was going to tell him that she hadn't done it at all, that somebody else had borrowed her name for some incomprehensible purpose of concealment. She was going to make an end of Freda Farrar.
"Of course," she said, "I know you don't want it back."
"Yes. It's really yours, you know. I should never have had it at all if it hadn't been for you."
"I'm very glad," he said gravely, "if I've helped you."
He was thinking, "She does really rather pile it on."
Freda went piling it on more. She felt continuously that the gift would see them through. She would hold it well before him, and turn it round and round, that he might see for himself that there was nothing that could be considered sinister behind it. Her passionate concentration on it would show that there was nothing behind, no vision of anything darker and deeper. It was as if she said to him, "I know the dreadful thing you're afraid of. I'm showing you what it is, so that you needn't think it's that."
Not that she was afraid of his thinking it. She had set her happiness high, in a pure serene place, safe from the visitations of his terror. She conceived that the peace of it might in time come to constitute a kind of happiness for him. That gross fear could never arise between him and her. All the same, she perceived that a finer misgiving might menace his perfect peace. He might, if he were subtle enough, imagine that she was giving him too much, and that he owed her something. His chivalry might become uneasy. She must show him how perfectly satisfied she was. He must see that the thing she had hold of was great, was immense, that it filled her life to the brim, so that there wasn't any room for anything else. How could he owe her anything when he had given her that?
She must make him see it very clearly.
"It wasn't only that you helped," she said, "to bring it out of me. It wasn't in me. When it came, it seemed to come from somewhere outside. Somebody must have put it into me. I believe such a thing is possible. And there wasn't anybody, you know, but you."
"I doubt," said he, "the possibility. Anyhow, you may safely leave me out of it."
"Think," she said, "think of the time when you were left out of it, when it was only me. It's inconceivable—the difference——"
"Let's leave it at that. Why rub the bloom off the mystery?"
"Do I rub the bloom off?"
"Yes, if you make out that I had anything to do with it."
"If it's mystery you want, don't you see that's the greatest mystery of all—your having had to do with it?"
"But why should I, of all people? Is there any sign of Freda Farrar in anything I did before I knew her?"
"Is there any sign of her in anything she did before she knew you?"
He was silent.
"Then," said Freda, "if it isn't you it's we. We've collaborated."
If he had not been illumined by the horrid light Julia had given him he would have said that this was only Freda's way, another form of her adorable extravagance. Now he wondered.
Poor Freda went on piling up her defenses. "Don't you see?" said she. "That's why I feel so sure of it. If it had been just me, I should never have been sure a minute. It might have gone any day, and I should have known that there was no more where it came from. But, if it's you, I can simply lean back on it and rest. Don't you see?"
"No," he said, "I don't see."
(He was saying to himself: "I'm afraid Julia was right about her. Only she doesn't know it.")
"You must leave me out of it. You mustn't let yourself think that you rest on anything or anybody but yourself."
It was what Julia had said, searching her with her woman's eyes. He did not look at her as he said it.
Her nerves still shook under Julia's distant and delicate admonition to her to keep her head. It struck her that he was repeating the warning in a still more delicate and distant manner. She wondered was it possible that he was beginning to be afraid? Couldn't he see that he was safe with her? That they were safe with one another? What was she doing now but letting him see how safe they were? Hadn't she just given to their relations the last touch of spiritual completion? She had made a place for him where he could come and go at will, and rest without terror. Couldn't he see that she had set her house of life above all that, so high that nobody down here could see what went on up there, and wonder at his going out and coming in?
Keep her head, indeed! Her untroubled and untrammeled movements on her heights proved how admirably she kept it.
"You see," he continued, "it's not as if I could be always here, on the spot."
His voice still sounded the distant note of warning. It told her that there was something that he wished to make her see.
Her best answer to that was silence, and a sincere front intimating that she saw everything, and that there was nothing to touch her in the things he saw.
"And as it happens" (Caldecott's voice shook a little), "I'm going away next week. I shall be away a very long time."
She knew that he did not look at her now lest he should see her wince. She did not wince.
"Well," said she, "I shall be here when you come back."
It was then that she saw the terror in his face.
"Of course," he said, "I hope—very much—you will be here."
She felt that he, like Julia, was leading her to the edge of the deep dividing place, and that he paused miserably where Julia had plunged. She saw him trying to bridge the gulf, to cover it, with decent, gentle commonplaces and courtesies. Then he went away.
What had she done to make him afraid of her? Or was it what she had said? The other day, before she had seen Julia, she could have said anything to him. Now it seemed there was nothing that she could say.
What was it that he had seen in her?
That was it. With all his wonderful comprehension he had failed her in the ultimate test—the ability to see what was in her. He had seen nothing but one thing, the thing he was accustomed to see, the material woman's passion to pursue, to make captive, to possess. He would go thinking all his life that it was she who had failed, she who, by her vulgarity, had made it impossible for him to remain her friend. She supposed she had piled it up too high. It was her very defenses that had betrayed her, made her more flagrant and exposed.
She bowed herself for hours to the scourging of that thought till the thought itself perished from exhaustion.
She knew that it was not so. He held her higher than that.
He was not afraid. He was only sorry for her. He had tried to be more tender to her than she was herself. He was going away because his honor, his masculine honor, told him that if he could not marry her there was nothing else for him to do. He was trying to spare her pain. It was very honorable of him, she knew.
But it would have been more honorable still if he had stayed; if he had trusted her to keep her friendship incorruptible by pain. Or rather, if he had seen that no pain could touch her, short of the consummate spiritual torture he was inflicting now.
There were moments when she stood back from the torture self-delivered. When she heard herself saying to him: "I know why you're going. It's because you think I wanted you to give me something that you can't give me. Don't you see that if you can't give it me it doesn't matter? It's, after all, so little compared with what you have given me. Is it honorable to take that away? Don't you see how you're breaking faith with me? Don't you see that you've made me ashamed, and that nothing can be worse to bear than that?"
Then she knew that she would never be able to say that to him. She would never be able to say anything to him any more. She wondered whether he had made those other women ashamed when he broke loose from them. Was she ashamed, did she suffer, the woman who had caught and held him, and hurt him so?
At the thought of his hurt her passion had such pity that it cried out in her, "What have they done to you that you can't see?"
He went away the following week to the North, and remained there for six months. His honor prescribed a considerable term of absence. It compelled him to keep away from her for some time after his return. He told himself that she had the consolation of her gift.
Meanwhile no sign of it had reached him since the day he left her. Julia could give him no news of her; she believed, but was not certain, that Freda was away. When he called in Montagu Street he was told that Miss Farrar had given up her rooms and gone abroad.
He wrote to the address given him, and heard from her by return. She told him that she was very well; that San Remo was very beautiful; that she was sure he would be glad to hear that a small income had been left to her, enough to relieve her from the necessity of writing—she had not, in fact, written a line in the last year—otherwise, of course, he would have heard from her. "It rather looks," she added, "as if poverty had been my inspiration."
In every word he read her desire to spare him.
It had not stayed with her, then? The slender flame had died in her, the sudden spirit had fled. Well, if it had to go, it was better that it should go this way, all at once, rather than that they should have had to acknowledge any falling-off from the delicate perfection of her gift.
Three months later a letter from his friend, Mrs. Dysart, informed him of Freda's death at San Remo early in the spring.
Mrs. Dysart had seen her there. She was now staying with her niece, Julia Nethersole, and desired to see him. She was sure that he would want to hear about their friend.
He remembered Mrs. Dysart as a small, robust, iron-gray woman—sharp-tongued, warm-hearted, terrifically observant. Though childless, she had always struck him as almost savagely maternal. He dreaded the interview, for he had had some vague idea that she had not appreciated Freda. Besides, his connection with Miss Farrar was so public that Mrs. Dysart would have no delicacy in approaching it.
Mrs. Dysart proved more reticent than he had feared. The full flow of her reminiscences began only under pressure.
The news of Miss Farrar's death, she said, came to her as a shock, but hardly as a surprise.
"You were not with her, then?" he said.
"No one was with her."
The words dropped into a terrible silence. A sound broke it, the sound of some uneasy movement made by Julia.
"When did you see her last?" he asked.
"I saw her last driving on the sea front at San Remo. If you could call it seeing her. She was all huddled up in furs and rugs and things. Just a sharp white slip of a face and two eyes gazing at nothing out of the carriage window. She looked as if something had scared her."
And it was of her that he had been afraid!
"Do you know," he said presently, "what she died of?"
"No. It was supposed that, some time or other, she must have had some great shock."
Caldecott shifted his position.
"The doctors said there was no reason why she should have died. She could have lived well enough if she had wanted to. The terrible thing was that she didn't want. If you ask me what she died of I should say she was either scared to death or starved."
"Surely," he said, "surely she had enough?"
"Oh, she had food enough to eat, and clothes enough to cover her, and fire enough to warm her. But she starved."
"What do you suppose," said Julia, "the poor girl wanted?"
"Nothing, my dear, that you would understand."
He was at a loss to account for the asperity of the little lady's tone; but he remembered that Julia had never been a favorite with her aunt.
"I'm convinced," said Mrs. Dysart, "that woman died for want of something. Something that she'd got used to till it was absolutely necessary to her. Something, whatever it was, that had completely satisfied her. When she found herself without it, that, I imagine, constituted the shock. And she wasn't strong enough to stand it, that was all."
Mrs. Dysart spoke to her niece, but he felt that there was something in her, fiery and indignant, that hurled itself across Julia at him.
He changed the subject.
"She—she left nothing?"
"Not a note, not a line."
"Ah, well, what we have is beautiful enough for anybody."
"I wonder if you have any idea what you might have had? If you even knew what it was you had?"
"I never presumed," he said, "to understand her. I've hardly ever known any woman properly but one."
"And knowing one woman—properly or improperly—won't help you to understand another. I never knew there was so much in her."
"She didn't know it herself. She used to say it wasn't in her. It was the most mysterious thing I ever saw."
It was his turn to shelter himself behind Freda's gift. He piled up words, and his mind cowered behind them, thinking no thought, seeing nothing but Freda's dead face with its shut eyes.
"What was it?" he said. "Where did it come from?"
"It came," said Mrs. Dysart, "from somewhere deep down in her heart, a part of her that had only one chance to show itself." She rose and delivered herself of all her fire. "There was something in Freda infinitely greater, infinitely more beautiful, than her gift. It showed itself only once in her life. When it couldn't show itself any more the gift left her. We can't account for it."
He followed her to the door. She pressed his hand as she said good-bye to him, and he saw that there were tears in her eyes.
"I told you," she said, "to do all you could for her. She knew that you had done—all you could."
He bowed his head to her rebuke.
Upstairs Julia was waiting for him. Her pale face turned to him as he came in.
He saw a hunger in it that was not of the soul.
He had never been greatly interested in Julia's soul, and till now her face had told him nothing of it. It had clipped it tight, like the covers of a narrow book. He had never cared to open it. Freda's soul was like an illuminated missal, treasured under transparence; its divine secret flamed, unafraid, in scarlet and gold.
He did not take his seat beside her, but stood off from her, distant and uneasy. She rose and laid her hand upon his arm, and he drew back from her touch.
"Wilton," she said, "you are not going to let this trouble you?"
"What's the good of talking? It won't undo what we did."
"What we did?"
"What else could you do?"
He did not answer, and she murmured, "Or I? I was right. She was in love with you."
He turned on her.
"I wish," he said, "you had never told me."
Gibson used to say that he would never marry, because no other woman could be half as nice as his own mother. Then, of course, he broke his mother's heart by marrying a woman who was not nice at all.
He was a powerful fellow with a plain, square face, and a manner that was perfection to the people whom he liked. Unfortunately they were very few. He did not like any of the ladies whom his mother wanted him to like, not even when they reproduced for him her gentle, delicate distinction.
The younger Mrs. Gibson had none of it. But she had ways with her, and a power that was said to reside supremely in her hands, her arms, and her hair. Especially her hair (she was the large white and golden kind). It was long as a lasso and ample as a cloak. Gibson loved her hair. The sight and the scent of it filled him with folly. He liked to braid and unbraid it, to lay his face against it, to plunge his hands through the coolness into the warmth of it.
It seemed to him to give out the splendor and vitality of her, to have a secret sympathy with the thought that stirred beneath it.
She had a trick, when she was thinking of caressing it, of winding and unwinding the little curls that sprang, aureolewise, above her temples. That was one of her ways, and it brought her hands and arms into play with stupendous effect.
He would sit opposite her a whole evening, watching it, dumb with excess of happiness.
It took him six months to find out that the trick he admired so much was a sign that his wife was bored to extinction.
"Is there anything you want?" he said.
She laughed hysterically.
"You've only to say what you want, and I'll get it for you, if it can be got."
"It could be got all right," said she. "But I doubt whether you'd care very much to get it."
"What is it? Tell me—tell me."
"Well—you're very nice, my dear, I know. But before I married you I used—though you mightn't think it—to be received in society."
He took her back to it. He said he was a selfish brute to want to keep her to himself. That speech amused Mrs. Gibson immensely. She had a curious and capricious sense of humor. It made her very adaptable and tided them both over a sharp season of infelicity.
Hitherto Mrs. Gibson had been merely bored. Now she was seized with a malady of unrest. Any other man but Gibson would have been driven mad with her nerves.
"You're doing too much, you know," he said, soothing her. "You're tired."
She raised her eyebrows.
"Oh, no," she said, "not tired."
"What you want," said he, "is a thorough change."
"My dear," said she, "I didn't know you were so clever."
"Would you like me to take a cottage in the country?"
"A cottage? In the country?"
"Well, of course, not too far from town. Some place where I could run down for the week-ends."
"You couldn't," said she, "be running down oftener?"
"No," he said, "I'm afraid I couldn't just at present."
"Don't you think it might be a trifle lonely?"
"You can have anyone you like to stay with you."
"And you really want to take it? This cottage?"
"Well, then," said she, "take it by all means, and lose no time."
He took it, and went down with her for the first week-end.
It was a tiny place. But some one had built a comfortable smoking-room at the back. It opened by glass doors into the garden.
One Sunday evening they were sitting together in the smoking-room when she flung herself down on the floor beside him and laid her head on his knee. She seized his hand and drew it down to her.
"As you are going to leave me to-morrow," she said, "you can stroke my hair to-night."
He went down every week-end. And every week-end he found an improvement in his wife's health. When he complimented her upon her appearance, she told him she had been gardening. He took it as an excellent sign that she should be fond of gardening.
Then one day Gibson (who worked like ten horses to provide all the things that his wife wanted) got ill and was told to take a month off in the country.
That was in the middle of the week. He saw his doctor early in the evening and took the last train down. The cottage was several miles from the nearest telegraph office, so that he arrived before the wire that should have announced his coming.
A short cut from the station brought him to the back of the house through a little wood that screened it. The wood path led into his garden by a private gate which was always locked.
He climbed the gate and crossed the grass plot to the glass doors of the smoking-room. The lamps were lit there, and Gibson, as he approached, could see his wife sitting in the low chair opposite his. His heart bounded at the sight of her. He was glad to think that she sat in his room when he was away. He walked quickly over the grass and stood at the glass doors looking in.
She was lying back in the low chair. In his chair, which a curtain had concealed from him until now, there sat a man he knew. He recognized the narrow shoulders and the head with the sleek brown hair, showing a little sallow patch of baldness at the back. From a certain tenseness in the man's attitude he knew that his gaze was fastened on the woman who faced them. Her left arm was raised, its long, loose sleeve fell back and bared it. Her fingers twisted and untwisted a little straying curl.
The man could bear it no longer. He jumped up and went to her. He knelt beside her. With one hand he seized her arm by the full white wrist and dragged it down and held it to his lips. The other hand smoothed back her hair into its place and held it there. His fine, nervous fingers sank through the deep, silky web to the white, sensitive skin. The woman threw back her head and closed her eyes, every nerve throbbing felinely under the caress she loved.
The man rose with an uneasy movement that brought him to the back of her chair. He stooped and whispered something. She flung up her arms and drew down his face to hers under the white arch they made.
Gibson did nothing scandalous. He went round quietly to the front door and let himself in with his latch-key. When he entered the smoking-room he found his wife there alone. She stood on his hearth, and met him with hard eyes, desperate and defiant.
"What have you to say for yourself?" he said.
"Everything," said she. "Of course you will divorce me."
"Will a separation not satisfy you?"
"No," she said, "it will not. If you haven't had proof enough I can give you more. Or you can ask the servants."
He had always given her what she wanted. He gave it her now.
Gibson went back to his mother.
The incident left him apparently unscathed. He showed no signs of trouble until four years after, when his mother died. Then the two shocks rolled into one, and for a year Gibson was a wreck.
At last he was told, as he had been told before, to stop work and go away—anywhere—for a rest. He went to a small seaside town in East Devon.
The man's nature was so sound that in a month's time he recovered sufficiently to take an interest in what was going on around him.
He was lodged in one of a row of small houses facing the esplanade. Each had its own plot of green garden spread before it, and a flagged pathway leading from the gate to the door. Path and garden were raised a good half-foot above the level of the sidewalk, and this half-foot, Gibson observed, was a serious embarrassment to his next-door neighbors.
Twice a day a bath-chair with an old gentleman in it would emerge from the doorway of the house next door. It was drawn by two little ladies, a dark one and a fair one, whom Gibson judged to be the old gentleman's daughters. He must have weighed considerably, that old gentleman, and the ladies (especially the dark one) were far too young and small and tender for such draft-work. Four times a day at the garden-gate a struggle took place between little ladies and the bath-chair. Gibson could see them from his window where he lay, supine in his nervous apathy. Their going out was only less fearful than their coming in. Going out, it was very hard to prevent the back wheels from slipping down with a bump on to the pavement and shaking the old gentleman horribly. Coming in, they risked overturning him altogether.