But you are going to see her whether you like or not, my dear boy, so make up your mind to that. You know how you used to chaff me about my whims. Well, I've got a whim now, and I'll have my way as usual. I am going to see you to-morrow, and if you won't see me under my conditions in London, I shall call at Woking in the evening. Oh my goodness, what a bombshell! But you know that I am always as good as my word. So look out!
Now I'll give you your orders for the day, and don't you forget them. To-morrow (Thursday, 14th, no excuses about the date) you will leave your office at 3.30. I know that you can when you like. You will drive to Mariani's, and you will find me at the door. We shall go up to our old private room, and we shall have tea together, and a dear old chat about all sorts of things. So come! But if you don't, there is a train which leaves Waterloo at 6.10 and reaches Woking at 7. I will come by it and be just in time for dinner. What a joke it will be!
Good-bye, old boy! I hope your wife does not read your letters, or this will rather give her fits.
- Yours as ever, VIOLET WRIGHT.
At the first reading this letter filled him with anger. To be wooed by a very pretty woman is pleasant even to the most austere of married men (and never again trust the one who denies it), but to be wooed with a very dangerous threat mixed up with the wooing is no such pleasant experience. And it was no empty threat. Violet was a woman who prided herself upon being as good as her word. She had laughingly said with her accustomed frankness upon one occasion that it was her sole remaining virtue. If he did not go to Mariani's, she would certainly come to Woking. He shuddered to think of Maude being annoyed by her. It was one thing to speak in a general way to his wife of prematrimonial experiences, and it was another to have this woman forcing herself upon her and making a scene. The idea was so vulgar. The sweet, pure atmosphere of The Lindens would never be the same again.
No, there was no getting out of it. He must go to Mariani's. He was sufficiently master of himself to know that no harm could come of that. His absolute love for his wife shielded him from all danger. The very thought of infidelity nauseated him. And then, as the idea became more familiar to him, other emotions succeeded that of anger. There was an audacity about his old flame, a spirit and devilment, which appealed to his sporting instincts. Besides, it was complimentary to him, and flattering to his masculine vanity, that she should not give him up without a struggle. Merely as a friend it would not be disagreeable to see her again. Before he had reached Clapham Junction his anger had departed, and by the time that he arrived at Waterloo he was surprised to find himself looking forward to the interview.
Mariani's is a quiet restaurant, famous for its lachryma christi spumante, and situated in the network of sombre streets between Drury Lane and Covent Garden. The fact of its being in a by-street was not unfavourable to its particular class of business. Its customers were very free from the modern vice of self-advertisement, and would even take some trouble to avoid publicity. Nor were they gregarious or luxurious in their tastes. A small, simple apartment was usually more to their taste than a crowded salon, and they were even prepared to pay a higher sum for it.
It was five minutes to four when Frank arrived, and the lady had not yet appeared. He stood near the door and waited. Presently a hansom rattled into the narrow street, and there she sat framed in its concavity. A pretty woman never looks prettier than in a hansom, with the shadows behind to give their Rembrandt effect to the face in front. She raised a yellow kid hand, and flashed a smile at him.
'Just the same as ever,' said she, as he handed her down.
'So are you.'
'So glad you think so. I am afraid I can't quite agree with you. Thirty-four yesterday. It's simply awful. Thank you, I have some change. All right, cabby. Well, have you got a room?'
'But you'll come?'
'Oh yes, I should like to have a chat.'
The clean-shaven, round-faced manager, a man of suave voice and diplomatic manner, was standing in the passage. His strange life was spent in standing in the passage. He remembered the pair at once, and smiled paternally.
'Not seen you for some time, sir!'
'No, I have been engaged.'
'Married,' said the lady.
'Dear me!' said the proprietor. 'Tea, sir?'
'And muffins. You used to like the muffins.'
'Oh yes, muffins by all means.'
'Number ten,' said the proprietor, and a waiter showed them upstairs. 'All meals nine shillings each,' he whispered, as Frank passed him at the door. He was a new waiter, and so mistook every one for a new customer, which is an error which runs through life.
It was a dingy little room with a round table covered by a soiled cloth in the middle. Two windows, discreetly blinded, let in a dim London light. An armchair stood at each side of the empty fireplace, and an uncomfortable, old-fashioned, horsehair sofa lined the opposite wall. There were pink vases upon the mantelpiece, and a portrait of Garibaldi above it.
The lady sat down and took off her gloves. Frank stood by the window and smoked a cigarette. The waiter rattled and banged and jingled with the final effect of producing a tea-tray and a hot-water dish. 'You'll ring if you want me, sir,' said he, and shut the door with ostentatious completeness.
'Now we can talk,' said Frank, throwing his cigarette into the fireplace. 'That waiter was getting on my nerves.'
'I say, I hope you're not angry.'
'Well, my saying I should come down to Woking, and all that.'
'I should have been angry if I thought you had meant it.'
'Oh, I meant it right enough.'
'But with what object?'
'Just to get level with you, Frankie, if you threw me over too completely. Hang it all, she has three hundred and sixty-five days in the year! Am I to be grudged a single hour?'
'Well, Violet, we won't quarrel about it. You see I came all right. Pull up your chair and have some tea.'
'You haven't even looked at me yet. I won't take any tea until you do.'
She stood up in front of him, and pushed up her veil. It was a face and a figure worth looking at. Hazel eyes, dark chestnut hair, a warm flush of pink in her cheeks, the features and outline of an old Grecian goddess, but with more of Juno than of Venus, for she might perhaps err a little upon the side of opulence. There was a challenge and defiance dancing in those dark devil-may-care eyes of hers which might have roused a more cold-blooded man than her companion. Her dress was simple and dark, but admirably cut. She was clever enough to know that a pretty woman should concentrate attention upon herself, and a plain one divert it to her adornments.
'By Jove, Violet, you look splendid.'
'The muffins are getting cold.'
'Frankie, what IS the matter with you?'
'Nothing is the matter.'
She put out her two hands and took hold of his. That well-remembered sweet, subtle scent of hers rose to his nostrils. There is nothing more insidious than a scent which carries suggestions and associations. 'Frankie, you have not kissed me yet.'
She turned her smiling face upwards and sideways, and for an instant he leaned forward towards it. But he had himself in hand again in a moment. It gave him confidence to find how quickly and completely he could do it. With a laugh, still holding her two hands, he pushed her back into the chair by the table.
'There's a good girl!' said he. 'Now we'll have some tea, and I'll give you a small lecture while we do so.'
'You are a nice one to give lectures.'
'Oh, there's no such preacher as a converted sinner.'
'You really are converted then?'
'Rather. Two lumps, if I remember right. You ought to do this, not I. No milk, and very strong—how you keep your complexion I can't imagine. But you do keep it; my word, you do! Now please don't look so crossly at me.'
Her flushed cheeks and resentful eyes had drawn forth the remonstrance.
'You ARE changed,' she said, with surprise as well as anger in her voice.
'Why, of course I am. I am married.'
'For that matter Charlie Scott is married.'
'Don't give Charlie Scott away.'
'I think I give myself away. So you have lost all your love for me. I thought it was to last for ever.'
'Now, do be sensible, Violet.'
'Sensible! How I loathe that word! A man only uses it when he is going to do something cold-blooded and mean. It is always the beginning of the end.'
'What do you want me to do?'
'I want you to be my own Frankie—just the same as before. Ah do, Franck—don't leave me! You know I would give any of them up for you. And you have a good influence over me—you have really! You call't think how hard I am with other people. Ask Charlie Scott. He will tell you. I've been so different since I have lost sight of you. Now, Frankie, don't be horrid to me! Kiss and be nice!' Again her soft warm hand was upon his, and the faint sweet smell of violets went to his blood like wine. He jumped up, lit another cigarette, and paced about the room.
'You shan't have a cigarette, Frankie.'
'Because you said once it helped you to control yourself. I don't want you to control yourself. I want you to feel as I feel.'
'Do sit down, like a good girl!'
'Don't be absurd, Violet!'
'Come, out with it, sir.'
'No, no, leave it alone!'
She had snatched it from his lips and thrown it into the grate.
'What is the use of that? I have a case full.'
'They shall all follow the first.'
'Well, then, I won't smoke.'
'I'll see that you don't.'
'Well, what the better are you for that?'
'Now, be nice.'
'Go back to your chair and have some more tea.'
'Oh, bother the tea!'
'Well, I won't speak to you unless you sit down and behave yourself.'
'There now! Speak away.'
'Look here, dear Violet, you must not talk about this any more. Some things are possible and some are impossible. This is absolutely, finally impossible. We can never go back upon the past. It is finished and done with.'
'Then what did you come here for?'
'To bid you good-bye.'
'A Platonic good-bye.'
'In a private room at Mariani's.'
She laughed bitterly.
'You were always a little mad, Frankie.'
He leaned earnestly over the table.
'Look here, Violet, the chances are that we shall never meet again.'
'It takes two to say that.'
'Well, I mean that after to-day I should not meet you again. If you were not quite what you are it would be easier. But as it is I find it a little too much of a test. No, don't mistake me or think that I am weakening. That is impossible. But all the same I don't want to go through it again.'
'So sorry if I have upset you.'
He disregarded her irony.
'We have been very good friends, Violet. Why should we part as enemies?'
'Why should we part at all?'
'We won't go back over that. Now do please look facts in the face and help me to do the right thing, for it would be so much easier if you would help me. If you were a very good and kind girl you would shake my hand, like any other old pal, and wish me joy of my marriage. You know that I should do so if I knew that you were going to be married.'
But the lady was not to be so easily appeased. She took her tea in silence or answered his remarks with monosyllables, while the occasional flash of her dark eyes as she raised them was like the distant lightning which heralds the storm. Suddenly, with a swift rustle of skirts, she was between the door and his chair.
'Now, Frankie, we have had about enough of this nonsense,' said she. 'Don't imagine that you are going to get out of this thing so easily. I've got you, and I'll keep you.'
He faced round in his chair and looked helplessly at her with a hand upon each knee.
'O Lord! Don't begin it all over again,' said he.
'No, I won't,' she answered with an angry laugh. 'I'll try another line this time, Master Frank. I'm not the sort of woman who lets a thing go easily when once I have set my heart upon it. I won't try coaxing any longer—'
'So glad,' he murmured.
'You may say what you like, but you can't do it, my boy. I knew you before she did, and I'll keep you, or else I'll make such a row that you will be sorry that you ever put my back up. It's all very fine to sit there and preach, but it won't do, Frankie. You can't slip out of things as easily as all that.'
'Why should you turn nasty like this, Violet? What do you think you will gain by it?'
'I mean to gain YOU. I like you, Frankie. I'm not sure that I don't really love you—real, real love, you know. Any way, I don't intend to let you go, and if you go against my will I give you my word that I shall make it pretty sultry for you down at Woking.'
He stared moodily into his teacup.
'Besides, what rot it all is!' she continued, laying her hand upon his shoulder. 'When did you begin to ride the high moral horse? You were just as cheerful as the rest of them when last I saw you. You speak as if a man ceased to live just because he is married. What has changed you?'
'I'll tell you what has changed me,' said he, looking up. 'My wife has changed me.'
'Oh, bother your wife!'
A look which was new to her came over his face.
'Stop that!' said he sharply.
'Oh, no harm! How has your wife made this wonderful change?'
His mood softened as his thoughts flew back to Woking.
'By her own goodness—the atmosphere that she makes round her. If you knew how wholesome she was, how delicate in her most intimate thoughts, how fresh and how sweet and how pure, you would understand that the thought of being false to her is horrible. When I think of her as she sat at breakfast this morning, so loving and so innocent— '
He would have been more discreet if he had been less eloquent. The lady's temper suddenly overflowed.
'Innocent!' she cried. 'As innocent as I am.'
He sprang to his feet with eyes which were more angry than her own.
'Hold your tongue! How dare you talk against my wife! You are not fit to mention her name.'
'I'll go to Woking,' she gasped.
'You can go to the devil!' said he, and rang the bell for his bill. She stared at him with a surprise which had eclipsed her anger, while she pulled on her gloves with little sharp twitches. This was a new Frank Crosse to her. As long as a woman gets on very well with a man, she is apt, at the back of her soul, to suspect him of weakness. It is only when she differs from him that she can see the other side, and it always comes as a surprise. She liked him better than ever for the revelation.
'I'm not joking,' she whispered, as they went down the stair. 'I'll go, as sure as fate.'
He took no notice, but passed on down the street without a word of farewell. When he came to the turning he looked back. She was standing by the curb, with her proud head high in the air, while the manager screamed loudly upon a whistle. A cab swung round a distant corner. Crosse reached her before it did.
'I hope I haven't hurt your feelings,' said he. 'I spoke too roughly.'
'Trying to coax me away from Woking,' she sneered. 'I'm coming all the same.'
'That's your affair,' said he, as he handed her into the cab.
Again the bright little dining-room, with the morning sun gleaming upon the high silver coffee pot and the electro-plated toast-rack— everything the same, down to the plates which Jemima had once again forgotten to warm. Maude, with the golden light playing upon the fringes of her curls, and throwing two little epaulettes of the daintiest pink across her shoulders, sat in silence, glancing across from time to time with interrogative eyes at her husband. He ate his breakfast moodily, for he was very ill at ease. There was a struggle within him, for his conscience was pulling him one way and his instincts the other. Instincts are a fine old conservative force, while conscience is a thing of yesterday, so it is usually safe to prophesy which will sway the other.
The matter at issue was whether he should tell Maude about Violet Wright. If she were going to carry out her threat, then certainly it would be better to prepare her. But after all, his arguments of yesterday might prevail with her when her first impetuous fit of passion was over. Why should he go half-way to meet danger? If it came, nothing which he could say would ward it off. If it did not come, there was no need for saying anything. Conscience told him that it would be better to be perfectly straight with his wife. Instinct told him that though she would probably be sweet and sympathetic over it, yet it would rankle in her mind and poison her thoughts. And perhaps for once, Instinct may have been better than Conscience. Do not ask too many questions, you young wife! Do not be too free with your reminiscences, you young husband. There are things which can be forgiven, but never, never, can they be forgotten. That highest thing on earth, the heart of a loving woman, is too tender, too sacred, to be bruised by a wanton confidence. You are hers. She is yours. The future lies with both of you. It is wiser to leave the past alone. The couples who boast that they have never had a secret are sometimes happy because the boast is sometimes untrue.
'You won't be late to-day, Frank,' said Maude at last, peeping round the tall coffee-pot.
'No, dear, I won't.'
'You were yesterday, you know.'
'Yes, I know I was.'
'Were you kept at the office?'
'No, I had tea with a friend.'
'At his house?'
'No, no, at a restaurant. Where has Jemima put my boots? I wonder if she has cleaned them. I can never tell by looking. Here they are. And my coat? Anything I can get you in town? Well, good-bye, dear, good-bye!' Maude had never seen him make so hurried an exit.
It is always a mystery to the City man how his wife puts in the seven hours a day of loneliness while the E.C. has claimed him for its own. She cannot explain it to him, for she can hardly explain it to herself. It is frittered away in a thousand little tasks, each trivial in itself, and yet making in their sum the difference between a well-ordered and a neglected household. Under the illustrious guidance of the omniscient Mrs. Beeton there is the usual routine to be gone through. The cook has to be seen, the larder examined, the remains cunningly transformed into new and attractive shapes, the dinner to be ordered (anything will do for lunch), and the new supplies to be got in. The husband accepts the excellent little dinner, the fried sole, the ris de veau en caisse, the lemon pudding, as if they had grown automatically out of the table-cloth. He knows nothing of the care, the judgment, the prevision which ring the changes with every season, which never relax and never mistake. He enjoys the fruits, but he ignores the work which raised them. And yet the work goes cheerfully and uncomplainingly on.
Then when every preparation has been made for the dinner—that solemn climax of the British day, there is plenty for Maude to do. There is the white chiffon to be taken out of the neck of that dress, and the pink to be put in. Amateur dressmaking is always going on at The Lindens, and Frank has become more careful in his caresses since he found one evening that his wife had a row of pins between her lips— which is not a pleasant discovery to make with your own. Then there are drawers to be tidied, and silver to be cleaned, and the leaves of the gutta-percha plant to be washed, and the feather which was damped yesterday to be re-curled before the fire. That leaves just time before lunch to begin the new novel by glancing at the last two pages to see what DID happen, and then the three minutes lunch of a lonely woman. So much for business, now for the more trying social duties. The pink dressing-gown is shed and a trim little walking dress— French grey cloth with white lisse in front and a grey zouave jacket- -takes its place. Visiting strangers is not nearly so hard when you are pleased with your dress, and even entertaining becomes more easy when your costumiere lives in Regent Street. On Tuesdays Maude is at home. Every other day she hunts through her plate of cards, and is overwhelmed by the sense of her rudeness towards her neighbours. But her task is never finished, though day after day she comes back jaded with her exertions. Strangers still call upon her—'hope it is not too late to do the right thing, and to welcome,' etc., etc.—and they have to be re-visited. While she is visiting them, other cards appear upon her hall table, and so the foolish and tiresome convention continues to exhaust the time and the energies of its victim.
Those original receptions were really very difficult. Jemima announced a name which might or might not bear some relation to the visitor's. The lady entered. Her name might perhaps be Mrs. Baker. Maude had no means of knowing who Mrs. Baker might be. The visitor seldom descended to an explanation. Ten minutes of desultory and forced conversation about pinewoods and golf and cremation. A cup of tea and a departure. Then Maude would rush to the card-tray to try to find out whom it was that she had been talking to, and what it was all about.
Maude did not intend to go visiting that particular day, and she had hoped that no one might visit her. The hours of danger were almost past, and it was close upon four o'clock, when there came a brisk pull at the bell.
'Mrs. White,' said Jemima, opening the drawing-room door.
'Wright,' said the visitor, as she walked in—'Mrs. Violet Wright.'
Maude rose with her pleasant smile. It was a peculiarly sweet and kindly smile, for it was inspired by a gentle womanly desire to make things pleasant for all who were around her. Amiability was never artificial with her, for she had the true instincts of a lady—those instincts so often spoken of, so seldom, so very seldom seen. Like a gentleman, or a Christian, or any other ideal, it is but a poor approximation which is commonly attained.
But the visitor did not respond to the pretty gesture of welcome, nor did her handsome face return that sympathetic smile. They stood for an instant looking at each other, the one tall, masterful, mature, the other sweet, girlish, and self-distrustful, but each beautiful and engaging in her own way. Lucky Master Frank, whose past and present could take such a form; but luckier still if he could have closed the past when the present opened. The visitor was silent, but her dark eyes looked critically and fixedly at her rival. Maude, setting the silence down to the shyness of a first visit, tried to make matters easier.
'Please try this armchair. No doubt you have had a tiring walk. It is still very warm in the afternoons. I think it was so kind of you to call.'
A faint smile flickered upon the dark face.
'Kind of me to call!' said she.
'Yes; for in a rising place like Woking, with so many new arrivals, it must be quite a task for the older inhabitants to welcome them. I have been so surprised by the kindness which every one has shown.'
'Oh, I see,' said her visitor, 'you think that I live here. I have really just come down from London.'
'Indeed,' said Maude, and awaited an explanation. As none was forthcoming, she added, 'You will find Woking a very nice place.'
'A nice place to be buried in, alive or dead,' said her visitor.
There was something peculiarly ungracious in her tone and manner. It seemed to Maude that she had never before been alone with so singular a person. There was, in the first place, her striking and yet rather sinister and voluptuous beauty.
Then there was the absolute carelessness of her manner, the quiet assumption that she was outside the usual conventionalities of life. It is a manner only to be met in English life, among some of the highest of the high world, and some of the highest of the half world. It was new to Maude, and it made her uncomfortable, while mingled with it there was something else which made her feel for the first time in her life that she had incurred the hostility of a fellow- mortal. It chilled her, and made her unhappy.
The visitor made no effort to sustain the conversation, but leaned back in her chair and stared at her hostess with a very critical and searching glance. Those two questioning dark eyes played eagerly over her from her brown curls down to the little shining shoe-tips which peeped from under the grey skirt. Especially they dwelt upon her face, reading it and rereading it. Never had Maude been so inspected, and her instinct told her that the inspection was not altogether a friendly one.
Violet Wright having examined her rival, proceeded now with the same cool attention to take in her surroundings. She looked round deliberately at the furniture of the room, and reconstructed in her own mind the life of the people who owned it. Maude ventured upon one or two conventional remarks, but her visitor was not to be diverted to the weather or to the slowness of the South-Western train service. She continued her quiet and silent inspection. Suddenly she rose and swept across to the side-table. A photograph of Frank in his volunteer uniform stood upon it.
'This is your husband, Mr. Frank Crosse?'
'Yes, do you know him?'
'Slightly. We have mutual friends.' An ambiguous smile played across her face as she spoke. 'This must have been taken after I saw him.'
'It was taken just after our marriage.'
'Quite so. He looks like a good little married man. The photograph is flattering.'
'Oh, you think so!' said Maude coldly. 'My own impression is that it fails to do him justice.'
Her visitor laughed. 'Of course that WOULD be your impression,' said she.
Maude's gentle soul began to rise in anger.
'It is the truth,' she cried.
'It is right that you should think so,' the other answered, with the same irritating laugh.
'You must have known him very slightly if you can't see that it is the truth.'
'Then I must have known him very slightly.'
Maude was very angry indeed. She began to find sides to her own nature the very existence of which she had never suspected. She tapped her little shoe upon the ground, and she sat with a pale face, and compressed lips, and bright eyes, quite prepared to be very rude indeed to this eccentric woman who ventured to criticise her Frank in so free and easy a style. Her visitor watched her, and a change had come over her expression. Maude's evident anger seemed to amuse and interest her. Her eyes lost their critical coldness, and softened into approval. She suddenly put her hand upon the other's shoulder with so natural and yet masterful a gesture, that Maude found it impossible to resent it.
'He is a lucky man to have such a warm little champion,' said she.
Her strong character and greater knowledge of the world gave her an ascendency over the girlish wife such as age has over youth. There were not ten years between them, and yet Maude felt that for some reason the conversation between them could not quite be upon equal terms. The quiet assurance of her visitor, whatever its cause, made resentment or remonstrance difficult. Besides, they were a pair of very kindly as well as of very shrewd eyes which now looked down into hers.
'You love him very much, then?'
'Of course I love him. He is my husband.'
'Does it always follow?'
'You are married yourself. Don't you love yours?'
'Oh, never mind mine. HE'S all right. Did you ever love any one else?'
'No, not really.'
Maude was astonished at herself, and yet the questions were so frankly put that a frank answer came naturally to them. It pleased her to lose that cold chill of dislike, and to feel that for some reason her strange visitor had become more friendly to her.
'You lucky girl, you actually married the one love of your life!'
Maude smiled and nodded.
'What a splendid thing to do! I thought it only happened in books. How happy you must be!'
'I AM very, very happy.'
'Well, I dare say you deserve to be. Besides, you really are very pretty. If ever you had a rival, I should think that it must be some consolation to her to know that it was so charming a person who cut her out.'
Maude laughed at the thought.
'I never had a rival,' said she. 'My husband never REALLY loved until he met me.'
'Did he—oh yes, quite so! That is so nice that you should both start with a clean sheet! I thought you were very handsome just now when you were angry with me, but you are quite delightful with that little flush upon your cheeks. If I had been a man, your husband would certainly have had one rival in his wooing. And so he really never loved any one but you? I thought that also only happened in books.'
There was a hard and ironic tone in the last sentences which jarred upon Maude's sensitive nature. She glanced up quickly and was surprised at the look of pain which had come upon her companion's face. It relaxed into a serious serenity.
'That fits in beautifully,' said she. 'But there's one bit of advice which I should like to give you, if you won't think it a liberty. Don't be selfish in your married life.'
'Yes, there is a kind of family selfishness which is every bit as bad—I am not sure that it is not worse—than personal selfishness. People love each other, and they shut out the world, and have no thought for any one else, and the whole universe can slide to perdition so long as their love is not disturbed. That is what I call family selfishness. It's a sin and a shame.'
Maude looked at this strange woman in amazement. She was speaking fast and hotly, like one whose bitter thoughts have been long penned up for want of a suitable listener.
'Remember the women who have been less fortunate than you. Remember the thousands who are starving, dying, for want of love, and no love comes their way; whose hearts yearn and faint for that which Nature owes them, but Nature never pays her debt. Remember the plain women. Remember the lonely women. Above all, remember your unfortunate sisters; they, the most womanly of all, who have been ruined by their own kindliness and trust and loving weakness. It is that family selfishness which turns every house in the land into a fort to be held against these poor wanderers. They make them evil, and then they revile the very evil which they have made. When I look back—'
She stopped with a sudden sob. Her forearm fell upon the mantelpiece, and her forehead upon her forearm. In an instant Maude was by her side, the tears running down her cheeks, for the sight of grief was always grief to her, and her nerves were weakened by this singular interview.
'Dear Mrs. Wright, don't cry!' she whispered, and her little white hand passed in a soothing, hesitating gesture over the coil of rich chestnut hair. 'Don't cry! I am afraid you have suffered. Oh, how I wish I could help you! Do tell me how I can help you.'
But Violet's occasional fits of weakness were never of a very long duration. She dashed her hand impatiently across her eyes, straightened her tall figure, and laughed as she glanced at herself in the mirror.
'Madame Celandine would be surprised if she could see how I have treated one of her masterpieces,' said she, as she straightened her crushed hat, and arranged her hair with those quick little deft pats of the palm with which women can accomplish so much in so short a time. Rumpled finery sets the hands of every woman within sight of it fidgeting, so Maude joined in at the patting and curling and forgot all about her tears.
'There, that will have to do,' said Violet at last. 'I am so sorry to have made such a fool of myself. I don't err upon the sentimental side as a rule. I suppose it is about time that I thought of catching my train for town. I have a theatre engagement which I must not miss.'
'How strange it is!' said Maude, looking at her own pretty tear- marked face in the mirror. 'You have only been here a few minutes, as time goes, and yet I feel that in some things I am more intimate with you than with any woman I have ever met. How can it be? What bond can there be to draw us together like this? And it is the more extraordinary, because I felt that you disliked me when you entered the room, and I am sure that you won't be offended if I say that when you had been here a little I thought that I disliked you. But I don't. On the contrary, I wish you could come every day. And I want to come and see you also when I am in town.'
Maude, for all her amiability, was not gushing by nature, and this long speech caused her great astonishment when she looked back upon it. But at the moment it came so naturally from her heart that she never paused to think of its oddity. Her enthusiasm was a little chilled, however, by the way in which her advances were received. Violet Wright's eyes were more kindly than ever, but she shook her head.
'No, I don't suppose we shall ever meet again. I don't think I could ask you to visit me in London. I wanted to see you, and I have seen you, but that, I fear, must be the end of it.'
Maude's lip trembled in a way which it had when she was hurt.
'Why did you wish to see me, then?' she asked.
'On account of that slight acquaintance with your husband. I thought it would be interesting to see what sort of wife he had chosen.'
'I hope you are not disappointed,' said Maude, making a roguish face.
'He has done very well—better than I expected.'
'You had not much respect for his taste, then?'
'Oh yes, I always thought highly of his taste.'
'You have such a pretty way of putting things. You know my husband very slightly, but still I can see that you know the world very well. I often wonder if I am really the best kind of woman that he could have married. Do you think I am, Mrs. Wright?'
Her visitor looked in silence for a little at the gentle grace and dainty sympathetic charm of the woman before her.
'Yes,' she said slowly, as one who weighs her words. 'I think you are. You are a lady with a lady's soul in you. A woman can draw a man down very low, or she can make him live at his very highest. Don't be soft with him. Don't give way when you know that your way is the higher way. Pull him up, don't let him ever pull you down. Then his respect for you will strengthen his love for you, and the two together are so much greater than either one apart. Your instinct would be to do this, and therefore you are the best sort of woman for him.'
Her opinion was given with so much thought, and yet so much decision, that Maude glowed with pride and with pleasure. There was knowledge and authority behind the words of this unaccountable woman.
'How sweet you are!' she cried. 'I feel that what you say is true. I feel that that is what a wife should be to her husband. Please God, I will be so to Frank!'
'And one other piece of advice before I leave you,' said Violet Wright. 'Don't ever take your husband for granted. Don't ever accept his kiss or caress as a routine thing. Don't ever relax those little attentions which you showed him in the earliest days. Don't let the freshness go out of love, for the love may soon follow it, even when duty keeps the man true. It is the commonest mistake which married women make. It has caused more unhappiness than any other. They do not realise it until it is too late. Be keenly watchful for your husband's wants and comforts. It is not the comfort but the attention which he values. If it is not there he will say nothing, if he is a good fellow, but he notices it all the same. She has changed, he thinks. And from that moment he will begin to change also. Be on your guard against that. It is very unselfish of me to give you all this wise counsel.'
'It is very good of you, and I feel that it is all so true. But why is it unselfish of you?'
'I only meant that I had no interest in the matter. What does it matter to me whether you keep his love or not. And yet I don't know.' She suddenly put her arms round Maude, and kissed her upon the cheek. 'You are a good little sort, and I hope you will be happy.'
Frank Crosse had disentangled himself from the rush of City men emerging from the Woking station, and he was walking swiftly through the gathering gloom along the vile, deeply-rutted road, which formed a short cut to The Lindens. Suddenly, with a sinking heart, he was aware of a tall graceful figure which was sweeping towards him. There could not be two women of that height, who carried themselves in that fashion.
'Hullo, Frankie! I thought it might be you, but those tall hats and black overcoats make every one alike. Your wife will be glad to see you.'
'Violet! You have ruined our happiness. How could you have the heart to do it! It is not for myself I speak, God knows. But to think of her feelings being so abused, her confidence so shaken—'
'All right, Frankie, there is nothing to be tragic about.'
'Haven't you been to my house?'
'Yes, I have.'
'And seen her?'
'I didn't give you away, my boy. I was a model of discretion. I give you my word that it is all right. And she's a dear little soul, Frankie. You're not worthy to varnish those pretty patent leathers of hers. You know you're not. And by Jove, Frankie, if you had stayed with me yesterday I should never have forgiven you—no, never! I'll resign in her favour. I will. But in no one else's, and if ever I hear of your going wrong, my boy, or doing anything but the best with that sweet trusting woman, I'll make you curse the day that ever you knew me—I will, by the living Jingo.'
'Do, Violet—you have my leave.'
'All right. The least said the soonest mended. Give me a kiss before we part.'
She raised her veil, and he kissed her. He was wearing some withered flower in his overcoat, and she took it from him.
'It's a souvenir of our friendship, Frankie, and rather a good emblem of it also. So-long!' said she, as she turned down the weary road which leads to the station. A young golfer, getting in at Byfleet, was surprised to see a handsome woman weeping bitterly in the corner of a second-class carriage. 'Comm' up from roastin' somebody at that damned crematory place,' was his explanation to his companion.
Frank had a long and animated account from Maude of the extraordinary visitor whom she had entertained. 'It's such a pity, dear, that you don't know her well, for I should really like to hear every detail about her. At first I thought she was mad, and then I thought she was odious, and then finally she seemed to be the very wisest and kindest woman that I had ever known. She made me angry, and frightened, and grieved, and grateful, and affectionate, one after the other, and I never in my life was so taken out of myself by any one. She IS so sensible!'
'Sensible, is she?'
'And she said that I was—oh! I can't repeat it—everything that is nice.'
'Then she IS sensible.'
'And such a high opinion of your taste.'
'Had she indeed.'
'Do you know, Frank, I really believe that in a quiet, secret, retiring sort of way she has been fond of you herself.'
'O Maude, what funny ideas you get sometimes! I say, if we are going out for dinner, it is high time that we began to dress.'
CHAPTER XX—NO. 5 CHEYNE ROW
Frank had brought home the Life of Carlyle, and Maude had been dipping into it in the few spare half-hours which the many duties of a young housekeeper left her. At first it struck her as dry, but from the moment that she understood that this was, among other things, an account of the inner life of a husband and a wife, she became keenly interested, and a passionate and unreasonable partisan. For Frederick and Cromwell and the other great issues her feelings were tolerant but lukewarm. But the great sex-questions of 'How did he treat her?' and of 'How did she stand it?' filled her with that eternal and personal interest with which they affect every woman. Her gentle nature seldom disliked any one, but certainly amongst those whom she liked least, the gaunt figure of the Chelsea sage began to bulk largely. One night, as Frank sat reading in front of the fire, he suddenly found his wife on her knees upon the rug, and a pair of beseeching eyes upon his face.
'Frank, dear, I want you to make me a promise.'
'Well, what is it?'
'Will you grant it?'
'How can I tell you when I have not heard it?'
'How horrid you are, Frank! A year ago you would have promised first and asked afterwards.'
'But I am a shrewd old married man now. Well, let me hear it.'
'I want you to promise me that you will never be a Carlyle.'
'No, no, never.'
'Really and truly.'
'You swear it?'
'Yes, I do.'
'O Frank, you can't think what a relief that is to me. That dear, good, helpful, little lady—it really made me cry this morning when I thought how she had been used.'
'I have been reading that green-covered book of yours, and he seemed so cold and so sarcastic and so unsympathetic. He never seemed to appreciate all that she did for him. He had no thought for her. He lived in his books and never in her—such a harsh, cruel man!'
Frank went upstairs, and returned with a volume in his hand.
'When you have finished the 'Life,' you must read this, dear.'
'What is it?'
'It is her letters. They were arranged for publication after her death, while her husband was still alive. You know that—'
'Please take it for granted, darling, that I know nothing. It is so jolly to have some one before whom it is not necessary to keep up appearances. Now, begin at the beginning and go ahead.' She pillowed her head luxuriously against his knees.
'There's nothing to tell—or very little. As you say, they had their troubles in life. The lady could take particularly good care of herself, I believe. She had a tongue like a lancet when she chose to use it. He, poor chap, was all liver and nerves, porridge-poisoned in his youth. No children to take the angles off them. Half a dozen little buffer states would have kept them at peace. However, to hark back to what I was about to say, he outlived her by fifteen years or so. During that time he collected these letters, and he has annotated them. You can read those notes here, and the man who wrote those notes loved his wife and cherished her memory, if ever a man did upon earth.'
The graceful head beside his knee shook impatiently.
'What is the use of that to the poor dead woman? Why could not he show his love by kindness and thought for her while she was alive?'
'I tell you, Maude, there were two sides to that. Don't be so prejudiced! And remember that no one has ever blamed Carlyle as bitterly as he has blamed himself. I could read you bits of these notes—'
'Here's the first letter, in which she is talking about how they first moved into the house at Cheyne Row. They spent their early years in Scotland, you know, and he was a man going on to the forties when he came to London. The success of Sartor Resartus encouraged them to the step. Her letter describes all the incoming. Here is his comment, written after her death: "In about a week all was swept and garnished, fairly habitable; and continued incessantly to get itself polished, civilised, and beautified to a degree that surprised one. I have elsewhere alluded to all that, and to my little Jeannie's conduct of it; heroic, lovely, pathetic, mournfully beautiful as in the light of Eternity that little scene of time now looks to me. From birth upwards she had lived in opulence, and now became poor for me—so nobly poor. No such house for beautiful thrift, quiet, spontaneous, nay, as it were, unconscious minimum of money reconciled to human comfort and human dignity, have I anywhere looked upon where I have been." Now, Maude, did that man appreciate his wife?'
But the obstinate head still shook.
'Words, words,' said she.
'Yes, but words with the ring of truth in them. Can't you tell real feeling from sham? I don't believe women can, or they would not be so often taken in. Here's the heading of the next letter: "Mournfully beautiful is this letter to me, a clear little household light shining pure and brilliant in the dark obstructive places of the past"—a little later comes the note: "Oh my poor little woman— become poor for me."'
'I like to hear him talk like that. Yes, I do like him better after what you have said, Frank.'
'You must remember two things about him, Maude. The first, that he was a Scotchman, who are of all men the least likely to wear their hearts upon their sleeves; the other, that his mind was always grappling with some far-away subject which made him forget the smaller things close by him.'
'But the smaller things are everything to a woman,' said Maude. 'If ever you forget those smaller things, sir, to be as courteous to your wife as you would be to any other lady, to be loving and thoughtful and sympathetic, it will be no consolation to me to know that you have written the grandest book that ever was. I should just hate that book, and I believe that in her inmost heart this poor lady hated all the books that had taken her husband away from her. I wonder if their house is still standing.'
'Certainly it is. Would you like to visit it?'
'I don't think there is anything I should like more.'
'Why, Maude, we are getting quite a distinguished circle of acquaintances. Mr. Pepys last month—and now the Carlyles. Well, we could not spend a Saturday afternoon better, so if you will meet me to-morrow at Charing Cross, we shall have a cosy little lunch together at Gatti's, and then go down to Chelsea.'
Maude was a rigid economist, and so was Frank in his way, for with the grand self-respect of the middle classes the thought of debt was unendurable to them. A cab in preference to a 'bus gave both of them a feeling of dissipation, but none the less they treated themselves to one on the occasion of this, their little holiday. It is a delightful thing to snuggle up in, is a hansom; but in order to be really trim and comfortable one has to put one's arm round one's companion's waist. No one can observe it there, for the vehicle is built upon intelligent principles. The cabman, it is true, can overlook you through a hole in the roof. This cabman did so, and chuckled in his cravat. 'If that cove's wife could see him—huddup, then!' said the cabman.
He was an intelligent cabman too, for having heard Frank say 'Thomas Carlyle's house' after giving the address 5 Cheyne Row, he pulled up on the Thames Embankment. Right ahead of them was Chelsea Bridge, seen through a dim, soft London haze—monstrous, Cyclopean, giant arches springing over a vague river of molten metal, the whole daintily blurred, as though out of focus. The glamour of the London haze, what is there upon earth so beautiful? But it was not to admire it that the cabman had halted.
'I beg your pardin', sir,' said he, in the softly insinuating way of the Cockney, 'but I thought that maybe the lidy would like to see Mr. Carlyle's statue. That's 'im, sir, a-sittin' in the overcoat with the book in 'is 'and.'
Frank and Maude got out and entered the small railed garden, in the centre of which the pedestal rose. It was very simple and plain—an old man in a dressing-gown, with homely wornout boots, a book upon his knee, his eyes and thoughts far away. No more simple statue in all London, but human to a surprising degree. They stood for five minutes and stared at it.
'Well,' said Frank at last, 'small as it is, I think it is worthy of the man.'
'It is so natural.'
'You can see him think. By Jove, it is splendid!' Frank had enough of the true artist to be able to feel that rush of enthusiasm which adequate work should cause. That old man, with his head shamefully defiled by birds, was a positive joy to him. Among the soulless, pompous, unspeakable London statues, here at last there was one over which it is pleasant to linger.
'What other one is there?'
'Gordon in Trafalgar Square.'
'Well, Gordon, perhaps. But our Nelsons and Napiers and Havelocks— to think that we could do no better than that for them! Now, dear, we have seen the man—let us look at the house!'
It had evidently been an old-fashioned building when first they came to it. 1708 was the date at the corner of the street. Six or seven drab-coloured, flat-chested, dim-windowed houses stood in a line— theirs wedged in the middle of them. A poor medallion with a profile head of him had been clumsily let into the wall. Several worn steps led to the thin high door with an old-fashioned fanlight above it. Frank rang the bell, and a buxom cheerful matron came at the call.
'Names in this book, sir—AND address, if you please,' said the cheery matron. 'One shilling each—thank you, sir. First door to the left, sir! This was the dining-room, sir—'
But Frank had come to a dead stop in the dim, dull, wood-panelled hall. In front of them rose the stairs with old-fashioned banisters, cracked, warped, and dusty.
'It's awful to think of, Maude—awful! To think that she ran up those stairs as a youngish woman—that he took them two at a time as an active man, and then that they hobbled and limped down them, old and weary and broken, and now both dead and gone for ever, and the stairs standing, the very rails, the very treads—I don't know that I ever felt so strongly what bubbles of the air we are, so fragile, so utterly dissolved when the prick comes.'
'How COULD they be happy in such a house?' said Maude. 'I can feel that there have been sorrow and trouble here. There is an atmosphere of gloom.'
The matron-attendant approved of emotion, but in its due order. One should be affected in the dining-room first, and then in the hall. And so at her summons they followed her into the long, low, quaint room in which this curious couple had lived their everyday life. Little of the furniture was left, and the walls were lined with collected pictures bearing upon the life of the Carlyles.
'There's the fireplace that he smoked his pipe up,' said Frank.
'Why up the fireplace?'
'She did not like the smell in the room. He often at night took his friends down into the kitchen.'
'Fancy my driving you into the kitchen.'
'Well, the habit of smoking was looked upon much less charitably at that time.'
'And besides, he smoked clay pipes,' said the matron. 'This is considered a good print of Mrs. Carlyle.'
It was a peaky eager face, with a great spirit looking out of it, and possibilities of passion both for good and evil in the keen, alert features. Just beside her was the dour, grim outline of her husband. Their life-histories were in those two portraits.
'Poor dear!' said Maude.
'Ay, you may say so,' said the matron, whose accent showed that she was from the north of the Tweed. 'He was gey ill to live wi'. His own mither said so. Now, what think you that room was for?'
It was little larger than a cupboard, without window or skylight, opening out of the end of the dining-room.
'I can't imagine.'
'Well, sir, it was the powdering-room in the days when folk wore wigs. The powder made such a mess that they just had a room for nothing else. There was a hole in the door, and the man put his head through the hole, and the barber on the other side powdered him out of the flour-dredger.'
It was curious to be brought back in this fashion to those far-off days, and to suddenly realise how many other people had played their tragi-comedies within these walls. Wigs! Only the dressy people wore wigs. So people of fashion in the days of the early Georges trod these same rooms where Carlyle grumbled and his wife fretted. And they too had grumbled and fretted—or worse perhaps. It was a ghostly old house.
'This,' said the matron, when they had passed up the stair, 'used to be the drawing-room. That's their sofa.'
'Not THE sofa,' said Frank.
'Yes, sir, the sofa that is mentioned in the letters.'
'She was so proud of it, Maude. Gave eighteen shillings for it, and covered and stuffed it herself. And that, I suppose, is THE screen. She was a great housekeeper—brought up a spoiled child, according to her own account, but a great housekeeper all the same. What's that writing in the case?'
'It is the history that he was at work on when he died—something about the kings of Norway, sir. Those are his corrections in blue.'
'I can't read them.'
'No more could any one else, sir. Perhaps that's why the book has never been published. Those are the portraits of the kings of Prussia, about whom he wrote a book.'
Frank looked with interest at the old engravings, one of the schoolmaster face of the great Frederick, the other of the frog-like features of Frederick William, the half-mad recruiter of the big Potsdam grenadiers. When he had finished, the matron had gone down to open the door, and they were alone. Maude's hand grasped his.
'Is it not strange, dear?' she said. 'Here they lived, the most talented couple in the world, and yet with all their wisdom they missed what we have got—what perhaps that good woman who showed us round has got—the only thing, as it seems to me, that is really worth living for. What are all the wit and all the learning and all the insight into things compared to love.'
'By Jove, little woman, in all this house of wise sayings, no wiser or deeper saying has been said than that. Well, thank God, we have that anyhow!' And he kissed his wife, while six grand electors of Brandenburg and kings of Prussia looked fiercely out upon them from the wall.
They sat down together in two old chairs in the window, and they looked out into the dingy street, and Frank tried to recount all the great men—'the other great men, as Maude said, half chaffing and half earnest—who had looked through those panes. Tennyson, Ruskin, Emerson, Mill, Froude, Mazzini, Leigh Hunt—he had got so far when the matron returned.
There was a case in the corner with some of the wreckage from those vanished vessels. Notes from old Goethe in a singularly neat boyish writing inscribed upon little ornamented cards. Here, too, were small inscriptions which had lain upon presents from Carlyle to his wife. It was pleasant among all that jangling of the past to think of the love which had written them, and that other love which had so carefully preserved them. On one was written: 'All good attend my darling through this gulf of time and through the long ocean it is leading to. Amen. Amen. T. C.' On another, dated 1850, and attached evidently to some birthday present, was: 'Many years to my poor little Jeannie, and may the worst of them be past. No good that is in me to give her shall ever be wanting while I live. May God bless her.' How strange that this apostle of reticence should have such privacies as these laid open before the curious public within so few years of his death!
'This is her bedroom,' said the matron.
'And here is the old red bed,' cried Frank. It looked bare and gaunt and dreary with its uncurtained posts.
'The bed belonged to Mrs. Carlyle's mother,' the matron explained. 'It's the same bed that Mrs. Carlyle talks about in her letters when she says how she pulled it to pieces.'
'Why did she pull it to pieces?' asked Maude.
'Better not inquire, dear.'
'Indeed you're right, sir. If you get them into these old houses, it is very hard to get them out. A cleaner woman than Mrs. Carlyle never came out of Scotland. This little room behind was his dressing-room. There's his stick in the corner. Look what's written upon the window!'
Decidedly it was a ghostly house. Scratched upon one of the panes with a diamond was the following piece of information—'John Harbel Knowles cleaned all the windows in this house, and painted part, in the eighteenth year of age. March 7th, 1794.'
'Who was HE?' asked Maude.
'Nobody knows, miss!' It was characteristic of Maude that she was so gentle in her bearing that every one always took it for granted that she was Miss. Frank examined the writing carefully.
'He was the son of the house and a young aristocrat who had never done a stroke of work before in his life,' said he.
The matron was surprised.
'What makes you say that, sir?'
'What would a workman do with such a name as John Harbel Knowles, or with a diamond ring for that matter? And who would dare to disfigure a window so, if he were not of the family? And why should he be so proud of his work, unless work was a new and wondrous thing to him. To paint PART of the windows also sounds like the amateur and not the workman. So I repeat that it was the first achievement of the son of the house.'
'Well, indeed, I dare say you are right, though I never thought of it before,' said the matron. 'Now this, up here, is Carlyle's own room, in which he slept for forty-seven years. In the case is a cast of his head taken after death.'
It was strange and rather ghastly to see a plaster head in this room where the head of flesh had so often lain. Maude and Frank stood beside it, and gazed long and silently while the matron, half-bored and half-sympathetic, waited for them to move on. It was an aquiline face, very different from any picture which they had seen, sunken cheeks, an old man's toothless mouth, a hawk nose, a hollow eye—the gaunt timbers of what had once been a goodly house. There was repose, and something of surprise also, in the features—also a very subtle serenity and dignity.
'The distance from the ear to the forehead is said to be only equalled by Napoleon and by Gladstone. That's what they SAY,' said the matron, with Scotch caution.
'It's the face of a noble man when all is said and done,' said Frank. 'I believe that the true Thomas Carlyle without the dyspepsia, and the true Jane Welsh without the nerves, are knowing and loving each other in some further life.'
'It is sweet to think so,' cried Maude. 'Oh, I do hope that it is so! How dear death would be if we could only be certain of that!'
The matron smiled complacently in the superior wisdom of the Shorter Catechism. 'There is neither marriage nor giving in marriage,' said she, shaking her head. 'This is the spare bedroom, sir, where Mr. Emerson slept when he was here. And now if you will step this way I will show you the study.'
It was the singular room which Carlyle had constructed in the hopes that he could shut out all the noises of the universe, the crowing of cocks, and the jingling of a young lady's five-finger exercise in particular. It had cost him a hundred odd pounds, and had ended in being unendurably hot in summer, impossibly cold in winter, and so constructed acoustically that it reverberated every sound in the neighbourhood. For once even his wild and whirling words could hardly match the occasion—not all his kraft sprachen would be too much. For the rest it was at least a roomy and lofty apartment, with space for many books, and for an irritable man to wander to and fro. Prints there were of many historical notables, and slips of letters and of memoranda in a long glass case.
'That is one of his clay pipes,' said the matron. 'He had them all sent through to him from Glasgow. And that is the pen with which he wrote Frederick.'
It was a worn, stubby old quill, much the worse for its monstrous task. It at least of all quill pens might rest content with having done its work in the world. Some charred paper beside it caught Frank's eye.
'Oh look, Maude,' he cried. 'This is a little bit of the burned French Revolution.'
'Oh, I remember. He lent the only copy to a friend, and it was burned by mistake.'
'What a blow! What a frightful blow! And to think that his first comment to his wife was, "Well, Mill, poor fellow, is very much cut up about this." There is Carlyle at his best. And here is actually a shred of the old manuscript. How beautifully he wrote in those days!'
'Read this, sir,' said the matron.
It was part of a letter from Carlyle to his publisher about his ruined work. 'Do not pity me,' said he; 'forward me rather as a runner that is tripped but will not lie there, but run and run again.'
'See what positive misfortune can do for a man,' said Frank. 'It raised him to a hero. And yet he could not stand the test of a crowing cock. How infinitely complex is the human soul—how illimitably great and how pitiably small! Now, if ever I have a study of my own, this is what I want engraved upon the wall. This alone is well worth our pilgrimage to Chelsea.'
It was a short exclamation which had caught his eye.
'Rest! Rest! Shall I not have all eternity to rest in!' That serene plaster face down yonder gave force to the brave words. Frank copied them down onto the back of one of Maude's cards.
And now they had finished the rooms, but the matron, catching a glow from these enthusiastic pilgrims, had yet other things to show them. There was the back garden. Here was the green pottery seat upon which the unphilosophic philosopher had smoked his pipe—a singularly cold and uncomfortable perch. And here was where Mrs. Carlyle had tried to build a tent and to imagine herself in the country. And here was the famous walnut tree—or at least the stumpy bole thereof. And here was where the dog Nero was buried, best known of small white mongrels.
And last of all there was the subterranean and gloomy kitchen, in which there had lived that long succession of serving-maids of whom we gain shadowy glimpses in the Letters and in the Journal. Poor souls, dwellers in the gloom, working so hard for others, so bitterly reviled when by chance some weakness of humanity comes to break, for an instant, the routine of their constant labour, so limited in their hopes and in their pleasures, they are of all folk upon this planet those for whom a man's heart may most justly soften. So said Frank as he gazed around him in the dark-cornered room. 'And never one word of sympathy for them, or of anything save scorn in all his letters. His pen upholding human dignity, but where was the dignity of these poor girls for whom he has usually one bitter line of biography in his notes to his wife's letters? It's the worst thing I have against him.'
'Jemima wouldn't have stood it,' said Maude.
It was pleasant to be out in the open air once more, but they were in the pine groves of Woking before Maude had quite shaken off the gloom of that dark, ghost-haunted house. 'After all, you are only twenty- seven,' she remarked as they walked up from the station. She had a way of occasionally taking a subject by the middle in that way.
'What then, dear?'
'When Carlyle was only twenty-seven I don't suppose he knew he was going to do all this.'
'No, I don't suppose so.'
'And his wife—if he were married then—would feel as I do to you.'
'Then what guarantee have I that you won't do it after all?'
'Why, turn out a second Carlyle.'
'Hear me swear!' cried Frank, and they turned laughing into their own little gateway at the Lindens.
CHAPTER XXI—THE LAST NOTE OF THE DUET
Our young married couples may feel that two is company and three is none, but there comes a little noisy intruder to break into their sweet intimacy. The coming of the third is the beginning of a new life for them as well as for it—a life which is more useful and more permanent, but never so concentrated as before. That little pink thing with the blinking eyes will divert some of the love and some of the attention, and the very trouble which its coming has caused will set its mother's heart yearning over it. Not so the man. Some vague resentment mixes with his pride of paternity, and his wife's sufferings rankle in his memory when she has herself forgotten them. His pity, his fears, his helplessness, and his discomfort, give him a share in the domestic tragedy. It is not without cause that in some societies it is the man and not the woman who receives the condolence and the sympathy.
There came a time when Maude was bad, and there came months when she was better, and then there were indications that a day was approaching, the very thought of which was a shadow upon her husband's life. For her part, with the steadfast, gentle courage of a woman, she faced the future with a sweet serenity. But to him it was a nightmare—an actual nightmare which brought him up damp and quivering in those gray hours of the dawn, when dark shadows fall upon the spirit of man. He had a steady nerve for that which affected himself, a nerve which would keep him quiet and motionless in a dentist's chair, but what philosophy or hardihood can steel one against the pain which those whom we love have to endure. He fretted and chafed, and always with the absurd delusion that his fretting and chafing were successfully concealed. A hundred failures never convince a man how impossible it is to deceive a woman who loves him. Maude watched him demurely, and made her plans.
'Do you know, dear,' said she, one evening, 'if you can get a week of your holidays now, I think it would be a very good thing for you to accept that invitation of Mr. Mildmay's, and spend a few days in golfing at Norwich.'
Frank stared at her open-eyed.
'Yes, dear, now—at once.'
'But NOW of all times.'
Maude looked at him with that glance of absolute obvious candour which a woman never uses unless she has intent to deceive.
'Yes, dear—but only next week. I thought it would brace you up for- -well, for the week afterwards.'
'You think the week afterwards?'
'Yes, dear. It would help me so, if I knew that you were in your best form.'
'I! What can it matter what form I am in. But in any case, it is out of the question.'
'But you could get leave.'
'Oh yes, easily enough.'
'Then do go.'
'And leave you at such a time!'
'No, no, you would be back.'
'You can't be so sure of that. No, Maude, I should never forgive myself. Such an idea would never enter my head.'
'But for my sake—!'
'That's enough, Maude. It is settled.'
Master Frank had a heavy foot when he did bring it down, and his wife recognised a decisive thud this time. With a curious double current of feeling, she was pleased and disappointed at the same time, but more pleased than disappointed, so she kissed the marrer of her plots.
'What an obstinate old boy it is! But of course you know best, and I should much rather have you at home. As you say, one can never be certain.'
In a conflict of wits the woman may lose a battle, but the odds are that she will win the campaign. The man dissipates over many things, while she concentrates upon the one. Maude had made up her mind absolutely upon one point, and she meant to attain it. She tried here, she tried there, through a friend, through her mother, but Frank was still immovable. The ordeal coming upon herself never disturbed her for an instant. But the thought that Frank would suffer was unendurable. She put herself in his place, and realised what it would be to him if he were in the house at such a time. With many cunning devices she tried to lure him off, but still, in his stubborn way, he refused to be misled. And then suddenly she realised that it was too late.
It was early one morning that the conviction came home to her, but he, at her side, knew nothing of it. He came up to her before he left for the City.
'You have not eaten anything, dear.'
'No, Frank, I am not hungry.'
'Perhaps, after you get up—'
'Well, dear, I thought of staying in bed.'
'You are not—?'
'What nonsense, dear! I want to keep very quiet until next week, when I may need all my strength.'
'Dear girl, I would gladly give ten years of my life to have next week past.'
'Silly old boy! But I do think it would be wiser if I were to keep in bed.'
'Yes, yes, do.'
'I have a little headache. Nothing to speak of, but just a little.'
'Don't you think Dr. Jordan had better give you something for it.'
'Do you think so? Well, just as you like. You might call as you pass, and tell him to step up.'
And so, upon a false mission, the doctor was summoned to her side, but found a very real mission waiting for him when he got there. She had written a note for Frank the moment that he had left the house, and he found both it and a conspiracy of silence waiting for him when he returned in the late afternoon. The note was upon the hall-table, and he eagerly tore it open.
'My dear boy,' said this mendacious epistle, 'my head is still rather bad, and Dr. Jordan thought that it would be wiser if I were to have an undisturbed rest, but I will send down to you when I feel better. Until then I had best, perhaps, remain alone. Mr. Harrison sent round to say that he would come to help you to pot the bulbs, so that will give you something to do. Don't bother about me, for I only want a little rest.—MAUDE.'
It seemed very unnatural to him to come back and not to hear the swift rustle of the dress which followed always so quickly upon the creak of his latch-key that they might have been the same sound. The hall and dining-room seemed unhomely without the bright welcoming face. He wandered about in a discontented fashion upon his tiptoes, and then, looking through the window, he saw Harrison his neighbour coming up the path with a straw basket in his hand. He opened the door for him with his finger upon his lips.
'Don't make a row, Harrison,' said he, 'my wife's bad.'
Harrison whistled softly.
'No, no, not that. Only a headache, but she is not to be disturbed. We expect THAT next week. Come in here and smoke a pipe with me. It was very kind of you to bring the bulbs.'
'I am going back for some more.'
'Wait a little. You can go back presently. Sit down and light your pipe. There is some one moving about upstairs. It must be that heavy-footed Jemima. I hope she won't wake Maude up. I suppose one must expect such attacks at such a time.'
'Yes, my wife was just the same. No, thank you, I've just had some tea. You look worried, Crosse. Don't take things too hard.'
'I can't get the thought of next week out of my head. If anything goes wrong—well there, what can I do? I never knew how a man's nerves may be harrowed before. And she is such a saint, Harrison— such an absolutely unselfish saint! You'll never guess what she tried to do.'
'She knew what it would mean to me—what it will mean to me—to sit here in impotence while she goes through this horrible business. She guessed in some extraordinary way what my secret feelings were about it. And she actually tried to deceive me as to when it was to occur- -tried to get me out of the house on one pretext or another until it was all over. That was her plot, and, by Jove, she tried it so cleverly that she would have managed it if something had not put me on my guard. She was a little too eager, unnaturally so, and I saw through her game. But think of it, the absolute unselfishness of it. To consider ME at such a time, and to face her trouble alone and unsupported in order to make it easier for me. She wanted me to go to Norwich and play golf.'
'She must have thought you pretty guileless, Crosse, to be led away so easily.'
'Yes, it was a hopeless attempt to deceive me on such a point, or to dream for an instant that my instincts would not tell me when she had need of me. But none the less it was beautiful and characteristic. You don't mind my talking of these things, Harrison?'
'My dear chap, it is just what you need. You have been bottling things up too much. Your health will break down under it. After all, it is not so serious as all that. The danger is very much exaggerated.'
'You think so.'
'I've had the experience twice now. You'll go to the City some fine morning, and when you come back the whole thing will be over.'
'Indeed it won't. I have made arrangements at the office, and from the hour that she first seems bad I will never stir from the house. For all she may say, I know very well that it gives her strength and courage to feel that I am there.'
'You may not know that it is coming on?'
Frank laughed incredulously.
'We'll see about that,' said he. 'And you think from your experience, Harrison, that it is not so very bad after all?'
'Oh no. It soon passes.'
'Soon! What do you mean by soon?'
'Jordan was there six hours the first time.'
'Good God! Six hours!' Frank wiped his forehead. 'They must have seemed six years.'
'They WERE rather long. I kept on working in the garden. That's the tip. Keep on doing something and it helps you along wonderfully.'
'That's a good suggestion, Harrison. What a curious smell there is in the air! Do you notice a sort of low, sweetish, spirity kind of scent? Well, perhaps it's my imagination. I dare say that my nerves are a bit strung up these days. But that is a capital idea of yours about having some work to do. I should like to work madly for those hours. Have everything up out of the back garden and plant it all again in the front.'
'I'll tell you something less heroic,' said he; 'you could keep all these bulbs, and pot them then. By the way, I'll go round and get the others. Don't bother about the door. I shall leave it open, for I won't be five minutes.'
'And I'll put these in the greenhouse,' said Frank. He took the basket of bulbs and he laid them all out on the wooden shelf of the tiny conservatory which leaned against the back of the house. When he came out there was a kitten making a noise somewhere. It was a low sound, but persistent, coming in burst after burst. He took the rake and jabbed with the handle amongst the laurel bushes under their bedroom window. The beast might waken Maude, and so it was worth some trouble to dislodge it. He could not see it, but when he had poked among the bushes and cried 'Skat!' several times, the crying died away, and he carried his empty basket into the dining-room. There he lit his pipe again, and waited for Harrison's return.
There was that bothersome kitten again. He could hear it mewing away somewhere. It did not sound so loud as in the garden, so perhaps it would not matter. He felt very much inclined to steal upstairs upon tiptoe and see if Maude were stirring yet. After all, if Jemima, or whoever it was, could go clumping about in heavy boots over his head, there was no fear that he could do any harm. And yet she had said that she would ring or send word the moment she could see him, and so perhaps he had better wait where he was. He put his head out of the window and cried 'Shoo!' into the laurel bushes several times. Then he sat in the armchair with his back to the door. Steps came heavily along the hall, and he saw dimly with the back corner of his eye that some one was in the doorway carrying something. He thought that really Harrison might have brought the bulbs in more quietly, and so he treated him with some coldness, and did not turn round to him.
'Put it in the out-house,' said he.
'Why the out-house?'
'We keep them there. But you can put it under the sideboard, or in the coal-scuttle, or where you like as long as you don't make any more noise.'
'Why, surely, Crosse—' But Frank suddenly sprang out of his chair.
'I'm blessed if that infernal kitten isn't somewhere in the room!'
And there when he turned was the grim, kindly face of old Doctor Jordan facing him. He carried in the crook of his arm a brown shawl with something round and small muffled up in it. There was one slit in front, and through this came a fist about the size of a marble, the thumb doubled under the tiny fingers, and the whole limb giving circular waves, as if the owner were cheering lustily at his own successful arrival. 'Here am I, good people, hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!' cried the waving hand. Then as the slit in the shawl widened Frank saw that behind the energetic fist there was a huge open mouth, a little button of a nose, and two eyes which were so resolutely screwed up that it seemed as if the owner had made a resolution never under any circumstances to take the least notice of this new world into which it had been transported. Frank dropped his pipe and stood staring at this apparition.
'What! What's that?'
'Baby? Whose baby?'
'Your baby, of course.'
'My baby! Where—where did you get it?'
Doctor Jordan burst out laughing.
'You are like a man who has just been wakened out of his sleep,' said he. 'Why, Crosse, your wife has been bad all day, but she's all right now, and here's your son and heir—a finer lad of the age I never saw—fighting weight about seven pounds.'
Frank was a very proud man at the roots of his nature. He did not readily give himself away. Perhaps if he had been quite alone he might at that moment, as the great wave of joy washed through his soul, bearing all his fears and forebodings away upon its crest, have dropped upon his knees in prayer. But prayer comes not from the knee but from the heart, and the whole strength of his nature breathed itself out in silent thanks to that great Fate which goes its way regardless either of thanks or reproaches. The doctor saw a pale self-contained young man before him, and thought him strangely wanting in emotion.
'Well!' said he, impatiently. 'Is she all right?'
'Yes. Won't you take your son?'
'Could she see me?'
'I don't suppose five minutes would do any harm.'
Dr. Jordan said afterwards that it was three steps which took Frank up the fifteen stairs. The nurse who met him at the corner looks back on it as the escape of her lifetime. Maude lay in bed with a face as pale as the pillow which framed it. Her lips were bloodless but smiling.
'My own dear sweet girlie!'
'You never knew. Did you, Frank? Tell me that you never knew.'
And at that anxious question the foolish pride which keeps the emotions of the strong man buried down in his soul as though they were the least honourable part of his nature, fell suddenly to nothing, and Frank dropped with his head beside the white face upon the pillow, and lay with his arm across the woman whom he loved, and sobbed as he had not sobbed since his childhood. Her cheek was wet with his tears. He never saw the doctor until he came beside him and touched him on the shoulder.
'I think you had better go now,' said he.
'Sorry to be a fool, doctor,' said Frank, blushing hotly in his clumsy English fashion. 'It's just more than I can stand.'
'Sir,' the doctor answered, 'I owe you an apology, for I had done you an injustice. Meanwhile your son is about to be dressed, and there is hardly room for three men in one bedroom.'
So Frank went down into the darkening room below, and mechanically lighting his pipe, he sat with his elbows upon his knees and stared out into the gathering gloom where one bright evening star twinkled in a violet sky. The gentle hush of the gloaming was around him, and some late bird was calling outside amongst the laurels. Above he heard the shuffling of feet, the murmur of voices, and then amid it all those thin glutinous cries, HIS voice, the voice of this new man with all a man's possibilities for good and for evil, who had taken up his dwelling with them. And as he listened to those cries, a gentle sadness was mixed with his joy, for he felt that things were now for ever changed—that whatever sweet harmonies of life might still be awaiting him, from this hour onwards, they might form themselves into the subtlest and loveliest of chords, but it must always be as a trio, and never as the dear duet of the past.
CHAPTER XXII—THE TRIO
(Extract from a letter to the Author from Mrs. Frank Crosse.)
'It is very singular that you should say with such confidence that you know that our baby is a splendid one, and further on you say that in some ways it differs from any other baby. It is so true, but neither Frank nor I can imagine how you knew. We both think it so CLEVER of you to have found it out. When you write to us, do please tell us how you discovered it.
'I want to tell you something about baby, since you so kindly ask me, but Frank says there is no use my beginning as there is only one quire of paper in the house. As a matter of fact, I shall be quite short, which is not because I have not plenty to say—you cannot think what a DEAR he is—but because he may wake up at any moment. After that happens I can only write with one hand, while I wave a feather fan with the other, and it is so difficult then to say exactly what you mean. In any case you know that I have not the habit of collecting and writing down my ideas, so please forgive me if this seems a stupid letter. Frank could have done it splendidly. But he has so many sweet and quite REMARKABLE ways, that I ought to be able to put some of them down for you.
'It will be easier perhaps if I imagine a day of him—and one of his days is very much like another. No one could ever say that he was irregular in his habits. First thing in the morning I go over to his cot to see if he is awake yet—though, of course, I know that he can't be, for he always lets us know—the darling! However, I go over all the same, and I find everything quiet and nothing visible of baby, but a tiny, turned-up nose. It is so exactly Frank's nose, only that his is curved the other way. Then, as I bend over his cot, there is a small sigh, such a soft, comfortable sound! Then a sort of earthquake takes place under the eider down, and a tightly clenched fist appears and is waved in the air. He has such a pleasant, cheerful way of waving his fists. Then one eye is half opened, as if he were looking round to see if it were safe to open the other one, and then he gives a long, sorrowful wail as he realises that his bottle is not where he left it when he went to sleep. In a moment he is in my arms and quite happy again, playing with the lace round the neck of my pink dressing-gown. When he finds that his nice warm bath is all ready for him, he becomes quite jovial, and laughs and chuckles to himself. Something awfully funny must have happened to him before ever he came into this world at all, for nothing that has occurred since could account for the intense expression of amusement that one can often see in his eyes. When he laughs, Frank says that he looks like some jolly old clean-shaven toothless friar—so chubby and good-humoured. He takes the greatest interest in everything in the room, watches the nurse moving about, looks out of the window, and examines my hair and my dress very critically. He loves to see untidy hair and a bright tie, or a brooch will often catch his eye, and make him smile. His smile is the most wonderful thing! As he lies gazing with his great serious blue eyes, his whole face suddenly lights up, his mouth turns up at one corner in the most irresistible way, and his cheeks all go off into dimples. He looks so sweet and innocent, and at the same time so humorous and wicked, that his foolish mother wants to laugh at him and to weep over him at the same time.
'Then comes his bath, and there is a sad display of want of faith upon his part. He enjoys the process, but he is convinced that only his own exertions keep him from drowning, so his little fists are desperately clenched, his legs kick up and down the whole time, and he watches every movement of mother and nurse with suspicion. He enjoys being dressed, and smiles at first, and then he suddenly remembers that he has not had his breakfast. Then the smiles vanish, the small round face grows so red and angry, and all covered with little wrinkles, and there is a dismal wailing—poor darling! If the bottle is not instantly forthcoming he will howl loudly, and beat the air with his fists until he gets it. He DOES remind me so of his father sometimes. He is always hunting for his bottle, and will seize my finger, or a bit of my dress, or anything, and carry it to his mouth, and when he finds it isn't what he wants, he throws it away very angrily. When finally he does get the bottle, he becomes at once the most contented being in the whole world, and sucks away with such great long pulls, and such dear little grunts in between. Then afterwards, a well-washed, well-fed atom, he is ready to look about him and observe things. I am sure that he has his father's brains, and that he is storing up all sorts of impressions and observations for future use, for he notices EVERYTHING. I used to think that babies were stupid and indifferent—and perhaps other babies are—but HE is never indifferent. Sometimes he is pleased and amused, and sometimes angry, and sometimes gravely interested, but he is always wide awake and taking things in. When I go into his room, he always looks at my head, and if I have my garden hat with the flowers, he is so pleased. He much prefers chiffon to silk.
'Almost the first thing that struck me when I saw him, and it strikes me more and more, was, how could any one have got the idea of original sin? The people who believe in it can never have looked into a baby's eyes. I love to watch them, and sometimes fancy I can see a faint shade of reminiscence in them, as if he had still some memories of another life, and could tell me things if he could only speak. One day as I sat beside his cot—Oh dear! I hear his Majesty calling. So sorry! Good-bye.—Yours very truly,
P.S.—I have not time to read this over, but I may say, in case I omitted it before, that he really is a very remarkable baby.'