"I know it."
"Oh, but it does want cherishing—cherishing—cherishing all the time, the tiny flame of ineradicable good."
She took his cup quickly, and began to pour out some more tea for him, like one ashamed of an outburst and striving to cover it up by action.
"Bring Doctor Isaacson to see me one day—if he'll come," she said, in a changed, cool voice, the non-committal voice of the trained woman of the world.
He felt that the real woman had for an instant risen to the surface, and had sunk again into the depths of her; that she was almost ashamed of this real, good woman. And he longed to tell her so, to say to her, "Don't be ashamed. Let me see the real woman, the good woman. That is the woman I seek when I am near you." But he did not dare to strike a blow on her reserve.
"I will bring Isaacson," he said, quietly. "I want him to know you really. Why are you smiling?"
"But—I am not smiling!"
Nor was she; and, seeing her quiet gravity and wonder, he was surprised that he had imagined it.
"I must tell you," she said, "that though I took such a fancy to Doctor Isaacson, I don't think he is like you; I don't think he is a psychologist."
"You think me a psychologist?" said Nigel, in very honest surprise.
"Yes, and I'll tell you why, if you'll promise not to be offended."
"I think one reads character as much with the eyes of the heart as with the eyes of the brain. You use two pairs of eyes in your reading. But I am not sure that Doctor Isaacson does."
"Why did you ask me not to be offended? You meant to put it differently. And you would have been right. Isaacson is a brilliant man, and I am not. But he has as much heart as I, although he has so much more brain than I. And the stronger each is, the better for a man."
"But the brain—oh, it has such a tendency to overshadow, to browbeat the heart. In its strength it so often grows arrogant. The juste milieu—I think you have it. Be content, and never let your brain cry out for more, lest your heart should have to put up with less."
"You think too well of me," he said; "much too well."
She leaned forward over the tea-table and looked at him closely, with the peculiar scrutiny of one so strongly concentrated upon the matter in hand as to be absolutely unself-conscious.
"I wonder if I do," she said; and he felt as if she were trying to drag the very heart out of him and to see how it was beating. "I wonder if I do."
She relaxed her muscles, which had been tense, and leaned back, letting her right hand, which for a moment had grasped the edge of the table, drop down on to her lap.
"It may be so. I do think well of you. That is certain. And I'm afraid I think very often badly of men. And yet I do try to judge fairly, and not only to put on the black cap because of my own unfortunate experiences. There are such splendid men—but there are such utter brutes. You must know that. And yet I doubt if a man ever knows how good, or how bad, another man can be. Perhaps one must be a woman thoroughly to know a man—man, the beast and the angel."
"I dare say that is true."
He spoke almost with conviction. For all the time he had been with her he had been companioned by a strange, unusual feeling of being understood, of having the better part of him rightly appraised, and even too greatly appreciated. And this feeling had warmed his mind and heart almost as a generous wine warms the body.
"I'm sure it is true."
He put down his cup. Suddenly there had come to him the desire to go away, to be alone. He saw the curtains moving gently by the windows, and heard the distant, softened sound of the voices and the traffic of the city. And he thought of the river, and the sunset, and the barges swinging on the hurrying tide, and of the multitudes of eddies in the water. Like those eddies were the thoughts within his mind, the feelings within his heart. Were they not being driven onwards by the current of time, onwards towards the spacious sea of action? Abruptly his heart was invaded by a longing for largeness, a longing that was essential in his nature, but that sometimes lay quiescent, for largeness of view, such as the Bedouin has upon the desert that he loves and he belongs to; largeness of emotion, largeness of action. Largeness was manliness—largeness of thinking and largeness of living. Not the drawing-room of the world, but the desert of the world, with its exquisite oases, was the right place for a man. Yet here he was in a drawing-room. At this moment he longed to go out from it. But he longed also to catch this woman by the hand and draw her out with him. And he remembered how Browning, the poet, had loved a woman who lay always in a shrouded room, too ill to look on the sunshine or breathe the wide airs of the world; and how he carried her away and took her to the peaks of the Apennines. The mere thought of such a change in a life was like a cry of joy.
"What is it?" said Mrs. Chepstow, surprised at the sudden radiance in Nigel's face, seeing before her for the first time a man she could not read, but a man whose physique now forcibly appealed to her—seemed to become splendid under some inward influence, as a half-naked athlete's does when he slowly fills his lungs, clenches his fists, and hardens all his muscles. "What is it?"
But he did not tell her. He could not tell her. And he got up to go away. As he passed the piano, he looked again at the score of "The Dream of Gerontius."
"Are you fond of that?" he asked her.
She let her eyes rest for a brief instant on his face.
"I love it. It carries me away—as the soul is carried away by the angel. 'This child of clay to me was given'—do you remember?"
He bade her good-bye. The last thing he looked at in her room was "The Scarlet Letter," bound in white, lying upon her table. And he glanced from it to her before he went out and shut the door.
Just outside in the corridor he met a neatly dressed French girl, whose eyes were very red. She had evidently been crying long and bitterly. She carried over her arm the skirt of a gown, and she went into the room which communicated with Mrs. Chepstow's sitting-room.
"Poor girl!" thought Nigel. "I wonder what's the matter with her."
He went on down the corridor to the lift, descended, and made his way to the Thames Embankment.
When the door shut behind him, Mrs. Chepstow remained standing for a minute near the piano, waiting, like one expectant of a departing guest's return. But Nigel did not come back to say any forgotten, final word. Presently she realized that she was safely alone, and she went to the piano, sat down, and struck the chords which supported the notes on which the priest dismissed the soul. But she only played them for a moment. Then, taking the music off the stand and throwing it on the floor, she began to play a Spanish dance, lascivious, alluring, as full of the body as the music of Elgar is full of the soul. And she played it very well, as well, almost, as a hot-blooded girl of Seville could have danced it. As she drew near the end, she heard a sound in the adjoining room, and she stopped abruptly and called out:
There was no reply.
"Henriette!" Mrs. Chepstow called again.
The door of the bedroom opened, and the French girl with red eyes appeared.
"Why don't you answer when I speak to you? How long have you been there?"
"Two or three minutes, madame," said the girl, in a low voice.
"Did you meet any one in the corridor?"
"Yes, madame, a gentleman."
"Coming from here?"
"Did he see you?"
"I mean—to notice you?"
"I think he did, madame."
"And did he see you go into my room—with those eyes?"
An angry frown contracted Mrs. Chepstow's forehead, and her face suddenly became hard and looked almost old.
"Heavens!" she exclaimed. "If there is a stupid thing to be done, you are sure to—Go away! go away!"
The maid retreated quickly, and shut the door.
"Idiot!" Mrs. Chepstow muttered.
She knew the value of a last impression.
She went out on to her balcony and looked down to the Embankment, idly watching the traffic, the people walking by.
Although she did not know it, Nigel was among them. He was strolling by the river. He was looking at the sunset. And he was thinking of the poet Browning, and of the woman whom love took from the shrouded chamber and set on the mountain peaks.
Although Nigel Armine was an enthusiast, and what many people called an "original," he was also a man of the world. He knew the trend of the world's opinion, he realized clearly how the world regarded any actions that were not worldly. The fact that often he did not care did not mean that he did not know. He was no ignorant citizen, and in his acquaintance with Mrs. Chepstow his worldly knowledge did not forsake him. Clearly he understood how the average London man—the man he met at his clubs, at Ranelagh, at Hurlingham—would sum up any friendship between Mrs. Chepstow and himself.
"Mrs. Chepstow's hooked poor old Armine!"
Something like that would be the verdict.
Were they friends? Could they ever be friends?
Nigel had met Mrs. Chepstow by chance in the vestibule of the Savoy. He had been with a racing man whom he scarcely knew, but who happened to know her well. This man had introduced them to each other carelessly, and hurried away to "square things up with his bookie." Thus casually and crudely their acquaintance was begun. How was it to continue? Or—was it to continue?
Nigel was a strong man in the flower of his life. He was not a saint. And he was beginning to wonder. And Isaacson, who was again in town, was beginning to wonder, too.
During the season the Doctor was very busy. Many Americans and foreigners desired to consult him. He adhered to his rule, and never admitted a patient to his house after half-past five had struck, yet his work was seldom over before the hour of seven. He could not see Nigel often, because he could not see any one often; but he had seen him more than once, more than once he had heard gossip about him, and he realized, partly through knowledge, and partly through instinct, his situation with Mrs. Chepstow. Nigel longed to be frank with Isaacson, yet told him very little, held back by some strange reserve, subtly inculcated, perhaps, by the woman. Other men told Isaacson far too much, drawing evil inferences with the happy laughter of the beast and not of the angel.
And the Doctor drew his own conclusion.
From the very first, he had realized that the acquaintance between this socially ruined, no longer young, yet still fascinating woman, and this young, enthusiastic man would be no slight, ephemeral thing. The woman had willed it otherwise. And perhaps the almost ungovernable root-qualities of Nigel had willed it otherwise, too, although he did not know that. Enthusiasm plies a whip that starts steeds in a mad gallop it is not easy to arrest. Even the vigorous force that started them may be unable to pull them up.
Where exactly was Nigel going?
Smiling and sneering men in the clubs said, to a crude liaison. They said more. They said the liaison was a fact, and marvelled that a fellow like Armine should be willing to be "a bad last." Isaacson knew the untruth of this gossip. There was no liaison. But would there ever be one? Did Mrs. Chepstow intend that there should be one? Or had her intention from the beginning been quite otherwise?
Isaacson did not know in detail what Nigel's past had been. He imagined it, from the man's point of view, to have been unusually pure. But he did not suppose it stainless. His keen eyes of a physician read the ardour of Nigel's temperament. He made no mistake about his man. Nigel ought to have married. That he had never done so was due to a sorrow in early life, the death of a girl whom he had loved. Isaacson knew nothing of this, and sometimes he had wondered why no woman captured this nature so full of impulse and of sympathy, so full of just those qualities which make good women happy. If Mrs. Chepstow should capture it, the irony of life would be in flood.
Would she win the love as well as the pity and the chivalry of Nigel, which she already had? Would she awaken the flesh of this man as well as the spirit, and through spirit and flesh would she attain his soul?
Isaacson's sincerity was sorely tested by his friendship at this period. Original though he was, and full of the sensitive nature's distaste for marching with the mob, he was ranged with the mob against Nigel in this affair of Mrs. Chepstow. Yet Nigel claimed him as an ally, a kindred spirit. He was not explicit, but in their fugitive intercourse he was perpetually implying. It was "You and I," and the rest of the world shut out. Pity was working within him, chivalry was working, the generosity of his soul, but also its fighting obstinacy. There was something in Nigel which loved to have its back against the wall. He wanted to put Isaacson into the same pugnacious position, facing the overwhelming odds. But the overwhelming odds were on the same side as the Doctor. On the whole, Isaacson was not sorry that he had so few hours to spare. For he did not know what to do. Professional secrecy debarred him from telling Nigel what Mrs. Chepstow had said of herself. What others said of her would never set Nigel against her, but would always incline him towards her.
So far Mrs. Chepstow and he were acquaintances. But already the moment had come when Nigel was beginning to want of her more than mere acquaintanceship, and, because of this driving want of more, to ask himself whether he should require less. His knowledge of the world might, or might not, have told him that with Mrs. Chepstow an unembarrassed friendship would be difficult. That would have been theory. Practice already taught him that the difficulty would probably prove insurmountable even by his enthusiasm and courage. Were they friends? Could they ever be friends?
Even while he asked himself the question, a voice within him answered, "No."
Women who have led certain lives lose the faculty for friendship, if they ever possessed it. Events have taught them, what instinct seems to teach many women, to look on men as more physical even than they are. And such women show their outlook perpetually, in word, in look, in action, and in the indefinable nuances of manner which make a person's atmosphere. This outlook affects men, both shames them and excites them, acting on god and brute. Neither shamed god nor brute with lifted head is in the mood for friendship.
Mrs. Chepstow had this instinctive outlook on male creation, and not even her delicate gifts as a comedienne could entirely disguise it.
At last Nigel reached a crisis of restlessness and uncertainty, which warned him that he must drift and delay no longer, but make up his mind quite definitely what course he was going to take. He was not a man who could live comfortably in indecision. He hated it, indeed, as an attribute of weakness.
He must "have it out" with himself.
It was now July. The season would soon be over. And his acquaintance with Mrs. Chepstow? Would that be over too? It might come to an end quite naturally. He would go into the country, presently to Scotland for the shooting. And she—where would she go? This question set him thinking, as often in these last days—thinking about her loneliness, a condition exaggerated and underlined by her to make an impression on him. She did not seem to dwell upon it. She was far too clever for that. But somehow it was always cropping up. When he paid her a visit, she was scarcely ever out. And if she was in, she was invariably alone. Sometimes she wore a hat and said she had just come in. Sometimes, when he left her, she would say she was going out. But always the impression created was of a very lonely woman, with no engagements and apparently no friends, who passed the long summer days in solitude, playing—generally "Gerontius"—upon the little rosewood piano, or reading "The Scarlet Letter," or some sad or high-minded book. There was no pose apparent in all this. Indeed, sometimes Mrs. Chepstow seemed slightly confused, almost ashamed, at being so unoccupied, so unclaimed by any society or any bright engagements. And more than once Nigel suspected her of telling him white lies when she spoke of dining out with "people" in the evening, or of joining a "party" for the play. For he noticed that when she made such statements it was generally after some remark, some little incident, which had indicated his pity. And he divined the pride of a well-bred woman stirring within her, the desire to conceal or to make the least of her unfortunate situation. Far from posing to gain his pity, he believed her to be "playing up," if possible, to avoid it. And this belief, not unnaturally, rendered it far more keen. So he fell in with her intention.
Once or twice when, in mental colloquies, he played, as he supposed, the part of the ordinary man of the world arguing out the question with the impulsive, chivalrous man, he said, and insisted strongly, that a woman such as Mrs. Chepstow, justifiably famous for beauty and scandalously famous for very different reasons, if she sought to deceive—and of course the man of the world thought such women compact of deception—would try to increase her attraction by representing herself as courted, desired, feted, run after by men. Such women always did that. Never would she wish it to be known that she was undesired, that she was abandoned. Men want what other men want. But who wants the unwanted? The fact that Mrs. Chepstow allowed him to see and to realize her solitude, so simply and so completely, proved to Nigel her almost unwise unworldliness. The man of the world, so sceptical, was convinced. And as to the enthusiast—he bowed down.
Nigel made the mistake of judging Mrs. Chepstow's capacity by the measure of his own shrewdness, which in such a direction was not great. What seemed the inevitable procedure of such a woman to Nigel's amount of worldly cleverness, seemed the procedure to be avoided to Mrs. Chepstow's amount of the same blessing. She seldom took the obvious route in deception, as Isaacson had realized almost from the first moment when he knew her. She paid people the compliment of crediting them with astuteness, and thought it advisable to be not only more clever than they were stupid, but more clever than they were clever.
And so Nigel's pity grew; and now, when he was "having it out" with himself, he felt that when the season was over Mrs. Chepstow must miss him, not because she had picked him out as a man specially attractive to her, but simply because he had brought the human element into a very lonely life. In their last conversation he had spoken of the end of the season, of the exodus that would follow it.
"Oh—yes, of course," she had said, rather vaguely.
"Where are you going?"
She had sat for a moment in silence, and he had believed he followed the movement of her thought. He had felt certain that she was considering whether she would tell him a lie, recount some happy plan invented at the moment to deceive him. Feeling this certainty, he had looked at her, and his eyes had asked her to tell him the truth. And he had believed that she yielded to them, when at length she said:
"I haven't any special plans. I dare say I shall stay on quietly here."
She had not given him an opportunity of making a rejoinder, but had at once turned the conversation to some quite different topic. And again he had divined pride working busily within her.
She must miss him.
She must miss any one who occasionally stepped in to break her solitude. Sometimes he had wondered at this solitude's completeness. He wondered again now. Everybody had their friends, their intimates, whether delightful or preposterous. Who were hers? Of course the average woman had "dropped" her long ago. But there are other women in London besides the average woman. There are brilliant women of Bohemia, there are clever women even belonging to society who "take their own way," and know precisely whom they choose, whoever interests or attracts them. And—there are friends, faithful through changes, misfortunes, even disasters. Where were Mrs. Chepstow's? He did not dare to ask.
He recalled his first visit to her, not with any maudlin sentimentality, but with a quiet earnestness: the empty room looking to the river, the open piano and the music upon it, the few roses, and the books. He recalled "The Scarlet Letter" bound in white, and her partial quotation from the Bible in explanation of its binding. Abruptly she had stopped, perhaps suddenly conscious of the application to herself. At tea she had said of the cakes that were so good, "I ordered them specially for you and our little festivity." There was a great simplicity in the words, and in her voice when she had said them. In her loneliness, a cup of tea drunk with him was a "festivity." He imagined her sitting alone in that room in August, when the town is parched, dried up, and half deserted. How would she pass her days?
He compared his life with hers, or rather with a life he imagined as hers. And never before had he realized the brightness, even the brilliance, of his life, with its multitudinous changes and activities, its work—the glorious sweating with the brown labourers in the sand flats at the edge of the Fayyum—its sport, its friendships, its strenuous and its quiet hours, so dearly valued because they were rather rare. It was a good life. It was almost a grand life. London now, Scotland presently; then the late autumn, the train, the sight of the sea, the cry of the siren, the throbbing of the engines, and presently—Egypt! And then the winter of sunshine, and the songs of his workmen, his smiling fellahin, and the reclaiming of the desert.
The reclaiming of the desert!
Nigel was alone in his bedroom in the Savoy. It was late at night. He was in pajamas, smoking a cigar by the open window. He looked down to the red carpet on which his bare feet were set in their red babouches, and suddenly he realized the beauty of what he was doing in the Fayyum. He had never really thought of it before in this way—of the reclaiming of the desert; but now that he did think of it, he was glad, and his heart bounded, looking forward in affection to the winter.
And her winter? What would that be like?
What an immense difference one honest, believing, and therefore inspiring affection must make in a lonely life! Only one—that is enough. And the desert is reclaimed.
He saw the brakes of sugar-cane waving, the tall doura swaying in the breeze, where only the sands had been. And his brown cheeks glowed, as a hot wave of blood went through them.
Progress! He loved to think of it. It was his passion. That grand old Watts's picture, with its glow, its sacred glow of colour, in which was genius! Each one must do his part.
And in that great hotel, how many were working consciously for the cause?
Excitement woke in him. He thought of the rows and rows of numbered doors in the huge building, and within, beyond each number, a mind to think, a heart to feel, a soul to prompt, a body to act. And beyond his number—himself! What was he doing? What was he going to do? He got up and walked about his room, still smoking his cigar. His babouches shuffled over the carpet. He kicked them off, and went on walking, with bare, brown feet. Often in the Fayyum he had gone barefoot, like his labourers. What was he going to do to help on the slow turning of the mighty wheel of progress? He must not be a mere talker, a mere raver about grand things, while accomplishing nothing to bring them about. He despised those windy talkers who never act. He must not be one of them. That night, when he sat down "to have it out" with himself, he had done so for his own sake. He had been an egoist, had been thinking, perhaps not solely but certainly chiefly, of himself. But in these lonely moments men are generally essentially themselves. Nigel was not essentially an egoist. And soon himself had been almost forgotten. He had been thinking far more of Mrs. Chepstow than of himself. And now he thought of her again in connection with this turning of the great wheel of progress. At first he thought of her alone in this connection, then of her and of himself.
It is difficult to do anything quite alone, anything wholly worth the doing. That was what he was thinking. Nearly always some other intrudes, blessedly intrudes, to give conscious, or unconscious, help. A man puts his shoulder to the wheel, and in front of him he sees another shoulder. And the sight gives him courage.
The thought of strenuous activity made him think of Mrs. Chepstow's almost absolute inactivity. He saw her sitting, always sitting, in her room, while life flowed on outside. He saw her pale face. That her face was carefully made pale by art did not occur to him. And then again he thought of Mrs. Browning and of the mountain peaks.
What was he going to do?
He made a strong mental effort, as he would have expressed it, to "get himself in hand." Now, then, he must think it out. And he must "hold up" his enthusiasm, and just be calm and reasonable, and even calculating.
He thought of the girl whom he had loved long ago and who had died. Since her death he had put aside love as a passion. Now and then—not often—a sort of travesty of love had come to him, the spectre of the real. It is difficult for a young, strong man in the pride of his life never to have any dealing either with love or with its spectre. But Isaacson was right. Nigel's life had been much purer than are most men's lives. Often he had fought against himself, and his own natural inclination, because of his great respect for love. Not always had he conquered. But the fights had strengthened the muscles of his will, and each fall had shown him more clearly the sadness, almost the horror, imprinted on the haggard features of the spectre of the real.
Mrs. Chepstow for years had been looking upon, had been living with, that spectre, if what was said of her was true.
And Nigel did not deceive himself on this point. He did not sentimentally exalt a courtesan into an angel, as boys so often do. Mrs. Chepstow had certainly lived very wrongly, in a way to excite disgust, perhaps, as well as pity. Yet within her were delicacy, simplicity, the pride of breeding, even a curious reserve. She had still a love of fine things. She cared for things ethereal. He thought of his first visit to her, the open piano, "Proficiscere, anima Christiana," "The Scarlet Letter," and her quotation. What had she been thinking while she played Elgar's curiously unearthly music, while she read Hawthorne's pitiful book? She had been using art, no doubt, as so many use it, as a means of escape from life. And her escape had been not into filth or violence, not into the salons of wit, or into the salons where secrets are unveiled, but into the airy spaces with the angel, into the forest with Hester and little Pearl.
Why could they not continue friends?
His body spoke in answer, and he laid the blame for the answer entirely on himself. He condemned himself at that moment, was angry with himself, cursed himself. And he cursed himself, not because he was morbid, but because he was healthy-minded, and believed that his evil inclinations had been aroused by his knowledge of Mrs. Chepstow's past. And that fact was a beast, was something to be stamped on. He would never allow himself comfortably to be that sort of man. Yet he was, it seemed, enough that sort of man to make friendship with Mrs. Chepstow difficult, perhaps impossible. If love had led him to such an inclination, he would, being no prude, have understood it as a perfectly natural and perfectly healthy thing. But he did not love Mrs. Chepstow. He would never love, really love, again. For years he had said that to himself, and had believed it. He said it again now. And even if he could renew that strange power, to love, he could not love a woman who was not pure. He felt certain of that. He thought of the dead girl and of Mrs. Chepstow. But to-night he could not recall the dead girl's figure, face, look, exactly. Mrs. Chepstow's he could, of course, recall. He had seen her that very day. And the girl he had loved had been dead for many years. She lived in his memory now rather as a symbol of purity and beauty than as a human being.
Mrs. Chepstow, of course, would never find a man sincerely to love her now.
And yet why not! Suddenly Nigel checked himself, as he generally did when he found himself swiftly subscribing to the general opinion of the great mass of men. Why not? The shoulder to the wheel; it was nearly always the shoulder of love—love of an idea, love of a woman, love of humanity, love of work, love of God. All the men he knew, or very nearly all, would laugh at the idea of Mrs. Chepstow being sincerely loved. But the fact that they would laugh could have no effect on a manly heart or a manly spirit.
He felt almost angry with her for the loneliness and the immobility which pained his chivalry and struck at his sense of pity. If he could think of her as going away, too, as wandering, in Switzerland, in Italy, in some lovely place, he would feel all right. But always he saw her seated in that room, alone, deserted, playing the piano, reading, with no prospect of company, of change. Mrs. Chepstow had acted her part well. She had stamped a lonely image upon the retina of Nigel's imagination.
He was still walking about his room in bare feet. But his cigar had gone out, though it was still between his lips. The hour was very late. He heard a distant clock strike two. And just after he had listened to its chime, followed by other chimes in near and distant places of the city, the night idea of a strong and young man came to him.
If he could not be friends with Mrs. Chepstow, could he be—the other thing to her!
He put up his hand to his lips, took away the cigar, and flung it out of the window violently. And this physical violence was the echo of his mental violence. She might allow such a thing. Often, if half of what was said of her was true, she had entered into a similar relation with other men. He would not believe that "often." He put it differently. She had certainly entered into a similar relation with some men—perhaps with two or three, multiplied by scandal—in the past. Would she enter into it with him, if he asked her? And would he ever ask her?
He threw himself down again in his arm-chair, and stared at his bare feet planted firmly on the floor. But he saw, not his feet, but the ugly spectre of love, that hideous, damnable ghost, that most pretentious of all pretensions. She had lived with the ghost till she had become pale like a ghost. In the picture of "Progress," which he loved, there was a glow, a glory of light, raying out to a far horizon. It would be putting a shoulder to the wheel to set a glow in the cheeks of a woman, not a glow of shame but of joy. And to be—and then Nigel used to himself that expression of the laughing men in the clubs—"a bad last!" No, that sort of thing was intolerable.
Suddenly the ghost faded away, and he saw his brown feet. They made him think at once of the sun, of work, of the good, real, glowing life.
No, no; none of those intolerable beastlinesses for him. That thought, that imagination, it was utterly, finally done with. He drew a long breath, and stretched up his arms, till the loose sleeves of his night-suit fell down, exposing the strong, brown limbs. And as he had looked at his feet, he looked at them, then felt them, thumped them, and rejoiced in the glory of health. But the health of mind and heart was essential to the complete health of the body. He felt suddenly strong—strong for more than one, as surely a man should be—strong for himself, and his woman, for her who belongs to him, who trusts him, who has blotted out—it comes to that with a woman who loves—all other men for him.
Was he really condemned to an eternal solitude because of the girl who had died so many years ago? For his life was a solitude, as every loveless life is, however brilliant and strenuous. He realized that, and there came to him a thought that was natural and selfish. It was this: How good it must be to be exclusively loved by a woman, and how a woman, whom men and the world have abandoned, must love the man who comes, like a knight through the forest, and carries her away, and takes her into his life, and gives her back self-respect, and a place among women, and, above all, the feeling that of all feelings a woman holds dearest, "Somebody wants me." It must be good to be loved as such a woman would love. His generosity, which instinctively went out to abandoned things, walked hand in hand with man's eternal, indestructible selfishness that night, as he thought of Mrs. Chepstow for the first time as married again to some man who cared not for the world's opinion, or who cared for it so much as to revel in defying it.
How would she love such a man?
He began to wonder about that part of her nature dedicated to, designed for, love.
With him she was always perfectly simple, and seemed extremely frank. But he felt now that in her simplicity she had always been reserved, almost strangely reserved for such a woman. Perhaps that reserve had been her answer to his plainly shown respect. Just because of her position, he had been even more respectful to her than he was to other women, following in this a dictate of his temperament. What would she be like in the unreserve of a great love?
And now a fire was kindled in Nigel, and began to burn up fiercely. He felt, very consciously and definitely, the fascination of this woman. Of course, he had always been more or less subject to it. Isaacson had known that when he saw Nigel draw his chair nearer to hers at the supper-table in the Savoy. But he had been subject to it without ever saying to himself, "I am in subjection." He had never supposed that he was in subjection. The abrupt consciousness of how it was with him excited him tremendously. After the long interval of years, was he to feel again the powerful fever, and for a woman how different from the woman he had loved? She stood, in her young purity, at one end of the chain of years, and Mrs. Chepstow—did she really stand at the other?
He seemed to see these two looking at each other across the space that was set by Time, and for a moment his face contracted. But he had changed while traversing that space. Then he was an eager boy, in the joy of his bounding youth. Now he was a vigorous man. And during the interval that separated boy from man had come up in him his strong love of humanity, his passion for the development of the good that lies everywhere, like the ore in gold-bearing earth. That love had perhaps been given to him to combine the two loves, the altruistic love, and the love for a woman bringing its quick return.
The two faces of women surely softened as they gazed now upon each other.
Such loves in combination might crown his life with splendour. Nigel thought that, with the enthusiasm which was his birthright, which set him so often apart from other men. And, moving beneath such a splendour, how absolutely he could defy the world's opinion! Its laughter would be music, its sneering word only the signal to a smile.
But—he must think—he must think—
He sprang up, pulled up his loose sleeves to his shoulders, tucked them together, and with bared arms leaned out to the night, holding his hands against his cheeks.
Mrs. Chepstow had said to Nigel, "Bring Doctor Isaacson—if he'll come." He had never gone, though Nigel had told him of her words, had told him more than once. Without seeming deliberately to avoid the visit, he had deliberately avoided it. He never had an hour to spare in the day, and Nigel knew it. But he might have gone on a Sunday. It happened that, at present, on Sundays he was always out of town.
He had said to himself, "Cui bono?"
He had the sensitive nature's dislike of mingling intimately in the affairs of others, and moreover he felt instinctively that if he tried to play a true friend's part to Nigel, he might lose Nigel as a friend. His clear insight would be antagonistic to Nigel's blind enthusiasm, his calm worldly knowledge would seem only frigid cruelty to Nigel's generosity and eagerness in pity. And, besides, Isaacson had a strong personal repulsion from Mrs. Chepstow, a repulsion almost physical.
The part of him that was Jewish understood the part of her that was greedy far too well. And he disliked, while he secretly acknowledged, his own Jewishness. He seldom showed this dislike, even subtly, to the world and never showed it crudely, as do many of Jewish blood, by a strange and hideous anti-Semitism. But it was always alive within him, always in conflict with something belonging to his nature's artistic side, a world-feeling to which race-feeling seemed stupid and very small. The triumphs of art aroused this world-feeling within him, and in his love of art he believed that he touched his highest point. As Isaacson's mental unconventionality put him en rapport with Nigel, his Jewishness, very differently, put him en rapport with her. There is a communion of repulsion as well as a communion of affection. Isaacson knew that Mrs. Chepstow and he could be linked by their dislike. His instinct was to avoid her, not to let this link be formed. Subsequent circumstances made him ask himself whether men do not often call things towards them with the voices of their fears.
The season was waning fast, was nearly at an end, when one night, very late, Nigel called in Cleveland Square. Isaacson had just come back from dining with the Dean of Waynfleet when the bell rang. He feared a professional summons, and was relieved when a sleepy servant asked if he would see Mr. Armine. They met in a small, upstairs room where Isaacson sat at night, a room lined with books, cosy, but perhaps a little oppressive. As Nigel came in quickly with a light coat over his arm and a crush hat in his hand, a clock on the mantel piece struck one.
"I caught sight of you just now in St. James's Street in your motor, or I wouldn't have come so late," Nigel said. "Were you going straight to bed? Tell me the truth. If you were, I'll be off."
"I don't think I was. I've been dining out, and should have had to read something. That's why you kept your coat?"
"To demonstrate my good intention. Well!"
He put the coat and hat on a chair.
"Will you have anything?"
Nigel sat down in an arm-chair.
"I've seen so little of you, Isaacson. And I'm going away to-morrow."
"You've had enough of it?"
"More than enough."
Isaacson was sitting by a table on which lay a number of books. Now and then he touched one with his long and sallow fingers, lifted its cover, then let it drop mechanically.
"You are coming back in the autumn?"
"For some days, in passing through. I'm going to Egypt again."
"I envy you—I envy you."
As he looked at Nigel's Northern fairness, and thought of his own darkness, it seemed to him that he should be going to the sun, Nigel remaining in the lands where the light is pale. Perhaps a somewhat similar thought occurred to Nigel, for he said:
"You ought to go there some day. You'd be in your right place there. Have you ever been?"
"Never. I've often wanted to go."
"Why don't you go?"
Isaacson's mind asked that question, and his Jewishness replied. He made money in London. Every day he spent out of London was a loss of so much money.
"Some day," Nigel continued, "you must take a holiday and see Egypt."
"This winter?" said Isaacson.
He lifted the cover of a book. His dark, shining, almost too intelligent eyes looked at Nigel, and looked away.
"Not this winter," he added, quietly.
"But—why not this winter?"
Nigel spoke with a slight embarrassment.
"I couldn't get away. I have too much work. You'll be in the Fayyum?"
Nigel was staring at the Oriental carpet. His strong hands lay palm downwards on the arms of his chair, pressing them hard.
"I shall go there," he replied.
"And live under the tent? I met a man last night who knows you, an Egyptian army man on leave, Verreker. He told me you were reclaiming quite a lot of desert."
"I should like to reclaim far more than I ever can. It's a good task."
"Deuced hard. That's why I like it."
"I know; man's love of taming the proud spirit."
"Is it that? I don't think I bother much about what prompts me to a thing. But—I say, Isaacson, sometimes it seems to me that you have a devilish long sight into things, an almost uncanny long sight."
He leaned forward.
"But in you I don't mind it."
"I don't say I acknowledge it. But why should you mind it in any one?"
Nigel quoted some words of Mrs. Chepstow, but Isaacson did not know he quoted.
"Hasn't the brain a tendency to overshadow, to brow-beat the heart?" he said. "Isn't it often arrogant in its strength?"
"One must let both have an innings," said Isaacson, smiling at the slang which suited him so little and suited Nigel so well.
"Yes, and I believe you do. That's why—but to go on with what we were saying. You've got a long sight into things. Now, living generally, as you do, here in London, don't you think that men and women living in crowds often get off the line of truth and kindness? Don't you think that being all together, backed up, as it were, by each other—as a soldier is by his regiment when going into battle—they often become hard, brutal, almost get the blood-lust into them at times?"
Isaacson did not reply for a moment.
"Perhaps sometimes they do," he answered at last.
"And don't you think they require sacrifices?"
"Do you mean human sacrifices?"
"Why have you never been to call on Mrs. Chepstow?"
Again the sallow fingers began to play with the book-covers, passing from one to another, but always slowly and gently.
"I haven't much time for seeing any one, except my patients, and the people I meet in society."
"And of course you never meet Mrs. Chepstow in society."
"Well—no, one doesn't."
"She would have liked a visit from you, and she's very much alone."
"Are you stopping on much longer in London?"
"Till the twelfth or fifteenth of August."
"She is stopping on, too."
"Mrs. Chepstow! In the dog-days!"
"She doesn't seem to have anywhere special to go to."
Isaacson opened a book, and laid his hand upon a page. It happened to be a book on poisons and their treatment. He smoothed the page down mechanically and kept his hand there.
"I say, Isaacson, you couldn't have the blood-lust?"
"I hope not. I think not."
"I believe you hate it as I do, hate and loathe it with all your soul. But I've always felt that you think for yourself, and don't care a rap what the world is thinking. I've looked in to-night to say good-bye, and to ask you, if you can get the time, just to give an eye to—to Mrs. Chepstow now and again. I know she would value a visit from you, and she really is infernally lonely. If you go, she won't bore you. She's a clever woman, and cares for things you care for. Will you look in on her now and then?"
Isaacson lifted his hand from the book.
"I will call upon her," he said.
"But are you sure she wishes it?"
"Quite sure—for she told me so."
The simplicity of this answer made Isaacson's mind smile and something else in him sigh.
"I have to go into the country," Nigel said. "I've got to see Harwich and Zoe, my sister-in-law you know, and my married sister—"
A sudden look of distress came into his eyes. He got up. The look of distress persisted.
"Good-night, Isaacson, old fellow!"
He grasped the Doctor's hand firmly, and his hand was warm and strong.
"Good-night. I like to feel I know one man who thinks so entirely for himself as you do. For—I know you do. Good-bye."
The look of distress had vanished, and his sincere eyes seemed to shine again with courage and with strength.
When he was gone, Isaacson stood by the mantel-piece for nearly five minutes, thinking and motionless. The sound of the little clock striking roused him. He lifted his head, looked around him, and was just going to switch off the light, when he noticed the open book on his table. He went to shut it up.
"It must be ever remembered that digitalin is a cumulative poison, and that the same dose, harmless if taken once, yet frequently repeated becomes deadly; this peculiarity is shared by all poisons affecting the heart."
He stood looking at the page.
"This peculiarity is shared by all poisons affecting the heart."
He moved his head as if in assent. Then he closed the book slowly and switched off the light.
On the August Bank Holiday, one of the most dreadful days of London's year, he set out to call on Mrs. Chepstow.
A stagnant heat pervaded London. There were but few people walking. Few vehicles drove by. Here and there small groups of persons, oddly dressed, and looking vacant in their rapture, stared, round-eyed, on the town. Londoners were in the country, staring, round-eyed, on fields and woods. The policemen looked dull and heavy, as if never again would any one be criminal, and as if they had come to know it. Bits of paper blew aimlessly about, wafted by a little, feverish breeze, which rose in spasms and died away. An old man, with a head that was strangely bald, stared out from a club window, rubbed his enquiring nose, looked back into the room behind him and then stared out again. An organ played "The Manola," resuscitated from a silence of many years.
London was at its summer saddest.
Could Mrs. Chepstow be in it? Soon Isaacson knew. In the entrance hall of the Savoy, where large and lonely porters were dozing, he learnt that she was at home. So be it. He stepped into the lift, and presently followed a servant to her door. The servant tapped. There was no answer. He tapped again more loudly, while Isaacson waited behind him.
"Come in!" called out a voice.
The servant opened the door, announcing:
"Doctor Meyer Isaacson."
Mrs. Chepstow had perhaps been sitting on her balcony, for when Isaacson went in she was in the opening of a window space, standing close to a writing-table, which had its drawers facing the window. Behind her, on the balcony, there was a small arm-chair.
"Doctor Meyer Isaacson!" she said, with an intonation of surprise.
The servant went out and shut the door.
"How quite amazing!"
"But—why, Mrs. Chepstow?"
He had taken and dropped her hand. As he touched her, he remembered holding her wrist in his consulting room. The sensation she had communicated to him then she communicated again, this time perhaps more strongly.
"Why? It is Bank Holiday! And you never come to see me. By the way, how clever of you to divine that I should be in on such a day of universal going out."
"Even men have their intuitions."
"Don't I know it, to my cost? But to-day I can only bless man's intuition. Where will you sit?"
He sat down on the sofa, and she in a chair, facing the light. She was without a hat. Isaacson wondered what she had been doing all the day, and why she was in London. That she had her definite reason he knew, as a woman knows when another woman is wearing a last year's gown. As their eyes met, he felt strongly the repulsion he concealed. Yet he realized that Mrs. Chepstow was looking less faded, younger, more beautiful than when last he had been with her. She was very simply dressed. It seemed to him that the colour of her hair was changed, was a little brighter. But of this he was not sure. He was sure, however, that a warmth, as of hope, subtly pervaded her whole person. And she had seemed hard, cold, and almost hopeless on the day of her visit to him.
A woman lives in the thoughts of men about her. At this moment Mrs. Chepstow lived in Isaacson's thought that she looked younger, less faded, and more beautiful. Her vanity was awake. His thought of her had suddenly increased her value in her own eyes, made her think she could attract him. She had scarcely tried to attract him the first time that she had met him. But now he saw her go to her armoury to select the suitable weapon with which to strike him. And he began to understand why she had calmly faced the light. Never could such a man as Nigel get so near to Mrs. Chepstow as Doctor Meyer Isaacson, even though Nigel should love her and Isaacson learn to hate her. At that moment Isaacson did not hate her, but he almost hated his divination of her, the "Kabala," he carried within him and successfully applied to her.
"What has kept you in this dreary city, Doctor Isaacson," she said. "I thought I was absolutely alone in it."
"People are still thinking they are ill."
"And you are still telling them they are not?"
"I believe you have adopted that idea, that no one is ill, as a curative method. And really there may be something in it. I fancied I was ill. You told me I was well. Since that day something—your influence, I suppose—seems to have made me well. I think I believe in you—as a doctor."
"Why spoil everything by concluding with a reservation?"
"Oh, but your career is you!"
"You think I have sunk my humanity in ambition?"
"Well, you are in town on Bank Holiday!"
"In town to call on you!"
"You were so sure of finding me on such a day?"
She sent him a look which mocked him.
"But, seriously," she continued, "does not the passion for science in you dominate every other passion? For science—and what science brings you?"
With a sure hand she had touched his weak point. He had the passion to acquire, and through his science of medicine he acquired.
"You cannot expect me to allow that I am dominated by anything," he answered. "A man will seldom make a confession of slavery even to himself, if he really is a man."
"Oh, you really are a man, but you have in you something of the woman."
"How do you know that?"
"I don't know it; I feel it."
"Feeling is woman's knowledge."
"And what is man's?"
"Do women think he has any?"
"Some men have knowledge—dangerous men, like you."
"In what way am I dangerous?"
"If I tell you, you will be more so. I should be foolish to lead you to your weapons."
"You want no leading to yours."
It was, perhaps, almost an impertinence; but he felt she would not think it so, and in this he accurately appraised her taste, or lack of taste. Delicacy, reverence, were not really what she wanted of any man. Nigel might pray to a pale Madonna; Isaacson dealt with a definitely blunted woman of the world. And in his intercourse with people, unless indeed he loved them, he generally spoke to their characters, did not hold converse with his own, like a man who talks to himself in an unlighted room.
"Few women do, if they have any."
"Is any woman without them?"
"The absolutely good woman."
For a moment he was silent, struck to silence by the fierceness of her cynicism, a fierceness which had leapt suddenly out of her as a drawn sword leaps from its sheath.
"I don't acknowledge that, Mrs. Chepstow," he said—and at this moment perhaps he was the man talking to himself in the dark, as Nigel often was.
"Of course not. No man would."
"Men seldom name, even to themselves, the weapons by which they are conquered. But women know what those weapons are."
"The Madame Marneffes, but not the Baroness Hulots."
"A Baroness Hulot never counts."
"Is it really clever of you to generalize about men? Don't you differentiate among us at all?"
He spoke entirely without pique, of which he was quite unconscious.
"I do differentiate," she replied. "But only sometimes, not always. There are broad facts which apply to men, however different they may be from one another. There are certain things which all men feel, and feel in much the same way."
"Nigel Armine and I, for instance?"
A sudden light—was it a light of malice?—flashed in her brilliant eyes.
"Yes, even Mr. Armine and you."
"I shall not ask you what they are."
"Perhaps the part of you which is woman has informed you."
Before she said "woman" she had paused. He felt that the word she had thought of, and had wished to use, was "Jewish." Her knowledge of him, while he disliked it because he disliked her, stirred up the part of him which was mental into an activity which he enjoyed. And the enjoyment, which she felt, increased her sense of her own value. Conversation ran easily between them. He discovered, what he had already half suspected, that, though not strictly intellectual—often another name for boring—she was far more than merely shrewd. But her mentality seemed to him hard as bronze. And as bronze reflects the light, her mentality seemed to reflect all the cold lights in her nature. But he forgot the stagnant town, the bald-headed man at the club window, the organ and "The Manola." Despite her generalizing on men, with its unexpressed avowal of her deep-seated belief in physical weapons, she had chosen aright in her armoury. His brain had to acknowledge it. There again was the link between them. When at last he got up to go, she said:
"I suppose you will soon be leaving London?"
"I expect to get away on the fifteenth. Are you staying on?"
"I dare say I shall. You wonder what I do here?"
"I am out a great deal on my balcony. When you came I was there."
She made a movement towards it.
"Would you like to see my view?"
As he followed her through the window space, he was suddenly very conscious of the physical charm that clung about her. All her movements were expressive, seemed very specially hers. They were like an integral part of a character—her character. They had almost the individuality of an expression in the eyes. And in her character, in her individuality, mingled with much he hated was there not something that charmed? He asked himself the question as he stood near her on the balcony. And now, escaped from her room, even at this height there came upon him again the hot sluggishness of London. The sun was shining brightly, the air was warm and still, the view was large and unimpeded; but he felt a strange, almost tropical dreariness that seemed to him more dreadful than any dreariness of winter.
"Do you spend much of your time here?" he said.
"A great deal. I sit here and read a book. You don't like it?"
She turned her bright eyes, with their dilated pupils, slowly away from his, and looked down over the river.
"I do. But there's a frightful dreariness in London on such a day as this. Surely you feel it?"
"No. I don't feel such things this summer."
In saying the words her voice had altered. There was a note of triumph in it. Or so Isaacson thought. And that warmth, as of hope, in her had surely strengthened, altering her whole appearance.
"One has one's inner resources," she added, quietly, but with a thrill in her voice.
She turned to him again. Her tall figure—she was taller than he by at least three inches—was beautiful in its commanding, yet not vulgar, self-possession. Her thin and narrow hands held the balcony railing rather tightly. Her long neck took a delicate curve when she turned her head towards him. And nothing that time had left of beauty to her escaped his eyes. He had eyes that were very just.
"Did you think I had none?"
Suddenly he resolved to speak to her more plainly. Till this moment she had kept their conversation at a certain level of pretence. But now her eyes defied him, and he replied to their defiance.
"Do you forget how much I know of you?" he said.
"Do you mean—of the rumours about me?"
"I mean what you told me of yourself."
"When was that? Oh, do you mean in your consulting room? And you believe all a woman tells you?"
She smiled at him satirically.
"I believe what you told me that day in my consulting-room, as thoroughly as I disbelieve what you told me, and Mr. Armine, the night we met you at supper."
"And what are your grounds for your belief and disbelief?"
"Suppose I said my instinct?"
"I should answer, by all means trust it, if you like. Only do not expect every one to trust it, too."
Her last words sounded almost like a half-laughing menace.
"Why should I want others to trust it?" he asked, quietly.
"I leave your instinct to tell you that, my dear Doctor," she answered gently, with a smile.
"Well," he said, "I must say good-bye. I must leave you to your inner resources. You haven't told me what they are."
"Can't you imagine?"
"Spiritual, I suppose!"
"You've guessed it—clever man!"
"And your gospel of Materialism, which you preached to me so powerfully, gambling, yachting, racing, motoring, theatre-going, eating and drinking, in the 'for to-morrow we die' mood: those pleasures of the typical worldly life of to-day which you said you delighted in? You have replaced them all satisfactorily with 'inner resources'?"
"With inner resources."
Her smiling eyes did not shrink from his. He thought they looked hard as two blue and shining jewels under their painted brows.
"Good-bye—and come again."
While Isaacson walked slowly down the corridor, Mrs. Chepstow opened her writing-table drawer, and took from it a packet of letters which she had put there when the servant first knocked to announce the visitor.
The letters were all from Nigel.
Isaacson did not visit Mrs. Chepstow again before he left London for his annual holiday. More than once he thought of going. Something within him wanted to go, something that was perhaps intellectually curious. But something else rebelled. He felt that his finer side was completely ignored by her. Why should he care what she saw in him or what she thought about it? He asked himself the question. And when he answered it, he was obliged to acknowledge that she had made upon his nature a definite impression. This impression was unfavorable, but it was too distinct. Its distinctness gave a measure of her power. He was aware that, much as he disliked Mrs. Chepstow, much as he even shrank from her, with a sort of sensitive loathing, if he saw her very often he might come to wish to see her. Never had he felt like this towards any other woman. Does not hatred contain attraction? By the light of his dislike of Mrs. Chepstow, Isaacson saw clearly why she attracted Nigel. But during those August days, in the interior combat, his Jewishness conquered his intellectual curiosity, and he did not go again to the Savoy.
His holiday was spent abroad on the Lake of Como, and quite alone. Each year he made a "retreat," which he needed after the labours of the year, labours which obliged him to be perpetually with people. He fished in the green lake, sketched in the lovely garden of the almost deserted hotel, and passed every day some hours in scientific study.
This summer he was reading about the effects of certain little-known poisons. He spent strange hours with them. He had much imagination, and they became to him like living things, these agents of destruction. Sometimes, after long periods passed with them, he would raise his head from his books, or the paper on which he was taking notes, and, seeing the still green waters of the lake, the tall and delicate green mountains lifting their spires into the blue, he would return from his journey along the ways of terror, and, dazed, like a tired traveller, he would stare at the face of beauty. Or when he worked by night, after hours during which the swift action of the brain had rendered him deaf to the sounds without, suddenly he would become aware of the chime of bells, of bells in the quiet waters and on the dreaming shores. And he would lift his head and listen, till the strangeness of night, and of the world with its frightful crimes and soft enchantments, stirred and enthralled his soul. And he compared his two lives, this by the quiet lake, alone, filled with research and dreams, and that in the roar of London, with people streaming through his room. And he seemed to himself two men, perhaps more than two.
Soon the four weeks by the lake were gone. Then followed two weeks of travel—Milan, Munich, Berlin, Paris. And then he was home again.
He had heard nothing of Nigel, nothing of Mrs. Chepstow.
September died away in the brown arms of October, and at last a letter came from Nigel. It was written from Stacke House, a shooting-lodge in Scotland, and spoke of his speedy return to the South.
"I am shooting with Harwich," he wrote, "but must soon be thinking about my return to Egypt. I didn't write to you before, though I wanted to thank you for your visit to Mrs. Chepstow. You can't think how she appreciated it. She was delighted by your brilliant talk and sense of humour, but still more delighted by your cordiality and kindness. Of late she hasn't had very much of the latter commodity, and she was quite bowled over. By Jove, Isaacson, if men realized what a little true kindness means to those who are down on their luck, they'd have to 'fork out,' if only to get the return of warm affection. But they don't realize.
"I sometimes think the truest thing said since the Creation is that 'They know not what they do.' Add, 'and what they leave undone,' and you have an explanation of most of the world's miseries. Good-bye, old chap. I shall come to Cleveland Square directly I get to London. Thank you for that visit. Yours ever, Nigel Armine."
Nigel's enthusiasm seemed almost visibly to exhale from the paper as Isaacson held the letter in his hands. "Your cordiality and kindness." So that had struck Mrs. Chepstow—the cordiality and kindness of his, Isaacson's manner! Of course she and Nigel were in correspondence. Isaacson remembered the occasional notes almost of triumph in her demeanour. She had had letters from Nigel during his absence from London. His letters—the hope in her face. Isaacson saw her on the balcony looking out over the river. Had she not looked out as the human soul looks out upon a prospect of release? In the remembrance of them her expression and her attitude became charged with more definite meaning. And he surely grasped that meaning, which he had wondered about before.
Yet Nigel said nothing. And all this time he had been away from Mrs. Chepstow. Such an absence was strange, and seemed unlike him, quite foreign to his enthusiastic temperament, if Isaacson's surmise was correct. But perhaps it was not correct. That well-spring of human kindness which bubbled up in Nigel, might it not, perhaps, deceive?
"Feeling is woman's knowledge." Isaacson had said that. Now mentally he added, "And sometimes it is man's." He felt too much about Nigel, but he strove to put his feeling away.
Presently he would know. Till then it was useless to debate. And he had very much to do.
Not till nearly the end of October did Nigel return to London. The leaves were falling in battalions from the trees. The autumn winds had come, and with them the autumn rain, that washes sadly away the last sweet traces of summer. Everywhere, through country and town, brooded that grievous atmosphere of finale which in England seldom or never fails to cloud the waning year.
The depression that is characteristic of this season sent many people to doctors. Day after day Isaacson sat in his consulting-room, prescribing rather for the minds of men than for their bodies, living rather with their misunderstood souls than with their physical symptoms. And this year his patients reacted on him far more than usual. He felt almost as if by removing he received their ills, as if their apprehensions were communicated to his mind, as germs are communicated to the body, and as if they stayed to do evil. He told himself that his holiday had not rested him enough. But he never thought for a moment of diminishing his work. Success swept him ever onward to more exertion. As his power grew, his appetite for it grew. And he enjoyed his increasing fortune.
At last Nigel rang at his door. Isaacson could not see him, but sent out word to make an appointment for the evening. They were to meet at eight at an orchestral concert in Queen's Hall.
Isaacson was a little late in keeping this engagement. He came in quickly and softly between two movements of Tschaikowsky's "Pathetic Symphony," found Nigel in his stall, and, with a word, sat down beside him. The conductor raised his baton. The next movement began.
In the music there was a throbbing like the throbbing of a heart, that persisted and persisted with a beautiful yet terrible monotony. Often Isaacson had listened to this symphony, been overwhelmed by the two effects of this monotony, an effect of loveliness and an effect of terror that were inextricably combined. To-night, either because he was very tired or for some other reason, the mystery of the sadness of this music, which floats through all its triumph, appealed to him more than usual, and in a strangely poignant way. The monotonous pulsation was like the pulse of life, that life in which he and the man beside him were for a time involved, from which presently they would be released, whether with or against their wills. The pulse of life! Suddenly from the general his mind passed to the particular. He thought of a woman's pulse, strong, regular, inexorable. He seemed to feel it beneath his fingers, the pulse of Mrs. Chepstow. And he knew that he had thought of her because Nigel Armine was thinking of her, that he connected her with this music because Nigel was doing the same. This secretly irritated Isaacson. He strove to detach his mind from this thought of Mrs. Chepstow. But his effort was in vain. Her pulse was beneath his fingers, and with every stroke of it he felt more keenly the mystery and cruelty of life. When the movement was finished, he did not speak a word. Nor did he look at Nigel. Even when the last note of the symphony seemed to fade and fall downwards into an abyss of misery and blackness, he did not speak or move. He felt crushed and overwhelmed, like one beaten and bruised.
He turned a little in his seat.
"Grand music! But it's all wrong."
"Wrong in its lesson."
The artist in Isaacson could not conceal a shudder.
"I don't look for a lesson; I don't want a lesson in it."
"But the composer forces it on one—a lesson of despair. Give it all up! No use to make your effort. The Immanent Will broods over you. You must go down in the end. That music is a great lie. It's splendid, it's superb, but it's a lie."
"Shall we go out? We've got ten minutes."
They made their way to the corridor and strolled slowly up and down, passing and repassing others who were discussing the music.
"Such music puts my back up," Nigel continued, with energy; "makes me feel I won't give in to it."
Isaacson could not help smiling.
"I can't look at Art from the moral plane."
"But surely Art often makes you think either morally or immorally. Surely it gives you impulses which connect themselves with life, with people."
Isaacson looked at him.
"I don't deny it. But these impulses are like the shadowy spectres of the Brocken, mere outlines which presently, very soon, dissolve into the darkness. Though great music is full of form, it often creates chaos in those who hear it."
"Then that music should call up in you a chaos of despair."
"It makes me want to fight."
"All the evil and the sorrow of the world. I hate despair."
Isaacson glanced at him again, and noticed how strong he was looking, and how joyous.
"Scotland has done you good," he said. "You look splendid to-night."
Secretly he gave a special meaning to the ordinary expression. To-night there was a splendour in his friend which seemed to be created by an inner strength radiating outward, informing, and expressing itself in his figure and his features.
"I'm looking forward to the winter."
Isaacson thought of the note of triumph in Mrs. Chepstow's voice when she said to him, "I don't feel such things this summer." Surely Nigel now echoed that note.
An electric bell sounded. They returned to the concert-room.
They stayed till the concert was over, and then walked away down Regent Street, which was moist and dreary, full of mist and of ugly noises.
"When do you start for Egypt?" said Meyer Isaacson.
"In about ten days, I think. Do you wish you were going there?"
"I cannot possibly escape."
"But do you wish to?"
For a moment Isaacson did not answer.
"I do and I don't," he said, after the pause. "Work holds one strangely, because, if one is worth anything as a worker, its grip is on the soul. Part of me wants to escape, often wants to escape."
He remembered a morning ride, his desire of his "own place."
"The whole of me wants to escape," Nigel replied.
He looked about him. People were seeking "pleasure" in the darkness. He saw them standing at street corners, watchfully staring lest they should miss the form of joy. Cabs containing couples rolled by, disappeared towards north and south, disappeared into the darkness.
"I want to get into the light."
"Well, there it is before us."
Isaacson pointed to the brilliant illumination of Piccadilly Circus.
"I want to get into the real light, the light of the sun, and I want every one else to get into it too."
"You carry your moral enthusiasm into all the details of your life," exclaimed Isaacson. "Would you carry the world to Egypt?"
Nigel took his arm.
"It seems so selfish to go alone."
"Are you going alone?"
The question was forced from Isaacson. His mind had held it all the evening, and now irresistibly expelled it into words.
Nigel's strong fingers closed more tightly on his arm.
"I don't want to go alone."
"I would far rather be alone than not have the exactly right companion—some one who could think and feel with me, and in the sort of way I feel. Any other companionship is destructive."
Isaacson spoke with less than his usual self-possession, and there were traces of heat in his manner.
"Don't you agree with me?" he added, as Nigel did not speak.
"People can learn to feel alike."
"You mean that when two natures come together, the stronger eventually dominates the weaker. I should not like to be dominated, nor should I like to dominate. I love mutual independence combined with perfect sympathy."
Even while he was speaking, he was struck by his own exigence, and laughed, almost ironically.
"But where to find it!" he exclaimed. "Those are right who put up with less. But you—I think you want more than I do, in a way."
He added that lessening clause, remembering, quite simply, how much more brilliant he was than Nigel.
"I like to give to people who don't expect it," Nigel said. "How hateful the Circus is!"
"Shall we take a cab to Cleveland Square?"
"Yes—I'll come in for a little."
When they were in the house, Nigel said:
"I want to thank you for your visit to Mrs. Chepstow."
He spoke abruptly, as a man does who has been for some time intending to say a thing, and who suddenly, but not without some difficulty, obeys his resolution.
"Why on earth should you thank me?"
"Because I asked you to go."
"Is Mrs. Chepstow still in London?"
"Yes. I saw her to-day. She talks of coming to Egypt for the winter."
"Cairo, I suppose?"
"I think she is sick of towns."
"Then no doubt she'll go up the Nile."
There was a barrier between them. Both men felt it acutely.
"If she goes—it is not quite certain—I shall look after her," said Nigel.
Meyer Isaacson said nothing; and, after a silence that was awkward, Nigel changed the conversation, and not long after went away. When he was gone, Isaacson returned to his sitting-room upstairs and lit a nargeeleh pipe. He had turned out all the electric burners except one, and as he sat alone there in the small room, so dimly lighted, holding the long, snake-like pipe-stem in his thin, artistic hands, he looked like an Eastern Jew. With a fez upon his head, Europe would have dropped from him. Even his expression seemed to have become wholly Eastern, in its sombre, glittering intelligence, and in the patience of its craft.
"I shall look after her."
Said about a woman like Mrs. Chepstow by a man of Nigel's youth, and strength, and temperament, that could only mean one of two things, a liaison or a marriage. Which did it mean? Isaacson tried to infer from Nigel's tone and manner. His friend had seemed embarrassed, had certainly been embarrassed. But that might have been caused by something in his, Isaacson's, look or manner. Though Nigel was enthusiastic and determined, he was not insensitive to what was passing in the mind of one he admired and liked. He perhaps felt Isaacson's want of sympathy, even direct hostility. On the other hand, he might have been embarrassed by a sense of some obscure self-betrayal. Often men talk of uplifting others just before they fall down themselves. Was he going to embark on a liaison with this woman whom he pitied? And was he ashamed of the deed in advance?
A marriage would be such madness! Yet something in Isaacson at this moment almost wished that Nigel contemplated marriage—his secret admiration of the virtue in his friend. Such an act would be of a piece with Nigel's character, whereas a liaison—and yet Nigel was no saint.
Isaacson thought what the world would say, and suddenly he knew the reality of his affection for Nigel. The idea of the gossip pained, almost shocked him; of the gossip and bitter truths. A liaison would bring forth almost disgusted and wholly ironical laughter at the animal passions of man, as blatantly shown by Nigel. And a marriage? Well, the verdict on that would be, "Cracky!"
Isaacson's brain could not dispute the fact that there would be justice in that verdict. Yet who does not secretly love the fighter for lost causes?
"I shall look after her."
The expression fitted best the cruder, more sordid method of gaining possession of this woman. And men seem made for falling.
The nargeeleh was finished, but still Isaacson sat there. Whatever happened, he would never protest to Nigel. The feu sacre in the man would burn up protest. Isaacson knew that—in a way loved to know it. Yet what tears lay behind—the tears for what is inevitable, and what can only be sad! And he seemed to hear again the symphony which he had heard that night with Nigel, the unyielding pulse of life, beautiful, terrible, in its monotony; to hear its persistent throbbing, like the beating of a sad heart—which cannot cease to beat.
Upon the window suddenly there came a gust of wild autumn rain. He got up and went to bed.
Very seldom did Meyer Isaacson allow his heart to fight against the dictates of his brain; more seldom still did he, presiding over the battle, like some heathen god of mythology, give his conscious help to the heart. But all men at times betray themselves, and some betrayals, if scarcely clever, are not without nobility. Such a betrayal led him upon the following day to send a note to Mrs. Chepstow, asking for an appointment. "May I see you alone?" he wrote.
In the evening came an answer:
"I thought you had quite forgotten me. I have a pleasant recollection of your visit in the summer. Indeed, it made me understand for the first time that even a Bank Holiday need not be a day of wrath and mourning. Do repeat your visit. And as I know you are always so busy telling people how perfectly healthy they are, come next Sunday to tea at five. I shall keep out the clamouring crowd, so that we may discuss any high matter that occurs to us."
It was Wednesday when Isaacson read, and re-read, this note. He regretted the days that must intervene before the Sunday came. For he feared to repent his betrayal. And the note did not banish this fear. More than once he did repent. Then he and Nigel met and again he gave conscious help to his heart. He did not speak to Nigel of the projected visit, and Nigel did not say anything more about Mrs. Chepstow. Isaacson wondered at this reserve, which seemed to him unnatural in Nigel. More than once he found himself thinking that Nigel regretted what he had said about the possibility of Mrs. Chepstow visiting Egypt. But of this he could not be sure. On Sunday, at a few minutes past five, he arrived at the Savoy, and was taken to Mrs. Chepstow's room.
The autumn darkness had closed over London, and when he came into the room, which was empty, the curtains were drawn, the light shone, a fire was blazing on the hearth. Not far from it was placed a tea-table, close to a big sofa which stood out at right angles from the wall.
There were quantities of white carnations in vases on the mantel-piece, on the writing-table, and on the top of the rosewood piano. The piano was shut, and no "Gerontius" was visible.
Meyer Isaacson stood for a moment looking round, feeling the atmosphere of this room, or at least trying to feel it. In the summer had it not seemed a little lonely, a little dreary, a chamber to escape from, despite its comfort and pretty colours? Now it was bright, cosy, even hopeful. Yes, he breathed a hopeful atmosphere.
A door clicked. Mrs. Chepstow came in.
She wore a rose-coloured dress, cut very high at the throat, with tight sleeves that came partly over her hands, emphasizing their attractive delicacy. The dress was very plainly made and seemed moulded to her beautiful figure. She had no hat on, but Isaacson had never before been so much struck by her height. As she came in, she looked immensely tall. And there was some marked change in her appearance. For an instant he did not know what it was. Then he saw that she had given to her cheeks an ethereal flush of red. This altered her extraordinarily. It made her look younger, more brilliant, but also much less refined. She smiled gaily as she took his hand. She enveloped him at once with a definite cheerfulness which came to him as a shock. As she held his hand, she touched the bell. Then she drew him down on the sofa, with a sort of coaxing cordiality.
"This shall be better than Bank Holiday," she said. "I know you pitied me then. You wondered how I could bear it. Now I've shut out the river. I'm glad you never came again till I could have the lights and the fire. I love the English winters, don't you, because one has to do such delicious things to keep all thought of them out. Now, in the hot places abroad, that people are always raving about, all the year round one can never have a room like this, an hour like this by a clear fire, with thick curtains drawn—and a friend."
As she said the last three words, her voice had a really beautiful sound in it, and a sound that was surely beautiful because of some moral quality it contained or suggested. More than a whole essay of Emerson's did this mere sound suggest friendship. The leaves of the book of this woman's attractions were being turned one by one for Isaacson. And of all her attractions her voice perhaps was the greatest.
The waiter came in with tea. When he had gone, the Doctor could speak.
But he scarcely knew what to say. Very seldom was his self-possession disturbed. To-day he felt at a disadvantage. The depression, perhaps chiefly physical, which had lately been brooding over him, and which had become acute at the concert, deepened about him to-day, made him feel morally small. Mrs. Chepstow's cheerfulness seemed like height. For a moment in all ways she towered above him, and even her bodily height seemed like a mental triumph, or a triumph of her will over his.
"But this is only autumn," he said.
"We can pretend it is winter."
She gave him his cup of tea, with the same gesture that had charmed Nigel on the day when he first visited her. Then she handed him a plate with little bits of lemon on it.
"I've found out your tastes, you see. I know you never take milk."
He was obliged to feel grateful. Yet something in him longed to refuse the lemon, the something that never ceased from denouncing her. He uttered the right banality:
"How good of you to bother about me!"
"But you bother about me, and on your only free day! Don't you think I am grateful to you?"
There was no mockery in her voice. Today her irony was concealed, but, like a carefully-covered fire, he knew it was burning still. And because it was covered he resented it. He resented this comedy they were playing, the insincerity into which she was smilingly leading him. She could not imagine that she deceived him. She was far too clever for that. Then what was the good of it all?—that she had put him, that she kept him, at a disadvantage.
She handed him the muffins. She ministered to him as if she wanted to pet him. Again he had to feel grateful. Even in acute dislike men must be conscious of real charm in a woman. And Isaacson did not know how to ignore anything that was beautiful. Had the Devil come to him—with a grace, he must have thought, "How graceful is the Devil!" Now he was charmed by her gesture. Nevertheless, being a man of will, and, in the main, a man who was very sincere, he called up his hard resolutions, and said:
"No, I don't think you are grateful. I don't think you are the woman to be grateful without a cause."
"Or with one," he mentally added.
"But here is the cause!"
She touched his sleeve. And suddenly, with that touch, all her charm for him vanished, and he was angry with her for daring to treat him like those boys by whom she had been surrounded, for daring to think that she could play upon the worst in him.
"I'm afraid you are mistaken," he said. "I am no cause for your gratitude."
She looked more cordial and natural even than before.
"But I think you are. For you don't really like me, and yet you come to see me. That is unselfishness."
"Only supposing what you say were true, and that you did like me."
"I do like you."
She said it quite simply, without emphasis. And even to him it sounded true.
"Some day perhaps you will know it."
"But—I do not believe it."
He had recovered from the stroke of her greatest weapon, her voice.
"That does not matter. What is matters, not what some one thinks is, or is not."
"Yes," he said. "What is matters. I have come here, not to pay a formal call, or even a friendly visit, but, perhaps, to commit an impertinence."
She smilingly moved her head, and handed him her cigarette-case.
"No, you would never do that."
He hesitated to take a cigarette—and now her bright eyes frankly mocked him, and said, "A cigarette commits you to nothing!" Certainly she knew how to make him feel almost like an absurd and awkward boy; or was it his feeling of overwork, of physical depression, that was disarming him today?
He lighted a cigarette, and she lighted another, still with a happy air.
"How do you know that?" he asked.
"I feel it."
With a little laugh, she reminded him of his saying about women.
"You are wrong. I am going to do it," he said.
"But—do you really think it an impertinence?"
He was beset by his sensitive dislike to mix in other people's affairs, but almost angrily he overcame it.
"I don't know. You may. Mrs. Chepstow, you were raving just now about the delights of the English winter—"
"Shut out!" she interpolated.
"Then why should you avoid them?"
"And who says I am going to?"
"Are not you going to Egypt?"
She settled herself in the angle of the sofa.
"Would it be the wrong climate for me, Doctor Isaacson?"
She put an emphasis on "Doctor."
"I am not talking as a doctor."
"Then as a friend—or as an enemy?"
"As a friend—of his."
"Of Nigel Armine."
"Because he is working in the Fayyum, may not I go up the Nile?"
"If you were on the Nile, Armine would not be in the Fayyum."
"You are anxious about his reclaiming of the desert? Have you put money into his land scheme?"
"You think I only care for money?" he said, nettled, despite himself, at the sound of knowledge in her voice.
"What do you know of me?"
"And you—of me?"
She still spoke lightly, smilingly. But he thought of the inexorable beating of that pulse of life—of life, and the will to live as her philosophy desired.
"I don't wish to speak of any knowledge I may have of you. But—leave Armine in the Fayyum."
"Did he say I was going to Egypt?"
"He spoke of it once only. Then he said you might go."
"He said that if you did go he would look after you."
She sat looking at him in silence.
"And—why not?" she said at last, as he said nothing more.
"Others have—looked after you."
Her face did not change.
"Doesn't he know it?" she said.
"And he isn't like—others."
"I know what he is like."
When she said that, Isaacson hated her, hated her for her woman's power of understanding, and, through her understanding, of governing men.
"What does he mean by—looking after you?" he said.
And now, almost without knowing it, he spoke sternly, and his dark face was full of condemnation.
"What did you mean when you said that 'others' have done it?"
"Then it is that!"
Isaacson had not meant to speak the words, but they escaped from his lips. No passing light in her eyes betrayed that she had caught the reflection of the thought that lay behind them.
"Men! Men!" his mind was saying. "And—even Armine!"
"You are afraid for the Fayyum?" she said.
"Oh, Mrs. Chepstow!" he began, with a sudden vehemence that suggested the unchaining of a nature. Then he stopped. Behind his silence there was a flood of words—words to describe her temperament and Armine's, her mode of life and Armine's, what she deserved—and he; words that would have painted for Mrs. Chepstow not only the good in Isaacson's friend, but also the secret good in Isaacson, shown in his love of it, his desire to keep it out of the mud. And it was just this secret good that prevented Isaacson from speaking. He could not bear to show it to this woman. Instinctively she knew, appreciated, what was, perhaps, not high-minded in him. Let her be content with that knowledge. He would not make her the gift of his goodness.
And—to do so would be useless.
"Yes?" she said.
She sat up on the sofa. She was looking lightly curious.
"If you do go to the Nile, let me wish you a happy winter."
He was once more the self-possessed Doctor so many women liked.
"If I go, I shall know how to make him happy," she replied, echoing his cool manner, despite her more earnest words.
He got up. Again he hated her for her knowledge of men. He hated her so much that he longed to be away from her. Why should she be allowed to take a life like Armine's into her soiled hands, even if she could make him happy for a time, being a mistress of deception?
He just touched her hand.
"Good-bye. I am grateful. You know why."
Again she sent him that cordial smile. He left her standing up by the hearth. The glow from the flames played over her rose-coloured gown. Her beautiful head was turned towards the door to watch him go. In one hand she held her cigarette. Its tiny wreath of smoke curled lightly about her, mounting up in the warm, bright room. Her figure, the shape of her head, her eyes—they looked really lovely. She was still the "Bella Donna" men had talked about so long. But as he went out, he saw the tiny wrinkles near her eyes, the slight hardness about her cheekbones, the cynical droop at the corners of her mouth.
Armine did not see them. He could not make Armine see them. Armine saw only the beauties she possessed. His concentration on them made for blindness.
And yet even he had his ugliness. For now Isaacson believed in the liaison between him and Mrs. Chepstow.
Only eight days later, after Mrs. Chepstow and Nigel had sailed for Alexandria, did he learn that they were married.
Immediately after their marriage at a registrar's office, Nigel and his wife, with a maid, and a great many trunks of varying shapes and sizes, travelled to Naples and embarked on the Hohenzollern for Egypt, where Nigel had rented for the winter the Villa Androud, on the bank of the Nile near Luxor.
Nigel was happy, but he was not wholly free from anxiety, although he was careful to keep that anxiety from his wife, and desired even sometimes to deny that it existed to himself. In making this marriage he had obeyed the cry of two voices within him, the voice of the senses and the voice of the soul. He did not know which had sounded most clearly; he did not know which inclination had prevailed over him most strongly, the longing for a personal joy, or the pitiful desire to shed happiness and peace on a darkened and soiled existence. The future perhaps would tell him. Meanwhile he put before him one worthy aim, to be the perfect husband.
Although the month was November, and the rush for the Nile had not begun, the Hohenzollern was crowded with passengers, and when the Armines came into the dining-room for lunch, as the vessel was leaving Naples, every place was already taken.
"Give us a table upstairs alone," said Nigel to the head-steward, putting something into his hand. "We shall like that ever so much better."
He had caught sight of a number of staring English faces, on some of which there seemed to be more than the dawning of a recognition of Mrs. Armine.
As if mechanically the rosy Prussian retained the something, and replied, with a strong German accent:
"I must give you the table at the top of the staircase, sir, but I cannot promise that you will be alone. If there are any more to come, they will have to sit with you."
"Anyhow, put us there."
"Pray that we have this to ourselves for the voyage, Ruby," said Nigel, a moment later, as they sat side by side on a white settee close to the open door which led out on to the deck at the top of the main companion.