She turned a white, miserable face towards the door. Then as she suddenly recognised him the colour rushed to her face, and she flew to him with a cry and locked him in her arms, kissing his shoulder, his coat, his hands.
He was thunderstruck. Could a few days' absence so profoundly move these delicate, emotional creatures, whom an all-wise Providence had made almost too susceptible to masculine charm! He had never seen Fay like this. But then, he had never seen anything like anything. She withdrew herself suddenly, and stood a little apart, her face and neck one carnation of soft shame.
"But you are in London," she said, her lip quivering, her eyes falling before his. "I have your own word for it that you are still in London." And she pointed at his letter. "I was not expecting to see you."
A joy so great that it was akin to pain laid its awakening hand on him.
"I am glad you were not expecting me," he said, in a voice that he hardly recognised as his own. "I'm thankful."
And he drew her back into his arms more moved than he had ever been.
Yes. He was loved. He loved and was loved. He had not known the world contained anything as great as this. He had always thought that life at its best was a solitary thing, that passion was a momentary madness with which he did not care to tamper, that celibacy was a cheap price to pay for his independence. But he and this woman were one. This was rest and peace and joy and freedom. This was what he had always wanted, without knowing he wanted it. One of the many barriers between them went down. He thought it was the only one.
They sat a long time in silence, his head against her breast. Her face had become pinched and sharp, the lovely colour had faded. All its beauty and youth had gone out of it. Her terrified eyes stared at the wall.
"Speak! Speak now," said the inner voice. "You were too late last time. Speak now."
* * * * *
"I am very miserable, Fay," in a whisper against her cheek.
Her arms tightened round him.
"Not so miserable now I am with you, but——"
It seemed to Fay that she was holding to her breast the point of the sword that was to stab her to death.
He raised his head, and she saw that there were tears in his eyes. Twice she had seen tears in those narrow grey eyes before: once when he had talked to her of Michael in prison, and once when Michael was exonerated.
They had drawn a little apart.
"When I came here I had not meant to tell you anything about it, I had decided not to, but—Fay, I can't believe it, I haven't slept all night, I have known for two days, I only found it out by the merest accident that that has happened which I never thought could happen, something impossible." Wentworth's lip quivered. "Michael has deceived me, not by mistake, not just for a moment, but systematically, purposely—for years."
There was anger as well as pain in his voice.
"It was about the murder of the Marchese," he said hoarsely, "but I don't care what it was about. That is not the point. He has deceived me for reasons of his own. I don't know what they were. And I am afraid, my darling, he has not stopped there. I am afraid he has deceived you too. I am afraid he hoodwinked you when he persuaded you to let him hide in your room. Why did he hide if he wanted to shield the Marchesa? Don't you see that there was no sense in his hiding, though I never thought of it till—lately? I always believed in him implicitly, as you have done. I thought him just the kind of person who would sacrifice himself for a woman. I can understand doing it. It appeals to a nature like mine. I was deeply hurt by his reserve about it, since he came home, but I never thought, it never struck me for one single second that it concealed anything discreditable."
"It does not," said Fay suddenly.
"My dearest, I am afraid there is no doubt it does. What was Michael doing in the garden at that time of night. You forget that. I am the last person in the world to think him capable of anything disgraceful, but I can't resist the conclusion that he was waiting—Oh! Fay, your ears ought not to be polluted by such things—was waiting about in the garden because he was attracted by someone in the house."
He felt her hand quiver in his.
How womanly she was, how pure. How could any man have had the heart to throw dust in those innocent eyes. He kissed the cold hand reverently.
"I hate to speak of such a thing to you, and it somehow seems out of the question when I think of Michael's character. I had brought him up so carefully. I had impressed on him my own high code of morals from the first. And yet—and yet—I am afraid, dearest, that Michael must have been hanging about to have a word with—don't start so, why do you tremble?—with your maid."
There was a moment's silence. Fay shook her head. She was unable to articulate.
"Then why was he there? You must have been very much surprised and alarmed at his coming to your room so late. And unless he had given you some reason, you would not have tried to hide him. We always come back to that. Fay, why did Michael hide?"
Fay struggled to speak. Her white lips moved, but no sound came forth.
"You and the Duke tried to save him from being discovered. We all know that. The Duke told me so himself."
Another silence. Fay's face became convulsed.
"You are no diplomatist, Fay, thank God. I see very well, my darling, that you know more than you will say. It is plain to me that in the goodness of your soul you are trying to shield Michael—for the second time."
He kissed her on the forehead and rose to go.
"Stop!" said Fay, almost inarticulately. "It isn't the second time. I didn't shield him last time. I let him slide. But I will now ... I want to tell you ... I must tell you ... Michael has been here, he came when you were away in London. And he has begged me,—Oh, Wentworth, he has implored me to—tell you everything."
Wentworth became very red. His face hardened.
"He has begged you to tell me! He has gone behind my back and tried to depute you to do it, to plead his cause for him. He has not even the courage to come to me himself. No, Fay, I am going. It is no use imploring me to stay. I'm not going to listen to you making excuses for him. I don't blame you, but you ought not to have agreed to do it. Whatever I ought to know I must hear from Michael himself. I shall go over and see him to-morrow morning. Even you, dearest, must not come between—Michael and me."
Aimer quelqu'un, c'est a la fois lui oter le droit, et lui donner la puissance de nous faire souffrir.
The following morning the Bishop and Michael were sitting in the library at Lostford Palace. The Bishop was reading a letter, while Michael watched him, sunk in an arm-chair.
Presently the Bishop thrust out his under lip, and gave back the letter to Michael.
"Wentworth has dipped his pen in gall instead of in his inkpot," he said. "For real quality and strength give me the venom of a virtuous person. The ordinary sinner can't compete with him. Evil doers are out of the running in this world as well as in the next. I often tell them so. That is why I took orders. What do you suppose Wentworth suspects when he says Alington has suggested a discreditable reason for your being in the di Collo Alto villa that night, and that he is not going to allow you to skulk behind a woman any longer? He will be here directly to extort what he is pleased to call 'the truth.' What are you going to say?"
"I don't know," said Michael. "That is the worst of me. I never know."
The Bishop frowned and rubbed his chin.
"I see one thing," continued Michael, "and that is that it's all important that he should not break with Fay."
"That will be his first step—if he knows the truth."
"I am afraid it will, and yet—that's the pity of it, she will last longer than I shall, and he does like her—a little—which is a great deal for him. You don't believe it, but he really does. And he'll want her more than ever—when I'm gone."
The Bishop looked keenly at his godson.
Michael had never before alluded to his precarious hold on life. It was obvious that he was only considering it now in its bearings on Wentworth's future.
"Can a man who has grown grey looking at himself in the glass, and recording his own microscopic experiences in a diary, can such a man forgive?" said the Bishop. "Forgiveness is tough work. It needs knowledge of human nature. It needs humility. I forgave somebody once long ago. And it nearly was the death of me. I've never been the same man since."
"Wentworth will have his chance," said Michael. "It's about all we can do for him."
"We all know he says he can, but then he says such a lot of things. He dares to say he loves his fellow men. But I've never yet found that assertion coincide with any real working regard for them. There are certain things which those who care for others never say, and that is one of them. The egoist on the contrary is always asserting of himself what he ought in common decency to leave others to say of him,—only they never do. Wentworth actually told me not so long ago that he was intent on the service of others. I told him it was for those others to mention that interesting fact, and that nobody had lied about him to that extent so far in my diocese."
"He always says that there is perfect confidence between us," said Michael. "I've heard him say so ever since I can remember, and I've heard him tell people that I always brought him my boyish troubles. But I never did, even as a boy, even when I got into a scrape at Eton. My tutor stood by me in that. Wentworth never could endure him. He said he was such a snob. But snob or not, he was a firm friend to me. And I never told him even at the first of my love for Fay. I somehow could not. You simply can't tell Wentworth things. But he has got it into his head that I always have, and that this is the first time I have kept anything from him. If I had only Fay's leave to tell him! It is the only thing to do."
The door opened, and to the astonishment of both men, Fay and Magdalen came in. Fay looked as exhausted, as hopeless, as she had done three months ago when Magdalen had brought her to make her confession to the Bishop in this very room.
She evidently remembered it. She turned her lustreless eyes on him and said, "Magdalen did not make me come this time. I have come myself. Do you think, is there any chance, Uncle John, that God will have mercy on me again, like He did before?"
"Do you mean by God having mercy, that Wentworth will still marry you if he knows the truth?"
She did not answer. That was of course what she meant.
She looked from one to the other of her three friends with a mute imploring gaze. Their eyes fell before hers.
"I have not slept all night," she said to the Bishop. "Magdalen stayed with me. And we came quite early because I had to come. Wentworth must be told. It isn't because Magdalen says so. She hasn't said so, though I know she felt he ought to be told from the first. And it isn't because he's sure to find out. And oh! Michael, it isn't for your sake, to put you right with him. It ought to be, but it isn't. But I can't let him kiss me any more, and not say. It makes a kind of pain I can't bear. It has been getting worse and worse ever since Michael came back, only I did not know what it was at first, and yesterday——" she stopped short, shuddering. "He came to see me yesterday," she said in a strangled voice. "He was so dear and good, so wonderful. There never was anyone like him. It is in my heart that he will forgive me. And he trusts me entirely. I can't deceive him any more."
The eyes of Michael and Magdalen met in a kind of shame. Those two who had loved her as no one else had loved her, who had understood her as no one else had understood her, saw that they had misjudged her. They had judged her by her actions, identified her with them. And all the time the little trembling "pilgrim soul" in her was shrinking from the pain of those very actions, was growing imperceptibly apart from them, was beginning to regard them with horror, not because they had caused suffering to others, but because they had ended by inflicting anguish upon herself. The red-hot iron of our selfishness with which we brand others becomes in time hot at both ends. We don't know at first what it is that is hurting us, why it burns us. But our blistered hands, cling as they will, must needs drop it at last. Fay's cruel little white hand had let go.
Michael took it in his and kissed it.
"Wentworth is coming here this morning," said the Bishop gently. "He may arrive at any moment. Stay here and speak to him. And ask him to forgive you, Fay. You need his forgiveness."
"I don't know how to tell him," gasped Fay. "I tried yesterday, and I couldn't."
"Let me tell him," said Michael, and as he spoke, the door opened once more, and Wentworth was announced.
He had got ready what he meant to say. The venomous sentences which he had concocted during a sleepless night were all in order in his mind.
Who shall say what grovelling suspicions, what sordid conjectures, had blocked his inflamed mind as he drove swiftly across the downs in the still June morning? He meant to extort an explanation from his brother, to have the whole subject out with him once for all. He should not be suffered to make Fay his accomplice for another hour. His tepid spirit burned within him when he thought of Michael's behaviour to Fay. He said to himself that he could forgive that least of all.
He had expected to find Michael alone, or possibly the Bishop only with him, the Bishop who knew. He was disconcerted at finding Fay and Magdalen there before him.
A horrible suspicion that Magdalen also knew darted across his mind.
It was obvious to him that he had broken up a conference, a conspiracy. His bitter face darkened still more.
"I don't know what you are all plotting about so early in the morning," he said. "I must apologise for interrupting you. I seem to be always in the way now-a-days. People are always whispering behind my back. But I have come over to see Michael. I want a few plain words with him without delay, and I intend to have them."
"That is well," said the Bishop, "because you are about to have them. We were speaking of you when you came in."
"I wish to see Michael alone," said Wentworth, stung by the Bishop's instant admission of being in his brother's confidence.
He looked only at Michael, who, his eyes on the ground, was leaning white as death against the mantelpiece.
"Do you wish us to go, Michael?" said the Bishop.
"I wish you all to stay," he said, raising his eyes for a moment. His hand shook so violently that he knocked over a little ornament on the mantelpiece, and it fell with a crash into the fireplace. His voice shook, too, but his eyes were steady. His great physical weakness, poignantly apparent though it was, seemed a thing apart from him, like a cloak which he might discard at any moment.
"I cannot say all I have to say before others," said Wentworth fiercely, "even if they are all his confederates in trying to keep me in the dark, all, that is, except Fay. We know by experience that she can shield a man who has something to hide even from his best friends. We know by experience that dust can be thrown in her unsuspecting eyes."
"You have been kept in the dark," said the Bishop with compassion; "you have not been fairly treated, Wentworth, you have much to forgive."
In spite of himself Wentworth was awed. He had a sudden sense of impending calamity. He looked again at Michael.
Michael's hand shook. His whole body shook. His lips trembled impotently.
Wentworth sickened with shame. His love was wounded to the very depths to see his brother like this, as it had never been wounded even by the first sight of him in his convict's blouse.
"I always trusted you," he said with a groan, putting up his hand so as to shut out that tottering figure. "I don't know what miserable secret you're keeping from me, and I don't care. It isn't that I mind. It is that—whatever it was, however disgraceful it was, you should have kept it from me. God knows I only wanted to help you. Surely, surely, Michael, you might have trusted me. What have I done that you should treat me as if I were an enemy? I thought I was your friend."
No one spoke.
"After all, I don't know that I care to hear. Why should I care. It's rather late in the day to hear now what everyone knows except me, what I've been breaking my heart over, racking my brains over as you well know for these two endless years, what you aren't even now telling me of your own accord, what you have been persuaded to by this—this"—Wentworth looked at the Bishop—"this outsider, this middle man."
A great jealousy and bitterness were compressed into the words "middle man."
"You have got to hear," said Michael, and the trembling left him.
He turned towards his brother, still supporting himself with one hand on the mantelpiece. The two stern faces confronted each other, and Magdalen for the first time saw a likeness between them.
"I have kept things from you. You are right there," said Michael, speaking in a low, difficult voice. "But I never intentionally deceived you till the Marchese was murdered. Long before that, four years before that, I fell in love."
Wentworth's heart contracted. He had always feared that moment for Michael, had always awaited it with a little store of remedial maxims. He had felt confident that Michael had never even been slightly attracted by any woman. How often he had said to himself that if there had been any attraction he should have been the first to know of it. Yet the incredible truth was being thrust at him that Michael had struggled through his first love without drawing upon the deep wells of Wentworth's knowledge.
"The woman I fell in love with was Fay. She was seventeen. I was nineteen."
The room went round with Wentworth.
"Fay," he said, in blank astonishment, "Fay!" Then a glare of light broke in on him.
"Then it was she," he stammered, "not her maid, as that brute Alington said—it was she—she herself that——"
"It was her I went to see the night I was arrested. I was deeply in love with her."
Michael paused a moment, and then added gently, "She never cared for me. I did not see that clearly at the time, because I was blinded by my own passion. I have seen it since."
Wentworth made no movement.
"I decided to leave Rome. Fay wrote to me that I ought to go. I went to say good-bye to her in the garden the night the Marchese was murdered. While I was in the garden, the murder was discovered and the place was surrounded, and I could not get away. I hid in Fay's boudoir. The Duke came in and explained to Fay what had happened. It was the first I knew of it. Then, when they searched the house and I saw that I must be discovered in another moment, I came out and gave myself up as the murderer, because I could not be found hiding in Fay's rooms at night. It was the only thing to do."
Fay took a long breath. What a simple explanation it seemed after all. Why had she been so terrified? Wentworth could not blame her seriously now.
"I never tried to shield the Marchesa," Michael went on. "That was her own idea. I only wanted to shield Fay from being—misconstrued. The Duke understood. He saw me hiding behind the screen, and tried to save me. He told me so next day. The Duke was good to me from first to last."
Wentworth turned a fierce, livid face towards his brother.
"Have I really got at the truth at last?" he said. "How can I tell? The Duke could have told me, but he is dead. Did he really connive at your romantic passion for his wife? If I may venture to offer an opinion, that part of the story is not quite so well thought out as the rest, though it is excessively modern. Anyhow he is dead. You tell me he saw you behind the screen in his wife's rooms at midnight, and felt no need of an explanation. How like an Italian. But he is dead. And you forced your love on another man's wife, though you own she did not return it, wormed yourself into her rooms at night, and then—then—yes, I begin to see a grain of truth among these heaps of lies—then when by an evil chance, an extraordinary stroke of bad luck, there was danger of your being discovered, then you persuaded her, the innocent, inexperienced creature whom you would have wronged if you could—you worked upon her feelings, you made her into your accomplice, you persuaded her to hide you.... You mean cur!... You only sneaked out of your hole when escape was absolutely impossible. And so the truth, or some garbled part of it, is choked out of you at last. No wonder you were silent all these years. No wonder you would not speak. No wonder you let your poor dupe of a brother break his heart over your silence. Credulous fool that I have been from first to last. So help me God, I will never speak to you again."
The violent, stammering voice ceased at last.
Fay shivered from head to foot, and looked at her lover.
Both men had forgotten her. Their eyes never left each other. Wentworth's fierce face was turned with deadly hatred upon his brother. Michael met his eye, but he did not speak.
There was death in the air.
Suddenly as in a glass she saw that Michael was saving her again, was sacrificing himself for a second time at enormous cost, the cost of his brother's love.
"Michael!" said Fay with a sob, "Michael, I can't bear it. You are trying to save me again, but I can't bear to be saved any more. I have had enough of being saved. I won't be saved. It hurts too much. I won't let you do it a second time. I have had enough of being silent when I ought to speak, I have had enough of hiding things, and pretending, and being frightened."
Fay saw at last that the truth was her only refuge from that unendurable horror which was getting up out of its grave again. She fled to it for very life, and flung herself upon it.
She took Michael's hand, and turning to Wentworth began to speak rapidly, with a clearness and directness which amazed Magdalen and the Bishop.
It all came out, the naked truth; her loveless marriage, the great kindness of her husband towards her, her determination bred of idleness and vanity to enslave Michael anew when he came to Rome, his resistance, his decision to leave Italy, her inveigling him under plea of urgency to come to the garden at night, his refusal to enter the house, her frantic desire to keep him, his determination to part from her.
There was no doubt in the minds of those who listened in awed silence that here was the whole truth at last.
Fay looked full at Wentworth and then said: "He asked me why I had sent for him, what it was that he could do for me. And I said—I said—'Take me with you.'"
"No," said Michael, wincing as under a lash, "No, you did not. Fay, you never said that."
"You did not hear it, but I said it."
Michael staggered against the mantelpiece.
Wentworth had not moved. His face had become frightful, distorted.
"I am a wicked woman, Wentworth," said Fay. "I tried to make him in love with me. I tried to tempt him. I could make him love me, but not do wrong. And then I let him take the blame when he was trapped. I had trapped him there first. He did not want to come. I forced him to come. I let him spoil his life to save my wretched good name. He is right when he told you just now that I never loved him. The love was all on his side. He gave it all. I took it all, and I went on taking it. It was I who kept him in prison quite as much as the Marchesa. It was I who let him burn and freeze in his cell. A word from me would have got him out."
Wentworth laughed suddenly, a horrible, discordant laugh.
They had rotted down before his eyes to loathsome unrecognisable corpses—the man and the woman he had loved.
Fay looked wildly at him.
"But you are good," she said faintly. "You won't, Wentworth, you won't cast me off like—like I did Michael."
He did not look at her.
He took up his gloves and straightened the fingers as his custom was.
"There is no longer anything which need detain me here," he said to the Bishop, and he moved towards the door.
"Nothing except the woman whose fate is in your hands," said the Bishop gently. "What of her? She deserted Michael because her eyes were holden. Now you can make the balance even if you will. But will you? You can repay cruelty with cruelty. You can desert her with inhumanity even greater than hers, because you do it with your eyes open. But will you? Is it to be an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth? She loves you and is at your mercy, even as Michael was once at hers. You can crush her if you will. But will you?"
"Wentworth!" said Fay, and she fell at his feet, clasping his knees.
His face was as flint, as he looked down at her, and tried to push away her hands.
"Let him go, my child," said the Bishop sternly, and he took Fay's hands, and held them. "It is no use trying to keep a man who does not love you. Go, Wentworth. You are right. There is nothing to keep you here. In this room there are two people, one of whom has sinned and has repented, and both of whom love you and have spoken the truth to you. But there is no love and truth in you to rise up and meet theirs. You do not know what love and truth are, even when you see them very close. You had better go."
"I will go," said Wentworth, his eyes blazing. And he went out and shut the door behind him.
Fay's hands slipped out of the Bishop's, her head fell forward, and she sank down on the floor. The Bishop and Magdalen bent over her.
Michael looked a moment at her, and swiftly left the room. He overtook Wentworth in the hall, groping blindly for his hat.
"Come in here," said Michael, "I want a word with you," and he half pushed Wentworth into a room leading out of the hall. It was a dreary little airless apartment with a broken blind, intended for a waiting-room but fallen into disuse, and only partially furnished, the corners piled with great tin boxes containing episcopal correspondence.
Michael closed the door.
"Wentworth," he said breathlessly, "you don't see. You don't understand. Fay loves you." He looked earnestly at Wentworth as if the latter were acting in some woeful ignorance, which one word would set right. He seemed entirely oblivious of Wentworth's insulting words towards himself.
"I see one thing," said Wentworth, "and that is that I'm not inclined to marry your cast-off mistress."
Michael closed with him instantly, but not before Wentworth had seen the lightning in his eyes; and the two men struggled furiously in the dim, airless little room with its broken blind.
Wentworth knew Michael meant to kill him. The long, scarred hands had him by the throat, were twisting themselves in the silk tie Fay had knitted for him. He tore himself out of the grip of those iron fingers. But Michael only sobbed and wound his arms round him. And Wentworth knew he was trying to throw him, and break his back.
Wentworth fought for his life, but he was over-matched. The awful, murderous hands were feeling for his neck again, the sobbing breath was on his face, the glaring eyes staring into his. The hands closed on his throat once more, squeezing his tongue out of his mouth, his eyes out of his head. He made a last frightful struggle to wrench the hands away. But they remained clutched into his flesh, choking his life out of him. There was a thin, guttural, sawing noise mixed in with the sobbing. Then all in a moment the sobbing ceased, he felt the hands relax, and then an avalanche of darkness crashed down on him, and buried him beneath it.
That game of consequences to which we all sit down, the hanger-back not least.—R. L. STEVENSON.
Down, very deep down. Buried in an abyss of darkness, shrouded tightly in a nameless horror that pressed on eyes and breath and hands and limbs.
At last a faint sound reached Wentworth. Far away in some other world a clock struck. His numbed faculties apprehended the sound, and then forgot it when it ceased.
At last he felt himself stir. He found himself staring at a glimmer of light. He could not look at it, and he could not look away from it. What was it? It had something to do with him. It grew more distinct. It was a window with a broken blind.
Someone close at hand began to tremble. Wentworth sat up suddenly and found it was himself. He was alone, lying crumpled up against the wall where he had been flung down. He knew where he was. He saw the piles of tin boxes. He remembered.
He leaned his leaden throbbing head against the wall, and wave after wave of sickness even unto death shuddered over him. Michael had tried to kill him. His stiff wrenched throat throbbed together with his head. For a long time he did not move.
At last the clock struck again.
He staggered to his feet as if he had been called, and looked with intentness at a fallen book and upset inkstand. There was a quill pen balancing itself in an absurd manner with its nib stuck in the cane bottom of an overturned chair. He took it out and laid it on the table. He saw his hat in a corner, stooped for it, missed it several times, and then got hold of it, and put it on. There was a little glass over the mantelpiece. A ghastly face with a torn collar was watching him furtively through it. He turned fiercely on the spy and found the face was his own. He turned up his coat and buttoned it. Then he went to the half-open door and looked out.
His ear caught a faint sound. Otherwise the house was very still.
A maid servant on her knees with her back to him was washing the white stone floor of the hall at the foot of the staircase. Another servant, also with her back to him, was watching her.
"Then it is early morning," he said. And he walked out of the room, and out of the house, through the wide open doors. A fine rain was falling, but he did not notice it. He passed out through the gates and found himself in the road. He stopped unconsciously, not knowing what to do next.
A fly dawdling back to the town from the station, passed him, and pulled up, as he hesitated.
"Station, sir?" said the driver.
"No, Barford," said Wentworth, and he got in. The fly with its faded cushions and musty atmosphere seemed a kind of refuge. He breathed more freely when he was enclosed in it.
As in the garden of Eden desolation often first makes itself felt as a realisation of nakedness. We must creep away. We must hide. We have no protection, no covering.
Wentworth cowered in the fly. He passed without recognising them all the old familiar landmarks, the twisting white road that branched off to Priesthope, the dew ponds, the half hidden, lonely farms. He was in a strange country.
He looked with momentary curiosity at a weather-worn sign post which pointed forlornly where four roads met. It was falling to pieces with age, but yet it must have been put up there since the morning. He had never seen it before. He shouted to the driver that he had taken the wrong road. The man pointed with his whip to where, a mile away, the smoke of Barford rose among its trees. The landscape suddenly slid into familiar lines again. He recognised it, and sank back, confused and exhausted. The effort of speaking had hurt his throat horribly. Was he going mad? How could his throat hurt him like this—if it wasn't—if Michael had not——
He thrust thought from him. He would wait till he got home, till his own roof was safely over him, the familiar walls round him.
This was his gate. Here was his own door, with his butler looking somewhat surprised, standing on the steps.
He found himself getting out, and giving orders. He listened to himself telling the servant to pay the fly and to send word by it to his dog-cart to return home. Of course he had gone to Lostford in the dog-cart. He had forgotten that.
Then he heard his own voice ordering a whiskey and soda to be brought to him in the library. And he walked there.
The afternoon post had arrived with the newspapers and he took up a paper. But it was printed in some language unknown to him, though he recognised some of the letters.
How long had he been gone, an hour, a day, a year?
He looked at the clock.
Half-past two. But this great shock with which the air was still rocking might have stopped it. He put his ear to it. Strange! It was going. And it always stopped so easily, even if the housemaid dusted it.
Was it half-past two in the afternoon or in the night?
There was a band of sunshine across the floor and outside the gardens and the downs were steeped in it.
Perhaps it was day.
The butler brought in a tray, and placed it near him.
"Have you had luncheon, sir?"
Wentworth thought a moment, and then said "yes."
"And will Mr. Michael return to-day, sir?"
Wentworth remembered some old, old prehistoric arrangement by which Michael was to have come back with him to Barford this afternoon.
"No," he said, the room suddenly darkening till the sunshine on the floor was barely visible. "No. He is not coming back."
The man hesitated a moment, and then left the room.
Wentworth groped for the flagon of whiskey, poured out a quantity, and drank it raw. Then he waited for the nightmare to lift.
His mind cleared gradually. His scattered faculties came sneaking back like defeated soldiers to camp. But they had all one tale of disaster and one only to tell. He must needs believe them.
Michael had tried to kill him. Whatever else shifted that remained true.
Wentworth bowed his stiffening head upon his hands, and the sweat ran down his face.
Michael had tried to kill him, and had all but succeeded. Oh! if only he had quite succeeded. If only his life had not come back to him! He had died and died hard in that little room. And yet here he was still alive and in agony.
Michael first. That thought was torture. Then Fay. That thought was torture. The woman he had so worshipped, on whom he had lavished a wealth of love, far greater than most men have it in them to bestow, had deceived him, had been willing to be his brother's mistress.
Why had he ever believed in Fay and Michael? Had he not tacitly distrusted men and women always from his youth up? Had he not gauged life and love and friendship at their true value years ago? Why had he made an exception of this particular man and woman? They were no worse than the rest.
What was any man or woman worth? They were all false to the core. What was Fay? A pretty piece of pink and white, a sensual lure like other women, not better and not worse. And what was Michael but a man like other men, ready to forget honour, morality, everything, if once his passions were aroused. It was an old story, as old as the hills, that men and women betray each other. It was as old as the psalms of David.
Pah! what a fool he was to allow his heart to be wrung by what was only the ordinary vulgar experience of those who were so silly as to mix themselves up with their fellow creatures.
He had only himself to thank.
Well, at any rate, he was free now. He was awake now. He was not going to put his hand in the fire a second time.
He was going abroad immediately. He would start to-morrow morning. In the meanwhile, he would go and see somebody, call somewhere, be in high spirits somewhere with others. They (they were Fay and Michael) would hear of that afterwards, would see how little he cared.
He seized up his hat and went out. But when he had walked a few hundred yards he sank down exhausted on a wooden seat in the alder coppice overhanging the house, and remained there. The baby pheasants crept in and out, all round him. Their little houses, each with an anxious step-mother in it, were set at regular intervals along the grassy path. Only yesterday he had walked along that path with the keeper, and had thought that in the autumn he and Michael would be shooting together once more.
They would never shoot together again.
* * * * *
As the dusk fell he heard a sound of wheels. His dog-cart returning from Lostford, no doubt. It did not turn into the court-yard, but came on up to the house. Wentworth peered down through the leaves.
It was the Bishop's dog-cart. He recognised the groom who drove it. To his amazement he saw Lord Lossiemouth get out. After some parley he went into the house.
Why should he have come?
Oh! of course, how dense he was. He had been sent over on an embassy by Magdalen and the Bishop. They wanted to hush up the fight, and bring about a reconciliation between him and Fay. He should be told Fay was making herself ill with crying. His magnanimity would be appealed to by that pompous prig. Well, he had had his journey for nothing. Wentworth saw his servants looking for him, and hid himself in the coppice.
A couple of hours later he left the wood, and went down the steep path to the gardens. It was nearly dark now. Lights twinkled in the house. The lamp in the library laid a pale finger of light upon the lawn, through the open glass doors.
Wentworth went up to it, and then as he was about to enter, shrank back astonished.
Lord Lossiemouth was sitting there with his back to the window. Wentworth stood a long time looking at him. He was evidently waiting for him to come in. He sat stolidly on as if he were glued to his chair, smoking one cigarette after another.
At last he got up. Surely he would go now. He walked to the bookshelves that lined the walls, inspected the books, selected one, and settled himself with a voluminous sigh in his arm-chair once more.
Wentworth stole away across the grass as noiselessly as he had come, and disappeared in the darkness.
Age by age, The clay wars with His fingers and pleads hard For its old, heavy, dull, and shapeless ease.
—W. B. YEATS.
Wentworth never knew how he spent the night, if indeed that interminable tract in which time stopped could have been one night. It was longer than all the rest of his life put together. In later years, in peaceful later years, confused memories came to him of things that he must have seen then, but of which he took no heed at the time; of seeing the breath of animals like steam close to the ground; of stumbling suddenly under a hedgerow on a huddled, sleeping figure with a white face, which struggled up unclean in the clean moonlight, and menaced him in a foul atmosphere of rags.
And once, many years later, when he was taking an unfamiliar short cut across the downs, he came upon a little pool in an old chalk pit, and recognised it. He had never seen it by day, but he knew it. He had wandered to it on a night of moon and mist, and had seen a fox bring down her cubs to drink just where that twisted alder branch made an arch over the water.
Wentworth sat by that chalk pit on the down utterly spent in body and mind hour after hour, till the moon, which had been tangled in the alder stooped to the violet west with one great star to bear her company. Who shall say through what interminable labyrinths, through what sloughs, across what deserts, his tortured mind had dragged itself all night? The sun had gone down upon his wrath. The moon had gone down upon his wrath.
The land was grey. The spectral horses moving slowly in the misty fields were grey. A streak of palest saffron light showed where the dim earth and dim sky met.
A remembrance came to him of a summer dawn such as this, years and years ago, when Michael had been dangerously ill, and how his whole soul had spent itself in one passionate supplication that he might not be taken from him.
* * * * *
A tender green transparent as the light seen through a leaf in May was welling up the sky. Two tiny clouds floated in it like rafts of rose colour upon a sea of glass.
* * * * *
A deep and bitter sense of injustice was growing within him with the growing light.
A hundred times during the night he had recalled in cold anger every word of that final scene in the library, his own speech, his own actions, his great wrongs, his unendurable pain.
And yet again it returned upon him, always with Fay's convulsed face, and clinging hands, always with the Bishop's scathing words of dismissal. Their horrible injustice rankled in his mind, their abominable cruelty to himself revolted him. Hideous crimes had been committed against him, but he had done no evil, unless to love and to trust were evil. Why then was he to be thus thrust into the wrong, thus condemned unheard, cast forth with scorn because he had not obediently fallen in with the Bishop's preposterous demand on him to condone everything? It was not to be expected of him.
Suddenly the faces of the others watching him after Fay's confession rose before him, the Bishop's, Magdalen's, Michael's. He saw that they had not expected it of him either—not even Michael. Only in Fay's up-raised eyes as she held him by the knees had there been one instant's anguished hope. Only in hers. And that had been quickly extinguished. He had extinguished it himself.
* * * * *
The little clouds turned to trembling flame. The whole sky flushed and then paled. A thread of fire showed upon the horizon. It widened. It drew into an arch. The sun rose swiftly, a sudden ball of living fire; and in a moment the smallest shrub upon the down, the grazing horses, the huddled sheep, were casting gigantic shadows across the whole world.
A faint sound of wheels was growing clearer and nearer.
Wentworth saw a dog-cart coming towards him along the great white road. As he looked it pulled up and then stopped. A man got out and came towards him. The raw sunlight caught only his face and shoulders. He seemed to wade towards him waist deep through a grey sea.
Lord Lossiemouth again!
Lord Lossiemouth's heavy tired face showed sharp and white in the garish light.
"I have been looking everywhere for you," he said, not ungently. "I waited half the night at Barford, and then went on to Saundersfoot station, and then to Wrigley. Your servants thought you might possibly have gone there. But you had not been seen there. Magdalen sent me to tell you you must go back to the Palace. Your brother is very ill. He had an attack of haemorrhage apparently just after you and he parted in the hall. I promised her not to go back without you. Shall we drive on?"
Alles vergaengliche ist nur ein Gleichniss.—GOETHE.
Michael was dying. All night Magdalen and the Bishop, with nurse and doctor, fought for his life, vainly strove to stem the stream of blood with which his life was ebbing away.
He had been found by Lord Lossiemouth and a servant lying unconscious at the foot of the staircase in the hall. He had been carried into a room on the ground floor. Everything had been done, but without avail. Michael was dying, suffocating in anguish, threshing his life out through the awful hours, in wild delirium.
He was in prison once more, beating against the bars of his narrow window looking out over the lagoon. His hoarse strangled voice spoke unceasingly. His hands plucked at his wrists, and then dropped exhausted beneath the weight of the chains which dragged him down.
Magdalen would fain have spared Fay the ordeal of that vigil. But the Bishop was inexorable. He bade her remain. And shrunk away in a corner, shivering to her very soul, Fay listened hour by hour to the wild feeble voice of her victim, back once more in the cell where he had been so silent, where the walls had kept his counsel so well. She saw something—at last—of what he had endured for her, of what he had made so light.
At last the paroxysm passed. Michael pushed back the walls with his hands, and then suddenly gave up the struggle.
"They are closing in on me," he said. "I cannot keep them back any longer."
The contest ceased all in a moment. He lay back motionless with half-closed eyes, his face blue against the white pillows. The blood had ceased at last to flow from his colourless lips. Death was very near.
He knew no one. Not the Bishop, not Magdalen who kept watch beside him, listening ever for Wentworth's step outside.
In the dawn Michael's spirit made as if to depart, but it seemed as if it could not gain permission.
The light grew.
And with the light the laboured breathing became easier. He stirred feebly, and whispered incoherently from time to time. He was still in his cell. Wentworth's name, the Italian doctor's, rose to his lips. Then, after a pause, he said suddenly:
"The Duke is dead. She will come now."
There was a long silence. He was waiting, listening.
The Bishop and Magdalen held their breath. Fay knew at last what it is to fail another. She had failed Michael. Wentworth had failed her.
"Fay!" Michael said, "come soon."
She had to bear it, the waiting, the faltered anguish, the suspense, the faint reiterated call to deaf ears.
The Bishop got up from his knees beside Michael, and motioned Fay to take his place. She went timidly to the low couch and knelt down by it.
"Speak to him," said the Bishop sternly.
"Michael!" she said.
He knew her. All other voices had gone from him, but hers he knew. All other faces had faded from him, but hers he knew. He looked full at her. Love stronger than death shone in his eyes.
"Fay," he said in an awed voice—"at last."
She had come to release him, after the Duke's death, as he knew she would.
She leaned her white cheek a moment against his in speechless self-abasement.
He whispered to her.
"Have I served you?"
She whispered back, "Yes."
He whispered again, "Do you still love me?" The words were quite inaudible.
Again she said, "Yes."
Again a movement of the lips, but no sound.
He looked at her with radiant questioning eyes.
Again she murmured, "Yes."
It had to be like that. He had always known that this moment had to come. Had he not foreseen it in some forgotten dream?
A great trembling laid hold on Michael, and then a stillness of exceeding joy.
In the silence the cathedral bells chimed out suddenly for early service. The sound of the bells came faintly to him as across wide water, the river of death widening as it nears the sea. It was all part of his dream. The bells of Venice were rejoicing with him, in this his blessed hour.
He was freed at last, free as he had never been, free as the seagull seen through the bars that could no longer keep him back. Useless bars, why had he let them hold him so long? He was out and away, sailing over the sheening water in a boat with an orange sail; in a boat like a butterfly with spread wings; sailing away, past the floating islands, past that pale beautiful grief of sea lavender—he laughed to see it shine so beautiful—sailing away into a pearly morning, under a luminous sky.
The prison was far away now. Left behind. There was a great knocking at its gates, hurried steps upon the stairs, and a voice crying urgently through the bars.
But he could not stay to listen. He was too far away to hear. The voice was to him but like the thin harsh cry of the sea-mew wheeling near, blended in with the marvel of his freedom. He took no heed of it. He was afloat on the great sea-faring tide. Far away before him, but nearer, nearer, and yet nearer, the sea gleamed in trembling ecstasy.
* * * * *
"He does not know me. He does not hear me," said Wentworth, on his knees beside Michael, raising a wild, desperate face to Magdalen. Was Michael's last look of deadly hatred to remain with him through life?
"Speak to him again, Fay," said Magdalen. "Tell him Wentworth is here."
Fay was still kneeling on the other side. The two lovers' eyes met across the man they had murdered.
"Michael," the tremulous voice whispered.
"Louder," said Wentworth hoarsely.
"Michael," said Fay again.
But Michael's face was set. He was sunk in a great rest, breathing deep and slow, deeper and slower yet, his long arms faintly rising and falling with each breath.
"Oh, Fay. For God's sake make him hear," said Wentworth with a cry.
The Bishop and Magdalen standing apart looked at each other.
"He has forgiven her, though he does not know it," he said below his breath.
Fay stooped down. She raised Michael in her arms, and laid his head on her breast, turning his fading face to his brother.
"Michael," she whispered into his ear, with a passion which would have cloven death itself. "Come back, come back and say one word to Wentworth."
* * * * *
Very near the sea now. Very near the great peace and light. This was the real life at last. All the rest had been a vain shadow, a prison where he had dwelt a little while, not seeing that this great all-surrounding water, which had seemed to hem him in, was but a highway of light.
Who were these two with him in the boat? Who but the two he loved best! Who but Fay and Wentworth! They were all floating on together in exceeding joy. They were very near him. He felt them one on each side, but the light was so great that he could not see them. His head was on Fay's breast. His hand was in Wentworth's hand. It was all as in dim dreams he had longed for it to be.
Fay's voice reached him, pressed close to his ear, like the sound of the sea, held in its tiniest shell.
He opened his eyes and his brother's white face came to him for a moment, like sea foam, blown in from the sea of love to which he was going, part of the sea.
"Wenty!" he said, and smiled at him.
And like blown foam upon a breaking wave, the face passed.
And like the whisper in the shell under the hush of the surge, the voice passed.
The shadow which we call life—passed.