There was a long pause.
'No,' I said; 'I will go upstairs alone;' and I went, leaving my cloak and hat with Rebecca.
Already, to my hypersensitive nostrils, there was a slight odour in the darkened bedroom. What lay on the bed, straight and long and thin, resembled almost exactly my aunt as she lived. I forced myself to look on it. Except that the face was paler than usual, and had a curious transparent, waxy appearance, and that the cheeks were a little hollowed, and the lines from the nose to the corners of the mouth somewhat deepened, there had been no outward change.... And this once was she! I thought, Where is she, then? Where is the soul? Where is that which loved me without understanding me? Where is that which I loved? The baffling, sad enigma of death confronted me in all its terrifying crudity. The shaft of love and the desolation of death had struck me almost in the same hour, and before these twin mysteries, supremely equal, I recoiled and quailed. I had neither faith nor friend. I was solitary, and my soul also was solitary. The difficulties of Being seemed insoluble. I was not a moral coward, I was not prone to facile repentances; but as I gazed at that calm and unsullied mask I realized, whatever I had gained, how much I had lost. At twenty-one I knew more of the fountains of life than Aunt Constance at over sixty. Poor aged thing that had walked among men for interminable years, and never known! It seemed impossible, shockingly against Nature, that my aunt's existence should have been so! I pitied her profoundly. I felt that essentially she was girlish compared to me. And yet—and yet—that which she had kept and which I had given away was precious, too—indefinably and wonderfully precious! The price of knowledge and of ecstasy seemed heavy to me then. The girl that had gone with Diaz into that hotel apartment had come out no more. She had expired there, and her extinction was the price, Oh, innocence! Oh, divine ignorance! Oh, refusal! None knows your value save her who has bartered you! And herein is the woman's tragedy.
There in that mausoleum I decided that I must never see Diaz again. He was fast in my heart, a flashing, glorious treasure, but I must never see him again. I must devote myself to memory.
On the dressing-table lay a brown-paper parcel which seemed out of place there. I opened it, and it contained a magnificently-bound copy of The Imitation of Christ. Upon the flyleaf was written: 'To dearest Carlotta on attaining her majority. With fondest love. C.P.'
It was too much; it was overwhelming. I wept again. Soul so kind and pure! The sense of my loss, the sense of the simple, proud rectitude of her life, laid me low.
Train journeys have too often been sorrowful for me, so much so that the conception itself of a train, crawling over the country like a snake, or flying across it like a winged monster, fills me with melancholy. Trains loaded with human parcels of sadness and illusion and brief joy, wandering about, crossing, and occasionally colliding in the murk of existence; trains warmed and lighted in winter; trains open to catch the air of your own passage in summer; night-trains that pierce the night with your yellow, glaring eyes, and waken mysterious villages, and leave the night behind and run into the dawn as into a station; trains that carry bread and meats for the human parcels, and pillows and fountains of fresh water; trains that sweep haughtily and wearily indifferent through the landscapes and the towns, sufficient unto yourselves, hasty, panting, formidable, and yet mournful entities: I have understood you in your arrogance and your pathos.
That little journey from Knype to Shawport had implanted itself painfully in my memory, as though during it I had peered too close into the face of life. And now I had undertaken another, and a longer one. Three months had elapsed—three months of growing misery and despair; three months of tedious familiarity with lawyers and distant relatives, and all the exasperating camp-followers of death; three months of secret and strange fear, waxing daily. And at last, amid the expostulations and the shrugs of wisdom and age, I had decided to go to London. I had little energy, and no interest, but I saw that I must go to London; I was driven there by my secret fear; I dared not delay. And not a soul in the wide waste of the Five Towns comprehended me, or could have comprehended me had it been so minded. I might have shut up the house for a time. But no; I would not. Always I have been sudden, violent, and arbitrary; I have never been able to tolerate half-measures, or to wait upon occasion. I sold the house; I sold the furniture. Yes; and I dismissed my faithful Rebecca and the clinging Lucy, and they departed, God knows where; it was as though I had sold them into slavery. Again and again, in the final week, I cut myself to the quick, recklessly, perhaps purposely; I moved in a sort of terrible languor, deaf to every appeal, pretending to be stony, and yet tortured by my secret fear, and by a hemorrhage of the heart that no philosophy could stanch. And I swear that nothing desolated me more than the strapping and the labelling of my trunks that morning after I had slept, dreamfully, in the bed that I should never use again—the bed that, indeed, was even then the property of a furniture dealer. Had I wept at all, I should have wept as I wrote out the labels for my trunks: 'Miss Peel, passenger to Golden Cross Hotel, London. Euston via Rugby,' with two thick lines drawn under the 'Euston.' That writing of labels was the climax. With a desperate effort I tore myself up by the roots, and all bleeding I left the Five Towns. I have never seen them since. Some day, when I shall have attained serenity and peace, when the battle has been fought and lost, I will revisit my youth. I have always loved passionately the disfigured hills and valleys of the Five Towns. And as I think of Oldcastle Street, dropping away sleepily and respectably from the Town Hall of Bursley, with the gold angel holding a gold crown on its spire, I vibrate with an inexplicable emotion. What is there in Oldcastle Street to disturb the dust of the soul?
I must tell you here that Diaz had gone to South America on a triumphal tour of concerts, lest I forget! I read it in the paper.
So I arrived in London on a February day, about one o'clock. And the hall-porter at the Golden Cross Hotel, and the two pale girls in the bureau of the hotel, were sympathetic and sweet to me, because I was young and alone, and in mourning, and because I had great rings round my eyes. It was a fine day, blue and mild. At half-past three I had nothing in the world to do. I had come to London without a plan, without a purpose, with scarcely an introduction; I wished simply to plunge myself into its solitude, and to be alone with my secret fear. I walked out into the street, slowly, like one whom ennui has taught to lose no chance of dissipating time. I neither liked nor disliked London. I had no feelings towards it save one of perplexity. I thought it noisy, dirty, and hurried. Its great name roused no thrill in my bosom. On the morrow, I said, I would seek a lodging, and perhaps write to Ethel Ryley. Meanwhile I strolled up into Trafalgar Square, and so into Charing Cross Road. And in Charing Cross Road—it was the curst accident of fate—I saw the signboard of the celebrated old firm of publishers, Oakley and Dalbiac. It is my intention to speak of my books as little as possible in this history. I must, however, explain that six months before my aunt's death I had already written my first novel, The Jest, and sent it to precisely Oakley and Dalbiac. It was a wild welter of youthful extravagances, and it aimed to depict London society, of which I knew nothing whatever, with a flippant and cynical pen. Oakley and Dalbiac had kept silence for several months, and had then stated, in an extremely formal epistle, that they thought the book might have some chance of success, and that they would be prepared to publish it on certain terms, but that I must not expect, etc. By that time I had lost my original sublime faith in the exceeding excellence of my story, and I replied that I preferred to withdraw the book. To this letter I had received no answer. When I saw the famous sign over a doorway the impulse seized me to enter and get the manuscript, with the object of rewriting it. Soon, I reflected, I might not be able to enter; the portals of mankind might be barred to me for a space.... I saw in a flash of insight that my salvation lay in work, and in nothing else. I entered, resolutely. A brougham was waiting at the doors.
After passing along counters furnished with ledgers and clerks, through a long, lofty room lined with great pigeon-holes containing thousands of books each wrapped separately in white paper, I was shown into what the clerk who acted as chamberlain called the office of the principal. This room, too, was spacious, but so sombre that the electric light was already burning. The first thing I noticed was that the window gave on a wall of white tiles. In the middle of the somewhat dingy apartment was a vast, square table, and at this table sat a pale, tall man, whose youth astonished me—for the firm of Oakley and Dalbiac was historic.
He did not look up exactly at the instant of my entering, but when he did look up, when he saw me, he stared for an instant, and then sprang from his chair as though magically startled into activity. His age was about thirty, and he had large, dark eyes, and a slight, dark moustache, and his face generally was interesting; he wore a dark gray suit. I was nervous, but he was even more nervous; yet in the moment of looking up he had not seemed nervous. He could not do enough, apparently, to make me feel at ease, and to show his appreciation of me and my work. He spoke enthusiastically of The Jest, begging me neither to suppress it nor to alter it. And, without the least suggestion from me, he offered me a considerable sum of money in advance of royalties. At that time I scarcely knew what royalties were. But although my ignorance of business was complete, I guessed that this man was behaving in a manner highly unusual among publishers. He was also patently contradicting the tenor of his firm's letter to me. I thanked him, and said I should like, at any rate, to glance through the manuscript.
'Don't alter it, Miss Peel, I beg,' he said. 'It is "young," I know; but it ought to be. I remember my wife said—my wife reads many of our manuscripts—by the way—' He went to a door, opened it, and called out, 'Mary!'
A tall and slim woman, extremely elegant, appeared in reply to this appeal. Her hair was gray above the ears, and I judged that she was four or five years older than the man. She had a kind, thin face, with shining gray eyes, and she was wearing a hat.
'Mary, this is Miss Peel, the author of The Jest—you remember. Miss Peel, my wife.'
The woman welcomed me with quick, sincere gestures. Her smile was very pleasant, and yet a sad smile. The husband also had an air of quiet, restrained, cheerful sadness.
'My wife is frequently here in the afternoon like this,' said the principal.
'Yes,' she laughed; 'it's quite a family affair, and I'm almost on the staff. I distinctly remember your manuscript, Miss Peel, and how very clever and amusing it was.'
Her praise was spontaneous and cordial, but it was a different thing from the praise of her husband. He obviously noticed the difference.
'I was just saying to Miss Peel—' he began, with increased nervousness.
'Pardon me,' I interrupted. 'But am I speaking to Mr. Oakley or Mr. Dalbiac?'
'To neither,' said he. 'My name is Ispenlove, and I am the nephew of the late Mr. Dalbiac. Mr. Oakley died thirty years ago. I have no partner.'
'You expected to see a very old gentleman, no doubt,' Mrs. Ispenlove remarked.
'Yes,' I smiled.
'People often do. And Frank is so very young. You live in London?'
'No,' I said; 'I have just come up.'
'Yes. My aunt died a few months ago. I am all that is left of my family.'
Mrs. Ispenlove's eyes filled with tears, and she fingered a gold chain that hung from her neck.
'But have you got rooms—a house?'
'I am at a hotel for the moment.'
'But you have friends?'
I shook my head. Mr. Ispenlove was glancing rapidly from one to the other of us.
'My dear young lady!' exclaimed his wife. Then she hesitated, and said: 'Excuse my abruptness, but do let me beg you to come and have tea with us this afternoon. We live quite near—in Bloomsbury Square. The carriage is waiting. Frank, you can come?'
'I can come for an hour,' said Mr. Ispenlove.
I wanted very much to decline, but I could not. I could not disappoint that honest and generous kindliness, with its touch of melancholy. I could not refuse those shining gray eyes. I saw that my situation and my youth had lacerated Mrs. Ispenlove's sensitive heart, and that she wished to give it balm by being humane to me.
We seemed, so rapid was our passage, to be whisked on an Arabian carpet to a spacious drawing-room, richly furnished, with thick rugs and ample cushions and countless knicknacks and photographs and delicately-tinted lampshades. There was a grand piano by Steinway, and on it Mendelssohn's 'Songs without Words.' The fire slumbered in a curious grate that projected several feet into the room—such a contrivance I had never seen before. Near it sat Mrs. Ispenlove, entrenched behind a vast copper disc on a low wicker stand, pouring out tea. Mr. Ispenlove hovered about. He and his wife called each other 'dearest.' 'Ring the bell for me, dearest.' 'Yes, dearest.' I felt sure that they had no children. They were very intimate, very kind, and always gently sad. The atmosphere was charmingly domestic, even cosy, despite the size of the room—a most pleasing contrast to the offices which we had just left. Mrs. Ispenlove told her husband to look after me well, and he devoted himself to me.
'Do you know,' said Mrs. Ispenlove, 'I am gradually recalling the details of your book, and you are not at all the sort of person that I should have expected to see.'
'But that poor little book isn't me,' I answered. 'I shall never write another like it. I only—'
'Shall you not?' Mr. Ispenlove interjected. 'I hope you will, though.'
'I only did it to see what I could do. I am going to begin something quite different.'
'It appears to me,' said Mrs. Ispenlove—'and I must again ask you to excuse my freedom, but I feel as if I had known you a long time—it appears to me that what you want immediately is a complete rest.'
'Why do you say that?' I demanded.
'You do not look well. You look exhausted and worn out.'
I blushed as she gazed at me. Could she—? No. Those simple gray eyes could not imagine evil. Nevertheless, I saw too plainly how foolish I had been. I, with my secret fear, that was becoming less a fear than a dreadful certainty, to permit myself to venture into that house! I might have to fly ignominiously before long, to practise elaborate falsehood, to disappear.
'Perhaps you are right,' I agreed.
The conversation grew fragmentary, and less and less formal. Mrs. Ispenlove was the chief talker. I remember she said that she was always being thrown among clever people, people who could do things, and that her own inability to do anything at all was getting to be an obsession with her; and that people like me could have no idea of the tortures of self-depreciation which she suffered. Her voice was strangely wistful during this confession. She also spoke—once only, and quite shortly, but with what naive enthusiasm!—of the high mission and influence of the novelist who wrote purely and conscientiously. After this, though my liking for her was undiminished, I had summed her up. Mr. Ispenlove offered no commentary on his wife's sentiments. He struck me as being a reserved man, whose inner life was intense and sufficient to him.
'Ah!' I reflected, as Mrs. Ispenlove, with an almost motherly accent, urged me to have another cup of tea, 'if you knew me, if you knew me, what would you say to me? Would your charity be strong enough to overcome your instincts?' And as I had felt older than my aunt, so I felt older than Mrs. Ispenlove.
I left, but I had to promise to come again on the morrow, after I had seen Mr. Ispenlove on business. The publisher took me down to my hotel in the brougham (and I thought of the drive with Diaz, but the water was not streaming down the windows), and then he returned to his office.
Without troubling to turn on the light in my bedroom, I sank sighing on to the bed. The events of the afternoon had roused me from my terrible lethargy, but now it overcame me again. I tried to think clearly about the Ispenloves and what the new acquaintance meant for me; but I could not think clearly. I had not been able to think clearly for two months. I wished only to die. For a moment I meditated vaguely on suicide, but suicide seemed to involve an amount of complicated enterprise far beyond my capacity. It amazed me how I had managed to reach London. I must have come mechanically, in a heavy dream; for I had no hope, no energy, no vivacity, no interest. For many weeks my mind had revolved round an awful possibility, as if hypnotized by it, and that monotonous revolution seemed alone to constitute my real life. Moreover, I was subject to recurring nausea, and to disconcerting bodily pains and another symptom.
'This must end!' I said, struggling to my feet.
I summoned the courage of an absolute disgust. I felt that the power which had triumphed over my dejection and my irresolution and brought me to London might carry me a little further.
Leaving the hotel, I crossed the Strand. Innumerable omnibuses were crawling past. I jumped into one at hazard, and the conductor put his arm behind my back to support me. He was shouting, 'Putney, Putney, Putney!' in an absent-minded manner: he had assisted me to mount without even looking at me. I climbed to the top of the omnibus and sat down, and the omnibus moved off. I knew not where I was going; Putney was nothing but a name to me.
'Where to, lady?' snapped the conductor, coming upstairs.
'Oh, Putney,' I answered.
A little bell rang and he gave me a ticket. The omnibus was soon full. A woman with a young child shared my seat. But the population of the roof was always changing. I alone remained—so it appeared to me. And we moved interminably forward through the gas-lit and crowded streets, under the mild night. Occasionally, when we came within the circle of an arc-lamp, I could see all my fellow-passengers very clearly; then they were nothing but dark, featureless masses. The horses of the omnibus were changed. A score of times the conductor came briskly upstairs, but he never looked at me again. 'I've done with you,' his back seemed to say.
The houses stood up straight and sinister, thousands of houses unendingly succeeding each other. Some were brilliantly illuminated; some were dark; and some had one or two windows lighted. The phenomenon of a solitary window lighted, high up in a house, filled me with the sense of the tragic romance of London. Why, I cannot tell. But it did. London grew to be almost unbearably mournful. There were too many people in London. Suffering was packed too close. One can contemplate a single affliction with some equanimity, but a million griefs, calamities, frustrations, elbowing each other—No, no! And in all that multitude of sadnesses I felt that mine was the worst. My loneliness, my fear, my foolish youth, my inability to cope with circumstance, my appalling ignorance of the very things which I ought to know! It was awful. And yet even then, in that despairing certainty of disaster, I was conscious of the beauty of life, the beauty of life's exceeding sorrow, and I hugged it to me, like a red-hot iron.
We crossed a great river by a great bridge—a mysterious and mighty stream; and then the streets closed in on us again. And at last, after hours and hours, the omnibus swerved into a dark road and stopped—stopped finally.
'Putney!' cried the conductor, like fate.
I descended. Far off, at the end of the vista of the dark road, I saw a red lamp. I knew that in large cities a red lamp indicated a doctor: it was the one useful thing that I did know.
I approached the red lamp, cautiously, on the other side of the street. Then some power forced me to cross the street and open a wicket. And in the red glow of the lamp I saw an ivory button which I pushed. I could plainly hear the result; it made me tremble. I had a narrow escape of running away. The door was flung wide, and a middle-aged woman appeared in the bright light of the interior of the house. She had a kind face. It is astounding, the number of kind faces one meets.
'Is the doctor in?' I asked.
I would have given a year of my life to hear her say 'No.'
'Yes, miss,' she said. 'Will you step in?'
Events seemed to be moving all too rapidly.
I passed into a narrow hall, with an empty hat-rack, and so into the surgery. From the back of the house came the sound of a piano—scales, played very slowly. The surgery was empty. I noticed a card with letters of the alphabet printed on it in different sizes; and then the piano ceased, and there was the humming of an air in the passage, and a tall man in a frock-coat, slippered and spectacled, came into the surgery.
'Good-evening, madam,' he said gruffly. 'Won't you sit down?'
'I—I—I want to ask you—'
He put a chair for me, and I dropped into it.
'There!' he said, after a moment. 'You felt as if you might faint, didn't you?'
I nodded. The tears came into my eyes.
'I thought so,' he said. 'I'll just give you a draught, if you don't mind.'
He busied himself behind me, and presently I was drinking something out of a conical-shaped glass.
My heart beat furiously, but I felt strong.
'I want you to tell me, doctor,' I spoke firmly, 'whether I am about to become a mother.'
'Ah?' he answered interrogatively, and then he hummed a fragment of an air.
'I have lost my husband,' I was about to add; but suddenly I scorned such a weakness and shut my lips.
'Since when—' the doctor began.
* * * * *
'No,' I heard him saying. 'You have been quite mistaken. But I am not surprised. Such mistakes are frequently made—a kind of auto-suggestion.'
'Mistaken!' I murmured.
I could not prevent the room running round me as I reclined on the sofa; and I fainted.
But in the night, safely in my room again at the hotel, I wondered whether that secret fear, now exorcised, had not also been a hope. I wondered....
THREE HUMAN HEARTS
And now I was twenty-six.
Everyone who knows Jove knows the poignant and delicious day when the lovers, undeclared, but sure of mutual passion, await the magic moment of avowal, with all its changeful consequences. I resume my fragmentary narrative at such a day in my life. As for me, I waited for the avowal as for an earthquake. I felt as though I were the captain of a ship on fire, and the only person aware that the flames were creeping towards a powder magazine. And my love shone fiercely in my heart, like a southern star; it held me, hypnotized, in a thrilling and exquisite entrancement, so that if my secret, silent lover was away from me, as on that fatal night in my drawing-room, my friends were but phantom presences in a shadowy world. This is not an exaggerated figure, but the truth, for when I have loved I have loved much....
My drawing-room in Bedford Court, that night on which the violent drama of my life recommenced, indicated fairly the sorts of success which I had achieved, and the direction of my tastes. The victim of Diaz had gradually passed away, and a new creature had replaced her—a creature rapidly developed, and somewhat brazened in the process under the sun of an extraordinary double prosperity in London. I had soon learnt that my face had a magic to win for me what wealth cannot buy. My books had given me fame and money. And I could not prevent the world from worshipping the woman whom it deemed the gods had greatly favoured. I could not have prevented it, even had I wished, and I did not wish, I knew well that no merit and no virtue, but merely the accident of facial curves, and the accident of a convolution of the brain, had brought me this ascendancy, and at first I reminded myself of the duty of humility. But when homage is reiterated, when the pleasure of obeying a command and satisfying a caprice is begged for, when roses are strewn, and even necks put down in the path, one forgets to be humble; one forgets that in meekness alone lies the sole good; one confuses deserts with the hazards of heredity.
However, in the end fate has no favourites. A woman who has beauty wants to frame it in beauty. The eye is a sensualist, and its appetites, once aroused, grow. A beautiful woman takes the same pleasure in the sight of another beautiful woman as a man does; only jealousy or fear prevents her from admitting the pleasure. I collected beautiful women.... Elegance is a form of beauty. It not only enhances beauty, but it is the one thing which will console the eye for the absence of beauty. The first rule which I made for my home was that in it my eye should not be offended. I lost much, doubtless, by adhering to it, but not more than I gained. And since elegance is impossible without good manners, and good manners are a convention, though a supremely good one, the society by which I surrounded myself was conventional; superficially, of course, for it is the business of a convention to be not more than superficial. Some persons after knowing my drawing-room were astounded by my books, others after reading my books were astounded by my drawing-room; but these persons lacked perception. Given elegance, with or without beauty itself, I had naturally sought, in my friends, intellectual courage, honest thinking, kindness of heart, creative talent, distinction, wit. My search had not been unfortunate.... You see Heaven had been so kind to me!
That night in my drawing-room (far too full of bric-a-brac of all climes and ages), beneath the blaze of the two Empire chandeliers, which Vicary, the musical composer, had found for me in Chartres, there were perhaps a dozen guests assembled.
Vicary had just given, in his driest manner, a description of his recent visit to receive the accolade from the Queen. It was replete with the usual quaint Vicary details—such as the solemn warning whisper of an equerry in Vicary's ear as he walked backwards, 'Mind the edge of the carpet'; and we all laughed, I absently, and yet a little hysterically—all save Vicary, whose foible was never to laugh. But immediately afterwards there was a pause, one of those disconcerting, involuntary pauses which at a social gathering are like a chill hint of autumn in late summer, and which accuse the hostess. It was over in an instant; the broken current was resumed; everybody pretended that everything was as usual at my receptions. But that pause was the beginning of the downfall.
With a fierce effort I tried to escape from my entrancement, to be interested in these unreal shadows whose voices seemed to come to me from a distance, and to make my glance forget the door, where the one reality in the world for me, my unspoken lover, should have appeared long since. I joined unskilfully in a conversation which Vicary and Mrs. Sardis and her daughter Jocelyn were conducting quite well without my assistance. The rest were chattering now, in one or two groups, except Lord Francis Alcar, who, I suddenly noticed, sat alone on a settee behind the piano. Here was another unfortunate result of my preoccupation. By what negligence had I allowed him to be thus forsaken? I rose and went across to him, penitent, and glad to leave the others.
There are only two fundamental differences in the world—the difference between sex and sex, and the difference between youth and age. Lord Francis Alcar was sixty years older than me. His life was over before mine had commenced. It seemed incredible; but I had acquired the whole of my mundane experience, while he was merely waiting for death. At seventy, men begin to be separated from their fellow-creatures. At eighty, they are like islets sticking out of a sea. At eighty-five, with their trembling and deliberate speech, they are the abstract voice of human wisdom. They gather wisdom with amazing rapidity in the latter years, and even their folly is wise then. Lord Francis was eighty-six; his faculties enfeebled but intact after a career devoted to the three most costly of all luxuries—pretty women, fine pictures, and rare books; a tall, spare man, quietly proud of his age, his ability to go out in the evening unattended, his amorous past, and his contributions to the history of English printing.
As I approached him, he leaned forward into his favourite attitude, elbows on knees and fingertips lightly touching, and he looked up at me. And his eyes, sunken and fatigued and yet audacious, seemed to flash out. He opened his thin lips to speak. When old men speak, they have the air of rousing themselves from an eternal contemplation in order to do so, and what they say becomes accordingly oracular.
'Pallor suits you,' he piped gallantly, and then added: 'But do not carry it to extremes.'
'Am I so pale, then?' I faltered, trying to smile naturally.
I sat down beside him, and smoothed out my black lace dress; he examined it like a connoisseur.
'Yes,' he said at length. 'What is the matter?'
Lord Francis charged this apparently simple and naive question with a strange intimate meaning. The men who surround a woman such as I, living as I lived, are always demanding, with a secret thirst, 'Does she really live without love? What does she conceal?' I have read this interrogation in the eyes of scores of men; but no one, save Lord Francis, would have had the right to put it into the tones of his voice. We were so mutually foreign and disinterested, so at the opposite ends of life, that he had nothing to gain and I nothing to lose, and I could have permitted to this sage ruin of a male almost a confessor's freedom. Moreover, we had an affectionate regard for each other.
I said nothing, and he repeated in his treble:
'What is the matter?'
'Love is the matter!' I might have passionately cried out to him, had we been alone. But I merely responded to his tone with my eyes. I thanked him with my eyes for his bold and flattering curiosity, senile, but thoroughly masculine to the last. And I said:
'I am only a little exhausted. I finished my novel yesterday.'
It was my sixth novel in five years.
'With you,' he said, 'work is simply a drug.'
'Lord Francis,' I expostulated, 'how do you know that?'
'And it has got such a hold of you that you cannot do without it,' he proceeded, with slow, faint shrillness. 'Some women take to morphia, others take to work.'
'On the contrary,' I said, 'I have quite determined to do no more work for twelve months.'
He faced me, vivacious, and leaned against the back of the settee.
'Then you mean to give yourself time to love?' he murmured, as it were with a kind malice, and every crease in his veined and yellow features was intensified by an enigmatic smile.
'Why not?' I laughed encouragingly. 'Why not? What do you advise?'
'I advise it,' he said positively. 'I advise it. You have already wasted the best years.'
'One can never afterwards love as one loves at twenty. But there! You have nothing to learn about love!'
He gave me one of those disrobing glances of which men who have dedicated their existence to women alone have the secret. I shrank under the ordeal; I tried to clutch my clothes about me.
The chatter from the other end of the room grew louder. Vicary was gazing critically at his chandeliers.
'Does love bring happiness?' I asked Lord Francis, carefully ignoring his remark.
'For forty years,' he quavered, 'I made love to every pretty woman I met, in the search for happiness. I may have got five per cent. return on my outlay, which is perhaps not bad in these hard times; but I certainly did not get even that in happiness. I got it in—other ways.'
'And if you had to begin afresh?'
He stood up, turned his back on the room, and looked down at me from his bent height. His knotted hands were shaking, as they always shook.
'I would do the same again,' he whispered.
'Would you?' I said, looking up at him. 'Truly?'
'Yes. Only the fool and the very young expect happiness. The wise merely hope to be interested, at least not to be bored, in their passage through this world. Nothing is so interesting as love and grief, and the one involves the other. Ah! would I not do the same again!'
He spoke gravely, wistfully, and vehemently, as if employing the last spark of divine fire that was left in his decrepit frame. This undaunted confession of a faith which had survived twenty years of inactive meditation, this banner waved by an expiring arm in the face of the eternity that mocks at the transience of human things, filled me with admiration. My eyes moistened, but I continued to look up at him.
'What is the title of the new book?' he demanded casually, sinking into a chair.
'Burning Sappho,' I answered. 'But the title is very misleading.'
'Bright star!' he exclaimed, taking my hand. 'With such a title you will surely beat the record of the Good Dame.'
'Hsh!' I enjoined him.
Jocelyn Sardis was coming towards us.
The Good Dame was the sobriquet which Lord Francis had invented to conceal—or to display—his courteous disdain of the ideals represented by Mrs. Sardis, that pillar long established, that stately dowager, that impeccable doyenne of serious English fiction. Mrs. Sardis had captured two continents. Her novels, dealing with all the profound problems of the age, were read by philosophers and politicians, and one of them had reached a circulation of a quarter of a million copies. Her dignified and indefatigable pen furnished her with an income of fifteen thousand pounds a year.
Jocelyn Sardis was just entering her mother's world, and she had apparently not yet recovered from the surprise of the discovery that she was a woman; a simple and lovable young creature with brains amply sufficient for the making of apple-pies. As she greeted Lord Francis in her clear, innocent voice, I wondered sadly why her mother should be so anxious to embroider the work of Nature. I thought if Jocelyn could just be left alone to fall in love with some average, kindly stockbroker, how much more nearly the eternal purpose might be fulfilled....
'Yes, I remember,' Lord Francis was saying. 'It was at St. Malo. And what did you think of the Breton peasant?'
'Oh,' said Jocelyn, 'mamma has not yet allowed us to study the condition of the lower classes in France. We are all so busy with the new Settlement.'
'It must be very exhausting, my dear child,' said Lord Francis.
'I came to ask you to play something,' the child appealed to me. 'I have never heard you play, and everyone says—'
'Jocelyn, my pet,' the precise, prim utterance of Mrs. Sardis floated across the room.
'You are not to trouble Miss Peel. Perhaps she does not feel equal to playing.'
My blood rose in an instant. I cannot tell why, unless it was that I resented from Mrs. Sardis even the slightest allusion to the fact that I was not entirely myself. The latent antagonism between us became violently active in my heart. I believe I blushed. I know that I felt murderous towards Mrs. Sardis. I gave her my most adorable smile, and I said, with sugar in my voice:
'But I shall be delighted to play for Jocelyn.'
It was an act of bravado on my part to attempt to play the piano in the mood in which I found myself; and that I should have begun the opening phrase of Chopin's first Ballade, that composition so laden with formidable memories—begun it without thinking and without apprehension—showed how far I had lost my self-control. Not that the silver sounds which shimmered from the Broadwood under my feverish hands filled me with sentimental regrets for an irrecoverable past. No! But I saw the victim of Diaz as though I had never been she. She was for me one of those ladies that have loved and are dead. The simplicity of her mind and her situation, compared with my mind and my situation, seemed unbearably piteous to me. Why, I knew not. The pathos of that brief and vanished idyll overcame me like some sad story of an antique princess. And then, magically, I saw the pathos of my present position in it as in a truth-revealing mirror. My fame, and my knowledge and my experience, my trained imagination, my skill, my social splendour, my wealth, were stripped away from me as inessential, and I was merely a woman in love, to whom love could not fail to bring calamity and grief; a woman expecting her lover, and yet to whom his coming could only be disastrous; a woman with a heart divided between tremulous joy and dull sorrow; who was at once in heaven and in hell; the victim of love. How often have I called my dead Carlotta the victim of Diaz! Let me be less unjust, and say that he, too, was the victim of love. What was Diaz but the instrument of the god?
Jocelyn stood near me by the piano. I glanced at her as I played, and smiled. She answered my smile; her eyes glistened with tears; I bent my gaze suddenly to the keyboard. 'You too!' I thought sadly, 'You too!... One day! One day even you will know what life is, and the look in those innocent eyes will never be innocent again!'
Then there was a sharp crack at the other end of the room; the handle of the door turned, and the door began to open. My heart bounded and stopped. It must be he, at last! I perceived the fearful intensity of my longing for his presence. But it was only a servant with a tray. My fingers stammered and stumbled. For a few instants I forced them to obey me; my pride was equal to the strain, though I felt sick and fainting. And then I became aware that my guests were staring at me with alarmed and anxious faces. Mrs. Sardis had started from her chair. I dropped my hands. It was useless to fight further; the battle was lost.
'I will not play any more,' I said quickly. 'I ought not to have tried to play from memory. Excuse me.'
And I left the piano as calmly as I could. I knew that by an effort I could walk steadily and in a straight line across the room to Vicary and the others, and I succeeded. They should not learn my secret.
'Poor thing!' murmured Mrs. Sardis sympathetically. 'Do sit down, dear.'
'Won't you have something to drink?' said Vicary.
'I am perfectly all right,' I said. 'I'm only sorry that my memory is not what it used to be.' And I persisted in standing for a few moments by the mantelpiece. In the glass I caught one glimpse of a face as white as milk, Jocelyn remained at her post by the piano, frightened by she knew not what, like a young child.
'Our friend finished a new work only yesterday,' said Lord Francis shakily. He had followed me. 'She has wisely decided to take a long holiday. Good-bye, my dear.'
These were the last words he ever spoke to me, though I saw him again. We shook hands in silence, and he left. Nor would the others stay. I had ruined the night. We were all self-conscious, diffident, suspicious. Even Vicary was affected. How thankful I was that my silent lover had not come! My secret was my own—and his. And no one should surprise it unless we chose. I cared nothing what they thought, or what they guessed, as they filed out of the door, a brilliant procession of which I had the right to be proud; they could not guess my secret. I was sufficiently woman of the world to baffle them as long as I wished to baffle them.
Then I noticed that Mrs. Sardis had stayed behind; she was examining some lustre ware in the further drawing-room.
'I'm afraid Jocelyn has gone without her mother,' I said, approaching her.
'I have told Jocelyn to go home alone,' replied Mrs. Sardis. 'The carriage will return for me. Dear friend, I want to have a little talk with you. Do you permit?'
'I shall be delighted,' I said.
'You are sure you are well enough?'
'There is nothing whatever the matter with me,' I answered slowly and distinctly. 'Come to the fire, and let us be comfortable. And I told Emmeline Palmer, my companion and secretary, who just then appeared, that she might retire to bed.
Mrs. Sardis was nervous, and this condition, so singular in Mrs. Sardis, naturally made me curious as to the cause of it. But my eyes still furtively wandered to the door.
'My dear co-worker,' she began, and hesitated.
'Yes,' I encouraged her.
She put her matron's lips together:
'You know how proud I am of your calling, and how jealous I am of its honour and its good name, and what a great mission I think we novelists have in the work of regenerating the world.'
I nodded. That kind of eloquence always makes me mute. It leaves nothing to be said.
'I wonder,' Mrs. Sardis continued, 'if you have ever realized what a power you are in England and America to-day.'
'Power!' I echoed. 'I have done nothing but try to write as honestly and as well as I could what I felt I wanted to write.'
'No one can doubt your sincerity, my dear friend,' Mrs. Sardis said. 'And I needn't tell you that I am a warm admirer of your talent, and that I rejoice in your success. But the tendency of your work—'
'Surely,' I interrupted her coldly, 'you are not taking the trouble to tell me that my books are doing harm to the great and righteous Anglo-Saxon public!'
'Do not let us poke fun at our public, my dear,' she protested. 'I personally do not believe that your books are harmful, though their originality is certainly daring, and their realism startling; but there exists a considerable body of opinion, as you know, that strongly objects to your books. It may be reactionary opinion, bigoted opinion, ignorant opinion, what you like, but it exists, and it is not afraid to employ the word "immoral."'
'I speak as one old enough to be your mother, and I speak after all to a motherless young girl who happens to have genius with, perhaps, some of the disadvantages of genius, when I urge you so to arrange your personal life that this body of quite respectable adverse opinion shall not find in it a handle to use against the fair fame of our calling.'
'Mrs. Sardis!' I cried. 'What do you mean?'
I felt my nostrils dilate in anger as I gazed, astounded, at this incarnation of mediocrity who had dared to affront me on my own hearth; and by virtue of my youth and my beauty, and all the homage I had received, and the clear sincerity of my vision of life, I despised and detested the mother of a family who had never taken one step beyond the conventions in which she was born. Had she not even the wit to perceive that I was accustomed to be addressed as queens are addressed?... Then, as suddenly as it had flamed, my anger cooled, for I could see the painful earnestness in her face. And Mrs. Sardis and I—what were we but two groups of vital instincts, groping our respective ways out of one mystery into another? Had we made ourselves? Had we chosen our characters? Mrs. Sardis was fulfilling herself, as I was. She was a natural force, as I was. As well be angry with a hurricane, or the heat of the sun.
'What do you mean?' I repeated quietly. 'Tell me exactly what you mean.'
I thought she was aiming at the company which I sometimes kept, or the freedom of my diversions on the English Sabbath. I thought what trifles were these compared to the dilemma in which, possibly within a few hours, I should find myself.
'To put it in as few words as possible,' said she, 'I mean your relations with a married man. Forgive my bluntness, dear girl.'
Then my secret was not my secret! We were chattered about, he and I. We had not hidden our feeling, our passions. And I had been imagining myself a woman of the world equal to sustaining a difficult part in the masque of existence. With an abandoned gesture I hid my face in my hands for a moment, and then I dropped my hands, and leaned forward and looked steadily at Mrs. Sardis. Her eyes were kind enough.
'You won't affect not to understand?' she said.
I assented with a motion of the head.
'Many persons say there is a—a liaison between you,' she said.
'And do you think that?' I asked quickly.
'If I had thought so, my daughter would not have been here to-night,' she said solemnly. 'No, no; I do not believe it for an instant, and I brought Jocelyn specially to prove to the world that I do not. I only heard the gossip a few days ago; and to-night, as I sat here, it was borne in upon me that I must speak to you to-night. And I have done so. Not everyone would have done so, dear girl. Most of your friends are content to talk among themselves.'
'About me? Oh!' It was the expression of an almost physical pain.
'What can you expect them to do?' asked Mrs. Sardis mildly.
'True,' I agreed.
'You see, the circumstances are so extremely peculiar. Your friendship with her—'
'Let me tell you'—I stopped her—'that not a single word has ever passed between me and—and the man you mean, that everybody might not hear. Not a single word!'
'Dearest girl,' she exclaimed; 'how glad I am! How glad I am! Now I can take measures to—.
'But—' I resumed.
In a flash I saw the futility of attempting to explain to a woman like Mrs. Sardis, who had no doubts about the utter righteousness of her own code, whose rules had no exceptions, whose principles could apply to every conceivable case, and who was the very embodiment of the vast stolid London that hemmed me in—of attempting to explain to such an excellent, blind creature why, and in obedience to what ideal, I would not answer for the future. I knew that I might as well talk to a church steeple.
'Nothing,' I said, rising, 'except that I thank you. Be sure that I am grateful. You have had a task which must have been very unpleasant to you.'
She smiled, virtuously happy.
'You made it easy,' she murmured.
I perceived that she wanted to kiss me; but I avoided the caress. How I hated kissing women!
'No more need be said,' she almost whispered, as I put my hand on the knob of the front-door. I had escorted her myself to the hall.
'Only remember your great mission, the influence you wield, and the fair fame of our calling.'
My impulse was to shriek. But I merely smiled as decently as I could; and I opened the door.
And there, on the landing, just emerging from the lift, was Ispenlove, haggard, pale, his necktie astray. He and Mrs. Sardis exchanged a brief stare; she gave me a look of profound pain and passed in dignified silence down the stairs; Ispenlove came into the flat.
'Nothing will convince her now that I am not a liar,' I reflected.
It was my last thought as I sank, exquisitely drowning, in the sea of sensations caused by Ispenlove's presence.
Without a word, we passed together into the drawing-room, and I closed the door. Ispenlove stood leaning against the piano, as though intensely fatigued; he crushed his gibus with an almost savage movement, and then bent his large, lustrous black eyes absently on the flat top of it. His thin face was whiter even than usual, and his black hair, beard, and moustache all dishevelled; the collar of his overcoat was twisted, and his dinner-jacket rose an inch above it at the back of the neck.
I wanted to greet him, but I could not trust my lips. And I saw that he, too, was trying in vain to speak.
At length I said, with that banality which too often surprises us in supreme moments:
'What is it? Do you know that your tie is under your ear?'
And as I uttered these words, my voice, breaking of itself and in defiance of me, descended into a tone which sounded harsh and inimical.
'Ah!' he murmured, lifting his eyes to mine, 'if you turn against me to-night, I shall—'
'Turn against you!' I cried, shocked. 'Let me help you with your overcoat!'
And I went near him, meaning to take his overcoat.
'It's finished between Mary and me,' he said, holding me with his gaze. 'It's finished. I've no one but you now; and I've come—I've come—'
He stopped. We read one another's eyes at arm's length, and all the sorrow and pity and love that were in each of us rose to our eyes and shone there. I shivered with pleasure when I saw his arms move, and then he clutched and dragged me to him, and I hid my glowing face on his shoulder, in the dear folds of his overcoat, and I felt his lips on my neck. And then, since neither of us was a coward, we lifted our heads, and our mouths met honestly and fairly, and, so united, we shut our eyes for an eternal moment, and the world was not.
Such was the avowal.
I gave up my soul to him in that long kiss; all that was me, all that was most secret and precious in me, ascended and poured itself out through my tense lips, and was received by him. I kissed him with myself, with the entire passionate energy of my being—not merely with my mouth. And if I sighed, it was because I tried to give him more—more than I had—and failed. Ah! The sensation of his nearness, the warmth of his face, the titillation of his hair, the slow, luxurious intake of our breaths, the sweet cruelty of his desperate clutch on my shoulders, the glimpses of his skin through my eyelashes when I raised ever so little my eyelids! Pain and joy of life, you were mingled then!
I remembered that I was a woman, and disengaged myself and withdrew from him. I hated to do it; but I did it. We became self-conscious. The brilliant and empty drawing-room scanned us unfavourably with all its globes and mirrors. How difficult it is to be natural in a great crisis! Our spirits clamoured for expression, beating vainly against a thousand barred doors of speech. There was so much to say, to explain, to define, and everything was so confused and dizzily revolving, that we knew not which door to open first. And then I think we both felt, but I more than he, that explanations and statements were futile, that even if all the doors were thrown open together, they would be inadequate. The deliciousness of silence, of wonder, of timidity, of things guessed at and hidden....
'It makes me afraid,' he murmured at length.
'To be loved like that.... Your kiss ... you don't know.'
I smiled almost sadly. As if I did not know what my kiss had done! As if I did not know that my kiss had created between us the happiness which brings ruin!
'You do love me?' he demanded.
I nodded, and sat down.
'Say it, say it!' he pleaded.
'More than I can ever show you,' I said proudly.
'Honestly,' he said, 'I can't imagine what you have been able to see in me. I'm nothing—I'm nobody—'
'Foolish boy!' I exclaimed. 'You are you.'
The profound significance of that age-worn phrase struck me for the first time.
He rushed to me at the word 'boy,' and, standing over me, took my hand in his hot hand. I let it lie, inert.
'But you haven't always loved me. I have always loved you, from the moment when I drove with you, that first day, from the office to your hotel. But you haven't always loved me.'
'No,' I admitted.
'Then when did you—? Tell me.'
'I was dull at first—I could not see. But when you told me that the end of Fate and Friendship was not as good as I could make it—do you remember, that afternoon in the office?—and how reluctant you were to tell me, how afraid you were to tell me?—your throat went dry, and you stroked your forehead as you always do when you are nervous—There! you are doing it now, foolish boy!'
I seized his left arm, and gently pulled it down from his face. Oh, exquisite moment!
'It was brave of you to tell me—very brave! I loved you for telling me. You were quite wrong about the end of that book. You didn't see the fine point of it, and you never would have seen it—and I liked you, somehow, for not seeing it, because it was so feminine—but I altered the book to please you, and when I had altered it, against my conscience, I loved you more.'
'It's incredible! incredible!' he muttered, half to himself. 'I never hoped till lately that you would care for me. I never dared to think of such a thing. I knew you oughtn't to! It passes comprehension.'
'That is just what love does,' I said.
'No, no,' he went on quickly; 'you don't understand; you can't understand my feelings when I began to suspect, about two months ago, that, after all, the incredible had happened. I'm nothing but your publisher. I can't talk. I can't write. I can't play. I can't do anything. And look at the men you have here! I've sometimes wondered how often you've been besieged—'
'None of them was like you,' I said. 'Perhaps that is why I have always kept them off.'
I raised my eyes and lips, and he stooped and kissed me. He wanted to take me in his arms again, but I would not yield myself.
'Be reasonable,' I urged him. 'Ought we not to think of our situation?'
He loosed me, stammering apologies, abasing himself.
'I ought to leave you, I ought never to see you again.' He spoke roughly. 'What am I doing to you? You who are so innocent and pure!'
'I entreat you not to talk like that,' I gasped, reddening.
'But I must talk like that,' he insisted. 'I must talk like that. You had everything that a woman can desire, and I come into your life and offer you—what?'
'I have everything a woman can desire,' I corrected him softly.
'Angel!' he breathed. 'If I bring you disaster, you will forgive me, won't you?'
'My happiness will only cease with your love,' I said.
'Happiness!' he repeated. 'I have never been so happy as I am now; but such happiness is terrible. It seems to me impossible that such happiness can last.'
'Faint heart!' I chided him.
'It is for you I tremble,' he said. 'If—if—' He stopped. 'My darling, forgive me!'
How I pitied him! How I enveloped him in an effluent sympathy that rushed warm from my heart! He accused himself of having disturbed my existence. Whereas, was it not I who had disturbed his? He had fought against me, I knew well, but fate had ordained his defeat. He had been swept away; he had been captured; he had been caught in a snare of the high gods. And he was begging forgiveness, he who alone had made my life worth living! I wanted to kneel before him, to worship him, to dry his tears with my hair. I swear that my feelings were as much those of a mother as of a lover. He was ten years older than me, and yet he seemed boyish, and I an aged woman full of experience, as he sat there opposite to me with his wide, melancholy eyes and restless mouth.
'Wonderful, is it not,' he said, 'that we should be talking like this to-night, and only yesterday we were Mr. and Miss to each other?'
'Wonderful!' I responded. 'But yesterday we talked with our eyes, and our eyes did not say Mr. or Miss. Our eyes said—Ah, what they said can never be translated into words!'
My gaze brooded on him like a caress, explored him with the unappeasable curiosity of love, and blinded him like the sun. Could it be true that Heaven had made that fine creature—noble and modest, nervous and full of courage, impetuous and self-controlled, but, above all things, fine and delicate—could it be true that Heaven had made him and then given him to me, with his enchanting imperfections that themselves constituted perfection? Oh, wonder, wonder! Oh, miraculous bounty which I had not deserved! This thing had happened to me, of all women! How it showed, by comparison, the sterility of my success and my fame and my worldly splendour! I had hungered and thirsted for years; I had travelled interminably through the hot desert of my brilliant career, until I had almost ceased to hope that I should reach, one evening, the pool of water and the palm. And now I might eat and drink and rest in the shade. Wonderful!
'Why were you so late to-night?' I asked abruptly.
'Late?' he replied absently. 'Is it late?'
We both looked at the clock. It was yet half an hour from midnight.
'Of course it isn't—not very,' I said. I was forgetting that. Everybody left so early.'
'Why was that?'
I told him, in a confusion that was sweet to me, how I had suffered by reason of his failure to appear. He glanced at me with tender amaze.
'But I am fortunate to-day,' I exclaimed. 'Was it not lucky they left when they did? Suppose you had arrived, in that state, dearest man, and burst into a room full of people? What would they have thought? Where should I have looked?'
'Angel!' he cried. 'I'm so sorry. I forgot it was your evening. I must have forgotten. I forgot everything, except that I was bound to see you at once, instantly, with all speed.'
Poor boy! He was like a bird fluttering in my hand. Millions of women must have so pictured to themselves the men who loved them, and whom they loved.
'But still, you were rather late, you know,' I smiled.
'Do not ask me why,' he begged, with an expression of deep pain on his face. 'I have had a scene with Mary. It would humiliate me to tell you—to tell even you—what passed between us. But it is over. Our relations in the future can never, in any case, be more than formal.'
A spasm of fierce jealousy shot through me—jealousy of Mary, my friend Mary, who knew him with such profound intimacy that they could go through a scene together which was 'humiliating.' I saw that my own intimacy with him was still crude with the crudity of newness, and that only years could mellow it. Mary, the good, sentimental Mary, had wasted the years of their marriage—had never understood the value of the treasure in her keeping. Why had they always been sad in their house? What was the origin of that resigned and even cheerful gloom which had pervaded their domestic life, and which I had remarked on my first visit to Bloomsbury Square? Were these, too, mysteries that I must not ask my lover to reveal? Resentment filled me. I came near to hating Mary, not because she had made him unhappy—oh no!—but because she had had the priority in his regard, and because there was nothing about him, however secret and recondite, that I could be absolutely sure of the sole knowledge of. She had been in the depths with him. I desired fervently that I also might descend with him, and even deeper. Oh, that I might have the joy and privilege of humiliation with him!
'I shall ask you nothing, dearest,' I murmured.
I had risen from my seat and gone to him, and was lightly touching his hair with my fingers. He did not move, but sat staring into the fire. Somehow, I adored him because he made no response to the fondling of my hand. His strange acceptance of the caress as a matter of course gave me the illusion that I was his wife, and that the years had mellowed our intimacy.
He spoke my name slowly and distinctly, savouring it.
'Yes,' I answered softly and obediently.
'Carlotta! Listen! Our two lives are in our hands at this moment—this moment while we talk here.'
His rapt eyes had not stirred from the fire.
'I feel it,' I said.
'What are we to do? What shall we decide to do?'
He slowly turned towards me. I lowered my glance.
'I don't know,' I said.
'Yes, you do, Carlotta,' he insisted. 'You do know.'
His voice trembled.
'Mary and I are such good friends,' I said. 'That is what makes it so—'
'No, no, no!' he objected loudly. His nervousness had suddenly increased. 'Don't, for God's sake, begin to argue in that way! You are above feminine logic. Mary is your friend. Good. You respect her; she respects you. Good. Is that any reason why our lives should be ruined? Will that benefit Mary? Do I not tell you that everything has ceased between us?'
'The idea of being false to Mary—'
'There's no question of being false. And if there was, would you be false to love rather than to friendship? Between you and me there is love; between Mary and me there is not love. It isn't her fault, nor mine, least of all yours. It is the fault of the secret essence of existence. Have you not yourself written that the only sacred thing is instinct? Are we, or are we not, to be true to ourselves?'
'You see,' I said, 'your wife is so sentimental. She would be incapable of looking at the affair as—as we do; as I should in her place.'
I knew that my protests were insincere, and that all my heart and brain were with him, but I could not admit this frankly. Ah! And I knew also that the sole avenue to peace and serenity, not to happiness, was the path of renunciation and of obedience to the conventions of society, and that this was precisely the path which we should never take. And on the horizon of our joy I saw a dark cloud. It had always been there, but I had refused to see it. I looked at it now steadily.
'Of course,' he groaned, 'if we are to be governed by Mary's sentimentality—'
'Dear love,' I whispered, 'what do you want me to do?'
'The only possible, honest, just thing. I want you to go away with me, so that Mary can get a divorce.'
He spoke sternly, as it were relentlessly.
'Does she guess—about me?' I asked, biting my lip, and looking away from him.
'Not yet. Hasn't the slightest notion, I'm sure. But I'll tell her, straight and fair.'
'Dearest friend,' I said, after a silence. 'Perhaps I know more of the world than you think. Perhaps I'm a girl only in years and situation. Forgive me if I speak plainly. Mary may prove unfaithfulness, but she cannot get a decree unless she can prove other things as well.'
He stroked his forehead. As for me, I shuddered with agitation. He walked across the room and back.
'Angel!' he said, putting his white face close to mine like an actor. 'I will prove whether your love for me is great enough. I have struck her. I struck her to-night in the presence of a servant. And I did it purposely, in cold blood, so that she might be able to prove cruelty. Ah! Have I not thought it all out? Have I not?'
A sob, painfully escaping, shook my whole frame.
'And this was before you had—had spoken to me!' I said bitterly.
Not myself, but some strange and frigid force within me uttered those words.
'That is what love will do. That is the sort of thing love drives one to,' he cried despairingly. 'Oh! I was not sure of you—I was not sure of you. I struck her, on the off chance.'
And he sank on the sofa and wept passionately, unashamed, like a child.
I could not bear it. My heart would have broken if I had watched, without assuaging, my boy's grief an instant longer than I did. I sprang to him. I took him to my breast. I kissed his eyes until the tears ceased to flow. Whatever it was or might be, I must share his dishonour.
'My poor girl!' he said at length. 'If you had refused me, if you had even judged me, I intended to warn you plainly that it meant my death; and if that failed, I should have gone to the office and shot myself.'
'Do not say such things,' I entreated him.
'But it is true. The revolver is in my pocket. Ah! I have made you cry! You're frightened! But I'm not a brute; I'm only a little beside myself. Pardon me, angel!'
He kissed me, smiling sadly with a trace of humour. He did not understand me. He did not suspect the risk he had run. If I had hesitated to surrender, and he had sought to move me by threatening suicide, I should never have surrendered. I knew myself well enough to know that. I had a conscience that was incapable of yielding to panic. A threat would have parted us, perhaps for ever. Oh, the blindness of man! But I forgave him. Nay, I cherished him the more for his childlike, savage simplicity.
'Carlotta,' he said, 'we shall leave everything. You grasp it?—everything.'
'Yes,' I replied. 'Of all the things we have now, we shall have nothing but ourselves.'
'If I thought it was a sacrifice for you, I would go out and never see you again.'
Noble fellow, proud now in the certainty that he sufficed for me! He meant what he said.
'It is no sacrifice for me,' I murmured. 'The sacrifice would be not to give up all in exchange for you.'
'We shall be exiles,' he went on, 'until the divorce business is over. And then perhaps we shall creep back—shall we?—and try to find out how many of our friends are our equals in moral courage.'
'Yes,' I said. 'We shall come back. They all do.'
'What do you mean?' he demanded.
'Thousands have done what we are going to do,' I said. 'And all of them have thought that their own case was different from the other cases.'
'And a few have been happy. A few have not regretted the price. A few have retained the illusion.'
'Illusion? Dearest girl, why do you talk like this?'
I could see that my heart's treasure was ruffled. He clasped my hand tenaciously.
'I must not hide from you the kind of woman you have chosen,' I answered quietly, and as I spoke a hush fell upon my amorous passion. 'In me there are two beings—myself and the observer of myself. It is the novelist's disease, this duplication of personality. When I said illusion, I meant the supreme illusion of love. Is it not an illusion? I have seen it in others, and in exactly the same way I see it in myself and I see it in you. Will it last?—who knows? None can tell.'
'Angel!' he expostulated.
'No one can foresee the end of love,' I said, with an exquisite gentle sorrow. 'But when the illusion is as intense as mine, as yours, even if its hour is brief, that hour is worth all the terrible years of disillusion which it will cost. Darling, this precious night alone would not be too dear if I paid for it with the rest of my life.'
He thanked me with a marvellous smile of confident adoration, and his disengaged hand played with the gold chain which hung loosely round my neck.
'Call it illusion if you like,' he said. 'Words are nothing. I only know that for me it will be eternal. I only know that my one desire is to be with you always, never to leave you, not to miss a moment of you; to have you for mine, openly, securely. Carlotta, where shall we go?'
'We must travel, mustn't we?'
'Travel?' he repeated, with an air of discontent. 'Yes. But where to?'
'Travel,' I said. 'See things. See the world.'
'I had thought we might find some quiet little place,' he said wistfully, and as if apologetically, where we could be alone, undisturbed, some spot where we could have ourselves wholly to ourselves, and go walks into mountains and return for dinner; and then the long, calm evenings! Dearest, our honeymoon!'
Our honeymoon! I had not, in the pursuit of my calling, studied human nature and collected documents for nothing. With how many brides had I not talked! How many loves did I not know to have been paralyzed and killed by a surfeit in the frail early stages of their existence! Inexperienced as I was, my learning in humanity was wiser than the experience of my impulsive, generous, magnanimous lover, to whom the very thought of calculation would have been abhorrent. But I saw, I felt, I lived through in a few seconds the interminable and monotonous length of those calm days, and especially those calm evenings succeeding each other with a formidable sameness. I had watched great loves faint and die. And I knew that our love—miraculously sweet as it was—probably was not greater than many great ones that had not stood the test. You perceive the cold observer in me. I knew that when love lasted, the credit of the survival was due far more often to the woman than to the man. The woman must husband herself, dole herself out, economize herself so that she might be splendidly wasteful when need was. The woman must plan, scheme, devise, invent, reconnoitre, take precautions; and do all this sincerely and lovingly in the name and honour of love. A passion, for her, is a campaign; and her deadliest enemy is satiety. Looking into my own heart, and into his, I saw nothing but hope for the future of our love. But the beautiful plant must not be exposed to hazard. Suppose it sickened, such a love as ours—what then? The misery of hell, the torture of the damned! Only its rich and ample continuance could justify us.
'My dear,' I said submissively, 'I shall leave everything to you. The idea of travelling occurred to me; that was all. I have never travelled further than Cannes. Still, we have all our lives before us.'
'We will travel,' he said unselfishly. 'We'll go round the world—slowly. I'll get the tickets at Cook's to-morrow.'
'But, dearest, if you would rather—'
'No, no! In any case we shall always have our evenings.'
'Of course we shall. Dearest, how good you are!'
'I wish I was,' he murmured.
I was glad, then, that I had never allowed my portrait to appear in a periodical. We could not prevent the appearance in American newspapers of heralding paragraphs, but the likelihood of our being recognised was sensibly lessened.
'Can you start soon?' he asked. 'Can you be ready?'
'Any time. The sooner the better, now that it is decided.'
'You do not regret? We have decided so quickly. Ah! you are the merest girl, and I have taken advantage—'
I put my hand over his mouth. He seized it, and kept it there and kissed it, and his ardent breath ran through my fingers.
'What about your business?' I said.
'I shall confide it to old Tate—tell him some story—he knows quite as much about it as I do. To-morrow I will see to all that. The day after, shall we start? No; to-morrow night. To-morrow night, eh? I'll run in to-morrow and tell you what I've arranged. I must see you to-morrow, early.'
'No,' I said. 'Do not come before lunch.'
'Not before lunch! Why?'
He was surprised. But I had been my own mistress for five years, with my own habits, rules, privacies. I had never seen anyone before lunch. And to-morrow, of all days, I should have so much to do and to arrange. Was this man to come like an invader and disturb my morning? So felt the celibate in me, instinctively, thoughtlessly. That deep-seated objection to the intrusion of even the most loved male at certain times is common, I think, to all women. Women are capable of putting love aside, like a rich dress, and donning the peignoir of matter-of-fact dailiness, in a way which is an eternal enigma to men.... Then I saw, in a sudden flash, that I had renounced my individual existence, that I had forfeited my habits and rules, and privacies, that I was a man's woman. And the passionate lover in me gloried in this.
'Come as soon as you like, dearest friend,' I said.
'Nobody except Mary will know anything till we are actually gone,' he remarked. 'And I shall not tell her till the last thing. Afterwards, won't they chatter! God! Let 'em.'
'They are already chattering,' I said. And I told him about Mrs. Sardis. 'When she met you on the landing,' I added, 'she drew her own conclusions, my poor, poor boy!'
He was furious. I could see he wanted to take me in his arms and protect me masculinely from the rising storm.
'All that is nothing,' I soothed him. 'Nothing. Against it, we have our self-respect. We can scorn all that.' And I gave a short, contemptuous laugh.
'Darling!' he murmured. 'You are more than a woman.'
'I hope not.' And I laughed again, but unnaturally.
He had risen; I leaned back in a large cushioned chair; we looked at each other in silence—a silence that throbbed with the heavy pulse of an unutterable and complex emotion—pleasure, pain, apprehension, even terror. What had I done? Why had I, with a word—nay, without a word, with merely a gesture and a glance—thrown my whole life into the crucible of passion? Why did I exult in the tremendous and impetuous act, like a martyr, and also like a girl? Was I playing with my existence as an infant plays with a precious bibelot that a careless touch may shatter? Why was I so fiercely, madly, drunkenly happy when I gazed into those eyes?
'I suppose I must go,' he said disconsolately.
I nodded, and the next instant the clock struck.
'Yes,' he urged himself, 'I must go.'
He bent down, put his hands on the arms of the chair, and kissed me violently, twice. The fire that consumes the world ran scorchingly through me. Every muscle was suddenly strained into tension, and then fell slack. My face flushed; I let my head slip sideways, so that my left cheek was against the back of the chair. Through my drooping eyelashes I could see the snake-like glitter of his eyes as he stood over me. I shuddered and sighed. I was like someone fighting in vain against the sweet seduction of an overwhelming and fatal drug. I wanted to entreat him to go away, to rid me of the exquisite and sinister enchantment. But I could not speak. I shut my eyes. This was love.
The next moment I heard the soft sound of his feet on the carpet. I opened my eyes. He had stepped back. When our glances met he averted his face, and went briskly for his overcoat, which lay on the floor by the piano. I rose freed, re-established in my self-control. I arranged his collar, straightened his necktie with a few touches, picked up his hat, pushed back the crown, which flew up with a noise like a small explosion, and gave it into his hands.
'Thank you,' he said. 'To-morrow morning, eh? I shall get to know everything necessary before I come. And then we will fix things up.'
'Yes,' I said.
'I can let myself out,' he said.
I made a vague gesture, intended to signify that I could not think of permitting him to let himself out. We left the drawing-room, and passed, with precautions of silence, to the front-door, which I gently opened.
'Good-night, then,' he whispered formally, almost coldly.
I nodded. We neither of us even smiled.
We were grave, stern, and stiff in our immense self-consciousness.
'Too late for the lift,' I murmured out there with him in the vast, glittering silence of the many-angled staircase, which disappeared above us and below us into the mysterious unseen.
He nodded as I had nodded, and began to descend the broad, carpeted steps, firmly, carefully, and neither quick nor slow. I leaned over the baluster. When the turns of the staircase brought him opposite and below me, he stopped and raised his hat, and we exchanged a smile. Then he resolutely dropped his eyes and resumed the descent. From time to time I had glimpses of parts of his figure as he passed story after story. Then I heard his tread on the tessellated pavement of the main hall, the distant clatter of double doors, and a shrill cab-whistle.
This was love, at last—the reality of love! He would have killed himself had he failed to win me—killed himself! With the novelist's habit, I ran off into a series of imagined scenes—the dead body, with the hole in the temples and the awkward attitude of death; the discovery, the rush for the police, the search for a motive, the inquest, the rapid-speaking coroner, who spent his whole life at inquests; myself, cold and impassive, giving evidence, and Mary listening to what I said.... But he lived, with his delicate physical charm, his frail distinction, his spiritual grace; and he had won me. The sense of mutual possession was inexpressibly sweet to me. And it was all I had in the world now. When my mind moved from that rock, all else seemed shifting, uncertain, perilous, bodeful, and steeped in woe. The air was thick with disasters, and injustice, and strange griefs immediately I loosed my hold on the immense fact that he was mine.
'How calm I am!' I thought.
It was not till I had been in bed some three hours that I fully realized the seismic upheaval which my soul had experienced.
I woke up from one of those dozes which, after a sleepless night, give the brief illusion of complete rest, all my senses sharpened, and my mind factitiously active. And I began at once to anticipate Frank's coming, and to arrange rapidly my plans for closing the flat. I had determined that it should be closed. Then someone knocked at the door, and it occurred to me that there must have been a previous knock, which had, in fact, wakened me. Save on special occasions, I was never wakened, and Emmeline and my maid had injunctions not to come to me until I rang. My thoughts ran instantly to Frank. He had arrived thus early, merely because he could not keep away.
'How extremely indiscreet of him!' I thought. 'What detestable prevarications with Emmeline this will lead to! I cannot possibly be ready in time if he is to be in and out all day.'
Nevertheless, the prospect of seeing him quickly, and the idea of his splendid impatience, drenched me with joy.
'What is it?' I called out.
Emmeline entered in that terrible mauve dressing-gown which I had been powerless to persuade her to discard.
'So sorry to disturb you,' said Emmeline, feeling her loose golden hair with one hand, 'but Mrs. Ispenlove has called, and wants to see you at once. I'm afraid something has happened.'
My voice shook.
'Yes. Yvonne came to my room and told me that Mrs. Ispenlove was here, and was either mad or very unwell, and would I go to her? So I got up at once. What shall I do? Perhaps it's something very serious. Not half-past eight, and calling like this!'
'Let her come in here immediately,' I said, turning my head on the pillow, so that Emmeline should not see the blush which had spread over my face and my neck.
It was inevitable that a terrible and desolating scene must pass between Mary Ispenlove and myself. I could not foresee how I should emerge from it, but I desperately resolved that I would suffer the worst without a moment's delay, and that no conceivable appeal should induce me to abandon Frank. I was, as I waited for Mrs. Ispenlove to appear, nothing but an embodied and fierce instinct to guard what I had won. No consideration of mercy could have touched me.
She entered with a strange, hysterical cry:
I had asked her long ago to use my Christian name—long before I ever imagined what would come to pass between her husband and me; but I always called her Mrs. Ispenlove. The difference in our ages justified me. And that morning the difference seemed to be increased. I realized, with a cruel justice of perception quite new in my estimate of her, that she was old—an old woman. She had never been beautiful, but she was tall and graceful, and her face had been attractive by the sweetness of the mouth and the gray beneficence of the eyes; and now that sweetness and that beneficence appeared suddenly to have been swallowed up in the fatal despair of a woman who discovers that she has lived too long. Gray hair, wrinkles, crow's-feet, tired eyes, drawn mouth, and the terrible tell-tale hollow under the chin—these were what I saw in Mary Ispenlove. She had learnt that the only thing worth having in life is youth. I possessed everything that she lacked. Surely the struggle was unequal. Fate might have chosen a less piteous victim. I felt profoundly sorry for Mary Ispenlove, and this sorrow was stronger in me even than the uneasiness, the false shame (for it was not a real shame) which I experienced in her presence. I put out my hands towards her, as it were, involuntarily. She sprang to me, took them, and kissed me as I lay in bed.
'How beautiful you look—like that!' she exclaimed wildly, and with a hopeless and acute envy in her tone.
'But why—' I began to protest, astounded.
'What will you think of me, disturbing you like this? What will you think?' she moaned. And then her voice rose: 'I could not help it; I couldn't, really. Oh, Carlotta! you are my friend, aren't you?'
One thing grew swiftly clear to me: that she was as yet perfectly unaware of the relations between Frank and myself. My brain searched hurriedly for an explanation of the visit. I was conscious of an extraordinary relief.
'You are my friend, aren't you?' she repeated insistently.
Her tears were dropping on my bosom. But could I answer that I was her friend? I did not wish to be her enemy; she and Frank and I were dolls in the great hands of fate, irresponsible, guiltless, meet for an understanding sympathy. Why was I not still her friend? Did not my heart bleed for her? Yet such is the power of convention over honourableness that I could not bring myself to reply directly, 'Yes, I am your friend.'
'We have known each other a long time,' I ventured.
'There was no one else I could come to,' she said.
Her whole frame was shaking. I sat up, and asked her to pass my dressing-gown, which I put round my shoulders. Then I rang the bell.
'What are you going to do?' she demanded fearfully.
'I am going to have the gas-stove lighted and some tea brought in, and then we will talk.
Take your hat off, dear, and sit down in that chair. You'll be more yourself after a cup of tea.'
How young I was then! I remember my naive satisfaction in this exhibition of tact. I was young and hard, as youth is apt to be—hard in spite of the compassion, too intellectual and arrogant, which I conceived for her. And even while I forbade her to talk until she had drunk some tea, I regretted the delay, and I suffered by it. Surely, I thought, she will read in my demeanour something which she ought not to read there. But she did not. She was one of the simplest of women. In ten thousand women one is born without either claws or second-sight. She was that one, defenceless as a rabbit.
'You are very kind to me,' she said, putting her cup on the mantelpiece with a nervous rattle; 'and I need it.'
'Tell me,' I murmured. 'Tell me—what I can do.'
I had remained in bed; she was by the fireplace. A distance between us seemed necessary.
'You can't do anything, my dear,' she said. 'Only I was obliged to talk to someone, after all the night. It's about Frank.'
'Mr. Ispenlove!' I ejaculated, acting as well as I could, but not very well.
'Yes. He has left me.'
'But why? What is the matter?'
Even to recall my share in this interview with Mary Ispenlove humiliates me. But perhaps I have learned the value of humiliation. Still, could I have behaved differently?
'You won't understand unless I begin a long time ago,' said Mary Ispenlove. 'Carlotta, my married life has been awful—awful—a tragedy. It has been a tragedy both for him and for me. But no one has suspected it; we have hidden it.'
I nodded. I, however, had suspected it.
'It's just twenty years—yes, twenty—since I fell in love,' she proceeded, gazing at me with her soft, moist eyes.
'With—Frank,' I assumed. I lay back in bed.
'No,' she said. 'With another man. That was in Brixton, when I was a girl living with my father; my mother was dead. He was a barrister—I mean the man I was in love with. He had only just been called to the Bar. I think everybody knew that I had fallen in love with him. Certainly he did; he could not help seeing it. I could not conceal it. Of course I can understand now that it flattered him. Naturally it did. Any man is flattered when a woman falls in love with him. And my father was rich, and so on, and so on. We saw each other a lot. I hoped, and I kept on hoping. Some people even said it was a match, and that I was throwing myself away. Fancy—throwing myself away—me!—who have never been good for anything! My father did not care much for the man; said he was selfish and grasping. Possibly he was; but I was in love with him all the same. Then I met Frank, and Frank fell in love with me. You know how obstinate Frank is when he has once set his mind on a thing. Frank determined to have me; and my father was on his side. I would not listen. I didn't give him so much as a chance to propose to me. And this state of things lasted for quite a long time. It wasn't my fault; it wasn't anybody's fault.'
'Just so,' I agreed, raising my head on one elbow, and listening intently. It was the first sincere word I had spoken, and I was glad to utter it.
'The man I had fallen in love with came nearer. He was decidedly tempted. I began to feel sure of him. All I wanted was to marry him, whether he loved me a great deal or only a little tiny bit. I was in that state. Then he drew away. He scarcely ever came to the house, and I seemed never to be able to meet him. And then one day my father showed me something in the Morning Post. It was a paragraph saying that the man I was in love with was going to marry a woman of title, a widow and the daughter of a peer. I soon found out she was nearly twice his age. He had done it to get on. He was getting on very well by himself, but I suppose that wasn't fast enough for him. Carlotta, it nearly killed me. And I felt so sorry for him. You can't guess how sorry I felt for him. I felt that he didn't know what he had missed. Oh, how happy I should have made him! I should have lived for him. I should have done everything for him. I should have ... You don't mind me telling you all this?'
I made an imploring gesture.
'What a shame!' I burst out.
'Ah, my dear!' she said, 'he didn't love me. One can't blame him.'
'And then?' I questioned, with an eagerness that I tried to overcome.
'Frank was so persevering. And—and—I did admire his character. A woman couldn't help admiring his character, could she? And, besides, I honestly thought I had got over the other affair, and that I was in love with him. I refused him once, and then I married him. He was as mad for me as I had been for the other one. Yes, I married him, and we both imagined we were going to be happy.'
'And why haven't you been?' I asked.
'This is my shame,' she said. 'I could not forget the other one. We soon found that out.'
'Did you talk about it, you—and Frank?' I put in, amazed.
'Oh no!' she said. 'It was never mentioned—never once during fifteen years. But he knew; and I knew that he knew. The other one was always between us—always, always, always! The other one was always in my heart. We did our best, both of us; but it was useless. The passion of my life was—it was invincible. I tried to love Frank. I could only like him. Fancy his position! And we were helpless. Because, you know, Frank and I are not the sort of people that go and make a scandal—at least, that was what I thought,' she sighed. 'I know different now. Well, he died the day before yesterday.'
'Crettell. He had just been made a judge. He was the youngest judge on the bench—only forty-six.'
'Was that the man?' I exclaimed; for Crettell's character was well known in London.
'That was the man. Frank came in yesterday afternoon, and after he had glanced at the paper, he said: "By the way, Crettell's dead." I did not grasp it at first. He repeated: "Crettell—he's dead." I burst into tears. I couldn't help it. And, besides, I forgot. Frank asked me very roughly what I was crying for. You know, Frank has much changed these last few months. He is not as nice as he used to be. Excuse me talking like this, my dear. Something must be worrying him. Well, I said as well as I could while I was crying that the news was a shock to me. I tried to stop crying, but I couldn't. I sobbed. Frank threw down the paper and stamped on it, and he swore. He said: "I know you've always been in love with the brute, but you needn't make such a damn fuss about it." Oh, my dear, how can I tell you these things? That angered me. This was the first time in our married life that Crettell had been even referred to, and it seemed to me that Frank put all the hatred of fifteen years into that single sentence. Why was I angry? I didn't know. We had a scene. Frank lost his temper, for the first time that I remember, and then he recovered it. He said quietly he couldn't stand living with me any more; and that he had long since wanted to leave me. He said he would never see me again. And then one of the servants came in, and—'
'Nothing. I sent her out. And—and—Fran didn't come home last night.'
There was a silence. I could find nothing to say, and Mary had hidden her face. I utterly forgot myself and my own state in this extraordinary hazard of matrimony. I could only think of Mary's grief—a grief which, nevertheless, I did not too well comprehend.
'Then you love him now?' I ventured at length.
She made no reply.
'You love him—is that so?' I pursued. 'Tell me honestly.'
I spoke as gently as it was in me to speak.
'Honestly!' she cried, looking up. 'Honestly! No! If I loved him, could I have been so upset about Crettell? But we have been together so long. We are husband and wife, Carlotta. We are so used to each other. And generally he is so good. We've got on very well, considering. And now he's left me. Think of the scandal! It will be terrible! terrible! A separation at my age! Carlotta, it's unthinkable! He's mad—that's the only explanation. Haven't I tried to be a good wife to him? He's never found fault with me—never! And I'm sure, as regards him, I've had nothing to complain of.'
'He will come back,' I said. 'He'll think things over and see reason.'
And it was just as though I heard some other person saying these words.
'But he didn't come home last night,' Mary insisted. 'What the servants are thinking I shouldn't like to guess.'
'What does it matter what the servants think?' I said brusquely.
'But it does matter. He didn't come home. He must have slept at a hotel. Fancy, sleeping at a hotel, and his home waiting for him! Oh, Carlotta, you're too young to understand what I feel! You're very clever, and you're very sympathetic; but you can't see things as I see them. Wait till you've been married fifteen years. The scandal! The shame! And me only too anxious to be a good wife, and to keep our home as it should be, and to help him as much as I can with my stupid brains in his business!'
'I can understand perfectly,' I asserted. 'I can understand perfectly.'
And I could. The futility of arguing with Mary, of attempting to free her ever so little from the coils of convention which had always bound her, was only too plainly apparent. She was—and naturally, sincerely, instinctively—the very incarnation and mouthpiece of the conventionality of society, as she cowered there in her grief and her quiet resentment. But this did not impair the authenticity of her grief and her resentment. Her grief appealed to me powerfully, and her resentment, almost angelic in its quality, seemed sufficiently justified. I knew that my own position was in practice untenable, that logic must always be inferior to emotion. I am intensely proud of my ability to see, then, that no sentiment can be false which is sincere, and that Mary Ispenlove's attitude towards marriage was exactly as natural, exactly as free from artificiality, as my own. Can you go outside Nature? Is not the polity of Londoners in London as much a part of Nature as the polity of bees in a hive?
'Not a word for fifteen years, and then an explosion like that!' she murmured, incessantly recurring to the core of her grievance. 'I did wrong to marry him, I know. But I did marry him—I did marry him! We are husband and wife. And he goes off and sleeps at a hotel! Carlotta, I wish I had never been born! What will people say? I shall never be able to look anyone in the face again.'
'He will come back,' I said again.
'Do you think so?'
This time she caught at the straw.
'Yes,' I said. 'And you will settle down gradually; and everything will be forgotten.'
I said that because it was the one thing I could say. I repeat that I had ceased to think of myself. I had become a spectator.
'It can never be the same between us again,' Mary breathed sadly.
At that moment Emmeline Palmer plunged, rather than came, into my bedroom.
'Oh, Miss Peel—' she began, and then stopped, seeing Mrs. Ispenlove by the fireplace, though she knew that Mrs. Ispenlove was with me.
'Anything wrong?' I asked, affecting a complete calm.
It was evident that the good creature had lost her head, as she sometimes did, when I gave her too much to copy, or when the unusual occurred in no matter what form. The excellent Emmeline was one of my mistakes.
'Mr. Ispenlove is here,' she whispered.
None of us spoke for a few seconds. Mary Ispenlove stared at me, but whether in terror or astonishment, I could not guess. This was one of the most dramatic moments of my life.
'Tell Mr. Ispenlove that I can see nobody,' I said, glancing at the wall.
She turned to go.
'And, Emmeline,' I stopped her. 'Do not tell him anything else.'
Surely the fact that Frank had called to see me before nine o'clock in the morning, surely my uneasy demeanour, must at length arouse suspicion even in the simple, trusting mind of his wife!
'How does he know that I am here?' Mary asked, lowering her voice, when Emmeline had shut the door; 'I said nothing to the servants.'
I was saved. Her own swift explanation of his coming was, of course, the most natural in the world. I seized on it.
'Never mind how,' I answered. 'Perhaps he was watching outside your house, and followed you. The important thing is that he has come. It proves,' I went on, inventing rapidly, 'that he has changed his mind and recognises his mistake. Had you not better go back home as quickly as you can? It would have been rather awkward for you to see him here, wouldn't it?'
'Yes, yes,' she said, her eyes softening and gleaming with joy. 'I will go. Oh, Carlotta! how can I thank you? You are my best friend.'
'I have done nothing,' I protested. But I had.
'You are a dear!' she exclaimed, coming impulsively to the bed.
I sat up. She kissed me fervently. I rang the bell.
'Has Mr. Ispenlove gone?' I asked Emmeline.
'Yes,' said Emmeline.
In another minute his wife, too, had departed, timorously optimistic, already denying in her heart that it could never be the same between them again. She assuredly would not find Frank at home. But that was nothing. I had escaped! I had escaped!
'Will you mind getting dressed at once?' I said to Emmeline. 'I should like you to go out with a letter and a manuscript as soon as possible.'
I got a notebook and began to write to Frank. I told him all that had happened, in full detail, writing hurriedly, in gusts, and abandoning that regard for literary form which the professional author is apt to preserve even in his least formal correspondence.
'After this,' I said, 'we must give up what we decided last night. I have no good reason to offer you. The situation itself has not been changed by what I have learnt from your wife. I have not even discovered that she loves you, though in spite of what she says, which I have faithfully told you, I fancy she does—at any rate, I think she is beginning to. My ideas about the rights of love are not changed. My feelings towards you are not changed. Nothing is changed. But she and I have been through that interview, and so, after all, everything is changed; we must give it all up. You will say I am illogical. I am—perhaps. It was a mere chance that your wife came to me. I don't know why she did. If she had not come, I should have given myself to you. Supposing she had written—I should still have given myself to you. But I have been in her presence. I have been with her. And then the thought that you struck her, for my sake! She said nothing about that. That was the one thing she concealed. I could have cried when she passed it over. After all, I don't know whether it is sympathy for your wife that makes me change, or my self-respect—say my self-pride; I'm a proud woman. I lied to her through all that interview.