'Oh, if I had only had the courage to begin by telling her outright and bluntly that you and I had settled that I should take her place! That would have stopped her. But I hadn't. And, besides, how could I foresee what she would say to me and how she would affect me? No; I lied to her at every point. My whole attitude was a lie. Supposing you and I had gone off together before I had seen her, and then I had met her afterwards, I could have looked her in the face—sorrowfully, with a heart bleeding—but I could have looked her in the face. But after this interview—no; it would be impossible for me to face her with you at my side! Don't I put things crudely, horribly! I know everything that you will say. You could not bring a single argument that I have not thought of.
'However, arguments are nothing. It is how I feel. Fate is against us. Possibly I have ruined your life and mine without having done anything to improve hers; and possibly I have saved us all three from terrible misery. Possibly fate is with us. No one can say. I don't know what will happen in the immediate future; I won't think about it. If you do as I wish, if you have any desire to show me that I have any influence over you, you will go back to live with your wife. Where did you sleep last night? Or did you walk the streets? You must not answer this letter at present. Write to me later. Do not try to see me. I won't see you. We mustn't meet. I am going away at once. I don't think I could stand another scene with your wife, and she would be sure to come again to me.
'Try to resume your old existence. You can do it if you try. Remember that your wife is no more to blame than you are, or than I am. Remember that you loved her once. And remember that I act as I am acting because there is no other way for me. C'est plus fort que moi, I am going to Torquay. I let you know this—I hate concealment; and anyway you would find out. But I shall trust you not to follow me. I shall trust you. You are saying that this is a very different woman from last night. It is. I haven't yet realized what my feelings are. I expect I shall realize them in a few days. I send with this a manuscript. It is nothing. I send it merely to put Emmeline off the scent, so that she shall think that it is purely business. Now I shall trust you.—C. P.'
I commenced the letter without even a 'Dear Frank,' and I ended it without an affectionate word.
'I should like you to take these down to Mr. Ispenlove's office,' I said to Emmeline. 'Ask for him and give them to him yourself. There's no answer. He's pretty sure to be in. But if he isn't, bring them back. I'm going to Torquay by that eleven-thirty express—isn't it?'
'Eleven-thirty-five,' Emmeline corrected me coldly.
When she returned, she said she had seen Mr. Ispenlove and given him the letter and the parcel.
I had acquaintances in Torquay, but I soon discovered that the place was impossible for me. Torquay is the chosen home of the proprieties, the respectabilities, and all the conventions. Nothing could dislodge them from its beautiful hills; the very sea, as it beats primly, or with a violence that never forgets to be discreet, on the indented shore, acknowledges their sway. Aphrodite never visits there; the human race is not continued there. People who have always lived within the conventions go there to die within the conventions. The young do not flourish there; they escape from the soft enervation. Since everybody is rich, there are no poor. There are only the rich, and the servitors, who get rich. These two classes never mix—even in the most modest villas they live on opposite sides of the house. The life of the town is a vast conspiracy on the part of the servitors to guard against any danger of the rich taking all their riches to heaven. You can, if you are keen enough, detect portions of this conspiracy in every shop. On the hills each abode stands in its own undulating grounds, is approached by a winding drive of at least ten yards, is wrapped about by the silence of elms, is flanked by greenhouses, and exudes an immaculate propriety from all its windows. In the morning the rich descend, the servitors ascend; the bosky and perfectly-kept streets on the hills are trodden with apologetic celerity by the emissaries of the servitors. The one interminable thoroughfare of the town is graciously invaded by the rich, who, if they have not walked down for the sake of exercise, step cautiously from their carriages, enunciate a string of orders ending with the name of a house, and cautiously regain their carriages. Each house has a name, and the pride of the true servitor is his ability to deduce instantly from the name of the house the name of its owner and the name of its street. In the afternoon a vast and complicated game of visiting cards is played. One does not begin to be serious till the evening; one eats then, solemnly and fully, to the faint accompaniment of appropriate conversation. And there is no relief, no surcease from utmost conventionality. It goes on night and day; it hushes one to sleep, and wakes one up. On all but the strongest minds it casts a narcotizing spell, so that thought is arrested, and originality, vivacity, individuality become a crime—a shame that must be hidden. Into this strange organism I took my wounded heart, imagining that an atmosphere of coma might help to heal it. But no! Within a week my state had become such that I could have cried out in mid Union Street at noon: 'Look at me with your dead eyes, you dead who have omitted to get buried, I am among you, and I am an adulteress in spirit! And my body has sinned the sin! And I am alive as only grief can be alive. I suffer the torture of vultures, but I would not exchange my lot with yours!'
And one morning, after a fortnight, I thought of Monte Carlo. And the vision of that place, which I had never seen, too voluptuously lovely to be really beautiful, where there are no commandments, where unconventionality and conventionality fight it out on even terms, where the adulteress swarms, and the sin is for ever sinned, and wounded hearts go about gaily, where it is impossible to distinguish between virtue and vice, and where Toleration in fine clothes is the supreme social goddess—the vision of Monte Carlo, as a place of refuge from the exacerbating and moribund and yet eternal demureness of Torquay, appealed to me so persuasively that I was on my way to the Riviera in two hours. In that crisis of my life my moods were excessively capricious. Let me say that I had not reached Exeter before I began to think kindly of Torquay. What was Torquay but an almost sublime example of what the human soul can accomplish in its unending quest of an ideal?
I left England on a calm, slate-coloured sea—sea that more than any other sort of sea produces the reflective melancholy which makes wonderful the faces of fishermen. How that brief voyage symbolized for me the mysterious movement of humanity! We converged from the four quarters of the universe, passed together an hour, helpless, in somewhat inimical curiosity concerning each other, and then, mutually forgotten, took wing, and spread out into the unknown. I think that as I stood near the hot funnel, breasting the wind, and vacantly staring at the smooth expanse that continually slipped from under us, I understood myself better than I had done before. My soul was at peace—the peace of ruin after a conflagration, but peace. Sometimes a little flame would dart out—flame of regret, revolt, desire—and I would ruthlessly extinguish it. I felt that I had nothing to live for, that no energy remained to me, no interest, no hope. I saw the forty years of probable existence in front of me flat and sterile as the sea itself. I was coldly glad that I had finished my novel, well knowing that it would be my last. And the immense disaster had been caused by a chance! Why had I been born with a vein of overweening honesty in me? Why should I have sacrificed everything to the pride of my conscience, seeing that consciences were the product of education merely? Useless to try to answer the unanswerable! What is, is. And circumstances are always at the mercy of character. I might have been wrong, I might have been right; no ethical argument could have bent my instinct. I did not sympathize with myself—I was too proud and stern—but I sympathized with Frank. I wished ardently that he might be consoled—that his agony might not be too terrible. I wondered where he was, what he was doing. I had received no letter from him, but then I had instructed that letters should not be forwarded to me. My compassion went out after him, followed him into the dark, found him (as I hoped), and surrounded him like an alleviating influence. I thought pityingly of the ravage that had been occasioned by our love. His home was wrecked. Our lives were equally wrecked. Our friends were grieved; they would think sadly of my closed flat. Even the serio-comic figure of Emmeline touched me; I had paid her three months' wages and dismissed her. Where would she go with her mauve peignoir? She was over thirty, and would not easily fall into another such situation. Imagine Emmeline struck down by a splinter from our passionate explosion! Only Yvonne was content at the prospect of revisiting France.
'Ah! Qu'on est bien ici, madame!' she said, when we had fixed ourselves in the long and glittering train de grand luxe that awaited us at Calais. Once I had enjoyed luxury, but now the futility of all this luxurious cushioned arrogance, which at its best only corresponded with a railway director's dreams of paradise, seemed to me pathetic. Could it detain youth, which is for ever flying? Could it keep out sorrow? Could it breed hope? As the passengers, so correct in their travelling costumes, passed to and fro in the corridors with the subdued murmurs always adopted by English people when they wish to prove that they are not excited, I thought: 'Does it matter how you and I go southwards? The pride of the eye, and of the palate, and of the limbs, what can it help us that this should be sated? We cannot leave our souls behind.' The history of many of these men and women was written on their faces. I wondered if my history was written on mine, gazing into the mirrors which were everywhere, but seeing nothing save that which I had always seen. Then I smiled, and Yvonne smiled respectfully in response. Was I not part of the immense pretence that riches bring joy and that life is good? On every table in the restaurant-cars were bunches of fresh flowers that had been torn from the South, and would return there dead, having ministered to the illusion that riches bring joy and that life is good. I hated that. I could almost have wished that I was travelling southwards in a slow, slow train, third class, where sorrow at any rate does not wear a mask. Great grief is democratic, levelling—not downwards but upwards. It strips away the inessential, and makes brothers. It is impatient with all the unavailing inventions which obscure the brotherhood of mankind.
I descended from the train restlessly—there were ten minutes to elapse before the departure—and walked along the platform, glimpsing the faces in the long procession of windows, and then the flowers and napery in the two restaurant-cars: wistful all alike, I thought—flowers and faces! How fanciful, girlishly fanciful, I was! Opposite the door of the first car stood a gigantic negro in the sober blue and crimson livery of the International Sleeping Car Company. He wore white gloves, like all the servants on the train: it was to foster the illusion; it was part of what we paid for.
'When is luncheon served?' I asked him idly.
He looked massively down at me as I shivered slightly in my furs. He contemplated me for an instant. He seemed to add me up, antipathetically, as a product of Western civilization.
'Soon as the train starts, madam,' he replied suavely, in good American, and resumed nonchalantly his stare into the distance of the platform.
'Thank you!' I said.
I was glad that I had encountered him on that platform and not in the African bush. I speculated upon the chain of injustice and oppression that had warped his destiny from what it ought to have been to what it was. 'And he, too, is human, and knows love and grief and illusion, like me,' I mused. A few yards further on the engine-driver and stoker were busy with coal and grease. 'Five minutes hence, and our lives, and our correctness, and our luxury, will be in their grimy hands,' I said to myself. Strange world, the world of the train de grand luxe! But a world of brothers! I regained my carriage, exactly, after all, as the inhabitants of Torquay regained theirs.
Then the wondrous self-contained microcosm, shimmering with gilt and varnish and crystal, glorious in plush and silk, heavy with souls and all that correct souls could possibly need in twenty hours, gathered itself up and rolled forward, swiftly, and more swiftly, into the wide, gray landscapes of France. The vibrating and nerve-destroying monotony of a long journey had commenced. We were summoned by white gloves to luncheon; and we lunched in a gliding palace where the heavenly dreams of a railway director had received their most luscious expression—and had then been modestly hidden by advertisements of hotels and brandy. The Southern flowers shook in their slender glasses, and white gloves balanced dishes as if on board ship, and the electric fans revolved ceaselessly. As I was finishing my meal, a middle-aged woman whom I knew came down the car towards me. She had evidently not recognised me.
'How do you do, Miss Kate?' I accosted her.
It was the younger of Vicary's two maiden sisters. I guessed that the other could not be far away.
She hesitated, stopped, and looked down at me, rather as the negro had done.
'Oh! how do you do, Miss Peel?' she said distantly, with a nervous simper; and she passed on.
This was my first communication, since my disappearance, with the world of my London friends and acquaintances. I perceived, of course, from Miss Kate's attitude that something must have occurred, or something must have been assumed, to my prejudice. Perhaps Frank had also vanished for a time, and the rumour ran that we were away together. I smiled frigidly. What matter? In case Miss Vicary should soon be following her sister, I left without delay and went back to my coupe; it would have been a pity to derange these dames. Me away with Frank! What folly to suppose it! Yet it might have been. I was in heart what these dames probably took me for. I read a little in the Imitation of Christ which Aunt Constance had meant to give me, that book which will survive sciences and even Christianity itself. 'Think not that thou hast made any progress,' I read, 'unless thou feel thyself inferior to all ... Behold how far off thou art yet from true charity and humility: which knows not how to be angry or indignant, with any except one's self.'
Night fell. The long, illuminated train roared and flashed on its invisible way under a dome of stars. It shrieked by mysterious stations, dragging furiously its freight of luxury and light and human masks through placid and humble villages and towns, of which it ignored everything save their coloured signals of safety. Ages of oscillation seemed to pass. In traversing the corridors one saw interior after interior full of the signs of wearied humanity: magazines thrown aside, rugs in disorder, hair dishevelled, eyes heavy, cheeks flushed, limbs in the abandoned attitudes of fatigue—here and there a compartment with blinds discreetly drawn, suggesting the jealous seclusion of love, and here and there a group of animated tatlers or card-players whose nerves nothing could affect, and who were incapable of lassitude; on every train and every steamer a few such are to be found.
More ages passed, and yet the journey had but just begun. At length we thundered and resounded through canyons of tall houses, their facades occasionally bathed in the cold, blue radiance of arc-lights; and under streets and over canals. Paris! the city of the joy of life! We were to see the muddied skirts of that brilliant and sinister woman. We panted to a standstill in the vast echoing cavern of the Gare du Nord, stared haughtily and drowsily at its bustling confusion, and then drew back, to carry our luxury and our correctness through the lowest industrial quarters. Belleville, Menilmontant, and other names of like associations we read on the miserable, forlorn stations of the Ceinture, past which we trailed slowly our disgust.
We made a semicircle through the secret shames that beautiful Paris would fain hide, and, emerging, found ourselves in the deserted and stony magnificence of the Gare de Lyon, the gate of the South. Here, where we were not out of keeping, where our splendour was of a piece with the splendour of the proudest terminus in France, we rested long, fretted by the inexplicable leisureliness on the part of a train de grand luxe, while gilded officials paced to and fro beneath us on the platforms, guarding in their bureaucratic breasts the secret of the exact instant at which the great express would leave. I slept, and dreamed that the Misses Vicary had brought several pairs of white gloves in order to have me dismissed from the society of the train. A hand touched me. It was Yvonne's. I awoke to a renewal of the maddening vibration. We had quitted Paris long since. It was after seven o'clock. 'On dit que le diner est servi, madame said Yvonne. I told her to go, and I collected my wits to follow her. As I was emerging into the corridor, Miss Kate went by. I smiled faintly, perhaps timidly. She cut me completely. Then I went out into the corridor. A man was standing at the other end twirling his moustaches. He turned round.
It was Frank.
He came towards me, uncertainly swaying with the movement of the swaying train.
'Good God!' he muttered, and stopped within a yard of me.
I clung convulsively to the framework of the doorway. Our lives paused.
'Why have you followed me, Frank?' I asked gloomily, in a whisper.
I had meant to be severe, offended. I had not meant to put his name at the end of my question, much less to utter it tenderly, like an endearment. But I had little control over myself. I was almost breathless with a fatal surprise, shaken with terrible emotion.
'I've not followed you,' he said. 'I joined the train at Paris. I'd no idea you were on the train till I saw you in the corner asleep, through the window of the compartment. I've been waiting here till you came out.'
'Have you seen the Vicarys?'
'Yes,' he answered.
'Ah! You've been away from London all this time?'
'I couldn't stay. I couldn't. I've been in Belgium and Holland. Then I went to Paris. And now—you see me.'
'I'm going to Mentone,' I said. 'I had thought of Monte Carlo first, but I changed my mind. Where are you going to?'
'Mentone,' he said.
We talked in hard, strained tones, avoiding each other's eyes. A string of people passed along the car on their way to dinner. I withdrew into my compartment, and Frank flattened himself against a window.
'Come in here a minute,' I said, when they were gone.
He entered the compartment and sat down opposite to me and lifted his hand, perhaps unconsciously, to pull the door to.
'No,' I said; 'don't shut it. Leave it like that.'
He was dressed in a gray tourist suit. Never before had I seen him in any but the formal attire of London. I thought he looked singularly graceful and distinguished, even romantic, in that loose, soft clothing. But no matter what he wore, Frank satisfied the eye. We were both extremely nervous and excited and timid, fearing speech.
'Carlotta,' he said at last—I had perceived that he was struggling to a resolution—'this is the best thing that could have happened. Whatever we do, everybody will believe that we are running off together.'
'I think they have been believing that ever since we left London,' I said; and I told him about Miss Kate's treatment of me at lunch. 'But how can that affect us?' I demanded.
'Mary will believe it—does believe, I'm sure. Long before this, people will have enlightened her. And now the Vicarys have seen us, it's all over. Our hand is forced, isn't it?'
'Frank,' I said, 'didn't you think my letter was right?'
'I obeyed it,' he replied heavily. 'I haven't even written to you. I meant to when I got to Mentone.'
'But didn't you think I was right?'
'I don't know. Yes—I suppose it was.' His lower lip fell. 'Of course I don't want you to do anything that you—'
'Dinner, please,' said my negro, putting his head between us.
We both informed the man that we should not dine, and I asked him to tell Yvonne not to wait for me.
'There's your maid, too,' said Frank. 'How are we going to get out of it? The thing's settled for us.'
'My dear, dear boy!' I exclaimed. 'Are we to outrage our consciences simply because people think we have outraged them?'
'It isn't my conscience—it's yours,' he said.
I drew down my veil; I could scarcely keep dry eyes.
'Why are you so hard, Carlotta?' he cried. 'I can't understand you. I never could. But you'll kill me—that's what you'll do.'
Impulsively I leaned forward; and he seized my hand. Our antagonism melted in tears. Oh the cruel joy of that moment! Who will dare to say that the spirit cannot burn with pleasure while drowning in grief? Or that tragedy may not be the highest bliss? That instant of renunciation was our true marriage. I realize it now—a union that nothing can soil nor impair.
'I love you; you are fast and fast in my heart,' I murmured. 'But you must go back to Mary. There is nothing else.'
And I withdrew my hand.
He shook his head.
'You've no right, my dearest, to tell me to go back to Mary. I cannot.'
'Forgive me,' I said. 'I have only the right to ask you to leave me.'
'Then there is no hope?'
His lips trembled. Ah! those lips!
I made a sign that there was no hope. And we sat in silence, overcome.
A servant came to arrange the compartment for sleeping, and we were obliged to assume nonchalance and go into the corridor. All the windows of the corridor were covered with frost traceries. The train with its enclosed heat and its gleaming lamps was plunging through an ice-gripped night. I thought of the engine-driver, perched on his shaking, snorting, monstrous machine, facing the weather, with our lives and our loves in his hand.
'We'll leave each other now, Frank,' I said, 'before the people begin to come back from dinner. Go and eat something.'
'I shall be all right. Yvonne will get me some fruit. I shall stay in our compartment till we arrive.'
'Yes. And when we do arrive—what then? What are your wishes? You see, I can't leave the train before we get to Mentone because of my registered luggage.'
He spoke appealingly.
The dear thing, with his transparent pretexts!
'You can ignore us at the station, and then leave Mentone again during the day.'
'As you wish,' he said.
'Good-night!' I whispered. 'Good-bye!' And I turned to my compartment.
'Carlotta!' he cried despairingly.
But I shut the door and drew the blinds.
Yvonne was discretion itself when she returned. She had surely seen Frank. No doubt she anticipated piquant developments at Mentone.
All night I lay on my narrow bed, with Yvonne faintly snoring above me, and the harsh, metallic rattle of the swinging train beneath. I could catch the faint ticking of my watch under the thin pillow. The lamp burnt delicately within its green shade. I lay almost moveless, almost dead, shifting only at long intervals from side to side. Sometimes my brain would arouse itself, and I would live again through each scene of my relationship with Frank and Mary. I often thought of the engine-driver, outside, watching over us and unflinchingly dragging us on. I hoped that his existence had compensations.
Early on the second morning after that interview in the train I sat on my balcony in the Hotel d'Ecosse, full in the tremendous sun that had ascended over the Mediterranean. The shore road wound along beneath me by the blue water that never receded nor advanced, lopping always the same stones. A vivid yellow electric tram, like a toy, crept forward on my left from the direction of Vintimille and Italy, as it were swimming noiselessly on the smooth surface of the road among the palms of an intense green, against the bright blue background of the sea; and another tram advanced, a spot of orange, to meet it out of the variegated tangle of tinted houses composing the Old Town. High upon the summit of the Old Town rose the slim, rose-coloured cupola of the church in a sapphire sky. The regular smiting sound of a cracked bell, viciously rung, came from it. The eastern prospect was shut in by the last olive-clad spurs of the Alps, that tread violently and gigantically into the sea. The pathways of the hotel garden were being gently swept by a child of the sun, who could not have sacrificed his graceful dignity to haste; and many peaceful morning activities proceeded on the road, on the shore, and on the jetty. A procession of tawny fishing-boats passed from the harbour one after another straight into the eye of the sun, and were lost there. Smoke climbed up softly into the soft air from the houses and hotels on the level of the road. The trams met and parted, silently widening the distance between them which previously they had narrowed. And the sun rose and rose, bathing the blue sea and the rich verdure and the glaring white architecture in the very fluid of essential life. The whole azure coast basked in it like an immense cat, commencing the day with a voluptuous savouring of the fact that it was alive. The sun is the treacherous and tyrannical god of the South, and when he withdraws himself, arbitrary and cruel, the land and the people shiver and prepare to die.
It was such a morning as renders sharp and unmistakable the division between body and soul—if the soul suffers. The body exults; the body cries out that nothing on earth matters except climate. Nothing can damp the glorious ecstasy of the body baptized in that air, caressed by that incomparable sun. It laughs, and it laughs at the sorrow of the soul. It imperiously bids the soul to choose the path of pleasure; it shouts aloud that sacrifice is vain and honour an empty word, full of inconveniences, and that to exist amply and vehemently, to listen to the blood as it beats strongly through the veins, is the end of the eternal purpose. Ah! how easy it is to martyrize one's self by some fatal decision made grandly in the exultation of a supreme moment! And how difficult to endure the martyrdom without regret! I regretted my renunciation. My body rebelled against it, and even my soul rebelled. I scorned myself for a fool, for a sentimental weakling—yes, and for a moral coward. Every argument that presented itself damaged the justice of my decision. After all, we loved, and in my secret dreams had I not always put love first, as the most sacred? The reality was that I had been afraid of what Mary would think. True, my attitude had lied to her, but I could not have avoided that. Decency would have forbidden me to use any other attitude; and more than decency—kindness. Ought the course of lives to be changed at the bidding of mere hazard? It was a mere chance that Mary had called on me. I bled for her grief, but nothing that I could do would assuage it. I felt sure that, in the impossible case of me being able to state my position to her and argue in its defence, I could force her to see that in giving myself to Frank I was not being false to my own ideals. What else could count? What other consideration should guide the soul on its mysterious instinctive way? Frank and I had a right to possess each other. We had a right to be happy if we could. And the one thing that had robbed us of that right was my lack of courage, caused partly by my feminine mentality (do we not realize sometimes how ignobly feminine we are?), and partly by the painful spectacle of Mary's grief.... And her grief, her most intimate grief, sprang not from thwarted love, but from a base and narrow conventionality.
Thus I declaimed to myself in my heart, under the influence of the seductive temptations of that intoxicating atmosphere.
'Come down,' said a voice firmly and quietly underneath me in the orange-trees of the garden.
I started violently. It was Frank's voice. He was standing in the garden, his legs apart, and a broad, flat straw hat, which I did not admire, on his head. His pale face was puckered round about the eyes as he looked up at me, like the face of a person trying to look directly at the sun.
'Why,' I exclaimed foolishly, glancing down over the edge of the balcony, and shutting my white parasol with a nervous, hurried movement, 'have—have you come here?'
He had disobeyed my wish. He had not left Mentone at once.
'Come down,' he repeated persuasively, and yet commandingly.
I could feel my heart beating against the marble parapet of the balcony. I seemed to be caught, to be trapped. I could not argue with him in that position. I could not leave him shouting in the garden. So I nodded to pacify him, and disappeared quickly from the balcony, almost scurrying away. And in the comparative twilight of my room I stopped and gave a glance in the mirror, and patted my hair, and fearfully examined the woman that I saw in the glass, as if to discern what sort of woman she truly was, and what was the root of her character. I hesitated and snatched up my gloves. I wanted to collect my thoughts, and I could not. It was impossible to think clearly. I moved in the room, dazed. I stood by the tumbled bed, fingering the mosquito curtains. They might have been a veil behind which was obscured the magic word of enlightenment I needed. I opened the door, shut it suddenly, and held the knob tight, defying an imagined enemy outside. 'Oh!' I muttered at last, angry with myself, 'what is the use of all this? You know you must go down to him. He's waiting for you. Show a little common-sense and go without so much fuss.' And so I descended the stairs swiftly and guiltily, relieved that no one happened to see me. In any case, I decided, nothing could induce me to yield to him after my letter and after what had passed in the train. The affair was beyond argument. I felt that I could not yield, and that though it meant the ruin of happiness by obstinacy, I could not yield. I shrank from yielding in that moment as men shrink from public repentance.
He had not moved from his post in the garden. We shook hands. A band of Italian musicians wandered into the garden and began to sing Verdi to a vigorous thrumming of guitars. They sang as only Italians can sing—as naturally as they breathed, and with a rich and overflowing innocent joy in the art which Nature had taught them. They sang loudly, swingingly, glancing full of naive hope up at the windows of the vast, unresponsive hotel.
'So you are still in Mentone,' I ventured.
'Yes,' he said. 'Come for a walk.'
'Come for a walk.'
'Very well,' I consented. 'As I am?'
'As you are. I saw you all in white on the balcony, and I was determined to fetch you out.'
'But could you see who it was from the road?'
'Of course I could. I knew in an instant.'
We descended, he a couple of paces in front of me, the narrow zigzag path leading down between two other hotels to the shore road.
'What will happen now?' I asked myself wildly. My head swam.
It seemed that nothing would happen. We turned eastwards, walking slowly, and I began to resume my self-control. Only the simple and the humble were abroad at that early hour: purveyors of food, in cheerfully rattling carts, or hauling barrows with the help of grave and formidable dogs; washers and cleaners at the doors of highly-decorated villas, amiably performing their tasks while the mighty slept; fishermen and fat fisher-girls, industriously repairing endless brown nets on the other side of the parapet of the road; a postman and a little policeman; a porcelain mender, who practised his trade under the shadow of the wall; a few loafers; some stable-boys exercising horses; and children with adorable dirty faces, shouting in their high treble as they played at hopscotch. I felt very closely akin to these meek ones as we walked along. They were so human, so wistful. They had the wonderful simplicity of animals, uncomplicated by the disease of self-consciousness; they were the vital stuff without the embroidery. They preserved the customs of their ancestors, rising with the sun, frankly and splendidly enjoying the sun, looking up to it as the most important thing in the world. They never attempted to understand what was beyond them; they troubled not with progress, ideals, righteousness, the claims of society. They accepted humbly and uninquiringly what they found. They lived the life of their instincts, sometimes violent, often kindly, and always natural. Why should I have felt so near to them?
A calm and gentle pleasure filled me, far from intense, but yet satisfying. I determined to enjoy the moment, or, perhaps, without determination, I gave myself up, gradually, to the moment. I forgot care and sorrow. I was well; I was with Frank; I was in the midst of enchanting natural beauty; the day was fair and fresh and virgin. I knew not where I was going. Shorewards a snowy mountain ridge rose above the long, wide slopes of olives, dotted with white dwellings. A single sail stood up seawards on the immense sheet of blue. The white sail appeared and disappeared in the green palm-trees as we passed eastwards. Presently we left the sea, and we lost the hills, and came into a street of poor little shops for simple folk, that naively exposed their cheap and tawdry goods to no matter what mightiness should saunter that way. And then we came to the end of the tram-line, and it was like the end of the world. And we saw in the distance abodes of famous persons, fabulously rich, defying the sea and the hills, and condescending from afar off to the humble. We crossed the railway, and a woman ran out from a cabin with a spoon in one hand and a soiled flag in the other, and waved the flag at a towering black engine that breathed stertorously in a cutting. Already we were climbing, and the road grew steeper, and then we came to custom-houses—unsightly, squalid, irregular, and mean—in front of which officials laughed and lounged and smoked.
We talked scarcely at all.
'You were up early this morning,' he said.
'Yes; I could not sleep.'
'It was the same with me.'
We recovered the sea; but now it was far below us, and the footprints of the wind were marked on it, and it was not one blue, but a thousand blues, and it faded imperceptibly into the sky. The sail, making Mentone, was much nearer, and had developed into a two-masted ship. It seemed to be pushed, rather than blown, along by the wind. It seemed to have rigidity in all its parts, and to be sliding unwillingly over a vast slate. The road lay through craggy rocks, shelving away unseen on one hand, and rising steeply against the burning sky on the other. We mounted steadily and slowly. I did not look much at Frank, but my eye was conscious of his figure, striding leisurely along. Now and then, when I turned to glance behind, I saw our shadows there diagonally on the road, and again I did not care for his hat. I had not seen him in a straw hat till that morning. We arrived at a second set of French custom-houses, deserted, and then we saw that the gigantic side of the mountain was cleft by a fissure from base to summit. And across the gorge had been thrown a tiny stone bridge to carry the road. At this point, by the bridge, the face of the rock had been carved smooth, and a great black triangle painted on it. And on the road was a common milestone, with 'France' on one side and 'Italia' on the other. And a very old man was harmlessly spreading a stock of picture postcards on the parapet of the bridge. My heart went out to that poor old man, whose white curls glinted in the sunlight. It seemed to me so pathetic that he should be just there, at that natural spot which the passions and the blood of men long dead had made artificial, tediously selling postcards in order to keep his worn and creaking body out of the grave.
'Do give him something,' I entreated Frank.
And while Frank went to him I leaned over the other parapet and listened for the delicate murmur of the stream far below. The split flank of the hill was covered with a large red blossom, and at the base, on the edge of the sea, were dolls' houses, each raising a slanted pencil of pale smoke.
Then we were in Italy, and still climbing. We saw a row of narrow, slattern cottages, their backs over the sea, and in front of them marched to and fro a magnificent soldier laced in gold, with chinking spurs and a rifle. Suddenly there ran out of a cottage two little girls, aged about four years and eight years, dirty, unkempt, delicious, shrill, their movements full of the ravishing grace of infancy. They attacked the laced soldier, chattering furiously, grumbling at him, intimidating him with the charming gestures of spoilt and pouting children. And he bent down stiffly in his superb uniform, and managed his long, heavy gun, and talked to them in a deep, vibrating voice. He reasoned with them till we could hear him no more. It was so touching, so exquisitely human!
We reached the top of the hill, having passed the Italian customs, equally vile with the French. The terraced grounds of an immense deserted castle came down to the roadside; and over the wall, escaped from the garden, there bloomed extravagantly a tangle of luscious yellow roses, just out of our reach. The road was still and deserted. We could see nothing but the road and the sea and the hills, all steeped, bewitched, and glorious under the sun. The ship had nearly slid to Mentone. The curving coastline of Italy wavered away into the shimmering horizon. And there were those huge roses, insolently blooming in the middle of winter, the symbol of the terrific forces of nature which slept quiescent under the universal calm. Perched as it were in a niche of the hills, we were part of that tremendous and ennobling scene. Long since the awkward self-consciousness caused by our plight had left us. We did not use speech, but we knew that we thought alike, and were suffering the same transcendent emotion. Was it joy or sadness? Rather than either, it was an admixture of both, originating in a poignant sense of the grandeur of life and of the earth.
'Oh, Frank,' I murmured, my spirit bursting, 'how beautiful it is!'
Our eyes met. He took me and kissed me impetuously, as though my utterance had broken a spell which enchained him. And as I kissed him I wept, blissfully. Nature had triumphed.
We departed from Mentone that same day after lunch. I could not remove to his hotel; he could not remove to mine, for this was Mentone. We went to Monte Carlo by road, our luggage following. We chose Monte Carlo partly because it was the nearest place, and partly because it has some of the qualities—incurious, tolerant, unprovincial—of a capital city. If we encountered friends there, so much the better, in the end. The great adventure, the solemn and perilous enterprise had begun. I sent Yvonne for a holiday to her home in Laroche. Why? Ah, why? Perhaps for the simple reason that I had not the full courage of my convictions. We seldom have—nous autres. I felt that, if she had remained, Yvonne would have been too near me in the enterprise. I could not at first have been my natural self with her. I told the astonished and dissatisfied Yvonne that I would write to her as soon as I wanted her. Yet in other ways I had courage, and I found a delicious pleasure in my courage. When I was finally leaving the hotel I had Frank by my side. I behaved to him as to a husband. I publicly called him 'dear.' I asked his advice in trifles. He paid my bill. He even provided the money necessary for Yvonne. My joy in the possession of this male creature, whose part it now was to do for me a thousand things that hitherto I had been forced to do for myself, was almost naive. I could not hide it. I was at last a man's woman. I had a protector. Yes; I must not shrink from the equivocal significance of that word—I had a protector.
Frank was able to get three rooms at the Hotel de Paris at Monte Carlo. I had only to approve them. We met in our sitting-room at half-past three, ready to go out for a walk. It would be inexact to say that we were not nervous. But we were happy. He had not abandoned his straw hat.
'Don't wear that any more,' I said to him, smiling.
'But why? It's quite new.'
'It doesn't suit you,' I said.
'Oh, that doesn't matter,' he laughed, and he put it on.
'But I don't like to see you in it,' I persisted.
'Well, you'll stand it this afternoon, my angel, and I'll get another to-morrow.'
'Haven't you got another one here?' I asked, with discontent.
'No,' and he laughed again.
'But, dear—' I pouted.
He seemed suddenly to realize that as a fact I did not like the hat.
'Come here,' he said, charmingly grave; and he led me by the hand into his bedroom, which was littered with clothes, small parcels, boots, and brushes. One chair was overturned.
'Heavens!' I muttered, pretending to be shocked at the disorder.
He drew, me to a leather box of medium size.
'You can open it,' he said.
I opened it. The thing was rather a good contrivance, for a man. It held a silk hat, an opera hat, a bowler hat, some caps, and a soft Panama straw.
'And you said you had no others!' I grumbled at him.
'Well, which is it to be?' he demanded.
'This, of course,' I said, taking the bowler. I reached up, removed the straw hat from his head, and put the bowler in its place. 'There!' I exclaimed, satisfied, giving the bowler a pat—there!'
He laughed, immensely content, enraptured, foolishly blissful. We were indeed happy. Before opening the door leading to the corridor we stopped and kissed.
On the seaward terrace of the vast, pale, floriated Casino, so impressive in its glittering vulgarity, like the bride-cake of a stockbroker's wedding, we strolled about among a multifarious crowd, immersed in ourselves. We shared a contempt for the architecture, the glaring flower-beds, and the false distinction of the crowd, and an enthusiasm for the sunshine and the hills and the sea, and whatever else had escaped the hands of the Casino administration. We talked lightly and freely. Care seemed to be leaving us; we had no preoccupations save those which were connected with our passion. Then I saw, standing in an attitude of attention, the famous body-servant of Lord Francis Alcar, and I knew that Lord Francis could not be far away. We spoke to the valet; he pointed out his master, seated at the front of the terrace, and told us, in a discreet, pained, respectful voice, that our venerable friend had been mysteriously unwell at Monte Carlo, and was now taking the air for the first time in ten days. I determined that we should go boldly and speak to him.
'Lord Francis,' I said gently, after we had stood some seconds by his chair, unremarked.
He was staring fixedly at the distance of the sea. He looked amazingly older than when I had last talked with him. His figure was shrunken, and his face rose thin and white out of a heavy fur overcoat and a large blue muffler. In his eyes there was such a sadness, such an infinite regret, such a profound weariness as can only be seen in the eyes of the senile. He was utterly changed.
'Lord Francis,' I repeated, 'don't you know me?'
He started slightly and looked at me, and a faint gleam appeared in his eyes. Then he nodded, and took a thin, fragile alabaster hand out of the pocket of his overcoat. I shook it. It was like shaking hands with a dead, starved child. He carefully moved the skin and bone back into his pocket.
'Are you pretty well?' I said.
He nodded. Then the faint gleam faded out of his eyes; his head fell a little, and he resumed his tragic contemplation of the sea. The fact of my presence had dropped like a pebble into the strange depths of that aged mind, and the waters of the ferocious egotism of senility had closed over it, and it was forgotten. His rapt and yet meaningless gaze frightened me. It was as if there was more desolation and disillusion in that gaze than I had previously imagined the whole earth to contain. Useless for Frank to rouse him for the second time. Useless to explain ourselves. What was love to him, or the trivial conventions of a world which he was already quitting?
We walked away. From the edge of the terrace I could see a number of boats pulling to and fro in the water.
'It's the pigeon-shooting,' Frank explained. 'Come to the railings and you'll be able to see.'
I had already heard the sharp popping of rifles. I went to the railings, and saw a number of boxes arranged in a semicircle on a green, which was, as it were, suspended between the height of the terrace and the sea. Suddenly one of the boxes collapsed with a rattle, and a bird flew out of the ruin of it. There were two reports of a gun; the bird, its curving flight cut short, fell fluttering to the grass; a dog trotted out from the direction of the gun unseen beneath us, and disappeared again with the mass of ruffled feathers in its mouth. Then two men showed themselves, ran to the collapsed box, restored it, and put in it a fresh victim, and disappeared after the dog. I was horrified, but I could not remove my eyes from the green. Another box fell flat, and another bird flew out; a gun sounded; the bird soared far away, wavered, and sank on to the surface of the sea, and the boats converged towards it in furious haste. So the game proceeded. I saw a dozen deaths on the green; a few birds fell into the sea, and one escaped, settling ultimately on the roof of the Casino.
'So that is pigeon-shooting,' I said coldly, turning to Frank. 'I suppose it goes on all day?'
'It's just as cruel as plenty of other sports, and no more,' he said, as if apologizing for the entire male sex.
'I presume so,' I answered. 'But do you know, dear, if the idea once gets into my head that that is going on all day, I shan't be able to stop here. Let us have tea somewhere.'
Not until dinner did I recover from the obsession of that continual slaughter and destruction of beautiful life. It seemed to me that the Casino and its gorgeous gardens were veritably established on the mysterious arched hollow, within the high cliff, from which death shot out all day and every day. But I did recover perfectly. Only now do I completely perceive how violent, how capricious and contradictory were my emotions in those unique and unforgettable hours.
We dined late, because I had deprived myself of Yvonne. Already I was almost in a mind to send for her. The restaurant of the hotel was full, but we recognised no one as we walked through the room to our table.
'There is one advantage in travelling about with you,' said Frank.
'What is it?' I asked.
'No matter where one is, one can always be sure of being with the most beautiful woman in the place.'
I was content. I repaid him by being more than ever a man's woman. I knew that I was made for that. I understood why great sopranos have of their own accord given up even the stage on marriage. The career of literature seemed to me tedious and sordid in comparison with that of being a man's woman. In my rich black dress and my rings and bracelets I felt like an Eastern Empress; I felt that I could adequately reward homage with smiles, and love with fervid love. And I felt like a cat—idle, indolently graceful, voluptuously seeking warmth and caresses. I enveloped Frank with soft glances, I dazed him with glances. He ordered a wine which he said was fit for gods, and the waiter brought it reverently and filled our glasses, with a ritual of precautions. Later during the dinner Frank asked me if I would prefer champagne. I said, 'No, of course not.' But he said, 'I think you would,' and ordered some. 'Admit,' he said, 'that you prefer champagne.' 'Well, of course,' I replied. But I drank very little champagne, lest I should be too happy. Frank's wonderful face grew delicately flushed. The room resounded with discreet chatter, and the tinkle of glass and silver and porcelain. The upper part of it remained in shadow, but every table was a centre of rosy light, illuminating faces and jewels and napery. And in my sweet illusion I thought that every face had found the secret of joy, and that even the old had preserved it. Pleasure reigned. Pleasure was the sole goddess. And how satisfying then was the worship of her! Life had no inconveniences, no dark spots, no pitfalls. The gratification of the senses, the appeasing of appetites that instantly renewed themselves—this was the business of the soul. And as the wine sank lower in the bottles, and we cooled our tongues with ices, and the room began to empty, expectation gleamed and glittered in our eyes. At last, except a group of men smoking and talking in a corner, we were the only diners left.
'Shall we go?' Frank said, putting a veil of cigarette smoke between us.
I trembled. I was once more the young and timid girl. I could not speak. I nodded.
In the hall was Vicary, talking to the head-porter. He saw us and started.
'What! Vicary!' I murmured, suddenly cooled.
'I want to speak to you,' said Vicary. 'Where can we go?'
'This way,' Frank replied.
We went to our sitting-room, silent and apprehensive.
'Sit down,' said Vicary, shutting the door and standing against it.
He was wearing a tourist suit, with a gray overcoat, and his grizzled hair was tumbling over his hard, white face.
'What's the matter?' Frank asked. 'Anything wrong?'
'Look here, you two,' said Vicary, 'I don't want to discuss your position, and I'm the last person in this world to cast the first stone; but it falls to me to do it. I was coming down to Nice to stay with my sisters, and I've come a little further. My sisters wired me they had seen you. I've been to Mentone, and driven here from there. I hoped I should get here earlier than the newspapers, and I have done, it seems.'
'Earlier than the newspapers?' Frank repeated, standing up.
'Try to keep calm,' Vicary continued. 'Your wife's body was found in the Thames at seven o'clock last night. The doctors say it had been in the water for forty-eight hours. Your servants thought she had gone to you. But doubtless some thoughtful person had told her that you two were wandering about Europe together.'
'My wife' cried Frank.
And the strange and terrible emphasis he put on the word 'wife' proved to me in the fraction of a second that in his heart I was not his wife. A fearful tragedy had swept away the structure of argument in favour of the rights of love which he had built over the original conventionality of his mind. Poor fellow!
He fell back into his chair and covered his eyes.
'I thank God my mother didn't live to see this!' he cried.
And then he rushed to his bedroom and banged the door.
'My poor girl!' said Vicary, approaching me. 'What can I—I'm awfully—'
I waved him away.
'What's that?' he exclaimed, in a different voice, listening.
I ran to the bedroom, and saw Frank lifting a revolver.
'You've brought me to this, Carlotta!' he shouted.
I sprang towards him, but it was too late.
When I came out of the house, hurried and angrily flushing, I perceived clearly that my reluctance to break a habit and my desire for physical comfort, if not my attachment to the girl, had led me too far. I was conscious of humiliation. I despised myself. The fact was that I had quarrelled with Yvonne—Yvonne, who had been with me for eight years, Yvonne who had remained sturdily faithful during my long exile. Now the woman who quarrels with a maid is clumsy, and the woman who quarrels with a good maid is either a fool or in a nervous, hysterical condition, or both. Possibly I was both. I had permitted Yvonne too much liberty. I had spoilt her. She was fidelity itself, goodness itself; but her character had not borne the strain of realizing that she had acquired power over me, and that she had become necessary to me. So that morning we had differed violently; we had quarrelled as equals. The worst side of her had appeared suddenly, shockingly. And she had left me, demonstrating even as she banged the door that she was at least my mistress in altercation. All day I fought against the temptation to eat my pride, and ask her to return. It was a horrible, a deplorable, temptation. And towards evening, after seven hours of solitude in the hotel in the Avenue de Kleber, I yielded to it. I knew the address to which she had gone, and I took a cab and drove there, hating myself. I was received with excessive rudeness by a dirty and hag-like concierge, who, after refusing all information for some minutes, informed me at length that the young lady in question had quitted Paris in company with a gentleman.
The insolence of the concierge, my weakness and my failure, the bitter sense of lost dignity, the fact that Yvonne had not hesitated even a few hours before finally abandoning me—all these things wounded me. But the sharpest stab of all was that during our stay in Paris Yvonne must have had secret relations with a man. I had hidden nothing from her; she, however, had not reciprocated my candour. I had imagined that she lived only for me....
Well, the truth cannot be concealed that the years of wandering which had succeeded the fatal night at Monte Carlo had done little to improve me. What would you have? For months and months my ears rang with Frank's despairing shout: 'You've brought me to this, Carlotta!' And the profound injustice of that cry tainted even the sad sweetness of my immense sorrow. To this day, whenever I hear it, as I do still, my inmost soul protests, and all the excuses which my love found for him seem inadequate and unconvincing. I was a broken creature. (How few know what it means to be broken—to sink under a tremendous and overwhelming calamity! And yet who but they can understandingly sympathize with the afflicted?) As for my friends, I did not give them the occasion to desert me; I deserted them. For the second time in my career I tore myself up by the roots. I lived the nomad's life, in the usual European haunts of the nomad. And in five years I did not make a single new friend, scarcely an acquaintance. I lived in myself and on myself, nursing grief, nursing a rancour against fate, nursing an involuntary shame.... You know, the scandal of which I had been the centre was appalling; it touched the extreme. It must have nearly killed the excellent Mrs. Sardis. I did not dare to produce another novel. But after a year or so I turned to poetry, and I must admit that my poetry was accepted. But it was not enough to prevent me from withering—from shrivelling. I lost ground, and I was still losing it. I was becoming sinister, warped, peculiar, capricious, unaccountable. I guessed it then; I see it clearly now.
The house of the odious concierge was in a small, shabby street off the Boulevard du Montparnasse. I looked in vain for a cab. Even on the wide, straight, gas-lit boulevard there was not a cab, and I wondered why I had been so foolish as to dismiss the one in which I had arrived. The great, glittering electric cars floated horizontally along in swift succession, but they meant nothing to me; I knew not whence they came nor whither they went. I doubt if I had ever been in a tram-car. Without a cab I was as helpless and as timid as a young girl, I who was thirty-one, and had travelled and lived and suffered! Never had I been alone in the streets of a large city at night. And the September night was sultry and forbidding. I was afraid—I was afraid of the men who passed me, staring at me. One man spoke to me, and I literally shook with fear as I hastened on. What would I have given to have had the once faithful Yvonne by my side! Presently I came to the crossing of the Boulevard Raspail, and this boulevard, equally long, uncharitable, and mournful with the other, endless, stretching to infinity, filled me with horror. Yes, with the horror of solitude in a vast city. Oh, you solitary, you who have felt that horror descending upon you, desolating, clutching, and chilling the heart, you will comprehend me!
At the corner, of the two boulevards was a glowing cafe, the Cafe du Dome, with a row of chairs and little tables in front of its windows. And at one of these little tables sat a man, gazing absently at a green glass in a white saucer. I had almost gone past him when some instinct prompted me to the bravery of looking at him again. He was a stoutish man, apparently aged about forty-five, very fair, with a puffed face and melancholy eyes. And then it was as though someone had shot me in the breast. It was as if I must fall down and die—as if the sensations which I experienced were too acute—too elemental for me to support. I have never borne a child, but I imagine that the woman who becomes a mother may feel as I felt then, staggered at hitherto unsuspected possibilities of sensation. I stopped. I clung to the nearest table. There was ice on my shuddering spine, and a dew on my forehead.
'Magda!' breathed the man.
He had raised his eyes to mine.
It was Diaz, after ten years.
At first I had not recognised him. Instead of ten, he seemed twenty years older. I searched in his features for the man I had known, as the returned traveller searches the scene of his childhood for remembered landmarks. Yes, it was Diaz, though time had laid a heavy hand on him. The magic of his eyes was not effaced, and when he smiled youth reappeared.
'It is I,' I murmured.
He got up, and in doing so shook the table, and his glass was overturned, and scattered itself in fragments on the asphalte. At the noise a waiter ran out of the cafe, and Diaz, blushing and obviously making a great effort at self-control, gave him an order.
'I should have known you anywhere,' said Diaz to me, taking my hand, as the waiter went.
The ineptitude of the speech was such that I felt keenly sorry for him. I was not in the least hurt. My sympathy enveloped him. The position was so difficult, and he had seemed so pathetic, sitting there alone on the pavement of the vast nocturnal boulevard, so weighed down by sadness, that I wanted to comfort him and soothe him, and to restore him to all the brilliancy of his first period. It appeared to me unjust and cruel that the wheels of life should have crushed him too. And so I said, smiling as well as I could:
'And I you.'
'Won't you sit down here?' he suggested, avoiding my eyes.
And thus I found myself seated outside a cafe, at night, conspicuous for all Montparnasse to see. We never know what may lie in store for us at the next turning of existence.
'Then I am not much changed, you think?' he ventured, in an anxious tone.
'No,' I lied. 'You are perhaps a little stouter. That's all.'
How hard it was to talk! How lamentably self-conscious we were! How unequal to the situation! We did not know what to say.
'You are far more beautiful than ever you were,' he said, looking at me for an instant. 'You are a woman; you were a girl—then.'
The waiter brought another glass and saucer, and a second waiter followed him with a bottle, from which he poured a greenish-yellow liquid into the glass.
'What will you have?' Diaz asked me.
'Nothing, thank you,' I said quickly.
To sit outside the cafe was already much. It would have been impossible for me to drink there.
'Ah! as you please, as you please,' Diaz snapped. 'I beg your pardon.'
'Poor fellow!' I reflected. 'He must be suffering from nervous irritability.' And aloud, 'I'm not thirsty, thank you,' as nicely as possible.
He smiled beautifully; the irritability had passed.
'It's awfully kind of you to sit down here with me,' he said, in a lower voice. 'I suppose you've heard about me?'
He drank half the contents of the glass.
'I read in the papers some years ago that you were suffering from neurasthenia and nervous breakdown,' I replied. 'I was very sorry.'
'Yes,' he said; 'nervous breakdown—nervous breakdown.'
'You haven't been playing lately, have you?'
'It is more than two years since I played. And if you had heard me that time! My God!'
'But surely you have tried some cure?'
'Cure!' he repeated after me. 'There's no cure. Here I am! Me!'
His glass was empty. He tapped on the window behind us, and the procession of waiters occurred again, and Diaz received a third glass, which now stood on three saucers.
'You'll excuse me,' he said, sipping slowly. 'I'm not very well to-night. And you've—Why did you run away from me? I wanted to find you, but I couldn't.'
'Please do not let us talk about that,' I stopped him. 'I—I must go.'
'Oh, of course, if I've offended you—'
'No,' I said; 'I'm not at all offended. But I think—'
'Then, if you aren't offended, stop a little, and let me see you home. You're sure you won't have anything?'
I shook my head, wishing that he would not drink so much. I thought it could not be good for his nerves.
'Been in Paris long?' he asked me, with a slightly confused utterance. 'Staying in this quarter? Many English and Americans here.'
Then, in setting down the glass, he upset it, and it smashed on the pavement like the first one.
'Damn!' he exclaimed, staring forlornly at the broken glass, as if in the presence of some irreparable misfortune. And before I could put in a word, he turned to me with a silly smile, and approaching his face to mine till his hat touched the brim of my hat, he said thickly: 'After all, you know, I'm the greatish pianist in the world.'
The truth struck me like a blow. In my amazing ignorance of certain aspects of life I had not suspected it. Diaz was drunk. The ignominy of it! The tragedy of it! He was drunk. He had fallen to the beast. I drew back from that hot, reeking face.
'You don't think I am?' he muttered. 'You think young What's-his-name can play Ch—Chopin better than me? Is that it?'
I wanted to run away, to cease to exist, to hide with my shame in some deep abyss. And there I was on the boulevard, next to this animal, sharing his table and the degradation! And I could not move. There are people so gifted that in a dilemma they always know exactly the wisest course to adopt. But I did not know. This part of my story gives me infinite pain to write, and yet I must write it, though I cannot persuade myself to write it in full; the details would be too repulsive. Nevertheless, forget not that I lived it.
He put his face to mine again, and began to stammer something, and I drew away.
'You are ashamed of me, madam,' he said sharply.
'I think you are not quite yourself—not quite well,' I replied.
'You mean I am drunk.'
'I mean what I say. You are not quite well. Please do not twist my words.'
'You mean I am drunk,' he insisted, raising his voice. 'I am not drunk; I have never been drunk. That I can swear with my hand on my heart. But you are ashamed of being seen with me.'
'I think you ought to go home,' I suggested.
'That is only to get rid of me!' he cried.
'No, no,' I appealed to him persuasively. 'Do not wound me. I will go with you as far as your house, if you like. You are too ill to be alone.'
At that moment an empty open cab strolled by, and, without pausing for his answer, I signalled the driver. My heart beat wildly. My spirit was in an uproar. But I was determined not to desert him, not to abandon him to a public disgrace. I rose from my seat.
'You're very good,' he said, in a new voice.
The cab had stopped.
'Come!' I entreated him.
He rapped uncertainly on the window, and then, as the waiter did not immediately appear, he threw some silver on the table, and aimed himself in the direction of the cab. I got in. Diaz slipped on the step.
'I've forgotten somethin',' he complained. 'What is it? My umbrella—yes, my umbrella—pepin as they say here. 'Scuse me moment.'
His umbrella was, in fact, lying under a chair. He stooped with difficulty and regained it, and then the waiter, who had at length arrived, helped him into the cab, and he sank like a mass of inert clay on my skirts.
'Tell the driver the address,' I whispered.
The driver, with head turned and a grin on his face, was waiting.
'Rue de Douai,' said Diaz sullenly.
'What number?' the driver asked.
'Does that regard you?' Diaz retorted crossly in French. 'I will tell you later.'
'Tell him now,' I pleaded.
'Well, to oblige you, I will. Twenty-seven. But what I can't stand is the impudence of these fellows.'
The driver winked at me.
'Just so,' I soothed Diaz, and we drove off.
I have never been happier than in unhappiness. Happiness is not joy, and it is not tranquillity. It is something deeper and something more disturbing. Perhaps it is an acute sense of life, a realization of one's secret being, a continual renewal of the mysterious savour of existence. As I crossed Paris with the drunken Diaz leaning clumsily against my shoulder, I was profoundly unhappy. I was desolated by the sight of this ruin, and yet I was happier than I had been since Frank died. I had glimpses and intimations of the baffling essence of our human lives here, strange, fleeting comprehensions of the eternal wonder and the eternal beauty.... In vain, professional writer as I am, do I try to express myself. What I want to say cannot be said; but those who have truly lived will understand.
We passed over the Seine, lighted and asleep in the exquisite Parisian night, and the rattling of the cab on the cobble-stones roused Diaz from his stupor.
'Where are we?' he asked.
'Just going through the Louvre,' I replied.
'I don't know how I got to the other s-side of the river,' he said. 'Don't remember. So you're coming home with me, eh? You aren't 'shamed of me?'
'You are hurting me,' I said coldly, 'with your elbow.'
'Oh, a thousand pardons! a thous' parnds, Magda! That isn't your real name, is it?'
He sat upright and turned his face to glance at mine with a fatuous smile; but I would not look at him. I kept my eyes straight in front. Then a swerve of the carriage swung his body away from me, and he subsided into the corner. The intoxication was gaining on him every minute.
'What shall I do with him?' I thought.
I blushed as we drove up the Avenue de l'Opera and across the Grand Boulevard, for it seemed to me that all the gay loungers must observe Diaz' condition. We followed darker thoroughfares, and at last the cab, after climbing a hill, stopped before a house in a street that appeared rather untidy and irregular. I got out first, and Diaz stumbled after me, while two women on the opposite side of the road stayed curiously to watch us. Hastily I opened my purse and gave the driver a five-franc-piece, and he departed before Diaz could decide what to say. I had told him to go.
I did not wish to tell the driver to go. I told him in spite of myself.
Diaz, grumbling inarticulately, pulled the bell of the great door of the house. But he had to ring several times before finally the door opened; and each second was a year for me, waiting there with him in the street. And when the door opened he was leaning against it, and so pitched forward into the gloom of the archway. A laugh—the loud, unrestrained laugh of the courtesan—came from across the street.
The archway was as black as night.
'Shut the door, will you?' I heard Diaz' voice. 'I can't see it. Where are you?'
But I was not going to shut the door.
'Have you got a servant here?' I asked him.
'She comes in the mornings,' he replied.
'Then there is no one in your flat?'
'Not a shoul,' said Diaz. 'Needn't be 'fraid.'
I'm not afraid,' I said. 'But I wanted to know. Which floor is it?'
'Third. I'll light a match.'
Then I pushed to the door, whose automatic latch clicked. We were fast in the courtyard.
Diaz dropped his matches in attempting to strike one. The metal box bounced on the tiles. I bent down and groped with both hands till I found it. And presently we began painfully to ascend the staircase, Diaz holding his umbrella and the rail, and I striking matches from time to time. We were on the second landing when I heard the bell ring again, and the banging of the front-door, and then voices at the foot of the staircase. I trembled lest we should be over-taken, and I would have hurried Diaz on, but he would not be hurried. Happily, as we were halfway between the second and third story, the man and the girl whose voices I heard stopped at the second. I caught sight of them momentarily through the banisters. The man was striking matches as I had been. 'C'est ici,' the girl whispered. She was dressed in blue with a very large hat. She put a key in the door when they had stopped, and then our matches went out simultaneously. The door shut, and Diaz and I were alone on the staircase again. I struck another match; we struggled on.
When I had taken his key from Diaz' helpless hand, and opened his door and guided him within, and closed the door definitely upon the outer world, I breathed a great sigh. Every turn of the stair had been a station of the cross for me. We were now in utter darkness. The classical effluvium of inebriety mingled with the classical odour of the furnished lodging. But I cared not. I had at last successfully hidden his shame. No one could witness it now but me. So I was glad.
Neither of us said anything as, still with the aid of matches, I penetrated into the flat. Silently I peered about until I perceived a pair of candles, which I lighted. Diaz, with his hat on his head and his umbrella clasped tightly in his hand, fell into a chair. We glanced at each other.
'You had better go to bed,' I suggested. 'Take your hat off. You will feel better without it.'
He did not move, and I approached him and gently took his hat. I then touched the umbrella.
'No, no, no!' he cried suddenly; 'I'm always losing this umbrella, and I won't let it out of my sight.'
'As you wish,' I replied coldly.
I was standing by him when he got up with a surprising lurch and put a hand on my shoulder. He evidently meant to kiss me. I kept him at arm's length, feeling a sort of icy anger.
'Go to bed,' I repeated fiercely. 'It is the only place for you.'
He made inarticulate noises in his throat, and ultimately achieved the remark:
'You're very hard, Magda.'
Then he bent himself towards the next room.
'You will want a candle,' I said, with bitterness. 'No; I will carry it. Let me go first.'
I preceded him through a tiny salon into the bedroom, and, leaving him there with one candle, came back into the first room. The whole place was deplorable, though not more deplorable than I had expected from the look of the street and the house and the stairs and the girl with the large hat. It was small, badly arranged, disordered, ugly, bare, comfortless, and, if not very dirty, certainly not clean; not a home, but a kennel—a kennel furnished with chairs and spotted mirrors and spotted engravings and a small upright piano; a kennel whose sides were covered with enormous red poppies, and on whose floor was something which had once been a carpet; a kennel fitted with windows and curtains; a kennel with actually a bed! It was the ready-made human kennel of commerce, which every large city supplies wholesale in tens of thousands to its victims. In that street there were hundreds such; in the house alone there were probably a score at least. Their sole virtue was their privacy. Ah the blessedness of the sacred outer door, which not even the tyrant concierge might violate! I thought of all the other interiors of the house, floor above floor, and serried one against another—vile, mean, squalid, cramped, unlovely, frowsy, fetid; but each lighted and intensely alive with the interplay of hearts; each cloistered, a secure ground where the instincts that move the world might show themselves naturally and in secret. There was something tragically beautiful in that.
I had heard uncomfortable sounds from the bedroom. Then Diaz called out:
'It's no use. Can't do it. Can't get into bed.' I went directly to him. He sat on the bed, still clasping the umbrella, one arm out of his coat. His gloomy and discouraged face was the face of a man who retires baffled from some tremendously complicated problem.
'Put down your umbrella,' I said. 'Don't be foolish.'
'I'm not foolish,' he retorted irritably. 'Don't want to loosh thish umbrella again.'
'Well then,' I said, 'hold it in the other hand, and I will help you.'
This struck him as a marvellous idea, one of those discoveries that revolutionize science, and he instantly obeyed. He was now very drunk. He was nauseating. The conventions which society has built up in fifty centuries ceased suddenly to exist. It was impossible that they should exist—there in that cabin, where we were alone together, screened, shut in. I lost even the sense of convention. I was no longer disgusted. Everything that was seemed natural, ordinary, normal. I became his mother. I became his hospital nurse. And at length he lay in bed, clutching the umbrella to his breast. Nothing had induced him to loose it from both hands at once. The priceless value of the umbrella was the one clearly-defined notion that illuminated his poor devastated brain. I left him to his inanimate companion.
I should have left then, though I had a wish not to leave. But I was prevented from going by the fear of descending those sinister stairs alone, and the necessity of calling aloud to the concierge in order to get out through the main door, and the possible difficulties in finding a cab in that region at that hour. I knew that I could not have borne to walk even to the end of the street unprotected. So I stayed where I was, seated in a chair near the window of the larger room, saturating myself in the vague and heavy flood of sadness that enwraps the fretful, passionate city in the night—the night when the commonest noises seem to carry some mystic message to the listening soul, the night when truth walks abroad naked and whispers her secrets.
A gas-lamp threw its radiance on the ceiling in bars through the slits of the window-shutters, and then, far in the middle wilderness of the night, the lamp was extinguished by a careful municipality, and I was left in utter darkness. Long since the candles had burnt away. I grew silly and sentimental, and pictured the city in feverish sleep, gaining with difficulty inadequate strength for the morrow—as if the city had not been living this life for centuries and did not know exactly what it was about! And then, sure as I had been that I could not sleep, I woke up, and I could see the outline of the piano. Dawn had begun. And not a sound disturbed the street, and not a sound came from Diaz' bedroom. As of old, he slept with the tranquillity of a child.
And after a time I could see the dust on the piano and on the polished floor under the table. The night had passed, and it appeared to be almost a miracle that the night had passed, and that I had lived through it and was much the same Carlotta still. I gently opened the window and pushed back the shutters. A young woman, tall, with a superb bust, clothed in blue, was sweeping the footpath in long, dignified strokes of a broom. She went slowly from my ken. Nothing could have been more prosaic, more sane, more astringent. And yet only a few hours—and it had been night, strange, voluptuous night! And even now a thousand thousand pillows were warm and crushed under their burden of unconscious dreaming souls. But that tall woman must go to bed in day, and rise to meet the first wind of the morning, and perhaps never have known the sweet poison of the night. I sank back into my chair....
There was a sharp, decisive sound of a key in the lock of the entrance-door. I jumped up, fully awake, with beating heart and blushing face. Someone was invading the flat. Someone would catch me there.
Of course it was his servant. I had entirely forgotten her.
We met in the little passage. She was a stout creature and appeared to fill the flat. She did not seem very surprised at the sight of me, and she eyed me with the frigid disdain of one who conforms to a certain code for one who does not conform to it. She sat in judgment on my well-hung skirt and the rings on my fingers and the wickedness in my breast, and condemned me to everlasting obloquy.
'Madame is going?' she asked coldly, holding open the door.
'No, madame,' I said. 'Are you the femme de menage of monsieur?'
'Monsieur is ill,' I said, deciding swiftly what to do. 'He does not wish to be disturbed. He would like you to return at two o'clock.'
Long before two I should have departed.
'Monsieur knows well that I have another menage from twelve to two,' protested the woman.
'Three o'clock, then,' I said.
Bien, madame,' said she, and, producing the contents of a reticule: 'Here are the bread, the butter, the milk, and the newspaper, madame.'
'Thank you, madame.'
I took the things, and she left, and I shut the door and bolted it.
In anticipation, the circumstances of such an encounter would have caused me infinite trouble of spirit. 'But after all it was not so very dreadful,' I thought, as I fastened the door. 'Do I care for his femme de menage?'
The great door of the house would be open now, and the stairs no longer affrighting, and I might slip unobserved away. But I could not bring myself to leave until I had spoken with Diaz, and I would not wake him. It was nearly noon when he stirred. I heard his movements, and a slight moaning sigh, and he called me.
'Are you there, Magda?'
How feeble and appealing his voice!
For answer I stepped into his bedroom.
The eye that has learned to look life full in the face without a quiver of the lid should find nothing repulsive. Everything that is is the ordered and calculable result of environment. Nothing can be abhorrent, nothing blameworthy, nothing contrary to nature. Can we exceed nature? In the presence of the primeval and ever-continuing forces of nature, can we maintain our fantastic conceptions of sin and of justice? We are, and that is all we should dare to say. And yet, when I saw Diaz stretched on that wretched bed my first movement was one of physical disgust. He had not shaved for several days. His hair was like a doormat. His face was unclean and puffed; his lips full and cracked; his eyes all discoloured. If aught can be vile, he was vile. If aught can be obscene, he was obscene. His limbs twitched; his features were full of woe and desolation and abasement.
He looked at me heavily, mournfully.
'Diaz, Diaz!' said my soul. 'Have you come to this?'
A great and overmastering pity seized me, and I went to him, and laid my hand gently on his. He was so nervous and tremulous that he drew away his hand as if I had burnt it.
'Oh, Magda,' he murmured, 'my head! There was a piece of hot brick in my mouth, and I tried to take it out. But it was my tongue. Can I have some tea? Will you give me some cold water first?'
Strange that the frank and simple way in which he accepted my presence there, and assumed my willingness to serve him, filled me with a new joy! He said nothing of the night. I think that Diaz was one of the few men who are strong enough never to regret the past. If he was melancholy, it was merely because he suffered bodily in the present.
I gave him water, and he thanked me.
'Now I will make some tea,' I said.
And I went into the tiny kitchen and looked around, lifting my skirts.
'Can you find the things?' he called out.
'Yes,' I said.
'What's all that splashing?' he inquired.
'I'm washing a saucepan,' I said.
'I never have my meals here,' he called. 'Only tea. There are two taps to the gas-stove—one a little way up the chimney.'
Yes, I was joyous, actively so. I brought the tea to the bedroom with a glad smile. I had put two cups on the tray, which I placed on the night-table; and there were some biscuits. I sat at the foot of the bed while we drank. And the umbrella, unperceived by Diaz, lay with its handle on a pillow, ludicrous and yet accusing.
'You are an angel,' said Diaz.
'Don't call me that,' I protested.
'Because I wish it,' I said. 'Angel' was Ispenlove's word.
'Then, what shall I call you?'
'My name is Carlotta Peel,' I said. 'Not Magdalen at all.'
It was astounding, incredible, that he should be learning my name then for the first time.
'I shall always call you Magda,' he responded.
'And now I must go,' I stated, when I had explained to him about the servant.
'But you'll come back?' he cried.
No question of his coming to me! I must come to him!
'To a place like this?' I demanded.
Unthinkingly I put into my voice some of the distaste I felt for his deplorable apartments, and he was genuinely hurt. I believe that in all honesty he deemed his apartments to be quite adequate and befitting. His sensibilities had been so dulled.
He threw up his head.
'Of course,' he said, 'if you—'
'No, no!' I stopped him quickly. 'I will come here. I was only teasing you. Let me see. I'll come back at four, just to see how you are. Won't you get up in the meantime?'
He smiled, placated.
'I may do,' he said. 'I'll try to. But in case I don't, will you take my key? Where did you put it last night?'
'I have it,' I said.
He summoned me to him just as I was opening the door.
'What is it?'
'You are magnificent,' he replied, with charming, impulsive eagerness, his eyes resting upon me long. He was the old Diaz again. 'I can't thank you. But when you come back I shall play to you.'
'Till four o'clock,' I said.
'Magda,' he called again, just as I was leaving, 'bring one of your books with you, will you?'
I hesitated, with my hand on the door. When I gave him my name he had made no sign that it conveyed to him anything out of the ordinary. That was exactly like Diaz.
'Have you read any of them?' I asked loudly, without moving from the door.
'No,' he answered. 'But I have heard of them.'
'Really!' I said, keeping my tone free from irony. 'Well, I will not bring you one of my books.'
I looked hard at the door in front of me.
'For you I will be nothing but a woman,' I said.
And I fled down the stairs and past the concierge swiftly into the street, as anxious as a thief to escape notice. I got a fiacre at once, and drove away. I would not analyze my heart. I could not. I could but savour the joy, sweet and fresh, that welled up in it as from some secret source. I was so excited that I observed nothing outside myself, and when the cab stopped in front of my hotel, it seemed to me that the journey had occupied scarcely a few seconds. Do you imagine I was saddened by the painful spectacle of Diaz' collapse in life? No! I only knew that he needed sympathy, and that I could give it to him with both hands. I could give, give! And the last thing that the egotist in me told me before it expired was that I was worthy to give. My longing to assuage the lot of Diaz became almost an anguish.
I returned at about half-past five, bright and eager, with vague anticipations. I seemed to have become used to the house. It no longer offended me, and I had no shame in entering it. I put the key into the door of Diaz' flat with a clear, high sense of pleasure. He had entrusted me with his key; I could go in as I pleased; I need have no fear of inconveniencing him, of coming at the wrong moment. It seemed wonderful! And as I turned the key and pushed open the door my sole wish was to be of service to him, to comfort him, to render his life less forlorn.
'Here I am!' I cried, shutting the door.
There was no answer.
In the smaller of the two tiny sitting-rooms the piano, which had been closed, was open, and I saw that it was a Pleyel. But both rooms were empty.
'Are you still in bed, then?' I said.
There was still no answer.
I went cautiously into the bedroom. It, too, was empty. The bed was made, and the flat generally had a superficial air of tidiness. Evidently the charwoman had been and departed; and doubtless Diaz had gone out, to return immediately. I sat down in the chair in which I had spent most of the night. I took off my hat and put it by the side of a tiny satchel which I had brought, and began to wait for him. How delicious it would be to open the door to him! He would notice that I had taken off my hat, and he would be glad. What did the future, the immediate future, hold for me?
A long time I waited, and then I yawned heavily, and remembered that for several days I had had scarcely any sleep. I shut my eyes to relieve the tedium of waiting. When I reopened them, dazed, and startled into sudden activity by mysterious angry noises, it was quite dark. I tried to recall where I was, and to decide what the noises could be. I regained my faculties with an effort. The noises were a beating on the door.
'It is Diaz,' I said to myself; 'and he can't get in!'
And I felt very guilty because I had slept. I must have slept for hours. Groping for a candle, I lighted it.
'Coming! coming!' I called in a loud voice.
And I went into the passage with the candle and opened the door.
It was Diaz. The gas was lighted on the stairs. Between that and my candle he stood conspicuous in all his details. Swaying somewhat, he supported himself by the balustrade, and was thus distant about two feet from the door. He was drunk—viciously drunk; and in an instant I knew the cruel truth concerning him, and wondered that I had not perceived it before. He was a drunkard—simply that. He had not taken to drinking as a consequence of nervous breakdown. Nervous breakdown was a euphemism for the result of alcoholic excess. I saw his slow descent as in a vision, and everything was explained. My heart leapt.
'I can save him,' I said to myself. 'I can restore him.'
I was aware of the extreme difficulty of curing a drunkard, of the immense proportion of failures. But, I thought, if a woman such as I cannot by the lavishing of her whole soul and body deliver from no matter what fiend a man such as Diaz, then the world has changed, and the eternal Aphrodite is dead.
'I can save him!' I repeated.
Oh, heavenly moment!
'Aren't you coming in?' I addressed him quietly. 'I've been waiting for you.'
'Have you?' he angrily replied. 'I waited long enough for you.'
'Well,' I said, 'come in.'
'Who is it?' he demanded. 'I inzizt—who is it?'
'It's I,' I answered; 'Magda.'
'That's no' wha' I mean,' he went on. 'And wha's more—you know it. Who is it addrezzes you, madame?'
'Why,' I humoured him, 'it's you, of course—Diaz.'
There was the sound of a door opening on one of the lower storeys, and I hoped I had pacified him, and that he would enter; but I was mistaken. He stamped his foot furiously on the landing.
'Diaz!' he protested, shouting. 'Who dares call me Diaz? Wha's my full name?'
'Emilio Diaz,' I murmured meekly.
'That's better,' he grumbled. 'What am I?'
'Wha' am I?' he roared; and his voice went up and down the echoing staircase. 'I won't put foot ev'n on doormat till I'm told wha' I am here.'
'You are the—the master,' I said. 'But do come in.'
'The mas'r! Mas'r of wha'?'
'Master of the pianoforte,' I answered at once.
He smiled, suddenly appeased, and put his foot unsteadily on the doormat.
'Good!' he said. 'But, un'stan', I wouldn't ev'n have pu' foot on doormat—no, not ev'n on doormat—'
And he came in, and I shut the door, and I was alone with my wild beast.
'Kiss me,' he commanded.
I kissed him on the mouth.
'You don't put your arms roun' me,' he growled.
So I deposited the candle on the floor, and put my arms round his neck, standing on tip-toe, and kissed him again.
He went past me, staggering and growling, into the sitting-room at the end of the passage, and furiously banged down the lid of the piano, so that every cord in it jangled deafeningly.
'Light the lamp,' he called out.
'In one second,' I said.
I locked the outer door on the inside, slipped the key into my pocket, and picked up the candle.
'What were you doing out there?' he demanded.
'Nothing,' I said. 'I had to pick the candle up.'
He seized my hat from the table and threw it to the floor. Then he sat down.
'Nex' time,' he remarked, 'you'll know better'n to keep me waiting.'
I lighted a lamp.
'I'm very sorry,' I said. 'Won't you go to bed?'
'I shall go to bed when I want,' he answered. 'I'm thirsty. In the cupboard you'll see a bottle. I'll trouble you to give it me, with a glass and some water.'
'This cupboard?' I said questioningly, opening a cupboard papered to match the rest of the wall.
'But surely you can't be thirsty, Diaz?' I protested.
'Must I repea' wha' I said?' he glared at me. 'I'm thirsty. Give me the bottle.'
I took out the bottle nearest to hand. It was of a dark green colour, and labelled 'Extrait d'Absinthe. Pernod fils.'
'Not this one, Diaz?'
'Yes,' he insisted. 'Give it me. And get a glass and some water.'
'No,' I said firmly.
'Wha'? You won't give it me?'
He jumped up recklessly and faced me. His hat fell off the back of his head.
'Give me that bottle!'
His breath poisoned the room.
I retreated in the direction of the window, and put my hand on the knob.
'No,' I said.
He sprang at me, but not before I had opened the window and thrown out the bottle. I heard it fall in the roadway with a crash and scattering of glass. Happily it had harmed no one. Diaz was momentarily checked. He hesitated. I eyed him as steadily as I could, closing the while the window behind me with my right hand.
'He may try to kill me,' I thought.
My heart was thudding against my dress, not from fear, but from excitement. My situation seemed impossible to me, utterly passing belief. Yesterday I had been a staid spinster, attended by a maid, in a hotel of impeccable propriety. Today I had locked myself up alone with a riotous drunkard in a vile flat in a notorious Parisian street. Was I mad? What force, secret and powerful, had urged me on?... And there was the foul drunkard, with clenched hands and fiery eyes, undecided whether or not to murder me. And I waited.
He moved away, inarticulately grumbling, and resumed with difficulty his hat.
'Ver' well,' he hiccupped morosely, 'ver' well; I'm going. Tha's all.'
He lurched into the passage, and then I heard him fumbling a long time with the outer door. He left the door and went into his bedroom, and finally returned to me. He held one hand behind his back. I had sunk into a chair by the small table on which the lamp stood, with my satchel beside it.
'Now!' he said, halting in front of me. 'You've locked tha' door. I can't go out.'
'Yes,' I admitted.
'Give me the key.'
I shook my head.
'Give me the key,' he cried. 'I mus' have the key.'
I shook my head.
Then he showed his right hand, and it held a revolver. He bent slightly over the table, staring down at me as I stared up at him. But as his chin felt the heat rising from the chimney of the lamp, he shifted a little to one side. I might have rushed for shelter into some other room; I might have grappled with him; I might have attempted to soothe him. But I could neither stir nor speak. Least of all, could I give him the key—for him to go and publish his own disgrace in the thoroughfares. So I just gazed at him, inactive.
'I s'll kill you!' he muttered, and raised the revolver.
My throat became suddenly dry. I tried to make the motion of swallowing, and could not. And looking at the revolver, I perceived in a swift revelation the vast folly of my inexperience. Since he was already drunk, why had I not allowed him to drink more, to drink himself into a stupor? Drunkards can only be cured when they are sober. To commence a course of moral treatment at such a moment as I had chosen was indeed the act of a woman. However, it was too late to reclaim the bottle from the street.
I saw that he meant to kill me. And I knew that previously, during our encounter at the window, I had only pretended to myself that I thought there was a risk of his killing me. I had pretended, in order to increase the glory of my martyrdom in my own sight. Moreover, my brain, which was working with singular clearness, told me that for his sake I ought to give up the key. His exposure as a helpless drunkard would be infinitely preferable to his exposure as a murderer.
Yet I could not persuade myself to relinquish the key. If I did so, he would imagine that he had frightened me. But I had no fear, and I could not bear that he should think I had.
My ears sang. The room was full of a new odour, and a cloud floated reluctantly upwards from the mouth of the revolver. I sneezed, and then I grew aware that, firing at a distant of two feet, he had missed me. What had happened to the bullet I could not guess. He put the revolver down on the table with a groan, and the handle rested on my satchel.
'My God, Magda!' he sighed, pushing back his hair with his beautiful hand.
He was somewhat sobered. I said nothing, but I observed that the lamp was smoking, and I turned down the wick. I was so self-conscious, so irresolute, so nonplussed, that in sheer awkwardness, like a girl at a party who does not know what to do with her hands, I pushed the revolver off the satchel, and idly unfastened the catch of the satchel. Within it, among other things, was my sedative. I, too, had fallen the victim of a habit. For five years a bad sleeper, I had latterly developed into a very bad sleeper, and my sedative was accordingly strong.
A notion struck me.
'Drink a little of this, my poor Diaz!' I murmured.
'What is it?' he asked.
'It will make you sleep,' I said.
With a convulsive movement he clutched the bottle and uncorked it, and before I could interfere he had drunk nearly the whole of its contents.
'Stop!' I cried. 'You will kill yourself!'
'What matter!' he exclaimed; and staggered off to the darkness of the bedroom.
I followed him with the lamp, but he had already fallen on the bed, and seemed to be heavily asleep. I shook him; he made no response.
'At any cost he must he roused,' I said aloud. 'He must be forced to walk.'
There was a knocking at the outer door, low, discreet, and continuous. It sounded to me like a deliverance. Whoever might be there must aid me to waken Diaz. I ran to the door, taking the key out of my pocket, and opened it. A tall woman stood on the doormat. It was the girl that I had glimpsed on the previous night in the large hat ascending the stairs with a man. But now her bright golden head was uncovered, and she wore a blue peignoir, such as is sold ready made, with its lace and its ribbons, at all the big Paris shops.
We both hesitated.
'Oh, pardon, madame,' she said, in a thin, sweet voice in French. 'I was at my door, and it seemed to me that I heard—a revolver. Nothing serious has passed, then? Pardon, madame.'
'Nothing, thank you. You are very amiable, madame,' I replied stiffly.
'All my excuses, madame,' said she, turning away.
'No, no!' I exclaimed. 'I am wrong. Do not go. Someone is ill—very ill. If you would—'
'Where? What is it?' she inquired.
'He is in the bedroom—here.'
We both spoke breathlessly, hurrying to the bedroom, after I had fetched the lamp.
'Wounded? He has done himself harm? Ah!'
'No,' I said, 'not that.'
And I explained to her that Diaz had taken at least six doses of my strong solution of trional.
I seized the lamp and held it aloft over the form of the sleeper, which lay on its side cross-wise, the feet projecting a little over the edge of the bed, the head bent forward and missing the pillow, the arms stretched out in front—the very figure of abandoned and perfect unconsciousness. And the girl and I stared at Diaz, our shoulders touching, in the kennel.
'He must be made to walk about,' I said. 'You would be extremely kind to help me.'
'No, madame,' she replied. 'He will be very well like that. When one is alcoholic, one cannot poison one's self; it is impossible. All the doctors will tell you as much. Your friend will sleep for twenty hours—twenty-four hours—and he will waken himself quite re-established.'