The night had become very still. Her hearing seemed to reach out till she felt she could have heard a coyote move in its hole miles away. The log fire creaked and shifted. The tall clock in the corner ticked, catching its chain now and then as its manner was. The wooden walls shrunk and groaned a little. The small home-like sounds only accentuated the enormous silence without. Suddenly in the midst of them a real sound fell upon her ear—very low, but different, not like the fragmentary inadvertent murmur of the hut; a small, purposeful, stealthy, sound, aware of itself. She listened, as she had listened before, without moving. It was not louder than the whittling of a mouse behind the wainscot, hardly louder than the scraping of a mole's thin hand in the soil. It continued. Then it stopped. It was only her foolish fancy after all. There it was again. Where did it come from?
The man in the next room?
She took up the lamp and crept down the narrow passage to the door of the back kitchen. His loud, even breathing sounded distinctly through the crannies of the ill-fitting door. Surely it was overloud. She listened to it. She could hear nothing else. Was his breathing a pretence? She opened the door noiselessly, and went in, shading the light with her hand.
She bent over the sleeping man. At the first glance her heart sank, for he had not taken off his boots. But as she looked hard at him her suspicions died within her. He lay on his back with his coarse, emaciated face towards her, his mouth open, showing his broken teeth. The sleep of utter exhaustion was upon him. She could have killed him as he lay. He was not acting. He was really asleep.
She crept out of the room again, leaving the door ajar, and went back to the kitchen.
Hardly had she sat down when she heard the sound again. It was too faint to reach her except when she was in the kitchen. She knew now where it came from—the door. Some one was picking the lock.
The instant the sleeping man was out of her sight she suspected him again.
Was he really asleep after all? He had not taken off his boots. When she came back from making his bed she had found him standing by the mantelshelf. Had he unloaded the pistol in her absence? Would he presently get up, and open the door to his confederates?
Her mind rose clear and cold and unflinching. She took up the pistol, and then laid it down again. She wanted a more noiseless weapon. She got out her husband's great clasp-knife from the open tool-box, took the lamp, and crept back to the man's bedside. She should be able to kill him—certainly she should be able to kill him; and then she should have the pistol for the other one.
But he still slept heavily. When she saw him again, again her suspicions fell from her. She knew he was asleep.
She shook him by the shoulder, noiselessly, but with increasing violence, until he opened his eyes with a groan. Then only she remembered that she was shaking his wounded arm. He saw the knife in her hand, and raised his left arm as if to ward off the blow.
"Listen," she whispered, close to his ear. "Don't speak. There is a man trying to break into the house. You must get up and help me."
He stared at her, vaguely at first, but with growing intelligence. The food and sleep had restored him somewhat to himself. He sat up on the couch.
"Take off my boots," he whispered; "I tried, and could not."
Her last suspicion of him vanished. She cut the laces with her knife, and dragged his boots off. They stuck to his feet, and bits of the woollen socks came off with them. They had evidently not been taken off for weeks. While she did it, he whispered, "Why should any one be wanting to break in? There's nothing here to take."
"Yes, there is," she said. "There's a lot of money."
"Good Lord! Where?"
"Under the floor in the kitchen."
"Then it's the kitchen they'll make for. You bet they know where the money is, if they know it's here. Are there many of 'em?"
"I don't know."
"Well, we shall know soon enough," said the man. He had become alert, keen. "Have you any pistols?"
"Fetch it, but don't make a sound, mind."
She stole away, and returned with the pistol. She would have put it into his hand, but he pushed it away.
"It's no use to me," he said, "with my arm in a sling. I will see what I can do with my left hand and the knife. Can you shoot?"
"Can you hit anything?"
"To be depended on?"
"Well, it's darned lucky. How long will that door hold?"
They were both in the little passage by now, pressed close together, listening to the furtive pick, pick, of some one at the lock.
"I don't think it will hold more than a minute."
"Now, look here," he said, "I shall go and stand at the foot of the stair, and knife the second man, if there is a second. The first man I'll leave to you. There's a bit of light outside from the snow. He'll let in enough light to see him by as he opens the door. Don't wait. Fire at him as he comes in, and don't stop; go on firing at him till he drops. You've got six bullets. Don't you make any mistake and shoot me. I've had enough of that already. Now, you look carefully where I'm going to stand and when I'm there you put out the lamp."
He spoke to her as a man does to his comrade.
That she could be frightened did not seem to enter his calculations. He moved with cat-like stealth to the foot of the tiny staircase, and flattened himself against the wall. Then he stretched his left arm once or twice as if to make sure of it, licked the haft of the knife, and nodded at her.
She instantly put out the lamp.
All was dark save for a faint thread of light which outlined the door. Across the thread something moved once—twice. The sound of picking ceased. Then another sound succeeded it, a new one, unlike the last, as if something was being gently prized open, wrenched.
"The bar will hold," she said to herself; and then remembered for the first time that the rung into which the bar slid had been loose these many days. It was giving now.
It had given!
The door opened silently, and a man came in.
For a moment she saw him clear with the accomplice snowlight behind him. She did not hesitate. She shot once and again. He fell, and struggled violently up, and she shot again. He fell, and dragged himself to his knees, and she shot again. Then he sank gently and slowly down, as if tired, with his face against the wall, and moved no more.
The man on the stairs rushed out and looked through the open door.
"By G——! he was single-handed," he said.
Then he stooped over the prostrate man, and turned him over on his back.
"Dead!" he said, chuckling. "Well done, missus! Stone dead!"
He was masked.
The dirty left hand tore the mask callously off the grey face.
The woman had drawn near, and looked over his shoulder.
"Do you know him?" said the man.
For a moment she did not answer, and the pistol which had done its work so well dropped noisily out of her palsied hand.
"He is a stranger to me," she said, looking fixedly at her husband's fading face.
SAINT LUKE'S SUMMER
IN TWO PARTS
When the world's asleep, I awake and weep, Deeply sighing, say, "Come, O break of day, Lead my feet in my beloved's way."
MARGARET L. WOODS.
When first I knew Aunt Emmy I suppose she was about twenty-eight. I was ten, and I thought her old, but still an agreeable companion, infinitely pleasanter than her father and her brother, with whom she lived. She was not my real aunt, but her father was my great-uncle, and I always called her Aunt Emmy. Great-uncle Thomas and Uncle Tom were persons to be avoided, stout, heavy, bullet-headed, bull-necked, throat-clearing men, loud nose-blowers, loud soup-eaters, who reeked of tobacco when it was my horrid duty to kiss them, and who addressed me in jocular terms when they remembered my existence, of which I was always loth to remind them. With these two horrors, whom she loved, Aunt Emmy lived. She was wrapped up in them. I have actually seen her kiss Uncle Thomas when it was not necessary, when he was asleep; and she admired Uncle Tom very much too, though she seldom kissed him, I believe by his wish. He used to say something about sister's kisses being like cold veal. I don't suppose he invented that himself. He was always picking up things like that out of a rose-coloured paper, and firing them off as his own. Uncle Tom was tall and portly, and a wag out of office hours, with a moustache that, in spite of all his efforts, would not turn up, but insisted on making a melancholy inner semicircle just a size smaller than the rubicund circle of his face. How I hated kindly, vulgar Uncle Tom! I used to pray that he might die before the holidays. But he never did. I see now that Uncle Tom was far, far worse than Uncle Thomas, who had had a stroke, and was a kind of furious invalid who could not speak clearly, or eat anything except things that were bad for him. But when I was a child, and first began to spend my holidays in Pembridge Square, I regarded them both with the same repulsion.
Aunt Emmy was different. I know now that she must have been a remarkably pretty woman, but I did not notice that at the time. But a faint, indefinable fragrance seemed to envelop her. I loved to stroke her soft white hand, and to turn the emerald ring on her third finger, and to lean against her soft shoulder. Aunt Emmy's cheek was very soft too, and so was her full, silky hair, which she wore parted all her life, though it was never the fashion to do so that I can remember, though I am told it is now the dernier cri among the debutantes. Aunt Emmy had a beautifully shaped head, and the whitest brow and neck that I have ever seen. And she had a low voice, and was very dignified. I do not think that she was a very wise woman, or that she had ever wrestled with the deeper problems of life, or that the mystery of pain had ever caused her faith to totter. But she was very good to live with. She devoted herself.
She never had her own way in anything that I can remember. The house never represented her. The furniture was leathern and velvet and stout-looking, the kind of furniture which seems to aim at being more or less exact moulds of the forms of middle-aged men. The armchairs were like commodious hip-baths in plush. Aunt Emmy and I were lost in them. I remember once walking as a child through the wilderness of armchairs at Maple's and thinking they all looked like Uncle Tom. A good deal of Utrecht velvet had gone to the upholstering of that house in Pembridge Square. It was comfortable, airless, flowerless, with gravy-coloured walls. As I grew older I wondered why it was all so ugly and dreary. But I found there were less means than I had supposed, and though the cooking remained excellent, flowers and new chintzes were dispensed with as unnecessary. Aunt Emmy opened a window surreptitiously now and then, but Uncle Thomas and Uncle Tom hated draughts, and they did not get off to sleep so quickly after dinner if the drawing-room had been aired during the meal. The dining-room windows were never opened at all, except when Uncle Thomas was too unwell to come in and Uncle Tom was away.
Many men had wished to marry Aunt Emmy; not only sedentary professional men in long frock-coats, full to the brim of the best food, like Uncle Tom; but nice, lean, hungry-looking, open-air men who were majors, or country squires, or something interesting of that kind, whose clothes sat well on them, and who drew up in the Row on little skittish, curveting polo-ponies when Aunt Emmy and I walked there. I once asked her, after a certain good-looking Major Stoddart had ridden on, why she did not marry, but she only said reprovingly, with great dignity:
"You don't understand such matters, my dear, or you would know that I could not possibly leave your Uncle Thomas."
I was silenced. I felt with bitterness that this could not be her whole reason for celibacy, but that, owing to the purely superficial fact that my hair was still in a pigtail, she supposed I was unable to comprehend "lots of things" that I felt I understood perfectly, and on which my mind was already working with an energy which would have surprised her had she guessed it.
By this time I worshipped Aunt Emmy, who represented in my somewhat colourless orphaned existence the beautiful and romantic side of life. Aunt Emmy looked romantic, and the contrast between her refined, gentle self-effacement and the commonplace egotism of her two men was of the glaring nature which appeals to a young girl's imagination.
I never forgot Major Stoddart, and when I was eighteen, and had left school and was living in Pembridge Square, I had the good fortune to come in for the remains of a scene between Aunt Emmy and Uncle Tom—the very day after I had turned up my hair.
It was at luncheon, to which I came in late. Uncle Thomas was in bed with gout, and Uncle Tom did not consider me of enough consequence to matter. He had not realised even now that I was a grown-up woman. Looking back after all these years, I am not sure that he was not astute enough to hope that I might prove an ally.
"What you have got to do, Emmy, is to think of the future," he was saying, scooping all the visible eggs out of an aspic pie. "It's no manner of use living only in the present. You think this comfortable home will go on for ever, where you have lived in luxury. It won't. It can't. It's not in the nature of things. I saw Blackett yesterday (Blackett was the doctor), and he told me that if the governor's gout rises—and nothing he can do can keep it down—he won't last more than a year at longest. In the nature of things," Uncle Tom continued, bolting half an egg, "I shall then marry. In fact—in short——"
"Has Miss Collett accepted you?" said Aunt Emmy tremulously.
Miss Collett was a person of means, and of somewhat bulged attractions for those who admire size, of whom Uncle Tom had often spoken as a deuced fine woman.
"She has," said Uncle Tom. "I made pretty sure of that before I said anything myself. Nothing immediate, you understand; but eventually—when the old governor goes—I don't want to hurry him, Lord knows; but when the old man does pop off, I shall—bring her here."
I looked round the room. I had seen Miss Collett, and the mahogany and ormolu dining-room, with its great gilt mirrors, seemed a fitting background for her.
"I am very glad, dear Tom," said Aunt Emmy. "I think you and she will be very well suited, and I am sure she is very lucky, though I suppose I should never think any one quite good enough."
"Oh! that's all right," said Uncle Tom. "And as for the luck, it's all on my side."
He did not really think this, I knew, but it was the right thing to say, so he said it.
"But I am not thinking only of myself," he continued. "There is you to be considered."
Aunt Emmy dropped her eyes.
"You mean, where I shall live," she said faintly.
"Just so. Just so. You speak like a sensible woman. We must not forget you." Uncle Tom was becoming visibly uneasy. "And I may as well tell you now, old girl—prepare your mind beforehand, don't you know—that the governor has not been able to leave you as much as he wished, as we both wished. The truth is, what with one thing and another, and nearly all his capital tied up in the business, and this house on a long lease and expensive to keep up, with the best will in the world the poor old pater can't do much for you."
"It will be enough," said Aunt Emmy.
"It will be the interest of seven thousand pounds at three and a half per cent.," said Uncle Tom brutally, because he was uncomfortable, "about two hundred and thirty pounds a year."
"It will be ample," said Aunt Emmy. I knew by the faint colour in her cheeks that the conversation was odious to her. "Dear Tom, let us talk of something else."
"We will," said Uncle Tom, with unexpected mental agility, and with the obvious relief of a man who has got safely round a difficult corner. "We will. Now, how about Colonel Stoddart?"
My heart beat suddenly. I was beginning to see life—at last.
"There is nothing to say about him," said Aunt Emmy.
"A good chap, and a gentlemanly chap," said Uncle Tom urbanely, leaning back in his chair. "Eton, the 'varsity, and all that sort of thing. Quite one of ourselves. Old family, and a warm man. And suitable in age. My age. Thirty-nine. (Uncle Tom was really forty-one.) You're no chicken yourself, you know, Emmy. Thirty-eight, though I own you don't look it, my dear. Well, what's the matter with Colonel Stoddart, I should like to know?"
"Well, I'm glad to hear it, for he tells me you refused him again only last week. Now, look here. One moment, please. Don't speak. I call it Providence, downright Providence," and Uncle Tom rapped the table with a thick finger. "And yet you won't look at him. I don't say marry him out of hand. Of course," Uncle Tom added hurriedly, "you can't leave the old pater while he is above ground. There's no question of that. But I do say, Give the fellow a chance. He's been dangling after you for years. Tell him that some day——"
Aunt Emmy rose from the table, and laid down her napkin.
"Now, look here, old girl," said Uncle Tom, not unkindly, "don't get your feathers up with me. Think better of it. You know this sort of first-class opportunity may not occur again. It really may not. If it isn't Providence, I'm sure I don't know what it is. And I believe your only reason for refusing him is because of Bob Kingston. Now, don't fly in the face of Providence just out of a bit of rotten sentiment which you ought to be ashamed of at your age."
My brain reeled. I had never heard of Bob Kingston. I said "Good God!" to myself, not because it was natural to me to use such an expression, but because I felt it was suitable to the occasion and to a person whose hair was done up.
"Tom," said Aunt Emmy, her soft eyes blazing, "I desire that you will never allude to Mr. Kingston again."
She left the room, and I did the same, with what I hope was a withering glance at the open-mouthed Uncle Tom, who for days afterwards interlarded his conversation with the refrain that he was blessed if he could understand women.
But I dared not follow Aunt Emmy to her little sitting-room at the top of the house. She who was almost never alone, clung, I knew, to that tiny refuge, and it was an understood thing between us that I might creep in and sit with her a little after tea, but not before.
So I raged up and down the empty gilded and mirrored drawing-room, finding myself quite unable to reconcile the situation with my faith in a beneficent Deity; and then consoled myself by chronicling my tottering faith in my diary. I wrote a diary until I married. Then, I suppose, I became more interested in life than in recording my own feelings. At any rate, I discontinued it.
At last, when Aunt Emmy did not come down for tea, I took her a cup.
She was sitting in a low chair with her back to the light. I could see that she had been crying, but she was quite calm. She had a suspiciously clean pocket-handkerchief in her hand. Her sitting-room was a small north chamber under the roof, but it was the place I liked best in the house. On her rare expeditions abroad, before Uncle Thomas had become too ill to be left, she had picked up some quaint pieces of pottery and a few old Italian mirrors. The little white room with its pale blue linen coverings had an atmosphere and a refinement of its own. It was spring, and there was a bunch of daffodils near the open window in a blue-and-white oil-jar with Ole Scorpio on it.
Aunt Emmy drank some tea, and remarked that I made it better than she did.
"Your Uncle Tom has a very kind heart," she said, looking a little pugnaciously at me. "It is so like him, just when he might naturally be taken up with his own affairs, to be anxious about me."
We each knew the other was not deceived.
I longed to say, "Why not marry Colonel Stoddart?"
I had only seen him on horseback. I did not know how he looked on the ground, but I would have married him myself in a second if he had asked me, partly no doubt because he was a little like Lord K——, the hero of my teens to whom I had never spoken, and partly because he was the exact opposite of Uncle Tom. How Miss Collett could! How anybody could! Yet Uncle Tom always talked as if he had only to choose among the flower of English womanhood, and the stouter and more repellent he grew the more communicative and conscientious he became about his fear of raising expectations in female bosoms which he might not be able to gratify. How I scorned Uncle Tom when he talked like that, knowing as I did—but neither he nor Aunt Emmy knew I knew (it was always like that, they always thought I did not know things)—knowing as I did that Miss Rose Delaine and Miss Wright had both refused him. I did not realise in my intolerant youth that the anxiety of some middle-aged bachelors still to appear eligible, the way their minds hover round imaginary conquests, has its pathetic side. Looking back, I believe now that Miss Collett was not by any means poor Uncle Tom's first choice, but his last chance. And perhaps he was her last chance too.
"I know father is dying. I have known it some time," said Aunt Emmy, and her face became convulsed. "He spoke so beautifully about it only yesterday. And I have known for a long time that Tom and Miss Collett were likely to come to an arrangement."
She had not a grain of irony in her, but no word could have been more applicable to Uncle Tom and Miss Collett than an arrangement. One felt that each had measured the other by avoirdupois weight, and had found the balance even.
"Is Uncle Thomas opposed to your marrying?" I ventured to say, with the tact of eighteen.
"No, my dear; that is what is so wonderful. He was so dreadfully against it long ago—once—indeed, until quite lately. But it's no use speaking of that. But now he is quite anxious for it, so long as I don't leave him. He wants me to promise Colonel Stoddart, but to tell him that I could not leave my father during his lifetime, which of course I couldn't."
"Won't Colonel Stoddart wait?" I said, waxing bolder. I had slipped down on the floor beside her and was stroking her white hand. I hoped I was saying the right thing. I was adoringly fond of her, but I was also eighteen, and this was my first introduction to a real romance. I was feverishly anxious to rise to the occasion, to have nothing to regret in retrospect.
"I daresay he would. I think he said something about it," she said apathetically.
I remembered a beautiful sentence I had read in a novel about confidences being mutual, and I said reproachfully, "Aunt Emmy, I have told you all about Lord K——; won't you tell me, just me, no one else—about Mr. Kingston?"
And she told me. I think it was a relief to speak to some one. I held my cheek against her hand all the time. It seemed that a sort of demigod of the name of Kingston had alighted in her life when she was nineteen (I felt with a pang that I had still a whole year to wait) and he was twenty-one. Aunt Emmy waxed boldly eloquent in her description of his unique and heroic character, shyly eloquent in her dispassionate indication of his almost terrifying beauty.
I think Aunt Emmy became a girl in her teens again for a few minutes, carried away by her memory, and by the idolising sympathy of the other girl in her teens at her feet in a seventh heaven at being a confidant. But in one sense, on the sentimental plane, she had never ceased to be a girl. She and I viewed the situation almost from the same standpoint.
"Aunt Emmy, was he tall?"
"He was, my love."
My whole life hung in the balance. I had all a young girl's repulsion towards stout men.
"He was thin and wiry, and very athletic, a great rider."
I gave a sigh of relief.
"Did his—it does not really matter" (I felt the essentials were all right and that I must not ask too much of life)—"but did his hair curl?"
Aunt Emmy drew out of her bosom a little locket, hanging by a thin gold chain, with a forget-me-not in blue enamel on it, and opened it. Inside was a curl of chestnut hair. It was not tied in the shape of a curl. It was a real curl.
I looked at it with awe.
Aunt Emmy answered my highest expectations at every point. I had never seen that enamel locket before. Yet I divined at once that she had worn it under her clothes—as indeed she had, day and night for how many years! I felt that I would not care how it ended, happily or unhappily, if only I might have a romance and a locket like that.
"He gave it me when we parted eighteen years ago," she said, her voice quivering a little.
I knew well that lovers always did part. They invariably severed, "severed for years." I was not the least surprised to hear he was gone, for I was already learning "In the Gloaming," and trilled it forth in a thin, throaty voice which Aunt Emmy said was remarkably like what hers had been at my age.
"Why were you parted?" I asked.
"He had not any money, and he had his way to make. And he had an uncle out there who wanted him to go to him. It was a good opening, though he would not have taken it if it had not been for me, for though he was so fond of horses he was not the kind of person for that kind of life, sheep and things. He cared so much for books and poetry. And your Uncle Thomas was very much against my marrying at that time, in fact, he positively forbade it. You see, mother was dead, and your Uncle Thomas had become more dependent on me than he was quite aware until there was a question of my leaving him. Men are like that, my love. They need a woman all the time to look after them, and listen to their talk, and keep vexatious things away. And he was always a most tender father. He said he could not bear the thought of his only daughter roughing it in Australia. He said he would withdraw his opposition if—if—Bob (Bob was his name) came home with a sufficient fortune to keep me in comfort in England."
"And he never did?"
"He went out to try. I felt sure he would, and he felt sure he would. At twenty-two it seems as if fortunes can be made if it is really necessary. And I promised to wait for him, and he was to work to win me."
I could not refrain from shedding a tear. It was all so beautiful, so far beyond anything I could have hoped. I pressed Aunt Emmy's hand in silence, and she went on:
"But there were bad seasons, and though he worked and worked, and though he did get on, still, you could not call it a fortune. And after five years had passed he wrote to say that he was making a living, and his uncle had taken him into partnership, and could not I come out to him. He had built an extra room on purpose for me. Your Uncle Thomas was terribly angry when the letter came, because he had always been against my emigrating, and he forbade any further correspondence. Men are very high-handed, my love, when you come to live with them. We were not allowed to write after that. Do you know, my dear, I became so distressed that I had thoughts—I actually contemplated running away to Australia?"
"Oh! why didn't you?" I groaned. That, of course, was the obvious solution of the difficulty.
"Very soon after that your Uncle Thomas had his stroke, and after that of course I could not leave him."
"Could not we do it still?" I suggested. Of course I took for granted that I should be involved in the elopement, as the confidential friend who carries a little reticule with jewels in it, and sustains throughout the spirits of the principal eloper.
"Now!" said Aunt Emmy, and for a moment a violent emotion disfigured her sweet face. "Now. Oh! my child, all this happened fifteen years ago, when you were a toddling baby."
"I wish to Heaven I had been as old then as I am now," I said with clenched hands. I felt that I could have vanquished Uncle Thomas and Uncle Tom, and all this conspiracy against my darling Aunt Emmy's happiness.
"And is he still—still——?" I ventured.
"I don't know whether he is still—free. I have not heard from him for fifteen years. Uncle Thomas was very firm about the correspondence. He is a very decided character, especially since his stroke, and I have ceased to hear anything at all about him since his mother died twelve years ago."
To me twelve years ago was as in the time of Noah. Yet here was Aunt Emmy, to whom it was all as fresh as yesterday.
"When she died," said Aunt Emmy, "she was ill for a long time before, and I used to go and sit with her. She was fond of me, but she never quite did your Uncle Thomas justice. When she died she sent me this ring." She touched the beautiful emerald ring she always wore. "She said she had left it to him, and he had asked that she would send it to me. It had been her own engagement ring."
"Why don't you wear it on your engaged finger?"
"I did at first. It was a kind of comfort to me. But Uncle Tom was constantly vexed with me about it. He said it might keep things off. He is a very practical person, Uncle Tom, a very shrewd man of business, I'm told. So, to please him, I wear it in the daytime on my right hand."
By this time I was shedding tears of sheer sensibility.
"I have thought of him day and night; there has not been a night I have not remembered him in my prayers for nearly twenty years. It will be twenty years next April. How could I begin to think of any one else now, Colonel Stoddart or any one? Uncle Tom is very clever, and so is your Uncle Thomas, but I don't think they have ever quite understood what I feel about Mr. Kingston."
An electric bell in a little box over the door rang in a furious manner.
Aunt Emmy was on her feet in a second, smoothing her fair hair at the Venetian mirror.
"Your Uncle Thomas is awake," she said, "and is ready to be read to. He never likes being kept waiting."
This seemed to be the case, for as she left the room the electric bell rang again more furiously than before, and I shook my fist at it.
If some star of heaven Led him by at even, If some magic fate Brought him, should I wait, Or fly within and bid them close the gate?
MARGARET L. WOODS.
The following year I suddenly married a soldier, the only young man I knew, and I knew him very slightly, and went out to India with him. I did not forget Aunt Emmy, we corresponded regularly; but I was young and my life was a very full one. I had seen nothing of the world till I married. I had a child. The years rushed past, joyful, miserable, vivid, surprising, happy years, in spite of the fact that my husband was not remarkably like Lord K——in appearance, and not in the least like the "plaister saint" with whom I had hurried to the altar on such slight provocation.
During these years Uncle Thomas died, and Uncle Tom married, and Aunt Emmy wrote to me that she had taken a little cottage in Abinger Forest against her brother's advice, and how, in spite of his opposition—how much it must have cost her to oppose him—he had forgiven her and presented her with the most expensive mahogany bedstead and bedding that Maple could supply—"so like him."
I wondered vaguely once or twice whether there had been any question of her marrying Mr. Kingston, but there was no mention of him in her letters, and I did not like to ask. I knew that she was very poor, but presently my heart was gladdened by hearing from her that a distant relation had left her a legacy, and that she was now comfortably off.
Then suddenly our life was darkened. Our child died. I struggled with my grief, became ill, and was sent home. Aunt Emmy urged me to go straight to her. She and Uncle Tom were my only near relations in England. He also offered to take me in for a time. He wrote with real kindness. He had a child himself. And his wife wrote too. But I need hardly say that I took my sore heart and my broken health straight to Aunt Emmy.
It was late in August when I arrived. The honeysuckle was still in bloom on Aunt Emmy's white cottage, standing in its little orchard in a clearing in the forest. She was waiting for me in the porch, and I ran feebly to her up the narrow brick path between the tall clumps of hollyhocks and Michaelmas daisies; and she drew me into the little parlour and held me closely to her. And the years rolled away, and I was a child again, and she was comforting me for my broken doll.
With the egotism of youth I fear I had not given a thought to Aunt Emmy's new home until I entered it. I knew that she was happy in it, and that it had once been a gamekeeper's cottage, but that was about all. Nowadays every one has a cottage—it is the fashion; and literary men and women, tired of adulatory crowds, weary of their own greatness, flee from the metropolis, and write exquisite articles about their gardens, and the peace that lurks under a thatched roof, and the simple life, lived far from shrilling crowds but near to nature, and very near to the Deity. Fortunate Deity!
But in the days of which I am writing cottages and their floral and spiritual appurtenances were not the rage.
I never realised until I saw Aunt Emmy in a home of her own how much taste she possessed, or how pretty a cottage could be. It did not try to look like a house. It was just a cottage, standing amid its apple-trees, now red with apples, with its old well half hidden in clumps of lavender. The little dwelling itself, with its low ceilings and long oak beams and dim colouring and quaint furniture, had a certain austere charm, a quiet dignity of its own. The sunny air came softly in through wide-open latticed windows, bringing with it the scent of mignonette. There had never been a breath of air in the house in Pembridge Square. Ole Scorpio, that friend of my youth, looked peaceful and complacent in a little recess in which his soft colouring and perfect figure showed to great advantage against a white-washed wall in shadow.
Aunt Emmy herself, in a gown of some dull white material, with a little grey in her rippling, parted hair, seemed at home for the first time in her life. She looked a shade older, a shade thinner in the face, her sweet eyes a little sunk inwards. But her tall figure had retained all its old soft dignity and beauty of line. Looking at her as she poured out my tea for me, I suddenly felt years older than she.
This bewildering impression deepened as the days went on, and a protecting, wondering compassion became part of my affection for her.
During the years I had spent in India I had seen a good deal of both sides of that motley, amazing fabric which we call life. I had felt the throbbing of its great loom. I had touched with my own shrinking hand the closeness of the texture, had marked the interweaving of the alien strands, had marvelled and been dismayed, had marvelled and been awed, had seen the dye of my own blood on one dim thread, the gold of my own joy on another. The sheltered life had not been mine.
But Aunt Emmy had not moved mentally by a hair's-breadth. All her expansion, if expansion it could be called, had taken form in her house and garden. I had not been a week under her roof before I found that Mr. Kingston occupied exactly the same position in her life as he had done in Pembridge Square. She had brought down her romance to adorn her new home just as she had brought down Ole Scorpio, in cotton wool. Each had their niche. Perhaps it was unreasonable in me to expect to find her different. I had not expected it. But I had become such a totally different person myself that her attitude to life, which had appeared to me so romantic and natural when I was eighteen, now appeared irremediably pathetic, visionary, out of touch with reality. Perhaps, however, it was I who had become disillusioned and matter-of-fact. I saw with a kind of pitying wonder that her youthful romance still supplied to her, as it had done since she was nineteen, a certain atmosphere of pensive, prayerful resignation, a background for ethereal day-dreams. Her peaceful days were passed in a kind of picturesque haze, like the mist that, seeming in itself a rosy light, sometimes veils a tranquil September sunset.
She was evidently very happy, but it was equally evident that she did not know it. From words she let drop now and then I saw that she still imagined she was bearing the heavy cross of her mutilated youth. But to me it seemed as if some tender hand had lifted it from her shoulder.
"Aunt Emmy," I said, yielding to an ignoble curiosity in the second week of my visit, as we were picking the lavender together, "when Uncle Thomas died, I had thought I should hear of your marrying Mr. Kingston."
"I also hoped it, my dear," said Aunt Emmy, snipping the lavender into a little basket, held in a loose white-gloved hand.
I dared not look at her.
"Mr. Kingston has not written," she said after a moment.
"But did you write and tell him you were free, and still in the same mind?"
"I did not. I thought it might be awkward for him in case he were—after all these years—contemplating some other possibility. I did not want to embarrass him. But your Uncle Thomas's death was in all the papers, and many of his relations are acquainted with us. I have no doubt the news reached him."
Of course it had. I had felt that it was hardly to be expected that Mr. Kingston should have kept after twenty years, more than twenty years, the same vivid memory of his early love that she had done. His silence proved that he had not done so. I looked at Aunt Emmy. How pretty and graceful and remote she looked, and how young her face was under the shadow of her charming garden hat, tied with a soft black ribbon under her chin. As long as she was not confronted with any one really young, she had no look of age. It was difficult to believe that she was forty-four. And he must be forty-six. It was too late. Middle-aged marriages are risky affairs enough, when the Rubicon of forty is within sight. But when it has been passed——!
As I looked at her I hoped with all my heart that he would not come back to disturb her peace of mind and dislocate her life afresh.
But, astonishing to say, he did come back; and there was some adequate reason, I have forgotten exactly what, for his not coming earlier. At any rate, it was adequate.
When I came down to breakfast a few days later, Aunt Emmy held a letter towards me with a shaking hand. Her lips trembled. She could not articulate.
"Am I really to read it?"
It was a charming letter, written in a delicate, refined hand. Mr. Kingston had not heard of her father's death till the day before he wrote. He had been away up-country for a year, broken shoulder, etc. He was starting for England at once. He should travel almost as quickly as his letter. He should present himself at Pembridge Square and learn her address directly he landed. His ship was the Sultana.
I took up the morning paper.
"The Sultana arrived yesterday," I said.
I looked at the envelope. It was directed on from Pembridge Square.
"Tom will give him my address," said Aunt Emmy faintly. "I wonder how he knows I am not living there now. He will—arrive here—to-day."
She looked straight in front of her through the open windows to the hollyhocks basking in the still September sunshine. A radiance lit up her face, like that which perhaps shone on Christian's when at last across the river he saw the pearl gates of the New Jerusalem.
"At last!" she said. "After all these years! After all these dreadful, dreadful years!"
An unbearable pain went through me. It was not new to me. I had known it once before, when I had seen my child sicken. Why did it return now?
The radiance passed. A pitiful trembling shook her like a leaf. Her eyes turned helplessly to mine, frightened and dimmed.
"I forgot I am an old woman," she said.
I kissed her hand. I told her that she was handsomer than any one. She was very dignified and gentle.
"You are very kind to me, my dear, and it is sweet of you to feel as you do. I believe, as you say, that I am still nice-looking. But the fact remains that it is nearly twenty-five years since we have seen each other. I was nineteen then. And oh! I suppose I ought not to say it, but I was pretty. People turned to look at me in the street. And now I am forty-four."
"But he is older than you, isn't he?"
"Two years. What is two years! We were the same age when we were young. But a man of forty-six is younger than a woman of forty-four."
I was silent. There was no contradicting that obvious fact.
"He will probably come by the 4.12 train," said Aunt Emmy, rising. "If you don't mind, as there are so many preparations to make, I will leave you to finish your breakfast. I have had mine."
She left the room, and I stared at her empty plate. I was not hungry either. I was frightened for my dear Aunt Emmy.
And yet, she was so yielding, so selfless, so absolutely uncritical, that if any woman could marry late she was the woman. She could have lived with a monster of egotism without finding it out. Had she not devoted herself to two such monsters most of her life? And perhaps Mr. Kingston was not a monster. Aunt Emmy arranged the flowers early as she only could arrange them. I was only allowed to fetch the water and clean the glasses. A certain pony-cart was sent to Muddington with the cook in it to buy a tongue, and a Stilton cheese, and a little barrel of anchovies, and various other condiments which Uncle Tom approved. Uncle Tom's tastes represented those of his whole sex for Aunt Emmy.
I insisted on her eating some luncheon, but this was barely possible, as in the midst of it a telegram was brought in from Mr. Kingston to say he should arrive by the 4.12 train.
After luncheon Aunt Emmy went to her room. I followed her there half an hour later to give her a note, and found her standing in the middle of the floor, looking at all her gowns laid out on chairs.
"I am afraid you can only think me very silly, my dear," she said, with a sort of humble dignity. "I wished to consult you, but I did not like to; but as you are here, and if you don't mind my asking you—a relation can often judge best what is advantageous—which gown do you think suits me best, the grey voile, or the lilac delaine, or the white serge?"
I decided on the white serge, and long before the dogcart ordered to meet him could possibly arrive, Aunt Emmy was sitting, paler than I had ever seen her, beside a wood fire in the parlour in the soft white gown I loved her best in, pretending to read. She had lit the fire, though we were not in the habit of having it till later in the day, because she thought Australians might feel chilly.
"I don't know how it is," she said at last, laying down the book, "but I seem quite blind. I can't see the print."
I could not see the needle-work I was bending over either. But that was because senseless tears kept on rising to my eyes, do what I would. Aunt Emmy's eyes had no tears in them.
"It is very petty of me, I know, but I do hope he has not grown stout," she said presently. "But of course it is to be expected, and if it is so I must try to bear it. It could not make any real difference. Your Uncle Tom is the same age, and of course he is not—he really is not as thin as he was."
"Was he ever thin?"
"N-no. But Mr. Kingston was, at least, not thin, but very spare and agile-looking."
At last the sound of wheels reached us. Aunt Emmy clasped the arms of her chair convulsively.
"I daresay he has not come," she said almost inaudibly.
The wheels stopped. I went into the tiny hall.
A tall, spare, distinguished-looking man, with weather-beaten face and peculiarly intent, hawklike eyes, was at the gate, and I went out to greet him. As he took off his cap his crisp hair showed a little grey in it. He was delightful to look at.
I don't know what I said, but I mumbled something as I shook hands with him, and pointed to the parlour door. He nodded gravely and went in, hitting his tall head against the low lintel. Then he closed the door gently. And I went to my room, and locked myself in.
When I went into the parlour an hour later at tea-time I found them sitting one on each side of the fire. I wished with all my heart that they could have been sitting together at this moment after the marriage of their daughter. Both had cried a little, I could see. He certainly had. They got up when I came in, and stood together on the hearth, a splendid-looking couple, dwarfing the white room with its low ceiling.
What they must have been in youth I could well imagine.
I was reintroduced to him, and I am not sure, though they were both smiling at each other, that they were not relieved by my entrance with the tea. He handed her her cup and waited on her with the deferential awkwardness of a man who has not been in women's society for years.
"I am a rough fellow, Emmy," he said once or twice. But he was not rough. He was charming. He did not fit in at all with my preconceived ideas of "Colonials." And it was quickly evident to me that his tender admiration of Aunt Emmy still survived. I was partly reassured. Perhaps, after all, he had brought happiness with him.
* * * * *
Saint Luke's summer was glorious that year, and it was nowhere more wonderful than in the forest. One still golden day followed another, the gossamer-threaded sunshine flooding the glades of yellowing and amber trees, spilling itself headlong amid the rusting bracken, and losing itself in the tiny foliage of the whortleberry, which, all its little oval leaves, ruddy as a robin's breast, was imitating the trees, like a miniature autumn forest underfoot.
Aunt Emmy and Mr. Kingston walked daily in the marvel of the forest, and it seemed as if the autumn sun shone kindly on them. Sometimes on her return there was a bewildered look in her face which I did not understand, and I wondered whether indeed all was well; but I put the thought away, for his love for her was beyond the possibility of doubt, and had not her love for him coloured her whole life?
Once I saw him take up Ole Scorpio with a careful hand, and then replace it in its recess with its spout pointing towards the room. Presently, when he had gone, she gently moved it back to its former position, exactly en profile, and the senseless idea darted through my mind as I watched her do it that if her romance were moved from its niche, she would instinctively wish to do the same, to readjust it to the angle from which she had looked at it so long.
As the days passed and the first shyness between them wore off, the primitive life he had led for so many years showed itself in a certain slowness of speech, a disinclination to make acquaintance with the neighbours, and an increasing tendency to long, tranquil silences with a pipe in the garden. But, wonderful to say, it had not apparently blunted him mentally. And he actually cared for books. Unfortunately, there were almost no books in the cottage. How he had kept it I cannot imagine, but he certainly had retained a quickness of apprehension which made him half-unconsciously adapt himself to Aunt Emmy and her little habits in a way that astonished me. It was she who showed herself less perceptive as regarded him. But this she never divined. She had got it rooted into her small, graceful head that he would naturally wish to converse principally about his farm. And, in spite of scant encouragement, she continually "showed an interest," as she herself expressed it, in sheep, and water creeks, and snakes, and bush fires. He was always perfectly good-natured, and ready to answer; but I sometimes wondered how it was she did not realise that she asked the same questions over and over again.
"Uncle Bob does not seem to care to talk much about his farming," I ventured one day. "Perhaps he wishes to forget it for a little while."
"My dear," said Aunt Emmy rebukingly, "when you are as old as I am, you will know that the only thing men really care to talk of is their business. My dear father always talked of stocks, and shares, and—and bonuses. He said I could not understand about them, as indeed I could not, but it interested me very much to listen. And your Uncle Tom, as you may remember"—I did indeed—"did the same. It is natural that Mr. Kingston's mind should dwell on agricultural subjects."
Presently wicked men began to mow the bracken with great scythes, and to carry it away in carts which tilted and elbowed their way down the mossy, heather-fringed tracks. Here and there the down-stretched arms of the firs caught the topmost fronds of bracken and swept them from their murdered brethren, and held them precariously suspended, only to drop them when the first wind went by.
I left the cottage for a week to visit my husband's relations, and when I returned the forest was bare. An indefinable sadness seemed to brood over it, and to have reached Aunt Emmy as well. Mr. Kingston had also been away to visit his relations, and had returned, and was staying at the little inn on the edge of the forest, from which he could more readily run up daily to town to have his shoulder massaged, which still troubled him.
Aunt Emmy told me all this in her garden, where she was dividing her white pinks. I knew she intended to make a fresh border, but the action filled me with consternation.
"But Aunt Emmy," I said (the foolish words jolted out of me by sudden anxiety), "will you—will you be here next spring?"
I could have struck myself the moment the words were out of my mouth.
The trowel dropped from her hand.
"Oh no!" she said confusedly. "Neither I shall. I was forgetting. I shall be in Australia."
She looked round the little garden which she had made with her own hands, and back to the white cottage, up to its eyes in Michaelmas daisies, which had become such an ideal home, and in which, poor dear! she had taken a deeper root than she knew, and a bewildered pain passed for a moment over her face. It was as if she had been walking in her sleep, and had suddenly come in contact with some obstacle, and had waked up and was not for the first moment certain of her surroundings.
"He is more to me than any cottage," she said, recovering herself with a little gasp. "I had hoped perhaps he would have come and lived here, and let me take care of him, after all his years of hard work. But it was a selfish idea. He has told me that he cannot leave his work or his uncle, who has been so kind to him, and who is very infirm now—partially paralysed, and needing the greatest care. I shall—let the cottage."
"What is the place in Australia like?" I said with duplicity, for of course I knew by this time exactly what it was like. But I wanted to change her thoughts.
She led the way indoors, and pointed to a sheaf of unmounted photographs. I took them up, and examined them as if for the first time. My heart sank as I looked at the inoffensive figure of the poor old uncle in the verandah, whom Aunt Emmy was of course to nurse. The house which that hard-working old man had built himself stood nakedly upon a piece of naked ground. There was not a tree near it. Beyond were the great cattle-yards and farm buildings, and what looked like an endless, shrubless field. And on the right was the new two-windowed room, no longer very new, which Mr. Kingston had built seventeen years ago for Aunt Emmy. I knew how much labour that hideous addition meant, which was a sort of degraded cousin many times removed from the pert villa drawing-rooms, peering over portugal laurels on the road to Muddington. I knew that Mr. Kingston had papered and painted that room with his own hands. I knew also, but Aunt Emmy did not, that he had repapered and repainted it several times while it waited for her. And yet by no wildest effort of the imagination could I picture Aunt Emmy living there, though her heart had been there all her life.
A sudden rage rose within me against the deceased Uncle Thomas, and against this other decrepit uncle, waiting to be nursed.
I laid down the photographs, and went a turn in the forest, leaving Aunt Emmy sitting idle in her gardening gloves. My foolish words had stopped her happy activity. I was angry with myself, with Fate, with Australia, with everything, and not least with Mr. Kingston.
Everywhere in the bare glades little orphaned families of bracken held their arched necks a few inches from the ground. Even in their bereavement they too had remembered that it was autumn, and their tiny curled fronds protecting their downcast faces were golden and ruddy. As I turned a corner I suddenly caught sight of Mr. Kingston a few paces from me, looking earnestly at one of these little groups. I did not want to meet him just then, and I half turned aside; but he had already seen me, and he gave a gesture of welcome, and I had to stop.
My anger subsided somewhat as he came up. He looked harassed, and as if he had not slept.
"And so you are back," he said. "I was just wishing that you were at the moment I caught sight of you. If you think it possible that a word or two could be dragged out of such a silent enigmatical person as yourself, I should like to have a little talk with you."
I could not help liking him. His keen eyes were kindly, though his face was grave.
"What do you want to talk about?" I said bluntly.
"What an unnecessary question. What can I want to talk about except Emmy?"
I was silent. I felt more uncomfortable about the whole affair than I had done yet, and that was saying a good deal.
Mr. Kingston led the way down a little track to a place where the trees grew so close together that the murderous scythes had not been able to get in among them. Here the bracken had been unmolested, and was going unharassed through all its most gorgeous pageant. Great fronds of ivory white, of palest gold, of brownest gold, of reddest gold upreared themselves among the purple waves of the heather, wearing the stray flecks of the sunshine like jewels on their breasts. We sat down on a fallen tree round which the bracken had wrapped its splendour.
"How extraordinarily beautiful it is!" he said, more to himself than to me, putting out his long, artistic hand, gnarled and hardened with work, and touching a pale frond with a reverent finger. "I am glad to have seen it once more. It is twenty-five years since I have seen an English autumn."
There was a moment's silence, and then he went on without any change of tone:
"And you are thinking, you sad-faced, downright little woman who are so afraid that I am going to make your dear Aunt Emmy unhappy, you are thinking that you did not take a precarious seat on this trunk in order to hear a possible enemy descant on the beauties of nature."
I was astonished at his penetration. My own experience, gleaned entirely from the genial little egotist whose wife I was, had taught me that men never noticed anything. I had had no idea that I had shown the fear of him which I felt.
"And yet you are my only possible ally," he went on, "my only helper, if you are willing to help me, in the somewhat difficult task which I have in hand."
"You mean, marrying my aunt?" I said.
"No," he said, looking at me with a kindness which made me ready to sink into the ground with shame. "I can do that without assistance. Emmy, God bless her! has been ready to marry me any time these twenty-five years, and, poor soul, she is ready now. She has not the faintest idea what she would be in for if she did, but she is ready to risk it."
I was silent. I was bewildered for one thing, and I did not want "to put my foot in it" again immediately for another. And there was really no need for me to speak, for he went on slowly, looking full at me:
"What I have to do, if I can, is to save Emmy's romance for her."
I could only stare at him.
"For twenty-five years," he went on, "that dear woman has lived on her love for me. It has coloured her whole life. I know what I know. It has been her support in all the endless years she nursed that cruel old egoist her father, who would not let her marry me, when we could have married, seventeen years ago. But it is not me that she wants now, though she did want me for many years; it is the thought of me—if you can't understand without my saying it, I can't make you—it's her romance which is important to her, and which I want her to keep, at all costs."
"My darling Emmy," he said, and there were tears in his hawk eyes, "the most unselfish and devoted, the sweetest, the humblest, and the most beautiful creature I have ever known. And she has given up everything out of constancy to me, home, children, everything; no, not for me exactly, but for a dream, for an ideal, for something of which I was to her the symbol, but which I no more resemble than I resemble that frond of bracken."
He turned his face away.
"It would have been all right if they would have let us marry when we were both still young, and I had got a home together," he went on; "but now it would be inhuman to root her out of her little home and drag her across the world, and try to transplant her into my rough place. How rough it is I see, now that I have been back in England. I did not know it was so uncouth when I lived in it. It's the only life I'm accustomed to, the only life I'm fit for now, though it was sorely against the grain at first. I don't think I could have stuck to it, except for the hope of marrying her some day. But I see now the only life I'm fit for is not fit for her. And I can't give it up. I can't desert my poor old uncle, who is growing infirm and depends on me entirely."
"Why did you come back?" I groaned.
"I came back," he said, "because I have cared for her and worked for her all my life. And because I heard that her beast of a father had left her almost penniless, and that fat Tom had married and turned her out. And until I saw her again from day to day I did not realise the nature of her feeling for me. I came back to offer her what I had, not that it was much, hoping to marry her and take her back with me.... But that is not what would make my Emmy happy now. What she needs is to go on in this perfect little doll's house, this little haven, thinking of me, and praying for me, and tending her flowers, and mourning like a dove in its tree because we are parted."
It was exactly what Aunt Emmy needed. I could not have put it into words, but this strange man had done so.
"You will not speak," he said, "but you agree with me for all that. I had to make sure you agreed. Your confirmation is all I wanted, and now I have it."
It was not that I would not speak. I could not speak. I was thinking of the room in that horrid wooden house which he had built for her.
After a few minutes he went on quietly:
"I think the thing for me to do is to be ruined, only partially, of course, not enough to make her miserable, and to hurry back to Australia without her at once for the time being, and from there to write regularly by every mail, nice letters (they cannot be forbidden now); but never to come back any more. A bank has just failed in Australia in which I had money. The situation can be arranged."
I looked away from him.
"I owe it to her," he said.
The only form of human love that atrophies the heart is the love of self.
Marion Wright sat in the centre seat of the third row of the stalls, shivering in spite of her sables. It was the dress rehearsal of her first play, that play on which she had spent herself to the verge of mental bankruptcy.
The nauseating presentiment of failure, the distaste and scorn of her own work, were upon her, which the artist never escapes, which return as acutely after twenty successes as in the hours of suspense before the first essay. Marion's surroundings were not of a nature to reassure her. To her unaccustomed eyes the empty, dimly lit theatre, swathed and bandaged in dust-sheets, looked ominously dreary. Had any one ever laughed in this shrouded desert? The long lines of stalls huddled under their wrinkled coverings stretched before and behind her. The boxes were shapeless holes of pallid grime. It was as if a London fog had trailed its dingy veil over everything. There was a fog outside as well, and the few electric lights which had been turned up peered blurred and yellow. An immense ladder, three ladders tied together, reared itself from the stalls to the roof. Something was being done to the lights on the ceiling. Tired-looking men in overcoats were creeping into the orchestra, thrusting white faces under screened lights, and rustling papers on stands.
Marion had the theatre to herself except for a few whisperers in the back row of the stalls—her maid, an attendant, one or two actors of minor parts who did not appear in the first act, and a few costumiers.
It was fiercely cold, and she had not slept for several nights. She wished she had never been born.
A magnificent-looking woman, wearing her chin tilted slightly upwards, was squeezing herself and an immense fur coat towards her along the stalls, and sat down beside her. This was Lenore, the leading lady.
She turned a colourless, beautifully shaped face and heavy eyes with bistred lashes towards Marion.
"I suppose we shall have to wait about two hours for Mr. Montgomery," she said apathetically.
"Does he always keep people waiting?"
"Always, since he made his great hit in The Deodars."
There was a moment's silence.
"Mr. Montgomery does not like his part," said the leading lady tentatively, hanging a hand in an interminable white glove over the back of the stall in front of her.
Marion's face hardened.
"It's not a sympathetic part," she said, "but an artist ought not to think of that."
"No, it's not sympathetic," acquiesced Lenore, turning up her fur collar. "It seems as if the principal man's part never is sympathetic in a woman's play. If the central figure is a woman, the men grouped round her are generally prize specimens of worms. I wonder why. In your play, now, Maggie's everything! George does not count for much, as far as I can see. Even Maggie had not much use for him."
"She loved him," said the author, with asperity.
"Did she? Sometimes when I'm playing Maggie to Montgomery's George I wonder if she did. And I just wonder now and then if I would have thrown him over as she did. I mean for good and all. It seems to me—if she'd cared for him, cared really, you know——"
"She did," interposed Marion harshly.
"Wouldn't she have quarrelled and made it up again? Would she have been quite so hard on him?"
"Yes, she would. Think, just think what she must have suffered in the third act, the scene at the Savoy, when, loving him as she did, trusting him as she did, she saw him come in with——"
"Well, I expect you know best," said Lenore, whose interest seemed to flag suddenly; "anyhow, she suffered, poor thing. Women like her always do, I think." She rose slowly. "I may as well go and dress. I suppose we shall be here till midnight."
The orchestra struck up.
"Anyhow, she suffered."
The violins caught up the words and dinned them over and over again into Marion's ears. Women like Maggie, women with deep hearts like herself—for was not Maggie herself?—they always suffered, always suffered, always!—said the violins.
The manager suddenly appeared in front of the curtain and walked swiftly over the little bridge from the stage to the stalls. He was a small, sturdy, thin-lipped, choleric man, who looked as if he were made up of energy; energy distilled and bottled. Some one had said of him that his hat was really a glass stopper, which might fly off at any moment.
It was off now. There had evidently been an explosion. He held a note in his hand.
"Montgomery has given up the part," he said. "He was odd at rehearsal yesterday. I felt there was something wrong. He said he had no show. Now he says he's too ill to come—bronchitis."
The sense of disaster which had been hanging over Marion all day slipped and engulfed her like an avalanche. She felt paralysed.
"Then the play can't go on?" she said.
"If it had to happen, better to-night than to-morrow night," said the manager. "Montgomery is as slippery as an eel. I don't suppose he has got bronchitis; but I have no doubt if I rushed over there at this moment, I should find him in bed with a steam-kettle. He would play the part."
"What will you do?" gasped Marion.
"Do?" he said. "Do? There's only one thing to do. Go through with the play! It will start in two minutes, and we shall see what the understudy can make of it. He's as clever as he can stick, and he's word perfect, at any rate."
"Who is he?"
"A Mr. Delacour; at least, that's his stage name. He's been in America for the last five years. Clever enough, but a rolling stone. He's not to be depended on, poor devil; but it's Hobson's choice—we've got to depend on him."
The manager sat down beside her and clapped his hands.
The lights suddenly burned up behind the curtain, the curtain rose and the play began.
Some plays, some books, some men and women, possess a mysterious force which, for lack of a better word, we call vitality. Those who possess it not call it by all manner of ugly names. But, nevertheless, it is the great gift, the power that overcomes, which makes life on a large scale possible, which makes the soldier, the lover, the saint, possible. Most of us are only half alive. Our work is half dead. We deal in creep-mouse sentiment, and call it love. We write pathetically of our impotence to live, and call it resignation. We who have never been young, compare notes with each other on how to remain senile, and call it the art of growing old.
But others go through life, and spend themselves on it, piece by piece, with ardour as they go. These are the teachers—only they never teach. They know. If we want to learn anything, we can watch them. And some of us, again—and this is the hardest fate of all—come into life inadequately equipped, not provisioned for a prolonged journey. What little we have, and what little there is of us, we expend on the first part of life, and having nothing left for middle age.
Such a woman was Marion. She had talent, and she had, besides—as the manager beside her had divined—one live play in her. But he doubted whether she had more than one. She looked insolvent, a dweller in the past, crippled by an acute memory. No doubt it was this self-regarding memory which had resulted in the play. It was obviously a personal experience, and as she was rich enough to share the risk of producing it, he was more than ready to put it on. It was full of faults; it was melodramatic, it was amateurish, but it was passionately alive. The pit and the gallery would love it; and if the stalls found it a little cheap, what of that? He had considerable flair. He believed it would succeed.
He glanced once or twice furtively at the handsome, unhappy-looking, richly furred woman beside him—no longer young, "past youth, but not past passion," with much of the charm of youth lingering in her graceful erectness, her pretty hair, her delicate pallor.
She had told him feverishly that the only thing she cared for—had ever cared for—was art, success, fame. He had heard something like it often before.
He wished, with a half-sigh, that a little of that uneasy, egotistic ambition might have been instilled into the heart of Lenore, for whom he had a compassionate, bottled-up attachment of many years' standing.
Poor Lenore! What an actress, and what a hopelessly womanly woman, still mourning the providential demise of an impossible brother who had lived on her.
She was on the stage now, looking about seventeen, all youth and garden hat and white muslin.
Marion's face twitched. She was living her own youth over again.
There was a pause. Lenore picked a rose to gain time, and looked into the wings.
"Delacour!" roared the manager, bouncing up in his stall and then sitting down again.
"We cut it here," said Lenore, advancing to the footlights, "and he doesn't know. It is not his fault. He's waiting for his cue. See, Mr. Delacour! Leave out that bit about the daisies, and come on at 'happiness.'"
The understudy came on, and Marion's heart thrust suddenly at her like a rapier, and left her for dead, staring in front of her.
This was no understudy. This was the original George of the drama when it was first acted. Marion saw the lover of her youth come on and kiss Lenore's hand, with the same gesture with which he had once kissed hers—in the sunshine, in a Kentish garden, beside a lavender bush, with a bumble bee in it, ten endless years ago.
He was hardly changed—a little thinner, perhaps, but not a day older in his paint; the same reckless, debonair creature whom Marion had loved, who had wounded her and grieved her, whom she had discarded at last with bitter anger, whom she had never forgotten, whom she remembered with anguish.
The curtain was down before she recovered herself, and the conductor was waving his baton.
The manager turned to her with some excitement.
"If only he can keep it up!" he said. "Delacour puts life into the love-making. He makes love well, don't you think?"
"If only he can keep it up!" repeated the manager.
Through the two acts which followed, the understudy kept it up. He did more. He acted with an intensity that made the rest of the play somewhat colourless. At the end of the scene at the Savoy, just before the curtain fell, he added a sentence of his own.
In a second, before she knew what she had done, Marion had sprung to her feet, and had said in a harsh, loud voice:
"That last sentence is not in the part."
The play stopped. The hurrying waiters with dishes stood stock still and gaped, as astonished as if the interruption had been in real life. Some of the supers at the little tables in the background got up to see what was happening.
Delacour, wineglass in hand, came forward to the footlights, and their eyes met.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "You say it is not in the part. I thought it was. I will omit it in future."
"You will do no such thing!" bawled the manager, leaping to his feet and shaking his fist at him. "Omit it! Why, Miss Wright, it's an inspiration. Gets him the whole sympathy just at the critical moment. And what a curtain! Good God! What a curtain!"
"Isn't it?" said Lenore. "Leave out my bit at the end altogether, and make that the curtain. Don't you agree, Miss Wright? And, look here, Mr. Delacour, take the front centre here."
"Start again at 'falsehood,'" said the manager briskly to Lenore. "Now, then, everybody. Sit down at the back there. Now——"
The play started again. Marion, astonished at her own violence, ashamed, shattered by conflicting emotions, speechless, could only bow her approval of the change, not that the manager cared a pin whether she approved or not.
Was Delacour acting? Marion knew that he was not. And as the play proceeded it changed in character. The words were the words she had written. Many of them were the words he had used himself, but his passion transformed them. They took on a new meaning. It was Maggie who was becoming a mean figure in spite of her grandiloquence—perhaps because of it. Her rigid principles, her petty, egotistic pride, her faultless demeanour jarred on the audience. Lenore, like a true artist, caught the novel side of the situation and emphasised it. Her Maggie dwindled, dwindled, until the man held the stage alone, dominated it. Marion had never before seen his side of the miserable drama in which her happiness had made shipwreck, had never before seen her own character in this light. It was as if he were saying the truth at last, defending himself at last—which he had never done in real life.
Finally repulsed, silent under her scornful invective, Delacour gathered himself together and went off magnificent in defeat.
The curtain fell for the last time.
The tiny audience, strengthened by the rest of the cast who were not needed in the final scene, broke into rapturous applause. The manager, excited and radiant, clapped with the rest.
"He's immense. He's immense!" he kept on saying. "Delacour's the making of it. He's immense! Hang Montgomery! He may have bronchitis till he's blue. Delacour makes the play. I will fetch him!"
He disappeared behind the curtain, and in a few minutes reappeared, dragging Delacour with him to introduce him to Marion.
"We have met before," she said faintly, putting out her hand.
"Did we ever really meet?" he said gently, taking it for a second in his.
He seemed quite exhausted. Now that she saw him close at hand, he looked much older. And his face was grievously lined, deteriorated.
She tried to thank him, to express her gratitude for the way he had extricated them from a great difficulty; but her words were so hesitating and frigid that the manager broke in, shaking him warmly by the hand.
Delacour bowed his thanks, murmured something conventional, and was gone.
Every one was in a hurry to go, too. Marion remained a moment longer talking to the manager, and then they went together through the royal box to the private entrance, where her brougham was waiting. Just as they reached it, he was called away, and an attendant let her out.
Waiting beside her brougham, in the rain, holding the door for her, was Delacour, in a shabby overcoat, his hat in his hand.
Again their eyes met in a long look. His, sombre, melancholy, humble, had a great appeal in them.
She seemed encased in some steel armour, which made movement and speech wellnigh impossible. She thanked him inaudibly.
He shut the door, said "Home" to the coachman, and turned away.
The carriage drove off.
Then something in Marion snapped. Her other self, the poor woman in her whom she had denied and starved and brow-beaten, pounced upon her and called out suddenly, desperately:
"Forgive him. What is life without him? Think of the last ten years. Has there been one day in all those grinding years when you have not longed to see him? Has there ever been one day when you would not have given up your ease and luxury for a cottage with him? And now he has come back into your life. He still loves you. Are you going to lose him again? You were vindictive, and you know it. Go back now and kneel down in the wet street and ask him to forgive you. Quick! quick!—before it is too late."
The other woman in her, the woman who had discarded him, stopped her ears.
"No, no; I had good reasons for breaking with him. They hold as good to-day as ten years ago."
"Very well," said the other scornfully. "Then never dare to tell yourself again that you ever loved him. Let that lie cease. Your love was only pretty words and pride and self-seeking, and a miserable streak of passion. What do you care what happens to him? Don't go back. You don't care for him. You never cared. Never, never. And he knows it. He is telling himself so now—at this moment."
She stopped the brougham. She trembled so much that she could hardly tell the man to drive back to the theatre. He turned slowly, the horse evidently reluctant, and in a few minutes she was once more at the private entrance. The door was closed. No one was to be seen in the little cul de sac. The lamp over the door was out. She got out and rang—once, twice, and yet again. Then she realised that every one else had hurried away as precipitately as she had done, for the dawn was already in the sky. She dragged herself back into her carriage and drove home, shaking in every limb.
After all, it did not matter. She would get his address from the manager first thing to-morrow, and go straight on and see him, and sacrifice her pride, and beseech him to take her back. She had been too proud. She saw that at last. She would say so. She saw at last that resentment is disloyalty. She would say so. She was so sick of her present life that she would say anything. And he loved her still, thank God! And—thank God, too—she was rich. And it was obvious that he was poor. She had much to share with him. And she was still attractive. Other men still wished to marry her. She was pretty, still. All that she had, all that she still was, she would give him. And this long nightmare of the last ten years would pass at last, as that other nightmare of her youth had passed—her wretched home, with a drunken father and a heartbroken mother. That had passed, though at the time it had seemed as if it would endure for ever. Her parents had died, and her vulgar, kindly, rich aunt had adopted her. And now this second nightmare was at an end, too. The ache would go out of her life, the long daily hunger and thirst would cease. There would be no more dreadful homecomings after evenings of amusement; no more sick recoil and despair at waking and seeing the pale finger of the dawn upon the blind. She would be happy at last.
Marion cried herself to sleep that night. Next morning, as early as she dared, she was at the theatre. The manager was going through his usual paroxysm of anxiety and ill-temper which preceded a first night. He could hardly find time for a word with her. There was a hitch in the scenery of the last act; the lighting was not yet repaired; one of the actors of the minor parts was ill, for whom an understudy had not been provided; and the head scene-shifter had sprained his wrist.
"I won't keep you," said Marion, as he hurried up, fuming; "I only want Mr. Delacour's address. I should like to see him at once—to—to talk to him about his part. There are a few points——"
"Delacour's address?" said the manager. "Don't know it. Oh, yes, of course!" He tore a little notebook out of his pocket. Then he suddenly looked up at her. "Don't go to him. Send for him, if you like, or see him here. He'll be here in an hour—at least, he will be if Smith is worth his salt. I've bribed him to keep a lynx eye on him day and night, and bring him up to time. But don't go and see him. I suppose you know he——"
"He's married?" gasped Marion.
The manager laughed scornfully.
"He drinks, my dear lady. He drinks. He's only just out of an inebriates' home. But don't alarm yourself. If he's watched, I dare say we shall manage all right. I hope to goodness we shall! Don't look so scared. Smith has charge of him, and he is accustomed to the job. He was quite sober last night. I hear he always is after an outbreak. You're going home? Well, I think you're right. Yes, very cold here now. Quite right not to stop. See you again later."
Marion drove home and shut herself up in her room. There was no need to lock the door. She was alone in the world, alone in her handsome, empty house, where she had always been alone, even before her aunt died and left it to her.... She would always be alone now. Only yesterday she had hoped—what had she not hoped! She had seen him there in imagination changing this weary house into a home, brilliant and faulty as ever, lovable as ever, beloved as ever, surrounded by her lavished adoration. She had seen their children running along its wide passages, playing in its empty hall.
She shuddered. She had seen drink once. She knew. Never while she lived would she forget what her home had been like. The past crowded back upon her with all its vileness and nausea, all its unspeakable degradation and violence, wrapped up with maudlin sentiment and cheap tears. The sweat stood on her forehead.
What an escape she had had! To think that if it had not been for that chance word of the manager's she would by now have pledged herself irrevocably to a drunkard, waded back into the slough from which she had emerged. Oh, what a merciful fate it had been, after all, which had parted them! How faithless she had been all these years! How little she had realised how the divine love and wisdom had watched over her, had shielded her!
"Oh! thank God! Thank God!" she groaned. The other self in her, the poor dying woman in her, arose on her deathbed and screamed to her, screamed insane things. If a certain voice is too long ignored, its dictates seem at last insane.
"Take him back all the same!" gasped the dying voice. "Marry him. Devote yourself to him, day and night. Cure him. Set him up. You love him. Love can do it, if anything can."
"I can't do it," groaned Marion. "Mother tried, but it was no good."
"Then do as she did, try and fail."
"I can't. He would break my heart."
"Let him break it."
Marion strangled the terrible, urgent voice with fury, and then cried as if her heart would indeed break. The silenced voice spoke no more.
* * * * *
The play was a great success. Delacour, who had recently returned from America, was the making of it. Lenore was the first to acknowledge it, though his success was at her expense. Her part seemed only as a foil to the sombre splendour of his.
The play ran and ran.
Delacour made no further effort to speak to Marion. He avoided her systematically. He, on his side, was watched, was spied on, was protected from himself, was never given a chance of yielding to temptation. His self-imposed gaoler loved him. He was very lovable. The manager was enthusiastic. Ignorant people said he was reformed. It almost seemed as if he might grasp the great position to which his talent entitled him. But how often before he had fallen just when he was doing well! No one could depend on him. His record in America gradually became known. It was a record of hideous outbreaks and cancelled engagements.
By dint of the strenuous will of others, to which he yielded himself, he was kept on his feet through the whole run of the play.
And then, released from surveillance, exhausted in mind and body—he fell again.
He blazed like a comet across the theatrical world, and then set as suddenly as he had risen.
Marion heard of it and shuddered. She had had a narrow escape.
* * * * *
She never wrote another play—at least, she never wrote another that pleased a manager. She said she had not time. In spite of her success, she felt a distaste for things theatrical. And perhaps she found that success is not as warm a garment for a shivering life as she had expected. There is a little fleecy wrap called affection, within the reach of all of us, which she might have donned. But, as she often said, there was, unfortunately, no one for whom she had much affection. She was alone in the world. Her interest in the theatre was gradually replaced by religion. Once she heard with real regret that Lenore had lost her memory, and chloral was hinted at as the cause. She thought of trying to save her, of making an earnest appeal to that better self which, according to Marion, exists in all of us. But when she made further inquiries about her, with a view to rescuing her, she was daunted by the discovery that Lenore had been privately married to Delacour for some time past, and that her declension, which was really due to drink, dated from the time of the marriage.
A year passed. Delacour began to make fitful reappearances, then more frequent ones. He took and kept regular engagements. But his wife returned no more.
Presently Marion's own play was revived with success. It was one of Delacour's greatest parts. And Marion went to see it, hidden behind the curtains of her box.
The years since she had last sat in that box had not dealt kindly with her. Her discontented face showed that she was one of the many victims of arrested development, still hampered in middle age by the egotistic longings of youth. In youth we all want to receive instead of to give, to be loved, to be served, to be admired. Middle age is the time to reverse engines, the time to love, to serve, to give rather than to receive. Marion had not learned that elementary lesson of life. We all recognise them at sight, the nervous, fretful faces of the middle-aged men and women who want to be loved. And love knows them, too, and—flies them.
The manager, somewhat pinched and grizzled, as from a long fast, came in to see her between the acts, and growled out his disapproval of his leading lady.
"She's nothing to Lenore," he said.
"Is she too"—Marion sought for a charitable word—"too ill to act?"
"She is too ill to act," said the manager. "She will never act any more. She is dying."
There was a silence.
"She is dying of drink," he said; "and if there is such a place as heaven, she is very near it. And if there is such a person as God, I hope she will say a word for me when she gets there."
Marion did not speak. She was horrified.
"She would marry Delacour," said the manager. "I begged her to marry me. Over and over again I asked her. But she said I could do without her, and Delacour couldn't. They fell in love with each other at this very play when it was first put on. I saw it coming, and it spelt disaster for her. But it was the real thing; and when the real thing comes, we all have to knock under to it. It doesn't come often. Most of us are quite incapable of it. I have only seen it once or twice. I dare say I have never felt it, though I should have liked to take care of Lenore, and not let her work so hard, and make a garden for her. She loves flowers and running water. I made the garden just on the chance, but she has never seen it. Down in Sussex it is, with a little old-world cottage in it. It is a pretty place. Pergola; small cascade with rustic bridge; fishpond, with green-tiled floor to show up the gold-fish. And a rose garden. I should have liked her to see it. But she and Delacour! It was like a thing in a book. They fell in love, and he behaved well. He wouldn't marry her. He said he knew he couldn't cure himself of drink—that his will was too weak. But she was determined to marry him. She said her will was strong enough for both of them. I don't know about her will. I think it was her love which was strong enough. He gave in at last and married her. I know I shouldn't have held out as long as he did. And for a little while things went well. He was at her feet. He told me it was the first time any woman had ever cared for him. For a little while I almost hoped—and then, in spite of his love for her, in spite of everything, he began to drink again. Then she told him that what he drank she should drink, and she stuck to it. If he drank, she drank the same. If he 'nipped,' she did the same. When he got drunk, she got drunk. It was kill or cure. And he loved her. That was her hold over him. It took time, but she broke him of it. He suffered too much seeing her kill herself for his sake, and it steadied him. He had to give it up."
"Then, now—why doesn't she give it up, too?"
"She can't," said the manager, his face twitching. "She was too far gone by the time he was cured. She had not his physique. She was absolutely played out. She is dying, and they both know it. But she does not mind. She has saved him. That was the point. She is perfectly happy. She does not care about anything else. He is a great actor. She has lived to see him recognised. Some women wouldn't have risked it. But I suppose a woman will take any risk if she loves, at least, women like Lenore will."
"And does he—in spite of this—does he love her still?" said Marion, with dry lips.
The manager was silent.
"I did not think any one could care as much for Lenore as I did," he said at last, "but Delacour does—he cares more."
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