Amaryllis blushed a soft pink—he went on with perfect calm.
"You blush as though I had said something unheard of! How custom rules you still! For a blush is caused by feeling some sort of shame or discomfort, or agitating surprise at some discovery. We may get red with anger, or get pale, but that bright, sudden flush always has some self-conscious element of shame in it. It is just convention which has wrapped the most natural and divine thing in life round with discomfort in this way. You are deeply to be congratulated that you are going to have a baby, do you not think so?"
"Of course I do—" and Amaryllis controlled her uneasy bashfulness. She really wished to talk to her friend.
"Who told you about it?" she asked.
Amaryllis drew in her breath suddenly. Verisschenzko's eyes were looking her through and through.
"Yes,—he is glad that there may be the possibility of a son for the family."
"How do you feel about it? It is an enormous responsibility to have children."
"I feel that—I want to do the wisest things from the beginning—"
"You must take great care of yourself, and always remain serene. Never let your mind become agitated by speculation as to the presently, keep all thoughts fixed upon the now."
Amaryllis looked at him a little troubled. What did he know? Something tangible, or were these views of his just applicable to any case? Her eyes were full of question and pleading.
"What do you want to ask me?" His eyes narrowed in contemplating her.
"I—I—do not know."
"Yes, you want to hear of Denzil—is it not so?"
She clasped her hands.
"He is well—I heard from him yesterday. He asked me to come to you. His mother is still at Bath—he wishes you to meet."
Suddenly the impossibleness of everything seemed to come over Amaryllis. She rose quickly and threw out her hands:
"Oh! if I could only understand the meaning of things, my friend! I am afraid to think!"
"You love Denzil very much—yes?"
"Sit down and let us talk about it, lady of my soul. I am your mother now."
She sank into her seat beside him, among the green silk pillows—and he leaned back and watched her for a while.
"He fulfils some imaginary picture, hein? You had not seen him really until we all dined?"
"You were bound to be drawn to him—he is everything a woman could desire—but it was not only that—tell me?"
"He was what I had hoped John would be—the likeness is so great—"
"It is much deeper than that—nature was drawing you unconsciously."
She covered her face with her hands. It seemed as if Verisschenzko must know the truth. Had Denzil told him, or was it his wonderful intuition which was enlightening him now, or was it just her sensitive conscience?
"You see custom and convention and false shames have so distorted most natural things that no one has been taught to understand them. Men were intended in the scheme of things to love women and to have children; women were meant to love men and to desire to be mothers. These instincts are primordial, the life of the world depends upon them. They have been distorted and abused into sins and vices and excesses and every evil by civilisation, so that now we rule them out of every calculation in judging of a circumstance; if we are 'nice' people they are taboo. Supposing we so suppressed and distorted and misused the other two primitive instincts, to obtain food and to kill one's enemy, the world would have ended long ago. We have done what we could to distort those also, but nothing to the extent to which we have debased the nobility of the recreative instinct!"
Amaryllis listened attentively, and he went on:
"It is admitted that we require food to live—and that if we are threatened with death from an enemy we have the right to kill him in self-defence. But it is never admitted that it is equally natural that we desire to recreate our species. Under certain circumstances of vows and restrictions, we are permitted to take one partner for life—and—if this person turns out to be a fraud for the purpose for which we made the promise, we may not have another. Supposing hungry savages were given covered dishes purporting to contain food, and upon lifting the cover one of them discovered his dish was empty—what would happen? He would bear it as long as he could, but when he was starving he would certainly try to steal some food from his neighbour—and might even knock him on the head and obtain it! Civilisation has controlled primitive instincts, so that a civilised man might perhaps prefer to die himself from starvation rather than kill or steal. He is master of his actions, but he is not master of the effects of his abstinence—Nature wins these, and whatever would be the natural physical result of his abstinence occurs. Now you can reason this thought out in all its branches, and you will see where it leads to—"
Amaryllis mused for some moments—and she saw the justice of his reflections.
"But for hundreds of years there have been priests and nuns and companies of ascetics," she remarked tentatively.
"There have been hundreds of lunatics also—and madness is not on the decrease. When you destroy nature you always produce the abnormal, when life survives from your treatment."
"You think that it is natural that one should have a mate then?"—she hesitated.
"It is more important than the keeping of vows?"
"No, the spirit is degraded by the knowledge of broken vows—only one must have intelligence to realise what the price of keeping them will be, and then summon strength enough to carry out whatever course is best for the soul, or best for the ideal one is living for. Sometimes that end requires ruthlessness, and sometimes that end requires that we starve in one way or another, so we must be prepared for sacrifice perhaps of life, or what makes life worth living, if we are strong enough to keep vows which we have been short-sighted enough to make too hastily."
Amaryllis gazed in front of her—then she asked softly:
"Do you think it is wicked of me to be thinking of Denzil—not John?"
"No—it is quite natural—the wickedness would be if you pretended to John that you were thinking of him. Deception is wickedness."
"Everything is so sad now. Both have gone to fight. I do not dare to think at all."
"Yes, you must think—you must think of your child and draw to it all the good forces, so that it may come to life unhampered by any weakness of balance in you. That must be your constant self-discipline. Keep serene and try to live in a world of noble ideals and serenity. Now I am going to play to you—"
Amaryllis had never heard Verisschenzko play. He arranged the sofa cushions and made her lie comfortably among them, then he went to the piano—and presently it seemed to her that her soul was floating upward into realms of perfect content. She had never even dreamed of such playing. It was like nothing she had ever heard before, the sounds touched all the highest chords in her spirit. She did not ask whose was the music. She seemed to know that it was Verisschenzko's own, which was just talking to her, telling her to be calm and brave and true.
He played for a whole hour—and at last softly and yet more softly, and when he finished he saw that she was quietly asleep.
A smile as tender as a mother's came into his rugged face, and he stole from the room noiselessly, breathing a blessing as he passed.
And somewhere in France, Denzil and John were thinking of her too, each with great love in his heart.
Harietta Boleski was growing dissatisfied with her life. England was of no amusement to her, and yet Hans insisted upon her staying on. She wanted to go to Paris. The war altogether was a supreme bore and upset her plans!
She had been so successful in her obvious stupid way that Hans had been enabled to transmit the most useful information to his country, which had assisted to foil more than one Allied plan. Harietta saw numbers of old gentlemen who pulled strings in that time, and although they wearied her, she found them easier to extract news from than the younger men. Her method was so irresistible: a direct appeal to the senses, and it hardly ever failed. If only Hans would consent to her returning to Paris, with the help of Ferdinand Ardayre, who was now her slave, she promised wonderful things.
Hans, as a Swedish philanthropic gentleman, had been over to give her instructions once or twice, and at last had agreed to her crossing the Channel.
She told this good news to Ferdinand one afternoon just before Christmas, when he came in to see her in London.
"I'm going to Paris, Ferdie, and you must come too. There's no use in your pretending that England matters to you, and you are of such use to us with your branch business in Holland like that. If I'd thought in the beginning that there was a chance to knock out Germany, I would have been right on this side, because there's no two ways about it, England's the place to have a good time in, but I've information which makes it certain that we shall take Calais in the Spring, and so I guess it's safer to cling to Kaiser Bill—and get it all done soon, then we can enjoy ourselves again. I do pine for a tango! My! I'm just through with this dull time!"
Ferdinand was a rest to her, almost as good as Hans. She had not to be over-refined—she knew that he was on the same level as herself. He amused her too in several ways.
He looked sulky now. It did not suit his plans to go to Paris yet. He was trying to collect information for a game of his own. But where Harietta went he must go, he was besotted about her, and knew that he could not trust her a yard.
He protested a little that they were very well where they were, but as she never allowed any one's wishes to interfere with her plans she only smiled.
"I'm going on Saturday. We have secured a suite at the Universal this time, now that the Rhin is shut up, and it is such a large hotel, you can quite well stay there; Stanislass won't notice you among the crowd."
Ferdinand agreed unwillingly—and just then Verisschenzko came in. He had not seen Madame Boleski since the night at the Carlton, having taken care not to let her know of his further visits to England since.
He looked at Ferdinand Ardayre as though he had been some bit of furniture, and he took up Fou-Chow who was cowering beneath a chair. He did not speak a word.
Harietta talked for every one for a little while, and then she began to feel nervous.
Verisschenzko smiled lazily—he was trying an experiment. The interview could not go on like this; Ferdinand Ardayre would certainly have to go.
Now that Verisschenzko had come, Harietta ardently wished that he would.
The most venomous hate was arising in Ferdinand's resentful soul. He felt that here was a rival to be dreaded indeed. He saw that Harietta was nervous; he had never seen her so before. He shut his teeth and determined to stay on.
Verisschenzko continued his disconcerting silence. Harietta felt that she should presently scream! She took Fou-Chow from Stepan and pinched him cruelly in her exasperation. He gave a feeble squeak and she pushed him roughly down. Animals to her were a nuisance. She disliked them if she had any feeling at all. But Fou-Chow was an adjunct to her toilet sometimes, and was a coveted possession, envied by her many female friends. His tiny, cringing body irritated her though extremely when she was not using him for effect, and he was often kicked and cuffed out of her way.
He showed evident fear of her and ran from her always, so that when she wanted to make a picture with him, she was obliged to carry him in her arms.
Verisschenzko raised one bushy eyebrow, and a sardonic smile came into his eyes.
Madame Boleski saw that she had made a mistake in showing her temper to the dog; it would have given her pleasure then to wring its neck!
The two men sat on. She began to grow so uncomfortable that she could endure it no more.
"You are coming back to dinner, Mr. Ardayre," she remarked at length, "and I want you to get me gardenias to wear, if you will be so kind, and I am afraid you will have to hurry as the shops close soon."
Ferdinand Ardayre rose, rage showing in his mean face, but as he had no choice he said good-bye. Harietta accompanied him to the door, pressing his hand stealthily, then she returned to the Russian with flaming eyes. He had not uttered a word.
"How dare you make me so nervous, sitting there like a log! I won't stand for such treatment—you Bear!"
"Then sit down. Why do you have that Turk with you at all?"
"He is not a Turk; he's an Englishman and a friend of mine. Why, he is the brother of your precious John Ardayre—and they have behaved shamefully to him, poor dear boy."
She was still enraged.
"He is not even a pure Turk—some of them are gentlemen. He is just the scum of the earth, and no blood relation to John Ardayre."
"He will let them know whether he is or not some day! I hear that your bit of bread and butter is going to have a child, and as Ferdie says it can't be John's, I suppose it is yours!"
Verisschenzko's face looked dangerous.
"You would do well to guard your words, Harietta. I do not permit you to make such remarks to me—and it would be more prudent if you warned your friend that he had better not make such assertions either—do you understand?"
Harietta felt some twinge of fear at the strange tone in the Russian's voice, but she was too out of temper to be cowed now.
"Puh!" and she tossed her head. "If the child is a boy Ferdie will have something to say—and as for Amaryllis—I hate her! I'd like to kill her with my own hands."
Verisschenzko rose and stood before her—and there was a look in his eyes which made her suddenly grow cold.
"Listen," he said icily. "I have warned you once and you know me well enough to decide whether I ever speak lightly. I warn you again to be careful of your words and your deeds. I shall warn you no more—if you transgress a third time—then I will strike."
Harietta grew pale to her painted lips.
How would he strike? Not with a stick as Hans would have done, but in some much more deadly way. She changed her manner instantly and began to laugh.
Verisschenzko knew that he had alarmed her sufficiently, so he sat down in his chair again and lit a cigarette calmly—then he sniffed the air.
"Your mongrel friend uses the same perfume as Stanislass' mistress!"
"Stanislass' mistress?" she had forgotten for the moment.
"Yes—don't you remember we burnt his scented handkerchief the last time we met, because we did not like her taste in perfumes?"
Harietta's ill humour rose again; she was annoyed that she had forgotten this incident. Her instinct of self-preservation usually preserved her from committing any such mistakes. She felt that it was now advisable to become cajoling; also there was something in the face of Verisschenzko and his fierceness which aroused renewed passion in her—it was absurd to waste time in quarrelling with him when in an hour Stanislass might be coming in, so she went over behind his chair and smoothed back his thick dark hair.
"You know that I adore you, darling Brute!"
"Of course—" he did not even turn his head towards her. "Have you had your heart's desire here in England?"
"Before this stupid war came—yes—now I'm through with it. I'm for Paris again."
"I suppose I must have been mistaken, but I thought I caught sight of your handsome German friend in the hall just now?"
"Your danseur at the Ardayre ball. I have forgotten his name."
"And so have I."
At that instant Marie appeared at the door and Fou-Chow came from under the chair where he was sheltering and pattered towards her with a glad tiny whine. The maid's eyes rounded with dislike as she looked at her mistress; she realised that the little creature had been roughly treated again. She picked him up and could hardly control her voice into a tone of respectfulness as she spoke:
"Monsieur Insborg demands if he can see Madame in half an hour. He telephoned to Madame but received no reply."
For a second Harietta's eyes betrayed her; they narrowed with alarm, and then she said suavely: "I suppose the receiver was off. No, say I am dining early for the theatre—but to-morrow at five."
The maid inclined her head and left the room silently, carrying Fou-Chow, but as she did so her eyes met Verisschenzko's and their expression suggested to him several things:
"Marie loves the dog—so she hates Harietta. Good—we shall see."
Thus his thoughts ran, but aloud he asked what Harietta meant to do with her life in Paris, and who had been her lovers here?
"You do say such frightful things to me, Stepan," and she tossed her head. "You think that because I took you, I take others! Pah!—and if I do—these Englishmen are peaches, just like little school boys—they'd not harm a fly. But I only love you, Darling Brute—even though we have had a row."
"I know that, of course. I am not jealous, only you have not given me any proofs lately, so I am going to retire from the field. I came to say good-bye."
He looked adorably attractive, Harietta thought—he made her blood run. Ferdinand Ardayre was but an instructed weakling, when one had come through his intricacies there was nothing in him. As a lover he was not worth the Russian's little finger, and the more Verisschenzko eluded her, the higher her passion for him grew; and here he was after months of absence and suggesting that he would leave her for ever! This was not to be borne!
The enraging part was that she would not dare to try to keep him with Hans again upon the scene. She hated Hans once more as she had hated him at the Ardayre ball!
Verisschenzko did not attempt to caress her; he sat perfectly still, nor did he speak.
Harietta could not think how to cope with this new mood; her weariness with the gloom of England and the absence of amusement seemed to render Stepan more than ever desirable. He represented the wild, the strong, the primitive, the only thing she felt that she desired at that moment—and if she let him go to-day he was capable of never coming back to her again. It was worth using any means to keep him on. She knew that she could obtain some show of love from him if she bribed him with bits of news. It would serve Hans right too for daring to turn up so inconveniently!
So she came from behind his chair and sat down on Verisschenzko's knee and commenced to whisper in his ear.
"Now I am beginning to think that you love me again," he announced presently,—"and of course I must always pay for love!"
* * * * *
They were seated by the fire in two armchairs when Stanislass came in from the Club before dinner at eight. Harietta had not even remembered that she must dress, so intoxicated with re-awakened passion for Verisschenzko had she become. A man for her must be in the room; her affection could not keep alight in absence. She had revelled in the joy of finding again a complete physical master. She loved him as a tigress may love her tamer, the man with the whip; and the knowledge that she was deceiving Hans and her husband and Ferdinand added a fillip to her satisfaction. But how was she going to be sure to see Stepan again—that was the question which still agitated her. Verisschenzko wished to further examine Ferdinand Ardayre, and so decided to make every one uncomfortable once more by staying on. Stanislass, very nervous with him now, talked fast and foolishly. Harietta fidgeted, and in a moment or two Ferdinand Ardayre was announced.
He reddened with annoyance to see the Russian had not gone; the flowers which he had brought were in a parcel in his hand.
Harietta took them disdainfully without a word of thanks. What a nuisance the creature was after all!—and Stanislass was—and everything and anything was which kept her from being alone with Verisschenzko!
"When are you coming to see me again, Stepan?" she asked, determined not to let him part without some definite future meeting settled.
"I will come back and take coffee with you to-night," he answered unexpectedly.
Harietta was enchanted, she had not hoped for this.
"No one bothers so much about dressing now, stay and dine as you are."
"Yes, do," chimed in Stanislass timidly in Russian, "we should be so charmed."
"Very well—I will dine—but I must change. I shall not be long though. Begin dinner without me, I will join you before the fish." And with no further waste of words he left them.
Harietta pushed Stanislass gently from the room with an injunction to be quick—and then she returned and held out her arms to Ferdinand Ardayre.
"Now you must not be jealous, Ferdie pet, about Verisschenzko," and she patted him. "It is business—I must talk to him to-night; he has an idea that you and I are not favourable to the Allies," and she laughed delightedly, "and I must get him off this notion!"
Ferdinand Ardayre looked sullen; he was burning with jealousy.
"Will you make it up to me afterwards?"
"But, of course, in the usual way!" and with one of her wonderful kisses Harietta went laughing from the room.
Left alone, the young man gave himself a morphine piqure, and then sat down and held his head in his hands.
He had heard, as he had told Harietta earlier in the afternoon, that his brother's wife was going to have a child, and he could find no way of proving legally that it could not be John's, so his venom had grown with his impotence.
His mother had said to him once:
"The accursed English will always beat us, my son. Thy real father would have put poison in their coffee. We can only hope for revenge some day. I fear we shall never gain our desires. The old fool whom thou callest father must be sucked dry of everything while he lives, because no quarter will be given us once the breath is out of his body."
Was this true? Must the English always beat him? He remembered his hatred of Denzil while at Eton, and the dog's life he had often led there. Well, he would hit back with an adder's sting when the chance came to him. He would like to see both Ardayres ruined and England herself in the dust, numbed and conquered. All his English life and education had never made him anything but an alien in thought and appearance.
It was his powerlessness which enraged him, but surely the day must come when he could make some of them suffer.
Harietta had not appeared in the hall when Verisschenzko returned dressed, and she even kept all three men waiting for about ten minutes, and then swept in resplendent in yellow brocade and the gardenias, when the clock had struck nine and most of the other diners were having their coffee.
The atmosphere of restraint and depression was a constant source of resentment to her. It was all very well to be dignified and refined for some definite end, like securing an unquestioned position, but it was a weariness of the flesh to have to keep up this role month after month with no excitement or reward, and every now and then she felt that she must break out even in small ways by wearing too gorgeous and unsuitable raiment. She wished that Germany would be quick about winning, then things could settle down and she could begin her social career again.
"It don't amount to a row of pins to the people who want to enjoy themselves, as I do, if their country is beaten or not; it'll all be the same six months after peace is declared, so I'm all for knocking whichever seems feeblest out quickly," she had said to Ferdinand, "and Paris will always be top of the world for clothes and things that one wants, so what do old politics matter?"
She derived some pleasure out of the sensation she created when she went into a restaurant, and she really looked extraordinarily handsome.
The dinner amused her, too; it was entertaining to make Ferdinand jealous. The emotions of Stanislass had ceased to count to her in any way whatsoever.
Verisschenzko had discovered what he required in regard to Ferdinand Ardayre before they went into the hall for coffee—there was nothing further to be gained by having another tete-a-tete with Harietta, so he sat down by Stanislass and suggested that the other two should go on to the Coliseum without them, and Harietta was obliged to depart reluctantly with Ferdinand, having arranged that Stepan should let her know, directly he arrived in Paris, whither he was going in a day or two also.
When she had left them Stanislass Boleski turned melancholy eyes to his old friend, but remained silent.
"Has it been worth it?" Verisschenzko asked, with certain feeling—they had relapsed into Russian.
Stanislass sighed deeply.
"No—far from it—I am broken and finished, Stepan, she has devoured my soul—"
"Why don't you kill her! I should."
The Pole clenched one of his transparent looking hands:
"I cannot—I desire her so—she is an obsession. I cannot work—she leaves me neither time nor brain. But I want her always, she is a burning torment, and a blast, and a sin. I see visions of the chance that I have missed, and then all is obliterated by her voluptuous kisses. I die each day with jealousy and shame. She withholds herself, and I would pay with the blood from my veins to possess her again!"
"You have no longer any delusions about her—you see her as a curse and a vampire?"
"I see everything, but I know only desire. Stepan, she has dragged me through every degradation. I am a witness of her unfaithfulness. She gives herself to this Turk with hardly a pretence of concealment—I know it—I burn with rage, and I can do nothing. She returns to my arms and I forget everything. I am a most unhappy man and only death can release me, and yet I wish to live because I love her. Each day is fierce longing for her—each night away from her hell—" Tears sprang to his hopeless black eyes and his voice broke with emotion.
Verisschenzko looked at him and a rough pity tempered his contempt.
Here was a case where an indulgence having become master was exacting a hideous toll. But the net was drawing closer and when all the strands were in his hands he would act without mercy.
When Amaryllis knew that John was going to get a few days' leave at Christmas a strange nervousness took possession of her. The personality of Denzil had been growing more real to her ever since they had parted, in spite of her endeavours to discipline her mind and control all emotion. The thought of him and the thought of the baby were inseparable and were seldom absent from her consciousness. All sorts of wonderful emotions held her, and exalted her imagination until she felt that Denzil was part of her daily life—and with the double interest her love for him grew and grew.
She had only seen John during the day when he had come to bid her good-bye before leaving for the Front, and most of the time they had been surrounded by the de la Paule family. But now she would have to face the fact of living with him again in an intimate relationship.
The thought appeared awful to her. There was something in her nature which resembled that of the bride of King Caudaules. She could not support the idea of belonging now to John; it seemed to her that he must have no rights at all. She had written to him dutifully each week letters about the place and her Committees in the County. She had not once mentioned the coming child.
Denzil's mother had been ill and the visit to Bath had been postponed, and after a fortnight alone at Ardayre she had come up to London. She had too much time to think there.
Stepan had left her a list of books to get and she had been steadily reading them.
How horribly ignorant she had been! She realised that what knowledge she had possessed had never been centralised or brought to any use. She had known isolated histories of Europe, and never had studied them collectively or contemporarily to discover their effect upon human evolution. She had learned many things, and then never employed her critical faculties about them. A whole new world seemed to be opening to her view. She had determined not to be unhappy and not to look ahead, but in spite of these good resolutions she would often dream in the firelight of the joy of being clasped in Denzil's arms.
When she thought of John it was with tolerance more than affection. What did he really mean to her, denuded of the glamour with which she herself had surrounded him?
Practically nothing at all.
She was quite aware that her state of being was rendering all her mental and emotional faculties particularly sensitive, and she did her utmost to remember all Verisschenzko's counsel to discipline herself and remain serene. The morning John was expected to arrive she had a hard fight with herself. She felt very nervous and ill at ease. Above all things, she must not be unkind.
He was bronzed and looked well, he was more expansive also and plainly very glad to see her.
He held her close to him and bent to kiss her lips; but some undefined reluctance came over her, and she moved her head aside.
Something in her resented the caress. Her lips were now for Denzil and for no other man. It was she who was recalcitrant and turned the conversation into everyday things.
The de la Paule family had been summoned for luncheon and the afternoon passed among them all, and then the evening and the tete-a-tete dinner came.
John knocked at the door of her room while she was dressing. Her maid had just finished her hair and she wondered at herself that she should experience a sense of shyness and have to suppress an inclination to refuse to let him come in. And once any of these little intimate happenings would have given her joy!
She kept Adams there, and hurried into her tea-gown and then walked towards the door.
John had not spoken much, but stood by the fire.
How changed things were! Once he had to be persuaded and enticed to stay with her at such moments, and it was he who now seemed to desire to do so, and it was she who discouraged his wishes!
In Amaryllis' mind an agitation grew. What could she say to him presently—if he suggested coming to sleep in her room?
The knowledge in her breast rose as an insurmountable barrier between them.
During dinner she kept the conversation entirely upon his life at the Front—which indeed really interested her. She was not cold or stiff in her manner, but she was unconsciously aloof.
Then they went back into the library, each feeling exceedingly depressed.
When coffee had come and they were quite alone Amaryllis felt she could not stand the strain, and went to the piano. She played for quite a long time all the things she remembered that John liked best. She wanted the music to calm her, and she wanted to gain time. John sat in one of the monster chairs and gazed into the fire. He seemed to see pictures in the glowing coals.
The strange relentless fate which had pursued him always as far as happiness was concerned!
He remembered what his mother had said to him when she lay a-dying with a broken heart.
"John, we cannot see what God means in it all. There must be some explanation because He cannot be unjust. It is because we have missed the point of some lesson, probably, and so are given it again to learn. Do not ever be rebellious, my son, and perhaps some day light will come."
He had read an article in some paper lately ridiculing the theory that we have had former lives, but, after all, perhaps there was some foundation for the belief. Perhaps he was paying in this one for sins in a previous birth. That would account for the seeming inexorableness of the misfortunes which fell upon him now, since common sense told him that in this life such cruel blows were undeserved.
Amaryllis glanced at his face from the piano as she played. It was infinitely sad.
A great pity grew in her heart. What ought she to do not to be unkind?
Presently she finished a soft chord and got up and came to his side.
They were both suffering cruelly—but John was going back to fight. She must have some explanation with him which could make him return to France at peace in a measure. It was cowardly to shirk telling him the truth, and she could not let him go again into danger with this black shadow between them.
He looked up at her and rose from his chair.
"You play so beautifully," he said hastily. "You take one out of oneself. Now it is late and the day has been long. Let us go to bed, dearest child."
Amaryllis stiffened suddenly—the moment that she dreaded had come.
"I would rather that you slept in your dressing-room. I have ordered that to be prepared—"
He looked at her startled—and then he took her hand.
"Amaryllis—tell me everything. Why are you so changed?"
"I'm trying not to be, John."
"You are trying—that proves that you are, if you must try. Please tell me what this means."
She endeavoured to remain calm and not become unhinged.
"It was you yourself who altered me. I came to you all loving and human and you froze me. There is nothing to be done."
"Yes, there is. You know that I love you."
"Perhaps you do, but the family matters more to you than I do, or anything else in the world."
"That may have been so once, but not now," his voice throbbed with feeling.
"Alas!" was all she answered and looked down. John longed to appeal to her—but he was too honest to seek to soften her through the link of the child. Indeed, the thought of it had grown hateful to him. He only knew that he had played for a stake which now seemed worthless. Amaryllis and her love mattered more than any child.
He clenched his hands tightly; the pain of things seemed hard to bear.
Why had he not broken the thongs of reserve which held him long days ago and made love to her in words? But that would have been dishonest. He must at least be true; and he realised now that he had starved her—no matter what his motive had been.
"Amaryllis, tell me everything, please," and he held out his hands and drew her to the sofa and sat down by her side.
She could not control her emotion any longer, and her voice shook as she answered him:
"I know that it was not you—but Denzil, John—and the baby is his, not yours."
His face altered. He had not been prepared to hear this thing and he was stunned.
"Ferdinand is an awful possibility to contemplate there at Ardayre, if you have no son—" She went on, trying to be calm, "but do you not think that you might have told me? Surely a woman has the right to select the father of her child."
John could not answer her. He covered his face with his hands.
"You see it is all pitiful," she continued, her voice deep and broken with almost a sob in it. "Denzil is so like you—it was an easy transition to find that I loved him—because I was only loving the imaginary you I had made for myself. I cannot explain myself and do not make any excuse. There is something in me, whenever I think of the baby, that draws me to Denzil and makes me remember that night. John, we must just face the situation and try to find some way to avoid as much pain as we can. I hate to think it is hurting you, too."
"Did Denzil tell you this?" his voice was icy cold.
"No—it came to me suddenly when I heard him say a word."
"'Sweetheart'!" and now John's eyes flashed. "He called you again 'Sweetheart'!"
"No, he did not—he used the word simply in speaking of a picture—but I recognised his voice then immediately—it is a little deeper than yours."
"When did you see Denzil?"
She told him the exact truth about their meeting and his coming to Ardayre, and how Denzil had endeavoured to keep his word.
"He would never have spoken to me—it was fate which sent him into the train, and then I made him speak—I could not bear it. After I recognised him, I made him admit that it was he. Denzil is not to blame. He left immediately and I have never seen him or heard from him since. It is I alone who must be counted with, John—Denzil will try never to see me again."
John groaned aloud.
"Oh God—the misery of it all!"
"John, I must tell you everything now while we are talking of these things. I love Denzil utterly. I thrill when I think of him; he seems to me my husband, not even only a lover. John, not long ago, when I felt the first movement of the child, I shook with longing for him—I found myself murmuring his name aloud. So you must think what it all means to me, so strongly passionate as I am. But I would never cheat you, John—I had to be honest. I could not go on pretending to be your wife and living a lie."
Tears of agony gathered in John Ardayre's blue eyes and rolled down his cheeks.
He suddenly understood the suffering, that she, too, must be undergoing.
What right had he to have taken this young and loving woman and then to have used her for his own aims, however high?
"Amaryllis—you cannot forgive me. I see now that I was wrong."
But the sympathy which she had felt when she had looked at him from the piano welled up again in Amaryllis's heart and drowned all resentment. She knew that he must be enduring pain greater than hers, so she stretched out her hands to him, and he took them and held them in his.
"Of course, I forgive you, John—but I cannot cease from loving Denzil, that is the tragedy of the thing. I am his really, not yours, even if I never see him again, and that is why we must not make any pretences. John dearest, let us be friends—and live as friends, then everything won't be so hard."
He let her hands drop and got up and paced the room. He was suffering acutely—must he renounce even the joy of holding her in his arms?
"But I love you, Amaryllis—I love you, dearest child—"
And now again she said "Alas!"—and that was all.
"Amaryllis—this is a frightful sacrifice to me—must you insist upon it?"
Then her eyes seemed to flash fire and her cheeks grew rose—and she stood up and faced him.
"I tell you, John, you do not know me. You have seen a well brought up, conventional girl—milk and water, ready to obey your slightest will—I had not found myself. I am a creature as primitive and passionate as a savage"—her breath came in little pants with her great emotion,—"I could not belong to two men—it would utterly degrade me, then I do not know what I should become. I love Denzil, body and soul—and while he lives no other man shall ever touch me; that is what passion means to me—fidelity to the thing I love! He is my Beloved and my darling, and I must go away from you altogether and throw off the thought of the family, and implore Denzil to take me when he comes home if you can agree to the only terms I can offer you now."
John bowed his head. Life seemed over for him and done.
Amaryllis came close to him, then she stood on tiptoe and kissed his brow. Her vehemence had died down in her sorrow for his pain.
"John," she whispered softly, "won't you always be my dearest friend? And when the baby comes it will be a deep interest to us both, and you must love it because it is mine and an Ardayre—and the comfort of that must fill our lives. I truly believe that you did everything, meaning it for the best, only perhaps it is dangerous to play with the creation of life—perhaps that is why fate forced me to know."
John drew her to him, he smoothed the soft brown hair back from her brow and kissed her tenderly, but not on the lips—those he told himself he must renounce for evermore.
"Amaryllis,"—his voice was husky still, "yes—I will be your friend, darling—and I will love your child. I was very wrong to marry you, but it was not quite hopeless then, and you were so young and splendid and living—and I was growing to love you, and for these reasons I hoped against hope—and then when I knew that everything was impossible—I felt that I must make it up to you in every other way I could. I don't know how to put things into words, I always was dull, but I thought if I gratified all your wishes perhaps—Ah!—I see it was very cruel. Darling, I would have told you the truth—presently—but then the war came, and the thought of Ferdinand here drove me mad and it forced my hand."
She looked up at him with her sweet true eyes—her one idea was now to comfort him since she need no longer fear.
"John, if you had explained the whole thing to me—I do not know, perhaps I should have agreed with you, for I, too, have much of this family pride, and I cannot bear to think of Ferdinand—or his children which may be, at Ardayre. I might have voluntarily consented—I cannot be sure. But somehow just lately I have been thinking very much about spiritual things, things I mean beyond the material, those great forces which must be all around us, and I have wondered if we are not perhaps too ignorant yet to upset any laws. Perhaps I am stupid—I don't know really. I have only been wondering—but perhaps there are powerful currents connected with laws, whether they are just or unjust, simply because of the force of people's thoughts for hundreds of years around them."
They went to the sofa then and sat down. It made John happier to hear her talk. His strong will was now conquering the outward show of his emotion at last.
"It may be so—"
"You see, supposing anything should happen to Ferdinand," she went on, "then Denzil would have been naturally the next heir—and now—if the child is a boy—"
"We neither of us thought of that."
"But nothing is likely to happen to Ferdinand; he won't enlist—it is only you, dear John, who are in danger, and Denzil, too—but surely the war cannot go on long now?"
John wondered if he should tell her what he really felt about this, or whether it were wiser to keep her quietly in this hopeful dream of a speedy end. He decided to say nothing; it was better for her health not to agitate her mind—events would speak for themselves, alas, presently.
He talked quietly then of Ardayre and of his boyhood and of its sorrows; he was determined to break down his own reserve, and Amaryllis listened interestedly, and gradually some kind of peace and calm seemed to come to them both, and they resolutely banished the thought of the future, and sought only to think of the present. And then at last John rose and took her hand:
"Go to bed now, dear girl,—and to-morrow I shall have quite conquered all the feelings which could disturb you, and just remember always that I am indeed your friend."
She understood at last the greatness of his sacrifice and the fineness of his soul, and she fell into a passion of weeping and ran from the room.
But John, left alone, sank down into the same chair as he had done once before on the night he was waiting for Denzil, and, as then, he buried his face in his hands.
The next day they met at breakfast. John had not slept at all and was very pale and Amaryllis's eyes still showed the deepened violet shadows from much weeping. But they were both quite calm.
She came over to John and kissed his forehead with gentle tenderness and then gave him his tea. They tried to talk in a friendly way as of old before any new emotions had come into their lives. And gradually the strain became lessened.
They arranged to go out shopping, and John bought Amaryllis a new emerald ring.
"Green is the colour of hope," she said. "I want green, John, because it will make me think of the springtime and nature, and all beautiful things."
They lunched at a restaurant and in the afternoon went down to Ardayre. John had many things to attend to and would be occupied all the following day.
There had been no Christmas feasting, but there were gifts to be distributed and various other duties and ceremonies to be gone through, although they had missed the Christmas day. Amaryllis tried in every way to be helpful to her husband, and he appreciated her stateliness and sweet manners with all the tenants and people on the estate.
So the four days passed quite smoothly, and the last night of the old year came.
"I don't think that you must sit up for it, dear," John said after dinner. "It will only tire you, and it is always a rather sad moment unless one has a party as we always had in old days."
Amaryllis went obediently to her room and stayed there; sleep was far from her eyes. What was the rest of her life going to be without Denzil? And what of John? Would they settle down into a real quiet friendship when he came back, and the child was born? Or would she have always to feel that he loved her and was for ever suffering pain?
The more she thought the less clear the issue became, and the deeper the sadness in the atmosphere.
At last she slipped down onto the big white bear-skin rug and began to pray.
But when the clock struck midnight, and the New Year bells rang out, a dreadful depression fell upon her, a sense of foreboding and fear.
She tried to tell herself that she was foolish, and it was all caused only because she was so highly strung and sensitive now, on account of her state. But the thought would persist that danger threatened some one she loved. Was it Denzil, or John?
Amaryllis tried to force herself from her unhappy impressions by thinking of what she could do presently in the summer, when she would be quite well again, though her greatest work must always be to try to make John happy, if by then he had come home.
She heard him go into his room at about one o'clock, and then she crept noiselessly to her great gilt bed.
John had waited for the New Year by the cedar parlour fire. The room was so filled with the radiance of Amaryllis that he liked being there.
And he, too, was thinking of what their new life would be should he chance to come through. The ache in his heart would gradually subside, he supposed, but how would he bear the long years, knowing that Amaryllis was thinking of Denzil—and longing for him—and if fate made them meet—what then?
How could he endure to know that these two beings were suffering?
There seemed no clear outlook ahead. But, as he knew only too well death could hardly fail to intervene, and if it should claim Denzil, then he must console Amaryllis' grief. But if happily it could be he who were taken, then their future path would be clear.
He could not forget the third eventuality, that he and Denzil might both be killed. He thought and thought over them all, and at last he decided to add a letter to his will. If he should be killed he would ask Denzil to marry Amaryllis immediately, without waiting for the conventional year. The times were too strenuous, and she must not be left unprotected—alone with the child.
He got up and began the letter to his lawyer, and so the instructions ran:
"I request my cousin Denzil Benedict Ardayre to marry Amaryllis, my wife, as soon as possible after my death, if he can get leave and is still alive. I confide her to his care and ask them both not to let any conventional idea of mourning stand in the way of these, my urgent last commands. And I ask my cousin Denzil, if he lives through the war, to take great care of the bringing up of the child."
He read thus far, and when he came to "the child" he scratched it out and wrote "my child" deliberately, and then he went on to add his wishes for its education, should it be a boy. The will had already amply provided for Amaryllis, so that she would be a rich woman for the rest of her days.
When all this was clearly copied out and sealed up in an envelope addressed to his lawyer, the clock struck twelve.
The silence in the old house was complete; there was no revelry for the first time for many years, even the servants far off in their wing had gone to rest.
It seemed to John that the shadow of sorrow was suddenly removed from him, and as though a weight of care had been lifted from his heart. He could not account for the alteration, but he felt no longer sad. Was it an omen? Was this New Year going to fulfill some great thing after all? A divine peace fell upon him, and then a pleasant sensation of sleep, and he turned out the lights and went softly to his room, and was soon in bed.
And then he slept soundly until late in the morning, and awoke refreshed and serene on New Year's day.
His leave was up on the third of January and he returned to London, but he would not let Amaryllis undergo the fatigue of accompanying him. He said good-bye to her there at Ardayre. She felt extremely sad and unhappy.
Had she done well, after all, to have told John the truth? Should she have borne things as they were and waited until the end of the war? But no, that would have been impossible to her nature. If she might not have Denzil for her lover, she would have no other man.
John's cheerfulness astonished her—it was so uniform, it could not be assumed. Perhaps she did not yet understand him, perhaps in his heart he was glad that all pretences had come to an end.
They had the most affectionate parting. John never was sentimental, and he went off with brave, cheery words, and every injunction that she was to take the greatest care of herself.
"Remember, Amaryllis, that you are the most precious thing on earth to me—and you must think also of the child."
She promised him that she would carry out all his wishes in this respect and remain quietly at Ardayre until the first of April, when perhaps he could get leave again and then she would go to London for the birth of the baby.
John turned and waved his hand as he went off down the avenue, and Amaryllis watched the motor until it was out of sight, the tears slowly brimming over and running down her cheeks.
She noticed that at the turn in the avenue a telegraph boy passed the car and came straight on. The wire was not for John evidently, so she would wait at the door to see. It proved to be for her, and from Denzil's mother, saying that she was en route for Dorchester, motoring, and would stop at Ardayre on the chance of finding its mistress at home. Amaryllis felt suddenly excited; she had often longed for this and yet in some way she had feared it also. What new emotions might the meeting not arouse?
It was quite early after luncheon that Mrs. Ardayre was announced. Amaryllis had waited in the green drawing room, thinking that she would come. She was playing the piano at the far end to try and lighten her feeling of depression, when the door opened, and to her astonishment quite a young, slight woman came into the room. She was a little lame, and walked with a stick. For a moment Amaryllis thought she must be mistaken, and rose with a vague, but gracious look in her eyes.
Mrs. Ardayre held out her hand and smiled:
"I hope you got my telegram in time," she said cordially. "I felt I must not lose the opportunity of making your acquaintance. My son has been so anxious for us to meet."
"You—you can't be Denzil's mother, surely!" Amaryllis exclaimed. "He is much too old to be your son!"
Mrs. Ardayre smiled again—while Amaryllis made her sit down on the sofa beside her and helped her off with her furs. "I am forty-nine years old, Amaryllis—if I may call you so—but one ought never to grow old in body. It is not necessary, and it is not agreeable to the eye!"
Amaryllis looked at her carefully in the full side light. It was the shape of her face, she decided, which gave her such youth. There were no unsightly bones to cause shadows and the skin was smooth and ivory—and her eyes were bright brown; their expression was very humorous as well as kindly, and Amaryllis was drawn to her at once.
They talked about their desire to know one another and about the family, and the place, and the war—and at last they spoke of Denzil, and Mrs. Ardayre told of what his life was, and his whereabouts now, and then grew retrospective.
"He is the dearest boy in the world," she said. "We have been friends always, and now he will not allow me to be anxious about him. I really think that as far as the frightfulness of things will let him be, he is actually enjoying his life! Men are such queer creatures, they like to fight!"
Amaryllis asked what was her latest news of him, and where he was, and listened interestedly to Mrs. Ardayre's replies:
"The cavalry have not had very much to do lately, fortunately," she remarked. "My husband has just gone back, but I suppose if there is a shortage of men for the trenches, they will be dismounted perhaps."
"I expect so—then we shall have to use all our courage and control our fears."
Amaryllis turned the conversation back to Denzil again, and drew his mother out. She would like to have heard incidents of his childhood and of how he looked when he was a little boy, but she was too timid to ask any deliberate questions. She felt drawn to this lady, she looked so young and human. Perhaps she was not so wonderful in evening dress, but her figure was boyish in its slim spareness—in these serge travelling clothes she hardly looked thirty-five!
She wondered what Denzil had told his mother about her—probably that she was going to have a child, but nothing more.
They talked in the most friendly way for half an hour, and then Amaryllis asked her guest if she would like to come and see the house and especially the picture gallery and the Elizabethan Denzil hanging there.
"It is just my boy!" Mrs. Ardayre cried, when they stood in front of it. "Eyes and all, they are bold and true and so loving. Oh! my dear child, you can't think what a darling he is; from his babyhood every woman has adored him—the nurse maids were his slaves, and my old housekeeper and my maid are like two jealous cats as to who shall do things for him when he comes home. He has that queer quality which can wile a bird off a tree. I daresay I am the silliest of them all!"
Amaryllis listened, enchanted.
"You see he has not one touch of me in him," Mrs. Ardayre went on, "but I was so frantically in love with my husband when he was born, he naturally was all Ardayre. Does it not interest you, Amaryllis, to wonder what your little one, when it comes, will look like? It ought to be pronouncedly of the family, your being also an Ardayre."
"Indeed yes, I am very curious. And how we all hope that it will be a son!"
"Is there a portrait of your husband here? Denzil says they are alike."
"There is one in my sitting room; it is going to be moved in here presently, when mine is done next year. It is by Sargent, almost the last portrait he painted. Let us go there now and see it."
"But there is no likeness," Mrs. Ardayre exclaimed presently, when they had gone to the cedar parlour and were examining the picture of John. "Can you discover it?"
"I thought they were very alike once—but I do not altogether see it now."
Mrs. Ardayre smiled. "I cannot, of course, think any one can compare with my Denzil! And yet I am not a real mother at all! I am totally devoid of the maternal instinct in the abstract! Children bore me, and I am glad I have never had any more. I adore Denzil because he is Denzil. I loved my husband and delighted in being the mother of his son."
"There are the two sorts of women, are not there? The mother woman and the mate woman—we have to be one or the other, I suppose. I hardly yet know to which category I belong," and Amaryllis sighed, "but I rather think that I am like you—the man might matter even more to me than the child, and I know that the child matters to me enormously because of the man. It is all a great mystery and a wonder though."
Beatrice Ardayre looked up at the portrait of John; his stolid face did not give her the impression that he could make a woman, and such a fascinating and adorable creature as Amaryllis, passionately in love with him, or fill her with mysterious feelings of emotion about his child! Now, if it had been Denzil she could have understood a woman's committing any madness for him, but this stodgy, respectable John!
Her bright brown eyes glanced at Amaryllis furtively, and she saw that she was looking up at the picture with an expression of deep melancholy on her face.
There was some mystery here.
She went over again in her mind what Denzil had told her about Amaryllis. It was not a great deal. He had arrived at Bath that time looking very stern and abstracted, and had mentioned rather shortly that he had come down with the head of the family's wife in the train, and had gone on to Ardayre with her, after meeting them the previous night at dinner for the first time.
He had not been at all expansive, but later in the evening when they had sat by her sitting room fire, he had suddenly said something which had startled her greatly:
"Mum—I want you to know Amaryllis Ardayre. I am madly in love with her—she is going to have a baby, and she seems to be so alone."
It must be one of those sudden passions, and the idea seemed in some way to jar a little. Denzil to have fallen in love with a woman whom he knew was going to have a child!
She had said something of this to him, and he had turned eyes full of pain to her and even reproach.
"Mum—you always understand me—I am not a beast, you know—I haven't anything more to say, only I want you to be really kind to her—and get to know her well."
And he had not mentioned the subject again, but had been very preoccupied during all his three days' visit, which state she could not account for by the fact of the war—Denzil, she knew, was an enthusiastic soldier, and to be going out to fight would naturally be to him a keen joy. What did it all mean? And here was this sweet creature speaking of divine love mysteries and looking up at the portrait of her dull, unattractive husband with melancholy eyes, whereas they had sparkled with interest when Denzil was the subject of conversation! Could she, too, have fallen in love with Denzil in one night at dinner and a journey in the train!
It was all very remarkable.
They had tea together in the green drawing room, and by that time they had become very good friends.
Mrs. Ardayre told Amaryllis of the little old manor home she had in Kent—The Moat, it was called, and of her garden and the pleasure it was to her.
"I had about twelve thousand a year of my own, you know," she said, "and ever since Denzil was born I have each year put by half of it, so that when he was twenty-one I was able to hand over to him quite a decent sum that he might be independent and free. It is so humiliating for a man to have to be subservient to a woman, even a mother, and I go on doing the same every year. All the last years of his life my husband was very delicate—he was so badly wounded in the South African War, you know—so we lived very quietly at The Moat and in my tiny house in London. I hope you will let me show you them both one day."
Amaryllis said she would be delighted, and added:
"You will come and see me, won't you? I am going up to our house in Brook Street at the beginning of April, and I am praying that I may have a little son about the first week in May."
Just before Mrs. Ardayre went on to Dorchester, she asked Amaryllis if she had any message to send Denzil—she wanted to watch her face. It flushed slightly and her deep soft voice said a little eagerly:
"Yes—tell him I have been so delighted to meet you, and you are just what he said I should find you!—and tell him I sent him all sorts of good wishes—" and then she became a little confused.
"I should so love a photograph of you—would you give me one, I wonder?" the elder woman asked quickly, to avoid any pause, and while Amaryllis went out of the room to get it, she thought:
"She is certainly in love with Denzil. It could not have been the first time he had seen her—at the dinner—and yet he never tells lies." And she grew more and more puzzled and interested.
When Amaryllis was alone after the motor with Mrs. Ardayre in it had departed, an uncontrollable fit of restlessness came over her. The visit had stirred up all her emotions again; she could not grieve any more about the tragedy of John; her whole being was vibrating with thoughts of Denzil and desire for his presence—she could see his face and feel the joy of his kisses.
At that moment she would have flung everything in life away to rush into his arms!
Denzil was wounded at Neuve Chapelle on March 10th, 1915, though not seriously—a flesh wound in the side. He had done most gallantly and was to get a D.S.O. He had been in hospital for two weeks and was almost well when Amaryllis came up to Brook Street, on the first of April. She had read his name in the list of wounded, and had telegraphed to his mother in great anxiety, but had been reassured, and now she throbbed with longing to see him.
To know that soon he would be going back again to the Front, was almost more than she could bear. She was feeling wonderfully well herself. Her splendid constitution and her youth made natural things cause her little distress. She was neither nervous nor fretful, nor oppressed with fancies and moods. And she looked very beautiful with her added dignity of mien and perfectly chosen clothes.
Mrs. Ardayre came at once to see her the morning after her arrival, and suggested that Denzil should come when out driving that afternoon. Amaryllis tried to accept this suggestion calmly, and not show her joy, and Mrs. Ardayre left, promising to bring her son about four.
Denzil had said to his Mother when he knew that Amaryllis was coming to London:
"Mum, I want to see Amaryllis—please arrange it for me. And Mum, don't ask me anything about it; just leave me there when we drive and come and fetch me when I must go in again."
Mrs. Ardayre was a very modern person, but she could not help exclaiming in a half voice while she sat by her son's bed:
"You know she is going to have a baby in a month, dear boy, perhaps she won't care to see you now."
A flush rose to Denzil's forehead: "Yes, I do know," he said a little hurriedly, "but we are not conventional in these days. I wish to see her; please, darling Mother, do what I ask."
And then he had turned the conversation.
So his mother had obediently arranged matters, and at about four in the afternoon left him at the Brook Street door.
Early as it was, Amaryllis had made the tea, and expected to see both Denzil and his mother. The room was full of hyacinths and daffodils, and she herself looked like a spring flower, as she sat on the sofa among the green silk cushions, wrapped in a pale parma violet tea-gown.
The butler announced "Captain Ardayre," and Denzil came in slowly, and murmured "How do you do?"
But as soon as the door was closed upon him, he started forward, forgetting his stiff side.
He covered her hands with kisses, he could not contain his joy; and then he drew back and looked at her with worship and reverence in his blue eyes.
The most mysterious, quivering emotions were coursing through him, mixed with triumph, as he took in the picture she made. This delicate, beautiful creature! And to see her—so!
Amaryllis lowered her head in a sweet confusion; her feelings were no less aroused. She was thrilling with passionate welcome and delicious shyness. Nature was indeed ruling them both, and with a glad "Darling Angel!" Denzil sat down beside her and clasped her in his arms. Then for a few seconds delirious pleasure was all that they knew.
"Let me look at you again, Sweetheart," he ordered presently, with a tone of command and possession in his very deep voice, which caused Amaryllis delight. It made her feel that she really belonged to him.
"To me you have never been so beautiful—and every scrap of you is mine."
"I had to come—I cannot help whether it is right or wrong. I must go back to the Front as soon as I am fit, and I could not have borne to go without seeing you, darling one."
They had a hundred things to say to each other about themselves—and about the baby, and the next hour was very sacred and wonderful. Denzil was a superlatively perfect lover and knew the immense value of tender words.
He intoxicated Amaryllis' imagination with the moving things he said.
Alas! how many worthy men miss themselves, and make their loved ones miss the best part of life's joys by their mulish silence and refusal to gratify this desire of all women to be told that they are loved, to have the fact expressed in passionate speech! No deeds make up for this omission.
Denzil had none of these limitations; he said everything which could cajole and excite the imagination. He murmured a hundred affecting tendernesses in her ears. He caressed her—he commanded and mastered her, and then assured her that he was her slave. He was arrogant and humble—arrogant when he claimed her love, humble in his worship. He spoke of the child and what it meant to him that it should be his and hers. He caused her to feel that he was strong and protective and that she was to be cherished and adored. He made pictures of how it would be if he could spend a whole day and night with her presently in June, when she would be quite well, and of how thrilled with interest he would be to see the baby, and that, of course, it must be exactly like himself! And Amaryllis' eyes, all soft and swimming with emotion answered him.
Naturally, since she loved him so passionately, it would be his image! Had not his own mother accounted for his pronounced Ardayre stamp by her having been so in love with his father—so, of course, this would re-occur! It was all dear to think about!
They spent another hour of divine intoxication, and then the clock struck six.
It sounded like a knell.
Amaryllis gave a little cry.
"Denzil, it is altogether unnatural that you should have to go. To think that you must leave me, and may not even welcome your son! To think that by the law we are sinning, because I am sitting here clasped in your arms! To think that I may not have the joy of showing you the exquisite little clothes, and the pink silk cot—all the things which have given me such pleasure to arrange.... It is all too cruel! You know that eighteenth century engraving in the series of Moreau le Jeune, of the married lovers playing with the darling, teeny cap together! Well, I have it beside my bed, and every day I look at it and pretend it is you and me!"
"Darling—Darling!"—and Denzil fiercely kissed her, he was so deeply moved.
"It is all holy and beautiful, the coming to earth of a soul. It only makes me long to be good and noble and worthy of this wonderful thing. But for us—we who love truly and purely, it has all been turned into something forbidden and wrong."
"Heart of me—I must have some news of you. I cannot starve there in the trenches, knowing that all the letters that should be mine are going to John. My mother is really trustworthy, will you let her be with you as often as you can, that she may be able to tell me how you are, precious one? When the seventh of May comes I shall go perfectly mad with suspense and anxiety. I will arrange that my mother sends me at once a telegram."
"Denzil!" and Amaryllis clung to him.
"It is an impossible situation," and he gave a great sigh. "I shall tell John that I have seen you—I cannot help it, the times are too precarious to have acted otherwise. And afterwards, when the war is over, we must face the matter and decide what is best to be done."
"I cannot live without you, Denzil, and that I know."
They said good-bye at last silently, after many kisses and tears, and Denzil came out into the darkening street to his mother in the motor, with white, set face.
"I am a little troubled, dearest boy," she whispered, as they went along. "I feel that there is something underneath all this and that Amaryllis means some great thing in your life—the whole aspect of everything fills me with discomfort. It is unlike your usual, sensitive refinement, Denzil, to have gone to see her—now—"
"I understand exactly what you mean, Mother. I should say the same thing myself in your place. I can't explain anything, only I beg of you to trust me. Amaryllis is an angel of purity and sweetness; perhaps some day you will understand."
She took his hand into her muff and held it:
"You know I have no conventions, dearest, and my creed is to believe what you say, but I cannot account for the situation because of your only having met Amaryllis so lately for the first time. I could understand it perfectly if you had been her lover, and the child was your child, but she has not been married a whole year yet to John!"
Denzil answered nothing—he pressed his mother's hand.
She returned the pressure:
"We will talk no more about it."
"And you will go on being kind?"
Before they reached the hospital door in Park Lane Mrs. Ardayre had been instructed to send an immediate telegram the moment the baby was born, and to comfort and take care of Amaryllis, and tell her son every little detail as to her welfare and about the child.
"I will try not to form any opinion, Denzil; and some day perhaps things will be made plain, for it would break my heart to believe that you are a dishonourable man."
"You need not worry, Mum dearest. Indeed, I am not that. It is just a tragic story, but I cannot say more. Only take care of Amaryllis, and send me news as often as you can."
* * * * *
The telegram to say that Amaryllis had a little son came to John Ardayre on the night before he went into the trenches again at the second battle of Ypres on May 9th, 1915. He had been waiting in feverish impatience and expectancy all the day, and, in fact, for three days for news.
His whole inner life since that New Year's night had been strangely serene, in spite of its frightful outward turmoil and stress. He had taken the tumult of Neuve Chapelle calmly, and had come through it and all the beginning of the Ypres battle without a scratch. He had felt that he was looking upon it all from some detached standpoint, and that it in no way personally concerned him.
He had seen Denzil do the splendid thing and he had felt a distinct distress when he had seen him fall wounded.
Denzil was just back now and in the trenches again with the rest of the dismounted cavalry. They might meet in the attack at dawn.
When John read the telegram from his aunt, Lady de la Paule, his emotion was so great that he staggered a little, and a friend standing by in the billet took out his flask and gave him some brandy, thinking that he must have received bad news.
Then it seemed as though he went mad!
The repression of his life appeared to fall from him, he became as a new man. All his comrades were astonished at him, and a Scotch Corporal was heard to remark that it was "na canny—the Captain was fey."
The Ardayres were saved! The family would carry on!
Fondest love welled up in his heart for Amaryllis. If he only came through he would devote his life to showing her his gratitude and showering everything upon her that her heart could desire—and perhaps—perhaps the joy of the baby would make up for the absence of Denzil. This thought stayed with him and comforted him.
Lady de la Paule had wired:
"A splendid little son born 11:45 A.M. seventh May—Amaryllis well—all love."
And an hour or two before this Denzil had also received the news from his Mother. He, too, had grown exalted and thanked God.
So the day that the Germans were to fail at Ypres, and destiny was to accomplish itself for these two men—dawned.
* * * * *
Of what use to write of that terrible fight and of the gas and the horror and the mud? John Ardayre seemed to bear a charmed life as he led his men "over the top." For an hour wild with exaltation and gladness, he rallied them and cheered them on. The scene of blood and carnage has been too often repeated on other fateful days, and as often well described, when acts of glorious heroism occurred again and again. John had rushed forward to succour a wounded trooper when a shell crashed near them, and he fell to the ground. And then he know what the great thing was the New Year had promised him. For death was going to straighten out matters—John was going beyond. Well, he had never been rebellious, and he knew now that light had come. But the sky above seemed to be darkening curiously, and the terrible noise to be growing dim, when he was conscious that a man was crawling towards him, dragging a leg, and then his eyes opened wildly for an instant, and he saw that it was Denzil all covered with blood.
"Are we both going West, Denzil?" he demanded faintly. "At least I am—" then he gasped a little, while a stream of scarlet flowed from his shattered side.
"I've asked you in a letter to marry Amaryllis immediately—if you get home. I hope your number is not up, too, because she will be all alone. Take care of her, Denzil, and take care of the child...." His voice grew lower and lower, and the last words came in spasms: "There is an Ardayre son, you know—so it's all right. The family is saved from Ferdinand and I am very glad to die."
Denzil tried to get out his flask, but before he could reach John's lips with it he saw that it would be of no avail—for Death had claimed the head of the Family. And above his mangled body John's face wore a look of calm serenity, and his firm lips smiled.
Then things became all vague for Denzil and he remembered nothing more.
It was more than two months before Denzil was well enough to be brought from Boulogne, and then he had a relapse and for the whole of July was dangerously ill. At one moment there seemed to be no hope of saving his leg, and his mother ate her heart out with anxiety.
And Amaryllis, back at Ardayre with the little Benedict, wept many tears.
John's death had deeply grieved her. She realised his steadfast kindness and affection for her. He had written her a letter just before the battle had begun—a short epistle telling her calmly that the chances would be perhaps even for any man to come out of it alive—and assuring her of his greatest devotion.
"I know that Denzil went to see you, my dear little girl. He has told me about it. And I know that you love each other. There is only one chance for us in the future—and that lies with the child. It may be that when it comes to you it may fill your life and satisfy you. This is my prayer—otherwise we must see what can be arranged about things; because I cannot allow you to be unhappy. You were an innocent factor in all this, and it would be unjust that you should be hurt."
How good and generous John had always been.
And his letter to his lawyers! To make things smooth for her—and for Denzil—how marvellously kind!
Her mourning for John was real and deep, as it would have been for a brother. But during the month of intense anxiety about Denzil everything else was numbed, even her interest in her son.
By the end of August he was out of danger, although little hope was entertained that he would ever walk easily. But this was a minor thing—and gradually it began to be some consolation to the two women who loved him to know that he was safely wounded and would probably not be fit for active service again for a very long time.
They wrote letters to one another, but they decided not to meet. Six months must elapse at least, they both felt—even in spite of John's commands.
Another shell must have fallen not far off, for his body was never found—only his field glasses, broken and battered. And there would have been no actual information about his death had not Denzil seen him die.
* * * * *
Harietta Boleski and Stanislass and Ferdinand Ardayre had remained in Paris, with visits to Fontainebleau.
When John had been killed, Harietta had been extremely perturbed.
"Now Stepan will be able to marry that odious bit of bread and butter, and he is sure to do it after the year!" This thought rankled with her and embittered everything. Nothing pleased her. She grew more than ever rebellious at the dullness she had to live in. War was an imposition which ought not to be tolerated and she often told Hans so. At last she grew to take quite an interest in her spying for lack of more agreeable things to do.
And so the months went by and November came, and a madness of jealousy was gradually augmenting in Harietta for Amaryllis Ardayre.
Verisschenzko had gone to Russia in September, and she was convinced that he loved Amaryllis and that the child was his child. She could not conceive of a spiritual devotion, and something had altered all Stepan's ways. From the moment he returned to Paris until he had left she had tried and been unable to invoke any response in him, and she had felt like a foiled tigress when another has eaten her prey.
As the impossibility of moving him forced itself upon her unwilling understanding, so the wildest passion for him grew, and when he left in September she was quite ill for a week with chagrin; then she became moody and more than ever capricious, and made Stanislass' life a hell, while Ferdinand Ardayre had little less misery to endure.
An incident late in November caused her jealousy to burst into flame.
She heard that Verisschenzko had returned from Russia and she went to his rooms to see him. The Russian servant who was accustomed to receive her was there waiting for his master who had not yet arrived. Without a word she passed the old man when he opened the door, and made her way into the sitting room, and then into the bedroom beyond. She did not believe that Stepan was not there and wanted to make sure. It was empty but a light burned before an Ikon, the doors of which were closed.
Curiosity made Harietta go close and examine it. She knew the room so well and had never seen it there before. The table beneath it was arranged like an altar, and the Ikon was let in to the carved boiserie of the wall. It must have been since he had parted with her that this ridiculous thing had been done! She had not entered his appartement since June. She felt angry that the shrine should be closed and that she could not look upon it, for it must certainly be something which Verisschenzko prized.
She bent nearer and shook the little doors; they resisted her, and her temper rose. Then some force seemed to propel her to commit sacrilege. She shook and shook and tore at the golden clasp, her irritation giving strength and cunning to her hands; and at last the small bolt came undone and the doors flew open—and an exquisitely painted modern picture of the Virgin disclosed itself, holding the Christ child in her arms. But for all the saintliness in the eyes of Mary, the face was an exact portrait of Amaryllis Ardayre!
A frenzy of rage seized Harietta. Her rival reigned now indeed! This was positive proof to her, not of spiritual meaning—not of the mystic, abstract aloofness of worship which lay deep in Stepan's nature and had caused him to have Amaryllis transfigured into the symbol of purity, a daily reminder that she must always be for him the lady of his soul—such things had no meaning for Harietta. The Ikon was merely a material proof that Verisschenzko loved Amaryllis—and, of course, as soon as the year of mourning should be over he would make her his wife.
She trembled with passionate resentment. Nothing had ever moved her so forcibly. She took out her pearl hatpin and stabbed out the eyes of the Virgin, almost shaking with passion, and scratched and obliterated the face of the Christ child. This done, she extinguished the little lamp and slammed to the doors.
She laughed savagely as she went back into the sittingroom.
"The Virgin indeed!—and his child!—well, I've taught him!" and she flung past the Russian servant with a look which was a curse, so that the old man crossed himself and quickly barred the entrance door, when she stamped off down the stairs.
Arrived in her gilded salon at the Universal, she would like to have wrung some one's neck. She had never been so full of rage in her life. She did find a little satisfaction in a kick at Fou-Chow, who fled whining to his faithful Marie who had come in to carry away her mistress' sable cloak.
The maid's face became thunderous. A look of sullen hate gleamed in her dark eyes.
"She will kick thee, my angel, just once too often," she murmured to the wee creature when she had carried him from the room. "And then we shall see, thy Marie knows that which may punish her some day soon!"
Harietta, quite indifferent to these matters, telephoned immediately to Ferdinand Ardayre.
He must come to her instantly without a moment's delay! And she stamped her foot.
A plan which might give her some satisfaction to execute had evolved itself in her brain.
He was in his room in another part of the building, and hastened to obey her command. She was livid with anger and seemed to have grown old.
She went over and kissed him voluptuously and then she began:
"Ferdie," and she whispered hoarsely, "now you have got to do something for me. You are not going to let the child of Verisschenzko be master of Ardayre! We are going to gain time and perhaps some day be able to do away with it. Now I have got a plan which will lighten your heart."
She knew that she could count upon him, for since the birth of the little Benedict and the death of John, Ferdinand had stormed with threats of vengeance, while knowing his impotency.
His life with Harietta had grown a torment and a hell—but with every fresh unkindness and pang of jealousy she caused him, his low passion for her increased. He knew that she loved Verisschenzko, whom he hated with all his might—and if she now proposed to hurt both his enemies, he would assist her joyfully.
"Tell it me," he begged.
So she drew him to the sofa and picked up a block and pencil.
"Do you possess any of the writing of your dead brother, John, or if you don't, can you get some from anywhere?"
Ferdinand's face blazed with excitement. What was she going to suggest?
"I always keep one letter—in which he ordered me never to address him and told me I was not of his blood but was a mongrel Turk."
"That is splendid—where is it? Have you got it here?"
"Yes, in my despatch box. I'll go and fetch it now."
"Very well. I will get rid of Stanislass for the evening and we can have some hours alone—and you will see if I don't help you to worry them hideously, Ferdie, even if that is all we can do!"
And when he had left her presence, she paced the room excitedly.
"It will prevent Stepan's marrying her at all events for; a long time."
The thought that she had lost Verisschenzko completely unbalanced her. It was the first time in her life that she had had to relinquish a man. She hated to have to realise how highly he must hold Amaryllis. He seemed the only thing she wanted now in life, and she knew that he was quite beyond her, and that indeed he had never been hers; the one human being whom she had attracted and yet never been able to intoxicate and draw against his will. She went over all their past meetings. With what supreme insolence he had invariably treated her—even in moments when he permitted himself to feel passion! And how she adored him! She would have crawled to him now on the ground. She had not known she could feel so much. Every animal, sensual desire made her throb with rage. She would have torn the flesh from Amaryllis' face had she been there, and thrust her hatpin into her real eyes.
But the spoke should be put in the wheel of Verisschenzko's marrying her! And perhaps some other revenge would come. Hans?—Hans should be made to carry the scheme through—Hans and Ferdinand. She dug her nails into the palms of her hands. No wild animal in its cage could have felt more rage.
Then when Ferdinand returned with John's letter, she controlled herself and sat down at the table beside him and supervised his attempts at copying the writing, while she unfolded the details of her scheme.
"You know John's body was never found," she informed him presently. "I heard all the details from a man who was there—they only picked up his glasses and his boot. He could very well have been taken prisoner by the Germans and be in hospital there, too ill to have written for all this time. Now think how he ought to word his first letter to his precious bread and butter wife!"
"There must only be the fewest words, because I don't know what terms they were on. I think a postcard, if we get one, would be the best thing."
"Of course?—I have some one who can see to that—it will be worth waiting the week for—we'll procure several, and meanwhile you must practise his hand."
At the end of half an hour a very creditable forgery had been secured, and the two jealous beings felt satisfied with their work for the time.
It had been arranged that Denzil and his mother should spend Christmas with Amaryllis at Ardayre. Both felt that it was going to be the most wonderful moment when they should meet. There were no obstacles now to their happiness and everything promised to be full of joy. The months which had gone by since John's death had been turning Amaryllis into a more serene and forceful being. The whole burden of the estate had fallen upon her young shoulders and she had endeavoured to carry it with dignity and success—and yet have time to spare for her war organisations in the county. She had developed extraordinarily and had grown from a very pretty girl into a most beautiful young woman. What would Denzil think of her? That was her preoccupation—and what would he think of the baby Benedict?
The great rooms at Ardayre were shut up except the green drawing room, and she lived in her own apartments, the cedar parlour being her chief pleasure. It was now filled with her books and all the personal belongings which expressed her taste. The nurseries for the heir were just above.
Her guests were to be there on the twenty-third of December, and when the hour came for the motor to arrive from the station Amaryllis grew hot and cold with excitement. She had made herself look quite exquisite in a soft black frock, and her heart was beating almost to suffocation when she heard the footsteps in the hall. Then the green drawing room door opened and Colonel and Mrs. Ardayre were announced and were immediately greeted by the great tawny dogs and then by their mistress. A pang contracted her heart when she caught sight of Denzil—he was so very pale and thin, and he walked painfully and slowly with a stick. It was only a wreck of the splendid lover who had come to Ardayre before. But he was always Denzil of the ardent eyes and the crisp bronze hair!
They were people of the world, and so the welcoming speeches went off easily, and they sat round the tea-table with its singing kettle and its delectable buns and Devonshire cream, and Amaryllis was gracious and radiant and full of dignity and charm. But inwardly she felt deliciously shy and happy.
They had neither met nor written any love letters since the April day when they had parted in Brook Street, which now seemed to be an age away.
Her attraction for Denzil had increased a hundredfold. He thought as she sat there pouring out the tea, of how he would woo her with subtlety before he would claim her for his own. He was stimulated by her sweet shyness and her tender aloofness. The tea seemed to him to be interminably long and he wished for it to end.
Mrs. Ardayre behaved with admirable tact; she spoke of all sorts of light and friendly things, and then asked about the baby. Was he not wonderful, now at seven months old!
The lovely vivid pink deepened in Amaryllis' smooth velvet cheeks, and her grey eyes became soft as a doe's.
"You shall see him in the morning—he will be asleep now. Of course, to me he is wonderful, but I daresay he is only an ordinary child."
She had peeped at Denzil and had seen that his face fell a little as she said they should only see the baby the next day, and she had felt a wave of joy. She knew that she meant to take him up quietly presently—just he and she alone!
After they had finished tea, Mrs. Ardayre suggested that she should go to her room.
"I am tired, Amaryllis, my dear," she announced cheerily,—"and I shall rest for an hour before dinner."
"Come then and I will show you both your rooms."
They came up the broad staircase with her, Denzil a step at a time, slowly, and at the top she stopped and said to him:
"Perhaps you will remember that is the door of the cedar parlour at the end of the passage—you will find me there when I have installed your mother comfortably. Your room is next to hers," and she pointed to two doors through the archway of the gallery. Then she went on with Mrs. Ardayre.
Some contrary nervousness made her remain for quite a little while.
Was Cousin Beatrice sure that she was comfortable? Had she everything she wanted? Her maid was already unpacking, and all was warm and fresh scented with lavender and bowls of violets on the dressing table.
"My dear child, it is Paradise, and you are a perfect angel—I shall revel in it after the cold journey down."
So at last there was no excuse to stay longer, and Amaryllis left the room; but in the passage it seemed as though her knees were trembling, and as she passed the top of the staircase she leaned for a second or two on the balustrade.
The longed for moment had come!
When she opened the door of the cedar parlour, with its soft lamps and great glowing logs, she saw Denzil was already there, seated on the sofa beside the fire.
She ran to him before he could rise, the movement she knew was pain to him—and she sank down beside him and held out her hands.
"Beloved darling!" he whispered in exaltation, and she slipped forward into his arms.
Oh! the bliss of it all! After the months of separation, and the horrible trenches and the battles and the suffering, the days and nights of agonising pain! It seemed to Denzil that his being melted within him—Heaven itself had come.
They could not speak coherently for some moments, everything was too filled with holy joy.
"At last! at last!" he cried presently. "Now we shall part no more!"
Then he had to be assured that she loved him still.
"It is I who must take care of you now, Denzil, and I shall love to do that," she cooed.
"I have not thought much of the hurt," he answered her, "for all these months I have just been living for this day, and now it has come, darling one, and I can hardly believe that it is true, it is so absolutely divine—"
They could not talk of anything but themselves and love for an hour, they told each other of their longings and anxieties—and at last they spoke of John.
"He was so splendid," Denzil said, "unselfish to the very end," and then he described to Amaryllis how he actually had died, and of his last words, and their thought for her.
"If he could see us, I think that he would be glad that we are happy."
"I know that he would," but the tears had gathered in her eyes.
Denzil stroked her hand gently; he did not make any lover's caress, and she appreciated his understanding, and after a little she leaned against his arm.
"Denzil—when we live here together, we must always try to carry out all that John would have wished to do. It meant his very soul—and you will help me to be a worthy mother of the Ardayre son."
She had not spoken of the child before—some unaccountable shyness had restrained her, even in their fondest moments. And yet the thought had never been absent from either. It had throbbed there in their hearts. It was going to be so exquisite to whisper about it presently!
And Denzil had waited until she mentioned this dear interest. He did not wish to assume any rights, or take anything for granted. She should be queen, not only of his heart, but of everything, until she should herself accord him authority.
But his eyes grew wistful now as he leaned nearer to her.
"Darling, am I not going to be allowed to see—my son!"
Then, with a cry, Amaryllis bent forward and was clasped in his arms. All her wayward shyness melted, and she poured forth her delight in the baby—their very own!
"You will see that he is just you, Denzil,—as we knew that he would be, and now I will go and fetch him for you and bring him here, because the stairs up to the nursery are so steep they might hurt you to climb."
She left him swiftly, and was not long gone, and Denzil sat there by the fire trembling with an emotion which he could not have described in words.
The door opened again and Amaryllis returned with the tiny sleeping form, in its long white nightgown and wrapped in a great fleecy shawl.
She crept up to him very softly. The little one was sound asleep. She made a sign to Denzil not to rise, and she bent down and placed the bundle tenderly in his arms.
Then they gazed at the little face together with worshipping eyes.
It was just a round pink and white cherub like thousands of others in the world; the very long eyelashes, sweeping the sleep-flushed cheeks, and minute rings of bronze-gold hair curling over the edge of the close cambric cap; but it seemed to those two looking at it to be unique, and more beautiful than the dawn.
"Isn't he perfect, Denzil!" whispered Amaryllis, in ecstasy.
"Marvellous!" and Denzil's voice was awed.
Then the wonder and the divinity of love and its spirit of creation came over them both and a mist of deep feeling grew in both their eyes.
* * * * *
At dinner they were all so happy together. Mrs. Ardayre was a note of harmony anywhere. She had gradually grown to understand the situation in the months of her son's recovering from his wounds and although no actual words had passed between them Denzil felt that his mother had divined the truth and it made things easier.
Afterwards, in the green drawing room, Amaryllis played to them and delighted their ears, and then they went up to the cedar parlour and sat round the fire and talked and made plans.
If it should be quite hopeless that Denzil could ever return to the front, or be of service behind the lines, he meant to enter Parliament. The thought that his active soldiering was probably done was very bitter to him, and the two women who loved him tried to create an enthusiasm for the parliamentary idea. The one certainty was that his adventurous spirit would never remain behind in the background, whatever occurred.
They would be married at the beginning of February, they decided. The whole of their world knew of John's written wishes, and no unkind comments would be likely to arise.
And when Beatrice Ardayre left them alone to say good-night to each other, Denzil drew Amaryllis back to his side!
"I think the world is going to be a totally new place, darling—after the war. If it goes on very long the gradual privation and suffering and misery will create a new order of things, and all of us should be ready to face it. Only fools and weaklings cling to past systems when the on-rolling wave has washed away their uses. Whatever seems for the real good of England must be one's only aim, even if it means abandoning what was the ideal of the Family for all these hundreds of years. You will advance with me, Sweetheart, will you not, even if it should seem to be a chasm we are crossing?"