"Well, my dear—and couldn't you have told him?" "I?" she faltered out through her blush.
"You seem to forget, one and all of you, the position you put me in when I came down here: your appeal to me to see Owen through, your assurance to him that I would, Madame de Chantelle's attempt to win me over; and most of all, my own sense of the fact you've just recalled to me: the importance, for both of us, that Owen should like me. It seemed to me that the first thing to do was to get as much light as I could on the whole situation; and the obvious way of doing it was to try to know Miss Viner better. Of course I've talked with her alone—I've talked with her as often as I could. I've tried my best to find out if you were right in encouraging Owen to marry her."
She listened with a growing sense of reassurance, struggling to separate the abstract sense of his words from the persuasion in which his eyes and voice enveloped them.
"I see—I do see," she murmured.
"You must see, also, that I could hardly say this to Owen without offending him still more, and perhaps increasing the breach between Miss Viner and himself. What sort of figure should I cut if I told him I'd been trying to find out if he'd made a proper choice? In any case, it's none of my business to offer an explanation of what she justly says doesn't need one. If she declines to speak, it's obviously on the ground that Owen's insinuations are absurd; and that surely pledges me to silence."
"Yes, yes! I see," Anna repeated. "But I don't want you to explain anything to Owen."
"You haven't yet told me what you do want."
She hesitated, conscious of the difficulty of justifying her request; then: "I want you to speak to Sophy," she said.
Darrow broke into an incredulous laugh. "Considering what my previous attempts have resulted in——!"
She raised her eyes quickly. "They haven't, at least, resulted in your liking her less, in your thinking less well of her than you've told me?"
She fancied he frowned a little. "I wonder why you go back to that?"
"I want to be sure—I owe it to Owen. Won't you tell me the exact impression she's produced on you?"
"I have told you—I like Miss Viner."
"Do you still believe she's in love with Owen?"
"There was nothing in our short talks to throw any particular light on that."
"You still believe, though, that there's no reason why he shouldn't marry her?"
Again he betrayed a restrained impatience. "How can I answer that without knowing her reasons for breaking with him?"
"That's just what I want you to find out from her."
"And why in the world should she tell me?"
"Because, whatever grievance she has against Owen, she can certainly have none against me. She can't want to have Owen connect me in his mind with this wretched quarrel; and she must see that he will until he's convinced you've had no share in it."
Darrow's elbow dropped from the mantel-piece and he took a restless step or two across the room. Then he halted before her.
"Why can't you tell her this yourself?"
"Don't you see?"
He eyed her intently, and she pressed on: "You must have guessed that Owen's jealous of you."
"Jealous of me?" The blood flew up under his brown skin.
"Blind with it—what else would drive him to this folly? And I can't have her think me jealous too! I've said all I could, short of making her think so; and she's refused a word more to either of us. Our only chance now is that she should listen to you—that you should make her see the harm her silence may do."
Darrow uttered a protesting exclamation. "It's all too preposterous—what you suggest! I can't, at any rate, appeal to her on such a ground as that!"
Anna laid her hand on his arm. "Appeal to her on the ground that I'm almost Owen's mother, and that any estrangement between you and him would kill me. She knows what he is—she'll understand. Tell her to say anything, do anything, she wishes; but not to go away without speaking, not to leave THAT between us when she goes!"
She drew back a step and lifted her face to his, trying to look into his eyes more deeply than she had ever looked; but before she could discern what they expressed he had taken hold of her hands and bent his head to kiss them.
"You'll see her? You'll see her?" she entreated; and he answered: "I'll do anything in the world you want me to."
Darrow waited alone in the sitting-room.
No place could have been more distasteful as the scene of the talk that lay before him; but he had acceded to Anna's suggestion that it would seem more natural for her to summon Sophy Viner than for him to go in search of her. As his troubled pacings carried him back and forth a relentless hand seemed to be tearing away all the tender fibres of association that bound him to the peaceful room. Here, in this very place, he had drunk his deepest draughts of happiness, had had his lips at the fountain-head of its overflowing rivers; but now that source was poisoned and he would taste no more of an untainted cup.
For a moment he felt an actual physical anguish; then his nerves hardened for the coming struggle. He had no notion of what awaited him; but after the first instinctive recoil he had seen in a flash the urgent need of another word with Sophy Viner. He had been insincere in letting Anna think that he had consented to speak because she asked it. In reality he had been feverishly casting about for the pretext she had given him; and for some reason this trivial hypocrisy weighed on him more than all his heavy burden of deceit.
At length he heard a step behind him and Sophy Viner entered. When she saw him she paused on the threshold and half drew back.
"I was told that Mrs. Leath had sent for me."
"Mrs. Leath DID send for you. She'll be here presently; but I asked her to let me see you first."
He spoke very gently, and there was no insincerity in his gentleness. He was profoundly moved by the change in the girl's appearance. At sight of him she had forced a smile; but it lit up her wretchedness like a candle-flame held to a dead face.
She made no reply, and Darrow went on: "You must understand my wanting to speak to you, after what I was told just now."
She interposed, with a gesture of protest: "I'm not responsible for Owen's ravings!"
"Of course——". He broke off and they stood facing each other. She lifted a hand and pushed back her loose lock with the gesture that was burnt into his memory; then she looked about her and dropped into the nearest chair.
"Well, you've got what you wanted," she said.
"What do you mean by what I wanted?"
"My engagement's broken—you heard me say so."
"Why do you say that's what I wanted? All I wished, from the beginning, was to advise you, to help you as best I could——"
"That's what you've done," she rejoined. "You've convinced me that it's best I shouldn't marry him."
Darrow broke into a despairing laugh. "At the very moment when you'd convinced me to the contrary!"
"Had I?" Her smile flickered up. "Well, I really believed it till you showed me...warned me..."
"That I'd be miserable if I married a man I didn't love."
"Don't you love him?"
She made no answer, and Darrow started up and walked away to the other end of the room. He stopped before the writing-table, where his photograph, well-dressed, handsome, self-sufficient—the portrait of a man of the world, confident of his ability to deal adequately with the most delicate situations—offered its huge fatuity to his gaze. He turned back to her. "It's rather hard on Owen, isn't it, that you should have waited until now to tell him?"
She reflected a moment before answering. "I told him as soon as I knew."
"Knew that you couldn't marry him?"
"Knew that I could never live here with him." She looked about the room, as though the very walls must speak for her.
For a moment Darrow continued to search her face perplexedly; then their eyes met in a long disastrous gaze.
"Yes——" she said, and stood up.
Below the window they heard Effie whistling for her dogs, and then, from the terrace, her mother calling her.
"There—THAT for instance," Sophy Viner said.
Darrow broke out: "It's I who ought to go!"
She kept her small pale smile. "What good would that do any of us—now?"
He covered his face with his hands. "Good God!" he groaned. "How could I tell?"
"You couldn't tell. We neither of us could." She seemed to turn the problem over critically. "After all, it might have been YOU instead of me!"
He took another distracted turn about the room and coming back to her sat down in a chair at her side. A mocking hand seemed to dash the words from his lips. There was nothing on earth that he could say to her that wasn't foolish or cruel or contemptible...
"My dear," he began at last, "oughtn't you, at any rate, to try?"
Her gaze grew grave. "Try to forget you?"
He flushed to the forehead. "I meant, try to give Owen more time; to give him a chance. He's madly in love with you; all the good that's in him is in your hands. His step-mother felt that from the first. And she thought—she believed——"
"She thought I could make him happy. Would she think so now?"
"Now...? I don't say now. But later? Time modifies...rubs out...more quickly than you think...Go away, but let him hope...I'm going too—WE'RE going—" he stumbled on the plural—"in a very few weeks: going for a long time, probably. What you're thinking of now may never happen. We may not all be here together again for years."
She heard him out in silence, her hands clasped on her knee, her eyes bent on them. "For me," she said, "you'll always be here."
"Don't say that—oh, don't! Things change...people change...You'll see!"
"You don't understand. I don't want anything to change. I don't want to forget—to rub out. At first I imagined I did; but that was a foolish mistake. As soon as I saw you again I knew it...It's not being here with you that I'm afraid of—in the sense you think. It's being here, or anywhere, with Owen." She stood up and bent her tragic smile on him. "I want to keep you all to myself."
The only words that came to him were futile denunciations of his folly; but the sense of their futility checked them on his lips. "Poor child—you poor child!" he heard himself vainly repeating.
Suddenly he felt the strong reaction of reality and its impetus brought him to his feet. "Whatever happens, I intend to go—to go for good," he exclaimed. "I want you to understand that. Oh, don't be afraid—I'll find a reason. But it's perfectly clear that I must go."
She uttered a protesting cry. "Go away? You? Don't you see that that would tell everything—drag everybody into the horror?"
He found no answer, and her voice dropped back to its calmer note. "What good would your going do? Do you suppose it would change anything for me?" She looked at him with a musing wistfulness. "I wonder what your feeling for me was? It seems queer that I've never really known—I suppose we DON'T know much about that kind of feeling. Is it like taking a drink when you're thirsty?...I used to feel as if all of me was in the palm of your hand..."
He bowed his humbled head, but she went on almost exultantly: "Don't for a minute think I'm sorry! It was worth every penny it cost. My mistake was in being ashamed, just at first, of its having cost such a lot. I tried to carry it off as a joke—to talk of it to myself as an 'adventure'. I'd always wanted adventures, and you'd given me one, and I tried to take your attitude about it, to 'play the game' and convince myself that I hadn't risked any more on it than you. Then, when I met you again, I suddenly saw that I HAD risked more, but that I'd won more, too—such worlds! I'd been trying all the while to put everything I could between us; now I want to sweep everything away. I'd been trying to forget how you looked; now I want to remember you always. I'd been trying not to hear your voice; now I never want to hear any other. I've made my choice—that's all: I've had you and I mean to keep you." Her face was shining like her eyes. "To keep you hidden away here," she ended, and put her hand upon her breast.
After she had left him, Darrow continued to sit motionless, staring back into their past. Hitherto it had lingered on the edge of his mind in a vague pink blur, like one of the little rose-leaf clouds that a setting sun drops from its disk. Now it was a huge looming darkness, through which his eyes vainly strained. The whole episode was still obscure to him, save where here and there, as they talked, some phrase or gesture or intonation of the girl's had lit up a little spot in the night.
She had said: "I wonder what your feeling for me was?" and he found himself wondering too...He remembered distinctly enough that he had not meant the perilous passion—even in its most transient form—to play a part in their relation. In that respect his attitude had been above reproach. She was an unusually original and attractive creature, to whom he had wanted to give a few days of harmless pleasuring, and who was alert and expert enough to understand his intention and spare him the boredom of hesitations and misinterpretations. That had been his first impression, and her subsequent demeanour had justified it. She had been, from the outset, just the frank and easy comrade he had expected to find her. Was it he, then, who, in the sequel, had grown impatient of the bounds he had set himself? Was it his wounded vanity that, seeking balm for its hurt, yearned to dip deeper into the healing pool of her compassion? In his confused memory of the situation he seemed not to have been guiltless of such yearnings...Yet for the first few days the experiment had been perfectly successful. Her enjoyment had been unclouded and his pleasure in it undisturbed. It was very gradually—he seemed to see—that a shade of lassitude had crept over their intercourse. Perhaps it was because, when her light chatter about people failed, he found she had no other fund to draw on, or perhaps simply because of the sweetness of her laugh, or of the charm of the gesture with which, one day in the woods of Marly, she had tossed off her hat and tilted back her head at the call of a cuckoo; or because, whenever he looked at her unexpectedly, he found that she was looking at him and did not want him to know it; or perhaps, in varying degrees, because of all these things, that there had come a moment when no word seemed to fly high enough or dive deep enough to utter the sense of well-being each gave to the other, and the natural substitute for speech had been a kiss.
The kiss, at all events, had come at the precise moment to save their venture from disaster. They had reached the point when her amazing reminiscences had begun to flag, when her future had been exhaustively discussed, her theatrical prospects minutely studied, her quarrel with Mrs. Murrett retold with the last amplification of detail, and when, perhaps conscious of her exhausted resources and his dwindling interest, she had committed the fatal error of saying that she could see he was unhappy, and entreating him to tell her why...
From the brink of estranging confidences, and from the risk of unfavourable comparisons, his gesture had snatched her back to safety; and as soon as he had kissed her he felt that she would never bore him again. She was one of the elemental creatures whose emotion is all in their pulses, and who become inexpressive or sentimental when they try to turn sensation into speech. His caress had restored her to her natural place in the scheme of things, and Darrow felt as if he had clasped a tree and a nymph had bloomed from it...
The mere fact of not having to listen to her any longer added immensely to her charm. She continued, of course, to talk to him, but it didn't matter, because he no longer made any effort to follow her words, but let her voice run on as a musical undercurrent to his thoughts.
She hadn't a drop of poetry in her, but she had some of the qualities that create it in others; and in moments of heat the imagination does not always feel the difference...
Lying beside her in the shade, Darrow felt her presence as a part of the charmed stillness of the summer woods, as the element of vague well-being that suffused his senses and lulled to sleep the ache of wounded pride. All he asked of her, as yet, was a touch on the hand or on the lips—and that she should let him go on lying there through the long warm hours, while a black-bird's song throbbed like a fountain, and the summer wind stirred in the trees, and close by, between the nearest branches and the brim of his tilted hat, a slight white figure gathered up all the floating threads of joy...
He recalled, too, having noticed, as he lay staring at a break in the tree-tops, a stream of mares'-tails coming up the sky. He had said to himself: "It will rain to-morrow," and the thought had made the air seem warmer and the sun more vivid on her hair...Perhaps if the mares'-tails had not come up the sky their adventure might have had no sequel. But the cloud brought rain, and next morning he looked out of his window into a cold grey blur. They had planned an all-day excursion down the Seine, to the two Andelys and Rouen, and now, with the long hours on their hands, they were both a little at a loss...There was the Louvre, of course, and the Luxembourg; but he had tried looking at pictures with her, she had first so persistently admired the worst things, and then so frankly lapsed into indifference, that he had no wish to repeat the experiment. So they went out, aimlessly, and took a cold wet walk, turning at length into the deserted arcades of the Palais Royal, and finally drifting into one of its equally deserted restaurants, where they lunched alone and somewhat dolefully, served by a wan old waiter with the look of a castaway who has given up watching for a sail...It was odd how the waiter's face came back to him...
Perhaps but for the rain it might never have happened; but what was the use of thinking of that now? He tried to turn his thoughts to more urgent issues; but, by a strange perversity of association, every detail of the day was forcing itself on his mind with an insistence from which there was no escape. Reluctantly he relived the long wet walk back to the hotel, after a tedious hour at a cinematograph show on the Boulevard. It was still raining when they withdrew from this stale spectacle, but she had obstinately refused to take a cab, had even, on the way, insisted on loitering under the dripping awnings of shop-windows and poking into draughty passages, and finally, when they had nearly reached their destination, had gone so far as to suggest that they should turn back to hunt up some show she had heard of in a theatre at the Batignolles. But at that he had somewhat irritably protested: he remembered that, for the first time, they were both rather irritable, and vaguely disposed to resist one another's suggestions. His feet were wet, and he was tired of walking, and sick of the smell of stuffy unaired theatres, and he had said he must really get back to write some letters—and so they had kept on to the hotel...
Darrow had no idea how long he had sat there when he heard Anna's hand on the door. The effort of rising, and of composing his face to meet her, gave him a factitious sense of self-control. He said to himself: "I must decide on something——" and that lifted him a hair's breadth above the whirling waters.
She came in with a lighter step, and he instantly perceived that something unforeseen and reassuring had happened.
"She's been with me. She came and found me on the terrace. We've had a long talk and she's explained everything. I feel as if I'd never known her before!"
Her voice was so moved and tender that it checked his start of apprehension.
"It's natural, isn't it, that she should have felt a little sore at the kind of inspection she's been subjected to? Oh, not from you—I don't mean that! But Madame de Chantelle's opposition—and her sending for Adelaide Painter! She told me frankly she didn't care to owe her husband to Adelaide Painter...She thinks now that her annoyance at feeling herself so talked over and scrutinized may have shown itself in her manner to Owen, and set him imagining the insane things he did...I understand all she must have felt, and I agree with her that it's best she should go away for a while. She's made me," Anna summed up, "feel as if I'd been dreadfully thick-skinned and obtuse!"
"Yes. As if I'd treated her like the bric-a-brac that used to be sent down here 'on approval,' to see if it would look well with the other pieces." She added, with a sudden flush of enthusiasm: "I'm glad she's got it in her to make one feel like that!"
She seemed to wait for Darrow to agree with her, or to put some other question, and he finally found voice to ask: "Then you think it's not a final break?"
"I hope not—I've never hoped it more! I had a word with Owen, too, after I left her, and I think he understands that he must let her go without insisting on any positive promise. She's excited...he must let her calm down..."
Again she waited, and Darrow said: "Surely you can make him see that."
"She'll help me to—she's to see him, of course, before she goes. She starts immediately, by the way, with Adelaide Painter, who is motoring over to Francheuil to catch the one o'clock express—and who, of course, knows nothing of all this, and is simply to be told that Sophy has been sent for by the Farlows."
Darrow mutely signed his comprehension, and she went on: "Owen is particularly anxious that neither Adelaide nor his grandmother should have the least inkling of what's happened. The need of shielding Sophy will help him to control himself. He's coming to his senses, poor boy; he's ashamed of his wild talk already. He asked me to tell you so; no doubt he'll tell you so himself."
Darrow made a movement of protest. "Oh, as to that—the thing's not worth another word."
"Or another thought, either?" She brightened. "Promise me you won't even think of it—promise me you won't be hard on him!"
He was finding it easier to smile back at her. "Why should you think it necessary to ask my indulgence for Owen?"
She hesitated a moment, her eyes wandering from him. Then they came back with a smile. "Perhaps because I need it for myself."
"I mean, because I understand better how one can torture one's self over unrealities."
As Darrow listened, the tension of his nerves began to relax. Her gaze, so grave and yet so sweet, was like a deep pool into which he could plunge and hide himself from the hard glare of his misery. As this ecstatic sense enveloped him he found it more and more difficult to follow her words and to frame an answer; but what did anything matter, except that her voice should go on, and the syllables fall like soft touches on his tortured brain?
"Don't you know," she continued, "the bliss of waking from a bad dream in one's own quiet room, and going slowly over all the horror without being afraid of it any more? That's what I'm doing now. And that's why I understand Owen..." She broke off, and he felt her touch on his arm. "BECAUSE I'D DREAMED THE HORROR TOO!"
He understood her then, and stammered: "You?"
"Forgive me! And let me tell you!...It will help you to understand Owen...There WERE little things...little signs...once I had begun to watch for them: your reluctance to speak about her...her reserve with you...a sort of constraint we'd never seen in her before..."
She laughed up at him, and with her hands in his he contrived to say: "NOW you understand why?"
"Oh, I understand; of course I understand; and I want you to laugh at me—with me! Because there were other things too...crazier things still...There was even—last night on the terrace—her pink cloak..."
"Her pink cloak?" Now he honestly wondered, and as she saw it she blushed.
"You've forgotten about the cloak? The pink cloak that Owen saw you with at the play in Paris? Yes...yes...I was mad enough for that!...It does me good to laugh about it now! But you ought to know that I'm going to be a jealous woman...a ridiculously jealous woman...you ought to be warned of it in time..."
He had dropped her hands, and she leaned close and lifted her arms to his neck with one of her rare gestures of surrender.
"I don't know why it is; but it makes me happier now to have been so foolish!"
Her lips were parted in a noiseless laugh and the tremor of her lashes made their shadow move on her cheek. He looked at her through a mist of pain and saw all her offered beauty held up like a cup to his lips; but as he stooped to it a darkness seemed to fall between them, her arms slipped from his shoulders and she drew away from him abruptly.
"But she WAS with you, then?" she exclaimed; and then, as he stared at her: "Oh, don't say no! Only go and look at your eyes!"
He stood speechless, and she pressed on: "Don't deny it—oh, don't deny it! What will be left for me to imagine if you do? Don't you see how every single thing cries it out? Owen sees it—he saw it again just now! When I told him she'd relented, and would see him, he said: 'Is that Darrow's doing too?'"
Darrow took the onslaught in silence. He might have spoken, have summoned up the usual phrases of banter and denial; he was not even certain that they might not, for the moment, have served their purpose if he could have uttered them without being seen. But he was as conscious of what had happened to his face as if he had obeyed Anna's bidding and looked at himself in the glass. He knew he could no more hide from her what was written there than he could efface from his soul the fiery record of what he had just lived through. There before him, staring him in the eyes, and reflecting itself in all his lineaments, was the overwhelming fact of Sophy Viner's passion and of the act by which she had attested it.
Anna was talking again, hurriedly, feverishly, and his soul was wrung by the anguish in her voice. "Do speak at last—you must speak! I don't want to ask you to harm the girl; but you must see that your silence is doing her more harm than your answering my questions could. You're leaving me only the worst things to think of her...she'd see that herself if she were here. What worse injury can you do her than to make me hate her—to make me feel she's plotted with you to deceive us?"
"Oh, not that!" Darrow heard his own voice before he was aware that he meant to speak. "Yes; I did see her in Paris," he went on after a pause; "but I was bound to respect her reason for not wanting it known."
Anna paled. "It was she at the theatre that night?"
"I was with her at the theatre one night."
"Why should she have asked you not to say so?"
"She didn't wish it known that I'd met her."
"Why shouldn't she have wished it known?"
"She had quarrelled with Mrs. Murrett and come over suddenly to Paris, and she didn't want the Farlows to hear of it. I came across her by accident, and she asked me not to speak of having seen her."
"Because of her quarrel? Because she was ashamed of her part in it?"
"Oh, no. There was nothing for her to be ashamed of. But the Farlows had found the place for her, and she didn't want them to know how suddenly she'd had to leave, and how badly Mrs. Murrett had behaved. She was in a terrible plight—the woman had even kept back her month's salary. She knew the Farlows would be awfully upset, and she wanted more time to prepare them."
Darrow heard himself speak as though the words had proceeded from other lips. His explanation sounded plausible enough, and he half-fancied Anna's look grew lighter. She waited a moment, as though to be sure he had no more to add; then she said: "But the Farlows DID know; they told me all about it when they sent her to me."
He flushed as if she had laid a deliberate trap for him. "They may know NOW; they didn't then——"
"That's no reason for her continuing now to make a mystery of having met you."
"It's the only reason I can give you."
"Then I'll go and ask her for one myself." She turned and took a few steps toward the door.
"Anna!" He started to follow her, and then checked himself. "Don't do that!"
"It's not like you...not generous..."
She stood before him straight and pale, but under her rigid face he saw the tumult of her doubt and misery.
"I don't want to be ungenerous; I don't want to pry into her secrets. But things can't be left like this. Wouldn't it be better for me to go to her? Surely she'll understand—she'll explain...It may be some mere trifle she's concealing: something that would horrify the Farlows, but that I shouldn't see any harm in..." She paused, her eyes searching his face. "A love affair, I suppose...that's it? You met her with some man at the theatre—and she was frightened and begged you to fib about it? Those poor young things that have to go about among us like machines—oh, if you knew how I pity them!"
"If you pity her, why not let her go?"
She stared. "Let her go—go for good, you mean? Is that the best you can say for her?"
"Let things take their course. After all, it's between herself and Owen."
"And you and me—and Effie, if Owen marries her, and I leave my child with them! Don't you see the impossibility of what you're asking? We're all bound together in this coil."
Darrow turned away with a groan. "Oh, let her go—let her go."
"Then there IS something—something really bad? She WAS with some one when you met her? Some one with whom she was——" She broke off, and he saw her struggling with new thoughts. "If it's THAT, of course...Oh, don't you see," she desperately appealed to him, "that I must find out, and that it's too late now for you not to speak? Don't be afraid that I'll betray you...I'll never, never let a soul suspect. But I must know the truth, and surely it's best for her that I should find it out from you."
Darrow waited a moment; then he said slowly: "What you imagine's mere madness. She was at the theatre with me."
"With you?" He saw a tremor pass through her, but she controlled it instantly and faced him straight and motionless as a wounded creature in the moment before it feels its wound. "Why should you both have made a mystery of that?"
"I've told you the idea was not mine." He cast about. "She may have been afraid that Owen——"
"But that was not a reason for her asking you to tell me that you hardly knew her—that you hadn't even seen her for years." She broke off and the blood rose to her face and forehead. "Even if SHE had other reasons, there could be only one reason for your obeying her——" Silence fell between them, a silence in which the room seemed to become suddenly resonant with voices. Darrow's gaze wandered to the window and he noticed that the gale of two days before had nearly stripped the tops of the lime-trees in the court. Anna had moved away and was resting her elbows against the mantel-piece, her head in her hands. As she stood there he took in with a new intensity of vision little details of her appearance that his eyes had often cherished: the branching blue veins in the backs of her hands, the warm shadow that her hair cast on her ear, and the colour of the hair itself, dull black with a tawny under-surface, like the wings of certain birds. He felt it to be useless to speak.
After a while she lifted her head and said: "I shall not see her again before she goes."
He made no answer, and turning to him she added: "That is why she's going, I suppose? Because she loves you and won't give you up?"
Darrow waited. The paltriness of conventional denial was so apparent to him that even if it could have delayed discovery he could no longer have resorted to it. Under all his other fears was the dread of dishonouring the hour.
"She HAS given me up," he said at last.
When he had gone out of the room Anna stood where he had left her. "I must believe him! I must believe him!" she said.
A moment before, at the moment when she had lifted her arms to his neck, she had been wrapped in a sense of complete security. All the spirits of doubt had been exorcised, and her love was once more the clear habitation in which every thought and feeling could move in blissful freedom. And then, as she raised her face to Darrow's and met his eyes, she had seemed to look into the very ruins of his soul. That was the only way she could express it. It was as though he and she had been looking at two sides of the same thing, and the side she had seen had been all light and life, and his a place of graves...
She didn't now recall who had spoken first, or even, very clearly, what had been said. It seemed to her only a moment later that she had found herself standing at the other end of the room—the room which had suddenly grown so small that, even with its length between them, she felt as if he touched her—crying out to him "It IS because of you she's going!" and reading the avowal in his face.
That was his secret, then, THEIR secret: he had met the girl in Paris and helped her in her straits—lent her money, Anna vaguely conjectured—and she had fallen in love with him, and on meeting him again had been suddenly overmastered by her passion. Anna, dropping back into her sofa-corner, sat staring these facts in the face.
The girl had been in a desperate plight—frightened, penniless, outraged by what had happened, and not knowing (with a woman like Mrs. Murrett) what fresh injury might impend; and Darrow, meeting her in this distracted hour, had pitied, counselled, been kind to her, with the fatal, the inevitable result. There were the facts as Anna made them out: that, at least, was their external aspect, was as much of them as she had been suffered to see; and into the secret intricacies they might cover she dared not yet project her thoughts.
"I must believe him...I must believe him..." She kept on repeating the words like a talisman. It was natural, after all, that he should have behaved as he had: defended the girl's piteous secret to the last. She too began to feel the contagion of his pity—the stir, in her breast, of feelings deeper and more native to her than the pains of jealousy. From the security of her blessedness she longed to lean over with compassionate hands...But Owen? What was Owen's part to be? She owed herself first to him—she was bound to protect him not only from all knowledge of the secret she had surprised, but also—and chiefly!—from its consequences. Yes: the girl must go—there could be no doubt of it—Darrow himself had seen it from the first; and at the thought she had a wild revulsion of relief, as though she had been trying to create in her heart the delusion of a generosity she could not feel...
The one fact on which she could stay her mind was that Sophy was leaving immediately; would be out of the house within an hour. Once she was gone, it would be easier to bring Owen to the point of understanding that the break was final; if necessary, to work upon the girl to make him see it. But that, Anna was sure, would not be necessary. It was clear that Sophy Viner was leaving Givre with no thought of ever seeing it again...
Suddenly, as she tried to put some order in her thoughts, she heard Owen's call at the door: "Mother!——" a name he seldom gave her. There was a new note in his voice: the note of a joyous impatience. It made her turn hastily to the glass to see what face she was about to show him; but before she had had time to compose it he was in the room and she was caught in a school-boy hug.
"It's all right! It's all right! And it's all your doing! I want to do the worst kind of penance—bell and candle and the rest. I've been through it with HER, and now she hands me on to you, and you're to call me any names you please." He freed her with his happy laugh. "I'm to be stood in the corner till next week, and then I'm to go up to see her. And she says I owe it all to you!"
"To me?" It was the first phrase she found to clutch at as she tried to steady herself in the eddies of his joy.
"Yes: you were so patient, and so dear to her; and you saw at once what a damned ass I'd been!" She tried a smile, and it seemed to pass muster with him, for he sent it back in a broad beam. "That's not so difficult to see? No, I admit it doesn't take a microscope. But you were so wise and wonderful—you always are. I've been mad these last days, simply mad—you and she might well have washed your hands of me! And instead, it's all right—all right!"
She drew back a little, trying to keep the smile on her lips and not let him get the least glimpse of what it hid. Now if ever, indeed, it behoved her to be wise and wonderful!
"I'm so glad, dear; so glad. If only you'll always feel like that about me..." She stopped, hardly knowing what she said, and aghast at the idea that her own hands should have retied the knot she imagined to be broken. But she saw he had something more to say; something hard to get out, but absolutely necessary to express. He caught her hands, pulled her close, and, with his forehead drawn into its whimsical smiling wrinkles, "Look here," he cried, "if Darrow wants to call me a damned ass too you're not to stop him!"
It brought her back to a sharper sense of her central peril: of the secret to be kept from him at whatever cost to her racked nerves.
"Oh, you know, he doesn't always wait for orders!" On the whole it sounded better than she'd feared.
"You mean he's called me one already?" He accepted the fact with his gayest laugh. "Well, that saves a lot of trouble; now we can pass to the order of the day——" he broke off and glanced at the clock—"which is, you know, dear, that she's starting in about an hour; she and Adelaide must already be snatching a hasty sandwich. You'll come down to bid them good-bye?"
There had, in fact, grown upon her while he spoke the urgency of seeing Sophy Viner again before she left. The thought was deeply distasteful: Anna shrank from encountering the girl till she had cleared a way through her own perplexities. But it was obvious that since they had separated, barely an hour earlier, the situation had taken a new shape. Sophy Viner had apparently reconsidered her decision to break amicably but definitely with Owen, and stood again in their path, a menace and a mystery; and confused impulses of resistance stirred in Anna's mind. She felt Owen's touch on her arm. "Are you coming?"
"What's the matter? You look so strange."
"What do you mean by strange?"
"I don't know: startled—surprised." She read what her look must be by its sudden reflection in his face.
"Do I? No wonder! You've given us all an exciting morning."
He held to his point. "You're more excited now that there's no cause for it. What on earth has happened since I saw you?"
He looked about the room, as if seeking the clue to her agitation, and in her dread of what he might guess she answered: "What has happened is simply that I'm rather tired. Will you ask Sophy to come up and see me here?"
While she waited she tried to think what she should say when the girl appeared; but she had never been more conscious of her inability to deal with the oblique and the tortuous. She had lacked the hard teachings of experience, and an instinctive disdain for whatever was less clear and open than her own conscience had kept her from learning anything of the intricacies and contradictions of other hearts. She said to herself: "I must find out——" yet everything in her recoiled from the means by which she felt it must be done...
Sophy Viner appeared almost immediately, dressed for departure, her little bag on her arm. She was still pale to the point of haggardness, but with a light upon her that struck Anna with surprise. Or was it, perhaps, that she was looking at the girl with new eyes: seeing her, for the first time, not as Effie's governess, not as Owen's bride, but as the embodiment of that unknown peril lurking in the background of every woman's thoughts about her lover? Anna, at any rate, with a sudden sense of estrangement, noted in her graces and snares never before perceived. It was only the flash of a primitive instinct, but it lasted long enough to make her ashamed of the darknesses it lit up in her heart...
She signed to Sophy to sit down on the sofa beside her. "I asked you to come up to me because I wanted to say good-bye quietly," she explained, feeling her lips tremble, but trying to speak in a tone of friendly naturalness.
The girl's only answer was a faint smile of acquiescence, and Anna, disconcerted by her silence, went on: "You've decided, then, not to break your engagement?"
Sophy Viner raised her head with a look of surprise. Evidently the question, thus abruptly put, must have sounded strangely on the lips of so ardent a partisan as Mrs. Leath! "I thought that was what you wished," she said.
"What I wished?" Anna's heart shook against her side. "I wish, of course, whatever seems best for Owen...It's natural, you must understand, that that consideration should come first with me..."
Sophy was looking at her steadily. "I supposed it was the only one that counted with you."
The curtness of retort roused Anna's latent antagonism. "It is," she said, in a hard voice that startled her as she heard it. Had she ever spoken so to any one before? She felt frightened, as though her very nature had changed without her knowing it...Feeling the girl's astonished gaze still on her, she continued: "The suddenness of the change has naturally surprised me. When I left you it was understood that you were to reserve your decision——"
"And now——?" Anna waited for a reply that did not come. She did not understand the girl's attitude, the edge of irony in her short syllables, the plainly premeditated determination to lay the burden of proof on her interlocutor. Anna felt the sudden need to lift their intercourse above this mean level of defiance and distrust. She looked appealingly at Sophy.
"Isn't it best that we should speak quite frankly? It's this change on your part that perplexes me. You can hardly be surprised at that. It's true, I asked you not to break with Owen too abruptly—and I asked it, believe me, as much for your sake as for his: I wanted you to take time to think over the difficulty that seems to have arisen between you. The fact that you felt it required thinking over seemed to show you wouldn't take the final step lightly—wouldn't, I mean, accept of Owen more than you could give him. But your change of mind obliges me to ask the question I thought you would have asked yourself. Is there any reason why you shouldn't marry Owen?"
She stopped a little breathlessly, her eyes on Sophy Viner's burning face. "Any reason——? What do you mean by a reason?"
Anna continued to look at her gravely. "Do you love some one else?" she asked.
Sophy's first look was one of wonder and a faint relief; then she gave back the other's scrutiny in a glance of indescribable reproach. "Ah, you might have waited!" she exclaimed.
"Till I'd gone: till I was out of the house. You might have known...you might have guessed..." She turned her eyes again on Anna. "I only meant to let him hope a little longer, so that he shouldn't suspect anything; of course I can't marry him," she said.
Anna stood motionless, silenced by the shock of the avowal. She too was trembling, less with anger than with a confused compassion. But the feeling was so blent with others, less generous and more obscure, that she found no words to express it, and the two women faced each other without speaking.
"I'd better go," Sophy murmured at length with lowered head.
The words roused in Anna a latent impulse of compunction. The girl looked so young, so exposed and desolate! And what thoughts must she be hiding in her heart! It was impossible that they should part in such a spirit.
"I want you to know that no one said anything...It was I who..."
Sophy looked at her. "You mean that Mr. Darrow didn't tell you? Of course not: do you suppose I thought he did? You found it out, that's all—I knew you would. In your place I should have guessed it sooner."
The words were spoken simply, without irony or emphasis; but they went through Anna like a sword. Yes, the girl would have had divinations, promptings that she had not had! She felt half envious of such a sad precocity of wisdom.
"I'm so sorry...so sorry..." she murmured.
"Things happen that way. Now I'd better go. I'd like to say good-bye to Effie."
"Oh——" it broke in a cry from Effie's mother. "Not like this—you mustn't! I feel—you make me feel too horribly: as if I were driving you away..." The words had rushed up from the depths of her bewildered pity.
"No one is driving me away: I had to go," she heard the girl reply.
There was another silence, during which passionate impulses of magnanimity warred in Anna with her doubts and dreads. At length, her eyes on Sophy's face: "Yes, you must go now," she began; "but later on...after a while, when all this is over...if there's no reason why you shouldn't marry Owen——" she paused a moment on the words— "I shouldn't want you to think I stood between you..."
"You?" Sophy flushed again, and then grew pale. She seemed to try to speak, but no words came. "Yes! It was not true when I said just now that I was thinking only of Owen. I'm sorry—oh, so sorry!—for you too. Your life—I know how hard it's been; and mine...mine's so full...Happy women understand best!" Anna drew near and touched the girl's hand; then she began again, pouring all her soul into the broken phrases: "It's terrible now...you see no future; but if, by and bye...you know best...but you're so young...and at your age things DO pass. If there's no reason, no real reason, why you shouldn't marry Owen, I WANT him to hope, I'll help him to hope...if you say so..."
With the urgency of her pleading her clasp tightened on Sophy's hand, but it warmed to no responsive tremor: the girl seemed numb, and Anna was frightened by the stony silence of her look. "I suppose I'm not more than half a woman," she mused, "for I don't want my happiness to hurt her;" and aloud she repeated: "If only you'll tell me there's no reason——"
The girl did not speak; but suddenly, like a snapped branch, she bent, stooped down to the hand that clasped her, and laid her lips upon it in a stream of weeping. She cried silently, continuously, abundantly, as though Anna's touch had released the waters of some deep spring of pain; then, as Anna, moved and half afraid, leaned over her with a sound of pity, she stood up and turned away.
"You're going, then—for good—like this?" Anna moved toward her and stopped. Sophy stopped too, with eyes that shrank from her.
"Oh——" Anna cried, and hid her face.
The girl walked across the room and paused again in the doorway. From there she flung back: "I wanted it—I chose it. He was good to me—no one ever was so good!"
The door-handle turned, and Anna heard her go.
Her first thought was: "He's going too in a few hours—I needn't see him again before he leaves..." At that moment the possibility of having to look in Darrow's face and hear him speak seemed to her more unendurable than anything else she could imagine. Then, on the next wave of feeling, came the desire to confront him at once and wring from him she knew not what: avowal, denial, justification, anything that should open some channel of escape to the flood of her pent-up anguish.
She had told Owen she was tired, and this seemed a sufficient reason for remaining upstairs when the motor came to the door and Miss Painter and Sophy Viner were borne off in it; sufficient also for sending word to Madame de Chantelle that she would not come down till after luncheon. Having despatched her maid with this message, she lay down on her sofa and stared before her into darkness...
She had been unhappy before, and the vision of old miseries flocked like hungry ghosts about her fresh pain: she recalled her youthful disappointment, the failure of her marriage, the wasted years that followed; but those were negative sorrows, denials and postponements of life. She seemed in no way related to their shadowy victim, she who was stretched on this fiery rack of the irreparable. She had suffered before—yes, but lucidly, reflectively, elegiacally: now she was suffering as a hurt animal must, blindly, furiously, with the single fierce animal longing that the awful pain should stop...
She heard her maid knock, and she hid her face and made no answer. The knocking continued, and the discipline of habit at length made her lift her head, compose her face and hold out her hand to the note the woman brought her. It was a word from Darrow—"May I see you?"—and she said at once, in a voice that sounded thin and empty: "Ask Mr. Darrow to come up."
The maid enquired if she wished to have her hair smoothed first, and she answered that it didn't matter; but when the door had closed, the instinct of pride drew her to her feet and she looked at herself in the glass above the mantelpiece and passed her hands over her hair. Her eyes were burning and her face looked tired and thinner; otherwise she could see no change in her appearance, and she wondered that at such a moment her body should seem as unrelated to the self that writhed within her as if it had been a statue or a picture.
The maid reopened the door to show in Darrow, and he paused a moment on the threshold, as if waiting for Anna to speak. He was extremely pale, but he looked neither ashamed nor uncertain, and she said to herself, with a perverse thrill of appreciation: "He's as proud as I am."
Aloud she asked: "You wanted to see me?"
"Naturally," he replied in a grave voice.
"Don't! It's useless. I know everything. Nothing you can say will help."
At the direct affirmation he turned even paler, and his eyes, which he kept resolutely fixed on her, confessed his misery.
"You allow me no voice in deciding that?"
"That there's nothing more to be said?" He waited for her to answer, and then went on: "I don't even know what you mean by 'everything'."
"Oh, I don't know what more there is! I know enough. I implored her to deny it, and she couldn't...What can you and I have to say to each other?" Her voice broke into a sob. The animal anguish was upon her again—just a blind cry against her pain!
Darrow kept his head high and his eyes steady. "It must be as you wish; and yet it's not like you to be afraid."
"To talk things out—to face them."
"It's for YOU to face this—not me!"
"All I ask is to face it—but with you." Once more he paused. "Won't you tell me what Miss Viner told you?"
"Oh, she's generous—to the utmost!" The pain caught her like a physical throe. It suddenly came to her how the girl must have loved him to be so generous—what memories there must be between them!
"Oh, go, please go. It's too horrible. Why should I have to see you?" she stammered, lifting her hands to her eyes.
With her face hidden she waited to hear him move away, to hear the door open and close again, as, a few hours earlier, it had opened and closed on Sophy Viner. But Darrow made no sound or movement: he too was waiting. Anna felt a thrill of resentment: his presence was an outrage on her sorrow, a humiliation to her pride. It was strange that he should wait for her to tell him so!
"You want me to leave Givre?" he asked at length. She made no answer, and he went on: "Of course I'll do as you wish; but if I go now am I not to see you again?"
His voice was firm: his pride was answering her pride!
She faltered: "You must see it's useless——"
"I might remind you that you're dismissing me without a hearing——"
"Without a hearing? I've heard you both!"
——"but I won't," he continued, "remind you of that, or of anything or any one but Owen."
"Yes; if we could somehow spare him——"
She had dropped her hands and turned her startled eyes on him. It seemed to her an age since she had thought of Owen!
"You see, don't you," Darrow continued, "that if you send me away now——"
She interrupted: "Yes, I see——" and there was a long silence between them. At length she said, very low: "I don't want any one else to suffer as I'm suffering..."
"Owen knows I meant to leave tomorrow," Darrow went on. "Any sudden change of plan may make him think..."
Oh, she saw his inevitable logic: the horror of it was on every side of her! It had seemed possible to control her grief and face Darrow calmly while she was upheld by the belief that this was their last hour together, that after he had passed out of the room there would be no fear of seeing him again, no fear that his nearness, his look, his voice, and all the unseen influences that flowed from him, would dissolve her soul to weakness. But her courage failed at the idea of having to conspire with him to shield Owen, of keeping up with him, for Owen's sake, a feint of union and felicity. To live at Darrow's side in seeming intimacy and harmony for another twenty-four hours seemed harder than to live without him for all the rest of her days. Her strength failed her, and she threw herself down and buried her sobs in the cushions where she had so often hidden a face aglow with happiness.
"Anna——" His voice was close to her. "Let me talk to you quietly. It's not worthy of either of us to be afraid."
Words of endearment would have offended her; but her heart rose at the call to her courage.
"I've no defense to make," he went on. "The facts are miserable enough; but at least I want you to see them as they are. Above all, I want you to know the truth about Miss Viner——"
The name sent the blood to Anna's forehead. She raised her head and faced him. "Why should I know more of her than what she's told me? I never wish to hear her name again!"
"It's because you feel about her in that way that I ask you—in the name of common charity—to let me give you the facts as they are, and not as you've probably imagined them."
"I've told you I don't think uncharitably of her. I don't want to think of her at all!"
"That's why I tell you you're afraid."
"Yes. You've always said you wanted, above all, to look at life, at the human problem, as it is, without fear and without hypocrisy; and it's not always a pleasant thing to look at." He broke off, and then began again: "Don't think this a plea for myself! I don't want to say a word to lessen my offense. I don't want to talk of myself at all. Even if I did, I probably couldn't make you understand—I don't, myself, as I look back. Be just to me—it's your right; all I ask you is to be generous to Miss Viner..."
She stood up trembling. "You're free to be as generous to her as you please!"
"Yes: you've made it clear to me that I'm free. But there's nothing I can do for her that will help her half as much as your understanding her would."
"Nothing you can do for her? You can marry her!"
His face hardened. "You certainly couldn't wish her a worse fate!"
"It must have been what she expected...relied on..." He was silent, and she broke out: "Or what is she? What are you? It's too horrible! On your way here...to ME..." She felt the tears in her throat and stopped.
"That was it," he said bluntly. She stared at him.
"I was on my way to you—after repeated delays and postponements of your own making. At the very last you turned me back with a mere word—and without explanation. I waited for a letter; and none came. I'm not saying this to justify myself. I'm simply trying to make you understand. I felt hurt and bitter and bewildered. I thought you meant to give me up. And suddenly, in my way, I found some one to be sorry for, to be of use to. That, I swear to you, was the way it began. The rest was a moment's folly...a flash of madness...as such things are. We've never seen each other since..."
Anna was looking at him coldly. "You sufficiently describe her in saying that!"
"Yes, if you measure her by conventional standards—which is what you always declare you never do."
"Conventional standards? A girl who——" She was checked by a sudden rush of almost physical repugnance. Suddenly she broke out: "I always thought her an adventuress!"
"I don't mean always...but after you came..."
"She's not an adventuress."
"You mean that she professes to act on the new theories? The stuff that awful women rave about on platforms?"
"Oh, I don't think she pretended to have a theory——"
"She hadn't even that excuse?"
"She had the excuse of her loneliness, her unhappiness—of miseries and humiliations that a woman like you can't even guess. She had nothing to look back to but indifference or unkindness—nothing to look forward to but anxiety. She saw I was sorry for her and it touched her. She made too much of it—she exaggerated it. I ought to have seen the danger, but I didn't. There's no possible excuse for what I did."
Anna listened to him in speechless misery. Every word he spoke threw back a disintegrating light on their own past. He had come to her with an open face and a clear conscience—come to her from this! If his security was the security of falsehood it was horrible; if it meant that he had forgotten, it was worse. She would have liked to stop her ears, to close her eyes, to shut out every sight and sound and suggestion of a world in which such things could be; and at the same time she was tormented by the desire to know more, to understand better, to feel herself less ignorant and inexpert in matters which made so much of the stuff of human experience. What did he mean by "a moment's folly, a flash of madness"? How did people enter on such adventures, how pass out of them without more visible traces of their havoc? Her imagination recoiled from the vision of a sudden debasing familiarity: it seemed to her that her thoughts would never again be pure...
"I swear to you," she heard Darrow saying, "it was simply that, and nothing more."
She wondered at his composure, his competence, at his knowing so exactly what to say. No doubt men often had to make such explanations: they had the formulas by heart...A leaden lassitude descended on her. She passed from flame and torment into a colourless cold world where everything surrounding her seemed equally indifferent and remote. For a moment she simply ceased to feel.
She became aware that Darrow was waiting for her to speak, and she made an effort to represent to herself the meaning of what he had just said; but her mind was as blank as a blurred mirror. Finally she brought out: "I don't think I understand what you've told me."
"No; you don't understand," he returned with sudden bitterness; and on his lips the charge of incomprehension seemed an offense to her.
"I don't want to—about such things!"
He answered almost harshly: "Don't be afraid...you never will..." and for an instant they faced each other like enemies. Then the tears swelled in her throat at his reproach.
"You mean I don't feel things—I'm too hard?"
"No: you're too high...too fine...such things are too far from you."
He paused, as if conscious of the futility of going on with whatever he had meant to say, and again, for a short space, they confronted each other, no longer as enemies—so it seemed to her—but as beings of different language who had forgotten the few words they had learned of each other's speech.
Darrow broke the silence. "It's best, on all accounts, that I should stay till tomorrow; but I needn't intrude on you; we needn't meet again alone. I only want to be sure I know your wishes." He spoke the short sentences in a level voice, as though he were summing up the results of a business conference.
Anna looked at him vaguely. "My wishes?"
"As to Owen——"
At that she started. "They must never meet again!"
"It's not likely they will. What I meant was, that it depends on you to spare him..."
She answered steadily: "He shall never know," and after another interval Darrow said: "This is good-bye, then."
At the word she seemed to understand for the first time whither the flying moments had been leading them. Resentment and indignation died down, and all her consciousness resolved itself into the mere visual sense that he was there before her, near enough for her to lift her hand and touch him, and that in another instant the place where he stood would be empty.
She felt a mortal weakness, a craven impulse to cry out to him to stay, a longing to throw herself into his arms, and take refuge there from the unendurable anguish he had caused her. Then the vision called up another thought: "I shall never know what that girl has known..." and the recoil of pride flung her back on the sharp edges of her anguish.
"Good-bye," she said, in dread lest he should read her face; and she stood motionless, her head high, while he walked to the door and went out.
Anna Leath, three days later, sat in Miss Painter's drawing-room in the rue de Matignon.
Coming up precipitately that morning from the country, she had reached Paris at one o'clock and Miss Painter's landing some ten minutes later. Miss Painter's mouldy little man-servant, dissembling a napkin under his arm, had mildly attempted to oppose her entrance; but Anna, insisting, had gone straight to the dining-room and surprised her friend—who ate as furtively as certain animals—over a strange meal of cold mutton and lemonade. Ignoring the embarrassment she caused, she had set forth the object of her journey, and Miss Painter, always hatted and booted for action, had immediately hastened out, leaving her to the solitude of the bare fireless drawing-room with its eternal slip-covers and "bowed" shutters.
In this inhospitable obscurity Anna had sat alone for close upon two hours. Both obscurity and solitude were acceptable to her, and impatient as she was to hear the result of the errand on which she had despatched her hostess, she desired still more to be alone. During her long meditation in a white-swathed chair before the muffled hearth she had been able for the first time to clear a way through the darkness and confusion of her thoughts. The way did not go far, and her attempt to trace it was as weak and spasmodic as a convalescent's first efforts to pick up the thread of living. She seemed to herself like some one struggling to rise from a long sickness of which it would have been so much easier to die. At Givre she had fallen into a kind of torpor, a deadness of soul traversed by wild flashes of pain; but whether she suffered or whether she was numb, she seemed equally remote from her real living and doing self.
It was only the discovery—that very morning—of Owen's unannounced departure for Paris that had caught her out of her dream and forced her back to action. The dread of what this flight might imply, and of the consequences that might result from it, had roused her to the sense of her responsibility, and from the moment when she had resolved to follow her step-son, and had made her rapid preparations for pursuit, her mind had begun to work again, feverishly, fitfully, but still with something of its normal order. In the train she had been too agitated, too preoccupied with what might next await her, to give her thoughts to anything but the turning over of dread alternatives; but Miss Painter's imperviousness had steadied her, and while she waited for the sound of the latch-key she resolutely returned upon herself.
With respect to her outward course she could at least tell herself that she had held to her purpose. She had, as people said, "kept up" during the twenty-four hours preceding George Darrow's departure; had gone with a calm face about her usual business, and even contrived not too obviously to avoid him. Then, the next day before dawn, from behind the closed shutters where she had kept for half the night her dry-eyed vigil, she had heard him drive off to the train which brought its passengers to Paris in time for the Calais express.
The fact of his taking that train, of his travelling so straight and far away from her, gave to what had happened the implacable outline of reality. He was gone; he would not come back; and her life had ended just as she had dreamed it was beginning. She had no doubt, at first, as to the absolute inevitability of this conclusion. The man who had driven away from her house in the autumn dawn was not the man she had loved; he was a stranger with whom she had not a single thought in common. It was terrible, indeed, that he wore the face and spoke in the voice of her friend, and that, as long as he was under one roof with her, the mere way in which he moved and looked could bridge at a stroke the gulf between them. That, no doubt, was the fault of her exaggerated sensibility to outward things: she was frightened to see how it enslaved her. A day or two before she had supposed the sense of honour was her deepest sentiment: if she had smiled at the conventions of others it was because they were too trivial, not because they were too grave. There were certain dishonours with which she had never dreamed that any pact could be made: she had had an incorruptible passion for good faith and fairness.
She had supposed that, once Darrow was gone, once she was safe from the danger of seeing and hearing him, this high devotion would sustain her. She had believed it would be possible to separate the image of the man she had thought him from that of the man he was. She had even foreseen the hour when she might raise a mournful shrine to the memory of the Darrow she had loved, without fear that his double's shadow would desecrate it. But now she had begun to understand that the two men were really one. The Darrow she worshipped was inseparable from the Darrow she abhorred; and the inevitable conclusion was that both must go, and she be left in the desert of a sorrow without memories...
But if the future was thus void, the present was all too full. Never had blow more complex repercussions; and to remember Owen was to cease to think of herself. What impulse, what apprehension, had sent him suddenly to Paris? And why had he thought it needful to conceal his going from her? When Sophy Viner had left, it had been with the understanding that he was to await her summons; and it seemed improbable that he would break his pledge, and seek her without leave, unless his lover's intuition had warned him of some fresh danger. Anna recalled how quickly he had read the alarm in her face when he had rushed back to her sitting-room with the news that Miss Viner had promised to see him again in Paris. To be so promptly roused, his suspicions must have been but half-asleep; and since then, no doubt, if she and Darrow had dissembled, so had he. To her proud directness it was degrading to think that they had been living together like enemies who spy upon each other's movements: she felt a desperate longing for the days which had seemed so dull and narrow, but in which she had walked with her head high and her eyes unguarded.
She had come up to Paris hardly knowing what peril she feared, and still less how she could avert it. If Owen meant to see Miss Viner—and what other object could he have?—they must already be together, and it was too late to interfere. It had indeed occurred to Anna that Paris might not be his objective point: that his real purpose in leaving Givre without her knowledge had been to follow Darrow to London and exact the truth of him. But even to her alarmed imagination this seemed improbable. She and Darrow, to the last, had kept up so complete a feint of harmony that, whatever Owen had surmised, he could scarcely have risked acting on his suspicions. If he still felt the need of an explanation, it was almost certainly of Sophy Viner that he would ask it; and it was in quest of Sophy Viner that Anna had despatched Miss Painter.
She had found a blessed refuge from her perplexities in the stolid Adelaide's unawareness. One could so absolutely count on Miss Painter's guessing no more than one chose, and yet acting astutely on such hints as one vouchsafed her! She was like a well-trained retriever whose interest in his prey ceases when he lays it at his master's feet. Anna, on arriving, had explained that Owen's unannounced flight had made her fear some fresh misunderstanding between himself and Miss Viner. In the interests of peace she had thought it best to follow him; but she hastily added that she did not wish to see Sophy, but only, if possible, to learn from her where Owen was. With these brief instructions Miss Painter had started out; but she was a woman of many occupations, and had given her visitor to understand that before returning she should have to call on a friend who had just arrived from Boston, and afterward despatch to another exiled compatriot a supply of cranberries and brandied peaches from the American grocery in the Champs Elysees.
Gradually, as the moments passed, Anna began to feel the reaction which, in moments of extreme nervous tension, follows on any effort of the will. She seemed to have gone as far as her courage would carry her, and she shrank more and more from the thought of Miss Painter's return, since whatever information the latter brought would necessitate some fresh decision. What should she say to Owen if she found him? What could she say that should not betray the one thing she would give her life to hide from him? "Give her life"—how the phrase derided her! It was a gift she would not have bestowed on her worst enemy. She would not have had Sophy Viner live the hours she was living now... She tried again to look steadily and calmly at the picture that the image of the girl evoked. She had an idea that she ought to accustom herself to its contemplation. If life was like that, why the sooner one got used to it the better...But no! Life was not like that. Her adventure was a hideous accident. She dreaded above all the temptation to generalise from her own case, to doubt the high things she had lived by and seek a cheap solace in belittling what fate had refused her. There was such love as she had dreamed, and she meant to go on believing in it, and cherishing the thought that she was worthy of it. What had happened to her was grotesque and mean and miserable; but she herself was none of these things, and never, never would she make of herself the mock that fate had made of her...
She could not, as yet, bear to think deliberately of Darrow; but she kept on repeating to herself "By and bye that will come too." Even now she was determined not to let his image be distorted by her suffering. As soon as she could, she would try to single out for remembrance the individual things she had liked in him before she had loved him altogether. No "spiritual exercise" devised by the discipline of piety could have been more torturing; but its very cruelty attracted her. She wanted to wear herself out with new pains...
The sound of Miss Painter's latch-key made her start. She was still a bundle of quivering fears to whom each coming moment seemed a menace.
There was a slight interval, and a sound of voices in the hall; then Miss Painter's vigorous hand was on the door.
Anna stood up as she came in. "You've found him?"
"I've found Sophy."
"And Owen?—has she seen him? Is he here?"
"SHE'S here: in the hall. She wants to speak to you."
"Here—NOW?" Anna found no voice for more.
"She drove back with me," Miss Painter continued in the tone of impartial narrative. "The cabman was impertinent. I've got his number." She fumbled in a stout black reticule.
"Oh, I can't—" broke from Anna; but she collected herself, remembering that to betray her unwillingness to see the girl was to risk revealing much more.
"She thought you might be too tired to see her: she wouldn't come in till I'd found out."
Anna drew a quick breath. An instant's thought had told her that Sophy Viner would hardly have taken such a step unless something more important had happened. "Ask her to come, please," she said.
Miss Painter, from the threshold, turned back to announce her intention of going immediately to the police station to report the cabman's delinquency; then she passed out, and Sophy Viner entered.
The look in the girl's face showed that she had indeed come unwillingly; yet she seemed animated by an eager resoluteness that made Anna ashamed of her tremors. For a moment they looked at each other in silence, as if the thoughts between them were packed too thick for speech; then Anna said, in a voice from which she strove to take the edge of hardness: "You know where Owen is, Miss Painter tells me."
"Yes; that was my reason for asking you to see me." Sophy spoke simply, without constraint or hesitation.
"I thought he'd promised you—" Anna interposed.
"He did; but he broke his promise. That's what I thought I ought to tell you."
"Thank you." Anna went on tentatively: "He left Givre this morning without a word. I followed him because I was afraid..."
She broke off again and the girl took up her phrase. "You were afraid he'd guessed? He HAS..."
"What do you mean—guessed what?"
"That you know something he doesn't...something that made you glad to have me go."
"Oh—" Anna moaned. If she had wanted more pain she had it now. "He's told you this?" she faltered.
"He hasn't told me, because I haven't seen him. I kept him off—I made Mrs. Farlow get rid of him. But he's written me what he came to say; and that was it."
"Oh, poor Owen!" broke from Anna. Through all the intricacies of her suffering she felt the separate pang of his.
"And I want to ask you," the girl continued, "to let me see him; for of course," she added in the same strange voice of energy, "I wouldn't unless you consented."
"To see him?" Anna tried to gather together her startled thoughts. "What use would it be? What could you tell him?"
"I want to tell him the truth," said Sophy Viner.
The two women looked at each other, and a burning blush rose to Anna's forehead. "I don't understand," she faltered.
Sophy waited a moment; then she lowered her voice to say: "I don't want him to think worse of me than he need..."
"Yes—to think such things as you're thinking now...I want him to know exactly what happened...then I want to bid him good-bye."
Anna tried to clear a way through her own wonder and confusion. She felt herself obscurely moved.
"Wouldn't it be worse for him?"
"To hear the truth? It would be better, at any rate, for you and Mr. Darrow."
At the sound of the name Anna lifted her head quickly. "I've only my step-son to consider!"
The girl threw a startled look at her. "You don't mean—you're not going to give him up?"
Anna felt her lips harden. "I don't think it's of any use to talk of that."
"Oh, I know! It's my fault for not knowing how to say what I want you to hear. Your words are different; you know how to choose them. Mine offend you...and the dread of it makes me blunder. That's why, the other day, I couldn't say anything...couldn't make things clear to you. But now MUST, even if you hate it!" She drew a step nearer, her slender figure swayed forward in a passion of entreaty. "Do listen to me! What you've said is dreadful. How can you speak of him in that voice? Don't you see that I went away so that he shouldn't have to lose you?"
Anna looked at her coldly. "Are you speaking of Mr. Darrow? I don't know why you think your going or staying can in any way affect our relations."
"You mean that you HAVE given him up—because of me? Oh, how could you? You can't really love him!—And yet," the girl suddenly added, "you must, or you'd be more sorry for me!"
"I'm very sorry for you," Anna said, feeling as if the iron band about her heart pressed on it a little less inexorably.
"Then why won't you hear me? Why won't you try to understand? It's all so different from what you imagine!"
"I've never judged you."
"I'm not thinking of myself. He loves you!"
"I thought you'd come to speak of Owen."
Sophy Viner seemed not to hear her. "He's never loved any one else. Even those few days...I knew it all the while...he never cared for me."
"Please don't say any more!" Anna said.
"I know it must seem strange to you that I should say so much. I shock you, I offend you: you think me a creature without shame. So I am—but not in the sense you think! I'm not ashamed of having loved him; no; and I'm not ashamed of telling you so. It's that that justifies me—and him too...Oh, let me tell you how it happened! He was sorry for me: he saw I cared. I KNEW that was all he ever felt. I could see he was thinking of some one else. I knew it was only for a week...He never said a word to mislead me...I wanted to be happy just once—and I didn't dream of the harm I might be doing him!"
Anna could not speak. She hardly knew, as yet, what the girl's words conveyed to her, save the sense of their tragic fervour; but she was conscious of being in the presence of an intenser passion than she had ever felt.
"I am sorry for you." She paused. "But why do you say this to me?" After another interval she exclaimed: "You'd no right to let Owen love you."
"No; that was wrong. At least what's happened since has made it so. If things had been different I think I could have made Owen happy. You were all so good to me—I wanted so to stay with you! I suppose you'll say that makes it worse: my daring to dream I had the right...But all that doesn't matter now. I won't see Owen unless you're willing. I should have liked to tell him what I've tried to tell you; but you must know better; you feel things in a finer way. Only you'll have to help him if I can't. He cares a great deal...it's going to hurt him..."
Anna trembled. "Oh, I know! What can I do?"
"You can go straight back to Givre—now, at once! So that Owen shall never know you've followed him." Sophy's clasped hands reached out urgently. "And you can send for Mr. Darrow—bring him back. Owen must be convinced that he's mistaken, and nothing else will convince him. Afterward I'll find a pretext—oh, I promise you! But first he must see for himself that nothing's changed for you."
Anna stood motionless, subdued and dominated. The girl's ardour swept her like a wind.
"Oh, can't I move you? Some day you'll know!" Sophy pleaded, her eyes full of tears.
Anna saw them, and felt a fullness in her throat. Again the band about her heart seemed loosened. She wanted to find a word, but could not: all within her was too dark and violent. She gave the girl a speechless look.
"I do believe you," she said suddenly; then she turned and walked out of the room.
She drove from Miss Painter's to her own apartment. The maid-servant who had it in charge had been apprised of her coming, and had opened one or two of the rooms, and prepared a fire in her bedroom. Anna shut herself in, refusing the woman's ministrations. She felt cold and faint, and after she had taken off her hat and cloak she knelt down by the fire and stretched her hands to it.
In one respect, at least, it was clear to her that she would do well to follow Sophy Viner's counsel. It had been an act of folly to follow Owen, and her first business was to get back to Givre before him. But the only train leaving that evening was a slow one, which did not reach Francheuil till midnight, and she knew that her taking it would excite Madame de Chantelle's wonder and lead to interminable talk. She had come up to Paris on the pretext of finding a new governess for Effie, and the natural thing was to defer her return till the next morning. She knew Owen well enough to be sure that he would make another attempt to see Miss Viner, and failing that, would write again and await her answer: so that there was no likelihood of his reaching Givre till the following evening.
Her sense of relief at not having to start out at once showed her for the first time how tired she was. The bonne had suggested a cup of tea, but the dread of having any one about her had made Anna refuse, and she had eaten nothing since morning but a sandwich bought at a buffet. She was too tired to get up, but stretching out her arm she drew toward her the arm-chair which stood beside the hearth and rested her head against its cushions. Gradually the warmth of the fire stole into her veins and her heaviness of soul was replaced by a dreamy buoyancy. She seemed to be seated on the hearth in her sitting-room at Givre, and Darrow was beside her, in the chair against which she leaned. He put his arms about her shoulders and drawing her head back looked into her eyes. "Of all the ways you do your hair, that's the way I like best," he said...
A log dropped, and she sat up with a start. There was a warmth in her heart, and she was smiling. Then she looked about her, and saw where she was, and the glory fell. She hid her face and sobbed.
Presently she perceived that it was growing dark, and getting up stiffly she began to undo the things in her bag and spread them on the dressing-table. She shrank from lighting the lights, and groped her way about, trying to find what she needed. She seemed immeasurably far off from every one, and most of all from herself. It was as if her consciousness had been transmitted to some stranger whose thoughts and gestures were indifferent to her...
Suddenly she heard a shrill tinkle, and with a beating heart she stood still in the middle of the room. It was the telephone in her dressing-room—a call, no doubt, from Adelaide Painter. Or could Owen have learned she was in town? The thought alarmed her and she opened the door and stumbled across the unlit room to the instrument. She held it to her ear, and heard Darrow's voice pronounce her name.
"Will you let me see you? I've come back—I had to come. Miss Painter told me you were here."
She began to tremble, and feared that he would guess it from her voice. She did not know what she answered: she heard him say: "I can't hear." She called "Yes!" and laid the telephone down, and caught it up again—but he was gone. She wondered if her "Yes" had reached him.
She sat in her chair and listened. Why had she said that she would see him? What did she mean to say to him when he came? Now and then, as she sat there, the sense of his presence enveloped her as in her dream, and she shut her eyes and felt his arms about her. Then she woke to reality and shivered. A long time elapsed, and at length she said to herself: "He isn't coming."
The door-bell rang as she said it, and she stood up, cold and trembling. She thought: "Can he imagine there's any use in coming?" and moved forward to bid the servant say she could not see him.
The door opened and she saw him standing in the drawing-room. The room was cold and fireless, and a hard glare fell from the wall-lights on the shrouded furniture and the white slips covering the curtains. He looked pale and stern, with a frown of fatigue between his eyes; and she remembered that in three days he had travelled from Givre to London and back. It seemed incredible that all that had befallen her should have been compressed within the space of three days!
"Thank you," he said as she came in.
She answered: "It's better, I suppose——"
He came toward her and took her in his arms. She struggled a little, afraid of yielding, but he pressed her to him, not bending to her but holding her fast, as though he had found her after a long search: she heard his hurried breathing. It seemed to come from her own breast, so close he held her; and it was she who, at last, lifted up her face and drew down his.
She freed herself and went and sat on a sofa at the other end of the room. A mirror between the shrouded window-curtains showed her crumpled travelling dress and the white face under her disordered hair.
She found her voice, and asked him how he had been able to leave London. He answered that he had managed—he'd arranged it; and she saw he hardly heard what she was saying.
"I had to see you," he went on, and moved nearer, sitting down at her side.
"Yes; we must think of Owen——"
Her mind had flown back to Sophy Viner's plea that she should let Darrow return to Givre in order that Owen might be persuaded of the folly of his suspicions. The suggestion was absurd, of course. She could not ask Darrow to lend himself to such a fraud, even had she had the inhuman courage to play her part in it. She was suddenly overwhelmed by the futility of every attempt to reconstruct her ruined world. No, it was useless; and since it was useless, every moment with Darrow was pure pain...
"I've come to talk of myself, not of Owen," she heard him saying. "When you sent me away the other day I understood that it couldn't be otherwise—then. But it's not possible that you and I should part like that. If I'm to lose you, it must be for a better reason."
"A better reason?"
"Yes: a deeper one. One that means a fundamental disaccord between us. This one doesn't—in spite of everything it doesn't. That's what I want you to see, and have the courage to acknowledge."
"If I saw it I should have the courage!"
"Yes: courage was the wrong word. You have that. That's why I'm here."
"But I don't see it," she continued sadly. "So it's useless, isn't it?—and so cruel..." He was about to speak, but she went on: "I shall never understand it—never!"
He looked at her. "You will some day: you were made to feel everything"
"I should have thought this was a case of not feeling——"
"On my part, you mean?" He faced her resolutely. "Yes, it was: to my shame...What I meant was that when you've lived a little longer you'll see what complex blunderers we all are: how we're struck blind sometimes, and mad sometimes—and then, when our sight and our senses come back, how we have to set to work, and build up, little by little, bit by bit, the precious things we'd smashed to atoms without knowing it. Life's just a perpetual piecing together of broken bits."
She looked up quickly. "That's what I feel: that you ought to——"
He stood up, interrupting her with a gesture. "Oh, don't—don't say what you're going to! Men don't give their lives away like that. If you won't have mine, it's at least my own, to do the best I can with."
"The best you can—that's what I mean! How can there be a 'best' for you that's made of some one else's worst?"
He sat down again with a groan. "I don't know! It seemed such a slight thing—all on the surface—and I've gone aground on it because it was on the surface. I see the horror of it just as you do. But I see, a little more clearly, the extent, and the limits, of my wrong. It's not as black as you imagine."
She lowered her voice to say: "I suppose I shall never understand; but she seems to love you..."
"There's my shame! That I didn't guess it, didn't fly from it. You say you'll never understand: but why shouldn't you? Is it anything to be proud of, to know so little of the strings that pull us? If you knew a little more, I could tell you how such things happen without offending you; and perhaps you'd listen without condemning me."
"I don't condemn you." She was dizzy with struggling impulses. She longed to cry out: "I DO understand! I've understood ever since you've been here!" For she was aware, in her own bosom, of sensations so separate from her romantic thoughts of him that she saw her body and soul divided against themselves. She recalled having read somewhere that in ancient Rome the slaves were not allowed to wear a distinctive dress lest they should recognize each other and learn their numbers and their power. So, in herself, she discerned for the first time instincts and desires, which, mute and unmarked, had gone to and fro in the dim passages of her mind, and now hailed each other with a cry of mutiny.
"Oh, I don't know what to think!" she broke out. "You say you didn't know she loved you. But you know it now. Doesn't that show you how you can put the broken bits together?"
"Can you seriously think it would be doing so to marry one woman while I care for another?"
"Oh, I don't know...I don't know..." The sense of her weakness made her try to harden herself against his arguments.
"You do know! We've often talked of such things: of the monstrousness of useless sacrifices. If I'm to expiate, it's not in that way." He added abruptly: "It's in having to say this to you now..."
She found no answer.
Through the silent apartment they heard the sudden peal of the door-bell, and she rose to her feet. "Owen!" she instantly exclaimed.
"Is Owen in Paris?"
She explained in a rapid undertone what she had learned from Sophy Viner.
"Shall I leave you?" Darrow asked.
"Yes...no..." She moved to the dining-room door, with the half-formed purpose of making him pass out, and then turned back. "It may be Adelaide."
They heard the outer door open, and a moment later Owen walked into the room. He was pale, with excited eyes: as they fell on Darrow, Anna saw his start of wonder. He made a slight sign of recognition, and then went up to his step-mother with an air of exaggerated gaiety.
"You furtive person! I ran across the omniscient Adelaide and heard from her that you'd rushed up suddenly and secretly." He stood between Anna and Darrow, strained, questioning, dangerously on edge.
"I came up to meet Mr. Darrow," Anna answered. "His leave's been prolonged—he's going back with me."
The words seemed to have uttered themselves without her will, yet she felt a great sense of freedom as she spoke them.
The hard tension of Owen's face changed to incredulous surprise. He looked at Darrow. "The merest luck...a colleague whose wife was ill...I came straight back," she heard the latter tranquilly explaining. His self-command helped to steady her, and she smiled at Owen.
"We'll all go back together tomorrow morning," she said as she slipped her arm through his.
Owen Leath did not go back with his step-mother to Givre. In reply to her suggestion he announced his intention of staying on a day or two longer in Paris.
Anna left alone by the first train the next morning. Darrow was to follow in the afternoon. When Owen had left them the evening before, Darrow waited a moment for her to speak; then, as she said nothing, he asked her if she really wished him to return to Givre. She made a mute sign of assent, and he added: "For you know that, much as I'm ready to do for Owen, I can't do that for him—I can't go back to be sent away again."
He came nearer, and looked at her, and she went to him. All her fears seemed to fall from her as he held her. It was a different feeling from any she had known before: confused and turbid, as if secret shames and rancours stirred in it, yet richer, deeper, more enslaving. She leaned her head back and shut her eyes beneath his kisses. She knew now that she could never give him up.