Nevertheless she asked him, the next morning, to let her go back alone to Givre. She wanted time to think. She was convinced that what had happened was inevitable, that she and Darrow belonged to each other, and that he was right in saying no past folly could ever put them asunder. If there was a shade of difference in her feeling for him it was that of an added intensity. She felt restless, insecure out of his sight: she had a sense of incompleteness, of passionate dependence, that was somehow at variance with her own conception of her character.
It was partly the consciousness of this change in herself that made her want to be alone. The solitude of her inner life had given her the habit of these hours of self-examination, and she needed them as she needed her morning plunge into cold water.
During the journey she tried to review what had happened in the light of her new decision and of her sudden relief from pain. She seemed to herself to have passed through some fiery initiation from which she had emerged seared and quivering, but clutching to her breast a magic talisman. Sophy Viner had cried out to her: "Some day you'll know!" and Darrow had used the same words. They meant, she supposed, that when she had explored the intricacies and darknesses of her own heart her judgment of others would be less absolute. Well, she knew now—knew weaknesses and strengths she had not dreamed of, and the deep discord and still deeper complicities between what thought in her and what blindly wanted...
Her mind turned anxiously to Owen. At least the blow that was to fall on him would not seem to have been inflicted by her hand. He would be left with the impression that his breach with Sophy Viner was due to one of the ordinary causes of such disruptions: though he must lose her, his memory of her would not be poisoned. Anna never for a moment permitted herself the delusion that she had renewed her promise to Darrow in order to spare her step-son this last refinement of misery. She knew she had been prompted by the irresistible impulse to hold fast to what was most precious to her, and that Owen's arrival on the scene had been the pretext for her decision, and not its cause; yet she felt herself fortified by the thought of what she had spared him. It was as though a star she had been used to follow had shed its familiar ray on ways unknown to her.
All through these meditations ran the undercurrent of an absolute trust in Sophy Viner. She thought of the girl with a mingling of antipathy and confidence. It was humiliating to her pride to recognize kindred impulses in a character which she would have liked to feel completely alien to her. But what indeed was the girl really like? She seemed to have no scruples and a thousand delicacies. She had given herself to Darrow, and concealed the episode from Owen Leath, with no more apparent sense of debasement than the vulgarest of adventuresses; yet she had instantly obeyed the voice of her heart when it bade her part from the one and serve the other.
Anna tried to picture what the girl's life must have been: what experiences, what initiations, had formed her. But her own training had been too different: there were veils she could not lift. She looked back at her married life, and its colourless uniformity took on an air of high restraint and order. Was it because she had been so incurious that it had worn that look to her? It struck her with amazement that she had never given a thought to her husband's past, or wondered what he did and where he went when he was away from her. If she had been asked what she supposed he thought about when they were apart, she would instantly have answered: his snuff-boxes. It had never occurred to her that he might have passions, interests, preoccupations of which she was absolutely ignorant. Yet he went up to Paris rather regularly: ostensibly to attend sales and exhibitions, or to confer with dealers and collectors. She tried to picture him, straight, trim, beautifully brushed and varnished, walking furtively down a quiet street, and looking about him before he slipped into a doorway. She understood now that she had been cold to him: what more likely than that he had sought compensations? All men were like that, she supposed—no doubt her simplicity had amused him.
In the act of transposing Fraser Leath into a Don Juan she was pulled up by the ironic perception that she was simply trying to justify Darrow. She wanted to think that all men were "like that" because Darrow was "like that": she wanted to justify her acceptance of the fact by persuading herself that only through such concessions could women like herself hope to keep what they could not give up. And suddenly she was filled with anger at her blindness, and then at her disastrous attempt to see. Why had she forced the truth out of Darrow? If only she had held her tongue nothing need ever have been known. Sophy Viner would have broken her engagement, Owen would have been sent around the world, and her own dream would have been unshattered. But she had probed, insisted, cross-examined, not rested till she had dragged the secret to the light. She was one of the luckless women who always have the wrong audacities, and who always know it...
Was it she, Anna Leath, who was picturing herself to herself in that way? She recoiled from her thoughts as if with a sense of demoniac possession, and there flashed through her the longing to return to her old state of fearless ignorance. If at that moment she could have kept Darrow from following her to Givre she would have done so...
But he came; and with the sight of him the turmoil fell and she felt herself reassured, rehabilitated. He arrived toward dusk, and she motored to Francheuil to meet him. She wanted to see him as soon as possible, for she had divined, through the new insight that was in her, that only his presence could restore her to a normal view of things. In the motor, as they left the town and turned into the high-road, he lifted her hand and kissed it, and she leaned against him, and felt the currents flow between them. She was grateful to him for not saying anything, and for not expecting her to speak. She said to herself: "He never makes a mistake—he always knows what to do"; and then she thought with a start that it was doubtless because he had so often been in such situations. The idea that his tact was a kind of professional expertness filled her with repugnance, and insensibly she drew away from him. He made no motion to bring her nearer, and she instantly thought that that was calculated too. She sat beside him in frozen misery, wondering whether, henceforth, she would measure in this way his every look and gesture. Neither of them spoke again till the motor turned under the dark arch of the avenue, and they saw the lights of Givre twinkling at its end. Then Darrow laid his hand on hers and said: "I know, dear—" and the hardness in her melted. "He's suffering as I am," she thought; and for a moment the baleful fact between them seemed to draw them closer instead of walling them up in their separate wretchedness.
It was wonderful to be once more re-entering the doors of Givre with him, and as the old house received them into its mellow silence she had again the sense of passing out of a dreadful dream into the reassurance of kindly and familiar things. It did not seem possible that these quiet rooms, so full of the slowly-distilled accumulations of a fastidious taste, should have been the scene of tragic dissensions. The memory of them seemed to be shut out into the night with the closing and barring of its doors.
At the tea-table in the oak-room they found Madame de Chantelle and Effie. The little girl, catching sight of Darrow, raced down the drawing-rooms to meet him, and returned in triumph on his shoulder. Anna looked at them with a smile. Effie, for all her graces, was chary of such favours, and her mother knew that in according them to Darrow she had admitted him to the circle where Owen had hitherto ruled.
Over the tea-table Darrow gave Madame de Chantelle the explanation of his sudden return from England. On reaching London, he told her, he had found that the secretary he was to have replaced was detained there by the illness of his wife. The Ambassador, knowing Darrow's urgent reasons for wishing to be in France, had immediately proposed his going back, and awaiting at Givre the summons to relieve his colleague; and he had jumped into the first train, without even waiting to telegraph the news of his release. He spoke naturally, easily, in his usual quiet voice, taking his tea from Effie, helping himself to the toast she handed, and stooping now and then to stroke the dozing terrier. And suddenly, as Anna listened to his explanation, she asked herself if it were true.
The question, of course, was absurd. There was no possible reason why he should invent a false account of his return, and every probability that the version he gave was the real one. But he had looked and spoken in the same way when he had answered her probing questions about Sophy Viner, and she reflected with a chill of fear that she would never again know if he were speaking the truth or not. She was sure he loved her, and she did not fear his insincerity as much as her own distrust of him. For a moment it seemed to her that this must corrupt the very source of love; then she said to herself: "By and bye, when I am altogether his, we shall be so near each other that there will be no room for any doubts between us." But the doubts were there now, one moment lulled to quiescence, the next more torturingly alert. When the nurse appeared to summon Effie, the little girl, after kissing her grandmother, entrenched herself on Darrow's knee with the imperious demand to be carried up to bed; and Anna, while she laughingly protested, said to herself with a pang: "Can I give her a father about whom I think such things?"
The thought of Effie, and of what she owed to Effie, had been the fundamental reason for her delays and hesitations when she and Darrow had come together again in England. Her own feeling was so clear that but for that scruple she would have put her hand in his at once. But till she had seen him again she had never considered the possibility of re-marriage, and when it suddenly confronted her it seemed, for the moment, to disorganize the life she had planned for herself and her child. She had not spoken of this to Darrow because it appeared to her a subject to be debated within her own conscience. The question, then, was not as to his fitness to become the guide and guardian of her child; nor did she fear that her love for him would deprive Effie of the least fraction of her tenderness, since she did not think of love as something measured and exhaustible but as a treasure perpetually renewed. What she questioned was her right to introduce into her life any interests and duties which might rob Effie of a part of her time, or lessen the closeness of their daily intercourse.
She had decided this question as it was inevitable that she should; but now another was before her. Assuredly, at her age, there was no possible reason why she should cloister herself to bring up her daughter; but there was every reason for not marrying a man in whom her own faith was not complete...
When she woke the next morning she felt a great lightness of heart. She recalled her last awakening at Givre, three days before, when it had seemed as though all her life had gone down in darkness. Now Darrow was once more under the same roof with her, and once more his nearness sufficed to make the looming horror drop away. She could almost have smiled at her scruples of the night before: as she looked back on them they seemed to belong to the old ignorant timorous time when she had feared to look life in the face, and had been blind to the mysteries and contradictions of the human heart because her own had not been revealed to her. Darrow had said: "You were made to feel everything"; and to feel was surely better than to judge.
When she came downstairs he was already in the oak-room with Effie and Madame de Chantelle, and the sense of reassurance which his presence gave her was merged in the relief of not being able to speak of what was between them. But there it was, inevitably, and whenever they looked at each other they saw it. In her dread of giving it a more tangible shape she tried to devise means of keeping the little girl with her, and, when the latter had been called away by the nurse, found an excuse for following Madame de Chantelle upstairs to the purple sitting-room. But a confidential talk with Madame de Chantelle implied the detailed discussion of plans of which Anna could hardly yet bear to consider the vaguest outline: the date of her marriage, the relative advantages of sailing from London or Lisbon, the possibility of hiring a habitable house at their new post; and, when these problems were exhausted, the application of the same method to the subject of Owen's future.
His grandmother, having no suspicion of the real reason of Sophy Viner's departure, had thought it "extremely suitable" of the young girl to withdraw to the shelter of her old friends' roof in the hour of bridal preparation. This maidenly retreat had in fact impressed Madame de Chantelle so favourably that she was disposed for the first time to talk over Owen's projects; and as every human event translated itself for her into terms of social and domestic detail, Anna had perforce to travel the same round again. She felt a momentary relief when Darrow presently joined them; but his coming served only to draw the conversation back to the question of their own future, and Anna felt a new pang as she heard him calmly and lucidly discussing it. Did such self-possession imply indifference or insincerity? In that problem her mind perpetually revolved; and she dreaded the one answer as much as the other.
She was resolved to keep on her course as though nothing had happened: to marry Darrow and never let the consciousness of the past intrude itself between them; but she was beginning to feel that the only way of attaining to this state of detachment from the irreparable was once for all to turn back with him to its contemplation. As soon as this desire had germinated it became so strong in her that she regretted having promised Effie to take her out for the afternoon. But she could think of no pretext for disappointing the little girl, and soon after luncheon the three set forth in the motor to show Darrow a chateau famous in the annals of the region. During their excursion Anna found it impossible to guess from his demeanour if Effie's presence between them was as much of a strain to his composure as to hers. He remained imperturbably good-humoured and appreciative while they went the round of the monument, and she remarked only that when he thought himself unnoticed his face grew grave and his answers came less promptly.
On the way back, two or three miles from Givre, she suddenly proposed that they should walk home through the forest which skirted that side of the park. Darrow acquiesced, and they got out and sent Effie on in the motor. Their way led through a bit of sober French woodland, flat as a faded tapestry, but with gleams of live emerald lingering here and there among its browns and ochres. The luminous grey air gave vividness to its dying colours, and veiled the distant glimpses of the landscape in soft uncertainty. In such a solitude Anna had fancied it would be easier to speak; but as she walked beside Darrow over the deep soundless flooring of brown moss the words on her lips took flight again. It seemed impossible to break the spell of quiet joy which his presence laid on her, and when he began to talk of the place they had just visited she answered his questions and then waited for what he should say next...No, decidedly she could not speak; she no longer even knew what she had meant to say...
The same experience repeated itself several times that day and the next. When she and Darrow were apart she exhausted herself in appeal and interrogation, she formulated with a fervent lucidity every point in her imaginary argument. But as soon as she was alone with him something deeper than reason and subtler than shyness laid its benumbing touch upon her, and the desire to speak became merely a dim disquietude, through which his looks, his words, his touch, reached her as through a mist of bodily pain. Yet this inertia was torn by wild flashes of resistance, and when they were apart she began to prepare again what she meant to say to him.
She knew he could not be with her without being aware of this inner turmoil, and she hoped he would break the spell by some releasing word. But she presently understood that he recognized the futility of words, and was resolutely bent on holding her to her own purpose of behaving as if nothing had happened. Once more she inwardly accused him of insensibility, and her imagination was beset by tormenting visions of his past...Had such things happened to him before? If the episode had been an isolated accident—"a moment of folly and madness", as he had called it—she could understand, or at least begin to understand (for at a certain point her imagination always turned back); but if it were a mere link in a chain of similar experiments, the thought of it dishonoured her whole past...
Effie, in the interregnum between governesses, had been given leave to dine downstairs; and Anna, on the evening of Darrow's return, kept the little girl with her till long after the nurse had signalled from the drawing-room door. When at length she had been carried off, Anna proposed a game of cards, and after this diversion had drawn to its languid close she said good-night to Darrow and followed Madame de Chantelle upstairs. But Madame de Chantelle never sat up late, and the second evening, with the amiably implied intention of leaving Anna and Darrow to themselves, she took an earlier leave of them than usual.
Anna sat silent, listening to her small stiff steps as they minced down the hall and died out in the distance. Madame de Chantelle had broken her wooden embroidery frame, and Darrow, having offered to repair it, had drawn his chair up to a table that held a lamp. Anna watched him as he sat with bent head and knitted brows, trying to fit together the disjoined pieces. The sight of him, so tranquilly absorbed in this trifling business, seemed to give to the quiet room a perfume of intimacy, to fill it with a sense of sweet familiar habit; and it came over her again that she knew nothing of the inner thoughts of this man who was sitting by her as a husband might. The lamplight fell on his white forehead, on the healthy brown of his cheek, the backs of his thin sunburnt hands. As she watched the hands her sense of them became as vivid as a touch, and she said to herself: "That other woman has sat and watched him as I am doing. She has known him as I have never known him...Perhaps he is thinking of that now. Or perhaps he has forgotten it all as completely as I have forgotten everything that happened to me before he came..."
He looked young, active, stored with strength and energy; not the man for vain repinings or long memories. She wondered what she had to hold or satisfy him. He loved her now; she had no doubt of that; but how could she hope to keep him? They were so nearly of an age that already she felt herself his senior. As yet the difference was not visible; outwardly at least they were matched; but ill-health or unhappiness would soon do away with this equality. She thought with a pang of bitterness: "He won't grow any older because he doesn't feel things; and because he doesn't, I SHALL..."
And when she ceased to please him, what then? Had he the tradition of faith to the spoken vow, or the deeper piety of the unspoken dedication? What was his theory, what his inner conviction in such matters? But what did she care for his convictions or his theories? No doubt he loved her now, and believed he would always go on loving her, and was persuaded that, if he ceased to, his loyalty would be proof against the change. What she wanted to know was not what he thought about it in advance, but what would impel or restrain him at the crucial hour. She put no faith in her own arts: she was too sure of having none! And if some beneficent enchanter had bestowed them on her, she knew now that she would have rejected the gift. She could hardly conceive of wanting the kind of love that was a state one could be cozened into...
Darrow, putting away the frame, walked across the room and sat down beside her; and she felt he had something special to say.
"They're sure to send for me in a day or two now," he began.
She made no answer, and he continued: "You'll tell me before I go what day I'm to come back and get you?"
It was the first time since his return to Givre that he had made any direct allusion to the date of their marriage; and instead of answering him she broke out: "There's something I've been wanting you to know. The other day in Paris I saw Miss Viner."
She saw him flush with the intensity of his surprise.
"You sent for her?"
"No; she heard from Adelaide that I was in Paris and she came. She came because she wanted to urge me to marry you. I thought you ought to know what she had done."
Darrow stood up. "I'm glad you've told me." He spoke with a visible effort at composure. Her eyes followed him as he moved away.
"Is that all?" he asked after an interval.
"It seems to me a great deal."
"It's what she'd already asked me." His voice showed her how deeply he was moved, and a throb of jealousy shot through her.
"Oh, it was for your sake, I know!" He made no answer, and she added: "She's been exceedingly generous...Why shouldn't we speak of it?"
She had lowered her head, but through her dropped lids she seemed to be watching the crowded scene of his face.
"I've not shrunk from speaking of it."
"Speaking of her, then, I mean. It seems to me that if I could talk to you about her I should know better——"
She broke off, confused, and he questioned: "What is it you want to know better?"
The colour rose to her forehead. How could she tell him what she scarcely dared own to herself? There was nothing she did not want to know, no fold or cranny of his secret that her awakened imagination did not strain to penetrate; but she could not expose Sophy Viner to the base fingerings of a retrospective jealousy, nor Darrow to the temptation of belittling her in the effort to better his own case. The girl had been magnificent, and the only worthy return that Anna could make was to take Darrow from her without a question if she took him at all...
She lifted her eyes to his face. "I think I only wanted to speak her name. It's not right that we should seem so afraid of it. If I were really afraid of it I should have to give you up," she said.
He bent over her and caught her to him. "Ah, you can't give me up now!" he exclaimed.
She suffered him to hold her fast without speaking; but the old dread was between them again, and it was on her lips to cry out: "How can I help it, when I AM so afraid?"
The next morning the dread was still there, and she understood that she must snatch herself out of the torpor of the will into which she had been gradually sinking, and tell Darrow that she could not be his wife.
The knowledge came to her in the watches of a sleepless night, when, through the tears of disenchanted passion, she stared back upon her past. There it lay before her, her sole romance, in all its paltry poverty, the cheapest of cheap adventures, the most pitiful of sentimental blunders. She looked about her room, the room where, for so many years, if her heart had been quiescent her thoughts had been alive, and pictured herself henceforth cowering before a throng of mean suspicions, of unavowed compromises and concessions. In that moment of self-searching she saw that Sophy Viner had chosen the better part, and that certain renunciations might enrich where possession would have left a desert.
Passionate reactions of instinct fought against these efforts of her will. Why should past or future coerce her, when the present was so securely hers? Why insanely surrender what the other would after all never have? Her sense of irony whispered that if she sent away Darrow it would not be to Sophy Viner, but to the first woman who crossed his path—as, in a similar hour, Sophy Viner herself had crossed it...But the mere fact that she could think such things of him sent her shuddering back to the opposite pole. She pictured herself gradually subdued to such a conception of life and love, she pictured Effie growing up under the influence of the woman she saw herself becoming—and she hid her eyes from the humiliation of the picture...
They were at luncheon when the summons that Darrow expected was brought to him. He handed the telegram to Anna, and she learned that his Ambassador, on the way to a German cure, was to be in Paris the next evening and wished to confer with him there before he went back to London. The idea that the decisive moment was at hand was so agitating to her that when luncheon was over she slipped away to the terrace and thence went down alone to the garden. The day was grey but mild, with the heaviness of decay in the air. She rambled on aimlessly, following under the denuded boughs the path she and Darrow had taken on their first walk to the river. She was sure he would not try to overtake her: sure he would guess why she wished to be alone. There were moments when it seemed to double her loneliness to be so certain of his reading her heart while she was so desperately ignorant of his...
She wandered on for more than an hour, and when she returned to the house she saw, as she entered the hall, that Darrow was seated at the desk in Owen's study. He heard her step, and looking up turned in his chair without rising. Their eyes met, and she saw that his were clear and smiling. He had a heap of papers at his elbow and was evidently engaged in some official correspondence. She wondered that he could address himself so composedly to his task, and then ironically reflected that such detachment was a sign of his superiority. She crossed the threshold and went toward him; but as she advanced she had a sudden vision of Owen, standing outside in the cold autumn dusk and watching Darrow and Sophy Viner as they faced each other across the lamplit desk...The evocation was so vivid that it caught her breath like a blow, and she sank down helplessly on the divan among the piled-up books. Distinctly, at the moment, she understood that the end had come. "When he speaks to me I will tell him!" she thought...
Darrow, laying aside his pen, looked at her for a moment in silence; then he stood up and shut the door.
"I must go to-morrow early," he said, sitting down beside her. His voice was grave, with a slight tinge of sadness. She said to herself: "He knows what I am feeling..." and now the thought made her feel less alone. The expression of his face was stern and yet tender: for the first time she understood what he had suffered.
She had no doubt as to the necessity of giving him up, but it was impossible to tell him so then. She stood up and said: "I'll leave you to your letters." He made no protest, but merely answered: "You'll come down presently for a walk?" and it occurred to her at once that she would walk down to the river with him, and give herself for the last time the tragic luxury of sitting at his side in the little pavilion. "Perhaps," she thought, "it will be easier to tell him there."
It did not, on the way home from their walk, become any easier to tell him; but her secret decision to do so before he left gave her a kind of factitious calm and laid a melancholy ecstasy upon the hour. Still skirting the subject that fanned their very faces with its flame, they clung persistently to other topics, and it seemed to Anna that their minds had never been nearer together than in this hour when their hearts were so separate. In the glow of interchanged love she had grown less conscious of that other glow of interchanged thought which had once illumined her mind. She had forgotten how Darrow had widened her world and lengthened out all her perspectives, and with a pang of double destitution she saw herself alone among her shrunken thoughts.
For the first time, then, she had a clear vision of what her life would be without him. She imagined herself trying to take up the daily round, and all that had lightened and animated it seemed equally lifeless and vain. She tried to think of herself as wholly absorbed in her daughter's development, like other mothers she had seen; but she supposed those mothers must have had stored memories of happiness to nourish them. She had had nothing, and all her starved youth still claimed its due.
When she went up to dress for dinner she said to herself: "I'll have my last evening with him, and then, before we say good night, I'll tell him."
This postponement did not seem unjustified. Darrow had shown her how he dreaded vain words, how resolved he was to avoid all fruitless discussion. He must have been intensely aware of what had been going on in her mind since his return, yet when she had attempted to reveal it to him he had turned from the revelation. She was therefore merely following the line he had traced in behaving, till the final moment came, as though there were nothing more to say...
That moment seemed at last to be at hand when, at her usual hour after dinner, Madame de Chantelle rose to go upstairs. She lingered a little to bid good-bye to Darrow, whom she was not likely to see in the morning; and her affable allusions to his prompt return sounded in Anna's ear like the note of destiny.
A cold rain had fallen all day, and for greater warmth and intimacy they had gone after dinner to the oak-room, shutting out the chilly vista of the farther drawing-rooms. The autumn wind, coming up from the river, cried about the house with a voice of loss and separation; and Anna and Darrow sat silent, as if they feared to break the hush that shut them in. The solitude, the fire-light, the harmony of soft hangings and old dim pictures, wove about them a spell of security through which Anna felt, far down in her heart, the muffled beat of an inextinguishable bliss. How could she have thought that this last moment would be the moment to speak to him, when it seemed to have gathered up into its flight all the scattered splendours of her dream?
Darrow continued to stand by the door after it had closed. Anna felt that he was looking at her, and sat still, disdaining to seek refuge in any evasive word or movement. For the last time she wanted to let him take from her the fulness of what the sight of her could give.
He crossed over and sat down on the sofa. For a moment neither of them spoke; then he said: "To-night, dearest, I must have my answer."
She straightened herself under the shock of his seeming to take the very words from her lips.
"To-night?" was all that she could falter.
"I must be off by the early train. There won't be more than a moment in the morning."
He had taken her hand, and she said to herself that she must free it before she could go on with what she had to say. Then she rejected this concession to a weakness she was resolved to defy. To the end she would leave her hand in his hand, her eyes in his eyes: she would not, in their final hour together, be afraid of any part of her love for him.
"You'll tell me to-night, dear," he insisted gently; and his insistence gave her the strength to speak.
"There's something I must ask you," she broke out, perceiving, as she heard her words, that they were not in the least what she had meant to say.
He sat still, waiting, and she pressed on: "Do such things happen to men often?"
The quiet room seemed to resound with the long reverberations of her question. She looked away from him, and he released her and stood up.
"I don't know what happens to other men. Such a thing never happened to me..."
She turned her eyes back to his face. She felt like a traveller on a giddy path between a cliff and a precipice: there was nothing for it now but to go on.
"Had it...had it begun...before you met her in Paris?"
"No; a thousand times no! I've told you the facts as they were."
"All the facts?"
He turned abruptly. "What do you mean?"
Her throat was dry and the loud pulses drummed in her temples.
"I mean—about her...Perhaps you knew...knew things about her...beforehand."
She stopped. The room had grown profoundly still. A log dropped to the hearth and broke there in a hissing shower.
Darrow spoke in a clear voice. "I knew nothing, absolutely nothing," he said.
She had the answer to her inmost doubt—to her last shameful unavowed hope. She sat powerless under her woe.
He walked to the fireplace and pushed back the broken log with his foot. A flame shot out of it, and in the upward glare she saw his pale face, stern with misery.
"Is that all?" he asked.
She made a slight sign with her head and he came slowly back to her. "Then is this to be good-bye?"
Again she signed a faint assent, and he made no effort to touch her or draw nearer. "You understand that I sha'n't come back?"
He was looking at her, and she tried to return his look, but her eyes were blind with tears, and in dread of his seeing them she got up and walked away. He did not follow her, and she stood with her back to him, staring at a bowl of carnations on a little table strewn with books. Her tears magnified everything she looked at, and the streaked petals of the carnations, their fringed edges and frail curled stamens, pressed upon her, huge and vivid. She noticed among the books a volume of verse he had sent her from England, and tried to remember whether it was before or after...
She felt that he was waiting for her to speak, and at last she turned to him. "I shall see you to-morrow before you go..."
He made no answer.
She moved toward the door and he held it open for her. She saw his hand on the door, and his seal ring in its setting of twisted silver; and the sense of the end of all things came to her.
They walked down the drawing-rooms, between the shadowy reflections of screens and cabinets, and mounted the stairs side by side. At the end of the gallery, a lamp brought out turbid gleams in the smoky battle-piece above it.
On the landing Darrow stopped; his room was the nearest to the stairs. "Good night," he said, holding out his hand.
As Anna gave him hers the springs of grief broke loose in her. She struggled with her sobs, and subdued them; but her breath came unevenly, and to hide her agitation she leaned on him and pressed her face against his arm.
"Don't—don't," he whispered, soothing her.
Her troubled breathing sounded loudly in the silence of the sleeping house. She pressed her lips tight, but could not stop the nervous pulsations in her throat, and he put an arm about her and, opening his door, drew her across the threshold of his room. The door shut behind her and she sat down on the lounge at the foot of the bed. The pulsations in her throat had ceased, but she knew they would begin again if she tried to speak.
Darrow walked away and leaned against the mantelpiece. The red-veiled lamp shone on his books and papers, on the arm-chair by the fire, and the scattered objects on his dressing-table. A log glimmered on the hearth, and the room was warm and faintly smoke-scented. It was the first time she had ever been in a room he lived in, among his personal possessions and the traces of his daily usage. Every object about her seemed to contain a particle of himself: the whole air breathed of him, steeping her in the sense of his intimate presence.
Suddenly she thought: "This is what Sophy Viner knew"...and with a torturing precision she pictured them alone in such a scene...Had he taken the girl to an hotel...where did people go in such cases? Wherever they were, the silence of night had been around them, and the things he used had been strewn about the room...Anna, ashamed of dwelling on the detested vision, stood up with a confused impulse of flight; then a wave of contrary feeling arrested her and she paused with lowered head.
Darrow had come forward as she rose, and she perceived that he was waiting for her to bid him good night. It was clear that no other possibility had even brushed his mind; and the fact, for some dim reason, humiliated her. "Why not...why not?" something whispered in her, as though his forbearance, his tacit recognition of her pride, were a slight on other qualities she wanted him to feel in her.
"In the morning, then?" she heard him say.
"Yes, in the morning," she repeated.
She continued to stand in the same place, looking vaguely about the room. For once before they parted—since part they must—she longed to be to him all that Sophy Viner had been; but she remained rooted to the floor, unable to find a word or imagine a gesture that should express her meaning. Exasperated by her helplessness, she thought: "Don't I feel things as other women do?"
Her eye fell on a note-case she had given him. It was worn at the corners with the friction of his pocket and distended with thickly packed papers. She wondered if he carried her letters in it, and she put her hand out and touched it.
All that he and she had ever felt or seen, their close encounters of word and look, and the closer contact of their silences, trembled through her at the touch. She remembered things he had said that had been like new skies above her head: ways he had that seemed a part of the air she breathed. The faint warmth of her girlish love came back to her, gathering heat as it passed through her thoughts; and her heart rocked like a boat on the surge of its long long memories. "It's because I love him in too many ways," she thought; and slowly she turned to the door.
She was aware that Darrow was still silently watching her, but he neither stirred nor spoke till she had reached the threshold. Then he met her there and caught her in his arms.
"Not to-night—don't tell me to-night!" he whispered; and she leaned away from him, closing her eyes for an instant, and then slowly opening them to the flood of light in his.
Anna and Darrow, the next day, sat alone in a compartment of the Paris train.
Anna, when they entered it, had put herself in the farthest corner and placed her bag on the adjoining seat. She had decided suddenly to accompany Darrow to Paris, had even persuaded him to wait for a later train in order that they might travel together. She had an intense longing to be with him, an almost morbid terror of losing sight of him for a moment: when he jumped out of the train and ran back along the platform to buy a newspaper for her she felt as though she should never see him again, and shivered with the cold misery of her last journey to Paris, when she had thought herself parted from him forever. Yet she wanted to keep him at a distance, on the other side of the compartment, and as the train moved out of the station she drew from her bag the letters she had thrust in it as she left the house, and began to glance over them so that her lowered lids should hide her eyes from him.
She was his now, his for life: there could never again be any question of sacrificing herself to Effie's welfare, or to any other abstract conception of duty. Effie of course would not suffer; Anna would pay for her bliss as a wife by redoubled devotion as a mother. Her scruples were not overcome; but for the time their voices were drowned in the tumultuous rumour of her happiness.
As she opened her letters she was conscious that Darrow's gaze was fixed on her, and gradually it drew her eyes upward, and she drank deep of the passionate tenderness in his. Then the blood rose to her face and she felt again the desire to shield herself. She turned back to her letters and her glance lit on an envelope inscribed in Owen's hand.
Her heart began to beat oppressively: she was in a mood when the simplest things seemed ominous. What could Owen have to say to her? Only the first page was covered, and it contained simply the announcement that, in the company of a young compatriot who was studying at the Beaux Arts, he had planned to leave for Spain the following evening.
"He hasn't seen her, then!" was Anna's instant thought; and her feeling was a strange compound of humiliation and relief. The girl had kept her word, lived up to the line of conduct she had set herself; and Anna had failed in the same attempt. She did not reproach herself with her failure; but she would have been happier if there had been less discrepancy between her words to Sophy Viner and the act which had followed them. It irritated her obscurely that the girl should have been so much surer of her power to carry out her purpose...
Anna looked up and saw that Darrow's eyes were on the newspaper. He seemed calm and secure, almost indifferent to her presence. "Will it become a matter of course to him so soon?" she wondered with a twinge of jealousy. She sat motionless, her eyes fixed on him, trying to make him feel the attraction of her gaze as she felt his. It surprised and shamed her to detect a new element in her love for him: a sort of suspicious tyrannical tenderness that seemed to deprive it of all serenity. Finally he looked up, his smile enveloped her, and she felt herself his in every fibre, his so completely and inseparably that she saw the vanity of imagining any other fate for herself.
To give herself a countenance she held out Owen's letter. He took it and glanced down the page, his face grown grave. She waited nervously till he looked up.
"That's a good plan; the best thing that could happen," he said, a just perceptible shade of constraint in his tone.
"Oh, yes," she hastily assented. She was aware of a faint current of relief silently circulating between them. They were both glad that Owen was going, that for a while he would be out of their way; and it seemed to her horrible that so much of the stuff of their happiness should be made of such unavowed feelings...
"I shall see him this evening," she said, wishing Darrow to feel that she was not afraid of meeting her step-son.
"Yes, of course; perhaps he might dine with you."
The words struck her as strangely obtuse. Darrow was to meet his Ambassador at the station on the latter's arrival, and would in all probability have to spend the evening with him, and Anna knew he had been concerned at the thought of having to leave her alone. But how could he speak in that careless tone of her dining with Owen? She lowered her voice to say: "I'm afraid he's desperately unhappy."
He answered, with a tinge of impatience: "It's much the best thing that he should travel."
"Yes—but don't you feel..." She broke off. She knew how he disliked these idle returns on the irrevocable, and her fear of doing or saying what he disliked was tinged by a new instinct of subserviency against which her pride revolted. She thought to herself: "He will see the change, and grow indifferent to me as he did to HER..." and for a moment it seemed to her that she was reliving the experience of Sophy Viner.
Darrow made no attempt to learn the end of her unfinished sentence. He handed back Owen's letter and returned to his newspaper; and when he looked up from it a few minutes later it was with a clear brow and a smile that irresistibly drew her back to happier thoughts.
The train was just entering a station, and a moment later their compartment was invaded by a commonplace couple preoccupied with the bestowal of bulging packages. Anna, at their approach, felt the possessive pride of the woman in love when strangers are between herself and the man she loves. She asked Darrow to open the window, to place her bag in the net, to roll her rug into a cushion for her feet; and while he was thus busied with her she was conscious of a new devotion in his tone, in his way of bending over her and meeting her eyes. He went back to his seat, and they looked at each other like lovers smiling at a happy secret.
Anna, before going back to Givre, had suggested Owen's moving into her apartment, but he had preferred to remain at the hotel to which he had sent his luggage, and on arriving in Paris she decided to drive there at once. She was impatient to have the meeting over, and glad that Darrow was obliged to leave her at the station in order to look up a colleague at the Embassy. She dreaded his seeing Owen again, and yet dared not tell him so, and to ensure his remaining away she mentioned an urgent engagement with her dress-maker and a long list of commissions to be executed for Madame de Chantelle.
"I shall see you to-morrow morning," she said; but he replied with a smile that he would certainly find time to come to her for a moment on his way back from meeting the Ambassador; and when he had put her in a cab he leaned through the window to press his lips to hers.
She blushed like a girl, thinking, half vexed, half happy: "Yesterday he would not have done it..." and a dozen scarcely definable differences in his look and manner seemed all at once to be summed up in the boyish act. "After all, I'm engaged to him," she reflected, and then smiled at the absurdity of the word. The next instant, with a pang of self-reproach, she remembered Sophy Viner's cry: "I knew all the while he didn't care..." "Poor thing, oh poor thing!" Anna murmured...
At Owen's hotel she waited in a tremor while the porter went in search of him. Word was presently brought back that he was in his room and begged her to come up, and as she crossed the hall she caught sight of his portmanteaux lying on the floor, already labelled for departure.
Owen sat at a table writing, his back to the door; and when he stood up the window was behind him, so that, in the rainy afternoon light, his features were barely discernible.
"Dearest—so you're really off?" she said, hesitating a moment on the threshold.
He pushed a chair forward, and they sat down, each waiting for the other to speak. Finally she put some random question about his travelling-companion, a slow shy meditative youth whom he had once or twice brought down to Givre. She reflected that it was natural he should have given this uncommunicative comrade the preference over his livelier acquaintances, and aloud she said: "I'm so glad Fred Rempson can go with you."
Owen answered in the same tone, and for a few minutes their talk dragged itself on over a dry waste of common-places. Anna noticed that, though ready enough to impart his own plans, Owen studiously abstained from putting any questions about hers. It was evident from his allusions that he meant to be away for some time, and he presently asked her if she would give instructions about packing and sending after him some winter clothes he had left at Givre. This gave her the opportunity to say that she expected to go back within a day or two and would attend to the matter as soon as she returned. She added: "I came up this morning with George, who is going on to London to-morrow," intending, by the use of Darrow's Christian name, to give Owen the chance to speak of her marriage. But he made no comment, and she continued to hear the name sounding on unfamiliarly between them.
The room was almost dark, and she finally stood up and glanced about for the light-switch, saying: "I can't see you, dear."
"Oh, don't—I hate the light!" Owen exclaimed, catching her by the wrist and pushing her back into her seat. He gave a nervous laugh and added: "I'm half-blind with neuralgia. I suppose it's this beastly rain."
"Yes; it will do you good to get down to Spain."
She asked if he had the remedies the doctor had given him for a previous attack, and on his replying that he didn't know what he'd done with the stuff, she sprang up, offering to go to the chemist's. It was a relief to have something to do for him, and she knew from his "Oh, thanks—would you?" that it was a relief to him to have a pretext for not detaining her. His natural impulse would have been to declare that he didn't want any drugs, and would be all right in no time; and his acquiescence showed her how profoundly he felt the uselessness of their trying to prolong their talk. His face was now no more than a white blur in the dusk, but she felt its indistinctness as a veil drawn over aching intensities of expression. "He knows...he knows..." she said to herself, and wondered whether the truth had been revealed to him by some corroborative fact or by the sheer force of divination.
He had risen also, and was clearly waiting for her to go, and she turned to the door, saying: "I'll be back in a moment."
"Oh, don't come up again, please!" He paused, embarrassed. "I mean—I may not be here. I've got to go and pick up Rempson, and see about some final things with him." She stopped on the threshold with a sinking heart. He meant this to be their leave-taking, then—and he had not even asked her when she was to be married, or spoken of seeing her again before she set out for the other side of the world.
"Owen!" she cried, and turned back.
He stood mutely before her in the dimness.
"You haven't told me how long you're to be gone."
"How long? Oh, you see...that's rather vague...I hate definite dates, you know..."
He paused and she saw he did not mean to help her out. She tried to say: "You'll be here for my wedding?" but could not bring the words to her lips. Instead she murmured: "In six weeks I shall be going too..." and he rejoined, as if he had expected the announcement and prepared his answer: "Oh, by that time, very likely..."
"At any rate, I won't say good-bye," she stammered, feeling the tears beneath her veil.
"No, no; rather not!" he declared; but he made no movement, and she went up and threw her arms about him. "You'll write me, won't you?"
"Of course, of course——"
Her hands slipped down into his, and for a minute they held each other dumbly in the darkness; then he gave a vague laugh and said: "It's really time to light up." He pressed the electric button with one hand while with the other he opened the door; and she passed out without daring to turn back, lest the light on his face should show her what she feared to see.
Anna drove to the chemist's for Owen's remedy. On the way she stopped her cab at a book-shop, and emerged from it laden with literature. She knew what would interest Owen, and what he was likely to have read, and she had made her choice among the newest publications with the promptness of a discriminating reader. But on the way back to the hotel she was overcome by the irony of adding this mental panacea to the other. There was something grotesque and almost mocking in the idea of offering a judicious selection of literature to a man setting out on such a journey. "He knows...he knows..." she kept on repeating; and giving the porter the parcel from the chemist's she drove away without leaving the books. She went to her apartment, whither her maid had preceded her. There was a fire in the drawing-room and the tea-table stood ready by the hearth. The stormy rain beat against the uncurtained windows, and she thought of Owen, who would soon be driving through it to the station, alone with his bitter thoughts. She had been proud of the fact that he had always sought her help in difficult hours; and now, in the most difficult of all, she was the one being to whom he could not turn. Between them, henceforth, there would always be the wall of an insurmountable silence...She strained her aching thoughts to guess how the truth had come to him. Had he seen the girl, and had she told him? Instinctively, Anna rejected this conjecture. But what need was there of assuming an explicit statement, when every breath they had drawn for the last weeks had been charged with the immanent secret? As she looked back over the days since Darrow's first arrival at Givre she perceived that at no time had any one deliberately spoken, or anything been accidentally disclosed. The truth had come to light by the force of its irresistible pressure; and the perception gave her a startled sense of hidden powers, of a chaos of attractions and repulsions far beneath the ordered surfaces of intercourse. She looked back with melancholy derision on her old conception of life, as a kind of well-lit and well policed suburb to dark places one need never know about. Here they were, these dark places, in her own bosom, and henceforth she would always have to traverse them to reach the beings she loved best!
She was still sitting beside the untouched tea-table when she heard Darrow's voice in the hall. She started up, saying to herself: "I must tell him that Owen knows..." but when the door opened and she saw his face, still lit by the same smile of boyish triumph, she felt anew the uselessness of speaking...Had he ever supposed that Owen would not know? Probably, from the height of his greater experience, he had seen long since that all that happened was inevitable; and the thought of it, at any rate, was clearly not weighing on him now.
He was already dressed for the evening, and as he came toward her he said: "The Ambassador's booked for an official dinner and I'm free after all. Where shall we dine?"
Anna had pictured herself sitting alone all the evening with her wretched thoughts, and the fact of having to put them out of her mind for the next few hours gave her an immediate sensation of relief. Already her pulses were dancing to the tune of Darrow's, and as they smiled at each other she thought: "Nothing can ever change the fact that I belong to him."
"Where shall we dine?" he repeated gaily, and she named a well-known restaurant for which she had once heard him express a preference. But as she did so she fancied she saw a shadow on his face, and instantly she said to herself: "It was THERE he went with her!"
"Oh, no, not there, after all!" she interrupted herself; and now she was sure his colour deepened.
"Where shall it be, then?"
She noticed that he did not ask the reason of her change, and this convinced her that she had guessed the truth, and that he knew she had guessed it. "He will always know what I am thinking, and he will never dare to ask me," she thought; and she saw between them the same insurmountable wall of silence as between herself and Owen, a wall of glass through which they could watch each other's faintest motions but which no sound could ever traverse...
They drove to a restaurant on the Boulevard, and there, in their intimate corner of the serried scene, the sense of what was unspoken between them gradually ceased to oppress her. He looked so light-hearted and handsome, so ingenuously proud of her, so openly happy at being with her, that no other fact could seem real in his presence. He had learned that the Ambassador was to spend two days in Paris, and he had reason to hope that in consequence his own departure for London would be deferred. He was exhilarated by the prospect of being with Anna for a few hours longer, and she did not ask herself if his exhilaration were a sign of insensibility, for she was too conscious of his power of swaying her moods not to be secretly proud of affecting his.
They lingered for some time over the fruit and coffee, and when they rose to go Darrow suggested that, if she felt disposed for the play, they were not too late for the second part of the programme at one of the smaller theatres.
His mention of the hour recalled Owen to her thoughts. She saw his train rushing southward through the storm, and, in a corner of the swaying compartment, his face, white and indistinct as it had loomed on her in the rainy twilight. It was horrible to be thus perpetually paying for her happiness!
Darrow had called for a theatrical journal, and he presently looked up from it to say: "I hear the second play at the Athenee is amusing."
It was on Anna's lips to acquiesce; but as she was about to speak she wondered if it were not at the Athenee that Owen had seen Darrow with Sophy Viner. She was not sure he had even mentioned the theatre, but the mere possibility was enough to darken her sky. It was hateful to her to think of accompanying Darrow to places where the girl had been with him. She tried to reason away this scruple, she even reminded herself with a bitter irony that whenever she was in Darrow's arms she was where the girl had been before her—but she could not shake off her superstitious dread of being with him in any of the scenes of the Parisian episode. She replied that she was too tired for the play, and they drove back to her apartment. At the foot of the stairs she half-turned to wish him good night, but he appeared not to notice her gesture and followed her up to her door.
"This is ever so much better than the theatre," he said as they entered the drawing-room.
She had crossed the room and was bending over the hearth to light the fire. She knew he was approaching her, and that in a moment he would have drawn the cloak from her shoulders and laid his lips on her neck, just below the gathered-up hair. These privileges were his and, however deferently and tenderly he claimed them, the joyous ease of his manner marked a difference and proclaimed a right.
"After the theatre they came home like this," she thought; and at the same instant she felt his hands on her shoulders and shrank back.
"Don't—oh, don't!" she cried, drawing her cloak about her. She saw from his astonished stare that her face must be quivering with pain.
"Anna! What on earth is the matter?"
"Owen knows!" she broke out, with a confused desire to justify herself.
Darrow's countenance changed. "Did he tell you so? What did he say?"
"Nothing! I knew it from the things he didn't say."
"You had a talk with him this afternoon?"
"Yes: for a few minutes. I could see he didn't want me to stay."
She had dropped into a chair, and sat there huddled, still holding her cloak about her shoulders.
Darrow did not dispute her assumption, and she noticed that he expressed no surprise. He sat down at a little distance from her, turning about in his fingers the cigar-case he had drawn out as they came in. At length he said: "Had he seen Miss Viner?"
She shrank from the sound of the name. "No...I don't think so...I'm sure he hadn't..."
They remained silent, looking away from one another. Finally Darrow stood up and took a few steps across the room. He came back and paused before her, his eyes on her face.
"I think you ought to tell me what you mean to do." She raised her head and gave him back his look. "Nothing I do can help Owen!"
"No; but things can't go on like this." He paused, as if to measure his words. "I fill you with aversion," he exclaimed.
She started up, half-sobbing. "No—oh, no!"
"Poor child—you can't see your face!"
She lifted her hands as if to hide it, and turning away from him bowed her head upon the mantel-shelf. She felt that he was standing a little way behind her, but he made no attempt to touch her or come nearer.
"I know you've felt as I've felt," he said in a low voice—"that we belong to each other and that nothing can alter that. But other thoughts come, and you can't banish them. Whenever you see me you remember...you associate me with things you abhor...You've been generous—immeasurably. You've given me all the chances a woman could; but if it's only made you suffer, what's the use?"
She turned to him with a tear-stained face. "It hasn't only done that."
"Oh, no! I know...There've been moments..." He took her hand and raised it to his lips. "They'll be with me as long as I live. But I can't see you paying such a price for them. I'm not worth what I'm costing you."
She continued to gaze at him through tear-dilated eyes; and suddenly she flung out the question: "Wasn't it the Athenee you took her to that evening?"
"Yes; I want to know now: to know everything. Perhaps that will make me forget. I ought to have made you tell me before. Wherever we go, I imagine you've been there with her...I see you together. I want to know how it began, where you went, why you left her...I can't go on in this darkness any longer!"
She did not know what had prompted her passionate outburst, but already she felt lighter, freer, as if at last the evil spell were broken. "I want to know everything," she repeated. "It's the only way to make me forget."
After she had ceased speaking Darrow remained where he was, his arms folded, his eyes lowered, immovable. She waited, her gaze on his face.
"Aren't you going to tell me?"
"No." The blood rushed to her temples. "You won't? Why not?"
"If I did, do you suppose you'd forget THAT?"
"Oh—" she moaned, and turned away from him.
"You see it's impossible," he went on. "I've done a thing I loathe, and to atone for it you ask me to do another. What sort of satisfaction would that give you? It would put something irremediable between us."
She leaned her elbow against the mantel-shelf and hid her face in her hands. She had the sense that she was vainly throwing away her last hope of happiness, yet she could do nothing, think of nothing, to save it. The conjecture flashed through her: "Should I be at peace if I gave him up?" and she remembered the desolation of the days after she had sent him away, and understood that that hope was vain. The tears welled through her lids and ran slowly down between her fingers.
"Good-bye," she heard him say, and his footsteps turned to the door.
She tried to raise her head, but the weight of her despair bowed it down. She said to herself: "This is the end...he won't try to appeal to me again..." and she remained in a sort of tranced rigidity, perceiving without feeling the fateful lapse of the seconds. Then the cords that bound her seemed to snap, and she lifted her head and saw him going.
"Why, he's mine—he's mine! He's no one else's!" His face was turned to her and the look in his eyes swept away all her terrors. She no longer understood what had prompted her senseless outcry; and the mortal sweetness of loving him became again the one real fact in the world.
Anna, the next day, woke to a humiliated memory of the previous evening.
Darrow had been right in saying that their sacrifice would benefit no one; yet she seemed dimly to discern that there were obligations not to be tested by that standard. She owed it, at any rate, as much to his pride as to hers to abstain from the repetition of such scenes; and she had learned that it was beyond her power to do so while they were together. Yet when he had given her the chance to free herself, everything had vanished from her mind but the blind fear of losing him; and she saw that he and she were as profoundly and inextricably bound together as two trees with interwoven roots. For a long time she brooded on her plight, vaguely conscious that the only escape from it must come from some external chance. And slowly the occasion shaped itself in her mind. It was Sophy Viner only who could save her—Sophy Viner only who could give her back her lost serenity. She would seek the girl out and tell her that she had given Darrow up; and that step once taken there would be no retracing it, and she would perforce have to go forward alone.
Any pretext for action was a kind of anodyne, and she despatched her maid to the Farlows' with a note asking if Miss Viner would receive her. There was a long delay before the maid returned, and when at last she appeared it was with a slip of paper on which an address was written, and a verbal message to the effect that Miss Viner had left some days previously, and was staying with her sister in a hotel near the Place de l'Etoile. The maid added that Mrs. Farlow, on the plea that Miss Viner's plans were uncertain, had at first made some difficulty about giving this information; and Anna guessed that the girl had left her friends' roof, and instructed them to withhold her address, with the object of avoiding Owen. "She's kept faith with herself and I haven't," Anna mused; and the thought was a fresh incentive to action.
Darrow had announced his intention of coming soon after luncheon, and the morning was already so far advanced that Anna, still mistrustful of her strength, decided to drive immediately to the address Mrs. Farlow had given. On the way there she tried to recall what she had heard of Sophy Viner's sister, but beyond the girl's enthusiastic report of the absent Laura's loveliness she could remember only certain vague allusions of Mrs. Farlow's to her artistic endowments and matrimonial vicissitudes. Darrow had mentioned her but once, and in the briefest terms, as having apparently very little concern for Sophy's welfare, and being, at any rate, too geographically remote to give her any practical support; and Anna wondered what chance had brought her to her sister's side at this conjunction. Mrs. Farlow had spoken of her as a celebrity (in what line Anna failed to recall); but Mrs. Farlow's celebrities were legion, and the name on the slip of paper—Mrs. McTarvie-Birch—did not seem to have any definite association with fame.
While Anna waited in the dingy vestibule of the Hotel Chicago she had so distinct a vision of what she meant to say to Sophy Viner that the girl seemed already to be before her; and her heart dropped from all the height of its courage when the porter, after a long delay, returned with the announcement that Miss Viner was no longer in the hotel. Anna, doubtful if she understood, asked if he merely meant that the young lady was out at the moment; but he replied that she had gone away the day before. Beyond this he had no information to impart, and after a moment's hesitation Anna sent him back to enquire if Mrs. McTarvie-Birch would receive her. She reflected that Sophy had probably pledged her sister to the same secrecy as Mrs. Farlow, and that a personal appeal to Mrs. Birch might lead to less negative results.
There was another long interval of suspense before the porter reappeared with an affirmative answer; and a third while an exiguous and hesitating lift bore her up past a succession of shabby landings.
When the last was reached, and her guide had directed her down a winding passage that smelt of sea-going luggage, she found herself before a door through which a strong odour of tobacco reached her simultaneously with the sounds of a suppressed altercation. Her knock was followed by a silence, and after a minute or two the door was opened by a handsome young man whose ruffled hair and general air of creased disorder led her to conclude that he had just risen from a long-limbed sprawl on a sofa strewn with tumbled cushions. This sofa, and a grand piano bearing a basket of faded roses, a biscuit-tin and a devastated breakfast tray, almost filled the narrow sitting-room, in the remaining corner of which another man, short, swarthy and humble, sat examining the lining of his hat.
Anna paused in doubt; but on her naming Mrs. Birch the young man politely invited her to enter, at the same time casting an impatient glance at the mute spectator in the background.
The latter, raising his eyes, which were round and bulging, fixed them, not on the young man but on Anna, whom, for a moment, he scrutinized as searchingly as the interior of his hat. Under his gaze she had the sense of being minutely catalogued and valued; and the impression, when he finally rose and moved toward the door, of having been accepted as a better guarantee than he had had any reason to hope for. On the threshold his glance crossed that of the young man in an exchange of intelligence as full as it was rapid; and this brief scene left Anna so oddly enlightened that she felt no surprise when her companion, pushing an arm-chair forward, sociably asked her if she wouldn't have a cigarette. Her polite refusal provoked the remark that he would, if she'd no objection; and while he groped for matches in his loose pockets, and behind the photographs and letters crowding the narrow mantel-shelf, she ventured another enquiry for Mrs. Birch.
"Just a minute," he smiled; "I think the masseur's with her." He spoke in a smooth denationalized English, which, like the look in his long-lashed eyes and the promptness of his charming smile, suggested a long training in all the arts of expediency. Having finally discovered a match-box on the floor beside the sofa, he lit his cigarette and dropped back among the cushions; and on Anna's remarking that she was sorry to disturb Mrs. Birch he replied that that was all right, and that she always kept everybody waiting.
After this, through the haze of his perpetually renewed cigarettes, they continued to chat for some time of indifferent topics; but when at last Anna again suggested the possibility of her seeing Mrs. Birch he rose from his corner with a slight shrug, and murmuring: "She's perfectly hopeless," lounged off through an inner door.
Anna was still wondering when and in what conjunction of circumstances the much-married Laura had acquired a partner so conspicuous for his personal charms, when the young man returned to announce: "She says it's all right, if you don't mind seeing her in bed."
He drew aside to let Anna pass, and she found herself in a dim untidy scented room, with a pink curtain pinned across its single window, and a lady with a great deal of fair hair and uncovered neck smiling at her from a pink bed on which an immense powder-puff trailed.
"You don't mind, do you? He costs such a frightful lot that I can't afford to send him off," Mrs. Birch explained, extending a thickly-ringed hand to Anna, and leaving her in doubt as to whether the person alluded to were her masseur or her husband. Before a reply was possible there was a convulsive stir beneath the pink expanse, and something that resembled another powder-puff hurled itself at Anna with a volley of sounds like the popping of Lilliputian champagne corks. Mrs. Birch, flinging herself forward, gasped out: "If you'd just give him a caramel...there, in that box on the dressing-table...it's the only earthly thing to stop him..." and when Anna had proffered this sop to her assailant, and he had withdrawn with it beneath the bedspread, his mistress sank back with a laugh.
"Isn't he a beauty? The Prince gave him to me down at Nice the other day—but he's perfectly awful," she confessed, beaming intimately on her visitor. In the roseate penumbra of the bed-curtains she presented to Anna's startled gaze an odd chromo-like resemblance to Sophy Viner, or a suggestion, rather, of what Sophy Viner might, with the years and in spite of the powder-puff, become. Larger, blonder, heavier-featured, she yet had glances and movements that disturbingly suggested what was freshest and most engaging in the girl; and as she stretched her bare plump arm across the bed she seemed to be pulling back the veil from dingy distances of family history.
"Do sit down, if there's a place to sit on," she cordially advised; adding, as Anna took the edge of a chair hung with miscellaneous raiment: "My singing takes so much time that I don't get a chance to walk the fat off—that's the worst of being an artist."
Anna murmured an assent. "I hope it hasn't inconvenienced you to see me; I told Mr. Birch—"
"Mr. WHO?" the recumbent beauty asked; and then: "Oh, JIMMY!" she faintly laughed, as if more for her own enlightenment than Anna's.
The latter continued eagerly: "I understand from Mrs. Farlow that your sister was with you, and I ventured to come up because I wanted to ask you when I should have a chance of finding her."
Mrs. McTarvie-Birch threw back her head with a long stare. "Do you mean to say the idiot at the door didn't tell you? Sophy went away last night."
"Last night?" Anna echoed. A sudden terror had possessed her. Could it be that the girl had tricked them all and gone with Owen? The idea was incredible, yet it took such hold of her that she could hardly steady her lips to say: "The porter did tell me, but I thought perhaps he was mistaken. Mrs. Farlow seemed to think that I should find her here."
"It was all so sudden that I don't suppose she had time to let the Farlows know. She didn't get Mrs. Murrett's wire till yesterday, and she just pitched her things into a trunk and rushed——"
"Why, yes. Sophy's gone to India with Mrs. Murrett; they're to meet at Brindisi," Sophy's sister said with a calm smile.
Anna sat motionless, gazing at the disordered room, the pink bed, the trivial face among the pillows.
Mrs. McTarvie-Birch pursued: "They had a fearful kick-up last spring—I daresay you knew about it—but I told Sophy she'd better lump it, as long as the old woman was willing to...As an artist, of course, it's perfectly impossible for me to have her with me..."
"Of course," Anna mechanically assented.
Through the confused pain of her thoughts she was hardly aware that Mrs. Birch's explanations were still continuing. "Naturally I didn't altogether approve of her going back to that beast of a woman. I said all I could...I told her she was a fool to chuck up such a place as yours. But Sophy's restless—always was—and she's taken it into her head she'd rather travel..."
Anna rose from her seat, groping for some formula of leave-taking. The pushing back of her chair roused the white dog's smouldering animosity, and he drowned his mistress's further confidences in another outburst of hysterics. Through the tumult Anna signed an inaudible farewell, and Mrs. Birch, having momentarily succeeded in suppressing her pet under a pillow, called out: "Do come again! I'd love to sing to you."
Anna murmured a word of thanks and turned to the door. As she opened it she heard her hostess crying after her: "Jimmy! Do you hear me? Jimmy BRANCE!" and then, there being no response from the person summoned: "DO tell him he must go and call the lift for you!"