You would not have known that there was any struggle going on. The old gentleman bore himself with so calm and high a heroism; the little ladies were sustained by so pure a sense of the humors of the bath-chair. No sharp, irritating cries escaped them. They did nothing but laugh softly as they pulled and pushed and tugged with their women's arms, and heaved with delicate shoulders, or hung on, in their frenzy, from behind while the bath-chair swayed ponderously and perilously above the footway.
Gibson sometimes wondered whether he oughtn't to rush out and help them. But he couldn't. He didn't really care.
His landlady told him that the old gentleman was a General Richardson, that he was paralyzed, that his daughters waited on him hand and foot, that they were too poor to afford a man-servant to look after him and push the bath-chair. It wasn't much of a life, the woman said, for the two young ladies. Gibson agreed that it wasn't much of a life, certainly.
What pleased him was the fine levity with which they took it. He was always meeting them in their walks on the esplanade. Sometimes they would come racing down the wind with the bath-chair, their serge skirts blown forward, their hair curling over the brims of their sailor hats. (The dark one was particularly attractive in a high wind.) Then they would come back much impeded, their skirts wrapped tight above their knees, their little bodies bent to the storm, their faces wearing still that invincible gaiety of theirs. Sometimes, on a gentle incline, they would let the bath-chair run on a little by itself, till it threatened a dangerous independence, when they would fly after it at the top of their speed and arrest it just in time. Gibson could never make out whether they did this for their own amusement or the old gentleman's. But sometimes, when the General came careering past him, he could catch the glance of a bright and affable eye that seemed to call on him to observe the extent to which an old fellow might enjoy himself yet.
Gibson's lodging gave him endless opportunity for studying the habits of his little ladies. He learned that they did everything in turns. They took it in turns to pull the bath-chair and to push it. They took it in turns to read aloud to the old gentleman, and to put him to bed at night and get him up in the morning. They took it in turns to go to church (did they become suddenly serious, he wondered, there?), and in turns to air themselves on a certain little plateau on the cliffside.
He was next to find out that they nursed the monstrous ambition of urging the bath-chair up the hill and landing it on the plateau. Gibson was sorry for them, for he knew they could never do it. But such was their determination that each time he encountered them on the hill they had struggled a little farther up it.
The road had a sort of hump in it just before it forked off on to the cliff. That baffled them.
At last, as he himself was returning from the plateau, he came upon the sisters right in the middle of the rise, locked in deadly combat with the bath-chair. Pressed against it, shoulder to shoulder, they resisted its efforts to hurl itself violently backward down the hill. The General, as he clung to the arms of the chair, preserved his attitude of superb indifference to the event.
Gibson leaped to their assistance. With a threefold prodigious effort they topped the rise, and in silence, in a sort of solemn triumph, the bath-chair was wheeled on to the plateau.
He liked the simplicity with which they accepted his aid, and he liked the way they thanked him, both sisters becoming very grave all at once. It was the fair one who spoke. The dark one only bowed and smiled as he lifted his cap and turned away.
"It's all very well," he heard her saying, "but how are we going to get him down again?"
How were they?
He hung about the cliffside till the time came for them to return, when he presented himself as if by accident.
"You must allow me," he said, "to see you safe to the bottom of the hill."
They allowed him.
"You see" (the General addressed his daughters as they paused halfway), "we've accomplished it, and no bones are broken."
"Yes," said Gibson, "but isn't the expedition just a little dangerous?"
"Ah," said the General, "I've risked my life too many times to mind a little danger now."
Gibson's eyebrows said plainly, "It wasn't your life, old boy, I was thinking of."
The sisters looked away.
"You must never attempt that again," he said gravely, as he parted from them at the foot of the hill.
Gibson felt that he had done a good morning's work. He had saved the lives of the three Richardsons, and he had found out that the fair one's name was Effie, and the dark one's Phoebe.
After that the acquaintance ripened. They exchanged salutes whenever they met. Then Gibson, moved beyond endurance by their daily strife with the bath-chair, was generally to be seen at their gateway in time to help them.
As the days grew longer the Richardsons began to take their tea out of doors on their grass-plot. And then it seemed to strike them all at once that the gentleman next door was lonely, and one afternoon they invited him to tea.
Then Gibson had his tea served on his grass plot, and invited the Richardsons, and the Richardsons (they were so absurdly grateful) invited him to supper and to spend the evening. They thanked him for coming. "It was such a pleasure," Effie said (Effie was the elder), "such a great pleasure to Father."
Gibson hardly thought his society could be a pleasure to anyone, but he tried to make himself useful. He engaged himself as the General's bath-chair man. He bowled him along at the round pace he loved, while the little ladies, Effie and Phoebe, trotted after them, friendly and gay.
And he began to go in and out next door as a matter of course, till it was open to the little sisters to regard him as their own very valuable property. But they were not going to be selfish about him. Oh, no! They took him, as they took everything else, in turns. They tried hard to divide him fairly. If he attached himself to Effie (the fair one), Effie would grow uneasy, and she would get up and positively hand him over to Phoebe (the dark one). If Phoebe permitted herself to talk to him for any while, her eyes would call to Effie, and when Effie came she would slip away and take up her sad place by the General's armchair. In their innocent rivalry it was who could give him more up to the other. And, as Phoebe was the more determined little person, it was Phoebe who generally had it her own way. "Father," too, came in for his just share. Gibson felt that he would not be tolerated on any footing that kept "Father" out of it. There was also a moment in the evening when he would be led up to the armchair, and both Effie and Phoebe would withdraw and leave him to that communion.
There was a third sister he knew now. She was the eldest, and her name was Mary. She was away somewhere in the north, recovering, he gathered, from "Father" (of course, they took it in turns to recover from him), while Father wandered up and down the south coast, endeavoring, vainly, to recover from himself. They told Gibson that the one thing that spoiled it all (the joy, they meant, of their intercourse with him) was the thought that Mary was "missing it." Had Mary been there she would have had to have her share, her fourth.
Presently he realized that Phoebe (he supposed because of her superior determination) had effaced herself altogether. She was always doing dreary things, he noticed, out of her turn. Then he perceived a change in her. Little Phoebe, in consequence of all the dreary things she did, was beginning to grow thin and pale. She looked as though she wanted more of the tonic air of the cliffside. She did still take her turn at climbing to the plateau and sitting there all alone. But that, Gibson reflected, was after all, for Phoebe, a very dreary thing to do.
One evening he took courage, and asked Phoebe to come for a walk to the cliffside with him.
Phoebe did not answer all at once. She shrank, he could see, from the enormity of having him all to herself.
"Go," said Effie, "it will do you worlds of good."
Effie laughed and shook her head.
"Come too, then. Mr. Gibson, say she's to come too."
"You know," said Effie, "it's my turn to stay with Father."
She said it severely, as if Phoebe had been trying unfairly to deprive her of a privilege and a delight. They were delicious, Phoebe and Effie, but it was Phoebe that he wanted this time.
They set out at a brisk pace that brought the blood to Phoebe's cheeks and made her prettier than ever. Phoebe, of course, had done her best to make her prettiness entirely unobtrusive. She wore a muslin skirt and a tie, and a sailor hat that was not specially becoming to her small head, and her serge skirt had to be both wide and short because of pushing the bath-chair about through all kinds of weather. But the sea wind caught her; it played with her hair; it blew a little dark curl out of place to hang distractingly over Phoebe's left ear; it blew the serge skirt tight about her limbs, and showed him, in spite of Phoebe, how prettily Phoebe was made.
"Why didn't you back me up?" said Phoebe. "She wanted to come all the time."
He turned, as he walked, to look at her.
"Why didn't I back you up? Do you really want to know why?"
Whenever he took that tone Phoebe looked solemn and a little frightened. She was frightened now, too frightened to answer him.
"Because," said he, "I wanted you all to myself."
"Oh——" Phoebe drew a long, terrified breath.
There are many ways of saying "Oh," but Gibson had never, never in his whole life heard any woman say it as Phoebe said it then. It meant that she was staggered at anybody's having the temerity to want anything all to himself.
"Do you think me very selfish?"
Phoebe assured him instantly that that had never been her idea of him.
"Shall I tell you who is selfish?"
Phoebe's little mouth hardened. She was so dreadfully afraid that he was going to say "Your father."
"You," he said, "you."
"I'm afraid I am," said she. "It's so hard not to be."
He stood still in his astonishment, so that she had to stand still, too.
"Of course it's hard not to give up things, when you like giving them up. But your sister likes giving them up, too, and it's selfish of you to prevent her, isn't it?"
"Oh, but you don't know what it's been—Effie's life and Mary's."
"Oh, no, I'm happy enough. I'm the youngest."
"You mean you've had a year or two less of it."
"Yes. They never told me, for fear of making me unhappy, when Father's illness came."
"How long ago was that?"
"Five years ago. I was at school."
He made a brief calculation. During the two years of his married life Phoebe had been a child at school.
"And two years," said Phoebe, "is a long time to be happy in."
"Yes," he said, "it's a long time."
"And then," she went on presently, "I'm so much stronger than Effie and Mary."
"Not strong enough to go dragging that abominable bath-chair about."
"Not strong enough? Look——"
She held out her right arm for him to look at; under her muslin blouse he saw its tense roundness, and its whiteness through the slit above her wrist.
His heart stirred in him. Phoebe's arms were beautiful, and they were strong to help.
"I wish," he said, "I could make it better for you."
"Oh, but you have made it better for us. You can't think what a difference you've made."
"Have I? Have I?"
"Yes. Effie said so only the other day. She wrote it to Mary. And Mary says it's a shame she can't be here. It is, you know. It makes us feel so mean having you all to ourselves like this."
He laughed. He laughed whenever he thought of it. There was nobody who could say things as Phoebe said them.
"I wish," said she, "you knew Mary. You'd like her so."
"I'm sure I should if she's at all like you."
(Her innocence sheltered him, made him bold.)
"Oh, but she isn't."
And he listened while she gave him a long list of Mary's charms. (Dear little, tender, unconscious Phoebe.)
"She sounds," he said, "very like you."
"She isn't the least bit like me. You don't know me."
"Mary's coming back at the end of the month. Then either I or Effie will go away. Do you think you'll still be here?"
He seemed to her to answer absently.
"Which of you, did you say, was going away?"
"Well—it's Effie's turn."
"Yes," he said, "I think I shall still be here."
One night, a week later, the two sisters sat talking together long after "Father" had been put to bed.
"Phoebe," said Effie, "why did you want me to come with you and Mr. Gibson?"
"Because——" said Phoebe.
"My dear, it's you he likes, not me."
"But it's true," said Effie.
"How can you tell?" said Phoebe, and she felt perfidious.
"Isn't he always going about with you?"
But Phoebe was ingenious in the destruction of her own joy.
"Oh," said she, "that's his cunning. He likes you dreadfully. He goes about with me, just to hide it."
"Are you sure, Effie, you don't care?"
"Not a rap."
"You never have? Not in the beginning?"
"Certainly not in the beginning. I only thought he might be nice for you."
"You didn't even want to divide him?"
Effie shook her head vehemently.
"Well—he's the only thing I ever wanted all to myself. If——" Then Phoebe looked frightened. "Effie," she said, "he's never said anything."
"All the same, you know."
"Can you know?"
"I think so," said Effie.
Gibson had been talking a long time to Phoebe. They were sitting together on the beach, under the shadow of the cliff. He was trying to form Phoebe's mind. Phoebe's mind was deliciously young, and it had the hunger and thirst of youth. A little shy and difficult to approach, Phoebe's mind, but he had found out what it liked best, and it pleased him to see how confidingly and delicately it, so to speak, ate out of his hand.
He puzzled her a good deal. And she had a very pretty way of closing her eyes when she was puzzled. In another woman it would have meant that he was boring her; Phoebe did it to shut out the intolerable light of knowledge.
"Ah!—don't," he cried.
"Don't shut my eyes? I always shut my eyes when I'm trying to think," said Phoebe.
He said nothing. That was not what he had meant when he had said "Don't."
"Am I boring you?" he said presently. His tone jarred a little on Phoebe; he had such a nice voice generally.
"No," said she. "Why?"
"Because you keep on doing that."
She put up her hand and untwisted the little tendril of brown hair that hung deliciously over her left ear.
"I always do that when I'm thinking."
He very nearly said, "Then, for God's sake, don't think."
But Phoebe was always thinking now. He had given her cause to think.
He began to hate the little brown curl that hung over her left ear, though it was anguish to him to hate anything that was Phoebe's. He looked out with nervous anxiety for the movement of her little white hand. He said to himself, "If she does it again, I can't come near her any more."
Yet he kept on coming; and was happy with her until Phoebe (poor, predestined little Phoebe) did it again. Gibson shuddered with the horror of the thing. He kept on saying to himself, "She's sweet, she's good, she's adorable. It isn't her fault. But I can't—I can't sit in the room with it."
And the next minute Phoebe would be so adorable that he would repent miserably of his brutality.
Then, one hot, still evening, he was alone with her in the little sitting-room. Outside, on the grass plot, her father sat in his bath-chair while Effie read aloud to him (out of her turn). Her voice made a cover for Gibson's voice and Phoebe's.
Phoebe was dressed (for the heat) in a white gown with wide, open sleeves. Her low collar showed the pure, soft swell of her neck to the shoulder-line.
She was sitting upright and demure in a straight-backed chair, with her hands folded quietly in her lap.
"That isn't a very comfortable chair you've got," he said.
He knew that she was tired with pushing the bath-chair about all day.
"It's the one I always sit in," said Phoebe.
"Well, you're not going to sit in it now," he said.
He drew the armchair out of its sacred corner and made her sit in that. He put a cushion at her head and a footstool at her feet.
"You make my heart ache," he said.
He could not tell whether the little shaking breath she drew were a laugh or a sigh.
She lay back, letting her tired body slacken into rest.
The movement loosened the little combs that kept the coil of her brown hair in place. Phoebe abhorred dishevelment. She put up her hands to her head. Her wide sleeve fell back, showing the full length of her white arms.
He saw another woman stretching her arms to the man who leaned above her. He saw the movement of her hands—hands of the same texture and whiteness as her body, instinct with its impulses. A long procession of abominations passed through the white arch of her arms—the arch she raised in triumph and defiance, immortalizing her sin.
He was very tender with Phoebe that night, for his heart was wrung with compunction.
"She's adorable," he said to himself; "but I can't live with that."
Gibson left by the early train next day. He went without saying good-bye and without leaving an explanation or an address.
Phoebe held her head high, and said, day after day, "There's sure to be a letter."
Three weeks passed and no letter came. Phoebe saw that it was all over.
One day she was found (Effie found her) on her bed, crying. She was so weak she let Effie take her in her arms.
"If I only knew what I had done," she said. "Oh, Effie! what could have made him go away?"
"I can't tell, my lamb. You mustn't think about him any more."
"I can't help thinking. You see, it's not as if he hadn't been so nice."
"He couldn't have been nice to treat you that way."
"He didn't," said Phoebe fiercely. "He didn't treat me any way. I sometimes think I must have made it all up out of my own head. Did I?"
"No, no. I'm sure you didn't."
"It would have been awful of me. But I'd rather be awful than have to think that he was. What is my worst fault, Effie?"
"Your worst fault, in his eyes, is that you have none."
Phoebe sat up on the edge of the bed. She was thinking hard. And as she thought her hand went up, caressing unconsciously the little brown curl.
"If I only knew," said she, "what I had done!"
Gibson never saw Phoebe Richardson again. But a year later, as he turned suddenly on to the esplanade of a strange watering-place, he encountered the bath-chair, drawn by Effie and another lady. He made way, lifting his cap mechanically to its occupant.
The General looked at him. The courteous old hand checked itself in the salute. The affable smile died grimly.
Effie turned away her head. The other lady (it must have been "Mary") raised her eyes in somber curiosity.
Phoebe was not with them. Gibson supposed that she was away somewhere, recovering, in her turn.
Nobody ever understood why he married her.
You expected calamity to pursue Wilkinson—it always had pursued him—; but that Wilkinson should have gone out of his way to pursue calamity (as if he could never have enough of it) really seemed a most unnecessary thing.
For there had been no pursuit on the part of the lady. Wilkinson's wife had the quality of her defects, and revealed herself chiefly in a formidable reluctance. It was understood that Wilkinson had prevailed only after an austere struggle. Her appearance sufficiently refuted any theory of unholy fascination or disastrous charm.
Wilkinson's wife was not at all nice to look at. She had an insignificant figure, a small, square face, colorless hair scraped with difficulty to the top of her head, eyes with no lashes to protect you from their stare, a mouth that pulled at an invisible curb, a sallow skin stretched so tight over her cheek-bones that the red veins stood stagnant there; and with it all, poor lady, a dull, strained expression hostile to further intimacy.
Even in her youth she never could have looked young, and she was years older than Wilkinson. Not that the difference showed, for his marriage had made Wilkinson look years older than he was; at least, so it was said by people who had known him before that unfortunate event.
It was not even as if she had been intelligent. Wilkinson had a gentle passion for the things of intellect; his wife seemed to exist on purpose to frustrate it. In no department of his life was her influence so penetrating and malign. At forty he no longer counted; he had lost all his brilliance, and had replaced it by a shy, unworldly charm. There was something in Wilkinson that dreamed or slept, with one eye open, fixed upon his wife. Of course, he had his blessed hours of deliverance from the woman. Sometimes he would fly in her face and ask people to dine at his house in Hampstead, to discuss Roman remains, or the Troubadours, or Nietzsche. He never could understand why his wife couldn't "enter," as he expressed it, into these subjects. He smiled at you in the dimmest, saddest way when he referred to it. "It's extraordinary," he would say, "the little interest she takes in Nietzsche."
Mrs. Norman found him once wandering in the High Street, with his passion full on him. He was a little absent, a little flushed; his eyes shone behind his spectacles; and there were pleasant creases in his queer, clean-shaven face.
She inquired the cause of his delight.
"I've got a man coming to dine this evening, to have a little talk with me. He knows all about the Troubadours."
And Wilkinson would try and make you believe that they had threshed out the Troubadours between them. But when Mrs. Norman, who was a little curious about Wilkinson, asked the Troubadour man what they had talked about, he smiled and said it was something—some extraordinary adventure—that had happened to Wilkinson's wife.
People always smiled when they spoke of her. Then, one by one, they left off dining with Wilkinson. The man who read Nietzsche was quite rude about it. He said he wasn't going there to be gagged by that woman. He would have been glad enough to ask Wilkinson to dine with him if he would go without his wife.
If it had not been for Mrs. Norman the Wilkinsons would have vanished from the social scene. Mrs. Norman had taken Wilkinson up, and it was evident that she did not mean to let him go. That, she would have told you with engaging emphasis, was not her way. She had seen how things were going, socially, with Wilkinson, and she was bent on his deliverance.
If anybody could have carried it through, it would have been Mrs. Norman. She was clever; she was charming; she had a house in Fitzjohn's Avenue, where she entertained intimately. At forty she had preserved the best part of her youth and prettiness, and an income insufficient for Mr. Norman, but enough for her. As she said in her rather dubious pathos, she had nobody but herself to please now.
You gathered that if Mr. Norman had been living he would not have been pleased with her cultivation of the Wilkinsons. She was always asking them to dinner. They turned up punctually at her delightful Friday evenings (her little evenings) from nine to eleven. They dropped in to tea on Sunday afternoons. Mrs. Norman had a wonderful way of drawing Wilkinson out; while Evey, her unmarried sister, made prodigious efforts to draw Wilkinson's wife in. "If you could only make her," said Mrs. Norman, "take an interest in something."
But Evey couldn't make her take an interest in anything. Evey had no sympathy with her sister's missionary adventure. She saw what Mrs. Norman wouldn't see—that, if they forced Mrs. Wilkinson on people who were trying to keep away from her, people would simply keep away from them. Their Fridays were not so well attended, so delightful, as they had been. A heavy cloud of dulness seemed to come into the room, with Mrs. Wilkinson, at nine o'clock. It hung about her chair, and spread slowly, till everybody was wrapped in it.
Then Evey protested. She wanted to know why Cornelia allowed their evenings to be blighted thus. "Why ask Mrs. Wilkinson?"
"I wouldn't," said Cornelia, "if there was any other way of getting him."
"Well," said Evey, "he's nice enough, but it's rather a large price to have to pay."
"And is he," cried Cornelia passionately, "to be cut off from everything because of that one terrible mistake?"
Evey said nothing. If Cornelia were going to take him that way, there was nothing to be said!
So Mrs. Norman went on drawing Wilkinson out more and more, till one Sunday afternoon, sitting beside her on the sofa, he emerged positively splendid. There were moments when he forgot about his wife.
They had been talking together about his blessed Troubadours. (It was wonderful the interest Mrs. Norman took in them!) Suddenly his gentleness and sadness fell from him, a flame sprang up behind his spectacles, and the something that slept or dreamed in Wilkinson awoke. He was away with Mrs. Norman in a lovely land, in Provence of the thirteenth century. A strange chant broke from him; it startled Evey, where she sat at the other end of the room. He was reciting his own translation of a love-song of Provence.
At the first words of the refrain his wife, who had never ceased staring at him, got up and came across the room. She touched his shoulder just as he was going to say "Ma mie."
"Come, Peter," she said, "it's time to be going home."
Wilkinson rose on his long legs. "Ma mie," he said, looking down at her; and the flaming dream was still in his eyes behind his spectacles.
He took the little cloak she held out to him, a pitiful and rather vulgar thing. He raised it with the air of a courtier handling a royal robe; then he put it on her, smoothing it tenderly about her shoulders.
Mrs. Norman followed them to the porch. As he turned to her on the step, she saw that his eyes were sad, and that his face, as she put it, had gone to sleep again.
When she came back to her sister, her own eyes shone and her face was rosy.
"Oh, Evey," she said, "isn't it beautiful?"
"Isn't what beautiful?"
"Mr. Wilkinson's behavior to his wife."
It was not an easy problem that Mrs. Norman faced. She wished to save Wilkinson; she also wished to save the character of her Fridays, which Wilkinson's wife had already done her best to destroy. Mrs. Norman could not think why the woman came, since she didn't enjoy herself, since she was impenetrable to the intimate, peculiar charm. You could only suppose that her object was to prevent its penetrating Wilkinson, to keep the other women off. Her eyes never left him.
It was all very well for Evey to talk. She might, of course, have been wiser in the beginning. She might have confined the creature to their big monthly crushes, where, as Evey had suggested, she would easily have been mislaid and lost. But so, unfortunately, would Wilkinson; and the whole point was how not to lose him.
Evey said she was tired of being told off to entertain Mrs. Wilkinson. She was beginning to be rather disagreeable about it. She said Cornelia was getting to care too much about that Wilkinson man. She wouldn't have minded playing up to her if she had approved of the game; but Mrs. Wilkinson was, after all, you know, Mr. Wilkinson's wife.
Mrs. Norman cried a little. She told Evey she ought to have known it was his spirit that she cared about. But she owned that it wasn't right to sacrifice poor Evey. Neither, since he had a wife, was it altogether right for her to care about Wilkinson's spirit to the exclusion of her other friends.
Then, one Friday, Mrs. Norman, relieving her sister for once, made a discovery while Evey, who was a fine musician, played. Mrs. Wilkinson did, after all, take an interest in something; she was accessible to the throbbing of Evey's bow across the strings.
She had started; her eyes had turned from Wilkinson and fastened on the player. There was a light in them, beautiful and piercing, as if her soul had suddenly been released from some hiding-place in its unlovely house. Her face softened, her mouth relaxed, her eyes closed. She lay back in her chair, at peace, withdrawn from them, positively lost.
Mrs. Norman slipped across the room to the corner where Wilkinson sat alone. His face lightened as she came.
"It's extraordinary," he said, "her love of music."
Mrs. Norman assented. It was extraordinary, if you came to think of it. Mrs. Wilkinson had no understanding of the art. What did it mean to her? Where did it take her? You could see she was transported, presumably to some place of chartered stupidity, of condoned oblivion, where nobody could challenge her right to enter and remain.
"So soothing," said Wilkinson, "to the nerves."
Mrs. Norman smiled at him. She felt that, under cover of the music, his spirit was seeking communion with hers.
He thanked her at parting; the slight hush and mystery of his manner intimated that she had found a way.
"I hope," she said, "you'll come often—often."
"May we? May we?" He seemed to leap at it—as if they hadn't come often enough before!
Certainly she had found the way—the way to deliver him, the way to pacify his wife, to remove her gently to her place and keep her there.
The dreadful lady thus creditably disposed of, Wilkinson was no longer backward in the courting of his opportunity. He proved punctual to the first minute of the golden hour.
Hampstead was immensely interested in his blossoming forth. It found a touching simplicity in the way he lent himself to the sympathetic eye. All the world was at liberty to observe his intimacy with Mrs. Norman.
It endured for nine weeks. Then suddenly, to Mrs. Norman's bewilderment, it ceased. The Wilkinsons left off coming to her Friday evenings. They refused her invitations. Their behavior was so abrupt and so mysterious that Mrs. Norman felt that something must have happened to account for it. Somebody, she had no doubt, had been talking. She was much annoyed with Wilkinson in consequence, and, when she met him accidentally in the High Street, her manner conveyed to him her just resentment.
He called in Fitzjohn's Avenue the next Sunday. For the first time he was without his wife.
He was so downcast, and so penitent, and so ashamed of himself that Mrs. Norman met him halfway with a little rush of affection.
"Why have you not been to see us all this time?" she said.
He looked at her unsteadily; his whole manner betrayed an extreme embarrassment.
"I've come," he said, "on purpose to explain. You mustn't think I don't appreciate your kindness, but the fact is my poor wife"—(She knew that woman was at the bottom of it!)—"is no longer—up to it."
"What is the wretch up to, I should like to know?" thought Mrs. Norman.
He held her with his melancholy, unsteady eyes. He seemed to be endeavoring to approach a subject intimately and yet abstrusely painful.
"She finds the music—just at present—a little too much for her; the vibrations, you know. It's extraordinary how they affect her. She feels them—most unpleasantly—just here." Wilkinson laid two delicate fingers on the middle buttons of his waistcoat.
Mrs. Norman was very kind to him. He was not very expert, poor fellow, in the fabrication of excuses. His look seemed to implore her pardon for the shifts he had been driven to; it appealed to her to help him out, to stand by him in his unspeakable situation.
"I see," she said.
He smiled, in charming gratitude to her for seeing it.
That smile raised the devil in her. Why, after all, should she help him out?
"And are you susceptible to music—in the same unpleasant way?"
"Me? Oh, no—no. I like it; it gives me the very greatest pleasure." He stared at her in bewilderment and distress.
"Then why," said Mrs. Norman sweetly, "if it gives you pleasure, should you cut yourself off from it?"
"My dear Mrs. Norman, we have to cut ourselves off from a great many things—that give us pleasure. It can't be helped."
She meditated. "Would it be any good," she said, "if I were to call on Mrs. Wilkinson?"
Wilkinson looked grave. "It is most kind of you, but—just at present—I think it might be wiser not. She really, you know, isn't very fit."
Mrs. Norman's silence neither accepted nor rejected the preposterous pretext. Wilkinson went on, helping himself out as best he could:
"I can't talk about it; but I thought I ought to let you know. We've just got to give everything up."
She held herself in. A terrible impulse was upon her to tell him straight out that she did not see it; that it was too bad; that there was no reason why she should be called upon to give everything up.
"So, if we don't come," he said, "you'll understand? It's better—it really is better not."
His voice moved her, and her heart cried to him, "Poor Peter!"
"Yes," she said; "I understand."
Of course she understood. Poor Peter! so it had come to that?
"Can't you stay for tea?" she said.
"No; I must be going back to her."
He rose. His hand found hers. Its slight pressure told her that he gave and took the sadness of renunciation.
That winter Mrs. Wilkinson fell ill in good earnest, and Wilkinson became the prey of a pitiful remorse that kept him a prisoner by his wife's bedside.
He had always been a good man; it was now understood that he avoided Mrs. Norman because he desired to remain what he had always been.
There was also an understanding, consecrated by the piety of their renunciation, that Wilkinson was only waiting for his wife's death to marry Mrs. Norman.
And Wilkinson's wife was a long time in dying. It was not to be supposed that she would die quickly, as long as she could interfere with his happiness by living.
With her genius for frustrating and tormenting, she kept the poor man on tenter-hooks with perpetual relapses and recoveries. She jerked him on the chain. He was always a prisoner on the verge of his release. She was at death's door in March. In April she was to be seen, convalescent, in a bath-chair, being wheeled slowly up and down the Spaniard's Road. And Wilkinson walked by the chair, his shoulders bent, his eyes fixed on the ground, his face set in an expression of illimitable patience.
In the summer she gave it up and died; and in the following spring Wilkinson resumed his converse with Mrs. Norman. All things considered, he had left a decent interval.
By autumn Mrs. Norman's friends were all on tiptoe and craning their necks with expectation. It was assumed among them that Wilkinson would propose to her the following summer, when the first year of his widowhood should be ended. When summer came there was nothing between them that anybody could see. But it by no means followed that there was nothing to be seen. Mrs. Norman seemed perfectly sure of him. In her intense sympathy for Wilkinson she knew how to account for all his hesitations and delays. She could not look for any passionate, decisive step from the broken creature he had become; she was prepared to accept him as he was, with all his humiliating fears and waverings. The tragic things his wife had done to him could not be undone in a day.
Another year divided Wilkinson from his tragedy, and still he stood trembling weakly on the verge. Mrs. Norman began to grow thin. She lost her bright air of defiance, and showed herself vulnerable by the hand of time. And nothing, positively nothing, stood between them, except Wilkinson's morbid diffidence. So absurdly manifest was their case that somebody (the Troubadour man, in fact) interposed discreetly. In the most delicate manner possible, he gave Wilkinson to understand that he would not necessarily make himself obnoxious to Mrs. Norman were he to approach her with—well, with a view to securing their joint happiness—happiness which they had both earned by their admirable behavior.
That was all that was needed: a tactful friend of both parties to put it to Wilkinson simply and in the right way. Wilkinson rose from his abasement. There was a light in his eye that rejoiced the tactful friend; his face had a look of sudden, virile determination.
"I will go to her," he said, "now."
It was a dark, unpleasant evening, full of cold and sleet.
Wilkinson thrust his arms into an overcoat, jammed a cap down on his forehead, and strode into the weather. He strode into Mrs. Norman's drawing-room.
When Mrs. Norman saw that look on his face she knew that it was all right. Her youth rose in her again to meet it.
"Forgive me," said Wilkinson. "I had to come."
"Why not?" she said.
"It's so late."
"Not too late for me."
He sat down, still with his air of determination, in the chair she indicated. He waved away, with unconcealed impatience, the trivialities she used to soften the violence of his invasion.
"I've come," he said, "because I've had something on my mind. It strikes me that I've never really thanked you."
"For your great kindness to my wife."
Mrs. Norman looked away.
"I shall always be grateful to you," said Wilkinson. "You were very good to her."
"Oh, no, no," she moaned.
"I assure you," he insisted, "she felt it very much. I thought you would like to know that."
"Oh, yes." Mrs. Norman's voice went very low with the sinking of her heart.
"She used to say you did more for her—you and your sister, with her beautiful music—than all the doctors. You found the thing that eased her. I suppose you knew how ill she was—all the time? I mean before her last illness."
"I don't think," said she, "I did know."
His face, which had grown grave, brightened. "No? Well, you see, she was so plucky. Nobody could have known; I didn't always realize it myself."
Then he told her that for five years his wife had suffered from a nervous malady that made her subject to strange excitements and depressions.
"We fought it," he said, "together. Through it all, even on her worst days, she was always the same to me."
He sank deeper into memory.
"Nobody knows what she was to me. She wasn't one much for society. She went into it" (his manner implied that she had adorned it) "to please me, because I thought it might do her good. It was one of the things we tried."
Mrs. Norman stared at him. She stared through him and beyond him, and saw a strange man. She listened to a strange voice that sounded far off, from somewhere beyond forgetfulness.
"There were times," she heard him saying, "when we could not go out or see anyone. All we wanted was to be alone together. We could sit, she and I, a whole evening without saying a word. We each knew what the other wanted to say without saying it. I was always sure of her; she understood me as nobody else ever can." He paused. "All that's gone."
"Oh, no," Mrs. Norman said, "it isn't."
"It is." He illuminated himself with a faint flame of passion.
"Don't say that, when you have friends who understand."
"They don't. They can't. And," said Wilkinson, "I don't want them to."
Mrs. Norman sat silent, as in the presence of something sacred and supreme.
She confessed afterward that what had attracted her to Peter Wilkinson was his tremendous capacity for devotion. Only (this she did not confess) she never dreamed that it had been given to his wife.
MISS TARRANT'S TEMPERAMENT
She had arrived.
Fanny Brocklebank, as she passed the library, had thought it worth while to look in upon Straker with the news.
Straker could not help suspecting his hostess of an iniquitous desire to see how he would take it. Or perhaps she may have meant, in her exquisite benevolence, to prepare him. Balanced on the arm of the opposite chair, the humor of her candid eyes chastened by what he took to be a remorseful pity, she had the air of preparing him for something.
Yes. She had arrived. She was upstairs, over his very head—resting.
Straker screwed up his eyes. Only by a prodigious effort could he see Miss Tarrant resting. He had always thought of her as an unwinking, untiring splendor, an imperishable fascination; he had shrunk from inquiring by what mortal process she renewed her formidable flame.
By a gesture of shoulders and of eyebrows Fanny conveyed that, whatever he thought of Philippa Tarrant, she was more so than ever. She—she was simply stupendous. It was Fanny's word. He would see. She would appear at teatime. If he was on the terrace by five he would see something worth seeing. It was now a quarter to.
He gathered that Fanny had only looked in to tell him that he mustn't miss it.
Not for worlds would he have missed it. But the clock had struck five, and Straker was still lingering in the library over the correspondence that will pursue a rising barrister in his flight to the country. He wasn't in a hurry. He knew that Miss Tarrant would wait for her moment, and he waited too.
A smile of acclamation greeted his dilatory entrance on the terrace. He was assured that, though late, he was still in time. He knew it. She would not appear until the last guest had settled peaceably into his place, until the scene was clear for her stunning, her invincible effect. Then, in some moment of pause, of expectancy——
Odd that Straker, who was so used to it, who knew so well how she would do it, should feel so fresh an interest in seeing her do it again. It was almost as if he trembled for her and waited, wondering whether, this time, she would fail of her effect, whether he would ever live to see her disconcerted.
Disconcerting things had happened before now at the Brocklebanks', things incongruous with the ancient peace, the dignity, the grand style of Amberley. It was owing to the outrageous carelessness with which Fanny Brocklebank mixed her house parties. She delighted in daring combinations and startling contrasts. Straker was not at all sure that he himself had not been chosen as an element in a daring combination. Fanny could hardly have forgotten that, two years ago, he had been an adorer (not altogether prostrate) of Miss Tarrant, and he had given her no grounds for supposing that he had changed his attitude. In the absence of authentic information Fanny could only suppose that he had been dished, regularly dished, first by young Reggy Lawson and then by Mr. Higginson. It was for Mr. Higginson that Philippa was coming to Amberley—this year; last year it had been for Reggy Lawson; the year before that it had been for him, Straker. And Fanny did not scruple to ask them all three to meet one another. That was her way. Some day she would carry it too far. Straker, making his dilatory entrance, became aware of the distance to which his hostess had carried it already. It had time to grow on him, from wonder to the extreme of certainty, in his passage down the terrace to the southwest corner. There, on the outskirts of the group, brilliantly and conspicuously disposed, in postures of intimate communion, were young Laurence Furnival and Mrs. Viveash. Straker knew and Fanny knew, nobody indeed knew better than Fanny, that those two ought never to have been asked together. In strict propriety they ought not to have been at Amberley at all. Nobody but Fanny would have dreamed of asking them, still less of combining them with old Lady Paignton, who was propriety itself. And there was Miss Probyn. Why Miss Probyn? What on earth did dear Fanny imagine that she could do with Mary Probyn—or for her, if it came to that? In Straker's experience of Fanny it generally did come to that—to her doing things for people. He was aware, most acutely aware at this moment, of what, two years ago, she would have done for him. He had an idea that even now, at this hour, she was giving him his chance with Philippa. There would no doubt be competition; there always had been, always would be competition; but her charming eyes seemed to assure him that he should have his chance.
They called him to her side, where, with a movement of protection that was not lost on him, she had made a place for him apart. She begged him just to look at young Reggy Lawson, who sat in agony, sustaining a ponderous topic with Miss Probyn. He remembered Reggy? Her half-remorseful smile implied that he had good cause to remember him. He did. He was sorry for young Reggy, and hoped that he found consolation in the thought that Mr. Higginson was no longer young.
He remarked that Reggy was looking uncommonly fit. "So," he added irrelevantly, "is Mrs. Viveash. Don't you think?"
Fanny Brocklebank looked at Mrs. Viveash. It was obvious that she was giving her her chance, and that Mrs. Viveash was making the very most of it. She was leaning forward now, with her face thrust out toward Furnival; and on her face and on her mouth and in her eyes there burned visibly, flagrantly, the ungovernable, inextinguishable flame. As for the young man, while his eyes covered and caressed her, the tilt of his body, of his head, of his smile, and all his features expressed the insolence of possession. He was sure of her; he was sure of himself; he was sure of many things. He, at any rate, would never be disconcerted. Whatever happened he was safe. But she—there were things that, if one thing happened, she would have to face; and as she sat there, wrapped in her flame, she seemed to face them, to fling herself on the front of danger. You could see she was ready to take any risks, to pay any price for the chance that Fanny was giving her.
It really was too bad of Fanny.
"Why did you ask them?" Straker had known Fanny so long that he was privileged to inquire.
"Because—they wanted to be asked."
Fanny believed, and said that she believed, in giving people what they wanted. As for the consequences, there was no mortal lapse or aberration that could trouble her serenity or bring a blush to her enduring candor. If you came a cropper you might be sure that Fanny's judgment of you would be pure from the superstition of morality. She herself had never swerved in affection or fidelity to Will Brocklebank. She took her excitements, lawful or otherwise, vicariously in the doomed and dedicated persons of her friends. Brocklebank knew it. Blond, spectacled, middle-aged, and ponderous, he regarded his wife's performances and other people's with a leniency as amazing as her own. He was hovering about old Lady Paignton in the background, where Straker could see his benignant gaze resting on Furnival and Mrs. Viveash.
"Poor dears," said Fanny, as if in extenuation of her tolerance, "they are enjoying themselves."
"So are you," said Straker.
"I like to see other people happy. Don't you?"
"Yes. If I'm not responsible for their—happiness."
"Who is responsible?" She challenged.
"I say, aren't you?"
"Me responsible? Have you seen her husband?"
"Well——" she left it to him.
"Where is Viveash?"
"At the moment he is in Liverpool, or should be—on business."
"You didn't ask him?"
"Ask him? Is he the sort you can ask?"
"Oh, come, he's not so bad."
"He's awful. He's impossible. He—he excuses everything."
"I don't see him excusing this, or your share in it. If he knew."
"If he knew what?"
"That you'd asked Furny down."
"But he doesn't know. He needn't ever know."
"He needn't. But people like Viveash have a perfect genius for the unnecessary. Besides——"
He paused before the unutterable, and she faced him with her smile of innocent interrogation.
"Well," he said, "it's so jolly risky. These things, you know, only end one way."
Fanny's eyes said plainly that to their vision all sorts of ways were possible.
"If it were any other man but——" He stopped short at Furnival's name.
Fanny lowered her eyes almost as if she had been convicted of indiscretion.
"You see," she said, "any other man wouldn't do. He's the one and only man. There never was any other. That's the awful part of it for her."
"Then why on earth did she marry the other fellow?"
"Because Furny couldn't marry her. And he wouldn't, either. That's not his way."
"I know it's not his way. And if Viveash took steps, what then?"
"Then perhaps—he'd have to."
"Oh, it isn't a deep-laid plan."
"I never said it was."
He didn't think it. Marriages had been made at Amberley, and divorces, too; not by any plan of Fanny's, but by the risks she took. Seeing the dangerous way she mixed things, he didn't, he couldn't suspect her of a plan, but he did suspect her of an unholy joy in the prospect of possible explosions.
"Of course," she said, reverting to her vision, "of course he'd have to."
She looked at Straker with eyes where mischief danced a fling. It was clear that in that moment she saw Laurence Furnival the profane, Furnival the scorner of marriage, caught and tied: punished (she scented in ecstasy the delicate irony of it), so beautifully punished there where he had sinned.
Straker began to have some idea of the amusement Fanny got out of her house parties.
For a moment they had no more to say. All around them there was silence, born of Mrs. Viveash and her brooding, of young Reggy's trouble with Miss Probyn, and of some queer triangular complication in the converse of Brocklebank, Lady Paignton, and Mr. Higginson. In that moment and that pause Straker thought again of Miss Tarrant. It was, he said to himself, the pause and the moment for her appearance. And (so right was he in his calculation) she appeared.
He saw her standing in the great doorway of the east wing where the three steps led down on to the terrace. She stood on the topmost step, poised for her descent, shaking her scarf loose to drift in a white mist about her. Then she came down the terrace very slowly, and the measured sweep of her limbs suggested that all her movements would be accomplished to a large rhythm and with a superb delay.
Her effect (she had not missed it) was to be seen in all its wonder and perfection on Laurence Furnival's face. Averted suddenly from Mrs. Viveash, Furnival's face expressed the violence of his shock and his excitement. It was clear that he had never seen anything quite like Philippa Tarrant before, and that he found her incredibly and ambiguously interesting. Ambiguously—no other word did justice to the complexity of his facial expression. He did not know all at once what to make of Philippa, and, from further and more furtive manifestations of Furnival's, Straker gathered that the young man was making something queer. He had a sort of sympathy with him, for there had been moments when he himself had not known exactly what to make. He doubted whether even Fanny Brocklebank (who certainly made the best of her) had ever really known.
Whatever her inscrutable quality, this year she was, as Fanny had said, more so than ever. She was stupendous; and that although she was not strictly speaking beautiful. She had no color in her white face or in her black hair; she had no color but the morbid rose of her mouth and the brown of her eyes. Yet Mrs. Viveash, with all her vivid gold and carmine, went out before her; so did pretty Fanny, though fresh as paint and burnished to perfection; as for the other women, they were nowhere. She made the long golden terrace at Amberley a desert place for the illusion of her somber and solitary beauty. She was warm-fleshed, warm-blooded. The sunshine soaked into her as she stood there. What was more, she had the air of being entirely in keeping with Amberley's grand style.
Straker saw that from the first she was aware of Furnival. At three yards off she held him with her eyes, lightly, balancing him; then suddenly she let him go. She ceased to be aware of him. In the moment of introduction she turned from him to Straker.
"Mr. Straker—but—how delightful!"
"Don't say you didn't expect to see me here."
"I didn't. And Mr. Higginson!" She laughed at the positive absurdity of it. "And Mr. Lawson and Miss Probyn."
She held herself a little back and gazed upon the group with her wide and wonderful eyes.
"You look," she said, "as if something interesting had happened."
She had seated herself beside Straker so that she faced Mrs. Viveash and young Furnival. She appeared not to know that Furnival was staring at her.
"She's the only interesting thing that's happened—so far," he muttered. (There was no abatement of his stare.) Mrs. Viveash tried to look as if she agreed with him.
Miss Tarrant had heard him. Her eyes captured and held him again, a little longer this time. Straker, who watched the two, saw that something passed between them, between Philippa's gaze and Furnival's stare.
That evening he realized completely what Fanny had meant when she said that Philippa was more so than ever. He observed this increase in her quality, not only in the broad, massive impression that she spread, but in everything about her, her gestures, her phrases, the details of her dress. Every turn of her head and of her body displayed a higher flamboyance, a richer audacity, a larger volume of intention. He was almost afraid for her lest she should overdo it by a shade, a touch, a turn. You couldn't get away from her. The drawing-room at Amberley was filled with her, filled with white surfaces of neck and shoulders, with eyes somber yet aflood with light, eyes that were perpetually at work upon you and perpetually at play, that only rested for a moment to accentuate their movement and their play. This effect of her was as of many women, approaching, withdrawing, and sliding again into view, till you were aware with a sort of shock that it was one woman, Philippa Tarrant, all the time, and that all the play and all the movement were concentrated on one man, Laurence Furnival.
She never let him alone for a minute. He tried, to do him justice he tried—Straker saw him trying—to escape. But, owing to Miss Tarrant's multiplicity and omnipresence, he hadn't a chance. You saw him fascinated, stupefied by the confusion and the mystery of it. She carried him off under Mrs. Viveash's unhappy nose. Wherever she went she called him, and he followed, flushed and shamefaced. He showed himself now pitifully abject, and now in pitiful revolt. Once or twice he was positively rude to her, and Miss Tarrant seemed to enjoy that more than anything.
Straker had never seen Philippa so uplifted. She went like the creature of an inspiring passion, a passion moment by moment fulfilled and unappeased, renascent, reminiscent, and in all its moments gloriously aware of itself.
The pageant of Furnival's subjugation lasted through the whole of Friday evening. All Saturday she ignored him and her work on him. You would have said it had been undertaken on Mrs. Viveash's account, not his, just to keep Mrs. Viveash in her place and show her what she, Philippa, could do. All Sunday, by way of revenge, Furnival ignored Miss Tarrant, and consoled himself flagrantly with Mrs. Viveash.
It was on the afternoon of Sunday that Mr. Higginson was seen sitting out on the terrace with Miss Tarrant. Reggy Lawson had joined them, having extricated himself with some dexterity from the toils of the various ladies who desired to talk to him. His attitude suggested that he was taking his dubious chance against Mr. Higginson. It was odd that it should be dubious, Reggy's chance; he himself was so assured, so engaging in his youth and physical perfection. Straker would have backed him against any man he knew.
Fanny Brocklebank had sent Straker out into the rose garden with Mary Probyn. He left Miss Tarrant on the terrace alone with Mr. Higginson and Reggy. He left her talking to Mr. Higginson, listening to Mr. Higginson, behaving beautifully to Mr. Higginson, and ignoring Reggy. Straker, with Mary Probyn, walked round and round the rose garden, which was below Miss Tarrant's end of the terrace, and while he talked to Mary Probyn he counted the rounds. There were twenty to the mile. Every time he turned he had Miss Tarrant full in view, which distracted him from Mary Probyn. Mary didn't seem to mind. She was a nice woman; plain (in a nice, refined sort of way), and she knew it, and was nice to you whether you talked to her or not. He did not find it difficult to talk to Mary: she was interested in Miss Tarrant; she admired her, but not uncritically.
"She is the least bit too deliberate," was her comment. "She calculates her effects."
"She does," said Straker, "so that she never misses one of them. She's a consummate artist."
He had always thought her that. (Ninth round.) But as her friend he could have wished her a freer and sincerer inspiration. After all, there was something that she missed.
(Tenth round.) Miss Tarrant was still behaving beautifully to Mr. Higginson. Mary Probyn marveled to see them getting on so well together. (Fifteenth round.)
Reggy had left them; they were not getting on together quite so well.
(Twentieth round.) They had risen; they were coming down the steps into the garden; Straker heard Miss Tarrant ordering Mr. Higginson to go and talk to Miss Probyn. He did so with an alacrity which betrayed a certain fear of the lady he admired.
Miss Tarrant, alone with Straker, turned on him the face which had scared Mr. Higginson. She led him in silence and at a rapid pace down through the rose garden and out upon the lawn beyond. There she stood still and drew a deep breath.
"You had no business," she said, "to go away like that and leave me with him."
"Why not? Last year, if I remember——"
He paused. He remembered perfectly that last year she had contrived pretty often to be left with him. Last year Mr. Higginson, as the Liberal candidate for East Mickleham, seemed about to achieve a distinction, which, owing to his defeat by an overwhelming majority, he had unfortunately not achieved. He had not been prudent. He had stood, not only for East Mickleham, but for a principle. It was an unpopular principle, and he knew it, and he had stuck to it all the same, with obstinacy and absurdity, in the teeth, the furiously gnashing teeth, of his constituency. You couldn't detach Mr. Higginson from his principle, and as long as he stuck to it a parliamentary career was closed to him. It was sad, for he had a passion for politics; he had chosen politics as the one field for the one ponderous talent he possessed. The glory of it had hung ponderously about Mr. Higginson last year; but this year, cut off from politics, it was pitiable, the nonentity he had become. Straker could read that in his lady's alienated eyes.
"Last year," he continued, "you seemed to find him interesting."
"You think things must be what they seem?"
Her tone accused him of insufficient metaphysical acumen.
"There is no necessity. Still, as I said, last year——"
"Could Mr. Higginson, in any year, be interesting?"
"Did you hope," Straker retorted, "to make him so by cultivating him?"
"It's impossible to say what Mr. Higginson might become under—centuries of cultivation. It would take centuries."
That was all very well, he said to himself. If he didn't say that Miss Tarrant had pursued Mr. Higginson, he distinctly recalled the grace with which she had allowed herself to be pursued. She had cultivated him. And, having done it, having so flagrantly and palpably and under Straker's own eyes gone in for him, how on earth did she propose to get out of it now? There was, Straker said to himself again, no getting out of it. As for centuries——
"Let us go back," he persisted, "to last year."
"Last year he had his uses. He was a good watch-dog."
"A watch-dog. He kept other people off."
For a moment he was disarmed by the sheer impudence of it. He smiled a reminiscent smile.
"I should have thought his function was rather, wasn't it, to draw them on?"
Her triumphing eyes showed him that he had given himself into her hands. He should have been content with his reminiscent smile. Wasn't he, her eyes inquired, for a distinguished barrister, just a little bit too crude?
"You thought," she said, "he was a decoy-duck? Why, wouldn't you have flown from your most adored if you'd seen her—with Mr. Higginson?"
Thus deftly she wove her web and wound him into it. That was her way. She would take your own words out of your mouth and work them into the brilliant fabric, tangling you in your talk. And not only did she tangle you in your talk, she confused you in your mental processes.
"You didn't seriously suppose," she said, "that I could have had any permanent use for him?"
Straker's smile paid tribute to her crowning cleverness. He didn't know how much permanence she attached to matrimony, or to Mr. Higginson, but he knew that she had considered him in that preposterous relation. She faced him and his awful knowledge and floored him with just that—the thing's inherent, palpable absurdity. And if that wasn't clever of her!——
"Of course not." He was eager in his assent; it was wrung from him. He added with apparent irrelevance, "After all, he's honest."
"You must be something."
She turned to him, radiant and terrible, rejoicing in her murderous phrase. It intimated that only by his honesty did Mr. Higginson maintain his foothold on existence.
"I think," said Straker, "it's time to dress for dinner."
They turned and went slowly toward the house. On the terrace, watch in hand, Mr. Higginson stood alone and conspicuous, shining in his single attribute of honesty.
That evening Furnival sought Straker out in a lonely corner of the smoke-room. His face was flushed and defiant. He put it to Straker point-blank.
"I say, what's she up to, that friend of yours, Miss T-Tarrant?"
He stammered over her name. Her name excited him.
Straker intimated that it was not given him to know what Miss Tarrant might or might not be up to.
Furnival shook his head. "I can't make her out. Upon my honor, I can't."
Straker wondered what Furny's honor had to do with it.
"Why is she hanging round like this?"
"Yes. You know what I mean. Why doesn't somebody marry her?" He made a queer sound in his throat, a sound of unspeakable interrogation. "Why haven't you married her yourself?"
Straker was loyal. "You'd better ask her why she hasn't married me."
Furnival brooded. "I've a good mind to."
"I should if I were you," said Straker encouragingly.
Furnival sighed heavily. "Look here," he said, "what's the matter with her? Is she difficult, or what?"
"Frightfully difficult," said Straker, with conviction. His tone implied that Furnival would never understand her, that he hadn't the brain for it.
And yet, Straker reminded himself, Furnival wasn't an ass. He had brain for other things, for other women; for poor Nora Viveash quite a remarkable sufficiency of brain, but not for Philippa Tarrant. You could see how he was being driven by her. He was in that state when he would have done anything to get her. There was no folly and no extravagance that he would not commit. And yet, driven as he was, it was clear that he resented being driven, that he was not going all the way. His kicking, his frantic dashes and plunges, showed that the one extravagance, the one folly he would not commit was matrimony.
Straker saw that very plainly. He wondered whether Miss Tarrant would see it, too, and if she did whether it would make any difference in her method.
It was very clear to Straker that Miss Tarrant was considering Furnival, as she had considered him, as she had considered young Reggy Lawson, as she had considered Mr. Higginson, who was not so young. As for Reggy and his successor, she had done with them. All that could be known of their fatuity she knew. Perhaps they had never greatly interested her. But she was interested in Laurence Furnival. She told Straker that he was the most amusing man of her acquaintance. She was, Straker noticed, perpetually aware of him. All Monday morning, in the motor, Miss Tarrant in front with Brocklebank, Furnival with Mrs. Viveash, and Straker behind, it was an incessant duel between Furnival's eyes and the eyes that Miss Tarrant had in the back of her head. All Monday afternoon she had him at her heels, at her elbow. With every gesture she seemed to point to him and say: "Look at this little animal I've caught. Did you ever see such an amusing little animal?"
She was quite aware that it was an animal, the creature she had captured and compelled to follow her; it might hide itself now and then, but it never failed to leap madly forward at her call. The animal in Furnival, so simple, so undisguised, and so spontaneous, was what amused her.
Its behavior that Monday after tea on the terrace was one of the most disconcerting things that had occurred at Amberley. You could see that Mrs. Viveash couldn't bear it, that she kept looking away, that Brocklebank didn't know where to look, and that even Fanny was perturbed.
As for Mr. Higginson, it was altogether too much for him and his honesty. He was visibly alienated, and from that moment he devoted himself and his honesty to Mary Probyn.
Young Reggy was alienated, too, so profoundly that he spoke about it aside to Straker.
"Between you and me," said young Reggy, "it's a bit too strong. I can't stick it, the way she goes on. What does she mean by it, Straker?"
People were always appealing to Straker to tell them what women meant by it. As if he knew.
He was glad to see that young Reggy had turned, that he could turn. He liked Reggy, and he felt that he owed him a good deal. If it had not been for Reggy he might, two years ago, have been numbered as one of the fallen. He had been pretty far gone two years ago, so far that he had frequently wondered how it was that he had not fallen. Now it was clear to him. It had been her method with Reggy that had checked his own perilous approaches. It had offended his fine sense of the fitting (a fastidiousness which, in one of her moods of ungovernable frankness, she had qualified as "finicking"). For Reggy was a nice boy, and her method had somehow resulted in making him appear not so nice. It nourished and brought to the surface that secret, indecorous, primordial quality that he shared, though in less splendor and abundance, with Laurence Furnival. He had kept his head, or had seemed inimitably to have kept it. At any rate, he had preserved his sense of decency. He was incapable of presenting on the terrace at Amberley the flaming pageant of his passion. Straker was not sure how far this restraint, this level-headedness of young Reggy, had been his undoing. It might be that Miss Tarrant had required of him a pageant. Anyhow, Reggy's case had been very enlightening to Straker.
And it was through Reggy, or rather through his own intent and breathless observation of the two, that Straker had received his final illumination. It had come suddenly in one inspiring and delivering flash; he could recall even now his subsequent sensations, the thrilling lucidity of soul, the prodigious swiftness of body, after his long groping in obscurities and mysteries. For it had been a mystery to him how she had resisted Reggy in his young physical perfection and with the charm he had, a charm that spiritualized him, a charm that should have appealed to everything that was supersensuous in Philippa Tarrant (and Philippa would have had you believe that there was very little in her that was not). It was incomprehensible therefore to Straker how any woman who had a perfect body, with a perfect heart in it, could have resisted Reggy at his best—and for Mr. Higginson.
To be sure, compared with Mr. Higginson he was impecunious; but that, to Straker's mind, was just what gave him, with the other things, his indomitable distinction. Reggy's distinction stood straight and clean, naked of all accessories. An impecuniousness so unexpressed, so delicate, so patrician could never have weighed with Philippa against Reggy's charm. That she should deliberately have reckoned up his income, compared it with Mr. Higginson's, and deducted Reggy with the result was inconceivable. Whatever Straker had thought of her he had never thought of her as mercenary. It wasn't that. He had found out what it was. Watching her at play with Reggy's fire (for to the inconspicuous observer the young man had flamed sufficiently), it had struck Straker that she herself was flameless.
It was in the nature of Reggy's perfection that it called, it clamored for response. And Philippa had not responded. She hadn't got it in her to respond.
All this came back vividly to Straker as he watched her now on the terrace, at play with the fiercer conflagration that was Laurence Furnival.
She was cold; she had never kindled, never would, never could kindle. Her eyes did, if you like; they couldn't help it—God made them lights and flames—but her mouth couldn't. To Straker in his illumination all the meaning of Philippa Tarrant was in her mouth. The small, exquisite thing lacked fulness and the vivid rose that should have been the flowering of her face. A certain tightness at the corners gave it an indescribable expression of secrecy and mystery and restraint. He saw in it the almost monstrous denial and mockery of desire. He could not see it, as he had seen Nora Viveash's mouth, curved forward, eager, shedding flame at the brim, giving itself to lips that longed for it. Philippa's mouth was a flower that opened only at the touch, the thrill of her own gorgeous egoism. He read in it the triumph of Philippa over the flesh and blood of her race. She had nothing in her of the dead. That was the wonder of her. The passion of the dead had built up her body to the semblance and the promise of their own delight; their desire, long forgotten, rose again, lightening and darkening in her amazing eyes; the imperishable instinct that impelled them to clothe her in their flesh and blood survived in her, transfigured in strange impulses and intuitions, but she herself left unfulfilled their promise and their desire.
Yes—that was what her mouth meant; it was treacherous; it betrayed the promise of her body and her eyes. And Furnival was feeding his infatuation on the meanings of her eyes and of her body—meanings that were unmistakable to Straker.
As if she had known what the older man was thinking of her, Philippa rose abruptly and turned her back on Furnival and began to make violent love to old Lady Paignton. Her eyes challenged Straker's across the terrace. They said: "Look at me. I will be as beautiful for this old lady as for any male thing on earth. More beautiful. Have I ever set my cap so becomingly at any of you as I am setting it now at her? Have you ever seen finer eyes than these that I make at her, that I lavish on her out of the sheer exuberance of my nature? Very well, then; doesn't that prove that you're wrong in all things you've been thinking about me. I know what you've been thinking!"
As if she knew what he was thinking she made herself beautiful for him. She allowed him presently to take her for a walk, for quite a long walk. The woods of Amberley lured them, westward, across the shining fields. They went, therefore, through the woods and back by the village in the cool of the evening.
He had seldom, he might say he had never, seen Philippa in so agreeable a mood. She had sunk her sex. She was tired of her terrible game, the game that Straker saw through; she was playing another one, a secret, innocent, delightful game. She laid herself out to amuse Straker, instead of laying him out (as he put it), on the table, to amuse herself.
"Philippa," he said, "you've been adorable for the last half hour."
"For the last half hour I've been myself."
She smiled as if to herself, a secret, meditative smile. The mystery of it was not lost on Straker.
"I can always be myself," she said, "when I'm with you."
"For half an hour," he murmured.
She went on. "You're not tiresome, like the others. I don't know what there is about you, but you don't bore me."
"Perhaps not—for half an hour."
"Not for millions of half hours."
She tilted her head back and gazed at him with eyes narrowed and slanting under their deep lids.
"Not in an immortality," she said.
She laughed aloud her joyous appreciation of him.
Straker was neither uplifted nor alarmed. He knew exactly where he stood with her. She was not considering him; she was not trying to get at him; she was aware of his illumination and his disenchantment; she was also aware of his continuous interest in her, and it was his continuous interest, the study that he made of her, that interested Philippa. She was anxious that he should get her right, that he should accept her rendering of herself. She knew at each moment what he was thinking of her, and the thing that went on between them was not a game—it was a duel, an amicable duel, between her lucidity and his. Philippa respected his lucidity.
"All the same," said Straker, "I am not the most amusing man you know. You don't find me exciting."
"No." She turned it over. "No; I don't find you at all exciting or very amusing. How is it, then, that you don't bore me?"
"How can I say?"
"I think it is because you're so serious, because you take me seriously."
"But I don't. Not for a moment. As for an immortality of seriousness——"
"At least," she said, "you would admit that possibly I might have a soul. At any rate, you behave as if you did."
He dodged it dexterously.
"That's where the immortality comes in, is it?"
"Of course," said Philippa.
She went on amusing Straker all evening, and after dinner she made him take her into the conservatory.
The conservatory at Amberley is built out fanwise from the big west drawing-room on to the southwest corner of the terrace; it is furnished as a convenient lounge, and you sit there drinking coffee, and smoking, and admiring Brocklebank's roses, which are the glory of Amberley. And all among Brocklebank's roses they came upon Furnival and Mrs. Viveash.
Among the roses she shimmered and flushed in a gown of rose and silver. Among the roses she was lovely, sitting there with Furnival. And Straker saw that Miss Tarrant was aware of the loveliness of Mrs. Viveash, and that her instinct woke in her.
She advanced, trailing behind her the long, diaphanous web of her black gown. When she was well within the range of Furnival's sensations she paused to smell a rose, bending her body backward and sideward so that she showed to perfection the deep curved lines that swept from her shoulders to her breasts, and from her breasts downward to her hips. A large diamond star hung as by an invisible thread upon her neck: it pointed downward to the hollow of her breasts. There was no beauty that she had that was not somehow pointed to, insisted on, held forever under poor Furnival's excited eyes.
But in a black gown, among roses, she showed disadvantageously her dead whiteness and her morbid rose. She was aware of that. Mrs. Viveash, glowing among the roses, had made her aware.
"Why did we ever come here?" she inquired of Straker. "These roses are horribly unbecoming to me."
"Nothing is unbecoming to you, and you jolly well know it," said Furnival.
She ignored it.
"Just look at their complexions. They oughtn't to be allowed about."
She picked one and laid it against the dead-white hollow of her breast, and curled her neck to look at it there; then she shook her head at it in disapproval, took it away, and held it out an inch from Furnival's face. He recoiled slightly.
"It won't bite," she murmured. "It'll let you stroke it." She stroked it herself, with fingers drawn tenderly, caressingly, over petals smooth and cool as their own skin. "I believe it can feel. I believe it likes it."
Furnival groaned. Straker heard him; so did Mrs. Viveash. She stirred in her seat, causing a spray of Dorothy Perkins to shake as if it indeed felt and shared her terror. Miss Tarrant turned from Furnival and laid her rose on Mrs. Viveash's shoulder, where it did no wrong.
"It's yours," she said; "or a part of you."
Mrs. Viveash looked up at Furnival, and her face flickered for a moment. Furnival did not see her face; he was staring at Miss Tarrant.
"Ah," he cried, "how perfect! You and I'll have to dry up, Straker, unless you can go one better than that."
"I shouldn't dream," said Straker, "of trying to beat Miss Tarrant at her own game."
"If you know what it is. I'm hanged if I do."
Furnival was tearing from its tree a Caroline Testout, one of Brocklebank's choicest blooms. Miss Tarrant cried out:
"Oh, stop him, somebody. They're Mr. Brocklebank's roses."
"They ain't a part of Brockles," Furnival replied.
He approached her with Brocklebank's Caroline Testout, and, with his own dangerous, his outrageous fervor, "You say it f-f-feels," he stammered. "It's what you want, then—something t-tender and living about you. Not that s-scin-t-tillating thing you've got there. It tires me to look at it." He closed his eyes.
"You needn't look at it," she said.
"I can't help it. It's part of you. I believe it grows there. It makes me look at it."
His words came shaken from him in short, savage jerks. To Straker, to Mrs. Viveash, he appeared intolerable; but he had ceased to care how he appeared to anybody. He had ceased to know that they were there. They turned from him as from something monstrous, intolerable, indecent. Mrs. Viveash's hands and mouth were quivering, and her eyes implored Straker to take her away somewhere where she couldn't see Furnival and Philippa Tarrant.
He took her out on to the terrace. Miss Tarrant looked after them.
"That rose belongs to Mrs. Viveash now," she said. "You'd better go and take it to her."
Furnival flung the Caroline Testout on the floor. He trod on the Caroline Testout. It was by accident, but still he trod on it; so that he seemed much more brutal than he was.
"It's very hot in here," said she. "I'm going on to the terrace."
"Let's go down," said he, "into the garden. We can talk there."
"You seem to be able to talk anywhere," said she.
"I have to," said Furnival.
She went out and walked slowly down the terrace to the east end where Straker sheltered Mrs. Viveash.
Furnival followed her.
"Are you coming with me or are you not?" he insisted. "I can't get you a minute to myself. Come out of this, can't you? I want to talk to you."
"And I," said Miss Tarrant, "want to talk to Mrs. Viveash."
"You don't. You want to tease her. Can't you leave the poor woman alone for a minute? She's happy there with Straker."
"I want to see how happy she is," said Miss Tarrant.
"For God's sake!" he cried. "Don't. It's my last chance. I'm going to-morrow." Miss Tarrant continued to walk like one who did not hear. "I may never see you again. You'll go off somewhere. You'll disappear. I can't trust you."
Suddenly she stood still.
"You are going to-morrow?"
"Not," said Furnival, "if you'd like me to stay. That's what I want to talk to you about. Let's go down into the east walk. It's dark there, and they can't hear us."
"They have heard you. You'd better go back to Mrs. Viveash."
His upper lip lifted mechanically, but he made no sound. He stood for a moment staring at her, obstructing her path. Then he turned.
"I shall go back to her," he said.
He strode to Mrs. Viveash and called her by her name. His voice had a queer vibration that sounded to Miss Tarrant like a cry.
"Nora—you'll come with me, won't you?"
Mrs. Viveash got up without a word and went with him. Miss Tarrant, standing beside Straker on the terrace, saw them go down together into the twilight of the east walk between the yew hedges.
Philippa said something designed to distract Straker's attention; and still, with an air of distracting him, of sheltering her sad sister, Mrs. Viveash, she led him back into the house.
Furnival returned five minutes later, more flushed than ever and defiant.
That night Straker, going down the long corridor to his bedroom, saw Fanny Brocklebank and Philippa in front of him. They went slowly, Fanny's head leaning a little toward Philippa's. Not a word of what Philippa was saying reached Straker, but he saw her turn with Fanny into Fanny's room. As he passed the door he was aware of Fanny's voice raised in deprecation, and of Philippa's, urgent, imperative; and he knew, as well as if he had heard her, that Philippa was telling Fanny about Furnival and Nora Viveash.
It was as if nothing had happened that Philippa came to him on the terrace the next morning (which was a Tuesday) before breakfast. As if nothing had happened, as if she had hardly met Furnival, as if she were considering him for the first time, she began cross-questioning Straker.
"You know everybody. Tell me about Laurence Furnival. Is he any good?"
Straker replied that she had better inquire at the Home Office, the scene of Furnival's industry.
Philippa waved the Home Office aside. "I mean, will he ever do anything?"
"Ask Fanny Brocklebank."
He knew very well that she had asked her, that she had got out of Fanny full particulars as to Furnival's family and the probable amount of his income, and that she had come to him as the source of a finer information.
"Fanny wouldn't know," said she.
"Then," said Straker, "ask Mrs. Viveash."
She turned on him a cold and steady gaze that rebuked his utterance. How dare he, it said, how dare he mention Mrs. Viveash in her presence?
She answered quietly: "There will hardly be time, I think. Mrs. Viveash is going to-day."
Straker turned on her now, and his look expressed a sort of alien and repugnant admiration. He wondered how far she had gone, how much she had told, by what intimations she had prevailed with Fanny to get Mrs. Viveash out of the house. Mrs. Viveash, to be sure, had only been invited for the week-end, from the Friday to the Tuesday, but it had been understood that, if her husband prolonged his business in Liverpool, she was to stay till his return. Viveash was still in Liverpool—that had been known at Amberley yesterday—and Mrs. Viveash had not been asked to stay. It had been quite simple. Mrs. Viveash, not having been asked to stay, would be obliged to go.
"And is Furnival going, too?" he asked.
"I believe not," said Philippa.
An hour later Mrs. Viveash joined them in the avenue where he waited for Miss Tarrant, who had proposed that he should walk with her to the village.
In the clear and cruel light of the morning Mrs. Viveash showed him a blanched face and eyes that had seen with miserable lucidity the end of illusion, the end of passion, and now saw other things and were afraid.
"You know I'm going?" she said.
Straker said that he was sorry to hear it; by which he meant that he was sorry for Mrs. Viveash.
She began to talk to him of trifles, small occurrences at Amberley, of the affair of Mr. Higginson and Miss Probyn, and then, as by a natural transition, of Miss Tarrant.
"Do you like Miss Tarrant?" she asked suddenly, point-blank.
Straker jibbed. "Well, really—I—I haven't thought about it."
He hadn't. He knew how he stood with her, how he felt about her; but whether it amounted to liking or not liking he had not yet inquired. But that instant he perceived that he did not like her, and he lied.
"Of course I like her. Why shouldn't I?"
"Because"—she was very slow about it—"somehow I should have said that you were not that sort."
Her light on him came halting, obscured, shivering with all the vibrations of her voice; but he could see through it, down to the sources of her thinking, to something secret, luminous, and profound—her light on Philippa.
She was instantly aware of what she had let him see.
"Oh," she cried, "that was horrid of me. It was feline."
"It was a little," he admitted.
"It's because I know she doesn't like me."
"Why not say at once it's because you don't like her?"
Her eyes, full, lucid, charged with meaning, flashed to him. She leaped at the chance he offered her to be sincere.
"I don't," she said. "How can I?"
She talked again of trifles, to destroy all cohesion between that utterance and her next.
"I say, I want you to do something for me. I want you to look after Furny."
"To look after him?"
"To stand by him, if—if he has a bad time."
He promised her. And then Miss Tarrant claimed him. She was in her mood of yesterday; but the charm no longer worked on him; he did not find her adorable that morning.
After a longish round they were overtaken by Brocklebank in his motor-car. He and Furnival were returning from the station after seeing Mrs. Viveash off (Furny had had the decency to see her off). Brocklebank gave a joyous shout and pulled up two yards in front of them.
As they stood beside the car Straker noticed that Furnival's face had a queer, mottled look, and that the muscles of his jaw were set in an immobility of which he could hardly have believed him capable. He was actually trying to look as if he didn't see Miss Tarrant. And Miss Tarrant was looking straight at him.
Brocklebank wanted to know if Miss Tarrant cared for a run across the Hog's Back before luncheon.
Miss Tarrant did care—if Mr. Straker did.
Furnival had got down from his seat beside Brocklebank and had opened the door of the car, ignoring Straker. He had managed in his descent to preserve his attitude of distance, so much so that Straker was amazed to see him enter the car after Miss Tarrant and take his, Straker's, place beside her. He accomplished this maneuver in silence, and with an air so withdrawn, so obscurely predestined, that he seemed innocent of all offense. It was as if he had acted from some malign compulsion of which he was unaware.
Now Brocklebank in his motor was an earnest and a silent man. Straker, left to himself, caught fragments of conversation in the rear. Miss Tarrant began it.
"Why did you give up your seat?"
"You see why," said Furnival.
Straker could see him saying it, flushed and fervent. Then Furnival went one better, and overdid it.
"There's nothing I wouldn't give up for a chance like this."
Straker heard Philippa laughing softly. He knew she meant him to hear her, he knew she was saying to him, "Could anything be more absurd than the creature that I've got in here?"
There was a pause, and then Furnival broke out again:
"I've seen Mrs. Viveash off."
"That," said Miss Tarrant reprovingly, "was the least you could do."
Furnival made that little fierce, inarticulate sound of his before he spoke. "I hope you're satisfied. I hope I've done enough to please you."
"Oh, quite enough. I shouldn't attempt to do anything more if I were you."
After that there was silence, in which Straker felt that Furnival was raging.
Fanny Brocklebank came to him the next morning in the library, where he had hidden himself. She was agitated.
"Put that book down," she said. "I want to talk to you."
"Jimmy—I'm fond of Philippa. I am, really."
"Philippa's making a fool of herself and she doesn't know it."
"To know it?"
"To make a fool of anybody on earth—except herself."
"This is different. It's Larry Furnival."
"It is. And did you ever see such a spectacle of folly?"
"He doesn't understand her. That's where the folly comes in."
"He's not alone in it."
But Fanny was past the consolations of his cynicism. Her face, not formed for gravity, was grave.
"He's got an idea in his head. An awful one. I'm convinced he thinks she isn't proper."
"Oh, I say!"
"Well, really—considering that he doesn't know her—I can't altogether blame him. I told her so straight out."
"What did she say?"
"She said how funny it will be when he finds out how proper she is."
"So it will, won't it?"
Fanny considered the point.
"It's not half as funny as she thinks it. And, funniness and all, she didn't like it."
"You can hardly expect her to," said Straker.
"Of course," said Fanny, musing, "there's a sort of innocence about him, or else he couldn't think it."
Straker admitted that, as far as Philippa went, that might be said of him.
"That's why I hate somehow to see him made a fool of. It doesn't seem fair play, you know. It's taking advantage of his innocence."
Straker had to laugh, for really, Furny's innocence!
"He always was," Fanny meditated aloud, "a fool about women."
"Oh, well, then," said Straker cheerfully. "She can't make him——"
"She can. She does. She draws out all the folly in him. I'm fond of Philippa——"
That meant that Fanny was blaming Philippa as much as she could blame anybody. Immorality she understood, and could excuse; for immorality there was always some provocation; what she couldn't stand was the unfairness of Philippa's proceeding, the inequality in the game.
"I'm very fond of her, but—she's bad for him, Jimmy. She's worse, far worse, than Nora, poor dear."
"I shouldn't worry about him if I were you."
"I do worry. You see, you can't help liking him. There's something about Furny—I don't know what it is, unless it's the turn of his nose——"
"Do you think Philippa likes him? Do you think she's at all taken with the turn of his nose?"
"If she only would be! Not that he means to marry her. That's the one point where he's firm. That's where he's awful. Why, oh, why did I ever ask them? I thought he was safe with Nora."
"Something must be done," she cried, "to stop it."
"Who's to do it?"
"You or I. Or Will. Anybody!"
"Look here, Fanny, let's get it quite clear. What are you worrying about? Are you saving Philippa from Furnival, or Furnival from Philippa?"
"Philippa," Fanny moaned, "doesn't want saving. She can take care of herself."
"I see. You are fond of Philippa, but your sympathies are with Furny?"
"Well he can feel, and Philippa——"
She left it there for him, as her way was.
"Precisely. Then why worry about Philippa?"
"Because it's really awful, and it's in my house that it'll happen."
"How long are they staying?"
"Lord knows how long."
"Poor Fanny. You can't get them to go, can you?"
"I've thought of things. I've told Will he must have an illness."
"And will he?"
"Not he. He says, as I asked them, I ought to have the illness. But if I did she'd stay and nurse me. Besides, if we ousted the whole lot to-morrow, they'll meet again. He'll see to that; and so will Philippa."
There was a long pause.
"I want you to do it. I want you to tell her."
"Good Lord, what am I to tell her?"
"Tell her it isn't nice; tell her it isn't worth while; tell her Furny isn't fair game; tell her anything you can think of that'll stop her."
"I don't see myself——"
"I do. She won't listen to anybody but you."
"She respects you."
"I doubt it. Why should she?"
"Because you've never made yourself a spectacle of folly. You've never told her you're in love with her."
"But I'm not," said poor Straker.
"She doesn't know that. And if she did she'd respect you all the more."
"Dear Fanny, I'd do a great deal for you, but I can't do that. I can't, really. It wouldn't be a bit of good."
"You could speak," Fanny said, "to Furny."
"Why not?" she cried, in desperation.
"Because, if I did, I should have to assume things—things that you cannot decently assume. I can't speak to him. Not, that is, unless he speaks to me."
He did speak to him that very night.
It was after ten o'clock, and Straker, who ought to have been in the drawing-room playing bridge, or in the billiard-room playing billiards, or in the smoking-room talking to Brocklebank—Straker, who ought to have known better, had sneaked into the library to have a look at a brief he'd just got. He ought to have known better, for he knew, everybody knew, that after ten o'clock the library at Amberley was set apart as a refuge for any two persons who desired uninterrupted communion with each other. He himself, in the library at Amberley—but that was more than two years ago, so far before Philippa's time that he did not associate her with the library at Amberley. He only knew that Furnival had spent a good deal of time in it with Nora Viveash, and poor Nora was gone. It was poor Nora's departure, in fact, that made him feel that the library was now open to him.
Now the library at Amberley was fitted, as a library should be, with a silent door, a door with an inaudible latch and pneumatic hinges. It shut itself behind Straker with a soft sigh.
The long room was dim and apparently deserted. Drawn blinds obscured the lucid summer night behind the three windows opposite the door. One small electric globe hung lit under its opaline veil in the corner by the end window on the right.
Straker at the doorway turned on the full blaze of the great ring that hung above the central table where he meant to work. It revealed, seated on the lounge in the inner, the unilluminated corner on the right, Miss Tarrant and Laurence Furnival.