FAST BOUND IN MISERY AND IRON
"But for failing of love on our part, therefore is all our travail."
—JULIAN OF NORWICH.
DODD, MEAD & COMPANY NEW YORK MCMVI
Copyright, 1905, 1906, by
COLVER PUBLISHING COMPANY
Copyright, 1906, by
Published, September, 1906
To My Brother Reginald
"Her eyes turned towards it mechanically because it contained ... the man of whom she was thinking" Frontispiece
"A deathlike silence followed the delegato's words" Page 36
"'Is she worth it?' he said with sudden passion" " 46
"'You are all blinder one than the other, that it's Andrea I'm grieving for'" " 80
"If Fay had come in then he would have killed her, done her to death with the chains he had worn so patiently for her sake" " 146
"Fay noticed for the first time how lightly Wentworth walked, how square his shoulders were" " 184
Grim Fate was tender, contemplating you, And fairies brought their offerings at your birth; You take the rose-leaf pathway as your due, Your rightful meed the choicest gifts of earth.
—ARTHUR C. LEGGE.
Fay stood on her balcony, and looked over the ilexes of her villa at Frascati; out across the grey-green of the Campagna to the little compressed city which goes by the great name of Rome.
How small it looked, what a huddled speck with a bubble dome, to be represented by so stupendous a name!
She gazed at it without seeing it. Her eyes turned towards it mechanically because it contained somewhere within its narrow precincts the man of whom she was thinking, of whom she was always thinking.
It was easy to see that Fay—the Duchess of Colle Alto—was an Englishwoman, in spite of her historic Italian name.
She had the look of perfect though not robust health, the reflection over her whole being of a childhood spent much in the open air. She was twenty-three, but her sweet fair face, with its delicate irregular features, was immature, childish. It gave no impression of experience, or thought, or of having met life. She was obviously not of those who criticise or judge themselves. In how many faces we see the conflict, or the remains of conflict with a dual nature. Fay, as she was called by her family, seemed all of a piece with herself. Her unharassed countenance showed it, especially when, as at this moment, she looked harassed. Anxiety was evidently a foreign element. It sat ill upon her smooth face, as if it might slide off at any moment. Fay's violet eyes were her greatest charm. She looked at you with a deprecating, timid, limpid gaze, in which no guile existed, any more than steadfastness, any more than unselfishness, any more than courage.
Fay had come into the world anxious to please. She had never shown any particular wish to give pleasure. If she had been missed out of her somewhat oppressed and struggling home when she married, it is probable that the sense of her absence was tinged by relief.
She had never intended to marry the Duke of Colle Alto. It is difficult to say why that sedate distinguished personage married her.
Fay's face had a very sweet and endearing promise in it which drew men's eyes after her. I don't know what it meant, and they did not know either, but they instinctively lessened the distance between themselves and it. A very thin string will tow a very heavy body if there is no resistance, and the pace is slow. The duke looked at Fay, who was at that moment being taken out for her first season by her grandmother, Lady Bellairs. Fay tried to please him, as was her wont with all except men with beards. She liked to have him in attendance. Her violet eyes lighted up with genuine pleasure when he came to see her.
It is perhaps difficult for the legions of women who do not please easily, and for the handful whose interests lie outside themselves, and who are not desirous of pleasing indiscriminately, it is difficult for either to realise the passionate desire to please which possesses and saps the life of some of their sisters. Admiration with them is not a luxury, any more than a hot-water bottle is a luxury to the aged, or a foot rest to a gouty foot. It is a necessity of life. After a becoming interval, the interstices of which had been filled with flowers, the duke proposed to Lady Bellairs for Fay's hand. Fay did not wish to marry him. He was not in the least her ideal. Neither did she wish to remain unmarried, neither did she wish to part with her grave, distinguished suitor who was an ornament to herself. And she was distinctly averse to living any longer in the paternal home, lost in a remote crease in a Hampshire down. Poor women have only too frequently to deal with these complicated situations, with which blundering, egotistic male minds are seldom in perfect sympathy.
Fay had never willingly relinquished any of the men who had cared for her, and some had cared much. These last had as a rule torn themselves away from her, leaving hearts, or other fragments of themselves, behind, and were not to be cajoled back again, even by one of her little gilt-edged notes. But the duke did not break away. He had selected her, she pleased him, he desired to marry an Englishwoman. He had the approval of Lady Bellairs.
The day came when Fay was suddenly and adroitly confronted with the fact that she must marry him, or lose him.
Many confirmed bachelors who openly regret that they have never come across a woman to whom they cared to tie themselves for life might be in a position to descant on the inability of wives to enter into their husbands' inmost feelings, if only they—the bachelors—had known on a past occasion how to act with sudden promptitude on the top of patience.
The duke played the waiting game, and then hit hard. He had coolly allowed himself to be trifled with, until the moment arrived when it did not suit him to be trifled with any longer.
The marriage had not proved a marked success, nor an entire failure. The duke was an irreproachable husband, but, like many men who marry when they are no longer young, he aged suddenly after marriage. He quickly became bald and stout. His tact except in these two particulars remained flawless. He never allowed his deep chagrin to appear when, three years after his marriage, he still remained without a son to continue his historic name.
He was polite to his wife at all times, mildly sarcastic as to her extravagance. Fay was not exorbitantly extravagant; but then the duke was not exorbitantly rich. One of Fay's arts, as unconscious as that of a kitten, was to imply past unhappiness, spoken of with a cheerful resignation which greatly endeared her to others—and to herself. The duke had understood that she had not had a very happy home, and he had honestly endeavoured to make her new home happy. In the early days of his marriage he made many small experiments in the hope of pleasing the pretty creature who had thrown in her lot with his. Possibly also there may have been other subtle, patient attempts to win somewhat from her of another nature. Possibly there may have been veiled disappointments, and noiseless retreats under cover of night.
However these things may have been, after the first year Fay made the discovery that she was unhappily married. The duke was kind, in kindness he never failed; but he was easily jealous—at least she thought so; and he appeared quite unable to see in their true light her amicable little flirtations with his delightful compatriots. After one or two annoying incidents, in which the compatriots had shown several distinctly un-English characteristics, the duke became, in his wife's eyes, tiresome, strict, a burden. Perhaps, also, she felt the Englishwoman's surprise at the inadequate belief in a woman's power of guarding her own virtue, which remains in some nations an hereditary masculine instinct. She felt that she could take care of herself, which was, in reality, just what she could not do, as her imperturbable, watchful husband was well aware.
But was he aware of the subject of her thoughts at this moment? It was more than probable that he was. But Fay had not the faintest suspicion that he had guessed anything.
One of her many charms was a certain youthful innocence of mind, which imputed no evil to others, which never suspected that others would impute it to her. Her husband was wearisome. He looked coldly on her if she smiled on young men, and she had to smile at them when they smiled at her. But, she reasoned, of course all the time he really knew that he could trust her entirely. There was no harm in Fay's nature, no venom, there were no dark places, no strong passions, with their awful possibilities for good and evil. She had already given much pain in her short life, but inadvertently. She was of that large class of whom it may truly be said when evil comes, that they are more sinned against than sinning. They always somehow gravitate into the places where people are sinned against, just as some people never attend a cricket-match without receiving a ball on their persons.
And now trouble had come upon her. She had at last fallen in love. I would not venture to assert that she had fallen in very deep, that the "breakers of the boundless deep" had engulfed her. Some of us make shipwreck in a teacup tempest, and when our serenity is restored—there is nothing calmer than a teacup after its storm—our experience serves, after a decent interval, as an agreeable fringe to our confidential conversation.
Anyhow, Fay had fallen in love. I feel bound to add that for some time before that event happened life had become intolerably dull. The advent to Rome of her distant connection, Michael Carstairs, had been at this juncture a source of delight to her. She had, before her marriage, flirted with him a very little—not as much as she could have wished; but Lady Bellairs, who was fond of him, had promptly intervened, and the young man had disappeared into his examinations. That was four years ago.
In reality Fay had half-forgotten him; but when she saw him suddenly, pale, handsome, distinguished, across a ballroom in Rome, and, after a moment's uncertainty, realised who he was, she felt the same pleasurable surprise, soft as the fall of dew, which pervades the feminine heart when, in looking into an unused drawer, it inadvertently haps upon a length of new ribbon, bought, carefully put away, and forgotten.
Fay went gently up to Michael, conscious of her beauty and her wonderful jewels, and held out her hand with a little deprecating smile.
"And so we meet again at last," she said.
He turned red and white.
"At last," he said with difficulty.
She looked more closely at him. The dreamy, poetic face had changed during those four years. She became dimly aware that he had not only grown from a youth into a man, but that some other transformation had been painfully wrought in him.
Instinctively her beaming face became grave to match his. She was slow to see what others were feeling, but quick to reflect their mood. She sighed gently, vaguely stirred, in spite of herself, by something—she knew not what—in her companion's face.
"It is four years since I saw you," she said.
And from her lowered voice it seemed as if her life were rooted in memory alone.
"Four years," said Michael, who, promising young diplomat as he was, appeared only able to repeat parrot-wise her last words after her.
"Do you know my husband?"
"I do not."
"May I introduce him to you?"
Fay made a little sign, and the duke approached, superb, decorated, dignified, with the polished pallor as if the skin were a little too tight, which is the Charybdis of many who have avoided the Scylla of wrinkles.
The elder Italian and the grave, fair, young Englishman bowed to each other, were made known to each other.
That night as the duke drove home with his wife he said to her in his admirable English:
"Your young cousin is an enthusiast, a dreamer, a sensitive, what your Tennyson calls a Sir Galahad. In Italy we make of such men a priest, a cardinal. He is not an homme d'affaires. It was not well to put him into diplomacy. One may make a religion of art. One may even for a time make a religion of a woman. But of the English diplomacy one does not make a religion."
Fay lay awake that night. From a disused pigeon-hole in her mind she drew out and unfolded to its short length that attractive remnant, that half-forgotten episode of her teens. She remembered everything—I mean everything she wished to remember. Michael's face had recalled it all, those exquisite days which he had taken so much more seriously than she had, the sudden ruthless intervention of Lady Bellairs, the end of the daydream. Fay, whose attention had been adroitly diverted to other channels, had never wondered how he took their separation at the time. Now that she saw him again she was aware that he had taken it—to heart.
During that sleepless night Fay persuaded herself that Michael had not been alone in his suffering. She also had felt the parting with equal poignancy.
They met again a few days later by chance in an old cloistered, deserted garden. How often she had walked in that garden as she was doing now with English friends! His presence gave the place its true significance. They met as those who have between them the bond of a common sorrow.
"And what have you been doing all these four years?" she asked him, as they wandered somewhat apart.
"I have been working."
"You never came to say good-bye before you went to that place in Germany to study."
"I was told I had better not come."
"I suppose grandmamma told you that."
"She did, most kindly and wisely."
She was leaning in the still May sunshine against an old grey tomb of carved stone. Two angels with spread wings upheld the defaced inscription. Above it, over it, round it, like desire impotently defying death, a flood of red roses clambered and clung. Were they trying to wake some votary who slept below? A great twisted sentinel cypress kept its own dark counsel. Against its shadow Fay's figure in her white gossamer gown showed more ethereal and exquisite even than in memory. She seemed at one with this wonderful, passionate southern spring, which trembled between rapture and anguish. The red roses and the white irises were everywhere. Even the unkept grass in which her light feet were set was wild with white daisies.
"Do you remember our last walk on the down that day in spring?" she said suddenly.
She had forgotten it until last night.
"I remember it."
"It was May then. It is May again now."
He did not answer. The roses left off calling to the dead, and suddenly enfolded the two young grave creatures leaning against the tomb, in a gust of hot perfume.
"Do you remember," Fay's voice was tremulous, "how you gave me a bit of pink may?"
"I was looking at it yesterday. It is not very pink now."
It was true. In all shallow meanings, and when she had not had time to get her mind into a tangle, Fay was perfectly truthful. She had yesterday been turning over the contents of a little cedar box in which she kept her childish possessions, and she had found in an envelope a brown unsightly ghost of what had once been a may-blossom on a Hampshire down. She had remembered the vivid sunshine, the wheeling seagull, the soft south wind blowing in from the sea. Michael had kissed her under the thin dappled shade of the flowering tree, and she had kissed him back.
Michael's eyes turned for a long moment to the yellow weather-stained arches of the cloister, and then he looked full at Fay with a certain peculiar detached glance which had first made her endeavour to attract him. There is a look in a man's face which women like Fay cannot endure, because it means independence of them.
"I thought," he said, with the grave simplicity which apparently was unchangeable in him whatever else might change, "that it was only I who remembered. It has always been a comfort to me that any unhappiness which my want of forethought, my—my culpable selfishness may have caused, was borne by myself alone."
"I was unhappy too," she said, speaking as simply as he. She looked up at him suddenly as she said it. There was a wet glint in her deep violet eyes. She believed absolutely at that moment that she had been as unhappy as he for four years. There was no suspicion in her mind that she was not genuine. Only the sincere ever doubt their sincerity. Fay never doubted hers. She felt what she said, and the sweet eyes turned on Michael had the transparent fixity of a child's.
They walked unsteadily back to the others and spoke no more to each other that day. Conscience pricked Fay that night.
"Leave him alone," it said. "You have both suffered. Let the dead past bury its dead."
Fay's conscience was a wonderfully adaptable one with a tendency to poetic quotation. It showed considerable tact in adopting her point of view. Nevertheless from that generally fallacious standpoint it often gave her quite respectable advice. "Leave him alone," said the hoodwinked monitor. "You are married and Andrea is easily jealous. Michael is sensitive, and has been deeply in love with you. Don't stir him up to fall in love with you again. Leave him alone."
The young British matron waxed indignant. Was she, Fay, the kind of woman to forget her duty to her husband? Was Michael the kind of man to make love to a married woman? Such an idea was preposterous, unjust to both of them. And people would begin to talk at once if she and her cousin (Michael was only a distant connection) were studiously to avoid each other, if they could not exchange a few words simply like old friends. No one had suggested an attitude of rigid avoidance; but throughout life Fay had always convinced herself of the advisability of a certain wished-for course by conjuring up, only to discard it, the extreme and most obviously senseless opposite of that course—as the only alternative.
She imagined her husband saying: "Why won't you ask Mr. Carstairs to dinner? He is your cousin and he is charming. What can the reason be that you so earnestly refuse to meet him?" And then Andrea, who always "got ideas into his head," would begin to suspect that there had been "something" between them.
No. No. It would be far wiser to meet naturally now and then, and to treat Michael like an old friend. Fay had a somewhat muffled conception of what an old friend might be. After deep thought she came to the conclusion that it was her duty to ask Michael frequently to the house. When Fay once recognised a duty she performed it without delay.
She met with an unexpected obstacle in the way of its adequate performance. The obstacle was Michael.
The young man came once, and then again after an interval of several months, but apparently nothing would induce him to frequent the house.
Fay did not recognise her boyish eager lover in the grave sedate man, old of his age, who had replaced him. His dignified and quite unobtrusive resistance, which had not indifference at its core, added an intense, a feverish, interest to Fay's life. She saw that he still cared for her, and that he did not intend to wound himself a second time. He had had enough. She put out all her little transparent arts during the months that followed. The duke watched.
She had implied to her husband with a smile that she had not been very happy at home. She implied to Michael with a smile that it was not the duke's fault, but that she was not very happy in her married life, that he did not care much about her, and that they had but few tastes in common. Each lived their own life on amicable terms, but somewhat apart from each other. She owned that she had hoped for something rather different in marriage. She had, it seemed, started life with a very exalted ideal of married life, which the duke's
coarse thumb And finger failed to plumb.
Michael remained outwardly obdurate, but inwardly he weakened. His tender adoration and respect for Fay, wounded and mutilated though they had been, had nevertheless survived what in many minds must have proved their death-blow. He still believed implicitly all she said.
But to him her marriage was the impassable barrier, a barrier as enfranchisable as the brown earth on a coffin lid.
After many months Fay at last vaguely realised his attitude towards her. She told herself that she respected it, that it was just what she wished, was in fact the result of her own tactfully expressed wishes. She seemed to remember things she had said which would have led him to behave just as he had done. And then she turned heaven and earth to regain her personal ascendency over him. She never would have regained it if an accident had not befallen her. She fell in love with him during the process.
The day came, an evil day for Michael, when he could no longer doubt it, when he was not permitted to remain in doubt. Who shall say what waves of boundless devotion, what passionate impulses of protection, of compassion, of intense longing to shield her from the fire which had devastated his own youth, passed in succession over him as he looked at the delicate little creature who was to him the only real woman in the world—all the rest were counterfeits—and who now, as he believed, loved him as he had long loved her.
Michael was one of the few men who bear through life the common masculine burden of a profound ignorance of women, coupled with an undeviating loyalty towards them. He supposed she was suffering as he had suffered, that it was with her now beside the fountain, under the ilexes of her Italian garden, as it had been with him during these five intolerable years.
How Fay wept! What a passion of tears, till her small flower-like face was bereft of all beauty, of everything except a hideous contraction of grief!
He stood near her, not touching her, in anguish far deeper than hers. At last he took her clenched hand in his.
"Do not grieve so," he said brokenly. "It is not our fault. It is greater than either of us. It has come upon us against our wills. We have both struggled. You don't know how I have struggled, Fay, day and night since I came to Rome. But I have been in fault. I ought never to have come, for I knew you were living near Rome. But I did not know it had touched you, and for myself I had hoped—I thought—that it was past—in as far as it could pass—that I was accustomed to it. Listen, Fay, and do not cry so bitterly. I will leave Rome at once. I will not see you again. My poor darling, we have come to a hard place in life, but we can do the only thing left to us—our duty."
Fay's heart contracted, and she suddenly ceased sobbing. She had never thought of this horrible possibility that he would leave her.
She drew the hand that clasped hers to her lips and held it tightly against her breast.
"Don't leave me," she stammered, trembling from head to foot, from sheer terror at the thought; "I will be good. I will do what is right. We are not like other people. We can trust each other. But I can't live without seeing you sometimes, I could not bear it."
He withdrew his hand. They looked wildly into each other's eyes. His convulsed face paled and paled. Even as he stood before her she knew she was losing him, that something was tearing him from her. It was as certain that he was going from her as if she were standing by his deathbed.
He kissed her suddenly.
"I shall not come back," he said. And the next moment he was gone.
Nous passons notre vie a nous forger des chaines, et a nous plaindre de les porter.—VALTOUR.
For a long time Fay had stood on her balcony looking out towards Rome, while the remembrance of the last few months pressed in upon her.
It was a week since she had seen Michael, since he had said, "I shall not come back."
And in the meanwhile she had heard that he had resigned his appointment, and was leaving Rome at once. She had never imagined that he would act so quickly, with such determination. She had vaguely supposed that he would send in his resignation, and then remain on. In novels in a situation like theirs the man never really went away, or if he did he came back. Fay knew very little of Michael, but nevertheless she instinctively felt and quailed before the conviction that he really was leaving her for ever, that he would reconstruct a life for himself somewhere in which she could not reach him, in which she would have no part or lot. He might suffer during the process, but he would do it. His yea was yea, and his nay, nay. She should see him no more. Some day, not for a long time perhaps, but some day, she should hear of his marriage.
Suddenly, without a moment's warning, her own life rose up before her, distorted, horrible, unendurable. The ilexes, solemn in the sunset, showed like foul shapes of disgust and nausea. The quiet Campagna with its distant faintly outlined Sabine hills was rotten to the core.
The duke passed across a glade at a little distance, and, looking up, smiled gravely at her, with a slight courteous gesture of his brown hand.
She smiled mechanically in response and shrank back into her room. Her husband had suddenly become a thing to shudder at, repulsive as a reptile, intolerable. Her life with him, without Michael, stretched before her like a loathsome disease, a leprosy, which in the interminable years would gradually eat her away, a death by inches.
The first throes of a frustrated passion at the stake have probably seldom failed to engender a fierce rebellion against the laws which light the faggots round it.
The fire had licked Fay. She fled blindfold from it, not knowing whither, only away from that pain, over any precipice, into any slough.
"I cannot live without him," she sobbed to herself. "This is not just a common love affair like other people's. It is everything, my whole life! It is not as if we were bad people! We are both upright! We always have been! We have both done our best, but—I can't go on. What is reputation worth, the world's opinion of me?—nothing."
It was not worth more to Fay at that moment than it has ever been worth to any other poor mortal since the world's opinion first clashed with love.
To follow love shows itself time and time again alike to the pure and to the worldly as the only real life, the only path. But if we disbelieve in it, and framing our lives on other lines become voluntarily bedridden into selfishness and luxury, can we—when that in which we have not believed comes to pass—can we suddenly rise and follow Love up his mountain passes? We try to rise when he calls us from our sick beds. We even go feverishly a little way with him. But unless we have learnt the beginnings of courage and self-surrender before we set out, we seem to turn giddy, and lose our footing. Certain precipices there are where only the pure and strong in heart may pass, at the foot of which are the piled bones of many passionate pilgrims.
Were Fay's delicate little bones, so subtly covered in soft white flesh, to be added to that putrefying heap? But can we blame anyone, be they who they may, placed howsoever they may be, who when first they undergo a real emotion try however feebly to rise to meet it?
Fay was not wholly wise, not wholly sincere, but she made an attempt to meet it. It was not to be expected that the attempt would be quite wise or quite sincere either. Still it was the best she could do. She would sacrifice herself for love. She would go away with Michael. No one would ever speak to her again, but she did not care.
Involuntarily she unclasped a diamond Saint-Esprit from her throat which the duke had given her, and laid it on her writing-table. She should never wear it again. She no longer had the right to wear it. It was a unique jewel. But what did she care for jewels now! They had served to pass the time in the sort of waking dream in which she had lived till Michael came. But she was awake now. She looked at herself in the glass long and fixedly. Yes, she was beautiful. How dreadful it must be for plain women when they loved! They must know that men could not really care for them. They might, of course, respect and esteem them, and wish in a lukewarm way to marry them, but they could never really love them. She, Fay, carried with her the talisman.
A horrible doubt seized her, just when she was becoming calm. Supposing Michael would not! Oh! but he would if he cared as she did. The sacrifice was all on the woman's side. No one thought much the worse of men when they did these things. And Michael was so good, so honourable that he would certainly never desert her. They would become legal husband and wife directly Andrea divorced her.
From underneath these matted commonplaces, Fay's muffled conscience strove to reach her with its weak voice.
"Stop, stop!" it said. "You will injure him. You will tie a noose round his neck. You will spoil his life. And Andrea! He has been kind in a way. And your marriage vows! And your own people at home! And Magdalen, the sister who loves you. Remember her! Stop, stop! Let Michael go. You were obliged to relinquish him once. Let him go again now."
Fay believed she went through a second conflict. Perhaps there lurked at the back of her mind the image of Michael's set face—set away from her; and that image helped her at last to say to herself, "Yes. It is right. I will let him go."
But did she really mean it? For while she said over and over again, "Yes, yes; we must part," she decided that it was necessary to see him just once again, to bid him a last farewell, to strengthen him to live without her. She could not reason it out, but she knew that it was absolutely essential to the welfare of both that they should see each other just once more before they parted—for ever. The parting no longer loomed so awful in her mind if there was to be a meeting before it took place. She almost forgot it directly her mind could find a staying point on the thought of that one last sacred interview, of all she should say, of all they would both feel.
But how to see him! He had said he would not come back. He left Rome in a few days. She should see him officially on Thursday, when he was in attendance on his chief. But what was the use of that? He would hardly exchange a word with her. She might decide to see him alone; but what if he refused to see her? Instinctively Fay knew that he would so refuse.
"We must part." Just so. But how to hold him? How to draw him to her just once more? That was the crux.
In novels if a woman needs the help of the chivalrous man ever kneeling in the background, she sends him a ring. Fay looked earnestly at her rings. But Michael might not understand if she sent him one, and if the duke intercepted it he would certainly entirely misconstrue the situation.
Fay sat down at her writing-table, and got out her note-paper. Truth compels me to state that it was of blue linen, that it had a little gilt coronet on it, and that it was scented.
She thought a long time. At least she bit the little silver owl at the end of her pen for a long time. She tore up several sheets. At last she wrote in her large, slanting, dashing handwriting:
"I know that we must part. You are right and I wish it too. It is all like a terrible dream, and what will the awakening be?" (Fay did not quite know what she meant by this, but it impressed her deeply as she wrote it, and a tear dropped on "the awakening" and made it look like "reckoning." She was not of those, however, who having once written one word ever think it can be mistaken for another; and really reckoning did quite as well as awakening.) "But I must see you once before you go. I have something of urgent importance to say to you." (It was not clear to Fay what the matter of importance was. But has not everyone in love laboured daily under a burden as big as Christian's, of subjects which demand instant discussion, or the bearer may fall into a state of melancholia? Fay was convinced as she wrote that there was something she ached to say to him: and also the point was to say something that would bring him.) "Don't fail me. You have never failed me yet. You left me before when it was right we should part. Did I try to keep you then? Did I say one word to hold you back?" (Fay's heart swelled as she wrote those words. She saw, bathed in a new light, her own courage and uprightness in the past. She realised her extraordinary strength of character. She had not faltered then.) "I did not falter then. I will not do so now, though this time is harder than the first." (It certainly was.) "You have to come to my little party on Thursday with your chief. I cannot speak to you then. I am closely watched. When the others have gone come back through the gardens. The door by the fountain will be unlocked, and come up the balcony steps to my sitting-room. The balcony window will be open. You know that I should not ask you to do this unless it was urgent. Will you fail me at the last? For we shall never meet again, Michael!"
Fay closed the note, directed it, pinned it into the lace of her inmost vest—the wife of an Italian distrusts pockets and postal arrangements—and then wept her heart out, her vain, selfish little heart, which for the first time in her life was not wholly vain, nor wholly selfish. Perhaps it was not her fault if she was cruel. It takes many steadfast years, many prayers, many acts of humble service before we may hope to reach the place where we are content to bear alone the brunt of that pang, and to guard the one we love even from ourselves.
There will no man do for your sake, I think, What I would have done for the least word said. I had wrung life dry for your lips to drink, Broken it up for your daily bread.
—A. C. SWINBURNE.
A witty bishop was once heard to remark that one of the difficulties of his social life lay in the fact that all women of forty were exactly alike, and it was impossible to recall their individual label, to which archdeacon, or canon, or form of spinster good works, they belonged. It would be dangerous, irreverent, to pry further into the recesses of the episcopal, or even of the suffragan, mind. There are snowy peaks where we lay helpers should fear to tread. But it may be stated, without laying ourselves open to a suspicion of wishing to undermine the Church, that when the woman of forty in her turn acidly announces, as she not infrequently does, that all young men seem to her exactly alike, she is in a parlous condition.
Yet many women had said that Michael was exactly like every other young man. And to all except the very few who knew him well he certainly did appear to be—not an individual at all—but only an indistinguished unit of a vast army.
His obvious good looks were like the good looks of others. He looked well bred, but to look that is as common in a certain class as it is rare in another. He had the spare, wiry figure, tall and lightly built, square in the shoulders, and thin in the flank; he had the clear weather-beaten complexion, the clean, nervous, capable hand, and the self-effacing manner, which we associate with myriads of well-born, machine-trained, perfectly groomed, expensively educated, uneducated Englishmen. Our public schools turn them out by the thousand. The "lost legion" is made up of them. The unburied bones of the pioneers of new colonies are mostly theirs. They die of thirst in "the never never country," under a tree, leaving their initials cut in its trunk; they fall by hundreds in our wars. They are born leaders where acumen and craft are not needed. Large game was made for them, and they for it. They are the vermin destroyers of the universe. They throw life from them with both hands, they play the game of life with a levity which they never showed in the business of cricket and football.
They are essentially not of the stuff of which those dull persons, the thinkers, the politicians, the educationalists, are made. No profession knows them except the army. They have no opinions worth hearing. Only the women who are to marry them listen to them. They are sometimes squeezed into Parliament and are borne with there like children. About one in a hundred of them can earn his own living, and then it is as a land agent.
They make adorable country squires, and picturesque, simple-minded, painstaking men of rank. They know by a sort of hereditary instinct how to deal with a labouring man, and a horse, and how to break in a dog. They give themselves no airs. We have millions of men like this, and it is doubtful whether the nation finds much use for them, except at coronations, where they look beautiful; or on county councils, where they can hold an opinion without the preliminary fatigue of forming it; and on the bloodstained fringes of our empire, where they serenely meet their dreadful deaths.
In the ranks of that vast army I descry Michael, and I wonder what it is in him that makes me able to descry him at all. He is like thousands of other men. In what is he unlike?
I think it must be something in his expression. Of many ugly men it has been said with truth that one never observes their ugliness. Something in the character redeems it. With Michael's undeniable good looks it was the same. One did not notice them. They were not admired, except, possibly, for the first moment, or across a room. His rather insignificant grey eyes were the only thing one remembered him by, the only part of him which seemed to represent him.
It was as if out of the narrow window of a fortress our friend for a moment looked out; that "friend of our infinite dreams" who in dreams, but, alas! never by day, comes softly to us across the white fields of youth; who, later on, in dreams but never by day, overtakes us with unbearable happiness in his hand in which to steep our exhaustion on the hillside; who when our hair is grey comes to us still in dreams but never by day, down the darkening valley, to tell us that our worn out romantic hopes are but the alphabet of his language.
Such a look there was in Michael's eyes, and what it meant who shall say? Once and again at long intervals we pass in the thoroughfare of life young faces which have the same expression, as if they saw beyond, as if they looked past their own youth across to an immortal youth, from their own life to an unquenchable, upwelling spring of life. When Michael spoke, which was little, his words verged on the commonplace. He explained the obvious with modest directness. He had thought out and made his own a small selection of platitudes. It is at first a shock to some of us when we discover that a beautiful spiritual nature is linked with a tranquil commonplace mind and narrow abilities.
When Michael's eyes rested on anything his still glance seemed to pass through it, into its essence. An inscrutable Fate had willed that his eyes should not rest on any woman save Fay.
Was her little hand to rend his illusions from him; or did he perhaps see her as she was, as her husband, her shrewd old grandmother, her sister even, had never seen her? Fay had revealed to Michael that of which many men who write glibly of passion die in ignorance, the wonder and awe of love, clothed in a woman's form, walking the earth. And in a reverent and grateful loyalty Michael would have laid down his life for her, as gladly as Dante would have done for "his lady." But Michael would have laid down his in silence, as one casts off a glove. He had never read the "New Life." It is improbable that it would have made any impression on him if he had read it. He never associated words or books or poetry with feelings. What he felt he held sacred. He was unconsciously by nature that which others of the artistic temperament consciously are in a lesser degree, and are doomed to try to express. Michael never wanted to express anything, had no impulse of self-revelation, no interest in his own mental experiences.
While Fay was turning over her little bric-a-brac assortment of feelings, her toy renunciations, her imitation convictions, Michael was slowly making the great renunciation without even taking himself into his confidence. To go away. To see her no more. This was death by inches. As he sat hour after hour in his little room behind the Embassy it seemed to him as if, by some frightful exertion of his will, he were wading with incredible slowness out to sea, over endless flats in inch-deep water, which after an interminable journey would be deep enough to drown him at last.
The nausea and horror of this slow death were upon him. Nevertheless, he meant to move towards it. And where Michael's eye was fixed there his foot followed. He was not of those who rend themselves by violent conflict. If he had ever been asked to give his reason for any action of his life, from the greatest to the smallest, he would have looked at the questioner in mild surprise, and would have said: "It was the only thing to do."
To him vacillation and doubt were unknown. A certain wisdom could never be his, for he saw no alternatives. He never balanced two courses of action against each other.
"There were no two ways about it," he said to his godfather, the Bishop of Lostford, respecting a decision where there were several alternatives, which he had endeavoured to set before Michael with impartiality. But Michael saw only one course, and took it.
And now again he only saw one course, and he meant to take it. He sickened under it, but his mind was made up. Fay's letter which duly reached him only made him suffer. It did not alter his determination to go. Certainly, he would see her again, if she desired it so intensely, and had something vitally important to tell him, though he disliked the suggestion of a clandestine meeting. Still it was Fay's suggestion, and Fay could do no wrong. But he knew that nothing she could do or say, nothing new that she could spring upon him would have power to shake his decision to leave Rome on Friday. It was the only thing to do.
L'on fait plus souvent des trahisons par faiblesse que par un dessein forme de trahir.—LA ROCHEFOUCAULD.
Fay's evening-party was a success. Her parties generally were. It was a small gathering, for as it was May but few of the residents had come down to the villas. Some of the guests had motored out from Rome. My impression is that Fay enjoyed the evening. She certainly enjoyed the brilliancy which excitement had momentarily added to her beauty.
All the time she was saying to herself, "If people only knew. What a contrast between what these people think and what I really am. Perhaps this is the last time I shall have a party here. Perhaps I shall not be here to-morrow. Perhaps Michael will insist on taking me away with him, from this death in life, this hell on earth."
What large imposing words! How well they sounded! Yes, in a way Fay was enjoying herself.
Often during the evening she saw the grave, kindly eyes of the duke upon her. Once he came up to her, and paid her a little exquisite compliment. Her disgust and hatred of him were immediately forgotten. She smiled back at him. She did not love him of course. A man like that did not know what love was. But Fay had never yet felt harshly towards any man who admired her. The husband who did not understand her watched her with something of the indulgent, protecting expression which we see on the face of the owner of an enchanting puppy, which is ready to gallop on india rubber legs after any pair of boots which appears on its low horizon.
* * * * *
The guests had ebbed away by degrees. Lord John Alington, a tall, bald, boring Englishman, and one or two others, remained behind, arranging some expedition with the duke.
Michael's chief had long since gone. Michael did not depart with him, but took his leave a few moments later. Michael's departure from Rome the following day on urgent affairs was generally known. The duke had watched him bid Fay a mechanical farewell, and had then expressed an urbane regret at his departure. The thin, pinched face of the young man appealed to the elder one. The duke had liked him from the first.
"It is time he went," he said to himself as he watched Michael leave the room. As Michael left it Fay's excitement dropped from her, and she became conscious of an enormous fatigue. A few minutes later she dragged herself up the great pictured staircase to her little boudoir overlooking the garden, and sank down exhausted on a couch. Her pretty Italian maid was waiting for her in the adjoining bedroom, and came to her, and began to unfasten her jewels.
Fay dismissed her for the night, saying she was not going to bed yet. She often stayed up late reading. She was of those who say that they have no time for reading in the day, and who like to look up (or rather, to say afterwards they looked up) to find the solemn moon peering in at them.
To-night there was no solemn or otherwise disposed moon.
Fay's heart suddenly began to beat so wildly that it seemed as if she would suffocate. What violent emotion was this which was flooding her, sweeping away all landmarks, covering, as by one great inrolling tidal wave, all the familiar country of her heart? Whither was she being swept in the midst of this overwhelming roaring torrent? Out to sea? To some swift destruction? Where? Where?
She clutched the arm of the sofa and trembled. She had known so many small emotions. What was this? And like a second wave on the top of the first a sea of recklessness broke over and engulfed her. What next? She did not know. She did not care. Michael, his face and hand. These were the only realities. In another moment she should see him, feel him, hold him, never, never let him go again.
In the intense stillness a whisper came up through the orange blossom below her balcony:
She was on the balcony in a moment. The scent of the orange blossom had become alive and confused everything.
"Come up," she said almost inaudibly.
"You must. I must speak to you."
"Come down here then. I am not coming up."
She ran down, and felt rather than saw Michael's presence at the foot of the little stair.
He was breathing hard. He did not move towards her.
"You sent for me, so I came," he said. "Tell me quickly what I can do for you, how I can serve you. I cannot remain here more than a moment. I endanger your safety as it is."
It was all so different from what she had expected, from what she had pictured to herself. He was so determined and stern; and it had never struck her as possible that he would not come up to her room, that the interview would be so short.
"I can't speak here," she said, angry tears smarting in her eyes.
"You can and must. Tell me quickly, dearest, why you sent for me. You said it was all-important. I am here, I will do your bidding, if you will only say what it is."
"Take me with you," she gasped inaudibly.
She had not meant to say that. She was merely the mouthpiece of something vast, of some blind destructive force that was rending her. She swayed against the railings, clinging to them with both hands.
Even as she spoke her voiceless whisper was drowned in a sound but very little louder. There was a distant stir, a movement as of waking bees in the house.
He had not heard her. He was listening intently.
"Go back instantly and shut the window," he said, and in a moment she felt he was gone.
She crept feebly up the stairs to her room and sank down again on the couch, broken, half dead.
"I shall see him no more. I shall see him no more," she said to herself, twisting her hands. What a travesty, what a mockery that one hurried moment had been! What a parting that was no parting! He had no heart. He did not really love her.
Through her stupor she felt rather than heard a movement in the house. She stole out of her room to the head of the grand staircase. Nearly all the lights had been put out. Close to a lamp in the saloon below, the duke and Lord John were standing, looking at a map. "The Grotta Ferrata road is the best," the duke was saying. And as he spoke a servant came in quickly, and whispered to the duke, who left the saloon with him.
Fay fled back to her own room. Something was happening. But what? Could it have any connection with herself and Michael? No, that seemed impossible. And Michael must by now have left the gardens, by the unlocked door by which he had come in.
Fay drew the reading lamp nearer to her, and opened the book of devotions which Magdalen, her far off sister in England, had sent her. Her eyes wandered over the page, her mind taking no heed.
"For it is the most pain that the soul may have, to turn from God any time by sin."
There certainly was a sort of subdued stir in the house. A nameless fear was invading Fay's heart. The book shook in her hand. What could be happening? And if it was, as it must be, something quite apart from her and Michael, what did it matter, why be afraid?
"For sin is vile, and so greatly to be hated that it may be likened to no pain which is not sin. And to me was showed no harder hell than sin."
A low tap came at the window. Fay started violently, and the book dropped on the floor.
The tap was repeated. She went to the window, and saw Michael's face through the glass.
She opened the glass door, and he came in. His clothes were smeared and torn, and there was blood upon his hand.
"Something has happened," he said. "I don't know what it is, but the garden is surrounded, and there is someone watching at the door I came in at. I have tried all the other ways. I have tried to climb the wall, but there was glass at the top. I can't get out. And they are searching the gardens with lanterns."
Even as he spoke they saw lights moving among the ilexes.
"They can't know," she said faintly.
"It does not seem possible. They are probably looking for someone else, but I can't be found here at this hour without raising suspicion. Is there any way out through the house from here?"
"Only down the grand staircase."
"I must risk it. Show me the way."
They went together down the almost dark corridor. Fay's heart sickened at the thought that a belated servant might see them. But all was quiet. At the head of the staircase they both peered over the balustrade. At its foot in a narrow circle of light stood the duke and Lord John, and a man with a tri-coloured sash. Even as they looked, the three turned and began slowly to mount the staircase.
Fay and Michael were back in her boudoir in a moment.
"There is a way out here," he said, indicating the door into her bedroom.
"It leads into my bedroom, and then through to Andrea's rooms. There is no passage, and he has a dog in his room. It would bark."
"I must go back to the garden again," he said, and instantly moved to the window. Both saw two carabinieri standing with a lantern at the foot of the balcony steps.
"If you go down now," said Fay hoarsely, "my reputation goes with you."
He looked at her.
It was as if his whole life were focussed on one burning point; how to save her from suspicion. If he could have shrivelled into ashes at her feet he would have done it. She saw her frightful predicament, and almost hated him.
The animal panic of being trapped caught them both simultaneously. He overcame it instantly, while she shook helplessly as in a palsy.
He went swiftly back to the door leading to the staircase, and glanced through it.
"They are coming along the corridor," he said. "They will certainly come in here."
"Stand behind the screen," she gasped. "I will say no one has been here, and they will pass through into the other room. As soon as they have left the room go quickly out by the staircase."
He looked round him once, and then walked behind a tall screen of Italian leather which stood at the head of a divan.
Fay took up her book from the floor, but her numb fingers refused to hold it. She put it on the edge of the table near her, under the lamp, hid her shaking hands in the folds of her long white chiffon gown, and fixed her eyes upon the page.
The words of the dead saint swam before her eyes:
"Yea, He loveth us now as well while we are here, as He shall do while we are there afore His blessed face. But for failing of love on our part, therefore is all our travail."
There were subdued footsteps outside, a tap, the duke's voice.
"May I come in?"
"Come in," she said, but she heard no words.
She made a superhuman effort.
"Come in," she said again, and this time to her relief she heard the words distinctly.
The duke entered and held the door half closed.
"I feared to disturb you, my child," he said, "but it is unavoidable that I disturb you. It is a relief to find that you are not yet in bed and asleep. A very grave, a very sad event has happened which necessitates the presence of the police commissioner. Calm yourself, my Francesca, and my good friend the delegato will explain."
The official in the sash came in. Lord John stood in the doorway.
"Duchess," said the official, "I grieve to say that one of your guests of this evening, the Marchese di Maltagliala, has been assassinated in the garden, or possibly in the road, and his dead body was dragged into the garden afterwards. He was found just inside the east garden door, which by some mischance had been left unlocked."
A deathlike silence followed the delegato's words.
Fay turned her bloodless face towards him, and her eyes never left him. She felt Michael listening behind the screen.
"There was hardly an instant," continued the official, with a touch of professional pride, "before the alarm was given. By a fortunate chance I myself happened to be near. The garden was instantly surrounded. It is being searched now. It seems hardly possible that the assassin can have escaped. I entreat your pardon for intruding this painful subject on the sensitive mind of a lady, and breaking in on your privacy."
"I should think he has escaped by now," said Fay hoarsely.
"It is possible, but improbable," said the official. Then he turned to the duke. "This is, I understand from you, the only way into the house from the garden?"
"The only way that might possibly still be open," said the duke. "The doors on the ground floor are both locked, as we have seen."
"We greatly feared," continued the duke, turning to his wife, "that the murderer if he were still in the garden, finding it was being searched, might terrify you by rushing in here."
"No one has been in here," said Fay automatically.
"Have you been in this room ever since you left the saloon?" said her husband.
"Yes. I have been reading here ever since."
"Then it is impossible that anyone should have escaped into the house through this room," said the duke. "The duchess must have seen him. It is no longer necessary to search the house."
The delegato hesitated. He opened the glass door and spoke to the men with the lantern.
"They are convinced that it is not possible he is concealed in the garden," he said. "Perhaps if the duchess were deeply engaged in study he might have serpentinely glided through into the next room without her perceiving him. It is, I understand, the duchess's private apartment. It might be as well—where does the duchess's apartment lead into?"
"Into my rooms," said the duke, "and my dog is there. He would have given the alarm long ago if any stranger had passed through my room. If he is silent no one has been near him."
There was a pause.
Fay learned what suspense means.
The delegato twirled his moustaches.
He was evidently reluctant to give up the remotest chance, and yet reluctant to inconvenience the duke further.
"It is just possible," he said, "that the assassin may have taken refuge in here before the duchess came back to her apartment. My duties are grave, duchess. Have I your permission?"
The duke, still urbane, but evidently finding the situation unduly prolonged, led the way into Fay's bedroom.
This story would never have been written if Lord John had not remained standing in the doorway.
Did Michael know he was there? He had not so far spoken, or given any sign of his presence.
"Won't you go into my room, Lord John, and help in the capture," she said distinctly; and as she spoke she was aware that she was only just in time.
But Lord John would not go in, thanks. Lord John preferred to advance heavily in her direction, and to sit down by her on the couch, telling her not to look so terrified, that he would take care of her.
She stared wildly at him, livid and helpless.
A door was softly opened, and was instantly followed by the furious barking of a dog.
"Go and help them," said Fay to Lord John.
But Lord John did not move. Like all bores he was conscious of his own attractive personality. He only settled his eyeglass more firmly in his pale eye.
"You never spoke to me all evening," he said, with jocular emphasis. "What have I done to deserve such severity?"
In another moment the duke and the official returned, followed by Sancho, a large Bridlington terrier, still bristling and snarling at the official.
Fay called the dog to her, and held it forcibly, pretending to caress it.
"No one has gone by that way," said the delegato to the duke. "The dog proves that."
"Sancho proves it," said the duke gravely.
As he spoke he paused as if suddenly arrested. His eyes were fixed on a small Florentine mirror which hung over Fay's writing-table in the angle of the wall. The duke's face changed, as a man's face might change, who, conscious of no enemy, feels himself stabbed from behind in the dark. Then he came forward, and said with a firm voice:
"We will now go once more into the gardens. Lord John, you will accompany us."
Lord John got heavily to his feet.
"Take Sancho with you," said Fay, holding the dog with difficulty, who was obviously excited and suspicious, its mobile nostrils working, its eyes glued to the screen.
The duke opened the glass door, and Sancho, his attention turned, rushed out into the night, barking furiously.
"You need have no further fear," said the duke to Fay, looking into her eyes. "The assassin has certainly escaped."
"No doubt," said Fay.
"Unless he is hiding behind the screen all the time," said Lord John, with his customary facetiousness. "It is about the only place in the room he could hide in, except of course the wastepaper basket."
The delegato, who was not apparently a man who quickly seized the humorous side of a remark, at once stepped back from the window, and glanced at the wastepaper basket.
"I may as well look behind the screen," he said, and went towards it.
But before he could reach it the screen moved, and Michael came out from behind it.
The four people in the room gazed at him spell-bound, speechless; Lord John reeled against the wall. The duke alone retained his self-possession.
Michael advanced into the middle of the room, and for a moment his eyes met Fay's. Who shall say what he read in their terror-stricken depths?
Then he turned to the duke and said:
"I ask pardon of you, duke, and of the duchess, my cousin, for the inconvenience I have caused you. I confess to the murder of the Marchese di Maltagliala, and sought refuge in the garden. When the garden was surrounded I sought refuge here. I did not tell the duchess what I had done, but I implored her to let me take shelter here, and to promise not to give me up. She ought at once to have given me up. She yielded to the dictates of humanity and suffered me to hide in this room. Duchess, I thank you for your noble, your self-sacrificing but unavailing desire to shield a guilty man."
Michael went up to her, took her cold hand and kissed it. Then he turned again to the duke.
"I offer you my apologies for this intrusion," he said, and the two men bowed to each other.
"And now, signor," he said in Italian to the amazed official, "I am at your service."
Qui sait tout souffrir peut tout oser.—VAUVENARGUES.
Michael was imprisoned for the night in a cell attached to the Court of Mandamento, and the next day was sent to Rome to await his trial at the assise.
Early on the second day after he reached Rome the duke came to him. The two men looked fixedly at each other. They exchanged no form of greeting.
The duke made a little sign with his hand, and the warder withdrew outside the cell door, which he left ajar.
Then the duke sat down by Michael.
"I should have come yesterday," he said in English, "but it took time to gain permission, and also"—he nodded towards the door—"to arrange."
"For God's sake give me details," said Michael.
The duke gave them in a low voice. He described in a careful sequence the exact position of the dead body, the wound, caused by stabbing in the back, the strong inference that the murdered man had been attacked in the road, and then dragged just inside the Colle Alto garden door.
"I don't see any reason why he should have gone outside the garden," said Michael.
"Neither do I. But the garden door was unlocked. It had been locked as usual, my gardener swears, and the key left in the lock on the inside. Who then opened it, if for some reason the marchese did not open it himself?"
Michael did not answer.
"I saw the body before it was moved," continued the duke. "It was still warm. I incline to think the marchese was murdered actually inside the garden, and that he fell on his face where he stood, and was dragged behind the hydrangeas. But the delegato thought differently. You will remember, Carstairs, that the dead man had been dragged by the feet."
"Did I put him on the right side or the left of the door as you go in?"
"On the left."
"On his face?"
There was a pause.
"You had no quarrel with the marchese, I presume?" said the duke significantly.
"On the contrary," said Michael; "it is not known, but I had."
"Just so. Just so. About a woman?"
"About a horse," he said.
"No," said the duke, with decision. "Think again. Your memory does not serve you. It was about a woman. Was it not a dancing-girl?"
"I am not like that," said Michael, colouring.
"It is of no account what you are like, or what you are not like. What matters is that which is quickly believed. A quarrel about a woman is always believed, especially by women who think all turns on them. Were you not in Paris at Easter?"
"Was not the marchese in Paris at Easter?"
"He was. I saw him once at the Opera with the old Duke of Castelfranco."
"Just so. A quarrel about a dancing-girl at Paris at Easter. That was how it was."
"You are right," said Michael, regaining his composure with an effort. "I owed him a grudge. You will be careful to mention this to no one?"
"I will mention it only to one or two women on whom I can rely," said the duke; "and to them only in the strictest confidence."
Silence fell between them, and he wondered why the duke did not go. The warder shifted his feet in the passage.
Presently the duke began to speak in a low, even voice.
"I owe you an apology," he said. "I saw you standing behind the screen, reflected in a little mirror, and for one moment I thought you had done me a great injury. It was only for a moment. I regained myself quickly. I would have saved you if I could. But I owe you an apology for a suspicion unworthy of either of us."
"It was natural," said Michael. He was greatly drawn to this man.
"I may in some matters be deceived," continued the duke, "for in my time I have deceived others, and have not been found out. I don't know why you were in my wife's rooms that night. Nevertheless, I clearly know two things: one, that you did not murder the marchese, and the other, that there was nothing wrong between you and my wife. With you her honour was safe. You and I are combining now to guard only her reputation before the world."
Michael did not answer. He nodded again.
"At the price," continued the duke, "probably of your best years."
"I am content to pay the price," said Michael. "It was the only thing to do." Then he coloured like a girl, and raised his eyes to the duke's. "I went to her that night to say good-bye," he said. "That was why the garden door was unlocked. I love her. I have loved her for years."
It seemed as if everything between the two men had become transparent.
"I know it," said the duke. "She also, the duchess, is in love with you."
Michael drew back perceptibly. His manner changed.
"A little—not much," continued the duke. "I watched her, when you gave up yourself. She could have saved you. She could save you still—by a word. But she will not speak it. She appeared to love me a little once. I was not deceived. I knew. She loves you a little now. Why do you deceive yourself, my friend? There is only one person for whom she has a permanent and deep affection—for her very charming self."
The words fell into the silence of the bare room. Michael's thin hands, tightly clenched, shook a little.
The duke bent towards him.
"Is she worth it?" he said, with sudden passion.
No answer. Michael hid his face in his hands.
"Is she worth it?" said the duke again.
Michael looked up suddenly at the duke, and the elder man winced at the expression in his face. He looked through the duke, through his veiled despair and disillusion, beyond him.
"Yes, she is worth it," he said. "You do not understand her because you only love her in part. I meant to serve her by leaving Rome, but now I can't leave it. What I can do for her I will. It is no sacrifice—I am glad to do it—to have the chance. I have always wished—to serve her—to put my hands under her feet."
The sudden radiance in Michael's face passed. He looked down embarrassed, annoyed with himself.
"There remains then but one other person to be considered," said the duke, looking closely at him. "The beautiful heroine, the young lover, these are now accommodated. All is en regle. But that dull elderly person who takes the role of husband on these occasions! Is there not a husband somewhere? What of him? Will he indeed fold his arms as on the stage? Will he indeed stand by as serenely as you suppose and suffer an innocent man to make this sacrifice for the sake of his—honour?"
"He will, only because he must," said Michael, catching his breath. "I had thought of that. He can do nothing. Have I not accused myself? And his honour is also hers. They stand and fall together."
"They stand and fall together," said the duke slowly. "Yes, that is true. And he is old. He is finished. He is the head of a great house. His honour is perhaps the only thing that still means anything to him. Nevertheless, it is strange to me that you think he would consent to keep it at so great a cost, the cost perhaps of twenty years. That were impossible.... He could not permit that. But—one little year—at most. That perhaps his conscience might permit. One little year! You are young. Supposing he has within him," he laid his hand on his heart, "that of which his wife does not know, which means that his release is sure. Do you understand? Supposing it must come soon—very soon—her release—and yours. Perhaps then——" There was a long pause. "Perhaps then his conscience might suffer him to keep silence."
Michael's hand made a slight movement. The duke took it in his, and held it firmly.
"Listen," he said at last. "Once when I was young, twenty years ago, I loved. I too would fain have served a woman, would have put my hands under her feet. There is always one such a woman in life, but only one. She was to me the world. But I could only trouble her life. She was married. She had children. I knew I ought to go. I meant to go. She prayed me to go. I promised her to go—nevertheless I stayed. And at last—inasmuch as she loved me very much—I broke up her home, her life, her honour, she was separated from her children. She lost all, and then when all was gone she died. The only thing which I could keep from her was poverty, which would have been nothing to her. She never reproached me. There is no reproach in love. But—she died in disgrace, and alone. From the first to the last it was her white hands under my feet. That was how I served the one woman I have deeply loved, the one creature who deeply loved me." The duke's voice had become almost inaudible. "You have done better than I," he said.
Then he kissed Michael on the forehead, and went out.
They never met again.
The year slid like a corpse afloat.—D. G. ROSSETTI.
And how did it fare with Fay during the days that followed Michael's arrest?
Much sympathy was felt for her. Lord John, wallowing in the delicious novelty of finding eager listeners, went about extolling her courage and unselfishness to the skies. Her conduct was considered perfectly natural and womanly. No man condemned her for trying to shield her cousin from the consequences of his crime. Women said they would have done the same, and envied her her romantic situation.
And Fay, shut up in her darkened room in her romantic situation—she who adored romantic situations—what were Fay's thoughts?
There is a travail of soul which toils with hard crying up the dark valley of decision, and brings forth in anguish the life entrusted to it. Perhaps it is the great renunciation. Perhaps it is only the loyal inevitable deed which is struggling to come forth, to be allowed to live for our healing and comfort.
But there is another travail of soul, barren, unavailing, which flings itself down, and tosses in impotent misery from side to side, from mood to mood, as in a sickly trance.
Such was Fay's.
Her decision not to speak had been made in the moment when she had let Michael accuse himself, and she kept silence. But that she did not know. She thought it was still to make.
"I must speak. I must speak," she said to herself all through the endless day after Michael's arrest, all through the endless night, until the dawn came up behind the ilexes, the tranquil dawn that knew all, and found her shuddering and wild-eyed.
"I must speak. I cannot let Michael suffer for me, even to save my reputation."
Her reputation! How little she had cared for it twenty-four hours ago, when passion clutched the reins!
But now—— The public shame of it—the divorce which in her eyes must ensue—Andrea! Her courteous, sedate, inexorable husband, whose will she could not bend, whom she could not cajole, whose mind was a closed book to her; a book which had lain by her hand for three years, which she had never had the curiosity to open!—Fay feared her husband, as we all fear what we do not understand. He would divorce her—and then—— And Magdalen at home—and——
A flood of suffocating emotion swept over her, full of ugly swimming and crawling reptiles, and invertebrate horrors, the inevitable scavengers of the sea of selfish passion.
Fay shrank back for very life. She could not pass through that flood and live. Nevertheless she felt herself pushed towards it.
"But I have no choice. I must speak. He is innocent. He is doing this to shield me because he loves me. But I also love him, far, far more than he loves me, and I will prove it."
Fay went in imagination through a fearful and melodramatic scene, in which she revealed everything before a public tribunal. She saw her husband's face darken against her, her lover's lighten as she saved him. She saw her slender figure standing alone, bearing the whole shock, serene, unshaken. The vision moved her to tears.
Was it a prophetic vision?
It was quite light now, and she crept to her husband's room. She had not seen him during the previous day. He had been out the whole of it. She felt drawn towards him by calamity, by the loneliness of her misery.
The duke was not asleep. He was lying in bed with his hands clasped behind his head. His sallow face, worn by a sleepless night, and perhaps by a wounding memory, was turned towards the light, and the new day dealt harshly with it. There were heavy lines under the eyes. The eyes looked steadily in front of him, plunged deep in a past which had something of the irrevocable tenderness of the dawn in it, the holy reflection of an inalienable love.
He did not stir as his wife came in. His eyes only moved, resting upon her for a moment, focussing her with difficulty, as if withdrawn from something at a great distance, and then they turned once more to the window.
A pale primrose light had risen above the blue tangled mist of ilexes and olives. The cypresses stood half-veiled in mist, half-sharply clear against the stainless pallor of the upper sky.
"I am so miserable, Andrea."
He did not speak.
"I cannot sleep."
Still no answer.
"I am convinced that Michael is innocent."
"It goes without saying."
"Then they can't convict him, can they?"
"They will convict him," said the duke, and for a moment he bent his eyes upon her. "Has he not accused himself?"
"They won't—hang him?"
The duke shrugged his shoulders. He did not think fit to enlighten his wife's ignorance of the fact that in Italy there is no capital punishment.
"But if he has not done it, and we know he has not," faltered Fay.
"He is perhaps shielding someone," said the duke, "the real murderer."
"I don't see how that could be."
"He may have his reasons. The real murderer is perhaps a friend—or a—woman. Your cousin is a romantic. It is always better for a romantic if he had not been born. But generally a female millstone is in readiness to tie itself round him, and cast him into the sea. The world is not fitted to him. It is to egotistic persons like you and me, my Francesca, to whom the world is most admirably adapted."
"I don't see how the murderer could be a woman. Women don't murder men on the high road."
"No, not on the high road. You are in the right. How dusty, how dirty is the high road! But I have known, not once nor twice, women to murder men very quietly. Oh! so gently and cleanly—to let them die. I am much older than you, but you will perhaps also live to see a woman do this, Francesca. And now retire to your room, and let me counsel you to take some rest. Your beauty needs it."
She burst into tears.
"How little you care!" she said between her sobs, "how heartless you are! I will never believe they will convict him. He is innocent, and his innocence will come to light."
"I think the light will not be suffered to fall upon it," said the duke.
Afterwards, years afterwards, Fay remembered that conversation with wonder that its significance had escaped her. But at the time she could see nothing, feel nothing except her own anguish.
She left her husband's room. There was no help or sympathy in him. She went back to her own room and flung herself face downwards on her bed. Let no one think she did not suffer.
A faint ray of comfort presently came to her at the thought that Michael's innocence might after all come to light. It might be proved in spite of himself.
She would pray incessantly that the real murderer might give himself up, or that suspicion should fall on him, and he should be dragged to justice. And then, if—after all—Michael were convicted and his life endangered, then she must speak. But—not till then. Not now when all might yet go well without her confession.... And it was not as if she were guilty of unfaithfulness. She had not done anything wrong beyond imprudence. Yes, she had certainly been imprudent; that she saw. But she had done nothing wrong. It could not be right to confess to what in public opinion amounted to unfaithfulness on her part, and dishonourable conduct on his, when it was not so. They were both innocent. It would be telling a lie to let anyone think either of them could be guilty of such a sordid crime. It looked sordid now. Why should she drag down his name with hers into the mud—unless it were absolutely necessary.... And she must remember how distressed Michael would be if she said a word, if she flung her good name from her, which he had risked all to save. Some semblance of calm returned to her, as she thus reached the only conclusion which the bias of her mind would permit. The stream ran docilely in the little groove cut out for it.
During the days and weeks that followed Fay shut herself up, and prayed incessantly for Michael.
She prayed all through the interminable interval before the trial.
"If it goes against him, I will speak," she said.
Yet all the time Michael who loved her knew that she would not speak. Her husband who could have loved her, and who watched her struggle with compassion, knew that she would not speak. Only Fay who did not know herself believed that she would speak.
* * * * *
The day came when the duke gravely informed her that Michael was found guilty of murder.
Fay's prayers it seemed had not availed. She prayed no more. There was no help in God. Probably there was no God to pray to. Her sister Magdalen seemed to think there was. But how could she tell? Besides, Magdalen had such a calm temperament, and nothing had ever happened to make her unhappy, or to shake her faith. It was different for Magdalen.
Evidently there was no justice anywhere, only a blind chance. "The truth will out," Fay had said to herself over and over again. She had tried to have faith. But the truth had not come out. She was being pushed, pushed over the edge of the precipice. Oh, why had Michael fallen in love with her when they were boy and girl! She remembered with horror and disgust those early days, that exquisite dawn of young passion in the time of primroses. It had brought her to this—to this horrible place of tears and shame and shuddering—to these wretched days and hideous nights. Oh, why, why, had he loved her! Why had she let herself love him!
Suddenly she said to herself, "They may reprieve him yet. If his sentence is not commuted to imprisonment I will speak, so help me God I will."
It could never be known whether she would have kept that oath, for the next day she heard that Michael had been sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment. Why had Andrea been so cruel as to let her imagine for a whole horrible night that Michael's would be a death sentence, when in Italy it seemed there was no capital punishment as in England? It was just like Andrea to torture her needlessly! When the sentence reached her Fay drew breath. The horrible catastrophe had been averted. To a man of Michael's temperament the living grave to which he was consigned was infinitely worse than death. But what was Michael's temperament to Fay? She shut her eyes to the cell of an Italian prison. Michael would live, and in time the truth would come to light, and he would be released.
She impressed this conviction with tears on his half-brother Wentworth Maine, the kind, silent elder brother, Michael's greatest friend, who had come out to Italy to be near him, and who heard sentence given against him with a set face, and an unshaken belief in his innocence. Even to Wentworth Michael had said nothing, could be induced to say no word. He confessed to the murder. That was all.
Wentworth, who had never seen Fay before, as she had married just before he came to live at his uncle's place in Hampshire near Fay's home, saw the marks of grief in her lovely face, and was unconsciously drawn towards her. He was shy as only men can be; but he almost forgot it in her sympathetic presence. She came into his isolated, secluded life at the moment when the barriers of his instinctive timidity and apathy were broken down by his first real trouble. And he was grateful to her for having done her best to save Michael.
"I shall never forget that," he said, when he came to bid her good-bye. "There are very few women who would have had the courage and unselfishness to act as you did."
Fay winced and paled, and he took his leave, bearing away with him a grave admiration for this delicate, sensitive creature, so full of tender compassion for him and Michael.
He made no attempt to see her again when he returned to Italy some months later to visit Michael in prison. To visit Fay on that occasion would have taken him somewhat out of his way, and Wentworth never went out of his way, not out of principle, but because such a course never occurred to him. He would have liked to see her, in order to tell her about Michael's condition, and also to deliver in person a message which Michael had sent to Fay by him. But when he realised that a detour would be necessary in order to accomplish this, he wrote to Fay to tell her with deep regret that it was impossible for him to see her, gave her Michael's message, and returned to England by the way he came. Nevertheless, he often thought of her, for she was inextricably associated with the unspeakable trouble of his life, his brother's living death.
When all was over, and the last sod had—so to speak—been cast upon that living grave, Fay tried to take up her life again. But she could not. She had lost heart. She dared not be alone. She shunned society. At her earnest request her sister Magdalen came out to her for a time, from the home in England, into which she was wedged so tightly. But even Magdalen's calm presence brought no calm with it, and the deepening friendship between her sister and her husband only irritated Fay. Everything irritated Fay. She was ill at ease, restless, feebly sarcastic, impatient.
There is a peace which passes understanding, and there is an unpeace which passes understanding also. Fay did not know, would not know, why she was so troubled, so weary of life, so destitute of comfort.
Had she met the great opportunity of her life, the turning point, and missed it? I do not think so. It was not for her.
* * * * *
A year later the duke died.
He made a dignified exit. An attack of vertigo to which he was liable came on when he was on horseback. He was thrown and dragged, and only survived a few days as by a miracle. His wife, who had seen little of him during the last year, saw still less of him during the days of his short illness. But when the end was close at hand he sent for her, and asked her to remain in a distant recess of his room during the painful hours.
"It will be a happier memory for you," he said gently to her between the paroxysms of suffering, "to think that you were there."
And so propped high in a great carved bedstead in the octagonal room where the Colle Altos were born, and where, when they could choose, they died, the duke lay awaiting the end.