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The Pretty Lady
by Arnold E. Bennett
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No! He did not blame her. To blame her would have been ridiculous. She was only what she was, and not worth blame. She was nothing at all. How right, how cursedly right, were the respectable dames in the accent of amused indifference which they employed for their precious phrase, "the pretty ladies"! Well, he would treat her generously—but through his lawyer.

And in the desolation, the dismay, the disillusion, the nausea which ravaged him he was unwillingly conscious of fragments of thoughts that flickered like transient flames far below in the deep mines of his being.... "You are an astounding woman, Con." ... "Do you want me to go to the bad altogether?" ... In offering him Queen had not Concepcion made the supreme double sacrifice of attempting to bring together, at the price of her own separation from both of them, the two beings to whom she was most profoundly attached? It was a marvellous deed.... Worry, volcanoes, revolutions—was he afraid of them?... Were they not the very essence of life?... A figure of nobility!... Sitting there now by the window over the river, listening to the weir.... "I shall never be any more good." ... But she never had a gesture that was not superb.... Was he really encrusted in habits? Really like men whom he knew and despised at his club?... She loved him.... And what rich, flattering love was her love compared to—!... She was young.... Tenderness.... Such were the flames of dim promise that nickered immeasurably beneath the dark devastation of his mind. He ignored them, but he could not ignore them. He extinguished them, but they were continually relighted.... A wedding?... What sort of a wedding?... Poor Carlos, pathetically buried under the ruthless happiness of others! What a shame!... Poor Carlos!

(Nice enough little cocotte, nothing else! But, of course, incurable!... He remembered all her crimes now. How she had been late in dressing for their first dinner. Her inexplicable vanishing from the supper-party, never explained, but easily explicable now, perhaps. And so on and so on.... Simpleton! Ass!)

He had walked heedless of direction. He was near Lechford House. Many of its windows were lit. The great front doors were open. A commissionaire stood on guard in front of them. To the railings was affixed a newly-painted notice: "No person will be allowed to enter these premises without a pass. To this rule there is no exception." Lechford House had been "taken over" in its entirety by a Government department that believed in the virtue of mystery and of long hours. He looked up at the higher windows. He could not distinguish the chimney amid the newly-revealed stars. He thought of Queen, the white woman. Evidently he had never understood Queen, for if Concepcion admired her she was worth admiration. Concepcion never made a mistake in assessing fundamental character.

The complete silent absorption of Lechford House into the war-machine rather dismayed him. He had seen not a word as to the affair in the newspapers—and Lechford House was one of the final strongholds of privilege! He strolled on into the quietness of the Park—of which one of the gate-keepers said to him that it would be shutting in a few minutes.

He was in solitude, and surrounded by London. He stood still, and the vast sea of war seemed to be closing over him. The war was growing, or the sense of its measureless scope was growing. It had sprung, not out of this crime or that, but out of the secret invisible roots of humanity, and it was widening to the limits of evolution itself. It transcended judgment. It defied conclusions and rendered equally impossible both hope and despair. His pride in his country was intensified as months passed; his faith in his country was not lessened. And yet, wherein was the efficacy of grim words about British tenacity? The great new Somme offensive was not succeeding in the North. Was victory possible? Was victory deserved? In his daily labour he was brought into contact with too many instances of official selfishness, folly, ignorance, stupidity, and sloth, French as well as British, not to marvel at times that the conflict had not come to an ignominious end long ago through simple lack of imagination. He knew that he himself had often failed in devotion, in rectitude, in sheer grit.

The supreme lesson of the war was its revelation of what human nature actually was. And the solace of the lesson, the hope for triumph, lay in the fact that human nature must be substantially the same throughout the world. If we were humanly imperfect, so at least was the enemy.

Perhaps the frame of society was about to collapse. Perhaps Queen, deliberately courting destruction, and being destroyed, was the symbol of society. What matter? Perhaps civilisation, by its nobility and its elements of reason, and by the favour of destiny, would be saved from disaster after frightful danger, and Concepcion was its symbol....

All he knew was that he had a heavy day's work before him on the morrow, and in relief from pain and insoluble problems he turned to face that work, thankful; thankful that (owing originally to Queen!) he had discovered in the war a task which suited his powers, which was genuinely useful, and which would only finish with the war; thankful for the prospect of meeting Concepcion at the week-end and exploring with her the marvellous provocative potentialities that now drew them together; thankful, too, that he had a balanced and sagacious mind, and could judge justly. (Yes, he was already forgetting his bitter condemnation of himself as a simpleton!)

How in his human self-sufficiency could he be expected to know that he had judged the negligible Christine unjustly? Was he divine that he could see in the figure of the wanton who peered at soldiers in the street a self-convinced mystic envoy of the most clement Virgin, an envoy passionately repentant after apostasy, bound at all costs to respond to an imagined voice long unheard, and seeking—though in vain this second time—the protege of the Virgin so that she might once more succour and assuage his affliction?

THE END

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