ANNE and her husband walked home in silence across the Park, grateful for its darkness. Majendie could well imagine that she would not want to talk. He made allowances for her repulsion; he respected it, and her silence as its sign. She had every right to her resentment. He had let her in for the Hannays, who had let her in for the spectacle of Sarah resurgent. It was an abominable encounter — so abominable that he did not want to talk about it. All the same, he would have done violence to his feelings and apologized then and there, but that he really judged it better to let well alone. It was well, he thought, that Anne was so silent. She might have bad a great deal to say, and it was kind of her not to say it, to let him off so easily.
Anne’s interpretation of his silence was not so favorable. After being exposed to the pain and insult of Lady Cayley’s presence, she had expected an immediate apology, and she inferred from its omission an unpardonable complicity. Any compliance with the public toleration of that person would have been inexcusable; and he had been more than compliant, more than tolerant. He had been solicitous, attentive, deferent. And deference to such a woman was insolence to his wife. Anne was struck dumb by the shameless levity of the proceedings. The two bad behaved as if nothing had happened, or rather (she bitterly corrected herself) as if everything had happened, and might happen any day again. (She inferred as much from his silence.) It would — it would happen. Her intentions were, to Anne’s mind, unmistakable; that was plainly what she had come back for. As to his intentions, Anne was not yet clear. She had not made up her mind that, they must be bad; but she shuddered as she said to herself that he was “weak.” He had come at that woman’s call; he had hung round her; he had waited on her at her bidding; at her bidding he had sat down beside her; he had listened to her, attracted, charmed, delighted; he had talked to her in the low voice Anne knew. How could she tell what had or had not passed between them there, what intimacies, what recognitions, what resurrections of the corrupt, ill-buried past? He had been “weak — weak — weak.” Henceforth she must reckon with his weakness, and, reckoning with it, she must keep him from that woman by any method, and at any cost. It was something that he had the grace to be ashamed of himself (another inference from his silence). No wonder, after that communion, if he was ashamed to look at his wife or speak to her.
He went straight to Edith when they reached home, and Anne went upstairs to her bedroom.
She had a great desire to be alone. She wanted to pray, as she had prayed in that room at Scarby on the morning of her discovery. Not that she felt in the least as she had felt then. She was more profoundly wounded, wounded beyond passion and beyond tears, calm and selfcontained in her vision of the inevitable, the foreordained reality. She had to get rid of her vision; it was impossible to live with it, impossible to live through another hour like the last. Her desire to pray was a terrible, urgent longing that consumed her, impatient of every minute that kept her from her prayer. She controlled it, moving slowly as she took off her outdoor clothes and put them decorously away; feeling that the force of her prayer gathered and mounted behind these minute obstructions and delays.
She knelt down by her bed. She had been used to pray there, with her eyes fixed upon the crucifix which he had given her. It hung low, almost between the pillows of their bed. Now she closed her eyes to shut it from her sight. It was then that she realized what had been done to her. With the closing of her eyes she opened some back room in her brain, a hot room, now dark, and now charged with a red light, vaporous but vivid, that ran in furious pulses, as it were the currents of her blood made visible. The room thus opened was tenanted by the revolting image of Lady Cayley. Now it loomed steadily in the dark, now it leaped quivering into the red, vaporous light. She could not see her husband, but she had a sickening sense that he was there, looming, and that his image, too, would leap into sight at some signal of her unwilling thought. She knew that that back room would remain, built up indestructibly in the fabric of her mind. By a tremendous effort of will she shut the door on it. There it must be, but wherever she looked, she would not look there; much less allow herself to dwell in the unclean place. It was not to think of that woman that she had gone down on her knees. To think of her was contamination. After all, the woman had no power over her inner life. She was not forced to think of her. She had her sanctuary and her way of escape.
But before she could get there she had to struggle against the fatigue which came of her effort not to think. Once she would have resigned herself to this physical lassitude, mistaking it for the sinking of the soul in the beatific self-surrender. But Anne’s sufferings had brought her a little farther on her path. She had come to recognize that supine state as a great danger to the spiritual life. It was not by lassitude but by concentration that the intense communion was attained. She lifted her bowed head as a sign of her exaltation.
And as she lifted it, she caught, as it were, the approach of triumphal music, and words swept by her like the passing of an immense processional: “Lift up your heads, oh ye gates, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in.” It came on, that, heavenly invasion, and all her earthly barriers went down before it. And it was as if something strong in her, something solitary and pure, had cloven its way through the mesh of the throbbing nerves, through the beating currents of the blood, through the hot red lights of the brain, and had escaped into the peaceful blank. She remained there a moment, in the place of bliss, the divine place of the self-surrendered soul, where mortal emptiness draws down immortality.
She said to herself, “I have my refuge; no one can take it from me. Nothing matters so long as I can get there.”
She rose from her knees more calm and self-contained than ever, barely conscious of her wound.
So calm and so self-contained was she at dinner that Majendie had an agreeable rebound; he supposed that she had recovered from the terrible encounter, and had put Lady Cayley out of her head, like a sensible woman. Edith had received his account of that incident with a gravity that had made him profoundly uncomfortable; and his relief was in proportion to his embarrassment. Unfortunately it gave him the appearance of complacency; and complacency in these circumstances was more than Anne could bear. Coming straight from her exaltation and communion, she was crushed by the profound, invisible difference that separated them, the perpetual loneliness of her unwedded, unsubjugated soul. They lived a whole earth and a whole heaven apart. He was untouched by the fires that burned and purified her. The tragic crises that destroyed, the spiritual moments that built her up again, passed by him unperceived. If she were to tell him how she had attained her present serenity, by what vision, by what efforts, by what sundering of body and soul, he would not understand.
And that was not the worst. She had learned not to look for that spiritual understanding in him. It mattered little that her unique suffering and unique consolation should remain alike ignored. The terrible thing was that he should have come out of his own ordeal so smiling and so unconcerned; that he could have sinned as he had sinned, and that he could meet, after seven years, in his wife’s presence, the partner of his sin (whose face was a revelation of its grossness), meet her, and not be shaken by the shame of it. It showed how lightly he held it, how low his standard was. She recalled, shuddering, the woman’s face. Nothing in the visions she had so shrunk from could compare with the violent reality. For one moment of repulsion she saw him no less gross. She wondered, would she have to reckon with that, henceforth, too ?
She looked up, and met across the table the engaging innocence that she recognized as the habitual expression of his face. He had no idea what dreadful things she was thinking of him. She put her thoughts from her, admitting that she had never had to reckon with that, yet. But it was terrible to her that, while he forced her to such thinking, he could sit there so unconscious, and so unashamed. He sat there, bright-eyed, smiling, a little flushed, playing with a light topic in a manner that suggested a conscience singularly at ease. He went on sitting there, absolutely unembarrassed, eating dessert. The eating of dinner was bad enough, it showed complacency. But dessert argued callousness. She wondered how he could have any appetite at all. Her dinner had almost choked her.
And she sat waiting for him to finish, hardly looking at him, detached, saintlike and still.
At last her stillness struck him as a little ominous. He had distinct misgivings as they turned into the study for coffee and his cigarette. Anne sat up in her chair, refusing the support and luxury of cushions, leaning a little forward with a brooding air.
“Well, Nancy,” said he, “are you going to read to me?”
(Better to read than to talk.)
“Not now,” said she. “I want to talk to you.”
He saw that it was not to be avoided. “Won’t you let me have my coffee and a cigarette first ? ”
She waited, silent, with a strained air of patience more uncomfortable than words.
“Well,” said he, lighting a second cigarette, and settling in the position that would best enable him to bear it; “out with it, and get it over.”
“I want to know,” said she, “what you are going to do.”
“To do?” he was genuinely bewildered.
“Yes, to do.”
“But about what?”
“About, that woman.”
He was so charmed with the angelic absurdity of the question that he paused while he took it in, smiling.
“I can’t see,” he said presently, “that I’m called upon to take action. Why should I?”
She drew herself up proudly.
“For my sake.”
He was instantly grave. “For your sake, dear, I would do a great deal. But” (he smiled again) “what action should I take ?”
“Is it for me to say?”
“Well, I hardly know. I should be glad, at any rate, if you’d make a suggestion. I can’t, for instance, get up and turn the lady out of her own sister’s house. Do you want me to do that ? Would you like me to — to take her away in a cab?”
There was a long silence, so awful that he forced himself to speak. “I am extremely sorry. It was, of course, outrageous that you should have had to sit in the same room with her for five minutes. But what could I do?”
“You could have taken me away.”
“I did, as soon as I got the chance.”
“Not before you had” — she paused for her phrase — “condoned her appearance.”
“ Condoned her appearance, — how ? ”
“By your whole manner to her.”
“Would you have had me uncivil?”
“There are degrees,” said she, “between incivility and marked attention.”
He colored. “Markedattention! There was nothing marked about it. What could I do? Would you, I say, have had me turn my back on the unfortunate woman ? That would have been marked attention, if you like.”
“I don’t know what I would have had you do. One has no rules beforehand for inconceivable situations. It was inconceivable that I should have met her as I did, in your friend’s house. Inconceivable that I should meet such people anywhere. What I do ask is that you will not let me be exposed in that way again.”
“That I certainly will not. The Ransomes did their best to get her out of the room to-day. They won’t annoy you. I can’t conceive why they called, — except that they have always been rather fond of me. You can’t hold people accountable for all the doings of all their relations, can you ? ”
“In this case I should say you could, — perfectly well.”
“Well, I don’t, as it happens. But you need n’t have anything to do with them, not, at least, while she’s living in their house.”
“It was in the Hannays’ house I met her. But I’m not thinking of myself.”
“I’m thinking of you, and of nothing else.”
“You need n’t,” said she, cold to his warmth. “ I can take care of myself. It’s you I’m thinking of.”
“Me? Why me?”
“Because I’m your wife and have a right to. It’s out of the question that I should call on Mrs. Hannay or receive her calls. I must also beg of you to give up going there, and to the Ransomes, and to every place where you will be brought into contact with Lady Cayley.”
He stared at her in amazement. “My dear girl, you don’t expect me to cut the Ransomes because she is n’t brute enough to turn her sister out of doors?”
“I expect you to give up going to them, and to the Hannays, as long as Lady Cayley is in Scale. Promise me.”
“I can’t promise you anything of the sort. Heaven knows how long she’s going to stay,”
“I ought not to have to explain that by countenancing her you insult me. You should see it for yourself.”
“I can’t see it. In the first place, with all due regard to you, I don’t insult you by countenancing her, as you call it. In the second place, I don’t countenance her by going into other people’s houses. If I went into her house, you might complain. She has n’t got a house, poor lady.”
She ignored his pity. “In spite of your regard for me, then, you will continue to meet her?”
“ I shan’t if I can help it. But if I must, I must. I can’t be rude to people.”
“You can be firm.”
He laughed. “What have I got to be firm about ? ”
“Not meeting her.”
“What if I do meet her? I sincerely hope I shan’t, but what if I do ?”
Her mouth trembled; her eyes filled with tears. He sprang up and leaned over her, resting his arms on the back of her chair, bringing his face close to hers, and smiling into her eyes.
“No — no — no!” She drew back her head, and shrank away from him. He put out his hand, and turned her face to him, gazing into her eyes, as if for the first time he saw and could fathom the sorrow and the fear in them.
“What if I do?” he repeated.
She tried to push his hand from her. but she could not.
“You stupid child,” he said, “do you mean to say that you’re still afraid of that ?”
“It’s you who have made me” —
“My sweetheart” —
“No, no. Don’t touch me.”
“What do you mean?” he asked gravely, still leaning over and looking down at her.
“I mean — I mean — I can’t bear it! ” she cried, gasping for breath under the obsession of his nearness.
He realized her repugnance, and removed himself.
“Do you mean,” he said, “because of her ?”
“Yes,” she said; “because of her.”
He laughed softly. “Dear child — she does n’t exist. She does n’t exist.” He swept her out of existence with a gesture of his hand. “Not for me, at any rate.”
The emphasis was lost upon her. “It’s all nonsense to talk in that way. If she does n’t exist for you, you should n’t have gone near her, you should n’t have sat talking to her.”
“What do you suppose we were talking about ?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I saw and heard enough.”
“Look here, Anne. You wanted me to be rude to her, did n’t you ? I was rude. I was brutal. She had to remind me that she was a woman. By heaven, I’d forgotten it. If you’re always to be going back on that ” —
“I’m not going back. She has come back.”
“It does n’t matter. She does n’t exist. What difference does she make?”
She rose for better delivery of what she had to say.
“She makes the whole difference. It*s not that I’m afraid of her. I don’t think I am. I believe that you love me.”
“Ah — if you believe that” — he came nearer.
“I do believe it. It’s to me that it makes the difference. I must be honest with you. It’s not that I’m afraid. It. is — I think — that I’m disgusted.”
He lowered his eyes, and moved from her uneasily.
“I was horrified enough when I first knew of it, as you know. You know, too, that I forgave you, and that I forgot. That was because I did n’t realize it. I did n’t know what it was. I could n’t, before I had seen her. Now I have seen her, and I know.”
“What do you know ?” he said coldly.
“The awfulness of it.”
“Do you ? Do you ?”
“Yes, — and if you had realized it yourself — But you don’t, and your not realizing it is what shocks me most.”
“I don’t realize it?” His smile, this time, was grim. “I should think I was in a better position for realizing it than you.”
“You don’t realize the shame, the sin of it,”
“Oh, don’t I?” He turned to her. “Look here, whatever I’ve done, it’s all over. I’ve taken my punishment, and repented in sackcloth and ashes. But you can’t go on forever repenting. It wears you out, It seems to me that, after all this time, I might be allowed to leave off the sackcloth and brush the ashes out of ray hair. I want to forget it if I can. But you are never — never — going to forget it. And you are going to make me remember it every day of my life. Is that it?”
“It is not.” She could not see herself thus hard and implacable. She had vowed that there was no duty that she would omit; and it was her duty to forgive; if possible, to forget. “Iam going to try to forget it, as I have forgotten it before. But it will be very hard, and you must be patient with me You must not remind me of it more than you can help.”
“When have I?” —
She was silent.
“When?” he insisted.
She shook her head and t urned away. A sudden impulse roused him, and he sprang after her. He grasped her wrist as she laid her hand on the door to open it. He drew her to him. “When?” he repeated. “How? Tell me.”
She paused, gazing at him. He would have kissed her, hoping thus to make his peace with her; but she broke from him.
“Ah,” she cried, “you are reminding me of it now,”
He opened the door, dumb with amazement, and turned from her as she went through.
It was a fine day, early in November, and Anne was walking along one of the broad flat avenues that lead from Scale into the country beyond. Made restless by her trouble, she had acquired this pedestrian habit lately, and Mnjendie encouraged her in it, regarding it less as a symptom than as a cure. She had flagged a little in the autumn, and he was afraid that the strain of her devotion to Edith was beginning to tell upon her health. On Saturdays and Sundays they generally walked together, and he did his best to make his companionship desirable. Anne, given now to much selfquestioning as to their relations, owned, in an access of justice, that she enjoyed these expeditions. Whatever else she had found her husband, she had never yet found him dull. But it did not occur to her, any more than it occurred to Majendie, to consider whether she herself were brilliant.
She made a point of never refusing him her society. She had persuaded herself that she went with him for his own good. If he wanted to take long walks in the country, it was her duty as his wife to accompany him. She was sustained perpetually by her consciousness of doing her duty as his wife; and she had persuaded herself also that she found her peace in it. She kept his hours for him as punctually as ever; she aimed more than ever at perfection in her household ways. He should never be able to say that there was one thing in which she had failed him.
No; she knew that neither he nor Edith, if they tried, could put their finger on any point and say : There or there she had gone wrong. Not in her understanding of him. She told herself that she understood him completely now, to her own great unhappiness. The unhappiness was the price she paid for her understanding.
She was absorbed in these reflections as she turned (in order to be at home by five o’clock), and walked t oward the town. She was waked from them by the trampling of hoofs and the cheerful tootling of a horn. A four-in-hand approached and passed her; not so furiously but that she had time to recognize Lady Cayley on the box-seat, Mr. Gorst beside her, driving, and Mr. Ransome and Mr. Hannay behind, amongst a perfect horticultural show in millinery.
Anne had no acquaintance with the manners and customs of the Scale and Beesly Four-in-hand Club, and her intuitions stopped short of recognizing Miss Gwen Richards of the Vaudeville and the others. All the same, her private arraignment of these ladies refused them whatever benefit they were entitled to from any doubt. Not that Anne wasted thought on them. In spite of her condemnation, they barely counted; they were mere attendants, accessories in the vision of sin presented by Lady Cayley.
Nothing could have been more conspicuous than her appearance, more unabashed than the proclamation of her gay approach. Mounted high, heralded by the tootling horn, her hair blown, her cheeks bright with speed, her head and throat wrapped in a rosy veil that flung two broad streamers to the wind (as it were the banners of the red dawn flying and fluttering over her), she passed, the supreme figure in the pageant of triumphal vice.
Her face was turned to Gorst’s face, his to hers. He looked more than ever brilliant, charming and charmed, laughing aloud with his companion. Hannay and Ransome raised their hats to Mrs. Majendie as they passed. Gorst was too much absorbed in Lady Cayley.
Anne shivered, chilled and sick with the resurgence of her old disgust. These were her husband’s chosen associates and comrades; they stood by one another; they were all bound up together in one degrading intimacy. His dear friend Mr. Gorst was the dear friend of Lady Cayley. He knew what she was, and thought nothing of it. Mr, Ransome, her brotherin-law, knew and thought nothing of it. As for Mr. Hannay, Walter’s other dear friend, you had only to look at the women he was with to see how much Mr. Hannay thought. There could have been nothing very profound in his supposed repudiation of Lady Cayley. If it was true that he had once paid her money to go, he was doing his best to welcome her now she had come back. But it was Gorst, with his vivid delight in Lady Cayley, who amazed her most. Anne had identified him with the man of whom Walter had once told her, the man who was “fond of Edith,” the man of whom Walter admitted that he was not “entirely straight.” And this man was always calling on Edith.
She was resolved that, if she could prevent it, he should call no more. It should not be said that she allowed her house to be open to such people. But it required some presence of mind to state her determination. Before she could speak with any authority she would have to find out all that could be known about Mr. Gorst. She would ask Fanny Eliott, who had seemed to know, and to know more than she had cared to say.
Instead of going straight home, she turned aside into Thurston Square. She had the good luck to find Fanny Eliott at home.
Fanny Eliott was rejoiced to see her. She looked at her anxiously and observed that she was thin. She spoke of her call as a “coming back;” the impression conveyed by Anne’s manner was so strikingly that of return after the pursuit of an illusion.
Anne smiled wearily, as if it had been a long step from Prior Street to Thurston Square.
“I thought,” said Mrs. Eliott, “I was never going to see you again.”
“You might have known,” said Anne.
“Oh, yes, I might have known. You ’re not going to run away at five o’clock?”
“No. I can stay a little, — if you’re free.”
Mrs. Eliott interpreted the condition as a request for privacy, and rang the bell to insure it. She knew something was coming; and it came.
“ Fanny, I want you to tell me what you know of Mr. Gorst.”
Mrs. Eliott looked exceedingly embarrassed. She avoided gossip as inconsistent with the intellectual life. And unpleasant gossip was peculiarly distasteful to her. Therefore she hesitated. “My dear, I don’t know much ” —
“ Don’t put me off like that. You know something. You must tell me.”
Mrs. Eliott reflected that Anne had no more love of scandalous histories than she had, and that, if she asked for knowledge, it must be because her need was pressing.
“My dear, I only know that Johnson won’t have him in the house.”
She spoke as if this were nothing, a mere idiosyncrasy of Johnson’s.
“ Why not ? ” said Anne. “He has very nice manners.”
“I daresay, but Johnson does n’t approve of him.” (Another eccentricity of Johnson’s.)
“And why does n’t he?”
“Well, you know, Mr. Gorst has a very unpleasant reputation. At least, he goes about with most objectionable people.”
“You mean he’s the same sort of person as Mr. Hannay?”
“I should say he was, if anything, worse.”
“You mean he’s a bad man ?”
“So bad that you won’t have him in the house ? ”
“Well, dear, you know we are particular.” (A singularity that she shared with Johnson.)
“So am I,” said Anne.
“And this,” she said to herself, “is the man whom Edie’s fond of, Walter’s dearest friend. And ray friends won’t have him in their house.”
“Charming, I believe, and delightful,” said Mrs. Eliott, “but perhaps a little dangerous on that account. And one has to draw the line. I want to know about you, dear. You ’re well, though you ’re so thin?”
“Oh, very well.”
“And happy?” (She ventured on it.)
“Could I be well if I were n’t happy? How’s Mrs. Gardner?”
The thought of happiness called up a vision of the perpetually radiant bride.
“Oh, Mrs. Gardner, she’s as happy as the day is long. Much too happy, she says, to go about paying calls.”
“I haven’t called much, have I?” said Anne, hoping that her friend would draw the suggested inference.
“No, you haven’t. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
“Why I any more than Mrs. Gardner? But I am.”
Mrs. Eliott perceived her blunder. “Well, I forgive you, as long as you’re happy.”
Anne kissed her more tenderly than usual as they said good-by, so tenderly that Mrs. Eliott wondered, “Is she ? ”
Majendie was late that afternoon, and Anne had an hour alone with Edith. She had made up her mind to speak seriously to her sister-in-law on the subject of Mr. Gorst, and she chose this admirable opportunity.
“Edith,” said she, with the abruptness of extreme embarrassment, “did you know that Lady Cayley had come back ? ”
“ Come back ? ”
“She’s here, living in Scale.”
There was a pause before Edith answered. Anne judged from the quiet of her manner that this was not the first time that she had heard of the return.
“Well, dear, after all, if she is, what does it matter ? She must live somewhere.”
“I should have thought that for her own sake it was a pity to have chosen a town where she was so well known.”
“Oh, well, that’s her own affair. I suppose she argues that most people have known the worst; and that’s always a comfort.”
“Oh, for all they appear to care” — Her face became tragic. She lost her unnatural control. “I can’t understand it. I never saw such people. She’s received as if nothing had happened.”
“By her own people. It’s decent of them not to cast her off.”
“Oh, as for decency, they don’t seem to have a shred of it. amongst them. And the Hannays are not her own people. I thought I should be safe in going there after what you told me. And it was there I met her.”
“I know. They were most distressed about it.”
“And yet they received her, too, as if nothing had happened.”
“Because nothing can happen now. They got rid of her when she was dangerous. She is n’t dangerous any more. On the contrary, I believe her great idea now is to be respectable. I suppose they’re trying to give her a lift up. You must admit it’s nice of them.”
“You think them nice?”
“I think that’s nice of them. It’s the sort of thing they do. They ’re kind people, if they’re not the most spiritual I have met.”
“You may call it kindness, I call it shocking indifference. They ’re worse than the Ransomes. I don’t believe the Ransomes know what’s decent. The Hannays know, but they don’t care. They’re all dreadful people; and their sympathy with each other is the most dreadful thing about them. They hold together, and stand up for each other, and are ‘kind’ to each other, because they all like the same low, vulgar, detestable things. That’s why Mr. Hannay married Mrs. Hannay, and Mr. Ransome married Lady Cavley’s sister. They’re all admirably suited to each other, but not, my dear Edie, to you or me.”
“They’re certainly not your sort, I admit.”
“Nor yours either.”
“No, nor mine either.” said Edith, smiling. “Poor Anne, I’m sorry we’ve let you in for them.”
“I’m not thinking only of myself. The terrible thing is that you should be let in, too.”
“Oh, me — how can they harm me ?”
“They have harmed you.”
“By keeping other people away.”
“ What people ? ”
“The nice people you should have known. You were entitled to the very best. The Eliotts and the Gardners — those are the people who should have been your friends, not the Hannays and the Ransomes; and not, believe me, darling, not Mr. Gorst.”
For a moment Edith unveiled the tragic suffering in her eyes. It passed, and left her gaze grave and lucid and serene.
“What do you know of Mr. Gorst?”
“Enough, dear, to see that he is n’t fit for you to know.”
“Poor Charlie, that’s what he’s always saying himself. I’ve known him too long, you see, not to know him now. Years and years, my dear, before I knew you.”
“It was through Mrs. Eliott that I knew you, remember.”
“Because you were determined to know me. It was through you that I knew Mrs. Eliott. Before that, she never made the smallest attempt to know me better or to show me any kindness. Why should she?”
“Well, my dear, if you kept her at arm’s length —if you let her see, for instance, that you preferred Mr. Gorst’s society to hers ” —
“Do you think I let her see it?”
“No, I don’t. And it would n’t enter her head. But, considering that she can’t receive Mr. Gorst into her own house” —
“Whv should she?”
“Edie— if she cannot, why do you ?”
Edith closed her eyes. “I’ll tell you some day. dear, but not now.”
Anne did not press her. She had not the courage to discuss Mr. Gorst with her, nor the heart to tell her that he was to be received into her house no more. She saw Edith growing tender over his very name; she felt that there would be tears and entreaties, and she was determined that no entreaties and no tears should move her to a base surrender.
Her pause was meant to banish the idea of Mr. Gorst from Edith’s mind, but it only served to fix it more securely there.
“Edith,” she said presently, “I will keep my promise.”
“Which promise?” Edith was mystified. Her mind unwillingly renounced the idea of Mr. Gorst, and the promise could not possibly refer to him.
“The promise I made to you about Walter.”
“My dear one, I never thought you would break it,”
“I never shall break it. I’ve accepted Walter once for all, and in spite of everything. But I will not accept these people you say I’ve been let in for. I will not know them. And I shall have to tell him so.”
“Why should you tell him anything ? He does n’t want you to take them to your bosom. He sees bow impossible they are.”
“Ah — if he sees that” —
“Believe me” (Edith said it wearily), “he sees everything.”
“If he does,” thought Anne, “it will be easier to convince him.”
The task was so far unpleasant to her that she was anxious to secure the first opportunity, and get it over. Her moment would come with the two hours after dinner in the study.
It did not come that evening; for Majendie telegraphed that he had been detained in town and would dine at the Club. He did not come home till Anne (who had sat up till midnight waiting for that opportunity) had gone tired to bed.
Her determination gathered strength with the delay, and when her moment came with the next evening, it came gloriously. Majendie gave himself over into her hands by bringing Gorst, of all people, back with him to dine.
The brilliant prodigal approached her with a little embarrassed, youthful air of humility and charm; the air almost of taking her into his confidence over something unfortunate and absurd. He had evidently counted on the few minutes before dinner when he would be Left alone with her. He selected a chair opposite to her, leaning forward in it at ease, his nervousness visible only in the flushed hands clasped loosely on his knees, his eves turned upon his hostess with a look of almost infantile candor. It was as if he mutely implored her to forget yesterday’s encounter, and on no account to mention in what compromising company he had been seen. His engaging smile seemed to take for granted that she was a lady of pity and understanding, who would never have the heart to give a poor prodigal away. His eyes intimated that Mrs. Majendie knew what it amounted to, that awful prodigality of his.
But Mrs. Majendie had no illusions concerning sinners with engaging smiles and beautiful manners. And with every tick of the clock he deepened the impression of his insolence and levity. His very charm, and the flush and brilliance that were part of it, went to swell the prodigal’s account. The instinct that had wakened in her knew them, the lights and colors, the heralding banners and vivid signs, all the paraphernalia of triumphant sin. She turned upon her guest the cold eyes of a condign destiny.
By the time dinner was served it had dawned on Gorst that he was looking in Mrs. Majendie for something that was not there. He might even have had some inkling of her resolution; he sat at his friend’s table so consciously on sufferance, with an oppressed, extinguished air, eating his dinner as if it choked him, like the last sad meal in a beloved house.
Majendie, too, felt himself drawn in and folded in the gloom cast by his wife’s protesting presence. The shadow of it wrapped them even after Anne had left the dining-room, as though her indignant spirit had remained behind to preserve her protest. Gorst had changed his oppression for a nervous restlessness intolerable to Majendie.
“My dear fellow,” he said, “what is the matter with you?”
“How should I know?” said Gorst, with a spurt of ill-temper. “I’m not a nerve specialist.”
Majendie looked at him attentively. “I say, you must n’t go in for nerves, you know; you can’t afford it.”
“My dear Walter, I can’t afford anything, if it comes to that.” He paused with an obscure air of injury and foreboding. “Not even, it seems, the most innocent amusements. At any rate,” he added, “I have to pay for them.” Again he brooded, while Majendie wondered at him in brotherly anxiety. “I suppose,” Gorst said suddenly, “I can go up and see Edith, can’t I?”
He spoke as if he doubted whether, in the wreck of his world, with all his “ innocent amusements,” that supreme consolation would still be open to him.
“Of course you can,” said Majendie. “It’s the best thing you can do. I told her you were coming.”
“Thanks,” said Gorst, checking the alacrity with which he rose to go to Edith.
Oh, yes, he knew it was the best thing he could do.
Edith’s voice called gladly to him as he tapped at her door. He entered noiselessly, wearing the wondering and expectant look with which a new worshiper enters a holy place. Perpetual backslidings kept poor Gorst’s worship perpetually new.
Color came slowly back into Edith’s face and a tender light, into her eyes, as if from the springing of some deep, untroubled well of life. She seemed more than ever a creature of imperial vitality, bound by some cruel enchantment to her couch. She held out her hands to him; and he raised them to his lips, and kissed her fingers lightly,
“It’s weeks since I’ve seen you,” said she.
“Months, isn’t it?” said he.
“Weeks, three weeks, by the calendar.”
“I say — tell me — I am to come and see you, just the same?”
“Just the same? Why, what’s different?”
“Oh, I don’t know. But it seems to me, when a man’s married, it’s bound to make a difference.”
Edith’s color mounted; she made an effort to control the trembling of her mouth, the soft woman’s mouth where all that was bodily in her love still lingered. But the sweetness deepened in her eyes, which were the dwelling-place of the immortal, immaterial power. They met Gorst’s eyes steadily, laying on his restlessness their peace.
“Are you going to be married, Charlie?” said she, and smiled bravely.
He laughed. “Oh, Lord, no; not I.”
“Who is, then?”
“Walter, of course. I mean he is married, don’t you know.”
“Yes, and is there any difference in him to you ?”
“In him? Oh, rather not.”
“In whom, then ?”
“Well — I don’t think, Edie, that Mrs. Walter — I like her ” — he stuck to it — “I like her, you know, she’s charming, but — I don’t think she very much likes me.”
“She does, she does like you. She told me so.”
“When she first saw you.”
“Oh, then. That’s ages ago. I know she does n’t like me now.”
“How do you know it, my dear?”
“How? How do I know anything? By the way she looks at me.”
“Oh, the way Anne looks at people!”
“Well, you know, it’s something tremendous, something terrible. Unutterable things, you know. She knocks the Inquisition and the Day of Judgment all to pieces. They’re simply not in it. It’s awfully hard lines on me, you see, because I like her.”
“I’m glad you like her.”
“Oh, I only like her because she likes you, I think.”
“And I like her. Please remember that.”
“I do remember it. I say, Edie, tell me, is she awfully devoted and all that?”
“To Walter? Yes, very devoted.”
“That’s all right, then. I don’t think I mind so much now. As long as I can come and see you just the same.”
“Of course you’ll come and see me, just the same.”
He pondered for a long time over that. Seeing Edith was the best thing he could do. To-night it seemed the only good thing left for him to do. He lived in a state of alternate excitement and fatigue, forever craving his innocent amusements, and forever tired of them. None of them were worth while. Seeing Edith was the only thing that was worth while. He refused to contemplate with any calmness a life in which it would be impossible for him to see her. If the poor prodigal had not chosen the most elevated situation for the building of his house of life, he was always making desperate efforts to leave the insalubrious spot, and return to the high and wind-swept mansions of his youth. To be with Edith was to nourish the illusion of return. Return itself seemed possible when goodness, in the person of Edith, looked at him with such tender and alluring eyes. In spirit he prostrated himself before it, while he cursed the damnable cruelty that had prevented him from marrying her. Through that act of adoration he was enabled to live through his alien and separated days. It. kept him, as he phrased it, “going;” which meant that, wherever his rebellious feet might carry him, he continued to breathe, through it, the diviner air.
And Edith had lain for ten years on her back, and every year the hours had gone more lightly, through the hope of seeing him. She had outlived her time of torment and rebellion. There was a sense in which her life, in spite of its frustration, was complete. The love through which her womanhood struggled for victory in defeat had fulfilled itself by gradual growth into something like maternal passion. There was no selfishness in her attitude to him and his devotion. By accepting it she took his best and offered it to God for him. With fragile, dedicated hands she nursed and sheltered the undying votive flame. She seemed a saint who had foregone heaven and remained on earth to help him. Her womanhood, wrapped from him in veil upon veil of her mysterious suffering, had never removed itself from him. She held him by all that was indomitable in her own nature, and in spite of his lapses he remained her lover.
She was aware of these lapses, and grieved over them,and forgave them,laying them, as she had laid her brother’s sin, to the account of her unhappy spine. In Edith’s tender fancy her spine had become responsible for all the shortcomings of these beloved persons. If Walter could have married seven years ago, there would have been no dreadful Lady Cayley; and if she could have married poor Charlie, she would not have had to think of him as “poor Charlie” now. It had been hard on him.
That was precisely what poor Charlie was thinking. And if that sister-in-law was to come between them, too, it would be harder still. But Edith insisted that she would make no difference.
“In fact,” said she, “you can come more thanever. For if Walter’s absorbed in Anne, and Anne’s absorbed in Walter” —
He took it up gayly. “Then I may be absorbed in you ? So, after all, it turns out to my advantage.”
“Yes. You can console me. You ean console me now, this minute, if you’ll play to me.”
He was always lamenting that he could do nothing for her. Playing to her was the one thing he could do, and he did it well.
He rose joyously and went to the piano, removing the dust from the keys with his handkerchief. “How will you have it? Sentimental and soporific ? Or loud and strong ? ”
“Oh, loud and strong, please. Very strong and very loud.”
“Right you are. You shall have it hot and strong, and loud enough to wake the dead.”
That was his rendering of Chopin’s Grande Polonaise. He let himself loose in it, with a rush, a vehemence, a diabolic brilliance and clamor. The quiet room shook with the sounds he wrenched out of the little humble piano in the corner. And as Edith lay and listened, her spirit, too, triumphed and was free, it rode gloriously on the storm of sound. It was, she said laughing, quite enough to wake the dead. This was the miracle that he alone could accomplish for her.
And downstairs in the study, Anne heard his music and started, as the dead may start in their sleep. It seemed to her, that Polonaise of Chopin, the most immoral music, the music of defiance and revolt. It flung abroad the prodigal’s prodigality, his insolent and iniquitous joy. That was what he, a bad man, made of an innocent thing.
Majendie’s face lit up, responsive to the delight and challenge of the opening chord. “He’s all right,” said he, “as long as he can play.”
He listened, glancing now and then at Anne with a smile of pride in his friend’s performance. It was as if he were asking her to own that there must be some good in a fellow who could play like that.
Anne was considering in what words she would intimate to him that Mr. Gorst’s music was never to be heard again in that house. Some instinct told her that she was courting danger, but the approval of her conscience urged her on. She waited till the Polonaise was over before she spoke.
“You say,” said she, “he’s all right as long as he can play like that. To me it’s the most convincing proof that he’s all wrong.”
“How do you make that out?”
“I don’t want to go into it,” said Anne. “I don’t approve of Mr. Gorst; but I should think better of him if he had only better taste.”
“You’re the first person who ever accused Gorst of bad taste.”
“Do you call it good taste to live as he does, as I know he docs, and you know he does, and yet to come here, and sit with Edie, and behave as if he’d never done anything to be ashamed of? It would be infinitely better taste if be kept away.”
“Not at all. There are a great many very nice things about Gorst, and his caring to come here is one of the nicest. He has been faithful to Edie for ten years. That sort of thing is n’t so common that one can afford to despise it.”
“Faithful to her? Poor darling, does she think he is ?”
“She doesn’t think. She knows.”
“Preserve me from such faithfulness.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I do know. And you know that I know.” In proof of her contention she offered him the incident of the four-inhand.
Majendie made a movement of impatience. “Oh, that’s nothing,” he said. “He does n’t like her. He likes driving, and she likes a front seat at any show (I can’t see her taking a back one); and if she insisted on climbing up beside him, he could n’t very well knock her off, you know. You don’t seem to realize how difficult it is to knock a woman off any seat she takes a fancy to sit on. You simply can’t do it.”
Anne was silent. She felt weak and helpless before his imperturbable levity.
He smoked placidly. “No,” he said presently. “Gorst may n’t be a saint, but. I will acquit him of an unholy passion for poor Sarah.”
Anne fired. “He may be a very bad man for all that.”
“There again, you show that you don’t know what you’re talking about. He is not a ‘very bad man.’ You’ve no discrimination in these things. You simply lump us all together as a bad lot. And so we may be, compared with the angels and the saints. But there are degrees. If Gorst is n’t as good as — as Edie, it does n’t necessarily follow that he’s bad.
“Please, — I would rather not argue the point. But I am not going to have anything to do with Mr. Gorst.”
“Of course not. You disapprove of him. There’s nothing more to be said.”
He spoke placably, as if he made allowance for her attitude while he preserved his own.
“There is a great deal more to be said, dear. And I may as well say it now. I disapprove of him so strongly that I cannot have him received in this house if I am to remain in it.”
Astonishment held him dumb.
“You have no right to expect me to,” said she.
“To expect you to remain, or what ?”
“To receive a man of Mr. Gorst’s character.”
“My dear girl, what right, have you to expect me to turn him out?”
“My right as your wife.”
“My wife has a right to ask me a great many things, but not that.”
“I ought not to have to ask you. You should have thought of it yourself. You should have had more care for my reputation.”
At this he laughed, greatly to his own annoyance and to hers.
“Your reputation? Your reputation, I assure you, is in no danger from poor Gorst.”
“Is it not? My friends — the Eliotts — will not receive him.”
“There’s no reason why they should.”
“Is there any reason why I should? Do you want me to be less fastidious than they are ? You forget that I was brought up with very fastidious people. My father would n’t have allowed me to speak to a man like Mr. Gorst. Do you want me to accept a lower standard than his, or my mother’s ? ”
“Have you considered what my standard would look like if I turned my best friend out of the house — a man I’ve known all my life — just because my wife does n’t happen to approve of him ? I know nothing about your Eliotts; but if Edie can stand him, I should think you might.”
“I,” said Anne coldly, “am not in love with him.”
He frowned, and a dull flush of anger colored the frown. “I must say, your standard is a remarkable one if it permits you to say things like that.”
“I would not have said it but for what you told me yourself.”
“What did I tell you ?”
“That Edie cared for him.”
“If I did tell you that, it was because I thought you cared for Edie.”
“I do care for her.”
“You’ve rather a strange way of showing it. I wonder if you realize how much she did care ? What it must have meant to her when she got ill ? What it meant to him ? Have you the remotest conception of the infernal hardship of it?”
“I know it was hard.”
“Forgive me; you don’t know, or you would n’t be so hard on both of them.”
“It isn’t I who am hard.”
“Isn’t it? When you’re just proposing to stop Gorst’s coming here?”
“It’s not I that’s stopping him. It’s his own conduct. He is hard on himself, and he is hard on her. There’s nobody else to blame.”
“Do you mean to say you think I’m actually going to tell him not to come any more ?”
“My dear, it’s the least you can do for me, after” —
“After letting you in for marrying me, you mean. And as I suppose poor Edie was to blame for that, it’s the least she can do for you to give him up. Is that it ? Seeing him is about the only pleasure that’s left to her, but that does n’t come into it, does it ?”
She was silent.
“Well, and what am I to think of you for all this?”
“ I cannot help what you think of me,” said she, with the stress of despair.
“Well, I don’t think anything, as it happens. But, if you were capable of understanding in the least what you’re trying to do, I should think you a hard, obstinate, cruel woman. What I’m chiefly struck with is your extreme simplicity. I suppose I must n’t be surprised at your wanting to turn Gorst out; but how you could imagine for one moment that I would do it— No, that’s beyond me.”
“I can only say I shall not receive him. If he conies into the house, I shall go out of it.”
“Well ” — said Majendie judicially, as if she had certainly hit upon a wise solution.
“If he dines here I must dine at the Eliotts.”
“Well — and you’ll like that, won’t you ? And I shall like having Gorst, and so will Edie, and Gorst will like seeing her, and everybody will be pleased.”
Overhead Mr. Gorst burst into a dance measure, so hilarious that it seemed the very cry of his delight.
“As long as Edie goes on seeing him, he’ll think it’s all right.”
Overhead Mr. Gorst’s gay tune proclaimed that indeed he thought so. He broke off suddenly, and began another and a better one, till the spirit of levity ran riot in immortal sounds.
“So it is all right. She’s a good woman. It’s the only hold we’ve got on him.”
“If all good women were to reason that way” —
“If all good women were to reason your way, what, do you think would happen ? ”
“There would be more good men in the world.”
“Would there ? There would be more good men ruined by bad women. Because, don’t you see, there’d be no others left for them to speak to.”
“If you’re thinking of his good” —
“Have you thought of hers?”
“Yes. Supposing he ends by marrying somebody else, what will she do then ? — Poor Edie!”
“If the somebody else is a good woman, poor Edie will fold her dear little hands, and offer up a dear little prayer of thankfulness to Heaven.”
Upstairs the music ceased. The prodigal’s footsteps were heard crossing the room, and coming to a halt by Edie’s couch.
Majendie rose, placid and benignant.
“I think,” said he, “it’s time for you to go to bed.”
Majendie could never be angry with any woman for more than five minutes. And this time he understood his wife better than she knew. He had seen, as Edith had said, “everything.”
But Anne was convinced that he never would see. She said to herself, ‘' He thinks me hard, and obstinate, and cruel.”
She crept into bed in misery that suggested a defeated thing. The outward eye would never have perceived that the pale woman quivering under the eiderdown was inspired with an indomitable purpose, the salvation of a weak man from his weakness. To be sure, she had been worsted in her encounter by something that conveyed the illusion of superior moral force. But that there was any strength in her husband that could be described as moral Anne would not have admitted for a moment. She believed herself to be crushed, grossly, by the superior weight of moral deadness that he carried.
It was, it always had been, his placidity that caused her most despair. But whereas, at the time of their first rupture, it had made him utterly impenetrable, she now took it simply as one more sign of his inability to understand her. She argued that he would never have remained so calm if he had realized the sincerity of her determination to repudiate Mr. Gorst. Of course she did n’t expect him to appreciate the force and the fine quality of her feeling. Still, he might at least have known that, if she had found it hard to pardon her own husband his lapses in the past, she would not be likely to accept a recent and notorious evil-doer.
She tried to forget that in this she herself had been wounded as a woman and a wife. It was the offense to Heaven that she minded, rather than her own mere human hurt. Still, he had asked her to share his house and the sad burden of it (her thought touched gently on the sadness and the burden); and it was the least he could do to keep it undefiled by such presences. He ought, to have known what was due to the woman he had married. If he did not, she said to herself sorsowfully, he must learn.
She never doubted that he would learn completely when he was once persuaded that she had meant what she had said; when he saw that he was driving her out of the house by inviting Mr. Gorst into it. To her the question was of supreme importance. Whatever happiness was now left to them must stand or fall by the expulsion of the prodigal.
If she had examined herself, Anne would have found that she hardly knew which she wished for more: that Majendie would at once surrender to her view and leave off inviting Gorst, or that he would Invite him at once, and thus give her an occasion for her protest. That he was peaceable and disinclined to fight she gathered from the fact that he had not invited him at once.
At last, one morning, he looked up quietly from his breakfast, and remarked that he had invited Gorst (he laid a slightly irritating stress upon the name), to dinner on Friday.
The day was Thursday.
“And is he coming?” said Anne.
“He is,” said Majendie.
When Friday came, Anne remarked at breakfast that she was going to dine with Mrs. Eliott.
“I thought you would,” said Majendie.
She had hoped that he would think she would n’t.
They dined at seven o’clock in Thurston Square, and at half-past seven in Prior Street, so she would be well out of the house before Gorst came into it. It was raining heavily. But Anne looked upon the rain as her ally. Walter would be ashamed to think he had driven her out in such weather.
He insisted on accompanying her to the Eliotts’ door.
“Not a nice evening for turning out,” said he, as he opened his umbrella and held it over her.
“Not at all,” said she significantly.
At ten o’clock he came to fetch her in a cab.
Now the cab, the escort, and the sheltering umbella somewhat diminished the grievance of her enforced withdrawal from her home. And Majendie’s manner did still more to take the wind out of the proud sails of her tragic adventure. But Anne herself was a sufficiently pathetic figure as she appeared under his umbrella, descending from the Eliotts’ doorstep, with delicate slippered feet, gathering her skirts high from the bounding rain, and carrying in her hands the boots she had not waited to put on.
Majendie uttered the little tendermoan with which he was used to greet a pathetic spectacle,
“He sounds,” said Anne to herself, “as if he were sorry.”
He looked it, too; he seemed the very spirit of contrition, as he sat in the cab, with Anne’s boots on his knees, guarding them with a caressing hand. But she detected an impenitent brilliance in his eye, as he stood in the lamplight and helped her off with the mackintosh, which dripped with its passage from the cab to their doorstep.
“I think my feet are wet,” said she.
“There’s a splendid fire in the study,” said he.
He drew up a chair, and made her sit in it, and took off her shoes and stockings, and dried them at the fire. He held her cold feet in his hands to ’warm them. Then he stooped down and laid his face against them and kissed them. And she heard again his low, tender moan, and took it for a cry of contrition. He rose from his knees and laid his hand on her shoulder. She looked up, prepared to receive his chivalrous submission, to gather into her bosom the full harvest of her protest, and then magnanimously forgive.
It was not surrender, certainly not surrender, that she saw in the downward gaze that had drawn her to him. His eyes were dancing, dancing gayly, to some irresistible measure in his head,
“It was worth while, was n’t it ?” said he.
“Was what worth while?”
“Getting your feet wet, for the pleasure of not dining with Gorst?”
There were moments, Anne might have owned, when he did not fail in sympathy and comprehension. Had she been capable of self-criticism, she would have found that her attitude of protest was a moral luxury, and that moral luxuries were a necessity to natures such as hers. But Anne had a secret cherishing eye on martyrdom, and it was intolerable to her to be reminded in this way that, after all, she was only a spiritual voluptuary.
Still more intolerable was the large indulgence of her husband’s manner. He seemed positively to pander to her curious passion, while preserving an attitude of superior purity. He multiplied her opportunities. A week had hardly passed before Mr. Gorst dined in Prior Street again, and Anne again took refuge in Thurston Square,
This time Majendie made no comment on her action. He seemed to take it for granted.
But Anne, standing up heroically for her principle, was sustained by a sense of moving in a divine combat. Every time she dined in Thurston Square she felt that she had thrown down her gage; every time that Majendie invited Gorst she felt that he stooped to pick it up. Thus unconsciously she breathed hostility, and was suspicious of hostility in him.
When she announced at breakfast one Monday that she had asked the Eliotts, the Gardners, Canon Wharton, and Miss Proctor, for dinner on Wednesday, she uttered each name as if it had been a challenge, and looked for some irritating manœuvre in response. He would, of course, proclaim that he was going to dine with the Hannays, or he would effect a retreat to Mr. Gorst,‘s rooms or his club.
But Majendie lacked her passion and her inspiration. He simply said he was delighted to hear it, and that he would make a point of being at home. He would have to give up an engagement which he would not have made if he had known. But that did not greatly matter.
They came, the Eliotts and the rest, and Miss Proctor again pronounced him charming. To be sure, he was not. half so amusing as he had been on his first appearance in Thurston Square; but it was only becoming that he should repress himself a little at his own table and in the presence of the Canon. The Canon was brilliant, if you like.
For that night the Canon was, as usual, all things to all men, and especially to all women. He was the man of the world for Miss Proctor; the fine epicure of books for Mrs. Eliott; for Mr. Eliott and Dr. Gardner the broad-minded searcher and enthusiast, the humble camp-follower of the conquering sciences. “ You are the pioneers,” said he; “you go before us on the march. But we keep up, we keep up. We can step out — cassock and all.”
But he spread out all his spiritual lures for Mrs. Majendie. His eyes seemed more than ever to pursue her, to search her, to be gazing discreetly at the secret of her soul. They drew her with the clear and candid flattery of their understanding. She could feel the clever little Canon taking her in and making notes on her, “Sensitive. Unhappy. Intensely spiritual nature. Too fine and pure for him,'” And over the unhallowed, half-abandoned table, flushed slightly with Majendie’s good wine, the Canon drew up his chair to his host, and stretched his little legs, and let his spirit expand in a rosy, broad humanity. As he had charmed the spiritual woman he saw in Anne, so he laid himself out to flatter the natural man he saw in Majendie. And Majendie leaned back in his chair, and gazed at the Canon, the remarkable, the clever, the versatile little Canon, with half-closed eyelids veiling his contemptuous eyes. (He confided to Hannay, later on, that the Canon, in his after-dinner moments, made him sick.)
Anne heard nothing more of Mr. Gorst for over a fortnight. It was on a Saturday, and Majendie asked her suddenly during luncheon if she thought the Eliotts would be disengaged that evening.
“Because I’ve asked Gorst” (again that disagreeable emphasis) “to dine tonight.”
“Very well. I will ask Mrs. Eliott if she can have me.”
“Can you ?”
“Oh, — and I must prepare you for something quite horrible. Some time, you know ” (he smiled provokingly), “I shall have to ask the Hannays. Do you think you can arrange for that?”
“I shall have to,” said she.
This time (it was the third) she was obliged to take Mrs. Eliott into her confidence. She fairly flung herself on her friend’s mercy.
“I feel as if I were making use of you,” said she.
“My dear, make any use of me you please. I’m always here. You can come to me any time you want to escape.”
“To escape ? ” Anne’s face flew a color that was a flag of defiance to any reflection on her husband. She would be loyal to him as long as she lived. Not one of her friends should know of her trouble and her fear.
“From your Gorsts and Hannays and people.”
“Oh, from them.” Anne felt that she was shielding him.
Mrs. Eliott marked the flag of defiance and the attitude of defense. If Anne had meant to “give him away,” she could not have given him more lavishly. Mrs. Eliott’s sad inward comment was that there was more in all this than met the eye.
And Anne’s life now continued on this rather uncomfortable footing. The Hannays came to dinner, and she dined with Mrs. Eliott. The Ransomes came, and she dined with Mrs. Eliott. Mr. Gorst came (for the fourth time in as many weeks) and she dined with Mrs. Eliott. She began to wonder whether the Eliotts’ hospitality would stand the strain. She also wondered whether her other friends in Thurston Square were wondering, and what Canon Wharton must think of it. It had not occurred to her to wonder what Mr. Gorst would think.
At first he thought nothing of it. When he found that he had not to encounter the terrible eyes of Mrs. Majendie, Mr. Gorst.’s relief was so great that it robbed him of reflection. And when he began to think, he merely thought that Majendie had asked him because his wife was absent, rather than that Majendie’s wife was absent because he had been asked. Majendie had calculated on this. He was not in the least distressed by Anne’s absences. He believed that she was thoroughly enjoying both her own protest and Mrs. Eliott’s society. And the arrangement really solved the problem nicely. Otherwise the whole thing was trivial to him. He remained unaware of the tremendous spiritual conflict that was being waged round the person of the unhappy Gorst.
But Christmas was now at hand, and Christmas brought the problem back again in a terrific form. For ten years poor Gorst had dined with his friends in Prior Street on Christmas day. His presence was considered by Edith to borrow a peculiar significance and sanctity from the festival. Did they not celebrate on that day the birth of the Divine Humanity, the solemn advent of redeeming love ? Punctually on Christmas Day the prodigal returned from his farthest wanderings, and made for Prior Street as for his home. He had never missed a Christmas. And how could they expel him now ? His coming was such a sacred and established thing that he had spoken of it to Edith as a certainty. And it was as a certainty that Edith spoke of it to Majendie.
She asked him how they were to break the news to Anne.
“Better not break it at all,” said he. “Just let him come.”
“If he does,” said Edith, “she’ll walk straight out of the house.”
“Oh, no, she won’t.”
“Yes, she will. On principle. I understand her.”
“I confess I don’t.”
“But I believe,” said she, “if you explain it all to her, she’d give in for once.”
Rather against his judgment he endeavored to explain.
“We simply can’t not ask him, you know.”
“Ask him by all means. But I shall have to put myself on the Gardners, or the Proctors, for the Eliotts are away.
“Don’t be absurd. You know you won’t be allowed to do anything of the sort.”
“There’s nothing else left for me to do.”
He looked at her gravely; but his speech was light, for it was not in him to he weighty. “Don’t you think that, at this holy season, for the sake of peace, and good-will, and all the rest of it, you might drop it just for once ? And let the poor chap have a happy Christmas?”
She seemed to be considering it. “You think me very hard,” said she.
“Oh, no, no, not hard.” But he was wondering, for the first time, what this wife of his was made of.
“Yes, hard. I don’t want you to think me hard. If you could understand why I cannot meet, that man — what it means to me — the effect it has on me.”
“What,” he said, “is the precise effect?” He was really interested. He always had been curious to know how different men affected different women, and to get his knowledge at first hand.
“It’s the effect,” said she, “of being brought into contact with something terribly painful and repulsive, the effect of intense suffering, — of unbearable disgust.” .
He listened with his thoughtful, interested air. “I know. The effect that your friend Canon Wharton sometimes has on me.”
“I see no resemblance between Canon Wharton and your friend Mr. Gorst.”
“And I see no resemblance between my friend Mr. Gorst and Canon Wharton.”
She was silent, gathering all her strength to deliver her spirit’s last appeal.
“Dear,” said she (for she wished to be very gentle with him, since he thought her hard), “dear, I wonder if you ever realize what the thing we call — purity — is ? ”
He blushed violently.
“I only know it’s one of those things one does n’t speak about.”
“I must speak,” said she.
“You need n’t,” he said curtly; “I understand all right.”
“If you did you would n’t ask me. All the same, Walter”—she lifted to him the set face of a saint surrendered to the torture— “if you compel me” —
“Compel you? I can’t compel you. Especially if you’re going to look like that.”
“It’s no use,” he said to Edith. “First, she talks of dining with the Gardners ” —
“She will, too” —
“No. She’ll stay, — if I compel her.”
“Oh, I see. That’s worse. She’d let him see it. He would n’t enjoy his Christmas if he came.”
“No, poor fellow, I really don’t think he would. She’s awfully funny about him.”
“You still think her funny?”
“My dear, — it’s the only way to take her. I’m sorry, but I can’t let Charlie spoil her Christmas; nor,” he added, “she his.”
So Mr. Gorst did not come to Prior Street that Christmas. There came instead of him whole sheaves and stacks of flowers, Christmas roses and white lilies, the flowers which,at that festival,the poor prodigal brought as his tribute to his adored and beloved lady.
He spent the greater part of his Christmas Day in the society of Mr. Dick Bansome, and the greater part of his Christmas Night in the society of pretty Maggie Forrest, the new girl in Evans’s shop who had sold him the Christmas roses and the lilies. “For,” said he, “if I can’t go and see Edie, I’ll go and see Maggie,” And he enjoyed seeing Maggie as much as it was possible to enjoy anything that was not seeing Edie.
And Edie lay among her Christmas roses and her lilies, and smiled with a high courage, at Nanna, at Majendie and Anne; and did her best to make every one believe that she was having a very happy Christmas. But at night, when it was all over, Majendie held a tremulous and tearful Edie in his arms.
“Don’t think me a brute, darling,” he said. “I would have insisted, only, —if he’d come to-day he’d have found out he was n’t wanted.”
“I know; and he never would have come again.”
He did not come. For Canon Wharton enlightened Mrs. Hannay, and Mrs. Hannay enlightened Mr. Hannay, and Mr. Hannay enlightened Mr. Gorst.
“Of course,” said the prodigal, “if she walks out of the house when I walk into it, I can’t very well go.”
“ Well, not at present, perhaps, for the sake of peace,” said Hannay; “but it strikes me that poor Majendie’s in a pretty tight place with that wife of his.”
So, for the sake of peace, Mr. Gorst kept away from Prior Street and his Edie, and spent a great deal of his time in Evans’s shop, cultivating the acquaintance of Miss Forrest.
And, for the sake of peace, Majendie kept silence, and his sister concealed her trembling and her tears.
(To be continued.)
- Copyright, 1906, by MAY SINCLAIR.↩