MAJENDIE owned to a pang of shame as he turned from Maggie’s door. In justice to Gorst it could not be said that he had betrayed the passionate, perverted creature. And yet there was a sense in which Maggie’s betrayal cried to heaven, like the destruction of an innocent. Majendie’s finer instinct had surrendered to the charm of her appealing and astounding purity, by which he meant her cleanness from the mercenary taint. He had seen himself contending, grossly, with a fierce little vulgar schemer, who (he had been convinced) would hang on to poor Gorst’s honor by fingers of a murderous tenacity. His own experience helped him to the vision. And Maggie had come to him, helpless as an injured child, and feverish from her hurt. He had asked her what she had wanted with Gorst, and it seemed that what Maggie wanted was “to help him.”
He said to himself that he would n’t be in Gorst’s place for a good deal, to have that on his conscience.
As it happened, the prodigal’s conscience was by no means easy. He called in Prior Street that evening to learn the result of his friend’s intervention. He submitted humbly to Majendie’s judgment of his conduct. He agreed that he had been a brute to Maggie, that he might certainly do worse than marry her, and that his best reason for not marrying her was his knowledge that Maggie was ten times too good for him. He was only disposed to be critical of his friend’s diplomacy when he learned that Majendie had not succeeded in persuading Maggie to marry Mr. Mumford. But, in the end, he allowed himself to be convinced of the futility, not to say the indecency, of pressing Mr. Mumford upon the girl at the moment of her fine renunciation. He admitted that he had known all along that Maggie had her own high innocence. And when he realized the extent to which Majendie had “got him out of it,” his conscience was shaken by a salutary shock of shame.
But it was to Edith that he presented the perfection of his penitence. From his stillness and abasement she gathered that, this time, her prodigal had fallen far. That night, before his departure, he confirmed her sad suspicion.
“It’s awfully good of you,” he said stiffly, “to let me come again.”
“Good of me ? Charlie! ” Her eyes and voice reproached him for this strained formality.
“ Yes. Mrs. Majendie’s perfectly right, I’ve justified her bad opinion of me.”
“I don’t know that you’ve justified it. I don’t know what you’ve done. No more does she, my dear. And you did n’t think, did you, that Walter and I were going to give you up ? ”
“I’d have forgiven you if you had.”
“I couldn’t have forgiven myself, or Walter.”
“Oh, Walter — If it had n’t been for him I should have gone to pieces this time. He’s pulled me out of the tightest place I ever was in.”
“I’m sure he was very glad to do it.”
“I wish to goodness I could do the same for him.”
“Why do you say that, Charlie?”
The prodigal became visibly embarrassed. He seemed to be considering the propriety of a perfect frankness.
“I say, you don’t mind my asking, do you ? Has anything gone wrong with him and Mrs. Majendie?”
“What makes you think so?”
“Well, you see, I’ve got a sort of notion that she does n’t understand him. She’s never realized in the least the stuff he’s made of. He’s the finest man I know on God’s earth, and somehow, it strikes me that she does n’t see it.”
“Not always, I’m afraid.”
“Well — see here — you’ll tell her, won’t you, what he’s done for me ? That ought to open her eyes a bit. You can give me away as much as ever you like, if you want to rub it in. Only tell her that I’ve chucked it — chucked it for good. He’s made me loathe myself. Tell her I’m not as bad as she thinks I am, but that I probably would be if it had n’t been for him. And for you, Edie, only I’m going to leave you out of it.”
“You certainly may.”
“It’s because she knows all that already; and the point is to get her to appreciate him.”
Edith smiled. “I see. And I’m to make what I like of you, if I can only get her to appreciate him ? ”
“Yes. Tell her that, as far as I’m concerned, I respect her attitude profoundly.”
“Very well. I’ll tell her just what you’ve told me.”
She spoke of it the next day, when Anne came to read to her in the afternoon. Anne was as punctual as ever in her devotion, but the passion of it had been transferred to Peggy. The child was with them, playing feebly at her mother’s knee, and Anne’s mood was propitious. She listened intently. It was the first time that she had brought any sympathy into a discussion of the prodigal.
“Did he tell you,” said she, “what Walter did for him ? ”
“Nor what had happened?”
“No. I did n’t like to ask him. Whatever it was, it has gone very deep with him. Something has made a tremendous difference.”
“Has it made him change his ways ?”
“I believe it has. You see, Nancy, that’s what Walter was trying for. He always had that sort of hold on him. That was why he was so anxious not to have him turned away.”
Anne’s face was about to harden, when Peggy gave the sad little cry that brought her mother’s arms about her. Peggy had been trying vainly to climb into Anne’s lap. She was now lifted up and held there while her feet trampled the broad maternal knees, and her hands played with Anne’s face; stroking and caressing; smoothing her tragic brow to tenderness; tracing with soft, attentive fingers the line of her small, close mouth, until it smiled.
Anne seized the little hands and kissed them. “My lamb,” she said, “what are you doing to your poor mother’s face ? ” She did not see, as Edith saw, that Peggy, a consummate little sculptor, was moulding her mother’s face into the face of love.
“I should never have dreamed,” said Anne, “of turning him away, if I had thought he was really going to reform. Besides, I was afraid he would be bad for Walter.”
“It didn’t strike you that Walter might be good for him?”
“It struck me that I had to be strong for Walter.”
“Ah, Walter can be strong for all of us.”
She paused on that, to let it sink in. Anne’s face was thoughtful.
“Anne, if you believed that all I’ve said to you was true, would you still object to having Charlie here?”
“Certainly not. I would be the first to welcome him.”
“Then, will you write to him of your own accord, and tell him that, if what I Ve told you is true, you ’ll be glad to see him ? He knows why you could n’t receive him before, dear, and he respects you for it.”
Anne thought better of Mr. Gorst for that respect. It was the proper attitude; the attitude she had once vainly expected Majendie to take.
“After all, what have I to do with it ? He comes to see you.”
“Yes, dear; but I shan’t always be here for him to see. And if I thought that you would help Walter to look after him — Will you ?”
“I will do what I can. My little one!”
Anne bowed her head over the soft forehead of her little one. She had a glad and solemn vision of herself as the protector of the penitent. It was in keeping with all the sanctities and pieties she cherished. She had not forgotten that Canon Wharton (a saint if ever there was one) had enjoined on her the utmost charity to Mr. Gorst, should he turn from his iniquity.
She was better able to admit the likelihood of that repentance because Mr. Gorst had never stood in any close relation to her. His iniquity had not profoundly affected her. But she found it impossible to realize that Majendie’s influence could count for anything in his redemption. Where her husband was concerned Anne’s mind was made up, and it refused to acknowledge so fine a merit in so gross a man. She was by this time comfortably fixed in her attitude, and any shock to it caused her positive uneasiness. Her attitude was sacred; it had become one of the pillars of her spiritual life. She was constrained to look for justification lest she should put herself wrong with God.
She considered that she had found it in Majendie’s habits, his silences, his moods, the facility of his decline upon the Hannays and the Ransomes. He was determined to deteriorate, to sink to their level.
To-night, when he remarked tentatively that he thought he would dine at the Hannays, she made an effort to stop him.
“Must you go?” said she. “You are always dining with them.”
“Why? — Do you mind?” said he.
“Well — when it’s night after night — ”
“Is it that you mind my dining with the Hannays, or my leaving you?”
“I mind both.”
‘ ‘ Oh — if I’d thought you wanted me to stay —”
She made no answer, but rose and led the way to the dining-room.
He followed. Her arm had touched him as she passed him in the doorway, and his heart beat thickly, as he realized the strength of her dominion over him. She had only to say “Stay,” and he stayed; or “Come,” and she could always draw him to her. He had never turned away. His very mind was faithful to her. It had not even conceived, and it would have had difficulty in grasping, the idea of happiness without her.
To-night he was profoundly moved by this intimation of his wife’s desire to have him with her. His surprise and satisfaction made him curiously shy. He sat through two courses without speaking, without lifting his eyes from his plate; brooding over their separation. He was wondering whether, after all, it had been so inevitable; whether he had misunderstood her; whether, if he had had the sense to understand, he might not have kept her. It was possible she had been wounded by his absences. He had never explained them. He could not tell her that she had made him afraid to be alone with her.
The situation, which he had accepted so obediently, had been more than a mere mortal man could endure. Especially in the terrible five minutes after dinner, before they settled for the evening, when each sat waiting to see if the other had anything to say. Sometimes Majendie would take up his book and Anne her work. She would sew, and sew, patient, persistent, in her tragic silence. And when he could bear it no longer, he would put down his book and go quietly away, to relieve the intolerable constraint that held her. Sometimes it was Anne who read, while he smoked and brooded. Then, in the warm, consenting stillness of the summer evenings (they were now in June), her presence seemed to fill the room; he was possessed by the sense of it; by the sound of her breathing; by the stirring of her body in the chair, or of her fingers on the pages of her book; and he would get up suddenly and leave her, dragging his passion from the sight of her.
As he considered these things, many perplexities, many tendernesses, stirred in him and kept him still.
Anne watched him from the other end of the table, and her thoughts debased him. He seemed to her disagreeably incommunicative, and she had found an ignoble explanation of his mood. There had been too much salt in the soup, and now there was something wrong with the salmon. He had not responded to her apology for these accidents, and she supposed that they had been enough to spoil his evening with her.
She had come to consider him a creature grossly wedded to material things.
“It’s a pity you stayed,” said she. “Mrs. Hannay would have given you a better dinner.”
He had nothing to say to so preposterous a charge. His eyes were fixed more than ever on his plate. She saw his face flush as he bowed his head in eating; she allowed her fancy to rest in its morbid abhorrence of the act, and in its suspicion of his grossness. She went on, lashed by her fancy. “I cannot understand your liking to go there so much, when you might go to the Eliotts or the Gardners. They’re always asking you, and you have n’t been near them for a year.”
“Well, you see, the Hannays let me do what I like. They don’t bother me.”
“Do the Eliotts bother you ?”
“They bore me. Horribly.”
“And the Gardners?”
“Sometimes — a little.”
“And Canon Wharton ? No. I need n’t ask.”
He laughed. “You need n’t. He bores me to extinction.”
“I’m sorry it is my friends who are so unfortunate.”
“It’s your husband who’s unfortunate. He is not an intellectual person. Nor a spiritual one, either, I’m afraid.”
He looked up. Anne had finished her morsel, and her fingers played irritably with the handbell at her side. Poor Majendie’s abstraction had combined with his appetite to make him deplorably slow over his dinner. She still sat watching him, pure from appetite, in resignation that veiled her contempt of the male hunger so incomprehensibly prolonged. He had come to dread more than anything those attentive, sacrificial eyes.
“I’m awfully sorry,” he said, “to keep you waiting.”
She rang the bell. “Will you have the lamp lit in the drawing-room or the study ?”
He looked at her. There was no lamp for him in her eyes.
“Whichever you like. I think I shall go over to the Hannays’, after all.”
He went; and by the lamp in the drawing-room, Anne sat and brooded in her turn.
She said to herself: “It’s no use my trying to keep him from them. It only irritates him. He lets me see plainly that he prefers their society to mine. I don’t wonder. They can flatter him and kowtow to him, and I cannot. He can be a little god to them; and he must know what he is to me. We have n’t a thought in common, — not a feeling, — and he cannot bear to feel himself inferior. As for me — if I’ve married beneath me, I must pay the penalty.”
But there was no penalty for her in these reflections. They satisfied her. They were part of the curious mental process by which she justified herself.
UP to that moment when he had looked, across the dinner-table, at Anne, Majendie had felt secure in the bonds of his marriage. Anne’s repugnance had broken the natural tie; but up to that moment he had never doubted that the immaterial link still held. If at times her presence was a bodily torment, at other times he felt it as a spiritual protection. His immense charity made allowance for all the extraordinary attitudes of Anne. In his imagination they reduced themselves to one, the attitude of inscrutable physical repugnance. He had accepted (as he had told himself so often) the situation he had created. It appeared to him, of all situations, the crudest and most simple. It had its merciful limits. The discomfort of it, once vague, had grown, to his thwarted senses, almost brutally defined. He could at least say, “It was here the trouble began, and here, therefore, it shall end.”
He thought he had sounded the depths of her repugnance, and could measure by it his own misery. He said, “At any rate I know where I am;” and he believed that if he stayed where he was, if he respected his wife’s prejudices, her prejudices would be bound to respect him. He could not make her love him, but at least he considered that he had justified his claim to her respect.
And now she had opened his eyes, and he had looked at her, and seen things that had not (till that moment) come into his vision of their separation. He saw subtler hostilities, incurable, indestructible repugnances, attitudes at which his charity stood aghast. The situation (so far from being crude and simple) involved endless refinements and complexities of torture. He despaired now of ever reaching her.
Majendie had caught his first clear sight of the spiritual ramparts.
“I’m not good enough for her,” he said. She had kept him with her that evening, not because she wanted him to stay, but because she wanted him to understand.
He had shown her that he understood by going to the friends for whom he was good enough, who were good enough for him.
He went more than ever now, sometimes to the Ransomes, oftener to Gorst, oftenest of all to Lawson Hannay. He liked more than ever to sit with Mrs. Hannay; to lean up against the everlasting soft cushion she presented to his soreness. More than ever he liked to talk to her of simple things; of their acquaintance; of Edith, who had been a little better, certainly no worse, this summer; of Peggy, of Peggy’s future and her education. He would sit for hours on Mrs. Hannay’s sofa, his body leaning back, his head bowed forward, his chin sunk on his breast, listening attentively, yet with a dazed and rather stupid expression, to Mrs. Hannay’s conversation. His own was sometimes monotonous and a little dull. He was growing even physically heavy. But Mrs. Hannay did not seem to mind.
There was a certain justice in Anne’s justification. He did n’t consciously prefer the Hannays’ society to hers; but he actually found it more agreeable, and for the reasons she suspected. They did worship him; and their worship did make him feel superior, perhaps when he was least so. They did flatter him; for, as Mrs. Hannay said, “he needed a little patting on the back, now and then, poor fellow.” And perhaps he was really sinking a little to her level; he had so lost his sense of her vulgarity.
He used to wonder how it was that she had kept Lawson straight. Perfectly straight, Lawson had been, ever since his marriage. Possibly, probably, if he had married a wife too inflexibly refined, he would have deviated somewhat from that perfect straightness. His tastes had always been a little vulgar. But there was no reason why he should go abroad to gratify them when he possessed the paragon of amiable vulgarity at home. The Gardners, whose union was almost miraculously complete, were not in their way more admirably mated. And Lawson’s reform must have been a stiff job for any woman to tackle at the start.
A woman of marvelous ingenuity and tact. For she had kept Lawson straight without his knowing it. She had played off one of Lawson’s little weaknesses against the other; had set, for instance, his fantastic love of eating against his sordid little tendency to drink. Lawson was now a model of sobriety.
And as she kept Lawson straight without his knowing it, she helped Majendie, too, without his knowing it, to hold his miserable head up. She ignored, resolutely, his attitude of dejection. She reminded him that if he could make nothing else out of his life, he could make money. She convinced him that life, the life of a prosperous ship-owner in Scale, was worth living, so long as he had Edith and Anne and Peggy to make money for, especially Peggy.
And Majendie became more and more absorbed in his business, and more and more he found his pleasure in it; in making money, that is to say, for the persons whom he loved.
He had come even to find pleasure in making it for a person whom he did not love, and hardly knew. He provided himself with one punctual and agreeable sensation every week, when he sent off the cheque for the small sum that was poor Maggie’s allowance. Once a week (he had settled it), not once a month. For Maggie might (for anything he knew) be thriftless. She might feast for three days, and then starve; and so find her sad way to the street.
But Maggie was not thriftless. First, at irregular intervals, weeks it might be, or months, she had sent him various diminutive sums towards the payment of her debt. Maggie was strictly honorable. She had got a little work, she said, and hoped soon to have it regularly. And soon she began to return to him, weekly, the half of her allowance. These sums he put by for her, adding the interest. Some day there would be a modest hoard for Maggie. He pleased himself, now and then, by wondering what the girl would do with it. Buy a wedding gown perhaps, when she married Mr. Mumford. Time, he felt, was Mr. Mumford’s best ally. In time, when she had forgotten Gorst, Maggie would marry him.
Maggie’s small business entailed a correspondence out of all proportion to it. He had not yet gone to see her. Some day, he supposed, he would have to go, to see whether the girl, as he phrased it vaguely, was “really all right.” With little creatures like Maggie you never could be sure. There would always be the possibility of Gorst’s successor, and he had no desire to make Maggie’s maintenance easier for him. He had made her independent of all iniquitous sources of revenue.
At last, suddenly, the postal orders and the letters ceased; for three weeks, four, fire weeks. Then Majendie began to feel uneasy. He would have to look her up.
Then one morning, early in September, a letter was brought to him at the office (Maggie’s letters were always addressed to the office, never to his house). There was no postal order with it. For three weeks Maggie had been ill, then she had been very poorly, very weak, too weak to sit long at work. And so she had lost what work she had; but she hoped to get more when she was strong again. When she was strong the repayments would begin again, said Maggie. She hoped Mr. Majendie would forgive her for not having sent any for so long. She was very sorry. But, if it was n’t too much to ask, she would be very glad if Mr. Majendie would come some day and see her.
He sent her an extra remittance by the bearer, and went to see her the next day. His conscience reproached him for not having gone before.
Mrs. Morse, the landlady, received him with many appearances of relief. In her mind he was evidently responsible for Maggie. He was the guardian, the benefactor, the sender of rent.
“She’s been very ill, sir,” said Mrs. Morse; “but she would n’t ’ave you written to till she was better.”
“I’m sure I can’t say, sir, wot ’er feeling was.”
It struck him as strange and pathetic that Maggie could have a feeling. He was soon to know that she had little else.
He found her sitting by a fire, wrapped in a shawl. It slipped from her as she rose, as she leaped, rather, from her seat, like one unnerved by a sudden shock. He stooped and picked up the shawl before he spoke, that he might give the poor thing time to recover herself.
“Did I startle you?” he said.
Maggie was still breathing hard. “I did n’t think you’d come.”
“I don’t know,” she said weakly, and sat dowrn again. Maggie was very weak. She was not like the Maggie he remembered, the creature of brilliant flesh and blood. Maggie’s flesh was worn and limp; it had a greenish tint; her blood no longer flamed in the cream rose of her face. She had parted with the sources of her radiant youth.
She seemed to him to be suffering from severe anæmia. A horrible thought came to him. Had the little thing been starving herself to save enough to repay him ?
“What have you been doing to yourself, Maggie?” he said brusquely.
Maggie looked frightened. “Nothing,” she said.
“Working your fingers to the bone?”
She shook her head. “I was no good at dressmaking. They would n’t have me.”
“Well—•” he said kindly.
“There are a great many things I can do. I can make wreaths and crosses and bookays. I made them at Evans’s. I could go back there. Mr. Evans would have me. But Mrs. Evans would n’t.” She paused, surveying her immense resources. “Or I could do the flowers for peoples’ parties. I used to. Do you think — perhaps — they’d have me ? ”
Maggie’s pitiful doubt was always whether “they” would “have” her.
“Yes,” he said, smiling at her pathos, “perhaps they would.”
“Or I could do embroidery. I learned, years ago, at Madame Ponting’s. I could go back. Only Madame would n’t have me.” (Maggie was palpably foolish; but her folly was adorable.)
“Why would n’t she have you ?”
Maggie reddened, and he forebore to press the unkind inquiry. He gathered that Maggie’s ways had been not unknown to Madame Ponting, “years ago.”
“Would you like to see some of my embroidery ? ”
He assented gravely. He did not want to turn Maggie from the path of industry which was to her the path of virtue.
She went to a cupboard, and returned with her arms full of little rolls and parcels wrapped in paper. She unfolded and spread on the table various squares, and strips, and little pieces, silk and woolen stuffs, and canvas, exquisitely embroidered. There were flowers in most of the patterns, — flowers, as it appeared, of Maggie’s fancy.
“I say, did you do all that yourself, Maggie ?”
“Yes, that’s what I can do. I make the patterns out of me head, and they’re mostly flowers, because I love ’em. It’s pretty, is n’t it?” said Maggie, stroking tenderly a pattern of pansies, blue pansies, such as she had never sold in Evans’s shop.
“Very pretty, — very beautiful.”
“I’ve sold lots, — to a lady, before I was ill. See here.”
Maggie unfolded something that was pinned in silver paper with a peculiar care. It was a small garment, in some faint-colored silk, embroidered with blue pansies (always blue pansies).
“That’s a frock,” said she, “for a little girl. You’ve got a little girl, — a little fair girl.”
He reddened. How the devil, he wondered, does she know that I have a little fair girl ? “I don’t think it would fit her,” he said.
Maggie reddened now.
“Oh — I don’t want you to buy it. I don’t want you to buy anything. Only to tell people.”
So much he promised her. lie tried to think of all the people he could tell. Mrs. Hannay, Mrs. Ransome, Mrs. Gardner — no, Mrs. Gardner was Anne’s friend. If Anne had been different he could have told Anne. He could have told her everything. As it was — No.
He rose to go, but, instead of going, he stayed and bought several pieces of embroidery for Mrs. Hannay, and the frock, not for Peggy, but for Mrs. Ransome’s little girl. They haggled a good deal over the price, owing to Maggie’s obstinate attempts to ruin her own market. (She must always have been bent on ruining herself, poor child.) Then he tried to go again, and Mrs. Morse came in with the tea-tray, and Maggie insisted on making him a cup of tea, and of course he had to stay and drink it.
Maggie revived over her tea-tray. Her face flushed and rounded again to an orb of jubilant content. And he asked her if she were happy ? If she liked her work ?
She hesitated. “It’s this way,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t think of anything else. I can sit and sit at it for weeks on end. I don’t want anything else. Then, all of a sudden, something comes over me, and I can’t put in another stitch. Sometimes —when it comes — I’m that tired, it’s as if I ’ad weights on me arms, and could n’t ’old them up to sew. And sometimes, again, I’m that restless, it’s as if you’d lit a fire under me feet. I’m frightened,” said Maggie, “when I feel it coming. But I’m only tired now.”
She broke off; but by the expression of her face, he saw that her thoughts ran underground. He wondered where they would come out again.
“I haven’t seen anybody this time,” said Maggie, “for six months.”
“Not even Mr. Mumford?”
“Oh, no, not him. I don’t want to see him.” And her thoughts ran back to where they started from.
“It has n’t come lately,” said Maggie, “it has n’t come for quite a long time.”
“What has n’t come ?”
“What I’ve been telling you, — what I’m afraid of.”
“It won’t come, Maggie,” he said quickly. (He might have been her father or the doctor.)
“If it does, it’ll be worse now.”
“Why should it be?”
“Because I can’t get away from it. I’ve nowhere to go to. Other girls have got their friends. I’ve got nobody. Why, Mr. Majendie — think — there isn’t a place in this whole town where I can go to for a cup of tea.”
“You ’ll make friends.”
She shook her head, guarding her little air of tragic wisdom.
Mrs. Morse popped her head in at the door, and out again.
“Is that woman kind to you ?”
“Yes, very kind.”
“She looks after you well?”
“Looks after me? I don’t want looking after.”
“Takes care of you, I mean. Gives you plenty of nice nourishing things to eat ? ”
“Yes. Plenty of nice things. And she comes and sits with me sometimes.”
“You like her?”
“I love her.”
“That’s all right. You see, you have got a friend, after all.”
“Yes,” said Maggie mournfully; and he saw that her thoughts were with Gorst. “But it is n’t the same thing, is it?”
Majendie could not honestly say it was; so he smiled, instead.
“It’s a shame,” said she, “to go on like this when you’ve been so good to me.”
“If I was n’t, you could n’t do it, could you ? But what you want me to understand is that, however good I’ve been, I have n’t made things more amusing for you ? ”
“No, no,” said Maggie vehemently, “I did n’t mean that. Indeed I did n’t. I only wanted you to know—”
“How good you’ve been? Is that it? Well, because you’re good, there’s no reason why you should be dull. Is there ? ”
“I don’t know,” said Maggie simply.
“See here, supposing that, instead of sending me all you earn, you keep some of it to play with ? Get Mrs. What ’s-hername to go with you to places.”
“I don’t want to go to places,” she said. “I want to send it all to you.”
He lapsed again into his formula. “There really is no reason why you should.”
“I want to. That’s a reason, is n’t it ? ” said she. She said it shyly, tentatively, solemnly almost, as if it were some point in an infant’s metaphysics. There was no assurance in her tone, nothing to remind him that Maggie had been the spoiled child of pleasure whose wants were always reasons; nothing to suggest the perverted consciousness of power.
“Well” — he straightened himself stiffly for departure.
“Are you going?” she said.
“Will you — come again ?”
“Yes, I’ll come, if you want me.”
He saw again how piteous, how ill she looked. A pang of compassion went through him. And after the pang there came a warm, delicious tremor. It recalled the feeling he used to have when he did things for Edith, a sensation singularly sweet and singularly pure.
It was consolation in his misery to realize that any one could want him, even poor, perverted Maggie.
Maggie said nothing. But the flame rose in her face.
Downstairs Majendie found Mrs. Morse waiting for him at the door. “ What’s been the matter with her ? ” he asked.
“I don’t rightly know, sir. But between you and me, I think she’s fretted herself ill.”
“Well, you’ve got to see that she does n’t fret, that’s all.”
He gave into her palm an earnest of the reward of vigilance.
That night he sent off the embroidered pieces to Mrs. Hannay, and the embroidered frock to Mrs. Ransome; with a note to each lady recommending Maggie, and Maggie’s beautiful and innocent art.
As Majendie declined more and more on his inferior friendships, Anne became more and more dependent on the Eliotts and the Gardners. Her evenings would have been intolerable without them. Edith no longer needed her. Edith, they still said, was growing better, or certainly no worse; and Mr. Gorst spent his evenings in Prior Street with Edie. The prodigal had made his peace with Anne, and came and went unquestioned. He was bent on making up for his long loss of Edie, and for the still longer loss of her that had to be. They felt that his brilliant presence kept the invading darkness from her door.
Autumn passed, and winter and spring, and in summer Edith was still with them.
Anne was no longer a stranger in her husband’s house since her child had been born in it; but in the long light evenings, after Peggy had been put to bed at six o’clock, Peggy’s mother was once more alien and alone. It was then that she would get up and leave her husband (why not, since he left her ?) and slip from Prior Street to Thurston Square; then that she moved once more superbly in her superior circle. She was proud of her circle. It was so welldefined ; and if the round was small, that only meant that there was no room in it for borderlands and other obscure and undesirable places. The commercial world, so terrifying in its approaches, remained, and always would remain, outside it. Sitting in Mrs. Eliott’s drawingroom she forgot that the soul of Scale on Humber was given over to tallow, and to timber, and Dutch cheeses. She could almost have forgotten that her husband was only a ship-owner, and a ship-owner who had gone into a horrible partnership with Lawson Hannay, but for her constant habit of depreciation. It appeased her to belittle him by comparisons. He had no spiritual fineness and fire like Canon Wharton, no intellectual interests like Mr. Eliott and Dr. Gardner. She had long ago noticed his inability to converse with any brilliance; she was now aware of the heaviness, the physical slowness, that was growing on him. He was losing the personal distinction that had charmed her once, and made her proud to be seen with him at gatherings of the fastidious in Thurston Square.
Her fancy, still belittling him, ranked him now with the dull business men of Scale. In a few years, she said, he will be like Lawson Hannay.
A change was coming over her. She was no longer apathetic. Now that she saw less of her husband she thought more frequently of him, if only to his disparagement. At times the process was unconscious; at times, when she caught her thoughts dealing thus uncharitably with him, she was touched by a pang of contrition and of shame. At times she was pulled up in her thinking with a sudden shock. She said to herself that he used to be so different, and her heart would turn gently to the man he used to be. Then, as in the sad days of her bridal home-coming, the dear immortal memory of him rose up before her, and pleaded mercy for the insufferably mortal man. She saw him, with the body and the soul that had been once familiar to her, slender, alert, and strong, a creature of appealing goodness and tenderness and charm. And she was troubled with a great longing for the presence of the thing she had so loved. She yearned even for signs of the old brilliant, startling personality, in the face of the growing dullness that she saw. She found herself recalling with a smile sayings of his that had once vexed and now amused her. For Anne was softer.
At times she was aware of a new source of uneasiness. She was accustomed to judge all things in relation to the spiritual life. She had no other measure of their excellence. She had found profit for her soul in its divorce from her husband. She had persuaded herself that since she could not raise him, she herself would have sunk if she had clung to him or let him cling. She had felt, that their tragic rupture strengthened the tie between her soul and God. But, more than once lately, she had experienced difficulty in reaching her refuge, her place of peace. Something threatened her former inviolable security. The ramparts of the spiritual life were shaken. Her prayers, that were once an ascension of flamed and winged powers carrying her to heaven, had become mere clamorous petitions, drawing down the things of heaven to earth. Night and morning the same passionate prayer for herself and her child, the same prayer for her husband, painful and perfunctory, but not always now the same sense of absolution, of supreme and intimate communion. It was as if a veil, opaque but intangible, were drawn between her spirit and the Unseen. She thought it had come of living in perpetual contact with Walter’s deterioration.
Yet Anne was softer.
Her love for Peggy had become more and more an engrossing passion, as Majendie left her more and more to the dominion of her motherhood. He had seen enough of the effect of rivalry. It was Anne’s pleasure to take Peggy from her nurse and wash her and dress her, to tend her fine limbs and comb her pale soft hair. It was as if her care for the little tender body had taught her patience and gentleness towards flesh and blood; as if, through the love it invoked, some veil was tom for her, and she saw, wrought in the body of her child, the wonder of the spirit’s fellowship with earth.
She dreaded the passing of the seasons, as they would take with them each some heartrending charm of Peggy’s infancy. Now it would be the ceasing of her pretty helpless cry, as Peggy acquired mastery over things; now the repudiation of her delicious play, as Peggy’s intellect perceived its puerility; and now the leaving off forever of the speech that was Peggy’s own, as Peggy adopted the superstition of the English language. A few years and Peggy would have cast off pinafores, a very few more and Peggy would be at a boarding-school; and before she left it she would have her hair up. There was a pang for Peggy’s mother in looking backward, and in looking forward pang upon intolerable pang.
But Peggy was in no hurry to grow up. Her delicacy prolonged her babyhood and its sweet impunity. The sad state of Peggy’s little body accounted for all the little sins that weighed on Peggy’s mother’s soul. You could n’t punish Peggy. An untender look made her tremble; at a harsh word she cried till she was sick. When Peggy committed sin she ran and told her mother, as if it were some wonderful and interesting experience. Anne was afraid that she would never teach the child the difference between right and wrong.
In this, by some strange irony, Majendie, for all his self-effacement, proved more effectual than Anne.
They were all three in the drawingroom one Sunday afternoon at teatime. It was Peggy’s hour. And in that hour she had found her moment, when her parents’ backs were turned to the tea-table. The moment over, she came to Majendie, shivering with delight.
“Oh, daddy, daddy,” she cried, “I did ’teal some sugar. I did ’teal it my own self, and eated it all up.”
Peggy had been forbidden to touch the sugar basin since one very miserable day.
“Oh Peggy, Peggy,” said her mother, “that was very naughty.”
“No, mummy, it was n’t. It wasn’t naughty ’t all.”
She pondered, gravely working out her case. “I’d be sorry if it was naughty.”
“If you laugh every time she’s naughty how am I to make her learn ? ”
Majendie held out his hand. “Come here, Peggy.”
Peggy came and cuddled against him, smiling sidelong mischief at her mother. “Look here, Peggy, if you eat too much sugar, you’ll be ill; and if you’re ill, mummy’ll be unhappy. See?”
“I’m sorry, daddy.”
Peggy’s mouth shook; she turned, and hid her face against his breast.
“There, there,” he said, petting her. “Look at mummy; she’s happy now.”
Peggy’s face peeped out, but it was not at her mother that she looked.
“ Are you happy, daddy ? ”
He stooped, and kissed her, and left the room.
And then Peggy said, “I’m sorry, mummy. Why did daddy go away?”
“I don’t know, darling.”
“Do you think he will come back again ?”
“Darling, I don’t know.”
“You’d like him to come back, would n’t you, mummy?”
“Of course, Peggy.”
“Then I’ll go and tell him.”
She trotted downstairs to the study, and came back shaking her head sadly.
“Daddy is n’t coming. Naughty daddy.”
“Why do you say that, Peggy?”
“Because he won’t come when you want him to.”
“Perhaps he’s busy.”
“Yes,” said Peggy thoughtfully. “I fink he’s busy.” She sat very quiet on a footstool, thinking. “I fink,” she said presently, “I’d better go and tell daddy he is n’t naughty, else he ’ll be dreff’ly unhappy.”
And she trotted downstairs and up again.
“Daddy sends his love, mummy, and he is busy. Sall I take your love to him ? ”
That was how it went on, now Peggy was older. That was how she made her mother’s heart ache.
Anne was in terror for the time when Peggy would begin to see. For that, and for her own inability to teach her the stupendous difference between right and wrong.
But one day Peggy ran to her mother, crying as if her heart would break.
“Oh muvver, muvver, kiss me,” she sobbed. “I did kick daddy! Kiss me.”
She flung her arms round Anne’s knees, as if clinging for protection against the pursuing vision of her sin.
“Hush, hush, darling,” said Anne. “Perhaps daddy did n’t mind.”
But Peggy howled in agony. “ Y-y-yes, he did. I hurted him, I hurted him. He minded ever so.”
“My little one,” said Anne, “my little one!” and clung to her and comforted her.
She saw that Peggy’s little mind recognized no sin except the sin against love; that Peggy’s little heart could not conceive that love should refuse to forgive her and kiss her.
And Anne did not refuse.
Thus her terror grew. If it was to come to Peggy that way, her knowledge of the difference, what was Peggy to think when she grew older ? When she began to see ?
That was how Anne grew soft.
Her very body was changing into the beauty of her motherhood. The sweetness of her face, arrested in its hour of blossom, had unfolded and flowered again. Her mouth had lost its sad droop, and for Peggy there came many times laughter, and many times that lifting of the upper lip, the gleam of the white teeth, and the play of the little amber mole that Majendie loved and Anne was ashamed of.
She had become for her child that which she had been for her husband in her strange, immortal moments of surrender, a woman warmed and transfigured by a secret fire. Her new beauty remained, like a brooding charm, when the child was not with her.
And as the seasons, passing, made her more and more a woman dear and desirable, Majendie’s passion for her became almost insane through its frustration.
Anne was aware of the insanity without realizing its cause. He avoided her touch, and she wondered why. Her voice, heard in another room, drew his heart after her in longing. At the worst moments, to get away from her, he went out of the house. And she wondered where. Hours of stupefying depression were followed by fits of irritability that frightened her. And then she washed that he would not go to the Hannays, and eat things that disagreed with him.
Little Peggy helped to make his misery more unendurable. She was always running to and fro between her father and her mother, with questions concerning kisses and other endearments, till he, too, wondered what she would make of it when she began to see. Everything conspired against him. Peggy’s formidable innocence was reinforced by the still more formidable innocence of her mother. Anne positively flaunted before him the spectacle of her maternal passion. She showered her tendernesses on the child, without measuring their effect on him, for whom she had none. She did not allow herself to wonder how he felt, when he sat there hungry, looking on, while the little creature, greedy for caresses, was given her fill of love.
And when he was tortured by headache, she brought him an effervescing drink, and considered that she had done her duty.
A worse headache than usual had smitten him one late Sunday afternoon in August. A Sunday afternoon that made (but for Majendie and his headache) a little sacred idyl, so golden was it, so holy and so happy, with Peggy trotting between her father’s and mother’s knees, and the prodigal, burning with penitence, upstairs in Edie’s room, singing Lead, kindly Light, in a heavenly tenor.
Peggy tugged at Majendie’s coat.
“Sing, daddy, sing! Mummy, make daddy sing.”
“I can’t make him sing, darling,” said Anne, who was making soft eyes at Peggy, and curling her mouth into the shape it took when it sent kisses to her across the room.
Instead of singing, Majendie, with his eyes on Anne, flung his arms round Peggy and lifted her up and covered her little face with kisses. The child lay across his knees with her head thrown back and her legs struggling, and laughed for terror and delight.
Anne spoke with some austerity. “Put her down, Walter; I don’t care for all this hugging and kissing. It excites the child.”
Peggy was put down. But when bedtime came she achieved an inimitable revenge. Anne had to pick her up from the floor to carry her to bed. At first Peggy refused to be carried; then she surrendered on conditions that brought the blood to her mother’s face.
From her mother’s arms Peggy’s head hung down as she struggled to say goodnight a second time to daddy. He rose, and for a single moment he and Anne stood linked together by the body of their child.
And Peggy reiterated, “I’ll be a good girl, mummy, if you’ll kiss daddy.”
Anne raised her face to his and closed her eyes, and Majendie felt her soft lips touch his forehead without parting.
That night, when he refused his supper, she looked up anxiously.
“Are you not well, Walter?”
“I’ve got a splitting headache.”
“You’d better take some anti-pyrine.”
“I’m damned if I’ll take any antipyrine.”
“Well, don’t, dear; but you need n’t be so violent.”
“I beg your pardon.”
He cooled his hands against a jug of iced water, and pressed them to his forehead.
She left her place and came and sat beside him. “Come,” she said in the sweet voice that pierced him, “come and lie down in the study.” She laid her hand on his shoulder, and he rose and followed her.
She made him lie down on the sofa in the study, and put cushions under his head, and brought him the anti-pyrine. She sat beside him and dabbed eau-decologne all over his forehead, and blew on it with her soft breath. She paused, and sat very still, watching him, for a moment that seemed eternity. She did n’t like the flush on his cheek nor the queer burning brilliance in his eyes. She was afraid he was in for a bad illness, and fear made her kind.
“Tell me how you feel, dear,” she said gently. She was determined to be very gentle with him.
“Can’t you see how I feel?” he answered.
She laid her firm, cool hand upon his forehead; and he gave a cry, the low cry she had once heard and dreamed of afterwards. He flung up his arm, and caught at her hand, and dragged it down, and held it close against his mouth, and kissed it.
She drew in her breath. Her hand stiffened against his in her effort to withdraw it; and, when he had let it go, she turned from him and left him without a word.
He threw himself face downwards on the cushions, wounded and ashamed.
It was Friday evening, the Friday that followed that Sunday when Majendie’s hope had risen at the touch of his wife’s hand, and died again under her repulse.
Friday was the day which Maggie Forrest marked in her calendar sometimes with a query and sometimes with a cross. The query stood for “Will he come?” The cross meant “He came.” To-night there was no cross, though Maggie had brushed her hair till it shone again, and put on her best dress, and laid out her little table for tea, and sat there waiting, like the ladies in those houses where he went; like Mrs. Hannay or Mrs. Ransome who bought her embroidery; or like that grand lady with the title, who had come with Mrs. Ransome, — the lady who had bought more embroidery than anybody, the scent on whose clothes was enough, Maggie said, to take your breath away.
Maggie loved her tea-table. She embroidered beautiful linen cloths for it. Every Friday it was decked as an altar dedicated to the service of a god, — in case he came.
He had n’t come. It was past eight, yet Maggie left the altar standing with the cloth on it, and waited. It would be terrible if the god should come and find no altar. Once, even at this late hour, he had come.
The house was very quiet. Mrs. Morse was out marketing, and Maggie was alone. Friday was market night in Scale. She wondered if he would remember that and come. Her heart beat violently with the thought that he might be beginning to come late. The others had come late when they began to love her.
She had forgotten them, or only cared to remember such of their ways as threw light on Mr. Majendie’s. For he was, as yet, obscure to her.
It seemed to her that a new thing had come to her, a thing marvelously and divinely new, this, that she should be waiting, counting hours, and marking days on calendars, measuring her own pulses with a hand, now on her heart, now on her throbbing forehead, and wondering what could be the matter with her. Maggie was six-and-twenty; but ever since she was nine she had been waiting and wondering. For there always had been somebody whom Maggie loved insanely. First, it was the little boy who lived in the house opposite, at home. He had abandoned Maggie’s society, and broken her heart, on the day when he “went into trousers.” Then it was the big boy in her father’s shop who gave her chocolates one day and snubbed her cruelly the next. Then it was the young man who came to tune the piano in the back parlor. Then the arithmetic master in the little boarding school they sent her to. And then (for Maggie’s infatuations rose rapidly in the social scale) it was one of the young gentlemen who “studied ” at the Vicarage. He was engaged to Maggie for a whole term; and he went away and jilted her, so that Maggie’s heart was broken a second time. At last, on an evil day for Maggie, it was one of the gentlemen (not so young) staying up at “the big house.” He watched for Maggie in dark lanes, and followed her through the fields at evening, till one evening he made her turn and follow her heart and him. And so Maggie went on her predestined way.
For after him there was the gentleman who came to Madame Ponting’s, and after him, Mr. Gorst, who came to Evans’s, and after Mr. Gorst—last year Maggie could not have believed there could ever be another after him. For each of these persons she would willingly have died. To each of them her soul leaped up and bowed itself, swept forward like a flame bowed and driven by the wind.
As long as each loved her, the flame burned steadily and still. Maggie’s soul was appeased for a season. As each left her, the flame died out in tears, and her pulses beat feebly, and her life languished. Maggie went from flame to flame; for the hours when there was nobody to love simply dropped into the darkness and were forgotten. She left off living when she had to leave off loving. To be sure there was always Mr. Mumford. He was a tobacconist and he lived over the shop in a house fronting the pier, a unique and dominant situation. And he was prepared to overlook the past and make Maggie his wife and mistress of the house fronting the pier. Unfortunately, Maggie did not love him. You could n’t love Mr. Mumford. You could only be sorry for him.
But though Maggie went from flame to flame, there were long periods of placidity when she loved nothing but her work, and was as good as gold. Maggie’s father would n’t believe it. He had never forgiven her, not even when the doctor told him that there was no sense in which the poor girl could be held responsible; they should have looked after her better, that was all. Maggie’s father, the grocer, did not deal in smooth extenuating phrases. He called such madness sin. So did Maggie in her hours of peace and sanity. She was terrified when she felt it coming on, and hid her face from her doom. But when it came she went to meet it, uplifted, tremulous, devoted, carrying her poor scorched heart in her hands for sacrifice.
Each time that she loved, it was as if her former sins had been blotted out; for there came a merciful forgetfulness that renewed, almost, her innocence. Her heart had its own perverted constancy. No lover was like her last lover, and for him she rejected and repudiated the past.
And each time that she loved she was torn asunder. She gave herself in pieces; her heart first, then her soul, then, if it must needs be, her body. The finest first, then all that was left of her. That was her unique merit, what marked her from the rest.
Majendie, she divined by instinct, had recognized her quality. He was the only one who had. And he had asked nothing of her. She would have lived miserably for Charlie Gorst. She would have died with joy for Mr. Majendie. And Maggie feared death worse than life, however miserable.
But there was something in her love for Majendie that revealed it as a thing apart. It had not made her idle. Her passion for Mr. Majendie blossomed and flowered, and ran over in beautiful embroidery. That industry ministered to it. Her heart was set on having those little sums to send him every week; for that was the only way she could hope to approach him of her own movement. She loved the curt little notes in which Majendie acknowledged the receipt of each postal order. She tied them together with white ribbon, and treasured them in a little box under lock and key. All the time, she knew he had a wife and child, but her fancy refused to recognize Mrs. Majendie’s existence. It allowed him to have a child, but not a wife. She knew that he spent his Saturdays and Sundays with them at his home. He never came, or could come, on a Saturday or Sunday, and Maggie refused to consider the significance of this. She simply lived from Friday to Friday. No other day in the week existed for Maggie. All other days heralded it, or followed in its train. The blessed memory of it rested upon Saturday and Sunday. Wednesday and Thursday glowed and vibrated with its coming; Mondays and Tuesdays were forlorn and gray. Terrible were the days which followed a Friday when he had not come.
He had not come last Friday, nor the Friday before that. She had always a comfortable little theory to cheat herself with, to account for his not coming. He had been ill last Friday; that, of course, was why he had not come. Maggie knew. She did not like to think that he was ill; but she did like to think that only illness could prevent his coming. And she had always believed what she liked.
The presumption in Maggie’s mind amounted to a certainty that he would come to-night.
And at nine o’clock he came.
Her eyes shone as she greeted him. There was nothing about her to remind him of the dejected, anæmic girl who had sat shivering over the fire last September. Maggie had got all her lights and colors back again. She was lifted from her abasement, glorified. And yet, for all her glory, Maggie, on her good behavior, became once more the prim young lady of the lower middle class. She sat, as she had been used to sit on long, dull Sunday afternoons in the parlor above the village shop, — bolt upright on her chair, with her meek hands folded in her lap. But her eyes were fixed on Majendie, their ardent candor contrasting oddly with the stiff modesty of her deportment.
“Have you been ill?” she asked.
“ Why should I have been ill ? ”
“Because you didn’t come.”
“You mustn’t suppose I’m ill every time I don’t come. I might be a chronic invalid at that rate.”
He had n’t realized how often he came. He did n’t mark the days with crosses in a calendar.
“But you were ill, this time, I know.”
“How do you know?”
The processes of Maggie’s mind amused him. It was such a funny, fugitive, burrowing, darting thing, Maggie’s mind, transparent and yet secret in its ways.
“I know, because I saw” — she hesitated.
“ Saw what ? ”
“The light in your window.”
“My window ? ”
“Yes. The one that looks out on the garden at the back. It was twelve o’clock on Sunday night, and on Monday night the light was gone, and I knew that you were better.”
“As it happens, you saw the light in my sister’s room. She’s always ill.”
“Oh,” said Maggie; and her face fell with the fall of her great argument.
“ Sometimes,” he said, “the light burns all night long.”
“Yes,” said Maggie, musing; “sometimes it burns all night long. But in the room above that room, there’s a little soft light that burns all night, too. That’s your room.”
“No. That’s my wife’s room.”
Maggie became thoughtful. “I used to think that was where your little girl sleeps, because of the night-light. Then your room’s next it.” Maggie desired to know all about the blessed house that contained him.
“That’s the spare room,” he said, laughing.
“Goodness! what a lot of rooms. Then your’s is the one next the nursery, looking on the street. Fancy! That little room.”
Again she became thoughtful. So did he.
“I say, Maggie, how did you know those lights burned all night?”
“Because I saw them.”
“You can’t see them.”
“Yes, you can; from the little alley that goes along at the back.”
He had n’t thought of the alley. Nobody ever passed that way after dark; it ended in a blind wall.
“What were you doing there at twelve o’clock at night?”
He looked for signs of shame and confusion on Maggie’s face. But Maggie’s face was one flame of joy. Her eyes were candid.
“Walking up and down,” she said. “I was watching.”
“ Watching ? ”
“You must n’t, Maggie. You must n’t watch people’s windows. They don’t like it. It does n’t do.”
The flame was troubled; but not the lucid candor of her eyes. “I had to. I thought you were ill. I came to make sure. I was all alone. I did n’t let anybody see me. And when I saw the light I was frightened. And I came again the next night to see. I did n’t think you’d mind. It’s not as if I’d come to the front door, or written letters, was it?”
“No. But you must never do that again, mind. How did you know the house ?”
Maggie hung her head. “I saw your little girl go in there.”
“ Were you ‘ watching ’ ? ”
“N-no. It was an accident.”
“How did you know it was my little girl?”
“I saw you walking with her, one Saturday, in the Park. It was an accident — really. I was taking my work to that lady why buys from me — Mrs. ’Anny.”
“You’re not angry with me, Mr. Magèndy ? ”
“Of course not. What made you think I was ? ”
“Your face. You would be angry if I followed you. But I would n’t do such a thing. I’ve never followed any one — never. And I would n’t do it now, not if I was paid,” she protested.
“It’s all right, Maggie, it’s all right.”
Maggie clasped her knees and sat thinking. She seemed to know by intuition when it was advantageous to be silent, and when to speak. But Majendie was thinking, too. He was wondering whether he was not being a little too kind to Maggie; whether a little unkindness would not be a salutary change for both of them. Why could n’t the girl marry Mr. Mumford ? He did n’t want to profit by the transaction. He would gladly have paid Mr. Mumford to marry her, and take her away.
He put his hand over his eyes as a veil for his thoughts; and, when he took it away again, Maggie had risen and was going on soundless feet towards the door.
“Don’t go,” she said, “I’ll be back in a minute.”
He flung himself back in the chair and waited. The minutes dragged. He had wanted Maggie away; and now she had gone he wanted her back again.
Maggie did not stay away long enough to give him time to discover how much he wanted her. She came back, carrying a tray with cups and a steaming coffee pot, and set it on the table.
A fragrance of strong coffee filled the room. The service of the god had begun.
She stood close against his side, yet humbly, as she handed him his cup. “It’s nice and strong,” she said. “Drink it. It’ll do your head good.”
And she sat down opposite him, and watched him drink it.
Maggie’s watching face was luminous and tender. In her eyes there was the look that love gives for his signal, — love that, in that moment, was pure and sweet as a mother’s. She was glad to think that the coffee was strong, and would do his head good. She had no other thought in her mind, at that moment.
After the coffee she brought matches and cigarettes, which she offered shyly. Nature had given her an immortal shyness, born of her extreme humility.
“They’re all right,” she said. “Charlie smoked them.”
(Charlie was at times a useful memory.)
She struck a match and prepared to light the cigarette. This she did gravely and efficiently, with no sign of feminine consciousness or coquetry. It was part of the solemn evening service of the god. And, as he smoked, the devotee retreated to her chair and watched him.
“Maggie,” he said,”supposing Mr. Mumford was to come in?”
“He won’t. Sunday’s his day; or would be, if I let him ’ave a day.”
“Why don’t you?”
She shook her head. “I’ve seen nobody.”
There was silence for five minutes.
“Mr. Magèndy — ”
“Màjendie, Maggie, Majendie.”
“Mr. Mashendy, — I’m beginning to be afraid.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“What I’ve always told you about. That awful feeling. It’s coming on again, I think.”
“ It won’t come, Maggie, it won’t come. Don’t think about it, and it won’t come.”
He did n’t understand very clearly what Maggie was talking about; but he remembered that, last September, after her illness, she had been afraid of something. And he remembered that he had comforted her with some such words as these.
“Yes,” said she, “but I feel it coming.”
“Maggie, you oughtn’t to live alone like this. See here, you ought to marry. You ought to marry Mr. Mumford. Why don’t you ? ”
“ I don’t want to marry anybody. And I don’t love him.”
“Well, don’t think about that other thing. Don’t think about it. You’ll be all right.”
“I won’t think,” said Maggie; and thought profoundly.
“Mr. Majendie,” she said suddenly.
“You must n’t be afraid. I shall never do anything I know you would n’t like me to.”
“All right. Only don’t think too much about that, either.”
“I can’t help thinking. You’ve been so good to me.”
“I should try and forget that, too, a little more, if I were you. I’m only paying some of Mr. Gorst’s debts for him.”
The name called up no color to her cheek. Maggie had forgotten Gorst, and all he had done for her.
“And you’re paying me back.”
She shook her head. “ I can’t ever pay you back.”
Poor little girl! Was that what her mind was always running on ?
There was silence again between them. And then Majendie looked at Maggie.
She was sitting very still, as if she were waiting for something, and yet content. Her eyes were swimming as if with tears; but there were no tears in them. Her face was reddening as if with shame, but there was no shame in it. She seemed to be listening, dazed and enchanted, to her own secret, the running whisper of her blood. Her lips were parted, and, as he looked at her, they closed and opened again in sympathy with the delicate tremors that moved her throat under her rounded chin. In her brooding look there was neither reminiscence nor foreboding; it was the look of a creature surrendered wholly to her hour.
As he looked at her his nerves sent an arrow of warning, a hot tremor darting from heart to brain.
“I must go now, Maggie,” he said.
When he stood up, his knees shook under him.
“Not yet,” said Maggie. “I’m all alone in the house, and I’m afraid.”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he said roughly. “I’ve got to go.”
He strode towards the door while Maggie stared after him in terror. She understood nothing but that he was going to leave her. What had she done to drive him away ?
“You ’re ill,” she cried, as she followed him, panting in her fright.
He pushed her back gently from the threshold.
“Don’t be a little fool, Maggie. I’m not ill.”
Out in the street, five yards from Maggie’s door, he battled with a vision of her that almost drove him back again. “It was I who was a fool,” he thought. “I shall go back. Why not? She is predestined. Why not I as well as anybody else ? ”
All the way to his own door an insistent, abominable voice kept calling to him, “Why not? Why not?”
He went with noiseless footsteps up his own stairs, past the dark doors below, past Edith’s open door where the lamp still burned brightly beyond the threshold. At Anne’s door he paused.
It stood ajar in a dim light. He pushed it softly open and went in.
Anne and her child lay asleep under the silver crucifix.
Peggy had been taken into Anne’s bed, and had curled herself close up against her mother’s side. Her arm lay on Anne’s breast; her hand clutched the border of Anne’s nightgown. The long thick braid of Anne’s hair was flung back on the pillow, framing the child’s golden head in gold.
His eyes filled with tears as he looked at them. For a moment his heart stood still. Why not he as well as anybody else ? His heart told him why.
As he turned he sighed. A sigh of longing and tenderness, and of thankfulness for a great deliverance. Above all, of thankfulness.
The light burned in Edith’s room till morning; for her spine kept sleep from her through many nights. They no longer said, “She is better, or certainly no worse.” They said, “She is worse, or certainly no better.” The progress of her death could be reckoned by weeks and measured by inches. Soon they would be giving her morphia, to make her sleep. Meanwhile she was terribly awake.
She heard her brother’s soft footsteps as he passed her door. She heard him pause on the upper landing and creep into the room overhead. She heard him go out again and shut himself up in the little room beyond.
There came upon her an awful intuition of the truth.
The next day she sent for him.
“What is it, Edie?” he said.
She looked at him with loving eyes, and asked him, as Maggie had asked, “Are you ill ?”
He started. The question brought back to him vividly the scene of the night before; brought back to him Maggie with her love and fear.
“What is it? Tell me,” she insisted.
He owned to headaches. She knew he often had them.
“It’s not a bit of use,” she said, “trying to deceive me. It’s not headaches. It’s Anne.”
“Poor Anne. I think she’s all right. After all, she’s got the child, you know.”
“Yes. She’s got Peggy. If I could see you all right, too, I should die happy.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m not worth it.”
She gazed at him searchingly, confirmed in her intuition. That was the sort of thing poor Charlie used to say.
“It’s my fault,” she said. “It always has been.”
“Angel, if you could lay everybody’s sins on your own shoulders, you would.”
“I mean it. You were right and I was wrong. Ah, how one pays! Only you’ve had to pay for my untruthfulness. I can see it now. If I’d done as you asked me, in the beginning, and told her the truth —”
“She would n’t have married me. No, Edie. You’re assuming that I’ve lived to regret that I married her. I never have regretted it for one single moment. Not for myself, that is. For her, yes. Granted that I’m as unhappy as you please, I’d rather be unhappy with her than happy without her. See?”
“Walter,— if you keep true to her, I believe you’ll have your happiness yet. I don’t know how it’s coming. It may come very late. But it’s bound to come. She’s good — ”
He assented with a groan. “ Oh, much too good.”
“And the goodness in her must recognize the goodness in you; when she understands. I believe she’s beginning to understand. She does n’t know how much she understands.”
“Your goodness. She loved you for it. She’ll love you for it again.”
“ My dear Edie, you ’re the only person who believes in my goodness, — you and Peggy.”
“I and Peggy. And Charlie and the Hannays. And Nanna, and the Gardners— and God.”
“I wish God would give Anne a hint that he thinks well of me.”
“Dear—if you keep true to her — he will.”
If he kept true to her ? It was the second time she had said it. It was almost as if she had divined what had so nearly happened.
“I think,” she said, “I’d like to talk to Anne, now, while I can talk. You see, once they go giving me morphia” — she closed her eyes. “Just let me lie still for half an hour, and then bring Anne to me.”
She lay still. He watched her for an hour. And he knew that in that hour she had prayed.
He found Anne sitting on the nursery floor, playing with Peggy. “Edie wants you,” he said, loosening Peggy’s little hands as they clung about his legs.
“Mother must go, darling,” said she.
But all Peggy said was, “Daddy’ll stay.”
He did not stay long. He had to restrain himself, to go carefully with Peggy, lest he should help her to make her mother’s heart ache.
Anne found Nanna busied about the bed. Nanna was saying, “Is that any easier, Miss Edie?”
“It’s heavenly, Nanna,” said Edie, stifling a moan. “Oh dear, I hope in the next world I shan’t feel as if my spine were still with me, like people when their legs are cut off.”
“Miss Edie, what an idea!”
“Well, Nanna, you can’t tell whether it may n’t be so. Anne, dear, you’ve got such a nice, pretty body, why have you such a withering contempt for it ? It behaves so well to you, too. That’s more than I can say of mine; and yet, I believe I shall quite miss it when it’s gone. At any rate I shall be glad that I was decent to the poor thing while it was with me. Run away now, please, Nanna, and shut the door.”
Nanna thought she knew why Miss Edie wanted the door shut. She too had her intuitive forebodings. She was aware, the whole household was aware, that the mistress cared more for her child than for the husband who had given it her. Their master’s life was not a happy one. They wondered many times how he was going to stand it
“Anne,” said Edith, “I’m uneasy about Walter.”
“You need not be,” said Anne.
“Why? Are n’t you?”
“I know he has n’t been well lately— ”
“How can you expect him to be well when he’s so unhappy ? ”
Anne was silent.
“How long is it going to last, dear? And where is it going to end ? ”
“Edith, you need n’t be afraid. I shall never leave him.”
That was not what Edith was afraid of, but she did not say so.
“ How can I,” Anne went on, “when I believe the Church’s doctrine of marriage ? ”
“Do you ? Do you believe that love is a provision for the soul’s redemption of the body ? or for the body’s redemption of the soul ? ”
“I believe that, having married Walter, whatever he is or does, I cannot leave him without great sin.”
“Then you’ll be shocked when I tell you that if your husband were a bad man, I should be the first to implore you to leave him, though he is my brother. Where there can be no love on either side there’s no marriage, and no sacrament. That’s my profane belief.”
“And when there’s love on one side only ? ”
“The sacrament is there, offered by the loving person, and refused by the unloving. And that refusal, my dear child, may, if you like, be a great sin, — supposing, of course, that the love is pure and devoted. I hardly know which is the worst sin, then, to refuse to give, or to refuse to take it; or to take it, and then throw it away. What would you think if Peggy hardened her little heart against you ? ”
“ Yes, your Peggy. It’s the same thing. You ’ll see it some day. But I want you to see it now, before it’s too late.”
“ Edie, if you’d only tell me where I’ve failed! If you ’re thinking of our — our separation— ”
“I was not. But, since you have mentioned it, I can’t help reminding you that you fell in love with Walter because you thought he was a saint. And so I don’t see what ’s to prevent you now. He’s qualifying. He may n’t be perfect; but, in some way’s, a saint could n’t very well do more. Has it never occurred to you that you are indulging the virtue that comes easiest to you, and exacting from him the virtue that comes hardest ? And he has stood the test.”
“ It was his own doing, — his own wish.”
“Is it ? I doubt it, — when he’s more in love with you than he was before he married you.”
“That’s all over.”
“For you. Not for him. He’s a man, as you may say, of obstinate affections.”
“Ah, Edie, — you don’t know.”
“I know,” said Edith, “you’re perfectly sweet, the way you take my scoldings. It’s cowardly of me, when I’m lying here safe, and you can’t scold back again. But I would n‘t do it if I did n’t love you.”
“I know—I know you love me.”
“But I could n’t love you so much, if I did n’t love Walter more.”
“You well may, Edie. He’s been a good brother to you.”
“Some day you’ll own he’s been as good a husband as he’s been a brother. Better; for it’s a more difficult post, my dear. I don’t really think my body, spine and all, can have tried him more than your spirit.”
“What have I done? Tell me, — tell me.”
“Done? O Nancy, I hate to have to say it to you. What have n’t you done ? There’s no way in which you have n’t hurt and humiliated him. I’m not thinking of your separation,— I’m thinking of the way you’ve treated him, and his affection for you and Peggy. You won’t let him love you. You won’t even let him love his little girl.”
“Does he say that?”
“Would he say it? People in my peculiar position don’t require to have things said to them; they say them. You see, if I did n’t say them now I should have to get up out of my grave and do it, and that would be ten times more disagreeable for you. It might even be very uncomfortable for me.”
“Edie, I wish I knew when you were serious.”
“ Well, if I’m not serious now, when shall I be ?”
Anne smiled. “You’re very like Walter.”
“Yes. He’s every bit as serious as I am. And he’s getting more and more serious every day.”
“O Edie, you don’t understand. I — I’ve suffered so terribly.”
“I do understand. I’ve gone through it — every pang of it — and it’s all come back to me again through your suffering, — and I know it’s been worse for you. I’ve told him so. It’s because I don’t want you to suffer more that I’m saying these awful things to you.”
“Oh! Am I to suffer more?”
“I believe that’s the only way your happiness can come to you, — through great suffering. I’m only afraid that the suffering may come through Peggy, if you don’t take care.”
“Peggy — ”
It was her own terror put into words.
“Yes. That child has a terrible capacity for loving. And for her that means suffering. She loves you. She loves her father. Do you suppose she won’t suffer when she sees ? Her little heart will be torn in two between you.”
“O Edith,— I cannot bear it.”
She hid her face from the anguish.
“You need n’t. That’s it. It rests with you.” .
“With me ? If you would only tell me how.”
“I can’t tell you anything. It’ll come. Probably in the way you least expect it. But — it’ll come.”
“Edie, I feel as if you held us all together. And when you’ve gone — ”
“ You mean when it’s gone. When it’s ‘gone,’” said Edie, smiling, “I shall hold you together all the more. You need n’t sigh like that.”
“ Did I sigh ? ”
As Anne stooped over the bed she sighed again, thinking how Edith’s loving arms used to leap up and hold her, and how they could never hold anything any more.
Of all the things that Edith said to her that afternoon, two remained fixed in Anne’s memory: how Peggy would suffer through overmuch loving, — she remembered that saying, because it had confirmed her terror; and how love was a provision for the soul’s redemption of the body, or for the body’s redemption of the soul. This she remembered, because she did not understand it.
That was in August. Before the month was out they were beginning to give her morphia.
In September Gorst came to see her for the last time.
In October she died in her brother’s arms.
In the days that followed, it was as if her spirit, refusing to depart from them, had rested on the sister she had loved. Spirit to spirit, she stooped, kindling in Anne her own dedicated flame. In the white death chamber, and through the quiet house, the presence of Anne, moving with hushed footfall, was like the presence of a blessed spirit. Her face was as a face long hidden upon the heart of peace. Her very grief aspired; it had wings, lifting her towards her sister in her heavenly place.
For Anne, in the days that followed, was possessed by a great and burning charity. Mrs. Hannay called and was taken into the white room to see Edith. And Anne’s heart went out to Mrs. Hannay, when she spoke of the beauty and goodness of Edith; and to Lawson Hannay, when he pressed her hand without speaking; and to Gorst, when she saw him stealing on tiptoe from Edie’s room, his face swollen and inflamed with grief. Her heart went out to all of them, because they had loved Edie.
And to her husband her heart went out with a tenderness born of an immense pity and compassion. For the first three days, Majendie gave no sign that he was shaken by his sister’s death. But on the evening of the day they buried her Anne found him in the study, sitting in his low chair by the fire, his head sunk, his body bowed forward over his knees, convulsed with a nervous shivering. He started and stared at her approach, and straightened himself suddenly. She held out her hand. He looked at it dumbly, as if unwilling or afraid to take it.
“My dear,” she said softly.
Then she knelt beside him, and drew his head down upon her breast, and let it rest there.
It was a Thursday night in October, three weeks after Edith’s death. Anne was in her room, undressing. She moved noiselessly, with many tender precautions, for fear of waking Peggy, and for fear of destroying the peace that possessed her own soul like heavenly sleep. It was the mystic mood that went before prayer.
In those three weeks Anne felt that she had been brought very near to God. She had not known such stillness and content since the days at Scarby that had made her life terrible. It was as if Edith’s spirit in bliss had power given it to help her sister, to draw Anne with it into the divine presence.
And the dead woman bound the living to each other also, as she had said. How she bound them Anne had not realized until to-day. It was Mrs. Eliott’s day, her Thursday. Anne had spent half an hour in Thurston Square, and had come away with a cold, unsatisfactory feeling towards Fanny. Fanny, for the first time, had jarred on her. She had so plainly hesitated between condolence and congratulation. She seemed to be secretly rejoicing in Edith Majendie’s death. Her manner intimated clearly that a burden had been removed from her friend’s life, and that the time had now come for Anne to blossom out and enjoy herself. Anne had been glad to get away from Fanny, to come back to the house in Prior Street and to find Walter waiting for her. Fanny, in spite of her intellectual rarity, lacked the sense that, after all, he had, the sense of Edith’s spiritual perfection. Strangely, inconsistently, incomprehensibly, he had it. He and his wife had that in common, if they had nothing else. They were bound to each other by Edith’s dear and sacred memory, an immaterial, immortal tie. They would always share their knowledge of her. Other people might take for granted that her terrible illness had loosened, little by little, the bond that held them to her. They knew that it was not so. They never found themselves declining on the mourner’s pitiful commonplaces: “Poor Edie;” “She is released;” “It’s a mercy she was taken.” It was their tribute to Edith’s triumphant personality that they mourned for her as for one cut off in the fullness of a strong, beneficent life.
For those three weeks Anne remained to her husband all that she had been on the night of Edith’s death.
And, as she felt that nobody but her husband understood what she had lost in Edith, she realized for the first time his kindred to his sister. She forced herself to dwell on his many admirable qualities. He was unselfish, chivalrous, the soul of honor. On his chivalry, which touched her more nearly than his other virtues, she was disposed to put a very high interpretation. She felt that, in his way, he acknowledged her spiritual perfection, also, and reverenced it. If their relations only continued as they were, she believed that she would yet be happy with him. To think of him as she had once been obliged to think was to profane the sorrow that sanctified him now. She was persuaded that the shock of Edith’s death had changed him, that he was ennobled by his grief. She could not yet see that the change was in herself. She said to herself that her prayers for him were answered.
For it was no longer an effort, painful and perfunctory, to pray for her husband. Since Edith’s death she had prayed for him, as she had prayed in the time of reconciliation that followed her first discovery of his sin. She was horrified when she realized how in six years her passion of redemption had grown cold. It was there that she had failed him, in letting go the immaterial hold by which she might have drawn him with her into the secret shelter of the Unseen. She perceived that in those years her spiritual life had suffered by the invasion of her earthly trouble. She had approached the silent shelter with cries of supplication for herself and for her child, the sweet mortal thing she had loved above all mortal things. Every year had made it harder for her to reach the sources of her help, hardest of all to achieve the initiatory state, the nakedness, the prostration, the stillness of the dedicated soul. Too many miseries cried and strove in her. She could no longer shut to her door, and bar the passage to the procession of her thoughts, no longer cleanse and empty her spirit’s house for the divine thing she desired to dwell with her.
And now she was restored to her peace; lifted up and swept, effortless, into the place of heavenly help. Anne’s soul had no longer to reach out her hand and feel her way to God, for it was God who sought for her and found her. She heard behind her, as it were, the footsteps of the divine pursuing power. Once more, as in the mystic days before her marriage, she had only to close her eyes, and the communion was complete. At night, when her prayer was ended, she lay motionless in the darkness, till she seemed to pass into the ultimate bliss, beyond the reach of prayer. There were moments when she felt herself to be close upon the very vision of God, the beatitude of the pure.
At these moments Anne found herself contemplating her own inviolate sanctity.
There was in Anne an immense sincerity, underlying a perfect tangle of minute deceptions and hypocrisies. She was not deceived as to the supreme event. She was truly experiencing the great spiritual passion which, alone of passions, is destined to an immortal satisfaction. She had all but touched the end of the saint’s progress. But she was ignorant, both of the paths that brought her there, and the paths that had led, and might again lead, her feet astray.
Each night, when she closed her bedroom door, she felt that she was entering into a sanctuary. She was profoundly, tenderly grateful to her husband for the renunciation that made that refuge possible to her. She accepted her blessed isolation as his gift.
This Thursday had been a day of little lacerating distractions. She had gone through it thirsting for the rest and surrender, the healing silence of the night.
She undressed slowly, being by nature thorough and deliberate in all her movements.
She was standing before her lookingglass, about to unpin her hair, when she heard a low knock at her door. Majendie had been detained, and was late in coming to take his last look of Peggy before going to bed.
Anne opened the door softly, and signed to him to make no noise. He stole on tiptoe to thechild’s cot, and stood there for a moment. Then he came and sat down in the chair by the dressing-table, where Anne was standing with her arms raised, unpinning her hair. Majendie had always admired that attitude in Anne. It was simple, calm, classic, and superbly feminine. Her long white wrapper clothed her more perfectly than any dress.
He sat looking at the quick white fingers untwisting the braid of hair. It hung divided into three strands, still rippling with the braiding, still dull with its folded warmth. She combed the three into one sleek sheet that covered her like a veil, drawn close over head and shoulders. Her face showed smooth and saintlike between the cloistral bands. Majendie thought he had never seen anything more beautiful than that face and hair, with their harmonies of dull gold and sombre white.
“I like you,” he said; “but is n’t the style just a trifle severe?”
Anne said nothing. She was trying to forget his presence while she yet permitted it.
“Do you mind my looking at you like this ? ”
(They spoke in low voices, for fear of waking the sleeping child.)
She took up her brush, and with a turn of her head swept her hair forward over one shoulder. It hung in one mass to her waist. Then she began to brush it.
The first strokes of the brush stirred the dull gold that slept in its ashen furrows. A shining undulation passed through it, and broke, at the ends, as it were into a curling golden foam. Then Anne stood up and tossed it backwards. Her brush went deep and straight, like a ploughshare, turning up the rich, smooth swell of the under-gold; it went light on the top, till numberless little threads of hair rippled, and rose, and knit themselves, and lay on her head like a fine gold net; then, with a few swift swimming movements, upwards and outwards, it scattered the whole mass into drifting strands and flying wings and soft falling feathers, and, under them, little tender curls of flaxen down. With another stroke of the brush and a shake of her head, Anne’s hair rose in one whorl and fell again, and broke into a shower of woven spray; pure gold in ever thread.
Majendie held out a shy hand and caught the receding curl of it. Its faint fragrance reached him, winging a shaft of memory. His nerves shook him, and he looked away.
Anne had been cool and businesslike in every motion, unconscious of her effect, unconscious almost of him. Now she gathered her hair into one mass, and began plaiting it rapidly, desiring thus to hasten his departure. She flung back the stiff braid, and laid her finger on the extinguisher of the shaded lamp, as a hint for him to go.
“Anne,” he whispered, “Anne —”
The whisper struck fear into her.
She faced him calmly, coldly; not unkindly. Unkindness would have given him more hope than that pitiless imperturbability.
“Have you anything to say to me?” she said.
“Well then, will you be good enough to go ? ”
“Do you really mean it ?”
“I always mean what I say. I have n’t said my prayers yet.”
“And when you have said them?”
She had turned out the lamp so that she might not see his unhappy face. She did not see it; she only saw her spiritual vision destroyed and scattered, and the havoc of dreams, resurgent, profaning heavenly sleep.
“Please,” she whispered, “please, if you love me, leave me to myself.”
He left her; and her heart turned after him as he went, and blessed him.
“He is good, after all,” her heart said.
But Majendie’s heart had hardened. He said to himself, “She is too much for me.” As he lay awake thinking of her, he remembered Maggie. He remembered that Maggie loved him, and that he had gone away from her and left her, because he loved Anne. And now, because he loved Anne, he would go to Maggie. He remembered that it was on Fridays that he used to go and see her.
Very well, to-morrow night would be Friday night.
To-morrow night he would go and see her.
And yet, when to-morrow night came, he did not go. He never went until December, when Maggie’s postal orders left off coming. Then he knew that Maggie was ill again. She had been fretting. He knew it; although, this time, she had not written to tell him so.
He went, and found Maggie perfectly well. The postal orders had not come, because the last lady, the lady with the title, had not paid her. Maggie was good as gold again, placid and at peace.
“Why,” he asked himself bitterly, “ why did I not leave her to her peace ? ”
And a still more bitter voice answered, “Why not you, as well as anybody else ?”
(To he continued.)
- Copyright, 1906, by MAY SINCLAIR.↩