EASTWARDS along the Humber, past the brown wharves and the great square blocks of the warehouses, past the tall chimneys and the docks with their thin pine-forest of masts, there lie the forlorn flat lands of Holderness. Field after field, they stretch, lands level as water, only raised above the river by a fringe of turf and a belt of silt and sand. Earth and water are of one form and of one color, for, beyond the brown belt, the widening river lies like a brown furrowed field, with a clayey gleam on the crests of its furrows. When the gray days come, water and earth and sky are one, and the river rolls sluggishly, as if shores and sky oppressed it, as if it took its motion from the dragging clouds.
Eleven miles from Scale a thin line of red roofs runs for a field’s length up the shore, marking the neck of the estuary. It is the fishing hamlet of Fawlness. Its one street lies on the flat fields, low and straight as a dike.
Beyond the hamlet there is a little spit of land, and beyond the spit of land a narrow creek.
Half a mile up the creek the path that follows it breaks off into the open country and thins to a track across five fields. It struggles to the gateway of a low, redroofed, red-brick farm, and ends there. The farm stands alone, and the fields around it are bare to the sky-line. Three tall elms stand side by side against it, sheltering it from the east, marking its humble place in the desolate land. To the west a broad bridle-path joins the road to Fawlness.
Majendie had a small yacht moored in the creek, near where the path breaks off to Three Elms Farm. Once, sometimes twice, a week Majendie came to Three Elms Farm. Sometimes he came for the week-end, more often for a single night, arriving at six in the evening and leaving very early the next day. In winter he took the train to Hesson, tramped seven miles across country, and reached the farm by the Fawlness road. In summer the yacht brought him from “Hannay and Majendie’s” dock to Fawlness creek. At Three Elms Farm he found Maggie waiting for him.
This had been going on, once, sometimes twice a week, for nearly three years, ever since he had rented the farm and brought Maggie from Scale to live there.
The change had made the details of his life difficult. It called for all the qualities in which Majendie was most deficient. It necessitated endless vigilance, endless harassing precautions, an unnatural secrecy. He had to make Anne believe that he had taken to yachting for his health, that he was kept out by wind and weather, that the obligations and complexities of business, multiplying, tied him and claimed his time. Maggie had to be hidden away, in a place where no one came, lodged with people whose discretion he could trust. Pearson, the captain of his yacht, a close-mouthed, closefisted Yorkshireman, had a wife as reticent as himself. Pearson and his wife and their son Steve knew that their living depended on their secrecy. And, cupidity apart, the three were devoted to their master and his mistress. Pearson and his son Steve were acquainted with the ways of certain gentlemen of Scale, who sailed their yachts from port to port, up and down the Yorkshire coast. Pearson was a man who observed life dispassionately, He asked no questions and answered none.
It was six o’clock in the evening, early in October, just three years after Edith’s death. Majendie had left the yacht lying in the creek, with Pearson, Steve, and the boatswain on board, and was hurrying along the field path to Three Elms Farm. A thin rain fell, blurring the distances. The house stood humbly, under its three elms. A light was burning in one window. Maggie stood at the garden gate in the rain, listening for the click of the field-gate which was his signal. When it sounded she came down the path to meet him. She put her hands upon his shoulders, drew down his face, and kissed him. He took her arm and led her, half-clinging to him, into the house and into the lighted room.
A fire burned brightly on the hearth. His chair was set for him beside it, and Maggie’s chair opposite. The small round table in the middle of the room was laid for supper. Maggie had decorated walls and chimney-piece and table with chrysanthemums from the garden, and autumn leaves and ivy from the hedgerows. The room had a glad light and welcome for him.
As he came into the lamplight Maggie gave one quick, anxious look at him. She had always two thoughts in her little mind between their meetings: Is he ill ? Is he well ?
He was, to the outward-seeing eye, superlatively well. Three years of life lived in the open air, life lived according to the will of nature, had given him back his outward and visible health. At thirty-nine Majendie had once more the strength, the firm, upright slenderness, and the brillance of his youth. His face was keen and brown, fined and freshened by wind and weather.
Maggie, waiting humbly on his mood, saw that it was propitious.
“What cold hands!” said she. “And no overcoat? You bad boy!” She felt his clothes all over to feel if they were damp. “Tired?”
“Just a little, Maggie.”
She drew up his chair to the fire, and knelt down to unlace his boots.
“No, Maggie, I can’t let you take my boots off.”
“Yes, you can, and you will. Does she ever take your boots off?”
“You don’t allow her?”
“No. I don’t allow her.”
“You allow me,” said Maggie triumphantly. She was persuaded that (since his wife was denied the joy of waiting on him) hers was the truly desirable position. Majendie had never had the heart to enlighten her.
She pressed his feet with her soft hands, to feel if his stockings were damp too.
“There’s a little hole,” she cried. “I shall have to mend that to-night.”
She put cushions at his back, and sat down on the floor beside him, and laid her head on his knee.
“There’s a sole for supper,” said she, in a dreamy voice. “And a roast chicken. And an apple tart. I made it.” Maggie had always been absurdly proud of the things that she could do.
“I made it because I thought you’d like it.”
“You did n’t get any of those things yesterday, or the day before, did you?”
She was always afraid of giving him what he had had at home. That was one of the difficulties, she felt, of a double household.
“I forget,” he said, a little wearily, “what I had yesterday.”
Maggie noticed the weariness and said no more.
He laid his hand on her head and stroked her hair. He could always keep Maggie quiet by stroking her hair. She shifted herself instantly into a position easier for his hand. She sat still, only turning to the caressing hand, now her forehead, now the nape of her neck, now her delicate ear.
Maggie knew all his moods and ministered to them. She knew to-night that, if she held her tongue, the peace she had prepared for him would sink into him and heal him. He was not very tired. She could tell. She could measure his weariness to a degree by the movements of his hand. When he was tired she would seize the caressing hand and make it stop. In a few minutes supper would be ready, and when he had had supper, she knew, it would be time to talk.
Majendie was grateful for her silence, He was grateful to her for many things, for her beauty, for her sweetness, for her humility, for her love, which had given so much and asked so little. Maggie had still the modest charm that gave to her and to her affection the illusion of a perfect innocence. It had been heightened rather than diminished by their intimacy.
Somehow she had managed so that, as long as he was with her, shame was impossible for himself or her. As long as he was with her he was wrapped in her illusion, the illusion of innocence, of happiness, of all the unspoken sanctities of home. He knew that, whether he was or was not with her, so long as he loved her no other man would come between him and her ; no other man would cross his threshold and stand upon his hearth. The house he came to was holy to her. There were times, so deep was the illusion, when he could have believed that Maggie, sitting there at his feet, was the pure spouse, the helpmate, and Anne, in the house in Prior Street, the unwedded, unacknowledged mistress, the distant, the secret, the forbidden. He had never disguised from Maggie the temporary and partial nature of the tie that bound them. But the illusion was too strong for both of them. It was strong upon him now.
The woman, Mrs. Pearson, came in with supper, moving round the room in silence, devoted and discreet.
Majendie was hungry. Maggie was unable to conceal her frank joy in seeing him eat and drink. She ate little and talked a great deal, drawn by his questions.
“ What have you been doing, Maggie ? ”
Maggie gave an account of her innocent days, of her labors in house and farm and garden. She loved all three, she loved her flowers and her chickens and her rabbits, and the little young pigs. She loved all things that had life. She was proud of her house. Her hands were always busy in it. She had stitched all the linen for it. She had made all the tablecloths, sofacovers, and curtains, and given them embroidered borders. She liked to move about among all these beautiful things and feel that they were hers. But she loved those most which Majendie had used, or noticed, or admired. After supper she took up her old position by his chair.
“How long can you stay?” said she.
“I must go to-morrow.”
“I’ve told you why, dear. It’s my little girl’s birthday to-morrow.”
“Her birthday. How old will she be to-morrow ? ”
“Seven. What does she do all day long ? ”
“Oh, she amuses herself. We have a garden.”
“How she would love this garden, and the flowers, and the swing, and the chickens, and all the animals, would n’t she ?”
Somehow he did n’t like Maggie to talk about his child, but he had n’t the heart to stop her.
“Is she as pretty as she was?”
“And she’s not a bit like you?” “Not a bit, not a little bit.”
“I’m glad,” said Maggie.
“Why on earth are you glad ?”
“Because—I could n’t bear her child to be like you.”
“ You must n’t say those things, Maggie; I don’t like it.”
“I won’t say them. You don’t mind my thinking them, do you ? I can’t help thinking.”
She thought for a long time; then she got up, and came to him, and put her arm round his neck, and bowed her head and whispered.
“Don’t whisper. I hate it. Speak out. Say what you’ve got to say.”
“I can’t say it.”
She said it very low.
He bent forward, freeing himself from her mouth and clinging arm.
“No, Maggie. Never. I told you that in the beginning. You promised me you would n’t think of it. It’s bad enough as it is.”
“What’s bad enough?”
“Everything, my child. I’m bad enough, if you like; but I’m not as bad as all that, I can assure you.”
“You don’t think me bad?”
“You know I don’t. You know what I think of you. But you must learn to see what’s possible and what is n’t.”
“I do see. Tell me one thing. Is it because you love her?”
“ We can’t go into that, Maggie. Can’t you understand that it may be because I love you?”
“I don’t know. But I don’t mind so long as I know it is n’t because you love her.”
“You’re not to talk about her, Maggie.”
“I know. I won’t. I don’t want to talk about her, I’m sure. I try not to think about her more than I can help.”
“But you must think of her.”
“Oh— must I ?”
“At any rate you must think of me.”
“I do think of you. I think of you from morning till night. I don’t think of anything else. I don’t want anything else. I’m contented as long as I’ve got you. It was n’t that.”
“What was it, Maggie?”
“Nothing. Only—It’s so awfully lonely in between, when you’re not here. That was why I asked you.”
“Poor child, poor Maggie. Is it very bad to bear ? ”
“Not when I know you’re coming.”
“See here— if it gets too bad to bear, we must end it.”
“Yes, Maggie. You must end it; you must give me up, when you ’re tired —”
“Oh, no — no,” she cried.
“Give me up,” he repeated, “and go back to town.”
“Well, yes; if it’s so lonely here.”
“And give you up?”
“Yes, Maggie, you must; if you go back to Scale.”
“I shall never go back. Who could I go to ? There’s nobody who’d ’ave me. I’ve got nobody.”
“Nobody ? ”
“Nobody but you, Wallie. Nobody but you. Have you never thought of that ? Why, where should I be if I was to give you up ? ”
“I see, Maggie. I see. I see.”
Until then he had seen nothing. But Maggie, unwise, had put her hand through the fine web of illusion. She had seen, and made him see the tragedy of the truth behind it, the real nature of the tie that bound them. It was an inconsistent tie, permanent in its impermanence, with all its incompleteness terribly complete. He could not give her up. He had not thought of giving her up ; but neither had he thought of keeping her.
It was all wrong. It was wrong to keep her. It would be wrong to give her up. He was all she had. Whatever happened he could not give her up.
And so he said, “I see. I see.”
“See here,” said she (she had adopted some of his phrases), “when I said there was nobody, I meant nobody I’d have anything to do with. If I went back to Scale, there are plenty of low girls in the town who’d make friends with me, if I’d let ’em. But I won’t be seen with them. You would n’t have me seen with them, would you?”
“No, Maggie, not for all the world.”
“Well then, ’ow can you go on talking about my giving you up?”
No. He could not give her up. There was no tie between them but their sin, yet he could not break it. Degraded as it was, it saved her from deeper degradation.
He loved Anne with his whole soul, with his heart and with his body, and he had given his body to Maggie, with as much heart as went with it. In the world’s sight he loved Maggie and was bound to Anne. In his own sight he loved Anne and was bound to Maggie.
It had come to that.
He did not care to look back upon the steps by which it had come. He only knew that, seven years ago, he had been sound and whole, a man with one aim and one passion and one life. But he and his life were divided, cut clean in two by a line not to be passed or touched upon by either sundered half. All of him that Anne had rejected he had given to Maggie.
As far as he could judge he had acted, not grossly, not recklessly, but with a kind of passionate deliberation. He knew he would have to pay for it. He had not stopped to haggle with his conscience or to ask, How much ? But he was prepared to pay.
Up to this moment his conscience had not dunned him. But now he foresaw a season when the bills would he falling due.
Maggie had torn the veil of illusion, and he looked for the first time upon his sin.
Even his conscience admitted that he had not meant, it to come to that. He had had no ancient private tendency to sin. He had wanted nothing but to live at home, happy with the wife he loved, and with his child, his children. And poor Maggie, she too would have asked no more than to be a good wife to the man she loved, and to be the mother of his children.
This life with Maggie, hidden away in Three Elms Farm, in the wilds of Holderness, — it could not be called dissipation, but it was division. Where once he had been whole he was now divided. The sane, strong affection that should have knit body and soul together was itself broken in two.
And it was she, the helpmate, she who should have kept him whole, who had caused him to be thus sundered from himself and her.
They were all wrong, all frustrated, all incomplete. Anne, in her sublime infidelity to earth; Maggie, turned from her own sweet use that she might give him what Anne could not give; and he, who between them had severed his body from his soul.
Thus he brooded.
And Maggie, with her face hidden against his knee, brooded too, piercing the illusion.
He tried to win her from her sad thoughts by talking again of the house and garden. But Maggie was tired of house and garden now.
“And do the Pearsons look after you well still ? ” he asked.
“Yes. Very well.”
“And Steve — is he as good to you as ever ? ”
Maggie brightened and became more communicative.
“Yes, very good. He was all day mending my bicycle, Sunday, and he takes me out in the boat sometimes; and he’s made such a dear little house for the old Angora rabbit.”
“Do you like going out in the boat ?”
“Yes, very much.”
“Do you like going out with him ?”
“No,” said Maggie, making a little face, half of disgust and half of derision. “No. His hands are all dirty, and he smells of fish.”
Majendie laughed. “There are drawbacks, I must own, to Steve.”
He looked at his watch, an action Maggie hated. It always suggested finality, departure.
“Ten o’clock, Maggie. I must be up at six to-morrow. We sail at seven.”
“At seven!” echoed Maggie in despair.
They were up at six. Maggie went with him to the creek, to see him sail. In the garden she picked a chrysanthemum and stuck it in his buttonhole, forgetting that he could n’t wear her token. There were so many things he could n’t do.
A little rain still fell through a clogging mist. They walked side by side, treading the drenched grass, for the track was too narrow for them both. Maggie’s feet dragged, prolonging the moments.
A white pointed sail showed through the mist, where the little yacht lay in the river off the mouth of the creek.
Steve was in the boat close against the creek’s bank, waiting to row Majendie to the yacht. He touched his cap to Majendie as they appeared on the bank, but he did not look at Maggie when her gentle voice called good-morning.
Steve’s face was close-mouthed and hard set.
Maggie put her hands on Majendie’s shoulders and kissed him. Her cheek against his face was pure and cold, wet with the rain. Steve did not look at them. He never looked at them when they were together.
Majendie dropped into the boat. Steve pushed off from the bank. Maggie stood there watching them go. She stood till the boat reached the creek’s mouth, and Majendie turned, and raised his cap to her; stood till the white sail moved slowly up the river and disappeared, rounding the spit of land.
Majendie, as he paced the deck and talked to his men of wind and weather, turned casually on his heel to look at her where she stood alone in the level immensity of the land. The world looked empty all around her.
And he was touched with a sudden poignant realization of her life; its sadness, its incompleteness, its isolation.
That was what he had brought her to.
The rain cleared off, the mist lifted, and at nine o’clock it was a fine day for Peggy’s birthday. Even Scale, where it stretched its flat avenues into the country, showed golden in the warm and brilliant air.
The household in Prior Street had been up early, making preparations for the day. Peggy had waked before it was light, to feel her presents which lay beside her on her bed; and, by the time Majendie’s sail had passed Fawlness Point, she was up and dressed, waiting for him.
Anne had to break it to her gently that perhaps he would not be home in time for eight o’clock breakfast. Then the child’s mouth trembled, and Anne comforted her, half-smiling and half-afraid.
“Ah, Peggy, Peggy,” she said, as she rocked her against her breast, “what shall I do with you ? Your little heart is too big for your little body.”
Anne’s terror had not left her in three years. It was always with her now. The child was bound to suffer. She was a little mass of throbbing nerves, of trembling emotions.
Yet Anne herself was happier. The three years had passed smoothly over her. Her motherhood had laid its fine, soft finishing touch upon her. Her face, her body, had rounded and ripened, year after slow year, to an abiding beauty, born of her tenderness. At thirty-five Anne Majendie had reached the perfect moment of her physical maturity.
Her mind was no longer harassed by anxiety about her husband. He seemed to have settled down. He had ceased to be uncertain in his temper, by turns irritable and depressed. He had parted with the heaviness which had once roused her aversion, and had recovered his personal distinction, the slender refinement of his youth. She rejoiced in his wellbeing. She attributed it, partly to his open-air habits, partly to the spiritual growth begun in him at the time of his sister’s death.
She desired no change in their relations, no farther understanding, no closer intimacy.
To Anne’s mind, her husband’s attitude to her was perfect. The passion that had been her fear had left him. He waited on her hand and foot, with humble, heart-rending devotion. He let her see that he adored her with discretion, at a distance, as a divinely, incomprehensibly high and holy thing.
Her household life had simplified itself. Her days passed in noiseless, equable procession. Many hours had been given back to her empty after Edith’s death. She had filled them with interests outside her home, with visiting the poor in the district round All Souls, with evening classes for shop-girls, with “rescue” work. Not an hour of her day was idle. At the end of the three years Mrs. Majendie was known in Scale by her broad charities and by her saintly life.
She had fallen away a little from her friends in Thurston Square. In three years Fanny Eliott and her circle had grown somewhat unreal to her. She had been aware of their inefficiency before. There had been a time when she felt that Mrs. Eliott’s eminence had become a little perilous. She herself had placed her on it, and held her there by a somewhat fatiguing effort of the will to believe. She had been partly (though she did not know it) the dupe of Mrs. Eliott’s delight in her, of all the sweet and dangerous ministrations of their mutual vanities. Mrs. Eliott had been uplifted by Anne’s preposterously grave approval. Anne had been ravished by her own distinction as the audience of Fanny Eliott’s loftier and profounder moods. There could be no criticism of these heights and depths. To have depreciated Fanny Eliott’s rarity by a shade would have been to call in question her own.
But all this had ceased long ago, when she married Walter Majendie, and his sister became her dearest friend. Fanny Eliott had always looked on Edith Majendie as her rival; retreating a little ostentatiously before her formidable advance. There should have been no rivalry, for there had been no possible ground of comparison. Neither could Edith Majendie be said to have advanced. The charm of Edith, or rather, her pathetic claim, was that she never could have advanced at all. To Anne’s mind, from the first, there had been no choice between Edith, lying motionless on her sofa by the window, and Fanny at large in the drawing-rooms of her acquaintances, scattering her profuse enthusiasms, revolving in her intellectual round, the prisoner of her own perfections. To come into Edith’s room had been to come into thrilling contact with reality; while Fanny Eliott was forever putting you off with some ingenious refinement on it. Edith’s personality had triumphed over death and time. Fanny Eliott, poor thing, still suffered by the contrast.
Of all Anne’s friends, the Gardners alone stood the test of time. She had never had a doubt of them. They had come later into her life, after the perishing of her great illusion. The shock had humbled her senses and disposed her to reverence for the things of intellect. Dr. Gardner’s position, as president of the Scale Literary and Philosophic Society, was as a high rock to which she clung. Mrs. Gardner was dear to her for many reasons.
The dearness of Mrs. Gardner was significant. It showed that, thanks to Peggy, Anne’s humanization was almost complete.
To-day, which was Peggy’s birthday, Anne’s heart was light and happy. She had planned that, if the day were fine, the festival was to be celebrated by a picnic to Westleydale.
And the day was fine. Majendie had promised to be home in time to start by the nine-fifty train. Meanwhile they waited. Peggy had helped Mary the cook to pack the luncheon basket, and now she felt time heavy on her little hands.
Anne suggested that they should go upstairs and help Nanna. Nanna was in Majendie’s room, turning out his drawers. On his bed there was a pile of suits of the year before last, put aside to be given to Anne’s poor people. When Peggy was tired of fetching and carrying, she watched her mother turning over the clothes and sorting them into heaps. Anne’s methods were rapid and efficient.
“Oh, mummy!” cried Peggy, “don’t! You touch daddy’s things as if you did n’t like them.”
“ Peggy, darling, what do you mean ? ”
“You’re so quick.” She laid her face against one of Majendie’s coats and stroked it. “ Must daddy’s things go away ? ”
“Yes, darling. Why don’t you want them to go?”
“Because I love them. I love all his little coats and hats and shoes and things.”
“Oh, Peggy, Peggy, you ’re a little sentimentalist. Go and see what Nanna’s got there.”
Nanna had given a cry of joyous discovery. “Look, ma’am,”said she, “what I’ve found in master’s portmanteau.”
Nanna came forward, shaking out a child’s frock. A frock of pure white silk, embroidered round the neck and wrists with a deep border of daisies, pink and white and gold.
“Oh, mummy, what is it?”
Peggy touched a daisy with her soft forefinger and shrank back shyly. She knew it was her birthday, but she did not know whether the frock had anything to do with that, or not.
“I wonder,” said Anne, “what little girl daddy brought that for.”
“Did daddy bring it?”
“Yes. Daddy brought it. Do you think he meant it for her birthday, Nanna?” “Well, m’m, he may have meant it for her birthday last year. I found it stuffed into ’is portmanteau wot ’e took with him in the yacht a year ago. It’s bin there— poked away in the cupboard ever since. I suppose he bought it, meaning to give it to Miss Peggy, and put it away and forgot all about it. See m’m—” Nanna measured the frock against Peggy’s small figure—“It’d a bin too large for her, last birthday. It’ll just fit her now, m’m.”
“O Peggy!” said Anne. “She must put it on. Quick, Nanna. You shall wear it, my pet, and surprise daddy.”
“What fun!” said Peggy.
“Is n’t it fun ? ” Anne was as gay and as happy as Peggy. She was smiling her pretty smile.
Peggy was solemnly arrayed in the little frock. The borders of daisies showed like a necklace and bracelets against her white skin.
“Well, m’m,” said Nanna, “if master did forget, he knew what he was about, at the time, anyhow. It’s the very frock for her.”
“Yes. See, Peggy—it’s daisies, marguerites. That’s why daddy chose it — for your little name, darling, do you see ? ”
“My name,” said Peggy softly, moved by the wonder and beauty of her frock.
“There he is, Peggy! Run down and show yourself.”
“O muvver,” shrieked Peggy, “it will be a surprise for daddy, won’t it ?”
She ran down. They followed, and leaned over the banisters to listen to the surprise. They heard Peggy’s laugh as she came to the last flight of stairs and showed herself to her father. They heard her shriek, “Daddy! daddy!”
Then there was calm.
Then Peggy’s voice dropped from its high joy and broke. “ O daddy, are you angry with me?”
Anne came downstairs. Majendie had the child in his arms and was kissing her.
“Are you angry with me, daddy?” she repeated.
“No, my sweetheart, no.”
He looked up at Anne. He was very pale, and a sweat was on his forehead.
“Who put that frock on her?”
“I did,” said Anne.
“I think you’d better take it off again,” he said quietly.
Anne raised her eyebrows as a sign to him to look at Peggy’s miserable mouth. “Oh, let her wear it,” she said. “It’s her birthday.”
Majendie wiped his forehead and turned aside into the study.
“Muvver,” said Peggy, as they went hand in hand upstairs again, “do you think daddy really meant it as a surprise for me ? ”
“I think he must have done, darling.”
“Are n’t you sorry we spoiled his surprise, mummy?”
“I don’t think he minds, Peggy.”
“I think he does. Why did he look angry, and say I was to take it off?”
“Perhaps, because it’s rather too nice a frock for everyday.”
“My birthday isn’t every day,” said Peggy.
So Peggy wore the frock that Maggie had made for her and given to Majendie last year. He had hidden it in his portmanteau, meaning to give it to Mrs. Ransome at Christmas. And he had thrown the portmanteau into the darkest corner of the cupboard, and gone away and forgotten all about it.
And now the sight of Maggie’s handiwork had given him a shock. For his sin was heavy upon him. Every day he went in fear of discovery. Anne would ask him where he had got that frock, and he would have to lie to her. And it would be no use; for sooner or later, she would know that he had lied; and she would track Maggie down by the frock.
He hated to see his innocent child dressed in the garment which was a token and memorial of his sin. He wished he had thrown the damned thing into the Humber.
But Anne had no suspicion. Her face was smooth and tranquil as she came downstairs. She was calling Peggy her “little treasure,” and her eyes were smiling as she looked at the frail, small white and gold creature, stepping daintily and shyly in her delicate dress.
Peggy was buttoned into a little white coat to keep her warm; and they set out, Majendie carrying the luncheon basket, and Peggy an enormous doll.
Peggy enjoyed the journey. When she was not talking to Majendie she was singing a little song to keep the doll quiet, so that the time passed very quickly both for her and for him. There were other people in the carriage, and Anne was afraid that they would be annoyed with Peggy’s singing. But they seemed to like it as much as she and Majendie. Nobody was ever annoyed with Peggy.
In Westleydale the beech-trees were in golden leaf. It was green underfoot and on the folding hills. Overhead it was limitless blue above the uplands; and above the woods, among the golden treetops, clear films and lacing veins and brilliant spots of blue.
Majendie felt Peggy’s hand tighten on his hand. Her little body was trembling with delight.
They found the beech-tree under which he and Anne had once sat. He looked at her. And she, remembering, half turned her face from him; and, as she stooped and felt for a soft dry place for the child to sit on, she smiled, half unconsciously, a shy and tender smile.
Then he saw, beside her half-turned face, the face of another woman, smiling, shyly and tenderly, another smile; and his heart smote him with the sorrow of his sin.
They sat down, all three, under the beech-tree; and Peggy took, first Majendie’s hand, then Anne’s hand, and held them together in her lap.
“Mummy,” said she, “are n’t you glad that daddy came ? It would n’t be half so nice without him, would it?”
“No,” said Anne, “it would n’t.”
“Mummy, you don’t say that as if you meant it.”
“O Peggy, of course I meant it.”
“Yes, but you didn’t make it sound so.”
“Peggy,” said Majendie, “you’re a terribly observant little person.”
“She’s a little person who sometimes observes all wrong.”
“No, mummy, I don’t. You never talk to daddy like you talk to me.”
“You ’re a little girl, dear, and daddy’s a big grown-up man.”
“That’s not what I mean, though. You’ve got a grown-up voice for me, too. I don’t mean your grown-up voice. I mean, mummy, you talk to daddy as if — as if you had n’t known him such a very long time. And you talk to me as if you’d known me — oh, ever so long. Have you known me longer than you’ve known daddy?”
Majendie gazed with feigned abstraction at the shoulder of the hill visible through the branches of the trees.
“Bless you, sweetheart, I knew daddy long before you were ever thought of.”
“When was I thought of, mummy?”
“I don’t know, darling.”
“Do you know, daddy?”
“ Yes, Peggy. I know. You were thought of here, in this wood, under this tree, on mummy’s birthday, between eight and nine years ago.”
“Who thought of me?”
“Ah, that’s telling.”
“Who thought of me, mummy?”
“Daddy and I, dear.”
“And you forgot, and daddy remembered.”
“Yes. I’ve got a rather better memory than your mother, dear.”
“You forgot my old birthday, daddy.”
“I haven’t forgotten your mother’s old birthday, though.”
Peggy was thinking. Her forehead was all wrinkled with the intensity of her thought.
“Mummy—am I only seven?”
“Only seven, Peggy.”
“Then,” said Peggy, “you did think of me before I was born. How did you know me before I was born?”
Anne shook her head.
“Daddy, how did you know me before I was born ? ”
“Peggy, you’re a little tease.”
“You brought it on yourself, my dear. Peggy, if you’ll leave off teasing daddy, I’ll tell you a story.”
“Once upon a time” (Anne’s voice was very low) “mummy had a dream. She dreamed she was in this wood, walking along that little path— just there — not thinking of Peggy. And when she came to this tree she saw an angel, with big white wings. He was lying under this very tree, on this very bit of grass, just there, where daddy’s sitting. And one of his wings was stretched out on the grass, and it was hollow like a cradle. It was all lined with little feathers, like the inside of a swan’s wing, as soft as soft. And the other wing was stretched over it like the top of a cradle. And inside, all among the soft little feathers, there was a little baby girl lying, just like Peggy.”
“Oh, mummy, was it me?”
“Sh-sh-sh. Whoever it was, the angel saw that mummy loved it, and wanted it very much — ”
“The little baby-girl?”
“Yes. So he took the baby and gave it to mummy, to be her own little girl. That’s how Peggy came to mummy.”
“And did he give it to daddy, too, to be his little girl ? ”
“Yes,” said Majendie, “I was wondering where I came in.”
“Yes. He gave it to daddy to be his little girl, too.”
“I’m glad he gave me to daddy. The angel brought me to you in the night, like daddy brought me my big dolly. You did bring my big dolly, and put her on my bed, didn’t you, daddy? Last night ? ”
Majendie was silent.
“Daddy was n’t at home last night, Peggy.”
“O daddy, where were you?”
Majendie felt his forehead getting damp again.
“Daddy was away on business.”
“O mummy, don’t you wish he’d never go away ? ”
“I think it’s time for lunch,” said Majendie.
They ate their lunch; and when it was ended, Majendie went to the cottage to find water, for Peggy was thirsty. He returned, carrying water in a pitcher, and followed by a red-cheeked, rosy little girl who brought milk in a cup for Peggy.
Anne remembered the cup. It was the same cup that she had drunk from after her husband. And the child was the same child whom he had found sitting in the grass, whom he had shown to her and taken from her arms, whose little body, held close to hers, had unsealed in her the first springs of her maternal passion. It all came back to her.
The little girl beamed on Peggy with a face like a small red sun, and Peggy conceived a sudden yearning for her companionship. It seemed that, at the cottage, there were rabbits, and a new baby, and a litter of puppies, three days old. And all these wonders the little girl offered to show to Peggy, if Peggy would go with her.
Peggy begged, and went through the wood, hand in hand with the little beaming girl. Majendie and Anne watched them out of sight.
“Look at the two pairs of legs,” said Majendie.
Anne sighed. Her Peggy showed very white and frail beside the red, lustylegged daughter of the woods.
“I’m not at all happy about her,” said she.
“She gets so terribly tired.”
“All children do, don’t they?”
Anne shook her head. “Not as she does. It is n’t a child’s healthy tiredness. It does n’t come like that. It came on quite suddenly the other day, after she ’d been excited; and her little lips turned gray.”
“Get Gardner to look at her.”
“I’m going to. He says she ought to be more in the open air. I wish we could get a cottage somewhere in the country, with a nice garden.”
Majendie said nothing. He was thinking of Three Elms Farm, and the garden and the orchard, and of the pure wind that blew over them, straight from the sea. He remembered how Maggie had said that the child would love it.
“You could afford it, Walter, could n’t you, now?”
“Of course I can afford it.”
He thought how easily it could be done, if he gave up his yacht and the farm. His business was doing better every year. But the double household was a drain on his fresh resources. He could not very well afford to take another house and keep the farm too. He had thought of that before. He had been thinking of it last night, when he spoke to Maggie about giving him up. Poor Maggie! Well, he would have to manage somehow. If the worst came to the worst they could sell the house in Prior Street. And he would sell the yacht.
“I think I shall sell the yacht,” he said.
“Oh no, you must n’t do that. You ‘ve been so well since you’ve had it.”
“No, it is n’t necessary. I shall be better if I take more exercise.”
Peggy came back, and the subject dropped.
Peggy was very unhappy before the picnic ended. She was tired, so tired that she cried piteously, and Majendie had to take her up in his arms and carry her all the way to the station. Anne carried the doll.
In the train Peggy fell asleep in her father’s arms. She slept with her face pressed close against him, and one hand clinging to his breast. Her head rested on his arm, and her hair curled over his rough coat-sleeve.
“Look!” he whispered.
Anne looked. “The little lamb,” she said.
Then she was silent, discerning in the man’s face, bent over the sleeping child, the divine look of love and tenderness. She Was silent, held by an old enchantment and an older vision; brooding on things dear and secret and long-forgotten.
Though Thurston Square saw little of Mrs. Majendie, the glory of Mrs. Eliott’s Thursdays remained undiminished. The same little procession filed through her drawing-room as before,— Mrs. Pooley, Miss Proctor, the Gardners, and Canon Wharton. Mrs. Eliott was more than ever haggard and pursuing; she had more than ever the air of clinging, desperate and exhausted, on her precipitous intellectual heights.
But Mrs. Pooley never flagged, possibly because her ideas were vaguer and more miscellaneous, and therefore less exhausting. It was she who now urged Mrs. Eliott on. This year Mrs. Pooley was going in for thought-power, and for mind-control, and had drawn Mrs. Eliott in with her. They still kept it up for hours together, and still they dreaded the disastrous invasions of Miss Proctor.
Miss Proctor rode rough-shod over the thought-power, and trampled contemptuously on the mind-control. Mrs. Gardner’s attitude was mysterious and unsatisfactory. She seemed to stand serenely on the shore of the deep sea where Mrs. Eliott and Mrs. Pooley were forever plunging and sinking, and coming up again, bobbing and bubbling, to the surface. Her manner implied that she would die rather than go in with them; it also suggested that she knew rather more about the thought-power and the mind-control than they did; but that she did not wish to talk so much about it.
Mr. Eliott, dexterous as ever, and fortified by the exact sciences, took refuge from the occult under his covering of profound stupidity. He had a secret understanding with Dr. Gardner on the subject. His spirit no longer searched for Dr. Gardner’s across the welter of his wife’s drawing-room, knowing that it would find it at the club.
Now, in October, about four o’clock on the Thursday after Peggy’s birthday, Canon Wharton and Miss Proctor met at Mrs. Eliott’s. The canon watched his opportunity and drew his hostess apart.
“May I speak with you a moment,” he said, “before your other guests arrive ?”
Mrs. Eliott led him to a secluded sofa. “If you’ll sit here,” said she, “we can leave Johnson to entertain Miss Proctor.”
“I am perplexed and distressed,” said the canon, “about our dear Mrs. Majendie.”
Mrs. Eliott’s eyes darkened with anxiety. She clasped her hands. “Oh, why ? What is it ? Do you mean about the dear little girl ?”
“I know nothing about the little girl. But I hear very unpleasant things about her husband.”
“What things ? ”
The canon’s face was reticent and grim. He wished Mrs. Eliott to understand that he was no unscrupulous purveyor of gossip; that if he spoke, it was under restraint and severe necessity.
“I do not,” said the canon, “usually give heed to disagreeable reports. But I am afraid that where there is such a dense cloud of smoke there must be some fire.”
“I think,” said Mrs. Eliott, “perhaps they did n’t get on very well together once. But they seem to have made it up after the sister’s death. She has been happier these last three years. She has been a different woman.”
“The same woman, my dear lady, the same woman. Only a better saint. For the last three years, they say, he has been living with another woman.”
“Oh—It’s impossible. Impossible. He is away a great deal — but —”
“He is away a great deal too often. Running up to Scarby every week in that yacht of his. In with the Ransomes and all that disreputable set.”
“Is Lady Cayley in Scale?”
“Lady Cayley is at Scarby.”
“Do you mean to say — ”
“I mean,” said the canon, rising, “to say nothing.”
Mrs. Eliott detained him with her eyes of anguish.
“Canon Wharton — do you think she knows?”
“I cannot tell you.”
The canon never told. He was far too clever.
Mrs. Eliott wandered to Miss Proctor.
“Do you know,” said Miss Proctor, searching Mrs. Eliott’s face with an inquisitive gaze, “how our friends, the Majendies, are getting on?”
“Oh, as usual. I see very little of her now. Anne is quite taken up with her little girl and with her good works.”
“Oh! That,” said Miss Proctor, “was a most unsuitable marriage.”
It was five o’clock. The canon and Miss Proctor had drunk their two cups of tea, and departed. Mrs. Pooley had arrived soon after four; she lingered, to talk a little more about the thoughtpower and the mind-control. Mrs. Pooley was convinced that she could make things happen. That they were, in fact, happening. But Mrs. Eliott was no longer interested.
Mrs. Pooley, too, departed, feeling that dear Fanny’s Thursday had been a disappointment. She had been quite unable to sustain the conversation at its usual height.
Mrs. Pooley indubitably gone, Mrs. Eliott wandered down to Johnson in his study. There, in perfect confidence, she revealed to him the canon’s revelations.
Johnson betrayed no surprise. That story had been going the round of his club for the last two years.
“What will Anne do,” said Mrs. Eliott, “when she finds out ?”
“I don’t suppose she’ll do anything.”
“Will she get a separation, do you think?”
“How can I tell you?” “I wonder if she knows.”
“She’s not likely to tell you, if she does.”
“She’s bound to know, sooner or later. I wonder if one ought to prepare her ? ”
“Prepare her for what?”
“The shock of it. I’m afraid of her hearing in some horrid way. It would be so awful, if she did n’t know.”
“It can’t be pleasant, any way, my dear.”
“Do advise me, Johnson. Ought I, or ought I not, to tell her?”
Mr. Eliott’s face told how his nature shrank from the agony of decision. But he was touched by her distress.
“ Certainly not. Much better let well alone.”
“If I were only sure that it was well I was letting alone.”
“Can’t be sure of anything. Give it the benefit of the doubt.”
“Yes — but if you were I ?”
“If I were you I should say nothing.”
“That only means that I should say nothing if I were you. But I’m not.”
“Be thankful, my dear, at any rate, for that.”
He took up a book, The Search for Stellar Parallaxes, a book that he understood and that his wife could not understand. That book was the sole refuge open to him when pressed for an opinion. He knew that, when she saw him reading it, she would realize that he was her intellectual master.
The front door bell announced the arrival of another caller.
She went away, wondering, as he meant she should, whether he were so very undecided after all. Certainly his indecisions closed a subject more effectually than other people’s verdicts.
She found Anne in the empty, halfdark drawing-room, waiting for her. She had chosen the darkest corner, and the darkest hour.
“Fanny,” she said, and her voice trembled, “are you alone? Can I speak to you a moment?”
“Yes, dear, yes. Just let me leave word with Mason that I’m not at home. But no one will come now.”
In the interval she heard Anne struggling with the sob that had choked her voice. She felt that the decision had been made for her. The terrible task had been taken out of her hands. Anne knew.
She sat down beside her friend and put her hand on her shoulder. In that moment poor Fanny’s intellectual vanities dropped from her, like an inappropriate garment, and she became pure woman. She forgot Anne’s recent disaffection and her coldness, she forgot the years that had separated them, and remembered only the time when Anne was the girl-friend who had loved her, and had come to her in all her griefs, and had made her house her home.
“What is it, dear?” she murmured.
Anne felt for her hand and pressed it. She tried to speak, but no words would come.
“Of course,” thought Mrs. Eliott, “she cannot tell me. But she knows I know.”
“My dear,” she said, “can I or Johnson help you ?”
Anne shook her head, but she pressed her friend’s hand tighter.
Wondering what she could do or say to help her, Mrs. Eliott resolved to take Anne’s knowledge for granted and act upon it.
“If there’s trouble, dear, will you come to us ? We want you to look on our house as a refuge, any hour of the day or night.”
Anne stared at her friend. There was something ominous and dismaying in her solemn tenderness, and it roused Anne to wonder, even in her grief.
“You cannot help me, dear,” she said. “No one can. Yet I had to come to you and tell you —”
“Tell me everything,” said Mrs. Eliott, “if you can.”
Anne tried to steady her voice to tell her, and failed. Then Fanny had an inspiration. She felt that she must divert Anne’s thoughts from the grief that made her dumb, and get her to talk naturally of other things.
“How’s Peggy?” said she. She knew it would be good to remind her that, whatever happened, she still had the child.
But at that question, Anne released Mrs. Eliott’s hand, and laid her head back upon the cushion and cried.
“Dear,” whispered Mrs. Eliott, with her inspiration full upon her, “you will always have her.”
Then Anne sat up in her corner, and put away her tears and controlled herself to speak,
“Fanny,” she said, “Dr. Gardner has seen her. He says I shall not have her very long. Perhaps — a few years — if we take the very greatest care—”
“Oh, my dear! What is it?”
“It’s her heart. I thought it was her spine, because of Edie. But it is n’t. She has valvular disease. O Fanny, I did n’t think a little child could have it.”
“Nor I,” said Mrs. Eliott, shocked into a great calm. “But surely — if you take care—”
“No. He gives no hope. He only says a few years, if we leave Scale and take her into the country. She must never be over-tired, never excited. We must never vex her. He says one violent crying fit might kill her. And she cries so easily. She cries sometimes till she’s sick.”
Mrs. Eliott’s face had grown white; she trembled, and was dumb before the anguish of Anne’s face.
But it was Anne who rose, and put her arms about the childless woman, and kissed and comforted her.
It was as if she had said, “Thank God you never had one.”
The rumor which was going the round of the clubs in due time reached Lady Cayley through the Ransomes. It roused in her many violent and conflicting emotions.
She sat trembling in the Ransomes’ drawing-room. Mrs. Ransome had just asked whether there was anything in it; because if there was, she, Mrs. Ransome, washed her hands of her. She intimated that it would take a great deal of washing to get Sarah off her hands.
Sarah had unveiled the face of horror, of outraged virtue, and the wrath and writhing of propriety wounded in the uncertain, quivering, vital spot. During the unveiling Dick Ransome had come in. He wanted to know if Topsie had been bullying poor Toodles. Whereupon Topsie wept feebly, and poor Toodles had a moment of monstrous calm.
She wanted to get it quite clear, to make no mistake. They might as well give her the details. Majendie had left his wife, had he ? Well, she was n’t surprised at that. The wonder was that, having married her, he had stuck to her so long. He had left his wife, and was living at Scarby, was he, with her ? Well, she only wanted to get all the details clear.
At this Sarah fell into a fit of laughter very terrifying to see. Since her own sister would n’t take her word for it, she supposed she’d have to prove that it was not so.
And, under the horror of her virtue and respectability, there heaved a dull, dumb fury born of her memory that it once was, her belief that it might have been again, and her knowledge that it, was not so. She trembled, shaken by the troubling of the fire that ran underground, the immense, unseen,unliberated primeval fire. She was no longer a creature of sophistries, hypocrisies, and wiles. She was the large woman of the simple earth, welded by the dark, unspiritual flame.
Dick Ransome turned on his sister-inlaw a pale, puffy face in which two little dark eyes twinkled with a shrewd, gross humor. Nothing could possibly have pleased Dick Ransome more than an exhibition of indignant virtue, as achieved by Sarah. He knew a great deal more about Sarah than Mrs. Ransome knew, or than Sarah knew herself. To Dick Ransome’s mind, thus illuminated by knowledge, that spectacle swept the whole range of human comedy. He sat, taking in all the entertainment it presented; and, when it was all over, he remarked quietly that Toodles need n’t bother about her proofs. He had got them too. He knew that it was not so. He could tell her that much, but he was n’t going to give Majendie away. No, she could n’t get any more out of him than that.
Sarah smiled. She did not need to get anything more out of him. She had her proof; or, if it did n’t exactly amount to proof, she had her clue. She had found it long ago; and she had followed it up, if not to the end, at any rate quite far enough. She reflected that Majendie, like the dear fool he always was, had given it to her himself five years ago.
Men’s sins take care of themselves. It is their innocent good deeds that start the hounds of destiny. When Majendie sent Maggie Forrest’s handiwork to Mrs. Ransome, with a kind note recommending the little embroideress, by that innocent good deed he woke the sleeping dogs of destiny. Mrs. Ransome’s sister had tracked poor Maggie down by the long trail of her beautiful embroidery. She had been baffled when the embroidered clue broke off. Now, after three years, she leaped (and it was not a very difficult leap for Lady Cayley) to the firm conclusion. Maggie Forrest and her art had disappeared for three years; so, at perilous intervals, had Majendie; therefore they had disappeared together.
Sarah did not like the look in Ransome’s eye. She removed herself from it to the seclusion of her bedroom. There she bathed her heated face with toilette vinegar, steadied her nerves with a cigarette, lay down on a couch, and rested, and, pure from passion, revised the situation calmly. She was an eminently practical, sensible woman, who knew the facts of life, and knew, also, how to turn them to her own advantage.
Seen by the larger, calmer spirit that was Sarah now, the situation was not so unpleasant as it had at first appeared. To be sure, the rumor in which she had figured was fatal to the matrimonial vision, and to the beautiful illusion of propriety in which she had once lived. But Sarah had renounced the vision; she had abandoned the pursuit of the fugitive propriety. She had long ago seen through the illusion. She might be a deceiver; but she had no power to hoodwink her own indestructible lucidity. Looking back on her life, after the joyous romances of her youth, the years had passed like so many funeral processions, each bearing some pleasant scandal to its burial. Then there had come the dreary funeral feast, and then the days of mournful rehabilitation. Oh, that rehabilitation! There had been three years of it. Three years of exhausting struggle for a position in society, three years of crawling, and pushing, and scrambling, and climbing. There had been a dubious triumph. Then six years of respectable futility, ambiguous courtship, and palpable frustration. After all that, there was something flattering in the thought that, at forty-five, she should yet find her name still coupled with Walter Majendie’s in a passionate adventure.
It might easily have been, but for Walter’s imbecile, suicidal devotion to his wife. He had got nothing out of his marriage. Worse than nothing. He was the laughing stock of all his friends who were in the secret; who saw him groveling at the heels of a disagreeable woman who had made him conspicuous by her aversion. Of course, it might easily have been.
Sarah’s imagination (for she had an imagination) drew out all the sweetness that there was for it in that idea. Then it occurred to her sound, prosaic commonsense, that a reputation is still a reputation, all the more precious if somewhat precariously acquired; that, though you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, hanging is very poor fun when for years you have seen nothing of sheep or lamb either; that, in short, she must take steps to save her reputation.
The shortest way to save it was the straight way. She would go straight to Mrs. Majendie with her proofs. Her duty to herself justified the somewhat unusual step. And more than her duty Sarah loved a scene. She loved to play with other people’s emotions and to exhibit her own. She wanted to see how Mrs. Majendie would take it; how the white-faced, high-handed lady would look when she was told that her husband had consoled himself for her highhandedness. She had always been possessed by an ungovernable curiosity with regard to Majendie’s wife.
She did not know Majendie’s wife, but she knew Majendie. She knew all about the separation and its cause. That was where she had come in. She divined that Mrs. Majendie had never forgiven her husband for his old intimacy with her. It was Mrs. Majendie’s jealousy thathad driven him out of the house, into the arms of pretty Maggie. Where, she wondered, would Mrs. Majendie’s jealousy of pretty Maggie drive him ?
Though Sarah knew Majendie, that was more than she would undertake to say. But the more she thought about it, the more she wondered, and the more she wondered, the more she desired to know.
She wondered whether Mrs. Majendie had heard the report. From all she could gather, it was hardly likely. Neither Mrs. Majendie nor her friends mixed in those circles where it went the round. The scandal of the clubs and of the Park would never reach her in the high seclusion of the house in Prior Street.
Into that house Lady Cayley could not hope to penetrate except by guile. Once admitted, straightforwardness would be her method. She must not attempt to give the faintest social color to her visit. She must take for granted Mrs. Majendie’s view of her impossibility. To be sure, Mrs. Majendie’s prejudices were moral even more than social. But moral prejudice could be overcome by cleverness working towards a formidable moral effect.
She would call after six o’clock, an hour incompatible with any social intention. An hour when she would probably find Mrs. Majendie alone.
She rested all afternoon. At five o’clock she fortified herself with strong tea and brandy. Then she made an elaborate and thoughtful toilet.
At forty-five Sarah’s face was very large and horribly white. She restored, discreetly, delicately, the vanished rose. The beautiful, flower-like edges of her mouth were blurred. With a thin thread of rouge she retraced the once perfect outline. Wrinkles had drawn in the corners of the indomitable eyes, and illhealth had dulled their blue. That saddest of all changes she repaired by handmassage, pomade, and belladonna. The somewhat unrefined exuberance of her figure she laced in an inimitable corset. Next she arrayed herself in a suit of dark blue cloth, simple and severely reticent; in a white silk blouse, simpler still, sewn with innocent daisies, Maggie’s handiwork; in a hat, gay in form, austere in color; and in gloves of immaculate whiteness.
Nobody could have possessed a more irreproachable appearance than Lady Cayley when she set out for Prior Street.
At the door she gave neither name nor card. She announced herself as a lady who desired to see Mrs. Majendie for a moment on important business.
Kate wondered a little, and admitted her. Ladies did call sometimes on important business, ladies who approached Mrs. Majendie on missions of charity; and these did not always give their names.
Anne was upstairs in the nursery, superintending the packing of Peggy’s little trunk. She was taking her away to-morrow to the seaside, by Dr. Gardner’s orders. She supposed that the nameless lady would be some earnest, beneficent person connected with a case for her rescue committee, who might have excellent reasons for not announcing herself by name.
And, at first, coming into the low-lit drawing-room, she did not recognize her visitor. She advanced innocently, in her perfect manner, with a charming smile and an appropriate apology.
The smile died with a sudden rigor of repulsion. She paused before seating herself, as an intimation that the occasion was not one that could be trusted to explain itself. Lady Cayley rose to it.
“Forgive me for calling at this unconventional hour, Mrs. Majendie.”
Mrs. Majendie’s silence implied that she could not forgive her for calling at any hour. Lady Cayley smiled inimitably.
“I wanted to find you at home.”
“You did not give me your name, Lady Cayley.”
Their eyes crossed like swords before the duel.
“I didn’t, Mrs. Majendie, because I wanted to find you at home. I can’t help being unconventional—”
Mrs. Majendie raised her eyebrows.
“— It’s my nature.”
Mrs. Majendie dropped her eyelids, as much as to say that the nature of Lady Cayley did not interest her.
“And I’ve come on a most unconventional errand.”
“Do you mean an unpleasant one?”
“I’m afraid I do, rather. And it’s just as unpleasant for me as it is for you. Have you any idea, Mrs. Majendie, why I’ve been obliged to come ? It’ll make it easier for me if you have.”
“I assure you I have none. I cannot conceive why you have come, nor how I can make anything easier for you.”
“I think I mean — it would have made it easier for you.”
“For me ?”
“Well — it would have spared you some painful explanations.” Sarah felt herself sincere. She really desired to spare Mrs. Majendie. The part which she had rehearsed with such ease in her own bedroom was impossible in Mrs. Majendie’s drawing-room. She was charmed by the spirit of the place, constrained by its suggestion of fair observances, high decencies, and social suavities. She could not sit there and tell Mrs. Majendie that her husband had been unfaithful to her. You do not say these things. And so subdued was Sarah that she found a certain relief in the reflection that, by clearing herself, she would clear Majendie.
“I don’t in the least know what you want to say to me,” said Mrs. Majendie, “but I would rather take everything for granted than have any explanations.”
“If I thought you would take my innocence for granted —”
“Your innocence? I should be a bad judge of it, Lady Cayley.”
“Quite so.” Lady Cayley smiled again, and again inimitably. (It was extraordinary, the things she took for granted.) “That’s why I’ve come to explain.”
“One moment. Perhaps I am mistaken. But, if you are referring to — to what happened in the past, there need be no explanation. I have put all that out of my mind now. I have heard that you, too, have left it far behind you; and I am willing to believe it. There is nothing more to be said.”
There was such a sweetness and dignity in Mrs. Majendie’s voice and manner that Lady Cayley was further moved to compete in dignity and sweetness. She suppressed the smile that ignored so much and took so much for granted.
“Unfortunately a great deal more has been said. Your husband is an intimate friend of my sister, Mrs. Ransome, as of course you know.”
Mrs. Majendie’s face denied all knowledge of the intimacy.
“ I might have met him at her house a hundred times, but, I assure you, Mrs. Majendie, that, since his marriage, I have not met him more than twice, anywhere. The first time was at the Hannays’. You were there. You saw all that passed between us.”
“The second time was at the Hannays’, too. Mrs. Hannay was with us, all the time. What do you suppose he talked to me about ? His child. He talked about nothing else.”
“ I suppose,” said Mrs. Majendie coldly, “there was nothing else to talk about.”
“No — But it was so dear and naïf of him.” She pondered on his naïveté with down-dropped eyes whose lids sheltered the irresponsibly hilarious blue. “He talked about his child —your child — to me. I had n’t seen him for two years, and that’s all he could talk about. I had to sit and listen to that.”
“It would n’t hurt you, Lady Cayley.”
“It didn’t. And I’m sure the little girl is charming. Only — It was so delicious of your husband, don’t you see ?” Her face curled all over in its soft and sensual smile. “If we’d been two babes unborn there could n’t have been a more innocent conversation. ”
“Well, since that night we haven’t seen each other for more than five years. Ask him if it is n’t true. Ask Mrs. Hannay —”
“Lady Cayley, I do not doubt your word—nor my husband’s honor. I can’t think why you ’re giving yourself all this trouble.”
“Why, because they ’re saying now —
Mrs. Majendie rose. “Excuse me, if you’ve only come to tell me what people are saying, it is useless. I never listen to what people say.”
“It isn’t likely they’d say it. to you.”
“Then why should you say it to me.”
“Because it concerns my reputation.”
“Forgive me, but — your reputation does not concern me.”
“And how about your husband’s reputation, Mrs. Majendie ? ”
“My husband’s reputation can take care of itself.”
“Not in Scale.”
“There’s no more scandal talked in Scale than in any other place. I never pay any attention to it.”
“That’s all very well — but you must defend yourself sometimes. And when it comes to saying that I’ve been living with Mr. Majendie in Scarby for the last three years —”
Mrs. Majendie was so calm that Lady Cayley fancied that, after all, this was not the first time she had heard that rumor.
“Let them say it,” said she. “Nobody’ll believe it.”
“Everybody believes it. I came to you because I was afraid you’d be the first.”
“To believe it? I assure you, Lady Cayley, I should be the last.”
“What was to prevent you? You did n’t know me.”
“No. But I know my husband.”
“So do I.”
“Not now,” said Mrs. Majendie quietly.
Lady Cayley’s bosom heaved. She had felt that she had risen to the occasion. She had achieved a really magnificent renunciation. With almost suicidal generosity, she had handed Majendie over intact, as it were, to his insufferable wife. She was wounded in several very sensitive places by the married woman’s imperious denial of her part in him, by her attitude of indestructible and unique possession. If she did n’t know him, she would like to know who did. But until now she had meant to spare Mrs. Majendie her knowledge of him, for she was not ill-natured. She was sorry for the poor, inept, unhappy prude.
Even now, seated in Mrs. Majendie’s drawing-room, she had no impulse to wound her mortally. Her instinct was rather to patronize and pity, to unfold the long result of a superior experience, to instruct this woman who was so incompetent to deal with men, who had spoiled, stupidly, her husband’s life and her own. In that moment Sarah contemplated nothing more outrageous than a little straight talk with Mrs. Majendie.
“Look here, Mrs. Majendie,” she said, with an air of finely ungovernable impulse. “You’re a saint. You know no more about men than your little girl does. I’m not a saint, I’m a woman of the world. I think I’ve had a rather larger experience of men —”
Mrs. Majendie cut her short.
“I do not want to hear anything about your experience.”
“Dear lady, you shan’t hear anything about it. I was only going to tell you that, of all the men I’ve known, there’s nobody I know better than your husband. My knowledge of him is probably a little different from yours.”
“That I can well believe.”
“You mean you think I would n’t know a good man if I saw one ? My experience is n’t as bad as all that. I can tell a good woman when I see one, too. You’re a good woman, Mrs. Majendie, and I ’ve no doubt that you’ve been told I ’m a bad one. All I can say is, that Walter Majendie was a good man when I first knew him. He was a good man when he left me and married you. So my badness can’t have hurt him very much. If he’s gone wrong now, it’s that goodness of yours that’s done it.”
Anne’s lips turned white, but their muscles never moved. And the woman who watched her wondered in what circumstances Mrs. Majendie would display emotion, if she did not display it now.
“What right have you to say these things to me ? ”
“I’ve a right to say a good deal more. Your husband was very fond of me. He would have married me if his friends had n’t come and bullied me to give him up for the good of his morals. I loved him—” She suggested by an adroit shrug of her shoulders that her love was a thing that Mrs. Majendie could either take for granted or ignore. She did n’t expect her to understand it. “And I gave him up. I’m not a cold-blooded woman; and it was pretty hard for me. But I did it. And” (she faced her) “what was the good of it ? Which of us has been the best for his morals ? You or me ? He lived with me two years, and he married you, and everybody said how virtuous and proper he was. Well, he’s been married to you for nine years, and he’s been living with another woman for the last three.”
She had not meant to say it, for (in the presence of the social sanctities) you do not say these things. But flesh and blood are stronger than all the social sanctities; and flesh and blood had risen and claimed their old dominion over Sarah. The unspeakable depths in her had been stirred by her vision of the things that might have been. She was filled with a passionate hatred of the purity which had captured Majendie, and drawn him from her, and made her seem vile in his sight. She rejoiced in her power to crush it, to confront it with the proof of its own futility.
“I do not believe it,” said Mrs, Majendie.
“ Of course you don’t believe it. You ’re a good woman.” She shook her meditative head. “The sort of a woman who can live with a man for nine years without seeing what he’s like. If you’d understood your husband as well as I do, you’d have known that he couldn’t run his life on your lines for six months, let alone nine years.”
Mrs. Majendie’s chin rose, as if she were lifting her face above the reach of the hand that had tried to strike it. Her voice throbbed on one deep monotonous note.
“I do not believe a word of what you say. And I cannot think what your motive is in saying it.”
“Don’t worry about my motive. It ought to be pretty clear. Let me tell you — you can bring your husband back tomorrow, and you can keep him to the end of time, if you choose, Mrs. Majendie. Or you can lose him altogether. And you will, if you go on as you’re doing. If I were you, I should make up my mind whether it’s good enough. I should n’t think it was, myself.”
Mrs. Majendie was silent. She tried to think of some word that would end the intolerable interview. Her lips parted to speak, but her thoughts died in her brain unborn. She felt her face turning white under the woman’s face; it hypnotized her; it held her dumb.
“Don’t you worry,” said Lady Cayley soothingly. “You can get your husband back from that woman to-morrow, if you choose.” She smiled. “Do you see my motive now ? ”
Lady Cayley had not seen it; but she had seen herself for one beautiful moment as the benignant and inspired conciliator. She desired Mrs, Majendie to see her so. She had gratified her more generous instincts in giving the unfortunate lady “the straight tip.” She knew perfectly well that she would n’t take it. She knew, all the time, that whatever else her revelation did, it would not move Mrs. Majendie to charm her husband back. She could not say precisely what it would do. Used to live solely in the voluptuous moment, she had no sense of drama beyond the scene she played in.
“ Your motive,” said Mrs. Majendie, “is of no importance. No motive could excuse you.”
“You think not ? ” She rose and looked down on the motionless woman. “I’ve told you the truth, Mrs. Majendie, because, sooner or later, you’d have had to know it; and other people would have told you worse things, that are n’t true. You can take it from me that there’s nothing more to tell. I’ve told you the worst.”
“You’ve told me, and I do not believe it.”
“You’d better believe it. But, if you really don’t, you can ask your husband. Ask him where he goes to every week in that yacht of his. Ask him what’s become of Maggie Forrest, the pretty workgirl who made the embroidered frock for Mrs. Ransome’s little girl. Tell him you want one like it for your little girl; and see what he looks like.”
Anne rose too. Her faint white face frightened Lady Cayley. She had wondered how Mrs. Majendie would look if she told her the truth about her husband. Now she knew.
“My dear lady,” said she, “what on earth did you expect ? ”
Anne went blindly towards the chimney-piece where the bell was. Lady Cayley also turned. She meant to go, but not just yet.
“One moment, Mrs. Majendie, please, before you turn me out. I would n’t break my heart about it, if I were you. He might have done worse things,”
“He has done nothing.”
“ Well — not much. He has done what I’ve told you. But, after all, what’s that ? ”
“Nothing to you, Lady Cayley, certainly,” said Anne, as she rang the bell.'
She moved slowly towards the door. Lady Cayley followed to the threshold, and laid her hand delicately on the jamb of the door as Mrs. Majendie opened it. She raised to her set face the tender eyes of a suppliant.
“Mrs. Majendie,” said she, “don’t be hard on poor Wallie. He’s never been hard on you. He might have been.” The latch sprang to under her gentle pressure. “Look at it this way. He has kept all his marriage vows — except one. You ’ve broken all yours — except one. None of your friends will tell you that. That’s why I tell you. Because I’m not a good woman, and I don’t count.”
She moved her hand from the door. It opened wide, and Lady Cayley walked serenely out.
She had had her say.
(To be continued.)
- Copyright, 1906, by MAY SINCLAIR.↩