The house had stood for a century and a half, and for eighty years had been inhabited by Mortons. Of its neighbours in the elm-bordered road, one or two were yet older; all had reached the age of mellowness. 'Sicut umbra præterit dies' -- so ran the motto of the dial set between porch and eaves; to Harvey Rolfe the kindliest of all greetings, welcoming him to such tranquillity as he knew not how to find elsewhere.
It was in the town, yet nothing town-like. No sooty smother hung above the house-tops and smirched the garden leafage; no tramp of crowds, no clatter of hot-wheel traffic, sounded from the streets hard by. But at hours familiar, bidding to task or pleasure or repose, the music of the grey belfries floated overhead; a voice from the old time, an admonition of mortality in strains sweet to the ear of childhood. Harvey had but to listen, and the days of long ago came back to him. Above all, when at evening rang the curfew. Stealing apart to a bowered corner of the garden, he dreamed himself into the vanished years, when curfew-time was bed-time, and a hand with gentle touch led him from his play to that long sweet slumber which is the child's new birth.
Basil Morton was one of three brothers, the youngest. His father, a corn-factor, assenting readily to his early inclination for the Church, sent him from Greystone Grammar-School to Cambridge, where Basil passed creditably through the routine, but in no way distinguished himself. Having taken his degree, he felt less assured of a clerical vocation, and thought that the law might perhaps be more suitable to him. Whilst he thus wavered, his father died, and the young man found that he had to depend upon himself for anything more than the barest livelihood. He decided, after all, for business, and became a partner with his eldest brother, handling corn as his father and his grandfather had done before him. At eight and twenty he married, and a few years afterwards the elder Morton's death left him to pursue commerce at his own discretion. Latterly the business had not been very lucrative, nor was Basil the man to make it so; but he went steadily on in the old tracks, satisfied with an income which kept him free from care.
'I like my trade,' he said once to Harvey Rolfe; 'it's clean and sweet and useful. The Socialist would revile me as a middleman; but society can't do without me just yet, and I ask no more than I fairly earn. I like turning over a sample of grain; I like the touch of it, and the smell of it. It brings me near to the good old Mother Earth, and makes me feel human.'
His house was spacious, well built, comfortable. The furniture, in great part, was the same his parents had used; solid mahogany, not so beautiful as furniture may be made, but serviceable, if need be, for another fifty years. He had a library of several thousand volumes, slowly and prudently collected, representing a liberal interest in all travail of the mind, and a special taste for the things of classical antiquity. Basil Morton was no scholar in the modern sense, but might well have been described by the old phrase which links scholar with gentleman. He lived by trade, but trade did not affect his life. The day's work over, he turned, with no feeling of incongruity, to a page of Thucydides, of Tacitus, or to those less familiar authors who lighted his favourite wanderings through the ruins of the Roman Empire. Better grounded for such studies than Harvey Rolfe, he pursued them with a steadier devotion and with all the advantages of domestic peace. In his mental habits, in his turns of speech, there appeared perhaps a leaning to pedantry; but it was the most amiable of faults, and any danger that might have lurked in it was most happily balanced and corrected by the practical virtues of his life's companion.
Mrs Morton had the beauty of perfect health, of health mental and physical. To describe her face as homely was to pay it the highest compliment, for its smile was the true light of home, that never failed. Filia generosi, daughter of a house that bred gentlewomen, though its ability to dower them had declined in these latter days, she conceived her duty as wife and mother after the old fashion, and was so fortunate as to find no obstacle in circumstance. She rose early; she slept early; and her day was full of manifold activity. Four children she had borne -- the eldest a boy now in his twelfth year, the youngest a baby girl; and it seemed to her no merit that in these little ones she saw the end and reason of her being. Into her pure and healthy mind had never entered a thought at conflict with motherhood. Her breasts were the fountain of life; her babies clung to them, and grew large of limb. From her they learnt to speak; from her they learnt the names of trees and flowers and all things beautiful around them; learnt, too, less by precept than from fair example, the sweetness and sincerity wherewith such mothers, and such alone, can endow their offspring. Later she was their instructress in a more formal sense; for this also she held to be her duty, up to the point where other teaching became needful. By method and good-will she found time for everything, ruling her house and ordering her life so admirably, that to those who saw her only in hours of leisure she seemed to be at leisure always. She would have felt it an impossible thing to abandon her children to the care of servants; reluctantly she left them even for an hour or two when other claims which could not be neglected called her forth. In play-time they desired no better companion, for she was a child herself in gaiety of heart and lissom sportiveness. No prettier sight could be seen at Greystone than when, on a summer afternoon, they all drove in the pony carriage to call on friends, or out into the country. Nowadays it was often her eldest boy who held the reins, a bright-eyed, well-built lad, a pupil at the old Grammar-School, where he used the desk at which his father had sat before him. Whatever fault of boyhood showed itself in Harry Morton, he knew not the common temptation to be ashamed of his mother, or to flout her love.
For holiday they never crossed the sea. Morton himself had been but once abroad, and that in the year before his father's death, when he was trying to make up his mind what profession he should take up; he then saw something of France and of Italy. Talking with travelled friends, he was wont to praise himself in humorous vein for the sober fixity of his life, and to quote, in that mellow tone which gave such charm to his talk, the line from Claudian, 'Erret et extremos alter scrutetur Iberos; for he had several friends to whom a Latin or a Greek quotation was no stumbling-block. Certain of his college companions, men who had come to hold a place in the world's eye, were glad to turn aside from beaten tracks and smoke a pipe at Greystone with Basil Morton -- the quaint fellow who at a casual glance might pass for a Philistine, but was indeed something quite other. His wife had never left her native island. 'I will go abroad,' she said, 'when my boys can take me.' And that might not be long hence; for Harry, who loved no book so much as the atlas, abounded in schemes of travel, and had already mapped the grand tour on which the whole family was to set forth when he stood headboy at the Grammar-School.
In this household Harvey Rolfe knew himself a welcome guest, and never had he been so glad as now to pass from the noisy world into the calm which always fell about him under his friend's roof. The miseries through which he had gone were troubling his health, and health disordered naturally reacted upon his mind, so that, owing to a gloomy excitement of the imagination, for several nights he had hardly slept. No sooner had he lain down in darkness than every form of mortal anguish beset his thoughts, passing before him as though some hand unfolded a pictured scroll of life's terrors. He seemed never before to have realised the infinitude of human suffering. Hour after hour, with brief intervals of semi-oblivion, from which his mind awoke in nameless horror, he travelled from land to land, from age to age; at one moment picturing some dread incident of a thousand years ago; the next, beholding with intolerable vividness some scene of agony reported in the day's newspaper. Doubtless it came of his constant brooding on Redgrave's death and Hugh Carnaby's punishment. For the first time, tragedy had been brought near to him, and he marvelled at the indifference with which men habitually live in a world where tragedy is every hour's occurrence.
He told himself that this was merely a morbid condition of the brain, but could not bring himself to believe it. On the contrary, what he now saw and felt was the simple truth of things, obscured by everyday conditions of active life. And that History which he loved to read -- what was it but the lurid record of woes unutterable? How could he find pleasure in keeping his eyes fixed on century after century of ever-repeated torment -- war, pestilence, tyranny; the stake, the dungeon; tortures of infinite device, cruelties inconceivable? He would close his books, and try to forget all they had taught him.
Tonight he spoke of it, as he sat with Morton after everyone else had gone to bed. They had talked of Hugh Carnaby (each divining in the other a suspicion they were careful not to avow), and their mood led naturally to interchange of thoughts on grave subjects.
'Everyone knows that state of mind, more or less,' said Morton, in his dreamy voice -- a voice good for the nerves. 'It comes generally when one's stomach is out of order. You wake at half-past two in the morning, and suffer infernally from the blackest pessimism. It's morbid -- yes; but for all that it may be a glimpse of the truth. Health and good spirits, just as likely as not, are the deceptive condition.'
'Exactly. But for the power of deceiving ourselves, we couldn't live at all. It's not a question of theory, but of fact.'
'I fought it out with myself,' said Basil, after a sip of whisky, 'at the time of my "exodus from Houndsditch". There's a point in the life of every man who has brains, when it becomes a possibility that he may kill himself. Most of us have it early, but it depends on circumstances. I was like Johnson's friend: be as philosophical as I might, cheerfulness kept breaking in. And at last I let cheerfulness have its way. As far as I know' -- he gurgled a laugh -- 'Schopenhauer did the same.'
Harvey puffed at his pipe before answering.
'Yes; and I suppose we may call that intellectual maturity. It's bad for a man when he can't mature -- which is my case. I seem to be as far from it as ever. Seriously, I should think few men ever had so slow a development. I don't stagnate: there's always movement; but -- putting aside the religious question -- my stage at present is yours of twenty years ago. Yet, not even that; for you started better than I did. You were never a selfish lout -- a half-baked blackguard ----'
'Nor you either, my dear fellow.'
'But I was! I've got along fairly well in self-knowledge; I can follow my course in the past clearly enough. If I had my rights, I should live to about a hundred and twenty, and go on ripening to the end. That would be a fair proportion. It's confoundedly hard to think that I'm a good deal past the middle of life, yet morally and intellectually am only beginning it.'
'It only means, Rolfe, that we others have a pretty solid conceit of ourselves. -- Listen! "We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow." I don't apply the name to you; but you'll be none the worse for a good night's sleep. Let us be off.'
Harvey slept much better than of late. There was an air of comfort in this guest-chamber which lulled the mind. Not that the appointments were more luxurious than in his own bedroom, for Morton had neither the means nor the desire to equip his house with perfections of modern upholstery; but every detail manifested a care and taste and delicacy found only in homes which are homes indeed, and not mere dwelling-places fitted up chiefly for display. Harvey thought of the happiness of children who are born, and live through all their childhood, in such an atmosphere as this. Then he thought of his own child, who had in truth no home at all. A house in Wales -- a house at Pinner -- a house at Gunnersbury -- presently a house somewhere else. He had heard people defend this nomad life -- why, he himself, before his marriage, had smiled at the old-fashioned stability represented by such families as the Mortons; had talked of 'getting into ruts', of 'mouldering', and so on. He saw it from another point of view now, and if the choice were between rut and whirlpool ----
When he awoke, and lay looking at the sunlit blind, in the stillness of early morning he heard a sound always delightful, always soothing, that of scythe and whetstone; then the long steady sweep of the blade through garden grass. Morton, old stick-in-the-mud, would not let his gardener use a mowing machine, the scythe was good enough for him; and Harvey, recalled to the summer mornings of more than thirty years ago, blessed him for his pig-headedness.
But another sound he missed, one he would have heard even more gladly. Waking thus at Pinner (always about six o'clock), he had been wont to hear the voice of his little boy, singing. Possibly this was a doubtful pleasure to Miss Smith, in whose room Hughie slept; but, to her credit, she had never bidden the child keep quiet. And there he lay, singing to himself, a song without words; singing like a little bird at dawn; a voice of innocent happiness, greeting the new day. Hughie was far off; and in a strange room, with other children, he would not sing. But Harvey heard his voice -- the odd little bursts of melody, the liquid rise and fall, which set to tune, no doubt, some childish fancy, some fairy tale, some glad anticipation. Hughie lived in the golden age. A year or two more, and the best of life would be over with him; for boyhood is but a leaden time compared with the borderland between it and infancy; and manhood -- the curse of sex developed ----
It was a merry breakfast-table. The children's sprightly talk, their mother's excellent spirits, and Morton's dry jokes with one and all, made Harvey feel ashamed of the rather glum habit which generally kept him mute at the first meal of the day. Alma, too, was seldom in the mood for breakfast conversation; so that, between them, they imposed silence upon Hughie and Miss Smith. One might have thought that the postman had brought some ill news, depressing the household. Yet things were not wont to be so bad in Wales; at that time, the day, as a rule, began cheerfully enough. Their life had darkened in the shadow of London; just when, for the child's sake, everything should have been made as bright as possible. And he saw little hope of change for the better. It did not depend upon him. The note of family life is struck by the house-mistress, and Alma seemed fallen so far from her better self that he could only look forward with anxiety to new developments of her character.
'School?' he exclaimed, when Harry, with satchel over shoulder, came to bid him good morning. 'I wish I could go in your place! It's just thirty-one years since I left the old Grammar-School.'
The boy did not marvel at this. He would not have done so if the years had been sixty-one; for Mr Rolfe seemed to him an old man, very much older than his own father.
As usual when at Greystone, Harvey took his first walk to the spots associated with his childhood. He walked alone, for Morton had gone to business until midday. On the outskirts of the town, in no very pleasant situation, stood the house where he was born; new buildings had risen round about it, and the present tenants seemed to be undesirable people, who neglected the garden and were careless about their window curtains. Here he had lived until he was ten years old -- till the death of his father. His mother died long before that; he just, and only just, remembered her. He knew from others that she was a gentle, thoughtful woman, always in poor health; the birth of her second child, a girl, led to a lingering illness, and soon came the end. To her place as mistress of the house succeeded Harvey's aunt, his father's sister. No one could have been kinder to the children, but Harvey, for some reason yet obscure to him, always disliked her. Whom, indeed, did he not dislike, of those set over him? He recalled his perpetual rebellion against her authority from the first day to the last. What an unruly cub! And his father's anger when he chanced to overhear some boyish insolence -- alas! alas!
For he saw so little of his father. Mr Rolfe's work as a railway engineer kept him chiefly abroad; he was sometimes absent for twelve months at a time. Only in the last half-year of his life did he remain constantly at home, and that because he was dying. Having contracted a fever in Spain, he came back to recruit; but his constitution had suffered from many hardships, and now gave way. To the last day (though he was ten years old) Harvey never dreamt of what was about to happen. Self-absorbed in a degree unusual even with boys, he feared his father, but had not learnt to love him. And now, looking back, he saw only too well why the anxious parent treated him with severity more often than with gentleness and good humour. A boy such as he must have given sore trouble to a father on his death-bed.
When it was too late, too late by many a year, he mourned the loss which had only startled him, which had seemed hardly a loss at all, rather an emancipation. As a man of thirty, he knew his father much better than when living with him day after day. Faults he could perceive, some of them inherited in his own character; but there remained the memory of a man whom he could admire and love -- whom he did admire and love more sincerely and profoundly the older he grew. And he held it the supreme misfortune of his life that, in those early years which count so much towards the future, he had been so rarely under his father's influence.
Inevitable, it seemed. Yet only so, perhaps, because even a good and conscientious man may fail to understand the obligation under which he lies towards his offspring.
He and his sister Amy passed into the guardianship of Dr Harvey, Mr Rolfe's old friend, the boy's godfather, who had done his best to soothe the mind of the dying man with regard to his children's future. There were no pecuniary difficulties; the children's education was provided for, and on coming of age each would have about two thousand pounds. Dr Harvey, a large-hearted, bright-witted Irishman, with no youngsters of his own, speedily decided that the boy must be sent away to a boarding-school, to have some of the self-will knocked out of him. Amy continued to live with her aunt for two years more; then the good woman died, and the Doctor took Amy into his own house, which became Harvey's home during holidays.
The ivy-covered house, in the best residential street of Greystone. Harvey paused before it. On the railings hung a brass plate with another name; the good old Doctor had been in his grave for many a year.
What wonder that he never liked the boy? Harvey, so far as anyone could perceive, had no affection, no good feeling, no youthful freshness or simplicity of heart; moreover, he exhibited precocious arrogance, supported by an obstinacy which had not even the grace of quickening into fieriness; he was often a braggart, and could not be trusted to tell the truth where his self-esteem was ever so little concerned. How unutterably the Harvey Rolfe of today despised himself at the age of fifteen or so! Even at that amorphous age, a more loutish, ungainly boy could scarcely have been found. Bashfulness cost him horrid torments, of course exasperating his conceit. He hated girls; he scorned women. Among his school-fellows he made a bad choice of comrades. Though muscular and of tolerable health, he was physically, as well as morally, a coward. Games and sports had I no attraction for him; he shut himself up in rooms, and read a great deal, yet even this, it seemed, not without an eye to winning admiration.
Brains he had -- brains undeniably; but for a long time there was the greatest doubt as to what use he could make of them. Harvey remembered the day when it was settled that he should study medicine. He resolved upon it merely because he had chanced to hear the Doctor say that he was not cut out for that.
He saw himself at twenty, a lank, ungainly youth, with a disagreeable complexion and a struggling moustache. He was a student at Guy's; he had 'diggings'; he tasted the joy of independence. As is the way with young men of turbid passions and indifferent breeding, he rapidly signalised his independence by plunging into sordid slavery. A miserable time to think of; a wilderness of riot, folly, and shame. Yet it seemed to him that he was enjoying life. Among the rowdy set of his fellow-students he shone with a certain superiority. His contempt of money, and his large way of talking about it, conveyed the impression that abundant means awaited him. He gave away coin as readily as he spent it on himself; not so much in a true spirit of generosity (though his character had gleams of it), as because he dreaded above all things the appearance of niggardliness and the suspicion of a shallow purse.
Then came the memorable interview with his guardian on his twenty-first birthday. Harvey flinched and grew hot in thinking of it. What an ungrateful cur! What a self-sufficient young idiot! The Doctor had borne so kindly with his follies and vices, had taken so much trouble for his good, was it not the man's right and duty to speak grave words of counsel on such an occasion as this? But to counsel Mr Harvey Rolfe was to be guilty of gross impertinence. With lofty spirit the young gentleman proclaimed that he must no longer be treated as a school-boy! Whereupon the Doctor lost his temper, and spoke with a particularly strong Hibernian accent -- spoke words which to this moment stung the hearer's memory. He saw himself marching from the room -- that room yonder, on the ground-floor. It was some small consolation to remember that he had been drinking steadily for a week before that happened. Indeed, he could recall no scene quite so discreditable throughout the course of his insensate youth.
Well, he had something like two thousand pounds. Whether he had looked for more or less he hardly knew, or whether he had looked for anything at all. At one-and-twenty he was the merest child in matters of the world. Surely something must have arrested the natural development of his common-sense. Even in another ten years he was scarcely on a level, as regards practical intelligence, with the ordinary lad who is leaving school.
He at once threw up his medical studies, which had grown hateful to him. He took his first taste of foreign travel. He extended his reading and his knowledge of languages. And insensibly a couple of years went by.
The possession of money had done him good. It clarified his passions, or tended that way. A self-respect, which differed appreciably from what he had formerly understood by that term, began to guard him against grossness; together with it there developed in him a new social pride which made him desire the acquaintance of well-bred people. Though he had no longer any communication with the good old Doctor, Amy frequently wrote to him, and in one of her letters she begged him to call on a family in London, one of whose younger members lived at Greystone and was Amy's friend. After much delay, he overcame his bashfulness, and called upon the worthy people -- tailored as became a gentleman at large. The acquaintance led to others; in a short time he was on pleasant terms with several well-to-do families. He might have suspected -- but at the time, of course, did not -- that Dr Harvey's kindly influence had something to do with his reception in these houses. Self-centred, but painfully self-distrustful, he struggled to overcome his natural defects of manner. Possibly with some success; for did not Lily Burton, who at first so piqued him by her critical smile, come to show him tolerance, friendliness, gracious interest?
Lily Burton! -- how emptily, how foolishly the name tinkled out of that empty and foolish past! Yet what a power it had over him when he was three and twenty! Of all the savage epithets which he afterwards attached to its owner, probably she merited a few. She was a flirt, at all events. She drew him on, played upon his emotions, found him, no doubt, excellent fun; and at last, when he was imbecile enough to declare himself, to talk of marriage, Lily, raising the drollest eyes, quietly wished to know what his prospects were.
The intolerable shame of it, even now! But he laughed, mocking at his dead self.
His mind's eye beheld the strange being a year later. Still in good clothes, but unhealthy, and at his last half-crown; four and twenty, travelled, and possessed of the elements of culture, he had only just begun to realise the fact that men labour for their daily bread. Was it the peculiar intensity of his egoism that so long blinded him to common anxieties? Even as the last coins slipped between his fingers, he knew only a vaguely irritable apprehension. Did he imagine the world would beg for the honour of feeding and clothing Mr Harvey Rolfe?
It came back to him, his first experience of hunger -- so very different a thing from appetite. He saw the miserable bedroom where he sat on a rainy day. He smelt the pawnshop. His heart sank again under the weight of awful solitude. Then, his illness; the letter he wrote to Amy; her visit to him; the help she brought. But she could not persuade him to go back with her to Greystone to face the Doctor. Her money was a loan; he would bestir himself and find occupation. For a wonder, it was found -- the place at the Emigration Agency; and so, for a good many years, the notable Mr Harvey Rolfe sank into a life of obscure routine.
Again and again his sister Amy besought him to visit Greystone. Dr Harvey was breaking up; would he not see the kind old man once more? Yes, he assured himself that he would; but he took his time about it, and Dr Harvey, who at threescore and ten could not be expected to wait upon a young man's convenience, one day very quietly died. To Amy Rolfe, who had become as a daughter to him, he left the larger part of his possessions, an income of nine hundred a year. Not long after this, Harvey met his sister, and was astonished to find her looking thin, pale, spiritless. What did it mean? Why did she gaze at him so sadly? Come, come, he cried, she had been leading an unnatural life, cloistered, cheerless. Now that she was independent, she must enjoy herself, see the world! Brave words; and braver still those in which he replied to Amy's entreaty that he would share her wealth. Not he, indeed! If, as she said, the Doctor meant and hoped it, why did he not make that plain in his will? Not a penny would he take. He had all he wanted. And he seemed to himself the most magnanimous of men.
Amy lived on at Greystone; amid friends, to be sure, but silent, melancholy; and he, the brother whom she loved, could spare her only a day or two once a year, when he chattered his idle self-conceit. Anyone else would have taken trouble to inquire the cause of her pallor, her sadness. He, forsooth, had to learn with astonishment, at last, that she wished to see him -- on her deathbed.
He had often thought of her, and kindly. But he knew her not at all, took no interest in her existence. She, on the other hand, had treasured every miserable little letter his idleness vouchsafed; she had hoped so for his future, ever believing in him. When Amy lay dead, he saw the sheet of paper on which she had written the few lines necessary to endow him with all she left -- everything 'to my dear brother'. What words could have reproached him so keenly?
His steps turned to the churchyard, where on a plain upright stone he read the names of his mother, of his father. Amy's grave was hard by. He, too, if he had his wish, would some day rest here; and here his own son would stand, and read his name, and think of him. Ah, but with no such remorse and self-contempt! That was inconceivable. The tenderness which dimmed his eyes would have changed to misery had be dreamed it possible that his own boy could palter so ignobly with the opportunities of life.
Upon these deep emotions intruded the thought of Alma. Intruded; for he neither sought nor welcomed his wife's companionship at such a moment, and he was disturbed by a perception of the little claim she had to be present with him in spirit. He could no longer pretend to himself that he loved Alma; whatever the right name for his complex of feelings -- interest, regard, admiration, sexual attachment -- assuredly it must be another word than that sacred to the memory of his parents, to the desires and hopes centring in his child. For all that, he had no sense of a hopeless discord in his wedded life; he suffered from no disillusion, with its attendant bitterness. From this he was saved by the fact, easy at length to recognise, that in wooing Alma he had obeyed no dictate of the nobler passion; here, too, as at every other crisis of life, he had acted on motives which would not bear analysis, so large was the alloy of mere temperament, of weak concession to circumstance. Rather than complain that Alma fell short of the ideal in wifehood, should he not marvel, and be grateful that their marriage might still be called a happy one? Happiness in marriage is a term of such vague application: Basil Morton, one in ten thousand, might call himself happy; even so, all things considered, must the husband who finds it just possible to endure the contiguity of his wife. Midway between these extremes of the definition stood Harvey's measure of matrimonial bliss. He saw that he had no right to grumble.
He saw, moreover, and reflected constantly upon it in these days, how largely he was himself to blame for the peril of estrangement which threatened his life with Alma. Meaning well, and thinking himself a pattern of marital wisdom, he had behaved, as usual, with gross lack of discretion. The question now was, could he mend the harm that he had done? Love did not enter into the matter; his difficulty called for common-sense -- for rational methods in behaviour towards a wife whom he could still respect, and who was closely bound to him by common interest in their child.
He looked up, and had pleasure once more in the sunny sky. After all, he, even he, had not committed the most woeful of all blunders; though it was a mystery how he had escaped it. The crown of his feeble, futile career should, in all fitness, have been marriage with a woman worse than himself. And not on his own account did he thank protecting fortune. One lesson, if one only, he had truly learnt from nature: it bade him forget all personal disquietude, in joy that he was not guilty of that crime of crimes, the begetting of children by a worthless mother.
Mrs Morton felt a lively interest in Mrs Rolfe's musical enterprise, and would have liked to talk about it, but she suspected that the topic was not very agreeable to her guest. In writing to Morton, Harvey had just mentioned the matter, and that was all. On the second day of his visit, when he felt much better, and saw things in a less troubled light, he wished to remove the impression that he regarded Alma's proceedings with sullen disapproval; so he took the opportunity of being alone with his hostess, and talked to her of the great venture with all the good humour he could command. Mrs Morton had seen two notices of Alma's debut; both were so favourable that she imagined them the augury of a brilliant career.
'I doubt that,' said Harvey; 'and I'm not sure that it's desirable. She has made herself miserably ill, you see. Excitement is the worst possible thing for her. And then there's the whole question of whether professional life is right and good for a married woman. How do you think about it?'
The lady instanced cases that naturally presented themselves. She seemed to have no prejudice. Mrs Rolfe appeared to her a person of artistic temper; but health was of the first importance; and then ----
Harvey waited; but only a thoughtful smile completed the remark.
'What other consideration had you in mind?'
'Only a commonplace -- that a married woman would, of course, be guided by her husband's wish.'
'You think that equivalent to reason and the will of God?' said Harvey jocosely.
'If we need appeal to solemn sanction.'
Rolfe was reminded, not unpleasantly, that he spoke with a woman to whom 'the will of God' was something more than a facetious phrase.
'I beg your pardon; let us say reason alone. But is it reasonable for the artist to sacrifice herself because she happens to have married an everyday man?'
Mrs Morton shook her head and laughed.
'If only one know what is meant by the everyday man! My private view of him is rather flattering, perhaps. I'm inclined to think him, on the whole, not inferior to the everyday woman; and she -- she isn't a bad sort of creature, if fairly treated. I don't think the everyday man will go very far wrong, as a rule, in the treatment of his wife.'
'You really believe that?' asked Harvey, with a serious smile.
'Why, is it such a heresy?'
'I should rather have thought so. One is so accustomed to hear the other view I mean, it's in the air. Don't think I'm asking your sympathy. I have always wished Alma to act on her own judgment; she has been left quite free to do so. But if the results seem worse than doubtful, then comes the difficulty.'
'To be settled, surely, like all other difficulties between sensible people.'
Mrs Morton's faith was of enviable simplicity. She knew, as a matter of fact, that husbands and wives often found their difficulties insuperable; but why this should be so, seemed to her one of the dark and mournful enigmas of life. It implied such a lack not only of good sense, but of right feeling. In her own experience she had met with no doubt, no worry, which did not yield to tact, or generous endeavour, or, at worst, to the creed by which she lived. One solicitude, and one only, continued to affect her as wife and mother; that it could not overcome her happy temper was due to the hope perpetually inspired by her husband's love -- a hope inseparable from her profoundest convictions. She and Morton differed in religious views, and there had come a grave moment when she asked whether it would be possible to educate her children in her own belief without putting a distance between them and their father. The doubt had disappeared, thanks to Morton's breadth of view, or facility of conscience; there remained the trouble in which it had originated, but she solaced herself with the fond assurance that this also would vanish as time went on. In the same mood of kindly serenity she regarded the lives of her friends, always hoping for the best, and finding it hard to understand that anyone could deliberately act with unkindness, unreasonableness, or any other quality opposed to the common good.
Rolfe had no desire of talking further about his private affairs. He had made up his mind on the points at issue, and needed no counsel, but the spirit of Mrs Morton's conversation helped him to think tranquilly. The great danger was that he might make things worse by his way of regarding them. Most unluckily, Alma's illness had become connected in his imagination with the tragedy of the Carnabys; he could not keep the things apart. Hugh Carnaby's miserable doom, and the dark surmises attaching to his wife, doubtless had their part in bringing about a nervous crisis; why could he not recognise this as perfectly natural, and dismiss the matter? In spite of all reasoning, Alma's image ever and again appeared to him shadowed by the gloom which involved her friend -- or the woman who was her friend. He knew it (or believed it) to be the merest illusion of his perturbed mind; for no fact, how trivial soever, had suggested to him that Alma knew more of the circumstances of Redgrave's death than she seemed to know. On the one hand, he was glad that Alma and Sibyl no longer cared to meet; on the other, he could not understand what had caused this cessation of their friendship, and he puzzled over it. But these idle fancies would pass away; they were already less troublesome. A long country walk with Morton, during which they conversed only of things intellectual, did him much good. Not long ago Morton had had a visit from an old Cambridge friend, a man who had devoted himself to the study of a certain short period of English history, and hoped, some ten years hence, to produce an authoritative work on the subject.
'There's a man I envy!' cried Rolfe, when he had listened to Basil's humorous description of the enthusiast. 'It's exactly what I should like to do myself.'
'What prevents you?'
'Idleness -- irresolution -- the feeling that the best of my life is over. I have never been seriously a student, and it's too late to begin now. But if I were ten years younger, I would make myself master of something. What's the use of reading only to forget? In my time I have gone through no small library of historical books -- and it's all a mist on the mind's horizon. That comes of reading without method, without a purpose. The time I have given to it would have made me a pundit, if I had gone to work reasonably.'
'Isn't my case the same?' exclaimed Morton. 'What do I care! I enjoyed my reading and my knowledge at the time, and that's all I ever expected.'
'Very well -- though you misrepresent yourself. But for me it isn't enough. I want to know something as well as it can be known. Purely for my own satisfaction; the thought of "doing something" doesn't come in at all. I was looking at your county histories this morning, and I felt a huge longing to give the rest of my life to some little bit of England, a county, or even a town, and exhaust the possibilities of knowledge within those limits. Why, Greystone here -- it has an interesting history, even in relation to England at large; and what a delight there would be in following it out, doggedly, invincibly -- making it one's single subject -- grubbing after it in muniment-rooms and libraries -- learning by heart every stone of the old town -- dying at last with the consolation that nobody could teach one anything more about it!'
'I know the mood,' said Morton, laughing.
'I'm narrowing down,' pursued Harvey. 'Once I had tremendous visions -- dreamt of holding half a dozen civilisations in the hollow of my hand. I came back from the East in a fury to learn the Oriental languages -- made a start, you know, with Arabic. I dropped one nation after another, always drawing nearer home. The Latin races were to suffice me. Then early France, especially in its relations with England; -- Normandy, Anjou. Then early England, especially in its relations with France. The end will be a county, or a town -- nay, possibly a building. Why not devote one's self to the history of a market-cross? It would be respectable, I tell you. Thoroughness is all.'
When they were alone in the library at night, Morton spoke of his eldest boy, expressing some anxiety about him.
'The rascal will have to earn his living -- and how? There's time, I suppose, but it begins to fidget me. He won't handle corn -- I'm clear as to that. At his age, of course, all lads talk about voyages and so on, but Harry seems cut out for a larger sphere than Greystone. I shan't balk him. I'd rather he hadn't anything to do with fighting -- still, that's a weakness.'
'We think of sending Wager's lad into the navy,' said Rolfe, when he had mused awhile. 'Of course, he'll have to make his own way.'
'Best thing you can do, no doubt. And what about his little sister?'
'That's more troublesome. It's awkward that she's a relative of Mrs Abbott. Otherwise, I should have proposed to train her for a cook.'
'Do you mean it?'
'Why not? She isn't a girl of any promise. What better thing for her, and for the community, than to make her a good cook? They're rare enough, Heaven knows. What's the use of letting her grow up with ideas of gentility, which in her case would mean nothing hut uselessness? She must support herself, sooner or later, and it won't he with her brains. I've seriously thought of making that suggestion to Mrs Abbott. Ten years hence, a sensible woman cook will demand her own price, and be a good deal more respected than a dressmaker or a she-clerk. The stomach is very powerful in bringing people to common-sense. When all the bricklayers' daughters are giving piano lessons, and it's next to impossible to get any servant except a lady's-maid, we shall see women of leisure develop a surprising interest in the boiling of potatoes.'
Morton admitted the force of these arguments.
'What would you wish your own boy to be?' he asked presently.
'Anything old-fashioned, unadventurous, happily obscure; a country parson, perhaps, best of all.'
'I understand. I've had the same thoughts. But one Ii to get over that kind of thing. It won't do to be afraid of life -- nor of death either.'
'And there's the difficulty of education,' said Rolfe. 'If I followed my instincts, I should make the boy unfit for anything but the quietest, obscurest life. I should make him hate a street, and love the fields. I should teach him to despise every form of ambition; to shrink from every kind of pleasure, but the simplest and purest; to think of life as a long day's ramble, and death as the quiet sleep that comes at the end of it. I should like him not to marry -- never to feel the need of it; or if marry he must, to have no children. That's my real wish; and if I tried to carry it out, the chances are that I should do him an intolerable wrong. For fear of it, I must give him into the hands of other people; I must see him grow into habits and thoughts which will cause me perpetual uneasiness; I must watch him drift further and further away from my own ideal of life, till at length, perhaps, there is scarce a possibility of sympathy between us.'
'Morbid -- all morbid,' remarked the listener.
'I don't know. It may only mean that one sees too clearly the root facts of existence. I have another mood (less frequent) in which I try to persuade myself that I don't care much about the child; that his future doesn't really concern me at all. Why should it? He's just one of the millions of human beings who come and go. A hundred years hence -- what of him and of me? What can it matter how he lived and how he died? The best kind of education would be that which hardened his skin and blunted his sympathies. What right have I to make him sensitive? The thing is, to get through life with as little suffering as possible. What monstrous folly to teach him to wince and cry out at the sufferings of other people! Won't he have enough of his own before he has done? Yet that's what we shall aim at -- to cultivate his sympathetic emotions, so that the death of a bird shall make him sad, and the sight of human distress wring his heart. Real kindness would try to make of him a healthy ruffian, with just enough conscience to keep him from crime.'
'Theory for theory, I prefer this,' said Morton. 'To a certain extent I try to act upon it.'
'Just because I know that my own tendency is to over-softness. I have sometimes surprised my wife by bidding Harry disregard things that appealed to his pity. You remember what old Hobbes says: "Homo malus, puer robustus"? There was more truth in it in his day than in ours. It's natural for a boy to be a good deal of a savage, but our civilisation is doing its best to change that. Why, not long ago the lad asked me whether fishing wasn't cruel. He evidently felt that it was, and so do I; but I couldn't say so. I laughed it off, and told him that a fish diet was excellent for the brains!'
'I hope I may have as much courage,' said Harvey.
'Life is a compromise, my dear fellow. If the world at large would suddenly come round to a cultivation of the amiable virtues -- well and good. But there's no hope of it. As it is, our little crabs must grow their hard shell, or they've no chance.'
'What about progress? In educating children, we are making the new world.'
'But there's no hurry. The growth must be gradual -- will be, whether we intend it or not. The fact is, I try not to think overmuch about my children. It remains a doubt, you know, whether education has any influence worth speaking of.'
'To me,' said Harvey, 'the doubt seems absurd. In my own case, I know, a good system of training would have made an enormous difference. Practically, I was left to train myself, and a nice job I made of it. Do you remember how I used to talk about children before I had one? I have thought it was the talk of a fool; but, perhaps, after all, it had more sanity than my views nowadays.'
'Medio tutissimus,' murmured Basil.
'And what about your girls?' asked the other, when they had smoked in silence. 'Is the difficulty greater or less?'
'From my point of view, less. For one thing, I can leave them entirely in the hands of their mother; if they resemble her, they won't do amiss. And there's no bother about work in life; they will have enough to live upon -- just enough. Of course, they may want to go out into the world. I shall neither hinder nor encourage. I had rather they stayed at home.'
'Don't lose sight of the possibility that by when they are grown up there may be no such thing as "home". The word is dying out.'
Morton's pedantry led him again to murmur Latin ----
'Multa renascentur quoe jam cecidere.'
'You're the happiest man I know, or ever shall know,' said Rolfe, with more feeling than he cared to exhibit.
'Don't make me think about Croesus, King of Lydia. On the whole, happiness means health, and health comes of occupation. In one point I agree with you about yourself: it would have been better if someone had found the right kind of work for you, and made you stick to it. By-the-bye, how does your friend, the photographic man, get on?'
'Not at all badly. Did I tell you I had put money into it? I go there a good deal, and pretend to do something.'
'Why pretend? Couldn't you find a regular job there for a few hours every day?'
'I dare say I could. It'll be easier to get backwards and I forwards from Gunnersbury. How would you like,' he added, with a laugh, 'to live at Gunnersbury?'
'What does it matter where one lives? I have something of a prejudice against Hoxton or Bermondsey; but I think I could get along in most other places. Gunnersbury is rather pleasant, I thought. Isn't it quite near to Kew and Richmond?'
'Do those names attract you?'
'They have a certain charm for the rustic ear.'
'It's all one to me. Hughie will go to school, and make friends with other children. You see, he's had no chance of it yet. We know a hundred people or so, but have no intimates. Is there such a thing as intimacy of families in London? I'm inclined to think not. Here, you go into each other's houses without fuss and sham; you know each other, and trust each other. In London there's no such comfort, at all events for educated people. If you have a friend, he lives miles away; before his children and yours can meet, they must travel for an hour and a half by bus and underground.'
'I suppose it must be London?' interrupted Morton.
'I'm afraid so,' Harvey replied absently, and his friend said no more.
He had meant this visit to be of three days at most; but time slipped by so pleasantly that a week was gone before he could resolve on departure. Most of the mornings he spent in rambles alone, rediscovering many a spot in the country round which had been familiar to him as a boy, but which he had never cared to seek in his revisitings of Greystone hitherto. One day, as he followed the windings of a sluggish stream, he saw flowers of arrowhead, white flowers with crimson centre, floating by the bank, and remembered that he had once plucked them here when on a walk with his father, who held him the while, lest he should stretch too far and fall in. To reach them now, he lay down upon the grassy brink; and in that moment there returned to him, with exquisite vividness, the mind, the senses, of childhood; once more he knew the child's pleasure in contact with earth, and his hand grasped hard at the sweet-smelling turf as though to keep hold upon the past thus fleetingly recovered. It was gone -- no doubt, for ever; a last glimpse vouchsafed to him of life's beginning as he set his face towards the end. Then came a thought of joy. The keen sensations which he himself had lost were his child's inheritance. Somewhere in the fields, this summer morning, Hughie was delighting in the scent, the touch, of earth, young amid a world where all was new. The stereotyped phrase about parents living again in their children became a reality and a source of deep content. So does a man repeat the experience of the race, and with each step onward live into the meaning of some old word that he has but idly echoed.
On the day before he left, a letter reached him from Alma. He had felt surprise at not hearing sooner from her; but Alma's words explained the delay.
'I have been thinking a great deal,' she wrote, 'and I want to tell you of my thoughts. Don't imagine they are mere fancies, the result of ill-health. I feel all but well again, and have a perfectly clear head. And perhaps it is better that I should write what I have to say, instead of speaking it. In this way I oblige you to hear me out. I don't mean that you are in the habit of interrupting me, but perhaps you would if I began to talk as I am going to write.
'Why can't we stay at Pinner?
'There, that shall have a line to itself. Take breath, and now listen again. I dislike the thought of removing to Gunnersbury -- really and seriously I dislike it. You know I haven't given you this kind of trouble before; when we left Wales I was quite willing to have stayed on if you had wished it -- wasn't I? Forgive me, then, for springing this upon you after all your arrangements are made; I could not do it if I did not feel that our happiness (not mine only) is concerned. Would it be possible to cancel your agreement with the Gunnersbury man? If not, couldn't you sublet, with little or no loss? The Pinner house isn't let yet -- is it? Do let us stay where we are. I think it is the first serious request I ever made of you, and I think you will see that I have some right to make it.
'I had rather, much rather, that Hughie did not go to Mrs Abbott's school. Don't get angry and call me foolish. What I mean is, that I would rather teach him myself. In your opinion I have neglected him, and I confess that you are right. There now! I shall give up my music; at all events, I shall not play again in public. I have shown what I could do, and that's enough. You don't like it -- though you have never tried to show me why -- and again I feel that you are right. A professional life for me would mean, I see it now, the loss of things more precious. I will give it up, and live quietly at home. I will have regular hours for teaching Hughie. If you prefer it, Pauline shall go, and I will take charge of him altogether. If I do this, what need for us to remove? The house is more comfortable than the new one at Gunnersbury; we are accustomed to it; and by being farther from London I shall have less temptation to gad about. I know exactly what I am promising, and I feel I can do it, now that my mind is made up.
'Need I fear a refusal? I can't think so. Give the matter your best thought, and see whether there are not several reasons on my side. But, please, answer as soon as you can, for I shall be in suspense till I hear from you.
Alma signed herself 'Yours ever affectionately', but Harvey could find no trace of affection in the letter. It astonished and annoyed him. Of course, it could have but one explanation; Alma might as well have saved herself trouble by writing, in a line or two, that she disliked Mrs Abbott, and could not bear that the child should be taught by her. He read through the pages again, and grew angry. What right had she to make such a request as this, and in the tone of a demand? Twice in the letter she asserted that she had a right, asserted it as if with some mysterious reference. Had he sat down immediately to reply, Harvey would have written briefly forcibly; for, putting aside other grounds of irritation, there is nothing a man dislikes more than being called upon at last moment to upset elaborate and troublesome arrangements. But he was obliged to postpone his answer for a few hours, and in the meantime he grew more tolerant of Alma's feelings. Had her objection come earlier, accompanied by the same proposals, he would have been inclined to listen; but things had gone too far. He wrote, quite good-temperedly, but without shadow of wavering. There was nothing sudden, he pointed out, in the step he was about to take; Alma had known it for months, and had acquiesced in it. As for her music, he quite agreed with her that she would find it better in every way to abandon thoughts of a public career; and the fact of Hughie's going to school for two or three hours a day would in no wise interfere with her wish to see more of him. What her precise meaning was in saying that she had some 'right' to make this request, he declared himself unable to discover. Was it a reproach? If so, his conscience afforded him no light, and he hoped Alma would explain the words in a letter to him at Pinner.
This correspondence clouded his last evening at Greystone. He was glad that some acquaintances of Morton's came, and stayed late; sitting alone with his friend, he would have been tempted to talk of Alma, and he felt that silence was better just now.
By a train soon after breakfast next morning, he left the old town, dearer to him each time that he beheld it, and travelled slowly to the main-line junction, whence again he travelled slowly to Peterborough. There the express caught him up, and flung him into roaring London again. Before going to Pinner, he wished to see Cecil Morphew, for he had an idea to communicate -- a suggestion for the extending of business by opening correspondence with out of the way towns, such as Greystone.
On reaching the shop in Westminster Bridge Road, he found that Morphew also had a communication to make, and of a more exciting nature.
Morphew was engaged upstairs with the secretary of an Amateur Photographic Society. Waiting for this person's departure, Rolfe talked with the shopman -- a capable fellow, aged about thirty, whose heart was in the business; he looked at a new hand-camera, which seemed likely to have a good sale, and heard encouraging reports of things in general. Then Morphew came down, escorting his visitor. As soon as he was free, he grasped Harvey by the arm, and whispered eagerly that he had something to tell him. They went upstairs together, into a room furnished as an office, hung about with many framed photographs.
'He's dead!' exclaimed Cecil -- 'he's dead!'
A name was needless. Only one man's death could be the cause of such excitement in Morphew, and it had been so long awaited that the event had no touch of solemnity. Yet Harvey perceived that his friend's exultation was not unmixed with disquietude.
'Yesterday morning, early. I heard it by chance. Of course, she hasn't written to me, but no doubt I shall hear in a few days. I walked about near the house for hours last night -- like an idiot. The thing seemed impossible; I had to keep reminding myself, by looking at the windows, that it was true. Eight years -- think of that! Eight years' misery, due to that fellow's snobbishness!'
In Harvey's mind the story had a somewhat different aspect. He knew nothing personally of this Mr Winter, who might indeed be an incarnation of snobbery; on the other hand, Cecil Morphew had his defects, and even to a liberal-minded parent might not recommend himself as a son-in-law. Then again, the young lady herself, now about six and twenty, must surely have been influenced by some other motive than respect for her parents' wishes, in thus protracting her engagement with a lover who had a secure, though modest, income. Was it not conceivable that she inherited something of the paternal spirit? or, at all events, that her feelings had not quite the warmth that Morphew imagined?
'I'm glad it's over,' he replied cordially. 'Now begins a new life for you.'
'But eight years -- eight years of waiting ----'
'Hang it, what is your age? Thirty! Why, you're only just old enough. No man ought to marry before thirty.'
Morphew interrupted vehemently.
'That's all rot! Excuse me; I can't help it. A man ought to marry when he's urged to it by his nature, and as soon as he finds the right woman. If I had married eight years ago ----.' He broke off with an angry gesture, misery in his eyes. 'You don't believe that humbug, Rolfe; you repeat it just to console me. There's little consolation, I can assure you. I was two and twenty; she, nineteen. Mature man and woman; and we longed for each other. Nothing but harm could come of waiting year after year, wretched both of us.'
'I confess,' said Harvey, 'I don't quite see why she waited after twenty-one.'
'Because she is a good, gentle girl, and could not bear to make her father and mother unhappy. The blame is all theirs -- mean, shallow, grovelling souls!'
'What about her mother now?'
'Oh, she was never so obstinate as the old jackass. She'll have little enough to live upon, and we shall soon arrange things with her somehow. Is it credible that human beings can be so senseless? For years now, their means have been growing less and less, just because the snobbish idiot would keep up appearances. If he had lived a little longer, the widow would have had practically no income at all. Of course, she shared in the folly, and I'm only sorry she won't suffer more for it. They didn't enjoy their lives -- never have done. They lived in miserable slavery to the opinion of their fellow-snobs. You remember that story about the flowers at their silver wedding: two hundred pounds -- just because Mrs Somebody spent as much -- when they couldn't really afford two hundred shillings. And they groaned over it -- he and she -- like people with the stomachache. Why, the old fool died of nothing else; he was worn out by the fear of having to go into a smaller house.'
Harvey would have liked to put a question: was it possible that the daughter of such people could be endowed with virtues such as become the wife of a comparatively poor man? But he had to ask it merely in his own thoughts. Before long, no doubt, he would meet the lady herself and appease his curiosity.
Whilst they were talking, there came a knock at the door; the shopman announced two ladies, who wished to inquire about some photographic printing.
'Will you see them, Rolfe?' asked Cecil. 'I don't feel like it -- indeed I don't. You'll be able to tell them all they want.'
Harvey found himself equal to the occasion, and was glad of it; he needed occupation of some kind to keep his thoughts from an unpleasant subject. After another talk with Morphew, in which they stuck to business, he set off homeward.
Here news awaited him. On his arrival all seemed well; Ruth opened the door, answered his greeting in her quiet, respectful way, and at once brought tea to the study. When he rang to have the things taken away, Ruth again appeared, and he saw now that she had something unusual to say.
'I didn't like to trouble you the first thing, sir,' she began -- 'but Sarah left yesterday without giving any notice; and I think it's perhaps as well she did, sir. I've heard some things about her not at all nice.'
'We must find someone else, then,' replied Harvey. 'It's lucky she didn't go at a less convenient time. Was there some unpleasantness between you?'
'I had warned her, for her own good, sir, that was all. And there's something else I had perhaps better tell you now, sir.' Her voice, with its pleasant Welsh accent, faltered ominously. 'I'm very sorry indeed to say it, sir, but I shall be obliged to leave as soon as Mrs Rolfe can spare me.'
Harvey was overwhelmed. He looked upon Ruth as a permanent member of the household. She had made herself indispensable; to her was owing the freedom from domestic harassment which Alma had always enjoyed -- a most exceptional blessing, yet regarded, after all this time, as a matter of course. The departure of Ruth meant conflict with ordinary servants, in which Alma would assuredly be worsted. At this critical moment of their life, scarcely could anything more disastrous have happened. Seeing her master's consternation, Ruth was sore troubled, and hastened to explain herself.
'My brother's wife has just died, sir, and left him with three young children, and there's no one else can be of help to him but me. He wanted me to come at once, but, of course, I told him I couldn't do that. No one can be sorry for his wife's death; she was such a poor, silly, complaining, useless creature; he hasn't had a quiet day since he married her. She belonged to Liverpool, and there they were married, and when he brought her to Carnarvon I said to myself as soon as I saw her that she wouldn't be much use to a working-man. She began the very first day to complain and to grumble, and she's gone on with it ever since. When I was there in my last holiday I really wondered how he bore his life. There's many women of that kind, sir, but I never knew one as bad as her -- never. Everything was too much trouble for her, and she didn't know how to do a thing in the house. I didn't mean to trouble you with such things, sir. I only told you just to show why I don't feel I can refuse to go and help him, and try to give him a little peace and quiet. He's a hard-working man, and the children aren't very healthy, and I'm sure I don't know how he'd manage ---- '
'You have no choice, Ruth, I see. Well, we must hope to find some one in your place -- but ----'
Just as he shook his head, the house-bell rang, and Ruth withdrew to answer it. In a minute or two the study door opened again. Harvey looked up and saw Alma.
'I was obliged to come,' she said, approaching him, as he rose in astonishment. 'I thought at first of asking you to come on to Basingstoke, but we can talk better here.'
No sign of pleasure in their meeting passed between them. On Harvey's face lingered something of the disturbance caused by Ruth's communication, and Alma understood it as due to her unexpected arrival; the smile with which she had entered died away, and she stood like a stranger doubtful of her reception.
'Was it necessary to talk?' asked Rolfe, pushing forward a chair, and doing his best to show good humour.
'Yes -- after your reply to my letter this morning,' she answered coldly.
'Well, you must have some tea first. This is cold. Won't you go and take your things off, and I'll tell Ruth. By-the-bye, we re in confusion.'
He sketched the position of things; but Alma heard without interest.
'It can't be helped,' was her absent reply. 'There are plenty of servants.'
Fresh tea was brought, and after a brief absence Alma sat down to it. Her health had improved during the past week, but she looked tired from the journey, and was glad to lean back in her chair. For some minutes neither of them spoke. Harvey had never seen an expression on Alma's features which was so like hostility; it moved him to serious resentment. It is common enough for people who have been several years wedded to feel exasperation in each other's presence, but for Rolfe the experience was quite new, and so extremely disagreeable, that his pulses throbbed with violence, and his mouth grew dry. He determined to utter not a word until Alma began conversation. This she did at length, with painful effort.
'I think your answer to me was very unkind.'
'I didn't mean it so.'
'You simply said that you wouldn't do as I wished.'
'Not that I wouldn't, but that it was impossible. And I showed you the reasons -- though I should have thought it superfluous.'
Alma waited a moment, then asked ----
'Is this house let?'
'I don't know. I suppose not.'
'Then there is no reason whatever why we shouldn't stay here.'
'There is every reason why we shouldn't stay here. Every arrangement has been made for our leaving -- everything fully talked over. What has made you change your mind?'
'I haven't really changed my mind. I always disliked the idea of going to Gunnersbury, and you must have seen that I did; but I was so much occupied with -- with other things; and, as I have told you, I didn't feel quite the same about my position as I do now.'
She expressed herself awkwardly, growing very nervous. At the first sign of distress in her, Harvey was able to change his tone.
'Things are going horribly wrong somehow, Alma. There's only one way out of it. Just say in honest words what you mean. Why do you dislike the thought of our moving?'
'I told you in my letter,' she answered, somewhat acridly.
'There was no explanation. You said something I couldn't understand, about having a right to ask me to stay here.'
She glanced at him with incredulous disdain.
'If you don't understand, I can't put it into plainer words.'
'Well now, let me put the whole matter into plainer words than I have liked to use.' Rolfe spoke deliberately, and not unkindly, though he was tempted to give way to wrath at what he imagined a display of ignoble and groundless jealousy. 'All along I have allowed you to take your own course. No, I mustn't say "allowed", the word is inapplicable; I never claimed the right to dictate to you. We agreed that this was the way for rational husband and wife. It seemed to us that I had no more right to rule over you than you to lay down the law for me. Using your freedom, you chose to live the life of an artist -- that is to say, you troubled yourself as little as possible about home and family. I am not complaining -- not a bit of it. The thing was an experiment, to be sure; but I have held to the conditions, watched their working. Latterly I began to see that they didn't work well, and it appears that you agree with me. This is how matters stand; or rather, this is how they stood until, for some mysterious reason, you seemed to grow unfriendly. The reason is altogether mysterious; I leave you to explain it. From my point of view, the failure of our experiment is simple and natural enough. Though I had only myself to blame, I have felt for a long time that you were in an utterly false position. Now you begin to see things in the same light. Well and good; why can't we start afresh? The only obstacle is your unfriendly feeling. Give me an opportunity of removing it. I hate to be on ill terms with you; it seems monstrous, unaccountable. It puts us on a level with married folk in a London lodging-house. Is it necessary to sink quite so low?'
Alma listened with trembling intensity, and seemed at first unable to reply. Her agitation provoked Harvey more than it appealed to his pity.
'If you can't do as I wish,' she said at length, with an endeavour to speak calmly, 'I see no use in making any change in my own life. There will be no need of me. I shall make arrangements to go on with my professional career.'
Harvey's features for a moment set themselves in combativeness, but as quickly they relaxed, and showed an ambiguous smile.
'No need of you -- and Ruth going to leave us?'
'There oughtn't to be any difficulty in finding someone just as good.'
'Perhaps there ought not to be; but we may thank our stars if we find anyone half as trustworthy. The chances are that a dozen will come and go before we settle down again. I don't enjoy that prospect, and I shall want a good deal of help from you in bearing the discomfort.'
'What kind of help? Of course, I shall see that the house goes on as usual.'
'Then it's quite certain you will have no time left for a "professional career".'
'If I understand you, you mean that you don't wish me to have any time for it.'
Harvey still smiled, though he could not conceal his nervousness.
'I'm afraid it comes to that.'
So little had Alma expected such a declaration, that she gazed at him in frank surprise.
'Then you are going to oppose me in everything?'
'I hope not. In that case we should do much better to say good-bye.'
The new tone perplexed her, and a puzzled interest mingled with the lofty displeasure of her look.
'Please let us understand each other.' She spoke with demonstrative calmness. 'Are we talking on equal terms, or is it master and servant?'
'Husband and wife, Alma, that's all.'
'With a new meaning in the words.'
'No; a very old one. I won't say the oldest, for I believe there was a time when primitive woman had the making of man in every sense, and somehow knocked a few ideas into his head; but that was very long ago.'
'If I could be sure of your real meaning ----.' She made an irritated gesture. 'How are we going to live? You speak of married people in lodging-houses. I don't know much about them, happily, but I imagine the husband talks something like this -- though in more intelligible language.'
'I dare say he does -- poor man. He talks more plainly, because he has never put himself in a false position -- has never played foolishly with the facts of life.'
Alma sat reflecting.
'Didn't I tell you in my letter,' she said at length, 'that I was quite willing to make a change, on one condition?'
'An impossible condition.'
'You treat me very harshly. How have I deserved it? When I wrote that, I really wished to please you. Of course, I knew you were dissatisfied with me, and it made me dissatisfied with myself. I wrote in a way that ought to have brought me a very different answer. Why do you behave as if I were guilty of something -- as if I had put myself at your mercy? You never found fault with me -- you even encouraged me to go on ----'
Her choking voice made Harvey look at her in apprehension, and the look stopped her just as she was growing hysterical.
'You are right about my letter,' he said, very gravely and quietly. 'It ought to have been in a kinder tone. It would have been, but for those words you won't explain.'
'You think it needs any explanation that I dislike the thought of Hughie going to Mrs Abbott's?'
'Indeed I do. I can't imagine a valid ground for your objection.'
There was a word on Alma's tongue, but her lips would not utter it. She turned very pale under the mental conflict. Physical weakness, instead of overcoming her spirit, excited it to a fresh effort of resistance.
'Then,' she said, rising from the chair, 'you are not only unkind to me, but dishonest.'
'You are making yourself ill again. We had far better not talk at all.'
'I came up for no other purpose. We have to settle everything.'
'As far as I am concerned, everything is settled.'
'Then I have no choice,' said Alma, with subdued passion. 'We shall live as we have done. I shall accept any engagement that offers, in London or the country, and regard music as my chief concern. You wished it, and so it shall be.'
Rolfe hesitated. Believing that her illness was the real cause of this commotion, he felt it his duty to use all possible forbearance; yet he knew too well the danger of once more yielding, and at such a crisis. The contest had declared itself -- it was will against will; to decide it by the exertion of his sane strength against Alma's hysteria might be best even for the moment. He had wrought himself to the point of unwonted energy, a state of body and mind difficult to recover if now he suffered defeat. Alma, turning from him, seemed about to leave the room.
'One moment ----'
She looked round, carelessly attentive.
'That wouldn't be living as we have done. It would be an intolerable state of things after this.'
'It's your own decision.'
'Far from it. I wouldn't put up with it for a day.'
'Then there's only one thing left: I must go and live by myself.'
'I couldn't stand that either, and wouldn't try.'
'I am no slave! I shall live where and how I choose.'
'When you have thought about it more calmly, your choice will be the same as mine.'
Trembling violently, she backed away from him. Harvey thought she would fall; he tried to hold her by the arm, but Alma shook him off, and in the same moment regained her -strength. She faced him with a new defiance, which enabled her at last to speak the words hitherto unutterable.
'How do you think I can bear to see Hughie with those children?'
Rolfe stood in amaze. The suddenness of this reversion to another stage of their argument enhanced his natural difficulty in understanding her.
'Those two -- whatever their name may be.'
'Wager's boy and girl?'
'You call them so.'
'Are you going crazy? I call them so? -- what do you mean?'
A sudden misgiving appeared in Alma's eyes; she stared at him so strangely that Harvey began to fear for her reason.
'What is it, dear? What have you been thinking? Tell me -- speak like yourself ----'
'Why do you take so much interest in them?' she asked faintly.
'Heavens! You have suspected ----? What have you suspected?'
'They are your own. I have known it for a long time.'
Alarm notwithstanding, Rolfe was so struck by the absurdity of this charge that he burst into stentorian laughter. Whilst he laughed, Alma sank into a chair, powerless, tearful.
'I should much like to know,' exclaimed Harvey, laying a hand upon her, 'how you made that astounding discovery. Do you think they are like me?'
'The girl is -- or I thought so.'
'After you had decided that she must be, no doubt.' Again he exploded in laughter. 'And this is the meaning of it all? This is what you have been fretting over? For how long?'
Alma brushed away her tears, but gave no answer.
'And if I am their father,' he pursued, with resolute mirthfulness, 'pray, who do you suppose their mother to be?'
Still Alma kept silence, her head bent.
'I'll warrant I can give you evidence against myself which you hadn't discovered,' Rolfe went on -- 'awful and unanswerable evidence. It is I who support those children, and pay for their education! -- it is I, and no other. See your darkest suspicion confirmed. If only you had known this for certain!'
'Why, then, do you do it?' asked Alma, without raising her eyes.
'For a very foolish reason: there was no one else who could or would.'
'And why did you keep it a secret from me?'
'This is the blackest part of the whole gloomy affair,' he answered, with burlesque gravity. 'It's in the depraved nature of men to keep secrets from their wives, especially about money. To tell the truth, I'm hanged if I know why I didn't tell you before our marriage. The infamous step was taken not very long before, and I might as well have made a clean breast of it. Has Mrs Abbott never spoken to you about her cousin, Wager's wife?'
'A word or two.'
'Which you took for artful fiction? You imagined she had plotted with me to deceive you? What, in the name of commonsense, is your estimate of Mrs Abbott's character?'
Alma drew a deep breath, and looked up into her husband's face. 'Still -- she knew you were keeping it from me, about the money.'
'She had no suspicion of it. She always wrote to me openly, acknowledging the cheques. Would it gratify you to look through her letters?'
'I believe you.'
'Not quite, I fancy. Look at me again and say it.'
He raised her head gently.
'Yes, I believe you -- it was very silly.'
'It was. The only piece of downright feminine foolishness I ever knew you guilty of. But when did it begin?'
Alma had become strangely quiet. She spoke in a low, tired voice, and sat with head turned aside, resting against the back of the chair; her face was expressionless, her eyelids drooped. Rolfe had to repeat his question.
'I hardly know,' she replied. 'It must have been when my illness was coming on.'
'So I should think. It was sheer frenzy. And now that it's over, have you still any prejudice against Mrs Abbott?'
The syllable fell idly from her lips.
'You are tired, dear. All this sound and fury has been too much for you. Lie down on the sofa till dinner-time.'
She allowed him to lead her across the room, and lay down as he wished. To his kiss upon her forehead she made no response, but closed her eyes and was very still. Harvey seated himself at his desk, and opened two or three unimportant letters which had arrived this morning. To one of them he wrote an answer. Turning presently to glance at Alma, he saw that she had not stirred, and when he leaned towards her, the sound of her breathing told him that she was asleep.
He meditated on Woman.
A quarter of an hour before dinner-time he left the room; on his return, when the meal was ready, he found Alma still sleeping, and so soundly that it seemed wrong to wake her. As rays of sunset had begun to fall into the room, he drew the blind, then quietly went out, and had dinner by himself.
At ten o'clock Alma still slept. Using a closely-shaded lamp, Harvey sat in the room with her and read -- or seemed to read; for ever and again his eyes strayed to the still figure, and his thoughts wandered over all he knew of Alma's life. He wished he knew more, that he might better understand her. Of her childhood, her early maidenhood, what conception had he? Yet he and she were one -- so said the creeds. And Harvey laughed to himself, a laugh more of melancholy than of derision.
The clock ticked on; it was near to eleven. Then Alma stirred, raised herself, and looked towards the light.
'Harvey ----? Have I been asleep so long?'
'Nearly five hours.'
'Oh! That was last night ----'
'You mean, you had no sleep?'
'Didn't close my eyes.'
'And you feel better now?'
Rolfe laughed. He had seated himself on the couch by her and held her in his arms.
'Why, then we'll have some supper -- a cold fowl and a bottle of Burgundy -- a profligate supper, fit for such abandoned characters; and over it you shall tell me how the world looked to you when you were ten years old.'
Alma returned to Basingstoke, and remained there until the new house was ready for her reception. With the help of her country friends she engaged two domestics, cook and housemaid, who were despatched to Gunnersbury in advance; they had good 'characters', and might possibly co-operate with their new mistress in her resolve to create an admirable household. Into this ambition Alma had thrown herself with no less fervour than that which carried her off to wild Wales five years ago; but her aim was now strictly 'practical', she would have nothing more to do with 'ideals'. She took lessons in domestic economy from the good people at Basingstoke. Yes, she had found her way at last! Alma saw it in the glow of a discovery, this calm, secure, and graceful middle-way. She talked of it with an animation that surprised and pleased her little circle down in Hampshire; those ladies had never been able to illumine their everyday discharge of duty with such high imaginative glory. In return for their humble lessons, Alma taught them to admire themselves, to see in their place and functions a nobility they had never suspected.
For a day or two after her arrival at Gunnersbury, Harvey thought that he had never seen her look so well; certainly she had never shown the possibilities of her character to such advantage. It seemed out of the question that any trouble could ever again come between them. Only when the excitement of novelty had subsided did he perceive that Alma was far from having recovered her physical strength. A walk of a mile or two exhausted her; she came home from an hour's exercise with Hughie pale and tremulous; and of a morning it was often to be noticed that she had not slept well. Without talking of it, Harvey planned the holiday which Alma had declared would be quite needless this year; he took a house in Norfolk for September. Before the day of departure, Alma had something to tell him, which, by suggesting natural explanation of her weakness, made him less uneasy. Remembering the incident which had brought to a close their life in Wales, he saw with pleasure that Alma no longer revolted against the common lot of woman. Perhaps, indeed, the announcement she made to him was the cause of more anxiety in his mind than in hers.
They took their servants with them, and left the house to a caretaker. Pauline Smith, though somewhat against Harvey's judgment, had been called upon to resign; Alma wished to have Hughie to herself, save during his school hours; he slept in her room, and she tended him most conscientiously. Harvey had asked whether she would like to invite any one, but she preferred to be alone.
This month by the northern sea improved her health, but she had little enjoyment. After a few days, she wearied of the shore and the moorland, and wished herself back at Gunnersbury. Nature had never made much appeal to her; when she spoke of its beauties with admiration, she echoed the approved phrases, little more; all her instincts drew towards the life of a great town. Sitting upon the sand, between cliff and breakers, she lost herself in a dream of thronged streets and brilliant rooms; the voice of the waves became the roar of traffic, a far sweeter music. With every year this tendency had grown stronger; she could only marvel, now, at the illusion which enabled her to live so long, all but contentedly, in that wilderness where Hughie was born. Rather than return to it, she would die -- rather, a thousand times. Happily, there was no such danger. Harvey would never ask her to leave London. All he desired was that she should hold apart from certain currents of town life; and this she was resolved to do, knowing how nearly they had swept her to destruction.
'Wouldn't you like to take up your sketching again?' said Harvey one day, when he saw that she felt dull.
'Sketching? Oh, I had forgotten all about it. It seems ages ago. I should have to begin and learn all over again. No, no; it isn't worth while. I shall have no time.'
She did not speak discontentedly, but Rolfe saw already the justification of his misgivings. She had begun to feel the constant presence of the child a restraint and a burden.
Happily, on their return home, Hughie would go to school for a couple of hours each morning. Alma could have wished it any other school than Mary Abbott's, but the thought was no longer so insupportable as when she suffered under her delusion concerning the two children. Now that she had frequently seen Minnie Wager, she wondered at the self-deception which allowed her to detect in the child's face a distinct resemblance to Harvey. Of course, there was nothing of the kind. She had been the victim of a morbid jealousy -- a symptom, no doubt, of the disorder of the nerves which was growing upon her. Yet she could not overcome her antipathy to Mary Abbott. Harvey, she felt sure, would never have made himself responsible for those children, but that in doing so he benefited their teacher; and it was not without motive of conscience that he kept the matter secret. By no effort could Alma banish this suspicion. She resolved that it should never appear; she commanded her face and her utterance; but it was impossible for her ever to regard Mrs Abbott with liking, or even with respect.
In a darker corner of her mind lay hidden another shape of jealousy -- jealousy unavowed, often disguised as fear, but for the most part betraying itself through the mask of hatred.
Times innumerable, in nights that brought no rest, and through long hours of weary day, Alma had put her heart to the proof, and acquitted it of any feeling save a natural compassion for the man Hugh Carnaby had killed. She had never loved Redgrave, had never even thought of him with that curiosity which piques the flesh; yet so inseparably was he associated with her life at its points of utmost tension and ardour, that she could not bear to yield to any other woman a closer intimacy, a prior claim. At her peril she had tempted him, and up to the fatal moment she was still holding her own in the game which had become to her a passion. It ended -- because a rival came between. Of Sibyl's guilt she never admitted a doubt; it was manifest in the story made public by Hugh Carnaby, the story which he, great simple fellow, told in all good faith, relying absolutely on his wife's assertion of innocence. Saving her husband, who believed Sibyl innocent?
She flattered herself with the persuasion that it was right to hate Sibyl -- a woman who had sold herself for money, whose dishonour differed in no respect from that of the woman of the pavement. And all the more she hated her because she feared her. What security could there be that Redgrave's murderer (thus she thought of him) had kept the secret which he promised to keep? That he allowed no hint of it to escape him in public did not prove that he had been equally scrupulous with Sibyl; for Hugh was a mere plaything in the hands of his wife, and it seemed more than likely that he had put his stupid conscience at rest by telling her everything. Were it so, what motive would weigh with Sibyl to keep her silent? One, and one only, could be divined: a fear lest Alma, through intimacy with Redgrave, might have discovered things which put her in a position to dare the enmity of her former friend. This, no doubt, would hold Sibyl to discretion. Yet it could not relieve Alma from the fear of her, and of Hugh Carnaby himself -- fear which must last a lifetime; which at any moment, perhaps long years hence, might find its bitter fulfilment, and work her ruin. For Harvey Rolfe was not a man of the stamp of Hugh Carnaby: he would not be hoodwinked in the face of damning evidence, or lend easy ear to specious explanations. The very fact that she could explain her ambiguous behaviour was to Alma an enhancement of the dread with which she thought of such a scene between herself and Harvey; for to be innocent, and yet unable to force conviction of it upon his inmost mind, would cause her a deeper anguish than to fall before him with confession of guilt. And to convince him would be impossible, for ever impossible. Say what she might, and however generous the response of his love, there must still remain the doubt which attaches to a woman's self-defence when at the same time she is a self-accuser
In the semi-delirium of her illness, whilst waiting in torment for the assurance that Carnaby had kept her secret, she more than once prayed for Sibyl's death. In her normal state of mind Alma prayed for nothing; she could not hope that Sibyl's life would come to a convenient end; but as often as she thought of her, it was with a vehemence of malignity which fired her imagination to all manner of ruthless extremes. It revolted her to look back upon the time when she sat at that woman's feet, a disciple, an affectionate admirer, allowing herself to be graciously patronised, counselled, encouraged. The repose of manner which so impressed her, the habitual serenity of mood, the unvarying self-confidence -- oh, these were excellent qualities when it came to playing the high part of cold and subtle hypocrisy! She knew Sibyl, and could follow the workings of her mind: a woman incapable of love, or of the passion which simulates it; worshipping herself, offering luxuries to her cold flesh as to an idol; scornful of the possibility that she might ever come to lack what she desired; and, at the critical moment, prompt to secure herself against such danger by the smiling, cynical acceptance of whatsoever shame. Alma had no small gift of intuition; proved by the facility and fervour with which she could adapt her mind to widely different conceptions of life. This characteristic, aided by the perspicacity which is bestowed upon every jealous woman, perchance enabled her to read the mysterious Sibyl with some approach to exactness. Were it so, prudence should have warned her against a struggle for mere hatred's sake with so formidable an antagonist. But the voice of caution had never long audience with Alma, and was not likely, at any given moment, to prevail against a transport of her impetuous soul.
Harvey, meanwhile, fearing her inclination to brood over the dark event, tried to behave as though he had utterly dismissed it from his thoughts. He kept a cheerful countenance, talked much more than usual, and seemed full of health and hope. As usual between married people, this resolute cheerfulness had, more often than not, an irritating effect upon Alma. Rolfe erred once more in preferring to keep silence about difficulties rather than face the unpleasantness of frankly discussing them. One good, long, intimate conversation about Mrs Carnaby, with unrestricted exchange of views, the masculine and the feminine, with liberal acceptance of life as it is lived, and honest contempt of leering hypocrisies, would have done more, at this juncture, to put healthy tone into Alma's being than any change of scene and of atmosphere, any medicament or well-meant summons to forgetfulness. Like the majority of good and thoughtful men, he could not weigh his female companion in the balance he found good enough for mortals of his own sex. With a little obtuseness to the 'finer' feelings, a little native coarseness in his habits towards women, he would have succeeded vastly better amid the complications of his married life.
Troubles of a grosser kind, such as heretofore they had been wonderfully spared, began to assail them during their month in Norfolk. One morning, about midway in the holiday, Harvey, as he came down for a bathe before breakfast, heard loud and angry voices from the kitchen. On his return after bathing, he found the breakfast-table very carelessly laid, with knives unpolished, and other such neglects of seemliness. Alma, appearing with Hughie, spoke at once of the strange noises she had heard, and Harvey gave his account of the uproar.
'I thought something was wrong,' said Alma. 'The cook has seemed in a bad temper for several days. I don't like either of them. I think I shall give them both notice, and advertise at once. They say that advertising is the best way.'
The housemaid (in her secondary function of parlour-maid) waited at table with a scowl. The fish was ill fried, the eggs were hard, the toast was soot-smeared. For the moment Alma made no remark; but half an hour later, when Harvey and the child had rambled off to the sea-shore, she summoned both domestics, and demanded an explanation of their behaviour. Her tone was not conciliatory; she had neither the experience nor the tact which are necessary in the mistress of a household, and it needed only an occasion such as this to bring out the contemptuousness with which she regarded her social inferiors. Too well-bred to indulge in scolding or wrangling, the delight of a large class of housewives, Alma had a quiet way of exhibiting displeasure and scorn, which told smartly on the nerves of those she rebuked. No one could better have illustrated the crucial difficulty of the servant-question, which lies in the fact that women seldom can rule, and all but invariably dislike to be ruled by, their own sex; a difficulty which increases with the breaking-up of social distinctions.
She went out into the sunshine, and found Harvey and Hughie building a great castle of sand. Her mood was lightsome for she felt that she had acted with decision and in a way worthy of her dignity.
'They will both go about their business. I only hope we may get meals for the rest of the time here.'
Harvey nodded, with closed lips.
'It's a pity Pauline went,' he remarked presently.
'I'm afraid it is. I hadn't quite realised what it would mean.'
'I rather think I ventured to say something of that kind, didn't I? She may not have taken another place. Suppose you write to her?'
Alma seemed to waver.
'What I am thinking,' she said in a lower tone, 'is that -- before long -- we shall need -- I suppose -- someone of a rather different kind -- an ordinary nurse-girl. But you wouldn't like Hughie to be with anyone of that sort?'
'It wouldn't matter now.'
'Here's the philosophy of the matter in a nut-shell,' said Harvey afterwards. 'Living nowadays means keeping up appearances, and you must do it just as carefully before your own servants as before your friends. The alternatives are, one general servant, with frank confession of poverty, or a numerous household and everything comme il faut. There's no middle way, with peace. I think your determination to take care of Hughie yourself was admirable; but it won't work. These two women think you do it because you can't afford a nurse, and at once they despise us. It's the nature of the beasts -- it's the tone of the time. Nothing will keep them and their like in subordination but a jingling of the purse. One must say to them all day long, "I am your superior; I can buy you by the dozen, if need be; I never need soil my finger with any sort of work, and you know it." Ruth was a good creature, but I seriously doubt whether she would have been quite so good if she hadn't seen us keeping our horse and our gardener and our groom down yonder -- everything handsome about us. For the sake of quietness we must exalt ourselves.'
'You're quite right about Ruth,' replied Alma, laughing. 'Several times she has let me see how she admired my life of idleness; but it's just that I don't want to go back to.'
'No need. Ruth was practically a housekeeper. You can manage your own house, but you must have a servant for everything. Get a nurse, by all means.'
Alma drew a breath of contentment.
'You are not dissatisfied with me, Harvey?'
'Of course not.'
'But tell me -- how does Mrs Morton manage? Why isn't she despised by her servants when she's always so busy?'
Harvey had to close his lips against the first answer which occurred to him.
'For one thing,' he replied, 'there's a more natural state of things in those little towns; something of the old spirit still lives. Then the Mortons have the immense advantage of being an old family, settled there for generations, known and respected by everyone. That's a kind of superiority one can't buy, and goes for a great deal in comfortable living. Morton's servants are the daughters of people who served his parents. From their childhood they have thought it would be a privilege to get into that house.'
'Impossible in London.'
'Unless you are a duchess.'
'What a pleasant thing it must be,' said Alma musingly, 'to have ancestors.'
'The next best thing is to have descendants.'
'Why, then,' exclaimed Alma, 'we become ancestors ourselves. But one ought to have an interesting house to live in. Nobody's ancestors ever lived in a semi-detached villa. What I should like would be one of those picturesque old places down in Surrey quite in the country, yet within easy reach of town; a house with a real garden, and perhaps an orchard. I believe you can get them very cheap sometimes. Not rent the house, but buy it. Then we would have our portraits painted, and ----'
Harvey asked himself how long Alma would find satisfaction in such a home; but it pleased him to hear her talking thus of the things which were his own hopeless dream.
'That reminds me, Alma, you have never sat yet for your picture, as I said you should.'
'We must wait -- now.'
'It shall be done next year.'
They were content with each other this evening, and looked forward to pleasures they might have in common. For Harvey had learnt to nourish only the humblest hopes, and Alma thought she had subdued herself to an undistinguished destiny.
Determined to have done once for all with a task she loathed, Alma wrote out her advertisements for cook, house-parlourmaid, and nurse, and sent them to half a dozen newspapers. After three weeks of correspondence with servants and mistresses -- a correspondence which, as Rolfe said, would have made a printed volume of higher sociological interest than anything yet published, or likely to be -- the end of her patience and her strength compelled her to decide half desperately, and engage the three young women who appeared least insolent. At the same time she had to find a new boy for boots, windows, knives, and coals, the youngster hitherto employed having been so successful with his 'book' on Kempton Park and Hurst Park September meetings that he relinquished menial duties and devoted himself wholly to the turf; but this was such a simple matter, compared with the engaging of indoor domestics, that she felt it almost a delight. When a strong, merry-looking lad presented himself, eager for the job, and speaking not a word that was beside the point, Alma could have patted his head.
She amused Harvey that evening by exclaiming with the very accent of sincerity ----
'How I like men, and how I detest women!'
Her nerves were so upset again that, when all was over, she generally slept pretty well, but now her insomnia returned, and had to keep her bed for a day or two. At the sea-side she had once more she had recourse to the fashionable specific. Harvey knew nothing of this; she was careful to hide it from him; and each time she measured out her dose she assured herself that it should be the last.
Oh, but to lie through those terrible small hours, her brain feverishly active, compelling her to live again in the scenes and the emotions she most desired to forget! She was haunted by the voice of Cyrus Redgrave, which at times grew so distinct to her hearing that it became an hallucination. Her memory reproduced his talk with astonishing fidelity; it was as though she had learnt it by heart, instead of merely listening to it at the time. This only in the silence of night; during the day she could not possibly have recalled a tenth of what her brain thus treacherously preserved.
In sleep she sometimes dreamt of him, and that was perhaps worse; for whilst the waking illusion only reproduced what he had actually said, with all his tricks of tone, his suavities of expression, sleep brought before her another Redgrave. He looked at her with a smile, indeed, but a smile of such unutterable malignity that she froze with terror. It was always the same. Redgrave stood before her smiling, silent; stood and gazed until in a paroxysm of anguish she cried out and broke the dream. Once, whilst the agony was upon her, she sprang from bed, meaning to go to her husband and tell him everything, and so, it might be, put an end to her sufferings. But with her hand upon the door she lost courage. Impossible! She could not hope to be believed. She could never convince her husband that she had told him all.
Upon her lay the guilt of Redgrave's death. This had entered slowly into her consciousness; at first rejected, but ever returning until the last argument of self-solace gave way. But for her visit to the bungalow that evening, Hugh Carnaby would not have been maddened to the point of fatal violence. In the obscurity he had mistaken her figure for that of Sibyl; and when Redgrave guarded her retreat, he paid for the impulse with his life.
On the Sunday before her concert, she had thought of going to see Redgrave, but the risk seemed too great, and there was no certainty of finding him at home. She wished above all things to see him, for there was a suspicion in her mind that Mrs Strangeways had a plot against her, though of its nature she could form no idea. It might be true that Redgrave was purposely holding aloof, whether out of real jealousy, or simply as a stratagem, a new move in the game. She would not write to him; she knew the danger of letters, and had been careful never to write him even the simplest note. If she must remain in uncertainty about his attitude towards her, the approaching ordeal would be intensified with a new agitation: was he coming to her recital, or was he not? She had counted upon triumphing before him. If he could stay away, her power over him was incomplete, and at the moment when she had meant it to be irresistible.
The chance encounter on Monday with Hugh Carnaby made her think of Sibyl, and she could not rest until she had endeavoured to learn something of Sibyl's movements. As Carnaby was leaving town, his wife would be free; and how did Sibyl use her freedom? On that subject Mrs Strangeways had a decided opinion, and her knowledge of the world made it more than probable that she was right. Without any scheme of espionage, obeying her instinct of jealous enmity, Alma hastened to Oxford and Cambridge Mansions. But Sibyl had left home, and -- was not expected to return that night.
How she spent the next few hours Alma could but dimly remember. It was a vortex of wretchedness. As dark fell she found herself at the gate leading to the bungalow, lurking, listening, waiting for courage to go farther. She stole at length over the grass behind the bushes, until she could see the lighted window of Redgrave's study. The window was open. She crept nearer and nearer, till she was actually in the veranda and looking into the room. Redgrave sat within, smoking and reading a newspaper. She purposely made a movement which drew his attention.
How would it have ended but for Hugh Carnaby?
Beyond ascertaining that Sibyl was not there, she had of course discovered nothing of what she wished to know. As likely as not she had come too early. Redgrave's behaviour when she drew his attention suggested that such a sound at the open window did not greatly surprise him; the surprise appeared when he saw who stood there -- surprise and momentary embarrassment, which would be natural enough if he expected a different visitor. And he was so anxious that she should come in at once. Had she done so, Redgrave's life would have been saved; but ----
Its having been publicly proved that Mrs Carnaby was then far away from Wimbledon did not tend to shake Alma's conviction. The summons to her mother's deathbed had disturbed Sibyl's arrangements, that was all. Most luckily for her, as it turned out. But women of that kind (said Alma bitterly) are favoured by fortune.
Locked in a drawer of her writing-table lay a bundle of letters and papers which had come to her immediately after the concert. To none of the letters had she replied; it was time for her to go through them, and answer, with due apologies, those which deserved an answer. Several did not; they were from people whom she hoped never to see again -- people who wrote in fulsome terms, because they fancied she would become a celebrity. The news of her breakdown had appeared in a few newspapers, and brought her letters of sympathy; these also lay unanswered. On a day of late autumn she brought herself to the task of looking through this correspondence, and in the end she burnt it all. Among the half-dozen people to whom she decided to write was Felix Dymes; not out of gratitude, or any feeling of friendliness, but because she could not overcome a certain fear of the man. He was capable of any meanness, perhaps of villainy; and perhaps he harboured malice against her, seeing that she had foiled him to the last. She penned a few lines asking him to let her have a complete statement of the financial results of her recital, which it seemed strange that he had not sent already.
'My health,' she added, 'is far from re-established, and I am unable either to go to town or to ask you to come and see me. It is rather doubtful whether I shall ever again play in public.'
In her own mind there lingered no doubt at all, but she thought it better not to be too abrupt with Dymes.
After burning all the letters, she read once more through the press notices of her performance. It was significant that the musical critics whose opinion had any weight gave her only a word or two of cautious commendation; her eulogists were writers who probably knew much less about music than she, and who reported concerts from the social point of view. Popular journalism represented her début as a striking success. Had she been able to use her opportunity to the utmost, doubtless something of a 'boom' -- the word then coming into fashion -- might have resulted for her; she could have given two or three more recitals before the end of the season, have been much photographed and paragraphed, and then have gone into the country 'to spread her conquests farther'. This was Felix Dymes's hope. Writing with all propriety, he had yet allowed it to be seen how greatly he was vexed and disappointed at her failure to take the flood. Alma, too, had regretful moments; but she fought against the feeling with all her strength. Today she all but found courage to throw these newspapers into the fire; it would be a final sacrifice, a grave symbolic act, and might bring her peace. Yet she could not. Long years hence, would it not be a legitimate pride to show these things to her children? A misgiving mingled with the thought, but her reluctance prevailed. She made up a parcel, wrote upon it, 'My Recital, May 1891', and locked it up with other most private memorials.
She had not long to wait for her answer from Dymes. He apologised for his delay in the matter of business, and promised that a detailed statement should be sent to her in a very few days. The unfortunate state of her health -- there Alma smiled -- moved him to sympathy and profound regret; her abandonment of a professional career could not, must not, be a final decision!
Something prompted her to hand this letter to Harvey.
'I took it for granted,' he said humorously, 'that the man had sent you a substantial cheque long ago.'
'I believe the balance will be on my side.'
'Would you like me to see to the rest of the business for you?'
'I don't think that's necessary, is it?'
To her relief, Harvey said no more. She waited for the promised balance-sheet, but weeks passed by and it did not arrive. An explanation of this readily occurred to her: Dymes calculated upon bringing her to an interview. She thought of Harvey's proposal, and wished she could dare to accept it; but the obscure risks were too great. So, months elapsed, till the affair seemed forgotten.
They never spoke to each other of Hugh Carnaby or of Sibyl.
Meanwhile, Alma did not lack society. Mrs Abbott, whom, without change of feeling, she grew accustomed to see frequently, introduced her to the Langland family, and in Mrs Langland she found a not uncongenial acquaintance. This lady had known many griefs, and seemed destined to suffer many more; she had wrinkles on her face which should not have been there at forty-five; but no one ever heard her complain or saw her look downhearted.
In her zeal for housewifery, Alma saw much to admire and to imitate in Mrs Langland. She liked the good-humoured modesty with which the elder lady always spoke of herself, and was not displeased at observing an air of deference when the conversation turned on such high matters as literature and art. Mrs Langland knew all about the recital at Prince's Hall; she knew, moreover, as appeared from a casual remark one day, that Mrs Rolfe had skill in 'landscape painting'.
'Who told you that?' asked Alma, with surprise.
'I hope it wasn't a secret. Mrs Abbott spoke of your water-colours once. She was delighted with them.'
Praise even from Mary Abbott gratified Alma; it surprised her, and she doubted its sincerity, but there was satisfaction in knowing that her fame went abroad among the people at Gunnersbury. Without admiration she could not live, and nothing so severely tested her resolution to be content with the duties of home as Harvey's habit of taking all for granted, never remarking upon her life of self-conquest, never soothing her with the flatteries for which she hungered.
She hailed with delight the first visit after several months from her friends Dora and Gerda Leach. During the summer their father's health had suffered so severely that the overwrought man found himself compelled to choose between a long holiday abroad and the certainty of complete collapse if he tried to pursue his ordinary life. The family went away, and returned in November, when it seemed probable that the money-making machine known as Mr Leach had been put into tolerable working order for another year or so. Not having seen Alma since her recital, the girls overflowed with talk about it, repeating all the eulogies they had heard, and adding such rapturous laudation of their own that Alma could have hung upon their necks in gratitude. They found it impossible to believe that she would no more play in public.
'Oh, but when you are quite well!' they exclaimed. 'It would be a shame -- a sin!'
In writing to them, Alma had put her decision solely on the ground of health. Now, assuming a countenance of gentle gravity, she made known her higher reasons.
'I have felt it to be my duty. Remember that I can't consider myself alone. I found that I must either devote myself wholly to music or give it up altogether. You girls can't very well understand. When one is a wife and a mother -- I thought it all over during my illness. I had been neglecting my husband and Hughie, and it was too bad -- downright selfishness. Art and housekeeping won't go together; I thought they might, but t found my mistake. Of course, it cost me a struggle, but that's over. I have learnt to renounce.'
'It's very noble of you!' murmured Dora Leach.
'I never heard anything so noble!' said her sister.
Alma flushed with pleasure.
'And yet you know,' Dora pursued, 'artists have a duty to the world.'
'I can't help questioning,' said Gerda, 'whether you had a right to sacrifice yourself.'
Alma smiled thoughtfully.
'You can't quite see it as I do. When one has children ----'
'It must make a great difference' -- 'Oh, a great difference!' -- responded the sisters. And again they exclaimed at the spectacle of such noble devotedness.
By natural transition the talk turned to Mrs Carnaby. The girls spoke of her compassionately, but Alma soon perceived that they did not utter all their thoughts.
'I'm afraid,' she said, 'that some people take another view. I have heard -- but one doesn't care to repeat such things.'
Dora and Gerda betrayed a lively interest. Yes, they too had heard disagreeable gossip; what a shame it was!
'Of course, you see her?' said Dora.
Alma shook her head, and seemed a trifle embarrassed.
'I don't even know whether she still lives there.'
'Oh yes, she does,' replied Miss Leach eagerly. 'But I've been told that very few people go. I wondered -- we rather wished to know whether you did.'
Again Alma gently shook her head.
'I haven't even heard from her. I suppose she has her reasons. To tell you the truth, I'm not quite sure that my husband would like me to call. It isn't a pleasant subject, is it? Let us talk of something else.'
So, when Dora and Gerda went away, they carried with them the conviction that Mrs Carnaby was an 'impossible' person and of course lost no opportunity of imparting it to their friends.
About a week before Christmas, when the new servants seemed to have settled to their work, and the house routine needed less supervision, Alma and her husband dined at the Langlands', to meet a few quiet people. Among the guests was Mrs Langland's brother, of whom Alma had already heard, and whom, before the end of the evening, she came to regard with singular interest. Mr Thistlewood had no advantages of physique, and little charm of manner; his long, meagre body never seemed able to put itself at ease; sitting or standing, he displayed the awkwardness of a naturally shy man who has not studied the habits of society. But his features, in spite of irregularity, and a complexion resembling the tone of 'foxed' paper, attracted observation, and rewarded it; his eye had a pleasant twinkle, oddly in contrast with the lines of painful thought upon his forehead, and the severity of strained muscles in the lower part of his face. He was head-master of a small school of art in a northern county; a post which he had held only for a twelvemonth. Like his sister's husband, Thistlewood suffered from disappointed ambition, for he had aimed at great things as a painter; but he accepted his defeat, and at thirty-five was seeking content in a 'sphere of usefulness' which promised, after all, to give scope to his best faculties. Not long ago he would have scorned the thought of becoming a 'teacher'; yet for a teacher he was born, and the truth, in dawning upon his mind, had brought with it a measure of consolation.
A finger missing from his left hand told a story of student life in Paris. It was a quarrel with a young Frenchman, about a girl. He and his rival happening to sit opposite to each other at a restaurant table, high words arose between them, and the Frenchman eventually made a stab at Thistlewood's hand with his dinner-fork. That ended the dispute, but the finger had to come off. Not long afterwards Thistlewood accepted an engagement to go as artist with a party of English explorers into Siberia. On his return he lingered for a week or two in St Petersburg, and there chanced to meet the girl who had cost him one of his digits. She, like himself, had been in pursuit of adventures; but, whereas the artist came back with a well-filled purse, the wandering damsel was at her last sou. They journeyed together to London, and for the next year or two Thistlewood had the honour of working himself almost to death to support a very expensive young woman, who cared no more for him than for her cast-off shoes. Happily, some richer man was at length found who envied him his privilege, and therewith ended Thistlewood's devotion to the joys of a bohemian life. Ever since, his habits had been excessively sober -- perhaps a little morose. But Mrs Langland, who now saw him once a year; thought him in every respect improved. Moreover, she had a project for his happiness, and on that account frequently glanced at him during dinner, as he conversed, much more fluently than of wont, with his neighbour, Mrs Abbott.
Alma sat on the other side of the table, and was no less observant than the hostess of a peculiar animation on Mr Thistlewood's dark visage. To be sure, she knew nothing of him, and it might be his habit to wear that look when he talked with ladies; but Alma thought it unlikely. And it seemed to her that Mary Abbott, though much as usual in manner, had a just perceptible gleam of countenance beyond what one was accustomed to remark in her moments of friendly conversation. This, too, might be merely the result of a little natural excitement, seeing that the school-mistress so seldom dined from home. But, in any case, the proximity of these two persons was curiously interesting and suggestive.
In the drawing-room, presently, Alma had a pleasant little talk with Mr Thistlewood. By discreet experiment, she satisfied herself that Mrs Abbott's name certainly quickened his interest; and, having learnt so much, it was easy, by representing herself as that lady's old and intimate friend, to win from the man a significant look of pleasure and confidence. They talked of art, of landscape, and it appeared that Thistlewood was acquainted with the part of Carnarvonshire where Alma had lived. What was more, he had heard of her charming water-colours, and he would so much like to see them.
'Some enemy has done this,' replied Alma, laughing gaily. 'Was it Mrs Abbott?'
'No, it was not,' he answered, with corresponding vivacity.
'Why, then, it must have been Mrs Langland, and I have a good mind to put her to open shame by asking you to come and see my wretched daubs.'
Nothing would please him better, declared Thistlewood; and thereupon he accepted an invitation to tea for the following afternoon.
Alma asked no one else. She understood that this man was only to be observed under favourable conditions by isolating him. She wished, moreover, to bring him into fireside conversation with Harvey, and to remark her husband's demeanour. By way of preparation for this conjuncture, she let fall, in private chat with Harvey, a word or two which pointed humorously at her suspicions concerning Thistlewood and Mary Abbott. The hearer exhibited an incredulous surprise.
'It was only a fancy,' said Alma, smiling rather coldly; and she felt more desirous than ever of watching her husband in Thistlewood's presence.
Unexpectedly, from her point of view, the two men got along together very well indeed. Harvey, thoroughly cordial, induced their guest to speak of his work at the School of Art, and grew so interested in it that the conversation went on for a couple of hours. Thistlewood had pronounced and enthusiastic ideas on the subject.
'My difficulty is,' he exclaimed, 'that I can't get hold of the children young enough. People send their boys and girls to be taught drawing as an "accomplishment" -- the feeble old notion. I want to teach it as a most important part of elementary education -- in fact, to take youngsters straight on from the kindergarten stage.'
'Did I tell you,' put in Alma, 'that our little boy goes to Mrs Abbott's?' and her eyes were on both men at once.
'I should say you couldn't have done better than send him there,' replied Thistlewood, shuffling his feet and fidgeting with his hands. 'Mrs Abbott is an admirable teacher. She quite agrees with me -- I should say that I quite agree with her. But I am forgetting, Mrs Rolfe, that you know her better than I do.'
Hughie was allowed to come into the room for a little while, and to give an account of what he learnt at school. When at length Thistlewood took his leave, it was with a promise that he would come again and dine a few days hence. His visit at Mrs Langland's would extend over another fortnight. Before the day of his departure northwards, Alma met him several times, and succeeded in establishing almost an intimate friendship with him. He came to bid her goodbye on a black and bitter January afternoon, when it happened that Harvey was away. As soon as he entered, she saw upon his face a look of ill augury, a heavy-eyed dejection very unlike the twinkling hopefulness with which he had hitherto regarded her.
'What's the matter?' she asked, holding his hand for a moment. 'Don't you like going back to work?'
'I enjoy my work, Mrs Rolfe, as you know.'
'But you are not like yourself.'
'My friends here have made the time very pleasant. Naturally, I don't like leaving them.'
He was a little abrupt, and decidedly showed the less genial phase of his disposition.
'Have some tea,' said Alma, 'and warm yourself at the fire. You will thaw presently, Mr Thistlewood. I suppose, like other unregenerate men, you live in rooms? Has that kind of life an irresistible charm for you?'
He looked at her with a frown which, to say the least, was discouraging; it changed, however, to a more amiable expression as she handed him his tea.
'What do you imagine my income is, Mrs Rolfe?' came growlingly from him.
'I have no idea. You mean, I'm afraid' -- Alma's voice fell upon its gentlest note -- 'that it doesn't allow you to think of -- of any change?'
'It ought not to allow me,' replied the other. 'I have about two hundred pounds a year, and can't hope much more for a long time.'
'And that,' exclaimed Alma, 'seems to you insufficient? I should have thought in a little town -- so far away -- Oh! you want to surround yourself with luxuries ----'
'I don't! -- I beg your pardon, Mrs Rolfe, I meant to say that you surely know me better.' His hand trembled and spilt the tea, which he had not yet touched. 'But how can you suppose that -- that anyone ----?'
He turned his face to the fire, the light of which made his eyes glare fiercely. Forthwith, Alma launched upon a spirited remonstrance. Never, even in the days just before her marriage, had she been so fervid and eloquent on behalf of the 'simple life'. Two hundred pounds! Why, it was wealth for rational people! She inveighed against display and extravagance.
'You are looking round the room. -- Oh, don't apologise; it was quite natural. I confess, and I'm ashamed of myself. But ask Mrs Abbott to tell you about our little house in Wales; she came once to see us there. We lived -- oh so simply and cheaply; and it was our happiest time. If only we could go back to it! But the world has been too much for us. People call it comfort; it means, I assure you, ceaseless trouble and worry. Who knows? some day we may come to our senses, and shake off the burden.'
'If we could all have cottages among the mountains,' he said. 'But a little provincial town ----'
'Set an example! Who would have a better right to defy foolish prejudice? A teacher of the beautiful -- you might do infinite good by showing how beautifully one can live without obeying mere fashion in a single point.'
'I heartily agree with you,' replied Thistlewood, setting down his empty cup. 'You express my own thoughts much better than I could myself. And your talk has done me good, Mrs Rolfe. Thank you for treating me with such friendly kindness.'
Therewith he rose and said goodbye to her, with a hope that they might meet again. Alma was vexed that he would not stay longer and take her more completely into his confidence; but she echoed the hope, and smiled upon him with much sweetness.
His behaviour could have only one interpretation: he had proposed to Mary Abbott, and she had refused him. The longer Alma thought, the more certain she was -- and the more irritated. It would be very difficult to continue her civility to Mrs Abbott after this.
In these days Rolfe had abandoned even the pretence of study. He could not feel at home among his books; they were ranked about him on the old shelves, but looked as uncomfortable as he himself; it seemed a temporary arrangement; he might as well have been in lodgings. At Pinner, after a twelvemonth, he was beginning to overcome the sense of strangeness; but a foreboding that he could not long remain there had always disturbed him. Here, though every probability pointed to a residence of at least two or three years, he scarcely made an effort to familiarise himself with the new surroundings; his house was a shelter, a camp; granted a water-tight roof, and drains not immediately poisonous, what need to take thought for artificial comforts? Thousands of men, who sleep on the circumference of London, and go each day to business, are practically strangers to the district nominally their home; ever ready to strike tent, as convenience bids, they can feel no interest in a vicinage which merely happens to house them for the time being, and as often as not they remain ignorant of the names of streets or roads through which they pass in going to the railway station. Harvey was now very much in this case. That he might not utterly waste his time, he had undertaken regular duties under Cecil Morphew's direction, and spent some hours daily in Westminster Bridge Road. Thence he went to his club, to see the papers; and in returning to Gunnersbury he felt hardly more sense of vital connection with this suburb than with the murky and roaring street in which he sat at business. By force of habit he continued to read, but only books from the circulating library, thrown upon his table pell-mell -- novels, popular science, travels, biographies; each as it came to hand. The intellectual disease of the time took hold upon him: he lost the power of mental concentration, yielded to the indolent pleasure of desultory page-skimming. There remained in him but one sign of grace: the qualms that followed on every evening's debauch of mind, the headachey impression that he was going through a morbid experience which somehow would work its own cure.
Alma seemed quite unaware of any change in him. To his physical comfort she gave all due attention, anxious lest he should catch cold in this hideous weather, and doing her best to rule the house as he desired; but his intellectual life was no concern to her. Herein, of course, Harvey did but share the common lot of men married; he recognised the fact, and was too wise to complain of it, even in his own mind. Yet it puzzled him a little, now and then, that a woman so intelligent as Alma should in this respect be simply on a level with the brainless multitude of her sex. One evening, when they were together in his room, he took down a volume, and blew the dust off it, saying as he did so ----
'They're not often disturbed nowadays, these solid old fellows.'
'But I suppose you like to have them about you?' Alma replied carelessly, as she glanced at the shelves.
'Why, yes, they're good furniture; help to warm the room.'
'No doubt they do,' Alma replied. 'It's always more comfortable here than in the drawing-room.'
Daily he asked himself whether she was reconciled to the loss of her ambitions, and he could not feel any certainty. In the present state of her health it might be natural for her to acquiesce in a humdrum life; but when the next few months were over, and she found herself once more able to move about as she pleased, would her mind remain the same? Happy she was not, and probably nothing in his power to do could make her so. Marriage rarely means happiness, either for man or woman; if it be not too grievous to be borne, one must thank the fates and take courage. But Harvey had a troublesome conscience. In acting with masculine decision, with the old-fashioned authority of husbands, he had made himself doubly responsible for any misery that might come to Alma through the conditions of her life. It might be that, on the higher plane of reasoning, he was by no means justified; there might have been found a middle way, which, whilst guarding Alma from obvious dangers, still left her free to enjoy and to aspire. What he had done was very much like the clipping of wings. Practically it might be needful, and of safe result; but there is a world beyond the barnyard, for all that; and how should he know, with full assurance, whether Alma had not suffered a grave wrong! He durst not reopen the discussion with her. He had taken his stand, and must hold it, or lose all self-respect.
Marriage is like life itself, easiest to those who think least about it. Rolfe knew that well enough, and would gladly have acted upon the knowledge; he came nearest to doing so at the times when Hughie was his companion. Relieved by the nursemaid from duties she had only borne by the exertion of something like heroism, Alma once more drew a broad line of demarcation between nursery and drawing-room; it was seldom she felt in a mood for playing with the child, and she had no taste for 'going walks'. But Harvey could not see too much of the little boy, indoors or out, and it rejoiced him to know that his love was returned in full measure; for Hughie would at any time abandon other amusements to be with his father. In these winter months, when by rare chance there came a fine Saturday or Sunday, they went off together to Kew or Richmond, and found endless matter for talk, delightful to both of them. Hughie, now four years old, was well grown, and could walk two or three miles without weariness. He had no colour in his cheeks, and showed the nervous tendencies which were to be expected in a child of such parentage, but on the whole his health gave no cause for uneasiness. If anything chanced to ail him, Harvey suffered an excessive disquiet; for the young life seemed to him so delicate a thing that any touch of pain might wither it away. Because of the unutterable anguish in the thought, he had often forced himself to front the possibility of Hughie's death, and had even brought himself to feel that in truth it would be no reason for sorrow; how much better to fall asleep in playtime, and wake no more, than to outlive the happiness and innocence which pass for ever with childhood. And when the fear of life lay heaviest upon him, he found solace in remembering that after no great lapse of time he and those he loved would have vanished from the earth, would be as though they had not been at all; every pang and woe awaiting them suffered and forgotten; the best and the worst gone by for ever; the brief flicker of troubled light quenched in eternal oblivion. It was Harvey Rolfe's best substitute for the faith and hope of the old world.
He liked to feel the soft little hand clasping his own fingers, so big and coarse in comparison, and happily so strong. For in the child's weakness he felt an infinite pathos; a being so entirely helpless, so utterly dependent upon others' love, standing there amid a world of cruelties, smiling and trustful. All his heart went forth in the desire to protect and cherish. Nothing else seemed of moment beside this one duty, which was also the purest joy. The word 'father' however sweet to his ear, had at times given him a thrill of awe; spoken by childish lips, did it mean less than 'God'? He was the giver of life, and for that dread gift must hold himself responsible. A man in his agony may call upon some unseen power, but the heavens are mute; can a father turn away in heedlessness if the eyes of his child reproach him? All pleasures, aims, hopes that concerned himself -alone, shrank to the idlest trifling when he realised the immense debt due from him to his son; no possible sacrifice could discharge it. He marvelled how people could insist upon the duty of children to parents. But did not the habit of thought ally itself naturally enough with that strange religion which, under direst penalties, exacts from groaning and travailing humanity a tribute of fear and love to the imagined Author of its being?
With delight he followed every step in the growth of understanding; and yet it was not all pleasure to watch the mind outgrowing its simplicity. Intelligence that has learnt the meaning of a doubt compares but sadly with the charm of untouched ingenuousness -- that exquisite moment (a moment, and no more) when simplest thought and simplest word seek each other unconsciously, and blend in sweetest music. At four years old Hughie had forgotten his primitive language. The father regretted many a pretty turn of tentative speech, which he was wont to hear with love's merriment. If a toy were lost, a little voice might be heard saying, 'Where has that gone now to?' And when it was found again -- 'There is it!' After a tumble one day, Hughie was cautious in running. 'I shall fall down and break myself.' Then came distinction between days of the week. 'On Sunday I do' so and so; 'on Monday days I do' something else. He said, 'Do you remember?' and what a pity it seemed when at last the dull grown-up word was substituted. Never again, when rain was falling, would Hughie turn and plead, 'Father, tell the sun to come out!' Nor, when he saw the crescent moon in daytime, would he ever grow troubled and exclaim, 'Someone has broken it!'
It was the rule now that before his bedtime, seven o'clock, Hughie spent an hour in the library, alone with his father. A golden hour, sacred to memories of the world's own childhood. He brought with him the book that was his evening's choice -- Grimm, or Andersen, or Æsop. Already he knew by heart a score of little poems, or passages of verse, which Rolfe, disregarding the inept volumes known as children's anthologies, chose with utmost care from his favourite singers, and repeated till they were learnt. Stories from the Odyssey had come in of late; but Polyphemus was a doubtful experiment -- Hughie dreamt of him. Great caution, too, was needful in the matter of pathos. On hearing for the first time Andersen's tale of the Little Tin Soldier, Hughie burst into tears, and could scarce be comforted. Grimm was safer; it seemed doubtful whether Andersen was really a child's book at all, every page touched with the tears of things, every line melodious with sadness.
And all this fostering of the imagination -- was it right? was it wise? Harvey worried himself with doubts insoluble. He had merely obeyed his own instincts. But perhaps he would be doing far better if he never allowed the child to hear a fairy-tale or a line of poetry. Why not amuse his mind with facts, train him to the habit of scientific thought? For all he knew, he might be giving the child a bias which would result in a life's unhappiness; by teaching him to see only the hard actual face of things, would he not fit him far more surely for citizenship of the world?
He would have liked to talk about the child with Mary Abbott, but there never came an opportunity. Though it shamed and angered him to be under such constraint, he felt obliged to avoid any private meeting with her. Alma, he well understood, still nursed the preposterous jealousy which had been in her mind so long; and in the present state of things, dubious, transitional, it behoved him to give no needless occasion of disquiet. As the months went on, he saw her spirits fail; with the utmost difficulty she was persuaded to leave the house, and for hours at a time she sat as if in melancholy brooding, unwilling to talk or to read. Harvey tried reading to her, but in the daytime she could not keep her thoughts from wandering, and after dinner it merely sent her to sleep. Yet she declared that there was nothing to trouble about; she would be herself again before long.
But one day the doctor who was attending her had a few words in private with Rolfe, and told him that he had made an unpleasant discovery -- Mrs Rolfe was in the habit of taking a narcotic. At first, when the doctor asked if this was the case, she had denied it, but in the end he had elicited a confession, and a promise that the dangerous habit should be relinquished.
'I was on no account to mention this to you, and you mustn't let it be seen that I have done so. If it goes on, and I'm rather afraid it will for a short time, I shall tell her that you must be informed of it.'
Harvey, to whom such a suspicion had never occurred, waited anxiously for the doctor's further reports. As was anticipated, Alma's promise held good only for a day or two, and when again she confessed, her husband was called into counsel. The trio went through a grave and disagreeable scene. On the doctor's departure, Alma sat for a long time stubbornly and dolorously mute; then came tears and passionate penitence.
'You mustn't think I'm a slave to it,' she said. 'It isn't so at all. I can break myself off it at once, and I will.'
'Then why did you go on after the doctor's first warning?'
'Out of perversity, nothing else. I suffer much from bad nights, but it wasn't that; I could bear it. I said to myself that I should do as I liked.' She gave a tearful laugh.
'That's the whole truth. I felt just like a child when it's determined to be naughty.'
'But this is far too serious a matter ----'
'I know, I know. There shall be an end of it. I had my own way, and I'm satisfied. Now I shall be reasonable.'
Judging from results, this seemed to be a true explanation. From that day the doctor saw no reason for doubt. But Harvey had a most uncomfortable sense of strangeness in his wife's behaviour; it seemed to him that the longer he lived with Alma, the less able he was to read her mind or comprehend her motives. It did not reassure him to reflect that a majority of husbands are probably in the same case.
Meanwhile trouble was once more brewing in the back regions of the house. The cook made an excuse for 'giving notice'. Rolfe, in his fury, talked about abandoning the house and going with wife and child to some village in the heart of France; yet this was hardly practicable. Again were advertisements sent forth; again came the ordeal of correspondence -- this time undertaken by Harvey himself, for Alma was unequal to it. The cook whom they at length engaged declared with fervour that the one thing she panted for was downright hard work; she couldn't abide easy places, and in fact had left her last because too little was expected of her.
'She will stay for two months,' said Harvey, 'and then it will be time for the others to think of moving. Oh, we shall get used to it.'
At the end of March, Alma's second child was born -- a girl. Remembering what she had endured at Hughie's birth, Rolfe feared that her trial would be even worse this time; but it did not prove so. In a few days Alma was well on the way to recovery. But the child, a lamentable little mortal with a voice scarce louder than a kitten's, held its life on the frailest tenure; there was doubt at first whether it could draw breath at all, and the nurse never expected it to live till the second day. At the end of a week, however, it still survived; and Alma turned to the poor weakling with a loving tenderness such as she had never shown for her first-born. To Harvey's surprise she gladly took it to her breast, but for some reason this had presently to be forbidden, and the mother shed many tears. After a fortnight things looked more hopeful. Nurse and doctor informed Harvey that for the present he need have no uneasiness.
It was a Saturday morning, and so cheerful overhead that Rolfe used his liberty to have a long stretch towards the fields. Hughie, who had no school today, would gladly have gone with him, but after such long restraint Harvey felt the need of four miles an hour, and stole away. He made for Twickenham and Hampton Court, then by a long circuit came round into Richmond Park. The Star and Garter gave him a late luncheon, after which he lit his cigar and went idly along the terrace. There, whom should he meet but Mary Abbott.
She was seated, gazing at the view. Not till he came quite near did Harvey recognise her, and until he stopped she did not glance in his direction. Thus he was able to observe her for a moment, and noticed that she looked anything but well; one would have thought her overworked, or oppressed by some trouble. She did not see what her eyes were fixed upon, and her features had a dreaming tenderness of expression which made them more interesting, more nearly beautiful, than when they were controlled by her striving will. When Harvey paused beside her she gave him a startled smile, but was at once herself again.
'Do you care for that?' he asked, indicating the landscape.
'I can't be enthusiastic about it.'
'Nor I. A bit of ploughed field in the midlands gives me more pleasure.'
'It was beautiful once.'
'Yes; before London breathed upon it. -- Do you remember the view from Cam Bodvean?'
'Oh, indeed I do! The larches are coming out now.'
'And the gorse shines, and the sea is blue, and the mountains rise one behind the other! -- Did you talk about it with Mr Thistlewood? I found that he knew all that country.'
'We spoke of it,' replied Mrs Abbott, taking a step forward.
'An interesting man, don't you think?'
Harvey glanced at her, remembering the odd suggestion he had heard from Alma; and in truth it seemed that his inquiry caused her some embarrassment.
'Yes, very interesting,' answered his companion quietly, as she walked on.
'You had met him before ----?'
'He always comes to the Langlands' at Christmas.' She added in another voice, 'I was glad to hear from Hughie yesterday that all was well at home.'
They sauntered along the path. Harvey described the walk he had had this morning. Mrs Abbott said that the bright day had tempted her to an unusual distance; she had come, of course, by train, and must now think of turning back towards the station.
'Let me go so far with you,' said Harvey. 'What is your report of the boy? He gives you no trouble, I hope?'
She replied in detail, with the conscientiousness which always appeared in her when speaking of her work. It was not the tone of one who delights in teaching; there was no spontaneity, no enthusiasm; but every word gave proof of how seriously she regarded the duties she had undertaken. And she was not without pride in her success. The little school had grown, so that it now became a question whether she should decline pupils or engage an assistant teacher.
'You are resolved to go on with the infantry?' said Rolfe, smiling.
'The little ones -- yes. I begin to feel some confidence with them; I don't think I'm in danger of going far wrong. But I shouldn't have the least faith in myself, now, with older children. -- Of course I have Minnie Wager. She'll soon be eleven, you know. I do my best with her.'
'Mrs Langland says you have done wonders.'
'Minnie will never learn much from books; I feel pretty sure of that. But' -- she laughed -- 'everyone has a strong point, if it can be discovered, and I really think I have found Minnie's at last. It was quite by chance. The other day I was teaching my maid to make pastry, and Minnie happened to stand by. Afterwards, she begged me to let her try her hand at it, and I did, and the result was surprising. For the very first time she had found something that she enjoyed doing. She went to it with zeal, and learnt in no time. Since then she has made tarts, and puddings, and cake ----'
Harvey broke into laughter. It was an odd thing that the employment he had suggested for this girl, in his talk at Greystone, should prove to be her genuine vocation.
'Don't you think it's as well to encourage her?' said Mrs Abbott.
'By all manner of means! I think it's a magnificent discovery. I should give her the utmost encouragement. Let her learn cookery in all its branches, steadily and seriously.'
'It may solve the problem of her future. She might get employment in one of the schools of cookery.'
'Never again be uneasy about her,' cried Rolfe delightedly. 'She is provided for. She will grow old with honour, love, obedience, troops of friends! -- A culinary genius! Why, it's the one thing the world is groaning and clamouring for. Let her burn her school-books. Sacrifice everything to her Art. -- You have rejoiced me with this news.'
Slenderly endowed on the side of humour, Mary Abbott could not feel sure whether he was really pleased or not; he had to repeat to her, with all gravity, that he no longer felt anxious on the girl's account.
'For my own part,' said Mary, 'I would rather see her a good cook in a lady's kitchen, if it came to that, than leading a foolish life at some so-called genteel occupation.'
'So would any one who has common-sense. -- And her brother; I don't think we can go wrong about him. The reports from school are satisfactory; they show that he loathes everything but games and fighting. At fifteen they'll take him on a training ship. -- I wonder whether their father's alive or dead?'
'It is to be hoped they'll never see him again.'
Harvey was smiling -- at a thought which he did not communicate.
'You say you wouldn't trust yourself to teach older children. You mean, of course, that you feel much the difficulty of the whole thing -- of all systems of education.'
'Yes. And I dare say it's nothing but foolish presumption when I fancy I can teach babies.'
'You have at all events a method,' said Harvey, 'and it seems to be a very good one. For the teaching of children after they can read and write, there seems to be no method at all. The old classical education was fairly consistent, but it exists no longer. Nothing has taken its place. Muddle, experiment, and waste of lives -- too awful to think about. We're savages yet in the matter of education. Somebody said to me once: "Well, but look at the results; they're not so bad." Great heavens! not so bad -- when the supreme concern of mankind is to perfect their instruments of slaughter! Not so bad -- when the gaol and the gallows are taken as a matter of course! Not so bad -- when huge filthy cities are packed with multitudes who have no escape from toil and hunger but in a wretched death! Not so bad -- when all but every man's life is one long blunder, the result of ignorance and unruled passions!'
Mrs Abbott showed a warm assent.
'People don't think or care anything about education. Seriously, I suppose it has less place in the thoughts of most men and women than any other business of life?'
'Undoubtedly,' said Rolfe. 'And one is thought a pedant and a bore if one ever speaks of it. It's as much against good manners as to begin talking about religion. But a pedant must relieve his mind sometimes. I'm so glad I met you today; I wanted to hear what you thought about the boy.'
For the rest of the way, they talked of lighter things; or rather, Rolfe talked and his companion listened. Nothing more difficult than easy chat between a well-to-do person of abundant leisure and one whose days are absorbed in the earning of a bare livelihood. Mary Abbott had very little matter for conversation beyond the circle of her pursuits; there was an extraordinary change in her since the days of her married life, when she had prided herself on talking well, or even brilliantly. Harvey could not help a feeling of compassion as she walked at his side. For all his admiration of her self-conquest, and of the tasks to which she had devoted herself, he would have liked to free her from the daily mill. She was young yet, and should taste of joy before the years began to darken about her. But these are the thoughts that must not be uttered. To show pity is to insult. A merry nod to the friend who staggers on beneath his burden; and, even at his last gasp, the friend shall try to nod merrily back again.
He took leave of her at the station, saying that he meant to walk by the river homeward. A foolish scruple, which would never have occurred to him but for Alma's jealousy.
When he reached his house at about four o'clock, he felt very tired; it was a long time since he had walked so far. Using his latch-key to enter, he crossed the hall to the study without seeing anyone or hearing a sound. There was a letter on his table. As he opened it, and began to read, the door -- which he had left ajar -- was pushed softly open; there entered Hughie, unusually silent, and with a strange look in his bright eyes.
'Father -- Louie says that baby is dead.'
Harvey's hand fell. He stared, stricken mute.
'Father -- I don't want baby to be dead! Don't let baby be dead!'
The child's voice shook, and tears came into his eyes. Without a word, Rolfe hastened from the room and up the stairs. As he reached the landing, a wail of grief sounded from somewhere near; could that be Alma's voice? In a moment he had knocked at her door. He durst not turn the handle; the beating of his heart shook him in every limb. The door opened, and the nurse showed her face. A hurried whisper; the baby had died two hours ago, in convulsions.
Alma's voice sounded again.
'Who is that? -- Harvey -- oh, come, come to me! My little baby is dead!'
He sat alone with her for an hour. He scarcely knew her for his wife, so unlike herself had she become under the stress of passionate woe; her face drawn in anguish, yet illumined as he had never seen it; her voice moving on a range of notes which it had never sounded. The little body lay pressed against her bosom; she would not let it be taken from her. Consolation was idle. Harvey tried to speak the thought which was his first and last as he looked at the still, waxen face; the thought of thankfulness, that this poor feeble little being was saved from life; but he feared to seem unfeeling. Alma could not yet be comforted. The sight of the last pitiful struggles had pierced her to the heart; she told of it over and over again, in words and tones profoundly touching.
The doctor had been here, and would return in the evening. It was Alma now who had to be cared for; her state might easily become dangerous.
When Harvey went downstairs again, he met Hughie and his nurse in the hall. The little boy ran to him.
'Mayn't I come to you, Father? Louie says I mustn't come.'
'Yes, yes; come, dear.'
In the library he sat down, and took Hughie upon his knee, and pressed the soft little cheek against his own. Without mention of baby, the child asked at once if his father would not read to him as usual.
'I don't think I can tonight, Hughie.'
'Why not, Father? Because baby is dead?'
'Yes. And Mother is very poorly. I must go upstairs again soon.'
'Is Mother going to be dead?' asked the child, with curiosity rather than fear.
'But -- but if mother went there, she could fetch baby back again.'
Hughie made a vague upward gesture.
'Louie says baby is gone up into the sky.'
Perhaps it was best so. What else can one say to a little child of four years old? Harvey Rolfe had no choice but to repeat what seemed good to Louie the nursemaid. But he could refrain from saying more.
Alma was in a fever by night-time. There followed days and days of misery; any one hour of which, as Rolfe told himself, outbalanced all the good and joy that can at best be hoped for in threescore years and ten. But Alma clung to life. Harvey had thought she would ask for her little son, and expend upon him the love called forth by her dead baby; she seemed, however, to care even less for Hughie than before. And, after all, the bitter experience had made little change in her.
Since the removal from Pinner, Rolfe had forgotten his anxieties with regard to money. Expenses were reduced; not very greatly, but to a point which made all the difference between just exceeding his income and living just within it. He had not tried to economise, and would scarcely have known how to begin; it was the change in Alma's mode of life that brought about this fortunate result. With infinite satisfaction he dismissed from his mind the most hateful of all worries.
It looked, too, as if the business in Westminster Bridge Road might eventually give a substantial return for the money he had invested in it. Through the winter, naturally, little trade was done; but with springtime things began to look brisk and hopeful. Harvey had applied himself seriously to learning the details of the business; he was no longer a mere looker-on, but could hold practical counsel with his partner, make useful suggestions, and help in carrying them out.
In the sixth month after her father's decease, Rolfe enjoyed the privilege of becoming acquainted with Miss Winter. Morphew took him one afternoon to the house at Earl's Court, where the widow and her daughter were still living, the prospect of Henrietta's marriage having made it not worth while for them to change their abode in the interim. With much curiosity, with not a little mistrust, Harvey entered the presence of these ladies, whose names and circumstances had been so familiar to him for years. Henrietta proved to be very unlike the image he had formed of her. Anticipating weakness, conventionality, and some affectation, he was surprised to meet a lady of simple, grave manners; nervous at first, but soon perfectly self-possessed; by no means talkative, but manifesting in every word a well-informed mind and a habit of reflection. It astonished him that such a man as Cecil Morphew should have discovered his ideal in Henrietta Winter; it perplexed him yet more that Cecil's attachment should have been reciprocated.
Mrs Winter was a very ordinary person; rather pretentious, rather too fluent of speech, inclined to fretfulness, and probably of trying temper. Having for many years lived much beyond his means (in the manner so often described by Morphew), Mr Winter had left his family as good as unprovided for. There was money to be divided between mother and daughter, but so small a sum that it could not be regarded as a source of income. To the widow was bequeathed furniture; to Henrietta, a library of two thousand volumes; finally, the testator directed that the sum of five hundred pounds should be spent on a window of stained glass (concerning which full particulars were given), to be set up, in memory of himself, in the church he had been wont to honour with his pious attendance. This item of her husband's will had so embittered Mrs Winter, that she hardly ever spoke of him; if obliged to do so, it was with cold severity that she uttered his name. Immediately, she withdrew all opposition to Henrietta's marriage with the man she had considered so objectionable; she would not have been sorry had her daughter chosen to be married with the least possible delay. As for the future, of course she must live in her daughter's house; together, they must make what they could of their small capital, and hope that Cecil's business would prosper.
Harvey had been acquainted with these facts since Mr Winter's death. Bearing them in mind as he talked with Henrietta, and exerting his powers of observation to the utmost, he still found himself as far as ever from a definite opinion as to the wisdom of the coming marriage. That Mrs Winter would be a great obstacle to happiness admitted of no doubt; but Henrietta herself might or might not prove equal to the change of circumstances. Evidently one of her characteristics was an extreme conscientiousness; it explained, perhaps, her long inability to decide between the claims of parents and lover. Her tastes in literature threw some light upon the troubles which had beset her; she was a student of George Eliot, and spoke of the ethical problems with which that author is mainly concerned, in a way suggestive of self-revelation. Conversing for the first time with Morphew's friend, and finding him sufficiently intelligent, she might desire to offer some indirect explanation of the course she had followed. Harvey could not question her sincerity, but she seemed to him a trifle morbid. It might be natural reaction, in a temper such as hers, against the monstrous egotism by which her life had been subdued and shadowed. She inclined to mystical views; mentioned Christina Rossetti as one of her favourites; cared little or nothing for the louder interests of the time. Impossible to detect the colour of her thoughts with regard to Cecil; she spoke of him gravely and gently, but without the least perceptible emotion. Harvey noticed her when Morphew was saying goodbye; her smile was sweet, and perhaps tender, but even then she seemed to be debating with herself some point of conscience. Perhaps Cecil had pressed her hand rather too fervently?
The friends walked away in silence along the dim-lighted street, between monotonous rows of high sombre houses, each with its pillared portico which looked like the entrance to a tomb. Glancing about him with a sense of depression, Harvey wondered that any mortal could fix his pride on the fact of residence in such a hard, cold, ugly wilderness.
'Has she altered much since you first knew her?' he asked at length.
'A good deal,' answered the other. 'Yes, a good deal. She used to laugh sometimes; now she never does. She was always quiet -- always looked at things seriously -- but it was different. You think her gloomy?'
'No, no; not gloomy. It's all natural enough. Her life wants a little sunlight, that's all.'
For the rest, he could speak with sincere admiration, and Cecil heard him delightedly.
The choice of a dwelling was a most difficult matter. As it must be quite a small house, the remoter suburbs could alone supply what was wanted; Morphew spent every Saturday and Sunday in wearisome exploration. Mrs Winter, though in theory she accepted the necessity of cheapness, shrank from every practical suggestion declaring it impossible to live in such places as Cecil requested her to look at. She had an ideal of the 'nice little house', and was as likely to discover it in London's suburbs as to become possessed once more of the considerable fortune which she and her husband had squandered in mean extravagance. Morphew had already come to the conclusion, and Henrietta agreed with him, that their future home must be chosen without regard to Mrs Winter's impracticable ideas. And the sooner the better, in her own interests; for it was plain that so long as she continued in the old house she would thoughtlessly waste her means. The end of the twelvemonth, at latest, must see them all in their new home.
But meanwhile fate was preparing a new trial for Henrietta's much-disciplined conscience.
On a Saturday afternoon, when the crisis of Alma's illness was over, Harvey received a telegram summoning him to Westminster Bridge Road. 'Come if you possibly can. Or I must come to you.' Only yesterday he had been with Morphew for a couple of hours, and all seemed well; Cecil thought he had found the house that would suit him; he was in jubilant spirits, laughing, singing, more boylike than ever. Suspecting new obstructiveness on the part of Mrs Winter, Harvey went to town in an impatient mood. He found the shop closed, as usual at this hour on Saturday, and rang the house-door bell. Morphew himself replied, with a countenance which made known forthwith that something extraordinary had happened; eyes red and swollen, cheeks puffy, colourless, smeared.
Cecil clutched at his hand, and drew him in. They went upstairs to the office, where all was quiet.
'Rolfe, if I hadn't had you to send for, I should have been dead by now. There's poison enough in this place. It has tempted me fearfully.'
'What is it?' asked the other, in a not very sympathetic voice. His own troubles of the past month made mere love-miseries seem artificial.
'I shall have to tell you what I wanted to tell you long ago. If I had, most likely this would never have happened. - It's all over with me, Rolfe. I wish to God you had let me die in that hotel at Brussels. - She has been told something about me, and there's an end of everything. She sent for me this morning. I never thought she could be so pitiless. - The kind of thing that a man thinks nothing of. And herself the cause of it, if only I had dared to tell her so!'
'The old story, I suppose,' said Harvey. 'Some other woman?'
'I was very near telling you, that day you came to my beastly garret in Chelsea; do you remember? It was the worst time with me then -- except when you found me in Brussels. I'd been gambling again; you knew that. I wanted money for something I felt ashamed to speak of. -- You know the awful misery I used to suffer about Henrietta. I was often enough nearly mad with -- what is one to call it? Why isn't there a decent name for the agony men go through at that age? I simply couldn't live alone any longer -- I couldn't; and only a fool and a hypocrite would pretend to blame me. A man, that is; women seem to be made different. -- Oh, there's nothing to tell. The same thing happens a hundred times every day in London. A girl wandering about in the Park -- quarrel at home -- all the rest of it. A good many lies on her side; a good deal of selfishness on mine. I happened to have money just then. And just when I had no money -- about the time you met me -- a child was born. She said it was mine; anyway, I had to be responsible. Of course I had long ago repented of behaving so badly to Henrietta. But no woman can understand, and it's impossible to explain to them. You're a beast and a villain, and there's an end of it.'
'And how has this become known to Miss Winter?' Harvey inquired, seeing that Morphew lost himself in gloom.
'You might almost guess it; these things always happen in the same way. You've heard me speak of a fellow called Driffel -- no? I thought I might have mentioned him. He got to know the girl. He and I were at a music-hall one night, and she met us; and I heard, soon after, that she was living with him. It didn't last long. She got ill, and wrote to me from Westminster Hospital; and I was foolish enough to give her money again, off and on, up to only a few months ago. She talked about living a respectable life, and so on, and I couldn't refuse to help her. But I found out it was all humbug, and of course I stopped. Then she began to hunt me, Out of spite. And she heard from someone -- Driffel, as likely as not -- all about Henrietta; and yesterday Henrietta had a letter from her. This morning I was sent for, to explain myself.'
'At one time, then, you had lost sight of her altogether?'
'She has always had money from me, more or less regularly, except at the time that Driffel kept her. But there has been nothing else between us, since that first year. I kept up payments on account of the child, and she was cheating me in that too. Of course she put out the baby to nurse, and I understood it lived on; but the truth was it died after a month or two -- starved to death, no doubt. I only learnt that, by taking a good deal of trouble, when she was with Driffel.'
'Starved to death at a month or two old,' murmured Rolfe. 'The best thing for it, no doubt.'
'It's worse than anything I have done,' said Morphew, miserably. 'I think more of it now than I did at the time. A cruel, vile thing!'
'And you told Miss Winter everything?'
'Everything that can be spoken about. The plain truth of the story. The letter was a lie from beginning to end, of course. It made me out a heartless scoundrel. I had been the ruin of the girl -- a helpless innocent; and now, after all these years, wanted to cut her adrift, not caring what became of her. My defence seemed to Henrietta no defence at all. The fact that there had been such an episode in my life was quite sufficient. Everything must be at an end between us, at once and for ever. She could not live with me, knowing this. No one should learn the cause; not even her mother; but I must never see her again. And so I came away, meaning to end my life. It wasn't cowardice that prevented me; only the thought that she would be mixed up in it, and suffer more than I had made her already.'
Voice and look constrained Harvey to believe this. He spoke more sympathetically.
'It's better that it happened before than after.'
'I've tried to think that, but I can't. Afterwards, I could have made her believe me and forgive me.'
'That seems to me more than doubtful.'
'But why should it have happened at all?' cried Cecil, in the tone of despairing bitterness. 'Did I deserve it? Haven't I behaved better, more kindly, than most men would have done? Isn't it just because I was too good-natured that this has come on me?'
'I myself readily take that view,' answered Rolfe. 'But I can perfectly understand why Miss Winter doesn't.'
'So can I -- so can I,' groaned Cecil. 'It's in her nature. And do you suppose I haven't cursed myself for deceiving her? The thought has made me miserable, often enough. I never dreamt she would get to know of it; but it weighed upon me all the same. Yet who was the cause of it, really and truly? I'm glad I could keep myself from saying all I thought. She wouldn't have understood; I should only have looked more brutal in her eyes. But if she had married me when she might have done! There was the wrong that led to everything else.'
Harvey nodded and muttered.
'At one and twenty she might have taken her own way. I wasn't a penniless adventurer. My name is as good as hers. We could have lived well enough on my income, until I found a way of increasing it, as I should have done. Girls don't know what they are doing when they make men wait year after year. No one can tell them. But I begged -- I prayed to her -- I said all I dared. It was her cursed father and mother! If I had had three thousand, instead of three hundred, a year, they would have rushed her into marriage. No! we must have a big house, like their own, and a troop of thieving servants, or we were eternally disgraced. How I got the money didn't matter, so long as I got it. And she hadn't courage -- she thought it wrong to defy them. As if the wrong wasn't in giving way to such a base superstition! I believe she has seen that since her father's death. And now ----'
He broke down, shaking and choking in an agony of sobs. Harvey could only lay a kind hand upon him; there was no verbal comfort to offer. Presently Cecil talked on again, and so they sat together as twilight passed into darkness. Rolfe would gladly have taken the poor fellow home with him, out of solitude with its miseries and dangers, but Cecil refused. Eventually they walked westward for a few miles; then Morphew, with a promise to see his friend next day, turned back into the crowd.
Alma was walking on the sea-road at Penzance, glad to be quite alone, yet at a loss how to spend the time. Rolfe had sailed for Scilly, and would be absent for two or three days; Mrs Frothingham, with Hughie for companion, was driving to Marazion. Why -- Alma asked herself -- had she wished to be left alone this morning? Some thought had glimmered vaguely in her restless mind; she could not recover it.
The little shop window, set out with objects carved in serpentine, held her for a moment; but remembering how often she had paused here lately, she felt ashamed, and walked on. Presently there moved towards her a lady in a Bath-chair; a lady who had once been beautiful, but now, though scarcely middle-aged, looked gaunt and haggard from some long illness. The invalid held open a newspaper, and Alma, in passing, saw that it was The World. At once her step quickened, for she had remembered the desire which touched her an hour ago.
She walked to the railway station, surveyed the papers on the bookstall, and bought three -- papers which would tell her what was going on in society. With these in hand she found a quiet spot, sheltered from the August sun, where she could sit and read. She read eagerly, enviously. And before long her eye fell upon a paragraph in which was a name she knew. Lady Isobel Barker, in her lovely retreat at Boscombe, was entertaining a large house-party; in the list appeared -- Mrs Hugh Carnaby. Unmistakable: Mrs Hugh Carnaby. Who Lady Isobel might be, Alma had no idea; nor were any of the other guests known to her, but the names of all seemed to roll upon the tongue of the announcing footman. She had a vision of Sibyl in that august company; Sibyl, coldly beautiful, admirably sage, with -- perhaps -- ever so little of the air of a martyr, to heighten her impressiveness.
When she could command herself, she glanced hurriedly through column after column of all the papers, seeking for that name again. In one, an illustrated publication, she came upon a couple of small portraits, side by side. Surely she recognised that face -- the bold, coarse-featured man, with his pretentious smile? But the girl, no; a young and very pretty girl, smirking a little, with feathery hair which faded off into an aureole. The text was illuminating.
'I am able to announce,' wrote Ego, 'and I think I shall be one of the first to do so, that the brilliant composer, Mr Felix Dymes, will shortly vanish from the gay (if naughty) world of bachelorhood. I learn on excellent authority that Mr Dymes has quite recently become engaged to Miss Lettice Almond, a very charming young lady, whose many gifts (especially musical) have as yet been known only to a comparatively small circle, and for the delightful reason that she is still only eighteen. Miss Almond is the daughter of Mr Haliburton Almond, senior partner in the old and well-known firm of Almond Brothers, the manufacturers of fireworks. She is an only daughter, and, though she has two brothers, I may add (I trust without indiscretion) that the title of heiress may be fittingly applied to her. The marriage may take place in November, and will doubtless be a brilliant as well as a most interesting affair. By-the-bye, Mr Dymes's new opera is not likely to be ready till next year, but some who have been privileged to hear the parts already composed declare that it will surpass even "Blue Roses" in the charm of sweet yet vivacious melody.'
When she had read and mused for more than an hour, Alma tore out the two passages that had a personal interest for her, and put them in her purse. The papers she left lying for anyone who chose to pick them up.
A fortnight later she was back at Gunnersbury; where, indeed, she would have been content to stay all through the summer, had not Harvey and the doctor insisted on her leaving home. All sorts of holidays had been proposed, but nothing of the kind attracted her. She declared that she was quite well, and that she preferred home to anywhere else; she had got used to it, and did not wish to be unsettled. Six weeks at Penzance simply wearied her; she brightened wonderfully on the day of return. Harvey, always anxious, tried to believe that the great sorrow through which she had passed was effecting only a natural change, subduing her troublesome mutability of temper, and leading her to find solace in domestic quietude.
On the third day after her return, she had lunched alone, and was sitting in the library. Her dress, more elaborate than usual, and the frequent glances which she cast at the clock, denoted expectation of some arrival. Hearing a knock at the front door, she rose and waited nervously.
'Mr Dymes is in the drawing-room, mum.'
She joined him. Dymes, with wonted frankness, not to say impudence, inspected her from head to foot, and did not try to conceal surprise.
'I was awfully glad to get your note. As I told you, I called here about a month ago, and I should have called again. I didn't care to write until I heard from you. You've been ill, I can see. I heard about it. Awfully sorry.'
Alma saw that he intended respectful behaviour. The fact of being in her own house was, of course, a protection, but Dymes, she quite understood, had altered in mind towards her. She treated him distantly, yet without a hint of unfriendliness.
'I began to wonder whether I had missed a letter of yours. It's some time since you promised to write -- on business.'
'The fact is,' he replied, 'I kept putting it off, hoping to see you, and it's wonderful how time slips by. I can hardly believe that it's more than a year since your recital. How splendidly it came off! If only you could have followed it up -- but we won't talk about that.'
He paused for any remark she might wish to make. Alma, dreamy for a moment, recovered herself, and asked, in a disinterested tone ----
'We paid all expenses, I suppose?'
'Well -- not quite.'
'Not quite? I understood from you that there was no doubt about it.'
'I thought,' said Dymes, as he bent forward familiarly, 'that my silence would let you know how matters stood. If there had been anything due to you, of course I should have sent a cheque. We did very well indeed, remarkably well, but the advertising expenses were very heavy.' He took a paper from his pocket. 'Here is the detailed account. I shouldn't have spent so much if I hadn't regarded it as an investment. You had to be boomed, you know -- floated, and I flatter myself I did it pretty well. But, of course, as things turned out ----'
Alma glanced over the paper. The items astonished her.
'You mean to say, then, that I am in your debt for a hundred and thirty pounds?'
'Debt be hanged!' cried Dymes magnanimously. 'That's all done with, long ago. I only wanted to explain how things were.'
Alma reddened. She was trying to remember the state of her banking account, and felt sure that, at this moment, considerably less than a hundred pounds stood to her credit. But she rose promptly.
'Of course, I shall give you a cheque.'
'Nonsense! Don't treat me like a regular agent, Mrs Rolfe. Surely you know me better than that? I undertook it for the pleasure of the thing ----'
'But you don't suppose I can accept a present of money from you, Mr Dymes?'
'Hang it! Just as you like, of course. But don't make me take it now, as if I'd looked in with my little bill. Send the cheque, if you must. But what I really came for, when I called a few weeks ago, was something else -- quite a different thing, and a good deal more important. Just sit down again, if you can spare me a few minutes.'
With face averted, Alma sank back into her chair. Harvey would give her the money without a word, but she dreaded the necessity of asking him for it. So disturbed were her thoughts that she did not notice how oddly Dymes was regarding her, and his next words sounded meaningless.
'By-the-bye, can we talk here?'
'I mean' -- he lowered his voice -- 'are we safe from interruption? It's all right; don't look frightened. The fact is, I want to speak of something rather awkward -- but it's something you ought to know about, if you don't already.'
'I am quite at leisure,' she replied; adding, with a nervous movement of the head, 'there will be no interruption.'
'I want to ask you, then, have you seen Mrs Strangeways lately?'
'Nor Mrs Carnaby?'
'I understand you've broken with them altogether? You don't want anything more to do with that lot?'
'I have nothing whatever to do with them,' Alma replied, steadying her voice to a cold dignity.
'And I think you're quite right. Now, look here -- you've heard, I dare say, that I'm going to be married? Well, I'm not the kind of fellow to talk sentiment, as you know. But I've had fair luck in life, and I feel pretty pleased with myself, and if I can do anybody a friendly turn -- anybody that deserves it -- I'm all there. I want you just to think of me as a friend, and nothing else. You're rather set against me, I know; but try and forget all about that. Things are changed. After all, you know, I'm one of the men that people talk about; my name has got into the "directories of talent", as somebody calls them; and I have a good deal at stake. It won't do for me to go fooling about any more. All I mean is, that you can trust me, down to the ground. And there's nobody I would be better pleased to help in a friendly way than you, Mrs Rolfe.'
Alma was gazing at him in surprise, mingled with apprehension.
'Please say what you mean. I don't see how you can possibly do me any service. I have given up all thought of a professional career.
'I know you have. I'm sorry for it, but it isn't that I want to talk about. You don't see Mrs Carnaby, but I suppose you hear of her now and then?'
'You know that she has been taken up by Lady Isobel Barker?'
'Who is Lady Isobel Barker?'
'Why, she's a daughter of the Earl of Bournemouth, and she married a fellow on the Stock Exchange. There are all sorts of amusing stories about her. I don't mean anything shady -- just the opposite. She did a good deal of slumming at the time when it was fashionable, and started a home for women of a certain kind -- all that sort of thing. Barker is by way of being a millionaire, and they live in great style; have Royalties down at Boscombe, and so on. Well, Mrs Carnaby has got hold of her. I don't know how she managed it. Just after that affair it looked as if she would have a bad time. People cut her -- you know all about that?'
'No, I don't. You mean that they thought ----'
'Just so; they did think.' He nodded and smiled. 'She was all the talk at the clubs, and, no doubt, in the boudoirs. I wasn't a friend of hers, you know -- I met her now and then, that was all; so I didn't quite know what to think. But it looked -- didn't it?'
Alma avoided his glance, and said nothing.
'I shouldn't wonder,' pursued Dymes, 'if she went to Lady Isobel and talked about her hard case, and just asked for help. At all events, last May we began to hear of Mrs Carnaby again. Women who wanted to be thought smart had quite altered their tone about her. Men laughed, but some of them began to admit that the case was doubtful. At all events, Lady Isobel was on her side, and that meant a good deal.'
'And she went about in society just as if nothing had happened?'
'No, no. That would have been bad taste, considering where her husband was. She wasn't seen much, only talked about. She's a clever woman, and by the time Carnaby's let loose she'll have played the game so well that things will be made pretty soft for him. I'm told he's a bit of a globe-trotter, sportsman, and so on. All he has to do is to knock up a book of travels, and it'll go like wildfire.'
Alma had pulled to pieces a tassel on her chair.
'What has all this to do with me?' she asked abruptly.
'I'm coming to that. You don't know anything about Mrs Strangeways either? Well, there may be a doubt about Mrs Carnaby, but there's none about Mrs S. She's just about as bad as they make 'em. I could tell you things -- but I won't. What I want to know is, did you quarrel with her?'
'Quarrel! Why should we have quarrelled? What had I to do with her?'
'Nothing about Redgrave?' asked Dymes, pushing his head forward and speaking confidentially.
'What do you mean?'
'No harm, I assure you -- all the other way. I know Mrs Strangeways, and I've had a good deal of talk with her lately, and I couldn't help suspecting you had a reason of your own for getting clear of her. Let me tell you, first of all, that she's left her house in Porchester Terrace. My belief is that she and her husband haven't a five-pound note between them. And the queer thing is, that this has come about since Redgrave's death.'
He paused to give his words their full significance. Alma, no longer disguising her interest, faced him with searching eyes.
'She's a bad un,' pursued the musician, 'and I shouldn't care to tell all I think about her life for the last few years. I've seen a good deal of life myself, you know, and I don't pretend to be squeamish; but I draw a line for women. Mrs Strangeways goes a good bit beyond it, as I know for certain.'
'What is it to me?' said Alma, with tremulous impatience.
'Why, this much. She is doing her best to harm you, and in a devilish artful way. She tries to make me believe -- and it's certain she says the same to others -- that what happened at Wimbledon was the result of a plot between you and Redgrave's housekeeper!'
Alma stared at him, her parted lips quivering with an abortive laugh.
'Do you understand? She says that you were furiously jealous of Mrs Carnaby, and didn't care what you did to ruin her; that you put Redgrave's housekeeper up to telling Carnaby lies about his wife.'
'How long has she been saying this?'
'I heard it for the first time about two months ago. But let me go on. The interesting thing is that, at the time of the trial and after it, she was all the other way. She as good as told me that she had proof against Mrs Carnaby; I fancy she told lots of people the same. She talked as if she hated the woman. But now that Mrs Carnaby is looking up -- you see? -- she's going to play Mrs Carnaby's game at your expense. What I should like to know is whether they've done it together?'
'There can't be much doubt of that,' said Alma, between her teeth.
'I don't know,' rejoined the other cautiously. 'Have you reason to think that Mrs Carnaby would like to injure you?'
'I'm quite sure she would do so if it benefited herself.'
'And yet you were fast friends not long ago, weren't you?' asked Dymes, with a look of genuine curiosity.
'We don't always know people as well as we think. Where is that woman living now? -- I mean, Mrs Strangeways.'
'That's more than I can tell you. She is -- or is supposed to be -- out of town. I saw her last just before she left her house.'
'Is the other in town?'
'Mrs Carnaby? I don't know. I was going to say,' Dymes pursued, 'that the story Mrs S. has been telling seems to me very clumsy, and that's why I don't think the other has any hand in it. She seemed to have forgotten that Redgrave's housekeeper, who was wanted by the police, wasn't likely to put herself in Carnaby's way -- the man she had robbed. I pointed that out, but she only laughed. "We're not bound to believe," she said, "all that Carnaby said on his trial."'
'We are not,' Alma remarked, with a hard smile.
'You think he dressed things up a bit?'
'I think,' answered Alma, 'that he may have known more than he told.'
'That's my idea, too. But never mind; whatever the truth may be, that woman is doing you a serious injury. I felt you ought to know about it. People have talked about you a good deal, wondering why on earth you dropped out of sight so suddenly after that splendid start; and it was only natural they should connect your name with the Carnaby affair, knowing, as so many did, that you were a friend of theirs, and of Redgrave too.'
'I knew Mr Redgrave,' said Alma, 'but I was no friend of his.'
Dymes peered at her.
'Didn't he interest himself a good deal in your business?'
'Not more than many other people.'
'Well, I'm very glad to hear that,' said Dymes, looking about the room. 'I tell you, honestly, that whenever I have a chance of speaking up for you, I shall do it.'
'I am very much obliged, but I really don't think it matters what is said of me. I am not likely ever to meet the people who talk about such things.'
She said it in so convincing a tone that Dymes looked at her gravely.
'I never know any one change so much,' he observed. 'Is it really your health? No other reason for giving up such magnificent chances?'
'Of course, I have my reasons. They concern nobody but myself.'
'I might give a guess, I dare say. Well, you're the best judge, and we won't say any more about that. But look here -- about Mrs S. and her scandal. I feel sure, as I said, that she's toadying to Mrs Carnaby, and expects to make her gain out of it somehow. Her husband's a loafing, gambling fellow, and I shouldn't wonder if he gave her the skip. Most likely she'll have to live by her wits, and we know what that means in a woman of her kind. She'll be more or less dangerous to everybody that's worth blackmailing.'
'You think she had -- she was dependent in some way upon Mr Redgrave?' asked Alma, in an undertone.
'I've heard so. Shall I tell you what a woman said who is very likely to know? Long ago, in the time of her first marriage, she got hold of something about him that would have made a furious scandal, and he had to pay for her silence. All gossip; but there's generally a foundation for that kind of thing. If it's true, no doubt she has been at his relatives since his death. It doesn't look as if they were disposed to be bled. Perhaps they turned the tables on her. She has looked sour and disappointed enough for a long time.'
'I was just thinking,' said Alma, with an air of serious deliberation, 'whether it would be worth while for me to turn the tables on her, and prosecute her for slander.'
'If you take my advice, you'll keep out of that,' replied the other, with emphasis. 'But another thing has occurred to me. I see your opinion of Mrs Carnaby, and no doubt you have good reason for it. Now, would it be possible to frighten her? Have you' -- he peered more keenly -- 'any evidence that would make things awkward for Mrs Carnaby?'
Alma kept close lips, breathing rapidly.
'If you have,' pursued the other, 'just give her a hint that Mrs Strangeways had better stop talking. You'll find it effectual, no doubt.'
He watched her, and tried to interpret the passion in her eyes.
'If I think it necessary,' said Alma, and seemed to check herself.
'No need to say any more. I wished to put you on your guard, that's all. We've known each other for a longish time, and I've often enough felt sorry that something didn't come off -- you remember when. No good talking about that; but I shall always be glad if I can be a friend to you. And, I say, don't think any more about that cheque, there's a good girl.'
The note of familiar patronage was more than distasteful to Alma.
'I shall, of course, send it,' she replied curtly.
'As you please. Would you like to hear a bit from my new opera? It isn't every one gets the chance, you know.'
Quite in his old way, he seated himself at the piano, and ran lightly through a few choice morceaux, exacting praise, and showing himself vexed because it was not fervent. In spite of her wandering thoughts, Alma felt the seductiveness of these melodies -- their originality, their grace -- and once more she wondered at their coming from the mind of such a man.
'Pretty!' exclaimed the composer scornfully. 'It's a good deal more than that, and you know it. I don't care -- there's somebody else feels deuced proud of me, and good reason too. Well, ta-ta!'
There are disadvantages in associating with people whose every word, as likely as not, may be an insidious falsehood. Thinking over what she had heard from Dymes, Alma was inclined to believe him; on the other hand, she knew it to be quite possible that he sought her with some interested motive. The wise thing, she knew, would be to disregard his reports, and hold aloof from the world in which they originated. But she had a strong desire to see Mrs Strangeways. There might be someone at the house in Porchester Terrace who could help her to discover its late tenant. However dangerous the woman's wiles and slanders, an interview with her could do no harm, and might set at rest a curiosity long lurking, now feverishly stimulated. With regard to Sibyl, there could be little doubt that Dymes had heard, or conjectured, the truth. Sibyl was clever enough to make her perilous reverse a starting-point for new social conquests. Were there but a hope of confronting her with some fatal disclosure, and dragging her down, down!
That cheque must be sent. She would show Harvey the account this evening, and have done with the unpleasantness of it. Probably he remembered from time to time that she had never told him how her business with Dymes was settled. No more duplicity. The money would be paid, and therewith finish to that dragging chapter of her life.
Harvey came home at five o'clock, and, as usual, had tea with her. Of late he had been uneasy about Cecil Morphew, whose story Alma knew; today he spoke more hopefully.
'Shall I bring him here tomorrow, and make him stay over Sunday? Sunday is his bad day, and no wonder. If there were a licensed poison-shop in London, they'd do a very fair trade on Sundays.'
'There are the public-houses,' said Alma.
'Yes; but Morphew doesn't incline that way. The fellow has delicate instincts, and suffers all the more; so the world is made. I can't help hoping it may come right for him yet. I have a suspicion that Mrs Winter may be on his side; if so, it's only a question of time. I keep at him like a slave-driver; he has to work whilst I'm there; and he takes it very good-humouredly. But you mustn't give him music, Alma; he says he can't stand it.'
'I'm much obliged to him,' she answered, laughing.
'You understand well enough.'
After dinner Alma found her courage and the fitting moment.
'I have something disagreeable to talk about. Mr Dymes called this afternoon, and handed in his bill'
'His bill? Yes, yes, I remember. -- What's all this? Surely you haven't obliged him to come looking after his money?'
'It's the first account I have received.'
Rolfe puckered his face a little as he perused the document, but ended, as he began, with a smile. In silence he turned to the writing-table, took out his cheque-book, and wrote.
'You don't mind its being in my name?'
'Not at all. Indeed, I prefer it. But I am sorry and ashamed,' she added in a murmur.
'Let it be taken to the post at once,' said Rolfe quietly.
When this was done, Alma made known what Dymes had told her about Sibyl, speaking in an unconcerned voice, and refraining from any hint of suspicion or censure.
'I had heard of it,' said Harvey, with troubled brow, and evidently wished to say no more.
'What do you suppose Mr Carnaby will do?' Alma inquired.
'Impossible to say. I'm told that the business at Coventry is flourishing, and no doubt his interest in it remains. I hear, too, that those Queensland mines are profitable at last. So there'll be no money troubles. But what he will do ----'
The subject was dropped.
Harvey had succeeded in hiding his annoyance at the large debt to Dymes, a sum he could ill afford; but he was glad to have paid it, and pleased with Alma's way of dismissing it to oblivion. The talk that followed had turned his mind upon a graver trouble: he sat thinking of Hugh Carnaby. Dear old Hugh! Not long ago the report ran that his health was in a bad state. To one who knew him the wonder was that he kept alive. But the second year drew on.
On Monday morning, when Harvey and his friend had started for town, and Hughie was at school, Alma made ready to go out. In many months she had been to London only two or three times. Thus alone could she subdue herself. She tried to forget all that lay eastward from Gunnersbury, rejecting every kind of town amusement, and finding society in a very small circle of acquaintances who lived almost as quietly as herself. But this morning she yielded to the impulse made irresistible by Dymes's visit. In leaving the house, she seemed to escape from an atmosphere so still and heavy that it threatened her blood with stagnation; she breathed deeply of the free air, and hastened towards the railway as if she had some great pleasure before her.
But this mood had passed long before the end of her journey. Alighting at Queen's Road, she walked hurriedly to Porchester Terrace, and from the opposite side of the way had a view of Mrs Strangeways' house. It was empty, to let. She crossed, and rang the bell, on the chance that some caretaker might be within; but no one answered. Her heart throbbing painfully, she went on a little distance, then stood irresolute. A cab crawled by; she raised her hand, and gave the direction, 'Oxford and Cambridge Mansions'. Once here, she had no difficulty in carrying out her purpose. Passion came to her aid; and when Sibyl's door opened she could hardly wait for an invitation before stepping in.
The drawing-room was changed; it had been refurnished, and looked even more luxurious than formerly. For nearly ten minutes she had to stand waiting; seat herself she could not. Then entered Sibyl.
'Good morning, Mrs Rolfe. I am glad to see you.'
The latter sentence was spoken not as a mere phrase of courtesy, but with intention, with quiet yet unmistakable significance. Sibyl did not offer her hand; she moved a chair so that its back was to the light, and sat down very much as she might have done if receiving an applicant for a 'situation'.
'You had some reason for coming so early?'
Alma, who had felt uncertain how this interview would begin, was glad that she had to meet no pretences of friendship. Her heart burned within her; she was pallid, and her eyes shone fiercely.
'I came to ask if you could tell me where Mrs Strangeways is to be found?'
'Mrs Strangeways?' Sibyl repeated, with cold surprise. 'I know nothing about her.'
Feeling in every way at a disadvantage -- contrast of costume told in Sibyl's favour, and it was enhanced by the perfection of her self-command -- Alma could not maintain the mockery of politeness.
'Of course, you say that,' she rejoined haughtily; 'and, of course, I don't believe it.'
'That is nothing to me, Mrs Rolfe,' remarked the other, smiling. 'Doubtless you have your own reasons for declining to believe me; just as you have your own reasons for -- other things. Your next inquiry?'
'Hasn't it been rather unwise of you, keeping away from me all this time?'
'Unwise? I hardly see your meaning.'
'It looked rather as if you felt afraid to meet me.'
'I see; that is your point of view.' Sibyl seemed to reflect upon it calmly. 'To me, on the other hand, it appeared rather strange that I neither saw nor heard from you at a time when other friends were showing their sympathy. I heard that you were ill for a short time, and felt sorry I was unable to call. Later, you still kept silence. I didn't know the reason, and could hardly be expected to ask for it. As for being afraid to meet you -- that, I suppose, is a suspicion natural to your mind. We won't discuss it. Is there any other question you would like to ask?'
Humiliated by her inability to reply with anything but a charge she could not support, and fearing the violence of her emotions if she were longer subjected to this frigid insult, Alma rose.
'One moment, if you please,' continued Mrs Carnaby. 'I was glad that you had come, as I had half wished for an opportunity of speaking a few words to you. It isn't a matter of much importance, but I may as well say, perhaps, that you are indiscreet in your way of talking about me to your friends. Of course, we haven't many acquaintances in common, but I happen to have heard the opinion of me which you expressed to -- let me see, some ladies named Leach, whom I once knew slightly. It seems hardly worth while to take serious steps in the matter -- though I might find it necessary. I only wish, in your own interest, to say a word of warning. You have behaved, all things considered' -- she dwelt on the phrase -- 'rather indiscreetly.'
'I said what I knew to be the truth,' replied Alma, meeting her look with the satisfaction of defiance.
Sibyl approached one step.
'You knew it?' she asked, very softly and deliberately, searching the passionate face with eyes as piercing as they were beautiful.
'I used to think you intelligent,' said Sibyl, 'but I fancy you don't perceive what this "certainty" of yours suggests.' She paused, with a curling lip. 'Let me put you on your guard. You have very little command of your primitive feelings, and they bring you into danger. I should be sorry to think that an unpleasant story I have heard whispered was anything more than ill-natured scandal, but it's as well to warn you that other people have a taste for that kind of gossip.'
'I'm well aware of it,' flashed the listener. 'And that was the very reason why I came to ask you where Mrs Strangeways is hiding.'
'Mrs Rolfe, you are aware of too many things. In your position I should be uneasy.'
'I will leave you to enjoy your own uneasiness,' returned Alma, with a contemptuous laugh. 'You must have enough of it, without imagining that of others.'
She half turned. Sibyl again took one step forward, and spoke with ever so little tremor in the even voice.
'You have understood me, I hope?'
'Oh, quite. You have shown plainly how -- afraid you are. Good morning, Mrs Carnaby.'
Baker Street station being so near, Alma was tempted to go straightway and demand from the Leach sisters an explanation of what she had heard; they, too, seemed to be behaving treacherously. But she was unwilling to miss the luncheon hour at home, for Hughie would speak of it to his father, and so oblige her to make false excuses. Besides, she had suffered more than enough indignity (though not unavenged!), and it was better to summon the sisters to her presence.
On reaching home, she at once sent them an ordinary invitation, but of the briefest. In the evening she received Dymes's acknowledgment of the cheque. Next day she wrote to him, a few formal lines, requesting that he would let her know Mrs Strangeways' address as soon as he had discovered it.
Dora Leach came to Gunnersbury alone. She was in distress and worry, for her father had fallen ill again, and the doctors doubted whether he would ever be fit to resume work; it had just dawned upon Dora that the breadwinner of the family deserved rather more consideration than he had been wont to receive, and that his death might involve unpleasant consequences for those dependent upon him. To Alma's questioning she replied frankly and with self-reproach. It was true that she had whispered her friend's suspicions of Mrs Carnaby, but only to one person, and in strictest confidence. Neither she nor Gerda had met Mrs Carnaby, and how the whisper could have reached Sibyl's ears was inconceivable to her.
'It doesn't matter in the least,' said Alma, finally. 'To tell you the truth, I'm not sorry.'
'Why, that's just what I thought!' exclaimed Dora, with sudden clearing of her countenance.
In a fortnight or so there came a note from Dymes, written at Brussels. He had ascertained that Mrs Strangeways was somewhere on the Continent, but as yet he could not succeed in 'running her down'. Let Mrs Rolfe depend upon his zeal in this search, as in any other matter in which he could be of use to her. Unfortunately, this envelope came under Harvey's eyes, and Alma, knowing he had seen it, felt obliged to speak.
'Mr Dymes refuses to believe that I shall never play again in public,' she remarked, putting down his letter, as carelessly as possible, by her plate at breakfast.
'Does he pester you? If so, it might be better for me to ----'
'Oh dear, no! I can manage my own correspondence, Harvey, thank you.'
Her tone of slight petulance was due to fear that he might ask to see the letter, and it had its effect. But Alma's heart sank at the deception, and her skill in practising it. Was it impossible to become what she desired to be, an honest woman! Only yesterday Harvey had spoken to her with vexation of a piece of untruthfulness in Hughie, and had begged her to keep a watch upon the child's habit in this respect. And she had promised, with much earnestness, much concern.
There are women who can breathe only in the air of lies and of treachery. Alma rebelled against the fate which made her life dishonourable. Fate -- she declared -- not the depravity of her own heart. From the dark day that saw her father's ruin, she had been condemned to a struggle with circumstances. She meant honestly; she asked no more than the free exercise of instincts nature had given her; but destiny was adverse, and step by step had brought her into a position so false, so hopeless, that she wondered at her strength in living on.
Hughie had begun to learn the maps of countries, and prided himself on naming them as he turned over an atlas. One day, about this time, she looked over his shoulder and saw the map of Italy.
'Those are lakes,' said the child, pointing north. 'Tell me their names, Mother.'
But she was silent. Her eye had fallen upon Garda, and at the head of the lake was a name which thrilled her memory. What if she had gone to Riva? Suddenly, and for the first time, she saw it as a thing that might have happened; not as a mere dark suggestion abhorrent to her thought. Had she known the world a little better, it might have been. Then, how different her life! Pleasure, luxury, triumph; for she had proved herself capable of triumphing. He, the man of money and influence, would have made it his pride to smooth the way for her. And perhaps never a word against her reputation; or, if whispers, did she not know by this time how indulgent society can be to its brilliant favourites?
As it was: a small house at Gunnersbury, a baffled ambition, a life of envy, hatred, fear, suffered in secret, hidden by base or paltry subterfuge. A husband whom she respected, whose love she had never ceased to desire, though, strange to say, she knew not whether she loved him. Only death could part them; but how much better for him and for her if they had never met! Their thoughts and purposes so unlike; he, with his heart and mind set on grave, quiet, restful things, hating the world's tumult, ever hoping to retire beyond its echo; she, her senses crying for the delight of an existence that loses itself in whirl and glare.
In a crowded drawing-room she had heard someone draw attention to her -- 'the daughter of Bennet Frothingham'. That was how people thought of her, and would it not have been wiser if she had so thought of herself? Daughter of a man who had set all on a great hazard; who had played for the world's reward, and, losing, flung away his life. What had she to do with domestic virtues, and the pleasures of a dull, decorous circle? Could it but come over again, she would accept the challenge of circumstance, which she had failed to understand; accept the scandal and the hereditary shame; welcome the lot cast for her, and, like her father, play boldly for the great stakes. His widow might continue to hold her pious faith in him, and refuse to believe that his name merited obloquy; his child knew better. She had mistaken her path, lost the promise of her beauty and her talent, led astray by the feeble prejudice of those who have neither one nor the other. Too late, and worse than idle now, to recognise it. She would be a good woman, rule her little house, bring up her child, and have no will but her husband's.
House-ruling was no easy matter. Things did not go as she wished; the servants were inefficient, sometimes refractory, and she loathed the task of keeping them up to their duties. Insomnia began to trouble her again, and presently she had recourse to the forbidden sleeping-draught. Not regularly, but once a week or so, when the long night harried her beyond endurance. Rolfe did not suspect it, for she never complained to him. Winter was her bad time. In the spring her health would improve, as usual, and then she would give up the habit.
At Christmas the Langlands had the customary visit from their relative, Mr Thistlewood, who renewed his acquaintance with Alma. At their first meeting she was struck by his buoyant air, his animated talk. A week later, he called in the afternoon. Two ladies happened to be with Alma, and they stayed a long time; but Thistlewood, who comported himself rather oddly, saying little and sometimes neglecting a remark addressed to him, stayed yet longer. When he was alone with his hostess, he took a chair near to her, bent forward, and said, smiling ----
'You remember our talk about marriage on a minute income?'
'I do, very well.'
'I have found someone who isn't afraid of it.'
'You have? The same person who formerly was?'
'No; she was not afraid of the income, but of me. I couldn't be surprised, though it hit me hard. Time has spoken for me.'
Harvey was dining in town. He came back with vexatious news about Cecil Morphew, who neglected business, looked ill, and altogether seemed in a bad way. As he talked, he began to notice that Alma regarded him with brighter and happier eyes than for many a day.
'Why does it amuse you?' he asked, stopping in his narrative.
'It doesn't; I'm as sorry as you are. But I have a surprise for you.'
'A pleasant one, this time, I see.'
'Mrs Abbott is going to marry Mr Thistlewood.'
She watched the effect of her words, and for an instant felt the old pang, the old bitterness. But Harvey's confusion of feeling soon passed, giving way to a satisfaction that could not be mistaken.
'Who has told you?'
'The happy man himself.'
'I am glad -- heartily glad! But I didn't think it would interest you so much.'
'Oh, women -- marriages ----!'
She threw a pretty scorn upon herself.
'Yes, that's good news. They will suit each other. But she'll give up her school, and that's a nuisance.'
'There are others as good.'
'But not here. Another removal, I suppose. -- When is it to be?'
'Not till the Easter holidays.'
They were in the library. Harvey began to fill his pipe, and nothing more was said until he had drawn a few meditative puffs.
'Another removal,' then escaped him, with half a groan.
'Why should you care?' asked Alma thoughtfully. 'You don't like this place.'
'As well as any other. It's convenient for town.'
'Do you really think of going on in that business, which you detest?'
'It has brought in a little money, and may -- ought to -- bring more. But if Morphew goes down ----'
Alma glanced at him, and said timidly ----
'You are going to Greystone at Easter.'
'We shall all go. What of that?'
'Haven't you' -- she spoke with an effort -- 'sometimes thought you would like to live there?'
'Great heavens -- Alma!'
He stared at her in humorous astonishment, then slowly shook his head. How could she live in such a place as Greystone? And what on earth did she mean by disturbing him with such a suggestion? But Alma, gravely and repeatedly, assured him that she could live there very well; that in all likelihood she would be much more contented there than here.
'I should bring out my violin again, and the Greystone people would admire me. There's a confession -- to prove that I am in earnest. I can't conquer the world; I don't wish it; that's all over. But I should find it pleasant to have a reputation in Greystone -- I should indeed.'
Harvey sighed, and could not look at her.
'And Hughie,' she continued, 'would go to the Grammar-School. You know how you would like that. And living there is cheap; we might keep our horse again. -- Don't say anything now, but think about it.'
He raised his eyes, and fixed them upon her with a look of infinite tenderness and gratitude. It was Alma now who sighed, but not audibly.
Before Thistlewood went north again, Harvey enjoyed long talks with him. Mary Abbott he saw only in the presence of other people. But on an evening in February, when Alma was at the Langlands' and he had promised to call for her at ten o'clock, he left home an hour earlier and walked past Mrs Abbott's house. A light in the window of her sitting-room showed that Mary was at home. After a turn or two backwards and forwards, he went up to the door and knocked. A very young servant took his name to her mistress, and then admitted him.
'Will you let me answer your letter personally?' he said, as Mrs Abbott welcomed him in the room where she sat alone.
She had written about Minnie Wager, begging that he would in future cease to contribute to the girl's support, and be responsible only for the boy. In her new home there would be no need of a servant; she and Minnie would do the housework together. Impossible, she wrote, to speak of his kindness both to her and the children. For Minnie, who might henceforth be looked upon as self-supporting, he must no longer be taxed. The child owed him every hope in her life; let him be satisfied with what he had done so generously.
Of these things they talked for a few minutes. It was easy to see how great a change had befallen Mary Abbott's outlook upon life. She was younger by several years, yet not like herself of that earlier time; much gentler, much sweeter in face and word. Harvey observed her with keen pleasure, and, becoming aware of his gaze, his smile, she blushed like a girl.
'Mr Rolfe -- I am sure you feel that I am deserting my post.'
'To be sure you are. I shall always owe you a grudge for it.'
'I thought of it all -- of Hughie and the others. I didn't know how I should ever face you.'
''Twas a shameless thing. And yet I can find it in my heart to forgive you. You are so ingenuous about it.'
Mary looked up again.
'What shall you do -- about Hughie?'
'Oh, there's a great scheme on foot. Alma suggests that we shall go and live at Greystone. It tempts me.'
'That it must, indeed! I know how you would like it.'
'We shouldn't be so very far apart then -- an hour's journey or so. You would come to us, and we to you.'
They had not much more to say, but each was conscious of thought in the other's mind that supplemented their insufficient phrases. As they shook hands, Mary seemed trying to speak. The lamplight made a glimmer in her eyes, and their lids drooped as she said at length ----
'I am so glad that you like each other.'
'He's a splendid fellow,' replied Rolfe joyously. 'I think no end of him.'
'And he of you -- for I have told him everything.'
Then Harvey quitted the house, and walked about under the starry sky until it was time to call for Alma.
Yet once again did Alma hypnotise her imagination with a new ideal of life. Her talk was constantly of Greystone. She began a correspondence with Mrs Morton, who did her best to encourage all pleasant anticipations -- careful the while, at her husband's bidding and Harvey's too, not to exaggerate the resources of Greystone for a mind and temper such as Alma's. Of course the little town had its musical circle, in which Mrs Rolfe's talent would find an appreciative reception. Touching on this point to her correspondent, Alma remarked, with emphasised modesty, that she must not be regarded as a professional violinist; it would be better, perhaps, if nothing were said about her 'rather audacious experiment' in London. Meanwhile, a suitable house was being looked for. There need be no hurry; Midsummer was the earliest possible date for removal, and a few months later might prove more convenient.
At Easter came Mary Abbott's wedding, which was celebrated as quietly as might be. Alma had done her utmost to atone for bygone slights and coldness; she and Mary did not love each other, nor ever could, and for that reason they were all the more affectionate at this agitating time. When all was over, the Rolfes set forth on their visit to Greystone. Harvey could not look forward to complete enjoyment of the holiday, for by this time Cecil Morphew had succumbed to his old habits of tossing indolence, and only pretended to look after his business. If Harvey withdrew, the shop must either be closed or pass into other hands. Pecuniary loss was the least vexatious part of the affair. Morphew, reckless in the ruin of his dearest hope, would seek excitement, try once more to enrich himself by gambling, and so go down to the depths whence there is no rescue. As a last hope, Harvey had written to Henrietta Winter a long letter of all but passionate appeal; for answer he received a few lines, infinitely sorrowful, but of inflexible resolve. 'In the sight of God, Mr Morphew already has a wife. I should be guilty of a crime if I married him.' With a desperate ejaculation, Rolfe crushed up the sheet of paper, and turned to other things.
Whilst she was at Greystone, Alma heard again from Felix Dymes, his letter having been forwarded. He wrote that Mrs Strangeways was about to return to England, and that before long she might be heard of at a certain hotel in London. As this letter had escaped Harvey's notice, Alma was spared the necessity of shaping a fiction about it. Glad of this, and all but decided to put Mrs Strangeways utterly out of her life and mind, she sent no answer.
But when she had been back again for some weeks at Gunnersbury; when a house at Greystone was taken (though it would not be ready for them till Michaelmas); when she was endeavouring, day after day, to teach Hughie, and to manage her servants, and to support a wavering hope, there arrived one morning a letter from Mrs Strangeways. It was dated from the hotel which Dymes had mentioned, and it asked Alma to call there. A simple, friendly invitation, suggestive of tea and chat. Alma did not speak of it, and for an hour or two thought she could disregard it altogether. But that evening she talked to Harvey of shopping she had to do in town, and the following afternoon she called upon Mrs Strangeways.
A lift carried her to the topmost, or all but topmost, storey of the vast hotel, swarming, murmurous. She entered a small sitting-room, pretentiously comfortless, and from a chair by the open window -- for it was a day of hot sunshine -- Mrs Strangeways rose to greet her; quite in the old way, smiling with head aside, cooing rapidly an effusive welcome. Alma looked round to see that the door was shut; then, declining the offered hand, she said coldly ----
'You are mistaken if you think I have come as a friend.'
'Oh! I am so sorry to hear you say that. Do sit down, and let me hear all about it. I have so looked forward to seeing you.'
'I am only here to ask what good it can do you to talk ill of me.'
'I really don't understand. I am quite at a loss.'
'But I know for certain that you have tried to injure me by telling extraordinary falsehoods.'
Mrs Strangeways regarded her with an air of gently troubled deprecation.
'Oh, you have been grievously misled. Who can have told you this?'
'The name doesn't matter. I have no doubt of the fact.'
'But at least you will tell me what I am supposed to have said.'
Alma hesitated, and only after several interchanges of question and answer did the full extent of her accusation appear. Thereupon Mrs Strangeways smiled, as if with forbearance.
'Now I understand. But I have been cruelly misrepresented. I heard such a rumour, and I did my best to contradict it. I heard it, unfortunately, more than once.'
Again Alma found herself in conflict with an adroitness, a self-possession, so much beyond her own, that the sense of being maliciously played with goaded her into rage.
'No one but yourself could ever have started such a story!'
'You mean,' sounded the other voice, still soft, though not quite so amiable, 'that I was the only person who knew ----'
And there Mrs Strangeways paused, as if discreetly.
'Knew? Knew what?'
'Only that you had reason for a little spite against your dear friend.'
'Suppose it was so,' exclaimed Alma, remembering too well her last conversation with this woman. 'Whatever you knew, or thought you knew, about me -- and it was little enough -- you have been making use of it disgracefully.'
'You say I knew very little,' put in the other, turning a ring upon her hand; 'but you will admit that it was enough to excite my curiosity. May I not have taken trouble to learn more?'
'Any amount of trouble would have taught you nothing; there was nothing to discover. And that you know as well as I do.'
Mrs Strangeways moved her head, as if in good-natured acquiescence.
'Don't let us be harsh with each other, my dear. We have both had our worries and trials in consequence of that unfortunate affair. You, I can see, have gone through a good deal; I assure you, so have I. But oughtn't you to remember that our misfortunes were caused by the same person? If I ----'
'Your misfortunes are nothing to me. And I shouldn't think you would care to talk about them.'
'Surely I might say the same to you, my dear Alma? Is there very much to choose between us?'
Alma flushed with resentment, but had no word ready on her parched tongue. The other went on in an unbroken flow of mocking good humour.
'We ought to be the best of friends. I haven't the least wish to do you harm, and nothing would please me better than to gratify your little feeling against a certain person. I may be able to manage that. Let me tell you something -- of course in the strictest confidence.' Her voice was playful for a moment. 'I have been trying to find someone -- you know who I mean -- who mysteriously disappeared. That interests you, I see. It's very difficult; such people don't let themselves be dropped upon by chance a second time. But, do you know, I have something very like a clue, at last. Yes' -- she nodded familiarly -- 'I have.'
In vain Alma tried to lock her lips.
'What if you find her?'
'Do you forget that someone will very soon be at large again, and that someone's wife, a very clever woman, counts on deceiving the world as she deceived him?'
'You are sure she did deceive him?'
Mrs Strangeways laughed.
'You are acute, my dear. You see the puzzle from all sides. But I won't go into that just now. What I want to show you is, that our interests are the same. We should both dearly like to see a certain person shown up. I begin to see my way to do it very thoroughly. It would delight you if I were at liberty to tell what I actually have got hold of, but you must wait a little. My worst difficulty, now, is want of money. People have to be bought, you know, and I am not rich ----. Don't you think you could help a little?'
The question came out with smooth abruptness, accompanied by a look which startled the hearer.
'I? I have no money.'
'What an idea!'
'I tell you I haven't a penny of my own!'
'My dear Alma, you have obliging bankers. One of them is doing very well indeed. You didn't go to his wedding?'
Alma felt a chill of fear. The woman's eyes seemed to cast a net about her, and to watch her struggle as it tightened.
'I don't understand you. I have nothing to do with your plots.'
She strung her muscles and stood up; but Mrs Strangeways, scarcely moving, still looked at her with baleful directness.
'It would be a shame to lose our sport for want of a little money. I must ask you to help, really.'
'I can't -- and won't.'
'I feel sure you will -- rather than have anything happen. You are leading, I hear, a most exemplary life; I should be so sorry to disturb it. But really, you must help in our undertaking.'
There was a very short silence.
'A week, even a fortnight hence, will do. No great sum; two or three hundred pounds. We won't say any more about it; I depend upon you. In a fortnight's time will do.'
'Do you imagine,' exclaimed Alma, on a high, quivering note, 'that I am in your power?'
'Hush! It is very dangerous to talk like that in a hotel. -- Think over what I have said. You will find me here. Think, and remember. You will be quite satisfied with the results, but your help is indispensable.'
Therewith Mrs Strangeways turned to the open window. Looking at her elaborately plaited yellow hair, her thin neck, her delicate fingers just touching the long throat, Alma felt instinct of savagery; in a flash of the primitive mind, she saw herself spring upon her enemy, tear, bite, destroy. The desire still shook her as she stood outside in the corridor, waiting to descend. And in the street she walked like a somnambulist, with wide eyes, straight on. Curious glances at length recalled her to herself; she turned hurriedly from the crowded highway.
Before reaching home, she had surveyed her position, searched her memory. 'The wretch is counting on my weakness. Knowing she can do nothing, she thinks I shall be frightened by the threat. Money? And perhaps all she said only a lie to tempt me! Let her do her worst -- and that will be nothing.'
And by this she held, letting the days go by. The fortnight passed. She was ill with apprehension, with suspense; but nothing happened. Three weeks, and nothing happened. Then Alma laughed, and went about the house singing her deliverance.
On that day, Mrs Strangeways sat talking with Mrs Carnaby, in the latter's drawing-room. Her manner was deferential, but that of a friend. Sibyl, queening it at some distance, had the air of conferring a favour as she listened.
'I haven't the least doubt that I shall soon lay my hand upon her. I have had an answer to my last advertisement.'
'Then let me see it,' replied Sibyl coldly.
'Impossible. I put myself in a position of much danger. I dare not trust even you, Mrs Carnaby.'
'Very well. You know my promise. Get her into the hands of the police, and your reward is waiting.'
'But I may lose my opportunity, for want of money. If you would trust me with only -- say a hundred pounds.'
'Not a farthing. I didn't ask you to undertake this. If you do it, well and good, I will pay you. But nothing till then.'
Mrs Strangeways perused the carpet.
'Anyone else,' she murmured, 'might be tempted to think that you didn't really care to have her caught.'
'You may be tempted to think exactly what you like,' answered Sibyl, with fine scorn.
The other scrutinised her, with an eye of anxious uncertainty.
'Have you thought, again, of taking any steps in the other matter?'
'Have you anything to show?'
'No. But it can be obtained. A charge of slander could be brought against her at any moment. If you prefer libel, it is merely taking a little trouble.'
'There is no hurry. I will pay you, as I said, for any trustworthy evidence -- of any kind. You bring me none. -- Does she come to see you?'
'And -- have you succeeded in making her pay?' asked Sibyl, with a curl of the lips.
Mrs Strangeways merely smiled. After a brief pause, Sibyl looked at her watch, and rose.
'I have an engagement. And -- pray don't trouble to come again unless you have really something to come for. I can't pretend to have any taste for this kind of conversation. It really matters very little; we know that woman will be caught some day, and I shall have the pleasure of prosecuting her for stealing my jewellery and things. The other person -- perhaps she is a little beneath my notice.'
She rang the bell, and Mrs Strangeways, having no alternative, slightly bent her head and withdrew.
Mrs Carnaby had no engagement; she was quite at leisure, and, as usual nowadays, spent her leisure in thought. She did not read much, and not at all in the solid books which were to be seen lying about her rooms; but Lady Isobel Barker, and a few other people, admired her devotion to study. Certainly one or two lines had begun to reveal themselves on Sibyl's forehead, which might possibly have come of late reading and memory overstrained; they might also be the record of other experiences. Her beauty was more than ever of the austere type; in regarding her, one could have murmured --
But in privacy Sibyl did not look her best. Assuredly not after the withdrawal of Mrs Strangeways, when her lips, sneering away their fine contour, grew to an ugly hardness, and her eyes smalled themselves in a vicious intensity of mental vision.
Major Carnaby, Hugh's brother, was now in England. A stranger to the society in which Mrs Carnaby had lived, he knew nothing of the gossip at one time threatening her with banishment from polite circles. An honest man, and taking for granted the honesty of his kinsfolk, he put entire faith in Hugh's story, despatched to him by letter a few days after the calamitous event at Wimbledon. On arriving in London, the good Major was pleased, touched, flattered by the very warm welcome with which his sister-in-law received him. Hitherto they had seen hardly anything of each other; but since the disaster their correspondence had been frequent, and Sibyl's letters were so brave, yet so pathetic, that Major Carnaby formed the highest opinion of her. She did not pose as an injured woman; she never so much as hinted at the activity of slanderous tongues; she spoke only of Hugh, the dear, kind, noble fellow, whom fate had so cruelly visited The favourable impression was confirmed as soon as they met. The Major found that this beautiful, high-hearted creature had, among her many virtues, a sound capacity for business; no one could have looked after her husband's worldly interests with more assiduity and circumspection. He saw that Hugh had been quite right in assuring him (at Sibyl's instance) that there was no need whatever for him to neglect his military duties and come home at an inconvenient time. Hugh's affairs were in perfect order; all he would have to think about was the recovery of health and mental tranquillity.
To this end, they must decide upon some retreat in which he might pass a quiet month or two. That dear and invaluable friend, to whom Sibyl owed 'more than she could tell' (much more than she could tell to Major Carnaby), was ready with a delightful suggestion. Lady Isobel (that is to say, her auriferous husband, plain Mr Barker) had a little house in the north, cosy amid moor and mountain, and she freely offered it. There Hugh and his wife might abide in solitude until the sacred Twelfth, when religious observance would call thither a small company of select pilgrims. The offer was gratefully accepted. Major Carnaby saw no reason for hesitating, and agreed with Sibyl that the plan should be withheld from Hugh until the last moment, as a gratifying surprise. By some means, however, on the day before Hugh's release, there appeared in certain newspapers a little paragraph making known to the public this proof of Lady Isabel's friendship for Sibyl and her husband.
'It's just as well,' said Mrs Carnaby, after appearing vexed for a moment. 'People will be saved the trouble of calling here. But it really is mysterious how the papers get hold of things.'
She was not quite sure that Hugh would approve her arrangement, and the event justified this misgiving. Major Carnaby was to bring his brother to Oxford and Cambridge Mansions, and, if possible, all were to travel northward that same day. But Hugh, on hearing what was proposed, made strong objection: he refused to accept the hospitality of people quite unknown to him; why, with abundant resources of their own, should they become indebted to strangers? So vehement was his resistance, and so pitiful the state of body and mind which showed itself in his all but hysterical excitement, that Sibyl pretended to abandon the scheme. Today they would remain here, talking quietly; by tomorrow they might have decided what to do.
At ten o'clock next morning, when Sibyl had been up for an hour, Hugh still lay asleep. She went softly into the room, lighted by the sun's yellow glimmer through blind and lace curtains, and stood looking at him, her husband. To him she had given all the love of which she was capable; she had admired him for his strength and his spirit, had liked him as a companion, had prized the flattery of his ardent devotion, his staunch fidelity. To have married him was, of course, a mistake, not easy of explanation in her present mind; she regretted it, but with no bitterness, with no cruel or even unkind thought. His haggard features, branded with the long rage of captivity; his great limbs, wasted to mere bone and muscle, moved her indignant pity. Poor dear old boy!
He believed her; he still believed her. She saw that these two years of misery had made his faith in her something like a religion; he found it his one refuge from despair. 'But for that, Sibyl, I shouldn't be alive now!' She had known self-reproach; now again it touched her slightly, passingly -- poor old boy! But unfaithful to him? To call that unfaithfulness? The idea was too foolish.
Her fears were all outlived. She had dared the worst, and daring was grown an easy habit. But in the life that lay before them, her judgment, her ambitions, must prevail and direct. Yesterday she had no course save yielding; today her rule must begin.
Hugh was stirring. He groaned, and threw out one of his arms; muttered, as if angrily. She touched him, and on the instant he awoke.
'Sibyl? Good God! that's a queer thing -- I dreamt that yesterday was a dream, and that I had woke up to find myself ---- Did you ever do that -- dream you were dreaming?'
She stroked his head, laughing playfully.
'You've had a good long night. Don't you feel better? Shall I bring you some breakfast here?'
'No; I must get up. What's the time? Miles will be coming.'
Sibyl knew that the Major would not be here until two o'clock; but she said nothing, and left him to dress.
On the breakfast-table were delicacies to tempt his palate, but Hugh turned from them. He ate for a few minutes only, without appetite, and, as on the day before, Sibyl was annoyed by the strange rudeness with which he fed himself; he seemed to have forgotten the habits of refinement at table. Afterwards he lighted a cigar, but soon threw it aside; tobacco made him sick. In the drawing-room he moved aimlessly about, blundering now and then against a piece of furniture, and muttering a curse. The clothes he wore, out of his old wardrobe, hung loose about him; he had a stoop in the shoulders.
'Sibyl, what are we going to do?'
For this she had waited. She sat looking at him with a compassionate smile. It was an odd thing if this poor broken-down man could not be made subservient to her will.
'I still think, dear boy, that we ought to accept Lady Isobel's invitation.'
A nervous paroxysm shook him.
'Damn Lady Isobel! I thought that was done with.'
'I don't think you would speak of her like that, Hugh, if you knew all her kindness to me. I couldn't tell you all yesterday. May I now? Or shall I only irritate you?'
'What is it? Of course, I don't want you to offend her. But I suppose she has common-sense?'
'More than most women. There's no fear of offending her. I have another reason. Come and sit quietly by me, and let us talk as we used to do. Do you know, dear, it's a good thing for me that I had powerful friends; I needed all their help against my enemies.'
'Have you forgotten what you yourself said, and felt so strongly, at that time -- what a danger I was exposed to when we determined to tell the whole truth? You knew what some people would say.'
'They've said it, no doubt; and what harm has it done you? Tell me a name, and if it's a man ----'
'Don't! I can't bear to see that look on your face, Hugh. You could do nothing but endless harm, trying to defend me that way. I have lived it down, thinking of you even more than of myself. There was a time when I almost despaired; people are so glad to think evil. If I had been a weak woman, I should have run away and hidden myself; and then everybody would have said, "I told you so." But I had to think of you, and that gave me strength. What could I do? Truth alone is no good against the world; but truth with a handle to its name and with a million of money -- that's a different thing. It was life or death, dear boy, and I had to fight for it. So I went to Lady Isobel Barker. I only knew her by name. She, of course, knew me by name, and cold enough she was when I got admitted to her. But half an hour's talk -- and I had won! She was my friend; she would stand by me, and all the world should know it. Stay! The worst is over, but there's still a good deal to be done. It has to be known that my friends are your friends also. There was a paragraph in the papers yesterday, saying that you and your wife were going as Lady Isobel's guests to that house of hers. She did that for me. And now, do you think we ought to seem even seem -- to slight her kindness?' Hugh was turning about, chafing impotently.
'Then you mean to go on here?' he asked, with half-appealing, half-resentful eyes.
Sibyl made a gesture of entreaty.
'What other life is there for me? What would you have me do?'
His arms fell; for a minute he sat with head hanging, his eyes fixed and blank like those of a drunken man. Then, as if goaded suddenly ----
'Who are these enemies you talk about?'
Sibyl's look wandered; her lips moved in hesitancy.
'Name one of them.'
'Isn't it better to try to forget them?'
'Women, I suppose? -- You say you haven't seen Rolfe. Has he heard this talk about you, do you think?'
'No doubt,' she answered distantly. 'Isn't he coming to see you?'
'If he saw that in the papers, he won't think I am here. But I should like to see him. I've a good mind to telegraph -- but I don't know his address. Yes -- I forgot -- there's a letter from him somewhere.'
'I know the address,' said Sibyl, in the same tone of reserve.
'I should like to see old Rolfe -- poor old Rolfe.'
'Why do you pity him?'
'Oh -- only a way of speaking. You know the address, you say? Has he written? Has she written?'
'You haven't seen her?'
Sibyl evaded the question.
'Doesn't it seem to you rather strange,' she said, 'that the Rolfes should keep away from me -- never call or write?'
Hugh's lips were set. When she repeated her inquiry more urgently, he gave a peevish answer.
'You cared very little about her at the last. And Rolfe -- when a man marries -- No, I won't see him just yet. I'll write to him when we're away.'
'It wouldn't astonish you' -- Sibyl spoke in a thin voice, not quite under her control -- 'if you heard that Mrs Rolfe had done her best and her worst against me?'
'She? Against you?'
'I don't know that it matters. You said "poor Rolfe". I should fancy he is poor, in every sense. As I have said so much, it's better to let you know all; it will show you that I am not exaggerating what I have gone through. People knew, of course, that she had called herself a friend of mine; and just then she came into notice -- just enough to give her opportunities of being dangerous. Well, I heard before long that she was slandering me to all her acquaintances. Oh, she knew all about me! It was lucky for me I had a credulous husband. And it still goes on. She came here not long ago; yes, she came. She told me that she knew I was afraid of her, and she threatened me.'
Hugh sat staring like a paralytic.
'She? Rolfe's wife did this?'
'Her motive, I don't know. Pure hatred, it seemed. But I've had a strange fancy. She talked about a woman I used to know very slightly, a Mrs Strangeways, and seemed to be in fear of her; she said that woman and I were circulating stories about her. And I have wondered -- Why are you looking like that?'
'She must be mad. -- I'll tell you. I only wish I had told you before. She was there that night -- at Redgrave's. But for her it would never have happened. I saw him standing with her, by the window of his room -- that is, I saw a woman, but it wasn't light enough to know her; and all at once she ran back, through the open French windows into the house; and then I rushed in and found her there -- it was Rolfe's wife.'
'Why did you keep this from me?'
'She implored me -- vowed there was nothing wrong -- cried and begged. And I thought of Rolfe. I see now that I ought to have told him. The woman must be crazy to have behaved like this to you.'
Sibyl's face shone.
'Now I understand. This explains her. Oh, my dear, foolish husband! After all, you did not tell the whole truth. To spare your friend's feelings, you risked your wife's reputation. And I have been at the mercy of that woman's malice! Don't you think, Hugh, that I have had to bear a little more than I deserved? Your distrust and what came of it -- I have long forgiven you all that. But this -- wasn't it rather too hard upon me?'
He flinched under her soft reproach.
'I couldn't be sure, Sibyl. Perhaps it was true -- perhaps she was only there ----'
A flash of scorn from her eyes struck him into silence.
'Perhaps? And perhaps she meant no harm in lying about me! You will send at once for Rolfe and tell him.'
Hugh moved from her, and stood with his face averted.
'Can you hesitate for a moment?' she asked severely
'Why need I tell Rolfe? Send for her, and say what you like. Won't that be enough? It's awful to think of telling Rolfe. Don't ask me do to that, Sibyl.'
He approached her, voice and attitude broken to humility. Sibyl grew only more resolute.
'You must tell him. Don't you owe it me?'
'By God, I can't do that! -- I can't do that! Have her here, before us both. Shame her and threaten her as much as you like; but don't tell Rolfe. It's like you and me, Sibyl. Suppose she has really done no wrong, and we put that thought into his mind?'
'Have you lost all your senses?' she exclaimed passionately. 'Must I keep reminding you what she has done to me? Is a woman that will behave in that way likely to be innocent? Is her husband to be kept in the dark about her, deceived, cheated? I can't understand you. If you are too cowardly to do your plain duty -- Hugh, how am I talking? You make me forget myself. But you know that it's impossible to spare your friend. It wouldn't be just to him. Here's a form; write the telegram at once.'
'Write it yourself,' he answered, in a low, nerveless voice, moving away again.
It was quickly done, though Sibyl paused to reflect after the first word or two. The message ran thus ----
'I want to see you and Mrs Rolfe before going away. Please both come this evening if possible. If you cannot, reply when.'
Without showing what she had written, she left the room, and despatched a servant to the post-office.
As a last resource against Cecil Morphew's degeneration, Harvey had given up his daily work in Westminster Bridge Road. 'I shall go no more,' he wrote. 'I am quite unable to manage the business alone, and if you won't attend to it, it must smash. But please to remember that I took a share on certain conditions.' For a week he had stayed at home. Morphew did not reply, but the fact that no appeals arrived from the trusty shopman seemed to prove that this last step had been effectual. This morning Rolfe was half-minded to go up to town, but decided that he had better not. Thus the telegram from Oxford and Cambridge Mansions came into his hands at about twelve o'clock.
Alma, after giving Hughie his morning's lesson, had gone out with him for an hour. As soon as she returned, Harvey showed her the message.
'Why does he want both of us to go?' he asked uneasily.
Alma merely shook her head, as if the matter interested her very little, and turned to leave the room again.
'I think I had better go alone,' said Harvey, his eyes on the telegram.
'Just as you like,' answered Alma, and withdrew.
She spent the afternoon much as usual. Rolfe had said at lunch that he would go to Carnaby's immediately after dinner. Mrs Langland and one of her daughters called; they thought Mrs Rolfe rather absent-minded, but noticed nothing else. At dinner-time she said carelessly to her husband ----
'I think I had better go with you, as I was asked.'
'No, no; I think not.'
'I had rather, Harvey, if you don't mind. I am quite ready; shall only have to put my hat on.'
He made no further objection, but looked a little displeased, and was silent through the meal.
They travelled by rail to Edgware Road, exchanging scarce a word on the way. On the stairs of the Mansions, Alma found the ascent too much for her; she stopped, and put out a hand to support herself. Rolfe looked round.
'Nothing. You have made me walk rather quickly.'
'I'm sorry. Rest a moment.'
But Alma hastened upwards.
They were shown at once into the drawing-room, where Mrs Carnaby, who was sitting alone, rose at the announcement of their names. Alma stepped forwards, and seemed about to offer her hand, but she was disregarded. Their hostess stood with her eyes on Rolfe, who, observing the strangeness of this reception, bowed and said nothing.
'It was I who sent the telegram, Mr Rolfe.' Sibyl's voice had its wonted refinement, and hardly disturbed the silence. 'My husband would have postponed the pleasure of seeing you, but I thought it better you should meet him at once.' Her finger touched an electric bell. 'And I particularly wished Mrs Rolfe to be with you; I am so glad she was able to come. Pray sit down.'
Harvey, with no thought of accepting this invitation, cast stern glances at the speaker and at his wife.
'What does all this mean, Mrs Carnaby?'
'Your old friend will tell you.'
The door had opened, and Hugh Carnaby slouched in. At the sight of Alma he stood still. Then meeting Harvey's eyes, he exclaimed, with hoarse indistinctness, 'Rolfe!' Each advanced, and their hands clasped.
'Rolfe! -- old fellow! -- I'm the most miserable devil on earth.'
Tears were in his eyes and in his voice. He held Harvey's hand tight prisoned in both his own, and stood tottering like a feeble old man. 'Old friend, I can't help myself -- don't feel hard against me -- I have to tell you something.'
He looked towards Alma, who was motionless. Sibyl had sat down, and watched as at a play, but with no smile.
'Come into the next room with me,' added the choking voice.
'No. Here, if you please, Hugh,' sounded with gentle firmness.
'Sibyl -- then tell it. I can't.'
'It's a simple story, Mr Rolfe,' began Sibyl. 'I am sure you are not aware that Mrs Rolfe, ever since our great misfortune, has lost no opportunity of slandering me. She has told people, in plain words, that she knew me to be guilty of what my husband was for a moment trapped into suspecting. Among others, she told it to her friend Miss Leach. Not long ago, she went so far as to call upon me here and accuse me to my face, telling me I was afraid of what she knew against me. I have thought of taking legal measures to protect myself; perhaps I shall still do so. Today something has come to my knowledge which possibly explains Mrs Rolfe's singular malice. My husband tells me -- and it's a sad pity he kept it a secret so long -- that there was a third person present that evening when he came upon Mr Redgrave. I dare say you remember the details of the story told in court. All was perfectly true; but my husband should have added that a woman was with Mr Redgrave, talking alone with him in the dark; and when the blow had been struck, this woman, who had quickly disappeared from the veranda into the house, was found to be Mrs Rolfe.'
Hugh's hand had fallen on to his friend's shoulder. He spoke as soon as Sibyl ceased.
'She said she had done no wrong. I had no proof of any -- no proof whatever.'
Rolfe was looking at Alma. She, through the unimpassioned arraignment, stood with eyes fixed upon her enemy, rather as if lost in thought than listening; her mouth was tortured into a smile, her forehead had the lines of age and misery. At the sound of Hugh's voice, she turned to him, and spoke like one recovering consciousness.
'You have told the truth.'
'Why did you compel me to make this known, Mrs Rolfe?'
'Oh, that's quite a mistake. It was she who made you tell it -- as she will make you do anything, and believe anything, she likes. I can imagine how delighted she was. But it doesn't matter. If you care to know it, either of you' -- she included Carnaby and her husband in one glance, as equally remote from her -- 'I haven't gone about seeking to injure her. Perhaps I let one or two people know what I thought; but they had heard the truth already. It wasn't prudent; and it wasn't a right return for the kindness you had shown me, Mr Carnaby. But I'm not sure that I should have done better in helping to deceive you. Has she anything more to say? If not, I will leave you to talk about it.'
The tone of this speech, so indifferent that it seemed light-headed, struck the hearers mute. Rolfe, speaking for the first time since Hugh's entrance, said at length, with troubled sternness ----
'Alma, you have repeated your charge against Mrs Carnaby; what grounds have you for it?'
She looked at him with a vague smile, but did not answer.
'Surely you don't make an accusation of this kind without some proof?'
'Harvey!' The cry quivered on a laugh. 'O Harvey! who would know you with that face?'
Sibyl rose. The men exchanged a quick glance. Rolfe moved to his wife's side, and touched her.
'Yes, yes, I know,' she went on, drawing away -- 'I know what you asked me. Keep quiet, just a little. There are three of you, and it's hard for me alone. It isn't so easy to make you believe things, Harvey. Of course, I knew how it would be if this came out. I can tell you, but not now; some other time, when we are alone. You won't believe me; I always knew I shouldn't be believed. I ought to have been cautious, and have kept friends with her. But it wasn't as if I had anything to hide -- anything that mattered. Let me go, and leave you three to talk. And when you come home ----'
Turning, looking for the door, she fell softly on to her knees. In a moment Harvey had raised her, and seated her in the chair which Hugh pushed forward. Sibyl, motionless, looked on. Seeing that Alma had not lost consciousness, she awaited her next word.
'We will go away,' said Hugh, under his breath; and he beckoned to Sibyl. Reluctantly she took a step towards him, but was stopped by Alma's voice.
'Don't go on my account. Haven't you any question to ask me? When I go, I shan't be anxious to see you again. Don't look frightened; I know what I am talking about. My head went round for a moment -- and no wonder. Stand there, face to face. -- Leave me alone, Harvey; I can stand very well. I want her to ask me anything she has to ask. It's her only chance, now. I won't see her again -- never after this.'
'Mrs Carnaby,' said Rolfe, 'there must be an end of it. You had better ask Alma what she has against you.'
Sibyl, summoning all her cold dignity, stood before the half-distraught woman, and looked her in the eyes.
'What harm or wrong have I done you, Mrs Rolfe, that you hate me so?'
'None that I know of, until you brought me here today.'
'But you have said that you think me no better than a guilty hypocrite, and isn't it natural that I should defend myself?'
'Quite natural. You have done it very cleverly till now, and perhaps you will to the end. I feel sure there is no evidence against you, except the word of the woman who told your husband; and even if she comes forward, you have only to deny, and keep on denying.'
'Then why do you believe that woman rather than me?'
Alma answered only with a frivolous laugh. Sibyl, turning her head, looked an appeal to the listeners.
'Mrs Rolfe,' said Hugh, in a rough, imploring voice, 'have you no other answer? You can't ruin people's lives like this, as if it were sport to you.'
Alma gazed at him, as if she had but just observed his face.
'You have gone through dreadful things,' she said earnestly. 'I'm sorry to cause you more trouble, but the fault is hers. She got that secret from you, and it delighted her. Go on believing what she says; it's the best way when all's over and done with. You can never know as I do.'
She laughed again, a little spurt of joyless merriment. Upon that, in the same moment, followed a loud hysterical cry; then sobs and wailing, with movements as if to tear open the clothing that choked her. Sibyl hastened away, and returned with her vinaigrette, which she handed to Rolfe. But already the crisis was over. Alma lay back in a chair, sobbing quietly, with head bent aside.
Carnaby and his wife, after an exchange of signals, silently left the room. Rolfe paced backwards and forwards for a minute or two, until he heard his name spoken; then he drew near, and Alma looked at him with her own eyes once more.
'I won't go back home unless you wish, Harvey.'
'Do you feel able to go?'
'If you wish me. If not, I'll go somewhere else.'
He sat down by her.
'Are you yourself, Alma? Do you know what you are saying?'
'Yes -- indeed I do. I know I lost myself; my head went round; but I am well again now.'
'Then tell me in a word -- is there any reason why you should not go home with me?'
'What's the use? You won't believe me. You can't believe me!'
He grasped her hand, and spoke imperatively, but not unkindly.
'Stop that! Answer me, and I will believe what you say.'
'There is no reason. I have done no wrong.'
'Then come, if you feel able to.'
She rose without help, and walked to a mirror, at which she arranged her dress. Harvey opened the door, and found all quiet. He led her through the passage, out into the common staircase, and down into the street. Here she whispered to him that a faintness was upon her; it would pass if she could have some restorative. They found a four-wheeled cab, and drove to a public-house, where Rolfe obtained brandy and brought it out to her. Then, wishing to avoid the railway station until Alma had recovered her strength, he bade the cabman drive on to Notting Hill Gate.
'May I sit at your side?' she asked, bending towards him in the darkness, when they had been silent for a few minutes.
Harvey replied by changing his own place.
'I want to tell you,' she resumed, her face near to his. 'I can't wait, and know you are thinking about me. There isn't much to tell. Are you sure you can believe me?'
'I have promised that I will.'
'I don't ask you to be kind or to love me. You will never love me again. Only believe that I tell the truth, that's all. I am not like that woman.'
'Tell me,' he urged impatiently.
'I wanted to make use of Mr Redgrave to use his influence with people in society, so that I could have a great success. I knew he wasn't to be trusted, but I had no fear; I could trust myself. I never said or did anything -- it was only meeting him at people's houses and at concerts, and telling him what I hoped for. You couldn't take any interest in my music, and you had no faith in my power to make a success. I wanted to show you that you were wrong.'
'I was wrong in more ways than one,' said Harvey.
'You couldn't help it. If you had tried to make me go another way, it would only have led to unhappiness. At that time I was mad to make my name known, and, though I loved you, I believe I could have left you rather than give up my ambition. Mr Redgrave used to invite people to his house in the summer to afternoon tea, and I went there once with a lady. Other people as well -- a lot of other people. That's how I knew the house. I was never there alone until that last evening. -- Don't shrink away from me!'
'I didn't. Go on, and be quick.'
'I suspected Sibyl from the moment you told me about her husband and Mr Redgrave. You did, too, Harvey.'
'Leave her aside.'
'But it was because of her. I saw she was getting to dislike me, and I thought she knew Mr Redgrave was doing his best for me, and that she was jealous, and would prevent him -- do you understand? He was my friend, nothing else; but she would never believe that. And a few days before my recital he seemed to lose interest, and I thought it was her doing. Can you understand how I felt? Not jealousy, for I never even liked him. I was living only for the hope of a success. Do you believe me, Harvey?'
Thereupon she related truly, without omission, the train of circumstances that brought her to Wimbledon on the fatal night, and all that happened until she fled away into the darkness.
'It would be silly to say I oughtn't to have gone there. Of course, I knew all I was risking; but I felt I could give my life to detect that woman and have her in my power.
'It's just that I don't understand. If it had been ordinary jealousy -- why, of course ----'
'Men never can understand why women hate each other. She thought herself so superior to me, and showed it in every look and word; and all the time I knew she was a wicked hypocrite.'
'How did you know that?' Rolfe broke in vehemently, staring into her white face as a ray from the street illumined it.
'Oh, I can't tell you!' she replied, in a moaning, quivering voice. 'I knew it -- I knew it -- something told me. But I don't ask you to believe that. Only about myself -- can you believe about myself?'
He replied mechanically, 'Yes.' Alma, with a sigh as much of hopelessness as of relief, lay back and said no more.
At Notting Hill Gate they waited for a train. Alma wandered about the platform, her head bent, silent and heeding nothing. In the railway carriage she closed her eyes, and Harvey had to draw her attention when it was time to alight. On entering the house she went at once upstairs. Harvey loitered about below, and presently sat down in the study, leaving the door ajar.
He was trying to persuade himself that nothing of much moment had come to pass. A doubt troubled him; most likely it would trouble him for the rest of his life; but he must heed it as little as possible. What other course was open to a sensible man? To rave and swear in the high tragic style would avail nothing, one way or the other; and the fact was -- whatever its explanation -- that he felt no prompting to such violence. Two years had passed; the man was dead; Alma had changed greatly, and was looking to new life in new conditions. His worst uneasiness arose from the hysteria which had so alarmingly declared itself this evening. He thought of Bennet Frothingham, and at length rose from his chair, meaning to go upstairs. But just then a step sounded in the hall; his door was pushed open, and Alma showed herself.
'May I come?' she asked, looking at him steadily
He beckoned with his head. She closed the door, and came slowly forward, stopping at a few paces from him.
'I want you to decide tonight. If you think it would be better for both of us, let me go. I shouldn't part from you unkindly; I don't mean that. I should ask you to let me have money as long as I needed it. But you know that I could support myself very soon. If you think it better, do say so, and we'll talk about it as friends.'
'I don't think anything of the kind. I shouldn't let you go, say what you might.'
'You wouldn't? But if you find that you can't believe me ----'
'It would make no difference, even that. But I do believe you.'
She drew nearer, looking wistfully into his face.
'But she has made her husband believe her. You will always think of that -- always.'
'You must remember, Alma, that I have no serious reason for doubting her word.'
She uttered a cry of distress.
'Then you doubt mine! -- you doubt mine!'
'Nonsense, dear. Do try to think and talk more reasonably. What is it to you and me whether she was guilty or not? I may doubt your judgment about her, and yet believe perfectly all you tell me about yourself.'
'Then you think I have slandered her?'
'There's no earthly use in talking about it. You can give no reasons; you have no reasons. Your suspicion may be right or wrong; I don't care the toss of a button. All I know is, that we mustn't talk of it. Sit down and be quiet for a little. Oughtn't you to eat something before you go up?'
Alma put her hands upon his shoulders, bending her face so as to hide it from him.
'Dear -- if you could just say that you believe me; not about myself -- I know you do -- but about her. Could you say that?'
He hesitated, all a man's common-sense in revolt against the entreaty; but he saw her quiver with a sob, and yielded.
'Very well, I will believe that too.'
Her touch became an embrace, gentle and timid; she threw her head back, gazing at him in rapture.
'You will never again doubt it?'
'Oh, you are good! -- you are kind to me, dear! And will you love me a little? Do you think you can, just a little?'
His answer satisfied her, and she lay in his arms, shedding tears of contentment. Then, for a long time, she talked of the new life before them. She would be everything he wished; no moment's trouble should ever again come between him and her. Nothing now had any charm for her but the still, happy life of home; her ambitions were all dead and buried. And Harvey answered her with tenderness; forgetting the doubt, refusing to look forward, knowing only that Alma had a place for ever in his heart.
Tonight she must sleep. Whilst undressing she measured the familiar draught of oblivion, and said to herself: 'The last time.' She lay down in darkness, closed her eyes, and tried to think only of happy things. But sleep would not come, and quiet thoughts would not linger with her. More than an hour must have passed, when she heard Harvey come upstairs. His step paused near her door, and she raised herself, listening. He went on, and his own door closed.
Then, for a short time, she lost herself, but in no placid slumber. Startled to wakefulness, she found that she had left her bed and was sitting on the chair beside it. She felt for the matches, and lit a candle. A great anguish of mind came upon her, but she could not shed tears; she wished to escape from her room to Harvey's, but durst not look out into the dark passage.
When her heart grew quieter, she went again to the drawer in which she kept her remedy for insomnia. Saying to herself, 'The last time -- I shall be well again after tomorrow,' she measured another dose, a larger, and drank it off. Trembling now with cold, she crept into bed again, and lay watching the candle-flame.
Half an hour after this -- it was about two o'clock -- the handle of her door was turned, and Rolfe quietly looked in. He had awoke with an anxious feeling; it seemed to him that he heard Alma's voice, on the borderland of dream, calling his name. But Alma lay asleep, breathing steadily, her face turned from the light. As the candle had nearly burnt down, he blew it out, and went back to his bed.
At breakfast time Alma did not appear. The housemaid said that, half an hour ago, she was still sleeping. When he had had his meal with Hughie, Rolfe went up and entered his wife's room. Alma lay just as he had seen her in the night. He looked close -- laid his hand upon her ----
A violent ringing of the bedroom bell brought up the servant. Harvey met her at the door, and bade her run instantly to the doctor's house, which was quite near.
The doctor could only say, 'We warned her.'
Sicut umbra proeterit dies.
The dial on the front of the old house was just shadowing four o'clock. Harvey Rolfe and his friend Morton sat on the lawn, Harvey reading aloud from a small volume which he had slipped into his pocket before walking over this afternoon. From another part of the garden sounded young voices, musical in their merriment.
It was a little book called 'Barrack-Room Ballads'. Harvey read in it here and there, with no stinted expression of delight, occasionally shouting his appreciation. Morton, pipe in mouth, listened with a smile, and joined more moderately in the reader's bursts of enthusiasm.
'Here's the strong man made articulate,' cried Rolfe at length. 'It's no use; he stamps down one's prejudice -- what? It's the voice of the reaction. Millions of men, natural men, revolting against the softness and sweetness of civilisation; men all over the world; hardly knowing what they want and what they don't want; and here comes one who speaks for them -- speaks with a vengeance.'
'I was waiting for the but,' said Morton, with a smile and a nod.
'The brute savagery of it! The very lingo -- how appropriate it is! The tongue of Whitechapel blaring lust of life in the track of English guns! -- He knows it; the man is a great artist; he smiles at the voice of his genius. -- It's a long time since the end of the Napoleonic wars. Since then Europe has seen only sputterings of temper. Mankind won't stand it much longer, this encroachment of the humane spirit. See the spread of athletics. We must look to our physique, and make ourselves ready. Those Lancashire operatives, laming and killing each other at football, turning a game into a battle. For the milder of us there's golf -- an epidemic. Women turn to cricket -- tennis is too soft -- and tomorrow they'll be bicycling by the thousand; -- they must breed a stouter race. We may reasonably hope, old man, to see our boys blown into small bits by the explosive that hasn't got its name yet.'
'Perhaps,' replied Morton meditatively. 'And yet there are considerable forces on the other side.'
'Pooh! The philosopher sitting on the safety-valve. He has breadth of beam, good sedentary man, but when the moment comes -- The Empire; that's beginning to mean something. The average Englander has never grasped the fact that there was such a thing as a British Empire. He's beginning to learn it, and itches to kick somebody, to prove his Imperialism. The bully of the music-hall shouting "Jingo" had his special audience. Now comes a man of genius, and decent folk don't feel ashamed to listen this time. We begin to feel our position. We can't make money quite so easily as we used to; scoundrels in Germany and elsewhere have dared to learn the trick of commerce. We feel sore, and it's a great relief to have our advantages pointed out to us. By God! we are the British Empire, and we'll just show 'em what that means!'
'I'm reading the campaigns of Belisarius,' said Morton, after a pause.
'What has that to do with it?'
'Thank Heaven, nothing whatever.'
'I bore you,' said Harvey, laughing. 'Well, I read little or nothing, except what I can use for Hughie. We're doing the geography of Asia, and I try to give him a few clear notions. Do you remember the idiotic way in which they used to teach us geography? I loathed the lesson. -- That reminds me; Henrietta Winter is dead.'
'Is she? How did it remind you?'
'Why, because Morphew is going to New Zealand. I had a letter from him this morning. Here it is. "I heard yesterday that H. W. is dead. She died a fortnight ago, and a letter from her mother has only just reached me in a roundabout way. She had been ailing for some time. They suspected drains, and had workmen in, with assurance that all had been put right. Since H.'s death the drains have again been examined, and it was found that the men who came before so bungled and scamped their work that an abominable state of things was made much worse." -- Those fellows will shout nobly for the Empire one of these days! -- "I never saw her, but she spoke of me just before the end; spoke very kindly, says her mother. Damnation! I can write no more about it. I know you don't care to hear from me, but I'll just say that I'm going out to New Zealand. I don't know what I shall do there, but a fellow has asked me to go with him, and it's better than rotting here. It may help me to escape the devil yet; if so, you shall hear. Goodbye!"'
He thrust the letter back into his pocket.
'I rather thought the end would be pyrogallic acid.'
'He has the good sense to prefer ozone,' said Morton.
'For a time, at all events. -- Look behind you. The young rascal is creeping this way. He'd rather sit and listen to our talk than be with the other youngsters. That's wrong, you know.'
Morton look round, and saw Hugh Rolfe. Seven years old now; slight, and with little or no colour in his cheeks; a wistful, timid smile on the too intelligent face. He was gazing towards his father, and evidently wished to draw near, yet feared that his presence might not be welcome. Morton beckoned him, and at once he ran and threw himself upon the grass by his father's side.
'Tired of playing?' asked Harvey, with voice and look which betrayed a tenderness he was always trying to conceal.
'A little tired. We are going to have tea soon. -- May I look at this book, Father?'
'I don't mind. -- Yes, there's a picture; a soldier!'
Interest quickened in the boy's eyes, and he turned eagerly from title-page to text. But just then there came a loud calling of his name from the other end of the garden.
'They want you,' said Harvey. 'Off you go. You can have the book another time.'
Hughie obeyed without hesitation, but his face had a weary look as he walked away to join the other children.
'I must send him to the Grammar-School next year,' said Rolfe. 'It won't do; he must be among boys, and learn to be noisy. Perhaps I have been altogether wrong in teaching him myself. What right has a man to teach, who can't make up his mind on any subject of thought? Of course I don't talk to him about my waverings and doubtings, but probably they affect him.'
'Don't bother your head so much about it,' replied Morton. 'He'll be all right as he grows stronger.'
A servant had brought out two little tables; tea was going to be served in the garden. When it was ready, Mrs Morton appeared; the men rose as she came towards them, a newspaper in her hand.
'Have you noticed this?' she asked of Rolfe, with a smile, pointing out a paragraph to him.
He read it; first to himself, then aloud.
'Yesterday, at Lady Isobel Barker's house in Pont Street, a meeting was held of ladies interested in a project for the benefit of working-class women in the West End. It is proposed to arrange for a series of lectures, specially adapted to such an audience, on subjects of literary and artistic interest. Unfortunately, Lady Isobel herself was unable to take part in the proceedings, owing to sudden indisposition; but her views were most suggestively set forth by Mrs Hugh Carnaby, who dwelt on the monotony of the lives of decent working-class women, and showed how much they would be benefited by being brought into touch with the intellectual movements of the day. Practical details of the scheme will shortly be made public.'
Morton chuckled quietly.
'Splendid idea,' said Rolfe. 'Anyone who knows anything of the West End working-class woman will be sure to give it warm support.'
The tea-bell rang; the children came running. Morton's eldest boy, who had been busy in his workshop, exhibited a fine model schooner, just finished. Presently, the hostess asked Rolfe whether he had heard of late from Mr Carnaby.
'A week ago; the first time for a year. The demand for shares in their company was tremendous, and they are turning out the new bicycle at the rate of hundreds a week.'
'Has he quite got over that illness?'
'Says he suffers much from dyspepsia; otherwise, fairly well. The prospect of money-making on a great scale seems pleasant to him.'
'To Mrs Carnaby, also, I dare say.'
'No doubt,' replied Rolfe absently.
After tea, a trio of little singers, one of whom was Hughie, gave the songs they had newly learnt with Mrs Morton, she accompanying them on the piano. Rolfe sat in a corner of the room and listened, as always, with keen pleasure.
'One more,' he asked, when they were about to cease.
They sang that which he liked best ----
After it there came a minute's silence; then Harvey rose.
'Say goodbye, Hughie; we must be going home.'
Hand in hand, each thinking his own thoughts, they walked homeward through the evening sunshine.
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