The Return (Page 3)
At the sound of her voice he gave a start of surprise, looked at her wildly, and asked in a piercing tone--
"You. . . . Where? To him?"
The door-handle rattled under her groping hand as though she had been trying to get out of some dark place.
"No--stay!" he cried.
She heard him faintly. He saw her shoulder touch the lintel of the door. She swayed as if dazed. There was less than a second of suspense while they both felt as if poised on the very edge of moral annihilation, ready to fall into some devouring nowhere. Then, almost simultaneously, he shouted, "Come back!" and she let go the handle of the door. She turned round in peaceful desperation like one who deliberately has thrown away the last chance of life; and, for a moment, the room she faced appeared terrible, and dark, and safe--like a grave.
He said, very hoarse and abrupt: "It can't end like this. . . . Sit down;" and while she crossed the room again to the low-backed chair before the dressing-table, he opened the door and put his head out to look and listen. The house was quiet. He came back pacified, and asked--
"Do you speak the truth?"
"You have lived a lie, though," he said, suspiciously.
"Ah! You made it so easy," she answered.
"You reproach me--me!"
"How could I?" she said; "I would have you no other--now."
"What do you mean by . . ." he began, then checked himself, and without waiting for an answer went on, "I won't ask any questions. Is this letter the worst of it?"
She had a nervous movement of her hands.
"I must have a plain answer," he said, hotly.
"Then, no! The worst is my coming back."
There followed a period of dead silence, during which they exchanged searching glances.
He said authoritatively--
"You don't know what you are saying. Your mind is unhinged. You are beside yourself, or you would not say such things. You can't control yourself. Even in your remorse . . ." He paused a moment, then said with a doctoral air: "Self-restraint is everything in life, you know. It's happiness, it's dignity . . . it's everything."
She was pulling nervously at her handkerchief while he went on watching anxiously to see the effect of his words. Nothing satisfactory happened. Only, as he began to speak again, she covered her face with both her hands.
"You see where the want of self-restraint leads to. Pain--humiliation--loss of respect--of friends, of everything that ennobles life, that . . . All kinds of horrors," he concluded, abruptly.
She made no stir. He looked at her pensively for some time as though he had been concentrating the melancholy thoughts evoked by the sight of that abased woman. His eyes became fixed and dull. He was profoundly penetrated by the solemnity of the moment; he felt deeply the greatness of the occasion. And more than ever the walls of his house seemed to enclose the sacredness of ideals to which he was about to offer a magnificent sacrifice. He was the high priest of that temple, the severe guardian of formulas, of rites, of the pure ceremonial concealing the black doubts of life. And he was not alone. Other men, too--the best of them--kept watch and ward by the hearthstones that were the altars of that profitable persuasion. He understood confusedly that he was part of an immense and beneficent power, which had a reward ready for every discretion. He dwelt within the invincible wisdom of silence; he was protected by an indestructible faith that would last forever, that would withstand unshaken all the assaults--the loud execrations of apostates, and the secret weariness of its confessors! He was in league with a universe of untold advantages. He represented the moral strength of a beautiful reticence that could vanquish all the deplorable crudities of life--fear, disaster, sin--even death itself. It seemed to him he was on the point of sweeping triumphantly away all the illusory mysteries of existence. It was simplicity itself.
"I hope you see now the folly--the utter folly of wickedness," he began in a dull, solemn manner. "You must respect the conditions of your life or lose all it can give you. All! Everything!"
He waved his arm once, and three exact replicas of his face, of his clothes, of his dull severity, of his solemn grief, repeated the wide gesture that in its comprehensive sweep indicated an infinity of moral sweetness, embraced the walls, the hangings, the whole house, all the crowd of houses outside, all the flimsy and inscrutable graves of the living, with their doors numbered like the doors of prison-cells, and as impenetrable as the granite of tombstones.
"Yes! Restraint, duty, fidelity--unswerving fidelity to what is expected of you. This--only this--secures the reward, the peace. Everything else we should labour to subdue--to destroy. It's misfortune; it's disease. It is terrible--terrible. We must not know anything about it--we needn't. It is our duty to ourselves--to others. You do not live all alone in the world--and if you have no respect for the dignity of life, others have. Life is a serious matter. If you don't conform to the highest standards you are no one--it's a kind of death. Didn't this occur to you? You've only to look round you to see the truth of what I am saying. Did you live without noticing anything, without understanding anything? From a child you had examples before your eyes--you could see daily the beauty, the blessings of morality, of principles. . . ."
His voice rose and fell pompously in a strange chant. His eyes were still, his stare exalted and sullen; his face was set, was hard, was woodenly exulting over the grim inspiration that secretly possessed him, seethed within him, lifted him up into a stealthy frenzy of belief. Now and then he would stretch out his right arm over her head, as it were, and he spoke down at that sinner from a height, and with a sense of avenging virtue, with a profound and pure joy as though he could from his steep pinnacle see every weighty word strike and hurt like a punishing stone.
"Rigid principles--adherence to what is right," he finished after a pause.
"What is right?" she said, distinctly, without uncovering her face.
"Your mind is diseased!" he cried, upright and austere. "Such a question is rot--utter rot. Look round you--there's your answer, if you only care to see. Nothing that outrages the received beliefs can be right. Your conscience tells you that. They are the received beliefs because they are the best, the noblest, the only possible. They survive. . . ."
He could not help noticing with pleasure the philosophic breadth of his view, but he could not pause to enjoy it, for his inspiration, the call of august truth, carried him on.
"You must respect the moral foundations of a society that has made you what you are. Be true to it. That's duty--that's honour--that's honesty."
He felt a great glow within him, as though he had swallowed something hot. He made a step nearer. She sat up and looked at him with an ardour of expectation that stimulated his sense of the supreme importance of that moment. And as if forgetting himself he raised his voice very much.
"'What's right?' you ask me. Think only. What would you have been if you had gone off with that infernal vagabond? . . . What would you have been? . . . You! My wife! . . ."
He caught sight of himself in the pier glass, drawn up to his full height, and with a face so white that his eyes, at the distance, resembled the black cavities in a skull. He saw himself as if about to launch imprecations, with arms uplifted above her bowed head. He was ashamed of that unseemly posture, and put his hands in his pockets hurriedly. She murmured faintly, as if to herself--
"Ah! What am I now?"
"As it happens you are still Mrs. Alvan Hervey--uncommonly lucky for you, let me tell you," he said in a conversational tone. He walked up to the furthest corner of the room, and, turning back, saw her sitting very upright, her hands clasped on her lap, and with a lost, unswerving gaze of her eyes which stared unwinking like the eyes of the blind, at the crude gas flame, blazing and still, between the jaws of the bronze dragon.
He came up quite close to her, and straddling his legs a little, stood looking down at her face for some time without taking his hands out of his pockets. He seemed to be turning over in his mind a heap of words, piecing his next speech out of an overpowering abundance of thoughts.
"You've tried me to the utmost," he said at last; and as soon as he said these words he lost his moral footing, and felt himself swept away from his pinnacle by a flood of passionate resentment against the bungling creature that had come so near to spoiling his life. "Yes; I've been tried more than any man ought to be," he went on with righteous bitterness. "It was unfair. What possessed you to? . . . What possessed you? . . . Write such a . . . After five years of perfect happiness! 'Pon my word, no one would believe. . . . Didn't you feel you couldn't? Because you couldn't . . . it was impossible--you know. Wasn't it? Think. Wasn't it?"
"It was impossible," she whispered, obediently.
This submissive assent given with such readiness did not soothe him, did not elate him; it gave him, inexplicably, that sense of terror we experience when in the midst of conditions we had learned to think absolutely safe we discover all at once the presence of a near and unsuspected danger. It was impossible, of course! He knew it. She knew it. She confessed it. It was impossible! That man knew it, too--as well as any one; couldn't help knowing it. And yet those two had been engaged in a conspiracy against his peace--in a criminal enterprise for which there could be no sanction of belief within themselves. There could not be! There could not be! And yet how near to . . . With a short thrill he saw himself an exiled forlorn figure in a realm of ungovernable, of unrestrained folly. Nothing could be foreseen, foretold--guarded against. And the sensation was intolerable, had something of the withering horror that may be conceived as following upon the utter extinction of all hope. In the flash of thought the dishonouring episode seemed to disengage itself from everything actual, from earthly conditions, and even from earthly suffering; it became purely a terrifying knowledge, an annihilating knowledge of a blind and infernal force. Something desperate and vague, a flicker of an insane desire to abase himself before the mysterious impulses of evil, to ask for mercy in some way, passed through his mind; and then came the idea, the persuasion, the certitude, that the evil must be forgotten--must be resolutely ignored to make life possible; that the knowledge must be kept out of mind, out of sight, like the knowledge of certain death is kept out of the daily existence of men. He stiffened himself inwardly for the effort, and next moment it appeared very easy, amazingly feasible, if one only kept strictly to facts, gave one's mind to their perplexities and not to their meaning. Becoming conscious of a long silence, he cleared his throat warningly, and said in a steady voice--
"I am glad you feel this . . . uncommonly glad . . . you felt this in time. For, don't you see . . ." Unexpectedly he hesitated.
"Yes . . . I see," she murmured.
"Of course you would," he said, looking at the carpet and speaking like one who thinks of something else. He lifted his head. "I cannot believe--even after this--even after this--that you are altogether--altogether . . . other than what I thought you. It seems impossible--to me."
"And to me," she breathed out.
"Now--yes," he said, "but this morning? And to-morrow? . . . This is what . . ."
He started at the drift of his words and broke off abruptly. Every train of thought seemed to lead into the hopeless realm of ungovernable folly, to recall the knowledge and the terror of forces that must be ignored. He said rapidly--
"My position is very painful--difficult . . . I feel . . ."
He looked at her fixedly with a pained air, as though frightfully oppressed by a sudden inability to express his pent-up ideas.
"I am ready to go," she said very low. "I have forfeited everything
. . . to learn . . . to learn . . ."
Her chin fell on her breast; her voice died out in a sigh. He made a slight gesture of impatient assent.
"Yes! Yes! It's all very well . . . of course. Forfeited--ah! Morally forfeited--only morally forfeited . . . if I am to believe you . . ."
She startled him by jumping up.
"Oh! I believe, I believe," he said, hastily, and she sat down as suddenly as she had got up. He went on gloomily--
"I've suffered--I suffer now. You can't understand how much. So much that when you propose a parting I almost think. . . . But no. There is duty. You've forgotten it; I never did. Before heaven, I never did. But in a horrid exposure like this the judgment of mankind goes astray--at least for a time. You see, you and I--at least I feel that--you and I are one before the world. It is as it should be. The world is right--in the main--or else it couldn't be--couldn't be--what it is. And we are part of it. We have our duty to--to our fellow beings who don't want to . . . to. . . er."
He stammered. She looked up at him with wide eyes, and her lips were slightly parted. He went on mumbling--
". . . Pain. . . . Indignation. . . . Sure to misunderstand. I've suffered enough. And if there has been nothing irreparable--as you assure me . . . then . . ."
"Alvan!" she cried.
"What?" he said, morosely. He gazed down at her for a moment with a sombre stare, as one looks at ruins, at the devastation of some natural disaster.
"Then," he continued after a short pause, "the best thing is . . . the best for us . . . for every one. . . . Yes . . . least pain--most unselfish. . . ." His voice faltered, and she heard only detached words. ". . . Duty. . . . Burden. . . . Ourselves. . . . Silence."
A moment of perfect stillness ensued.
"This is an appeal I am making to your conscience," he said, suddenly, in an explanatory tone, "not to add to the wretchedness of all this: to try loyally and help me to live it down somehow. Without any reservations--you know. Loyally! You can't deny I've been cruelly wronged and--after all--my affection deserves . . ." He paused with evident anxiety to hear her speak.
"I make no reservations," she said, mournfully. "How could I? I found myself out and came back to . . ." her eyes flashed scornfully for an instant ". . . to what--to what you propose. You see . . . I . . . I can be trusted . . . now."
He listened to every word with profound attention, and when she ceased seemed to wait for more.
"Is that all you've got to say?" he asked.
She was startled by his tone, and said faintly--
"I spoke the truth. What more can I say?"
"Confound it! You might say something human," he burst out. "It isn't being truthful; it's being brazen--if you want to know. Not a word to show you feel your position, and--and mine. Not a single word of acknowledgment, or regret--or remorse . . . or . . . something."
"Words!" she whispered in a tone that irritated him. He stamped his foot.
"This is awful!" he exclaimed. "Words? Yes, words. Words mean something--yes--they do--for all this infernal affectation. They mean something to me--to everybody--to you. What the devil did you use to express those sentiments--sentiments--pah!--which made you forget me, duty, shame!" . . . He foamed at the mouth while she stared at him, appalled by this sudden fury. "Did you two talk only with your eyes?" he spluttered savagely. She rose.
"I can't bear this," she said, trembling from head to foot. "I am going."
They stood facing one another for a moment.
"Not you," he said, with conscious roughness, and began to walk up and down the room. She remained very still with an air of listening anxiously to her own heart-beats, then sank down on the chair slowly, and sighed, as if giving up a task beyond her strength.
"You misunderstand everything I say," he began quietly, "but I prefer to think that--just now--you are not accountable for your actions." He stopped again before her. "Your mind is unhinged," he said, with unction. "To go now would be adding crime--yes, crime--to folly. I'll have no scandal in my life, no matter what's the cost. And why? You are sure to misunderstand me--but I'll tell you. As a matter of duty. Yes. But you're sure to misunderstand me--recklessly. Women always do--they are too--too narrow-minded."
He waited for a while, but she made no sound, didn't even look at him; he felt uneasy, painfully uneasy, like a man who suspects he is unreasonably mistrusted. To combat that exasperating sensation he recommenced talking very fast. The sound of his words excited his thoughts, and in the play of darting thoughts he had glimpses now and then of the inexpugnable rock of his convictions, towering in solitary grandeur above the unprofitable waste of errors and passions.
"For it is self-evident," he went on with anxious vivacity, "it is self-evident that, on the highest ground we haven't the right--no, we haven't the right to intrude our miseries upon those who--who naturally expect better things from us. Every one wishes his own life and the life around him to be beautiful and pure. Now, a scandal amongst people of our position is disastrous for the morality--a fatal influence--don't you see--upon the general tone of the class--very important--the most important, I verily believe, in--in the community. I feel this--profoundly. This is the broad view. In time you'll give me . . . when you become again the woman I loved--and trusted. . . ."
He stopped short, as though unexpectedly suffocated, then in a completely changed voice said, "For I did love and trust you"--and again was silent for a moment. She put her handkerchief to her eyes.
"You'll give me credit for--for--my motives. It's mainly loyalty to--to the larger conditions of our life--where you--you! of all women--failed. One doesn't usually talk like this--of course--but in this case you'll admit . . . And consider--the innocent suffer with the guilty. The world is pitiless in its judgments. Unfortunately there are always those in it who are only too eager to misunderstand. Before you and before my conscience I am guiltless, but any--any disclosure would impair my usefulness in the sphere--in the larger sphere in which I hope soon to . . . I believe you fully shared my views in that matter--I don't want to say any more . . . on--on that point--but, believe me, true unselfishness is to bear one's burdens in--in silence. The ideal must--must be preserved--for others, at least. It's clear as daylight. If I've a--a loathsome sore, to gratuitously display it would be abominable--abominable! And often in life--in the highest conception of life--outspokenness in certain circumstances is nothing less than criminal. Temptation, you know, excuses no one. There is no such thing really if one looks steadily to one's welfare--which is grounded in duty. But there are the weak."
. . . His tone became ferocious for an instant . . . "And there are the fools and the envious--especially for people in our position. I am guiltless of this terrible--terrible . . . estrangement; but if there has been nothing irreparable." . . . Something gloomy, like a deep shadow passed over his face. . . . "Nothing irreparable--you see even now I am ready to trust you implicitly--then our duty is clear."
He looked down. A change came over his expression and straightway from the outward impetus of his loquacity he passed into the dull contemplation of all the appeasing truths that, not without some wonder, he had so recently been able to discover within himself. During this profound and soothing communion with his innermost beliefs he remained staring at the carpet, with a portentously solemn face and with a dull vacuity of eyes that seemed to gaze into the blankness of an empty hole. Then, without stirring in the least, he continued:
"Yes. Perfectly clear. I've been tried to the utmost, and I can't pretend that, for a time, the old feelings--the old feelings are not. . . ." He sighed. . . . "But I forgive you. . . ."
She made a slight movement without uncovering her eyes. In his profound scrutiny of the carpet he noticed nothing. And there was silence, silence within and silence without, as though his words had stilled the beat and tremor of all the surrounding life, and the house had stood alone--the only dwelling upon a deserted earth.
He lifted his head and repeated solemnly:
"I forgive you . . . from a sense of duty--and in the hope . . ."
He heard a laugh, and it not only interrupted his words but also destroyed the peace of his self-absorption with the vile pain of a reality intruding upon the beauty of a dream. He couldn't understand whence the sound came. He could see, foreshortened, the tear-stained, dolorous face of the woman stretched out, and with her head thrown over the back of the seat. He thought the piercing noise was a delusion. But another shrill peal followed by a deep sob and succeeded by another shriek of mirth positively seemed to tear him out from where he stood. He bounded to the door. It was closed. He turned the key and thought: that's no good. . . . "Stop this!" he cried, and perceived with alarm that he could hardly hear his own voice in the midst of her screaming. He darted back with the idea of stifling that unbearable noise with his hands, but stood still distracted, finding himself as unable to touch her as though she had been on fire. He shouted, "Enough of this!" like men shout in the tumult of a riot, with a red face and starting eyes; then, as if swept away before another burst of laughter, he disappeared in a flash out of three looking-glasses, vanished suddenly from before her. For a time the woman gasped and laughed at no one in the luminous stillness of the empty room.
He reappeared, striding at her, and with a tumbler of water in his hand. He stammered: "Hysterics--Stop--They will hear--Drink this." She laughed at the ceiling. "Stop this!" he cried. "Ah!"
He flung the water in her face, putting into the action all the secret brutality of his spite, yet still felt that it would have been perfectly excusable--in any one--to send the tumbler after the water. He restrained himself, but at the same time was so convinced nothing could stop the horror of those mad shrieks that, when the first sensation of relief came, it did not even occur to him to doubt the impression of having become suddenly deaf. When, next moment, he became sure that she was sitting up, and really very quiet, it was as though everything--men, things, sensations, had come to a rest. He was prepared to be grateful. He could not take his eyes off her, fearing, yet unwilling to admit, the possibility of her beginning again; for, the experience, however contemptuously he tried to think of it, had left the bewilderment of a mysterious terror. Her face was streaming with water and tears; there was a wisp of hair on her forehead, another stuck to her cheek; her hat was on one side, undecorously tilted; her soaked veil resembled a sordid rag festooning her forehead. There was an utter unreserve in her aspect, an abandonment of safeguards, that ugliness of truth which can only be kept out of daily life by unremitting care for appearances. He did not know why, looking at her, he thought suddenly of to-morrow, and why the thought called out a deep feeling of unutterable, discouraged weariness--a fear of facing the succession of days. To-morrow! It was as far as yesterday. Ages elapsed between sunrises--sometimes. He scanned her features like one looks at a forgotten country. They were not distorted--he recognized landmarks, so to speak; but it was only a resemblance that he could see, not the woman of yesterday--or was it, perhaps, more than the woman of yesterday? Who could tell? Was it something new? A new expression--or a new shade of expression? or something deep--an old truth unveiled, a fundamental and hidden truth--some unnecessary, accursed certitude? He became aware that he was trembling very much, that he had an empty tumbler in his hand--that time was passing. Still looking at her with lingering mistrust he reached towards the table to put the glass down and was startled to feel it apparently go through the wood. He had missed the edge. The surprise, the slight jingling noise of the accident annoyed him beyond expression. He turned to her irritated.
"What's the meaning of this?" he asked, grimly.
She passed her hand over her face and made an attempt to get up.
"You're not going to be absurd again," he said. "'Pon my soul, I did not know you could forget yourself to that extent." He didn't try to conceal his physical disgust, because he believed it to be a purely moral reprobation of every unreserve, of anything in the nature of a scene. "I assure you--it was revolting," he went on. He stared for a moment at her. "Positively degrading," he added with insistence.
She stood up quickly as if moved by a spring and tottered. He started forward instinctively. She caught hold of the back of the chair and steadied herself. This arrested him, and they faced each other wide-eyed, uncertain, and yet coming back slowly to the reality of things with relief and wonder, as though just awakened after tossing through a long night of fevered dreams.
"Pray, don't begin again," he said, hurriedly, seeing her open her lips. "I deserve some little consideration--and such unaccountable behaviour is painful to me. I expect better things. . . . I have the right. . . ."
She pressed both her hands to her temples.
"Oh, nonsense!" he said, sharply. "You are perfectly capable of coming down to dinner. No one should even suspect; not even the servants. No one! No one! . . . I am sure you can."
She dropped her arms; her face twitched. She looked straight into his eyes and seemed incapable of pronouncing a word. He frowned at her.
"I--wish--it," he said, tyrannically. "For your own sake also. . . ." He meant to carry that point without any pity. Why didn't she speak? He feared passive resistance. She must. . . . Make her come. His frown deepened, and he began to think of some effectual violence, when most unexpectedly she said in a firm voice, "Yes, I can," and clutched the chair-back again. He was relieved, and all at once her attitude ceased to interest him. The important thing was that their life would begin again with an every-day act--with something that could not be misunderstood, that, thank God, had no moral meaning, no perplexity-- and yet was symbolic of their uninterrupted communion in the past--in all the future. That morning, at that table, they had breakfast together; and now they would dine. It was all over! What had happened between could be forgotten--must be forgotten, like things that can only happen once--death for instance.
"I will wait for you," he said, going to the door. He had some difficulty with it, for he did not remember he had turned the key. He hated that delay, and his checked impatience to be gone out of the room made him feel quite ill as, with the consciousness of her presence behind his back, he fumbled at the lock. He managed it at last; then in the doorway he glanced over his shoulder to say, "It's rather late--you know--" and saw her standing where he had left her, with a face white as alabaster and perfectly still, like a woman in a trance.
He was afraid she would keep him waiting, but without any breathing time, he hardly knew how, he found himself sitting at table with her. He had made up his mind to eat, to talk, to be natural. It seemed to him necessary that deception should begin at home. The servants must not know--must not suspect. This intense desire of secrecy; of secrecy dark, destroying, profound, discreet like a grave, possessed him with the strength of a hallucination--seemed to spread itself to inanimate objects that had been the daily companions of his life, affected with a taint of enmity every single thing within the faithful walls that would stand forever between the shamelessness of facts and the indignation of mankind. Even when--as it happened once or twice--both the servants left the room together he remained carefully natural, industriously hungry, laboriously at his ease, as though he had wanted to cheat the black oak sideboard, the heavy curtains, the stiff-backed chairs, into the belief of an unstained happiness. He was mistrustful of his wife's self-control, unwilling to look at her and reluctant to speak, for it seemed to him inconceivable that she should not betray herself by the slightest movement, by the very first word spoken. Then he thought the silence in the room was becoming dangerous, and so excessive as to produce the effect of an intolerable uproar. He wanted to end it, as one is anxious to interrupt an indiscreet confession; but with the memory of that laugh upstairs he dared not give her an occasion to open her lips. Presently he heard her voice pronouncing in a calm tone some unimportant remark. He detached his eyes from the centre of his plate and felt excited as if on the point of looking at a wonder. And nothing could be more wonderful than her composure. He was looking at the candid eyes, at the pure brow, at what he had seen every evening for years in that place; he listened to the voice that for five years he had heard every day. Perhaps she was a little pale--but a healthy pallor had always been for him one of her chief attractions. Perhaps her face was rigidly set--but that marmoreal impassiveness, that magnificent stolidity, as of a wonderful statue by some great sculptor working under the curse of the gods; that imposing, unthinking stillness of her features, had till then mirrored for him the tranquil dignity of a soul of which he had thought himself--as a matter of course--the inexpugnable possessor. Those were the outward signs of her difference from the ignoble herd that feels, suffers, fails, errs--but has no distinct value in the world except as a moral contrast to the prosperity of the elect. He had been proud of her appearance. It had the perfectly proper frankness of perfection--and now he was shocked to see it unchanged. She looked like this, spoke like this, exactly like this, a year ago, a month ago--only yesterday when she. . . . What went on within made no difference. What did she think? What meant the pallor, the placid face, the candid brow, the pure eyes? What did she think during all these years? What did she think yesterday--to-day; what would she think to-morrow? He must find out. . . . And yet how could he get to know? She had been false to him, to that man, to herself; she was ready to be false--for him. Always false. She looked lies, breathed lies, lived lies--would tell lies--always--to the end of life! And he would never know what she meant. Never! Never! No one could. Impossible to know.Next