HER husband’s note had briefly said:
“To-day at four o’clock. N.L.”
All day she pored over the words in an agony of longing, trying to read into them regret, emotion, memories, some echo of the tumult in her own bosom. But she had signed “Susy,” and he signed “N.L.” That seemed to put an abyss between them. After all, she was free and he was not. Perhaps, in view of his situation, she had only increased the distance between them by her unconventional request for a meeting.
She sat in the little drawing-room, and the cast-bronze clock ticked out the minutes. She would not look out of the window: it might bring bad luck to watch for him. And it seemed to her that a thousand invisible spirits, hidden demons of good and evil, pressed about her, spying out her thoughts, counting her heart-beats, ready to pounce upon the least symptom of over-confidence and turn it deftly to derision. Oh, for an altar on which to pour out propitiatory offerings! But what sweeter could they have than her smothered heart-beats, her choked-back tears?
The bell rang, and she stood up as if a spring had jerked her to her feet. In the mirror between the dried grasses her face looked long pale inanimate. Ah, if he should find her too changed —! If there were but time to dash upstairs and put on a touch of red. . . .
The door opened; it shut on him; he was there.
He said: “You wanted to see me?”
She answered: “Yes.” And her heart seemed to stop beating.
At first she could not make out what mysterious change had come over him, and why it was that in looking at him she seemed to be looking at a stranger; then she perceived that his voice sounded as it used to sound when he was talking to other people; and she said to herself, with a sick shiver of understanding, that she had become an “other person” to him.
There was a deathly pause; then she faltered out, not knowing what she said: “Nick — you’ll sit down?”
He said: “Thanks,” but did not seem to have heard her, for he continued to stand motionless, half the room between them. And slowly the uselessness, the hopelessness of his being there overcame her. A wall of granite seemed to have built itself up between them. She felt as if it hid her from him, as if with those remote new eyes of his he were staring into the wall and not at her. Suddenly she said to herself: “He’s suffering more than I am, because he pities me, and is afraid to tell me that he is going to be married.”
The thought stung her pride, and she lifted her head and met his eyes with a smile.
“Don’t you think,” she said, “it’s more sensible-with everything so changed in our lives — that we should meet as friends, in this way? I wanted to tell you that you needn’t feel — feel in the least unhappy about me.”
A deep flush rose to his forehead. “Oh, I know — I know that — ” he declared hastily; and added, with a factitious animation: “But thank you for telling me.”
“There’s nothing, is there,” she continued, “to make our meeting in this way in the least embarrassing or painful to either of us, when both have found. . . . ” She broke off, and held her hand out to him. “I’ve heard about you and Coral,” she ended.
He just touched her hand with cold fingers, and let it drop. “Thank you,” he said for the third time.
“You won’t sit down?”
He sat down.
“Don’t you think,” she continued, “that the new way of . . . of meeting as friends . . . and talking things over without ill-will . . . is much pleasanter and more sensible, after all?”
He smiled. “It’s immensely kind of you to feel that.”
“Oh, I do feel it!” She stopped short, and wondered what on earth she had meant to say next, and why she had so abruptly lost the thread of her discourse.
In the pause she heard him cough slightly and clear his throat. “Let me say, then,” he began, “that I’m glad too — immensely glad that your own future is so satisfactorily settled.”
She lifted her glance again to his walled face, in which not a muscle stirred.
“Yes: it — it makes everything easier for you, doesn’t it?”
“For you too, I hope.” He paused, and then went on: “I want also to tell you that I perfectly understand — ”
“Oh,” she interrupted, “so do I; your point of view, I mean.”
They were again silent.
“Nick, why can’t we be friends real friends? Won’t it be easier?” she broke out at last with twitching lips.
“I mean, about talking things over — arrangements. There are arrangements to be made, I suppose?”
“I suppose so.” He hesitated. “I’m doing what I’m told-simply following out instructions. The business is easy enough, apparently. I’m taking the necessary steps — ”
She reddened a little, and drew a gasping breath. “The necessary steps: what are they? Everything the lawyers tell one is so confusing. . . . I don’t yet understand — how it’s done.”
“My share, you mean? Oh, it’s very simple.” He paused, and added in a tone of laboured ease: “I’m going down to Fontainebleau to-morrow — ”
She stared, not understanding. “To Fontainebleau —?”
Her bewilderment drew from him his first frank smile. “Well — I chose Fontainebleau — I don’t know why . . . except that we’ve never been there together.”
At that she suddenly understood, and the blood rushed to her forehead. She stood up without knowing what she was doing, her heart in her throat. “How grotesque — how utterly disgusting!”
He gave a slight shrug. “I didn’t make the laws. . . . ”
“But isn’t it too stupid and degrading that such things should be necessary when two people want to part —?” She broke off again, silenced by the echo of that fatal “want to part.” . . .
He seemed to prefer not to dwell farther on the legal obligations involved.
“You haven’t yet told me,” he suggested, “how you happen to be living here.”
“Here — with the Fulmer children?” She roused herself, trying to catch his easier note. “Oh, I’ve simply been governessing them for a few weeks, while Nat and Grace are in Sicily.” She did not say: “It’s because I’ve parted with Strefford.” Somehow it helped her wounded pride a little to keep from him the secret of her precarious independence.
He looked his wonder. “All alone with that bewildered bonne? But how many of them are there? Five? Good Lord!” He contemplated the clock with unseeing eyes, and then turned them again on her face.
“I should have thought a lot of children would rather get on your nerves.”
“Oh, not these children. They’re so good to me.”
“Ah, well, I suppose it won’t be for long.”
He sent his eyes again about the room, which his absent-minded gaze seemed to reduce to its dismal constituent elements, and added, with an obvious effort at small talk: “I hear the Fulmers are not hitting it off very well since his success. Is it true that he’s going to marry Violet Melrose?”
The blood rose to Susy’s face. “Oh, never, never! He and Grace are travelling together now.”
“Oh, I didn’t know. People say things. . . . ” He was visibly embarrassed with the subject, and sorry that he had broached it.
“Some of the things that people say are true. But Grace doesn’t mind. She says she and Nat belong to each other. They can’t help it, she thinks, after having been through such a lot together.”
“Dear old Grace!”
He had risen from his chair, and this time she made no effort to detain him. He seemed to have recovered his self-composure, and it struck her painfully, humiliatingly almost, that he should have spoken in that light way of the expedition to Fontainebleau on the morrow. . . . Well, men were different, she supposed; she remembered having felt that once before about Nick.
It was on the tip of her tongue to cry out: “But wait — wait! I’m not going to marry Strefford after all!” — but to do so would seem like an appeal to his compassion, to his indulgence; and that was not what she wanted. She could never forget that he had left her because he had not been able to forgive her for “managing” — and not for the world would she have him think that this meeting had been planned for such a purpose.
“If he doesn’t see that I am different, in spite of appearances . . . and that I never was what he said I was that day — if in all these months it hasn’t come over him, what’s the use of trying to make him see it now?” she mused. And then, her thoughts hurrying on: “Perhaps he’s suffering too — I believe he is suffering-at any rate, he’s suffering for me, if not for himself. But if he’s pledged to Coral, what can he do? What would he think of me if I tried to make him break his word to her?”
There he stood — the man who was “going to Fontainebleau to-morrow”; who called it “taking the necessary steps!” Who could smile as he made the careless statement! A world seemed to divide them already: it was as if their parting were already over. All the words, cries, arguments beating loud wings in her dropped back into silence. The only thought left was: “How much longer does he mean to go on standing there?”
He may have read the question in her face, for turning back from an absorbed contemplation of the window curtains he said: “There’s nothing else?”
“I mean: you spoke of things to be settled — ”
She flushed, suddenly remembering the pretext she had used to summon him.
“Oh,” she faltered, “I didn’t know . . . I thought there might be. . . . But the lawyers, I suppose. . . . ”
She saw the relief on his contracted face. “Exactly. I’ve always thought it was best to leave it to them. I assure you” — again for a moment the smile strained his lips — “I shall do nothing to interfere with a quick settlement.”
She stood motionless, feeling herself turn to stone. He appeared already a long way off, like a figure vanishing down a remote perspective.
“Then — good-bye,” she heard him say from its farther end.
“Oh, — good-bye,” she faltered, as if she had not had the word ready, and was relieved to have him supply it.
He stopped again on the threshold, looked back at her, began to speak. “I’ve — ” he said; then he repeated “Good-bye,” as though to make sure he had not forgotten to say it; and the door closed on him.
It was over; she had had her last chance and missed it. Now, whatever happened, the one thing she had lived and longed for would never be. He had come, and she had let him go again. . . .
How had it come about? Would she ever be able to explain it to herself? How was it that she, so fertile in strategy, so practiced in feminine arts, had stood there before him, helpless, inarticulate, like a school-girl a-choke with her first love-longing? If he was gone, and gone never to return, it was her own fault, and none but hers. What had she done to move him, detain him, make his heart beat and his head swim as hers were beating and swimming? She stood aghast at her own inadequacy, her stony inexpressiveness. . . .
And suddenly she lifted her hands to her throbbing forehead and cried out: “But this is love! This must be love!”
She had loved him before, she supposed; for what else was she to call the impulse that had drawn her to him, taught her how to overcome his scruples, and whirled him away with her on their mad adventure? Well, if that was love, this was something so much larger and deeper that the other feeling seemed the mere dancing of her blood in tune with his. . . .
But, no! Real love, great love, the love that poets sang, and privileged and tortured beings lived and died of, that love had its own superior expressiveness, and the sure command of its means. The petty arts of coquetry were no farther from it than the numbness of the untaught girl. Great love was wise, strong, powerful, like genius, like any other dominant form of human power. It knew itself, and what it wanted, and how to attain its ends.
Not great love, then . . . but just the common humble average of human love was hers. And it had come to her so newly, so overwhelmingly, with a face so grave, a touch so startling, that she had stood there petrified, humbled at the first look of its eyes, recognizing that what she had once taken for love was merely pleasure and spring-time, and the flavour of youth.
“But how was I to know? And now it’s too late!” she wailed.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02