The Lamp of Fate by Margaret Pedler
Chapter II. The Widening Gulf
The birth of a daughter came upon Hugh in the light of an almost overwhelming shock. He was quite silent when, in response to Catherine's imperative gesture, he surrendered the child into her arms once more. As she took it from him he noticed that those thin, angular arms of hers seemed to close round the little swaddled body in an almost jealously possessive clasp. But there was none of the tender possessiveness of love about it. In some oddly repugnant way it reminded him of the motion of a bird of prey at last gripping triumphantly in its talons a victim that has hitherto eluded pursuit.
He turned back dully to his contemplation of the wintry garden, nor, in his absorption, did he hear the whimpering cry--almost of protest-- that issued from the lips of his first-born as Catherine bore the child away.
For a space it seemed as though his mind were a blank, every thought and feeling wiped out of it by the stupendous, nullifying fact that his wife had given birth to a daughter. Then, with a rush as torturing as the return of blood to benumbed limbs, emotions crowded in upon him.
Catherine's incessant denunciations of his "sin" in marrying Diane Wielitzska--poured upon him without stint throughout this first year of his marriage--seemed to din in his ears anew. Such phrases as "selling your soul," "putting a woman of that type in our sainted mother's place," "mingling the blood of a foreign dancing-woman with our own," jangled against each other in his mind.
Had he really been guilty of a sin against his conscience--satisfied his desires irrespective of all sense of duty?
He began to think he had, and to wonder in a disturbed fashion if God thought so too. What was it Catherine had said? "God has indeed taken your punishment into His own Hands."
Hugh was only too well aware of the facts which gave the speech its trenchant significance. He himself had inherited owing to the death of an elder brother in early childhood. But there was no younger brother to step into his own shoes, and failing an heir in the direct line of succession the title and entailed estate would of necessity go to Rupert Vallincourt, a cousin--a gay and debonair young rake of much charm of manner and equal absence of virtue. From both Catherine's and Hugh's point of view he was the last man in the world fitted to become the head of the family. Hence the eagerness with which they had anticipated the arrival of a son and heir.
And now, prompted by Catherine's bitter taunt, the birth of a daughter as his first-born--the first happening of the kind for eight successive generations--appeared to Hugh in the light of a direct manifestation of God's intention that no son born of Diane Wielitzska should be dowered with such influence as the heir to the Vallincourts must necessarily wield.
Better, even, that the title and estates should go to Rupert! Bad as his reputation might be, good blood ran in his veins on either side-- an inherited tradition of right-doing which was bound to assert itself in succeeding generations. Whereas in the offspring of Diane heaven alone knew what hidden inherited tendencies towards evil might lie fallow, to develop later and work incalculable mischief in the world.
Hugh felt crushed by the unexpected blow which had befallen him. Since his marriage, he had opposed a forced indifference to his sister's irreconcilable attitude, finding compensation in the glowing moments of his passion for Diane. Nevertheless--since living in an atmosphere of disapproval tends to fray the strongest nerves--his temper had worn a little fine beneath the strain; and with Diane's faults and failings thrust continually on his notice he had unconsciously grown more critical of her.
And now, all at once, it seemed as though scales had been torn from his eyes. He saw his marriage for the first time from the same standpoint as Catherine saw it, and in the unlooked-for birth of a daughter he thought he recognised the Hand of God, sternly uprooting his most cherished hopes and minimising, as much as possible, the inevitable evil consequences of his weakness in marrying Diane.
He was conscious of a rising feeling of resentment against his wife. Words from an old Book flashed into his mind: "The woman tempted me."
With the immediate instinct of a weak nature--the very narrowness and rigidity of his views was a manifestation of weakness, had he but realised it--he was already looking for someone with whom to share the blame for his lapse from the Vallincourt standard of conduct, and in that handful of wayward charm, red lips, and soft, beguiling eyes which was Diane he found what he sought.
Again the room door opened. This time, instead of putting a longed-for end to a blank period of suspense, the little quiet clicking of the latch cut almost aggressively across the conflict of Hugh's thoughts. He turned round irritably.
"What is it?" he demanded.
A uniformed nurse was standing in the doorway. At the sound of his curtly-spoken question she glanced at him with a certain contemplative curiosity in her eyes. They might have held surprise as well as curiosity had she not lately stood beside that huge, canopied bed upstairs, listening pitifully to a woman's secret fears and longings, unveiled in the delirium of pain.
"I know you sometimes wish you hadn't married me. . . . I'm not good enough. And Catherine hates me. Yes, she does, she does! And she'll make you hate me too! But you won't hate me when my baby comes, will you, Hugh? You want a little son . . . a little son . . ."
Nurse Maynard could hear again the weary, complaining voice, trailing off at last in the silence of exhaustion, and an impulse of indignation added a sharp edge to her tone as she responded to Hugh's query.
"Her ladyship is asking to see you, Sir Hugh. She ought to rest now, but she is too excited. She has been expecting you."
There was no mistaking the implied rebuke in the last sentence, and Hugh's face darkened.
"I'll come," he said, briefly, and followed the crisp starched figure up the stairs and into a half-darkened room, smelling faintly of antiseptics.
Vaguely the white counterpane outlined the slim figure of Diane upon the bed. The nurse raised the blind a little, and the light of the westering sun fell across the pillow, revealing a small, dark head which turned eagerly at the sound of Hugh's entrance.
"Hugh!" The voice from the bed came faintly.
Hugh looked down at his wife. Probably never had Diane looked more beautiful.
The little worldly, sophisticated expression common to her features had been temporarily obliterated by the holy suffering of motherhood, and the face of the "foreign dancing-woman," born and bred in a quarter of the world where virtue is a cheap commodity, was as pure and serene as the face of a Madonna.
She held out her hands to her husband, her lips curving into a smile that was all love and tenderness.
The lover in him sent him swiftly to her side, and as he drew her into his arms she let her head fall back against his shoulder with a tremulous sigh of infinite content.
And then, from the firelit corner of the room, came the sound of a feeble wailing. Hugh started as though stung, and his eyes left his wife's face and riveted themselves upon the figure in the low chair by the hearth--Virginie, rocking a little as she sat, and crooning a Breton lullaby to the baby in her arms.
In a moment remembrance rushed upon him, cutting in twain as though with a dividing sword this exquisite moment of reunion with his wife. Insensibly his arms relaxed their clasp of the frail body they held, and Diane, sensing their slackening, looked up startled and disconcerted.
Her eyes followed the direction of his glance, then, coming back to his face, searched it wildly. Instantly she knew the meaning of that suddenly limp clasp and all that it implied.
"Hugh!" The throbbing tenderness had gone out of her voice, leaving it dry and toneless. "Hugh! You don't mean . . . you're angry that it's a girl?"
He looked down at her--at the frightened eyes, the lovely face fined by recent pain, and all his instinct was to reassure and comfort her. But something held him back. The old, narrow creed in which he had been reared, whose shackles he had broken through when he had recklessly followed the bidding of his heart and married Diane, was once more mastering him--bidding him resist the natural human impulses of love and kindliness evoked by his wife's appeal.
"God Himself has taken your punishment into His own Hands."
Again he seemed to hear Catherine's accusing tones, and the fanatical strain inbred in him answered like a boat to its helm. There must be no more compromise, no longer any evasion of the issues of right and wrong. He had sinned, and both he and the woman for whose sake he had defied his own creed, and that of his fathers before him, must make atonement. He drew himself up, and stood stiff and unbending beside the bed. In his light-grey eyes there shone that same indomitable ardour of the zealot which had shone in Catherine's.
"No," he said. "I am not angry that the child is a girl. I accept it as a just retribution."
No man possessed of the ordinary instincts of common humanity would have so greeted his wife just when she had emerged, spent and exhausted, from woman's supreme conflict with death. But the fanatic loses sight of normal values, and Hugh, obsessed by his newly conceived idea of atoning for the sin of his marriage, was utterly oblivious of the enormity of his conduct as viewed through unbiased eyes.
The woman who had just fought her way through the Valley of the Shadow stared at him uncomprehendingly.
"Retribution?" she repeated blankly.
"For my marriage--our marriage."
Diane's breath came faster.
"What--what do you mean?" she asked falteringly. Suddenly a look of sheer terror leaped into her eyes, and she clutched at Hugh's sleeve. "Oh, you're not going to be like Catherine? Say you're not! Hugh, you've always said she was crazy to call our marriage a sin. . . . A sin!" She tried to laugh, but the laugh stuck in her throat, caught and pinned there by the terror that gripped her.
"Yes, I've said that. I've said it because I wanted to think it," he returned remorselessly, "not because I really thought it."
Diane dragged herself up on to her elbow.
"I don't understand. You've not changed?" Then, as he made no answer: "Hugh, you're frightening me! What do you mean? What has Catherine been saying to you?"
Her voice rose excitedly. A patch of feverish colour appeared on either cheek. Old Virginie sprung up from her chair by the fire, alarmed.
"You excite madame!"
Hugh turned to leave the room.
"We'll discuss this another time, Diane," he said.
Diane moved her head fretfully.
"No. Now--now! Don't go! Hugh!"
Her voice rose almost to a scream and simultaneously the nurse came hurrying in from the adjoining room. She threw one glance at the patient, huddled flushed and excited against the pillows, then without more ado she marched up to Hugh and, taking him by the shoulders with her small, capable hands, she pushed him out of the room.
"Do you want to kill your wife?" she demanded in a low voice of concentrated anger. "If so, you're going the right way about it."
The next moment the door closed behind her, and Hugh found himself standing alone on the landing outside it.
Although the scene with her husband did not kill Diane, it went very near it. For some time she was dangerously ill, but at last the combined efforts of doctor and nurse restored her once more to a frail hold upon life, and the resiliency of youth accomplished the rest.
Curiously enough, the remembrance of Hugh's brief visit to her bedside held for her no force of reality. When the fever which had ensued abated, she described the whole scene in detail to Virginie and the nurse as an evil dream which she had had--and pitifully they let her continue in this belief.
Even Hugh himself had been compelled, under protest, to take part in this deception. The doctor, a personal friend of his, had not minced matters.
"You've acted the part of an unmitigated coward, Vallincourt--salving your own fool conscience at your wife's expense. Even if you no longer love her--"
"But I do love her," protested Hugh. "I--I worship her!"
Jim Lancaster stared. In common with most medical men he was more or less used to the odd vagaries of human nature, but Hugh's attitude struck him as altogether incomprehensible.
"Then what in the name of thunder have you been getting at?" he demanded.
"I both love and hate her," declared Hugh wretchedly.
"That's rot," retorted the other. "It's impossible."
"It's not impossible."
Hugh rose and began pacing backwards and forwards. Lancaster's eyes rested on him thoughtfully. The man had altered during the last few weeks--altered incredibly. He was a stone lighter to start with, and his blond, clear-cut face had the worn look born of mental conflict. His eyes were red-rimmed as though from insufficient sleep.
"It's not impossible." Hugh paused in his restless pacing to and fro. "I love her because I can't help myself. I hate her because I ought never to have married her--never made a woman of her type the mother of my child."
"All mothers are sacred," suggested the doctor quietly.
Hugh seemed not to hear him.
"How long is this pretence to go on, Lancaster?" he demanded irritably.
"This pretence that nothing is changed--nothing altered--between my wife and myself?"
"For ever, I hope. So that, after all, there will have been no pretence."
But the appeal of the speech was ineffectual. Hugh looked at the other man unmoved.
"It's no use hoping that you and I can see things from the same standpoint," he added stubbornly. "I've made my decision--laid down the lines of our future life together. I'm only waiting till you, as a medical man, tell me that Diane's health is sufficiently restored for me to inform her."
"No woman is ever in such health that you can break her heart with impunity."
Hugh's light-grey eyes gleamed like steel.
"Will you answer my question?" he said curtly.
Lancaster sprang up.
"Diane is in as good health now as ever she was," he said violently. And strode out of the room.
During the period of her convalescence Diane, attended by Nurse Maynard, had occupied rooms situated in a distant wing of the house, where the invalid was not likely to be disturbed by the coming and going of other members of the household, and it was with almost the excitement of a schoolgirl coming home for the holidays that, when she was at last released from the doctor's supervision, she retook possession of her own room. She superintended joyously the restoration to their accustomed place her various little personal possessions, and finally peeped into her husband's adjoining room, thinking she heard him moving there.
On the threshold she paused irresolutely, conscious of an odd sense of confusion. The room was vacant. But, beyond that, its whole aspect was different somehow, unfamiliar. Her eyes wandered to the dressing- table. Instead of holding its usual array of silver-backed brushes and polished shaving tackle, winking in the sunshine, it was empty. She stared at it blankly. Then her glance travelled slowly round the room. It had a strangely untenanted look. There was no sign of masculine attire left carelessly about--not a chair or table was a hairbreadth out of its appointed place.
Her hand, resting lightly on the door-handle, gripped it with a sudden tensity. The next moment she had crossed the room and torn open the doors of the great armoire where Hugh kept his clothes. This, too, was empty--shelves and hanger alike. Impulsively she rang the bell and, when a maid appeared in response, demanded to know the meaning of the alteration.
The girl glanced at her with the veiled curiosity of her class.
"It was made by Sir Hugh's orders, my lady."
With an effort, Diane hid the sudden tumult of bewilderment and fear that filled her. Her dream! Had it been only a dream? Or had it been an actual happening--that terrible little scene with her husband when, standing rigid and unbending beside her bed, he had told her that the birth of their daughter was a just retribution for a union he regarded as a sin?
Memories of their brief year of marriage came surging over her in a torrent--Catherine's narrow-minded opposition and disapproval, Hugh's own moodiness and irritability and, latterly, his not infrequent censure. There had been times when Diane--rebuked incessantly--had fancied she must be the Scarlet Woman herself, or at least a very near relative. And then had come moments when Hugh, carried away by his ardour, had once more played the lover as he alone knew how, with all the warmth and abandon of those days when he had wooed her in Italy, and Diane would forget her unhappiness and fears in the sure knowledge that she was a passionately beloved woman.
But always she was subconsciously aware of a sense of strife--of struggle, as though Hugh loved her in spite of himself, in defiance of some inner mandate of conscience which accused him.
And now, fear mastered her. Her dream had been a reality. And this-- this sweeping away from what had been his room of every familiar little personal possession--was the symbol of some new and terribly changed relation between them.
Forcing herself to move composedly while the maid still watched her, she walked slowly out of the room, but the instant the door had closed behind her she flew downstairs to her husband's study and, not pausing to comply with the unwritten law which forbade entrance there without express permission, broke in upon him as he sat at his desk, busily occupied with his morning mail.
Hugh turned towards her with a cold light of astonished disapproval in his eyes.
"You know I don't like to be interrupted----"
"I know, I know. But I had to come. Something's happened. There's been a mistake. . . . Hugh, they've taken everything out of your room. All your things."
She stood beside him breathlessly awaiting his reply--her passionate dark eyes fixed on his face, two patches of brilliant colour showing on the high cheek-bones that bore witness to her Russian origin.
They made a curious contrast--husband and wife. She, a slender thing of fire and flame, hands clenched, lips quivering--woman every inch of her; he, immaculate and composed, his face coldly expressionless, yet with a hint of something warmer, a suppressed glow, beneath the deliberately chill glance of those curious light-grey eyes--the man and bigoted fanatic fighting for supremacy within him.
"Hugh! Answer me! Don't sit staring at me like that!" Diane's voice held a sharpened sound.
At last he spoke, very slowly and carefully.
"There has been no mistake, Diane. Everything that has been done has been with my sanction--by my order. Our marriage has been a culpable mistake. Catherine realised it from the beginning. I only realise my full guilt now that I am punished. But whatever I can do in atonement --reparation, that I have made up my mind to do. The first--the chief thing--is that our married life is at an end."
She heard him with a curious absence of surprise. Somehow, from the instant she had seen his dismantled room she had known, known surely, that the long fight between herself and Catherine was over. And that Catherine had won.
"At an end? Hugh, what do you mean? What are you going to do? You're not, you're not going to send me away?"
"No, not that. I've no right to punish you. You've been guilty of no fault--"
"Except the fault of being myself," she flung back bitterly.
"But I ought never to have married you. I did it, knowing you were not fit--suitable"--he corrected himself hastily. "So I alone am to blame. You will retain your position here as my wife--mistress of my home." Diane, remembering Catherine's despotic rule, smiled mirthlessly. "But henceforth you will be my wife in name only. I shall have no wife."
Diane caught that note of dull endurance in his voice, and seized upon it. He still cared!
"Hugh, you've listened to Catherine till you've lost all sense of truth." She spoke gently, pleadingly. "Don't do this thing. We've been guilty of no sin that needs atonement. It isn't wrong to love."
But he was implacable.
"No," he returned. "It isn't wrong to love--but sometimes love should be denied."
Diane drew nearer to him, and laid her hand on his arm.
"Not ours, Hugh," she whispered. "Not love like ours--"
Hugh sprang to his feet, his eyes ablaze, his voice hoarse and shaking.
"Don't tempt me! Do you think I've found it easy to decide on this? When every fibre of my body is calling out for you? My God, no!"
"Then don't do it! Hugh--dearest--"
With sudden violence he caught her by the arms.
"Be silent, I tell you! Don't tempt me! I'll make my penance, accept the burden laid on me--that my first-born should be a girl!"
Diane clung to him, resisting his attempt to thrust her from him.
"Hugh! Ah, wait! Listen to me! . . . Dear, some day there may be a little son, yours and mine--"
He flung her from him violently.
"There shall never be a son of ours! Never! It is the Will of God."
With an immense effort he checked the rising frenzy within him--the ecstasy of the martyr embracing the stake to which he shall be bound. He moved across to the door and held it open for her.
"And now, will you please go? That is my last word on the matter."
Diane turned hesitatingly towards the doorway, then paused.
There was an infinite appeal in her voice. Her eyes were those of a frightened, bewildered child.
"Go, please," he repeated mechanically.
A convulsive sob tore its way through her throat. She stepped blindly forward. The next moment the door closed inexorably between husband and wife.