Volume 3
Chapter IX. The Faith of Comrades
 

When Francis Armour left his wife's room he did not go to his own, but quietly descended the stairs, went to the library, and sat down. The loneliest thing in the world is to be tete-a-tete with one's conscience. A man may have a bad hour with an enemy, a sad hour with a friend, a peaceful hour with himself, but when the little dwarf, conscience, perches upon every hillock of remembrance and makes slow signs--those strange symbols of the language of the soul--to him, no slave upon the tread-mill suffers more.

The butler came in to see if anything was required, but Armour only greeted him silently and waved him away. His brain was painfully alert, his memory singularly awake. It seemed that the incident of this hour had so opened up every channel of his intelligence that all his life ran past him in fantastic panorama, as by that illumination which comes to the drowning man. He seemed under some strange spell. Once or twice he rose, rubbed his eyes, and looked round the room--the room where as a boy he had spent idle hours, where as a student he had been in the hands of his tutor, and as a young man had found recreations such as belong to ambitious and ardent youth. Every corner was familiar. Nothing was changed. The books upon the shelves were as they were placed twenty years ago. And yet he did not seem a part of it. It did not seem natural to him. He was in an atmosphere of strangeness--that atmosphere which surrounds a man, as by a cloud, when some crisis comes upon him and his life seems to stand still, whirling upon its narrow base, while the world appears at an interminable distance, even as to a deaf man who sees yet cannot hear.

There came home to him at that moment with a force indescribable the shamelessness of the act he committed four years ago. He had thought to come back to miserable humiliation. For four years he had refused to do his duty as a man towards an innocent woman,--a woman, though in part a savage,--now transformed into a gentle, noble creature of delight and goodness. How had he deserved it? He had sown the storm, it was but just that he should reap the whirlwind; he had scattered thistles, could he expect to gather grapes? He knew that the sympathy of all his father's house was not with him, but with the woman he had wronged. He was glad it was so. Looking back now, it seemed so poor and paltry a thing that he, a man, should stoop to revenge himself upon those who had given him birth, as a kind of insult to the woman who had lightly set him aside, and should use for that purpose a helpless, confiding girl. To revenge one's self for wrong to one's self is but a common passion, which has little dignity; to avenge some one whom one has loved, man or woman, --and, before all, woman,--has some touch of nobility, is redeemed by loyalty. For his act there was not one word of defence to be made, and he was not prepared to make it.

The cigars and liquors were beside him, but he did not touch them. He seemed very far away from the ordinary details of his life: he knew he had before him hard travel, and he was not confident of the end. He could not tell how long he sat there. --After, a time the ticking of the clock seemed painfully loud to him. Now and again he heard a cab rattling through the Square, and the foolish song of some drunken loiterer in the night caused him to start painfully. Everything jarred on him. Once he got up, went to the window, and looked out. The moon was shining full on the Square. He wondered if it would be well for him to go out and find some quiet to his nerves in walking. He did so. Out in the Square he looked up to his wife's window. It was lighted. Long time he walked up and down, his eyes on the window. It held him like a charm. Once he leaned against the iron railings of the garden and looked up, not moving for a time. Presently he saw the curtain of the window raised, and against the dim light of the room was outlined the figure of his wife. He knew it. She stood for a moment looking out into the night. She could not see him, nor could he see her features at all plainly, but he knew that she, like him, was alone with the catastrophe which his wickedness had sent upon her. Soon the curtain was drawn down again, and then he went once more to the house and took his old seat beside the table. He fell to brooding, and at last, exhausted, dropped to a troubled sleep. He woke with a start. Some one was in the room. He heard a step behind him. He came to his feet quickly, a wild light in his eyes. He faced his brother Richard.

Late in the afternoon Marion had telegraphed to Richard that Frank was coming. He had been away visiting some poor and sick people, and when he came back to Greyhope it was too late to catch the train. But the horses were harnessed straightway, and he was driven into town, a three-hours' drive. He had left the horses at the stables, and, having a latch-key, had come in quietly. He had seen the light in the study, and guessed who was there. He entered, and saw his brother asleep. He watched him for a moment and studied him. Then he moved away to take off his hat, and, as he did so, stumbled slightly. Then it was Frank waked, and for the first time in five years they looked each other in the eyes. They both stood immovable for a moment, and then Richard caught Frank's hand in both of his and said: "God bless you, my boy! I am glad you are back."

"Dick! Dick!" was the reply, and Frank's other hand clutched Richard's shoulder in his strong emotion. They stood silent for a moment longer, and then Richard recovered himself. He waved his hand to the chairs. The strain of the situation was a little painful for them both. Men are shy with each other where their emotions are in play.

"Why, my boy," he said, waving a hand to the spirits and liqueurs, "full bottles and unopened boxes? Tut, tut! here's a pretty how-d'ye-do. Is this the way you toast the home quarters? You're a fine soldier for an old mess!"

So saying, he poured out some whiskey, then opened the box of cigars and pushed them towards his brother. He did not care particularly to drink or smoke himself, but a man--an Englishman--is a strange creature. He is most natural and at ease when he is engaged in eating and drinking. He relieves every trying situation by some frivolous and selfish occupation, as of dismembering a partridge, or mixing a punch.

"Well, Frank," said his brother, "now what have you to say for yourself? Why didn't you come long ago? You have played the adventurer for five years, and what have you to show for it? Have you a fortune?" Frank shook his head, and twisted a shoulder. "What have you done that is worth the doing, then?"

"Nothing that I intended to do, Dick," was the grave reply.

"Yes, I imagined that. You have seen them, have you?" he added, in a softer voice.

Frank blew a great cloud of smoke about his face, and through it he said: "Yes, I have seen a damned sight more than I deserved to see."

"Oh, of course; I know that, my boy; but, so far as I can see, in another direction you are getting quite what you deserve: your wife and child are upstairs--you are here."

He paused, was silent for a moment, then leaned over, caught his brother's arm, and said, in a low, strenuous voice: "Frank Armour, you laid a hateful little plot for us. It wasn't manly, but we forgave it and did the best we could. But see here, Frank, take my word for it, you have had a lot of luck. There isn't one woman out of ten thousand that would have stood the test as your wife has stood it; injured at the start, constant neglect, temptation--" he paused. "My boy, did you ever think of that, of the temptation to a woman neglected by her husband? The temptation to men? Yes, you have had a lot of luck. There has been a special providence for you, my boy; but not for your sake. God doesn't love neglectful husbands, but I think He is pretty sorry for neglected wives."

Frank was very still. His head drooped, the cigar hung unheeded in his fingers for a moment, and he said at last: "Dick, old boy, I've thought it all over to-night since I came back--everything that you've said. I have not a word of defence to make, but, by heaven! I'm going to win my wife's love if I can, and when I do it I'll make up for all my cursed foolishness--see if I don't."

"That sounds well, Frank," was the quiet reply. "I like to hear you talk that way. You would be very foolish if you did not. What do you think of the child?"

"Can you ask me what I think? He is a splendid little fellow."

"Take care of him, then--take good care of him: you may never have another," was the grim rejoinder. Frank winced. His brother rose, took his arm, and said: "Let us go to our rooms, Frank. There will be time enough to talk later, and I am not so young as I once was."

Truth to say, Richard Armour was not so young as he seemed a few months before. His shoulders were a little stooped, he was greyer about the temples. The little bit of cynicism which had appeared in that remark about the care of the child showed also in the lines of his mouth; yet his eyes had the same old true, honest look. But a man cannot be hit in mortal places once or twice in his life without its being etched on his face or dropped like a pinch of aloe from his tongue.

Still they sat and talked much longer, Frank showing better than when his brother came, Richard gone grey and tired. At last Richard rose and motioned towards the window. "See, Frank," he said, "it is morning." Then he went and lifted the blind. The grey, unpurged air oozed on the glass. The light was breaking over the tops of the houses. A crossing- sweeper early to his task, or holding the key of the street, went pottering by, and a policeman glanced up at them as he passed. Richard drew down the curtain again.

"Dick," said Frank suddenly, "you look old. I wonder if I have changed as much?"

Six months before, Frank Armour would have said hat his brother looked young.

"Oh, you look young enough, Frank," was the reply. "But I am a good deal older than I was five years ago. . . Come, let us go to bed."