Part the Second
Chapter 11
 

For several days she had not touched the violin. There was no time for it. Correspondence, engagements, intrigues, whirled her through the waking hours and agitated her repose. The newspaper paragraphs resulted in a shower of letters, inquiring, congratulating, offering good wishes, and all had to be courteously answered, lest the writers should take offence. Invitations to luncheon, to dinner, to midnight 'at homes', came thick and fast. If all this resulted from a few preliminary 'puffs' what, Alma asked herself, would be the consequence of an actual success? How did the really popular musicians contrive to get an hour a day for the serious study of their art? Her severe headache had left behind it some nervous disorder, not to be shaken off by any effort -- a new distress, peculiarly irritating to one who had always enjoyed good health. When she wrote, her hand was unsteady, and sometimes her eyes dazzled. This would be alarming if it went on much longer; the day approached, the great day, the day of fate, and what hope was there for a violinist who could not steady her hand?

The 'interviewer' called, and chatted for half an hour, and took his leave with a flourish of compliments. The musicians engaged to play with her at Prince's Hall's came down to try over pieces, a trio, a duet; so that at last she was obliged to take up her instrument -- with results that did not reassure her. She explained that she was not feeling quite herself; it was nothing; it would pass in a day or two. Sibyl Carnaby had asked her and Harvey to dine next week, to meet several people; Mrs Rayner Mann had arranged a dinner for another evening; and now Mrs Strangeways, whom she had not seen for some weeks, sent an urgent request that she would call in Porchester Terrace as soon as possible, to speak of something 'very important'.

This summons Alma durst not disregard. Between Mrs. Strangeways and Cyrus Redgrave subsisted an intimacy which caused her frequent uneasiness. It would not have surprised her to discover that this officious friend knew of all her recent meetings with Redgrave -- at the Crystal Palace and elsewhere; and, but for her innocence, she would have felt herself at the woman's mercy. That she had not transgressed, and was in no danger of transgressing, enabled her to move with head erect among the things unspeakable which always seemed to her to be lurking in the shadowed corners of Mrs. Strangeways' house. The day was coming when she might hope to terminate so undesirable an acquaintance, but for the present she must show a friendly face.

She made this call at three o'clock, and was received in that over-scented, over-heated boudoir, which by its atmosphere invariably turned her thoughts to evil. The hostess rose languidly, with a pallid, hollow-eyed look of illness.

'Only my neuralgic something or other,' she said, in reply to a sympathetic inquiry. 'It's the price one pays for civilisation. I've had two terrible days and nights, but it's over for the present. But for that I should have written to you before. Why, you don't look quite so well as usual. Be careful -- do be careful!'

'I mean to be, if people will let me.'

'You have eight days, haven't you? Yes, just eight days. You ought to keep as quiet as possible. We are all doing our best; but, after all, success depends greatly upon yourself, you know.'

The voice, as always, seemed to fondle her, but Alma's ear detected the usual insincerity. Mrs. Strangeways spoke in much the same way to numbers of people, yet not quite so caressingly. Some interest she undoubtedly had to serve by this consistent display of affection, and with all but certainty Alma divined it. She shrank from the woman; it cost her an unceasing effort not to betray dislike, or even hostility.

'Of course, you saw last week's West End?' pursued the hostess, smiling. 'You know whose doing that was?'

'I only guessed that it might be Mr. Redgrave's kindness.'

'I have the same suspicion. He was here the other day -- we talked about you. You haven't seen him since then?'

'No.'

'He hinted to me -- just a little anxiety. I hardly know whether I ought to speak of it.'

Alma looked an interrogation as unconcerned as she could make it, but did not open her lips.

'It was with reference to -- your man of business. It seems he has heard something -- I really don't know what -- not quite favourable to Mr Dymes. I shall not offend you, dear?'

'I don't take offence, Mrs. Strangeways,' Alma answered, with a slight laugh to cover her uneasiness. 'It's so old-fashioned.'

The hostess uttered a thin trill of merriment.

'One is always safe with people who have humour, dear. It does make life easier, doesn't it? Oh, the terrible persons who take everything with tragic airs! Well, there's not a bit of harm in it. Between ourselves, it struck me that our friend was just a little inclined to be -- yes, you understand.'

'I'm afraid I don't.'

'I hate the word -- well, just a trifle jealous.'

Alma leaned back in her chair, glanced about her, and said nothing.

'Of course, he would never allow you to suspect anything of the kind. It will make no difference. You can count upon his utmost efforts. But when one thinks how very much he has it in his power to do ----. That bit of writing in the West End, you know -- only the highest influence can command that kind of thing. The West End can't be bought, I assure you. And one has to think of the future. A good beginning is much, but how many musicians are able to follow it up? My dear Alma, let me implore you not to imagine that you will be able to dispense with this kind of help.'

'Do you mean that Mr. Redgrave is likely to withdraw it?'

'Impossible for me to say, dear. I am only telling you how his conversation struck me. He appeared to think -- to be apprehensive that you might in future look to Mr. Dymes rather than to him. Of course, I could say nothing -- I would not venture a syllable.'

'Of course not,' Alma murmured mechanically, her eyes wandering.

'Are you likely, I wonder, to see him in the next few days?'

'I hardly know -- I think not.'

'Then let me -- will you? -- let me contrive a chance meeting here.'

Loathing herself, and burning with hatred of the woman, in whose hands she felt powerless, Alma gave an assenting nod.

'I am sure it will be a measure of prudence, dear. I thought possibly you might be seeing him at Mrs. Carnaby's. He is there sometimes, I believe?'

Alma looked at the speaker, detecting some special significance in her inquiry. She replied that Redgrave of course called upon Mrs. Carnaby -- but not often, she thought.

'No?' threw out Mrs. Strangeways. 'I fancied he was there a good deal; I don't quite know why.'

'Have you met him there?'

'No. It's quite a long time since I called -- one has so many people to see.'

Alma knew that Sibyl was now holding aloof from Mrs. Strangeways, and it seemed not improbable that this had excited some ill-feeling in the latter. But her own uneasiness regarding Sibyl's relations with Redgrave, uneasiness never quite subdued; made her quick to note, and eager to explore, any seeming suspicion on that subject in another's mind. Mrs. Strangeways was a lover of scandal, a dangerous woman, unworthy of confidence in any matter whatsoever. Common prudence, to say nothing of loyalty to a friend, bade Alma keep silence; but the subtly-interrogating smile was fixed upon her; hints continued to fall upon her ear, and an evil fascination at length compelled her to speak.

'You know,' she said, as if mentioning an unimportant piece of news, 'that Mr. Redgrave has joined Mr. Carnaby in business?'

The listener's face exhibited a surprise of which there was no mistaking the sincerity. Her very features seemed to undergo a change as the smile vanished from them; they became on the instant hard and old, lined with sudden wrinkles, the muscles tense, every line expressive of fierce vigilance.

'In business? -- what business?'

'Oh, I thought you would have heard of it. Perhaps Mr. Redgrave doesn't care to have it known.'

'My dear, I am discretion itself.'

Everything was told, down to the last detail of which Alma had any knowledge. As she listened and questioned, Mrs. Strangeways resumed her smiling manner, but could not regain the perfect self-command with which she had hitherto gossiped. That she attached great importance to this news was evident, and the fact of its being news to her brought fresh trouble into Alma's thoughts.

'How very interesting!' exclaimed Mrs. Strangeways at length. 'Another instance of Mr. Redgrave's kindness to his friends. Of course, it was done purely out of kindness, and that is why he doesn't speak of it. Quite amusing, isn't it, to think of him as partner in a business of that kind. I wonder whether ----'

She broke off with a musing air.

'What were you wondering?' asked Alma, whose agitation increased every moment, though the seeming tendency of her companion's words was to allay every doubt.

'Oh, only whether it was Mr Carnaby who first made known his difficulties.'

'I am told so.'

'By Mrs. Carnaby? Yes, no doubt it was so. I don't think Mrs. Carnaby could quite have -- I mean she is a little reserved, don't you think? She would hardly have spoken about it to -- to a comparative stranger.'

'But Mr. Redgrave can't be called a stranger,' said Alma. 'They have been friends for a long time. Surely you know that.'

'Friends in that sense? The word has such different meanings. You and Mr. Redgrave are friends, but I don't think you would care to tell him if your husband were in difficulties of that kind -- would you?'

'But Sibyl -- Mrs. Carnaby didn't tell him,' replied Alma, with nervous vehemence.

'No, no; we take that for granted. I don't think Mr. Carnaby is -- the kind of man ----'

'What kind of man?'

'I hardly know him; we have met, that's all. But I should fancy he wouldn't care to know that his wife talked about such things to Mr Redgrave or any one else. There are men' -- her voice sank, and the persistent smile became little better than an ugly grin -- 'there are men who don't mind it. One hears stories I shouldn't like to repeat to you, or even to hint at. But those are very different people from the Carnabys. Then, I suppose,' she added, with abrupt turn, 'Mr. Carnaby is very often away from home?'

Trying to reply, Alma found her voice obstructed.

'I think so.'

'How very kind of Mr. Redgrave, wasn't it! Has he spoken about it to you?'

'Of course not.'

'Naturally, he wouldn't. -- Oh, don't go yet, dear. Why, we have had no tea; it isn't four o'clock. Must you really go? Of course, you are overwhelmed with engagements. But do -- do take care of your health. And remember our little scheme. If Mr. Redgrave could look in -- say, the day after tomorrow? You shall hear from me in time. I feel -- I really feel -- that it wouldn't be wise to let him think -- you understand me.'

With scarce a word of leave-taking, Alma hastened away. The air of this room was stifling her, and the low cooing voice had grown more intolerable than a clanging uproar. From Porchester Terrace she walked into Bayswater Road, her eyes on the pavement. It was a sunny afternoon, but there had been showers, and now again large spots of rain began to fall. As she was opening her umbrella, a cabman's voice appealed to her, and fixed her purpose. She bade him drive her to Oxford and Cambridge Mansions.

Sibyl was not at home. The maid-servant could not say when she might return; she had been absent since yesterday morning. Unable to restrain herself, Alma inquired whether Mr. Carnaby was in town. He was not; he had been away for several days.

On the morrow a letter from Sibyl came to Pinner. She was grieved to hear that Alma had called during her absence. Was it anything of importance, or would it keep till she and Harvey came to dine on Saturday? 'I have been down to Weymouth -- not to enjoy myself, but to see my mother. She says she is very ill, and thinks it monstrous that I don't feel inclined to devote myself to the care of her. Her illness, I am sure, is nothing but discontent and bad temper, just because she feels herself dropping out of society. She must get used to it. In any case, we could never endure each other; and how can I be expected to make any sacrifice for a mother who never gave me an hour of motherly care from the day of my birth? But you know all about this, and don't want to hear of it again just when you are so busy. If there is anything in the world I can do for you, let me know at once.'

But for her conversation with Mrs. Strangeways, it would not have occurred to Alma to doubt the truth of what Sibyl wrote; as it was, she tortured herself with dark surmises. Jealousy without love, a passion scarcely intelligible to the ordinary man, is in woman common enough, and more often productive of disaster than the jealousy which originates in nobler feeling. To suspect that she was the plaything of Sibyl's subtlety, and that Redgrave smiled at her simplicity in never having discovered an obvious rival, fired her blood to the fever point. She could no longer balance probabilities; all the considerations which hitherto declared for Sibyl's innocence lost their weight. Her overexcited mind, her impaired health, were readily receptive of such poison as distilled from the lips of Mrs. Strangeways. What she now desired was proof. Only let evidence be afforded her, cost what it might! After that, she saw her way.

No! Hugh Carnaby was assuredly not one of the men who wink at their wives' dishonour, nor one of the men who go slinking for a remedy to courts of law -- or she mistook him strangely

At receipt of the expected note from Porchester Terrace -- it said merely, 'Pray be here, if possible, at three tomorrow afternoon' -- she quivered with anticipation of seeing Redgrave. How it was to come about, she did not ask, but Redgrave should not part from her before she had obtained light upon his relations with Sibyl. She believed herself irresistible if she chose to put forth all her power. With two men, dangerous both of them, she had played the game of her own interests, played it safely, and for a long time; she made them her instruments, mocking at their hopes, holding them at arm's-length, in spite of all their craft and their vehemence. Only a very clever woman could do this. In giddiness of self-admiration, she felt everything to be possible. Boldness was necessary -- far more boldness than she had yet dared to use. The rivalry of such a woman as Sibyl could not be despised; it threatened her ambitions. But in the struggle now to be decided she had a supreme advantage; for Sibyl, having gained her object, assuredly had paid its price. Hence her pretended absorption in study, hence the revival of her friendliness; what were these things but blinds to mislead the only woman whose observation she had much reason to fear?

How astonishing it now seemed to her that she could have accepted such shallow explanations of Redgrave's partnership with Hugh Carnaby! Why, Harvey himself, least suspicious of men, was perplexed, and avowed his inability to understand it. As for Mrs. Strangeways -- a woman of the world, if there was one -- the fact had but to be mentioned to her, and on the moment she saw its meaning. No wonder the matter had been kept so quiet. But for the honesty of the duped husband no one at all would have heard of it.

Arriving at the house a little before her time, she found her hostess a prey to vexation.

'My dear, he can't come. It's most annoying. Only an hour ago I had a telegram -- look ----'

The despatch was from Coventry: 'Don't expect me. Detained on business. Redgrave.' It rustled in Alma's hand, and she had much ado to keep herself from tears of angry chagrin.

'He had promised to be here,' went on Mrs. Strangeways. 'I thought nothing would have kept him away.'

'Do you mean,' asked Alma bluntly, 'that he knew I was coming?'

'I had said that I half expected you. Don't be vexed, dear. I did so wish you to meet.'

'If he's at Coventry,' Alma continued, 'it must be on that business.'

'It seems likely. Do sit down. You still look anything but yourself. Pray, pray remember that you have only a day or two ----'

'Don't worry me, please,' said Alma, with a contemptuous gesture.

She had thrown off reserve, caring only, now the first step was taken, to make all possible use of this woman whom she detested. Her voice showed the change that had been wrought in her; she addressed her hostess almost as though speaking to an inferior.

'What do you think it means, his keeping away?'

'Business, possibly. More likely -- the other thing I spoke of.'

In this reply Mrs. Strangeways modified her tone, discarding mellifluous tenderness, yet not going quite so far as Alma in neglect of appearances. She was an older woman, and had learnt the injudiciousness of impulsive behaviour.

'Speak plainly -- it saves time. You think he won't care to meet me at all again?'

'I don't say that. I should be very sorry indeed to think it. But -- to speak as plainly as you wish, dear -- I know that someone must have said unpleasant things to him about your -- your friendship with Mr. Dymes.'

'Are you hinting at anyone in particular?' Alma asked, salving her self-respect with a poor affectation of haughtiness.

'Ask yourself, my dear, who is at all likely to give him such information.'

'Information?' Alma's eyes flashed. 'That's a strange word to use. Do you imagine there is any information of that kind to be given?'

'I spoke carelessly,' answered the other, smiling. 'Do sit down, dear Mrs. Rolfe. I'm sure you will overtax your strength before Tuesday. I meant nothing whatever, I assure you.'

Reluctantly Alma became seated, and the conversation was prolonged. Without disguise they debated the probability that Redgrave was being estranged from Alma by Sibyl Carnaby; of course, taking for granted Sibyl's guilt, and presuming that she feared rivalry. From time to time Alma threw out scornful assertion of her own security; she was bold to the point of cynicism, and recklessly revealed herself. The other listened attentively, still smiling, but without constraint upon her features; at moments she appeared to feel something of admiration.

'There are several things in your favour,' she remarked deliberately, when Alma had declared a resolve to triumph at all hazards. 'Above all -- but one need not mention it.'

'What? I don't understand.'

'Oh, I'm sure you do! You alluded to it the other day. Some women have such tiresome husbands.'

The look which accompanied this struck Alma cold. She sat motionless, staring at the speaker.

'What do you mean? You think that my husband ----?'

'I meant only to encourage you, my dear.'

'You think that my husband has less sense of honour than Mr. Carnaby?'

Mrs. Strangeways looked wonderingly at her.

'How strange you are! Could I have dreamt of saying anything so ill-mannered?'

'You implied it!' exclaimed Alma, her voice thrilling on the note of indignation. 'How dare you so insult me! Is it possible that you have such thoughts?'

Overcome by what seemed to her the humour of the situation, Mrs Strangeways frankly laughed.

'I beg your pardon a thousand times, my dear Mrs. Rolfe! I have misunderstood, I am afraid. You are quite serious? Yes, yes, there has been a misunderstanding. Pray forgive me.'

Alma rose from her chair. 'There has been a misunderstanding. If you knew my husband -- if you had once met him -- such a thought could never have entered your mind. You compare him to his disadvantage with Mr Carnaby? What right have you to do that? I believe in Mr. Carnaby's honesty, and do you know why? -- because he is my husband's friend. But for that, I should suspect him.'

'My dear,' replied Mrs. Strangeways, 'you are wonderful. I prophesy great things for you. I never in my life met so interesting a woman.'

'You may be as sarcastic as you please,' Alma retorted, in a low, passionate voice. 'I suppose you believe in no one?'

'I have said, dear, that I believe in you; and I shall think it the greatest misfortune if I lose your friendship for a mere indiscretion. Indeed, I was only trying to understand you completely.'

'You do -- now.'

They did not part in hostility. Mrs. Strangeways had the best of reasons for averting this issue, at any cost to her own feelings, which for the moment had all but escaped control. Though the complications of Alma's character puzzled her exceedingly, she knew how to smooth over the trouble which had so unexpectedly arisen. Flattery was the secret of her influence with Mrs. Rolfe, and it still availed her. With ostentation of frankness, she pointed a contrast between Alma and her presumed rival. Mrs. Carnaby was the corrupt, unscrupulous woman, who shrank from nothing to gratify a base selfishness. Alma was the artist, pursuing a legitimate ambition, using, as she had a perfect right to do, all her natural resources, but pure in soul.

'Yes, I understand you at last, and I admire you more than ever. You will go far, my dear. You have great gifts, and, more than that, you have principle. It is character that tells in the long run. And depend upon me. I shall soon have news for you. Keep quiet; prepare yourself for next Tuesday. As for all that -- leave it to me.'

Scarcely had Alma left the house, when she suddenly stood still, as though she had forgotten something. Indeed she had. In the flush of loyal resentment which repelled an imputation upon her husband's honour, she had entirely lost sight of her secret grievance against Harvey. Suddenly revived, the memory helped her to beat down that assaulting shame which took advantage of reaction in mind and blood. Harvey was not honest with her. Go as far as she might, short of the unpardonable, there still remained to her a moral superiority over the man she defended. And yet -- she was glad to have defended him; it gave her a sense of magnanimity. More than that, the glow of an honest thought was strangely pleasant.

She had sundry people to see and pieces of business to transact. What a nuisance that she lived so far from the centre of things! It was this perpetual travelling that had disordered her health, and made everything twice as troublesome as it need be. Today, again, she had a headache, and the scene with Mrs. Strangeways had made it worse.

In Regent Street she met Dymes. She was not afraid of him now, for she had learnt how to make him keep his distance; and after the great day, if he continued to trouble her, he might be speedily sent to the right-about. He made an inspiriting report: already a considerable number of tickets had been sold -- enough, he said, or all but enough, to clear expenses.

'What, advertising and all?' asked Alma.

'Oh, leave that to me. Advertising is a work of art. If you like just to come round to my rooms, I'll ----'

'Haven't time today. See you at the Hall on Monday.'

A batch of weekly newspapers which arrived next morning, Saturday, proved to her that Dymes was sufficiently active. There were more paragraphs; there were two reproductions of her portrait; and as for advertisements, she tried, with some anxiety, to conjecture the cost of these liberal slices of page, with their eye-attracting type. Naturally the same question would occur to her husband, but Harvey kept his word; whatever he thought, he said nothing. And Alma found it easier to be good-humoured with him than at any time since she had read Mary Abbott's letter; perhaps yesterday's event accounted for it.

They dined at the Carnabys', the first time for months that they had dined from home together. Harvey would have shirked the occasion, had it been possible. With great relief, he found that the guests were all absolute strangers to him, and that they represented society in its better sense, with no suggestion of the 'half-world' -- no Mrs Strangeways or Mrs. Rayner Mann. Alma, equally conscious of the fact, viewed it as a calculated insult. Sibyl had brought her here to humiliate her. She entered the doors with jealous hatred boiling in her heart, and fixed her eyes on Sibyl with such fire of malicious scrutiny that the answer was a gaze of marked astonishment. But they had no opportunity for private talk. Sibyl, as hostess, bore herself with that perfect manner which no effort and no favour of circumstance would ever enable Mrs. Rolfe to imitate. Envying every speech and every movement, knowing that her own absent behaviour and forced talk must produce an unpleasant impression upon the well-bred strangers, she longed to expose the things unspeakable that lay beneath this surface of social brilliancy. What was more, she would do it when time was ripe. Only this consciousness of power to crush her enemy enabled her to bear up through the evening.

At the dinner-table she chanced to encounter Sibyl's look. She smiled. There was disquiet in that glance -- furtive inquiry and apprehension.

No music. Alma would have doubted whether any of these people were aware of her claim to distinction, had not a lady who talked with her after dinner hinted, rather than announced, an intention of being present at Prince's Hall next Tuesday. None of the fuss and adulation to which she was grown accustomed; no underbred compliments; no ambiguous glances from men. It angered her to observe that Harvey did not seem at all wearied; that he conversed more naturally than usual in a mixed company, especially with the hostess. One whisper -- and how would Harvey look upon his friend's wife? But the moment had not come.

She left as early as possible, parting from Sibyl as she had met her, with eyes that scarce dissembled their malignity.

When Hugh and his wife were left together, Sibyl abstained from remark on Alma; it was Carnaby who introduced the subject. 'Don't you think Mrs Rolfe looked seedy?'

'Work and excitement,' was the quiet answer. 'I think it more than likely she will break down.'

'It's a confounded pity. Why, she has grown old all at once. She's losing her good looks. Did you notice that her eyes were a little bloodshot?'

'Yes, I noticed it. I didn't like her look at all.'

Hugh, as his custom was, paced the floor. Nowadays he could not keep still, and he had contracted an odd habit of swinging his right arm, with fist clenched, as though relieving his muscles after some unusual constraint.

'By Jove, Sibyl, when I compare her with you! -- I feel sorry for Rolfe; can't help it. Why didn't you stop this silly business before it went so far?'

'That's a characteristic question, dear boy,' Sibyl replied merrily. 'There are more things in life -- particularly woman's life -- than your philosophy ever dreamt of. Alma has quite outgrown me, and I begin to suspect that she won't honour me with her acquaintance much longer.'

'Why?'

'For one thing, we belong to different worlds, don't you see; and the difference, in future, will be rather considerable.'

'Well, I'm sorry. Rolfe isn't half the man he was. Why on earth didn't he stop it? He hates it, anyone can see. Why, if I were in his place ----'

Sibyl interrupted with her mellow laughter.

'You wouldn't be a bit wiser. It's the fate of men -- except those who have the courage to beat their wives. You know you came back to England at my heels when you didn't want to. Now, a little energy, a little practice with the horsewhip ----'

Carnaby made pretence of laughing. But he turned away his face; the jest had too serious an application. Yes, yes, if he had disregarded Sibyl's wishes, and stayed on the other side of the world! It seemed to him strange that she could speak of the subject so lightly; he must have been more successful than he thought in concealing his true state of mind.

'Rolfe tells me he has got a house at Gunnersbury.'

'Yes; he mentioned it to me. Why Gunnersbury? There must be some reason they don't tell us.'

'Ask his wife,' said Hugh, impatiently. 'No doubt the choice is hers.'

'No doubt. But I don't think,' added Sibyl musingly, 'I shall ask Alma that or anything else. I don't think I care much for Alma in her new development. For a time I shall try leaving her alone.'

'Well, I'm sorry for poor old Rolfe,' repeated Hugh.