Part the Third
Chapter 9
 

On Monday morning, when Harvey and his friend had started for town, and Hughie was at school, Alma made ready to go out. In many months she had been to London only two or three times. Thus alone could she subdue herself. She tried to forget all that lay eastward from Gunnersbury, rejecting every kind of town amusement, and finding society in a very small circle of acquaintances who lived almost as quietly as herself. But this morning she yielded to the impulse made irresistible by Dymes's visit. In leaving the house, she seemed to escape from an atmosphere so still and heavy that it threatened her blood with stagnation; she breathed deeply of the free air, and hastened towards the railway as if she had some great pleasure before her.

But this mood had passed long before the end of her journey. Alighting at Queen's Road, she walked hurriedly to Porchester Terrace, and from the opposite side of the way had a view of Mrs. Strangeways' house. It was empty, to let. She crossed, and rang the bell, on the chance that some caretaker might be within; but no one answered. Her heart throbbing painfully, she went on a little distance, then stood irresolute. A cab crawled by; she raised her hand, and gave the direction, 'Oxford and Cambridge Mansions'. Once here, she had no difficulty in carrying out her purpose. Passion came to her aid; and when Sibyl's door opened she could hardly wait for an invitation before stepping in.

The drawing-room was changed; it had been refurnished, and looked even more luxurious than formerly. For nearly ten minutes she had to stand waiting; seat herself she could not. Then entered Sibyl.

'Good morning, Mrs. Rolfe. I am glad to see you.'

The latter sentence was spoken not as a mere phrase of courtesy, but with intention, with quiet yet unmistakable significance. Sibyl did not offer her hand; she moved a chair so that its back was to the light, and sat down very much as she might have done if receiving an applicant for a 'situation'.

'You had some reason for coming so early?'

Alma, who had felt uncertain how this interview would begin, was glad that she had to meet no pretences of friendship. Her heart burned within her; she was pallid, and her eyes shone fiercely.

'I came to ask if you could tell me where Mrs. Strangeways is to be found?'

'Mrs. Strangeways?' Sibyl repeated, with cold surprise. 'I know nothing about her.'

Feeling in every way at a disadvantage -- contrast of costume told in Sibyl's favour, and it was enhanced by the perfection of her self-command -- Alma could not maintain the mockery of politeness.

'Of course, you say that,' she rejoined haughtily; 'and, of course, I don't believe it.'

'That is nothing to me, Mrs. Rolfe,' remarked the other, smiling. 'Doubtless you have your own reasons for declining to believe me; just as you have your own reasons for -- other things. Your next inquiry?'

'Hasn't it been rather unwise of you, keeping away from me all this time?'

'Unwise? I hardly see your meaning.'

'It looked rather as if you felt afraid to meet me.'

'I see; that is your point of view.' Sibyl seemed to reflect upon it calmly. 'To me, on the other hand, it appeared rather strange that I neither saw nor heard from you at a time when other friends were showing their sympathy. I heard that you were ill for a short time, and felt sorry I was unable to call. Later, you still kept silence. I didn't know the reason, and could hardly be expected to ask for it. As for being afraid to meet you -- that, I suppose, is a suspicion natural to your mind. We won't discuss it. Is there any other question you would like to ask?'

Humiliated by her inability to reply with anything but a charge she could not support, and fearing the violence of her emotions if she were longer subjected to this frigid insult, Alma rose.

'One moment, if you please,' continued Mrs. Carnaby. 'I was glad that you had come, as I had half wished for an opportunity of speaking a few words to you. It isn't a matter of much importance, but I may as well say, perhaps, that you are indiscreet in your way of talking about me to your friends. Of course, we haven't many acquaintances in common, but I happen to have heard the opinion of me which you expressed to -- let me see, some ladies named Leach, whom I once knew slightly. It seems hardly worth while to take serious steps in the matter -- though I might find it necessary. I only wish, in your own interest, to say a word of warning. You have behaved, all things considered' -- she dwelt on the phrase -- 'rather indiscreetly.'

'I said what I knew to be the truth,' replied Alma, meeting her look with the satisfaction of defiance.

Sibyl approached one step.

'You knew it?' she asked, very softly and deliberately, searching the passionate face with eyes as piercing as they were beautiful.

'With certainty.'

'I used to think you intelligent,' said Sibyl, 'but I fancy you don't perceive what this "certainty" of yours suggests.' She paused, with a curling lip. 'Let me put you on your guard. You have very little command of your primitive feelings, and they bring you into danger. I should be sorry to think that an unpleasant story I have heard whispered was anything more than ill-natured scandal, but it's as well to warn you that other people have a taste for that kind of gossip.'

'I'm well aware of it,' flashed the listener. 'And that was the very reason why I came to ask you where Mrs. Strangeways is hiding.'

'Mrs. Rolfe, you are aware of too many things. In your position I should be uneasy.'

'I will leave you to enjoy your own uneasiness,' returned Alma, with a contemptuous laugh. 'You must have enough of it, without imagining that of others.'

She half turned. Sibyl again took one step forward, and spoke with ever so little tremor in the even voice.

'You have understood me, I hope?'

'Oh, quite. You have shown plainly how -- afraid you are. Good morning, Mrs. Carnaby.'

Baker Street station being so near, Alma was tempted to go straightway and demand from the Leach sisters an explanation of what she had heard; they, too, seemed to be behaving treacherously. But she was unwilling to miss the luncheon hour at home, for Hughie would speak of it to his father, and so oblige her to make false excuses. Besides, she had suffered more than enough indignity (though not unavenged!), and it was better to summon the sisters to her presence.

On reaching home, she at once sent them an ordinary invitation, but of the briefest. In the evening she received Dymes's acknowledgment of the cheque. Next day she wrote to him, a few formal lines, requesting that he would let her know Mrs. Strangeways' address as soon as he had discovered it.

Dora Leach came to Gunnersbury alone. She was in distress and worry, for her father had fallen ill again, and the doctors doubted whether he would ever be fit to resume work; it had just dawned upon Dora that the breadwinner of the family deserved rather more consideration than he had been wont to receive, and that his death might involve unpleasant consequences for those dependent upon him. To Alma's questioning she replied frankly and with self-reproach. It was true that she had whispered her friend's suspicions of Mrs. Carnaby, but only to one person, and in strictest confidence. Neither she nor Gerda had met Mrs Carnaby, and how the whisper could have reached Sibyl's ears was inconceivable to her.

'It doesn't matter in the least,' said Alma, finally. 'To tell you the truth, I'm not sorry.'

'Why, that's just what I thought!' exclaimed Dora, with sudden clearing of her countenance.

In a fortnight or so there came a note from Dymes, written at Brussels. He had ascertained that Mrs. Strangeways was somewhere on the Continent, but as yet he could not succeed in 'running her down'. Let Mrs. Rolfe depend upon his zeal in this search, as in any other matter in which he could be of use to her. Unfortunately, this envelope came under Harvey's eyes, and Alma, knowing he had seen it, felt obliged to speak.

'Mr. Dymes refuses to believe that I shall never play again in public,' she remarked, putting down his letter, as carelessly as possible, by her plate at breakfast.

'Does he pester you? If so, it might be better for me to ----'

'Oh dear, no! I can manage my own correspondence, Harvey, thank you.'

Her tone of slight petulance was due to fear that he might ask to see the letter, and it had its effect. But Alma's heart sank at the deception, and her skill in practising it. Was it impossible to become what she desired to be, an honest woman! Only yesterday Harvey had spoken to her with vexation of a piece of untruthfulness in Hughie, and had begged her to keep a watch upon the child's habit in this respect. And she had promised, with much earnestness, much concern.

There are women who can breathe only in the air of lies and of treachery. Alma rebelled against the fate which made her life dishonourable. Fate -- she declared -- not the depravity of her own heart. From the dark day that saw her father's ruin, she had been condemned to a struggle with circumstances. She meant honestly; she asked no more than the free exercise of instincts nature had given her; but destiny was adverse, and step by step had brought her into a position so false, so hopeless, that she wondered at her strength in living on.

Hughie had begun to learn the maps of countries, and prided himself on naming them as he turned over an atlas. One day, about this time, she looked over his shoulder and saw the map of Italy.

'Those are lakes,' said the child, pointing north. 'Tell me their names, Mother.'

But she was silent. Her eye had fallen upon Garda, and at the head of the lake was a name which thrilled her memory. What if she had gone to Riva? Suddenly, and for the first time, she saw it as a thing that might have happened; not as a mere dark suggestion abhorrent to her thought. Had she known the world a little better, it might have been. Then, how different her life! Pleasure, luxury, triumph; for she had proved herself capable of triumphing. He, the man of money and influence, would have made it his pride to smooth the way for her. And perhaps never a word against her reputation; or, if whispers, did she not know by this time how indulgent society can be to its brilliant favourites?

As it was: a small house at Gunnersbury, a baffled ambition, a life of envy, hatred, fear, suffered in secret, hidden by base or paltry subterfuge. A husband whom she respected, whose love she had never ceased to desire, though, strange to say, she knew not whether she loved him. Only death could part them; but how much better for him and for her if they had never met! Their thoughts and purposes so unlike; he, with his heart and mind set on grave, quiet, restful things, hating the world's tumult, ever hoping to retire beyond its echo; she, her senses crying for the delight of an existence that loses itself in whirl and glare.

In a crowded drawing-room she had heard someone draw attention to her -- 'the daughter of Bennet Frothingham'. That was how people thought of her, and would it not have been wiser if she had so thought of herself? Daughter of a man who had set all on a great hazard; who had played for the world's reward, and, losing, flung away his life. What had she to do with domestic virtues, and the pleasures of a dull, decorous circle? Could it but come over again, she would accept the challenge of circumstance, which she had failed to understand; accept the scandal and the hereditary shame; welcome the lot cast for her, and, like her father, play boldly for the great stakes. His widow might continue to hold her pious faith in him, and refuse to believe that his name merited obloquy; his child knew better. She had mistaken her path, lost the promise of her beauty and her talent, led astray by the feeble prejudice of those who have neither one nor the other. Too late, and worse than idle now, to recognise it. She would be a good woman, rule her little house, bring up her child, and have no will but her husband's.

House-ruling was no easy matter. Things did not go as she wished; the servants were inefficient, sometimes refractory, and she loathed the task of keeping them up to their duties. Insomnia began to trouble her again, and presently she had recourse to the forbidden sleeping-draught. Not regularly, but once a week or so, when the long night harried her beyond endurance. Rolfe did not suspect it, for she never complained to him. Winter was her bad time. In the spring her health would improve, as usual, and then she would give up the habit.

At Christmas the Langlands had the customary visit from their relative, Mr. Thistlewood, who renewed his acquaintance with Alma. At their first meeting she was struck by his buoyant air, his animated talk. A week later, he called in the afternoon. Two ladies happened to be with Alma, and they stayed a long time; but Thistlewood, who comported himself rather oddly, saying little and sometimes neglecting a remark addressed to him, stayed yet longer. When he was alone with his hostess, he took a chair near to her, bent forward, and said, smiling ----

'You remember our talk about marriage on a minute income?'

'I do, very well.'

'I have found someone who isn't afraid of it.'

'You have? The same person who formerly was?'

'No; she was not afraid of the income, but of me. I couldn't be surprised, though it hit me hard. Time has spoken for me.'

Harvey was dining in town. He came back with vexatious news about Cecil Morphew, who neglected business, looked ill, and altogether seemed in a bad way. As he talked, he began to notice that Alma regarded him with brighter and happier eyes than for many a day.

'Why does it amuse you?' he asked, stopping in his narrative.

'It doesn't; I'm as sorry as you are. But I have a surprise for you.'

'A pleasant one, this time, I see.'

'Mrs. Abbott is going to marry Mr. Thistlewood.'

She watched the effect of her words, and for an instant felt the old pang, the old bitterness. But Harvey's confusion of feeling soon passed, giving way to a satisfaction that could not be mistaken.

'Who has told you?'

'The happy man himself.'

'I am glad -- heartily glad! But I didn't think it would interest you so much.'

'Oh, women -- marriages ----!'

She threw a pretty scorn upon herself.

'Yes, that's good news. They will suit each other. But she'll give up her school, and that's a nuisance.'

'There are others as good.'

'But not here. Another removal, I suppose. -- When is it to be?'

'Not till the Easter holidays.'

They were in the library. Harvey began to fill his pipe, and nothing more was said until he had drawn a few meditative puffs.

'Another removal,' then escaped him, with half a groan.

'Why should you care?' asked Alma thoughtfully. 'You don't like this place.'

'As well as any other. It's convenient for town.'

'Do you really think of going on in that business, which you detest?'

'It has brought in a little money, and may -- ought to -- bring more. But if Morphew goes down ----'

Alma glanced at him, and said timidly ----

'You are going to Greystone at Easter.'

'We shall all go. What of that?'

'Haven't you' -- she spoke with an effort -- 'sometimes thought you would like to live there?'

'Great heavens -- Alma!'

He stared at her in humorous astonishment, then slowly shook his head. How could she live in such a place as Greystone? And what on earth did she mean by disturbing him with such a suggestion? But Alma, gravely and repeatedly, assured him that she could live there very well; that in all likelihood she would be much more contented there than here.

'I should bring out my violin again, and the Greystone people would admire me. There's a confession -- to prove that I am in earnest. I can't conquer the world; I don't wish it; that's all over. But I should find it pleasant to have a reputation in Greystone -- I should indeed.'

Harvey sighed, and could not look at her.

'And Hughie,' she continued, 'would go to the Grammar-School. You know how you would like that. And living there is cheap; we might keep our horse again. -- Don't say anything now, but think about it.'

He raised his eyes, and fixed them upon her with a look of infinite tenderness and gratitude. It was Alma now who sighed, but not audibly.

Before Thistlewood went north again, Harvey enjoyed long talks with him. Mary Abbott he saw only in the presence of other people. But on an evening in February, when Alma was at the Langlands' and he had promised to call for her at ten o'clock, he left home an hour earlier and walked past Mrs. Abbott's house. A light in the window of her sitting-room showed that Mary was at home. After a turn or two backwards and forwards, he went up to the door and knocked. A very young servant took his name to her mistress, and then admitted him.

'Will you let me answer your letter personally?' he said, as Mrs. Abbott welcomed him in the room where she sat alone.

She had written about Minnie Wager, begging that he would in future cease to contribute to the girl's support, and be responsible only for the boy. In her new home there would be no need of a servant; she and Minnie would do the housework together. Impossible, she wrote, to speak of his kindness both to her and the children. For Minnie, who might henceforth be looked upon as self-supporting, he must no longer be taxed. The child owed him every hope in her life; let him be satisfied with what he had done so generously.

Of these things they talked for a few minutes. It was easy to see how great a change had befallen Mary Abbott's outlook upon life. She was younger by several years, yet not like herself of that earlier time; much gentler, much sweeter in face and word. Harvey observed her with keen pleasure, and, becoming aware of his gaze, his smile, she blushed like a girl.

'Mr. Rolfe -- I am sure you feel that I am deserting my post.'

'To be sure you are. I shall always owe you a grudge for it.'

'I thought of it all -- of Hughie and the others. I didn't know how I should ever face you.'

''Twas a shameless thing. And yet I can find it in my heart to forgive you. You are so ingenuous about it.'

Mary looked up again.

'What shall you do -- about Hughie?'

'Oh, there's a great scheme on foot. Alma suggests that we shall go and live at Greystone. It tempts me.'

'That it must, indeed! I know how you would like it.'

'We shouldn't be so very far apart then -- an hour's journey or so. You would come to us, and we to you.'

'Delightful!'

They had not much more to say, but each was conscious of thought in the other's mind that supplemented their insufficient phrases. As they shook hands, Mary seemed trying to speak. The lamplight made a glimmer in her eyes, and their lids drooped as she said at length ----

'I am so glad that you like each other.'

'He's a splendid fellow,' replied Rolfe joyously. 'I think no end of him.'

'And he of you -- for I have told him everything.'

Then Harvey quitted the house, and walked about under the starry sky until it was time to call for Alma.