Chapter XXV. A Bird of the Air
 

When Paula had been three or four days wedded, it occurred to her to examine her husband's countenance. They were at breakfast at Biarritz, and certain words that fell from Mr. Dalmaine, as he sat sideways from the table with his newspaper, led her eyes to rest for a few moments on his face. He was smiling, but with depressed brows. Paula noted the smile well, and it occupied her thoughts now and then during the day. She was rather in want of something to think of just then, feeling a little lonely, and wishing her mother, or her brother, or somebody whom she really knew, were at hand to talk to.

It was with that same peculiar smile--the bushy eyebrows closing together, the lips very tight--that her husband approached her late one evening in the first week of May. They were in their house in Kensington now; there had been a dinner party, the last guest was gone, and Paula sat in the drawing-room, thinking how she had impressed a certain polite old member of Parliament, a man whom it was worth while impressing. Mr. Dalmaine took a seat near her, and leaned forward with his hands clasped between his knees.

He asked: 'What were you saying to Puggerton when I passed and looked at you--you remember? Something about working men and intelligent voting.'

'Oh, I was telling that tale of yours about the candidate whose name was Beere, and who got in so easily for--'

'I thought so,' he remarked, before she had finished. 'And you went on to say that I thought it a pity that there were not more men on our side with names of similar sound?'

'Yes, I did. Mr. Puggerton laughed ever so much.'

'H'm. Paula, my dear, I think it won't be amiss if you leave off talking about politics.'

'Why? I'm sure I've been talking very cleverly all the evening. Mr. Liggs said I was an acquisition to--something, I forget what.'

'No doubt. For all that, I think you had better give your attention to other things. In fact--it's not a polite thing to say--but you're making a fool of yourself.'

Paula's features hardened. She looked very beautiful tonight, and had, in truth, been charming. Her appearance suffered when the delicate curves of her face fell into hard lines. It was noteworthy that the smile her husband now wore always caused this change in her expression.

'I'm glad you know that it isn't polite,' she answered, sourly. 'You often need to be told.'

'I hope not. But you try my patience a little now and then. Surely it's better that I should save you from making these ridiculous mistakes. Once or twice this week I've heard most absurd remarks of yours repeated. Please remember that it isn't only yourself you-- stultify. Politics may be a joke for you; for me it is a serious pursuit. I mustn't have people associating my name with all kinds of nonsensical chatter. I have a career before me, Paula.'

He said it with dignity, resting a hand on each knee, and letting his smile fade into a look of ministerial importance.

'Why are you ashamed of having your stories repeated?'

'Well, I told you that when--when I didn't think of the need of measuring my words with you. I've been more cautious lately. If you had any understanding for such things at all, I could explain that a trifle like that might be made to tell heavily against me by some political enemy. Once more--if you are drawn into talk of that kind, you must always speak of working people with the utmost respect--with reverence. No matter how intimate a friend you may be speaking with--even with your mother or your father--'

Paula laughed.

'You think papa would believe me if I told him I reverenced working men, the free and independent electors?'

'There again: That's a phrase you must not use; I say it absolutely; you must forget the phrase. Yes, your father must believe you.'

'Do you think he believes you?'

Mr. Dalmaine drew himself up.

'I don't know what you mean, Paula.'

'And I don't know what you mean. You are ridiculous.'

'Excuse me. That is the word that applies to you. However, I have no wish to wrangle. Let it be understood that you gradually abandon conversation such as this of to-night. For the sake of appearances you must make no sudden and obvious change. If you take my advice, you'll cultivate talk of a light, fashionable kind. Literature you mustn't interfere with; I shouldn't advise you to say much about art, except that of course you may admire the pictures at the Grosvenor Gallery. You'd better read the Society journals carefully. In fact, keep to the sphere which is distinctly womanly.'

'And what about your anxiety to see women take part in politics?'

'There are exceptions to every rule. And the programme of the platform, be good enough to try and understand, doesn't always apply to domestic circumstances. If one happens to have married a very pretty and delightful girl--'

'Oh, of course!'

'I repeat, a very pretty and charming girl, with no turn whatever for seriousness, one can't pretend to offer an instance in one's own house of the political woman. Once more understand--in England politics must be pursued with gravity. We don't fly about and chatter and scream like Frenchmen. No man will succeed with us in politics who has not a reputation for solid earnestness. Therefore, the more stupid a man, the better chance he has. I am naturally fond of a joke, but to get a name for that kind of thing would ruin me. You are clever, Paula, very clever in your way, but you don't, and you never will, understand politics. I beg of you not to damage my prospects. Cultivate a safe habit of speech. You may talk of the events of the season, of pigeon shooting, of horse racing, of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and so on; it's what everybody expects in a fashionable lady. Of course if you had been able to take up politics in earnest--but, never mind. I like you very well as you are. How well you look in that dress!'

'I rather think you're right,' Paula remarked, after a short pause, turning about a bracelet on her wrist. 'It'll be better if you go your way and I go mine.'

'Precisely; though that's an unkind way of putting it.'

He sat looking at the ground, and a smile of another kind came to his face.

'By-the-by, I've something to tell you--something that'll amuse you very much, and that you may talk about, just as much as you like.'

She made no reply.

'Your friend Egremont has come out in a new part--his first appearance in it, absolutely, though he can't be said to have created the role. He's run away with a girl from Lambeth--in fact, the girl who was just going to be married to his right-hand man, his librarian.'

Paula looked up in astonishment: then, with indignant incredulity, she said:

'What do you mean? What's your object in talking nonsense of that kind?'

'Again and again I have to tell you that I never talk nonsense; I am a politician. I heard the news this morning from Tasker. The man Grail--Egremont's librarian--was to have been married two days ago, Monday. Last Friday night his bride-elect disappeared. She's a very pretty girl, Tasker tells me--wonderfully pretty for one in her position, a work-girl. Egremont seems to have thought it a pity to let her be wasted. He's been meeting her secretly for some time-- in the library, of all places, whilst the man Grail was at work, poor fellow! And at last he carried her off. There's no getting on his track, I'm told. The question is: What will become of the embryo library? The whole thing's about the finest joke I've heard for some time.'

Paula had reddened. Her eyes flashed anger.

'I don't know whether you've invented it,' she said, 'or whether your secretary has, but I know there isn't one word of truth in it.'

'My dear child, it's no invention at all. The affair is the common talk of Lambeth.'

'Then do you mean to say Mr. Egremont has married this girl?'

'Well, I don't know that we'll discuss that point,' Dalmaine replied, twiddling his thumbs. 'There's no information to hand.'

'I don't believe it! I tell you I don't believe it! Mr. Egremont is engaged to my cousin Annabel; and besides, he couldn't do such a thing. He isn't a man of that kind.'

'Your experience of men is not great, my dear Paula.'

'I don't care! I know Mr. Egremont. Even if you said he'd married her, it isn't true. You mustn't judge every man by--'

'You were going to say?'

She rose and swept her train over a few yards of floor. Then she came back and stood before him.

'You tell me that people are saying this?'

'A considerable number of my respected constituents--and their wives--are saying it. Tasker shall give you judicial evidence, if you please.'

'I'm sure I'm not going to talk to Mr. Tasker. I dislike him too much to believe a word he says.'

'Of course. But he is absolutely trustworthy. I called at Egremont's this afternoon to make sure that he was away from home. Now there is something for you to talk about, Paula.'

'I shall take very good care that I don't speak a word of it to anyone. It's contemptible to make up such a story about a man just because you dislike him.'

'It seemed to me that you were not remarkably fond of him two months or so ago.'

'Did it?' she said, sarcastically. 'If I know little of men, it's certain you don't know much more of women.'

He leaned back and laughed. And whilst he laughed Paula quitted the room.

Paula still kept up her habit of letter-writing. After breakfast next morning she sat in her pretty boudoir, writing to Annabel. After sentences referring to Annabel's expected arrival in London for the season, she added this:

'A very shocking story has just come to my ears. I oughtn't really to repeat it to you, dear, and yet in another way it is my duty to. Mr. Egremont has disappeared, and with him the girl who was just going to marry his librarian--the poor man you know of from him. There are no means of knowing whether they have run away together to be married--or not. Everybody knows about it; it is the talk of Lambeth. My husband heard of it at once. The girl is said to be very good-looking. I wish I could refuse to believe it, but there is no doubt whatever. You ought to know at once; but perhaps you will have heard already. I never knew anything more dreadful, and I can't say what I feel.'

There was not much more in the letter. Having fastened up the envelope, Paula let it lie on her desk, whilst she walked about the room. Each time she passed the desk she looked at the letter, and lingered a little. Once she took it up and seemed about to open it again. Her expression all this time was very strange; her colour came and went; she bit her lips, and twisted her fingers together. At length she rang the bell, and when the servant came, gave the letter to be posted immediately.

Five minutes later she was in her bedroom, sitting in a low chair, crying like a very unhappy child.

The letter reached Eastbourne two days before that appointed for the departure of Annabel and her father for London. They had accepted Mrs. Tyrrell's invitation to her house; Mr. Newthorpe might remain only a fortnight, or might stay through the season--but Annabel would not come back to Eastbourne before August. She said little, but her father saw with what pleasure she anticipated this change. He wondered whether it would do her good or harm. Her books lay almost unused; of late she had attended chiefly to music, in such hours as were not spent out of doors. Mr. Newthorpe's health was as far improved as he could hope it ever would be. He too looked forward to associating once more with the few friends he had in London.

It was in the evening that Annabel, entering after a long drive with her father, found Paula's letter. She took it from the hall in passing to her room.

At dinner she spoke very little. After the meal she said that she wished to walk over to The Chestnuts. She left her father deep in a French novel--he read much more of the lighter literature now than formerly.

Mrs. Ormonde was upstairs with her children; they were singing to her; Annabel heard the choir of young voices as she entered the garden. The servant who went to announce her brought back a request that she would ascend and hear a song.

She did so. The last song was to be 'Annie Laurie,' in which the children were perfect. Annabel took the offered seat without speaking, and listened.

Bessie Bunce was near Mrs. Ormonde. When the song was over she said:

'I'd like to hear Miss Trent sing that again; wouldn't you, mum?'

'Yes, I should, Bessie. Perhaps we shall have her here again some day.'

Mrs. Ormonde went down with Annabel to the drawing-room. She was in a happy mood to-night, and, as they descended together, she put her arm playfully about the girl's waist.

'I wonder where Mr. Grail has taken her?' she said. 'I can't get any news from Mr. Egremont. I wrote to Jersey, and behold the letter is returned to me, with 'Gone and left no address.' I wonder whether he's back in town!'

'I have some news of him,' Annabel said quietly.

'Have you?'

There was no reply till they were in the drawing-room; then Annabel held out her cousin's letter.

'Will you read that?'

Mrs. Ormonde complied, Annabel watching her face the while. The girl looked for indignation, for scornful disbelief; she saw something quite different. Mrs. Ormonde's hand trembled, but in a moment she had overcome all weakness.

'Sit down, dear,' she said, calmly. 'You have just received this? Yes, I see the date.'

Annabel remained standing.

'Your letter is returned from Jersey,' she remarked, with steady voice. 'Paula mentions no dates. Did he go to Jersey at all?'

'I have no means of knowing, save his own declaration, when he said good-bye to me on Thursday of last week. And be told me he was going to his old quarters at St. Aubin's.'

'Do you give credit to this, Mrs. Ormonde?'

'Annabel, I can say nothing. Yet, no! I do not believe it until it is confirmed beyond all doubt. I owe that to him, as you also do.'

'But it does not seem to you incredible. I saw that on your face.'

'One thing suggested here is incredible, wholly incredible. If there is any truth in the story at all, by this time she is his wife. So much we know, you and I, Annabel.'

'Yes.'

'Remember, it is possible that he is in Jersey. The old rooms may have been occupied.'

'The people would know where he had gone, I think, Though if he--if he was not alone, probably he would go to a new place at once. He may have told you the truth in saying he was going to Jersey.'

'Then it was needless to add the untruth. I did not ask him where he would live. Sit down, dear.'

'Thank you. I shall not stay now. I thought it was better to come to you with this at once. Please destroy the letter.'

Mrs. Ormonde mused.

'Can you still go to your aunt's?' she asked, when Annabel moved for leave-taking.

'You are taking the truth for granted, Mrs. Ormonde.'

'I mean that we have no way of discovering whether it is true or not.'

'It will make no change. I shall not speak of it to father. There will be no change, in any case.'

Again there fell a short silence.

'I can only wait in hope of hearing from him,' Mrs. Ormonde said.

'Of course. If my aunt says anything to me about it, I will write to you. Good-bye.'

'I shall see you to-morrow, as we arranged?'

'Oh yes. But, please, we won't refer again to this.'

They parted as on an ordinary occasion.

But Annabel did not go home at once. She walked down to the shore, and stood for a long time looking upon the dim sea. It was the very spot where Thyrza had stood that Sunday morning when she came out in the early sunlight.

Annabel had often thought how fitting it was that at this period of her life she should leave the calm, voiceless shore of Ullswater for the neighbourhood of the never-resting waves. The sea had a voice of craving, and her heart responded with desire for completion of her being, with desire for love.

The thought that she would be near Walter Egremont had a great part in her anticipation of London.

She was not hitherto sure that she loved him. It was rather, 'Let me see him again, and discover how his presence affects me.' Yet his manifest coldness at the last meeting had caused her much vague heartache. She blamed herself for being so cold: was it not natural that he should take his tone from her? He would naturally watch to see how she bore herself to him, and, remembering Ullswater, he could not press for more than she seemed ready to give. Yet her reserve had been involuntary; assuredly she was not then moved with a longing to recover what she had rejected.

There was a change after the meeting with Thyrza Trent. It seemed to her very foolish to remember so persistently that Egremont had said nothing of the girl's strange loveliness, yet she could not help thinking of the omission as something significant. She even recollected that, in speaking to her of Thyrza, he had turned his eyes seaward. Such trifles could mean nothing as regarded Egremont, but how in reference to herself? How if she knew that he had given his love to another woman? I think that would be hard to bear.

And it was hard to bear.

Passion had won it over everything. He had taken Thyrza at the eleventh hour, and now she was married to him. She did not doubt it; she felt that Mrs. Ormonde did not doubt it. It had meant something--that failure to speak of the girl's beauty, that evasion with the eyes.

The night was cold, but she sat down by the shore, and let her head droop as she listened to the sea-dirge. She could love him, now that it was in vain. She knew now the warm yearning for his presence which at Ullswater had never troubled her, and it was too late. No tears came to her eyes; she did not even breathe a deeper breath. Most likely it would pass without a single outbreak of grief.

And perhaps the thought of another's misery somewhat dulled the edge of her own. Gilbert Grail was only a name to her, but he lived very vividly in her imagination. Of course she had idealised him, as was natural in a woman thinking of a man who has been represented to her as full of native nobleness. For him, as for herself, her heart was heavy. She knew that he must return to his hated day-labour, and how would it now be embittered! What anguish of resentment! What despair of frustrate passion!

She wished she could know him, and take his hand, and soothe him with a woman's tenderness. His lot was harder than hers; nay, it was mockery to compare them.

Annabel rose, murmuring old words:

''Therefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive. Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work which is done under the sun.''