The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter V. The Woman in Heliotrope
The flush was still on Charley's face when the door opened slowly, and a lady dressed in heliotrope silk entered, and came forward. Without a word Charley rose, and, taking a step towards her, offered a chair; at the same time noticing her heightened colour, and a certain rigid carriage not in keeping with her lithe and graceful figure. There was no mistaking the quiver of her upper lip--a short lip which did not hide a wonderfully pretty set of teeth.
With a wave of the hand she declined the seat. Glancing at the books and papers lying on the table, she flashed an inquiry at his flushed face, and, misreading the cause, with slow, quiet point, in which bitterness or contempt showed, she said meaningly:
"What a slave you are!"
"Behold the white man work!" he said good-naturedly, the flush passing slowly from his face. With apparent negligence he pushed the letter and the books and papers a little to one side, but really to place them beyond the range of her angry eyes. She shrugged her shoulders at his action.
"For 'the fatherless children and widows, and all that are desolate and oppressed?'" she said, not concealing her malice, for at the wedding she had just left all her married life had rushed before her in a swift panorama, and the man in scarlet had fixed the shooting pictures in her mind.
Again a flush swept up Charley's face and seemed to blur his sight. His monocle dropped the length of its silken tether, and he caught it and slowly adjusted it again as he replied evenly:
"You always hit the nail on the head, Kathleen." There was a kind of appeal in his voice, a sort of deprecation in his eye, as though he would be friends with her, as though, indeed, there was in his mind some secret pity for her.
Her look at his face was critical and cold. It was plain that she was not prepared for any extra friendliness on his part--there seemed no reason why he should add to his usual courtesy a note of sympathy to the sound of her name on his lips. He had not fastened the door of the cupboard from which he had taken the liqueur, and it had swung open a little, disclosing the bottle and the glass. She saw. Her face took on a look of quiet hardness.
"Why did you not come to the wedding? She was your cousin. People asked where you were. You knew I was going."
"Did you need me?" he asked quietly, and his eyes involuntarily swept to the place where he had seen the heliotrope and scarlet make a glow of colour on the other side of the square. "You were not alone."
She misunderstood him. Her mind had been overwrought, and she caught insinuation in his voice. "You mean Tom Fairing!" Her eyes blazed. "You are quite right--I did not need you. Tom Fairing is a man that all the world trusts save you."
"Kathleen!" The words were almost a cry. "For God's sake! I have never thought of 'trusting' men where you are concerned. I believe in no man" --his voice had a sharp bitterness, though his face was smooth and unemotional--"but I trust you, and believe in you. Yes, upon my soul and honour, Kathleen."
As he spoke she turned quickly and stepped towards the window, an involuntary movement of agitation. He had touched a chord. But even as she reached the window and glanced down to the hot, dusty street, she heard a loud voice below, a reckless, ribald sort of voice, calling to some one to, "Come and have a drink."
"Billy!" she said involuntarily, and looked down, then shrank back quickly. She turned swiftly on her husband. "Your soul and honour, Charley!" she said slowly. "Look at what you've made of Billy! Look at the company he keeps--John Brown, who hasn't even decency enough to keep away from the place he disgraced. Billy is always with him. You ruined John Brown, with your dissipation and your sneers at religion and your- 'I-wonder-nows!' Of what use have you been, Charley? Of what use to anyone in the world? You think of nothing but eating, and drinking, and playing the fop."
He glanced down involuntarily, and carefully flicked some cigarette-ash from his waistcoat. The action arrested her speech for a moment, and then, with a little shudder, she continued: "The best they can say of you is, 'There goes Charley Steele!'"
"And the worst?" he asked. He was almost smiling now, for he admired her anger, her scorn. He knew it was deserved, and he had no idea of making any defence. He had said all in that instant's cry, "Kathleen!" --that one awakening feeling of his life so far. She had congealed the word on his lips by her scorn, and now he was his old debonair, dissipated self, with the impertinent monocle in his eye and a jest upon his tongue.
"Do you want to know the worst they say?" she asked, growing pale to the lips. "Go and stand behind the door of Jolicoeur's saloon. Go to any street corner, and listen. Do you think I don't know what they say? Do you think the world doesn't talk about the company you keep? Haven't I seen you going into Jolicoeur's saloon when I was walking on the other side of the street? Do you think that all the world, and I among the rest, are blind? Oh, you fop, you fool, you have ruined my brother, you have ruined my life, and I hate and despise you for a cold-blooded, selfish coward!"
He made a deprecating gesture and stared--a look of most curious inquiry. They had been married for five years, and during that time they had never been anything but persistently courteous to each other. He had never on any occasion seen her face change colour, or her manner show chagrin or emotion. Stately and cold and polite, she had fairly met his ceaseless foppery and preciseness of manner. But people had said of her, "Poor Kathleen Steele!" for her spotless name stood sharply off from his negligence and dissipation. They called her "Poor Kathleen Steele!" in sympathy, though they knew that she had not resisted marriage with the well-to-do Charley Steele, while loving a poor captain in the Royal Fusileers. She preserved social sympathy by a perfect outward decorum, though the man of the scarlet coat remained in the town and haunted the places where she appeared, and though the eyes of the censorious world were watching expectantly. No voice was raised against her. Her cold beauty held the admiration of all women, for she was not eager for men's company, and she kept her poise even with the man in scarlet near her, glacially complacent, beautifully still, disconcertingly emotionless. They did not know that the poise with her was to an extent as much a pose as Charley's manner was to him.
"I hate you and despise you for a cold-blooded, selfish coward!" So that was the way Kathleen felt! Charley's tongue touched his lips quickly, for they were arid, and he slowly said:
"I assure you I have not tried to influence Billy. I have no remembrance of his imitating me in anything. Won't you sit down? It is very fatiguing, this heat."
Charley was entirely himself again. His words concerning Billy Wantage might have been either an impeachment of Billy's character and, by deduction, praise of his own, or it may have been the insufferable egoism of the fop, well used to imitators. The veil between the two, which for one sacred moment had seemed about to lift, was fallen now, leaded and weighted at the bottom.
"I suppose you would say the same about John Brown! It is disconcerting at least to think that we used to sit and listen to Mr. Brown as he waved his arms gracefully in his surplice and preached sentimental sermons. I suppose you will say, what we have heard you say before, that you only asked questions. Was that how you ruined the Rev. John Brown-- and Billy?"
Charley was very thirsty, and because of that perhaps, his voice had an unusually dry tone as he replied: "I asked questions of John Brown; I answer them to Billy. It is I that am ruined!"
There was that in his voice she did not understand, for though long used to his paradoxical phrases and his everlasting pose--as it seemed to her and all the world--there now rang through his words a note she had never heard before. For a fleeting instant she was inclined to catch at some hidden meaning, but her grasp of things was uncertain. She had been thrown off her balance, or poise, as Charley had, for an unwonted second, been thrown off his pose, and her thought could not pierce beneath the surface.
"I suppose you will be flippant at Judgment Day," she said with a bitter laugh, for it seemed to her a monstrous thing that they should be such an infinite distance apart.
"Why should one be serious then? There will be no question of an alibi, or evidence for the defence--no cross-examination. A cut-and-dried verdict!"
She ignored his words. "Shall you be at home to dinner?" she rejoined coldly, and her eyes wandered out of the window again to that spot across the square where heliotrope and scarlet had met.
"I fancy not," he answered, his eyes turned away also--towards the cupboard containing the liqueur. "Better ask Billy; and keep him in, and talk to him--I really would like you to talk to him. He admires you so much. I wish--in fact I hope you will ask Billy to come and live with us," he added half abstractedly. He was trying to see his way through a sudden confusion of ideas. Confusion was rare to him, and his senses, feeling the fog, embarrassed by a sudden air of mystery and a cloud of futurity, were creeping to a mind-path of understanding.
"Don't be absurd," she said coldly. "You know I won't ask him, and you don't want him."
"I have always said that decision is the greatest of all qualities--even when the decision is bad. It saves so much worry, and tends to health." Suddenly he turned to the desk and opened a tin box. "Here is further practice for your admirable gift." He opened a paper. "I want you to sign off for this building--leaving it to my absolute disposal." He spread the paper out before her.
She turned pale and her lips tightened. She looked at him squarely in the eyes. "My wedding-gift!" she said. Then she shrugged her shoulders. A moment she hesitated, and in that moment seemed to congeal. "You need it?" she asked distantly.
He inclined his head, his eye never leaving hers. With a swift angry motion she caught the glove from her left hand, and, doubling it back, dragged it off. A smooth round ring came off with it and rolled upon the floor.
Stooping, he picked up the ring, and handed it back to her, saying: "Permit me." It was her wedding-ring. She took it with a curious contracted look and put it on the finger again, then pulled off the other glove quietly. "Of course one uses the pen with the right hand," she said calmly.
"Involuntary act of memory," he rejoined slowly, as she took the pen in her hand. "You had spoken of a wedding, this was a wedding-gift, and-- that's right, sign there!"
There was a brief pause, in which she appeared to hesitate, and then she wrote her name in a large firm hand, and, throwing down the pen, caught up her gloves, and began to pull them on viciously.
"Thanks. It is very kind of you," he said. He put the document in the tin box, and took out another, as without a word, but with a grave face in which scorn and trouble were mingled, she now turned towards the door.
"Can you spare a minute longer?" he said, and advanced towards her, holding the new document in his hand. "Fair exchange is no robbery. Please take this. No, not with the right hand; the left is better luck --the better the hand, the better the deed," he added with a whimsical squint and a low laugh, and he placed the paper in her left hand. "Item No. 2 to take the place of item No. 1."
She scrutinised the paper. Wonder filled her face. "Why, this is a deed of the homestead property--worth three times as much!" she said. "Why--why do you do this?"
"Remember that questions ruin people sometimes," he answered, and stepped to the door and turned the handle, as though to show her out. She was agitated and embarrassed now. She felt she had been unjust, and yet she felt that she could not say what ought to be said, if all the rules were right.
"Thank you," she said simply. "Did you think of this when--when you handed me back the ring?"
"I never had an inspiration in my life. I was born with a plan of campaign."
"I suppose I ought to--kiss you!" she said in some little confusion.
"It might be too expensive," he answered, with a curious laugh. Then he added lightly: "This was a fair exchange"--he touched the papers--"but I should like you to bear witness, madam, that I am no robber!" He opened the door. Again there was that curious penetrating note in his voice, and that veiled look. She half hesitated, but in the pause there was a loud voice below and a quick foot on the stairs.
"It's Billy!" she said sharply, and passed out.