Book V
Chapter XXXVI. "Is it Always So--in Life?"
 

The Duchess and her brother, an ex-diplomatist, now deaf and patiently amiable and garrulous, had met on the doorstep of Snowdon House, and together they insisted on Lord Windlehurst coming in for a talk. The two men had not met for a long time, and the retired official had been one of Lord Windlehurst's own best appointments in other days. The Duchess had the carriage wait in consequence.

The ex-official could hear little, but he had cultivated the habit of talking constantly and well. There were some voices, however, which he could hear more distinctly than others, and Lord Windlehurst's was one of them--clear, well-modulated, and penetrating. Sipping brandy and water, Lord Windlehurst gave his latest quip. They were all laughing heartily, when the butler entered the room and said, "Lady Eglington is here, and wishes to see your Grace."

As the butler left the room, the Duchess turned despairingly to Windlehurst, who had risen, and was paler than the Duchess. "It has come," she said, "oh, it has come! I can't face it."

"But it doesn't matter about you facing it," Lord Windlehurst rejoined. "Go to her and help her, Betty. You know what to do--the one thing." He took her hand and pressed it.

She dashed the tears from her eyes and drew herself together, while her brother watched her benevolently.

He had not heard what was said. Betty had always been impulsive, he thought to himself, and here was some one in trouble--they all came to her, and kept her poor.

"Go to bed, Dick," the Duchess said to him, and hurried from the room. She did not hesitate now. Windlehurst had put the matter in the right way. Her pain was nothing, mere moral cowardice; but Hylda--!

She entered the other room as quickly as rheumatic limbs would permit. Hylda stood waiting, erect, her eyes gazing blankly before her and rimmed by dark circles, her face haggard and despairing.

Before the Duchess could reach her, she said in a hoarse whisper: "I have left him--I have left him. I have come to you."

With a cry of pity the Duchess would have taken the stricken girl in her arms, but Hylda held out a shaking hand with the letter in it which had brought this new woe and this crisis foreseen by Lord Windlehurst. "There--there it is. He goes from me to her--to that!" She thrust the letter into the Duchess's fingers. "You knew--you knew! I saw the look that passed between you and Windlehurst at the opera. I understand all now. He left the House of Commons with her--and you knew, oh, you knew! All the world knows--every one knew but me." She threw up her hands. "But I've left him--I've left him, for ever."

Now the Duchess had her in her arms, and almost forcibly drew her to a sofa. "Darling, my darling," she said, "you must not give way. It is not so bad as you think. You must let me help to make you understand."

Hylda laughed hysterically. "Not so bad as I think! Read--read it," she said, taking the letter from the Duchess's fingers and holding it before her face. "I found it on the staircase. I could not help but read it." She sat and clasped and unclasped her hands in utter misery. "Oh, the shame of it, the bitter shame of it! Have I not been a good wife to him? Have I not had reason to break my heart? But I waited, and I wanted to be good and to do right. And to-night I was going to try once more--I felt it in the opera. I was going to make one last effort for his sake. It was for his sake I meant to make it, for I thought him only hard and selfish, and that he had never loved; and if he only loved, I thought--"

She broke off, wringing her hands and staring into space, the ghost of the beautiful figure that had left the Opera House with shining eyes.

The Duchess caught the cold hands. "Yes, yes, darling, I know. I understand. So does Windlehurst. He loves you as much as I do. We know there isn't much to be got out of life; but we always hoped you would get more than anybody else."

Hylda shrank, then raised her head, and looked at the Duchess with an infinite pathos. "Oh, is it always so--in life? Is no one true? Is every one betrayed sometime? I would die--yes, a thousand times yes, I would rather die than bear this. What do I care for life--it has cheated me! I meant well, and I tried to do well, and I was true to him in word and deed even when I suffered most, even when--"

The Duchess laid a cheek against the burning head. "I understand, my own dear. I understand--altogether."

"But you cannot know," the broken girl replied; "but through everything I was true; and I have been tempted too when my heart was aching so, when the days were so empty, the nights so long, and my heart hurt--hurt me. But now, it is over, everything is done. You will keep me here--ah, say you will keep me here till everything can be settled, and I can go away --far away--far--!"

She stopped with a gasping cry, and her eyes suddenly strained into the distance, as though a vision of some mysterious thing hung before her. The Duchess realised that that temptation, which has come to so many disillusioned mortals, to end it all, to find quiet somehow, somewhere out in the dark, was upon her. She became resourceful and persuasively commanding.

"But no, my darling," she said, "you are going nowhere. Here in London is your place now. And you must not stay here in my house. You must go back to your home. Your place is there. For the present, at any rate, there must be no scandal. Suspicion is nothing, talk is nothing, and the world forgets--"

"Oh, I do not care for the world or its forgetting!" the wounded girl replied. "What is the world to me! I wanted my own world, the world of my four walls, quiet and happy, and free from scandal and shame. I wanted love and peace there, and now . . . !"

"You must be guided by those who love you. You are too young to decide what is best for yourself. You must let Windlehurst and me think for you; and, oh, my darling, you cannot know how much I care for your best good!"

"I cannot, will not, bear the humiliation and the shame. This letter here--you see!"

"It is the letter of a woman who has had more affaires than any man in London. She is preternaturally clever, my dear--Windlehurst would tell you so. The brilliant and unscrupulous, the beautiful and the bad, have a great advantage in this world. Eglington was curious, that is all. It is in the breed of the Eglingtons to go exploring, to experiment."

Hylda started. Words from the letter Sybil Lady Eglington had left behind her rushed into her mind: "Experiment, subterfuge, secrecy. 'Reaping where you had not sowed, and gathering where you had not strawed.' Always experiment, experiment, experiment!"

"I have only been married three years," she moaned. "Yes, yes, my darling; but much may happen after three days of married life, and love may come after twenty years. The human heart is a strange thing."

"I was patient--I gave him every chance. He has been false and shameless. I will not go on."

The Duchess pressed both hands hard, and made a last effort, looking into the deep troubled eyes with her own grown almost beautiful with feeling --the faded world-worn eyes.

"You will go back to-night-at once," she said firmly. "To-morrow you will stay in bed till noon-at any rate, till I come. I promise you that you shall not be treated with further indignity. Your friends will stand by you, the world will be with you, if you do nothing rash, nothing that forces it to babble and scold. But you must play its game, my dearest. I'll swear that the worst has not happened. She drove him to his club, and, after a man has had a triumph, a woman will not drive him to his club if--my darling, you must trust me! If there must be the great smash, let it be done in a way that will prevent you being smashed also in the world's eyes. You can live, and you will live. Is there nothing for you to do? Is there no one for whom you would do something, who would be heart-broken if you--if you went mad now?"

Suddenly a great change passed over Hylda. "Is there no one for whom you would do something?" Just as in the desert a question like this had lifted a man out of a terrible and destroying apathy, so this searching appeal roused in Hylda a memory and a pledge. "Is there no one for whom you would do something?" Was life, then, all over? Was her own great grief all? Was her bitter shame the end?

She got to her feet tremblingly. "I will go back," she said slowly and softly.

"Windlehurst will take you home," the Duchess rejoined eagerly. "My carriage is at the door."

A moment afterwards Lord Windlehurst took Hylda's hands in his and held them long. His old, querulous eyes were like lamps of safety; his smile had now none of that cynicism with which he had aroused and chastened the world. The pitiful understanding of life was there and a consummate gentleness. He gave her his arm, and they stepped out into the moonlit night. "So peaceful, so bright!" he said, looking round.

"I will come at noon to-morrow," called the Duchess from the doorway.

A light was still shining in Eglington's study when the carriage drove up. With a latch-key Hylda admitted herself and her maid.

The storm had broken, the flood had come. The storm was over, but the flood swept far and wide.