Chapter V. A Marked Woman
 

We had come farther than was wise without a rest, but all the seats on the way were in full view of the hotel, and I had been irritated by divers looks and whisperings as we traversed the always crowded terrace. Bob Evers, no doubt, would have turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to them. I myself could pretend to do so, but pretence was evidently one of my strong points. I had not Bob's fine natural regardlessness, for all my seniority and presumably superior knowledge of the world.

So we had climbed the zigzags to the right of the Riffelberg and followed the footpath overlooking the glacier, in the silence enjoined by single file, but at last we were seated on the hillside, a trifle beyond that emerald patch which some humourist has christened the Cricket-ground. Beneath us were the serracs of the Gorner Glacier, teased and tousled like a fringe of frozen breakers. Beyond the serracs was the main stream of comparatively smooth ice, with its mourning band of moraine, and beyond that the mammoth sweep and curve of the Theodule where these glaciers join. Peak after peak of dazzling snow dwindled away to the left. Only the gaunt Riffelhorn reared a brown head against the blue. And there we sat, Mrs. Lascelles and I, with all this before us and a rock behind, while I wondered what my companion meant to say, and how she would begin.

I had not to wonder long.

"You were very good to me last night, Captain Clephane."

There was evidently no beating about the bush for Mrs. Lascelles. I thoroughly approved, but was nevertheless somewhat embarrassed for the moment.

"I--really I don't know how, Mrs. Lascelles!"

"Oh, yes, you do, Captain Clephane; you recognised me at a glance, as I did you."

"I certainly thought I did," said I, poking about with the ferrule of one of my sticks.

"You know you did."

"You are making me know it."

"Captain Clephane, you knew it all along; but we won't argue that point. I am not going to deny my identity. It is very good of you to give me the chance, if rather unnecessary. I am not a criminal. Still you could have made me feel like one, last night, and heaps of men would have done so, either for the fun of it or from want of tact."

I looked inquiringly at Mrs. Lascelles. She could tell me what she pleased, but I was not going to anticipate her by displaying an independent knowledge of matters which she might still care to keep to herself. If she chose to open up a painful subject, well, the pain be upon her own head. Yet I must say that there was very little of it in her face as our eyes met. There was the eager candour that one could not help admiring, with the glowing look of gratitude which I had done so ridiculously little to earn; but the fine flushed face betrayed neither pain, nor shame, nor the affectation of one or the other. There was a certain shyness with the candour. That was all.

"You know quite well what I mean," continued Mrs. Lascelles, with a genuine smile at my disingenuous face. "When you met me before it was under another name, which you have probably quite forgotten."

"No, I remember it."

"Do you remember my husband?"

"Perfectly."

"Did you ever hear--"

Her lip trembled. I dropped my eyes.

"Yes," I admitted, "or rather I saw it for myself in the papers. It's no use pretending I didn't, nor yet that I was the least bit surprised or--or anything else!"

That was not one of my tactful speeches. It was culpably, might indeed have been wilfully, ambiguous; and yet it was the kind of clumsy and impulsive utterance which has the ring of a good intention, and is thus inoffensive except to such as seek excuses for offence. My instincts about Mrs. Lascelles did not place her in this category at all. Nevertheless, the ensuing pause was long enough to make me feel uneasy, and my companion only broke it as I was in the act of framing an apology.

"May I bore you, Captain Clephane?" she asked abruptly. I looked at her once more. She had regained an equal mastery of face and voice, and the admirable candour of her eyes was undimmed by the smallest trace of tears.

"You may try," said I, smiling with the obvious gallantry.

"If I tell you something about myself from that time on, will you believe what I say?"

"You are the last person whom I should think of disbelieving."

"Thank you, Captain Clephane."

"On the other hand, I would much rather you didn't say anything that gave you pain, or that you might afterward regret."

There was a touch of weariness in Mrs. Lascelles's smile, a rather pathetic touch to my mind, as she shook her head.

"I am not very sensitive to pain," she remarked. "That is the one thing to be said for having to bear a good deal while you are fairly young. I want you to know more about me, because I believe you are the only person here who knows anything at all. And then--you didn't give me away last night!"

I pointed to the grassy ledge in front of us, such a vivid green against the house now a hundred feet below.

"I am not pushing you over there," I said. "I take about as much credit for that."

"Ah," sighed Mrs. Lascelles, "but that dear boy, who turns out to be a friend of yours, he knows less than anybody else! He doesn't even suspect. It would have hurt me, yes, it would have hurt even me, to be given away to him! You didn't do it while I was there, and I know you didn't when I had turned my back."

"Of course you know I didn't," I echoed rather testily as I took out a cigarette. The case reminded me of the night before. But I did not again hand it to Mrs. Lascelles.

"Well, then," she continued, "since you didn't give me away, even without thinking, I want you to know that after all there isn't quite so much to give away as there might have been. A divorce, of course, is always a divorce; there is no getting away from that, or from mine. But I really did marry again. And I really am the widow they think I am."

I looked quickly up at her, in pure pity and compassion for one gone so far in sorrow and yet such a little way in life. It was a sudden feeling, an unpremeditated look, but I might as well have spoken aloud. Mrs. Lascelles read me unerringly, and she shook her head, sadly but decidedly, while her eyes gazed calmly into mine.

"It was not a happy marriage, either," she said, as impersonally as if speaking of another woman. "You may think what you like of me for saying so to a comparative stranger; but I won't have your sympathy on false pretences, simply because Major Lascelles is dead. Did you ever meet him, by the way?"

And she mentioned an Indian regiment. But the major and I had never met.

"Well, it was not very happy for either of us. I suppose such marriages never are. I know they are never supposed to be. Even if the couple are everything to each other, there is all the world to point his finger, and all the world's wife to turn her back, and you have to care a good deal to get over that. But you may have been desperate in the first instance; you may have said to yourself that the fire couldn't be much worse than the frying-pan. In that case, of course, you deserve no sympathy, and nothing is more irritating to me than the sympathy I don't deserve. It's a matter of temperament; I'm obliged to speak out, even if it puts people more against me than they were already. No, you needn't say anything, Captain Clephane; you didn't express your sympathy, I stopped you in time.... And yet it is rather hard, when one's still reasonably young, with almost everything before one--to be a marked woman all one's time!"

Up to her last words, despite an inviting pause after almost every sentence, I had succeeded in holding my tongue; though she was looking wistfully now at the distant snow-peaks and obviously bestowing upon herself the sympathy she did not want from me (as I had been told in so many words, if not more plainly in the accompanying brief encounter between our eyes), yet had I resisted every temptation to put in my word, until these last two or three from Mrs. Lascelles. They, however, demanded a denial, and I told her it was absurd to describe herself in such terms.

"I am marked," she persisted, "wherever I go I may be known, as you knew me here. If it hadn't been you it would have been somebody else, and I should have known of it indirectly instead of directly; but even supposing I had escaped altogether at this hotel, the next one would probably have made up for it."

"Do you stay much in hotels?"

There had been something in the mellow voice which made such a question only natural, yet it was scarcely asked before I would have given a good deal to recall it.

"There is nowhere else to stay," said Mrs. Lascelles, "unless one sets up house alone, which is costlier and far less comfortable. You see, one does make a friend or two sometimes--before one is found out."

"But surely your people--"

This time I did check myself.

"My people," said Mrs. Lascelles, "have washed their hands of me."

"But Major Lascelles--surely his people--"

"They washed their hands of him! You see, they would be the first to tell you, he had always been rather wild; but his crowning act of madness in their eyes was his marriage. It was worse than the worst thing he had ever done before. Still, it is not for me to say anything, or feel anything, against his family...."

And then I knew that they were making her an allowance; it was more than I wanted to know; the ground was too delicate, and led nowhere in particular. Still, it was difficult not to take a certain amount of interest in a handsome woman who had made such a wreck of her life so young, who was so utterly alone, so proud and independent in her loneliness, and apparently quite fine-hearted and unspoilt. But for Bob Evers and his mother, the interest that I took might have been a little different in kind; but even with my solicitude for them there mingled already no small consideration for the social solitary whom I watched now as she sat peering across the glacier, the foremost figure in a world of high lights and great backgrounds, and whom to watch was to admire, even against the greatest of them all. Alas! mere admiration could not change my task or stay my hand; it could but clog me by destroying my singleness of purpose, and giving me a double heart to match my double face.

Since, however, a detestable duty had been undertaken, and since as a duty it was more apparent than I had dreamt of finding it, there was nothing for it but to go through with the thing and make immediate enemies of my friends. So I set my teeth and talked of Bob. I was glad Mrs. Lascelles liked him. His father was a remote connection of mine, whom I had never met. But I had once known his mother very well.

"And what is she like?" asked Mrs. Lascelles, calling her fine eyes home from infinity, and fixing them once more on me.