Mrs. Maxon's memory of the evening on which she administered to her husband his "awful facer" was capricious. It preserved as much of the preliminary and the accidental as of the real gist of the matter. They dined out at the house of a learned judge. The party was exclusively legal, but the conversation of the young barrister who fell to her lot did not partake of that complexion. Fortune used him in the cause of irony. Much struck by his companion's charms-she was strung up, looked well, and talked with an unusual animation-and by no means imputing to himself any deficiency in the same direction, he made play with a pair of fine dark eyes, descanted jocularly on the loneliness of a bachelor's life, and ventured sly allusions to Mr. Cyril Maxon's blessed lot.
"I hope he knows his luck!" said the young barrister. Well, he would know it soon, at all events, Winnie reflected.
In the drawing-room afterwards, a fat gushing woman gave the other side of it. "We must be better friends, my dear," said she. "And you mustn't be jealous if we all adore your clever, handsome, rising husband."
Such things are the common trivialities of talk. Both the fat woman and the young barrister had happened often before. But their appearance to-night struck on Winnie Maxon's sense of humour-a bitter, twisted humour at this moment. She would have liked to cry "Oh, you fools!" and hurl her decision in her husband's face across the drawing-room. Compliments on our neighbour's private felicity are of necessity attended with some risk. Why are we not allowed to abide on safe ground and say: "I beg leave to congratulate you on the amount of your income and to hope that it may soon be doubled"? Only the ruined could object to that, and treading on their corns is no serious matter.
On the drive home-the judge lived in a remote part of Kensington-Cyril Maxon was perversely and (as it seemed to his wife) incredibly fertile in plans for the days to come. He not only forecast his professional career-there he was within his rights-but he mapped out their joint movements for at least three years ahead-their houses for the summer, their trips abroad, their visits to the various and numerous members of the Maxon clan. He left the future without a stitch of its dark mantle of uncertainty. Luckily he was not a man who needed much applause or even assent; he did not consult; he settled. His long, thoroughly lawyer-like, indisputably handsome and capable profile-he had a habit of talking to his wife without looking at her-chained the attention of her eyes. Was she really equal to a fight with that? A shadowy full-bottomed wig seemed even now to frame the face and to invest it with the power of life and death.
"Then the year after I really do mean to take you to Palestine and Damascus."
Not an idea that even of Cyril Maxon the rude gods might make sport!
"Who knows what'll happen three years hence?" she asked in gay tones, sharply cut off by a gasp in the throat.
"You've a cold?" he asked solicitously. He was not lacking in kindly protective instincts. Yet even his solicitude was peremptory. "I can't have you taking any risks."
"It's nothing," she gasped, now almost sure that she could never go through with her task. Even in kindness he assumed a property so absolute.
The brougham drew up at their house. "Nine-fifteen sharp to-morrow," Cyril told the coachman. That was no less, and no more, certain than Palestine and Damascus. He went through the hall (enlivened with prints of Lord Chancellors surviving and defunct) into his study. She followed, breathing quickly.
"I asked the Chippinstalls to dine next Wednesday. Will you send her a reminder to-morrow morning?" He began to fill his pipe. She shut the door and sat down in a chair in front of the fireplace.
There had always seemed to her something crushing in this workshop of learning, logic, and ambition. To-night the atmosphere was overwhelming; she felt flattened, ground down; she caught for her breath. He had lit his pipe and now glanced at her, puzzled by her silence. "There's nothing else on on Wednesday, is there?"
"Cyril, we're not happy, are we?"
He appeared neither aggrieved nor surprised at her sudden plunge; to her he seemed aggressively patient of the irrational.
"We have our difficulties, like other married couples, I suppose. I hope they will grow less as time goes on."
"That means that I shan't oppose you any more?"
"Our tastes and views will grow into harmony, I hope."
"That mine will grow into harmony with yours?"
He smiled, though grimly. Few men really mind being accused of despotism, since it savours of power. "Is that such a terrible thing to happen to my wife?"
"We're not happy, Cyril."
"Marriage wasn't instituted for the sole purpose of enabling people to enjoy themselves."
"Oh, I don't know what it was instituted for!"
"You can look in your Prayer Book."
Her chin rested on her hands, her white sharp elbows on her knee. The tall, strong, self-reliant man looked at her frail beauty. He was not without love, not without pity, but entirely without comprehension-nor would comprehension have meant pardon. Her implied claim clashed both with his instinct and with his convictions. The love and pity were not of a quality to sustain the shock.
"I wish you'd go and see Attlebury," he went on. Attlebury was, as it were, the keeper of his conscience, an eminent clergyman of extreme High Church views.
"Mr. Attlebury can't prevent me from being miserable. Whenever I complain of anything, you want to send me to Mr. Attlebury!"
"I'm not ashamed of suggesting that you could find help in what he represents on earth."
She gave a faint plaintive moan. Was heaven as well as this great world to be marshalled against her, a poor little creature asking only to be free? So it seemed.
"Or am I to gather that you have become a sceptic?" The sarcasm was heavily marked. "Has a mind like yours the impudence to think for itself?" So she translated his words-and thereby did him no substantial injustice. If his intellect could bend the knee, was hers to be defiant?
"I had hoped," he went on, "that our great sorrow would have made a change in you."
The suggestion seemed to her to be hitting below the belt. She had seen no signs of overwhelming sorrow in him.
"Why?" she asked sharply. "It made none in you, did it?"
"There's no need to be pert."
"When you say it to me, it's wisdom. When I say it to you, it's pertness! Yes, that's always the way. You're perfect already-I must change!"
"This is becoming a wrangle. Haven't we had enough of it?"
"Yes, Cyril, enough for a lifetime, I think." At last she raised her head, and let her hands fall on her lap. "At least I have," she added, looking at him steadily.
He returned her glance for a moment, then turned away and sat down at his writing-table. Several letters had come by the late post, and he began to open them.
He had made her angry; her anger mastered her fears.
"I was brought up to think as you do," she said. "To think that once married was married for ever. I suppose I think so still; and you know I've respected my-my vows. But there are limits. A woman can't be asked to give up everything. She herself-what she owes to herself-must come first-her own life, her own thoughts, her freedom, her rights as a human being."
He was reading a letter and did not raise his eyes from it.
"Those are modern views, I suppose? Old-fashioned folk would call them suggestions of the Devil. But we've had this sort of discussion several times before. Why go over it again? We must agree to differ."
"If you would! But you don't, you can't, you never will. You say that to-night. You'll begin drilling me to your march and cutting me to your pattern again to-morrow morning."
He made no reply at all. He went on reading letters. He had signified that the discussion was at an end. That ended it. It was his way; if he thought enough had been said, she was to say no more. It had happened thus a hundred times-and she had inwardly cried "Inkpat!"
Well, this time-at last-she would show him that the topic was not exhausted. She would speak again, and make him speak. Malice possessed her; she smiled at the grave-faced man methodically dealing with his correspondence. For the first time there came upon her a certain satisfaction in the actual doing of the thing; before, she had dreaded that to her heart, however much she desired the freedom it would bring. To hit back once-once after five long years!
"Oh, about the Chippinstalls," she said. "You can have them, of course, but I shan't be here."
He turned his head quickly round towards her. "Why not?"
"I'm going to the Stephen Aikenheads' to-morrow."
"It's not been your habit to pay visits alone, nor to arrange visits without consulting me. And I don't much care about the atmosphere that reigns at Aikenhead's." He laid down his letters and smiled at her in a constrained fashion. "But I don't want to give you a fresh grievance. I'll stretch a point. How long do you want to be away?"
He was trying to be kind; he actually was stretching a point, for he had often decried the practice of married women-young and pretty married women-going a-visiting without their husbands; and he had just as often expressed grave disapproval of her cousin, Stephen Aikenhead. For him a considerable stretch! Her malice was disarmed. Even a pang of that pity which she had declared crushed to death reached her heart. She stretched out her slim arms to him, rather as one who begs a great boon than as the deliverer of a mortal defiance.
"Cyril, I'm never coming back."
For a full minute he sat silent, looking steadily at her. Incapable as he was of appreciating how she had arrived at, or been driven to, this monstrous decision, yet he had perception enough and experience enough to see that she was sincere in it and set on it; and he knew that she could give effect to it if she chose. In that minute's silence he fought hard with himself; he had a mighty temptation to scold, a still mightier to flout and jeer, to bring his heavy artillery of sarcasm to bear. He resisted and triumphed.
He looked at the clock. It was a quarter-past twelve.
"You'll hardly expect me to deal with such a very important matter at this hour of the night, and without full consideration," he said. "You must know that such separations are contrary to my views, and I hope you know that, in spite of the friction which has arisen, I have still a strong affection for you."
"I shan't change my mind, Cyril. I shan't come back."
He kept the curb on himself. "I really would rather not discuss it without more consideration, Winnie-and I think I have a right to ask you to give it a little more, and to hear what I have to say after reflection. Is that unfair? At least you'll admit it's a serious step?"
"I suppose it's fair," she murmured impatiently. She would have given the world to be able to call it grossly unfair. "But it's no use," she added, almost fierce in her rejection of the idea that her determination might weaken.
"Let us both think and pray," he said gravely. "This visit of yours to the Aikenheads' may be a good thing. It'll give you time to reflect, and there'll be no passing causes of irritation to affect your calmer judgment. Let us treat it as settled that you stay with them for a fortnight-but treat nothing else as settled to-night. One thing more-have you told anybody about this idea?"
"Only Hobart Gaynor. I went and asked him whether I could do it if I wanted to. I told him I meant to do it."
"He'll hold his tongue. Mention it to nobody else, please."
"I won't till-till it's settled." She smiled. "We've actually agreed on one or two things! That's very unusual in our wrangles, Cyril."
He came up to her and kissed her on the forehead. "For God's sake, think! You don't in the least know what it means to you-or to me either."
She drew her head quickly back; a bitter retort was on the tip of her tongue. "Yes-but I know what life with you means!" She did not utter it; there was a pinched weariness in his face which for the moment disarmed her. She sighed disconsolately, turned away from him, and drifted out of the room, her shoulders bent as though by great fatigue.
She had suffered one or two transient pangs of pity; having feared a storm, she had experienced relief at his moderation, but gave him no credit for it. She did not understand how hard it was to him. She was almost inclined to hold it a device-an exhibition (once again exhibited) of how much wiser, more reasonable, and more thoughtful he was than the happy-go-lucky being to whom he was mated. She carried her grievances out of the room on her bowed shoulders-just as heavy as ever, just as insupportable.
The handsome, clever, rising man was left face to face with what he feared and hated most in this world-a failure. He had fallen in love with the pretty body; he had never doubted that he could shape and model the malleable mind. Why not? It was in no way a great or remarkable mind. She was not very talented, nor exceptionally strong-willed, nor even very obstinate. Nor ungoverned, nor ultra-emotional, nor unmoral. She was a woman more than ordinarily attractive, but hardly more than ordinary in other respects. And, looking back on five years, he realized the enormous and constant pains he had taken with her. It had been matter of conscience as well as matter of pride; when the two join forces, what is left to fight them? And they constantly form an alliance. Defeat threatened even this potent confederation-defeat at the hands of one whom he counted little more than a charming wilful child.
Charming? Softer emotions, offspring of memory, suffered a resurrection not in the end charged with much real import. He was of the men who satisfy emotion in order to quiet it; marriage was in his view-and in the view of authorities in which he believed-better than being in love as well as different from it. In the sense appropriate to voluptuaries, he had never been in love at all. What remained, then, to combat his profound distaste and disapproval for all she now advanced, her claims, pretensions, and grievances? In the end two disparate, yet closely allied forces-loyalty to a great cause and hatred of personal defeat. Let him make himself champion of the cause: the two became one. Could heaven and he conjoined succumb to any onslaught?
He faced his theory logically and boldly. "She is my wife. I'm as responsible for her as I am for myself. She may deny that-I can't."
For good or evil, for joy or pain, one flesh, one mind, one spirit, usque in 镃ernum. There was the high uncompromising doctrine.
His wife did not consciously or explicitly dissent from it. As she had told him, she was bred to it. Her plea was simply that, be it right or be it wrong, she could not live up to it. She could observe the prohibitions it implied-she had kept and would keep her restraining vows-but she could no longer fulfil the positive injunctions. If she sought at all for an intellectual or speculative justification, it was as an afterthought, as a plea to conciliate such a friend as Hobart Gaynor, or as a weapon of defence against her husband. To herself her excuse was necessity. If she had given that night the truest account in her power of what she felt, she would have said that she was doing wrong, but that she could not help it. There were limits to human endurance-a fact of which Divine Law, in other matters besides that of marriage, has not been considered by the practice (as apart from the doctrine) of Christendom at large to take adequate account.