Part 3 out of 4
thought: "I will travel--no I won't. I shall face it out." And after
that resolve he was greatly cheered by the reflection that it would be
a mute and an easy part to play, for no one would be likely to
converse with him about the abominable conduct of--that woman. He
argued to himself that decent people--and he knew no others--did not
care to talk about such indelicate affairs. She had gone off--with
that unhealthy, fat ass of a journalist. Why? He had been all a
husband ought to be. He had given her a good position--she shared his
prospects--he had treated her invariably with great consideration. He
reviewed his conduct with a kind of dismal pride. It had been
irreproachable. Then, why? For love? Profanation! There could be no
love there. A shameful impulse of passion. Yes, passion. His own wife!
Good God! . . . And the indelicate aspect of his domestic misfortune
struck him with such shame that, next moment, he caught himself in the
act of pondering absurdly over the notion whether it would not be more
dignified for him to induce a general belief that he had been in the
habit of beating his wife. Some fellows do . . . and anything would be
better than the filthy fact; for it was clear he had lived with the
root of it for five years--and it was too shameful. Anything!
Anything! Brutality . . . But he gave it up directly, and began to
think of the Divorce Court. It did not present itself to him,
notwithstanding his respect for law and usage, as a proper refuge for
dignified grief. It appeared rather as an unclean and sinister cavern
where men and women are haled by adverse fate to writhe ridiculously
in the presence of uncompromising truth. It should not be allowed.
That woman! Five . . . years . . . married five years . . . and never
to see anything. Not to the very last day . . . not till she coolly
went off. And he pictured to himself all the people he knew engaged in
speculating as to whether all that time he had been blind, foolish, or
infatuated. What a woman! Blind! . . . Not at all. Could a
clean-minded man imagine such depravity? Evidently not. He drew a free
breath. That was the attitude to take; it was dignified enough; it
gave him the advantage, and he could not help perceiving that it was
moral. He yearned unaffectedly to see morality (in his person)
triumphant before the world. As to her she would be forgotten. Let her
be forgotten--buried in oblivion--lost! No one would allude . . .
Refined people--and every man and woman he knew could be so
described--had, of course, a horror of such topics. Had they? Oh, yes.
No one would allude to her . . . in his hearing. He stamped his foot,
tore the letter across, then again and again. The thought of
sympathizing friends excited in him a fury of mistrust. He flung down
the small bits of paper. They settled, fluttering at his feet, and
looked very white on the dark carpet, like a scattered handful of
This fit of hot anger was succeeded by a sudden sadness, by the
darkening passage of a thought that ran over the scorched surface of
his heart, like upon a barren plain, and after a fiercer assault of
sunrays, the melancholy and cooling shadow of a cloud. He realized
that he had had a shock--not a violent or rending blow, that can be
seen, resisted, returned, forgotten, but a thrust, insidious and
penetrating, that had stirred all those feelings, concealed and cruel,
which the arts of the devil, the fears of mankind--God's infinite
compassion, perhaps--keep chained deep down in the inscrutable
twilight of our breasts. A dark curtain seemed to rise before him, and
for less than a second he looked upon the mysterious universe of moral
suffering. As a landscape is seen complete, and vast, and vivid, under
a flash of lightning, so he could see disclosed in a moment all the
immensity of pain that can be contained in one short moment of human
thought. Then the curtain fell again, but his rapid vision left in
Alvan Hervey's mind a trail of invincible sadness, a sense of loss and
bitter solitude, as though he had been robbed and exiled. For a moment
he ceased to be a member of society with a position, a career, and a
name attached to all this, like a descriptive label of some
complicated compound. He was a simple human being removed from the
delightful world of crescents and squares. He stood alone, naked and
afraid, like the first man on the first day of evil. There are in life
events, contacts, glimpses, that seem brutally to bring all the past
to a close. There is a shock and a crash, as of a gate flung to behind
one by the perfidious hand of fate. Go and seek another paradise, fool
or sage. There is a moment of dumb dismay, and the wanderings must
begin again; the painful explaining away of facts, the feverish raking
up of illusions, the cultivation of a fresh crop of lies in the sweat
of one's brow, to sustain life, to make it supportable, to make it
fair, so as to hand intact to another generation of blind wanderers
the charming legend of a heartless country, of a promised land, all
flowers and blessings . . .
He came to himself with a slight start, and became aware of an
oppressive, crushing desolation. It was only a feeling, it is true,
but it produced on him a physical effect, as though his chest had been
squeezed in a vice. He perceived himself so extremely forlorn and
lamentable, and was moved so deeply by the oppressive sorrow, that
another turn of the screw, he felt, would bring tears out of his eyes.
He was deteriorating. Five years of life in common had appeased his
longing. Yes, long-time ago. The first five months did that--but . . .
There was the habit--the habit of her person, of her smile, of her
gestures, of her voice, of her silence. She had a pure brow and good
hair. How utterly wretched all this was. Good hair and fine
eyes--remarkably fine. He was surprised by the number of details that
intruded upon his unwilling memory. He could not help remembering her
footsteps, the rustle of her dress, her way of holding her head, her
decisive manner of saying "Alvan," the quiver of her nostrils when she
was annoyed. All that had been so much his property, so intimately and
specially his! He raged in a mournful, silent way, as he took stock of
his losses. He was like a man counting the cost of an unlucky
speculation--irritated, depressed--exasperated with himself and with
others, with the fortunate, with the indifferent, with the callous;
yet the wrong done him appeared so cruel that he would perhaps have
dropped a tear over that spoliation if it had not been for his
conviction that men do not weep. Foreigners do; they also kill
sometimes in such circumstances. And to his horror he felt himself
driven to regret almost that the usages of a society ready to forgive
the shooting of a burglar forbade him, under the circumstances, even
as much as a thought of murder. Nevertheless, he clenched his fists
and set his teeth hard. And he was afraid at the same time. He was
afraid with that penetrating faltering fear that seems, in the very
middle of a beat, to turn one's heart into a handful of dust. The
contamination of her crime spread out, tainted the universe, tainted
himself; woke up all the dormant infamies of the world; caused a
ghastly kind of clairvoyance in which he could see the towns and
fields of the earth, its sacred places, its temples and its houses,
peopled by monsters--by monsters of duplicity, lust, and murder. She
was a monster--he himself was thinking monstrous thoughts . . . and
yet he was like other people. How many men and women at this very
moment were plunged in abominations--meditated crimes. It was
frightful to think of. He remembered all the streets--the well-to-do
streets he had passed on his way home; all the innumerable houses with
closed doors and curtained windows. Each seemed now an abode of
anguish and folly. And his thought, as if appalled, stood still,
recalling with dismay the decorous and frightful silence that was
like a conspiracy; the grim, impenetrable silence of miles of walls
concealing passions, misery, thoughts of crime. Surely he was not the
only man; his was not the only house . . . and yet no one knew--no one
guessed. But he knew. He knew with unerring certitude that could not
be deceived by the correct silence of walls, of closed doors, of
curtained windows. He was beside himself with a despairing agitation,
like a man informed of a deadly secret--the secret of a calamity
threatening the safety of mankind--the sacredness, the peace of life.
He caught sight of himself in one of the looking-glasses. It was a
relief. The anguish of his feeling had been so powerful that he more
than half expected to see some distorted wild face there, and he was
pleasantly surprised to see nothing of the kind. His aspect, at any
rate, would let no one into the secret of his pain. He examined
himself with attention. His trousers were turned up, and his boots a
little muddy, but he looked very much as usual. Only his hair was
slightly ruffled, and that disorder, somehow, was so suggestive of
trouble that he went quickly to the table, and began to use the
brushes, in an anxious desire to obliterate the compromising trace,
that only vestige of his emotion. He brushed with care, watching the
effect of his smoothing; and another face, slightly pale and more
tense than was perhaps desirable, peered back at him from the toilet
glass. He laid the brushes down, and was not satisfied. He took them
up again and brushed, brushed mechanically--forgot himself in that
occupation. The tumult of his thoughts ended in a sluggish flow of
reflection, such as, after the outburst of a volcano, the almost
imperceptible progress of a stream of lava, creeping languidly over a
convulsed land and pitilessly obliterating any landmark left by the
shock of the earthquake. It is a destructive but, by comparison, it is
a peaceful phenomenon. Alvan Hervey was almost soothed by the
deliberate pace of his thoughts. His moral landmarks were going one by
one, consumed in the fire of his experience, buried in hot mud, in
ashes. He was cooling--on the surface; but there was enough heat left
somewhere to make him slap the brushes on the table, and turning away,
say in a fierce whisper: "I wish him joy . . . Damn the woman."
He felt himself utterly corrupted by her wickedness, and the most
significant symptom of his moral downfall was the bitter, acrid
satisfaction with which he recognized it. He, deliberately, swore in
his thoughts; he meditated sneers; he shaped in profound silence words
of cynical unbelief, and his most cherished convictions stood revealed
finally as the narrow prejudices of fools. A crowd of shapeless,
unclean thoughts crossed his mind in a stealthy rush, like a band of
veiled malefactors hastening to a crime. He put his hands deep into
his pockets. He heard a faint ringing somewhere, and muttered to
himself: "I am not the only one . . . not the only one." There was
another ring. Front door!
His heart leaped up into his throat, and forthwith descended as low as
his boots. A call! Who? Why? He wanted to rush out on the landing and
shout to the servant: "Not at home! Gone away abroad!" . . . Any
excuse. He could not face a visitor. Not this evening. No. To-morrow.
. . . Before he could break out of the numbness that enveloped him
like a sheet of lead, he heard far below, as if in the entrails of the
earth, a door close heavily. The house vibrated to it more than to a
clap of thunder. He stood still, wishing himself invisible. The room
was very chilly. He did not think he would ever feel like that. But
people must be met--they must be faced--talked to--smiled at. He
heard another door, much nearer--the door of the drawing-room--being
opened and flung to again. He imagined for a moment he would faint.
How absurd! That kind of thing had to be gone through. A voice spoke.
He could not catch the words. Then the voice spoke again, and
footsteps were heard on the first floor landing. Hang it all! Was he
to hear that voice and those footsteps whenever any one spoke or
moved? He thought: "This is like being haunted--I suppose it will last
for a week or so, at least. Till I forget. Forget! Forget!" Someone
was coming up the second flight of stairs. Servant? He listened,
then, suddenly, as though an incredible, frightful revelation had
been shouted to him from a distance, he bellowed out in the empty
room: "What! What!" in such a fiendish tone as to astonish himself.
The footsteps stopped outside the door. He stood openmouthed, maddened
and still, as if in the midst of a catastrophe. The door-handle
rattled lightly. It seemed to him that the walls were coming apart,
that the furniture swayed at him; the ceiling slanted queerly for a
moment, a tall wardrobe tried to topple over. He caught hold of
something and it was the back of a chair. So he had reeled against a
chair! Oh! Confound it! He gripped hard.
The flaming butterfly poised between the jaws of the bronze dragon
radiated a glare, a glare that seemed to leap up all at once into a
crude, blinding fierceness, and made it difficult for him to
distinguish plainly the figure of his wife standing upright with her
back to the closed door. He looked at her and could not detect her
breathing. The harsh and violent light was beating on her, and he
was amazed to see her preserve so well the composure of her upright
attitude in that scorching brilliance which, to his eyes, enveloped
her like a hot and consuming mist. He would not have been surprised if
she had vanished in it as suddenly as she had appeared. He stared and
listened; listened for some sound, but the silence round him was
absolute--as though he had in a moment grown completely deaf as well
as dim-eyed. Then his hearing returned, preternaturally sharp. He
heard the patter of a rain-shower on the window panes behind the
lowered blinds, and below, far below, in the artificial abyss of the
square, the deadened roll of wheels and the splashy trotting of a
horse. He heard a groan also--very distinct--in the room--close to
He thought with alarm: "I must have made that noise myself;" and at
the same instant the woman left the door, stepped firmly across the
floor before him, and sat down in a chair. He knew that step. There
was no doubt about it. She had come back! And he very nearly said
aloud "Of course!"--such was his sudden and masterful perception of
the indestructible character of her being. Nothing could destroy her--
and nothing but his own destruction could keep her away. She was the
incarnation of all the short moments which every man spares out of his
life for dreams, for precious dreams that concrete the most cherished,
the most profitable of his illusions. He peered at her with inward
trepidation. She was mysterious, significant, full of obscure meaning
--like a symbol. He peered, bending forward, as though he had been
discovering about her things he had never seen before. Unconsciously
he made a step towards her--then another. He saw her arm make an
ample, decided movement and he stopped. She had lifted her veil. It
was like the lifting of a vizor.
The spell was broken. He experienced a shock as though he had been
called out of a trance by the sudden noise of an explosion. It was
even more startling and more distinct; it was an infinitely more
intimate change, for he had the sensation of having come into this
room only that very moment; of having returned from very far; he was
made aware that some essential part of himself had in a flash returned
into his body, returned finally from a fierce and lamentable region,
from the dwelling-place of unveiled hearts. He woke up to an amazing
infinity of contempt, to a droll bitterness of wonder, to a
disenchanted conviction of safety. He had a glimpse of the
irresistible force, and he saw also the barrenness of his
convictions--of her convictions. It seemed to him that he could never
make a mistake as long as he lived. It was morally impossible to go
wrong. He was not elated by that certitude; he was dimly uneasy about
its price; there was a chill as of death in this triumph of sound
principles, in this victory snatched under the very shadow of
The last trace of his previous state of mind vanished, as the
instantaneous and elusive trail of a bursting meteor vanishes on the
profound blackness of the sky; it was the faint flicker of a painful
thought, gone as soon as perceived, that nothing but her
presence--after all--had the power to recall him to himself. He
stared at her. She sat with her hands on her lap, looking down; and he
noticed that her boots were dirty, her skirts wet and splashed, as
though she had been driven back there by a blind fear through a waste
of mud. He was indignant, amazed and shocked, but in a natural,
healthy way now; so that he could control those unprofitable
sentiments by the dictates of cautious self-restraint. The light in
the room had no unusual brilliance now; it was a good light in which
he could easily observe the expression of her face. It was that of
dull fatigue. And the silence that surrounded them was the normal
silence of any quiet house, hardly disturbed by the faint noises of a
respectable quarter of the town. He was very cool--and it was quite
coolly that he thought how much better it would be if neither of them
ever spoke again. She sat with closed lips, with an air of lassitude
in the stony forgetfulness of her pose, but after a moment she lifted
her drooping eyelids and met his tense and inquisitive stare by a look
that had all the formless eloquence of a cry. It penetrated, it
stirred without informing; it was the very essence of anguish stripped
of words that can be smiled at, argued away, shouted down, disdained.
It was anguish naked and unashamed, the bare pain of existence let
loose upon the world in the fleeting unreserve of a look that had in
it an immensity of fatigue, the scornful sincerity, the black
impudence of an extorted confession. Alvan Hervey was seized with
wonder, as though he had seen something inconceivable; and some
obscure part of his being was ready to exclaim with him: "I would
never have believed it!" but an instantaneous revulsion of wounded
susceptibilities checked the unfinished thought.
He felt full of rancorous indignation against the woman who could look
like this at one. This look probed him; it tampered with him. It was
dangerous to one as would be a hint of unbelief whispered by a priest
in the august decorum of a temple; and at the same time it was impure,
it was disturbing, like a cynical consolation muttered in the dark,
tainting the sorrow, corroding the thought, poisoning the heart. He
wanted to ask her furiously: "Who do you take me for? How dare you
look at me like this?" He felt himself helpless before the hidden
meaning of that look; he resented it with pained and futile violence
as an injury so secret that it could never, never be redressed. His
wish was to crush her by a single sentence. He was stainless. Opinion
was on his side; morality, men and gods were on his side; law,
conscience--all the world! She had nothing but that look. And he could
"How long do you intend to stay here?"
Her eyes did not waver, her lips remained closed; and for any effect
of his words he might have spoken to a dead woman, only that this one
breathed quickly. He was profoundly disappointed by what he had said.
It was a great deception, something in the nature of treason. He had
deceived himself. It should have been altogether different--other
words--another sensation. And before his eyes, so fixed that at
times they saw nothing, she sat apparently as unconscious as though
she had been alone, sending that look of brazen confession straight at
him--with an air of staring into empty space. He said significantly:
"Must I go then?" And he knew he meant nothing of what he implied.
One of her hands on her lap moved slightly as though his words had
fallen there and she had thrown them off on the floor. But her silence
encouraged him. Possibly it meant remorse--perhaps fear. Was she
thunderstruck by his attitude? . . . Her eyelids dropped. He seemed
to understand ever so much--everything! Very well--but she must be
made to suffer. It was due to him. He understood everything, yet he
judged it indispensable to say with an obvious affectation of
"I don't understand--be so good as to . . ."
She stood up. For a second he believed she intended to go away, and
it was as though someone had jerked a string attached to his heart. It
hurt. He remained open-mouthed and silent. But she made an irresolute
step towards him, and instinctively he moved aside. They stood before
one another, and the fragments of the torn letter lay between
them--at their feet--like an insurmountable obstacle, like a sign of
eternal separation! Around them three other couples stood still and
face to face, as if waiting for a signal to begin some action--a
struggle, a dispute, or a dance.
She said: "Don't--Alvan!" and there was something that resembled a
warning in the pain of her tone. He narrowed his eyes as if trying to
pierce her with his gaze. Her voice touched him. He had aspirations
after magnanimity, generosity, superiority--interrupted, however, by
flashes of indignation and anxiety--frightful anxiety to know how far
she had gone. She looked down at the torn paper. Then she looked up,
and their eyes met again, remained fastened together, like an
unbreakable bond, like a clasp of eternal complicity; and the
decorous silence, the pervading quietude of the house which enveloped
this meeting of their glances became for a moment inexpressibly vile,
for he was afraid she would say too much and make magnanimity
impossible, while behind the profound mournfulness of her face there
was a regret--a regret of things done--the regret of delay--the
thought that if she had only turned back a week sooner--a day
sooner--only an hour sooner. . . . They were afraid to hear again the
sound of their voices; they did not know what they might say--perhaps
something that could not be recalled; and words are more terrible than
facts. But the tricky fatality that lurks in obscure impulses spoke
through Alvan Hervey's lips suddenly; and he heard his own voice with
the excited and sceptical curiosity with which one listens to actors'
voices speaking on the stage in the strain of a poignant situation.
"If you have forgotten anything . . . of course . . . I . . ."
Her eyes blazed at him for an instant; her lips trembled--and then she
also became the mouth-piece of the mysterious force forever hovering
near us; of that perverse inspiration, wandering capricious and
uncontrollable, like a gust of wind.
"What is the good of this, Alvan? . . . You know why I came back.
. . . You know that I could not . . . "
He interrupted her with irritation.
"Then! what's this?" he asked, pointing downwards at the torn letter.
"That's a mistake," she said hurriedly, in a muffled voice.
This answer amazed him. He remained speechless, staring at her. He had
half a mind to burst into a laugh. It ended in a smile as involuntary
as a grimace of pain.
"A mistake . . ." he began, slowly, and then found himself unable to
say another word.
"Yes . . . it was honest," she said very low, as if speaking to the
memory of a feeling in a remote past.
"Curse your honesty! . . . Is there any honesty in all this! . . .
When did you begin to be honest? Why are you here? What are you now?
. . . Still honest? . . . "
He walked at her, raging, as if blind; during these three quick
strides he lost touch of the material world and was whirled
interminably through a kind of empty universe made up of nothing but
fury and anguish, till he came suddenly upon her face--very close to
his. He stopped short, and all at once seemed to remember something
heard ages ago.
"You don't know the meaning of the word," he shouted.
She did not flinch. He perceived with fear that everything around him
was still. She did not move a hair's breadth; his own body did not
stir. An imperturbable calm enveloped their two motionless figures,
the house, the town, all the world--and the trifling tempest of his
feelings. The violence of the short tumult within him had been such as
could well have shattered all creation; and yet nothing was changed.
He faced his wife in the familiar room in his own house. It had not
fallen. And right and left all the innumerable dwellings, standing
shoulder to shoulder, had resisted the shock of his passion, had
presented, unmoved, to the loneliness of his trouble, the grim silence
of walls, the impenetrable and polished discretion of closed doors and
curtained windows. Immobility and silence pressed on him, assailed
him, like two accomplices of the immovable and mute woman before his
eyes. He was suddenly vanquished. He was shown his impotence. He was
soothed by the breath of a corrupt resignation coming to him through
the subtle irony of the surrounding peace.
He said with villainous composure:
"At any rate it isn't enough for me. I want to know more--if you're
going to stay."
"There is nothing more to tell," she answered, sadly.
It struck him as so very true that he did not say anything. She went
"You wouldn't understand. . . ."
"No?" he said, quietly. He held himself tight not to burst into howls
"I tried to be faithful . . ." she began again.
"And this?" he exclaimed, pointing at the fragments of her letter.
"This--this is a failure," she said.
"I should think so," he muttered, bitterly.
"I tried to be faithful to myself--Alvan--and . . . and honest to
you. . . ."
"If you had tried to be faithful to me it would have been more to the
purpose," he interrupted, angrily. "I've been faithful to you and you
have spoiled my life--both our lives . . ." Then after a pause the
unconquerable preoccupation of self came out, and he raised his voice
to ask resentfully, "And, pray, for how long have you been making a
fool of me?"
She seemed horribly shocked by that question. He did not wait for an
answer, but went on moving about all the time; now and then coming up
to her, then wandering off restlessly to the other end of the room.
"I want to know. Everybody knows, I suppose, but myself--and that's
"I have told you there is nothing to know," she said, speaking
unsteadily as if in pain. "Nothing of what you suppose. You don't
understand me. This letter is the beginning--and the end."
"The end--this thing has no end," he clamoured, unexpectedly. "Can't
you understand that? I can . . . The beginning . . ."
He stopped and looked into her eyes with concentrated intensity,
with a desire to see, to penetrate, to understand, that made him
positively hold his breath till he gasped.
"By Heavens!" he said, standing perfectly still in a peering attitude
and within less than a foot from her.
"By Heavens!" he repeated, slowly, and in a tone whose involuntary
strangeness was a complete mystery to himself. "By Heavens--I could
believe you--I could believe anything--now!"
He turned short on his heel and began to walk up and down the room
with an air of having disburdened himself of the final pronouncement
of his life--of having said something on which he would not go back,
even if he could. She remained as if rooted to the carpet. Her eyes
followed the restless movements of the man, who avoided looking at
her. Her wide stare clung to him, inquiring, wondering and doubtful.
"But the fellow was forever sticking in here," he burst out,
distractedly. "He made love to you, I suppose--and, and . . ." He
lowered his voice. "And--you let him."
"And I let him," she murmured, catching his intonation, so that her
voice sounded unconscious, sounded far off and slavish, like an echo.
He said twice, "You! You!" violently, then calmed down. "What could
you see in the fellow?" he asked, with unaffected wonder. "An
effeminate, fat ass. What could you . . . Weren't you happy? Didn't
you have all you wanted? Now--frankly; did I deceive your
expectations in any way? Were you disappointed with our position--or
with our prospects--perhaps? You know you couldn't be--they are much
better than you could hope for when you married me. . . ."
He forgot himself so far as to gesticulate a little while he went on
"What could you expect from such a fellow? He's an outsider--a rank
outsider. . . . If it hadn't been for my money . . . do you hear?
. . . for my money, he wouldn't know where to turn. His people won't
have anything to do with him. The fellow's no class--no class at all.
He's useful, certainly, that's why I . . . I thought you had enough
intelligence to see it. . . . And you . . . No! It's incredible! What
did he tell you? Do you care for no one's opinion--is there no
restraining influence in the world for you--women? Did you ever give
me a thought? I tried to be a good husband. Did I fail? Tell me--what
have I done?"
Carried away by his feelings he took his head in both his hands and
"What have I done? . . . Tell me! What? . . ."
"Nothing," she said.
"Ah! You see . . . you can't . . ." he began, triumphantly, walking
away; then suddenly, as though he had been flung back at her by
something invisible he had met, he spun round and shouted with
"What on earth did you expect me to do?"
Without a word she moved slowly towards the table, and, sitting down,
leaned on her elbow, shading her eyes with her hand. All that time he
glared at her watchfully as if expecting every moment to find in her
deliberate movements an answer to his question. But he could not read
anything, he could gather no hint of her thought. He tried to suppress
his desire to shout, and after waiting awhile, said with incisive
"Did you want me to write absurd verses; to sit and look at you for
hours--to talk to you about your soul? You ought to have known I
wasn't that sort. . . . I had something better to do. But if you think
I was totally blind . . ."
He perceived in a flash that he could remember an infinity of
enlightening occurrences. He could recall ever so many distinct
occasions when he came upon them; he remembered the absurdly
interrupted gesture of his fat, white hand, the rapt expression of her
face, the glitter of unbelieving eyes; snatches of incomprehensible
conversations not worth listening to, silences that had meant nothing
at the time and seemed now illuminating like a burst of sunshine. He
remembered all that. He had not been blind. Oh! No! And to know this
was an exquisite relief: it brought back all his composure.
"I thought it beneath me to suspect you," he said, loftily.
The sound of that sentence evidently possessed some magical power,
because, as soon as he had spoken, he felt wonderfully at ease; and
directly afterwards he experienced a flash of joyful amazement at the
discovery that he could be inspired to such noble and truthful
utterance. He watched the effect of his words. They caused her to
glance to him quickly over her shoulder. He caught a glimpse of wet
eyelashes, of a red cheek with a tear running down swiftly; and then
she turned away again and sat as before, covering her face with her
"You ought to be perfectly frank with me," he said, slowly.
"You know everything," she answered, indistinctly, through her
"This letter. . . . Yes . . . but . . ."
"And I came back," she exclaimed in a stifled voice; "you know
"I am glad of it--for your sake," he said with impressive gravity. He
listened to himself with solemn emotion. It seemed to him that
something inexpressibly momentous was in progress within the room,
that every word and every gesture had the importance of events
preordained from the beginning of all things, and summing up in their
finality the whole purpose of creation.
"For your sake," he repeated.
Her shoulders shook as though she had been sobbing, and he forgot
himself in the contemplation of her hair. Suddenly he gave a start, as
if waking up, and asked very gently and not much above a whisper--
"Have you been meeting him often?"
"Never!" she cried into the palms of her hands.
This answer seemed for a moment to take from him the power of speech.
His lips moved for some time before any sound came.
"You preferred to make love here--under my very nose," he said,
furiously. He calmed down instantly, and felt regretfully uneasy, as
though he had let himself down in her estimation by that outburst.
She rose, and with her hand on the back of the chair confronted him
with eyes that were perfectly dry now. There was a red spot on each of
"When I made up my mind to go to him--I wrote," she said.
"But you didn't go to him," he took up in the same tone. "How far did
you go? What made you come back?"
"I didn't know myself," she murmured. Nothing of her moved but her
lips. He fixed her sternly.
"Did he expect this? Was he waiting for you?" he asked.
She answered him by an almost imperceptible nod, and he continued to
look at her for a good while without making a sound. Then, at last--
"And I suppose he is waiting yet?" he asked, quickly.
Again she seemed to nod at him. For some reason he felt he must know
the time. He consulted his watch gloomily. Half-past seven.
"Is he?" he muttered, putting the watch in his pocket. He looked up at
her, and, as if suddenly overcome by a sense of sinister fun, gave a
short, harsh laugh, directly repressed.
"No! It's the most unheard! . . ." he mumbled while she stood before
him biting her lower lip, as if plunged in deep thought. He laughed
again in one low burst that was as spiteful as an imprecation. He did
not know why he felt such an overpowering and sudden distaste for the
facts of existence--for facts in general--such an immense disgust at
the thought of all the many days already lived through. He was
wearied. Thinking seemed a labour beyond his strength. He said--
"You deceived me--now you make a fool of him . . . It's awful! Why?"
"I deceived myself!" she exclaimed.
"Oh! Nonsense!" he said, impatiently.
"I am ready to go if you wish it," she went on, quickly. "It was due
to you--to be told--to know. No! I could not!" she cried, and stood
still wringing her hands stealthily.
"I am glad you repented before it was too late," he said in a dull
tone and looking at his boots. "I am glad . . . some spark of better
feeling," he muttered, as if to himself. He lifted up his head after
a moment of brooding silence. "I am glad to see that there is some
sense of decency left in you," he added a little louder. Looking at
her he appeared to hesitate, as if estimating the possible
consequences of what he wished to say, and at last blurted out--
"After all, I loved you. . . ."
"I did not know," she whispered.
"Good God!" he cried. "Why do you imagine I married you?"
The indelicacy of his obtuseness angered her.
"Ah--why?" she said through her teeth.
He appeared overcome with horror, and watched her lips intently as
though in fear.
"I imagined many things," she said, slowly, and paused. He watched,
holding his breath. At last she went on musingly, as if thinking
aloud, "I tried to understand. I tried honestly. . . . Why? . . . To
do the usual thing--I suppose. . . . To please yourself."
He walked away smartly, and when he came back, close to her, he had a
"You seemed pretty well pleased, too--at the time," he hissed, with
scathing fury. "I needn't ask whether you loved me."
"I know now I was perfectly incapable of such a thing," she said,
calmly, "If I had, perhaps you would not have married me."
"It's very clear I would not have done it if I had known you--as I
know you now."
He seemed to see himself proposing to her--ages ago. They were
strolling up the slope of a lawn. Groups of people were scattered in
sunshine. The shadows of leafy boughs lay still on the short grass.
The coloured sunshades far off, passing between trees, resembled
deliberate and brilliant butterflies moving without a flutter. Men
smiling amiably, or else very grave, within the impeccable shelter of
their black coats, stood by the side of women who, clustered in clear
summer toilettes, recalled all the fabulous tales of enchanted gardens
where animated flowers smile at bewitched knights. There was a
sumptuous serenity in it all, a thin, vibrating excitement, the
perfect security, as of an invincible ignorance, that evoked within
him a transcendent belief in felicity as the lot of all mankind, a
recklessly picturesque desire to get promptly something for himself
only, out of that splendour unmarred by any shadow of a thought. The
girl walked by his side across an open space; no one was near, and
suddenly he stood still, as if inspired, and spoke. He remembered
looking at her pure eyes, at her candid brow; he remembered glancing
about quickly to see if they were being observed, and thinking that
nothing could go wrong in a world of so much charm, purity, and
distinction. He was proud of it. He was one of its makers, of its
possessors, of its guardians, of its extollers. He wanted to grasp it
solidly, to get as much gratification as he could out of it; and in
view of its incomparable quality, of its unstained atmosphere, of its
nearness to the heaven of its choice, this gust of brutal desire
seemed the most noble of aspirations. In a second he lived again
through all these moments, and then all the pathos of his failure
presented itself to him with such vividness that there was a suspicion
of tears in his tone when he said almost unthinkingly, "My God! I did
She seemed touched by the emotion of his voice. Her lips quivered a
little, and she made one faltering step towards him, putting out her
hands in a beseeching gesture, when she perceived, just in time, that
being absorbed by the tragedy of his life he had absolutely forgotten
her very existence. She stopped, and her outstretched arms fell
slowly. He, with his features distorted by the bitterness of his
thought, saw neither her movement nor her gesture. He stamped his foot
in vexation, rubbed his head--then exploded.
"What the devil am I to do now?"
He was still again. She seemed to understand, and moved to the door
"It's very simple--I'm going," she said aloud.
At the sound of her voice he gave a start of surprise, looked at her
wildly, and asked in a piercing tone--
"You. . . . Where? To him?"
The door-handle rattled under her groping hand as though she had been
trying to get out of some dark place.
"No--stay!" he cried.
She heard him faintly. He saw her shoulder touch the lintel of the
door. She swayed as if dazed. There was less than a second of suspense
while they both felt as if poised on the very edge of moral
annihilation, ready to fall into some devouring nowhere. Then, almost
simultaneously, he shouted, "Come back!" and she let go the handle of
the door. She turned round in peaceful desperation like one who
deliberately has thrown away the last chance of life; and, for a
moment, the room she faced appeared terrible, and dark, and safe--like
He said, very hoarse and abrupt: "It can't end like this. . . . Sit
down;" and while she crossed the room again to the low-backed chair
before the dressing-table, he opened the door and put his head out to
look and listen. The house was quiet. He came back pacified, and
"Do you speak the truth?"
"You have lived a lie, though," he said, suspiciously.
"Ah! You made it so easy," she answered.
"You reproach me--me!"
"How could I?" she said; "I would have you no other--now."
"What do you mean by . . ." he began, then checked himself, and
without waiting for an answer went on, "I won't ask any questions. Is
this letter the worst of it?"
She had a nervous movement of her hands.
"I must have a plain answer," he said, hotly.
"Then, no! The worst is my coming back."
There followed a period of dead silence, during which they exchanged
He said authoritatively--
"You don't know what you are saying. Your mind is unhinged. You are
beside yourself, or you would not say such things. You can't control
yourself. Even in your remorse . . ." He paused a moment, then said
with a doctoral air: "Self-restraint is everything in life, you
know. It's happiness, it's dignity . . . it's everything."
She was pulling nervously at her handkerchief while he went on
watching anxiously to see the effect of his words. Nothing
satisfactory happened. Only, as he began to speak again, she covered
her face with both her hands.
"You see where the want of self-restraint leads to.
Pain--humiliation--loss of respect--of friends, of everything that
ennobles life, that . . . All kinds of horrors," he concluded,
She made no stir. He looked at her pensively for some time as though
he had been concentrating the melancholy thoughts evoked by the sight
of that abased woman. His eyes became fixed and dull. He was
profoundly penetrated by the solemnity of the moment; he felt deeply
the greatness of the occasion. And more than ever the walls of his
house seemed to enclose the sacredness of ideals to which he was about
to offer a magnificent sacrifice. He was the high priest of that
temple, the severe guardian of formulas, of rites, of the pure
ceremonial concealing the black doubts of life. And he was not alone.
Other men, too--the best of them--kept watch and ward by the
hearthstones that were the altars of that profitable persuasion. He
understood confusedly that he was part of an immense and beneficent
power, which had a reward ready for every discretion. He dwelt within
the invincible wisdom of silence; he was protected by an
indestructible faith that would last forever, that would withstand
unshaken all the assaults--the loud execrations of apostates, and the
secret weariness of its confessors! He was in league with a universe
of untold advantages. He represented the moral strength of a beautiful
reticence that could vanquish all the deplorable crudities of
life--fear, disaster, sin--even death itself. It seemed to him he was
on the point of sweeping triumphantly away all the illusory
mysteries of existence. It was simplicity itself.
"I hope you see now the folly--the utter folly of wickedness," he
began in a dull, solemn manner. "You must respect the conditions of
your life or lose all it can give you. All! Everything!"
He waved his arm once, and three exact replicas of his face, of his
clothes, of his dull severity, of his solemn grief, repeated the wide
gesture that in its comprehensive sweep indicated an infinity of
moral sweetness, embraced the walls, the hangings, the whole house,
all the crowd of houses outside, all the flimsy and inscrutable
graves of the living, with their doors numbered like the doors of
prison-cells, and as impenetrable as the granite of tombstones.
"Yes! Restraint, duty, fidelity--unswerving fidelity to what is
expected of you. This--only this--secures the reward, the peace.
Everything else we should labour to subdue--to destroy. It's
misfortune; it's disease. It is terrible--terrible. We must not know
anything about it--we needn't. It is our duty to ourselves--to others.
You do not live all alone in the world--and if you have no respect for
the dignity of life, others have. Life is a serious matter. If you
don't conform to the highest standards you are no one--it's a kind of
death. Didn't this occur to you? You've only to look round you to see
the truth of what I am saying. Did you live without noticing anything,
without understanding anything? From a child you had examples before
your eyes--you could see daily the beauty, the blessings of morality,
of principles. . . ."
His voice rose and fell pompously in a strange chant. His eyes were
still, his stare exalted and sullen; his face was set, was hard, was
woodenly exulting over the grim inspiration that secretly possessed
him, seethed within him, lifted him up into a stealthy frenzy of
belief. Now and then he would stretch out his right arm over her head,
as it were, and he spoke down at that sinner from a height, and with a
sense of avenging virtue, with a profound and pure joy as though he
could from his steep pinnacle see every weighty word strike and hurt
like a punishing stone.
"Rigid principles--adherence to what is right," he finished after a
"What is right?" she said, distinctly, without uncovering her face.
"Your mind is diseased!" he cried, upright and austere. "Such a
question is rot--utter rot. Look round you--there's your answer, if
you only care to see. Nothing that outrages the received beliefs can
be right. Your conscience tells you that. They are the received
beliefs because they are the best, the noblest, the only possible.
They survive. . . ."
He could not help noticing with pleasure the philosophic breadth of
his view, but he could not pause to enjoy it, for his inspiration, the
call of august truth, carried him on.
"You must respect the moral foundations of a society that has made you
what you are. Be true to it. That's duty--that's honour--that's
He felt a great glow within him, as though he had swallowed something
hot. He made a step nearer. She sat up and looked at him with an
ardour of expectation that stimulated his sense of the supreme
importance of that moment. And as if forgetting himself he raised his
voice very much.
"'What's right?' you ask me. Think only. What would you have been if
you had gone off with that infernal vagabond? . . . What would you
have been? . . . You! My wife! . . ."
He caught sight of himself in the pier glass, drawn up to his full
height, and with a face so white that his eyes, at the distance,
resembled the black cavities in a skull. He saw himself as if about to
launch imprecations, with arms uplifted above her bowed head. He was
ashamed of that unseemly posture, and put his hands in his pockets
hurriedly. She murmured faintly, as if to herself--
"Ah! What am I now?"
"As it happens you are still Mrs. Alvan Hervey--uncommonly lucky for
you, let me tell you," he said in a conversational tone. He walked up
to the furthest corner of the room, and, turning back, saw her sitting
very upright, her hands clasped on her lap, and with a lost,
unswerving gaze of her eyes which stared unwinking like the eyes of
the blind, at the crude gas flame, blazing and still, between the jaws
of the bronze dragon.
He came up quite close to her, and straddling his legs a little, stood
looking down at her face for some time without taking his hands out of
his pockets. He seemed to be turning over in his mind a heap of words,
piecing his next speech out of an overpowering abundance of
"You've tried me to the utmost," he said at last; and as soon as he
said these words he lost his moral footing, and felt himself swept
away from his pinnacle by a flood of passionate resentment against the
bungling creature that had come so near to spoiling his life. "Yes;
I've been tried more than any man ought to be," he went on with
righteous bitterness. "It was unfair. What possessed you to? . . .
What possessed you? . . . Write such a . . . After five years of
perfect happiness! 'Pon my word, no one would believe. . . . Didn't
you feel you couldn't? Because you couldn't . . . it was
impossible--you know. Wasn't it? Think. Wasn't it?"
"It was impossible," she whispered, obediently.
This submissive assent given with such readiness did not soothe him,
did not elate him; it gave him, inexplicably, that sense of terror we
experience when in the midst of conditions we had learned to think
absolutely safe we discover all at once the presence of a near and
unsuspected danger. It was impossible, of course! He knew it. She knew
it. She confessed it. It was impossible! That man knew it, too--as
well as any one; couldn't help knowing it. And yet those two had been
engaged in a conspiracy against his peace--in a criminal enterprise
for which there could be no sanction of belief within themselves.
There could not be! There could not be! And yet how near to . . . With
a short thrill he saw himself an exiled forlorn figure in a realm of
ungovernable, of unrestrained folly. Nothing could be foreseen,
foretold--guarded against. And the sensation was intolerable, had
something of the withering horror that may be conceived as following
upon the utter extinction of all hope. In the flash of thought the
dishonouring episode seemed to disengage itself from everything
actual, from earthly conditions, and even from earthly suffering; it
became purely a terrifying knowledge, an annihilating knowledge of a
blind and infernal force. Something desperate and vague, a flicker of
an insane desire to abase himself before the mysterious impulses of
evil, to ask for mercy in some way, passed through his mind; and then
came the idea, the persuasion, the certitude, that the evil must be
forgotten--must be resolutely ignored to make life possible; that the
knowledge must be kept out of mind, out of sight, like the knowledge
of certain death is kept out of the daily existence of men. He
stiffened himself inwardly for the effort, and next moment it appeared
very easy, amazingly feasible, if one only kept strictly to facts,
gave one's mind to their perplexities and not to their meaning.
Becoming conscious of a long silence, he cleared his throat warningly,
and said in a steady voice--
"I am glad you feel this . . . uncommonly glad . . . you felt this in
time. For, don't you see . . ." Unexpectedly he hesitated.
"Yes . . . I see," she murmured.
"Of course you would," he said, looking at the carpet and speaking
like one who thinks of something else. He lifted his head. "I cannot
believe--even after this--even after this--that you are
altogether--altogether . . . other than what I thought you. It seems
"And to me," she breathed out.
"Now--yes," he said, "but this morning? And to-morrow? . . . This is
what . . ."
He started at the drift of his words and broke off abruptly. Every
train of thought seemed to lead into the hopeless realm of
ungovernable folly, to recall the knowledge and the terror of forces
that must be ignored. He said rapidly--
"My position is very painful--difficult . . . I feel . . ."
He looked at her fixedly with a pained air, as though frightfully
oppressed by a sudden inability to express his pent-up ideas.
"I am ready to go," she said very low. "I have forfeited everything
. . . to learn . . . to learn . . ."
Her chin fell on her breast; her voice died out in a sigh. He made a
slight gesture of impatient assent.
"Yes! Yes! It's all very well . . . of course. Forfeited--ah!
Morally forfeited--only morally forfeited . . . if I am to believe
you . . ."
She startled him by jumping up.
"Oh! I believe, I believe," he said, hastily, and she sat down as
suddenly as she had got up. He went on gloomily--
"I've suffered--I suffer now. You can't understand how much. So much
that when you propose a parting I almost think. . . . But no. There is
duty. You've forgotten it; I never did. Before heaven, I never did.
But in a horrid exposure like this the judgment of mankind goes
astray--at least for a time. You see, you and I--at least I feel
that--you and I are one before the world. It is as it should be. The
world is right--in the main--or else it couldn't be--couldn't be--what
it is. And we are part of it. We have our duty to--to our fellow
beings who don't want to . . . to. . . er."
He stammered. She looked up at him with wide eyes, and her lips were
slightly parted. He went on mumbling--
". . . Pain. . . . Indignation. . . . Sure to misunderstand. I've
suffered enough. And if there has been nothing irreparable--as you
assure me . . . then . . ."
"Alvan!" she cried.
"What?" he said, morosely. He gazed down at her for a moment with a
sombre stare, as one looks at ruins, at the devastation of some
"Then," he continued after a short pause, "the best thing is . . . the
best for us . . . for every one. . . . Yes . . . least pain--most
unselfish. . . ." His voice faltered, and she heard only detached
words. ". . . Duty. . . . Burden. . . . Ourselves. . . . Silence."
A moment of perfect stillness ensued.
"This is an appeal I am making to your conscience," he said, suddenly,
in an explanatory tone, "not to add to the wretchedness of all this:
to try loyally and help me to live it down somehow. Without any
reservations--you know. Loyally! You can't deny I've been cruelly
wronged and--after all--my affection deserves . . ." He paused with
evident anxiety to hear her speak.
"I make no reservations," she said, mournfully. "How could I? I found
myself out and came back to . . ." her eyes flashed scornfully for an
instant ". . . to what--to what you propose. You see . . . I . . . I
can be trusted . . . now."
He listened to every word with profound attention, and when she ceased
seemed to wait for more.
"Is that all you've got to say?" he asked.
She was startled by his tone, and said faintly--
"I spoke the truth. What more can I say?"
"Confound it! You might say something human," he burst out. "It isn't
being truthful; it's being brazen--if you want to know. Not a word to
show you feel your position, and--and mine. Not a single word of
acknowledgment, or regret--or remorse . . . or . . . something."
"Words!" she whispered in a tone that irritated him. He stamped his
"This is awful!" he exclaimed. "Words? Yes, words. Words mean
something--yes--they do--for all this infernal affectation. They mean
something to me--to everybody--to you. What the devil did you use to
express those sentiments--sentiments--pah!--which made you forget me,
duty, shame!" . . . He foamed at the mouth while she stared at him,
appalled by this sudden fury. "Did you two talk only with your eyes?"
he spluttered savagely. She rose.
"I can't bear this," she said, trembling from head to foot. "I am
They stood facing one another for a moment.
"Not you," he said, with conscious roughness, and began to walk up and
down the room. She remained very still with an air of listening
anxiously to her own heart-beats, then sank down on the chair slowly,
and sighed, as if giving up a task beyond her strength.
"You misunderstand everything I say," he began quietly, "but I prefer
to think that--just now--you are not accountable for your actions." He
stopped again before her. "Your mind is unhinged," he said, with
unction. "To go now would be adding crime--yes, crime--to folly. I'll
have no scandal in my life, no matter what's the cost. And why? You
are sure to misunderstand me--but I'll tell you. As a matter of duty.
Yes. But you're sure to misunderstand me--recklessly. Women always
do--they are too--too narrow-minded."
He waited for a while, but she made no sound, didn't even look at him;
he felt uneasy, painfully uneasy, like a man who suspects he is
unreasonably mistrusted. To combat that exasperating sensation he
recommenced talking very fast. The sound of his words excited his
thoughts, and in the play of darting thoughts he had glimpses now and
then of the inexpugnable rock of his convictions, towering in
solitary grandeur above the unprofitable waste of errors and passions.
"For it is self-evident," he went on with anxious vivacity, "it is
self-evident that, on the highest ground we haven't the right--no, we
haven't the right to intrude our miseries upon those who--who
naturally expect better things from us. Every one wishes his own life
and the life around him to be beautiful and pure. Now, a scandal
amongst people of our position is disastrous for the morality--a fatal
influence--don't you see--upon the general tone of the class--very
important--the most important, I verily believe, in--in the
community. I feel this--profoundly. This is the broad view. In time
you'll give me . . . when you become again the woman I loved--and
trusted. . . ."
He stopped short, as though unexpectedly suffocated, then in a
completely changed voice said, "For I did love and trust you"--and
again was silent for a moment. She put her handkerchief to her eyes.
"You'll give me credit for--for--my motives. It's mainly loyalty
to--to the larger conditions of our life--where you--you! of all
women--failed. One doesn't usually talk like this--of course--but in
this case you'll admit . . . And consider--the innocent suffer with
the guilty. The world is pitiless in its judgments. Unfortunately
there are always those in it who are only too eager to misunderstand.
Before you and before my conscience I am guiltless, but any--any
disclosure would impair my usefulness in the sphere--in the larger
sphere in which I hope soon to . . . I believe you fully shared my
views in that matter--I don't want to say any more . . . on--on that
point--but, believe me, true unselfishness is to bear one's burdens
in--in silence. The ideal must--must be preserved--for others, at
least. It's clear as daylight. If I've a--a loathsome sore, to
gratuitously display it would be abominable--abominable! And often in
life--in the highest conception of life--outspokenness in certain
circumstances is nothing less than criminal. Temptation, you know,
excuses no one. There is no such thing really if one looks steadily to
one's welfare--which is grounded in duty. But there are the weak."
. . . His tone became ferocious for an instant . . . "And there are
the fools and the envious--especially for people in our position. I am
guiltless of this terrible--terrible . . . estrangement; but if there
has been nothing irreparable." . . . Something gloomy, like a deep
shadow passed over his face. . . . "Nothing irreparable--you see even
now I am ready to trust you implicitly--then our duty is clear."
He looked down. A change came over his expression and straightway from
the outward impetus of his loquacity he passed into the dull
contemplation of all the appeasing truths that, not without some
wonder, he had so recently been able to discover within himself.
During this profound and soothing communion with his innermost beliefs
he remained staring at the carpet, with a portentously solemn face and
with a dull vacuity of eyes that seemed to gaze into the blankness of
an empty hole. Then, without stirring in the least, he continued:
"Yes. Perfectly clear. I've been tried to the utmost, and I can't
pretend that, for a time, the old feelings--the old feelings are
not. . . ." He sighed. . . . "But I forgive you. . . ."
She made a slight movement without uncovering her eyes. In his
profound scrutiny of the carpet he noticed nothing. And there was
silence, silence within and silence without, as though his words had
stilled the beat and tremor of all the surrounding life, and the house
had stood alone--the only dwelling upon a deserted earth.
He lifted his head and repeated solemnly:
"I forgive you . . . from a sense of duty--and in the hope . . ."
He heard a laugh, and it not only interrupted his words but also
destroyed the peace of his self-absorption with the vile pain of a
reality intruding upon the beauty of a dream. He couldn't understand
whence the sound came. He could see, foreshortened, the tear-stained,
dolorous face of the woman stretched out, and with her head thrown
over the back of the seat. He thought the piercing noise was a
delusion. But another shrill peal followed by a deep sob and
succeeded by another shriek of mirth positively seemed to tear him out
from where he stood. He bounded to the door. It was closed. He turned
the key and thought: that's no good. . . . "Stop this!" he cried, and
perceived with alarm that he could hardly hear his own voice in the
midst of her screaming. He darted back with the idea of stifling that
unbearable noise with his hands, but stood still distracted, finding
himself as unable to touch her as though she had been on fire. He
shouted, "Enough of this!" like men shout in the tumult of a riot,
with a red face and starting eyes; then, as if swept away before
another burst of laughter, he disappeared in a flash out of three
looking-glasses, vanished suddenly from before her. For a time the
woman gasped and laughed at no one in the luminous stillness of the
He reappeared, striding at her, and with a tumbler of water in his
hand. He stammered: "Hysterics--Stop--They will hear--Drink this."
She laughed at the ceiling. "Stop this!" he cried. "Ah!"
He flung the water in her face, putting into the action all the secret
brutality of his spite, yet still felt that it would have been
perfectly excusable--in any one--to send the tumbler after the water.
He restrained himself, but at the same time was so convinced nothing
could stop the horror of those mad shrieks that, when the first
sensation of relief came, it did not even occur to him to doubt the
impression of having become suddenly deaf. When, next moment, he
became sure that she was sitting up, and really very quiet, it was as
though everything--men, things, sensations, had come to a rest. He was
prepared to be grateful. He could not take his eyes off her, fearing,
yet unwilling to admit, the possibility of her beginning again; for,
the experience, however contemptuously he tried to think of it, had
left the bewilderment of a mysterious terror. Her face was streaming
with water and tears; there was a wisp of hair on her forehead,
another stuck to her cheek; her hat was on one side, undecorously
tilted; her soaked veil resembled a sordid rag festooning her
forehead. There was an utter unreserve in her aspect, an abandonment
of safeguards, that ugliness of truth which can only be kept out of
daily life by unremitting care for appearances. He did not know why,
looking at her, he thought suddenly of to-morrow, and why the thought
called out a deep feeling of unutterable, discouraged weariness--a
fear of facing the succession of days. To-morrow! It was as far as
yesterday. Ages elapsed between sunrises--sometimes. He scanned her
features like one looks at a forgotten country. They were not
distorted--he recognized landmarks, so to speak; but it was only a
resemblance that he could see, not the woman of yesterday--or was it,
perhaps, more than the woman of yesterday? Who could tell? Was it
something new? A new expression--or a new shade of expression? or
something deep--an old truth unveiled, a fundamental and hidden
truth--some unnecessary, accursed certitude? He became aware that he
was trembling very much, that he had an empty tumbler in his
hand--that time was passing. Still looking at her with lingering
mistrust he reached towards the table to put the glass down and was
startled to feel it apparently go through the wood. He had missed the
edge. The surprise, the slight jingling noise of the accident annoyed
him beyond expression. He turned to her irritated.
"What's the meaning of this?" he asked, grimly.
She passed her hand over her face and made an attempt to get up.
"You're not going to be absurd again," he said. "'Pon my soul, I did
not know you could forget yourself to that extent." He didn't try to
conceal his physical disgust, because he believed it to be a purely
moral reprobation of every unreserve, of anything in the nature of a
scene. "I assure you--it was revolting," he went on. He stared for a
moment at her. "Positively degrading," he added with insistence.
She stood up quickly as if moved by a spring and tottered. He started
forward instinctively. She caught hold of the back of the chair and
steadied herself. This arrested him, and they faced each other
wide-eyed, uncertain, and yet coming back slowly to the reality of
things with relief and wonder, as though just awakened after tossing
through a long night of fevered dreams.
"Pray, don't begin again," he said, hurriedly, seeing her open her
lips. "I deserve some little consideration--and such unaccountable
behaviour is painful to me. I expect better things. . . . I have the
right. . . ."
She pressed both her hands to her temples.
"Oh, nonsense!" he said, sharply. "You are perfectly capable of
coming down to dinner. No one should even suspect; not even the
servants. No one! No one! . . . I am sure you can."
She dropped her arms; her face twitched. She looked straight into his
eyes and seemed incapable of pronouncing a word. He frowned at her.
"I--wish--it," he said, tyrannically. "For your own sake also. . . ."
He meant to carry that point without any pity. Why didn't she speak?
He feared passive resistance. She must. . . . Make her come. His frown
deepened, and he began to think of some effectual violence, when most
unexpectedly she said in a firm voice, "Yes, I can," and clutched the
chair-back again. He was relieved, and all at once her attitude ceased
to interest him. The important thing was that their life would begin
again with an every-day act--with something that could not be
misunderstood, that, thank God, had no moral meaning, no perplexity--
and yet was symbolic of their uninterrupted communion in the past--in
all the future. That morning, at that table, they had breakfast
together; and now they would dine. It was all over! What had happened
between could be forgotten--must be forgotten, like things that can
only happen once--death for instance.
"I will wait for you," he said, going to the door. He had some
difficulty with it, for he did not remember he had turned the key. He
hated that delay, and his checked impatience to be gone out of the
room made him feel quite ill as, with the consciousness of her
presence behind his back, he fumbled at the lock. He managed it at
last; then in the doorway he glanced over his shoulder to say, "It's
rather late--you know--" and saw her standing where he had left her,
with a face white as alabaster and perfectly still, like a woman in a
He was afraid she would keep him waiting, but without any breathing
time, he hardly knew how, he found himself sitting at table with her.
He had made up his mind to eat, to talk, to be natural. It seemed to
him necessary that deception should begin at home. The servants must
not know--must not suspect. This intense desire of secrecy; of secrecy
dark, destroying, profound, discreet like a grave, possessed him with
the strength of a hallucination--seemed to spread itself to inanimate
objects that had been the daily companions of his life, affected with
a taint of enmity every single thing within the faithful walls that
would stand forever between the shamelessness of facts and the
indignation of mankind. Even when--as it happened once or twice--both
the servants left the room together he remained carefully natural,
industriously hungry, laboriously at his ease, as though he had wanted
to cheat the black oak sideboard, the heavy curtains, the stiff-backed
chairs, into the belief of an unstained happiness. He was mistrustful
of his wife's self-control, unwilling to look at her and reluctant to
speak, for it seemed to him inconceivable that she should not betray
herself by the slightest movement, by the very first word spoken. Then
he thought the silence in the room was becoming dangerous, and so
excessive as to produce the effect of an intolerable uproar. He wanted
to end it, as one is anxious to interrupt an indiscreet confession;
but with the memory of that laugh upstairs he dared not give her an
occasion to open her lips. Presently he heard her voice pronouncing in
a calm tone some unimportant remark. He detached his eyes from the
centre of his plate and felt excited as if on the point of looking at
a wonder. And nothing could be more wonderful than her composure. He
was looking at the candid eyes, at the pure brow, at what he had seen
every evening for years in that place; he listened to the voice that
for five years he had heard every day. Perhaps she was a little
pale--but a healthy pallor had always been for him one of her chief
attractions. Perhaps her face was rigidly set--but that marmoreal
impassiveness, that magnificent stolidity, as of a wonderful statue by
some great sculptor working under the curse of the gods; that
imposing, unthinking stillness of her features, had till then
mirrored for him the tranquil dignity of a soul of which he had
thought himself--as a matter of course--the inexpugnable possessor.
Those were the outward signs of her difference from the ignoble herd
that feels, suffers, fails, errs--but has no distinct value in the
world except as a moral contrast to the prosperity of the elect. He
had been proud of her appearance. It had the perfectly proper
frankness of perfection--and now he was shocked to see it unchanged.
She looked like this, spoke like this, exactly like this, a year ago,
a month ago--only yesterday when she. . . . What went on within made
no difference. What did she think? What meant the pallor, the placid
face, the candid brow, the pure eyes? What did she think during all
these years? What did she think yesterday--to-day; what would she
think to-morrow? He must find out. . . . And yet how could he get to
know? She had been false to him, to that man, to herself; she was
ready to be false--for him. Always false. She looked lies, breathed
lies, lived lies--would tell lies--always--to the end of life! And he
would never know what she meant. Never! Never! No one could.
Impossible to know.
He dropped his knife and fork, brusquely, as though by the virtue of a
sudden illumination he had been made aware of poison in his plate, and
became positive in his mind that he could never swallow another morsel
of food as long as he lived. The dinner went on in a room that had
been steadily growing, from some cause, hotter than a furnace. He had
to drink. He drank time after time, and, at last, recollecting
himself, was frightened at the quantity, till he perceived that what
he had been drinking was water--out of two different wine glasses; and
the discovered unconsciousness of his actions affected him painfully.
He was disturbed to find himself in such an unhealthy state of mind.
Excess of feeling--excess of feeling; and it was part of his creed
that any excess of feeling was unhealthy--morally unprofitable; a
taint on practical manhood. Her fault. Entirely her fault. Her sinful
self-forgetfulness was contagious. It made him think thoughts he had
never had before; thoughts disintegrating, tormenting, sapping to the
very core of life--like mortal disease; thoughts that bred the fear of
air, of sunshine, of men--like the whispered news of a pestilence.
The maids served without noise; and to avoid looking at his wife and
looking within himself, he followed with his eyes first one and then
the other without being able to distinguish between them. They moved
silently about, without one being able to see by what means, for their
skirts touched the carpet all round; they glided here and there,
receded, approached, rigid in black and white, with precise gestures,
and no life in their faces, like a pair of marionettes in mourning;
and their air of wooden unconcern struck him as unnatural, suspicious,
irremediably hostile. That such people's feelings or judgment could
affect one in any way, had never occurred to him before. He understood
they had no prospects, no principles--no refinement and no power. But
now he had become so debased that he could not even attempt to
disguise from himself his yearning to know the secret thoughts of his
servants. Several times he looked up covertly at the faces of those
girls. Impossible to know. They changed his plates and utterly ignored
his existence. What impenetrable duplicity. Women--nothing but women
round him. Impossible to know. He experienced that heart-probing,
fiery sense of dangerous loneliness, which sometimes assails the
courage of a solitary adventurer in an unexplored country. The sight
of a man's face--he felt--of any man's face, would have been a
profound relief. One would know then--something--could understand.
. . . He would engage a butler as soon as possible. And then the end
of that dinner--which had seemed to have been going on for hours--the
end came, taking him violently by surprise, as though he had expected
in the natural course of events to sit at that table for ever and
But upstairs in the drawing-room he became the victim of a restless
fate, that would, on no account, permit him to sit down. She had sunk
on a low easy-chair, and taking up from a small table at her elbow a
fan with ivory leaves, shaded her face from the fire. The coals glowed
without a flame; and upon the red glow the vertical bars of the grate
stood out at her feet, black and curved, like the charred ribs of a
consumed sacrifice. Far off, a lamp perched on a slim brass rod,
burned under a wide shade of crimson silk: the centre, within the
shadows of the large room, of a fiery twilight that had in the warm
quality of its tint something delicate, refined and infernal. His soft
footfalls and the subdued beat of the clock on the high mantel-piece
answered each other regularly--as if time and himself, engaged in a
measured contest, had been pacing together through the infernal
delicacy of twilight towards a mysterious goal.
He walked from one end of the room to the other without a pause, like
a traveller who, at night, hastens doggedly upon an interminable
journey. Now and then he glanced at her. Impossible to know. The gross
precision of that thought expressed to his practical mind something
illimitable and infinitely profound, the all-embracing subtlety of a
feeling, the eternal origin of his pain. This woman had accepted him,
had abandoned him--had returned to him. And of all this he would never
know the truth. Never. Not till death--not after--not on judgment day
when all shall be disclosed, thoughts and deeds, rewards and
punishments, but the secret of hearts alone shall return, forever
unknown, to the Inscrutable Creator of good and evil, to the Master of
doubts and impulses.
He stood still to look at her. Thrown back and with her face turned
away from him, she did not stir--as if asleep. What did she think?
What did she feel? And in the presence of her perfect stillness, in
the breathless silence, he felt himself insignificant and powerless
before her, like a prisoner in chains. The fury of his impotence
called out sinister images, that faculty of tormenting vision, which
in a moment of anguishing sense of wrong induces a man to mutter
threats or make a menacing gesture in the solitude of an empty room.
But the gust of passion passed at once, left him trembling a little,
with the wondering, reflective fear of a man who has paused on the
very verge of suicide. The serenity of truth and the peace of death
can be only secured through a largeness of contempt embracing all the
profitable servitudes of life. He found he did not want to know.
Better not. It was all over. It was as if it hadn't been. And it was
very necessary for both of them, it was morally right, that nobody
He spoke suddenly, as if concluding a discussion.
"The best thing for us is to forget all this."
She started a little and shut the fan with a click.
"Yes, forgive--and forget," he repeated, as if to himself.
"I'll never forget," she said in a vibrating voice. "And I'll never
forgive myself. . . ."
"But I, who have nothing to reproach myself . . ." He began, making a
step towards her. She jumped up.
"I did not come back for your forgiveness," she exclaimed,
passionately, as if clamouring against an unjust aspersion.
He only said "oh!" and became silent. He could not understand this
unprovoked aggressiveness of her attitude, and certainly was very far
from thinking that an unpremeditated hint of something resembling
emotion in the tone of his last words had caused that uncontrollable
burst of sincerity. It completed his bewilderment, but he was not at
all angry now. He was as if benumbed by the fascination of the
incomprehensible. She stood before him, tall and indistinct, like a
black phantom in the red twilight. At last poignantly uncertain as to
what would happen if he opened his lips, he muttered:
"But if my love is strong enough . . ." and hesitated.
He heard something snap loudly in the fiery stillness. She had broken
her fan. Two thin pieces of ivory fell, one after another, without a
sound, on the thick carpet, and instinctively he stooped to pick them
up. While he groped at her feet it occurred to him that the woman
there had in her hands an indispensable gift which nothing else on
earth could give; and when he stood up he was penetrated by an
irresistible belief in an enigma, by the conviction that within his
reach and passing away from him was the very secret of existence--its
certitude, immaterial and precious! She moved to the door, and he
followed at her elbow, casting about for a magic word that would make
the enigma clear, that would compel the surrender of the gift. And
there is no such word! The enigma is only made clear by sacrifice, and
the gift of heaven is in the hands of every man. But they had lived in
a world that abhors enigmas, and cares for no gifts but such as can be
obtained in the street. She was nearing the door. He said hurriedly:
"'Pon my word, I loved you--I love you now."
She stopped for an almost imperceptible moment to give him an
indignant glance, and then moved on. That feminine penetration--so
clever and so tainted by the eternal instinct of self-defence, so
ready to see an obvious evil in everything it cannot
understand--filled her with bitter resentment against both the men who
could offer to the spiritual and tragic strife of her feelings
nothing but the coarseness of their abominable materialism. In her
anger against her own ineffectual self-deception she found hate enough
for them both. What did they want? What more did this one want? And as
her husband faced her again, with his hand on the door-handle, she
asked herself whether he was unpardonably stupid, or simply ignoble.
She said nervously, and very fast:
"You are deceiving yourself. You never loved me. You wanted a
wife--some woman--any woman that would think, speak, and behave in a
certain way--in a way you approved. You loved yourself."
"You won't believe me?" he asked, slowly.
"If I had believed you loved me," she began, passionately, then drew
in a long breath; and during that pause he heard the steady beat of
blood in his ears. "If I had believed it . . . I would never have come
back," she finished, recklessly.
He stood looking down as though he had not heard. She waited. After a
moment he opened the door, and, on the landing, the sightless woman of
marble appeared, draped to the chin, thrusting blindly at them a
cluster of lights.
He seemed to have forgotten himself in a meditation so deep that on
the point of going out she stopped to look at him in surprise. While
she had been speaking he had wandered on the track of the enigma, out
of the world of senses into the region of feeling. What did it matter
what she had done, what she had said, if through the pain of her acts
and words he had obtained the word of the enigma! There can be no life
without faith and love--faith in a human heart, love of a human being!
That touch of grace, whose help once in life is the privilege of the
most undeserving, flung open for him the portals of beyond, and in
contemplating there the certitude immaterial and precious he forgot
all the meaningless accidents of existence: the bliss of getting, the
delight of enjoying; all the protean and enticing forms of the
cupidity that rules a material world of foolish joys, of contemptible
sorrows. Faith!--Love!--the undoubting, clear faith in the truth of a
soul--the great tenderness, deep as the ocean, serene and eternal,
like the infinite peace of space above the short tempests of the
earth. It was what he had wanted all his life--but he understood it
only then for the first time. It was through the pain of losing her
that the knowledge had come. She had the gift! She had the gift! And
in all the world she was the only human being that could surrender it
to his immense desire. He made a step forward, putting his arms out,
as if to take her to his breast, and, lifting his head, was met by
such a look of blank consternation that his arms fell as though they
had been struck down by a blow. She started away from him, stumbled
over the threshold, and once on the landing turned, swift and
crouching. The train of her gown swished as it flew round her feet. It
was an undisguised panic. She panted, showing her teeth, and the
hate of strength, the disdain of weakness, the eternal preoccupation
of sex came out like a toy demon out of a box.
"This is odious," she screamed.
He did not stir; but her look, her agitated movements, the sound of
her voice were like a mist of facts thickening between him and the
vision of love and faith. It vanished; and looking at that face
triumphant and scornful, at that white face, stealthy and unexpected,
as if discovered staring from an ambush, he was coming back slowly to
the world of senses. His first clear thought was: I am married to that
woman; and the next: she will give nothing but what I see. He felt the
need not to see. But the memory of the vision, the memory that abides
forever within the seer made him say to her with the naive austerity
of a convert awed by the touch of a new creed, "You haven't the gift."
He turned his back on her, leaving her completely mystified. And she
went upstairs slowly, struggling with a distasteful suspicion of
having been confronted by something more subtle than herself--more
profound than the misunderstood and tragic contest of her feelings.
He shut the door of the drawing-room and moved at hazard, alone
amongst the heavy shadows and in the fiery twilight as of an elegant
place of perdition. She hadn't the gift--no one had. . . . He stepped
on a book that had fallen off one of the crowded little tables. He
picked up the slender volume, and holding it, approached the
crimson-shaded lamp. The fiery tint deepened on the cover, and
contorted gold letters sprawling all over it in an intricate maze,
came out, gleaming redly. "Thorns and Arabesques." He read it twice,
"Thorns and Ar . . . . . . . ." The other's book of verses. He dropped
it at his feet, but did not feel the slightest pang of jealousy or
indignation. What did he know? . . . What? . . . The mass of hot
coals tumbled down in the grate, and he turned to look at them . . .
Ah! That one was ready to give up everything he had for that woman
--who did not come--who had not the faith, the love, the courage to
come. What did that man expect, what did he hope, what did he want?
The woman--or the certitude immaterial and precious! The first
unselfish thought he had ever given to any human being was for that
man who had tried to do him a terrible wrong. He was not angry. He was
saddened by an impersonal sorrow, by a vast melancholy as of all
mankind longing for what cannot be attained. He felt his fellowship
with every man--even with that man--especially with that man. What did
he think now? Had he ceased to wait--and hope? Would he ever cease to
wait and hope? Would he understand that the woman, who had no courage,
had not the gift--had not the gift!
The clock began to strike, and the deep-toned vibration filled the
room as though with the sound of an enormous bell tolling far away. He
counted the strokes. Twelve. Another day had begun. To-morrow had
come; the mysterious and lying to-morrow that lures men, disdainful of
love and faith, on and on through the poignant futilities of life to
the fitting reward of a grave. He counted the strokes, and gazing at
the grate seemed to wait for more. Then, as if called out, left the
room, walking firmly.
When outside he heard footsteps in the hall and stood still. A bolt
was shot--then another. They were locking up--shutting out his desire
and his deception from the indignant criticism of a world full of
noble gifts for those who proclaim themselves without stain and
without reproach. He was safe; and on all sides of his dwelling
servile fears and servile hopes slept, dreaming of success, behind the
severe discretion of doors as impenetrable to the truth within as the
granite of tombstones. A lock snapped--a short chain rattled. Nobody
Why was this assurance of safety heavier than a burden of fear, and
why the day that began presented itself obstinately like the last day
of all--like a to-day without a to-morrow? Yet nothing was changed,
for nobody would know; and all would go on as before--the getting,
the enjoying, the blessing of hunger that is appeased every day; the
noble incentives of unappeasable ambitions. All--all the blessings
of life. All--but the certitude immaterial and precious--the certitude
of love and faith. He believed the shadow of it had been with him as
long as he could remember; that invisible presence had ruled his life.
And now the shadow had appeared and faded he could not extinguish
his longing for the truth of its substance. His desire of it was
naive; it was masterful like the material aspirations that are the
groundwork of existence, but, unlike these, it was unconquerable. It
was the subtle despotism of an idea that suffers no rivals, that is
lonely, inconsolable, and dangerous. He went slowly up the stairs.
Nobody shall know. The days would go on and he would go far--very far.
If the idea could not be mastered, fortune could be, man could be--the
whole world. He was dazzled by the greatness of the prospect; the
brutality of a practical instinct shouted to him that only that which
could be had was worth having. He lingered on the steps. The lights
were out in the hall, and a small yellow flame flitted about down
there. He felt a sudden contempt for himself which braced him up. He
went on, but at the door of their room and with his arm advanced to
open it, he faltered. On the flight of stairs below the head of the
girl who had been locking up appeared. His arm fell. He thought, "I'll
wait till she is gone"--and stepped back within the perpendicular
folds of a portiere.
He saw her come up gradually, as if ascending from a well. At every
step the feeble flame of the candle swayed before her tired, young
face, and the darkness of the hall seemed to cling to her black skirt,
followed her, rising like a silent flood, as though the great night of
the world had broken through the discreet reserve of walls, of closed
doors, of curtained windows. It rose over the steps, it leaped up the
walls like an angry wave, it flowed over the blue skies, over the
yellow sands, over the sunshine of landscapes, and over the pretty
pathos of ragged innocence and of meek starvation. It swallowed up
the delicious idyll in a boat and the mutilated immortality of famous
bas-reliefs. It flowed from outside--it rose higher, in a destructive
silence. And, above it, the woman of marble, composed and blind on
the high pedestal, seemed to ward off the devouring night with a
cluster of lights.
He watched the rising tide of impenetrable gloom with impatience, as
if anxious for the coming of a darkness black enough to conceal a
shameful surrender. It came nearer. The cluster of lights went out.
The girl ascended facing him. Behind her the shadow of a colossal
woman danced lightly on the wall. He held his breath while she passed
by, noiseless and with heavy eyelids. And on her track the flowing
tide of a tenebrous sea filled the house, seemed to swirl about his
feet, and rising unchecked, closed silently above his head.
The time had come but he did not open the door. All was still; and
instead of surrendering to the reasonable exigencies of life he
stepped out, with a rebelling heart, into the darkness of the house.
It was the abode of an impenetrable night; as though indeed the last
day had come and gone, leaving him alone in a darkness that has no
to-morrow. And looming vaguely below the woman of marble, livid and
still like a patient phantom, held out in the night a cluster of
His obedient thought traced for him the image of an uninterrupted
life, the dignity and the advantages of an uninterrupted success;
while his rebellious heart beat violently within his breast, as if
maddened by the desire of a certitude immaterial and precious--the
certitude of love and faith. What of the night within his dwelling if
outside he could find the sunshine in which men sow, in which men
reap! Nobody would know. The days, the years would pass, and . . . He
remembered that he had loved her. The years would pass . . . And then
he thought of her as we think of the dead--in a tender immensity of
regret, in a passionate longing for the return of idealized
perfections. He had loved her--he had loved her--and he never knew the
truth . . . The years would pass in the anguish of doubt . . . He
remembered her smile, her eyes, her voice, her silence, as though he
had lost her forever. The years would pass and he would always
mistrust her smile, suspect her eyes; he would always misbelieve her
voice, he would never have faith in her silence. She had no gift--she
had no gift! What was she? Who was she? . . . The years would pass;
the memory of this hour would grow faint--and she would share the
material serenity of an unblemished life. She had no love and no faith
for any one. To give her your thought, your belief, was like
whispering your confession over the edge of the world. Nothing came
back--not even an echo.
In the pain of that thought was born his conscience; not that fear of
remorse which grows slowly, and slowly decays amongst the complicated
facts of life, but a Divine wisdom springing full-grown, armed and
severe out of a tried heart, to combat the secret baseness of motives.
It came to him in a flash that morality is not a method of happiness.
The revelation was terrible. He saw at once that nothing of what he
knew mattered in the least. The acts of men and women, success,
humiliation, dignity, failure--nothing mattered. It was not a
question of more or less pain, of this joy, of that sorrow. It was a
question of truth or falsehood--it was a question of life or death.
He stood in the revealing night--in the darkness that tries the
hearts, in the night useless for the work of men, but in which their
gaze, undazzled by the sunshine of covetous days, wanders sometimes
as far as the stars. The perfect stillness around him had something
solemn in it, but he felt it was the lying solemnity of a temple
devoted to the rites of a debasing persuasion. The silence within the
discreet walls was eloquent of safety but it appeared to him exciting
and sinister, like the discretion of a profitable infamy; it was the
prudent peace of a den of coiners--of a house of ill-fame! The years
would pass--and nobody would know. Never! Not till death--not
after . . .
"Never!" he said aloud to the revealing night.
And he hesitated. The secret of hearts, too terrible for the timid
eyes of men, shall return, veiled forever, to the Inscrutable Creator
of good and evil, to the Master of doubts and impulses. His conscience
was born--he heard its voice, and he hesitated, ignoring the strength
within, the fateful power, the secret of his heart! It was an awful
sacrifice to cast all one's life into the flame of a new belief. He
wanted help against himself, against the cruel decree of salvation.
The need of tacit complicity, where it had never failed him, the habit
of years affirmed itself. Perhaps she would help . . . He flung the
door open and rushed in like a fugitive.
He was in the middle of the room before he could see anything but the
dazzling brilliance of the light; and then, as if detached and
floating in it on the level of his eyes, appeared the head of a woman.
She had jumped up when he burst into the room.
For a moment they contemplated each other as if struck dumb with
amazement. Her hair streaming on her shoulders glinted like burnished
gold. He looked into the unfathomable candour of her eyes. Nothing
He stammered distractedly.
"I want . . . I want . . . to . . . to . . . know . . ."
On the candid light of the eyes flitted shadows; shadows of doubt, of
suspicion, the ready suspicion of an unquenchable antagonism, the
pitiless mistrust of an eternal instinct of defence; the hate, the
profound, frightened hate of an incomprehensible--of an abominable
emotion intruding its coarse materialism upon the spiritual and tragic
contest of her feelings.
"Alvan . . . I won't bear this . . ." She began to pant suddenly,
"I've a right--a right to--to--myself . . ."
He lifted one arm, and appeared so menacing that she stopped in a
fright and shrank back a little.
He stood with uplifted hand . . . The years would pass--and he would
have to live with that unfathomable candour where flit shadows of
suspicions and hate . . . The years would pass--and he would never
know--never trust . . . The years would pass without faith and
love. . . .
"Can you stand it?" he shouted, as though she could have heard all his
He looked menacing. She thought of violence, of danger--and, just for
an instant, she doubted whether there were splendours enough on earth
to pay the price of such a brutal experience. He cried again:
"Can you stand it?" and glared as if insane. Her eyes blazed, too. She
could not hear the appalling clamour of his thoughts. She suspected in
him a sudden regret, a fresh fit of jealousy, a dishonest desire of
evasion. She shouted back angrily--
He was shaken where he stood as if by a struggle to break out of
invisible bonds. She trembled from head to foot.
"Well, I can't!" He flung both his arms out, as if to push her away,
and strode from the room. The door swung to with a click. She made
three quick steps towards it and stood still, looking at the white and
gold panels. No sound came from beyond, not a whisper, not a sigh; not
even a footstep was heard outside on the thick carpet. It was as
though no sooner gone he had suddenly expired--as though he had died
there and his body had vanished on the instant together with his soul.
She listened, with parted lips and irresolute eyes. Then below, far
below her, as if in the entrails of the earth, a door slammed heavily;
and the quiet house vibrated to it from roof to foundations, more than
to a clap of thunder.
He never returned.
The white man, leaning with both arms over the roof of the little
house in the stern of the boat, said to the steersman--
"We will pass the night in Arsat's clearing. It is late."
The Malay only grunted, and went on looking fixedly at the river. The
white man rested his chin on his crossed arms and gazed at the wake of
the boat. At the end of the straight avenue of forests cut by the
intense glitter of the river, the sun appeared unclouded and dazzling,
poised low over the water that shone smoothly like a band of metal.
The forests, sombre and dull, stood motionless and silent on each side
of the broad stream. At the foot of big, towering trees, trunkless
nipa palms rose from the mud of the bank, in bunches of leaves
enormous and heavy, that hung unstirring over the brown swirl of
eddies. In the stillness of the air every tree, every leaf, every
bough, every tendril of creeper and every petal of minute blossoms
seemed to have been bewitched into an immobility perfect and final.
Nothing moved on the river but the eight paddles that rose flashing
regularly, dipped together with a single splash; while the steersman
swept right and left with a periodic and sudden flourish of his blade
describing a glinting semicircle above his head. The churned-up water
frothed alongside with a confused murmur. And the white man's canoe,
advancing upstream in the short-lived disturbance of its own making,
seemed to enter the portals of a land from which the very memory of
motion had forever departed.
The white man, turning his back upon the setting sun, looked along the
empty and broad expanse of the sea-reach. For the last three miles of
its course the wandering, hesitating river, as if enticed irresistibly
by the freedom of an open horizon, flows straight into the sea, flows
straight to the east--to the east that harbours both light and
darkness. Astern of the boat the repeated call of some bird, a cry
discordant and feeble, skipped along over the smooth water and lost
itself, before it could reach the other shore, in the breathless
silence of the world.
The steersman dug his paddle into the stream, and held hard with
stiffened arms, his body thrown forward. The water gurgled aloud; and
suddenly the long straight reach seemed to pivot on its centre, the
forests swung in a semicircle, and the slanting beams of sunset
touched the broadside of the canoe with a fiery glow, throwing the
slender and distorted shadows of its crew upon the streaked glitter of
the river. The white man turned to look ahead. The course of the boat
had been altered at right-angles to the stream, and the carved
dragon-head of its prow was pointing now at a gap in the fringing
bushes of the bank. It glided through, brushing the overhanging twigs,
and disappeared from the river like some slim and amphibious
creature leaving the water for its lair in the forests.
The narrow creek was like a ditch: tortuous, fabulously deep; filled
with gloom under the thin strip of pure and shining blue of the
heaven. Immense trees soared up, invisible behind the festooned
draperies of creepers. Here and there, near the glistening blackness
of the water, a twisted root of some tall tree showed amongst the
tracery of small ferns, black and dull, writhing and motionless, like
an arrested snake. The short words of the paddlers reverberated loudly
between the thick and sombre walls of vegetation. Darkness oozed out
from between the trees, through the tangled maze of the creepers, from
behind the great fantastic and unstirring leaves; the darkness,
mysterious and invincible; the darkness scented and poisonous of
The men poled in the shoaling water. The creek broadened, opening out
into a wide sweep of a stagnant lagoon. The forests receded from the
marshy bank, leaving a level strip of bright green, reedy grass to
frame the reflected blueness of the sky. A fleecy pink cloud drifted
high above, trailing the delicate colouring of its image under the
floating leaves and the silvery blossoms of the lotus. A little house,
perched on high piles, appeared black in the distance. Near it, two
tall nibong palms, that seemed to have come out of the forests in the
background, leaned slightly over the ragged roof, with a suggestion of
sad tenderness and care in the droop of their leafy and soaring heads.
The steersman, pointing with his paddle, said, "Arsat is there. I see
his canoe fast between the piles."
The polers ran along the sides of the boat glancing over their
shoulders at the end of the day's journey. They would have preferred
to spend the night somewhere else than on this lagoon of weird
aspect and ghostly reputation. Moreover, they disliked Arsat, first as
a stranger, and also because he who repairs a ruined house, and dwells
in it, proclaims that he is not afraid to live amongst the spirits
that haunt the places abandoned by mankind. Such a man can disturb the
course of fate by glances or words; while his familiar ghosts are not
easy to propitiate by casual wayfarers upon whom they long to wreak
the malice of their human master. White men care not for such things,
being unbelievers and in league with the Father of Evil, who leads
them unharmed through the invisible dangers of this world. To the
warnings of the righteous they oppose an offensive pretence of
disbelief. What is there to be done?
So they thought, throwing their weight on the end of their long poles.
The big canoe glided on swiftly, noiselessly, and smoothly, towards
Arsat's clearing, till, in a great rattling of poles thrown down, and
the loud murmurs of "Allah be praised!" it came with a gentle knock
against the crooked piles below the house.
The boatmen with uplifted faces shouted discordantly, "Arsat! O
Arsat!" Nobody came. The white man began to climb the rude ladder
giving access to the bamboo platform before the house. The juragan of
the boat said sulkily, "We will cook in the sampan, and sleep on the
"Pass my blankets and the basket," said the white man, curtly.
He knelt on the edge of the platform to receive the bundle. Then the
boat shoved off, and the white man, standing up, confronted Arsat, who
had come out through the low door of his hut. He was a man young,
powerful, with broad chest and muscular arms. He had nothing on but
his sarong. His head was bare. His big, soft eyes stared eagerly at
the white man, but his voice and demeanour were composed as he asked,
without any words of greeting--
"Have you medicine, Tuan?"
"No," said the visitor in a startled tone. "No. Why? Is there sickness
in the house?"
"Enter and see," replied Arsat, in the same calm manner, and turning
short round, passed again through the small doorway. The white man,
dropping his bundles, followed.
In the dim light of the dwelling he made out on a couch of bamboos a
woman stretched on her back under a broad sheet of red cotton cloth.
She lay still, as if dead; but her big eyes, wide open, glittered in
the gloom, staring upwards at the slender rafters, motionless and
unseeing. She was in a high fever, and evidently unconscious. Her
cheeks were sunk slightly, her lips were partly open, and on the young
face there was the ominous and fixed expression--the absorbed,
contemplating expression of the unconscious who are going to die. The
two men stood looking down at her in silence.
"Has she been long ill?" asked the traveller.
"I have not slept for five nights," answered the Malay, in a
deliberate tone. "At first she heard voices calling her from the water
and struggled against me who held her. But since the sun of to-day
rose she hears nothing--she hears not me. She sees nothing. She sees
He remained silent for a minute, then asked softly--
"Tuan, will she die?"
"I fear so," said the white man, sorrowfully. He had known Arsat years
ago, in a far country in times of trouble and danger, when no
friendship is to be despised. And since his Malay friend had come
unexpectedly to dwell in the hut on the lagoon with a strange woman,
he had slept many times there, in his journeys up and down the river.
He liked the man who knew how to keep faith in council and how to
fight without fear by the side of his white friend. He liked him--not
so much perhaps as a man likes his favourite dog--but still he liked
him well enough to help and ask no questions, to think sometimes
vaguely and hazily in the midst of his own pursuits, about the lonely
man and the long-haired woman with audacious face and triumphant
eyes, who lived together hidden by the forests--alone and feared.
The white man came out of the hut in time to see the enormous
conflagration of sunset put out by the swift and stealthy shadows
that, rising like a black and impalpable vapour above the tree-tops,
spread over the heaven, extinguishing the crimson glow of floating
clouds and the red brilliance of departing daylight. In a few moments
all the stars came out above the intense blackness of the earth and
the great lagoon gleaming suddenly with reflected lights resembled an
oval patch of night sky flung down into the hopeless and abysmal night
of the wilderness. The white man had some supper out of the basket,
then collecting a few sticks that lay about the platform, made up a
small fire, not for warmth, but for the sake of the smoke, which would
keep off the mosquitos. He wrapped himself in the blankets and sat
with his back against the reed wall of the house, smoking
Arsat came through the doorway with noiseless steps and squatted down
by the fire. The white man moved his outstretched legs a little.
"She breathes," said Arsat in a low voice, anticipating the expected
question. "She breathes and burns as if with a great fire. She speaks
not; she hears not--and burns!"
He paused for a moment, then asked in a quiet, incurious tone--
"Tuan . . . will she die?"
The white man moved his shoulders uneasily and muttered in a
"If such is her fate."
"No, Tuan," said Arsat, calmly. "If such is my fate. I hear, I see, I
wait. I remember . . . Tuan, do you remember the old days? Do you
remember my brother?"
"Yes," said the white man. The Malay rose suddenly and went in. The
other, sitting still outside, could hear the voice in the hut. Arsat
said: "Hear me! Speak!" His words were succeeded by a complete
silence. "O Diamelen!" he cried, suddenly. After that cry there was a
deep sigh. Arsat came out and sank down again in his old place.
They sat in silence before the fire. There was no sound within the
house, there was no sound near them; but far away on the lagoon they
could hear the voices of the boatmen ringing fitful and distinct on
the calm water. The fire in the bows of the sampan shone faintly in
the distance with a hazy red glow. Then it died out. The voices
ceased. The land and the water slept invisible, unstirring and mute.
It was as though there had been nothing left in the world but the
glitter of stars streaming, ceaseless and vain, through the black
stillness of the night.
The white man gazed straight before him into the darkness with
wide-open eyes. The fear and fascination, the inspiration and the
wonder of death--of death near, unavoidable, and unseen, soothed the
unrest of his race and stirred the most indistinct, the most intimate
of his thoughts. The ever-ready suspicion of evil, the gnawing
suspicion that lurks in our hearts, flowed out into the stillness
round him--into the stillness profound and dumb, and made it appear
untrustworthy and infamous, like the placid and impenetrable mask
of an unjustifiable violence. In that fleeting and powerful
disturbance of his being the earth enfolded in the starlight peace
became a shadowy country of inhuman strife, a battle-field of phantoms
terrible and charming, august or ignoble, struggling ardently for the
possession of our helpless hearts. An unquiet and mysterious country
of inextinguishable desires and fears.
A plaintive murmur rose in the night; a murmur saddening and
startling, as if the great solitudes of surrounding woods had tried to
whisper into his ear the wisdom of their immense and lofty
indifference. Sounds hesitating and vague floated in the air round
him, shaped themselves slowly into words; and at last flowed on gently
in a murmuring stream of soft and monotonous sentences. He stirred
like a man waking up and changed his position slightly. Arsat,
motionless and shadowy, sitting with bowed head under the stars, was
speaking in a low and dreamy tone--
". . . for where can we lay down the heaviness of our trouble but in a
friend's heart? A man must speak of war and of love. You, Tuan, know
what war is, and you have seen me in time of danger seek death as
other men seek life! A writing may be lost; a lie may be written; but