Part 3 out of 5
'Be resumed, as it were, via you. You see, I suppose he is
compelled to regain his circle, or Purgatory, or Styx, whatever
you like to call it, via consciousness. No one present, then no
revenant or spook, or astral body, or hallucination: what's in a
name? And of course even an hallucination is mind-stuff, and on
its own, as it were. What I mean is that the poor devil must have
some kind of human personality to get back through in order to
make his exit from our sphere of consciousness into his. And
naturally, of course to make his entrance too. If like a tenuous
smoke he can get in, the probability is that he gets out in
precisely the same fashion. For really, if you weren't
consciously expecting the customary impact (you actually jerk
forward in the act of resistance unresisted), you would not
notice his going. I am afraid I must be horribly boring you with
all these tangled theories. All I mean is, that if you were
really absorbed in what you happened to be doing at the time, the
thing might come and go, with your mind for entrance and exit, as
it were, without your being conscious of it at all.' There was a
longish pause, in which Herbert slowly inhaled and softly breathed
out his smoke.
'And what--what is the poor wretch searching FOR? And what--why,
what becomes of him when he does go?'
'Ah, there you have me! One merely surmises just as one's
temperament or convictions lean. Grisel says it's some poor
derelict soul in search of peace--that the poor beggar wants
finally to die, in fact, and can't. Sallie smells crime. After
all, what is every man?' he talked on; 'a horde of ghosts--like a
Chinese nest of boxes--oaks that were acorns that were oaks.
Death lies behind us, not in front--in our ancestors, back and
'"Until?"' Lawford managed to remark.
'Ah, that settles me again. Don't they call it an amoeba? But
really I am abjectly ignorant of all that kind of stuff. We
are ALL we are, and all in a sense we care to dream we are. And
for that matter, anything outlandish, bizarre, is a godsend
in this rather stodgy life. It is after all just what the old boy
said--it's only the impossible that's credible; whatever
credible may mean....'
It seemed to Lawford as if the last remark had wafted him bodily
into the presence of his kind, blinking, intensely anxious old
friend, Mr Bethany. And what leagues asunder the two men were who
had happened on much the same words to express their convictions.
He drew his hand gropingly over his face, half rose, and again
seated himself. 'Whatever it may be,' he said, 'the whole thing
reminds me, you know--it is in a way so curiously like my own--my
Herbert sat on, a little drawn up in his chair, quietly smoking.
The crash of the falling water, after seeming to increase in
volume with the fading of evening, had again died down in the
darkness to a low multitudinous tumult as of countless
inarticulate, echoing voices.
'"Bizarre," you said; God knows I am.' But Herbert still remained
obdurately silent. 'You remember, perhaps,' Lawford faintly began
again, 'our talk the other night?'
'Oh, rather,' replied the cordial voice out of the dusk.
'I suppose you thought I was insane?'
'Insane!' There was a genuinely amused astonishment in the echo.
'You were lucidity itself. Besides--well, honestly, if I may
venture, I don't put very much truck in what one calls one's
sanity: except, of course, as a bond of respectability and a
means of livelihood.'
'But did you realise in the least from what I said how I really
stand? That I went down into that old shadowy hollow one man, and
'I gathered vaguely something like that. I thought at first it
was merely an affectation--that what you said was an
affectation, I mean--until--well, to be frank, it was the "this"
that so immensely interested me. Especially,' he added almost
with a touch of gaiety, 'especially the last glimpse. But if it's
really not a forbidden question, what precisely was the other?
What precise manner of man, I mean, came down into Widderstone?'
'It is my face that is changed, Mr Herbert. If you'll try to
understand me--my FACE. What you see now is not what I really
am, not what I was. Oh, it is all quite different. I know
perfectly well how absurd it must sound. And you won't press me
further. But that's the truth: that's what they have done for
It seemed to Lawford as if a remote tiny shout of laughter had
been suddenly caught back in the silence that had followed this
confession. He peered in vain in the direction of his companion.
Even his cigarette revealed no sign of him. 'I know, I know,' he
went gropingly on; 'I felt it would sound to you like nothing but
frantic incredible nonsense. YOU can't see it. YOU can't feel it.
YOU can't hear these hooting voices. It's no use at all blinking
the fact; I am simply on the verge, if not over it, of insanity.'
'As to that, Mr Lawford,' came the still voice out of the
darkness; 'the very fact of your being able to say so seems to
me all but proof positive that you're not. Insanity is on another
plane, isn't it? in which one can't compare one's states.
As for what you say being credible, take our precious noodle of a
spook here! Ninety-nine hundredths of this amiable world of ours
would have guffawed the poor creature into imperceptibility ages
ago. To such poor credulous creatures as my sister and I he is no
more and no less a fact, a personality, an amusing reality than--
well, this teacup. Here we are, amazing mysteries both of us in
any case; and all round us are scores of books, dealing just with
life, pure, candid, and unexpurgated; and there's not a single
one among them but reads like a taradiddle. Yet grope between the
lines of any autobiography, it's pretty clear what one has got--a
feeble, timid, creeping attempt to describe the indescribable. As
for what you say your case is, the bizarre--that kind very seldom
gets into print at all. In all our make-believe, all our pretence,
how, honestly, could it? But there, this is immaterial. The real
question is, may I, can I help? What I gather is this: You just
trundled down into Widderstone all among the dead men, and--but one
moment, I'll light up.'
A light flickered up in the dark. Shading it in his hand from the
night air straying through the open window, Herbert lit the two candles that
stood upon the little chimneypiece behind Lawford's
head. Then sauntering over to the window again, almost as if with
an affectation of nonchalance, he drew one of the shutters, and
sat down. 'Nothing much struck me,' he went on, leaning back on
his hands, 'I mean on Sunday evening, until you said good-bye. It
was then that I caught in the moon a distinct glimpse of your
'This,' said Lawford, with a sudden horrible sinking of the
Herbert nodded. 'The fact is, I have a print of it,' he said.
'A print of it?'
'A miserable little dingy engraving.'
'Of this?' Herbert nodded, with eyes fixed. 'Where?'
'That's the nuisance. I searched high and low for it the instant
I got home. For the moment it has been mislaid; but it must be
somewhere in the house and it will turn up all in good time. It's
the frontispiece of one of a queer old hotchpotch of pamphlets,
sewn up together by some amateur enthusiast in a marbled paper
cover--confessions, travels, trials and so on. All eighteenth
century, and all in French.'
'And mine?' said Lawford, gazing stonily across the candlelight.
Herbert, from a head slightly stooping, gazed back in an almost
birdlike fashion across the room at his visitor.
'Sabathier's,' he said.
'A really curious resemblance. Of course, I am speaking only from
memory; and perhaps it's not quite so vivid in this light; but
still astonishingly clear.'
Lawford sat drawn up, staring at his companion's face in an
intense and helpless silence. His mouth opened but no words came.
'Of course,' began Herbert again, 'I don't say there's anything
in it--except the--the mere coincidence,' he paused and
glanced out of the open casement beside him. 'But there's just
one obvious question. Do you happen to know of any strain of
French blood in your family?'
Lawford shut his eyes, even memory seemed to be forsaking him at
last. 'No,' he said, after a long pause, 'there's a little
Dutch, I think, on my mother's side, but no French.'
'No Sabathier, then?' said Herbert, smiling. 'And then there's
another question--this change; is it really as complete as
you suppose? Has it--please just warn me off if I am in the least
intruding--has it been noticed?'
Lawford hesitated. 'Oh, yes,' he said slowly, 'it has been
noticed--my wife, a few friends.'
'Do you mind this infernal clatter?' said Herbert, laying his
fingers on the open casement.
'No, no. And you think?'
'My dear fellow, I don't think anything. It's all the craziest
conjecture. Stranger things even than this have happened. There
are dozens here--in print. What are we human beings after all?
Clay in the hands of the potter. Our bodies are merely an
inheritance, packed tight and corded up. We have practically no
control over their main functions. We can't even replace a little
finger-nail. And look at the faces of us--what atrocious
mockeries most of them are of any kind of image! But we know our
bodies change--age, sickness, thought, passion, fatality. It
proves they are amazingly plastic. And merely even as a theory it
is not in the least untenable that by force of some violent
convulsive effort from outside one's body might change. It
answers with odd voluntariness to friend or foe, smile or snarl.
As for what we call the laws of Nature, they are pure assumptions
to-day, and may be nothing better than scrap-iron tomorrow. Good
Heavens, Lawford, consider man's abysmal impudence.' He smoked on
in silence for a moment. 'You say you fell asleep down there?'
Lawford nodded. Herbert tapped his cigarette on the sill. 'Just
following up our ludicrous conjecture, you know,' he remarked
musingly, 'it wasn't such a bad opportunity for the poor chap.'
'But surely,' said Lawford, speaking as it were out of a dream of
candle-light and reverberating sound and clearest darkness,
towards this strange deliberate phantom with the unruffled
clear-cut features--'surely then, in that case, he is here now?
And yet, on my word of honour, though every friend I ever had in
the world should deny it, I am the same. Memory stretches back
clear and sound to my childhood. I can see myself with
extraordinary lucidity, how I think, my motives and all that; and
in spite of these voices that I seem to hear, and this peculiar
kind of longing to break away, as it were, just to press on--it
is I,--I myself, that am speaking to you now out of this--this
Herbert glanced reflectively at his companion. 'You mustn't let
me tire you,' he said; 'but even on our theory it would not
necessarily follow that you yourself would be much affected. It's
true this fellow Sabathier really was something of a personality.
He had a rather unusual itch for life, for trying on and on to
squeeze something out of experience that isn't there; and he
seemed never to weary of a magnificent attempt to find in his
fellow-creatures, especially in the women he met, what even--if
they have it--they cannot give. The little book I wanted to show
you is partly autobiographical and really does manage to set the
fellow on his feet. Even there he does absolutely take one's
imagination. I shall never forget the thrill of picking him up in
the Charing Cross Road. You see, I had known the queer old
tombstone for years. He's enormously vivid--quite beyond my
feebleness to describe, with a kind of French verve and rapture.
Unluckily we can't get nearer than two years to his death. I
shouldn't mind guessing some last devastating dream swept over
him, held him the breath of an instant too long beneath the wave,
and he caved in. We know he killed himself; and perhaps lived to
regret it ever after.
'After all, what is this precious dying we talk so much about?'
Herbert continued after a while, his eyes restlessly wandering
from shelf to shelf. 'You remember our talk in the churchyard? We
all know that the body fades quick enough when its occupant is
gone. Supposing even in the sleep of the living it lies very
feebly guarded. And supposing in that state some infernally
potent thing outside it, wandering disembodied, just happens on
it--like some hungry sexton beetle on the carcase of a mouse.
Supposing--I know it's the most outrageous theorising--but
supposing all these years of sun and dark, Sabathier's emanation,
or whatever you like to call it, horribly restless, by some
fatality longing on and on just for life, or even for the face,
the voice, of some "impossible she" whom he couldn't get in this
muddled world, simply loathing all else; supposing he has been
lingering in ambush down beside those poor old dusty bones that
had poured out for him such marrowy hospitality--oh, I know it;
the dead do. And then, by a chance, one quiet autumn evening, a
veritable godsend of a little Miss Muffet comes wandering down
under the shade of his immortal cypresses, half asleep, fagged
out, depressed in mind and body, perhaps: imagine yourself in his
place, and he in yours!' Herbert stood up in his eagerness, his
sleek hair shining. 'The one clinching chance of a century!
Wouldn't you have made a fight for it? Wouldn't you have risked
the raid? I can just conceive it--the amazing struggle in that
darkness within a darkness; like some dazed alien bee bursting
through the sentinels of a hive; one mad impetuous clutch at
victory; then the appalling stirring on the other side; the
groping back to a house dismantled, rearranged, not, mind you,
disorganised or disintegrated....' He broke off with a smile,
as if of apology for his long, fantastic harangue.
Lawford sat listening, his eyes fixed on Herbert's colourless
face. There was not a sound else, it seemed, than that slightly
drawling scrupulous voice poking its way amid a maze of enticing,
baffling thoughts. Herbert turned away with a shrug. 'It's
tempting stuff,' he said, choosing another cigarette. 'But
anyhow, the poor beggar failed.'
'Why, surely; if he had succeeded I should not now be talking to
a mere imperfect simulacrum, to the outward illusion of a passing
likeness to the man, but to Sabathier himself!' His eyes moved
slowly round and dwelt for a moment with a dark, quiet scrutiny
on his visitor.
'You say a passing likeness; do you MEAN that?'
Herbert smiled indulgently. 'If one CAN mean what is purely a
speculation. I am only trying to look at the thing
dispassionately, you see. We are so much the slaves of mere
repetition. Here is life--yours and mine--a kind of plenum in
vacuo. It is only when we begin to play the eavesdropper; when
something goes askew; when one of the sentries on the frontier of
the unexpected shouts a hoarse "Qui vive?"--it is only then we
begin to question; to prick our aldermen and pinch the calves of
our kings. Why, who is there can answer to anybody's but his own
satisfaction just that one fundamental question--Are we the
prisoners, the slaves, the inheritors, the creatures, or the
creators of our bodies? Fallen angels or horrific dust? As for
identity or likeness or personality, we have only our neighbours'
nod for them, and just a fading memory. No, the old fairy tales
knew better; and witchcraft's witchcraft to the end of the
chapter. Honestly, and just of course on that one theory,
Lawford, I can't help thinking that Sabathier's raid only just so
far succeeded as to leave his impression in the wax. It doesn't,
of course, follow that it will necessarily end there. It might--
it may be even now just gradually fading away. It may, you know,
need driving out--with whips and scorpions. It might, perhaps,
Lawford sat cold and still. 'It's no good, no good,' he said, 'I
don't understand; I can't follow you. I was always stupid, always
bigoted and cocksure. These things have never seemed anything but
old women's tales to me. And now I must pay for it. And this
Nicholas Sabathier; you say he was a blackguard?'
'Well,' said Herbert with a faint smile, 'that depends on your
definition of the word. He wasn't a flunkey, a fool, or a prig,
if that's what you mean. He wasn't perhaps on Mrs Grundy's
visiting list. He wasn't exactly gregarious. And yet in a sense
that kind of temperament is so rare that Sappho, Nelson, and
Shelley shared it. To the stodgy, suety world of course it's
little else than sheer moonshine, midsummer madness. Naturally,
in its own charming and stodgy way the world kept flickering cold
water in his direction. Naturally it hissed.... I shall find the
book. You shall have the book; oh yes.'
'There's only one more question,' said Lawford in a dull, slow
voice, stooping and covering his face with his hands. 'I know
it's impossible for you to realise--but to me time seems like
that water there, to be heaping up about me. I wait, just as one
waits when the conductor of an orchestra lifts his hand and in a
moment the whole surge of brass and wood, cymbal and drum will
crash out--and sweep me under. I can't tell you Herbert, how it
all is, with just these groping stirrings of that mole in my
mind's dark. You say it may be this face, working in! God knows.
I find it easy to speak to you--this cold, clear sense, you know.
The others feel too much, or are afraid, or-- Let me think--yes,
I was going to ask you a question. But no one can answer it.' He
peered darkly, with white face suddenly revealed between his
hands. 'What remains now? Where do I come in? What is there left
for ME to do?'
And at that moment there sounded, even above the monotonous roar
of the water beyond the window--there fell the sound of a light
footfall approaching along the corridor.
'Listen,' said Herbert; 'here's my sister coming; we'll ask her.'
The door opened. Lawford rose, and into the further rays of the
candlelight entered a rather slim figure in a light summer gown.
'Just home?' said Herbert.
'We've been for a walk--'
'My sister always forgets everything,' said Herbert, turning to
Lawford; 'even tea-time. This is Mr Lawford, Grisel. We've been
arguing no end. And we want you to give a decision. It's just
this: Supposing if by some impossible trick you had come in now,
not the charming familiar sister you are, but shorter, fatter,
fair and round-faced, quite different, physically, you know--what
would you do?'
'What nonsense you talk, Herbert!'
'Yes, but supposing: a complete transmogrification--by some
unimaginable ingression or enchantment, by nibbling a bunch of
roses, or whatever you like to call it?'
'Well, yes, actually; but potentially, why--that's another
The dark eyes passed slowly from her brother's face and rested
gravely on their visitor's.
'Is he making fun of me?'
Lawford almost imperceptibly shook his head.
'But what a question! And I've had no tea.' She drew her gloves
slowly through her hand. 'The thing, of course, isn't possible, I
know. But shouldn't I go mad, don't you think?'
Lawford gazed quietly back into the clear, grave, deliberate
eyes. 'Suppose, suppose, just for the sake of argument--NOT,' he
She turned her head and reflected, glancing from one to the other
of the pure, steady candle-flames.
'And what was your answer?' she said, looking over her shoulder
at her brother.
'My dear child, you know what my answers are like!'
Lawford took a deep breath, gazing mutely, forlornly, into the
lovely untroubled peace of her eyes, and without the least
warning tears swept up into his own. With an immense effort he
turned, and choking back every sound, beating hack every thought,
groped his way towards the square black darkness of the open
'I must think, I must think,' he managed to whisper, lifting his
hand and steadying himself. He caught over his shoulder the
glimpse of a curiously distorted vision, a lifted candle, and a
still face gazing after him with infinitely grieved eyes, then
found himself groping and stumbling down the steep, uneven
staircase into the darkness of the queer old wooden and hushed
and lonely house. The night air cold on his face calmed his mind.
He turned and held out his hand.
'You'll come again?' Herbert was saying, with a hint of anxiety,
even of apology in his voice.
Lawford nodded, with eyes fixed blankly on the candle, and
turning once more, made his way slowly down the narrow
green-bordered path upon which the stars rained a scattered light
so feeble it seemed but as a haze that blurred the darkness. He
pushed open the little white wicket and turned his face towards
the soundless, leaf-crowned hill. He had advanced hardly a score
of steps in the thick dust when almost as if its very silence had
struck upon his ear he remembered the black broken grave with its
sightless heads that lay beyond the leaves. And fear, vast and
menacing, fear such as only children know, broke like a sea of
darkness on his heart. He stopped dead--cold, helpless, trembling.
And, in the silence he heard a faint cry behind him and light
footsteps pursuing him. He turned again. In the thick close gloom
beneath the enormous elm-boughs the grey eyes shone clearly
visible in the face upturned to him. 'My brother,' she began
breathlessly--'the little French book. It was I who--who mislaid
The set, stricken face listened unmoved.
'You are ill. Come back! I am afraid you are very ill.'
'It's not that, not that,' Lawford muttered; 'don't leave me; I
am alone. Don't question me,' he said strangely, looking down
into her face, clutching her hand; 'only understand that I can't,
I can't go on.' He swept a lean arm towards the unseen
churchyard. 'I am afraid.'
The cold hand clasped his closer. 'Hush, don't speak! Come back;
come back. I am with you, a friend, you see; come back.'
Lawford clutched her hand as a blind man in sudden peril might
clutch the hand of a child. He saw nothing clearly; spoke almost
without understanding his words.
'Oh, but it's MUST,' he said; 'I MUST go on. You see--why,
everything depends on struggling through: the future! But if you
only knew-- There!' Again his arm swept out, and the lean
terrified face turned shuddering from the dark.
'I do know; believe me, believe me! I can guess. See, I am coming
with you; we will go together. As if, as if I did not know what
it is to be afraid. Oh, believe me; no one is near; we go on; and
see! it gradually, gradually lightens. How thankful I am I came.'
She had turned and they were steadily ascending as if pushing
their way, battling on through some obstacle of the mind rather
than of the senses beneath the star-powdered callous vault of
night. And it seemed to Lawford as if, as they pressed on
together, some obscure detestable presence as slowly, as doggedly
had drawn worsted aside. He could see again the peaceful
outspread branches of the trees, the lych-gate standing in
clear-cut silhouette against the liquid dusk of the sky. A
strange calm stole over his mind. The very meaning and memory of
his fear faded out and vanished, as the passed-away clouds of a
storm that leave a purer, serener sky.
They stopped and stood together on the brow of the little hill,
and Lawford, still trembling from head to foot, looked back
across the hushed and lightless countryside. 'It's all gone now,'
he said wearily, 'and now there's nothing left. You see, I cannot
even ask your forgiveness--and a stranger!'
'Please don't say that--unless--unless--a "pilgrim" too. I think,
surely, you must own we did have the best of it that time. Yes--
and I don't care WHO may be listening--but we DID win through.'
'What can I say? How shall I explain? How shall I make you
The clear grey eyes showed not the faintest perturbation. 'But I
do; I do indeed, in part; I do understand, ever so faintly.'
'And now I will come back with you.'
They paused in the darkness face to face, the silence of the sky,
arched in its vastness above the little hill, the only witness of
She turned unquestioningly. And laughing softly almost as children
do, the stalking shadows of a twilight wood behind them--they trod
in silence back to the house. They said good-bye at the gate, and
Lawford started once more for home. He walked slowly, conscious
of an almost intolerable weariness, as if his strength had
suddenly been wrested away from him. And at some distance beyond
the top of the hill he sat down on the bank beside a nettled
ditch, and with his book pressed down upon the wayside grass
struck a match, and holding it low in the scented, windless air
turned slowly the cockled leaf.
Few of them were alike except for the dinginess of the print and
the sinister smudge of the portraits. All were sewn roughly
together into a mould-stained, marbled cover. He lit a second
match, and as he did so glanced as if inquiringly over his
shoulder. And a score or so of pages before the end he came at
last upon the name he was seeking, and turned the page.
It was a likeness even more striking in its crudeness of ink and
line and paper than the most finished of portraits could have
been. It repelled, and yet it fascinated him. He had not for a
moment doubted Herbert's calm conviction. And yet as he stooped
in the grass, closely scrutinising the blurred obscure features,
he felt the faintest surprise not so much at the significant
resemblance but at his own composure, his own steady, unflinching
confrontation with this sinister and intangible adversary. The
match burned down to his fingers. It hissed faintly in the grass.
He stuffed the book into his pocket, and stared into the pale
dial of his watch. It was a few minutes after eleven. Midnight,
then, would just see him in. He rose stiffly and yawned in sheer
exhaustion. Then, hesitating, he turned his head and looked back
towards the hollow. But a vague foreboding held him back. A sour
and vacuous incredulity swept over him. What was the use of all
this struggling and vexation. What gain in living on? Once dead
his sluggish spirit at least would find its rest. Dust to dust it
would indeed be for him. What else, in sober earnest, had he been
all his daily stolid life but half dead, scarce conscious, without
a living thought, or desire, in head or heart?
And while he was still gloomily debating within himself he had
turned towards home, and soon was walking in a kind of reverie,
even his extreme tiredness in part forgotten, and only a far-away
dogged recollection in his mind that in spite of shame, in spite of
all his miserable weakness, the words had been uttered once for all,
and in all sincerity, 'We DID win through.'
Yet a desolate and odd air of strangeness seemed to drape his
unlighted house as he stood looking up in a kind of furtive
communion with its windows. It affected him with that
discomforting air of extreme and meaningless novelty that things
very familiar sometimes take upon themselves. In this leaden
tiredness no impression could be trustworthy. His lids shut of
themselves as he softly mounted the steps. It seemed a needlessly
wide door that soundlessly admitted him. But however hard he
pressed the key his bedroom door remained stubbornly shut until
he found that it was already unlocked and he had only to turn the
handle. A night-light burned in a little basin on the washstand.
The room was hung, as it were, with the stillness of night. And
half lying on the bed in her dressing-gown, her head leaning on
the rail at the foot, was Alice, just as sleep had overtaken her.
Lawford returned to the door and listened. It seemed he heard a
voice talking downstairs, and yet not talking, for it ran on and
on in an incessant slightly argumentative monotony that had
neither break nor interruption. He closed the door, and stooping
laid his hand softly on Alice's narrow, still childish hand that
lay half-folded on her knee. Her eyes opened instantly and gazed
widely into his face. A slow vacant smile of sleep came and went
and her fingers tightened gently over his as again her lids
drooped down over the drowsy blue eyes.
'At last, at last, dear,' she said; 'I have been waiting such a
time. But we mustn't talk much. Mother is waiting up, reading.'
Faintly through the close-shut door came the sound of that
distant expressionless voice monotonously rising and falling.
'Why didn't you tell me, dear?' Alice still sleepily whispered.
'Would I have asked a single question? How could I? Oh, if you
had only trusted me!'
'But the change--the change, Alice! You must have seen that. You
spoke to me, you did think I was only a stranger; and even when
you knew, it was only fear on your face, dearest, and aversion;
and you turned to your mother first. Don't think, Alice, that I
am...God only knows--I'm not complaining. But truth is best
whatever it is. I do feel that. You mustn't be afraid of hurting
me, my dear.'
Her very hands seemed to quicken in his as now, with sleep quite
gone, the fret of memory returned, and she must reassure both
herself and him. 'But you see, dear, mother had told me that
you--besides, I did know you at once, really; quite inside, you
know, deep down. I know I was perplexed; I didn't understand; but
that was all. Why, even when you came up in the dark, and we
talked--if you only knew how miserable I had been--though I knew
even then there was something different, still I was not a bit
afraid. Was I? And shouldn't I have been afraid, horribly afraid,
if YOU had not been YOU?' She repressed a little shudder, and
clasped his hand more closely. 'Don't let us say anything more
about it, she implored him; 'we are just together again, you and
I; that is all that matters.' But her words were like brave
soldiers who have fought their way through an ambuscade but have
left all confidence behind them.
Lawford listened; and that was enough just now--that she still,
in spite of doubt, believed in him, and thought and cared for
him. He was too tired to have refused the least kindness. He made
no answer, but leant his head on the cool, slender fingers in
gratitude and peace. And, just as he was, he almost instantly
fell asleep. He woke in the darkness to find himself alone. He
groped his way heavily to the door and turned the handle. But now
it was really locked. Energy failed him. 'I suppose--Sheila...'
Sheila, calm, alert, reserved, was sitting at the open window
when he awoke again. His breakfast tray stood on a little table
beside the bed. He raised himself on his elbow and looked at his
wife. The morning light shone full on her features as she turned
quickly at sound of his stirring.
'You have slept late,' she said, in a low, mellow voice.
'Have I, Sheila? I suppose I was tired out. It is very kind of
you to have got everything ready like this.'
'I am afraid, Arthur, I was thinking rather of the maids. I like
to inconvenience them as little as possible; in their usual
routine, I mean. How are you feeling, do you think, this
'I--I haven't seen the glass, Sheila.'
She paused to place a little pencil tick at the foot of the page
of her butcher's book. 'And did you--did you try?'
'Did I try? Try what?'
'I understood,' she said, turning slowly in her chair, 'you gave
me to understand that you went out with the specific intention of
trying to regain.... But there, forgive me, Arthur; I think I
must be getting a little bit hardened to the position, so far at
least as any hope is in my mind of rather amateurish experiments
being of much help. I may seem unsympathetic in saying frankly
what I feel. But amateurish or no, you are curiously erratic.
Why, if you really were the Dr Ferguson whose part you play so
admirably you could scarcely spend a more active life.'
'All you mean, Sheila, I suppose, is that I have failed.'
'"Failed" did not enter my mind. I thought, looking at you just
now in your clothes on the bed, one might for the moment be
deceived into thinking there was a slight--quite the slightest
improvement. There was not quite that'--she hovered for the right
word--'that tenseness. Whether or not, whether you desired any
such change or didn't, I should have supposed in any case it
would have been better to act as far as possible like any
ordinary person. You were certainly in an extraordinarily sound
sleep. I was almost alarmed; until I remembered that it was a
little after two when I looked up from reading aloud to keep
myself awake and discovered that you had only just come home. I
had no fire. You know how easily late hours bring on my
headaches; a little thought might possibly have suggested that I
should be anxious to hear. But no; it seems I cannot profit by
experience, Arthur. And even now you have not answered surely a
very natural question. You do not recollect, perhaps, exactly
what did happen last night? Did you go in the direction even of
'Yes, Sheila, I went to Widderstone.'
'It was of course absurd to suppose that sitting on a seat beside
the broken-down grave of a suicide would have the slightest
effect on one's--one's physical condition; though possibly it
might affect one's brain. It would mine; I am at least certain of
that. It was your own prescription, however; and it merely
occurred to me to inquire whether the actual experience has not
brought you round to my own opinion.'
'Yes, I think it has,' Lawford answered calmly. 'But I don't
quite see what suicide has got to do with it; unless-- You know
Widderstone, then, Sheila?'
'I drove there last Saturday afternoon.'
'For prayer or praise?' Although Lawford had not actually raised
his head, he became conscious rather of the wonderfully adjusted
mass of hair than of the pained dignity in the face that was now
closely regarding him.
'I went,' came the rigidly controlled retort, 'simply to test an
'Convinced, Arthur, of its inconceivability. But if you would
kindly inform me what precise formula you followed at Widderstone
last night, I would tell you why I think the explanation, or
rather your first account of the matter, is not an explanation of
Lawford shot a rather doglike glance over his toast. 'Danton?' he
'Candidly, Arthur, Mr Danton doubts the whole story. Your very
conduct--well, it would serve no useful purpose to go into that.
Candidly, on the other hand, Mr. Danton did make some extremely
helpful suggestions--basing them, of course, on the TRUTH of your
account. He has seen a good deal of life; and certainly very
mysterious things do occur to quite innocent and well-meaning
people without the faintest shadow of warning, and as Mr. Bethany
himself said, evil birds do come home to roost, and often out of
a clear sky, as it were. But there, every fresh solution that
occurs to me only makes the thing more preposterous, more, I was
going to say, disreputable--I mean, of course, to the outside
world. And we have our duties to perform to them too, I suppose.
Why, what can we say? What plausible account of ourselves have
we? We shall never be able to look anybody in the face again. I
can only--I am compelled to believe that God has been pleased to
make this precise visitation upon us--an eye for an eye, I
suppose, SOMEWHERE. And to that conviction I shall hold until
actual circumstances convince me that it's false. What, however,
and this is all that I have to say now, what I cannot understand
are your amazing indiscretions.'
'Do you understand your own, Sheila?'
'My indiscretions, Arthur?'
'Well,' said Lawford, 'wasn't it indiscreet, don't you think, to
risk divine retribution by marrying me? Shouldn't you have
inquired? Wasn't it indiscreet to allow me to remain here in--in
my "visitation?" Wasn't it indiscreet to risk the moral stigma
this unhappy face of mine must cast on its surroundings? I am not
sure whether such a change as this constitutes cruelty.... Oh,
what is the use of fretting and babbling on like this?'
'Am I to understand, then, that you refuse positively to discuss
this horrible business any more? You are doing your best to drive
me away, Arthur; you must see that. Will you be very disappointed
if I refuse to go?'
Lawford rose from the bed. 'Listen just this once,' he said,
seating himself on the corner of the dressing-table. 'Imagine all
this--whatever you like to call it--obliterated. Take this,' he
nodded towards the glass, 'entirely for itself, on its own
merits, as it were. Let the dead past bury its dead. Which, now,
precisely, REALLY do you prefer--him,' he jerked his head in the
direction of the dispassionate youthful picture on the wall, 'him
He was so close to her now that he could see the faintest tremor
on the face that had suddenly become grey and still in the thin
'I own it, I own it,' he went on, slowly; 'the change is more
than skin-deep now. One can't go through what I have gone through
these last few terrifying days, Sheila, unchanged. They have
played the devil with my body; now begins the tampering with my
mind. Not even Danton knows how it will end. But shall I tell you
why you won't, why you can't answer me that one question--him or
me? Shall I tell you?'
Sheila slowly raised her eyes.
'It is because, my dear, you don't care the ghost of a straw for
either. That one--he was worn out long ago, and we never knew it.
I know it now. Time and the sheer going-on of day by day, without
either of us guessing at it, wore that down till it had no more
meaning for you or me than any other faded remembrance in this
interminable footling with truth that we call life. And this
one--the whole abject meaning of it lies simply in the fact that
it has pierced down and shown us up. I had no courage. I couldn't
see how feeble a hold I had on life--just one's friends'
opinions. It was all at second hand. What I want to know now is--
leave me out; don't think, or care, or regard my living-on one
shadow of an iota--all I ask is, What am I to do for you?' He
turned away and stood staring down at the cinders in the fireless
'I answer that mad wicked outburst with one plain question,' said
a low, trembling voice; 'did you or did you not go to Widderstone
'I did go.'
'You sat there, just as you said you sat before; and with all
your heart and soul strove to regain--yourself?'
Lawford lifted a still, colourless face into the sunlight. 'No,'
he said; 'I spent the evening at the house of a friend.'
'Then I say it is infamous. You cast all this on me. You have
brought me into contempt and poisoned Alice's whole life. You
dream and idle on just as you used to do, without the least care
or thought or consideration for others; and go out in this
condition--go out absolutely unashamed--to spend the evening at a
friend's. Peculiar friends they must be. Why, really, Arthur, you
must be mad!'
Lawford paused. Like a flock of sheep streaming helter-skelter
before the onset of a wolf were the thoughts that a moment before
had seemed so orderly and sober.
'Not mad--possessed,' he said softly.
'And I add this,' cried Sheila, as it were out of a tragic mask,
'somewhere in the past, whether of your own life, or of the lives
of those who brought you into the world--the world which you
pretend so conveniently to despise--somewhere is hidden some
miserable secret. God visits all sins. On you has fallen at last
the payment. THAT I believe. You can't run away, any more than a
child can run away from the cupboard it has been locked into for
a punishment. Who's going to hear you now? You have deliberately
refused to make a friend of me. Fight it out alone, then!'
Lawford heard the door close, and the dying away of the sound
that had been the unceasing accompaniment of all these later
years--the rustling of his wife's skirts, her crisp,
authoritative footstep. And he turned towards the flooding
sunlight that streamed in on the upturned surface of the
looking-glass. No clear decisive thought came into his mind, only
a vague recognition that so far as Sheila was concerned this was
the end. No regret, no remorse visited him. He was just alone
again, that was all--alone, as in reality he had always been
alone, without having the sense or power to see or to acknowledge
it. All he had said had been the mere flotsam of the moment, and
now it stood stark and irrevocable between himself and the past.
He sat down dazed and stupid. Again and again a struggling
recollection tried to obtrude itself; again and again he beat it
back. And rather for something to distract his attention than for
any real interest or enlightenment he might find in its pages, he
took out the grimy dog's-eared book that Herbert had given him,
and turned slowly over the leaves till he came to Sabathier once
more. Snatches of remembrance of their long talk returned to him,
but just as that dark, water-haunted house had seemed to banish
remembrance and the reality of the room in which he now sat, and
of the old familiar life; so now the house, the faces of
yesterday seemed in their turn unreal, almost spectral, and the
thick print on the smudgy page no more significant than a story
one reads and throws away.
But a moment's comparison in the glass of the two faces side by
side suddenly sharpened his attention--the resemblance was so
oddly arresting, and yet, and yet, so curiously inconclusive.
There was then something of the stolid old Saxon left, he
thought. Or had it been regained? Which was it? Not merely the
complexity of the question, but a half-conscious distaste of
attempting to face it, set him reading very slowly and
laboriously, for his French was little more than fragmentary
recollection, the first few pages of the life of this buried
Sabathier. But with a disinclination almost amounting to aversion
he made very slow progress. Many of the words were meaningless to
him, and every other moment he found himself listening with
intense concentration for the least hint of what Sheila was
doing, of what was going on in the house beneath him. He had not
very long to wait. He was sitting with his head leaning on his
hand, the book unheeded beneath the other on the table, when the
door opened again behind him, and Sheila entered. She stood for a
moment, calm and dignified, looking down on him through her veil.
'Please understand, Arthur, that I am not taking this step in
pique, or even in anger. It would serve no purpose to go on like
this--this incessant heedlessness and recrimination. There have
been mistakes, misconceptions, perhaps, on both sides. To me
naturally yours are most conspicuous. That need not, however,
blind me to my own.'
She paused in vain for an answer.
'Think the whole thing over candidly and quietly,' she began
again in a quiet rapid voice. 'Have you really shown the
slightest regard, I won't say for me, or even for Alice, but for
just the obvious difficulties and--and proprieties of our
position? I have given up as far as I can brooding on and on over
the same horrible impossible thoughts. I withdraw unreservedly
what I said just now about punishment. Whatever the evidence, it
is not even a wife's place to judge like that. You will forgive
Lawford did not turn his head. 'Of course,' he said, looking
rather vacantly out of the window, 'it was only in the heat of
the moment, Sheila; though, who knows? it may be true.'
'Well,' she took hold of the great brass knob at the foot of the
bed with one gloved hand--'well, I feel it is my duty to withdraw
it. Apart from it, I see only too clearly that even though all
that has happened in these last few days was in reality nothing
but a horrible nightmare, I see that even then what you have said
about our married life together can never be recalled. You have
told me quite deliberately that for years past your life has been
nothing but a pretence--a sham. You implied that mine had been
too. Honestly, I was not aware of it, Arthur. But supposing all
that has happened to you had been merely what might happen at any
moment to anybody, some actual defacement (you will forgive me
suggesting such a horrible thing--why, if what you say is true,
even in that case my sympathy would have been only a continual
fret and annoyance to you. And this--this change, I own, is
infinitely harder to bear. It would be an outrage on common sense
and on all that we hold seemly and--and sacred in life, even in
some trumpery story. You do, you must see all that, Arthur?'
'Oh yes,' said Lawford, narrowing his eyes to pierce through the
sunlight, 'I see all that.'
'Then we need not go over it all again. Whatever others may say,
or think, I shall still, at least so long as nothing occurs to
the contrary, keep firmly to my present convictions. Mr Bethany
has assured me repeatedly that he has no--no misgivings; that he
understands. And even if I still doubted, which I don't, Arthur,
though it would be rather trying to have to accept one's husband
at second-hand, as it were, I should have to be satisfied. I dare
say even such an unheard-of thing as what we are discussing now,
or something equally ghastly, does occur occasionally. In foreign
countries, perhaps. I have not studied such things enough to say.
We were all very much restricted in our reading as children, and
I honestly think, not unwisely. It is enough for the present to
repeat that I do believe, and that whatever may happen--and I
know absolutely nothing about the procedure in such cases--but
whatever may happen, I shall still be loyal; I shall always have
your interests at heart.' Her words faltered and she turned her
head away. 'You did love me once, Arthur, I can't forget that.'
The contralto voice trembled ever so little, and the gloved hand
smoothed gently the brass knob beneath.
'If,' said Lawford, resting his face on his hands, and curiously
watching the while his moving reflection in the looking-glass
before him--'if I said I still loved you, what then?
'But you have already denied it, Arthur.'
'Yes; but if I said that that too was said only in haste, that
brooding over the trouble this--this metamorphosis was bringing
on us all had driven me almost beyond endurance: supposing that I
withdrew all that, and instead said now that I do still love you,
just as I--' he turned a little, and turned back again, 'like
Sheila paused. 'Could ANY woman answer such a question?' she
almost sighed at last.
'Yes, but,' Lawford pressed on, in a voice almost naive and
stubborn as a child's, 'If I tried to--to make you? I did once,
'I can't, I can't conceive such a position. Surely that alone is
almost as frantic as it is heartless! Is it, is it even right?'
'Well, I have not actually asked it. I own,' he added moodily,
almost under his breath, 'it would be--dangerous.... But there,
Sheila, this poor old mask of mine is wearing out. I am somehow
convinced of that. What will be left, God only knows. You were
saying--' He rose abruptly. 'Please, please sit down,' he said;
'I did not notice you were standing.'
'I shall not keep you a moment,' she answered hurriedly; 'I will
sit here. The truth is, Arthur,' she began again almost solemnly,
'apart from all sentiment and--and good intentions, my presence
here only harasses you and keeps you back. I am not so bound up
in myself that I cannot realise THAT. The consequence is that
after calmly--and I hope considerately--thinking the whole thing
over, I have come to the conclusion that it would arouse very
little comment, the least possible perhaps in the circumstances,
if I just went away for a few days. You are not in any sense ill.
In fact, I have never known you so--so robust, so energetic. You
will be alone: Mr Bethany, perhaps.... You could go out and come
in just as you pleased. Possibly,' Sheila smiled frankly beneath
her veil, 'even this Dr Ferguson you have invented will be a
help. It's only the servants that remain to be considered.'
'I should prefer to be quite alone.'
'Then do not worry about THEM. I can easily explain. And if you
would not mind letting her in, Mrs Gull can come in every other
day or so just to keep things in order. She's entirely
trustworthy and discreet. Or perhaps, if you would prefer--'
'Mrs Gull will do nicely, Sheila. It's very good of you to have
given me so much thought.' A long and rather arduous pause
'Oh, one other thing, Arthur. You sent out to Mr Critchett--do
you remember?--the night you first came home. I think, too, after
the first awful shock, when we were sitting in our bedroom, you
actually referred to--to violent measures. You will promise me, I
may perhaps at least ask that, you will promise me on your word
of honour, for Alice's sake, if not for mine, to do nothing
'Yes, yes,' said Lawford, sinking lower even than he had supposed
possible into the thin and lightless chill of ennui--'nothing
Sheila rose with a sigh only in part suppressed. 'I have not seen
Mr Bethany again. I think, however, it would be better to let
Harry know; I mean, dear, of your derangement. After all, he is
one of the family--at least, of mine. He will not interfere. He
would, perhaps quite naturally, be hurt if we did not take him
into our confidence. Otherwise there is no pressing cause for
haste, at least for another week or so. After that, I suppose,
something will have to be done. Then there's Mr Wedderburn;
wouldn't it be as well to let him know that at least for the
present you are quite unable to think of returning to town? That,
too, in time will have to be arranged, I suppose, if nothing
happens meanwhile; I mean if things don't come right. And I do
hope, Arthur, you will not set your mind too closely on what
may only prove false hopes. This is all intensely painful to me;
of course, to us both.'
Again Lawford, even though he did not turn to confront it, became
conscious of the black veil turned towards him tentatively,
'Yes,' he said, 'I'll write to Wedderburn; he's had his ups and
'I always rather fancied so,' said Sheila reflectively, 'he looks
rather a--a restless man. Oh, and then again,' she broke off
quickly, 'there's the question of money. I suppose--it is only a
conjecture--I suppose it would be better to do nothing in that
direction just for the present. Ada has now gone to the Bank.
Fifty pounds, Arthur; it is out of my own private account--do you
think that will be enough, just, of course, for your PRESENT
'As a bribe, hush-money, or a thank-offering, Sheila?' murmured
her husband wearily.
'I don't follow you,' replied the discreet voice from beneath the
He did actually turn this time and glance steadily over his
shoulder. 'How long are you going for? and where?'
'I proposed to go to my cousin's, Bettie Lovat's; that is, of
course, if you have no objection. It's near; it will be a
long-deferred visit; and she need know very little. And, of
course, if for the least thing in the world you should want me,
there I am within call, as it were. And you will write? We ARE
acting for the best, Arthur?'
'So long as it is your best, Sheila.'
Sheila pondered. 'You think, you mean, they'll all say I ought to
have stayed. Candidly, I can't see it in that light. Surely every
experience of life proves that in intimate domestic matters, and
especially in those between husband and wife, only the parties
concerned have any means of judging what is best for them? It has
been our experience at any rate: though I must in fairness
confess that, outwardly at least, I haven't had much of that kind
of thing to complain of.' Sheila paused again for a reply.
'What kind of thing?'
'Domestic experience, dear.'
The house was quiet. There was not a sound stirring in the still
sunny road of orchards and discreet and drowsy villas. A long
silence followed, immensely active and alert on the one side,
almost morbidly lethargic so far as the stooping figure in front
of the looking-glass was concerned. At last the last haunting
question came in a kind of croak, as if only by a supreme effort
could it be compelled to produce itself for consideration.
'And Alice, Sheila?"
'Alice, dear, of course goes with ME.'
'You realise,' he stirred uneasily, `you realise it may be
'My dear Arthur,' cried Sheila, 'it is surely, apart from
mere delicacy, a parental obligation to screen the poor child
from the shock. Could she be at such a time in any better keeping
than her mother's? At present she only vaguely guesses. To know
definitely that her father, infinitely worse than death, had--
had-- Oh, is it possible to realise anything in this awful cloud?
It would kill her outright.'
Lawford made no stir. The quietest of raps came at the door. 'The
money from the Bank, ma'am,' said a faint voice.
Sheila carefully opened the door a few inches. She laid the blue
envelope on the dressing-table at her husband's elbow. 'You had
better perhaps count it,' she said in a low voice--'forty in
notes, the rest in gold,' and narrowed her eyes beneath her veil
upon her husband's very peculiar method of forgetting his
'French?' she said with a nod. 'How very quaint"
Lawford's eyes fell and rested gravely on the dingy page of
Herbert's mean-looking bundle of print. A queer feeling of cold
crept over him. 'Yes,' he said vaguely, 'French,' and hopelessly
failed to fill in the silence that seemed like some rather sleek
nocturnal creature quietly waiting to be fed.
Sheila swept softly towards the door. 'Well, Arthur, I think that
is all. The servants will have gone by this evening. I have
ordered a carriage for half-past twelve. Perhaps you would first
write down anything that occurs to you to be necessary? Perhaps,
too, it would be better if Dr Simon were told that we shall not
need him any more, that you are thinking of a complete change of
scene, a voyage. He is obviously useless. Besides, Mr Bethany, I
think, is going to discuss a specialist with you. I have written
him a little note, just briefly explaining. Shall I write to Dr
'You remember everything,' said Lawford, and it seemed to him it
was a remark he had heard ages and ages ago. 'It's only this
money, Sheila; will you please take that away?'
'Take it away?'
'I think, Sheila, if I do take a voyage I should almost prefer to
work my passage. As for a mere "change of scene," that's quite
'It is only your face, Arthur,' said Sheila solemnly, 'that
suggest these wicked stabs. Some day you will perhaps repent of
'It is possible, Sheila; we none of us stand still, you know. One
rips open a lid sometimes and the wax face rots before one's
eyes. Take back your blue envelope; and thank you for thinking of
me. It's always the woman of the house that has the head.'
'I wish,' said Sheila almost pathetically, and yet with a faint
quaver of resignation, 'I wish it could be said that the man of
the house sometimes has the heart. Think it over, Arthur!'
Sheila, with her husband's luncheon tray, brought also her
farewells. Lawford surveyed, not without a faint, shy stirring of
incredulity, the superbly restrained presence. He stood before
her dry-lipped, inarticulate, a schoolboy caught redhanded in the
shabbiest of offences.
'It is your wish then that I go, Arthur?' she said pleadingly.
He handed her her money without a word.
'Very well, Arthur; if you won't take it,' she said. 'I should
scarcely have thought this the occasion for mere pride.'
'The tenth,' she continued, as she squeezed the envelope into her
purse, with only the least hardening of voice, 'although I
daresay you have not troubled to remember it--the tenth will be
the eighteenth anniversary of our wedding-day. It makes parting,
however advisable, and though only for the few days we should
think nothing of in happier circumstances, a little harder to
bear. But there, all will come right. You will see things in a
different light, perhaps. Words may wound, but time will heal.'
But even as she now looked closely into his colourless sunken
face some distant memory seemed to well up irresistibly--the
memory of eyes just as ingenuous, and as unassuming that even in
claiming her love had expressed only their stolid unworthiness.
'Did you know it? have you seen it?' she said, stooping forward a
little. 'I believe in spite of all....' He gazed on solemnly,
almost owlishly, out of his fading mask.
'Wait till Mr Bethany tells you; you will believe it perhaps from
him.' He saw the grey-gloved hand a little reluctantly lifted
'Good-bye, Sheila,' he said, and turned mechanically back to the
She hesitated, listening to a small far-away voice that kept
urging her with an almost frog-like pertinacity to do, to say
something, and yet as stubbornly would not say what; and she was
Raying and gleaming in the sunlight the hired landau drove up to
the gate. Lawford, peeping between the blinds, looked down on the
coachman, with reins hanging loosely from his red squat-thumbed
hand, seated in his tight livery and indescribable hat on the
faded cushions. One thing only was in his mind; and it was almost
with an audible cry that he turned towards the figure that edged,
white and trembling, into the chill room, to fling herself into
his arms. 'Don't look at me,' he begged her, 'only remember,
dearest, I would rather have died down there and been never seen
again than have given you pain. Run--run, your mother's calling.
Write to me, think of me; good-bye!'
He threw himself on the bed and lay there till evening--till the
door had shut gently behind the last rat to leave the sinking
ship. All the clearness, the calmness were gone again. Round and
round in dizzy sickening flare and clatter his thoughts whirled.
Contempt, fear, loathing, blasphemy, laughter, longing: there was
no end. Death was no end. There was no meaning, no refuge, no
hope, no possible peace. To give up was to go to perdition: to go
forward was to go mad. And even madness--he sat up with trembling
lips in the twilight--madness itself was only a state, only a
state. You might be bereaved, and the pain and hopelessness of
that would pass. You might be cast out, betrayed, deserted, and
still be you, still find solitude lovely and in a brave face a
friend. But madness!--it surged in on him with all the clearness
and emptiness of a dream. And he sat quite still, his hand
clutching the bedclothes, his head askew, waiting for the sound
of footsteps, for the presences and the voices that have their
thin-walled dwelling beneath the shallow crust of consciousness.
Inky blackness drifted up in wisps, in smoke before his eyes; he
was powerless to move, to cry out. There was no room to turn; no
air to breathe. And yet there was a low, continuous,
never-varying stir as of an enormous wheel whirling in the gloom.
Countless infinitesimal faces arched like glimmering pebbles the
huge dim-coloured vault above his head. He heard a voice above
the monstrous rustling of the wheel, clamouring, calling him
back. He was hastening headlong, muttering to himself his own
flat meaningless name, like a child repeating as he runs his
errand. And then as if in a charmed cold pool he awoke and opened
his eyes again on the gathering darkness of the great bedroom,
and heard a quick, importunate, long-continued knocking on the
door below, as of some one who had already knocked in vain.
Cramped and heavy-limbed, he felt his way across the room and lit
a candle. He stood listening awhile: his eyes fixed on the door
that hung a little open. All in the room seemed acutely
fantastically still. The flame burned dim, misled in the sluggish
air. He stole slowly to the door, looked out, and again listened.
Again the knocking broke out, more impetuously and yet with a
certain restraint and caution. Shielding the flame of his candle
in the shell of his left hand, Lawford moved slowly, with chin
uplifted, to the stairs. He bent forward a little, and stood
motionless and drawn up, the pupils of his eyes slowly
contracting and expanding as he gazed down into the carpeted
vacant gloom; past the dim louring presence that had fallen back
His mouth opened. 'Who's there?' at last he called.
'Thank God, thank God!' he heard Mr Bethany mutter. 'I mustn't
call, Lawford,' came a hurried whisper as if the old gentleman
were pressing his lips to speak through the letter-box. 'Come
down and open the door; there's a good fellow! I've been knocking
no end of a time.'
'Yes, I am coming,' said Lawford. He shut his mouth and held his
breath, and stair by stair he descended, driving steadily before
him the crouching, gloating menacing shape, darkly lifted up
before him against the darkness, contending the way with him.
'Are you ill? Are you hurt? Has anything happened, Lawford?' came
the anxious old voice again, striving in vain to be restrained.
'No, no,' muttered Lawford. 'I am coming; coming slowly.' He
paused to breathe, his hands trembling, his hair lank with sweat,
and still with eyes wide open he descended against the phantom
lurking in the darkness--an adversary that, if he should but for
one moment close his lids, he felt would master sanity and
imagination with its evil. 'So long as you don't get in,' he
heard himself muttering, 'so long as you don't get in, my
'What's that you're saying?' came up the muffled, querulous
voice; 'I can't for the life of me hear, my boy.'
'Nothing, nothing,' came softly the answer from the foot of the
stairs. 'I was only speaking to myself.'
Deliberately, with candle held rigidly on a level with his eyes,
Lawford pushed forward a pace or two into the airless, empty
drawing-room, and grasped the handle of the door. He gazed in
awhile, a black oblique shadow flung across his face, his eyes
fixed like an animal's, then drew the door steadily towards him.
And suddenly some power that had held him tense seemed to fail.
He thrust out his head, and, his face quivering with fear and
loathing, spat defiance as if in a passion of triumph into the
Still muttering, he shut the door and turned the key. In another
moment his light was gleaming out on the grey perturbed face and
black narrow shoulders of his visitor.
'You gave me quite a fright,' said the old man almost angrily;
'have you hurt your foot, or something?'
'It was very dark,' said Lawford, 'down the stairs.'
'What!' said Mr Bethany still more angrily, blinking out of his
unspectacled eyes; 'has she cut off the gas, then?'
'You got the note?' said Lawford, unmoved.
'Yes, yes; I got the note.... Gone?'
'Oh, yes; all gone. It was my choice. I preferred it so.'
Mr Bethany sat down on one of the hard old wooden chairs that
stood on either side of the lofty hall, and breathing rather
thickly, rested his hands on his knees. 'What's happened?' he
inquired, looking up into the candle. 'I forgot my glasses, old
fool that I am, and can't, my dear fellow, see you very plainly.
But your voice--'
'I think,' said Lawford, 'I think it's beginning to come back.'
'What, the whole thing! Oh no, my dear, dear man; be frank with
me; not the whole thing?'
'Yes,' said Lawford, 'the whole thing--very, very gradually,
imperceptibly. I think even Sheila noticed. But I rather feel it
than see it; that is all.... I'm cornering him.'
Lawford jerked his candle as if towards some definite goal. 'In
time,' he said.
The two faces with the candle between them seemed as it were to
gain light each from the other.
'Well, well,' said Mr Bethany, 'every man for himself, Lawford;
it's the only way. But what's going to be done? We must be
cautious; must think of--of the others?'
'Oh, that,' said Lawford; 'she's going to squeeze me out.'
'You've--squabbled? Oh, but my dear, honest old, HONEST old
idiot, there are scores of families here in this parish, within a
stone's throw, that squabble, wrangle, all but politely tear each
other's eyes out, every day of their earthly lives. It's
perfectly natural. Where should we poor old busybodies be else.
Peace on earth we bring, and it's mainly between husband and
'Yes,' said Lawford, 'but you see, this was not our earthly life.
It was between US.'
'Listen, listen to the dear mystic!' exclaimed the old creature
scoffingly. 'What depths we're touching. Here's the first serious
break of his lifetime, and he's gone stark staring transcendental.
Ah well.' He paused and glanced quickly about him, with his
curious bird-like poise of head. 'But you're not alone here?' he
inquired suddenly; 'not absolutely alone?'
'Yes,' said Lawford. 'But there's plenty to think about--and
read. I haven't thought or read for years.'
'No, nor I; after thirty, my dear boy, one merely annotates, and
the book's called Life. Bless me, his solemn old voice is
grinding epigrams out of even this poor old parochial
barrel-organ. You don't suppose, you cannot be supposing you are
the only serious person in the world? What's more, it's only skin
Lawford smiled. 'Skin deep. But think quietly over it; you'll see
'Come here,' said Mr Bethany. 'Where's the whiskey, where's the
cigars? You shall smoke and drink, and I'll watch. If it weren't
for a pitiful old stomach, I'd join you. Come on!' He led the way
into the dining-room.
He looked sparer, more wizened and sinewy than ever as he stooped
to open the sideboard. 'Where on earth do they keep everything?'
he was muttering to himself.
Lawford put the candlestick down on the table. 'There's only one
thing,' he said, watching his visitor's rummaging; 'what
precisely do you think they will do with me?'
'Look here, Lawford,' snapped Mr Bethany; 'I've come round here,
hooting through your letter-box, to tally sense, not sentiment.
Why has your wife deserted you? Without a servant, without a
single-- It's perfectly monstrous.'
'On my word of honour, I prefer it so. I couldn't have gone on.
Alone I all but forget this--this lupus. Every turn of her little
finger reminded me of it. We are all of us alone, whether we know
it or not; you said so yourself. And it's better to realize it
stark and unconfused. Besides, you have no idea what--what odd
things.... There may be; there IS something on the other side.
I'll win through to that.'
Mr Bethany had been listening attentively. He scrambled up from
his knees with a half-empty syphon of sodawater. 'See here,
Lawford,' he said; 'if you really want to know what's your most
insidious and most dangerous symptom just now, it is spiritual
pride. You've won what you think a domestic victory; and you can
scarcely bear the splendour. Oh, you may shrug! Pray, what IS
this "other side" which the superior double-faced creature's
going to win through to now?' He rapped it out almost bitterly,
Lawford hardly heard the question. Before his eyes had suddenly
arisen the peace, the friendly unquestioning stillness, the
thunderous lullaby old as the grave. 'It's only a fancy. It
seemed I could begin again.'
'Well, look here,' said Mr Bethany, his whole face suddenly
lined and grey with age. 'You can't. It's the one solitary thing
I've got to say, as I've said it to myself morn, noon, and night
these scores of years. You can't begin again; it's all a delusion
and a snare. You say we're alone. So we are. The world's a dream,
a stage, a mirage, a rack, call it what you will--but YOU don't
change, YOU'RE no illusion. There's no crying off for YOU no
ravelling out, no clean leaves. You've got this--this trouble,
this affliction--my dear, dear fellow what shall I say to tell
you how I grieve and groan for you oh yes, and actually laughed,
I confess it, a vile hysterical laughter, to think of it. You've
got this almost intolerable burden to bear; it's come like a
thief in the night; but bear it you must, and ALONE! They say
death's a going to bed; I doubt it; but anyhow life's a long
undressing. We came in puling and naked, and every stitch must
come off before we get out again. We must stand on our feet in
all our Rabelaisian nakedness, and watch the world fade. Well
then, and not another word of sense shall you worm out of my
worn-out old brains after today--all I say is, don't give in! Why,
if you stood here now, freed from this devilish disguise, the
old, fat, sluggish fellow that sat and yawned his head off under
my eyes in his pew the Sunday before last, if I know anything
about human nature I'd say it to your face, and a fig for your
vanity and resignation--your last state would be worse than the
He bunched up a big white handkerchief and mopped it over his
head. 'That's done,' he said, 'and we won't go back. What I want
to know now is what are you going to do? Where are you sleeping?
What are you going to think about? I'll stay--yes, yes, that's
what it must be: I must stay. And I detest strange beds. I'll
stay, you SHAN'T be alone. Do you hear me, Lawford?--you SHAN'T
Lawford gazed gravely. 'There is just one little thing I want to
ask you before you go. I've wormed out an extraordinary old
French book; and--just as you say--to pass the time, I've been
having a shot at translating it. But I'm frightfully rusty; it's
old French; would you mind having a look?'
Mr Bethany blinked and listened. He tried for the twentieth time
to judge his friend's eyes, to gain as best he could some
sustained and unobserved glance at this baffling face. 'Where is
your precious French book?' he said irritably.
'Fire away, then!' Lawford rose and glanced about the room.
'What, no light there either?' snapped Mr Bethany. 'Take this; I
don't mind the dark. There'll be plenty of that for me soon.'
Lawford hesitated at the door, looking rather strangely back.
'No,' he said, 'there are matches upstairs.' He shut the
door after him. The darkness seemed cold and still as water. He
went slowly up, with eyes fixed wide on the floating luminous
gloom, and out of memory seemed to gather, as faintly as in the
darkness which they had exorcised for him, the strange pitiful
eyes of the night before. And as he mounted a chill, terrible,
physical peace seemed to steal over him.
Mr Bethany was sitting as he had left him, looking steadily on
the floor, when Lawford returned. He flattened out the book on
the table with a sniff of impatience. And dragging the candle
nearer, and stooping his nose close to the fusty print, he began
'Was this in the house?' he inquired presently.
'No,' said Lawford; 'it was lent to me by a friend--Herbert.'
'H'm! don't know him. Anyhow, precious poor stuff this is. This
Sabathier, whoever he is, seems to be a kind of clap-trap
eighteenth-century adventurer who thought the world would be
better off, apparently, for a long account of all his sentimental
amours. Rousseau, with a touch of Don Quixote in his composition,
and an echo of that prince of bogies, Poe! What, in the name of
wonder, induced you to fix on this for your holiday reading?'
'Sabathier's alive, isn't he?'
'I never said he wasn't. He's a good deal too much alive for my
old wits, with his Mam'selle This and Madame the Other;
interesting enough, perhaps, for the professional literary nose
with a taste for patchouli.'
'Yet I suppose even that is not a very rare character?' Mr
Bethany peered up from the dingy book at his ingenuous
questioner. 'I should say decidedly that the fellow was a very
rare character, so long as by rare you don't mean good. It's one
of the dullest stupidities of the present day, my dear fellow, to
dote on a man simply because he's different from the rest of us.
Once a man strays out of the common herd, he's more likely to
meet wolves in the thickets than angels. From what I can gather
in just these few pages this Sabathier appears to have been an
amorous, adventurous, emotional Frenchman, who went to the dogs
as easily and as rapidly as his own nature and his period
allowed. And I should say, Lawford, that he made precious bad
reading for a poor old troubled hermit like yourself at the
'There's a portrait of him a few pages back.'
Mr Bethany, with some little impatience, turned back to the
engraving. '"Nicholas de Sabathier,"'s he muttered. '"De,"
indeed!' He poked in at the foxy print with narrowed eyes. 'I
don't deny it's a striking, even perhaps, a rather taking face. I
don't deny it.' He gazed on with an even more acute
concentration, and looked up sharply. 'Look here, Lawford, what
in the name of wonder--what trick are you playing on me now?'
'Trick?' said Lawford; and the world fell with the tiniest plash
in the silence, like a vivid little float upon the surface of a
The old face flushed. 'What conceivable bearing, I say, has this
dead and gone old roue on us now?'
'You don't think, then, you see any resemblance--ANY resemblance
'Resemblance?' repeated Mr Bethany in a flat voice, and without
raising his face again to meet Lawford's direct scrutiny.
'Resemblance to whom?'
'To me? To me, as I am?'
'But even, my dear fellow (forgive my dull old brains!), even if
there was just the faintest superficial suggestion of--of that;
'Why,' said Lawford, 'he's buried in Widderstone.'
'Buried in Widderstone?' The keen childlike blue eyes looked
almost stealthily up across the book; the old man sat without
speaking, so still that it might even be supposed he himself was
listening for a quiet distant footfall.
'He is buried in the grave beside which I fell asleep,' said
Lawford; 'all green and still and broken,' he added faintly. 'You
remember,' he went on in a repressed voice--'you remember you
asked me if there was anybody else in sight, any eavesdropper?
You don't think--him?'
Mr. Bethany pushed the book a few inches away from him. 'Who, did
you say--who was it you said put the thing into your head? A
queer friend surely?' he paused helplessly. 'And how, pray, do
you know,' he began again more firmly, 'even if there is a
Sabathier buried at Widderstone, how do you know it is this
Sabathier? It's not, I think,' he added boldly, 'a very uncommon
name; with two b's at any rate. Whereabouts is the grave?'
'Quite down at the bottom, under the trees. And the little seat I
told you of is there, too, where I fell asleep. You see,' he
explained, 'the grave's almost isolated; I suppose because he
Mr Bethany clasped his knuckled fingers on the tablecloth. 'It's
no good,' he concluded after a long pause; 'the fellow's got up
into my head. I can't think him out. We must thrash it out
quietly in the morning with the blessed sun at the window; not
this farthing dip. To me the whole idea is as revolting as it is
incredible. Why, above a century--no, no! And on the other hand,
how easily one's fancy builds! A few straws and there's a nest
and squawking fledglings, all complete. Is that why--is that why
that good, practical wife of yours and all your faithful
household have absconded? Does it'--he threw up his head as if
towards the house above them-- 'does it REEK with him?'
Lawford shook his head. 'She hasn't seen him: not--not apart. I
haven't told her.'
Mr Bethany tossed the hugger-mugger of pamphlets across the
table. 'Then, for simple sanity's sake, don't. Hide it; burn it;
put the thing completely out of your mind. A friend! Who, where
is this wonderful friend?'
'Not very far from Widderstone. He lives--practically alone.'
'And all that stumbling and muttering on the stairs?' he leant
forward almost threateningly. 'There isn't anybody here,
'Oh, no,' said Lawford. 'We are practically alone with this, you
know,' he pointed to the book, and smiled frankly, however
Again Mr Bethany sank into a fixed yet uneasy reverie, and again
shook himself and raised his eyes.
'Well then,' he said, in a voice all but morose in its
fretfullness, 'what I suggest is that first you keep quiet here;
and next, that you write and get your wife back. You say you are
better. I think you said she herself noticed a slight
improvement. Isn't it just exactly as I foresaw? And yet she's
gone! But that's not our business. Get her back. And don't for a
single instant waste a thought on the other; not for a single
instant, I implore you, Lawford. And in a week the whole thing
will be no more than a dreary, preposterous dream.... You don't
answer me!' he cried impulsively.
'But can one so easily forget a dream like this?'
'You don't speak out, Lawford; you mean SHE won't.'
'It must at least seem to have been in part of my own seeking, or
contriving; or at any rate--she said it--of my own hereditary or
'She said that!' Mr Bethany sat back. 'I see, I see,' he said.
'I'm nothing but a fumbling old meddler. And there was I, not ten
minutes ago, preaching for all I was worth on a text I knew
nothing about. God bless me, Lawford, how long we take
a-learning. I'll say no more. But what an illusion. To think
this--this--he laid a long lean hand at arm's length flat upon
the table towards his friend--'to think this is our old jog-trot
Arthur Lawford! From henceforth I throw you over, you old wolf in
sheep's wool. I wash my hands of you. And now where am I going to
He covered up his age and weariness for an instant with a small
Lawford took a deep breath. 'You're going, old friend, to sleep
at home. And I--I'm going to give you my arm to the Vicarage
gate. Here I am, immeasurably relieved, fitter than I've been
since I was a dolt of a schoolboy. On my word of honour: I can't
say why, but I am. I don't care THAT, vicar, honestly--puffed up
with spiritual pride. If a man can't sleep with pride for a
bed-fellow, well, he'd better try elsewhere. It's no good; I'm as
stubborn as a mule; that's at least a relic of the old Adam. I
care no more,' he raised his voice firmly and gravely--'I don't
care a jot for solitude, not a jot for all the ghosts of all the
Mr. Bethany listened, grimly pursed up his lips. 'Not a jot for
all the ghosts of all the catechisms!' he muttered. `Nor the
devil himself, I suppose?' He turned once more to glance sharply
in the direction of the face he could so dimly--and of set
purpose--discern; and without a word trotted off into the hall.
Lawford followed with the candle.
''Pon my word, you haven't had a mouthful of supper. Let me
forage; just a quarter of an hour, eh?'
'Not me,' said Mr Bethany; 'if you won't have me, home I go. I
refuse to encourage this miserable grass-widowering. What WOULD
they say? What would the busybodies say? Ghouls and graves and
shocking mysteries--Selina! Sister Anne! Come on."
He shuffled on his hat and caught firm hold of his knobbed
umbrella. 'Better not leave a candle,' he said.
Lawford blew out the candle.
'What? What?' called the old man suddenly. But no voice had
A thin trickle of light from the lamp in the street stuck up
through the fanlight as, with a smile that could be described
neither as mischievous, saturnine, nor vindictive, and was yet
faintly suggestive of all three, Lawford quietly opened the
drawing-room door and put down the candlestick on the floor
'What on earth, my good man, are you fumbling after now?' came
the almost fretful question from under the echoing porch.
'Coming, coming,' said Lawford, and slammed the door behind them.
The first faint streaks of dawn were silvering across the stars
when Lawford again let himself into his deserted house. He
stumbled down to the pantry and cut himself a crust of bread and
cheese, and ate it, sitting on the table, watching the leafy
eastern sky through the painted bars of the area window. He
munched on, hungry and tired. His night walk had cooled head and
heart. Having obstinately refused Mr Bethany's invitation to
sleep at the Vicarage, he had sat down on an old low wall, and
watched until his light had shone out at his bedroom window. Then
he had simply wandered on, past rustling glimmering gardens,
under the great timbers of yellowing elms, hardly thinking,
hardly aware of himself except as in a far-away vision of a
sluggish insignificant creature struggling across the tossed-up
crust of an old, incomprehensible world.
The secret of his content in that long leisurely ramble had been
that repeatedly by a scarcely realised effort it had not lain in
the direction of Widderstone. And now, as he sat hungrily
devouring his breakfast on the table in the kitchen, with the
daybreak comforting his eyes, he thought with a positive mockery
of that poor old night-thing he had given inch by inch into the
safe keeping of his pink and white drawing-room. Don Quixote,
Poe, Rousseau--they were familiar but not very significant labels
to a mind that had found very poor entertainment in reading. But
they were at least representative enough to set him wondering
which of their influences it was that had inflated with such a
gaseous heroism the Lawford of the night before. He thought of
Sheila with a not unkindly smile, and of the rest. 'I wonder what
they'll do?' had been a question almost as much in his mind
during these last few hours as had 'What am I to do?' in the
first bout of his 'visitation.'
But the 'they' was not very precisely visualised. He saw Sheila,
and Harry, and dainty pale-blue Bettie Lovat, and cautious old
Wedderburn, and Danton, and Craik, and cheery, gossipy Dr
Sutherland, and the verger, Mr Dutton, and Critchett, and the
gardener, and Ada, and the whole vague populous host that keep
one as definitely in one's place in the world's economy as a
firm-set pin the camphored moth. What his place was to be only
time could show. Meanwhile there was in this loneliness at least
Solitude!--he bathed his weary bones in it. He laved his eyelids
in it, as in a woodland brook after the heat of noon. He sat on
in calmest reverie till his hunger was satisfied. Then,
scattering out his last crumbs to the birds from the barred
window, he climbed upstairs again, past his usual bedroom, past
his detested guest room, up into the narrow sweetness of Alice's,
and flinging himself on her bed fell into a long and dreamless
By ten next morning Lawford had bathed and dressed. And at half-
past ten he got up from Sheila's fat little French dictionary and
his Memoirs to answer Mrs Gull's summons on the area bell. The
little woman stood with arms folded over an empty and capacious
bag, with an air of sustained melancholy on her friendly face.
She wished him a very nervous 'Good morning,' and dived down into
the kitchen. The hours dragged slowly by in a silence broken only
by an occasional ring at the bell. About three she emerged from
the house and climbed the area steps with her bag hooked over her
arm. He watched the little black figure out of sight, watched a
man in a white canvas hat ascend the steps to push a blue-printed
circular through the letter-box. It had begun to rain a little.
He returned to the breakfast-room and with the window wide open
to the rustling coolness of the leaves, edged his way very slowly
across from line to line of the obscure French print.
Sabathier none the less, and in spite of his unintelligible
literariness, did begin to take shape and consistency. The man
himself, breathing, and thinking, began to live for Lawford even
in those few half-articulate pages, though not in quite so
formidable a fashion as Mr Bethany had summed him up. But as the
west began to lighten with the declining sun, the same old
disquietude, the same old friendless and foreboding ennui stole
over Lawford's solitude once more. He shut his books, placed a
candlestick and two boxes of matches on the hall table, lit a
bead of gas, and went out into the rainy-sweet streets again.
At a mean little barber's with a pole above his lettered door he
went in to be shaved. And a few steps further on he sat down at
the crumb-littered counter of a little baker's shop to have some
tea. It pleased him almost to childishness to find how easily he
could listen and even talk to the oiled and crimpy little barber,
and to the pretty, consumptive-looking, print-dressed baker's
wife. Whatever his face might now be conniving at, the Arthur
Lawford of last week could never have hob-nobbed so affably with
his social 'inferiors.'
For no reason in the world, unless to spend a moment or two
longer in the friendly baker's shop, he bought six-penny-worth of
cakes. He watched them as they were deposited one by one in the
bag, and even asked for one sort to be exchanged for another,
flushing a little at the pretty compliment he had ventured on.
He climbed out of the shop, and paused on the wooden doorstep.
'Do you happen to know Mr Herbert Herbert's?' he said.
The baker's wife glanced up at him with clear, reflective eyes.
'Mr Herbert's?--that must be some little way off, sir. I don't
know any such name, and I know most, just round about like.'
'Well, yes, it is,' said Lawford, rather foolishly; 'I hardly
know why I asked. It's past the churchyard at Widderstone.'
'Oh yes, sir,' she encouraged him.
'A big, wooden-looking house.'
'Really, sir. Wooden?'
Lawford looked into her face, but could find nothing more to say,
so he smiled again rather absently, and ascended into the street.
He sat down outside the churchyard gate on the very bank where he
had in the sourness of the nettles first opened Sabathier's
Memoirs. The world lay still beneath the pale sky. Presently the
little fat rector walked up the hill, his wrists still showing
beneath his sleeves. Lawford meditatively watched him pass by. A
small boy with a switch, a tiny nose, and a swinging gallipot,
his cheeks lit with the sunset, followed soon after. Lawford
beckoned him with his finger and held out the bag of tarts. He
watched him, half incredulous of his prize, and with many a
cautious look over his shoulder, pass out of sight. For a long
while he sat alone, only the evening birds singing out of the
greenness and silence of the churchyard. What a haunting
inescapable riddle life was.
Colour suddenly faded out of the light streaming between the
branches. And depression, always lying in ambush of the novelty
of his freedom, began like mist to rise above his restless
thoughts. It was all so devilish empty--this raft of the world
floating under evening's shadow. How many sermons had he listened
to, enriched with the simile of the ocean of life. Here they
were, come home to roost. He had fallen asleep, ineffectual
sailor that he was, and a thief out of the cloudy deep had stolen
oar and sail and compass, leaving him adrift amid the riding of
'Are they worth, do you think, quite a penny?' suddenly inquired
a quiet voice in the silence. He looked up into the almost
colourless face, into the grey eyes beneath their clear narrow
'I was thinking,' he said, 'what a curious thing life is, and
'The first half is well worth the penny--its originality! I can't
afford twopence. So you must GIVE me what you were wondering.'
Lawford gazed rather blankly across the twilight fields. 'I was
wondering,' he said with an oddly naive candour, 'how long it
took one to sink.'
'They say, you know,' Grisel replied solemnly, 'drowned sailors
float midway, suffering their sea change; purgatory. But what a
splendid pennyworth. All pure philosophy!'
'"Philosophy!"' said Lawford; 'I am a perfect fool. Has your
brother told you about me?'
She glanced at him quickly. 'We had a talk.'
'Then you do know--?' He stopped dead, and turned to her. 'You
really realise it, looking at me now?'
'I realise,' she said gravely, 'that you look even a little more
pale and haggard than when I saw you first the other night. We
both, my brother and I, you know, thought for certain you'd come
yesterday. In fact, I went into the Widderstone in the evening to
look for you, knowing your nocturnal habits....' She glanced
again at him with a kind of shy anxiety.
'Why--why is your brother so--why does he let me bore him so
'Does he? He's tremendously interested; but then, he's pretty
easily interested when he's interested at all. If he can possibly
twist anything into the slightest show of a mystery, he will.
But, of course, you won't, you can't, take all he says seriously.
The tiniest pinch of salt, you know. He's an absolute fanatic at
talking in the air. Besides, it doesn't really matter much.'
'In the air?'
'I mean if once a theory gets into his head--the more far-fetched,
so long as it's original, the better--it flowers out into a
positive miracle of incredibilities. And of course you can rout
out evidence for anything under the sun from his dingy old
folios. Why did he lend you that PARTICULAR book?'
'Didn't he tell you that, then?'
'He said it was Sabathier.' She seemed to think intensely for the
merest fraction of a moment, and turned. 'Honestly, though, I
think he immensely exaggerated the likeness. As for...'
He touched her arm, and they stopped again, face to face. 'Tell
me what difference exactly you see,' he said. 'I am quite myself
again now, honestly; please tell me just the very worst you
'I think, to begin with,' she began, with exaggerated candour,
'his is rather a detestable face.'
'And mine?' he said gravely.
'Why--very troubled; oh yes--but his was like some bird of prey.
Yours--what mad stuff to talk like this!--not the least symptom,
that I can see, of--why, the "prey," you know.'
They had come to the wicket in the dark thorny hedge. 'Would it
be very dreadful to walk on a little--just to finish?'
'Very,' she said, turning as gravely at his side.
'What I wanted to say was--' began Lawford, and forgetting
altogether the thread by which he hoped to lead up to what he
really wanted to say, broke off lamely; 'I should have thought
you would have absolutely despised a coward.'
'It would be rather absurd to despise what one so horribly well
understands. Besides, we weren't cowards--we weren't cowards a
bit. My childhood was one long, reiterated terror--nights and
nights of it. But I never had the pluck to tell any one. No one
so much as dreamt of the company I had. Ah, and you didn't see
either that my heart was absolutely in my mouth, that I was
shrivelled up with fear, even at sight of the fear on your face
in the dark. There's absolutely nothing so catching. So, you see,
I do know a little what nerves are; and dream too sometimes,
though I don't choose charnelhouses if I can get a comfortable
bed. A coward! May I really say that to ask my help was one of
the bravest things in a man I ever heard of. Bullets--that kind
of courage--no real woman cares twopence for bullets. An old aunt
of mine stared a man right out of the house with the thing in her
face. Anyhow, whether I may or not, I do say it. So now we are
'Will you--' began Lawford, and stopped. 'What I wanted to say
was,' he jerked on, 'it is sheer horrible hypocrisy to be talking
to you like this--though you will never have the faintest idea of
what it has meant and done for me. I mean... And yet, and yet,
I do feel when just for the least moment I forget what I am, and
that isn't very often, when I forget what I have become and what
I must go back to--I feel that I haven't any business to be
talking with you at all. "Quits!" And here I am, an outcast from
decent society. Ah, you don't know--'
She bent her head and laughed under her breath. 'You do really
stumble on such delicious compliments. And yet, do you know, I
think my brother would be immensely pleased to think you were an
outcast from decent society if only he could be thought one too.
He has been trying half his life to wither decent society with
neglect and disdain--but it doesn't take the least notice. The
deaf adder, you know. Besides, besides; what is all this meek
talk? I detest meek talk--gods or men. Surely in the first and
last resort all we are is ourselves. Something has happened; you
are jangled, shaken. But to us, believe me, you are simply one of
fewer friends-and I think, after struggling up Widderstone Lane
hand in hand with you in the dark, I have a right to say
"friends" than I could count on one hand. What are we all if we
only realized it? We talk of dignity and propriety, and we are
like so many children playing with knucklebones in a giant's
scullery. Come along, he will, some suppertime, for us, each in
turn--and how many even will so much as look up from their play
to wave us good-bye? that's what I mean--the plot of silence we
are all in. If only I had my brother's lucidity, how much better
I would have said all this. It is only, believe me, that I want
ever so much to help you, if I may--even at risk, too,' she
added, rather shakily, 'of having that help--well--I know it's
The lane had narrowed. They had climbed the arch of a narrow
stone bridge that spanned the smooth dark Widder. A few late
starlings were winging far above them. Darkness was coming on
apace. They stood for awhile looking down into the black flowing
water, with here and there the mild silver of a star dim leagues
below. 'I am afraid,' said Grisel, looking quietly up, 'you have
led me into talking most pitiless nonsense. How many hours, I
wonder, did I lie awake in the dark last night, thinking of you?
Honestly, I shall never, NEVER forget that walk. It haunted me,
on and on.'
'Thinking of me? Do you really mean that? Then it was not all
imagination; it wasn't just the drowning man clutching at a
The grey eyes questioned him. 'You see,' he explained in a
whisper, as if afraid of being overheard, 'it--it came back
again, and--I don't mind a bit how much you laugh at me! I had
been asleep, and had had a most awful dream, one of those dreams
that seem to hint that some day THAT will be our real world, that
some day we may awake where dreaming then will be of this; and I
woke--came back--and there was a tremendous knocking going on
downstairs. I knew there was no one else in the house--'
'No one else in the house? And you like this?'
'Yes,' said Lawford, stolidly. 'they were all out as it happened.
And, of course,' he went on quickly, 'there was nothing for me to
do but simply to go down and open the door. And yet, do you know,
at first I simply couldn't move. I lit a candle, and then--then
somehow I got to know that waiting for me was just--but there,'
he broke off half-ashamed, 'I mustn't bother you with all this
morbid stuff. Will your brother be in now, do you think?'
'My brother will be in, and, of course, expecting you. But as for
"bother," believe me--well, did I quite deserve it?' She stooped
towards him. 'You lit a candle--and then?'
They turned and retraced their way slowly up the hill.
'It came again.'