you as bad as can be–never stops asking me to bring you up some time when he’s at home. You mustnt excuse yourself: the General will see you safe back to your place.”
“But if visitors come, Mrs. Crawford?”
“Nobody will come. If they do, they will be glad to see you. What do they know about you? You cant live like a hermit all your life.”
Marian, sooner than go back to Mrs. Myers’s, stayed; and the evening passed pleasantly enough, although three visitors came: a gentleman, with his wife and brother. The lady, besides eating, and replying to the remarks with which Mrs. Crawford occasionally endeavored to entertain her, did nothing but admire Marian’s dress and listen to her conversation. Her husband was polite; but Marian, comparing him with the English gentlemen of her acquaintance, thought him rather oppressively respectful, and too much given to conversing in little speeches. He had been in London; and he described, in a correct narrative style, his impressions of St. Paul’s, the Tower, and Westminster Palace. His brother fell in love with Mrs. Forster at first sight, and sat silent until she remarked to him how strangely the hotel omnibuses resembled old English stage coaches, when he became recklessly talkative and soon convinced her that American society produced quite as choice a compound of off-handedness and folly as London could. But all this was amusing after her long seclusion; and once or twice, when the thought of dead Susanna came back to her, she was ashamed to be so gay.
No one was stirring at Mrs. Myers’s when she returned. They had left her lamp in the entry; and she took it upstairs with her, going softly lest she should disturb the household. Susanna’s usual call and petition for a few minutes talk was no longer to be feared, for Susanna was now only a memory. Marian tried not to think of the body in the room above. Though she was free from the dread which was just then making Eliza tremble, cry, and cross herself to sleep, she disliked the body all the more as she distinguished it from the no-longer existent woman: a feat quite beyond the Irish peasant girl. She sat down and began to think. The Crawfords and their friends had been very nice to her: no doubt the lady would not have been civil had she known all; but, then, the lady was a silly person. They were not exactly what Marian considered the best sort of people; but New York was not London. She would not stay at Mrs. Myers’s: her income would enable her to lodge more luxuriously. If she could afford to furnish some rooms for herself, she would get some curtains she had seen one day lately when shopping with Mrs. Crawford. They would go well with—-
A noise in the room overhead: Susanna’s death chamber. Marian gave a great start, and understood what Eliza meant by having “the life put across in her.” She listened, painfully conscious of the beats of her heart. The noise came again: a footstep, or a chair pushed back, or–she was not certain what. Could Mrs. Myers be watching at the bedside? It was not unlikely. Could Susanna be recovering–finding herself laid out for dead, and making a struggle for life up there alone? That would be inconvenient, undesirable: even Marian forgot just then to consider that obvious view wrong and unfeeling; but, anyhow, she must go and see, and, if necessary, help. She wished there were some one to keep her company; but was ashamed to call Eliza; and she felt that she would be as well by herself as with Mrs. Myers. There was nothing for it but to take a candle and go alone. No repetition of the noise occurred to daunt her afresh; and she reached the landing above almost reassured, and thinking how odd it was that the idea of finding somebody–Susanna–there, though it had come as a fear, was fading out as a disappointed hope.
Finding herself loth to open the door, she at last set her teeth and did it swiftly, as if to surprise someone within. She did surprise some one: her husband, sitting by his sister’s body. He started violently on seeing her, and rose; whilst she, mechanically shutting the door without turning, leaned back against it with her hand behind her, and looked at him open-mouthed.
“Marian,” he said, in a quite unexpectedly apprehensive tone, putting up his hand deprecatingly: “remember, here”–indicating the figure on the bed–“is an end of hypocrisy! No unrealities now: I cannot bear them. Let us have no trash of magnanimous injured husband, erring but repentant wife. We are man and woman, nothing less and nothing more. After our marriage you declined intercourse on those terms; and I accepted your conventions to please you. Now I refuse all conventions: you have broken them yourself. If you will not have the truth between us, avoid me until I have subsided into the old groove again. There!” he added, wincing, “dont blush. What have you to blush for? It was the only honest thing you ever did.”
“I dont understand.”
“No,” he said gently, but with a gesture of despair; “how could you? You never did, and you never will.”
“If you mean to accuse me of having deceived you,” said Marian, greatly relieved and encouraged by a sense of being now the injured party, “you are most unjust. I dont excuse myself for behaving wickedly, but I _never_ deceived you or told you a falsehood. Never. When he first spoke wrongly to me, I told you at once; and you did not care.”
“Not a straw. It was nothing to me that he loved you: the point was, did you love him? If not, then all was well: if so, our marriage was already at an end. But you mistake my drift. Falsehood is something more than fibbing. You never told fibs–except the two or three dozen a week that mere politeness required and which you never thought of counting; but you never told me the truth, Marian, because you never told your self the truth. You told me what you told yourself, I grant you; and so you were not conscious of deceit. I dont reproach you. Surely you can bear to be told what every honest man tells himself almost daily.”
“I suppose I have deserved it,” said Marian; “but unkind words from you are a new experience. You are very unlike yourself to-night.”
He repressed, with visible effort, an explosion of impatience. “On the contrary, I am like myself–I actually am myself to-night, I hope.” Then the explosion came. “Is it utterly impossible for you to say something real to me? Only learn to do that, and you may have ten love romances every year with other men, if you like. Be anything rather than a ladylike slave and liar. There! as usual, the truth makes you shrink from me. As I said before, I refuse further intercourse on such terms. They have proved unkind in the long run.”
“You spoke plainly enough to her,” said Marian, glancing at the bed, “but in the long run it did her no good.”
“She would have laughed me to scorn if I had minced matters, for she never deceived herself. Society, by the power of the purse, set her to nautch-girl’s work, and forbade her the higher work that was equally within her power. Being enslaved and debauched in this fashion, how could she be happy except when she was not sober? It was her own immediate interest to drink; it was her tradesman’s interest that she should drink; it was her servants’ interest that she should be pleased with them for getting drink for her. She was clever, good-natured, more constant to her home and her man than you, a living fountain of innocent pleasure as a dancer, singer, and actress; and here she lies, after mischievously spending her talent in a series of entertainments too dull for hell and too debased for any better place, dead of a preventable disease, chiefly because most of the people she came in contact with had a direct pecuniary interest in depraving and poisoning her. Aye, look at her! with the cross on her breast, the virgin mother in plaster looking on from where she kept her mirror when she was alive, and the people outside complacently saying ‘Serve her right!'”
Marian feared for a moment that he would demolish Eliza’s altar by hurling the chair through it. “Dont, Ned,” she said, timidly, putting her hand on his arm.
“Dont what?” he said, taken aback. She drew her hand away and retreated a step, coloring at the wifely liberty she had permitted herself to take. “I beg your pardon. I thought–I thought you were going to take the cross away. No,” she added quickly, seeing him about to speak, and anticipating a burst of scepticism: “it is not that; but the servant is an Irish girl–a Roman Catholic. She put it there; and she meant well, and will be hurt if it is thrown aside.”
“And you think it better that she should remain in ignorance of what educated people think about her superstition than that she should suffer the mortification of learning that her opinions are not those of all the world! However, I had no such intention. Eliza’s idol is a respectable one as idols go.”
There was a pause. Then Marian said: “It must have been a great shock to you when you came and found what had happened. I am very sorry. But had we not better go downrs? It seems so unfeeling, somehow, to talk without minding her. I suppose you consider that foolish; but I think you are upset by it yourself.”
“You see a change in me, then?”
“You are not quite yourself, I think.”
“I tell you again that I _am_ myself at last. You do not seem to like the real man any better than the unreal: I am afraid you will not have me on any terms. Well, let us go downstairs, since you prefer it.”
“Oh, not unless you wish it too,” said Marian, a little bewildered.
He took her candle and led the way out without another word or a look at the bed. Marian, as he stood aside to let her go downstairs before him, was suddenly seized with a fantastic fear that he was going to kill her. She did not condescend to hurry or look back; but she only felt safe when they were in her room, and he no longer behind her.
“Sit down,” he said, placing the candle on the mantelpiece. She sat down at the table, and he stood on the hearthrug. “Now,” said he, “about the future. Are you coming back? Will you give the life at Holland Park another trial?”
“I cannot,” she said, bending her head almost on her hands. “I should disgrace you. And there is another reason.”
“It is not in your power, nor in that of all London, to disgrace me if I do not feel disgraced. It is useless to say that you cannot. If you say ‘I will not,’ then that will settle it. What is the other reason?”
“It is not yet born. But it will be.”
“That is no reason to me. Do you think I shall be a worse father to it than he would have been?”
“No, indeed. But it would be unfair to you.” He made an impatient gesture. “I dont understand you, Ned. Would you not rather be free?”
“Freedom is a fool’s dream. I am free. I can divorce you if I please: if I live with you again it will be by my own choice. You are free too: you have burnt your boats, and are rid of fashionable society, of your family, your position, your principles, and all the rest of your chains forever. You are declassed by your own act; and if you can frankly give a sigh of relief and respect yourself for breaking loose from what is called your duty, then you are the very woman I want for a wife. I may not be the very man you want for a husband; but at all events you are free to choose, free to change after you choose if you choose me, free anyhow; for I will divorce you if you refuse; and then you will be–independent–your own mistress–absolute proprietor of your own child–everything that married women and girls envy. You have a foretaste of that freedom now. What is it worth? One or two conditions more or less to comply with, that is all: nature and society still have you hard and fast; the main rules of the game are inviolable.”
“I think it is a good thing to be free,” said Marian, timidly.
“That means ‘I will not.'”
“Not ‘will not’; but I think I had better not.”
“A characteristic distinction, Marian. I once thought, like you, that freedom was the one condition to be gained at all cost and hazard. My favorite psalm was that nonsense of John Hay’s:
‘For always in thine eyes, O Liberty, Shines that high light whereby the world is saved; And though thou slay us, we will trust in thee.’
And she does slay us. Now I am for the fullest attainable life. That involves the least endurable liberty. You dont see that yet. Very well: you have liberty–liberty to hurt as well as help yourself; and you are right to try whether it will not make you happier than wedlock has done.”
“It was not your fault; and it is very good of you to offer to take me back, I know. Will my refusing disappoint you at all, Ned?”
“I am prepared for it. You may refuse or accept: I foresee how I shall adapt myself to either set of circumstances.”
“Yes, I forgot. You foresee everything,” said Marian, with some bitterness.
“No: I only face what I see. That is why you do not like living with me. Good-bye. Do not look troubled: we shall meet again to-morrow and often afterward, I hope; but to-night makes an end of the irrational knot.”
“Good-night,” said Marian rather forlornly, after a pause, proffering her hand.
“One folly more,” he said, taking her in his arms and kissing her. She made no resistance. “If such a moment could be eternal, we should never say good-bye,” he added. “As it is, we are wise not to tempt Fortune by asking her for such another.”
“You are too wise, Ned,” she said, suffering him to replace her gently in the chair.
“It is impossible to be too wise, dearest,” he said, and unhesitatingly turned and left her.