11. If We Only Know! If We Only Know!
Eleanor's face is seared with weeping.
For the last three days Philip has hardly spoken to her.
She has stayed indoors and avoided Giddy, but now a message comes from the widow commenting on her non-appearance.
She pulls forward a sheet of paper, bites the end of her quill, and cries great drops of tears on the blotting-book. In a straggling hand she addresses an envelope to Mrs. Mounteagle, placing therein that unlucky letter from Madame Faustine.
In as few words as possible she relates the scene on paper to her friend.
"I am disheartened, dispirited, diseverythinged," she writes in conclusion. "As Dick in 'The Light that Failed' says; 'I am down and done for--broken--let me alone!'"
"Poor little wretch!" thinks Giddy, reading the sorrowful epistle. "I must tell Carol. He shall see this forlorn-looking scrawl." She sighs at the thought of some people's folly. "No sooner met, but they looked," she quotes to herself, apropos
of Eleanor and Mr. Quinton. "No sooner looked, but they loved; no sooner loved, but they sighed. Ah! me, it's natural, very plain!"
Eleanor is not going out this afternoon, though the air is mild, the sun shines, and all the world smiles.
She has more than one call to return, which should have been done to-day, yet she sits alone in her pretty boudoir, neither reading, working, nor writing.
Her expression renders her face even more beautiful than usual in the subdued light. For a ray of winter sunshine, heralding the spring, has quite dazzled Eleanor's eyes, till she draws the blind, and settles in a cosy corner at the side of the fender.
In her hand is a letter, brief, yet to its owner teeming with news, so significant the simple wording seems:
"Why this silence? Stay at home to-day. I must
It is neither commenced nor signed, but written in Carol Quinton's familiar hand.
Surely there is something imperative about that "Stay at home to-day." No "please," or "will you?" Merely the bare command. True the must
is underlined, and the question savours of anxiety as to her reticence in writing or meeting him again.
"Well, he shall come, since this is to be the end."
Better face the matter out; it is dangerous dodging poisoned arrows. She will try how her shield works, that is to glance them aside.
Determination is in her heart, and courage in her eye. Eleanor is worked up into a fever of virtuous indignation at the remembrance of all she has allowed Quinton to do and say in the past. This is to be the turning point in her life. She will be loyal to her husband, and her first pure love, she will show him that she is capable of sacrifice, a woman to be trusted, looked up to, reverenced. Carol Quinton shall never enter her doors again after this call, never see her, hear from her, speak to her. She will fade from his life, as a shadow, a phantom! The sting of sorrow, the bitterness of thus casting a love she treasured to the wind, is subdued in a measure by a sense of exhilaration, at the thought of her good resolve.
Already "virtue's own reward" seems in her grasp, her heart is lighter, her spirit does not quail. She is tasting perhaps a shred of the martyrs' joy, when they suffered in the cause of right, she is battling down that weaker nature and gaining a victory in advance.
She is impatient for the moment to arrive when Carol shall stand before her to learn his fate, his isolation, from her lips. No pity, no glimpse of feeling, no suspicion of sentiment is to creep into this day's farewell. He will leave her for ever with the ordinary hand-shake of a casual acquaintance. Yes, she is nerved, strong, sure!
It has taken Eleanor three nights of sleepless vigil to overcome her love and stamp it out. She has not reached this point without a struggle.
She listens eagerly for him to come, longing for the interview to commence and end, while a spirit of heroism is upon her, laying her lower nature in the dust.
"Down! you shall never rise again," she cries. "Oh! why is he so long? I want him now
. I could do it now
. After to-day I shall have swept the temptation from my path, and made it impossible for Carol Quinton to be my friend."
The bell rings--the outer bell. She staggers to her feet. The brown chrysanthemum in her belt falls to the ground and lies unheeded.
How she trembles! Her face, too, is deadly pale, revealed in the mirror opposite. She sways like a flower blown in a gale. There is a prayer on her lips, an angel knocking at her heart.
The door opens, and Sarah enters with the tea-tray.
Eleanor sinks on the sofa, the reaction leaving her faint and powerless to speak.
She watches the tea-table brought forward, the hot scones placed by the fire.
At last she regains her composure.
"Who was that at the front door, Sarah?"
"Mr. Quinton, ma'am."
"Mr. Quinton! Why did you not show him in?"
Eleanor leans forward breathlessly, looking Sarah up and down.
The maid crimsons, and replies:
"If you please, it was master's orders. He told me to say 'not at home' when Mr. Quinton called."
A moment's pause, during which Mrs. Roche struggles with her self-control.
Then in a calm voice she says:
"Very well, Sarah; that is all."
She raised the teapot with an effort, pouring out the brown fluid jerkily.
As the door closes, she covers her face with her hands, rocking to and fro.
She covers her face with her hands.
"He does not trust me," she cries fiercely, all that is evil kindling to life within her. "He slights and insults me, lowers me before my own servants. He dares to shut his doors against my will, to the man who is my friend. He treats me like a captive, a slave. Oh! Philip, you do not know what you have done to-day? You do not guess how much this want of faith may cost you. I was so strong, till you threw me back, so sure, till you treated me like this!"
Eleanor realises how the shock of Philip's order has been the death-blow to her good resolves. A sudden hatred of her husband leaps into her heart and brain, choking her.
"A little confidence, a little love," she murmurs. "They are small things to ask at Philip's hands, yet he holds them from me in his cold reserve and suspicious dread."
Her eyes are dry and bright, her throat is parched, her forehead burns.
What will Carol think? Carol will be sorry, but not angry; Carol is always kind, considerate, forgiving. The dangerous fascination of imagination steals over her. Carol is at her side in a waking dream, but the scene is very different to the one she had contemplated. She fancies he is kneeling as once before by the same sofa, murmuring again those wild, impassioned words. She bends to grasp his hands and raise him from the grovelling adoration to her own level. They are just a man and woman--soul to soul, clay; ah! yes, of the earth earthly.
She breaks into a low laugh which ripples round the room, and seems to die away in something like a sob.
What is this rising tumult in her heart?
She cannot analyse her mood, it seems as if a certain knowledge has broken in like a flood of light upon her dim reason.
"Who can prevent me loving him, who can hold me back if I will it, if I choose?"
The door re-opens. Sarah enters with one of Mrs. Mounteagle's little scented notes upon a salver.
DEAREST ELEANOR,--If you are in, just toddle round to tea like a darling. I have some delicious toasted buns, and I want you to come and eat them. Don't put on gloves.
Your all impatient, GIDDY.
It is intolerable sitting in alone, fuming over her wrongs and acting a drama with her imagination. Philip detests Giddy. She will pay him out and go.
Glad of anything to divert the current of her thoughts, she snatches up a small fur cap in the hall, which rests becomingly on Eleanor's wealth of waving hair. Flinging a long red cloak around her, she slips out of the house, and rings at the widow's door.
"I hope she is alone. I don't feel in the mood to compass Bertie's inane conversation," thinks Mrs. Roche as the flaxen maid shows her in.
The twilight has gathered, but there is no lamp, as Giddy rustles forward in a lavender tea-gown to greet Eleanor.
"You are a very bad child," she says holding up her finger, "but we've found you out, and shown you up most shockingly. What right have you to break hearts, as if they were only bric-à-brac
, and say 'Not at home' when you were probably gourmandising over the huge Buzzard cake we ordered in town?"
Eleanor cannot speak, for Carol Quinton rises, and looks reproachfully into her eyes. She feels like a hunted stag, and yet she is glad--relieved.
"There! now you are in a hole," continues Giddy, laughing, "with no time to invent a plausible excuse. But come and sit down and ask forgiveness. I dare say Carol will get over it."
As yet Eleanor has not spoken. She walks like one in a trance to the quaint old chair Mrs. Mounteagle draws forward. She sits down mechanically and gazes at the colours in the carpet, just as she did once before at the Butterflies' Club.
"What a poor little world it is!" she thinks, "just like a muddy, narrow lane, through which its puppets drive or run, with the dirt thrown up in their faces at every turn." "Come! do not look so glum over it," coos Giddy, removing Eleanor's cloak. "Carol knows as well as I do what a row you have been in, and how rusty Mr. Roche has turned. We are both most terribly sorry for you. I am sure I don't know how you stand him. It does so remind me of my late husband, from whom I was separated by mutual agreement two years before his death. Our quarrels began much in the same way. I preferred a will of my own, and meant to have it. He would have treated me like the chickens cooped up in the yard--a useful addition to his table, only their part was the most enviable. I should not have minded being cooked and roasted, for there my sorrows would have ceased."
"Death must be very pleasant," says Eleanor slowly, her head turning lightly to the alluring charms of suicide.
"No doubt, when you are old and ugly. But at present life is what you have got to consider, my dear."
"Life and buttered buns," replies Eleanor drily, as Mrs. Mounteagle hands the dish. "No, thank you, Giddy. I don't want any tea."
Her voice trembles with agitation, as Carol, who has never taken his eyes off her, draws a little nearer.
"If you won't eat anything, dear," murmurs Giddy, "at least you must drink something just to settle your nerves. Suction is so much more romantic than mastication."
But Eleanor shakes her head.
"I am going to play peacemaker," declares Mrs. Mounteagle, "and leave you two to make it up. I have an important letter to write, which must catch the half-past five post. You owe Carol an apology, and that is always difficult in the presence of a third party."
Eleanor is about to demur, when she catches Mr. Quinton's expression, and his look withers the words on her tongue, and forces them back.
She only stammers, "Don't be long," and collapses into silence.
Giddy's important letter is addressed to the Fur Store. She orders the muff.
If things have been going badly at "Lyndhurst" before the day on which Philip makes his fatal error, they do not bear comparison with the bad times that follow.
Even Erminie's sweet influence cannot bring peace to the ill-conditioned home. True she does her best, coming frequently, and spending long days in Eleanor's society. But though Mrs. Roche entertains her charmingly, she refuses to discuss Philip, and flees from good advice with the clever tact that can conceal rudeness and yet repel in a breath.
"I don't know why," says Philip one day, in confidence to Erminie, "but though I do all in my power to win back my wife's love, it seems I have lost it for ever."
Erminie knows the reason, and so does he, only he dares not own it.
"She has tried me a good deal at times," he continues, "yet I love her just as madly, and that is what makes me seem to her fiendishly cruel occasionally, when the spirit of jealousy robs me of reason. I can't bear it, Erminie, to see her restless and dissatisfied in my presence, to feel her shudder from my kiss. An insurmountable barrier is rising between us. Can you guess what it is?"
Erminie's answer startles Philip.
"Then, you, too, have noticed--all the world sees it? That man who is trying to steal my wife from me is the curse, the foul fiend, the shadow, the shame. I met him in the City only yesterday. He tried to bow, but I looked him in the face and cut him dead. He paled and shrank away."
"Then, perhaps," suggests Erminie hopefully, "Eleanor has broken with him?"
"Not so long as she is in Giddy Mounteagle's clutches. For a while I let my business alone, I stayed at home day after day to guard and watch her. She divined the reason, and chafed against her cage, like a bird bereft of song, whose wings are cut. Things went badly for me on the Stock Exchange; I found I was losing hundreds, thousands, through my absence. Finally I returned, and Eleanor's face grew brighter--she had seen him again!
"How do you know?"
"Don't ask me."
Philip turns away and wipes his brow. Erminie's true heart bleeds for him as she thinks of the perfect sympathy and confidence reigning between herself and Nelson.
"Your cloud may lift in time," she says, somewhat lamely seeking to console him.
"It may deepen," he answers lugubriously.
"Supposing you were able to persuade Eleanor to go home for a visit; it would be pleasant at Copthorne now the spring has come. Her parents are good, honest people, the country life a healthy one. It might strengthen her in body and mind, awaking memories of youth and innocence, your courtship, her marriage! There is no tonic for a diseased mind like fresh air and green fields. She said she longed to see the dear old farm again only yesterday. It would put her beyond the reach of Giddy Mounteagle, and you might run up and down several times in the week."
"I will suggest it," says Philip.
The idea delights Mrs. Roche beyond measure when later on her husband mentions it. She has frequently met Carol Quinton of late, and the ardour of his passion and her own overpowering love have frightened her at last.
The thought of escaping to the country to seek forgetfulness and avoid temptation appeals to her.
She puts her arms softly and half timidly round Philip's neck, resting her cheek against his, as she has not done for weeks.
He snatches her to his heart with a cry, smothering her face in kisses. "Eleanor, can't we be better friends?" he whispers.
The tears course down her cheeks, the guilty love she is trying to crush rises before her--jeering, taunting.
"I will try, Philip," she falters. "Only let me go home for a while, and see the old scenes, the familiar faces."
He still holds her to him, his pulses thrilling at her softened tone, as he answers, "Yes."
"I am really going back to the farm, Giddy," she says the following day, "to vegetate, and grow young again among the primroses and violets. The lawn will be yellow with crocus flowers, and I can almost smell the hyacinths. I promised them faithfully I would return when the birds began to sing!"
"You must give me your address," says Giddy. "I should like to write."
Eleanor looks at her shrewdly.
She has never quite forgotten the "Lady MacDonald" or "the party" episode. It is the recollection of this that makes her state, with a certain pride, the pleasure she feels in visiting her people.
"I will give it you on one condition," she replies.
"Promise me faithfully on no
account to pass it on to Carol Quinton."
"Because I have gone too far, Giddy. I want to get away from his influence. You know he dogs my footsteps, tracks, and haunts me. I dare not trust myself. I am going away for a course of discipline, simple living, and country pursuits. I know, if you promise, I can trust you."
She holds out a paper on which her address is written, but keeps her palm over the letter until Giddy shall make the promise.
"I swear," says Mrs. Mounteagle.