6. Like One That On A Lonesome Road Dost Walk In Fear And Dread
Eleanor's blood runs cold at the sight of her husband. She knows well what he will think of this impromptu, supper-party. Giddy's feet for the moment are mercifully concealed by the table-cloth. She half rises, however, and stretches out her hand to Mr. Roche.
"Eleanor was just wishing you would come back," she murmurs sweetly.
"I returned quite by chance," he answers coldly, knowing her words to be untrue. "Brown could not put me up after all," turning to his wife, "so I drove down."
"Philip, this is Mr. Quinton; he kindly saw me home, and--and----"
"We persuaded him to come in," adds Giddy, as Carol, grasping the situation, says pleasantly:
"Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Roche."
But, though Philip is far too gentlemanly to show his disapproval, all the hilarity has gone from the evening. Perhaps it is due to Eleanor's sudden tranquillity, the pallor of her face, and nervous hesitating speech. She is no adept at concealing her emotions or "passing things off" like Giddy and Carol. She leaves the rest of the conversation to them, and while Philip is seeing Mr. Quinton out slips upstairs for Giddy's shoes and beseeches her to put them on.
"My husband will think it so odd," she whispers. "I saw him looking at your hair."
"Yes," replies Mrs. Mounteagle, "men always admire it. But don't be alarmed, dear; I am far too fond of you to care about making a friend of your husband." Then she saunters up to bed, with a glance at Eleanor's pretty, troubled face.
"I wonder if she'll have sense enough to hold her own," thinks Giddy. "Poor little fool, to be sat upon already!" She hears them come up, and creeping from her room steals on tip-toe to their door, with her ear to the keyhole.
There are high words within, and some unpleasant allusions to herself in distinctly masculine tones. Eleanor is heard crying, but her tears do not hasten a reconciliation. Giddy goes quietly back.
"Bah!" she exclaims, stretching out her hands to the fire. "What rot! As if there was any harm!"
She stirs up the blaze and laughs. "I shall breakfast in bed," she says to herself.
"He doesn't understand me. He wants me to be so good, so uninteresting, so domesticated; I believe he married me for that. Oh! oh! oh!"
Mrs. Roche is wringing her hands and sobbing on the sofa.
"Another quarrel?" sighs Giddy, stroking Eleanor's soft hair. "Come, come, this won't do. Pluck up your courage, go your own way, act as you like, and laugh at your husband. He can't scold you if you laugh! Tears will only gratify his vanity, besides they are disastrous to beauty. Once your eyes become swollen, and your nose red, you can no longer hold your own. Your sense of superiority is gone, you are undone!"
"How awful I look!" sighs Eleanor, rising and facing the glass. "I hope Sarah will say 'not at home' if anybody calls."
"I am not going to let you stay in and mope, just because Mr. Roche happened to leave in a lecturing mood this morning. I have arranged a little tea in town at my club."
"Your club? I did not know you had one."
"Oh! yes, and I am on the committee. Nearly all the artists and literary women have their clubs nowadays, so I and some friends started one for people who do absolutely nothing. It is very useful to members with jealous husbands. We call it the 'Butterflies' Club,' a land of cosy corners and rendezvous. You really will have to join it, Eleanor, if Philip goes on like this. I will put you up at our next meeting. It is rather an expensive luxury, ten guineas a year, and a Turkish bath attached."
Giddy places her arm affectionately through Eleanor's and leads her to the door.
"Come up and dress, dear; my carriage will be here in half an hour, and I don't intend going without you."
Eleanor cheers up at the prospect. She is like an April day.
Giddy fans her friend's flushed face, rubs some powder gently with her fingers round the swollen eyes, and showers eau-de-Cologne on the burning forehead.
"Do not throw yourself into any more fevers," she says; "life is too short, and sorrow too long."
Eleanor is soon attired in green velvet and fur, for Mrs. Mounteagle declares it is necessary to be smart at the Butterflies' Club.
They drive away together in the widow's snug little brougham.
Herbert Dallison is waiting outside the club door to receive them; he starts, colours, and stares at Eleanor as Giddy introduces him.
"Say 'how do you do?' prettily," she cries in a bantering tone, "and don't gape like an overgrown school-boy, if you love me, Bertie!"
Mr. Dallison holds out a limp hand in a grey glove, smiles feebly, and thinks of the "relics" and the cat!
"Why are you not at the Junior Conservative?" murmurs Eleanor, laughing softly, "instead of dangling round the 'Butterflies'?"
"Ah! you remember my card."
"Yes, I have it still. I hope you will make Giddy a good husband," speaking demurely.
"I ought to, after all I've gone through for her sake. It is a mercy I have come back alive after my illnesses, and the dangerous young people I met on the Continent."
"Let me introduce you to our coming member, the Butterfly that is to be," says Giddy, and Eleanor turns to face Carol Quinton.
Mrs. Mounteagle laughs merrily at her astonished look.
"I did not tell you he was coming, but now we are just a cosy quartette."
"I am afraid," murmurs Mr. Quinton, "that my visit to your charming home the other evening was ill-timed. Mr. Roche seemed somewhat taken aback by my presence."
"Yes," stammers Eleanor, growing red.
"I was so vexed you should be annoyed," he replies, "that I could not go home, but paced the pavement for an hour, watching the light in your window."
Eleanor's eyes expand. She has a way of looking "surprise" without saying it, and the look lasts quite a long while, during which an ordinary person would have expressed their feelings several times over. Then the wonderment fades like a magic-lantern slide, and she talks of something else.
"Have you ever seen the sun burst suddenly through a fog? It is like your smile," says Carol, gazing into Eleanor's face. "Why don't you always smile?"
"Because I am not always happy," she responds quietly.
A pained expression steals into the man's eyes, and Eleanor flushes rosy under his look. It is deep, searching, admiring; it confuses her. She wants to push it away like something oppressive, a funeral veil dark and heavy, or a chloroformed handkerchief, stifling breath!
The words break from him with bitter irony.
"You have youth, beauty, personal magnetism, the power to charm, eyes that might wreck a life every day in the year. You need not scheme for love nor demand it. It is yours by natural right. Why is not your life one of wildest exhilaration, conquests, pleasures? Who could deny you anything, Mrs. Roche?"
Eleanor knows well, but is too loyal to say. She would sooner bite out her tongue than answer "Philip!" Yet he would rob her of the companionship of her dearest friend, would deny her intercourse with Carol Quinton, could he hear these low-whispered words of adulation! As she thinks of it, her husband takes the form of some heartless monster, sapping her youth's freedom, fettering her down to his side like a dragon-fly on a pin, she can only flap her wings faintly and gasp in vain.
"Were you sorry to see me to-day?" asks Mr. Quinton, watching the firelight playing on Eleanor's figure.
"No, I was very miserable this afternoon; I had been crying. I like meeting you, it does me good."
As she speaks the electric light is turned up, and a little groan issues from Giddy.
"Just as we were all so comfortable in the gloaming!" pulling her hand from Bertie's with a pout.
"Butterflies should like light better than darkness," he drawls.
"I want to look round now," cries Eleanor, enthusiastically viewing the beautiful room. "Anyone could see that Giddy had something to do with this."
"Here is a pretty little writing-table behind a screen, with a rose-coloured lamp," says Carol. "When you are a member, Mrs. Roche, will you sometimes write to me?"
"What should I have to say?" she asks innocently, surprised at the suggestion.
"Tell me about yourself, if only in one line: 'I live--I breathe--I have my being.'"
"What an odd letter!"
"I like odd things, I like odd people; I hate conventionality, and scorn the commonplace. I know a girl who always speaks the truth, and everybody hates her. She glories in it."
"How splendid to be hated for such a cause!" declares Eleanor.
"She never will embrace a woman she dislikes, so many people think it is necessary, and the kiss of detestation is more fashionable in Society than that of real affection. For myself, I think a kiss is overrated. It should be looked on in the light of a hand-shake--harmless and agreeable, a mark of courtesy, endearment or respect."
"Then you would have to explain it," says Eleanor. "'I kiss you because I idolise you;' 'I kiss you because you are estimable;' 'I kiss you because you are rich and entertain me.' No, it would never answer."
She is fingering the delicate, scented writing paper.
"How nice this address is in gold, with a big butterfly in the corner. I have some invitations to answer, and I should like to do it here--it looks so well."
Eleanor seats herself, and draws the paper towards her. "Mrs. Roche regrets that, owing to no previous engagement, she is unable to accept Mrs. B's dull invitation for Thursday!"
"Have you an 'At home' on Thursday week?"
"Yes, but I shall decline it."
"Don't," he whispers. "Accept--let them expect you--and fail to turn up. Come and meet me instead."
Eleanor trembles suddenly and grows pale. She feels herself face to face with temptation.
"No," she replies faintly. "But I shall be in, and if you call----"
"'If'! there is no 'if' in the matter. I would come every day if you let me."
"Every day!" Oh! how alluring it sounds.
She twists her wedding ring round and round, looking down on the carpet. She remembers the pattern that night in her dreams, a red Maltese cross on a blue ground. The blue and red swim before her eyes now like the colours in a kaleidoscope. A solitary tear rises in her left eye and falls on the blotter.
"If only I might do as I like!" she murmurs.
"'Might' is a word you could blot from your vocabulary. Why not?"
"Oh! don't--don't--don't," as he lays his hand on hers, and the touch thrills her with bewildering emotion.
"Where is Giddy? Oh! Giddy, take me home; it is nearly half-past five, and Philip will be back."
Mrs. Mounteagle raises her eyebrows at Eleanor's agitated tones.
"You told me he would be late this evening."
"Did I?" easing on her gloves.
Carol is standing behind with her cloak. His hands linger a moment as they fall on her shoulder, and he turns up the warm fur collar about her ears.
"My mite of a brougham only holds two," says Giddy, "and Bertie is coming with me, so I dare say Mr. Quinton will see you home in a hansom."
The suggestion amazes Eleanor. Really Giddy has the most delightful ideas, and as to Philip's prejudices----well her thoughts on this subject are better not divulged.
One moment she is a panic-stricken girl, afraid as the very word "flirtation", the next, inconsistent, susceptible, a slave to Giddy's whims, easily led, easily beguiled.
She can hear her heart beating, as Carol helps her into the hansom. It is dark already, dark as the unknown future, while they whirl away in the gloom.
"It is cold," says Eleanor.
He wraps her furs closer round her.
"Cold?" with a tender glance.
There is a volume in the word.
Philip in the meanwhile is having tea with his cousin, Erminie Henderson.
She is a thoroughly staunch woman, with the warmest of hearts, sociable, bright, reliable, always ready with a helping hand where help is needed, yet human enough to err occasionally. Philip has known her from a child, has seen her weaknesses and excellences. The former overrule the latter. She is fond of him in a cousinly spirit, and delighted at his visit.
For some time they talk on ordinary subjects, till at last Erminie folds her arms, looks him searchingly up and down, and asks straight out:
"What's the matter, Phil?"
He starts, but returns her glance openly.
"To tell you the truth, I have come to confide in you--to ask you a favour."
"Good," replies Erminie, who has heard many a confidence in her day. "Go on."
"You know but little of my wife--she is young, quite a girl--very easily influenced."
His words come shortly. He breathes hard. "I would tell you what I could not say to any other creature. It is early days, and we have begun to quarrel. She has made great friends with a frivolous widow--a woman next door--whom I warned her against from the first. I have done all in my power to stop the intimacy, but protestations only appear to strengthen it. This woman has got Eleanor entirely under her thumb, she is like soft clay in her hands. I thought I could mould my wife, who was utterly unformed, a little country farm girl. But Giddy Mounteagle has proved stronger, cleverer than I. Perhaps her method is easier to follow, perhaps I have misunderstood Eleanor from the first. Day by day she drifts farther from me, and yet, if such a thing were possible, I love her more."
He rises and leans his head on his arms over the mantel-border.
"Help me, Erminie; you might do so much."
"Come and stay with us--use your influence with Eleanor."
Miss Henderson seems confused.
"I should be delighted. I would do anything for you, but----"
Philip looks up quickly, his eyebrows rise involuntarily.
He has never yet known a "but" from Erminie's lips, when asking her aid.
"The 'buts' of this world are its stumbling blocks."
"I am going to be married very shortly, I am in the midst of 'trousseauing'."
"Ah! I had forgotten," he replies, smothering his disappointment.
Erminie makes a resolve.
"I'll come, Phil," she says, holding out her hand.
"But it will be so inconvenient!"
"Never mind. I shall interest Eleanor in my things, and try to win her from the widow. Erminie Henderson versus Giddy Mounteagle. What is the betting, Phil?"
He grasps her hands, and wrings them heartily.
"You are the best little woman that ever lived!" he says.