A Duet, with an Occasional Chorus/Chapter XXI

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The Last Note of the Duet

Our young married couples may feel that two is company and three is none, but there comes a little noisy intruder to break into their sweet intimacy. The coming of the third is the beginning of a new life for them as well as for it - a life which is more useful and more permanent, but never so concentrated as before. That little pink thing with the blinking eyes will divert some of the love and some of the attention, and the very trouble which its coming has caused will set its mother’s heart yearning over it. Not so the man. Some vague resentment mixes with his pride of paternity, and his wife’s sufferings rankle in his memory when she has herself forgotten them. His pity, his fears, his helplessness, and his discomfort, give him a share in the domestic tragedy. It is not without cause that in some societies it is the man and not the woman who receives the condolence and the sympathy.

There came a time when Maude was bad, and there came months when she was better, and then there were indications that a day was approaching, the very thought of which was a shadow upon her husband’s life. For her part, with the steadfast, gentle courage of a woman, she faced the future with a sweet serenity. But to him it was a nightmare - an actual nightmare which brought him up damp and quivering in those gray hours of the dawn, when dark shadows fall upon the spirit of man. He had a steady nerve for that which affected himself, a nerve which would keep him quiet and motionless in a dentist’s chair, but what philosophy or hardihood can steel one against the pain which those whom we love have to endure. He fretted and chafed, and always with the absurd delusion that his fretting and chafing were successfully concealed. A hundred failures never convince a man how impossible it is to deceive a woman who loves him. Maude watched him demurely, and made her plans.

‘Do you know, dear,’ said she, one evening, ‘if you can get a week of your holidays now, I think it would be a very good thing for you to accept that invitation of Mr. Mildmay’s, and spend a few days in golfing at Norwich.’

Frank stared at her open-eyed.

‘What! Now!’

‘Yes, dear, now - at once.’

‘But now of all times.’

Maude looked at him with that glance of absolute obvious candour which a woman never uses unless she has intent to deceive.

‘Yes, dear - but only next week. I thought it would brace you up for - well, for the week afterwards.’

‘You think the week afterwards?’

‘Yes, dear. It would help me so, if I knew that you were in your best form.’

‘I! What can it matter what form I am in. But in any case, it is out of the question.’

‘But you could get leave.’

‘Oh yes, easily enough.’

‘Then do go.’

‘And leave you at such a time!’

‘No, no, you would be back.’

‘You can’t be so sure of that. No, Maude, I should never forgive myself. Such an idea would never enter my head.’

‘But for my sake - !’

‘That’s enough, Maude. It is settled.’

Master Frank had a heavy foot when he did bring it down, and his wife recognised a decisive thud this time. With a curious double current of feeling, she was pleased and disappointed at the same time, but more pleased than disappointed, so she kissed the marrer of her plots.

‘What an obstinate old boy it is! But of course you know best, and I should much rather have you at home. As you say, one can never be certain.’

In a conflict of wits the woman may lose a battle, but the odds are that she will win the campaign. The man dissipates over many things, while she concentrates upon the one. Maude had made up her mind absolutely upon one point, and she meant to attain it. She tried here, she tried there, through a friend, through her mother, but Frank was still immovable. The ordeal coming upon herself never disturbed her for an instant. But the thought that Frank would suffer was unendurable. She put herself in his place, and realised what it would be to him if he were in the house at such a time. With many cunning devices she tried to lure him off, but still, in his stubborn way, he refused to be misled. And then suddenly she realised that it was too late.

It was early one morning that the conviction came home to her, but he, at her side, knew nothing of it. He came up to her before he left for the City.

‘You have not eaten anything, dear.’

‘No, Frank, I am not hungry.’

‘Perhaps, after you get up - ’

‘Well, dear, I thought of staying in bed.’

‘You are not - ?’

‘What nonsense, dear! I want to keep very quiet until next week, when I may need all my strength.’

‘Dear girl, I would gladly give ten years of my life to have next week past.’

‘Silly old boy! But I do think it would be wiser if I were to keep in bed.’

‘Yes, yes, do.’

‘I have a little headache. Nothing to speak of, but just a little.’

‘Don’t you think Dr. Jordan had better give you something for it.’

‘Do you think so? Well, just as you like. You might call as you pass, and tell him to step up.’

And so, upon a false mission, the doctor was summoned to her side, but found a very real mission waiting for him when he got there. She had written a note for Frank the moment that he had left the house, and he found both it and a conspiracy of silence waiting for him when he returned in the late afternoon. The note was upon the hall-table, and he eagerly tore it open.

‘My dear boy,’ said this mendacious epistle, ‘my head is still rather bad, and Dr. Jordan thought that it would be wiser if I were to have an undisturbed rest, but I will send down to you when I feel better. Until then I had best, perhaps, remain alone. Mr. Harrison sent round to say that he would come to help you to pot the bulbs, so that will give you something to do. Don’t bother about me, for I only want a little rest. - MAUDE.’

It seemed very unnatural to him to come back and not to hear the swift rustle of the dress which followed always so quickly upon the creak of his latch-key that they might have been the same sound. The hall and dining-room seemed unhomely without the bright welcoming face. He wandered about in a discontented fashion upon his tiptoes, and then, looking through the window, he saw Harrison his neighbour coming up the path with a straw basket in his hand. He opened the door for him with his finger upon his lips.

‘Don’t make a row, Harrison,’ said he, ‘my wife’s bad.’

Harrison whistled softly.

‘Not - ?’

‘No, no, not that. Only a headache, but she is not to be disturbed. We expect that next week. Come in here and smoke a pipe with me. It was very kind of you to bring the bulbs.’

‘I am going back for some more.’

‘Wait a little. You can go back presently. Sit down and light your pipe. There is some one moving about upstairs. It must be that heavy-footed Jemima. I hope she won’t wake Maude up. I suppose one must expect such attacks at such a time.’

‘Yes, my wife was just the same. No, thank you, I’ve just had some tea. You look worried, Crosse. Don’t take things too hard.’

‘I can’t get the thought of next week out of my head. If anything goes wrong - well there, what can I do? I never knew how a man’s nerves may be harrowed before. And she is such a saint, Harrison - such an absolutely unselfish saint! You’ll never guess what she tried to do.’

‘What, then?’

‘She knew what it would mean to me - what it will mean to me - to sit here in impotence while she goes through this horrible business. She guessed in some extraordinary way what my secret feelings were about it. And she actually tried to deceive me as to when it was to occur - tried to get me out of the house on one pretext or another until it was all over. That was her plot, and, by Jove, she tried it so cleverly that she would have managed it if something had not put me on my guard. She was a little too eager, unnaturally so, and I saw through her game. But think of it, the absolute unselfishness of it. To consider me at such a time, and to face her trouble alone and unsupported in order to make it easier for me. She wanted me to go to Norwich and play golf.’

‘She must have thought you pretty guileless, Crosse, to be led away so easily.’

‘Yes, it was a hopeless attempt to deceive me on such a point, or to dream for an instant that my instincts would not tell me when she had need of me. But none the less it was beautiful and characteristic. You don’t mind my talking of these things, Harrison?’

‘My dear chap, it is just what you need. You have been bottling things up too much. Your health will break down under it. After all, it is not so serious as all that. The danger is very much exaggerated.’

‘You think so.’

‘I’ve had the experience twice now. You’ll go to the City some fine morning, and when you come back the whole thing will be over.’

‘Indeed it won’t. I have made arrangements at the office, and from the hour that she first seems bad I will never stir from the house. For all she may say, I know very well that it gives her strength and courage to feel that I am there.’

‘You may not know that it is coming on?’

Frank laughed incredulously.

‘We’ll see about that,’ said he. ‘And you think from your experience, Harrison, that it is not so very bad after all?’

‘Oh no. It soon passes.’

‘Soon! What do you mean by soon?’

‘Jordan was there six hours the first time.’

‘Good God! Six hours!’ Frank wiped his forehead. ‘They must have seemed six years.’

‘They were rather long. I kept on working in the garden. That’s the tip. Keep on doing something and it helps you along wonderfully.’

‘That’s a good suggestion, Harrison. What a curious smell there is in the air! Do you notice a sort of low, sweetish, spirity kind of scent? Well, perhaps it’s my imagination. I dare say that my nerves are a bit strung up these days. But that is a capital idea of yours about having some work to do. I should like to work madly for those hours. Have everything up out of the back garden and plant it all again in the front.’

Harrison laughed.

‘I’ll tell you something less heroic,’ said he; ‘you could keep all these bulbs, and pot them then. By the way, I’ll go round and get the others. Don’t bother about the door. I shall leave it open, for I won’t be five minutes.’

‘And I’ll put these in the greenhouse,’ said Frank. He took the basket of bulbs and he laid them all out on the wooden shelf of the tiny conservatory which leaned against the back of the house. When he came out there was a kitten making a noise somewhere. It was a low sound, but persistent, coming in burst after burst. He took the rake and jabbed with the handle amongst the laurel bushes under their bedroom window. The beast might waken Maude, and so it was worth some trouble to dislodge it. He could not see it, but when he had poked among the bushes and cried ‘Skat!’ several times, the crying died away, and he carried his empty basket into the dining-room. There he lit his pipe again, and waited for Harrison’s return.

There was that bothersome kitten again. He could hear it mewing away somewhere. It did not sound so loud as in the garden, so perhaps it would not matter. He felt very much inclined to steal upstairs upon tiptoe and see if Maude were stirring yet. After all, if Jemima, or whoever it was, could go clumping about in heavy boots over his head, there was no fear that he could do any harm. And yet she had said that she would ring or send word the moment she could see him, and so perhaps he had better wait where he was. He put his head out of the window and cried ‘Shoo!’ into the laurel bushes several times. Then he sat in the armchair with his back to the door. Steps came heavily along the hall, and he saw dimly with the back corner of his eye that some one was in the doorway carrying something. He thought that really Harrison might have brought the bulbs in more quietly, and so he treated him with some coldness, and did not turn round to him.

‘Put it in the out-house,’ said he.

‘Why the out-house?’

‘We keep them there. But you can put it under the sideboard, or in the coal-scuttle, or where you like as long as you don’t make any more noise.’

‘Why, surely, Crosse - ’ But Frank suddenly sprang out of his chair.

‘I’m blessed if that infernal kitten isn’t somewhere in the room!’

And there when he turned was the grim, kindly face of old Doctor Jordan facing him. He carried in the crook of his arm a brown shawl with something round and small muffled up in it. There was one slit in front, and through this came a fist about the size of a marble, the thumb doubled under the tiny fingers, and the whole limb giving circular waves, as if the owner were cheering lustily at his own successful arrival. ‘Here am I, good people, hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!’ cried the waving hand. Then as the slit in the shawl widened Frank saw that behind the energetic fist there was a huge open mouth, a little button of a nose, and two eyes which were so resolutely screwed up that it seemed as if the owner had made a resolution never under any circumstances to take the least notice of this new world into which it had been transported. Frank dropped his pipe and stood staring at this apparition.

‘What! What’s that?’

‘The baby!’

‘Baby? Whose baby?’

‘Your baby, of course.’

‘My baby! Where - where did you get it?’

Doctor Jordan burst out laughing.

‘You are like a man who has just been wakened out of his sleep,’ said he. ‘Why, Crosse, your wife has been bad all day, but she’s all right now, and here’s your son and heir - a finer lad of the age I never saw - fighting weight about seven pounds.’

Frank was a very proud man at the roots of his nature. He did not readily give himself away. Perhaps if he had been quite alone he might at that moment, as the great wave of joy washed through his soul, bearing all his fears and forebodings away upon its crest, have dropped upon his knees in prayer. But prayer comes not from the knee but from the heart, and the whole strength of his nature breathed itself out in silent thanks to that great Fate which goes its way regardless either of thanks or reproaches. The doctor saw a pale self-contained young man before him, and thought him strangely wanting in emotion.

‘Well!’ said he, impatiently. ‘Is she all right?’

‘Yes. Won’t you take your son?’

‘Could she see me?’

‘I don’t suppose five minutes would do any harm.’

Dr. Jordan said afterwards that it was three steps which took Frank up the fifteen stairs. The nurse who met him at the corner looks back on it as the escape of her lifetime. Maude lay in bed with a face as pale as the pillow which framed it. Her lips were bloodless but smiling.

‘Frank!’

‘My own dear sweet girlie!’

‘You never knew. Did you, Frank? Tell me that you never knew.’

And at that anxious question the foolish pride which keeps the emotions of the strong man buried down in his soul as though they were the least honourable part of his nature, fell suddenly to nothing, and Frank dropped with his head beside the white face upon the pillow, and lay with his arm across the woman whom he loved, and sobbed as he had not sobbed since his childhood. Her cheek was wet with his tears. He never saw the doctor until he came beside him and touched him on the shoulder.

‘I think you had better go now,’ said he.

‘Sorry to be a fool, doctor,’ said Frank, blushing hotly in his clumsy English fashion. ‘It’s just more than I can stand.’

‘Sir,’ the doctor answered, ‘I owe you an apology, for I had done you an injustice. Meanwhile your son is about to be dressed, and there is hardly room for three men in one bedroom.’

So Frank went down into the darkening room below, and mechanically lighting his pipe, he sat with his elbows upon his knees and stared out into the gathering gloom where one bright evening star twinkled in a violet sky. The gentle hush of the gloaming was around him, and some late bird was calling outside amongst the laurels. Above he heard the shuffling of feet, the murmur of voices, and then amid it all those thin glutinous cries, his voice, the voice of this new man with all a man’s possibilities for good and for evil, who had taken up his dwelling with them. And as he listened to those cries, a gentle sadness was mixed with his joy, for he felt that things were now for ever changed - that whatever sweet harmonies of life might still be awaiting him, from this hour onwards, they might form themselves into the subtlest and loveliest of chords, but it must always be as a trio, and never as the dear duet of the past.