The White Peacock/Part 3, Chapter 6
|←The Dominant Motif of Suffering||The White Peacock (1911)
|The Scarp Slope→|
|London: William Heinemann pages 442-464|
When her eldest boy was three years old Lettie returned to live at Eberwich. Old Mr. Tempest died suddenly, so Leslie came down to inhabit “Highclose.” He was a very much occupied man. Very often he was in Germany or in the South of England engaged on business. At home he was unfailingly attentive to his wife and his two children. He had cultivated a taste for public life. In spite of his pressure of business he had become a County Councillor, and one of the prominent members of the Conservative Association. He was very fond of answering or proposing toasts at some public dinner, of entertaining political men at “Highclose,” of taking the chair at political meetings, and finally, of speaking on this or that platform. His name was fairly often seen in the newspapers. As a mine owner, he spoke as an authority on the employment of labour, on royalties, land-owning and so on.
At home he was quite tame. He treated his wife with respect, romped in the nursery, and domineered the servants royally. They liked him for it—her they did not like. He was noisy, but unobservant, she was quiet and exacting. He would swear and bluster furiously, but when he was round the corner they smiled. She gave her orders and passed very moderate censure, but they went away cursing to themselves. As Lettie was always a very good wife, Leslie adored her when he had the time, and when he had not, forgot her comfortably.
She was very contradictory. At times she would write to me in terms of passionate dissatisfaction: she had nothing at all in her life, it was a barren futility.
“I hope I shall have another child next spring,” she would write, “there is only that to take away the misery of this torpor. I seem full of passion and energy, and it all fizzles out in day to day domestics——”
When I replied to her urging her to take some work that she could throw her soul into, she would reply indifferently. Then later:
“You charge me with contradiction. Well, naturally. You see I wrote that screeching letter in a mood which won’t come again for some time. Generally I am quite content to take the rain and the calm days just as they come, then something flings me out of myself—and I am a trifle demented:—very, very blue, as I tell Leslie.”
Like so many women, she seemed to live, for the most part contentedly, a small indoor existence with artificial light and padded upholstery. Only occasionally, hearing the winds of life outside, she clamoured to be out in the black, keen storm. She was driven to the door, she looked out and called into the tumult wildly, but feminine caution kept her from stepping over the threshold.
George was flourishing in his horse-dealing.
In the morning, processions of splendid shire horses, tied tail and head, would tramp grandly along the quiet lanes of Eberwich, led by George’s man, or by Tom Mayhew, while in the fresh clean sunlight George would go riding by, two restless nags dancing beside him.
When I came home from France five years after our meeting in London I found him installed in the “Hollies.” He had rented the house from the Mayhews, and had moved there with his family, leaving Oswald in charge of the “Ram.” I called at the large house one afternoon, but George was out. His family surprised me. The twins were tall lads of six. There were two more boys, and Meg was nursing a beautiful baby-girl about a year old. This child was evidently mistress of the household. Meg, who was growing stouter, indulged the little creature in every way.
“How is George?” I asked her.
“Oh, he’s very well,” she replied. “He’s always got something on hand. He hardly seems to have a spare moment; what with his socialism, and one thing and another.”
It was true, the outcome of his visit to London had been a wild devotion to the cause of the down-trodden. I saw a picture of Watt’s “Mammon,” on the walls of the morning-room, and the works of Blatchford, Masterman, and Chiozza Money on the side table. The socialists of the district used to meet every other Thursday evening at the “Hollies” to discuss reform. Meg did not care for these earnest souls.
“They’re not my sort,” she said, “too jerky and bumptious. They think everybody’s slow-witted but them. There’s one thing about them, though, they don’t drink, so that’s a blessing.”
“Why!” I said, “Have you had much trouble that way?”
She lowered her voice to a pitch which was sufficiently mysterious to attract the attention of the boys.
“I shouldn’t say anything if it wasn’t that you were like brothers,” she said. “But he did begin to have dreadful drinking bouts. You know it was always spirits, and generally brandy:—and that makes such work with them. You’ve no idea what he’s like when he’s evil-drunk. Sometimes he’s all for talk, sometimes he’s laughing at everything, and sometimes he’s just snappy. And then——”here her tones grew ominous,“—he’ll come home evil-drunk.”
At the memory she grew serious.
“You couldn’t imagine what it’s like, Cyril,” she said. “It’s like having Satan in the house with you, or a black tiger glowering at you. I’m sure nobody knows what I’ve suffered with him——”
The children stood with large, awful eyes and paling lips, listening.
“But he’s better now?” I said.
“Oh, yes—since Gertie came,”—she looked fondly at the baby in her arms—“He’s a lot better now. You see he always wanted a girl, and he’s very fond of her—isn’t he, pet?—are you your Dadda’s girlie?—and Mamma’s too, aren’t you?”
The baby turned with sudden coy shyness, and clung to her mother’s neck. Meg kissed her fondly, then the child laid her cheek against her mother’s. The mother’s dark eyes, and the baby’s large, hazel eyes looked at me serenely. The two were very calm, very complete and triumphant together. In their completeness was a security which made me feel alone and ineffectual. A woman who has her child in her arms is a tower of strength, a beautiful, unassailable tower of strength that may in its turn stand quietly dealing death.
I told Meg I would call again to see George. Two evenings later I asked Lettie to lend me a dog-cart to drive over to the “Hollies.” Leslie was away on one of his political jaunts, and she was restless. She proposed to go with me. She had called on Meg twice before in the new large home.
We started about six o’clock. The night was dark and muddy. Lettie wanted to call in Eberwich village, so she drove the long way round Selsby. The horse was walking through the gate of the “Hollies” at about seven o’clock. Meg was upstairs in the nursery, the maid told me, and George was in the dining-room getting baby to sleep.
“All right!” I said, “we will go in to him. Don’t bother to tell him.”
As we stood in the gloomy, square hall we heard the rumble of a rocking-chair, the stroke coming slow and heavy to the tune of “Henry Martin,” one of our Strelley Mill folk songs. Then, through the man’s heavily-accented singing floated the long, light crooning of the baby as she sang, in her quaint little fashion, a mischievous second to her father’s lullaby. He waxed a little louder; and without knowing why, we found ourselves smiling with piquant amusement. The baby grew louder too, till there was a shrill ring of laughter and mockery in her music. He sang louder and louder, the baby shrilled higher and higher, the chair swung in long, heavy beats. Then suddenly he began to laugh. The rocking stopped, and he said, still with laughter and enjoyment in his tones:
“Now that is very wicked! Ah, naughty Girlie—go to boh, go to bohey!—at once.”
The baby chuckled her small, insolent mockery.
“Come, Mamma!” he said, “come and take Girlie to bohey!”
The baby laughed again, but with an uncertain touch of appeal in her tone. We opened the door and entered. He looked up very much startled to see us. He was sitting in a tall rocking-chair by the fire, coatless, with white shirtsleeves. The baby, in her high-waisted, tight little night-gown, stood on his knee, her wide eyes fixed on us, wild wisps of her brown hair brushed across her forehead and glinting like puffs of bronze dust over her ears. Quickly she put her arms round his neck and tucked her face under his chin, her small feet poised on his thigh, the night-gown dropping upon them. He shook his head as the puff of soft brown hair tickled him. He smiled at us, saying:
“You see I’m busy!”
Then he turned again to the little brown head tucked under his chin, blew away the luminous cloud of hair, and rubbed his lips and his moustache on the small white neck, so warm and secret. The baby put up her shoulders, and shrank a little, bubbling in his neck with hidden laughter. She did not lift her face or loosen her arms.
“She thinks she is shy,” he said. “Look up, young hussy, and see the lady and gentleman. She is a positive owl, she won’t go to bed—will you, young brown-owl?”
He tickled her neck again with his moustache, and the child bubbled over with naughty, merry laughter.
The room was very warm, with a red bank of fire up the chimney mouth. It was half lighted from a heavy bronze chandelier, black and gloomy, in the middle of the room. There was the same sombre, sparse furniture that the Mayhews had had. George looked large and handsome, the glossy black silk of his waistcoat fitting close to his sides, the roundness of the shoulder muscle filling the white linen of his sleeves.
Suddenly the baby lifted her head and stared at us, thrusting into her mouth the dummy that was pinned to the breast of her night-gown. The faded pink sleeves of the night-gown were tight on her fat little wrists. She stood thus sucking her dummy, one arm round her father’s neck, watching us with hazel solemn eyes. Then she pushed her fat little fist up among the bush of small curls, and began to twist her fingers about her ear that was white like a camelia flower.
“She is really sleepy,” said Lettie.
“Come then!” said he, folding her for sleep against his breast. “Come and go to boh.”
But the young rascal immediately began to cry her remonstrance. She stiffened herself, freed herself, and stood again on his knee, watching us solemnly, vibrating the dummy in her mouth as she suddenly sucked at it, twisting her father’s ear in her small fingers till he winced.
“Her nails are sharp,” he said, smiling.
He began asking and giving the small information that pass between friends who have not met for a long time. The baby laid her head on his shoulder, keeping her tired, owl-like eyes fixed darkly on us. Then gradually the lids fluttered and sank, and she dropped on to his arm.
“She is asleep,” whispered Lettie.
Immediately the dark eyes opened again. We looked significantly at one another, continuing our subdued talk. After a while the baby slept soundly. Presently Meg came downstairs. She greeted us in breathless whispers of surprise, and then turned to her husband.
“Has she gone?” she whispered, bending over the sleeping child in astonishment. “My, this is wonderful, isn’t it!”
She took the sleeping, drooping baby from his arms, putting her mouth close to its forehead, murmuring with soothing, inarticulate sounds.
We stayed talking for some time when Meg had put the baby to bed. George had a new tone of assurance and authority. In the first place he was an established man, living in a large house, having altogether three men working for him. In the second place he had ceased to value the conventional treasures of social position and ostentatious refinement. Very, very many things he condemned as flummery and sickly waste of time. The life of an ordinary well-to-do person he set down as adorned futility, almost idiocy. He spoke passionately of the monstrous denial of life to the many by the fortunate few. He talked at Lettie most flagrantly.
“Of course,” she said, “I have read Mr. Wells and Mr. Shaw, and even Niel Lyons and a Dutchman—what is his name, Querido? But what can I do? I think the rich have as much misery as the poor, and of quite as deadly a sort. What can I do? It is a question of life and the development of the human race. Society and its regulations is not a sort of drill that endless Napoleons have forced on us: it is the only way we have yet found of living together.”
“Pah!” said he, “that is rank cowardice. It is feeble and futile to the last degree.”
“We can’t grow consumption-proof in a generation, nor can we grow poverty-proof.”
“We can begin to take active measures,” he replied contemptuously.
“We can all go into a sanatorium and live miserably and dejectedly warding off death,” she said, “but life is full of goodliness for all that.”
“It is fuller of misery,” he said.
Nevertheless, she had shaken him. She still kept her astonishing power of influencing his opinions. All his passion, and heat, and rude speech, analysed out, was only his terror at her threatening of his life-interest.
She was rather piqued by his rough treatment of her, and by his contemptuous tone. Moreover, she could never quite let him be. She felt a driving force which impelled her almost against her will to interfere in his life. She invited him to dine with them at Highclose. He was now quite possible. He had, in the course of his business, been sufficiently in the company of gentlemen to be altogether “comme il faut” at a private dinner, and after dinner.
She wrote me concerning him occasionally:
“George Saxton was here to dinner yesterday. He and Leslie had frightful battles over the nationalisation of industries. George is rather more than a match for Leslie, which, in his secret heart, makes our friend gloriously proud. It is very amusing. I, of course, have to preserve the balance of power, and, of course, to bolster my husband’s dignity. At a crucial, dangerous moment, when George is just going to wave his bloody sword and Leslie lies bleeding with rage, I step in and prick the victor under the heart with some little satire or some esoteric question, I raise Leslie and say his blood is luminous for the truth, and vous voilà! Then I abate for the thousandth time Leslie’s conservative crow, and I appeal once more to George—it is no use my arguing with him, he gets so angry—I make an abtruse appeal for all the wonderful, sad, and beautiful expressions on the countenance of life, ex- pressions which he does not see or which he distorts by his oblique vision of socialism into grimaces—and there I am! I think I am something of a Machiavelli, but it is quite true, what I say——”
Again she wrote:
“We happened to be motoring from Derby on Sunday morning, and as we came to the top of the hill, we had to thread our way through quite a large crowd. I looked up, and whom should I see but our friend George, holding forth about the state endowment of mothers. I made Leslie stop while we listened. The market-place was quite full of people. George saw us, and became fiery. Leslie then grew excited, and although I clung to the skirts of his coat with all my strength, he jumped up and began to question. I must say it with shame and humility—he made an ass of himself. The men all round were jeering and muttering under their breath. I think Leslie is not very popular among them, he is such an advocate of machinery which will do the work of men. So they cheered our friend George when he thundered forth his replies and his demonstrations. He pointed his finger at us, and flung his hand at us, and shouted till I quailed in my seat. I cannot understand why he should become so frenzied as soon as I am within range. George had a triumph that morning, but when I saw him a few days later he seemed very uneasy, rather self-mistrustful——”
Almost a year later I heard from her again on the same subject.
“I have had such a lark. Two or three times I have been to the ‘Hollies’; to socialist meetings. Leslie does not know. They are great fun. Of course, I am in sympathy with the socialists, but I cannot narrow my eyes till I see one thing only. Life is like a large, rather beautiful man who is young and full of vigour, but hairy, barbaric, with hands hard and dirty, the dirt ingrained. I know his hands are very ugly, I know his mouth is not firmly shapen, I know his limbs are hairy and brutal: but his eyes are deep and very beautiful. That is what I tell George.
The people are so earnest, they make me sad. But then, they are so didactic, they hold forth so much, they are so cock-sure and so narrow-eyed, they make me laugh. George laughs too. I am sure we made such fun of a straight-haired goggle of a girl who had suffered in prison for the cause of women, that I am ashamed when I see my “Woman’s League” badge. At the bottom, you know, Cyril, I don’t care for anything very much, except myself. Things seem so frivolous. I am the only real thing, I and the children——”
Gradually George fell out of the socialist movement. It wearied him. It did not feed him altogether. He began by mocking his friends of the confraternity. Then he spoke in bitter dislike of Hudson, the wordy, humorous, shallow leader of the movement in Eberwich; it was Hudson with his wriggling and his clap-trap who disgusted George with the cause. Finally the meetings at the ‘Hollies’ ceased, and my friend dropped all connection with his former associates.
He began to speculate in land. A hosiery factory moved to Eberwich, giving the place a new stimulus to growth. George happened to buy a piece of land at the end of the street of the village. When he got it, it was laid out in allotment gardens. These were becoming valueless owing to the encroachment of houses. He took it, divided it up, and offered it as sites for a new row of shops. He sold at a good profit.
Altogether he was becoming very well off. I heard from Meg that he was flourishing, that he did not drink “anything to speak of,” but that he was always out, she hardly saw anything of him. If getting-on was to keep him so much away from home, she would be content with a little less fortune. He complained that she was narrow, and that she would not entertain any sympathy with any of his ideas.
“Nobody comes here to see me twice,” he said. “Because Meg receives them in such an off-hand fashion. I asked Jim Curtiss and his wife from Everley Hall one evening. We were uncomfortable all the time. Meg had hardly a word for anybody—‘Yes’ and ‘No’ and ‘Hm Hm!’—They’ll never come again.”
Meg herself said:
“Oh, I can’t stand stuck-up folks. They make me feel uncomfortable. As soon as they begin mincing their words I’m done for—I can no more talk than a lobster——”
Thus their natures contradicted each other. He tried hard to gain a footing in Eberwich. As it was he belonged to no class of society whatsoever. Meg visited and entertained the wives of small shop-keepers and publicans: this was her set.
George voted the women loud-mouthed, vulgar, and narrow—not without some cause. Meg, however, persisted. She visited when she thought fit, and entertained when he was out. He made acquaintance after acquaintance: Dr. Francis; Mr. Cartridge, the veterinary surgeon; Toby Heswall, the brewer’s son; the Curtisses, farmers of good standing from Everley Hall. But it was no good. George was by nature a family man. He wanted to be private and secure in his own rooms, then he was at ease. As Meg never went out with him, and as every attempt to entertain at the “Hollies” filled him with shame and mortification, he began to give up trying to place himself, and remained suspended in social isolation at the “Hollies.”
The friendship between Lettie and himself had been kept up, in spite of all things. Leslie was sometimes jealous, but he dared not show it openly, for fear of his wife’s scathing contempt. George went to “Highclose” perhaps once in a fortnight, perhaps not so often. Lettie never went to the “Hollies,” as Meg’s attitude was too antagonistic.
Meg complained very bitterly of her husband. He often made a beast of himself drinking, he thought more of himself than he ought, home was not good enough for him, he was selfish to the back-bone, he cared neither for her nor the children, only for himself.
I happened to be at home for Lettie’s thirty-first birthday. George was then thirty-five. Lettie had allowed her husband to forget her birthday. He was now very much immersed in politics, foreseeing a general election in the following year, and intending to contest the seat in parliament. The division was an impregnable Liberal stronghold, but Leslie had hopes that he might capture the situation. Therefore he spent a great deal of time at the conservative club, and among the men of influence in the southern division, Lettie encouraged him in these affairs. It relieved her of him. It was thus that she let him forget her birthday, while, for some unknown reason, she let the intelligence slip to George. He was invited to dinner, as I was at home.
George came at seven o’clock. There was a strange feeling of festivity in the house, although there were no evident signs. Lettie had dressed with some magnificence in a blackish purple gauze over soft satin of lighter tone, nearly the colour of double violets. She wore vivid green azurite ornaments on the fairness of her bosom, and her bright hair was bound by a band of the same colour. It was rather startling. She was conscious of her effect, and was very excited. Immediately George saw her his eyes wakened with a dark glow. She stood up as he entered, her hand stretched straight out to him, her body very erect, her eyes bright and rousing, like two blue pennants.
“Thank you so much,” she said softly, giving his hand a last pressure before she let it go. He could not answer, so he sat down, bowing his head, then looking up at her in suspense. She smiled at her.
Presently the children came in. They looked very quaint, like acolytes, in their long straight dressing-gowns of quilted blue silk. The boy, particularly, looked as if he were going to light the candles in some childish church in paradise. He was very tall and slender and fair, with a round fine head, and serene features. Both children looked remarkably, almost transparently, clean: it is impossible to consider anything more fresh and fair. The girl was a merry, curly headed puss of six. She played with her mother’s green jewels and prattled prettily, while the boy stood at his mother’s side, a slender and silent acolyte in his pale blue gown. I was impressed by his patience and his purity. When the girl had bounded away into George’s arms, the lad laid his hand timidly on Lettie’s knee and looked with a little wonder at her dress.
“How pretty those green stones are, mother!” he said.
“Yes,” replied Lettie brightly, lifting them and letting their strange pattern fall again on her bosom. “I like them.”
“Are you going to sing, mother?” he asked.
“Perhaps. But why?” said Lettie, smiling.
“Because you generally sing when Mr. Saxton comes.”
He bent his head and stroked Lettie’s dress shyly.
“Do I,” she said, laughing, “Can you hear?”
“Just a little,” he replied. “Quite small, as if it were nearly lost in the dark.”
He was hesitating, shy as boys are. Lettie laid her hand on his head and stroked his smooth fair hair.
“Sing a song for us before we go, mother——” he asked, almost shamefully. She kissed him.
“You shall sing with me,” she said. “What shall it be?”
She played without a copy of the music. He stood at her side, while Lucy, the little mouse, sat on her mother’s skirts, pressing Lettie’s silk slippers in turn upon the pedals. The mother and the boy sang their song.
“Gaily the troubadour touched his guitar
The boy had a pure treble, clear as the flight of swallows in the morning. The light shone on his lips. Under the piano the girl child sat laughing, pressing her mother’s feet with all her strength, and laughing again. Lettie smiled as she sang.
At last they kissed us a gentle “good-night,” and flitted out of the room. The girl popped her curly head round the door again. We saw the white cuff on the nurse’s wrist as she held the youngster’s arm.
“You’ll come and kiss us when we’re in bed, Mum?” asked the rogue. Her mother laughed and agreed.
Lucy was withdrawn for a moment; then we heard her, “Just a tick, nurse, just half-a-tick!”
The curly head appeared round the door again.
“And one teenie sweetie,” she suggested, “only one!”
“Go, you——!” Lettie clapped her hands in mock wrath. The child vanished, but immediately there appeared again round the door two blue laughing eyes and the snub tip of a nose.
“A nice one, Mum—not a jelly-one!”
Lettie rose with a rustle to sweep upon her. The child vanished with a glitter of laughter. We heard her calling breathlessly on the stairs—“Wait a bit, Freddie,—wait for me!”
George and Lettie smiled at each other when the children had gone. As the smile died from their faces they looked down sadly, and until dinner was announced they were very still and heavy with melancholy. After dinner Lettie debated pleasantly which bon-bon she should take for the children. When she came down again she smoked a cigarette with us over coffee, George did not like to see her smoking, yet he brightened a little when he sat down after giving her a light, pleased with the mark of recklessness in her.
“It is ten years to-day since my party at Woodside,” she said, reaching for the small Roman salt-cellar of green jade that she used as an ash-tray.
“My Lord—ten years!” he exclaimed bitterly. “It seems a hundred.”
“It does and it doesn’t,” she answered, smiling.
“If I look straight back, and think of my excitement, it seems only yesterday. If I look between then and now, at all the days that lie between, it is an age.”
“If I look at myself,” he said, “I think I am another person altogether.”
“You have changed,” she agreed, looking at him sadly. “There is a great change—but you are not another person. I often think—there is one of his old looks, he is just the same at the bottom!”
They embarked on a barge of gloomy recollections and drifted along the soiled canal of their past.
“The worst of it is,” he said. “I have got a miserable carelessness, a contempt for things. You know I had such a faculty for reverence. I always believed in things.”
“I know you did,” she smiled. “You were so humbly-minded—too humbly-minded, I always considered. You always thought things had a deep religious meaning, somewhere hidden, and you reverenced them. Is it different now?”
“You know me very well,” he laughed. “What is there left for me to believe in, if not in myself?”
“You have to live for your wife and children,” she said with firmness.
“Meg has plenty to secure her and the children as long as they live,” he said, smiling. “So I don’t know that I’m essential.”
“But you are,” she replied. “You are necessary as a father and a husband, if not as a provider.”
“I think,” said he, “marriage is more of a duel than a duet. One party wins and takes the other captive, slave, servant—what you like. It is so, more or less.”
“Well?” said Lettie.
“Well!” he answered. “Meg is not like you. She wants me, part of me, so she’d kill me rather than let me go loose.”
“Oh, no!” said Lettie, emphatically.
“You know nothing about it,” he said quietly.
“In the marital duel Meg is winning. The woman generally does; she has the children on her side. I can’t give her any of the real part of me, the vital part that she wants—I can’t, any more than you could give kisses to a stranger. And I feel that I’m losing—and don’t care.”
“No,” she said, “you are getting morbid.”
He put the cigarette between his lips, drew a deep breath, then slowly sent the smoke down his nostrils.
“No,” he said.
“Look here!” she said. “Let me sing to you, shall I, and make you cheerful again?”
She sang from Wagner. It was the music of resignation and despair. She had not thought of it. All the time he listened he was thinking. The music stimulated his thoughts and illuminated the trend of his brooding. All the time he sat looking at her his eyes were dark with his thoughts. She finished the “Star of Eve” from Tannhäuser and came over to him.
“Why are you so sad to-night, when it is my birthday?” she asked plaintively.
“Am I slow?” he replied. “I am sorry.”
“What is the matter?” she said, sinking onto the small sofa near to him.
“Nothing!” he replied—“You are looking very beautiful.”
“There, I wanted you to say that! You ought to be quite gay, you know, when I am so smart to-night.”
“Nay,” he said, “I know I ought. But the to-morrow seems to have fallen in love with me. I can’t get out of its lean arms.”
“Why!” she said. “To-morrow’s arms are not lean. They are white, like mine.” She lifted her arms and looked at them, smiling.
“How do you know?” he asked, pertinently.
“Oh, of course, they are,” was her light answer.
He laughed, brief and sceptical.
“No!” he said. “It came when the children kissed us.”
“What?” she asked.
“These lean arms of to-morrow’s round me, and the white round you,” he replied, smiling whimsically. She reached out and clasped his hand.
“You foolish boy,” she said.
He laughed painfully, not able to look at her.
“You know,” he said, and his voice was low and difficult. “I have needed you for a light. You will soon be the only light again.”
“Who is the other?” she asked.
“My little girl!” he answered. Then he continued, "And you know, I couldn’t endure complete darkness, I couldn’t. It’s the solitariness.”
“You mustn’t talk like this,” she said. “You know you mustn’t.” She put her hand on his head and ran her fingers through the hair he had so ruffled.
“It is as thick as ever, your hair,” she said. He did not answer, hut kept his face bent out of sight. She rose from her seat and stood at the back of his low arm-chair. Taking an amber comb from her hair, she bent over him, and with the translucent comb and her white fingers she busied herself with his hair.
“I believe you would have a parting,” she said softly.
He laughed shortly at her playfulness. She continued combing, just touching, pressing the strands in place with the tips of her fingers.
“I was only a warmth to you,” he said, pursuing the same train of thought. “So you could do without me. But you were like the light to me, and otherwise it was dark and aimless. Aimlessness is horrible.”
She had finally smoothed his hair, so she lifted her hands and put back her head.
“There!” she said. “It looks fair fine, as Alice would say. Raven’s wings are raggy in comparison.”
He did not pay any attention to her.
“Aren’t you going to look at yourself?” she said, playfully reproachful. She put her finger-tips under his chin. He lifted his head and they looked at each other, she smiling, trying to make him play, he smiling with his lips, but not with eyes, dark with pain.
“We can’t go on like this, Lettie, can we?” he said softly.
“Yes,” she answered him, “Yes; why not?”
“It can’t!” he said, “It can’t, I couldn’t keep it up, Lettie.”
“But don’t think about it,” she answered. “Don’t think of it.”
“Lettie,” he said. “I have to set my teeth with loneliness.”
“Hush!” she said. “No! There are the children. Don’t say anything—do not be serious, will you?”
“No, there are the children,” he replied, smiling dimly.
“Yes! Hush now! Stand up and look what a fine parting I have made in your hair. Stand up, and see if my style becomes you.”
“It is no good, Lettie,” he said, “we can’t go on.”
“Oh, but come, come, come!” she exclaimed. “We are not talking about going on; we are considering what a fine parting I have made you down the middle, like two wings of a spread bird——” she looked down, smiling playfully on him, just closing her eyes slightly in petition.
He rose and took a deep breath, and set his shoulders.
“No,” he said, and at the sound of his voice, Lettie went pale and also stiffened herself.
“No!” he repeated. “It is impossible. I felt as soon as Fred came into the room—it must be one way or another.”
“Very well then,” said Lettie, coldly. Her voice was “muted” like a violin.
“Yes,” he replied, submissive. “The children.” He looked at her, contracting his lips in a smile of misery.
“Are you sure it must be so final?” she asked, rebellious, even resentful. She was twisting the azurite jewels on her bosom, and pressing the blunt points into her flesh. He looked up from the fascination of her action when he heard the tone of her last question. He was angry.
“Quite sure!” he said at last, simply, ironically.
She bowed her head in assent. His face twitched sharply as he restrained himself from speaking again. Then he turned and quietly left the room. She did not watch him go, but stood as he had left her. When, after some time, she heard the grating of his dog-cart on the gravel, and then the sharp trot of hoofs down the frozen road, she dropped herself on the settee, and lay with her bosom against the cushions, looking fixedly at the wall.