A Safety Match/Chapter 17
THE LIGHTING OF THE CANDLE.
There is no more disagreeable sensation in this world than that furnished by a sudden encounter with some one with whom we are on "awkward" terms. Most people know what it is to cross the street to avoid an old friend, or to dodge into a shop in order to escape the necessity of inflicting or receiving the cut direct. Very often the origin of the quarrel has been forgotten or ceased to be of real moment, but the awkwardness endures. Oftener still a reconciliation would be welcomed on both sides; but pride, pride, pride intervenes.
Now the best solvent of stubborn obstinacy is a sense of humour. As Juggernaut stood in the darkness, surveying the embarrassed little figure before him—in his eyes Daphne, five feet seven in her stockings, was always "little"—and feeling acutely conscious on his own part of an irresistible desire to shuffle with his feet, he suddenly and most providentially broke into one of his rare laughs—a laugh of quiet and unforced enjoyment.
Apparently this was not quite what Daphne expected.
"What is the matter?" she inquired. Her voice quavered pathetically, for she was highly wrought.
"I couldn't help thinking," said her husband, "of an episode in the history of two old friends of mine. They had been engaged for about three months, when they quarrelled—severely. They parted company for ever, and whenever he or she saw the other upon the horizon, he or she fled. However, after about six weeks of this sort of thing they were taken by surprise. One day the man saw the girl advancing straight upon him down the street, quite oblivious of his proximity. He dived into the nearest shop, which happened to be a baby-linen establishment—"
Daphne gave a sudden gurgle of laughter.
"—And when the girl walked in, two minutes later," concluded Juggernaut, "to match some silk, she found her late beloved diligently sampling Berlin wool. That did it! The sense of humour of that young couple came to their rescue, Daphne, and they walked out of the shop hand-in-hand, not caring a dump for anybody. To my knowledge they have never had a quarrel since. You see the reason why I laughed just now?"
Daphne sighed comfortably.
"Yes," she said. The tension of the situation was relaxed. "I want to—to talk to you, Jack," she continued, suddenly heartened.
"Certainly," replied Juggernaut, with a slight return of his board-room air. "I'll turn the light on."
"Please don't," said Daphne hastily. "I would rather talk in the dark. Will you sit down on the settle?"
Juggernaut obeyed silently. The firelight played upon his face, showing the clear-cut lines of his mouth and his tired eyes. Daphne stood erect before him, keeping her face in the shadow. She had removed her hat and furs, and her thick hair caught the light fantastically.
"Jack," she began, industriously scrutinising the vista of the room reflected by an ancient convex mirror hanging on the far wall, "I want to say something. I want to say that I am sorry. I have done you an injustice. I always thought you were a hard man, and I have discovered that you are not. In fact," she continued with a flicker of a smile, "I have found out that you are very much the other thing." She paused.
"May I ask for chapter and verse?" said Juggernaut.
"Yes!" The old Daphne flashed forth. "Here are you, fighting all these men with one hand, giving no quarter, and so forth,"—Juggernaut stirred suddenly in his seat—"and feeding the women and children with the other! Aren't you, now?" She pointed an accusing finger.
"Since you tax me with it—yes," said her husband.
Daphne turned upon him impulsively, with the firelight full on her face.
"Jack," she said softly, "it was splendid of you!"
He looked up and saw that her eyes were glowing. She came a step nearer, and her head drooped prettily. "And I'm sorry if I have been unfair to you, Jack," she continued. "I—I thought you were just a feelingless sort of man, whose work was his world, and who cared for nothing but himself and what he had in view, and regarded women as merely useful things to keep house, and have babies, and so on. But now I know that I was wrong. There is more of you than that. Being me, I had to tell you."
She ended with a little catch in her voice. She had made her effort. She had humbled herself, and in so doing she had laid herself open to the cruellest of rebuffs. She waited tremulously. A hard word, a scornful smile, even silence now—and two lives would fall asunder for ever.
But the wheels of Juggernaut had never passed over a woman.
"Will you sit down?" said Sir John gently.
He made room for her, and she sank down beside him, leaning her head against the high back of the settle and gazing unwinkingly into the fire. She was conscious now that this man was overflowing with tenderness towards her, but she would not look him in the face yet.
"How did you find out about the rations to the women?" he enquired presently.
Daphne told him.
"But you mustn't blame Jim Carthew," she said in conclusion. "He simply had to tell me."
"Where did you see him?"
"Last week, in Algiers. In fact, he brought me home; but I made him promise not to tell you I was in London. He is a good sort!" she added irrelevantly.
"In what way?" asked her husband curiously.
Daphne turned and surveyed him.
"Would you be angry if I told you—jealous, I mean?"
"What right have I to be angry or jealous?" said Juggernaut simply. "In what way," he repeated, "has Carthew been showing that he is a good sort?"
"Well, in bringing me his troubles. That always makes a conquest of any woman, you know. And in letting me take my troubles to him. A woman always has to take a trouble to a man, Jack, when all is said and done—even if he is only the family solicitor!" she concluded lightly.
She had suddenly skated on to thin ice, and she knew it. The man to whom she should have taken her troubles had not been there to receive them.
"So Jim Carthew has his troubles like the rest of us?" said Juggernaut.
"Yes, and I never suspected how he felt about them," said Daphne. "He is fearfully reserved about the things he really feels, although he babbles enough about the things he doesn't. So, when I was in trouble—"
"What was your trouble?"
"I was lonely," said the girl.
Juggernaut drew his breath sharply.
"I am glad you had some one to be kind to you," he said.
Then came a long pause—the sort of pause which either brings a discussion to an end or begets another, longer and more intimate. We all know them.
Finally Daphne braced herself.
"Jack," she said, "I want to say something more. I didn't mean to: I have said all I came here to say. But I must say this too—now or never. I—I—I was wrong to marry you, Jack. I didn't love you, but I thought it didn't matter. I felt how divine it would be to be able to help the boys and Dad. That was all I considered. Then, when I began to go about, and meet new people, and make comparisons, I—found myself criticising you! Me—you!"
"I wouldn't be too indignant about it if I were you," said her husband.
He reached out deliberately for her hand, and continued his contemplation of the fire.
"Go on," he said.
Daphne, foolishly uplifted, continued:—
"I used to think you rough and hard and unsympathetic. I began to prefer the men who buzzed round and murmured things in my ear. And when people began to pity me as a neglected wife, I—I encouraged them. I let women say catty things about you, and I let men make love to me. That sort of thing has been going on ever since the time"—Daphne's grip of her husband's hand tightened—"when you and I decided—to go our own ways. I don't mind telling you now that it was a pill for me, Jack. My pride——"
"It was a brutal act on my part," blazed out Juggernaut with sudden passion.
"No it wasn't: it was what I deserved!" insisted Daphne, whose nature did not permit her to be repentant by halves. "Well, anyhow, I determined to flirt in real earnest now. So I began to carry on in an experimental fashion. But I can't say it was much fun. Finally I did fall in love with a man, in a sort of way—and I let him see it. Well, I got a facer over him. One night, under the moon, I tried to flirt with him; and he—well, Jack, he fairly put me in my place!"
"What did he do?"
"He made me feel ashamed of myself."
"What did he say?"
"Not much that we need talk of now, except one thing."
"What was that?"
"He told me to go back to you."
"Because he said"—Daphne's voice dropped low—"that you loved me."
There was a long silence, until a live coal subsided in the grate. Then Juggernaut said:—
"It was Carthew, I suppose."
"Jack," she said, "Jim Carthew is the best friend that you and I possess."
"I know it."
They were silent again, until irrelevant Daphne enquired suddenly:—
"Jack, what made you do that unpractical thing? The tea and sugar, I mean. It was only prolonging the strike: even I can see that."
"It didn't prolong the strike to any particular extent," said Juggernaut with decision. "Not that I care," he added with unusual inconsequence, "if it did. It made things no easier for the men; and it is with the men that the decision lies in cases of this kind."
"But it was so unlike you," persisted Daphne.
Her husband turned and regarded her quizzically.
"Was it?" he said, smiling. "We all have our weaknesses," he added. "Mine are women and children. I think," he went on with great deliberation, "that there is only one woman in this wide world who has ever suffered ill at my hands."
"And she is—"
"My wife! Listen," he continued rapidly, "while I make confession. You have spoken your piece bravely, Daphne. Now hear mine."
He rose in his turn, and stood before his wife.
"I never knew or cared very much about women," he said. "I do not remember my mother, and I had no sisters, which probably accounts for a good deal. Also, I was brought up by a man among men, and I learned to read men and handle men to the exclusion of all else. I was given to understand that women did not matter. I was trained to regard them as a sort of inferior and unreliable variety of the male sex. So I confined my dealings to men, and I found so much joy in handling and mastering men that my eyes became closed to the fact that life could offer me anything else."
"But didn't you miss female society? Most men can't get on without some," said experienced Daphne.
"You can't miss what you have never had, little girl. Perhaps if I had encountered female society early in life—"
"But didn't you sometimes instinctively long for a woman to come and take charge of you? Most men are so helpless and messy by themselves."
"Sometimes," admitted Juggernaut almost reluctantly, "I did. But I put the notion from me."
"Shall I tell you why?" said Daphne quietly.
"I suppose it was because I didn't want to yield to a weakness."
"It was nothing of the kind," said Daphne with immense decision. "It was because you were afraid!"
"Yes—afraid! You would have nothing to do with women, because you told yourself you despised them. We were a waste of time, you said—an encumbrance! The real reason was that you feared us. Yes—feared! Success was the breath of life to you. You had always had your own way wherever you went. You were the great Sir John Carr—the strong man—Juggernaut! You had never been beaten. Why? Because you had never had the pluck to try conclusions with a woman. Your excuse was that you were a woman-hater, when all the time you were a woman-lover. You have just admitted it, impostor! You were afraid that where every man had failed to turn you from your own hard selfish way of life, a woman might succeed. And so you ran away, and you have been running ever since. There, my strong man, there's the truth for you!"
For once in his life Sir John Carr, the terror of deputations, the scourge of unsound logicians, the respectfully avoided of hecklers, had no answer ready. The reason was obvious: no answer was possible. The victory lay with Daphne. She leaned back in the settle and looked fearlessly up into her husband's face. For the first time in her life she felt maternal towards this man—twenty-two years her senior—just as old Mrs Carfrae had predicted. She was utterly and absolutely happy, too, for she had just realised that she and her husband had come together at last. They were one flesh. The time for tactful diplomacy and mutual accommodation and making allowances was over-past. No need now to guard the flame from sudden gusts and cross-currents. The candle was safely lighted, and, please God, it should burn steadily to its socket. The Safety Match had accomplished its task after all.
Then she gave a happy little sigh, for her husband's great arm was around her shoulders.
"All my life, Daphne," said his deep voice, "I have thought that the sweetest thing in this world was victory. Now I have just received my first defeat—you routed me, hip and thigh—and I am happier than I have ever been. Why?"
"Think!" commanded a muffled voice in the neighbourhood of his waistcoat.
Juggernaut obeyed. Then he continued, and his grip round Daphne grew stronger:—
"I think I see. I married you because I wanted some one to keep my house in order and bear me a son. (That point of view did not endure long, I may say, for I fell in love with you on our honeymoon, and I have loved you ever since; but it was my point of view when I asked you to marry me.) I thought then that it would be a fair bargain if I gave you money and position in return for these things. We could not help living contentedly together, I considered, under the terms of such a logical and business-like contract as that. Well, I did not know then, what I know now, that logic and business are utterly valueless as a foundation for any contract between a man and a woman. The only thing that is the slightest use for the purpose is the most illogical and unbusiness-like thing in the whole wide world. And"—his iron features relaxed into a smile of rare sweetness—"I believe, I believe, mia cara, that you and I have found that thing—together." His voice dropped lower. "Have we, Daphne—my wife?"
Daphne raised her head, and looked her man full in the face.
"We have found it, O my husband," she said gravely—"at last!"
The door flew open suddenly. There was a gleam of electric light. Graves, the imperturbable, inclined respectfully before them.
"You are wanted outside, sir," he said,—"badly!"