The Decree Made Absolute
THE DECREE MADE ABSOLUTE
JAMES TAPSTER was eating his solitary, well-cooked dinner in his comfortable and handsome house, a house situated in one of the half-moon terraces which line and frame the more aristocratic side of Regent's Park, and which may, indeed, be said to have private grounds of their own, for each resident enjoys the use of a key to a portion of the Park entitled locally the "Inclosure."
Very early in his life Mr. Tapster had made up his mind that he would like to live in Cumberland Crescent, and now he was living there; very early in his life he had decided that no one could order a plain yet palatable meal as well as he could himself, and now for some months past Mr. Tapster had given his own orders, each morning, to the cook.
To-night Mr. Tapster had already eaten his fried sole, and was about to cut himself off a generous portion of the grilled undercut before him, when he heard the postman's steps hurrying around the Crescent. He rose with a certain quick deliberateness, and, going out into the hall, opened the front door just in time to avoid the rat-tat-tat. Then, the one letter he had expected duly in his hand, he waited till he had sat down again in front of his still empty plate before he broke the seal and glanced over the type-written sheet of notepaper:
November 4, 190–.
In reply to your letter of yesterday's date, I have been to Bedford Row and seen Greenfield, and he thinks it probable that the Decree will be made Absolute to-day; in that case you will have received a wire before this letter reaches you.
Your affect'. brother,
Wm. A. Tapster.
In the same handwriting as the signature were added two holograph lines: "Glad you have the children home again. Maud will be round to see them soon."
Mr. Tapster read over once again the body of the letter, and there came upon him an instinctive feeling of intense relief; then, with a not less instinctive feeling of impatience, his eyes traveled down again to the postscript: "Maud will be round to see them soon." Well, he would see about that! But he did not exclaim, even mentally, as most men feeling as he then felt would have done, "I'll be damned if she will!" knowing the while that Maud certainly would.
His brother's letter, though most satisfactory as regarded its main point, put Mr. Tapster out of conceit with the rest of his dinner; so he rang twice and had the table cleared, frowning at the parlor-maid as she hurried through her duties, and yet not daring to rebuke her for having neglected to answer the bell the first time he rang. After a pause, he rose and turned toward the door—but no, he could not face the large, cheerless drawing-room up-stairs; instead, he sat down by the fire, and set himself to consider his future and, in a more hazy sense, that of his now motherless children.
But very soon, as generally happens to those who devote any time to that least profitable of occupations, Mr. Tapster found that his thoughts drifted aimlessly, not to the future where he would have them be, but to the past—that past which he desired to forget, to obliterate from his memory.
Till rather more than a year ago few men of his age—he had then been sixty, he was now sixty-one—enjoyed a pleasanter and, from his own point of view, a better filled life than James Tapster. How he had scorned the gambler, the spendthrift, the adulterer—in a word, all those whose actions bring about their own inevitable punishment! He had always been self-respecting and conscientious—not a prig, mind you, but inclined rather to the serious than to the flippant side of life; and, so inclining, he had found contentment and great material prosperity.
Not even in those days to which he was now looking back so regretfully had Mr. Tapster always been perfectly content; but now the poor man, sitting alone by his dining-room fire, remembered only what had been good and pleasant in his former state. He was aware that his brother William and William's wife, Maud, both thought that even now he had much to be thankful for. His line of business was brisk, scarcely touched by foreign competition, his income increasing at a steady rate of progression, and his children were exceptionally healthy. But, alas! now that, in place of there being a pretty little Mrs. Tapster on whom to spend easily earned money, his substance was being squandered by a crowd of unmanageable and yet indispensable thieves,—for so Mr. Tapster voicelessly described the five servants whose loud talk and laughter were even now floating up from the basement below, he did not feel his financial stability so comfortable a thing as he had once done. His very children, who should now be, as he told himself, complainingly, his greatest comfort, had degenerated from two sturdy, well-behaved little boys and a charming baby girl info three unruly, fretful imps, setting him at defiance, and terrorizing their two attendants, who, though carefully chosen by their Aunt Maud, did not seem to manage them as well as the old nurse who had been an ally of the ex-Mrs. Tapster.
Looking back at the whole horrible affair—for so, in his own mind, Mr. Tapster justly designated the divorce case in which he had figured as the successful petitioner—he wondered uneasily if he had done quite wisely—wisely, that is, for his own repute and comfort.
He knew very well that had it not been for William, or rather, for Maud, he would never have found out the dreadful truth. Nay, more, he was dimly aware that but for them, and for their insistence on it as the only proper course open to him, he would never have taken action. All would have been forgiven and forgotten, had not William, and more especially Maud, said he must divorce Flossy, if not for his own sake,—ah, what irony!—then for that of his children.
Of course, he felt grateful to his brother William and to his brother's wife for all they had done for him since, that sad time. Still, in the depths of his heart, Mr. Tapster felt entitled to blame and sometimes almost to hate his kind brother and sister. To them both, or rather, to Maud, he really owed the break-up of his life; for, when all was said and done, it had to be admitted (though Maud did not like him to remind her of it), that Flossy had met the villain while staying with the William Tapsters at Boulogne. Respectable London people should have known better than to take a furnished house at a disreputable French watering-place, a place full of low English!
Sometimes it was only by a great exercise of self-control that he, James Tapster, could refrain from telling Maud what he thought of her conduct in this matter, the more so that she never seemed to understand how greatly she—and William—had been to blame. On one occasion Maud had even said how surprised she had been that James had cared to go away to America, leaving his pretty young wife alone for as long as three months. Why hadn't she said so at the time, then? Of course, he had thought that he could leave Flossy to be looked after and kept out of mischief by Maud and William. But he had been, in more than one sense, alas! bitterly deceived.
Still, it's never any use crying over spilt milk, so Mr. Tapster got up from his chair and walked around the room, looking absently, as he did so, at the large Landseer engravings, of which he was naturally proud. If only he could forget, put out of his mind forever, the whole affair! Well, perhaps with the Decree being made Absolute would come oblivion.
He sat down again before the fire. Staring at the hot embers, he reminded himself that Flossy, wicked, ungrateful Flossy, had disappeared out of his life. This being so, why think of her? The very children had at last left off asking inconvenient questions about their mama.
By the way, would Flossy still be their mama after the Decree had been made Absolute? So Mr. Tapster now suddenly asked himself. He hesitated, perplexed. But, yes, the Decree being made Absolute would not undo, or even efface, that fact. The more so—though surely here James Tapster showed himself less logical than usual—the more so that Flossy, in spite of what Maud had always said about her, had been a loving and, in her own light-hearted way, a careful mother. But, though Flossy would remain the mother of his children,—odd that the Law hadn't provided for that contingency—she would soon be absolutely nothing, and less than nothing, to him, the father of those children. Mr. Tapster was a great believer in the infallibility of the Law, and he subscribed whole-heartedly to the new reading, "What Law has put asunder, let no man join together."
To-night Mr. Tapster could not help looking back with a certain complacency to his one legal adventure. Nothing could have been better done or more admirably conducted than the way the whole matter had been carried through. His brother William, and William's solicitor, Mr. Greenfield, had managed it all so very nicely. True, there had been a few uncomfortable moments in the witness-box, but every one, including the judge, had been most kind. As for his counsel, the leading man who makes a specialty of these sad affairs, not even James Tapster himself could have put his own case in a more delicate and moving fashion. "A gentleman possessed of considerable fortune—"so had he justly been described; and counsel, without undue insistence on irrelevant detail, had drawn a touching and a true picture of Mr. Tapster's one romance, his marriage eight years before to the twenty-year-old daughter of an undischarged bankrupt. Even the Petitioner had scarcely seen Flossy's dreadful ingratitude in its true colors till he had heard his counsel's moderate comments on the case.
This evening Mr. Tapster saw Flossy's dreadful ingratitude terribly clearly, and he wondered, not for the first time, how his wife could have had the heart to break up his happy home. Why, but for him and his offer of marriage. Flossy Ball—that had been his wife's maiden name—would have had to earn her own living! And as she had been very pretty, very "fetching," she would probably have married some good-for-nothing young fellow of her own age lacking the means to support a wife in decent comfort,—such a fellow, for instance, as the wretched "co" in the case; while with Mr. Tapster—why, she had had everything the heart of woman could wish for—a good home, beautiful clothes, and the being waited on hand and foot. A strange choking feeling came into his throat as he thought of how good he had been to Flossy, and how very bad had been her return for that kindness.
But this—this was dreadful! He was actually thinking of her again, and not, as he had meant to do, of himself and his poor motherless children! Time enough to think of Flossy when he had news of her again. If her lover did not marry her—and, from what Mr. Greenfield had discovered about him, it was most improbable that he would ever be in a position to do so—she would certainly reappear on the Tapster horizon: Mr. Greenfield said "they" always did. In that case, it was arranged that William should pay her a weekly allowance. Mr. Tapster, always, as he now reminded himself sadly, ready to do the generous thing, had fixed that allowance at three pounds a week, a sum which had astonished, in fact quite staggered, Mr. Greenfield's head clerk, a very decent fellow, by the way.
"Of course, it shall be as you wish, Mr. Tapster, but you should think of the future and of your children. A hundred and fifty pounds a year is a large sum; you may feel it a tax, sir, as years go on——"
"That is enough," Mr. Tapster had answered, kindly but firmly; "you have done your duty in laying that side of the case before me. I have, however, decided on the amount named; should I see reason to alter my mind, our arrangement leaves it open to me at any time to lower the allowance."
But, though this conversation had taken place some months ago, and though Mr. Tapster still held true to his generous resolve, as yet Flossy had not reappeared. Mr. Tapster sometimes told himself that if he only knew where she was, what she was doing,—whether she was still with that young fellow, for instance,—he would think much less about her than he did now. Only last night, going for a moment into the night nursery,—poor Mr. Tapster now enjoyed his children's company only when he was quite sure that they were asleep,—he had had an extraordinary, almost a physical impression of Flossy's presence; he certainly had felt a faint whiff of her favorite perfume. Flossy had been fond of scent, and, though Maud always said that the use of scent was most unladylike, he, James, did not dislike it.
With sudden soreness, Mr. Tapster now recalled the one letter Flossy had written to him just before the actual hearing of the divorce suit. It had been a wild, oddly worded appeal to him to take her back, not—as Maud had at once perceived on reading the letter—because she was sorry for the terrible thing she had done, but simply because she was beginning to hanker after her children. Maud had,described the-letter as shameless and unwomanly in the extreme, and even William, who had never judged his pretty young sister-in-law as severely as his wife had always done, had observed sadly.that Flossy seemed quite unaware of the magnitude of her offense against God and man.
Mr. Tapster, who prided himself on his sharp ears, suddenly heard a curious little sound. He knew it for that of the front door being first opened, and then shut again, extremely quietly. He half rose from his chair by the fire, then sat down again heavily.
By Maud's advice, he always locked the area gate himself when he came home each evening. But how foolish of Maud—such a sensible woman, too—to think that servants and their evil ways could be circumvented so easily. Of course, the maids went in and out by the front door in the evening, and the policeman—a most respectable officer standing at point duty a few yards lower down the road—must be well aware of these disgraceful "goings on".
For the first two or three months of his widowerhood (how else could he term his present peculiar wifeless condition?) there had been a constant coming and going of servants, first chosen, and then dismissed, by Maud. At last she suggested that her brother-in-law should engage a lady housekeeper, and the luckless James Tapster had even interviewed several applicants for the post after they had been chosen—sifted out, as it were—by Maud. Unfortunately, they had all been more or less of his own age, and plain, very plain; while he, naturally enough, would have preferred to see something young and pretty about him again.
It was over this housekeeper question that he had at last escaped from Maud's domestic thraldom; for his sister-in-law, offended by his rejection of each of her candidates, had declared that she would take no more trouble about his household affairs! Nay, more, she had reminded him with a smile that she had honestly tried to make pleasant, that there is, after all, no fool like an old fool—about women. This insinuation had made Mr. Tapster very angry, and straightway he had engaged a respectable cook-housekeeper, and, although he had soon become aware that the woman was feathering her own nest,—James Tapster, as you will, have divined ere now, was fond of good, workaday phrases,—yet she had a pleasant, respectful manner, and kept rough order among the younger servants.
Mr. Tapster's sister-in-law now interfered only where his children were concerned. Never having been herself a mother, she had, of course, been able to form a clear and unprejudiced judgment as to how children, and especially as to how little boys, should be physically and mentally trained. As yet, however, Maud had not been very successful with her two nephews and infant niece, but this was doubtless owing to the fact that there had been something gravely amiss with each of the five nurses who had been successively engaged by her during the last year.
The elder of Mr. Tapster's sons was six, and the second four; the youngest child, a little girl named, unfortunately. Flora, after her mother, was three years old. There had been a fourth, Flossy's second baby, also a girl, who had only, lived one day. All this being so, was it not strange that a young matron who had led, for some four years out of the eight years her married life had lasted, so wholly womanly and domestic an existence as had fallen to the lot of Flossy, should have been led astray by the meretricious allurements of unlawful love?—Maud's striking thought and phrase, this.
And yet, Flossy, in spite of her frivolity, had somehow managed the children far better than Maud was now able to do. At the present time, so Mr. Tapster admitted to himself with something very like an inward groan, his two sons possessed every vice of which masculine infancy is capable. They had become, so he was told by their indignant nurses, the terror of the well-behaved children who shared with them the pleasures of the Park Inclosure, where they took their daily exercise; and Baby, once so sweet and good, was now very fretful and peevish.
Again the train of Mr. Tapster's mournful thoughts was disturbed by a curious little sound—that of some one creeping softly down the staircase leading from the upper floors. Once more he half rose from his chair, only to fall heavily back again, with a look of impotent annoyance on his round, whiskered face. Where was the use of his going out into the hall and catching Nurse on her way to the kitchen? Maud had declared, very early in the day, that there should be as little communication as possible between the kitchen and the nursery, but Mr. Tapster sometimes found himself in secret sympathy with the two women whose disagreeable duty it was to be always with his three turbulent children.
Mr. Tapster frowned and stared gloomily into the fire; then he suddenly pulled himself together rather sharply, for the door behind him had slowly swung open. This was intolerable! The parlor-maid had again and again been told that, whatever might have been the case in her former places, no door in Mr. Tapster's house was to be opened without the preliminary of a respectful knock.
Fortified by the memory of what had been a positive order, he turned round, nerving himself to deliver the necessary rebuke. But instead of the shifty-eyed, impudent-looking woman he had thought to see, there stood close to him, so close that he could almost have touched her. Flossy, his wife, or rather the woman who, though no longer his wife, had still, as he had been informed to his discomfiture, the right to bear his name.
A very strange feeling, and one so complicated that it sat uneasily upon him, took instant possession of Mr. Tapster: anger, surprise, and relief warred with one another in his heart.
Then he began to think that his eyes must be playing him some curious trick, for the figure at which he was staring remained strangely still and motionless. Was it possible that his mind, dwelling constantly on Flossy, had evoked her wraith? But, no, looking up in startled silence at the still figure standing before him, he realized that not so would memory have conjured up the pretty, bright little woman of whom he had once been proud. Flossy still looked pretty, but she was thin and pale, and there were dark rings round her eyes; also, her dress was worn, her hat curiously shabby.
As Mr. Tapster stared up at her, noting these things, one of her hands began playing nervously with the fringe of the dining-table cover, and the other sought the back of what had once been one of her dining-room chairs. As he watched her making these slight movements, nature so far reasserted itself that a feeling of poignant regret, of pity for her, as well as, of course, a much larger share of pity for himself, came over James Tapster.
Had Flossy spoken then,—had she possessed the intuitive knowledge of men which is the gift of so many otherwise unintelligent women,—the whole of Mr. Tapster's future, to say nothing of her own, might have been different and, it may be suggested, happier.
But the moment of softening and mansuetude slipped quickly by, and was succeeded by a burst of anger; for Mr. Tapster suddenly became aware that Flossy's left hand, the little thin hand resting on the back of the chair, was holding two keys which he recognized at once as his property. The one was a replica of the latch-key which always hung on his watch-chain, while the other and larger key, to which was attached a brass tag bearing the name of Tapster and the address of the house, gave access to the Inclosure Garden opposite Cumberland Crescent!
Avoiding her eager, pitiful look, Mr. Tapster set himself to realize, with a shrewdness for which William and Maud would never have given him credit, what Flossy's possession of those two keys had meant during the last few months.
This woman, who both was and was not Mrs. Tapster, had retained the power to come freely in and out of his house! She had been able to make her way, with or without the connivance of the servants, into his children's nursery at any hour of the day or night convenient to herself! With the aid of that Inclosure key, she had no doubt often seen the children during their daily walk! In a word, Flossy had been able to enjoy all the privileges of motherhood while having forfeited all those of happy wifehood!
His mind hastened heavily on. What a fool he must have looked before his servants! How they must have laughed to think that he was being so deceived and taken in! Why, even the policeman who stood at point duty outside must have known all about it!
Small wonder that Mr. Tapster felt extremely incensed; small wonder that his heart, hardening, solidifying, expelled any feeling of pity provoked by Flossy's sad and downcast appearance.
"I must request you," he said, in a voice which even to himself sounded harsh and needlessly loud, "to give me up those keys which you hold in your hand. You have no right to their possession, and I grieve to think that you took advantage of my great distress of mind not to return them with the things of which I sent you a list by my brother William. I cannot believe"—and now Mr. Tapster lied as only the very truthful can lie on occasion—"I cannot believe, I say, that you have taken advantage of my having overlooked them, and that you have ever before to-night forced yourself into this house! Still less can I believe that you have taught our—my—children to deceive their father!"
Even when uttering his first sentence, he had noticed that there had come over Flossy's face—which was thinner, if quite as pretty and youthful-looking, as when he had last seen it—an expression of obstinacy which he had once well known and always dreaded. It had been Flossy's one poor weapon against her husband's superior sense and power of getting his own way, and sometimes it had vanquished him in that fair fight which is always being waged between the average husband and wife.
"You are right," she cried passionately. "I have not taught the children to deceive you! I have never come into this house until I felt sure that they were asleep and alone, though I've often wondered that they never woke up and knew that their own mother was there! But more than once, James, I've felt like going after that society which looks after badly treated children—for the last nurse you had for them was so cruel! If she hadn't left you soon I should have had to do something! I used to feel desperate when I saw her shake Baby in her pram; why, one day, in the Inclosure, a lady spoke to her about it, and threatened to tell her—her mistress——"
Flossy's voice sank to a shamed whisper. The tears were rolling down her cheeks; she was speaking in angry gasps, and what she said actually made James Tapster feel, what he knew full well he had no reason to feel, ashamed of himself. "That is why," she went on, "that is why I have, as you say, forced myself into your house, and why, too, I have now come here to ask you to forgive me—to take me back—just for the sake of the children."
Mr. Tapster's mind was one that traveled surely, if slowly. He saw his chance, and seized it. "And why," he said impressively, "had that woman—the nurse, I mean—no mistress? Tell me that. Flossy. You should have thought of all that before you behaved as you did!"
"I didn't know—I didn't think——"
Mr. Tapster finished the sentence for her: "You didn't think," he observed impressively, "that I should ever find you out."
Then there came over him a morbid wish to discover—to learn from her own lips—why Flossy had done such a shameful and extraordinary thing as to be unfaithful to her marriage vow.
"Whatever made you behave so?" he asked in a low voice. "I wasn't unkind to you, was I? You had a nice, comfortable home, hadn't you?"
"I was mad," she answered, with a touch of sharp weariness. "I don't suppose I could ever make you understand; and yet,"—she looked at him deprecatingly,—"I suppose, James, that you too were young once, and—and—mad?"
Mr. Tapster stared at Flossy. What extraordinary things she said! Of course he had been young once; for the matter of that, he didn't feel old—not to say old—even now. But he had always, been perfectly sane—she knew that well enough! As for her calling herself mad, that was a mere figure of speech. Of course, in a sense, she had been mad to do what she had done, and he was glad that she now understood this; but her saying so simply begged the whole question, and left him no wiser than he was before.
There was a long, tense silence between them. Then Mr. Tapster slowly rose from his armchair and faced his wife.
"I see," he said, "that William was right. I mean, I suppose I may take it that that young fellow has gone and left you?"
"Yes," she said, with a curious indifference, "he has gone and left me. His father made him take a job out in Brazil just after the case was through."
"And what have you been doing since then?" asked Mr. Tapster suspiciously. "How have you been living?"
"His father gives me a pound a week." Flossy still spoke with that curious indifference. "I tried to get something to do"—she hesitated, then offered the lame explanation—"just to have something to do, for I've been awfully lonely and miserable, James; but I don't seem to be able to get anything."
"If you had written to Mr. Greenfield or to William, they would have told you that I had arranged for you to have an allowance," he said, and then again he fell into silence. …
Mr. Tapster was seeing a vision of himself, magnanimous, forgiving—taking the peccant Flossy back to his heart and becoming once more, in a material sense, comfortable! If he acceded to her wish, if he made up his mind to forgive her, he would have to begin life all over again, move away from Cumberland Crescent to some distant place where the story was not known—perhaps to Clapham, where he had spent his boyhood.
But how about Maud? How about William? How about the very considerable expense to which he had been put in connection with the divorce proceedings? Was all that money to be wasted? Mr. Tapster suddenly saw the whole of his little world rising up in judgment, smiling pityingly at his folly and weakness. During the whole of a long and of what had been, till this last year, a very prosperous life, Mr. Tapster had always steered his safe course by what may be called the compass of public opinion, and now, when navigating an unknown sea, he could not afford to throw that compass overboard, so——
"No," he said; "no, Flossy. It would not be right for me to take you back. It wouldn't do."
"Wouldn't it?" she asked piteously. "Oh, James, don't say no like that, all at once! People do forgive each other—sometimes. I don't ask you to be as kind to me as you were before—only to let me come home and see after the children!"
But Mr. Tapster shook his head. The children! Always the children! He noticed, even now, that she didn't say a word of wanting to come back to him; and yet, he had been such a kind, nay, if Maud were to be believed, such a foolishly indulgent husband.
And then, Flossy looked so different. Mr. Tapster felt as if a stranger were standing there before him. Her appearance of poverty shocked him. Had she looked well and prosperous, he could have felt injured, and yet her pinched face and shabby clothes certainly repelled him. So again he shook his head, and there came into his face a look which Flossy had always known in old days to spell finality, and when he again spoke she saw that her knowledge had not misled her.
"I don't want to be unkind," he said ponderously. "If you will only go to William, or write to him if you would rather not go to the office,"–Mr. Tapster did not like to think that any one once closely connected with him should "look like that" in his brother's office,—"he will tell you what you had better do. I'm quite ready to make you a handsome allowance—in fact, it is all arranged. You need not have anything more to do with that fellow's father—an army colonel, isn't he?—and his pound a week; but William thinks, and I must say I agree, that you ought to go back to your maiden name, Flossy, as being more fair to me."
"And am I never to see the children again?" she asked.
"No; it wouldn't be right for me to let you do so." He hesitated, then added, "They don't miss you any more now"; with no unkindly intent he concluded, "soon they'll have forgotten you altogether."
And then, just as Mr. Tapster was hesitating, seeking for a suitable and not unkindly sentence of farewell, he saw a very strange, almost a desperate look come over Flossy's face, and, to his surprise, she suddenly turned and left the room, closing the door very carefully behind her.
He stared after her. How very odd of her to say nothing! And what a strange look had come over her face! He could not help feeling hurt that she had not thanked him for what he knew to be a very generous and unusual provision on the part of an injured husband. … Mr. Tapster took a silk handkerchief out of his pocket and passed it twice over his face, then once more he sought and sank into the armchair by the fire.
Even now he still felt keenly conscious of Flossy's nearness. What could she be doing? Then he straightened himself and listened; yes, it was as he feared; she had gone up-stairs—up-stairs to look at the children, for now he could hear her coming down again. How obstinate she was, how obstinate and ungrateful! Mr. Tapster wished he had the courage to go out into the hall and face her, in order to tell her how wrong her conduct was. Why, she had actually kept the keys—those keys that were his property!
Suddenly he heard her light footsteps hurrying down the hall; now she was opening the front door—it slammed, and again Mr. Tapster felt pained to think how strangely indifferent Flossie was to his interests. Why, what would the servants think, hearing the front door slam like that?
But still, now that it was over, he was glad the interview had taken place, for henceforth—or so, at least, Mr. Tapster believed—the Flossy of the past, the bright, pretty, prosperous Flossy of whom he had been so proud, would cease to haunt him. He remembered, with a feeling of relief, that she was going to his brother William; of course, she would then, among greater renunciations, be compelled to return the two keys—for they, that is, his brother and himself, would have her in their power. They would not behave unkindly to her—far from it; in fact, they would arrange for her to live with some quiet, religious lady in a country town a few hours from London.
Then Mr. Tapster began going over each incident of the strange little interview, for he wanted to tell his brother William exactly what had taken place.
His conscience was quite clear, except with regard to one matter, and that, after all, needn't be mentioned to William. He felt rather ashamed of having asked the question which had provoked so strange and wild an answer—so unexpected a retort. Mad? What had Flossy meant by asking him if he had ever been mad? No one had ever used the word in connection with James Tapster before—save once. Oddly enough, that occasion also had been in a way connected with Flossy, for it had happened when he had gone to tell William and Maud of his engagement.
It was on a fine day nine years ago come this May, and he had found William and William's wife walking in their little garden on Havenstock Hill. His kind brother, as always, had been most sympathetic, and had even made a suitable joke—Mr. Tapster remembered it very sadly to-night—concerning the spring and a young man's fancy; but Maud had been really disagreeable. She had said, "It's no use talking to you, James, for you're mad, quite mad!"
Strange that he should remember all this tonight, for, after all, it had nothing to do with the present state of affairs.
Mr. Tapster felt rather shaken and nervous; he pulled out his repeater watch, but, alas! it was still very early—only ten minutes to nine. He couldn't go to bed yet. Perhaps he would do well to join a club. He had always thought rather poorly of men who belonged to clubs—most of them were idle, lazy fellows; but still, circumstances alter cases.
Suddenly he began to wish that Flossy had remained a little longer. He thought of all sorts of things—improving, kindly remarks—he would have liked to say to her. He blamed himself for not having offered her any refreshment; she would probably have refused to take anything, but still, it was wrong on his part not to have thought of it. A pound a week for everything! No wonder she looked starved. Why, his own household bills, exclusive of wine or beer, had worked out, since he had had this new expensive housekeeper, at something like fifteen shillings a head, a fact which he had managed to conceal from Maud, who "did" her William so well on exactly ten shillings and ninepence all round!
It struck nine from the neighboring church, where Mr. Tapster had sittings,—but where he seldom was able to go on Sunday mornings, for he was proud of being among those old-fashioned folk who still regard Sunday as essentially a day of rest,—and there came a sudden sound of hoarse shouting from the road outside. Though he was glad of anything that broke the oppressive silence with which he felt encompassed, Mr. Tapster found time to tell himself that it was disgraceful that vulgar street brawlers should invade so quiet a residential thoroughfare as Cumberland Crescent. But order would soon be restored, for the sound of a policeman's whistle cut sharply through the air.
The noise, however, continued; he could hear the tramp of feet hurrying past his house and then leaving the pavement for the other side of the road. What could be the matter? Something very exciting must be going on just opposite his front door, that is, close to the Inclosure railings.
Mr. Tapster got up from his chair, and walked in a leisurely way to the wide window. He drew aside the thick red rep curtains, and lifted a corner of the blind. Then, through the slightly foggy haze, he saw that which rather surprised him and made him feel actively indignant; for a string of people, men, women, and boys, were hurrying into the Inclosure Garden—that sacred place set apart for the exclusive use of the nobility and gentry who lived in Cumberland Crescent and the adjoining terraces.
What an abominable thing! Why, the grass would all be trampled down; and these dirty people, these slum folk, who seem to spring out of the earth when anything of a disagreeable or shameful nature is taking place,—a fire, for instance, or a brawl,—might easily bring infectious diseases on to those gravel paths where the little Tapsters and their like run about, playing their innocent games. Some careless person had evidently left the gate unlocked, and the fight, or whatever it was, must be taking place inside the Inclosure!
Mr. Tapster tried in vain to see what was going on inside the railings, but everything beyond the brightly lighted road was wrapped in gray darkness. Some one suddenly held up high a flaming torch, and the watcher at the window saw that the shadowy crowd which had managed to force its way into the Park hung together, like bees swarming, on the farther lawn through which flowed the Serpentine. With the gleaming of the yellow, wavering light there had fallen a sudden hush and silence, and Mr. Tapster wondered uneasily what those people were doing there, and what it was they were pressing forward so eagerly to see.
Then he realized that it must have been a fight, after all, for now the crowd was parting in two, and down the lane so formed Mr. Tapster saw coming toward the gate, and so in a sense toward himself, a rather pitiful little procession. Some one had evidently been injured, and that seriously; for four men, bearing a sheep-hurdle on which lay a huddled mass, were walking slowly toward the gate, and he heard distinctly the gruffly uttered words: "Stand back, please—back, there! We're going across the road." The now large crowd suddenly swayed forward; indeed, to Mr. Tapster's astonished eyes, they seemed to be actually making a rush for his house, and a moment later they were pressing around his area-railings.
Looking down on the upturned faces below him, Mr. Tapster was very glad that a stout pane of glass stood between himself and the sinister-looking men and women who seemed to be staring up at him, or rather at his windows, with faces full of cruel, wolfish curiosity. He let the blind fall to gently. His interest in the vulgar, sordid scene had suddenly died down; the drama was now over; in a moment the crowd would disperse, the human vermin (but Mr. Tapster would never have used, even to himself, so coarse an expression) would be on their way back to their burrows. But before he had even time to rearrange the curtains in their, right folds, there came a sudden loud, persistent knocking at his front door.
Mr. Tapster turned around sharply, feeling justly incensed. Of course, he knew what it was—some good-for-nothing urchin finding a vent for his excited feelings. His parlor-maid, who was never in any hurry to open the door,—she had once kept him waiting ten minutes when he had forgotten his latch-key,—would certainly take no notice of this unseemly noise, but he, James Tapster, would himself hurry out and try to catch the delinquent, take his name and address, and thoroughly frighten him.
As he reached the door of the dining-room, Mr. Tapster heard the front door open—open, too,—and this was certainly very surprising,—from the outside! In the hall he saw that it was a policeman—in fact, the officer on point duty close by—who had opened his front door, and apparently with a latch-key.
The constable spoke, as constables always do to the Mr. Tapsters of this world, in respectful and subdued tones:
"Can I just come in and speak to you, sir? There's been a sad accident—your lady fallen in the water; we found these keys in her pocket, and then some one said she was Mrs. Tapster"; and the policeman held out the two keys which had played a not unimportant part in Mr. Tapster's interview with Flossy. "A man on the bridge saw her go in," went on the policeman, "so she wasn't in the water long,—something like a quarter of an hour,—for we soon found her. I suppose you would like her taken up-stairs, sir?"
"No, no," stammered Mr. Tapster, "not upstairs; the children are up-stairs."
Mr. Tapster's round, prominent eyes were shadowed with a great horror and an even greater surprise. He stood staring at the man before him, his hands clasped in a wholly unconscious gesture of supplication.
The constable gradually edged himself backward into the dining-room. Realizing that he must take on himself the onus of decision, he gave a quiet look round.
"If that's the case," he said firmly, "we had better bring her in here; that sofa that you have there, sir, will do nicely for her to be laid upon while they try to bring her round. We've got a doctor already."
Mr. Tapster bent his head; he was too much bewildered to propose any other plan; and then he turned, turned to see his hall invaded by a strange and sinister quartet. It was composed of two policemen and of two of those loafers of whom he so greatly disapproved. They were carrying a hurdle from which Mr. Tapster quickly averted his eyes. But, though he was able to shut out the sight he feared to see, he could not prevent himself from hearing certain sounds, those, for instance, made by the two loafers, who breathed with ostentatious difficulty as if to show they were unaccustomed to bearing even so comparatively light a burden as Flossy drowned.
There came a sudden short whisper-filled delay. The doorway of the dining-room was found to be too narrow, and the hurdle was perforce left in the hall.
An urgent voice, full of wholly unconscious irony, muttered in Mr. Tapster's ear: "Of course, you would like to see her, sir," and he felt himself being propelled forward. Making an effort to bear himself so that he should no feel afterward ashamed of his lack of nerve, he forced himself to stare with dread-filled yet fascinated eyes at that which had just been laid upon the leather sofa.
Flossy's hat, the shabby hat which had shocked Mr. Tapster's sense of what was seemly, was gone; her fair hair had all come down, and hung in pale-gold wisps about the face already fixed in the soft dignity which seems so soon to drape the features of those who die by drowning. Her widely opened eyes were, now wholly emptied of the anguish with which they had gazed on Mr. Tapster in this very room less than an hour ago. Her mean brown serge gown, from which the water was still dripping, clung closely to her limbs, revealing the slender body which had four times endured, on behalf of Mr. Tapster, the greatest of woman's natural ordeals. But that thought, it is scarcely necessary to say, did not come to add an extra pang to those which that unfortunate man was now suffering, for Mr. Tapster naturally thought maternity was in every married woman's day's work—and pleasure.
It might have been a moment, for all that he knew, or it might have been an hour, when at last something came to relieve the unbearable tension of Mr. Tapster's feelings. He had been standing aside, helpless, aware of and yet not watching the efforts made to restore Flossy to consciousness.
The doctor raised himself and straightened his cramped shoulders and tired arms. With a look of great concern on his face, he approached the bereaved husband.
"I'm afraid it's no good," he said; "the shock of the plunge in the cold water probably killed her. She was evidently in poor health, and—and ill-nourished; but, of course, we shall go on for some time longer, and——"
But whatever he had meant to say remained unspoken, for a telegraph-boy, with the impudence natural to his kind, was forcing his way into and through the crowded room. "James Tapster, Esquire?" he cried in a high, childish treble.
The master of the house held out his hand mechanically. He took the buff envelop and stared down at it, sufficiently master of himself to perceive that some fool had apparently imagined Cumberland Crescent to be in South London; before his eyes swam the line, "Delayed in transmission." Then, opening the envelop, he saw the message for which he had now been waiting so eagerly for some days; but it was with indifference that he read the words,
"The Decree has been made Absolute."