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Chapter XXI

Told it rapidly, now and then confusedly, but with omission of nothing essential. So often she had reviewed her life, at successive stages of culture and self-knowledge. Every step had been debated in heart and conscience. She had so much to say, yet might not linger in the narration, and feared to seem eager ill the excuse of what she had done. To speak of these things to one of her own sex was in itself a great relief, yet from time to time the recollection that she was betraying Denzil's Secret struck her with cold terror. Was not this necessity a result of her weakness? A stronger woman would perhaps have faced the situation in some other way.

Mrs. Wade listened intently, and the story seemed to move her in no slight degree. Lilian, anxiously watching her face, found it difficult to interpret the look of suppressed excitement. Censure she could not read there; pain, if ever visible, merely flitted over brow and lips; at moments she half believed that her hearer was exulting in this defiance of accepted morality--what else could be the significance of that flash in the eyes; that quiver of the nostrils--all but a triumphant smile? They sat close to each other, Lilian in the low basket-chair, the widow on a higher seat, and when the story came to an end, their hands met.

"How can I save Denzil?" was Lilian's last word. "Anything--any sacrifice I If this becomes known, his whole life is ruined!"

Mrs. Wade pressed the soft, cold fingers, and kept a thoughtful silence.

"It's a strange coincidence," she said at length, "very strange that this should happen on the eve of the election."

"The secret must be kept until"----

Lilian's voice failed. She looked anxiously at her friend, and added:

"What would be the result if it were known afterwards-when Denzil is elected?"

"It's hard to say. But tell me, Lily: is there no one who has been admitted to your confidence?"

What purpose would be served by keeping back the name? Lilian's eyes fell as she answered.

"Mr. Glazzard knows."

"Mr. Eustace Glazzard?"

Lilian explained how and when it had become necessary to make him a sharer in the secret.

"Do you believe," Mrs. Wade asked, "that Northway really discovered you by chance?"

"I don't know. He says so. I can only feel absolutely sure that Mr. Glazzard has nothing to do with it."

Mrs. Wade mused doubtfully.

"Absolutely sure?"

"Oh, how is it possible? If you knew him as well as we do!-- Impossible!--He came to see us this very morning, on his way to be married, and laughed and talked!"

"You are right, no doubt," returned the other, with quiet reassurance. "If it wasn't chance, some obscure agency has been at work. You must remember, Lily, that only by a miracle could you have lived on in security."

"I have sometimes felt that," whispered the sufferer, her head falling.

"And it almost seems," went on Mrs. Wade, "as if Northway really had no intention of using his power to extort money. To be Sure, your own income is not to be despised by a man in his position; but most rascals would have gone to Mr. Quarrier.--He is still in love with you, I suppose."

The last words were murmured in a tone which caused the hearer to look up uneasily. Mrs. Wade at once averted her face, which was curiously hard and expressionless.

"What do you think?" she said a moment after. "Would it be any use if I had a talk with him?"

"Will you?" asked Lilian, eagerly. "You may perhaps influence him. You can speak so well--so persuasively. I don't think he is utterly depraved. As you say, he would have gone first to Denzil. Perhaps he can be moved to have pity on me."

"Perhaps--but I have more faith in an appeal to his interests."

"It would be dreadful if Denzil had to live henceforth at his mercy."

"It would. But it's a matter of--of life and death."

Mrs. Wade's voice sank on those words, shaking just a little. She put her face nearer to Lilian's, but without looking at her.

"Suppose no argument will prevail with him, dear?" she continued in that low, tremulous tone. "Suppose he persists in claiming you?"

The voice had a strange effect upon Lilian's nerves. She shook with agitation, and drew away a little.

"He cannot! He has no power to take me! At the worst, we can only be driven back into solitude."

"True, dear; but it would not be the same kind of solitude as before. Think of the huge scandal, the utter ruin of brilliant prospects."

Lilian lay back and moaned in anguish. Her eyes were closed, and in that moment Mrs. Wade gazed at her for a moment only; then the widow rose from her chair, and spoke in a voice of encouragement.

"I will see him, Lily. You remain here; I'll call him into the dining-room."

She stepped to the window, and saw that Northway was standing only at a little distance. After meditating for a minute or two, she left the room very quietly, crossed the passage, and entered the room opposite, where she generally took her meals. Here again she went to the window, and again had a good view of the man on guard. A smile rose to her face.

Then she went out and signalled to Northway, who approached in an embarrassed way, doing his best to hold his head up and look dignified. Mrs. Wade regarded him with contemptuous amusement, but was careful to show nothing of this; her face and tone as she greeted him expressed more than civility--all but deference.

"Will you do me the kindness to enter for a few minutes, Mr. Northway?"

He doffed his hat, smiled sourly, and followed her into the little dining-room. But as she was closing the door, he interfered.

"Excuse me--I don't want that lady to go away until I have seen her again."

Mrs. Wade none the less closed the door, holding herself with imperturbable politeness.

"She is resting in the next room. I give you my word, Mr. Northway, that you will find her there when our conversation is over."

He looked about him with sullen uneasiness, but could not resist this lady's manner.

"Pray sit down. Quite a spring day, isn't it?"

Her tone was melancholy, tempered with the consideration of a hostess. Northway seated himself much as if he were in church. He tried to examine Mrs. Wade's face, but could not meet her look. She, in the meantime, had got the young man's visage by heart, had studied the meaning of every lineament--narrow eyes, sunken cheeks, forehead indicative of conceited intelligence, lips as clearly expressive of another characteristic. Here, at all events, was a creature she could manage--an instrument--though to what purpose she was not yet perfectly clear.

"Mr. Northway, I have been listening to a sad, sad story."

"Yes, it is sad," he muttered, feeling his inferiority to this soft-spoken woman, and moving his legs awkwardly.

"I must mention to you that my name is Mrs. Wade. I have known Lilian since she came to live at Polterham--only since then. That's a very short time ago, but we have seen a good deal of each other, and have become intimate friends. I need not tell you that I never had the faintest suspicion of what I have just learnt."

This was said certainly not in a voice of indignation but with a sadness which implied anything but approval. Northway, after trying to hold his hat in a becoming way, placed it on the floor, clicking with his tongue the while and betraying much nervousness.

"You are of course aware," pursued the lady, "that Mr. Denzil Quarrier is Liberal candidate for this borough?"

"Yes, I know."

"Until to-day, he had every prospect of being elected. It is a shocking thing--I hardly know how to express myself about it."

"If this gets known," said Northway, "I suppose he has no chance?"

"How would it be possible to vote for a man who has outraged the law on which all social life is based? He would retire immediately--no doubt."

Regarding this event as certain in any case, the listener merely nodded.

"That, I dare say, doesn't interest you?"

"I take no part in politics."

"And it is quite a matter of indifference to you whether Mr. Quarrier's career is ruined or not?"

"I don't see why I should think much about a man who has injured me as he has."

"No," conceded Mrs. Wade, sadly. "I understand that you have nothing whatever in view but recovering your wife?"

"That's all I want."

"And yet, Mr. Northway, I'm sure you see how very difficult it will be for you to gain this end."

She leaned towards him sympathetically. Northway shuffled, sucked in his cheeks, and spoke in as civil a tone as he could command.

"There are difficulties, I know. I don't ask her to come at once and live with me. I couldn't expect that. But I am determined she sha'n't go back to Mr. Quarrier. I have a right to forbid it."

"Indeed--abstractly speaking--I think you have," murmured Mrs. Wade, with a glance towards the door. "But I grieve to tell you that there seems to me no possibility of preventing her return."

"I shall have to use what means I can. You say Mr. Quarrier wouldn't care to have this made public just now."

He knew (or imagined) that the threat was idle, but it seemed to him that Mrs. Wade, already favourably disposed, might be induced to counsel Lilian for the avoidance of a scandal at this moment.

"Mr. Northway," replied the widow, "I almost think that he would care less for such a disclosure before this election than after it."

He met her eyes, and tried to understand her. But whatever she meant, it could be of no importance to him. Quarrier was doomed by the Tory agent; on this knowledge he congratulated himself, in spite of the fact that another state of things would have been more to his interest.

"I have really nothing to do with that," he replied. "My wife is living a life of wickedness--and she shall be saved from it at once."

Mrs. Wade had much difficulty in keeping her countenance. She looked down, and drew a deep sigh.

"That is only too true. But I fear--indeed I fear--that you won't succeed in parting them. There is a reason--I cannot mention it."

Northway was puzzled for a moment, then his face darkened; he seemed to understand.

"I do so wish," pursued Mrs. Wade, with a smile of sympathy, "that I could be of some use in this sad affair. My advice--I am afraid you will be very unwilling to listen to it."

She paused, looking at him wistfully.

"What would it be?" he asked.

"I feel so strongly--just as you do--that it is dreadful to have to countenance such a state of things; but I am convinced that it would be very, very unwise if you went at once to extremities, Mr. Northway. I am a woman of the world; I have seen a good deal of life; if you allowed yourself to be guided by me, you would not regret it."

"You want to save your friends from the results of their behaviour," he replied, uneasily.

"I assure you, it's not so much that--no, I have your interests in view quite as much as theirs. Now, seeing that Lilian cannot possibly take her place as your wife in fact, and that it is practically impossible to part her from Mr. Quarrier, wouldn't it be well to ask yourself what is the most prudent course that circumstances allow?"

"If it comes to that, I can always get a divorce."

Mrs. Wade reflected, but with no sign of satisfaction.

"Yes, that is open to you. You would then, of course, be enabled to marry again.--May I ask if you are quite at ease with regard to your prospects in life?"

The tone was so delicately impertinent that Northway missed its significance.

"I haven't quite decided upon anything yet."

"Judging from your conversation, I should say that you will yet find a place among active and successful men. But the beginning is everything. If I could be of any assistance to you--I would put it to you frankly, Mr. Northway: is it worth while sacrificing very solid possibilities to your--your affection for a woman who has deserted you?"

He shuffled on the chair, clicked with his tongue, and looked about him undecidedly.

"I am Dot to be bribed to act against my conscience," he said at length.

Mrs. Wade heard this with pleasure. The blunt, half-blustering declaration assured her that Northway's "conscience" was on the point of surrender.

"Now, let me tell you what I should like to do," she continued, bending towards him. "Will you allow me to go at once and see Mr. Quarrier?"

"And tell him?"

"Yes, let him know what has happened. I quite understand," she added, caressingly, "how very painful it would be for you to go directly to him. Will you allow me to be your intermediary? That you and he must meet is quite certain; may I smooth away the worst difficulties? I could explain to him your character, your natural delicacy, your conscientiousness. I could make him understand that he has to meet a person quite on his own level--an educated man of honourable feeling. After that, an interview between you would be comparatively easy. I should be really grateful to you if you would allow me to do you this service."

Northway was like clay in her hands. Every word had precisely the effect on which she calculated. His forehead unwrinkled itself, his lips hung loose like the mouth of a dog that is fondled, he tried not to smile. Though he thought himself as far as ever from renouncing Lilian, he began to like the idea of facing Quarrier-- of exhibiting his natural delicacy, conscientiousness, and so on. Something was in the background, but of that he took no deliberate account.

A few minutes more, and Mrs. Wade had him entirely at her disposal. It was arranged that, whilst she went into the town to discover Quarrier, Northway should remain on guard, either in or about the cottage. Luncheon would be provided for him. He promised not to molest Lilian, on condition that she made no attempt to escape.

"She will stay where she is," Mrs. Wade assured him. "Your natural delicacy will, I am sure, prevent you from seeking to hold conversation with her. She is very weak, poor thing! I do hope no serious illness will follow on .this shock."

Thereupon she returned to the sitting-room, where Lilian stood in an anguish of impatience.

"I think I shall manage it, dear," she whispered, in a tone of affectionate encouragement. "He has consented to see Mr. Quarrier, provided I go first and break the news."

"You, Mrs. Wade? You are going to see Denzil?"

"Dearest girl, leave it all in my hands. You cannot think what difficulties I have overcome. If I am allowed to act freely, I shall save you and him."

She explained the articles of truce, Lilian listening with distressful hope.

"And I don't think he will interfere with you meanwhile. But you can keep the door locked, you know. Annie shall bring you something to eat; I will tell her to give him his luncheon first, and then to come very quietly with yours. It is half-past twelve. I can hardly be back in less than an hour and a half. No doubt, Mr. Quarrier will come with me."

"How good you are, dear Mrs. Wade! Oh, if you can save him!"

"Trust me, and try to sit quietly. Now, I will be off at once."

She pressed the hand that was held to her, nodded, and left the room.

George Gissing

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