Chapter 8




HE had ruthlessly abandoned her - that of course was what he had
done. Stransom made it all out in solitude, at leisure, fitting
the unmatched pieces gradually together and dealing one by one with
a hundred obscure points. She had known Hague only after her
present friend's relations with him had wholly terminated;
obviously indeed a good while after; and it was natural enough that
of his previous life she should have ascertained only what he had
judged good to communicate. There were passages it was quite
conceivable that even in moments of the tenderest expansion he
should have withheld. Of many facts in the career of a man so in
the eye of the world there was of course a common knowledge; but
this lady lived apart from public affairs, and the only time
perfectly clear to her would have been the time following the dawn
of her own drama. A man in her place would have "looked up" the
past - would even have consulted old newspapers. It remained
remarkable indeed that in her long contact with the partner of her
retrospect no accident had lighted a train; but there was no
arguing about that; the accident had in fact come: it had simply
been that security had prevailed. She had taken what Hague had
given her, and her blankness in respect of his other connexions was
only a touch in the picture of that plasticity Stransom had supreme
reason to know so great a master could have been trusted to
produce.

This picture was for a while all our friend saw: he caught his
breath again and again as it came over him that the woman with whom
he had had for years so fine a point of contact was a woman whom
Acton Hague, of all men in the world, had more or less fashioned.
Such as she sat there to-day she was ineffaceably stamped with him.
Beneficent, blameless as Stransom held her, he couldn't rid himself
of the sense that he had been, as who should say, swindled. She
had imposed upon him hugely, though she had known it as little as
he. All this later past came back to him as a time grotesquely
misspent. Such at least were his first reflexions; after a while
he found himself more divided and only, as the end of it, more
troubled. He imagined, recalled, reconstituted, figured out for
himself the truth she had refused to give him; the effect of which
was to make her seem to him only more saturated with her fate. He
felt her spirit, through the whole strangeness, finer than his own
to the very degree in which she might have been, in which she
certainly had been, more wronged. A women, when wronged, was
always more wronged than a man, and there were conditions when the
least she could have got off with was more than the most he could
have to bear. He was sure this rare creature wouldn't have got off
with the least. He was awestruck at the thought of such a
surrender - such a prostration. Moulded indeed she had been by
powerful hands, to have converted her injury into an exaltation so
sublime. The fellow had only had to die for everything that was
ugly in him to be washed out in a torrent. It was vain to try to
guess what had taken place, but nothing could be clearer than that
she had ended by accusing herself. She absolved him at every
point, she adored her very wounds. The passion by which he had
profited had rushed back after its ebb, and now the tide of
tenderness, arrested for ever at flood, was too deep even to
fathom. Stransom sincerely considered that he had forgiven him;
but how little he had achieved the miracle that she had achieved!
His forgiveness was silence, but hers was mere unuttered sound.
The light she had demanded for his altar would have broken his
silence with a blare; whereas all the lights in the church were for
her too great a hush.

She had been right about the difference - she had spoken the truth
about the change: Stransom was soon to know himself as perversely
but sharply jealous. HIS tide had ebbed, not flowed; if he had
"forgiven" Acton Hague, that forgiveness was a motive with a broken
spring. The very fact of her appeal for a material sign, a sign
that should make her dead lover equal there with the others,
presented the concession to her friend as too handsome for the
case. He had never thought of himself as hard, but an exorbitant
article might easily render him so. He moved round and round this
one, but only in widening circles - the more he looked at it the
less acceptable it seemed. At the same time he had no illusion
about the effect of his refusal; he perfectly saw how it would make
for a rupture. He left her alone a week, but when at last he again
called this conviction was cruelly confirmed. In the interval he
had kept away from the church, and he needed no fresh assurance
from her to know she hadn't entered it. The change was complete
enough: it had broken up her life. Indeed it had broken up his,
for all the fires of his shrine seemed to him suddenly to have been
quenched. A great indifference fell upon him, the weight of which
was in itself a pain; and he never knew what his devotion had been
for him till in that shock it ceased like a dropped watch. Neither
did he know with how large a confidence he had counted on the final
service that had now failed: the mortal deception was that in this
abandonment the whole future gave way.

These days of her absence proved to him of what she was capable;
all the more that he never dreamed she was vindictive or even
resentful. It was not in anger she had forsaken him; it was in
simple submission to hard reality, to the stern logic of life.
This came home to him when he sat with her again in the room in
which her late aunt's conversation lingered like the tone of a
cracked piano. She tried to make him forget how much they were
estranged, but in the very presence of what they had given up it
was impossible not to be sorry for her. He had taken from her so
much more than she had taken from him. He argued with her again,
told her she could now have the altar to herself; but she only
shook her head with pleading sadness, begging him not to waste his
breath on the impossible, the extinct. Couldn't he see that in
relation to her private need the rites he had established were
practically an elaborate exclusion? She regretted nothing that had
happened; it had all been right so long as she didn't know, and it
was only that now she knew too much and that from the moment their
eyes were open they would simply have to conform. It had doubtless
been happiness enough for them to go on together so long. She was
gentle, grateful, resigned; but this was only the form of a deep
immoveability. He saw he should never more cross the threshold of
the second room, and he felt how much this alone would make a
stranger of him and give a conscious stiffness to his visits. He
would have hated to plunge again into that well of reminders, but
he enjoyed quite as little the vacant alternative.

After he had been with her three or four times it struck him that
to have come at last into her house had had the horrid effect of
diminishing their intimacy. He had known her better, had liked her
in greater freedom, when they merely walked together or kneeled
together. Now they only pretended; before they had been nobly
sincere. They began to try their walks again, but it proved a lame
imitation, for these things, from the first, beginning or ending,
had been connected with their visits to the church. They had
either strolled away as they came out or gone in to rest on the
return. Stransom, besides, now faltered; he couldn't walk as of
old. The omission made everything false; it was a dire mutilation
of their lives. Our friend was frank and monotonous, making no
mystery of his remonstrance and no secret of his predicament. Her
response, whatever it was, always came to the same thing - an
implied invitation to him to judge, if he spoke of predicaments, of
how much comfort she had in hers. For him indeed was no comfort
even in complaint, since every allusion to what had befallen them
but made the author of their trouble more present. Acton Hague was
between them - that was the essence of the matter, and never so
much between them as when they were face to face. Then Stransom,
while still wanting to banish him, had the strangest sense of
striving for an ease that would involve having accepted him.
Deeply disconcerted by what he knew, he was still worse tormented
by really not knowing. Perfectly aware that it would have been
horribly vulgar to abuse his old friend or to tell his companion
the story of their quarrel, it yet vexed him that her depth of
reserve should give him no opening and should have the effect of a
magnanimity greater even than his own.

He challenged himself, denounced himself, asked himself if he were
in love with her that he should care so much what adventures she
had had. He had never for a moment allowed he was in love with
her; therefore nothing could have surprised him more than to
discover he was jealous. What but jealousy could give a man that
sore contentious wish for the detail of what would make him suffer?
Well enough he knew indeed that he should never have it from the
only person who to-day could give it to him. She let him press her
with his sombre eyes, only smiling at him with an exquisite mercy
and breathing equally little the word that would expose her secret
and the word that would appear to deny his literal right to
bitterness. She told nothing, she judged nothing; she accepted
everything but the possibility of her return to the old symbols.
Stransom divined that for her too they had been vividly individual,
had stood for particular hours or particular attributes -
particular links in her chain. He made it clear to himself, as he
believed, that his difficulty lay in the fact that the very nature
of the plea for his faithless friend constituted a prohibition;
that it happened to have come from HER was precisely the vice that
attached to it. To the voice of impersonal generosity he felt sure
he would have listened; he would have deferred to an advocate who,
speaking from abstract justice, knowing of his denial without
having known Hague, should have had the imagination to say: "Ah,
remember only the best of him; pity him; provide for him." To
provide for him on the very ground of having discovered another of
his turpitudes was not to pity but to glorify him. The more
Stransom thought the more he made out that whatever this relation
of Hague's it could only have been a deception more or less finely
practised. Where had it come into the life that all men saw? Why
had one never heard of it if it had had the frankness of honourable
things? Stransom knew enough of his other ties, of his obligations
and appearances, not to say enough of his general character, to be
sure there had been some infamy. In one way or another this
creature had been coldly sacrificed. That was why at the last as
well as the first he must still leave him out and out.



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