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Chapter XXI

Still glowing from her morning in the saddle, Gyp started out next day at noon on her visit to the "old scoundrel's" cottage. It was one of those lingering mellow mornings of late September, when the air, just warmed through, lifts off the stubbles, and the hedgerows are not yet dried of dew. The short cut led across two fields, a narrow strip of village common, where linen was drying on gorse bushes coming into bloom, and one field beyond; she met no one. Crossing the road, she passed into the cottage-garden, where sunflowers and Michaelmas daisies in great profusion were tangled along the low red-brick garden-walls, under some poplar trees yellow-flecked already. A single empty chair, with a book turned face downward, stood outside an open window. Smoke wreathing from one chimney was the only sign of life. But, standing undecided before the half-open door, Gyp was conscious, as it were, of too much stillness, of something unnatural about the silence. She was just raising her hand to knock when she heard the sound of smothered sobbing. Peeping through the window, she could just see a woman dressed in green, evidently Mrs. Wagge, seated at a table, crying into her handkerchief. At that very moment, too, a low moaning came from the room above. Gyp recoiled; then, making up her mind, she went in and knocked at the room where the woman in green was sitting. After fully half a minute, it was opened, and Mrs. Wagge stood there. The nose and eyes and cheeks of that thinnish, acid face were red, and in her green dress, and with her greenish hair (for it was going grey and she put on it a yellow lotion smelling of cantharides), she seemed to Gyp just like one of those green apples that turn reddish so unnaturally in the sun. She had rubbed over her face, which shone in streaks, and her handkerchief was still crumpled in her hand. It was horrible to come, so fresh and glowing, into the presence of this poor woman, evidently in bitter sorrow. And a desperate desire came over Gyp to fly. It seemed dreadful for anyone connected with him who had caused this trouble to be coming here at all. But she said as softly as she could:

"Mrs. Wagge? Please forgive me--but is there any news? I am-- It was I who got Daphne down here."

The woman before her was evidently being torn this way and that, but at last she answered, with a sniff:

"It--it--was born this morning--dead." Gyp gasped. To have gone through it all for that! Every bit of mother-feeling in her rebelled and sorrowed; but her reason said: Better so! Much better! And she murmured:

"How is she?"

Mrs. Wagge answered, with profound dejection:

"Bad--very bad. I don't know I'm sure what to say--my feelings are all anyhow, and that's the truth. It's so dreadfully upsetting altogether."

"Is my nurse with her?"

"Yes; she's there. She's a very headstrong woman, but capable, I don't deny. Daisy's very weak. Oh, it is upsetting! And now I suppose there'll have to be a burial. There really seems no end to it. And all because of--of that man." And Mrs. Wagge turned away again to cry into her handkerchief.

Feeling she could never say or do the right thing to the poor lady, Gyp stole out. At the bottom of the stairs, she hesitated whether to go up or no. At last, she mounted softly. It must be in the front room that the bereaved girl was lying--the girl who, but a year ago, had debated with such naive self-importance whether or not it was her duty to take a lover. Gyp summoned courage to tap gently. The economic agent opened the door an inch, but, seeing who it was, slipped her robust and handsome person through into the corridor.

"You, my dear!" she said in a whisper. "That's nice!"

"How is she?"

"Fairly well--considering. You know about it?"

"Yes; can I see her?"

"I hardly think so. I can't make her out. She's got no spirit, not an ounce. She doesn't want to get well, I believe. It's the man, I expect." And, looking at Gyp with her fine blue eyes, she asked: "Is that it? Is he tired of her?"

Gyp met her gaze better than she had believed possible.

"Yes, nurse."

The economic agent swept her up and down. "It's a pleasure to look at you. You've got quite a colour, for you. After all, I believe it might do her good to see you. Come in!"

Gyp passed in behind her, and stood gazing, not daring to step forward. What a white face, with eyes closed, with fair hair still damp on the forehead, with one white hand lying on the sheet above her heart! What a frail madonna of the sugar-plums! On the whole of that bed the only colour seemed the gold hoop round the wedding- finger.

The economic agent said very quietly:

"Look, my dear; I've brought you a nice visitor."

Daphne Wing's eyes and lips opened and closed again. And the awful thought went through Gyp: 'Poor thing! She thought it was going to be him, and it's only me!' Then the white lips said:

"Oh, Mrs. Fiorsen, it's you--it is kind of you!" And the eyes opened again, but very little, and differently.

The economic agent slipped away. Gyp sat down by the bed and timidly touched the hand.

Daphne Wing looked at her, and two tears slowly ran down her cheeks.

"It's over," she said just audibly, "and there's nothing now--it was dead, you know. I don't want to live. Oh, Mrs. Fiorsen, why can't they let me die, too?"

Gyp bent over and kissed the hand, unable to bear the sight of those two slowly rolling tears. Daphne Wing went on:

"You are good to me. I wish my poor little baby hadn't--"

Gyp, knowing her own tears were wetting that hand, raised herself and managed to get out the words:

"Bear up! Think of your work!"

"Dancing! Ho!" She gave the least laugh ever heard. "It seems so long ago."

"Yes; but now it'll all come back to you again, better than ever."

Daphne Wing answered by a feeble sigh.

There was silence. Gyp thought: 'She's falling asleep.'

With eyes and mouth closed like that, and all alabaster white, the face was perfect, purged of its little commonnesses. Strange freak that this white flower of a face could ever have been produced by Mr. and Mrs. Wagge!

Daphne Wing opened her eyes and said:

"Oh! Mrs. Fiorsen, I feel so weak. And I feel much more lonely now. There's nothing anywhere."

Gyp got up; she felt herself being carried into the mood of the girl's heart, and was afraid it would be seen. Daphne Wing went on:

"Do you know, when nurse said she'd brought a visitor, I thought it was him; but I'm glad now. If he had looked at me like he did--I couldn't have borne it."

Gyp bent down and put her lips to the damp forehead. Faint, very faint, there was still the scent of orange-blossom.

When she was once more in the garden, she hurried away; but instead of crossing the fields again, turned past the side of the cottage into the coppice behind. And, sitting down on a log, her hands pressed to her cheeks and her elbows to her breast, she stared at the sunlit bracken and the flies chasing each other over it. Love! Was it always something hateful and tragic that spoiled lives? Criss-cross! One darting on another, taking her almost before she knew she was seized, then darting away and leaving her wanting to be seized again. Or darting on her, who, when seized, was fatal to the darter, yet had never wanted to be seized. Or darting one on the other for a moment, then both breaking away too soon. Did never two dart at each other, seize, and cling, and ever after be one? Love! It had spoiled her father's life, and Daphne Wing's; never came when it was wanted; always came when it was not. Malevolent wanderer, alighting here, there; tiring of the spirit before it tired of the body; or of the body before it tired of the spirit. Better to have nothing to do with it--far better! If one never loved, one would never feel lonely--like that poor girl. And yet! No--there was no "and yet." Who that was free would wish to become a slave? A slave--like Daphne Wing! A slave--like her own husband to his want of a wife who did not love him. A slave like her father had been--still was, to a memory. And watching the sunlight on the bracken, Gyp thought: 'Love! Keep far from me. I don't want you. I shall never want you!'

Every morning that week she made her way to the cottage, and every morning had to pass through the hands of Mrs. Wagge. The good lady had got over the upsetting fact that Gyp was the wife of that villain, and had taken a fancy to her, confiding to the economic agent, who confided it to Gyp, that she was "very distangey--and such pretty eyes, quite Italian." She was one of those numberless persons whose passion for distinction was just a little too much for their passionate propriety. It was that worship of distinction which had caused her to have her young daughter's talent for dancing fostered. Who knew to what it might lead in these days? At great length she explained to Gyp the infinite care with which she had always "brought Daisy up like a lady--and now this is the result." And she would look piercingly at Gyp's hair or ears, at her hands or her instep, to see how it was done. The burial worried her dreadfully. "I'm using the name of Daisy Wing; she was christened 'Daisy' and the Wing's professional, so that takes them both in, and it's quite the truth. But I don't think anyone would connect it, would they? About the father's name, do you think I might say the late Mr. Joseph Wing, this once? You see, it never was alive, and I must put something if they're not to guess the truth, and that I couldn't bear; Mr. Wagge would be so distressed. It's in his own line, you see. Oh, it is upsetting!"

Gyp murmured desperately:

"Oh! yes, anything."

Though the girl was so deathly white and spiritless, it soon became clear that she was going to pull through. With each day, a little more colour and a little more commonness came back to her. And Gyp felt instinctively that she would, in the end, return to Fulham purged of her infatuation, a little harder, perhaps a little deeper.

Late one afternoon toward the end of her week at Mildenham, Gyp wandered again into the coppice, and sat down on that same log. An hour before sunset, the light shone level on the yellowing leaves all round her; a startled rabbit pelted out of the bracken and pelted back again, and, from the far edge of the little wood, a jay cackled harshly, shifting its perch from tree to tree. Gyp thought of her baby, and of that which would have been its half-brother; and now that she was so near having to go back to Fiorsen, she knew that she had not been wise to come here. To have been in contact with the girl, to have touched, as it were, that trouble, had made the thought of life with him less tolerable even than it was before. Only the longing to see her baby made return seem possible. Ah, well--she would get used to it all again! But the anticipation of his eyes fixed on her, then sliding away from the meeting with her eyes, of all--of all that would begin again, suddenly made her shiver. She was very near to loathing at that moment. He, the father of her baby! The thought seemed ridiculous and strange. That little creature seemed to bind him to her no more than if it were the offspring of some chance encounter, some pursuit of nymph by faun. No! It was hers alone. And a sudden feverish longing to get back to it overpowered all other thought. This longing grew in her so all night that at breakfast she told her father. Swallowing down whatever his feeling may have been, he said:

"Very well, my child; I'll come up with you."

Putting her into the cab in London, he asked:

"Have you still got your key of Bury Street? Good! Remember, Gyp-- any time day or night--there it is for you."

She had wired to Fiorsen from Mildenham that she was coming, and she reached home soon after three. He was not in, and what was evidently her telegram lay unopened in the hall. Tremulous with expectation, she ran up to the nursery. The pathetic sound of some small creature that cannot tell what is hurting it, or why, met her ears. She went in, disturbed, yet with the half-triumphant thought: 'Perhaps that's for me!'

Betty, very flushed, was rocking the cradle, and examining the baby's face with a perplexed frown. Seeing Gyp, she put her hand to her side, and gasped:

"Oh, be joyful! Oh, my dear! I am glad. I can't do anything with baby since the morning. Whenever she wakes up, she cries like that. And till to-day she's been a little model. Hasn't she! There, there!"

Gyp took up the baby, whose black eyes fixed themselves on her mother in a momentary contentment; but, at the first movement, she began again her fretful plaint. Betty went on:

"She's been like that ever since this morning. Mr. Fiorsen's been in more than once, ma'am, and the fact is, baby don't like it. He stares at her so. But this morning I thought--well--I thought: 'You're her father. It's time she was getting used to you.' So I let them be a minute; and when I came back--I was only just across to the bathroom--he was comin' out lookin' quite fierce and white, and baby--oh, screamin'! And except for sleepin', she's hardly stopped cryin' since."

Pressing the baby to her breast, Gyp sat very still, and queer thoughts went through her mind.

"How has he been, Betty?" she said.

Betty plaited her apron; her moon-face was troubled.

"Well," she said, "I think he's been drinkin'. Oh, I'm sure he has--I've smelt it about him. The third day it began. And night before last he came in dreadfully late--I could hear him staggerin' about, abusing the stairs as he was comin' up. Oh dear--it is a pity!"

The baby, who had been still enough since she lay in her mother's lap, suddenly raised her little voice again. Gyp said:

"Betty, I believe something hurts her arm. She cries the moment she's touched there. Is there a pin or anything? Just see. Take her things off. Oh--look!"

Both the tiny arms above the elbow were circled with dark marks, as if they had been squeezed by ruthless fingers. The two women looked at each other in horror; and under her breath Gyp said: "He!"

She had flushed crimson; her eyes filled but dried again almost at once. And, looking at her face, now gone very pale, and those lips tightened to a line, Betty stopped in her outburst of ejaculation. When they had wrapped the baby's arm in remedies and cotton-wool, Gyp went into her bedroom, and, throwing herself down on her bed, burst into a passion of weeping, smothering it deep in her pillow.

It was the crying of sheer rage. The brute! Not to have control enough to stop short of digging his claws into that precious mite! Just because the poor little thing cried at that cat's stare of his! The brute! The devil! And he would come to her and whine about it, and say: "My Gyp, I never meant--how should I know I was hurting? Her crying was so-- Why should she cry at me? I was upset! I wasn't thinking!" She could hear him pleading and sighing to her to forgive him. But she would not--not this time! He had hurt a helpless thing once too often. Her fit of crying ceased, and she lay listening to the tick of the clock, and marshalling in her mind a hundred little evidences of his malevolence toward her baby--his own baby. How was it possible? Was he really going mad? And a fit of such chilly shuddering seized her that she crept under the eider down to regain warmth. In her rage, she retained enough sense of proportion to understand that he had done this, just as he had insulted Monsieur Harmost and her father--and others--in an ungovernable access of nerve- irritation; just as, perhaps, one day he would kill someone. But to understand this did not lessen her feeling. Her baby! Such a tiny thing! She hated him at last; and she lay thinking out the coldest, the cruellest, the most cutting things to say. She had been too long-suffering.

But he did not come in that evening; and, too upset to eat or do anything, she went up to bed at ten o'clock. When she had undressed, she stole across to the nursery; she had a longing to have the baby with her--a feeling that to leave her was not safe. She carried her off, still sleeping, and, locking her doors, got into bed. Having warmed a nest with her body for the little creature, she laid it there; and then for a long time lay awake, expecting every minute to hear him return. She fell asleep at last, and woke with a start. There were vague noises down below or on the stairs. It must be he! She had left the light on in her room, and she leaned over to look at the baby's face. It was still sleeping, drawing its tiny breaths peacefully, little dog-shivers passing every now and then over its face. Gyp, shaking back her dark plaits of hair, sat up by its side, straining her ears.

Yes; he was coming up, and, by the sounds, he was not sober. She heard a loud creak, and then a thud, as if he had clutched at the banisters and fallen; she heard muttering, too, and the noise of boots dropped. Swiftly the thought went through her: 'If he were quite drunk, he would not have taken them off at all;--nor if he were quite sober. Does he know I'm back?' Then came another creak, as if he were raising himself by support of the banisters, and then--or was it fancy?--she could hear him creeping and breathing behind the door. Then--no fancy this time--he fumbled at the door and turned the handle. In spite of his state, he must know that she was back, had noticed her travelling-coat or seen the telegram. The handle was tried again, then, after a pause, the handle of the door between his room and hers was fiercely shaken. She could hear his voice, too, as she knew it when he was flown with drink, thick, a little drawling.

"Gyp--let me in--Gyp!"

The blood burned up in her cheeks, and she thought: 'No, my friend; you're not coming in!'

After that, sounds were more confused, as if he were now at one door, now at the other; then creakings, as if on the stairs again, and after that, no sound at all.

For fully half an hour, Gyp continued to sit up, straining her ears. Where was he? What doing? On her over-excited nerves, all sorts of possibilities came crowding. He must have gone downstairs again. In that half-drunken state, where would his baffled frenzies lead him? And, suddenly, she thought that she smelled burning. It went, and came again; she got up, crept to the door, noiselessly turned the key, and, pulling it open a few inches, sniffed.

All was dark on the landing. There was no smell of burning out there. Suddenly, a hand clutched her ankle. All the blood rushed from her heart; she stifled a scream, and tried to pull the door to. But his arm and her leg were caught between, and she saw the black mass of his figure lying full-length on its face. Like a vice, his hand held her; he drew himself up on to his knees, on to his feet, and forced his way through. Panting, but in utter silence, Gyp struggled to drive him out. His drunken strength seemed to come and go in gusts, but hers was continuous, greater than she had ever thought she had, and she panted:

"Go! go out of my room--you--you--wretch!"

Then her heart stood still with horror, for he had slued round to the bed and was stretching his hands out above the baby. She heard him mutter:

"Ah-h-h!--you--in my place--you!"

Gyp flung herself on him from behind, dragging his arms down, and, clasping her hands together, held him fast. He twisted round in her arms and sat down on the bed. In that moment of his collapse, Gyp snatched up her baby and fled out, down the dark stairs, hearing him stumbling, groping in pursuit. She fled into the dining-room and locked the door. She heard him run against it and fall down. Snuggling her baby, who was crying now, inside her nightgown, next to her skin for warmth, she stood rocking and hushing it, trying to listen. There was no more sound. By the hearth, whence a little heat still came forth from the ashes, she cowered down. With cushions and the thick white felt from the dining-table, she made the baby snug, and wrapping her shivering self in the table-cloth, sat staring wide-eyed before her--and always listening. There were sounds at first, then none. A long, long time she stayed like that, before she stole to the door. She did not mean to make a second mistake. She could hear the sound of heavy breathing. And she listened to it, till she was quite certain that it was really the breathing of sleep. Then stealthily she opened, and looked. He was over there, lying against the bottom chair, in a heavy, drunken slumber. She knew that sleep so well; he would not wake from it.

It gave her a sort of evil pleasure that they would find him like that in the morning when she was gone. She went back to her baby and, with infinite precaution, lifted it, still sleeping, cushion and all, and stole past him up the stairs that, under her bare feet, made no sound. Once more in her locked room, she went to the window and looked out. It was just before dawn; her garden was grey and ghostly, and she thought: 'The last time I shall see you. Good-bye!'

Then, with the utmost speed, she did her hair and dressed. She was very cold and shivery, and put on her fur coat and cap. She hunted out two jerseys for the baby, and a certain old camel's-hair shawl. She took a few little things she was fondest of and slipped them into her wrist-bag with her purse, put on her hat and a pair of gloves. She did everything very swiftly, wondering, all the time, at her own power of knowing what to take. When she was quite ready, she scribbled a note to Betty to follow with the dogs to Bury Street, and pushed it under the nursery door. Then, wrapping the baby in the jerseys and shawl, she went downstairs. The dawn had broken, and, from the long narrow window above the door with spikes of iron across it, grey light was striking into the hall. Gyp passed Fiorsen's sleeping figure safely, and, for one moment, stopped for breath. He was lying with his back against the wall, his head in the hollow of an arm raised against a stair, and his face turned a little upward. That face which, hundreds of times, had been so close to her own, and something about this crumpled body, about his tumbled hair, those cheek-bones, and the hollows beneath the pale lips just parted under the dirt-gold of his moustache--something of lost divinity in all that inert figure-- clutched for a second at Gyp's heart. Only for a second. It was over, this time! No more--never again! And, turning very stealthily, she slipped her shoes on, undid the chain, opened the front door, took up her burden, closed the door softly behind her, and walked away.

John Galsworthy