About three o'clock that afternoon a tall man walked up the avenue at Worsted Skeynes, in one hand carrying his hat, in the other a small brown bag. He stopped now and then, and took deep breaths, expanding the nostrils of his straight nose. He had a fine head, with wings of grizzled hair. His clothes were loose, his stride was springy. Standing in the middle of the drive, taking those long breaths, with his moist blue eyes upon the sky, he excited the attention of a robin, who ran out of a rhododendron to see, and when he had passed began to whistle. Gregory Vigil turned, and screwed up his humorous lips, and, except that he was completely lacking in embonpoint, he had a certain resemblance to this bird, which is supposed to be peculiarly British.
He asked for Mrs. Pendyce in a high, light voice, very pleasant to the ear, and was at once shown to the white morning-room.
She greeted him affectionately, like many women who have grown used to hearing from their husbands the formula "Oh! your people!"--she had a strong feeling for her kith and kin.
"You know, Grig," she said, when her cousin was seated, "your letter was rather disturbing. Her separation from Captain Bellew has caused such a lot of talk about here. Yes; it's very common, I know, that sort of thing, but Horace is so----! All the squires and parsons and county people we get about here are just the same. Of course, I'm very fond of her, she's so charming to look at; but, Gregory, I really don't dislike her husband. He's a desperate sort of person--I think that's rather, refreshing; and you know I do think she's a little like him in that!"
The blood rushed up into Gregory Vigil's forehead; he put his hand to his head, and said:
"Like him? Like that man? Is a rose like an artichoke?"
Mrs. Pendyce went on:
"I enjoyed having her here immensely. It's the first time she's been here since she left the Firs. How long is that? Two years? But you know, Grig, the Maidens were quite upset about her. Do you think a divorce is really necessary?"
Gregory Vigil answered: "I'm afraid it is."
Mrs. Pendyce met her cousin's gaze serenely; if anything, her brows were uplifted more than usual; but, as at the stirring of secret trouble, her fingers began to twine and twist. Before her rose a vision of George and Mrs. Bellew side by side. It was a vague maternal feeling, an instinctive fear. She stilled her fingers, let her eyelids droop, and said:
"Of course, dear Grig, if I can help you in any way--Horace does so dislike anything to do with the papers."
Gregory Vigil drew in his breath.
"The papers!" he said. "How hateful it is! To think that our civilisation should allow women to be cast to the dogs! Understand, Margery, I'm thinking of her. In this matter I'm not capable of considering anything else."
Mrs. Pendyce murmured: "Of course, dear Grig, I quite understand."
"Her position is odious; a woman should not have to live like that, exposed to everyone's foul gossip."
"But, dear Grig, I don't think she minds; she seemed to me in such excellent spirits."
Gregory ran his fingers through his hair.
"Nobody understands her," he said; "she's so plucky!"
Mrs. Pendyce stole a glance at him, and a little ironical smile flickered over her face.
"No one can look at her without seeing her spirit. But, Grig, perhaps you don't quite understand her either!"
Gregory Vigil put his hand to his head.
"I must open the window a moment," he said.
Again Mrs. Pendyce's fingers began twisting, again she stilled them.
"We were quite a large party last week, and now there's only Charles. Even George has gone back; he'll be so sorry to have missed you!"
Gregory neither turned nor answered, and a wistful look came into Mrs. Pendyce's face.
"It was so nice for the dear boy to win that race! I'm afraid he bets rather! It's such a comfort Horace doesn't know."
Still Gregory did not speak.
Mrs. Pendyce's face lost its anxious look, and gained a sort of gentle admiration.
"Dear Grig," she said, "where do you go about your hair? It is so nice and long and wavy!"
Gregory turned with a blush.
"I've been wanting to get it cut for ages. Do you really mean, Margery, that your husband can't realise the position she's placed in?"
Mrs. Pendyce fixed her eyes on her lap.
"You see, Grig," she began, "she was here a good deal before she left the Firs, and, of course, she's related to me--though it's very distant. With those horrid cases, you never know what will happen. Horace is certain to say that she ought to go back to her husband; or, if that's impossible, he'll say she ought to think of Society. Lady Rose Bethany's case has shaken everybody, and Horace is nervous. I don't know how it is, there's a great feeling amongst people about here against women asserting themselves. You should hear Mr. Barter and Sir James Maiden, and dozens of others; the funny thing is that the women take their side. Of course, it seems odd to me, because so many of the Totteridges ran away, or did something funny. I can't help sympathising with her, but I have to think of--of---- In the country, you don't know how things that people do get about before they've done them! There's only that and hunting to talk of.
Gregory Vigil clutched at his head.
"Well, if this is what chivalry has come to, thank God I'm not a squire!"
Mrs. Pendyce's eyes flickered.
"Ah!" she said, "I've thought like that so often."
Gregory broke the silence.
"I can't help the customs of the country. My duty's plain. There's nobody else to look after her."
Mrs. Pendyce sighed, and, rising from her chair, said: "Very well, dear Grig; do let us go and have some tea."
Tea at Worsted Skeynes was served in the hall on Sundays, and was usually attended by the Rector and his wife. Young Cecil Tharp had walked over with his dog, which could be heard whimpering faintly outside the front-door.
General Pendyce, with his knees crossed and the tips of his fingers pressed together, was leaning back in his chair and staring at the wall. The Squire, who held his latest bird's-egg in his hand, was showing its spots to the Rector.
In a corner by a harmonium, on which no one ever played, Norah talked of the village hockey club to Mrs. Barter, who sat with her eyes fixed on her husband. On the other side of the fire Bee and young Tharp, whose chairs seemed very close together, spoke of their horses in low tones, stealing shy glances at each other. The light was failing, the wood logs crackled, and now and then over the cosy hum of talk there fell short, drowsy silences--silences of sheer warmth and comfort, like the silence of the spaniel John asleep against his master's boot.
"Well," said Gregory softly, " I must go and see this man."
"Is it really necessary, Grig, to see him at all? I mean--if you've made up your mind----"
Gregory ran his hand through his hair.
"It's only fair, I think!" And crossing the hall, he let himself out so quietly that no one but Mrs. Pendyce noticed he had gone.
An hour and a half later, near the railway-station, on the road from the village back to Worsted Skeynes, Mr. Pendyce and his daughter Bee were returning from their Sunday visit to their old butler, Bigson. The Squire was talking.
"He's failing, Bee-dear old Bigson's failing. I can't hear what he says, he mumbles so; and he forgets. Fancy his forgetting that I was at Oxford. But we don't get servants like him nowadays. That chap we've got now is a sleepy fellow. Sleepy! he's---- What's that in the road? They've no business to be coming at that pace. Who is it? I can't see."
Down the middle of the dark road a dog cart was approaching at top speed. Bee seized her father's arm and pulled it vigorously, for Mr. Pendyce was standing stock-still in disapproval. The dog cart passed within a foot of him and vanished, swinging round into the station. Mr. Pendyce turned in his tracks.
"Who was that? Disgraceful! On Sunday, too! The fellow must be drunk; he nearly ran over my legs. Did you see, Bee, he nearly ran over----
"It was Captain Bellew, Father; I saw his face." "Bellew? That drunken fellow? I shall summons him. Did you see, Bee, he nearly ran over my----"
"Perhaps he's had bad news," said Bee. "There's the train going out now; I do hope he caught it!"
"Bad news! Is that an excuse for driving over me? You hope he caught it? I hope he's thrown himself out. The ruffian! I hope he's killed himself."
In this strain Mr. Pendyce continued until they reached the church. On their way up the aisle they passed Gregory Vigil leaning forward with his elbows on the desk and his hand covering his eyes....
At eleven o'clock that night a man stood outside the door of Mrs. Bellew's flat in Chelsea violently ringing the bell. His face was deathly white, but his little dark eyes sparkled. The door was opened, and Helen Bellew in evening dress stood there holding a candle in her hand.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
The man moved into the light.
"Jaspar! You? What on earth----"
"I want to talk."
"Talk? Do you know what time it is?"
"Time--there's no such thing. You might give me a kiss after two years. I've been drinking, but I'm not drunk."
Mrs. Bellew did not kiss him, neither did she draw back her face. No trace of alarm showed in her ice-grey eyes. She said: " If I let you in, will you promise to say what you want to say quickly, and go away?"
The little brown devils danced in Bellew's face. He nodded. They stood by the hearth in the sitting-room, and on the lips of both came and went a peculiar smile.
It was difficult to contemplate too seriously a person with whom one had lived for years, with whom one had experienced in common the range of human passion, intimacy, and estrangement, who knew all those little daily things that men and women living together know of each other, and with whom in the end, without hatred, but because of one's nature, one had ceased to live. There was nothing for either of them to find out, and with a little smile, like the smile of knowledge itself, Jaspar Bellew and Helen his wife looked at each other.
"Well," she said again; "what have you come for?"
Bellew's face had changed. Its expression was furtive; his mouth twitched; a furrow had come between his eyes.
"How--are--you?" he said in a thick, muttering voice.
Mrs. Bellew's clear voice answered:
"Now, Jaspar, what is it that you want?"
The little brown devils leaped up again in Jaspar's face.
"You look very pretty to-night!"
His wife's lips curled.
"I'm much the same as I always was," she said.
A violent shudder shook Bellew. He fixed his eyes on the floor a little beyond her to the left; suddenly he raised them. They were quite lifeless.
"I'm perfectly sober," he murmured thickly; then with startling quickness his eyes began to sparkle again. He came a step nearer.
"You're my wife!" he said.
Mrs. Bellew smiled.
"Come," she answered, "you must go!" and she put out her bare arm to push him back. But Bellew recoiled of his own accord; his eyes were fixed again on the floor a little beyond her to the left.
"What's that?" he stammered. "What's that--that black----?"
The devilry, mockery, admiration, bemusement, had gone out of his face; it was white and calm, and horribly pathetic.
"Don't turn me out," he stammered; "don't turn me out!"
Mrs. Bellew looked at him hard; the defiance in her eyes changed to a sort of pity. She took a quick step and put her hand on his shoulder.
"It's all right, old boy--all right!" she said. "There's nothing there!"
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