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Chapter 20

THE HUSBAND AND THE WIFE


It was past six o'clock when Hilary at length reached home, preceded a little by Miranda, who almost felt within her the desire to eat. The lilac bushes, not yet in flower, were giving forth spicy fragrance. The sun still netted their top boughs, as with golden silk, and a blackbird, seated on a low branch of the acacia-tree, was summoning the evening. Mr. Stone, accompanied by the little model, dressed in her new clothes, was coming down the path. They were evidently going for a walk, for Mr. Stone wore his hat, old and soft and black, with a strong green tinge, and carried a paper parcel, which leaked crumbs of bread at every step.

The girl grew very red. She held her head down, as though afraid of Hilary's inspection of her new clothes. At the gate she suddenly looked up. His face said: 'Yes, you look very nice!' And into her eyes a look leaped such as one may see in dogs' eyes lifted in adoration to their masters' faces. Manifestly disconcerted, Hilary turned to Mr. Stone. The old man was standing very still; a thought had evidently struck him. "I have not, I think," he said, "given enough consideration to the question whether force is absolutely, or only relatively, evil. If I saw a man ill-treat a cat, should I be justified in striking him?"

Accustomed to such divagations, Hilary answered: "I don't know whether you would be justifed, but I believe that you would strike him."

"I am not sure," said Mr. Stone. "We are going to feed the birds."

The little model took the paper bag. "It's all dropping out," she said. From across the road she turned her head....'Won't you come, too?' she seemed to say.

But Hilary passed rather hastily into the garden and shut the gate behind him. He sat in his study, with Miranda near him, for fully an hour, without doing anything whatever, sunk in a strange, half-pleasurable torpor. At this hour he should have been working at his book; and the fact that his idleness did not trouble him might well have given him uneasiness. Many thoughts passed through his mind, imaginings of things he had thought left behind forever--sensations and longings which to the normal eye of middle age are but dried forms hung in the museum of memory. They started up at the whip of the still-living youth, the lost wildness at the heart of every man. Like the reviving flame of half-spent fires, longing for discovery leaped and flickered in Hilary--to find out once again what things were like before he went down the hill of age.

No trivial ghost was beckoning him; it was the ghost, with unseen face and rosy finger, which comes to men when youth has gone.

Miranda, hearing him so silent, rose. At this hour it was her master's habit to scratch paper. She, who seldom scratched anything, because it was not delicate, felt dimly that this was what he should be doing. She held up a slim foot and touched his knee. Receiving no discouragement, she delicately sprang into his lap, and, forgetting for once her modesty, placed her arms on his chest, and licked his face all over.

It was while receiving this embrace that Hilary saw Mr. Stone and the little model returning across the garden. The old man was walking very rapidly, holding out the fragment of a broken stick. He was extremely pink.

Hilary went to meet them.

"What's the matter, sir?" he said.

"I cut him over the legs," said Mr. Stone. "I do not regret it"; and he walked on to his room.

Hilary turned to the little model.

"It was a little dog. The man kicked it, and Mr. Stone hit him. He broke his stick. There were several men; they threatened us." She looked up at Hilary. "I-I was frightened. Oh! Mr. Dallison, isn't he funny?"

"All heroes are funny," murmured Hilary.

"He wanted to hit them again, after his stick was broken. Then a policeman came, and they all ran away."

"That was quite as it should be," said Hilary. "And what did you do?"

Perceiving that she had not as yet made much effect, the little model cast down her eyes.

"I shouldn't have been frightened if you had been there!"

"Heavens!" muttered Hilary. "Mr. Stone is far more valiant than I."

"I don't think he is," she replied stubbornly, and again looked up at him.

"Well, good-night!" said Hilary hastily. "You must run off...."

That same evening, driving with his wife back from a long, dull dinner, Hilary began:

"I've something to say to you."

An ironic "Yes?" came from the other corner of the cab.

"There is some trouble with the little model."

"Really!"

"This man Hughs has become infatuated with her. He has even said, I believe, that he was coming to see you."

"What about?"

"Me."

"And what is he going to say about you?"

"I don't know; some vulgar gossip--nothing true."

There was a silence, and in the darkness Hilary moistened his dry lips.

Bianca spoke: "May I ask how you knew of this?"

"Cecilia told me."

A curious noise, like a little strangled laugh, fell on Hilary's ears.

"I am very sorry," he muttered.

Presently Bianca said:

"It was good of you to tell me, considering that we go our own ways. What made you?"

"I thought it right."

"And--of course, the man might have come to me!"

"That you need not have said."

"One does not always say what one ought."

"I have made the child a present of some clothes which she badly needed. So far as I know, that's all I've done!"

"Of course!"

This wonderful "of course" acted on Hilary like a tonic. He said dryly:

"What do you wish me to do?"

"I?" No gust of the east wind, making the young leaves curl and shiver, the gas jets flare and die down in their lamps, could so have nipped the flower of amity. Through Hilary's mind flashed Stephen's almost imploring words: "Oh, I wouldn't go to her! Women are so funny!"

He looked round. A blue gauze scarf was wrapped over his wife's dark head. There, in her corner, as far away from him as she could get, she was smiling. For a moment Hilary had the sensation of being stiffed by fold on fold of that blue gauze scarf, as if he were doomed to drive for ever, suffocated, by the side of this woman who had killed his love for her.

"You will do what you like, of course," she said suddenly.

A desire to laugh seized Hilary. "What do you wish me to do?" "You will do what you like, of course!" Could civilised restraint and tolerance go further?

"B." he said, with an effort, "the wife is jealous. We put the girl into that house--we ought to get her out."

Blanca's reply came slowly.

"From the first," she said, "the girl has been your property; do what you like with her. I shall not meddle."

"I am not in the habit of regarding people as my property."

"No need to tell me that--I have known you twenty years."

Doors sometimes slam in the minds of the mildest and most restrained of men.

"Oh, very well! I have told you; you can see Hughs when he comes--or not, as you like."

"I have seen him."

Hilary smiled.

"Well, was his story very terrible?"

"He told me no story."

"How was that?"

Blanca suddenly sat forward, and threw back the blue scarf, as though she, too, were stifling. In her flushed face her eyes were bright as stars; her lips quivered.

"Is it likely," she said, "that I should listen? That's enough, please, of these people."

Hilary bowed. The cab, bearing them fast home, turned into the last short cut. This narrow street was full of men and women circling round barrows and lighted booths. The sound of coarse talk and laughter floated out into air thick with the reek of paraffin and the scent of frying fish. In every couple of those men and women Hilary seemed to see the Hughs, that other married couple, going home to wedded happiness above the little model's head. The cab turned out of the gay alley.

"Enough, please, of these people!"

That same night, past one o'clock, he was roused from sleep by hearing bolts drawn back. He got up, hastened to the window, and looked out. At first he could distinguish nothing. The moonless night; like a dark bird, had nested in the garden; the sighing of the lilac bushes was the only sound. Then, dimly, just below him, on the steps of the front door, he saw a figure standing.

"Who is that?" he called.

The figure did not move.

"Who are you?" said Hilary again.

The figure raised its face, and by the gleam of his white beard Hilary knew that it was Mr. Stone.

"What is it, sir?" he said. "Can I do anything?"

"No," answered Mr. Stone. "I am listening to the wind. It has visited everyone to-night." And lifting his hand, he pointed out into the darkness.


John Galsworthy