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Chapter 33

HILARY DEALS WITH THE SITUATION


To understand the conduct of Hilary and Bianca at what "Westminister" would have called this "crisax," not only their feelings as sentient human beings, but their matrimonial philosophy, must be taken into account. By education and environment they belonged to a section of society which had "in those days" abandoned the more old-fashioned views of marriage. Such as composed this section, finding themselves in opposition, not only to the orthodox proprietary creed, but even to their own legal rights, had been driven to an attitude of almost blatant freedom. Like all folk in opposition, they were bound, as a simple matter of principle, to disagree with those in power, to view with a contemptuous resentment that majority which said, "I believe the thing is mine, and mine it shall remain"--a majority which by force of numbers made this creed the law. Unable legally to, be other than the proprietors of wife or husband, as the case might be, they were obliged, even in the most happy unions, to be very careful not to become disgusted with their own position. Their legal status was, as it were, a goad, spurring them on to show their horror of it. They were like children sent to school with trousers that barely reached their knees, aware that they could neither reduce their stature to the proportions of their breeches nor make their breeches grow. They were furnishing an instance of that immemorial "change of form to form" to which Mr. Stone had given the name of Life. In a past age thinkers and dreamers and "artistic pigs" rejecting the forms they found, had given unconscious shape to this marriage law, which, after they had become the wind, had formed itself out of their exiled pictures and thoughts and dreams. And now this particular law in turn was the dried rind, devoid of pips or speculation; and the thinkers and dreamers and "artistic pigs" were again rejecting it, and again themselves in exile.

This exiled faith, this honour amongst thieves, animated a little conversation between Hilary and Bianca on the Tuesday following the night when Mr. Stone sat on his bed to watch the rising moon.

Quietly Bianca said: "I think I shall be going away for a time."

"Wouldn't you rather that I went instead?" "You are wanted; I am not."

That ice-cold, ice-clear remark contained the pith of the whole matter; and Hilary said:

"You are not going at once?"

"At the end of the week, I think."

Noting his eyes fixed on her, she added:

"Yes; we're neither of us looking quite our best."

"I am sorry."

"I know you are."

This had been all. It had been sufficient to bring Hilary once more face to face with the situation.

Its constituent elements remained the same; relative values had much changed. The temptations of St. Anthony were becoming more poignant every hour. He had no "principles" to pit against them: he had merely the inveterate distaste for hurting anybody, and a feeling that if he yielded to his inclination he would be faced ultimately with a worse situation than ever. It was not possible for him to look at the position as Mr. Purcey might have done, if his wife had withdrawn from him and a girl had put herself in his way. Neither hesitation because of the defenceless position of the girl, nor hesitation because of his own future with her, would have troubled Mr. Purcey. He--good man--in his straightforward way, would have only thought about the present--not, indeed, intending to have a future with a young person of that class. Consideration for a wife who had withdrawn from the society of Mr. Purcey would also naturally have been absent from the equation. That Hilary worried over all these questions was the mark of his 'fin de sieclism.' And in the meantime the facts demanded a decision.

He had not spoken to this girl since the day of the baby's funeral, but in that long look from the garden he had in effect said: 'You are drawing me to the only sort of union possible to us!' And she in effect had answered: 'Do what you like with me!'

There were other facts, too, to be reckoned with. Hughs would be released to-morrow; the little model would not stop her visits unless forced to; Mr. Stone could not well do without her; Bianca had in effect declared that she was being driven out of her own house. It was this situation which Hilary, seated beneath the bust of Socrates, turned over and over in his mind. Long and painful reflection brought him back continually to the thought that he himself, and not Bianca, had better go away. He was extremely bitter and contemptuous towards himself that he had not done so long ago. He made use of the names Martin had given him. "Hamlet," "Amateur," "Invertebrate." They gave him, unfortunately, little comfort.

In the afternoon he received a visit. Mr. Stone came in with his osier fruit-bag in his hand. He remained standing, and spoke at once.

"Is my daughter happy?"

At this unexpected question Hilary walked over to the fireplace.

"No," he said at last; "I am afraid she is not."

"Why?"

Hilary was silent; then, facing the old man, he said:

"I think she will be glad, for certain reasons, if I go away for a time."

"When are you going?" asked Mr. Stone.

"As soon as I can."

Mr. Stone's eyes, wistfully bright, seemed trying to see through heavy fog.

"She came to me, I think," he said; "I seem to recollect her crying. You are good to her?"

"I have tried to be," said Hilary.

Mr. Stone's face was discoloured by a flush. "You have no children," he said painfully; "do you live together?"

Hilary shook his head.

"You are estranged?" said Mr. Stone.

Hilary bowed. There was a long silence. Mr. Stone's eyes had travelled to the window.

"Without love there cannot be life," he said at last; and fixing his wistful gaze on Hilary, asked: "Does she love another?"

Again Hilary shook his head.

When Mr. Stone next spoke it was clearly to himself.

"I do not know why I am glad. Do you love another?"

At this question Hilary's eyebrows settled in a frown. "What do you mean by love?" he said.

Mr. Stone did not reply; it was evident that he was reflecting deeply. His lips began to move: "By love I mean the forgetfulness of self. Unions are frequent in which only the sexual instincts, or the remembrance of self, are roused---"

"That is true," muttered Hilary.

Mr. Stone looked up; painful traces of confusion showed in his face.

"We were discussing something."

"I was telling you," said Hilary, "that it would be better for your daughter--if I go away for a time."

"Yes," said Mr. Stone; "you are estranged."

Hilary went back to his stand before the empty fireplace.

"There is one thing, sir," he said, "on my conscience to say before I go, and I must leave it to you to decide. The little girl who comes to you no longer lives where she used to live."

"In that street...." said Mr. Stone.

Hilary went on quickly. "She was obliged to leave because the husband of the woman with whom she used to lodge became infatuated with her. He has been in prison, and comes out tomorrow. If she continues to come here he will, of course, be able to find her. I'm afraid he will pursue her again. Have I made it clear to you?"

"No," said Mr. Stone.

"The man," resumed Hilary patiently, "is a poor, violent creature, who has been wounded in the head; he is not quite responsible. He may do the girl an injury."

"What injury?"

"He has stabbed his wife already."

"I will speak to him," said Mr. Stone.

Hilary smiled. "I am afraid that words will hardly meet the case. She ought to disappear."

There was silence.

"My book!" said Mr. Stone.

It smote Hilary to see how white his face had become. 'It's better,' he thought, 'to bring his will-power into play; she will never come here, anyway, after I'm gone.'

But, unable to bear the tragedy in the old man's eyes, he touched him on the arm.

"Perhaps she will take the risk, sir, if you ask her."

Mr. Stone did not answer, and, not knowing what more to say, Hilary went back to the window. Miranda was slumbering lightly out there in the speckled shade, where it was not too warm and not too cold, her cheek resting on her paw and white teeth showing.

Mr. Stone's voice rose again. "You are right; I cannot ask her to run a risk like that!"

"She is just coming up the garden," Hilary said huskily. "Shall I tell her to come in?"

"Yes," said Mr. Stone.

Hilary beckoned.

The girl came in, carrying a tiny bunch of lilies of the valley; her face fell at sight of Mr. Stone; she stood still, raising the lilies to her breast. Nothing could have been more striking than the change from her look of guttered expectancy to a sort of hard dismay. A spot of red came into both her cheeks. She gazed from Mr. Stone to Hilary and back again. Both were staring at her. No one spoke. The little model's bosom began heaving as though she had been running; she said faintly: "Look; I brought you this, Mr. Stone!" and held out to him the bunch of lilies. But Mr. Stone made no sign. "Don't you like them?"

Mr. Stone's eyes remained fastened on her face.

To Hilary this suspense was, evidently, most distressing. "Come, will you tell her, sir," he said, "or shall I?"

Mr. Stone spoke.

"I shall try and write my book without you. You must not run this risk. I cannot allow it."

The little model turned her eyes from side to side. "But I like to copy out your book," she said.

"The man will injure you," said Mr. Stone.

The little model looked at Hilary.

"I don't care if he does; I'm not afraid of him. I can look after myself; I'm used to it."

"I am going away," said Hilary quietly.

After a desperate look, that seemed to ask, 'Am I going, too?' the little model stood as though frozen.

Wishing to end the painful scene, Hilary went up to Mr. Stone.

"Do you want to dictate to her this afternoon, sir?"

"No," said Mr. Stone.

"Nor to-morrow?"

"Will you come a little walk with me?"

Mr. Stone bowed.

Hilary turned to the little model. "It is goodbye, then," he said.

She did not take his hand. Her eyes, turned sideways, glinted; her teeth were fastened on her lower lip. She dropped the lilies, suddenly looked up at him, gulped, and slunk away. In passing she had smeared the lilies with her foot.

Hilary picked up the fragments of the flowers, and dropped them into the grate. The fragrance of the bruised blossoms remained clinging to the air.

"Shall we get ready for our walk?" he said.

Mr. Stone moved feebly to the door, and very soon they were walking silently towards the Gardens.


John Galsworthy