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Chapter 39

THE DUEL


Bianca did not see her husband after their return together from the Round Pond. She dined out that evening, and in the morning avoided any interview. When Hilary's luggage was brought down and the cab summoned, she slipped up to take shelter in her room. Presently the sound of his footsteps coming along the passage stopped outside her door. He tapped. She did not answer.

Good-bye would be a mockery! Let him go with the words unsaid! And as though the thought had found its way through the closed door, she heard his footsteps recede again. She saw him presently go out to the cab with his head bent down, saw him stoop and pat Miranda. Hot tears sprang into her eyes. She heard the cab-wheels roll away.

The heart is like the face of an Eastern woman--warm and glowing, behind swathe on swathe of fabric. At each fresh touch from the fingers of Life, some new corner, some hidden curve or angle, comes into view, to be seen last of all perhaps never to be seen by the one who owns them.

When the cab had driven away there came into Bianca's heart a sense of the irreparable, and, mysteriously entwined with that arid ache, a sort of bitter pity: What would happen to this wretched girl now that he was gone? Would she go completely to the bad--till she became one of those poor creatures like the figure in "The Shadow," who stood beneath lampposts in the streets? Out of this speculation, which was bitter as the taste of aloes, there came to her a craving for some palliative, some sweetness, some expression of that instinct of fellow-feeling deep in each human breast, however disharmonic. But even with that craving was mingled the itch to justify herself, and prove that she could rise above jealousy.

She made her way to the little model's lodging.

A child admitted her into the bleak passage that served for hall. The strange medley of emotions passing through Bianca's breast while she stood outside the girl's door did not show in her face, which wore its customary restrained, half-mocking look.

The little model's voice faintly said: "Come in."

The room was in disorder, as though soon to be deserted. A closed and corded trunk stood in the centre of the floor; the bed, stripped of clothing, lay disclosed in all the barrenness of discoloured ticking. The china utensils of the washstand were turned head downwards. Beside that washstand the little model, with her hat on--the hat with the purplish-pink roses and the little peacock's feather-stood in the struck, shrinking attitude of one who, coming forward in the expectation of a kiss, has received a blow.

"You are leaving here, then?" Bianca said quietly.

"Yes," the girl murmured.

"Don't you like this part? Is it too far from your work?"

Again the little model whispered: "Yes."

Bianca's eyes travelled slowly over the blue beflowered walls and rust-red doors; through the dusty closeness of this dismantled room a rank scent of musk and violets rose, as though a cheap essence had been scattered as libation. A small empty scent-bottle stood on the shabby looking-glass.

"Have you found new lodgings?"

The little model edged closer to the window. A stealthy watchfulness was creeping into her shrinking, dazed face.

She shook her head.

"I don't know where I'm going."

Obeying a sudden impulse to see more clearly, Bianca lifted her veil. "I came to tell you," she said, "that I shall always be ready to help you."

The girl did not answer, but suddenly through her black lashes she stole a look upward at her visitor. 'Can you,' it seemed to say, 'you--help me? Oh no; I think not!' And, as though she had been stung by that glance, Bianca said with deadly slowness:

"It is my business, of course, entirely, now that Mr. Dallison has gone abroad."

The little model received this saying with a quivering jerk. It might have been an arrow transfixing her white throat. For a moment she seemed almost about to fall, but, gripping the window-sill, held herself erect. Her eyes, like an animal's in pain, darted here, there, everywhere, then rested on her visitor's breast, quite motionless. This stare, which seemed to see nothing, but to be doing, as it were, some fateful calculation, was uncanny. Colour came gradually back into her lips and eyes and cheeks; she seemed to have succeeded in her calculation, to be reviving from that stab.

And suddenly Bianca understood. This was the meaning of the packed trunk, the dismantled room. He was going to take her, after all!

In the turmoil of this discovery two words alone escaped her:

"I see!"

They were enough. The girl's face at once lost all trace of its look of desperate calculation, brightened, became guilty, and from guilty sullen.

The antagonism of all the long past months was now declared between these two--Bianca's pride could no longer conceal, the girl's submissiveness no longer obscure it. They stood like duellists, one on each side of the trunk--that common, brown-Japanned, tin trunk, corded with rope. Bianca looked at it.

"You," she said, "and he? Ha, ha; ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha!"

Against that cruel laughter--more poignant than a hundred homilies on caste, a thousand scornful words--the little model literally could not stand; she sat down in the low chair where she had evidently been sitting to watch the street. But as a taste of blood will infuriate a hound, so her own laughter seemed to bereave Bianca of all restraint.

"What do you imagine he's taking you for, girl? Only out of pity! It's not exactly the emotion to live on in exile. In exile--but that you do not understand!"

The little model staggered to her feet again. Her face had grown painfully red.

"He wants me!" she said.

"Wants you? As he wants his dinner. And when he's eaten it--what then? No, of course he'll never abandon you; his conscience is too tender. But you'll be round his neck--like this!" Bianca raised her arms, looped, and dragged them slowly down, as a mermaid's arms drag at a drowning sailor.

The little model stammered: "I'll do what he tells me! I'll do what he tells me!"

Bianca stood silent, looking at the girl, whose heaving breast and little peacock's feather, whose small round hands twisting in front of her, and scent about her clothes, all seemed an offence.

"And do you suppose that he'll tell you what he wants? Do you imagine he'll have the necessary brutality to get rid of you? He'll think himself bound to keep you till you leave him, as I suppose you will some day!"

The girl dropped her hands. "I'll never leave him--never!" she cried out passionately.

"Then Heaven help him!" said Bianca.

The little model's eyes seemed to lose all pupil, like two chicory flowers that have no dark centres. Through them, all that she was feeling struggled to find an outlet; but, too deep for words, those feelings would not pass her lips, utterly unused to express emotion. She could only stammer:

"I'm not--I'm not--I will---" and press her hands again to her breast.

Bianca's lip curled.

"I see; you imagine yourself capable of sacrifice. Well, you have your chance. Take it!" She pointed to the corded trunk. "Now's your time; you have only to disappear!"

The little model shrank back against the windowsill. "He wants me!" she muttered. "I know he wants me."

Bianca bit her lips till the blood came.

"Your idea of sacrifice," she said, "is perfect! If you went now, in a month's time he'd never think of you again."

The girl gulped. There was something so pitiful in the movements of her hands that Bianca turned away. She stood for several seconds staring at the door, then, turning round again, said:

"Well?"

But the girl's whole face had changed. All tear-stained, indeed, she had already masked it with a sort of immovable stolidity.

Bianca went swiftly up to the trunk.

"You shall!" she said. "Take that thing and go."

The little model did not move.

"So you won't?"

The girl trembled violently all over. She moistened her lips, tried to speak, failed, again moistened them, and this time murmured; "I'll only--I'll only--if he tells me!"

"So you still imagine he will tell you!"

The little model merely repeated: "I won't--won't do anything without he tells me!"

Bianca laughed. "Why, it's like a dog!" she said.

But the girl had turned abruptly to the window. Her lips were parted. She was shrinking, fluttering, trembling at what she saw. She was indeed like a spaniel dog who sees her master coming. Bianca had no need of being told that Hilary was outside. She went into the passage and opened the front door.

He was coming up the steps, his face worn like that of a man in fever, and at the sight of his wife he stood quite still, looking into her face.

Without the quiver of an eyelid, without the faintest trace of emotion, or the slightest sign that she knew him to be there, Bianca passed and slowly walked away.


John Galsworthy