He reached his rooms at midnight so exhausted that, without waiting to light up, he dropped into a chair. The curtains and blinds had been removed for cleaning, and the tall windows admitted the night's staring gaze. Shelton fixed his eyes on that outside darkness, as one lost man might fix his eyes upon another.
An unaired, dusty odour clung about the room, but, like some God-sent whiff of grass or flowers wafted to one sometimes in the streets, a perfume came to him, the spice from the withered clove carnation still clinging, to his button-hole; and he suddenly awoke from his queer trance. There was a decision to be made. He rose to light a candle; the dust was thick on everything he touched. "Ugh!" he thought, "how wretched!" and the loneliness that had seized him on the stone seat at Holm Oaks the day before returned with fearful force.
On his table, heaped without order, were a pile of bills and circulars. He opened them, tearing at their covers with the random haste of men back from their holidays. A single long envelope was placed apart.
MY DEAR DICK [he read],
I enclose you herewith the revised draft of your marriage settlement. It is now shipshape. Return it before the end of the week, and I will have it engrossed for signature. I go to Scotland next Wednesday for a month; shall be back in good time for your wedding. My love to your mother when you see her.
Shelton smiled and took out the draft.
"This Indenture made the -- day of 190-, between Richard Paramor Shelton--"
He put it down and sank back in his chair, the chair in which the foreign vagrant had been wont to sit on mornings when he came to preach philosophy.
He did not stay there long, but in sheer unhappiness got up, and, taking his candle, roamed about the room, fingering things, and gazing in the mirror at his face, which seemed to him repulsive in its wretchedness. He went at last into the hall and opened the door, to go downstairs again into the street; but the sudden certainty that, in street or house, in town or country, he would have to take his trouble with him, made him shut it to. He felt in the letterbox, drew forth a letter, and with this he went back to the sitting-room.
It was from Antonia. And such was his excitement that he was forced to take three turns between the window and the wall before he could read; then, with a heart beating so that he could hardly hold the paper, he began:
I was wrong to ask you to go away. I see now that it was breaking my promise, and I did n't mean to do that. I don't know why things have come to be so different. You never think as I do about anything.
I had better tell you that that letter of Monsieur Ferrand's to mother was impudent. Of course you did n't know what was in it; but when Professor Brayne was asking you about him at breakfast, I felt that you believed that he was right and we were wrong, and I can't understand it. And then in the afternoon, when that woman hurt her horse, it was all as if you were on her side. How can you feel like that?
I must say this, because I don't think I ought to have asked you to go away, and I want you to believe that I will keep my promise, or I should feel that you and everybody else had a right to condemn me. I was awake all last night, and have a bad headache this morning. I can't write any more. ANTONIA.
His first sensation was a sort of stupefaction of relief that had in it an element of anger. He was reprieved! She would not break her promise; she considered herself bound! In the midst of the exaltation of this thought he smiled, and that smile was strange.
He read it through again, and, like a judge, began to weigh what she had written, her thoughts when she was writing, the facts which had led up to this.
The vagrant's farewell document had done the business. True to his fatal gift of divesting things of clothing, Ferrand had not vanished without showing up his patron in his proper colours; even to Shelton those colours were made plain. Antonia had felt her lover was a traitor. Sounding his heart even in his stress of indecision, Shelton knew that this was true.
"Then in the afternoon, when that woman hurt her horse-" That woman! "It was as if you were on her side!"
He saw too well her mind, its clear rigidity, its intuitive perception of that with which it was not safe to sympathise, its instinct for self-preservation, its spontaneous contempt for those without that instinct. And she had written these words considering herself bound to him--a man of sentiment, of rebellious sympathies, of untidiness of principle! Here was the answer to the question he had asked all day: "How have things come to such a pass?" and he began to feel compassion for her.
Poor child! She could not jilt him; there was something vulgar in the word! Never should it be said that Antonia Dennant had accented him and thrown him over. No lady did these things! They were impossible! At the bottom of his heart he had a queer, unconscious sympathy with, this impossibility.
Once again he read the letter, which seemed now impregnated with fresh meaning, and the anger which had mingled with his first sensation of relief detached itself and grew in force. In that letter there was something tyrannous, a denial of his right to have a separate point of view. It was like a finger pointed at him as an unsound person. In marrying her he would be marrying not only her, but her class--his class. She would be there always to make him look on her and on himself, and all the people that they knew and all the things they did, complacently; she would be there to make him feel himself superior to everyone whose life was cast in other moral moulds. To feel himself superior, not blatantly, not consciously, but with subconscious righteousness.
But his anger, which was like the paroxysm that two days before had made him mutter at the Connoisseur, "I hate your d---d superiority," struck him all at once as impotent and ludicrous. What was the good of being angry? He was on the point of losing her! And the anguish of that thought, reacting on his anger, intensified it threefold. She was so certain of herself, so superior to her emotions, to her natural impulses--superior to her very longing to be free from him. Of that fact, at all events, Shelton had no longer any doubt. It was beyond argument. She did not really love him; she wanted to be free of him!
A photograph hung in his bedroom at Holm Oaks of a group round the hall door; the Honourable Charlotte Penguin, Mrs. Dennant, Lady Bonington, Halidome, Mr. Dennant, and the stained-glass man--all were there; and on the left-hand side, looking straight in front of her, Antonia. Her face in its youthfulness, more than all those others, expressed their point of view: Behind those calm young eyes lay a world of safety and tradition. "I am not as others are," they seemed to say.
And from that photograph Mr. and Mrs. Dennant singled themselves out; he could see their faces as they talked--their faces with a peculiar and uneasy look on them; and he could hear their voices, still decisive, but a little acid, as if they had been quarrelling:
"He 's made a donkey of himself!"
"Ah! it's too distressin'!"
They, too, thought him unsound, and did n't want him; but to save the situation they would be glad to keep him. She did n't want him, but she refused to lose her right to say, "Commoner girls may break their promises; I will not!" He sat down at the table between the candles, covering his face. His grief and anger grew and grew within him. If she would not free herself, the duty was on him! She was ready without love to marry him, as a sacrifice to her ideal of what she ought to be!
But she had n't, after all, the monopoly of pride!
As if she stood before him, he could see the shadows underneath her eyes that he had dreamed of kissing, the eager movements of her lips. For several minutes he remained, not moving hand or limb. Then once more his anger blazed. She was going to sacrifice herself and--him! All his manhood scoffed at such a senseless sacrifice. That was not exactly what he wanted!
He went to the bureau, took a piece of paper and an envelope, and wrote as follows:
There never was, is not, and never would have been any question of being bound between us. I refuse to trade on any such thing. You are absolutely free. Our engagement is at an end by mutual consent.
He sealed it, and, sitting with his hands between his knees, he let his forehead droop lower and lower to the table, till it rested on his marriage settlement. And he had a feeling of relief, like one who drops exhausted at his journey's end.
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