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Chapter 29

THORNS AND ROSE PETALS.


He remained stooping and staring up at her, realising the implication
of her words only very slowly.

Then it grew clear to him.

As she saw understanding dawning in his face, she uttered a cry of
consternation. She came forward and sat down upon the little bedroom
chair. She turned to him and began a sentence. "I," she said, and
stopped, with an impatient gesture of her hands. "_Oh_!"

He straightened himself and stood regarding her. The basket of roses
lay overturned between them.

"You thought these came from someone else?" he said, trying to grasp
this inversion of the universe.

She turned her eyes, "I did not know," she panted. "A trap.... Was it
likely--they came from you?"

"You thought they came from someone else," he said.

"Yes," she said, "I did."

"Who?"

"Mr. Baynes."

"That boy!"

"Yes--that boy."

"Well!"

Lewisham looked about him--a man in the presence of the inconceivable.

"You mean to say you have been carrying on with that youngster behind
my back?" he asked.

She opened her lips to speak and had no words to say.

His pallor increased until every tinge of colour had left his face. He
laughed and then set his teeth. Husband and wife looked at one
another.

"I never dreamt," he said in even tones.

He sat down on the bed, thrusting his feet among the scattered roses
with a sort of grim satisfaction. "I never dreamt," he repeated, and
the flimsy basket kicked by his swinging foot hopped indignantly
through the folding doors into the living room and left a trail of
blood-red petals.

They sat for perhaps two minutes, and when he spoke again his voice
was hoarse. He reverted to a former formula. "Look here," he said, and
cleared his throat. "I don't know whether you think I'm going to
stand this, but I'm not."

He looked at her. She sat staring in front of her, making no attempt
to cope with disaster.

"When I say I'm not going to stand it," explained Lewisham, "I don't
mean having a row or anything of that sort. One can quarrel and be
disappointed over--other things--and still go on. But this is a
different thing altogether.

"Of all dreams and illusions!... Think what I have lost in this
accursed marriage. And _now_ ... You don't understand--you won't
understand."

"Nor you," said Ethel, weeping but neither looking at him nor moving
her hands from her lap where they lay helplessly. "_You_ don't
understand."

"I'm beginning to."

He sat in silence gathering force. "In one year," he said, "all my
hopes, all my ambitions have gone. I know I have been cross and
irritable--I know that. I've been pulled two ways. But ... I bought
you these roses."

She looked at the roses, and then at his white face, made an
imperceptible movement towards him, and became impassive again.

"I do think one thing. I have found out you are shallow, you don't
think, you can't feel things that I think and feel. I have been
getting over that. But I did think you were loyal--"

"I _am_ loyal," she cried.

"And you think--Bah!--you poke my roses under the table!"

Another portentous silence. Ethel stirred and he turned his eyes to
watch what she was about to do. She produced her handkerchief and
began to wipe her dry eyes rapidly, first one and then the other. Then
she began sobbing. "I'm ... as loyal as you ... anyhow," she said.

For a moment Lewisham was aghast. Then he perceived he must ignore
that argument.

"I would have stood it--I would have stood anything if you had been
loyal--if I could have been sure of you. I am a fool, I know, but I
would have stood the interruption of my work, the loss of any hope of
a Career, if I had been sure you were loyal. I ... I cared for you a
great deal."

He stopped. He had suddenly perceived the pathetic. He took refuge in
anger.

"And you have deceived me! How long, how much, I don't care. You have
deceived me. And I tell you"--he began to gesticulate--"I'm not so
much your slave and fool as to stand that! No woman shall make me
_that_ sort of fool, whatever else--So far as I am concerned, this
ends things. This ends things. We are married--but I don't care if we
were married five hundred times. I won't stop with a woman who takes
flowers from another man--"

"I _didn't_," said Ethel.

Lewisham gave way to a transport of anger. He caught up a handful of
roses and extended them, trembling. "What's _this_?" he asked. His
finger bled from a thorn, as once it had bled from a blackthorn spray.

"I _didn't_ take them," said Ethel. "I couldn't help it if they were
sent."

"Ugh!" said Lewisham. "But what is the good of argument and denial?
You took them in, you had them. You may have been cunning, but you
have given yourself away. And our life and all this"--he waved an
inclusive hand at Madam Gadow's furniture--"is at an end."

He looked at her and repeated with bitter satisfaction, "At an end."

She glanced at his face, and his expression was remorseless. "I will
not go on living with you," he said, lest there should be any
mistake. "Our life is at an end."

Her eyes went from his face to the scattered roses. She remained
staring at these. She was no longer weeping, and her face, save about
the eyes, was white.

He presented it in another form. "I shall go away."

"We never ought to have married," he reflected. "But ... I never
expected _this_!"

"I didn't know," she cried out, lifting up her voice. "I _didn't_
know. How could _I_ help! _Oh_!"

She stopped and stared at him with hands clenched, her eyes haggard
with despair.

Lewisham remained impenetrably malignant.

"I don't _want_ to know," he said, answering her dumb appeal. "That
settles everything. _That_!" He indicated the scattered flowers. "What
does it matter to me what has happened or hasn't happened? Anyhow--oh!
I don't mind. I'm glad. See? It settles things.

"The sooner we part the better. I shan't stop with you another
night. I shall take my box and my portmanteau into that room and
pack. I shall stop in there to-night, sleep in a chair or _think_. And
to-morrow I shall settle up with Madam Gadow and go. You can go back
... to your cheating."

He stopped for some seconds. She was deadly still. "You wanted to,
and now you may. You wanted to, before I got work. You remember? You
know your place is still open at Lagune's. I don't care. I tell you I
don't care _that_. Not that! You may go your own way--and I shall go
mine. See? And all this rot--this sham of living together when neither
cares for the other--I don't care for you _now_, you know, so you
needn't think it--will be over and done with. As for marriage--I don't
care _that_ for marriage--it can't make a sham and a blunder anything
but a sham.

"It's a sham, and shams have to end, and that's the end of the
matter."

He stood up resolutely. He kicked the scattered roses out of his way
and dived beneath the bed for his portmanteau. Ethel neither spoke
nor moved, but remained watching his movements. For a time the
portmanteau refused to emerge, and he marred his stern resolution by a
half audible "Come here--damn you!" He swung it into the living room
and returned for his box. He proposed to pack in that room.

When he had taken all his personal possessions out of the bedroom, he
closed the folding-doors with an air of finality. He knew from the
sounds that followed that she flung herself upon the bed, and that
filled him with grim satisfaction.

He stood listening for a space, then set about packing
methodically. The first rage of discovery had abated; he knew quite
clearly that he was inflicting grievous punishment, and that gratified
him. There was also indeed a curious pleasure in the determination of
a long and painful period of vague misunderstanding by this unexpected
crisis. He was acutely conscious of the silence on the other side of
the folding-doors, he kept up a succession of deliberate little
noises, beat books together and brushed clothes, to intimate the
resolute prosecution of his preparations.

That was about nine o'clock. At eleven he was still busy....

Darkness came suddenly upon him. It was Madam Gadow's economical habit
to turn off all her gas at that hour unless she chanced to be
entertaining friends.

He felt in his pocket for matches and he had none. He whispered
curses. Against such emergencies he had bought a brass lamp and in the
bedroom there were candles. Ethel had a candle alight, he could see
the bright yellow line that appeared between the folding doors. He
felt his way presently towards the mantel, receiving a blow in the
ribs from a chair on the way, and went carefully amidst Madam Gadow's
once amusing ornaments.

There were no matches on the mantel. Going to the chest of drawers he
almost fell over his open portmanteau. He had a silent ecstasy of
rage. Then he kicked against the basket in which the roses had
come. He could find no matches on the chest of drawers.

Ethel must have the matches in the bedroom, but that was absolutely
impossible. He might even have to ask her for them, for at times she
pocketed matches.... There was nothing for it but to stop
packing. Not a sound came from the other room.

He decided he would sit down in the armchair and go to sleep. He crept
very carefully to the chair and sat down. Another interval of
listening and he closed his eyes and composed himself for slumber.

He began to think over his plans for the morrow. He imagined the scene
with Madam Gadow, and then his departure to find bachelor lodgings
once more. He debated in what direction he should go to get, suitable
lodgings. Possible difficulties with his luggage, possible annoyances
of the search loomed gigantic. He felt greatly irritated at these
minor difficulties. He wondered if Ethel also was packing. What
particularly would she do? He listened, but he could hear nothing.
She was very still. She was really very still! What could she be
doing? He forgot the bothers of the morrow in this new interest.
Presently he rose very softly and listened. Then he sat down again
impatiently. He tried to dismiss his curiosity about the silence by
recapitulating the story of his wrongs.

He had some difficulty in fixing his mind upon this theme, but
presently his memories were flowing freely. Only it was not wrongs
now that he could recall. He was pestered by an absurd idea that he
had again behaved unjustly to Ethel, that he had been headlong and
malignant. He made strenuous efforts to recover his first heat of
jealousy--in vain. Her remark that she had been as loyal as he, became
an obstinate headline in his mind. Something arose within him that
insisted upon Ethel's possible fate if he should leave her. What
particularly would she do? He knew how much her character leant upon
his, Good Heavens! What might she not do?

By an effort he succeeded in fixing his mind on Baynes. That helped
him back to the harsher footing. However hard things might be for her
she deserved them. She deserved them!

Yet presently he slipped again, slipped back to the remorse and
regrets of the morning time. He clutched at Baynes as a drowning man
clutches at a rope, and recovered himself. For a time he meditated on
Baynes. He had never seen the poet, so his imagination had scope. It
appeared to him as an exasperating obstacle to a tragic avenging of
his honour that Baynes was a mere boy--possibly even younger than
himself.

The question, "What will become of Ethel?" rose to the surface
again. He struggled against its possibilities. No! That was not it!
That was her affair.

He felt inexorably kept to the path he had chosen, for all the waning
of his rage. He had put his hand to the plough. "If you condone this,"
he told himself, "you might condone anything. There are things one
_must_ not stand." He tried to keep to that point of view--assuming
for the most part out of his imagination what it was he was not
standing. A dim sense came to him of how much he was assuming. At any
rate she must have flirted!... He resisted this reviving perception of
justice as though it was some unspeakably disgraceful craving. He
tried to imagine her with Baynes.

He determined he would go to sleep.

But his was a waking weariness. He tried counting. He tried to
distract his thoughts from her by going over the atomic weights of the
elements....

He shivered, and realised that he was cold and sitting cramped on an
uncomfortable horsehair chair. He had dozed. He glanced for the yellow
line between the folding doors. It was still there, but it seemed to
quiver. He judged the candle must be flaring. He wondered why
everything was so still.

Now why should he suddenly feel afraid?

He sat for a long time trying to hear some movement, his head craning
forward in the darkness.

A grotesque idea came into his head that all that had happened a very
long time ago. He dismissed that. He contested an unreasonable
persuasion that some irrevocable thing had passed. But why was
everything so still?

He was invaded by a prevision of unendurable calamity.

Presently he rose and crept very slowly, and with infinite precautions
against noise, towards the folding doors. He stood listening with his
ear near the yellow chink.

He could hear nothing, not even the measured breathing of a sleeper.

He perceived that the doors were not shut, but slightly ajar. He
pushed against the inner one very gently and opened it silently. Still
there was no sound of Ethel. He opened the door still wider and
peered into the room. The candle had burnt down and was flaring in
its socket. Ethel was lying half undressed upon the bed, and in her
hand and close to her face was a rose.

He stood watching her, fearing to move. He listened hard and his face
was very white. Even now he could not hear her breathing.

After all, it was probably all right. She was just asleep. He would
slip back before she woke. If she found him--

He looked at her again. There was something in her face--

He came nearer, no longer heeding the sounds he made. He bent over
her. Even now she did not seem to breathe.

He saw that her eyelashes were still wet, the pillow by her cheek was
wet. Her white, tear-stained face hurt him....

She was intolerably pitiful to him. He forgot everything but that and
how he had wounded her that day. And then she stirred and murmured
indistinctly a foolish name she had given him.

He forgot that they were going to part for ever. He felt nothing but a
great joy that she could stir and speak. His jealousy flashed out of
being. He dropped upon his knees.

"Dear," he whispered, "Is it all right? I ... I could not hear you
breathing. I could not hear you breathing."

She started and was awake.

"I was in the other room," said Lewisham in a voice full of
emotion. "Everything was so quiet, I was afraid--I did not know what
had happened. Dear--Ethel dear. Is it all right?"

She sat up quickly and scrutinised his face. "Oh! let me tell you,"
she wailed. "Do let me tell you. It's nothing. It's nothing. You
wouldn't hear me. You wouldn't hear me. It wasn't fair--before you had
heard me...."

His arms tightened about her. "Dear," he said, "I knew it was
nothing. I knew. I knew."

She spoke in sobbing sentences. "It was so simple. Mr. Baynes
... something in his manner ... I knew he might be silly ... Only I
did so want to help you." She paused. Just for one instant she saw
one untenable indiscretion as it were in a lightning flash. A chance
meeting it was, a "silly" thing or so said, a panic, retreat. She
would have told it--had she known how. But she could not do it. She
hesitated. She abolished it--untold. She went on: "And then, I thought
he had sent the roses and I was frightened ... I was frightened."

"Dear one," said Lewisham. "Dear one! I have been cruel to you. I have
been unjust. I understand. I do understand. Forgive me.
Dearest--forgive me."

"I did so want to do something for you. It was all I could do--that
little money. And then you were angry. I thought you didn't love me
any more because I did not understand your work.... And that Miss
Heydinger--Oh! it was hard."

"Dear one," said Lewisham, "I do not care your little finger for Miss
Heydinger."

"I know how I hamper you. But if you will help me. Oh! I would work, I
would study. I would do all I could to understand."

"Dear," whispered Lewisham. "_Dear_"

"And to have _her_--"

"Dear," he vowed, "I have been a brute. I will end all that. I will
end all that."

He took her suddenly into his arms and kissed her.

"Oh, I _know_ I'm stupid," she said.

"You're not. It's I have been stupid. I have been unkind,
unreasonable. All to-day--... I've been thinking about it. Dear! I
don't care for anything--It's _you_. If I have you nothing else
matters ... Only I get hurried and cross. It's the work and being
poor. Dear one, we _must_ hold to each other. All to-day--It's been
dreadful...."

He stopped. They sat clinging to one another.

"I do love you," she said presently with her arms about him. "Oh! I
do--_do_--love you."

He drew her closer to him.

He kissed her neck. She pressed him to her.

Their lips met.

The expiring candle streamed up into a tall flame, flickered, and was
suddenly extinguished. The air was heavy with the scent of roses.

H.G. Wells