The moment that she had spoken he flung a protective arm about her—his left arm; his right arm was free, and he had turned his face away from her with a jerk and had alert eyes fixed upon the door. His man’s instinct had forced him into the protective attitude of the primeval man when threatened by a sudden danger of another man or another animal. He had not in that second realized the details of the danger that her words had disclosed; his action was automatic—the inherited instinct of the cave-dweller ancestor.

As such its force was felt in every nerve by the woman who was clinging to him.

The silence was broken by the dwindling laughter of the dissolving crowds outside the house, where primeval man was carrying on his courting of primeval woman after the manner of their tribe, among the shrubberies.

“I knew that you would hold me from him,” said Priscilla. “I knew that I need not fear anything with you near me, my man, my man!”

At her words the man, for the first time, was startled. He turned his face toward her, drawing a long breath, and looked into her eyes.

In another moment he gave a laugh.

“Yes,” she said, smiling and nodding her head, interpreting his laugh by the instinct of the forest. “Yes, let anyone try it.”

There was a long interval before his hand fell away from her waist. He felt with that hand for the back of the chair out of which she had risen on his entering the room—his eyes were still upon her face; they were still upon it when his groping had found the chair, and he sat down slowly and cautiously.

“My God, my God!” he whispered, and once again there was silence. He could hear that she was shivering as if with cold. There was more than a hint of chattering teeth.

“Sit down,” he said, after a long pause. “Sit down and tell me what—what has happened.”

She fell shivering into his arms, a dead weight. He thought that she had fainted, but she had strength enough left to reassure him. She was clinging to him and her head was upon his shoulder.

“You will keep me, Jack, you will keep me from him,” she said in a gasping whisper. “I saw him there, I could not be mistaken—and the way he smiled.... But I knew that something like this was in store for us. It would be impossible for such happiness as ours to last. It is always when one has built up one’s happiness bit by bit, brick by brick, a palace—a palace was ours, Jack—a hand is put out and down it topples. That was why I married you in such haste, my darling. I told you, when you asked me, that I was afraid of losing you. But I haven’t lost you, dear; I have you still. I have you still!”

“You have, Priscilla. Whatever else may be doubtful, you may be certain that you have me still. I will not fail you. Oh, what a fool I should be if I let anything—or anyone—come between us! Where should I be without you? What should I be apart from you, darling? I know—I know what I should be because I know what I was before you came into my life. Do you fancy that I would shrink from killing a man who tried to part us? Let him try it!”

Then he started up with such suddenness that he almost seemed to fling her away from him. He stood in the middle of the room with clenched hands, and cursed the wretch who had done his best to wreck her life—who had not been content with what he had done in this way more than a year before, but who had been guilty of this contemptible fraud—pretending that he was dead so that he might return and complete the work that he had begun—the work in which he had been interrupted. He cursed him wildly—madly—his teeth set and his eyes like the eyes of a hungry wolf—worse—infinitely worse. And she sat by, listening to his ravening and glorying in it as the woman of the cave gloried in the anger of her man when he heard the wolves howl in the distance. She knew that her man would fight them and get the better of them. She knew that the man is fiercer than the wolf and forces the wolf to retreat before his anger. Every curse that Jack uttered—and he uttered a good many—added to her love for him. That was what she had come to by the stress of circumstances.

But she knew that when the passion of the wolf in the man had spent itself, the god in the man would take the upper hand. If there had not been a bit of a god in man he would have remained a wolf.

She noted the dwindling of the impromptu Commination

Service which he conducted without the aid of an acolyte. He paced the room for a while and then stopped in front of one of the windows looking out into the sapphire glow of the summer twilight. Before he turned to her the room had become perceptibly darker. She could not see the expression on his face, for his back was to the light, but she knew what it was by the sound of his voice, when he said, “Forgive me, Priscilla; I forgot myself.”

“You did, dear, you forgot yourself; you remembered only me,” she said. “Sit down, Jack, and let us talk it all over. I have recovered from the effects of that first sense of terror that I had. I suppose it was natural that I should be terror-stricken.”

“Terror-stricken! I cannot understand how you managed to restrain yourself for so long. You saw him shortly after we left the station, you said?”

“Yes, I think I must have cried out, but, of course, you could not hear me on account of the cheers.”

“Ah, those cheers! A triumph—a triumphal progress! A joyful welcome home—that ruffian’s smile.... You could not have made a mistake. I don’t suggest so obvious a way out of this trouble. You saw him.”

“I saw him.”

“And yet you were strong enough to bear yourself as if nothing had happened! No woman alive except yourself could have done that, Priscilla. And then—then you were strong enough to tell me all there was to be told. Another woman—any other woman—would have tried to keep it secret, would have paid the fellow his blackmail until his demands became too monstrous, and then—what might happen? Heaven only knows. But you were straight. You did the right thing. You told me—you trusted me.”

“Whom should I trust if not you, my husband?”

He took the hand that she stretched out to him. He kissed it over and over again. But this was not enough for him; he took her into his arms and put his face down to hers.

“You knew that I was not a fool,” he said. “What should I be without you?... And what is to come out of it, Priscilla? Can you see what is to come out of it all?”

“Everything that we think—the worst—the very worst is to come of it,” she said. “I see quite clearly all that is before us—well, perhaps not all, but enough—oh, quite enough for one man and one woman to bear. Oh, Jack, if you were only a little less true, all might be easy. But you would not let me leave you even if I wished.”

“Take that for granted,” said he. “But what is to come of it all? There would be no use buying him off, though I’ve no doubt that that’s what he looks for. The infernal scoundrel! There’s nothing to be bought off. If he were to clear off to-morrow matters would only be the more complicated.”

“Not a step to one side or the other off the straight road must we take,” she cried. “We must begin as we mean to end. No compromise—there must be no thought of compromise. You are married to me and I am married to you, and to you only—I never was married to that man—that is the truth, and nothing shall induce me to deviate from it, Jack.”

“That’s the way to put it—I don’t care a tinker’s curse what anybody says; and take my word for it, a good deal will be said. Oh, I know the cant. I know the high-hand inconsistency of the Church. But we’ll have the sympathy of every man and woman who can think for themselves without the need of a Church handbook on thinking. Yes, I’m pretty sure that we shall have all the minds on our side if we have the ranters and the canters against us. At any rate, whether we have them with us or not, you’ll have me with you and I’ll have you with me. That’s all that matters to us.”

“That’s all that matters to us. Only—oh, Jack, your mother—your poor mother!”

He was silent for a long time.

“Look here, Priscilla,” he said at last; “when a man marries a wife he throws in his lot with her and he should let no consideration of family or friendship come between him and his wife—that’s my creed. But we can still hope that my mother will see with our eyes.”

She shook her head.

“I have no hope in that way,” she said. “She will go away from us when we tell her what we have resolved upon. But she is so good—so full of tenderness and love for us both. Oh, Jack, I would do anything—anything in the world rather than wound her.”

He saw at once that her feeling for his mother would make her relinquish her purpose. He would need to be firm.

“Look here, my girl,” he said; “there is only one course for us to pursue. We have no alternative. You spoke the truth just now when you said that it would not do for us to deviate in the least from the straight track in this business. The moment we do so we’re lost. That’s all I have to say. Change your dress and follow me downstairs. I’m hungry and thirsty. You must be the same. It will not do for us to let ourselves run down just when we most need to keep ourselves up. We’ll have the devil and all his angels to fight with before we’re done with this affair.”

“I don’t mind the devil,” she said, “it’s the angels that I dread—the angels with the haloes of their own embroidering and the self-made wings. Oh, Jack, I wish we could have the angels on our side.”

“That’s a woman’s weak point; she would go any distance to get the patronage of an angel.”

“Do you remember the day when you called me your good angel, Jack? Alas, alas! Jack!”

“I called you that once, my girl, and I’ll call you so again—now. I never felt greater need of you than I do now. I am just starting life, dear, and that is when a chap most needs a good angel to stand by him.”

“And for him to stand by. Oh, Jack, if I hadn’t you to stand by me now I would give up the fight. If I had not married you, where should I be when that wretch came and said, ‘I have come for my wife’? You have saved me from that horror, Jack.”

“I wish I knew how to keep you from the horror that you have to face, my Priscilla.”

“You will learn, Jack, every day you will learn how to do it.”

He gazed at her from the door for some moments, and then went slowly downstairs and into the diningroom. A footman and the butler were in waiting. He sent them away, telling the latter that Mrs. Wingfield was a little knocked up by the attention of the townspeople, and would probably not come downstairs for some time; there was no need for the servants to stay up.

She came down after an interval, and he persuaded her to eat something and to drink a glass of the “cup” which had been prepared in accordance with an old still-room recipe in the Wingfield family.

Afterwards they went out together upon the terrace, and he lit a cigar. They did not talk much, and when they did, it was without even the most distant allusion to the shadow that was hanging over their life. When there had been a long interval of silence between them, they seated themselves on the Madeira chairs, and he told her how on that evening long ago—so very long ago—more than two months ago—he had sat there longing for her to be beside him; how he had put his face down to the cushion thinking what a joy it would be to find her face close to his.

“And now here it has all come to pass,” he said. “This is the very chair and the cushion, and the face I longed for.”

He sat on the edge of her chair and laid a caressing hand upon her hair; but he did not put his face down to hers—he could not have done so, for her face was turned to the cushion; but even then her sobs were not quite smothered. He could feel every throb as his hand lay upon her forehead. He made no attempt to restrain her. He had an intuition—it was a night of instincts—that her tears would do much more to soothe her than it would be in his power to do.

For an hour they remained there, silent in the majestic silence of the summer night. It was without the uttering of a word that she rose and stood in front of him at last. He kissed her quietly on the forehead and she passed into the house through the open glass door, and he was left alone.

He threw himself down on his chair once more, but only remained there for a minute. He sprang to his feet in the impulse of a sudden thought.

He went down by the terrace steps to the shrubberies, walking quickly but stealthily, and moving along among the solid black masses of the clipped boxes and laurels and bay trees. So he had stalked a tiger that he wanted to kill on his last night at Kashmir. He moved stealthily from brake to brake as though he expected to come upon an enemy skulking there. And then he crossed by the fountains and the stone-work of crescent seats and mutilated goddesses and leering satyrs, into the park and on to the avenue that bent away from the country road. He moved toward the entrance gates and the lodge with the same stealth of the animal who is hunting another animal, pausing every now and again among the trees to listen for the sound of footfalls.

He heard the scurrying of a rabbit—the swishing rush of a rat through the long grass, the flap and swoop of a bat hawking for moths—all the familiar sounds of the woodland and the creatures that roam by night, but no other sound did he hear.

“The infernal skunk!” he muttered. “The infernal skunk! He has not even the manliness to claim her—he does not even take enough interest in her to see where she lives—to look up at the light in her window. He lets her go from him, and he will come to-morrow to try on his game of blackmail. I wish I had found him skulking here. That’s what I want—to feel my fingers on his throat—to throttle the soul out of him and send him down to...” and so forth. He completed his sentence and added to it several other phrases, none of which could be said actually to border on the sentimental. He stood there, a naked man among his woods, thirsting for a tussle with the one who was trying to take his woman from him.

It was not until he had returned to the chair of civilization and had begun to think in the strain of fifty thousand years later, that he felt equal to contrasting this wretch’s bearing with that of the sailor man about whom his mother had read to him when he was a boy and she had thought it possible to impart to him a liking for the books that she liked—a sailor named Enoch Arden who had been cast away on a desert island—he had had great hopes of any story, even though written in poetry, which touched upon a man on a desert island. Enoch Arden returned to England to find his wife married to another man and quite happy, and he had been man enough to let her remain so. But Jack had not forgotten how that strong heroic soul had looked through the window of her new house the first thing on reaching the village. Ah, very different from this wretch—this infernal skunk who had preferred boozing in a bar at Framsby and then staggering upstairs at the “White Hart” to his bed. He had a huge contempt for the fellow who wouldn’t come to Overdean Manor Park to be throttled.

But soon his train of thought took another trend. He knew that Priscilla was womanly, though not at all like other women, to whom the conventions of society are the breath of life, and the pronouncement of a Church the voice of God. She had proved to him in many ways—notably in regard to her marrying of him—that she was prepared to act in accordance with her own feeling of right and wrong without pausing to consult with anyone as to whether or not her feeling agreed with accepted conventions or accepted canons. She had refused to be guilty of the hypocrisy of wearing mourning for the man whom she hated; and she had ignored the convention which would have compelled her to allow at least a year to pass before marrying the man whom she loved.

He reflected upon these proofs of her possession of a certain strong-mindedness and strength of character, and both before and after she had come to him as his wife he had many tokens of her superiority to other women in yielding only to the guidance of her own feeling. This being so, it was rather strange that he should now find that his thoughts had a trend in the direction of the question as to whether it might not be possible that, through her desire to please his mother—to prevent people from shaking their heads—she might be led to be untrue to herself—nay, might she not feel that she could only be true to herself by making such a move as would prevent people from saying, as in other circumstances they would be sure to do, that he was to blame in keeping her with him?

That was the direction in which his thoughts went after he had been sitting on his chair under her window for an hour. But another half-hour had passed before there came upon him in a flash a dreadful suggestion, sending him to his feet in a second as though it were a flash of lightning that hurled him out of his chair. He stood there breathing hard, his eyes turned in the direction of her window above him. He remembered how he had looked up to that window on that night in June when his longing had been: “Oh, that I could hear her voice at that window telling me that she is there!”

She was there—up there in that room now, but... He flung away the cigar which he held unlighted between his fingers, and went indoors and up the staircase.

He remained breathing hard with his hand on the handle of her door.

Would he find that that door was locked—locked against him?

He turned the handle.

She had not locked the door.

She was his wife.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook