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   Chapter 24 No.24

This Freedom By A. S. M. Hutchinson Characters: 18887

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


It has been said of Time, earlier in these pages, the cloak-and-dagger sort he is, that stalks and pounces. One seeks only to record him when he thus assails, and there is this result; that it is necessary to pare away so much. In instance, there's to be inserted now a note on Rosalie's advance in her career. It's cut to nothing. This is because all that career ultimately was known to her never to have really mattered. And so with other things. That girl, all through, pressing so strong ahead, rises to the eye not cumbered with other importance than her own. There might be asked for (by a reader) presentation of Harry's parents; of what was doing all this time to her own parents in the rectory, to Harold, Robert, Flora, Hilda; of friends that Rosalie and Harry had. That girl's passage is not traced in such. Whose is? The chart where such are marked is just a common public print, stamped for the public eye. They're not set down upon that secret chart all carry in the cabin of their soul, and there, in that so hidden and inviolable stateroom, poring over it by the uncertain swinging lamp of conscience, prick out their way.

Her installation in the bank had been a notable success. She dealt with all the insurance advice and with income-tax advice and business; and it was remarkable to her, at first, how many of Field's clients were as children in the mysteries of income tax, and as children alike in their ignorance of the possibilities of life insurance and in their pleasure at the discoveries she set before them. But further than this (and more important, said Mr. Sturgiss and Mr. Field) was the quick response of the clients to the various domestic advice that it was Rosalie's business to give. Husbands and wives from the East, or returned thither from London and writing from the East, consulted her on innumerable matters. When, in instance, an army officer wrote to her from India, very diffidently wondering if she could help him in the matter of some Christmas presents for his wife and children at home, Mr. Sturgiss was uncommonly pleased.

"I knew it!" said Mr. Sturgiss. "That's the kind of thing. You watch how side-lines like that will develop. That's what these people want-some one at home they can rely on. I tell you, Mrs. Occleve, you, that is to say your department of Field's, is what the Anglo-Eastern has been wanting ever since Clive and Warren Hastings went out-a link with home. You see."

She did see. Mr. Field saw. The clients saw. The friends of the clients saw-and became clients.

All of her position reposed, and was developed by her, on the cruel disabilities of those who earn their bread in the East. For all such, married, comes, in time, the sad and the costly business of the divided home,-the two establishments, the sundering of children and parents, of husband and wife. By the age of seven at latest, the children have to be sent home for health and education. Then the sundering, the losing of touch, the compulsion upon the man, that those at home may be promptly supported, to deny himself year after year the longed-for visit home. The losing of touch.... Invaluable to them to have in Field's, in "that Mrs. Occleve" a link, known personally or by reputation, that was useable as relations (capricious, "touchy," interfering) often are not useable; and dependable as relations, unpractical, certainly are not always dependable. Invaluable to the clients; declared by Mr. Field and by Mr. Sturgiss to be invaluable to the bank; absorbing and splendid to Rosalie. "And still," Mr. Sturgiss was always saying, "still capable of much bigger development."

He sketched one day a development that would be a stride indeed. It began to be discussed by the three. It connoted so absolute a recognition of Rosalie's worth that she decided-lest it should fall through-she would not mention it to Harry till either it was fallen through or was afoot. Then!

It made her busy. She told Harry once, when they'd been talking of how much at office she was kept, of her work, and of the place she was making for herself, "Well, it's not bad, Harry," she told him. "It's not bad. I'll admit that. What pleases me is that it's only a beginning; well as it's going, and long as I've now been at it, only a beginning. I can't, as I've often said to you, be doing all this without getting a long insight into the actual banking business. Oh, don't you remember my telling you about that appalling evening when I told poor Uncle Pyke that I wanted to be a banker? How outraged he was! Poor person, how rightly outraged! The ridiculous notion that I ever could be a banker! A grotesque dream!" She gave a small laugh as if tenderly smiling at image before her of that innocent, eager girl at the Pyke Pounce table. She said softly, "A grotesque dream. Now, with patent limitations-not a dream."

It was like that that Time (disguised as triumph) kept out of the way; and similarly disguised, showed no sign either on the children's side. All splendid there! Growing up! Huggo set to school!

Huggo learnt with Miss Prescott till he was nine, then attended daily a first-rate school for little boys in Kensington, at eleven started as a boarder at a preparatory school for Tidborough. Next he was to go to the great public school itself, afterwards to Oxford and the Bar. All's well! Time had nothing at all to say during the first two stages of the programme. It was in Huggo's first holidays from the preparatory school that Time whipped out his blade and pounced.

On a day that was a week before the end of that holidays the great new scheme for Rosalie at Field's rose to its feet and walked. It was a special mission on behalf of the bank.

It necessitated.. . .

She came once or twice to a bit of a stop like that while waiting their evening talk together in which she should tell Harry. It necessitated a departure from the established order of things; but what of that? Was not the way bill of her life all departures from things established, and all successful, and were not all contingencies of this particular departure fully insured against? She very easily cantered on, on this rein. That bit of a stop was scarcely a check in the progression of her thoughts.

Seated with Harry in Harry's room that night she was about to tell him her great news when, "I'd an unusual offer made to me today," said Harry.

Almost the very words herself had been about to use!

"Why so had I to me!" she cried.

They both laughed. "Tell on," said Harry.

"No, you. Yours first."

"Toss you," cried Harry; and spun a coin and lost and went ahead: "Well, mine doesn't exactly shake the foundations of the world with excitement because I refused it. It was to go out to defend in a big murder case in Singapore!"

She exclaimed, "In Singapore!"

"Yes, Singapore. Why do you say it like that?"

She did not answer.

The prisoner, Harry went on, was a wealthy trader, immensely wealthy, and immensely detested, it appeared, by the European settlement; had native blood in his veins; was charged with poisoning an Englishman with whose wife he was supposed to have been carrying on an amour. "A wretched, unsavoury business," said Harry, and went on to say that, though the fee offered was extraordinarily handsome, he had declined the proposal. It was doubtful he would actually make more money over it than in his normal round at home, more than that it went against the grain to be defending a man of native origins who had pretty obviously seduced a white woman if not murdered her husband. "No, no ticket to Singapore for me, thanks," said Harry.

Rosalie turned to him with a sudden, direct interest. "Harry, suppose you had accepted, how long would you have been away?"

"Not less than six months in all. Certainly not less. That's another point against-"

"Yes, against the idea, because in any case you don't want to go. But suppose the circumstances had been different; suppose it was a case that for various reasons very much attracted you; would you have gone?"

Harry said indifferently, "Oh, no doubt, no doubt."

"Although it would have taken you from home six months-or more? You'd not have minded that?"

He laughed delightedly. "Ah, ha! I was beginning to wonder what you were driving at. You're a regular lawyer, Rosalie; you led me on and then caught me out properly."

His amusement was not reflected by her. She said with a certain insistence, "But you wouldn't have minded?"

He laughed again. "The judge ruled that the question was admissible and must be answered. Well, minded-I'd have minded, of course, very much in a way. I'm a home bird. I'd have hated being away the best part of a year. But there you are. If the call was strong enough, there you are; it would have been business."

She indrew a long breath. "That's it. It would have been business."

There was then a pause.

Harry, who had been talking lightly, then said slowly, "Rosalie, is there something behind this?"

She turned towards him with a very nice smile. "Harry, I've been doing a very shocking thing. I've been making you commit yourself."

"Commit myself?"

She nodded. "Been taking down your statement without warning you that it may be used in evidence against you."

He said gravely, "Somehow I don't like this."

She told him, "Ah, stupid me! I'm making a small thing seem big. Listen, Harry. It was curious to me this about

you and Singapore-"

"Yes, I noticed that. Why?"

"Because there's an idea of my going out to Singapore."

He was astounded. She might have said to Mars. "You? To Singapore?"

"To the East generally. To Bombay, to Rangoon, to Singapore. For about a year."

He was all aback. "For about a year? Rosalie, I can't-Why on earth-?"

She did not like this. The great scheme! Her special mission! It necessitated.... Here was the necessity at which she had checked but confidently ridden on, and Harry was pulled right up by it. His astonishment was not comfortable to her. Was there to be a check then? He said again, "You? A year? But, Rosalie, what on earth-"

She pronounced a single word, his own word:

"Business."

He was standing before her on the hearthrug. He made a turn and at once turned back. "Are you thinking of this seriously?"

"Most seriously."

"Of going?"

"Of going. It's business."

"For a year?"

"Harry, yes."

He began to fill his pipe with very slow movements of his fingers, his eyes bent down upon her. "And you called this-just now-a small thing?"

She said with a sudden eagerness, "Harry, it's a very big thing for me, for Field's. I meant a small thing in the sense not to be made a fuss about."

He made very slowly a negative movement with his head. "I don't see it like that."

"Let me tell you, Harry."

She told him how the great possibilities of the department she had established in the bank rested on the personal touch established between herself and the clients. The scheme was that those possibilities should be developed to their fullest extent. While she was in London that personal touch could be established with clients by dozens. If she visited the branches in the East, at Bombay, at Rangoon, at Singapore, it was by hundreds that the touch could be established. That was it. Field's customers would talk to her, and when she was returned they would talk of her, and would tell others of her, as one met, not during the jolly freedom of leave when the impulse was to feel that, after all, nothing mattered much, but met out there when they were in the yoke and the harness of the thing,-met as one fresh out from home in their particular interests and shortly, charged with their special interests, returning home. That was it! A novel mission, a valuable mission, her mission. About a year. To start in about six weeks. "There, Harry, that's the plan."

"And you are going?"

"I have agreed to go."

He said slowly, "It astonishes me."

There was then a pause.

She spoke. "I think I do not like your astonishment, Harry."

"It is justified."

"No, no; not justified. When you told me of a possibility of Singapore for you I was not astonished. I made no difficulty."

"Different," he said. "Different."

"Not different, Harry. The same. How different? If you could go, I can go. The same. Aren't things with us always the same?"

He shook his head. "Not this. If I had to go-"

"Yes, yes. It's the point. If you had to go you'd have to go. Well, I have to go."

"Rosalie, if I had to go I could go. A man can."

She cried, "But, Harry, that-This isn't us talking at all. You mean a man can leave his home because his home can go on without him. But our home-it's just the same for me in our home. We've made it like that. It runs itself. The kitchen-I don't know when I last gave an order. The children-there's never a word. The thing's organised. I'm an organiser." She laughed, "Dear, that's why they're sending me. Isn't it organised?"

He assented, but with an inflexion on the word "It's-organised."

She did not attend the inflexion. "Well, that's no organisation that can't, in necessity, run by itself. This can. You know, quite well, this will. You know, quite well, that you will not be put about a jot."

"Oh, I know that," he said.

"Well, then. Astonished-why astonished?"

He looked at her. "Let's call it," he said, "the principle of the thing."

Oh, now astonishment between them. Her voice, astounded, had an echo's sound-faint, faint, scarcely to be heard, gone. "The prin-ci-ple!"

This room was lit, then, only by a standard lamp remote from where they were beside the fire. She was in a deep armchair; its partner, Harry's chair, close by. He sat himself on the arm, looking towards her. The firelight made shadows on his face.

She presently murmured, her voice as though that echo, lost, was murmuring back, "Oh, it is I that am astonished now. The principle! It's like a ghost. Harry, how possibly can there come between us the principle?"

His voice was deep, "Are we afraid of it, old girl?"

She put out a hand and touched him and he touched her hand. They were such lovers still. That was the thing about it. There never had been an issue between them, not the smallest; the bloom of their first union never had dissipated, not a rub. But there was in Harry the intention now to take her, and there was in her the apprehension now of being taken, to a new dimension of conversation, not previously trod by them. As they proceeded it was seen not to be light in this place; a place where touch might be lost.

She said, "But to bring up the principle in this! It can't be possible you've changed. It isn't conceivable to me that you have changed. Then how the principle?"

"It is the situation that has changed, Rosalie. It never occurred to me; I never dreamt or imagined that a thing like this could arise."

She moved in her chair. "Oh, this goes deep...."

He put a hand on her shoulder. "We're not afraid."

"But I'm so strong in this. So always certain. In our dear years together so utterly assured. Nothing within the principle could touch me. I am steel everywhere upon the principle. I might hurt you, Harry."

"I'll not be hurt."

"Well, say it, Harry."

He was silent a moment. "There isn't really very much to say. To me it's so clear."

She murmured, "And to me."

He said, "We've made this home-eleven years. It's been ideal. You have combined your work with your-what shall I call it?-with your domestic arrangements-your business with your domesticity-You've done it wonderfully. We've never had to discuss the subject since we agreed upon it."

She murmured, "That is why-agreed."

"Agreed in general. But when you take the home as between a man and a woman, there are bound to be responsibilities which, however much you share, cannot be divided. The woman's are the-the domesticity."

"What are the man's?"

"To maintain the home."

"I share in that."

"Well, grant you do. I do not claim to share the other."

"You are not asked to, Harry."

"No, but, Rosalie, I've the right to ask you to provide the other."

Her murmur said, "Oh, do not let us bring up rights. I am so fixed on rights."

"Rosalie, let's keep the thing square. A man can leave his home; he often has to. I think not so a woman; not a mother; not as you wish now to leave it. It can't, without her, go on-not in the same way."

"Yes, ours. Ours can."

"Not in the same way. You can't take out the woman and leave it the same,-the same for the man, the same for the children. We're married. The married state. With children. Doesn't the whole fabric of the married state rest on the domesticity of woman?"

She murmured, "No, on her resignation, Harry."

As if he had touched something and been burnt he very sharply drew in his breath.

She said, "Ah, you'd be hurt, I told you. Dear, I can't be other than I am on this. Upon her resignation, Harry. Men call it domesticity. That's their fair word for their offence. It's woman's resignation is the fabric of the married state. She lets her home be built upon her back. She resigns everything to carry it. She has to. If she moves it shakes. If she stands upright it crashes. Dear, not ours. I've stood upright all the time. I've proved the fallacy. A woman can stand upright and yet be wife, be mother, make home. Dear, you are not to ask me now-for resignation."

Therein, and through all the passage of this place where the footway was uneven, the light not good, the quality of her voice was low and noteless, sometimes difficult to hear. There is to say it was by that the more assured, as is more purposeful in its suggestion the tide that enters, not upon the gale, but in the calm and steady flow of its own strength.

The quality of Harry's voice was very deep and sometimes halting, as though it were out of much difficulty that he spoke. He said, deeply, "That you stand upright does not discharge you from responsibilities."

She said, "Dear, nor my responsibilities discharge me from my privileges."

There was then a silence.

He spoke, "But I am going to press this, Rosalie. I say, with all admitted, this thing-this 'I could go but you should not go'-is different as between us. I am a man."

She made a movement in her chair. "Ah, let that go. I have a reply to that."

"What reply?"

"I am a woman."

He began-"It's nothing-."

She said, "Oh, painful to give you pain. To me-everything."

He got up from his position beside her and went to his chair and seated himself. He sat on the edge of the chair, bowed forward, his forearms on his knees, his hands clasped; not smoking; his pipe between his fingers, his eyes upon the fire. Once or twice, his hands close to his face, he slightly raised them and with his pipe-stem softly tapped his teeth.

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