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   Chapter 15 No.15

Tales of the Five Towns By Arnold Bennett Characters: 7629

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The marriage which had begun so dramatically fell into placid routine. Edward fulfilled the prophecy of the doctor. In a week they were able to go to Bournemouth for a few days, and in less than a fortnight he was at the office-the strong man again, confident and ambitious.

After days devoted to finance, he came home in the evenings high-spirited and determined to enjoy himself. His voice was firm and his eye steady when he spoke to his wife; there was no trace of self-consciousness in his demeanour. She admired the masculinity of the brain that could forget by an effort of will. She felt that he trusted her to forget also; that he relied on her common-sense, her characteristic sagacity, to extinguish for ever the memory of an awkward incident. He loved her. He was intensely proud of her. He treated her with every sort of generosity. And in return he expected her to behave like a man.

She loved him. She esteemed him as a wife should. She made a profession of wifehood. He gave his days to finance and his nights to diversion; but her vocation was always with her-she was never off duty. She aimed to please him to the uttermost in everything, to be in all respects the ideal helpmate of a husband who was at once strenuous, fastidious, and wealthy. Elegance and suavity were a religion with her. She was the delight of the eye and of the ear, the soother of groans, the refuge of distress, the uplifter of the heart.

She made new acquaintances for him, and cemented old friendships. Her manner towards his old friends enchanted him; but when they were gone she had a way of making him feel that she was only his. She thought that she was succeeding in her aim. She thought that all these sweet, endless labours-of traffic with dressmakers, milliners, coiffeurs, maids, cooks, and furnishers; of paying and receiving calls; of delicious surprise journeys to the City to bring home the breadwinner; of giving and accepting dinners; of sitting alert and appreciative in theatres and music-halls; of supping in golden restaurants; of being serious, cautionary, submissive, and seductive; of smiles, laughter, and kisses; and of continuous sympathetic responsiveness-she thought that all these labours had attained their object: Edward's complete serenity and satisfaction. She imagined that love and duty had combined successfully to deceive him on one solitary point. She was sure that he was deceived. But she was wrong.

One evening they were at the theatre alone together. It was a musical comedy, and they had a large stage-box. May sat a little behind. After having been darkened for a scenic conjuring trick, the stage was very suddenly thrown into brilliant light. Edward turned with equal suddenness to share his appreciation of the effect with his wife, and the light and his eye caught her unawares. She smiled instantly, but too late; he had seen the expression of her features. For a second she felt as if the whole fabric which she had been building for the last six months had crumbled; but this disturbing idea passed as she recovered herself.

'Let's go home, eh?' he said, at the end of the first act.

'Yes,' she agreed. 'It would be nice to be in early, wouldn't it?'

In the brougham they exchanged the amiable banalities of people who are thoroughly intimate. When they reached the flat, she poured out his whisky-and-potass, and sat on the arm of his particular arm-chair while he sipped it; then she whispered that she was going to bed.

'Wait a bit,' he said; 'I want to talk to you seriously.'

'Dear thing!' she murmured, stroking his coat.

She had not the slightest notion of his purpose.

'You've tried your best, May,' he said bluntly, 'but you've failed. I've suspected it for a long time.'

She flushed, and retired to a sofa, away from the ora

nge electric lamp.

'What do you mean, Edward?' she asked.

'You know very well what I mean, my dear,' he replied. 'What I told you-that night! You've tried to forget it. You've tried to look at me as though you had forgotten it. But you can't do it. It's on your mind. I've noticed it again and again. I noticed it at the theatre to-night. So I said to myself, "I'll have it out with her." And I'm having it out.'

'My dear Ted, I assure you--'

'No, you don't,' he stopped her. 'I wish you did. Now you must just listen. I know exactly what sort of an idiot I was that night as well as you do. But I couldn't help it. I was a fool to tell you. Still, I thought I was dying. I simply had a babbling fit. People are like that. You thought I was dying, too, didn't you?'

'Yes,' she said quietly, 'for a minute or two.'

'Ah! It was that minute or two that did it. Well, I let it out, the rotten little secret. I admit it wasn't on the square, that bit of business. But, on the other hand, it wasn't anything really bad-like cruelty to animals or ruining a girl. Of course, the chap was your father, but, but--. Look here, May, you ought to be able to see that I was exactly the same man after I told you as I was before. You ought to be able to see that. My character wasn't wrecked because I happened to split on myself, like an ass, about that affair. Mind you, I don't blame you. You can't help your feelings. But do you suppose there's a single man on this blessed earth without a secret? I'm not going to grovel before gods or men. I'm not going to pretend I'm so frightfully sorry. I'm sorry in a way. But can't you see--'

'Don't say any more, Ted,' she begged him, fingering her sash. 'I know all that. I know it all, and everything else you can say. Oh, my darling boy! do you think I would look down on you ever so little because of-what you told me? Who am I? I wouldn't care twopence even if--'

'But it's between us all the same,' he broke in. 'You can't get over it.'

'Get over it!' she repeated lamely.

'Can you? Have you?' He pinned her to a direct answer.

She did not flinch.

'No,' she said.

'I thought you would have done,' he remarked, half to himself. 'I thought you would. I thought you were enough a woman of the world for that, May. It isn't as if the confounded thing had made any real difference to your father. The old man died, and--'

'Ted!' she exclaimed, 'I shall have to tell you, after all. It killed him.'

'What killed him? He died of gastritis.'

'He was ill with gastritis, but he died of suicide. It's easy for a gastritis patient to commit suicide. And father did.'

'Why?'

'Oh, ruin, despair! He'd been in difficulties for a long time. He said that selling those shares just one day too soon was the end of it. When he saw them going up day after day, it got on his mind. He said he knew he would never, never have any luck. And then ...'

'You kept it quiet.' He was walking about the room.

'Yes, that was pretty easy.'

'And did your mother know?'

He turned and looked at her.

'Yes, mother knew. It finished her. Oh, Ted!' she burst out, 'if you'd only telegraphed to him the next morning that the shares weren't sold, things might have been quite different.'

'You mean I killed your father-and your mother.'

'No, I don't,' she cried passionately. 'I tell you I don't. You didn't know. But I think of it all, sometimes. And that's why-that's why--'

She sat down again.

'By God, May,' he swore, 'I'm frightfully sorry!'

'I never meant to tell you,' she said, composing herself. 'But, there! things slip out. Good-night.'

She was gone, but in passing him she had timidly caressed his shoulder.

'It's all up,' he said to himself. 'This will always be between us. No one could expect her to forget it.'

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