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   Chapter 28 A L'OUTRANCE.

The Ship of Stars By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 10606

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Lizzie Pezzack had put Joey to bed and was smoothing his coverlet when she heard someone knocking. She passed out into the front room and opened to the visitor.

On the doorstep stood a lady in deep black-Honoria. Beyond the garden wall the lamps of her carriage blazed in the late twilight. The turf had muffled the sound of wheels, but now the jingle of shaken bits came loud through the open door.

"Ah!" said Lizzie, drawing her breath back through her teeth.

"I must speak to you, please. May I come in? I have a question . . ."

Lizzie turned her back, struck a match, and lit a candle. "What question?" she asked with her back turned, her eyes on the flame as it sank, warming the tallow, and grew bright again.

"It's . . . it's a question," Honoria began weakly; then shut the door behind her and advanced into the room. "Turn round and look at me. Ah, you hate me, I know!"

"Yes," Lizzie assented slowly, "I hate you."

"But you must answer me. You see, it isn't for me alone . . . it's not a question of our hating, in a way . . . it concerns others. . . ."

"Yes?"

"But it's cowardly of me to put it so, because it concerns me too.

You don't know-"

"Maybe I do."

"But if you did-" Honoria broke off and then plunged forward desperately. "That child of yours-his father-alone here-by ourselves. . . . Think before you refuse!"

Lizzie set down the candle and eyed her.

"And you," she answered at length, dragging out each word- "you can come here and ask me that question?"

For a moment silence fell between them, and each could hear the other's breathing. Then Honoria drew herself up and faced her honestly, casting out both hands.

"Yes; I had to."

"You! a lady!"

"Ah, but be honest with me! Lady or not, what has that to do with it? We are two women-that's where it all started, and we're kept to that."

Lizzie bent her brows. "Yes, you are right," she admitted.

"And," Honoria pursued eagerly, "if I come here to sue you for the truth-it is you who force me."

"I?"

"By what you said that night, when George-when my husband-was drowned; when you cursed me. 'A son's a son,' you said, 'though he was your man.'"

"Did I say that?" Lizzie seemed to muse over the words. "You have suffered?" she asked.

"Yes, I have suffered."

"Ah, if I thought so! … But you have not. You are a hypocrite, Mrs. Vyell; and you are trying to cheat me now. You come here not to end that suffering, but to force a word from me that'll put joy and hope into you; that you'll go home hugging to your heart. Oh, I know you!"

"You do not."

"I do; because I know myself. From a child I've been dirt to your pride, an item to your money. For years I've lived a shamed woman. But one thing I bought with it-one little thing. Think the price high for it-I dessay it is; but I bought and paid for it-and often when I turn it over in my mind I don't count the price too dear."

"I don't understand."

"You may, if you try. What I bought was the power over you, my proud lady. While I keep tight lips I have you at the end of a chain. You come here to-night to break it; one little word and you'll be free and glad. But no, and no, and no! You may guess till you're tired-you may be sure in your heart; but it's all no good without that little word you'll never get from me."

"You shall speak!"

Lizzie shrugged her shoulders and picked up the candle.

"Simme," she said, "you'd best go back to your carriage and horses. My li'l boy's in the next room, tryin' to sleep; and 'tisn' fit he heard much of this."

She passed resolutely into the bedroom, leaving her visitor to darkness. But Honoria, desperate now, pushed after her, scarcely knowing what she did or meant to do.

"You shall speak!"

The house-door opened and light footsteps came running through the outer room. It was little George, and he pulled at her skirts.

"Mummy, the horses are taking cold!"

But Honoria still advanced. "You shall speak!"

Joey, catching sight of her from the bed, screamed and hid his face. To him she was a thing of horror. From the night when, thrust beneath her eyes, he had cowered by her carriage-step, she had haunted his worst dreams. And now, black-robed and terrible of face, she had come to lay hands on him and carry him straight to hell.

"Mother! Take her away! take her away!"

His screams rang through the room. "Hush, dear!" cried Lizzie, running to him; and laid a hand on his shoulder.

But the child, far too terrified to know whose hand it was, flung himself from her with a wilder scream than any; flung himself all but free of the bed-clothes. As Lizzie caught and tried to hold him the thin night-shirt ripped in her fingers, laying bare the small back from shoulder to buttock.

They were woman to woman now; cast back into savagery and blindly groping for its primitive weapons. Honoria crossed the floor not knowing what she meant to do, or might do. Lizzie sprang to defence against she knew not what. But when her enemy advanced, towering, with a healthy boy dragging at her skirts, she did the one thing she could-turned with a swift cry back upon her own crippled child and caught at the bed-clothes to cover and hide his naked deformity.

While she crouched and shielded him, silence fell on the

room. She had half expected Honoria to strike her; but no blow came, nor any sound. By-and-by she looked up. Honoria had come to a standstill, with rigid eyes. They were fastened on the bed. Then Lizzie understood.

She had covered the child's legs from sight; but not his back-nor the brown mole on it-the large brown mole, ringed like Saturn, set obliquely between the shoulder-blades.

She rose from the bed slowly. Honoria turned on little George with a gesture as if to fling off his velvet jacket. But Lizzie stamped her foot.

"No," she commanded hoarsely; "let be. Mine is a cripple."

"So it is true. . . ." Honoria desisted; but her eyes were wide and still fixed on the bed.

"Yes, it is true. You have all the luck. Mine is a cripple."

Still Honoria stared. Lizzie gulped down something in her throat; but her voice, when she found it again, was still hoarse and strained.

"And now-go! You have learnt what you came for. You have won, because you stop at nothing. But go, before I try to kill you for the joy in your heart!"

"Joy?" Honoria put out a hand toward the bed's foot, to steady herself. It was her turn to be weak.

"Yes-joy." Lizzie stepped between her and the door, pointed a finger at her, and held it pointing. "In your heart you are glad already. Wait, and in a moment I shall see it in your eyes-glad, glad! Yes, your man was worthless, and you are glad. But oh! You bitter fool!"

"Let me go, please."

"Listen a bit; no hurry now. Plenty of time to be glad 'twas only your husband, not the man of your heart. Look at me, and answer- I don't count for much now, do I? Not much to hate in me, now you know the name of my child's father, and that 'tisn' Taffy Raymond!"

"Let me go." But seeing that Lizzie would not, she stopped and kissed her boy. "Run out to the carriage, dear, and say I'll be coming in a minute or two." Little George clung to her wistfully, but her tone meant obedience. Lizzie stepped aside to let him pass out.

"Now," said Honoria, "the next room is best, I think. Lead me there, and I will listen."

"You may go if you like."

"No; I will listen. Between us two there is-there is-"

"That." Lizzie nodded towards the child huddling low in the bed.

"That, and much more. We cannot stop at the point you've reached.

Besides, I have a question to ask."

Lizzie passed before her into the front room, lit two candles and drew down the blind.

"Ask it," she said.

"How did you know that I believed the other-Mr. Raymond-to be-"

She came to a halt.

"I guessed."

"What? From the beginning?"

"No; it was after a long while. And then, all of a sudden, something seemed to make me clever."

"Did you know that, believing it, I had done him a great wrong- injured his life beyond repair?"

"I knew something had happened: that he'd given up being a gentleman and taken to builder's work. I thought maybe you were at the bottom of it. Who was it told you lies about en?"

"Must I answer that?"

"No; no need. George Vyell was a nice fellow; but he was a liar. Couldn't help it, I b'lieve. But a dirty trick like that-well, well!"

Honoria stared at her, confounded. "You never loved my husband?"

And Lizzie laughed-actually laughed; she was so weary. "No more than you did, my dear. Perhaps a little less. Eh, what two fools we are here, fending off the truth! Fools from the start-and now, simme, playing foolish to the end; ay, when all's said and naked atween us. Lev' us quit talkin' of George Vyell. We knawed George Vyell, you and me too; and here we be, left to rear children by en. But the man we hated over wasn' George Vyell."

"Yet if-as you say-you loved him-the other one-why, when you saw his life ruined and guessed the lie that ruined it-when a word could have righted him-if you loved him-"

"Why didn't I speak? Ladies are most dull, somehow; or else you don't try to see. Or else-Wasn't he near me, passing my door ivery day? Oh, I'm ignorant and selfish. But hadn't I got him near? And wouldn't that word have lost him, sent him God knows where-to you perhaps? You-you'd had your chance, and squandered it like a fool. I never had no chance. I courted en, but he wouldn' look at me. He'd have come to your whistle-once. Nothing to hinder but your money. And from what I can see and guess, you piled up that money in his face like a hedge. Oh, I could pity you, now!-for now you'll never have en."

"God pity us both!" said Honoria, going; but she turned at the door. "And after our marriage you took no more thought of my-of George?" The question was an afterthought; she never thought to see it stab as it did. But Lizzie caught at the table edge, held to it swaying over a gulf of hysterics, and answered between a sob and a passing bitter laugh.

"At the last-just to try en. No harm done, as it happened.

You needn' mind. He was worthless anyway."

Honoria stepped back, took her by the elbow as she swayed, and seated her in a chair; and so stood regarding her as a doctor might a patient. After a while she said-

"I think you will do me injustice, but you must believe as you like. I am not glad. I am very far from glad or happy. I doubt if I shall ever be happy again. But I do not hate you as I did."

She went out, closing the door softly.

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