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   Chapter 2 RESENTMENT

The Letter of the Contract By Basil King Characters: 45678

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It was a strange sensation to be free. It was still more strange that it was not a sensation. It was a kind of numbness. She could only feel that she didn't feel. In spite of her repeated silent assertions, "I'm free! I'm free!" any consciousness of change eluded her.

It was true that there had been a moment like a descent into hell, from which she thought she must come up another woman. Aunt Emily and the lawyer had whirled her somewhere in a motor. Veiled as heavily as was consistent with articulation, she had told a tale that seemed abominable, though it was no more than a narrative of the facts. It added to her sense of degradation to learn that one of the cheaper dailies had published a snapshot of her taken as she was re-entering the motor to come away. But even the horror of that moment passed, as something too unreal to be other than a dream, and, except that she and the children were staying with Aunt Emily instead of in their own home, all was as before. All was as before to a disappointing degree-to a degree that maddened her.

It maddened her because it brought no appeasement to that which for more than a year had been her dominating motive-to do something to Chip that would bring home to him a realizing sense of what he had done to her. It was not that she wanted revenge. She was positive as to that. She wanted only to make him understand. Hitherto he hadn't understood. She had seen that in all his letters, right up to the moment when, driven to despair by what seemed to her his moral obtuseness, she had implored him not to write again. It was to help him to understand that which he was either unable or unwilling to understand that she had so resolutely refused to see him-partly that, and partly Aunt Emily. She would have died if it hadn't been for Aunt Emily-died or given in; and the mere thought of giving in frightened her.

It frightened her chiefly because she possessed the capacity to do it. In a way it would be easier to do it than not-easier to do it, and yet impossible to go on with the new situation thus created after it was done. It would mean being back in the old home and resuming the old life; there would be what people called a reconciliation. Chip would be coming and going and whistling tunelessly all over the house. And the awful thing about it would be that he had it in him to be as happy as if this horrible thing had never taken place-happier, doubtless, because it would be behind him. He would not have understood; she would have ceased trying to make him understand; he would have so little seen the significance of his own acts as to feel free to do the same thing all over again.

So the impulse to go back frightened her with a fear that paralyzed her longing. If he had said but once: "Edith, I know I've sinned against you; I know I've made you suffer; I've broken the contract between us; I'm repentant; forgive me," it might have been different. But he had said nothing of the kind. His letters, beseeching though they were, only aggravated her complaint against him. "What else could I do?... The poor thing clung to me.... As far as it affected my devotion to you it might have happened in another phase of creation." That was the amazing part of it, that he should expect her to be content with such an explanation, that he should try to deprive her of a wife's last poor pitiful privilege, a sense of indignity. She was not only to condone what he had done, but as nearly as possible she was to give it her approval.

As to this aspect of the case she might not have been so clear if it hadn't been for Aunt Emily. Aunt Emily was very clear. She was clear and just, without being wholly unsympathetic toward Chip. That is, she pointed out the fact that Chip did no more than most men would do. He was no worse than the average. He might even be a little better. But, according to Aunt Emily, the man didn't live who was worthy of a really good woman's love. It was foolish for a really good woman to put herself at the disadvantage of casting her pearls before-well, Aunt Emily was too much of a lady to say what; it was all the more foolish considering the quantity of feminine tag-rag and bobtail quite good enough to be wives.

Edith couldn't deny that her aunt had kept herself on an enviably high plane of safety. She had her money to herself, and no heartaches. She was respected, admired, and feared. By a little circle of adorers, mostly composed of spinsters younger, poorer, and less advantageously placed than herself, she was even loved. She was far from lonely; she was far from having missed the best things in life. She was traveled, well-read, philanthropic, and broad-minded. She was likewise tall, stately, and dominant, with an early Victorian face to which a mid-Victorian wig, kept in place by a band of plaits around the brow, was not unbecoming. Nevertheless, Aunt Emily was entirely modern, modern with that up-to-date femininity which with regard to men takes its key from the bee's impulse toward the drone, stinging him to death once he has fulfilled his functions.

It was a help to Edith that Aunt Emily could enter into the sufferings entailed by an outraged love without being hampered by the weaknesses inherent in the love itself. She could afford to be detached and impartial bringing to bear on the situation the interest every intelligent person takes in drama. For her participation Edith felt she couldn't be too grateful to a relative on whom she had no urgent claim beyond the fact that she was now her only one. Aunt Emily's clear vision might, indeed, be said to have found the way through a tangle of poignant conditions in which her own poor heart had been able to do nothing but fumble helplessly.

It was a way of sorrows, and there had been no choice but to take it. Chip had to be made to feel. Her whole being had become concentrated on that result. From it she had expected not only realization for him, but assuagement of longing for herself; and the latter hadn't come. She could hardly see that anything had come at all. If it were not for Aunt Emily she wouldn't have perceived that she had won a victory. Chip might realize now; she didn't know; she probably would never know; it was perhaps the impossibility of knowing that left her still unsatisfied. So long as the thing had not yet been done she had enjoyed at least the relief of action. She was challenging Chip, she was defying him; he was making her some sort of response, even when it was made in silence. She was the one and he was the other, and there was an interplay of forces between them. Now all that was broken off; all that had come to an end. She was still the one; but there was no other. Where the other had been there was a blank, an emptiness. Her heart when it cried out to him produced the queer, creepy effect of a man talking to himself-there was no one to hear or to answer. There was a needle but no pole; there was a law of gravitation, but nothing to justify the power of attraction.

She was dazed, lost, which was the reason why in the following autumn she went abroad. She didn't know what else to do. Aunt Emily was rich and kind; but there were limits to hospitality. One had to feel that there was a world beneath one's feet, and Europe seemed to be there for that purpose. Besides, it was easy to travel while the children were so young. The lawyer conveyed to Chip her intention of taking them, and returned with the father's consent. She was not bound to ask for this, but she considered it courteous to do so. If while she did it he chose to take the opportunity to recognize her continued existence by an inquiry or a word-well, then, she said to herself with a sob, it was there for him to make use of. But he didn't take it. He maintained the silence on which he had fallen back ever since her final peremptory letter requesting him not to write to her-she wondered if she had made it more peremptory than she had intended!-and so she sailed away without so much as a gift from him to the children. She could hardly bear to look at the shore of the continent that held him as it faded out of sight, so bitterly she resented what she now called his callousness.

When the cold weather came she established herself at Cap d'Ail, where the lofty perch of the hotel above Monaco and the Mediterranean seemed to lift her into a region of friendly, flowery peace. She enjoyed this as much as she could enjoy anything. No echo of the past reached her here, and it was an unexpected relief to be away from Aunt Emily's bursts of triumph and felicitation. With a book she hardly looked at in her hand she could sit at her window or on the terrace, soothed incomprehensibly by the blue-green sweep of the immemorial sea beside which so many other sad hearts had watched before her own. She felt herself caught into a fellowship that included not only Hagar and Hecuba, but myriads of unremembered women whose tears alone might have filled this vast inland ocean-drawing a comfort that was not wholly morbid from the reflection that there was an end even to the breaking of hearts.

Here in this high, sequestered spot, which nevertheless preserved the mondanités to which she was accustomed, she would gladly have spent the winter alone with her children and their governess had there not arrived at the hotel a woman she had known for many years and who was in a position oddly similar to her own. At school she had been Gertie Cottle. In New York she was Mrs. Harry Scadding. She was now Mrs. G. Cottle Scadding for purposes of exact identification. She also had "freed herself"; she also had had a snapshot in the cheaper dailies; she also traveled with two children. It was impossible for Edith not to meet her and engage in amicable conversations, during which the lady talked freely of her "case," discussing the merits and demerits of her "co-," as though that person had been a kind of partner.

She was a lively young woman, frank and amusing. Moreover, she knew the people who made up Edith's small world, and Edith was lonely. While the two sets of children played together the two mothers sat on the terrace and talked. It was talk in which Edith was chiefly a listener, but a listener who couldn't deny that she was entertained. She was uncomfortable only when discerning compatriots appeared, and with visible nods and smiles rated them as "two of a kind." It was a kind over which she and Chip had smiled and nodded many a time during their wanderings in Europe, never thinking that she herself should ever be classed in the number.

She had been able to take the situation lightly then-this curious situation of the "freed" American wife, with or without children, drifting through Europe, aimless, and generally better off when friendless. But she began to be sorry for the type. Instead of shrinking from Gertie in the presence of the discerning compatriots, as she was at first inclined to do, she made it a point to be seen with her, championing the sisterhood of loneliness. There were moments when this association might not have been discreet; but they were also moments in which-so it seemed to Edith-discretion was not a part of valor. Once or twice she accompanied her friend to Nice; once or twice to Monte Carlo. On each of these occasions she found herself in a gathering of cosmopolitan odds and ends in which she was not at ease; but championship being new to her, she felt obliged to take its bitter with its sweet. That it was mostly bitter gave her additional ground of complaint against Chip. He had driven her to a kind of deterioration, a deterioration she couldn't define, but of which, as of something noxious in the atmosphere, she was conscious during every moment spent in her friend's society.

She grew fanciful with regard to the other Americans in the hotel. She imagined they slighted her, or disapproved of her, or watched her course with misgiving. With a family of good, simple people, who apparently had nothing to strive for with the restlessness which characterized the social fag-ends whom she was now in the habit of meeting, she would have been glad to establish relations; but she never got beyond an occasional bow or smile, generally over some incident connected with the children. Of one man she was afraid. She was afraid of him without knowing why, except that he seemed to watch her rather pityingly. She resented the pity; she resented his watching her at all. And yet....

If he hadn't been a grave man, evidently occupied with grave affairs, her resentment might have become annoyance. In the circumstances it was resentment modified by a little gratitude. She hardly understood her gratitude unless it was for a hint of solicitude in a world where no one seemed to bother about her any more. He did bother about her. She grew sure of that. Not for an instant could she think of the quiet, rather wistful, regard with which she caught him following her or the children as being meant otherwise than kindly.

She had no idea who he was. All she could affirm from distant and somewhat superficial observation was that he was Somebody-Somebody of position, experience, and judgment-Somebody to respect. She thought, too, that he must be Somebody of distinction, partly because he looked it, and partly because he was served by a valet and a secretary scarcely less distinguished than himself. All three were serious men well into the forties. The valet was English, the secretary French, the master American. She would not, however, have taken the last-named for a fellow-countryman if she had not accidentally heard him speak. In regard to externals he was as nearly as possible denationalized. He had evidently lived a long time abroad, though he bore no one country's special stamp. He roused her curiosity, even while the kind of interest in herself which she attributed to him-with what she admitted were the most shadowy of reasons-hurt her pride. It hurt it in a manner to make her the more resolute in going her own way.

Not that it was a really reprehensible way. The worst that could be said of it was that it brought her into contacts and promiscuities from which she should have been kept free. Even so no great harm had been done, especially in the case of a woman with her knowledge of the world. None had been so much as threatened until the arrival on the scene of a young Frenchman, a friend of Mrs. Scadding's. Edith then found it necessary to submit to an introduction with daily, almost hourly, hazards of encounter.

He was a young Frenchman like many hundreds of his kind, who might have been a finished sketch in sepia. Sepia would have done justice to the even tan of his complexion, to the soft-brown of his eyes, of his hair, of his mustache, and rendered the rich chestnut which was oftener than not his choice for clothes. Gertie flirted with him outrageously-there was no other phrase for it. It was the kind of flirting one was obliged to consider innocent, since the alternative would have been too appalling. Edith opted for the innocent construction, lending an abashed countenance to the situation out of loyalty to the sisterhood of loneliness. It was a countenance that grew more abashed whenever, in the process of lending it, her eye met that of the man who had constituted himself, she was convinced, her silent guardian.

Fortunately, Mrs. G. Cottle Scadding took herself off to Italy, the young Frenchman disappearing at the same time. It was a new proof to Edith of the depth of need to which she had come down that she missed them. She missed their frivolity and inconsequentiality because they were the only interests she had. She was thrown back, therefore, on her own desolation and on her memories of Chip.

She made the discovery with some alarm that Chip was becoming to her more and more the center of a group of memories. She was losing him. That is, she was losing him as an actuality; she was losing him as the pivot round which her life had swung, even since her knowledge of his great treason. She was no more appalled by the loss than by the perception of her own volatility.

It was a perception that deepened when, some fortnight after Gertie's departure, the young Frenchman reappeared. "He's come back on my account," was Edith's instant reflection. She was indignant; and yet something else stirred in her that was not indignation, and to which she was afraid to give a name. Perhaps there was no name to give it. As far as she could analyze its elements, they lay in the twin facts that she was still young enough to be attractive to men and to find pleasure in her attractiveness. It was a pleasure that raised its head timidly, apologetically; but it raised it none the less.

It was a new and terrifying thought that Chip might not always be the only man in her life. She had dedicated herself to him so entirely that it was difficult to accept the idea that any part of her might have been held in reserve for future possibilities. That her life should have been blasted was bad enough; but that it should renew its vigor and put forth shoots for a second bloom was frightful. Yet there was the fact that such things happened. Women in her position even married again. She might marry again. She never would-of course! But remarriage was among the potentialities of the new conditions she had achieved. The full comprehension of this liberty filled her with dismay.

Up to the present the knowledge that she possessed it had been theoretic only. The young Frenchman brought home to her the fact that she could act on it if she were ever so inclined. Not that he asked her to do so. He had only reached the point of inviting her to dine with him at Monte Carlo and look in at the gaming afterward. She declined this invitation gently and without rancor toward him; but, in the idiom she used in talking with him, it gave her to think.

It gave her to realize also. The moment was rich in revelations concerning herself. She discovered she was a woman whom a relatively strange man might invite to dine with him alone. She had passed out of the fellowship of Hagar and Hecuba to enter that of Mrs. G. Cottle Scadding. This had happened, she hardly knew how. She discovered, moreover, that now that it had happened, she was scarcely shocked. Somehow it seemed in the nature of things-these curious new things she had created for herself-that she should be invited in this way to Ciro's and that there might be similar incidents to follow. She certainly was not shocked. Deep down in her heart something-was it something feminine? or was it something broadly human?-was secretly shamefully flattered. She couldn't blame the young fellow. She couldn't blame Gertie-very much. She might blame herself for being drawn into Gertie's company, and yet what other course could she have taken? She had known Gertie since they were school-girls. When all was said and done Gertie was as good as she-in whatever met the eye. One divorced woman could hardly draw her skirts away from another. The longer she reflected the more clearly she saw that she couldn't have done anything but what she had done without becoming in her own eyes a hypocrite or a prude, and so she had laid herself open to hearing those words, spoken ever so respectfully, with a sympathy no American could have approached:

"Madame is so lonely. Madame is too much by herself. Wouldn't it distraire Madame to dine to-night, let us say, at Ciro's, or the Hotel de Paris, and look in at the Casino afterward? Madame is always so sad."

The man was too insignificant for her wrath, but not so insignificant that he couldn't be a warning. He was a warning that even if he failed to touch her heart it was by no means certain that another man might not succeed; and not long afterward a man did.

That was Sir Noel Ordway. She had met him almost at once after moving to Cannes. She moved to Cannes practically on the advice of the distinguished stranger who continued to follow her with eyes of brooding concern. That is, what he said amounted to advice. It was, in a measure, to show him that she appreciated an interest in which there was an element that touched her profoundly that she accepted it.

She met him suddenly at one of the many turnings in the long flight of steps that descend from the hotel at Cap d'Ail to the station, and what there is in the way of town. She had never come abruptly face to face with him before. She knew she colored and betrayed a ridiculous self-consciousness. He, on his part, was unruffled and sedate, lifting his hat with the somewhat rigid dignity that characterized all his movements.

"Mrs. Chipman Walker, I think."

She acknowledged the words by a slight inclination. He mentioned his own name, which she knew already.

"I've just been seeing some friends of yours," he went on, calmly, "at Cannes. I've been lunching with the Misses Partridge."

"Oh, they're there?" It was to say something, no matter what, to cover up her absurd confusion that she added, "They're friends of my aunt's."

"I, too, have the pleasure of knowing Miss Winfield, which will perhaps excuse my self-introduction." She answered this by another slight inclination, while he continued: "The Misses Partridge asked me to say that they would be glad to see you, if you could ever make it convenient to go over. They wished me to add that they'd come to see you, but that, unfortunately, neither is quite well enough. You'd find them at the Villa Victoire, on the Route de Fréjus."

She was murmuring something to the effect that she would go at once, when he said in a tone that struck her as significant:

"It's very pleasant at Cannes-more so than here."

She didn't resent this, perhaps because her need was too great. Besides, there was something about him-it might have been the tenderness of a man who himself knew what suffering was-that put him outside the region of resentments. She only said: "Indeed? Why?"

"You'll see that when you go. For one thing, it's further removed from the atmosphere that comes up to us from-down there." He pointed toward Monte Carlo. "In that way it's-healthier."

She knew that as she thanked him and passed on she smiled, and that she did so from lightness of heart. Certainly her heart was less heavy. It was less heavy because of his kindness, because of this indication that some one cared what became of her. She felt so forsaken that almost anybody's kindness would have had the same effect, almost anybody's care for her welfare; and so she came to respond to the appeal of Noel Ordway.

He sat beside her the first Sunday she lunched at the Villa Victoire. The Misses Partridge "knew every one." Of few people in either hemisphere could the expression be used with no more exagger

ation. Possessing little in the way of means, less in that of accomplishments, and nothing at all in the line of looks, they had formed a vast circle of acquaintance, chiefly by a hearty, unaffected interest in each individual personality. No one, however unimportant, was ever forgotten by them. Miss Rosamond, who looked like a coachman, spent her time in correspondence, rounding up absent friends; Miss Gladys, who was thin and angular, coursed whatever neighborhood they happened to be in, getting the nice people to come and see them. For reasons not always clear to the superficial the nice people came and sent others. No two ladies ever received so many letters of introduction, or wrote them. Their Sunday luncheons at Cannes were as famous as their Sunday dinners in New York.

In New York Edith had fought shy of them, mainly because Chip didn't do them justice. He spoke of them flippantly as "those two old flyaways," and would never go to their house. For this reason she herself went rarely, though when she did she got a perception of broad social inclusiveness which Chip could hardly appreciate. It was the only house she knew of in which there were no "sets," and where one met the most interesting people of all walks in life. She often wondered hew the Misses Partridge, with their slight resources, physical and material, accomplished it, envying them somewhat their success. She wondered less, and envied them less, after she had seen them at Cannes.

Miss Rosamond's deep bass voice, the perfect expression of her red face and man-like way of dressing, were the first influence in winning her. "My dear, there's the very hotel for you close beside us, where we could see you all the time. We stay there ourselves when we're opening and closing the villa. Big garden for the children-runs right down to the sea-and nothing but nice people of your own kind."

Edith couldn't help the suspicion that the distinguished stranger at Cap d'Ail had inspired Miss Partridge's solicitude, but neither did she resent this. Miss Gladys accompanied her to the hotel in question, to bring her personal powers to bear on the proprietor, and to help in the selection of rooms, so that next day Edith was able to move over. In this way it happened that on the following Sunday she found herself seated beside Sir Noel Ordway.

The luncheon party was again a collection of cosmopolitan odds and ends-but with a difference. There was a foreign royalty with his morganatic wife, the American wife of an English peer, two or three notable Russians, a French painter of international fame, together with some half-dozen English and Americans of no importance, among whom Edith classed herself and the young Englishman beside her.

Between him and her the friendship ripened rapidly and unexpectedly. It was so unexpectedly that it took her off her guard. It was beyond all the possibilities her imagination could foresee that he should fall in love with her-a woman who had had her tragic experience, of no great beauty, the mother of two children. It was, in fact, through the children that he made his approaches, in as far as he made them intentionally. She judged that he didn't do that, that he was caught unawares, like herself. He had merely expressed a "liking for kids," and offered to take the youngsters for an outing in his motor-car on the following day. The kids were to go with their governess; but when he drove up to the door, and Edith had come out to see them off, it seemed ridiculous that she shouldn't accompany them. Besides, the governess was young and pretty, necessitating an elderly person for purposes of propriety. It was partly, too, in thoughtlessness that Edith yielded to his persuasion and, putting on a thick coat, jumped in with the rest.

He acted as his own chauffeur, and they drove up the new road through the Esterels. Edith sat beside him, and as they talked little she was able to observe him to better effect than on the previous day. She took him to be a year or two younger than herself, tall and slight, with a stoop he had probably acquired at Eton. She had understood from Miss Partridge that he was delicate; and he looked it. The circumstance had kept him from entering the army or going into diplomacy, sending him to the Riviera for his winters. He was blue-eyed and blond, with a ragged mustache too thin to conceal the rather pathetic line of the mouth. A long, thin nose, with an upper lip so short that the flash of teeth was visible even when the mouth was in repose, gave him the appearance of an extremely aristocratic rodent.

The drive was repeated a day or two later, and longer excursions came after that-to St. Raphael, to Valescure, and as far away as Mentone and the Gorges du Loup. Edith couldn't help liking the young man, first for his kindness to the children, and then for himself. For himself she liked him because he was so simple, straightforward, and sincere.

He grew confidential as time went on, telling her of his home, his mother, his sisters, his duties as squire and lord of the manor, and the bore it was to be kept out of a profession and away from England at the very moment of the hunting. He formed the habit of dropping in so frequently to tea with her, in the little sun-pavilion of the hotel, that she fancied the Misses Partridge, who were friends of Lady Ordway's, began to look uneasy. She wondered if they had given the young man all the information concerning her that was his due.

She made up her mind to ask. Once the fact was recognized it would be a safeguard, in that any possibilities of their being other than friends would be out of the way. He gave her the opportunity one afternoon in March by asking where she thought of going after she left Cannes. The children and the governess had had tea with them, but had strolled into the garden. Other occupants of the sun-pavilion had also wandered out among the pansy-beds and the blossoming mimosas. Edith took her time before answering.

"I don't know," she said at last. "It's so hard for me to make plans. You see, there's nothing to hinder me from going to Sweden, Switzerland, or Spain; and when that's the case you're indifferent about going anywhere." She waited a few seconds before saying, "You know about me, don't you?"

"Rather," he said, promptly. "I've known that all along."

The reply was so downright that she was sorry she had raised the subject. He seemed to imply that as far as he was concerned the peculiarities in her situation were of no importance. As she was obliged to say something, she could only express a measure of relief.

"I'm glad of that. I hoped Miss Partridge would tell you."

He startled her by saying, with the bluntness that was curiously, but characteristically, at variance with the hesitations of his general manner:

"You could get married again, couldn't you?"

"Oh no." She blushed helplessly.

"Oh, but you could."

She struggled to keep to the ground of mere discussion. "I could legally; but I never should."

"Why?"

"Oh, for a lot of reasons I can't talk about."

"Then what did you do it for?"

She managed a smile, even if it was a forced and feeble one. She understood what he meant by "it."

"I don't have to explain that, do I?"

"No, I suppose not." She hoped he was going to drop the subject, when he lifted his head to look at her with his rather pathetic blue eyes, "Oh, but I say, you're not serious in thinking you wouldn't, are you?"

"Perfectly serious. I should never look on the matter as admitting discussion."

"Oh, but it does, you know."

"Not for me."

"Well, it might not for you, and yet might for-for other people."

She still forced an unsteady smile. "That's something I don't have to worry about, at any rate. I've given up thinking of other people's opinions."

"I don't mean other people in general-only in particular."

"I don't know any other people-in particular."

"Yes, you do. You know me."

"I only know you-like that." She snapped her fingers so as to give him an idea of the entirely transitory nature of their acquaintance.

"That isn't the way I know you."

"Oh, you don't know me at all. You couldn't. You're too young. I belong to another generation in point of time, and to ages ago in the matter of experience."

"How old are you?"

She told him.

"You're eighteen months older than I; but that's nothing. My mother was four years older than my father-nearer five. That sort of thing often runs in families."

She sprang up. "There's Chippie tramping all over that flower-bed. How can Miss Chesley?"

The negligence of Miss Chesley enabled her to make her escape, and when he rejoined her in the garden he accepted the diversion her ingenuity had found. In a short time he took his leave with no more display of emotion than on previous occasions.

But he left her troubled and shaken. He left her with the feeling that the foundations of life, as she was leading it, were insecure. Where she had thought she was strong and determined she began to see she was weak and irresolute. She began to see herself as a woman with such an instinctive need of protection that sooner or later she would accept it-from some one. If from any one, why not from this man? She liked him; she was sure of his goodness and kindness. He was already fond of the children, and the children of him. Moreover, she could be a mother to him, and he needed mothering, as any one could see. It might not be a romantic marriage, but it could easily be an ideal one, as far as anything ideal still lay within the range of her possibilities. It could be ideal in the sense of a sincere affection both on his side and hers, and a common life for perhaps higher aims than she had lived with Chip.

It would doubtless be the final stage to the process of making Chip understand. She wouldn't marry-she couldn't-without some inner reference to him, without a vital reference to him. If she did marry he would know at last to what he had forced her. He would have forced her to looking to another man for what she should have had from him-and then he would be repentant. Surely he would be repentant then! If he wasn't he would never be. All her efforts would have become in vain. She would feel that for any good she had accomplished she might as well have stayed with him. That thought choked her with its implication of agony escaped-and bliss forfeited.

But it was looking too far ahead. Everything was looking too far ahead. Noel Ordway had not asked her to marry him-and might never do so. She might have scared him off. She hoped she had. That would be simpler. She was not so inexperienced as to be without the knowledge that marriage with him would raise as many difficulties as it would settle-perhaps more. The day came when she had to point that out to him.

But it did not come at once. Nearly a week passed without his return. For Edith it was a week of some disappointment, and a good deal of relief. If she wasn't the happier for his absence, she was more at ease. She could be at ease till the time came for moving on in one direction or another, when she would be oppressed anew with the sense of her helplessness. It became clearer to her that if she married at all it would be to be taken care of.

The question was put formally before her at a moment when she was least expecting it. It was an afternoon late in March when she was struggling along the Boulevard du Midi, in the teeth of a warm west wind. On her left children played in the sands or threw sticks or bruised flowers into the huge breakers to see them rolled shoreward. On her right the palms in the villa gardens bowed their heads eastward, while the mimosas tossed their yellow branches wildly. Before her the Esterels formed a jagged line of indigo flecked with red, above which masses of stormy orange cloud broke along the edges into pink. It was still far from the hour of sunset, though the glamour of sunset was gathering in the air.

She heard his step behind her scarcely an instant before he spoke.

"Oh, I say, Mrs. Walker, I want you to marry me."

The statement was so startling that in spite of all her preparatory discussion with herself, she turned on him tragically. "For God's sake, why?"

"Well, because I'm awfully fond of you, you know."

His expression touched her. There was no mistaking the kindliness in his eyes, or the look of rather wan beseeching in his thin, pinched face. In his golfing suit of Harris tweed he was not an unattractive figure, even if he wasn't handsome.

Again her words had little relation to the things she had thought of beforehand. Her heart was so much with him that she spoke with an emotion she had never shown to him before.

"Even if you are, don't you see, dear friend, that you can't marry me?"

"Oh, but I can, you know."

She looked about her for a refuge where they could talk, finding it in a rough shelter designed for the protection of nurses watching children playing on the sands. It was empty for the moment, except for a tiny, bare-legged girl of three or four crooning over a big doll. Edith led the way. "Come over here." They sat down on a bench hacked with initials and cleanly dirty with sand. The little girl at the other end of the bench rolled her big eyes toward them with indifference, continuing to croon to her doll:

"Dors, mon enfant; dors, dors; ta mère est allée au bal.... Dors, mon enfant, dors; ta mère est au théatre.... Tais-toi; tais-toi; ta mère d?ne au restaurant.... Dors, ma chérie, dors."

Edith plunged into her subject as soon as they were seated and turned toward each other. "Tell me. If you married a divorced woman, wouldn't your whole position in England be-be different?"

"I shouldn't care anything about that."

"That's not what I'm asking you. I'm asking you if there wouldn't be ways in which it would be hard for you?"

The honesty in his eyes pierced her like a pain. "I shouldn't be thinking about that, you know. I should be thinking about you."

"Well, then, aren't there ways in which it would be hard for me?"

"Not any harder than it is now. It's pretty hard, isn't it?"

The tears sprang into her eyes, but she knew she must control herself. "Yes; but it's in the way of the ills I know. The ills I know not of might be worse."

"Oh, well, they wouldn't be that, you know."

"What about your people?" She sprang the question on him suddenly.

"They'd be all right-in time."

The qualification was like a stab. She spoke proudly. "I'm afraid I couldn't wait for that."

"You wouldn't have to wait for anything. They'd jolly well have to put up with what I decided to do. I've got all the say, you know. I'm the head of the family."

"Yes, you might look at it in that way; but you can easily see what it would be to me to enter a family where I wasn't wanted."

"That's a bit strong," he corrected. "They'd want you right enough, once they knew you. It would only be the-the fact of-the-"

She helped him out. "The divorce."

He nodded and finished. "That they'd jib at. Even then-"

"Oh, please don't think I'm blaming them. I should do exactly the same, in their case."

"They're really not half bad, you know," he tried to explain. "Mother's an awfully decent sort, and so is Di. Aggie's a bit cattish. But then she'll soon be married. Fellow named Jenkins, in the Guards. And then," he added, irrelevantly, "you're an American."

"Which is another disadvantage."

"No," he said, with emphasis. "The other way round when it comes to a-a-" He stumbled at the word, but faced it eventually: "When it comes to a divorce, you know."

She looked at him mistily. "No, I don't know. Aren't a divorced Englishwoman and a divorced American in very much the same position?"

He hastened to reassure her. "Oh, Lord, no. Not in England they wouldn't be. A divorced Englishwoman-well, she's in rather a hole, you know; whereas a divorced American woman-that's natural."

"I see," she responded, slowly. "It's not considered quite so bad."

"Oh, not half so bad. One expects an American woman to be divorced-or something."

She couldn't be annoyed with him because he was so honest and ingenuous. She merely said, "So they'd think me the rule rather than the exception."

"They'd just think you were American, and let it go at that. Besides," he continued, earnestly, "when a woman's only been married in America-"

"She's been hardly married at all. Is that what they'd think in England?"

"Well, if they'd ever seen the chap around-But when they haven't, you know-"

"They can't believe in him."

"Oh, I don't say that. But-well, they wouldn't think anything about him."

She shifted her ground slightly. "But you'd think about him, wouldn't you?"

"Me? Why should I?"

"Because I'd married him before I'd married you-for one thing."

"Oh, but I shouldn't go into that, you know. That would be over and done with."

"Would it?"

"Well, wouldn't it?"

She mused silently, while the little girl with the bare legs continued to croon to her doll with a kind of chant:

"Dors, mon enfant, dors.... Ta mère ne reviendra plus ce soir.... Elle d?ne avec le beau monsieur que tu as vu.... Elle te dira bonne nuit demain.... Dors; sois sage-et dors"

"Even if it were over and done with," Edith said at last, "the fact would remain-supposing I married you-that your wife had had a life in which you possessed no share-a very living life, I assure you-and that her memories of that life were perhaps the most vital thing about her."

"Oh, but I say!" he protested. "That's the very reason I'm so fond of you. I can see all that already. I shouldn't interfere with it, you know. It's what makes the difference between you and other women. It's like the difference between-" He sought for a simile. "It's like the difference between a book that's been written and printed, and has something in it, and a silly blank book."

Her eyes filled with tears. "I wonder if you have the least idea of what you're saying?"

He sought for a more effective figure of speech. "If you were walking about your place, and found something wounded, you'd want to take it home and tend it, wouldn't you, till you'd put it to rights again? And the more you tended it the fonder of it you'd be. But you wouldn't stop to ask whether a boy had thrown a stone at it or whether it had been attacked by its mate. You'd let all that alone-and just tend it."

Her tears were coursing freely now beneath her veil. "Is that really the way you feel about me?"

He grew apologetic. "Oh, I don't mean any Good Samaritan business, don't you know? If I could look after you a bit you'd do the same by me. I'm thinking of that, too. Look here," he pursued, confidentially, but coloring; "I'll tell you something, if you won't think me an ass. I could have married two or three girls-oh, more than that!-if I'd wanted to. But I could see what they were after. It wasn't me-not by a long shot. It was the place-Foljambe-it's really quite a decent place, you know-right in the shires-and the hunting. They'd have thought it awful luck to have to clear out of England every year, just when the hunting begins-and stick in this bally hole-or go to Egypt. But you wouldn't." As she said nothing for the minute, he insisted, "Would you, now?"

She shook her head musingly. "No, I shouldn't."

He looked relieved. "Well, that's just it. That's just what I thought." He colored more deeply, with a hectic spot in each cheek. "Life isn't all beer and skittles to me, don't you know-and you'd be the kind of thing I haven't got, don't you know?" He leaned toward her beseechingly. "Do you see now?"

"I think I do. You mean that we'd mutually take care of each other."

"Well, that's what it would amount to-not to say any more about my being so awfully fond of you. You won't forget that."

She smiled through her tears. "Oh no; I'm not likely to forget it. I wish I could tell you-"

But she broke off because she could say no more, struggling to her feet. He agreed to her request that she should have time to think his proposal over, and also that he should let her return alone to the hotel, remaining in the shelter with the crooning child long after she had gone away.

But once she was out in the wind again she found it difficult to give the matter concentrated thought. Much as she had been moved while he talked to her, the emotion seemed to be blown away by the strong air of reality. It was like the crying in which she had sometimes indulged herself at a play, and which left no aftermath of sadness. She could hardly tell what aftermath had been left by Noel Ordway's words; but as far as she could judge it had everything in it to touch her and appeal to her, except the possible. And yet so much that was impossible had happened to her already, who knew but that the next incredible thing would be that she should become mistress of Foljambe Park? Why not? Since the haven was open to her, and Chip had left the poor little craft of her life to toss in a sea too strong for it, why not creep into any refuge that would receive her? She would certainly be driven sooner or later into some such port-then why not into this?

She hurried homeward between the thundering breakers on the one hand and the tossing palms on the other, her mind in a state of storm. In the garden, as she passed toward the hotel, she saw Miss Chesley with the children, but she couldn't stop and speak to them. She hurried. She wanted the protection of her room, of quiet, of the accessories to mental peace. Perhaps when she got these she should be able to think-and decide; so she hurried on.

To avoid the main hall, where people might speak to her, she took the short cut through the sun-pavilion, which would bring her nearer to the stairs. But on throwing open the door she stood still on the threshold with a little soundless gasp. "Oh!"

He came toward her sedately, the glimmer of a smile on the stamped gravity of his face. "I took the liberty of waiting for you. I couldn't bring myself to go back to Cap d'Ail without knowing how you were."

As he held her hand he seemed to bend over her with what she had already described to herself as a brooding concern. She knew she was blushing foolishly and that her knees were trembling under her; and yet, curiously enough, the little craft of her life seemed suddenly to find itself in quiet waters, ranged round by protecting hills. She was confused and sorry and glad and afraid all in one instant. Nothing but the habit of the hostess, which was so strong in her, enabled her to capture a conventional tone and say the obvious thing:

"I'm so glad you waited. Won't you sit down, and let me ring for tea?"

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