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   Chapter 4 DANGER

The Letter of the Contract By Basil King Characters: 24891

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It was what he had been afraid of on and off for seven years. The wonder was that it hadn't happened before. But, since it had not happened, he had got out of the way of expecting it. The fear of it used to dog him whenever he went to the theater or the opera or out to dine. There had been minutes in Fifth Avenue, or Bond Street, or the Rue de la Paix, as the case might be, when, at the sight of a feather or a scarf or something familiar in a way of walking, his heart and brain seemed to stop their function. He had known himself to stand stock-still, searching wildly for the easy, casual phrases he had prepared-for the purpose of carrying off such a meeting as this, if ever it occurred, only to find that he was mistaken-that it was some one else.

There had been two or three years like that, two or three years in which they had often been in the same city, perhaps under the same roof; but he had never so much as caught a glimpse of her. In the earlier months that had been a relief. He couldn't have seen her and kept his self-control. He could follow the routine of life only by a system he had invented-a system for shutting her out of his thought, that the sight of her would have wrecked.

Then had come another period in which he felt he could have committed infamies just to see her getting in or out of a carriage, or lunching in a restaurant, or buying something in a shop. There were whole seasons when he knew she was in New York from autumn to spring; and, though he haunted all the places where women who keep in the movement are likely to be found, he never saw her.

He knew he could have discovered her plans and followed her; but he wouldn't do that. Besides, he didn't want to meet her in such a way as to be obliged to speak to her. He wouldn't have known what to say, or by what name to call her. Such an encounter would have annoyed her and made him grotesque. It was more than he asked. He would have been satisfied with a glimpse of her gloved hand or her veiled face as she drove in the Park or the Avenue. But he never got it.

After he married, the fear of meeting her came back. It was fear as much for her sake as for his own. He began to understand that the embarrassment wouldn't be all on his side, nor the suffering. He picked that up from the children, as he had picked up so many things, piecing odds and ends of their speeches together. He saw them so rarely now that he attached the greater value to the hints they threw out. He never questioned them about her, but it was natural that they should take a wider range of comment in proportion as they grew older. So he learned that her dread of seeing him was as great as his own of seeing her. It was astonishing that in all those seven years the hazards of New York should not have thrown them together.

And now, at the moment when he might reasonably have felt safest, there she was! That is, she was on the steamer. For seven or eight days they were to be cooped up on the same boat. He could never go on deck or into the saloon without having to pass her. Worse still, she could never go outside her cabin door without the risk of being obliged to make him some sign of recognition. And a sign of recognition between them-why, the thing was absurd! Between them it must be all-or nothing; and it couldn't be either.

He looked at the passenger-list again. Yes; that was her name: Mrs. Theodore Lacon. It was not a name likely to be duplicated. In all human probability it was she. As far as he could gather from the list, she was traveling alone, without so much as the companionship of a maid. He, too, was alone; but, fortunately, his name was inconspicuous: Mr. C. Walker. It was just the sort of name to be overlooked. She might read the list half a dozen times without really seeing it. If she were to notice it, she might easily not reflect that the initial stood for Chipman. It was conceivable that if she didn't actually see him she might not know that he was on the ship at all.

The thought suggested a line of action. He was in his cabin at the time. He could stay there. Looking through the port-hole, he saw that they had not yet passed the Statue of Liberty. While in dock he had kept to his room, in order to read letters and avoid the crowd that throngs the deck of an outgoing steamer. There was every likelihood that she hadn't seen him any more than he had seen her. If he kept himself hidden she might never know! He could avoid the decks by day and take his exercise by night. By night, too, he could creep into the smoking-room and get a little change. But he would stay away from the general gathering-places on the ship and spare her what pain he could. That they should meet as strangers was out of the question. That they should meet as social acquaintances was even more so. They had been all to each other-and they had been nothing. No other relation was possible.

So the week passed, and they reached Liverpool. He was purposely among the last to go ashore. In the great shed where the luggage was distributed under initial letters, he was glad to remember that W was so far from L. Nevertheless, he allowed his eye to roam toward section L, but found no one there whom he recognized. He ran over in his mind the various chances that she might not have come. It was no uncommon thing to read in a list of passengers the names of people who hadn't sailed. He had done so before.

Later he scanned, as discreetly as he could, the occupants of the special train that was to take them to London. He couldn't see that she was anywhere among them. He sighed, but whether from relief or disappointment he was not sure.

As it was one o'clock, he took his seat in the luncheon-car, making sure in advance that she wasn't there. He had come to the conclusion by this time that she was not on the train at all-that she hadn't been on the steamer. He did not, however, regret his precautions, because-well, because the sense of her proximity had made him feel as he had felt in the days-fourteen years ago now-when the very streets of the city in which she lived were hallowed ground. He had supposed that emotion dead. Probably it was dead. It must be dead. It was merely that, owing to the constraint of the voyage, his nerves were unstrung, inducing the frame of mind in which people see ghosts. Yes, that was it; he had been seeing ghosts. It was not a living thing, this renewed yearning for a sight of her. It was only the reflex of something past. It could be explained psychologically. It was the sort of evanescent sentiment inspired by old songs, or by the scent of faded flowers, reviving old joys tenderly, perhaps poignantly, but fleetingly, insubstantially, and only as the wraiths of what they were. Yes, that was it, he repeated to himself as he lunched. It was nothing to be afraid of, nothing incongruous with the fact that he had left a wife and child in New York. It was not an emotion; it was only the echo, the shadow, the memory of an emotion, gone before it could be seized.

And then, suddenly, they were face to face. He was on his way from the luncheon-car to the compartment he shared with two or three men at the other end of the train. She was standing in the corridor, looking out at the vaporous English landscape. Through the mists overlying the flat fields and distant parks trees loomed weirdly, the elms and beeches in full leaf, the oaks just tinged with green. Cottony white clouds drifted overhead; the sun was dimly visible. Now and then a line of hedge was white, or pink and white, with the bursting may.

He didn't recognize the lady who barred his way along the narrow passage. As she stood with one arm on the brass rail that crossed the window he could see an ungloved hand; but it might have been any hand. She wore a long brown coat, rather shapeless, reaching to the hem of her dress, while a large hat, about which a green veil looped and drooped irregularly, entirely concealing the head, helped to make her, as he stood waiting for her to move, a mere feminine figure without personality.

It was the sense that some one desired to pass that caused her to turn slightly, glancing up at him sidewise. Even so, he couldn't see all of her face-not much more than the forehead and the eyes. But the eyes seemed to come alive as he looked down into them, like sapphires under slowly growing light. When she turned, her movements had the deliberation of bewilderment. She might have been just wakened in a place she didn't know.

"Chip!" There was another half-minute of incredulous gazing before she said anything more. "What are you doing here?"

He felt the necessity of explaining his presence. "I was on the boat. I didn't know-"

"That I was on it, too?"

"I-I did know that," he stammered, "after we sailed. Not before. It was the name in the list-"

"But I never saw you. There weren't many passengers. I was always on deck."

Her distress betrayed itself in the trembling of her voice, in the shifting of her color, and in the beating of the ungloved hand upon the gloved one.

He felt his own confusion passing. It was so natural to be with her, so right. His voice grew steadier as he said:

"I didn't go about very much. I was afraid-"

She nodded, speaking hastily. "I understand. It was kind of you. And you're-alone?"

He cursed himself for coloring, but he couldn't help it. He had a wife and child in New York! He saw that she wanted to recognize that fact from the first. She wanted to put that boy and his mother between them. Her husband and child stood between them, too. He took that cue in answering.

"Yes; I've run over hurriedly on business. And are you alone, too?"

She glanced toward the empty compartment where her bags were stowed in the overhead racks, and her books and illustrated papers lay on the cushions. "I'm on my way to join my-" It was her turn to color.

He nodded quickly, to show that he understood.

"He's in Biarritz," she hurried on, for the sake of saying something. "I'm to meet him in Paris. I wasn't coming over at all this spring. I wanted to stay with the children at Towers-"

It was a safe subject. "How were the children when you left?"

"Tom was all right; but Chippie has been having the same old trouble with his tonsils. They'll have to be cut again."

"I thought so the last time I saw him. And he's growing too fast for his strength, poor little chap. I notice," he added, gazing at her more intently than he had as yet permitted himself to do, "that he begins to look like you."

She smiled for the first time. "Oh, but I think he looks like you."

"No; Tom takes after me. He's a Walker. Chippie's-"

"A darling," she broke in. "But he's not strong. Ever since he had the scarlet fever-"

"Yes, I know. But it might have been worse. We might have lost him. Do you remember the night-?"

She put her hand to her eyes as if to shut out the vision of it. "Oh, that awful night! And you were more afraid than I was. Mothers are braver than fathers at times like that."

"It was watching the fight he put up. Gad, he was plucky, the poor little chap! And he was only three, wasn't he?"

"Three and five months."

"And he'll be eleven his next birthday. How the years fly! By the way, won't it soon be time for Tom to be going to boarding-school?"

They were being pushed and jostled by guards and passengers. Between sentences it was necessary to make room for some one going or coming. She was obliged to step back into her compartment. Having taken the seat in the corner by the window, she motioned with her hand toward that in the opposite corner by the door. In this way they were separated by the length and width of the compartment, the distance marking the other gulf between them.

She continued to talk of the children, looking at first into the cavernous obscurity of Crewe station, through which they were dashing, and then at the open country. The children, with their needs, their ailments, their future careers, could not but be the natural theme between them. It lasted while they passed Nuneaton, Rugby, and Stafford, and were well on their way to London. Suddenly he risked a question:

"Do they-understand?"

She was plainly agitated that he should disturb the ashes that buried their past. Her eyes shot him one piteous, appealing glance, after which they returned to the passing landscape. "Tom understands," sh

e said, at last. "Chippie takes it for granted."

"Takes it for granted-how?"

"Just as they both did-till Tom began to get a little more experience. It seemed to them quite the ordinary thing to have"-she hesitated and colored-"to have two fathers."

He winced, but risked another question:

"What makes you think that Tom's discovered it to be unusual?"

"Because he's said so."

"In what way? Do you mind telling me?"

"I'd rather not tell you."

"But if I insist?"

"You'll insist at the risk of having your feelings hurt."

"Oh, that!" A shrug of his shoulders and a wry smile expressed his indifference to such a result. "Did he ask you anything?"

She nodded, without turning from the window.

"Won't you tell me what it was? It would help me in my future dealing with the boy."

She continued to gaze out at the park-like fields, from which the mists had risen. "He asked me if you had done anything bad."

"And you told him-?"

"I told him that I didn't understand-that perhaps I'd never understood."

"Thank you for putting it like that. But you did understand, you know-perfectly. You mustn't have it on your conscience that-"

"Oh, we can't help the things we've got on our consciences. There's no way of shuffling away from them."

He allowed some minutes to pass before saying gently: "You're happy?"

She spoke while watching a flock of sheep trotting clumsily up a hillside from the noise of the train. "And you?"

"Oh, I'm as happy as-well, as I deserve to be. I'm not unhappy." A pause gave emphasis to his question when he said, almost repeating her tone: "And you?"

"I suppose I ought to say the same." A dozen or twenty rooks alighting on an elm engaged her attention before she added: "I've no right to be unhappy."

"One can be unhappy without a right."

"Yes; but one forfeits sympathy."

"Do you need sympathy?"

She answered hurriedly: "No, not at all."

"I do."

His words were so low that it was permissible for her not to hear them. Perhaps she meant at first to make use of this privilege, but when a minute or more had gone by she said: "What for?"

"Partly for the penalties I've had to pay, but chiefly for deserving them."

It seemed to him that her profile grew pensive. Though it detached itself clearly enough against the pane, it was a soft profile, a little blurred in the outline, with delicate curves of nose and lips and chin-the profile to go with dimpling smiles and a suffused sweetness. It pained him to notice that, though the suffused sweetness and the dimpling smiles were still as he remembered them, they didn't keep out of her face certain lines that had not been there when he saw her last.

"I think I ought to tell you," she said, after long reflection, "that I understand that sort of sympathy better now than I did some years ago. One grows more tolerant, if that's the right word, as one grows older."

"Does that mean that if certain things were to do again-you wouldn't do them?"

She took on an air of dignity. "That's something I can't talk about."

"But you think about it."

"Even so, I couldn't discuss it-with you."

"But I'm the very one with whom you could discuss it. Between us the conversation would be what lawyers call privileged."

She looked round at him for the first time since entering the compartment. "Is anything privileged between you and me?"

"Isn't everything?"

"I don't see how."

"We've been man and wife-"

"That's the very reason. No two people seem to me so far apart as those who've been man and wife-and aren't so any longer."

"And yet, in a way, no two are so near together."

Her eyes were full of mute questioning. He made no attempt to approach her, but in leaning across the upholstered arm of his seat he seemed to overcome some of the distance between them.

"No two are so near together," he went on, "for the very reason that when they're separated outwardly they're bound the more closely by the things of the heart and the soul and the spirit. After all, those are the ties that count. The legal dissolving of bonds and making of new ones is only superficial. It hasn't put you and me asunder-not the you and me," he hurried on, as something in her expression and attitude seemed to indicate dissent, "not the you and me that are really essential. No court and no judge could dissolve the union we entered into when you were twenty-one and I was twenty-seven, and our two lives melted into each other like the flowing together of two streams. Neither judge nor court can resolve into their original waters the rivers that have already become one."

She smiled faintly, perhaps bitterly. "Doesn't your figure of speech carry you too far? In our case the judge and the court were only incidental. What really dissolved our union was-"

"I know what you're going to say. And it was against the letter of the contract. Of course. I've never denied that, have I? But in every true marriage there's something over and above the letter of the contract-to which the letter of the contract is as nothing. And if ever there was a true marriage, Edith, ours was."

"Stop!" Her little figure became erect. Her eyes, which up to the present he had been comparing to forget-me-nots, as he used to do, now shone like blue-fired winter stars. "Stop, Chip."

"Why?"

"Because I ask you to."

"But why should you ask me to, when I'm only stating facts? It is a fact, isn't it? that our marriage was a true one in every sense in which a marriage can be true, till other people-no, let me go on!-till other people-your Aunt Emily most of all-advised you to exact your pound of flesh and the strict rigor of the law. I gave you your pound of flesh, Edith, right off the heart; so that if atonement could be made in that way-"

"Chip, will you tell me what good there is in bringing this up now? You're married to some one else, and so am I. We can't go back, because we've burned the bridges behind us-"

"But it's something to know that we'd go back if we could."

"I haven't said so."

"True."

He fell silent because of the impossibility of speech. He made no move to go. To sit with her in this way, without speaking, was like an obliteration of the last seven years, reducing them to a nightmare. It was a shock to him, therefore, when she pointed to a distant spire on a hill, saying:

"There's Harrow. We shall be in London in half an hour."

In London in half an hour, and this brief renewal of what never should have been interrupted would be ended! He recalled similar journeys with her over this very bit of line, when the arrival in London had been but the beginning of long delightful days together. And now he might not see her for another seven years; he might never see her any more. It was unnatural, incredible, impossible; and yet the facts precluded any rebellion on his part against them. Even if she were willing to rebel he couldn't do it-with a wife and boy in New York. He had married again on purpose to satisfy his longing for a child-a family. He felt very tenderly toward them, the little chap and his mother; but he was clear as to the fact that he felt tenderly toward them, pityingly tender, largely because when face to face with Edith he wished to God that they had never been part of his life. And doubtless she felt the same toward her Mr. Lacon and the child of that union. But she would never admit it-not directly, at any rate. He might gather it from hints, or read it between the lines; but he could never make her say so. Why should she say so? What good would it do? Were she to confess to him that she hated the man toward whom she was traveling, he would experience an unholy satisfaction-but, after all, it would be unholy.

In the end he could find no simpler relief to his feelings than to take down her belongings from the overhead racks.

"I'll just run along and pick up my own traps," he explained, "and come back to see you properly looked after."

Though she assured him of her ability to look after herself, he felt at liberty to ridicule her pretensions. "You must have changed a great deal if you can do that," he declared, as he handed down a roll of rugs strapped with a shawl-strap.

"I have changed a great deal."

"I don't see it. I can't see that you've changed at all-essentially."

"Oh, but it's essentially that I am changed. Superficially I may be more or less the same-a little older; but within I'm another woman." She took advantage of the fact that his back was turned to her, as he disentangled the handles of parasols and umbrellas from the network above, to say further: "Perhaps-since we've met in this unexpected way-and talked-possibly a little too frankly-it may be well if I remind you that you'd still be confronted with that fact-that I'm another woman-even if our bridges weren't burned behind us." He decided to let that pass without discussion, and because he said nothing she added: "And I dare say I should find you another man. So don't let us be too sorry, Chip, or think that if we hadn't done what we have done-"

Though he still stood with his back to her, lifting down a heavy bag with a black canvas covering, he could hear a catch in her voice that almost amounted to a sob. Because there was something in himself dangerously near responding to this appeal, he uttered the first words that came to him:

"Hello! Here's a thing I recognize. Didn't you have this-?"

As he stood holding the bag awkwardly before her she inclined her head.

"One of your wedding presents, wasn't it?"

"Oh, Chip, go away! I can't stand any more-now." "Do you mean that you'll see me-later-when we're in London?"

She found voice to say: "It's my dressing-case. Mama gave it to me."

"And didn't I break a bottle in it once?"

She tried to catch his tone of casual reminiscence. "It's still broken."

"And isn't this the bag that got the awful bang that time we raised a row about it when we landed in New York? A silver box stove in, or something of that sort?"

She succeeded in smiling, though she knew the smile was ghastly. "It's still stove in."

"Gad, think of my remembering that!"

He meant the remark to be easy, if not precisely jocose; but the trivial, intimate details wrung a cry from her: "Oh, Chip, go away! I can't stand any more-now."

He pressed his advantage, standing over her, the black bag still in his hands, as she cowered in the corner, pulling down her veil. "'Now'! 'Now'! Do you mean that you'll see me-later-when we're in London?"

The veil hid her face, but she pressed her clasped hands against her lips as if to keep back all words.

"Do you mean that, Edith?" he insisted.

Her breath came in little sobs. She spoke as if the words forced themselves out in spite of her efforts to repress them: "I'm-I'm staying at the Ritz. I shall be there for-for some days-till-till-he sends for me."

"Good. I'm at the Piccadilly. I shall come to-morrow at eleven."

Before she could withdraw her implied permission he was in the corridor on the way to his own compartment; but at Euston he was beside her door, ready to help her down. Amid the noise and bustle of finding her luggage and having it put on a taxi-cab, there was no opportunity for her to speak. He took care, besides, that there should be none. She was actually seated in the vehicle before she was able to say to him, as he stood at the open window to ask if she had everything she required:

"Oh, Chip, about to-morrow-"

"At eleven," he said, hastily. "I make it eleven because if it's fine we might run down and have the day at Maidenhead."

She caught at a straw. If she couldn't shelve him, a day in the country, in the open air, would be less dangerous than one in London. And perhaps in the end she might shelve him. At any rate, she could temporize. "I've never been at Maidenhead."

"And lunch at Skindle's isn't at all bad."

"I've never been at Skindle's."

"And after lunch we'll go out on the river-the Clieveden woods, you know-and all that."

"I've never seen the Clieveden woods."

"Then that's settled. At eleven. All right, driver; go on."

But she stretched her hands toward him. "Oh, Chip, don't come! I'm afraid. What's the good? Since we've burned our bridges-"

He had just time to say: "Even without bridges, there are wings. At eleven, then. All right, driver; go on. The Ritz Hotel."

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