MoboReader> Literature > The Letter of the Contract

   Chapter 5 PENALTY

The Letter of the Contract By Basil King Characters: 48963

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


He went to Berne because she had let slip the name of that place during the afternoon at Maidenhead. It was the only hint of the kind she threw out during the afternoons-four in all-they passed together. He forgot the connection in which they came, but he retained the words: "He may have to go to Berne."

He was between them as an awesome presence, never mentioned otherwise than allusively. His name was too sinister to speak. Each thought of him unceasingly, in silence, and with anguish; but, as far as possible, they kept him out of their intercourse. It was enough to know that he was there, a fearful authority in the background, able to summon her from this brief renewal of old happiness, as Pluto could recall Eurydice.

It was the supremacy of this power, which they themselves had placed in his hands, that in the end drove Chip Walker to wondering what he was like.

"What is he like?" he found the force to ask.

She looked distressed. "He's a good man."

He nerved himself to come to a point at which he had long been aiming: "Look here, Edith! Why did you marry him?"

"Do you mean, why did I marry him in particular, or why did I marry any one?"

"I mean both."

"Oh, I don't know. There-there seemed to be reasons."

That was at Tunbridge Wells-in the twilight, on the terrace of the old Calverly Hotel. They were sitting under a great hawthorn in full bloom. The air was sweet with the scent of it. It was sweet, too, with the scent of flowers and of new-mown hay. In a tree at the edge of the terrace a blackbird was singing to a faint crescent moon. There was still enough daylight to show the shadows deepening toward Bridge and over Broadwater Down, while on the sloping crest of Bishop's Down Common human figures appeared of gigantic size as they towered through the gloaming.

Edith was pouring the after-dinner coffee. It was the first time they had dined together. On the other days she had made it a point to be back in London before nightfall; but she had so far yielded to him now as to be willing to wait for a later train.

"What sort of reasons?" he urged.

"Oh, I don't know," she said again, pensively, dropping a lump of sugar into his coffee-cup. She added, while passing the cup to him: "It isn't so easy for a woman to be-to be drifting about-especially with two children."

"But why should you have drifted about, when you knew that at a sign from you-?"

She went on as if he hadn't spoken. "And when I saw you had dismantled the house and other people were living in it-I couldn't help seeing that, you know, in driving by-"

"But, good God, Edith, you wouldn't have come back to me?"

She stirred her own coffee slowly. "N-no."

"Does that mean no or yes?"

"Oh, it means no. That is"-she reflected long-"if I had gone back to you I should have been sorry."

"You would have considered it a weakness-a surrender-"

She nodded. "Something like that."

"And you really had stopped-caring anything about me?"

"It wasn't that so much as-so much as that I couldn't get over my resentment." She seemed to have found the explanatory word. "That was it," she continued, with more decision. "That's what I felt: resentment-a terrible resentment. Whatever compromise I thought of, that resentment against you for-for doing what you did-blocked the way. If I'd gone back I should have taken it with me."

"But you don't seem to suffer from it now. Or am I wrong?"

She answered promptly: "No; you're right. That's the strange part of it. After I married-it left me. It was as if old scores were wiped out. That isn't precisely what I felt," she hastened to add; "and yet, it was something like that."

"You'd got even."

She shook her head doubtfully. "N-no. I don't mean that. But the past seemed to be dissolved-not to exist for me any more."

"H'm! Not to exist for you any more!"

"I said seemed. That's what bewildered me-from the beginning: things I thought I felt-or thought I didn't feel-for a while-only to find later that it wasn't-wasn't so." She went on with difficulty. "For instance-that day-that day at the Park-I thought that everything was killed within me. But it wasn't. It came alive again."

"But not so much alive that you wanted to come back to me."

"Alive-in a different way."

"What sort of different way?"

Her eyes became appealing. "Oh, what's the good of talking of it now?"

"Because you haven't told me what I asked-why you married him-why you married any one."

She turned the query against himself: "Why did you?"

"I didn't till after you did. I wouldn't have done it then if-if I hadn't been so-well, to put it plainly, so damned lonely."

She gave him one of the smiles that stabbed him. "Well, then? Doesn't that answer your question?"

He thought it did, and for a while they listened to the blackbird's song in silence. It was their last talk. They parted at the door of the Ritz with the intention of spending the next day in Windsor Forest-or some other romantic wood; but within a few minutes she had telephoned him that the summons had arrived. Next morning she left for Paris.

And so he went to Berne. He hadn't meant to go there when he said good-by to her at Victoria. He had no intention of following her or putting himself in her way. He had purposely asked nothing of her plans, or so much as the date of her return to America. He had not precisely made up his mind that they were parting for good, but he was too stunned to forecast the future. He was stunned and sickened. He was stunned and sickened and disconsolate to a degree beyond anything he had thought possible in life. If it hadn't been for the bit of business that had brought him to London he would hardly have had courage enough to get through the days.

But, the business coming to an end, he was stranded. There was nothing to do but go back to the wife and child whose existence he never remembered except with a pang of self-reproach. He meant to go back to them-but not yet. It was too soon. Edith was too much with him. The fact that her physical presence was withdrawn made her spiritually the more pervasive. The afterglow of their days together couldn't fade otherwise than slowly, like light when the sun goes down.

So, when he should have been going to New York, he went to Berne. It was not really in the hope of being face to face with her again or of having speech with her. Even if she came there the dread presence would come with her and keep them apart. But Berne was a little place, a quiet place, restful, soothing, a haunt of ancient peace. It had struck him, on former visits there, that on this spot ignored by the tourist, who changes trains subterraneously, consecrated to old sturdiness and modern wisdom, serenely heedless of the blatant and the up-to-date, a bruised spirit might heal itself in a seclusion cheered by green hills and distant snowy ranges. It was such solitude that, in the first place, he sought now. If in addition he could see the shadow of Edith passing by-no more!-he felt that he would soon be inwardly strong again.

At Berne there is a hotel known chiefly to wise travelers-a hotel of old wines, old silver, old traditions, handed down from father to son, and from the son to the son's son. Standing on the edge of the bluff which the city crowns, it dominates from its windows and terraces the valley of the Aar. Swift and unruffled, the river glides through the meadows like a sinuous ice-green serpent. Beyond the river and behind the pastoral slopes of the Gurten hangs a curtain of mist, which lifts at times to display the line of the Bernese Oberland, from the Wetterhorn to the Bettfluh.

It is a hotel with which the learned people who sit in international conferences and settle difficult questions are familiar. It was sheltering a conference when Chip Walker arrived. Each of the nations had appointed three distinguished men to consult with three distinguished men from each of the other nations on possible modifications in the rules of the Postal Union when the use of aeroplanes became general in that service. The distinguished men met officially in a great room of the Bundespalast; but unofficially they could be seen strolling along the arcaded medieval streets, or feeding the civic bears with carrots at the bear-pit, or reading or smoking or sipping coffee and liqueurs in the fine semicircular hall of the hotel. They were French, or Austrian, or Russian, or German, or English, or Danish, or Dutch, as the case might be. There were also some Americans. The great national types were more or less easy to discern-except the Americans. That is, Chip Walker could see no one whom he could recognize offhand as a fellow-countryman. Three gentlemanly, jovial Englishmen were easily made out, because, in Walker's phrase, they "flocked by themselves" and in the intervals of sitting in the Bundespalast complained that Berne had no golf-links. They also dressed for dinner and dined in the restaurant. A few others did the same. But the majority of the distinguished men preferred to spend the evening in the costumes they had worn all day, and, with their wives-there were eight or ten dumpy, dowdy, smiling little wives-were content with the table d'hote. Indeed, the popularity of the table d'hote sifted the simple, scholarly professors of Gottingen, Freiburg, or Geneva from the representatives of the larger and more sophisticated social world, leaving the latter to eat in the restaurant, à la carte.

In this way Chip came to observe a man of some distinction who took his meals at a small table alone and kept to himself. He was a man who would have been noticeable anywhere, if it were for no more than the dignified gravity of his manner and the correctness of his dress. Not only did he wear what was impeccably the right thing for the right occasion, but his movements were of the sedate precision that never displaces a button. As straight and slim and erect as a guardsman, he was nevertheless stamped all over as a civilian. From the lines in his gray, clean-shaven face of regular profile, and the silvery touches in his hair, Chip judged him to be fifty years old. He puzzled the analyst of nationalities-though, as Chip put it to himself, it was clear he must belong to one of the peoples who were chic. He was, therefore, either English or French or Russian or Austrian or American. There was a bare chance of his being a Dane or a Swede. When he spoke to a waiter or a passing acquaintance, it was in so low a tone that Walker couldn't detect the language he used. All one could affirm from distant and superficial observation was that he was Somebody-Somebody of position, experience, and judgment-Somebody to respect.

That, perhaps, was the secret of Walker's curiosity-that he respected him. He would have liked to talk to him-not precisely to ask his advice, but to lay before him some of the difficulties that were inchoate in his soul. He had an idea that this man with the grave, suffering face-yes, there was suffering in his face, as one could see on closer inspection!-would understand them.

He came to the conclusion that he was a Russian, though he had an early opportunity to find out. As he stood one day by the concierge's desk the stranger entered, paused, spoke a few words inaudible to Walker, and passed on. It was a simple matter to ask his name of the one man who knew every name in the hotel, and he was on the point of doing so. He had already begun: "Voulez vous bien me dire-?" when he stopped. On the whole he preferred his own speculations. In the long, idle hours they gave him something to think of that took his mind from dwelling on his own entangled affairs.

He counted, too, on the hazards of hotel life throwing them one day together. He was already on speaking or nodding terms with most of the distinguished men whom he could address in a common language. This had come about by the simple means of propinquity on the terrace or in the semicircular hall. He soon saw, however, that no diligence in frequenting these places of reunion would help him with the stately stranger whose interest he desired to win. The gentleman took the air elsewhere.

For contiguous to the terrace of the hotel is a little public park called the Kleine Schanze-haunt of well-behaved Bernese children, of motherly Bernese housewives supplied with knitting and the gossip of the town, of Bernese patriarchs in search of gentle exercise and sunshine. This little park possesses a music-pavilion, a duck-pond, a monument to the Postal Union of 1876, many pretty pathways, and an incomparable promenade. The incomparable promenade has also an incomparable view on those days when the Spirit of the Alps permits it to be visible.

Two such days at least there were during that month of June. Glancing casually over his left shoulder as he marched one afternoon with head bent and back turned toward the east, Chip saw that which a few minutes before had been but the misty edge of the sky transformed into a range of ineffable white peaks. The unexpectedness with which the glistering spectacle appeared made his heart leap. It was like a celestial vision-like a view of the ramparts of the Heavenly City. He clutched the stone top of the balustrade beside which he stood, seeking terms with which to make the moment indelible in his memory. Nothing came to him but a few broken, obvious words-sublime!-inviolate!-eternal! and such like.

What he chiefly felt was his inadequacy for even gazing on the sight, much less for recording it, when he became aware that in the crowding of people to the edge of the terrace the stranger was standing near him. It was an opportunity not to be missed.

"?a, c'est merveilleux, n'est-ce pas, monsieur?"

The words were banal, but they would serve to break the ice.

"Yes; and it becomes more marvelous the oftener it appears. I've never seen it more beautiful than to-day; but perhaps that's because I've seen it so many times."

Chip was disappointed to be answered in English, and especially in the English of an American. It brought the man too near for confidence. They might easily find themselves involved in a host of common acquaintances, a fact that would preclude intimate talk. Had he been a Russian the remoteness of each from the other's world would have made the exchange of secrets-perhaps of secret griefs-a possibility. Not so with a man whom one might meet the next time one entered a club in New York. Such a man might even be.... But he dismissed that alarming thought as out of the question. Edith wasn't at Berne. If she had been he would have seen her. He would not inquire at the hotel, nor at any other hotel; but he knew that in so small a town he must have had a glimpse of her somewhere. While it was conceivable that her husband might have come to Berne leaving her elsewhere, this was not the sort of man she would have married. The type to appeal to her would be something like his own-of course!

Nevertheless, as he had begun the conversation, he felt that in courtesy he must go on with it. He did so by pointing with his stick to what he took to be the highest summit of the range, and saying: "I suppose that's the Jungfrau."

The stranger moved nearer him. "No, you're too far to the west. That's the Breithorn. There's the Jungfrau"-he, too, pointed with his stick-"sentineled by the Eiger and the M?nch."

He went on to indicate the Wetterhorn, the Schreckhorn, the Blumlisalp, the Finsteraarhorn, and the Ebnefluh. They were like a row of shining spiritual presences manifesting themselves to an unbelieving world.

For the moment they served their turn in helping Chip Walker to subjects of conversation with his fellow-countryman, in whom he had lost some interest because he was a fellow-countryman.

"You know a lot about Switzerland, don't you?" he observed, as the stranger, still pointing with his stick and naming names-the Silberhorn, the Gletschhorn, the Schneehorn, the Niesen, the Bettfluh-that impressed the imagination with the force of the great white peaks themselves, resolved the panorama into its minor elements.

The stick came down and the explanation ceased. "I've lived a good deal abroad," was the response, given quietly. "You, too, haven't you?"

With the question they turned for the first time and looked each other in the eyes. While Chip explained that he had spent his early years in France or Italy or England, according to the interests of his parents, he was inwardly remarking that the gray face, with its stiff lines, its compressed lips, its unmoving expression, and its stamp of suffering, was really sympathetic. Something in the composure of the manner and the measured way of speaking imposed this new acquaintance on him as a superior. Instinctively he said "sir" to him, as to an elder, though the difference in their ages could not have been more than seven or eight years. It flattered him somewhat, too, that the man who kept aloof from others should make an exception of him and welcome his advances. They parted with the tacit understanding that for the future, in the routine of the hotel, they should be on speaking terms.

There was, however, no further meeting between them till after dinner on the following evening. Turning from the purchase of stamps at the concierge's desk, Chip saw his new acquaintance, wearing an Inverness cloak over his dinner-jacket, and a soft felt hat, lighting a cigar. There was an exchange of nods. On the older man's lips there was a ghost of a smile. It seemed friendly. He spoke:

"You don't want to smoke a cigar in the little park? It's rather pleasant there, with a full moon like this."

So it was that within a few minutes they found themselves seated side by side on one of the benches of the terraced promenade where they had met on the previous day. Though the row of shining spiritual presences had withdrawn, the valley was spanned by a Velvety luminosity, through which the lights of the lower town shone like stars reflected in water. The talk was of the conference. The stranger spoke of himself:

"I've been interested in the various methods of international communication for many years. In fact, I've made some slight study of them. When the authorities were good enough to appoint me on this commission I was glad to serve."

"Quite so," Chip murmured, politely.

"It's an attractive little town, too-one of the few capitals in Europe that remain characteristic of their countries, and nothing else-wholly or nearly unaffected by the current of life outside. But," he went on, unexpectedly, "I wonder what a man like you can see in it-to remain here so long?"

Chip was startled, but he managed to say: "It isn't that I see anything in particular. I'm-"

"Waiting?"

The query was perfectly courteous. It implied no more than a casual curiosity-hardly that.

"No; resting," Chip answered, with forced firmness.

"Ah, it's certainly a good place for resting." Then, after a pause: "You're married, I think you said."

Chip didn't remember having said so, and replied to that effect. The stranger was unperturbed.

"No? But you are?" By way of pressing the question, he added, with a glance at Chip through the moonlight: "Aren't you?"

"I've a wife and little boy in New York," Walker answered, soberly.

"Ah!" There was no emphasis on this exclamation. It signified merely that a certain point in their mutual understanding had been reached. "A happy marriage must be a great-safeguard."

The tone was of a man making a moral reflection calmly, but Chip was startled again. It was his turn to stare through the moonlight, where the length of the bench lay between them. He felt that he was being challenged, but that he must not betray himself too soon. "Safeguard against what, sir?"

There was a faint laugh, or what might have been a laugh had there been amusement in it. "Against everything from which a married man needs protection."

Chip would have dropped the subject but for that sense that a challenge was being thrown him before which he could not back down. Nevertheless, he determined to keep from committing himself as long as possible. "I'm not sure that I know what you mean."

The stranger seemed to examine the burning end of his cigar. "Oh, nothing but the obvious things-pursuing another man's wife, for instance. A man who's happily married doesn't do that."

There was no aggression in the tone, and yet Chip felt a curious chill. Who was this man, and what the devil was he driving at? It was all he could do to answer coolly, knocking the ash off the end of his own cigar: "And yet, I've known of such cases."

"Oh, so have I. But there was always a screw loose somewhere-I mean, a screw loose in what we're assuming to be the happy marriages."

"Are there any happy marriages?-permanently happy, that is?"

The response was surprisingly direct: "That's what I hoped you'd be able to tell me."

"Then you don't know, sir?"

Again the response was surprisingly direct: "I don't know, because I'm not happily married." A second later he added: "But other people may be."

So they were going to exchange secrets, after all. "But you are married, sir?" To clear the air, he felt himself obliged to add: "Happily or unhappily."

"I married a lady who had divorced her husband." In the silence that followed it seemed to Chip that he could hear the murmur of the almost soundless river below. Somehow the sound of the river was all he could think of. Quietly moving, low-voiced couples paced up and down the promenade, and from the music-pavilion in the distance came the whine and shiver of the Mattiche. "In divorce," the measured voice resumed, "there are some dangerous risks. It's a dangerous risk for a man to divorce his wife. It's a more dangerous risk for a woman to divorce her husband. But to marry a divorced husband or a divorced wife is the most dangerous risk of all."

Chip's voice was thick and dry. "May I ask, sir, on what you base your-your opinion?"

"Chiefly on the principle that, no matter how successfully the dead are buried, they may come back again as ghosts. No one can keep them from doing that."

"And-and I presume, sir, that you held this theory when you married?"

"I held it as a theory; I didn't know it as a fact."

Chip felt obliged to struggle onward. "And do I understand you to be telling me now that the ghosts have come back?"

"Perhaps you could as easily tell me."

It was a minute or more before Chip was able to say, in a voice he tried to keep firm: "If they have come back, you're not more haunted by them than-than any one else."

"So I understand."

The brief responses had the effect of dragging him forward. "And would it be fair to ask why you say that?-that you understand?"

"Oh, quite fair. It's partly because you are here."

"Then you think I ought to go away?"

"I think-since you ask me-that you oughtn't to have come."

"I came-to rest."

"I don't question that. I'm only struck by-by the long arm of coincidence."

"That is, you believe I had another motive?"

With a gesture he seemed to wave this aside. "That's hardly my affair. You're here; and, since you are, I'd rather-"

"Yes?"

"I'd rather you didn't hurry away."

He rose on saying this, apparently with the intention of going back to the hotel. Chip remained seated. He smoked mechanically, without knowing what he did. Questions rose to his lips and died there. Was Edith in Berne? Had she seen him? Was she keeping out of his way? Was she being kept out of his way? Was she suffering? Was it through her that he had been recognized? The fact that he had been recognized brought with it a kind of humiliation. The humiliation was the greater because of the way in which he had singled out this man and approached him. During all those days of studying the stranger with respectful discretion, seeking an opportunity to address him, the stranger, without deigning him a look, had known perfectly well who he was and had been imputing motives to his presence. The reference to the long arm of coincidence was stinging. Because it was so he tried to muster his dignity.

"I've no intention of hurrying away," he began; "but-"

"If you like, I'll put it this way," the measured voice broke in, courteously. "If you have time to wait a little longer I should be glad if you'd do it."

"

Would there be any point to that?"

"I think you might trust me not to make the request if there were not." He added presently: "It's a wise policy to let sleeping dogs lie; but when they've once been roused, they've got to be quieted."

"Quieted-how?"

"I can't tell you that as yet. I may have some vague idea concerning the process; I've none at all as to the result."

Chip was not sure that the stranger said good night. He knew he lifted his hat and moved away. He watched him as, with stately, unhastening step, he walked down the promenade, the Inverness cape and soft felt hat silhouetted in the moonlight.

For the next forty-eight hours Walker hung about the hotel like a culprit. He would have sacrificed even a glimpse of Edith to feel free to go away. He couldn't go away while the other man's plans remained enigmatical; but he wished he hadn't come. He felt his position undignified, grotesque, like that of a boy detected in some bit of silly daring.

Two days later they met again on the terrace of the Kleine Schanze. It was not an accidental meeting. The stranger had walked directly up to Chip to say:

"The lady to whom we were referring the other night-"

But Chip was still on his guard. "Did I refer to a lady?"

"Perhaps not. But I did. And that lady is ill. You may be interested to know it. She was ill when she arrived in Paris from London ten days ago."

"Then she's here."

"She's here. That's why I'm taking your time in asking you to remain."

Chip forced the next question with some difficulty: "Does she-does she want to-to see me?"

"She hasn't said so."

"Has she-said anything about me at all?"

"That, I think, I must leave you to learn later. But I should like you to know at once that I'm not keeping you here without a motive."

The stately figure moved on, leaving Chip to guess blindly at the possibilities in store.

More days passed-nearly a week. Chip spent much of his time in the Kleine Schanze, noticing that the distinguished stranger frequented it less. Idleness would have got on his nerves, and Berne begun to bore him, had it not been for the knowledge that he was under the same roof with Edith. That gave him patience. It was the kind of comfort a man or a woman finds in being near the prison where some loved one is shut up in a cell.

It was again an afternoon when the shining spiritual presences were making themselves visible-not with the gleaming suddenness with which they had appeared ten days before, but slowly, with vague wonders, as if finding it hard to bring themselves within mortal ken. Rounding the corner of the promenade at the end remote from the hotel, at a point from which he had the whole line of the bluff and the green depths of the valley and the slopes of the Gurten and the curtain of Alpine mist in one superb coup d'?il, Chip saw a great white shoulder baring itself luminously in the eastern sky. For long minutes that was all. It might have been one of the gates of pearl of which he had heard tell.

It was the sort of thing from which no earth-dweller could take his eyes. He stood leaning on his stick, his cigar smoldering in his left hand. He couldn't see that the clouds lifted or that the mists rolled away; he only grew aware that what seemed like a gate became a bastion, and what seemed like a bastion rose into a tower, and that out of the tower and in the midst of the tower and round about the tower white pinnacles glistened in white air. Nothing had happened that he could define, beyond a heightening of his own capacity to see. Nothing on that horizon seemed to emerge or to recede: looking wrought the wonder; he either saw or he didn't see; and just now he saw. He thought of something he had heard or read-he had forgotten where: "Immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales." That, apparently, was the process, while the spiritual presences ranged themselves slowly within his vision-row upon row, peak upon peak, dome upon dome, serried, ghostly-white against a white sky, white in white air.

He withdrew his gaze only because the people, ever eager for this spectacle which they had seen all their lives, crowded to the parapet. As the children were still in school, it was a quiet throng, elderly and sedate. Leaning on the balustrade, all faces turned one way, they fringed the promenade, leaving the broad, paved spaces empty.

For this reason Chip's eye caught the more quickly at the other end of the terrace the figures of a man and a woman who stood back from the line of gazers. They were almost in profile toward himself, the man's erect, stately form allowing the fact that a woman was clinging to his arm to be just perceptible. It required no such movement as that of a few minutes later-a movement by which the woman came more fully into view-for Chip to recognize Edith.

His Edith, his wife, clinging to another man's arm, clinging to her husband's arm, clinging to the arm of a husband who was not himself, dependent on him, supported by him, possessed by him, coming and going with him, living and eating with him, bearing him children, sharing with him whatever was most intimate, directed by him and dominated by him!-yet, all the while, in everything that could make two beings one except that stroke of the pen called law, his wife!

How had it come about? What had he done, what had she done, to make this hideous topsyturvydom a fact? He put his hand to his forehead like a man dazed; but he withdrew it quickly. His forehead was wet and clammy. He was shaken, transpierced. He saw now that, in all the three years since he had heard she was married, he hadn't really known it. Perhaps it was his imagination that was at fault-perhaps his incapacity for believing what wasn't under his very eyes-perhaps his own success in keeping the dreadful fact at a distance-but he hadn't really known it. Nothing could have brought it home to him like this-this glimpse of her intimate association with the other man, and her dependence upon him.

His first impulse was to get out of their sight, to hide, to find some place where he could grasp the appalling fact in silence and seclusion. Second thoughts reminded him that there was a situation to be faced and that he might as well face it now as at any other time. What sort of situation it would be he couldn't guess; but he was sure that behind the immobile mask of the other man's grave face there was something that would be worth the penetration. He would give him a chance. He would go forward to meet them. No, he wouldn't go forward to meet them; he would wait for them where he stood. No, he wouldn't wait for them where he stood; he would slip into the little rotunda close beside him-a little rotunda generally occupied by motherly Bernese women, but which for the moment the commanding spectacle outside had emptied.

It was a little open rotunda, with seats all round and a rude table in the middle. In sitting down he placed himself as nearly as possible in full view, but with his face toward the mountains. It gave him a preoccupied air to be seen relighting his cigar. It was thus optional with the couple who began to advance along the promenade to pass him by or to pause and address him.

Nothing but a shadow warned him of their approach.

"Chip-"

He turned. Edith was standing in the doorway, the man behind her. The haggard pallor of her face and the feverishness of her eyes reminded Chip of the morning little Tom was born. He was on his feet-silent. He couldn't even breathe her name. It was the less necessary since she herself hastened to speak:

"Chip, Mr. Lacon knows we met in England. I told him as soon as I reached Paris; I didn't want him not to know. And now he wants us all to meet-I don't know why."

Since he had to say something, he uttered the first words that came to him: "Was there any harm in it-our meeting? Mr. Lacon knows we have children-and things to talk over."

"Oh, it isn't only that," she said, excitedly. "It's more. I don't know what-but I know it's more."

He looked puzzled. "More in what way?"

"More in this way," said the measured voice, that had lost no shade of its self-control. "I understand that Edith feels she has made a mistake-that you've both made a mistake-"

Edith was standing in the doorway, the man behind her. "Chip, Mr. Lacon knows we met in England."

"I never said so," she interrupted, hurriedly.

Lacon smiled, as nearly as his saddened face could smile. "I didn't say you said so," he corrected, gently. "I said I understood. There's a difference. And, since I do understand, I feel it right to offer you-to offer you both-"

Exhaustion compelled her to drop into a seat. "What are you going to say?"

"Nothing that can hurt you, I hope-or-or Mr. Walker, either. Suppose we all sit down?"

He followed his own suggestion with a dignity almost serene. Chip took mechanically the seat from which he had just risen. It offered him the resource of looking more directly at the range of glistening peaks than at either of his two companions.

"The point for our consideration is this," Lacon resumed, as calmly as if he were taking part in a meeting at the Bundespalast. "Admitting that you've both made a mistake, is there any possibility of retracing your steps?-or must you go on paying the penalty?"

Chip spoke without turning his eyes from the mountains: "What do you mean by-the penalty?"

"I suppose I mean the necessity of making four people unhappy instead of two."

"That is," Chip went on, "there are two who must be unhappy in any case."

"Precisely. There are two for whom there's no escape. Whatever happens now, nothing can save them. But, since that is so, the question arises whether it wouldn't be, let us say, a greater economy of human material if the other two-"

Edith looked mystified. "I don't know what you mean. Which are the two who must be unhappy in any case?"

Chip answered quietly, without turning his head: "He's one; my-my wife is the other."

"Oh!" With something between a sigh and a gasp she fell back against a pillar of the rotunda.

"It's the sort of economy of human material," Chip went on, his eye following the lines of the Wetterhorn up and down, "that a man achieves in saving himself from a sinking ship and leaving his wife and children to drown-assuming that he can't rescue them."

"The comparison isn't quite exact," Lacon replied, courteously. "Wouldn't it rather be that if a man can save only one of two women, he nevertheless does what he can?"

Edith still looked bewildered. "I don't know what you're talking about, either of you. What is it? Why are we here? Am I one of the two women to be saved?"

"The suggestion is," Chip said, dryly, "that Mr. Lacon wouldn't oppose your divorcing him, while my-my present wife might divorce me; after which you and I could marry again. Isn't that it, sir?"

The older man nodded assent. "It's well to use plain English when we can."

Chip continued to measure the Wetterhorn with his eye. "Rather comic the whole thing would be, wouldn't it?"

"Possibly," Lacon replied, imperturbably. "But we've accepted the comic in the institution of marriage, we Americans. It's too late for us to attempt to take it without its possibilities of opera bouffe."

"But aren't there laws?" Edith asked.

Again Lacon's lips glimmered with the ghost of a smile. "Yes; but they're very complacent laws. They reduce marriage to the legal permission for two persons to live together as man and wife as long as mutually agreeable; but the license is easily rescinded-and renewed."

"But surely marriage is more than that," she protested.

Lacon's ghost of a smile persisted. "Haven't we proved that it isn't?-for us, at any rate. Hesitation to use our freedom in the future would only stultify our action in the past. If we go in for an institution with qualities of opera bouffe isn't it well to do it light-heartedly?-or as light-heartedly as we can."

Edith looked at him reproachfully. "Should you be doing it light-heartedly?"

"I said as light-heartedly as we can."

"What makes you think that Chip and I-I mean," she corrected, with some confusion, "Mr. Walker and I-want to do it at all?"

"Isn't that rather evident?"

"I didn't know it was."

Chip glanced at them over his shoulder. It seemed to him that Lacon's look was one of pity.

"You met in England," the latter said, displaying a hesitation unusual in him, "with something-something more than pleasure, as I judge; and-and Mr. Walker is here."

"Yes, by accident," she declared, hurriedly. "It was by accident in England, too."

He lifted his fine white hand in protest. "Oh, I'm not blaming you. On the contrary, nothing could be more natural than that you should both feel as I-I imagine you do. You're the wife of his youth-he's the husband of yours. The best things you've ever had in your two lives are those you've had in common. That you should want to bridge over the past, and, if possible, go back-"

"We've burned our bridges," she interrupted, quickly.

"Even burned bridges can be rebuilt if there's the will to do it. The whole question turns on the will. If you have that I want you to understand that I shall not be-be an obstacle to the-to the reconstruction."

"Don't you care?"

"That's not the question. We've already assumed the fact that my caring-as well as that of a certain other person whom Mr. Walker would have to consider-is secondary. It's too late to do anything for us-assuming that she understands, or may come to understand, the position as I do. Your refusing happiness for yourselves in order to stand by us, or even to stand by the children-the younger children, I mean-wouldn't do us any good. On the contrary, as far as I'm concerned, if there could be any such thing as mitigation-"

He broke off. Seeing the immobile features swept as by convulsion, Chip took up the sentence: "It would be that Edith should feel free."

"Precisely."

"And her not feeling free would involve the continuance of-the penalty."

"In its extreme form." He regained control of himself. "That the penalty should be abrogated altogether is out of the question. Some of us must go on paying it-all four of us, indeed, to some degree. And yet, any relief for one would be some relief for all. Do you see what I mean?"

The question was addressed to Edith specially.

"I'm not sure that I do," she replied, looking at him wistfully. "Is it this?-that, assuming what you do assume, it would be easier for you if I-I went away?"

"I shouldn't put it in just those words, I only mean that what's hardest for you is hardest for me. I couldn't hold you to the letter of one contract if you were keeping the spirit of another. Do you see now?"

She didn't answer at once, so that Chip intervened: "Hasn't some one said-Shakespeare or some one-that the letter killeth? It seems to me I've heard that."

"You probably have. Some one has said it. But He also added, as a balancing clause, 'The Spirit giveth life.' That's the vital part of it. To find out where the spirit is in our present situation is the question now."

She looked at him tearfully. "Well, where is it?"

He rose quietly. "That's for you and Mr. Walker to discover for yourselves. I've gone as far as I dare."

"You're not going away?" she asked, hastily.

He smiled at them both. For the first time in Chip's acquaintance with him it was a positive smile. "I think you'll most easily find your way alone."

"Oh no. Wait!" she begged; but he had already lifted his hat in his stately way and begun to walk back toward the hotel.

Then came the bliss of being alone together. In spite of everything, they felt that. Edith leaned across the rude table, her hands clasped upon it. She spoke rapidly, as if to make full use of the time.

"Oh, Chip, what are we to do?"

He too leaned across the table, his arms folded upon it, the extinct cigar still between his fingers. He gazed deep into her eyes. "It's a chance. It will never come again. Shall we take it?-or let it go?"

"Could you take it, if I did?"

"Could you-if I did?"

She tried to reflect. "It's the spirit," she said, haltingly, after a minute. "Oughtn't we to get at that?-just as he said. We've had so much of-of the letter."

"Ah, but what is the spirit? How do you get at it? That's the point."

She tried to reflect further-further and harder and faster. "Wouldn't it be-what we feel?"

"What we feel is that-that we love each other, isn't it?-that we love each other as much as we did years ago-more!-more! Isn't that it?"

She nodded. "Yes, more-oh, much more! And yet-"

"Yes?" he said, eagerly. "Yes? And what, then?"

"And yet-oh, Chip, I feel something else!" She leaned still further toward him, as if to annihilate the slight distance between them. "Don't you?"

"Something else-how?"

"Something else-higher-as if our loving each other wasn't the thing of most importance. I thought it was. All these years-I mean latterly-I've thought it was. When we met in England I was sure it was. Since I've been back with him I've felt that I would have died gladly just to have one more day with you, like those at Maidenhead and Tunbridge Wells. But now-oh, Chip, I don't know what to say!"

"Is it because he's been so generous?"

She shook her head. "Not altogether. No; I don't think it's that at all. He's more than generous; he's tender. You can't think how tender he is-and always has been-with me and with the children. That's why I married him-why I thought I could find a sort of rest with him. You see that, don't you?-without judging me too harshly. He's that kind. I'm used to it with him. He can't help being generous. I knew he would be when I told him we'd met in England. I told him because I couldn't do anything else. It was a way of talking about you-even if it was only that way. But, oh, Chip, if I left him now and went back to you-"

"Yes, darling? What?" He spoke huskily, covering both her hands with one of his and crushing them. "If you left him now and came back to me-what?"

She hurried on. "And then there's-there's the other woman. We mustn't forget her. What's her name, Chip?"

"Lily. She was Lily Bland."

"Yes, yes; of course. I knew that. And she loves you? But how could she help loving you? I'd hate her if she didn't. Curiously enough I don't hate her now. I wonder why? I suppose it's because I'm so sorry for her. She's a sweet woman, isn't she?"

He answered, with head averted. "She's as noble in her way as-as this man is in his."

"That's just what I thought. I used to see her when she came to our house to call for the children. It never occurred to me that you'd marry her. If it had I don't know what I should have-But it's no use going back to that now. What would you do about her, Chip, if we decided to-to take the chance that's opened up-?"

"I don't know. I've never thought about it. I-I suppose she'd let me go-just as he's letting you go-if I put it to her in the right way."

"And what would be the right way?"

"Oh, Lord, Edith, don't ask me. How do I know? I should have to tell her-the truth."

"And what would happen then?-to her I mean."

"I've no idea. She'd bear up against it. She's that sort of person. But then, inwardly, she'd very likely break her heart."

"Oh, Chip, is it worth while? Think!"

"I am thinking."

"Is it the spirit? That's the thing to find out."

He shook his head sadly. "I don't know how to tell."

"But suppose I do? Would you trust to me? Would you believe that the thing I felt to be right for me was the right thing for us both?"

"I think I should."

"Well, then, listen. It's this way. You know, Chip, I love you." She had his hand now in both of hers, twisting her fingers nervously in and out between his. "I don't have to tell you, do I? I love you. Oh, how I love you! It's as if the very heart had gone out of my body into yours. And yet, Chip-oh, don't be angry-it seems to me that if I left him now and went back to you I should become something vile. It isn't because he's so noble and good. No, it isn't that. And it isn't just the idea of passing from one man to another and back again. We have turned marriage into opera bouffe, we Americans, and we might as well take it as we've made it. It isn't that at all. It's-it's exactly what you said just now: it's like a man swimming away from a sinking ship, and leaving his wife and children to drown, because he can't rescue them. Better a thousand times to go down with them, isn't it? You may call it waste of human material, if you like, and yet-well, you know what I mean. I should be leaving him to drown and you'd be leaving her to drown; and, even though we can't give them happiness by standing by, yet it's some satisfaction just to stand by. Isn't that it? Isn't that the spirit?"

He withdrew his hand from hers to cover his eyes with it. He spoke hoarsely: "It may be. I-I think it is."

"But, if it is, then the spirit of the contract is different now from what it would have been-well, you know when. Then it meant that I should have stood by you-forgiven you, if that's the word-and shown myself truly your wife, for better or for worse. I didn't understand that. I only knew about the better. I didn't see that a man and a woman might take each other for worse-and still be true. If I had seen it-oh, what a happy woman I should have been to-day, and in all these years in which I haven't been happy at all! That was the spirit of the contract then, I suppose-but now it's different. It confuses me a little. Doesn't it confuse you?"

"Perhaps."

"Let me take your hand again; I can talk to you better like that. Now-now-we've undertaken new responsibilities. We've involved others. We've let them involve themselves. We can't turn our back upon them, can we? No. I thought that's what you'd say. We can't. The contract we've made with them must come before the one we made with each other. We're bound, not only in law but in honor. Aren't we?"

He made some inarticulate sign of assent.

"And I suppose that's what he meant by the penalty-the penalty in its extreme form: that we've put ourselves where we can't keep the higher contract, the complete one, we made together-because we're bound by one lower and incomplete, to which we've got to be faithful. Isn't that the spirit now, don't you think?"

Again he muttered something inarticulately assenting.

"Well, then, Chip, I'm going." She rose with the words.

"No, no; not yet." He caught her hand in both of his, holding it as he leaned across the table.

"Yes, Chip, now. What do we gain by my staying? We see the thing we've got to do-and we must do it. We must begin on the instant. If I were to stay a minute longer now, it would be-it would be for things we've recognized as no longer permissible. I'm going. I'm going now!"

There was something in her face that induced him to relax his hold. She withdrew her hand slowly, her eyes on his.

"Aren't you going to say good-by?"

She shook her head, from the little doorway of the rotunda. "No. What's the use? What good-by is possible between you and me? I'm-I'm just going."

And she was gone.

With a quick movement he sprang to the opening between two of the small pillars. "Edith!" She turned. "Edith! Come here. Come here, for God's sake! Only one word more."

She came back slowly, not to the door, but to the opening through which he leaned, his knee on the seat inside. "What is it?"

He got possession of her hand. "Tell me again that quotation he gave us."

She repeated it: "'The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.'"

"Good, isn't it? I suppose it is from Shakespeare?"

"I don't know. I'll ask him-I'll look it up. If ever I see you again I'll tell you."

"I wish you would, because-because, if it gives us life, perhaps it'll carry us along."

With a quick movement he drew her to him and kissed her passionately on the lips.

A minute later he had sunk back on the seat out of which he had sprung. He knew she was disappearing through the crowd that, satiated with gazing, was sauntering away from the parapet. But he made no attempt to follow her with so much as a glance. Slowly, vaguely, mistily, like a man tired of the earthly vision, he was letting his eyes roam along the line of shining spiritual presences.

THE END

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares