Man and Wife

Wilkie Collins

Chapter 4 - The Two


He advanced a few steps, and stopped. Absorbed in herself, Anne failed to hear him. She never moved.

"I have come, as you made a point of it," he said, sullenly. "But, mind you, it isn't safe."

At the sound of his voice, Anne turned toward him. A change of expression appeared in her face, as she slowly advanced from the back of the summer-house, which revealed a likeness to her moth er, not perceivable at other times. As the mother had looked, in by-gone days, at the man who had disowned her, so the daughter looked at Geoffrey Delamayn--with the same terrible composure, and the same terrible contempt.

"Well?" he asked. "What have you got to say to me?"

"Mr. Delamayn," she answered, "you are one of the fortunate people of this world. You are a nobleman's son. You are a handsome man. You are popular at your college. You are free of the best houses in England. Are you something besides all this? Are you a coward and a scoundrel as well?"

He started--opened his lips to speak--checked himself--and made an uneasy attempt to laugh it off. "Come!" he said, "keep your temper."

The suppressed passion in her began to force its way to the surface.

"Keep my temper?" she repeated. "Do _you_ of all men expect me to control myself? What a memory yours must be! Have you forgotten the time when I was fool enough to think you were fond of me? and mad enough to believe you could keep a promise?"

He persisted in trying to laugh it off. "Mad is a strongish word to use, Miss Silvester!"

"Mad is the right word! I look back at my own infatuation--and I can't account for it; I can't understand myself. What was there in _you_," she asked, with an outbreak of contemptuous surprise, "to attract such a woman as I am?"

His inexhaustible good-nature was proof even against this. He put his hands in his pockets, and said, "I'm sure I don't know."

She turned away from him. The frank brutality of the answer had not offended her. It forced her, cruelly forced her, to remember that she had nobody but herself to blame for the position in which she stood at that moment. She was unwilling to let him see how the remembrance hurt her--that was all. A sad, sad story; but it must be told. In her mother's time she had been the sweetest, the most lovable of children. In later days, under the care of her mother's friend, her girlhood had passed so harmlessly and so happily--it seemed as if the sleeping passions might sleep forever! She had lived on to the prime of her womanhood--and then, when the treasure of her life was at its richest, in one fatal moment she had flung it away on the man in whose presence she now stood.

Was she without excuse? No: not utterly without excuse.

She had seen him under other aspects than the aspect which he presented now. She had seen him, the hero of the river-race, the first and foremost man in a trial of strength and skill which had roused the enthusiasm of all England. She had seen him, the central object of the interest of a nation; the idol of the popular worship and the popular applause. _His_ were the arms whose muscle was celebrated in the newspapers. _He_ was first among the heroes hailed by ten thousand roaring throats as the pride and flower of England. A woman, in an atmosphere of red-hot enthusiasm, witnesses the apotheosis of Physical Strength. Is it reasonable--is it just--to expect her to ask herself, in cold blood, What (morally and intellectually) is all this worth?--and that, when the man who is the object of the apotheosis, notices her, is presented to her, finds her to his taste, and singles her out from the rest? No. While humanity is humanity, the woman is not utterly without excuse.

Has she escaped, without suffering for it?

Look at her as she stands there, tortured by the knowledge of her own secret--the hideous secret which she is hiding from the innocent girl, whom she loves with a sister's love. Look at her, bowed down under a humiliation which is unutterable in words. She has seen him below the surface--now, when it is too late. She rates him at his true value--now, when her reputation is at his mercy. Ask her the question: What was there to love in a man who can speak to you as that man has spoken, who can treat you as that man is treating you now? you so clever, so cultivated, so refined--what, in Heaven's name, could _you_ see in him? Ask her that, and she will have no answer to give. She will not even remind you that he was once your model of manly beauty, too--that you waved your handkerchief till you could wave it no longer, when he took his seat, with the others, in the boat--that your heart was like to jump out of your bosom, on that later occasion when he leaped the last hurdle at the foot-race, and won it by a head. In the bitterness of her remorse, she will not even seek for _that_ excuse for herself. Is there no atoning suffering to be seen here? Do your sympathies shrink from such a character as this? Follow her, good friends of virtue, on the pilgrimage that leads, by steep and thorny ways, to the purer atmosphere and the nobler life. Your fellow-creature, who has sinned and has repented--you have the authority of the Divine Teacher for it--is your fellow-creature, purified and ennobled. A joy among the angels of heaven--oh, my brothers and sisters of the earth, have I not laid my hand on a fit companion for You?

There was a moment of silence in the summer-house. The cheerful tumult of the lawn-party was pleasantly audible from the distance. Outside, the hum of voices, the laughter of girls, the thump of the croquet-mallet against the ball. Inside, nothing but a woman forcing back the bitter tears of sorrow and shame--and a man who was tired of her.

She roused herself. She was her mother's daughter; and she had a spark of her mother's spirit. Her life depended on the issue of that interview. It was useless--without father or brother to take her part--to lose the last chance of appealing to him. She dashed away the tears--time enough to cry, is time easily found in a woman's existence--she dashed away the tears, and spoke to him again, more gently than she had spoken yet.

"You have been three weeks, Geoffrey, at your brother Julius's place, not ten miles from here; and you have never once ridden over to see me. You would not have come to-day, if I had not written to you to insist on it. Is that the treatment I have deserved?"

She paused. There was no answer.

"Do you hear me?" she asked, advancing and speaking in louder tones.

He was still silent. It was not in human endurance to bear his contempt. The warning of a coming outbreak began to show itself in her face. He met it, beforehand, with an impenetrable front. Feeling nervous about the interview, while he was waiting in the rose-garden--now that he stood committed to it, he was in full possession of himself. He was composed enough to remember that he had not put his pipe in its case--composed enough to set that little matter right before other matters went any farther. He took the case out of one pocket, and the pipe out of another.

"Go on," he said, quietly. "I hear you."

She struck the pipe out of his hand at a blow. If she had had the strength she would have struck him down with it on the floor of the summer-house.

"How dare you use me in this way?" she burst out, vehemently. "Your conduct is infamous. Defend it if you can!"

He made no attempt to defend it. He looked, with an expression of genuine anxiety, at the fallen pipe. It was beautifully colored--it had cost him ten shillings. "I'll pick up my pipe first," he said. His face brightened pleasantly--he looked handsomer than ever--as he examined the precious object, and put it back in the case. "All right," he said to himself. "She hasn't broken it." His attitude as he looked at her again, was the perfection of easy grace--the grace that attends on cultivated strength in a state of repose. "I put it to your own common-sense, " he said, in the most reasonable manner, "what's the good of bullying me? You don't want them to hear you, out on the lawn there--do you? You women are all alike. There's no beating a little prudence into your heads, try how one may."

There he waited, expecting her to speak. She waited, on her side, and forced him to go on.

"Look here," he said, "there's no need to quarrel, you know. I don't want to break my promise; but what can I do ? I'm not the eldest son. I'm dependent on my father for every farthing I have; and I'm on bad terms with him already. Can't you see it yourself? You're a lady, and all that, I know. But you're only a governess. It's your interest as well as mine to wait till my father has provided for me. Here it is in a nut-shell: if I marry you now, I'm a ruined man."

The answer came, this time.

"You villain if you _don't_ marry me, I am a ruined woman!"

"What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean. Don't look at me in that way."

"How do you expect me to look at a woman who calls me a villain to my face?"

She suddenly changed her tone. The savage element in humanity--let the modern optimists who doubt its existence look at any uncultivated man (no matter how muscular), woman (no matter how beautiful), or child (no matter how young)--began to show itself furtively in his eyes, to utter itself furtively in his voice. Was he to blame for the manner in which he looked at her and spoke to her? Not he! What had there been in the training of _his_ life (at school or at college) to soften and subdue the savage element in him? About as much as there had been in the training of his ancestors (without the school or the college) five hundred years since.

It was plain that one of them must give way. The woman had the most at stake--and the woman set the example of submission.

"Don't be hard on me," she pleaded. "I don't mean to be hard on _you._ My temper gets the better of me. You know my temper. I am sorry I forgot myself. Geoffrey, my whole future is in your hands. Will you do me justice?"

She came nearer, and laid her hand persuasively on his arm.

"Haven't you a word to say to me? No answer? Not even a look?" She waited a moment more. A marked change came over her. She turned slowly to leave the summer-house. "I am sorry to have troubled you, Mr. Delamayn. I won't detain you any longer."

He looked at her. There was a tone in her voice that he had never heard before. There was a light in her eyes that he had never seen in them before. Suddenly and fiercely he reached out his hand, and stopped her.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

She answered, looking him straight in the face, "Where many a miserable woman has gone before me. Out of the world."

He drew her nearer to him, and eyed her closely. Even _his_ intelligence discovered that he had brought her to bay, and that she really meant it!

"Do you mean you will destroy yourself?" he said.

"Yes. I mean I will destroy myself."

He dropped her arm. "By Jupiter, she _does_ mean it!"

With that conviction in him, he pushed one of the chairs in the summer-house to her with his foot, and signed to her to take it. "Sit down!" he said, roughly. She had frightened him--and fear comes seldom to men of his type. They feel it, when it does come, with an angry distrust; they grow loud and brutal, in instinctive protest against it. "Sit down!" he repeated. She obeyed him. "Haven't you got a word to say to me?" he asked, with an oath. No! there she sat, immovable, reckless how it ended--as only women can be, when women's minds are made up. He took a turn in the summer-house and came back, and struck his hand angrily on the rail of her chair. "What do you want?"

"You know what I want."

He took another turn. There was nothing for it but to give way on his side, or run the risk of something happening which might cause an awkward scandal, and come to his father's ears.

"Look here, Anne," he began, abruptly. "I have got something to propose."

She looked up at him.

"What do you say to a private marriage?"

Without asking a single question, without making objections, she answered him, speaking as bluntly as he had spoken himself:

"I consent to a private marriage."

He began to temporize directly.

"I own I don't see how it's to be managed--"

She stopped him there.

"I do!"

"What!" he cried out, suspiciously. "You have thought of it yourself, have you?"

"Yes."

"And planned for it?"

"And planned for it!"

"Why didn't you tell me so before?"

She answered haughtily; insisting on the respect which is due to women--the respect which was doubly due from _him,_ in her position.

"Because _you_ owed it to _me,_ Sir, to speak first."

"Very well. I've spoken first. Will you wait a little?"

"Not a day!"

The tone was positive. There was no mistaking it. Her mind was made up.

"Where's the hurry?"

"Have you eyes?" she asked, vehemently. "Have you ears? Do you see how Lady Lundie looks at me? Do you hear how Lady Lundie speaks to me? I am suspected by that woman. My shameful dismissal from this house may be a question of a few hours." Her head sunk on her bosom; she wrung her clasped hands as they rested on her lap. "And, oh, Blanche!" she moaned to herself, the tears gathering again, and falling, this time, unchecked. "Blanche, who looks up to me! Blanche, who loves me! Blanche, who told me, in this very place, that I was to live with her when she was married!" She started up from the chair; the tears dried suddenly; the hard despair settled again, wan and white, on her face. "Let me go! What is death, compared to such a life as is waiting for _me?_" She looked him over, in one disdainful glance from head to foot; her voice rose to its loudest and firmest tones." Why, even _you_; would have the courage to die if you were in my place!"

Geoffrey glanced round toward the lawn.

"Hush!" he said. "They will hear you!"

"Let them hear me! When _I_ am past hearing _them_, what does it matter?"

He put her back by main force on the chair. In another moment they must have heard her, through all the noise and laughter of the game.

"Say what you want," he resumed, "and I'll do it. Only be reasonable. I can't marry you to-day."

"You can!"

"What nonsense you talk! The house and grounds are swarming with company. It can't be!"

"It can! I have been thinking about it ever since we came to this house. I have got something to propose to you. Will you hear it, or not?"

"Speak lower!"

"Will you hear it, or not?"

"There's somebody coming!"

"Will you hear it, or not?"

"The devil take your obstinacy! Yes!"

The answer had been wrung from him. Still, it was the answer she wanted--it opened the door to hope. The instant he had consented to hear her her mind awakened to the serious necessity of averting discovery by any third person who might stray idly into the summer-house. She held up her hand for silence, and listened to what was going forward on the lawn.

The dull thump of the croquet-mallet against the ball was no longer to be heard. The game had stopped.

In a moment more she heard her own name called. An interval of another instant passed, and a familiar voice said, "I know where she is. I'll fetch her."

She turned to Geoffrey, and pointed to the back of the summer-house.

"It's my turn to play," she said. "And Blanche is coming here to look for me. Wait there, and I'll stop her on the steps."

She went out at once. It was a critical moment. Discovery, which meant moral-ruin to the woman, meant money-ruin to the man. Geoffrey had not exaggerated his position with his father. Lord Holchester had twice paid his debts, and had declined to see him since. One more outrage on his father's rigid sense of propriety, and he would be left out of the will as well as kept out of the house. He looked for a means of retreat, in case there was no escaping unperceived by the front entrance. A door--intended for the use of servants, when picnics and gipsy tea-parties were given in the summer-house--had been made in the back wall. It opened outward, and it was locked. With his strength it was easy to remove that obstacle. He put his shoulder to the door. At the moment when he burst it open he felt a hand on his arm. Anne was behind him, alone.

"You may want it before long," she said, observing the open door, without expressing any surprise, "You don't want it now. Another person will play for me--I have told Blanche I am not well. Sit down. I have secured a respite of five minutes, and I must make the most of it. In that time, or less, Lady Lundie's suspicions will bring her here--to see how I am. For the present, shut the door."

She seated herself, and pointed to a second chair. He took it--with his eye on the closed door.

"Come to the point!" he said, impatiently. "What is it?"

"You can marry me privately to-day," she answered. "Lis ten--and I will tell you how!"