A Marriage Below Zero/Chapter X
I could not sleep. I tried my hardest to woo the old humbug Morpheus, who is always on hand when not wanted, but fails to respond to urgent appeals. I was as wide awake as I had been in the early morning, with the sole difference that I was now feverish and oppressed. I rang the bell that communicated with Marie's room. She responded to the call, looking horribly sleepy and unlovely, poor girl.
"Marie," I said, "I cannot sleep, Would you mind sitting with me until morning? I don't know what is the matter with me, but I am too wide awake even to doze."
I threw open the window of my room and let the cool night breezes blow through my refractory tresses. It was a glorious moonlight night, and as I looked at the pretty little gardens in the lovely blue-white illumination, I felt less ill at ease.
"Madame will take cold," Marie ventured to remark.
"Madame is not so fragile as she looks," was my reply. A crunching sound below made me start and look down. Surely I could not be mistaken. My husband and Captain Dillington were in the garden, slowly walking up and down, arm-in-arm. They were smoking placidly, and conversing in low, earnest tones, between puffs. I sent Marie to bed with a promptitude which must have caused her considerable astonishment. Truly by this time her ideas of English customs must have been of the Munchausen order. I did not know Arthur was so fond of nocturnal rambles. How glad I should have been had he asked me to join him. Perhaps he supposed that I was a delicate little reared-in-the-lap-of-luxury maiden, and felt that my wifely duties consisted in looking pretty and sitting at the head of the dinner-table. What a mistake he made!
I could see the two men distinctly, though they could not detect me behind the pretty plants that adorned my windows. I could hear them talking, though it was impossible to distinguish what they said while they were at a distance. They were approaching me, however, and as they came nearer their words fell distinctly on my ears. "She is a dear little thing, Dill," said Arthur nervously.
"What of that?" came quickly from the lips of the Captain.
"She deserves a better husband. I am beginning—"
"Don't begin then," angrily, "your wife is a mere child. Give her a comfortable home, handsome dresses, and the thousand little comforts that women love, and she will be your devoted admirer for many years to come. Don't let her read trashy books, and when you go into society, monopolize her yourself."
"Perhaps you are right, Dill," sighed Arthur, "you always are, old man, but—poor Elsie!"
I could hear no more. They were already far away, and I had strained my ears—if that be possible—to understand this much of their conversation. I am not sentimental, as I think I have already proved. It may have been the strange influences of the hour that unnerved me. The tears coursed slowly down my cheeks. The garden was blotted from my sight.
The conversation between my husband and Captain Dillington had been couched in the language to which I had been accustomed all my life, and yet I could not have understood its meaning less, if it had been spoken in Greek. Why did I deserve a better husband? Arthur was as good as I was, I loyally believed. He might have a few eccentricities, but I had more faults. For each of his eccentricities I had two faults. I was flippant, childish, emotional. Perhaps, too, I myself was eccentric. Letty Bishop had always said so; my mother had ever declared it. It was Arthur who merited a better wife, not I who deserved a better husband. He had been rather inattentive to me during these early days of our married life. The only reason could be that I was not sufficiently attractive to him. I had not yet studied him enough to conform to his views. It surely was a "wife's duty to conform to her husband's views, and not a husband's obligation to regulate himself to his wife's ideas. You see what a dutiful little lady I was inclined to be.
I kept my eyes fixed upon the garden, and longed for an opportunity to go to Arthur and settle any little difficulties before they widened into an impassable gulf.
The opportunity came. With joy I saw Captain Dillington leave Arthur, throw aside his cigarette, and go into the house. I presumed that he intended to continue as our guest. I had made no preparation for him, however.
I dressed quicker than I had ever done before in my life, and throwing a long cloak over me, rushed down the stairs, pell mell, forgetting my previous views upon the matronly "sail." It was very dark in the hall. The fights had been diminished to a glimmer. I stumbled on my way to the door, and should have fallen if some one had not come to my aid.
"Mrs. Ravener!" exclaimed Captain Dillington—for he it was—in great surprise, "what are you doing about at this hour?"
"Have I not as much right to be about, as you call it, as you and my husband?"
He made no answer. I could not see his face. "You were not going out, surely, Mrs. Ravener?" he asked, a few seconds later.
"I was going out, and I am going out," said I with beautiful redundancy.
"You will take cold," he suggested, quickly; "the night air is very chilly, you know."
"Good-night, Captain Dillington,"—preparing to join Arthur. "I presume you intend remaining with us. You do not think of going up to town at this hour?" Sweetly hospitable, but I could not help it.
"Au revoir, then."
"Let me take you to your husband, Mrs. Ravener; you may stumble again, you know."
"Thank you, Captain Dillington, I can find my way."
"Let me accompany you; I am in no hurry to retire."
"No," I said sharply. "I should make no more ceremony with you than you do with me, if I wanted you. I wish to see Arthur, alone—alone, Captain Dillington."
"As you wish." He shrugged his shoulders, and with his unctuous smile, left me. I went forthwith into the gardens.
Arthur had taken possession of a rustic seat. His delicate profile was clearly defined in the moonlight. He was evidently deep in thought—and I suppose he had no idea that his reflections were about to be interrupted. I walked quickly across the damp, dewy grass, and before he knew it, I was seated beside him.
He started violently, and almost jumped from his seat.
"Elsie!" he exclaimed. "You here, and at this time. Why did you come? You will take a severe cold. You should not have ventured out."
"Would you mind very much if I did take a severe cold?"
"How can you be so foolish, Elsie?" he asked testily. " Of course, I should mind. Have I not charge of your future life? What is putting such strange ideas into your head, dear?"
"Arthur," I said slowly, "I was at my open window just now, and I heard you talking with Captain Dillington. Oh, I did not distinguish much of what you said," I went on, as I noticed he looked disconcerted. "You declared that I deserved a better husband, and Captain Dillington thought that I was a mere child, and that as long as I had a comfortable home, I should be happy. Am I a mere child, Arthur?"
"Are you?" he asked slowly, not meeting my eyes. "If you are, Elsie—and I believe it now, as I believed it when I first met you—try and remain so. Elsie, dear, be innocent and good as you now are as long as you can, for your own sake, and—" there were tears in his eyes—"for mine. If you only knew, dear, how anxious I am that your life should be a happy one—that through no fault of mine you should suffer—" he was agitated as I had never seen any man before. "Why did you come out to me here, Elsie. Why—why did you come?" this in feverish, excited tones.
"Because I love you, Arthur," I exclaimed vehemently, throwing my arms around his neck, all my theories as to the absurdity of demonstrative behavior gone to the winds.
"Don't, Elsie," he said, unclasping my arms.
"I will," I said, "I am your wife; you have no right to repulse me. Arthur," noticing with surprise his look of alarm, " you prefer Captain Dillington's company to mine. You selected him for your midnight stroll. You—you—you think n-n-nothing of me. Oh, Arthur, you are unkind, cruel, heartless."
I burst into a passion of tears, which were as much a surprise to me as they were to Arthur. It must have been years since I had wept, and now I was succumbing to a regular storm. I became hysterical. I remember feeling that I was making a fool of myself, and trying to laugh with the most ridiculous result.
"I may be a child," I sobbed, "but I don't want to be slighted; you—you are slighting me. You—do not care for me. You do not,—no—no—you do not. You hate me, I know it. You—wish—you were n-not married. Let me go home. I—I don't want to go, but—if—y-you think it would be better—Why don't you speak? Speak, Arthur, speak."
By this time I was beside myself. I was wrought up to a state of extreme excitement. Arthur said nothing. He took my hands quickly in his. I looked at him; his face was ghastly in its whiteness. His lips were as bloodless as his cheeks. His fingers were icy. I shrank back, from him. My excitement disappeared as rapidly as it had come. I sat beside him limp and subdued.
"Elsie," said Arthur, presently, in a broken voice. "I—I must be an awful wretch."
He put his hand before his eyes; I could see the tears trickling through his slender, white fingers. My heart reproached me. Why, oh, why was I born emotional? A plague upon emotional women, one and all, say I.
"You are not—you are not," I murmured, "I am to blame after all. Don't mind what I said, dear. It is this scene, and this—this hour which have affected me. I—I could not sleep—I—"
Arthur again took my hands in his. In his eyes, as he fixed them upon my face, I saw "a something" that sent a thrill of ecstatic bliss through my heart. He leaned forward, and pressed a kiss—warm and tender—upon my lips—the first be had ever voluntarily given me. I looked up.
A cold shudder ran through my frame, a feeling of intense disgust seemed to permeate my soul. Before us stood Captain Dillington, coldly statuesque and hatefully conspicuous. Arthur dropped my hands. The flush upon his face, which I could see in the moonlight, faded. His eyes still fixed upon mine—he had not looked at the captain—grew coldly and studiously friendly as ever. The change was startling.
"I trust you do not object to my cigar, Mrs. Ravener?" asked the intruder politely.
I would rather have inhaled the smoke of ten thousand cigars lighted at one time, than listened to one word from the repulsive lips of this man.
I could not answer him. "Good-night, Arthur," I said, and rising sped across the lawn to the house, and regained my chamber. I slept.