A Marriage Below Zero/Chapter XII
I am not going to weary my readers by describing in detail the ensuing days of my married life. I adopted the new policy I had mapped out. I became apparently indifferent to my husband's presence, uninterested in his nightly outgoings and his matutinal incomings, while at the same time I treated him with studied politeness and friendly affability. We talked and laughed at the dinner-table. We discussed politics—I made it a point of disagreeing with him, for the sake of permitting him to try and win me over to his way of thinking. Of course I let him finally convince me, and then declared how foolish I must have been ever to have thought otherwise. Then we talked books—I in my superficial way, he in his earnest, well read manner. I knew the names of the authors of nearly all the popular works of the day; I was one of those airy beings who examine the covers of books, dip into catalogues, and taste literature, as it were, from the outside.
He was really so entertaining that at times I forgot I was only playing a part. I could not help thinking that he would have enjoyed the conversation just as much if it had taken place with somebody else. I suppose I seemed rather bright—some women as shallow as I was often manage to appear so. I do not believe he appreciated this brightness because it belonged to his wife, but merely—bah; I hate analysis. After all, what I believed on this subject is neither here nor there.
I made not the slightest impression upon Arthur Ravener. A month had flown by since I had stood in my dollish finery at the hymeneal altar. Our walks had been dropped. That was one of the effects of my policy. He seemed perfectly satisfied. He had evidently thought that these "constitutionals" were necessary for my happiness. If I chose to discontinue them—well, then, they were not necessary for my happiness. It was very simple after all.
At breakfast, at luncheon, and at dinner, here I was—there he was. He was as platonically kind as any man could be. He always made enquiries as to my health, my wishes, my plans. I had but to suggest a thing, and I had his acquiescence almost before I had made the suggestion. And all this time, I was eating my heart out for love of this iceberg.
Women must be contemptible things. If I were a man I suppose I could not give utterance to such an ungallant remark, but no one can find fault with me when my sex is taken into consideration, and I am quite sure I shall find plenty of sisters to agree with me.
The old adage about the woman, the dog and the hickory tree, which nicely explains that the more you beat 'em the better they'll be, seems to me wonderfully true. Why should I care for this man? ' I was very young, of course, hut I knew perfectly well that this utter neglect was simply outrageous. I remembered my horror at the compliments and pretty speeches with which my partners in the ball-rooms of my friends had overwhelmed me. I had hated them for their silly, tinsel-bound sentiments; their ill expressed admiration. I still did so. I should have been just as disgusted if I had heard them at the present time. But there was a happy medium to alt things.
Between the conspicuously ridiculous adulation of comparative strangers, and the brotherly indifference of the man I had married, there must be a middle path of warm yet not necessarily demonstrative affection. I thought of the bride and bridegroom whom Arthur and I had criticised one night. "It disgusts me," I recollected saying, when Arthur had asked me if their conversation, to which we had listened, interested me. Well, I had no cause for such disgust in my own home. Arthur's indifference seemed to be unaffected by any policy I might adopt. I even tried to make him jealous. There was a bashful youth, who wore glasses and a perpetual smile, living close to Tavistock Villa, with an adoring mamma and two prim sisters, to whom Hector was as the apple of their eye. He had frequently cast admiringly modest glances in my direction when he had stumbled across Marie and me in our daily walks.
"Il a l'air joliment bête," Marie said tome once in the loud security of the French language as we passed the gallant youth. He must have thought the remark was a flattering one, because he looked even more seraphically pleasant than usual. Dasy was his surname. He lacked the i which would have given him some claim upon the dainty characteristics of that little flower.
Mr. Dasy amused me. The delectable idea occurred to me to use him. I would cultivate his society. I would make Arthur desperately jealous. I had always heard that those bashful, rose-colored youths were the most dangerous, and if I had heard it, surely my husband had. Who could possibly introduce us? Of course I could smile at him and encourage him that way, but I was not inclined to have recourse to the methods of an unscrupulous flirt, when I was very far from being one. How I wished that flirting came as naturally to me as it did to some women.
I could call on Mamma Dasy if I liked. Neighborly courtesy would surely sanction that, but I felt I could not do it. I had an awful idea that this mamma might patronize me. I had a hideous presentiment that she would come and see us and wonder why we were not more affectionate. I could tell by her face that she was one of those women who think it the duty of a young married couple to do a little billing and cooing pro bono publico. I could not possibly introduce prying eyes into my strange household. I think I should have dreaded any eyes at all, at that time. I was growing morbid. Even Marie was too many for me occasionally.
Fortune favored me. One afternoon, feeling more wretched than usual, and knowing that my husband was safely shut up in his sanctum and that I should not see him until dinner time, I took up a book and strolled towards the gardens. I selected a shady spot, opened my volume, and was soon engrossed in its contents.
When I looked up I found that I was not alone. There, sure enough, as large as life, and equally ugly, sat the Misses Dasy—sister Euphemia and sister Sophronia. They were knitting. If they had been reading I should have looked up in surprise; if they had been drawing, my hair would have stood on end; if they had been indulging in small talk, it would have seemed indecent;—but they were knitting. It looked so natural. They belonged to the knitting class of females. As I said, I looked up. I smiled. Sister Sophronia smiled. Sister Euphemia smiled. We all smiled.
"How strange we do not meet more frequently, Mrs. Ravener," quoth sister Euphemia. "Hector says he often comes across you and your maid." "Yes," chirped sister Sophronia, "we wondered why we so rarely met you."
I thanked the stars—mentally, of course—that I had not been inflicted before. Now, however, I was rather glad to see them, as by them I might find access to dear Hector. So I told no fib when I remarked that I was charmed, though I am afraid that I should not have permitted a fib or two to stand in my way if they could have done me any good.
"Mr. Ravener does not believe in country walks, I suppose," remarked Euphemia presently, "like most men," she added.
Hateful sister Euphemia! I am convinced that her acquaintance with men must have been limited to dear Hector, and—as Portia says—God made him, so let him pass as a man.
"Hush, Euphemia," said Sophronia in an audible aside, and in a virtuous tone. She could not have made any remark less calculated to please me. It was evident they had been discussing us.
"My husband is a literary man and writes all day long," said I, with one of the serenest, most child-like and fancy-picture smiles I had ever conjured up. "I dislike to disturb him, you know. Men are such queer things, are they not?"
"Yes," laughed Sophronia girlishly.
"Indeed they are," simpered Euphemia, dropping a stitch as a punishment for her giddiness.
"Is your brother a literary man?" I asked boldly.
"Oh, no," said Sophronia, scornfully, "dear Hector is nicely established in the hop business—malt and hops, you know." (Evidently imagining that I might think he was a dancing master).
"He is taking a holiday just now. He has been working so hard. Dear Hector!"
"He admires you, Mrs. Ravener," quoth Euphemia. "He says you have a face like a woman in—in—some painting, I can't remember the name."
Great goodness! Perhaps he referred to one of the paintings given away with a pound of tea. She was so vague, that fond sister.
"Mr. Dasy compliments me," I said artlessly. "Do you know I think he is a very interesting looking young man. Hector you said his name was? Ah, it is not a misnomer." I sighed just a little.
I felt they always told Hector everything. I was convinced that my utterances would be repeated unembellished. We chatted on pleasantly for half an hour. I made myself as nice as I possibly could, and I think I succeeded in impressing them favorably. I reserved my master-stroke for my departure.
"Good-bye, dear Miss Sophronia—good-bye, dear Miss Euphemia," I said gushingly, as I rose to go. "I am so delighted to have met you. You must call upon me" (I had to say it). "I have enjoyed this afternoon hugely. The garden was certainly charming. I really think I shall come every day this week, beginning with to-morrow—" this with a little affected chirrup which might signify that I did not really mean it.
Ah, they would tell Hector, and he would accompany them to-morrow. For a beginner in the fashionable art of diplomacy, I was not so bad after all. They looked admiringly after me as I went, and I felt that they would gaze in my direction long after I could see them.
I was formally introduced to Mr. Dasy the following day. The modest hop merchant was completely overwhelmed. He grew purple in the face at everything I said for the first quarter of an hour, which means that his countenance was tinged with that royal hue during the entire fifteen minutes, for he allowed me to do all the talking. I did not flirt. I tried to do so, but could not succeed. I spoke sensibly, flattered Mr. Dasy a little—if that does not give discredit to my statement that I spoke sensibly—and simply allowed him to see that I liked talking to him. Hector certainly was not given to flattery.
He told me all about hops, the magnificent prospects for next year, how last year's crop had been anything but a good one; how terribly small the profits were in these times of cut-throat competition, and similar edifying facts. His talk was hoppy in the extreme. I felt that if only I could have talked malt the combination would have lulled us into beery intoxication.
For a week I cultivated the society of Hector Dasy. I should have been bored to death if I had not kept my object in view. I walked him up and down the Branston Road, in front of the windows of Tavistock Villa. I knew Arthur saw us at least twice, but he said nothing at all.
He was just as amiably indifferent when I, met him at dinner; he spoke just as entertainly; not by the faintest indication on his part, was I hurting him. Branston Road only possessed about half a dozen extremely detached houses, so I was not at all afraid of the neighbors. If the thoroughfare, however, had been densely fined with tenements, I do not think it would have made the least difference in my course of action.
At last I resolved upon a final stroke. If it did not succeed I would drop Mr. Dasy, perfectly convinced that I could never make Arthur jealous. It was rather a risky thing to do. I asked Hector Dasy to bring me a book that I particularly wanted, and kept him during the entire afternoon, my willing slave. Before this, I told James to give Mr. Ravener's letters into my possession and to inform his master, as soon as he came in, that I had them. I did this merely in order that Arthur should be forced to enter the drawing-room and see how nicely Hector Dasy and I agreed.
Never had any afternoon passed so slowly for me. The presence of this young man annoyed me intensely and all the more because in order to keep him, I was forced to talk prettily and incessantly. Mr. Dasy was something of a coxcomb with all his bashfulness. I saw with alarm that he really imagined I liked him. I wondered what he would have said if I had told him the true facts of the case. Just before six o'clock, which was my husband's time for returning from town, when he passed the day there, I completed my Macchiavellianism. I had purchased a quantity of wool, which I wanted wound. I was determined that Mr. Dasy should hold it for me. I made him kneel on the rug before me, and at six o'clock I was winding for dear life, and he was smiling beatifically.
Ah! I heard Arthur's step at last. I could always recognize it. James was telling him that I had his letters. James had told. He was coming in my direction. The door opened. He entered.
Now for my rôle. "Arthur," I said with affected hesitation, "let me introduce you to my friend, Mr. Dasy—Mr. Dasy, my husband, Mr. Ravener."
I watched Arthur's face. I did not dare to look at poor Mr. Dasy. My husband's countenance showed positively no change. "I am glad to meet you, Mr. Dasy," he began, "I see you are making yourself useful. Isn't it rather too much to ask visitors to assist in such a laborious operation as wool winding, Elsie?" he said, smiling at me in all good fellowship, perfectly satisfied as though Hector had been Marie or—not to libel my French maid by comparison—a dummy from a tailor's shop.
"Mr. Dasy has been here idling away the afternoon," I said as lightly as I could, "and I thought I would utilize his services."
"Delighted, I'm sure," put in poor Hector, who had been looking for his tongue and had only just found it.
"You have my letters, have you not, Elsie?" asked Arthur, coming at once to business.
"Yes," I said coldly, "I took them because I thought they—er—looked—er—important," lamely.
Hector Dasy soon found an opportunity to go. Of course he knew I had a husband, but I presume he had not reckoned upon an introduction while wool-winding. Poor Hector! I felt a little guilty, or should have done if I had given myself the time.
"Dasy seems a nice young fellow, Elsie," said Arthur coolly, at dinner that night. "His family have lived in Kew for years. Eminently respectable. Old Dasy left them well off. I am glad you have discovered congenial society among our neighbors, Elsie," looking at me in such a friendly, disinterested fashion, that I shuddered. "You are mistress here, dear, and you can ask as many people to Tavistock Villa as you like. I shall never interfere."
Of that I now felt certain. Well, my plot had been an utter and a dismal failure. All my time had been spent for nothing. I had cultivated this nonenity with an object in view. The nonenity was there in all his cultivation, and the object had disappeared. I could never make my husband jealous.
What could I do? Tavistock Villa was becoming disgusting to me. I could not endure its atmosphere much longer. I would go up to London to-morrow, make a confidant of my mother—a thing I had never yet done—and hear what she thought about the situation.