A Marriage Below Zero/Chapter XIV
The strength of my resolution to arrive at a definite comprehension of the situation in which I found myself, acted in a sort of sedative manner upon my unstrung nerves. Though I raged during the ride from Grosvenor Square to Kew, at the end of my journey I was calm; desperately calm.
I dressed for dinner with just as much care as usual, and though I did not "frivol" before the glass, and think what an attractive little lady I was, I omitted nothing in my toilette that could render me more comely.
I found Arthur in the dining-room when I entered that gloomy apartment, and we greeted each other in just the same friendly, platonic manner that had ever marked our demeanor towards one another. We sat opposite to one another at the long table, and I prepared myself for my usual hour of small talk upon the theatres, the latest pictures, the political situation, and a variety of other topics.
I could feel no interest in anything, however. Horrible visions of Arthur, my husband, tête-à-tête with another woman, would fill my brain to the exclusion of everything else; disgust at my husband's deceit; contempt for my own inability to please him; wonder as to how it would all end, and a bewildering attempt to remember everything I had planned to say, played havoc with my conversational powers.
Yes, I was outrageously jealous—blindly, hatefully jealous, with the jealousy which Sardou loves to imagine and Bernhardt to portray, and though I was by no means dramatically inclined, I felt that my situation was unusual. I tried to prolong the meal. I was determined to "have it out," as the saying is, and yet I dreaded the process, because I felt that Arthur must be guilty. I knew I should feel sorry for him. He was one of those few men who could make you pity him at the same time that he cut your throat, and I was one of those many women in whom unnatural compassion exists in all its power.
Dinner was over. I could not prolong it any further if I tried. He had risen from the table. He was about to leave me—"Arthur." I swallowed a lump. My voice sounded choked.
"Elsie," he said, turning at once, and coming back to me. He stood and looked in my face with the cool, un-ardent friendship which I hated to see there. " What is it?"
He waited patiently while I gulped again and strove to be cool.
"May I speak to you, Arthur?"
"Why, Elsie, have you not been speaking to me for the last hour. I always like to hear you, dear. You are one of the most thoroughly sensible little women I have ever met. I—"
"Don't!" I cried, with a gesture of disgust. "Spare me. I do not want to discuss the newspapers, or talk pretty nothings, I wish to speak with you—quietly, you know—on a—a serious matter, con-connected only with ours-selves. Will you come into my sitting-room. Don't—be—afraid. I—I—will not k-keep you l-long."
My teeth chattered in my head with nervousness. I felt cold. My husband looked more uncomfortable than I did. He fidget ted with his feet. His lips twitched slightly. Oh, he knew what was coming as well as I did.
"Will you come?" I repeated as he stood mute and uneasy before me.
"Of course," with an effort, "if you wish it."
If I wished it? I bore him off to my sitting-room. He had never entered the apartment before with me, except when he first introduced me to it. I closed the door. He waited until I took an arm-chair by the window. Then he quietly sat down at the other end of the room and picked up a book. His evident fear that I was about to become demonstrative, while it cut me to the quick, was not without its ridiculous side.
"Ha! Ha!" I laughed hysterically, "you need not be afraid. I won't kiss you. I've not brought you here to tell you how I love you; that would not be original enough to please you—or me. Ha! Ha! Ha!"
I threw myself back in my chair and laughed until the tears rolled down my face. I felt the acutest anguish—and still I laughed. My heart was harrowed by this man's neglect and contempt—and still I laughed. I could not help it. I suppose it was a physiological peculiarity.
Finally I covered my face in my hands and sobbed convulsively.
"Elsie," cried Arthur in the greatest alarm, "you are ill. What is the matter? I" (rising) "will go for Dr. White."
He wanted to get out of the room. If he did, I should see him no more that day. He reckoned without his host.
"I want no doctor," I declared, rising and standing with my back to the door, all hysteria vanished. "If I do, James shall go, and you can remain here with me. I—I know you will like that."
Again I laughed long and passionately. I was becoming exhausted by this most exhausting emotion. Great goodness! I must make an effort. Here the minutes were slipping quickly by and I had not accomplished a thing. My rival was yet unknown to me.
"Excuse me, Arthur," I said quietly, after a long pause in which he paced the floor uneasily, "your experience with women," I looked him keenly in the face, "will tell you that I—I—am—am—out of sorts."
"What do you mean, Elsie?"
No one could have better feigned surprise I told myself. Arthur Ravener must be an accomplished actor. There was the genuine astonishment, caused by a revelation, upon his face.
"You know what I mean," I answered.
"I do not. I swear it."
"You do," I cried, trying unsuccessfully not to ruin my cause by bitter denunciation. "You do"—more quietly. I walked over to him, grasped his arm, and looked into his face. "Now," I said, "tell me honestly, and as a man, that you do not know what I mean."
He shook me off. He was growing angry. "I will tell you nothing," he said, not glancing at me, "until you have explained yourself."
"Very well. Listen. When a young girl marries a man who a few hours after the wedding leaves her alone in a strange house; who makes a lame excuse for his action and subsequently increases his offense against respect and affection by permitting her to pass her time in absolute solitude; who for love substitutes the coldest and most indifferent friendship; who spends a large part of his time in town, leaving her in the country, and attempts no sort of explanation—when he does all this, what is she to suspect?"
He had been growing paler while I put the questions, but as I concluded he started up in undisguised fear—yes, it was fear.
"Suspect?" he asked, hoarsely. " What right have you to suspect anything? All shame upon the education of girls to-day, if a child like you dares to suspect."
He was as white as a sheet and unreasonably angry.
"You are an excellent diplomat," I said satirically. "You knew too well what a child I was when you married me. The extent of my knowledge of good and evil had been very well gauged by you. I have suspected nothing, and you know it. But, thank Heaven, my blindness has been cured. I can see it all now."
"You have been gossiping," he exclaimed, glaring at me.
"I have done nothing of the kind. I have been neglected and humiliated. I knew no reason why this state of things should exist, so—I asked my mother's advice."
The shot struck home. Arthur Ravener gasped for breath. He seemed absolutely unable to speak.
"You—asked—your—mother's—advice," he managed to articulate, presently. "And—what—did—she—tell—you?"
"She told me this, and I confront you with it: that there was undeniable proof in your neglect that you cared nothing for me, except as a sort of respectable cloak, but that there must be another woman whom you loved, and whom you visited when you were not at Tavistock Villa."
If I had not known that such a thing must be impossible I should have imagined that Arthur's exclamation was one of relief. The expression of his face changed at once from one of intense alarm to comparative composure. He took a seat, leaned his elbows on his knees, covered his face with his hand, and remained silent.
"Why do you not speak?" I asked impatiently.
"Listen, Elsie," drawing closer to me. "I will be brief. Years ago I vowed I would never marry; you may think that was a boyish resolve. It was not; I thoroughly meant it, as a man. The reason was that women were too exacting, though a house without a women in it was and still is to me a terribly lonely, uninteresting place. I resolved never to marry. I met you. As you say very justly, I studied you carefully. I came to the conclusion that you were unlike other girls—that we would live quietly and happily together as friends—you going your way and I going mine. I say I firmly believed that this could be done when I married you. I esteemed you greatly, and, Elsie," he paused for a moment, "my esteem has been increased tenfold. Lately, however, it has seemed to me that our life was becoming distasteful to you. At first I thought nothing of the symptoms, but I was unable to think thus lightly of them, later. Elsie," his voice quivering with emotion, "suppose we have made a great mistake?"
For a few moments I was bewildered. His argument was made in such a pathetic tone, that I felt unnatural compassion for him at the expense of my own womanliness would ruin the situation, if I were not on my guard.
"I do not understand you," I said. "You have not answered my mother's suggestions. If—if you love another woman, make a clean breast of it to me—your wife, and oh, Arthur," melting in spite of myself, "I—I will try to—to forgive you the wrong you have done me."
I seized his hand in a frenzy of grief. If only he would tell me all, everything could be remedied, I felt sure.
"Who is the woman?" I asked boldly.
He made no answer.
"Tell me who she is and all shall be set right."
He smiled at me pitifully. "She does not exist," he said. "Elsie, you are the only woman in the world to me."
I recoiled from him in disgust. "You are equivocating," I said sternly. "Be frank while there is still time."
"I am frank," he said in a choked voice.
"Swear that you are telling me the truth."
"I swear it."
I arose. The numbness of despair was upon me. My suffering was deadened, my nerves were lulled into temporary quietude. There was nothing further needed. He had lied to me. I knew that. I had been so blind, that the light shed upon me by my mother's revelation seemed twenty times more powerful to me than if it had not come upon me so suddenly.
"Thank you," I said, opening the door. "Let me apologize for having detained you so long. Good-night."
He had nothing more to say. He passed out of the room, without one glance in my direction.