A Marriage Below Zero/Chapter XVI
I returned quietly home—that is to say, I was quiet when I reached Tavistock Villa. The interval between my departure from the office of Mr. Octavius Rickaby and my arrival in Kew was spent in the tedious process of schooling myself to be what I was not, and never could be—cold and stony. I felt that everything depended upon the systematic manner in which I conducted my investigation. If I gave the reins to my impulsiveness, I knew I should ruin my case.
My case! How I hated the sound of the words. The love I had brought to my wedded life had resolved itself into a subject for detectives; the husband, whom a few months back I had sworn at the altar to love and honor and obey, had become a suspect, whose conduct must be investigated; the promise of wedded felicity had degenerated into the certainty of—a case.
I might desist even now in my attempt to understand my situation. If I did so I could live comfortably, even luxuriously to the end of my days. I was rich, and could consequently make as many friends as I chose; I was intelligent—passably so—and could interest myself in the current events of the day. I was young—ah! that was it. Why was I young? Alas! I needed love, sympathy and respect. I was womanly in spite of my eccentricities, which were those of an ignorant, obstinate girl. What woman, young and impulsive, would consent to accept a situation such as that which had been thrust upon me—or into which I had voluntarily stepped, if you will,—for I do not attempt to defend myself?
No, I would not suffer such humiliation. "Let this be the last of my scruples," I said to myself as I dressed for dinner. "Let me know exactly what stands between me and my husband's love. It may possibly be removed, and then—." I loved Arthur desperately. If I could only have hated him, how much better would it have been for me—and for him.
"Madame is feverish," said Marie, suddenly, as she watched me in my efforts to beautify myself with those fine feathers which are correctly supposed to make fine birds.
Her words gave me a shock. I looked in the glass. Yes, I was feverish. My cheeks were burning. There was a hectic red upon each.' Evidently I had not succeeded in schooling myself into composure.
"What can I do, Marie?" I asked helplessly. "I do not want to have red cheeks."
Marie looked rather surprised, but her French experience thus appealed to, did me excellent service. At the end of ten minutes the color of my countenance was beautifully normal. The hectic spots had disappeared, at least from sight.
I went down to the dining room to eat my hateful dinner with Arthur. He was in a hopelessly conventional good humor. I succeeded—admirably, I thought—in emulating his complacence. To show the effect of my determination to keep from my husband any suspicion of my thoughts and actions, I chatted pleasantly upon a variety of subjects—the hackneyed aggressiveness of Lord Randolph Churchill; the new comic opera at the Savoy; the coming concert at St. James' Hall; Lady Toadyby's costume at the Queen's drawing-room; the accounts of Sardou's new play in Paris, with Bernhardt in the title role and—yes! I did it—the latest divorce case, minus the details, of course.
I read everything, understood nearly all that I read, focussed it in my mind, and you see was prepared to present it in good evening dress as an accessory to the dinner of my lord and master. I consider I did bravely. I had never done better. Arthur looked up thoroughly pleased. He little knew that beneath my coat—the coat that Marie put upon my cheeks—two scarlet spots were burning, and that my soul sickened of Lord Randolph Churchill, the Savoy Theatre, St. James' Hall, Lady Toadyby and all the rest of it.
Dinner was over—thank goodness!
"Are you going out to-night, Arthur?" I asked carelessly.
"Yes, Elsie, I—I—think so. Why?"
I had long ceased to interest myself in his actions as far as he could see. He had, therefore. a right to feel rather surprised w hen I questioned him on the subject now.
"Nothing," I answered vaguely.
"Can I do anything for you?"
"Oh, no, thank you." I was so amiable that he was more taken aback. "I must be careful," I said to myself.
As I vouchsafed no further remark, he left me, and half an hour afterwards I heard the front door close behind him.
Now, then, if I could only aid Detective Rickaby in any way. I had several long hours before me, with nothing more inviting than a novel which had been recommended to me by dear Miss Euphemia Dasy, and which I knew I should hate, with which to distract myself.
I went at once to Arthur's study, at least as far as the door, which I found locked. I shook it rather severely, in the silly hope that it would yield to such inducements. The chivalrous and interesting James happened to pass me at the time. He cast a look of intense surprise in my direction.
"You can't get in," he said with a grin.
"So I perceive," I remarked with affected resignation, walking slowly away as James departed for the lower regions. I slipped on a big straw hat, ran into the garden, and surveyed the prospect of effecting an entrance into my husband's sanctum from that point. It was not so hopeless. The room had a large window, not more than three feet from the ground, opening into the garden. The window was shrouded with thick curtains, so that it was impossible to see from the garden into the room.
With supreme satisfaction I noticed that the window was unlocked. My course was not left long undecided. It may not have been a particularly ladylike, but it was a vigorous one. I sprang upon the window sill, stood up, and very soon saw the glass obstacle raised sufficiently to permit my enhance into the apartment.
Arthur's sanctum was a rather large room, divided by heavy plush portières into two. That in which I now stood was fitted up comfortably as a writing room. There was an oak desk; one of those delightful leather-cushioned reading chairs which adjust themselves so amiably to the various positions of the most exacting body; a teeming book-case, a music canterbury filled with music, and other useful articles of furniture. There were some charming pictures upon the wall and, in a word, the apartment was evidently that of a man of refinement. Bitterly, I acknowledged that fact to myself, and thus began a little logical process of reasoning which rendered me all the more miserable. Arthur was a man of refinement—he must be; there could be no use denying it; he appreciated what was refined, and despised the vulgar and the common—his room showed» that. He did not appreciate me—therefore I could not be refined; he despised me—therefore I was vulgar and common. The fallacy of this reasoning is of course very evident, but it was not evident to me at that time. Can you wonder at it?
I had sunk into this reading chair, and was evidently forgetting the real object of my intrusion. I had not come here to meditate. Heaven knows, I had ample time and opportunities for that pastime elsewhere.
I pushed back the plush portières, and stood in the back portion of Arthur's sanctum. It was fitted up as a bedroom. There was a large brass bedstead, a wash-stand, closets for clothes. So, when my husband did not spend the night out—and I had imagined he always did so—this was where he slept. It was rather a curious notion—but I had come to the conclusion that Arthur was rather a curious man. I wondered why he had objected to my visiting his sanctum. Surely he must have been aware that I would have preferred knowing he was in the house than supposing him out of it. Then a number of odious ideas came rushing into my head to bewilder me with the hideous probability that they were facts.
Could I discover no evidence against him without the aid of detectives? I went into the first half of the room, and tried the oak desk. The keys were in it—thank goodness! My lord had evidently grown careless, in the belief that he had an obedient little fool of a wife who would never dare to disobey his slightest behest. Ah! he made a mistake. I remembered my wedding day, and my mild, dutiful pleading to be allowed to inspect my husband's rooms. "They are in great disorder, Elsie," he had said. "You had better not venture into them." And my laughing rejoinder had been, "I believe you're a Bluebeard, Arthur, and that the bodies of a dozen preceding Mrs. Ravener's lie festering in that room." I opened the oak desk. It was filled with neatly arranged papers. I examined them all carefully. Alas; they were fearfully uninteresting. Old letters from his parents—I did not read them; literary efforts with the "returned with thanks," marked in tell-tale prominence; bills paid and unpaid, and similar documents of an equally useless description, as far as I was concerned. I went through them all with trembling fingers, dreading and hoping to find some incriminating papers. I was just about to leave the desk, when it suddenly occurred to me that I had missed opening one of the little drawers. I returned to my task, opened the drawer, and came across a little file of receipted bills. I had discovered so many already that I saw no use in examining them. Something prompted me however to glance at them.
They were monthly rent receipts. I read: "Received from Mr. Arthur Ravener the sum of twelve pounds for one month's rent in advance, for the furnished house, No. 121 Lancaster Road, Notting Hill, London, W., due 1st inst. Received payment, B. J. Smith."
How could that interest me? Arthur had probably lived in Lancaster Road, Notting Hill, at one period of his existence. I saw no reason why he should not have done so.
My eyes fell upon the date of the uppermost receipt. The papers dropped from my hands. I started back in terror.
The last twelve pounds acknowledged by Mr. B. J. Smith had been paid for the use of No. 121 Lancaster Road, during this month—this very month of May. Arthur had a perfect right to those premises at the present moment. He might be there now.
Oh! I saw it all now clearly before me. Tavistock Villa was the home of Arthur's neglected, despised wife; No. 121 Lancaster Road, Notting Hill, was the abode of his mistress. He loved her so well, that he could sacrifice his reputation for her. Perhaps he brought her occasionally to the room in which I now stood. To no other part of the house did he dare to take her. Over Tavistock Villa his hated wife reigned; her supremacy must not be called into question. Even then I felt a spasm of pity for Arthur. Ho was kind to me after all. He consulted my wishes, he gratified them, he was good and brotherly. And how difficult such a course of action must have been to him, when he daily and hourly had the image of a dearly beloved one in his mind. I loved Arthur dearly; I could not have shown the amount of endurance to another man that Arthur manifested to me. As I said, I felt a spasm of pity for Arthur. The spasm was soon over, and in its place a fury of bitterness swept over me. Who was the wretch who could take a husband so shamelessly from his wife? How did she dare to do such a thing? Had she so little knowledge of her own sex as to suppose that she would remain undiscovered very long? Did she not dread that discovery, or tremble at the inevitable meeting with an insulted and indignant wife?
I suddenly remembered where I was—in his room, and possibly in hers. I made haste to leave it. I was anxious to start for Netting Hill that moment, while the fever of animosity was burning so fiercely within me.
The cool night air calmed me somewhat. I reflected upon the inadvisability of such a hasty course. I had put my case in the hands of an able detective. I had better wait at least until I heard from him. He had asked me to try and discover any letters or papers in my husband's possession, that would lead me to the belief that I had a rival. I had been successful, I thought. Mr. Rickaby had promised to let me know where my husband went each night. I would wait until I heard from him.
I did not have to wait long. Two days later a gentleman called to see me. He would not disclose his business to James. He must see Mrs. Ravener. It was a special agent of Mr. Rickaby's private detective bureau. He had come to inform me that he had tracked my husband for two nights to—I almost laughed as he gave the address—No. 121 Lancaster Road, Notting Hill, W. "I will go there myself," I said mentally, "I will see him in the house. I will see her—and then—" well, subsequent events should take care of themselves.