A Marriage Below Zero/Chapter XVII
It was a dark, dismal sort of an evening. A small provoking rain was falling, the trees dripped incessantly, and the mud in the Kew thoroughfares was horribly and consistently thick. I sat at the window of Tavistock Villa, watching the men returning from the city to their quiet, suburban homes. I wondered if they were glad to free themselves from the much maligned atmosphere of London for this invigorating air, or if they would have preferred the metropolis, with all its unhealthy faults, to the sedate and monotonous wholesomeness of Kew.
I would sooner live ten years in the city than fifty years in the country. I hate the balmy atmosphere of rurality; I loathe the suburban surroundings. Give me the city with its life, its motion, its meaning, its excitement. I could not sympathize with rural man.
"Fixed like a plant on his peculiar spot,
To draw nutrition, propagate—and rot."
We had just dined. In a few moments I should doubtless see my husband set out for the city, and I had made up my mind that after having given him a good hour's start, I would follow him. I had matured no plans. The only thing I had decided upon doing was gaining admittance to No. 121 Lancaster Road, and then suddenly confronting the guilty couple. I would not permit any one to announce me. If Arthur in his unhallowed household kept servants, I would dispense with their aid. I would confound my husband and his paramour; I would glory in his trembling confusion, and gloat over the irremediable, hopeless guilt in which I had surprised him.
I was a jealous woman, goaded to action. There is nothing more dangerous in the animal kingdom.
I did not have to wait long for my husband's departure. I saw him hurry out into the wet, uncomfortable night, with a protecting umbrella above his head. He had merely uttered a conventional "good-night" to me, when he left the dining-room. I believe he now imagined that I had settled down into the placid daily enactment of the role of an injured wife. I had fretted at first, protested, even rebelled, but now it was all t over; the uselessness of such revolt had become apparent. I am convinced that those were his ideas.
I rang the bell for Marie. "Bring me my long cloak, hat and veil," I ordered; "I am going up to London at once."
"At once!" echoed Marie in surprise, "this wet night?"
"Yes," I replied impatiently, "if any one should call, you can say I have gone—Oh, anywhere."
"To Madame, your mother—to Grosvenor Square?"
"Exactly," I replied, happily untruthful. No one would call, but it was best to be on the safe side.
I covered my face with a dark veil, the hackneyed device of the mysterious woman. I did this because I was afraid I might be recognized on my way to London. I did not want tongues to wag, at least until I gave them an unqualified right to do so. I was dressed long before it was advisable to start, and threw myself into an armchair in the drawing-room, waiting for the minutes to pass. I was wonderfully calm, and rejoiced at that fact. Angry people generally get the worst of it in this world. Quiet wrath does more effective work than an ebullition of fury.
Half an hour later I was in the damp night air, ploughing my way through the mud. I had decided that I would go to Notting Hill by the democratic Underground Railway. So I walked as quickly as I could to the Kew station, which was not far from Tavistock Villa. I had not very long to wait for the arrival of the train. It soon came roaring into the station. I ensconced myself comfortably in a first-class carriage, and threw myself lazily back in its blue cushioned seat.
I was not alone. Two young men sat opposite to me, and to my dismay I recognized Archie Lucknow and Melville Potterby, two detestable society whipper-snappers, whose hideous mission on earth, it seemed to me, was to persecute the gentler sex with attention. Thank goodness! they did not recognize me through my veil. I had no particular anxiety to be seen on the road to London at eight o'clock at night, and alone.
"I can't help thinking, dear boy," Mr. Lucknow was saying in a low tone, "how deucedly uncharitable you are. Now you brand young Honeyworth with a mark of Cain, in sheer wilfulness. You have no evidence to substantiate what you say. It is cruel, positively it is, my dear boy. I am not a very straight-laced fellow, as you know, Potterby, but hang it all, if I care to hear this kind of thing."
"It is true, nevertheless," said Mr. Potterby, imperturbably. "No evidence is necessary. Eyes are evidence in this case."
"Well, we will drop the subject. You see how mistaken you were in the case of Arthur Ravener. You had branded him—everybody had, in fact. His name was on the lips of all fellows. He was shunned. What happened He married; tongues ceased wagging, and now there is not a fellow in the crowd that maligned him, who would not be glad to apologize for his brutality."
Mr. Lucknow came to a pause. Oh! if they would continue talking! If they could only imagine how vitally interesting to me their conversation was! Perhaps it was just as well they could not imagine this, however.
"I would not apologize to Arthur Ravener," said Mr. Potterby in the same low tones, which, however, were distinctly audible to me.
"Then you are not the fellow I thought you"—very severely
"Sorry, my dear boy, but can't help it. Before I apologize to Ravener, I'd like to know Mrs. Ravener's side of the story. People may have ceased talking. Ravener's marriage was always, in my opinion, brought about solely with that object in view. And he married a very young girl, as ignorant as a new-born babe."
"She was a silly little fool," said Mr. Lucknow, rather savagely.
I had snubbed him with great persistency, so I could not complain at his vehemence.
"Yes, and you know—" What Mr. Lucknow knew I could not learn, as Mr. Potterby's voice sank into a whisper which was hopelessly beyond my scope. They said no more. What I had heard simply whetted the edge of my curiosity. I wondered what Arthur had done, before I knew him, to cause gossip It seemed to me that a quiet, refined young man, such as I previously supposed him to be, could not have given any very serious offence.
Perhaps, however, it was this very liaison, which I was now bent upon breaking, that had set his friends talking. That must be it. This horrible woman had been his bane. People had discovered her existence, and of course no young man in this enlightened century would recognize Arthur's unsavory life. I supposed that although the youths of to-day were silly and tedious they were at least strictly moral.
Here I was at my destination. I alighted hurriedly, not daring to look at my fellow travelers, and was soon in the street. Now for No. 121 Lancaster Road.
I had no idea where it was, but a kindly policeman informed me that it was not more than seven minutes' walk from the station. He spoke the truth. Lancaster Road was so easy to find that even I could make no mistake about it.
When I had reached the thoroughfare, and commenced my search for No. 121, all the semi-jauntiness which I had called to my assistance, left me. The thought of my mission, and indignation at the causes of it, filled my mind. I began to dread my task.
Lancaster Road seemed to be deserted at this early hour. It was only nine o'clock. Not a solitary person had I passed yet. The big grey houses towered gloomily on each side of me. Bright lights shone from the windows, probably illuminating those happy homes which are in no city more plentiful than in London.
I was counting the numbers, my heart palpitating as I slowly approached that at which I should stop. I felt half inclined to go back at this eleventh hour, and live as I had been living these past few months, contentedly. No! content was no longer possible for me. I could not meet my husband again until I had seen my rival; and until he knew that I had seen her.
I stopped in front cf a small gray house involuntarily. I seemed to feel instinctively, even before I had looked, that it was No. 121, and I was right. There were the three figures that to me made so sinister a combination, engraved on a little brass plate on the door. Then I took a leisurely view of the house in which Arthur chose to five, apart from his wife. It was a little, two story, gray-stone house, old fashioned, and rather unusual in its appearance. There was a tiny green grass plot in front, separated from the road by an iron railing, in which was a small, unlatched gate. It would have been a very ordinary looking house in a provincial city, but it was not at all suggestive of London. I looked at it with genuine curiosity, which for a moment swallowed up my anger. It was a very inexpensive place, but, love—guilty and illegitimate, but still love—dwelt there. Arthur preferred that simple little house, with one to whom he could give his heart, than the costly beauty of Tavistock Villa, with the wife whom he despised.
I brushed away the tears that rose unbidden to my eyes, with angry hands. This was no place for sentimental regret. I was here to act, and act I would.
There seemed to be only one room in the house which was lighted, and that was situated to the left of the front door. A light, reddened by warm, thick curtains, shone from its windows. Darkness reigned everywhere else. There was no light even in the hall. The glass above the front door looked black.
How was I to gain admittance? If I rang the rusty looking front door bell it would probably alarm them both. They were doubtless prepared in case of surprise of that kind, and such a course would certainly place me at a disadvantage. It was not likely that they kept servants, who might in the future prove unfortunate witnesses against them.
What could I do? I pushed open the gate and walked towards the stone steps leading to the front door. A thin iron grating separated me from the basement entrance. I touched it, and I could feel the gritty rust on my fingers. This basement entrance was in all likelihood never used now. I shook the grating slightly. Imagine my surprise, my joy, when it yielded without any difficulty to my gentle persuasion, and stood open. I entered immediately, only too pleased to be shut out from the sight of any passer-by, or of any policeman, to whom my position would have appeared rather strange.
I shut the iron gate behind me, descended two steps, and walked into the kitchen. It was in utter darkness. Not an object in front of me could I see. I groped my way about, feeling distinctly uneasy. Whether this kitchen were ever used, or whether it were in ruins I could not tell. I would have given a sovereign for a match—for one moment's light.
I presumed that this house was built like most houses, so I did not despair of finding my way upstairs. I could not discover the door leading to the basement hall, nor that by which I had entered. I grew frightened. The awful idea dawned upon me that I might have to stay where I was until daylight. I almost shrieked as I stumbled against some resisting object. It was nothing more alarming than a chair. I sat down and tried to quiet myself. My heart was throbbing wildly, and I could feel violent pulsations in my temples. They might hear me upstairs. The noise I made might alarm them. They would leave the house. I should be its sole tenant, and—
I started up. I would not terrify myself by such thoughts. By a mighty effort I collected myself as it were, and began my ridiculous hunt for the door with more deliberation. I was rewarded by success.
I had gained the stairs. I walked slowly upwards, found the door at the top of the stairs open—what should I have done had it been locked?—and stood in the hall. Now I could see the door of the room for which I was bound. The hall was in absolute darkness, but faint streaks of light, which would have been unnoticed under less obscure circumstances, revealed to me the whereabouts of the guilty couple. It was impossible now that they could escape me. I must see them. As this certainty forced itself upon me, my excitement became all the more intense.
I did not dare to move From behind the ball door where I had retreated, I surveyed the situation. Six or eight steps would take me to the room where I could discover all. The door would in all probability be unlocked. From whom had they to fear intrusion? They were safely secluded—or they fancied they were—in their own castle. I had only to suddenly open the door and face them.
My courage began to fail me. My position was an unenviable one. I wondered how matters would be three hours from now—if everything would be settled; if I should have discovered all. Then I carefully lacerated my feelings by reviewing events connected with my unhappy marriage. I pictured my absurd scruples. I had heard that evening that I was a silly little fool. That was the truth. I was silly, I was unworthy—
Without concluding my self-condemnation, I rushed from my hiding-place to the door of the room whence came the light. Without hesitating one moment I turned the handle, and giving a mighty push, which was absolutely unnecessary, I entered.
The sudden light coming upon my eyes, accutomed for the last half hour to utter darkness, blinded me. I could see nothing. Then two figures abruptly moving stood out before me in the glare. My dazzled inability lasted but a few seconds. Then before me I saw my husband, pale as death, trembling, his eyes wide with amazement, advancing towards me. I waved him off, standing with my back to the door. The room was a small one. At the other end of it was his companion.
The amazement of Arthur was not as great as that which must have been visible on my own face, as I beheld, ghastly in his pallor, but still boldly defiant—Captain Jack Dillington.
I burst into hysterical laughter.