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CHAPTER XVIII.

Captain Dillington and my husband seemed unable to utter a word. My laughter did not last long. Quick as a flash of lightning came the thought to me that I was in a very ridiculous situation. After having shown my hand in a most hopeless manner, I had discovered my husband tête-á-tête with—the abandoned woman I had pictured, the wanton destroyer of my domestic happiness I had imagined? No, with his bosom friend—the friend who long before I had come upon the scene had played the role of Damon to Arthur's Pythias.

Of course, as I stood before them, my hysterical laughter silenced, my breast heaving with emotion, and the fever spot burning on each cheek, they knew why I was there, what I suspected. But was it merely my sudden arrival that was responsible for the death-like pallor of my husband's face? Why did Captain Dillington assume such a palpably defiant air, if there were no reason why he should defy me?

Such thoughts coursed through my mind much quicker than they can flow from my pen. After all had I shown my hand? Yes and no. I remembered that my mother bad suggested Captain Dillington as the medium by which my husband communicated with his paramour. Why not assume that, in default of anything more substantial? That Captain Dillington was in some way responsible for my husband's despicable conduct, I was now as convinced as that I saw him before me. He had some influence over Arthur Ravener, the weaker vessel. This idea gained complete supremacy over me. It was then with Captain Dillington that I would deal—this deadly friend whom I would hold responsible.

I stood before the door, as I said, and simply stared at the two men, after my laughter had been subdued. Arthur grasped the back of a chair, and stood looking at me, as though he were obliged to look. Captain Dillington took a seat with a mighty show of composure, and awaited developments.

Arthur was the first to speak, and he did so gaspingly, "Why—why—d-did you c-come here, Elsie?" he asked.

"Why—why—did I come here?" I repeated mockingly.

"It is quite natural that your wife should be here, Arthur," said the Captain in his most elaborate manner. "She had suspicions—most natural, my dear fellow. She was jealous. You have no right to complain. Jealousy, as I look upon it, is merely an outcome of love. Is that not so, Mrs. Ravener?" (turning to me) "You—pardon my curiosity—thought that you would find a—a—well—a lady with your husband?"

The leer with which he accompanied these remarks was too indescribably repulsive to analyze. I determined to contain myself as much as possible.

"It is with no lady that I have business here," I said, with a miserable attempt at loftiness. "It is with you, Captain Dillington, and with no other."

I watched the effect of these words, shot at random. It was undeniable. Captain Dillington gasped. The blood left his cheeks and his lips. He was taken utterly aback. I had evidently started in the right direction. He must be the go between, but as I had seen no woman, it was not necessary that I should mention one.

"You are surprised, Captain Dillington?" I demanded quietly, though I was trembling with agitation.

"I—I simply do not understand you."

"Do you understand me, Arthur?" I asked, turning to my husband.

"I—I will not listen to your suspicions," began my husband, with such a weak attempt at resistance that it sounded more like an entreaty. "Elsie, you have no right here. You—you betray w-want of confidence in—in me. I will not stay—"

"You will!" I cried, placing my back to the door. "You shall not leave this room. Don't dare to try it," I continued, losing all my calmness, as a tide of anger swept over me, overwhelming caution. "Captain Dillington, if you attempt to stir from the room" (he had made a step forward) "I will open the window and rouse the neighbors. I don't mind scandal, perhaps, as much as you and he do. I can explain my presence here. You cannot."

"This is your husband's house," said Captain Dillington, angrily. "He has invited me here. I have nothing to explain. While I was a guest at your house, it was easy to see that I was not welcome. Your husband saw it. I saw it. So as we have always been great friends, he chose to invite me where there was no danger of my being insulted. That explains my presence here, I think."

"No, it does not. That does not explain your presence here, and you know it. You know it too, Arthur Ravener," I cried, turning to the helplessly distressed object all in a heap on the back of a chair. "Do you think, Captain Dillington, that I will continue to tolerate the conduct of this man, who left me on my wedding-day, and who kept you, a hated guest—yes, you are right, a hated, detested, loathed guest—in our house, when it should have been sacred to ourselves? Do you think that because I am young and ignorant—no, I am no longer ignorant—that I will bear with this? You know very little of women if you can suppose it. You probably thought you were dealing with a helpless fool. Let me tell you that you have been watched by detectives for the past week, at my instigation, and that I know all."

It was a desperate game of bluff, but it met with triumphant success. As I paused for want of breath, I saw that Captain Dillington was literally unable to speak.

He had warmed himself into anger a few moments before, but in the shock of this great surprise, it had died away. My husband had averted his face, and was looking at the wall with very great persistence. So far the field was my own. I had worked myself into a great passion, and these hits had not been premeditated.

"I will five no longer as I have been doing," I went on, "I have discovered enough. I have hoped against hope. I have dreaded this hour. But it has come, and I will not fear it. I have told you that I do not mind scandal, and I shall not hesitate to apply to the Divorce Court."

Captain Dillington pressed his hand to his heart. My husband came towards me, and took my hand.

"Elsie," he said, "do not—do not, for the love of Heaven speak like this. You cannot mean what you say. You cannot, you would not do it?"

"I would," I exclaimed, furiously, "I would do it. You have tried my patience. I have no interest in you any more. I gave you all, and you have treated me with contempt. I will not live with you any longer. I will not—I could not. The thought of your infamy would rise up before me at all times. I will be free, and you shall, you must be free, too."

I burst into tears, I could not help it. After all, I had done bravely, and I was not made of stone. I had ceased to wonder who was the woman in the case. I had succeeded in confounding the two men so well without her aid, that I felt comparatively satisfied. In fact I did not want to know who she was.

Captain Dillington recovered himself some what when he saw my tears. "Mrs. Ravener forgets that in a divorce suit a great many things must be proved. You say you have had us watched by detectives. May I ask if they have discovered the identity of the co-respondent?"

The coolness with which he spoke almost amused me. I laughed amidst my sobs. "I—I have all the evidence I need," I managed to say. "Suppose," with an attempt at mirth, "I—I should make you co-respondent, Captain Dillington?"

He smiled, but it was with a great effort, I could see.

"Very good, very good," he said, with manifest uneasiness.

"Do not—do not talk like that, Elsie," said Arthur, imploringly. "You will not bring this—this scandal upon us all. You—you did love me, Elsie. I do not believe that I have quite killed your love. You would not ruin me like this. You would not bring disgrace upon your family." He broke down, sobbing.

"The disgrace," I said sternly, feeling contempt for these pitiful arguments, "is brought by you, sir. My character is spotless, as you well know. I have given you every opportunity to avoid scandal, but you failed to suppose that I could do anything but submit to your heartless neglect. You have aroused me. It has taken you twelve months to do it. If you had married a girl who had mixed more with the world, she would not have lived with you one week. I had peculiarities, however, and you thought they would give you an opportunity to carry out your wretched plans without interruption; that is why you married me. I was warned against you—you need not start—but I disregarded the warning, and I have dearly paid for my folly. My punishment has been great, but it shall end from to-day. To-morrow I will leave Tavistock Villa, and I never want to see it again."

I began to button my cloak and gloves. I had said enough. I would now leave them to do exactly what they chose. I had no more interest in my husband, I told myself.

"You are going, Mrs. Ravener?" queried Captain Dillington in a mocking tone, his jeering exuberance once more asserting itself.

"I am going," I said.

Arthur seized his hat, and sprang towards the door. "I will go with you, Elsie," he said in a pleading tone.

"You will not," I exclaimed. "You shall not enter the house—with me, at any rate."

"He has a perfect right to do so," remarked Captain Dillington. "It is his home; you are his wife."

"And you—?" I asked pointedly. My jest about the co-respondent in the case had annoyed him so much before, that I thought I would administer another stab with the same weapon.

He turned away hastily for a moment. "I am his friend," he then said, "and"—boldly—"I am not ashamed of it. We were at college together, and our intimacy has been continued since those days. I will aid Arthur Ravener whenever I can; I will do anything for him. He is my bosom friend, and I am ready to say so before anybody. Now, are you satisfied?"

He snapped his fingers defiantly, but I was not going to allow myself to be beaten. My game of bluff had been successful. Perhaps he was trying the same tactics. He should not succeed.

"As far as you are concerned—perfectly," I said.

I opened the door. Arthur followed me.

"If you persist in coming," I said, "of course you must do so. After all, it does not make much difference; your apartments do not clash with mine."

He winced, but said nothing. He cast a glance, uneasy, suspicious, wretched, at Captain Dillington, and then left the room with me. He opened the front door, and we stepped out into the night air. Captain Dillington remained where we left him. Not another word did he utter.

"Shall I call a cab?" asked Arthur, nervously.

"If you choose," I said carelessly. "You I insist upon accompanying me, so that I cannot help myself. Oblige me, however, by not troubling to talk. I have nothing to say. I don't want any explanation. That house," pointing to No. 121 Lancaster Road, "speaks for itself."

He hailed a passing four-wheeler, and we were soon rolling homewards. I buried my face in the cushions, and resolutely declined to think of my grievance during the long, weary ride home. Arthur made no attempt to speak. He stared, in a dazed way, out of the side windows, though he could not have seen much; and so we reached Tavistock Villa.