A Marriage Below Zero/Chapter XXII
We dined with the multitude that afternoon, and I was glad of it. Arthur was feverishly uneasy. He seemed unable to forget the sermon he had heard in the morning, though why it should have affected him so painfully, I could not exactly understand. Of course I supposed he felt remorse for that part of his life—of our lives—which had brought us to this far off country, and exiled us on its hospitable shores.
Women are not uncharitable, say what you will. I was anxious that my husband should suffer no more for those misdeeds which, it seemed to me, had been so thoroughly left to the past. I wanted him to forget them. I was trying to forget them myself. I flattered myself that my most sanguine hopes would be realized, and that we should return to England as warmly devoted a couple as readers could ever hope to consign to "living happily" ever after.
I was on “pins and needles” lest the subject of the popular preacher should be broached at the dinner-table. There was one old bore present, whom I had seen at the church, and as I knew he was a person with a distinct desire to talk upon the least provocation, I dreaded any opportunity occurring for an outbreak on his part. No one else appeared to have attended divine service that morning, thank goodness! The conversation was beautifully secular, referring to the stage, for the most part.
I had hard work to keep the guests to that subject, but I succeeded. I asked fifty idiotic questions, in the answers to which I had not the faintest interest, beyond the fact that they took up considerable time. I caught the eye of the bore, as I mentally christened him, angrily fixed upon me. He was waiting his opportunity to talk preacher. I knew that. I was determined to prevent his attacking the subject, and I was successful. When I felt a pause coming, I had another question ready to fling broadcast at any one who chose to answer it. I was unfailing in my efforts.
When we finally rose from the table, I cast a look of triumph at the poor old fellow opposite to me. He was biting his stubbly moustache to hide his mortification. He had not been allowed to put in a word edgeways, and he was keenly miserable.
“Was I not thirsty for information, Arthur?” I asked my husband, as he settled himself in our mutual parlor to read the paper, a task with which our church-going had interfered.
“Horribly so,” he said, laughing. He seemed to have somewhat recovered himself, though his face was still flushed, and I could see that his hands shook slightly as he held the paper. “What induced you to talk so much, Elsie?”
Oh, men are obtuse beings! He had no idea that my conversational efforts were merely made to spare him pain.
“I had nothing else to do,” I answered flippantly. “And I thought my voice sounded well to-day; then, you know, it was Sunday, and I wanted to give them all a treat. Do you see?”
He laughed again. “Elsie,” he said, “sometimes I wonder, after listening to your speeches, how it is that you really have depth after all. People who never heard anything but your small talk would think you were good for nothing else.”
“Do you think that?” I asked, trying not to appear anxious.
“No, Elsie. Indeed I do not.” He glanced at at me lovingly. There was a look in his eyes that I had never seen there before. I dropped mine in embarrassment. “I am only thankful—yes, thankful from the bottom of my heart—that you can still be the same little girl as before, after—after what you have endured, since our—our marriage. No, Elsie—” as I made a gesture of disapproval—“there is no reason why we should not discuss the past now, because—because—”
“Because?” I asked breathlessly.
“Because it is losing its interest for me, I am sure,” he said in a low tone.
I felt convinced that he spoke the truth. I was confident that no rival supplanted me now, and I saw no harm in congratulating myself already upon the success of my plan. That evening I was in an unusually hilarious mood. I saw success before me in large shining letters. Imperceptibly my manner changed, from that of the love-sick girl, yearning for one kind word from the man upon whom she has lavished all her affection, to the half arrogant self-consciousness of the woman who knows her power. The fool that I was! Great heavens! That such a thing as feminine coquetry should ever be spoken of as charming!
I talked so much nonsense, chatted away so incessantly, and put such a decided veto upon any serious conversation, that Arthur looked at me reproachfully. Surely I had won the right to be gay, I told myself. It had not been often that I had been able to indulge in any frivolity. “One would think you were on wires to-night, Elsie,” said Arthur, in a tone of gentle protest, as after having fluttered all around the room, I sat down beside him.
He took my hand. It was the first time he had ever voluntarily done so. Months ago I would have given years of my life for that little endearment. My heart beat violently as his burning fingers closed over mine; but the devilish spirit of feminine coquetry possessed me; I withdrew my hand abruptly.
“Don’t!” I said, rather pettishly.
There was an embarrassing pause; at least it must have been embarrassing for him. I can only think that I was out of my mind that night. “I suppose when I get back to England,” I went on quickly, “that I shall have to set to work and write my impressions of America. Dear me! how extensive they are. Their range is so wide, reaching from this hotel to Central Park, and from Central Park to this hotel. You shall do the editing for me, if you will, and I shall begin as soon as we reach London. Do you consent, Arthur ?”
“I cannot think yet of returning to London,” he said, almost inaudibly. “I—I—do not want to think of it.”
“But you must,” I remarked, fanning myself with the newspaper which I had taken from him and folded into a convenient shape. “I am sure neither of us intend to become naturalized Americans, so I don’t see why we should remain much longer. I like New York—that is impression No. 1—don’t you?”
“I love New York,” he said fervently.
“Like the actors and actresses who are interviewed in the newspapers. They all of them seem to love America before they have seen it. I suppose they hope to go home with lots of dollars in their pockets, and want to impress the Americans favorably by liking their country. Don’t you think that is a fact, dear?”
I waited for a reply as anxiously as if the question had been one of vital importance.
“Very probably,” was the absent rejoinder.
I took up a book and tried to settle down to reading. The letters danced before my eyes, and I flung the book aside with a laugh. I unfolded Arthur’s newspaper and gazed stupidly at the advertisements. A dentist offered to extract teeth free of charge, if only the extractee would consent to wear the false article. He had for sale “elegant full gum sets,” “gold combination sets,” and “platina lined, porcelain enamelled sets.” Of course they were all fearfully cheap. I noted that Mr. John Smith had a two-year-old colt to offer the public for a consideration. It was brown, and had no spots, though it possessed the luxury of a half brother with a record of 2.23; warranted sound. I smiled at the tailor who declared he would make any man a “nobby ” suit of clothes for a mere song, and pitied the poor lady who wanted a loan to finish a new house. Poor thing! Why did she begin it, without sufficient money to see the building to its bitter end? I was genuinely interested.
The little clock upon the mantlepiece struck eleven o’clock. How late it was getting! I folded up the newspaper, and sat bolt upright in my chair. I looked at Arthur. His eyes, which seemed to shine like five coals, were fixed upon mine. I crimsoned, for no reason that I can think of.
“It is getting late,” I said in a low tone, looking helplessly at the clock.
“We have cooped ourselves up too much to-day,” I said, at random. “I wonder why we did not go out this afternoon; the weather was beautiful, and we—we—”
I could not finish the sentence, simply because I did not know what I was going to say when I began it. I sat uneasily listening to the ticking of the clock. It irritated me, and sounded loud as the tramp of soldiers, in the uncomfortable silence that prevailed.
“To-morrow, Arthur,” I said, with an effort at levity, as I rose to go, “I shall make you take me for a long walk, as I think it will do us both good. Exercise, you know, is always desirable, and—and—good-night.”
I gave him my hand. He took it and, rising, drew me towards him, holding me fondly, firmly in his arms. Bending forward he murmured hoarsely, “Why need we say good-night?”
For one moment I lay quiescent upon his bosom. The next, though my pulses throbbed painfully, and I could feel the hot, feverish blood burning through my veins, I withdrew myself from his clasp, and ran precipitately into my room.
I remained breathless behind the closed door, waiting for him to speak, or at least to let me know that I had not offended him by my abruptness. I waited in vain for five minutes; then I opened my door. He had retired to his room. Looking up at the glass ventilator, I saw that he had put his light out.
In an agony of mortification I retired to my chamber, and throwing myself upon the bed, I cried out against the coquetry inherent in the best of my sex. I had reason to cry out against it.