According to Meredith
ACCORDING TO MEREDITH
Certainly, however, one day these present conditions of marriage will he changed. Marriage will be allowed for a certain period, say ten years.
Mr. George Meredith, in the Daily Mail of September 24, 1904.
"GIVE you some heads? My dear fellow, there need be no question of heads! This is to be a model will. You need simply put down, in as few words as are legally permissible,—I know nothing of such things,—that I leave all of which I die possessed to my wife."
Philip Dering threw his head back and gave the man to whom he was speaking a confident, smiling glance. Then he turned and walked quickly over to the narrow, old-fashioned, balconied window which, commanding the wide, wind-blown expanse of Abingdon Street, exactly faced the great cavity formed by the arch of the Victoria Tower.
To the right lay the riverside garden, a bright patch of delicate spring colouring and green verdure, bounded by the slow-moving grey waters of the Thames; and Bering's eager eyes travelled on till he saw, detaching itself against an April afternoon horizon, the irregular mass of building formed by Lambeth Palace and the Lollards' Tower.
"You wish everything to go to Louise? All right, I'll make a note of that." The speaker, a round-faced, slightly bald, shrewd-looking lawyer, looked indulgently at his friend as he added: "But wait a bit—I promise that yours shall be a model will; only, you seem to have forgotten, my dear fellow, that you may outlive your wife. Now, should you have the misfortune to lose Louise, to whom would you wish to devise this fifteen thousand pounds? It's possible, too, though not very probable, I admit, that you may both die at the same time—both be killed in a railway accident, for instance."
"Such good fortune may befall us——" Dering spoke quite simply, and accepted the other's short laugh with great good humour. "Oh! you know what I mean—I always have thought husbands and wives—who care, I mean—ought to die on the same day. That they don't do so is one of the many strange mysteries which complicate life. But look here, Wingfield——"
The speaker had turned away from the window. He had again taken up his stand opposite the other's broad writing-table, and not even the cheap, ill-made clothes could hide the graceful lines of the tall, active figure, not even the turned-down collar and orange silk tie could destroy the young man's look of rather subtle distinction.
"Failing Louise, I should like this money, at my death, to be divided equally between the young Hintons and your kids"; and as the other made a gesture of protest, Dering added quickly: "What better could I do? Louise is devoted to Jack Hinton's children, and I've always regarded you—I have indeed, old man—as my one real friend. Of course it's possible now,"—an awkward, shy break came into his voice—"it's possible now, I say, that we may have children of our own; I don't suppose you've ever realised how poor, how horribly poor, we've been all these years."
He looked away, avoiding the other man's eyes; then, picking up his hat and stick with a quick, nervous gesture, was gone.
After the door had shut on his friend. Wingfield remained standing for a while. His hands mechanically sorted the papers and letters lying on his table into neat little heaps; but his thoughts were travelling backward through his and Dering's past lives.
The friends had first met at the City of London School, for they were much of an age, though the lawyer looked the elder of the two. Then Dering had gone to Cambridge, and Wingfield, more humbly, to take up life as an articled clerk to a good firm of old-established attorneys. Again, later, they had come together once more, sharing a modest lodging, while Dering earned a small, uncertain income by contributing to the literary weeklies, by ghosting writers more fortunate than himself, by tutoring whenever he got the chance—in a word, by resorting to the few expedients open to the honest educated Londoner lacking a definite profession. The two men had not parted company till Dering, enabled to do so by the help of a small legacy, had chosen to marry a Danish girl as good-looking, as highminded, as unpractical as himself.
But had Louise Dering proved herself so unpractical during the early years of her married life? Wingfield, standing there, his mind steeped in memories, compared her, with an unconscious critical sigh, with his own stolid, unimaginative wife, Kate. As he did so he wondered whether, after all, Dering had not known how to make the best of both worlds. True, he and his Louise had gone through some bad times together. Wingfield had been the one intimate of the young couple when they began their married life in a three-roomed flat in Gray's Inn, and he had been aware, painfully so, of the incessant watchful struggle with money difficulties, never mentioned while the struggle was in being; for only the rich can afford to complain of poverty. He had admired, with all his heart, the high courage then shown by his friend's wife.
During those first difficult years, when he, Wingfield, could do nothing for them, Louise had gone without the help of even the least adequate servant. The women of her nation are taught housewifery as an indispensable feminine accomplishment, and so she had scrubbed and sung, cooked and read, made and mended for Philip and herself.
Wingfield was glad to remember that it was he who had at last found Dering regular employment; he who had so far thrown prudence aside as to persuade one of his first and most valuable clients to appoint his clever if eccentric friend secretary to a company formed to exploit a new invention. The work had proved congenial: Dering had done admirably well, and now, when his salary had just been raised to four hundred a year, a distant cousin of his dead mother's had left him fifteen thousand pounds!
At last James Wingfield sat down. He began making notes of the instructions he had just received, though as he did so he knew well enough that he could not bring himself to draw up a will by which his own children might so greatly benefit. Suddenly came a sound of hurrying feet up the shallow oak staircase, and through the door, flung open quickly and unceremoniously, strode once more Philip Dering.
"I say, I've forgotten something!" he exclaimed, and then, as Wingfield instinctively looked round the bare, spacious room—"No, I didn't leave anything behind me. I simply forgot to ask you one very important question——"
He took off his hat, put it down with a certain deliberation, then drew up a chair, and placed himself astride on it, an action which to the other suddenly seemed to blot out the years which had gone by since they had been housemates together. "As I went down your jolly old staircase, Wingfield, it suddenly occurred to me that making a will may not be quite so simple a matter as I once thought it." He hesitated a moment, then went on: "So I've come back to ask you the meaning of the term 'proving a will.' What I really want to get at, old man, is whether my wife, if she became a widow, would have to give any actual legal proof of our marriage? Would she be compelled, I mean, to show her 'marriage lines'?"
Wingfield hesitated. The question took him by surprise. "I fancy that would depend," he said, "on the actual wording of the will; but all that sort of thing is a mere formality, and of course any solicitor employed by her would see to it. By the way, I suppose you were married in Denmark?" He frowned, annoyed with himself for having forgotten a fact with which he must once have been well acquainted. "If you had asked me to be your best man," he added with a vexed laugh, "I shouldn't have forgotten the circumstances."
Dering tipped the chair which he was bestriding a little nearer to the edge of the table which stood between himself and Wingfield; a curious look, a look half humorous, half deprecating, but in no sense ashamed, came over his sensitive, mobile face.
"No," he said, at length, "we were not married in Denmark. Neither were we married in England. In fact, there was no ceremony at all."
The eyes of the two men, of the speaker and of his listener, met for a moment; but Wingfield, to the other's sudden uneasy surprise, made no comment on what he had just heard.
Dering sprang up, and during the rest of their talk he walked, with short, quick strides, from the door to the window, from the window to the door. "I wanted to tell you at the time. But Louise would not have it; though I told her that in principle—not, of course, in practice—you thoroughly agreed with me—I mean with us. Nay, more, that you, with your clear, legal mind, had always realised even more than I could do, the utter absurdity of making such a contract as that of marriage—which of all contracts is the most intimately personal, and which least affects the interests of those outside the contracting parties—the only legal contract which can't be rescinded or dissolved by mutual agreement! Then again, you must admit that there was one really good reason why we should not tell you the truth: you already liked Kate, and Louise, don't you remember, used to play chaperon. Now, Kate's people, you know——!" All the humour had gone out of Dering's face, but the deprecating look had deepened.
The lawyer made a strong effort over himself. He had felt for a moment keenly hurt, and not a little angry. "I don't think," he said quietly, "that there is any need of explanations or apologies between us. Of course, I can't help feeling very much surprised, and that in spite of our old theoretical talks and discussions concerning—well, this subject. But I don't doubt that in the circumstances you did quite right. Mind you, I don't mean about the marriage," he quickly corrected himself, "but only as to the concealment from me." He waited a moment, and then went on, hesitatingly: "But even now I don't really understand what happened; I should like to know a little more——"
Dering stayed his walk across the room, and stood opposite his friend. He felt a great wish to justify himself, and to win Wingfield's retrospective sympathy. "I will tell you everything there is to tell!" he cried eagerly. "Indeed, it can all be told in a moment. My wife and I entered into a personal contract together, which we arranged, provisionally, of course, should last ten years. Louise was quite willing, absolutely willing. …" For the first time there came a defensive note in the eager voice. "You see the idea—that of leasehold marriage? We used to talk about it, you and I, of course only as a Utopian possibility. All I can say is that I had the good fortune to meet with a woman with whom I was able to try the experiment; and all I can tell you is—well, I need not tell you, Wingfield, that there has never been a happier marriage than ours."
Again Dering started to pace up and down the room. "Louise has been everything—everything—everything—that such a man as myself could have looked for in a wife!"
"And has no one ever guessed—has no one ever known?" asked the other, rather sternly.
"Absolutely no one! Yes, wait a moment—there has been one exception. Louise told Gerda Hinton. You know, they became very intimate after we went to Bedford Park, and Louise thought Gerda ought to know. But it made no difference—no difference at all!" he added emphatically. "In fact, poor Gerda practically left her baby to Louise's care."
"And that worthless creature, Jack Hinton—does he know, too?"
"No, I don't think so; in fact, I may say most decidedly not—but of course Gerda may have told him, though, for my part, I don't believe that husbands and wives share their friends' secrets. Still, you are quite at liberty to tell Kate."
"No," said Wingfield, "I don't intend to tell Kate; and there will be no reason to do so if you will take my advice—which is, I need hardly tell you, to go and get married at once. Now that you have come into this money, your doing so becomes a positive duty. Are you aware that if you were run over on your way home to-day, Louise would have no standing? that she would not have a right to a penny of this money, or even to any of the furniture which is in your house? Let me see, how long is it that you have been"—he hesitated awkwardly—"together?"
Dering looked round at him rather fiercely. "We have been married nine years and a half," he said. "Our wedding day was the first of September. We spent our honeymoon in Denmark. You remember my little legacy?" Wingfield nodded his head. His heart suddenly went out to his friend—the prosperous lawyer had reason to remember that hundred-pound legacy, for ten pounds of it had gone to help him out of some foolish scrape. But Dering had forgotten all that; he went on speaking, but more slowly: "And then, as you know, we came back and settled down in Gray's Inn, and though we were horribly poor, perhaps poorer than even you ever guessed, we were divinely happy." He turned his back to the room and stared out once more at the greyness opposite. "But you're quite right, old man, it's time we did like our betters! We'll be married at once, and I'll take her off for another and a longer honeymoon, and we'll come back and be even happier than we were before." Then again, as abruptly as before, he was gone, shutting the door behind him, and leaving Wingfield staring thoughtfully after him.
That his friend, that the Philip Dering of ten years ago, should have done such a thing, was in no way remarkable; but that Louise, the thoughtful, well-balanced, intelligent woman, who, coming as a mere girl from Denmark, had known how to work her way up to a position of great trust and responsibility in a City house,— that she should have consented to such—to such … Wingfield even in his own mind hesitated for the right word … to such an arrangement—seemed to the lawyer an astounding thing. No, no; he would certainly not tell Kate anything about it. Why should he? He knew very well how his wife would regard the matter, and how her condemnation would fall, not on Louise,—Kate had become excessively fond of Louise,—but on Daring. No, there was no reason why Kate should be told a word of this extraordinary, this amazing story.
On leaving Abingdon Street, Philip Dering swung across the broad roadway, and made his way, almost instinctively, to the garden which lay nearly opposite his friend's office windows. He wanted to calm down, to think things over, and to recover full possession of himself before going home.
It had cost him a considerable effort to tell Wingfield this thing. Not that he was in the least ashamed of what he and Louise had done,—on the contrary, he was very proud of it,—but he had often felt, during all those years, that he was being treacherous to the man who was, after all, his best friend; and there was in Dering enough of the feminine element to make him feel sorry and ashamed.
However, Wingfield had taken it very well, just as he would have wished him to take it, and no doubt the lawyer had given thoroughly sound advice. This unexpected, this huge legacy made all the difference. Besides, Dering knew well enough, when he examined his own heart and conscience, that he felt very differently about all manner of things from what he had been wont to feel ten years ago. After all, he was following in the footsteps of men greater and wiser than he. It is impossible to be wholly consistent. If he had been consistent, he would have refused to pay certain taxes—in fact, to have been wholly consistent during the last ten years would probably have landed him, England being what it is, in a lunatic asylum! He shuddered, suddenly remembering that for a while his own mother had been insane. Still, as he strode along the primly kept paths of the Thames-side garden, he felt a great and, as he thought, a legitimate pride in the knowledge that in this one all-important matter, so deeply affecting his own and Louise's life, he and she had triumphantly defied convention, and had come out victorious.
The young man's thoughts suddenly took a softer, a more intimate turn: he told himself, with intense secret satisfaction, that Louise was dearer, aye, far dearer and more indispensable to him now than she had been during the days when she was still the "sweet stranger whom he called his wife." From the day when they had first met and made unconventional acquaintance, he had found her full of ever recurrent and enchanting surprises. Her foreign birth and upbringing gave her both original and unsuspected points of view about everything English, and he had often thought, with good-humoured pity, of all those unfortunate friends of his, Wingfield included, whose lot it had perforce been to choose their wives among their own countrywomen.
Of course it was not always as easy as it seemed to be to-day. Lately Louise had been listless and tired, utterly unlike herself—even, he had once or twice thought with dismay, slightly hysterical! But all that would disappear utterly during the first few days of their coming travels; and even he, so he now reminded himself, had felt quite unlike his usual sensible self—Dering was very proud of his good sense—since had come the news of this wonderful, this fairy-gift-like legacy.
The young man passed out of the garden, his feet stepping from the soft shell-strewn gravel on to the wide pavement which borders the Houses of Parliament. He made his way round swiftly, each buoyant step a challenge to fate, to the Members' Entrance, and so across the road to the gate which leads into what was once the old parish churchyard of Westminster. It was still too cold to sit out of doors, and after a momentary hesitation he turned into Westminster Abbey by the great north door.
Dering had not been in the Abbey since he was a child, and the spirit of quietude which fills the broad nave and narrow aisles on early spring days soothed his restlessness. Suddenly he saw, at right angles with himself, and moving across the choir, a group of four people, consisting of a man, a woman, and two children. The man was Jack Hinton, the idle, ill-conditioned artist neighbour of his in Bedford Park, to whom there had been more than one reference in his talk with Wingfield; the children were Agatha and Mary Hinton, the motherless girls of the Danish woman to whom Louise had been so much devoted; and the fourth figure was that of Louise herself. His wife's back was turned to Dering, but even without the other three he would have known the tall, graceful figure, if only by the masses of fair, almost lint-white hair, arranged in low coils below her neat hat.
Dering felt no wish to join the little party. He was still too excited, too interested in his own affairs, to care for making and hearing small talk. Still, a look of satisfaction came over his face as he watched the four familiar figures finally disappear round a pillar. How pleased Louise would be when he told her of his latest scheme, that of commissioning the unfortunate Hinton to paint her portrait! If only the man could be induced to work, he might really make something of his life, after all. Dering meant to give the artist one hundred pounds, and his heart glowed at the thought of what such a sum would mean in the untidy, womanless little house in which his wife took so tender and kindly an interest.
Dering and Jack Hinton had never exactly hit it off together, though they had known each other for many years, and though they had both married Danish wives. The one felt for the other the worker's wordless contempt for the incorrigible idler. Yet, Dering had been very sorry for Hinton at the time of poor Mrs. Hinton's death, and he liked to think that now he would be able to do the artist a good turn. He had even thought very seriously of offering to adopt the youngest Hinton child, a baby now nearly a year old; but a certain belated feeling of prudence, of that common sense which often tempers the wind to the reckless enthusiast, had given him pause. After all, he and Louise might have children of their own, and,then the position of this little interloper might be an awkward one.
Dering left the Abbey by the door which gives access to the cloisters. There he spent half an hour in pleasant meditation before he started home. The contrast between the stir and unceasing sound of the broad Bath Road and the stillness of Lady Rich Road struck Dering with a sense of unwonted pleasure. As he put his latch-key in the front door, he remembered that his wife had told him that their young Danish servant was to have that day her evening out. Well, so much the better: they would have their talk, their discussion concerning their future plans, without fear of eavesdropping or interruption.
Various little signs showed that Louise was already back from town. Dering went straight upstairs, and, as he began taking off his boots, he called out to her, though the door between his room and hers was shut: "Do come in here, for I have so much to tell you!" But there came no answering word, and after a moment he heard his wife's soft footsteps going down the house.
When he entered the dining-room, he found Louise standing by the table on which lay spread their simple supper.
She gave him a quick, questioning glance, then: "I saw you in the Abbey," she said in a constrained, hesitating voice; "why did you not come up and speak to us? Mr. Hinton was on his way to some office, and I brought the children back alone."
"If I had known that was going to be the case," said Dering frankly, "I should have joined you; but I had just been spending an hour with Wingfield, and—well, I didn't feel in the mood to make small talk for Hinton!"
He waited a moment, but she made no comment. Louise had always been a silent, listening woman, and this had made her seem to eager, ardent Philip a singularly restful companion. He went on, happily at first, rather nervously toward the close of his sentence, "Well, everything is settled—even to my will. But I found Wingfield had to know—I mean about our old arrangement."
"Then you told him? I do not think you should have done that." Louise spoke very slowly, and in a low voice. "I asked you if I might do so before telling Gerda Hinton."
Dering looked at her deprecatingly. He felt both surprised and sorry. It was almost the first time in their life together that she had uttered to him anything savouring of a rebuke.
"Please forgive my having told Wingfield without first consulting with you," he said at once; "but, you see, the absurd, the abominable state of the English law is such that in case of my sudden death you would have no right to any of this money. Besides, apart from that fact, if I trusted to my own small legal knowledge and made a will in which you were mentioned, you would probably have trouble with those odious relations of mine. So I simply had to tell him."
Dering saw that the discussion was beginning to be very painful and disagreeable; he felt a pang of impatient regret that he had spoken to his wife now, instead of waiting until she had had a thorough change and holiday.
Louise was still standing opposite to him, looking straight before her and avoiding his anxious glances. Suddenly he became aware that her lip was trembling, and that her eyes were full of tears; quickly he walked round to where she was standing, and put his hand on her shoulder.
"I am sorry, very sorry, that I had to tell Wingfield," he said; "but, darling, why should you mind so much? He was quite sympathetic: he thoroughly understood."
Dering's hand travelled from his wife's shoulder to her waist, and he held her to him, unresisting but strangely passive, as he added: "You can guess, my dearest, what Wingfield, in his character of solicitor, advises us to do? Of course, in a sense it will be a fall from grace—but, after all, we sha'n't love one another the less because we have been to a registry office, or spent a quarter of an hour in a church! I do think that we should follow his advice. He will let me know to-morrow what formalities have to be fulfilled to carry the thing through, and then, dear heart, we will go off for a second honeymoon. Sometimes I wonder if you realise what this money means to us both—I mean in the way of freedom and of added joy."
But Louise still turned from him, and, as she disengaged herself, he could see the slow, reluctant tears rolling down her cheek.
Dering felt keenly distressed. The long strain, the gallantly endured poverty, the constant anxiety, had evidently told on his wife more than he had known. "Don't let's talk about it any more!" he exclaimed. "There's no hurry about it now, after all."
"I would rather talk about it now, Philip. I don't—I don't at all understand what you mean. It is surely too late for us now to talk of marriage? The time remaining to us is too short to make it worth while."
Dering looked at her bewildered. Well as she spoke the language, she had remained very ignorant of England and of English law. "I will try and explain to you," he said gently, "why Wingfield has made it quite clear to me that we shall have to go through some kind of legal ceremony——"
"But there are so few months," she repeated, and he felt her trembling; "it is not as if you were likely to die before September; besides, if you were to do so, I should not care about the money."
For the first time a glimmer of what she meant, of what she was thinking, came into Dering's mind. He felt strongly moved and deeply touched. This, then, was why she had seemed so preoccupied, so unlike herself, of late. "My darling, surely you do not imagine—that I am thinking—of leaving you?"
"No," and for the first time Louise, as she uttered the word, looked up straight into Dering's face, "No, it was not of you that I was thinking—but of myself …"
"Let us sit down." Dering's voice was so changed, so uneager, so cold, that Louise, for the first time during their long partnership, felt as if she were with a stranger. "I want thoroughly to understand your point of view. Do you mean to say that when we first arranged matters you intended our—our marriage to be, in any case, only a temporary union?" He waited for her answer, looking at her with a still grimness, an unfamiliar antagonism, that raised in her a feeling of resentment, and renewed her courage. "Please tell me," he said again, "I think you owe me the truth, and I really wish to know."
Then she spoke, and though her hands still trembled, her voice was quite steady, "Yes, Philip, I will tell you the truth, though I fear you will not like to hear it. When I first accepted the proposal you made to me, I felt convinced that, as regarded myself, the feeling which brought us together would be eternal, but I as fully believed that with you that same feeling would be only temporary. I was ready to remain with you as long as you would have me do so; but I felt sure that you would grow tired of me some day, and I told myself—secretly, of course, for I could not have insulted you or myself by saying such a thing to you then—I told myself, I say, that when that day came, the day of your weariness of me, I would go away, and make no further demand upon you."
"You really believed that I should grow tired of you, that I should wish to leave you?" Dering looked at her as a man might look at a stranger who has suddenly revealed some sinister and grotesque peculiarity of appearance or manner.
"Certainly I did so. How could I divine that you alone would be different from all the men of whom I had ever heard? Still, I loved you so well—ah, Philip, I did love you so—that I would have come to you on any terms, as indeed I did come on terms very injurious to myself. But what matters now what I then thought? I see that I was wrong—you have been faithful to me in word, thought, and deed——"
"Yes," said Dering fiercely, "that is so! Go on!"
"I also have been faithful to you——" she hesitated. "Yes, I think I may truly say it—in thought, word, and deed." Dering drew a long breath, and she went slowly on. "But I have realised, and that for some time past, that the day would come when I should no longer wish to be so—when I should wish to be free. I have gradually regained possession of myself, and, though I know I must fulfil all my obligations to you for the time I promised, I long for the moment of release, for the moment when I shall at last have the right to forget, as much as such things can ever be forgotten, these ten years of my life."
As she spoke, pronouncing each word clearly, in the foreign fashion, her voice gained a certain sombre confidence, and a flood of awful, hopeless bitterness filled the heart of the man sitting opposite to her. "And have you thought," he asked in a constrained voice, "what you are going to do? I know you have sometimes regretted your work; do you intend—or perhaps you have already applied to Mr. Farningham?"
"No," she answered, and, unobserved by him, for he was staring down at the table-cloth with unseeing eyes, a deep pink flush made her look suddenly girlish; "that will not be necessary. I have, as you know, regretted my work, and of late I have sometimes thought that, things being as they were, you acted with cruel thoughtlessness in compelling me to give it all up. But in my new life there will be much for me to do."
"I do not ask you," he said suddenly, hoarsely; "I could not insult you by asking …"
"I do not think"—she spoke slowly, answering the look, the intonation, rather than the words—"that I am going to do anything unworthy."
But Dering, with sharp suspicion, suddenly became aware that she had changed colour. His mind glanced quickly over their comparatively small circle of friends and acquaintances—first one, then another familiar figure rose, hideously vivid, before him. He felt helpless, bewildered, fettered. "Do you contemplate leaving me for another man?" he asked quietly.
Again Louise hesitated a moment. "Yes," she said at length, "that is what I am going to do. I did not mean to tell you now—though I admit that later, before the end, you would have had a right to know. The man to whom I am going, and who is not only willing, but anxious, to make me his wife, I mean his legal wife,"— she gave Dering a quick, strange look,—"has great need of me, far more so than you ever had. My feeling for him is not in any way akin to what was once my feeling for you; that does not come twice; but my affection, my—my—regard will be, in this case, I believe, more enduring; and, as you know, I dearly love his children, and promised their mother to take care of them."
While she spoke, Dering, looking fixedly at her, seemed to see a shadowy group of shabby, forlorn human beings form itself and take up its stand by her side—Jack Hinton, with his weak, handsome face and shifty, pleading eyes, his two plain, neglected-looking little girls, and then, cradled as he had so often seen it in Louise's arms, the ugly and to him repulsive-looking baby.
What chance had he, what memories had their common barren past, to fight this intangible appealing vision?
He raised his hand and held it for a moment over his eyes, in a vain attempt to shut out both that which he had evoked and the sight of the woman whose repudiation of himself only seemed to make more plainly visible the bonds which linked them the one to the other. Then he turned away with a certain deliberation, and, having closed the door, walked quickly through the little hall, flinging himself bareheaded into the open air.
For the second time that day Philip Dering felt an urgent need of solitude in which to hold communion with himself. And yet, when striding along the dimly lighted solitary thoroughfares, the stillness about him seemed oppressive, and the knowledge that he was encompassed by commonplace, contented folk intolerable.
And so, scarcely knowing where his feet were leading him, he made his way at last into the broad, brilliantly lighted Bath Road, now full of glare, of sound, and of movement, for throngs of workers, passing to and fro, were seeking the amusement and excitement of the street after their long, dull working day.
Very soon Dering's brain became abnormally active; his busy thoughts took the shape of completed, half-uttered sentences, and he argued with himself, not so loudly that those about him could hear, but still with moving lips, as to the outcome of what Louise had told him that evening.
He was annoyed to find that his thoughts refused to marshal themselves in due sequence. Thus, when trying to concentrate his mind on the question of the immediate future, memories of Gerda Hinton, of the dead woman with whom he had never felt in sympathy, perhaps because Louise had been so fond of her, persistently intervened, and refused to be thrust away. His own present intolerable anguish made him, against his will, retrospectively understand Gerda's long-drawn-out agony. He remembered, with new, sharp-edged concern and pity, her quiet endurance of those times of ignoble poverty brought about by Hinton's fits of idleness; he realised for the first time what must have meant, in anguish of body and mind, the woman's perpetual child-bearing, and the death of two of her children, followed by her own within a fortnight of her last baby's birth.
Then, with sudden irritation, he asked himself why he, Philip Dering, should waste his short time for thought in sorrowing over this poor dead woman? And, in swift answer, there came to him the knowledge why this sad drab ghost had thus thrust herself upon him to-night.
A feeling of furious anger, of revolt against the very existence of Jack Hinton, swept over him. So base, so treacherous, so selfish a creature fulfilled no useful purpose in the universe. Men hung murderers; and was Hinton, who had done his wife to death with refinement of cruelty, to go free—free to murder, in the same slow way, another woman, and one who actually belonged to Dering's own self?
He now recognised, with bewilderment, that had Louise become his legal wife ten years ago, the thought of what she proposed to do would never have even crossed her mind.
The conviction that Hinton was not fit to live soon followed itself into a stable background to all Dering's subsequent thoughts, to his short hesitations, and to his final determination.
After a while he looked at his watch, and found, with some surprise, that he had been walking up and down for over an hour; he also became aware, for the first time, that his bare, hatless head provoked, now and again, good-natured comment from those among whom he was walking. He turned into a side street, and taking from his pocket a small note-book, wrote the few lines which later played an important part in determining, to the satisfaction of his friends, the fact that he was, when writing them, most probably of unsound mind.
What Dering wrote down in his pocket-book ran as follows:
1. I buy a hat at Dunn's, if Dunn be still open (which is probable).
2. I call on the doctor who was so kind to the Hintons last year and settle his account. It is doubtful if Hinton ever paid him—in fact, there can be no doubt that Hinton did not pay him. I there make my will and inform the doctor that he will certainly be wanted shortly at Number 8 Lady Rich Road.
3. I buy that revolver (if guaranteed in perfect working order) which I have so frequently noticed in the pawnbroker's window, and I give him five shillings for showing me how to manage it. Mem. Remember to make him load it, so that there may be no mistake.
4. I wire to Wingfield. This is important. It may save Louise a shock.
5. I go to Hinton's place, and if the children are already in bed I lock the door, and quietly kill him and then kill myself. If the children are still up, I must, of course, wait awhile. In any case the business will be well over before the doctor can arrive.
Dering shut the note-book with a sigh of relief. The way now seemed clear before him, for he had put down exactly what he meant to do, and in case of doubt or forgetfulness he need only glance at his notes to be set again in the right way.
As he walked slowly along the unlovely narrow streets which run parallel to the Bath Road, his emotional memory brought his wife vividly before him. He began wondering painfully if she would ever understand, if she would ever realise from what he had saved her by that which he was about to do. His knowledge of her character made him feel sure—and there was infinite comfort in the thought—that she would remain silent, that she would never yield to any foolish impulse to tell Wingfield the truth. It was good to feel so sure that his old friend would never know of his failure, of his great and desolate humiliation.
Dering spent the next hour exactly as he had planned; in fact, at no point of the programme did his good fortune desert him. Thus, even the doctor, a man called Johnstone, who might so easily have been out, was at home; and, though actually giving a little stag party, he good-naturedly consented to leave his guests for a few moments, in spite of the fact that the stranger waiting in the surgery had refused to state his business.
"My name is Dering. I think you must often have met my wife when you were attending the late Mrs. Hinton. In fact, I've come to-night to settle the Hintons' account. I fancy it is still owing?"
Dering spoke with abrupt energy, looking straight, and almost with a frown, as he spoke, into the other's kindly florid face.
"Oh, yes, the account is still owing." Dr. Johnstone spoke with a certain eagerness. "Then do I understand that you are acting for Mr. Hinton in the matter? The amount is exactly ten pounds." He paused awkwardly, and not till the two bank-notes were actually lying on his surgery table before him did he believe in his good fortune. The Hintons' account had long since passed into that class of doctor's bill which is only kept on the books with a view to the ultimate sale of the practice, and this last quarter the young man had not even troubled to send it in again.
Johnstone remembered poor Mrs. Hinton's friend very well; Mrs. Dering had been splendid, perfectly splendid, as nurse and comforter to the distracted household. And then, such a pretty woman, too, the very type—quiet, sensible, self-contained, and yet feminine—that Dr. Johnstone admired; he was always pleased when he met her walking about the neighbourhood.
This, then, was her husband? The doctor stared across at Dering with some curiosity. Well, he also, though, of course, in quite another way, was uncommon and attractive-looking. What was it he had heard about these people quite lately? Why, of course!
One of his old lady patients in Bedford Park had told him that her opposite neighbours, this Mr. and Mrs. Dering, had come into a large fortune—something like fifty thousand pounds!
Dr. Johnstone looked at his visitor with a sudden accession of respect. If he could have foreseen this interview, he might have made his account with Mr. Hinton bear rather more relation to the actual number of visits he had been compelled to pay to that unfortunate household. Still, he reminded himself that even ten pounds was very welcome just now, and his heart warmed to Mr. Hinton's generous friend.
Suddenly Dering began speaking: "I forget if I told you that I am starting this very night for a long journey, and before doing so I want to ask you to do me a favour——"
His host became all pleased attention.
"Would you kindly witness my will? I have just come into a sum of money, and—and, though my will is actually being drawn up by a friend, who is also a lawyer, I have felt uneasy——"
"I quite understand. You have thought it wise to make a provisional will? Well, that's a very sensible thing to do! We medical men see much trouble caused by foolish postponement in such matters. Some men seem to think that making a will is tantamount to signing their own death-warrant!"
But no answering smile brightened Dering's. fiercely set face: he did not seem to have heard what the doctor had said. "If I might ask you for a sheet of note-paper. I see a pen and blotting-pad over there——"
A sudden, instinctive misgiving crossed the other's mind. "This is rather informal, isn't it? Of course, I have no call to interfere, Mr. Dering; but if a large sum is involved, might it not be better to wait?"
Dering looked up. For the first time he smiled. "I don't wish to make any mystery about it, Dr. Johnstone. I am leaving everything to my wife, and after her to sundry young people in whom we are both interested. If I die intestate, I understand that distant relatives of my own—people whom I don't like, and who have never done anything for me—are bound to benefit." Even as he spoke he was busy writing the words, "To Louise Larsen (commonly known as Mrs. Philip Dering), of 9 Lady Rich Road, Bedford Park, and after her death to be divided equally between the children of my esteemed friend, James Wingfield, solicitor, of 24 Abingdon Street, Westminster, and the children of the late Mrs. John Hinton, of 8 Lady Rich Road, Bedford Park."
Short as was Dering's will, the last portion of it was written on the inner sheet of the piece of note-paper bearing the doctor's address, and the two witnesses, Johnstone himself, and a friend whom he fetched out of his smoking-room for the purpose, could not help seeing what generous provision the testator had made for the younger generation.
As the doctor opened the front door for his, as he hoped, new friend, Dering suddenly pulled a note-book out of his breast pocket. "I have forgotten a most important thing,"—there was real dismay in his fresh, still youthful voice—"and that is to ask you kindly to look round at No. 8 Lady Rich Road after your friends have left you to-night. I should think about twelve o'clock would do very well. In fact, Hinton won't be ready for you before. And, Dr. Johnstone, in view of the trouble to which you may be put"—Dering thrust another bank-note into the other man's hand. "I know you ought to have charged a lot more than that ten pounds——" And then, before words of thanks could be uttered, he had turned and gone down the steps, along the little path, through the iron gate which swung under the red lamp, into the darkness beyond.
Down the broad and now solitary Bath Road, filled with the strange, brooding stillness of a spring dawn, clattered discordantly a hansom cab.
There was promise of a bright, warm day, such a day as yesterday had been; but Wingfield, leaning forward, unconsciously willing the horse to go faster, felt very cold. Not for the first time during this interminable journey, he took from his breast pocket the unsigned telegram which was the cause of his being here, driving, oh! how slowly, along this fantastically empty thoroughfare.
"Philip Dering is dead please come at once at once at once to eight Lady Rich Road."
Wingfield, steadying the slip of paper as it fluttered in his hand, looked down with frowning, puzzled eyes at the pencilled words.
The message had been sent off just before midnight, and had reached his house, he supposed, an hour and a half later, for the persistent knocking at his front door had gone on for some time before he or his wife realised that the loud hammering sound concerned themselves. Even then it had been Kate who had at last roused herself and gone downstairs; Kate who had rushed up breathless, whispering, as she thrust the orange envelope into his hand: "Oh, James, what can it be? Thank God, all the children are safe at home!"
No time had been lost. While he was dressing, his wife had made him a cup of tea, kind and solicitous of his comfort, but driving him nearly distracted by her eager, excited talk and aimless conjectures. It had seemed long before he found a derelict cab willing to drive him from Regent's Terrace to Bedford Park, but now—well, thank God, he was at last nearing the place where he would learn what had befallen the man who had been, next to his own elder boy, the creature he had loved best in, his calm, phlegmatic life.
Wingfield went on staring down at the mysterious and yet explicit message, of which the wording seemed to him so odd—in some ways recalling Dering's familiar trick of reiteration. Then suddenly he thought of Hinton. With a sudden revulsion of feeling, the lawyer folded up the telegram and put it back into his breast pocket—this mysterious, unsigned request for his immediate presence had obviously been despatched by Hinton. How stupid of him not to have realised this at once, the more so that No. 8 Lady Rich Road was Hinton's address, not that of Dering. Quickly he raised his hand to the trap-door above his head. "Pull up at Number 8, not, as I told you, at Number 9, Lady Rich Road," he shouted.
The radiance of an early spring morning, so kind to everything in nature, is pitiless to that which owes its being to the ingenuity and industry of human hands. Dr. Johnstone, standing opposite a police inspector in what had been poor Mrs. Hinton's cherished, if untidy and shabby, little sitting-room, felt his wretchedness and shame—for he felt very deeply ashamed—perceptibly increased by the dust-laden sunbeams dancing slantwise about him.
The inspector was really sorry for him, though a little contemptuous perhaps of a medical man capable of showing such emotion and horror in the face of death. "Why, doctor, you mustn't take on so! How could you possibly have told what was in the man's mind? You weren't upset like this last year over that business in Angle Alley, and that was a sight worse than this, eh?"
But Johnstone had turned away, and was staring out of the bow window. "It isn't that poor wretch Hinton that's upset me," he muttered. "I don't mind death. It's—it's—Dering—Dering and Mrs. Dering." Reluctant tears filled his tired, red-rimmed eyes.
"I'm sorry, too. Very sorry for the lady, that is; as for the other—well, I'm pretty sure he'll cheat Broadmoor, and that without much delay, eh, doctor? Hullo! who's this coming now?" The tone suddenly changed, became at once official and alert in quality, as the sound of wheels stopped opposite the little gate. When the front door bell pealed through the house he added, "You go to the door, doctor; whoever it is had better not see me at first." And Johnstone found himself suddenly pushed out of the room and into the little hall.
There he hesitated for a moment, looking furtively round at the half-open door which led into the back room fitted up as a studio, where still lay, in dreadful juxtaposition, the dead and the dying, Hinton and his murderer, alone, save for the indifferent watchful presence of a trained nurse.
Another impatient peal of sound echoed through the house, and the doctor, walking slowly forward, opened the front door.
"Can I see Mr. Hinton? Or is he next door? I have driven down from town in response to this telegram. I was Mr. Philip Dering's oldest friend and solicitor——"
"Then—then it was you who were making his will?"
The question struck Wingfield as unseemly. How had this young man, whom he took to be one of Hinton's dissipated friends, learned even this one fact concerning poor Dering's affairs? "Yes," he said shortly, as he walked through into the hall, "that was the case. But, of course—well, perhaps you will kindly inform me where I can see Mr. Hinton?" he repeated impatiently. "I suppose he is with Mrs. Dering, at Number 9?" And the other noticed that he left the door open behind him, evidently intending to leave Hinton's house as soon as he had obtained a reply to his question.
For a moment the two men looked at one another in exasperated silence. Then, very suddenly, Johnstone did that of which he was afterward sorry and self-reproachful. But his nerve was completely gone; for hours he had been engaged in what had proved both a terrible and a futile task, that of attempting to relieve the physical agony of a man for whose state he partly held himself to be responsible. He wished to avoid, at any rate for the present, the repetition to the stranger of what had happened the night before, and so, "Please come this way," he muttered hoarsely. "I ought perhaps to warn you—to prepare you for something of a shock." And, turning round, beckoning to the other to follow him, he opened the door of the studio, stepping aside to allow Wingfield to pass in before him. But once through the doorway the lawyer suddenly recoiled and stopped short, so dreadful and so unexpected was the sight which then met his eyes.
Focussed against a blurred background made up of distempered light-green walls, a curtainless open window, and various plain deal studio properties pushed back against the wall, lay, stretched out on some kind of low couch brought forward into the middle of the room, a rigid, motionless figure. The lower half of the figure, including the feet, which rested on a chair placed at the bottom of the couch, was entirely covered by a blanket; but the chest and head, slightly raised by pillows, seemed swathed and bound up in broad strips of white linen, which concealed chin and forehead, hair and ears, while the head was oddly supported by a broad band or sling fastened with safety-pins—Wingfield's eyes took note of every detail—to the side of the couch. Under the blanket, which was stretched tightly across the man's breast, could be seen the feeble twitching of fingers, but, even so, the only sense of life and feeling seemed to the onlooker centred in the eyes, whose glance Wingfield found himself fearing yet longing to meet.
To the right of the couch a large Japanese screen had been so placed as to hide some object spread out on the floor. To the left, watching every movement of the still, recumbent figure, stood a powerful-looking woman in nursing dress. Wingfield's gaze, after wandering round the large, bare room, returned and again clung to the sinister, immobile form which he longed to be told was that of Hinton, and as he gazed he forced himself to feel a fierce gladness and relief in the knowledge that Dering was dead,—that in his pocket lay the telegram which proved it.
At last, to gain courage and to stifle a horrible doubt, he compelled himself to meet those at once indifferent and appealing eyes, which seemed to stare fixedly beyond the group of men by the door; and suddenly the lawyer became aware that just behind him hurried whispered words were being uttered.
"This gentleman is Mr. Dering's solicitor; perhaps he will be able to throw some light on the whole affair," and he felt himself being plucked by the sleeve and gently pulled back into the hall.
"It is—isn't it?—poor Hinton?" and he looked imploringly from one man to the other.
"Hinton?" said the doctor sharply. "He's there, sure enough—but you didn't see him, for we put him under a sheet, behind that screen. Your friend shot him dead first, and then cut his own throat, but he didn't set about that in quite the right way, so he's alive still, as you can see."
"And where is Mrs. Dering?" Wingfield spoke in a quiet, mechanical voice; and Johnstone felt angered by his callousness.
"We've just sent her back into the next house," he answered curtly, "and made her take the Hinton children with her. For—well, it often is so in such cases, you know—the presence of his wife seems positively to distress Mr. Dering; besides, the nurse and I can do, and have done, all that is possible."
"And have you no clue to what has happened? Has Dering been able to give no explanation of this—this—horrible business?"
Johnstone shook his head. "Of course he can't speak. He will never speak again. He wrote a few words to his wife, but they amounted to nothing save regret that he had bungled the last half of the affair."
"And what do you yourself think?" Wingfield spoke calmly and authoritatively. He had suddenly become aware, during the last few moments, that he was speaking to a medical man.
"I haven't had time to think much about it"; the tone was rough and sore. "Mr. Dering seems to have come into a large sum of money, and such things have been known to upset men's brains before now."
"Still, he might write something of consequence now that this gentleman has come," interposed the inspector.
But when Wingfield, standing by that which he now knew was indeed his friend, watched the painful, laboured moving of the pencil across the slate which had been hurriedly fetched some two hours before from the young Hintons' nursery, all he saw, traced again and again, were the words: "Look after Louise. Look after Louise …" and then at last: "I mean to die. I mean to die. I mean to die."