The Faithful Fortnight
THE FAITHFUL FORTNIGHT
By Barry Pain
IT was a warm summer night; the not absolutely impossible band was playing one of Waldteufel's waltzes. In the silence that followed one could hear the sea's melancholy plash on the piles of the pier, and its crisper sound on the shingle. There was no moonlight; the stars seemed to be an infinite distance away; the sea, too, under the gray sky, seemed to stretch to infinity—one could forget the geographical position of France. It was a splendid night for the emotions. One did not analyze. The band was playing appassionato at so much the hour, but one did not think of that nor inquire how much. One could forget the band in the music that sympathized so readily—the music that seemed to plain middle-aged women on the pier to be making to them that love which in real life they had missed. And such suggestions of infinity as the sea and stars afforded, ill-founded though they were, did not go for nothing. Even if they did not give one high emotions, at least they made one believe that such emotions as one had were high. It was a night on which it seemed noble and appropriate to hope, or sorrow, or love.
In that little town—that fashionable seaside resort, as guide-books and excursion time-tables like to call it—it happened that many people were falling in love. Occasion is responsible for so much. And yet the town was not very full, for the London season was not yet over. The pier was not crowded, and offered one dark and retired comer, of which two people were taking advantage—a man and a woman.
He had come from London that day to perform the act of renunciation. He was going to give her up. And he was going to do it in rather a pathetic way. His reasons for the step were many and various. In the first place he had so far, in spite of her manifest interest in him, never been able to persuade her to say that she loved him. In the second place, there was the opposition of the uncle, who was her guardian. The uncle's chief objection to the suit of a struggling, artistic exile had been that he detested people who struggled, people who were artistic, and people who were foreigners. True, when the exile had visited at the uncle's house, the uncle had been civil to him; but when the exile had commenced to make love to Vera, the uncle had been offensively and intentionally rude to him, without taking the trouble to give any reasons for his rudeness. He had also packed off Vera to the seaside, in case of accidents, with Lady Melbrough as her chaperone. From the seaside, in a fortnight's time, she would go north, where she would meet her uncle, but not the exile; and though she would return to London in the following season, the uncle had made it quite impossible for the exile to call at the house again. He had not said anything to his niece on the subject, being but little given to the weakness of saying things when it was quite sufficient merely to do them. But still Vera knew, and the artist exile knew. In the third place the exile had realized that it was possible that he might fall in love with another woman—in fact, there had already been a something, merely a something. And so he had decided that he ought to come and see Vera for the last, last time, and give her up, and hope that she might find the happiness which, in the loss of her, would be forever denied to him.
Vera looked meditative; she leaned against the back of the seat impassively, and her foot did not waggle, and her hands did not toy with anything. She presented a contrast to the nervous and excited manner of her companion; but then her profile was beautiful, and he could see it, and she could not. He was giving her up, with the slightest possible foreign accent, in this manner:
"Vera, I love you. I adore you. What other woman could be loved like you! Do not send me back again to London. Why should I not wait here and meet you like this every night just for this last fortnight?"
"To-night," Vera answered, very quietly, "Jane believes that I am with Mrs. Watson Harding, while Mrs. Watson Harding believes I am with Jane. That can not always be managed."
"Let me present myself openly."
"Jane will be asked questions when we go north, and I fancy Jane knows that."
"Ah, do not speak so coldly; do not mock me; I am not ashamed of my entire devotion to you. What would it matter if every one here saw me constantly with you——"
"But stop," Vera said. "I reverence conventionality. For that reason it will be quite useless for you to suggest romantic, picturesque, and impossible things. My maid does my hair very well, and I try to live up to that. This is not my first season, and I have seen some women—nice, good women—who attempted the romantically innocently impossible. Stranded, if you please—just that I am not going to be stranded. I do not want my friends to have to think the best of me. I want my enemies to think the worst of me, and get no satisfaction out of it. When you suggest that I enter upon weeks of public flirtation with a man I do not intend to marry, you suggest what is impossible. No, don't think me hard. Believe me when I tell you how deeply sorry I am for you. But you should not have come down here, and you must go back to-night."
"Ah!" the exile said, "you may indeed be sorry for me. Think what my future must be—poor, friendless, loveless, alone, in a foreign country, struggling, unappreciated."
"You are only at the commencement of your profession. You will be appreciated. You are a real tenor, you know. What is there that I can do for you? How can I help you?"
"Tell me just once that you love me. I know that we can never be married—that your uncle's opposition is insurmountable. But the only real part of my future life will be its memories; let there be at least one exquisite memory among them."
"I cannot say what you want. If I could say that, then opposition would amount to nothing. I have a great deal of affection for my uncle, and I owe him much. I should do my best to overcome his opposition, and I think that when he saw all that was at stake I should succeed. But, even if I did not, I should not consider that I owed him the entire happiness of two lives."
"Do you think, Vera," he said, speaking in a whisper, "that you will ever be able to say that? "
She looked away from him over the sea.
"I don't know. I'm not sure," she said.
"Is there any chance?"
"It is all new to me. You are asking these things too soon—yes, and too late also. Perhaps it might be, perhaps not."
"Vera, I will go away now—back to London. I will do as you wish. But do not let me lose one slightest chance of the one thing I desire. Vera, I love you, you only, you always. Let me come back again a fortnight hence, on the night before you leave, at this place and this time. Until then, think often of me. Perhaps it may be that you will be able to say then what you cannot say now. If not, then it will be good-by. May I do that? "
"Yes." She rose and gave him her hand, smiling faintly. "Good-night, then," she said, "and not good-by yet." He held her hand too long, gazed ardently at her with his rather beautiful eyes, and then with foreign grace retired. That foreign grace, together with the slightest possible foreign accent, still remained with him after several years' residence in England. He retained some other characteristics of his nation as well.
He took the road back to the railway station. His fingers, that had seemed, as he talked with Vera, to be making imaginary cigarettes, now made actual cigarettes. As he smoked he fell deep in thought. He was thinking chiefly about himself.
"Fatal!" he murmured to himself. "Given the opportunity and the woman, and I always make love. But always! Yes, even when I have taken an unpleasant railway journey in order to conclude a—an incident—altogether. Vera is charming. Vera is much impressed by my voice." Humming, "Tra-la-la, tra-la-la, la, la, la." Thinking, "Vera has a natural sympathy with the struggling artistic exile. But she has never loved me. It was madness to postpone the final farewell for a fortnight." Humming, "Tra-la-la-la, tra-la, tra-la." Thinking, "The occasion—the romance of the occasion—seemed to demand it. The night is beautiful. Vera also is beautiful. But a fortnight! It is a long time, and much may happen in it. Vera may get to hear of Veronique; then if Vera ever could have cared for me I am ruined. Veronique may hear of Vera; Veronique would never forgive it, and I should be ruined also. Each may get to hear of the other, and then if neither care for me, probably both will. But that is not certain, and would be of no use if it was."
At this moment some vivid recollection of Vera's personality crossed his mind. He pulled himself up. His eyebrows contracted fiercely. "No, no, my friend," he said to himself; "this must not be. In the sacred name of love, it must not be. Put Veronique from your thoughts; Vera claims them all. Even to-night she showed signs of relenting. Possibly in this fortnight she may learn to love you. You will be glad, then, that you were faithful. Even if she but bids you a last farewell, you will have the consciousness that you have done what is right and noble. Be absolutely true to Vera—absolutely faithful to Vera—for a fortnight." Humming the gayest of chansons, he entered the station.
Vera played bezique with Lady Melbrough, and played shockingly badly. Then she went off to bed, outwardly placid, but meditative.
It was on a Wednesday night that the struggling, artistic exile came back to London, with his resolutions all well in hand. On the afternoon following, he remembered an engagement which, if Vera had allowed him to remain at the seaside, he might have forgotten. He was to go round to Veronique's pretty little flat, and try songs. The great and successful Veronique had been pleased to be interested in the exile. No money would induce her to give singing-lessons, but she gave him for nothing what money would not purchase. He had in him the materials for success, and she was going to show him how to use them. He would never, of course, become the musician that she was; but still, he would do well on the concert-platform. It had sometimes occurred to her that she would be more comfortable if she had a husband with her when she was on tour. He was younger than she was, probably, but then she did not know precisely how old she was; he was graceful and had a good appearance. She liked him. But the singing-lesson was taken seriously. She told lies with impartiality about other things, but not about music; and therefore she did not flatter him in the least, in words. But then she gave him over an hour of hard, patient work; and the compliment of the fact remained. And the struggling exile was not the man to miss a compliment in any form. He became almost elated; he became careless in his observance of his resolution to regard Veronique merely as a kind and friendly teacher. He wondered if it was possible that Veronique and her companion, Mrs. Slade, would do him the honor to come and dine with him somewhere. It was possible. It was also done. It was an interesting dinner. Veronique told the story of her early privations; it was an effective story. She had told it frequently, and yet no one had ever found it dull; it was never twice the same.
It was rather late that night when the exile got back to his rooms. He reflected with himself: "In a very little less than a fortnight you will be returning to Vera, to tell her once more that you love her, and to beseech her to say that she loves you. After what has occurred, do you think that you have the right?" He stroked his chin meditatively for a moment. In that moment his point of view turned the other way up. "It is necessary," he said—aloud, to make it sound truer—"for me on a certain date to go to say good-by to Vera. That, in all human probability, is all it will amount to. Very well, then. Until that day comes, let me at least have the manhood not to insult Veronique by thinking of Vera in any other light than as a friend. I cannot help what has happened. But I can let the past be past. Ah, Veronique! What other woman could be loved like you!"
The next letter that Vera received from her uncle contained the following passage:
"Do you remember that tenor you brought here a few weeks ago? Nice little man, rather. He's done well for himself. He's to marry the great Veronique. Of course she isn't what she was; but there's plenty of money—must be. Don't send him your congratulations, as the thing is supposed to be a secret still."
"That will not do, uncle," thought Vera. "You call him a 'nice, little' man, yet you dislike him very much, as a matter of fact, and he's not little. He's engaged to Veronique, is he? Why didn't my dear uncle say the Queen of Sheba at once? And I'm not to write to him on the subject. Of course not, because he isn't engaged, nor likely to be. For such a clever man as my uncle, this seems to me to be a peculiarly stupid trick."
Nevertheless, Vera had moments of uneasiness. In all probability, she decided, she would not want to marry the artistic exile. But that was no reason why the artistic exile should not continue to want to marry her. It was chiefly his pathetic devotion to her that had given him a place in Vera's esteem; if he wavered at all in that, then her esteem would be lost to him; or, to put it in its simplest form, if he became engaged to another woman. Vera would certainly not marry him. As the end of the fortnight drew near, she had moments of believing that she was much in love with him; they vanished before analysis and left her doubtful. "No matter," she said. "There will be no doubt after Tuesday night. When I see him, I shall know my own heart."
On the afternoon of that Tuesday the exile walked towards Victoria Station; he was intending to go down to the seaside, to sit on the pier watching the sea's constant courtship of the shingle, and there to say good-by to Vera in such a way as to imply, without offending her, that he could only regard her as a friend, that her notion that he was in love with her had never had any grounds, and that he intended to marry Veronique. It was a situation that might have appalled a heavy and insular mind. But the light foreigner felt no uneasiness, his solutions of such difficulties were grandly simple. High spirits would cover the whole thing. He would be in the best of spirits, would laugh, would jest, hum scraps of music, twirl his cane, take nothing seriously, and finally retire with a gracefully raised hat and the possible high handshake, in a general atmosphere of raillerie and tra-la-la. But as he walked to the station his arm was lightly touched, and he turned round; he found himself face to face with a young girl, whose expression was one of great vivacity, who looked poor and yet Parisian.
"Jenny!" he exclaimed.
He had known Jenny in the days when he was unromantically poor, before he had climbed the path to genteel and romantic poverty. She was a governess, and in the pursuit of her calling had been for some months abroad. The Dean, whose children she was paid to spank and instruct, kept—so she thought—an eye on the outward aspect of her correspondence, and therefore she had told him not to write too often. He had never written at all. But the story that he told her of the way in which he had mislaid her address and changed his own had in it all the elements of probability. He was a man who frequently mislaid addresses.
"Never," he said, with fervor, "have I seen you look so absolutely charming, charming though you always were."
"I was never half as pretty as my sister Mildred," said Jenny. "Still, I've been living in the place where women do their best for themselves. Now I take a holiday."
"I also," he answered, sighing. "A singer's life! Ah, the work is terrible! If I did not whenever I could leave this stifling London, and get a mouthful of sea air, I should break down altogether."
Jenny looked away from him down the street.
"Going to be away long?"
"No, I return to-night. Really, I doubt if it is worth while. Let us turn into the park, and talk it over. You were always so practical— such an excellent adviser."
Vera came back from the pier. She had spent some skill and stratagem in eluding her chaperone, in order to keep her appointment with the exile; and he, without one word of excuse, had failed to keep his appointment with her. She was very angry, and at last she spake with her tongue.
"I thought," she said, "that I should know my own heart when I saw him. At any rate, I knew my own heart when I didn't see him."
As she had a strong objection to being cheapened in any way, she wrote to him from the North a letter as follows: "How shall I apologize? Perhaps I had better tell the plain truth. There were some very nice people staying there, and I saw a good deal of them—and circumstances arose which put all thought of you clean out of my head, so I forgot all about the appointment. Do not be angry. Even if I had met you on the pier, nothing could have come of it. Still I am sorry you took all the trouble to come from London for nothing."
When the exile read this letter, he was at first pleased, because it seemed a merciful deliverance. But at the reference to "circumstances that had arisen," his brow clouded, and he laughed the bitter, mirthless laugh.
"I see it all," he exclaimed. "The faithfulness of woman!"
Ultimately, Vera snatched a frail young Scotch peer out of the very jaws of an American heiress, and afterwards lived happily. The failure of the exile's attempt to be engaged to both Veronique and Jenny—the betrothals to run concurrently—drove him to desperation, and he married Mildred.
- A selection from " The English Illustrated Magazine."