The Highwayman (Bailey)/Chapter XXII
Alison was gone back to her house at Highgate—and immediately regretted it. She took her adventures in a youthful, egoistic fashion: saw herself as a lovely woman made the prey of man and robbed of her right to her own life, a tender, confiding soul deceived and tortured into despair. The Lincoln's Inn Fields became the abomination of desolation, her fine society was dust and ashes and mankind in general all mocking villainy. So it was natural that she should retire from the world and become a recluse of tragic dignity. What other part is there for the deserted wife to play?
But she came upon awkward difficulties. The world would not be left behind. It was much more closely about her among the woods and meadows of Highgate than in her London drawing-room. The would-be fine ladies and gentlemen of her routs and her card parties, so the sweetmeats and the wines and strong waters were good enough, cared nothing whether she had a husband upstairs or somewhere else. Out in the country every one, gentle and simple, had a curious eye upon her. The very woods and meadows must be jogging her memory and putting her questions. Every one had known Miss Lambourne of the Hall and gone whispering about her strange, passionate marriage. Each pleasant path and lane had seen something of that first wild happiness. All day long she was driven back upon herself and what she had lost.
There is no doubt that she suffered. Of course she still told her heart wonderful tales about the shame that she had to bear and her torturing wrongs, and beyond doubt she believed most of them. For she could still profess to herself a miserable degradation in being married to a man of no name: she would be gloomily convinced that Harry was by his father's villainy a proven knave. But what hurt her most was the growing suspicion that she was much to blame for her own plight. Alison Lambourne, who acknowledged no law but her own will, who had never dreamed that she could be wrong in her desires, driven to confess a ruinous blunder! Imagine her distress. At first she chose to pretend that she had been overthrown by passion. The more she tried to despise Harry, the more that fancy shamed her. But there was in her a strength which refused to be content with that. She would still boast to herself that she was not the woman to be swept away by a gust of longing for the man who chanced to take her eye. And so she brought down on herself the inexorable question—if Harry were man enough to wake passion in her and deserve her magnificence, why had she driven him off? For all her selfishness and her insolent pride, she had a vehement desire, a part perhaps of her very pride in her womanhood, to owe him nothing, to play him fair, to give him all that a man could ask. Little by little she forced herself to believe that she had failed of that. After all, he had offered her nothing but himself, poor, friendless, of no repute, indolent, careless of all the world—and she had professed content. What his father might do was no matter to that. He had offered her what he was and given it faithfully. And she had not played fair. When she found herself confessing that, she discovered a new power of being wretched. All the romantic, egoistic melancholy went down the wind. The finest, proudest of her, her own honour, told of a torturing wound.
"I'll satisfy you"—that had been the boast before the wild marriage was done. And after all she had chosen to deny him. Nothing else could matter. There could be no excuse. It was he that she had taken, not his name or what he might be, and he had not changed. It was herself that she had promised—what other honour for woman or man than to give like for like?—and she had broken faith. She was humiliated—a state of all others the most dolorous for Alison.
To it came on a merry spring day Mr. Waverton. She was in two minds whether to let him see her, and then—too proud to hide from him or greedy of a chance to hurt him—had him in.
Mr. Waverton had decorated himself for a house of mourning. His large form was all black and silver and drooped sympathetically. His handsome face was set in a chastened melancholy as of one who grieves for another's trouble with a modest satisfaction. "Dear lady," says he tenderly, and bowed over her hand.
"Dear Geoffrey," says she. "Here's a new song."
"'Vengeance is mine' was the refrain last time. Now it's weeping over the penitent prodigal. How I love you, Geoffrey."
Mr. Waverton made a gesture of emotion, an exclamation. "I wronged you, Alison," he said in a deep voice. "Nay, but you must forgive me. I have suffered too. Remember! I had lost all."
"Ah, no," says Alison tragically, "you had still yourself, Geoffrey."
His emotion was understood to be too much for Mr. Waverton. In a little while, "We have both been the sport of villainy," he said. "Forgive me, Alison. I remember that I spoke bitterly. Can you wonder? I had dreamed of you in his arms. To see you there in that knave's power—ah, I was beside myself. And he laughed, do you remember, he laughed!"
"He never would take you to heart, in fact."
"A treacherous hound!" said Mr. Waverton with startling vehemence.
"Oh, he was honest when he laughed."
Mr. Waverton swept Harry out of the conversation. "Forgive me, Alison, I should have known. My heart should have told me."
"Oh Lud, and is your heart to give tongue now?"
"My heart," said Mr. Waverton with dignity, "my heart is always crying to you. And now—now that the first agony is past, I know all."
"I wish I did," said Alison and looked in his eyes.
"But even then—ah, Alison, I have blamed myself cruelly—even then I should have known that when your eyes were opened, when you knew the truth, you would have no more of him."
"You might have known," Alison said slowly. "You might have judged me by yourself."
"Aye, that indeed," says Mr. Waverton heartily. "For we are very like, Alison, we are of the same spirit, you and I."
"You make me proud."
"It's our tragedy: we so like, so made to answer each other, should be betrayed to our ruin by this same vile trickster. Oh, I blame you no more than myself."
"This is too generous."
"No," says Mr. Waverton. "No. When I came on that woman of yours, that Mrs. Weston—faith, I am glad that you have cut her off too. I never liked that woman."
"Yes, she is poor."
"There it is! I doubt she was in Boyce's pay."
Alison opened her eyes at him. "Oh, Geoffrey, you surpass yourself to-day. Go on, go on."
"If you please," says Mr. Waverton, something ruffled. "I believe he hired her to play his game with you. Had you a suspicion of it when you sent her packing?"
"By God, Geoffrey, I could suspect anyone when you talk to me."
"She is bitter against you. When I heard from her that you had driven the fellow away from you, I was on fire to come to you."
"To forgive the prodigal! Oh, your nobility, Geoffrey. And pray where did you meet Mrs. Weston?"
"Why, in the High Street here. She lodges in one of those wretched cottages behind the street."
"She is here?" Alison shivered a little.
"Perhaps she has some game to play yet. She may be his spy. Be warned against her."
Alison leant forward in her chair. Her face was hidden from him. "You are giving me a lesson, Geoffrey. I'll profit by it, I promise you!"
"Alison!" Mr. Waverton gave a laugh of triumph. "I fight for us both. And I promise you I am eager enough. As soon as I learnt that you had left him, why, he was delivered into my hand. By heaven, he shall find no mercy now. Already I have him watched. I went to an attorney much practised in these treasonous cheating plots, and of him I have hired trusty fellows who know all the rogues in London and their hiding-holes. You said something?"
But Alison was laughing.
"I believe there is some humour in it," Mr. Waverton conceded grandly. "Well, they have tracked him down. Our gentleman lies at a filthy tavern in the Long Acre. The 'Leg of Pork,' or some such lewd name. He haunts Jacobite coffeehouses and the like low places. They believe that he makes some dirty money by scribbling for the Press. A writer in the newspapers! He is sunk almost to his right depth. They make no doubt that before long we shall catch him dabbling in some new treasonous matter. And then—" he made gestures of doom.
"Well? And then?"
"The law may revenge us on the treacherous rogue," said Mr. Waverton with majesty.
Alison stood up. Mr. Waverton, always polite, started up too. "I give you joy, Geoffrey," she said very quietly.
"Not yet! Not yet!" Mr. Waverton put up a modest hand.
"I believe there is nothing you could feel." Mr. Waverton recoiled and stared his bewilderment. "You carry a sword, Geoffrey. Oh, that I were a man!"
"To use it upon him! Bah, such rogues are not worth the honour of steel."
"Oh! Honour! Honour!" she cried and flung out her arms, trembling. "The honour of you and me!"
What was Mr. Waverton to make of that? "I believe I have excited you," says he.
"By God, it is the first time," Alison cried and turned on him so fiercely that he started back.
There was a servant at the door saying something which went unheard. Then Susan Burford came into the room, an odd contrast in her placid simplicity to the amazed magnificence of Mr. Waverton or Alison's tremulous, furious beauty. Alison was turned away from her and too much engaged to hear or be aware of her.
"Here is Miss Burford," said Waverton in a hurry.
Alison whirled upon her. "You! You have nothing to do here."
"My dear Alison!" Waverton protested. "Miss Burford, your very obedient."
Susan made him a small leisurely curtsy and sat down. "Oh, please give me a dish of tea," she said.
"We have not seen you at Tetherdown in this long while," Mr. Waverton complained genially.
"I believe not," says Susan.
Alison stared at her. "Why do you come here? You know you despise me."
"I do not come to people I despise," says Susan placidly.
"Well. I am private with dear Geoffrey, if you please."
"My dear Alison! I must be riding. We have finished our business, I think. I'll not fail to be with you again soon. I hope to have news for you. Miss Burford, your most obedient." Susan bent her head. "Alison—" he held out his hand and smiled at her protective affection.
"Geoffrey," said Alison, and looked in his eyes. She did not take the hand. She was very pale.
Mr. Waverton's smile was withered. He took himself out with a jauntiness that sat upon him awkwardly.
Then Alison turned again upon Susan. "You want to know what I have to do with him?" she said fiercely.
"No," says Susan.
Alison stared at the fair, placid face and cried out: "You are a fool."
"Oh, my dear," says Susan.
"I hate that cold, flabby way of yours. You think it is all good and wise and kind. It's like a silly mother with a spoilt child. You've not spirit enough to scold, and all the while you are thinking me vile and base and mean."
"But that is ridiculous. Nobody could think you mean," Susan said.
"There it is again. You believe it is kind to talk so, and it drives me mad. I am shameful—do you hear? I am shameful and perhaps I want to be, and I loathe myself. Now, go. I shall not stay with you. Go."
Susan stood up. "Alison, oh, Alison," she said. Alison flung out of the room.