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XIXEdit

The summer was brief, and already by the middle of September many had returned to the pleasures of urban life. Ethel was among the first-comers; for, after her resolve to enter the life of the young poet once more, it would have been impossible for her to stay away from the city

much longer. Her plan was all ready. Before attempting to see Ernest she would go to meet Reginald and implore him to free the boy from his hideous spell. An element of curiosity unconsciously entered her determination. When, years ago, she and Clarke had parted, the man had seemed, for once, greatly disturbed and had promised, in his agitation, that some day he would communicate to her what would exonerate him in her eyes. She had answered that all words between them were purposeless, and that she hoped never to see his face again. The experience that the years had brought to her, instead of elucidating the mystery of Reginald's personality, had, on the contrary, made his behaviour appear more and more unaccountable. She had more than once caught herself wishing to meet him again and to analyse dispassionately the puzzling influences he had exerted upon her. And she could at last view him dispassionately; there was triumph in that. She was dimly aware that something had passed from her, something by which he had held her, and without which his magnetism was unable to play upon her.

So when Walkham sent her an invitation to one of his artistic “at homes” she accepted, in. the hope of meeting Reginald. It was his frequentation of Walkham's house that had for several years effectively barred her foot from crossing the threshold. It was with a very strange feeling she greeted the many familiar faces at Walkham's now; and when, toward ten o'clock, Reginald entered, politely bowing in answer to the welcome from all sides, her heart beat in her like a drum. But she calmed herself, and, catching his eye, so arranged it that early in the evening they met in an alcove of the drawing-room.

“It was inevitable,” Reginald said. “I expected it.”

“Yes,” she replied, “we were bound to meet.” Like a great rush of water, memory came back to her. He was still horribly fascinating as of old—only she was no longer susceptible to his fascination. He had changed somewhat in those years. The lines about his mouth had grown harder and a steel-like look had come into his eyes. Only for a moment, as he looked at her, a flash of tenderness seemed to come back to them. Then he said, with a touch of sadness: “Why should the first word between us be a lie?”

Ethel made no answer.

Reginald looked at her half in wonder and said: “And is your love for the boy so great that it overcame your hate of me?”

Ah, he knew! She winced. “He has told you?”

“Not a word.”

There was something superhuman in his power of penetration. Why should she wear a mask before him, when his eyes, like the eyes of God, pierced to the core of her being?

“No,” she replied, “it is not love, but compassion for him.”

“Compassion?”

“Yes, compassion for your victim.”

“You mean?”

“Reginald!”

“I am all ear.”

“I implore you.”

“Speak.”

“You have ruined one life.”

He raised his eyebrows derogatively.

“Yes,” she continued fiercely, “ruined it! Is not that enough?”

“I have never wilfully ruined any one's life.”

“You have ruined mine.”

“Wilfully?”

“How else shall I explain your conduct?”

“I warned you.”

“Warning, indeed! The warning that the snake gives to the sparrow helpless under its gaze.”

“Ah, but who tells you that the snake is to blame? Is it not rather the occult power that prescribes with blood on brazen scroll the law of our being?”

“This is no solace to the sparrow. But whatever may be said, let us drop the past. Let us consider the present. I beg of you, leave this boy—let him develop without your attempting to stifle the life in him or impressing upon it the stamp of your alien mind.”

“Ethel,” he protested, “you are unjust. If you knew—” Then an idea seemed to take hold of him. He looked at her curiously.

“What if I knew?” she asked.

“You shall know,” he said, simply. “Are you strong?”

“Strong to withstand anything at your hand. There is nothing that you can give me, nothing that you can take away.”

“No,” he remarked, “nothing. Yes, you have changed. Still, when I look upon you, the ghosts of the past seem to rise like live things.”

“We both have changed. We meet now upon equal grounds. You are no longer the idol I made of you.”

“Don't you think that to the idol this might be a relief, not a humiliation? It is a terrible torture to sit in state with lips eternally shut. Sometimes there comes over the most reticent of us a desire to break through the eternal loneliness that surrounds the soul. It is this feeling that prompts madmen to tear off their clothes and exhibit their nakedness in the market-place. It's madness on my part, or a whim, or I don't know what; but it pleases me that you should know the truth.”

“You promised me long ago that I should.”

“To-day I will redeem my promise, and I will tell you another thing that you will find hard to believe.”

“And that is?”

“That I loved you.”

Ethel smiled a little sceptically. “You have loved often.”

“No,” he replied. “Loved, seriously loved, I have, only once.”