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After To-Marrow by Robert Smythe Hichens

I

In his gilded cage, above the window-boxes that were full of white daisies, the canary chirped with a desultory vivacity. That was the only near sound that broke the silence in the drawing-room of No. 100 Mill Street, Knightsbridge, in which a man and a woman stood facing one another. Away, beyond his twittering voice, sang in the London streets the muffled voice of the season. The time was late afternoon, and rays of mellow light slanted into the pretty room, and touched its crowd of inanimate occupants with a radiance in which the motes danced merrily. The china faces of two goblins on the mantelpiece glowed with a grotesque meaning, and their yellow smiles seemed to call aloud on mirth; but the faces of the man and woman were pale, and their lips trembled, and did not smile.

She was tall, dark, and passionate-looking, perhaps twenty-eight or thirty. He was a few years older, a man so steadfast in expression that silly people, who spring at exaggeration as saints spring at heaven, called him stern, and even said he looked forbidding—at balls.

At last the song of the canary was broken upon by a voice. Sir Hugh Maine spoke, very quietly. “Why not?” he said.

“I don't think I can tell you,” Mrs. Glinn answered, with an obvious effort.

“You prefer to refuse me without giving a reason?”

“I have a right to,” she said.

“I don't question it. You cannot expect me to say more than that.”

He took up his hat, which lay on a chair, and smoothed it mechanically with his coat-sleeve.

The action seemed to pierce her like a knife, for she started, and half-extended her hand. “Don't!” she exclaimed. “At least, wait one moment. So you belong to the second class of men.”

“What do you mean?”

“Men are divided into two classes—those who refuse to be refused, and those who accept. But don't be too—too swift in your acceptance. After all, a refusal is not exactly a bank-note.”

She tried to smile.

“But I am exactly a beggar,” he answered, still keeping the hat in his hand. “And if you have nothing to give me, I may as well go.”

“And spend the rest of your life in sweeping the old crossing?”

“And spend the rest of my life as I can,” he said. “That need not concern you.”

“A woman must be all to a man, or nothing?”

“You must be all to me, or nothing.”

She sat down in an arm-chair in that part of the room that was in shadow. She always sat instinctively in shadow when she wanted to think.

“Well?” Sir Hugh said. “What are you thinking?”

She glanced up at him. “That you don't look much like a beggar,” she said.

“It is possible to feel tattered in a frock-coat and patent-leather boots,” he answered. “Good-bye. I am going back to my crossing.” And he moved towards the door.

“No, stop!” she exclaimed. “Before you go, tell me one thing.”

“What is it?”

“Will you ever ask me to marry you again?”

He looked hard into her eyes. “I shall always want to, but I shall never do it,” he said slowly.

“I am glad you have told me that. We women depend so much on a repetition of the offence, when we blame a man for saying he loves us, and ask him not to do it again. If you really mean only to propose once, I must reconsider my position.”

She was laughing, but the tears stood in her eyes.

“Why do you want to make this moment a farcical one?” he asked rather bitterly.

“Oh, Hugh!” she answered, “don't you see? Because it is really—really so tragic. I only try to do for this moment what we all try to do for life.”

“Then you love me?” he said, moving a step forward.

“I never denied that,” she replied. “I might as well deny that I am a woman.”

He held out his arms. “Eve—then I shall never go back to the crossing.”

But she drew back. “Go—go there till to-morrow! To-morrow afternoon I will see you; and if you love me after that—”

“Yes?”

She turned away and pressed the bell. “Good-bye,” she said. Her voice sounded strange to him.

He came nearer, and touched her hand; but she drew it away.

“You may kiss me,” she said.

“Eve!”

“After to-morrow.”

The footman came in answer to the bell. Mrs Glinn did not turn round. “I only rang for you to open the door for Sir Hugh,” she said. “Good-bye then, Sir Hugh. Come at five.”

“I will,” he answered, wondering.

When he had gone, Mrs Glinn sat down in a chair and took up a French novel. It was by Gyp. She tried to read it, with tears running over her cheeks. But at last she laid it down.

“After to-morrow,” she murmured. “Ah, why—why does a woman ever love twice?” And then she sobbed.

But the canary sang, and the motes danced merrily in the sunbeams. And on the table where she had put it down lay “Le Mariage de Chiffon.”

II

That evening, when Sir Hugh Maine came back to his rooms in Jermyn Street after dining out, he found a large man sprawling in one of his saddle-back chairs, puffing vigorously at a pipe that looked worn with long and faithful service. The man took the pipe out of his mouth and sprang up.

“Hullo, Maine!” he cried. “D'you recognise the tobacco and me?”

Hugh grasped his hand warmly. “Rather,” he said. “Neither is changed. At least—h'm—I think you both seem a bit stronger even than usual. Who would have thought of seeing you, Manning? I did not know you were in Europe.”

“I came from Asia. I thought I should like to hear Melba before the end of the season. And it was getting sultry out there. So here I am.”

“And were those your only reasons?”

“Give me a brandy-and-soda,” said the other.

Maine did as he was bid, lit a cigar, and sat down, stretching out his long legs. The other man took a pull at his glass, and spoke again.

“I am very fond of music,” he said; “and Melba sings very well.”

“Ah!”

“Look here, Maine,” Manning broke out suddenly, “you are right—I had another reason. Kipling says that those who have heard the East a-calling never heed any other voice. He's wrong though. The West has been calling me, or, at least, a voice in the West, and I have resisted it for a deuce of a time. But at last it became imperative.”

“A woman's voice, I suppose?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me what is its timbre, if you care to.”

“I will. You're an old friend, and I can talk to you. But you tell me one thing first: Is a man really a fool to marry a woman with a past?”

“You are going to?”

“I have tried not to. I have been trying not to for three years. Listen! When I was travelling in Japan I met her. She was with an American called Glinn.”

“What?”

“You knew him?”

“No! It's all right. I was surprised, because at the moment I was thinking of that very name.”

“Oh! Well, she passed as Mrs Glinn; but, somehow, it got out that she was something else. The usual story, you know. People fought shy of her; but I don't think she cared much. Glinn was devoted to her, and she loved him, and was as true to him as any wife could have been. Then the tragedy came.”

“What was it?”

“Glinn died suddenly in Tokio, of typhoid. She nursed him to the end. And when the end came her situation was awful, so lonely and deserted. There wasn't a woman in the hotel who would be her friend; so I tried to come to the rescue, arranged her affairs, saw about the funeral, and did what I could. She was well off; Glinn left her nearly all his money. He would have married her, only he had a wife alive somewhere.”

“And you fell in love with her, of course?”

“That was the sort of thing. If you knew her you would not wonder at it. She was not a bad woman. Glinn had been the only one. She loved him too much; that was all. She came to Europe, and lived in Paris for a time, keeping the name of Mrs Glinn. I used to see her sometimes, but I never said anything. You see, there was her past. In fact, I have been fighting against her for three years. I went to India to get cured; but it was no good. And now, here I am.”

“And she is in Paris?”

“No, in London at present; but I didn't know her address till to-day. I think she had her doubts of me, and meant to give me the slip.”

“How did you find it out?”

“Quite by chance. I was walking in Mill Street, Knightsbridge, and saw her pass in a victoria.”

Maine got up suddenly, and went over to the spirit-stand. “In Mill Street?” he said.

“Yes. The carriage stopped at No. 100. She went in. A footman came out and carried in her rug. Ergo, she lives there.”

“How hot it is!” said Maine in a hard voice. He threw up one of the windows and leaned out. He felt as if he were choking. A little way down the street a half-tipsy guardsman was reeling along, singing his own private version of “Tommy Atkins.” He narrowly avoided a lamp-post by an abrupt lurch which took him into the gutter. Maine heard some one laugh. It was himself.

“Well, old chap,” said Manning, who had come up behind him, “what would you advise me to do? I'm in a fix. I'm in love with Eve—that's her name; I can't live without her happily, and yet I hate to marry a woman with a—well, you know how it is.”

Maine drew himself back into the room and faced round. “Does she love you?” he asked; and there was a curious change in his manner towards his friend.

“I don't know that she does,” Manning said, rather uncomfortably. “But that would come right. She would marry me, naturally.”

“Why?”

“Well, I mean the position. Lady Herbert Manning could go where Mrs Glinn could not, and all that sort of thing.”

“The only question is whether you can bring yourself to ask her?”

“My dear chap, you don't put it too pleasantly.”

“It's the fact, though.”

Lord Herbert hesitated. Then he said dubiously, “I suppose so.”

Maine lit another cigar and sat down again. His face was very white. “You're rather conventional, Manning,” he said presently.

“Conventional! Why?”

“You think her—this Mrs Glinn—a good woman. Isn't that enough for you?”

“But, besides Eve and myself, there is a third person in the situation.”

“How on earth did you find out that?” exclaimed Maine.

The other looked surprised. “How did I find out? I don't understand you.”

Maine recollected himself. He had made the common mistake of fancying another might know a thing because he knew it.

“Who is this third person?” he asked.

“Society.”

“Ah! I said you were conventional.”

“Every sensible man and woman is.”

“I don't know that I agree. But the third person does certainly complicate the situation. What are you going to do then?”

Lord Herbert put down his pipe. It was not smoked out. “That's what I want to know,” he answered.

“Of course, there's the one way—of being unconventional. Then, there's the way of being conventional but unhappy. Is there any alternative?”

Lord Herbert hesitated obviously, but at length he said: “There is, of course; but Mrs Glinn is a curious sort of woman. I don't quite know—”

He paused, looking at his friend. Maine's face was drawn and fierce.

“What's the row?” Lord Herbert asked.

“Nothing; only I shouldn't advise you to try the alternative. That's all.”

“Maine, what do you mean?”

“Just this,” replied the other. “That I know Mrs Glinn, that I agree with you about her character—”

“You know her? That's odd!”

“I have known her for a year.”

They looked each other in the eyes while a minute passed. Then Lord Herbert said slowly, “I understand.”

“What?”

“That I have come to the wrong man for advice.”

There was a silence, broken only by the ticking of a clock and the uneasy movements of Maine's fox-terrier, which was lying before the empty grate and dreaming of departed fires.

At last Maine said: “To-day I asked Mrs Glinn to marry me.”

The other started perceptibly. “Knowing what I have told you?” he asked.

“Not knowing it.”

“What—what did she say?”

“Nothing. I am to see her to-morrow.”

Lord Herbert glanced at him furtively. “I suppose you will not go—now?” he said.

“Yes, Manning, I shall,” Maine answered.

“Well,” the other man continued, looking at his watch and yawning, “I must be going. It's late. Glad to have seen you, Maine. I am to be found at 80 St James's Place. Thanks; yes I will have my coat on. My pipe—oh! here it is. Good-night.”

The door closed, and Maine was left alone.

“Will she tell me to-morrow, or will she be silent?” he said to himself. “That depends on one thing: Has love of truth the largest half of her heart, or love of me?”

He sighed—at the conventionality of the world, perhaps.

III

“I am not at home to any one except Sir Hugh Maine,” Mrs Glinn said to the footman. “You understand?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

He went out softly and closed the door.

The English summer had gone back upon its steps that afternoon, and remembered the duty it owed to its old-time reputation. The canary, a puffed-out ball of ragged-looking feathers in its cage, seemed listening with a depressed attention to the beat of the cold rain against the window. The daisies, in their boxes, dripped and nodded in the wind. There was a darkness in the pretty room, and the smile of the china goblins was no longer yellow. Like many people who are not made of china, they depended upon adventitious circumstances for much of their outward show. When they were not gilded there was a good deal of the pill apparent in their nature.

Mrs Glinn was trying not to be restless. She was very pale, and her dark eyes gleamed with an almost tragic fire; but she sat down firmly on the white sofa, and read Gyp, as Carmen may have read her doom in the cards. One by one the pages were turned. One by one the epigrams were made the property of another mind. But through all the lightness and humour of the story there crept like a little snake a sentence that Gyp had not written:—

“Can I tell him?”

And no answer ever came to that question. When the door-bell at last rang, Mrs Glinn laid down her novel carefully, and mechanically stood up. A change of attitude was necessary to her.

Sir Hugh came in, and was followed by tea. They sat down by the tiny table, and discussed French literature. Flaubert and Daudet go as well with tea as Fielding and Smollett go with supper.

But, when the cups were put down, Maine drove the French authors in a pack out of the conversation.

“I did not come here to say what I can say to every woman I meet who understands French,” he remarked.

And then Mrs Glinn was fully face to face with her particular guardian devil.

“No?” she said.

She did not try to postpone the moment she dreaded. For she had a strong man to deal with, and, being a strong woman at heart, she generally held out her hand to the inevitable.

“You have been thinking?” Maine went on.

“Yes. What a sad occupation that is sometimes—like knitting, or listening to church-bells at night!”

“Eve, let us be serious.”

“God knows I am,” she answered. “But modern gravity is dressed in flippancy. No feeling must go quite naked.”

“Don't talk like that,” he said. “As there is a nudity in art that may be beautiful, so there is a nudity in expression, in words, that may be beautiful. Eve, I have come to hear you tell me something. You know that.” He glanced into her face with an anxiety that she did not fully understand. Then he said: “Tell it me.”

“There is—is so much to tell,” she said.

“Yes, yes.”

“He does not understand,” she thought.

He thought, “She does not understand.”

“And I am not good at telling stories.”

“Then tell me the truth.”

She tried to smile, but she was trembling. “Of course. Why should I not?” She hesitated, and then added, with a forced attempt at petulance, “But there is nothing so awkward as giving people more than they expect. Is there?”

He understood her question, despite its apparent inconsequence, and his heart quickened its beating: “Give me everything.”

“I suppose I should be doing that if I gave you myself,” she said nervously.

“You know best,” he answered; and for a moment she was puzzled by not catching the affirmative for which she had angled.

“Do you want me very, very much?” she asked.

“So much that, as I told you yesterday, I could not ask for you twice. Don't you understand?”

“Yes. I could not marry a man who had bothered me to be his wife. One might as well be scolded into virtue. You want me, then, Hugh, and I want you. But—”

Again she stopped, with sentences fluttering, as it seemed, on the very edges of her lips. Her heart was at such fearful odds with her conscience, that she felt as if he must hear the clashing of the swords. And he did hear it. He would fain have cheered on both the combatants. Which did he wish should be the conqueror? He hardly knew.

“Yes?” he said.

“It is always so difficult to finish a sentence that begins with 'but,'“ she began; and for the first time her voice sounded tremulous. “When two people want each other very much, there is always something that ought to keep them apart—at least, I think so. God must love solitude; it is His gift to so many.” There were tears in her eyes.

“Why should we keep apart, Eve?”

“Because we should be too happy together, I suppose.”

He leaned suddenly forward and took both her hands in his. “How cold you are!” he said, startled.

The words seemed to brace her like a sea-breeze.

“Hugh,” she said, “I wish to tell you something. There is a 'but' in the sentence of my life.”

He drew her closer to him, with a strange impulse to be nearer the soul that was about to prove itself as noble as he desired. But that very act prevented the fulfilment of his wish. The touch of his hands, the eagerness of his eyes, gave the victory to her heart. She shut the lips that were speaking, and he kissed them. Kisses act as an opiate on a woman's conscience. Only when Eve felt his lips on hers did she know her own weakness. Sir Hugh having kissed her, waited for the telling of the secret. At that moment he might as well have sat down and waited for the millennium.

“What is it?” he said at last.

“Nothing,” she answered, “nothing.” She spoke the word with a hard intonation.

Hugh held her close in his arms, with a sort of strange idea that to do so would crush his disappointment. She was proving her love by her silence. Why, then, did he wish that she should speak? At last she said, in a low voice:—

“There is one thing you ought to know. If I marry you, I marry you a beggar. I shall lose my fortune. I am not obliged to lose it, but I mean to give it up. Don't ask me why.”

He had no need to. He waited, but she was silent. So that was all. He kissed her again, loosened his arms from about her and stood up.

“I have enough for both,” he said.

He did not look at her, and she could not look at him.

“Are you going?” she said.

“Yes; but I will call this evening.”

He was at the door, and had half-opened it when he turned back, moved by a passionate impulse.

“Eve!” he cried, and his eyes seemed asking her for something.

“Yes?” she said, looking away.

There was a silence. Then he said “Good-bye!” The door closed upon him.

Mrs Glinn stood for a moment where he had left her. In her mind she was counting the seconds that must elapse before he could reach the street. If she could be untrue to herself till then, she could be untrue to herself for ever. Would he walk down the stairs slowly or fast? She wanted to be a false woman so much, so very much, that she clenched her hands together. The action seemed as if it might help her to keep on doing wrong. But suddenly she unclasped her hands, darted across the room to the door, and opened it. She listened, and heard Hugh's footsteps in the hall. He picked up his umbrella, and unfolded it to be ready for the rain. The frou-frou of the silk seemed to stir her to action.

“Hugh!” she cried in a broken voice.

He turned in the hall, and looked up.

“Come back,” she said.

He came up the stairs three steps at a time.

“Hugh,” she said, leaning heavily on the balustrade, and looking away, “I have a secret to tell you. I have tried to be wicked to-day, but somehow I can't. Listen to the truth.”

“I need not,” he answered. “I know it already.”

Then she looked at him, and drew in her breath: “You know it?”

“Yes.”

“How you must love me!”

       * * * * *

There was a ring at the hall door. The footman opened it, held a short parley with some one who was invisible, shut the door, and came upstairs with a card.

Mrs Glinn took it, and read, “Lord Herbert Manning.”

He had decided to be unconventional too late.

 
 
 

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