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The Choice by Barry Pain

 

Mrs Halward, a good and earnest lady, was angry with her married brother, Harry Elton, and took an early opportunity of telling him so. Elton was a big man, and so quiet as to be almost gloomy.

“What are you angry for?” he asked.

“You know perfectly well. It's shameful. It's scandalous. I can't think how you can do it. You've only been married six years, and Grace is such a dear.”

“Yes,” said Elton, “I'm very fond of Grace.”

“I was under the impression,” said his sister, “that you were very fond of Rosamond Fayre. It has been sufficiently obvious lately.”

“Yes,” said Elton slowly, “I'm extremely fond of Rosamond.”

“Don't talk like a fool. A man can't be in love with two women at the same time.”

“If he can't, why accuse me of it? Has Grace complained to you?”

“Of course not. Have you been married to her for six years without discovering that she has a certain amount of pride?”

“Because, you see, if she has not complained to you, I don't see how it becomes your business at all. I am sure it is not a thing you would understand. You mean well, of course; but interference is futile. A man neither loves nor ceases to love because he is told it is expected of him, and that the conventions require it. You women who try to direct the love-affairs of others always remind me of a certain king who forbade the tide to come in.”

“I have done my duty,” said his sister stoutly. “You are going to bring disgrace on the family. I shall certainly speak to Grace about it.”

“Do, if you wish. I warn you that Grace is not so patient as I am. If you succeed you will make mischief. You will precipitate things. That's curious, you know—the third party who interferes with the relations between a man and a woman can never do any good, but is able to do a deal of harm.”

Mrs Halward was not convinced. If her sister-in-law had been at home at the time she would probably have spoken to her then. She could only repeat that she had done her duty, and leave with dignity.

Mrs Fayre was extremely poor. Her husband held a position in China, vaguely understood to be mercantile, and sent her one hundred pounds a year. In addition to this she had a private income of seven hundred; but eight hundred a year is extreme poverty when most of your friends and acquaintances approximate to eight thousand a year. She lived in a small flat in South Kensington, and made a business of pathos. At one time, Mrs Halward had been enchanted with her, and it was at her house that Rosamond and Harry Elton first met.

Harry Elton walked up and down the library, and tried to think things out. He thought Rosamond beautiful. He liked the tone of her voice. He liked her to be with him. Once or twice he had nearly kissed her, but he never had kissed her, and he had never told her he loved her. There were times when he had been on the verge of it, but had been checked by the thought that he could not do Grace any wrong—not only because it would hurt her, but because it would hurt himself. What was the use of laying down stupid rules, that a man could not love two women at once? But the rule had been laid down, and it was almost universally accepted. If a man did love two women, it was certain that each of the women would feel herself wronged.

He had never wanted to face the situation at all. He had been quite willing to let things drift. His wife was not jealous. He saw Rosamond Fayre frequently, and without any secrecy. He had interested himself in her painting—which was abominable—and had tried to get her work. Sometimes they lunched or dined at a restaurant alone together. Sometimes he took her to the theatre. But he had never realised that he had given the thing away, and that the cats—among whom he included his sister—had marked him down. Now that he did face the situation, he did not in the least know what to do. He thought of leaving Grace and of running away with Rosamond, and the thought was intolerable. He thought of giving up Rosamond by degrees, seeing less and less of her, and that thought was equally intolerable. He planned to let things remain as they were, and recognised that that was impossible. No love-affair remains at a fixed point half-way. It goes on and on.

He stepped over to the telephone at his desk and contemplated it for a few seconds, as if he were seeking counsel from it. Then he took down the receiver and asked for a number.

“That is you, Rosamond?”

“Quite.”

“I've been thinking about you.”

“I've been thinking about you, too.”

“I want you to tell me something. Do you think that I love you?”

“Oh, yes, of course.” The tone of the voice was mocking.

“I am serious,” said Elton.

There were a few seconds of silence. What had happened?

“Are you there?” he asked.

“It is very dangerous to be serious. Good-bye.”

“You have not been sleeping well lately, have you?” Grace asked her husband.

“Oh yes,” he lied. “What makes you think that?”

“Well, you look horribly tired, anyhow. I don't believe you're well. I do wish you'd see a doctor.”

Harry reassured her. He was, he said, as fit as could be.

“Well, what are you and Rosamond Fayre going to do after dinner?”

“Don't know exactly. It depends upon what she wants. A theatre, I suppose. Is there anything going on not too absolutely rotten?”

“Nothing that I have seen lately. If you can get out of it, don't take her to the theatre. Get home early and go to bed. You really look as if you wanted a rest.”

Grace was going to hear Kubelik that evening, dining first with the Halwards. Her husband did not hear Kubeliks cheerfully, and it had been Grace's suggestion that he should take poor Rosamond to dine somewhere. Everyone felt they must do something for poor Rosamond to get a little colour and brightness into her days. Eight hundred a year and a husband in China! What a life!

Harry Elton had accepted the suggestion without enthusiasm. He said he supposed he might as well do that as anything else.

It was part of the tragedy of Rosamond's poverty that she could not afford as many taxicabs as she needed. She went about a good deal, and she found it necessary to go about economically. Left to herself, she would have taken the tube to Dover Street and then stepped across the road. But Elton's expensive motor-car, after taking Grace to the Halwards', went on to South Kensington to fetch Rosamond.

She was grateful, as she always was. “I often wonder,” she said plaintively, “why everybody is so good to me—you especially.”

“I am by no means certain that I am good to you. I spoke to you on the telephone this afternoon.”

“Not now, no,” said Rosamond firmly.

She was quite right. You cannot discuss the sweet and secret sinfulness of your heart when the waiter is handing you the entrée. Possibly Elton also recognised this. But his next remark was rather brutal.

“You have never told me about the man in China. Tell me now.”

Rosamond answered in French. There were no waiters near at the moment to overhear her. If there had been, they all understood French perfectly. But to Rosamond, French had always given a feeling of security. Her story was brief and simple. She had married at eighteen. It had been a girl's infatuation, and it had lasted just two years. No, there had never been any actual break between them. He had to take up this post in China. They were too poor for him to refuse it. It brought him five hundred a year.

“Out of which,” said Elton, “he sends you a measly hundred.”

“He knows I have some means of my own. Oh no, we have never quarrelled. It is just that the thing died. I should be sorry for his death, as I should be for the death of any old companion—nothing more than that. He would regard my death in the same way. There is no longer any love between us. He sends me four rather formal letters every year, and I send him four replies, telling him about London theatres and so on. It's funny, isn't it? But, my God!” (It did not sound so strong in French.)

“I do not think,” said Elton slowly, “that you were meant to spend your years without love.”

“No? How do you know?”

Elton smiled. “Do you know the eyes of women who do without love and do not need it? They are the eyes of a business-like fish. Your eyes are not like that.”

She leant a little forward over the small table. “Look into them,” she said, “and tell me what you read there.”

“Don't do that. Do you want to drive me mad?”

“Yes—sometimes.”

“Well, I dare not tell you what I read in your eyes.”

She laughed nervously. “Is it so bad as that?” she said, and began to speak of other matters.

She was intending to send a picture to the Academy, and felt quite hopeful about it. She described it to him, and he made appropriate replies; but though he watched her intently all the time he was hardly conscious of what she was saying. He tried to pull himself together.

“What are we to do this evening? A theatre?”

“I don't think so. I'm tired of theatres. I'm tired of everything. We will talk for a little in the lounge, and then I will take my train back again and go through the farce of trying to go to sleep.”

“You, too, have not been sleeping well then? Of course, you won't go back in the train. I shall drive you back.”

“It is frightfully good of you, but I don't really deserve so much kindness to-night. I have the feeling all the time that I am behaving badly, and talking like an idiot.”

“Come on into the lounge. We will both talk like idiots.”

They found a secluded corner, and a waiter brought them coffee. Elton watched the man's back as he went away. Then he turned to Rosamond.

“Now then,” he said, “about our conversation on the telephone.”

She paused before replying, breathing quickly, and then she spoke very rapidly and in a low voice.

“Yes, you love me. I have known that for a long time. I wanted you to love me. You know the rest, don't you? I adore you. There's no one but you in the world. Now I've said it. It was bound to happen sooner or later. It's over, and we can never speak to one another again.”

He rose from his place. “Come,” he said, “I am going to take you home. I had the car waiting here in case we wanted to go to the theatre.”

He signed to a waiter.

“Go and find my car, Mr Elton's car,” he said to the man, “and tell the driver he won't be wanted to-night. He is to go home.”

Rosamond looked at him wonderingly. “I—I think I see.”

“Of course. Get your cloak quickly, dear.”

He put her into the taxi and gave the address, not of the little flat where she lived, but of her studio.

“Things are better,” said Mrs Halward to her husband. “I was afraid at one time that there was going to be serious trouble between Harry and his wife about that wretched Fayre. I gave him a word of warning at the time, and I am convinced it did good.”

“What makes you think so?” said her husband, not greatly interested.

“Didn't you notice yourself at dinner last night? He hardly said five words to Rosamond. He seemed to take no notice of her.”

Mrs Halward had observed correctly, but had made wrong deductions. Harry and Rosamond were meeting more frequently than ever, but nearly always in secrecy. If his wife suggested that Rosamond should be asked to one of her dinner-parties, Harry shrugged his shoulders and made some excuse. He lunched frequently at his club now, so his wife said, and she said what he had told her. As a matter of fact, he never lunched there at all. He took Rosamond to out-of-the-way restaurants where he would be unlikely to meet anybody he knew. Sometimes they improvised a lunch in the studio together. No day passed that he did not see her, or, at any rate, hear from her. And there was no happiness for either of them. Elton hated lies and hated secrecy. Grace had never been jealous of Rosamond, but Rosamond was furiously jealous of Grace.

“I can see the end of this,” said Rosamond one night when he had come late to the studio. “We cannot possibly go on like this. It is killing me. I cannot share you with another woman.”

“I know, dear,” said Elton. “The position is hateful. And it is all my fault. And what is to be the end of it?”

“Quite simple,” said Rosamond. “I take something for my insomnia, you know. There will be an accident.”

“You are not to say that, and you are not even to think about it. That will not be the end. I am going to take you away. We must face it. A little scandal, a change of name, and, in a year, it is all over. I shall be willing enough to live abroad. We will go to your beloved Sicily.”

“Yes, to Taormina. Oh! but that would be too much happiness. That could never be.”

But, there and then, they made their plans how it should be.

Even now, if there was a prospect of happiness for Rosamond, there seemed to Elton to be none for himself. He would have to leave Grace. It was against accepted ideas and against rules, but, none the less, he loved Grace. He could not have said which woman he loved more—Grace or Rosamond. They were so absolutely different—Grace with her suavity and Rosamond with her temperament—that no comparison was possible. Both seemed absolutely necessary to him, and he could not have both.

Grace and her husband had to fulfil an engagement to spend a week-end with some friends who lived in Oxfordshire. One morning she went out alone and found the cottage of her dreams—the country cottage she had always meant to have. She came back in the spirits of a child who has a new toy. Harry was to go and look at it at once.

“And what do you think I have done? I have telegraphed to that poor Rosamond Fayre to come down here on Monday morning. I am going to give her a commission—to paint my cottage garden. She is rather good at gardens—I mean she is better at gardens.”

It was useless to raise any objection, and Harry felt convinced Rosamond would not come. So he said it was rather a good idea, and discussed gravely the improvements his wife meant to make at the cottage.

“You see,” she said, “I must make it comfortable.”

A little later the telegram arrived from Rosamond: “Very many thanks. Will come by the train you suggest.”

Harry met that train at his wife's suggestion.

“Why did you come?” he asked Rosamond anxiously.

“Didn't you want to see me?”

“I always want to see you, but the position is too horrible.”

“I know it is difficult, but in three days now it will all be over, and we shall be at peace together. Meanwhile, if I refuse to meet Grace, she will think—oh, she may think anything. Come on. Take me to the cottage.”

Harry made an excuse to leave the two women alone there together. He would be back in an hour. And in a little more than an hour he was walking back to the station with Rosamond and his wife. There was only just time to catch Rosamond's train. But it was all right, so Grace said; there was a short cut across the line. They would be there in time. And then Grace made a terrible discovery. She had left the key of the cottage in the door. Harry must run back and fetch it, or the people who were letting her the cottage would consider she was not a responsible person.

Harry tried the door of the cottage to see that it was locked, put the key in his pocket, and ran after them. They had reached the crossing now, but were standing still. He could not at first make out what it was they were doing. Rosamond then bent down to her shoe, and Harry realised what had happened. The shoe had got wedged in the points, and she would have to take her foot out of it to get free.

And then he heard the scream of the whistle, and dashed forward.

He managed to save one of the two women. It was Grace.

The moment had revealed him to himself. He had made his choice.