As he hurried from his brougham through the sombre hall to his study, leaving his secretary far in the rear, he had already composed the first sentence of his address to the United Chambers of Commerce of the Five Towns; his mind was full of it; he sat down at once to his vast desk, impatient to begin dictating. Then it was that he perceived the letter, lodged prominently against the gold and onyx inkstand given to him on his marriage by the Prince and Princess of Wales. The envelope was imperfectly fastened, or not fastened at all, and the flap came apart as he fingered it nervously.
"Dear Cloud,--This is to say good-bye, finally--"
He stopped. Fear took him at the heart, as though he had been suddenly told by a physician that he must submit to an operation endangering his life. And he skipped feverishly over the four pages to the signature, "Yours sincerely, Gertrude."
The secretary entered.
"I must write one or two private letters first," he said to the secretary. "Leave me. I'll ring."
"Yes, sir. Shall I take your overcoat?"
A discreet closing of the door.
"--finally. I can't stand it any longer. Cloud, I'm gone to Italy. I shall use the villa at Florence, and trust you to leave me alone. You must tell our friends. You can start with the Bargraves to-night. I'm sure they'll agree with me it's for the best--"
It seemed to him that this letter was very like the sort of letter that gets read in the Divorce Court and printed in the papers afterwards; and he felt sick.
"--for the best. Everybody will know in a day or two, and then in another day or two the affair will be forgotten. It's difficult to write naturally under the circumstances, so all I'll say is that we aren't suited to each other, Cloud. Ten years of marriage has amply proved that, though I knew it six--seven--years ago. You haven't guessed that you've been killing me all these years; but it is so--"
Killing her! He flushed with anger, with indignation, with innocence, with guilt--with Heaven knew what!
"--it is so. You've been living your life. But what about me? In five more years I shall be old, and I haven't begun to live. I can't stand it any longer. I can't stand this awful Five Towns district--"
Had he not urged her many a time to run up to South Audley Street for a change, and leave him to continue his work? Nobody wanted her to be always in Staffordshire!
"--and I can't stand you. That's the brutal truth. You've got on my nerves, my poor boy, with your hurry, and your philanthropy, and your commerce, and your seriousness. My poor nerves! And you've been too busy to notice it. You fancied I should be content if you made love to me absent-mindedly, en passant, between a political dinner and a bishop's breakfast."
He flinched. She had stung him.
"I sting you--"
No! And he straightened himself, biting his lips!
"--I sting you! I'm rude! I'm inexcusable! People don't say these things, not even hysterical wives to impeccable husbands, eh? I admit it. But I was bound to tell you. You're a serious person, Cloud, and I'm not. Still, we were both born as we are, and I've just as much right to be unserious as you have to be serious. That's what you've never realized. You aren't better than me; you're only different from me. It is unfortunate that there are some aspects of the truth that you are incapable of grasping. However, after this morning's scene--"
Scene? What scene? He remembered no scene, except that he had asked her not to interrupt him while he was reading his letters, had asked her quite politely, and she had left the breakfast-table. He thought she had left because she had finished. He hadn't a notion--what nonsense!
"--this morning's scene, I decided not to 'interrupt' you any more--"
Yes. There was the word he had used--how childish she was!
"--any more in the contemplation of those aspects of the truth which you are capable of grasping. Good-bye! You're an honest man, and a straight man, and very conscientious, and very clever, and I expect you're doing a lot of good in the world. But your responsibilities are too much for you. I relieve you of one, quite a minor one--your wife. You don't want a wife. What you want is a doll that you can wind up once a fortnight to say 'Good-morning, dear,' and 'Good-night, dear.' I think I can manage without a husband for a very long time. I'm not so bitter as you might guess from this letter, Cloud. But I want you thoroughly to comprehend that it's finished between us. You can do what you like. People can say what they like. I've had enough. I'll pay any price for freedom. Good luck. Best wishes. I would write this letter afresh if I thought I could do a better one.--Yours sincerely, Gertrude."
He dropped the letter, picked it up and read it again and then folded it in his accustomed tidy manner and replaced it in the envelope. He sat down and propped the letter against the inkstand and stared at the address in her careless hand: "The Right Honourable Sir Cloud Malpas, Baronet." She had written the address in full like that as a last stroke of sarcasm. And she had not even put "Private."
He was dizzy, nearly stunned; his head rang.
Then he rose and went to the window. The high hill on which stood Malpas Manor--the famous Rat Edge--fell away gradually to the south, and in the distance below him, miles off, the black smoke of the Five Towns loomed above the yellow fires of blast-furnaces. He was the demi-god of the district, a greater landowner than even the Earl of Chell, a model landlord, a model employer of four thousand men, a model proprietor of seven pits and two iron foundries, a philanthropist, a religionist, the ornamental mayor of Knype, chairman of a Board of Guardians, governor of hospitals, president of Football Association--in short, Sir Cloud, son of Sir Cloud and grandson of Sir Cloud.
He stared dreamily at his dominion. Scandal, then, was to touch him with her smirching finger, him the spotless! Gertrude had fled. He had ruined Gertrude's life! Had he? With his heavy and severe conscientiousness he asked himself whether he was to blame in her regard. Yes, he thought he was to blame. It stood to reason that he was to blame. Women, especially such as Gertrude, proud, passionate, reserved, don't do these things for nothing.
With a sigh he passed into his dressing-room and dropped on to a sofa.
She would be inflexible--he knew her. His mind dwelt on the beautiful first days of their marriage, the tenderness and the dream! And now--!
He heard footsteps in the study; the door was opened! It was Gertrude! He could see her in the dusk. She had returned! Why? She tripped to the desk, leaned forward and snatched at the letter. Evidently she did not know that he was in the house and had read it.
The tension was too painful. A sigh broke from him, as it were of physical torture.
"Who's there?" she cried, in a startled voice. "Is that you, Cloud?"
"Yes," he breathed.
"But you're home very early!" Her voice shook.
"I'm not well, Gertrude," he replied. "I'm tired. I came in here to lie down. Can't you do something for my head? I must have a holiday."
He heard her crunch up the letter, and then she hastened to him in the dressing-room.
"My poor Cloud!" she said, bending over him in the mature elegance of her thirty years. He noticed her travelling costume. "Some eau de Cologne?"
He nodded weakly.
"We'll go away for a holiday," he said, later, as she bathed his forehead.
The touch of her hands on his temples reminded him of forgotten caresses. And he did really feel as though, within a quarter of an hour, he had been through a long and dreadful illness and was now convalescent.
"Then you think that after starting she thought better of it?" said Lord Bargrave after dinner that night. "And came back?"
Lord Bargrave was Gertrude's cousin, and he and his wife sometimes came over from Shropshire for a week-end. He sat with Sir Cloud in the smoking-room; a man with greying hair and a youngish, equable face.
"Yes, Harry, that was it. You see, I'd just happened to put the letter exactly where I found it. She's no notion that I've seen it."
"She's a thundering good actress!" observed Lord Bargrave, sipping some whisky. "I knew something was up at dinner, but I didn't know it from her: I knew it from you."
Sir Cloud smiled sadly.
"Well, you see, I'm supposed to be ill--at least, to be not well."
"You'd best take her away at once," said Lord Bargrave. "And don't do it clumsily. Say you'll go away for a few days, and then gradually lengthen it out. She mentioned Italy, you say. Well, let it be Italy. Clear out for six months."
"But my work here?"
"D--n your work here!" said Lord Bargrave. "Do you suppose you're indispensable here? Do you suppose the Five Towns can't manage without you? Our caste is decayed, my boy, and silly fools like you try to lengthen out the miserable last days of its importance by giving yourselves airs in industrial districts! Your conscience tells you that what the demagogues say is true--we are rotters on the face of the earth, we are mediaeval; and you try to drown your conscience in the noise of philanthropic speeches. There isn't a sensible working-man in the Five Towns who doesn't, at the bottom of his heart, assess you at your true value--as nothing but a man with a hobby, and plenty of time and money to ride it."
"I do not agree with you," Sir Cloud said stiffly.
"Yes, you do," said Lord Bargrave. "At the same time I admire you, Cloud. I'm not built the same way myself, but I admire you--except in the matter of Gertrude. There you've been wrong--of course from the highest motives: which makes it all the worse. A man oughtn't to put hobbies above the wife of his bosom. And, besides, she's one of us. So take her away and stay away and make love to her."
"Suppose I do? Suppose I try? I must tell her!"
"Tell her what?"
"That I read the letter. I acted a lie to her this afternoon. I can't let that lie stand between us. It would not be right."
Lord Bargrave sprang up.
"Cloud," he cried. "For heaven's sake, don't be an infernal ass. Here you've escaped a domestic catastrophe of the first magnitude by a miracle. You've made a sort of peace with Gertrude. She's come to her senses. And now you want to mess up the whole show by the act of an idiot! What if you did act a lie to her this afternoon? A very good thing! The most sensible thing you've done for years! Let the lie stand between you. Look at it carefully every morning when you awake. It will help you to avoid repeating in the future the high-minded errors of the past. See?"
And in Lady Bargrave's dressing-room that night Gertrude was confiding in Lady Bargrave.
"Yes," she said, "Cloud must have come in within five minutes of my leaving--two hours earlier than he was expected. Fortunately he went straight to his dressing-room. Or was it unfortunately? I was half-way to the station when it occurred to me that I hadn't fastened the envelope! You see, I was naturally in an awfully nervous state, Minnie. So I told Collins to turn back. Fuge, our new butler, is of an extremely curious disposition, and I couldn't bear the idea of him prying about and perhaps reading that letter before Cloud got it. And just as I was picking up the letter to fasten it I heard Cloud in the next room. Oh! I never felt so queer in all my life! The poor boy was quite unwell. I screwed up the letter and went to him. What else could I do? And really he was so tired and white--well, it moved me! It moved me. And when he spoke about going away I suddenly thought: 'Why not try to make a new start with him?' After all ..."
There was a pause.
"What did you say in the letter?" Lady Bargrave demanded. "How did you put it?"
"I'll read it to you," said Gertrude, and she took the letter from her corsage and began to read it. She got as far as "I can't stand this awful Five Towns district," and then she stopped.
"Well, go on," Lady Bargrave encouraged her.
"No," said Gertrude, and she put the letter in the fire. "The fact is," she said, going to Lady Bargrave's chair, "it was too cruel. I hadn't realized.... I must have been very worked-up.... One does work oneself up.... Things seem a little different now...." She glanced at her companion.
"Why, Gertrude, you're crying, dearest!"
"What a chance it was!" murmured Gertrude, in her tears. "What a chance! Because, you know, if he had once read it I would never have gone back on it. I'm that sort of woman. But as it is, there's a sort of hope of a sort of happiness, isn't there?"
"Gertrude!" It was Sir Cloud's voice, gentle and tender, outside the door.
"Mercy on us!" exclaimed Lady Bargrave. "It's half-past one. Bargrave will have been asleep long since."
Gertrude kissed her in silence, opened the door, and left her.