"I'm getting up, Teddilinks," said Mrs Whiston, and she sprang out of bed briskly.
"What the Hanover's got you?" asked Whiston.
"Nothing. Can't I get up?" she replied animatedly.
It was about seven o'clock, scarcely light yet in the cold bedroom. Whiston lay still and looked at his wife. She was a pretty little thing, with her fleecy, short black hair all tousled . . . He watched her as she dressed quickly, flicking her small, delightful limbs, throwing her clothes about her. Her slovenliness and untidiness did not trouble him. When she picked up the edge of her petticoat, ripped off a torn string of white lace, and flung it on the dressing-table, her careless abandon made his spirit glow. She stood before the mirror and roughly scrambled together her profuse little mane of hair. He watched the quickness and softness of her young shoulders, calmly, like a husband, and appreciatively.
"Rise up," she cried, turning to him with a quick wave of her arm--"and shine forth."
They had been married two years. But still, when she had gone out of the room, he felt as if all his light and warmth were taken away, he became aware of the raw, cold morning. So he rose himself, wondering casually what had roused her so early. Usually she lay in bed as late as she could.
Whiston fastened a belt round his loins and went downstairs in shirt and trousers. He heard her singing in her snatchy fashion. The stairs creaked under his weight. He passed down the narrow little passage, which she called a hall, of the seven and sixpenny house which was his first home.
He was a shapely young fellow of about twenty-eight, sleepy now and easy with well-being. He heard the water drumming into the kettle, and she began to whistle. He loved the quick way she dodged the supper cups under the tap to wash them for breakfast. She looked an untidy minx, but she was quick and handy enough.
"Teddilinks," she cried.
"Light a fire, quick."
She wore an old, sack-like dressing-jacket of black silk pinned across her breast. But one of the sleeves, coming unfastened, showed some delightful pink upper-arm.
"Why don't you sew your sleeve up?" he said, suffering from the sight of the exposed soft flesh.
"Where?" she cried, peering round. "Nuisance," she said, seeing the gap, then with light fingers went on drying the cups.
The kitchen was of fair size, but gloomy. Whiston poked out the dead ashes.
Suddenly a thud was heard at the door down the passage.
"I'll go," cried Mrs Whiston, and she was gone down the hall.
The postman was a ruddy-faced man who had been a soldier. He smiled broadly, handing her some packages.
"They've not forgot you," he said impudently.
"No--lucky for them," she said, with a toss of the head. But she was interested only in her envelopes this morning. The postman waited inquisitively, smiling in an ingratiating fashion. She slowly, abstractedly, as if she did not know anyone was there, closed the door in his face, continuing to look at the addresses on her letters.
She tore open the thin envelope. There was a long, hideous, cartoon valentine. She smiled briefly and dropped it on the floor. Struggling with the string of a packet, she opened a white cardboard box, and there lay a white silk handkerchief packed neatly under the paper lace of the box, and her initial, worked in heliotrope, fully displayed. She smiled pleasantly, and gently put the box aside. The third envelope contained another white packet--apparently a cotton handkerchief neatly folded. She shook it out. It was a long white stocking, but there was a little weight in the toe. Quickly, she thrust down her arm, wriggling her fingers into the toe of the stocking, and brought out a small box. She peeped inside the box, then hastily opened a door on her left hand, and went into the little, cold sitting-room. She had her lower lip caught earnestly between her teeth.
With a little flash of triumph, she lifted a pair of pearl ear-rings from the small box, and she went to the mirror. There, earnestly, she began to hook them through her ears, looking at herself sideways in the glass. Curiously concentrated and intent she seemed as she fingered the lobes of her ears, her head bent on one side.
Then the pearl ear-rings dangled under her rosy, small ears. She shook her head sharply, to see the swing of the drops. They went chill against her neck, in little, sharp touches. Then she stood still to look at herself, bridling her head in the dignified fashion. Then she simpered at herself. Catching her own eye, she could not help winking at herself and laughing.
She turned to look at the box. There was a scrap of paper with this posy:
"Pearls may be fair, but thou art fairer. Wear these for me, and I'll love the wearer."
She made a grimace and a grin. But she was drawn to the mirror again, to look at her ear-rings.
Whiston had made the fire burn, so he came to look for her. When she heard him, she started round quickly, guiltily. She was watching him with intent blue eyes when he appeared.
He did not see much, in his morning-drowsy warmth. He gave her, as ever, a feeling of warmth and slowness. His eyes were very blue, very kind, his manner simple.
"What ha' you got?" he asked.
"Valentines," she said briskly, ostentatiously turning to show him the silk handkerchief. She thrust it under his nose. "Smell how good," she said.
"Who's that from?" he replied, without smelling.
"It's a valentine," she cried. "How da I know who it's from?"
"I'll bet you know," he said.
"Ted!--I don't!" she cried, beginning to shake her head, then stopping because of the ear-rings.
He stood still a moment, displeased.
"They've no right to send you valentines, now," he said.
"Ted!--Why not? You're not jealous, are you? I haven't the least idea who it's from. Look--there's my initial"--she pointed with an emphatic finger at the heliotrope embroidery--
"E for Elsie, Nice little gelsie,"
"Get out," he said. "You know who it's from."
"Truth, I don't," she cried.
He looked round, and saw the white stocking lying on a chair.
"Is this another?" he said.
"No, that's a sample," she said. "There's only a comic." And she fetched in the long cartoon.
He stretched it out and looked at it solemnly.
"Fools!" he said, and went out of the room.
She flew upstairs and took off the ear-rings. When she returned, he was crouched before the fire blowing the coals. The skin of his face was flushed, and slightly pitted, as if he had had small-pox. But his neck was white and smooth and goodly. She hung her arms round his neck as he crouched there, and clung to him. He balanced on his toes.
"This fire's a slow-coach," he said.
"And who else is a slow-coach?" she said.
"One of us two, I know," he said, and he rose carefully. She remained clinging round his neck, so that she was lifted off her feet.
"Ha!--swing me," she cried.
He lowered his head, and she hung in the air, swinging from his neck, laughing. Then she slipped off.
"The kettle is singing," she sang, flying for the teapot. He bent down again to blow the fire. The veins in his neck stood out, his shirt collar seemed too tight.
Blow the fire,
Puff! puff! puff!"
she sang, laughing.
He smiled at her.
She was so glad because of her pearl ear-rings.
Over the breakfast she grew serious. He did not notice. She became portentous in her gravity. Almost it penetrated through his steady good-humour to irritate him.
"Teddy!" she said at last.
"What?" he asked.
"I told you a lie," she said, humbly tragic.
His soul stirred uneasily.
"Oh aye?" he said casually.
She was not satisfied. He ought to be more moved.
"Yes," she said.
He cut a piece of bread.
"Was it a good one?" he asked.
She was piqued. Then she considered--was it a good one? Then she laughed.
"No," she said, "it wasn't up to much."
"Ah!" he said easily, but with a steady strength of fondness for her in his tone. "Get it out then."
It became a little more difficult.
"You know that white stocking," she said earnestly. "I told you a lie. It wasn't a sample. It was a valentine."
A little frown came on his brow.
"Then what did you invent it as a sample for?" he said. But he knew this weakness of hers. The touch of anger in his voice frightened her.
"I was afraid you'd be cross," she said pathetically.
"I'll bet you were vastly afraid," he said.
"I was, Teddy."
There was a pause. He was resolving one or two things in his mind.
"And who sent it?" he asked.
"I can guess," she said, "though there wasn't a word with it--except--"
She ran to the sitting-room and returned with a slip of paper.
"Pearls may be fair, but thou art fairer.
Wear these for me, and I'll love the wearer."
He read it twice, then a dull red flush came on his face.
"And who do you guess it is?" he asked, with a ringing of anger in his voice.
"I suspect it's Sam Adams," she said, with a little virtuous indignation.
Whiston was silent for a moment.
"Fool!" he said. "An' what's it got to do with pearls?--and how can he say 'wear these for me' when there's only one? He hasn't got the brain to invent a proper verse."
He screwed the sup of paper into a ball and flung it into the fire.
"I suppose he thinks it'll make a pair with the one last year," she said.
"Why, did he send one then?"
"Yes. I thought you'd be wild if you knew."
His jaw set rather sullenly.
Presently he rose, and went to wash himself, rolling back his sleeves and pulling open his shirt at the breast. It was as if his fine, clear-cut temples and steady eyes were degraded by the lower, rather brutal part of his face. But she loved it. As she whisked about, clearing the table, she loved the way in which he stood washing himself. He was such a man. She liked to see his neck glistening with water as he swilled it. It amused her and pleased her and thrilled her. He was so sure, so permanent, he had her so utterly in his power. It gave her a delightful, mischievous sense of liberty. Within his grasp, she could dart about excitingly.
He turned round to her, his face red from the cold water, his eyes fresh and very blue.
"You haven't been seeing anything of him, have you?" he asked roughly.
"Yes," she answered, after a moment, as if caught guilty. "He got into the tram with me, and he asked me to drink a coffee and a Benedictine in the Royal."
"You've got it off fine and glib," he said sullenly. "And did you?"
"Yes," she replied, with the air of a traitor before the rack.
The blood came up into his neck and face, he stood motionless, dangerous.
"It was cold, and it was such fun to go into the Royal," she said.
"You'd go off with a nigger for a packet of chocolate," he said, in anger and contempt, and some bitterness. Queer how he drew away from her, cut her off from him.
"Ted--how beastly!" she cried. "You know quite well--" She caught her lip, flushed, and the tears came to her eyes.
He turned away, to put on his necktie. She went about her work, making a queer pathetic little mouth, down which occasionally dripped a tear.
He was ready to go. With his hat jammed down on his head, and his overcoat buttoned up to his chin, he came to kiss her. He would be miserable all the day if he went without. She allowed herself to be kissed. Her cheek was wet under his lips, and his heart burned. She hurt him so deeply. And she felt aggrieved, and did not quite forgive him.
In a moment she went upstairs to her ear-rings. Sweet they looked nestling in the little drawer--sweet! She examined them with voluptuous pleasure, she threaded them in her ears, she looked at herself, she posed and postured and smiled, and looked sad and tragic and winning and appealing, all in turn before the mirror. And she was happy, and very pretty.
She wore her ear-rings all morning, in the house. She was self-conscious, and quite brilliantly winsome, when the baker came, wondering if he would notice. All the tradesmen left her door with a glow in them, feeling elated, and unconsciously favouring the delightful little creature, though there had been nothing to notice in her behaviour.
She was stimulated all the day. She did not think about her husband. He was the permanent basis from which she took these giddy little flights into nowhere. At night, like chickens and curses, she would come home to him, to roost.
Meanwhile Whiston, a traveller and confidential support of a small firm, hastened about his work, his heart all the while anxious for her, yearning for surety, and kept tense by not getting it.
She had been a warehouse girl in Adams's lace factory before she was married. Sam Adams was her employer. He was a bachelor of forty, growing stout, a man well dressed and florid, with a large brown moustache and thin hair. From the rest of his well-groomed, showy appearance, it was evident his baldness was a chagrin to him. He had a good presence, and some Irish blood in his veins.
His fondness for the girls, or the fondness of the girls for him, was notorious. And Elsie, quick, pretty, almost witty little thing--she seemed witty, although, when her sayings were repeated, they were entirely trivial--she had a great attraction for him. He would come into the warehouse dressed in a rather sporting reefer coat, of fawn colour, and trousers of fine black-and-white check, a cap with a big peak and a scarlet carnation in his button-hole, to impress her. She was only half impressed. He was too loud for her good taste. Instinctively perceiving this, he sobered down to navy blue. Then a well-built man, florid, with large brown whiskers, smart navy blue suit, fashionable boots, and manly hat, he was the irreproachable. Elsie was impressed.
But meanwhile Whiston was courting her, and she made splendid little gestures, before her bedroom mirror, of the constant-and-true sort.
"True, true till death--"
That was her song. Whiston was made that way, so there was no need to take thought for him.
Every Christmas Sam Adams gave a party at his house, to which he invited his superior work-people--not factory hands and labourers, but those above. He was a generous man in his way, with a real warm feeling for giving pleasure.
Two years ago Elsie had attended this Christmas-party for the last time. Whiston had accompanied her. At that time he worked for Sam Adams.
She had been very proud of herself, in her close-fitting, full-skirted dress of blue silk. Whiston called for her. Then she tripped beside him, holding her large cashmere shawl across her breast. He strode with long strides, his trousers handsomely strapped under his boots, and her silk shoes bulging the pockets of his full-skirted overcoat.
They passed through the park gates, and her spirits rose. Above them the Castle Rock looked grandly in the night, the naked trees stood still and dark in the frost, along the boulevard.
They were rather late. Agitated with anticipation, in the cloak-room she gave up her shawl, donned her silk shoes, and looked at herself in the mirror. The loose bunches of curls on either side her face danced prettily, her mouth smiled.
She hung a moment in the door of the brilliantly lighted room. Many people were moving within the blaze of lamps, under the crystal chandeliers, the full skirts of the women balancing and floating, the side-whiskers and white cravats of the men bowing above. Then she entered the light.
In an instant Sam Adams was coming forward, lifting both his arms in boisterous welcome. There was a constant red laugh on his face.
"Come late, would you," he shouted, "like royalty."
He seized her hands and led her forward. He opened his mouth wide when he spoke, and the effect of the warm, dark opening behind the brown whiskers was disturbing. But she was floating into the throng on his arm. He was very gallant.
"Now then," he said, taking her card to write down the dances, "I've got carte blanche, haven't I?"
"Mr Whiston doesn't dance," she said.
"I am a lucky man!" he said, scribbling his initials. "I was born with an amourette in my mouth."
He wrote on, quietly. She blushed and laughed, not knowing what it meant.
"Why, what is that?" she said.
"It's you, even littler than you are, dressed in little wings," he said.
"I should have to be pretty small to get in your mouth," she said.
"You think you're too big, do you!" he said easily.
He handed her her card, with a bow.
"Now I'm set up, my darling, for this evening," he said.
Then, quick, always at his ease, he looked over the room. She waited in front of him. He was ready. Catching the eye of the band, he nodded. In a moment, the music began. He seemed to relax, giving himself up.
"Now then, Elsie," he said, with a curious caress in his voice that seemed to lap the outside of her body in a warm glow, delicious. She gave herself to it. She liked it.
He was an excellent dancer. He seemed to draw her close in to him by some male warmth of attraction, so that she became all soft and pliant to him, flowing to his form, whilst he united her with him and they lapsed along in one movement. She was just carried in a kind of strong, warm flood, her feet moved of themselves, and only the music threw her away from him, threw her back to him, to his clasp, in his strong form moving against her, rhythmically, deliriously.
When it was over, he was pleased and his eyes had a curious gleam which thrilled her and yet had nothing to do with her. Yet it held her. He did not speak to her. He only looked straight into her eyes with a curious, gleaming look that disturbed her fearfully and deliriously. But also there was in his look some of the automatic irony of the roué. It left her partly cold. She was not carried away.
She went, driven by an opposite, heavier impulse, to Whiston. He stood looking gloomy, trying to admit that she had a perfect right to enjoy herself apart from him. He received her with rather grudging kindliness.
"Aren't you going to play whist?" she asked.
"Aye," he said. "Directly."
"I do wish you could dance."
"Well, I can't," he said. "So you enjoy yourself."
"But I should enjoy it better if I could dance with you."
"Nay, you're all right," he said. "I'm not made that way."
"Then you ought to be!" she cried.
"Well, it's my fault, not yours. You enjoy yourself," he bade her. Which she proceeded to do, a little bit irked.
She went with anticipation to the arms of Sam Adams, when the time came to dance with him. It was so gratifying, irrespective of the man. And she felt a little grudge against Whiston, soon forgotten when her host was holding her near to him, in a delicious embrace. And she watched his eyes, to meet the gleam in them, which gratified her.
She was getting warmed right through, the glow was penetrating into her, driving away everything else. Only in her heart was a little tightness, like conscience.
When she got a chance, she escaped from the dancing-room to the card-room. There, in a cloud of smoke, she found Whiston playing cribbage. Radiant, roused, animated, she came up to him and greeted him. She was too strong, too vibrant a note in the quiet room. He lifted his head, and a frown knitted his gloomy forehead.
"Are you playing cribbage? Is it exciting? How are you getting on?" she chattered.
He looked at her. None of these questions needed answering, and he did not feel in touch with her. She turned to the cribbage-board.
"Are you white or red?" she asked.
"He's red," replied the partner.
"Then you're losing," she said, still to Whiston. And she lifted the red peg from the board. "One--two--three--four--five--six--seven--eight--Right up there you ought to jump--"
"Now put it back in its right place," said Whiston.
"Where was it?" she asked gaily, knowing her transgression. He took the little red peg away from her and stuck it in its hole.
The cards were shuffled.
"What a shame you're losing!" said Elsie.
"You'd better cut for him," said the partner.
She did so, hastily. The cards were dealt. She put her hand on his shoulder, looking at his cards.
"It's good," she cried, "isn't it?"
He did not answer, but threw down two cards. It moved him more strongly than was comfortable, to have her hand on his shoulder, her curls dangling and touching his ears, whilst she was roused to another man. It made the blood flame over him.
At that moment Sam Adams appeared, florid and boisterous, intoxicated more with himself, with the dancing, than with wine. In his eyes the curious, impersonal light gleamed.
"I thought I should find you here, Elsie," he cried boisterously, a disturbing, high note in his voice.
"What made you think so?" she replied, the mischief rousing in her.
The florid, well-built man narrowed his eyes to a smile.
"I should never look for you among the ladies," he said, with a kind of intimate, animal call to her. He laughed, bowed, and offered her his arm.
"Madam, the music waits."
She went almost helplessly, carried along with him, unwilling, yet delighted.
That dance was an intoxication to her. After the first few steps, she felt herself slipping away from herself. She almost knew she was going, she did not even want to go. Yet she must have chosen to go. She lay in the arm of the steady, close man with whom she was dancing, and she seemed to swim away out of contact with the room, into him. She had passed into another, denser element of him, an essential privacy. The room was all vague around her, like an atmosphere, like under sea, with a flow of ghostly, dumb movements. But she herself was held real against her partner, and it seemed she was connected with him, as if the movements of his body and limbs were her own movements, yet not her own movements--and oh, delicious! He also was given up, oblivious, concentrated, into the dance. His eye was unseeing. Only his large, voluptuous body gave off a subtle activity. His fingers seemed to search into her flesh. Every moment, and every moment, she felt she would give way utterly, and sink molten: the fusion point was coming when she would fuse down into perfect unconsciousness at his feet and knees. But he bore her round the room in the dance, and he seemed to sustain all her body with his limbs, his body, and his warmth seemed to come closer into her, nearer, till it would fuse right through her, and she would be as liquid to him, as an intoxication only.
It was exquisite. When it was over, she was dazed, and was scarcely breathing. She stood with him in the middle of the room as if she were alone in a remote place. He bent over her. She expected his lips on her bare shoulder, and waited. Yet they were not alone, they were not alone. It was cruel.
"'Twas good, wasn't it, my darling?" he said to her, low and delighted. There was a strange impersonality about his low, exultant call that appealed to her irresistibly. Yet why was she aware of some part shut off in her? She pressed his arm, and he led her towards the door.
She was not aware of what she was doing, only a little grain of resistant trouble was in her. The man, possessed, yet with a superficial presence of mind, made way to the dining-room, as if to give her refreshment, cunningly working to his own escape with her. He was molten hot, filmed over with presence of mind, and bottomed with cold disbelief.
In the dining-room was Whiston, carrying coffee to the plain, neglected ladies. Elsie saw him, but felt as if he could not see her. She was beyond his reach and ken. A sort of fusion existed between her and the large man at her side. She ate her custard, but an incomplete fusion all the while sustained and contained her within the being of her employer.
But she was growing cooler. Whiston came up. She looked at him, and saw him with different eyes. She saw his slim, young man's figure real and enduring before her. That was he. But she was in the spell with the other man, fused with him, and she could not be taken away.
"Have you finished your cribbage?" she asked, with hasty evasion of him.
"Yes," he replied. "Aren't you getting tired of dancing?"
"Not a bit," she said.
"Not she," said Adams heartily. "No girl with any spirit gets tired of dancing.--Have something else, Elsie. Come--sherry. Have a glass of sherry with us, Whiston."
Whilst they sipped the wine, Adams watched Whiston almost cunningly, to find his advantage.
"We'd better be getting back--there's the music," he said. "See the women get something to eat, Whiston, will you, there's a good chap."
And he began to draw away. Elsie was drifting helplessly with him. But Whiston put himself beside them, and went along with them. In silence they passed through to the dancing-room. There Adams hesitated, and looked round the room. It was as if he could not see.
A man came hurrying forward, claiming Elsie, and Adams went to his other partner. Whiston stood watching during the dance. She was conscious of him standing there observant of her, like a ghost, or a judgment, or a guardian angel. She was also conscious, much more intimately and impersonally, of the body of the other man moving somewhere in the room. She still belonged to him, but a feeling of distraction possessed her, and helplessness. Adams danced on, adhering to Elsie, waiting his time, with the persistence of cynicism.
The dance was over. Adams was detained. Elsie found herself beside Whiston. There was something shapely about him as he sat, about his knees and his distinct figure, that she clung to. It was as if he had enduring form. She put her hand on his knee.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" he asked.
"Ever so," she replied, with a fervent, yet detached tone.
"It's going on for one o'clock," he said.
"Is it?" she answered. It meant nothing to her.
"Should we be going?" he said.
She was silent. For the first time for an hour or more an inkling of her normal consciousness returned. She resented it.
"What for?" she said.
"I thought you might have had enough," he said.
A slight soberness came over her, an irritation at being frustrated of her illusion.
"Why?" she said.
"We've been here since nine," he said.
That was no answer, no reason. It conveyed nothing to her. She sat detached from him. Across the room Sam Adams glanced at her. She sat there exposed for him.
"You don't want to be too free with Sam Adams," said Whiston cautiously, suffering. "You know what he is."
"How, free?" she asked.
"Why--you don't want to have too much to do with him."
She sat silent. He was forcing her into consciousness of her position. But he could not get hold of her feelings, to change them. She had a curious, perverse desire that he should not.
"I like him," she said.
"What do you find to like in him?" he said, with a hot heart.
"I don't know--but I like him," she said.
She was immutable. He sat feeling heavy and dulled with rage. He was not clear as to what he felt. He sat there unliving whilst she danced. And she, distracted, lost to herself between the opposing forces of the two men, drifted. Between the dances, Whiston kept near to her. She was scarcely conscious. She glanced repeatedly at her card, to see when she would dance again with Adams, half in desire, half in dread. Sometimes she met his steady, glaucous eye as she passed him in the dance. Sometimes she saw the steadiness of his flank as he danced. And it was always as if she rested on his arm, were borne along, upborne by him, away from herself. And always there was present the other's antagonism. She was divided.
The time came for her to dance with Adams. Oh, the delicious closing of contact with him, of his limbs touching her limbs, his arm supporting her. She seemed to resolve. Whiston had not made himself real to her. He was only a heavy place in her consciousness.
But she breathed heavily, beginning to suffer from the closeness of strain. She was nervous. Adams also was constrained. A tightness, a tension was coming over them all. And he was exasperated, feeling something counteracting physical magnetism, feeling a will stronger with her than his own, intervening in what was becoming a vital necessity to him.
Elsie was almost lost to her own control. As she went forward with him to take her place at the dance, she stooped for her pocket-handkerchief. The music sounded for quadrilles. Everybody was ready. Adams stood with his body near her, exerting his attraction over her. He was tense and fighting. She stooped for her pocket-handkerchief, and shook it as she rose. It shook out and fell from her hand. With agony, she saw she had taken a white stocking instead of a handkerchief. For a second it lay on the floor, a twist of white stocking. Then, in an instant, Adams picked it up, with a little, surprised laugh of triumph.
"That'll do for me," he whispered--seeming to take possession of her. And he stuffed the stocking in his trousers pocket, and quickly offered her his handkerchief.
The dance began. She felt weak and faint, as if her will were turned to water. A heavy sense of loss came over her. She could not help herself anymore. But it was peace.
When the dance was over, Adams yielded her up. Whiston came to her.
"What was it as you dropped?" Whiston asked.
"I thought it was my handkerchief--I'd taken a stocking by mistake," she said, detached and muted.
"And he's got it?"
"What does he mean by that?"
She lifted her shoulders.
"Are you going to let him keep it?" he asked.
"I don't let him."
There was a long pause.
"Am I to go and have it out with him?" he asked, his face flushed, his blue eyes going hard with opposition.
"No," she said, pale.
"No--I don't want to say anything about it."
He sat exasperated and nonplussed.
"You'll let him keep it, then?" he asked.
She sat silent and made no form of answer.
"What do you mean by it?" he said, dark with fury. And he started up.
"No!" she cried. "Ted!" And she caught hold of him, sharply detaining him.
It made him black with rage.
"Why?" he said.
Then something about her mouth was pitiful to him. He did not understand, but he felt she must have her reasons.
"Then I'm not stopping here," he said. "Are you coming with me?"
She rose mutely, and they went out of the room. Adams had not noticed.
In a few moments they were in the street.
"What the hell do you mean?" he said, in a black fury.
She went at his side, in silence, neutral.
"That great hog, an' all," he added.
Then they went a long time in silence through the frozen, deserted darkness of the town. She felt she could not go indoors. They were drawing near her house.
"I don't want to go home," she suddenly cried in distress and anguish. "I don't want to go home."
He looked at her.
"Why don't you?" he said.
"I don't want to go home," was all she could sob.
He heard somebody coming.
"Well, we can walk a bit further," he said.
She was silent again. They passed out of the town into the fields. He held her by the arm--they could not speak.
"What's a-matter?" he asked at length, puzzled.
She began to cry again.
At last he took her in his arms, to soothe her. She sobbed by herself, almost unaware of him.
"Tell me what's a-matter, Elsie," he said. "Tell me what's a-matter--my dear--tell me, then--"
He kissed her wet face, and caressed her. She made no response. He was puzzled and tender and miserable.
At length she became quiet. Then he kissed her, and she put her arms round him, and clung to him very tight, as if for fear and anguish. He held her in his arms, wondering.
"Ted!" she whispered, frantic. "Ted!"
"What, my love?" he answered, becoming also afraid.
"Be good to me," she cried. "Don't be cruel to me."
"No, my pet," he said, amazed and grieved. "Why?"
"Oh, be good to me," she sobbed.
And he held her very safe, and his heart was white-hot with love for her. His mind was amazed. He could only hold her against his chest that was white-hot with love and belief in her. So she was restored at last.
She refused to go to her work at Adams's any more. Her father had to submit and she sent in her notice--she was not well. Sam Adams was ironical. But he had a curious patience. He did not fight.
In a few weeks, she and Whiston were married. She loved him with passion and worship, a fierce little abandon of love that moved him to the depths of his being, and gave him a permanent surety and sense of realness in himself. He did not trouble about himself any more: he felt he was fulfilled and now he had only the many things in the world to busy himself about. Whatever troubled him, at the bottom was surety. He had found himself in this love.
They spoke once or twice of the white stocking.
"Ah!" Whiston exclaimed. "What does it matter?"
He was impatient and angry, and could not bear to consider the matter. So it was left unresolved.
She was quite happy at first, carried away by her adoration of her husband. Then gradually she got used to him. He always was the ground of her happiness, but she got used to him, as to the air she breathed. He never got used to her in the same way.
Inside of marriage she found her liberty. She was rid of the responsibility of herself. Her husband must look after that. She was free to get what she could out of her time.
So that, when, after some months, she met Sam Adams, she was not quite as unkind to him as she might have been. With a young wife's new and exciting knowledge of men, she perceived he was in love with her, she knew he had always kept an unsatisfied desire for her. And, sportive, she could not help playing a little with this, though she cared not one jot for the man himself.
When Valentine's day came, which was near the first anniversary of her wedding day, there arrived a white stocking with a little amethyst brooch. Luckily Whiston did not see it, so she said nothing of it to him. She had not the faintest intention of having anything to do with Sam Adams, but once a little brooch was in her possession, it was hers, and she did not trouble her head for a moment how she had come by it. She kept it.
Now she had the pearl ear-rings. They were a more valuable and a more conspicuous present. She would have to ask her mother to give them to her, to explain their presence. She made a little plan in her head. And she was extraordinarily pleased. As for Sam Adams, even if he saw her wearing them, he would not give her away. What fun, if he saw her wearing his ear-rings! She would pretend she had inherited them from her grandmother, her mother's mother. She laughed to herself as she went down town in the afternoon, the pretty drops dangling in front of her curls. But she saw no one of importance.
Whiston came home tired and depressed. All day the male in him had been uneasy, and this had fatigued him. She was curiously against him, inclined, as she sometimes was nowadays, to make mock of him and jeer at him and cut him off. He did not understand this, and it angered him deeply. She was uneasy before him.
She knew he was in a state of suppressed irritation. The veins stood out on the backs of his hands, his brow was drawn stiffly. Yet she could not help goading him.
"What did you do wi' that white stocking?" he asked, out of a gloomy silence, his voice strong and brutal.
"I put it in a drawer--why?" she replied flippantly.
"Why didn't you put it on the fire back?" he said harshly. "What are you hoarding it up for?"
"I'm not hoarding it up," she said. "I've got a pair."
He relapsed into gloomy silence. She, unable to move him, ran away upstairs, leaving him smoking by the fire. Again she tried on the earrings. Then another little inspiration came to her. She drew on the white stockings, both of them.
Presently she came down in them. Her husband still sat immovable and glowering by the fire.
"Look!" she said. "They'll do beautifully."
And she picked up her skirts to her knees, and twisted round, looking at her pretty legs in the neat stockings.
He filled with unreasonable rage, and took the pipe from his mouth.
"Don't they look nice?" she said. "One from last year and one from this, they just do. Save you buying a pair."
And she looked over her shoulders at her pretty calves, and the dangling frills of her knickers.
"Put your skirts down and don't make a fool of yourself," he said.
"Why a fool of myself?" she asked.
And she began to dance slowly round the room, kicking up her feet half reckless, half jeering, in a ballet-dancer's fashion. Almost fearfully, yet in defiance, she kicked up her legs at him, singing as she did so. She resented him.
"You little fool, ha' done with it," he said. "And you'll backfire them stockings, I'm telling you." He was angry. His face flushed dark, he kept his head bent. She ceased to dance.
"I shan't," she said. "They'll come in very useful."
He lifted his head and watched her, with lighted, dangerous eyes.
"You'll put 'em on the fire back, I tell you," he said.
It was a war now. She bent forward, in a ballet-dancer's fashion, and put her tongue between her teeth.
"I shan't backfire them stockings," she sang, repeating his words, "I shan't, I shan't, I shan't."
And she danced round the room doing a high kick to the tune of her words. There was a real biting indifference in her behaviour.
"We'll see whether you will or not," he said, "trollops! You'd like Sam Adams to know you was wearing 'em, wouldn't you? That's what would please you."
"Yes, I'd like him to see how nicely they fit me, he might give me some more then."
And she looked down at her pretty legs.
He knew somehow that she would like Sam Adams to see how pretty her legs looked in the white stockings. It made his anger go deep, almost to hatred.
"Yer nasty trolley," he cried. "Put yer petticoats down, and stop being so foul-minded."
"I'm not foul-minded," she said. "My legs are my own. And why shouldn't Sam Adams think they're nice?"
There was a pause. He watched her with eyes glittering to a point.
"Have you been havin' owt to do with him?" he asked.
"I've just spoken to him when I've seen him," she said. "He's not as bad as you would make out."
"Isn't he?" he cried, a certain wakefulness in his voice. "Them who has anything to do wi' him is too bad for me, I tell you."
"Why, what are you frightened of him for?" she mocked.
She was rousing all his uncontrollable anger. He sat glowering. Every one of her sentences stirred him up like a red-hot iron. Soon it would be too much. And she was afraid herself; but she was neither conquered nor convinced.
A curious little grin of hate came on his face. He had a long score against her.
"What am I frightened of him for?" he repeated automatically. "What am I frightened of him for? Why, for you, you stray-running little bitch."
She flushed. The insult went deep into her, right home.
"Well, if you're so dull--" she said, lowering her eyelids, and speaking coldly, haughtily.
"If I'm so dull I'll break your neck the first word you speak to him," he said, tense.
"Pf!" she sneered. "Do you think I'm frightened of you?" She spoke coldly, detached.
She was frightened, for all that, white round the mouth.
His heart was getting hotter.
"You will be frightened of me, the next time you have anything to do with him," he said.
"Do you think you'd ever be told--ha!"
Her jeering scorn made him go white-hot, molten. He knew he was incoherent, scarcely responsible for what he might do. Slowly, unseeing, he rose and went out of doors, stifled, moved to kill her.
He stood leaning against the garden fence, unable either to see or hear. Below him, far off, fumed the lights of the town. He stood still, unconscious with a black storm of rage, his face lifted to the night.
Presently, still unconscious of what he was doing, he went indoors again. She stood, a small stubborn figure with tight-pressed lips and big, sullen, childish eyes, watching him, white with fear. He went heavily across the floor and dropped into his chair.
There was a silence.
"You're not going to tell me everything I shall do, and everything I shan't," she broke out at last.
He lifted his head.
"I tell you this," he said, low and intense. "Have anything to do with Sam Adams, and I'll break your neck."
She laughed, shrill and false.
"How I hate your word 'break your neck'," she said, with a grimace of the mouth. "It sounds so common and beastly. Can't you say something else--"
There was a dead silence.
"And besides," she said, with a queer chirrup of mocking laughter, "what do you know about anything? He sent me an amethyst brooch and a pair of pearl ear-rings."
"He what?" said Whiston, in a suddenly normal voice. His eyes were fixed on her.
"Sent me a pair of pearl ear-rings, and an amethyst brooch," she repeated, mechanically, pale to the lips.
And her big, black, childish eyes watched him, fascinated, held in her spell.
He seemed to thrust his face and his eyes forward at her, as he rose slowly and came to her. She watched transfixed in terror. Her throat made a small sound, as she tried to scream.
Then, quick as lightning, the back of his hand struck her with a crash across the mouth, and she was flung back blinded against the wall. The shock shook a queer sound out of her. And then she saw him still coming on, his eyes holding her, his fist drawn back, advancing slowly. At any instant the blow might crash into her.
Mad with terror, she raised her hands with a queer clawing movement to cover her eyes and her temples, opening her mouth in a dumb shriek. There was no sound. But the sight of her slowly arrested him. He hung before her, looking at her fixedly, as she stood crouched against the wall with open, bleeding mouth, and wide-staring eyes, and two hands clawing over her temples. And his lust to see her bleed, to break her and destroy her, rose from an old source against her. It carried him. He wanted satisfaction.
But he had seen her standing there, a piteous, horrified thing, and he turned his face aside in shame and nausea. He went and sat heavily in his chair, and a curious ease, almost like sleep, came over his brain.
She walked away from the wall towards the fire, dizzy, white to the lips, mechanically wiping her small, bleeding mouth. He sat motionless. Then, gradually, her breath began to hiss, she shook, and was sobbing silently, in grief for herself. Without looking, he saw. It made his mad desire to destroy her come back.
At length he lifted his head. His eyes were glowing again, fixed on her.
"And what did he give them you for?" he asked, in a steady, unyielding voice.
Her crying dried up in a second. She also was tense.
"They came as valentines," she replied, still not subjugated, even if beaten.
"The pearl ear-rings to-day--the amethyst brooch last year."
"You've had it a year?"
She felt that now nothing would prevent him if he rose to kill her. She could not prevent him any more. She was yielded up to him. They both trembled in the balance, unconscious.
"What have you had to do with him?" he asked, in a barren voice.
"I've not had anything to do with him," she quavered.
"You just kept 'em because they were jewellery?" he said.
A weariness came over him. What was the worth of speaking any more of it? He did not care any more. He was dreary and sick.
She began to cry again, but he took no notice. She kept wiping her mouth on her handkerchief. He could see it, the blood-mark. It made him only more sick and tired of the responsibility of it, the violence, the shame.
When she began to move about again, he raised his head once more from his dead, motionless position.
"Where are the things?" he said.
"They are upstairs," she quavered. She knew the passion had gone down in him.
"Bring them down," he said.
"I won't," she wept, with rage. "You're not going to bully me and hit me like that on the mouth."
And she sobbed again. He looked at her in contempt and compassion and in rising anger.
"Where are they?" he said.
"They're in the little drawer under the looking-glass," she sobbed.
He went slowly upstairs, struck a match, and found the trinkets. He brought them downstairs in his hand.
"These?" he said, looking at them as they lay in his palm.
She looked at them without answering. She was not interested in them any more.
He looked at the little jewels. They were pretty.
"It's none of their fault," he said to himself.
And he searched round slowly, persistently, for a box. He tied the things up and addressed them to Sam Adams. Then he went out in his slippers to post the little package.
When he came back she was still sitting crying.
"You'd better go to bed," he said.
She paid no attention. He sat by the fire. She still cried.
"I'm sleeping down here," he said. "Go you to bed."
In a few moments she lifted her tear-stained, swollen face and looked at him with eyes all forlorn and pathetic. A great flash of anguish went over his body. He went over, slowly, and very gently took her in his hands. She let herself be taken. Then as she lay against his shoulder, she sobbed aloud:
"I never meant--"
"My love--my little love--" he cried, in anguish of spirit, holding her in his arms.
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