The Impossible Position
To any one who did not know of that glowing secret between Isabel and myself, I might well have appeared at that time the most successful and enviable of men. I had recovered rapidly from an uncongenial start in political life; I had become a considerable force through the BLUE WEEKLY, and was shaping an increasingly influential body of opinion; I had re-entered Parliament with quite dramatic distinction, and in spite of a certain faltering on the part of the orthodox Conservatives towards the bolder elements in our propaganda, I had loyal and unenvious associates who were making me a power in the party. People were coming to our group, understandings were developing. It was clear we should play a prominent part in the next general election, and that, given a Conservative victory, I should be assured of office. The world opened out to me brightly and invitingly. Great schemes took shape in my mind, always more concrete, always more practicable; the years ahead seemed falling into order, shining with the credible promise of immense achievement.
And at the heart of it all, unseen and unsuspected, was the secret of my relations with Isabel—like a seed that germinates and thrusts, thrusts relentlessly.
From the onset of the Handitch contest onward, my meetings with her had been more and more pervaded by the discussion of our situation. It had innumerable aspects. It was very present to us that we wanted to be together as much as possible—we were beginning to long very much for actual living together in the same house, so that one could come as it were carelessly—unawares—upon the other, busy perhaps about some trivial thing. We wanted to feel each other in the daily atmosphere. Preceding our imperatively sterile passion, you must remember, outside it, altogether greater than it so far as our individual lives were concerned, there had grown and still grew an enormous affection and intellectual sympathy between us. We brought all our impressions and all our ideas to each other, to see them in each other’s light. It is hard to convey that quality of intellectual unison to any one who has not experienced it. I thought more and more in terms of conversation with Isabel; her possible comments upon things would flash into my mind, oh!—with the very sound of her voice.
I remember, too, the odd effect of seeing her in the distance going about Handitch, like any stranger canvasser; the queer emotion of her approach along the street, the greeting as she passed. The morning of the polling she vanished from the constituency. I saw her for an instant in the passage behind our Committee rooms.
“Going?” said I.
“Stay it out. I want you to see the fun. I remember—the other time.”
She didn’t answer for a moment or so, and stood with face averted.
“It’s Margaret’s show,” she said abruptly. “If I see her smiling there like a queen by your side—! She did—last time. I remember.” She caught at a sob and dashed her hand across her face impatiently. “Jealous fool, mean and petty, jealous fool!... Good luck, old man, to you! You’re going to win. But I don’t want to see the end of it all the same....”
“Good-bye!” said I, clasping her hand as some supporter appeared in the passage....
I came back to London victorious, and a little flushed and coarse with victory; and so soon as I could break away I went to Isabel’s flat and found her white and worn, with the stain of secret weeping about her eyes. I came into the room to her and shut the door.
“You said I’d win,” I said, and held out my arms.
She hugged me closely for a moment.
“My dear,” I whispered, “it’s nothing—without you—nothing!”
We didn’t speak for some seconds. Then she slipped from my hold. “Look!” she said, smiling like winter sunshine. “I’ve had in all the morning papers—the pile of them, and you—resounding.”
“It’s more than I dared hope.”
She stood for a moment still smiling bravely, and then she was sobbing in my arms. “The bigger you are—the more you show,” she said—“the more we are parted. I know, I know—”
I held her close to me, making no answer.
Presently she became still. “Oh, well,” she said, and wiped her eyes and sat down on the little sofa by the fire; and I sat down beside her.
“I didn’t know all there was in love,” she said, staring at the coals, “when we went love-making.”
I put my arm behind her and took a handful of her dear soft hair in my hand and kissed it.
“You’ve done a great thing this time,” she said. “Handitch will make you.”
“It opens big chances,” I said. “But why are you weeping, dear one?”
“Envy,” she said, “and love.”
“You’re not lonely?”
“I’ve plenty to do—and lots of people.”
“I want you.”
“You’ve got me.”
She put her arm about me and kissed me. “I want you,” she said, “just as if I had nothing of you. You don’t understand—how a woman wants a man. I thought once if I just gave myself to you it would be enough. It was nothing—it was just a step across the threshold. My dear, every moment you are away I ache for you—ache! I want to be about when it isn’t love-making or talk. I want to be doing things for you, and watching you when you’re not thinking of me. All those safe, careless, intimate things. And something else—” She stopped. “Dear, I don’t want to bother you. I just want you to know I love you....”
She caught my head in her hands and kissed it, then stood up abruptly.
I looked up at her, a little perplexed.
“Dear heart,” said I, “isn’t this enough? You’re my councillor, my colleague, my right hand, the secret soul of my life—”
“And I want to darn your socks,” she said, smiling back at me.
She smiled “No,” she said. “I’m not insatiable, Master. But I’m a woman in love. And I’m finding out what I want, and what is necessary to me—and what I can’t have. That’s all.”
“We get a lot.”
“We want a lot. You and I are greedy people for the things we like, Master. It’s very evident we’ve got nearly all we can ever have of one another—and I’m not satisfied.”
“What more is there?
“For you—very little. I wonder. For me—every thing. Yes—everything. You didn’t mean it, Master; you didn’t know any more than I did when I began, but love between a man and a woman is sometimes very one-sided. Fearfully one-sided! That’s all....”
“Don’t YOU ever want children?” she said abruptly.
“I suppose I do.”
“I haven’t thought of them.”
“A man doesn’t, perhaps. But I have.... I want them—like hunger. YOUR children, and home with you. Really, continually you! That’s the trouble.... I can’t have ‘em, Master, and I can’t have you.”
She was crying, and through her tears she laughed.
“I’m going to make a scene,” she said, “and get this over. I’m so discontented and miserable; I’ve got to tell you. It would come between us if I didn’t. I’m in love with you, with everything—with all my brains. I’ll pull through all right. I’ll be good, Master, never you fear. But to-day I’m crying out with all my being. This election—You’re going up; you’re going on. In these papers—you’re a great big fact. It’s suddenly come home to me. At the back of my mind I’ve always had the idea I was going to have you somehow presently for myself—I mean to have you to go long tramps with, to keep house for, to get meals for, to watch for of an evening. It’s a sort of habitual background to my thought of you. And it’s nonsense—utter nonsense!” She stopped. She was crying and choking. “And the child, you know—the child!”
I was troubled beyond measure, but Handitch and its intimations were clear and strong.
“We can’t have that,” I said.
“No,” she said, “we can’t have that.”
“We’ve got our own things to do.”
“YOUR things,” she said.
“Aren’t they yours too?”
“Because of you,” she said.
“Aren’t they your very own things?”
“Women don’t have that sort of very own thing. Indeed, it’s true! And think! You’ve been down there preaching the goodness of children, telling them the only good thing in a state is happy, hopeful children, working to free mothers and children—”
“And we give our own children to do it?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “And sometimes I think it’s too much to give—too much altogether.... Children get into a woman’s brain—when she mustn’t have them, especially when she must never hope for them. Think of the child we might have now!—the little creature with soft, tender skin, and little hands and little feet! At times it haunts me. It comes and says, Why wasn’t I given life? I can hear it in the night.... The world is full of such little ghosts, dear lover—little things that asked for life and were refused. They clamour to me. It’s like a little fist beating at my heart. Love children, beautiful children. Little cold hands that tear at my heart! Oh, my heart and my lord!” She was holding my arm with both her hands and weeping against it, and now she drew herself to my shoulder and wept and sobbed in my embrace. “I shall never sit with your child on my knee and you beside me-never, and I am a woman and your lover!...”
But the profound impossibility of our relation was now becoming more and more apparent to us. We found ourselves seeking justification, clinging passionately to a situation that was coldly, pitilessly, impossible and fated. We wanted quite intensely to live together and have a child, but also we wanted very many other things that were incompatible with these desires. It was extraordinarily difficult to weigh our political and intellectual ambitions against those intimate wishes. The weights kept altering according as one found oneself grasping this valued thing or that. It wasn’t as if we could throw everything aside for our love, and have that as we wanted it. Love such as we bore one another isn’t altogether, or even chiefly, a thing in itself—it is for the most part a value set upon things. Our love was interwoven with all our other interests; to go out of the world and live in isolation seemed to us like killing the best parts of each other; we loved the sight of each other engaged finely and characteristically, we knew each other best as activities. We had no delusions about material facts; we didn’t want each other alive or dead, we wanted each other fully alive. We wanted to do big things together, and for us to take each other openly and desperately would leave us nothing in the world to do. We wanted children indeed passionately, but children with every helpful chance in the world, and children born in scandal would be handicapped at every turn. We wanted to share a home, and not a solitude.
And when we were at this stage of realisation, began the intimations that we were found out, and that scandal was afoot against us....
I heard of it first from Esmeer, who deliberately mentioned it, with that steady grey eye of his watching me, as an instance of the preposterous falsehoods people will circulate. It came to Isabel almost simultaneously through a married college friend, who made it her business to demand either confirmation or denial. It filled us both with consternation. In the surprise of the moment Isabel admitted her secret, and her friend went off “reserving her freedom of action.”
Discovery broke out in every direction. Friends with grave faces and an atmosphere of infinite tact invaded us both. Other friends ceased to invade either of us. It was manifest we had become—we knew not how—a private scandal, a subject for duologues, an amazement, a perplexity, a vivid interest. In a few brief weeks it seemed London passed from absolute unsuspiciousness to a chattering exaggeration of its knowledge of our relations.
It was just the most inappropriate time for that disclosure. The long smouldering antagonism to my endowment of motherhood ideas had flared up into an active campaign in the EXPURGATOR, and it would be altogether disastrous to us if I should be convicted of any personal irregularity. It was just because of the manifest and challenging respectability of my position that I had been able to carry the thing as far as I had done. Now suddenly my fortunes had sprung a leak, and scandal was pouring in.... It chanced, too, that a wave of moral intolerance was sweeping through London, one of those waves in which the bitterness of the consciously just finds an ally in the panic of the undiscovered. A certain Father Blodgett had been preaching against social corruption with extraordinary force, and had roused the Church of England people to a kind of competition in denunciation. The old methods of the Anti-Socialist campaign had been renewed, and had offered far too wide a scope and too tempting an opportunity for private animosity, to be restricted to the private affairs of the Socialists. I had intimations of an extensive circulation of “private and confidential” letters....
I think there can be nothing else in life quite like the unnerving realisation that rumour and scandal are afoot about one. Abruptly one’s confidence in the solidity of the universe disappears. One walks silenced through a world that one feels to be full of inaudible accusations. One cannot challenge the assault, get it out into the open, separate truth and falsehood. It slinks from you, turns aside its face. Old acquaintances suddenly evaded me, made extraordinary excuses; men who had presumed on the verge of my world and pestered me with an intrusive enterprise, now took the bold step of flat repudiation. I became doubtful about the return of a nod, retracted all those tentacles of easy civility that I had hitherto spread to the world. I still grow warm with amazed indignation when I recall that Edward Crampton, meeting me full on the steps of the Climax Club, cut me dead. “By God!” I cried, and came near catching him by the throat and wringing out of him what of all good deeds and bad, could hearten him, a younger man than I and empty beyond comparison, to dare to play the judge to me. And then I had an open slight from Mrs. Millingham, whom I had counted on as one counts upon the sunrise. I had not expected things of that sort; they were disconcerting beyond measure; it was as if the world were giving way beneath my feet, as though something failed in the essential confidence of life, as though a hand of wet ice had touched my heart. Similar things were happening to Isabel. Yet we went on working, visiting, meeting, trying to ignore this gathering of implacable forces against us.
For a time I was perplexed beyond measure to account for this campaign. Then I got a clue. The centre of diffusion was the Bailey household. The Baileys had never forgiven me my abandonment of the young Liberal group they had done so much to inspire and organise; their dinner-table had long been a scene of hostile depreciation of the BLUE WEEKLY and all its allies; week after week Altiora proclaimed that I was “doing nothing,” and found other causes for our bye-election triumphs; I counted Chambers Street a dangerous place for me. Yet, nevertheless, I was astonished to find them using a private scandal against me. They did. I think Handitch had filled up the measure of their bitterness, for I had not only abandoned them, but I was succeeding beyond even their power of misrepresentation. Always I had been a wasp in their spider’s web, difficult to claim as a tool, uncritical, antagonistic. I admired their work and devotion enormously, but I had never concealed my contempt for a certain childish vanity they displayed, and for the frequent puerility of their political intrigues. I suppose contempt galls more than injuries, and anyhow they had me now. They had me. Bailey, I found, was warning fathers of girls against me as a “reckless libertine,” and Altiora, flushed, roguish, and dishevelled, was sitting on her fender curb after dinner, and pledging little parties of five or six women at a time with infinite gusto not to let the matter go further. Our cell was open to the world, and a bleak, distressful daylight streaming in.
I had a gleam of a more intimate motive in Altiora from the reports that came to me. Isabel had been doing a series of five or six articles in the POLITICAL REVIEW in support of our campaign, the POLITICAL REVIEW which had hitherto been loyally Baileyite. Quite her best writing up to the present, at any rate, is in those papers, and no doubt Altiora had had not only to read her in those invaded columns, but listen to her praises in the mouths of the tactless influential. Altiora, like so many people who rely on gesture and vocal insistence in conversation, writes a poor and slovenly prose and handles an argument badly; Isabel has her University training behind her and wrote from the first with the stark power of a clear-headed man. “Now we know,” said Altiora, with just a gleam of malice showing through her brightness, “now we know who helps with the writing!”
She revealed astonishing knowledge.
For a time I couldn’t for the life of me discover her sources. I had, indeed, a desperate intention of challenging her, and then I bethought me of a youngster named Curmain, who had been my supplemental typist and secretary for a time, and whom I had sent on to her before the days of our breach. “Of course!” said I, “Curmain!” He was a tall, drooping, sidelong youth with sandy hair, a little forward head, and a long thin neck. He stole stamps, and, I suspected, rifled my private letter drawer, and I found him one day on a turn of the stairs looking guilty and ruffled with a pretty Irish housemaid of Margaret’s manifestly in a state of hot indignation. I saw nothing, but I felt everything in the air between them. I hate this pestering of servants, but at the same time I didn’t want Curmain wiped out of existence, so I had packed him off without unnecessary discussion to Altiora. He was quick and cheap anyhow, and I thought her general austerity ought to redeem him if anything could; the Chambers Street housemaid wasn’t for any man’s kissing and showed it, and the stamps and private letters were looked after with an efficiency altogether surpassing mine. And Altiora, I’ve no doubt left now whatever, pumped this young undesirable about me, and scenting a story, had him to dinner alone one evening to get to the bottom of the matter. She got quite to the bottom of it,—it must have been a queer duologue. She read Isabel’s careless, intimate letters to me, so to speak, by this proxy, and she wasn’t ashamed to use this information in the service of the bitterness that had sprung up in her since our political breach. It was essentially a personal bitterness; it helped no public purpose of theirs to get rid of me. My downfall in any public sense was sheer waste,—the loss of a man. She knew she was behaving badly, and so, when it came to remonstrance, she behaved worse. She’d got names and dates and places; the efficiency of her information was irresistible. And she set to work at it marvellously. Never before, in all her pursuit of efficient ideals, had Altiora achieved such levels of efficiency. I wrote a protest that was perhaps ill-advised and angry, I went to her and tried to stop her. She wouldn’t listen, she wouldn’t think, she denied and lied, she behaved like a naughty child of six years old which has made up its mind to be hurtful. It wasn’t only, I think, that she couldn’t bear our political and social influence; she also—I realised at that interview couldn’t bear our loving. It seemed to her the sickliest thing,—a thing quite unendurable. While such things were, the virtue had gone out of her world.
I’ve the vividest memory of that call of mine. She’d just come in and taken off her hat, and she was grey and dishevelled and tired, and in a business-like dress of black and crimson that didn’t suit her and was muddy about the skirts; she’d a cold in her head and sniffed penetratingly, she avoided my eye as she talked and interrupted everything I had to say; she kept stabbing fiercely at the cushions of her sofa with a long hat-pin and pretending she was overwhelmed with grief at the DEBACLE she was deliberately organising.
“Then part,” she cried, “part. If you don’t want a smashing up,—part! You two have got to be parted. You’ve got never to see each other ever, never to speak.” There was a zest in her voice. “We’re not circulating stories,” she denied. “No! And Curmain never told us anything—Curmain is an EXCELLENT young man; oh! a quite excellent young man. You misjudged him altogether.”...
I was equally unsuccessful with Bailey. I caught the little wretch in the League Club, and he wriggled and lied. He wouldn’t say where he had got his facts, he wouldn’t admit he had told any one. When I gave him the names of two men who had come to me astonished and incredulous, he attempted absurdly to make me think they had told HIM. He did his horrible little best to suggest that honest old Quackett, who had just left England for the Cape, was the real scandalmonger. That struck me as mean, even for Bailey. I’ve still the odd vivid impression of his fluting voice, excusing the inexcusable, his big, shifty face evading me, his perspiration-beaded forehead, the shrugging shoulders, and the would-be exculpatory gestures—Houndsditch gestures—of his enormous ugly hands.
“I can assure you, my dear fellow,” he said; “I can assure you we’ve done everything to shield you—everything.”...
Isabel came after dinner one evening and talked in the office. She made a white-robed, dusky figure against the deep blues of my big window. I sat at my desk and tore a quill pen to pieces as I talked.
“The Baileys don’t intend to let this drop,” I said. “They mean that every one in London is to know about it.”
“Well!” I said.
“Dear heart,” said Isabel, facing it, “it’s no good waiting for things to overtake us; we’re at the parting of the ways.”
“What are we to do?”
“They won’t let us go on.”
“They are ORGANISING scandal.”
“It’s no good waiting for things to overtake us,” I echoed; “they have overtaken us.” I turned on her. “What do you want to do?”
“Everything,” she said. “Keep you and have our work. Aren’t we Mates?”
“And we can’t!”
“I’ve got to tell Margaret,” I said.
“I can’t bear the idea of any one else getting in front with it. I’ve been wincing about Margaret secretly—”
“I know. You’ll have to tell her—and make your peace with her.”
She leant back against the bookcases under the window.
“We’ve had some good times, Master;” she said, with a sigh in her voice.
And then for a long time we stared at one another in silence.
“We haven’t much time left,” she said.
“Shall we bolt?” I said.
“And leave all this?” she asked, with her eyes going round the room. “And that?” And her head indicated Westminster. “No!”
I said no more of bolting.
“We’ve got to screw ourselves up to surrender,” she said.
“Master,” she said, “it isn’t all sex and stuff between us?”
“I can’t give up the work. Our work’s my life.”
We came upon another long pause.
“No one will believe we’ve ceased to be lovers—if we simply do,” she said.
“We’ve got to do something more parting than that.”
I nodded, and again we paused. She was coming to something.
“I could marry Shoesmith,” she said abruptly.
“But—” I objected.
“He knows. It wasn’t fair. I told him.”
“Oh, that explains,” I said. “There’s been a kind of sulkiness—But—you told him?”
She nodded. “He’s rather badly hurt,” she said. “He’s been a good friend to me. He’s curiously loyal. But something, something he said one day—forced me to let him know.... That’s been the beastliness of all this secrecy. That’s the beastliness of all secrecy. You have to spring surprises on people. But he keeps on. He’s steadfast. He’d already suspected. He wants me very badly to marry him....”
“But you don’t want to marry him?”
“I’m forced to think of it.”
“But does he want to marry you at that? Take you as a present from the world at large?—against your will and desire?... I don’t understand him.”
“He cares for me.”
“He thinks this is a fearful mess for me. He wants to pull it straight.”
We sat for a time in silence, with imaginations that obstinately refused to take up the realities of this proposition.
“I don’t want you to marry Shoesmith,” I said at last.
“Don’t you like him?”
“Not as your husband.”
“He’s a very clever and sturdy person—and very generous and devoted to me.”
“You can’t expect that. He thinks you are wonderful—and, naturally, that you ought not to have started this.”
“I’ve a curious dislike to any one thinking that but myself. I’m quite ready to think it myself.”
“He’d let us be friends—and meet.”
“Let us be friends!” I cried, after a long pause. “You and me!”
“He wants me to be engaged soon. Then, he says, he can go round fighting these rumours, defending us both—and force a quarrel on the Baileys.”
“I don’t understand him,” I said, and added, “I don’t understand you.”
I was staring at her face. It seemed white and set in the dimness.
“Do you really mean this, Isabel?” I asked.
“What else is there to do, my dear?—what else is there to do at all? I’ve been thinking day and night. You can’t go away with me. You can’t smash yourself suddenly in the sight of all men. I’d rather die than that should happen. Look what you are becoming in the country! Look at all you’ve built up!—me helping. I wouldn’t let you do it if you could. I wouldn’t let you—if it were only for Margaret’s sake. THIS... closes the scandal, closes everything.”
“It closes all our life together,” I cried.
She was silent.
“It never ought to have begun,” I said.
She winced. Then abruptly she was on her knees before me, with her hands upon my shoulder and her eyes meeting mine.
“My dear,” she said very earnestly, “don’t misunderstand me! Don’t think I’m retreating from the things we’ve done! Our love is the best thing I could ever have had from life. Nothing can ever equal it; nothing could ever equal the beauty and delight you and I have had together. Never! You have loved me; you do love me....”
No one could ever know how to love you as I have loved you; no one could ever love me as you have loved me, my king. And it’s just because it’s been so splendid, dear; it’s just because I’d die rather than have a tithe of all this wiped out of my life again—for it’s made me, it’s all I am—dear, it’s years since I began loving you—it’s just because of its goodness that I want not to end in wreckage now, not to end in the smashing up of all the big things I understand in you and love in you....
“What is there for us if we keep on and go away?” she went on. “All the big interests in our lives will vanish—everything. We shall become specialised people—people overshadowed by a situation. We shall be an elopement, a romance—all our breadth and meaning gone! People will always think of it first when they think of us; all our work and aims will be warped by it and subordinated to it. Is it good enough, dear? Just to specialise.... I think of you. We’ve got a case, a passionate case, the best of cases, but do we want to spend all our lives defending it and justifying it? And there’s that other life. I know now you care for Margaret—you care more than you think you do. You have said fine things of her. I’ve watched you about her. Little things have dropped from you. She’s given her life for you; she’s nothing without you. You feel that to your marrow all the time you are thinking about these things. Oh, I’m not jealous, dear. I love you for loving her. I love you in relation to her. But there it is, an added weight against us, another thing worth saving.”
Presently, I remember, she sat back on her heels and looked up into my face. “We’ve done wrong—and parting’s paying. It’s time to pay. We needn’t have paid, if we’d kept to the track.... You and I, Master, we’ve got to be men.”
“Yes,” I said; “we’ve got to be men.”
I was driven to tell Margaret about our situation by my intolerable dread that otherwise the thing might come to her through some stupid and clumsy informant. She might even meet Altiora, and have it from her.
I can still recall the feeling of sitting at my desk that night in that large study of mine in Radnor Square, waiting for Margaret to come home. It was oddly like the feeling of a dentist’s reception-room; only it was for me to do the dentistry with clumsy, cruel hands. I had left the door open so that she would come in to me.
I heard her silken rustle on the stairs at last, and then she was in the doorway. “May I come in?” she said.
“Do,” I said, and turned round to her.
“Working?” she said.
“Hard,” I answered. “Where have YOU been?”
“At the Vallerys’. Mr. Evesham was talking about you. They were all talking. I don’t think everybody knew who I was. Just Mrs. Mumble I’d been to them. Lord Wardenham doesn’t like you.”
“But they all feel you’re rather big, anyhow. Then I went on to Park Lane to hear a new pianist and some other music at Eva’s.”
“Then I looked in at the Brabants’ for some midnight tea before I came on here. They’d got some writers—and Grant was there.”
“You HAVE been flying round....”
There was a little pause between us.
I looked at her pretty, unsuspecting face, and at the slender grace of her golden-robed body. What gulfs there were between us! “You’ve been amused,” I said.
“It’s been amusing. You’ve been at the House?”
“The Medical Education Bill kept me.”...
After all, why should I tell her? She’d got to a way of living that fulfilled her requirements. Perhaps she’d never hear. But all that day and the day before I’d been making up my mind to do the thing.
“I want to tell you something,” I said. “I wish you’d sit down for a moment or so.”...
Once I had begun, it seemed to me I had to go through with it.
Something in the quality of my voice gave her an intimation of unusual gravity. She looked at me steadily for a moment and sat down slowly in my armchair.
“What is it?” she said.
I went on awkwardly. “I’ve got to tell you—something extraordinarily distressing,” I said.
She was manifestly altogether unaware.
“There seems to be a good deal of scandal abroad—I’ve only recently heard of it—about myself—and Isabel.”
“What do they say?” she asked.
It was difficult, I found, to speak.
“They say she’s my mistress.”
“Oh! How abominable!”
She spoke with the most natural indignation. Our eyes met.
“We’ve been great friends,” I said.
“Yes. And to make THAT of it. My poor dear! But how can they?” She paused and looked at me. “It’s so incredible. How can any one believe it? I couldn’t.”
She stopped, with her distressed eyes regarding me. Her expression changed to dread. There was a tense stillness for a second, perhaps.
I turned my face towards the desk, and took up and dropped a handful of paper fasteners.
“Margaret,” I said, “I’m afraid you’ll have to believe it.”
Margaret sat very still. When I looked at her again, her face was very white, and her distressed eyes scrutinised me. Her lips quivered as she spoke. “You really mean—THAT?” she said.
“I never dreamt.”
“I never meant you to dream.”
“And that is why—we’ve been apart?”
I thought. “I suppose it is.”
“Why have you told me now?”
“Those rumours. I didn’t want any one else to tell you.”
“Or else it wouldn’t have mattered?”
She turned her eyes from me to the fire. Then for a moment she looked about the room she had made for me, and then quite silently, with a childish quivering of her lips, with a sort of dismayed distress upon her face, she was weeping. She sat weeping in her dress of cloth of gold, with her bare slender arms dropped limp over the arms of her chair, and her eyes averted from me, making no effort to stay or staunch her tears. “I am sorry, Margaret,” I said. “I was in love.... I did not understand....”
Presently she asked: “What are you going to do?”
“You see, Margaret, now it’s come to be your affair—I want to know what you—what you want.”
“You want to leave me?”
“If you want me to, I must.”
“Leave Parliament—leave all the things you are doing,—all this fine movement of yours?”
“No.” I spoke sullenly. “I don’t want to leave anything. I want to stay on. I’ve told you, because I think we—Isabel and I, I mean—have got to drive through a storm of scandal anyhow. I don’t know how far things may go, how much people may feel, and I can’t, I can’t have you unconscious, unarmed, open to any revelation—”
She made no answer.
“When the thing began—I knew it was stupid but I thought it was a thing that wouldn’t change, wouldn’t be anything but itself, wouldn’t unfold—consequences.... People have got hold of these vague rumours.... Directly it reached any one else but—but us two—I saw it had to come to you.”
I stopped. I had that distressful feeling I have always had with Margaret, of not being altogether sure she heard, of being doubtful if she understood. I perceived that once again I had struck at her and shattered a thousand unsubstantial pinnacles. And I couldn’t get at her, to help her, or touch her mind! I stood up, and at my movement she moved. She produced a dainty little handkerchief, and made an effort to wipe her face with it, and held it to her eyes. “Oh, my Husband!” she sobbed.
“What do you mean to do?” she said, with her voice muffled by her handkerchief.
“We’re going to end it,” I said.
Something gripped me tormentingly as I said that. I drew a chair beside her and sat down. “You and I, Margaret, have been partners,” I began. “We’ve built up this life of ours together; I couldn’t have done it without you. We’ve made a position, created a work—”
She shook her head. “You,” she said.
“You helping. I don’t want to shatter it—if you don’t want it shattered. I can’t leave my work. I can’t leave you. I want you to have—all that you have ever had. I’ve never meant to rob you. I’ve made an immense and tragic blunder. You don’t know how things took us, how different they seemed! My character and accident have conspired—We’ll pay—in ourselves, not in our public service.”
I halted again. Margaret remained very still.
“I want you to understand that the thing is at an end. It is definitely at an end. We—we talked—yesterday. We mean to end it altogether.” I clenched my hands. “She’s—she’s going to marry Arnold Shoesmith.”
I wasn’t looking now at Margaret any more, but I heard the rustle of her movement as she turned on me.
“It’s all right,” I said, clinging to my explanation. “We’re doing nothing shabby. He knows. He will. It’s all as right—as things can be now. We’re not cheating any one, Margaret. We’re doing things straight—now. Of course, you know.... We shall—we shall have to make sacrifices. Give things up pretty completely. Very completely.... We shall have not to see each other for a time, you know. Perhaps not a long time. Two or three years. Or write—or just any of that sort of thing ever—”
Some subconscious barrier gave way in me. I found myself crying uncontrollably—as I have never cried since I was a little child. I was amazed and horrified at myself. And wonderfully, Margaret was on her knees beside me, with her arms about me, mingling her weeping with mine. “Oh, my Husband!” she cried, “my poor Husband! Does it hurt you so? I would do anything! Oh, the fool I am! Dear, I love you. I love you over and away and above all these jealous little things!”
She drew down my head to her as a mother might draw down the head of a son. She caressed me, weeping bitterly with me. “Oh! my dear,” she sobbed, “my dear! I’ve never seen you cry! I’ve never seen you cry. Ever! I didn’t know you could. Oh! my dear! Can’t you have her, my dear, if you want her? I can’t bear it! Let me help you, dear. Oh! my Husband! My Man! I can’t bear to have you cry!” For a time she held me in silence.
“I’ve thought this might happen, I dreamt it might happen. You two, I mean. It was dreaming put it into my head. When I’ve seen you together, so glad with each other.... Oh! Husband mine, believe me! believe me! I’m stupid, I’m cold, I’m only beginning to realise how stupid and cold, but all I want in all the world is to give my life to you.”...
“We can’t part in a room,” said Isabel.
“We’ll have one last talk together,” I said, and planned that we should meet for a half a day between Dover and Walmer and talk ourselves out. I still recall that day very well, recall even the curious exaltation of grief that made our mental atmosphere distinctive and memorable. We had seen so much of one another, had become so intimate, that we talked of parting even as we parted with a sense of incredible remoteness. We went together up over the cliffs, and to a place where they fall towards the sea, past the white, quaint-lanterned lighthouses of the South Foreland. There, in a kind of niche below the crest, we sat talking. It was a spacious day, serenely blue and warm, and on the wrinkled water remotely below a black tender and six hooded submarines came presently, and engaged in mysterious manoeuvers. Shrieking gulls and chattering jackdaws circled over us and below us, and dived and swooped; and a skerry of weedy, fallen chalk appeared, and gradually disappeared again, as the tide fell and rose.
We talked and thought that afternoon on every aspect of our relations. It seems to me now we talked so wide and far that scarcely an issue in the life between man and woman can arise that we did not at least touch upon. Lying there at Isabel’s feet, I have become for myself a symbol of all this world-wide problem between duty and conscious, passionate love the world has still to solve. Because it isn’t solved; there’s a wrong in it either way.. .. The sky, the wide horizon, seemed to lift us out of ourselves until we were something representative and general. She was womanhood become articulate, talking to her lover.
“I ought,” I said, “never to have loved you.”
“It wasn’t a thing planned,” she said.
“I ought never to have let our talk slip to that, never to have turned back from America.”
“I’m glad we did it,” she said. “Don’t think I repent.”
I looked at her.
“I will never repent,” she said. “Never!” as though she clung to her life in saying it.
I remember we talked for a long time of divorce. It seemed to us then, and it seems to us still, that it ought to have been possible for Margaret to divorce me, and for me to marry without the scandalous and ugly publicity, the taint and ostracism that follow such a readjustment. We went on to the whole perplexing riddle of marriage. We criticised the current code, how muddled and conventionalised it had become, how modified by subterfuges and concealments and new necessities, and the increasing freedom of women. “It’s all like Bromstead when the building came,” I said; for I had often talked to her of that early impression of purpose dissolving again into chaotic forces. “There is no clear right in the world any more. The world is Byzantine. The justest man to-day must practise a tainted goodness.”
These questions need discussion—a magnificent frankness of discussion—if any standards are again to establish an effective hold upon educated people. Discretions, as I have said already, will never hold any one worth holding—longer than they held us. Against every “shalt not” there must be a “why not” plainly put,—the “why not” largest and plainest, the law deduced from its purpose. “You and I, Isabel,” I said, “have always been a little disregardful of duty, partly at least because the idea of duty comes to us so ill-clad. Oh! I know there’s an extravagant insubordinate strain in us, but that wasn’t all. I wish humbugs would leave duty alone. I wish all duty wasn’t covered with slime. That’s where the real mischief comes in. Passion can always contrive to clothe itself in beauty, strips itself splendid. That carried us. But for all its mean associations there is this duty....
“Don’t we come rather late to it?”
“Not so late that it won’t be atrociously hard to do.”
“It’s queer to think of now,” said Isabel. “Who could believe we did all we have done honestly? Well, in a manner honestly. Who could believe we thought this might be hidden? Who could trace it all step by step from the time when we found that a certain boldness in our talk was pleasing? We talked of love.... Master, there’s not much for us to do in the way of Apologia that any one will credit. And yet if it were possible to tell the very heart of our story....
“Does Margaret really want to go on with you?” she asked—“shield you—knowing of... THIS?”
“I’m certain. I don’t understand—just as I don’t understand Shoesmith, but she does. These people walk on solid ground which is just thin air to us. They’ve got something we haven’t got. Assurances? I wonder.”...
Then it was, or later, we talked of Shoesmith, and what her life might be with him.
“He’s good,” she said; “he’s kindly. He’s everything but magic. He’s the very image of the decent, sober, honourable life. You can’t say a thing against him or I—except that something—something in his imagination, something in the tone of his voice—fails for me. Why don’t I love him?—he’s a better man than you! Why don’t you? IS he a better man than you? He’s usage, he’s honour, he’s the right thing, he’s the breed and the tradition,—a gentleman. You’re your erring, incalculable self. I suppose we women will trust this sort and love your sort to the very end of time....”
We lay side by side and nibbled at grass stalks as we talked. It seemed enormously unreasonable to us that two people who had come to the pitch of easy and confident affection and happiness that held between us should be obliged to part and shun one another, or murder half the substance of their lives. We felt ourselves crushed and beaten by an indiscriminating machine which destroys happiness in the service of jealousy. “The mass of people don’t feel these things in quite the same manner as we feel them,” she said. “Is it because they’re different in grain, or educated out of some primitive instinct?”
“It’s because we’ve explored love a little, and they know no more than the gateway,” I said. “Lust and then jealousy; their simple conception—and we have gone past all that and wandered hand in hand....”
I remember that for a time we watched two of that larger sort of gull, whose wings are brownish-white, circle and hover against the blue. And then we lay and looked at a band of water mirror clear far out to sea, and wondered why the breeze that rippled all the rest should leave it so serene.
“And in this State of ours,” I resumed.
“Eh!” said Isabel, rolling over into a sitting posture and looking out at the horizon. “Let’s talk no more of things we can never see. Talk to me of the work you are doing and all we shall do—after we have parted. We’ve said too little of that. We’ve had our red life, and it’s over. Thank Heaven!—though we stole it! Talk about your work, dear, and the things we’ll go on doing—just as though we were still together. We’ll still be together in a sense—through all these things we have in common.”
And so we talked of politics and our outlook. We were interested to the pitch of self-forgetfulness. We weighed persons and forces, discussed the probabilities of the next general election, the steady drift of public opinion in the north and west away from Liberalism towards us. It was very manifest that in spite of Wardenham and the EXPURGATOR, we should come into the new Government strongly. The party had no one else, all the young men were formally or informally with us; Esmeer would have office, Lord Tarvrille, I... and very probably there would be something for Shoesmith. “And for my own part,” I said, “I count on backing on the Liberal side. For the last two years we’ve been forcing competition in constructive legislation between the parties. The Liberals have not been long in following up our Endowment of Motherhood lead. They’ll have to give votes and lip service anyhow. Half the readers of the BLUE WEEKLY, they say, are Liberals....
“I remember talking about things of this sort with old Willersley,” I said, “ever so many years ago. It was some place near Locarno, and we looked down the lake that shone weltering—just as now we look over the sea. And then we dreamt in an indistinct featureless way of all that you and I are doing now.”
“I!” said Isabel, and laughed.
“Well, of some such thing,” I said, and remained for awhile silent, thinking of Locarno.
I recalled once more the largeness, the release from small personal things that I had felt in my youth; statecraft became real and wonderful again with the memory, the gigantic handling of gigantic problems. I began to talk out my thoughts, sitting up beside her, as I could never talk of them to any one but Isabel; began to recover again the purpose that lay under all my political ambitions and adjustments and anticipations. I saw the State, splendid and wide as I had seen it in that first travel of mine, but now it was no mere distant prospect of spires and pinnacles, but populous with fine-trained, bold-thinking, bold-doing people. It was as if I had forgotten for a long time and now remembered with amazement.
At first, I told her, I had been altogether at a loss how I could do anything to battle against the aimless muddle of our world; I had wanted a clue—until she had come into my life questioning, suggesting, unconsciously illuminating. “But I have done nothing,” she protested. I declared she had done everything in growing to education under my eyes, in reflecting again upon all the processes that had made myself, so that instead of abstractions and blue-books and bills and devices, I had realised the world of mankind as a crowd needing before all things fine women and men. We’d spoilt ourselves in learning that, but anyhow we had our lesson. Before her I was in a nineteenth-century darkness, dealing with the nation as if it were a crowd of selfish men, forgetful of women and children and that shy wild thing in the hearts of men, love, which must be drawn upon as it has never been drawn upon before, if the State is to live. I saw now how it is possible to bring the loose factors of a great realm together, to create a mind of literature and thought in it, and the expression of a purpose to make it self-conscious and fine. I had it all clear before me, so that at a score of points I could presently begin. The BLUE WEEKLY was a centre of force. Already we had given Imperialism a criticism, and leavened half the press from our columns. Our movement consolidated and spread. We should presently come into power. Everything moved towards our hands. We should be able to get at the schools, the services, the universities, the church; enormously increase the endowment of research, and organise what was sorely wanted, a criticism of research; contrive a closer contact between the press and creative intellectual life; foster literature, clarify, strengthen the public consciousness, develop social organisation and a sense of the State. Men were coming to us every day, brilliant young peers like Lord Dentonhill, writers like Carnot and Cresswell. It filled me with pride to win such men. “We stand for so much more than we seem to stand for,” I said. I opened my heart to her, so freely that I hesitate to open my heart even to the reader, telling of projects and ambitions I cherished, of my consciousness of great powers and widening opportunities....
Isabel watched me as I talked.
She too, I think, had forgotten these things for a while. For it is curious and I think a very significant thing that since we had become lovers, we had talked very little of the broader things that had once so strongly gripped our imaginations.
“It’s good,” I said, “to talk like this to you, to get back to youth and great ambitions with you. There have been times lately when politics has seemed the pettiest game played with mean tools for mean ends—and none the less so that the happiness of three hundred million people might be touched by our follies. I talk to no one else like this.... And now I think of parting, I think but of how much more I might have talked to you.”...
Things drew to an end at last, but after we had spoken of a thousand things.
“We’ve talked away our last half day,” I said, staring over my shoulder at the blazing sunset sky behind us. “Dear, it’s been the last day of our lives for us.... It doesn’t seem like the last day of our lives. Or any day.”
“I wonder how it will feel?” said Isabel.
“It will be very strange at first—not to be able to tell you things.”
“I’ve a superstition that after—after we’ve parted—if ever I go into my room and talk, you’ll hear. You’ll be—somewhere.”
“I shall be in the world—yes.”
“I don’t feel as though these days ahead were real. Here we are, here we remain.”
“Yes, I feel that. As though you and I were two immortals, who didn’t live in time and space at all, who never met, who couldn’t part, and here we lie on Olympus. And those two poor creatures who did meet, poor little Richard Remington and Isabel Rivers, who met and loved too much and had to part, they part and go their ways, and we lie here and watch them, you and I. She’ll cry, poor dear.”
“She’ll cry. She’s crying now!”
“Poor little beasts! I think he’ll cry too. He winces. He could—for tuppence. I didn’t know he had lachrymal glands at all until a little while ago. I suppose all love is hysterical—and a little foolish. Poor mites! Silly little pitiful creatures! How we have blundered! Think how we must look to God! Well, we’ll pity them, and then we’ll inspire him to stiffen up again—and do as we’ve determined he shall do. We’ll see it through,—we who lie here on the cliff. They’ll be mean at times, and horrid at times; we know them! Do you see her, a poor little fine lady in a great house,—she sometimes goes to her room and writes.”
“She writes for his BLUE WEEKLY still.”
“Yes. Sometimes—I hope. And he’s there in the office with a bit of her copy in his hand.”
“Is it as good as if she still talked it over with him before she wrote it? Is it?”
“Better, I think. Let’s play it’s better—anyhow. It may be that talking over was rather mixed with love-making. After all, love-making is joy rather than magic. Don’t let’s pretend about that even.... Let’s go on watching him. (I don’t see why her writing shouldn’t be better. Indeed I don’t.) See! There he goes down along the Embankment to Westminster just like a real man, for all that he’s smaller than a grain of dust. What is running round inside that speck of a head of his? Look at him going past the Policemen, specks too—selected large ones from the country. I think he’s going to dinner with the Speaker—some old thing like that. Is his face harder or commoner or stronger?—I can’t quite see.... And now he’s up and speaking in the House. Hope he’ll hold on to the thread. He’ll have to plan his speeches to the very end of his days—and learn the headings.”
“Isn’t she up in the women’s gallery to hear him?”
“No. Unless it’s by accident.”
“She’s there,” she said.
“Well, by accident it happens. Not too many accidents, Isabel. Never any more adventures for us, dear, now. No!... They play the game, you know. They’ve begun late, but now they’ve got to. You see it’s not so very hard for them since you and I, my dear, are here always, always faithfully here on this warm cliff of love accomplished, watching and helping them under high heaven. It isn’t so VERY hard. Rather good in some ways. Some people HAVE to be broken a little. Can you see Altiora down there, by any chance?”
“She’s too little to be seen,” she said.
“Can you see the sins they once committed?”
“I can only see you here beside me, dear—for ever. For all my life, dear, till I die. Was that—the sin?”...
I took her to the station, and after she had gone I was to drive to Dover, and cross to Calais by the night boat. I couldn’t, I felt, return to London. We walked over the crest and down to the little station of Martin Mill side by side, talking at first in broken fragments, for the most part of unimportant things.
“None of this,” she said abruptly, “seems in the slightest degree real to me. I’ve got no sense of things ending.”
“We’re parting,” I said.
“We’re parting—as people part in a play. It’s distressing. But I don’t feel as though you and I were really never to see each other again for years. Do you?”
I thought. “No,” I said.
“After we’ve parted I shall look to talk it over with you.”
“So shall I.”
“I feel as if you’d always be there, just about where you are now. Invisible perhaps, but there. We’ve spent so much of our lives joggling elbows.”...
“Yes. Yes. I don’t in the least realise it. I suppose I shall begin to when the train goes out of the station. Are we wanting in imagination, Isabel?”
“I don’t know. We’ve always assumed it was the other way about.”
“Even when the train goes out of the station—! I’ve seen you into so many trains.”
“I shall go on thinking of things to say to you—things to put in your letters. For years to come. How can I ever stop thinking in that way now? We’ve got into each other’s brains.”
“It isn’t real,” I said; “nothing is real. The world’s no more than a fantastic dream. Why are we parting, Isabel?”
“I don’t know. It seems now supremely silly. I suppose we have to. Can’t we meet?—don’t you think we shall meet even in dreams?”
“We’ll meet a thousand times in dreams,” I said.
“I wish we could dream at the same time,” said Isabel.... “Dream walks. I can’t believe, dear, I shall never have a walk with you again.”
“If I’d stayed six months in America,” I said, “we might have walked long walks and talked long talks for all our lives.”
“Not in a world of Baileys,” said Isabel. “And anyhow—”
She stopped short. I looked interrogation.
“We’ve loved,” she said.
I took her ticket, saw to her luggage, and stood by the door of the compartment. “Good-bye,” I said a little stiffly, conscious of the people upon the platform. She bent above me, white and dusky, looking at me very steadfastly.
“Come here,” she whispered. “Never mind the porters. What can they know? Just one time more—I must.”
She rested her hand against the door of the carriage and bent down upon me, and put her cold, moist lips to mine.