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  ― 14 ―

Some of Fate's Puppets.

LOOKING toward his home, Moore caught a glimpse of light through the trees. It came from his wife's bedroom, most likely? He wondered vaguely what would be her greeting. She had expected him to return in five weeks; it was exactly five hours since she had waved good-bye to him from the wharf. He pondered without interest the question what she would have thought, and said, and done, had the other steamer been moving just a little faster and sent them all to eternity.

He had expected to find the house in darkness. Yet where was the need to alter his pace? What did he gain by getting home a minute sooner—say, before his wife put out her light? He would have to depict the scene of the collision for her; and he was in the wrong mood for that. She would be full of wifely interest, womanly sympathy, about his share. Could a woman never escape from her sex? Exalted to a position of mock heroism by his wife! In contemplation of the part marked for him he felt that he could weep—tears of petulance.

The thought recurred—if it had ended otherwise, giving his wife the freedom to shape her course anew? A loss or gain to her? Neither, in any great degree, he could answer. She would marry again; he could look calmly at that, with even a smile at his inability to give distinct features to the figure his fancy conjured up as his successor. There was the boy—a different matter; but as he had his father's blood in him, he could be left almost unconsidered; he would work out his own destiny.

His wife was eight years younger—barely thirty; bright, clever, good-looking. One who met life gaily,—who, with a nature as deep as anyone's, yet immersed herself in superficialities. An anomaly;


  ― 15 ―
the centre of it hidden from him. Their natures were widely divergent; they were fettered together, yet trod separate paths.

Was that to be regretted? No; or at least in a very limited number of aspects. Their married life fell midway between happiness and discontent, touching neither. Life to him was mostly on that plane.

Perhaps the one thing he regretted—if anything in life were serious enough to demand regret—was the fact of his marrying at all. That had been a mistake; one among many; all the natural issue of the mistake of continuing to live. A world of error! How could it be otherwise, when the right thing lay undecipherable amid a bewilderment of illusion?

Looking up at the house, he noted that it was the drawing-room that was lighted—a matter that called for surprise; but he was reluctant to confess to any. The drawing-room was seldom used at night, the dining-room downstairs being occupied as a sitting-room. Only when visitors came in the evening—an unusual event—was it necessary to go upstairs.

He went to the back of the house and found it dark. The servants must have gone to bed, but that was denied in the fact of visitors being present. They had gone out before the visitors came, and had not returned? Yet that seemed unlikely, since the house was shut. He tried one door—to find it locked. Was it that his wife was alone, and feeling timid had locked up the house before the servants came in? Then there were no visitors, and she was sitting by herself in the drawing-room—a change from her ordinary habit, induced by her loneliness. Probably she had been at the piano. On this theory the seeming contradictions were congruous and intelligible.

He was about to ascend the back stairs when he remembered that the key of one door had been lost a few days before. He turned the handle and entered; darkness enveloped him. He walked carefully, so as not to startle his wife by any noise. He was fortunate enough to find a clear passage, and reaching the foot of the stairs safely he began to ascend, keeping a hand on the balustrade.




  ― 16 ―

The silence of the house seemed an ominous thing; Moore caught himself stopping to listen to it. At the turning he halted; his heart was beating strangely fast, his blood alert, as if expectant of something. He was visited by an outrageous thought. “Was he in the wrong house?” He was about to consider the question, to sum up remembrance, when he heard a voice—pitched, sustained, with a musical clearness in the sound—a man's voice. He was struck aghast—the thing was so contrary to anything the circumstances made possible. He was awake, and in his own home. His mind ran back, but he found no rest for his thought; no haziness in his remembrance. A gleam of light shot across the events of the day, revealing them to him in one immediate glance—distinct and in order, carrying him to his presence there.

He had ascended to the top of the stairs, and his hand now encountered an overcoat. The touch of it sent a shock through him that reduced him to material facts of life. He took up the hat that was on the stair-post, and, handling it, was vaguely glad he could not name the owner. Neither did the voice help him to a guess, though he heard it more distinctly now—the voice of a man reading aloud.

Why was his first conscious instinct a desire to escape—to descend the stairs and go out into the street till he could consider what to do? Surely small consideration was necessary; his imperative duty lay before him, not behind. Was it that he felt some charity towards his wife? Was it for her sake that he did not wish to come upon them? Or was it wholly a fear to take up his own part in the discovery; a fear that had masked itself in subtle disguise?

He had leaned back against the wall, but now stood up; he was in no need of support. But he could not calm his heart; his blood tingled through his veins, giving him an odd sense of a new value in life—a value that deficient human senses could not quite lay hold of. Existence seemed to promise something. A clear happiness when his present task was accomplished? He asked himself the question.




  ― 17 ―

Looking up the corridor, he saw the ray of light that came through the drawing-room door. What was the scene that the door hid from him? And what was the basis of the sudden, bitter prayer that it should close fast now, and, opening to no one's effort, bury those two within walls? It was the awakening of the husband within him: he knew it, and felt it in a weakening of his blood. He was no longer his old self, but one among a hundred; acting a part that had so often been acted before—the meanest part that could be given to a high-minded man. In angry denial of such conception of himself—in attempt to shut it out, he went up the passage.

The length appeared interminable, the noise of his walking was deafening, and the walls seemed to close in upon him as he passed. Even at the threshold of the door he had a prompting that it was not too late to turn back; but he compressed his lips and entered. A flood of warm light seemed to close around him. The fancy gave him strength; he became calmer; it was as if he had been spiritually welcomed.

In one glimpse he saw the pair; the noise of his footsteps had alarmed them; they stood separate, the first instinctive movement of each had been towards an individual defence. The identity of the man gave no surprise; he was not able to be surprised, more intense feelings finding place with him.

It was Leston, a young doctor who had recently come to the town. He remembered, even at this turbulent moment, that he had once remarked to his wife that Leston was distinctly a good-looking man; a judgment that she had not wholly acceded to. Was this idle word the germinal cause of his present dishonour? The thing was almost worth enquiry. He could not recall that there had been much intimacy between his wife and Leston. But then the husband is ever the last to see what is happening at his side.

She was dressed in a pale blue tea-gown, a ribbon at her throat. He could think that this evening she must have looked remarkably well, but now the deadly pallor and set cast of her features showed


  ― 18 ―
only a mind in travail. She was standing behind a chair, her hands clasping the back of it.

She was small in stature, but carried herself well; her eyes gave a depth, her lips were finely cut, her face in every pose showed the strength of fearlessness. Young, with good features and an abundance of dark brown hair, she was a woman who impressed one with a sense of woman's witchery over man.

“You!” she said quiveringly, almost as he entered. It seemed as if the word broke from her, before she was conscious of the effort to speak.

He crossed over to the mantelpiece, and, resting one arm there, stood facing her. He could see that Leston was shifting his gaze from one to the other, unknowing what to do, or what was to be done. The feverish excitement of his wife stirred an echo in him; he endeavoured to steady his voice.

“I have disturbed you,” he said.

“It seems like it!” Her laughter rang out; recklessness, nervousness, echoing in the notes of it.

She knew now that he had long suspected her; that his departure had been but a trick. He had come back to discover the thing he looked for. In her feminine mind, the pitiful meanness of his manner of unmasking her—not to include the full success of it—made him appear contemptible. For the moment, her sin was in some retrospective way justified by it; and she was conscious of the vividness of the impression that she too gained in being no longer compelled to deceive. How much easier it was to acknowledge guilt than it would have been to deny!

Moore kept his eyes off Leston; he was aware of being more assured of the man's weakness than of his own strength. And his wife would feel a keener shame in his looking to her as the only guilty one.

He addressed himself to her with gay pretence. “A friend of yours?”

Could any man but he be so infamous as to amuse himself with her shame? Could he not see that the shame was partly his?


  ― 19 ―
She would force him to feel it. “You can call him what you like.”

“A lover, then?”

She had courted the word, yet her woman's nature felt a stab. “Lover!” It seemed to cry itself in the street, to be caught on the wind, and carried echoing to the ears of the outer world. But she had compelled him to explicitly attack her. “You have defined him—and yourself,” she said.

“And also you.”

Strange that she had not foreseen to what she would lay herself open. Was it that her mind was not capable of calm thought? Must she acknowledge that she was not able to cope with him? She saw her woman's heart as the foundation of defeat. Was his strength more than of manhood—an individual element in him? She felt suddenly that he could do as he willed with her; that he could make her kneel to him; make her pitifully repentant. She saw the future and its threats against her; a word rang in her brain that would not be driven out.

In protest of finding herself at that depth, she looked at the man for whom she had sacrificed herself. But there was no help for her there; he was younger, more hesitating than herself. In a flash she realised that she was more to blame than he; that she had not less misshaped his life, than her own. Shiveringly she felt her isolation; a guilty woman at the mercy of the world.

Moore watched her unflinchingly. He was surprised at the ease with which he had taken command of the situation; how calmly he held it. A few moments before he had not known what to do, but now he could think coolly, see clearly. Victory was his, even a kind of victory over Fate, who had prepared a situation in which he was to have been made to play a ridiculously pitiful part.

He felt no pang in knowing he was a dishonoured husband, and endeavored to persuade himself that there was no reason why he should feel one. But he was wise enough to know that his strength lay in contempt of the pair before him, in making them realise themselves contemptible.




  ― 20 ―

“What is the book?” he asked, gazing at a volume that lay open on the floor where it had been dropped.

“Does that interest you?” she said angrily.

“Naturally. It has interested you.”

“A loving husband!” She laughed scornfully—at herself and him.

“You seem to regret something.”

“Our marriage?” she suggested.

“My God, woman, not half as much as I do—as I have done from the first.”

He moved his arm, and accidentally upset a vase; it fell on the floor breaking into fragments. The noise resounded through the house. To the woman's excited fancy it was a signal of something that was to happen; she looked to the door expecting to see a terrifying shape take entrance. She listened, and afar off she thought she heard the faint tolling of a bell. Her heart stopped, then beat to the tolling. She felt chilled to the blood.

Leston stood watching the scene before him with a weak resentment of his impotence. The fear that had first seized him had in contemplation of the husband's calmness given place to a desire to assert himself, to claim a share in the guilt. It was distinctly a situation that demanded a show of courage from him. Yet he was completely ignored. The tragedy which he had helped to create was being played out without one thought of him. He chafed at the humiliation of his position, yet could not summon the courage to escape from it.

Moore considered the import of the silence, then permitted himself to add, at a measured pace— “We both made a mistake. And the issue—we have here. Well, even of that I can bear my part. But your part—I honestly pity.”

She seemed heedless of all around; her eyes hung on the doorway expectantly. “I can do without it,” she said pettishly.

“I am aware of that, and I can easily understand it. You get rid of me, and you take in my place—this.” He turned to


  ― 21 ―
Leston, and the man shrank back ashamed. “A pretty boy, young enough to be educated to appreciate you.”

“Oh, stop! stop!” she cried.

A child, barefooted and clad in a nightgown, stood hesitant at the door. He was about seven years old, and in features a likeness of his father. The mother saw him, and called him to her with a look.

Moore followed her gaze, and knew then that it was not the sting of his words that had moved her, but only the fear of the child understanding. “Frank!” he said sharply to the boy, “Come here!”

Disobedience of that voice was impossible; he came like a dog.

“Close the door—and take that chair.”

The boy did his bidding, and then sat looking at his mother; his childish astonishment addressed to her.

The woman stood up with locked hands—supplicating, speechless.

“You are not forbidden to look upon him,” said Moore, coldly, in answer.

“Send him away,” she whispered, quiveringly.

“His proper place is here.”

She flung herself on the chair, in a passion of weeping, her soul given up to despair.

“Father,——” began the boy.

“Sit there, sir! Don't move till I tell you!” he was answered.

Leston crossed over and stood beside the woman; an opening was offered him. “For the child's sake, if not for hers, send him away!”

Moore laughed in contemptuous derision. “Surely you are imposing on your position!”

“I do not know about that, but you are cruelly imposing upon yours.”

“If you dare to question me, by the living God I'll throw you over that balcony!” His violent utterance rang true, and the echo of it, adding further excitement to his blood, made him dangerously apt to do what he threatened.




  ― 22 ―

“Don't speak to him!” said Mrs. Moore, in alarmed protest. “You do not know how passionate—— And you can do no good.”

Leston, warm in offence, hated now to acknowledge to a physical fear. With his whole soul he longed for action. But for her sake he must submit; and because he was so checked and hampered he began to look forward to escape. Yet honour compelled him to stay.

“How long is this going to continue?” he said at length. “What are you going to do?”

“There is nothing more for me to do; the rest falls on you!” The man's thought ran to dramatic utterance. Yet he had an educated disdain of the stage.

“What am I to do?”

“Leave this house at once—and take her with you.” Moore was only outwardly calm; his strength had departed, and he knew that he was physically ill. He feared that he could not maintain his part to the end. He wished they would hurry—a mad desire to escape from the room had seized him.

“Come, Lucy!” said Leston, bending over her. He wondered that he should so quietly accept the burden of her, though he knew there was nothing else that he could do.

Her sobs had ceased; she sat with her face hidden, giving no sign that she heard.

“Lucy!” It was an appeal to her to look up, so that he might read the reason of her unwillingness.

She jumped up quickly, and, throwing herself out of his embracing arms, staggered against a small desk that stood by the wall, and halted with her back to it.

“No, I will not go!” she cried. “Not though he orders it. I stay here—my place is here. I could not go with you. How could you think of it! It would mean——” She turned quickly to her husband. “Can I stay? Only till to-morrow. See, I ask it; on my knees, if I must.”




  ― 23 ―

“You can do as you will,” he said, simply. “I will offer no objection now.”

She turned to Leston, speaking from a centre that was hidden from him. “You can go.”

“But you!”

“Go!” she commanded.

He made his pitiful departure. Moore felt an infinite relief; he sat down weariiy in a chair, his face turned from her.

She saw the depth of his despair, and her heart moved madly—responsive to her thoughts. Her fault rose up behind her, threatening to advance and overwhelm her—a purpose beckoned her to escape.

“Will you put Frank to bed?” She spoke quietly; a new strength had been given her.

He looked up in surprise. The fact of having to be told by her what he must do was a shock to him. He saw how far beneath command of himself he had sunk, but he made no effort to recover.

“Yes,” he said.

The child followed him, nervous, crying pitifully, and was the more abandoned in his tears that he knew not very definitely why he should cry.

In quieting him, Moore promised that his mother would not leave him; that she would not be permitted. He attempted to persuade himself that though he had lost a wife, he had no right to deprive the child of a mother. He felt happier in such a thought, though he knew he was but juggling with his mind.

The soft promises he had to make to the boy helped to soothe himself as well. But he saw no course of action, nor what in honour he could offer her.

He went back to the drawing-room, possessed of a full indifference. He himself was under no necessities. Fate could do with him as it would. Or his wife could decide what was to be; he would stand aside, offering no opposition to either.

“You have come back,” she said. “I hoped you would.” He acquiesced dully and stood by the doorway. He had a horror of


  ― 24 ―
taking up his old position by the mantelpiece. The woman read a hatred of coming near to her.

He had leisure to notice her; to see that her face paled and flushed, that her eyes were luminously bright. She stood as when he had left her, yet her attitude seemed constrained.

He had to break through a silence. “What is it you want with me?”

“Nothing. Unless——”

“Well?”

“To hear your reproaches.”

“Lucy!” He reproached her levity.

She laughed defiantly, but her laughter rang hollow. “Tell me how much you despise me,” she said. “How much you hate me! Do!”

“How much I pity you; how much I pity us both!”

“Oh, Harry! Not that,” she said with a shiver. “Do not conquer me! Be harsh! Treat me as I deserve! Why don't you hate me?”

“Say because Frank does n't. He will not let his mother leave him; I had to promise that she would not.”

She looked long in silence; as if she could not credit him. Her breath came in short gasps. Not till he again glanced up at her did she find utterance. “The poor child—the darling! And I—my pride in him should have saved me. I wonder why it did not? I have been mad this last month—not myself. Oh, the horror of it now!”

“Will you stay?”

“You had to promise him, you say. That was cruelly hard on you.”

“I have not said that. Will you stay?”

He was aware that he was offering her all that was in his heart; and more than was in his mind. He knew not where he stood. His head swam; the walls of the room seemed to recede, then halt and come slowly back. He looked up—to see his wife fall forward on her face.




  ― 25 ―

He ran to her, and knelt beside her, his mind in the travail of unshaped fears. He lifted her in his arms and turned her face towards him.

“Lucy, what is it! You are ill! You have hurt yourself!” A convulsion seized her, and left her with her features set in distortion.

“You would take me back?” she whispered.

“For his sake.”

“Ah, yes,” she sighed. She held a pause, then asked—“Not for my own?”

His face hardened; she asked more than he could give her.

“Let me go!” she cried. “Do not hold me! How can you when you hate me so?” Her violence carried her out of his arms, and she stopped at a distance from him.

“I do not hate you, Lucy. You know I don't. But I cannot pretend that I have forgiven you.”

“I did not ask for that; I only meant—but it does n't matter. It is best that it should end now.”

“End, Lucy?”

“Can't you see?” she cried fiercely.

He caught an inspiration from her tone; an infinite horror surged through him. “Lucy! have you poisoned yourself?” He made a step towards her.

“Don't come near me!” she screamed, raising herself on her hands. “I will not let you touch me!”

“Lucy!” Horror held him in its embrace; he was capable only of a weak utterance of her name.

“Listen!” she cried excitedly. “Frank is calling me. You hear him? Let me go to him!” She looked up for permission, as he stood senselessly watching her.

“Do not follow me!” she said. “Let me go alone. I must see him before——”

She staggered to her feet, and, reaching the doorway, steadied herself there and went down the passage.

The child was crying upon the bed; her screams had alarmed


  ― 26 ―
him. She hurried, and coming heavily against the wall staggered back from it—fell, with outstretched hands—quivered, and lay motionless.

Moore, looking vacantly down at her, wondered dully why the child was sobbing.

JOHN REAY WATSON.

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