By Ella D'Arcy
(Monochromes, London: John Lane, 1893)
A young man strolled along a country road one August evening after a
long delicious day—a day of that blessed idleness the man of leisure
never knows: one must be a bank clerk forty-nine weeks out of the
fifty-two before one can really appreciate the exquisite enjoyment of
doing nothing for twelve hours at a stretch. Willoughby had spent the
morning lounging about a sunny rickyard; then, when the heat grew
unbearable, he had retreated to an orchard, where, lying on his back in
the long cool grass, he had traced the pattern of the apple-leaves
diapered above him upon the summer sky; now that the heat of the day was
over he had come to roam whither sweet fancy led him, to lean over
gates, view the prospect, and meditate upon the pleasures of a
well-spent day. Five such days had already passed over his head, fifteen
more remained to him. Then farewell to freedom and clean country air!
Back again to London and another year's toil.
He came to a gate on the right of the road. Behind it a footpath
meandered up over a grassy slope. The sheep nibbling on its summit cast
long shadows down the hill almost to his feet. Road and fieldpath were
equally new to him, but the latter offered greener attractions; he
vaulted lightly over the gate and had so little idea he was taking thus
the first step towards ruin that he began to whistle 'White Wings' from
pure joy of life.
The sheep stopped feeding and raised their heads to stare at him from
pale-lashed eyes; first one and then another broke into a startled run,
until there was a sudden woolly stampede of the entire flock. When
Willoughby gained the ridge from which they had just scattered, he came
in sight of a woman sitting on a stile at the further end of the field.
As he advanced towards her he saw that she was young, and that she was
not what is called 'a lady'—of which he was glad: an earlier episode in
his career having indissolubly associated in his mind ideas of feminine
refinement with those of feminine treachery.
He thought it probable this girl would be willing to dispense with the
formalities of an introduction, and that he might venture with her on
some pleasant foolish chat.
As she made no movement to let him pass he stood still, and, looking at
her, began to smile.
She returned his gaze from unabashed dark eyes, and then laughed,
showing teeth white, sound, and smooth as split hazelnuts.
'Do you wanter get over?' she remarked familiarly.
'I'm afraid I can't without disturbing you.'
'Dontcher think you're much better where you are?' said the girl, on
which Willoughby hazarded:
'You mean to say looking at you? Well, perhaps I am!'
The girl at this laughed again, but nevertheless dropped herself down
into the further field; then, leaning her arms upon the cross-bar, she
informed the young man: 'No, I don't wanter spoil your walk. You were
goin' p'raps ter Beacon Point? It's very pretty that wye.'
'I was going nowhere in particular,' he replied; 'just exploring, so to
speak. I'm a stranger in these parts.'
'How funny! Imer stranger here too. I only come down larse Friday to
stye with a Naunter mine in Horton. Are you stying in Horton?'
Willoughby told her he was not in Orton, but at Povey Cross Farm out in
the other direction.
'Oh, Mrs. Payne's, ain't it? I've heard aunt speak ovver. She takes
summer boarders, don't chee? I egspeck you come from London, heh?'
'And I expect you come from London too?' said Willoughby, recognizing
the familiar accent.
'You're as sharp as a needle,' cried the girl with her unrestrained
laugh; 'so I do. I'm here for a hollerday 'cos I was so done up with the
work and the hot weather. I don't look as though I'd bin ill, do I? But
I was, though: for it was just stiflin' hot up in our workrooms all
larse month, an' tailorin's awful hard work at the bester times.'
Willoughby felt a sudden accession of interest in her. Like many
intelligent young men, he had dabbled a little in Socialism, and at one
time had wandered among the dispossessed; but since then, had caught up
and held loosely the new doctrine—it is a good and fitting thing that
woman also should earn her bread by the sweat of her brow. Always in
reference to the woman who, fifteen months before, had treated him ill;
he had said to himself that even the breaking of stones in the road
should be considered a more feminine employment than the breaking of
He gave way therefore to a movement of friendliness for this working
daughter of the people, and joined her on the other side of the stile in
token of his approval. She, twisting round to face him, leaned now with
her back against the bar, and the sunset fires lent a fleeting glory to
her face. Perhaps she guessed how becoming the light was, for she took
off her hat and let it touch to gold the ends and fringes of her rough
abundant hair. Thus and at this moment she made an agreeable picture, to
which stood as background all the beautiful, wooded Southshire view.
'You don't really mean to say you are a tailoress?' said Willoughby,
with a sort of eager compassion.
'I do, though! An' I've bin one ever since I was fourteen. Look at my
fingers if you don't b'lieve me.'
She put out her right hand, and he took hold of it, as he was expected
to do. The finger-ends were frayed and blackened by needle-pricks, but
the hand itself was plump, moist, and not unshapely. She meanwhile
examined Willoughby's fingers enclosing hers.
'It's easy ter see you've never done no work!' she said, half admiring,
half envious. 'I s'pose you're a tip-top swell, ain't you?'
'Oh, yes! I'm a tremendous swell indeed!' said Willoughby, ironically.
He thought of his hundred and thirty pounds' salary; and he mentioned
his position in the British and Colonial Banking house, without shedding
much illumination on her mind, for she insisted:
'Well, anyhow, you're a gentleman. I've often wished I was a lady. It
must be so nice ter wear fine clo'es an' never have ter do any work all
Willoughby thought it innocent of the girl to say this; it reminded him
of his own notion as a child—that kings and queens put on their crowns
the first thing on rising in the morning. His cordiality rose another
'If being a gentleman means having nothing to do,' said he, smiling,
'I can certainly lay no claim to the title. Life isn't all beer and
skittles with me, any more than it is with you. Which is the better
reason for enjoying the present moment, don't you think? Suppose, now,
like a kind little girl, you were to show me the way to Beacon Point,
which you say is so pretty?'
She required no further persuasion. As he walked beside her through the
upland fields where the dusk was beginning to fall, and the white
evening moths to emerge from their daytime hiding-places, she asked him
many personal questions, most of which he thought fit to parry. Taking
no offence thereat, she told him, instead, much concerning herself and
her family. Thus he learned her name was Esther Stables, that she and
her people lived Whitechapel way; that her father was seldom sober, and
her mother always ill; and that the aunt with whom she was staying kept
the post-office and general shop in Orton village. He learned, too, that
Esther was discontented with life in general; that, though she hated
being at home, she found the country dreadfully dull; and that,
consequently, she was extremely glad to have made his acquaintance. But
what he chiefly realized when they parted was that he had spent a couple
of pleasant hours talking nonsense with a girl who was natural,
simple-minded, and entirely free from that repellently protective
atmosphere with which a woman of the 'classes' so carefully surrounds
herself. He and Esther had 'made friends' with the ease and rapidity of
children before they have learned the dread meaning of 'etiquette', and
they said good night, not without some talk of meeting each other again.
Obliged to breakfast at a quarter to eight in town, Willoughby was
always luxuriously late when in the country, where he took his meals
also in leisurely fashion, often reading from a book propped up on the
table before him. But the morning after his meeting with Esther Stables
found him less disposed to read than usual. Her image obtruded itself
upon the printed page, and at length grew so importunate he came to the
conclusion the only way to lay it was to confront it with the girl
Wanting some tobacco, he saw a good reason for going into Orton. Esther
had told him he could get tobacco and everything else at her aunt's. He
found the post-office to be one of the first houses in the widely spaced
village street. In front of the cottage was a small garden ablaze with
old-fashioned flowers; and in a large garden at one side were
apple-trees, raspberry and currant bushes, and six thatched beehives on
a bench. The bowed windows of the little shop were partly screened by
sunblinds; nevertheless the lower panes still displayed a heterogeneous
collection of goods—lemons, hanks of yarn, white linen buttons upon
blue cards, sugar cones, churchwarden pipes, and tobacco jars. A
letter-box opened its narrow mouth low down in one wall, and over the
door swung the sign, 'Stamps and money-order office', in black letters
on white enamelled iron.
The interior of the shop was cool and dark. A second glass-door at the
back permitted Willoughby to see into a small sitting-room, and out
again through a low and square-paned window to the sunny landscape
beyond. Silhouetted against the light were the heads of two women; the
rough young head of yesterday's Esther, the lean outline and bugled cap
of Esther's aunt.
It was the latter who at the jingling of the doorbell rose from her work
and came forward to serve the customer; but the girl, with much mute
meaning in her eyes, and a finger laid upon her smiling mouth, followed
behind. Her aunt heard her footfall. 'What do you want here, Esther?'
she said with thin disapproval; 'get back to your sewing.'
Esther gave the young man a signal seen only by him and slipped out into
the side-garden, where he found her when his purchases were made. She
leaned over the privet-hedge to intercept him as he passed.
'Aunt's an awful ole maid,' she remarked apologetically; 'I b'lieve
she'd never let me say a word to enny one if she could help it.'
'So you got home all right last night?' Willoughby inquired; 'what did
your aunt say to you?'
'Oh, she arst me where I'd been, and I tolder a lotter lies.' Then, with
a woman's intuition, perceiving that this speech jarred, Esther made
haste to add, 'She's so dreadful hard on me. I dursn't tell her I'd been
with a gentleman or she'd never have let me out alone again.'
'And at present I suppose you'll be found somewhere about that same
stile every evening?' said Willoughby foolishly, for he really did not
much care whether he met her again or not. Now he was actually in her
company, he was surprised at himself for having given her a whole
morning's thought; yet the eagerness of her answer flattered him, too.
'Tonight I can't come, worse luck! It's Thursday, and the shops here
close of a Thursday at five. I'll havter keep aunt company. But
tomorrer? I can be there tomorrer. You'll come, say?'
'Esther!' cried a vexed voice, and the precise, right-minded aunt
emerged through a row of raspberry-bushes; 'whatever are you thinking
about, delayin' the gentleman in this fashion?' She was full of rustic
and official civility for 'the gentleman', but indignant with her niece.
'I don't want none of your London manners down here,' Willoughby heard
her say as she marched the girl off.
He himself was not sorry to be released from Esther's too friendly eyes,
and he spent an agreeable evening over a book, and this time managed to
forget her completely.
Though he remembered her first thing next morning, it was to smile
wisely and determine he would not meet her again. Yet by dinner-time the
day seemed long; why, after all, should he not meet her? By tea-time
prudence triumphed anew—no, he would not go. Then he drank his tea
hastily and set off for the stile.
Esther was waiting for him. Expectation had given an additional colour
to her cheeks, and her red-brown hair showed here and there a beautiful
glint of gold. He could not help admiring the vigorous way in which it
waved and twisted, or the little curls which grew at the nape of her
neck, tight and close as those of a young lamb's fleece. Her neck here
was admirable, too, in its smooth creaminess; and when her eyes lighted
up with such evident pleasure at his coming, how avoid the conviction
she was a good and nice girl after all?
He proposed they should go down into the little copse on the right,
where they would be less disturbed by the occasional passer-by. Here,
seated on a felled tree-trunk, Willoughby began that bantering, silly,
meaningless form of conversation known among the 'classes' as flirting.
He had but the wish to make himself agreeable, and to while away the
time. Esther, however, misunderstood him.
Willoughby's hand lay palm downwards on his knee, and she, noticing a
ring which he wore on his little finger, took hold of it.
'What a funny ring!' she said; 'let's look?'
To disembarrass himself of her touch, he pulled the ring off and gave
it her to examine.
'What's that ugly dark green stone?' she asked.
'It's called a sardonyx.'
'What's it for?' she said, turning it about.
'It's a signet ring, to seal letters with.'
'An' there's a sorter king's head scratched on it, an' some writin' too,
only I carnt make it out?'
'It isn't the head of a king, although it wears a crown,' Willoughby
explained, 'but the head and bust of a Saracen against whom my ancestor
of many hundred years ago went to fight in the Holy Land. And the words
cut round it are our motto, "Vertue vauncet", which means virtue
Willoughby may have displayed some accession of dignity in giving this
bit of family history, for Esther fell into uncontrolled laughter, at
which he was much displeased. And when the girl made as though she would
put the ring on her own finger, asking, 'Shall I keep it?' he coloured
up with sudden annoyance.
'It was only my fun!' said Esther hastily, and gave him the ring back,
but his cordiality was gone. He felt no inclination to renew the
idle-word pastime, said it was time to go, and, swinging his cane
vexedly, struck off the heads of the flowers and the weeds as he went.
Esther walked by his side in complete silence, a phenomenon of which he
presently became conscious. He felt rather ashamed of having shown
'Well, here's your way home,' said he with an effort at friendliness.
'Goodbye; we've had a nice evening anyhow. It was pleasant down there
in the woods, eh?'
He was astonished to see her eyes soften with tears, and to hear the
real emotion in her voice as she answered, 'It was just heaven down
there with you until you turned so funny-like. What had I done to make
you cross? Say you forgive me, do!'
'Silly child!' said Willoughby, completely mollified, 'I'm not the least
angry. There, goodbye!' and like a fool he kissed her.
He anathematized his folly in the white light of next morning, and,
remembering the kiss he had given her, repented it very sincerely. He
had an uncomfortable suspicion she had not received it in the same
spirit in which it had been bestowed, but, attaching more serious
meaning to it, would build expectations thereon which must be left
unfulfilled. It was best indeed not to meet her again; for he
acknowledged to himself that, though he only half liked, and even
slightly feared her, there was a certain attraction about her—was it in
her dark unflinching eyes or in her very red lips?—which might lead him
into greater follies still.
Thus it came about that for two successive evenings Esther waited for
him in vain, and on the third evening he said to himself, with a
grudging relief, that by this time she had probably transferred her
affections to someone else.
It was Saturday, the second Saturday since he left town. He spent the
day about the farm, contemplated the pigs, inspected the feeding of the
stock, and assisted at the afternoon milking. Then at evening, with a
refilled pipe, he went for a long lean over the west gate, while he
traced fantastic pictures and wove romances in the glories of the sunset
He watched the colours glow from gold to scarlet, change to crimson,
sink at last to sad purple reefs and isles, when the sudden
consciousness of someone being near him made him turn round. There
stood Esther, and her eyes were full of eagerness and anger.
'Why have you never been to the stile again?' she asked him. 'You
promised to come faithful, and you never came. Why have you not kep'
your promise? Why? Why?' she persisted, stamping her foot because
Willoughby remained silent.
What could he say? Tell her she had no business to follow him like this;
or own, what was, unfortunately, the truth, he was just a little glad to
'Praps you don't care for me any more?' she said. 'Well, why did you
kiss me, then?'
Why, indeed! thought Willoughby, marvelling at his own idiocy, and
yet—such is the inconsistency of man—not wholly without the desire to
kiss her again. And while he looked at her she suddenly flung herself
down on the hedge-bank at his feet and burst into tears. She did not
cover up her face, but simply pressed one cheek down upon the grass
while the water poured from her eyes with astonishing abundance.
Willoughby saw the dry earth turn dark and moist as it drank the tears
in. This, his first experience of Esther's powers of weeping, distressed
him horribly; never in his life before had he seen anyone weep like
that, he should not have believed such a thing possible; he was alarmed,
too, lest she should be noticed from the house. He opened the gate;
'Esther!' he begged, 'don't cry. Come out here, like a dear girl, and
let us talk sensibly.'
Because she stumbled, unable to see her way through wet eyes, he gave
her his hand, and they found themselves in a field of corn, walking
along the narrow grass-path that skirted it, in the shadow of the
'What is there to cry about because you have not seen me for two days?'
he began; 'why, Esther, we are only strangers, after all. When we have
been at home a week or two we shall scarcely remember each other's
Esther sobbed at intervals, but her tears had ceased. 'It's fine for you
to talk of home,' she said to this. 'You've got something that is a
home, I s'pose? But me! my home's like hell, with nothing but
quarrellin' and cursin', and a father who beats us whether sober or
drunk. Yes!' she repeated shrewdly, seeing the lively disgust on
Willoughby's face, 'he beat me, all ill as I was, jus' before I come
away. I could show you the bruises on my arms still. And now to go back
there after knowin' you! It'll be worse than ever. I can't endure it,
and I won't! I'll put an end to it or myself somehow, I swear!'
'But my poor Esther, how can I help it? what can I do?' said Willoughby.
He was greatly moved, full of wrath with her father, with all the world
which makes women suffer. He had suffered himself at the hands of a
woman and severely, but this, instead of hardening his heart, had only
rendered it the more supple. And yet he had a vivid perception of the
peril in which he stood. An interior voice urged him to break away, to
seek safety in flight even at the cost of appearing cruel or ridiculous;
so, coming to a point in the field where an elm-hole jutted out across
the path, he saw with relief he could now withdraw his hand from the
girl's, since they must walk singly to skirt round it.
Esther took a step in advance, stopped and suddenly turned to face him;
she held out her two hands and her face was very near his own.
'Don't you care for me one little bit?' she said wistfully, and surely
sudden madness fell upon him. For he kissed her again, he kissed her
many times, he took her in his arms, and pushed all thoughts of the
consequences far from him.
But when, an hour later, he and Esther stood by the last gate on the
road to Orton, some of these consequences were already calling loudly to
'You know I have only £130 a year?' he told her; 'it's no very brilliant
prospect for you to marry me on that.'
For he had actually offered her marriage, although to the mediocre
man such a proceeding must appear incredible, uncalled for. But to
Willoughby, overwhelmed with sadness and remorse, it seemed the only
Sudden exultation leaped at Esther's heart.
'Oh! I'm used to managing' she told him confidently, and mentally
resolved to buy herself, so soon as she was married, a black feather
boa, such as she had coveted last winter.
Willoughby spent the remaining days of his holiday in thinking out and
planning with Esther the details of his return to London and her own,
the secrecy to be observed, the necessary legal steps to be taken, and
the quiet suburb in which they would set up housekeeping. And, so
successfully did he carry out his arrangements, that within five weeks
from the day on which he had first met Esther Stables, he and she came
out one morning from a church in Highbury, husband and wife. It was a
mellow September day, the streets were filled with sunshine, and
Willoughby, in reckless high spirits, imagined he saw a reflection of
his own gaiety on the indifferent faces of the passersby. There being no
one else to perform the office, he congratulated himself very warmly,
and Esther's frequent laughter filled in the pauses of the day.
* * * * *
Three months later Willoughby was dining with a friend, and the
hour-hand of the clock nearing ten, the host no longer resisted the
guest's growing anxiety to be gone. He arose and exchanged with him
good wishes and goodbyes.
'Marriage is evidently a most successful institution,' said he,
half-jesting, half-sincere; 'you almost make me inclined to go and get
married myself. Confess now your thoughts have been at home the whole
Willoughby thus addressed turned red to the roots of his hair, but did
not deny it.
The other laughed. 'And very commendable they should be,' he continued,
'since you are scarcely, so to speak, out of your honeymoon.'
With a social smile on his lips, Willoughby calculated a moment before
replying, 'I have been married exactly three months and three days.'
Then, after a few words respecting their next meeting, the two shook
hands and parted—the young host to finish the evening with books and
pipe, the young husband to set out on a twenty minutes' walk to his
It was a cold, clear December night following a day of rain. A touch of
frost in the air had dried the pavements, and Willoughby's footfall
ringing upon the stones re-echoed down the empty suburban street. Above
his head was a dark, remote sky thickly powdered with stars, and as he
turned westward Alpherat hung for a moment 'comme le point sur un i',
over the slender spire of St John's. But he was insensible to the worlds
about him; he was absorbed in his own thoughts, and these, as his friend
had surmised, were entirely with his wife. For Esther's face was always
before his eyes, her voice was always in his ears, she filled the
universe for him; yet only four months ago he had never seen her, had
never heard her name. This was the curious part of it—here in December
he found himself the husband of a girl who was completely dependent upon
him not only for food, clothes, and lodging, but for her present
happiness, her whole future life; and last July he had been scarcely
more than a boy himself, with no greater care on his mind than the
pleasant difficulty of deciding where he should spend his annual three
But it is events, not months or years, which age. Willoughby, who
was only twenty-six, remembered his youth as a sometime companion
irrevocably lost to him; its vague, delightful hopes were now
crystallized into definite ties, and its happy irresponsibilities
displaced by a sense of care, inseparable perhaps from the most
fortunate of marriages.
As he reached the street in which he lodged his pace involuntarily
slackened. While still some distance off, his eye sought out and
distinguished the windows of the room in which Esther awaited him.
Through the broken slats of the Venetian blinds he could see the yellow
gaslight within. The parlour beneath was in darkness; his landlady had
evidently gone to bed, there being no light over the hall-door either.
In some apprehension he consulted his watch under the last street-lamp
he passed, to find comfort in assuring himself it was only ten minutes
after ten. He let himself in with his latch-key, hung up his hat and
overcoat by the sense of touch, and, groping his way upstairs, opened
the door of the first floor sitting-room.
At the table in the centre of the room sat his wife, leaning upon her
elbows, her two hands thrust up into her ruffled hair; spread out before
her was a crumpled yesterday's newspaper, and so interested was she to
all appearance in its contents that she neither spoke nor looked up as
Willoughby entered. Around her were the still uncleared tokens of her
last meal: tea-slops, bread-crumbs, and an egg-shell crushed to
fragments upon a plate, which was one of those trifles that set
Willoughby's teeth on edge—whenever his wife ate an egg she persisted
in turning the egg-cup upside down upon the tablecloth, and pounding the
shell to pieces in her plate with her spoon.
The room was repulsive in its disorder. The one lighted burner of the
gaselier, turned too high, hissed up into a long tongue of flame. The
fire smoked feebly under a newly administered shovelful of 'slack', and
a heap of ashes and cinders littered the grate. A pair of walking boots,
caked in dry mud, lay on the hearth-rug just where they had been thrown
off. On the mantelpiece, amidst a dozen other articles which had no
business there, was a bedroom-candlestick; and every single article of
furniture stood crookedly out of its place.
Willoughby took in the whole intolerable picture, and yet spoke with
kindliness. 'Well, Esther! I'm not so late, after all. I hope you did
not find the time dull by yourself?' Then he explained the reason of his
absence. He had met a friend he had not seen for a couple of years, who
had insisted on taking him home to dine.
His wife gave no sign of having heard him; she kept her eyes riveted on
the paper before her.
'You received my wire, of course,' Willoughby went on, 'and did not
Now she crushed the newspaper up with a passionate movement, and threw
it from her. She raised her head, showing cheeks blazing with anger, and
dark, sullen, unflinching eyes.
'I did wyte then!' she cried 'I wyted till near eight before I got
your old telegraph! I s'pose that's what you call the manners of a
"gentleman", to keep your wife mewed up here, while you go gallivantin'
off with your fine friends?'
Whenever Esther was angry, which was often, she taunted Willoughby with
being 'a gentleman', although this was the precise point about him which
at other times found most favour in her eyes. But tonight she was
envenomed by the idea he had been enjoying himself without her, stung
by fear lest he should have been in company with some other woman.
Willoughby, hearing the taunt, resigned himself to the inevitable.
Nothing that he could do might now avert the breaking storm; all his
words would only be twisted into fresh griefs. But sad experience had
taught him that to take refuge in silence was more fatal still. When
Esther was in such a mood as this it was best to supply the fire with
fuel, that, through the very violence of the conflagration, it might
the sooner burn itself out.
So he said what soothing things he could, and Esther caught them up,
disfigured them, and flung them back at him with scorn. She reproached
him with no longer caring for her; she vituperated the conduct of his
family in never taking the smallest notice of her marriage; and she
detailed the insolence of the landlady who had told her that morning she
pitied 'poor Mr. Willoughby', and had refused to go out and buy herrings
for Esther's early dinner.
Every affront or grievance, real or imaginary, since the day she and
Willoughby had first met, she poured forth with a fluency due to
frequent repetition, for, with the exception of today's added injuries,
Willoughby had heard the whole litany many times before.
While she raged and he looked at her, he remembered he had once thought
her pretty. He had seen beauty in her rough brown hair, her strong
colouring, her full red mouth. He fell into musing … a woman may lack
beauty, he told himself, and yet be loved….
Meanwhile Esther reached white heats of passion, and the strain could no
longer be sustained. She broke into sobs and began to shed tears with
the facility peculiar to her. In a moment her face was all wet with the
big drops which rolled down her cheeks faster and faster, and fell with
audible splashes on to the table, on to her lap, on to the floor. To
this tearful abundance, formerly a surprising spectacle, Willoughby
was now acclimatized; but the remnant of chivalrous feeling not yet
extinguished in his bosom forbade him to sit stolidly by while a woman
wept, without seeking to console her. As on previous occasions, his
peace-overtures were eventually accepted. Esther's tears gradually
ceased to flow, she began to exhibit a sort of compunction, she wished
to be forgiven, and, with the kiss of reconciliation, passed into a
phase of demonstrative affection perhaps more trying to Willoughby's
patience than all that had preceded it. 'You don't love me?' she
questioned, 'I'm sure you don't love me?' she reiterated; and he
asseverated that he loved her until he despised himself. Then at last,
only half satisfied, but wearied out with vexation—possibly, too, with
a movement of pity at the sight of his haggard face—she consented to
leave him. Only, what was he going to do? she asked suspiciously; write
those rubbishing stories of his? Well, he must promise not to stay up
more than half-an-hour at the latest—only until he had smoked one pipe.
Willoughby promised, as he would have promised anything on earth to
secure to himself a half-hour's peace and solitude. Esther groped for
her slippers, which were kicked off under the table; scratched four or
five matches along the box and threw them away before she succeeded in
lighting her candle; set it down again to contemplate her tear-swollen
reflection in the chimney-glass, and burst out laughing.
'What a fright I do look, to be sure!' she remarked complacently, and
again thrust her two hands up through her disordered curls. Then,
holding the candle at such an angle that the grease ran over on to the
carpet, she gave Willoughby another vehement kiss and trailed out of the
room with an ineffectual attempt to close the door behind her.
Willoughby got up to shut it himself, and wondered why it was that
Esther never did any one mortal thing efficiently or well. Good God! how
irritable he felt. It was impossible to write. He must find an outlet
for his impatience, rend or mend something. He began to straighten the
room, but a wave of disgust came over him before the task was fairly
commenced. What was the use? Tomorrow all would be bad as before. What
was the use of doing anything? He sat down by the table and leaned his
head upon his hands.
* * * * *
The past came back to him in pictures: his boyhood's past first of all.
He saw again the old home, every inch of which was familiar to him as
his own name; he reconstructed in his thought all the old well-known
furniture, and replaced it precisely as it had stood long ago. He passed
again a childish finger over the rough surface of the faded Utrecht
velvet chairs, and smelled again the strong fragrance of the white lilac
tree, blowing in through the open parlour-window. He savoured anew the
pleasant mental atmosphere produced by the dainty neatness of cultured
women, the companionship of a few good pictures, of a few good books.
Yet this home had been broken up years ago, the dear familiar things had
been scattered far and wide, never to find themselves under the same
roof again; and from those near relatives who still remained to him he
lived now hopelessly estranged.
Then came the past of his first love-dream, when he worshipped at the
feet of Nora Beresford, and, with the whole-heartedness of the true
fanatic, clothed his idol with every imaginable attribute of virtue and
tenderness. To this day there remained a secret shrine in his heart
wherein the Lady of his young ideal was still enthroned, although it was
long since he had come to perceive she had nothing whatever in common
with the Nora of reality. For the real Nora he had no longer any
sentiment, she had passed altogether out of his life and thoughts; and
yet, so permanent is all influence, whether good or evil, that the
effect she wrought upon his character remained. He recognized tonight
that her treatment of him in the past did not count for nothing among
the various factors which had determined his fate.
Now, the past of only last year returned, and, strangely enough, this
seemed farther removed from him than all the rest. He had been
particularly strong, well, and happy this time last year. Nora was
dismissed from his mind, and he had thrown all his energies into his
work. His tastes were sane and simple, and his dingy, furnished rooms
had become through habit very pleasant to him. In being his own, they
were invested with a greater charm than another man's castle. Here he
had smoked and studied, here he had made many a glorious voyage into the
land of books. Many a homecoming, too, rose up before him out of the
dark ungenial streets, to a clear blazing fire, a neatly laid cloth, an
evening of ideal enjoyment; many a summer twilight when he mused at the
open window, plunging his gaze deep into the recesses of his neighbour's
lime-tree, where the unseen sparrows chattered with such unflagging
He had always been given to much daydreaming, and it was in the silence
of his rooms of an evening that he turned his phantasmal adventures into
stories for the magazines; here had come to him many an editorial
refusal, but here, too, he had received the news of his first unexpected
success. All his happiest memories were embalmed in those shabby,
Now all was changed. Now might there be no longer any soft indulgence
of the hour's mood. His rooms and everything he owned belonged now to
Esther, too. She had objected to most of his photographs, and had
removed them. She hated books, and were he ever so ill-advised as to
open one in her presence, she immediately began to talk, no matter how
silent or how sullen her previous mood had been. If he read aloud to her
she either yawned despairingly, or was tickled into laughter where there
was no reasonable cause. At first Willoughby had tried to educate her,
and had gone hopefully to the task. It is so natural to think you may
make what you will of the woman who loves you. But Esther had no wish to
improve. She evinced all the self-satisfaction of an illiterate mind. To
her husband's gentle admonitions she replied with brevity that she
thought her way quite as good as his; or, if he didn't approve of her
pronunciation, he might do the other thing, she was too old to go to
school again. He gave up the attempt, and, with humiliation at his
previous fatuity, perceived that it was folly to expect that a few weeks
of his companionship could alter or pull up the impressions of years, or
rather of generations.
Yet here he paused to admit a curious thing: it was not only Esther's
bad habits which vexed him, but habits quite unblameworthy in themselves
which he never would have noticed in another, irritated him in her. He
disliked her manner of standing, of walking, of sitting in a chair, of
folding her hands. Like a lover, he was conscious of her proximity
without seeing her. Like a lover, too, his eyes followed her every
movement, his ear noted every change in her voice. But then, instead of
being charmed by everything as the lover is, everything jarred upon him.
What was the meaning of this? Tonight the anomaly pressed upon him: he
reviewed his position. Here was he, quite a young man, just twenty-six
years of age, married to Esther, and bound to live with her so long as
life should last—twenty, forty, perhaps fifty years more. Every day of
those years to be spent in her society; he and she face to face, soul to
soul; they two alone amid all the whirling, busy, indifferent world. So
near together in semblance; in truth, so far apart as regards all that
makes life dear.
Willoughby groaned. From the woman he did not love, whom he had never
loved, he might not again go free; so much he recognized. The feeling he
had once entertained for Esther, strange compound of mistaken chivalry
and flattered vanity, was long since extinct; but what, then, was the
sentiment with which she inspired him? For he was not indifferent to
her—no, never for one instant could he persuade himself he was
indifferent, never for one instant could he banish her from his
thoughts. His mind's eye followed her during his hours of absence as
pertinaciously as his bodily eye dwelt upon her actual presence. She was
the principal object of the universe to him, the centre around which his
wheel of life revolved with an appalling fidelity.
What did it mean? What could it mean? he asked himself with anguish.
And the sweat broke out upon his forehead and his hands grew cold, for
on a sudden the truth lay there like a written word upon the tablecloth
before him. This woman, whom he had taken to himself for better, for
worse, inspired him with a passion, intense indeed, all-masterful,
soul-subduing as Love itself…. But when he understood the terror of
his Hatred, he laid his head upon his arms and wept, not facile tears
like Esther's, but tears wrung out from his agonizing, unavailing