The years passed, and the destinies of our friend began to take final shape. The bread cast upon the waters returned. The chickens came home to roost.
One winter's morning Captain Guthrie Carey brought his ship into Hobson's Bay. The agents of his company sent letters to him there. He took one from the sheaf, and read it carefully—read it four times. Then he tore it into little pieces and dropped it over the side. The pilot and the first officer wondered at the concentrated gravity of his mien, at the faraway look in his cold blue eyes. Yet is was a very short and simple letter. There were no names inside, and it merely said:
"I returned by last mail, and am at the above address. I shall be at home tomorrow afternoon at five. Of course I am seeing nobody, so we shall be quite undisturbed. Be punctual, if possible."
The "above address" was the big house that had belonged to the late Mr Ewing. "Tomorrow afternoon" was but an hour off.
At five precisely Captain Carey shed his ulster in the palatial vestibule, and at the heels of a soft-footed man-servant, marched through the warm hall and up the shallow, muffled stairs to the familiar drawing-room—a long room, the lower end of which was in shadow, and the upper illuminated like a shrine, with rosy lamps projecting from a forest of chimney ornament, and a great bright red fire twinkling upon tiles and brass. The big palms were in their big pots, spreading and bowing over settees and cosy corners; every bowl and vase overflowed with the choicest flowers, although it was wintry June. And the tea-table was ready; the old seductive chairs and tables were grouped upon the Persian hearthrug in the old way, with the sheltering screen half round them. Indications of the desire of the mistress of the house to give him special welcome were too marked and many to be ignored.
He was left here to meditate in solitude for a few minutes, and he did all the meditating that was possible in the time. His heart thumped rather faster than was necessary, but his strong face was a picture of composed determination. Indeed, it was not easy to recognise the young Guthrie Carey of old Redford days in this stern, tough, substantial man, steady as a rock amid the winds and waves of incalculable fate. Just now he had the look of a military commander braced for a pitched battle. And the V.C. has been won for many a less courageous enterprise than that on which he was now engaged.
Leaning his broad shoulders on the ledge of the mantelpiece, and roasting his stout calves at the glorious fire, he watched the distant doorway with narrowed but keenly-glinting eyes. When he saw the dim curtain lift to let in the light from the landing and a slim woman's figure, he straightened himself, and set his teeth hard. It had to be faced and fought, he felt, and the sooner it was over the better for them both.
She came fluttering up to him, with both hands held out. How white they were against the crape! And how wonderfully her complexion and her hair were set off by the black robe and the fine lawn bands at throat and wrists! He loathed the mockery of the widow's weeds, but thought he had never seen her look so lovely.
"Oh, Guthrie! Oh, what YEARS it seems! Were you wondering what had become of me? But I couldn't—somehow I didn't feel that I COULD—before—"
She cast herself into his arms in the most natural way in the world. He laid one of them round her waist lightly, and kissed her brow; then, when she lifted it for the purpose, her mouth—the sweetest woman's mouth that ever made a pair of soft eyes omnipotent. After some seconds of silence, she looked at him questioningly, all a-quiver with nervous excitement. Her delicate cheek was pink like a La France rose.
"It was so good of you to come," she murmured humbly. "It wasn't—it didn't bother you? You were not wanting to do something else, were you, dear?" There was revealed in tone and manner the fact that even selfish Frances had come to care for something more than for herself.
"No—oh, no," he replied, rather breathlessly. "I WAS going up the country this afternoon, but fortunately I got your letter in time."
"Oh, if you had! What should I have done? I couldn't stand it any longer, Guthrie. It is four whole months—since—though it seems like yesterday—"
"And how are you?" he broke in, taking a fresh grip of the sword, as it were.
He held her off from him, glancing at her shoulder, her skirt—anything but her eyes, which were HER sword, two-edged and deadly.
"Oh, don't look at me!" she exclaimed, shrinking. "I hate myself in this horrible gown—I feel so mean and hypocritical—though I do mourn for him, Guthrie. You must not think I feel happy because he is dead—no, indeed; I wish I could! But one must conform to a certain extent, mustn't one? And every respect that I can possibly show to his memory—especially after the way he has treated me! I suppose you heard—" "What?" Guthrie had heard, but asked the question to fill time.
"Five thousand a year," said she, "at my absolute and entire disposal, with no restriction or condition of any sort or kind."
She made the announcement in a level tone, and without a smile, but he detected the triumph and satisfaction underneath; and, feeling much the stronger for it, he observed gravely that the dead man was a good man. "And I always knew it, Francie, worse luck!"
"Oh, so did I! Far—far too good for the likes of me. But—well, we need not talk about that now. We couldn't help ourselves, could we? And the past is past; everything is different now. Oh, Guthrie, what it is to kiss you without feeling that I am doing wrong!"
She kissed him as she said it, pressing him to her. Of course he kissed her back, but his hands on her waist were rigid, as if he wore an evening shirt, and was afraid of her crushing the front of it. She might have noticed this if she had not caught a glimpse of herself at the moment in a mirror behind him.
"One thing," she said, "I did draw the line at. I positively refused to wear a cap. I knew—I knew you couldn't have borne THAT!" Holding her charming head, rippled all over with goldenchestnut curls and coils, just in front of his eyes, she pleaded for confirmation of this statement. "You couldn't have stood seeing me in a cap, could you, Guthrie?" "As far as I can judge," he replied, "nobody asks you to wear caps these days, whether you're a widow or not. Why, the very grandmothers go about in yellow fringes and things, pretending they are thirty or forty, when everybody knows they are twice that, at the least. When I was a youngster, there used to be old ladies—my mother was one; but the race has died out."
"I, at any rate, am not an old lady," Mrs Ewing remarked, with a joyous smile. "My yellow fringes and things are all my own, and so is my complexion, and so are my teeth."
Her smile widened to reveal their pearly excellence. She took his hand, and rubbed the back of it on her downy cheek, and laid the palm on her soft, thick locks. Even yet she did not see that anything was the matter, confident in her still young beauty, and in the fact that he now knew for certain that the bulk of her husband's property was hers. How often she had wondered whether he knew or not, feeling sure that he MUST have heard the news at some of the many ports he had put into since it had become a matter of public knowledge, and why he allowed days and weeks, even months, to pass without making a sign. There had always been the cables, anyway. She put it down to his delicacy, his sense of the awkwardness of the situation, his consideration for her.
"We will have tea first," she said, touching the bell-button. "Then we shall not be disturbed any more. We can talk till dinner-time. Oh, how I wish you could stay for dinner, and a long, long evening! But it is better not to do things of that sort yet, don't you think? Better not to run risks of making scandal now that there's no longer any need for it."
"Much better," said Captain Carey firmly.
"And, after all, there are lots of ways that we can meet without doing anything improper. I have thought of heaps. I can go to Sydney—I can go home, for that matter; I am a perfectly free agent. And we have now less than three-quarters of a year. Guthrie, I want you to let me have the twelve months good. It is a long wait, I know, but we should feel the benefit of it afterwards—"
She glanced down the room in alarm, and saw the door open to admit the servant she had summoned. He brought teapot and kettle, hot cakes and muffins, and arranged them with unnecessary carefulness on the little table by the fireside. Hostess and guest watched his slow manoeuvres with an impatient but fascinated gaze, and tried to think about something to talk about for his edification, and could not.
"Thank you, Willis; that will do, Willis. I'll ring if I want anything else. I don't know, Captain Carey, whether you are one of those people who despise tea and cake—"
They were alone once more. Captain Carey refused the proffered refreshment. Mrs Ewing, making no effort to persuade him, took a few mouthfuls hastily; then she set her cup down, and with a quick flirt of the hand, extinguished the two pink lamps. They were old-fashioned gas-lamps too.
"We don't want lights to talk by," she said, in a casual way. "The firelight is enough. I think firelight at this hour so much the pleasantest, don't you?"
"Oh, yes," he responded desperately, and indeed was glad of the shelter of a shadow on his face; but he said to himself, with clenched hands and a long indrawn breath, "Now comes the tug-of-war."
A very large and wide sofa, low, deep-seated, full of springs and down pillows, stood in the cosy firelight, a great, tall, curving screen behind it. Mrs Ewing—as she had done many times before—crossed over to this sofa, sank into its yielding depths, and looking up at her companion, patted the empty seat beside her. The man hesitated for an instant, and then—as he had done many times before—obeyed the significant gesture. But now the time for preparation, for hesitation, had expired; it was necessary to brace himself for the decisive deed. Even as she clasped her hands beneath his ear, he unclasped them, gently but firmly, and drew them down. With his back to the firelight, she could not see his face, but he could see hers, and the swift change in its expression. She was puzzled and surprised, but, as her hands were still held fast in his iron fists, resting on his knee, she was not conscious of the state of the case.
"My girl," he said, clearing his throat—she had allowed him so many liberties that this mode of address was quite in order—"you and I can speak plainly to each other. There's no need for us to beat about the bush, is there?"
"Of course not," she replied, all at sea as to what this portended, but jumping to the conclusion that he was going to be proud about the money. "It would be an odd thing if we took to being shy, at this time of day."
"It would, wouldn't it?" He cleared his throat again, and made a fresh start. "Look here, Francie—don't do that! Listen to me child—"
"I am not a child, sir. Allow me to inform you that I was twenty-nine last birthday." She was so pleased to think she was only twenty-nine, rich and free, with her life in her hands, and half a year-from thirty still, when she might have dragged on till she was old and grey, or in her grave! "And why am I not to do that? Since when have you lost your taste for kisses?" Then suddenly, with an anxious cry—"Guthrie! darling! what is the matter with you?"
"Nothing," he said hastily—"nothing, of course, except that we must be serious and sensible, and—and talk things over quietly, dear. As you say, you are not a child. No more am I. We know the ropes, Francie, don't we? We've outgrown the delusions of boys and girls. We've had our experiences as man and woman—eh? You know what I mean. No need to mince matters—to go in for conventional nonsense—you and I. We can talk straight to each other at a time like this?"
As he laboured painfully to explain, without explaining, her face faded like a sunny landscape when a wet fog crawls over it. For, Francie though it was, she loved him—she loved him all she knew.
"Guthrie," she moaned piteously, "have you left off caring for me?"
"No, Francie. Of course I haven't."
"Have you—while I have been away, and in so much trouble—been putting another woman in my place?"
"Is it that you don't like to live on his money, Guthrie?"
"I should NOT like to live on it—decidedly not. But the fact is, I haven't given the money a thought." "Then why—why are you like this?"
"I'll tell you, Francie—I'll tell you plainly. It seems infernally brutal—but I'm sure you know I wouldn't say a thing to hurt you if I could help it."
"Oh, go on!"
There were red roses in her cheeks now, and a sparkle that was not all firelight in her eyes.
"It is this, dear—don't try to take your hands away, I am going to keep them; I must have you listen to me till I've quite done—it is this, Francie: Love, as we very well know—I mean our sort of love—is one thing, and marriage another—"
"WHAT? Oh, is THAT it? Ah, ah! I see now."
"Take your own case," said he, with a relentless air. "Haven't you proved it up to the hilt?"
"That marriage is a failure."
"Of course, marriage is a failure when it is blundered into as I blundered into mine, when I was too young and ignorant to know a thing about it. That is not saying it would be a failure now."
"It would be a dead failure, Francie. I am absolutely convinced of it."
"Because you have grown tired of me! Because somebody else has got hold of you behind my back! Because—oh, because you men are all alike, thinking of nothing but the amusement of the hour, sucking a woman's life-blood as if she were an orange, and throwing her aside like the useless skin—without honour, without constancy, selfish, heartless, treacherous—"
"Hush, Francie! Don't talk rubbish. I may be like other men—I've no doubt I am—but I'm not all that. When I make an engagement, I keep it. When I take obligations and responsibilities upon me, I do my best to fulfil them. Most men do—decent men; but they never have justice done them in these cases."
"In these cases!" she echoed scornfully. "Everybody knows what their conduct is in these cases. The world is well used to it. Oh, I ought to have known—if I hadn't been the most incredible fool! It was not for want of warnings. But you seemed so different! The idea that you could play with a woman in this way—compromise her—change all her life, and spoil it utterly—and then back out! Oh! oh! Can you sit there and tell me that you have incurred no responsibility in your dealings with me, Guthrie—making me love you as I did—making me a bad woman—unfaithful to my good husband—the most honourable, the most trustful of men—"
"Did I do that? Honour bright now, Francie."
"Oh, this is too much!" she burst out furiously, springing from her seat, and being dragged back by his iron grasp of her hands. "Let me go, sir! I have had insults enough—and in my own house—with no husband to protect me—"
"Sit down," he commanded. "And for God's sake don't—don't go on like that! I can't stand it. I am not insulting you, dear—not wilfully insulting you—not more than I am forced to. I only want us both to understand the case as it is; surely you and I are not afraid to speak out—to face the truth? You are not crying, Francie?"
"No, no! Indeed, I'm not! Don't you flatter yourself! I am not hurt, and I'm not the sort of person to go begging a man to marry me, either. I don't think—I really DON'T think that I am QUITE so poorly off as all that comes to." Here she laughed, but only for an instant. "If you were to go down on your knees before me, Guthrie, I would not have you now, after the things you have said to me."
The statement calmed and strengthened him. He felt able to say the rest.
"Quite right, Francie. Dozens of men will come courting you as soon as you go out again, and any one of them will make you a better husband than I should have done; but not a better friend. I hope you will always remember that."
"Many thanks. Will you be so very kind as to release my hands, Captain Carey? They ache."
"One moment. I want to make sure of the last chance I shall get to explain—to tell you exactly what I mean—you, who are old enough, experienced enough, to understand. I don't want to defend myself, Francie—not at all. I am not the cad to say, 'The woman tempted me, and I did eat.' I don't blame you, dear—I don't blame anybody. A woman is a woman; and a lovely woman like you—well, the way things are managed in this world, I don't believe she can help herself. But look here, Francie, a man is a man too, and a good deal more so. If you were a girl, I wouldn't say this; but you knew—you knew what you were doing when you laid yourself out to be sweet and—and kind to a fellow, as you were to me. Did you take me for an old maid or a Social Purity Society? You know you didn't. A man does his best, but he's too heavily handicapped—I won't say by nature—perhaps by habit, which is second nature—the habit of generations, inherited in his blood—and his case is not on all-fours with your case. And especially when he is a sailor—so cut off—so deprived—Very well. And so it happened—as it happened. Never mind about the right and wrong. What's wrong today may be right tomorrow; and in any case, no arguing can undo what's done. We'll leave that."
She sat before him, panting, and the roses in her cheeks were white. Happily, the fire had grown a little dull by this time.
"For myself," he continued, speaking slowly, as if trying to think things out—"for myself, whether I ought to repent or not, I don't—I can't. Theoretically, I know it is always the man who is in the wrong, and I should have been foully in the wrong—I should be unfit to live—if you had been an unmarried girl, Francie—or if I had been the—the—"
"Oh!" she moaned bitterly, grasping his point of view, if not the plain justice of it. "But I have brought it on myself—I have only myself to thank. I made myself cheap, and must take the consequences."
"It is not that," he said kindly, but still feeling in his unsophisticated brain that it was. "I don't hold you cheap, my dear. I want to disabuse your mind of that idea, that I am throwing anything in your teeth. Good God, I should think not!—it would come ill from me. I have no conventional views about these things—none. But look here now: if you were my wife, I should never see you with another fellow without thinking—well, you know what I should think—and feeling myself like poor old Ewing—Oh, I AM a brute!" It was revealed to him all at once. "Do—DO forgive me!"
"Pray don't apologise!" she cried, in a high, shaking voice. "It is best, as you say, to speak plainly—not to mince matters—especially as there is no one to call you to account for what you say."
"And it would be worse for you, ever so much," he continued earnestly. "Having got into the way of—of this sort of thing—I'm afraid I might be tempted again—that I couldn't honestly promise—in short, the fact of the matter is that we are neither of us domesticated, so to speak—"
"There—that will do" she broke in, coldly furious, but with a volcano in her breast that threatened eruption and devastation shortly. "Will you let me go, Captain Carey? Or must I call my servants to my assistance? I have only servants now."
"Yes, yes"—and he released one hand—"I will, if you'll say you forgive me, Francie. I've made an awful mess of it, I know—"
They rose together, and the other hand was freed. It was the right hand, and she returned it to him immediately.
"Good-bye!" she said, between clenched teeth.
He held her tightly once more.
"May I come and see you again? May I write? I can say it better in writing."
"You have said all that needs to be said. There is no necessity to write. If you write to me, I shall return the letter unopened."
"But why? It is surely absurd for us to put on airs of dignity with one another. Francie, you don't mean us to part like this?"
She stepped quickly across the hearthrug and, with a passionate gesture, pressed the button of the bell—evidently to summon Willis to show him out. So he took up his hat, offended in his turn, and for the first time feeling fairly easy in his mind as to the way he was treating her. But the tragedy of the moment was turned to vulgar comedy by her alarm at the fact that she had struck the bell before relighting the pink lamps.
"Oh, where are the matches?" she whispered excitedly. "I can't find them."
"Here—here!" he cried, fumbling for his own pocket box.
And their flurried hands got mixed as she turned the taps while he applied the light to the burners.
The instant after they had restored the room to its normal condition, the butler appeared. Mrs Ewing turned to him with the amazing self-possession of a woman accustomed to extricate herself at a moment's notice from an awkward fix.
"Willis," she said sweetly—and even smiled as she spoke—"will you please have a cab fetched for Captain Carey? He is rather late for a dinner engagement." The butler acknowledged the order and withdrew. In the light of the pink lamps the late combatants looked strangely at one another.
"And you would have married MARY!" the woman commented upon the issue of the fight. It was both a taunt and an accusation.
The man lifted his brows questioningly, as at a loss to comprehend her meaning.
"Has that anything to do with it?' he asked. 'I don't see the connection."
The sentences were short, but signified many things.