So, in drawing a bow at a venture, I had hit the mark. You may remember that I had rapped out the word "blackmail" at Gedge; now Randall justified the charge. Boyce was worth a thousand a year to him. The more I speculated on the danger that might arise from Gedge, the easier I grew in my mind. Your blackmailer is a notorious saver of his skin. Gedge had no desire to bring Boyce to justice and thereby incriminate himself. His visit to Sir Anthony was actuated by sheer malignity. Without doubt, he counted on his story being believed. But he knew enough of the hated and envied aristocracy to feel assured that Sir Anthony would not subject his beloved dead to such ghastly disinterment as a public denunciation of Boyce would necessitate. He desired to throw an asphyxiating bomb into the midst of our private circle. He reckoned on the Mayor taking some action that would stop the reception and thereby put a public affront on Boyce. Sir Anthony's violent indignation and perhaps my appearance of cold incredulity upset his calculations. He went out of the room a defeated man, with the secret load (as I knew now) of blackmail on his shoulders.
I snapped my fingers at Gedge. Randall seemed to do the same, undesirable father-in-law IN PROSPECTU as he was. But that was entirely Randall's affair. The stomach that he had for fighting with Germans would stand him in good stead against Gedge, especially as he had formed so contemptuous an estimate of the latter's valour.
I emerged again into my little world. I saw most of my friends. Phyllis lay in wait for me at the hospital, radiant and blushing, ostensibly to congratulate me on recovery from my illness, really (little baggage!) to hear from my lips a word or two in praise of Randall. Apparently he had come, in his warrior garb, seen, and conquered on the spot. I saw Mrs. Holmes, who, gladdened by the Distinguished Conduct Medallist's return, had wiped from her memory his abominably unfilial behaviour. I saw Betty and I saw Boyce.
Now here I come to a point in this chronicle where I am faced by an appalling difficulty. Hitherto I have striven to tell you no more about myself and my motives and feelings than was demanded by my purpose of unfolding to you the lives of others. Primarily I wanted to explain Leonard Boyce. I could only do it by showing you how he reacted on myself—myself being an unimportant and uninteresting person. It was all very well when I could stand aside and dispassionately analyse such reactions. The same with regard to my dear Betty. But now if I adopted the same method of telling you the story of Betty and the story of Boyce—the method of reaction, so to speak—I should be merely whining into your ears the dolorous tale of Duncan Meredyth, paralytic and idiot.
The deuce of it is that, for a long time, nothing particular or definite happened. So how can I describe to you a very important period in the lives of Betty and Boyce and me?
I had to resume my intimacy with Boyce. The blind and lonely man craved it and claimed it. It would be an unmeaning pretence of modesty to under-estimate the value to him of my friendship. He was a man of intense feelings. Torture had closed his heart to the troops of friends that so distinguished a soldier might have had. He granted admittance but to three, his mother, Betty and—for some unaccountable reason—myself. On us he concentrated all the strength of his affection. Mind you, it was not a case of a maimed creature clinging for support to those who cared for him. In his intercourse with me, he never for a moment suggested that he was seeking help or solace in his affliction. On the contrary, he ruled it out of the conditions of social life. He was as brave as you please. In his laughing scorn of blindness he was the bravest man I have ever known. He learned the confidence of the blind with marvellous facility. His path through darkness was a triumphant march.
Sometimes, when he re-fought old battles and planned new ones, forecast the strategy of the Great Advance, word-painted scenes and places, drew character sketches of great leaders and quaint men, I forgot the tragedy of Althea Fenimore. And when the memory came swiftly back, I wondered whether, after all, Gedge's story from first to last had not been a malevolent invention. The man seemed so happy. Of course you will say it was my duty to give a hint of Gedge's revelation. It was. To my shame, I shirked it. I could not find it in my heart suddenly to dash into his happiness. I awaited an opportunity, a change of mood in him, an allusion to confidences of which I alone of human beings had been the recipient.
Betty visited me as usual. We talked war and hospital and local gossip for a while and then she seemed to take refuge at the piano. We had one red-letter day, when a sailor cousin of hers, fresh from the North Sea, came to luncheon and told us wonders of the Navy which we had barely imagined and did not dare to hope for. His tidings gave subject for many a talk.
I knew that she was seeing Boyce constantly. The former acquaintance of the elders of the two houses flamed into sudden friendship. From a remark artlessly let fall by Mrs. Boyce, I gathered that the old ladies were deliberately contriving such meetings. Boyce and Betty referred to each other rarely and casually, but enough to show me that the old feud was at an end. And of what save one thing could the end of a feud between lovers be the beginning? What did she know? Knowing all, how could she be drawn back under the man's fascination? The question maddened me. I suffered terribly.
At last, one evening, I could bear it no longer. She was playing Chopin. The music grated on me. I called out to her:
She broke off and turned round, with a smile of surprise. Again she was wearing the old black evening dress, in which I have told you she looked so beautiful.
"No more music, dear. Come and talk to me."
She crossed the room with her free step and sat near my chair.
"What shall I talk about?" she laughed.
The laughter left her face and she gave me a swift glance.
"Majy dear, I'd rather not," she said with a little air of finality.
"I know that," said I. "I also know that in your eyes I am committing an unwarrantable impertinence."
"Not at all," she replied politely. "You have the right to talk to me for my good. It's impertinence in me not to wish to hear it."
"Betty dear," said I, "will you tell me what was the cause of your estrangement?"
She stiffened. "No one has the right to ask me that."
"A man who loves you very, very dearly," said I, "will claim it. Was the cause Althea Fenimore?"
She looked at me almost in frightened amazement.
"Is that mere guesswork?"
"No, dear," said I quietly.
"I thought no one knew—except one person. I was not even sure that Leonard Boyce was aware that I knew."
Another bow at a venture. "That one person is Gedge."
"You're right. I suppose he has been talking," she said, greatly agitated. "He has been putting it about all over the place. I've been dreading it." Then she sprang to her feet and drew herself up and snapped her fingers in an heroical way. "And if he has said that Althea Fenimore drowned herself for love of Leonard Boyce, what is there in it? After all, what has Leonard Boyce done that he can't be forgiven? Men are men and women are women. We've tried for tens of thousands of years to lay down hard and fast lines for the sexes to walk upon, and we've failed miserably. Suppose Leonard Boyce did make love to Althea Fenimore—trifle with her affections, in the old-fashioned phrase. What then? I'm greatly to blame. It has only lately been brought home to me. Instead of staying here while we were engaged, I would have my last fling as an emancipated young woman in London. He consoled himself with Althea. When she found he meant nothing, she threw herself into the canal. It was dreadful. It was tragic. He went away and broke with me. I didn't discover the reason till months afterwards. She drowned herself for love of him, it's true. But what was his share in it that he can't be forgiven for? Millions of men have been forgiven by women for passing loves. Why not he? Why not a tremendous man like him? A man who has paid every penalty for wrong, if wrong there was? Blind!"
She walked about and threw up her hands and halted in front of my chair. "I'll own that until lately I accused him of unforgivable sin—deceiving me and making love to another girl and driving her to suicide. I tore him out of my heart and married Willie. We won't speak of that .... But since he has come back, things seem different. His mother has told me that one day when he was asleep she found he was still wearing his identification disc ... there was an old faded photograph of me on the other side ... it had been there all through the war .... You see," she added, after a pause during which her heaving bosom and quivering lip made her maddeningly lovely, "I don't care a brass button for anything that Gedge may say."
And that was all my clean-souled Betty knew about it! She had no idea of deeper faithlessness; no suspicion of Boyce's presence with Althea on the bank of the canal. She stood pathetic in her half knowledge. My heart ached.
From her pure woman's point of view she had been justified in her denunciation of Boyce. He had left her without a word. A wall of silence came between them. Then she learned the reason. He had trifled with a young girl's affections and out of despair she had drowned herself .... But how had she learned? I had to question her. And it was then that she told me the story of Phyllis and her father to which I have made previous allusion: how Phyllis, as her father's secretary, had opened a letter which had frightened her; how her father's crafty face had frightened her still more; how she had run to Betty for the easing of her heart. And this letter was from Leonard Boyce. "I cannot afford one penny more," so the letter ran, according to Betty's recollection of Phyllis's recollection, "but if you remain loyal to our agreement, you will not regret it. If ever I hear of your coupling my name with that of Miss Fenimore, I'll kill you. I am a man of my word." I think Betty crystallised Phyllis's looser statement. But the exact wording was immaterial. Here was Boyce branding himself with complicity in the tragedy of Althea, and paying Gedge to keep it dark. Like Sir Anthony, Betty remembered trivial things that assumed grave significance. There was no room for doubt. Catastrophe following on his villainy had kept Boyce away from Wellingsford, had terrified him out of his engagement. And so her heart had grown bitter against him. You may ask why her knowledge of the world had not led her to suspect blacker wrong; for a man does not pay blackmail because he has led a romantic girl into a wrong notion of the extent of his affection. My only answer is that Betty was Betty, clean-hearted and clean-souled like the young Artemis she resembled.
And now she proclaimed that he had expiated his offence. She proclaimed her renewed and passionate interest in the man. I saw that deep down in her heart she had always loved him.
After telling me about Phyllis, she returned to the point where she had broken off. She supposed that Gedge had been talking all over the place.
"I don't think so, dear," said I. "So far as I know he has only spoken, first to Randall Holmes—that was what made him break away from Gedge, whose society he had been cultivating for other reasons than those I imagined (you remember telling me Phyllis's sorrowful little tale last year?)." She nodded. "And secondly to Sir Anthony and myself, a few hours before the Reception."
She clenched her fists and broke out again. "The devil! The incarnate devil! And Sir Anthony?"
"Pretended to treat Gedge's story as a lie, threw into the fire without reading it an incriminating letter—possibly the letter that Phyllis saw, ordered Gedge out of the house and, like a great gentleman, went through the ceremony."
"Does Leonard know?"
"Not that I'm aware of," said I.
"He must be told. It's terrible to have an enemy waiting to stab you in the dark—and you blind to boot. Why haven't you told him?"
Why? Why? Why?
It was so hard to keep to the lower key of her conception of things. I made a little gesture signifying I know not what: that it was not my business, that I was not on sufficient terms of intimacy with Boyce, that it didn't seem important enough .... My helpless shrug suggested, I suppose, all of these excuses. Why hadn't I warned him? Cowardice, I suppose.
"Either you or I must do it," she went on. "You're his friend. He thinks more of you than of any other man in the world. And he's right, dear—" she flashed me a proud glance, sweet and stabbing—"Don't I know it?"
Then suddenly a new idea seemed to pass through her brain. She bent forward and touched the light shawl covering my knees.
"For the last month or two you've known what he has done. It hasn't made any difference in your friendship. You must think with me that the past is past, that he has purged his sins, or whatever you like to call them; that he is a man greatly to be forgiven."
"Yes, dear," said I, with a show of bravery, though I dreaded lest my voice should break, "I think he is a man to be forgiven."
Her logic was remorseless.
With her frank grace she threw herself, in her old attitude, by the side of my chair.
"I'm so glad we have had this talk, Majy darling. It has made everything between us so clear and beautiful. It is always such a grief to me to think you may not understand. I shall always be the little girl that looked upon you as a wonderful hero and divine dispenser of chocolates. Only now the chocolates stand for love and forbearance and sympathy, and all kinds of spiritual goodies."
I passed my hand over her hair. "Silly child!"
"I got it into my head," she continued, "that you were blaming me for—for my reconciliation with Leonard. But, my dear, my dear, what woman's heart wouldn't be turned to water at the sight of him? It makes me so happy that you understand. I can't tell you how happy."
"Are you going to marry him?" I think my voice was steady and kind enough.
"Possibly. Some day. If he asks me."
I still stroked her hair. "I wouldn't let it be too soon," said I.
Her eyes were downcast. "On account of Willie?" she murmured.
"No, dear. I don't dare touch on that side of things."
Again a whisper. "Why, then?"
How could I tell her why without betrayal of Boyce? I had to turn the question playfully. I said, "What should I do without my Betty?"
"Do you really care about me so much?"
I laughed. There are times when one has to laugh—or overwhelm oneself in dishonour.
"Now you see my nature in all its vile egotism," said I, and the statement led to a pretty quarrel.
But after it was over to our joint satisfaction, she had to return to the distressful main theme of our talk. She harked back to Sir Anthony, touched on his splendid behaviour, recalled, with a little dismay, the hitherto unnoted fact that, after the ceremony he had held himself aloof from those that thronged round Boyce. Then, without hint from me, she perceived the significance of the Fenimores' retirement from Wellingsford.
"Leonard's ignorance," she said, "leaves him in a frightful position. More than ever he ought to know."
"He ought, indeed, my dear," said I. "And I will tell him. I ought to have done so before."
I gave my undertaking. I went to bed upbraiding myself for cowardice and resolved to go to Boyce the next day. Not only Fate, but honour and decency forced me to the detested task.
Alas! Next morning I was nailed to my bed by my abominable malady. The attacks had become more frequent of late. Cliffe administered restoratives and for the first time he lost his smile and looked worried. You see until quite lately I had had a very tranquil life, deeply interested in other folks' joys and sorrows, but moved by very few of my own. And now there had swooped down on me this ravening pack of emotions which were tearing me to pieces. I lay for a couple of days tortured by physical pain, humiliation and mental anguish.
On the evening of the second day, Marigold came into the bedroom with a puzzled look on his face.
"Colonel Boyce is here, sir. I told him you were in bed and seeing nobody, but he says he wants to see you on something important. I asked him whether it couldn't wait till to-morrow, and he said that if I would give you a password, Vilboek's Farm, you'd be sure to see him."
"Quite right, Marigold," said I. "Show him in."
Vilboek's Farm! Fate had driven him to me, instead of me to him. I would see him though it killed me, and get the horrible business over for ever.
Marigold led him in and drew up a chair for him by the bedside. After pulling on the lights and drawing the curtains, for the warm May evening was drawing to a close.
"Anything more, sir, for the present?" he asked.
"Could I have materials for a whisky and soda to hand?" said Boyce.
"Of course," said I.
Marigold departed. Boyce said:
"If you're too ill to stand me, send me away. But if you can stand me, for God's sake let me talk to you."
"Talk as much as you like," said I. "This is only one of my stupid attacks which a man without legs has to put up with."
"Marigold's an old hen," said I.
"Are you sure you're well enough? That's the curse of not being able to see. Tell me frankly."
"I'm quite sure," said I.
I have never been able to get over the curious embarrassment of talking to a man whose eyes I cannot see. The black spectacles seemed to be like a wall behind which the man hid his thoughts. I watched his lips. Once or twice the odd little twitch had appeared at the corners.
Even with his baffling black spectacles he looked a gallant figure of a man. He was precisely dressed in perfectly fitting dinner jacket and neat black tie; well-groomed from the points of his patent leather shoes to his trim crisp brown hair. And beneath this scrupulousness of attire lay the suggestion of great strength.
Marigold brought in the tray with decanter, siphon and glasses, and put them on a table, together with cigars and cigarettes, by his side. After a few deft touches, so as to identify the objects, Boyce smiled and nodded at Marigold.
"Thanks very much, Sergeant," he said.
If there is one thing Marigold loves, it is to be addressed as "Sergeant." "Marigold" might indicate a butler, but "Sergeant" means a sergeant.
"Perhaps I might fetch the Colonel a more comfortable chair, sir," said he.
But Boyce laughed, "No, no!" and Marigold left us.
Boyce's ear listened for the click of the door. Then he turned to me.
"I was rather mean in sending you in that password. But I felt as if I should go mad if I didn't see you. You're the only man living who really knows about me. You're the only human being who can give me a helping hand. It's strange, old man—the halt leading the blind. But so it is. And Vilboek's Farm is the damned essence of the matter. I've come to you to ask you, for the love of God, to tell me what I am to do."
I guessed what had happened. "Betty Connor has told you something that I was to tell you."
"Yes," said he. "This afternoon. And in her splendid way she offered to marry me."
"What did you say?"
"I said that I would give her my answer to-morrow."
"And what will that answer be?"
"It is for you to tell me," said Boyce.
"In order to undertake such a terrible responsibility," said I, "I must know the whole truth concerning Althea Fenimore."
"I've come here to tell it to you," said he.>BR>