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The Passionate Puritan

Chapter XVII

page 177

Chapter XVII

The next day Sidney was a wreck. She told herself she must not indulge in any more nightly rides. It was three weeks off her summer vacation. She had her first school examinations ahead of her. She had to put every spare minute into coaching George Mackenzie. She saw she must not allow her emotions to run riot till she had this over.

But she breathed an air that week that created strange mirages round her in the little school room. It took all her conscience and all her will, neither of them negligible quantities, to keep her from seeing Arthur's dark head in the corners, and between the rafters of the ceiling, and in the sunlight that streamed through the windows. Notes of his song mingled strangely with incongruous questions as to the result of nine times twelve, and the words "I love you" obtruded themselves into her object lesson on the making of soap.

She could scarcely endure life till she saw him again, which she did the next Saturday afternoon. They rode a short distance into a clearing that had a fine outlook for twenty miles.

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There they dismounted and tied up their horses.

Having reasons for it Arthur had thought more in those three days than she had. He met her meaning to tell her one of two things he felt she ought to know, and if she had given him any lead or asked him any question he would have done so. He said to himself it would not matter in the end.

And perhaps it did not.

They had one more gloriously irresponsible orgy, within limits, of course. There were kinds of caressing Sidney would not allow, and he was quick to see where he had to draw the line. He did not mind the restrictions. They only added zest to the ultimate surrender. And he was wise enough to know that the prehistoric view of the ultimate surrender had anticipatory values of its own.

When they parted Sidney told him she could positively spare him only the Saturday afternoons till she went away. She was thrilled when he replied that he would be compensated only if she gave him some of her summer. To that she gaily agreed.

Looking back afterwards she thought it strange she should have given herself up so thoroughly to these two meetings with Arthur in view of the amount of speculation she had indulged in aboutpage 179 him immediately beforehand. But having tasted love she found it irresistible. She might have gone on some time without further questioning, but for the unexpected.

In the middle of the next week she went out after eight o'clock and down into the gully to smoke. She was possessed with a fierce restlessness, a terrible energy that overpowered her. She could not get tired. She could not sleep.

She sat down near the dell, and after finishing one cigarette she went on dreaming.

Presently she heard men's voices coming towards her. Jack and his father, who had come up the day before, were strolling down.

Sidney did not move. She meant to get up if they came up to her, or if she heard them speak of things she was not intended to hear. But they came to a standstill a little way off, out of sight of her. Jack made some remark about tripping the dams again soon, and then after a short silence she heard James Ridgefield speak.

"It seems that Devereux's married. I heard it last week from the Governor."

"That so? I wonder if he has told Miss Carey?"

"Why, what has she got to do with it?"

"They have been knocking about a bit together."

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"Pooh! That's nothing. They naturally would up here. Is it being talked about?"

"Oh, Lord, no. I may be wrong. But I've seen them together riding."

"That's harmless. Don't mention it up here, anyway. Nobody is ever likely to hear."

They had turned back, and their voices died away.

For some time Sidney sat stunned, almost unthinking, conscious mostly of a hard pain in her stomach that turned to nausea. For the first time in her life she was pitted against something of which she had no comprehension, deception. She did not know how to cope with it. The great art of living one way while you make the world believe you live another could not yet claim her as one of its devotees.

So she took it hardly. When she came out of her trance of pain she began to rage against Arthur. She saw now why he had hesitated and retreated in his advances with her. She knew he must have told himself he had no business to go on. But he had gone on.

Before she dozed fitfully in the early morning she had learned her own capacity for feeling misery, and she was appalled by it. She had stupefied moments fearing that a fate that had shot this bolt at her might strike again. She did not see what she had ever done that a thing of thispage 181 kind should happen to her. If a man like Arthur Devereux behaved in this way whom could she ever trust?

Once or twice she asked herself if there might not be a mistake. But she felt that Arthur's behaviour was explained by James Ridgefield's statement, and she never really doubted it.

She never knew how she dragged herself up the next morning to face breakfast at the Mackenzies. But cold water and brisk rubbing did wonders to her face. She explained her tired eyes by saying she had not slept very well. Fortunately nobody expected her to look anything but tired, with her school examinations just ahead of her. And the Mackenzies, knowing the amount of overtime she was giving George, would have been the last people in the place to wonder why she looked pale or weary.

She came to herself a bit in the schoolroom. Her twenty-five devoted and respectful pupils were there to remind her that life goes on much the same about the ruins of the individual heart. She dragged through the day, forcing herself to respond to the constant appeal of those upturned faces. She did not shirk anything. She was only too glad to work on with George Mackenzie until after nine that night, and felt hypocritical about taking the eloquent thanks of his parents for her devotion when she left.

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Then she went down into the gully to pace up and down till midnight. She wanted to tire herself out. She knew she must sleep.

The minute Arthur rode up to her on Saturday afternoon he saw something had happened.

Sidney had not thought of postponing or cutting out the meeting. She told herself to go and get it over.

At the first sight of his smile the passionate anger that she had expected to sustain her dissipated shamelessly, and left her looking helplessly at him. She was almost sorry to think she was going to upset his fine good humour.

"What on earth have you been doing to yourself?" he asked, with a quick anxious look at her.

Then because she rarely shirked anything, she steeled herself to meet his eye, and act as she had intended to act.

"I know you are married," she said coldly.

"The devil!" he muttered, reading difficulties in the hardness in her face, and wondering how on earth she had found out.

"I'm sorry, my dear, that you have found out before I told you," he added quickly. "I meant to tell you last Saturday. I was going to tell you to-day."

His quiet voice enraged her. Was it possible he saw nothing out of the way in his behaviour? Till that moment she had had a subconsciouspage 183 hope that there might be some mistake. And now he calmly admitted that it was true. Before he could go on she burst out furiously.

"You calmly admit that you are married, and that you have made love to me, made me care for you without a thought of the results——" She choked, unable to go on.

"My dear girl, I've thought of nothing but the results. I'm going to get a divorce, of course. Now please listen to me. You will understand when I tell you all about it. I had no idea you would ever hear up here or I should have told you long ago. I suppose James Ridgefield told you, curse him! But it doesn't matter. It's not going to alter anything in the long run. Let's ride over there and talk about it."

The mention of a divorce had not pacified her in the least. It did not at that moment offer any way out. Indeed, it made the whole thing worse in her eyes.

"There's no use our discussing it," she cried passionately. "Our acquaintance is at an end."

He looked at her with real fear in his eyes. And something of what he felt for her escaped from the veneer of his restraint.

"Is it fair to judge me like that without hearing what I have to say?" he asked.

"Perhaps not. Say it, then. I'll listen."

But her tone was terribly discouraging.

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He pointed again to the place where they had been the previous Saturday afternoon.

"Let us go there and talk about it."

"No, not there," she said sharply. "We can talk as we are."

"We can't stay here," he said firmly. "We must get off the road somewhere," and he turned his horse.

For a minute she let him go on, and then she could not help herself. She gave her horse the rein and followed.

They rode like that in an uncomfortable silence for more than a mile. Then he took a narrow track that led nowhere in particular, and stopped when they were out of sight and hearing of the main road. In a small fireswept clearing with a narrow vista over one of the numerous gullies he tied their horses.

Sidney sat down on a stump on which it was impossible for more than one person to sit. Her hard coldness was the most uncomfortable thing Arthur had known for years. But he told himself it served him right. He sat down on the ground opposite her, prepared to be exceedingly diplomatic.

"I'm terribly sorry," he began. "I know I ought to have told you before. But I never dreamt you'd hear. I can't understand James Ridgefield. Men don't usually talk——"

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"Mr. Ridgefield did not tell me," she interrupted coldly.

"Then how the deuce——?" he paused. He saw that did not matter, and that he had better begin his story.

"I am married. My wife is in England. I left her years ago. I have started divorce proceedings. I began when I was away this spring. I knew before I went away that I cared for you. But I did not tell you, I did not make love to you, till I was sure of the divorce, and as I shall be free within six months, and we can marry any time after that I did not think it would matter exactly what week I told you."

Though she felt an immense relief at his words, at the possibility of a way out, she was still full of the idea that he had deceived her, and she had suffered too deeply to rebound quickly.

"That's just where you are wrong," she answered coldly. "You should have told me in the beginning. Nothing can alter the fact that you have deceived me for months. And if you deceive me in one way you will in another. I can't be sure you are going to get a divorce. Indeed you can't yourself. What proof have you?"

"The friend who came out this winter told me the facts," he went on, quietly. "In England, of course, I have to prove my wife unfaithful. It has only recently become possible. My friendpage 186 told me that my wife is now living with a man known to us both. He is much wealthier than I. They are anxious for me to get the divorce. There will be no difficulties put in the way. It is certain, as certain as anything in this world."

"I shall not consider it certain till I see the proofs," she said harshly. "And you have put me in a false and difficult situation. I hate underhand behaviour. You tricked me into feeling and showing what I felt. And I think it is outrageous."

She was so angry at his calmness that she could have screamed at him.

"My dear girl, for heaven's sake don't read into this thing obstacles that don't belong to it. I am exactly the same man that you loved last week."

"Oh, no, you are not," she exclaimed angrily.

"Will you please explain the difference."

"Last week I trusted you. Now I don't."

"That doesn't alter me. It merely alters your conception of me."

"Good heavens! Isn't my conception of you the whole thing as far as I am concerned?" She was exasperated at his lightness. She told herself to get up and leave him, but could not.

"The whole thing?" he repeated. "For how long? Conceptions are as changeable as the weather. Your idea of me will change every year.

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My idea of you has changed entirely in six months. The one thing that has not changed is that I love you. You loved me last week, and you love me now. Oh, yes, you do. The only difference is that last week you admitted it, and now you think you shouldn't. But you love me just the same."

Sidney fought back her increasing helplessness, determined that she would not be talked round like this, savage to think that after her three days' misery he should sit there looking at her with his vanity triumphant, and his calm unruffled.

She stood up.

"I don't think there is any use our discussing it any farther," she said, turning to walk off.

He let her go a few yards till she began to walk as if she were blind, and then he sprang to his feet and followed her.

"Sidney, please don't be a fool," he cried.

And as she paused he caught up to her and seized her by the shoulders.

She could not look at him. There was a film across her eyes. She had a queer feeling that she was trapped, that she would never get away from him, that her intelligence and her principles had nothing whatever to do with this business.

"Sidney, you have never lied to me. Do you love me?"

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All the feeling that life had left him, and it was a considerable amount, went into his tone.

"It doesn't matter whether I do or not——"

"Really! Now, that's the first lie you have ever told me. You know as well as I do that it matters more than anything else in the world to both of us. What is the matter with you, child? You have suffered far too much already for my damned mistake. Do you really have to suffer any more?"

Something about his tone broke her. She cursed herself for her weakness, but the tears welled out of her eyes. She bit her lips and choked. Then she found herself down on the ground with his arms about her.

Arthur said nothing for some time. Far more powerful than any words was the language of his arms held still about her with no attempt at caressing. But when she had ceased to sob, and lay still, he leaned down and put his cheek against hers.

"Damn it all," he said hoarsely. "Not for worlds would I have had you hurt like this."

She drew herself up and out of his arms, and stared away across the narrow bit of gully visible between the trees. She felt as if she had lost her soul, or whatever it was she called herself.

"Listen to me, dear," began Arthur, with a voice that was fatal to wavering principles, "Ipage 189 love you. I made one tragic mistake years ago. I know that in loving you I'm not making another. That's why I want you, why I must have you, why I would do anything to get you. Now, don't think I deceived you—that is, I did, but please see why I did. And as I had no idea you could ever hear of my being married I did not think it mattered so much what day I told you."

Turning she looked keenly at him.

"When did you first hear you might get the divorce?" she asked.

"When I went to town with Carruthers."

"Suppose you had not learned you could get a divorce, what would you have done?"

"I don't know, my dear. Do we have to settle that inconvenient problem now, when it doesn't exist?" There was a smile in his eyes.

"You cared for me before you went away," she went on, her eyes still fixed on his.

"I believe I did."

"And you would have come back?"

"I don't know. I went meaning to stay away."

"You did?"

"Yes, but I should probably have come back," he said frankly.

She looked away from him. His love might be immoral, but after all it was a warming thing. But she was strong and ruthless. She told herself she must make a stand for her principles.

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"You should have told me months ago," she repeated.

"I know that"

"Why didn't you?"

"You might have refused to go out with me. And then you would never have learned to love me."

"I see. You meant to deceive me till you were sure of me?"

"Yes, I suppose I did."

"You see that method allows me no freedom. I should have preferred to know and to care knowing."

"You are conventional and very strong. I was afraid."

"That's just it. You thought of yourself and not of me."

"Does that matter now? Now that we care for each other? Now that I am going to consider you and not myself?"

Drawing a long breath she looked away from him again, and made a desperate effort to think her own thoughts.

"Arthur, you talk wonderfully. When I'm with you it's a case of 'Almost thou persuadest me.' But I live a good deal of my life away from you, and if when I am away from you I feel I cannot trust you the result is going to be something you cannot control. It's true I cannot talkpage 191 against you. But I can think against you. And I cannot continue to care for a man I do not trust. You have given me a horrid jolt. You have put doubt into my mind. You have abused my trust. And the thing I see is that you will do it again, if you think it wise, without any reference to me. Now if you wish our acquaintance to proceed you will have to give me your word of honour that you will never deceive me again."

"Oh, my God!" groaned Arthur.

There was something so comical about his gesture of despair that her sense of humour righted itself.

"My dear girl," he cried, "you can't be serious. I expect to deceive you, or at least to try to, scores of times. How like twenty, or whatever it is you are! No woman of forty would ever ask such an impossible thing of a man. She'd say 'For God's sake, don't tell me what you are doing. Deceive me. Let me keep my illusions.' But I will tell you what I will do. If you will promise and guarantee beyond all doubt that you will never be disturbed by the truth, whatever it is, that you will never be upset by anything I do, then I promise to tell you everything I mean to do and don't, and everything I don't mean to do and do. Is it a bargain?"

Sidney dropped her head into her hands.

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For a minute he did not know whether she were laughing or crying. In truth, she was hiding a smile. She had seen the absurdity of her request. But youth is such a stickler for certainties, has so voracious an appetite for illusions, finds it so hard to reduce life from the glamour of the fairy tale to the garish light of realism.

Sidney told herself she must not let him win as easily as this. That if he could not make standards for himself she must make them for him.

She raised a serious face.

"You know what I mean, Arthur. You must not lie to me about essential things. Now don't ask me to define 'essential thing.' " She had seen that coming. "You know what I mean. And whatever you may say, I cannot regard myself as engaged to you till I see the proofs of your divorce. Indeed, now that I come to think of it, you have not asked me to marry you." Her eyes narrowed as she looked at him.

"My dear girl, of course I ask you to marry me. I supposed you understood that." But he was conscious that in the beginning it had not been his intention. He had not foreseen that he would care as he cared now. "I ask you now, formally, Sidney Carey. Will you marry me as soon as I am free?"

"I don't know," she said gravely. "I cannotpage 193 say that yet. In any case I cannot call myself engaged to you."

"All right, my dear. I don't care what names you call our relation so long as our relation goes on." He smiled wisely at her.

She looked at him wondering if she would ever get the best of him. She knew she was already beginning to feel that his being married would not make the difference she had supposed it would. She was curious to know one or two things.

"How long is it since you left your wife?" she asked.

"About seven years."

"And you haven't got a divorce?"

"I didn't care enough about anybody to try," he said, looking gravely at her. "And then, I left her. I needn't go into the reason. A common story. I left her on my estate with an adequate income. And I left England, and have knocked about ever since. We had no children. As far as I know I could not have got a divorce till recently. But then, I never tried to find out how she was living. Is there anything else you would like to know?"

She saw that the whole thing was a hideous memory and that he hated to speak of it. The fact that it was so remote made a further difference to her feeling about it.

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"No, indeed," she said, her tone softening. "I did not mean to be curious."

"I know you didn't. And you are entitled to know anything you wish to know about it. But the whole thing is rather a ghastly memory. I hate to think of it. I hate to have it raked up in a divorce. And I should have preferred to have the thing over without telling you. There really was no need for you to know. By the way, how did you find out?"

She hesitated. "I heard Mr. Ridgefield tell Jack. I was placed so that I could not help it." "The devil! Jack, of course! I hope they will keep it to themselves."

"I'm sure they will." Then she thought of something, and looked away. He saw at once she was going to speak, or repress the desire to speak of something significant.

"Does Mana know you are married?" she asked, trying to be casual.

"Mana! No, my dear. Why on earth should she?" There was natural surprise in his tones. "Oh, I don't know. I just wondered if you had told her."

She looked straight at him.

"There is something on your mind," he said quietly. "What is it?" He wanted to find out then and there whether it was knowledge or suspicion that had caused her to speak of Mana.

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"I suppose I'm. stupid," she said, rather doubtfully, "but I want to ask you one more thing. Is there anything between you and Mana? You know what I mean."

"You mean are we living together? No, my dear, we are not. And will you tell me why you ask? Let's settle that bogey here and now."

He risked this answer. It was true, but he dare not tell her then how recently it had become true.

"I don't know," she answered, with a sense of relief. "I've had a feeling there was."

"For heaven's sake don't cultivate feelings of that kind, my dear. They're unnecessary, and they're uncomfortable. I tell you again, there is nothing but a pleasant friendship between Mana and me. And it will continue as long as I stay here. I have no reason for breaking it. I shall go and see her occasionally, as I always have."

He spoke with a deliberate frankness, and with considerable relief to think he had cleared that danger so easily.

She looked out over the valley thinking how absurd her suffering of the last three days had been. But it had been, and she could not forget it all at once. Like a person who has had a serious illness she had to learn again to walk the ways of ease and gladness. Though she saw she would have to accept Arthur's explanation, in-page 196deed, she was only too glad in her secret heart to accept it, she had lost something she would never get back. The dreamer in her was gone. The first flush of irresponsible loving was over. She would keep her Arthur with reservations, seeing him a little more clearly. She had begun the funeral services that human beings have to hold over their illusions once they are committed to idealizing a member of the opposite sex.

Seeing that the worst was over, Arthur took out his pipe. But he did not do it lightly. He had spent a wretched afternoon so far. It had made him see how much he cared for her, and how much he hated to hurt her.

He lit a cigarette for her. As she took it their eyes met.

Impulsively he threw an arm around her.

"Please forgive me, dear," he said hoarsely "If I can help it you shall never suffer like this again."

And she knew he meant it with all the decency that was in him.

She put her head against his shoulder.

And the peace of that reconciliation was a peace that passeth understanding.