The Passionate Puritan
At the appointed time on the Saturday afternoon Sidney walked out to the road to meet Arthur.
She had spent an uncomfortable three days shirking the meeting as she had never shirked anything before. She did not know now what she was going to say to him, although she had rehearsed a hundred conversations.
When she was still half a mile away she could see him waiting on his horse. She had not ridden because she could not bear to spoil a ride, and she did not expect the interview to be long.
As soon as he saw her he rode to meet her.
"Why didn't you ride?" he called as soon as she could hear.
And then, "What's the matter?" when he was near enough to see that she did not smile at him.
"Get off, please, Arthur, and let's walk. I've something to say to you."
She was relieved to find that now that she was face to face with him she could be cool.
But he was more disturbed by her cold calmness than he would have been by any display of anger.page 274
"What's the matter, my dear?" he asked, jumping down beside her. "For God's sake say it and be done with it."
He was startled to see how ill she looked, and she was startled to see how ill he looked. She looked miserably into his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Arthur, if I am going to hurt you. But it is all over between you and me. Absolutely over. I cannot stand for your lies and deceit. I've found out that you and Mana are living together."
As she was staring straight at him she saw the look of astonishment that animated his tired eyes. And she noticed that he did not appear to take in the force of her words.
"My dear girl, you're crazy. I'm not living with Mana, so you can't have found out that I am. What nonsense have you heard?"
The slight impatience in his tone angered her.
"Arthur, I will never speak to you again if you do not make up your mind this instant to stop lying to me. I will not stand for it. It is an outrageous insult. And I tell you you cannot deceive me. I'm not going by what I've heard. I'm going by what I've seen."
He looked keenly at her, seeing she was deadly serious. For a minute he was scared that something had happened to her mind.
"Seen! Seen what?" he asked quietly.page 275
"The child. Yours and Mana's," she answered harshly.
"The child!" he repeated, staring at her.
"Yes, haven't you seen the baby?"
"Well, you might as well, as it's yours."
"Mine? How do you know?"
"It's white," she answered coldly.
He was silent, thinking it was pretty hard luck that he and Mana should have been caught at the end of the liaison like that. For the moment he was nonplussed. He thought he had better make a clean breast of it at once.
"I'm sorry, Sidney, that you should have found that out at this late date. I was living with Mana before you came, and for a while after you came. But when I grew to care for you I made the break, and by the time I told you I loved you it was over. I did not feel bound to tell you my whole past history. And I owed Mana silence. I never made out to you that I was a saint. I told you many things. As far as I see the only thing that concerns you is that I've been faithful to you since I told you I loved you. And it has not been so easy. It was not easy one night last week in Auckland."
This last sentence startled her, and she only half believed the rest of his story.
"That's just it," she cried. "I've come to seepage 276 that you are the kind of man who would keep me eternally suspicious. I cannot trust you. You have deceived me. You told me in the spring there was nothing between you and Mana, perhaps only a week or two after you had cast her off. You call that the truth. I do not. The time to tell me was then. If you had, I should have understood it. It would have hurt me, but I should have understood it. I am not a baby. I did not suppose you were a boy of sixteen. As a matter of fact I have never expected to marry an inexperienced man. I don't know that I should want to. But if I can't marry a straight man I'll never marry at all. You didn't tell me you were married till I found out. You don't tell me this till I've found out. And I cannot believe you now. You tell me you are not living with Mana. I saw your pajamas on her line two or three weeks ago." She finished in a white heat.
"My pajamas," he repeated quietly. He had waited for her to finish with a patience that intensified her exasperation.
"Yes, your pajamas. The same blue silk pajamas that fascinated the women on the launch last summer."
A curious light, as near a smile as he dared, for he perceived this was a serious business, flickered across his eyes.page 277
"My dear girl, I have two pairs of those pajamas. In fact, I have three pairs."
"What on earth does that change?" she cried.
"Then they were your pajamas?"
"I suppose they were," he said. "I must have left them there."
"Of course you left them there. And I suppose you will tell me you forgot all about them."
"Oh, what a horrible liar you are——"
"Oh, the devil! Sidney!" he interrupted her, angry now himself. "Did you ever hear of a man who would go around collecting his pajamas? Ask Mana what she was doing with them. I don't know."
It was the first time he had ever shown anger with her. It filled her with a quick fear, and the fleeting contempt in his eyes put her in the wrong. He had made her feel a fool. So she got angrier than ever. She turned on him, her eyes blazing.
"Arthur, you evidently think this is a joke. You think deception and lying is a joke. You think a broken engagement is a joke. You don't see that I believed in you. That's the cruel part of it. I believed in you. And you've disillusioned me. I shall never be the same again. Oh, God! If men could only be disillusioned as women are."page 278
Her voice broke.
They were still standing where they had met in the middle of the road. Arthur moved a step nearer her.
"My God! Aren't they? When I was a perfectly good boy of twenty-three I had my illusions shattered by a woman seven years older than myself. The tragedy of my life has been that like a chivalrous fool I married her."
If she had not been thinking so much of herself, she would have realized what years of disenchantment lay behind his tone.
"It's a fine piece of justice that you should pay her out by disillusioning me, isn't it?"
He turned from her with a gesture of utter weariness, and for the minute she thought he was going to leave her.
Then he controlled himself, and stood still.
"Oh, for God's sake, my dear girl, be fair. I know I deserve some misery for making you suffer. But it's enough for me to see you look as you do. Don't rub it in. And I tell you this thing was over when I showed you I loved you. I've been faithful to you since. What more could any woman ask?"
"I ask more," she said, but more gently. "I ask that I can trust the man I marry. Trust him to be straight with me. And trust him to bepage 279 above suspicion for a few years at least, as far as other women are concerned."
"Oh, Sidney, you could never really trust any man to resist all kinds of temptation. You could only hope that he would avoid the temptation."
"Arthur, I won't believe that. There are men one could trust anywhere."
"Oh, Lord! Why will you women hang on to that delusion? You wouldn't call by the name of man the kind of thing you could trust anywhere. Picture it, the anæmic, underfed, expurgated sissy
"Yes, I picture it. Jack Ridgefield, for instance," she answered triumphantly.
"Oh, damn Jack Ridgefield!" he burst out. Then a smile crossed his eyes.
"Well, I suppose you may as well hug that delusion," he added.
"What do you mean?" she asked sharply, with a sinking feeling.
"Oh, nothing." He was immediately sorry he had let that slip.
"You did mean something," she exclaimed.
"Do you mean to say he is living with somebody?"
"Oh, no. Not that I know of," he answered quickly. "But he's never left this place for months. He told me the other night he dare not go. That if he did the first thing he would dopage 280 would be—well, I need not say. He could only be faithful to his wife by staying here and working himself to death every day. And you don't suppose he has been such a damned fool as to tell his wife about it, do you? Any man worth the name keeps things like that to himself. Why should we worry the women we love with our beastly struggles? Here, my dear, don't, don't. Oh, please, Sidney, don't cry. Dash it all, my dear, I love you, and God knows I mean to be decent. That's all any man can say."
But she turned stumbling along the road, with her handkerchief to her face.
For a minute or two he stood wondering whether he had better leave her alone. Then he followed, leading his horse, and without a word took her arm and led her off down a track out of sight of the road. He tied his horse, and sat down beside her, took out his pipe, and began to smoke.
He cursed himself for all this, and wondered if her love would have stood it in the beginning. One never knew.
His thoughts went back to his trusting chivalrous youth, to his cruel breaking in, which only amused him now. He had learned that for the strong life is happier and much more amusing with knowledge than without it, and that the sooner one gets over the transition stage the bet-page 281ter. The thing that he regretted most was the temporary eclipse that one's sense of humour suffers during the trying period.
He knew what Sidney was crying about. He knew she had fortified herself against him with the shining pillar of Jack Ridgefield to lean upon, as he had once fortified himself against one woman with the vision of another. He was only too glad that she had let him stay with her. He regarded that as a hopeful sign.
Presently she grew quieter, and got to her feet.
"I'm going home," she said stupidly.
"You'd better bathe your face, child, in case you meet somebody. There must be water near by. I'll look for it."
Soon afterwards he called to her that he had found a spring. When she came up he solemnly handed her a clean handkerchief of his own, and stood back while she bathed her swollen eyes.
Without a word they walked back to the road. There was just one more thing he wanted to know.
"Did Mana show you the baby?" he asked.
"No. She doesn't know I saw it."
"Oh! Have you seen her since? Have you talked to her at all?"
"No, I have not. I've no desire to. I never wish to see her again."
They stood still. Arthur was wondering. He thought it very curious that Mana had notpage 282 told him about the baby. He had not seen her since it was born. But she had written to him.
He knew it was useless to say anything more to Sidney that day. He held out his hand.
"I'm terribly sorry, child. Won't you please forgive me this once?" His voice and his eyes pleaded eloquently.
But she was too sick and tired to answer.
He was wise enough to see it Raising her cold hand to his lips, he turned to his horse, mounted and rode off without looking back.
When he pulled his horse to a walk farther along the road he took a little jeweller's box out of his pocket, opened if, and looked at the exquisite pearl and diamond ring inside. A grim smile twisted his mouth.
" 'The best laid plans of mice and men,' " he quoted bitterly.
Then he put it back into the pocket containing the proofs of his divorce that he had brought to show her that day. He had hoped that she would consent to marry him in her winter vacation, a month away.