SHORT STORIES

Celia's Bid For Freedom

The Story of a Peacemaker and His Reward

Keble Howard July 1 1910
SHORT STORIES

Celia's Bid For Freedom

The Story of a Peacemaker and His Reward

Keble Howard July 1 1910

Celia's Bid For Freedom

SHORT STORIES

The Story of a Peacemaker and His Reward

Keble Howard

THIS adventure opens with two calls on the telephone. (I had retired, you see, to my quarters in town.)

The first speaker was Celia.

“Is that you?” she said.

Her voice, I must ask you to note, was just the same as usual—cool, quiet, perfectly balanced.

“Hullo-ullo-ullo !” My tone indicated pleased surprise. “What in the world are you doing in town?”

“I’ve come up for good.”

“For good? D’you mean that you’ve given up your little house?”

“Oh, no. I’ve been kicked out.” “Don’t be silly.”

“I’m perfectly serious.”

“But I don't understand. Who kicked you out?”

“Austin, of course.”

“Rubbish ! I don’t believe a word of it!”

“Thank you. It’s true, all the same. By the way, in case you want to take me out. to dinner or the theatre cr anything. I'm staying for the present with Dolly.”

“Dolly who?”

“Dolly Hadow. my great chum, you know. I’ve often talked to vou about her.”

“But I thought you didn’t much—"

“Yes; it is sweet of her to have me, isn’t it?”

I understood, then, that Dolly wain the room.

“Well, but this is a terrible business. You've absolutely stunned me.”

“Poor dear! You’ll soon get accustomed to the idea. In case you want to ring me up, you might take down this number.”

I took it down.

“I mean to have a jolly good time, you know. By the way, if you see Austin, you haven't heard anything, of course.”

“All right. But I do wish—”

Celia rang off.

An hour later, whilst I was still pacing my room, trying to make out what these young people had been at to get themselves into such a tangle, the telephone bell went again. This time it was Austin. His voice, I must ask you to note, was shaky, almost trembling. From his tone, too, I could tell that he was badly in need of a friend.

“Is that you, old chap?”

“Hullo-ullo-ullo !” The pleased surprise sounded a little forced, but I had given my promise to Celia.

“Would it be disturbing you if I came round for half an hour?”

“Not a bit. Come along, by all means. Where are you speaking from ?”

“From a call-office in the Strand."

“X’othing wrong. I hope?”

“I’m afraid there is. In fact. I'm in great troub’e. I hardly know what I’m saymg.”

"I'm awfuily sorry! Come round

“It’s about Celia.” The poor fellow was evidently too overcome to keep the news to himself any longer. “She’s bolted.”

“What?”

“She’s bolted.”

“Who has?”

“Celia.”

“Rubbish !”

“It’s quite true. I’m most awfully cut up. I’ll come round at once— may I?”

“Do ; by all means.”

This was an entirely new aspect op the matter. There is all the difference in the world between bolting and being kicked out. I could see that, if I was to be of any service to my young friends, I must proceed very warily.

My sympathies went out to Austin directly I set eyes on him. (I had not seen Celia, remember.) He was pale, and twitchy, and suspiciously puffy about the eyes. I am not trying to be funny when I say that. There is nothing funny about the tears of a man. You have to be a man to understand that in the fullest sense.

“Have a drink?” I said.

“No, thanks; I’ll have a cigarette, if I may.”

I held the match for him.

“Well,” he said, walking up and down, and trying to speak without emotion, “this is a bit of a knock, isn’t it?”

“Tell me exactly what it all means, and how it happened. You know where she is, I suppose?” .

“Yes. At least, I know where she said she was going.”

“Then,” I said, rather sternly, “that’s where she’ll be.” Genuine concern was all very well, but I did not want any play-acting.

“Of course, old chap; I know that. She’s staying with a great friend of hers—Mrs. Hadow. They have rather a nice house in South Kensington.” “Then you needn’t be uneasy about her.”

“I am, all the same. I’m afraid she’ll go rushing about to theatres and dances and things, and knock herself up. She’s not a bit strong really, you know.”

There was a little pause. I am not an inquisitive person, but I was naturally anxious to hear thé reason for this sudden split.

“This has been coming on for some time,” said Austin, presently.

“Has it? I hadn’t noticed anything.

I always thought you were both so happy.”

“Ideas,” he replied, bitterly. “That’s t’. e trouble. They get ideas, you know. Want to expand their horizon, and all that sort of thing. Celia’s been talking about expanding her horizon for the last three months. She’s had things on her mind, too, about the position of women.”

“No!”

“Fact ! Says the old days of feminine slavery are over. I reminded her that we kept a cook and two maids, and had no children at present—and then she flew into a rage—said .1 was-, an ignorant Philistine, and couldn’t appreciate the finer feelings of women.”

“Was this to-day?”

“Oh, no; about two months ago. But it’s been going on in a desultory sort of way ever since.”

“I expect she wanted a little change.”

“Yes ; I said that, but it only seemed to make her angrier than ever— not noisy anger, you know, but the quiet, icy kind—much harder to bear,”

He shivered.

“Well?”

“That was at lunch to-day. So then I got a bit ratty myself.”

“Only a bit?”

“A goodish bit. I suggested that perhaps she would like a thorough change. I believe I used the word ‘permanent.’ Anyway, before I knew what was happening, she -was upstairs shoving sorpç things into .a bag. In

less than half an hour she was out of the house. Now you know as much about it as I do, and you can give me your advice. I don’t often ask for advice, as you know, but this time I’m in real need of it. Shall I—shall 1 go to her and ask her to come back?” “This,” I said, cautiously, “is between ourselves, of course?”

“Certainly. I don’t want her to have the slightest suspicion that I’ve seen you or told you anything.” “Right. I quite understand. Well, if I were in your place, I should certainly not ask her to come back.” “You wouldn’t ?”

“No. The game for you to play is dignified indifference masking a stricken heart.”

“You think so?”

“That’s my advice. Don’t act on it unless you feel yourself that it’s right.” “I do. Thanks, very much,” The color returned to his cheeks ; he began to look self-possessed again. “That’s a charming little water-color you have there.” !

“Yes ; it was given to me by the artist. I prize it very highly.”

“Ripping. And what would you do about letters?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, for instance, I generally sign myself, when I writeto her, ‘Your own loving old Snaffles.’ Would you drob that for the time being?”

This was a delicate point.

“You might make a compromise, I should think. You don’t want to be stand-offish ; at the same time it would scarcely be diplomatic to show as much affection as ever.”

“That’s true. She’d no business to clear out like that at a moment’s notice.”

“I quite agree with you.”

“And yet the place is simply unbearable without her.”

“What do you sav to ‘Yours, Snaffles’?”

“Ye—es. Or how would ‘Your loving Snaffles’ do?”

“The only question is, are you, strictly speaking, hers?"’

“You mean that I should be mak-

ing myself cheap to call myself hers if she didn’t want me?”

“Precisely.”

“I should like to get in something about ‘loving,’ because I am, you know.” ’ j

“Yes, yes. Then I suggest ‘Lovingly,’ simply.

“Without the ‘Snaffles’?”

“Oh, no. Keep in the ‘Snaffles.’ ” "Good.” He held out his hand. “I’m most frightfully obliged to you, old chap. This little talk has made me feel a different man.”

“Good luck ! It’ll all come right.” “Think so?”

“I’m sure of it.”

He went down the stairs whistling. II.

I did not ring up Celia. I was tempted to do so, of course, and I knew that she was reckoning on that. In justice to Austin, I must give her time to tire of freedom and Mrs. Hadow. A week, I calculated, would do it.

I was three days out. Four days did it. On the evening of the fourth day, I was called up myself by Mrs. Hado w.

“Are you very busy this evening?” “Not particularly. Why?”

“Poor Celia's in bed with a severe chill, and I think she would like to see you.”

“Did she ask you to telephone to me?”

“N—no.”

“Then I shan’t come.”

“Well, what I mean to say is, she didn't ask me to in so many words, but I rather gathered that she would be very pleased to see you if you did come. Besides, I think it would do her good.”

“All right. I'll come along about nine o’clock.”

Celia makes a very successful invalid. She was wearing a pretty dressing-jacket, and her hair was strewn in studied unstudied profusion about the pillow. A mauve canony—Mrs Hadow dabbles in art. I believe— screened her from the light. Th°-e

were flowers on the little table at the bedside, and one or two fancifully bound books. Not a sign, be very sure, of medicine bottles or such.

Her eyes were closed when I entered. She opened them slowly, and her lips parted in a faint little smile. “Hullo !” I said, breezily.

“It was good of you to come.”

One white hand, not in the least wasted, lay on the eider-down. I ignored it.

“What’s the matter?” I said. “Bit seedy?”

Again the sweet, slow smile of patient suffering—this time with a dash of forgiveness in it.

“Don’t bother about me,” she murmured, weakly. “Tell me about yourself. What have you been doing since I saw you last?”

“Working, eating and drinking, sleeping. What have you been doing?”

“You're not very communicative, are you ?”

“Because I’ve nothing to tell.” “Which means that you won’t tell it. Ah, well ! I admire you for your wisdom.”

She closed her eyes again. I felt that if my visit was to be of any use, the conversation must be bucked up.

• “Heard from Austin?” I asked. Celia shuddered.

“How brutal men are!” she whispered.

Her eyes were still shut. It was not very lively. I determined to make her open them.

“Not at all. I thought he might have written to you with regard to the deed of separation.”

Up went thè lids like a pair of spring blinds.

“What d’you mean? What deed of separation ?”

“Didn’t you know?”

“Know what?” Her voice strengthened. I was doing her good already. “I wish you wouldn’t sit there trying to look secretive.”

“Didn’t you know that a deed of separation would be necessary?”

“He can have one if he wants one.” A pause. “Does he want one ?”

“He didn’t say anything to me about it.”

The color came into her cheeks. A little more of this and she would be quite radiant.

“You’ve seen him, then?”

“Oh, yes, I’ve seen him.”

“Since I—since I telephoned you?” “Yes; I saw him the same day.” “Oh!” And then, casually: “I suppose he posed as a very much injured person ?”

“I don’t think so. At any rate, I didn’t notice it.”

“Perhaps”—with sudden heat—

“you had a good laugh together aboutthe whole thing? Perhaps he made a joke of it, and you both agreed that I was a silly littleidiot? All right! You shall see.”

“As a matter of fact, we didn’t mention the matter.”

“What?” She was surprised into showing her surprise.

“We didn’t touch on the matter.” “D’you mean to say that my name never once came into the conversation?”

“Let me see. Oh, yes. I asked him if you were quite well, and he said that you were.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes; you told me that I wasn’t to know anything, you know.”

Celia was silent for a minute or two.

I could see that she was turning this aspect of the case over and over in her mind.

“Anyhow,” she said, presently, “he’s written me some pretty long letters.” “Begging you, no doubt, to return.” “Not in so many words, but one can read between the lines.”

I wanted very much to ask her how the letters were signed, but that would have been indiscreet—not to say impertinent. Celia, in the meantime, must have been thinking out a new plan of campaign. At any rate, she suddenly stretched out her hand, and asked me, in a coaxing, plaintive tone, why I was so unkind to her all at once.

“I’m not,” I said firmly.

“Yes, you are. Why do you do it when you know you’re the only real friend I have in the world?”

I reminded her that there was always Mrs. Hadow.

“I don’t count women-friends. They’re very nice, but no good in an emergency.”

“How about Austin?”

“We’ll keep his name out of the discussion, if you please.”

“Just as you like.”

“Now you’re being cold and horrid again. Why is it? Are you so absolutely disgusted with me?”

“I’ve no reason to be disgusted with you.” I said this with just the slightest possible stress on the “I’ve.” “Your tone implies that somebody else has.”

Silence.

“It’s just like a man to judge a woman without hearing her side of the case. D’you suppose that I should have taken such an awful step as this unless I had a very good reason?”

“I don’t see that it’s so very awful.”

“Not awful to—to break up one’s whole life?”

“You haven’t broken it up.”

“I’ve left my husband.”

“To pay a visit to your old friend, Mrs. Hadow.”

“It’s the first time we’ve been separated since our marriage.”

“I hope it won’t be the last.”

“I hate cynicism.”

“So do I. Don’t confuse it, though, with common sense. May I say something to you?”

Celia had been fingering the canopy. She now drew it across her a little, so that her face was hidden.

“What is it?”

“I don’t think you ever loved him so much in your life as you do at this moment.”

The canopy twitched a little, but there was no other answer.

“Isn’t that true?” I insisted brutally*

“It isn’t the point.”

“It seems to me to be the whole point.”

“It would—to you. To me, it’s only half the point.”

Tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick. Celia’s little watch, tremendously busy, had everything its own way for at least two minutes. “You folks can waste your time, if you like,” it seemed to be saying. “For my part, I must get along with my job. Tick-tick, ticktick, tick-tick.” Then I pulled myself together and plunged.

“Have you ever seen a man cry, Celia?”

She peeped at me, startled, round the edge of the canopy.

“No; I don’t think so. Why?” “I’m not speaking of maudlin tears —they don’t count. I’m speaking of the tears of a normal, clear-headed man, such tears as only the deepest emotion can bring to the surface. I’m glad you've never seen them, especially in the eyes you love best in the world. I think it is a sight that would make you very unhappy. I am quite sure that your pride would not be proof against it, but, for your own sake, I would rather buy your compassion at a lower price.”

“Of course, if I thought that I had made him do that—”

“You have made him do that.” “Why do you say that? You’ve no right to bring such an accusation. Besides, how could you possibly know?” “The day that he called upon me— the same day that you left him—he had been crying. He pretended that he hadn’t, but I know the signs. That’s the other half of the point, isn’t it?” No answer. The canopy was perfectly still.

A woman, I suppose, would have left it at that. Being a man, however, and an anxious one, I bungled.

“Isn’t it?” I repeated.

Then Celia spoke.

“Please go away,” she said.

I made haste to obey. There was a tremulousness in her voice that frightened me.

III.

The next I heard of my young friends was a note from Celia asking me to dine with them. She wrote from the little house.

I went down feeling uncommonly pleased with myself. After all, one had one’s purpose in life. I expected that Austin would find an opportunity of taking me aside and gripping me by the hand. He would probably say, “My dear old friend, how can I ever thank you?’’ To which I should reply, rather brusquely, in order to hide my feelings, “Pshaw! Tut-tut! That was nothing, my dear boy!”

Celia, too, would thank me in her own shy, dainty little way. If she just kissed me without speaking a word, I felt that I should be rewarded a thousandfold.

Dinner passed off quite smoothly. Austin’s mother was present ; also Celia’s father. The attitude of the young couple towards each other was precisely the same as usual. That was quite correct; one would not have expected anything else. I was a little surprised to find, none the less, that their attitude towards me was precisely the same is usual. Doubtless, though, they were awaiting a more favorable opportunity. The parents knew nothing of the temporary estrangement, and it would be unwise to run the risk of arousing their curiosity.

The evening wore on ; the moment of my departure was drawing very near. At last I fairly forced Austin into a quiet corner.

“Well?” I said, with a meaning smile.

“Well what?” said Austin.

“Everything all straight and comfortable again?”

“I'm afraid I don't understand you.”

“Why, you and Celia, you know. The last time I saw you—”

“Oh, that?" His face cleared. He nodded carelessly. “These little affairs blow over, quite naturally if you just give them time.”

The callous young ruffian ! For the thousandth time, I was sure that he did not deserve so sweet a wife as Celia. She, at any rate, would have more to say to me.

“Quite happy?” I whispered. We were alone in the hall. She was seeing me off.

“Quite, thanks,” Her tone lacked gratitude. “And you?”

“I shall always be happy so long as I know that you are happy. Especially," I added, tenderly, “when I think that in a very small way, I have been instrumental in restoring your happiness.”

“You’re a funny old thing,” said Celia. “Mind you don’t miss your train.”