HAD Mary Arnott been marked by anything more characteristic than a certain placid acceptance she might have wondered at her husband’s attitude toward Peter Wentworth, for Peter had become an appanage of the Arnott house. Many homes were open to him, but he drifted there constantly, almost automatically.
He was differentiated sufficiently from her husband to give Mary a pleasing sense of light and shade, and he seemed to keep her in touch with socialities to a degree that purely marital relationship wpuld never have effected. Peter himself with his reproachless garb, his quizzical twinkle and irrepressible humor, supplied something that she sub-consciously lacked in the more sombre Arnott, and—was not the friendship of the two an answer to everything.
But to-night, in a shadow of childless loneliness, her mood called for her husband. In the seasons of unsatisfied longing, and they came not seldom in spite of all her placidity, there was that in her heart which locked and barred its every approach to all save the controlled and uncommunicative Arnott. And so, at his step and the click of the lifted latch, something of her depression passed into the relief of welcome.
As she listened at her dressing room door, Peter’s voice sounded cheerily. “I’m all right old chap,” her husband came quickly up the stairs, entered the room and put his arm around her shoulders.
“I brought Peter to dinner. Picked the old chap up at the Club, desperately lonely. He baulked a bit, but I insisted/’
Mary drew his face down to her lips. “Jack, dear, I didn’t want Peter this evening, I wanted you.”
A shadow fled through his eyes, then he looked at her smilingly, “Don’t want Peter—why he’s much better company than I am.”
“Jack, don’t you understand? I wanted to be alone with my husband.”
“I didn’t know dear,” he said soberly, “I’m sorry, but you’ve never complained of his presence before.”
She did not raise her head or speak and he hesitated for a moment. She held more closely to him, her arms about his neck, he looked at her, clinging, and murmured half aloud, “Poor old Peter.”
Her quick lifted eyes met his own, “Why poor Peter?”
“Don’t you know, Mary?” he said gently-
She shook her head, “How should I?”
Her bent shoulders straightened under his hands and his gaze insistent and compelling met and sank into her own. “Are you blind, quite blind; what is it that brings Peter here?”
“Jack, I can’t understand you. There’s every reason, everything that men find in each other.”
“Nothing else,” he said, with eyes still reading her own.
She met them wonderingly, “What else could there be?”
“Suppose I were to tell you that what holds Peter and myself together is the very thing that makes bad blood between most men, but, because Peter is Peter, it’s different with us.”
She stared at him, “What do you mean?”
“I mean that Peter loves you,” he went on doggedly and dispassionately. “I mean that-”
“Jack it’s not true—how dare you say that I”
“I mean,” he persisted, “that this is the only thing in his life he values. It’s not myself, it’s you; and it has made him a prince of gentlemen.”
Mary’s lips moved in a wordless speech, that framed no answer. It had all been so perfect, David and Jonathan, husband and friend, between them she had moved happily and carefree, accepting love and loyal service, as of the things appointed. All her existence was wrapped up in Arnott. She was swayed by a worship of him that often frightened her in its intensity, and yet, strangely enough, its expression was sometimes baffled by its very strength. She could never abandon herself, but when the realization of it came, it seemed something too divine to release from the boundaries of her own spirit, too rare to share even with its own object.
It was unutterable that Peter should feel for her anything of the nature and quality of what she felt for her husband.
“How do you know?” she said faintly. “Because Í know men.”' He spoke insistently with a great conviction: “You don’t, you know only one. I have something Peter has not, but he lets that make no difference—that is Peter’s honor.”
She looked at him helplessly, “I don’t want to go down. I can’t.”
“You must, more now than ever before,” he encouraged quickly. “It’s a queer sort of triangular affair, and you were the undefined apex, and, it’s much better that you should learn from me than anyone else. I’ll be down in a moment.” Mary talked mechanically through an interminable dinner, her eyes ranging from one face to the other. There was nothing to mark any difference. Arnott was as ever an agreeable host. Wentworth a welcome guest. Her husband’s face, keen, strong and introspective was not that of a man who had pierced the inmost secret of his friend’s heart and found something that works like poison in the blood of most of such discoverers. Wentworth, cheerful, even merry, seemed never to have heard of such a thing as hopeless love, nothing could have been more foreign to the quick response that met her
attempts at conversation. But beneath it all she felt for the first time the undercurrents of life, and trembled at the murmur of their moving tides.
To-night she watched the part he played and marvelled at such clear-eyed gaiety. It did not seem possible that her husband was right, but innumerable little halfforgotten happenings, crowding hurriedly into her brain, all hinted at the same story, and when she escaped it was to bury a flushed face in her hands and think.
At her going a silence fell between the two men, and Arnott’s face took on a strange impenetrableness. The wordless space lengthened almost to the point of embarrassment, when he suddenly said: “I had rather an interesting case last week and am particularly anxious to get your opinion on it.”
“Let’s have it, old chap. My opinion is not worth much as you have proved in court several times lately; but you’re welcome to it. ”
“A woman came to my office in great distress.” resumed Arnott, “a woman you know, so I won’t mention names. She has been married for several years to a man who has had her entire respect and confidence. After several ineffectual attempts she told me she had discovered a week or so ago that her husband lives a double life, and is away from town a great deal.”
His guest looked at him comprehendingly and Arnott went on: “This man, whom I saw next day, strikes me, strangeIv enough, as being quite a decent fellow. He isn’t low or vile in the usual sense of the word. Finally I got him to talk. It’s rather a long story, but here is the gist of it.
“He believes in something that he calls the duality of life, and holds that he. and for the matter of that, all the rest of us. are composed of two elements, one good and one bad.
“Now the curious part of it all is that he loves his wife, there is no question of that, but has never dared to exhibit his whole composite self to her. He has made a burnt offering, so to speak, before her, of his better nature.”
There was a strange note in his voice. To Wentworth it sounded as though Arnott spoke to a judge. They were both leading members of legal firms, they had
striven mightily in court and had effected many a compromise at the cheery fireside of their club, but now Wentworth felt that he was on new ground.
Arnott leaned forward. “There’s one thing I did notice, he seems self-possessed and almost blatantly satisfied, but I am certain that that is superficial. It’s his way of carrying it off. He’s too proud to face the inevitable. I’m morally certain that he is full of a great remorse and would play the game if he could break himself to do it.”
“You have said nothing about his wife,” put in Wentworth.
His host hesitated “She is the kind that would appear desirable to any man.”
“Then I can’t see that there is any question about it—legally.”
“Of course not,” his host broke in, “it’s the other side of it. The man is not immoral, he’s unmoral. It’s the justification I’m driving at. What about that?”
Wentworth thought silently for some time and scanned the keen face across the table. He had never questioned Arnott’s interpretation of such matters, for was not Arnott Mary’s husband. Then he shook his head slowly; “There isn’t any justification, old chap.”
He fingered his wine glass with something of mystification. His own mind shrank delicately and instinctively from tainted things. He had preserved a fresh and wholesome view with all his worldly wisdom and had mentally linked arms with Arnott in the paths through which his own idealism had led. But this was something new from Arnott.
He rubbed his fingers together expressively and again had the strange prompting that he was on some invisible bench, and to banish it, said almost sharply, “You want me to say exactly what I think?”
Arnott nodded, with eyes still fixed on his guest.
“Well, it’s inexcusable from any point of view. This man lives and acts a lie. Mind you I think he has probably paid for it a thousand times ; paid more than it was ever worth, and has carried round with him a private personal purgatory whatever he may protest to the contrary. Poor devil. I’m sorry for him.”
“So am I.” The words came slowly, but very distinctly—
Wentworth walked home with a mind full of old rebellious questions to which he never could find any answer. Sometimes he was able to temper his thoughts till they moved in parallel with an outward contentment, but to-night, a lonely imagination overleaped every boundary. He half guessed that Arnott knew. If he did not know, why should he have so often effaced himself, so often set aside his husbandship? Why should his hospitable door seem to swing open automatically at his friend’s approach? Then Mary’s face came between him and the reflection on her husband’s rare understanding, and at the vision every fibre of his being went out in unutterable longing. From the beginning it was written that he should worship Mary and Mary alone.
He had never told her. Love was unborn in him when she had married Arnott, and it was a year later that he read his fate in her gentle eyes. A remorseless destiny had guarded his soul, kept it clean, noble and brave as though for some high purpose, and then set him on the borders of a fair country which was not of his.
Beside an expiring fire Mary looked at her husband with trouble in her eyes.
“I’m afraid you’ve spoiled everything for Peter and me. Oh why couldn’t you have left it just as it was. I don’t want to see him at all, now.”
“I think you are wrong there. If you won’t see him, it will be cruel, and if I had not told you it would have been cruel too. Now I’m going to tell you something more.”
A log collapsed on the hearth and shot out a myriad of little points of life. The glow dwelt for a space till he met her questioning gaze, and said thoughtfully: “People can’t accept each other in their entirety, and it’s a merciful providence that only rarely we get suggestions of it. That applies to you and Peter and to you and me, as well.”
“Jack, what do you mean, haven’t you taken me—the whole of me?”
“No, I don’t think so, because I never can know the whole of you and you wouldn’t like it, if I did.”
“Really? You are extremely complimentary.”
“Think for a moment,” he persisted. “I’ll speak now of myself. I have impulses, thoughts and emotions and I perform mental acts which are no less real than physical ones and which,”—he paused, then, suddenly, “I would rather die than reveal, even to you.”
The quick color palpitated on her cheek, then she slipped down on the rug and hid her face against his chair.
“It’s true, Jack,” she whispered, “I know it’s true, and with me too, but don’t pull Peter into it.”
“It’s partly on account of Peter that I mention these things,” he said gently, “don’t be too kind, and—” he smiled, turning her face up to his, “don’t be too attractive, it will be easier for Peter. Easier for the side of him that he will never reveal, but you must never forget.
A sensing of unspeakable things came over Mary. It was the first time that, for her, the semblance of life had been torn away and now she had a glimpse of the rioting atoms that convention has shaped into a more or less acceptable structure. She could never, never think of Peter again in the same way, and, realizing this, experienced a dull resentment against her husband.
“You should not have spoken like this, Jack, you have done more harm than good—to all of us,” she added bitterly.
The words slid by him ineffectually. He was staring at her through half closed lids. “If, sometime, you should discover things about me, should discover the other side of me, and it was different from all of your ideas, would you be satisfied, be big enough to accept what you do know now, and be content with that?”
“Jack, dear, don’t, you fill me with useless fear. God knows what you mean to me.” She pressed her cheek close against his arm. “I love you. I love you.”
A flying shadow sped across his face, and touched it with a sudden nameless change. Then Mary looked up at him. “Come dear, you are tired.”
He did not answer, and she peered more closely at him. “Jack,” she cried, switching on the light, “What is the matter. Speak to me.”
His clear features grew into distortion even as she called, and a thousand little
muscles twitched them out of all likeness to himself. One corner of his mouth moved convulsively and then drooped into a horrible inanity. A quick terror robbed her of breath and speech. She could but hold his helpless hands to a throbbing heart. As she stared, his arms swung unheeded, the frightful grotesqueness of his face fixed itself into a revolting,terrifying leer, and the stricken head dropped forward. He moved once or twice as though trying to get up, then sank back limp and powerless.
“Jack,” she called, pulling at his shoulders in panic, “Jack, what is it?” But there came no answer.
It was not till a year later, when Mary was emerging from the solitude of her mourning, that Peter dined again at the Arnott house. The abandonment of her grief had begun to soften into a memorial tenderness through which her interpretation of her husband moved with a glorified perfection, that seemed to shine the clearer with the passage of time. Her moods had had full sway, unchecked by duty or obligation, and now as the shadows lifted, she prepared for a life of sacrificial devotion to a good cause.
Peter, stepping warily down the path of an executor who was in desperate love with the beneficiary, had not prejudiced his own interest by any untoward eagerness. So kind had he been, so thoughtful and so impersonal that Mary easily believed that in the shock of his friend’s death love had been buried.
The old understanding seemed to have revived, till, suddenly, sitting again with him by the same hearth, she felt in a flash that nothing in him had died or changed. Their eyes met under the potent psychology of the leaping flame and however her heart might protest there was that in his eyes and face which she knew must speak. Some telepathic communion told him that she knew and then he found words.
He did not beseech, he did not urge, but it all came with modest confidence. “I know I can’t give you what dear old Jack gave,” he said affectionately, “I haven’t his brains, and I don’t ask for what you gave Jack. I don’t expect that, but we’re both lonely, Mary. I won’t come
between yourself and memories, but I want to take care of you.”
No other road would have taken him so near to her. He saw it in the almost imperceptible softening of her eyes and when she spoke there was a delicate thread of feeling in her voice that made his heart yearn.
“Peter, dear friend, I don’t know how to tell you in a way that will help you to understand. No woman owes more to a friend than I to you, and I can never, never repay it.”
Peter raised a deprecating hand; she took it between her own. All the blood rushed to his heart, but he could feel no response in that smooth, cool touch.
“I have nothing left to give, even to you. I have lived with the one perfect man I knew—and now,” her voice broke, “I don’t want to live again. It would be only acting, Peter. Were his memory less perfect, then perhaps,” she fought with emotion, her eyes full of tears.
“I love you,” said Peter, doggedly, “from the moment I saw you I loved you. Marv, can vou do without love all your life?”
“Yes,” she said in a low voice, “without that kind.”
“There is no other kind.”
“Peter, listen, and be gentle with me. Jack once told me that there were things about him I didn’t know, a side of himself that he couldn’t reveal. I agreed with him, but now I see I was wrong. I knew all of him, it was beautiful and perfect, and knowing and remembering that, as I do, every hour of every day, don’t you see I can’t begin all over again.”
The plaint in her voice touched him profoundly, and he bent over her hand and for the first time in his life, kissed it.
“Forgive me if-”
“There is nothing to forgive, dear friend,” she said quickly. “Good night.
God bless you—always-”
He was at the door when she put a packet into his hands. “These are some papers I found in a corner of his desk. I think they must belong to some case. I have not read them. Will you send them to the office if they should go there?”
He turned at the street to lift his hat again. Mary was standing on the threshold, the light filtering through her brown hair, and the dark woodwork framing her
dainty figure. She looked the spirit of a home.
His mind was charged with revolt. He felt instinctively that an idealized memory was an unconquerable rival, it would never weaken, never betray itself and he would go on fighting a vain battle with the air; the thought gave him a strange sense of futility.
Later, in his rooms, an old brown pipe restored a temporary peace, and he examined the packet, a sheet of paper enclosing perhaps a dozen letters, and fastened with a rubber band. He turned them over singly. They were all postmarked from a neighboring city and addressed to Arnott in a handwriting in which masculine sturdiness marched with a certain feminine irregularity.
He opened one at random, dated about three months before his friend’s death, and ran over the first lines carelessly. Suddenly he stopped, straightened in his chair, laid down his pipe and turned to the last page. Then he examined another letter and another. Thev were all from the same woman, and all written within a year of Arnott’s death.
lie turned back and read—ravenouslv. as a dog eats meat. “Bv God.” he said, under his breath. “Bv God.” He snatched another letter and raced through it. Individual words and sentences stood out and held him for a moment, then fury took him and he dashed ahead., ripping them open, devouring them, hurling them on the floor, his forehead red and swollen, his hands trembling. He jumped up and stumbled about the room, seeing nothing but the litter of crumpled sheets, then turned to the mantel, and was face to face with Arnott’s photograph. In^ a flash it was torn to shreds and snurted into a bine flame on the hearth. Then Wentworth’s fury passed and he flung his arms out on the table and thrust his face into them.
A long time passed and the bent shoulders ceased to shake. When he looked un a new light had replaced the insensate anger in his eves. The letters, carefullv gathered, were remade into the packet and lay noised in his hand. Deep in the man’s strong nature something was stirring; he felt, the power of it and waited. Then be fieman to talk in a aueer voice, as if to himself, but in realitv to the greater self that was born in him that hour.
"I know now what Jack meant that night when he told me about his client, but he didn’t have a client, and he hadn’t time to straighten things out. I know why he didn’t tell me all. I wouldn’t let him. I came down too hard on the old chap. He was going to, he certainly was going to chuck it, but he got knocked out at the wrong time. It’s all right, old chap, it’s all right.”
He got down and fumbled on the cold hearth for the charred pieces of the photograph, but they dissolved into dust. Then he took another picture, Mary’s, from the mantel, and looked into the clear eyes. "You are mine,” he breathed, "by all
the laws of God and man you are mine.” The smiling lips touched his own. "But I cannot murder your spirit. I love you too much for that. So I give you back your memories, my Mary.”
He raked the embers together and coaxed them into life, and when the bright blaze came laid the packet in the middle of it. Then the flame leaped higher, the passport to his desire curled and blackened, and the accusing words pin-pointed themselves and tumbled into black destruction. When the very last fragment had disappeared he kissed the photograph again. "God keep you, my Mary,” he whispered.