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    Chapter 19

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    Chapter 19
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    DANGER

    Again the bright little dining-room, with the morning sun gleaming upon the high silver coffee pot and the electro-plated toast-rack-- everything the same, down to the plates which Jemima had once again forgotten to warm. Maude, with the golden light playing upon the fringes of her curls, and throwing two little epaulettes of the daintiest pink across her shoulders, sat in silence, glancing across from time to time with interrogative eyes at her husband. He ate his breakfast moodily, for he was very ill at ease. There was a struggle within him, for his conscience was pulling him one way and his instincts the other. Instincts are a fine old conservative force, while conscience is a thing of yesterday, so it is usually safe to prophesy which will sway the other.

    The matter at issue was whether he should tell Maude about Violet Wright. If she were going to carry out her threat, then certainly it would be better to prepare her. But after all, his arguments of yesterday might prevail with her when her first impetuous fit of passion was over. Why should he go half-way to meet danger? If it came, nothing which he could say would ward it off. If it did not come, there was no need for saying anything. Conscience told him that it would be better to be perfectly straight with his wife. Instinct told him that though she would probably be sweet and sympathetic over it, yet it would rankle in her mind and poison her thoughts. And perhaps for once, Instinct may have been better than Conscience. Do not ask too many questions, you young wife! Do not be too free with your reminiscences, you young husband. There are things which can be forgiven, but never, never, can they be forgotten. That highest thing on earth, the heart of a loving woman, is too tender, too sacred, to be bruised by a wanton confidence. You are hers. She is yours. The future lies with both of you. It is wiser to leave the past alone. The couples who boast that they have never had a secret are sometimes happy because the boast is sometimes untrue.

    'You won't be late to-day, Frank,' said Maude at last, peeping round the tall coffee-pot.

    'No, dear, I won't.'

    'You were yesterday, you know.'

    'Yes, I know I was.'

    'Were you kept at the office?'

    'No, I had tea with a friend.'

    'At his house?'

    'No, no, at a restaurant. Where has Jemima put my boots? I wonder if she has cleaned them. I can never tell by looking. Here they are. And my coat? Anything I can get you in town? Well, good-bye, dear, good-bye!' Maude had never seen him make so hurried an exit.

    It is always a mystery to the City man how his wife puts in the seven hours a day of loneliness while the E.C. has claimed him for its own. She cannot explain it to him, for she can hardly explain it to herself. It is frittered away in a thousand little tasks, each trivial in itself, and yet making in their sum the difference between a well-ordered and a neglected household. Under the illustrious guidance of the omniscient Mrs. Beeton there is the usual routine to be gone through. The cook has to be seen, the larder examined, the remains cunningly transformed into new and attractive shapes, the dinner to be ordered (anything will do for lunch), and the new supplies to be got in. The husband accepts the excellent little dinner, the fried sole, the ris de veau en caisse, the lemon pudding, as if they had grown automatically out of the table-cloth. He knows nothing of the care, the judgment, the prevision which ring the changes with every season, which never relax and never mistake. He enjoys the fruits, but he ignores the work which raised them. And yet the work goes cheerfully and uncomplainingly on.

    Then when every preparation has been made for the dinner--that solemn climax of the British day, there is plenty for Maude to do. There is the white chiffon to be taken out of the neck of that dress, and the pink to be put in. Amateur dressmaking is always going on at The Lindens, and Frank has become more careful in his caresses since he found one evening that his wife had a row of pins between her lips-- which is not a pleasant discovery to make with your own. Then there are drawers to be tidied, and silver to be cleaned, and the leaves of the gutta-percha plant to be washed, and the feather which was damped yesterday to be re-curled before the fire. That leaves just time before lunch to begin the new novel by glancing at the last two pages to see what DID happen, and then the three minutes lunch of a lonely woman. So much for business, now for the more trying social duties. The pink dressing-gown is shed and a trim little walking dress-- French grey cloth with white lisse in front and a grey zouave jacket- -takes its place. Visiting strangers is not nearly so hard when you are pleased with your dress, and even entertaining becomes more easy when your costumiere lives in Regent Street. On Tuesdays Maude is at home. Every other day she hunts through her plate of cards, and is overwhelmed by the sense of her rudeness towards her neighbours. But her task is never finished, though day after day she comes back jaded with her exertions. Strangers still call upon her--'hope it is not too late to do the right thing, and to welcome,' etc., etc.--and they have to be re-visited. While she is visiting them, other cards appear upon her hall table, and so the foolish and tiresome convention continues to exhaust the time and the energies of its victim.

    Those original receptions were really very difficult. Jemima announced a name which might or might not bear some relation to the visitor's. The lady entered. Her name might perhaps be Mrs. Baker. Maude had no means of knowing who Mrs. Baker might be. The visitor seldom descended to an explanation. Ten minutes of desultory and forced conversation about pinewoods and golf and cremation. A cup of tea and a departure. Then Maude would rush to the card-tray to try to find out whom it was that she had been talking to, and what it was all about.

    Maude did not intend to go visiting that particular day, and she had hoped that no one might visit her. The hours of danger were almost past, and it was close upon four o'clock, when there came a brisk pull at the bell.

    'Mrs. White,' said Jemima, opening the drawing-room door.

    'Wright,' said the visitor, as she walked in--'Mrs. Violet Wright.'

    Maude rose with her pleasant smile. It was a peculiarly sweet and kindly smile, for it was inspired by a gentle womanly desire to make things pleasant for all who were around her. Amiability was never artificial with her, for she had the true instincts of a lady--those instincts so often spoken of, so seldom, so very seldom seen. Like a gentleman, or a Christian, or any other ideal, it is but a poor approximation which is commonly attained.

    But the visitor did not respond to the pretty gesture of welcome, nor did her handsome face return that sympathetic smile. They stood for an instant looking at each other, the one tall, masterful, mature, the other sweet, girlish, and self-distrustful, but each beautiful and engaging in her own way. Lucky Master Frank, whose past and present could take such a form; but luckier still if he could have closed the past when the present opened. The visitor was silent, but her dark eyes looked critically and fixedly at her rival. Maude, setting the silence down to the shyness of a first visit, tried to make matters easier.

    'Please try this armchair. No doubt you have had a tiring walk. It is still very warm in the afternoons. I think it was so kind of you to call.'

    A faint smile flickered upon the dark face.

    'Kind of me to call!' said she.

    'Yes; for in a rising place like Woking, with so many new arrivals, it must be quite a task for the older inhabitants to welcome them. I have been so surprised by the kindness which every one has shown.'

    'Oh, I see,' said her visitor, 'you think that I live here. I have really just come down from London.'

    'Indeed,' said Maude, and awaited an explanation. As none was forthcoming, she added, 'You will find Woking a very nice place.'

    'A nice place to be buried in, alive or dead,' said her visitor.

    There was something peculiarly ungracious in her tone and manner. It seemed to Maude that she had never before been alone with so singular a person. There was, in the first place, her striking and yet rather sinister and voluptuous beauty.

    Then there was the absolute carelessness of her manner, the quiet assumption that she was outside the usual conventionalities of life. It is a manner only to be met in English life, among some of the highest of the high world, and some of the highest of the half world. It was new to Maude, and it made her uncomfortable, while mingled with it there was something else which made her feel for the first time in her life that she had incurred the hostility of a fellow- mortal. It chilled her, and made her unhappy.

    The visitor made no effort to sustain the conversation, but leaned back in her chair and stared at her hostess with a very critical and searching glance. Those two questioning dark eyes played eagerly over her from her brown curls down to the little shining shoe-tips which peeped from under the grey skirt. Especially they dwelt upon her face, reading it and rereading it. Never had Maude been so inspected, and her instinct told her that the inspection was not altogether a friendly one.

    Violet Wright having examined her rival, proceeded now with the same cool attention to take in her surroundings. She looked round deliberately at the furniture of the room, and reconstructed in her own mind the life of the people who owned it. Maude ventured upon one or two conventional remarks, but her visitor was not to be diverted to the weather or to the slowness of the South-Western train service. She continued her quiet and silent inspection. Suddenly she rose and swept across to the side-table. A photograph of Frank in his volunteer uniform stood upon it.

    'This is your husband, Mr. Frank Crosse?'

    'Yes, do you know him?'

    'Slightly. We have mutual friends.' An ambiguous smile played across her face as she spoke. 'This must have been taken after I saw him.'

    'It was taken just after our marriage.'

    'Quite so. He looks like a good little married man. The photograph is flattering.'

    'Oh, you think so!' said Maude coldly. 'My own impression is that it fails to do him justice.'

    Her visitor laughed. 'Of course that WOULD be your impression,' said she.

    Maude's gentle soul began to rise in anger.

    'It is the truth,' she cried.

    'It is right that you should think so,' the other answered, with the same irritating laugh.

    'You must have known him very slightly if you can't see that it is the truth.'

    'Then I must have known him very slightly.'

    Maude was very angry indeed. She began to find sides to her own nature the very existence of which she had never suspected. She tapped her little shoe upon the ground, and she sat with a pale face, and compressed lips, and bright eyes, quite prepared to be very rude indeed to this eccentric woman who ventured to criticise her Frank in so free and easy a style. Her visitor watched her, and a change had come over her expression. Maude's evident anger seemed to amuse and interest her. Her eyes lost their critical coldness, and softened into approval. She suddenly put her hand upon the other's shoulder with so natural and yet masterful a gesture, that Maude found it impossible to resent it.

    'He is a lucky man to have such a warm little champion,' said she.

    Her strong character and greater knowledge of the world gave her an ascendency over the girlish wife such as age has over youth. There were not ten years between them, and yet Maude felt that for some reason the conversation between them could not quite be upon equal terms. The quiet assurance of her visitor, whatever its cause, made resentment or remonstrance difficult. Besides, they were a pair of very kindly as well as of very shrewd eyes which now looked down into hers.

    'You love him very much, then?'

    'Of course I love him. He is my husband.'

    'Does it always follow?'

    'You are married yourself. Don't you love yours?'

    'Oh, never mind mine. HE'S all right. Did you ever love any one else?'

    'No, not really.'

    Maude was astonished at herself, and yet the questions were so frankly put that a frank answer came naturally to them. It pleased her to lose that cold chill of dislike, and to feel that for some reason her strange visitor had become more friendly to her.

    'You lucky girl, you actually married the one love of your life!'

    Maude smiled and nodded.

    'What a splendid thing to do! I thought it only happened in books. How happy you must be!'

    'I AM very, very happy.'

    'Well, I dare say you deserve to be. Besides, you really are very pretty. If ever you had a rival, I should think that it must be some consolation to her to know that it was so charming a person who cut her out.'

    Maude laughed at the thought.

    'I never had a rival,' said she. 'My husband never REALLY loved until he met me.'

    'Did he--oh yes, quite so! That is so nice that you should both start with a clean sheet! I thought you were very handsome just now when you were angry with me, but you are quite delightful with that little flush upon your cheeks. If I had been a man, your husband would certainly have had one rival in his wooing. And so he really never loved any one but you? I thought that also only happened in books.'

    There was a hard and ironic tone in the last sentences which jarred upon Maude's sensitive nature. She glanced up quickly and was surprised at the look of pain which had come upon her companion's face. It relaxed into a serious serenity.

    'That fits in beautifully,' said she. 'But there's one bit of advice which I should like to give you, if you won't think it a liberty. Don't be selfish in your married life.'

    'Selfish!'

    'Yes, there is a kind of family selfishness which is every bit as bad--I am not sure that it is not worse--than personal selfishness. People love each other, and they shut out the world, and have no thought for any one else, and the whole universe can slide to perdition so long as their love is not disturbed. That is what I call family selfishness. It's a sin and a shame.'

    Maude looked at this strange woman in amazement. She was speaking fast and hotly, like one whose bitter thoughts have been long penned up for want of a suitable listener.

    'Remember the women who have been less fortunate than you. Remember the thousands who are starving, dying, for want of love, and no love comes their way; whose hearts yearn and faint for that which Nature owes them, but Nature never pays her debt. Remember the plain women. Remember the lonely women. Above all, remember your unfortunate sisters; they, the most womanly of all, who have been ruined by their own kindliness and trust and loving weakness. It is that family selfishness which turns every house in the land into a fort to be held against these poor wanderers. They make them evil, and then they revile the very evil which they have made. When I look back--'

    She stopped with a sudden sob. Her forearm fell upon the mantelpiece, and her forehead upon her forearm. In an instant Maude was by her side, the tears running down her cheeks, for the sight of grief was always grief to her, and her nerves were weakened by this singular interview.

    'Dear Mrs. Wright, don't cry!' she whispered, and her little white hand passed in a soothing, hesitating gesture over the coil of rich chestnut hair. 'Don't cry! I am afraid you have suffered. Oh, how I wish I could help you! Do tell me how I can help you.'

    But Violet's occasional fits of weakness were never of a very long duration. She dashed her hand impatiently across her eyes, straightened her tall figure, and laughed as she glanced at herself in the mirror.

    'Madame Celandine would be surprised if she could see how I have treated one of her masterpieces,' said she, as she straightened her crushed hat, and arranged her hair with those quick little deft pats of the palm with which women can accomplish so much in so short a time. Rumpled finery sets the hands of every woman within sight of it fidgeting, so Maude joined in at the patting and curling and forgot all about her tears.

    'There, that will have to do,' said Violet at last. 'I am so sorry to have made such a fool of myself. I don't err upon the sentimental side as a rule. I suppose it is about time that I thought of catching my train for town. I have a theatre engagement which I must not miss.'

    'How strange it is!' said Maude, looking at her own pretty tear- marked face in the mirror. 'You have only been here a few minutes, as time goes, and yet I feel that in some things I am more intimate with you than with any woman I have ever met. How can it be? What bond can there be to draw us together like this? And it is the more extraordinary, because I felt that you disliked me when you entered the room, and I am sure that you won't be offended if I say that when you had been here a little I thought that I disliked you. But I don't. On the contrary, I wish you could come every day. And I want to come and see you also when I am in town.'

    Maude, for all her amiability, was not gushing by nature, and this long speech caused her great astonishment when she looked back upon it. But at the moment it came so naturally from her heart that she never paused to think of its oddity. Her enthusiasm was a little chilled, however, by the way in which her advances were received. Violet Wright's eyes were more kindly than ever, but she shook her head.

    'No, I don't suppose we shall ever meet again. I don't think I could ask you to visit me in London. I wanted to see you, and I have seen you, but that, I fear, must be the end of it.'

    Maude's lip trembled in a way which it had when she was hurt.

    'Why did you wish to see me, then?' she asked.

    'On account of that slight acquaintance with your husband. I thought it would be interesting to see what sort of wife he had chosen.'

    'I hope you are not disappointed,' said Maude, making a roguish face.

    'He has done very well--better than I expected.'

    'You had not much respect for his taste, then?'

    'Oh yes, I always thought highly of his taste.'

    'You have such a pretty way of putting things. You know my husband very slightly, but still I can see that you know the world very well. I often wonder if I am really the best kind of woman that he could have married. Do you think I am, Mrs. Wright?'

    Her visitor looked in silence for a little at the gentle grace and dainty sympathetic charm of the woman before her.

    'Yes,' she said slowly, as one who weighs her words. 'I think you are. You are a lady with a lady's soul in you. A woman can draw a man down very low, or she can make him live at his very highest. Don't be soft with him. Don't give way when you know that your way is the higher way. Pull him up, don't let him ever pull you down. Then his respect for you will strengthen his love for you, and the two together are so much greater than either one apart. Your instinct would be to do this, and therefore you are the best sort of woman for him.'

    Her opinion was given with so much thought, and yet so much decision, that Maude glowed with pride and with pleasure. There was knowledge and authority behind the words of this unaccountable woman.

    'How sweet you are!' she cried. 'I feel that what you say is true. I feel that that is what a wife should be to her husband. Please God, I will be so to Frank!'

    'And one other piece of advice before I leave you,' said Violet Wright. 'Don't ever take your husband for granted. Don't ever accept his kiss or caress as a routine thing. Don't ever relax those little attentions which you showed him in the earliest days. Don't let the freshness go out of love, for the love may soon follow it, even when duty keeps the man true. It is the commonest mistake which married women make. It has caused more unhappiness than any other. They do not realise it until it is too late. Be keenly watchful for your husband's wants and comforts. It is not the comfort but the attention which he values. If it is not there he will say nothing, if he is a good fellow, but he notices it all the same. She has changed, he thinks. And from that moment he will begin to change also. Be on your guard against that. It is very unselfish of me to give you all this wise counsel.'

    'It is very good of you, and I feel that it is all so true. But why is it unselfish of you?'

    'I only meant that I had no interest in the matter. What does it matter to me whether you keep his love or not. And yet I don't know.' She suddenly put her arms round Maude, and kissed her upon the cheek. 'You are a good little sort, and I hope you will be happy.'

    Frank Crosse had disentangled himself from the rush of City men emerging from the Woking station, and he was walking swiftly through the gathering gloom along the vile, deeply-rutted road, which formed a short cut to The Lindens. Suddenly, with a sinking heart, he was aware of a tall graceful figure which was sweeping towards him. There could not be two women of that height, who carried themselves in that fashion.

    'Violet!'

    'Hullo, Frankie! I thought it might be you, but those tall hats and black overcoats make every one alike. Your wife will be glad to see you.'

    'Violet! You have ruined our happiness. How could you have the heart to do it! It is not for myself I speak, God knows. But to think of her feelings being so abused, her confidence so shaken--'

    'All right, Frankie, there is nothing to be tragic about.'

    'Haven't you been to my house?'

    'Yes, I have.'

    'And seen her?'

    'Yes.'

    'Well then--'

    'I didn't give you away, my boy. I was a model of discretion. I give you my word that it is all right. And she's a dear little soul, Frankie. You're not worthy to varnish those pretty patent leathers of hers. You know you're not. And by Jove, Frankie, if you had stayed with me yesterday I should never have forgiven you--no, never! I'll resign in her favour. I will. But in no one else's, and if ever I hear of your going wrong, my boy, or doing anything but the best with that sweet trusting woman, I'll make you curse the day that ever you knew me--I will, by the living Jingo.'

    'Do, Violet--you have my leave.'

    'All right. The least said the soonest mended. Give me a kiss before we part.'

    She raised her veil, and he kissed her. He was wearing some withered flower in his overcoat, and she took it from him.

    'It's a souvenir of our friendship, Frankie, and rather a good emblem of it also. So-long!' said she, as she turned down the weary road which leads to the station. A young golfer, getting in at Byfleet, was surprised to see a handsome woman weeping bitterly in the corner of a second-class carriage. 'Comm' up from roastin' somebody at that damned crematory place,' was his explanation to his companion.

    Frank had a long and animated account from Maude of the extraordinary visitor whom she had entertained. 'It's such a pity, dear, that you don't know her well, for I should really like to hear every detail about her. At first I thought she was mad, and then I thought she was odious, and then finally she seemed to be the very wisest and kindest woman that I had ever known. She made me angry, and frightened, and grieved, and grateful, and affectionate, one after the other, and I never in my life was so taken out of myself by any one. She IS so sensible!'

    'Sensible, is she?'

    'And she said that I was--oh! I can't repeat it--everything that is nice.'

    'Then she IS sensible.'

    'And such a high opinion of your taste.'

    'Had she indeed.'

    'Do you know, Frank, I really believe that in a quiet, secret, retiring sort of way she has been fond of you herself.'

    'O Maude, what funny ideas you get sometimes! I say, if we are going out for dinner, it is high time that we began to dress.'
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