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    The Pretext

    by Edith Wharton
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    I

    MRS. RANSOM, when the front door had closed on her visitor, passed
    with a spring from the drawing-room to the narrow hall, and thence
    up the narrow stairs to her bedroom.

    Though slender, and still light of foot, she did not always move so
    quickly: hitherto, in her life, there had not been much to hurry
    for, save the recurring domestic tasks that compel haste without
    fostering elasticity; but some impetus of youth revived,
    communicated to her by her talk with Guy Dawnish, now found
    expression in her girlish flight upstairs, her girlish impatience to
    bolt herself into her room with her throbs and her blushes.

    Her blushes? Was she really blushing?

    She approached the cramped eagle-topped mirror above her plain prim
    dressing-table: just such a meagre concession to the weakness of the
    flesh as every old-fashioned house in Wentworth counted among its
    relics. The face reflected in this unflattering surface--for even
    the mirrors of Wentworth erred on the side of depreciation--did not
    seem, at first sight, a suitable theatre for the display of the
    tenderer emotions, and its owner blushed more deeply as the fact was
    forced upon her.

    Her fair hair had grown too thin--it no longer quite hid the blue
    veins in her candid forehead--a forehead that one seemed to see
    turned toward professorial desks, in large bare halls where a snowy
    winter light fell uncompromisingly on rows of "thoughtful women."
    Her mouth was thin, too, and a little strained; her lips were too
    pale; and there were lines in the corners of her eyes. It was a face
    which had grown middle-aged while it waited for the joys of youth.

    Well--but if she could still blush? Instinctively she drew back a
    little, so that her scrutiny became less microscopic, and the pretty
    lingering pink threw a veil over her pallor, the hollows in her
    temples, the faint wrinkles of inexperience about her lips and eyes.
    How a little colour helped! It made her eyes so deep and shining.
    She saw now why bad women rouged. . . . Her redness deepened at the
    thought.

    But suddenly she noticed for the first time that the collar of her
    dress was cut too low. It showed the shrunken lines of the throat.
    She rummaged feverishly in a tidy scentless drawer, and snatching
    out a bit of black velvet, bound it about her neck. Yes--that was
    better. It gave her the relief she needed. Relief--contrast--that
    was it! She had never had any, either in her appearance or in her
    setting. She was as flat as the pattern of the wall-paper--and so
    was her life. And all the people about her had the same look.
    Wentworth was the kind of place where husbands and wives gradually
    grew to resemble each other--one or two of her friends, she
    remembered, had told her lately that she and Ransom were beginning
    to look alike. . . .

    But why had she always, so tamely, allowed her aspect to conform to
    her situation? Perhaps a gayer exterior would have provoked a
    brighter fate. Even now--she turned back to the glass, loosened the
    tight strands of hair above her brow, ran the fine end of the comb
    under them with a rapid frizzing motion, and then disposed them,
    more lightly and amply, above her eager face. Yes--it was really
    better; it made a difference. She smiled at herself with a timid
    coquetry, and her lips seemed rosier as she smiled. Then she laid
    down the comb and the smile faded. It made a difference,
    certainly--but was it right to try to make one's hair look thicker
    and wavier than it really was? Between that and rouging the ethical
    line seemed almost impalpable, and the spectre of her rigid New
    England ancestry rose reprovingly before her. She was sure that none
    of her grandmothers had ever simulated a curl or encouraged a blush.
    A blush, indeed! What had any of them ever had to blush for in all
    their frozen lives? And what, in Heaven's name, had she? She sat
    down in the stiff mahogany rocking-chair beside her work-table and
    tried to collect herself. From childhood she had been taught to
    "collect herself"--but never before had her small sensations and
    aspirations been so widely scattered, diffused over so vague and
    uncharted an expanse. Hitherto they had lain in neatly sorted and
    easily accessible bundles on the high shelves of a perfectly ordered
    moral consciousness. And now--now that for the first time they
    _needed_ collecting--now that the little winged and scattered bits
    of self were dancing madly down the vagrant winds of fancy, she knew
    no spell to call them to the fold again. The best way, no doubt--if
    only her bewilderment permitted--was to go back to the
    beginning--the beginning, at least, of to-day's visit--to
    recapitulate, word for word and look for look. . . .

    She clasped her hands on the arms of the chair, checked its swaying
    with a firm thrust of her foot, and fixed her eyes upon the inward
    vision. . . .

    To begin with, what had made to-day's visit so different from the
    others? It became suddenly vivid to her that there had been many,
    almost daily, others, since Guy Dawnish's coming to Wentworth. Even
    the previous winter--the winter of his arrival from England--his
    visits had been numerous enough to make Wentworth aware that--very
    naturally--Mrs. Ransom was "looking after" the stray young
    Englishman committed to her husband's care by an eminent Q. C. whom
    the Ransoms had known on one of their brief London visits, and with
    whom Ransom had since maintained professional relations. All this
    was in the natural order of things, as sanctioned by the social code
    of Wentworth. Every one was kind to Guy Dawnish--some rather
    importunately so, as Margaret Ransom had smiled to observe--but it
    was recognized as fitting that she should be kindest, since he was
    in a sense her property, since his people in England, by profusely
    acknowledging her kindness, had given it the domestic sanction
    without which, to Wentworth, any social relation between the sexes
    remained unhallowed and to be viewed askance. Yes! And even this
    second winter, when the visits had become so much more frequent, so
    admitted a part of the day's routine, there had not been, from any
    one, a hint of surprise or of conjecture. . . .

    Mrs. Ransom smiled with a faint bitterness. She was protected by her
    age, no doubt--her age and her past, and the image her mirror gave
    back to her. . . .

    Her door-handle turned suddenly, and the bolt's resistance was met
    by an impatient knock.

    "Margaret!"

    She started up, her brightness fading, and unbolted the door to
    admit her husband.

    "Why are you locked in? Why, you're not dressed yet!" he exclaimed.

    It was possible for Ransom to reach his dressing-room by a slight
    circuit through the passage; but it was characteristic of the
    relentless domesticity of their relation that he chose, as a matter
    of course, the directer way through his wife's bedroom. She had
    never before been disturbed by this practice, which she accepted as
    inevitable, but had merely adapted her own habits to it, delaying
    her hasty toilet till he was safely in his room, or completing it
    before she heard his step on the stair; since a scrupulous
    traditional prudery had miraculously survived this massacre of all
    the privacies.

    "Oh, I shan't dress this evening--I shall just have some tea in the
    library after you've gone," she answered absently. "Your things are
    laid out," she added, rousing herself.

    He looked surprised. "The dinner's at seven. I suppose the speeches
    will begin at nine. I thought you were coming to hear them."

    She wavered. "I don't know. I think not. Mrs. Sperry's ill, and I've
    no one else to go with."

    He glanced at his watch. "Why not get hold of Dawnish? Wasn't he
    here just now? Why didn't you ask him?"

    She turned toward her dressing-table, and straightened the comb and
    brush with a nervous hand. Her husband had given her, that morning,
    two tickets for the ladies' gallery in Hamblin Hall, where the great
    public dinner of the evening was to take place--a banquet offered by
    the faculty of Wentworth to visitors of academic eminence--and she
    had meant to ask Dawnish to go with her: it had seemed the most
    natural thing to do, till the end of his visit came, and then, after
    all, she had not spoken. . . .

    "It's too late now," she murmured, bending over her pin cushion.

    "Too late? Not if you telephone him."

    Her husband came toward her, and she turned quickly to face him,
    lest he should suspect her of trying to avoid his eye. To what
    duplicity was she already committed!

    Ransom laid a friendly hand on her arm: "Come along, Margaret. You
    know I speak for the bar." She was aware, in his voice, of a little
    note of surprise at his having to remind her of this.

    "Oh, yes. I meant to go, of course--"

    "Well, then--" He opened his dressing-room door, and caught a
    glimpse of the retreating house-maid's skirt. "Here's Maria now.
    Maria! Call up Mr. Dawnish--at Mrs. Creswell's, you know. Tell him
    Mrs. Ransom wants him to go with her to hear the speeches this
    evening--the _speeches_, you understand?--and he's to call for her
    at a quarter before nine."

    Margaret heard the Irish "Yessir" on the stairs, and stood
    motionless, while her husband added loudly: "And bring me some
    towels when you come up." Then he turned back into his wife's room.

    "Why, it would be a thousand pities for Guy to miss this. He's so
    interested in the way we do things over here--and I don't know that
    he's ever heard me speak in public." Again the slight note of
    fatuity! Was it possible that Ransom was a fatuous man?

    He paused in front of her, his short-sighted unobservant glance
    concentrating itself unexpectedly on her face.

    "You're not going like that, are you?" he asked, with glaring
    eye-glasses.

    "Like what?" she faltered, lifting a conscious hand to the velvet at
    her throat.

    "With your hair in such a fearful mess. Have you been shampooing it?
    You look like the Brant girl at the end of a tennis-match."

    The Brant girl was their horror--the horror of all right-thinking
    Wentworth; a laced, whale-boned, frizzle-headed, high-heeled
    daughter of iniquity, who came--from New York, of course--on long,
    disturbing, tumultuous visits to a Wentworth aunt, working havoc
    among the freshmen, and leaving, when she departed, an angry wake of
    criticism that ruffled the social waters for weeks. _She_, too, had
    tried her hand at Guy--with ludicrous unsuccess. And now, to be
    compared to her--to be accused of looking "New Yorky!" Ah, there are
    times when husbands are obtuse; and Ransom, as he stood there, thick
    and yet juiceless, in his dry legal middle age, with his wiry
    dust-coloured beard, and his perpetual _pince-nez_, seemed to his
    wife a sudden embodiment of this traditional attribute. Not that she
    had ever fancied herself, poor soul, a "_ femme incomprise_." She
    had, on the contrary, prided herself on being understood by her
    husband, almost as much as on her own complete comprehension of him.
    Wentworth laid a good deal of stress on "motives"; and Margaret
    Ransom and her husband had dwelt in a complete community of motive.
    It had been the proudest day of her life when, without consulting
    her, he had refused an offer of partnership in an eminent New York
    firm because he preferred the distinction of practising in
    Wentworth, of being known as the legal representative of the
    University. Wentworth, in fact, had always been the bond between the
    two; they were united in their veneration for that estimable seat of
    learning, and in their modest yet vivid consciousness of possessing
    its tone. The Wentworth "tone" is unmistakable: it permeates every
    part of the social economy, from the _coiffure_ of the ladies to the
    preparation of the food. It has its sumptuary laws as well as its
    curriculum of learning. It sits in judgment not only on its own
    townsmen but on the rest of the world--enlightening, criticising,
    ostracizing a heedless universe--and non-conformity to Wentworth
    standards involves obliteration from Wentworth's consciousness.

    In a world without traditions, without reverence, without stability,
    such little expiring centres of prejudice and precedent make an
    irresistible appeal to those instincts for which a democracy has
    neglected to provide. Wentworth, with its "tone," its backward
    references, its inflexible aversions and condemnations, its hard
    moral outline preserved intact against a whirling background of
    experiment, had been all the poetry and history of Margaret Ransom's
    life. Yes, what she had really esteemed in her husband was the fact
    of his being so intense an embodiment of Wentworth; so long and
    closely identified, for instance, with its legal affairs, that he
    was almost a part of its university existence, that of course, at a
    college banquet, he would inevitably speak for the bar!

    It was wonderful of how much consequence all this had seemed till
    now. . . .

    II

    WHEN, punctually at ten minutes to seven, her husband had emerged
    from the house, Margaret Ransom remained seated in her bedroom,
    addressing herself anew to the difficult process of self-collection.
    As an aid to this endeavour, she bent forward and looked out of the
    window, following Ransom's figure as it receded down the elm-shaded
    street. He moved almost alone between the prim flowerless
    grass-plots, the white porches, the protrusion of irrelevant
    shingled gables, which stamped the empty street as part of an
    American college town. She had always been proud of living in Hill
    Street, where the university people congregated, proud to associate
    her husband's retreating back, as he walked daily to his office,
    with backs literary and pedagogic, backs of which it was whispered,
    for the edification of duly-impressed visitors: "Wait till that old
    boy turns--that's so-and-so."

    This had been her world, a world destitute of personal experience,
    but filled with a rich sense of privilege and distinction, of being
    not as those millions were who, denied the inestimable advantage of
    living at Wentworth, pursued elsewhere careers foredoomed to
    futility by that very fact.

    And now--!

    She rose and turned to her work-table where she had dropped, on
    entering, the handful of photographs that Guy Dawnish had left with
    her. While he sat so close, pointing out and explaining, she had
    hardly taken in the details; but now, on the full tones of his low
    young voice, they came back with redoubled distinctness. This was
    Guise Abbey, his uncle's place in Wiltshire, where, under his
    grandfather's rule, Guy's own boyhood had been spent: a long gabled
    Jacobean facade, many-chimneyed, ivy-draped, overhung (she felt
    sure) by the boughs of a venerable rookery. And in this other
    picture--the walled garden at Guise--that was his uncle, Lord
    Askern, a hale gouty-looking figure, planted robustly on the
    terrace, a gun on his shoulder and a couple of setters at his feet.
    And here was the river below the park, with Guy "punting" a girl in
    a flapping hat--how Margaret hated the flap that hid the girl's
    face! And here was the tennis-court, with Guy among a jolly
    cross-legged group of youths in flannels, and pretty girls about the
    tea-table under the big lime: in the centre the curate handing bread
    and butter, and in the middle distance a footman approaching with
    more cups.

    Margaret raised this picture closer to her eyes, puzzling, in the
    diminished light, over the face of the girl nearest to Guy
    Dawnish--bent above him in profile, while he laughingly lifted his
    head. No hat hid this profile, which stood out clearly against the
    foliage behind it.

    "And who is that handsome girl?" Margaret had said, detaining the
    photograph as he pushed it aside, and struck by the fact that, of
    the whole group, he had left only this member unnamed.

    "Oh, only Gwendolen Matcher--I've always known her--. Look at this:
    the almshouses at Guise. Aren't they jolly?"

    And then--without her having had the courage to ask if the girl in
    the punt were also Gwendolen Matcher--they passed on to photographs
    of his rooms at Oxford, of a cousin's studio in London--one of Lord
    Askern's grandsons was "artistic"--of the rose-hung cottage in Wales
    to which, on the old Earl's death, his daughter-in-law, Guy's
    mother, had retired.

    Every one of the photographs opened a window on the life Margaret
    had been trying to picture since she had known him--a life so rich,
    so romantic, so packed--in the mere casual vocabulary of daily
    life--with historic reference and poetic allusion, that she felt
    almost oppressed by this distant whiff of its air. The very words he
    used fascinated and bewildered her. He seemed to have been born into
    all sorts of connections, political, historical, official, that made
    the Ransom situation at Wentworth as featureless as the top shelf of
    a dark closet. Some one in the family had "asked for the Chiltern
    Hundreds"--one uncle was an Elder Brother of the Trinity House--some
    one else was the Master of a College--some one was in command at
    Devonport--the Army, the Navy, the House of Commons, the House of
    Lords, the most venerable seats of learning, were all woven into the
    dense background of this young man's light unconscious talk. For the
    unconsciousness was unmistakable. Margaret was not without
    experience of the transatlantic visitor who sounds loud names and
    evokes reverberating connections. The poetry of Guy Dawnish's
    situation lay in the fact that it was so completely a part of early
    associations and accepted facts. Life was like that in England--in
    Wentworth of course (where he had been sent, through his uncle's
    influence, for two years' training in the neighbouring electrical
    works at Smedden)--in Wentworth, though "immensely jolly," it was
    different. The fact that he was qualifying to be an electrical
    engineer--with the hope of a secretaryship at the London end of the
    great Smedden Company--that, at best, he was returning home to a
    life of industrial "grind," this fact, though avowedly a bore, did
    not disconnect him from that brilliant pinnacled past, that
    many-faceted life in which the brightest episodes of the whole body
    of English fiction seemed collectively reflected. Of course he would
    have to work--younger sons' sons almost always had to--but his uncle
    Askern (like Wentworth) was "immensely jolly," and Guise always open
    to him, and his other uncle, the Master, a capital old boy too--and
    in town he could always put up with his clever aunt, Lady Caroline
    Duckett, who had made a "beastly marriage" and was horribly poor,
    but who knew everybody jolly and amusing, and had always been
    particularly kind to him.

    It was not--and Margaret had not, even in her own thoughts, to
    defend herself from the imputation--it was not what Wentworth would
    have called the "material side" of her friend's situation that
    captivated her. She was austerely proof against such appeals: her
    enthusiasms were all of the imaginative order. What subjugated her
    was the unexampled prodigality with which he poured for her the same
    draught of tradition of which Wentworth held out its little
    teacupful. He besieged her with a million Wentworths in one--saying,
    as it were: "All these are mine for the asking--and I choose you
    instead!"

    For this, she told herself somewhat dizzily, was what it came
    to--the summing-up toward which her conscientious efforts at
    self-collection had been gradually pushing her: with all this in
    reach, Guy Dawnish was leaving Wentworth reluctantly.

    "I _was_ a bit lonely here at first--but _now!_" And again: "It will
    be jolly, of course, to see them all again--but there are some
    things one doesn't easily give up. . . ."

    If he had known only Wentworth, it would have been wonderful enough
    that he should have chosen her out of all Wentworth--but to have
    known that other life, and to set her in the balance against
    it--poor Margaret Ransom, in whom, at the moment, nothing seemed of
    weight but her years! Ah, it might well produce, in nerves and
    brain, and poor unpractised pulses, a flushed tumult of sensation,
    the rush of a great wave of life, under which memory struggled in
    vain to reassert itself, to particularize again just what his last
    words--the very last--had been. . . .

    When consciousness emerged, quivering, from this retrospective
    assault, it pushed Margaret Ransom--feeling herself a mere leaf in
    the blast--toward the writing-table from which her innocent and
    voluminous correspondence habitually flowed. She had a letter to
    write now--much shorter but more difficult than any she had ever
    been called on to indite.

    "Dear Mr. Dawnish," she began, "since telephoning you just now I
    have decided not--"

    Maria's voice, at the door, announced that tea was in the library:
    "And I s'pose it's the brown silk you'll wear to the speaking?"

    In the usual order of the Ransom existence, its mistress's toilet
    was performed unassisted; and the mere enquiry--at once friendly and
    deferential--projected, for Margaret, a strong light on the
    importance of the occasion. That she should answer: "But I am not
    going," when the going was so manifestly part of a household
    solemnity about which the thoughts below stairs fluttered in proud
    participation; that in face of such participation she should utter a
    word implying indifference or hesitation--nay, revealing herself the
    transposed, uprooted thing she had been on the verge of becoming; to
    do this was--well! infinitely harder than to perform the alternative
    act of tearing up the sheet of note-paper under her reluctant pen.

    Yes, she said, she would wear the brown silk. . . .

    III

    ALL the heat and glare from the long illuminated table, about which
    the fumes of many courses still hung in a savoury fog, seemed to
    surge up to the ladies' gallery, and concentrate themselves in the
    burning cheeks of a slender figure withdrawn behind the projection
    of a pillar.

    It never occurred to Margaret Ransom that she was sitting in the
    shade. She supposed that the full light of the chandeliers was
    beating on her face--and there were moments when it seemed as though
    all the heads about the great horse-shoe below, bald, shaggy, sleek,
    close-thatched, or thinly latticed, were equipped with an additional
    pair of eyes, set at an angle which enabled them to rake her face as
    relentlessly as the electric burners.

    In the lull after a speech, the gallery was fluttering with the
    rustle of programmes consulted, and Mrs. Sheff (the Brant girl's
    aunt) leaned forward to say enthusiastically: "And now we're to hear
    Mr. Ransom!"

    A louder buzz rose from the table, and the heads (without relaxing
    their upward vigilance) seemed to merge, and flow together, like an
    attentive flood, toward the upper end of the horse-shoe, where all
    the threads of Margaret Ransom's consciousness were suddenly drawn
    into what seemed a small speck, no more--a black speck that rose,
    hung in air, dissolved into gyrating gestures, became distended,
    enormous, preponderant--became her husband "speaking."

    "It's the heat--" Margaret gasped, pressing her handkerchief to her
    whitening lips, and finding just strength enough left to push back
    farther into the shadow.

    She felt a touch on her arm. "It _is_ horrible--shall we go?" a
    voice suggested; and, "Yes, yes, let us go," she whispered, feeling,
    with a great throb of relief, _that_ to be the only possible, the
    only conceivable, solution. To sit and listen to her husband
    _now_--how could she ever have thought she could survive it?
    Luckily, under the lingering hubbub from below, his opening words
    were inaudible, and she had only to run the gauntlet of sympathetic
    feminine glances, shot after her between waving fans and programmes,
    as, guided by Guy Dawnish, she managed to reach the door. It was
    really so hot that even Mrs. Sheff was not much surprised--till long
    afterward. . . .

    The winding staircase was empty, half dark and blessedly silent. In
    a committee room below Dawnish found the inevitable water jug, and
    filled a glass for her, while she leaned back, confronted only by a
    frowning college President in an emblazoned frame. The academic
    frown descended on her like an anathema when she rose and followed
    her companion out of the building.

    Hamblin Hall stands at the end of the long green "Campus" with its
    sextuple line of elms--the boast and the singularity of Wentworth. A
    pale spring moon, rising above the dome of the University library at
    the opposite end of the elm-walk, diffused a pearly mildness in the
    sky, melted to thin haze the shadows of the trees, and turned to
    golden yellow the lights of the college windows. Against this soft
    suffusion of light the Library cupola assumed a Bramantesque grace,
    the white steeple of the congregational church became a campanile
    topped by a winged spirit, and the scant porticoes of the older
    halls the colonnades of classic temples.

    "This is better--" Dawnish said, as they passed down the steps and
    under the shadow of the elms.

    They moved on a little way in silence before he began again: "You're
    too tired to walk. Let us sit down a few minutes."

    Her feet, in truth, were leaden, and not far off a group of park
    benches, encircling the pedestal of a patriot in bronze, invited
    them to rest. But Dawnish was guiding her toward a lateral path
    which bent, through shrubberies, toward a strip of turf between two
    of the buildings.

    "It will be cooler by the river," he said, moving on without waiting
    for a possible protest. None came: it seemed easier, for the moment,
    to let herself be led without any conventional feint of resistance.
    And besides, there was nothing wrong about _this_--the wrong would
    have been in sitting up there in the glare, pretending to listen to
    her husband, a dutiful wife among her kind. . . .

    The path descended, as both knew, to the chosen, the inimitable spot
    of Wentworth: that fugitive curve of the river, where, before
    hurrying on to glut the brutal industries of South Wentworth and
    Smedden, it simulated for a few hundred yards the leisurely pace of
    an ancient university stream, with willows on its banks and a
    stretch of turf extending from the grounds of Hamblin Hall to the
    boat houses at the farther bend. Here too were benches, beneath the
    willows, and so close to the river that the voice of its gliding
    softened and filled out the reverberating silence between Margaret
    and her companion, and made her feel that she knew why he had
    brought her there.

    "Do you feel better?" he asked gently as he sat down beside her.

    "Oh, yes. I only needed a little air."

    "I'm so glad you did. Of course the speeches were tremendously
    interesting--but I prefer this. What a good night!"

    "Yes."

    There was a pause, which now, after all, the soothing accompaniment
    of the river seemed hardly sufficient to fill.

    "I wonder what time it is. I ought to be going home," Margaret began
    at length.

    "Oh, it's not late. They'll be at it for hours in there--yet."

    She made a faint inarticulate sound. She wanted to say:
    "No--Robert's speech was to be the last--" but she could not bring
    herself to pronounce Ransom's name, and at the moment no other way
    of refuting her companion's statement occurred to her.

    The young man leaned back luxuriously, reassured by her silence.

    "You see it's my last chance--and I want to make the most of it."

    "Your last chance?" How stupid of her to repeat his words on that
    cooing note of interrogation! It was just such a lead as the Brant
    girl might have given him.

    "To be with you--like this. I haven't had so many. And there's less
    than a week left."

    She attempted to laugh. "Perhaps it will sound longer if you call it
    five days."

    The flatness of that, again! And she knew there were people who
    called her intelligent. Fortunately he did not seem to notice it;
    but her laugh continued to sound in her own ears--the coquettish
    chirp of middle age! She decided that if he spoke again--if he _said
    anything_--she would make no farther effort at evasion: she would
    take it directly, seriously, frankly--she would not be doubly
    disloyal.

    "Besides," he continued, throwing his arm along the back of the
    bench, and turning toward her so that his face was like a dusky
    bas-relief with a silver rim--"besides, there's something I've been
    wanting to tell you."

    The sound of the river seemed to cease altogether: the whole world
    became silent.

    Margaret had trusted her inspiration farther than it appeared likely
    to carry her. Again she could think of nothing happier than to
    repeat, on the same witless note of interrogation: "To tell me?"

    "You only."

    The constraint, the difficulty, seemed to be on his side now: she
    divined it by the renewed shifting of his attitude--he was capable,
    usually, of such fine intervals of immobility--and by a confusion in
    his utterance that set her own voice throbbing in her throat.

    "You've been so perfect to me," he began again. "It's not my fault
    if you've made me feel that you would understand everything--make
    allowances for everything--see just how a man may have held out, and
    fought against a thing--as long as he had the strength. . . . This
    may be my only chance; and I can't go away without telling you."

    He had turned from her now, and was staring at the river, so that
    his profile was projected against the moonlight in all its beautiful
    young dejection.

    There was a slight pause, as though he waited for her to speak; then
    she leaned forward and laid her hand on his.

    "If I have really been--if I have done for you even the least part
    of what you say . . . what you imagine . . . will you do for me,
    now, just one thing in return?"

    He sat motionless, as if fearing to frighten away the shy touch on
    his hand, and she left it there, conscious of her gesture only as
    part of the high ritual of their farewell.

    "What do you want me to do?" he asked in a low tone.

    "_ Not_ to tell me!" she breathed on a deep note of entreaty.

    "_ Not_ to tell you--?"

    "Anything--_anything_--just to leave our . . . our friendship . . .
    as it has been--as--as a painter, if a friend asked him, might leave
    a picture--not quite finished, perhaps . . . but all the more
    exquisite. . . ."

    She felt the hand under hers slip away, recover itself, and seek her
    own, which had flashed out of reach in the same instant--felt the
    start that swept him round on her as if he had been caught and
    turned about by the shoulders.

    "You--_you_--?" he stammered, in a strange voice full of fear and
    tenderness; but she held fast, so centred in her inexorable resolve
    that she was hardly conscious of the effect her words might be
    producing.

    "Don't you see," she hurried on, "don't you _feel_ how much safer it
    is--yes, I'm willing to put it so!--how much safer to leave
    everything undisturbed . . . just as . . . as it has grown of itself
    . . . without trying to say: 'It's this or that' . . . ? It's what
    we each choose to call it to ourselves, after all, isn't it? Don't
    let us try to find a name that . . . that we should both agree upon
    . . . we probably shouldn't succeed." She laughed abruptly. "And
    ghosts vanish when one names them!" she ended with a break in her
    voice.

    When she ceased her heart was beating so violently that there was a
    rush in her ears like the noise of the river after rain, and she did
    not immediately make out what he was answering. But as she recovered
    her lucidity she said to herself that, whatever he was saying, she
    must not hear it; and she began to speak again, half playfully, half
    appealingly, with an eloquence of entreaty, an ingenuity in
    argument, of which she had never dreamed herself capable. And then,
    suddenly, strangling hands seemed to reach up from her heart to her
    throat, and she had to stop.

    Her companion remained motionless. He had not tried to regain her
    hand, and his eyes were away from her, on the river. But his
    nearness had become something formidable and exquisite--something
    she had never before imagined. A flush of guilt swept over
    her--vague reminiscences of French novels and of opera plots. This
    was what such women felt, then . . . this was "shame." . . . Phrases
    of the newspaper and the pulpit danced before her. . . . She dared
    not speak, and his silence began to frighten her. Had ever a heart
    beat so wildly before in Wentworth?

    He turned at last, and taking her two hands, quite simply, kissed
    them one after the other.

    "I shall never forget--" he said in a confused voice, unlike his
    own.

    A return of strength enabled her to rise, and even to let her eyes
    meet his for a moment.

    "Thank you," she said, simply also.

    She turned away from the bench, regaining the path that led back to
    the college buildings, and he walked beside her in silence. When
    they reached the elm walk it was dotted with dispersing groups. The
    "speaking" was over, and Hamblin Hall had poured its audience out
    into the moonlight. Margaret felt a rush of relief, followed by a
    receding wave of regret. She had the distinct sensation that her
    hour--her one hour--was over.

    One of the groups just ahead broke up as they approached, and
    projected Ransom's solid bulk against the moonlight.

    "My husband," she said, hastening forward; and she never afterward
    forgot the look of his back--heavy, round-shouldered, yet a little
    pompous--in a badly fitting overcoat that stood out at the neck and
    hid his collar. She had never before noticed how he dressed.

    IV

    THEY met again, inevitably, before Dawnish left; but the thing she
    feared did not happen--he did not try to see her alone.

    It even became clear to her, in looking back, that he had
    deliberately avoided doing so; and this seemed merely an added proof
    of his "understanding," of that deep undefinable communion that set
    them alone in an empty world, as if on a peak above the clouds.

    The five days passed in a flash; and when the last one came, it
    brought to Margaret Ransom an hour of weakness, of profound
    disorganization, when old barriers fell, old convictions faded--when
    to be alone with him for a moment became, after all, the one craving
    of her heart. She knew he was coming that afternoon to say
    "good-by"--and she knew also that Ransom was to be away at South
    Wentworth. She waited alone in her pale little drawing- room, with
    its scant kakemonos, its one or two chilly reproductions from the
    antique, its slippery Chippendale chairs. At length the bell rang,
    and her world became a rosy blur--through which she presently
    discerned the austere form of Mrs. Sperry, wife of the Professor of
    palaeontology, who had come to talk over with her the next winter's
    programme for the Higher Thought Club. They debated the question for
    an hour, and when Mrs. Sperry departed Margaret had a confused
    impression that the course was to deal with the influence of the
    First Crusade on the development of European architecture--but the
    sentient part of her knew only that Dawnish had not come.

    He "bobbed in," as he would have put it, after dinner--having, it
    appeared, run across Ransom early in the day, and learned that the
    latter would be absent till evening. Margaret was in the study with
    her husband when the door opened and Dawnish stood there.
    Ransom--who had not had time to dress--was seated at his desk, a
    pile of shabby law books at his elbow, the light from a hanging lamp
    falling on his grayish stubble of hair, his sallow forehead and
    spectacled eyes. Dawnish, towering higher than usual against the
    shadows of the room, and refined by his unusual pallor, hung a
    moment on the threshold, then came in, explaining himself
    profusely--laughing, accepting a cigar, letting Ransom push an
    arm-chair forward--a Dawnish she had never seen, ill at ease,
    ejaculatory, yet somehow more mature, more obscurely in command of
    himself.

    Margaret drew back, seating herself in the shade, in such a way that
    she saw her husband's head first, and beyond it their visitor's,
    relieved against the dusk of the book shelves. Her heart was
    still--she felt no throbbing in her throat or temples: all her life
    seemed concentrated in the hand that lay on her knee, the hand he
    would touch when they said good-by.

    Afterward her heart rang all the changes, and there was a mood in
    which she reproached herself for cowardice--for having deliberately
    missed her one moment with him, the moment in which she might have
    sounded the depths of life, for joy or anguish. But that mood was
    fleeting and infrequent. In quieter hours she blushed for it--she
    even trembled to think that he might have guessed such a regret in
    her. It seemed to convict her of a lack of fineness that he should
    have had, in his youth and his power, a tenderer, surer sense of the
    peril of a rash touch--should have handled the case so much more
    delicately.

    At first her days were fire and the nights long solemn vigils. Her
    thoughts were no longer vulgarized and defaced by any notion of
    "guilt," of mental disloyalty. She was ashamed now of her shame.
    What had happened was as much outside the sphere of her marriage as
    some transaction in a star. It had simply given her a secret life of
    incommunicable joys, as if all the wasted springs of her youth had
    been stored in some hidden pool, and she could return there now to
    bathe in them.

    After that there came a phase of loneliness, through which the life
    about her loomed phantasmal and remote. She thought the dead must
    feel thus, repeating the vain gestures of the living beside some
    Stygian shore. She wondered if any other woman had lived to whom
    _nothing had ever happened?_ And then his first letter came. . . .

    It was a charming letter--a perfect letter. The little touch of
    awkwardness and constraint under its boyish spontaneity told her
    more than whole pages of eloquence. He spoke of their friendship--of
    their good days together. . . . Ransom, chancing to come in while
    she read, noticed the foreign stamps; and she was able to hand him
    the letter, saying gaily: "There's a message for you," and knowing
    all the while that _her_ message was safe in her heart.

    On the days when the letters came the outlines of things grew
    indistinct, and she could never afterward remember what she had done
    or how the business of life had been carried on. It was always a
    surprise when she found dinner on the table as usual, and Ransom
    seated opposite to her, running over the evening paper.

    But though Dawnish continued to write, with all the English loyalty
    to the outward observances of friendship, his communications came
    only at intervals of several weeks, and between them she had time to
    repossess herself, to regain some sort of normal contact with life.
    And the customary, the recurring, gradually reclaimed her, the net
    of habit tightened again--her daily life became real, and her one
    momentary escape from it an exquisite illusion. Not that she ceased
    to believe in the miracle that had befallen her: she still treasured
    the reality of her one moment beside the river. What reason was
    there for doubting it? She could hear the ring of truth in young
    Dawnish's voice: "It's not my fault if you've made me feel that you
    would understand everything. . . ." No! she believed in her miracle,
    and the belief sweetened and illumined her life; but she came to see
    that what was for her the transformation of her whole being might
    well have been, for her companion, a mere passing explosion of
    gratitude, of boyish good-fellowship touched with the pang of
    leave-taking. She even reached the point of telling herself that it
    was "better so": this view of the episode so defended it from the
    alternating extremes of self-reproach and derision, so enshrined it
    in a pale immortality to which she could make her secret pilgrimages
    without reproach.

    For a long time she had not been able to pass by the bench under the
    willows--she even avoided the elm walk till autumn had stripped its
    branches. But every day, now, she noted a step toward recovery; and
    at last a day came when, walking along the river, she said to
    herself, as she approached the bench: "I used not to be able to pass
    here without thinking of him; _and now I am not thinking of him at
    all!_"

    This seemed such convincing proof of her recovery that she began, as
    spring returned, to permit herself, now and then, a quiet session on
    the bench--a dedicated hour from which she went back fortified to
    her task.

    She had not heard from her friend for six weeks or more--the
    intervals between his letters were growing longer. But that was
    "best" too, and she was not anxious, for she knew he had obtained
    the post he had been preparing for, and that his active life in
    London had begun. The thought reminded her, one mild March day, that
    in leaving the house she had thrust in her reticule a letter from a
    Wentworth friend who was abroad on a holiday. The envelope bore the
    London post mark, a fact showing that the lady's face was turned
    toward home. Margaret seated herself on her bench, and drawing out
    the letter began to read it.

    The London described was that of shops and museums--as remote as
    possible from the setting of Guy Dawnish's existence. But suddenly
    Margaret's eye fell on his name, and the page began to tremble in
    her hands.

    "I heard such a funny thing yesterday about your friend Mr. Dawnish.
    We went to a tea at Professor Bunce's (I do wish you knew the
    Bunces--their atmosphere is so _uplifting_), and there I met that
    Miss Bruce-Pringle who came out last year to take a course in
    histology at the Annex. Of course she asked about you and Mr.
    Ransom, and then she told me she had just seen Mr. Dawnish's
    aunt--the clever one he was always talking about, Lady Caroline
    something--and that they were all in a dreadful state about him. I
    wonder if you knew he was engaged when he went to America? He never
    mentioned it to _us_. She said it was not a positive engagement, but
    an understanding with a girl he has always been devoted to, who
    lives near their place in Wiltshire; and both families expected the
    marriage to take place as soon as he got back. It seems the girl is
    an heiress (you know _how low_ the English ideals are compared with
    ours), and Miss Bruce-Pringle said his relations were perfectly
    delighted at his 'being provided for,' as she called it. Well, when
    he got back he asked the girl to release him; and she and her family
    were furious, and so were his people; but he holds out, and won't
    marry her, and won't give a reason, except that he has 'formed an
    unfortunate attachment.' Did you ever hear anything so peculiar? His
    aunt, who is quite wild about it, says it must have happened at
    Wentworth, because he didn't go anywhere else in America. Do you
    suppose it _could_ have been the Brant girl? But why 'unfortunate'
    when everybody knows she would have jumped at him?"

    Margaret folded the letter and looked out across the river. It was
    not the same river, but a mystic current shot with moonlight. The
    bare willows wove a leafy veil above her head, and beside her she
    felt the nearness of youth and tempestuous tenderness. It had all
    happened just here, on this very seat by the river--it had come to
    her, and passed her by, and she had not held out a hand to detain
    it. . . .

    Well! Was it not, by that very abstention, made more deeply and
    ineffaceably hers? She could argue thus while she had thought the
    episode, on his side, a mere transient effect of propinquity; but
    now that she knew it had altered the whole course of his life, now
    that it took on substance and reality, asserted a separate existence
    outside of her own troubled consciousness--now it seemed almost
    cowardly to have missed her share in it.

    She walked home in a dream. Now and then, when she passed an
    acquaintance, she wondered if the pain and glory were written on her
    face. But Mrs. Sperry, who stopped her at the corner of Maverick
    Street to say a word about the next meeting of the Higher Thought
    Club, seemed to remark no change in her.

    When she reached home Ransom had not yet returned from the office,
    and she went straight to the library to tidy his writing-table. It
    was part of her daily duty to bring order out of the chaos of his
    papers, and of late she had fastened on such small recurring tasks
    as some one falling over a precipice might snatch at the weak bushes
    in its clefts.

    When she had sorted the letters she took up some pamphlets and
    newspapers, glancing over them to see if they were to be kept. Among
    the papers was a page torn from a London _Times_ of the previous
    month. Her eye ran down its columns and suddenly a paragraph flamed
    out.

    "We are requested to state that the marriage arranged between Mr.
    Guy Dawnish, son of the late Colonel the Hon. Roderick Dawnish, of
    Malby, Wilts, and Gwendolen, daughter of Samuel Matcher, Esq. of
    Armingham Towers, Wilts, will not take place."

    Margaret dropped the paper and sat down, hiding her face against the
    stained baize of the desk. She remembered the photograph of the
    tennis-court at Guise--she remembered the handsome girl at whom Guy
    Dawnish looked up, laughing. A gust of tears shook her, loosening
    the dry surface of conventional feeling, welling up from unsuspected
    depths. She was sorry--very sorry, yet so glad--so ineffably,
    impenitently glad.

    V

    THERE came a reaction in which she decided to write to him. She even
    sketched out a letter of sisterly, almost motherly, remonstrance, in
    which she reminded him that he "still had all his life before him."
    But she reflected that so, after all, had she; and that seemed to
    weaken the argument.

    In the end she decided not to send the letter. He had never spoken
    to her of his engagement to Gwendolen Matcher, and his letters had
    contained no allusion to any sentimental disturbance in his life.
    She had only his few broken words, that night by the river, on which
    to build her theory of the case. But illuminated by the phrase "an
    unfortunate attachment" the theory towered up, distinct and
    immovable, like some high landmark by which travellers shape their
    course. She had been loved--extraordinarily loved. But he had chosen
    that she should know of it by his silence rather than by his speech.
    He had understood that only on those terms could their transcendant
    communion continue--that he must lose her to keep her. To break that
    silence would be like spilling a cup of water in a waste of sand.
    There would be nothing left for her thirst.

    Her life, thenceforward, was bathed in a tranquil beauty. The days
    flowed by like a river beneath the moon--each ripple caught the
    brightness and passed it on. She began to take a renewed interest in
    her familiar round of duties. The tasks which had once seemed
    colourless and irksome had now a kind of sacrificial sweetness, a
    symbolic meaning into which she alone was initiated. She had been
    restless--had longed to travel; now she felt that she should never
    again care to leave Wentworth. But if her desire to wander had
    ceased, she travelled in spirit, performing invisible pilgrimages in
    the footsteps of her friend. She regretted that her one short visit
    to England had taken her so little out of London--that her
    acquaintance with the landscape had been formed chiefly through the
    windows of a railway carriage. She threw herself into the
    architectural studies of the Higher Thought Club, and distinguished
    herself, at the spring meetings, by her fluency, her competence, her
    inexhaustible curiosity on the subject of the growth of English
    Gothic. She ransacked the shelves of the college library, she
    borrowed photographs of the cathedrals, she pored over the folio
    pages of "The Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen." She was like some
    banished princess who learns that she has inherited a domain in her
    own country, who knows that she will never see it, yet feels,
    wherever she walks, its soil beneath her feet.

    May was half over, and the Higher Thought Club was to hold its last
    meeting, previous to the college festivities which, in early June,
    agreeably disorganized the social routine of Wentworth. The meeting
    was to take place in Margaret Ransom's drawing-room, and on the day
    before she sat upstairs preparing for her dual duties as hostess and
    orator--for she had been invited to read the final paper of the
    course. In order to sum up with precision her conclusions on the
    subject of English Gothic she had been rereading an analysis of the
    structural features of the principal English cathedrals; and she was
    murmuring over to herself the phrase: "The longitudinal arches of
    Lincoln have an approximately elliptical form," when there came a
    knock on the door, and Maria's voice announced: "There's a lady down
    in the parlour."

    Margaret's soul dropped from the heights of the shadowy vaulting to
    the dead level of an afternoon call at Wentworth.

    "A lady? Did she give no name?"

    Maria became confused. "She only said she was a lady--" and in reply
    to her mistress's look of mild surprise: "Well, ma'am, she told me
    so three or four times over."

    Margaret laid her book down, leaving it open at the description of
    Lincoln, and slowly descended the stairs. As she did so, she
    repeated to herself: "The longitudinal arches are elliptical."

    On the threshold below, she had the odd impression that her bare and
    inanimate drawing-room was brimming with life and noise--an
    impression produced, as she presently perceived, by the resolute
    forward dash--it was almost a pounce--of the one small figure
    restlessly measuring its length.

    The dash checked itself within a yard of Margaret, and the lady--a
    stranger--held back long enough to stamp on her hostess a sharp
    impression of sallowness, leanness, keenness, before she said, in a
    voice that might have been addressing an unruly committee meeting:
    "I am Lady Caroline Duckett--a fact I found it impossible to make
    clear to the young woman who let me in."

    A warm wave rushed up from Margaret's heart to her throat and
    forehead. She held out both hands impulsively. "Oh, I'm so glad--I'd
    no idea--"

    Her voice sank under her visitor's impartial scrutiny.

    "I don't wonder," said the latter drily. "I suppose she didn't
    mention, either, that my object in calling here was to see Mrs.
    Ransom?"

    "Oh, yes--won't you sit down?" Margaret pushed a chair forward. She
    seated herself at a little distance, brain and heart humming with a
    confused interchange of signals. This dark sharp woman was his
    aunt--the "clever aunt" who had had such a hard life, but had always
    managed to keep her head above water. Margaret remembered that Guy
    had spoken of her kindness--perhaps she would seem kinder when they
    had talked together a little. Meanwhile the first impression she
    produced was of an amplitude out of all proportion to her somewhat
    scant exterior. With her small flat figure, her shabby heterogeneous
    dress, she was as dowdy as any Professor's wife at Wentworth; but
    her dowdiness (Margaret borrowed a literary analogy to define it),
    her dowdiness was somehow "of the centre." Like the insignificant
    emissary of a great power, she was to be judged rather by her
    passports than her person.

    While Margaret was receiving these impressions, Lady Caroline, with
    quick bird-like twists of her head, was gathering others from the
    pale void spaces of the drawing-room. Her eyes, divided by a sharp
    nose like a bill, seemed to be set far enough apart to see at
    separate angles; but suddenly she bent both of them on Margaret.

    "This _is_ Mrs. Ransom's house?" she asked, with an emphasis on the
    verb that gave a distinct hint of unfulfilled expectations.

    Margaret assented.

    "Because your American houses, especially in the provincial towns,
    all look so remarkably alike, that I thought I might have been
    mistaken; and as my time is extremely limited--in fact I'm sailing
    on Wednesday--"

    She paused long enough to let Margaret say: "I had no idea you were
    in this country."

    Lady Caroline made no attempt to take this up. "And so much of it,"
    she carried on her sentence, "has been wasted in talking to people I
    really hadn't the slightest desire to see, that you must excuse me
    if I go straight to the point."

    Margaret felt a sudden tension of the heart. "Of course," she said
    while a voice within her cried: "He is dead--he has left me a
    message."

    There was another pause; then Lady Caroline went on, with increasing
    asperity: "So that--in short--if I _could_ see Mrs. Ransom at
    once--"

    Margaret looked up in surprise. "I am Mrs. Ransom," she said.

    The other stared a moment, with much the same look of cautious
    incredulity that had marked her inspection of the drawing-room. Then
    light came to her.

    "Oh, I beg your pardon. I should have said that I wished to see Mrs.
    _Robert_ Ransom, not Mrs. Ransom. But I understood that in the
    States you don't make those distinctions." She paused a moment, and
    then went on, before Margaret could answer: "Perhaps, after all,
    it's as well that I should see you instead, since you're evidently
    one of the household--your son and his wife live with you, I
    suppose? Yes, on the whole, then, it's better--I shall be able to
    talk so much more frankly." She spoke as if, as a rule,
    circumstances prevented her giving rein to this propensity. "And
    frankness, of course, is the only way out of this--this extremely
    tiresome complication. You know, I suppose, that my nephew thinks
    he's in love with your daughter-in-law?"

    Margaret made a slight movement, but her visitor pressed on without
    heeding it. "Oh, don't fancy, please, that I'm pretending to take a
    high moral ground--though his mother does, poor dear! I can
    perfectly imagine that in a place like this--I've just been driving
    about it for two hours--a young man of Guy's age would _have_ to
    provide himself with some sort of distraction, and he's not the kind
    to go in for anything objectionable. Oh, we quite allow for that--we
    should allow for the whole affair, if it hadn't so preposterously
    ended in his throwing over the girl he was engaged to, and upsetting
    an arrangement that affected a number of people besides himself. I
    understand that in the States it's different--the young people have
    only themselves to consider. In England--in our class, I mean--a
    great deal may depend on a young man's making a good match; and in
    Guy's case I may say that his mother and sisters (I won't include
    myself, though I might) have been simply stranded--thrown
    overboard--by his freak. You can understand how serious it is when I
    tell you that it's that and nothing else that has brought me all the
    way to America. And my first idea was to go straight to your
    daughter-in-law, since her influence is the only thing we can count
    on now, and put it to her fairly, as I'm putting it to you. But, on
    the whole, I dare say it's better to see you first--you might give
    me an idea of the line to take with her. I'm prepared to throw
    myself on her mercy!"

    Margaret rose from her chair, outwardly rigid in proportion to her
    inward tremor.

    "You don't understand--" she began.

    Lady Caroline brushed the interruption aside. "Oh, but I
    do--completely! I cast no reflection on your daughter-in-law. Guy
    has made it quite clear to us that his attachment is--has, in short,
    not been rewarded. But don't you see that that's the worst part of
    it? There'd be much more hope of his recovering if Mrs. Robert
    Ransom had--had--"

    Margaret's voice broke from her in a cry. "I am Mrs. Robert Ransom,"
    she said.

    If Lady Caroline Duckett had hitherto given her hostess the
    impression of a person not easily silenced, this fact added sensibly
    to the effect produced by the intense stillness which now fell on
    her.

    She sat quite motionless, her large bangled hands clasped about the
    meagre fur boa she had unwound from her neck on entering, her rusty
    black veil pushed up to the edge of a "fringe" of doubtful
    authenticity, her thin lips parted on a gasp that seemed to sharpen
    itself on the edges of her teeth. So overwhelming and helpless was
    her silence that Margaret began to feel a motion of pity beneath her
    indignation--a desire at least to facilitate the excuses which must
    terminate their disastrous colloquy. But when Lady Caroline found
    voice she did not use it to excuse herself.

    "You _can't_ be," she said, quite simply.

    "Can't be?" Margaret stammered, with a flushing cheek.

    "I mean, it's some mistake. Are there _two_ Mrs. Robert Ransoms in
    the same town? Your family arrangements are so extremely puzzling."
    She had a farther rush of enlightenment. "Oh, I _see!_ I ought of
    course to have asked for Mrs. Robert Ransom 'Junior'!"

    The idea sent her to her feet with a haste which showed her
    impatience to make up for lost time.

    "There is no other Mrs. Robert Ransom at Wentworth," said Margaret.

    "No other--no 'Junior'? Are you _sure?_" Lady Caroline fell back
    into her seat again. "Then I simply don't see," she murmured
    helplessly.

    Margaret's blush had fixed itself on her throbbing forehead. She
    remained standing, while her strange visitor continued to gaze at
    her with a perturbation in which the consciousness of indiscretion
    had evidently as yet no part.

    "I simply don't see," she repeated.

    Suddenly she sprang up, and advancing to Margaret laid an inspired
    hand on her arm. "But, my dear woman, you can help us out all the
    same; you can help us to find out _who it is_--and you will, won't
    you? Because, as it's not you, you can't in the least mind what I've
    been saying--"

    Margaret, freeing her arm from her visitor's hold, drew back a step;
    but Lady Caroline instantly rejoined her.

    "Of course, I can see that if it _had_ been, you might have been
    annoyed: I dare say I put the case stupidly--but I'm so bewildered
    by this new development--by his using you all this time as a
    pretext--that I really don't know where to turn for light on the
    mystery--"

    She had Margaret in her imperious grasp again, but the latter broke
    from her with a more resolute gesture.

    "I'm afraid I have no light to give you," she began; but once more
    Lady Caroline caught her up.

    "Oh, but do please understand me! I condemn Guy most strongly for
    using your name--when we all know you'd been so amazingly kind to
    him! I haven't a word to say in his defence--but of course the
    important thing now is: _who is the woman, since you're not?_"

    The question rang out loudly, as if all the pale puritan corners of
    the room flung it back with a shudder at the speaker. In the silence
    that ensued Margaret felt the blood ebbing back to her heart; then
    she said, in a distinct and level voice: "I know nothing of the
    history of Mr. Dawnish."

    Lady Caroline gave a stare and a gasp. Her distracted hand groped
    for her boa and she began to wind it mechanically about her long
    neck.

    "It would really be an enormous help to us--and to poor Gwendolen
    Matcher," she persisted pleadingly. "And you'd be doing Guy himself
    a good turn."

    Margaret remained silent and motionless while her visitor drew on
    one of the worn gloves she had pulled off to adjust her veil. Lady
    Caroline gave the veil a final twitch.

    "I've come a tremendously long way," she said, "and, since it isn't
    you, I can't think why you won't help me. . . ."

    When the door had closed on her visitor Margaret Ransom went slowly
    up the stairs to her room. As she dragged her feet from one step to
    another, she remembered how she had sprung up the same steep flight
    after that visit of Guy Dawnish's when she had looked in the glass
    and seen on her face the blush of youth.

    When she reached her room she bolted the door as she had done that
    day, and again looked at herself in the narrow mirror above her
    dressing-table. It was just a year since then--the elms were budding
    again, the willows hanging their green veil above the bench by the
    river. But there was no trace of youth left in her face--she saw it
    now as others had doubtless always seen it. If it seemed as it did
    to Lady Caroline Duckett, what look must it have worn to the fresh
    gaze of young Guy Dawnish?

    A pretext--she had been a pretext. He had used her name to screen
    some one else--or perhaps merely to escape from a situation of which
    he was weary. She did not care to conjecture what his motive had
    been--everything connected with him had grown so remote and alien.
    She felt no anger--only an unspeakable sadness, a sadness which she
    knew would never be appeased.

    She looked at herself long and steadily; she wished to clear her
    eyes of all illusions. Then she turned away and took her usual seat
    beside her work-table. From where she sat she could look down the
    empty elm-shaded street, up which, at this hour every day, she was
    sure to see her husband's figure advancing. She would see it
    presently--she would see it for many years to come. She had a sudden
    aching sense of the length of the years that stretched before her.
    Strange that one who was not young should still, in all likelihood,
    have so long to live!

    Nothing was changed in the setting of her life, perhaps nothing
    would ever change in it. She would certainly live and die in
    Wentworth. And meanwhile the days would go on as usual, bringing the
    usual obligations. As the word flitted through her brain she
    remembered that she had still to put the finishing touches to the
    paper she was to read the next afternoon at the meeting of the
    Higher Thought Club.

    The book she had been reading lay face downward beside her, where
    she had left it an hour ago. She took it up, and slowly and
    painfully, like a child laboriously spelling out the syllables, she
    went on with the rest of the sentence:

    --"and they spring from a level not much above that of the springing
    of the transverse and diagonal ribs, which are so arranged as to
    give a convex curve to the surface of the vaulting conoid."
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