by Michael Arlen
The influenza epidemic of the winter of 1918-19 will for me always be memorable for a strange coincidence, which could in no way have happened but for that plague's overwhelming rush; and together with that I remember vividly the grieved face of a homely matron, as she spoke to me that January afternoon on the hushed stairway of a nursing-home in Beaumont Street. It was, I suppose, one of those unreal incidents which are so essentially part of that life which realism likes to depict, that a realist may often fail to translate them into his tale (after that very old man, blind to the thing under his nose), whereas a romanticist will, perhaps, with a debonair gesture, give them their true part in the histories of his creatures.
Thus, this tale, sown however dismally, takes to itself the air of a romance; not mine indeed, nor Howard Wentworth's, the well-known playwright whom it intimately concerns, but Fay Richmond's. I call her by that name even though it was lost, in the way that women must lose the most apt and adequate names (as only names can be), on her Italian marriage some twenty years before Howard told me about her. He was curiously infatuated with it; I remember him repeating it, delicately, and pronouncing it a beautiful name, not unworthy of the meditation of Mr. George Moore by his fireside in Ebury Street.
"No, it was too fitting a name to last," he said. "A girl with such a name couldn't but die or get married young.... Can you imagine an aged spinster called Fay Richmond? It could only be the name of a lovely girl, but it could never live much more than twenty years except in a novel by, well, Disraeli or Meredith; unlikely enough shades, you'll say, the bedizened and the tortuous, to be joined together even in sentimental discourse about a girl's name, with whom I've already bored you sufficiently...."
"But I haven't met her yet!" I protested actively from my side of the fireplace, in his room in the Beaumont Street nursing home.
Influenza had already gripped and released me, so that I was now in an irritatingly robust state of health in which to visit a less fortunate friend who had succumbed to its second wave; for that second wave was more virulent and more treacherous than the first, mocking its victim into partial convalescence and then, with a jeer and a snarl at the ambuscaded wretch, fixing again upon the damaged lungs, so inexorably that there was only the one release. And thus Howard Wentworth, who was thought, even by himself, to have cheated the thing, in the end died; not ten days after that afternoon when I had sat listening to him, as he lounged in the happy déshabillé of convalescence, and was reminiscent about a girl called Fay Richmond.
The difference in our years had not prevented an acquaintance ripening into a steady friendship. What I liked about Howard Wentworth was that—unlike so many Englishmen of middle years—he was not young for his age. He was completely, sincerely, and normally over 45, which was so refreshing of him among the crowds of 38's to 42's passing all the way from Coombe to Sunningdale of a Sunday morning.... And it was after our occasional dinners in his house in Upper Brook Street that I would be interested by a solitary photograph in a plain sandal-wood frame; one could not help contrasting its prominence on the grand piano with the total absence of any other photograph in that austere house—austere, in spite of that slight Chinese element of tapestry, strange green horsemen and the like, which even the best of celibates are nowadays growing to affect.
I used to wonder, quite shamelessly, who the girl with the sad, sincere face was, and whether my host and she had loved unhappily; for the girl's eyes were large and sad, and the firm set of her young mouth had not tried to obey the exhortation to smile; which must, indeed, have been given very hesitatingly, for there was a frightening sincerity about her face. You felt, looking even upon the poor mockery of a likeness, that you would have to dance very well indeed before you begged the favour of such as she to dance with you. You imagined to yourself fine arrogances behind those young eyes, to attract and appall you in a venturesome moment....
But, of course, I could not ask my host about her, I had to wait; until, on his reported convalescence, I went to see him in Beaumont Street, and I suppose too obviously noticed the sandal-wood frame on the dressing-table. He smiled:
"It always seemed to go with me," he said. "And I don't quite know why, as I don't remember ever having made a point of it. But Briggs somehow got into the habit of treating it like a toothbrush, so that it now goes with me even for weekends. I don't think I've even really looked at it for years and years.
"Though, I suppose, I've always got the feeling that it's there," he said, "or that she's there...."
"No," he corrected himself quickly. "I can't aspire to that consistency. Even in a sentimental mood with you sitting there trying to look as though you had come to amuse a sick man, whereas you've come to be amused, and well you know it...."
Then it was that he told me her name, dwelling on it.
"As a preface, I was a very sane young man," he went on, smiling. "I know I must have been, because when I try to find in my youth even one among those rare mornings in which a giant wakes up with the feeling that he could break a lance for a fair lady that day, I can't find one. There never was one, I never woke up so recklessly. And the fact that I may have grown to have that feeling when it's too late and I'm too old to joust carelessly is neither here nor there; it can't bluff me into thinking that once upon a time I, too, could have followed His Grace of Dorset into the river for a Zuleika Dobson—or, more splendidly, for a Fay Richmond, no conjurer nor coquette! For I know dismally that my wildest youth couldn't have shared in that fantasy of love—I was too sane or too stupid, whichever you like. And that's why, instead of being the chief actor, I am only a humble observer in the only play that has ever really mattered in my life....
"One February afternoon, about six years ago, I drove past two people on the Route Corniche between Nice and Monte-Carlo. I was driving alone, a noisy Mercèdes. And I had just swung round a corner on to a straight stretch, when ahead of me I saw a man and a woman come out of the garden gate of a villa. The woman had on a white dress. I looked at it until I was abreast.... And I don't know how I got round the next corner. I don't know if she really recognised me as I whirled past, if she really smiled—perhaps it was only a mocking game that the sun had played on a woman's comely face! Indeed, I thought she had smiled, that old, gentle smile.... For me the whole thing was just a sudden stare, and then a long acute, acute pain. The sort of pain that fixes on the heart and mind, with a doubtful smile to crown its ache.... Wondering about that smile, as of a ghost in a white dress, all the rest of my way on that fiendish, lovely mountain road, I suppose it wasn't my fault that car and self didn't add one more wreck to the credit of Les Alpes Maritimes.... I hadn't seen Fay Richmond for fourteen years, and I have never seen her since then.
"I was about twenty-eight or so when I first met the Richmonds, mère et fille, in London. Old General Richmond had died a few years before—perhaps luckily, before the Boer War rats got at his reputation as a strategist.
"I had already two fairly successful plays to my name; and so, among the thousand and one people of my first drawing-rooms, I can't remember exactly how I met Mrs. Richmond, unless it was at a bridge party, for she was a fearsome player even at that early stage of the damnable game. Fearsome she was, I said; but only in spades and clubs. She is the only woman I've never really been terrified of in my life, bless her dear kind heart! A huge, vast woman, with a vast expanse of genial face, and fair hair, and a rumbling rasping voice that caught you behind the shoulders and made you smile sheepishly. She had no right to be a woman, she ought to have been a stockbroker, with a terrified, adoring little wife and a large place in the country. I'm not exaggerating, she wasn't fat, she was massive—simply exuding luxury, terror, and kindliness. Yes, that rumbling, rasping voice said the most encouraging things to a not-very-conceited young playwright; who, I like to think, fascinated by the kindliness of that vast terror, perhaps stood behind its chair all that afternoon and watched it take the odd trick, or know the reason why not, my dear partner?...
"And not very many days later, on a lazy afternoon one October, he was sending in his name from the doorway of a house in Rutland Gate, vaguely hoping that she was not at home so that he could wander about the Park for an hour or two. But within the next few minutes he was in an unconventional little grey room upstairs, certainly not the usual drawing-room of this large house, in half-hesitating talk with a girl who had followed him in.
"He had swung round, as guiltily as one always does from the examination of a strange room, when he heard the door open behind him; and expecting, prepared for that large woman, he was suddenly struck shy, absurdly stammering, when a slight thing, a girl, came towards him with a smile and flushed cheeks and some quick nervous words. It was surprising how slight she seemed! Her words and her flush showed him that she was much more shy than he—why, she was only a girl!—and this pulled him together into his experienced self, before he entirely missed what she had begun to say.
"'My mother told me—' she was saying, but she had misjudged her distance, and was now so close to me that she had to break in with a 'How d'you do?' and shake hands.... Then her eyelids fluttered, quite, quite sincerely. But, beneath them, the brown eyes were apprising me steadily all the time—she was one of those sweet things who valiantly pretend that they can judge for themselves! Well, she would have to like me, I decided.
"'You see,' she was going on quickly, 'when your card came up, mother said at first that she wasn't at home—'
"'Thank you,' I said, and we both laughed like shy children.
"'You know I didn't mean—oh, dear, it's very difficult!' she broke in helplessly. 'And I haven't even asked you to sit down yet!'
"'But I don't know if I'm to be allowed to stay!'
"'Why, of course, you are going to stay!' she said, surprised into a decisive manner. 'I'm just trying to explain.... Do sit down, please!' We both sat down. She took a deep breath:
"'Mother said she wasn't at home at first, because she is lying down with a headache and a bad temper. But then she changed her mind—even a headache can't ever prevent mother from changing her mind—and said that she couldn't turn you away from the door the very first time you called, as you might never come again, which—'
"'Yes, I would,' I interrupted.
"'But you wouldn't dare contradict mother like that if she were here,' she retorted; and then covered her suddenly heightened flush with a little tremor of a laugh. It wasn't quite a laugh—rather like a happy gurgle, you know, if that doesn't sound too stupid. And it made one want to smile all over.
"'Shall I go on where I left off when you interrupted?... Which, said mother, would be a pity, because you were a nice young man and had quite good manners for a man who couldn't help having gone to Oxford or Cambridge—'
"'Heidelberg,' I corrected softly.
"'Well, I'm glad mother doesn't know that, because she generally doesn't like eccentric people.... And then she told me to come down and receive you, and give you tea, and make such a fuss of you that you'd have to pretend to be amused, anyway.'
"I suppose she caught me with a whole-hearted smile all over my face, because she added, 'And you are pretending splendidly,' in a shy, mischievous way. Then again that tremor of a laugh, with just a little mocking wave in it. And now, too, laughter was playing a fluttering game with the inevitable shyness in the tortoiseshell eyes. Yes, they were just brown eyes when she first came in, but now they were tortoiseshell in the pale October light. These things happen.
"It was rash of me to begin to try and tell you about Fay Richmond, because I find I am groping for the threads. And there is something almost irritating in trying to modulate one's thoughts to the facts of an intimacy which has been at the back of one's mind for so many years, but which only lasted twelve months. That's all—just about twelve months from that afternoon which I've been describing to you at such terrible length; on purpose, indeed, because in groping to fit a memory with a face and a voice I have got to go back to the very beginning, to re-live that first impression of that first meeting; which ended only with a suddenly returned nervousness, itself the herald of my returning formality. As I took my leave I had the happy feeling that I had found a friend—you know that feeling? as you walk away from a house which you had entered never dreaming of the unusual smile with which you would be leaving it? It happens so seldom....
"From that time I saw a great deal of them—or rather, as much of them as of any one, for I did more writing at that period of my life than at any other. I was still young enough to have the luxury of having something to say, or thinking I had, which is as enjoyable. Mrs. Richmond was really fond of me, God only knows why. And genuine in her affections as in all else, the ordinary barriers of time between acquaintance and friendship counted for nothing with her; and so I found myself, very delightfully, to be almost an 'old friend' of the family within less than a month!
"Perhaps it was just this unusual development that put me in the wrong channel; for there were Fay and I, with the embracing presence of her mother between us, or upstairs about to come down—how often she was, carelessly, 'about to come down'!—calling each other by our Christian names within, perhaps, the fifth time of my seeing her! While there was another young man, much more often and with more right at Rutland Gate than I, who, I know now, could not have called her by her Christian name, nor she by his, until the moment came when he simply couldn't help calling her by it. And that, after all, is what a Christian name is for! Certainly not to be scattered about in casual familiarity.... What a feeling, not to have called her 'Fay' until, one day, I simply had to! It's an emotion I missed, with other things....
"You will find it scarcely believable when I tell you that I went there, for most of that time, just as much to see the mother as the daughter! I simply can't remember hoping, when I rang the bell, that Mrs. Richmond would be out or lying down, and that I must 'pretend to be amused' with Fay—a joke, by the way, not easily released by any of us in that pleasant house! Mrs. Richmond was quite right in trusting to her affections, as good people often are right; and she herself said once, 'One very seldom places confidence in the wrong people.'
"No, this unfinished romance would never have happened if, several months before I met her, Fay Richmond had not been engaged to marry the Marchese Vitiali. It would not have happened because Mrs. Richmond was a sensible and practical woman, and because I was quite an ineligible young man, having no money, and, as she once remarked, only the most erratic prospects.
"'And for a woman to marry a man who lives by his pen is as dangerous an adventure as to marry a man who lives by his sword,' she ponderously added in the course of this same conversation; which of course held no strictly personal quality in it, but had sprung, one afternoon early in our friendship, from her coming down and finding Fay and me in a happy mood together.
"'One of the pleasant things that have happened,' she said embracingly as she came in, 'since this girl was clever enough to get herself engaged, is that now we can have ineligible young men about the house—can't we, Fay?'
"Even I could see that she wouldn't have answered but for the silence of two people.
"'Yes, it's fun to have friends,' Fay said, almost shortly. And for the first time in that house I felt a twinge of embarrassment. Something, a faint idea, brushed me in the face, vaguely. It's exaggerating a vagary into a phrase to say that I could almost feel it leave a faint red mark, like a flush. But it's quite poignant, even now.
"Yes, I suppose I have brought in her engagement as a sort of casual incident instead of as the real fact of her life. But, don't you see, that is exactly how it seemed to strike one, entering that house at a mid-way hour, so to say? Why, as I see it now, I think it was weeks before I actually realised the fact of her engagement! Her fiancé was nearly always there, of course; but not acutely so as her fiancé! He wasn't momentously present, I mean.... And I don't think that it was entirely an excessive good breeding or a lack of point of view which so blurred the outlines of his position in the house. The Richmonds seemed, rather, to have peculiarly enveloped him, his whole foreignness, his demonstrativeness, and his dark good looks. So that it wasn't, perhaps, unnatural that some time passed before I realised anything other in the handsome young Italian than a charming and cultured—one might almost be pardoned for adding, decorative—addition to an already luxurious household. Accepting him as part of the family he seemed to just grow, in his capacity of lover, into my consciousness; as, I guessed, he must have grown with time into Fay's life—that rich and eligible young Roman! He, born with all the good things of life, having entered it with a letter of introduction, as it were, from the god who awards the silver spoons, had managed to happen on yet one more! And, with it all, he was still so very likeable....
"There seemed, through all those earlier months, to be a grim sort of silence sustained by the mother and daughter about Vitiali. It grew queerly on one, this silence, after I had accepted him as part of the Richmond household; and I impudently put myself to inquiring into it. Not, of course, that I often saw Mrs. Richmond and Fay, or either of them, alone, for as I've said he was nearly always about the house, had just left or was just arriving.... I chose to think it a little strange that so ardent a fiancé, as undoubtedly he was, should be treated so utterly as part of the family—strange, or if you like, more than flattering for a foreigner in an English house! And, happening on what I've already described as that grim sort of silence about him, I found a more subtle reason to account for it than this whole-hearted acceptance of him into the family as a lover and a gentleman. Its very quality of grimness, which seems a little absurd in this context, gave one the key to Mrs. Richmond's queerly and almost insensibly working conscience, and—as I stretched the limits of my conceit—to Fay's dim understanding of it and its cause. Surely you can see the pathos of a situation in which a mother and a daughter, very really loving one another, seldom referred to an approaching marriage because they both vaguely saw in it a contradiction to their mutual understanding? It couldn't have been more definite than that, else my tale would run differently.
"I can see Mrs. Richmond, now, fumbling in her generous mind, through that time for a real and deep content at her daughter's marriage with the Marchese Vitiali, whom she liked so much. She, who would indignantly have denied that she could ever force or more than mildly persuade her daughter to a choice of a husband, must have felt a plaintive discomfort in doubting if her genuine desire for Fay to accept him had not influenced a daughter, who placed her mother's happiness beside her own, over just that fraction which helps indecision into assent.
"That Fay's concession of herself was not more abandoned than an assent I came to see through the window which an intimate household, unused to secreting its intimacies except by way of good breeding, almost forces upon the privileged third person. It didn't vividly strike one, as such a fact vividly should, that Fay was in love with her fiancé; not, I mean, that admirable sort of "in love" of young people, however undemonstrative, which makes the third person, on leaving its happy presence, want to clutch at the heart of the first pretty woman he sees so that he too can share of the beauty of a beautiful world.... But the opposite, the flatness of a forced emotion, certainly didn't strike me; love was there, I suppose, but of that pale kind which so often doesn't outlast, even in the purest mind, its consequence of marriage. The third person didn't have the acute feeling that he had blundered, ever so little, on them in a room; or that, once there, he should quickly leave them. There was a "grown-up" atmosphere about her in Vitiali's presence which, I once realised, was quite lacking when he wasn't there; which was terribly seldom.... Of course, when I did come on them together, as happened sometimes when I called in the afternoon and Mrs. Richmond was 'lying down,' I generally found a way to retire quite early—but entirely because of that other party to the approaching marriage, the charming Vitiali, whose eyes made no secret of a fact which, after all, there's no reason to conceal from a celibate woman.
"I had nothing from Fay about the preliminaries, as I came to be curious about them. She never spoke of yesterday, very seldom of to-morrow; all her words and laughter were for the present moment, when you were with her and were held captive by the deliciously sincere brown eyes, which could mock so faintly—and, if she chose to play with you, act so plaintively! Perhaps it is because I, even then, had put her on a velvet cushion in a glass case, to admire and enjoy her especially, but she certainly did seem a figure quite apart from her own generation of just-emerged débutantes—usually a tiresome barley-water stage for a girl, when she hasn't yet quite dropped her girlish giggle for her woman's smile. I never thought of her in relation to the other maidenly things one met in drawing-rooms round about, even when she was herself there as one of them, and by a quaint mixture of shyness and self-possession made one mentally describe her by an unusual epithet for a girl—she looked gracious! But then that was suitable, for parties and such-like were different to these nowadays. It was much less difficult then than it is now to tell a lady from a demi-mondaine; girls hadn't yet learnt, or pretended they hadn't, to be sophisticated before getting married. One played more ping-pong in those days.
"So it was entirely from Mrs. Richmond that I learnt of Vitiali's approach, and of her own motherly share in it, and was able to piece together my theory of the good lady's vague discomfort at it all. He had appeared in London about two years before to take up the vaguest post at the Embassy here, but with just a little more than the usual social advantages of the ordinary attaché. Mothers' hearts could not but beat a little frenziedly in the presence of his fortune and his very agreeable person; and his title, however Italian, held a long and honoured tradition. Mrs. Richmond was quite a dear in her self-directed sarcasm, and there was a real tenderness in her reference to the parti which her daughter had won—because, after all, the prize had melted before Fay into the most graceful of begging suitors; had so wantonly fallen in love, her mother explained, that only the severest exercise in breeding had restrained her from feeling superior to more commonplace mothers. From the first he had lain, so to speak, on the door-mat, quite pitifully. Fay, who had just 'come out' had quite definitely refused his first proposal—any Englishman would have run to join the salmon in the Hebrides after that girlish refusal! But not so Carlo, who loved without false pride, like the Venetian suitor he was; he ran no further than that door-mat, and there he stayed; looking not in the least ridiculous in a position which tarnishes the dignity of most spoiled young men, but rather grew in it, to one watching kindly more than ever acceptable. Indeed both liking and approving him, Mrs. Richmond had watched his suit kindly and carefully from the first and had favoured it as well as she could; and more than ever after his rebuff, for Vitiali was emerging so admirably from the dangerous test that, so she affirmed, she had never in her life learnt so much as then about the best way in which a young man can win a young woman.
"'And, after all, it's not every day that you will be loved so well and so eligibly,' she had told Fay; and I gather that the rumbling voice must have held a certain weight of impatience in it that day. Because, beside the initial one, there were so many advantages which the tiresome girl didn't seem to see; such, for instance, as the very important one that the southern climate was good for her delicate health,—a cause for great anxiety ever since a very severe attack of bronchial pneumonia in her sixteenth year; in fact, just because of that, they would anyway have to spend a considerable part of every year in the south.... Not of course that any advantage of any kind could or should sway a definite dislike into anything more amiable—but where, incomparably instead of dislike, there was a genuine fondness which the slightest touch of time's finger might throw into love, it was irritating to see a girl's whim assert itself so contrarily!
"And who, in the end, but Fay herself had proved it to be a whim, when, some eight months after he had first declared his suit, Carlo had found himself accepted as whole-heartedly, Mrs. Richmond affirmed, as once he had been refused? Although, of course, Fay was of a very undemonstrative nature—which perhaps was just as well in a mate of this Italian gallant, who was himself quite demonstrative enough for one household!
"But there was to be no hurry about the affair, Mrs. Richmond had decided from the first; and I could imagine her bustling that decision about her mind, as a sort of anodyne for she didn't quite know what. They had been engaged already six months, and she, watching her only child's happiness very, very carefully, had gained from her care not less than certainty about the felicity of Fay's choice. There was in Carlo no note that jarred, as there often is even in the best of men; besides, he could so perfectly accommodate one's every mood, and yet lose not a fraction of his dignity in such complaisance; for, having so absolutely thrown himself at Fay's feet, she hadn't really been able to help allowing him to stay there—'as who wouldn't?' Mrs. Richmond demanded comfortably.
"No, there was to be no hurrying. Carlo had been persuaded by her determination—Mrs. Richmond rather stressed her influence here—and the marriage would not take place for another six months from then; for she preferred that Fay should have reached a decent one-and-twenty before setting out on the conquest of Italy.
"'But she is an odd girl, with a terrible capacity for loyalty—I suppose that's the word,' she added. 'With more loyalty than a human being can comfortably hold, I sometimes imagine.' A note of self-deprecatory anxiety in her voice conflicted oddly in one's ears with the 'happy-ever-after' tone of her previous sentences; and to help her out of her ensuing silence, I ventured that surely it was just Fay's loyalty (if that was the word), which even a stranger could feel, that made her so unusually, well, attractive for her years.
"'Of course, of course....' Mrs. Richmond assented heavily; then turned in her chair directly round on me. 'But, my dear man, don't you see that when it's carried to excess it can make a very treacherous quality? When, let's say, it becomes a leading principle in life for a girl who, after all, needs only a working amount of it, all sorts of troublesome things might happen—I mean, of course, that it's just conceivable as a theory in a foolish moment such as this.... Poor Howard! to be burdened by a mother with her child's virtues for lack of any real faults! It's a sweet thought, that way.
"'You see,' she said wistfully, 'people sometimes break after the strain of too much loyalty—I've adopted that word now. They don't take things easily enough, until, one day, they suddenly break and take things too easily! I've seen it happen, a dear sweet woman.... I'm talking so intimately to you because I expect you to understand, and not be too brilliantly conclusive to yourself about it. Of course you know that I am not talking directly of Fay, for it's absurd to suppose that there ever could be a strain on her loyalty about anything, but about my own theories. I've got lately into the habit, from so much watching, of doing her introspection for her, just as I still like doing her hair for her sometimes—for it's a shame that a mere maid should have all the fun, isn't it?'
"But, after all, it was not to run so smoothly for dear Mrs. Richmond; her half-articulate anxiety—I can't really call it self-reproach—seemed to have held a parallel justification in its subject. Fay, knowing nothing of her good mother's shouldering of her burden, had done her own introspection as well as she could by herself; and came, as girls will, upon its results inconveniently as the marriage grew nearer—instead of having thought of it all before as her mother had done for her!
"I had a very good view of the pattern they unknowingly worked between them because, in my curious too-quickly developed position in that house, I was again made the confidant. I was, 'Since mother has quarrelled with all her "in-laws," the only sensible man about the premises,' Fay herself said once; a bloodless and unenviable prerogative so unsuitable to Vitiali's temper that he had never troubled to stoop down to claim it from the heights where his good fortune had enthroned him. For who, able to be something better, would trouble himself to hold the mean place of 'the sensible man about the premises?' I've never been lured into it since, anyway.
"It was about a month later that, after a week in which I had not seen them, I called one afternoon and came face to face with Vitiali by the drawing-room door, which he had just closed behind him.
"I'm so glad you have come, Howard,' he said, with his affectionate smile, retaining my hand in his; we were great friends, you understand. 'I have just left Fay, looking exactly as though she were going to write a book or a tragedy. Oh, so serious!
"'Come on, quickly,' he said, catching me by the arm and hurrying me to the door. 'Let her see you before she takes a pen in her hand—let her see a man who actually has written something, and take warning.
"'Of course, you don't look like an author, old man,' he soothed my protest. 'You look just like any one else, but more sympathetic. That is why I am asking you to make Fay look not so serious—Oh, it's terrible, that quiet Fay seriousness!' He held me at arm's length with a sudden gesture. 'Can you make a woman laugh?' he asked.
"'I can do nothing else,' I answered.
"'Then, Howard, I shall count you not a good friend if Fay is not smiling all over her face when I come back to-night to take them out to dinner.' He had a delightful way of mock solemnity, which seemed to suit particularly his dark mobile features.
"'Quick, now, before she takes up that horrible pen!' and he opened the door and thrust me into the room. 'God be with you,' he whispered behind the closing door.
"What poor Carlo had helplessly called her 'seriousness' I had remarked about Fay just lately; and the forced comedy of my entrance to combat it was part of the woe-begone air with which he usually tried to appease and lighten it.... It was, as I had noticed, as though a fleeting shadow of thought, in brushing across her face, had been seduced to stay beyond its first impulse; and there's nothing in the world so satisfying to watch as a young serious loveliness, so it be without guile. I, as sometimes the four of us sat at the play (when of course I was Mrs. Richmond's companion in particular), in a side glance at her would catch the shadow of that thought, and it was as a delicate engravure on a lovely face; and I'd wonder what problem that dear mind was trying to work out—of course, bravely! You see? She was the sort of girl to induce a generous epithet about her every action, the sort that even great writers seldom show as anything but lay figures, simply because it needs a rare personal quality to create a perfect description of beauty together with simplicity and genuineness. I can't even attempt to do that, I'm content just to envy my youth her company, and curse it for its commonplace vigour which, ambitious in a busy world, thought of that girl as a playmate, instead of—oh, instead of as a mate!
"'I'm here, to-day, as a clown,' I said, as I walked towards her at the writing table by the window. They affected quills in that house, and as she turned round in her chair she had the end of one thoughtfully between her teeth.
"'You don't have to be a clown,' she denied, quite vigorously. 'Even though Carlo did make a speech to you just outside—and isn't he a sweet when he's fussed!'
"'And with reason. For the point of his speech was that you had been pulling a long face at him, and no decent Italian likes to have his women pulling long faces.'
"'It wasn't at him, Howard. Could any woman pull one of those faces you refer to at Carlo? Obviously he's too dear to be treated as an ordinary man....'
"'Well, I did say I was only a clown,' I murmured humbly.
"'No, to-day you are an uncle, Uncle Howard,' she said, puckering her eyebrows as though in examination of me for that post. 'Yes, you've got to be the sort of uncle that real uncles never are.'
"'This is one of my serious days,' she explained. 'I'm sorry, Howard, but it is. I'm not old enough yet to have a plain day, so I've got to put up with a serious one instead now and again. There's no sugar or chocolate on any of the cakes I think about to-day.'
"'I remember a tale by a man called Henry Harland about a woman who once had a plain day—' I was beginning vaguely.
"'You mustn't remember it because I'm not a bit interested in her,' she stopped me. 'If you please, we will discuss myself Entirely. Do you mind very much, Howard?'
"'Not very much,' I said.
"And suddenly she jumped up and caught me tightly by the arm, the whole smile and impulse exquisitely childish. 'Oh, my dear, what shall I do when I'm married to a foreigner and no strong, silly, sensible Englishman about the house to play with!' Quick words they were, tumbling over one another—and then she let go my arm, for that inevitable flush was tingeing her cheeks.
"'You see, one thinks of that,' she went on, more sedately. 'It simply creeps over me, the thought of who poor Fay is going to talk nonsense with in the "near future." It's difficult to talk nonsense with most people, isn't it? Yes, say it is.... You know you get that feeling yourself, Howard—you know very well that it isn't with every chit of a girl you can talk the sort of stuff you do with me. Just try, anyway, and see what you get!'
"'Of course, I can with Carlo too,' she said. 'But it's different. Rather like work. Why, it took me months and months to make him understand that I didn't hate him when I laughed at him! And one only really laughs at people one's very fond of, after all.... I suppose it's different because he's in love with me,' she added, and waited for me to find a query in her eyebrows; but I didn't answer it.
"'Italians are very odd,' she said. 'I know all about them now. They simply mustn't be laughed at—it's a sort of threat they hold over you, poor dears! I'm always making a sunny day into a rainy day for Carlo.... When I said "foreigner" I didn't, of course, mean to imply that he was an ordinary foreigner,' she added very decidedly.
"'Even if he had no money,' I agreed, 'he could never be anything worse than an "alien." With a face like that he simply couldn't be "undesirable."
"'What is it, Fay?' I asked suddenly. 'You've got the air of a woman "leading up to something." There is an important look in your eye.'
"She smiled a little plaintively. 'It's not very important,' she said. 'I'm worrying about myself, that's all. To-day, and yesterday, and other days before, I've been wondering whether I am or am not going to marry Carlo.'
"'But, Fay, of course you are!' I was startled enough to cry.
"'Yes,' she nodded. 'That is exactly what mother would say, except that she would say it in a bigger way; but she doesn't know.... I'm worrying about it a lot, Howard. I simply don't know which to do.'
"She had startled me into the attitude of uncle she had desired of me. I stood on the hearth, just by her chair, and really felt very serious. Suddenly, and with both hands, she had given me a responsibility. She had half turned a key and shown me a place of discomfort for three people whom I was really fond of. And I wanted, intensely, to help—not only Fay, but her mother. If this was only a passing indecision I decided that her mother must never hear of it, for I already knew of her infinite capacity to worry herself.... But it doesn't matter what in particular I said. I probably bent over from my place on the hearth, and spoke into her eyes, telling her that this wasn't a game. She simply must make up her mind—now! To go on doubting was, after all, so unfair to Carlo!
"'It can't all be so indefinite,' I urged rather impatiently. 'I mean, my child, that you must know whether you do or don't like him enough.'
"'But I do, I like him frightfully,' she protested. 'You don't quite understand, Uncle Howard. I'm not worrying so much about his part of it as about mine. I'm sure about him, you see. He is the sweetest and dearest young man in the world, and I know that I can be happy with him—even though he does look sulky when I laugh at him. But Italian sulks are so much more attractive than the home product.... Yes, I like him very, very much, and I know very, very clearly that I'm not in love with him—'
"She was too sensible a girl for me to take up that cue in the conventional way; but there was no other way in which to answer it, so I didn't.
"'But I'm not an idiot. I don't quarrel with that especially,' she said, 'because I will probably never like any one I can marry half as much. No, it's quite easy to just marry Carlo, he fits in so well.'
"'Well, if that's so, I wonder what on earth we are talking about!' I had to say. And she shook her head at me helplessly.
"'You make an awfully good uncle, Howard, you are so terribly stupid! Didn't I tell you ages ago that this discussion was to be limited strictly to Fay? So Carlo, for the moment, is just a man who has bought a ring. I, the Queen of Sheba, come to Solomon for wisdom, but with one fat worry instead of jewels and things....'
"How surprised she would have been if I had said, 'My dear, even Solomon was not more grateful.' But I wanted to.
"'I seem very meek and mild, but I'm really very full of myself,' she explained shyly. 'I've been introspecting, you see, and of course I've made an awful mess of it. Knowing oneself doesn't help, it simply complicates.... I've found, for instance, that once I do a thing—well, it's done! It's like a thing written in a book (or in a play by you!), always there, by me. I mean that once I've stuck myself to a thing, I am—do you mind?—a "sticker." I don't change or break away—I can't. And it's very frightening and discouraging to realize that, because it sort of cuts away from under the feet all the trap-doors which other people can escape through. I feel very pathetic ... and even you don't know what I'm talking about.'
"'But I do, Fay, I do!' I said quickly. And I knew even better than she, with her mother's self-deprecatory confidence on 'loyalty' in my ears!
"'The feeling,' she went on encouraged, 'is that, not quite like other people, once I'm married—well, just suppose that I even in the least bit wanted to get unmarried again! I couldn't. It's like a Roman Catholic marriage, for ever and ever. Of course,' she added quickly, sincerely, 'it's the very dimmest nightmare. I'm quite happy to marry Carlo, and I can't really imagine that I could begin to be unhappy with him—but just suppose! I'm much too fond of him even now to want to hurt him, and as I grow fonder of him I shall never be able to hurt him. Never. His eyes wouldn't let me....'
"And as I looked at her I couldn't help thinking that the world would be a splendid place if women realised the responsibility of being loved as did this girl. For that, mainly, was what it was, the burden of the responsibility of being utterly loved for the first time.
"But I didn't give way to that sort of thing. I seem to remember talking a great deal of sense that afternoon, but sense which I tried to frame illogically enough not to appear too disagreeable. I simply can't help feeling a little proud of my own share in that afternoon. I remember that I said quite sternly that it was very strange for a girl like her to have wandered so far ahead, strange and not very fitting. 'Because, don't you see, Fay, it's all very unfair to Carlo and to your own affection for him? You say you are frightfully fond of him, you let him feel that you are, and then, if you please, your mind goes searching on ahead concocting plots as to what you will or will not do when you are not so fond of him. If you are fond enough of him now, as you say you are, it's simply dishonest of you, Fay, to go on playing draughts with those vague doubts about a very vague future. It's the sort of thing women do when they are thinking of marrying a fourth husband.... If you go on like this, when you are an old woman you will be very superstitious and quite unbearable. For it's not much more than a superstition now, and you are treating yourself very cruelly to make it the keystone of your "serious day." I've never felt less sympathetic about a thing in all my life!'
"And so I went on, bartering my mess of pottage for the homely position of 'Uncle' Howard. And as she looked up at me and listened, her eyes grew not so serious, until they laughed outright.
"'Oh, dear, I'm sure you're right,' she said at last; 'but I don't in the least agree with what you say.... But anyway I've gained something by boring you with it all, Howard. The whole thing seems so very unimportant and silly now I've told it to some one else.' And then she added, with a manner: 'The serious day has nothing further on which to proceed, so ... let's have tea! And muffins! It's simply impossible not to have muffins to-day, Howard.'
"She was a dear, that girl! And a little later, as I walked up Piccadilly towards my flat, I suddenly found myself staring hard at an empty 'crawler,' with the tremendous thought in my head that it was a great shame that England should lose such a girl to a foreigner and a foreign country! It began to seem wrong, somehow....
"I saw very little of them between then and the marriage. August and part of September took them up to Scotland, while I stayed in London and worked. How I must have enjoyed working in those days! And when they came back I was busy with the production of a new play, and they too, I supposed, with the usual preparations. But Vitiali used often to drop in at my rooms at odd hours, and I asked him once if Fay had ever looked serious enough since that afternoon to write a tragedy; he showed his teeth in a smile, and said that I must have done her a great deal of good that day, 'Because, my dear Howard, she has never been gayer and more light-hearted as lately. I am very happy....' He could say those things, he had a way of charming you with his simplicity; and, anyway, there is nothing more charming in the world than a cultured foreigner—except, of course, a cultured Englishman.
"Two nights before the wedding day, after ten o'clock, Fay rang me up on the telephone. 'I hope I am disturbing you,' she began sweetly.
"'I just want to know, Howard,' the voice said, 'if you really are coming to see me married.'
"'Well, I've intimated to your mother my decision to be present, and I've committed myself in writing, what's more.'
"'Don't be silly, my dear! Whoever takes any notice of what you write? You write much too well.'
"'It's only that I had a vague idea,' she explained very gently, 'that you wouldn't be there.' Then, somehow, there was a short silence. That telephone silence, full of dim murmurings and the attention of two people!
"'Why?' I asked abruptly.
"'Don't be snappy with me, please, Howard,' the voice begged. 'I just wanted to know for certain, that's all.'
"Queer things happen sometimes on a clear telephone about half-past ten at night. Voices seem to take their clothes off....
"'Well, as a matter of fact,' I began slowly.
"'Yes?' It was scarcely a word, but a light low tremor of a question.... I put my lips very close to the mouthpiece and formed my words very clearly:—
"'Why don't you want me to come, Fay?'
"I'm not sure about the little gasp, but only about the little voice, after a long second, saying, 'I don't know why, Howard.'
"'Now that you've asked me I realise that I never intended to come,' I confessed. 'And I'm damned if I know why, either!... If I come at all I shall be among the crowd outside, admiring you and Carlo.'
"'But aren't you quite, quite sure that at the last moment you won't regretfully find it impossible to come at all?' the voice seemed to plead.
"'I'm beginning not to be sure of anything to-night,' I said fretfully.
"'Poor Howard!' Ah, I knew that voice, the firmer one with the little caress of mischief over it! I made a quick grab at it.
"'I say, you're going to write to me quite a lot, aren't you?'
"'Not one line,' she answered firmly.
"'But, Fay, you can't disappear from my life like that!' I protested heatedly. 'Of course you are going to write to me, aren't you?'
"'I don't intend to,' she said sweetly, 'but I suppose I will, sometime.... Don't you know, Howard,' the voice asked, as though getting farther and farther away, 'that you don't deserve a letter from me, ever?' No words of mine could hold that voice near, it was disappearing, a faint thing growing fainter, like phantom in a wind.
"'And you don't deserve ever to see me again.... Good-bye, Howard.'
"'Fay!' I cried. Her name seemed to be on the wall before me, a written word. And I couldn't reach it, couldn't! Her receiver clicked—like a far away door clicking behind some one who has left a room empty of all that matters. And I was realising that only then! There was no more Fay Richmond! That voice over the telephone, with an unrealised shade and quiver in it, had wrenched aside in my consciousness what the eyes and body of that voice had seemed to leave intact for so long! As though a sudden ray of sunshine had awakened a man whom an alarm-clock had left sleeping. There was no more Fay Richmond! I didn't go to the wedding.
"I haven't, even now, the least sympathy with myself. Nor would I have with you, say, if you had grossly bungled your affairs in the same way. It's a deficiency for which there is not the shadow of an excuse, that mean, ungenerous, deficiency which blinds a man to the necessities of his own happiness—until, since life is always farce or melodrama, it's too late!
"She did not write to me. The 'sometime' of her concession faded with the months into a dream, perhaps to come true, sometime!... I wrote only once to her, a dishonest letter, which I did my best to fill with the spirit of my past—and how long passed!—'avuncular' relations with her. And yet nothing happened since the day when the Queen of Sheba had come to Solomon with 'one fat worry,' nothing at all! Not even the first syllable of a word of love—not, by a thousand miles, even the shadow of an attempted or desired kiss! Only, to account for it all, a voice on a telephone one night, a so familiar voice changed by magic.... Changed in itself or in my mind? I simply didn't ask! But, however it was, from that strange thing the god worked a stranger, for I knew that when she read that letter she would know that it was dishonest, unreal.
"She must have known! Or else, sixteen months later.... That 'sometime' letter of hers had come at last! A treasure, stamped from Vienna where (so Mrs. Richmond had written me from Tonbridge, her new home since the disposal of the house of Rutland Gate) Carlo was now attached. It was a very short letter something like this:
"'I am coming to England for a week,' she wrote, 'to see mother in her new home in the country. But, if you don't mind, there are other folk I would like to see, too!... Carlo is getting more and more of a personage, and simply can't leave Vienna, so I won't be able to stay away more than a week, from next Thursday as ever is, ! But as I don't know what day I will be in London, you will please institute no inquiries about me until you hear from me. I will ring you up at about 10:30 on any of my seven nights, so that we can arrange to meet somewhere. Of course, I could write to you, but I want to wonder, as I take up the receiver, whether you will recognise my voice. But you won't dare not to, will you, Howard?' That is only a reason in a letter, I said to myself, for I can hear her adding, 'And so, my dear, if there's anything gay enough to keep you out after ten-thirty on any of those nights, then you will miss Fay—now won't you?'
"Thursday came. And then came those other days and nights, and passed! Each one tingling with hope, until half-past ten, and then—oh, it's a misery unlike any other, that waiting for a bell that doesn't ring! It is a cruel game to play upon a man, that exaltation of hope to hear a voice, and then that helpless misery, with no remedy but what he can find in cigarettes. I paced many miles of carpet those six evenings.
"Thursday again. I dined alone, and then, telling Briggs that he could take his evening out, opened a book, and read grimly. I can't remember anything in my life like the bitter, dismal anger of that night. It's a vivid sore even now, that last vigil by my fire with mind and heart telling me that I had been cruelly played with, like a beast in a cage. I didn't love the less, I couldn't; indeed it was my love that was measured by my bitter grievance.... And even if I do hear her voice to-night, I wasn't spared from realising, it will be too late to see her—'to arrange to meet somewhere,' she had written!—for she will be leaving to-morrow.
"One can act very well in one's own bitter company. Even as the clock in my little hall struck the half-hour after ten I pretended to read grimly on.... I've explained all this waiting to you because it seems to reflect quite importantly on my behaviour that night. It can't but account for it in a sort of way—and as for excusing it, well I don't care a button for that!
"I suppose it was about a quarter of an hour later that the door-bell rang. Briggs was out, as I've said, and I had not the faintest intention of answering it, for it could only be a casual caller wanting a drink. But the bell rang again, furiously—and this time, without a second's hesitation, I threw aside my book, strode into the hall, and flung open the door.
"'You beast!' I said with all my heart, quivering.
"There she was, in the half-darkness of the open doorway, a grey-hatted woman, with a little face thrown up to laugh, laughing at me! And I may have been laughable indeed, with face suited to that unrestrained outburst. I didn't wait for her to speak, I stretched out a hand and drew her by the arm into the hall, and kicked the door to. And she just smiled! with her head a little to one side, she stared up at me, as I still held her arm, and, I suppose, glowered down at her—like a child examining the giant who has caught her. And then, at last, she spoke:
"'I wondered what my welcome would be,' she said softly, 'but I never expected this particular one.'
"Her voice broke my impulses into pieces, as a silver hammer might break coarse grass. I let go of her arm.
"'And of all the welcomes I'd prepared for you, Fay,' I said humbly, 'this particular one never occurred to me. Please—'
"But she didn't seem to be listening, the large, serious eyes were still examining me, my face.
"'Why, Howard, you're quite changed!' she exclaimed. 'You aren't the same Howard at all, the one who used to come to Rutland Gate!'
"'Well, you see, that telephone call last century....' I explained vaguely.
"She nodded her head comprehendingly.
"'Ah, yes, that one that should simply never have happened!' she murmured.
"'I'm frightfully glad to see you again, Fay,' I said, as though irrelevantly, and gravely held out my hand. We shook hands.
"'I just thought I'd call and see you before I left England,' she said as gravely. 'And I might add that though I find your hall quite charming, it's very unsatisfactory as a reception-room.'
"But she didn't go straight in, she stopped on the threshold of the room to look round at me with a sudden, excited smile.
"'You silly Howard, don't you realise that this is a wonderful adventure, because I've never, never been in your rooms before!' And once in the room she looked slowly round, until her eyes fixed on her own portrait on my writing table. She pointed a finger at the discovery.
"'Why, there's Fay Richmond!' she exclaimed.
"'A girl not unworthy to be put beside you, Madame la Marchesa,' I bowed gallantly.
"'Don't!' she almost screamed. 'I've been hearing that sort of stuff from Italians and Austrians for a year and a half—and I simply can't bear it from you, Howard, even in fun.'
"'Anyway, it's a wretched sort of compliment,' she added, 'because that girl wouldn't dare hold her head up beside me—would she now?' And she looked me intimidatingly full in the face.
"'Well, I suppose you have grown just a little,' I conceded. 'Though I can't possibly judge between your looks until you take off your hat—like a dear?'
"It was easily done, a light grey felt thing with a rakish brim—a travelling hat, I realised with a shock! My eyes followed it as she threw it on to the table, and my mind lost all the ease which I had managed to collect. She saw that, I suppose, for as she patted her hair she was looking at me with a queer, understanding, hopeless smile.
"'Fay, you're not going—just now?' I blurted out.
"'I called here on my way to the station,' she told me very evenly.
"I couldn't help it, I said again, 'You beast, Fay!'
"'But you don't understand, my dear' she protested quickly; and with an adorable gesture she stretched out a hand, three fingers of a gloved hand, and ran them thoughtfully down my arm. 'Won't you understand at all? Why I've come to see you on my last night in England instead of—instead of on my first?'
"She seemed to plead, a suppliant before me staring cruelly down at her. I didn't understand.
"'If I had seen you on my first night,' she tried to explain, 'why, I might have been tempted to go on seeing you, again and again, for ever and ever, Howard!... Oh, don't you understand?' And she asked that with a sort of breathless, childish pleading in her voice—illuminating even to my bitterness! But I couldn't, just then, let a pleading voice make me forgive so easily.
"'And so, in case you might be tempted,' I said, like any cad, 'you come to see me on your way to the train!'
"'But my train doesn't go until 7 o'clock in the morning,' she said.... A slave to that wonderful moment, I took her and kissed her lips.
"Those few hours explained Fay Richmond—the girl I had known so well, the woman I loved.... And who loved me! There lay the unforgivable wonder."
And for the first time, on that passionate regret, Howard Wentworth broke in on his tale. With elbows on his knees and hands clasped, he leant forward in his arm-chair (one of those creaking wicker things which only poor men and rich nursing-homes have) and earnestly pointed his haggard convalescent face at me.
"But it's simply impossible to carry on that explanation, the method and the conviction of it, to you," he said. "In fact, if you will look about you at methods of expression, you will find that it's just there that life takes its leave of literature—just at that point where, in this instance, one impulse kissed another! It is as though life and literature had been travelling companions a good way, both helping the other—until at a cross-road life, with a sudden realisation akin to contempt, goes off on its own different road, a boundless and secret road where men and women passionately tell God what, on that other cruder road, they can't tell their fellows.... Sex, of course, is generally the most convincing explanation of inconsistencies—but it's not, by an exquisite subtraction, quite enough! It is only people who cannot go one better who live and love and lie in terms of sex alone; because, after all, there are additions to it, not so definite, perhaps, but more satisfying—and more lasting! So, anyway, the memory of one night tells me.
"That night was, as you realise, an amazing inconsistency in the Fay Richmond I've told you about. But if you will look even at that photograph you will see that such sincerity couldn't really be consistently sincere without, just once, being inconsistent to itself. I know that that sounds rather like a remark made by a young man after a liqueur brandy, but somehow it's very true.
"Hours later, as though she had suddenly awoken to a memory, she asked me very seriously if I remembered how there had been no sugar or chocolate on any of the cakes she had thought about on a certain afternoon? 'And all my long self-conscious speech, which you listened to so brutally well that I almost hated you—even though I didn't know for certain then that I loved you! And when you were going away, d'you remember, I was smiling "all over my face" like Carlo wanted me to, and being a frightfully jolly person? But afterwards I cried, Oh, how I cried! I liked you so much, and I liked Carlo so much—but so differently!...
"'It was all arranged that I should marry Carlo,' she said, 'and then you came along and just ruffled the surface of things—but ever so slightly! If you had kissed me you might have ruffled them too much, things might have been different, and now I would still be an honest woman instead of just a helpless creature in your arms, never, never wanting to leave them to go back to the world, where there's no passion for me....' Her voice was lower than a whisper, a murmur in my ears, and I would have preferred it to fade entirely into the silence it scarce left, for she was hurting us both with what she said.
"But the whisper went on, telling me how bitterly she had been hurt because I had been to see them so little in the weeks before the wedding—and how, missing me, she had found out her own secret.
"'If you had come to me then and said, "Fay, come away with me," I suppose I would have thrown over Carlo. Yes, I suppose I would, but I'm not sure, because it would have been so frightfully difficult to have hurt him, the dearest man in the world! He would have died.... But it doesn't matter what I would have done or not done in that wonderful moment, because it never came—it was quite hopeless to hope that it would! I felt that right in my bones, I felt that you were a hopeless person to love, and very, very far away. Oh, so far away you seemed to be, Howard! And getting farther and farther every day, a cold, friendly figure coming to see us now and again, like a character in a play who has nothing to do but watch and make a sensible sort of joke when the real people get over-excited. And so I let everything go on, quite terrified and miserable, wondering what to do. It wasn't the idea of marrying Carlo that made me terrified or miserable, it was the thought of losing all hope of you—the thought of putting a husband between me and all hope of ever being loved by you.... But I let those last days pass, one by one, full of prophecy about myself, like a tragic figure in the Bible; and I didn't lift my voice, I did nothing at all, I let each day pass. I suppose it was because I was so hopeless about you, and laziness must have had something to do with it, too! That special sort of laziness which tells you that one effort is easier to make than the other—it was easier not to hurt Carlo and mother. But I couldn't resist just telephoning to you at the last moment to let you know what a pig you were, and, if you liked me at all, to make you see that the whole thing served you jolly well right. But I suppose I didn't control my voice very well and so gave myself away—though I didn't mind, really, because I had it firmly fixed in my mind that it was too late, I was going to marry Carlo whatever happened. And something did happen on that telephone, vaguely—I found that you did like me quite a lot after all, you poor man! And all this time that I've been away, a respectable married woman, I've been building up the romance of my life on a break in your voice—growing more and more certain that you loved me, until I had to come back to England to find out. And when you opened the door I found out....
"'On my way to St. George's to marry Carlo,' she said, 'it seemed as though I had to wrap you up in a parcel, and go round by Westminster Bridge and drop you into the river. Yes ... and that's what I did, really, Howard dear. I have lost you, and you me, even though you are beside me now, a figure in a dream from which I shall wake up—just in time to catch my train! And that train is going to take me such a long way away from you, Howard, that we will be dead and buried and reincarnated before it can bring me back to see your beloved face again. It seems to be that sort of train, my dear....'
"Of course, I said things, I protested, I implored. It simply couldn't be that I was not to see her again!... There was misery enough, but there was no heart in my entreaties, for I knew all the time that what she said must be, and why it must be. It was the only right thing in a wrong business, that last cruelty. Oh, I knew, I knew! And there was a quality of fatalism about Fay's voice, which made its softness as hard to pierce as adamant. I was quite dull and flat, listening to her numbly, so that her words seemed to write themselves vividly in my mind, unalterable words never to be forgotten, each one like a fate in itself.
"It was more than martyrdom to an idea, it was a principle of living, that determined her to that course, the inevitable course; something in her much more human than can be found in such philandering with oneself as martyrdom, and that's why it was so inevitable, why I couldn't fight against it heartily and actively. It was simply that her whole being, the very insides and outsides, was in revolt against the treachery of any change in the road she had, however undecidedly once, set herself to travel; it was not possible for her to burn a single boat even on the certain chance of finding a palace in the romantic land—and so it was like a Roman Catholic marriage, as she had told me that afternoon, ages ago, when I had been so seriously concerned about her indecision to marry Carlo!... My dear old man, hers was an aristocrat among souls!
"It was past six o'clock, and I was in an arm-chair watching her do her hair at the dressing-table, when she suddenly let it fall again over her shoulders, and came and knelt by the arm of my chair, and said: 'I'm not a very tiresome woman, really, because I know quite well that often in your life you will be saying beautiful things to beautiful women—but you will think it awfully bad luck if they believe you, won't you, Howard?
"'I had to come to see if you loved me,' she said, 'and to make you my lover, all mine, for once and always. Always ... just like that! It's a long word to repeat, always, but I do make it sound convincing, don't I, dear? Please, I want you to believe that I'll love you always.... Of course, I know that one day you will sit up and take notice of the thrill in a woman's eyes, you won't be able to help it, and it's only right that you shouldn't. But it won't be like this. She won't have all of you, simply because you can't help always being mostly mine, the girl whom you once took no notice of except to give her advice. It will be no good your trying, Howard. I can hear you saying one day soon, when you want to see me very much, "My God, I must end this damnable wizardry"—damnable wizardry is exactly how you will put it, but even swearing won't help you at all. You will try to worship strange gods, but it will be a self-conscious business, perhaps good for your vanity but not for your soul. You can't ever love again like this, my Howard, you simply can't help loving Fay all your life. Those, roughly, are my orders, anyway ...' she whispered into my ear, her fair hair tumbling over my face, punishing me.
"I had ordered a cab earlier in the night. Her maid, to whom she had made some excuse, was to meet her at the station. But Fay wouldn't even let me accompany her part of the way, she insisted on saying good-bye at the open door, the door which I had opened so fiercely so long before. Two lives, after all, had been lived since then. She stood there, in the open doorway, her eyes sad and remote, and touched with something as old as this earth of ours is old, and a smile was crucified on her face; and she whispered:
"'Pour un plaisir mille douleurs. L'amour est mort, vive l'amour!'
"And then she went away.... I know no more of Fay Richmond."
Howard's tale ended, I think, not too soon, for he had already talked too much for his returning strength. He lay back with closed eyes, perhaps he was asleep, as I stealthily left the room.
It so happened that I did not see him again. As I have said, although he was convalescent at that time, he had a relapse, and died about ten days later. I rang up frequently to inquire, but more than a week passed before I had time to call at Beaumont Street. My young brother, for whom I was entirely responsible, had fallen ill in the meanwhile, and my time was anxiously spent, first in helping to nurse him, for nurses were not easy to find, and then in helping to find a nursing-home with a vacant bed, for nursing-homes were full; one had to die and vacate his bed before another could fight the wretched plague in it.
When at last I called at Howard's nursing-home and asked for him, the maid said she would ask the matron. But I said I would go up to see the matron myself, and was going upstairs to her room when I met her descending. As she saw me she shook her head gently and told me that Mr. Wentworth was not allowed to see any one, he was very ill. The crisis had not passed yet.... She was a sweet, white-haired old woman, on whose kind face grief had never been disciplined into that geniality which makes matrons sometimes horrible.
"I'm afraid for him...." she added inconclusively, sadly. And then she said: "I have spent most of my life among sick and ailing people, Mr. Arlen, but this has been the saddest time of all. Terribly sad it's been! Only this morning a dear sweet lady, who only came in two days ago.... An English lady married to an Italian, and she was just spending a day in London on her way to Tonbridge where her mother lives, when...." I am almost certain that there were tears, repressed rebellious tears in the kind eyes. "I think her dying has affected me most of all," she added apologetically. "She was such a sweet, beautiful lady!"
As I put up my umbrella against the rain outside I thought to myself that it was like the end of a tale by a sentimentalist, for he had compromised with the angels and brought together in the end, a Juliet unaware of Romeo, the bodies of a man and woman who had loved so unhappily and so incompletely. I heard a tired voice saying bitterly, "I know no more of Fay Richmond."
End of Fay Richmond by Michael Arlen