The Intrusions of Peggy
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'She's about right as to Chance, anyhow,' he remarked. 'I was in the House, and you couldn't mistake his venom.'
'He doesn't count any longer.' Mrs. Bonfill pronounced the sentence ruthlessly.
'No, not politically. And in every other way he's no more than a tool of Fricker's. Fricker must have him in the hollow of his hand. He knows how he stands; that's the meaning of his bitterness. But he can make poor Mortimer feel, all the same. Still, as you say, there's an end of him!'
'And of her too! She was an extraordinary young woman, George.'
'Uncommonly attractive – no ballast,' summed up Glentorly. 'You never see her now, I suppose?'
'Nobody does,' said Mrs. Bonfill, using 'nobody' in its accepted sense. She sighed gently. 'You can't help people who won't be helped.'
'So Viola Blixworth implies,' he reminded her with a laugh.
'Oh, Viola's hopelessly flippant; but she'll manage it in the end, I expect.' She sighed again and went on, 'I don't know that, after all, one does much good by meddling with other people's affairs.'
'Come, come, this is only a moment of despondency, Sarah.'
'I suppose so,' she agreed, with returning hope. To consider that her present mood represented a right and ultimate conclusion would have been to pronounce a ban on all her activities. 'I've half a mind to propose myself for a visit to Barslett.'
'You couldn't do better,' Lord Glentorly cordially agreed. 'Everything will soon be over here, you see.'
She looked at him a little suspiciously. Did he suggest that she should retreat for a while and let the talk of her failures blow over? He was an old friend, and it was conceivable that he should seek to convey such a hint delicately.
'I had one letter from Trix,' she continued. 'A confused rigmarole – explanations, and defence, and apologies, and all the rest of it.'
'What did you write to her?'
'I didn't write at all. I put it in the fire.'
Glentorly glanced at his friend as she made this decisive reply. Her handsome, rather massive features were set in a calm repose; no scruples or doubts as to the rectitude of her action assailed her. Trix had chosen to jump over the pale; outside the pale she must abide. But that night, when a lady at dinner argued that she ought to have a vote, he exclaimed with an unmistakable shudder, 'By Jove, you'd be wanting to be judges next!' What turned his thoughts to that direful possibility?
But of course he did not let Mrs. Bonfill perceive any dissent from her judgment or her sentence. He contented himself with saying, 'Well, she's made a pretty mess of it!'
'There's nothing left for her – absolutely nothing,' Mrs. Bonfill concluded. Her tone would have excused, if not justified, Trix's making an end of herself in the river.
Lady Glentorly was equally emphatic on another aspect of the case.
'It's a lesson to all of us,' she told her husband. 'I don't acquit myself, much less can I acquit Sarah Bonfill.This taking up of people merely because they're good-looking and agreeable has gone far enough. You men are mainly responsible for it.'
'My dear!' murmured Glentorly weakly.
'It's well enough to send them a card now and then, but anything more than that – we must put our foot down. The Barmouths of all people! I declare it serves them right!'
'The affair seems to have resulted in serving everybody right,' he reflected. 'So I suppose it's all for the best.'
'Marriage is the point on which we must make a stand. After a short pause she added an inevitable qualification: 'Unless there are overwhelming reasons the other way. And this woman was never even supposed to be more than decently off.'
'The Barmouths are very much the old style. It was bad luck that she should happen on them.'
'Bad luck, George? It was Sarah Bonfill!'
'Bad luck for Mrs. Trevalla, I mean.'
'You take extraordinary views sometimes, George. Now I call it a Providence.'
In face of a difference so irreconcilable Glentorly abandoned the argument. There were a few like him who harboured a shame-faced sympathy for Trix. They were awed into silence, and the sentence of condemnation passed unopposed.
Yet there were regrets and longings in Mervyn's heart. Veiled under his dignified manner, censured by his cool judgment, hustled into the background by his resolute devotion to the Trans-Euphratic railway and other affairs of state, made to seem shameful by his determination to find a new ideal in a girl of Audrey Pollington's irreproachable stamp, they maintained an obstinate vitality, and, by a perverse turn of feeling, drew their strength from the very features in Trix and in Trix's behaviour which had incurred his severest censure while she was still his and with him.
Remembering her recklessness and her gaiety, recalling her hardly-suppressed rebellion against the life he asked her to lead and the air he gave her to breathe, rehearsing even the offences which had, directly or indirectly, driven her to flight and entailed exile on her, he found in her the embodiment of something that he condemned and yet desired, of something that could not be contained in his life, and thereby seemed in some sort to accuse that life of narrowness. She had shown him a country which he could not and would not enter; at moments the thought of her derisively beckoned him whither he could not go. At last, under the influence of these ideas, which grew and grew as the first shock of amazed resentment wore off, he came to put questions to himself as to the part that he had played, to realise a little how it had all seemed to her. This was not to blame himself or his part; he and it were still to him right and inevitable. But it was a step towards perceiving something deeper than the casual perversity or dishonesty of one woman. He had inklings of an ultimate incompatibility of lives, of ways, of training, of thought, of outlook on the world. Both she and he had disregarded the existence of such a thing. The immediate causes of her flight – her dishonesty and her fear of discovery – became, in this view, merely the occasion of it. In the end he asked whether she had not shown a kind of desperate courage, perhaps even a wild inspiration of wisdom, in what she had done. Gradually his anger against her died away, and there came in its place a sorrow, not that the thing she fled from was not to be, but that it never could have been in any true or adequate sense. Perhaps she herself had seen that – seen it in some flashing vision of despair which drove her headlong from the house by night. Feelings that Trix could not analyse for herself he thought out for her with his slow, narrow, but patient and thorough-going mind. The task was hard, for wounded pride still cried out in loud protest against it; but he made way with it. If he could traverse the path of it to the end, there stood comprehension, yes, and acquiescence; then it would appear that Trix Trevalla had refused to pile error on error; in her blind way she would have done right.
That things we have desired did not come to pass may be sad; that they never could have is sadder, by so much as the law we understand seems a more cruel force than the chance that hits us once, we know not whence, and may never strike again. The chance seems only a perverse accident falling on us from outside; the law abides, a limitation of ourselves. Towards such a consciousness as this Mervyn struggled.
At last he hinted something of what was in his mind to Viola Blixworth. He talked in abstract terms, with an air of studying human nature, not of discussing any concrete case; he was still a little pompous over it, and still entirely engrossed in his own feelings. His preoccupation was to prove that he deserved no ridicule, since fate, and not merely folly, had made him its unwilling plaything. She heard him with unusual seriousness, in an instant divining the direction of his thoughts; and she fastened on the mood, turning it to what she wanted.
'That should make you tolerant towards Mrs. Trevalla,' she suggested, as they walked together by the fountains.
'I suppose so, yes. It leaves us both slaves of something too strong for us.'
She passed by the affected humility that defaced his smile; she never expected too much, and was finding in him more than she had hoped.
'If you've any allowance for her, any gentleness towards her – '
'I feel very little anger now.'
'Then tell her so, Mortimer. Oh, I don't mean go to her. On all accounts you'd better not do that.' (Her smile was not altogether for Mervyn here; she spared some of it for her duties and position as an aunt.) 'But write to her.'
'What should I say?' The idea was plainly new to him. 'Do you mean that I'm to forgive her?'
'I wouldn't put it quite like that, Mortimer. That would be all right if you were proposing to – renew the arrangement. But I suppose you're not?'
He shook his head decisively. As a woman Lady Blixworth was rather sorry to see so much decision; it was her duty as an aunt to rejoice.
'Couldn't you manage to convey that it was nobody's fault in particular? Or something like that?'
He weighed the suggestion. 'I couldn't go quite so far,' he concluded, with a judicial air.
'Well, then, that the mistake was in trying it at all? Or in being in a hurry? Or – or that perhaps your manner – ?'
'No, I don't think there was anything wrong with my manner.'
'Could you say you understood her feelings – or, at any rate, allowed for them?'
'Perhaps I might say that.'
'At any rate you could say something comforting.' She put her arm through his. 'She's miserable about you, I know. You can say something?'
'I'll try to say something.'
'I know you'll say it nicely. You're a gentleman, Mortimer.'
She could not have used a better appeal, simple as it sounded. All through the affair – all through his life, it might be said – he had been a gentleman; he had never been consciously unkind, although he had often been to Trix unconsciously unbearable. Viola Blixworth put him on his honour by the name he reverenced.
'You'll feel better after you've done it – and more like settling down again,' said she. Friendship and auntship mingled. It would comfort Trix to hear that he had no bitterness; it would certainly assist Audrey if he could cease from studying his precise feelings, of any nature whatsoever, about another woman. Lady Blixworth was so accustomed to finding her motives mixed that a moderate degree of adulteration in them had ceased to impair her satisfaction with a useful deed. Besides, is not auntship also praiseworthy? Society said yes, and she never differed from it when its verdicts were convenient.
The letter was written; it was a hard morning's work, for he penned it as carefully as though it were to go into some archives of state. He would say no more than the truth as he had at last reached it; he said no less with equal conscientiousness. The result was stiff with all his stiffness, but there was kindness in it too. It was not forgiveness; it was acquiescence and a measure of understanding. And he convinced himself more and more as he wrote; in the end he did come very near to saying that there had been mistakes on both sides; he even set it down as a possible hypothesis that the initial error had been his. He had a born respect for written documents, and of written documents not the least of his respect was for his own. He had never felt so sure that there was an end of Trix Trevalla, so far as he was concerned, as when he had put the fact on record over his own signature.
With a sigh he rose and came out into the garden. Audrey sat there reading a novel, which she laid face downwards in her lap at his approach. He took a chair by her, and looked round on the domain that was to be his. Then he glanced at statuesque Audrey. Lady Blixworth viewed them from afar; an instinct told her that the letter had been written. The aunt hoped while the friend rejoiced.
'He must have proved that he needs quite a different wife from Trix, and where could he find one more different?' she mused.
'It's beautiful here in summer, isn't it?' he asked Audrey.
'It must be splendid always,' said she.
'I wish public life allowed me to enjoy more of it.' It is what public men generally say.
'Your work is so important, you see.'
He stretched out his legs and took off his hat.
'But you must rest sometimes,' she urged, with an imploring glance.
'So my mother's always telling me. Well, anyhow, since you like Barslett, I hope you'll stay a long time, Miss Pollington.'
It was not much, but Audrey carried it to Lady Blixworth – or, to put the matter with more propriety, she repeated his remark quite casually. It was not poor Audrey's fault if, in self-defence, she had to make the most of such remarks. Lady Blixworth kissed her niece thoughtfully.
'Another year of my life,' she remarked to the looking-glass that evening, in the course of a study of time's ravages – 'another year or thereabouts will probably see a successful termination to the affair.'
She smiled a little bitterly. Her life, as she understood the term, had few more years to run, and to give up one was a sacrifice. It was, however, no use trying to alter the Barmouth pace. She had done what she could – a good turn to Trix Trevalla, another little lift for Audrey.
'I'm becoming a regular Sarah Bonfill,' she concluded, as she went down to dinner.
The next Saturday Mrs. Bonfill herself came.
'How is Mortimer?' she whispered at the first opportunity.
'My dear Sarah, I doubt if you could have interfered with more tactfulness yourself.'
'And where's dear Audrey?'
'I hope and believe that she's sticking pins into a map to show where the Trans-Euphratic is to run. Kindly pat me on the back, Sarah.'
Mrs. Bonfill's smile was friendly pat enough, but it was all for Audrey; she asked nothing about Trix Trevalla.
Wide apart as the two were, Trix read the letter with something of the feeling under which Mervyn had written it. He was a good man, but not good for her – that seemed to sum up the matter. Perhaps her first smile of genuine mirth since her fall and flight was summoned to her lips by the familiar stiffness, the old careful balance of his sentences, the pain by which he held himself back from lecturing. A smile of another kind recognised his straightforwardness and his chivalry; he wrote like a gentleman, as Viola Blixworth knew he would. She was more in sympathy with him when he deplored the gulf between them than when he had told her it was but a ford which duty called on her to pass. 'How much have I escaped, and how much have I lost?' she asked; but the question came in sadness, not in doubt. It was not hers to taste the good; it would have been hers to drink the evil to the dregs. Reading his letter, she praised him and reviled herself; but she rejoiced that she had left him while yet there was time; she rejoiced honestly to see that she would remain in his memory as a thing that was unaccountable, that should not have been, that had come and gone, had given some pain but had done no permanent harm.
'I've got off cheaply,' she thought; her own sufferings were not in her mind, but his; she was glad that her burden of guilt was no heavier. For Mervyn was not as Beaufort Chance; he had done nothing to make her feel that they were quits and her wrong-doing obliterated by the revenge taken for it. She could blame herself less, since even Mervyn seemed to see that, if to begin had been criminal, to go on would have been worse. But bitterness was still in her; her folly seemed still so black, her ruin so humiliating, that she must cry, 'Unfit for him! No, it's for any man that I'm unfit!' Mervyn could but comfort her a little as to what concerned himself; her sin against herself remained unpardoned. And now in her mind that sin had taken on a darker colour; since she had looked in Airey Newton's eyes she could not believe herself the woman who had done such things. The man who, having found the pearl, went and sold all that he had and bought the field where it lay, doubtless did well and was well-pleased. What did the vendor feel who bartered his right for a small price because he had overlooked the pearl?
Mervyn showed her reply to Lady Blixworth – another proof that Aunt Viola was advancing in his confidence, and repressing natural emotions with a laudable devotion to duty. Upon this Lady Blixworth wrote to Peggy Ryle: —
'This letter is not,' she said, 'to praise myself, Peggy, nor to point out my many virtues, but to ask a question. I have indeed done much good. Mortimer is convinced that immutable laws were in fault – and I agree, since the dulness of Barslett and the family preachiness are absolutely immutable. Trix is convinced too – and again I agree, since Trix is naturally both headlong and sincere, an awful combination if one were married to Mortimer. So I praise myself for having made both of them resigned, and presently to be cheerful! Needless to say, I praise myself on another score, and am backing myself to mother young women against Sarah Bonfill herself (who, by the way, is here, and resettles the Cabinet twice a day – mere bravado, I believe, after her shocking blunders, but Sarah bravadoes with a noble solidity that makes the thing almost a British quality!). I wander! What I really ask – and I want to ask it in italics – is, Whom is she in love with? Trix, I mean, of course. I am not in telegraphic, telephonic, or telepathic communication with her, but she says in her letter to Mortimer, "I was not fit for you. Am I fit for any man?" My dear, believe your elders when you can, and listen in silence when you can't! In all my experience I never knew a woman ask that question unless she was in love. Heavens, do we want to be fit for or to please the Abstract Man? Not a bit of it, Peggy! The idea is even revolting, as a thousand good ladies would prove to you. "Am I fit for any man?" Who's "any man," Peggy? Let's have his name and the street where he resides. For my part, I believed there was a man at the back of it all the time – which was no great sagacity – and I said so to Lord Barmouth – which I felt to be audacity. Peggy, tell me his name. "Am I fit for any man?" Poor Trix is still rather upset and melodramatic! But we know what it means. And what are you doing? Do you want a husband? Here am I, started in trade as an honest broker! Come along!'
This letter, Peggy felt, was in a way consoling; she hoped that Trix was in love. But so far as it seemed to be intended to be amusing, Peggy really didn't see it. The fact is, Peggy was in a mood to perceive wit only of the clearest and most commanding quality. Things were very dark indeed, just these days, with Peggy. However, she replied to Lady Blixworth, said she had no notion what she meant, but told her that she was a good friend and a good aunt.
'The latter statements,' observed Lady Blixworth complacently, 'are at the present moment true. As for the former – oh, Peggy, Peggy!'
She was, in fact, rather hurt. A refusal to betray one friend is usually considered a reflection on the discretion of another.