The Intrusions of Peggy
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'I don't blame you. It's done now. You'd better leave me alone,' he said.
Tommy went and sought Peggy with wrath in his heart; but for all these two days she was obstinately invisible. She was not to be found in Harriet Street, and none of her circle had seen her. It may be surmised that she wandered desolately through fashionable gatherings and haunts of amusement, slinking home late at night. It is certain that she did not wish to meet Tommy Trent, that she would not for the world have encountered Airey Newton. There seemed to be gunpowder in the air of all familiar places; in the reaction of fear after her desperate venture Peggy withdrew herself to the safety of the unknown.
Airey sat waiting, his eyes constantly looking to the clock. Trix was coming to see him; she had written that she needed advice, and that he was the only friend she had to turn to in such a matter. 'Peggy is no use to me in the particular way I want help, and I have something to tell which I could tell to nobody but her or you.' He knew what she had to tell; the fact that she came to tell it to him was proof positive that she had heard nothing from Peggy. He had not forbidden her coming. Though it might be agony to him, yet he willed that she should come; beyond that point his will was paralysed.
In dainty and costly garb she came, still the vision of riches which had first struck his eyes when he saw her at the beginning of her campaign in London; yet though this was her outward seeming, her air and manner raised in him a remoter memory, bringing back to mind the pathetic figure at the Paris hotel. It was easy to see that she held no secret of his, and that he had no reproach to fear. Her burden lay in her own secret that she must tell, in the self-reproach against which she had no defence. Of neither part of Peggy's double treachery had she any suspicion.
'Long ago I told you I should come if I got into trouble. Here I am!' Her effort at gaiety was tremulous and ill-sustained.
'Yes, I know you've been in trouble.'
'Oh, I don't mean that. That's all over. It's something else. Will you listen? It's not easy to say.'
He gave her a chair and stood by the mantelpiece himself, leaning his elbow on it and his chin on his hand. For a minute or two he did not attend to her; his mind flew back to his own life, to his past work and its success, to those fruits of success which had come to usurp the place not merely of success but of the worthy work itself. She had been stammering out the first part of her story for some while before he turned to her and listened, with sombre eyes set on her nervous face. At that instant she seemed to him an enemy. She had come to rob him. Why should he be robbed because this woman had been a fool? So put, the argument sounded strong and sensible; it made short work of sentimentality. If he sent her away empty, what harm was done? Tommy Trent would think as he had always thought – no less, no worse.For the rest, it was only to take just offence with the girl who had put him to shame, and to see her no more. The old life, the old delight, held out alluring arms to him.
Trix Trevalla stumbled on, all unconscious of the great battle that she fought for another, anxious only to tell her story truthfully, and yet not so as to seem a creature too abject.
'That's the end of it,' she said at last with a woeful smile. 'After Glowing Stars and the other debts, I may have forty shillings a week or thereabouts. But I want to show you my investments, and I want you to tell me what I ought to sell and what few I might best try to keep. Every pound makes a difference, you know.' The intense conviction of a convert spoke in the concluding words.
'Why do you think I know about such things?'
'Oh, I daresay Mr. Trent would know better, but I couldn't make up my mind to tell him. And I've no right to bother him. I seem to have a right to bother you, somehow.' She smiled again for an instant, and raised her eyes to his. 'Because of what you said at Paris! You remember?'
'You hold me responsible still, I see.'
'Oh, that's our old joke,' she said, fearing to seem too serious in her fanciful claim. 'But still it does always seem to me that we've been in it together; all through it your words have kept coming back, and I've thought of you here. I think you were always in my mind. Well, that's foolish. Anyhow you'll tell me what you think?'
'At least I didn't tell you to trust Fricker.'
'Please don't,' she implored. 'That's the worst of all. That's the thing I can't bear to think of. I thought myself a match for him. And now – !' Her outspread hands accepted any scornful description.
She came to him and put into his hand a paper on which she had drawn up some sort of a statement of her ventures, of her debts, and of her position as she understood it. He took it and glanced through it.
'Heavens, how you spent money!' he exclaimed, in involuntary horror.
She blushed painfully: could she point out how little that had mattered when she was going to be Lady Mervyn?
'And the losses in speculation! You seem never to have been in anything sound!'
'They deceived me,' she faltered. 'Oh, I know all that! Must you say that again? Tell me – what will there be left? Will there be enough to – to exist upon? Or must I' – she broke into a smile of ridicule – 'or must I try to work?'
There was a pathetic absurdity about the suggestion. Airey's gruff laugh relieved the sternness of his indignation.
'Yes, I've shown such fine practical talents, haven't I?' she asked forlornly.
'You were very extravagant, but you'd have been in a tolerable position but for Fricker. Dramoffskys and Glowing Stars between them have done the mischief.'
'Yes. If I hadn't cheated him, and he hadn't cheated me in return, I should have been in a tolerable position. But I knew that before I came here, Mr. Newton.'
'Well, it's the truth,' he persisted, looking at her grimly over the top of the paper.
'You needn't repeat it,' she flashed out indignantly. Then her tone changed suddenly. 'Forgive me; it's so hard to hear the truth sometimes, to know it's true, to have nothing to answer.'
'Yes, it is hard sometimes,' Airey agreed.
'Oh, you don't know. You've not cheated and been cheated; you've had nothing to conceal, nothing to lie about, nothing that you dreaded being found out in.' She wrung her hands despairingly.
'I've warned you before now not to idealise me.'
'I can't help it. I believe even your Paris advice was all right, if I'd understood it rightly. You didn't mean that I was to think only of myself and nothing of anybody else, to do nothing for anyone, to share nothing with anyone. You meant I was to make other people happy too, didn't you?'
'I don't know what I meant,' he growled, as he laid her paper on the mantelpiece.
Trix wandered to the window and sat down in the chair generally appropriated to Peggy Ryle.
'I'm sick of myself,' she said.
'A self's not such an easy thing to get rid of, though.'
She glanced at him with some constraint. 'I'm afraid I'm bothering you? I really have no right to make you doleful over my follies. You've kept out of it all yourself; I needn't drag you into it.' She rose as if she would go. Airey Newton stood motionless. It seemed as though he would let her leave him without a word.
She had not in her heart believed that he would. She in her turn stood still for a moment. When he made no sign, she raised her head in proud resentment; her voice was cold and offended. 'I'm sorry I troubled you, Mr. Newton.' She began to walk towards the door, passing him on the way. Suddenly he sprang forward and caught her by the hands.
'Don't go!' he said in a peremptory yet half-stifled whisper.
Trix's eyes filled with tears. 'I thought you couldn't really mean to do that,' she murmured. 'Oh, think of what it is, think of it! What's left for me?'
He had loosed her hands as quickly as he had caught them, and she clasped them in entreaty.
'I'm neither bad enough nor good enough. I tried to marry for position and money. I was bad enough to do that. I wasn't bad enough to go on telling the lies. Oh, I began! Now I'm not good enough or brave enough to face what I've brought myself to. And yet it would kill me to be bad enough and degraded enough to take the only way out.'
'What way do you mean?'
'I can't tell you about that,' she said. 'I should be too ashamed. But some day you may hear I've done it. How am I to resist? Is it worth resisting? Am I worth saving at all?'
She had never seemed to him so much worth saving. And he knew that he could save her, if he would pay the price. He guessed, too, what she hinted at; there was only one thing that a woman like her could speak of as at once a refuge and a degradation, as a thing that killed her and yet a thing that she might come to do. Peggy Ryle had told him that he loved her, and he had not denied it then. Still less could he deny it now, with the woman herself before him in living presence.
She saw that he had guessed what was in her mind.
'Men can't understand women doing that sort of thing, I know,' she went on. 'I suppose it strikes them with horror. They don't understand what it is to be helpless.' Her voice shook. 'I've had a great deal of hardship, and I can't bear it any more. I'm a coward in the end, I suppose. My gleam of good days has made me a coward at the thought of bad ones again.' She added, after a pause, 'You'll look at the statement and let me know what you think, won't you? It might just make all the difference.' Again she paused. 'It seems funny to stand here and tell you that, if necessary, I shall probably sell myself; that's what it comes to. But you know so much about me already, and – and I know you'd like me if – if it was humanly possible to do anything except despise me. Wouldn't you? So do look carefully at the paper and go into the figures, please. Because I – even I – don't want to sell myself for money.'
What else was he doing with himself? The words hit home. If the body were sold, did not the soul pass too? If the soul were bartered, what value was it to keep the body? Peggy had begged him to save this woman pain; unconsciously she herself asked a greater rescue than that. And she offered him, still all unconsciously, a great salvation. Was it strange that she should talk of selling herself for money? Then was it not strange too that he had been doing that very thing for years, and had done it of deliberate choice, under the stress of no fear and of no necessity? The picture of himself that had been dim, that Tommy Trent had always refused to make clearer, that even Peggy Ryle's passionate reproach had left still but half-revealed, suddenly stood out before his eyes plain and sharp in every outline. He felt that it was a thing to be loathed.
She saw his face stern and contracted with the pain of his thoughts.
'Yes, I've told you all the truth about myself, and that's how you look!' she said.
He smiled bitterly at her mistake, and fixed his eyes on her as he asked: —
'Could you change a man, if you gave yourself to him? Could you drive out his devil, and make a new man of him? Could you give him a new life, a new heart, a new character?'
'I should have no such hopes. My eyes would be quite open.' Her thoughts were on Beaufort Chance.
'No, but couldn't you?' he urged, with a wistful persistence. 'If you knew the worst of him and would still look for something good – something you could love and could use to make the rest better? Couldn't you make him cease being what he hated being? Couldn't you have a power greater than the power of the enemy in him? If you loved him, I mean.'
'How could I love him?' she asked wonderingly.
'If he loved you?'
'What does such a man mean by love?' she murmured scornfully.
'I wonder if you could do anything like that,' he went on. 'Women have, I suppose. Could you?'
'Oh, don't talk about the thing. I hope I may have courage to throw it aside.'
He started a little. 'Ah, you mean – No, I was thinking of something else.'
'And how could such a woman as I am make any man better?' She smiled in a faint ridicule of the idea; but she ceased to think of leaving him, and sat down by the table. For the moment he seemed to pay little attention to where she was or what she did; he spoke to her indeed, but his air was absent and his eyes aloof.
'Because, if the woman couldn't, if it turned out that she couldn't, the last state would be worse than the first. Murder added to felo de se! There's that to consider.' Now he returned to her in an active consciousness of her presence. 'Suppose you loved a man who had one great – well, one great devil in him? Could you love a man with a devil in him?'
There was a touch of humour hardly won in his voice. Trix responded to it.
'With a thousand, if he was a man after all!'
'Ah, yes, I daresay. But with one – one immense fellow – a fellow who had sat on him and flattened him for years? Could you fight the fellow and beat him?'
Trix thought. 'I think I might have perhaps, before – before I got a devil too, you know.'
'Say he was a swindler – could you keep him straight? Say he was cruel – could you make him kind?' He paused an instant. 'Suppose he was a churl – could you open his heart?'
'All that would be very, very hard, even for a good woman,' said Trix Trevalla. 'And you know that in a case something like those I failed before.'
'Because, if you couldn't, it would be hell to you, and worse hell to him.'
'Yes,' murmured Trix. 'That would be it exactly.'
'But if you could – ' He walked to the window and looked out. 'It would be something like pulling down the other side of the Inn and giving the sun fair play,' said he.
'But could the man do anything for her?' asked Trix. 'Something I said started you on this. The man I thought of would do nothing but make the bad worse. If she were mean first, he'd make her meaner; if she lied before, she'd have to lie more; and he'd – he'd break down the last of her woman's pride.'
'I don't mean a man like that.'
'No, and you're not thinking of a woman like me.'
'She'd have to take the place of the thing that had mastered him; he'd have to find more delight in her than in it; she'd have to take its place as the centre of his life.' He was thinking out his problem before her.
At last Trix was stirred to curiosity. Did any man argue another's case like this? Was any man roused in this fashion by an abstract discussion? Or if he were dissuading her from the step she had hinted at, was not his method perversely roundabout? She looked at him with inquiring eyes. In answer he came across the room to her.
'Yet, if there were a man and a woman such as we've been speaking of, and there was half the shadow of a chance, oughtn't they to clutch at it? Oughtn't they to play the bold game? Ought they to give it up?'
His excitement was unmistakable now. Again he looked in her eyes as he had once before. She could do nothing but look up at him, expecting what he would say next. But he drew back from her, seeming to repent of what he had said, or to retreat from its natural meaning. He wandered back to the hearthrug, and fingered the statement of her position that lay on the mantelpiece. He was frowning and smiling too; he looked very puzzled, very kindly, almost amused.
'Wouldn't they be fools not to have a shot?' he asked presently. 'Only she ought to know the truth first, and he'd find it deuced hard to tell her.'
'She would have found it very hard to tell him.'
'But she would have?'
'Yes – if she loved him,' said Trix, smiling. 'Confession and humiliation comfort women when they're in love. When they're not – ' She shuddered. Presumably Barslett came into her mind.
'If he never told her at all, would that be fair?'
'She couldn't forgive that, if she found it out.'
'Well, it would be very difficult.'
'But if she never found it out?'
'That would be the grandest triumph of all for her, perhaps,' said Trix very softly. For now, vague, undefined, ignorant still, but yet sure at its mark, had come the idea that somehow, for some reason, Airey Newton spoke not of Beaufort Chance, nor of another, not of some abstraction or some hypothetical man, but of his very self. 'My prayer to him would be not to tell me, and that I might never know on earth. If I knew ever, anywhere, then I should know too what God had let me do.'
'But if he never told you, and some day you found out?'
Trix looked across at him – at his dreary smile and his knitted brow. She amended the judgment she had given a minute before: 'We could cry together, or laugh together, or something, couldn't we?' she asked.
He came near her again and seemed to take a survey of her from the feather in her hat to the toe of her polished boot.
'It's a confounded incongruous thing that you should be ruined,' he grumbled; his tone was a sheer grumble, and it made Trix smile again.
'A fool and her money – ' she suggested as a time-honoured explanation. 'But ruin doesn't suit me, there's no doubt of that. Perhaps, after all, I was right to try to be rich, though I tried in such questionable ways.'
'You wouldn't be content to be poor?'
Trix was candid with him and with herself. 'Possibly – if everything else was very perfect.'
He pressed her hard. 'Could everything else seem perfect?'
She laughed uncomfortably. 'You understand wonderfully well, considering – !' A little wave of her arm indicated the room in Danes Inn.
'Yes, I understand,' he agreed gravely.
Again she rose. 'Well, I'm a little comforted,' she declared. 'You and Peggy and the rest of you always do me good. You always seemed the alternative in the background. You're the only thing now – or I'll try to make you. That doesn't sound overwhelmingly cordial, but it's well-meant, Mr. Newton.'
She held out her hand to him, but added as an afterthought, 'And you will tell me what to do about the investments, won't you?'
'And what will you do about the other man?'
Her answer was to give him both hands, saying, 'Help me!'
He looked long at her and at last answered, 'Yes, if you'll let me.'
'Thanks,' she murmured, pressing his hands and then letting them go with a sigh of relief. He smiled at her, but not very brightly; there was an effort about it. She understood that the subject was painful to him, because it suggested degradation for her; she had a hope that it was distasteful for another reason; to her these were explanations enough for the forced aspect of his smile.
He took up the paper again, and appeared to read it over.
'Not a bad list,' he said. 'You ought to be able to realise pretty well, as prices go now; they're not ruling high, you know.'
'What a lot you learn from your eyrie here!'
'All that comes in in business,' he assured her. 'No, they're not so bad, except the speculations, of course.'
'Except Glowing Stars! But, after all, most of them are Glowing Stars.'
He appeared to consider again; then he said slowly, and as though every word cost him a thought, 'I shouldn't altogether despair even of Glowing Stars. No, don't be in a hurry to despair of Glowing Stars.'
'What?' Incredulity cried out in her tone, mingled with the fancied hope of impossible good fortune. 'You can't conceivably mean that Mr. Fricker is wrong about them? Oh, if that were true!'
'Does it make all that difference?'
'Yes, yes, yes! Not the money only, but the sense of folly – of childish miserable silliness.' She was eager to show him how much that fancied distant hope could mean.
'I promise nothing – but Fricker deceived you before. He lied when he told you they were all right; he may be lying when he tells you they're all wrong.'
'But what good could that do him?'
'If you threw them on the market the price would fall. Suppose he wanted to buy!'
Luckily Trix did not wait to analyse the suggestion; she flew to the next difficulty.
'But the liability?'
'I'll look into it, and let you know. Don't cherish any hope.'
'No, but you must have meant that there was a glimmer of hope?' She insisted urgently, turning a strained, agitated face up to his.
'If you'll swear to think it no more than a glimmer – a glimmer let it be.'
'You always tell me the truth. I'll remember – a glimmer.'
'No more,' he insisted, with a marked pertinacity.
'No more, on my honour,' said Trix Trevalla.
She had gone towards the door; he followed till he was by the little table. He stood there and picked up the red book in his hand.
'No more than a glimmer,' he repeated, 'because things may go all wrong in the end still.'
'Not if they depend on you!' she cried, with a gaiety inspired by the hope which he did not altogether forbid, and by the trust that she had in him.
'Even though they depended altogether on me.' He flung the book down and came close to her. 'If they go right, I shall thank heaven for sending you here to-day. And now – I have a thing that I must do.'
'Yes, I've taken a terrible lot of your time. Good-bye.' She yielded to her impulse towards intimacy, towards knowing what he did, how he spent his time. 'Are you going to work? Are you going to try and invent things?'
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