The Beckoning Hand, and Other Stories
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Soon the question began to occur to her, what should she do for the night's arrangements? Peveril Court was so big and lonely; she hated the idea of stopping there alone. Should she have out the carriage and drive round to spend the night as of old at her mother's? But no; it was late, and the servants would think it so very odd of her. People would talk about it; they would say Harry had stopped away from her unexpectedly, and that she had gone back in a pique to her own home. Young wives, she knew, are always doing those foolish things, and always regretting them afterwards when they find the whole county magnifying the molehill into a veritable mountain. Much as she dreaded it, she must spend the night alone in that big bedroom – the haunted bedroom where the last of the Peverils died. Poor little Edie! with her simple, small, village ways, she hated that great rambling house, and all its halls and staircases and corridors! But there was no help for it. She went tearfully up to her own room, and flung herself without undressing on the great bed with the heavy crimson tapestry hangings.
There she lay all night, tossing and turning, crying and wondering, dozing off at times and starting up again fitfully, but never putting out the candles on the dressing-table, which had burned away deep in the sockets by the time morning began to peep through the grey Venetians of the east window.
Next morning Evan Meredith heard accidentally that Harry Lewin had stopped for the night in London, and had telegraphed unexpectedly to Edie that he had been detained in town on business.
Evan shook his head with an ominous look. "Poor child," he said to himself pityingly; "she would marry a man who had been brought up in Paris and Vienna!"
And when Harry came back that evening by the late train, Evan Meredith was loitering casually by the big iron gates of Peveril Court to see whether Edie's husband was really returning.
There was a very grave and serious look on Harry's face that surprised and somewhat disconcerted Evan. He somehow felt that Harry's expression was not that of a careless, dissipated fellow, and he said to himself, this time a little less confidently: "Perhaps after all I may have been misjudging him."
Edie was standing to welcome her husband on the big stone steps of the old manor house. He stepped from the dogcart, not lightly with a spring as was his usual wont, but slowly and almost remorsefully, like a man who has some evil tidings to break to those he loves dearest. But he kissed Edie as tenderly as ever – even more tenderly, she somehow imagined; and he looked at her with such a genuine look of love that Edie thought it was well worth while for him to go away for the sake of such a delightful meeting.
"Well, darling," she asked, as she went with him into the great dining-room, "why didn't you come back to the little wifie, as you promised yesterday?"
Harry looked her full in the face, not evasively or furtively, but with a frank, open glance, and answered in a very quiet voice, "I was detained on business, Edie."
"What business?" Edie asked, a little piqued at the indefiniteness of the answer.
"Business that absolutely prevented me from returning," Harry replied, with a short air of perfect determination.
Edie tried in vain to get any further detail out of him.To all her questions Harry only answered with the one set and unaltered formula, "I was detained on important business."
But when she had asked him for the fiftieth time in the drawing-room that evening, he said at last, not at all angrily, but very seriously, "It was business, Edie, closely connected with your own happiness. If I had returned last night, you would have been sorry for it, sooner or later. I stayed away for your own sake, darling. Please ask me no more about it."
Edie couldn't imagine what he meant; but he spoke so seriously, and smoothed her hand with such a tender, loving gesture, that she kissed him fervently, and brushed away the tears from her swimming eyes without letting him see them. As for Harry, he sat long looking at the embers in the smouldering fire, and holding his pretty little wife's hand tight in his without uttering a single syllable. At last, just as they were rising to go upstairs, he laid his hand upon the mantelpiece as if to steady himself, and said very earnestly, "Edie, with God's help, I hope it shall never occur again."
"What, Harry darling? What do you mean? What will never occur again?"
He paused a moment. "That I should be compelled to stop a night away from you unexpectedly," he answered then very slowly.
And when he had said it he took up the candle from the little side table and walked away, with two tears standing in his eyes, to his own dressing-room.
From that day forth Edie Lewin noticed two things. First, that her husband seemed to love her even more tenderly and deeply than ever. And second, that his strange gravity and self-restraint seemed to increase daily upon him.
And Evan Meredith, watching closely his cousin and her husband, thought to himself with a glow of satisfaction – for he was too generous and too true in his heart to wish ill to his rival – "After all, he loves her truly; he is really in love with her. Edie will be rich now, and will have a good husband. What could I ever have given her compared to what Harry Lewin can give her? It is better so. I must not regret it."
For five or six months more, life passed as usual at Peveril Court, or at Harry Lewin's new town house in Curzon Street, Mayfair. The season came and went pleasantly enough, with its round of dances, theatres, and dinners; and in the autumn Edie Lewin found herself once more back for the shooting in dear old Herefordshire. Harry was always by her side, the most attentive and inseparable of husbands; he seemed somehow to cling to her passionately, as if he could not bear to be out of her sight for a single moment. Edie noticed it, and felt grateful for his love. Evan Meredith noticed it too, and reproached himself bitterly more than once that he should ever so unworthily have distrusted the man who had been brought up in Paris and Vienna.
One day, however, Harry had ridden from Stoke to Hereford, for the exercise alone, and Edie expected him back to dinner. But at half-past seven, just as the gong in the hall was burrr-ing loudly, a telegram arrived once more for Mrs. Lewin, which Edie tore open with trembling fingers. It was almost exactly the same mystifying message over again, only this time it was sent by Harry himself, not by an unknown hotel-keeping deputy. "I have been suddenly detained here by unexpected business. Do not expect me home before to-morrow. Shall return as early as possible. God bless you!"
Those last words, so singular in a telegram, roused and accentuated all Edie's womanly terrors. "God bless you!" – what on earth could Harry mean by that solemn adjuration under such strange and mysterious circumstances? There was something very serious the matter, Edie felt sure; but what it could be she could not even picture to herself. Her instinctive fears did not take that vulgarly mistrustful form that they might have taken with many a woman of lower and more suspicious nature; she knew and trusted Harry far too well for that; she was too absolutely certain of his whole unshaken love and tenderness; but the very vagueness and indefiniteness of the fears she felt made them all the harder and more terrible to bear. When you don't know what it is you dread, your fancy can dress up its terrors afresh every moment in some still more painful and distressing disguise.
If Harry had let her know where he was stopping, she would have ordered the carriage then and there, and driven over to Hereford, not to spy him out, but to be with him in his trouble or difficulty. That, however, was clearly impossible, for Harry had merely sent his telegram as from "H. Lewin, Hereford;" and to go about from hotel to hotel through the county town, inquiring whether her husband was staying there, would of course have been open to the most ridiculous misinterpretation. Everybody would have said she was indeed keeping a tight hand upon him! So with many bitter tears brushed hastily away, Edie went down in solemn and solitary state to dinner, hating herself for crying so foolishly, and burning hot with the unpleasant consciousness that the butler and footman were closely observing her face and demeanour. If she could have dined quite alone in her own boudoir very furtively it wouldn't have been quite so dreadful; but to keep up appearances with a sinking heart before those two eminently respectable and officious men-servants – it was really enough to choke one.
That night again Edie Lewin never slept for more than a few troubled minutes together; and whenever she awoke, it was with a start and a scream, and a vague consciousness of some impending evil.
When Harry came again next day he didn't laugh it off carelessly and lightly; he didn't soothe her fears and uneasiness with ready kisses and prompt excuses; he didn't get angry with her and tell her not to ask him too many questions about his own business: he met her as gravely and earnestly as before, with the same tender, loving, half self-reproachful tone, and yet with the same evident desire and intention to love and cherish her more fondly than ever. Edie was relieved, but she was by no means satisfied. She knew Harry loved her tenderly, devotedly; but she knew also there was some sort of shadow or secret looming ominously between them.
Another wife, supposed dead? He would have trusted her and told her. Another love? Oh, no: she could trust him; it was impossible.
And so the weeks wore away, and Edie wondered all to no purpose. At last, by dint of constant wondering, she almost wore out the faculty of wonder, and half ceased to think about it any longer.
But she noticed that from day to day the old bright, brilliant Irish character was slowly fading out of Harry's nature, and that in its place there was growing up a settled, noble, not unbecoming earnestness. He seemed perhaps a trifle less striking and attractive than formerly, but a great deal worthier of any true woman's enduring love and admiration.
Evan Meredith noticed the change as well. He and Harry had grown now into real friends. Harry saw and recognized the genuine depth of Evan's nature. Evan had made amends and apologies to Harry for a single passing rudeness or two. Both liked the other better for the momentary rivalry and for the way he had soon forgotten it. "He's a good fellow," Evan said to his father often, "and Edie, with her quiet, simple English nature, has made quite another man of him – given him the ballast and the even steadiness he once wanted."
Spring came, and then summer; and with summer, the annual visitation of garden parties. The Trenches at Malbury Manor were going to give a garden party, and Harry and Edie drove across to it. Edie took her husband over in the pony-carriage with the two little greys she loved so well to drive herself: the very prettiest and best-matched ponies, everybody said, in the whole county of Hereford.
As they walked about on the lawn together, they met Edie's father and mother. Somehow, Edie happened to fasten herself accidentally upon her mother, while Harry strolled away alone, and stood talking with something of his old brilliancy to one group or another of loungers independently. For awhile, Edie missed him; he had gone off to look at the conservatories or something. Then, she saw him chatting with Canon Wilmington and his daughters over by one of the refreshment tables, and handing them champagne cup and ices, while he talked with unusual volubility and laughter. Presently he came up to her again, and to her great surprise said, with a yawn, "Edie, this is getting dreadfully slow. I can't stand it any longer. I think I shall just slip away quietly and walk home; you can come after me whenever you like with the ponies! Good-bye till dinner. God bless you, darling!"
It wasn't a usual form of address with him, and Edie vaguely noted it in passing, but thought nothing more about the matter after the first moment. "Good-bye, Harry," she said laughingly. "Perhaps Evan will see me home. Good-bye."
Harry smiled rather sadly. "Evan has ridden over on one of my cobs," he answered quietly, "and so I suppose he'll have to ride back again."
"He's the best fellow that ever lived," Evan said, as Harry turned away with a friendly nod. "Upon my word, I'm quite ashamed of the use I make of your husband's stables, Edie."
"Nonsense, Evan; we're always both delighted when you will use anything of ours as if it were your own."
At six o'clock the ponies were stopping the way, and Edie prepared to drive home alone. She took the bye-road at the back of the grounds in preference to the turnpike, because it wouldn't be so crowded or so dusty for her to drive upon.
They had gone about a mile from the house, and had passed the Beehive, where a group of half-tipsy fellows was loitering upon the road outside the tavern, when a few hundred yards further Edie suddenly checked the greys for no immediately apparent reason.
"Got a stone in his hoof, ma'am?" the groom asked, looking down curiously at the off horse, and preparing to alight for the expected emergency.
"No," Edie answered with a sudden shake of her head. "Look there, William! On the road in front of us! What a disgusting brute. I nearly ran over him."
The groom looked in the direction where Edie pointed with her whip, and saw lying on the ground, straight before the horses' heads, a drunken man, asleep and helpless, with a small pocket flask clasped in his hand, quite empty.
"Pick him up!" Edie said in a tone of disgust. "Carry him over and lay him on the side of the road there, will you, William?"
The man went off to do as he was directed. At that moment, Evan Meredith, coming up from behind on Harry's cob, called out lightly, "Can I help you, Edie? What's the matter? Ho! One of those beastly fellows from the Beehive yonder. Hold a minute, William, you've got a regular job there – more than an armful. Drunken men are heavy to carry. Wait a bit, and I'll come and help you."
Ho rode forward, to the groom's side just as the groom raised in his arms the drunkard's head and exposed to view his down-turned face. Then, with a sudden cry of horror and pity, Evan Meredith, not faltering for a moment, drove his heel into his horse's flank, and rode off, speechless with conflicting emotions, leaving Edie there alone, face to face with her fallen husband.
It was Harry Lewin.
Apoplexy? Epilepsy? An accident? A sunstroke? No, no. Edie could comfort herself with none of those instantaneous flashes of conjecture, for his face and his breath would alone have told the whole story, even if the empty flask in his drunken hand had not at once confirmed the truth of her first apprehension. She sat down beside him on the green roadside, buried her poor face in her trembling hands, and cried silently, silently, silently, for twenty minutes.
The groom, standing motionless officially beside her, let her tears have free vent, and knew not what to say or do under such extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances.
One thing only Edie thought once or twice in the midst of that awful blinding discovery. Thank God that Evan Meredith had not stopped there to see her misery and degradation. An Englishman might have remained like a fool, with the clumsy notion of assisting her in her trouble, and getting him safely home to Peveril Court for her. Evan, with his quick Welsh perception, had seen in a second that the only possible thing for her own equals to do on such an occasion was to leave her alone with her unspeakable wretchedness.
After a while, she came to a little, by dint of crying and pure exhaustion, and began to think that something must at least be done to hide this terrible disgrace from the prying eyes of all Herefordshire.
She rose mechanically, without a word, and motioning the groom to take the feet, she lifted Harry's head – her own husband's head – that drunken wretch's head – great heavens, which was it? and helped to lay him silently on the floor of the pony carriage. He was helpless and motionless as a baby. Her eyes were dry now, and she hardly even shuddered. She got into the carriage again, covered over the breathing mass of insensible humanity at the bottom with her light woollen wrapper, and drove on in perfect silence till she reached Peveril Court. As she drew up in front of the door, the evening was beginning to close in rapidly. The groom, still silent, jumped from the carriage, and ran up the steps with his usual drilled accuracy to ring the bell. Edie beckoned to him imperiously with her hand to stop and come back to her. He paused, and turned down the steps again to hear what she wished. Edie's lips were dry; she couldn't utter a word: but she pointed mutely to her husband's prostrate form, and the groom understood at once that she wished him to lift Harry out of the carriage. Hastily and furtively they carried him in at the library door – the first room inside the house – and there they laid him out upon the sofa, Edie putting one white finger passionately on her lip to enjoin silence. As soon as that was done, she sat down to the table with marvellous resolution, and wrote out a cheque for twenty pounds from her own cheque-book. Then at last she found speech with difficulty. "William," she said, her dry husky throat almost choking with the effort, "take that, instead of notice. Go away at once – I'll drive you to the station – go to London, and never say a single word of this to any one."
William touched his hat in silence, and walked back slowly to the carriage. Edie, now flushed and feverish, but dry of lips and erect of mien, turned the key haughtily in the door, and stalked out to the greys once more. Silently still she drove to the station, and saw William take the London train. "You shall have a character," she said, very quietly; "write to me for it. But never say a word of this for your life to anybody."
William touched his hat once more, and went away, meaning conscientiously in his own soul to keep this strange and unexpected compact.
Then Edie drove herself back to Peveril Court, feeling that only Evan Meredith knew besides; and she could surely count at least on Evan's honour.
But to-morrow! to-morrow! what could she ever do to-morrow?
Hot and tearless still, she rang the drawing-room bell. "Mr. Lewin will not be home to-night," she said, with no further word of explanation. "I shall not dine. Tell Watkins to bring me a cup of tea in my own bedroom."
The maid brought it, and Edie drank it. It moistened her lips and broke the fever. Then she flung herself passionately upon the bed, and cried, and cried, and cried, wildly, till late in the evening.
Eleven o'clock came. Twelve o'clock. One. She heard them tolling out from the old clock-tower, clanging loudly from the church steeple, clinking and tinkling from all the timepieces in all the rooms of Peveril Court. But still she lay there, and wept, and sobbed, and thought of nothing. She didn't even figure it or picture it to herself; her grief and shame and utter abasement were too profound for mind to fathom. She only felt in a dim, vague, half-unconscious fashion that Harry – the Harry she had loved and worshipped – was gone from her for ever and ever.
In his place, there had come that irrational, speechless, helpless Thing that lay below, breathing heavily in its drunken sleep, down on the library sofa.
By half-past one the lights had long been out in all the rooms, and perfect silence reigned throughout the household. Impelled by a wild desire to see him once more, even though she loathed him, Edie took a bedroom candle in her hand, and stole slowly down the big staircase.
Loathed him? Loved him – ay, loved him even so. Loved him, and the more she loved him, the more utterly loathed him.
If it had been any lesser or lower man, she might have forgiven him. But him– Harry – it was too unspeakable.
Creeping along the passage to the library door, she paused and listened. Inside, there was a noise of footsteps, pacing up and down the room hurriedly. He had come to himself, then! He had slept off his drunken helplessness! She paused and listened again to hear further.
Harry was stalking to and fro across the floor with fiery eagerness, sobbing bitterly to himself, and pausing every now and then with a sort of sudden spasmodic hesitation. From time to time she heard him mutter aloud, "She must have seen me! She must have seen me! They will tell her, they will tell her! Oh, God! they will tell her!"
Should she unlock the door, and fling herself wildly into his arms? Her instinct told her to do it, but she faltered and hesitated. A drunkard! a drunkard! Oh no! she could not. The evil genius conquered the good, and she checked the impulse that alone could have saved her.
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