The Truants

Chapter XXXII

Husband and Wife

A.E.W. Mason

THE MAN who was no good had his triumph then. Only triumph was not at all in his thoughts.

“Oh, please!” he said very quietly, “get up from your knees. I don’t like to see you there. It hurts me.”

Millie raised her eyes to him in wonder. He did not mean to kill her, then. All his violence, it seemed, was reserved for that poor warrior of the drawing-rooms who had just been carried away stunned and bleeding from the terrace. When Tony spoke to her his voice was rather that of a man very dispirited and sad. He had indeed travelled through the mountains of Morocco hot with anger against Callon the interloper; but now that he had come face to face again with Millie, now that he had heard her voice with its remembered accents, the interloper seemed of little account, a creature to punish and be done with. The sadness of his voice penetrated to Millie’s heart. She rose and stood submissively before him.

In the passage outside the door the waiters were clustered whispering together. Tony closed the door and shut the whispers out. Upon the terrace, outside the window, a man was hesitating whether to enter or no. Tony went to the window.

“Who are you?” he asked. “What do you want?”

“I am Giraud, the schoolmaster of Roquebrune,” said the man, timidly. “I bring a letter from Mademoiselle Mardale.”

“Let me see it!” said Tony; and he held out his hand for the letter. He glanced at the superscription and gave it back. “It is not for me,” he said, and M. Giraud went away from the terrace. Tony turned back to his wife. His mind was full of a comparison between the ways in which he and she had each spent the years of absence. For him they had been years of endeavour, persisted in through failure and perplexity until success, but for her, was reached. And how had Millie spent them? He looked at her sternly, and she said again in a faltering voice—

“I am innocent, Tony.”

And he replied—

“Could you have said as much to-morrow had I not come back to-night?”

Millie had no answer to that question—she attempted none; and it was even at that moment counted to her credit by her husband. She stood silent for a while, and only the murmur of the sea breaking upon the beach filled the room. A light wind breathed through the open window, cool and fragrant, and made the shaded candles flicker upon the table. Millie had her one poor excuse to offer, and she pleaded it humbly.

“I thought that you had ceased to care what became of me,” she said.

Tony looked sharply at her. She was sincere—surely she was sincere.

“You thought that?” he exclaimed; and he replaced her chair at the table. “Sit down here! Let me understand! You thought that I had ceased to care for you? When I ceased to write, I suppose?”

Millie shook her head.

“Before that?”

Tony dropped into the chair on which Callon had been sitting.

“Before that?” he exclaimed in perplexity. “When? Tell me!”

Millie sat over against him at the table.

“Do you remember the evening when you first told me that you had made up your mind to go away and make a home for both of us? It was on that evening. You gave your reason for going away. We had begun to quarrel—we were drifting apart.”

“I remember,” said Tony; “but we had not ceased to care then, neither you nor I. It was just because I feared that at some time we might cease to care that I was resolved to go away.”

“Ah,” said Millie; “but already the change had begun. Yes, yes! Things which you thought you never could remember without a thrill you remembered already with indifference—you remembered them without being any longer moved or touched by the associations which they once had had. I recollect the very words you used. I sat as still as could be while you spoke them; but I never forgot them, Tony. There was a particular instance which you mentioned—a song——” And suddenly Tony laughed; but he laughed harshly, and there was no look of amusement on his face. Millie stared at him in surprise, but he did not explain, and she went on with her argument.

“So when you ceased to write I was: still more convinced that you had reaped to care. When you remained away after your father had died I was yet more sure.”

Tony leaned across the white table-cloth with its glittering silver, and fixed his eyes on her.

“I will tell you why I ceased to write. Every letter which you wrote to me when I was in New York was more contemptuous than the letter which had preceded it. I had failed, and you despised me for my failure. I had allowed myself to be tricked out of your money——” And upon that Millie interrupted him—

“Oh no!” she cried; “you must not say that I despised you for that. No! That is not fair. I never thought of the money. I offered you what was left.”

Tony had put himself in the wrong here. He recognised his mistake, he accepted Millie’s correction.

“Yes, that is true,” he said; “you offered me all that was left—but you offered it contemptuously; you had no shadow of belief that I would use it to advantage—you had no faith in me at all. In your eyes I was no good. Mind, I don’t blame you. You were justified, no doubt. I had set out to make a home for you, as many a man has done for his wife. Only where they had succeeded I had failed. If I thought anything at all——” he said, with an air of hesitation.

“Well?” asked Millie.

“I thought you might have expressed your contempt with a little less of unkindness, or perhaps have hidden it altogether. You see, I was not having an easy time in New York, and your letters made it very much harder.”

“Oh, Tony,” she said, in a low voice of self-reproach. She was sitting with her hands clenched in front of her upon the table-cloth, her forehead puckered, and in her eyes a look of great pain.

“Never mind that,” he replied; and he resumed his story. “I saw then quite clearly that with each letter which you received from me, each new instalment of my record of failure—for each letter was just that, wasn’t it?—your contempt grew. I was determined that if I could help it your contempt should not embitter all our two lives. So I ceased to write. For the same reason I stayed away, even after my father had died. Had I come back then I should have come back a failure, proved and self-confessed. And your scorn would have stayed with you. My business henceforth was to destroy it, to prove to you that after all I was some good—if not at money-making, at something else. I resolved that we should not live together again until I could come to you and say, ‘You have no right to despise me. Here’s the proof.’”

Millie was learning now, even as Tony had learnt a minute ago. All that he said to her was utterly surprising and strange. He had been thinking of her, then, all the time while he was away! Indifference was in no way the reason of his absence.

“Oh, why did you not write this to me?” she cried. “It need not have been a long letter, since you were unwilling to write. But just this you might have written. It would have been better, kinder”—and she paused upon the word, uttering it with hesitation and a shy deprecating smile, as though aware that she had no claim upon his kindness. “It would have been kinder than just to leave me here, not knowing where you were, and thinking what I did.”

“It is true,” said Tony, “I might have written. But would you have believed me if I had? No.”

“Then you might have come to me,” she urged. “Once—just for five minutes—to tell me what you meant to do.”

“I might,” Tony agreed; “in fact, I very nearly did. I was under the windows of the house in Berkeley Square one night.” And Millie started.

“Yes, you were,” she said slowly.

“You knew that?”

“Yes; I knew it the next day.” And she added, “I wish now, I think, that you had come in that night.”

“Suppose that I had,” said Tony; “suppose that I had told you of my fine plan, you would have had no faith in it. You would merely have thought, ‘Here’s another folly to be added to the rest.’ Your contempt would have been increased, that’s all.”

It was quite strange to Millie Stretton that there ever could have been a time when she had despised him. She saw him sitting now in front of her, quiet and stern; she remembered her own terror when he burst into the room, when he flung Callon headlong through the windows, when he turned at last towards her.

“We have been strangers to one another.”

“Yes,” he replied; “I did not know you. I should never have left you—now I understand that. I trusted you very blindly, but I did not know you.”

Millie lowered her eyes from his face.

“Nor I you,” she answered. “What did you do when you went away that night from Berkeley Square?”

“I enlisted in the Foreign Legion in Algeria.”

Millie raised her head again with a start of surprise.

“Soldiering was my trade, you see. It was the one profession where I had just a little of that expert knowledge which is necessary nowadays if you are to make your living.”

Something of his life in the Foreign Legion Tony now told her. He spoke deliberately, since a light was beginning dimly to shine through the darkness of his perplexities. Of a set purpose he described to her the arduous perils of active service and the monotony of the cantonments. He was resolved that she should understand in the spirit and in the letter the life which for her sake he had led. He related his expedition to the Figuig oasis, his march into the Sahara under Tavernay. He took from his pocket the medals which he had won, and laid them upon the tablecloth before her.

“Look at them,” he said; “I earned them. These are mine. I earned them for you; and while I was earning them what were you doing?”

Millie listened and looked. Wonder grew upon her. It was for her that he had laboured and endured and succeeded! His story was a revelation to her. Never had she dreamed that a man would so strive for any woman. She had lived so long among the little things of the world—the little emotions, the little passions, the little jealousies and rivalries, the little aims, the little methods of attaining them, that only with great difficulty could she realise a simpler and a wider life. She was overwhelmed now. Pride and humiliation fought within her—pride that Tony had so striven for her in silence and obscurity, humiliation because she had fallen so short of his example. It was her way to feel in superlatives at any crisis of her destiny, but surely she had a justification now.

“I never knew—I never thought! Oh, Tony!” she exclaimed, twisting her hands together as she sat before him.

“I became a sergeant,” he said. “Then I brought back the remnants of the geographical expedition to Ouargla.” He taxed his memory for the vivid details of that terrible retreat. He compelled her to realise something of the dumb, implacable hostility of the Sahara, to see, in the evening against the setting sun, the mounted figures of the Touaregs, and to understand that the day’s march had not shaken them off. She seemed to be on the march herself, wondering whether she would live out the day, or, if she survived that, whether she would live out the night.

“But you succeeded!” she cried, clinging to the fact that they were both here in France, with the murmur of the Mediterranean in their ears. “You came back.”

“Yes, I came back. One morning I marched my men through the gate of Ouargla—and what were you doing upon that day?”

Talking, perhaps, with Lionel Callon, in one of those unfrequented public places with which London abounds! Millie could not tell. She sat there and compared Lionel Callon with the man who was before her. Memories of the kind of talk she was wont to hold with Lionel Callon recurred to her, filling her with shame. She was glad to think that when Tony led his broken, weary force through the gate of Ouargla Lionel Callon had not been with her—had indeed been far away in Chili. She suddenly placed her hands before her face and burst into tears.

“Oh, Tony,” she whispered, in an abasement of humiliation. “Oh, Tony.”

“By that homeward march,” he went on, “I gained my commission. That was what I aimed at all the while, and I had earned it at the last. Look!”

He took from his pocket the letter which his colonel had handed to him at Ain-Sefra. He had carefully treasured it all this while. He held it out to her and made her read.

“You see?” he said. “A commission won from the ranks in the hardest service known to soldiers, won without advantage of name, or friends, or money. Won just by myself. That is what I strove for. If I could win that I could come back to you with a great pride. I should be no longer the man who was no good. You yourself might even be proud of me. I used to dream of that—to dream of something else.”

His voice softened a little, and a smile for a moment relaxed the severity of his face.

“Of what?” she asked.

“Out there among the sand hills, under the stars at night, I used to dream that we might perhaps get hold again of the little house in Deanery Street, where we were so happy together once. We might pretend almost that we had lived there all the time.”

He spoke in a voice of great longing, and Millie was touched to the heart. She looked at Tony through her tears. There was a great longing astir within her at this moment. Was that little house in Deanery Street still a possibility? She did not presume to hope so much; but she wished that she could have hoped. She pressed the letter which she held against her breast; she would have loved to have held it to her lips, but that again she did not dare to do.

“At all events, you did succeed.” she said; “I shall be glad to know that. I shall always be glad—whatever happens now.”

“But I did not succeed,” Tony replied. “I earned the commission, yes!—I never held it. That letter was given to me one Monday by my colonel at Ain-Sefra. You mentioned a song a minute ago, do you remember?. . . I had lost the associations of that song. I laughed when you mentioned it, and you were surprised. I laughed because when I received that letter I took it away with me, and that song, with all that it had ever meant, came back to my mind. I lay beneath the palm trees, and I looked across the water past the islands, and I saw the lights of the yachts in Oban Bay. I was on the dark lawn again, high above the sea, the lighted windows of the house were behind me. I heard your voice. Oh, I had got you altogether back that day,” he exclaimed, with a cry. “It was as though I held your hands and looked into your eyes. I went back towards the barracks to write to you, and as I went some one tapped me on the shoulder and brought me news of you to wake me out of my dreams.”

Just for a moment Millie wondered who it was who had brought the news; but the next words which Tony spoke drove the question from her mind.

“A few more weeks and I should have held that commission. I might have left the Legion, leaving behind me many friends and an honoured name. As it was, I had to desert—I deserted that night.”

He spoke quite simply; but, nevertheless, the words fell with a shock upon Millie. She uttered a low cry: “Oh, Tony!” she said.

“Yes,” he said, with a nod of the head, “I incurred that disgrace. I shall be ashamed of it all my life. Had I been caught, it might have meant an ignoble death; in any case, it would have meant years of prison—and I should have deserved those years of prison.”

Millie shut her eyes in horror. Everything else that he had told her, every other incident—his sufferings, his perils—all seemed of little account beside this crowning risk, this crowning act of sacrifice. It was not merely that he had risked a shameful death or a shameful imprisonment. Millie was well aware that his whole nature and character must be in revolt against the act itself. Desertion! It implied disloyalty, untruth, deceit, cowardice—just those qualities, indeed, which she knew Tony most to hate, which perhaps she had rather despised him for hating. No man would have been more severe in the punishment of a deserter than Tony himself. Yet he had deserted, and upon her account. And he sat there telling her of it quietly, as though it were the most insignificant action in the world. He might have escaped the consequences—he would certainly not have escaped the shame.

But Millie’s cup of remorse was not yet full.

“Yet I cannot see that I could do anything else. To-night proves to me that I was right, I think. I have come very quickly, yet I am only just in time.” There was a long stain of wine upon the table-cloth beneath his eyes. There Callon had upset his glass upon Tony’s entrance.

“Yes, it was time that I returned,” he continued. “One way or another a burden of disgrace had to be borne—if I stayed, just as certainly as if I came away; I saw that quite clearly. So I came away.” He forbore to say that now the disgrace fell only upon his shoulders, that she was saved from it. But Millie understood, and in her heart she thanked him for his forbearance. “But it was hard on me, I think,” he said. “You see, even now I am on French soil, and subject to French laws.”

And Millie, upon that, started up in alarm.

“What do you mean?” she asked breathlessly.

“There has been a disturbance here to-night, has there not? Suppose that the manager of this restaurant has sent for a gendarme!”

With a swift movement Millie gathered up the medals and held them close in her clenched hands.

“Oh, it does not need those to convict me; my name would be enough. Let my name appear and there’s a deserter from the Foreign Legion laid by the heels in France. All the time we have been talking here I have sat expecting that door to open behind me.”

Millie caught up a lace wrap which lay upon a sofa. She had the look of a hunted creature. She spoke quickly and feverishly, in a whisper.

“Oh, why did not you say this at once? Let us go!”

Tony sat stubbornly in his chair.

“No,” said he, with his eyes fixed upon her. “I have given you an account of how I have spent the years during which we have been apart. Can you do the same?”

He waited for her answer in suspense. To this question all his words had been steadily leading; for this reason he had dwelt upon his own career. Would she, stung by her remorse, lay before him truthfully and without reserve the story of her years? If she did, why, that dim light which shone amidst the darkness of his perplexities might perhaps shine a little brighter. He uttered his question. Millie bowed her head, and answered—

“I will.”

“Sit down, then, and tell me now.”

“Oh no,” she exclaimed; “not here! It is not safe. As we go back to Eze I will tell you everything.”

A look of relief came upon Tony’s face. He rose and touched the bell.

A waiter appeared.

“I will pay the bill,” he said.

The waiter brought the bill and Tony discharged it.

“The gentleman—M. Callon,” the waiter said. “A doctor has been. He has a concussion. It will be a little time before he is able to be moved.”

“Indeed?” said Tony, with indifference. He walked with his wife out of the little gaily-lighted room into the big, silent restaurant. A single light faintly illuminated it. They crossed it to the door, and went up the winding drive on to the road. The night was dry and clear and warm. There was no moon. They walked in the pure twilight of the stars round the gorge towards Eze.

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