THEY WALKED for a while in silence, side by side, yet not so close but that there was an interval between them. Millie every now and then glanced at Tony’s face, but she saw only his profile, and with only the glimmer of the starlight to serve her for a reading-lamp, she could guess nothing of his expression. But he walked like a man utterly dispirited and tired. The hopes, so stoutly cherished during the last few years, had all crumbled away to-night. Perpetually his thoughts recurred to that question, which now never could be answered—if he had gone into the house in Berkeley Square on that distant evening when he had been contented to pace for a little while beneath the windows, would he have averted the trouble which had reached its crisis to-night at the Réserve? He thought not—he was not sure; only he was certain that he should have gone in. He stopped and turned back, looking towards the Réserve. A semicircle of lights over the doorway was visible, and as he looked those lights were suddenly extinguished. He heard Millie’s voice at his side.
“I will tell you now how the time has passed with me.” And he saw that she was looking steadfastly into his eyes. “The story will sound very trivial, very contemptible, after what you have told me. It fills me utterly with shame. But I should have told you it none the less had you not asked for it—I rather wish that you had not asked for it; for I think I must have told you of my own accord.”
She spoke in a quick, troubled voice, but it did not waver; nor did her eyes once fall from his. The change in her was swift, no doubt. But down there in the Réserve, where the lights were out, and the sea echoed through empty rooms, she had had stern and savage teachers. Terror, humiliation, and the spectacle of violence had torn away a veil from before her eyes. She saw her own life in its true perspective. And, that she might see it the more clearly and understand, she had the story of another life wherewith to compare it. It is a quality of big performances, whether in art or life, that while they surprise when first apprehended, they appear upon thought to be so simple that it is astonishing surprise was ever felt. Something of that quality Tony’s career possessed. It had come upon Millie as a revelation, yet, now she was thinking: “Yes, that is what Tony would do. How is it I never guessed?” She put him side by side with that other man, the warrior of the drawing-rooms, and she was filled with shame that ever she could have preferred the latter even for a moment of madness.
They walked slowly on again. Millie drew her lace wrap more closely about her throat.
“Are you cold?” asked Tony. “You are lightly clothed to be talking here. We had better perhaps walk on, and keep what you have to tell me until to-morrow.”
“No,” she answered quickly, “I am not cold. And I must tell you what I have to tell you to-night. I want all this bad, foolish part of my life to end to-night, to be extinguished just as those lights were extinguished a minute since. Only there is something I should like to say to you first.” Millie’s voice wavered now and broke. “If we do not walk along the road together any more,” she went on timidly, “I will still be glad that you came back to-night. I do not know that you will believe that—I do not, indeed, see why you should; but I should very much like you to believe it; for it is the truth. I have learned a good deal, I think, during the last three hours. I would rather go on alone—if it is to be so—in this dim, clean starlight, than ever be back again in the little room with its lights and flowers. Do you understand me?”
“I think so,” said Tony.
“At all events, the road is visible ahead,” she went on. “One sees it glimmering, one can keep between the banks; while, in the little lighted room it is easy to get lost.”
And thus to Millie now, as to Pamela when she rode back from her last interview with Warrisden at the village of the three poplars, the riband of white road stretching away in the dusk became a parable.
“Yes,” said Tony, “perhaps my path was really the easier one to follow. It was direct and plain.”
“Ah,” said Millie, “it only seems so because you have traversed it, and are looking back. I do not think it was so simple and direct while you walked upon it.” And Tony, remembering the doubts and perplexities which had besieged him, could not but assent.
“I do not think, too, that it was so easy to discover at the beginning.”
There rose before Tony’s eyes the picture of a ketch-rigged boat sailing at night over a calm sea. A man leaned over the bulwarks, and the bright glare from a lightship ran across the waves and flashed upon his face. Tony remembered the moment very clearly when he had first hit upon his plan; he remembered the weeks of anxiety of which it was the outcome. No, the road had not been easy to find at the beginning. He was silent for a minute, and then he said gently—
“I am sorry that I asked you to tell your story—I am sorry that I did not leave the decision to you. But it shall be as though you told it of your own accord.”
The sentence was a concession, no less in the manner of its utterance than in the words themselves. Millie took heart, and told him the whole story of her dealings with Lionel Callon, without excuses and without concealments.
“I seemed to mean so much to him, so little to you,” she said. “You see, I did not understand you at all. You were away, too, and he was near. I do not defend myself.”
She did not spare herself, she taxed her memory for the details of her days; and as she spoke the story seemed more utterly contemptible and small than even she in her abasement had imagined it would be. But she struggled through with it to the end.
“That night when you stood beneath the windows in Berkeley Square,” she said, “he was with me. He ran in from Lady Millingham’s party and talked with me for half an hour. Yes, at the very time when you were standing on the pavement he was within the house. I know, for you were seen, and on the next day I was told of your presence. I was afraid then. The news was a shock to me. I thought, ‘Suppose you had come in!’”
“But, back there, in the room,” Tony interrupted, “you told me that you wished I had come in.”
“Yes,” she answered. “And it is quite true; I wish now that you had come in.”
She told him of the drive round Regent’s Park, and of the consent she gave that night to Lionel Callon.
“I think you know everything now,” she said. “I have tried to forget nothing. I want you, whatever you decide to do, to decide knowing everything.”
“Thank you,” said Tony, simply. And she added—
“I am not the first woman I know who has thrown away the substance for the shadow.”
Upon the rest of that walk little was said. They went forward beneath the stars. A great peace lay upon sea and land. The hills rose dark and high upon their left hand, the sea murmured and whispered to them upon the right. Millie walked even more slowly as they neared the hotel at Eze, and Tony turned to her with a question—
“You are tired?”
“No,” she answered.
She was thinking that very likely she would never walk again on any road with Tony at her side, and she was minded to prolong this last walk to the last possible moment. For in this one night Tony had reconquered her. It was not merely that his story had filled her with amazement and pride, but she had seen him that night strong and dominant, as she had never dreamed of seeing him. She loved his very sternness towards herself. Not once had he spoken her name and called her “Millie.” She had watched for that and longed for it, and yet because he had not used it she was the nearer to worship. Once she said to him with a start of anxiety—
“You are not staying here under your own name?”
“No,” he replied. “A friend has taken rooms in Monte Carlo for both of us. Only his name has been given.”
“And you will leave France to-morrow?”
“Promise!” she cried.
Tony promised, with a look of curiosity at his wife. Why should she be so eager for his safety? He did not understand. He was wondering what he must do in this crisis of their lives. Was he to come, in spite of all his efforts, to that ordinary compromise which it had been his object to avoid?
They reached the door of the hotel, and there Tony halted.
“Good night!” he said; he did not hold out his hand. He stood confronting Millie with the light from the hall lamp falling full upon his face. Millie hoped that he would say something more—just a little word of kindness or forgiveness—if only she waited long enough without answering him; and she was willing to wait until the morning came, he did indeed speak again, and then Millie was sorry that she had waited. For he said the one really cruel thing amongst all the words he had said that night. He was not aware of its cruelty, he was only conscious of its truth.
“Do you know.” he said—and upon his tired face there came a momentary smile—“to-night I miss the Legion very much.” Again he said “Good night.”
This time Millie answered him; and in an instant he was gone. She could have cried out; she could hardly restrain her voice from calling him back to her. “Was this the end?” she asked of herself. “That one cruel sentence, and then the commonplace Good night, without so much as a touch of the hands. Was this the very end?” A sharp fear stabbed her. For a few moments she heard Tony’s footsteps upon the flags in front of the hotel, and then for a few moments upon the gravel of the garden path; and after that she heard only the murmur of the sea. And all at once for her the world was empty. “Was this the end?” she asked herself again most piteously; “this, which might have been the beginning.” Slowly she went up to her rooms. Sleep did not visit her that night.