Story type: Literature
After a honeymoon of five weeks in the shining cities of the Mediterranean and in Paris, they re-entered the British Empire by the august portals of the Chatham and Dover Railway. They stood impatiently waiting, part of a well-dressed, querulous crowd, while a few officials performed their daily task of improvising a Custom-house for registered luggage on a narrow platform of Victoria Station. John, Mr. Norris’s man, who had met them, attended behind. Suddenly, with a characteristic movement, the husband lifted his head, and then looked down at his wife.
‘I say, May!’
She knew that he was about to propose some swift alteration of their plans, but she smiled upwards out of her furs at his grave face, and the tone of her voice granted all requests in advance.
‘I think I’d better go to the office,’ he said.
She smiled again, inviting him to do exactly what he chose. She was already familiar with his restiveness under enforced delays and inaction, and his unfortunate capacity for being actively bored by trifles which did not interest him aroused in her a sort of maternal sympathy.
‘Yes,’ he answered. ‘I can be there and back in an hour or less. You titivate yourself, and we’ll dine at the Savoy, or anywhere you please. We’ll keep the ball rolling to-night. Yes,’ he repeated, as if to convince himself that he was not a deserter, ‘I really must call in at the office. You and John can see to the luggage, can’t you?’
‘Of course,’ she replied, with calm good-nature, and also with perfect self-confidence. ‘But give me the keys of the trunks, and don’t be late, Ted.’
‘Oh, I shan’t be late,’ he said.
Their fingers touched as she took the keys. He went away enraptured anew by her delightful acquiescences, her unique smile, her common-sense, her mature charm, and the astonishing elegance of her person. The honeymoon was over–and with what finished discretion, combining the innocent girl with the woman of the world, she had lived through the honeymoon!–another life, more delicious, was commencing.
‘What a wife!’ he thought triumphantly. ‘She does understand a man! And fancy leaving any ordinary bride to look after luggage!’
Nevertheless, once in his offices at Winchester House, he managed to forget her, and to forget time, for nearly an hour and a half. When at last he came to himself from the enchantment of affairs, he jumped into a hansom, and told the driver to drive fast to Knightsbridge. He was ardent to see her again. In the dark seclusion of the cab he speculated upon her toilette, the colour of her shoes. He thought of the last five weeks, of the next five years. Dwelling on their mutual love and esteem, their health, their self-knowledge and experience and cheerfulness, her sense and grace, his talent for getting money first and keeping it afterwards, he foresaw nothing but happiness for them. Children? H’m! Possibly….
At Piccadilly Circus it began to rain–cold, heavy March rain.
‘Window down, sir?’ asked the voice of the cabman.
‘Yes,’ he ordered sardonically. ‘Better be suffocated than drowned.’
‘You’re right, sir,’ said the voice.
Soon, through the streaming glass, which made every gas-jet into a shooting pillar of flame, Norris discerned vaguely the vast bulk of Hyde Park Mansions. ‘Good!’ he muttered, and at that very moment he was shot through the window into the thin, light-reflecting mire of the street. Enormous and strange beasts menaced him with pitiless hoofs. Millions of people crowded about him. In response to a question that seemed to float slowly towards him, he tried to give his address. He realized, by a considerable feat of intellect, that the horse must have fallen down; and then, with a dim notion that nothing mattered, he went to sleep.
In the boudoir of the magnificent flat on the first floor, shielded from the noise and the inclemency of the world by four silk-hung walls and a double window, and surrounded by all the multitudinous and costly luxury that a stockbroker with brains and taste can obtain for the wife of his love, May was leisurely finishing her toilette. And every detail in the long, elaborate process was accomplished with a passionate intention to bewitch the man at Winchester House.
These two had first met seven years before, when May, the daughter of a successful wholesale draper at Hanbridge, in the Five Towns district of Staffordshire, was aged twenty-two. Mr. Scarratt went to Manchester each Tuesday to buy, and about once a month he took May with him. One day, when they were lunching at the Exchange Restaurant, a young man came up whom her father introduced as Mr. Edward Norris, his stockbroker. Mr. Norris, whose years were thirty, glanced keenly at May, and accepted Mr. Scarratt’s invitation to join them. Ever afterwards May vividly remembered the wonderful sensation, joyous yet disconcerting, which she then experienced–the sensation of having captivated her father’s handsome and correct stockbroker. The three talked horses with a certain freedom, and since May was accustomed to drive the Scarratt dogcart, so famous in the Five Towns, she could bring her due share to the conversation. The meal over, Mr. Norris discussed business matters with his client, and then sedately departed, but not without the obviously sincere expression of a desire to meet Miss Scarratt again. The wholesale draper praised Edward’s financial qualities behind his back, and wondered that a man of such aptitude should remain in Manchester while London existed. As for May, she decided that she would have a new frock before she came to Manchester in the following month.
She had a new frock, but not of the colour intended. By the following month her father was enclosed in a coffin, and it happened to his estate, as to the estates of many successful men who employ stockbrokers, that the liabilities far more than covered the assets. May and her mother were left without a penny. The mother did the right thing, and died–it was best. May went direct to Brunt’s, the largest draper in the Five Towns, and asked for a place under ‘Madame’ in the dress-making department. Brunt’s daughter, who was about to be married, gave her the place instantly. Three years later, when ‘Madame’ returned to Paris, May stepped into the French-woman’s shoes.
On Sundays and on Thursday afternoons, and sometimes (but not too often) at the theatre, May was the finest walking advertisement that Brunt’s ever had. Old Brunt would have proposed to her, it was rumoured, had he not been scared by her elegance. Sundry sons of prosperous manufacturers, unabashed by this elegance, did in fact secretly propose, but with what result was known only to themselves.
Later, as May waxed in importance at Brunt’s, she was sent to Manchester to buy. She lunched at the Exchange Restaurant. The world and Manchester are very small. The first man she set eyes on was Edward Norris. Another week, Norris said to her with a thrill, and he would have been gone for ever to London. Chance is not to be flouted. The sequel was inevitable. They loved. And all the select private bars in Hanbridge tinkled to the news that May Scarratt had been and hooked a stockbroker!
When the toilette was done, and the maid gone, she wound a thin black scarf round her olive neck and shoulders, and sat down negligently on a Chippendale settee in the attitude of a portrait by Boldini; her little feet were tucked up sideways on the settee; the perforated lace ends of the scarf fell over her low corsage to the level of the seat. And she waited, still the bride. He was late, but she knew he would be late. Sure in the conviction that he was a strong man, a man of imagination and of deeds, she could easily excuse this failing in him, as she did that other habit of impulsive action in trifles. Nay, more, she found keen pleasure in excusing it. ‘Dear thing!’ she reflected, ‘he forgets so.’ Therefore she waited, content in enjoying the image in the glass of her dark face, her small plump person, and her Paris gown–that dream! She thought with assuaged grief of her father’s tragedy; she would have liked him to see her now, the jewel in the case–her father and she had understood each other.
All around, and above and below, she felt, without hearing it, the activity of the opulent, complex life of the mansions. Her mind dwelt with satisfaction on long carpeted corridors noiselessly paraded by flunkeys, mahogany lifts continually ascending and descending like the angels of the ladder, the great entrance hall with its fire always burning and its doors always swinging, the salle a manger sown with rose-shaded candles, and all the splendid privacies rising stage upon stage to the attics, where the flunkeys philosophized together. She confessed the beauty and distinction achieved by this extravagant organization for gratifying earthly desires. Often, in the pinching days of her servitude, she had murmured against the injustice of things, and had called wealth a crime while poverty starved. But now she perceived that society was what it was inevitably, and could not be altered. She accepted it in profound peace of mind, gaily fraternal towards the fortunate, compassionate towards those in adversity.
In the next flat someone began to play very brilliantly a Hungarian Rhapsody of Liszt’s. And even the faint sound of that riotous torrent of melody, so arrogantly gorgeous, intoxicated her soul. She shivered under the sudden vision of the splendid joy of being alive. And how she envied the player! French she had learned from ‘Madame,’ but she had no skill on the piano; it was her one regret.
She touched the bell.
‘Has your master come in yet?’ she inquired of the maid.
‘No, madam, not yet.’
She knew he had not come in, but she could not resist the impulse to ask.
Ten minutes later, when the piano had ceased, she jumped up, and, creeping to the front-door of the flat, gazed foolishly across the corridor at the grille of the lift. She heard the lift in travail. It appeared and passed out of sight above. No, he had not come! Glancing aside, she saw the tall slender figure of a girl in a green tea-gown–a mere girl: it was the player of the Hungarian Rhapsody. And this girl, too, she thought, was expectant and disappointed! They shut their doors simultaneously, she and May, who also had her girlish moments. Then the rhapsody recommenced.
‘Oh, madam!’ screamed the maid, almost tumbling into the boudoir.
‘What is it?’ May demanded with false calm.
The maid lifted the corner of her black apron to her eyes, as though she had been a stage soubrette in trouble.
‘The master, madam! He’s fell out of his cab–just in front of the mansions–and they’re bringing him in–such blood I never did see!’
The maid finished with hysterics.
‘And them just off their honeymoon!’
The inconsolable tones of the lady’s-maid came from the kitchen to the open door of the bedroom, where May was giving instructions to the elderly cook.
‘Send that girl out of the flat this moment!’ May said.
‘Make the beef-tea in case it’s wanted, and let me have some more warm water. There’s John and the doctor!’
She started at a knock.
‘No, it’s only the postman, ma’am.’
Some letters danced on the hall floor and on her nerves.
‘Oh dear!’ May whispered. ‘I thought it was the doctor at last.’
‘John’s bound to be back with one in a minute, ma’am. Do bear up,’ urged the cook, hurrying to the kitchen.
She could have destroyed the woman for those last words.
With the proud certainty of being equal to the dreadful crisis, she turned abruptly into the bedroom, where her husband lay insensible on one of the new beds. Assisted by the policemen and the cook, she had done everything that could be done: cut away the coats and the waistcoat, removed the boots, straightened the limbs, washed the face and neck–especially the neck–which had to be sponged continually, and scattered messengers, including John, over the vicinity in search of medical aid. And now the policemen had gone, the general emotion on the staircase had subsided, the front-door of the flat was shut. The great ocean of the life of the mansions had closed smoothly upon her little episode. She was alone with the shattered organism.
She bent fondly over the bed, and her Paris frock, and the black scarf which she had not removed, touched its ruinous burden. Her right hand directed the sponge with ineffable tenderness, and then the long thin fingers tightened to a frenzied clutch to squeeze it over the basin. The whole of her being was absorbed in a deep passion of pity and an intolerable hunger for the doctor.
Through the wall came once more the faint sound of the Hungarian Rhapsody, astonishingly rapid and brilliant. She set her teeth to endure its unconscious message of the vast indifference of life to death.
The organism stirred, and May watched the deathly face for a sign. The eyes opened and stared at her in agonized bewilderment. The lips tried to speak, and failed.
‘It’s all right, darling,’ she said softly. ‘You’re in your own bed. The doctor will be here directly. Drink this.’
She gave him some brandy-and-water, and they looked at each other. He was no longer Edward Norris, the finely regulated intelligence, the masterful volition, the conqueror of the world and of a woman; but merely the embodiment of a frightened, despairing, flickering, hysterical will-to-live, which glanced in terror at the corners of the room as though it saw fate there. And beneath her intense solicitude was the instinctive feeling, which hurt her, but which she could not dismiss, of her measureless, dominating superiority. With what glad relief would she have changed places with him!
‘I’m dying, May,’ he murmured at length, with a sigh. ‘Why doesn’t the doctor come?’
‘He is coming,’ she replied soothingly. ‘You’ll be better soon.’
But his effort in speaking obliged her to use the sponge again, and he saw it, and drew another sigh, more mortal than the first.
‘Oh! I’m dying,’ he repeated.
‘Not you, Ted!’ And her smile cost her an awful pang.
‘I am. I know it.’ This time he spoke with sad resignation. ‘You must face it. And–listen.’
A physical sensation of sickness came over her. She could not disguise from herself the fact that he was dying. The warped and pallid face, the panic-struck eyes, the sweat, the wound in the neck, the damp hands nervously pulling the hem of the sheet–these indications were not to be gainsaid. The truth was too horrible to grasp; she wanted to put it away from her. ‘This calamity cannot happen to me!’ she thought urgently, and all the while she knew that it was happening to her.
He collected the feeble remnant of his powers by an immense effort, and began to speak, slowly and fragmentarily, and with such weakness that she could only catch his words by putting her ear to his mouth. The restless hands dropped the sheet and took the end of the black scarf.
‘You’ll be comfortable–for money,’ he said. ‘Will made…. It’s not that. It’s … I must tell you. It’s—-‘
‘Yes?’ she encouraged him. ‘Tell me. I can hear.’
‘It’s about your father. I didn’t treat him quite right … once…. Week after I first met you, May…. No, not quite right. He was holding Hull and Barnsley shares … you know, railway … great gambling stock, then, Hull and Barn–Barnsley. Holding them on cover; for the rise…. They dropped too much–dropped to 23…. He couldn’t hold any longer … wired to me to sell and cut the loss. Understand?’
‘Yes,’ she said, trembling. ‘I quite understand.’
‘Well … I wired back, “Sold at 23.” … But some mistake. Shares not sold. Clerk’s mistake…. Clerk didn’t sell…. Next day rise began…. I didn’t wire him shares not sold. Somehow, I couldn’t…. Put it off…. Rise went on…. I took over shares myself … you see–myself…. Made nearly five thousand clear…. I wanted money then…. I think I would have told him, perhaps, later … made it right … but he died … sudden … I wasn’t going to let his creditors have that five thou…. No, he’d meant to sell … and, look here, May, if those shares had dropped lower … ‘stead of rising … I should have had to stand the racket … with your father, for my clerk’s mistake…. See?… He’d meant to sell…. Hard lines on him, but he’d meant to sell…. He’d meant—-‘
‘Don’t say any more, dear.’
‘Must explain this, May. Why didn’t I give the money to you … when he was dead?… Because I knew you’d only … give it … to creditors…. I knew you…. That’s straight…. I’ve told you now.’
He lost consciousness again, but for an instant May did not notice it. She was crying, and her tears fell on his face.
Then came a doctor, a little dark man, who explained with calm politeness that he had been out when the messenger first arrived. He took off his coat, hung it up, opened his bag, and proceeded to a minute examination of the patient. His movements were so methodical, and he gave orders to May in a tone so quiet, casual, and ordinary, that she almost lost her sense of the reality of the scene.
‘Yes, yes,’ he said, from time to time, as if to himself; nothing else; not a single enlightening word to May.
‘I’m dying,’ moaned Edward, opening his eyes.
The doctor glanced round at May and winked. That wink, deliberate and humorous, was like an electric shock to her. She could actually feel her heart leap in her breast. If she had not been afraid of the doctor, she would have fainted.
‘You all think you’re dying,’ the doctor remarked in a low, amused tone to the ceiling, as he wiped a pair of scissors, ‘when you’ve been knocked silly, especially if there’s a lot of blood about.’
The door opened.
‘Here’s John, ma’am,’ said the cook, ‘with two more doctors. What am I to do?’
May involuntarily turned towards the door.
‘Don’t you go, Mrs. Norris,’ the little dark man commanded. ‘I want you.’ Then he carelessly scrutinized the elderly servant. ‘Tell ’em they’re too late,’ he said. ‘It’s generally like that when there’s an accident,’ he continued after the housekeeper had gone. ‘First you can’t get a doctor anywhere, and then in half an hour or so we come in crowds. I’ve known seven doctors turn up one after another. But in that affair the man happened to have been killed outright.’
He smiled grimly. In a little while he was snapping his bag.
‘I’ll come in the morning, of course,’ he said, as he wrote on a piece of paper. ‘Have this made up, and give it him in the night if he is wakeful. Keep him warm. You might put a couple of hot-water bags, one on either side of him. You’ve got beef-tea made, you say? That’s right. Let him have as much as he wants. Mr. Norris, you’ll sleep like a top.’
‘But, doctor,’ May inquired the next morning in the hall, after Edward had smiled at a joke, and been informed that he must run down to Bournemouth in a week, ‘have we nothing to fear?’
‘I think not,’ was the measured answer. ‘These affairs nearly always seem much worse than they are. Of course, the immediate upset is tremendous–the disorganization, and all that sort of thing. But Nature’s pretty wonderful. You’ll find your husband will soon get over it. I should say he had a good constitution.’
‘And there will be no permanent effects?’
‘Yes,’ said the doctor, with genial cynicism. ‘There’ll be one permanent effect. Nobody will ever persuade him to ride in a hansom again. If he can’t find a four-wheeler, he’ll walk in future.’
She returned to the bedroom. The man on the bed was Edward Norris once more, in control of himself, risen out of his humiliation. A feeling of thankfulness overwhelmed her for a moment, and she sat down.
‘Well, May?’ he murmured.
They both realized that what they had been through was a common, daily street accident. The smile of each was self-conscious, apprehensive, insincere.
‘Quite a concert going on next door,’ he said with an affectation of lightness.
It was the Hungarian Rhapsody, impetuous and brilliant as ever. How she hated it now–this symbol of the hurried, unheeding, relentless, hollow gaiety of the world! Yet she longed for the magic fingers of the player, that she, too, might smother grief in such glittering veils!
The marriage which had begun so dramatically fell into placid routine. Edward fulfilled the prophecy of the doctor. In a week they were able to go to Bournemouth for a few days, and in less than a fortnight he was at the office–the strong man again, confident and ambitious.
After days devoted to finance, he came home in the evenings high-spirited and determined to enjoy himself. His voice was firm and his eye steady when he spoke to his wife; there was no trace of self-consciousness in his demeanour. She admired the masculinity of the brain that could forget by an effort of will. She felt that he trusted her to forget also; that he relied on her common-sense, her characteristic sagacity, to extinguish for ever the memory of an awkward incident. He loved her. He was intensely proud of her. He treated her with every sort of generosity. And in return he expected her to behave like a man.
She loved him. She esteemed him as a wife should. She made a profession of wifehood. He gave his days to finance and his nights to diversion; but her vocation was always with her–she was never off duty. She aimed to please him to the uttermost in everything, to be in all respects the ideal helpmate of a husband who was at once strenuous, fastidious, and wealthy. Elegance and suavity were a religion with her. She was the delight of the eye and of the ear, the soother of groans, the refuge of distress, the uplifter of the heart.
She made new acquaintances for him, and cemented old friendships. Her manner towards his old friends enchanted him; but when they were gone she had a way of making him feel that she was only his. She thought that she was succeeding in her aim. She thought that all these sweet, endless labours–of traffic with dressmakers, milliners, coiffeurs, maids, cooks, and furnishers; of paying and receiving calls; of delicious surprise journeys to the City to bring home the breadwinner; of giving and accepting dinners; of sitting alert and appreciative in theatres and music-halls; of supping in golden restaurants; of being serious, cautionary, submissive, and seductive; of smiles, laughter, and kisses; and of continuous sympathetic responsiveness–she thought that all these labours had attained their object: Edward’s complete serenity and satisfaction. She imagined that love and duty had combined successfully to deceive him on one solitary point. She was sure that he was deceived. But she was wrong.
One evening they were at the theatre alone together. It was a musical comedy, and they had a large stage-box. May sat a little behind. After having been darkened for a scenic conjuring trick, the stage was very suddenly thrown into brilliant light. Edward turned with equal suddenness to share his appreciation of the effect with his wife, and the light and his eye caught her unawares. She smiled instantly, but too late; he had seen the expression of her features. For a second she felt as if the whole fabric which she had been building for the last six months had crumbled; but this disturbing idea passed as she recovered herself.
‘Let’s go home, eh?’ he said, at the end of the first act.
‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘It would be nice to be in early, wouldn’t it?’
In the brougham they exchanged the amiable banalities of people who are thoroughly intimate. When they reached the flat, she poured out his whisky-and-potass, and sat on the arm of his particular arm-chair while he sipped it; then she whispered that she was going to bed.
‘Wait a bit,’ he said; ‘I want to talk to you seriously.’
‘Dear thing!’ she murmured, stroking his coat.
She had not the slightest notion of his purpose.
‘You’ve tried your best, May,’ he said bluntly, ‘but you’ve failed. I’ve suspected it for a long time.’
She flushed, and retired to a sofa, away from the orange electric lamp.
‘What do you mean, Edward?’ she asked.
‘You know very well what I mean, my dear,’ he replied. ‘What I told you–that night! You’ve tried to forget it. You’ve tried to look at me as though you had forgotten it. But you can’t do it. It’s on your mind. I’ve noticed it again and again. I noticed it at the theatre to-night. So I said to myself, “I’ll have it out with her.” And I’m having it out.’
‘My dear Ted, I assure you—-‘
‘No, you don’t,’ he stopped her. ‘I wish you did. Now you must just listen. I know exactly what sort of an idiot I was that night as well as you do. But I couldn’t help it. I was a fool to tell you. Still, I thought I was dying. I simply had a babbling fit. People are like that. You thought I was dying, too, didn’t you?’
‘Yes,’ she said quietly, ‘for a minute or two.’
‘Ah! It was that minute or two that did it. Well, I let it out, the rotten little secret. I admit it wasn’t on the square, that bit of business. But, on the other hand, it wasn’t anything really bad–like cruelty to animals or ruining a girl. Of course, the chap was your father, but, but—-. Look here, May, you ought to be able to see that I was exactly the same man after I told you as I was before. You ought to be able to see that. My character wasn’t wrecked because I happened to split on myself, like an ass, about that affair. Mind you, I don’t blame you. You can’t help your feelings. But do you suppose there’s a single man on this blessed earth without a secret? I’m not going to grovel before gods or men. I’m not going to pretend I’m so frightfully sorry. I’m sorry in a way. But can’t you see—-‘
‘Don’t say any more, Ted,’ she begged him, fingering her sash. ‘I know all that. I know it all, and everything else you can say. Oh, my darling boy! do you think I would look down on you ever so little because of–what you told me? Who am I? I wouldn’t care twopence even if—-‘
‘But it’s between us all the same,’ he broke in. ‘You can’t get over it.’
‘Get over it!’ she repeated lamely.
‘Can you? Have you?’ He pinned her to a direct answer.
She did not flinch.
‘No,’ she said.
‘I thought you would have done,’ he remarked, half to himself. ‘I thought you would. I thought you were enough a woman of the world for that, May. It isn’t as if the confounded thing had made any real difference to your father. The old man died, and—-‘
‘Ted!’ she exclaimed, ‘I shall have to tell you, after all. It killed him.’
‘What killed him? He died of gastritis.’
‘He was ill with gastritis, but he died of suicide. It’s easy for a gastritis patient to commit suicide. And father did.’
‘Oh, ruin, despair! He’d been in difficulties for a long time. He said that selling those shares just one day too soon was the end of it. When he saw them going up day after day, it got on his mind. He said he knew he would never, never have any luck. And then …’
‘You kept it quiet.’ He was walking about the room.
‘Yes, that was pretty easy.’
‘And did your mother know?’
He turned and looked at her.
‘Yes, mother knew. It finished her. Oh, Ted!’ she burst out, ‘if you’d only telegraphed to him the next morning that the shares weren’t sold, things might have been quite different.’
‘You mean I killed your father–and your mother.’
‘No, I don’t,’ she cried passionately. ‘I tell you I don’t. You didn’t know. But I think of it all, sometimes. And that’s why–that’s why—-‘
She sat down again.
‘By God, May,’ he swore, ‘I’m frightfully sorry!’
‘I never meant to tell you,’ she said, composing herself. ‘But, there! things slip out. Good-night.’
She was gone, but in passing him she had timidly caressed his shoulder.
‘It’s all up,’ he said to himself. ‘This will always be between us. No one could expect her to forget it.’
Gradually her characteristic habits deserted her; she seemed to lose energy and a part of her interest in those things which had occupied her most. She changed her dress less frequently, ignoring dressmakers, and she showed no longer the ravishing elegance of the bride. She often lay in bed till noon, she who had always entered the dining-room at nine o’clock precisely to dispense his coffee and listen to his remarks on the contents of the newspaper. She said ‘As you please’ to the cook, and the meals began to lose their piquancy. She paid no calls, but some of her women friends continued, nevertheless, to visit her. Lastly, she took to sewing. The little dark doctor, who had become an acquaintance, smiled at her and told her to do no more than she felt disposed to do. She reclined on sofas in shaded rooms, and appeared to meditate. She was not depressed, but thoughtful. It was as though she had much to settle in her own mind. At intervals the faint sound of the Hungarian Rhapsody mingled with her reveries.
As for Edward, his behaviour was immaculate. During the day he made money furiously. In the evening he sat with his wife. They did not talk much, and he never questioned her. She developed a certain curious whimsicality now and then; but for him she could do no wrong.
The past was not mentioned. They both looked apprehensively towards the future, towards a crisis which they knew was inexorably approaching. They were afraid, while pretending to have no fear.
And one afternoon, precipitately, surprisingly, the crisis came.
‘You are the father of a son–a very noisy son,’ said the doctor, coming into the drawing-room where Edward had sat in torture for three hours.
‘Oh, never fear: she’s doing excellently.’
‘Can I go and see her?’ he asked, like a humble petitioner.
‘Well–yes,’ said the doctor, ‘for one minute; not more.’
So he went into the bedroom as into a church, feeling a fool. The nurse, miraculously white and starched, stood like a sentinel at the foot of the bed of mystery.
‘All serene, May?’ he questioned. If he had attempted to say another word he would have cried.
The pale mother nodded with a fatigued smile, and by a scarcely perceptible gesture drew his attention to a bundle. From the next flat came a faint, familiar sound, insolently joyous.
‘Yes,’ he thought, ‘but if they had both been lying dead here that tune would have been the same.’
Two months later he left the office early, telling his secretary that he had a headache. It was a mere fibbing excuse. He suffered from sudden fits of anxiety about his wife and child. When he reached the flat, he found no one at home but the cook.
‘Where’s your mistress?’ he demanded.
‘She’s out in the park with baby and nurse, sir.’
‘But it’s going to rain,’ he cried angrily. ‘It is raining. They’ll get wet through.’
He rushed into the corridor, and met the procession–May, the perambulator, and the nursemaid.
‘Only fancy, Ted!’ May exclaimed, ‘the perambulator will go into the lift, after all. Aren’t you glad?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But you’re wet, surely?’
‘Not a drop. We just got in in time.’
The tableau of May, elegant as ever, but her eyes brighter and her body more leniently curved, of the hooded perambulator, and of the fluffy-white nursemaid behind–it was too much for him. Touching clumsily the apron of the perambulator, the stockbroker turned into his doorway. Just then the girl from the next flat came out into the corridor, dressed for social rites of the afternoon. The perambulator was her excuse for stopping.
‘What a pretty boy!’ she exclaimed in ecstasy, trying to squeeze her picture hat under the hood of the perambulator.
‘Do you really think so?’ said the mother, enchanted.
‘Of course! The darling! How I envy you!’
May wanted to reciprocate this politeness.
‘I can’t tell you,’ she said, ‘how I envy you your piano-playing. There’s one piece—-‘
‘Envy me! Why! It’s only a pianola we’ve got!’
‘Isn’t he the picture of his granddad?’ said May to Edward when they bent over the cot that night before retiring.
And as she said it there was such candour in her voice, such content in her smiling and courageous eyes, that Edward could not fail to comprehend her message to him. Down in some very secret part of his soul he felt for the first time the real force of the great explanatory truth that one generation succeeds another.