Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler.

Ten Degrees Backward online

. (page 16 of 22)
Online LibraryEllen Thorneycroft FowlerTen Degrees Backward → online text (page 16 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Annabel have decided that I ought to enjoy them, and therefore that I
do? In the same way Annabel has decided that the East wind ought to
give you a cold on your chest, though as a matter of fact it never
does: but you don't dare to face it, for fear of offending Annabel by
not catching cold when she expected you to."

I had believed that it was Annabel alone who was fussy about the East
wind, and that I was laughing at her from my superior height: but now I
learned my mistake.

"What I do enjoy," continued my angry darling, "is acting with Frank
and the Loxleys: and I mean to do it, too. And if you and Annabel want
to go to your fusty old South of France for Easter, go: but leave me at
home with Frank, who will be back by then." And she tossed her curly
head and dashed out of the room.

For a few seconds I sat absolutely stunned by this unexpected outburst:
and then I stretched out my arms on the table in front of me, and
buried my head in them, so as to shut out the sight and the sound of
everything: for I felt that my world was tumbling down about my ears.

Bitterly hurt as I was, I could yet look at the matter from Fay's point
of view. Annabel and I were dull old fogies, and the life that I had
offered to my darling was not half full enough to satisfy her. In
spite of all my struggles to adopt modern ideas, I was evidently still
wrapped in the toils of the Victorian tradition that the warming of her
husband's slippers is an occupation noble enough to satisfy the
aspirations of any woman's soul. In my heart I had smiled at Annabel's
antiquated ideas: but in Fay's young eyes my ideas were as antiquated
as Annabel's.

Yet I would have given everything - even life itself - to make my darling
happy: and therein lay the core of the tragedy. The good that I would
do, I could not: I was too old.

I had done my best, and I had failed. What, then, was there left to
live for?

I was so swallowed up in this engulfing wave of sick misery that I did
not hear the door open or any one enter the room. But I was roused
from the stupor of despair into which I had fallen by feeling a pair of
soft arms clinging round my neck, and a soft cheek pressed against my
own; whilst the voice that made the music of my life said in a
trembling whisper: "I'm so awfully sorry, Reggie, for being such a
beast. Do forgive me, and I'll never be such a brute again."

So I was raised by a touch from the Slough of Despair to the Summit of
the Delectable Mountains.




CHAPTER XVI

A SORROWFUL SPRINGTIME

It goes without saying that I forgave my darling, for the good reason
that I had nothing to forgive. That part of the business was easy
enough. It also goes without saying that Fay got her own way about the
proposed trip to the South of France: but that part of the business was
by no means easy.

Annabel was greatly surprised when I broke it to her that Fay did not
wish to go abroad. But she was more than surprised, she was indignant,
when she discovered that I intended to let my wife do as she pleased in
the matter. If Fay did not want to go to France, to France she should
not go: that I said and that I stuck to.

But the sticking was hard work.

I had always known that Annabel was obstinate: but until that unhappy
spring I had no idea how colossally obstinate she could be. Nothing
that I said had the slightest effect upon her. She merely waited until
I had finished speaking, and then said her own say over again, as if I
had never spoken. Fay was quite right. If Annabel thought that a
person ought to want a thing, she firmly believed that, therefore, they
did want it: and nothing that the person or that any other person could
urge to the contrary in any way shook her in this belief. I suppose I
was like my sister in this respect. Fay said I was, and so I must have
been. But I am sure that I made every effort to struggle against this
narrow-mindedness, and I am equally sure that Annabel made no such
effort at all. On the contrary, she gloried in it.

"It is nonsense to say that young people don't enjoy being taken
abroad, Reggie," she declared over and over again: "absolute nonsense.
It is only natural that the young should enjoy variety of place and
scene."

"It may be natural, but it isn't true in this particular instance," I
vainly argued: "I have told you till I'm sick of telling you that Fay
doesn't want to go abroad just now: and if she doesn't want to go, she
shan't go."

"I am sure you are making a mistake, Reggie, and that you will live to
regret it."

"I have no doubt that I am. As a matter of fact I am always making
mistakes and living to regret them. But that won't hinder me from
making this one mistake more."

"She would enjoy it when once she got there: I know she would. I used
to love travelling on the Continent when I was a girl."

"I dare say you did, but that has nothing to do with it. You and Fay
are absolutely different people."

"Of course we are now, because I am so much older than she is: but when
we were the same age, I expect Fay was very similar to me." And then I
had it all over again about the normal desire of the young for variety
of place and scene. I recognised the futility of argument. If Annabel
believed that at any time or at any age she and Fay bore the slightest
resemblance to one another, she could believe anything that she wished
to believe: and she did.

Although my sister never shook me for a moment in my determination that
Fay should have her own way, she never for a moment ceased trying to
shake me; and I found it a most fatiguing process. Of late years we
have heard much talk about "wars of attrition": that is the kind of war
in which Annabel would have excelled.

There is a somewhat obscure passage in the Epistle of St. Jude about
the Archangel Michael contending with the devil for the body of Moses.
I don't in the least know what it means, but I know exactly what it
felt like: and it felt like something very unpleasant indeed.

I suggested - and not altogether from unselfish motives - that Annabel
should repair to sunnier climes alone: but she stoutly refused to leave
me while the East wind was in the air. She seemed to think that with
her at my side I could defy my (so-called) enemy more successfully than
if I tackled him alone. I endeavoured to point out to her that,
according to her ideas, at any rate, my vulnerable part was not my
side - my heel of Achilles, so to speak, was situated in my chest, and
that, therefore, a silk muffler would be a surer defence than a score
of sisters. But she still held to her own opinion (as it was her
nature to do) that by some indefinable means her bodily presence
prevented the inclement breeze from visiting my chest too roughly: and
with the best intentions and the worst results, she absolutely declined
to go abroad unless Fay and I accompanied her.

But the tiresomeness of Annabel at this time was more than compensated
for by the adorableness of Fay. Our little set-to in the smoking-room
turned out to be one of those blessed fallings-out that all the more
endear: and we had a heavenly time together, unclouded by either the
presence of Frank or the persistence of Annabel. At any rate, for the
time being we were all-in-all to each other. Tennyson remarked that
"Sorrow's crown of sorrow is remembering happier things": but I must
venture to disagree with him, as I once ventured to disagree with
Shakspere. The memory of past happiness is a possession of which Time
and Circumstance are powerless to rob one: at least I found it so in
the dark days to come, when I lived over and over again in memory those
happy weeks at Restham, after Fay and I quarrelled and made it up
again, and before Frank came back.

Then a fresh storm broke. Annabel found out about the play which was
being prepared for Easter week, and made herself extremely unpleasant
over it. I did all in my power to smooth things over between her and
Fay, but with little success. With all my affection for my sister and
all my adoration of my wife, I cannot pretend that Fay was altogether
easy and adaptable when once her back was up; whilst Annabel in such
circumstances was absolutely impossible.

Therefore at this particular time life passed but roughly with me, as
it did with the poet Cowper. But still rougher times were in store.

Frank's return complicated matters still further. He came back to
Restham having left the dons and tutors of his college in a state of
extreme dissatisfaction with him, on account of the things he did and
the things he left undone. Naturally he took Fay's part - as indeed I
did: but he made no effort to assist me in my endeavour to placate
Annabel as far as possible without interfering with the theatrical
scheme.

I do not wish to pretend to miseries to which I have no title: but I
cannot help feeling that in this conflict between the twins and
Annabel, it was I who suffered most. Subsequent history has taught us
that in a war between two Powers the chief brunt falls upon the neutral
states. Certainly it was so in my case. As poor Belgium has long been
the cock-pit of Europe, so I became the cock-pit of Restham. A most
unenviable position for either nations or individuals!

I was never alone for a minute with Annabel without her beginning all
over again about the pernicious influence of amateur theatricals - as
opposed to the beneficent effect of foreign travel - upon the rising
generation: I was never alone for a minute with Frank without his
rubbing into me the various difficulties which my sister raised with
regard to the impending performance in the village hall: and - which was
worst of all - I was never alone with Fay without knocking my head and
bruising my heart against an impalpable barrier which had suddenly been
raised up between us; for the building of which barrier I blamed Frank.

"You are behaving very foolishly, Reggie, and you will live to regret
it," Annabel said, for about the two hundredth time: "I can't
understand why you don't see the danger, as I see it."

I did see it: that was what made me so profoundly wretched: but I did
not see how it was to be averted by any act of mine.

"I should simply put my foot down upon the whole thing, if I were you,"
she nagged on.

"The putting down of one's foot is not such a simple process as it used
to be," I retorted: "or else my feet are not of the putting down sort."

"Papa could always put his foot down fast enough when he wanted to,"
argued Annabel.

"I know he could: but, as I have just told you, I haven't inherited his
particular make of feet."

Annabel went on as if I had not spoken. "He always put his foot down
when I was Fay's age, if I suggested doing anything that he didn't
approve of."

"But you were his daughter and Fay is my wife. That makes all the
difference."

"It didn't make any difference to him. He put his foot down just as
much in dealing with poor Mamma as in dealing with me."

"I know he did. And she died of it."

Annabel looked surprised at the bitterness of my retort: but she would
have looked more surprised still if she had seen the greater bitterness
of heart which prompted it. I was surprised myself at the sudden rush
of anger which flooded my soul at the memory of how my gentle mother
had gradually faded away under the pressure of my father's kind, but
dominating, heel. I had scarcely formulated it even in thought - I had
certainly never put it into words before - but my subconscious mind must
always have rebelled against the knowledge that my mother had really
died of my father's strong will. That was what actually killed her,
whatever the doctor's certificate might say: and I had always known it,
though I did not know that I knew it until that moment.

It is strange how the dark subterranean rivers of knowledge and memory,
which flow fathoms below the realm of conscious existence, now and
again rise to the surface, as if upheaved by some mighty volcanic force
of the spiritual world; and we suddenly know that we have always known
something of which until that moment we had not the slightest idea.
And we know more than this. We see how that undreamed of knowledge has
moulded our minds and formed our characters independently of our
conscious selves, and how in those dark, subterranean depths are laid
the foundations of the temples, which it is our life-work to build and
to make meet for the indwelling of the Spirit of God.

Thus suddenly I understood that it was owing to a great extent to my
unconscious knowledge of my father's well-meant tyranny towards my
mother, that I was what I was: a cowardly rebel, chafing under
Annabel's sway even while I submitted to it - a weakly, indulgent
husband, who would sooner relinquish his lawful authority altogether
than enforce it.

I recalled my wandering thoughts to find my sister gazing at me in
perplexity mingled with reproach.

"Really, Reggie, I don't know what you are coming to! I consider it
shocking to speak of dear Papa in that way. I am sure he never
controlled poor Mamma's actions except for her own good."

"Exactly: and that was what killed her. To be constantly controlled
for her own good, is enough to crush the life out of any sensitive and
high-spirited woman."

"But Mamma wasn't at all high-spirited," Annabel objected.

"Not when we knew her. But I dare say she was before Father began that
foot exercise that you consider so desirable. Understand once for all,
Annabel, that no power on earth will ever induce me to treat my wife as
my father treated his."

Annabel looked still more shocked. "Then I think it is very undutiful
of you; very undutiful indeed! And especially after Papa earned a
baronetcy for you, and left you such an ample provision for keeping it
up. And that reminds me what a pity it is that Fay doesn't seem likely
to have any children at present. It would save all this dreadful
theatrical fuss and trouble if she had. I always think a baby is such
a suitable diversion for a young married woman, besides being so nice
to have some one to carry on the title."

I felt that Annabel was becoming intolerable, so I bolted out of the
drawing-room, banging the door behind me. She had rather affected the
drawing-room of late in preference to the great hall, as Fay and Frank
usually occupied the latter.

Even now I can hardly bear to recall the happenings of that most
miserable springtime, so I will retail them as briefly as possible.

The more Annabel opposed Fay's having her own way, the more determined
was I that Fay should have it; although - to confess the truth - I
disliked that way, and feared its consequences, considerably more than
my sister did. The memory of my dear mother's submission upheld me. I
felt I had far sooner Fay despised my weakness than died of my
wilfulness - even though that wilfulness were exercised solely for what
Annabel and my father would have called "her own good."

The Loxleys came down like a wolf on the fold, and the Manor was once
again the scene of revelry by night, and a noisy bear-garden by day. I
hated it all inexpressibly; but I fought for it as I would have fought
for my life. Ever since that horrible time I have cherished the
deepest pity for people who feel bound by a real (or mistaken) sense of
duty to do battle for that which at the bottom of their hearts they
hate. To them there is only one thing worse than defeat - and that is
victory.

Only once did I venture on a word of remonstrance with my darling.

"Sweetheart," I said one day, when she had rushed into my library for
some writing paper wherewith to supply the epistolary needs of the
Loxley family: "I know how you are enjoying all this affair, and I
wouldn't for worlds interfere with your pleasure: but don't you think
that after this Play is over, you might rest from theatricals for a
time?"

The pretty scarlet mouth at once grew mutinous. "Oh, Reggie, don't be
a tiresome kill-joy!"

"I'm trying my best not to be," I answered meekly: "I'm not killing
this joy: I'm letting it live out all its allotted days. I'm only
suggesting that it shouldn't have a successor - at any rate, for the
present."

Fay tossed her curly head and stamped her foot. I could read Frank's
influence in every insubordinate line of her. "I think it is very
horrid of you to be so dreadfully bossy, and not to let Frank and me do
as we like!"

"But I do let you do as you like, my own. I didn't urge you to go
abroad when you said you didn't want to go; and I have never interfered
with your theatrical performances so far. You can't say I have."

But she did say it. "Yes, you have. You have looked as if you
disapproved and have been terribly wet-blankety at times, and Annabel
has been simply vile. Frank has noticed it too."

"I am not Annabel, nor responsible for Annabel. Heaven forbid! I
can't help my looks - nobody can, or most people would - and if I look
dull and what you call wet-blankety, it isn't my fault but my
misfortune. And I really do try to see things from your point of view,
darling: I do indeed: but I can't help my age - again, nobody can, or
most people would."

Fay softened a little. She even went the length of sitting down on my
knee as I sat by the fire, and twisting her fingers in my front hair.
"You really aren't so bad after all - considering everything," she
graciously admitted.

It seemed to me, in my masculine folly, an auspicious moment for
presenting a petition to my sovereign. "If I promise to be as nice as
I know how for this particular Play, and never so much as show a corner
of a wet blanket, won't you give up theatricals for a bit, and turn
your attention to other things? It is a pity to let anything absorb
you to the exclusion of everything else." The memory of my late
father's foot still constrained me to supplicate where I knew I had the
right to command.

"But you like me to enjoy myself, Reggie?"

"More than I like anything in the world."

"Then why interfere at all in what gives me such a ripping time?"

Then the devil entered into me under cover of my own cowardice. I
couldn't bear Fay to think that it was I who was inimical to her
pleasure. "Well, sweetheart, it isn't I altogether: I adore you so
that if I had my own way I should give you everything that you asked
for, and let you do whatever you liked. But Annabel is a woman of the
world, and old enough to be your mother, and she sees that this
continual theatrical excitement is not altogether good for a young
girl. It hurts me to refuse you anything far worse than it hurts you:
but while you are so young I cannot indulge you and myself to the
extent of letting you do things that may work you lasting harm."

I had spoken to my own undoing. Fay sprang to her feet at once like an
angry boy. "So Annabel disapproves of my acting, does she? Then you
can tell her that I jolly well mean to go on with it! As Frank says,
she and you together are choking the life and spirit out of me, and
making an old woman of me before my time. And I won't stand it - I
won't!"

I struggled vainly to retrieve my position; but it was too late. "It
isn't so much that Annabel disapproves, darling," I lied valiantly,
"but that she thinks so much excitement is bad for you."

"What rot!" retorted Fay, looking more Frank-like than ever: "I never
heard such a lot of footling flapdoodle as you and Annabel concoct when
you set fuzzling together - never in all my life! I've simply no use
for you, Reggie, when you play the giddy old maid like this! I shall
go and talk to Frank, who has got more sense than you and Annabel put
together!" Wherewith she bounced out of the room, and left me
lamenting over my egregious folly in having introduced Annabel into the
conversation at all, especially as I did it with the unworthy motive of
diverting Fay's anger from myself.

All that Eastertide stands out in my memory as a garish and lurid
nightmare. I cannot recall the details of the Play, but I remember
that it was considered a great success, and that Fay and Frank fairly
surpassed themselves in the dance that they had prepared for the
occasion. When it was over, Fay announced her intention of returning
with Frank and the Loxleys to town, and staying a few days with the
latter in order to attend a few pieces which were running at the London
theatres.

I did not oppose her: I knew it would do no good. She refused to
listen to argument, and nothing would induce me to put my foot down as
my father had done with such grim success before me. But I looked
forward to her return from the Loxleys, when Frank would have gone back
to Oxford, and when the summer and I would have my darling to
ourselves, and everything would come right again. Annabel had
announced her intention of leaving Restham for a time to visit the
Macdonalds in Scotland: and I was sure that when there was nobody to
come between us, Fay and I would once more be all in all to each other
as we had been before.

I did not trouble her with any explanations then: I felt it was not the
occasion for them: I saved them all up for the happy time coming when I
should have my darling to myself. And during the few days that she was
at the Loxleys' I was busy devising and arranging little treats which I
knew she would enjoy when once Annabel's back was turned, and we two
were like a couple of children out of school.

On the fifth day after Fay's departure, I came down to breakfast in
better spirits than usual. It was a lovely April morning, and the
spirit of the spring seemed to have got into my blood and to send it
coursing through my veins more quickly than usual - that spirit of hope
which always promises more than it can perform. I felt sure that there
was a good time coming for Fay and me, after we had packed Annabel
safely off to Scotland, and that our slight falling-out would again
prove itself to be of that blessed sort which all the more endears.

My cheerfulness was further increased by the sight of a letter from Fay
lying on the breakfast-table. She had only favoured me with hurried
post-cards so far since she left home; but this was a letter, and her
letters always gave me pleasure. Moreover, I felt this was going to be
an extra pleasant one, as it would doubtless herald her return home.
So I opened it with all the joy of anticipation, and this is what I
read -


"My DEAR REGGIE,

"It is no good going on as we are doing: it is horrid for you and
horrid for me. Annabel is quite right in saying that we aren't at all
suited to one another; and I am sure that you will be much happier
alone with her, without Frank and me to bother you and upset all your
little fussy ways. So we have decided to leave England for good, and
go back to live with Aunt Gertrude: and we shall both go on the stage
and earn our living that way, though there is no necessity for us to do
so, as we have got some money of our own, and Uncle Sherard and Aunt
Gertrude have plenty and will be only too pleased to have Frank and me
to live with them again. But we shall still go on the stage because we
adore it so, and love acting and dancing so much. We always intended
to do it, but falling in love with you changed everything and upset my
plans.

"Please don't try to stop us, because you can't. Frank arranged
everything beforehand, and before you get this letter we shall have
sailed for Melbourne. I shan't write to you again, because the sooner
you forget me the better. I hope you and Annabel will be very happy
together, just as you were before Frank and I came to Restham. And I
am sure you will be, as you have always loved her more than you have
loved me.

"Good-bye.
"From your loving wife,
"FAY."




CHAPTER XVII

DESOLATION

I cannot remember what happened immediately after Fay's letter
shattered my life at one blow. I only know that Annabel found me lying
unconscious on the dining-room floor when she came down to breakfast,
and that I then had a severe attack of brain-fever, which very nearly
proved fatal. But Annabel and Arthur and Ponty were all very good to
me, and - with the aid of two trained nurses - brought me back, sorely
against my will, into that spoiled life which I had hoped I had done
with for ever.

As usual, I was foredoomed to failure. I could not even die when I
wanted to. In the words of the unhappy Napoleonic Prince, called
familiarly "Prince Plon-Plon," I acknowledged my crowning defeat: "I
could succeed in nothing - not even in dying."

Fay's desertion had wounded me past healing. It was a catastrophe so
unlooked for, so appalling, that words were useless either to describe


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 16 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryEllen Thorneycroft FowlerTen Degrees Backward → online text (page 16 of 22)