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"No; I only help, sometimes. Ann's a treasure."

"What do we pay her?"

"Thirty pounds a year."

"Whew!"

She cast a sidelong glance at him. "A domestic drudge is worth it, I
assure you; women have been consistently underrated."

"But fool work like cleaning saucepans and helping with the kids - "

"Shutting oneself up with the sink; working early; working late;
breathing ashes and dust and grease; keeping tolerably civil and
cheerful over it ... that's the job we're speaking of. I ought to know
all about it," she said in a low voice, as if to herself.

She sat in her corner of the chesterfield and took up her knitting. He
sat down, too, by her, all at once alert, surveying the flying
movements of her dear hands; hands as tender and white as ever he
remembered them.

"Oh come!" he said in affectionate but uneasy remonstrance, "you don't
look much as if you'd been shut up with the sink, working early and
working late."

"You forget I've had a whole year's holiday." She kept her eyes on her
work, as if re-casting that first year upon her busy needles. "At
least," she reflected, almost as if to herself, "part of the time was
only half-holiday; but the last six months have been wonderful."

Jealousy rose in Osborn; jealousy of he knew not what. Something or
someone had brought colour and smiles to her, and it was not himself.
As he began to suggest that fact to himself, before he could do more
than begin: "How, do you mean - ?" the door opened, and the maid
announced: "Dinner is served, ma'am."

Marie sprang up and put her hand kindly in his arm.

"Come along," she said. "We have all your favourite things, so I hope
you're hungry."




CHAPTER XXII

PLAIN DEALING


Re-entering the dining-room Osborn was struck by its comfort and
charm. It was a room humanised by the hand of a kind and clever woman.
And how well-ordered his table was! How nice his silver looked! How
well his wife looked! What good cooking he could command! And in what
attractively comfortable circumstances he now found himself after that
year which had ended by palling; that year in which he had done as
other men - free men!

There was no place like home, for permanence; no woman like the wife
of one's choice, for permanence. These were the things which mattered.

He was moved to speak to her in some measure of this thought during
dinner. They were not separated from one another by the whole breadth
of the table. He sat on his wife's right hand, and the maid served
them from the sideboard, an arrangement which pleased him because it
saved him the trouble of carving, and also because it was rather
smart, he thought, for home, where things generally tended to be
dowdy.

"I've had an awf'ly good time, this last year," he confided, "but I'm
glad to be back. There's nothing like one's own home and one's own
girl." The maid having gone to the kitchen, he reached for and
squeezed his wife's hand. "I'm going to be an awf'ly good boy now
you've got me again," he assured her.

"Don't bore yourself," she said with gentle politeness.

"What - what queer things women say!" he observed, after a pause, in
which he had regarded her with some surprise.

"Not so queer as the things men do," she replied thoughtfully.

He started and felt a flush creeping from his collar to the roots of
his hair. She spoke almost as if she knew of the folly and fun - but
even as the idea came to him he knew it to be impossible. It was just
one of the half-bitter remarks which wives made. Bitterness in a woman
was horrible. The flush on his face had been imperceptible to her in
the roseate light of the pink candle-shades, he was glad to think; but
he waited until it had subsided before he spoke with a hint of
reproof.

"I say, don't try sarcasm. Sarcasm in a woman jars, somehow."

"I wasn't sarcastic, really." Her tone was of raillery and somehow he
didn't like that she should speak so lightly.

"Besides," he said, with an inconsequent effort, "as to the queer
things men do, men are natural animals all the world over."

"And you don't suppose we forget it?"

She had a pretty laugh; but what made for laughter in her question?

"Men are men," he stated, rather at a loss, "and women are women."

She laughed more.

"It's been said before" she replied.

Osborn was relieved to find the maid at his elbow with a sweet.

"Alexandra cream, sir?" she was asking confidentially.

"I hope you'll like this, Osborn," said Marie; "I prepared it myself
this morning."

When the maid had gone, he switched off to a less troublous track.

"My socks are all in a shocking condition; I don't know how long it'll
take to mend 'em, dear."

"I'll spend to-morrow looking over your things. I daresay you want
repairs throughout."

"You're a darling. I believe I've wanted you to look after me. But
don't stew in over my mending all day. Run into town and lunch with
me."

"I'll be delighted, Osborn."

"We must have a beano one evening, quite soon. You'd like it?"

"I'd love it."

He smiled affectionately, pressing her hand. It was nice to give a
woman such pleasure.

After dinner they were to make their own coffee in their old way, in
the sitting-room; and after Marie had made it and brought his cup to
him, Osborn leaned back in his corner of the couch to smoke and dream
and talk happily, as a well-fed man does. His gaze, wandering round
the room, found the piano, which he recognised with respect.

"I say, you said the cushions were the only different things. There's
that!" He nodded towards the instrument.

"Yes," she said, her eyes following his, "there's mother's piano. I
must tell you all about her will, Osborn; about everything. She left
all she had to me."

"The furniture and money?"

"Yes. I sold most of the furniture; Mr. Rokeby helped me to arrange it
and saw the dealers for me."

"Good old Desmond! I must thank him for that."

"He's been extremely kind." She looked into the fire.
"_Extremely_," she repeated. "He advised me and told me exactly
what to do."

"Did the furniture make much?" Osborn asked with masculine interest in
things financial.

"A hundred and fifty pounds, odd."

"Good!" he exclaimed.

"I paid off all the rest of our own furniture instalments with it."

"Oh, splendid!" he exclaimed in approval.

"I hoped you'd think so. A hundred cleared it, as you would know."

"So little Marie had fifty pounds odd for her own banking account!"

"Not at all," she said, smiling into the fire as if she saw a very
pleasant vision there; "I spent it."

Osborn took his pipe from his mouth and sat forward. "Whatever on?" he
ejaculated.

His motion was surprise rather than disapproval. The money was hers,
of course. But that a woman should have the temerity to spend fifty
pounds odd in a few months when she was already supplied with enough
to ensure comfort for herself and her family....

She lifted her head and looked at him. She dared him. The curls on her
forehead danced and the amethyst eardrops twinkled; the shrug of her
shoulders brought the mauve ribbons again under his notice.

"As I told you, I'm going into accounts with you this evening."

"Oh, well ... it's your own affair."

"But husbands like to make wives' affairs their own, don't they?"

She rose to find her account-books in a pigeon-hole of the bureau. Her
colour had faded; her eyes were bright. Like all women she feared the
hour of battle, while she did not flinch from it. So pretty she
looked, standing there, that Osborn sprang up after her. He was just
man - not husband, not master, nor judge, nor timekeeper of the home;
but man, admiring and passionate.

"I say, hang the accounts! Come to me!"

There was again that about her which checked him. It was an almost
virginal aloofness, though he would not have known how so to define
it. When she sat down once more by his side he reached for his pipe
again calmly and put it between his teeth, clenching them hard on the
stem.

"Well, pretty cat?" he asked in a strained voice.

The old love-name fell upon cold ears. Opening the first book, she
mused busily:

"This is the housekeeping; the other's odd expenses. But I'd better
finish telling you about mother's will first. She left me two hundred
and twenty pounds a year."

This time he made no sign at the news, except by raising his eyebrows
and directing towards her a steady look of interest and inquiry.

"So," she continued, "we have been quite well off. Directly you left I
reckoned up our expenses and found we were better off than before, on
two hundred a year, and I got a charwoman. I told you the first part
of the year was like a half-holiday. After my dear mother died and I
had the money, I engaged Ann."

"Quite right," he said rather gruffly.

"I am like you, Osborn, I have had a great year. If it hadn't meant
losing mother it would have been a perfect year."

After a long pause, he dropped out, incredulously:

"Without me?"

She felt her hands grow suddenly cold with fear of the battle.

"Yes," she nodded, "without you."

As he looked at her she was again as dazzling to him as a beautiful
stranger; and as strange.

He said somewhat stiffly: "That's not exactly what a man expects to
hear when he comes back after a long time."

"I'm sorry."

"You've changed somehow. What's the matter?"

"I've grown young again. That's all, isn't it?"

"I don't know if that's all."

"Let's talk of something else," she said gaily; "tell me more about
yourself. I've had no details yet, and I'm longing for them. You're
keeping the job, are you? And just what good things does keeping it
mean?"

"A fur coat for Marie," he said with a hint of reproachful pathos.

"How lovely! But what will it mean to you was what I'm asking?"

"The salary is five hundred, as you know." And guardedly, for he knew
many men who deemed it well to be careful over telling their wives
these things, he added: "With any luck the commission's more than the
salary."

He left it vague, like that, for safety.

"I do congratulate you, Osborn."

"Our ship's really in, at last, you see, old girl."

"My poor income fades into the background behind yours!"

"Well, yours isn't so bad for a woman!"

"So I've found. I've had clothes, and gone about, and begun to think
and read and see good plays again, all on the strength of it."

She opened a bank-book. "This is all the accounting for the two
hundred you arranged to be paid in to me. You'll see I've used it
legitimately - none of it's gone on frippery. And I've paid George's
schooling myself this last six months, and Ann's wages, as I hadn't
your permission for either. So you'll see there's even a balance left
to your credit."

"Why make a song about my 'permission'? You've always been a free
agent, haven't you?"

"Won't you just run your eye over this, now you're taking hold of the
family bank account again?"

To satisfy her he took the book and skimmed over figures rapidly.

"You've been a good girl."

"So glad you think so."

Osborn smoked on quietly, but his thoughts were turbulent. She was
giving him strange qualms, and he could not quite understand her
direction. That something worked in her head he guessed, but,
unwilling to hear of it, he asked no questions. It was very
comfortable by the fire, and when he pitched the account-books away
from her and took her hand again, she let it lie in his.

He pressed it.

"Well?" he whispered with a meaning look, wanting response.

It seemed as if she had none to give, kind and sweet as she was to
him.

"I'm forgetting," he said in a few minutes, leaning forward to knock
out his pipe, "that I've a job to do for you. I'll see to that
bedstead now, shall I?"

"Why?" she said coldly. "It is all ready made up for you in the
dressing-room. What do you want to do?"

He stared, bewildered.

"I'm not going to sleep there."

"Aren't you? Then I will."

He began to see dimly the meaning of her mood; but he was stumbling
about in darkness to find her reasons for it. What reasons could she
have for so extraordinary a reply?

"My dear good girl," he cried sharply, "explain yourself."

"I don't know how to, exactly. But I have liked having my room to
myself. I wish to keep it."

"You've got some nonsense into your head - "

"It isn't nonsense. It's just fact. I've been without a husband for a
year and I've found it wonderfully restful. I can be without him some
more."

"Have you any idea of the rubbish you're talking?"

She looked at him curiously, unaffected by his authoritative tone,
and, seeing her disaffection, he felt uncomfortably at a loss, since
his authority had failed him. He was dumbfounded; angry and stricken
at once; he had not the least idea now what tone to take.

He dropped suddenly to persuasion.

"Look here, my dear girl, tell me what you're thinking of. You know
I'm only too anxious to respect your feelings and wishes; I don't
think I've ever violated them to the least extent, have I? If I have,
it was unknowingly. You women have such queer moods. What is it?
Perhaps you're unwell and nervy, though you look all right. Anyway,
come here and tell me all about it."

To avoid his encircling arm she rose. She laid one arm along the
mantelpiece, and put one foot on the fender as if to be warmed; the
attitude struck him as exceedingly negligent, and when she began to
speak it was in no sense as an argument, but as a statement of facts
long ago cut-and-dried for storage in her mind.

"I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. But I don't want you. I couldn't bear
you in my room."

She had got it out, and he was saying nothing, only sitting forward,
hands on knees, looking up at her, horror, anger and disbelief in his
face.

She went on: "It'll be no good arguing. I've suffered and suffered,
and had it all out with myself, and it's over. But I'll tell you
everything, putting it plainly, because I'd like you to understand - if
men ever do trouble to understand. Look at me!"

"I'm looking."

"Then you see I've changed. You thought so when you came in. I'm young
again; I've rested and got my complexion back. My hair's nice; I get
time for regular shampoos now. I spend a lot of my time on myself.
It's lovely. And my teeth, have you noticed them?"

She set them together and opened her lips to show him all the gleamy
whiteness between.

"I spent ten pounds on them, having them filled and cleaned and
polished; I go regularly to the dentist now. And my hands, have you
noticed them?"

Osborn met her question by a dead silence.

"They're as they used to be again. And I've done it all in this year
you've been away. And there's another thing - it occurred to me the
other day when I was wondering what really made all the
difference - there's not been a cross word or a grumble in this flat
for twelve months. That's happiness. Heavens! That keeps women young!"

She stopped and thought, and continued slowly:

"Marriage is funny. It's a thing men can't bear unless it's gilded.
And they vent their intolerance. Do you know that before you went
away - for four years - I scarcely ever expected you to say loving or
civil things. Before you went out in the mornings you shouted for the
breakfast, and I was hurrying all I could; and you grumbled if the
children made a noise. And when you came in, if dinner wasn't ready or
right, you grumbled at that again. And in the week-ends the kids dared
hardly play, and I was buffer all the time between you and them. It's
just what happens in thousands of homes, of course."

"This exaggeration - "

"Ah, it isn't. It sounds bad, but it isn't so very. It's rather
ordinary. And, Osborn, do you remember when I had to ask you for
money - ?"

She looked at him freezingly. "Do you think a woman who's been begged
and cajoled and petted into marrying a man enjoys creeping and
crawling to him for odd shillings for household expenses? Do men think
we enjoy it or do it wilfully, that they grudge it so? We can't help
it."

"Where's all this harangue - "

"There's more to it yet. Do you know when you told me you were going
away at once for a year, I thought I was broken? I loved you so. It
seemed awful to see the gladness and relief in your face at leaving
us, getting rid of us for a whole year! I'd been watching you for so
long, and seeing you change, and get irritated with it all, and trying
to keep young for you when I was tired out. And that night, when I saw
how I'd failed, how dead your love was - "

"No; it was never dead, Marie."

"Wasn't it? Was it sleeping, then? Where was it? What was it doing?"

"You see - "

"Oh, yes, I see. I saw, then, how joyfully you shelved us all. You
were like a boy let out of school. And I'd worked so hard to keep home
happy for you, but you just thought of it as a place of bills and
worry and children, presided over by a perpetual asker. That night
before you went, do you remember leaving me to mend your things?"

"Yes."

"When you had gone, I cried, and prayed; it didn't do any good. I
didn't know women could suffer so - even when the children were born - "

Osborn sprang up. "Don't," he said hurriedly, with visions of anguish
in his mind.

"Very well. I don't want to harrow you. I'm only just giving the
explanation you asked. A year ago you left me, glad to go, and I
thought my heart would break. But it didn't. And it's changed. You've
come back - to exact again all the things that husbands do exact. But I
don't want you."

She had appalled him.

He stammered hoarsely: "I don't understand - I can't see what you want
us to do."

"Well; to live - apart."

"You can't mean it."

"But I do. How often am I to say, I don't want you? The last part of
this year, after the pain was over, I've been as glad to be without
you as during the first part of the year you were glad to be without
me. Isn't that plain?"

"You're making it horribly plain. And now I'm going to ask you, could
I help being poor and short of cash?"

She shook her head. "No! But I couldn't either, and you were awfully
down on me."

"'Down' on you! _I!_"

"You grumbled persistently every day. The kiddies and I just waited
upon your moods. And if I had to ask for anything, you weren't kind
about it; you just flung out of the place, leaving me all the worries.
You never helped nor shared. I've come to this conclusion lately; that
it simply isn't worth while living with a person who grumbles
persistently and has to be propitiated every day."

He reflected deeply, his hands in his trousers pockets.

"I think I'm taking all this sermon peaceably enough," he barked
savagely.

Again he had that disaffected look from her; she seemed to analyse him
coldly.

"It isn't a sermon. Go on grumbling and nagging and grudging every
day, if you want to. I haven't asked you to refrain. I've merely
explained that, as a result of your husbandly behaviour, you've ceased
to attract me, and I don't want to live with you - intimately - again."

He caught her arm. "Look here! I know. You've been to some of these
beastly Suffragette meetings."

She laughed scornfully.

"Suffragette! Don't be an ass, dear!"

"No," he said under his breath, regarding her, "you haven't. Hanged if
I know what you have been doing."

"I told you. Getting my youth back. Do you know what a very pretty
young girl feels like? Did you know what I used to feel like when you
were engaged to me? Like a queen with a crowd of courtiers at her
orders and you the most courtier-like of them all! You used to hang on
every word I said and promise me heaven and earth, and my every look
was law. Oh! the power a pretty young girl feels in herself!"

Standing on tiptoe she looked into the glass, touched her fluffs of
hair and the purple earrings with tender finger-tips.

"I've got it back," she said with a thrill. "I feel it flowing back;
the power one has through being pretty and magnetic. If a woman's
tired out she can't be magnetic. But I've got it all again - and more.
I wonder if a man can ever understand the pleasure of having it? It's
coming to me again just as I had it fresh and unconquered in those
dear old days when you were at my feet."

He spoke in a sort of beaten amazement. "If you want me again at your
feet - "

"Thank you, I don't. I'll never pay the price again. Never! Never!"

"Then whom do you want? Do you mean there's anyone else? By God! if
there is - "

As she saw his fury she could laugh. "There isn't."

"Let's sit down again," he said more quietly; "this isn't threshed out
yet."

"If more discussion gives you any pleasure I'll discuss. But what I
said I meant. I'm not glad to see you; I'm sorry. You mean the
breaking-up of household peace for me again. Men would be surprised,
if they knew how many wives are glad to see their husbands go."

"Take care you don't drive me into going for good. Your way of
treating a man is pretty dangerous."

"I'm sorry," she replied with a convincing gentleness, "that I
shouldn't care if you did go. I'd have the children."

"Do you mean they've been more to you than I have?"

"What haven't they been to me?" Her face was soft. "You can't
think - you've never troubled to know - how kind children are."

"Once I was first with you."

She quoted with irreverent glee: "'And they that were first shall be
last.'"

"You can laugh?"

"Thank God I can, at last."

"Supposing I did go - right now?"

She shrugged her shoulders slightly and the mauve shoulder straps
again arrested him. She did not speak; but without her answer,
whatever it would have been, he knew that he could not leave her; that
he must always come back at last, longing for her arms.

Ten o'clock struck, and she looked up thoughtfully at the wedding-gift
timepiece.

"I'm going to bed," she said. "Good night."

A dark rush of colour flooded his face. "You really mean - "

She nodded.

"Then," he almost whispered, "exactly how do we stand?"

"I'll keep house for you very capably and look after our children. You
can leave me if you like, you know."

"God!" he groaned. "What are women made of?"

"Ordinary flesh and blood that gets tired and wants loving. Have you
only just remembered to inquire?"

He ran after her along the corridor as she went swiftly to her room.

"Marie!" he prayed. "Relent! Marie, it'll be all so different now.
I've all this money; you could have what you wanted."

"I know it'll be different. But, you see, you've done something to me;
you've killed all the love I had for you, drained it dry somehow.
There's none left. I just - I just - don't want you."

She left his hands and gained her door, leaving him standing; he could
have followed her forcibly, but it would have been violation. He felt
it and was frightened. Through his anger there broke this fear, the
fear of further offending her. When she turned to ask naturally,
"You'll turn out the lights?" he just nodded. His mouth was very dry.
He wheeled round abruptly, returning to the warm room they had just
left.

The whole room seemed to bear her impress; the faintest perfume,
almost too delicate to be definite scent, hung there; on the bureau
the little stocking she was knitting adhered to the ball of wool,
pierced thereto by the long needles. It looked homely, but it was not
home. Something had happened, devastating home. He sat for awhile in a
sunk posture of dejection, his head in his hands and his elbows on his
knees.

"She'll come round," he assured himself presently.

Sentences isolated themselves from her burning speech and struck in
his brain ... "if I had to ask for anything, you weren't kind about it;
you just flung out of the place, leaving me all the worries. You never
helped nor shared." ... "A year ago you left me, glad to go, and I
thought my heart would break." ... "But I don't want you." ...

"If she knew," he thought restlessly, with Roselle in his mind, "it'd
be different. I'd understand what's piqued her. But, as far as she
knows, she's been no worse off than other men's wives."

Her joy over her restored teeth and hands surprised him; it seemed so
freshly childish. "I'll own it's hard on women," he thought, "but what
could I have done? What did she expect me to do?"

He was quivering, soft, vulnerable.

"Did I really mean - just that - to her and the kids? Just somebody
coming in to grump and grumble...."

The fire died down while he sat there, but what matter? She was not
lying awake for him. When the desire came to him to make one last
appeal, he checked it.

"No," he told himself cautiously, "give her time - lots of it. She'll
come round."

He began to rake out the ashes suddenly and methodically, to switch


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