He was bewildered. He had nothing to say. He was not even angry, but stood, with a glass of whiskey between his hands, trying to think what had led her to such a conclusion.
She had chosen the moment before bed, when, in accordance with their bourgeois habit, she always dispensed drinks to the men. Freddy and Mr. Floyd were sure to retire with their glasses, while Cecil invariably lingered, sipping at his while she locked up the sideboard.
“I am very sorry about it,” she said; “I have carefully thought things over. We are too different. I must ask you to release me, and try to forget that there ever was such a foolish girl.”
It was a suitable speech, but she was more angry than sorry, and her voice showed it.
“I haven’t had a really good education, for one thing,” she continued, still on her knees by the sideboard. “My Italian trip came too late, and I am forgetting all that I learnt there. I shall never be able to talk to your friends, or behave as a wife of yours should.”
“I don’t understand you. You aren’t like yourself. You’re tired, Lucy.”
“Tired!” she retorted, kindling at once. “That is exactly like you. You always think women don’t mean what they say.”
“Well, you sound tired, as if something has worried you.”
“What if I do? It doesn’t prevent me from realizing the truth. I can’t marry you, and you will thank me for saying so some day.”
“You had that bad headache yesterday—All right”—for she had exclaimed indignantly: “I see it’s much more than headaches. But give me a moment’s time.” He closed his eyes. “You must excuse me if I say stupid things, but my brain has gone to pieces. Part of it lives three minutes back, when I was sure that you loved me, and the other part—I find it difficult—I am likely to say the wrong thing.”
It struck her that he was not behaving so badly, and her irritation increased. She again desired a struggle, not a discussion. To bring on the crisis, she said:
“There are days when one sees clearly, and this is one of them. Things must come to a breaking-point some time, and it happens to be to-day. If you want to know, quite a little thing decided me to speak to you—when you wouldn’t play tennis with Freddy.”
“I never do play tennis,” said Cecil, painfully bewildered; “I never could play. I don’t understand a word you say.”
“You can play well enough to make up a four. I thought it abominably selfish of you.”
“No, I can’t—well, never mind the tennis. Why couldn’t you—couldn’t you have warned me if you felt anything wrong? You talked of our wedding at lunch—at least, you let me talk.”
“I knew you wouldn’t understand,” said Lucy quite crossly. “I might have known there would have been these dreadful explanations. Of course, it isn’t the tennis—that was only the last straw to all I have been feeling for weeks. Surely it was better not to speak until I felt certain.” She developed this position. “Often before I have wondered if I was fitted for your wife—for instance, in London; and are you fitted to be my husband? I don’t think so. You don’t like Freddy, nor my mother. There was always a lot against our engagement, Cecil, but all our relations seemed pleased, and we met so often, and it was no good mentioning it until—well, until all things came to a point. They have to-day. I see clearly. I must speak. That’s all.”
“I cannot think you were right,” said Cecil gently. “I cannot tell why, but though all that you say sounds true, I feel that you are not treating me fairly. It’s all too horrible.”
“What’s the good of a scene?”
“No good. But surely I have a right to hear a little more.”
He put down his glass and opened the window. From where she knelt, jangling her keys, she could see a slit of darkness, and, peering into it, as if it would tell him that “little more,” his long, thoughtful face.
“Don’t open the window; and you’d better draw the curtain, too; Freddy or any one might be outside.” He obeyed. “I really think we had better go to bed, if you don’t mind. I shall only say things that will make me unhappy afterwards. As you say it is all too horrible, and it is no good talking.”
But to Cecil, now that he was about to lose her, she seemed each moment more desirable. He looked at her, instead of through her, for the first time since they were engaged. From a Leonardo she had become a living woman, with mysteries and forces of her own, with qualities that even eluded art. His brain recovered from the shock, and, in a burst of genuine devotion, he cried: “But I love you, and I did think you loved me!”
“I did not,” she said. “I thought I did at first. I am sorry, and ought to have refused you this last time, too.”
He began to walk up and down the room, and she grew more and more vexed at his dignified behaviour. She had counted on his being petty. It would have made things easier for her. By a cruel irony she was drawing out all that was finest in his disposition.
“You don’t love me, evidently. I dare say you are right not to. But it would hurt a little less if I knew why.”
“Because”—a phrase came to her, and she accepted it—”you’re the sort who can’t know any one intimately.”
A horrified look came into his eyes.
“I don’t mean exactly that. But you will question me, though I beg you not to, and I must say something. It is that, more or less. When we were only acquaintances, you let me be myself, but now you’re always protecting me.” Her voice swelled. “I won’t be protected. I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right. To shield me is an insult. Can’t I be trusted to face the truth but I must get it second-hand through you? A woman’s place! You despise my mother—I know you do—because she’s conventional and bothers over puddings; but, oh goodness!”—she rose to her feet—”conventional, Cecil, you’re that, for you may understand beautiful things, but you don’t know how to use them; and you wrap yourself up in art and books and music, and would try to wrap up me. I won’t be stifled, not by the most glorious music, for people are more glorious, and you hide them from me. That’s why I break off my engagement. You were all right as long as you kept to things, but when you came to people—” She stopped.
There was a pause. Then Cecil said with great emotion:
“It is true.”
“True on the whole,” she corrected, full of some vague shame.
“True, every word. It is a revelation. It is—I.”
“Anyhow, those are my reasons for not being your wife.”
He repeated: “‘The sort that can know no one intimately.’ It is true. I fell to pieces the very first day we were engaged. I behaved like a cad to Beebe and to your brother. You are even greater than I thought.” She withdrew a step. “I’m not going to worry you. You are far too good to me. I shall never forget your insight; and, dear, I only blame you for this: you might have warned me in the early stages, before you felt you wouldn’t marry me, and so have given me a chance to improve. I have never known you till this evening. I have just used you as a peg for my silly notions of what a woman should be. But this evening you are a different person: new thoughts—even a new voice—”
“What do you mean by a new voice?” she asked, seized with incontrollable anger.
“I mean that a new person seems speaking through you,” said he.
Then she lost her balance. She cried: “If you think I am in love with some one else, you are very much mistaken.”
“Of course I don’t think that. You are not that kind, Lucy.”
“Oh, yes, you do think it. It’s your old idea, the idea that has kept Europe back—I mean the idea that women are always thinking of men. If a girl breaks off her engagement, every one says: ‘Oh, she had some one else in her mind; she hopes to get some one else.’ It’s disgusting, brutal! As if a girl can’t break it off for the sake of freedom.”
He answered reverently: “I may have said that in the past. I shall never say it again. You have taught me better.”
She began to redden, and pretended to examine the windows again. “Of course, there is no question of ‘some one else’ in this, no ‘jilting’ or any such nauseous stupidity. I beg your pardon most humbly if my words suggested that there was. I only meant that there was a force in you that I hadn’t known of up till now.”
“All right, Cecil, that will do. Don’t apologize to me. It was my mistake.”
“It is a question between ideals, yours and mine—pure abstract ideals, and yours are the nobler. I was bound up in the old vicious notions, and all the time you were splendid and new.” His voice broke. “I must actually thank you for what you have done—for showing me what I really am. Solemnly, I thank you for showing me a true woman. Will you shake hands?”
“Of course I will,” said Lucy, twisting up her other hand in the curtains. “Good-night, Cecil. Good-bye. That’s all right. I’m sorry about it. Thank you very much for your gentleness.”
“Let me light your candle, shall I?”
They went into the hall.
“Thank you. Good-night again. God bless you, Lucy!”
She watched him steal up-stairs, while the shadows from three banisters passed over her face like the beat of wings. On the landing he paused strong in his renunciation, and gave her a look of memorable beauty. For all his culture, Cecil was an ascetic at heart, and nothing in his love became him like the leaving of it.
She could never marry. In the tumult of her soul, that stood firm. Cecil believed in her; she must some day believe in herself. She must be one of the women whom she had praised so eloquently, who care for liberty and not for men; she must forget that George loved her, that George had been thinking through her and gained her this honourable release, that George had gone away into—what was it?—the darkness.
She put out the lamp.
It did not do to think, nor, for the matter of that to feel. She gave up trying to understand herself, and the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words. The armies are full of pleasant and pious folk. But they have yielded to the only enemy that matters—the enemy within. They have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their strife after virtue. As the years pass, they are censured. Their pleasantry and their piety show cracks, their wit becomes cynicism, their unselfishness hypocrisy; they feel and produce discomfort wherever they go. They have sinned against Eros and against Pallas Athene, and not by any heavenly intervention, but by the ordinary course of nature, those allied deities will be avenged.
Lucy entered this army when she pretended to George that she did not love him, and pretended to Cecil that she loved no one. The night received her, as it had received Miss Bartlett thirty years before.