[March 5th 2007]
Maisie was afraid no more.
"I shan't!" she said, settling herself on the arm of the chair.
"You belong now, Dickie, and I've come up all these stairs, and—and—and—..." Here the tears began, with unromantic snivelling and mopping of the cheeks. He was trembling under the touch of her hand on his shoulder, but his face was turned away from her.
"Dick, you aren't going to be selfish, now I've come back? I'm so sorry! Oh, I'm so sorry!"
"I knew that was all. Won't you leave me alone? I shall have to suffer for this afterwards."
"You won't!" She bent down and whispered in his ear. When the fountains of the great deep are broken up, there follow rain and miracles. "Yes, I do," she said, flushing crimson. "My darling, I do. I don't care; you can sulk as much as you like and I won't be angry. I've been a villain, —a wicked little villain. Shall I go down on my knees and tell you so? Don't be stupid, Dickie. It's no use pretending. You know you care for me."
"I do! God knows I do!"
"What nonsense, then, pretending to be selfish!" The voice grew unsteady. "Do you remember the Dover boat? Take that, then, and be sensible. Oh, help me, Dick!" she whispered. "I can't make love all by myself." The unspoken argument clinched all, and Maisie was in Dick's arms, crying as though her heart would burst.
"Hush, dear. Hush. What's the use of worrying? It's all right now," said Dick, stroking the head on his shoulder.
"We did belong, Dick, didn't we? It was my fault—all my fault," Maisie whimpered, her face hidden.
"I like that fault. Be more faultsome."
"'Course you did." She laughed through her tears. "I—I had to do all the—all the love making. It was horrible!"
"It was only me: what did it matter? If it had been a strange man you might have objected. And then, again, you took me on my blind side."
"That is an ugly word, and you aren't going to use it any more."
"But it's true, dear. I'd give everything, except you, to see your face again. But I'm blind." Maisie thought for a minute till Love gave her pure reason. "That's nonsense too. Listen, stupid. You said ten years were nothing. And they weren't. We belonged just the same. Now do you remember out on the flats with the pistol, when my hair got into your eyes?" Dick caught the click of hairpins, and Maisie's long locks fell about his face. "You couldn't see now if you tried ever so. Let's pretend it's only my wig in your eyes for just a little longer,—for fifty or sixty years. Fifty's five times less important than ten. Can't you see that, darling?" She shook her head to increase both the darkness and the understanding. "I see", said Dick, very contentedly. "Oh, it's good to have you back again, Maisie!"
"It's gooder to be back, bad boy."
And they argued that point gravely, with interruptions; and they discussed ways and means, also with interruptions, and they took no account of time, till Maisie said, "I haven't any clothes. I haven't eaten anything for years. I haven't anywhere to live except in the little house, and the caretaker there will be out, and I must go and be a party."
"What's that, dear?"
"There was a man once," said Maisie, a hair-pin between her teeth, who was always trying to drag me to a registrar's office to be married. He told me that one or other of the parties must always give a notice to the registrar. I shall buy a thick veil and be that party. Isn't it nice to know we've only ourselves to think of?" "I remember that man," said Dick. "I feel that I ought to be the party."
"Never mind. Afterwards you shall beat me. I think it would do me good. I wants to be beated ... Oh, Dick, I've been such a bad, double-bad villain! A villain with a melancholia."
"By Jove, that reminds me of something I'd completely forgotten. I did a melancolia before I went—"
"Ah! No! Not that word!"
"Began to see, then. She's up in a corner somewhere, and I thought a good deal of her at one time. What do you think?"
The voice was the voice of the man who had told her the tale of his doings, in the Park, what time he looked to kick the world before him.
"Is it the veiled canvas on the easel?" asked Maisie. "Yes. Well—?'
She was looking at a formless scarred blur of paint. Somebody had used the palette-knife with deadly skill. It was a cruel, wicked wrong, and she could not understand it; but for Dick's sake she must make no sign. Her eyes were very dim, and her voice choked with the hard-held tears, as she made answer, still gazing on the wreck,
"Oh, Dick, it is good!"
Dick heard the sob and took it for tribute. "I thought you'd like it," he said, smiling at her across the room; and she would have given the world to cry, but she came back to his arms instead, to bid him good-by for a little while.
"Dick," she said when the long farewell was ended, "do not imagine when a woman loves a man that she cares for his work' She loves him for himself—self—self. Now I must fly; and—please may I sing on the staircase going down?"
There was very little thought of song in Maisie's heart when she went out, unless it were the old rhyme, "Lord ha' mercy on me, this is none of l!" She wanted to sit down and be quiet—very quiet—in her half-dismantled house. Torpenhow did not appear and the staircases were empty of life.
"That's nice of him," said Maisie, and fled in a cab to astonish the caretaker across the Park.
"Hullo!" said Torpenhow, entering the studio after Dick had enjoyed two blissful hours of thought. "I'm back. Are you feeling any better?"
"Torp, I don't know what to say! Come here." Dick coughed huskily.
"What's the need for saying anything? Get up and tramp." They walked up and down as of custom, Torpenhow's hand on Dick's shoulder.
"How in the world did you find it all out?" said Dick, beaming.
"You shouldn't go off your head if you want to keep secret: Dickie. It was absolutely impertinent on my part, but if you'd seen me rocketing about on a half-trained French troop-horse under a blazing sun you'd have laughed. There's going to be a charivari in my rooms to-night, seven other devils—"
"I know, —the row in the Southern Soudan. I surprised their councils the other day, and it made me unhappy. Have you fixed your flint to go? Who d'you work for?"
"Haven't signed any contracts yet. I want to see how your business would turn out."
"Would you have stayed with me, then, if—things had gone wrong?"
"Don't ask me too much. I'm only a man." "You've tried to be an angel very successfully." "Oh, ye-es! Well, do you attend the function to-night? We shall be half-screwed before the morning. All the men believe the war's a certainty."
"Of course I'll come. I haven't turned my back on the old life yet."
That night there was tumult on the stairs. The correspondents poured in from theatre, dinner and music-hall to Torpenhow's room that they might discuss their plan of campaign in the event of military operations being a certainty. Torpenhow, the Keneu, and the Nilghai had bidden all the men they had worked with to the orgy, and Mr. Beeton, the housekeeper, declared that never before in his checkered experience had he seen quite such a fancy lot of gentlemen. They waked the chambers with shoutings and song; and the elder men were quite as bad as the younger. For the chances of war were in front of them, and all knew what those meant.
When the clamor was at its height, Dick entered with his great happiness upon his face. The room was heavy with tobacco-smoke and the fume of strong drinks, and the men were settled in unpicturesque attitudes on chair, sofa, and table. There was a general shout.
"Poor second-hand gladiators!" he said, with pretended scorn. "You only exist to describe who will die out there. Half of you will be dead this time next year. The Soudan kills specials."
"Ave Imperator! te morituri, salutant," said the Keneu. "Get into a chair, and don't moralize. The public wants us as much as we want you."
"By the way, what does the dear public say about me?"
"One paper said six weeks ago that it deeply regretted to hear you weren't quite well. The rest have forgotten by this time," said the Nilghai.
"Sweet creatures! They naturally would. Give me a drink." And by the instinct of association he began to hum the terrible Battle Hymn of the Republic. Man after man caught it up —it was a tune they knew well, till the windows shook to the clang, the Nilghai's deep voice leading:
"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword.
His truth is marching on."
"How does the next verse go?" said the Keneu. And they swept off again, beating time on the table.
"He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to meet him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on."
Then Cassavetti, very proud of his knowledge -"In the beauty of the lilies—"
"Hold on," said Torpenhow. "We've nothing to do with that. It belongs to another man."
"No," said Dick to himself under his breath, "the other man belongs."