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We find Agnes Barlow again walking in Summerfield; but this time she is hurrying along the straight, unlovely cinder-strewn path which forms a short cut from the back of The Haven to Summerfield station; and the still, heavy Calm of a late November afternoon broods over the rough ground on either side of her.
It is nearly six months since Teresa Maldo's elopement and subsequent suicide, and now no one ever speaks of poor Teresa, no one seems to remember that she ever lived, excepting, perhaps, Father Ferguson. . . .
As for Agnes herself, life had crowded far too many happenings into the last few weeks for her to give more than a passing thought to Teresa; indeed, the image of her dead friend rose before her only when she was saying her | | 205 prayers. And as Agnes, strange to say, had grown rather careless as to her prayers, the memory of Teresa Maldo was now very faint indeed.
An awful, and to her an incredible, thing had happened to Agnes Barlow. The roof of her snug and happy House of Life had fallen in, and she lay, blinded and maimed, beneath the fragments which had been hurled down on her in one terrible moment.
Yes, it had all happened in a moment—so she now reminded herself, with the dull ache which never left her.
It was just after she had come back from Westgate with little Francis. The child had been ailing for the first time in his life, and she had taken him to the seaside for six weeks.
There, in a day, it had turned from summer to winter, raining as it only rains at the seaside; and suddenly Agnes had made up her mind to go back to her own nice, comfortable home a whole week before Frank expected her back.
Agnes sometimes acted like that—on a quick impulse; she did so to her own undoing on that dull, rainy day.
When she reached Summerfield, it was to find her telegram to her husband lying unopened on the hall table of The Haven. | | 206 Frank, it seemed, had slept in town the night before. Not that that mattered, so she told herself gleefully, full of the pleasant joy of being again in her own home; the surprise would be the greater and the more welcome when Frank did come back.
Having nothing better to do that first afternoon, Agnes had gone up to her husband's dressing-room in order to look over his summer clothes before sending them to the cleaner. In her careful, playing-at-housewifely fashion, she had turned out the pockets of his cricketing coat. There, a little to her surprise, she had found three letters, and idle curiosity as to Frank's invitations during her long stay away—Frank was deservedly popular with the ladies of Summerfield and, indeed, with all women—caused her to take the three letters out of their envelopes.
In a moment—how terrible that it should take but a moment to shatter the fabric of a human being's innocent House of Life!—Agnes had seen what had happened to her—to him. For each of these letters, written in the same sloping woman's hand, was a love letter signed "Janey"; and in each the writer, in a plaintive, delicate, but insistent and reproachful way, asked Frank for money.
Even now, though nearly seven weeks had | | 207 gone by since then, Agnes could recall with painful vividness the sick, cold feeling that had come over her—a feeling of fear rather than anger, of fear and desperate humiliation.
Locking the door of the dressing-room, she had searched eagerly—a dishonourable thing to do, as she knew well. And soon she had found other letters—letters and bills; bills of meals at restaurants, showing that her husband and a companion had constantly dined and supped at the Savoy, the Carlton, and Prince's. To those restaurants where he had taken her, Agnes, two or three times a year, laughing and grumbling at the expense, he had taken this—this person again and again in the short time his wife had been away.
As to the further letters, all they proved was that Frank had first met "Janey Cartwright" over some law business of hers, connected—even Agnes saw the irony of it—in some shameful way with another man; for, tied together, were a few notes signed with the writer's full name, of which the first began:
Forgive me for writing to your private address [etc., etc.].
The ten days that followed her discovery had seared Agnes's soul. Frank had been so | | 208 dreadfully affectionate. He had pretended—she felt sure it was all pretence—to be so glad to see her again, though sometimes she caught him looking at her with cowed, miserable eyes.
More than once he had asked her solicitously if she felt ill, and she had said yes, she did feel ill, and the time at the seaside had not done her any good.
And then, on the last of those terrible ten days, Gerald Ferrier had come down to Summerfield, and both she and Frank had pressed him to stay on to dinner. He had done so, though aware that something was wrong, and he had been extraordinarily kind, sympathetic, unquestioning. But as he was leaving he had said a word to his host: "I feel worried about Mrs. Barlow"—Agnes had heard him through the window. "She doesn't look the thing, somehow! How would it be if I asked her to go with me to a private view? It might cheer her up, and perhaps she would lunch with me afterwards?" Frank had eagerly assented.
Since then Agnes had gone up to London, if not every day, very nearly every day, and Mr. Ferrier had done his best, without much success, to "cheer her up."
Though they soon became more intimate than they had ever been, Agnes never told Ferrier what it was that had turned her from | | 209 a happy, unquestioning child into a miserable woman; but, of course, he guessed.
And gradually Frank also had come to know that she knew, and, man-like, he spent less and less time in his now uncomfortable home. He would go away in the morning an hour earlier than usual, and then, under pretext of business keeping him late at the office, he would come back after having dined, doubtless with "Janey," in town.
Soon Agnes began to draw a terrible comparison between these two men—between the husband who had all she had of heart, and the friend whom she now acknowledged to herself—for hypocrisy had fallen away from her—had lived only for her, and for the hours they were able to spend together, during two long years, and yet who had never told her of his love, or tried to disturb her trust in Frank.
Yes, Gerald Ferrier was all that was noble—Frank Barlow all that was ignoble. So she told herself with trembling lip a dozen times a day, taking fierce comfort in the knowledge that Ferrier was noble. But she was destined even to lose that comfort; for one day, a week before the day when we find her walking to Summerfield station, Ferrier's nobility, or what poor Agnes took to be such, suddenly broke down.| | 210
They had been walking together in Battersea Park, and, after one of those long silences which bespeak true intimacy between a man and a woman, he had asked her if she would come back to his rooms—for tea.
She had shaken her head smilingly. And then he had turned on her with a torrent of impetuous, burning words—words of ardent love, of anguished longing, of eager pleading. And Agnes had been frightened, fascinated, allured.
And that had not been all.
More quietly he had gone on to speak as if the code of morality in which his friend had been bred, and which had hitherto so entirely satisfied her, was, after all, nothing but a narrow counsel of perfection, suited to those who were sheltered and happy, but wretchedly inadequate to meet the needs of the greater number of human beings who are, as Agnes now was, humiliated and miserable. His words had found an echo in her sore heart, but she had not let him see how much they moved her. On the contrary, she had rebuked him, and for the first time they had quarrelled.
"If you ever speak to me like that again," she had said coldly, "I will not come again."
And once more he had turned on her | | 211 violently. "I think you had better not come again! I am but a man after all!"
They parted enemies; but the same night Ferrier wrote Agnes a very piteous letter asking pardon on his knees for having spoken as he had done. And his letter moved her to the heart. Her own deep misery—never for one moment did she forget Frank, and Frank's treachery—made her understand the torment that Ferrier was going through.
For the first time she realized, what so few of her kind ever realize, that it is a mean thing to take everything and give nothing in exchange. And gradually, as her long, solitary hours wore themselves away, Agnes came to believe that if she did what she now knew Ferrier desired her to do,—if, casting the past behind her, she started a new life with him—she would not only be doing a generous thing by the man who had loved her silently and faithfully for so long, but she would also be punishing Frank—hurting him in his honour, as he had hurt her in hers.
And then the stars that fight in their courses for those lovers who are also poets fought for Ferrier.
The day after they had quarrelled and he had written her his piteous letter of remorse, Gerald Ferrier fell ill. But he was not too ill | | 212 to write. And after he had been ill four days, and when Agnes was feeling very, very miserable, he wrote and told her of a wonderful vision which had been vouchsafed to him.
In this vision Ferrier had seen Agnes knocking at the narrow front door of the lonely flat where he lived solitary; and through the door had slipped in his angelic visitant, by her mere presence bringing him peace, health, and the happiness he was schooling himself to believe must never come to him through her.
The post which brought her the letter in which Ferrier told his vision brought also to Agnes Barlow a little registered parcel containing a pearl-and-diamond pendant from Frank.
For a few moments the two lay on her knee. Then she took up the jewel and looked at it curiously. Was it with such a thing as this that her husband thought to purchase her forgiveness?
If Ferrier's letter had never been written, if Frank's gift had never been despatched, it may be doubted whether Agnes would have done what we now find her doing—hastening, that is, on her way to make Ferrier's dream come true.
At last she reached the little suburban station of Summerfield.| | 213
One of her father's many kindnesses to her each year was the gift of a season ticket to town; but to-day some queer instinct made her buy a ticket at the booking-office instead.
The booking-clerk peered out at her, surprised; then made up his mind that pretty Mrs. Barlow—she wore to-day a curiously thick veil—had a friend with her. But his long, ruminating stare made her shrink and flush.Was it possible that what she was about to do was written on her face?
She was glad indeed when the train steamed into the station. She got into an empty carriage, for the rush that goes on each evening Londonward from the suburbs had not yet begun.
And then, to her surprise, she found that it was the thought of her husband, not of the man to whom she was going to give herself, that filled her sad, embittered heart.
Old memories—memories connected with Frank, his love for her, her love for him—became insistent. She lived again, while tears forced themselves into her closed eyes, through the culminating moment of her marriage day, the start for the honeymoon,—a start made amid a crowd of laughing, cheering friends, from the little station she had just left.
She remembered the delicious tremor which he remembered the delicious tremor which | | 214 had come over her when she had found herself at last alone, really alone, with her three-hour-old bridegroom.
How infinitely kind and tender Frank had been to her!
And then Agnes reminded herself, with tightening breath, that men like Frank Barlow are always kind—too kind—to women.
Other journeys she and Frank had taken together came and mocked her, and especially the journey which had followed a month after little Francis's birth.
Frank had driven with her, the nurse, and the baby, to the station—but only to see them off. He had had a very important case in the Courts just then, and it was out of the question that he should go with his wife to Littlehampton for the change of air, the few weeks by the sea, that had been ordered by her good, careful doctor.
And then at the last moment Frank had suddenly jumped into the railway carriage without a ticket, and had gone along with her part of the way! She remembered the surprise of the monthly nurse, the woman's prim remark, when he had at last got out at Horsham, that Mr. Barlow was certainly the kindest husband she, the nurse, had ever seen.| | 215
But these memories, now so desecrated, did not make her give up her purpose. Far from it, for in a queer way they made her think more tenderly of Gerald Ferrier, whose life had been so lonely, and who had known nothing of the simpler human sanctities and joys, and who had never—so he had told her with a kind of bitter scorn of himself—been loved by any woman whom he himself could love.
In her ears there sounded Ferrier's quick, hoarsely uttered words: "D'you think I should ever have said a word to you of all this—if you had gone on being happy? D'you think I'd ask you to come to me if I thought you had any chance of being happy with him—now?"
And she knew in her soul that he had spoken truly. Ferrier would never have tried to disturb her happiness with Frank; he had never so tried during those two years when they had seen so much of each other, and when Agnes had known, deep down in her heart, that he loved her, though it had suited her conscience to pretend that his love was only "friendship."
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