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Our Library => Howard Sturgis - Belchamber (1904) => Topic started by: Admin on December 16, 2022, 08:51:03 am

Title: Chapter Twenty-seven
Post by: Admin on December 16, 2022, 08:51:03 am
"MY little boy, my poor little boy! You were conceived in sin, and your birth was a lie. Your father never owned you, your mother never loved you. It was left to me, who should have hated you, to tend and cherish you. It was little enough that I could do for you, but God only knows what you have been to me. It was no fault of yours, my baby, but my misdoing, that would have made your innocent existence an injury to others. I might have known that you could do no harm, that you would go away before your life could wrong them."

Sainty was murmuring broken phrases, his face bowed upon the face of the dead child. The tiny coffin, almost like a toy, was supported on two chairs facing each other, and on a third chair beside it he had sat almost continuously since the room had been put in order and the people turned out of it. His mother had said it was bad for him, but, with that single exception, there was luckily no one who cared enough to try and take him away, and so he had remained, hour after hour, steeped in the great quiet that surrounded that little figure.

The pale, diffused daylight came sifted through the lowered blinds, giving an unreal look to common objects, turned suddenly useless, and ranged against the walls. Sainty himself had helped to order the room, and to deck it with flowers. He would allow no heavy fragrance of white, funereal blossoms, but all the greenhouses of Belchamber had been ransacked for the unseasonable roses of winter, and to this day the smell of roses brings back to him the little white waxen face, barred with its black-fringed lids, at which he gazed so long in those sacred hours of communing with the dead.

It was his first experience of death. His father had died when he was a mere baby, and both his grandfathers in his early childhood; since he had been able to reflect or remember, he had never lost a friend. It struck him as strange that he, who had tasted so many sorrows, should have had no experience of this, the supremest and commonest that man is called upon to bear. It was different from any other trouble he had ever known, deeper, more awful, more hopeless, yet somehow for that very reason more bearable too. There was no element of meanness in it, nothing petty or small. Such grief was large, calm, august, and above all very still; in presence of this perfect peace he could not strive nor cry. Shelley's words about the Niobe came back to him as he sat there, and he kept repeating them to himself, "Her tender and serene despair." Despair, then, was "tender and serene"; how true it was! He was not even very unhappy. The consciousness of the aching void in his life would come later; but, for the moment, the bitterness of parting was lost in the relief of seeing his darling free from the suffering it had been torture to watch and know himself powerless to allay. He understood why David had arisen and washed his face and taken food, when they told him that his child was dead.

The baby's hands were folded, and held a bunch of violets; and as he bent over them, laying his parched lips upon their marble coldness, the comforting promise seemed to steal down to the sources of his being, that at last, far off, after all the fever and the pain, this rest on which he looked was waiting for him, as for every one.

      *         *         *         *         *         *     

A discreet tap on the door jarred the silence like a drum-beat, and Sainty went across and opened it. A servant stood there wearing the decorous expression of those officially connected with mourning which is not a personal grief to them.

"Her ladyship has been inquiring for you, m'lord," the man said, "and the post has come. I have put your lordship's letters on your writing-table."

Sainty came out into the passage, and locked the door behind him, slipping the key into his pocket. "You can tell her ladyship she will find me in my study," he said; "or if she prefers, and will let me know, I will come to her."

He wondered what Cissy could have to say to him; he felt a sure foreboding that it would be nothing he should care to hear. What more was there for her to say to him henceforth, for ever?

He went to his study in the old western pavilion and sat down at his writing-table; it was heaped with a great pile of letters; the morning's mail had been added to those which, yesterday, he had had no heart to open. They would have to be gone through some time, he supposed; it was a task he could not well leave to his secretary. Why not attack them at once while he was feeling calmed and strengthened? He drew a few towards him and nerved himself for the ordeal of reading them. He thought he knew so well what they would contain, yet in the very first that he took up he found matter quite unexpected, which even at that moment arrested his attention.

"DEAR OLD SAINTY," he read: "I don't at all like the idea of intruding my happiness on your grief; but I equally don't want you to hear of it from any one but me, which you would be sure to do if I didn't write at once. And first let me just stop and tell you how awfully sorry I am for you and Cissy losing your little boy. I can't bear to think of you with your sensitive nature. The only thing to be said is that it was better than if he had been older, when you would have missed him so much more; you can't personally have seen very much of him at that age. But to come back to myself. I hope I am the first to tell you (as you are almost the first that I have told) of my engagement to Gemma de Lissac. You who know my Gemma, and the admirable woman to whom she owes so much, will realise without any words of mine what a lucky fellow I am. I need not say I am tremendously in love, and absurdly happy. Mr. de Lissac has been most awfully good about it, and very generous. Of course, a wretched pauper like me could never have married a girl who hadn't got something. For myself, as you know, my wants are few, but I couldn't have asked Gemma, who has always had every luxury since she was a baby, to give up all she has been accustomed to, especially her thousand and one good deeds. Mr. de Lissac wants me to chuck my P.S.-ship and go in for parliament, and the duke has been very kind in promising his help. Forgive such a long letter about myself when you are in trouble, but happiness is always egotistical, and I can't help hoping that mine won't be indifferent to you. As I have written you such a yarn, and have so many letters to write, will you please tell Cissy, with my love, and ask her to forgive my not writing to her separately. I haven't written to Aunt Sarah either, as I think Mrs. de Lissac is writing to her. Wish me joy, old man. There is no one whose good wishes I shall value more. Your affectionate cousin, CLAUDE MORLAND.

"P.S.--I don't offer to come to the funeral. I know you'll feel just as I should about it, and want to keep it all as quiet as possible."

Sainty read the letter through twice. He had hardly finished his second perusal of it, when the door opened, and Cissy stood before him. She was dressed in hastily improvised mourning of incongruous showiness. The black clothes enhanced her fairness, and accentuated the slim girlishness of her figure, but her face had no youth in it, and her eyes glittered with an unnatural brightness.

"You wanted to see me?" Sainty asked.

"Yes," she said. "I have got something to say to you, and I may as well say it first as last." Then, as he stood waiting in silence to hear her, "You and I have got to have an explanation," she added.

"Is it the moment, with the child lying dead in the house?" Sainty asked, with a gesture of protest.

"Yes," she said eagerly, "it is just that I wanted to speak about. As long as he lived, I have stayed for my child's sake."

Sainty gave a convulsive laugh. "You have done a great deal for the child's sake!" he said.

"Now," she went on, "I have no reason for remaining. I have come to tell you that after the funeral I am going away. I can't keep it up any longer. We hate each other, you know we do. Life together has become intolerable."

"Life together!" Sainty repeated. "Do you call it life together? To me it seems that we could hardly be more apart. In Kamchatka I should not be further from you." And indeed she seemed so far away, that he felt as if his voice could hardly reach her; he wondered how she could ever have affected him for pain or pleasure. He looked at her across a chasm in which lay the dead child.

"And where do you propose to go?" he asked indifferently.

"I shall go to the only man I have ever really loved," Cissy said dramatically.

"I thought we were coming to that." It all seemed no business of his, not to affect him in any way; he even felt a little sorry for her under the blow he was going to deal her. He found himself casting about in his mind for the best way of telling her. How strange that that letter should just have come (or was it, perhaps, not wholly a coincidence?), that he should have selected that hour for opening it, that it should have been the first one that he had read! He still held it in his hand, and without saying anything he moved it so that the writing might attract her attention.

"What have you got there?" she cried, turning suddenly very white. "Let me see it. Is it from Claude?" She sprang upon it, and snatched it from him before he could give it to her, and he heard the two sheets rattle against each other with the shaking of her hands.

"There is a message for you in it," he said, as he turned away. He did not want to pry into her misery. He felt no exultation, only a sick, contemptuous pity, pity in which there was no love.

Presently, hearing her give a sort of hoarse cry, he looked round. She had sunk into a chair, with one arm laid along the table, her other hand, clenched, rested on her knee. The letter had fallen on the floor. She sat looking straight in front of her, and her mouth moved as if she were speaking, but no sound came. She had evidently forgotten his presence altogether. She was frightening like this, her lips drawn back a little from her teeth, her face set in a grimace that made her almost monkey-like, ugly as strong emotion always is. After a time she began to beat on the edge of the table with her hand. "Blackguard! Blackguard!" she kept repeating under her breath.

Sainty was longing for her to go and leave him alone with his grief. The presence of this other misery which, by the nature of the case, he could do nothing to soothe only aggravated his own; it seemed to bring him down to earth, to drag him back to the sordid and base, from the regions to which he had risen in the chamber of death. What had he to do with this woman's fierce resentment, balked of her earthly passion, he who had been so near the borders of eternal peace?

He went over to her and spoke very gently. "I think we should be better apart," he said, "each with his own sorrow. We can do nothing to help each other."

She seemed hardly to understand what he said, but she nodded dully and rose, and he held the door open for her to pass.

It was nothing to him, he reflected, whether she went or stayed, whether she played out the dreary farce of their married life to the end, or broke away to follow her own devices. The shame, which had seemed so unendurable that he had bartered his personal honour to avoid it, appeared to him now as a thing of no importance. He wondered how he had ever cared about it. Let her go, in heaven's name, if she had a mind to! He almost wished that she would, but he knew in his heart that Claude's letter had done its work; there would be no more talk of her going. He stooped and picked up the crumpled papers, smoothing them out and looking at the beautiful, neat little handwriting, not an erasure, not a correction. Whatever the writer might say of haste and want of time and pressure of correspondence, that letter had not been written in a hurry.

"It's so complete," he said to himself; "the last touch. Nothing was wanting but this." He found himself almost admiring the absolute quality of his cousin's villainy, so rounded and finished, with no loose ends.

In a few seconds his mind flew back over all the stages of his connection with Claude, the first coming to Belchamber of the large, pale boy, with his dreamy eyes and curious fascination, the old Eton days, his baleful influence on Arthur, the story of his connection with Aimée Winston, the double treachery of his behaviour about Cynthia. . . . But when he came to the part Morland had played in his own married life, his imagination shuddered and winced, he could not, dare not, think of it. "And now, to crown all, this----" And his hand struck the pages with their rippling, conventional expressions of happiness and affection, their bland pretence of sympathy offered and demanded. For a moment the room swam round him, and he had to clutch the table for support. Could he let this thing be? Ought he to allow this girl to be sacrificed, and not make an effort to save her? But almost simultaneously he recognised the futility of any such attempt. He thought of Gemma, conceited, headstrong, self-confident, and at the same time superlatively sentimental, and imagined the reception he should meet with if he were to tell her the man into whose hands she had just surrendered her existence was---what? The lover of his wife, the father of his child. How could he tell this thing, and that he had known it and accepted it in silence? No wonder Claude had dared to write as he did; he knew well enough that from Sainty at least he was safe from all attack.

Should he have to answer, to thank, to congratulate, to "hope they would be happy," to send gifts? At least he would not have to go to the wedding; his mourning would save him from that---his mourning for the child of the bridegroom! He felt a wild longing to get back to that upper chamber where all these mad thoughts were stilled. What had he to do? The letters. Why should these people steal the little time he had left to be with his lost darling? With a sigh of ineffable weariness he sat down once more, and hastily tore open two or three. The same little phrases recurred in all. "Sincere condolences," "heartfelt sympathy," "God's will," "Consolation where alone it may be found." He remembered employing some of them himself on like occasions. Why make these attempts to plumb the unfathomable? As well smear ointment on a door behind which a man lay wounded.

As he turned over the heaps of still unbroken covers in search of a handwriting that promised at least the relief of tears, his eye was caught by one unfamiliar, yet not unknown. He took the letter from the rest and held it poised upon his palm, trying to fix the memory it recalled. The anonymous denunciations of his wife? Ah! no, that was impossible. Yet as he broke the seal he realised why his only other sight of this writing was associated with that time. It was from his sister-in-law.

"DEAR LORD BELCHAMBER,---I know you have never liked me, and did not approve of your brother marrying me; but though it is little kindness or notice I've ever received from you or yours, I am a mother myself, and I know what it would be to me to lose either of my little darlings; and so I feel I must write a few lines of condolence with you and Lady Belchamber in your great sorrow, for I really do sympathise with you in the death of your dear little boy. I know you think me a common, grasping woman, but I don't give a thought to any difference it may make to us, and, as Arthur says, what is to prevent your having others? I have a heart (indeed it was me made Arthur write and offer to come to Belchamber without me, and he'll come to the funeral too). I'm not really a bad sort, and can feel for your loss. With sincere condolences to you and Lady Belchamber, I should like to sign, Your affectionate sister-in-law,
"P.S.--I have ventured to order a wreath sent, which please accept."