English Literature

A Woman’s War by Warwick Deeping

A Woman's War by Warwick Deeping.jpg

CHAPTER I

There was a ripple of chimes through the frosty air as Catherine Murchison turned from King’s Walk into Lombard Street, and saw the moon shining white and clear between the black parapets and chimney-stacks of the old houses. St. Antonia’s steeple was giving the hour of three, and a babel of lesser tongues answered from the silence of the sleeping town. Hoar-frost glittered on the cypresses that stood in a garden bounding the road, and the roofs were like silver under the hard, moonlit sky.

Catherine Murchison stopped before the great red-brick house with its white window-sashes, and its Georgian air of solidity and comfort. The brass lion’s-head on the door seemed to twinkle a welcome to her above the plate that carried her husband’s name. She smiled to herself as she drew the latch-key from the pocket under her sables, the happy smile of a woman who comes home with no searchings of the heart. Several shawl-clad figures went gliding along under the shadows of the cypresses, giving her good-night with a flutter of laughter and tapping of shoes along the stones. Catherine waved her hand to the beshawled ones as they scurried home, and caught a glimpse of St. Antonia’s spire diademed by the winter stars. She remembered such a night seven years ago, and man’s love and mother’s love had come to her since then.

Catherine closed the door gently, knowing that her husband would be asleep after a hard day’s work. It was not often that he went with her to the social gatherings of Roxton. Professional success, fraught with the increasing responsibilities thereof, brightened his own fireside for him, and Catherine his wife would rather have had it so. James Murchison was no dapper drawing-room physician. The man loved his home better than the dinner-tables of his patients. He was young, and he was ambitious with his grave and purposeful Saxon sanity. His wife took the social yoke from off his shoulders, content in her heart to know that she had made the man’s home dear to him.

A standard-lamp was burning in the hall, the light streaming under a red-silk shade upon the Oriental rugs covering the mellow and much polished parquetry. There were a few old pictures on the walls, pewter and brass lighting the dead oak of an antique dresser. Catherine Murchison looked round her with a breathing in of deep content. She unwrapped the shawl from about her hair, rich russet red hair that waved in an aureole about her face. Her sable cloak had swung back from her bosom, showing the black ball-dress, red over the heart with a knot of hothouse flowers. There was a wholesome and generous purity in the white curves of her throat and shoulders.

Catherine laid her cloak over an old Dutch chair, and turned to the table where fruits, biscuits, and candles had been left for her. Her husband’s gloves lay on the table, and his hat with one of Gwen’s dolls tucked up carefully herein. Catherine’s eyes seemed to mingle thoughts of child and man, as she ate a few biscuits and looked at Miss Gwen’s protégé stuffed into the hat. James Murchison had had a long round that day, with the cares and conflicts of a man who labors to satisfy his own conscience. Catherine hoped not to wake him; she had even refused to be driven home lest the sound of wheels should carry a too familiar warning to his ears. She lit her candle, and, reaching up, turned out the lamp. Her feet were on the first step of the stairs when a streak of light in the half-darkness of the hall brought her to a halt.

Some one had left the lamp burning in her husband’s study. She stepped back across the hall, and hesitated a moment as other thoughts occurred to her. Housebreaking was a dead art in Roxton, and she smiled at the melodramatic imaginings that had seized her for the moment.

A reading-lamp stood on the table before the fire, that had sunk to a dull and dirty red in the smokeless grate. The walls of the room were panelled with books and the glass faces of several instrument cabinets—the room of no mere specialist, no haunter of one alley in the metropolis of intelligence. On the sofa lay the figure of a man asleep, his deep breathing audible through the room.

To the wife there was nothing strange in finding her husband sleeping the sleep of the tired worker before the dying fire. Her eyes had a laughing tenderness in them, a sparkle of mischief, as she set down the candle and moved across the room. Her feet touched something that rolled under her dress. She stooped, and looked innocent enough as she picked up an empty glass.

“James—”

There was mirth in the voice, but her eyes showed a puzzled intentness as she noticed the things that stood beside the lamp upon the table. An open cigar-box, a tray full of crumbled ash and blackened matches, a couple of empty syphons, a decanter standing in an ooze of spilled spirit. Memory prompted her, and she smiled at the suggestion. Porteus Carmagee, that prattling, white-bobbed maker of wills and codicils had slipped in for a smoke and a gossip. James Murchison never touched alcohol, and the inference was obvious enough, for her experience of Mr. Carmagee’s loquacity justified her in concluding that he had droned her husband to sleep.

Wifely mischief was in the ascendant on the instant. She stooped over the sleeping man whose face was in the shadow, put her lips close to his, and drew back with a little catching of the breath. The room seemed to grow dark and very cold of a sudden. She straightened, and stood rigid, staring across the room with a sense of hurrying at the heart.

Then, as though compelling herself, she lifted the lamp, and held it so that the light fell full upon her husband’s face.

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