Mrs . Maxon Protests by Anthony Hope

Mrs . Maxon Protests by Anthony Hope.jpg

CHAPTER I

“INKPAT!”

“Inkpat!” She shot out the word in a bitter playfulness, making it serve for the climax of her complaints.

Hobart Gaynor repeated the word—if it could be called a word—after his companion in an interrogative tone.

“Yes, just hopeless inkpat, and there’s an end of it!”

Mrs. Maxon leant back as far as the unaccommodating angles of the office chair allowed, looking at her friend and counsellor with a faint yet rather mischievous smile on her pretty face. In the solicitor’s big, high, bare room she seemed both small and very dainty. Her voice had trembled a little, but she made a brave effort at gaiety as she explained her cryptic word.

“When a thing’s running in your head day and night, week after week, and month after month, you can’t use that great long word you lawyers use. Besides, it’s so horribly impartial.” She pouted over this undesirable quality.

A light broke on Gaynor, and he smiled.

“Oh, you mean incompatibility?”

“That’s it, Hobart. But you must see it’s far too long, besides being, as I say, horribly impartial. So I took to calling it by a pet name of my own. That makes it come over to my side. Do you see?”

“Not quite.” He smiled still. He had once been in love with Winnie Maxon, and though that state of feeling as regards her was long past, she still had the power to fascinate and amuse him, even when she was saying things which he suspected of being unreasonable. Lawyers have that suspicion very ready for women.

“Oh yes! The big word just means that we can’t get on with one another, and hints that it’s probably just as much my fault as his. But inkpat means all the one thousand and one unendurable things he does and says to me. Whenever he does or says one, I say invariably, ‘Inkpat!’ The next moment there’s another—’Inkpat!’ I really shouldn’t have time for the long word even if I wanted to use it.”

“You were very fond of him once, weren’t you?”

She shrugged her thin shoulders impatiently. “Supposing I was?” Evidently she did not care to be reminded of the fact, if it were a fact. She treated it rather as an accusation. “Does one really know anything about a man before one marries him? And then it’s too late.”

“Are you pleading for trial trips?”

“Oh, that’s impossible, of course.”

“Is anything impossible nowadays?” He looked up at the ceiling, his brows raised in protest against the vagaries of the age.

“Anyhow, it’s not what we’re told. I only meant that having cared once made very little difference really—it comes to count for next to nothing, you know.”

“Not a gospel very acceptable to an engaged man, Winnie!”

She reached out her arm and touched his coat-sleeve lightly. “I know, I’m sorry. I’m longing to know your Cicely and be great friends with her. And it’s too bad to bother you with the seamy side of it just now. But you’re such a friend, and so sensible, and a lawyer too, you see. You forgive me?”

“I’m awfully glad to help, if I can. Could you give me a few—I don’t want a thousand and one, but a few—instances of ‘inkpat’?”

“That wouldn’t be much use. Broadly speaking, inkpat’s a demand that a woman should be not what she is, but a sort of stunted and inferior reproduction of the man—what he thinks he would be, if he were a woman. Anything that’s not like that gets inkpatted at once. Oh, Hobart, it is horrible! Because it’s so utterly hopeless, you know. How can I be somebody else? Above all, somebody like Cyril—only a woman? It’s absurd! A Cyrilesque woman! Oh!”

“I don’t know him very well, but it certainly does sound absurd. Are you sure you haven’t misunderstood? Can’t you have an explanation?”

“Inkpat never explains; it never sees that there is anything to explain. It preaches, or lectures, or is sarcastic, or grumbles, or sulks—and I suppose it would swear, if Cyril didn’t happen to be so religious. But explain or listen to an explanation—never!”

She rose and walked to one of the tall windows that looked on to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. “I declare I envy the raggedest hungriest child playing there in the garden,” she said. “At least it may be itself. Didn’t God make me just as much as He made Cyril?”

It was high summer, and the grate held nothing more comforting than a dingy paper ornament; yet Hobart Gaynor got up and stood with his back to it, as men are wont to do in moments of perplexity. He perceived that there was not much use in pressing for his concrete cases. If they came, they would individually be, or seem, trifles, no doubt. The accumulation of them was the mischief; that was embraced and expressed in the broad sweep of incompatibility; the two human beings could not keep step together. But he put one question.

“I suppose you’ve given him no really serious cause for complaint?”

She turned quickly round from the window. “You mean——?”

“Well, I mean, anybody else—er—making friction?”

“Hobart, you know that’s not my way! I haven’t a man-friend, except you, and my cousin, Stephen Aikenhead—and I very seldom see either of you. And Stephen’s married, and you’re engaged. That’s a ridiculous idea, Hobart.”

She was evidently indignant, but Gaynor was not disturbed.

“We lawyers have to suspect everybody,” he reminded her with a smile, “and to expect anything, however improbable. So I’ll ask now if your husband has any great woman-friend.”

“That’s just as ridiculous. I could be wicked enough to wish he had. Let somebody else have a try at it!”

“Can’t you—somehow—get back to what made you like him at first? Do you understand what I mean?”

“Yes, I do—and I’ve tried.” Her eyes looked bewildered, even frightened. “But, Hobart, I can’t realize what it was. Unless it was just his looks—he is very handsome, you know.”

“He stands well at the Bar. He’s getting on fast, he’s very straight, and I don’t think he’s unpopular, from what I hear.”

She caught his hint quickly. “A lot of people will say it’s my fault? That I’m unreasonable, and all in the wrong?”

“You’d have to reckon with a good deal of that.”

“I don’t care what people say.”

“Are you sure of that?” he asked quietly. “It’s a pretty big claim to make for oneself, either for good or for evil.”

“It’s only his friends, after all. Because I’ve got none. Well, I’ve got you.” She came and stood by him. “You’re against me, though, aren’t you?”

“I admit I think a wife—or a husband—ought to stand a lot.”

“It’s not as if my baby had lived. I might have gone on trying then. It wouldn’t have been just undiluted Cyril.”

“That makes some difference, I agree. Still, in the general interest of things——”

“I must be tortured all my life?” Her challenge of the obligation rang out sharply.

With a restless toss of his head, he sat down at his table again. She stood where she was, staring at the dingy ornament in the grate.

“Life the other way mayn’t turn out particularly easy. You’ll have troubles, annoyances—temptations, perhaps.”

“I can face those. I can trust myself, Hobart. Can he prevent my going if I want to?”

“No.”

“Can he make me come back?”

“No. He can, if he chooses, get a formal order for you to go back, but it won’t be enforced. It will only give him a right to a legal separation—not to a divorce, of course—just a separation.”

“You’re sure they can’t make me go back?”

“Oh, quite. That’s settled.”

“That’s what I wanted to be quite clear about.” She stepped up to his chair and laid her hand on his shoulder. “You’re still against me?”

“Oh, how can I tell? The heart knows its own bitterness—nobody else can.”

She pressed his shoulder in a friendly fashion; she was comforted by his half-approval. At least it was not a condemnation, even though it refused the responsibility of sanction.

“Of course he needn’t give you any money.”

“I’ve got my own. You got it settled on me and paid to myself.”

“It’s very little—about a hundred and fifty a year. I want you to look at all sides of the business.”

“Of course you’re right. But there’s only one to me—to get away, away, away!”

“It’s just about five years since you came here with your mother—about the marriage-settlement. I thought it rather rough you should come to me, I remember.”

“Mother didn’t know about the—the sentimental reason against it, Hobart—and it doesn’t matter now, does it? And poor mother’s beyond being troubled over me.”

“Where will you go—if you do go?”

“I am going. I shall stay with the Aikenheads for a bit—till I’m settled on my own.”

“Have you hinted anything about it to—him?”

“To Cyril? No. I must tell him. Of course he knows that I’m silly enough to think that I’m unhappy.”

“It’ll be an awful facer for him, won’t it?”

She walked round the table and stood looking at him squarely, yet with a deprecatory droop of her mouth.

“Yes, it will,” she said. “Awful! But, Hobart, I not only have no love left, I’ve no pity left. He has crushed a great deal in me, and he has crushed that with the rest.”

Gaynor’s hands played feebly with his big pad of blotting-paper.

“That it should happen to you of all people!” he mumbled. His air expressed more than a lament for unhappiness; as well as regretting sorrow, he deplored something distasteful. But Winnie Maxon was deaf to this note; she saw only sympathy.

“That’s your old dear kindness for me,” she smiled, with tears in her eyes. “You won’t turn against me, anyhow, will you, Hobart?”

He stretched out his hand to meet hers. “No, my dear. Didn’t I love you once?”

“And I do love your dear round face and your honest eyes. Yes, and the nose you used to be unhappy about—because it was a pug—in those very old days; and if my ship gets wrecked, I know you’ll come out with the life-boat. Good-bye now, I’ll write to you about it.”

The tender note struck at the end of their talk, old-time memories, the echo of her soft pleading voice, availed for some minutes after his visitor’s departure to blind Hobart Gaynor’s shrewd eyes to the fact that she had really put before him no case that could seem at all substantial in the eyes of the world. To her, no doubt, everything might be as bad, as intolerable and hopeless, as she declared; he did not question her sincerity. But as the personal impression of her faded, his hard common sense asserted forcibly that it all amounted to no more than that she had come not to like her husband; that was the sum of what the world would see in it. May women leave their husbands merely because they have come not to like them? Some people said yes, as he was aware. They were not people whom he respected, nor their theory one which he approved. He was of conservative make in all things, especially in questions of sex. He was now uneasily conscious that but for her personal fascination, but for his old tenderness, her plea would not have extorted even a reluctant semi-assent. The next moment he was denying that he had given even so much. Certainly the world in general—the big, respectable, steady-going world—would not accord her even so much. Talk about being “crushed” or having things crushed in you, needs, in the eyes of this world, a very solid backing of facts—things that can be sworn to in the box, that can be put in the “particulars” of your petition, that can be located, dated, and, if possible, attested by an independent witness. Now Mrs. Maxon did not appear to possess one single fact of this order—or surely she would have been eager to produce it?

Comedians and cynics are fond of exhibiting the spectacle of women hounding down a woman on the one hand, and, on the other, of men betraying their brethren for a woman’s favour. No exception can be taken to such presentments; the things happen. But when they are not happening—when jealousy and passion are not in the field—there is another force, another instinct, which acts with powerful effect. The professed students of human nature call it sex-solidarity; it is the instinct of each sex to stand together against the other. This is not a matter of individual liking or disliking; it is sex politics, a conflict between rival hosts, eternally divided. With personal prepossessions and special relations out of the way, the man is for the man, the woman for the woman. As minute followed minute after Mrs. Maxon’s departure, it became more and more probable to Hobart Gaynor that Cyril Maxon had something to say for himself. And was not Hobart himself a prospective husband? Too much in love to dream of a like fate befalling his own marriage, he yet felt a natural sympathy for the noble army in which he was so soon to enlist.

“Well, right or wrong, I promised to stand by her, and I will,” was his final thought, as he drove himself back to the current business of his office day. Sympathy for Mrs. Maxon mingled in it with a certain vexation at her for having in some sense involved him in so obscure and troublesome a matter. He felt, without actually foreseeing, difficulties that might make his promise hard to keep.

The tendency of personal impressions to lose their power when personal presence is withdrawn did not occur to Mrs. Maxon. As she drove home to Devonshire Street, she comforted herself with the assurance that she had not only kept a friend—as she had—but also secured a partisan. She thought that Hobart Gaynor quite understood her case.

“Rather wonderful of him!” she reflected. “Considering that I refused him, and that he’s at this moment in love with Cicely Marshfield.”

Her heart grew very warm towards her old friend, so loyal and so forgiving. If she had not refused him? But the temper of her present mood forbade the soft, if sad, conclusion that she had made a mistake. Who really knows anything about a man until she is married to him? And then it is too late. “Don’t marry a friend—keep him,” was her bitter conclusion. It did not cross her mind that friendship too—a friendship that is to be more than a distant and passive kindliness—must make reckoning with incompatibility.

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Categories: English Literature

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