English Literature

Afterwards and other stories by Ian Maclaren

Afterwards and other stories by Ian Maclaren

AFTERWARDS

I

He received the telegram in a garden where he was gazing on a vision of blue, set in the fronds of a palm, and listening to the song of the fishers, as it floated across the bay.

“You look so utterly satisfied,” said his hostess, in the high, clear voice of Englishwomen, “that, I know you are tasting the luxury of a contrast. The Riviera is charming in December; imagine London, and Cannes, is Paradise.”

As he smiled assent in the grateful laziness of a hard-worked man, his mind was stung with the remembrance of a young wife swathed in the dreary fog, who, above all things, loved the open air and the shining of the sun.

Her plea was that Bertie would weary alone, and that she hated travelling, but it came to him quite suddenly that this was always the programme of their holidays—some Mediterranean villa, full of clever people, for him, and the awful dulness of that Bloomsbury street for her; or he went North to a shooting-lodge, where he told his best stories in the smoking-room, after a long day on the purple heather; and she did her best for Bertie at some watering-place, much frequented on account of its railway facilities and economical lodgings. Letters of invitation had generally a polite reference to his wife—“If Mrs. Trevor can accompany you I shall be still more delighted”—but it was understood that she would not accept “We have quite a grudge against Mrs. Trevor, because she will never come with her husband; there is some beautiful child who monopolises her,” his hostess would explain on his arrival; and Trevor allowed it to be understood that his wife was quite devoted to Bertie, and would be miserable without him.

When he left the room, it was explained: “Mrs. Trevor is a hopelessly quiet person, what is called a ‘good wife,’ you know.”

“The only time she dined with us, Tottie Fribbyl—he was a Theosophist then, it’s two years ago—was too amusing for words, and told us what incarnation he was going through.

“Mrs. Trevor, I believe, had never heard of Theosophy, and looked quite horrified at the idea of poor Tottie’s incarnation.

“‘Isn’t it profane to use such words?’ she said to me. So I changed to skirt dancing, and would you believe me, she had never seen it?

“What can you do with a woman like that? Nothing remains but religion and the nursery. Why do clever men marry those impossible women?”

Trevor was gradually given to understand, as by an atmosphere, that he was a brilliant man wedded to a dull wife, and there were hours—his worst hours—when he agreed.

Cara mia, cara mia, sang the sailors; and his wife’s face in its perfect refinement and sweet beauty suddenly replaced the Mediterranean.

Had he belittled his wife, with her wealth of sacrifice and delicate nature, beside women in spectacles who wrote on the bondage of marriage, and leaders of fashion who could talk of everything from horse-racing to palmistry?

He had only glanced at her last letter; now he read it carefully:—

“The flowers were lovely, and it was so mindful of you to send them, just like my husband. Bertie and I amused ourselves arranging and rearranging them in glasses, till we had made our tea-table lovely. But I was just one little bit disappointed not to get a letter—you see how exacting I am, sir. I waited for every post, and Bertie said, ‘Has father’s letter come yet?’ When one is on holiday, writing letters is an awful bore; but please just a line to Bertie and me. We have a map of the Riviera, and found out all the places you have visited in the yacht; and we tried to imagine you sailing on that azure sea, and landing among those silver olives. I am so grateful to every one for being kind to you, and I hope you will enjoy yourself to the full. Bertie is a little stronger, I’m sure; his cheeks were quite rosy to-day for him. It was his birthday on Wednesday, and I gave him a little treat The sun was shining brightly in the forenoon, and we had a walk in the Gardens, and made believe that it was Italy! Then we went to Oxford Street, and Bertie chose a regiment of soldiers for his birthday present He wished some guns so much that I allowed him to have them as a present from you. They only cost one-and-sixpence, and I thought you would like him to have something. Jane and he had a splendid game of hide-and-seek in the evening, and my couch was the den, so you see we have our own gaiety in Bloomsbury.

“Don’t look sulky at this long scribble and say, ‘What nonsense women write!’ for it is almost the same as speaking to you, and I shall imagine the letter all the way till you open it in the sunshine.

“So smile and kiss my name, for this comes with my heart’s love from

“Your devoted wife,

“Maud Trevor.

“P.S.—Don’t be alarmed because I have to rest; the doctor does not think that there is any danger, and I’ll take great care.”

“A telegram.” It was the shattering of a dream. “How wicked of some horrid person. Business ought not to be allowed to enter Paradise. Let’s hope it’s pleasure; perhaps some one has won a lot of money at Monte Carlo, and wishes us to celebrate the affair.

“Whom is it for? Oh! Mr. Edward Trevor; then it’s a brief by telegraph, I suppose. Some millionaire’s will case, and the Attorney-General can’t manage it alone. What a man he is, to have briefs in holiday time.

“There it is, but remember, before you open it, that you are bound to remain here over Christmas at any rate, and help us with our theatricals. My husband declares that a successful barrister must be a born actor.”…

An hour later Trevor was in the Paris express, and for thirty hours he prayed one petition, that she might live till he arrived. He used to have a berth in the Wagon Lit as a matter of course, and had begun to complain about the champagne in the dining-car, but the thought of comfort made him wince on this journey, and he twice changed his carriage, once when an English party would not cease from badinage that mocked his ears, and again because a woman had brown eyes with her expression of dog-like faithfulness. The darkness of the night after that sunlit garden, and the monotonous roar of the train, and the face of smiling France covered with snow, and the yeasty waters of the Channel, and the moaning of the wind, filled his heart with dread.

Will that procession of luggage at Dover never come to an end? A French seaman—a fellow with earrings and a merry face—appears and reappears with maddening regularity, each time with a larger trunk. One had X. Y. on it in big white letters. Why not Z. also? Who could have such a name? That is a lady’s box, black and brown, plastered with hotel labels. Some bride, perhaps… they are carrying the luggage over his heart. Have they no mercy?

The last piece is in, and the sailors make a merry group at the top of the gangway. They look like Bretons, and that fellow is laughing again—some story about a little child; he can just hear Ma petite.

“Guard, is this train never to start? We’re half-an-hour late already.”

“Italian mail very heavy, sir; still bringing up bags; so many people at Riviera in winter, writing home to their friends.”…

How cruel every one is! He had not written for ten days. Something always happened, an engagement of pleasure. There was a half-finished letter; he had left it to join a Monte Carlo party.

“Writing letters—home, of course, to that idolised wife. It’s beautiful, and you are an example to us all; but Mrs. Trevor will excuse descriptions of scenery; she knows you are enjoying yourself.”

Had she been expecting that letter from post to post, calculating the hour of each delivery, identifying the postman’s feet in that quiet street, holding her breath when he rang, stretching her hand for a letter, to let it drop unopened, and bury her face in the pillow? Had she died waiting for a letter that never came? Those letters that he wrote from the Northern Circuit in that first sweet year, a letter a day, and one day two—it had given him a day’s advantage over her. Careful letters, too, though written between cases, with bits of description and amusing scenes.

Some little sameness towards the end, but she never complained of that, and even said those words were the best And that trick he played—the thought of the postman must have brought it up—how pleasant it was, and what a success! He would be his own letter one day, and take her by surprise. “A letter, ma’am,” the girl said—quite a homely girl, who shared their little joys and anxieties—and then he showed his face with apologies for intrusion. The flush of love in her face, will it be like that to-night, or… What can be keeping the train now? Is this a conspiracy to torment a miserable man?

He thrusts his head out of the window in despair, and sees the guard trying to find a compartment for a family that had mistaken their train.

The husband is explaining, with English garrulity, all the station hearing, what an inconvenience it would have been had they gone in the Holbom Viaduct carriages.

“Half an hour’s longer drive, you know, and it’s very important we should get home in time; we are expected….”

For what? Dinner, most likely. What did it matter when they got home, to-day or next year? Yet he used to be angry if he were made late for dinner. They come into his compartment, and explain the situation at great length, while he pretends to listen.

A husband and wife returning from a month in Italy, full of their experiences: the Corniche Road, the palaces of Genoa, the pictures in the Pitti, St Peter’s at Rome. Her first visit to the Continent, evidently; it reminded them of a certain tour round the Lakes in ‘80, and she withdrew her hand from her husband’s as the train came out from the tunnel. They were not smart people—very pronounced middle-class—but they were lovers, after fifteen years.

They forgot him, who was staring on the bleak landscape with white, pinched face.

“How kind to take me this trip. I know how much you denied yourself, but it has made me young again,” and she said “Edward.” Were all these coincidences arranged? had his purgatorio begun already?

“Have you seen the Globe, sir? Bosworth, M.P. for Pedlington, has been made a judge, and there’s to be a keen contest.

“Trevor, I see, is named as the Tory candidate—a clever fellow, I’ve heard. Do you know about him? he’s got on quicker than any man of his years.

“Some say that it’s his manner; he’s such a good sort, the juries cannot resist him, a man told me—a kind heart goes for something even in a lawyer. Would you like to look….

“Very sorry; would you take a drop of brandy? No? The passage was a little rough, and you don’t look quite up to the mark.”

Then they left him in peace, and he drank his cup to the dregs.

It was for Pedlington he had been working and saving, for a seat meant society and the bench, perhaps…. What did it matter now?

She was to come and sit within the cage when he made his first speech, and hear all the remarks.

“Of course it will be a success, for you do everything well, and your wifie will be the proudest woman in London.

“Sir Edward Trevor, M.P. I know it’s foolish, but it’s the foolishness of love, dear, so don’t look cross; you are everything to me, and no one loves you as I do.”

What are they slowing for now? There’s no station. Did ever train drag like this one?

Off again, thank God… if she only were conscious, and he could ask her to forgive his selfishness.

At last, and the train glides into Victoria. No, he had nothing to declare; would they let him go, or they might keep his luggage altogether.

Some vision was ever coming up, and now he saw her kneeling on the floor and packing that portmanteau, the droop of her figure, her thin white hands.

He was so busy that she did these offices for him—tried to buckle the straps even; but he insisted on doing that It gave him half an hour longer at the Club. What a brute he had been….

“Do anything you like with my things. ‘I’ll come to-morrow… as fast as you can drive.”

Huddled in a corner of the hansom so that you might have thought he slept, this man was calculating every foot of the way, gloating over a long stretch of open, glistening asphalt, hating unto murder the immovable drivers whose huge vans blocked his passage. If they had known, there was no living man but would have made room for him… but he had not known himself…. Only one word to tell her he knew now.

As the hansom turned into the street he bent forward, straining his eyes to catch the first glimpse of home. Had it been day-time the blinds would have told their tale; now it was the light he watched.

Dark on the upper floors; no sick light burning… have mercy… then the blood came back to his heart with a rush. How could he have forgotten?

Their room was at the back for quietness, and it might still be well. Some one had been watching, for the door was instantly opened, but he could not see the servant’s face.

A doctor came forward and beckoned him to go into the study….

It seemed as if his whole nature had been smitten with insensibility, for he knew everything without words, and yet he heard the driver demanding his fare, and noticed that the doctor had been reading the evening paper while he waited; he saw the paragraph about that seat What work those doctors have to do….

“It was an hour ago… we were amazed that she lived so long; with any other woman it would have been this morning; but she was determined to live till you came home.

“It was not exactly will-power, for she was the gentlest patient I ever had; it was”—the doctor hesitated—a peremptory Scotchman hiding a heart of fire beneath a coating of ice—“it was simply love.”

When the doctor had folded up the evening paper, and laid it on a side table, which took some time, he sat down opposite that fixed, haggard face, which had not yet been softened by a tear.

“Yes, I’ll tell you everything if you desire me; perhaps it will relieve your mind; and Mrs. Trevor said you would wish to know, and I must be here to receive you. Her patience and thoughtfulness were marvellous.

“I attend many very clever and charming women, but I tell you, Mr. Trevor, not one has so impressed me as your wife. Her self-forgetfulness passed words; she thought of every one except herself; why, one of the last things she did was to give directions about your room; she was afraid you might feel the change from the Riviera. But that is by the way, and these things are not my business.

“From the beginning I was alarmed, and urged that you should be sent for; but she pledged me not to write; you needed your holiday, she said, and it must not be darkened with anxiety.

“She spoke every day about your devotion and unselfishness; how you wished her to go with you, but she had to stay with the boy….

“The turn for the worse? it was yesterday morning, and I had Sir Reginald at once. We agreed that recovery was hopeless, and I telegraphed to you without delay.

“We also consulted whether she ought to be told, and Sir Reginald said, ‘Certainly; that woman has no fear, for she never thinks of herself, and she will want to leave messages.’

“‘If we can only keep her alive till to-morrow afternoon,’ he said, and you will like to remember that everything known to the best man in London was done. Sir Reginald came back himself unasked to-day, because he remembered a restorative that might sustain the failing strength. She thanked him so sweetly that he was quite shaken; the fact is, that both of us would soon have played the fool. But I ought not to trouble you with these trifles at this time, only as you wanted to know all….

“Yes, she understood what we thought before I spoke, and only asked when you would arrive. ‘I want to say “Good-bye,” and then I will be ready,’ but perhaps….

“‘Tell you everything?’ That is what I am trying to do, and I was here nearly all day, for I had hoped we might manage to fulfil her wish.

“No, she did not speak much, for we enjoined silence and rest as the only chance; but she had your photograph on her pillow, and some flowers you had sent.

“They were withered, and the nurse removed them when she was sleeping; but she missed them, and we had to put them in her hands. ‘My husband was so thoughtful.’

“This is too much for you, I see; it is simply torture. Wait till to-morrow….

“Well, if you insist Expecting a letter… yes… let me recollect… No, I am not hiding anything, but you must not let this get upon your mind.

“We would have deceived her, but she knew the hour of the Continental mails, and could detect the postman’s ring. Once a letter came, and she insisted upon seeing it in case of any mistake. But it was only an invitation for you, I think, to some country house.

“It can’t be helped now, and you ought not to vex yourself; but I believe a letter would have done more for her than… What am I saying now?

“As she grew weaker she counted the hours, and I left her at four full of hope. ‘Two hours more and he’ll be here,’ and by that time she had your telegram in her hand.

“When I came back the change had come, and she said, ‘It’s not God’s will; bring Bertie.’

“So she kissed him, and said something to him, but we did not listen. After the nurse had carried him out—for he was weeping bitterly, poor little chap—she whispered to me to get a sheet of paper and sit down by her bedside…. I think it would be better… very well, I will tell you all.

“I wrote what she dictated with her last breath, and I promised you would receive it from her own hand, and so you will. She turned her face to the door and lay quite still till about six, when I heard her say your name very softly, and a minute afterwards she was gone, without pain or struggle.”…

She lay as she had died, waiting for his coming, and the smile with which she had said his name was still on her face. It was the first time she did not colour with joy at his coming, that her hand was cold to his touch. He kissed her, but his heart was numbed, and he could not weep.

Then he took her letter and read it beside that silence.

“Dearest,—

“They tell me now that I shall not live to see you come in and to cast my arms once more round your neck before we part Be kind to Bertie, and remember that he is delicate and shy. He will miss me, and you will be patient with him for my sake. Give him my watch, and do not let him forget me. My locket with your likeness I would like left on my heart. You will never know how much I have loved you, for I could never speak. You have been very good to me, and I want you to know that I am grateful; but it is better perhaps that I should die, for I might hinder you in your future life. Forgive me because I came short of what your wife should have been. None can ever love you better. You will take these poor words from a dead hand, but I shall see you, and I shall never cease to love you, to follow your life, to pray for you—my first, my only love.”

The fountains within him were broken, and he flung himself down by the bedside in an agony of repentance.

“Oh, if I had known before; but now it is too late, too late!”

For we sin against our dearest not because we do not love, but because we do not imagine.

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1 reply »

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