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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAthalie - Chapter 25
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Athalie - Chapter 25 Post by :sullc Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :1381

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Athalie - Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXV

Winifred had grown stout, which, on a slim, small-boned woman is quickly apparent; and, to Clive, her sleepy, uncertain grey eyes seemed even nearer together than he remembered them.

She was seated in the yellow and white living-room of her apartment at the Regina, still holding the card he had sent up; and she made no movement to rise when her maid announced him and ushered him in, or to greet him at all except with a slight nod and a slighter gesture indicating a chair across the room.

He said: "I did not know until this morning that you were in this country."

"Was it necessary to inform you?"

"No, not necessary," he said, "unless you have come to some definite decision concerning our future relations."

Her eyes seemed to grow sleepier and nearer together than ever.

"Why," he asked, wearily, "have you employed an agency to have me followed?"

She lifted her drooping lids and finely pencilled brows. "Have you been followed?"

"At intervals, as you know. Would you mind saying why? Because you have always been welcome to divorce."

She sat silent, slowly tearing into tiny squares the card he had sent up. Presently, as at an afterthought, she collected all the fragments and placed them in a heap on the table beside her.

"Well?" she inquired, glancing up at him. "Is that all you have to say?"

"I don't know what to say until you tell me why you have had me followed and why you yourself are here."

Her gaze remained fixed on the heap of little pasteboard squares which she shifted across the polished table-top from one position to another. She said:

"The case against you was complete enough before last night. I fancy even you will admit that."

"You are wrong," he replied wearily. "Somehow or other I believe you know that you are wrong. But I suppose a jury might not think so."

"Would you care to tell a jury that this trance-medium is not your mistress?"

"I should not care to defend her on such a charge before a jury or before anybody. There are various ways of damning a woman; and to defend her from that accusation is one of them."

"And another way?"

"To admit the charge. Either ruin her in the eyes of the truly virtuous."

"What do you expect to do about it then? Keep silent?"

"That is still a third way of destroying a woman."

"Really? Then what are you going to do?"

"Whatever you wish," he said in a low voice, "as long as you do not bring such a charge against Athalie Greensleeve."

"Would you set your signature to a paper?"

"I have given you my word. I have never lied to you."

She looked up at him out of narrowing eyes:

"You might this time. I prefer your signature."

He reddened and sat twirling the silver crook of his walking-stick between restless hands.

"Very well," he said quietly; "I will sign what you wish, with the understanding that Miss Greensleeve is to remain immune from any lying accusation.... And I'll tell you now that any accusation questioning her chastity is a falsehood."

His wife smiled: "You see," she said, "your signature _will be necessary."

"Do you think I am lying?"

"What do I care whether you are or not? Do you suppose the alleged chastity of a common fortune-teller interests me? All I know is that you have found your level, and that I need protection. If you choose to concede it to me without a public scandal, I shall permit you to do so. If not, I shall begin an action against you and name the woman with whom you spent last night!"

There was, in the thin, flute-like, and mincingly fastidious voice something so subtly vicious that her words left him silent.

Still leisurely arranging and re-arranging her little heap of pasteboard, her near-set eyes intent on its symmetry, she spoke again:

"I could marry Innisbrae or any one of several others! But I do not care to; I am comfortable. And that is where you have made your mistake. I do not desire a divorce! But,"--she lifted her narrow eyes--"if you force me to a separation I shall not shrink from it. And I shall name that woman."

"Then--what is it you want?" he asked with a sinking heart.

"Not a divorce; not even a separation; merely respectability. I wish you to give up business in New York and present yourself in England at decent intervals of--say once every year. What you do in the interludes is of no interest to me. As long as you do not establish a business and a residence anywhere I don't care what you do. You may come back and live with this woman if you choose."

After a silence he said: "Is that what you propose?"

"It is."

"And you came over here to collect sufficient evidence to force me?"

"I had no other choice."

He nodded: "By your own confession, then, you believe either in her chastity and my sense of honour, or that, even guilty, I care so much for her that any threat against her happiness can effectually coerce me."

"Your language is becoming a trifle involved."

"No; _I am involved. I realise it. And if I am not absolutely honourable and unselfish in this matter I shall involve the woman I had hoped to marry."

"I thought so," she said, reverting to her heap of pasteboard.

"If you think so," he continued, "could you not be a little generous?"

"How?"

"Divorce me--not by naming her--and give me a chance in life."

"No," she said coolly, "I don't care for a divorce. I am comfortable enough. Why should I inconvenience myself because you wish to marry your mistress?"

"In decency and in--charity--to me. It will cost you little. You yourself admit that it is a matter of personal indifference to you whether or not you are entirely and legally free of me."

"Did you ever do anything to deserve my generosity?" she inquired coldly.

"I don't know. I have tried."

"I have never noticed it," she retorted with a slight sneer.

He said: "Since my first offence against you--and against myself--which was marrying you--I have attempted in every way I knew to repair the offence, and to render the mistake endurable to you. And when I finally learned that there was only one way acceptable to you, I followed that way and kept myself out of your sight.

"My behaviour, perhaps, entitles me to no claim upon your generosity, yet I did my best, Winifred, as unselfishly as I knew how. Could you not; in your turn, be a little unselfish now?... Because I have a chance for happiness--if you would let me take it."

She glanced at him out of her close-set, sleepy eyes:

"I would not lift a finger to oblige you," she said. "You have inconvenienced me, annoyed me, disarranged my tranquil, orderly, and blameless mode of living, causing me social annoyance and personal irritation by coming here and engaging in business, and living openly with a common and notorious woman who practises a fraudulent and vulgar business.

"Why should I show you any consideration? And if you really have fallen so low that you are ready to marry her, do you suppose it would be very flattering for me to have it known that your second wife, my successor, was such a woman?"

He sat thinking for a while, his white, care-worn face framed between his gloved hands.

"Your friends," he said in a low voice, "know you as a devout woman. You adhere very strictly to your creed. Is there nothing in it that teaches forbearance?"

"There is nothing in it that teaches me to compromise with evil," she retorted; and her small cupid-bow mouth, grew pinched.

"If you honestly believe that this young girl is really my mistress," he said, "would it not be decent of you, if it lies within your power, to permit me to regularise my position--and hers?"

"Is it any longer my affair if you and she have publicly damned yourselves?"

"Yet if you do believe me guilty, you can scarcely deny me the chance of atonement, if it is within your power."

She lifted her eyes and coolly inspected him: "And suppose I do _not believe you guilty of breaking your marriage vows?" she inquired.

He was silent.

"Am I to understand," she continued, "that you consider it my duty to suffer the inconvenience of divorcing you in order that you may further advertise this woman by marrying her?"

He looked into her close-set eyes; and hope died. She said: "If you care to affix your signature to the agreement which my attorneys have already drawn up, then matters may remain as they are, provided you carry out your part of the contract. If you don't, I shall begin action immediately and I shall name the woman on whose account you seem to entertain such touching anxiety."

"Is that your threat?"

"It is my purpose, dictated by every precept of decency, morality, religion, and the inviolable sanctity of marriage."

He laughed and gathered up his hat and stick:

"Your moral suasion, I am afraid, slightly resembles a sort of sanctimonious blackmail, Winifred. The combination of morality, religion, and yourself is too powerful for me to combat.... So if my choice must be between permitting morality to publicly besmirch this young girl's reputation, and affixing my signature to the agreement you suggest, I have no choice but to sign my name."

"Is that your decision?"

He nodded.

"Very well. My attorneys and a notary are in the next room with the papers necessary. If you would be good enough to step in a moment--"

He looked at her and laughed again: "Is there," he said, "anything lower than a woman?--or anything higher?"

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