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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Survivor - Chapter 38. "She Was A Woman: I Was A Coward!"
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The Survivor - Chapter 38. 'She Was A Woman: I Was A Coward!' Post by :erikhj Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :704

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The Survivor - Chapter 38. "She Was A Woman: I Was A Coward!"

CHAPTER XXXVIII. "SHE WAS A WOMAN: I WAS A COWARD!"

Again Douglas found himself face to face with a future emptied of all delight, only this time as a saner and an older man. The growth of his literary powers, an increased virility, following upon the greater freedom of his life, and the cessation of those haunting fears which had ever hung like a shadow over his earlier days in London, came to his aid. All that was best and strongest in his character was called into action. He faced his future like a brave man determined to make the most of his days--to make the best use of the powers which he undoubtedly possessed. He remodelled his manner of living to suit his altered circumstances, took rooms in Jermyn Street which he furnished quietly but comfortably, and although he never became a society man, he went out often and did not indulge in an excess of solitude. He had grown older and graver, but had lost none of his good looks, and was particularly careful never to pose as a man of disappointments. Of Emily de Reuss he saw or heard nothing. She seemed to have vanished completely from her place in society, and although he ventured to make a few careful inquiries he never chanced to come across any one who could tell him anything about her. It was astonishing how soon she was forgotten, even amongst those who had been her greatest admirers. He seldom heard her name mentioned, and although he never failed to believe that she would return some day to London, he set himself as deliberately as possible to forget her. On the whole, he believed that he was succeeding very well. He was a favourite amongst women, for he treated them charmingly, always with a ready and natural gallantry, but always with the most profound and unvarying respect. Only the very keenest observers fancied sometimes that they detected the shadow of a past in his far from cheerless demeanour. For Douglas held his head high, and met the world which had turned aside to welcome him with outstretched hands.

One evening, at a large and crowded reception, a man, whom he knew slightly, touched him on the shoulder.

"Guest," he said, "there is a lady with whom I have been talking who wishes to renew her acquaintance with you. May I take you to her?"

Douglas murmured a conventional acquiescence and bowed to the pleasant-faced, grey-headed old lady with a sense of pleasure.

"I am honoured that you should have remembered me, Duchess," he said. "It seems quite a long time since I have had the honour of meeting you."

She made room for him by her side.

"I am glad to see you again, Mr. Guest," she said pleasantly, "for your own sake of course, and also because you were a friend of Emily de Reuss."

Douglas looked steadily away for a moment. He had not yet come to that stage when he could speak of her lightly as a casual friend.

"You have not heard from her lately, I suppose?" the Duchess asked. "I hear that she writes to no one."

"I have not heard from her since before she left England," Douglas answered.

The Duchess sighed.

"Poor Emily," she said. "You know I am amongst those few who knew her well--you also, I think, were one of them. There was no one I was more fond of--no one whom I have missed so much."

Again Douglas was silent. Did this woman understand, he wondered.

"It is a pleasure to me," she continued, "to find some one with whom I can talk about her--some one who knew and appreciated her."

"Do you know," he asked, "where she is?"

"Yes."

It was amazing what effect the monosyllable had upon him. The mask which he carried always with him fell suddenly away. He turned upon her with an abruptness almost disconcerting. His eyes were lit with fire, and there was a strange flush upon his cheeks.

"Where," he demanded--"where is she?" The Duchess looked at him with sympathy. She was a kindly woman, and she had probed his secret long ago.

"She is in a little village some five hundred miles across the frontier, in Siberia. I had imagined that you might have known."

"Siberia!" He repeated the word in blank amazement. The Duchess nodded.

"Now I have told you something very interesting," she said, "and in return I am going to ask you something. You quarrelled with her, did you not?"

"Scarcely that. I asked her to marry me," he answered.

"Which of course was impossible."

"Impossible? Why?"

She raised her eyebrows.

"Is it conceivable," she exclaimed, "that you do not know?"

"I knew of no other barrier save the difference in our social positions," he said gravely.

She was silent for a moment.

"You did not know, then--be calm, my friend--that Emily had a husband living?"

A sharp little cry, almost immediately smothered, broke from his lips. He looked at his companion aghast. A flood of new light seemed to be breaking in upon him.

"Married! Emily married!" he exclaimed. "And she never told me."

"She probably meant to in her own good time," the Duchess said. "Of course I do not know how matters were between you, only I fancied that some change had come to her during the last few months. I hoped that she was growing to care for somebody. She is too rare a woman to lead for ever a lonely life."

"But her husband?" he stammered.

"She will never do more," the Duchess said gravely, "than look upon his face through iron bars. He is a prisoner for life in one of the gloomiest and most impregnable of Siberian fortresses. Some day, if you like, I will tell you the story of her marriage. It was a most unhappy one."

"Tell me now," he begged breathlessly.

She hesitated. A foreign prince bowed before her, his breast glittering with orders. She looked up at him smiling.

"Prince," she said, "Mr. Guest and I are elaborating together the plot of his next novel, and it is wonderfully fascinating."

He bowed low and passed on. She turned again to Douglas.

"I can tell it you," she said, "sufficiently in half a dozen sentences. Emily was the orphan child of one of the richest and noblest Hungarian families--the man she married was half a Pole half a Hungarian, poor, but also of noble family. His life was a network of deceit, he himself was a conspirator of the lowest order. He married Emily for her money--that it might be used for what he called the Cause. When she declined to have anything to do with it he first ill-treated her shamefully, and afterwards deserted her. Twice he was graciously pardoned by the Czar, twice he broke his word of honour and plunged again into infamy. The third time it seemed that nothing could save him, for he was caught in the act of directing a shameful conspiracy against the man who had treated him so generously. He was sentenced to death, but Emily crossed Europe in a special train, and after terrible difficulties won his life from the Czar herself when every other means had failed. He was condemned to imprisonment for life, and she gave her word that she would never ask for any mitigation of that sentence. Think of the generosity of that action! Although the man had treated her vilely, and she was young and beautiful, yet she doomed herself to a perpetual widowhood in order to save his life. I happen to know, too, that her love for him was wholly dead."

"It was magnificent," he murmured with something that sounded like a sob.

"She came to live in London, where her story was little known. That was ten years ago. I think that I am almost the only person who knows the whole truth about her, and if you ask me why I have told you, well, I can only say that it was by instinct."

"Duchess," he said, "you have told me the story of a heroine--now let me tell you the story of a fool. I came to London a very short time ago, poor, friendless, and untried. She was the only person from whom I received any spontaneous kindness whatever. She visited me when I was ill, she asked me to her house, she encouraged me in my work, she showed me how exquisite a thing the intelligent sympathy of a cultivated woman can be to a man who is struggling for expression. And in return--listen. There were others whom she had befriended--like me. She had keen literary instincts, as you know, and it was her pleasure to help in any way young beginners. She was also a woman and beautiful. Some of them lost their heads; two especially. It was their fault--not hers. They were presumptuous, and she rebuked them. They whined like whipped curs, went wrong as it chanced afterwards, and were held up to me as warnings. It was her vanity, they declared, which prompted her kindness. We were all puppets to her--not men. She had no heart. When my turn came I should be served like the rest. I loved her, Duchess; who could help it? and the time came when we stood face to face, and I saw the woman shining out of her eyes, and the gates of Heaven were opened to me. Was there ever such transcendental folly as mine? I locked the gates myself and remained--outside."

He looked away, and there was a short silence. A woman's song died sweetly away in an ante-room beyond, the murmur of pleasant conversation floated once more all around them. The Duchess unfurled a fan of wavy white feathers and half sheltered him. She only saw the dimness in his eyes as he went on.

"Those few minutes," he said, "I cannot speak of. Then there came, by some hateful chance, a cloud over my happiness. I remembered the warnings with which I had been pestered; the fool in me spoke whilst the man was silent. I demanded a pledge from her. I asked her when she would marry me. She bade me be patient, hinted at an obstacle--some day I should know everything. The fool in me raved. I demanded her promise to marry me as a token of her sincerity. Then she answered me as I deserved. If I did not trust her I might go--and, God help me, I went."

Again the bitter silence, and again the feathers swelled and waved. The band was playing softly, waltz music now. The Duchess, who was a motherly woman, and loved young men, felt her own eyes grow dim.

"After all," she said, "you must not blame yourself too much. Emily had her faults like other women. She was a little vain, a little imperious, not always wise. She should have told you everything."

Douglas rose and made his adieux.

"She trusted me once, Duchess, when everything looked against me, and never even deigned to ask for an explanation. She was a woman. When my turn came I was a coward."

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