(written with Florence Dugdale-Hardy)
There were times when Philip Fadelle acknowledged to himself with a sense of amusement not untinged with bitterness that even death had scarce succeeded in tempering the force of that inflexible will which he had ever recognised as an essential part of the being of his friend Roger Wingate. From the time when they were schoolboys together it had been a goad to urge him into paths whither he would not, the more effective in that it was wielded with the semblance of good-fellowship. The compelling pressure on his arm had been so much the friendly grip of one whose mastery of circumstance has given him the right to hale his friend, by the hair if need be, into ways of prosperity, that now when these fingers were cold and relaxed the moral force remained as potent as ever.
Among other things he remembered that, when he had spoken or rather hinted, of his intention to ask Gertrude Norton to be his wife, this same good friend had revealed the fact that there would be rivalry between them, but in mitigation, he had dwelt insistingly, his hand meanwhile pressing Philip's shoulder somewhat more heavily than usual, upon the fact that Gertrude Norton had been framed by Nature, obviously, to be the wife of himself, the astute and rising young politician, rather than to be the divinity of the struggling man of letters. Upon this occasion, Fadelle was glad to remember, he had refused to grant the premisses, not that this was of great moment, seeing that some weeks later Roger Wingate was the accepted suitor of the girl whose gay looks and bounding spirits had seemed to merit some orbit of their own, instead of suffering eclipse by the luminous and self-sufficient personality of a too eminent husband.
He remembered also, with less of gratitude, that if he had acted more promptly and had omitted to confide in his friend, all might have gone differently. When, at length, he had decided to go to her he had broken his journey to linger irresolutely a day or two in an old Cathedral town, within the peaceful close and under the shadow of one of the most notable piles of Mediaeval architecture in England. His dallying had led to his arrival at the home of the woman he wished to make his wife a few hours after her engagement to Roger Wingate.
Had he been earlier, he fancied, he might have won her, for a gleam in her eyes seemed to reproach him. He found scant comfort from the recollection that it had always been Wingate's way to supersede him, even when they were at school together.
Five years after Roger Wingate's marriage, at a time when his career had seemed secure against mischance, he had succumbed with appalling swiftness to a few days' illness and an operation from which he never rallied. It was difficult for those who had known him to contemplate the idea of the extinction of one so vital. The force which had emanated from him had seemed imperishable.
The news, revealed in course of time by the widow, that it had been Wingate's definitely expressed wish that some memoir of himself should be compiled by his friend was to Philip Fadelle another, perhaps the last, manifestation of that overpowering will. Though none else had contemplated Wingate's death, he himself had done so, and in providing that his friend's hand should raise him a memorial lucent and rare, he had linked to this evidence of his friend's literary gift a sense of his own domination.
"Of course, had he lived longer, the biography would have been a work of importance; but as it is, with his letters—unique in their way, I believe—something not unworthy might be done." Gertrude had hesitated at this point, and then, in a lower key, had given her tribute to that unseen power:
"One feels, somehow, constrained to obey what one knows to have been his wish."
In this the man of letters had acquiesced, with a sigh that had a groan at its heart. He knew that the telling of that brief though redundant life might with safety be left in his hands, and he was prepared to offer what slight fame he had already garnered as incense to his dead comrade's memory.
"You have always been a most dear and generous friend to us both," she added, with a smile that had in it as much of tenderness (it seemed) for the living, as regret for the dead.
The memory of the past bloomed between them like some wan flower of which both inhaled the faint perfume; till Fadelle suddenly remembered that his friend had now been dead for nearly six months, and that the time would soon be at hand when he might make that proposal so long delayed. His face brightened and a shadow passed from his eyes: he spoke of the memoir with interest, even with pleasure. "It will be the last token that friendship can offer," he said almost with emotion, and to himself he added that it would be in the nature of a seal set upon Wingate's tomb.
As weeks passed and he gave himself wholeheartedly to the work he had undertaken he began to realize that here, under his hand, Wingate's character was developing into such complexities as hitherto he had not suspected! Besides those sterner qualities which had impelled him onward in his chosen career there were suggestions of mystery, definite shades, of romance it might be, almost incredible in one who had mastered the hard facts of life so unshrinkingly. More wonderful still was the presumption that this side of that forcible character had been revealed to no-one! Gertrude, so far as he could gather, had never seen it.
The biography, he judged, would do full justice to a personality almost unique in its qualities of ingenuous comradeship allied to a wellnigh overwhelming dominance: a rare enough combination.
The summer following Wingate's death had nearly passed when Fadelle decided to visit Gertrude, who had been living for some time with her mother in the country. He had refrained from accepting the invitation, often and pressingly repeated, until he had almost finished the biography. Now that this had been accomplished for all practical purposes, and the anniversary of Roger Wingate's death had come and gone, the way seemed clear for the furtherance of his chief desire. He was filled with a pleasing certainty as his train carried him on to his destination, and when he alighted at a little country station he accepted it as a good omen that she was thereto meet him.
She had changed greatly. He remembered that after a few months of married life she had seemed subdued to that strong will, had been absorbed into that overwhelming personality with which she had been mated. Now, as she sat in the dog-cart, waiting to drive her guest to her house, he noted with a leaping heart that the Gertrude of her maiden days had been reincarnated. In her bright face was all the arch vivacity of unfettered girlhood, and as they were carried swiftly between green hedgerows he rejoiced to hear again the gay inconsequence that Roger had always tacitly suppressed.
Glancing at her charming profile he wondered, once again, if she had ever plumbed that hidden well of sentiment which he fancied he had discovered in the secret writings of his friend. Some day he might ask,—but not yet.
"I have a heap of things to show you," she assured him triumphantly, "and ever so much to discuss. It is easier to talk, don't you think, than to write?"
"Oh, about the biography, of course."
His gaze fastened itself upon the bracken at the side of the lane down
which they were passing and sought out the flecks of golden brown among the green.
When he turned to her again there was something so unwidow-like in her grey tweed, in the small jaunty plume of her hat, and her business-like dog-skin gloves that a smile hovered where doubt had been.
"Ah, that biography! It will need days and days of discussion. Of course it must be a tremendous thing."
"Of course it must, but do you know—" her eyes sought his with laughing embarrassment, "sometimes I am afraid that it is going to be something of an obsession."
His glance held hers with amused assurance.
"I'm not quite sure that I have not found it something of that sort already."
Then mysteriously, a sense of loyalty to the dear husband and friend descended between them and froze their gaiety.
"Of course it must be great—powerful—like himself."
"Of course." He spoke dully and his mobile jaw grew rigid. Twice
already, within one brief hour, he had met with an invisible rebuff; yet the
hand that dealt it was one that he had thought bereft of power.
They passed a tiny lodge and swept up a drive.
"Here is the house; rather small; but a haven of rest for tired souls. It is rather sweet, isn't it?"
He thought it was, as he saw it nestling among the trees, grey walled and red roofed, and in front, walking on the wide gravel sweep before the door, as if to lend the final touch of domesticity, a mushroom-hatted and lace-shawled lady, Gertrude's mother, who turned at the sound of wheels to greet her visitor.
The days of his visit passed, and deliberate and continued observation confirmed Philip Fadelle in the assurance that to Gertrude Wingate the past thirteen months had brought a virtual renewal of blithe girlhood; but when she discussed with him the biography she became preternaturally solemn, and assumed a delightfully important manner as of one in whose small hands weighty affairs of state have been placed.
At such times the author noticed, with a sense of irritated amusement, that his work had sufficed to raise Wingate on to a loftier pedestal than he had, in his wife's estimation, previously occupied. She was pleased to be Fadelle's divinity, but there were moments when he told himself bitterly that in spirit she remained Wingate's slave.
This intuition, however, did not suffice to rob his holiday of any perceptible amount of charm, since Gertrude Wingate, as she rambled with him through woods and fields, betrayed the gaiety of a child who has escaped from the durance of a stern school. When she referred to her late husband it was in notes of eulogy rather than of regretful reminiscence.
"This immaculate man has only just begun to live," Fadelle told himself with chagrin. "He was born in the first chapter of the biography."
Nevertheless he worked assiduously at his task: every stone set into that destined memorial must be polished and repolished, even though it were with bleeding hands. There was something in Gertrude's bright friendship that sustained him. Often when she turned from the subject of the biography to discuss his other more per personal work she unconsciously gained in vividness, and her eyes beamed with a kindlier interest. She was quickly appreciative of subtle intangible moods, she was swift to catch a meaning, and was there, with him, in a moment, when women of a more pronounced intellectuality would have been labouring painfully behind.
The best minutes of the day to him were those when, after dinner, they together paced up and down before the lighted windows of the house. As they turned again and again in their steady pacing, one luminous rectangle, which showed the calm figure of Gertrude's mother knitting beside a shaded lamp, was to them a link with civilization; for, on the other hand, the lawn sloped away to a whispering darkness full of primeval mystery.
"You know, of course, that I took no part in the political life that Roger led," she said suddenly one evening when walking thus. "I might have understood, I suppose, all that there was; but I could never have really cared. I belong more to that." She thrust her hand through the darkness and waved it at the shrouded woods and fields beyond.
There was a fair in the village some distance away, hidden behind the woods. A hoarse murmur reached them faintly, and on the sky one sullen patch betrayed the reflected light of the flaming naptha-lamps that hung on the booths, and the screaming merry-go-round.
They pierced, venturously, further into the darkness, walking someway down the avenue, while the ghostly branches waved blackly overhead. It was then, he afterwards felt, that he should have spoken but, unlike his erstwhile friend and school-fellow, he let the decisive moment fall away. Together they returned to the house and the warm and lighted sanity of the drawingroom, to discuss a chapter dealing with a political crisis in which the inflexible will and insistent personality of Roger Wingate had not been found wanting.
It was as Fadelle had imagined it would be, during one of those late evening strollings and communings that he asked Gertrude to be his wife. When she slowly and reluctantly gave a refusal she tempered it with explanations of an unsuspected character, so that the listener, peering bewilderedly at a totally strange aspect of Roger Wingate, almost missed the sense of his own loss.
"If there was one thing that he hated, one thing which always worried and upset him," she explained, "it was the idea, suggested to him in someway that I cannot understand, of my marrying again in the event of his early death. To him it seemed betrayal of the basest kind, utterly unforgiveable."
"I remember," she continued, "how he urged upon me the idea that the one who survived should remain faithful to the memory of the deceased. I—" here she flushed and lowered her eyes, "gave no actual pledge; but still—"
"Then I—" he returned with pale severity, "can say no more,—if you think you are in any way bound by an implied consent."
This strangely enough, she disclaimed, faltering and hesitating: she was not bound, in one sense, she believed, but a sense of loyalty stood as such a bond. Had her husband been less true, for that he was made of truth no-one could deny, it would have been quite simple, for she had given no pledge. It might even be, she hinted, that in time to come she would feel her obligation less strongly.
"It is the biography, partly, I believe," she uttered, laying her hand on his arm with a soft impulsiveness, "I don't think that I ever—I am almost ashamed to say it—I don't think I ever fully realized before I read what you have written, how strong, how true, how utterly loyal he was to me."
There was the cadence of tears in her voice as she urged this point of view upon him. He had raised in her a finer appreciation of Wingate's qualities, and this being so she could not repay loyalty with disloyalty: she felt that he would agree with her in that.
They stood together at the edge of the gravel sweep where it touched the darker line of the grass: beside them reared itself a tall yew, stern against the sombre purple of the sky. He watched, and through his sense of this outward beauty there pierced the knowledge that he was conquered, overwhelmed by a far reaching power, and he knew how well his friend had gauged, weighed, and estimated his tendency to idealize, and how well he had made use of it. Wingate had been working through himself as if he were still alive.
There seemed, under the circumstances, little that need be said, but as they moved slowly back to the opened and lighted porch Gertrude walked beside him, and, holding up her white skirt in one of the pretty ways she had at her command, pleaded that nothing should be altered, and that he must always be her dear and close friend. Fadelle felt the groan he was too heartsick to utter aloud. Yes, all was to remain as before; had not Wingate willed it so?
It was not later than the next morning that he announced in the worn formula that pressing affairs demanded his quick return to Town. Mrs Norton, benignly presiding over the breakfast table, was puzzled and mildly reproachful: her daughter looked conscience-stricken, and her eyes, for an instant, grew wider and brighter as if with unshed tears.
"Is there nothing I can say?" she asked softly when they were alone together. "Nothing that I can say to persuade you to remain with us a little longer?"
He feared not, unless—this with a
poor smile,—she could induce his publishers to wait upon him here, in the
country, and the authorities of the
"And the biography?" she asked without the least pretence of accepting the laboured joke.
That, he replied, was practically finished, and he proceeded to enlarge upon the subject with much deliberation, while Gertrude listened with weary blankness. Her interest in the biography seemed to have passed.
'There is something," she said with sudden remembrance, "something that I have forgotten to tell you. I should have spoken about it before." She told him that she had discovered an accumulation of papers and letters in an old bureau which had been sent down from her town house, together with other furniture. If he cared to look through them, he might be able to tell whether the letters were of any consequence. They were tied up carefully, dated and docketed, she thought, and a few minutes would doubtless serve to determine their importance.
"I had no idea until a day or two ago that there were any letters there," she said. "The bureau was in a room where Roger kept old books that he never used, but evidently did not wish to destroy or give away; his school trunks, sets of games and other boyish treasures. Indeed I did not know that he used the bureau at all for he always kept the room locked up."
They went together to a spare room and she showed him the letters and papers, all neatly ranged in various drawers and pigeon-holes.
"I would have gone through these myself," she said in a low tone; "but just now it seems beyond me."
He threw an enquiring glance towards her and noticed her air of depression, and the weary look in her eyes. She left him when he had assured her that he could run through the letters more expeditiously with out her aid. Taking a packet from the top drawer and slipping off an elastic band he began to read.
He had been through quite half a dozen letters before the meaning of their so careful concealment in the bureau struck home to his puzzled senses. Here, he felt, his hand was on a clue which, followed up, would explain much of the hidden side of Wingate's character that he had suspected but never clearly viewed. Reading on and on he drew deep breaths of bewilderment as packet after packet revealed a hitherto unknown Wingate, one to whom base trickery and unholy alliances had not been too mean weapons for gaining desired ends. No laudatory biography could have been written had these circumstances been revealed before. He remembered bitterly one chapter that he had filled with an exposition of Wingate's loyalty to a party, which, as these letters showed, he had basely sold. There was no proof of any great, overwhelming temptation and sudden, pitiable fall, such as the heart of any understanding man might have forgiven. He had lied and cheated in a calm deliberate manner, using, as in all other circumstances of his life, that unconquerable will, which it seemed had awed his accomplices into lasting silence.
Fadelle, in reading, wondered why Wingate should have piled together and preserved this mass of evidence now before him, for had these letters and papers, all damning records, been burnt, the high integrity of his character would have remained undoubted. An ordinary man, with little of state craft and nothing of Wingate's ability, would have taken this ordinary precaution. Nevertheless, people did such things as keep compromising papers, and, it was not out of accord with Wingate's character that he should have hurled his own image from its pedestal thus violently. No gradual descent would have served that supreme wilfulness.
The last packet of letters gave the final blow, and Fadelle put his hand to his head mechanically, as if amazed at the dull numbing pain it had sustained. Up to this moment he had held that his friend had carried, as a well of sweetening waters in the inviolable recesses of his heart, deep and unstained reverence for a domestic ideal, but these letters spoke of the deepest treachery, not to his party this time but to his wife.
He put them down and rested his aching head on his hands. Gradually the dubious haze and confusion cleared away and a tiny ray of light, no more than a pin-point at first-pierced the darkness and grew and grew until his mind was illuminated by one vast idea. He, Philip Fadelle, had triumphed at last: his adversary, after long years of victory, had met with one finally decisive stroke, for Fate had taken up arms against her erstwhile favourite on Fadelle's behalf.
One thing seemed plain enough to him: the biography could hardly be published now, at any rate not as he had written it. Gertrude would share the disillusionment, and not, so he dared to think, too regretfully. There was no reason now for her keeping faith with the memory of one who had been so unfaithful to her as she must be made to know. Things grew clearer and clearer to him, and at length he was serenely contented. He seemed to beholding out a cynically good-natured hand to Wingate across the dividing stream.
"I've won at last, old friend. You made a good fight of it always; but now, like the sportsman you always were, you must confess yourself beaten."
Strange that even now, with that confuting pile of letters before him, he should still cherish the idea of Wingate's straightness.
A slight noise made him start, and he turned to see that Gertrude had entered the room. In her hand she held some unfolded pages. She had been looking in a writing case that had belonged to her husband, one that had been used only when he was travelling, and in it she had found a letter, unfinished. "Addressed to me," she said with a slight tremor in her voice." From the date I imagine that it was written while he was out of Town, during that last short holiday he took before his death. I remember that he was called back suddenly, and that is, probably, why this letter was never finished."
He asked, somewhat bewildered, if she wished him to read it.
"I thought you would like to, as he speaks very beautifully of you. I was greatly touched. It is like a message from the dead."
Fadelle's eyes lingered for a moment upon the letters spread before him on the bureau: there, too, was a message, but of a different cast. "Have you found anything there of importance?" asked Gertrude, her glance following his.
Moved by a sudden impulse, strange even to himself, he answered hurriedly that there was nothing; he supposed that the letters had been put there so that they might, after an interval, be destroyed. Of their nature he said nothing, and Gertrude then left him.
When he was alone he wondered why he had failed to reveal that which must be made known at some time: the opportunity had presented itself so aptly, and yet he had omitted to make use of it. Wingate, he was sure, had never hesitated to grasp the slightest chance; and here was he, in the moment of victory, acknowledging his weakness.
With a sigh he gathered together the letters of the last packet and slipped around them their elastic band, having done which he took up the written sheets which Gertrude had left.
"I have been wondering who would be the best man for this purpose, and I have come to the conclusion that there is only one of all my host of acquaintances in whom I am able to place implicit trust, and that one is Philip Fadelle. I am sorry that we have seen so little of him lately, but that has not been my fault. Indeed, as years pass, I realize more fully the loyalty of his friendship; he has been the same from boyhood, your friend and my friend, and I am certain that if I call upon him now to do me this service he will not fail me. I am going to ask him—"
The letter ended abruptly, leaving Fadelle in ignorance concerning the request that his dead friend would have made. With a steady hand he laid it on the top of the bureau. It was, indeed, a message from the dead, a supplication rather, an appeal, to which he could not but respond.
"He will not fail me." He repeated the words: they were uncanny now. Yes, Wingate had judged him well, he could not fail him; could not reveal. Once more his glance fell upon the packets of betraying letters, ranged in drawer and pigeon-hole, and then he walked back to one of the windows. Below, in the sunlight, he saw the figure of Gertrude moving among the flaming torch-lilies and flaunting golden-rod in the long garden at the side of the house. Some distance behind her, at the end of the kitchen garden, arose a thin blue column of smoke from a pile of burning weeds; the sight suggested to him a course of action and he went down.
As he drew near to her he saw in her eyes that she wished to know how the letter had affected him, but of that he had determined he would not speak.
"I have looked through the letters in the bureau," he said steadily. "They relate mostly to private political matters, and were evidently meant to be destroyed. Perhaps it would be better for me to take them away with me to look through them again more leisurely than I have time to do now. If I find nothing in them that needs preserving I suppose I have your permission to destroy them. I suppose that you do not wish to read them?"
He waited in strained suspense for her answer, which came as he had thought.
"No thank you. I would much rather not, if you do not think it necessary. I think there can be nothing more depressing than reading such letters, and I hope that I have seen the last of them."
As they sauntered in the garden she again approached, almost shyly, the question of his departure, and it was evident that she wished him to remain longer. These tentative advances were disregarded by Fadelle. All that he wished now was to free himself as quickly as possible from the burden of obligation to his dead friend, which pressed upon his shoulders with ever increasing weight.
When the time arrived for him to go to the station and Gertrude appeared, ready to drive him in her dogcart, it was clear, even to his dulled bachelor perceptions, that her costume of thick cream serge and hat to match had no suggestion of widowhood; and the light tendrils of hair that blew across her brow were almost virginal in their significance.
As they drove along he remarked dully that the bracken was taking to itself deeper tints of brown and gold. A strange silence fell between them, a silence that seemed ever at breaking point. He felt that at a word from Gertrude the whole face of his mental world might have changed for ever, but the word was not spoken, though he seemed to see its shadow on her lips and in her eyes. At the same quiet wayside station where she had met him upon his arrival the pony drew up, and he found that there was the briefest possible space in which to wait for the train; he wondered, even then, what the interval might bring forth, but its sliding moments proved barren. Gertrude spoke of the bright flowers of early autumn that were beginning to bloom in the neat little station-garden, and she stooped and petted a serious station-cat which strolled leisurely among the luggage. Then the train rushed in.
Fadelle had made his farewell and taken his seat when she moved suddenly forward, her lips eagerly parted.
"Goodbye, Goodbye!" He leaned from the window as the train started, and his voice drowned what she might have said.
She took a few quick steps, not half a dozen in all, by the side of the moving carriage, and he knew that she had something to say then that might never again be said.
"Goodbye!" He dropped back in his seat and saw her left behind, the light dying out of her face as she stood still.
It was not until the train had pulsed and rattled onward for some miles, and he felt himself being carried to pastures unstained by memory, that he uttered to himself a comment which was to him the final token of the affair—that from the other side of the grave Wingate had played his last card and won.