(written with Florence Dugdale-Hardy)
There were times when Philip Fadelle acknowledged to himself with asense of amusement not untinged with bitterness that even death hadscarce succeeded in tempering the force of that inflexible will which he hadever 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 tourge him into paths whither he would not, the more effective in that it waswielded with the semblance of good-fellowship.The compelling pressure onhis arm had been so much the friendly grip of one whose mastery ofcircumstance has given him the right to hale his friend, by the hair if needbe, into ways of prosperity, that now when these fingers were cold andrelaxed the moral force remained as potent as ever.
Among other things he remembered that, when he had spoken orrather hinted, of his intention to ask Gertrude Norton to be his wife, thissame good friend had revealed the fact that there would be rivalry betweenthem, but in mitigation, he had dwelt insistingly, his hand meanwhilepressing Philip's shoulder somewhat more heavily than usual, upon the factthat Gertrude Norton had been framed by Nature, obviously, to be the wifeof himself, the astute and rising young politician, rather than to be thedivinity of the struggling man of letters.Upon this occasion, Fadelle wasglad to remember, he had refused to grant the premisses, not that this wasof great moment, seeing that some weeks later Roger Wingate was theaccepted suitor of the girl whose gay looks and bounding spirits had seemedto merit some orbit of their own, instead of suffering eclipse by the luminousand self-sufficient personality of a too eminent husband.
He remembered also, with less of gratitude, that if he had acted morepromptly and had omitted to confide in his friend, all might have gonedifferently.When, at length, he had decided to go to her he had broken hisjourney to linger irresolutely a day or two in an old Cathedral town, withinthe peaceful close and under the shadow of one of the most notable piles ofMediaeval architecture in England.His dallying had led to his arrival at thehome of the woman he wished to make his wife a few hours after herengagement to Roger Wingate.
Had he been earlier, he fancied, he might have won her, for a gleam inher eyes seemed to reproach him.He found scant comfort from therecollection that it had always been Wingate's way to supersede him, evenwhen they were at school together.
Five years after Roger Wingate's marriage, at a time when his careerhad seemed secure against mischance, he had succumbed with appallingswiftness 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 theextinction of one so vital.The force which had emanated from him hadseemed imperishable.
The news, revealed in course of time by the widow, that it had beenWingate's definitely expressed wish that some memoir of himself should becompiled by his friend was to Philip Fadelle another, perhaps the last,manifestation of that overpowering will.Though none else had contemplatedWingate's death, he himself had done so, and in providing that his friend'shand should raise him a memorial lucent and rare, he had linked to thisevidence of his friend's literary gift a sense of his own domination.
"Of course, had he lived longer, the biography would have been a workof importance; but as it is, with his letters-unique in their way, Ibelieve-something not unworthy might be done." Gertrude had hesitated atthis point, and then, in a lower key, had given her tribute to that unseenpower:
"One feels, somehow, constrained to obey what one knows to havebeen his wish."
In this the man of letters had acquiesced, with a sigh that had a groanat its heart.He knew that the telling of that brief though redundant lifemight with safety be left in his hands, and he was prepared to offer whatslight fame he had already garnered as incense to his dead comrade'smemory.
"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) forthe living, as regret for the dead.
The memory of the past bloomed between them like some wan flowerof which both inhaled the faint perfume; till Fadelle suddenly rememberedthat his friend had now been dead for nearly six months, and that the timewould 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 thememoir with interest, even with pleasure."It will be the last token thatfriendship can offer," he said almost with emotion, and to himself he addedthat 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 hehad undertaken he began to realize that here, under his hand, Wingate'scharacter was developing into such complexities as hitherto he had notsuspected! Besides those sterner qualities which had impelled him onward inhis chosen career there were suggestions of mystery, definite shades, ofromance it might be, almost incredible in one who had mastered the hardfacts of life so unshrinkingly. More wonderful still was the presumption thatthis side of that forcible character had been revealed to no-one! Gertrude, sofar as he could gather, had never seen it.
The biography, he judged, would do full justice to a personality almostunique in its qualities of ingenuous comradeship allied to a wellnighoverwhelming dominance: a rare enough combination.
The summer following Wingate's death had nearly passed when Fadelledecided to visit Gertrude, who had been living for some time with hermother in the country. He had refrained from accepting the invitation, oftenand pressingly repeated, until he had almost finished the biography.Nowthat this had been accomplished for all practical purposes, and theanniversary of Roger Wingate's death had come and gone, the way seemedclear for the furtherance of his chief desire.He was filled with a pleasingcertainty as his train carried him on to his destination, and when he alightedat 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 ofmarried life she had seemed subdued to that strong will, had been absorbedinto that overwhelming personality with which she had been mated.Now, asshe sat in the dog-cart, waiting to drive her guest to her house, he notedwith a leaping heart that the Gertrude of her maiden days had beenreincarnated.In her bright face was all the arch vivacity of unfetteredgirlhood, and as they were carried swiftly between green hedgerows herejoiced to hear again the gay inconsequence that Roger had always tacitlysuppressed.
Glancing at her charming profile he wondered, once again, if she hadever plumbed that hidden well of sentiment which he fancied he haddiscovered in the secret writings of his friend.Some day he might ask,-butnot 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 towrite?"
"About what?""Oh, about the biography, of course."
His gaze fastened itself upon the bracken at the side of the lane downwhich they were passing and sought out the flecks of golden brown amongthe green.
When he turned to her again there was something so unwidow-like inher grey tweed, in the small jaunty plume of her hat, and her business-likedog-skin gloves that a smile hovered where doubt had been.
"Ah, that biography!It will need days and days of discussion.Ofcourse it must be a tremendous thing."
"Of course it must, but do you know-" her eyes sought his withlaughing embarrassment, "sometimes I am afraid that it is going to besomething of an obsession."
His glance held hers with amused assurance.
"I'm not quite sure that I have not found it something of that sortalready."
Then mysteriously, a sense of loyalty to the dear husband and frienddescended 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. Twicealready, within one brief hour, he had met with an invisible rebuff; yet thehand 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.Itis rather sweet, isn't it?"
He thought it was, as he saw it nestling among the trees, grey walledand red roofed, and in front, walking on the wide gravel sweep before thedoor, as if to lend the final touch of domesticity, a mushroom-hatted andlace-shawled lady, Gertrude's mother, who turned at the sound of wheels togreet her visitor.
The days of his visit passed, and deliberate and continuedobservationconfirmed Philip Fadelle in the assurance that to Gertrude Wingate the pastthirteen months had brought a virtual renewal of blithe girlhood; but whenshe discussed with him the biography she became preternaturally solemn,and assumed a delightfully important manner as of one in whose small handsweighty 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 hehad, in his wife's estimation, previously occupied. She was pleased to beFadelle's divinity, but there were moments when he told himself bitterly thatin spirit she remained Wingate's slave.
This intuition, however, did not suffice to rob his holiday of anyperceptible amount of charm, since Gertrude Wingate, as she rambled withhim through woods and fields, betrayed the gaiety of a child who hasescaped from the durance of a stern school. When she referred to her latehusband it was in notes of eulogy rather than of regretful reminiscence.
"This immaculate man has only just begun to live," Fadelle told himselfwith chagrin."He was born in the first chapter of the biography."
Nevertheless he worked assiduously at his task: every stone set intothat destined memorial must be polished and repolished, even though itwere with bleeding hands.There was something in Gertrude's brightfriendship that sustained him.Often when she turned from the subject ofthe biography to discuss his other more per personal work she unconsciouslygained in vividness, and her eyes beamed with a kindlier interest.She wasquickly appreciative of subtle intangible moods, she was swift to catch ameaning, and was there, with him, in a moment, when women of a morepronounced 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 luminousrectangle, which showed the calm figure of Gertrude's mother knitting besidea 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 Rogerled," she said suddenly one evening when walking thus."I might haveunderstood, I suppose, all that there was; but I could never have reallycared.I belong more to that." She thrust her hand through the darknessand waved it at the shrouded woods and fields beyond.
There was a fair in the village some distance away, hidden behind thewoods.A hoarse murmur reached them faintly, and on the sky one sullenpatch betrayed the reflected light of the flaming naptha-lamps that hung onthe 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 hiserstwhile friend and school-fellow, he let the decisive moment fall away. Together they returned to the house and the warm and lighted sanity of thedrawingroom, to discuss a chapter dealing with a political crisis in which theinflexible will and insistent personality of Roger Wingate had not been foundwanting.
It was as Fadelle had imagined it would be, during one of those lateevening strollings and communings that he asked Gertrude to be his wife. When she slowly and reluctantly gave a refusal she tempered it withexplanations of an unsuspected character, so that the listener, peeringbewilderedly at a totally strange aspect of Roger Wingate, almost missed thesense of his own loss.
"If there was one thing that he hated, one thing which always worriedand 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 earlydeath. To him it seemed betrayal of the basest kind, utterly unforgiveable."
"I remember," she continued, "how he urged upon me the idea thatthe 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 youthink you are in any way bound by an implied consent."
This strangely enough, she disclaimed, faltering and hesitating: shewas not bound, in one sense, she believed, but a sense of loyalty stood assuch a bond. Had her husband been less true, for that he was made of truthno-one could deny, it would have been quite simple, for she had given nopledge. It might even be, she hinted, that in time to come she would feel herobligation less strongly.
"It is the biography, partly, I believe," she uttered, laying her hand onhis arm with a soft impulsiveness, "I don't think that I ever-I am almostashamed to say it-I don't think I ever fully realized before I read what youhave 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 ofview upon him. He had raised in her a finer appreciation of Wingate'squalities, and this being so she could not repay loyalty with disloyalty: shefelt that he would agree with her in that.
They stood together at the edge of the gravel sweep where it touchedthe darker line of the grass: beside them reared itself a tall yew, sternagainst the sombre purple of the sky.He watched, and through his sense ofthis outward beauty there pierced the knowledge that he was conquered,overwhelmed by a far reaching power, and he knew how well his friend hadgauged, weighed, and estimated his tendency to idealize, and how well hehad made use of it.Wingate had been working through himself as if he werestill alive.
There seemed, under the circumstances, little that need be said, butas they moved slowly back to the opened and lighted porch Gertrude walkedbeside him, and, holding up her white skirt in one of the pretty ways she hadat her command, pleaded that nothing should be altered, and that he mustalways be her dear and close friend.Fadelle felt the groan he was tooheartsick to utter aloud.Yes, all was to remain as before; had not Wingatewilled it so?
It was not later than the next morning that he announced in the wornformula that pressing affairs demanded his quick return to Town.MrsNorton, benignly presiding over the breakfast table, was puzzled and mildlyreproachful: her daughter looked conscience-stricken, and her eyes, for aninstant, grew wider and brighter as if with unshed tears.
"Is there nothing I can say?" she asked softly when they were alonetogether."Nothing that I can say to persuade you to remain with us a littlelonger?"
He feared not, unless-this with a poor smile,-she could induce hispublishers to wait upon him here, in the country, and the authorities of theBritish Museum to send him several parcels of books and papers.
"And the biography?" she asked without the least pretence ofaccepting the laboured joke.
That, he replied, was practically finished, and he proceeded to enlargeupon the subject with much deliberation, while Gertrude listened with wearyblankness. Her interest in the biography seemed to have passed.
'There is something," she said with sudden remembrance, "somethingthat I have forgotten to tell you. I should have spoken about it before." Shetold him that she had discovered an accumulation of papers and letters in anold bureau which had been sent down from her town house, together withother furniture. If he cared to look through them, he might be able to tellwhether the letters were of any consequence. They were tied up carefully,dated and docketed, she thought, and a few minutes would doubtless serveto determine their importance.
"I had no idea until a day or two ago that there were any lettersthere," she said. "The bureau was in a room where Roger kept old booksthat he never used, but evidently did not wish to destroy or give away; hisschool trunks, sets of games and other boyish treasures.Indeed I did notknow 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 lettersand papers, all neatly ranged in various drawers and pigeon-holes.
"I would have gone through these myself," she said in a low tone; "butjust now it seems beyond me."
He threw an enquiring glance towards her and noticed her air ofdepression, and the weary look in her eyes. She left him when he hadassured her that he could run through the letters more expeditiously withouther aid. Taking a packet from the top drawer and slipping off an elastic bandhe began to read.
He had been through quite half a dozen letters before the meaning oftheir so careful concealment in the bureau struck home to his puzzledsenses. Here, he felt, his hand was on a clue which, followed up, wouldexplain much of the hidden side of Wingate's character that he hadsuspected but never clearly viewed. Reading on and on he drew deepbreaths of bewilderment as packet after packet revealed a hitherto unknownWingate, one to whom base trickery and unholy alliances had not been toomean weapons for gaining desired ends. No laudatory biography could havebeen written had thesecircumstances been revealed before. Herememberedbitterly one chapter that he had filled with an exposition of Wingate's loyaltyto a party, which, as these letters showed, he had basely sold.There wasno proof of any great, overwhelming temptation and sudden, pitiable fall,such as the heart of any understanding man might have forgiven.He hadlied and cheated in a calm deliberate manner, using, as in all othercircumstances of his life, that unconquerable will, which it seemed had awedhis accomplices into lasting silence.
Fadelle, in reading, wondered why Wingate should have piled togetherand preserved this mass of evidence now before him, for had these lettersand papers, all damning records, been burnt, the high integrity of hischaracter would have remained undoubted.An ordinary man, with little ofstatecraft and nothing of Wingate's ability, would have taken this ordinaryprecaution.Nevertheless, people did such things as keep compromisingpapers, and, it was not out of accord with Wingate's character that he shouldhave hurled his own image from its pedestal thus violently.No gradualdescent would have served that supreme wilfulness.
The last packet of letters gave the final blow, and Fadelle put his handto his head mechanically, as if amazed at the dull numbing pain it hadsustained.Up to this moment he had held that his friend had carried, as awell of sweetening waters in the inviolable recesses of his heart, deep andunstained reverence for a domestic ideal, but these letters spoke of thedeepest treachery, not to his party this time but to his wife.
He put them down and rested his aching head on his hands.Graduallythe dubious haze and confusion cleared away and a tiny ray of light, no morethan a pin-point at first-pierced the darkness and grew and grew until hismind was illuminated by one vast idea.He, Philip Fadelle, had triumphed atlast: his adversary, after long years of victory, had met with one finallydecisive stroke, for Fate had taken up arms against her erstwhile favouriteon Fadelle's behalf.
One thing seemed plain enough to him: the biography could hardly bepublished now, at any rate not as he had written it.Gertrude would sharethe disillusionment, and not, so he dared to think, too regretfully. There wasno reason now for her keeping faith with the memory of one who had beenso unfaithful to her as she must be made to know. Things grew clearer andclearer to him, and at length he was serenely contented. He seemed to beholding out a cynically good-natured hand to Wingate across the dividingstream.
"I've won at last, old friend. You made a good fight of it always; butnow, like the sportsman you always were, you must confess yourselfbeaten."
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 hadentered the room. In her hand she held some unfolded pages. She had beenlooking in a writing case that had belonged to her husband, one that hadbeen used only when he was travelling, and in it she had found a letter,unfinished. "Addressed to me," she said with a slighttremor 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 hewas called back suddenly, and that is, probably, why this letter was neverfinished."
He asked, somewhat bewildered, if she wished him to read it.
"I thought you would like to, as he speaks very beautifully of you. Iwas greatly touched. It is like a message from the dead."Fadelle's eyes lingered for a moment upon the letters spread beforehim on the bureau: there, too, was a message, but of a different cast. "Have you found anything there of importance?" asked Gertrude, her glancefollowing his.
Moved by a sudden impulse, strange even to himself, he answeredhurriedly that there was nothing; he supposed that the letters had been putthere so that they might, after an interval, be destroyed. Of their nature hesaid nothing, and Gertrude then left him.
When he was alone he wondered why he had failed to reveal thatwhich must be made known at some time: the opportunity had presenteditself so aptly, and yet he had omitted to make use of it.Wingate, he wassure, had never hesitated to grasp the slightest chance; and here was he, inthe moment of victory, acknowledging his weakness.
With a sigh he gathered together the letters of the last packet andslipped around them their elastic band, having done which he took up thewritten sheets which Gertrude had left.
"I have been wondering who would be the best man for this purpose,and Ihave come to the conclusion that there is only one of all my host ofacquaintancesin whom I am able to place implicit trust, and that one is Philip Fadelle.I amsorrythat we have seen so little of him lately, but that has not been my fault. Indeed, asyears pass, I realize more fully the loyalty of his friendship; he has been thesamefrom boyhood, your friend and my friend, and I am certain that if I call uponhimnow 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 therequest that his dead friend would have made.With a steady hand he laid iton the top of the bureau.It was, indeed, a message from the dead, asupplication 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 indrawer 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 theflaming torch-lilies and flaunting golden-rod in the long garden at the side ofthe 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 sightsuggested 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 knowhow the letter had affected him, but of that he had determined he would notspeak.
"I have looked through the letters in the bureau," he said steadily. "They relate mostly to private political matters, and were evidently meant tobe destroyed.Perhaps it would be better for me to take them away with meto look through them again more leisurely than I have time to do now. If Ifind nothing in them that needs preserving I suppose I have your permissionto destroy them. I suppose that you do not wish to read them?"He waited in strained suspense for her answer, which came as he hadthought."No thank you. I would much rather not, if you do not think itnecessary. I think there can be nothing more depressing than reading suchletters, 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 toremain longer. These tentative advances were disregarded by Fadelle. Allthat he wished now was to free himself as quickly as possible from theburden of obligation to his dead friend, which pressed upon his shoulderswith ever increasing weight.
When the time arrived for him to go to the station and Gertrudeappeared, ready to drive him in her dogcart, it was clear, even to his dulledbachelor perceptions, that her costume of thick cream serge and hat tomatch had no suggestion of widowhood; and the light tendrils of hair thatblew across her brow were almost virginal in their significance.
As they drove along he remarked dully that the bracken was taking toitself deeper tints of brown and gold. A strange silence fell between them, asilence that seemed ever at breaking point. He felt that at a word fromGertrude 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 herlips and in her eyes. At the same quiet wayside station where she had methim upon his arrival the pony drew up, and he found that there was thebriefest possible space in which to wait for the train; he wondered, eventhen, what the interval might bring forth, but its sliding moments provedbarren. Gertrude spoke of the bright flowers of early autumn that werebeginning to bloom in the neat little station-garden, and she stooped andpetted a serious station-cat which strolled leisurely among the luggage. Thenthe train rushed in.
Fadelle had made his farewell and taken his seat when she movedsuddenly 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 themoving carriage, and he knew that she had something to say then thatmight never again be said.
"Goodbye!" He dropped back in his seat and saw her left behind, thelight dying out of her face as she stood still.
It was not until the train had pulsed and rattled onward for somemiles, 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 theaffair-that from the other side of the grave Wingate had played his last cardand won.
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