HUSBAND AND WIFE

“You have broken your oath
And broken my heart,
Oh, sorrow for both,
You have broken your oath;
Although I am loth
In anger to part,
You have broken your oath
And broken my heart.”

Alizon Errington was seated in the Dutch room with Aunt Jelly’s letter
clenched in her hand, and Sammy playing on the carpet beside her. The
child, rolling among his toys was babbling inarticulate words of
endearment to them, but the mother’s eyes were fixed on the gaudy bed
of tulips blazing in the sunshine as she thought over the words she
had just read.

So this was her husband! This man who had gone straight from his home,
from his wife, from his child, to the arms of this infamous woman. He
knew more than the world did about the character of Mrs. Veilsturm,
for she had told him herself. He knew that she, his wife, had refused
to receive this adventuress and had returned her card! He knew that
Mrs. Veilsturm, Cleopatra, whatever she liked to call herself, had
been connected with disreputable Gabriel Mostyn, and yet, in spite of
all this, he had dared to enter her house, to clasp hands with her as
a friend, to sacrifice his honour and that of his wife to this vile
woman.

Was there any faith or honesty in man?

Her father had been bad and vicious all his life; he had destroyed his
daughter’s belief in the male sex by the terrible revelations of his
death-bed, but her husband–oh!–she had thought him better than this:
she had respected and admired him, she had been a good wife, holding
her head high and keeping her honour spotless. She was a good mother
to his child, and she had done her best in all ways to fulfil the vows
made at the marriage altar.

This was her reward! She was deserted for another woman, for a woman
who was the vilest of her sex. Her wifely honour had been dragged in
the mud, her wifely name had been placed with jeers in the mouths of
men and women, and the marriage tie, so sacred in her eyes, had been
violated by her husband, by the very man who should have respected its
sanctity.

Her first born was playing at her feet in the happy innocence of
childhood, a pure soul fresh from the hand of God, who had given her
this treasure to nurse and cherish. Yet even now, in its artless
babyhood, the shadow of a dark shame was hovering over its golden
head, the name it bore was already smirched in the eyes of the world,
and its father, who was responsible to God for its well-being, had
already degraded it by his own shameful passion.

Ah! all men were the same. Her father was only the type of many
others. They loved a woman, or said they loved her, and stayed beside
her for a time, yet as soon as they grew weary of her, they flew to
the arms of some newer fancy, and not even the sanctity of the
marriage tie could restrain their brutal natures. Guy, whom she
thought so good and kind, had turned out the same as his fellow men.
He had been a good husband for a time, but now, grown weary of his
quiet home, satiated with domestic love, weary of his prattling child,
he had deliberately flung himself into the arms of this light-o’-love.
Well, he would have his reward. The wages of sin is death! and he
would be dragged down to destruction by those arms that encircled him
so fondly.

But what about herself? What could she do in order to free herself
from the companionship of this man who prized her less than he did his
dissolute companions? Divorce! Yes, that was the way to break the
chain which bound her to the husband she despised. But it was
impossible that she could take advantage of the law, for it would
reflect on the child in the future, and for the child’s sake she would
have to remain in the bondage of marriage.

Tearless, cold, and pale as a lily, she sat there with her hands
clasping the hateful letter which told her of her husband’s treachery
and destroyed the happiness of her life. The child, weary of its toys,
crawled across the carpet to her feet, and clutching her dress raised
itself to its feet with a plaintive cry. She looked downward in
dry-eyed misery, saw the wax-like tiny hands clasping her dress, and
heard the thin little voice utter its inarticulate prayer to lie on
her breast.

The full horror of her position broke on her dulled brain like a flash
of light, and with a burst of tears she took up the child and strained
him convulsively to her bosom.

Ah, how those tears fell–hot, scalding tears that blistered her
cheeks, that burned into her very soul, and that fell on the
frightened face of the baby like rain, bitter and salt as the waves of
the sea. The child was afraid at this passionate outburst of sorrow
and began to cry, but she held him close to her breast and,
restraining her tears, hushed him to slumber with a low lullaby
rocking to and fro, her heart heavy as lead.

“Alizon!”

With a cry she arose to her feet, the sleeping child in her arms, and
saw her husband, travel-stained, worn, and haggard, standing at the
door with a look of imploring agony on his face. She drew herself up
to her full height and shrank against the wall, with one arm stretched
out to keep him off, the other holding the tiny form of the child, and
at her feet the crumpled letter that had been the cause of all this
undoing.

Guy made a step forward and stretched out his arms.

“Alizon!”

“Don’t–don’t come near me!” she said in a low, hoarse voice, with a
look of horror on her pale face.

“I come to explain—-”

“Nothing can explain that,” she answered, pointing to the letter on
the floor, “nothing can explain that.”

“I can explain it, if you will only listen,” he said vehemently. The
marks of tears were still on her cheeks, but no other traces of
emotion remained to show how she had suffered.

As her husband spoke, a cold, scornful smile crept over her face, and
she signed to him to go on, still shrinking against the wall with her
arms folded round the child as if she would keep it from being
contaminated by its father.

“I saw Aunt Jelly,” said Sir Guy hurriedly, “and she told me what she
had done. Written to you about–about Mrs. Veilsturm.”

He brought out the hated name with a great effort, but his wife,
neither shrinking nor wincing, stared straight at him with that
terrible frozen smile on her face.

“She writes under a mistake,” pursued Errington, clasping the back of
a chair in his strong fingers as though he would crush it to dust. “It
is not true what she says. I told her all about it and she believed
me. I am going to tell you now, and you will believe me, will you not,
Alizon?”

“I cannot tell.”

The words dropped slowly from her mouth, and he flung out his arms
towards her with a cry of anguish.

“You must believe me–you must, I tell you,” he said breathlessly. “It
is not true about that woman. I went up to Town with Eustace, and
called at her house—-”

A flush of angry red passed over her face, and she turned on him like
a tigress.

“You called on her! You called on that woman!” she said in a clear,
vibrating voice, tremulous with anger. “The woman about whom I told
you–whom I would not receive, and you–you–my husband, dared to put
this insult upon me.”

“Alizon—-”

“Don’t speak further! I have heard enough. That letter is true, and
you cannot deny it.”

“I do deny it,” he cried fiercely. “I tell you it is all a mistake. I
forgot all about your refusal to receive Mrs. Veilsturm. Had I
remembered I would not have gone.”

“Ah!” she said with ineffable scorn, “if you had remembered. What
excuse is that to make? Do my words weigh so lightly with you that you
could forget them so easily? It was not for anything that Mrs.
Veilsturm had done to me that I declined to receive her. But I heard
my father, on his death-bed, speak of her–speak of her as men such as
he was speak of such a woman as she is. I told you this, and yet you
forget my words and visit her.”

“As God is my judge, I did forget,” he said desperately. “I did not
think about it until it was too late.”

“Ah, you did remember at last.”

“Yes! only it was too late. I had been to her house and she—-”

“And she,” echoed his wife bitterly. “Oh, I well know what you are
going to say. She did her best to captivate you with her vile arts,
tried her hardest to win your heart from me—-”

“But she did not succeed–she did not succeed,” he said earnestly.

“Do you think I care if she did or if she did not?” replied Lady
Errington scornfully. “Do you think I would place myself in rivalry
with that woman? No! you have chosen her in preference to me, your
lawful wife. Go to her as soon as you like, but don’t dare to come
near me.”

“I will come near you,” said Guy desperately. “You have no right to
judge me like this.”

“I have the right of a wronged woman.”

“No, no! I swear you have not. On my soul; on my honour—-”

“On your honour,” she interrupted with a sneer, “the honour of a man
who could act as you have done!”

“Whose fault is it if I have acted badly?” he cried, rendered
desperate by her jeers.

“Do you mean to infer it’s mine?” said his wife quietly.

He gnawed his moustache viciously and did not respond, whereupon she
was about to ask the question again, when a knock came to the door and
startled them both.

“It is the child’s nurse,” said Lady Errington, going to the door.
“Wait a moment.”

Guy turned towards the window so that the servant should not see how
upset he was, and Lady Errington, opening the door, kept her face bent
over the sleeping child as she placed it in Mrs. Tasker’s arms.

“He’s sound asleep, Nurse,” she said quietly, as the old woman took
him. “Take him up to the nursery, and I’ll come to him in a short
time.”

Her voice was perfectly under control, and Mrs. Tasker never for a
moment suspected anything was wrong between her master and mistress as
she toiled slowly up the stairs carrying the child tenderly in her
stout arms.

Lady Errington drew a long breath as Mrs. Tasker disappeared, and
then, closing the door quietly, turned once more to her husband, who
still stood looking out at the bright sunshine, which seemed to mock
his misery by its glare and cheerful brilliancy.

“I am waiting for your answer,” said his wife’s steady voice behind
him, whereupon he turned swiftly round, and crossing to where she
stood, stern and silent by the table, caught one of her hands before
she could prevent him.

“Alizon,” he said earnestly, “for your own sake, for the sake of our
child, listen to me quietly, and I will try and explain things to your
satisfaction. I did go to Mrs. Veilsturm’s, but I swear by all that is
sacred, that I did not remember anything about her. Not even her name.
Think for a moment, the whole affair passed in five minutes–your
explanation was a hurried one, and you never referred to it again. It
is eighteen months ago, and since then her name has never been
mentioned between us, so you can hardly wonder that I quite forgot
about the woman. Had I remembered, I would not have gone–give me at
least that credit. I went innocently enough with Eustace, and Mrs.
Veilsturm, I suppose out of revenge for the slight she received from
you, was very attentive to me. I did not respond to her advances in
any way, and saw as little of her as I could. I was not responsible
for the coupling of our names together. You know how the world talks
and magnifies the most innocent things into evidences of guilt. The
scandal reached the ears of my aunt, and she, innocently enough, wrote
that letter to you–a letter which she now bitterly regrets having
sent to you. When she told me about it, I explained all, and she asked
my pardon for having written the letter. I came down here at once to
tell you everything, and I have now done so. On my honour, Alizon,
that is the whole affair. I acted wrongly in forgetting about Mrs.
Veilsturm’s past, and I ask your pardon. Let this misunderstanding
cease between us. I love you dearly. I have always loved you, never so
much as now. Do not let our lives be blighted like this. I have acted
wrongly, and I ask your pardon. You in your turn grant it to me, and
let us forget this terrible mistake.”

All the time he was pleading, she listened to him without any sign of
emotion, her face looking impassable as a marble mask, but at the
conclusion of his speech, she withdrew her hand from his with a cold
smile of disbelief, which showed how little his tenderness affected
her.

“Your explanation would satisfy the world,” she said with chilly
dignity, “but it does not satisfy me. I cannot believe that you forgot
about my refusal to receive Mrs. Veilsturm. Even if you did forget,
that only makes your conduct worse, for you still went to visit her
after you recollected the affair, as you acknowledge yourself. I have
been a good wife to you, I have been a good mother to your child, and
in return you have not even given me the common fidelity of a husband,
which every woman has a right to expect.”

“I see it is no use pleading to a cold piece of perfection like you,”
said Guy, drawing himself up with dignity. “I have stooped to explain
this affair, and you decline to believe me. I can do no more. You are
convinced, without the shadow of a reason, that I am vile, and it is
impossible for me to undeceive you further than I have done. Under
these circumstances it is impossible for us to live together as man
and wife. You doubt me, and I resent your doing so, therefore it will
be best for us to at once make some arrangement about our future
lives.”

He spoke calmly enough, but his heart was hot with indignation, that
he should receive such treatment from the woman he loved best on
earth. He was innocent, and he knew himself to be innocent, therefore
all his nature rose in revolt against the unjust attitude taken up by
his wife.

She, on her side, was also indignant, deeming that his explanation was
false from beginning to end, so she refused to forgive him, or to
believe the skilful tissue of falsehoods he had put forward as a plea
for her mercy.

It was a case of misunderstanding on both sides, and as the stubborn
pride of each refused to bend, nothing was now left but separation.

“For the sake of the child,” she said coldly, “I am unwilling there
should be any scandal, so it will be best for me to stay down here to
look after the boy, and you can take up your abode in London, or
wherever else it pleases you. Regarding money matters, I presume you
will allow me sufficient to live on in a style befitting the mistress
of this place. My life will be devoted to bringing up the child,
yours–well, I have nothing to do with that, and you are free to act
as you desire. These are the only terms upon which I will consent to
pass over the matter, and I think there is nothing more to be said.”

Slowly and deliberately she uttered these cruel words, which fell like
ice on his heart, and showed him how utterly futile it was to hope for
any reconcilement with this pure woman, so pure that she could neither
understand nor forgive the infidelity of which she accused him. All
his manhood arose in rebellion against such treatment, and, mad with
anger, he stepped to her side as she turned to leave the room.

“There is more to be said,” he cried furiously. “I have told you the
truth, which you decline to believe. But if I had conducted myself as
you say–if I had voluntarily gone to this woman whom you hate, who is
to blame, you or I? Have I not been a good husband to you since our
marriage? Have I not striven by every means in my power to win your
heart? and what have I received in return?–cold words and frigid
smiles. Do you think that I did not feel all this? Yes, I did feel it,
but you, wrapped up in your icy nature, cannot understand my feelings.”

“I have treated you with all respect—-”

“Respect! Respect!” he reiterated bitterly. “I ask for love, you give
me respect. I ask for bread, you offer me a stone. All the feelings of
my heart have been crushed down by your cold superiority, by your
chilly self-respect, which forbade you giving to me those attentions
that other men receive from their wives.”

“You dare to talk to me like this,” she said angrily, “you, who have
had no respect either for me or for your child!”

“Ah, the child,” he retorted with a sneering laugh, “it was the child
that came between us. You have lavished upon it all the love and
affection which is due to me. Am I not the child’s father? Why should
you treat me as if I were a block of marble? In my own house I have
been lonely. In my own house I have been neglected, while you, leaving
me to starve, gave all your love to the child.”

“Is it a crime for a mother to love her child?”

“No, it is no crime. I did not say it was. But it is a crime–worse
than a crime–to cherish and love the child to the exclusion of the
husband and father. The husband has the first claim on the wife’s
heart, the child the second.”

“You are wrong.”

“No, I am right,” he replied vehemently, “and if driven forth by
neglect, and hungry for love, I left my home to go to another woman,
you reproach me for what is your own work! But I have not done so. I
have been as true to you as you have been to me. Alizon, let things be
as they were before this miserable misunderstanding, and let there be
love and affection between us. I will forgive you all the neglect I
have suffered these eighteen months, if you will overlook my
forgetfulness about Mrs. Veilsturm, and act towards me as a wife
should act.”

“You forgive me,” she said contemptuously, “you forgive me? No. It is
I who have the right to do that. I do not forgive you. I never shall.”

“Are those your last words?”

“My last words.”

Errington looked at her in silence for a moment, and then, without a
word, walked towards the door of the room, at which he paused.

“I have implored and entreated you to be merciful,” he said, with
terrible calmness, “you have refused to grant what I ask. Now I go
back to London, to Mrs. Veilsturm, the woman you despise so much. You
have driven me to this, and the result of it rests on your own head.
You do not love me, you never have loved me, so I leave you alone in
your immaculate purity, to forget the man whom you have despised and
wronged.”

He was gone before she could utter a word, and she was left alone in
the room, alone in the world, with nothing but her child to comfort
her in the hour of need.