Lionel stared

So Leah won after all. She went out with a definite purpose, and
returned with that purpose achieved; yet not fully, since what
she desired had been flung to her as a bone to a dog. In the
panic-stricken flight from the field she carried with her the spoils
of victory and something less desirable. The price of her good name,
the security of her position, the entire triumph–these, as she well
knew, had been gained by shameful self-surrender. Indeed, it could
scarcely be called a victory, seeing that she had succumbed to the
masterful brutality of her enemy. Nevertheless–and she derived
comfort from the thought–it could not be termed a defeat. Her social
glory yet flamed unextinguished; her character could not be smirched,
and she could yet hold up her head to flout the found-out of her sex.
But something bitter spoiled the flavour of these sweets. She had lost
her belief in the fetish; its spell of good luck was broken; her nerve
was gone, and with it self-respect. All she desired was to hide
herself amongst familiar surroundings, that their very familiarity
might fence in her quailing soul from impossible danger. And that the
danger could be so described by her intellect revealed a demoralised
will.

The cypher letters attesting her share in the conspiracy she destroyed
by fire. They were genuinely those she had written, and the number was
correct, so, when their ashes floated up the chimney, Leah drew the
long, deep, relieved breath of one whose chains have been struck off.
Yet, even at the moment of release, she shuddered to the core of her
being. The ghost of a futile crime was laid, but the ghost might
return. Demetrius had truly parted with all tangible evidence, and his
unsubstantiated story would be whiffed away as too romantic for
belief. Moreover, M. Aksakoff, for the sake of his own good name, and
that of his Government, would swear to her innocence of this gross
intrigue. She was safe–absolutely, entirely, and wholly safe. The
world would never know how she had capered on the verge of an abyss,
or how nearly she had missed her footing. But something–her
conscience probably–told her that an unseen Judge was summing up her
delinquencies; that she was being weighed in the balance and would be
found wanting, even though her kingdom did not pass from her. This
Judge, impartial, terribly quiet, severely righteous, might have been
God; and He was God, although she refused recognition. Her tormented
soul inspired her with the dread of an all-seeing and condemning eye;
but she resolutely declined to admit the Maker, the Judge, or the
Unseen in any way. Shadows should not frighten her, for these were not
of the eating, drinking, merry-making world. All the same, shadows,
elusive and unexpected, did strike terror to her guilty heart, and she
reluctantly knew herself to be a broken woman. In those earlier hours
of safety this knowledge was very insistent.

The week of her retirement passed pleasantly enough. She doctored her
bruised lips, mended their torn skin, and argued occasionally with her
shameful soul. The quiet life of silent hours in the midst of
civilised balms partially restored her courage, but not as entirely as
she could wish. Piecing her broken nerves together as best she could,
she strove to remount the pinnacle of supreme and self-sufficient
egotism whence she had fallen. But Humpty-Dumpty could not be set up
again, try as she might to replace him. During those brooding hours
Leah recovered much, but not all. The week’s end found her cured of
the skin-deep blow, and outwardly the same insolent, radiant beauty of
an adoring world. But she knew herself to be a changed being; the
pantheress had become a hare, although less innocent. The sword of her
tongue was still sharp, but the shield of self-righteousness was
broken, and a keen-eyed antagonist sufficiently assertive could have
reduced her to the same moral pulp that the interview with Demetrius
had left her. Woe to the vanquished indeed! What remained but that she
should receive the wooden foil of retirement from Destiny and leave
the arena for ever. Her soul protested against this tame submission,
so with indomitable courage she braced herself to further battle. With
the world, that is, not with Demetrius. His abominable kiss had sapped
her forces. She could face social enemies, she could defy the Eternal,
she could encounter the fiends of hell, but not the man who had flung
her into the dust–who had trailed her, and was still trailing her, at
his chariot wheels. Certainly he had steamed into the unknown, and she
would never behold him more. But his black influence remained and made
itself felt at untoward moments.

Jim paid his promised visit almost at the end of her seclusion, and
was disposed to be disagreeable on the plea that his wife had lied
unnecessarily. Being truthful himself, when there was nothing to be
gained by swerving from the path of rectitude, Jim abhorred a wasted
fib, and proceeded to condemn Leah for shooting an aimless arrow from
her mental quiver. It was the most pensive hour of the summer twilight
when Jim began his sermon, and he preached in his wife’s sitting-room.
Darby sat beside Joan, who lay languidly on a sofa. What a perfect and
touching picture of connubial felicity! If only a reporter of
backstair gossip had been present to describe this middle-class
domesticity of these great leaders of fashion, Brixton might have
learned an edifying lesson from Belgravia.

“Now I do call it hard on a fellow,” complained the Duke–“jolly
hard–that you can’t talk straight, Leah.”

“If I did you would scarcely feel flattered. What is it now?”

“Aksakoff! Says he was never near Southend. Swore till all was blue
that he’d never set eyes on that girl for months an’ months.”

“A sad deprivation for so affectionate a father.”

“Well, then, he wants to know where she is.”

“How should I know?” replied the Duchess, indifferently. “She chose to
remain at Southend, and I returned here alone.”

“What were you doin’ at Southend?”

“That is my business, Jim!”

“Mine also. You said something that wasn’t true.”

“Really? The Accuser of the Brethren in the pulpit with a vengeance!”

The Duke stared. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I am quite sure you don’t. Stop talking, please. I am too ill to be
worried.”

“Rats,” said Jim, elegantly; “you look like a picture.*

“Then permit me the privilege of one, and do not ask for replies.”

The Duke strolled to the window in a huff, and surveyed his property
with sulky looks. Leah sat up on her sofa and pondered as to how much
she should say and how much leave unsaid. Jim had always been under
the impression that Demetrius had done his dirty work for money, and
the truth would not probably strike him as amusing. Leah could easily
have conceived and told a pretty fairy tale, as she was always
resourceful in the way of fiction; but the sight of his pink, fatuous
face filled her with rage. Why should he be a beast with women, and
she a vestal with men? Was not sauce for the gander sauce for the
goose also? She determined to tell him the whole brutal affair, with
certain reservations concerning the betrayal of Demetrius. Jim had few
moral scruples, but what he had would be averse to the betrayal of an
accomplice, however dangerous. Yes; she would tell him enough to annoy
him, and shake him out of his aggravating complacency. Also she wanted
some one in whom to confide. But how to bring up the subject again
without pandering to her husband’s desire to be master?

He gave her the chance immediately. Like a bulldog, Jim never let go
of anything he had once gripped. Into his thick head had crept some
idea of a mystery, connected with Southend and with his wife’s visit
thereto. Therefore he stared out of the window until he thought she
was more amenable to reason, and then came back to his seat with the
old question.

“Why did you go to Southend?” he asked, doggedly.

Leah, not yet ready, fenced. “I told you why I went.”

“No, you didn’t. Aksakoff says—-”

“Of course he does. Did you ever know a diplomatist who told the
truth?”

“Huh! That comes well from you, considering.”

“I never knew that white lies were political privileges. Besides,
Aksakoff is too ashamed of Katinka to tell the truth.”

“What’s she been doin’?” asked the Duke, alertly. He had the soul of a
knitter in the sun for gossip.

“Rescuing Demetrius,” answered Leah, curtly.

“What!!!” Jim turned white and purple and red and green like a
rainbow, and spluttered at the mouth. His wife, eyeing him coldly, did
not think this exhibition of genuine fear a pretty sight. “He’ll–why,
he’ll–tell,” gasped Jim, gulping down an extremely serviceable word,
which better fitted his feelings than surroundings.

“Of course.”

“It’s a question of money, I suppose.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“But you told me—-”

“What I chose to tell you. I always do.”

Was there ever such a trying woman? Jim gulped down another
out-of-place oath, and strode noisily up and down the room. He halted
at intervals to tell his wife precisely what he thought of her. As the
room was isolated, and there was no danger of eavesdropping servants,
he indulged in a raised voice and a flow of language which revealed
his very limited vocabulary. Leah, with her chin on her knuckles and a
round elbow on the sofa cushion, listened unmoved, and looked as
though she were having her photograph taken. Jim might have been
executing his dance before a graven image for all the emotion she
showed.

“I’ve had enough of this,” shouted his Grace, maddened by a disdainful
silence. “Just you explain, or I’ll–why, hang it, I’ll forget that I
am a gentleman.”

“It seems to me that you have forgotten.”

“Oh! You would drive a saint mad.”

“Lionel is perfectly sane, and he is the sole saint I have met.”

“Ain’t you afraid of my striking you?” demanded Jim’s bulldog nature.

“Horribly afraid. Can’t you see how I tremble?”

Poor Jim. He was quite at the end of his resources. Mrs. Penworthy
always quailed, when he was in his tantrums; Lady Sandal fought fairly
and squarely, slang for slang: but this calm, smiling she-fiend only
sat like a dummy, waiting for him to do what she very well knew he
would never dare to do.

“I wonder if you’re a woman,” groaned the Duke, returning beaten and
baffled and completely exhausted to his chair.

“I wonder, too, seeing what you have made me put up with.”

“Come, now, I’ve always treated you well.”

“And other women better.”

“What other women?” growled Jim, on his guard.

“You know very well.”

“I don’t. I know nothin’, not even why you’re bullyraggin’ me. I
swear,” cried Jim, pathetically, to the ceiling, “that it’s
uncommonly hard for a cheery chap like me to be tied to a woman
who–who–who—-” Here words failed him, and he gasped.

“Go on. I admire your descriptions of my personality. They are so
extraordinarily vivid and true.”

“Who ain’t what she ought to be.”

Leah’s opportunity to break the ice had come, and locking her hands
together, she gazed pensively at the Duke, who wriggled uneasily on
his seat. “How did you guess, Jim?”

“Guess what?” demanded the tormented man.

“That I am not what I ought to be.”

The Duke stared aghast. “Then you ain’t t” he shouted.

“Dr. Demetrius might say so.”

“Leah!” He sprang up with clenched fists and his face took on a
direfully black expression, which rejoiced her heart.

“Jim, I believe–really, I believe that you have some love for me
after all.”

“Oh, hang your fine talk. Demetrius?”

“I have kissed him.”

“He dared to kiss you?”

“I dared to kiss him.”

“You devil!” He suddenly raised his fist. Leah never winced, although
he towered over her with his mouth working and his eyes animal in
their unconsidering passion. It was impossible to strike, although his
heart cried out that she ought to die. With an oath–it came out
savagely this time–the fist dropped. “I’ll have a divorce,” muttered
Jim, and plunged for the door.

“Because I kissed a man. Nonsense.”

“Kissin’ doesn’t stop at kissin’.”

“Not with you, perhaps.”

“Leah!” he turned and reclosed the door, which his rage had wrenched
open. “I know you’ve got a beastly tongue, and all that; but I could
have sworn that you were as pure as my mother.”

“Well, and so you can.”

“What? After you confessin’ that you kissed Demetrius?”

“Ugh!” Leah shuddered, as a picture after the style of Wiertz rose to
her mind’s eye. “I kissed a thing which was once Demetrius.”

“Is he dead, then?”

“Better if he were. Ugh! That kiss was the most horrible thing I ever
had to do in my life.”

“Why did you do it, then?”

“I was forced to,” she said faintly, and nausea made her place a
handkerchief suddenly to her lips.

The Duke returned for the third time to his seat and looked into her
changing face with round inquiring eyes. “There’s somethin’ in this I
don’t catch on to,” he muttered; then, with gruff tenderness, and a
timid caress from which Leah did not shrink, “What is it, old girl?”

The Duchess laughed. It was amusing to find her husband playing the
spring bachelor. “I believe you love me,” said she, recovering her
colour.

“You know I do, only you keep me at arm’s length.”

“Have I not cause?”

“You wouldn’t have, if you behaved as a fellow’s wife should,” said
the Duke, bluntly. “Drop skirtin’ round the bush and plunge in.”

Leah admired and respected him in this peremptory mood, and for once
showed no disposition to use her sharp tongue. Instinct told her that
she had at length reached the end of Jim’s tether, and that her
easy-going bulldog was inclined to curl his lips. Therefore did she
relate picturesquely and half-truthfully all her doings since the
beginning of things in the gallery. For the time being her story broke
off with the return of his Grace.

Jim listened with praiseworthy self-control. He certainly growled and
scowled at the relation of that early loss, which had bound Demetrius
to the service of the woman who betrayed him; but her artless
confession robbed the butterfly caress of half its iniquity. Sometimes
he grunted admiration of her pluck during the perils of his absence,
and grinned when she detailed the melodramatic interview with Strange.
Most of the time his eyes searched her face to make certain that she
was telling the truth. He believed she was, although she kept back the
precise way in which Demetrius had departed for Siberia. But she laid
enough of this particular blame on Aksakoff’s back to make Jim swear.

“The mean, dirty, foreign hound,” cursed Jim, between his teeth. “I
don’t pretend to be an angel, but if I’d dropped to that—-” he shook
his fist with a scarlet face. “An’ to think Aksakoff should dare to
make use of your room–the rotten cur. I’ll tell him what I think.”

“Better not, Jim. Let sleeping dogs lie.”

“Sleepin’ mongrels,” muttered the Duke. “All right; but don’t you ever
speak to him again. Do you hear?”

He blared out the order in a regimental manner, and Leah nodded.

“Yes, dear,” she said meekly, “we must draw the line somewhere.”

Jim nodded and gloomed, and rumbled something about Aksakoff that
certainly was not a benediction. Then he harked back to his leading
question, which had not yet been answered. “Why did you go to
Southend?”

“Katinka, who had rescued Demetrius from Sakhalin Island, made me go
to see him. I had to obey, else there might have been trouble. The man
was ill on board Strange’s steamer.”

“Strange? Thought we paid the cad.”

“We did.” Leah frowned at the recollection of the sum. “But he had
some liking for Demetrius, and helped him to escape, worse luck.”

“Come now, don’t say that. Siberia—-” Jim shuddered. “Beastly place,
Siberia.”

“Nonsense. The climate is quite decent if you make up your mind. I
don’t believe those convict creatures suffer so much as they say.”

She told the lie without sign of emotion, but all the same felt an
inward qualm at the memory of the doctor’s terrible narrative.

The Duke chewed his moustache meditatively. “An’ you saw Demetrius?”

“Ugh!” Leah covered her face and rocked. “To live with that in my
thoughts, and to think that I kissed It.”

“Why did you?” demanded Jim, furiously.

“To get the cypher letters connected with the insurance plot,” she
replied, looking up; then detailed with necessary suppressions the
greater and least repulsive part of her nauseous visit to the tramp
steamer. The story sounded by no means pretty, and all her courage was
necessary to enable her to arrive at finis.

When she did the Duke sprang up in a pelting rage. “My wife to be
treated like that!”

“Oh, the treatment was not so bad,” lied the Duchess, easily. “Of
course, my mouth was sore with the fall on the stairs, but I managed
to touch the lips of that–that—- Ugh! ugh!”

“I’ll go to Southend to-morrow,” announced the Duke, frowning. “I
can’t thrash Demetrius, poor devil, but I’ll hammer the life out of
that second-hand skipper.”

“You won’t find the boat there, Jim. I made inquiries, and learnt that
it left, as Demetrius said it would, shortly after my visit. And we
are quite safe. That kiss—-”

“Leave the kissin’ alone,” cried Jim, turning on her fiercely. “Of
course, I see you couldn’t quite help it; but—-”

“No ‘but’ at all,” contradicted Leah, sharply. “If I hadn’t bought
back those cypher letters in that way the whole story might have come
out. And then, Jim–well, you know.”

“I do–I do.” Jim groaned and dropped on the sofa beside her. “Oh,
what fools we were to go into that insurance business!”

“It was my fault, dear. Don’t worry. Demetrius will die soon, and
Strange has his blackmail. We are entirely safe.”

“Katinka?”

“Oh,” said the Duchess, with a flippancy she was far from feeling, “I
suppose shell sit by the grave of that man for the rest of her days.”

“You’re sure he’s dyin’?”

“Yes!” She turned pale, and her voice quavered. “Such an object could
not possibly live. It would be a–a–sin.”

“What’s his trouble?”

“I don’t know–I can’t say. I don’t want to say. It’s–it’s too
beastly for words. Ugh! He looked–looked–oh!” Leah’s mouth worked
like a rebuked child, and she burst into tears–into real womanly
tears of shame and terror and outraged modesty. “That horrible
kiss–oh, that horrible kiss!” she wailed, pinching his shoulder in
her hysterical emotion.

“Poor old girl,” said Jim, softly, and put his arm round her.

For once she appreciated marital sympathy, and learned that woman was
not made to live alone. Leaning her cheek thankfully against the rough
tweed of his coat, she sobbed vehemently, a frightened and crushed
creature. Jim felt that he was a married man after all, and
administered gruff consolation. It worried him to see this
high-spirited woman break down so utterly. “There, there,” said he,
tenderly; “it’s all right, old girl. You’ve got me.”

“Thank God,” murmured the beaten atheist.

Jim thought she must be going out of her mind. “What’s that?” That she
should thank a God she did not believe in, and for a husband whom
hitherto she had always scorned, quite frightened him.

“What’s that, Leah?” he asked again.

“Thank God for you,” sobbed the Duchess, brokenly.

“Oh, my aunt,” muttered the startled husband; then proceeded to fresh
consolation: “Well, then, I’ll break the head of any bounder who dares
to say a word against you.”

“Yes; but I’m afraid we’re wicked, Jim.”

“Other people are as bad,” said the Duke, stoutly, “though I don’t
suppose we’d get a Sunday School prize. ‘Course it ain’t much good
racin’ in blinkers. We’re a bad lot, the pair of us. I’ve behaved like
a rotter, and worse, while you’re like something I can’t think of.
Seems to me, Leah, we’ve been runnin’ awf’ly crooked. Let’s make a
fresh start from scratch, and go straight for the future. Tandem, y’
know,” suggested Jim; “I’ll be wheeler, as usual.”

“We must make the best of things, I suppose,” whimpered Leah, drying
her eyes, and still too much unstrung to realise her regeneration.

“That’s about it. We’ll give sin a rest for a bit. I’ll chuck that
woman, and be your husband. I swear, Leah, I’ll be a Methodist parson
sort of husband.”

“No, don’t,” said the Duchess, alarmed. “It’s a mistake to overdo
things.”

Jim laughed, and she laughed.

“Well, I don’t suppose I could keep on that game for long,” said her
husband; “but I mean that I’ll be awf’ly square, an’ footle after you
round the town. It’s th’ sort of thing good husbands do, y’ know. Give
us a kiss, old girl, an’ we’ll begin our married life all over again.”

Leah obeyed very contentedly, and nestled in Jim’s strong arms like an
innocent schoolgirl. She felt worn-out and tired, and drowsy from
excess of emotion; felt also that here was a much-desired haven for a
worried woman. “Dear old Jim!” she sighed, and Jim kissed her again.

The light was dying out of the sunset sky, and the room filled with
pale warm shadows. The reconciled pair sat silently on the sofa in the
gathering darkness, locked in a close embrace. The remorseful Jim felt
that they were prisoners in the same dock, and anxiously paved a
certain place with the very best intentions. Leah went to sleep,
thanks to a less tender conscience.

To the world these two were the prosperous and happy Duke and Duchess
of Pentland; to themselves, a misguided couple driven to do wrong by
circumstances; but to God–what did they appear in God’s sight?
Remorse is not repentance, and remorse was the sole feeling of which
they were capable. Leah’s sleep was the slumber of the worn-out; Jim’s
self-promised reformation the result of shame. Shallow beings,
miserable creatures, they could not plumb the depth of their
wrong-doing. To them, sins were faults, and they were governed less by
the Sermon on the Mount than by the laws of society. Indeed, it is
questionable if either one of them was aware that such a sermon had
been preached; but both knew to a hair how far they could go without
being ostracised.

Jim was the better of the two, for the cold, brutal story told by his
wife made him hot with the public-school shame of having done things
which no fellow could do. The drastic codes of Eton and Harrow and
Rugby and Winchester came to his mind, and he saw how he had sinned
against the primitive laws of honour. Without oaths, he swore to lead
a better and cleaner life with Leah to help him. He would be
charitable and a good landlord, and take the chair at public
dinners, and speak in the Lords, and chuck Lady Sandal–who was too
expensive–and drop gambling to a certain extent, and not swear more
than necessary, and–and–do what a man in his high position ought to
do.

It will thus be seen that poor Jim’s ideas of reformation were crude.
He felt this himself, poor man, in his narrow brain; and like the
child he really was, looked down to ask his clever wife’s advice. He
had no time to consider the irony of the thing, even if it had
occurred to him, for discovering that Leah was sound asleep, he
wondered hugely. From the placid expression of her face it was very
plain that her crimes had not followed her into Dreamland. Jim
whistled softly, marvelling that she could slumber so immediately
after what she had told him. Laying her gently back on the sofa, he
summoned her maid, and went about his own business. This was to begin
reformation without loss of time.

“I must help Leah to be good,” said the new broom.

But first he had to reform himself, and set about the first step, or
what he conceived to be the first step, with the enthusiasm of the
very bad person made uncomfortable by remorse. The vicar of Firmingham
received a visit from his patron just as he was about to enjoy a
well-earned dinner.

“Lionel,” said the Duke, nervously, “I’m comin’ to communion in a
month. Could you get me whitewashed in that time?”

Lionel stared, and looked upward. Strange to say the heavens did not
fall.