There was a sickly smile on his face as he asked the question, and he looked down as he spoke. Carry turned crimson, and got up from the sofa.
“Shall I play for you, Mr. Dacre?” she asked.
“Oh—if you would!” said Dacre, and he took up some of the music-sheets that were scattered about the piano.
“What shall we have? The ‘Grande Duchesse?’”
“Are you in a reckless mood to-night, then?”
She made no answer, but struck the opening chords defiantly, Cyril came up and put his hand on his wife’s shoulder.
She shrank from the touch, and stopped playing.
“What is the matter?” asked Dacre, ignoring the presence of the husband altogether.
“I don’t feel well,” said she. “I shall go, I think. Will you excuse me, Mr. Dacre?”
“You have a headache?” he asked, tenderly.
“I am sick and ill,” she said, pettishly. “Good night!”
“Good night!” said Dacre. “I will call and bid you good-bye before I go down to Kirkminster,” and he gave a meaning glance.
She stopped at the door and looked with a sort of defiant appeal (if I can use the term) in her eyes.
“I don’t like to see people when Cyril is out,” she said.
The words were to the friend, but the look was to the husband.
Cyril pressed his uneasy hands together. “You can always see Dacre,” he said, and tried to laugh. “We are old friends, are we not?”
Rupert’s lip curled with a contemptuous meaning that he cared not to conceal.
“We have known each other a long time,” he said.
Carry glanced from one to the other, and, without a word, turned round and left the room.
The two men looked at each other like duellists before they engage. Cyril’s eyes fell first; and then an inexpressible feeling of loathing and contempt came into the other’s face. But he affected a smile.
“The little woman seems indisposed. Have you been unkind to her, you young rake?”
The tone and words were like the cut of a whip. Cyril writhed under them. Dacre saw it, and smiled savagely. It seemed to him that he was wiping out any disgrace which might attach to him as the participator in Cyril’s infamy, by making his accomplice see the full hideousness of the deed.
“I’ll put the matter before him pretty plainly,” he thought. “I’ll let the young cub see what I think of him, too.”
“Suppose we go and smoke?” he said, aloud. “I want a quiet smoke somewhere.”
Cyril led the way to the little study. The gas was burning, an open spirit case was on the side-table, and the writing-table was covered with papers, but the chairs were pushed away from it. Dacre’s quick eye noticed that the furniture was all displaced, so as to leave a clear passage up and down the room. He remembered an old habit of Cyril’s—that of pacing up and down (“walking the quarter-deck,” Kate used to call it) while thinking. He took a cigar from the box on the mantelshelf, and flung himself upon the sofa.
“So, you’ve been thinking it out, have you?” he said.
“What do you mean?” says the other, filling out brandy with a shaking hand.
“About the woman up stairs. What are you going to do with her? She is not bad-looking, but a little vulgar. However, she sings and plays well, and has a lively manner. She might go on the stage.”
Cyril lay back in the shadow and glared at him.
“But then, she is timid, and has no experience. I don’t believe in your ‘inspired novices,’ as Quantox calls them. No, I’m afraid the stage won’t do. You must get rid of her somehow, though. This brandy’s rather good. Martell, isn’t it? The only way I see, is to get somebody to take her, and upon my soul I don’t know who will. There’s Pierrepoint, but he’s going to get married, I hear. Gablentz has got some mysterious Greek that ‘looks like an angel, and talks like poor Poll,’ to parody what’s his name, and Randon has a virtuous attachment to a married woman. I’m afraid that Shetland’s too young, and Twistleton’s got no money. Do you get these weeds from Hudson? I don’t like ’em so well as the last you had.”
Cyril, gnawing his nails, and grinding his teeth, could endure no more. He leapt to his feet, with some intention of blows, but the cool, steady glance of the other disarmed him. He finished the tumbler of brandy at a gulp.
“What a cold-blooded Devil you are!” he said.
The agony, rage, and impotence of despair in the tone was so great, that even Dacre felt some pang of pity. It soon passed though.
“You fool!” he said. “Why, you want to get rid of her, don’t you!”
“But you don’t like the matter put in plain words. I thought that you didn’t care about her any longer.”
“I don’t care about her; but——”
“Well, hang me if I can understand you. You deliberately seduce a woman—in a very ingenious, clever way, I admit;—you engage yourself to be married to a young lady; and you then can’t find it in your heart to part with your mistress. You can’t keep two establishments, you know. You can’t marry Miss Ffrench, and keep this woman here.”
This dagger was double-edged, and Dacre watched to see the effect of the stab.
Cyril drew himself bolt upright suddenly, as if he had been shot through the heart. Why should he suffer this? He loved his cousin better than any woman, and he shuddered to hear her name upon Dacre’s lips.
“Never mind Miss Ffrench!” he cried. “We can leave her name alone, I suppose?”
“Of course. But, my dear Cyril, while speaking of Miss Ffrench with the deepest respect, permit me to tell you that there are occasions in life in which a man must look matters fairly in the face. You have been living in this fool’s paradise so long that you have lost vital energy. You must give up this girl, and unless you can afford to settle money on her, and all that, the only way you can do it is in the method I suggest. A man with your limited income cannot afford to serve God and Mammon, you know. If you love this girl better than Miss Ffrench, don’t marry. If you marry Miss Ffrench, you must give up this girl. That is the question you have to decide.”
That was the question that Cyril had been attempting to decide, and had been groaning and cursing, and weeping tears of blood over. It was a dilemma. He was married to a woman he hated, engaged to a woman he loved. He had it in his power to get rid of the one, and obtain the other; but the terrible fact of marriage stared him in the face. Could he be a party to his own dishonour? He was too cowardly to face the consequences of his crime. His vanity made him tremble at the act he was about to do, but his selfishness urged him to commit it. If he only dared to tell the truth!
“But she is my wife,” he sobbed out.
The tone revealed a world of shame, infamy, ridicule, in one lightning flash.
“—In—in the sight of God.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said the other, seemingly relieved from surprise. “That is the sort of rubbish to talk to milliner girls. The legal view of the question is the one for you to take. If you don’t want this young woman turning up at the church door, and storming the breakfast-table, or weeping on the doorstep, you must get rid of her before your marriage takes place. God bless my soul, why it’s done every day! Do you love the girl?”
“I hate her!” says Cyril, in a smothered voice.
Dacre smiled to himself, and took a refreshing puff at the maligned cigar.
“Very well, then, get rid of her. If the girl was your wife, I could understand your scruples; because, to be willing to throw one’s wife into temptation is the act of a despicable scoundrel—”
Their eyes met, and Dacre’s glance was meaningly unconscious. Cyril gripped his chair-arm hard, and set himself to listen.
“No gentleman—no Man, indeed—would do such a thing. Absolutely, you know, I don’t see much difference, because I regard the ceremony of marriage as a mere legal convenience; but still the world has chosen to think differently, and popular opinion has always considered the man who sells his wife as a degraded and infamous hound.”
Cyril clenched his hands till the nails bit the flesh. He felt he must say something.
“One would think that you intended to insinuate that I was selling my wife,” he said.
“No, I don’t think that you are so bad as that.”
You see it was not his game to disclose how much he did know, because he would then turn a dereliction—or at worst a social lache—into a crime. “Because,” says Cyril, “I’m not married, you know.”
With what a hang-dog look he said it! But it was needful that he should deny to save his honour, and obtain his end.
“Well now, my dear boy,” says Dacre, “what will you do?”
“I don’t know,” says Cyril, savagely; “I’ve thought over the thing until I’m nearly mad. Curse the woman! I wish I had never seen her. Oh, what a fool I am!”
And he flung his outstretched arms over the table in utter abandonment. His friend watched him for a minute with a sardonic smile.
“Bad blood all through,” he said to himself. “He hasn’t got pluck enough to commit a crime—the cur!” Then aloud,
“Look here, Cyril, your nerves are queer; you’ve been drinking too much, I expect. Go to bed quietly, and get a good night’s rest. Tell the little woman that you are going down to Loamshire, and just leave her alone for another fortnight. The election will be over by that time, and you will have got the worry of it off your mind. Then we can consult again about the matter.”
Here was a gleam of hope. Here was a chance of temporary escape. Yes, he would go down to Matcham and see Kate, and look after his election. She could get on very well alone—he did not care to think how, and he would be freed from the horrible incubus which weighed upon him. He rose and dashed the hair out of his eyes.
“Yes, I’ll go down to-morrow.”
“I shall be down in a day or two myself,” said Dacre. “I am going up with you. Nantwich thought it best, because they will be bound to return one of us.”
Cyril heard, but he didn’t pay much attention to the full meaning of the sentence.
“Good-bye, then,” he said, and held out his hand.
But Mr. Dacre was so busy looking for his hat and gloves that he did not see it, and only nodded an adieu.
Cyril remained standing until he heard the door slam, and then he raised the hand that Dacre had refused to take, and struck it savagely against the table by his side, until it was bruised and bloody.