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- A Duet - 40/46 -
thought for any one else, and the whole universe can slide to perdition so long as their love is not disturbed. That is what I call family selfishness. It's a sin and a shame.'
Maude looked at this strange woman in amazement. She was speaking fast and hotly, like one whose bitter thoughts have been long penned up for want of a suitable listener.
'Remember the women who have been less fortunate than you. Remember the thousands who are starving, dying, for want of love, and no love comes their way; whose hearts yearn and faint for that which Nature owes them, but Nature never pays her debt. Remember the plain women. Remember the lonely women. Above all, remember your unfortunate sisters; they, the most womanly of all, who have been ruined by their own kindliness and trust and loving weakness. It is that family selfishness which turns every house in the land into a fort to be held against these poor wanderers. They make them evil, and then they revile the very evil which they have made. When I look back--'
She stopped with a sudden sob. Her forearm fell upon the mantelpiece, and her forehead upon her forearm. In an instant Maude was by her side, the tears running down her cheeks, for the sight of grief was always grief to her, and her nerves were weakened by this singular interview.
'Dear Mrs. Wright, don't cry!' she whispered, and her little white hand passed in a soothing, hesitating gesture over the coil of rich chestnut hair. 'Don't cry! I am afraid you have suffered. Oh, how I wish I could help you! Do tell me how I can help you.'
But Violet's occasional fits of weakness were never of a very long duration. She dashed her hand impatiently across her eyes, straightened her tall figure, and laughed as she glanced at herself in the mirror.
'Madame Celandine would be surprised if she could see how I have treated one of her masterpieces,' said she, as she straightened her crushed hat, and arranged her hair with those quick little deft pats of the palm with which women can accomplish so much in so short a time. Rumpled finery sets the hands of every woman within sight of it fidgeting, so Maude joined in at the patting and curling and forgot all about her tears.
'There, that will have to do,' said Violet at last. 'I am so sorry to have made such a fool of myself. I don't err upon the sentimental side as a rule. I suppose it is about time that I thought of catching my train for town. I have a theatre engagement which I must not miss.'
'How strange it is!' said Maude, looking at her own pretty tear- marked face in the mirror. 'You have only been here a few minutes, as time goes, and yet I feel that in some things I am more intimate with you than with any woman I have ever met. How can it be? What bond can there be to draw us together like this? And it is the more extraordinary, because I felt that you disliked me when you entered the room, and I am sure that you won't be offended if I say that when you had been here a little I thought that I disliked you. But I don't. On the contrary, I wish you could come every day. And I want to come and see you also when I am in town.'
Maude, for all her amiability, was not gushing by nature, and this long speech caused her great astonishment when she looked back upon it. But at the moment it came so naturally from her heart that she never paused to think of its oddity. Her enthusiasm was a little chilled, however, by the way in which her advances were received. Violet Wright's eyes were more kindly than ever, but she shook her head.
'No, I don't suppose we shall ever meet again. I don't think I could ask you to visit me in London. I wanted to see you, and I have seen you, but that, I fear, must be the end of it.'
Maude's lip trembled in a way which it had when she was hurt.
'Why did you wish to see me, then?' she asked.
'On account of that slight acquaintance with your husband. I thought it would be interesting to see what sort of wife he had chosen.'
'I hope you are not disappointed,' said Maude, making a roguish face.
'He has done very well--better than I expected.'
'You had not much respect for his taste, then?'
'Oh yes, I always thought highly of his taste.'
'You have such a pretty way of putting things. You know my husband very slightly, but still I can see that you know the world very well. I often wonder if I am really the best kind of woman that he could have married. Do you think I am, Mrs. Wright?'
Her visitor looked in silence for a little at the gentle grace and dainty sympathetic charm of the woman before her.
'Yes,' she said slowly, as one who weighs her words. 'I think you are. You are a lady with a lady's soul in you. A woman can draw a man down very low, or she can make him live at his very highest. Don't be soft with him. Don't give way when you know that your way is the higher way. Pull him up, don't let him ever pull you down. Then his respect for you will strengthen his love for you, and the two together are so much greater than either one apart. Your instinct would be to do this, and therefore you are the best sort of woman for him.'
Her opinion was given with so much thought, and yet so much decision, that Maude glowed with pride and with pleasure. There was knowledge and authority behind the words of this unaccountable woman.
'How sweet you are!' she cried. 'I feel that what you say is true. I feel that that is what a wife should be to her husband. Please God, I will be so to Frank!'
'And one other piece of advice before I leave you,' said Violet Wright. 'Don't ever take your husband for granted. Don't ever accept his kiss or caress as a routine thing. Don't ever relax those little attentions which you showed him in the earliest days. Don't let the freshness go out of love, for the love may soon follow it, even when duty keeps the man true. It is the commonest mistake which married women make. It has caused more unhappiness than any other. They do not realise it until it is too late. Be keenly watchful for your husband's wants and comforts. It is not the comfort but the attention which he values. If it is not there he will say nothing, if he is a good fellow, but he notices it all the same. She has changed, he thinks. And from that moment he will begin to change also. Be on your guard against that. It is very unselfish of me to give you all this wise counsel.'
'It is very good of you, and I feel that it is all so true. But why is it unselfish of you?'
'I only meant that I had no interest in the matter. What does it matter to me whether you keep his love or not. And yet I don't know.' She suddenly put her arms round Maude, and kissed her upon the cheek. 'You are a good little sort, and I hope you will be happy.'
Frank Crosse had disentangled himself from the rush of City men emerging from the Woking station, and he was walking swiftly through the gathering gloom along the vile, deeply-rutted road, which formed a short cut to The Lindens. Suddenly, with a sinking heart, he was aware of a tall graceful figure which was sweeping towards him. There could not be two women of that height, who carried themselves in that fashion.
'Hullo, Frankie! I thought it might be you, but those tall hats and black overcoats make every one alike. Your wife will be glad to see you.'
'Violet! You have ruined our happiness. How could you have the heart to do it! It is not for myself I speak, God knows. But to think of her feelings being so abused, her confidence so shaken--'
'All right, Frankie, there is nothing to be tragic about.'
'Haven't you been to my house?'
'Yes, I have.'
'And seen her?'
'I didn't give you away, my boy. I was a model of discretion. I give you my word that it is all right. And she's a dear little soul, Frankie. You're not worthy to varnish those pretty patent leathers of hers. You know you're not. And by Jove, Frankie, if you had stayed with me yesterday I should never have forgiven you--no, never! I'll resign in her favour. I will. But in no one else's, and if ever I hear of your going wrong, my boy, or doing anything but the best with that sweet trusting woman, I'll make you curse the day that ever you knew me--I will, by the living Jingo.'
'Do, Violet--you have my leave.'
'All right. The least said the soonest mended. Give me a kiss before we part.'
She raised her veil, and he kissed her. He was wearing some withered flower in his overcoat, and she took it from him.
'It's a souvenir of our friendship, Frankie, and rather a good emblem of it also. So-long!' said she, as she turned down the weary road which leads to the station. A young golfer, getting in at Byfleet, was surprised to see a handsome woman weeping bitterly in the corner of a second-class carriage. 'Comm' up from roastin' somebody at that damned crematory place,' was his explanation to his companion.
Frank had a long and animated account from Maude of the extraordinary visitor whom she had entertained. 'It's such a pity, dear, that you don't know her well, for I should really like to hear every detail about her. At first I thought she was mad, and then I thought she was odious, and then finally she seemed to be the very wisest and kindest woman that I had ever known. She made me angry, and frightened, and grieved, and grateful, and affectionate, one after
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