Read IF ONLY: CHAPTER III of If Only etc., free online book, by Francis Clement Philips and Augustus Harris, on ReadCentral.com.

After this there was a lull; John Chetwynd observed that he had need of more forbearance towards his wilful wife, and tried to exercise it. He told himself that there was love enough and to spare; that with the deep affection he was convinced Bella bore him there was nothing really to fear. She was young and ill-advised, and it behoved him to keep a careful watch over her, and above all things not to draw too tight a rein. As for her threat of returning to her old life and its meretricious attractions, after the first shock he dismissed it from his mind. She had not really intended doing anything of the sort; such a step was impossible. It was a wild idea, born of the excitement of the moment, and unworthy of a further thought, and so he put it aside. Had not the question been argued and threshed out once and for all soon after marriage? He recalled with a curious lump in his throat how she had put her hands into his and said; “Your wishes are my wishes, now and always, Jack.” And there had been an end of the matter.

“I will wait until the atmosphere has cleared a little,” said John Chetwynd, reflectively, “and then I’ll tell her that at the end of the year we will leave Camberwell and take a larger house in a better neighbourhood.”

Thus, out of his love for his young wife, he made excuses for her and took her back to his heart again.

And Bella? Jack’s conduct puzzled her. She had fully expected that he would be exceedingly angry and displeased, and in her own mind had prepared certain little set phrases which were to impress him with the fact that she intended to do as she pleased and would not allow herself to be dictated to or coerced. And thus it was that on the following morning she came down to breakfast with it must be confessed a forbidding look upon her pretty face and a defiant air about her bearing. But all her newly formed resolves were put to flight when Jack came towards her and deliberately kissed the lips which she vainly tried to withhold.

“Bella, you and I love each other too well to quarrel,” he said kindly; “let us forget all that happened last night.”

What could she say? In spite of herself she felt that she was yielding; and though she did not meet him half way as he had fondly anticipated she would do, still she allowed him to draw her into his arms and did not repulse his caresses.

She might have shown a more generous spirit, it is true. Since he had tacitly acknowledged that they had been mutually to blame, she might have offered something in the shape of an expression of regret; but peace in any shape and at any cost Chetwynd felt he must have.

But Bella had by no means surrendered her determination of going on the stage again, and was already with Saidie’s assistance on the look-out for an engagement. It would be difficult to define her feelings towards her husband at this juncture. That there was still a veiled hostility John Chetwynd could not fail to see; but in his newly formed resolution to be patient and forbearing, he simply ignored it and diligently cultivated a kindly, gentle bearing, interesting himself in her little domesticities and the general routine of her everyday life. This amused Bella intensely, and although she would not have acknowledged it, perhaps touched her a little.

Why had he not done this before? And having been careless and indifferent once, why was he not so still? For this is how it was with Bella; she was learning to compare her husband with her lover, and be very sure the former suffered by comparison.

“Les absents ont toujours tort” and Saidie found so much to say and said it in such a contemptuous, scornful way to Howard Astley, about her sister’s husband, that perhaps there was some little excuse for the young man’s impression that Bella Chetwynd would be vastly better off under his protection than amid her present surroundings.

“The man was a brute,” Miss Blackall declared.

Poor John Chetwynd! Not only was he far removed from being a brute, but he was also miles above the man whom Saidie delighted to honour, and whose addresses and attentions she thrust upon Bella at every turn.

At first, to do her justice, the young wife shrank back dismayed. Beyond his handsome face, Howard Astley had but little to recommend him, and after listening to his commonplaces and enduring the fulsome compliments it pleased him to pay, she would hurry home with tingling pulses and a shamed heart to Jack Jack, who had once been all the world to her.

Once! Oh, and such a little time ago! After all, how little she had to complain of in the man who had made her his wife!

He was “uninteresting,” wrapped up in his profession, “dull.” That was all, but it meant a very great deal to Bella. It meant everything; and the sluggish conscience which just at first had a word or two to say in his defence, gradually went to sleep again and troubled its owner no longer.

Why should she not enjoy herself as other women of her age did?

Why, indeed? She did not intend to do anything that was really wrong, or even unbecoming in her position as Jack’s wife; but still she was resolved on extracting the utmost amount of amusement possible out of life, and thus with slow, subtle drifting and unconscious eyes eyes that would not see their peril she reached the point where temptation steps in.

It was his wealth that dazzled her.

She did so long to be rich. John was apt to be mean about trifles, but this man the man she allowed to make love to her was a very prodigal in his liberality. He spent money like water. He rarely came empty-handed. Probably he knew the manner of woman he had to deal with, and Bella hid the trinkets away with a guilty blush; they were not much good to her after all, for she did not dare to wear them, lest Jack should ask awkward questions concerning the source from whence they came.

“I never can do anything I like,” said Bella with a pout.

And then there came a night when John Chetwynd found the pretty drawing-room deserted and his wife flown.

The hours went by and as she did not return he grew seriously uneasy.

Where could she be? When eleven o’clock struck he put on his hat and, terribly though it went against the grain, started for Holly Street she might be at her mother’s.

No, Mrs. Blackall had not seen her, she said; and she looked searchingly into her son-in-law’s face as she spoke. “Did Dr. Chetwynd really not know where she was?”

“No, madam, or assuredly I should not be here.”

The doctor spoke with some heat; that there was something behind all this was very evident, and he naturally objected to being made a fool of.

“You don’t know, then, that Bella is on at the Tivoli?”

John Chetwynd sat down suddenly. This news literally took his breath away.

It was not possible that Bella had taken such a step without his knowledge or sanction. He looked up with such hopeless misery written in his white face that Mrs. Blackall could not help a certain pity for her son-in-law, although in her opinion he had brought the thing upon himself, and the very compassion she felt for his suffering had the effect of making her more harsh and unsympathetic.

“What did you expect?” she asked. “As a man of the world could you really imagine that a young, high-spirited girl like my daughter would content herself with the life you tried to chain her down to? She had had just taste enough of the admiration and applause of a public life to get a liking for it, and in an instant it is all taken away and nothing given her in its place. It ain’t commonsense, it

“It may not be,” said Chetwynd wearily; “but there are women nevertheless to whom home and husband are all-sufficient and who ask for nothing beyond.”

“You made a great mistake, Mr. Chetwynd, when you

“I did,” he interrupted quickly; “you are perfectly right; I did when I believed my wife and your daughter to be one of these. Well,” and he rose wearily, “she has put a barrier between us to-night that can never be broken down.”

“Tut, tut, man; you have got your duty to do by her, and I’ll take good care you do it. She is doing no wrong to join her profession again.”

“Our ideas as to right and wrong probably differ. I am certainly not going to argue the point, nor do I wish to shirk what responsibility I took on my shoulders when I married. But if it is upon your advice she has acted in this matter, ask God to forgive you for the cruel wrong you have done us both!”

Then he picked up his hat and went out of the house. It was long past midnight when Bella returned; but late though it was, she knew by the lights in the drawing room that her husband was waiting up for her, and with an impatient sigh, determined to get her lecture over, she ran lightly up-stairs.

He was there, sitting in her own cosy armchair, and he looked round expectantly as the door opened.

“Well,” she said nervously, stripping off her gloves, and avoiding meeting his stern, sad gaze. “I daresay you wonder where I have been and what has kept me so late; but, my dear old Jack, you will have to give up the bad habit of sitting up to all hours for me, for I’m likely to be late most nights now.”

She paused for a reply, but none came. Her easy assurance staggered him; he could hardly believe that this self-composed, glib-spoken young woman had been at one time his diffident, shy little love. The unhappy man found it very hard to reconcile the two. “Why don’t you speak?” she asked impatiently, facing him in a defiant manner; and as he looked up at her he noticed for the first time that she had grown older and had lost all at once at least, so it seemed to him the rounded, childish look from her sweet face and involuntarily a sigh broke from him.

“One would think I had committed a crime,” cried she in disdain, and then, catching her skirts up, she broke into a step dance, humming a popular music-hall air.

“Stop do you hear me? this instant stop!” the devil in him burst out; he could restrain himself no longer.

“Woman! What are you made of?” he cried in a voice of thunder, and she, shrinking back a little, fell half frightened into a chair. He never could quite remember afterwards what he did say. He tried with rough eloquence, that might have moved a heart of stone, to show her what it was she was doing, to appeal to her better, nobler self, to her love for him; he implored and entreated her to give up this new life for his sake.

He had nothing better to urge than that, poor fool! It weighed with her as just so much chaff. The time had gone by when his words would have touched her; they glided lightly over what she called her “heart” now and left no impression there.

And then he went on his knees beside her and prayed her to grant him this one boon; he poured out a flood of feverish words, hardly pausing to think; he tried to paint an alluring picture of their life in the future: they would leave Camberwell, he said; she should go where she liked if she would but listen to reason; it would ruin him in his profession, he pleaded, if she persisted in returning to the stage. As he talked the pretty face grew harder and older. Bella had made up her mind, and the man beside her had not the faintest power to sway her by his reproaches or entreaties.

And then he stumbled to his feet and stood waiting for his answer.

It came at last, clear and cold, falling like pellets of ice upon his impatient fervour.

“The thing is done now, and all the talking in the world will not alter it.”

“And that is your last word to me your husband?”

Finding she did not speak, he walked across the floor, turning at the door, hoping against hope, but she lay back as still as if she were dead.

When he had gone, Bella opened her eyes and held up her hand curiously. It was wet with what? tears.

Her eyes were bright and dry.

For a moment something of the old feeling swept over her.

Poor Jack! She half rose, then sank back again.

It was too late, she was thinking; as if it were ever too late to make amends, to atone, while we have still breath and life!

“It is all for the best, anyhow,” she murmured after awhile, and when philosophy is well to the fore, love hides its diminished head.