Read CHAPTER XVII of The Invader A Novel , free online book, by Margaret L. Woods, on

Ian only came home just in time to scramble into his evening dress-suit for a dinner at the Fletchers’. He needed not to fear delay either from that shirt-button at the back, refractory or on the last thread, or from any other and more insidious trap for the hurrying male. Milly looked after him in a way which, if the makers of traditions concerning wives were not up to their necks in falsehood, must have inspired devotion in the heart of any husband alive. She had already observed that he had been allowed to lose most of the pocket-handkerchiefs she had marked for him in linen thread. That trifles such as this should cause bitterness will seem as absurd to sensible persons as it would to be told that our lives are made up of mere to-morrows if Shakespeare had not happened to put that in his own memorable way. For it takes a vast deal of imagination to embrace the ordinary facts of life and human nature. But even the most sensible will understand that it was annoying for Milly regularly to find her own and the family purse reduced to a state that demanded rigid economy. The Invader, stirring in that limbo where she lay, might have answered that rigid economy was Milly’s forte and real delight, and that it was well she should have nothing to spend in ridiculously disguising the fair body they were condemned to share. Mildred certainly left behind her social advantages which both Ian and Milly enjoyed without exactly realizing their source, while her bric-a-brac purchases, from an eighteenth-century print to a Chinese ivory, were always sure to be rising investments. But all such minor miseries as her invasion might multiply for Milly, were forgotten in the horror of the abyss that had now opened under her feet. For long after that second return of hers, on the night of the thunderstorm, a shadow, a dreadful haunting thought, had hovered in the back of her mind. Gradually it had faded with the fading of a memory; but to-night the colors of that memory revived, the thought startled into a more vivid existence.

In the press and hurry of life, not less in Oxford than in other modern towns, the Stewarts and Fletchers did not meet so often and intimately as to make inevitable the discovery of Mildred Stewart’s dual personality by her cousins. They said she had developed moods; but with the conservatism of relations, saw nothing in her that they had not seen in her nursery days.

Ian and Milly walked home from dinner, according to Oxford custom, but a Durham man walked with them, talking over a College question with Ian, and they did not find themselves alone until they were within the wainscoted walls of the old house. Milly had looked so pale all the evening that Ian expected her to go to bed at once; but she followed him into the study, where the lamp was shedding its circle of light on the heaped books and papers of his writing-table. Making some perfunctory remarks which she barely answered, he sat down to work at an address which he was to deliver at the meeting of a learned society in London.

Milly threw off her white shawl and seated herself on the old, high-backed sofa. Her dress was of some gauzy material of indeterminate tone, interwoven with gold tinsel, and a scarf of gauze embroidered with gold disguised what had seemed to her an over-liberal display of dazzling shoulders. Ian, absorbed in his work, hardly noticed his wife sitting in the penumbra, chin on hand, staring before her into nothingness, like some Cassandra of the hearth, who listens to the inevitable approaching footsteps of a tragic destiny. At last she said:

“I’ve got something awful to tell you.”

Ian startled, dropped his pen and swung himself around in his pivot chair.

“What about? Tony?” for it was to this diminutive that Mildred had reduced the flowing syllables of Antonio.

“No, your cousin, Maxwell Davison.”

Now, Ian liked his cousin well enough, but by no means as well as he liked Tony.

“About Max!” he exclaimed, relieved. “What’s happened to him?”

“Nothing but oh, Ian! I hate even to speak of such a thing ”

“Never mind. Just tell me what it is.”

“I was on the river with him this afternoon, and he he made love to me.”

The lines of Ian’s face suddenly hardened.

“Did he?” he returned, significantly, playing with a paper-knife. Then, after a pause: “I’m awfully sorry, Milly. I’d no idea he was such a cad.”

“He he wanted me to run away with him.”

Ian’s face became of an almost inhuman severity.

“I shall let Maxwell Davison know my opinion of him,” he said.

“But it’s worse it’s even more horrible than that. He was expecting me. I I of course knew nothing about it; I only knew about the garden-party at Lady Margaret. But he said I’d promised to come; he said all kinds of shocking, horrid things about my having dressed myself up for him ”

“Please don’t tell me what he said, Milly,” Ian interrupted, still coldly, but with a slight expression of disgust. “I’d rather you didn’t. I suppose I ought to have taken better care of you, my poor little girl, but really here in Oxford one never thinks of anything so outrageous happening.”

“I must tell you one thing,” she resumed, almost obstinately. “He said he knew I didn’t love you that I didn’t love you, my own darling husband. Some one, some one must be responsible for his thinking that. How do I know what happens when when I’m away. My poor Ian! Left with a creature who doesn’t love you!”

Ian rose. His face was cold and hard still, but there was a faint flush on his cheek, the mark of a frown between his black brows. He walked to a window and looked out into the moonlit garden, where the gnarled apple-trees threw weird black shadows on grass and wall, like shapes of grotesque animals, or half-hidden spectres, lurking, listening, waiting.

“We’re getting on to a dangerous subject,” he answered, at length. “Don’t give me pain by imagining evil about about yourself. You could never, under any aspect, be anything but innocent and loyal and all that a man could wish his wife to be.”

He smoothed his brow with an effort, went up to her, and taking her soft face between his hands kissed her forehead.

“There!” he exclaimed, with a forced smile. “Don’t let’s talk about it any more, darling. Go to bed and forget all about it. It won’t seem so bad to-morrow morning.”

But Milly did not respond. When he released her head she threw it back against her own clasped hands, closing her eyes. She was ghastly pale.

“No,” she moaned, “I can’t bear it by myself. It’s too, too awful. It’s not Me; it’s something that takes my place. I saw it once. It’s an evil spirit. O God, what have I done that such a thing should happen to me! I’ve always tried to be good.”

There was a clash of pity and anger in Ian’s breast. Pity for Milly’s case, anger on account of her whom his inmost being recognized as another, whatever his rational self might say to the matter. He sat down beside his wife and uttered soothing nothings. But she turned upon him eyes of wild despair, the more tragic because it broke through a nature fitted only for the quietest commonplaces of life. She flung herself upon him, clutching him tight, hiding her face upon him.

“What have I done?” she moaned again. “You know I always believed in God, in God’s love. I wouldn’t have disbelieved even if He’d taken you away from me. But now I can’t believe in anything. There must be wicked spirits, but there can’t be a good God if He allows them to take possession of a poor girl like me, who’s never done any one any harm. O Ian, I’ve tried to pray, and I can’t. I don’t believe in anything now.”

Ian was deeply perplexed. He himself believed neither in a God nor in evil spirits, and he knew not how to approach Milly’s mind. At length he said, quietly:

“I should have expected you, dear, to have reasoned about this a little more. What’s the use of being educated if we give way to superstition, like savages, directly something happens that we don’t quite understand? Some day an eclipse of conscious personality, like yours, will come to be understood as well as an eclipse of the moon. Don’t let’s make it worse by conjuring up superstitious terrors.”

“At first I thought it was like that an eclipse of memory. But now I feel more and more it’s a different person that’s here, it’s not I. To-night Cousin David said that sometimes when he met me he expected to find when he got home that his Lady Hammerton had walked away out of the frame. And, Ian, I looked up at that portrait, and suddenly I was reminded of that fearful night when I came back and saw something. I am descended from that woman, and you know how wicked she was.”

Again the strange irritation stirred in the midst of Ian’s pity.

“Wicked, darling! That’s an absurd word to use.”

“She left her husband. And it’s awful that I, who can’t understand how any woman could be so wicked as to do that, should be so terribly like her. I feel as though it had something to do with this appalling thing happening to me. Perhaps her sins are being visited on me.” She held the lapels of his coat and looked tenderly, yearningly, in his face. “And I could bear it better if But oh, my Ian! I can’t bear to think of you left with something wicked, with some one who doesn’t love you, who deceives you, and ”

“Milly,” he broke in, “I won’t have you say things like that. They are absolutely untrue, and I won’t have them said.”

There was a note of sternness in his voice that Milly had never heard before, and she saw a hard look come into his averted face which was new to her. When she spoke it was in a gasp.

“You love her? You love that wicked, bad woman so much you won’t let me tell you what she is?”

He drew himself away from her with a gesture, and in a minute answered with cold deliberation:

“I cannot cease to love my own wife because because she’s not always exactly the same.”

They sat silent beside each other. At length Milly rose from the sofa. The tinselled scarf, that other woman’s delicate finery, had slipped from the white beauty of her shoulders. She drew it around her again slowly, and slowly with bowed head left the room.