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

In spite of the deepening dislike between the two egos which struggled for the possession of Mildred Stewart’s bodily personality, they had a common interest in disguising the fact of their dual existence. Yet the transformation never occurred without producing its little harvest of inconveniences, and the difficulty of disguising the difference between the two was the greater because of the number of old acquaintances and friends of Milly Flaxman living in Oxford.

This was one reason why, when Ian was offered the headship of the Merchants’ Guild College in London, Mildred encouraged him to take it. The income, too, seemed large in comparison to their Oxford one; and the great capital, with its ever-roaring surge of life, drew her with a natural magnetism. The old Foundation was being reconstructed, and was ambitious of adorning itself with a name so distinguished as Ian Stewart’s, while at the same time obtaining the services of a man with so many of his best years still before him. Stewart, although he could do fairly well in practical administration, if he gave his mind to it, had won distinction as a student and man of letters, and feared that, difficult as it was to combine the real work of his life with bread-and-butter-making in Oxford, it would be still more difficult to combine it with steering the ship of the Merchants’ Guild College. But he had the sensitive man’s defect of too often deferring to the judgment of others, less informed or less judicious than himself. He found it impossible to believe that the opinion of the Master of Durham was not better than his own; and his old friend and tutor was strongly in favor of his accepting the headship. His most really happy and successful years had been those later ones in which he had shone as the Head of the most brilliant College in Oxford, a man of affairs and, in his individual way, a social centre. Accordingly he found it impossible to believe that it might be otherwise with Ian Stewart. The majority of Ian’s most trusted advisers were of the same opinion as the Master, since the number of persons who can understand the conditions necessary to the productiveness of exceptional and creative minds is always few. Besides, most people at bottom are in Martha’s attitude of scepticism towards the immaterial service of the world.

Lady Thomson voiced the general opinion in declaring that a man could always find time to do good work if he really wanted to do it. She rejoiced when Ian put aside the serious doubts which beset him and accepted the London offer. Mildred also rejoiced, although she regretted much that she must leave behind her, and in particular the old panelled house.

This was, however, the one part of Oxford that Milly did not grieve to have lost, when she awoke once more from long months of sleep, to find herself in a new home. For she had grown to be silently afraid of the old house, with the great chimney-stacks like hollowed towers within it, made, it seemed, for the wind to moan in; its deep embrasures and panelling, that harbored inexplicable sounds; its ancient boards that creaked all night as if with the tread of mysterious feet. Awake in the dark hours, she fancied there were really footsteps, really knockings, movements, faint sighs passing outside her door, and that some old wicked life which should long since have passed away through the portals of the grave, clung to those ancient walls with a horrible tenacity, still refusing the great renunciation of death.

It was true that in the larger, more hurried world of London it was easier to dissimulate her transformations than it had been in Oxford. The comparative retirement in which Milly lived was easily explained by her delicate health. It seemed as though in her sojourns which more and more encroached upon those of the original personality the strong, intrusive ego consumed in an unfair degree the vitality of their common body, leaving Milly with a certain nervous exhaustion, a languor against which she struggled with a pathetic courage. She learned also to cover with a seldom broken silence the deep wound which was ever draining her young heart of its happiness; and for that very reason it grew deeper and more envenomed.

That Ian should love her evil and mysterious rival as though they two were really one was horrible to her. Even her child was not unreservedly her own, to bring up according to her own ideas, to love without fear of that rival. Tony was like his father in the sweetness of his disposition, as well as in his dark beauty, and he accented with surprising resignation the innumerable rules and regulations which Milly set about his path and about his bed. But although he was healthy, his nerves were highly strung, and it seemed as though her feverish anxiety for his physical, moral, and intellectual welfare reacted upon him and made him, after a few weeks of her influence, less vigorous in appearance, less gay and boylike than he was during her absence. Ian dared not hint a preference for the animal spirits that Mildred encouraged, with their attendant noise and nonsense, considered by Milly so undesirable. But one day Tims observed, cryptically, that “A watched boy never boils”; and Emma, the nurse, told Mrs. Stewart bluntly that she thought Master Tony wasn’t near so well and bright when he was always being looked after, as he was when he was let go his own way a bit, like other children. Then a miserable fear beset Milly lest the boy, too, should notice the change in his mother; lest he should look forward to the disappearance of the woman who loved him so passionately, watched over him with such complete devotion, and in his silent heart regret, invoke, that other. It was at once soothing and bitter to her to be assured by Ian and by Tims that they had never been able to discover the least sign that Tony was aware when the change occurred between the two personalities of his mother.

Two years passed in London, two years out of which the original owner enjoyed a total share of only nine months; and this, indeed, she could not truly have been said to have enjoyed, since happiness was far from her. Death would have been a sad but simple catastrophe, to be met with resignation to the will of God. What resignation could be felt before this gradual strangulation of her being at the hands of a nameless yet surely Evil Thing? Her love for Ian was so great that his sufferings were more to her than her own, and in the space of those two years she saw that on him, too, sorrow had set its mark. The glow of his good looks and the brilliancy of his mind were alike dulled. It was not only that his shoulders were bent, his hair thinned and touched with gray, but his whole appearance, once so individual, was growing merely typical; that of the middle-aged Academic, absorbed in the cares of his profession. His real work was not merely at a stand-still, but a few more such years and his capacity for it would be destroyed. She felt this vaguely, with the intuition of love. If the partnership had been only between him and her, he surely would have yielded to her prayer to give up the headship of the Merchants’ Guild College after a set term; but he put the question by. Evidently that Other, who cared for nothing but her own selfish interests and amusements, who spent upon them the money that he ought to be saving, would never allow him to give up his appointment unless something better offered. It was not only her own life, it was the higher and happier part of his that she was struggling to save in those desperate hours when she sought around her for some weapon wherewith to fight that mortal foe. She turned to priests, Anglican, Roman Catholic; but they failed her. Both believed her to be suffering under an insane delusion, but the Roman Catholic priest would have attempted to exorcise the evil spirit if she would have joined his Communion. She was too honest to pretend to a belief that was not hers.

When she returned from her last vain pilgrimage to the Church of the Sacred Heart and stood before the glass, removing a thick black veil from the pale despair of her face, she was suddenly aware of a strange, unfamiliar smile lifting the drooped lines of her lips an elfish smile which transformed her face to something different from her own. And immediately those smiling lips uttered words that fell as unexpectedly on her ears as though they had proceeded from the mouth of another person.

“Never mind,” they said, briskly. “It wouldn’t have been of the least use.”

For a minute a wild terror made her brain swim and she fled to the door, instinctively seeking protection; but she stayed herself, remembering that Ian, who was sleeping badly at night, was now asleep in his study. Weak and timid though she was, she would lay no fresh burden on him, but fight her battle, if battle there was to be, alone.

She walked back deliberately to the glass and looked steadily at her own reflection. Her brows were frowning, her eyes stern as she had never before seen them, but they were assuredly hers, answering to the mood of her own mind. Her lips were cold, and trembled so that although she had meant solemnly to defy the Power of Evil within her she was unable to articulate. As she looked in the glass and saw herself her real self so evidently there, the strange smile, the speech divorced from all volition of hers which had crossed her lips, began to lose reality. Still her lips trembled, and at length a convulsion shook them as irresistible as that of a sob. Words broke stammeringly out which were not hers:

“Struggle for life the stronger wins. I’m stronger. It’s no use struggling no use no use no use!”

Milly pressed her lips hard against her teeth with her hands, stopping this utterance by main force. Her heart hammered so loud it seemed as though some one must hear it and come to ask what was the matter. But no one came. She was left alone with the Thing within her.

It may have been a long while, it may have been only a few seconds that she remained standing at her dressing-table, her hands pressed hard against her convulsed mouth. She had closed her eyes, afraid to look longer in the glass, lest something uncanny should peer out of it. She did not pray she had prayed so often before but she fought with her whole strength against the encroaching power of the Other. At length she gradually released her lips. They were bruised, but they had ceased to move. It was she herself who spoke, low but clearly and with deliberation:

“I shall struggle. I shall never give in. You think you’re the stronger. I won’t let you be. I’m fighting for my husband’s happiness do you hear? as well as my own. You’re strong, but we shall be stronger, he and I, in the end.”

There was no answer, the sense of struggle was gone from her; and suddenly she felt how mad it was to be talking to herself like that in an empty room. She took off the little black toque which sat on her bright head with an alien smartness to which she was now accustomed, and forced herself to look in the glass while she pinned up a stray lock of hair. Beyond an increased pallor and darker marks under her eyes, she saw nothing unusual in her appearance.

It was five o’clock, and Ian would probably be awake and wanting his tea. She went softly into the study and leaned over him. Sleep had almost smoothed away the lines of effort and worry which had marred the beauty of his face; in the eyes of her love he was always the same handsome Ian Stewart as in the old Oxford days, when he had seemed as a young god, so high above her reach.

She went to an oak table behind the sofa, on which the maid had set the tea-things without awakening him, and sat there quietly watching the kettle. The early London twilight began to veil the room. Ian stirred on the sofa and sat up, with his back to her, unconscious of her presence. She rose, vaguely supposing herself about to address some gentle word to him. Then suddenly she had thrown one soft hand under his chin and one across his eyes, and with a brusquerie quite unnatural to her pulled him backwards, while a ripple of laughter so strange as to be shocking in her own ears burst from her lips, which cried aloud with a defiant gayety:

“Who, Ian? Guess!”

Ian, with a sudden force as strange to her as her own laughter, her own gay cry, pulled her hands away, held them an instant fast; then, kneeling on the sofa, he caught her in his long arms across the back of it, and after the pressure of a kiss upon her lips such as she had never felt before, breathed with a voice of unutterable gladness: “Mildred! Darling! Dearest love!”

A hoarse cry, almost a shriek, broke from the lips of Milly. The woman he held struggled from his arms and stared at him wildly in the veiling twilight. A strange horror fell upon him, and for several seconds he remained motionless, leaning over the back of the sofa. Then, groping towards the wall, he switched on the electric light. He saw it plainly, the white mask of a woman smitten with a mortal blow.

“Milly,” he uttered, stammeringly. “What’s the matter? You are ill.”

She turned on him her heart-broken look, then pressing her hand to her throat, spoke as though with difficulty.

“I love you very much you don’t know how much I love you. I’ve tried so hard to be a good wife to you.”

Ian perceived catastrophe, yet dimly; sought with desperate haste to remember why for a moment he had believed that that Other was come back; what irreparable thing he had said or done.

Meantime he must say something. “Milly, dear! What’s gone wrong? What have I done, child?”

“You’ve let her take you ” She spoke more freely now, but with a startling fierceness “You’ve let her take you from me.”

“Ah, the old trouble! My poor Milly! I know it’s terrible for you. I can only say that no one else really exists; that you are always you really.”

“That’s not true. You don’t believe it yourself. That wicked creature has made you love her her own wicked way. You want to have her instead of me; you want to destroy your own wife and to get her back again.”

The cruel, ultimate truth that Milly’s words laid bare the truth which he constantly refused to look upon, in mercy to himself and her paralyzed the husband’s tongue. He tried to approach her with vague words and gestures of affection and remonstrance, but she motioned him from her.

“No. Don’t say you love me; I can’t believe it, and I hate to hear you say what’s not true.”

For a moment the fierce heart of Primitive Woman had blazed up within her that fire which all the waters of baptism fail to quench. But the flame died down as suddenly as it had arisen, and appealing with outspread hands, as to some invisible judge, she wailed, miserably:

“Oh, what am I to do what am I to do? I love you so much, and it’s all no use.”

Ian was as white as herself.

“Milly, my poor girl, don’t break our hearts.”

He stretched his arms towards her, but she turned away from him towards the door, made a few steps, then stopped and clutched her throat. He thought her struggling with sobs; but when once more, as though in fear, she turned her face towards him, he saw it strangely convulsed. He moved towards her in an alarmed silence, but before he could reach her and catch her in his arms, her head drooped, she swayed once upon her feet, and fell heavily to the ground.