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

George Goring and Mildred Stewart did not move in the same social set, but their sets had points of contact, and it was at these that Goring was now most likely to be found; especially at the pleasant bachelor house on Campden Hill. Mrs. Stewart walked in the Park every morning at an unfashionable hour, and sometimes, yet not too often for discretion, Goring happened to be walking there too. All told, their meetings were not very numerous, nor very private. But every half-hour they spent in each other’s company seemed to do the work of a month of intimacy.

July hastened to an end, but an autumn Session brought Goring up to town in November, and three months of absence found him and Mildred still at the same point. Sir Cyril Meres was already beginning to plan his wonderful tableaux-vivants, which, however, did not come off until February. The extraordinary imitative talent which his artistic career had been one long struggle to disguise, was for once to be allowed full play. The tableaux were to represent paintings by certain fellow-artists and friends; not actual pictures by them, but pictures which they might have painted, and the supposed authors were allowed a right of veto or criticism.

A stage of Renaissance design, which did not jar with the surrounding architecture, was erected in the depth of the portico at the end of the Hellenic room.

The human material at Meres’s command was physically admirable. He had long been the chosen portrait-painter of wealth and fashion, and there was not a beauty in Society, with the biggest “S,” who was not delighted to lend her charms for his purpose. The young men might grumble for form’s sake, but at the bottom of their hearts they were equally sensible to the compliment of being asked to appear. It was when it came to the moulding of the material for artistic purposes, that the trouble began. The English have produced great actors, but in the bulk they have little natural aptitude for the stage; and what they have is discouraged by a social training which strains after the ideal composure, the few movements, the glassy eye of a waxwork. Only a small and chosen number, it is true, fully attain that ideal; but when we see them we recognize with a start, almost with a shudder, that it is there, the perfection of our deportment.

Cyril Meres was, however, an admirable stage-manager, exquisite in tact, in temper, and urbane patience. The results of his prolonged training were wonderful; yet again and again he found it impossible to carry out his idea without placing his cousin Mrs. Stewart at the vital point of his picture. She was certainly not the most physically beautiful woman there, but she was unrivalled by any other in the grace, the variety, the meaning of her gestures, the dramatic transformations of her countenance. She was Pandora, she was Hope, she was Lady Hammerton, she was the Vampire, and she was the Queen of Faerie.

There is jealousy on the amateur stage as well as on the professional, and ladies of social position, accustomed to see their beauty lauded in the newspapers, saw no reason why Mrs. Stewart should be thrust to the front of half of the pictures. Lady Langham, the “smart” Socialist, with whom George Goring had flirted last season, to Lady Augusta’s real dismay, was the leading rival candidate for Mildred’s roles. But Lady Langham never guessed that Mrs. Stewart was the cause of George Goring’s disappearance from the list of her admirers, and she still had hopes of his return.

The tableaux were a brilliant success. Ian was there on the first evening, so was Lady Augusta Goring. Lady Langham, peeping through the curtains, saw her, and swept the horizon that is, the circle of black coats around the walls in vain for George Goring. Then Lady Augusta became audible, saying that in the present state of affairs in the House it was quite impossible for Mr. Goring to leave it, even for dinner, on that evening or the next. Nevertheless, on the next evening, Lady Langham espied George Goring in the act of taking a vacant chair near the front, next to a social protegee of her own. She turned and mentioned the fact to a friend, who smiled meaningly and remarked, “In spite of Lady Augusta’s whip!”

Mildred, passing, caught the information, the comment, the smile. During the rehearsals for the tableaux, she had heard people coupling the names of Goring and Lady Langham, not seriously, yet seriously enough for her. A winged shaft of jealousy pierced at once her heart and her pride. Was she allowing her whole inner life to be shaken, dissolved by the passing admiration of a flirt? Her intimate self had assurance that it was not so; but sometimes a colder wind, blowing she knew not whence, or the lash of a chance word, threw her into the attitude of a chance observer, one who sees, guesses, does not know.

Meantime George Goring had flung himself down in the only vacant chair he could see, and careless of the brilliant company about him, careless even of the face of Aphrodite herself, smiling divinely, unconcerned with human affairs, from a far corner he waited for the curtain to go up. His neighbor spoke. She had met him at the Langhams last season. What a pity he had just missed Lady Langham’s great tableau, “Helen before the Elders of Troy”! There was no one to be compared to Maud Langham, so beautiful, so clever! She would have made her fortune if she had gone on the stage. Goring gave the necessary assent.

The curtain went up, exhibiting a picture called “The Vampire.” It was smaller than most and shown by a curious pale light. A fair young girl was lying in a deep sleep on a curtained bed, and hovering, crawling over her with a deadly, serpentine grace, was a white figure wrapped in a veiling garment that might have been a shroud. Out of white cerements showed a trail of yellow hair and a face alabaster white, save for the lips that were blood red an intent face with a kind of terrible beauty, yet instinct with cruelty. One slender, bloodless hand was in the girl’s hair, and, even without the title, it would have been plain that there was a deadly purpose in that creeping figure.

“Isn’t it horrid?” whispered Goring’s neighbor. “Fancy that Mrs. Stewart letting herself be made to look so dreadful!”

“Who?” asked Goring, horrified. He had not recognized Mildred.

“Why, the girl on the bed’s Gertrude Waters, and the Vampire’s a cousin of Sir Cyril Meres. A horrid little woman some people admire, but I shouldn’t think any one would after this. I call it disgusting, don’t you?”

“It’s horrible!” gasped George; “it oughtn’t to be allowed. What does that fellow Meres mean by inventing such deviltries? By Jove, I should like to thrash him!”

The neighbor stared. It was all very well to be horrified at Mrs. Stewart, but why this particular form of horror?

“Please call me when it’s over,” said Goring, putting his head down between his hands.

What an eccentric young man he was! But clever people often were eccentric.

In due course the tableau was over, and to the relief of one spectator at least, it was not encored. The next was some harmless domestic scene with people in short waists. George Goring looked in vain for Mildred among them, longing to see her, the real lovely her, and forget the horrible thing she had portrayed. Lady Langham was there, and his neighbor commended her tediously, convinced of pleasing.

There followed a large and very beautiful picture in the manner of a great English Pre-Raphaelite. This was called “Thomas the Rhymer, meeting with the Faerie Queen,” but it did not follow the description of the ballad. The Faerie Queen, a figure of a Botticellian grace, was coming, with all her fellowship, out of a wonderful pinewood, while Thomas the Rhymer, handsome and young and lean and brown, his harp across his back, had just crossed a mountain-stream by a rough bridge. He appeared suddenly to have beheld her, pausing above him before descending the heathery bank that edged the wood; and looking in her face, to have entered at once into the land of Faerie. The pose, the figure, the face of the Faerie Queen were of the most exquisite charm and beauty, touched with a something of romance and mystery that no other woman there except Mildred could have lent it. The youth who personated Thomas the Rhymer was temporarily in love with Mrs. Stewart and acted his part with intense expression. Goring, shading his eyes with his hand, fixed them upon her as long as he dared; then glanced at the Rhymer and was angry. He turned to his chattering neighbor and asked:

“Who’s the chap doing Thomas? Looks as if he wanted a wash.”

“I don’t know. Nobody particular, I should think. Wasn’t it a pity they didn’t have Lady Langham for the Faerie Queen? I do call it absurd the way Sir Cyril Meres has put that pert, insignificant cousin of his forward in quite half the pictures and when he might have had Maud Langham.”

Goring threw himself back in his chair and laughed his quite loud laugh.

“‘A mad world, my masters,’” he quoted.

His neighbor took this for Mr. Goring’s eccentric way of approving her sentiments. But what he really meant was: What a strange masquerade is the world! This neighbor of his, so ordinary, so desirous to please, would have shuddered at the notion of hinting to him the patent fact that Lady Augusta Goring was a tiring woman; while she pressed upon him laudations of a person to whom he was perfectly indifferent, mingled with insulting comments on the only woman in the world for him the woman who was his world, without whom nothing was; on her whose very name, even on these silly, hostile lips, gave him a strong sensation, whether of pain or pleasure he could hardly tell.

After the performance he constrained himself to go the round of the ladies of his acquaintance who had been acting and compliment them cleverly and with good taste. Lady Langham of course seized the lion’s share of his company and his compliments. He seemed to address only a few remarks of the same nature to Mrs. Stewart, but he had watched his opportunity and was able to say to her:

“I must leave in a quarter of an hour at latest. Please let me drive you back. You won’t say no?”

There was a pleading note in the last phrase and his eyes met hers gravely, anxiously. It was evident that she must answer immediately, while their neighbors’ attention was distracted from them. She was pale before under her stage make-up, and now she grew still paler.

“Thanks. I told Cousin Cyril I was tired and shouldn’t stay long. I’ll go and change at once.”

Then Thomas the Rhymer was at her elbow again, bringing her something for which she had sent him.

The green-room, in which she resumed the old white lace evening-dress that she had worn to dine with her cousin, was strewn with the delicate underclothing, the sumptuous wraps and costly knick-knacks of wealthy women. She had felt ashamed, as she had undressed there, of her own poor little belongings among these; and ashamed to be so ashamed. As she had seen her garments overswept by the folds of the fair Socialist’s white velvet mantle, lined with Arctic fox and clasped with diamonds, she had smiled ironically at the juxtaposition. Since circumstances and her own gifts had drawn her into the stream of the world, she had been more and more conscious, however unwillingly, of a longing for luxuries, for rich settings to her beauty, for some stage upon which her brilliant personality might shine uplifted, secure. For she seemed to herself sometimes like a tumbler at a fair, struggling in the crowd for a space in which to spread his carpet. Now George Goring loved her. Let the others keep their furs and laces and gewgaws, their great fortunes or great names. Yet if it had been possible for her to take George Goring’s love, he could have given her most of these things as well.

Wrapped in a gauzy white scarf, she seemed to float rather than walk down the stairs into the hall, where Thomas the Rhymer was lingering, in the hope of finding an excuse to escort her home. She was pale, with a clear, beautiful pallor, a strange smile was on her lips and her eyes shone like stars. The Queen of Faerie had looked less lovely, meeting him on the edge of the wood. She nodded him good-night and passed quickly on into the porch. With a boyish pang he saw her vanish, not into the darkness of night, but into the blond interior of a smart brougham. A young man, also smart her husband, for aught he knew paused on the step to give orders to the coachman, and followed her in. A moment he saw her dimly, in the glare of carriage-lamps, a white vision, half eclipsed by the black silhouette of the man at her side; then they glided away over the crunching gravel of the drive, into the fiery night of London.

“Do you really think it went off well?” she asked, as they passed through the gates into the street. George was taking off his hat and putting it down on the little shelf opposite. He leaned back and was silent a few seconds; then starting forward, laid his hand upon her knee.

“Don’t let’s waste time like that, Mildred,” he said and although he had never called her so before, it seemed natural that he should “we haven’t got much. You know, don’t you, why I asked you to drive with me?”

She in her turn was silent a moment, then meeting his eyes:

“Yes,” she said, quite simply and courageously.

“I thought you could hardly help seeing I loved you, however blind other people might be.”

Her head was turned away again and she looked out of the window, as she answered in a voice that tried to be light:

“But it isn’t of any consequence, is it? I suppose you’re always in love with somebody or other.”

“Is that what people told you about me?” and it was new and wonderful to her to hear George Goring speak with this calmness and gravity “You’ve not been long in the world, little girl, or you’d know how much to believe of what’s said there.”

“No,” she answered, in turn becoming calm and deliberate. “When I come to think of it, people only say that women generally like you and that you flirt with them. I I invented the rest.”

“But, good Heavens! Why?” There was a note of pain and wonder in his voice.

She paused, and his hand moved under her cloak to be laid on the two slender hands clasped on her lap.

“I suppose I was jealous,” she said.

He smiled.

“Absurd child! But I’m a bit of an ass that way myself. I was jealous of Thomas the Rhymer this evening.”

“That brat!”

She laughed low, the sweet laugh that was like no one else’s. It was past midnight and the streets were comparatively quiet and dark, but at that moment they were whirled into a glare of strong light. They looked in each other’s eyes in silence, his hand tightening its hold upon hers. Then again they plunged into wavering dimness, and he resumed, gravely and calmly as before, but bending nearer her.

“If I weren’t anxious to tell you the exact truth, to avoid exaggeration, I should say I fell in love with you the first time I met you. It seems to me now as though it had been so. And the second time you remember it was one very hot day last July, when we both lunched with Meres I hadn’t the least doubt that if I had been free and you also, I should have left no stone unturned to get you for my wife.”

Every word was sweet to her, yet she answered sombrely:

“But we are not free.”

He, disregarding the answer, went on:

“You love me, as I love you?”

“As you love me, dearest; and from the first.”

A minute’s silence, while the hands held each other fast. Then low, triumphantly, he exclaimed: “Well?”

Her slim hands began to flutter a little in his as she answered all that that “Well” implied.

“It’s impossible, dear. It’s no use arguing about it. It’s just waste of time and we’ve only got this little time.”

“To do what? To make love in? Dear, we’ve got all our lives if we please. We’ve both made a tremendous mistake, we’ve both got a chance now of going back on it, of setting our lives right again, making them better indeed than we ever dreamed of their being. We inflict some loss on other people no loss comparable to our gain we hurt them chiefly because of their bloated ideas of their claims on us. I know you’ve weighed things, have no prejudices. Rules, systems, are made for types and classes, not for us. You belong to no type, Mildred. I belong to no class.”

She answered low, painfully:

“It’s true I am unlike other people; that’s the very reason, why I I’m not good to love.” There was a low utterance that was music in her ears, yet she continued: “Then, dear friend, think of your career, ruined for me, by me. You might be happy for a while, then you’d regret it.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. My career? A rotten little game, these House of Commons party politics, when you get into it! The big things go on outside them; there’s all the world outside them. Anyhow, my career, as I planned it, is ruined already. The Ipswich gang have collared me; I can’t call my tongue my own, Mildred. Think of that!”

She smiled faintly.

“Temporary, George! You’ll soon have your head up and your tongue out.”

“Oh, from time to time, I presume, I shall always be the Horrid Vulgar Boy of those poor Barthops; I shall kick like a galvanized frog long after I’m dead. But I wouldn’t confess it to any one but you, dear I’m not strong enough to stand against the everlasting pressure that’s brought to bear upon me. You know what I mean, don’t you?”

“Yes. You’ll be no good if you let the originality be squeezed out of you. Don’t allow it.”

“Nothing can prevent it unless the Faerie Queen will stretch out her dearest, sweetest hands to me and lead me, poor mortal, right away into the wide world, into some delightful country where there’s plenty of love and no politics. I want love so much, Mildred; I’ve never had it, and no one has ever guessed how much I wanted it except you, dear except you.”

Yes, she had guessed. The queer childhood, so noisy yet so lonely, had been spoken of; the married life spoke for itself.

His arm was around her now, their faces drawn close together, and in the pale, faint light they looked each other deep in the eyes. Then their lips met in a long kiss.

“You see how it is,” he whispered; “you can’t help it. It’s got to be. No one has power to prevent it.”

But he spoke without knowledge, for there was one who had power to prevent it, one conquered, helpless, less than a ghost, who yet could lay an icy hand on the warm, high-beating heart of her subduer, and say: “Love and desire, the pride of life and the freedom of the world, are not for you. I forbid them to you I by a power stronger than the laws of God or man. True, you have no husband, you have no child, for those who seem to be yours are mine. You have taken them from me, and now you must keep them, whether you will or no. You have taken my life from me, and my life you must have, that and none other.”

It was against this unknown and inflexible power that George Goring struggled with all the might of his love, and absolutely in vain. Between him and Mildred there could be no lies, no subterfuges; only that one silence which to him, of all others, she dared not break.

She seemed to have been engaged in this struggle, at once so sweet and so bitter, for an eternity before she stood on her own doorstep, latch-key in hand.

“Good-night, Mr. Goring. So much obliged for the lift.”

“Delighted, I’m sure. All right now? Good-night. Drop me at the House, Edwards.”

He lifted his hat, stepped in and closed the carriage-door sharply behind him; and in a minute the brougham with its lights rolling almost noiselessly behind the big fast-trotting bay horse, had disappeared around a neighboring corner.

The house was cold and dark, except for a candle which burned on an oak dresser in the narrow hall. As Mildred dragged herself up the stairs, she had a sensation of physical fatigue, almost bruisedness, as though she had come out of some actual bodily combat. Her room, fireless and cold, was solitary, for Ian’s sleep had to be protected from disturbance. Nevertheless, having loosened her wraps, she threw herself on the bed and lay there long, her bare arms under her head. The sensation of chill, her own cold soft flesh against her face, seemed to brace her mind and body, to restore her powers of clear, calm judgment, so unlike the usual short-sighted, emotionalized judgments of youth. She had nothing of the ordinary woman’s feeling of guilt towards her husband. The intimate bond between herself and George Goring did not seem in any relation the accidental one between her and Ian Stewart. She had never before faced the question, the possibility of a choice between the two. Now she weighed it with characteristic swiftness and decision. She reasoned that Ian had enjoyed a period of great happiness in his marriage with her, in spite of the singularity of its conditions; but that now, while Milly could never satisfy his fastidious nature, she herself had grown to be a hinderance, a dissonance in his life. Could she strike a blow which would sever him from her, he would suffer cruelly, no doubt; but it would send him back again to the student’s life, the only life that could bring him honor, and in the long run satisfaction. And that life would not be lonely, because Tony, so completely his father’s child, would be with him. As for herself and George Goring, she had no fear of the future. They two were strong enough to hew and build alone their own Palace of Delight. Her intuitive knowledge of the world informed her that, in the long run, society, if firmly disregarded, admits the claim of certain persons to go their own way even rapidly admits it, though they be the merest bleating strays from the common fold, should they haply be possessed of rank or fortune. The way lay plain enough before Mildred, were it not for that Other. But she, the shadowy one, deep down in her limbo, laid a finger on the gate of that Earthly Paradise and held it, as inflexibly as any armed archangel, against the master key of her enemy’s intelligence, the passionate assaults of her heart.

Mildred, however, was one who found it hard, if not impossible, to acquiesce in defeat. Two o’clock boomed from the watching towers of Westminster over the great city. She rose from her bed, cold as a marble figure on a monument, and went to the dressing-table to take off her few and simple ornaments. The mirror on it was the same from which that alien smile had peered twelve months ago, filling the sad soul of Milly with trembling fear and sinister foreboding. The white face that stole into its shadowy depths to-night, and looked Mildred in the eyes, was in a manner new to her also. It had a new seriousness, a new intensity, as of a woman whose vital energies, once spending themselves in mere corruscations, in mere action for action’s sake, were now concentrated on one definite thought, one purpose, one emotion, which with an intense yet benign fire blended in perfect harmony the life of the soul and of the body.

For a moment the face in its gravity recalled to her the latest photograph of Milly, a tragic photograph she did not care to look at because it touched her with a pity, a remorse, which were after all quite useless. But the impression was false and momentary.

“No,” she said, speaking to the glass, “it’s not really like. Poor weak woman! I understand better now what you have suffered.” Then almost repeating the words of her own cruel subconscious self “But there’s all the difference between the weak and the strong. I am the stronger, and the stronger must win; that’s written, and it’s no use struggling against the law of nature.”