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

The intense heat of early afternoon quivered on the steep woods which fell to the river opposite the house. The sunlit stream curved under them, moving clear and quiet over depths of brown, tangled water-growths, and along its fringe of gray and green reeds and grasses and creamy plumes of meadow-sweet. The house was not very large. It was square and white; an old wistaria, an old Gloire-de-Dijon, and a newer carmine cluster-rose contended for possession of its surface. Striped awnings were down over all the lower windows and some of the upper. A large lawn, close-shorn and velvety green, as only Thames-side lawns can be, stretched from the house to the river. It had no flower-beds on it, but a cedar here, an ilex there, dark and substantial on their own dark shadows, and trellises and pillars overrun by a flood of roses of every shade, from deep crimson to snow white. The lawn was surrounded by shrubberies and plantations, and beyond it there was nothing to be seen except the opposite woods and the river, and sometimes boats passing by with a measured sound of oars in the rowlocks, or the temporary commotion of a little steam-launch. It looked a respectable early Victorian house, but it had never been quite that, for it had been built by George Goring’s father fifty years earlier, and he himself had spent much of his boyhood there.

Everything and every one seemed asleep, except a young man in flannels with a flapping hat hanging over his eyes, who stood at the end of a punt and pretended to fish. There was no one to look at him or at the house behind him, and if there had been observers, they would not have guessed that they were looking at the Garden of Eden and that he was Adam. Only last evening he and that fair Eve of his had stood by the river in the moonlight, where the shattering hawthorn-bloom made the air heavy with sweetness, and had spoken to each other of this their exquisite, undreamed-of happiness. There had been a Before, there would be an After, when they must stand on their defence against the world, must resist a thousand importunities, heart-breaking prayers, to return to the old, false, fruitless existence.

But just for these days they could be utterly alone in their paradise, undisturbed even by the thoughts of others, since no one knew they were there and together. Alas! they had been so only forty-eight hours, and already a cold little serpent of anxiety had crept in among their roses.

Before entrusting herself to him, Mildred had told him that, in spite of her apparent good health, she was occasionally subject to long trance-like fits, resembling sleep; should this happen, it would be useless to call an ordinary doctor, but that a Miss Timson, a well-known scientific woman and a friend of hers, must be summoned at once. He had taken Miss Timson’s address and promised to do so; but Mildred had not seemed to look upon the fit as more than a remote contingency. Perhaps the excitement, the unconscious strain of the last few days had upset her nerves; for this morning she had lain in what he had taken for a natural sleep, until, finding her still sleeping profoundly at noon, he had remembered her words and telegraphed to Miss Timson. An answer to his telegram, saying that Miss Timson would come as soon as possible, lay crumpled up at the bottom of the punt.

The serpent was there, but Goring did not allow its peeping coils thoroughly to chill his roses. His temperament was too sanguine, he felt too completely steeped in happiness, the weather was too beautiful. Most likely Mildred would be all right to-morrow.

Meantime, up there in the shaded room, she who had been Mildred began to stir in her sleep. She opened her eyes and gazed through the square window, at the sunlit awning that overhung it, and at the green leaves and pale buds of the Gloire-de-Dijon rose. There was a hum of bees close by that seemed like the voice of the hot sunshine. It should have been a pleasant awakening, but Milly awoke from that long sleep of hers with a brooding sense of misfortune. The remembrance of the afternoon when she had so suddenly been snatched away returned to her, but it was not the revelation of Ian’s passionate love for her supplanter that came back to her as the thing of most importance. Surely she must have known that long before, for now the pain seemed old and dulled from habit. It was the terrible strength with which the Evil Spirit had possessed her, seizing her channels of speech even while she was still there, hurling her from her seat without waiting for the passivity of sleep. No, her sense of misfortune was not altogether, or even mainly, connected with that last day of hers. Unlike Mildred, she had up till now been without any consciousness of things that had occurred during her quiescence, and she had now no vision; only a strong impression that something terrible had befallen Ian.

She looked around the bedroom, and it seemed to her very strange; something like an hotel room, yet at once too sumptuous and too shabby. There was a faded pink flock wall-paper with a gilt pattern upon it, the chairs were gilded and padded and covered with worn pink damask, the bed was gilded and hung with faded pink silk curtains. Everywhere there was pink and gilding, and everywhere it was old and faded and rubbed. A few early Victorian lithographs hung on the walls, portraits of ballet-dancers and noblemen with waists and whiskers. No one had tidied the room since the night before, and fine underclothing was flung carelessly about on chairs, a fussy petticoat here, the bodice of an evening dress there; everywhere just that touch of mingled daintiness and disorder which by this time Milly recognized only too well.

The bed was large, and some one else had evidently slept there besides herself, for the sheet and pillow were rumpled and there was a half-burnt candle and a man’s watch-chain on the small table beside it. Wherever she was then, Ian was there too, so that she was at a loss to understand her own sinister foreboding.

She pulled at the bell-rope twice.

There were only three servants in the house; a housekeeper and two maids, who all dated from the days of Mrs. Maria Idle, ex-mistress of the late Lord Ipswich, dead herself now some six months. The housekeeper was asleep, the maids out of hearing. She opened the door and found a bathroom opposite her bedroom. It had a window which showed her a strip of lawn with flower-beds upon it, beyond that shrubberies and tall trees which shut out any farther view. A hoarse cuckoo was crying in the distance, and from the greenery came a twittering of birds and sometimes a few liquid pipings; but there was no sound of human life. The place seemed as empty as an enchanted palace in a fairy story.

Milly’s toilet never took her very long. She put on a fresh, simple cotton dress, which seemed to have been worn the day before, and was just hesitating as to whether she should go down or wait for Ian to come, when Clarkson, the housekeeper, knocked at her door.

“I thought if you was awake, madam, you might like a bit of lunch,” she said.

Milly refused, for this horrible feeling of depression and anxiety made her insensible to hunger. She looked at the housekeeper with a certain surprise, for Clarkson was as decorated and as much the worse for wear as the furniture of the bedroom. She was a large, fat woman, laced into a brown cashmere dress, with a cameo brooch on her ample bosom; her hair was unnaturally black, curled and dressed high on the top of her head, she had big gold earrings, and a wealth of powder on her large, red face.

“Can you tell me where I am likely to find Mr. Stewart?” asked Milly, politely.

The woman stared, and when she answered there was more than a shade of insolence in her coarse voice and smile.

“I’m sure I can’t tell, madam. Mr. Stewart’s not our gentleman here.”

Milly, understanding the reply as little as the housekeeper had understood the question, yet felt that some impertinence was intended and turned away.

There was nothing for it but to explore on her own account. A staircase of the dull Victorian kind led down to a dark, cool hall. The front door was open. She walked to it and stood under a stumpy portico, looking out. The view was much the same as that seen from the bathroom, only that instead of grass and flower-beds there was a gravel sweep, and, just opposite the front door, a circle of grass with a tall monkey-puzzle tree in the centre. Except for the faded gorgeousness of the bedroom, the house looked like an ordinary country house, belonging to old people who did not care to move with the times. Why should she feel at every step a growing dread of what might meet her there?

She turned from the portico and opened, hesitatingly, the door of a room on the opposite side of the hall. It was a drawing-room, with traces of the same shabby gorgeousness that prevailed in the bedroom, but mitigated by a good deal of clean, faded chintz; and at one end was a brilliant full-length Millais portrait of Mrs. Maria Idle in blue silk and a crinoline. It was a long room, pleasant in the dim light; for although it had three windows, the farthest a French one and open, all were covered with awnings, coming low down and showing nothing of the outer world but a hand’s breadth of turf and wandering bits of creeper. It was sweet with flowers, and on a consol table before a mirror stood a high vase from which waved and twined tall sprays and long streamers of cluster-roses, carmine and white. It was beautiful, yet Milly turned away from it almost with a shudder. She recognized the touch of the hand that must have set the roses there. And the nameless horror grew upon her.

Except for the flowers, there was little sign of occupation in the room. A large round rosewood table was set with blue glass vases on mats and some dozen photograph albums and gift-books, dating from the sixties. But on a stool in a corner lay a newspaper; and the date on it gave her a shock. She had supposed herself to have been away about four months; she found she had been gone sixteen. There had been plenty of time for a misfortune to happen, and she felt convinced that it had happened. But what? If Ian or Tony were dead she would surely still be in mourning. Then on a little rosewood escritoire, such as ladies were wont to use when they had nothing to write, she spied an old leather writing-case with the initials M. B. F. upon it. It was one Aunt Beatrice had given her when she first went to Ascham, and it seemed to look on her pleasantly, like the face of an old friend. She found a few letters in the pockets, among them one from Ian written from Berlin a few days before, speaking of his speedy return and of Tony’s amusing letter from the sea-side. She began to hope her feeling of anxiety and depression might be only the shadow of the fear and anguish which she had suffered on that horrible afternoon sixteen months ago. She must try not to think about it, must try to be bright for Ian’s sake. Some one surely was with her at this queer place, since she was sharing a room with another person probably a female friend of that Other’s, who had such a crowd of them.

She drew the awning half-way up and stood on the step outside the French window. The lawn, the trees, the opposite hills were unknown to her, but the spirit of the river spoke to her familiarly, and she knew it for the Thames. A gardener in shirt-sleeves was filling a water-barrel by the river, under a hawthorn-tree, and the young man in the punt was putting up his fishing-tackle. As she looked, the strangeness of the scene passed away. She could not say where it was, but in some dream or vision she had certainly seen this lawn, that view, before; when the young man turned and came nearer she would know his face. And the dim, horrible thing that was waiting for her somewhere about the quiet house, the quiet garden, seemed to draw a step nearer, to lift its veil a little. Who was it that had stood not far from where the gardener was standing now, and seen the moon hanging large and golden over the mystery of the opposite woods? Whoever it was, some one’s arm had been fast around her and there had been kisses kisses.

It took but a few seconds for these half-revelations to drop into her mind, and before she had had time to reflect upon them, the young man in the punt looked up and saw her standing there on the step. He took off his floppy hat and waved it to her; then he put down his tackle, ran to the near end of the punt and jumped lightly ashore. He came up the green lawn, and her anxiety sent her down to meet him almost as eagerly as love would have done. The hat shaded all the upper part of his face, and at a distance, in the strong sunshine, the audacious chin, the red lower lip, caught her eye first and seemed to extinguish the rest of the face. And suddenly she disliked them. Who was the man, and how did she come to know him? But former experiences of strange awakenings had made her cautious, self-controlling, almost capable of hypocrisy.

“So you’re awake!” shouted George, still a long way down the lawn. “Good! How are you? All right?”

She nodded “Yes,” with a constrained smile.

In a minute they had met, he had turned her around, and with his arm under hers was leading her towards the house again.

“All right? Really all right?” he asked very softly, pressing her arm with his hand and stooping his head to bring his mouth on a level with her ear.

“Very nearly, at any rate,” she answered, coldly, trying to draw away from him.

“What are you doing that for?” he asked. “Afraid of shocking the gardener, eh? What queer little dear little ways you’ve got! I suppose Undines are like that.”

He drew her closer to him as he threw back his head and laughed a noisy laugh that jarred upon her nerves.

Milly began to feel indignant. It was just possible that a younger sister in Australia might have married and brought this extraordinary young man home to England, but his looks, his tone, were not fraternal; and she had never forgotten the Maxwell Davison episode. She walked on stiffly.

“Every one seems to be out,” she observed, as calmly as she could.

He frowned.

“You mean those devils of servants haven’t been looking after you?” he asked. “Yet I gave Clarkson her orders. Of course they’re baggages, but I haven’t had the heart to send them away from the old place, for who on earth would take them? I expect we aren’t improving their chances, you and I, at this very moment; in spite of respecting the gardener’s prejudices.”

He chuckled, as at some occult joke of his own.

They stooped together under the half-raised awning of the French window, and entered the dim, flower-scented drawing-room side by side. The young man threw off his hat, and she saw the silky ripple of his nut-brown hair, his smooth forehead, his bright-glancing hazel eyes, all the happy pleasantness of his countenance. Before she had had time to reconsider her dislike of him, he had caught her in his arms and kissed her hair and face, whispering little words of love between the kisses. For one paralyzed moment Milly suffered these dreadful words, these horrible caresses. Then exerting the strength of frenzy, she pushed him from her and bounded to the other side of the room, entrenching herself behind the big rosewood table with its smug mats and vases and albums.

“You brute! you brute! you hateful cad!” she stammered with trembling lips; “how dare you touch me?”

George Goring stared at her with startled eyes.

“Mildred! Dearest! Good God! What’s gone wrong?”

“Where’s my husband?” she asked, in a voice sharp with anger and terror. “I want to go I must leave this horrid place at once.”

“Your husband?”

It was Goring’s turn to feel himself plunged into the midst of a nightmare, and he grew almost as pale as Milly. How in Heaven’s name was he going to manage her? She looked very ill and must of course be delirious. That would have been alarming in any case, and this particular form of delirium was excruciatingly painful.

“Yes, my husband where is he? I shall tell him how you’ve dared to insult me. I must go. This is your house I must leave it at once.”

Goring did not attempt to come near her. He spoke very quietly.

“Try and remember, Mildred; Stewart is not here. He will not even be in England till to-morrow. You are alone with me. Hadn’t you better go to bed again and ” he was about to say, “wait until Miss Timson comes,” but as it was possible that the advent of the person she had wished him to summon might now irritate her, he substituted “and keep quiet? I promise not to come near you if you don’t wish to see me.”

“I am alone here with you?” Milly repeated, slowly, and pressed her hand to her forehead. “Good God,” she moaned to herself, “what can have happened?”

“Yes. For Heaven’s sake, go and lie down. I expect the doctor can give you something to soothe your nerves and then perhaps you’ll remember.”

She made a gesture of fierce impatience.

“You think I’m mad, but I’m not. I have been mad and I am myself again; only I can’t remember anything that’s happened since I went out of my mind. I insist upon your telling me. Who are you? I never saw you before to my knowledge.”

Her voice, her attitude were almost truculent as she faced him, her right hand dragging at the loose clasp of a big photograph album. Every word, every look, was agony to Goring, but he controlled himself by an effort.

“I am George Goring,” he said, slowly, and paused with anxious eyes fixed upon her, hoping that the name might yet stir some answering string of tenderness in the broken lyre of her mind.

She too paused, as though tracking some far-off association with the name. Then:

“Ah! poor Lady Augusta’s husband,” she repeated, yet sterner than before in her anger. “My friend Lady Augusta’s husband! And why am I here alone with you, Mr. Goring?”

“Because I am your lover, Mildred. Because I love you better than any one or any thing in the world; and yesterday you thought you loved me, you thought you could trust all your life to me.”

She had known the answer already in her heart, but the fact stated plainly by another, became even more dreadful, more intolerable, than before. She uttered a low cry and covered her eyes with her hand.

“Mildred dearest!” he breathed imploringly.

Then she raised her head and looked straight at him with flaming eyes, this fair, fragile creature transformed into a pitiless Fury. She forgot that indeed an Evil Spirit had dwelt within her; George Goring might be victim rather than culprit. In this hour of her anguish the identity of that body of hers, which through him was defiled, that honor of hers, yes and of Ian Stewart’s, which through him was dragged in the dust, made her no longer able to keep clearly in mind the separateness of the Mildred Stewart of yesterday from herself.

“I tell you I was mad,” she gasped; “and you you vile, wicked man! you took advantage of it to ruin my life to ruin my husband’s life! You must know Ian Stewart, a man whose shoes you are not fit to tie. Do you think any woman in her senses would leave him for you? Ah! ” she breathed a long, shuddering breath and her hand was clinched so hard upon the loose album clasp that it ran into her palm.

“Mildred!” cried George, staggered, stricken as though by some fiery rain.

“I ought to be sorry for your wife,” she went on. “She is a splendid woman, she has done nothing to deserve that you should treat her so scandalously. But I can’t I can’t” a dry sob caught her voice “be sorry for any one except myself and Ian. I always knew I wasn’t good enough to be his wife, but I was so proud of it so proud and now Oh, it’s too horrible! I’m not fit to live.”

George had sunk upon a chair and hidden his face in his hands.

“Don’t say that,” he muttered hoarsely, almost inaudibly. “It was my doing.”

She broke out again.

“Of course it was. It’s nothing to you, I suppose. You’ve broken my husband’s heart and mine too; you’ve hopelessly disgraced us both and spoiled our lives; and all for the sake of a little amusement, a little low pleasure. We can’t do anything, we can’t punish you; but if curses were any use, oh, how I could curse you, Mr. Goring!”

The sobs rising in a storm choked her voice. She rushed from the room, closing the door behind her and leaving George Goring there, his head on his hands. He sat motionless, hearing nothing but the humming silence of the hot afternoon.

Milly, pressing back her tears, flew across the hall and up the stairs. The vague nightmare thing that had lurked for her in the shadows of the house, when she had descended them so quietly, had taken shape at last. She knew now the unspeakable secret of the pink and gold bedroom, the shabbily gorgeous bed, the posturing dancers, the simpering, tailored noblemen. The atmosphere of it, scented and close, despite the open window, seemed to take her by the throat. She dared not stop to think, lest this sick despair, this loathing of herself, should master her. To get home at once was her impulse, and she must do it before any one could interfere.

It was a matter of a few seconds to find a hat, gloves, a parasol. She noticed a purse in the pocket of her dress and counted the money in it. There was not much, but enough to take her home, since she felt sure the river shimmering over there was the Thames. She did not stay to change her thin shoes, but flitted down the stairs and out under the portico, as silent as a ghost. The drive curved through a shrubbery, and in a minute she was out of sight of the house. She hurried past the lodge, hesitating in which direction to turn, when a tradesman’s cart drove past. She asked the young man who was driving it her way to the station, and he told her it was not very far, but that she could not catch the next train to town if she meant to walk. He was going in that direction himself and would give her a lift if she liked. She accepted the young man’s offer; but if he made it in order to beguile the tedium of his way, he was disappointed.

The road was dusty and sunny, and this gave her a reason for opening her large parasol. She cowered under it, hiding herself from the women who rolled by in shiny carriages with high-stepping horses; not so much because she feared she might meet acquaintances, as from an instinctive desire to hide herself, a thing so shamed and everlastingly wretched, from every human eye. And so it happened that, when she was close to the station, she missed seeing and being seen by Tims, who was driving to Mr. Goring’s house in a hired trap which he had sent to meet her.