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

Milly took a ticket for Paddington and hurried to the train, which was waiting at the platform, choosing an empty compartment. Action had temporarily dulled the passion of her misery, her rage, her shuddering horror at herself. But alone in the train, it all returned upon her, only with a complete realization of circumstance which made it worse.

It had been her impulse to rush to her home, to her husband, as for refuge. Now she perceived that there was no refuge for her, no comfort in her despair, but rather another ordeal to be faced. She would have to tell her husband the truth, so far as she knew it. Good God! Why could she not shake off from her soul the degradation, the burning shame of this fair flesh of hers, and return to him with some other body, however homely, which should be hers and hers alone? She remembered that the man she loathed had said that Ian would not be back in England until to-morrow. She supposed the Evil Thing had counted on stealing home in time to meet him, and would have met him with an innocently smiling face.

A moment Milly triumphed in the thought that it was she herself who would meet Ian and reveal to him the treachery of the creature who had supplanted her in his heart. Then with a shudder she hid her face, remembering that it was, after all, her own dishonor and his which she must reveal. He would of course take her back, and if that could be the end, they might live down the thing together. But it would not be the end. “I am the stronger,” that Evil Thing had said, and it was the stronger. At first step by step, now with swift advancing strides, it was robbing her of the months, the years, till soon, very soon, while in the world’s eyes she seemed to live and thrive, she would be dead; dead, without a monument, without a tear, her very soul not free and in God’s hands, but held somewhere in abeyance. And Ian? Through what degradation, to what public shame would he, the most refined and sensitive of men, be dragged! His child her child and Ian’s would grow up like that poor wretched George Goring, breathing corruption, lies, dishonor, from his earliest years. And she, the wife, the mother, would seem to be guilty of all that, while she was really bound, helpless dead.

The passion of her anger and despair stormed through her veins again with yet greater violence, but this time George Goring was forgotten and all its waves broke impotently against that adversary whose diabolical power she was so impotent to resist, who might return to-morrow, to-day for aught she knew.

She had been moving restlessly about the compartment, making vehement gestures in her desperation, but now a sudden, terrible, yet calming idea struck her to absolute quietness. There was a way, just one, to thwart this adversary; she could destroy the body into which it thought to return. At the same moment there arose in her soul two opposing waves of emotion one of passionate self-pity to think that she, so weak and timid, should be driven to destroy herself; the other of triumph over her mortal foe delivered into her hands. She felt a kind of triumph too in the instantaneousness with which she was able to make up her mind that this was the only thing to be done she, usually so full of mental and moral hesitation. Let it be done quickly now, while the spur of excitement pricked her on. The Thing seemed to have a knowledge of her experiences which was not reciprocal. How it would laugh if it recollected in its uncanny way, that she had wanted to kill herself and it with her, that she had had it at her mercy and then had been too weak and cowardly to strike! Should she buy some poison when she reached Paddington? She knew nothing about poisons and their effects, except that carbolic caused terrible agony, and laudanum was not to be trusted unless you knew the dose. The train was slowing up and the lonely river gleamed silverly below. It beckoned to her, the river, upon whose stream she had spent so many young, happy days.

She got out at the little station and walked away from it with a quick, light step, as though hastening to keep some pleasurable appointment. After all the years of weak, bewildered subjection, of defeat and humiliation, her turn had come; she had found the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle, the way to victory.

She knew the place where she found herself, for she had several times made one of a party rowing down from Oxford to London. But it was not one of the frequented parts of the river, being a quiet reach among solitary meadows. She remembered that there was a shabby little house standing by itself on the bank where boats could be hired, for they had put in there once to replace an oar, having lost one down a weir in the neighborhood. The weir had not been on the main stream, but they had come upon it in exploring a backwater. It could not be far off.

She walked quickly along the bank, turning over and over in her mind the same thoughts; the cruel wrong which now for so many years she had suffered, the final disgrace brought upon her and her husband, and she braced her courage to strike the blow that should revenge all. The act to which this fair-haired, once gentle woman was hurrying along the lonely river-bank, was not in its essence suicide; it was revenge, it was murder.

When she came to the shabby little house where the boats lay under an unlovely zinc-roofed shed, she wondered whether she might ask for ink and paper and write to some one. She longed to send one little word to Ian; but then what could she say? She could not have seen him and concealed the truth from him, but it was one of the advantages of her disappearance that he need never know the dishonor done him. And she knew he considered suicide a cowardly act. He was quite wrong there. It was an act of heroic courage to go out like this to meet death. It was so lonely; even lonelier than death must always be. She had the conviction that she was not doing wrong, but right. Hers was no common case. And for the first time she saw that there might be a reason for this doom which had befallen her. Men regard one sort of weakness as a sin to be struggled against, another as something harmless, even amiable, to be acquiesced in. But perhaps all weakness acquiesced in was a sin in the eyes of Eternal Wisdom, was at any rate to be left to the mercy of its own consequences. She looked back upon her life and saw herself never exerting her own judgment, always following in some one else’s tracks, never fighting against her physical, mental, moral timidity. It was no doubt this weakness of hers that had laid her open to the mysterious curse which she was now, by a supreme effort of independent judgment and physical courage, resolved to throw off.

A stupid-looking man in a dirty cotton shirt got out the small boat she chose; stared a minute in surprise to see the style in which she, an Oxford girl born and bred, handled the sculls, and then went in again to continue sleeping off a pint of beer.

She pulled on mechanically, with a long, regular stroke, and one by one scenes, happy river-scenes out of past years, came back to her with wonderful vividness. Looking about her she saw an osier-bed dividing the stream, and beside it the opening into the willow-shaded backwater which she remembered. She turned the boat’s head into it. Heavy clouds had rolled up and covered the sky, and there was a kind of twilight between the dark water and the netted boughs overhead. Very soon she heard the noise of a weir. Once such a sound had been pleasant in her ears; but now it turned her cold with fear. On one side the backwater flowed sluggishly on around the osier-bed; on the other it hurried smoothly, silently away, to broaden suddenly before it swept in white foam over an open weir into a deep pool below. She trembled violently and the oars moved feebly in her hands, chill for all the warmth of the afternoon. Her boat was in the stream which led to the weir, but not yet fully caught by the current. A few more strokes and the thing would be done, she would be carried quickly on and over that dancing, sparkling edge into the deep pool below. Her courage failed, could not be screwed to the sticking-point; she hung on the oars, and the boat, as if answering to her thought, stopped, swung half around. As she held the boat with the oars and closed her eyes in an anguish of hesitation and terror, a strange convulsion shook her, such as she had felt once before, and a low cry, not her own, broke from her lips.

“No no!” they uttered, hoarsely.

The Thing was there then, awake to its danger, and in another moment might snatch her from herself, return laughing at her cowardice, to that house by the river. She pressed her lips hard together, and silently, with all the strength of her hate and of her love, bent to the oars. The little boat shot forward into mid-stream, the current seized it and swept it rapidly on towards the dancing edge of water. She dropped the sculls and a hoarse shriek broke from her lips; but it was not she who shrieked, for in her heart was no fear, but triumph triumph as of one who is at length avenged of her mortal enemy.

In the darkened drawing-room, the room so full of traces of all that had been exquisite in Mildred Stewart, Ian mourned alone. Presently the door opened a little, and a tall, slender, childish figure in a white smock, slipped in and closed it gently behind him. Tony stole up to his father and stood between his knees. He looked at Ian, silent, pale, large-eyed. That a grown-up person and a man should shed tears was strange, even portentous, to him.

“Won’t Mummy come back, not ever?” asked the child at last, piteously, in a half whisper.

“No, never, Tony; Mummy won’t ever come back. She’s gone gone for always.”

The child looked in his father’s eyes strangely, penetratingly.

“Which Mummy?” he asked.