Read THE LIE of Murder in Any Degree, free online book, by Owen Johnson, on ReadCentral.com.

I

For some time they had ceased to speak, too oppressed with the needless anguish of this their last night. At their feet the tiny shining windows of Etretat were dropping back into the night, as though sinking under the rise of that black, mysterious flood that came luminously from the obscure regions of the faint sky. Overhead, the swollen August stars had faded before the pale flush that, toward the lighthouse on the cliff, heralded the red rise of the moon.

He held himself a little apart, the better to seize every filmy detail of the strange woman who had come inexplicably into his life, watching the long, languorous arms stretched out into an impulsive clasp, the dramatic harmony of the body, the brooding head, the soft, half-revealed line of the neck. The troubling alchemy of the night, that before his eyes slowly mingled the earth with the sea and the sea with the sky, seemed less mysterious than this woman whose body was as immobile as the stillness in her soul.

All at once he felt in her, whom he had known as he had known no other, something unknown, the coming of another woman, belonging to another life, the life of the opera and the multitude, which would again flatter and intoxicate her. The summer had passed without a doubt, and now, all at once, something new came to him, indefinable, colored with the vague terror of the night, the fear of other men who would come thronging about her, in the other life, where he could not follow.

Around the forked promontory to the east, the lights of the little packet-boat for England appeared, like the red cinder in a pipe, slipping toward the horizon. It was the signal for a lover’s embrace, conceived long ago in fancy and kept in tenderness.

“Madeleine,” he said, touching her arm. “There it is our little boat.”

“Ah! lé p’tit bateau with its funny red and green eyes.”

She turned and raised her lips to his; and the kiss, which she did not give but permitted, seemed only fraught with an ineffable sadness, the end of all things, the tearing asunder and the numbness of separation. She returned to her pose, her eyes fixed on the little packet, saying:

“It’s late.”

“Yes.”

“It goes fast.”

“Very.”

They spoke mechanically, and then not at all. The dread of the morning was too poignant to approach the things that must be said. Suddenly, with the savage directness of the male to plunge into the pain which must be undergone, he began:

“It was like poison that kiss.”

She turned, forgetting her own anguish in the pain in his voice, murmuring, “Ben, my poor Ben.”

“So you will go to-morrow,” he said bitterly, “back to the great public that will possess you, and I shall remain here, alone.”

“It must be so.”

He felt suddenly an impulse he had not felt before, an instinct to make her suffer a little. He said brutally:

“But you want to go!”

She did not answer, but, in the obscurity, he knew her large eyes were searching his face. He felt ashamed of what he had said, and yet because she made no protestation, he persisted:

“You have left off your jewels, those jewels you can’t do without.”

“Not to-night.”

“You who are never happy without them why not to-night?”

As, carried away by the jealousy of what lay beyond, he was about to continue, she laid her fingers on his lips, with a little brusk, nervous movement of her shoulders.

“Don’t you don’t understand.”

But he understood and he resented the fact that she should have put aside the long undulating rope of pearls, the rings of rubies and emeralds that seemed as natural to her dark beauty as the roses to the spring. He had tried to understand her woman’s nature, to believe that no memory yet lingered about them, to accept without question what had never belonged longed to their life together, and remembering what he had fought down he thought bitterly:

“She has changed me more than I have changed her. It is always so.”

She moved a little, her pose, with instinctive dramatic sense, changing with her changing mood.

“Do not think I don’t understand you,” she said quietly.

“What do you understand?”

“It hurts you because I wish to return.”

“That is not so, Madeleine,” he said abruptly. “You know what big things I want you to do.”

“I know only you would like me to say the contrary to protest that I would give it all up be content to be with you alone.”

“No, not that,” he said grudgingly, “and yet, this last night here I should like to hear you say the contrary.”

She laughed a low laugh and caught his hand a little tighter.

“That displeases you?”

“No, no, of course not!” Presently she added with an effort:

“There is so much that we must say to each other and we have not the courage.”

“True, all summer we have never talked of what must come after.”

“I want you to understand why I go back to it all, why I wish every year to be separated from you yes, exactly, from you,” she added, as his fingers contracted with an involuntary movement. “Ben, what has come to me I never expected would come. I love, but neither that word nor any other word can express how absolutely I have become yours. When I told you my life, you did not wonder how difficult it was for me to believe that such a thing could be possible. But you convinced me, and what has come to me has come as a miracle. I adore you. All my life has been lived just for this great love; ah yes, that’s what I believe, what I feel.” She leaned swiftly to him and allowed him to catch her to him in his strong arms. Then slowly disengaging herself, she continued, “You are a little hurt because I do not cry out what you would not accept, because I do not say that I would give up everything if you asked it.”

“It is only to hear it,” he said impulsively.

“But I have often wished it myself,” she said slowly. “There’s not a day that I have not wished it to give up everything and stay by you. Do you know why? From the longing that’s in me now, the first unselfish longing I have ever had to sacrifice myself for you in some way, somehow. It is more than a hunger, it is a need of the soul of my love itself. It comes over me sometimes as tears come to my eyes when you are away, and I say to myself, ‘I love him,’ and yet, Ben, I shall not, I shall never give up my career, not now, not for years to come.”

“No,” he said mechanically.

“We are two great idealists, for that is what you have made me, Ben. Before I was always laughing, and I believed in nothing. I despised even what my sacrifice had won. Now, when I am with you, I remain in a revery, and I am happy happy with the happiness of things I cannot understand. To-night, by your side, it seems to me I have never felt the night before or known the mystery of the silent, faint hours. You have made me feel the loneliness of the human soul, and that impulse it must have before these things that are beyond us, that surround us, dominate us, to cling almost in terror to another soul. You have so completely made me over that it is as though you had created me yourself. I am thirty-five. I have known everything else but what you have awakened in me, and because I have this knowledge and this hunger I can see clearer what we must do. You and I are a little romanesque, but remember that even a great love may tire and grow stale, and that is what I won’t have, what must not be.” Her voice had risen with the intensity of her mood. She said more solemnly: “You are afraid of other men, of other moods of mine you have no reason. This love which comes to some as the awakening of life is to me the end of all things. If anything should wound it or belittle it, I should not survive it.”

She continued to speak, in a low unvarying voice. He felt his mind clear and his doubts dissipate, and impatiently he waited for her to end, to show her that his weakness of the moment was gone and that he was still the man of big vision who had awakened her.

“There are people who can put in order their love as they put in order their house. We are not of that kind, Ben. I am a woman who has lived on sensations. You, too, are a dreamer and a poet at the bottom. If I should give up the opera and become to you simply a housewife, if there was no longer any difficulty in our having each other, you would still love me yes, because you are loyal but the romanticism, the mystery, the longing we both need would vanish. Oh, I know. Well, you and I, we are the same. We can only live on a great passion, and to have fierce, unutterable joys we must suffer also the suffering of separation. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I do.”

“That is why I shall never give up my career. That is why I can bear the sadness of leaving you. I want you to be proud of me, Ben. I want you to think of me as some one whom thousands desire and only you can have. I want our love to be so intense that every day spent apart is heavy with the longing for each other; every day together precious because it will be a day nearer the awful coming of another separation. Believe me, I am right. I have thought much about it. You have your diplomatic career and your ambitions. You are proud. I have never asked you to give that up to follow me. I would not insult you. In January you will have a leave of absence, and we will be together for a few wonderful weeks, and in May I shall return here. Nothing will be changed.” She extended her arm to where a faint red point still showed on the unseen water. “And each night we will wait, as we have waited, side by side, the coming of our little boat, nôtre p’tit bateau

“You are right,” he said, placing his lips to her forehead. “I was jealous. I am sorry. It is over.”

“But I, too, am jealous,” she said, smiling.

“You?”

“Of course no one can love without being jealous. Oh, I shall be afraid of every woman who comes near you. It will be an agony,” she said, and the fire in her eyes brought him more healing happiness than all her words.

“You are right,” he repeated.

He left her with a little pressure of the hand, and walked to the edge of the veranda. A nervous, sighing breeze had come with the full coming of the moon, and underneath him he heard the troubled rustle of leaves in the obscurity, the sifting and drifting of tired, loose things, the stir of the night which awakened a restless mood in his soul. He had listened to her as she had proclaimed her love, and yet this love, without illusions, sharply recalled to him other passions. He remembered his first love, a boy-and-girl affair, and sharply contrasting it with a sudden ache to this absence of impulse and illusions, of phrases, vows, without logic, thrown out in the sweet madness of the moment. Why had she not cried out something impulsive, promised things that could not be. Then he realized, standing there in the harvest moonlight, in the breaking up of summer, that he was no longer a youth, that certain things could not be lived over, and that, as she had said, he too felt that this was the great love, the last that he would share; that if it ended, his youth ended and with his youth all that in him clung to life.

He turned and saw her, chin in the flat of her palm, steadily following his mood. He had taken but a dozen steps, and yet he had placed a thousand miles between them. He had almost a feeling of treachery, and to dispel these new unquiet thoughts he repeated to himself again:

“She is right.”

But he did not immediately return. The memory of other loves, faint as they had been in comparison with this all-absorbing impulse, had yet given him a certain objective point of view. He saw himself clearly, and he understood what of pain the future had in store for him.

“How I shall suffer!” he said to himself.

“You are going so far away from me,” she said suddenly, warned by some woman’s instinct.

He was startled at the conjunction of her words and his moods. He returned hastily, and sat down beside her. She took his head in her hands and looked anxiously into his eyes.

“What is it?” she said. “You are afraid?”

“A little,” he said reluctantly.

“Of what of the months that will come?”

“Of the past.”

“What do you mean?” she said, withdrawing a little as though disturbed by the thought.

“When I am with you I know there is not a corner of your heart that I do not possess,” he began evasively.

“Well?”

“Only it’s the past the habits of the past,” he murmured. “I know you so well, Madeleine, you have need of strength, you don’t go on alone. That is the genius of women like you to reach out and attach to themselves men who will strengthen them, compel them on.”

“Ah, I understand,” she said slowly.

“Yes, that is what I’m afraid of,” he said rapidly.

“You are thinking of the artist, not the woman.”

“Ah, there is no difference not to a man who loves,” he said impulsively. “I know how great your love is for me, and I believe in it. I know nothing will come to efface it. Only you will be lonely, you’ll have your trials and annoyances, days of depression, of doubt, when you will need some one to restore your faith in yourself, your courage in your work, and then, I don’t say you will love any one else, but you will need some one near you who loves you, always at your service ”

“If you could only understand me,” she said, interrupting him. “Men, other men, are like actors to me. When I am on the stage, when I am playing Manon, do you think I see who is playing Des Grieux? Not at all. He is there, he gives me my réplique, he excites my nerves, I say a thousand things under my breath, when I am in his arms I adore him, but when the curtain goes down, I go off the stage and don’t even say good night to him.”

“But he, he doesn’t know that.”

“Of course not; tenors never do. Well, that is just the way I have lived, that is just what men have meant to me. They give the réplique to my moods, to my needs, and when I have no longer need of them, I go off tranquilly. That is all there is to it. I take from them what I want. Of course they will be around me, but they will be nothing to me. They will be like managers, press-agents, actors. Don’t you understand that?”

“Yes, yes, I understand,” he said without sincerity. Then he blurted out, “I wish you had not said it, all the same.”

“Why?”

“I cannot see it as you see it, and besides, you put a doubt in my mind that I never wish to feel.”

“What doubt?”

“Do I really have you, or only a mood of yours?”

“Ben!”

“I know. I know. No, I am not going to think such things. That would be unworthy of what we have felt.” He paused a moment, and when he spoke again his voice was under control. “Madeleine, remember well what I say to you now. I shall probably never again speak to you with such absolute truth, or even acknowledge it to myself. I accept the necessity of separation. I know all the sufferings it will bring, all the doubts, the unreasoning jealousies. I am big enough in experience to understand what you have just suggested to me, but as a man who loves you, Madeleine, I will never understand it. I know that a dozen men may come into your life, interest you intensely, even absorb you for a while, and that they would still mean nothing to you the moment I come. Well, I am different. A man is different. While you are away, I shall not see a woman without resentment; I shall not think of any one but you, and if I did, I would cease to love you.”

“But why?”

“Because I cannot share anything of what belongs to you. That is my nature. There is no use in pretending the contrary. Yours is different, and I understand why it is so. I have listened to many confidences, understood many lives that others would not understand. I have always maintained that it is the natural thing for a human being to love many times even that there might he in the same heart a great, overpowering love and a little one. I still believe it with my mind. I know it is so. These are the things we like to analyze in human nature together. I know it is true, but it is not true for me. No, I would never understand it in you. I know myself too well, I am jealous of everything of the past oh, insanely jealous. I know that no sooner are you gone than I will be tortured by the most ridiculous doubts. I will see you in the moonlight all across that endless sea with other men near you. I will dream of other men with millions, ready to give you everything your eyes adore. I will imagine men of big minds that will fascinate you. I will even say to myself that now that you have known what a great love can mean you will all the more be likely to need it, to seek something to counterfeit it ”

“Ben, my poor Ben frightful,” she murmured.

“That is how it is. Shall I tell you something else?”

“What?”

“I wish devoutly you had never told me a word of of the past.”

“But how can you say such things? We have been honest with each other. You yourself ”

“I know, I know, I have no right myself, and yet there it is. It is something fearful, this madness of possession that comes to me. No, I have no fear that I will not always be first in your heart, only I understand the needs, the habits, of your nature. I understand myself now as I have not before, and that’s why I say to you solemnly, Madeleine, if ever for a moment another man should come into your life never, never, let me know.”

“But ”

“No, don’t say anything that I may remember to torture me. Lie to me.”

“I have never lied.”

“Madeleine, it is better to be merciful than to tell the truth, and, after all, what does such a confession mean? It only means that you free your conscience and that the wound the ache remains with the other. Whatever happens, never tell me. Do you understand?”

This time she made no answer. She even ceased to look at him, her head dropped back, her arms motionless, one finger only revolving slowly on the undulating arm of her chair.

“I shall try by all the strength that is in me never to ask that question,” he rushed on. “I know I shall make a hundred vows not to do so, and I know that the first time I look into your face I shall blurt it out. Ah, if if if it must be so, never let me know, for there are thoughts I cannot bear now that I’ve known you.” He flung himself at her side and took her roughly in his arms. “Madeleine, I know what I am saying. I may tell you the contrary later. I may say it lightly, pretending it is of no importance. I may beg the truth of you with tears in my eyes I may swear to you that nothing but honesty counts between us, that I can understand, forgive, forget everything. Well, whatever I say or do, never, never let me know if you value my happiness, my peace of mind, my life even!”

She laid her hand on his lips and then on his forehead to calm him, drawing his head to her shoulder.

“Listen, Ben,” she said, gently. “I, the Madeleine Conti who loves you, am another being. I adore you so that I shall hate all other men, as you will hate all other women. There will never be the slightest deceit or infidelity between us. Ask any questions of me at any time. I know there can be from now on but one answer. Have no fear. Do not tire yourself in a senseless fever. There is so little time left. I love you.”

Never had he heard her voice so deep with sincerity and tenderness, and yet, as he surrendered to the touch of her soft hands, yielding up all his doubts, he was conscious of a new alarm creeping into his heart; and, dissatisfied with what he himself had a moment before implored, in the breath with which he whispered, “I believe you,” he said to himself:

“Does she say that because she believes it or has she begun to lie?”

II

For seven years they lived the same existence, separated sometimes for three months, occasionally for six, and once because of a trip taken to South America for nearly a year.

The first time that he joined her, after five months of longing, he remained a week without crying out the words that were heavy on his heart. One day she said to him:

“What is there back of your eyes, hidden away, that you are stifling?”

“You know,” he blurted out.

“What?”

“Ah, I have tried not to say it, to live it down. I can’t it’s beyond me. I shall have no peace until it is said.”

“Then say it.”

He took her face in his two hands and looked into her eyes.

“Since I have been away,” he said brutally, “there has been no one else in your heart? You have been true to me, to our love?”

“I have been true,” she answered with a little smile.

He held his eyes on hers a long while, hesitating whether to be silent or to continue, and then, all at once, convinced, burst into tears and begged her pardon.

“Oh, I shouldn’t have asked it forgive me.”

“Do whatever is easiest for you, my love,” she answered. “There is nothing to forgive. I understand all. I love you for it.”

Only she never asked him any questions, and that alarmed him.

The second time report had coupled her name with a Gabriel Lombardi, a great baritone with whom she was appearing. When he arrived, as soon as they were alone, he swung her about in his arms and cried in a strangled voice:

“Swear to me that you have been faithful.”

“I swear.”

“Gabriel Lombardi”?

“I can’t abide him”.

“Ah, if I had never told you to lie to me fool that I was.”

Then she said calmly, with that deep conviction which always moved him: “Ben, when you asked me that, I told you I would never lie. I have told you the truth. No man has ever had the pressure of my fingers, and no man ever will.”

So intense had been his emotion that he had almost a paroxysm. When he opened his eyes he found her face wet with tears.

“Ah, Madeleine,” he said, “I am brutal with you. I cannot help it.”

“I would not have you love me differently,” she said gently, and through her tears he seemed to see a faint, elusive smile, that was gone quickly if it was ever there at all.

Another time, he said to himself: “No, I will say nothing. She will come to me herself, put her arms around me, and tell me with a smile that no other thought has been in her heart all this while. That’s it. If I wait she will make the move, she will make the move each time and that will be much better.”

He waited three days, but she made no allusion. He waited another, and then he said lightly:

“You see, I am reforming.”

“How so?”

“Why, I don’t ask foolish questions any more.”

“That’s so.”

“Still ”

“Well?” she said, looking up.

“Still, you might have guessed what I wanted,” he answered, a little hurt.

She rose quickly and came lightly to him, putting her hand on his shoulder.

“Is that what you wish?” she said.

“Yes.”

She repeated slowly her protestations and when she had ended, said, “Take me in your arms hurt me.”

“Now she will understand,” he thought; “the next time she will not wait.”

But each time, though he martyrized his soul in patience, he was forced to bring up the question that would not let him rest.

He could not understand why she did not save him this useless agony. Sometimes when he wanted to find an excuse he said to himself it was because she felt humiliated that he should still doubt. At other times, he stumbled on explanations that terrified him. Then he remembered with bitterness the promise that he had exacted from her, a promise that, instead of bringing him peace, had left only an endless torment, and forgetting all his protestations he would cry to himself, in a cold perspiration:

“Ah, if she is really lying, how can I ever be sure?”

III

In the eighth year, Madeleine Conti retired from the stage and announced her marriage. After five years of complete happiness she was taken suddenly ill, as the result of exposure to a drenching storm. One afternoon, as he waited by her bedside, talking in broken tones of all that they had been to each other, he said to her in a voice that he tried nervously to school to quietness:

“Madeleine, you know that our life together has been without the slightest shadow from the first. You know we have proved to each other how immense our love has been. In all these years I have grown in maturity and understanding. I regret only one thing, and I have regretted it bitterly, every day that I once asked you, if if ever for a moment another man came into your life to hide it from me, to tell me a lie. It was a great mistake. I have never ceased to regret it. Our love has been so above all worldly things that there ought not to be the slightest concealment between us. I release you from that promise. Tell me now the truth. It will mean nothing to me. During the eight years when we were separated there were there must have been times, times of loneliness, of weakness, when other men came into your life. Weren’t there?”

She turned and looked at him steadily, her large eyes seeming larger and more brilliant from the heightened fever of her cheeks. Then she made a little negative sign of her head, still looking at him.

“No, never.”

“You don’t understand, Madeleine,” he said, dissatisfied, “or you are still thinking of what I said to you there in Etretat. That was thirteen years ago. Then I had just begun to love you, I feared for the future, for everything. Now I have tested you, and I have never had a doubt. I know the difference between the flesh and the spirit. I know your two selves; I know how impossible it would have been otherwise. Now you can tell me.”

“There is nothing to tell,” she said slowly.

“I expected that you would have other men who loved you about you,” he said, feverishly. “I knew it would be so. I swear to you I expected it. I know why you continue to deny it. It’s for my sake, isn’t it? I love you for it. But, believe me, in such a moment there ought nothing to stand between us. Madeleine, Madeleine, I beg you, tell me the truth.”

She continued to gaze at him fixedly, without turning away her great eyes, as forgetting himself, he rushed on:

“Yes, let me know the truth that will be nothing now. Besides, I have guessed it. Only I must know one way or the other. All these years I have lived in doubt. You see what it means to me. You must understand what is due me after all our life together. Madeleine, did you lie to me?”

“No.”

“Listen,” he said, desperately. “You never asked me the same question why, I never understood but if you had questioned me I could not have answered truthfully what you did. There, you see, there is no longer the slightest reason why you should not speak the truth.”

She half closed her eyes wearily.

“I have told the truth.”

“Ah, I can’t believe it,” he cried, carried away. “Oh, cursed day when I told you what I did. It’s that which tortures me. You adore me you don’t wish to hurt me, to leave a wound behind, but I swear to you if you told me the truth I should feel a great weight taken from my heart, a weight that has been here all these years. I should know that every corner of your soul had been shown to me, nothing withheld. I should know absolutely, Madeleine, believe me, when I tell you this, when I tell you I must know. Every day of my life I have paid the penalty, I have suffered the doubts of the damned, I have never known an hour’s peace! I beg you, I implore you, only let me know the truth; the truth I must know the truth!”

He stopped suddenly, trembling all over, and held out his hands to her, his face lashed with suffering.

“I have not lied,” she said slowly, after a long study. She raised her eyes, feebly made the sign of the cross, and whispered, “I swear it.”

Then he no longer held in his tears. He dropped his head, and his body shook with sobs, while from time to time he repeated, “Thank God, thank God.”

IV

The next day Madeleine Conti had a sudden turn for the worse, which surprised the attendants. Doctor Kimball, the American, doctor, and Pere Francois, who had administered the last rites, were walking together in the little formal garden, where the sun flung short, brilliant shadows of scattered foliage about them.

“She was an extraordinary artist and her life was more extraordinary,” said Dr. Kimball. “I heard her debut at the Opera Comique. For ten years her name was the gossip of all Europe. Then all at once she meets a man whom no one knows, falls in love, and is transformed. These women are really extraordinary examples of hysteria. Each time I know one it makes me understand the scientific phenomenon of Mary Magdalene. It is really a case of nerve reaction. The moral fever that is the fiercest burns itself out the quickest and seems to leave no trace behind. In this case love came also as a religious conversion. I should say the phenomena were identical.”

“She was happy,” said the cure, turning to go.

“Yes, it was a great romance.”

“A rare one. She adored him. Love is a tide that cleanses all.”

“Yet she was of the stage up to the last. You know she would not have her husband in the room at the end.”

“She had a great heart,” said the cure quietly. “She wished to spare him that suffering.”

“She had an extraordinary will,” said the doctor, glancing at him quickly. He added, tentatively: “She asked two questions that were curious enough.”

“Indeed,” said the cure, lingering a moment with his hand on the gate.

“She wanted to know whether persons in a delirium talked of the past and if after death the face returned to its calm.”

“What did you say to her about the effects of delirium?” said the cure with his blank face.

“That it was a point difficult to decide,” said the doctor slowly. “Undoubtedly, in a delirium, everything is mixed, the real and the imagined, the memory and the fantasy, actual experience and the inner dream-life of the mind which is so difficult to classify. It was after that, that she made her husband promise to see her only when she was conscious and to remain away at the last.”

“It is easily understood,” said the cure quietly, without change of expression on his face that held the secrets of a thousand confessionals. “As you say, for ten years she had lived a different life. She was afraid that in her delirium some reference to that time might wound unnecessarily the man who had made over her life. She had a great courage. Peace be with her soul.”

“Still,” Doctor Kimball hesitated, as though considering the phrasing of a delicate question; but Father Francois, making a little amical sign of adieu, passed out of the garden, and for a moment his blank face was illumined by one of those rare smiles, such as one sees on the faces of holy men; smiles that seem in perfect faith to look upon the mysteries of the world to come.