Chapter XIII

“I’m Your Wife, Jack”

While Violetta was engrossed with her preparations at the Owl’s Nest Norman was eating his heart out over his difficulties and chafing incessantly because he could not see a way of escape.

Ella at times irritated him beyond endurance and they were nearer bitter quarrels than they had been at any time of their lives. When she was upset his sister talked violently and at random, and when she criticised Violetta, which she insisted upon doing, it was hard to say whether she was pleased or annoyed at her visitor’s sudden departure. It seemed to Norman pretty certain that friendship between the two women was at an end and that there was little chance of a reconciliation.

But did this matter, seeing that he had bound himself hand and foot by his fatal marriage with a woman of doubtful reputation? Looking back he could not explain to himself how he came to be so foolish. But a student of human nature knowing the circumstances and acquainted with Norman’s temperament and the skilled devices which Christine had at her command to attract men, would have had no difficulty in solving the problem. It was really a reaction from the enforced monotony of years which had caused the poor man to shake off his placid and uneventful country surroundings and plunge into the feverish gaiety of smart society life in London. This reaction had been brought about by the death of his wife and the unaccustomed feeling of freedom which had followed.

In nine cases out of ten the sowing of wild oats does no lasting harm to a young man. They are generally the effect of high spirits and exuberant vitality. In youth everything in life is fresh and delightful, and especially our follies. But in the thirties and forties things are different. Women to middle-aged men are not as they appear to men just past their adolescence. Adonis in the insolence of his manhood will make love to all women who come his way and throw them aside with equal facility. And the marvel is that women forgive his fickleness. But let him be past thirty. He is less cruel and more constant than a young man; he takes himself seriously and, what is worse, women take him seriously. “He’s old enough to know his own mind,” is what they think, but is any man old enough for this knowledge where a woman is concerned?

The tragic part of the business is that often times a middle-aged man, after imagining his mind is made up and finding he is mistaken, has not the courage to tell the woman so, and he drifts into a position from which he discovers it is impossible to extricate himself without appearing wholly in the wrong and horribly unjust and unfair to the wife.

It is not the depraved or dissipated who blunder in this way, but the man of honour, the man of good intentions, and Sir John Norman answered to both. In addition, whether from lack of experience or from his own nature, Norman always believed the best of everyone. So when he ran across George Godfree he was genuinely glad to see him and looked charitably on the fact that Godfree had been sent down from his college under decidedly discreditable circumstances. He wasn’t blind to Godfree’s deterioration, but this made him the more kindly disposed towards him. The last thing he suspected was that the friend of his youth was deliberately setting himself to work his ruin.

It was not that Godfree had any grudge against Norman. Indeed, he would have preferred to “operate” upon someone else, but the opportunity had come and he justified his treachery by the argument that if he didn’t feather his nest by plucking Norman somebody else would. Godfree, in truth, belonged to that variety of rascal who cannot come into contact with anybody with more money than he knows what to do with than he schemes to get it. Godfree, like hosts of others more or less connected with the turf, lived on the capture of “mugs.” And he had not lunched and dined and gone to night clubs of a more or less questionable character with Norman half-a-dozen times before he decided that his newly-found friend was a “mug” of the most malleable type. Godfree had a soft job, and he made the most of it with the aid of Christine Davenport, introduced to Norman as a rich American widow. Her wealth existed only in imagination, as Norman was destined to discover.

It may at least be said in justice to Godfree that Norman’s marriage with Christine was not in his programme. Mrs. Davenport, however, took the reins in her own hands. Norman was dazzled, bewildered by her fascinations, assisted by a round of riotous gaiety, and woke up from his spell to find himself united to a lady with expensive tastes and a mania for betting and gambling, with no money of her own and bent only upon spending her husband’s. The result was inevitable. When the crash came, and no more coin was forthcoming, she disappeared.

One of the effects of Norman’s disastrous experience of life in London was to bring about an intense loathing of everything connected with the turf. It was the turf which had led him to be the prey of Godfree and his brother sharpers. Excepting for the turf he never would have been the dupe of an unscrupulous woman who promised to be a burden to him all her life, but so long as she was quiet and did not trouble him he resolved not to worry, and he tried to forget her existence.

Then Violetta came upon the scene. She had during her visit to Normanhurst strongly impressed him and he was only too pleased to renew the acquaintance at Thameside. His relations with women had been very unfortunate and he thought he saw in Violetta all that was desirable and all that would compensate him for his ill luck. And then the spectre of his wife intruded itself. What was the use of indulging in dreams which could never be realised while Christine was tied to him? The thought had never been absent from his mind while enjoying Violetta’s society, and when the spectre suddenly materialised and presented itself in flesh and blood he felt overwhelmed and helpless.

There was, of course, one way out of the difficulty​—​divorce. He had discovered enough about Christine to feel pretty sure that he would not have much difficulty in getting evidence. But he dreaded the scandal. He also dreaded the employment of a private detective, the sordid details, the gossip of hotel servants and all the rest of the miserable procedure. And supposing he obtained freedom, what then? Would it help him to win Violetta? Would she marry a man who had made such an utter fool of himself?

But in the meantime it was very plain that he must find out what his wife intended. It could not be from affection that she had sprung herself upon him. He came to the conclusion that he must have a personal interview with her. It was not safe to write. Besides, what with I.O.U.’s the accepting of bills, deeds of mortgage, loans and what not, he had had enough of putting his name to paper.

The difficulty was solved by the reception of a telegram. “Meet me at the Café Nice at one to-day, Christine,” it ran. Whether he liked it or not, he would have to go.

The café was crowded. Looking to the right and left he walked slowly along the gangway between the narrow line of tables at the side and those in the centre. He saw the lady sitting at the far end. She had reserved a seat for him. His distaste for the interview was increased by the way in which she was dressed. The fashion was of the latest; the colours terribly obtrusive. He shuddered at the obvious way in which his wife​—​his wife​—​had set herself to be looked at. She put away the little mirror and the diminutive powder puff when her eyes met his, and she greeted him with a soft giggle which showed all her teeth.

“I was sure you’d come, dear boy. I’ll leave you to order our lunch. You always do it so nicely.”

The “our” jarred upon him, as it was probably meant to do. She had laid such emphasis upon the pronoun. He made no reply, but glanced at the menu and had a brief consultation with one of the ineffable beings who always have smiles at their command. Christine was evidently known at the Café Nice. She chatted affably to the ineffable one who having written down Norman’s order, transmitted it to one of his subordinates to execute.

“What about an appetiser? I’m drinking gin and angostura. Have one with me just to show there’s no ill-feeling.”

“No, thanks.”

“How awfully uppish. Don’t put me out. I’ve come in the best of humours. I can soon be ratty​—​if you prefer it.”

Norman hardly wanted telling. He judged it better to order the apéritif.

“Don’t you think I’ve been jolly good to let you alone for a clear three weeks? It’s quite that since I descended upon you at Thames-side.”

“You were always very considerate. May I ask the reason of your seeking me out? You went off without a word, six months ago, and if I remember rightly you took all the money you could find in the place.”

“And precious little there was. It was a clean scoop, anyhow, but I’d a right to it. I’m your wife, Jack.”

“Jack” always sounded horrible on Christine’s lips. Norman winced.

“I don’t forget the unhappy fact. But having gone, why the deuce didn’t you stay away?”

“I suppose a wife has the right to see her husband if she wants to.”

“And apparently to leave him when the whim strikes her.”

“Well, yes, but a whim isn’t always the cause. Now——”

Her reply was cut short by the waiter depositing a dish on the table. Nothing was said for a minute or two. The lady was blessed with a good appetite and hors d’œuvre, soup and filleted sole had disappeared before she resumed the conversation. Norman ate slowly and without any relish.

The question as to why his wife had run him to earth was still unanswered. Now and again he glanced at her and decided that handsome as she certainly was, her features had coarsened and her figure had lost a good deal of its elegance. He could guess the cause. His brief experience of married life had told him that champagne and liqueurs had for her too strong an attraction.

Christine was the type of Barbara Villiers as represented by the free and flattering pencil of Lely. But her luxuriant hair was of a golden hue too pronounced to be natural and it was given the lie by her dark brows and grey eyes. The contrast, however, was undeniably attractive and wonderful piquancy was added to her face, especially when she laughed, by what should have been a defect, but which somehow was not. Her left eyebrow was shorter, by nearly half an inch, than the right. Whether this difference was born with her or had been caused by accident was of no consequence. There it was, and it made her face very distinctive.

She had chosen champagne, and a couple of glasses brought a provoking sparkle to her eyes.

“Whatever my faults are, Jack dear, you must own that I’ve always been frank with you. You were under no delusions when you married me. You oughtn’t to have expected I could live otherwise than as I’d been accustomed to. When you came to grief and the supplies stopped I did the best thing for you and for myself by disappearing.”

“No doubt you were ready to look after your own interests.”

“And yours too, you silly, if you’ll only think. If I’d stopped I was bound to run you into debt. As it is you were saved no end of trouble and worry.”

“Admitting that, do you intend to go on providing for yourself?”

“Yes, if you can’t provide for me. We ought to come to some understanding, don’t you think?”

“And it was for this understanding that you sought me out?”

“Well, partly.”

Christine’s cool impudence exasperated Norman almost beyond endurance, but his equable temperament enabled him to maintain his self-control.

“Are you entitled to any consideration? You’ve made no secret that you married me for what you could get, and then, because my means were exhausted​—​thanks to you and your friends​—​you ran away. You must think me the biggest ass in creation if you expect I’m going to allow you a single penny. To begin with, it may interest you to know that if anything I’m worse off than when you left me.”

“Rats. You Johnnies can always find coin when you’re put to it,” rejoined the lady, contemptuously. “Just listen to me. I’m not going to talk sentiment; I don’t believe in it​—​that kind of rot’s dead nowadays​—​I mean business.”

“Thanks. I prefer it so.”

“You do?” she returned hotly. “Then you shall have it, I didn’t take long to sum you up, John Norman. You’re a bit of a saint, you know. You’re awfully careful of what you call your reputation. It would send a cold shiver through you to know you’re being talked about and called a fool. I know right enough why you kept your marriage with me a secret. You precious soon discovered that I wasn’t the sort of woman who’d get on with your sister. You could see that I’d have the cold shoulder from your highly respectable friends, and so you held your tongue.”

Christine spoke the truth, and Norman inwardly winced. But he agreed with her that there should be no sentiment between them and he steeled himself against any exhibition of weakness.

“You, anyhow, didn’t object to the secrecy.”

“Not I. Half an hour of your set as your wife and I should be bored to death. As for my crowd, why should they care whether I was married or not? Marriage wouldn’t make many of them any better than they are. But to you, my dear chappie, marriage is a sort of fetish you bow down to. To come to the point. If you won’t allow me a certain sum​—​weekly, monthly, quarterly, I don’t care which​—​why I must assert my rights, that’s all. I shall come back to you as your wife, and if you refuse to receive me I shall apply for restitution of conjugal rights. I don’t know in the least what it means, but my lawyer says it’s the first step.”

“Does he? I’m afraid you haven’t told him all the circumstances. You’d better go back to him and explain that you ran away from me, and that if anybody was entitled to those rights, it was myself. But I don’t intend to take any action in the matter. I don’t want you back and I won’t have you.”

Christine’s eyes suddenly blazed, and her cheeks became white, save where the artificial colour had been applied. With her white tremulous lips she was fury personified.

“So that you may console yourself with that bit of a girl you took for a joy ride! I understand.”

“Indeed you don’t. As for the ‘bit of a girl’ I refuse to discuss her with you,” rejoined Norman, coldly.

“I’m not good enough, I suppose. Very well. I shan’t wait for the rubbishy conjugal rights, but shall land myself on you whenever I think I will.”

“That means war. I shall face whatever you choose to do. You probably won’t like your life for the past six months dug up.”

Norman’s unexpected show of fight sent the lady into another paroxysm of rage. Her shoulders quivered and her foot beat a tattoo. It was very clear that in spite of her protestations to the contrary, she was as susceptible to sentiment as the majority of her sex. Norman saw quite well that she was intensely jealous and that hatred of Violetta was at the bottom of her threatened campaign.

“My life,” she burst out. “What about yours? Two can play at the game of divorce. You won’t get rid of me so easily as you think, my lad.”

“Very well, do your worst. In the meantime, is it worth while continuing this luncheon any further? I doubt if either you or I have any appetite left. Suppose I call for the bill. Anyhow, don’t let me interfere with your arrangements. If you prefer to stay longer, pray do.”

“Thank you for your condescension. It would have been more to the purpose if you’d ordered another half bottle of champagne.”

Norman shrugged his shoulders, beckoned to the waiter, told him to add the fresh wine to the bill and bring the latter. The few minutes which elapsed before this could be done were passed in utter silence. Whatever might have been Christine’s sensations, Norman’s, at all events, were anything but enviable.

The bill was paid, and with a formal bow Norman was about to rise from the table when Christine motioned him to stay. He complied, but remained standing.

“Just a word which I advise you to remember,” said she in rasping tones. “In one of our rows over money you were complimentary enough to say you hated women who betted. Is that your opinion now?”

“Yes, stronger than ever.”

“Have you asked your new love what has been her experience in such matters?”

“If by my ‘new love’ you mean the lady you saw at The Willows, I’ve already told you I refuse to discuss her with you,” he replied, his brow darkening.

“I’ve no desire to discuss her. I only want to tell you that I saw her at the Alexandra Park Spring meeting.”

“What of that?”

“Nothing, except that she wouldn’t have been there hobnobbing with ‘bookies’ if she hadn’t got a fancy for a flutter. What would you say if I told you that she backed one of Dan Westoby’s horses at 35 to 1 and pulled it off? Dan gave her the tip, of course.”

“It’s a lie,” he burst out.

“Is it? You’d better ask her. That’s all I’ve got to say. Ta-ta.”

Her lips curled derisively, and with a contemptuous wave of her hand she threw him a kiss. He wheeled round sharply, so that she could not see his face, and walked rapidly out of the café with a sickening feeling creeping over him.