Chapter XXIII

The Parting of the Ways

More food for thought was to come. Destiny had ordained that day to be the most absorbing in Violetta’s life.

Lord Verschoyle’s proposal had embarrassed her terribly. She liked the man, she admired his blunt honesty, she felt he was chivalrous, but granting all this, why should she marry him? Possibly most women past the romantic age of the teens ask themselves this question under similar circumstances, and when they discover a reason why they should say yes, that reason may be wholly fanciful and ill founded. But from some feminine idiosyncrasy it generally suffices. Violetta, however, had not arrived at this stage. She was troubled.

The sudden intrusion of Norman and his affairs, brought about strangely enough by Lord Verschoyle, was the source of her trouble. She had it now in her power to set Norman free from his chains. Of course, he ought to be told, but what would follow?

The truth was, she was disappointed with Norman. She had lost the interest she once felt in him. He had been so impassive​—​so irresolute. If he had really been in love with her, she argued, he ought to have told her so, wife or no wife. Whether she would have encouraged him was not the point. Her attitude had nothing to do with the matter. Anyhow, he had lost his chance of winning her, if he ever had one, about which she was extremely doubtful.

She had just come to this conclusion when Stubbles announced a visitor​—​a gentleman. As usual, he had refused to give his name.

Lord Verschoyle had been gone about twenty minutes. It was hardly likely to be he. He certainly would not have chosen to be anonymous. But it might be Dan Westoby.

Not on any account would she admit Westoby into the house, and she went into the hall with the light of battle in her eyes.

She stopped, transfixed with astonishment. The visitor was Sir John Norman.

He came forward with an air which was distinctly apologetic. Violetta instantly recovered herself and advanced to meet him. They shook hands, and for a few moments not a word passed. Violetta was the first to speak.

“This is a surprise, Sir John,” said she, anxious to end the embarrassment.

“I ought to have written. It isn’t fair to take you unawares,” he stammered.

“You haven’t done that. I’m very glad to see you.”

“Really? I don’t know what you must think of my silence. But I had good reasons. I’ve gone through a great deal of worry and anxiety.”

“I hope that’s all passed away.”

“No, unfortunately.”

By this time they were in the sitting-room. Norman was ill at ease and Violetta pointed to a chair. He sat down wearily. His first words were totally unexpected:

“That was Lord Verschoyle whom I passed in the lane leading to your road, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, do you know him?”

“Only by sight. He may know me, but I can’t say. At all events, he didn’t see me. He seemed in very good spirits.”

“Did he?”

Their talk appeared destined to be carried on in jerks.

“I’d like to explain why I haven’t written to you. I hope you’ve been comfortable here?”

“Oh, yes, I feel quite at home.”

He was so absorbed in his own thoughts he hardly heard her.

“I needn’t tell you,” he went on, “that my worry was about Christine, my wife you know. I’ve been seeking to commence proceedings for a divorce. There’s ample cause, but the exposure would be so terrible that I hesitated. Yet things can’t go on as they are, and I must take some decided step. I think I should have written or called upon you but for Mr. Barlowe’s opinion that it would not be prudent.”

“You mean that disagreeable things were likely to be said?”

“Yes,” he rejoined, evidently relieved at her calmness. “And they were said and by Ella. She amazed me by her base insinuations. We had a violent quarrel, over you, and I left the house next morning. I haven’t seen or heard from her since.”

“I’m very sorry I should be the cause of your estrangement.”

“It’s really turned out for the best. She’s going to marry the vicar, and the necessity of doing something for myself forced me to look up some of my friends​—​Government johnnies, you know​—​the permanent officials who stick to their posts like leeches and don’t go out like their ornamental heads with every general election. I’ve been landed very comfortably, but the drawback is that I must drop the divorce business. The scandal would smash me up. The chief of my department wouldn’t stand it, you know.”

“I don’t suppose he would. Well, I think I can get you out of your difficulty. Your enquiries I guess, haven’t led you to the discovery that the woman with whom you went through the marriage ceremony was at the time the wife of your friend George Godfree.”

“What! Good Heavens, how did you learn that?” Norman cried, agitatedly.

“It doesn’t matter. All I can say is that my informant isn’t likely to make a mistake or say that which isn’t true. You’ve only got to get data to go upon and Somerset House will do the rest.”

Norman made no reply. He was quite unnerved. He sat mopping his damp brow and staring helplessly at Violetta.

“So I’m free, and thanks to you,” at last he muttered brokenly.

“No thanks to me. It was quite by accident I learned the news. All the same, I congratulate you.”

With a violent effort he pulled himself together and speaking fairly calmly, said:

“It’s only right you should know what I’ve been told about you. It’s nothing to your discredit, but it’s worried me a good deal, and I should have said the story was a lie if it hadn’t come from two sources​—​both tainted, I may say. Mind you, it’s no business of mine, and I’ve no right to utter a word to you on the subject​—​it’s solely that I may ease my mind by hearing you deny what’s being said.”

Violetta suspected what was coming, but she would not assist him. In her opinion, he had either deteriorated or some change had come over herself. Somehow, she no longer felt sympathetic towards him.

“Well,” said she, simply.

“It’s said you’re continually on the race course​—​that you bet​—​that you’re friendly with the men who are my aversion​—​bookmakers. You know I owe my ruin to one​—​Dan Westoby by name.”

“I’m not likely to forget. What you’ve heard about my going to races, betting, and all the rest of it, is perfectly true. I even own a race horse, but that’s a secret. Keep it to yourself, please.”

He was staggered. He stared at her amazed, confused.

“I​—​I am sorry,” he stammered. “The associations, the surroundings of the turf are to me so repulsive that​—​that——”

“Of course they are. They must be. You were unlucky. Do you recollect once forbidding me to talk about horses and racing? It’s I, now, who forbid your mentioning the subject. It isn’t worth while, is it?”

“Oh, you’re right​—​you always were. No doubt I’m prejudiced. You see, I had such a beastly experience and of course I was a fool. But——” he looked at her yearningly. She had spoken so kindly; she hadn’t shown the slightest rancour at his presumptuous criticism. She was more than ever adorable.

“Confound it, Violetta,” he burst out, “now that I can say what’s in my heart, why should I keep it back? I love you​—​I’ve always loved you from the day when I first saw you at Normanhurst. Things then were impossible, of course, but by Heaven​—​if I had only run across you when​—​when I was free——”

“Don’t make me laugh,” she gently interposed. “What you’re saying isn’t very flattering, you know. I can’t help thinking you were at that time ready to marry anybody. Your Christine amply satisfied you.”

Norman bit his lip and coloured deeply. He stood rebuked, and he knew he deserved her sarcasm. He knew also that a declaration of love would not meet with much success​—​at all events, while Violetta was in her present mood.

But some impulse, some temptation led him on.

“Oh, I admit I was an ass​—​an egregious ass. And being so, I suppose I’m not good enough for you. But I should worship you, all the same.”

“Thanks. I don’t want any man’s worship. That kind of thing’s a delusion.”

“It may be so, but that’s how I feel. Just to convince you that I’ve a grain of practical common sense, may I say that my pay is quite substantial​—​much more than I’m worth I’ll swear​—​that Barlowe tells me the landed property he saved from the wreck is rapidly increasing in value, and that he’s in hopes of proving that Westoby cheated me over Normanhurst.”

“I congratulate you.”

“All this means a lot to me. It means my hopes,” went on Norman hurriedly, “and now that I know from your lips that I’m no longer shackled, the cherished wish of my heart——”

“I can understand how landed property has gone up,” interposed Violetta, remorselessly cutting him short​—​she was not in the mood for Norman’s sentimental vein​—​“I always said the rent of the Owl’s Nest was far too low. I’m quite prepared to pay more.”

“Violetta!” he exclaimed, reproachfully.

“I’m speaking in your own interest. You really ought to be more business-like.”

“What has business to do with love? I want you for my wife, Violetta. I’ve always wanted you——”

“Yes, you said as much just now, but it’s of no use. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but my answer is no, and always will be.”

She did not wish to be harsh in her tone and manner, but she could not help it. He irritated her at that moment.

His face fell. He looked utterly miserable.

“We’ve been exceedingly good friends,” went on Violetta, quickly, lest there should be an embarrassing pause, “and I should like our friendship to continue, but there’d be an end to it if you imagined I should alter my mind. Take my advice and lose no time in verifying what I told you about​—​your Christine.”

“Of course. I​—​I can see that I’ve been premature. I ought to have made sure where I was before I said what I did just now.”

“It would have made no difference. Pray don’t mistake me.”

She was becoming distressed. She wanted him to go. Why couldn’t he see that? She had had the day of her life. Three proposals of marriage within some ten hours! What woman could go through such a strain and not show it?

“Very well. I obey. Good-bye.”

He held out his hand and she took it. Her turmoil of mind was evident in her face. Her expression was softer than Norman had ever seen it. It was tender. It had something in it indefinitely appealing. In an instant he was tempted to recur to the tabooed subject. Naturally, he imagined her unusual emotion was due to his influence, whereas all she wished was to get rid of him.

He raised her hand to his lips and she was alone. Truly, Violetta might have said that no act in his life became John Norman so well as his departure out of hers!