Sunday, 1 January 2017
Right or Wrong
Right or Wrong
By Lacey Amy
Illustrated by Dudley Gloyne Summers
From MacLean’s Magazine, 1 February, 1928.
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, 1 Jan 2017.
We were gathered round the fireplace at the end of the club dining room, six of us, a trio of pipes, a brace of cigarettes, and one lone cigar. Half a dozen glasses stood about in various stages of depletion . . . You know that Adams fireplace, the deep leather chairs before it, the priceless Eastern rug, gift of a wealthy member. You know the atmosphere it breeds when lunch is over, on a December day when the London ‘particular’ has dropped an acrid yellow mantle over the city, smothering the police torches and a river more despairing than the Styx. From the bar at the end of the hall drifts the faintest drone of comfortable voices, and now and then, through the momentarily opening door at the head of the stairs, the click of billiard balls. Dreamy, reminiscent, somewhat inclined to take life and oneself seriously—giving birth to unintentional aphorisms and intentional theories—delving for underlying motives—what I would have done in your place.
Always a congenial group there on such a day—the smaller to-day because the fog was so dense that even the London taxi driver was blind.
If I remember rightly it started with drifting comment on a nasty divorce play that, despite the censure of the critics, seemed to be taking hold—the morbid curiosity of the mob for domestic tragedy that surely has been raked to its lowest dregs, that in these days throws a lengthening shadow—yes, over you and me, though the third boy is just entering Winchester.
And then—I forget the connection—we were talking of Nevinson’s case.
Nevinson had been—was still, for that matter—a friend of mine. But Nevinson had climbed to such large headlines that his friends did not discuss their friendship. Some of them didn’t. Some don’t at a time like that:
Nevinson was in trouble, serious trouble. Trust funds momentarily misused in an emergency and, by a twist of fate, discovered almost at the moment. I, who knew the story, put the best light on it for the boys:
“Two days more—only two days—and the two thousand would have been in its place, and, Nevinson’s mother rescued from her own folly.”
Sutton—he had the sofa corner nearest the door, just under the palm—Sutton removed his cigar and examined it critically.
“That’s scarcely the point, don’t you think? There’s a right and wrong about these things. Mind you, I’m absolutely impersonal . . . . but it’s the thing Nevinson did. Was it right or wrong?” He lifted his head in the confident way he has. “There’s never any doubt which is which.”
Sutton was inclined to be dogmatic like that. Decent chap at heart, and awfully clever. To clever. It made him a little arrogant in argument.
But I was all for Nevinson. With two years behind the bars before him I could not be impersonal.
“But there are gradations of right and wrong . . . And there must exist a line where they merge. Are we always able to distinguish that line?”
Sutton shook us his head and lit a fresh cigar. One of us retrieved the living match from the rug where he had flipped it, but Sutton did not notice, he was preparing the argument that would annihilate me.
I looked about for some kind of support, for my position was weak and I knew it. Something about Dick Meredith—he had the other corner of Sutton’s sofa—caught and held my attention. He looked sympathetic. But then Dick always does—that’s the sort of chap he is. And not just because he’s a padre . . . . Meredith lay back in the cushions, his wide-open clerical coat gathered about his ears. He had a new pipe—apple shape, he called it—and he seemed to be having trouble with it. Yet I knew not a word of our conversation had escaped him. He had been back only a few weeks from a flying visit to Canada—somewhere out West—and some of his friends had fancied a change in the simple, joyous friend we liked so well. After the war Meredith had taken a mission in East London. He preferred work, even without pay, to drinking tea with admiring old ladies and pursuing young ones.
Meredith’s eyes lifted to Sutton’s stubborn face, and fell away . . . and lifted again furtively.
I appealed to him:
“Dick, you’re an authority on right and wrong—”
He stopped me with a swift uplifting of one hand.
“I’m not—I’m not!” It was like a cry.
“I’ve heard what Sutton says!” One hand fumbled with a match box among the glasses.
Sutton laughed complacently: “Dick can’t contradict that—right is right, and wrong is wrong.”
“Of course.” Meredith struck a match in a hand that had taken to trembling, and drew the flame slowly into the little round bowl of his new pipe. “Yes . . . of course, Sutton . . . but . . . what is right . . . exactly? . . . And what is wrong?”
Sutton’s laugh was the one that customarily greets a parson in flagrante delicto.
“Have the padres nothing to guide them, Dick?”
Meredith only nodded—not so much agreeing, you understand, as giving Sutton credit for honesty.
“Yes . . . we’ve a sort of a code . . . But for the most part it’s man-made.”
Sutton threw out an accusing hand. “What in the world’s the Bible for, Dick, old man?” It was almost as if Dick had disgraced his profession.
And Meredith kept on nodding, his eyes on the fire. A white-coated waiter came at someone’s signal to refill the glasses.
“Trouble is, Sutton, the Bible didn’t count on the amount of detail we mortals need for a complete code . . . And it was written—well, before the war; that’s sufficient . . . There are occasions it doesn’t seem to—” He pulled up sharply and appealed from face to face. “Don’t misunderstand me, boys. It’s all there—somewhere—if we knew how to find it.”
Sutton broke in irritably: “The moral issue is clear enough, Dick . . . . Anyway, there’s a man’s conscience.”
You see, Sutton felt pretty safe when it came to moral issues. He had spent too many of his slim years in France for much to be known against him. No, that’s not fair. Sutton was straight enough, if a little— But this is not Sutton’s story.
“Four months ago, Sutton I’d have backed you in that” said Meredith, wincing, “but since I’ve been to Canada . . . I’m not so sure . . . Right or wrong? Trying to answer that has made life difficult of late . . . Is a man’s conscience the final arbiter? . . . Does right show a clear trail, and is all outside it wrong?” He sat upright and peered from one to another of us. “Is truth right—always?”
“You’re not,” Sutton groaned, “working round to the old chestnut—all the truth all the time? In the great issues of life—”
Meredith caught him up eagerly.
“That’s what I mean—the great issues of life . . . perhaps the greatest of all . . . Would you call the home one of the great issues—a man’s wife—his child?”
Sutton hesitated, probably running over in his mind our domestic histories.
“Of course there are incidents in a man’s past—”
“But in his present, Sutton, in his present?”
“To my mind there is but one reply—frankness, no secrets—the one safe foundation for—for a happy home.”
Sutton was happily married—three months ago. Yet, all in a moment, his cocksureness seemed to weaken.
Meredith sighed. “I wish I were certain as you, Sutton. . . and yet . . . and yet—. That’s the very problem that haunts me. Frankness? No secrets? . . . I don’t know.” His voice trailed off miserably. A waiter softly drew a curtain tighter against the fog.
“Of course,” Sutton granted, “if a man has made an ass of himself long before—”
“That doesn’t help, Sutton . . . I know a case—this case that worries me, where the man has been splendid . . . But to-day he’s in hell . . . and he’s taken me with him . . . Because he’s my oldest friend, and because well, as Sutton says, if a padre can’t distinguish right from wrong!”
He knocked his pipe thoughtfully on the tray and shut it up in a case that fitted an obscure pocket of his coat.
“If you don’t mind boys, I’d like to talk to tell a story. For two months I’ve held it locked in my breast, and it keeps on gnawing. Not that anyone can help me. If there’s a solution I—I don’t want to face hearing it. I’m frightened. I’d rather leave it—uncertain . . . Perhaps God in His mercy will solve it for my friend—and for me.”
There was a low creaking of leather upholstery. Nobody ordered drinks, but five matches scratched sharply, as one coughs at a concert—self-conscious, apologetic. A boat whistled out on the river, and we started.
“It was no pleasure trip, my visit to Canada. I had to go. Last February the eighteenth—I remember it so well; I was up in the billiard room—a cablegram was handed me. The sort of cable that draws a man round the world at any cost. ‘For God’s sake come and help me.’ ”
Meredith mused for a moment, and presently his cheeks reddened. For Meredith was never the man to ring the dramatic.
“I’ll have to go back—back a score of years or more. There were three of us, brought up in the same city, chummed as boys, chummed at Harrow and Cambridge. The Trinity, the profane called us. The other two—we’ll give them strange names, though not likely any of you know them! Brander Raymond and Maurice Colby . . . I was the odd one of the three a bit. more serious than they. Perhaps that was my niche in the group. Wanderers they always were, even as lads, Raymond and Colby. Wild, some said. They were known as The Twins, they resembled each other so remarkably—same black hair, same deep blue eyes, much the same cast of countenance; and they played on the resemblance by dressing alike and imitating each other’s mannerisms . . . After Cambridge they did their longest wander, to America. . . ”
Meredith stopped. He was leaning over the table, one hand rubbing the mist-laden glass; and he wiped his fingers, and straightway fell to rubbing again.
“Seven years and more after peace was signed—that was fifteen years after I had seen him off at Euston—there came that cablegram . . . ‘For God’s sake come and help me.’ . . . You don’t wonder I was ready to go in a week—reservations, tickets, and a supply for the mission? . . . And then my mother fell ill. . . . Sitting at her bedside during the months that followed, that cablegram kept lifting before my eyes. Colby wanted me—needed me. But why? If only he had given some explanation! . . . But as I moiled over that cry for help it lost some of its urgency but none of its appeal. Think of it—‘For God’s sake come and help me.’ Not quite the wording of sudden emergency. Those last three words, redundant weakening the wail of it, they spoke of panic partly stifled, of raw nerves, of a host of other emotions fighting his need. There were times in the night watches when I could picture Colby starting for the cable office and turning back—starting—turning back—like a man visiting the dentist, you see what I mean? . . . ‘For God’s sake come—and help me.’
“When it was certain that mother would need me for weeks, perhaps for months, I cabled again . . . And Colby replied: ‘Glad to see you when you can come.’ . . . The message one sends a stranger! . . . My second cable had reached him when his nerves were easier . But I knew Maurice Colby . . .
“It was almost six months after Colby’s cry for help when I landed at Montreal. And there I had another surprise—a telegram handed me by the boat purser: ‘Welcome.’ And it was signed ‘Maurice and Elsie!’
“You didn’t tell us about Elsie,” Daggett murmured.
“No—that was it—I hadn’t known there was an Elsie. And then to hear of her like that—Only a name to a telegram! Of course, I’d speculated a lot. I’d pictured a woman somewhere. One does when a man’s in trouble. But—the telegram didn’t help. Colby was married—that was plain. But here were he and his wife side by side to welcome me. No domestic trouble there. And no financial difficulty, no run-in with the law would have waited so complacently my convenience—six months . . . Don’t you wonder—as I did?
“And so, after a four days’ trip, in none too genial a mood I left the train at Edmonton, out near the Rocky Mountains. . . . Six thousand miles to help a friend—who couldn’t conceivably need it . . .It was good for both of us that Colby had sent his man to meet me—in one of the three cars he owned. Yes, I learned much of Colby's fortunes in a few minutes from a loquacious driver—who remembered when half way home that his master had sent me a note. I opened it. ‘Say nothing.’ Just that. It sent me foundering deeper. For I knew now that Colby was not only rich but happy—a thousand acres, a valuable thoroughbred herd, a profitable market for his milk and eggs; his grain—they call it ‘grain’ in Canada famous all over the West.
“And Elsie, of course—Elsie and a baby now three months old. ‘Maudlin happy,’ the driver called it in an affectionate way.”
Meredith wiped his fingers once more and thrust his handkerchief in his sleeve, a trick he had learned in the war.
“Their house was a magnificent one for the prairies—large, with two bow windows, and a verandah netted downstairs from mosquitoes and glassed above for a sleeping porch. All freshly painted. It stood on a knoll, framed in clumps of silvery trees, facing a stretch of river rushing for the Arctic. Nearby was another house for the help—and a great red barn, and stone pig houses, and elaborate poultry runs—all the expensive equipment of a farm that repays indulgence.
“Colby and Elsie—yes, and the baby, about the size of that vase—welcomed me at the door. She held the baby, Colby's arm encircled them both; and as he introduced us he caught her closer in a spasmodic way . . . as if to protect her from me who had come so far to help . . . Elsie and I were friends from the start. She was one of our finest English girls, pretty, alert, intelligent and not afraid of work. Somehow she had managed to keep her complexion, too . . . and her husband. You could see that in the doglike devotion of his eyes as he spoke her name.
“He was changed, of course, Colby was, for it was fifteen years and more since I’d seen him. Heavier, graver—a different Corby from the lad who had laughed himself in and out of his boyish scrapes . . . He must have noted the changes of the years in me, too, for he eyed me with some suspicion, almost as if he questioned my identity . . . And there was something else in his face—dread?—defiance?—I couldn’t fathom it. I lifted my eyebrows to reassure him. Then he went on to present me to Elsie and the child, seemingly satisfied.
“But I had a feeling that Colby was not—not altogether comfortable about me. Perhaps it was the furtive glances I caught—calling to me, lifting appealing hands . . . and yet holding me off. Like his bewildering telegrams. Colby’s need battling with Colby’s fears. Yet it seemed so presumptuous, that feeling of mine; for he was madly in love, sometimes almost grossly happy . . . And he had reason to be . . . That first night—It happened every night from first to last—laughed at my fears. We were in the big living room before the grate. One needs a fire sometimes about Edmonton on August evenings. Neither Elsie nor Colby were quite comfortable—nothing serious, you know—sort of hesitating, as if I were almost in the way. And after a time Elsie jumped up with a little laugh and ran to Colby and threw her arms about his neck.
“Let’s not be silly old married people, Maurice. Dick would want us to be natural.”
“Colby grinned sheepishly, with a drawn look about his eyes, and followed her to the bedroom across the hall. And in a moment they returned—hand in hand—pushing before them the baby’s white cot on its rubber-tired wheels. And Elsie turned out one of the lamps, and the cot was placed across the room in the shadow, close to Colby’s big leather chair, and Elsie tucked herself in her husband’s lap where she could look down on the face of the sleeping child . . .
“That’s the sort of home I had come six thousand miles to help! . . . Sweeter domestic scene than I’d ever pictured. It was their regular evening—there in the dim night, Elsie in Colby’s arms . . . And now and then she would lean forward, lip caught between her teeth, to stare down into the cot. Then she would drop back with a fluttering sigh to Colby’s neck and press her lips against his chin.
“ ‘Silly old Dick,’ she teased. ‘Give us two months and we’ll find a home for you, too!’ . . . It was tempting. You see what I mean? . . . And the last I saw as I mounted the stairs was the two of them, hand in hand, pushing the white cot back across the hall to their bedroom . . .
“Not a word had I had alone with Colby. I knew he was avoiding me. That was why next morning, after a Canadian breakfast Elsie herself prepared, I followed Colby out to the barn where his milkman would make the morning’s report.
“ ‘Look here, Maurice—”
“He stopped me with a frantic gesture. ‘It’s all right, Dick, it’s all right. Don’t bother.’
“ ‘But I’ve come all this way to—”
“ ‘To see an old friend you hadn’t seen for fifteen years,’ he laughed.
“ ‘You’ve deceived me, Maurice.’ The silly mystery of it irritated me.
“He whirled on me then, his face white and set. ‘I haven’t Dick, before God I haven’t.’ He tried to laugh it away. ‘But it’s all right now, Dick, old friend . . . now that you’re here.’
“I took him by the arm. ‘Maurice, you still need help—I’m sure of it.”
“ ‘Perhaps I do—God knows—perhaps I do.’ He turned so that I could not see his face. ‘But let’s be happy while we may.’ And then we were at the stable, and the milkman waiting to make his report.
“What could I do? Once or twice more I tried to draw him out, but always the same reply: it was all right now that I was there. Yet all I did was to soak in their happiness and envy Colby. Things continued like that for three weeks . . . and I had only four to give them. Harvesting was in full swing, and Colby was excited over a new variety of frost-resisting wheat he planned to raise for seed—the ten-dollar a bushel kind. He worked feverishly from early to late, yet always there were those wonderful evenings before the grate in the living room, with the baby asleep in its shadowed cot, and Elsie curled in her husband’s lap. I began to see his dread as nothing but the very intensity of his happiness.
“We had talked little of the old times, for Elsie knew none of Colby’s former friends. He had met her in the country during his Cambridge days. Raymond’s name was mentioned only once. Elsie had left us for a moment. And Colby, glancing toward the door, whispered huskily: ‘For God’s sake, let Raymond alone.' I received the impression that he knew something to Raymond’s discredit and was too loyal to discuss him, especially before Elsie.
“It troubled me more than a little, you know how trifling things will when a cloud of mystery hangs about. Always I was thinking of Raymond—whenever I looked at Colby my mind wandered to the absent one of The Trinity who had once resembled him. It kept me awake at nights—I dreamt; of Raymond. And one night my dreams were so vivid that, meeting Colby in the hall on my way to breakfast, I spoke of it. He threw up a silencing hand, his face white, and went on into the dining room without a word. At breakfast he ate noting, and Elsie, rallying him, was snubbed. She stared, tears gathering in her eyes; and Colby, leaping up with a stifled groan, swept her into his arms. I looked away, as if I had intruded on a scene of marital intimacy.
“ ‘Indigestion my dear,’ he explained. ‘What a beast it can make of a man! I’ll be all right when the threshing’s done. Nerves.’ He addressed me across the table: ‘It’s a month of hell for us farmers, Dick, this harvest time. A night’s frost can make all the difference between a fortune and bankruptcy.’
“And Elsie, all smiles now, peered at me with wet, happy eyes over her husband’s arm. ‘There never was a month or an hour of hell for Maurice’s wife, Dick, and don’t you believe it. Our first misunderstanding—our very first.’
“ ‘Call that a misunderstanding?’ I sniffed. ‘You’re so infernally happy I—I don’t understand Maurice. I never thought he was better able to make a woman happy than I was myself. Blind fool! I’m proud of you, Maurice, proud one of the old Trinity has turned out so well.’
“And Colby’s face twisted mirthlessly, and he swallowed his coffee in a gulp. At the end of the meal he asked me if I would go to Edmonton with him—some business in connection with the milk supply. It was the first time he’d ever deliberately arranged that we should be alone together, and somehow it thrilled me . . . I had reason to thrill.”
Beads of perspiration stood on Meredith’s forehead, and with a hand that shook he wiped them away.
“That ride of ours—perhaps a half hour, no more—did it all. Since then I’m not so sure . . . about right and wrong about a man’s conscience being a safe guide . . . I’m not so sure of anything . . . My friend told me his story . . . ”
He sat silent so long that Daggett’s chair rustled. Two boats out on the river shrieked at each other. The waiter, looming at the back of the room through the mist that had crept in and given body to the smoke, caught his breath audibly. It was Sutton brought Meredith back:
“What was it this story of Colby’s?”
Meredith raised his head sharply in thought he’d been six thousand miles from the club fireplace.
“It wasn’t Colby’s story. . . It was Brander Raymond’s! . . . Because it wasn’t Colby, but Raymond! . . . All the time Elsie’s husband—my friend who had always resembled Colby in the old days, whom I’d not seen for fifteen years—all the time it was Raymond!”
For a full half minute the only sound in the room was the subdued ticking of the old lacquered grandfather's clock that was one of the treasures of the club.
“It wasn’t Colby,” Meredith repeated, “it was Raymond . . . All the time it was Raymond!” He seemed to have difficulty convincing even himself. And we just sat and gaped. ‘‘He told me all about it, Raymond did. For a time after he and Colby separated he wandered about the States, seeking adventure rather than a fortune. He found it on a Texan ranch. But when war broke out he struck for San Francisco, thinking America would be in it straight. Finding how things stood, he wrote to Colby, planning to go to Canada and join up there with his friend. But Colby wasn’t joining up—heart or something . . . . And Raymond delayed . . . first to join up when at last America came in . . .
“After the war he returned to San Francisco, got mixed up in real estate in Los Angeles, and in four years cleaned up a fortune. First thing he did then was to make for Western Canada and Colby . . . He found him—Medicine Hat—the place Kipling christened ‘The Town That Was Born Lucky.’ . . . It wasn’t lucky for Raymond—any more than it had been for Colby . . . But I don’t know . . . Poor Colby! Down and out—been down and out for years—a sot—one of those most scorned of Englishmen in Western Canada, a remittance man. Raymond in a way blamed himself for having cut loose; and so he set himself to retrieve his mistake. In other words, to save Colby . . .
“For a year be worked with him—lived with him, watched him day and night, did everything he knew. Hopeless.
“Colby told him at the first of the girl he had in England—who’d waited for him all these years—who still waited. All her letters he poured over Raymond, pestered him with each as it arrived. And Raymond knew that, with the waiting across the seas, was a supreme faith in Colby, a hope the years had failed to dim . . . Even Colby had intervals of hope as he read those letters . . . Raymond grew almost to hate his old friend for the part he was playing.
“You see, Colby had told the girl nothing—had continued to hold out hope—hinted at sending for her soon, always soon. Then he would weep to Raymond in his sodden way—and drink to drown his conscience.
“Raymond, I gather, spent money like water, bribing to keep the liquor from Colby. All he got mostly was sneers. For Colby, everyone else saw, was beyond help. And so Raymond came to his last resource. It was hastened by a letter from Colby’s girl. Her mother had just died and she was alone in the world—save for Colby. She had given up teaching to nurse her mother, and there was small prospect of work. And they were poor—made poor by the war—Raymond put his mind to it. He bought a farm near Edmonton and cabled for the girl. You see, he thought if he could get Colby away from his friends and give him something to do, someone to love and to hold him by her love, there was more than a chance. It was Colby he thought of, not Elsie—Colby he set his teeth to save at any cost. Of course he cabled passage money, all in Colby’s name . . .
“The day Elsie left Liverpool, Raymond told Colby. And poor Colby, unable to face Elsie’s awakening, went out and shot himself.”
A shudder ran round the fireplace. Meredith winced to his memories.
“There was Raymond! Picture it. A friend he almost felt he had murdered and the murdered friend’s fiancée on the ocean coming to him.
“Elsie herself solved one of his difficulties. She came pushing down the slatted gangway and, with that cuddly cry of hers, threw her arms about his neck.
“ ‘Maurice, Maurice!' She lay in his arms, weeping for joy, while Raymond gulped and could not speak. And all the time Elsie thought it was a love like her own that held him tight-lipped. ‘I knew you from your picture,’ she murmured. . . And Raymond remembered that Colby had dragged him into a photographer's at Medicine Hat. Elsie was babbling. ‘I always knew you’d make good, Maurice, dear—it’s what has kept me alive all these years. If you’d failed—well, I guess there’d be no little Elsie to be so happy now.’ And she nestled up against his arm, loving him the more that he loved her too intensely to do more than gulp.”
Meredith peered at us through the mist of the room.
“You see the story now? You see how Raymond was caught? He could have told her the truth, the bald, ugly truth, right there in the midst of her happiness—and have broken her heart . . . Or he could do what he did—what you or I would have done—waited for a more propitious time, when he had his courage screwed up to face this new terror, when Elsie was better able to stand it. He’d pictured a bad time of it, but nothing so bad as that . . . And so he waited . . . And the worst of it was that he loved her from the moment he first saw her—loved her more than Colby was capable of. He couldn’t hurt her—not just then. You’ve got to consider all that . . . and how completely content Elsie was, how madly in love with the man she thought was Maurice Colby . . . You have got to remember there was nothing back home to send her to but grim, stark poverty and sorrow . . .
“And so, loving her more each minute—and more beloved—and reckless as love ever makes a man—he married her the next day. As Maurice Colby . . . And they went straight to the farm he had purchased for Colby—the farm where I found them so happy and prosperous. And Brander Raymond settled to the blissful life of Elsie’s beloved husband . . Elsie told me more than once, before Raymond—I must call him Raymond; it’s how I have to think of him now—how her love had leaped at sight of him to unimagined heights, how more each day he had lived up to her every hope of him, how wonderfully had mounted up the interest of the years on the principal of her love.
“Blissful, did I say? No not quite blissful for Raymond. Still it was not so bad till the baby was coming. That complicated things. Approaching fatherhood seemed to heap renewed responsibility on his head . . . on his conscience, Sutton, if you will. Could he, he asked himself, bring an innocent child into a world of deliberate deceit? But—dare he face the uncertainty of Elsie’s reaction to the truth? Was it the living or the dead she really loved? Would a love founded on an old emotion stand up against the discovery of her mistake, of her husband’s extended deception? Would not the revelation diminish her very capacity for love?
“You see how poor Raymond felt? A million darts pierced him. All the rigid integrity of the Raymonds, all his love for Elsie, massed now against his peace of mind, lashed his conscience.
“It was then he sent that cablegram ‘For God’s sake come and help me.’
That was the problem he still faced, helpless, pitifully uncertain. Day and night he faced it, like creeping death:
“ ‘Can aught but disaster come of living a lie?’
“I, clutching about me my professional garment of certitude, said ‘No!’
“ ‘Should a husband, loving her as I do—dare he—confess to her that for more than a year she has been living with a stranger, has borne him a child?’
“Though I was less sure of my ground there, I managed to rally to all the conventions of my profession. Frankness alone was right.
“ ‘Would she wish it herself—to know that her old love for Colby, her faith in him, all this that had kept her for sixteen years and made her so happy—would she wish to know it was only a dream?
“There seemed nothing for me but to stick to the padre’s guns.
“ ‘Is it fair to Maurice? He was my friend. Can I betray him—even if I dare?’
“ ‘Maurice is dead,’ I insisted. ‘Consider the living. Brander, you must—’
“He stopped me with blanched face. ‘Not that—not that name yet. Not till we’ve decided.’
“ ‘I’ve decided now. You must tell her. Your very love for her and the child— It’s the difficult things that make for the deeper happiness that comes of honesty.’
Fine words. . . . They sound less fine to me now.
“ ‘If only I knew,’ Raymond moaned. ‘if only I knew.’ he had to stop the car to recover himself. Presently he lifted a white face. ‘I’ll tell her, Dick . . . I’ll tell her the night before you go.’”
Again that appealing look of Meredith’s, as if we were his judges.
“I’m afraid—I welcomed the delay. Not till the night before I went away. I wasn’t so sure—of anything. Their love, their perfect accord as things were, was so complete that any change must be for the worse. Leaving the next day, I thought I could face it—my own responsibility for what might happen . . . And so it was agreed . . . the night before I was to leave . . .
“I remember that night so well. The harvest was safely housed—Raymond had done better even than he hoped. Elsie sang about her work—apologizing for seeming so happy on my last day. ‘Maurice will be all right now—no more nerves, Dick. Oh, Dick, how good he is, how—how I love him!’ . . We were gathered about the fireplace as usual. Outwardly, yes, as usual. Elsie curled on Raymond’s knee where they could see the face of the sleeping baby, I in my easy chair. I caught a glimpse of Raymond’s face, and it haunts me still. He was staring at me, begging to be let off, begging me to end his agony by stopping him . . . As if I were God himself! . . . I daren’t . . . That’s what it is to be a padre—a bachelor padre. I daren’t . . . But neither dare I see that look in his face. Then Elsie got up and put out the other lamp and left us sitting in the firelight.
“I could hear Raymond sigh with relief, and I, too, was glad of the darkness . . . And we sat—waiting—all but Elsie, who had put on her prettiest dress for me—a little blue silk with low neck and short sleeves that made her more a little girl than ever, a girl to shield . . . Colby’s girl . . . The girl Colby had courted and won . . . and Raymond had married. My pipe went out and I daren’t make the noise of scratching a match. I just sat, waiting breathlessly for Raymond to begin . . . I heard him take a deep breath—I heard a rustle of silk—and there was Elsie, pressed away from him, as if he dare not speak with her nestling into his neck like that. Elsie laughed, gurgling like a child.
“ ‘Crushing her big man, is she? I don’t care. I’ve a lot of years without you to make up for, you villain—fifteen of them—and your foot can go to sleep if it wants to.’
“She squirmed back into her old place, lying where her lips touched his chin.
“ ‘Fifteen whole years I had to hoard my love. But it wasn’t love then—though we thought it was, didn’t we, dear? Since we married, how flimsy it looks!—that old love . . . I just knew I had a real man, so different from the others.’
“She sighed happily and reached a hand to his cheek. They were all alone in the room, they and their baby.
“ ‘Not like that friend of yours—I don’t mean Dick, of course—that Brander Raymond.’ I dropped my pipe, and the clatter of it excused Raymond’s start. ‘All nervous yet, aren’t you, darling?’ she murmured. ‘But you’ll be all right now the grain is in. Poor Brander Raymond! I didn’t like those parts of your letters. I used to fret that you couldn’t do something for him. I never thought a friend of yours could fall so low.’ She pressed closer. ‘I’m going to ’fess up, Maurice, dear. There was a time I thought perhaps you’d—you’d let go a little . . . And then your picture came and I knew how untrue I’d been to you. It would have killed me to have my Maurice fail—after fifteen years of love.’
“She remembered me and laughed.
“ ‘If only we could find a home for Dick! A little wifie!’ She gurgled again. ‘But it wouldn’t be the same as this—it couldn’t be. Sixteen years of love makes all the difference, Maurice. There would not be all that lifetime of fidelity and hope behind it. He couldn’t be staunch and true as you—and I couldn’t ever have looked at another man if anything had happened to you’ She leaned over and gazed into the face of their child, and with a cuddling sigh pushed back into Raymond’s arms. ‘If Teddy grows up half as good as his father!’ ”
Meredith dropped his face in his hands. Half a dozen callous clubmen breathed heavily. A taxi horn sounded unexpectedly shrill.
Sutton whispered: “He didn’t tell her, did he?”
“Not then. I staggered over to the cot and in the firelight caught Raymond’s eye and shook my head. I couldn’t face it—I daren’t. Was I a coward? I don’t know. Was it wrong to leave Elsie and her child in a Heaven like that? Would it have been right to sacrifice her happiness to Raymond’s conscience? I am a padre and—I don’t know. Who does?”
“Did he ever tell her?” Sutton leaned forward in his corner, all his cocksureness gone.
Meredith wiped his face “I don’t know . . . I haven’t dared to write—and every mail finds me trembling. Raymond deserved the best of life, yet—there it was—right or wrong?”
Boats whistled out on the river, a taxi hooting to the club entrance. Voices rose from the street. The waiter pulled back the curtains.
Outside the fog was lifting.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.