Susie stared without comprehension at the note that announced Margaret's marriage. It was a _petit bleu_ sent off from the Gare du Nord, and ran as follows:
When you receive this I shall be on my way to London. I was married to Oliver Haddo this morning. I love him as I never loved Arthur. I have acted in this manner because I thought I had gone too far with Arthur to make an explanation possible. Please tell him.
Susie was filled with dismay. She did not know what to do nor what to think. There was a knock at the door, and she knew it must be Arthur, for he was expected at midday. She decided quickly that it was impossible to break the news to him then and there. It was needful first to find out all manner of things, and besides, it was incredible. Making up her mind, she opened the door.
'Oh, I'm so sorry Margaret isn't here,' she said. 'A friend of hers is ill and sent for her suddenly.'
'What a bore!' answered Arthur. 'Mrs Bloomfield as usual, I suppose?'
'Oh, you know she's been ill?'
'Margaret has spent nearly every afternoon with her for some days.'
Susie did not answer. This was the first she had heard of Mrs Bloomfield's illness, and it was news that Margaret was in the habit of visiting her. But her chief object at this moment was to get rid of Arthur.
'Won't you come back at five o'clock?' she said.
'But, look here, why shouldn't we lunch together, you and I?'
'I'm very sorry, but I'm expecting somebody in.'
'Oh, all right. Then I'll come back at five.'
He nodded and went out. Susie read the brief note once more, and asked herself if it could possibly be true. The callousness of it was appalling. She went to Margaret's room and saw that everything was in its place. It did not look as if the owner had gone on a journey. But then she noticed that a number of letters had been destroyed. She opened a drawer and found that Margaret's trinkets were gone. An idea struck her. Margaret had bought lately a number of clothes, and these she had insisted should be sent to her dressmaker, saying that it was needless to cumber their little apartment with them. They could stay there till she returned to England a few weeks later for her marriage, and it would be simpler to despatch them all from one place. Susie went out. At the door it occurred to her to ask the _concierge_ if she knew where Margaret had gone that morning.
'_Parfaitement, Mademoiselle_,' answered the old woman. 'I heard her tell the coachman to go to the British Consulate.'
The last doubt was leaving Susie. She went to the dressmaker and there discovered that by Margaret's order the boxes containing her things had gone on the previous day to the luggage office of the Gare du Nord.
'I hope you didn't let them go till your bill was paid,' said Susie lightly, as though in jest.
The dressmaker laughed.
'Mademoiselle paid for everything two or three days ago.'
With indignation, Susie realised that Margaret had not only taken away the trousseau bought for her marriage with Arthur; but, since she was herself penniless, had paid for it with the money which he had generously given her. Susie drove then to Mrs Bloomfield, who at once reproached her for not coming to see her.
'I'm sorry, but I've been exceedingly busy, and I knew that Margaret was looking after you.'
'I've not seen Margaret for three weeks,' said the invalid.
'Haven't you? I thought she dropped in quite often.'
Susie spoke as though the matter were of no importance. She asked herself now where Margaret could have spent those afternoons. By a great effort she forced herself to speak of casual things with the garrulous old lady long enough to make her visit seem natural. On leaving her, she went to the Consulate, and her last doubt was dissipated. Then nothing remained but to go home and wait for Arthur. Her first impulse had been to see Dr Porhoet and ask for his advice; but, even if he offered to come back with her to the studio, his presence would be useless. She must see Arthur by himself. Her heart was wrung as she thought of the man's agony when he knew the truth. She had confessed to herself long before that she loved him passionately, and it seemed intolerable that she of all persons must bear him this great blow.
She sat in the studio, counting the minutes, and thought with a bitter smile that his eagerness to see Margaret would make him punctual. She had eaten nothing since the _petit dejeuner_ of the morning, and she was faint with hunger. But she had not the heart to make herself tea. At last he came. He entered joyfully and looked around.
'Is Margaret not here yet?' he asked, with surprise.
'Won't you sit down?'
He did not notice that her voice was strange, nor that she kept her eyes averted.
'How lazy you are,' he cried. 'You haven't got the tea.'
'Mr Burdon, I have something to say to you. It will cause you very great pain.'
He observed now the hoarseness of her tone. He sprang to his feet, and a thousand fancies flashed across his brain. Something horrible had happened to Margaret. She was ill. His terror was so great that he could not speak. He put out his hands as does a blind man. Susie had to make an effort to go on. But she could not. Her voice was choked, and she began to cry. Arthur trembled as though he were seized with ague. She gave him the letter.
'What does it mean?'
He looked at her vacantly. Then she told him all that she had done that day and the places to which she had been.
'When you thought she was spending every afternoon with Mrs Bloomfield, she was with that man. She made all the arrangements with the utmost care. It was quite premeditated.'
Arthur sat down and leaned his head on his hand. He turned his back to her, so that she should not see his face. They remained in perfect silence. And it was so terrible that Susie began to cry quietly. She knew that the man she loved was suffering an agony greater than the agony of death, and she could not help him. Rage flared up in her heart, and hatred for Margaret.
'Oh, it's infamous!' she cried suddenly. 'She's lied to you, she's been odiously deceitful. She must be vile and heartless. She must be rotten to the very soul.'
He turned round sharply, and his voice was hard.
'I forbid you to say anything against her.'
Susie gave a little gasp. He had never spoken to her before in anger. She flashed out bitterly.
'Can you love her still, when she's shown herself capable of such vile treachery? For nearly a month this man must have been making love to her, and she's listened to all we said of him. She's pretended to hate the sight of him, I've seen her cut him in the street. She's gone on with all the preparations for your marriage. She must have lived in a world of lies, and you never suspected anything because you had an unalterable belief in her love and truthfulness. She owes everything to you. For four years she's lived on your charity. She was only able to be here because you gave her money to carry out a foolish whim, and the very clothes on her back were paid for by you.'
'I can't help it if she didn't love me,' he cried desperately.
'You know just as well as I do that she pretended to love you. Oh, she's behaved shamefully. There can be no excuse for her.'
He looked at Susie with haggard, miserable eyes.
'How can you be so cruel? For God's sake don't make it harder.'
There was an indescribable agony in his voice. And as if his own words of pain overcame the last barrier of his self-control, he broke down. He hid his face in his hands and sobbed. Susie was horribly conscience-stricken.
'Oh, I'm so sorry,' she said. 'I didn't mean to say such hateful things. I didn't mean to be unkind. I ought to have remembered how passionately you love her.'
It was very painful to see the effort he made to regain his self-command. Susie suffered as much as he did. Her impulse was to throw herself on her knees, and kiss his hands, and comfort him; but she knew that he was interested in her only because she was Margaret's friend. At last he got up and, taking his pipe from his pocket, filled it silently. She was terrified at the look on his face. The first time she had ever seen him, Susie wondered at the possibility of self-torture which was in that rough-hewn countenance; but she had never dreamed that it could express such unutterable suffering. Its lines were suddenly changed, and it was terrible to look upon.
'I can't believe it's true,' he muttered. 'I can't believe it.'
There was a knock at the door, and Arthur gave a startled cry.
'Perhaps she's come back.'
He opened it hurriedly, his face suddenly lit up by expectation; but it was Dr Porhoet.
'How do you do?' said the Frenchman. 'What is happening?'
He looked round and caught the dismay that was on the faces of Arthur and Susie.
'Where is Miss Margaret? I thought you must be giving a party.'
There was something in his manner that made Susie ask why.
'I received a telegram from Mr Haddo this morning.'
He took it from his pocket and handed it to Susie. She read it and passed it to Arthur. It said:
Come to the studio at five. High jinks.
'Margaret was married to Mr Haddo this morning,' said Arthur, quietly. 'I understand they have gone to England.'
Susie quickly told the doctor the few facts they knew. He was as surprised, as distressed, as they.
'But what is the explanation of it all?' he asked.
Arthur shrugged his shoulders wearily.
'She cared for Haddo more than she cared for me, I suppose. It is natural enough that she should go away in this fashion rather than offer explanations. I suppose she wanted to save herself a scene she thought might be rather painful.'
'When did you see her last?'
'We spent yesterday evening together.'
'And did she not show in any way that she contemplated such a step?'
Arthur shook his head.
'You had no quarrel?'
'We've never quarrelled. She was in the best of spirits. I've never seen her more gay. She talked the whole time of our house in London, and of the places we must visit when we were married.'
Another contraction of pain passed over his face as he remembered that she had been more affectionate than she had ever been before. The fire of her kisses still burnt upon his lips. He had spent a night of almost sleepless ecstasy because he had been certain for the first time that the passion which consumed him burnt in her heart too. Words were dragged out of him against his will.
'Oh, I'm sure she loved me.'
Meanwhile Susie's eyes were fixed on Haddo's cruel telegram. She seemed to hear his mocking laughter.
'Margaret loathed Oliver Haddo with a hatred that was almost unnatural. It was a physical repulsion like that which people sometimes have for certain animals. What can have happened to change it into so great a love that it has made her capable of such villainous acts?'
'We mustn't be unfair to him,' said Arthur. 'He put our backs up, and we were probably unjust. He has done some very remarkable things in his day, and he's no fool. It's possible that some people wouldn't mind the eccentricities which irritated us. He's certainly of very good family and he's rich. In many ways it's an excellent match for Margaret.'
He was trying with all his might to find excuses for her. It would not make her treachery so intolerable if he could persuade himself that Haddo had qualities which might explain her infatuation. But as his enemy stood before his fancy, monstrously obese, vulgar, and overbearing, a shudder passed through him. The thought of Margaret in that man's arms tortured him as though his flesh were torn with iron hooks.
'Perhaps it's not true. Perhaps she'll return,' he cried.
'Would you take her back if she came to you?' asked Susie.
'Do you think anything she can do has the power to make me love her less? There must be reasons of which we know nothing that caused her to do all she has done. I daresay it was inevitable from the beginning.'
Dr Porhoet got up and walked across the room.
'If a woman had done me such an injury that I wanted to take some horrible vengeance, I think I could devise nothing more subtly cruel than to let her be married to Oliver Haddo.'
'Ah, poor thing, poor thing!' said Arthur. 'If I could only suppose she would be happy! The future terrifies me.'
'I wonder if she knew that Haddo had sent that telegram,' said Susie.
'What can it matter?'
She turned to Arthur gravely.
'Do you remember that day, in this studio, when he kicked Margaret's dog, and you thrashed him? Well, afterwards, when he thought no one saw him, I happened to catch sight of his face. I never saw in my life such malignant hatred. It was the face of a fiend of wickedness. And when he tried to excuse himself, there was a cruel gleam in his eyes which terrified me. I warned you; I told you that he had made up his mind to revenge himself, but you laughed at me. And then he seemed to go out of our lives and I thought no more about it. I wonder why he sent Dr Porhoet here today. He must have known that the doctor would hear of his humiliation, and he may have wished that he should be present at his triumph. I think that very moment he made up his mind to be even with you, and he devised this odious scheme.'
'How could he know that it was possible to carry out such a horrible thing?' said Arthur.
'I wonder if Miss Boyd is right,' murmured the doctor. 'After all, if you come to think of it, he must have thought that he couldn't hurt you more. The whole thing is fiendish. He took away from you all your happiness. He must have known that you wanted nothing in the world more than to make Margaret your wife, and he has not only prevented that, but he has married her himself. And he can only have done it by poisoning her mind, by warping her very character. Her soul must be horribly besmirched; he must have entirely changed her personality.'
'Ah, I feel that,' cried Arthur. 'If Margaret has broken her word to me, if she's gone to him so callously, it's because it's not the Margaret I know. Some devil must have taken possession of her body.'
'You use a figure of speech. I wonder if it can possibly be a reality.'
Arthur and Dr Porhoet looked at Susie with astonishment.
'I can't believe that Margaret could have done such a thing,' she went on. 'The more I think of it, the more incredible it seems. I've known Margaret for years, and she was incapable of deceit. She was very kind-hearted. She was honest and truthful. In the first moment of horror, I was only indignant, but I don't want to think too badly of her. There is only one way to excuse her, and that is by supposing she acted under some strange compulsion.'
Arthur clenched his hands.
'I'm not sure if that doesn't make it more awful than before. If he's married her, not because he cares, but in order to hurt me, what life will she lead with him? We know how heartless he is, how vindictive, how horribly cruel.'
'Dr Porhoet knows more about these things than we do,' said Susie. 'Is it possible that Haddo can have cast some spell upon her that would make her unable to resist his will? Is it possible that he can have got such an influence over her that her whole character was changed?'
'How can I tell?' cried the doctor helplessly. 'I have heard that such things may happen. I have read of them, but I have no proof. In these matters all is obscurity. The adepts in magic make strange claims. Arthur is a man of science, and he knows what the limits of hypnotism are.'
'We know that Haddo had powers that other men have not,' answered Susie. 'Perhaps there was enough truth in his extravagant pretensions to enable him to do something that we can hardly imagine.'
Arthur passed his hands wearily over his face.
'I'm so broken, so confused, that I cannot think sanely. At this moment everything seems possible. My faith in all the truths that have supported me is tottering.'
For a while they remained silent. Arthur's eyes rested on the chair in which Margaret had so often sat. An unfinished canvas still stood upon the easel. It was Dr Porhoet who spoke at last.
'But even if there were some truth in Miss Boyd's suppositions, I don't see how it can help you. You cannot do anything. You have no remedy, legal or otherwise. Margaret is apparently a free agent, and she has married this man. It is plain that many people will think she has done much better in marrying a country gentleman than in marrying a young surgeon. Her letter is perfectly lucid. There is no trace of compulsion. To all intents and purposes she has married him of her own free-will, and there is nothing to show that she desires to be released from him or from the passion which we may suppose enslaves her.'
What he said was obviously true, and no reply was possible.
'The only thing is to grin and bear it,' said Arthur, rising.
'Where are you going?' said Susie.
'I think I want to get away from Paris. Here everything will remind me of what I have lost. I must get back to my work.'
He had regained command over himself, and except for the hopeless woe of his face, which he could not prevent from being visible, he was as calm as ever. He held out his hand to Susie.
'I can only hope that you'll forget,' she said.
'I don't wish to forget,' he answered, shaking his head. 'It's possible that you will hear from Margaret. She'll want the things that she has left here, and I daresay will write to you. I should like you to tell her that I bear her no ill-will for anything she has done, and I will never venture to reproach her. I don't know if I shall be able to do anything for her, but I wish her to know that in any case and always I will do everything that she wants.'
'If she writes to me, I will see that she is told,' answered Susie gravely.
'And now goodbye.'
'You can't go to London till tomorrow. Shan't I see you in the morning?'
'I think if you don't mind, I won't come here again. The sight of all this rather disturbs me.'
Again a contraction of pain passed across his eyes, and Susie saw that he was using a superhuman effort to preserve the appearance of composure. She hesitated a moment.
'Shall I never see you again?' she said. 'I should be sorry to lose sight of you entirely.'
'I should be sorry, too,' he answered. 'I have learned how good and kind you are, and I shall never forget that you are Margaret's friend. When you come to London, I hope that you will let me know.'
He went out. Dr Porhoet, his hands behind his back, began to walk up and down the room. At last he turned to Susie.
'There is one thing that puzzles me,' he said. 'Why did he marry her?'
'You heard what Arthur said,' answered Susie bitterly. 'Whatever happened, he would have taken her back. The other man knew that he could only bind her to him securely by going through the ceremonies of marriage.'
Dr Porhoet shrugged his shoulders, and presently he left her. When Susie was alone she began to weep broken-heartedly, not for herself, but because Arthur suffered an agony that was hardly endurable.