Peg O’my Heart

Contents:
Author: J. Hartley Manners

Chapter II. Christian Brent

A few words of description of Christian Brent might be of interest, since he represents a type that society always has with it.

They begin by deceiving others: they end by deceiving themselves.

Christian Brent was a dark, tense, eager, scholarly-looking man of twenty-eight years of age. His career as a diplomatist was halted at its outset by an early marriage with the only daughter of a prosperous manufacturer. Brent was moderately independent in his own right, but the addition of his wife’s dowry seemed to destroy all ambition. He no longer found interest in carrying messages to the various legations or embassies of Europe, or in filling a routine position as some one’s secretary. From being an intensely eager man of affairs he drifted into a social lounger—the lapdog of the drawing-room—where the close breath of some rare perfume meant more than the clash of interests, and the conquest of a woman greater than that of a nation.

Just at this period Ethel Chichester was the especial object of his adoration.

Her beauty appealed to him.

Her absolute indifference to him stung him as a lash. It seemed to belittle his powers of attraction. Consequently he redoubled his efforts.

Ethel showed neither like nor dislike—just a form of toleration. Brent accepted this as a dog a crumb, in the hope of something more substantial to follow. He had come that morning with a fixed resolve. His manner was determined. His voice wooed as a caress. He went tenderly to Ethel the moment the door closed on Jarvis.

"How are you?" he asked, and there was a note of subdued passion in his tone.

"Fair," replied Ethel, without even looking at him. "Where is your mother?" suggesting that much depended on the answer.

"Lying down," answered Ethel, truthfully and without any feeling.

"And Alaric?"

"In the garden."

"Then we have a moment or two—alone?" Brent put a world of meaning into the suggestion.

"Very likely," said Ethel, picking up a score of Boheme and looking at it as if she saw it for the first time: all the while watching him through her half-closed eyes.

Brent went to her. "Glad to see me?" he asked.

"Why not?"

"I am glad to see you." He bent over her. "More than glad."

"Really?"

He sat beside her: "Ethel," he whispered intensely: "I am at the Cross-roads."

"Oh?" commented Ethel, without any interest.

"It came last night."

"Did it?"

"This is the end—between Sybil and myself."

"Is it?"

"Yes—the end. It’s been horrible from the first—horrible. There’s not a word of mine—not an action—she doesn’t misunderstand."

"How boring," said Ethel blandly.

"She would see harm even in THIS!"

"Why?"

"She’d think I was here to—to—" he stopped.

"What?" innocently inquired Ethel.

"Make love to you," and he looked earnestly into her eyes.

She met his look quite frankly and astonished him with the question: "Well? Aren’t you?"

He rose anxiously: "Ethel!"

"Don’t you always?" persisted Ethel.

"Has it seemed like that to you?"

"Yes," she answered candidly. "By insinuation: never straightforwardly."

"Has it offended you?"

"Then you admit it?"

"Oh," he cried passionately, "I wish I had the right to—to—" again he wavered.

"Yes?" and Ethel looked straight at him.

"Make love to you straightforwardly." He felt the supreme moment had almost arrived. Now, he thought, he would be rewarded for the long waiting; the endless siege to this marvellous woman who concealed her real nature beneath that marble casing of an assumed indifference.

He waited eagerly for her answer. When it came it shocked and revolted him.

Ethel dropped her gaze from his face and said, with the suspicion of a smile playing around her lips:

"If you had the right to make love to me straightforwardly—you wouldn’t do it."

He looked at her in amazement.

"What do you mean?" he gasped. "It’s only because you haven’t the right that you do it—by suggestion," Ethel pursued.

"How can you say that?" And he put all the heart he was capable of into the question.

"You don’t deny it," she said quietly.

He breathed hard and then said bitterly:

"What a contemptible opinion you must have of me."

"Then we’re quits, aren’t we?"

"How?" he asked.

"Haven’t YOU one of ME?"

"Of YOU? Why, Ethel—"

"Surely every married man MUST have a contemptible opinion of the woman he covertly makes love to. If he hadn’t he couldn’t do it, could he?" Once again she levelled her cold, impassive eyes on Brent’s flushed face.

"I don’t follow you," was all Brent said.

"Haven’t you had time to think of an answer?"

"I don’t now what you’re driving at," he added.

Ethel smiled her most enigmatical smile:

"No? I think you do." She waited a moment. Brent said nothing. This was a new mood of Ethel’s. It baffled him.

Presently she relieved the silence by asking him:

"What happened last night?"

He hesitated. Then he answered:

"I’d rather not say. I’d sound like a cad blaming a woman."

"Never mind how it sounds. Tell it. It must have been amusing."

"Amusing? Good God!" He bent over her again. "Oh, the more I look at you and listen to you, the more I realise I should never have married."

"Why DID you?" came the cool question.

Brent answered with all the power at his command. Here was the moment to lay his heart bare that Ethel might see.

"Have you ever seen a young hare, fresh from its kind, run headlong into a snare? Have you ever seen a young man free of the trammels of college, dash into a NET? did! I wasn’t trap-wise!"

He paced the room restlessly, all the self-pity rising in him. He went on: "Good God! what nurslings we are when we first feel our feet! We’re like children just loose from the leading-strings. Anything that glitters catches us. Every trap that is set for our unwary feet we drop into. I did. Dropped in. Caught hand and foot— mind and soul."

"Soul?" queried Ethel, with a note of doubt.

"Yes," he answered.

"Don’t you mean BODY?" she suggested.

"Body, mind AND soul!" he said, with an air of finality.

"Well, BODY anyway," summed up Ethel.

"And for what?" he went on. "For WHAT? Love! Companionship! That is what we build on in marriage. And what did realise? Hate and wrangling! Wrangling—just as the common herd, with no advantages, wrangle, and make it a part of their lives—the zest to their union. It’s been my curse"

"Why wrangling?" drawled Ethel.

"She didn’t understand."

"You?" asked Ethel, in surprise.

"My thoughts! My actions!"

"How curious."

"You mean you would?"

"Probably."

"I’m sure of it." He tried to take her hand. She drew it away, and settled herself comfortably to listen again:

"Tell me more about your wife."

"The slightest attention shown to any other woman meant a ridiculous—a humiliating scene."

"Humiliating?"

"Isn’t doubt and suspicion humiliating?"

"It would he a compliment in some cases."

"How?"

"It would put a fictitious value on some men."

"You couldn’t humiliate in that way," he ventured, slowly.

"No. I don’t think I could. If a man showed a preference for any other woman she would be quite welcome to him."

"No man could!" said Brent, insinuatingly.

She looked at him coldly a moment.

"Let me see—where were you? Just married, weren’t you? Go on."

"Then came the baby!" He said that with a significant meaning and paused to see the effect on Ethel. If it had any, Ethel effectually concealed it. Her only comment was:

"Ah!"

Brent went on:

"One would think THAT would change things. But no. Neither of us wanted her. Neither of us love her. Children should come of love— not hate. And she is a child of hate." He paused, looking intently at Ethel. She looked understandingly at him, then dropped her eyes.

Brent went on as if following up an advantage: "She sits in her little chair, her small, wrinkled, old disillusioned face turned to us, with the eyes watching us accusingly. She submits to caresses as though they were distasteful: as if she knew they were lies. At times she pushes the nearing face away with her little baby fingers." He stopped, watching her eagerly. Her eyes were down.

"I shouldn’t tell you this. It’s terrible. I see it in your face. What are you thinking?"

"I’m sorry," replied Ethel simply.

"For me?"

"For your wife."

"MY WIFE?" he repeated, aghast.

"Yes," said Ethel. "Aren’t you? No? Are you just sorry for yourself?"

Brent turned impatiently away. So this laying-open the wound in his life was nothing to Ethel. Instead of pity for him all it engendered in her was sorrow for his wife.

How little women understood him.

There was a pathetic catch in his voice as he turned to Ethel and said reproachfully:

"You think me purely selfish?"

"Naturally," she answered quickly. " AM. Why, not be truthful about ourselves sometimes? Eh?"

"We quarrelled last night—about you!" he said, desperately.

"Really?"

"Gossip has linked us together. My wife has heard and put the worst construction on it."

"Well?"

"We said things to each other last night that can never be forgiven or forgotten. I left the house and walked the streets—hours! I looked my whole life back and through as though it were some stranger’s" He turned abruptly away to the windows and stayed a moment, looking down the drive.

Ethel said nothing.

He came back to her in a few moments. "I tell you we ought to be taught—we ought to be taught, when we are young, what marriage really means, just as we are taught not to steal, nor lie, nor sin. In, marriage we do all three—when we’re ill-mated. We steal affection from some one else, we lie in our lives and we sin in our relationship."

Ethel asked him very quietly:

"Do you mean that you are a sinner, a thief, and a liar?"

Brent looked at her in horror.

"Oh, take some of the blame," said Ethel; "don’t put it all on the woman."

"You’ve never spoken to me like this before."

"I’ve often wanted to," replied Ethel. Then she asked him: "What do you intend doing?"

"Separate," he answered, eagerly. "You don’t doctor a poisoned limb when your life depends on it; you cut it off. When two lives generate a deadly poison, face the problem as a surgeon would. Amputate."

"And after the operation? What then?" asked Ethel.

"That is why I am here facing you. Do you understand what I mean?"

"Oh, dear, yes. Perfectly. I have been waiting for you to get to the point."

"Ethel!" and he impulsively stretched out his arms as though to embrace her.

She drew back slightly, just out of his reach.

"Wait." She looked up at him, quizzically: "Suppose we generate poison? What would you do? Amputate me?"

"You are different from all other women."

"Didn’t you tell your wife that when you asked her to marry you?"

He turned away impatiently: "Don’t say those things, Ethel, they hurt."

"I’m afraid, Christian, I’m too frank, aren’t I?"

"You stand alone, Ethel. You seem to look into the, hearts of people and know why and how they beat."

"I do—sometimes. It’s an awkward faculty."

He looked at her glowingly: "How marvellously different two women can be! You—my wife."

Ethel shook her head and smiled her calm, dead smile "We’re not really very different, Christian. Only some natures like change. Yours does. And the new have all the virtues. Why, I might not last as long as your wife did."

"Don’t say that. We lave a common bond—UNDERSTANDING."

"Think so?"

"I understand you."

"I wonder."

"You do me."

"Yes—that is just the difficulty."

"I tell you I am at the cross-roads. The fingerboard points the way to me distinctly."

"Does it?"

"It does." He leaned across to her: "Would you risk it?"

"What?" she asked.

"I’ll hide nothing. I’ll put it all before you. The snubs of your friends. The whisper of a scandal that would grow into a roar. Afraid to open a newspaper, fearing what might be printed in it. Life, at first, in some little Continental village—dreading the passers through—keeping out of sight lest they would recognise one. No. It wouldn’t be fair to you."

Ethel thought a moment, then answered slowly:

"No, Chris, I don’t think it would."

"You see I AM a cad—just a selfish cad!"

"Aren’t you?" and she smiled up at him.

"I’ll never speak of this again. I wouldn’t have NOW—only—I’m distracted to-day—completely distracted. Will you forgive me for speaking as I did?"

"Certainly," said Ethel. "I’m not offended. On the contrary. Anyway, I’ll think it over and let you know."

"You will, REALLY?" he asked greedily, grasping at the straw of a hope. "You will really think it over?"

"I will, really."

"And when she sets me free," he went on, "we could, we could—" He suddenly stopped.

She looked coolly at him as he hesitated and said: "It IS a difficult little word at times, isn’t it?"

"WOULD you marry me?" he asked, with a supreme effort.

"I never cross my bridges until I come to them," said Ethel, languidly. "And we’re such a long way from THAT one, aren’t we?"

"Then I am to wait?"

"Yes. Do," she replied. "When the time comes to accept the charity of relations, or do something useful for tuppence a week, Bohemian France or Italy—but then the runaways always go to France or Italy, don’t they?—Suppose we say Hungary? Shall we?"

He did not answer.

She went on: "Very well. When I have to choose between charity and labour, Bohemian Hungary may beckon me."

He looked at her in a puzzled way. What new mood was this?

"Charity?" he asked. "Labour?"

"Yes. It has come to that. A tiresome bank has failed with all our sixpences locked up in it. Isn’t it stupid?"

"Is ALL your money gone?"

"I think so."

"Good God!"

"Dear mamma knows as little about business as she does about me. Until this morning she has always had a rooted belief in her bank and her daughter. If I bolt with you, her last cherished illusion will be destroyed."

"Let me help you," he said eagerly.

"How?" and she looked at him again with that cold, hard scrutiny. "Lend us money, do you mean?"

He fell into the trap.

"Yes," he said. "I’d do that if you’d let me."

She gave just the suggestion of a sneer and turned deliberately away.

He felt the force of the unspoken reproof:

"I beg your pardon," he said humbly.

She went on as if she had not heard the offensive suggestion: "So you see we’re both, in a way, at the crossroads."

He seized her hand fiercely: "Let me take you away out of it all!" he cried.

She withdrew her hand slowly.

"No," she said, "not just now. I’m not in a bolting mood to-day."

He moved away. She watched him. Then she called him to her. Something in the man attracted this strange nature. She could not analyse or define the attraction. But the impelling force was there.

He went to her.

Ethel spoke to him for the first time softly, languorously, almost caressingly:

"Chris! Sometime—perhaps in the dead of night—something will snap in me—the slack, selfish, luxurious ME, that hates to be roused into action, and the craving for adventure will come. Then I’ll send for you."

He took her hand again and this time she did not draw it away. He said in a whisper:

"And you’ll go with me?"

Ethel stretched lazily, and smiled at him through her half-closed eyes.

"I suppose so. Then Heaven help you!"

"Why should we wait?" he cried.

"It will give us the suspense of expectation."

"I want you! I need you!" he pleaded.

"Until the time comes for AMPUTATION?"

"Don’t! Don’t!" and he dropped her hand suddenly.

"Well, I don’t want you to have any illusions about me, Chris. I have none about you. Let us begin fair anyway. It will be so much easier when the end comes."

"There will be no end," he said passionately. "I love you—love you with every breath of my body, every thought in my mind, every throb of my nerves. I love you!" He kissed her hand repeatedly. "I love you!" He took her in his arms and pressed her to him.

She struggled with him without any anger, or disgust, or fear. As she put him away from her she just said simply:

"Please don’t. It’s so hot this morning."

As she turned away from him she was struck dumb. Sitting beside the table in the middle of the room, her back turned to them, was the strangest, oddest little figure Ethel had ever seen.

Who was she? How long had she been in the room?

Ethel turned to Brent. He was quite pale now and was nervously stroking his slight moustache.

Ethel was furious! It was incredible that Brent could have been so indiscreet!

How on earth did that creature get there without their hearing or seeing her?

Ethel went straight to the demure little figure sitting on the chair.

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Chicago: J. Hartley Manners, "Chapter II. Christian Brent," Peg O’my Heart, ed. Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915 and trans. Evans, Sebastian in Peg O’my Heart Original Sources, accessed September 26, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DK2SAUIDFBU45ZJ.

MLA: Manners, J. Hartley. "Chapter II. Christian Brent." Peg O’my Heart, edited by Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915, and translated by Evans, Sebastian, in Peg O’my Heart, Original Sources. 26 Sep. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DK2SAUIDFBU45ZJ.

Harvard: Manners, JH, 'Chapter II. Christian Brent' in Peg O’my Heart, ed. and trans. . cited in , Peg O’my Heart. Original Sources, retrieved 26 September 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DK2SAUIDFBU45ZJ.