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Margaret sat very still. When I looked at her again, her face was very white, and her distressed eyes scrutinised me. Her lips quivered as she spoke. “You really mean—THAT?” she said.
“I never dreamt.”
“I never meant you to dream.”
“And that is why—we've been apart?”
I thought. “I suppose it is.”
“Why have you told me now?”
“Those rumours. I didn't want any one else to tell you.”
“Or else it wouldn't have mattered?”
She turned her eyes from me to the fire. Then for a moment she looked about the room she had made for me, and then quite silently, with a childish quivering of her lips, with a sort of dismayed distress upon her face, she was weeping. She sat weeping in her dress of cloth of gold, with her bare slender arms dropped limp over the arms of her chair, and her eyes averted from me, making no effort to stay or staunch her tears. “I am sorry, Margaret,” I said. “I was in love.... I did not understand....”
Presently she asked: “What are you going to do?”
“You see, Margaret, now it's come to be your affair—I want to know what you—what you want.”
“You want to leave me?”
“If you want me to, I must.”
“Leave Parliament—leave all the things you are doing,—all this fine movement of yours?”
“No.” I spoke sullenly. “I don't want to leave anything. I want to stay on. I've told you, because I think we—Isabel and I, I mean—have got to drive through a storm of scandal anyhow. I don't know how far things may go, how much people may feel, and I can't, I can't have you unconscious, unarmed, open to any revelation—”
She made no answer.
“When the thing began—I knew it was stupid but I thought it was a thing that wouldn't change, wouldn't be anything but itself, wouldn't unfold—consequences.... People have got hold of these vague rumours.... Directly it reached any one else but—but us two—I saw it had to come to you.”
I stopped. I had that distressful feeling I have always had with Margaret, of not being altogether sure she heard, of being doubtful if she understood. I perceived that once again I had struck at her and shattered a thousand unsubstantial pinnacles. And I couldn't get at her, to help her, or touch her mind! I stood up, and at my movement she moved. She produced a dainty little handkerchief, and made an effort to wipe her face with it, and held it to her eyes. “Oh, my Husband!” she sobbed.
“What do you mean to do?” she said, with her voice muffled by her handkerchief.
“We're going to end it,” I said.
Something gripped me tormentingly as I said that. I drew a chair beside her and sat down. “You and I, Margaret, have been partners,” I began. “We've built up this life of ours together; I couldn't have done it without you. We've made a position, created a work—”
She shook her head. “You,” she said.
“You helping. I don't want to shatter it—if you don't want it shattered. I can't leave my work. I can't leave you. I want you to have—all that you have ever had. I've never meant to rob you. I've made an immense and tragic blunder. You don't know how things took us, how different they seemed! My character and accident have conspired—We'll pay—in ourselves, not in our public service.”
I halted again. Margaret remained very still.
“I want you to understand that the thing is at an end. It is definitely at an end. We—we talked—yesterday. We mean to end it altogether.” I clenched my hands. “She's—she's going to marry Arnold Shoesmith.”
I wasn't looking now at Margaret any more, but I heard the rustle of her movement as she turned on me.
“It's all right,” I said, clinging to my explanation. “We're doing nothing shabby. He knows. He will. It's all as right—as things can be now. We're not cheating any one, Margaret. We're doing things straight—now. Of course, you know.... We shall—we shall have to make sacrifices. Give things up pretty completely. Very completely.... We shall have not to see each other for a time, you know. Perhaps not a long time. Two or three years. Or write—or just any of that sort of thing ever—”
Some subconscious barrier gave way in me. I found myself crying uncontrollably—as I have never cried since I was a little child. I was amazed and horrified at myself. And wonderfully, Margaret was on her knees beside me, with her arms about me, mingling her weeping with mine. “Oh, my Husband!” she cried, “my poor Husband! Does it hurt you so? I would do anything! Oh, the fool I am! Dear, I love you. I love you over and away and above all these jealous little things!”
She drew down my head to her as a mother might draw down the head of a son. She caressed me, weeping bitterly with me. “Oh! my dear,” she sobbed, “my dear! I've never seen you cry! I've never seen you cry. Ever! I didn't know you could. Oh! my dear! Can't you have her, my dear, if you want her? I can't bear it! Let me help you, dear. Oh! my Husband! My Man! I can't bear to have you cry!” For a time she held me in silence.
“I've thought this might happen, I dreamt it might happen. You two, I mean. It was dreaming put it into my head. When I've seen you together, so glad with each other.... Oh! Husband mine, believe me! believe me! I'm stupid, I'm cold, I'm only beginning to realise how stupid and cold, but all I want in all the world is to give my life to you.”...
“We can't part in a room,” said Isabel.
“We'll have one last talk together,” I said, and planned that we should meet for a half a day between Dover and Walmer and talk ourselves out. I still recall that day very well, recall even the curious exaltation of grief that made our mental atmosphere distinctive and memorable. We had seen so much of one another, had become so intimate, that we talked of parting even as we parted with a sense of incredible remoteness. We went together up over the cliffs, and to a place where they fall towards the sea, past the white, quaint-lanterned lighthouses of the South Foreland. There, in a kind of niche below the crest, we sat talking. It was a spacious day, serenely blue and warm, and on the wrinkled water remotely below a black tender and six hooded submarines came presently, and engaged in mysterious manoeuvers. Shrieking gulls and chattering jackdaws circled over us and below us, and dived and swooped; and a skerry of weedy, fallen chalk appeared, and gradually disappeared again, as the tide fell and rose.