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HOME > Short Stories > Ten Degrees Backward > CHAPTER XVII DESOLATION
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I cannot remember what happened immediately after Fay\'s letter shattered my life at one blow. I only know that Annabel found me lying unconscious on the dining-room floor when she came down to breakfast, and that I then had a severe attack of brain-fever, which very nearly proved fatal. But Annabel and Arthur and Ponty were all very good to me, and—with the aid of two trained nurses—brought me back, sorely against my will, into that spoiled life which I had hoped I had done with for ever.

As usual, I was foredoomed to failure. I could not even die when I wanted to. In the words of the unhappy Napoleonic Prince, called familiarly "Prince Plon-Plon," I acknowledged my crowning defeat: "I could succeed in nothing—not even in dying."

Fay\'s desertion had wounded me past healing. It was a catastrophe so unlooked for, so appalling, that words were useless either to describe or to believe it. The worst had happened. I had been weighed in her balance, been found wanting, and cast aside as worthless: therefore there would be nothing worth living for ever any more.

Yet I had to live. That was the crowning wretchedness. If I could only have hidden my misery in the grave and have done with it—I, who was a mere cumberer of the ground, and worse than a cumberer! But I could not. My hateful existence still dragged on. Even the fig-tree which bore no fruit was commanded by Divine Mercy to wither away: but I was not granted even this much grace: I was cursed to live on, with Fay\'s Tekel branded on my brow. It was part of my punishment. Like Cain, I learned that there is a heavier penalty than death: and that is life. And, like him, I sometimes felt that my punishment was greater than I could bear.

As my body grew stronger my spirit was gradually roused from despondency to defiance. What had I done that such an unspeakable retribution should be meted out to me? I began to feel that my punishment was not only greater than I could bear, but greater than I deserved. True, I had been weak and tactless and over-indulgent: but was that enough to merit a life-sentence? For the first time in my life I ceased to submit, but stood up like Job and challenged the Lord to answer me out of the whirlwind, even though before Him I was as dust and ashes. But I was not as dust and ashes before Fay and Frank; yet they had treated me as if I were: and my heart was hot within me as I mused upon their behaviour towards me.

At first I had been utterly crushed and prostrate: but as I regained my health I became angry and bitter. All that had formerly been sweet in my nature turned to gall, and I longed to curse God and die.

The hidden spirit of rebellion which I had unconsciously cherished for forty-three years, and which I had originally inherited from my mother, suddenly sprang into life, thereby changing my whole nature. I was no longer the weak and amiable dilettante concealing a real tenderness of heart under an assumed cloak of good-humoured cynicism: I was a fierce and bitter Ishmael, driven out into the wilderness by human treachery, and at war with God and man.

I hated Frank as vehemently as I still loved Fay. But I could forgive neither of them. My anger was hot against them both.

I sternly refused to write to my wife, or to have any direct dealings with her. I instructed Arthur to pay her an allowance of a thousand a year, in addition to her own income, and to tell her from me that I accepted her decision, and intended to abide by it.

"I will offer her the thousand per annum as you wish it, old boy," said Blathwayte, "although I know her aunt and uncle have heaps of money and nobody to give it to but Fay and Frank: but I am certain that in the circumstances Fay will refuse it."

I laughed bitterly: "Probably; but Frank and \'Aunt Gertrude\' won\'t, if I know anything about them: and Fay will be over-persuaded by them."

And, as further events proved, I was right.

I am not justifying my conduct and feelings at this ghastly time: I am only recording them, extenuating nothing and setting down naught in malice. I had done once for all with what Fay called "flapdoodle"—that bane of the generation to which Annabel and I belonged. Thenceforth I made up my mind to be what I was, and not what an artificially trained conscience thought that I ought to be.

The characters of the nineteenth century were rather like the gardens of the eighteenth. Their lines were formal, their trees cut into unnatural shapes, and their fruit carefully trained over stiff espaliers. But Fay and Frank taught me to deal with my character, as Annabel had already learned to deal with her garden: I swept away the formal beds, flung the iron espaliers over the wall, and let the trees grow according to their own will. That the result, as far as I was concerned, was not ornamental, I admit: and if the former garden of my soul had been transformed into a waste and horrible place where only thorns and thistles and deadly nightshade grew, surely the responsibility rested with my wife and her brother rather than with me! At least so it appeared to me then.

In time I learned from Blathwayte that Fay and Frank had arrived safely in Melbourne, and were settled in the house of the Sherards, who were only too delighted to have their niece and nephew with them once more: and that my wife and her brother were beginning at once to take up the stage as their profession, Fay acting under her maiden name.

Although Annabel did not say "I told you so" in so many words, the sentiment exuded from her every pore. And, truth to tell, she had told me so. There was no getting away from that fact.

She and Arthur were kind enough to me in their respective ways, but I had no longer any use for kindness. There was nothing now that anybody could do to relieve the utter blankness of my misery.

Though I was bitterly angry with Fay—though I found it impossible to excuse or condone her cruel behaviour towards me, her husband—I nevertheless loved and longed for her with consuming and increasing force. "Let no man dream but that I loved her still": therein lay the bitterest sting of my agony. The more I loved her the more impossible I found it to forgive her: had I cared for her less, I might have been less implacable. That may not be a symptom of ideal love, but anyway it was a symptom of mine.

But if I found it impossible to forgive Fay, I found it still further out of my power to forgive Frank. That Annabel had had her finger in the pie I could not deny: she was by no means free from blame with regard to what had happened: but the chief instigator of the tragedy was Frank; of that I had no manner of doubt whatever. Without his baneful influence Fay would never have dreamed of running away from me: without his practical assistance, she never could have accomplished it.

I sometimes wondered whether Annabel reproached herself too severely for having, by her well-meant interference, made such havoc of my life: had I spoiled hers, as she had spoiled mine, I felt I should have eaten my heart out with unavailing remorse. But one day this doubt was set for ever at rest by her saying to me—

"Do you know, Reggie dear, I am sometimes inclined to blame myself for not having interfered with Fay more than I did, and for letting her have so much of her own way. After all, she was young, and I knew so much better about everything than she did."

After that remark, anxiety about Annabel\'s conscience no longer troubled me.

She and Arthur were whole-heartedly on my side in this hideous separation between my wife and me. Naturally they did not say much to me in condemnation of Fay: I could neither have permitted nor endured it: but I knew they were feeling it in my presence and expressing it in each other\'s; and they put no curb upon their expressions of indignation against Frank.

My old nurse, however, thought differently. To my surprise—though by this time I ought not to have been surprised at any vagary of Ponty\'s—the person she blamed in the whole affair was myself: and, what is more, she did not hesitate to say so. I felt that she was unjust—cruelly unjust—and all the more so that she had been so indulgent to me all through my childhood: but what I thought of her had no effect upon Ponty, any more than it had when I was a little boy.

"You\'ve yourself to thank for the whole terrible business, Master Reggie," she said to me after my restoration to what my friends and doctors described as "health." She was far too good a nurse to utter unwelcome words into ears that she did not consider strong enough to receive them. To the needs of a sick soul neither she, nor anybody else, paid any heed. "I knew there\'d be trouble as soon as you began that \'Oranges and Lemons\' nonsense of having Miss Annabel and Mr. Frank to live with you; and I said so, but you would have your own way, you having a spice of obstinacy in your character as well as Miss Annabel. You weren\'t your poor Papa\'s son for nothing."

"I don\'t call doing what you think will make other people happy exactly obstinacy, Ponty," I pleaded.

"Call it what you like, Master Reggie, but that\'s what it is. Folks always find pretty pet names for their own particular faults. There was a man at Poppenhall who prided himself upon what he called his firmness, and impulsiveness, and economy: those were the pet names he used: and yet all the village knew that he was nothing but an obstinate, ill-tempered old miser."

"But I thought I was doing right," I said. It was strange that Ponty was the only person against whom I had no feeling of bitterness, and in whose presence I felt less wretched than anywhere e............
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