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SHE remembered that her too pretty name was supposed to have come from a cookery book—an old, aristocratic cookery book filled with recipes for luxurious sweets to be made by the idle hands of great ladies. "Fleur ange" had been a queen of delicacies—frothed cream, fragrant fruit, jewel-like jelly and a garnish of fresh flower buds. It had been an exquisite amusing name for a delicious baby, a charming name for a gay and lovely girl; it was not, the owner of it thought, quite such an appropriate name for a young woman, in a faded apron, making a suet pudding, the background being a homely kitchen.
The suet pudding represented the facts of life, the solid stratum to which whipped cream is only the merest decoration. Fleur Ange had married a poor man and was living as a poor man's wife; it was an experiment of which she had often read, and always as gilded by a beautiful sentiment that concealed all sordidness.
And Fleur Ange had begun with the most genuine and beautiful sentiment; there had not been much in her pleasant little life, but all there had been she had sacrificed, and so gladly with such an exultation of self-abnegation.
She had even, in her love for Quentin Fairfax, done a very fantastic thing, something that people had rather laughed at. She possessed in her own right a little fortune that had come from her mother; it amounted to an income of nearly two thousand a year, and Fleur Ange, at her lover's stern insistence, had left this money untouched; he had refused to marry her on any other terms.
"I can't make good struggling against your income," he had said. "I've got to feel the burden is on me. We shan't be paupers. I make five hundred a year; it will be a good life. Put your money by in case I fail you, but don't use it while I live and can work."
And Fleur Ange had promised. Only twice since had the money been mentioned between them. Once, when the first child was born, he had said: "You can tie your money up for him, Fleur Ange."
And again, some time after the second child was born, She had said: "Why not take some of my money and buy a business of your own?"
But he had declined almost curtly. "I don't want a business of my own. I'm learning more the other way."
For the first time Fleur Ange had thought him unreasonable. He was an engineer in a big firm of motor makers, and now earning seven hundred a year; but it wasn't enough—Fleur Ange had to live rigidly. "It will be a good life," he had said, but now she questioned that.
There had been six years of it. Absurd as it seemed, she was thirty. Her people, her friends, were good-humoured and kind, but she knew their opinion of her, and this knowledge began to sting as it had never stung at first.
In their early days Quentin, with shy enthusiasm, had talked of a possible invention of his which would bring fame and money; but now it was a long time since he had mentioned it—failure, no doubt, lay behind the silence.
It was not very likely, thought Fleur Ange as she rolled her pudding in the scalded, floured cloth, that Quentin would ever earn much more than he earned now. No doubt he was, as she had heard other men call him, "one of the lucky ones," but seven hundred a year, minus income tax and life insurance, was a very meagre allowance to a girl educated among riches.
Fleur Ange had to cook, sew, nurse, dust, mend, worst of all, "contrive." She had easily learnt to do all these things quite well, but she was becoming tired—ah, tired!
The small flat in the quiet dull suburb, the third-rate streets, the cheap shops, the lonely walks with the children on the common, broken only by visits, more and more rare, from people who were slowly "dropping" her, the short perfunctory holiday in the most crowded, banal season each year, all these things began to pall. It seemed foolish to endure them when she had the means to alter everything to her hand.
And, deepest grievance of all, Quentin did not seem to appreciate her sacrifice. He was himself from a home of stern though decent poverty, the arid grind of a clergyman's family's existence in a small town, and he honestly thought he was earning a lot of money, and that they were living quite comfortably. Fleur Ange had a woman for the hardest work, and it seemed to her husband only natural that she should occupy herself with the other duties.
Fleur Ange looked round the tidy kitchen; it was the glance of a captive seeking vainly some outlet for escape.
A lazy September sunshine fell through the high windows; there was languor and tedium in the air. The common on which the block of flats looked was burnt bistre colour by an arid summer; a few rusty crackling leaves were all that remained on the sparse trees; the pale blue sky was veiled by a dust-coloured haze.
Fleur Ange frowned as she slowly washed her hands at the stone sink. She hungered for either the gay pulse of the city or the calm fragrance of the country; this No Man's Land of straggling streets and worn fields was hateful.
There was nothing more to do; she would leave Mrs. Green in charge now, and take the children for a walk. No, she couldn't take John for a walk—he had a cold and was languid. She didn't believe that John was strong; for all her care, she had not been able to make him a really healthy child. Resentment against Quentin smouldered hotly in her heart, and side by side with this resentment was a queer sense of a way of escape.
That afternoon she went down to the public telephone and asked the doctor to come. "I don't think John is strong," she said dully, when he arrived.
But he answered: "Nonsense!"
Fleur Ange looked at the two beautiful children in the shabby little nursery. How odious to see such broken toys, such worn clothes, such battered furniture!
"Don't you think, doctor," she asked wistfully, "that John would be the better for a change of air?"
But he answered her that both were in splendid condition. "The air round here is excellent, you know, Mrs. Fairfax."
"But what do these local men know?" thought Fleur Ange restlessly.
She took Polly for a walk that afternoon, leaving John with Mrs. Green. Never had the common seemed so dreary, the sprawling bushes and scant trailing brambles, dulled with soot, more of a graceless parody of the country, the passers-by, with their baskets and prams, more commonplace, never the encroaching masses of masonry, the shoddy "villas" and cramped "flats," so blank and dismal. How detestable was Polly's turned serge, her own "ready-made" costume! And she had it in her power to change everything.
But was it still in her power? After six years of subjection to Quentin, happy subjection, but still subjection, she doubted if she still possessed a volition of her own; she wondered if any emergency could ever arrive in which she would have the necessary courage to break her promise and touch her own money. And this realisation of her own helplessness increased her furtive anger against her husband.
He came home that evening in a state of unusual complacency, and accepted her rather exaggerated remarks about little John with slightly more than ordinary masculine indifference.
This was quite sufficient to inflame the secret smouldering discontent and irritation of Fleur Ange. For months that bugbear of the happy wife, "he is taking me for granted," had been tormenting her, and now the horrid sentence seemed underscored.
As she watched him seated peacefully in his old armchair with his old pipe, while she cleared away their meal, her desire to rouse him amounted to a feeling of cruelty.
"Little John isn't at all well," she said. "I don't think he is very strong."
Quentin glanced at her in an ingenuous alarm that further exasperated Fleur Ange. "Did Doctor Pollock say so?" he asked.
"Oh, Doctor Pollock—he knows nothing! John isn't well. I should like a good opinion. I am sure he wants a long change."
"But he has only got a cold," replied the man, bewildered.
Fleur Ange persisted in her point of view. "You don't observe him as I do. We all want a change; we never go away except for that one fortnight. I don't like John's cough. I should like to take him to Town to see a really first-class man."
"I'll see what Pollock has to say," frowned Quentin.
Fleur Ange smiled sweetly. "Oh, you won't take my word for it, I suppose?"
"Well, I've noticed nothing wrong with the little chap myself, and I don't want to waste money."
She caught at the last word, the word that had been uppermost in her mind for so long now. "It is a pity that it should have to be a question of money, Quentin."
"I know. But I like to put by what I can—there's schooling to think of. I hope things will be all right with me by then, but it's best to be prudent."
Fleur Ange glanced, half in compunction, half in vexation, at his kind blond face, which lately had looked a little tired, a little fine-drawn. How much they were denying themselves for a chimerical whim of pride and honour!
"There is my money," she said timidly.
"I thought we had agreed not to talk of that," he replied, instantly alert.
"I know. But in an emergency—"
"This isn't an emergency. We are quite comfortable. I can pull my own weight. I shall do better soon. You don't want your money till I'm dead."
"John isn't well," she persisted. "After all, they are brought up pretty roughly—"
He caught her up; there was a flush in his weary face. "Roughly? It's luxury compared to the way I was brought up. What do you want for them that I can't give you?"
"I might think of the way I was brought up," she retorted with a pale smile, conscious of the unfairness of the reply, but unable, in her jaded mood, to resist the taunt.
"What is the matter with you, Fleur Ange?" asked her husband sharply.
She was ashamed of herself; she could not but recall her desperate protestations, her passionate vows, her ardent pleadings when she had forced—yes, forced—on him her sacrifices, which he had almost refused to accept.
"I love you, but I'd rather let you go than have you throw your unhappiness in my face some day. And I won't live on your money," he had said.
Now she remembered that, and forced herself to say, though it was sullenly: "I'm worried about little John."
Without a word he rose and left her; she could hear his heavy but hushed footsteps in the children's room, then the shutting of the flat door.
A throb of compassion shook Fleur Ange. He had been so tired, and at the same time no happy in his quiet way. How happy they had both been in this mean room!
When he returned she was prepared to conquer her secret discontents, but he was again in his complacent mood. "I've talked to Pollock on the telephone; he says the children are simply splendid. If you are nervy about them, he thinks you ought to get away a bit yourself."
"I'm not a nervous woman," retorted Fleur Ange, the horrid sting of the truth lashing her. "How strange that you should listen to what Doctor Pollock says of me!"
Quentin picked up the evening paper. "Well, there is no need to worry about John."
"I dare say the doctor told him I am hysterical," thought Fleur Ange bitterly. Aloud she said: "I don't agree. I intend to have other advice."
"Whose?" He scented challenge and put down the paper.
"The best I can get. I'll take them both up to Town. I'll give them a long holiday, and—lots of things they need."
"You are trying to provoke me," he answered coldly. "You know I can't afford any of this."
He rose at that and faced her. "Are you sick of it?" he asked sternly. "If you want to quit, say so, and don't try to sneak away under cover of maternal affection."
This was an outrage, the more so as it came so near the odious truth. Shown herself in these harsh words, Fleur Ange blenched into a fervent anger.
She made no reply, allowing him, with feminine guile, to believe her conquered, and the next morning her demeanour gave no hint of the blow she contemplated dealing him. When he had gone, conscious of her displeasure, but ignorant of the deadly depth of it, or from what long silent rebellion it sprang, she hastily dressed the children, packed a few of their things and her own in a handbag, and left the flat.
Once out of sight of possible prying neighbours, she hurried the excited children into a taxicab and gave the address of her lawyer in Lincoln's Inn Fields.
It was a long time since Fleur Ange had been in a taxicab; the sight of the shillings ticking up on the meter gave her both a thrill and a shudder. She had hardly enough to pay the fare in her purse, but when she came out of the dingy, stately office she had rather more money than Quentin had given her in the last year. If the remembrance of an ironic smile under the lawyer's gravity rankled, she was exalted with a daring excitement, and clasped the two shabby children in a passion of tenderness.
"I won't spend it on anything but them. Quentin can't really mind that."
For already she was unnerved by thought of the forsaken husband and rather frightened by the magnitude and the loneliness of her adventure.
The possession of a large sum of money was bewildering, disconcerting; it seemed like stolen money. It was the price of Quentin's pride, Quentin's honour, Quentin's manhood, that she had in her modest handbag; but she had to act, and soon the habits of a lifetime asserted themselves over the habits of six years.
She knew how to spend money, how to get what she wanted from the resources of a big town. By lunch time she was installed in a delightful little hotel well known to her own youth, and an appointment arranged for little John with a very big man indeed. An exclusive agency had provided a temporary nurse who was a model of pleasant efficiency, and a West End shop had sent round a selection of delicious clothes. Fleur Ange was known to all these places, and the smiling readiness with which she was recognised seemed to strip away six years from her life.
She could not resist some clothes for herself, she could not resist telephoning to some old friends.
"I'm just up in Town for a few days, shopping. Taking little John to see the doctor. Oh, nothing the matter—a mere precaution..." and so on.
Her long telegram to Quentin was couched in the same terms; it was "only for a few days" that she had left him, a justification of her liberty of thought and action, a vindication, though this she did not say, of her right to use her own money, a complete violation of the letter and spirit of her promise, though this she did not say either, poor Fleur Ange.
With an air of candour she gave the address of the hotel; her secret hope was that he would follow her—at once.
But he did not come that night, not was there any answer to her message. In the morning there was nothing from the shabby little flat. Fleur Ange turned slightly sick at heart, but defiance was still strong in her; she would send no appeal, no further concession. He was behaving badly, spitefully, unkindly, she thought, and into the background of her mind she thrust her broken promise.
Yet when the great doctor told her that there was nothing whatever the matter with little John, and she did not even feel a pang of relief—because she had really been so sure the boy was all right—she was conscious of a stab of utter shame.
Quentin's harsh words had struck straightly through to the truth—she had used the excuse of maternal solicitude to break a bargain that had become hateful to her. But Fleur Ange held her delicate head high; she was braced by the spurious sense of power given by the possession of money, and by a sense of injustice roused by Quentin's complacent acceptance of her long sacrifice, for in her present mood she thought of her six years of married life as a sacrifice.
It was, after all, very easy to slip back into the old groove, to have what she wanted without pausing to count the cost, to move among quiet, pleasant people who were not anxious about pence. To be free of the noise and smells of the cheap flats and the bleak desolation of the starved common was in itself a delight, and it was from a firm entrenchment of rebellion that Fleur Ange received a grim and cold Quentin that afternoon when he arrived in the gay little hotel drawing-room.
"You will be glad to hear that John is all right," she greeted him formally.
She looked very pretty and enchanting in her new finery—prettier and younger than she had looked for a long time in the drab flat, while Quentin seemed dusty and shabby in these elegant, frivolous surroundings.
To him it was as if she had deliberately raised between them the barriers that he, on their marriage, had so resolutely destroyed.
"I knew that there was nothing the matter with the child," he retorted harshly, "and so did you."
"Well," said Fleur Ange steadily, "perhaps there was something the matter with me. Perhaps I felt I had to get away. I suppose you had never thought of that, Quentin?"
"Why should I think of that? It was the life that you deliberately chose."
His direct honesty and the simple truth of his words galled her pride; she could not tell him that she wanted praise and gratitude for what he considered her obvious duty.
She laughed nervously. "It is rather hopeless going into that, isn't it? I thought you very unreasonable yesterday. I could see no good reason for not—doing as I liked."
"Breaking your promise, you mean? This breakaway of yours has cost a good deal; you mean to pay for it with your own money, no doubt."
Fleur Ange fluttered her eyelids; she winced, but she was still defiant. "The money is mine. Anyone would say that I was crazy to go without things while it was there."
"So you're a quitter," he said curtly.
"Is that what you've got to say to me after six years of sacrifice?"
She had not really meant to use that word, but it had been much in her mind, and somehow it had leapt out. He fastened on it angrily.
"So you've been thinking it a sacrifice all the time. The best I could do for you was never good enough, and all the time you were hankering after the money I thought you had forgotten!" He half turned from her, and added sadly: "You might have waited a bit longer."
Fleur Ange, torn between vexation and remorse, and with tears shaking in her voice, answered desperately: "You need not make so much of it. I am ready to come home."
"Home!" he repeated sternly. "It never was home to you—that poor place. This was what you wanted, all this ease and comforts and gewgaws, all the things that six years ago you swore to me you despised and hated!"
"That isn't true," protested Fleur Ange.
"Your actions have proved it true," he said. "You've flung back everything in my face, made a mock of me. I was warned," he added grimly, "what would happen if I married one of your set."
That further exasperated Fleur Ange. "You need not trouble about me any more," she said foolishly. "I'll leave you quite free."
"I mean you shall. You've gone after the money; now you can keep it—do what you like with it, give yourself and the children a good time. I've got my work."
It seemed to Fleur Ange rather incredible that he should talk to her like this. A woman is slow to believe that a man who has loved her can ever be brought to deal harshly with her. Whatever provocation she gives, to her the wrong seems all on his side.
And Fleur Ange looked back on much that she considered Quentin should have remembered—sweetness and sorrow shared, the patience with which she had learnt unfamiliar and distasteful tasks, the courage with which she had "borne" it until this fatal break. She could scarcely realise that he could not see anything to "bear," and she thought of other wives and what they exacted, and what faults were forgiven them, and revolted against Quentin's rigid ideals and stern code. Yet for these things she had loved him.
"Yes, you have your work," she replied, turning to the window. "And if you don't want me back—"
"No," he interrupted, "no more sacrifices."
"Very well." Fleur Ange kept her quivering face away from him. "I won't thrust them on you. I'll take the children away for a holiday."
"For as long as you please. Now you've asserted your independence I shall make no effort to control you, of course. You will do as you please with your money. Of course, also, when the children are older they'll have to be brought up on my level."
Fleur Ange foresaw devastating disputes anent the children. "Please don't let us quarrel about that," she said nervously.
"Not now. I don't wish to deprive them of the advantages of your money."
It still seemed incredible to Fleur Ange that he should not by a look or gesture or word show some tenderness, some appreciation, some regret for the past, but there was no trace of any emotion save disgust and anger in his tired face.
He picked up his poor shabby hat from one of the silky gilt chairs, and a pang of unutterable remorse shook Fleur Ange as she recalled his careful penury in regard to himself.
"Oh, Quentin, don't go away unkindly!" she said, and turned to him, ready to surrender at a word.
But he would not speak this word; he made a slight movement that seemed to put her away from him.
"Oh, unkindly," he said, and smiled a little, then added brusquely: "Well, good-bye. Let me know where you are."
He took up his hat and was really gone.
Fleur Ange felt the sting of harsh reality through her tender incredulity. Of her gesture of rebellion he had made a gesture of farewell; he had really gone.
Fleur Ange had to encourage herself by looking at herself in the oval gilt mirror over the frivolous console, in assuring herself of her admired prettiness and the charm that had once before made Quentin forego his principles—his stern resolve not to marry till he was a successful man, and not to marry a woman with money.
She could not but think how bitterly now he must be regretting his weakness in yielding to her promises, for had she not ended by betraying him?
But Fleur Ange held her head high and trusted to time. With outward calm she took her children away to the sea. Their delight in the modest luxury of their surroundings was some solace to her inward pain, but the little boy inquired with too insistent a wistfulness after his father for Fleur Ange's perfect comfort.
She wrote to Quentin, and Quentin did not reply. Strengthened in her pride by this, which she regarded as a slap in the face of supplication not to be forgiven—for her letter had been meek—Fleur Ange did not write again.
And so the long weeks—long they seemed, more dreary than the weeks in the little flat overlooking the parched common—slipped by at last, and autumn was over, and it was too cold by the sea.
Back to Town came Fleur Ange, still living in hotels, still with the efficient nurse, still with nothing to do but spend money and amuse herself.
By now she had bought everything she had longed for during those six years, she had looked up all her old friends and acquaintances, and was firmly established once more in the life that she had lately looked back at with such passionate regret. The breach between Quentin and herself she carefully covered up; it was astonishing how easily people accepted her excuse of "change for the children," and "Quentin working so hard; he is almost always at the works."
And still he did not write.
And still Fleur Ange could not bring herself to write again. But one day, unable to resist an overwhelming impulse of yearning, she took the once-so-familiar omnibus and went out to the distant suburb and the barren common, now grey under a winter sky.
It took all the courage of Fleur Ange to skirt the half-made road and look back up at the block of flats. And there across the windows from which she and Quentin for six years, and the babies for all their lives, had looked out, were placards with the words To Let.
Fleur Ange had hardly realised that life held such a bitter moment as this was. The full extent of her loss was borne in upon her with devastating force.
She turned and hurried blindly away. As soon as she reached the hotel, she was at the telephone talking to Quentin's beloved "works," inquiring for Mr. Fairfax.
She was at once informed that Mr. Fairfax had left some weeks ago; his address was not known.
This to Fleur Ange was the very worst. As a flash of lightning will illuminate a sudden picture of desolation, she saw what had happened in the light of this news.
Quentin, forsaken, wounded, had lost interest in his work and been dismissed. She ought to have known—indeed, she had known—that he was a man who existed through his affections and responsibilities. She had simply pulled the whole fabric of his life from under him, and he had gone down.
Her pitiful remorse knew no bounds. By the desperate expedient of revealing her identity and something of her story, she wrung Quentin's address out of a companion of his at the "works." It was that of a cottage in a Sussex village.
Fleur Ange did not write—she felt that matters had gone beyond the written word—but with bitter haste she made her plans. Every scrap of anything that she had bought with her own money she packed up and sent to a hospital; the efficient nurse was returned to the exclusive registry office, and Fleur Ange, in the dingy clothes in which she had made her escape, with the children in their original shabby coats, went again to the lawyers' offices in Lincoln's Inn Fields.
When she left she had put in train a ferocious document whereby she tied up all her money for the children when they were twenty-one, and made it impossible for her to touch either interest or capital meanwhile.
She had left herself just enough money for the fare down to the little Sussex village, and she kept saying to herself:
"He will be bound to take us in if we have nowhere else to go—he will have to—"
And she was furiously calculating, during the journey, on how little they could live. It would have to be on those piteous "savings" of Quentin till he got more work. How she would have to put heart and soul into inspiring him to get that work!
Her heart contracted at the thought of his dismissal. What a terrible effect her desertion must have had on him, for Quentin, the laborious, the eager, the excellent, the highly valued, to be dismissed! The shame and misery of this were hers; she felt that a lifetime of abnegation would not assuage her remorse.
It was like one of those vague but deadly important journeys we all take in dreams to Fleur Ange—this drive through the little village in the cold afternoon, the arrival at the lonely cottage where "Mr. Fairfax" lived, the waiting in the wintry garden, with the children either side of her, while her knock echoed through the tiny house.
It was Quentin who opened the door, Quentin, after all these weeks of absence, looking real and solid and breaking through the dreamy fears, the vague imaginings that beset her.
Fleur Ange could not speak, but the children prevented any awkwardness, any constraint. They were shouting and clinging to their father in the mean but bright passage, and Quentin could not, did not, try to resist them.
Seeing his smiles, it was easy for Fleur Ange to at last falter: "Won't you ask me inside?"
"Have you come back to stay," he asked over the heads of the children, "or is this just a visit, Fleur Ange?"
"I'll stay as long as you'll have me," she replied eagerly, crossing his threshold with exultant joy. "As soon as I heard you'd left the works I wanted to come and help. Quentin, you have no idea how little I can manage on."
"What have you done with your money?" he demanded, but gently.
"That is tied up for the children. I shan't be able to touch it again. But I shan't want to; I've had my lesson."
He looked at her curiously. "Why do you think I left the works?"
"Oh, poor Quentin, it was my fault, but I've come to make up," she faltered. "You'll find another, a better job—"
He stooped now and gathered her into one embrace with the children.
"I don't need another job, Fleur Ange," he said. "My invention came off at last, and I'm wealthy enough to buy you all the pretty things you want. I just came here to think it all over."
Fleur Ange sobbed on his shoulder: "Oh, I'm glad I didn't know, or I should never have had the courage to come back!"
"Well," said Quentin tenderly, "I think I should have had the courage to fetch you back, Fleur Ange."
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