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ELSA

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THERE was a rosy hue all over the dinner-table, as two men
sat patiently waiting ; it cast its glow over the host’s ruddy
features, and made his fair hair, and good-natured smile,
more noticeable by its warmth.

If his good-nature, and his perpetual smile, were some-
times a little monotonous, his wife (still in her dressing-room
upstairs) never showed that she thought so. But the red glow from the
curtained electric light had no power to change the pallor, or the look of ill-
health, on the other man’s face ; he was freshly recovered from a long illness,
and there were caverns in his cheeks, and black hollows under his dark eyes.

“Elsa is late,” said Mr. Lander, “we won’t wait. Bring the soup, Williams.”

As the manservant obeyed, the guest looked down at his own thin long
fingers.

“I feel like a ghost,” he remarked.

” Glad to have you here again, my boy. I know you won’t mind, though,
if I run round to the club for half an hour after dinner.” Mr. Lander laughed
lightly. “Poker again, Leslie. I didn’t know you were likely to drop in, or
I shouldn’t have promised to go. Elsa will look after you.”

His guest glanced up.

“But perhaps, Mrs. Lander——”

As he spoke, the door opened, and she came in. There was something
in her manner, which was out of keeping with her face, and her smile was
nervous.

“I am sorry to have kept you waiting,——”

“We didn’t wait,” her husband interrupted, with a giggle.

“I hope you are better, Mr. James. You have had a very hard time
lately.”

He took her hand, which was limp and unresponsive, and dropped it.

“I am all right now,” he answered briskly, “although I am conscious
of looking a fearful wreck.”

64                              THE SAVOY

She glanced at him furtively, as she took her seat ; and drew in her breath,
so that her small full lips curled inwards for a second. Her hand, which was
perfectly shaped, and laden with diamonds, touched the orchids in a vase
near.

“Are you thinking of going away ?” she asked.

“To recruit ? Oh, no ! I am too glad to begin the old life again, to wish
to run away.”

She lifted her eyes, till they fell on his thin fingers, and she said
softly,—

“You look as if a change of air would do you good,” and as suddenly
veered round in argument, and added, “But unless your doctor thinks it
needful, I should remain in town.”

“Doctors always think it needful.”

Mr. Lander laughed. “Awful rot, isn’t it ? What’s the matter, Elsa ?”

“My soup is cold.”

“Your own fault. You were so beastly late.”

She looked straight at him, with a leaden expression in her gray
eyes.

“‘ Beastly,’ is such an ugly word,” she said.

He chuckled, well contented. “Elsa always quarrels with my language,
when she can’t deny my argument. Don’t you, Elsa ?”

She was intent on the gold fringe, on the sleeve of her tea-gown, and did
not reply.

“What have you both been doing,” the other man asked, “during my
lost two months ?”

“Oh, Elsa has been trotting about as usual. She is always very busy
doing nothing. I only see her at dinner-time, and then she is usually tired or
cross.”

The woman smiled. “I am out of favour to-night,” she said gently.

“Nonsense ! Nonsense ! I always speak the truth, you know I always
speak the truth, but you don’t like hearing it. That’s all.”

She sipped her wine. “A generous lie is sometimes refreshing,” she
remarked.

James broke in abruptly.

“I hope you have been well, anyhow, Mrs. Lander.”

“Oh, yes, thank you.”

“And the baby ?”

“The child is quite well.”

                          ELSA                                     65

Her husband leant forward.

“Let’s have him down, Elsa. Send for Mary.”

“Oh, no, Bertie. He’s asleep by this time.”

He shook his head. “I know better, I’ll go and see myself.”

“I don’t want him to come down, Bertie.”

“Why the devil not ?”

“It isn’t good for him to get so excited, just before settling to sleep. Mr.
James can see him another day.”

“The truth is, Elsa, you don’t want to bother with him yourself. But you
will kindly allow me to care for the child, even if you are so beastly
unnatural.”

Their guest grew crimson for the first time, and he moistened his lips,
which were dry and parched.

The woman made no answer, nor did she look round, as her husband
left the room. Her bent head, with its soft auburn curls, was immovable.

The man watched her, with his teeth set.

She spoke, without lifting her eyes.

“It is a long time since we have seen you.”

“Very long.”

“You must have been very dull.”

“I was dull.”

“You heard that Aimée is going to be married.”

“Yes, Bertie told me.”

“I have known the man a long time.”

“Is he a good sort ?”

“He is smart, and well-mannered.”

“That is scant praise from you.”

“I can express no more.”

“Your reserve is wonderful, Mrs. Lander.”

“Reserve ! Why, you can’t complain of that, surely. I know no one so
reserved as yourself,—no one.”

“Not to the people I care for.”

She winced, and he saw it with a kind of stupid wonder.

“Was I rude ?” he asked.

“A little frank.” She clasped her hands tightly together, and added,
nervously hilarious, “Don’t you feel delighted to be well again ? Didn’t
you feel out of the world when you were ill, and in a land of dreams and
phantoms ? I always do.”

66                              THE SAVOY

“Yes.” He spoke brusquely, as her husband entered with the child.

It was four years old, small and dark-eyed ; for the moment it was fretful,
and inclined to be capricious.

“Papa dressed me so badly,” he announced.

Mrs. Lander said nothing. With a fact once accomplished, she rarely
interfered.

“May I have some ‘trawberries ?” he lisped.

“Not so late at night,” his mother answered.

“Papa will give me some.”

“Of course, Dickie. Come over here and sit near papa.”

“He hasn’t spoken to me yet,” James said. “Have you forgotten me,
Dickie ?”

“Yes.”

“Quite ?”

“Tite.”

“But I am Uncle Leslie.”

“You’re not my real uncle, nurse said so. You’re sham, like my silver
watch.”

His father interposed. “But he is papa’s friend, his greatest friend,
Dickie. We were at school and college together, and I am fond of Uncle
Leslie. Can’t you love a sham uncle, you little rogue, as well as a real
one ?”

“Yes. P’rhaps I can. More ‘trawberries.”

“No, that is enough. Would you like a sip of my port for a great treat ?”

Elsa looked across the table, her under lip twitched.

“That will do, Bertie The child can go now.”

The boy did not move.

“Run away, Dickie, and ask nurse to put you to bed.”

“Nonsense, Elsa. He can stay a little longer.”

“Do you want to teach him to disobey me ?” she asked.

“Rubbish !” he giggled. “Look at his stained fingers. Oh, you dirty
little boy !”

Mrs. Lander rose and lifted the child off its chair. It screamed with rage
and kicked violently, striking out with a deliberate attempt to hurt.

The red glow was again reflected in the guest’s face, he half arose from
his seat, and then refrained.

“You had better punish him, Lander,” he said.

“Oh, no. He’s all right. Let him alone, Elsa. Dickie, come and say

                          ELSA                                     67

good-night to papa, and don’t kick your mother. Do you hear ? Come away
from him, Elsa. What a fool you are.”

She had lifted the struggling personification of ill-temper, and held it in a
vice which it could not escape. Her little teeth, which were like pearls, were
clenched ; the burden was somewhat heavy, but she reached the door and
carried it upstairs.

The moonlight streamed in at a staircase window, and lit up the face
which was capable of so much devotion and passion, but was never intended
for the duties of a mother. Her lips quivered, her eyes were dry. Once in
the nursery, she put the child down on its bed and stood near.

“Hush !” she said. “We are tired of hideous screams.”

The nurse looked on, awed and interested.

“Are you going to stop ? Or shall I tell nurse to punish you ?”

The sound ceased.

“Sit up and look at me.”

She was reluctantly obeyed.

“What would you do if nurse kicked your cat ?”

“Kill her.”

“What ought I to do to you then, as you have kicked your mother ?”

The child fidgetted.

“I have no time to waste on you, now, and I expect you will be feeling
rather sick, as you have eaten far too many strawberries ; if you are ill, don’t
send for me. I shall not see you all to-morrow, and little boys who kick can
belong to papa if they like, but they don’t belong to me.”

She turned without another glance at the child, and left the room. On the
way downstairs she stopped to wash her hands.

“He was very sticky,” she thought ; “and he has torn my tea-gown.”

Neither of the men had spoken much since she had left, and when she
entered, both glanced up, with a nervous curiosity as to what she would do.

She took her seat.

“Pass me the claret, Mr. James, and you can both smoke. I think I
should like a cigarette also. There are some in that silver box. Bertie, look
for the matches.”

James leant forward. “Here is a light.”

“Thank you.” Her hand touched his, and he felt it was as cold as ice.

“I have torn my tea-gown, which is tiresome,” she remarked. “But I shall
order another to-morrow, so it doesn’t matter much.”

“Another !” her husband cried.

68                              THE SAVOY

“Why not ?”

“How many more bills ?”

“She smiled. “Your son is extravagant, he spares neither material nor
flesh. I regret that you did not interfere, it would have spared your pocket,
and my wrist.” She held up her hand, and showed where a small boot heel
had bruised and broken the skin.

Her guest lost his head.

“What a shame, Mrs. Lander !” he cried : “that must hurt you, he
really ought to be well punished, the little brute ; if he were a child of
mine——”

“If he were a child of yours,” she answered, “he would never have
wounded me.”

The remark slipped out. Once spoken, the scarlet colour leapt to her
face, his eyes scorched her, and his lifted wineglass rattled against his teeth.
The truth lay stripped of its prudery, bare and naked. Its nudity shocked
them. Mr. Lander unconsciously held it up like a glass, for them to see the
reflection of their souls therein.

“Well, I’m sure Leslie hasn’t much to thank you for,” he muttered.
“You never went near him, after he was on the road to recovery. I begged
you to do so a score of times, but you are so deuced modest and particular.”
He flung down his table-napkin and rose. “I’m off to the club,” he added.
“See you again later, Leslie.”

Neither moved till the hall door closed, then James looked at her.

“Elsa !” he cried.

She faltered, “Yes.”

He rose to shut the door. She turned, as a dog turns at its master’s
voice, and stood upright.

He came back swiftly, and caught her in his arms.

“I love you,” he said.

She nodded, dumb.

He kissed the lips which could not speak.

For a short time, her feeling, and the strangeness of the clinging contact
of his mouth, obliterated all else. She neither thought nor stirred ; her whole
form swayed to his slightest movement, her eyes blind, her senses lost, her
soul throbbing to the tune of his passion. She turned faint, and drew back
slowly.

Then he looked at her, and his look gave her the knowledge of what “had
been.”

                          ELSA                                     69

She clung to him freshly, with a sudden shame, and an idea that he, who
had invoked the feeling, should aid her to hide it. He held her closely, with
the second, more protecting manner of a strong passion, and then in a husky-
voice, which was unlike his old voice, he spoke.

“Elsa, my darling, my darling,” he said.

“But you must have guessed, you must have known long ago,” she
murmured. “I nearly died during your illness. Oh, Leslie, if you knew,—
if you could know,—” She broke off; his lips closed hers.

“And I,” he said at length, “have had two months waiting for this.”

“But it taught me, Leslie. I didn’t understand before.”

They were silent again. She leant against him as if for support, overcome
by a vague dread of a fuller explanation, which was sure to come.

She pleaded, as women can.

“Let us forget all else, Leslie. All but the one great happiness to-night.
I am yours, every thought, every atom of my love, my devotion, is yours,—and
you,—I know it at last,—love me. There is nothing else in the world. Just
we two here, and together and loving as we love. Leslie,—” She touched his
face, so that he bent his head and looked at her again. “Let us forget all else.”
She might have added, “duty, honour, and the rest,” but her woman’s tact
refrained. “Let us live in the present, just for to-night. Ah, now you are
angry ! You don’t love me!”

“I don’t love you ! God help me ! Elsa ! Elsa !”

There was silence again, and then in the hall a man’s step.

She grew nervous and guilty. “We must go upstairs,” she said ; “the
servants will want to clear the table.” She drew away ; he followed her
silently.

Once in the drawing-room he closed the door, and followed her to the
sofa. She made him kneel, and wound her arms round his neck.

“I—I don’t know myself,” she murmured. “Do you know me, Leslie ?”

“Yes, at last.”

“You have dreamed of me like this ?”

“Not like this. Not half so sweet, not half what you are. Oh, Elsa, you
are driving me mad !”

She smiled indulgently, and hid, half timidly, her own madness. She
held him, as a woman hugs her own danger, with a queer pathetic kind of
reasoning, that it is a protection against herself. And he held her, as a man
holds a woman who belongs to him by right of her heart, her brain, and all
her senses ; a right which is all powerful, and, like a flood which sweeps away

70                              THE SAVOY

the boundaries of a mighty river, is strong enough to break, and wash away,
all the marriage ties in the world.

        *   *   *   *   *   *

When Mr. Lander came home, his guest had been gone three hours.
Elsa sat in the drawing-room still.

She forgot to say, “You are late,” she only looked up and smiled.

He had gambled and won, and was flushed : a better and a more lenient
mood had set in with his success.

“Well, old girl ! Still up ?” he said.

“Yes,” she answered.

He went near her, and put his hand on her shoulder. “I was damned
cross,” he cried.

It came too late. She was inclined to be forgiving, because she was
happy, not because her feelings were touched.

“That’s all right,” she said. “I am going to bed, now.”

“How’s the poor wrist ?” He flushed as he spoke, as if with shame.

“Oh ! it’s nothing. You will want a whiskey and soda, you had better
go down and get it. I am too tired to come with you, good-night.”

“Good-night, old girl.”

                                                       II

The next day was a warm June Sunday, and Mrs. Lander expected
Mr. James to call. A Sunday is a dreary day to wait for anyone, the traffic
is less ; her pulse throbbed to the sound of the wheels of every hansom which
turned the corner of the street, while her cheek paled, and her heart sank,
when it rattled past, and away, into the distance. When a cab did stop in
front of the house, she sat immovable, with a nervous dread that the door
might open to admit some other visitor ; and each time, during all the long
tedious hours of the afternoon, her terror was realized.

The child, who had been banished, crept down unheeded, till it broke a
valuable china vase, and Mr. Lander swore at his wife for not looking after it
better. In the evening, her father-in-law and his wife came to dinner, which
they partook of with a Sunday solemnity, not a soothing remedy for over-
strained nerves. They impressed Elsa with the fact that she was a lucky
woman to have married Bertie, and that Bertie’s child was the finest in the
world. By the end of the evening, her cheeks each bore a bright pink spot,
and her lips smiled bitterly. Before she slept, she agreed that if her mirror
reflected truly, it was just as well that Leslie had not come.

                          ELSA                                     71

“There is always to-morrow,” she thought, and, after a sleepless night,
to-morrow came.

She rode in the morning, and looked for him in the park ; the afternoon
saw her sitting by the drawing-room window, waiting timidly, with a patience
which was new. She went over in her mind his every action, his every
word. She recalled his smile, till she was happy, and his kisses, till she
blushed.

Then Bertie came home.

They dined out, and she again found sleep almost impossible. On
Tuesday morning she took the child for a walk, till its chatter drove her mad.
By the afternoon she was frightened and desperate, and she wrote to Leslie.
Her letter was formal and brief, and merely asked when he was coming to see
her again. She sent her maid round to his rooms, with an order to wait for
an answer. After an hour the girl returned. There had been no reply. Elsa
went upstairs and dressed for dinner, numb with pain. That evening at a
theatre she flirted with a fair boy, who thought her the most beautiful woman
in the world, and she talked more than she had ever talked before. But
neither the evening, nor the excitement, caused her to forget for one minute.

On Wednesday Bertie remarked that she was “beastly pale.” She
answered that she hadn’t slept well, and mentally resolved to have an old
prescription made up, which contained chloral. She went for a ride, but
could hardly sit her horse. After lunch she drove down the street where
Leslie lived, and passed his club, with the faint hope of meeting him. That
night she slept

The next day she hoped no more, she settled into a kind of fixed
despair. There was a maid who wanted to leave, and some bills to pay, and
Dickie needed some new nightgowns, and a fresh pair of boots. Bertie told
her to visit his married sister, and she could no longer make any excuse to
herself for spending the whole of the afternoon indoors. She was afraid to
ask the man when she returned if any one had called ; she had inquired each
morning, so absurdly often.

That evening at dinner the butler approached : “I beg your pardon,
Mum,” he said, “but I forgot to tell you that Mr. James called to-day. He
said he was sorry to miss you, and would take his chance of finding you at
home to-morrow afternoon.”

She was dumb, and her throat was dry.

“I want you to come to a cricket match with me to-morrow,” her
husband remarked. “Send old Leslie a line to-night to put him off.”

72                              THE SAVOY

“I hate cricket,” she muttered. “There is no game so dull, and no sun
so hot, as when I go to a cricket match.”

“Oh, nonsense ! I want you to come. You’ll like it when you get
there.”

“I can’t go. I don’t feel well enough.”

“You aren’t looking your best But you may be all right to-morrow.
I’ll put Leslie off anyhow, he had far better come and dine some evening next
week, when I shall be at home too. Do you see ?”

With a terror, born of her longing to see him, she did as Bertie desired,
and she went to the match.

The chloral gave her rest at night, by day she had none. Saturday was
wet, and Bertie went to the club. She put on a peignoir when the afternoon
came, and was careless of the fact that the drug and the misery had painted
her eyes round with black.

A lady came to call, who asked to see Dickie, and gushed over him ; he
was stuffed with cake, and became sticky and obnoxious. His mother was
conscious that the noise was deafening, and that he was naughtier than
usual, when amid the din and the visitor’s amused laughter a man was
announced.

Elsa rose, she went to meet him, and gave him her hand, but she never
knew what he said to her, or what she answered. In a dream she regained
her seat, and became aware that he was taking Dickie by the shoulders, and
turning him out of the room.

“Mamma ! Mamma !” shrieked the child, “I hate Uncle Leslie, I hate
him, do tell him to let me alone.”

The appeal to her, touched her sense of humour, and she began to
laugh. Her friend looked shocked, but that mattered so little after all ; she
laughed as a woman laughs, when she is dazed for the want of the relief of
tears.

Outside the door, a small voice was heard plaintively hoping, “that God
would kill Uncle Leslie, and put him in a nasty black box.” Inside, Leslie
was calmly taking a seat, and telling the astonished lady that “His good
friend, Lander, was too lenient with the boy.”

For half an hour she lingered, and casual topics were discussed. Elsa’s
haggard face grew flushed, with a feverish longing to get rid of her visitor.
When she did at last take leave, and Leslie had walked down to the hall with
her, Elsa rose as he entered, and (with an action recalling a scene of the week
before) he closed the door.

                          ELSA                                     73

“Why didn’t you come to see me ?” She asked.

“I am here to tell you.”

She bit her lips, his voice was calm, although his eyes were troubled.

“Well,” she said, “begin.”

“Won’t you sit down ?”

She laid one hand on the mantelpiece to steady herself, and shook her
head.

“I am going away, Mrs. Lander.”

“Going away ?”

“Yes, running away from danger.”

Her lids drooped, and into her face crept a faint look of contempt.

“Then, you don’t love me,” she said, and pride, which is a weapon
which wounds both the owner and the onlooker, came to stab her into com-
posure. “You don’t love me, and the other night was an acted lie.”

He had had a week in which to rehearse the scene, and he had marvellous
natural self-control, such as the world never teaches.

“No, not a lie. I do love you. But I can’t stay to rob my best friend.
I can’t creep like a coward into his house, to steal his wife’s affection. My
love has not killed my sense of honour.”

“Honour ! The usual argument of men, when they want to silence a
woman. Honour ! Isn’t love stronger than honour ? We women often
sacrifice honour for you men, and never reproach you with it—but,”—she
broke off with a little laugh, “I can’t fight the point. You want to go.”

“I must go.”

“I understand. You dreamed of me, and idealized me when you were ill,
I was a pleasant remembrance in the long hours of convalescence ;— but now
that you are well, you are a man again, and think it more manly to keep your
loyalty to your friend clean, even at the cost of sacrificing me.”

“I cannot sacrifice Bertie. We have been like brothers.”

She moved a step towards him.

“Why don’t you look at me ?”

“Because I am ashamed.”

“Oh, Leslie !” Her voice broke.

“Child,” his own vibrated strangely, “Don’t torture me. Help me to do
what is right.”

“Why didn’t you come. Why did you wait so long ?” she asked.

“Because I was afraid of seeing you. I was a coward.”

“Oh !” The cry was rapturous. “Then you do love me ?”

74                              THE SAVOY

He strode towards her, and then stopped short. “I love you. I love
you so much, that I dare not even touch you. Good God ! can’t you help me
to be a man, don’t make a blackguard of me.”

“Oh, Leslie !” And the sweetness, and the simplicity of her manner, as
she said it, thrilled him from head to foot. “If only you would touch me—
only my hand.”

He recoiled at last.

“Oh ! I know, I understand. I should not have said that, but I can’t
pretend. My heart aches so.”

There was a pause, he fancied she was crying, but she lifted her face
after a time, and he was mistaken.

“A woman,” she continued gently, “never likes a man to say all
those good things, which she ought to have thought of, and said herself. I
am a bad woman, I suppose, but I wasn’t bad before, at least, I hope not.
Life isn’t very easy for any of us, is it, Leslie? And we are apt to be
children, and try to snatch at the nice things out of reach.” She paused
again. “I quite see that,—as you have said it,—you must go. Have you
settled when ?”

“To-morrow. I leave for Paris first.”

“Why not to-night ? A week ago—we were so happy. Why not allow
me to imagine you on the sea, when the time comes round again ; where I
cannot touch you, or see you, or even hear you speak ?”

“As you please. I am behaving very badly to you.”

“To me ! So you think so.” She smiled slightly. “If you really
thought so, you would have acted differently. Well, it doesn’t matter. I am
learning that so little matters after all.”

He waited ; and then something in her raised eyes, and piteous mouth
recalled, not the pale Elsa before him, but the Elsa of a week ago, a warm
living creature, responsive to his kisses.

“Elsa, how can I leave you ? I—I am half mad. Let me kiss you
once,—only once again.”

She leant forward, he bent his head, his breath touched her cheek,—then
the door creaked. They drew apart, the kiss unborn, as Bertie entered.

“You here, Leslie ! That’s right Off to Paris for a few days, aren’t
you ? Stay and dine ? Won’t you ? Then come and have a smoke in my
den. I want to talk to you.”

His listeners moved forward.

“Good-bye, Mrs. Lander.”

                          ELSA                                     75

“Good-bye, Mr. James.”

Their hands touched, he turned and went out. She stood listening to his
retreating footsteps, and the future became a long cold path of pain and
monotony, ready for her to tread alone.

                                          BY THE AUTHOR OF “A MERE MAN.”

MLA citation:

Clarke, Clara Savile. “Elsa.” The Savoy vol. 6, October 1896, pp. 63-75. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv6-clarke-elsa/