Chapter 23 Soames Sits on the Stairs

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Soames went upstairs that night that he had gone too far. He was prepared to offer excuses for his words.
He turned out the gas still burning in the passage outside their room. Pausing, with his hand on the knob of the door, he tried to shape his apology, for he had no intention of letting her see that he was nervous.
But the door did not open, nor when he pulled it and turned the handle firmly. She must have locked it for some reason, and forgotten.
Entering his dressing-room where the gas was also light and burning low, he went quickly to the other door. That too was locked. Then he noticed that the camp bed which he occasionally used was prepared, and his sleeping-suit laid out upon it. He put his hand up to his forehead, and brought it away wet. It dawned on him that he was barred out.
He went back to the door, and rattling the handle stealthily, called: “Unlock the door, do you hear? Unlock the door!”
There was a faint rustling, but no answer.
“Do you hear? Let me in at once — I insist on being let in!”
He could catch the sound of her breathing close to the door, like the breathing of a creature threatened by danger.
There was something terrifying in this inexorable silence, in the impossibility of getting at her. He went back to the other door, and putting his whole weight against it, tried to burst it open. The door was a new one — he had had them renewed himself, in readiness for their coming in after the honeymoon. In a rage he lifted his foot to kick in the panel; the thought of the servants restrained him, and he felt suddenly that he was beaten.
Flinging himself down in the dressing-room, he took up a book.
But instead of the print he seemed to see his wife — with her yellow hair flowing over her bare shoulders, and her great dark eyes — standing like an animal at bay. And the whole meaning of her act of revolt came to him. She meant it to be for good.
He could not sit still, and went to the door again. He could still hear her, and he called: “Irene! Irene!”
He did not mean to make his voice pathetic.
In ominous answer, the faint sounds ceased. He stood with clenched hands, thinking.
Presently he stole round on tiptoe, and running suddenly at the other door, made a supreme effort to break it open. It creaked, but did not yield. He sat down on the stairs and buried his face in his hands.
For a long time he sat there in the dark, the moon through the skylight above laying a pale smear which lengthened slowly towards him down the stairway. He tried to be philosophical.
Since she had locked her doors she had no further claim as a wife, and he would console himself with other women.
It was but a spectral journey he made among such delights — he had no appetite for these exploits. He had never had much, and he had lost the habit. He felt that he could never recover it. His hunger could only be appeased by his wife, inexorable and frightened, behind these shut doors. No other woman could help him.
This conviction came to him with terrible force out there in the dark.
His philosophy left him; and surly anger took its place. Her conduct was immoral, inexcusable, worthy of any punishment within his power. He desired no one but her, and she refused him!
She must really hate him, then! He had never believed it yet. He did not believe it now. It seemed to him incredible. He felt as though he had lost for ever his power of judgment. If she, so soft and yielding as he had always judged her, could take this decided step — what could not happen?
Then he asked himself again if she were carrying on an intrigue with Bosinney. He did not believe that she was; he could not afford to believe such a reason for her conduct — the thought was not to be faced.
It would be unbearable to contemplate the necessity of making his marital relations public property. Short of the most convincing proofs he must still refuse to believe, for he did not wish to punish himself. And all the time at heart — he did believe.
The moonlight cast a greyish tinge over his figure, hunched against the staircase wall.
Bosinney was in love with her! He hated the fellow, and would not spare him now. He could and would refuse to pay a penny piece over twelve thousand and fifty pounds — the extreme limit fixed in the correspondence; or rather he would pay, he would pay and sue him for damages. He would go to Jobling and Boulter and put the matter in their hands. He would ruin the impecunious beggar! And suddenly — though what connection between the thoughts? — he reflected that Irene had no money either. They were both beggars. This gave him a strange satisfaction.
The silence was broken by a faint creaking through the wall. She was going to bed at last. Ah! Joy and pleasant dreams! If she threw the door open wide he would not go in now!
But his lips, that were twisted in a bitter smile, twitched; he covered his eyes with his hands. . . .
It was late the following afternoon when Soames stood in the dining-room window gazing gloomily into the Square.
The sunlight still showered on the plane-trees, and in the breeze their gay broad leaves shone and swung in rhyme to a barrel organ at the corner. It was playing a waltz, an old waltz that was out of fashion, with a fateful rhythm in the notes; and it went on and on, though nothing indeed but leaves danced to the tune.
The woman did not look too gay, for she was tired; and from the tall houses no one threw her down coppers. She moved the organ on, and three doors off began again.
It was the waltz they had played at Roger’s when Irene had danced with Bosinney; and the perfume of the gardenias she had worn came back to Soames, drifted by the malicious music, as it had been drifted to him then, when she passed, her hair glistening, her eyes so soft, drawing Bosinney on and on down an endless ballroom.
The organ woman plied her handle slowly; she had been grinding her tune all day-grinding it in Sloane Street hard by, grinding it perhaps to Bosinney himself.
Soames turned, took a cigarette from the carven box, and walked back to the window. The tune had mesmerized him, and there came into his view Irene, her sunshade furled, hastening homewards down the Square, in a soft, rose-coloured blouse with drooping sleeves, that he did not know. She stopped before the organ, took out her purse, and gave the woman money.
Soames shrank back and stood where he could see into the hall.
She came in with her latch-key, put down her sunshade, and stood looking at herself in the glass. Her cheeks were flushed as if the sun had burned them; her lips were parted in a smile. She stretched her arms out as though to embrace herself, with a laugh that for all the world was like a sob.
Soames stepped forward.
“Very-pretty!” he said.
But as though shot she spun round, and would have passed him up the stairs. He barred the way.
“Why such a hurry?” he said, and his eyes fastened on a curl of hair fallen loose across her ear. . . .
He hardly recognised her. She seemed on fire, so deep and rich the colour of her cheeks, her eyes, her lips, and of the unusual blouse she wore.
She put up her hand and smoothed back the curl. She was breathing fast and deep, as though she had been running, and with every breath perfume seemed to come from her hair, and from her body, like perfume from an opening flower.
“I don’t like that blouse,” he said slowly, “it’s a soft, shapeless thing!”
He lifted his finger towards her breast, but she dashed his hand aside.
“Don’t touch me!” she cried.
He caught her wrist; she wrenched it away.
“And where may you have been?” he asked.
“In heaven — out of this house!” With those words she fled upstairs.
Outside — in thanksgiving — at the very door, the organ-grinder was playing the waltz.
And Soames stood motionless. What prevented him from following her?
Was it that, with the eyes of faith, he saw Bosinney looking down from that high window in Sloane Street, straining his eyes for yet another glimpse of Irene’s vanished figure, cooling his flushed face, dreaming of the moment when she flung herself on his breast — the scent of her still in the air around, and the sound of her laugh that was like a sob?