I kept silence for a little while, thinking of what Stroeve had told me. I could not stomach his weakness, and he saw my disapproval. “You know as well as I do how Strickland lived,” he said tremulously. “I couldn’t let her live in those circumstances—I simply couldn’t.”
“That’s your business,” I answered.
“What would you have done?” he asked.
“She went with her eyes open. If she had to put up with certain inconveniences it was her own lookout.”
“Yes; but, you see, you don’t love her.”
“Do you love her still?”
“Oh, more than ever. Strickland isn’t the man to make a woman happy. It can’t last. I want her to know that I shall never fail her.”
“Does that mean that you’re prepared to take her back?”
“I shouldn’t hesitate. Why, she’ll want me more than ever then. When she’s alone and humiliated and broken it would be dreadful if she had nowhere to go.”
He seemed to bear no resentment. I suppose it was commonplace in me that I felt slightly outraged at his lack of spirit. Perhaps he guessed what was in my mind, for he said:
“I couldn’t expect her to love me as I loved her. I’m a buffoon. I’m not the sort of man that women love. I’ve always known that. I can’t blame her if she’s fallen in love with Strickland.”
“You certainly have less vanity than any man I’ve ever known,” I said.
“I love her so much better than myself. It seems to me that when vanity comes into love it can only be because really you love yourself best. After all, it constantly happens that a man when he’s married falls in love with somebody else; when he gets over it he returns to his wife, and she takes him back, and everyone thinks it very natural. Why should it be different with women?”
“I dare say that’s logical,” I smiled, “but most men are made differently, and they can’t.”
But while I talked to Stroeve I was puzzling over the suddenness of the whole affair. I could not imagine that he had had no warning. I remembered the curious look I had seen in Blanche Stroeve’s eyes; perhaps its explanation was that she was growing dimly conscious of a feeling in her heart that surprised and alarmed her.
“Did you have no suspicion before to-day that there was anything between them?” I asked.
He did not answer for a while. There was a pencil on the table, and unconsciously he drew a head on the blotting-paper.
“Please say so, if you hate my asking you questions,” I said.
“It eases me to talk. Oh, if you knew the frightful anguish in my heart.” He threw the pencil down. “Yes, I’ve known it for a fortnight. I knew it before she did.”
“Why on earth didn’t you send Strickland packing?”
“I couldn’t believe it. It seemed so improbable. She couldn’t bear the sight of him. It was more than improbable; it was incredible. I thought it was merely jealousy. You see, I’ve always been jealous, but I trained myself never to show it; I was jealous of every man she knew; I was jealous of you. I knew she didn’t love me as I loved her. That was only natural, wasn’t it? But she allowed me to love her, and that was enough to make me happy. I forced myself to go out for hours together in order to leave them by themselves; I wanted to punish myself for suspicions which were unworthy of me; and when I came back I found they didn’t want me—not Strickland, he didn’t care if I was there or not, but Blanche. She shuddered when I went to kiss her. When at last I was certain I didn’t know what to do; I knew they’d only laugh at me if I made a scene. I thought if I held my tongue and pretended not to see, everything would come right. I made up my mind to get him away quietly, without quarrelling. Oh, if you only knew what I’ve suffered!”
Then he told me again of his asking Strickland to go. He chose his moment carefully, and tried to make his request sound casual; but he could not master the trembling of his voice; and he felt himself that into words that he wished to seem jovial and friendly there crept the bitterness of his jealousy. He had not expected Strickland to take him up on the spot and make his preparations to go there and then; above all, he had not expected his wife’s decision to go with him. I saw that now he wished with all his heart that he had held his tongue. He preferred the anguish of jealousy to the anguish of separation.
“I wanted to kill him, and I only made a fool of myself.”
He was silent for a long time, and then he said what I knew was in his mind.
“If I’d only waited, perhaps it would have gone all right. I shouldn’t have been so impatient. Oh, poor child, what have I driven her to?”
I shrugged my shoulders, but did not speak. I had no sympathy for Blanche Stroeve, but knew that it would only pain poor Dirk if I told him exactly what I thought of her.
He had reached that stage of exhaustion when he could not stop talking. He went over again every word of the scene. Now something occurred to him that he had not told me before; now he discussed what he ought to have said instead of what he did say; then he lamented his blindness. He regretted that he had done this, and blamed himself that he had omitted the other. It grew later and later, and at last I was as tired as he.
“What are you going to do now?” I said finally.
“What can I do? I shall wait till she sends for me.”
“Why don’t you go away for a bit?”
“No, no; I must be at hand when she wants me.”
For the present he seemed quite lost. He had made no plans. When I suggested that he should go to bed he said he could not sleep; he wanted to go out and walk about the streets till day. He was evidently in no state to be left alone. I persuaded him to stay the night with me, and I put him into my own bed. I had a divan in my sitting-room, and could very well sleep on that. He was by now so worn out that he could not resist my firmness. I gave him a sufficient dose of veronal to insure his unconsciousness for several hours. I thought that was the best service I could render him.