In the smoking-room of Lady Wetherby's house, chewing the dead stump of a once imposing cigar, Dudley Pickering sat alone with his thoughts. He had been alone for half an hour now. Once Lord Wetherby had looked in, to withdraw at once coldly, with the expression of a groom who has found loathsome things in the harness-room. Roscoe Sherriff, good, easy man, who could never dislike people, no matter what they had done, had come for a while to bear him company; but Mr Pickering's society was not for the time being entertaining. He had answered with grunts the Press-agent's kindly attempts at conversation, and the latter Had withdrawn to seek a more congenial audience. And now Mr Pickering was alone, talking things over with his subconscious self.
A man's subconscious self is not the ideal companion. It lurks for the greater part of his life in some dark den of its own, hidden away, and emerges only to taunt and deride and increase the misery of a miserable hour. Mr Pickering's rare interviews with his subconscious self had happened until now almost entirely in the small hours of the night, when it had popped out to remind him, as he lay sleepless, that all flesh was grass and that he was not getting any younger. To-night, such had been the shock of the evening's events, it came to him at a time which was usually his happiest--the time that lay between dinner and bed. Mr Pickering at that point of the day was generally feeling his best. But to-night was different from the other nights of his life.
One may picture Subconscious Self as a withered, cynical, malicious person standing before Mr Pickering and regarding him with an evil smile. There has been a pause, and now Subconscious Self speaks again:
'You will have to leave to-morrow. Couldn't possibly stop on after what's happened. Now you see what comes of behaving like a boy.'
Mr Pickering writhed.
'Made a pretty considerable fool of yourself, didn't you, with your revolvers and your hidings and your trailings? Too old for that sort of thing, you know. You're getting on. Probably have a touch of lumbago to-morrow. You must remember you aren't a youngster. Got to take care of yourself. Next time you feel an impulse to hide in shrubberies and take moonlight walks through damp woods, perhaps you will listen to me.'
Mr Pickering relit the stump of his cigar defiantly and smoked in long gulps for a while. He was trying to persuade himself that all this was untrue, but it was not easy. The cigar became uncomfortably hot, and he threw it away. He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket and produced a diamond ring, at which he looked pensively.
'A pretty thing, is it not?' said Subconscious Self
Mr Pickering sighed. That moment when Claire had thrown the ring at his feet and swept out of his life like an offended queen had been the culminating blow of a night of blows, the knock-out following on a series of minor punches. Subconscious Self seized the opportunity to become offensive again.
'You've lost her, all through your own silly fault,' it said. 'How on earth you can have been such a perfect fool beats me. Running round with a gun like a boy of fourteen! Well, it's done now and it can't be mended. Countermand the order for cake, send a wire putting off the wedding, dismiss the bridesmaids, tell the organist he can stop practising "The Voice that Breathed O'er Eden"--no wedding-bells for you! For Dudley Damfool Pickering, Esquire, the lonely hearth for evermore! Little feet pattering about the house? Not on your life! Childish voices sticking up the old man for half a dollar to buy candy? No, sir! Not for D. Bonehead Pickering, the amateur trailing arbutus!'
Subconscious Self may have had an undesirable way of expressing itself, but there was no denying the truth of what it said. Its words carried conviction. Mr Pickering replaced the ring in his pocket, and, burying his head in his hands, groaned in bitterness of spirit.
He had lost her. He must face the fact. She had thrown him over. Never now would she sit at his table, the brightest jewel of Detroit's glittering social life. She would have made a stir in Detroit. Now that city would never know her. Not that he was worrying much about Detroit. He was worrying about himself. How could he ever live without her?
This mood of black depression endured for a while, and then Mr Pickering suddenly became aware that Subconscious Self was sneering at him. 'You're a wonder!' said Subconscious Self.
'What do you mean?'
'Why, trying to make yourself think that at the bottom of your heart you aren't tickled to death that this has happened. You know perfectly well that you're tremendously relieved that you haven't got to marry the girl after all. You can fool everybody else, but you can't fool me. You're delighted, man, delighted!' The mere suggestion revolted Mr Pickering. He was on the point of indignant denial, when quite abruptly there came home to him the suspicion that the statement was not so preposterous after all. It seemed incredible and indecent that such a thing should be, but he could not deny, now that it was put to him point-blank in this way, that a certain sense of relief was beginning to mingle itself with his gloom. It was shocking to realize, but--yes, he actually was feeling as if he had escaped from something which he had dreaded. Half an hour ago there had been no suspicion of such an emotion among the many which had occupied his attention, but now he perceived it clearly. Half an hour ago he had felt like Lucifer hurled from heaven. Now, though how that train of thought had started he could not have said, he was distinctly conscious of the silver lining. Subconscious Self began to drive the thing home.
'Be honest with yourself,' it said. 'You aren't often. No man is. Look at the matter absolutely fairly. You know perfectly well that the mere idea of marriage has always scared you. You hate making yourself conspicuous in public. Think what it would be like, standing up there in front of all the world and getting married. And then--afterwards! Why on earth do you think that you would have been happy with this girl? What do you know about her except that she is a beauty? I grant you she's that, but are you aware of the infinitesimal part looks play in married life? My dear chap, better is it for a man that he marry a sympathetic gargoyle than a Venus with a streak of hardness in her. You know--and you would admit it if you were honest with yourself--that this girl is hard. She's got a chilled-steel soul.
'If you wanted to marry some one--and there's no earthly reason why you should, for your life's perfectly full and happy with your work--this is the last girl you ought to marry. You're a middle-aged man. You're set. You like life to jog along at a peaceful walk. This girl wants it to be a fox-trot. You've got habits which you have had for a dozen years. I ask you, is she the sort of girl to be content to be a stepmother to a middle-aged man's habits? Of course, if you were really in love with her, if she were your mate, and all that sort of thing, you would take a pleasure in making yourself over to suit her requirements. But you aren't in love with her. You are simply caught by her looks. I tell you, you ought to look on that moment when she gave you back your ring as the luckiest moment of your life. You ought to make a sort of anniversary of it. You ought to endow a hospital or something out of pure gratitude. I don't know how long you're going to live--if you act like a grown-up man instead of a boy and keep out of woods and shrubberies at night you may live for ever--but you will never have a greater bit of luck than the one that happened to you to-night.'
Mr Pickering was convinced. His spirits soared. Marriage! What was marriage? Slavery, not to be endured by your man of spirit. Look at all the unhappy marriages you saw everywhere. Besides, you had only to recall some of the novels and plays of recent years to get the right angle on marriage. According to the novelists and playwrights, shrewd fellows who knew what was what, if you talked to your wife about your business she said you had no soul; if you didn't, she said you didn't think enough of her to let her share your life. If you gave her expensive presents and an unlimited credit account, she complained that you looked on her as a mere doll; and if you didn't, she called you a screw. That was marriage. If it didn't get you with the left jab, it landed on you with the right upper-cut. None of that sort of thing for Dudley Pickering.
'You're absolutely right,' he said, enthusiastically. 'Funny I never looked at it that way before.'
Somebody was turning the door-handle. He hoped it was Roscoe Sherriff. He had been rather dull the last time Sherriff had looked in. He would be quite different now. He would be gay and sparkling. He remembered two good stories he would like to tell Sherriff.
The door opened and Claire came in. There was a silence. She stood looking at him in a way that puzzled Mr Pickering. If it had not been for her attitude at their last meeting and the manner in which she had broken that last meeting up, he would have said that her look seemed somehow to strike a note of appeal. There was something soft and repentant about her. She suggested, it seemed to Mr Pickering, the prodigal daughter revisiting the old homestead.
She smiled a faint smile, a wistful, deprecating smile. She was looking lovelier than ever. Her face glowed with a wonderful colour and her eyes were very bright. Mr Pickering met her gaze, and strange things began to happen to his mind, that mind which a moment before had thought so clearly and established so definite a point of view.
What a gelatine-backboned thing is man, who prides himself on his clear reason and becomes as wet blotting-paper at one glance from bright eyes! A moment before Mr Pickering had thought out the whole subject of woman and marriage in a few bold flashes of his capable brain, and thanked Providence that he was not as those men who take unto themselves wives to their undoing. Now in an instant he had lost that iron outlook. Reason was temporarily out of business. He was slipping.
For a space Subconscious Self thrust itself forward.
'Look out! Be careful!' it warned.
Mr Pickering ignored it. He was watching, fascinated, the glow on Claire's face, her shining eyes.
'Dudley, I want to speak to you.'
'Tell her you can only be seen by appointment! Escape! Bolt!'
Mr Pickering did not bolt. Claire came towards him, still smiling that pathetic smile. A thrill permeated Mr Pickering's entire one hundred and ninety-seven pounds, trickling down his spine like hot water and coming out at the soles of his feet. He had forgotten now that he had ever sneered at marriage. It seemed to him now that there was nothing in life to be compared with that beatific state, and that bachelors were mere wild asses of the desert.
Claire came and sat down on the arm of his chair. He moved convulsively, but he stayed where he was.
'Fool!' said Subconscious Self.
Claire took hold of his hand and patted it. He quivered, but remained.
'Ass!' hissed Subconscious Self.
Claire stopped patting his hand and began to stroke it. Mr Pickering breathed heavily.
'Dudley, dear,' said Claire, softly, 'I've been an awful fool, and I'm dreadful, dreadful sorry, and you're going to be the nicest, kindest, sweetest man on earth and tell me you've forgiven me. Aren't you?'
Mr Pickering's lips moved silently. Claire kissed the thinning summit of his head. There was a pause.
'Where is it?' she asked.
Mr Pickering started.
'Where is it? Where did you put it? The ring, silly!'
Mr Pickering became aware that Subconscious Self was addressing him. The occasion was tense, and Subconscious Self did not mince its words.
'You poor, maudlin, sentimental, doddering chunk of imbecility,' it said; 'are there no limits to your insanity? After all I said to you just now, are you deliberately going to start the old idiocy all over again?'
'She's so beautiful!' pleaded Mr Pickering. 'Look at her eyes!'
'Ass! Don't you remember what I said about beauty?'
'Yes, I know, but--'
'She's as hard as nails.'
'I'm sure you're wrong.'
'I'm not wrong.'
'But she loves me.'
Claire jogged his shoulders.
'Dudley, dear, what are you sitting there dreaming for? Where did you put the ring?'
Mr Pickering fumbled for it, located it, produced it. Claire examined it fondly.
'Did she throw it at him and nearly break his heart!' she said.
'Bolt!' urged Subconscious Self. 'Fly! Go to Japan!'
Mr Pickering did not go to Japan. He was staring worshippingly at Claire. With rapturous gaze he noted the grey glory of her eyes, the delicate curve of her cheek, the grace of her neck. He had no time to listen to pessimistic warnings from any Gloomy Gus of a Subconscious Self. He was ashamed that he had ever even for a moment allowed himself to be persuaded that Claire was not all that was perfect. No more doubts and hesitations for Dudley Pickering. He was under the influence.
'There!' said Claire, and slipped the ring on her finger.
She kissed the top of his head once more.
'So there we are!' she said.
'There we are!' gurgled the infatuated Dudley.
'Then kiss me.'
Mr Pickering kissed her.
'Dudley, darling,' said Claire, 'we're going to be awfully, awfully happy, aren't we?'
'You bet we are!' said Mr Pickering.
Subconscious Self said nothing, being beyond speech.