It was inevitable that a terrible and desolating scene must pass between Mary Ispenlove and myself. I could not foresee how I should emerge from it, but I desperately resolved that I would suffer the worst without a moment’s delay, and that no conceivable appeal should induce me to abandon Frank. I was, as I waited for Mrs. Ispenlove to appear, nothing but an embodied and fierce instinct to guard what I had won. No consideration of mercy could have touched me.
She entered with a strange, hysterical cry:
I had asked her long ago to use my Christian name—long before I ever imagined what would come to pass between her husband and me; but I always called her Mrs. Ispenlove. The difference in our ages justified me. And that morning the difference seemed to be increased. I realized, with a cruel justice of perception quite new in my estimate of her, that she was old—an old woman. She had never been beautiful, but she was tall and graceful, and her face had been attractive by the sweetness of the mouth and the gray beneficence of the eyes; and now that sweetness and that beneficence appeared suddenly to have been swallowed up in the fatal despair of a woman who discovers that she has lived too long. Gray hair, wrinkles, crow’s-feet, tired eyes, drawn mouth, and the terrible tell-tale hollow under the chin—these were what I saw in Mary Ispenlove. She had learnt that the only thing worth having in life is youth. I possessed everything that she lacked. Surely the struggle was unequal. Fate might have chosen a less piteous victim. I felt profoundly sorry for Mary Ispenlove, and this sorrow was stronger in me even than the uneasiness, the false shame (for it was not a real shame) which I experienced in her presence. I put out my hands towards her, as it were, involuntarily. She sprang to me, took them, and kissed me as I lay in bed.
‘How beautiful you look—like that!’ she exclaimed wildly, and with a hopeless and acute envy in her tone.
‘But why—’ I began to protest, astounded.
’What will you think of me, disturbing you like this? What will you think?’ she moaned. And then her voice rose: ’I could not help it; I couldn’t, really. Oh, Carlotta! you are my friend, aren’t you?’
One thing grew swiftly clear to me: that she was as yet perfectly unaware of the relations between Frank and myself. My brain searched hurriedly for an explanation of the visit. I was conscious of an extraordinary relief.
‘You are my friend, aren’t you?’ she repeated insistently.
Her tears were dropping on my bosom. But could I answer that I was her friend? I did not wish to be her enemy; she and Frank and I were dolls in the great hands of fate, irresponsible, guiltless, meet for an understanding sympathy. Why was I not still her friend? Did not my heart bleed for her? Yet such is the power of convention over honourableness that I could not bring myself to reply directly, ‘Yes, I am your friend.’