“It seemed likely,” he muttered. “Rogers had got his teeth into her.”
“I suppose you think he was a fool to try?”
(What was she talking about? He would have to arrange for the funeral. And the money. He did not know whether there would be money enough. It was hideous—to think of a thing like that—to have to go into a shop and say to some bored shopkeeper: “I want a nice cheap coffin, please.” For Christine—for whom he had never been able to buy so much as a bunch of flowers.)
“I—I don’t know.”
“You see, I heard what you said.”
(What had he said? He tried to remember. No. 10. Better dead. Yes, of course that was it. He couldn’t go back on that. His mind seemed to strain and stagger under the challenge like a half-dead horse under the whip.)
“She didn’t hear me, anyway.”
“I want to know—was it just—just a sort of pose—or did you mean it?”
“It was true.”
“That doesn’t seem to me to matter. It was a beastly thing to have thought—beastlier to have said——”
He stopped short, as though she had struck him across the face. For an instant he was blind with pain, but afterwards he steadied, grew deadly cool and clear-headed. There was a constant movement in the corridor and he turned abruptly, almost with authority, into an empty operating theatre. Instinctively he had chosen his ground. Here was symbolized everything that he trusted and believed in—a cool, dispassionate seeking, the ruthless cutting out of waste. Yet in the half-light the place surrounded them both with a ghostly, almost sinister unreality. Its stark immaculateness lay like a chill, ironic hand on their distress. It made mock of their unhappiness. It divested them of their humanity. The nauseating sweetness that still lingered in the sterilized air was like incense offered up on the grotesque sacrificial altar that stood bare and brutal beneath the glass-domed roof.
And now Robert saw Francey’s face. It was white and pinched and unfamiliar, as though all her humour and whimsical laughter and loving-kindness had been twisted awry in a bitter fight with pain. But he knew her eyes of old. Long ago he had seen them with the same burning deadly anger. And he knew that it was all over. Their patient antagonism had come to grips at last over the bodies of their suffering love for one another.
Even then she held back.
“You don’t know how hard life can be. It was hard for her——” But at that he burst out laughing, and she added quickly, reading his thought: “Nothing that you’ve gone through is of any use if it hasn’t taught you pity.”
“Your pity would take a half-dead rat from a terrier.”
“You have no right to judge,” she persisted.
He smiled with white lips.
“Oh, yes, I have! We all have. We condemn men to prison—to death.”