No one who knew the woman could have disbelieved her, and to the husband who knew her every mental and moral trait this bald, hopeless confession came as a crushing anti-climax to his great effort. It left him not the slightest doubt that she was honest. He said, dully, in a feeble attempt to right himself:
“You are shielding him. You want to make me out wrong.” But she knew he knew.
“Those are the facts. Heaven knows they are bad enough, but they are by no means so bad as you thought. And I’m your wife, Stephen. That thing you did was brutal; those men will talk. I was guilty, no doubt, in my thoughts, but I’m young, and you have no right to blight my life and my reputation—yes, and yours—by a thing like that. We will have to meet those men. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “In all my life I never felt but one moment of power, and that, it seems, was false. For years I have longed to show myself a man, and now—what have I done? What have I done? I am no monster.” He moaned and sank limply into a chair, folding together in an attitude of dejection that was pitiful. He raised his head and broke out at her in a last spasm of desperation, as a dying ember flares even while it crumbles. “My God! why couldn’t you be consistent? Why did you go half-way? Why couldn’t you be all good or all bad and save me this?”
“All women are half good and half bad.”
“I can’t blame you for not loving me, I suppose,” he mumbled. “No woman of your kind could love a man like me.”
“Those men!” she said, in a way that made him writhe.
“Wait until I—think. I must think.”
“You can’t think now, and neither can I.”
“We must.” He wrung his hands. “They’ll never believe me—” There was a long silence.
“Perhaps in the morning we can see a way out.”
“That’s it.” He nodded. “You go to bed and I’ll think. I’m trying to think now, but this heat is suffocating me and my head is tired.” He brushed a hand feebly across his brow. “If it would only rain I—could think better.”
“Yes, and we must think of Anthony, too. No matter how you blame me, you must realize that he was innocent, and perhaps, after all, he is the one that you wronged deepest. He will have to meet those men, and they were his friends.”
Despite the breathless oppression of the night, she shivered. “I never can meet them now, and I don’t see how you will dare to, knowing that you were wrong.”
“Don’t!” he pleaded. “The other was bad enough, but this—Tell me what to do!”
“I can’t. I don’t know myself. All I can see is that those men will never cease to believe, no matter what you tell them.” She groped her way to the window, but there was no relief even in the open air. By-and-by she heard him sigh, then rise and say “Good-night.”
As she prepared for bed an hour later she heard him still stirring about in his quarters, but afterward, as she lay staring into the black night, she was so busied with the frightful fancies that swarmed about her that she did not detect his cautious footsteps when he stole out of his chamber, closing the door softly behind him.