NED HEARS MR. KNOX

Kellock thought twice about going to see Ned Dingle, for instinct told
him that what might seem a reasonable course to such a reasonable being
as himself, would possibly appear in another light to Medora’s husband.
But he reflected that, as the more intelligent and better educated man,
it was his place to act. Even should Dingle use violence, that much he
must be prepared to face, if by so doing he could advance the situation
between them.

Ned was still at his house, and, on an evening in early April, when
the trees of Ashprington were washed with green again and the white
blossoms of the pears opened ghostly to the embrace of the east wind,
Jordan called.

Ned himself opened the door.

“You!” he said. “What the hell do you want? I’ve kept off you—God
knows how. Are you asking for it?”

“I want to do what’s right, Mr. Dingle. I haven’t come for any less
reason. I beg you’ll let me speak to you.”

Ned breathed through his nostrils and did not reply immediately. At
last he answered.

“To do what’s right! You’ll never do what’s right, because you’re a
hypocrite, and all your talk about helping labour and the rest of it
is humbug and lies coming from a thing like you. You’re the worst sort
of man—the sort that does his dirty work behind a lot of cant and
pretended virtue and honesty. The gutter’s too good for you.”

“I can see your point of view; but after her letter, you ought to
think different. I say nothing about mine; but hers was all it ought to
be under the circumstances.”

“You dare to say that? All it ought to be? Did you read it?”

“Yes, I did.”

“And thought it right for her to say I was ‘a godless beast’ where she
was concerned?”

“She never said nothing like that, Mr. Dingle.”

“Come in then,” said the other shortly. “You come in and sit down and
read what she said.”

They went into the kitchen, and Ned lighted a candle. Then he took out
his pocket book, produced Medora’s letter, and flung it on the table.

“Read that, please.”

Kellock obeyed, and his face grew long. It was clear that Medora had
not sent the letter they concocted so carefully together in the Priory
ruin. He put it down.

“Was that the only letter you got from her, if I may ask?”

“It was.”

“I never heard nothing about this letter.”

“You’re lying I expect when you say that.”

“Indeed, I am not. I never lie. This letter was evidently the result
of temper. She never meant it. It’s a sort of play-acting—all females
indulge in it.”

“She meant every word. But you’re right, there’s a lot of play-acting
about the whole business. She’s been play-acting ever since she was
born, and now she’ll damned soon find that’s ended. Life with you won’t
be play-acting.”

“It will not,” answered Kellock. “I promise her that. But she’s no
dreamer. If you’ll be so patient as to listen to me, I’d like to speak
a few words for her and myself. That letter is not Medora—not what she
is now. She shall say she’s sorry, and write in her present frame of
mind, which is very different.”

“She’ll be sorry all right. That won’t be a lie anyway.”

“I venture to ask you to look ahead, Mr. Dingle. There’s no doubt,
owing to one thing and another, you and her wouldn’t have settled
down into a happy husband and wife. That’s not to cast any reflection
on you, or her either. You wasn’t made for each other as we all
thought, myself included, when she took you. But owing to differences
of character and such like, she fretted you by her nature, which she
couldn’t alter, and you treated her harsh according to your nature,
which you couldn’t change. There it was, and her spirit told her you
and her must part. She meant to go I solemnly assure you. She’d made
up her mind to do that; and finding it was so—that’s where I came
in. I thought she was right, for her self-respect and yours, to leave
you, and knowing that she would then be free in every real sense, I,
who had loved her in the past, felt it was no wrong to you under the
circumstances, to love her again. But I’ll say this, and I hope you’ll
believe it: if I had thought Medora was wrong, I wouldn’t have taken
her part. You’ll remember I spoke to you as an outsider, and only for
your good, when you knocked me in the water. I’d no thought of having
Medora for my wife till after that happened. But when she made me see
clearly she was a martyred creature, then I took a different line. And
that’s how we stand.”

“Play-acting still,” answered the other. “It’s all play-acting, and a
wicked, heartless piece of work; and you know it. And a brainless piece
of work too, for all you think you’re such a smart pair. You see I’m
calm. I’m not taking you by the scruff of your neck and battering your
head against that wall, as I well might do. I may yet; but I’ll answer
you first. You knew Medora, and knew she was a mass of airs and graces,
and humbug; and you knew me, and therefore you ought to have known,
when she said I was a tyrant and a brute, that she was lying. But
you fooled yourself and took her word and made yourself believe her,
because you wanted her. You lusted after another man’s wife, and all
your fine opinions went to hell under the temptation, when you found
you could get her so easy.”

“Don’t say that; I beg you not to put it in that way. I’m not that sort
of man.”

“I judge of a man by what he does, not by what he says. That’s what
you’ve done, and that’s what you’ll pay for sooner or late.”

“A time will come when you’ll withdraw that, Mr. Dingle. It’s a cruel
libel on my character and you’ll live to know it. At present I’m only
wishful to do things decently and in order, and I’ll ask you again to
look forward. I should be very glad to know, please, when you’re going
to go on with this? I venture to think you ought to move in the matter.”

“You beat anything I’ve ever heard of,” said Dingle. “What are you made
of—flesh and blood, or stone? To tell me my duty!”

“Why not, if you don’t see it? I’m not thinking of myself—only the
situation as it affects her.”

“And I’m thinking of it as it affects me. I’ve been pretty badly
damaged in this racket—the lawyer’s made that clear to me. I shall get
it out of you somehow—how I don’t know at present. You can clear now,
and I shan’t come to you to decide what I’m going to do about it—or
to that wicked, little fool either. Yes, a wicked, little fool—that’s
what she is—and she’ll look at home presently, when you’ve knocked the
life out of her, and find it out for herself.”

Kellock rose and prepared to depart.

“I’m sorry I called if it was only to anger you,” he said.

“Yes; and you’ll be sorry for lots of things presently I shouldn’t
wonder. You’re a fool too, come to think of it—that’s part of my
revenge I reckon—to know you, who thought yourself so wonderful, are
only a young fool after all.”

So the interview ended and Kellock went his way outwardly unruffled but
inwardly perturbed. He had never considered the possibility of Dingle
doing anything in the way of damages. He had, in fact, thought far too
little about Dingle. Ned was a man of no force of character and he had
assumed that he would proceed upon the conventional lines proper to
such cases. But Ned’s very weakness now grew into a danger, because he
was evidently in the hands of a lawyer and might be easily influenced
by a stronger will than his own. The law would probably not learn the
real human facts of the situation as between Ned and Medora. The law
never did go into these subtleties of character upon which such things
depended. Superficially the law might hold him, what he—Kellock—was
so far from being, and perhaps actually punish him in his pocket—an
event that had not entered his calculations. Did Dingle make any such
claim, it would certainly be his place to plead against it, or get a
lawyer to do so for him. He felt anxious, for he feared the law and
knew it to be a terribly costly matter to defend the most righteous
cause.

And meantime Ned received another caller, who knew Kellock better than
he did, and left him with some curious information to consider. Indeed
it was not Jordan’s own visit that threw any new light on Jordan, but
that of an older man. Philander Knox now arrived to see Dingle on
private business.

Philander, true to his philosophic and tolerant attitude, had not
evinced any unfriendly feelings towards Kellock on his return to the
vat house, and the paper makers, who were all junior to Mr. Knox,
followed his lead with the exception of Robert Life, who took his
wife’s view of the situation. Thus it came about that finding Knox to
be impartial and knowing him for a large-minded man, only puzzling
when he displayed humour, which Kellock did not understand, Jordan had
to some extent confided in him and revealed various facts concerning
his opinions and his relations with Medora. These, while imparted in
confidence, possessed none the less very considerable significance and
Philander was now tempted to use his information.

It depended on the trend of his conversation with Dingle whether he
would do so, for he called upon his own affairs and had no intention,
when he arrived, to touch those of other people.

He came by appointment on the subject of Dingle’s house.

“I’d like it very well,” he said, “and I’d close to-night if I was in a
position to do so; but though hopeful as my custom is, for hope costs
nothing, I’m not able yet to close definitely.”

“There’s one or two after it, I must tell you.”

“I know. But I’ll make a bargain. To let the house is, of course, a
certainty. Houses are so few in these parts that a fine quality of
house like this don’t go begging very long; but if you’ll stand by and
give me first refusal for a clear month, I’ll pay you two quid down on
the nail for the privilege.”

Dingle considered.

“All right,” he said. “That’s a bargain. There’s nothing settled and
I’d be very well pleased for you to have the house. But what are you
waiting for?”

“That’s private,” answered Philander bringing out his purse and
depositing two sovereigns. “I’m waiting for another party to come to a
decision on a certain subject. If it goes right, I’ll take your house;
if it don’t, then I shan’t have no use for it.”

Dingle nodded.

“I guess your meaning,” he said. “As for me, I’m marking time, though I
can’t much longer. I must go on with my work and I’ve got a very good
offer for Liverpool; but I don’t see myself in a town somehow. And
there’s people at Ivybridge could do with me; but the money’s less. I’m
all over the shop, to be honest. Of course it won’t go no farther. But
I can trust you. I keep a stiff upper-lip, being a man; but this have
knocked the stuffing out of me. I don’t care what becomes of me really,
though of course I pretend I’m all right.”

Knox nodded.

“You’ve took a very proper line in the opinion of me and Mrs. Trivett,”
he said. “Mrs. Trivett shares your feelings about it. As for me, I’m
properly sorry, because one can’t do nothing to help. She’s done for
herself now, and she’ll smart long after you’ve done smarting, if
that’s any consolation.”

“I know; but I don’t want her to smart particular,” said Ned. “She’s
been sinned against—took at her own ridiculous valuation. She had to
be herself, poor wretch; but the more I think of it—I ain’t sure now
if it wouldn’t be best to break that man’s neck, Knox. Yes, I reckon
I’ll go to Liverpool. I don’t want to bide here within a few miles of
her. A clean break’s the best. How’s the new beaterman going on?”

“None too well. Trenchard don’t like him and Trood hates him. He
told Trood to mind his own business last week; and coming from
Bulstrode—Bulstrode’s his name—to the foreman, that was a startler.
In fact Trood won’t be himself till Bulstrode’s gone now. He’s a doomed
man you may say. Then there was a little affair with Trenchard too.
He wants some more of the advertisements made—the pictures—and he
explained the pulp to Bulstrode, and Bulstrode, good though he is at
everyday work, have a rigid mind and said he was there to make paper
pulp, not do conjuring tricks. An unyielding sort of man in fact; and
though of course he’s doing what he’s told as well as he can, he don’t
like it, and no doubt he’ll soon be gone.”

“He was here a bit ago—Kellock, I mean,” said Ned. “I often wonder
how I keep my hands off the man that’s ruined my home; but so far I
have. There’s something uncanny to him. He ain’t human, Knox. He’s got
a something else in him that puts him outside the run of humans. A bit
of fish or frog. I ain’t frightened of smiting him; I may come to it;
but I can’t explain. He’s not like other people. I always feel he’s an
image—a machine made to look and talk like a man.”

“I understand that. If another chap had done this, I should have
expected you to go for him; but I quite see the case is altered with
Kellock. Because you feel he’s not stuffed with the same stuffing as
most of us. Stop me if I’m on dangerous ground; but such a man has
the qualities of his failings. He’s got a properly absurd side—like
all such owl-like people, who never laugh. He’s a crank and amazingly
ignorant in some directions. If he don’t approve of the law, he won’t
obey it. He puts religion and morals higher than law; but he brews his
own religion and don’t know in his innocence that religion in this
country always does what the State tells it. You’d think religion might
up and speak to the law, in the name of its Master sometimes. Kellock
pointed that out. He would do things and talk to the law if he had
the power, because he’s fearless and doesn’t waste his energy, but
concentrates. He said, speaking of natural children, that under our
laws they were treated with wicked injustice. He said to me about it,
‘If the Archbishop of Canterbury got up in the House of Lords and said
that it was a black, damnable disgrace to England to have such a law
blotting the Statute Book and leaving us behind Scotland and Germany
and America—if he did that, all men and women of good will would
support him and the State would have to end the loathsome scandal.’ But
I told him to hope nothing either from bishops or lawyers. ‘The man who
alters that infamous law will be somebody bigger than either one or
t’other,’ I told Kellock. ‘He’ll be a brave man, ashamed to face both
ways and sit on the fence for his own safety; and he’ll be a man who
knows that mankind wasn’t made for the lawyers, but the lawyers for
mankind.’ There are such men still, thank God.”

“Kellock ain’t human, so how should he care for the ways of the world?
It’s a blind to his villainy.”

“I’ve had a good deal of speech with him of late and heard his
opinions. He’s dead sure he’s right. It’s all in a nutshell. He had to
rescue your wife from you, and now he’s as jealous for her as a hen
with one chick. It’s damned hard to look at the situation from his
point of view, Dingle—hard for me or anybody—and impossible for you;
but he sees it in a certain way and no doubt she’s helped him to do
so. And now he won’t have a breath on her name and feels he’s got to
stand between her and the rest of the world. He smarts worse than she
does when hard things are said. He’s a lot more high strung than your
wife herself. In fact he’s so delicate about her that he’d rather die
than leave her in a false position. It’s an attitude that would be cant
in most chaps, but coming from him you’re bound to believe it. It may
be part fish or frog, as you say; but so it is. Of course nobody who
didn’t know him would believe it; but I do believe it.”

“Believe what?” asked Dingle.

“Believe she’s not married to him.”

“That’s certain while she’s married to me.”

“I don’t mean that. I mean Kellock’s not all a man, as I’ve just said.
You may say he’s a bit of a saint, or you may say he’s only half baked;
but say what you like, the fact remains he’s different from other men
and his opinions guide his conduct, which is a lot more than opinions
always do. He’s told me that she’s not his wife in any sort of way—far
too much respect for her and himself. That’s gospel you may be sure,
for he’d rather die than lie.”

“She’ll soon get fed up with that,” said Dingle.

“Sooner than him I dare say; but so it is, and I’m glad to let you know
it. I shook him by telling him he was a child in these things and that
the law would refuse to let you divorce Mrs. Dingle, if it knew he was
not fulfilling its requirements. But he’s got a feeling of contempt
for the divorce laws which, of course, every decent man must share—a
feeling of contempt which extends to the lawyers who live by them, and
the parsons who like ’em. I give him all credit there.”

“And how do these fine ideas strike my wife that was?” asked Ned.
“Because if I knew anything about her in her palmy days, she was built
of quite different mud from that.”

“How it strikes her I can’t tell you, because her opinions are hid from
me. Perhaps Mrs. Trivett’s heard her views upon the subject. She may
not agree with Kellock; but more likely he’s made her do so—especially
seeing it won’t pay her to have any other opinions than his in future.”

“He’ll never break her in, Knox.”

“He will, give him time. There’s something about him that makes weaker
wills go down sooner or late. He’s like the tide. He will come on.
He’ll settle her all right.”

“She deserves what she’ll get anyway.”

“If she do, she’s one in a thousand,” answered Knox, “for in my
experience we always get more or less than we deserve, never a fair,
honest deal. You can’t tell what she’s going to get, but you can bet
your boots it won’t be what she deserves. Be it as it will, you’re in
the position of Providence to both of them; because whatever she may
think about it, we know what he does. He’s in your hand—to make, or
mar, so far as Medora’s concerned. I tell you for friendship, and to a
man like myself, who loves a joke, these things are funny in a manner
of speaking.”

“The question is if they’re true.”

“They’re true as sure as Kellock is true. Make no mistake about that.”

“Well, I’m not the sort to stab in the dark, though that’s how they
served me. But I don’t feel no particular call to put myself out of the
way for either of ’em. You can’t get this job through for nothing, and
I’ve got no spare cash for the minute.”

“They chose their own time to run; they must await yours for the rest,”
admitted Mr. Knox.

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