THE STROKE

Medora’s native instinct, to fight for her own hand at the expense
of the community, now held some strife with her appreciation of
what Kellock had done and suffered on her account. At first a sense
of justice strove to remind her of their relations and of Jordan’s
views with respect to her and her future. She was, in fact, as he had
declared, his paramount thought and first object in life. And this
he felt without any diminution of his personal ambitions. But he had
supposed, and she had given him every reason to suppose, that his
ambitions and hers were one; that she desired nothing better than to
help him in his propagandist work. During the earliest days of their
association in London, this had been her purpose and assurance; but it
was so no longer. The artificial existence with Kellock had knocked
all the poetry out of their relation, and his aspirations now found
her averse. Because Kellock could not understand what made life worth
living to her, Medora’s interest and loyalty alike were withered.

Yet now she put up a struggle for him and it lasted longer than might
have been expected. Indeed, it endured for twenty-four hours, until the
morning following upon a sleepless night. Then her chivalry and general
vague sense of her obligations went down before what she believed,
perhaps rightly, was her common sense. She began to see, with a dazzle
of conviction, that Kellock was not at all the husband for her; but
her woman’s wit put it differently: she assured her soul that she was
not the wife for Kellock. This step once taken, those that followed
were exceedingly swift, and they appeared first in a conversation, not
with the man she desired to meet, but with another. For the present she
concealed her new impressions from her family, but on the following
Sunday, Mr. Knox came to tea, and was pleasant and agreeable, according
to his custom. Tom and Mary Dolbear, gratified to observe the large
philosophy with which he had taken his defeat, welcomed him and forgot
the hard things they had said and thought about him.

Then, as the hour came for the visitor to return home, Medora made an
excuse to accompany him. She was going into Dene to see Daisy Finch and
have supper with her and her mother—so she said; and together they
went their way.

She wasted no time with Mr. Knox, and having told him what she hungered
to tell, changed her mind about Daisy Finch, and went home again. Upon
the whole, Mr. Knox disappointed her at this meeting, yet looking back
over their conversation, she felt not sorry it had taken place, though
her face burned a little when she considered the full weight of some
of the vatman’s remarks. He did not spare her; but she began to get
accustomed to hard words now, and her sagacity told Medora that where
there was blame, there was hope. To be past censure is to be past
forgiveness.

She began at once to Mr. Knox upon the subject of her husband, and her
second sentence indicated the vast strides that her ambition had made.
The whole picture of Medora’s future in her own eyes was now changed.
The new vision looked wild indeed, and made even Medora wince a little
to hear it in her own tongue; yet it did not astonish Philander as much
as she imagined, though she had reached it sooner than he expected her
to do so.

“You see Mr. Dingle sometimes, don’t you, Mr. Knox?” began Medora.

“I do, my dear, and you mustn’t object if I say I think very well of
him. Curiously enough I think a lot of Mr. Kellock, too. Each have
got very good points in his way, and you can learn from them as well
as teach them. Of course, it’s a ticklish business being friends with
both, but so I am, and hope to continue.”

“For God’s sake, then, implore of Ned not to divorce me! Oh, Mr.
Knox, you’re wise and old, but you may still remember what it was to
be young. Everything’s gone if he divorces me—everything. I’ve been
pixy-led, fooled—yes, I have. And I’ve ruined two good men, through
no fault of theirs, or mine. It wasn’t Kellock’s fault, nor yet Ned’s;
and I’ll swear on my knees it wasn’t mine—not altogether, because
something not myself drove me and blinded me and dazed me.”

“That’s moonshine, Medora. You’re not going to make anybody believe
that; and don’t you try—else there’ll be the devil to pay. It was your
fault—the fault of your character—because a woman and her character
must be one. But I grant this; if we can’t go outside our characters,
and our characters are us and control all we do and think, then, being
yourself from no fault of your own, you’re not to blame in a sense.
Then, again, that won’t wash either, because if nobody can do anything
outside their characters, then nobody’s ever to blame in themselves for
anything they do, and there’s no such thing as wickedness in the world.
Which is nonsense and moonshine again, because we very well know the
world’s full of wickedness. So it’s no good saying, or fooling yourself
to think, that you’ve not been very wicked indeed, because you have.
However, like a lot of bigger people than you, you’ve got less, so far,
than you deserve, because the punishment never does fit the evil deed,
any more than the reward fits the good one, except in fairy tales. In
other words, Kellock, being what he is—a man of the highest possible
conduct, with a frosty nature to help it—has saved your bacon so
far. You know what I mean. Therefore, there’s a ray of hope—not very
bright, in my opinion, still, a ray.”

“Thank Heaven you think so,” said Medora.

“It’s only my opinion, mind, and I may very likely be wrong; but I’m a
man that sees hope very often where another cannot. A wonderful eye for
hope I’ve got. And if your husband knew all the facts and heard—not
that you’d been pixy-led, but that you was properly ashamed of your
infamous, hard-hearted, senseless, worthless way of going on, and meant
to do better for evermore—luck offering, and the Lord helping—if he
heard that, it’s just on the cards he might give it a second thought.
I don’t say he would. I wouldn’t in his case—not for a moment; but
he’s himself—an amazingly large-minded man. So, out of regard for your
mother, Medora, I’ll venture to touch the subject.”

“I’ll bless your name for evermore if you do.”

“Allow yourself no hope, however. You’ve got to think of Jordan
Kellock, and I tell you frankly I wouldn’t move in this matter if I
didn’t reckon he was utterly mistaken in his opinion of you.”

“He is, he is, Mr. Knox! I’m far ways less than what he fancied.”

“You are; but don’t waste your time eating dirt to me, though you ought
to do it all round, no doubt, and heap ashes on your head.”

“I know I ought; and Jordan’s going to see Ned on Monday evening, so if
you, in your great wisdom, could talk to my husband first—”

“I will do so,” promised Mr. Knox, and he kept his word. It happened,
therefore, that when the hour arrived for the meeting of Kellock and
Dingle, much had fallen out beyond the former’s knowledge.

Jordan had, of course, been left with plenty to think about by Medora,
but since the future was accomplished in his judgment, and its details
only a matter of time, he was concerned with far larger questions
than agitated her mind. His thoughts ran on to the day when they
would be married and their lives mingle happily, to run henceforth
in a single channel. He had never felt fear of that day after once
winning her; and he had, until this moment, enjoyed full confidence
that they were one in thought and ambition already, only waiting for
the completion and crowning of marriage to establish their unity in
the face of the world. But Medora had shaken the ingredients of this
conviction at their last meeting, and Jordan felt uneasy. If she could
speak so strongly on the subject of his lecture, what might she not
presently say on the subject of his life? A disloyal thought once
crossed his mind; something whispered that her objection to hearing
the lecture was humbug. The voice hinted that from no conviction did
Medora hold back, since she had already explicitly accepted his fixed
principles, and avowed herself their supporter. The voice furthermore
ventured to suggest that fixed principles and the lady were never
to be mentioned in one breath by any rational observer. But Kellock
protested against such insinuations, and continued to seek a reason for
her refusal. He could find none, and was forced to accept her own. He
was constrained to believe that she actually had changed her opinions,
and the reflection that she must never be expected to support him with
unqualified enthusiasm cast Jordan down. He did not despair of Medora,
but felt that he would be called to do all over again what he had hoped
was already done. He must convince her that he was right and weary not
until she had come over to his views. After marriage, her mind would
gradually take its colour from him, if the operation were conducted
painlessly. He satisfied himself that this would happen, and had
thought himself into a contented spirit when he went to see Dingle.

Ned said little, and the interview was extraordinary. It did not take
long, yet sent Kellock reeling out into the night bewildered, shocked,
with the whole scheme of his future existence threatened, and no
immediate possibility to retrieve the position.

“You’ve come, then,” began Mr. Dingle. “Well, a good bit has happened
since I saw you last, and, things being what they are here, it looks
rather as if I might return to the Mill.”

“I hadn’t heard nothing of that,” answered Jordan.

“You needn’t mention it; but Mr. Trenchard is quite willing if I see no
objection—so Ernest Trood tells me—and I imagine you’d have nothing
to say against it.”

“As to that, your plans are not my business. Of course, that might
alter my own plans.”

“Well, your plans are not my business. In fact, we needn’t trouble much
about each other in any case.”

Jordan reflected.

“No, it wouldn’t be natural, though I bear no malice, and I hope you
don’t,” he said.

“Have I shown malice?” asked the beaterman. “Have I taken this outrage
in a malicious spirit?”

“You have not.”

“I’ve taken it lying down, and you know it; and I dare say, at the
bottom of your heart, you’ve been more than a bit surprised sometimes
to see how I held in.”

“You’re a thinking, reasonable being.”

“Were you? You’re not surprised at the line I took, because I did
pretty much what you would have done if the positions had been
reversed, and I had run away with your wife. But I should have thought
you had wit to marvel a bit how a man like me took it so tame. If I
could knock you into the water for advising me to be kinder to her,
didn’t it ever strike you I might have done even a bit more when you
stole the woman?”

“As to that, I’ve understood up to the present you meant to do a bit
more. It was made clear to me you were going for damages along with the
divorce.”

“I thought of it, and I could have got them, no doubt; but what held my
hand off you when this happened, holds it still. I’m not going to claim
damages.”

Kellock was silent for some moments, arguing with himself whether he
ought to thank Ned for this concession, or not. He decided against so
doing; but felt it right to explain.

“You might think I ought to thank you for that. But I don’t, because,
if I did, it would be admitting you had waived what was your right.
But I deny you had any right to do such a thing as to try and take
my money. Your wife left you of her own free will, and on her own
judgment, and came to me, and though the law—”

“We needn’t worry about nonsense like that,” interrupted Ned. “I’ve
got a bigger thing than that to say. You’re so great upon defying the
law, and getting everything your own way, and you know so much better
than everyone else, the law included, how life should be run, and how
we should all behave, that you’ve rather defeated your own object,
Kellock. I dare say some people would think it funny what I’m going to
say; but you won’t. In fact, you’ve been hoist with your own bomb, as
the saying is, and the reason I didn’t go to quod for you is just your
own defiance of law. You saved yourself some ugly punishment at the
time; but only to get worse at the finish. So what happened was you
disobeyed the law, not me.”

“This is all a foreign language to me,” answered Jordan.

“Is it? Well, you’ll see the English of it in half a minute. The good
of three people hangs to this, and when I tell you that in my opinion
all three will be the losers by your marrying Medora, perhaps you’ll
begin to see where I’m getting.”

“As to that, you’ll do well to mind your own business. I can brook no
interference from you between me and Medora.”

“It isn’t so much what you can brook, as what is going to happen.
You’ve taken a very high-minded line about Medora, Kellock—so
wonderful high-minded, in fact, that you’ve got left altogether. You
deserve to have a halo and a pair of wings for what you’ve done—so
Philander Knox said, and I quite agree. But you don’t deserve to
have Medora. And you’re not going to have Medora. You said, ‘I’ll
treat this woman with all proper respect, and all that, till I can
marry her’; and that showed you to be a very decent man according to
your own lights; and when I heard about it, I spared you; but there’s
another side. I can’t divorce Medora now, because I’ve got nothing to
divorce her for—see? You might think I ought to help you to hoodwink
the law in the matter, for the sake of honour and decency—things for
which the law has got no use. And I would willingly enough for some
people, but not for you. Because what you’ve done shows a lot of other
things—chief being that Medora and you never would get on, really—not
as husband and wife. Even as brother and sister, there’s been a lot
of friction lately, so I hear; and what would it be if you were
married? So, you see, when I say you don’t deserve Medora, Kellock,
I’m not saying anything particular unkind. In fact, the truth is that
a man with your nice and superior opinions can’t marry another man’s
wife—not according to law. You ought to have thought of that.”

“It’s not too late.”

“Oh, yes, it is—much too late. You can’t go wrong now, even if you
thought of such a thing; which you never could. You’re damned well out
of it in fact; and the longer you live, the better you’ll be pleased
with yourself, I dare say. The divorce laws may be beneath contempt
and only fit for gorillas; but, while they are the laws, you’ve got to
abide by ’em.”

Jordan Kellock stared with round, horrified eyes. Even in his dismay
and grief he could wonder how the simple Ned had reached this high
present standpoint, and was able to address him like a father lecturing
a child. He began to recognise the hand of Mr. Knox.

Now he pulled himself together, rose, and prepared to be gone.

“I can only imagine that others have helped you to this extraordinary
decision, Dingle.”

“I don’t deny it. I never was one to think I could run my own show, or
play a lone hand. A pity you didn’t feel the same. A lone hand always
comes to grief. You talk to Philander Knox about this. He’s a great
admirer of yours. But he’s looked at it from the outside, as a student
of character. He’s got no axe to grind about it.”

“And Medora?”

“I don’t care a cuss about her. As to her line, you’d better inquire at
headquarters. I haven’t seen her again, and don’t much want to.”

“This flings her on to the mercy of society, Dingle.”

“Well, society won’t eat her. Society’s pretty merciful, so far
as I can see. You talk it over with her, and get her views of the
situation—whatever they may be.”

“I’ll only ask one question. Does she know that you don’t intend to
divorce her?”

“She does not. I only decided myself half an hour before you called.”

“Is it possible for me to prevail with you to change your mind, Mr.
Dingle?”

“No; because with your views of what’s straight and honourable, you
won’t try. You know I can’t divorce her. Why? Because you was too good
and clean a man to make it possible. So long. Just you think over all
I’ve said. You don’t know your luck yet, but you will.”

Jordan Kellock went out into the darkness, and he staggered like a man
in drink. He tottered down the hill from Ashprington, and intended to
start then and there for Cornworthy and Medora; but he found himself
physically unequal to any such pilgrimage. His knees shook and his
muscles were turned to wool. He walked to the inn, ascended to bed,
and lay phantom-ridden through the hours of an interminable night.
The shock of what he had heard was so great that his mind was too
stunned to measure it. A situation, that demanded deepest reflection
by its own horror, robbed him of the power to reflect. He lay and
panted like a wounded animal. He could not think by reason of the
force of his feelings. He could only lick his smarting wounds. Then he
fell into genuine grief for Medora’s plight. Actual physical symptoms
intruded. He found his eyes affected and strange movements in his
heart and stomach. His hands shook in the morning, and he cut himself
shaving—a thing that he had not done for years. He could not eat, yet
suffered from a sensation of emptiness. Daylight by no means modified
his sense of loss and chaos. It found him before all things desirous
to see Medora; but, by the time he was up and dressed, this purpose
failed him for a season, and his thoughts were occupied with Knox.
Then he turned again to Medora, and felt that life must be suspended
until he could see her and break to her what had happened. It was now
too late to visit Cornworthy until the day’s work should be done, and
remembering how often work had saved a situation, solved a problem and
helped him through difficult hours, Kellock proceeded to the Mill, and
was thankful to be there. He felt that labour would calm his nerves,
restore his balance, and assist him, before the evening came, to
survey his situation in the light of this convulsion. He found himself
entirely interested in what Medora would do; and he believed that he
knew. His heart bled for her.

Thus absorbed, he reached the vat. He was engaged upon the largest
sheets of drawing-paper at the time—work calling for more than average
lifting power and muscular energy—and he was glad that now, for a
while, work must take the first demand upon mind and body alike.

The vats were full, and the machinery hummed overhead; coucher and
layer stood at their places, and Jordan, slipping his deckle upon the
mould, grasped it with thumb on edge, and sank it into the pulp.

Elsewhere Knox, Robert Life and others had taken up their positions at
the breast of the vats with their assistants about them, and the work
of paper-making went on its immemorial way.

Then that happened that was long remembered—an incident of interest
and concern for the many, a tragedy for the one. Kellock brought up his
mould, and instead of proceeding with the rhythmic actions to right
and left—those delicate operations of exquisite complexity where
brain telegraphed to muscle, and motor and sensory nerves both played
their part in the completion of the “stroke”—instead of the usual
beautiful and harmonious gestures that drained the mould and laid a
sweet, even face of paper upon it, he found forces invisible at his
elbows and an enemy still more terrible within. His brain hung fire; a
wave of horrible doubt and irresolution swept over him. It ran through
the physical parts engaged—his arms and breast muscles and the small
of his back. He stared at the mould, turned and washed off the faulty
sheet he had created, and made an attempt at a jest to Harold Spry, who
was watching, all eyes.

“Where are my wits, Harold?” he said. Then he took a deep breath, and
dipped the mould again.

Spry and the layer watched sympathetically. To their eyes there seemed
no failure as Kellock drew up his load; but he knew. A condition of
tremendous tension raised his heart-beat to a gallop, and his eyes grew
misty. He gasped like a drowning man, and felt the sweat beading on his
forehead.

“I’ll—I’ll just get a breath of air and come back,” he said, dropped
the mould, and went out of the shop. Spry washed the mould, then he
walked down the line of vats and spoke to Knox. A man came from the
engine house with a message, and Ernest Trood also entered with some
information for Robert Life. What he heard made him hasten out of doors
to find Kellock sitting up on a form at the entrance of the vat house
with his head in his hands.

“What’s the matter, my son?” asked Trood, kindly enough; but a look at
Jordan told him all he feared to hear.

The young man’s expression had changed, and there was fear in his
eyes, as though they had just mirrored some awful thing. The
resolute, closely-knit Kellock seemed to have fallen to pieces. Every
limb indicated the nerve storm under which he suffered. Trood was
experienced, and knew the danger. He believed that Kellock had given in
too soon.

“Fight—fight like hell!” he said. “Don’t run away from it. Don’t give
it time to get into you. Come back now, lad—this minute. At your age,
it’s nothing—just indigestion, or a chill about you. If you let it
fester, you’ll go from bad to worse, and very like have to knock off
for six months before you look at a mould again.”

“It’s no good—it’s gone,” said the younger man; but he obeyed, and
followed Trood into the vat house.

Knox had warned the rest to ignore the sufferer, and no man took any
notice of Kellock as he returned.

Spry was waiting, and greeted him cheerfully.

“You’re all right again—your eyes are all right,” he said.

Trood turned his back on Kellock, and everybody was at work as usual.
He made a tremendous effort with himself, called up his utmost
resolution, smiled and nodded to Spry, who was whistling, gripped his
deckle to the mould, and then strove to think of something else, pursue
his business in the usual mechanical fashion, and let his unconscious
but highly trained energies pursue their road.

But it was not to be. Some link had strained, if not broken, in the
complexus of brain and nerve and muscle. Perfect obedience was lacking;
a rebel had crept into the organism. For once, the man’s expressionless
face was alive with expression; for once his steady and monotonous
voice vibrated.

“It’s all up,” he said to Harold Spry.

Then he put down the mould.

Trood was beside him in an instant, and Knox came also. Elsewhere those
who had no love for Kellock talked under their breath together. Others,
who came and went, took the news.

Trood made the vatman try again; but only once. He saw in a moment that
the breakdown could not be bluffed; the fault in the machine was too
deep.

Jordan put on his coat, and Trood arranged to drive him to Totnes
presently to see a doctor. The young man was calm, but his will power
appeared suspended. He looked into the faces of his companions for any
ray of comfort; and the fact that he could do so was testimony to his
collapse.

He went back to “The Waterman’s Arms” presently; and through the Mill
like lightning flashed the news that Kellock had lost his stroke.

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