THE lamp under the red shade was beginning to burn low. The clock on the mantelpiece struck one. Winifred Darrell laid aside wearily the book she was reading and pressed her hand to her aching eyes. They were very beautiful, blue eyes, and none the less attractive because of the pathetic look in them. It was a winsome face, too, tender and sympathetic, though a close observer would have noticed the firm set of the lips and the rounded curve of the chin. Mrs. Darrell had been married for two years now, and up to quite lately there had been no great call for firmness and determination on her part. But the time seemed to be at hand at length.
Why should she go on like this? she asked herself. Why endure all this unhappiness and misery? As far as she could see, the end was inevitable. She had tried at first to close her eyes to her husband's shortcomings, but she recognised the weakness of such a course now. Not that she cared for him any the less, but that she was wavering in her allegiance to Richard Darrell, but the curse had fallen upon him. Day by day its blighting influence was casting a greater cloud over the little household in Dulwich.
Richard Darrell was a confirmed gambler. At one time it had been a mere amusement to him. Now it was more or less the passion of his life. He neglected his literary work for it. He appeared to think of nothing else. It was useless to point out to him that certain tradesmen were clamouring for their money, and that the landlord intimated his intention of exercising his powers if the rent was not paid in the course of a few days.
Winifred had put her foot down at last. She had spoken to her husband as she had never dared to speak before, and he had taken it all in good part. Winifred knew how good and kind a heart it was that lay behind the husk of greed and selfishness which was fast becoming part of Darrell's nature.
He promised to give it all up. He had gone out late in the afternoon to try and collect a sum of money due to him which would be sufficient, at any rate, to get rid of the importunate landlord. He had faithfully promised to be back in time for dinner, and Winifred had gone about her work with a lighter heart than she had known for some time. And now it was past one in the morning, and Darrell had not yet put in an appearance.
There was no reason for Winifred to ask herself what had detained her husband.
The lamp was burning still lower, when presently there was the rattle of a key in the door, and Darrell came in. His face was white, his eyes gloomy, and despairing. How many times had Winifred seen him like this before? She asked herself. Would he ever give up this degrading habit? There was only one hope for him, as far as the girl could see—Darrell was an exceedingly moderate man. To all practical purposes he was a teetotaller.
"I am sorry to be so late," he said.
"You promised to come home to dinner." Winifred said in a voice she tried in vain to keep steady. "Oh, Dick can't you understand how much more you owe to me than you do to those friends of yours? And you gave me your word of honour you would come back by seven o'clock. You promised you would not go near the club."
Darrell flung himself wearily into a chair and sat there with downcast head. He was blaming himself bitterly now. He was more penitent than Winifred knew. She hardly dared to ask the question which was trembling on her lips. It meant so much to her.
"Did you see Mr. Horley?" she asked.
"I did," Darrell admitted. The temptation to deceive his wife was strong, but he resisted it. "He gave me a cheque. But the money is all gone. I lost every penny of it, Winifred. I swear I never intended to touch a card to-night. I don't know how it happened. I believe it is a kind of madness with me. I won't say I am sorry."
Darrell broke off, and hid his face in his hands. He was shaking from head to foot now in a very anguish of remorse.
"You know what is going to happen now," Winifred said quietly. "We were told definitely enough that unless the rent was paid on Saturday we should be turned out into the street. Everything here will be sold by auction, and provided the landlord gets his money, he will not trouble about us. Our pretty home will be destroyed. Things that we value will be given away. Then we shall be forced to go into dreary lodgings in some back street. People will point to me and pity me for a gambler's wife. If you still cared for me as you once did——"
"I do still, I swear it!" Darrell cried. "If I could only get this cursed madness out of my veins. I would prove to you—but what is the good of my talking like this? I'll get up early in the morning and finish that story for the 'People's Magazine.' I can get the money for it as soon as it is finished, and it will be quite sufficient to pay our landlord his rent."
Winifred said no more. She knew by bitter experience what a promise like this was worth, though, for the time being her husband meant everything that he said. Just now Winifred's mind was full of the scheme which had lately come into her head. Such an idea could have only occurred to the artistic imagination. The expedient was a desperate one, but it was just possible that it might succeed.
"It is the only chance," Winifred murmured to herself. "For once in a way I must play the part of gambler, too."
DARRELL was quite as good as his word. He was up shortly after daybreak, and by lunch time had finished his story. He sat opposite his wife, making his plans for the afternoon.
"I'll go into the city this afternoon," he said, "and get that money. I may be a trifle late, because I am not quite sure whether Winterscale is back from his holiday or not. I know he is coming some time to-day, and if he doesn't happen to be at the office, I'll run down to Wimbledon Park and see him. If I tell him I want the money badly he will probably give me his own cheque."
Once her husband had departed, Winifred set about to put her project into execution. The first thing to do was to make an excuse for getting rid of the one servant. It was an easy matter for Winifred to tell the domestic that she was going up to London for two or three days, and that the house would be locked up during her absence. Once this was done and the maid out of the way, Winifred proceeded to her room and unlocked her desk. In it she had carefully placed aside a little heap of gold coins which she was keeping with a view to some desperate emergency. Winifred was trembling with excitement and eagerness now. There was an unsteady smile upon her face as she passed from one room to another. Here were all the artistic objects which she and Dick had got together. Never had the little house appeared so dainty and refined. But there was something else to do besides standing there and admiring the household goods. Winifred put the money in her pocket and turned resolutely towards the street. At the end of an hour's time, she was back again, but she did not come alone; she was accompanied by two men who listened respectfully enough to the instructions which she gave them. The work was done at length.
The summer light was beginning to fade, the gloaming was giving place to darkness as Darrell came up the garden path with the rose bushes on either side. He stopped for a moment, wondering if he had not made some mistake. But here was the number on the gate. There were the roses on each side of the path just as he had left them that morning. There was one particularly fine cluster of ramblers which he had specially admired. But where were the roses and creepers in tubs which Winifred had so skilfully trained over the veranda? The place looked hideously bare now. Even the mat and the scraper had vanished. There was no light in the hall. And in the place of the lace fringed curtains in the downstairs windows, dingy sheets appeared to have been pinned. As to the upstairs windows, they were perfectly blank, like great, reproachful eyes smiling down on the gambler. With a strange misgiving in his mind, Darrell put his key into the lock, and strode into the hall. The place was empty. The drawing-room was absolutely devoid of furniture. In the dining-room was a small deal table with a chair on either side. There was no cloth on the table, no softly shaded lamp, nothing but another blatant tallow candle showing some kitchen earthenware and black-handled knives and forks. A pat of butter stood on a plate flanked by a loaf of bread without a tray. On another plate was a piece of tinned meat, the ordinary cruet had vanished, and its place was taken by so many teacups.
On one of the chairs Winifred was seated. Her face was pale; her eyes gleamed like stars. She did not speak as Darrell entered, she merely looked at him. Her glance told its own story.
"What is the meaning of this?" Darrell stammered.
"Surely it speaks for itself," Winifred murmured. "This is the gambler's home that I prophesied last night. I didn't foresee that it was quite so close, but here it is. Practically all the money you have earned the last six months has been wasted upon your dissolute companions. You have not given your own obligations a single thought. Oh, I am not reproaching you—I am leaving these bare walls and dilapidated house to do that. The day of reckoning is come, and even though we owe the landlord nothing, there are others who are clamouring for their money. But come and sit down. Let us make the best of it. This is your doing, Dick. I hope you have brought a good appetite with you."
"I couldn't touch a mouthful," Darrell groaned. "Why don't you say something harsh to me, Winnie? Why don't you reproach me? Why don't you chastise me with your tears? God, to think that I should have brought my wife and myself down to this!"
"Reproaches are useless," Winifred said. "The thing is done and past all mending. You are the gambler, and I am the gambler's wife."
There was no reply from Darrell. He could only sit there dazed and stunned, full of bitter self-reproaches, full of the deepest remorse and humiliation. And there was no gainsaying every word that Winifred had said. Wilfully, with his eyes wide open, he had brought this upon himself.
His haggard eye scanned the bare walls and the naked floor. It was only now that he realised to the full everything that they had lost. He turned his back upon the untidy table, and walked up and down the room for an hour, or more. From under her long eye lashes Winifred watched him.
"I want you to go to bed," he said presently. "I want to be alone and fight this thing out. I will make no promises, Winifred. But in the future, if I have any manhood left——"
The dawn was breaking before Darrell extinguished the tallow candle and crept thoughtfully up the stairs. He had fought with himself through those still dark hours. He knew now that he had emerged victorious. Never again would he touch a card. Never more would they have the slightest fascination for him. The strengthening light was shining in on his face, and tears of joy and thankfulness came into Winifred's eyes as she saw the look here. She advanced towards her husband and held out her hand.
"Oh, you need not tell me," she murmured. "I know. Ah, I can understand the struggle you have had since I left you last night Dick, you will never touch a card again?"
"No," said Darrell simply. "I never shall. My dearest girl, we must get away from here and start the new life somewhere else. And if I live and keep my strength I will give you another home——"
"I think this will be quite sufficient for me," Winifred said. "Come this way and I'll show you something. We have to go as far as the big garret at the top of the house.... What do you think of that? I suppose you recognise what it is?"
"All the furniture of the house," Darrell said in a dazed voice. "My dear child, what does it mean?"
"It was a little plot of mine," Winifred said unsteadily. "You wanted an object lesson. You wanted something which would appeal to your imagination. And when I saw your face last night, I did not regret my inspiration. Oh, I know what you have been through the last few hours. I know, I feel in my heart that your cure is a permanent one. And now, don't you think that before people are about we had better set to work and restore things to their proper places again? The neighbours? Oh, it doesn't matter what the neighbours, think. And besides, there is always the excuse of house-cleaning. Dick, it seems a long time since last night."
"Indeed it does," Darrell said with a long-drawn breath. "Time enough for a gambler to grow into an honest man."