The soft swish of incessant rain upon the pavement was overborne by its patter on Alan Graham’s umbrella as he held it tilted sideways against the wind. A fierce wind which, finding outlet down one of the narrow alleys that debouched from tortuous back slums into the Chelsea Streets leading to the Embankment, drove furiously against his slim gentility. It was as if the accumulated squalidness over which the gust had swept felt spite at such as he; for his immaculate overcoat, his silk muffler, his patent-leather shoes and carefully upturned black trousers bore witness to his social status.
Quite undoubtedly, he was a smart young man returning from some party; for it was past midnight.
What made him pause, arrested in his walk? There was nothing to be seen through the misty murk before him save the narrowing pavement, empty now, but all blistered by the feet of the humanity which had passed over it by day—a day of hopeless, sodden rain.
Was it the half-seen, evil smelling slush of mixed muck and rain-water which at his feet was gurgling along the gutter burdened with the refuse of the side alley—a rivulet of human filth over which he must step widely?
No, it was not thought for his patent-leather shoes. It was the bit of orange-peel sailing past gaily to disappear down the grating which awaited it at the crossing. For in one second the glimpse had brought to mind blue skies, burnished leaves, scented air, golden fruit hanging side by side with bridal blossoms. Seen where? In many lands. And he was back in all of them in that second—that half second, that mere fraction of time.
Marvellous utterly! Light travelled—but what did it matter how fast or how slow? The whole thing was unapproachable, unfathomable!
So the Great Question assailed him, as it assails all of us at times.
What the devil did it all mean? What was he doing there? For the matter of that, what was he? What was the world?
It took no time at all to pass from the general to the particular.
Why on earth had he, Alan Graham, a man of thirty, well bred, well educated, well intentioned, been authoritatively lecturing a Royal Society on the indivisibility of the atom when he knew nothing for certain?
Nothing! Nothing at all, save that he did know nothing; not even—— A sudden impingement on his slanted umbrella made him realize that outside matter was in motion—violent motion.
Some one coming down the alley had blindly run full tilt into the umbrella.
He straightened it and saw by the dim light of the corner lamp, first, a pair of grey eyes wild with mixed fear and certainty, then a pale oval face, with a shapeless felt hat drawn down for shelter over it, and a breathless voice said hurriedly:
“I beg your pardon; but please, please, can you tell me where the nearest doctor lives? Mother is ill, very ill.”
There was a something that compelled reply, in voice, in face, in eyes, and Alan Graham responded to it simply.
“I am a doctor,” he said, “perhaps I can be of use.”
The answer was a thin, trembling clutch on his hand. “Come! It isn’t far—just past the mews and Mother is so ill, so very ill. Come, please, please come!”
He could not choose but to comply, and found himself following a rapid pair of rubber boots below a slim figure swathed in a mackintosh. The girl with the grey eyes was well protected against the weather anyhow, so he could keep his umbrella to himself; but, tilted as it was against the wind, he could not see where he was going, and only the clean country-like smell of fresh hay and horses made him realize he was passing the mews. Afterwards the indefinable unpleasantness of crowded humanity told him he was amongst the dwellings of the poor. At the corner of a cross alley he passed windows that evidently belonged to a small public house; but all was dark; All he could see were the twinkling rubber boots ahead of him. At last they stopped at a door which opened to her touch. Evidently therefore it must be a tenement house. Undoubtedly. Just a narrow staircase, no more. It was full of the stench of unburnt gas from a burner turned so low that it showed only a blue flicker that barely illuminated the dingy, stained walls. Here the figure paused to kick off its rubber boots with the whisper:
“Mother thinks I come in a taxi; and her hearing it ever so good, though she is blind.”
Thereinafter Alan Graham found himself following, somewhat incredulously, a pair of slim legs cased in nude silk stockings, the feet shod in much worn, be-tinselled satin shoes with incredibly high heels. They stopped at a door three flights up where the whisper rose again:
“Leave your umbrella. Mother is so sensitive to damp—to everything, because she’s blind.”
And with the words mackintosh and hat were discarded. In the almost total darkness Alan Graham saw slimness and whiteness until with the opening door a flood of light made him give an involuntary exclamation, for it revealed a figure dressed, or undressed, in extreme cabaret fashion, spangles, tights, filmy stuffs pretending to hide what is usually hidden. All dirty, crushed; but still alluring and provocative. Something in the man’s face made the girl say hurriedly:
“I knew Mother was ill, so I didn’t change tonight. Oh, do look at her, please, and not at me!”
It was a small, attic room ablaze with light from a fierce gas fire, and a silk-shaded gas pendant. Small, with only a skylight for window, but curiously refined. A small table, on which were a single rose in a specimen vase and a dainty cup of untouched milky food, stood by the cushioned arm-chair where a grey-haired woman was resting. Asleep—or dead?
He took a step nearer and lifted a small, limp hand.
“She is rather cold, I’m afraid,” came the girl’s voice anxiously, ”but I turned the gas on full.”
Cold! Yes; the coldness of death. It needed but a glance to assure him that he was too late for earthly aid; he had but to tell the girl. A sudden, vast pity surged up in him. Whose hand had kept the blind, helpless mother in—in a fool’s paradise? That half-naked girl?
His slight hesitation aroused her rapid, decisive speech.
“Well,” she questioned, “what has to be done? Tell me quick! I can do anything.”
How was he to tell her?
“You can do nothing,” he began; then paused before the quick query which leaped at him like a command.
“You mean that she is dead?”
“Yes,” he replied quietly, feeling absolute truth the kindest. “She has died in her sleep.”
There was no outcry. The girl stood quite still, her hands clasping each other tightly. “I was afraid,” she murmured, and the fear died from her eyes, leaving certainty and bewilderment. So she stood, quiet; then slowly she sank to her knees and, clasping the dead woman in her whitened arms, hid her face where the paint lay in streaks from the rain, on the dead woman’s bosom, and murmured: “Mother! Mother! Dear little Mother, poor little Mother, you will never want Lil any more.”
For the life of him Alan Graham, who, though he was chiefly occupied by the indivisibility of the atom, had a very soft heart, could not speak. So he turned away and, half-unconsciously, took stock of the situation. Blind! Did not evidently know that her daughter postured at some low-down cabaret! A gentle, refined face made more so by peaceful death; possibly of superior class. Blind! everything she touched, the china, even the silken texture of the cushion where she rested, the soft carpet whereon her dead feet lay, making a fool’s paradise created by love. What lies that love must have told!
A certain impatience at the thought made him return to business.
“Some one must be called,” he said curtly. “Some neighbour—or I might send in the district nurse.”
The girl raised her head. She had been crying; the tears were making still more havoc with the paint, but she spoke calmly—at first anyhow:
“Thank you,” she said, “but I would rather be alone. It—it is the last thing I can do for Mother.”
Her voice trembled over the last words and Alan Graham, fearing a breakdown, shook his head.
“You must have some one,” he said, “I can’t possibly leave you here alone.”
She rose instantly seeing reason in his words. “Then I will fetch Mrs. Martin,” she replied. “She lives close by and goes out when people are born and die. She can come—if you can’t go—I mean if it is best——”
“Certainly it is best,” he echoed decisively, “I will stay till you return.”
When she had gone, he lifted the slight, dead figure from the arm-chair and laid it on the bed in a sort of closet room beyond. As he did so he noticed that the bed was covered by a silken quilt, and that the dead woman’s clothes were soft and of fine texture.
Verily a fool’s paradise!
Closing the door, he sat down in the empty chair, and turning down the gas, for the room was unbearably hot, awaited the cabaret girl’s return. Blind! Blind! The thought obsessed him. He saw the delicate, refined face of the dead woman full of smiles. At what? At what did not exist. Alan Graham was emphatically scientific. He did not trouble himself about things he could not weigh and measure. So he had no definite outlook on things spiritual. The second son of the richest brewer in the trade he had taken his doctor’s degree more as the open door to research work than with any intention of practising, and lived on in his patriarchal home perfectly contented with his private laboratory and his experiments. Except when metaphysics hit him in the face, as they were doing now. In a real world, he had stumbled into unreality. So he caught himself wondering how the girl would take her mother’s death. Was she religious? Would she have to think that the dead knew of the trick that had been played, or would she have the comfort of calm, eternal, smiling sleep? And what would she herself do? Something decisive, that was certain: those grey eyes had power in them and will.
The sound of a light step on the stairs followed by a heavy one came sooner than he had expected; yet eager apology almost forestalled the girl’s entrance:
“I’m sorry to have kept you so long; but Mrs. Martin was in bed,” she said. “However, now she’s here, it’s all right, isn’t it? and you can go——”
A lump of fat flesh, apparently tied round the middle by an invisible cord, which stood wheezing at the door here broke in, volubly, soothingly, while easy tears rolled down cheeks that were made for smiles.
“All right! Yes, yes, dearie, it’s all right w’en you’ve got Martha Martin. She’ll see to it all proper and considerate like as if it was royalty itself. So don’t you worrit, you pore thing; but sit down and ’ave a good cry and a drop o’ brandy and water same as you give the deceased lady as won’t need it no more, and you do, don’t she, doctor?”
Anybody less like one in need of stimulants than the cabaret girl at that moment Dr. Alan Graham had never seen; for the exertion she must have had in bringing Mrs. Martin up to the scratch had naturally flushed her paint be-streaked cheeks and put a gleam into her grey eyes. Still, even with the Gamp of the slums, the faculty is over-apt to follow a nurse’s lead, so he might have added weight to the suggestion had not the slim, half-dressed, bespangled figure said imperiously:
“Then that is all, doctor, and thank you. I—I don’t know your name and—and”—here her voice grew a little unsteady—“I’m afraid I can’t give you your fee to-night. I—I have no money; but my week’s pay is due to-morrow, so, if you would give me your address——”
The pity of it all struck Alan Graham’s kindly heart hard. “I don’t want any fee,” he said hurriedly, “I’ve done nothing. If I could do any more——” Here he turned to Mrs. Martin. “If anything is wanted—certificates or things of that sort—I can always be found at the Red House; just round the corner, on the Embankment, you know it. Mr. Graham’s house, I am Dr. Alan Graham.”
Mrs. Martin became voluble. “Lordy me,” she exclaimed, “to think of it! Lil, my dearie, you are honoured and ’ow your pore dear Ma would ’ave bin pleased—jest as you always kep’ her, a real lady, for Lil ’as bin a good daughter, sir, as I know, ’avin ’ad her week’s rent reg’lar this three years past; and knowin’ the Red ’Ouse of course we all do, and drinkin’ Mr. Graham’s beer we all are; an’ none better——”
Here the impatient tap of a high-heeled satin shoe that had once been white ceased, and a hard, metallic voice interrupted:
“No certificate will be wanted. My mother was attended by—a doctor—he warned me—to expect—so—so——” The voice despite manifest efforts to remain hard tailed off; yet it added still evenly, “But thank you all the same. It was kind of you to come, and I will send you what I owe to-morrow.”
He looked at the slim, half-naked figure before him, so independent, so defiant, and something in him challenged the grey eyes.
“Good-bye,” he said, “won’t you shake hands?” And he held out his.
But she also had come to challenge and hers remained still.
“They are all over paint,” she said coldly.
“So they were when you gripped me in the street,” he replied quietly. “Why not now?” And with that he gripped her hand, and holding it repeated that if anything was wanted he was to be found at the Red House.
Whereat Mrs. Martin, all smiles, though a rivulet of tears still coursed over her fat cheeks, burst into asseverations that every one this side King’s Road knew the Red House, and that she herself drank a quart of Mr. Graham’s beer every day, and more when it was a “biby,” since birth was a deal more trying than death—so she found anyhow—that he might trust her to do everything beautiful, and that Lil should have a good cry when he was gone as was only natural, since it was the best cure for sorrow as she herself knew, as she had buried her husband and five children decent and respectable.
Her cackle followed him downstairs past the blue glimmer, out into the sodden alley, but the rain had stopped; and, as he hurried into the wider street, the moon glimpsing through broken clouds lit up a hurrying figure that left a gay “good night” and a musky perfume as it passed.
But, behind it, misty, mysterious, the poplars in Battersea Park rose grey, shadowy. It was like Whistler’s “Nocturne,” he thought, as he sped along the Embankment. The still, grey river; the still, grey wall of distant trees; the still, grey bridge spanning the stream; the still, grey, shadowy road; the still, grey, glistening pavement.
And here was the Red House itself, its vast, red facade, grey and shadowy also, behind its iron gates, its grey, flagged courtyard.
He let himself in with his latch-key, and was conscious of a sudden and unpleasant shock of something between surprise and annoyance as the marble pillars and carved oak furniture of a luxurious hall revealed themselves by the light of alabaster-shaded electricity.
For it was all at variance both with the room he had left and the delicate ethereal dreaminess of the silent river, the silent clouds, the silent, shadowy trees.
He had not, during his short walk homewards, been thinking of the former: the beauty of the latter had captured his attention. Now he seemed to see the bespangled lack of clothing, the streaked and painted face, the smudged grey eyes looking at him resentfully, the hard voice saying, “They are all over paint.”
Doubtless! From head to foot smirched absolutely. The refuse of many men. The offscourings of civilization. Yet still a good daughter.
A slip of paper, evidently put to attract attention, made him glance at it as it lay on the hall-table.
“Leave the latch up. I shan’t be home till 2.30. Eve.”
His sister’s bold, clear writing. Simplicity itself. Unmistakable.
He smiled sarcastically as, after doing as he was bidden, he made his way noiselessly upstairs to his bedroom. Past the conjugal sanctuary where his father and mother, honest folk, slept the sleep of the just as they had slept for the last forty years blissfully acquiescent in fashion, blissfully forgetful in dreams that environments had changed.
His elder brother’s door was shut. Good old George! He was always an early bird. He didn’t trouble himself if the world were going to the dogs, or if the atoms were indestructible so long as he could hunt with a good pack, hit his tee shots down the fairway, and play his part as sleeping partner in the great brewery like a gentleman.
But Eve’s door was ajar, and, as he passed it, he could see the quilted silk dressing-gown, the embroidered slippers placed, ready for her before the fire; and beyond, under the delicately artistic pendant fight above the dressing-table, a gleam of silver, a sparkle of glass told of endless creams and powders and cosmetics.
So, as he shut his own door, those defiant words, “They are all over paint,” recurred to him, and he muttered “Damn” under his breath.
Why, he did not know; for, in common with most of his sex, he had no particular spite against paint.
“But are the children of drunkards more likely to succumb to the vice than the children of sober people?” said a pale lady of middle age plaintively. “I read one thing in one book and another in another; and I really am, you know, very much interested in Eugenics—it explains so much, you know.”
The scene was one of the biggest ladies’ clubs in London, the speaker, Mrs. Etherington, one of its most influential members. She was enormously rich and being a widow without chick or child, without near relations, save those humble ones with whom she had quarrelled, she was a happy hunting-ground for every charity in the kingdom. For it was not so much that she was soft-hearted as that she was self-complacent. She knew her own position, and what was required of it. Late in life, she—a finishing governess, beginning to dread the finishing of her own career—had had the good fortune to fall in with a nouveau riche of excellent name and doubtful parentage. He, attracted by her faded good looks, her fine manners acquired during her long years of tutelage, above all by her acquaintance with the nobility and gentry, also acquired when instructing the Ladies This-and-that, the Misses So-and-so, had married her, and thereinafter had become the happiest, the most contented, the most hen-pecked man in existence; for she was clever—very clever in her way. As might have been expected from the fact that she had raised herself from being a greengrocer’s daughter to the position of preceptress to the peerage,
She was sitting in the bow window of the tearoom. It was full almost to overflowing, for a lecture was on the programme for the day, and many members were fortifying themselves against this by coffee, cocktails and cigarettes.
“We are not talking about Eugenics to-day, however,” put in a shaven-looking woman who stood close by with a workman-like notebook and pencil in one hand, a half-smoked cigarette in the other. Shaven-looking, because from head to foot not one superfluous inch was in evidence either of body or clothes. It was as if she had been pressed through a mould that, if anything, was a little too small for her. “Mr. Fletcher’s subject is only Emigration.”
“Thank Heaven! a man!” came from a very fashionable lady lounging in an easy-chair. “Women are so prolix. Don’t you find it so, Mr. Horton?”
She spoke, languidly provocative, to the young man beside her; a would-be literary man who was trying to grow a beard before his time, and whom for the moment she, as a literary star, had in tow. His reply was lost in a singularly powerful contralto voice, sweet in tone, yet curiously resonant.
“But surely, Miss Green,” it said, “emigration has to do with over-population, and that, so to speak, is the key-note of Eugenics. As I came up from Malpas Court to-day for this lecture, I assure you the sight of the mean streets beneath the viaducts as we neared London made me feel quite sick—full from end to end with, for the most part, mere babies.”
“The elder children were in school, I expect,” put in a stoutish, merry-faced lady who looked as if she could sit on boards with the greatest comfort. “Of course the school system has its disadvantages, but it does help the mothers a little. And we have a Welfare centre in most places nowadays. Then the death-rate amongst children has decreased enormously.”
“Is that an advantage?” came the contralto voice.
“Surely, my dear Miss Malpas,” answered a rich soprano with just the taste of an Irish accent adding to its charm. “I do so dote upon babies! I always tell Lucilla here I wish I’d had a dozen instead of only one; though she is a darling.” And she squeezed the hand of the girl who held her arm affectionately.
For Mrs. Ames, or as she was generally called Amy Ames, showed her feelings frankly; indeed, there was no reason to hide them, for they were those of an open-hearted woman whose brains were the worst part of her; a good-natured, good-tempered woman who had a hatred of everything disagreeable or uncomfortable and an immense ingenuity in avoiding it. She was very good-looking, and most exquisitely dressed for the part of young matron, while the girl beside her was equally well got up as a schoolgirl. Two long plaits of hair down her back showed her immaturity.
“Then you couldn’t be just double their ages as you are of mine, could you, mother?” said Lucilla Ames, eyeing the elder woman gravely. “And that would bore you horribly.”
“Not quite double, my darling,” responded her mother quickly, “your eighteenth birthday isn’t till February, you know.” So, having corrected the inaccuracy she turned to the stoutish woman. “I do hope the lecturer will not be one of those people who think that, by calling a spade a spade, they prevent it from being an agricultural implement, with which women of our class have nothing to do. Of course I shouldn’t mind subscribing, if I could afford it, to give some poor persons a spade, or anything of that sort, but I can’t see why we should talk so much about it, when there are so many pleasant things to discuss. Now the last lecture I heard—one has to go to them of course, and it was by a woman too—was so distressing in its details that I was quite glad I hadn’t taken Lucilla. She is far too young to know about such things.”
The girl at her side seemed inclined for a denial, but at the moment the shaven woman’s voice rose peremptorily:
“One cannot begin to learn the truth too early for——” Here she was interrupted by the necessity of finding cash for the cocktail which the page had just handed to her, and ere she could recover speech her opportunity was lost in the buzz of conversation, the clatter of teaspoons, the half-toned laughter, and sweet, serious voices that began to fill the room as one fashionably dressed woman after another entered it.
Outside in the wide street the whole traffic of London seemed to be sweeping by, seen against a background of trees, beautiful in their autumn decay of gold and russet and brown.
Margaret Malpas let her steady, hazel eyes pass by the streaming cabs and lorries and omnibuses with their emblazonments of corn cures and problem plays, to rest on the leaves, rustling in the chilly afternoon breeze. They reminded her of the Malpas woods; those woods which had belonged to her ancestors for centuries. Ancestors long since sleeping their last sleep in the vault under the chancel of the old church where they had worshipped all their lives. Dead and gone they were. Those generations of brave, loyal men and women who had loved every stick and stone of Malpas and its Court; as she did now; she, the last of her race, unless she married. And about that there was a difficulty—shadowy to some, doubtless, unreal to modern notions, but to her almost insuperable.
It was the first time in all those long years that male heirs had failed; so the name had passed unbroken. But if she, heiress in her own right, married, she must either change her name or choose some one base-born enough to be willing to give up his; either was distasteful to her pride. So six and twenty years had passed and still the heir to the Court, with its woods and lands, was a distant cousin of such high rank and status that the old manor of Malpas would only too surely be merged in more important possessions. Better that than strange blood in the old place. So she had thought until a few months back, when a chance discovery that her wastrel grand-uncle Claud had confessed to an illegitimate son in India had led her to make inquiries.
So, as her steady, hazel eyes rested on the beauty of decay in the Park trees, comparing it with that of her own woods, a faint flush came to the healthy pallor of her cheeks. For the chance of spring had come to the old race, even as it lay inherent in the decay of the old trees. It might bud and leaf once more, for she had made up her mind to marry a second cousin who, though born on the wrong side of the blanket, had yet the pure, male Malpas blood in his veins. The only son of an only son, he had been born and brought up in India. Both father and mother were dead, he was clerk in the biggest drapery store in Calcutta, and he had come home for the first time at her invitation. He had proved young—two years younger than herself—tall, handsome, well mannered. Above all there was a distinct likeness between him and a certain picture in the West Gallery of a Sir Claud Malpas who had died fighting for his King in the Civil War.
What more could she desire? He would simply have to discard the name Hearsay which he bore and take that of Malpas, which was really his by all but legal right; for his baptismal name was Claud. That alone made her manner towards him affectionate; that alone was sufficient to make her feel content.
And this same Claud Hearsay was really rather a delightful person. He had no lack of brains, was quick to pick up the bearings of the situation, and had a soft, caressing manner with women which made him a general favourite, especially with those who had no personal knowledge of India, and therefore did not recognize the traces of mixed blood which were undoubtedly there. His mother by common consent had been a pure European, lawfully married, but of his grandmother little was known save a reputation for extreme beauty which he had inherited. Small wonder, then, that ere his short visit was over Margaret Malpas found herself engaged to marry him and extremely content with the outlook; while he, in his turn, blessed his good fortune. They were neither of them in love, but they both agreed that they had chosen well. Indeed Margaret’s flush deepened as she thought for the hundredth time that Claud really was a dear.
“Belovedest,” came a voice in her ear, startling her, and a girl swathed in a heavy fur coat threw herself down on the window-seat beside her; possibly the cigarette she was smoking prevented a more ardent greeting, for her face was full of affection.
“Eve!” exclaimed Margaret Malpas. “I am glad! I have just been writing to you.”
The new-comer nodded. “That’s why I’m here. I thought I should find you frowsting here about some silly problem, and I had to talk it over,” and a gay, infectious laugh went bubbling out into the crowd of earnest-minded women who were going to be lectured on Emigration.
Margaret’s hand had found Eve Graham’s and they sat like a couple of children.
“We shan’t have much time,” said the former affectionately, “for the lecture is just going to begin.”
Eve Graham laughed again. “But you are not going to listen, my dear; Fletcher is a friend of Brother Alan’s and I know he is as dull as ditchwater. Besides you know all about it! How many millions of acres all over the world waiting for superfluous babies to come and be killed by cholera, or bitten by snakes, or frozen with cold, or frizzled by heat!” She shook her head gaily. “It’s all no go, my darlingest! Every one knows your true-born Briton won’t leave his dole and his dolce far niente for snakes and frost-bite! Why should he? Why, Margie, delightfulest of demure damsels! Would any of the babies with which you contemplate aggravating the superfluous millions dream of forsaking the ancestral woods of Malpas for the North Pole or the Sahara?”
“There’s the bell,” said her hearer rather helplessly, as a loud clangour filled the room and there was a general rustle towards the door, not so much of silks and satins, as of the close propinquity of scantily clothed womankind. “I really must— I ought to go——”
“Musts and oughts are back numbers, my dear Margie,” said Eve Graham lightly. “Besides”—here her manner changed and a hard look of common sense came into her sparkling face—“you really owe me an explanation. I thought we had agreed that marriage was a mistake. I grant you we said nothing about babies; but you tell me now that you are going to marry your cousin. That’s a distinct breach of the bond—made how many years ago, Margie, when we were at that hateful school together?”
Margaret Malpas smiled gently and gripped her friend’s hand tighter.
“That was before I knew I had a cousin, Eve,” she replied, “when I was a romantic, dreaming child. In those days the very thought of giving up my name, of bringing a strange one to the Malpas woods was anathema to me. Those were the days of heat and strife about the vote for women. I used to glory in the thought of the last of the old race, myself, growing old, a sort of martyr to circumstances growing old, grey-haired, stately in silver-grey brocade and the family lace—a veritable martyr debarred only by my sex from handing down the old family name.”
Eve Graham gave the hand she held a little hug. “Beautiful picture; but all that sort of sob-stuff has been scrapped. Women are as good as men nowadays; especially for babies!”
Margaret Malpas shrank slightly. “Perhaps!” she assented. “But I am wiser now.”
Her companion’s mobile face took on a quizzical look. “Is it all wisdom, Margie? Come out with the truth! This cousin of yours? Is he handsome?”
Margaret Malpas withdrew her hand sharply. “How silly you are, Eve! Why, yes, rather handsome, and young—younger than I am—and of course I like him. But it is the old blood; and he has the old name—Claud Malpas Hearsay. So you see,” she went on more decisively, “he will only have to drop what isn’t really his, and which he doesn’t care for; besides he loves Malpas dearly.”
“And you, I hope,” suggested Eve slyly.
“That does not really matter,” retorted Margaret hastily.
Eve clapped her hands. “Bravo! Bravo! So you aren’t altogether a renegade! Love does not matter. That was our schoolgirl creed, wasn’t it?” She had loosened her swathing, fur coat, and the figure thus revealed was in a way dazzling. In absolute beauty, absolute perfection of dress it was almost startling. And above all its feminine charm rose her head and face, sexless in its close Eton crop; sex-full in its rose and lily tinting, its darkened eyes and reddened mouth.
“And you?” queried Margaret, fascinated at the sight and dimly conscious of her own tailor-made coat and skirt. “Have you kept to it? Haven’t you fallen in love?”
The other’s high laugh rang out mockingly. “I? Fallen in love? My delightfulest, don’t you remember the dear, old Irishwoman who used to end an argument by saying ‘No, girls, I simply couldn’t have fallen in love with a man who hadn’t five thousand a year!’—in those days that was wild wealth but I put it at ten thousand, and I haven’t unearthed the creature yet. Besides, I’ve come to the conclusion that falling in love is—-is ‘na poo.’ To judge by men it must be beastly uncomfortable. They gloom and groan and almost forsake their dinner. Oh, Margie, why are they such arrant fools?”
“Fools,” echoed Margaret Malpas, “but surely it is a natural instinct. To both woman and man love is——”
“Oh, don’t, please, don’t!” interrupted Eve. “They din that into my ears; but it isn’t true—for me at any rate. It’s just a sort of animal insanity.”
“Well, I haven’t had much experience,” began Margaret.
“And I have!” interrupted her friend. “You see, as a mannequin. Oh, I forgot, you didn’t know of my latest development! I took lessons from Lady Whitehill—who, by the way, said I needed none; that I was born to the trade—so now I go every afternoon to Jilks and James’s parade—and, oh Margie, it’s perfectly ripping!”
Margaret Malpas looked aghast. “A mannequin! Oh, Eve, what do your mother and your father say?”
“Say?” echoed Eve gaily. “Oh, they don’t mind, and if they did it wouldn’t be much odds. Besides, it is quite fashionable. Heaps of really well-born girls take it up seriously and make good pocket-money of it. Now don’t, with your sober face, say that it is wrong of us to take the bread out of the mouths of poor girls! But they can’t do it. Margie! They can’t wear the dresses like we do. Besides, it is such real fun and makes one feel so—so superior. Then I positively adore some of the dresses. They are almost too scrumpshy to wear in society, you know, unless one were a celebrity of sorts. Now, just look at this one! The head boss—a man of course—is kind, not only because of my looks, but because I bring men, nice society men to see—and after all men do hold the purse-strings—so sometimes, if I’m going to the right places, he lends me a dress for the evening on condition that it returns next day. Now last night I was out with a lot of lords and ladies charlestoning till two in the morning at queer places. So I wore this. Isn’t it perfectly sweet?”
She had thrown off her wraps, and, as she spoke, was away, circling and posturing in and out of the solid leather chairs and prim square topped tea-tables. The big, heavily decorated room was empty. Pages had removed the litter of coffee-cups and empty glasses. Above the incessant hum of the traffic outside, rose fitfully, as a distant door opened and shut, the monotonous drone of a voice lecturing on the need for Emigration.
With the on-coming of sunset, shadows were growing in the corners, but outside the red and gold and russet of autumn leaves still glowed, and, through the windows, sent an unreal, unearthly light into the centre of the room, lighting up the gliding, sliding figure that was so much at variance with the sober, cultured, feminine atmosphere of its environment.
It is impossible to describe a modern dress: there is too little of it. Thus where creamy ninon ended, and creamy skin began, or whether the fragile daisy chain which apparently was sole support to the beaded fringe of a skirt was strong enough to perform its duty, had best be left untold. Sufficient to say that it was perfect, alluring grace, perfect, alluring beauty, that flitted and postured into the shadows, and out again into the glow of dying leaves.
Margaret Malpas, for all her disapproval, sat entranced, a sensuous pleasure making her heart beat; so she did not notice the door at the side of the room open slowly, and it was not until the dreamlike figure stopped its circling in front of the man’s entering figure that she started up with a cry:
“Claud! How on earth did you come here?”
“They told me you had gone to the Club,” said a rarely musical voice, “so as there was some business of importance, I came on here. There was no one in the vestibule——”
“The pages were listening to a lecture on Emigration,” interrupted the mannequin demurely, her eyes appraising and approving the almost perfect specimen of young manhood before her.
And young manhood’s eyes were on her, so his voice was even more caressing, more soft as it added:
“I hope I am not in the way?”
“Not in the least so far as I am concerned,” she answered with a gay laugh. “I suppose you are Margie’s fiancé. She is my oldest friend, we were under a compact never to marry——”
But by this time Margaret Malpas had recovered her surprise and, across the room, was taking possession of her man and the situation.
“I had better put on my coat and go,” remarked Eve a trifle ruefully after formal introductions had been made. “It must be close on five o’clock and I’m due at Jilks and James’.” Then suddenly a mischievous impulse seized her and she continued, “You see, Mr. Hearsay, I’m a mannequin, if you know what that means.”
He laughed. “We had them in Calcutta at the shop——” he began. But Margaret cut him short sharply:
“She only does it for fun, Claud, and I don’t at all approve, though of course many society girls do it, and——”
She was going on with excuses but Eve interposed:
“I am glad you understand, though Margie doesn’t; but perhaps you’ll teach her how to dress better than I can. Now I must be off; good-bye. You’ll come and see me sometime, won’t you, Margie, for you’ll be wanting new clothes for your trousseau, darlingest, and you mustn’t be a dowdy any longer, even though you are good—ever so good? And bring your cousin, though he doesn’t want smartening up.”
“Is that a compliment or the converse?” he almost whispered, as he helped her on with her fur coat.
“Which you please,” she answered, lightly and aloud. “I always let men take what they prefer. It keeps them content.”
Then she bent to kiss her friend effusively and whisper in her ear: “Only rather handsome! The cat’s pyjamas, my dear!”
He saw her to the taxi as in duty bound. His manners were perfection.
“You must come and see me some day,” she said as she held out her hand. “And if Margie won’t come, bring another girl—or half a dozen. They all like it frightfully and it’s good for trade. So long.”
“What a charming girl!” he said on his return, to find Margaret had been watching them from the window.
For the first time in her life she had been conscious of purely feminine, purely instinctive, elemental jealousy.
She had felt as the first woman with a conscious mind must have felt when she saw her lover forsaking her for something more attractive.
But she set the feeling aside almost incredulously.
Eve, her oldest friend; and Claud? He at any rate had not ten thousand a year! So she answered him frankly, affectionately:
“Yes, most charming; only I wish she would give up this mannequin business.”
“It pays well,” he replied thoughtfully, “even in India it pays.”
Breakfast at the Red House was distinctly an unsociable meal. Precisely as the hall clock struck nine—it was kept to a second by Big Ben—the muffled booming of a Buddhist gong reverberated from cellar to attic, the footman, entering the breakfast-room, where for certain Mr. and Mrs. Graham were ready waiting, said reverently “Prayers is laid,” and master and mistress proceeded to the marble hall, round which what was known to each of its members as “the staff” was ranged in square formation; the butler heading one wing, the housekeeper the other, each tailing away in lessening rank to boot boys and scullery maids. Then arose a rapid reading, a confused murmur of the Lord’s Prayer, and religion being satisfactorily disposed of for the day, the staff marched out in regimental order and Mr. and Mrs. Graham retired to bacon and eggs and the marital silence which so often follows on forty years of associated life.
Yet they were good friends, these two; it was only that excessive order and punctuality had somehow deadened their spiritual life.
It was a pleasant room, this breakfast-room at the back of the house. It looked out on what was called a garden. That is to say a few square yards of God’s earth which in due season was made, by a celebrated firm of florists, to blossom forth with appropriate flowers.
At the moment it was full of chrysanthemums, a vase of which occupied the centre of the breakfast-table. Piles of unopened letters lay on a sideboard: a big one for master, not to be looked at until ten o’clock had brought the appointed time to retire to the study; smaller ones for the rest of the family, also untouched, since the younger members were not so punctual as their elders, and Mrs. Graham invariably put hers into the pochette which held her knitting, when she went at 9.45 to interview the housekeeper; since experience told her that her correspondence was chiefly bills which would have to be handed over for verification. For forty years of continual absorption in home duties is apt to narrow one’s circle of interests.
Alan was, as usual, the first to appear, for he was due, at a comparatively early hour, for certain demonstrations at a University.
“Good morning, dear boy,” said his mother affectionately, while his father gave a grunt of greeting from the “Times,” which, feet on fender, he was studying by the fire. “There are no letters for you, only something brought late last night by a girl—or so Simmons said.” There was a faint flavour of surprise in her voice.
Alan Graham changed his direction from the breakfast-table to the sideboard with a frown on his face. As he expected. Within the envelope a shilling lay neatly wrapped up in a currency note for a pound with a folded paper. “Compliments and thanks. Lilian Smith”—it was addressed in a bold, feminine hand “Alan Graham, Esq., The Red House.”
He put the packet into his pocket with annoyance. Of course he must send it—or take it back. So he sat down to his breakfast in an ill temper, which was not improved when Eve appeared in a Japanese kimono, and going straight for her pile of scented notes rallied him on the envelope which he had left behind.
“Who’s your correspondent, Alan?” she said lightly. “Writes a better hand than George’s constant nymph”—here she gave a contemptuous flirt to the next pile—“two this morning! It is getting a bit thick, and if you don’t look out, mummikins, you’ll be having Amy Ames as a daughter-in-law. George is such a juggins. A baby on the bottle could take him in.”
“But she is quite a nice woman, my dear,” asserted Mrs. Graham sedately. “Quite makes her mark and is in the best society. Of course we would prefer not a widow, still we should both—wouldn’t we, papa dear?—be very glad if George would only marry some one; some one suitable, of course. He is nearly 33 and if the business is to go on, from father to son, as it has done for a hundred years, the sooner the better. And of course Mr.— or was he Captain?—Ames died—was it before or just after Lucilla was born? I always get confused about the dates; and she is sixteen, or is it eighteen?
Eve laughed, a high, derisive laugh. “That is one of Amy Ames’s attractions—you never can tell! She wangles everything to suit her company! For my part I think Lucilla is nearer twenty, only it wouldn’t do, would it, for Amy Ames to have a daughter come out? However, George will take his own way as we all do; though I don’t somehow cotton to Amy Ames as a sister-in-law.” She was busy opening and littering the table with note after note as she spoke, and continued gaily, “No dinner for me to-night, mum. I’m going to the Co-optimists with Gerald, you know whom I mean—quite a decent chap, and we shall most likely dine at the Berkeley. May I have a boiled egg, please, the bacony ones always taste of grease?”
But Mrs. Graham, always firmly orientated, continued the subject in hand:
“It isn’t as if Father and I hadn’t given him every chance: There was that place in Scotland we took, solely because Lady Ida fancied deer stalking, and the yacht we sailed for the Hon. Miss Chetwynd, though I was sea-sick all the time. But you are all alike. I can’t think why. Alan is just as cold-hearted, and you, Eve——”
“Patience! Patience!” laughed the girl. “It will come with a rush some day. Ought to, anyhow, with you and Daddy such a dear devoted couple.” And, laying her reddened lips for an instant on her father’s bald pate, she gave Mummikins a patronizing kiss on her neat grey hair as she passed to ring the bell. “Still it is too bad of George. He’s old enough to know better. Ah, here comes his lordship!” she continued as a youngish man faultlessly got up in plus fours entered the room. Then pausing, she exclaimed: “Another pair of new golf stockings, George! Who is she?”
“Mrs. Ames, of course,” replied the new-comer coolly. “She is the only woman I know who can really play her ball properly out of a bunker, and remain feminine.”
“Or putt a man into a hole,” retorted Eve.
Alan Graham, still with a frown on his face, rose from the table. The family badinage annoyed him, and he was curiously conscious of a shilling and a one-pound note tucked away in his waistcoat pocket. He would give it back of course; but this could not be until the evening unless he sent it by post. And that, somehow, seemed cruel, and offensive. Even the cabaret girl deserved consideration.
So the street lamps were lit, and the dusk was deepening into night ere he found himself once more in Victoria Street, Victoria Mews. What a name for such an alley, winding its way through crowded hovels and houses. Not even the regularity of a real slum. All sorts and sizes with the “Fox and Goose” keeping watch and ward over the entrance, and down a blind passage to one side a broken railing and what in some remote time might have been a front garden! And the folks who lived in hovels and houses were as varied as the dwellings themselves. Jeff Blake, the wharfer, for instance, lived in one of the latter and Bull Walker, the casual, in the two-roomed shanty which had evidently once been an outhouse; while in the cramped court which ended the blind alley stood Mother Martin’s mansion, where the brass knocker was always brightly polished; and where one window-sill a-deck with straggly geraniums and lobelia showed where Ellen Bryant the street walker, had her pied à terre. For Victory Street was not particular as to its inhabitants. Anyone who could pay the rent was welcome, and there was just that flavour of old-time respectability about it that made the address not actually damnatory. At the moment, however, the alley was in rather low water for a strike was on among the riverside workers, and little Mrs. Jeff Blake as she scrubbed her doorstep against Sunday morning—for it was Saturday night—knew that if she went to buy her weekly provisions she must encroach on the little bag of savings she kept so scrupulously out of Jeff’s way.
She was a notable little woman, was Mrs. Jeff; she managed to feed her flock of six children and her big brawny husband quite successfully on his three pounds a week. But it was different when he was on the dole and the house remained as ever on the same rent—fourteen shillings a week.
“An’ yet you’re always grousin’ at havin’ so many kiddies,” Jeff would say good-humouredly, “but where’d you ’ave bin without ’em, Aggy? I wish we’d a ’ad ten or twelve for my part. The ’ouse is there, an’ they don’t cost much, unless you cockers ’em up as you do with butter instead of margarine. ’Awkins’ wife don’t.”
“An’ she’s lost four of her five,” retorted Aggy with a sniff, “an’ all ’er trouble gone. No! Jeff! Never no more. Percy’s goin’ four an’ I’m a noo woman since they left off comin’ so quick. A noo woman—and a better wife, ain’t I, Jeff?”
“Not so bad,” he asserted gruffly, but he gave her a kiss before he went over to lounge with his fellows at the “Fox and Goose.”
And she scrubbed her doorstep with a light heart while her tribe of six were enjoying their Saturday holiday in the gutter with many other tribes. For the alley was full of children; they swarmed like flies on carrion. But Mrs. Jeff Blake, as she rose from her task and unpinned her tucked up gown, looked at her youngest, Percy, a sturdy urchin of nigh four, and thanked Heaven he was the last. She was quite an intelligent creature, was Aggie Blake. She was ready to learn wisdom and, amongst other things at the clinic, she had learnt that margarine was bad for babies.
Yes! Percy was to be the very last! She almost laughed as she thought of herself four years ago—worn out, draggled, helpless, with six children under five hanging on her body and soul.
So it was with a bright face that she answered Alan Graham’s inquiry as to where Mrs. Martin could be found.
“Mrs. Martin? She’s away bringin’ Larkins’ last into the world, so you can’t see her anyhow; but if it’s a letter it’s the last ’ouse in the alley and——” Here she interrupted herself to say peremptorily to a small urchin who had run to her skirts with a mumbled petition, “No, Percy, certainly not! Dad’s out o’ work, an’ you’ve ’ad three chocolates already.”
Alan Graham looked at the little woman and the swarm of children shrieking and booing in the alley. “He is a fine little fellow,” he remarked idly. He seemed for the first time in his experience to be brought face to face with life within a few hundred yards of his own luxurious home, and the realization left him at a loss. He had been up the stairs to the door where he had first seen Lil in her cabaret dress, only to find all dark, and to have no response to his knock. And now Mrs. Martin was un-get-at-able. He was cogitating whether he should ask this little woman for further news; but she was already afloat on a flood of motherly pride. Yes, he was a fine little fellow; but so were all her six. You could pick them out from the rest. That was because she had time to look after them, not like Mrs. Larkins, who had a new one every year——
Here a tall athletic woman who, scenting conversation, had stepped out of the next house chipped in, and in a broad Scotch accent declared that it was ill to gird at the decrees of Providence, and that for her part she preferred a kettle full of boiling water in a husband’s face to being blasphemous like some folk. To which Mrs. Blake instituted a spirited comparison of her six-foot Jeff and little Dan Sweet, the journeyman tailor. And this seeming likely to produce heat, Alan Graham said hastily:
“Could you tell me, please, where I should be likely to find Miss Lilian Smith—I mean when she is likely to be at home?”
“At ’ome!” echoed Mrs. Blake compassionately, “not much of a ’ome now ’er pore mother’s gone. But she’ll be at the ’All of Delight dancin’ for sure. Couldn’t afford to give up with the fun’ral ahead of ’er—and it’s to be real genteel, Martha Martin says. A glass ’earse an’ two mournin’ coaches, though ’oos to ride in ’em I don’t know, for Lil always kep ’erself to ’erself. She was a good daughter she was, and they pays well at the ’All of Delight.”
Alan Graham felt more at a loss than ever. It was a new world to him, but the thought that came uppermost to him was this: a girl dancing to pay for her mother’s funeral.
“The Hall of Delight,” he echoed, “can you tell me where it is?”
The alley had been attracted by the spectacle of a toff talking to Jeff Blake’s wife, and a new-comer answered quickly:
“It’ll be down the road, sorr, to the right; an’ it’s aisy seen wid the flamin’ sthreamers of red-gold-and-blue lamps in a crown of light, for all the wurrld like paradise—ye cannot miss it.”
“If the gent wants ’elp I could give it ’im,” said a fresh voice.
“Let be, gurl!” came the Scotch accent. “He’s no of your kind. He’ll find paradise his lane.”
A general laugh followed the sally.
So with paradise and its flaunting streamers in his mind’s eye, Alan made his way past the “Fox and Goose” into the mews and the clean animal scent of hay and horses. A number of men, legs crossed, hands in trousers pockets, were leaning against the gaily lit facade of the public house. Paradise again! And, as he passed, a fashionably dressed figure with hurrying steps crossed in front of him.
“Evenin’, Nell,” said a man’s jeering voice. “Better stop with us. We’m not full of cash, but we’ve ’eaps and ’eaps of love.”
The woman, from her enveloping furs where a scented bouquet of false violets was nestling, jeered back in reply:
“One Jew’s worth ten of you.” And her glistening nude legs twinkled faster on their way.
Alan Graham paused for a moment or two at the spot where Lil had run into his umbrella. What should he do? Turn southwards to the Red House, or northwards to flaunting, flaring paradise?
He chose the latter. He might have an opportunity of giving back the one shilling and a pound note which all day had seemed to be burning a hole in his waistcoat pocket.
He found the Hall of Delight, as he had been told he would find it quite easily. The red, blue and yellow streamers of little electric lights gave quite a glow to the dark street. Within, it was much as other such Halls of Delight. Dirtier and dingier, it is true; but the same cloud of bad tobacco smoke hid the ceiling, and gave haloes to the pendant lights. The multiple little tables, stained, smeared, be-ringed with the marks of tumblers long since emptied, were full up; mostly by men, though here and there a woman was to be seen; generally of one unmistakable class.
Amongst these he caught sight of the be-furred neck and close toque of the woman he had heard addressed as Nell, and, as he passed her on his way to find a seat, a whiff of artificial violet scent assailed him. A waiter, greasy from head to foot, greasy in sallow face, rumpled tie and shiny dress suit, was beside him in a moment. Visitors of Alan Graham’s appearance were rare in this Hall of Delight.
“If Monsieur will follow,” he said obsequiously, “I will show.”
So, following, he found himself piloted to an oblong table set close to the proscenium of the tawdry stage, which was already occupied by a stout, youngish man in evening dress. Jewish by the look of him, but the fleshy, sensuous face showed good-nature.
“If Monsieur will excuse,” said the greasy waiter, “we are most full this evening—pardon!”
The good-nature, after one glance at the proposed table mate, remained unaltered in the flabby face, and Alan Graham chose the third of the four chairs. It suited him well, for he could see without being noticeably seen. It was a miserable, dingy stage set with a back of rural English landscape trailing away to a distant blue sea, and a foreground of dilapidated stacks, hay or corn, with a cock and a hen apparently disputing possession of some comestible. On the stage at the moment, some one in exaggerated character “get up,” was singing a comic song, either topical or sexual. He could not guess which, as the words were for the most part drowned in the roars of laughter they evoked. Evidently Lil Smith’s turn was not yet; or it was over, which was not likely. It was too early for that. His eyes, travelling to find the usual emblazoned programme, took in the adornments of the proscenium. The arms of England, above a medallion of Shakespeare’s bust, flanked by small portraits of Lloyd George and Earl Haig with “God save our England” as a runner below all. Evidently the Hall of Delight was much patronized by disgruntled heroes. Yes. There was the programme. “The Lily of Chelsea?” That must be she and he would have to wait two turns for her appearance.
The scent of artificial violets seemed to pursue him and he turned to find the be-furred neck and coquettish toque accosting his table companion with assured familiarity.
“Not to-night,” said the full, good-natured lips, “get your supper elsewhere.”
And there was a pound note on the plate. Evidently the man was not only a Jew, but a rich Jew. He sat, his elbow on the table, apparently noticing nothing, his heavy countenance immovable, until, suddenly, his little pig’s eyes—they were soft and brown for all their piggishness—lit up. It was the Lily of Chelsea’s turn and there she was.
Great heavens! What footlights did for beauty! It was the same old crumpled lack of dress, but the spangles shone like real diamonds, the hair, fuzzed in the latest fashion, showed gold, and the pink tights looked like real flesh and blood. But the eyes, those clear, cold, grey eyes? Was there a flicker of recollection there? He drew back into the shelter of the proscenium side and thereinafter saw little but the twinkling feet. She danced well, neatly, nimbly; but that was all. The rhythm of the music changed. She was evidently doing capers now. A glimpse of an out-flung foot, a turn of a pliant figure was all he could see till rounds of excited applause mixed with cries of “Bravo! Lil” “Go it, you peach” told him the turn was over and he rose to leave.
“She’s fine, ain’t she? None like her! I tell you she’s a real Terpsicore, ain’t she?” said an enthusiastic voice.
Alan turned to see his companion’s heavy face alight with real sensual emotion. He looked like a child asking for his elder’s appreciation for some exploit.
“She dances very well,” said Alan Graham, moved to reply by something pathetic in the little fat fellow’s appeal. Then something grudging made him add: “Remarkably well, considering that her mother lies in her coffin!”
His table companion half-rose from his seat. His face, his very accent changed. “What you say? Mother dead? Du lieber Gott! Is it true?”
“She died two days ago,” began the reply.
But the little Jew did not wait to hear. With a mumble of “I must see, I must speak,” he seized his coat and hat from the stand behind him, and hurried through the side door which led evidently to the back of the stage.
Alan Graham looked after him with a queer smile, half amusement and half anger. So had he meant to go; but he had only a shilling and a pound note to give back, while the little Jew had plenty of them to lavish. What, matter, he would send his debt by post.
And yet, as he walked homewards through the thronged streets, every face he met so full of itself, itself only, a vast pity rose up in him for the girl who was dancing to give her mother a genteel funeral. How plucky she was! None could have guessed from her face, that face which, in all its paint, showed so pretty under the footlights. Who could have told? Who would have thought? So the memory of her as she had knelt clasping the dead woman in her arms and whispering “Mother! Dear little mother! So you will never want Lil any more!” came home to him, and with it the resolve that the funeral should be decent and genteel. So he breakfasted early next morning and went down betimes to the biggest florist in the West End, and paid over considerably more than one pound and one shilling for a huge sheaf of red roses to be sent to Victory Street, Victoria Mews, without delay.
“Lordy me,” said Mrs. Jeff Blake as, from a respectful distance the inhabitants watched the cortege of one glass hearse and two mourning coaches, containing Lil and Martha Martin, move slowly down the alley, “never did I see such beautiful flowers. They almost covered the corfin. Couldn’t a done more for a duchess.”
But Ellen Bryant bereft by daylight of her nosegay of violets, said darkly:
“Some folks ’as luck, an’ some folks ’asn’t. I wonder which o’ them sent that. The Jew most likely.”
“The law of primogeniture is dashed unfair in my opinion,” groused George Graham despondently, as he stood, back to the fire, his feet almost in the fender, before his father, who sat in the great business-like leathern arm-chair in the study. There was an immense difference in the whole appearance of the two men. The younger, of medium height, was slim, and above all things debonair. He looked, and indeed found his world to be an admirable place. His father, on the other hand, was tall, massive, with emphatically a business face—the face of a man bound to criticize. So George had no chance; for the atmosphere of the whole room made it impossible to treat things lightly, and Graham senior had been taking his eldest son to task, for failure to marry and carry on the old established firm of Graham, Brewers.
“Yes, it is a dashed shame!” continued the speaker. “Just because I had the misfortune to be born before Alan, I am asked to give up my jolly life, and settle down as husband and father. Why shouldn’t Alan give up his indivisible atom, and divide himself out into business descendants? Then there’s Eve——”
Mr. Graham’s face showed instant resentment.
“If you can’t be rational, George, at least don’t talk nonsense. To begin with Eve is a woman, and no woman can have any idea of business.”
“That’s a stale bun, father,” interrupted his son. “Women are as good, if not better, than men nowadays. Ask them if they aren’t.”
“Pshaw!” ejaculated Mr. Graham testily. “God gie us a gude conceit o’ oorsels. Besides Eve is—is peculiarly—er—feminine.”
“That is because she has nothing better to do,” argued George stoutly. “Take my word for it, father, Eve has the best business head in the family—bar yours of course. You should see her buying things. There was a Jew in a furniture shop the other day, who made her hair fairly rise by saying ‘I think you must belong to our persuasion, miss.’ She’d make a first class employer if she only had the chance; but she hasn’t, so she just piffles. That is what is the matter with the girls. They’ve nothing really their own to do; not even houses and babies—only hostels and child welfare. So lots of ’em mark time by going nap on amusements. I see it quite well, though I am a duffer, but one can’t be plus one on most golf courses in England and hold your own at Wimbledon without realizing that games mean more to women than they do to men—they lose their tempers over them much more easily.”
“In my day,” began Mr. Graham pompously, “a woman was content with her home, her family.”
“Vieux jeu!” interrupted George airily. “Families are not the fashion. There’s Jamie Oldham marrying Lady Angela the day after to-morrow. They’ve written out a contract, so he says, never to have any: though why the deuce they should get married I can’t think. And he’s a shy chap. Took his best man round the course twice this week, for fear he should bilk at the jumps. But we are a bit off the road——” Here he turned round face to the fire and held out his hands as if to warm them, a stratagem which hid his rather mobile face. “Father!” he said after a pause, “as we are at it, there’s something I want to say to you. I don’t like beer.”
Mr. Graham sat up in his chair and despite their hardness his features positively quivered. “You don’t like——” he echoed. “Are you going to insult me with a temperance tract? like young Alingham? You see too much of that schoolfellow of yours. His views are distinctly Socialistic.”
“Not at all! Not at all!” protested George hastily. “Alingham is really an awfully decent chap, always was. I’m playing golf with him this morning—but perhaps I oughtn’t to have said beer, though I do prefer cider. No, it’s the beer business I dislike. I’m no good at business, never was. Even at Eton, though you gave me a princely allowance, I never had a penny in my pocket. Some beastly beggar like Alingham got it, and if I were ever to be boss, the concern would go phut in a month. So—so——”
George turned suddenly and looked his father in the face. Thus, opposed to each other, a certain likeness showed itself in straightforward, open honesty. “What I want to suggest, father, is that you should make the family into a Limited Liability Company and——”
“George,” interrupted his father, his face assuming instant interest, “I have been considering that myself. It would save the death duties.”
George coughed slightly. “I suppose it would; besides every one is doing it: the Duke of Devonshite and——”
“Sensible men!” commented Mr. Graham. “I consider it justifiable to avoid a duty that in itself is unjustifiable. Imagine it! Close on seventy millions in the last six months deliberately stolen from the country’s trade; for it isn’t as if the money were to be employed in reducing debt, it is squandered on palatial schools and sixty feet motor roads. By heavens, George, if I were to mix up my capital and interest accounts in that way, the concern would go phut in a month. Business is business.”
The older man, excited by his pet grievance, had risen; but as George, thinking it a fine opportunity to escape, moved towards the door, he called out:
“Then you have quite determined not to marry?”
“Not at present,” began George; then something of disappointment in the hard, sternly cut face made him return and lay his hand affectionately on his father’s shoulder. “When you married Mother,” he said, “didn’t you think she was the only woman in the world and didn’t you look forward to a real home and—and to me? I’m a bit of a disappointment, no doubt, but I believe I was a perfectly priceless kid. Well, I’m waiting for that—for what you found! I expect she’ll come along in a few years. Meanwhile, make us into a company, share and share alike and diddle the death duties, and try Eve as manager instead of me. Great Scott! ten minutes past ten and I promised Alingham to pick him up at St. Olave’s at 9.45.”
When he had gone Mr. Graham stood looking into the fire for an appreciable time; then he rang for his hat and his greatcoat. Business was business, and nothing must interfere with it. George was a good boy, had always been a good boy, and it was, doubtless, as hard for the younger generation to understand the old, as it was for the older to understand the younger. But George’s proposition was almost too fantastic for consideration. Eve as manager? Ridiculous! Impossible!
Yet, at that very moment, the young lady in question was engaged in the morning-room on business that required all the clear-sightedness and judgment which she had inherited from her father.
The room was littered with bibelots from Jilks and James’s fancy department, from which she and Lady Angela, her greatest crony, the bride to be, were selecting articles that, while giving distinction to a stall at a bazaar to be held that afternoon, would yet not give palpable denial to its placard, “Home work of St. Olave’s Mission.”
“This is just priceless,” she said, turning round in her fingers a humorous pincushion surmounted by the figure of a little negro boy powdering his mistress’s face while she, arrayed in “combies” and corsets, was fastening up the suspenders of her stockings. “It would give tone to our stall and make the others dead sick; but it can’t be. Too much of an identification disc! I saw one like it in the shop window. So we had better take the Victorian lady ogling behind her fan. Just as bad, only the old frumps don’t see it. And it’s the old frumps who buy things at bazaars. Can’t you imagine it figuring away on your aunt’s chaste dressing-table? I’ll have half-dozen of those pochettes! They’re new and not over neatly made. And you can send the lot we’ve selected to the St. Olave’s Church Room before twelve o’clock,” she added, addressing the assistant from Jilks and James who stood deferentially in one corner awaiting decisions and orders.
“Certainly, madam,” he replied, “but perhaps it would be better to designate the stall, so that no mistake——”
“Great Scott, Evie,” put in Lady Angela, “wouldn’t it be awful if the Chasterton lot got our dress-ups? Yes, what is it we call our stall—St. Olave’s Mission for what?”
“Oh, that doesn’t matter! and I really forget what we are for,” said Eve, rising. “Put Lady Angela Sutton and Miss Eve Graham’s stall on it. That will be quite sufficient. And now, Angel, I can drive you down to interview my boss and see if we can’t arrange about that show off of your wedding dress. I think it is just a ripping idea, and if we can get the real train bearers so much the better. If not Jilks and James will supply them. They supply everything from accouchement outfits to shrouds!”
So the two young women, bent on their errands, threaded their way skilfully through the crash and roar of the London streets, marshalled materially to safety by white-armed policemen, but absolutely rudderless spiritually, save by inherited sense of the humanities.
And as they stood, held up, somewhat impatiently, by the inrush of traffic from the money-making east to the money-spending west, George Graham and his friend, Bernard Alingham, were snuffing up the west wind on the Downs, accompanied by the latter’s two dachshunds in pursuit of a ball, after the manner of male humanity.
“I’m hopelessly bunkered,” said the latter with a laugh, “but so I seem to be in everything. A clergyman’s is supposed to be a peaceful life; but mine isn’t. What with dowager duchesses and drunkards’ wives, gilded mansions and unspeakable slums, I am always off the course. And when I do get close to a hole a bishop or archdeacon stymies me with a rubric. You see, George, we have to deal with a vast number of degenerates who can’t think, can’t do anything but see—-that’s why the cinema is so popular—so our services have to——”
“Quite,” interrupted George Graham, judiciously playing his ball on to the green. “Shop isn’t allowed at golf! Have you been writing any poetry since you last played?”
The Reverend Bernard Alingham blushed slightly. “Only an ode to a golf ball,” he confessed shamefacedly; for this writing of indifferent verse seemed to him a snare. Like the Emperor Baber he felt inclined to regret that a “tongue which could repeat the sublimest productions should bestow trouble on unworthy verses; that a heart elevated to noblest conceptions should condescend to occupy itself with meaner and despicable fancies.” He had even written out the latter’s psalm of penitence and hung it over his bed. But it was no use. Verse writing ran in his family! All the Alinghams took to it like a duck takes to water; so as the two tramped over the Downs after a golf ball he had to recite his ode; and George Graham laughed and they were as happy as two boys; almost as happy as the two dogs who sought for and found their masters’ lost balls with the utmost dignity, and sat gravely watching him address his ball with the patience of an experienced caddie. “If I could only get them to carry my clubs,” said their owner regretfully, “but they say it isn’t fair on the working classes.”
But, despite the racing Fiat which thought nothing of challenging minutes with miles, they had to start home early, for Bernard Alingham was due at the bazaar and must have time to change first; at least so he said. But George, eyeing the neat clerical get up, dark grey from head to foot matching the dark grey hair, said dryly:
“It’s only the nether garments, and why the deuce shouldn’t plus fours be given a place among the varied costumes you wear at St. Olave’s? I’ll tell you what it is, Bernard, you high clerics are as bad as my sister Eve for dress.”
But such a subject was no joke with the Reverend Bernard Alingham, so he changed it—also his plus fours!
George, however, saying that an overcoat covered a multitude of sins, and that Eve had told him he must show up as the fancy fair promised to be A1, went as he was.
“My hat!” was his first exclamation as he entered the big church room. “What an infernal noise—and the heat of humanity matches it! Not long for me!”
The remark, if over coloured in speech, was scarcely so in reality. A huge loud speaker in the gallery was belching forth the raucous strain of “Why did I love that girl?” and various gramophones, bent on attraction to various stalls, were mingling Hungarian harmonies and old English melodies with the incessant babel of feminine voices and laughter. On this December afternoon it was already dusk, and the festoons of coloured lights hid with their almost iridescent glow the spandrels of the roof. Below was a confused mass of humanity, jostling, joking, haggling.
“The weight of this cake sixpence,” called a damsel dressed as a cook, ogling as she called.
And George, knowing himself helpless, produced half a crown and asked for no change.
“Baby dolls a wash-out,” said a tall young woman rushing up to her stall, “only got eighteenpence. Give me that dinky Golliwog with the yellow wig instead.”
George dragged his companion away hastily from coming solicitation.
“Let’s find Eve, she’s selling flowers somewhere,” he said. So past stall after stall full up with, for the most part, rubbish and for the whole part rubbish over-priced, they elbowed their way, assailed on all sides by practically illegal raffles. Past even the rector beaming amid an admiring circle of ancient dames; though here George had some difficulty in keeping his satellite attached. But he got him through, and at last convoyed him safely to where Eve, looking delightful in white muslin as a flower girl, was selling buttonholes.
“Oh, there you are at last,” she said. “Have you got that guinea you promised me, George—and don’t forget the shilling, there’s a dear boy.”
George Graham laughed grimly. “There it is, shilling and all, you little Jewess. And for Heaven’s sake, don’t decorate me with one of those awful things—I wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch with one on me.”
“Isn’t he rude, Mr. Alingham?” pouted Eve artificially. “But you”—here her voice became alluring—“are different. I have a white rosebud here that will just suit you; and there is nothing to pay, if I may fasten it in.”
Her eyes were soft, her tone softer, her whole manner full of charm; but it was all put on, all artificial. Still Bernard Alingham felt somewhat of a fool as the white fingers fumbled at the lapel of his coat.
“But I must pay something,” he objected and produced half a crown, when she smiled completion of her task.
She bobbed a demure little curtsy and said, “For the good of the cause, reverend sir.”
“What is the cause?” asked George brutally. “I don’t believe you know; not that it matters. Now tell me, like a good Christian, where I’m to get a cocktail”
“Or a cup of tea,” put in his companion hastily.
Eve bubbled over with laughter. “Oh, the Marchioness is doing the tea. Only don’t follow the example of the Australian Tommy—don’t you know the story? ‘A cup of tea, please, miss.’ ‘Sixpence. Shall I sweeten it for you?’ ‘If you please, miss.’ ‘There! half a crown now I’ve kissed it.’ ‘Certainly, miss, but—but please, miss, may I have a clean cup?’”
She did the little dialogue to perfection. It was quite irresistible, and they laughed as they moved on, she calling out to them that they must go and see Miss Collingwood’s Zoological Gardens. It was a new stunt, and though they would have to pay an extra sixpence it was well worth the money as, in addition to the wonderful animals, the show-woman herself was something to see.
So, after George had had his cocktail and Bernard Alingham his cup of tea, and after the former had rescued the latter from many determined attempts to make him auction tea-cosies, perambulators, etc., and after the former had taken many tickets that were offered him he said:
“Look here. I’ve only a sixpence left. I’m perspiring at ever pore, and the row is appalling. So let us see the Zoohoo and then be off.”
The noise, however, was even more deafening in the cornered enclosure, which was partitioned off with a large placard “6d. extra” on the door. Still, as George remarked, it was more consonant with its surroundings, since the loud speaker just overhead was giving a travesty of the Singsongers in their worst mood, and the grunts and moans and whistles which were supposed to imitate musical instruments matched the animals that were housed in cages behind a low counter. And here also the show-woman stood. A big, fair woman, massive looking, almost imperial, her plaits of golden hair wreathing her head like a crown. A woman of decision also, wielding sway over her little world; even over the Peke who refused all tricks save that of turning up its nose at creation generally. But a dachshund performed admirably, always with that dignified but apologetic look in its bright, intelligent eyes, as who should say “This is not me; it is the silly human.” Bernard Alingham’s heart went out to it, and he said to the show-woman as if for sympathy:
“They’re awfully intelligent dogs, aren’t they?”
She envisaged him at the doorway, with clear, cold, blue eyes, for the place was filled to suffocation, and replied:
“More intelligent than most men.”
Whereat the audience laughed, for it was an audience chiefly of girls with a scattering of half-grown lads and children. It was hugely pleased with the whole performance, which, in truth, was very good. There was a tortoise which drew a little cart full of dinner for the dachs, and then dashed away with tortoise-like speed when the dog barked. And there were performing mice and a bullfinch which drew its own water, and a parrot that answered abuse by saying “You’re another.” But there were little shrieks of amused dismay when a white rat began one trick after another.
“Can’t think ’ow she can touch the ’orrid thing,” said one girl as, its turn finished, it was rewarded with a stroke down its sleek fur and a piece of biscuit. The shrieks lost their amusement, however, when from a padded basket a long snake slipped on to the counter.
“It won’t hurt,” called the show-woman, “it’s quite harmless. It couldn’t hurt anyone if it tried. See how it laps its milk like a kitten! And now you shall see it dance, it loves music. In South Africa, where it comes from, they keep it to amuse the children.”
So thrumming on a small guitar she waved the instrument rhythmically. The small, glittering eyes narrowed, the whole long body, painted in soft colourings, began to vibrate, and there was the creature almost upright on the last coil of its tail, swaying in perfect tune.
Then something happened. Only a sudden explosion outside followed by laughter; but it set the festoons of coloured lights overhead a swinging, and the snake frightened, slid, like a streak, from the counter to the floor among the audience. Then shriek upon shriek—real this time—arose despite the instant cry, “Don’t be afraid; it can’t hurt.”
George, at the door, made an effort to break through the outward pressure which threatened to upset the partition, so that he might secure the reptile, but he was forestalled. With a cry of “Do be quiet, you stupid ninnies,” the show-woman had stepped over the low counter, stooped and there she was back on the counter above the fear-crazed crowd. The snake gripped at the neck was in her hand, its lithe painted body coiled up her bare, white arm; but it was evidently still frightened, mayhap angry at the quick clutch made at it, for the small eyes glittered and from the wide stretched mouth the forked tongue flickered.
“Be quiet will you, you fools!” came the authoritative voice instinct with contempt. “I tell you there is no danger. Why, it sleeps under my pillow at night to keep itself warm.”
George, at the door, said under his breath:
“Holy Moses! This is worth seeing.”
And it was. The foolish frightened crowd, and seen above them, defiant, disdainful, the woman, her white arm extended, the serpent coiled round it bracelet-wise.
“It would make a rippin’ picture,” he added, as they moved away.
But his companion said nothing. And even after George had gone he did not think of what he had seen. It was only when, wearied out with all the sillinesses and littlenesses which seem inseparable from a charity bazaar, he and others had gladly turned off the lights, stopped the loud speaker, and locked the doors of the Church Rooms, that by his own fireside he had time, as it were, to assimilate the various events of the afternoon.
Zit and Zoe, the two dachs, after exuberant joy at Master’s return had settled down to sleep on the rug, their heads at melting point almost within the fender, after the manner of dachshunds.
So Master, also, sat half asleep, half dreaming. Then suddenly he rose, went to a drawer in his writing-table, and drew out a manuscript book. It contained such of his miserable versifications as he had chosen to keep; the most of them being consigned incontinently to the waste-paper-basket.
He turned the pages until he saw:
“The building of the Temple.”
He remembered writing it quite well. When he first took orders and he tilted at everything like Quixote. So he read:
No sound of axe or hammer at their toil
Mars the deep quiet of the wondrous sight
As swiftly from its bed of lowly soil
Rise pinnacle and tower of virgin white.
Each to its place, like giant snowflakes laid
The blocks of marble fit so true and soft,
The very birds forget to be afraid,
And unconcerned are carolling aloft.
All veined with gold from many a homestead brought,
Fair maidens’ treasures, childhood’s glittering toys,
The misers’ hoard, the widow’s mite—-all fraught
With essences of love and hope and joy.
Stone fits to stone! Tower from foundations grows
In wealth of beauty; marble, gems and gold
In silence, love and reverence arose
The Temple built by Solomon of old.”
How young it sounded! How young, how full of hope he had been when he wrote that! And its sequel—The Temple of To-day. Then he had meant to change the whole world. Now, though for ten years he had been senior curate in the most fashionable London church, though his religious beliefs had hardened—in a way become stronger—he was content to use his undoubted power of preaching in a cultured, orthodox way. Tact had prevailed. He had learnt that it was worse than useless to rouse resentment by mere plain speaking. To treat every one as a Christian brother and to have special care of the weaker brethren; that was the duty laid upon him.
He glanced down the page where in no measured terms he had set down the building by bazaar. More than once he smiled; for it was witty. But if it had been published it would undoubtedly have hurt people’s feelings. Yet it was quite well done; would stand solidly for that afternoon’s proceedings. Of course in those days electric light was scarcer, loud speakers unknown, but the absolute lack of fitness was the same—at least so it might seem did he allow himself to judge.
Why had he kept this effusion?
The first part was not so bad; but the second? He tore out the page and put it religiously into the fire.
Who was he to judge?
It was not until after his usual devotions, when he had crept, very tired and somewhat disheartened, to his bed, and closed his eyes to sleep, that a picture sprang to his eyes and he sat up wide awake and stared into the almost dark room.
A few embers were left in the grate, and by their glow he could just distinguish the heads of Zit and Zoe as they slept their serene, sexless sleep on the hearthrug.
But the picture he saw with his mind’s eye was of a woman, tall, majestic, full breasted, standing defiant with a serpent coiled up her white arm. And her voice echoed in his brain:
“There is no harm. There can be no danger. It sleeps under my pillow for warmth every night.”
He lay awake for a long time. What was it George had said?
“A rippin’ picture!”
But surely it was more than that! It held something; but what was it? Something that had eluded him hitherto. Something that was covered, concealed. What was it—and why—fig-leaves? What had fig-leaves to do with it? Ridiculous!
So half-asleep his mind wandered, until finally he slept really.
The large salon at Jilks and James was a very fine room, as befitted the biggest and most cosmopolitan stores in London. They catered for everything; as Eve Graham had said, from baby-clothes to shrouds, from pâté de foie gras to liver pills, from Golliwogs to golf and tennis balls. And, evidently, they made money by their transactions, for at all times the big salon was lavishly ornate. The style was doubtful, the gilding unmistakable. And to-day, set out, as it was for a specially alluring mannequin parade, it seemed the acme of comfort and luxury. Soft-seated arm-chairs, not too large to permit of a cosy couple or merry quartette to cluster round a tea-table, stood along the tapestry hung walls. Priceless Eastern carpets covered the floor, and soft alabaster sunlights in the gilded ceiling almost obliterated the multi-coloured radiance of the single row of electric lights which, set in an oblong round the long room, marked out the stage on which the mannequins were to posture and circle.
So, everywhere were signs of lavish expenditure, but no hint or clink of money. The only sound above the chatter and laughter of many women was that of a hidden orchestra playing the “Liebestraum” waltz.
“China tea or Indian?” asked the be-frilled and be-aproned handmaidens who, as each visitor entered set down on the table a tea-set of Limoges china. And the linen cloth beneath the teacups was of the finest, the bread and butter of the thinnest, the scones of the hottest, the cakes of the daintiest. Briefly it was a place where one had not to ask for a penn’orth of cream. It was there, already, in its dainty little Limoges pot, free and for nothing; since Jilks and James’s Stores, which spread over Heaven only knows how many acres, knew that a good tea is conducive to purchases. Besides the very latest fashions were to be exhibited; that was a lure to all fashionable folk.
“I wish I had to pay for my tea,” said Margaret Malpas, helping herself to a second scone. “It makes one feel as one does at Monte Carlo, somehow in debt to what you don’t approve.”
She had yielded at last to Claud Hearsay’s constant suggestion that she should go and see the fashions, as a prelude to purchasing her trousseau; though, in truth, as she was well aware, her simple well made skirt and coat suited her style of good looks better than the Paris creations. For she was good-looking, healthy, fresh-complexioned, good tempered, showing her two years seniority over Claud Hearsay not at all.
He bent towards her with somewhat over-elaborate politeness and tolerance. “You give a good deal to Jilks and James by your presence, don’t you?” he said. “And you’ll give more by sheer profit on some of the dresses we are to see, and which I hope you will buy.” He was looking superlatively handsome in a suit of clothes cut by one of the best tailors in London, and Margaret felt that pulse of satisfaction which women cannot help feeling when their cavalier is the best looking man in the room. Besides, she was really becoming fond of her cousin; so the look she gave him was one full of affection.
“They will be too gay for me, I fear, Claud,” she said lightly. “You know I really do prefer silver grey!”
“And I love colour!” he replied quickly. “I suppose it is my Eastern upbringing.”
He might have said origin, for here, amid all the embroideries, the deft admixture of shadow and light, the faint perfume of incense, the whole atmosphere and entourage, his touch of Indian blood showed clear, though it only served to increase the perfection of his face and figure.
A swaying of the heavy bronze curtain over the wide door at the end of the salon roused an instant buzz of expectation in the crowd of tea drinkers—mostly women, with here and there a figure of feminine face that looked as if it had donned masculine attire by mistake.
But it was only the entry of four boys in mediaeval pages’ dress, each bearing a silver gilt four-light pedestal sconce, which they set down with pomp at the four corners of the oblong stage; thereinafter retiring with equal dignity.
Jilks and James know how to do it,” remarked Claud Hearsay approvingly. “They are excellent producers; but I expect I could teach them a thing or two. We do the ceremonial stunt very well in India.”
Margaret Malpas winced a little. She hated being reminded that her fiancé had been in a drapery store, though no one would have guessed it, either from his appearance or his manners. Still she must teach him to forget such things when they were married—when he was Squire at Malpas.
“There they are at last!” said Mrs. Ames to her next door neighbour as the curtains swayed once more. She was seated at a table, alone as yet, though another chair drawn close in showed that some one else was expected. “Oh, dear,” she added somewhat affectedly. “It really is rather dreadful! I’m glad I didn’t bring Lucilla.”
Yet there was nothing outré about the first costume that entered except the colour, a vivid scarlet; but there was not much of that save in the legs, which neat, well gartered, pirouetted along the row of electric lights that cast an iridescent radiance on the lower half of the figure. So, one by one the mannequins passed, their feet twinkling, their bare arms waving in graceful curves, the very poise of their heads, the very position of each finger carefully studied.
“There! that one in the blue and pale grey would suit you nicely,” said Claud Hearsay, as one specially ornate figure passed.
“My dear Claud!” exclaimed Margaret, aghast. “I couldn’t wear that, in the country, among the muddy lanes at Malpas.”
“But we shan’t always be amongst the muddy lanes, I hope,” came the instantaneous protesting reply. But at that very moment a buzz of admiration rippling along the row of spectators made him add, almost under his breath: “It’s Eve—I mean Miss Graham—isn’t she perfect?”
And she was. There was no denying it. The dress she wore—it matters not what—suited her to perfection and she suited it. Every gesture, every poise, every scrap or absence of drapery made its mark.
“Just in time to see your sister!” purred Mrs. Ames as George Graham looking, as he always did, the picture of a clean, happy, English gentleman slipped with an apology for being late into the nearest chair. “No one else is worth looking at beside her,” she added, “you really should be proud of her.”
But his eyes were elsewhere and his face showed annoyance. “Where’s Lucilla? Hasn’t she come?” he asked.
Mrs. Ames laughed gaily. “Certainly not,” she began.
“But I thought she was coming,” pursued George, and by this time his face showed disgust as well as annoyance; for he had glanced round the company and found it not to his taste.
“My dear man!” laughed Mrs. Ames again. “What an idea! As if I would bring her to a fashion parade! She is far too young for things of this sort. I dare say it’s foolish of me, old and passée as I am”—she was looking her best and she knew it; none of the mannequins, except possibly Eve, would be more attractive and certainly not better dressed than she was!—“to, as it were, hug my child’s youth to my heart. But I do so desire to keep her a child as long as I can; and she is such a child, such a dear child! I take her sometimes to the Club when there is a lecture, for it is good for girls to acquire knowledge, but we have agreed—we agree upon everything—that there shall be no going out till she is eighteen. But she is happy, quite happy at home.”
“What’s she doing this afternoon?” inquired George grumpily.
Mrs. Ames eyed him doubtfully, and her voice grew a little tart. “She is having an Italian lesson,” she replied. “You see—you’re such a friend that I don’t mind telling you these things—money, what with rates and taxes, is getting short, so I think, for the child’s sake of giving up our little house”—here her voice took on a plaintive tone—“I shall be sorry, but must be must unless the fates are kind. So I thought of going abroad to get the child finishing lessons. I can’t afford them here. So Italian will be useful. Oh, how I shall hate it! Our pleasant games, your delightful companionship—you’ve been so good to us both—gone for ever. Can you imagine it? The little house where you were so welcome—full of strangers. No more telephone messages, no more——”
She was proceeding to depict change, solitude, regret, quite dramatically, when a sudden buzz from the audience, swelling to articulate and inarticulate words of surprise and admiration, made every one realize that something new, something startling, had occurred.
A bride was entering the arena. A bride in bridal dress, her train borne by two boys, in proper train bearers’ costumes! The murmur rose:
The bride of the morrow! Was it possible? Then some one began to clap; and in a moment vociferous applause ran round the salon.
But Lady Angela was a perfect bride. She looked neither to right nor left; her face, grave yet not sad, seemed full of dreams; and her hands, held in front of her, were clasped over an ivory prayer book. As for the dress!
“I told you, Maria,” said a fat lady of Jewish aspect, “as made-evil dresses was the fashion, and so you’d better ’ave yours made to match.”
And mediaeval it was! Long, almost touching the ground, so that the little feet peeped in and out; straight folds from shoulder to hem, just clipped lightly by a belt of pearls. A single rope of these round the neck with a bunch of orange blossoms tucked into the high corsage; and, above the fine lace veil, worn in old fashion over the face, a narrow wreath of the same flowers mixed with myrtle. A similar border ran round the long train, where no flesh pink, or pale blue, or any colour at all marred the pure, dead ivory white softened by the folds of the sweeping veil. Truly a picture bride! A bride so white, so pure, so virginal, that the sight brought unwonted tears of remembrance to many old eyes amongst the onlookers.
So, almost statuesque, the group moved on. Claud Hearsay had just whispered to his companion; “I hope your wedding dress will be like that,” and she, shy, reserved, had felt vaguely resentful at this intrusion into what she had almost kept sacred to herself, when there came a little cry.
One of the small pages in negotiating the corner had tripped on the train he held and fallen; had fallen against the row of lights, smashing some and making one of the silver sconces waver and shake. It did not upset; but one of the lit candles overbalanced, shot right into the bride’s train and, in an instant, there was a blaze of lace.
It happened just before the table where Claud Hearsay and Margaret Malpas were sitting. He was out of his chair in a second, his coat was off, and before the attendants, always kept in readiness, the extinguisher in hand, arrived, the blaze was out. Lady Angela kept her composure, but the page boys—thus revealing themselves as hireling children from school or street—ran away. So, something in their helter-skelter retreat proving ridiculous, joined to a genuine relief that nothing serious had occurred, made the audience, which had hardly had time to be alarmed, finally laugh; especially when the manager of the mannequins appeared full of protestations and bad English to thank the gallant gentleman, “who ’ave sprung so splendid to ’elp which was not needed, and thank God since no damage done, as dress was entire sham it being luckless to wear before actual ceremony, though of course it was absolute copy of original. Thus nothing remains but to beg many thousand pardons for most regrettable incident, and state that immediately champagne will be served to drink good health to most beautiful bride.”
“Jilks and James know how to do it,” commented George Graham, who also had sprung from his seat, “but I’m afraid I must be off—you see, unless I get down to the Club by six, I shan’t catch Alan, and I want to see him badly.”
“Couldn’t you see him at home?” said Mrs. Ames coldly; she was as much vexed with his failure to respond to her dramatic outline of a possible future as her facile nature permitted.
“I am afraid not,” he answered evasively. “Alan is rather an inconstant factor at home these days; besides—I’m awfully sorry but I fear I must say good-bye—so many thanks.”
Yet despite his hurry he stopped beside Claud Hearsay to say: “Glad you were on the spot. Apparently they were on the spot also; but it might have been a horrible accident—and wasn’t, thanks to you.” And on his way out he stopped again when from a crowded tea-table a woman’s loud voice called derisively:
“What! Georgie Porgie! Off already! It isn’t like you to sneak away before the kill.”
“There wasn’t a kill, Lady Diana. Hearsay was too quick for the hounds,” he laughed addressing the speaker, a big, jolly looking woman who centred a group of weather-beaten faces ill matched with fashionable clothes which proclaimed a hunting set. “Besides”—he glanced round—“don’t you see I’m almost the only dog in the pack?”
There was a roar of laughter at the suitable sally and he escaped.
Meanwhile Margaret Malpas, half pleased, half annoyed at the congratulations which were pouring in on her, was furtively watching Claud’s reception of them. Surrounded by women he was taking their compliments quite coolly as if he had a right to them; as doubtless he had. Still most Englishmen would have looked foolish under the ordeal or run away! It was only when Eve Graham, her turn over, clothed and in her right mind, joined the group that he smiled, and turning to her at once, said easily:
“I hope you, Miss Graham, will not congratulate me on my amazing courage?”
“Certainly not,” she replied, looking him full in the eyes. “There was none. You were prompt, and I admire promptness immensely. It’s everything in business, so it’s a pity you’re entered to wear highlows at Malpas, you might have made your fortune in trade—I know I could.”
“With you I might,” he was beginning when she cut him short.
“Queer, isn’t it,” she went on, “I suppose I inherited it from Dad, though girls are never supposed to inherit masculine aptitudes; but whenever I come to Jilks and James I feel superior. I could do it so much better—after all it isn’t a man’s business, is it?”
The truth, which Margaret had so carefully concealed, slipped out of him, unawares.
“I don’t know,” he said sharply. “I was in it myself, and I didn’t do so badly—I expect I’m as good a judge of drapery generally as you are.”
She gave quite a little giggle of amused satisfaction. So that was it! An assistant in a drapery store, and Squire of Malpas! But he was unusually handsome—the handsomest man she had ever seen.
“If that is so,” she said gaily, “come with me and let’s try. Margaret won’t be able to get rid of that crowd for an age, and I’d like to show you a stuff I saw this morning in the dress department. If you don’t fall in love with it, and insist on Margie’s having a piece of it, I’ll know you’re a duffer! Have you hurt your hand?” she added, noticing that he was dabbing it with his handkerchief.
“Only a scorch.”
“Let me see,” she went on. “I’m an A1 nurse— did a lot in the war—I’ll tell you.”
She had taken his hand, a small lissom hand, and held it for one second. Only a second. The next, without time for more than a hasty glance, she had dropped it.
“It’s nothing,” she said, and her voice shook a little. “Nothing. Why should you fuss over it? It won’t even blister. Come along.”
So they went, but as they did so Eve looked at her companion almost vindictively. It was the first time that the touch of a man’s hand had thrilled her from head to foot like an electric battery.
And he was so superlatively handsome, her eyes followed his every movement.
They were away some time and when they returned they found Margaret waiting, and inclined to be captious. But captiousness was out of the question with those two, bubbling over with laughter and full of a marvellous velvet, soft as a rag, moonlight grey, and powdered over, not with bunches but sprays of the most delightful daisies; briefly the most priceless of fabrics for a going away dress—especially for a Marguerite!
“In fact, Margie,” said Claud with lover-like tenderness and raillery, “it is impossible you could wear anything else; so I just ordered a dress length to be sent round; if you don’t like it I must give it to Miss Graham! She, I know, appreciates it!”
Margaret looked from one to the other, then laughed a little constrainedly; elemental jealousy was new to her. But she sent Claud as in duty bound to escort Eve to her car and hoped she would come and see her on the morrow, and decide which way the dress had best be made, since she and Claud had apparently more taste in such matters. So much she felt to be obligatory to her own dignity; but the elemental jealousy remained—to her orderly restrained, clear mind so causelessly.
Had she, however, seen and overheard the farewells that passed between those two, she might have had more cause for the feeling. Yet there was little to observe save manner, and a certain playing with words. As he closed the door he said softly:
“Clever nurse! You were wrong! My hand has blistered. What’s more the blister has this instant broken. The handle of your chariot has a snag on it. Cruel! And I was only lifting you in, to take full possession!”
And she, her face close to his, had answered:
“Would you really let me in—if I wished it?”
He looked for an instant as if he would answer the challenge by a kiss, but he only said:
“And to-morrow—and to-morrow——” she echoed, laughing.
As she drove home she told herself that Margie was lucky. She ought to be quite happy, if she would only allow herself to be so.
And at dinner that evening she enlarged on Claud Hearsay’s merits. He was really quite nice; but it seemed a pity he should hide his evident capabilities for business in the muddy lanes at Malpas. For he had capabilities. He had a keen eye for values, and, above all, he was prompt; and promptness was the one thing needful. To watch opportunity as a cat watches a mouse—not to let it go by until mousie had time to find shelter in her hole.
Her father looked at her approvingly, thinking of his eldest son’s words: the girl knew what she was talking about and had a distinct grip on business qualifications. She was right. The business man who hesitated was lost.
But Alan, occupied with his dinner, appeared quite uninterested. Yet he also was thinking. Ever since, now six weeks ago, he had spent three guineas in sending red roses to a funeral, he had been asking himself whether he had not been a confounded ass to do so. Were or were not the grey eyes which undoubtedly had somehow influenced him worth the money? He had decided not, after a visit he had paid, not without some qualms of commonsense, to Victory Street. There he had seen Mrs. Martin, full as ever of tears and smiles.
Miss Smith? Well, she was a dear young lady, and as good a daughter as ever stepped. Such a funeral as it had been with them red roses! Ah, well, she hadn’t understood what it had meant at the time, but hidden meanings come out always as they did in cross-word puzzles. So it was clear enough afterwards when Lil went away, and left the rooms much as they was, and paying rent regular, just as if she wasn’t certain what was going to happen.
“Does she ever come back?” Alan had asked; not that he felt much interest in what was evidently a quite commonplace story. A cabaret girl, a wealthy suitor, relief from a self-imposed task.
The smiles overbore the tears in Mrs. Martin’s cheerful face.
“Come back! Lor bless you, yes, sir. She was ’ere last week payin’ the rent. In a Rolls Royce as sure as I’m Martha Martin, and a real fur coat, though Mrs. Jeff said as how it wasn’t, and, if it was, it didn’t ought to be. But there, sir, girls will be girls, an’ say who will, she was as good a daughter as ever lived, and——”
Alan had broken away from the catalogue of Lil’s virtues feeling outraged. Of course he had been an ass, a silly ass, but that his three guineas ever should be deemed the offering, most likely, of the greasy Jew at whose table he had sat at the Hall of Delight was more than outrageous. It was humiliating. If was something that bit within like the Spartan fox. Something that could not be forgotten. His mind was busy with it when Eve’s voice asked him if he had got the tickets, as they should soon be starting.
“Gerald tells me,” she went on, “the piece is really good stuff and one shouldn’t miss a word of it—a regular one-er for all the cant and rot that’s talked by Bishops and Co.”
So they went early; and now that the play was over Alan was waiting amid the crush in the vestibule until Eve, whose friends were legion, had finished an apparently intriguing conversation with an elderly gentleman of most distinguished appearance.
Alan knew nobody. He seldom went into society, and such scientific cronies as he had were not the people who frequented playhouses. And the play itself had been disappointing. After proclaiming in the first act that spades were to be called spades it had proceeded to a dissertation upon trowels; especially those suited for ladies’ use. Thus he was actually turning to the indivisible atom as a subject for real thought, when a voice behind him said in half tones:
“Thank you so much for sending those red roses to Mother.”
He turned and there she was—the cabaret girl, her grey eyes limpid and grave as ever.
She was beautifully dressed. A circlet of small diamonds, just a single row holding back her fair curls; another—just visible where her white, ermine-lined cloak parted at the neck—round her throat.
No fault to be found there. A swift feeling of disgust at the trickery of it all must have shown in his eyes, for she went on calmly:
“May I introduce my husband to you? We were married six weeks ago, just after Mother left me. Harry! I want you to know Dr. Alan Graham, who was—was very kind to my mother.”
Her voice hesitated slightly over the last phrase; but there was no hesitation in the perfect boom of surprise and satisfaction on the part of a small, stoutish man of Jewish race who held out his hand heartily:
“Introduction?” he said with a palpably Jewish lisp. “My dear Lily! None wanted! How do you do, sir? Delighted to met you again. Let me tell you, this gentleman was the first to tell me the old lady—your mother I mean—had popped off. I’m grateful to you, sir, deeply grateful. One is always grateful for a straight tip. Lily, you must ask this gentleman to dinner at our house. Quite a little cabin, sir, but pretty—just suitable for her—ha ha! Now, dear, the Rolls is waiting and if we aren’t sharp it will be at the tail of the queue again. Good-bye, sir, delighted to have met you. Stay, I’ll give you my card—only a business one, I fear, but it will do.”
“Yes, it will do,” came the quiet, grave voice.
“I know your address, Dr. Graham, so I will send you a formal invitation. Good-bye.”
And Alan Graham was left looking at the gilt-edged card which had been thrust into his hand.
Mr. Harry Herkomer,
The White House
St. John’s Wood.
Office Tudor Street
Harry Herkomer! The richest man, so romance had it, in the profession.
Harry Herkomer! The shiftiest moneylender in London.
With an oath Alan Graham crushed the gilt-edged card in his hand and threw it away. That address was easily found. And for the other?
The White House, the Red House, the White House, the Red House.
The two jangled in his brain all the way home.
“Name this child!”
“Octavia Decima Victoria,” said Mrs. Martin who, dressed in her best, was standing sponsor to Tom Larkins’s eighth daughter and tenth child; the Victoria being a generic name adopted by many of the residents in the mews.
So the christening service went on while Mrs. Martin mopped her eyes.
There was a strong smell of incense in St. Olave’s Church, for but an hour or so ago a wedding had been celebrated. A very fashionable wedding on which the blessing of the Church had been called down by two Bishops, and “O Perfect Love!” had been sung by specially picked voices. Altogether it had been the prettiest of weddings, the decorations, which still remained, had been a credit to the best florist in London, and the bride’s dress——!
Well, some folk had had a glimpse of it the day before at the mannequin parade, and opinion was divided on the good taste of that exhibition. But all agreed that Lady Angela made a delightful bride and that with Jamie Oldham, kindly Jamie Oldham, who passed his whole life in amusement, and who was devoted to her, she should be very happy. But Bernard Alingham, who had assisted at the marriage, and who now stood at the font, arrayed in correct baptismal garments holding the postulant for admission to the fold in his arms, found that a few idle words of George Graham’s as they were playing golf together, concerning the bride and groom, had come to his mind again and again during the service, and that the outcome of them was still there as he held the tiny scrap of humanity, which was so small that he could scarcely feel it, ready to be signed with the Cross.
“Assist with thy blessing these two persons, that they may be fruitful in the procreation of children.”
And this, that he held in his arms was the result of that blessing. Eighth daughter and tenth child of little Tom Larkins who worked with a Jew outfitter for 35s. a week. For Bernard Alingham knew his Victory Street well. It was in his parish; it was one of the unspeakable slums. Poor little mite!
As he stood there, tall and strong, arrayed in almost pontifical garments with all the glamour and authority, all the artistic beauty, all the refined mysticism of a great religion around him, he was symbol of the Church gathering in Her lambs. And such a lamb!
Its little yellow head sprinkled with sparse black hair (since caps have gone out of fashion for babies’ bald heads) showed like an excrescence on the purple folds of his cope. And the little weazened yellow face? Surely Mary Mother, who showed jewel-like, translucent in the stained glass window at the end of the aisle, would have wept over it.
But Martha Martin’s floodgates were only opened when instructions were given her, as proxy godmother (Mrs. Jeff Blake being too much occupied with Percy’s measles and the consequent enforced holiday of all six children to attend) that she should call upon the child to hear sermons. Little chance was there, in her vast experience, that breath would remain in the frail body long enough for that occupation. Still she and Tom Larkins, the proxy godfather, a wizened little fellow himself, with no chin and a persistent cough, took the news quite cheerfully and solemnly. They felt is so much gain that Octavia Decima Victoria had survived sufficiently long to allow of proper baptism.
So the service proceeded with all the prescribed rites; and doubtless a few more, since St. Olave’s was high, very high.
But the incense of the previous wedding seemed to have got into Bernard Alingham’s head. From his stand on the font steps he could not see the choir all lilies and palms, or the white high altar with its lit candles, but in his mind’s eye he saw it all and the crowd of multi-coloured wedding guests, the white-robed wedding procession as it moved down the nave while the Wedding March pealed triumphantly among the high arches, the clustering pillars, the jewelled glass.
But here, after the concluding admonition to see that the new Christian be properly instructed in the Church Catechism, there was silence—silence absolute, depressing.
Stay! what was that?
A low vibration, so low, so faint, yet so insistent that it seemed to fill the whole church; that it seemed as if it might fill the whole wide world. Louder and louder, until with jubilant force the first pure organ note, the note that holds all the harmonics, that to the listening ear gives third, fifth octave heralding the perfect tone, burst into Handel’s:
“Lift up your heads ye golden gates.”
For it was choir practising day, and the organist was rehearsing the next Sunday’s voluntary.
So there was quite a sob in the Reverend Bernard Alingham’s throat as he stepped down from the font, to shake little Tom Larkin’s hand and say that, if he might, he would come round and congratulate his wife, that evening.
“Lift up your heads ye golden gates!”
It echoed out beyond the church into the still December air of frost and faint flakes of snow.
It echoed out into the mean street and the lordly streets, but it did not reach so far as Victory Mews. Nor indeed was the latter in a mood to lift up its heart about anything.
For the strike continued, so half the residents were out of work and times were becoming hard. Little Mrs. Jeff Blake’s bag of savings was exhausted and she found it difficult to give the children butter instead of margarine; all the more so because Percy took the measles badly and required cockering up. Then six children at home! What a burden they were! How hard it was to keep them out of mischief! How trebly hard to prevent them from irritating their father. For Jeff Blake, good-humoured enough as a rule, had become ill-tempered about most things. And who could be surprised? When a man has nothing to do but to lounge round a public most days, and every Friday has to stand for hours in a long queue of fellow sufferers waiting to draw unemployment pay, is it any wonder if his moral deteriorates, his restlessness increases? What do they say to each other, these congeries of men, each with his own special grievance? It would be worth while to have a microphone installed outside the Labour Bureau and broadcast the result throughout the land. Then, at least, we should know what the unemployed themselves think about the matter.
Anyhow big stalwart Jeff Blake was hard to deal with these days and even Aggy, his wife, found it difficult to satisfy him. So her face wore a troubled look, and as the afternoon sped on bringing no respite from her duties, she became captious, and there grew a certain alarm in her eyes.
“Give a look to the kiddies, will you, Mrs. Sweet?” she said to her next door neighbour who, with hardy Scotch habit, was knitting away at a stocking beside her open door. “I shan’t be away long, and I shan’t have time to go to the clinic, but there’s a chemist not far off, as may ’ave wot’s needed an’ if not there’s a rubber shop down Pimlico way, an’ if I takes a bus I shall do it. Lordy, Lordy! Bad luck do come in crowds! I here’s the strike, a bloody shame it is o’ the masters to lock out a man like my Jeff—a real man, as can work an’ does work better nor most. Then the weather, cold as Christmas and no coal—not for poor folk as can’t afford pounds w’ere shillin’s used to do. And Percy’s bein’ took with measles, measles as in my day weren’t so to speak considered, an’ now the poor darlin’ is right down ill and the parish doctor talkin’ of pneumonia. An’ on the top o’ all—this! Well, I must be off.”
Her little, tight, trim, taut figure was hustling down through the mews when it met the christening party coming up, and she paused a moment to have a look at Octavia Decima Victoria’s wizened face. “Did she cry?” she asked and Martha Martin shook her head. Whereat Aggy Blake shook hers also. It was a bad sign when infants hadn’t sufficient vitality to object to cold water; and the chief curate at St. Olave always made a point of wetting the whole forehead.
So there was no echo of “Lift up your heads” as she sped on her errand.
But when she returned to give the children their tea her face wore an anxious expression, and her lips quivered as she said to Mrs. Sweet: “I ’ope they ’ave bin good. They are mostways, but it’s ’ard on kiddies when there’s ’olidays and nothen to do in them an’ no other children to play with, but there I everythin’s ’ard these days.”
“What’s gone ajee, lass?” said the North country woman kindly. “Could ye no get what you’re wantin’?”
“I—I hadn’t enough money to pay for it,” burst out Mrs, Jeff. “Oh, it’s a shame, a shame! Double treble the price it ought to be. And Jeff comes home with a drop too much most nights now—Lord send ’e don’t to-night.”
Mrs. Sweet regarded her neighbour with some disdain.
“There’s aye the kettle fu’ o’ boilin’ water,” she enunciated severely and going into her house shut the door.
Bernard Alingham on his way to see Mrs. Larkin saw Mrs. Jeff Blake setting the children’s tea and passed the time of day with her.
“This is rough for you,” he said kindly, “the whole family being at home makes things more difficult, and I fear Jeff spends too much time at the ‘Fox and Goose.’ You must try and keep him at home if you can. It’s a bad example for the elder boys, and they are such good boys at school—top of their classes.”
Then her patience gave way and her voice shrilled.
“God send ’e come ’ome dead drunk; then ’e’d do less mischief.”
Bernard Alingham turned on his way. He had learnt one thing in his unspeakable slums: and that was that when a woman shrilled silence was best. But at the door he paused to put half a crown into the eldest boy’s hand with the words: “That’s to make up for the prize you would have got this week in my Scripture class if you hadn’t been kept from school.”
After he had gone the boy gave the coin to his mother, she sat and looked at it, her sudden anger gone. If she had only had that much more in her purse half an hour ago!
Meanwhile the Reverend Bernard Alingham was paying his professional visit of congratulation to Mrs. Larkin and her tenth baby. Her face was also small, yellow, drawn, as it lay on the special pillow case which Martha Martin had provided for the expected visitor. Then engaged in other work, she had left, but her place was taken by Ellen Bryant, whose work did not begin till nightfall. A pleasant-faced, respectable looking young woman was Ellen Bryant, when out of her war paint, and Bernard Alingham scarcely recognised her at first; for the room was dark, and his eyes were taken up by the pitiful sight on the bed. A woman exhausted by life, a child exhausted before entering it. Not a smile, not a quiver of one on the worn-out face of the mother, not a smile or the possibility of one in the weary looking babe that lay on the mother’s supine, unclasping arm.
“Yes, sir!” came a feeble, monotonous voice. “We did ought to be deeply grateful to the Lord, for me an’ Tom, we’ve bin Church people all our lives, an’ ’as taught the children—them ’as lived, of course, though the churchyard ’ave bin good to us too, an’ there’s four of ’em safe in the Lord’s keepin’. Yes, we taught ’em their catechism as is due. An’ I’m grateful she’s bin baptized. ’Tis a pretty name—Octavia Decima—ain’t it, sir?” Here she glanced down at the little yellow mask so close to her own, and a wistful look came to her eyes. “Mayhap she’ll grow liker it w’en I gets a bit stronger. I’m terrible weak now. ’Tis havin’ ’em so fast. Nell dear, take baby away, she tires my arm. I won’t know wot I should do without Nell, sir—it’s Ellen Bryant, sir, she as lives with Mrs. Martin—and a good neighbour too. She an’ me was girls together, afore anythin’ ‘appened. At school wasn’t it, Nell, an’ you always top o’ the class. One never would a’ thought o’ it then. She there, quite strong an’ ’earty, an’ me all weak an’ gone to bits. It’s havin’ them so fast, sir: but there, as you says, sir, it’s the Lord’s doing.”
Ellen Bryant had raised the infant tenderly and was now standing by the dormer window, her figure holding the child, outlined darkly against the fight; made lighter by the snow which was now falling fast. So standing she showed Madonna-like, full of pity and love.
“That’s a lie, Min!” came her voice still curiously womanly and pure. “’Tis the Devil sends ’em; not Gord, ask Im if ’tisn’t.” And with that she gave a jeering laugh, laid the child in the rocking cradle at her feet and with a light “Ta-ta” to the sick woman, and a regret that her work called her, went down the stairs.
“It isn’t true,” murmured the mother, so weakly that it could scarcely be heard, “it isn’t true, is it, your reverence? It’s Gord as sends the little ones—yes! it’s Gord,” and she dissolved into weak tears; tears that did not hurt, they were so weak, so ineffectual, Bernard Alingham, once again felt flight the kindest treatment, so, after a few words of soothing prayer, he followed Ellen Bryant in her retreat.
What was evidently a purposeful challenge had come from her so unexpectedly, so startlingly, that he had been unable to meet it; besides, she had left him no time. But, as he groped his way down the darkling stairs, he thought of what he might, what he ought to have said.
And there, in the little crowded room downstairs, was only Tom Larkin, trying to serve tea into the mugs of a little hungry and thirsty horde, who, standing or sitting round a dirty cloth covered table were smearing hands and faces with treacle and bread. So the clergyman stood arrested at the foot of the stairs; for, somehow, there was justification in the scene; something of patient womanliness in the way with which Tom Larkin handled the teapot, that called for pause. Then the spectator went forward a step and laid his hand kindly on the man’s shoulder.
“Larkin,” he said, “I want to speak to you. Not as a parson but as one man may speak to another without offence.”
Tom Larkin turned, teapot in hand and his pale blue eyes met the clergyman’s brown ones.
They were rather beautiful eyes—large, clear, limpid, soft with no evil in them.
“Tom,” continued the minister, “your wife must have no more babies. “If she has, she’ll die; and then murder will lie between you.”
To Bernard Alingham’s surprise and consternation Tom Larkin turned away, set down the teapot, sank into a chair, and stretching his arms over the dirty table cloth hid his face in them while deep, dry sobs convulsed his thin body.
“It ain’t all my fault,” he moaned, “and it ain’t ’er’s, not all of it—it’s the love—we’re desp’rite fond—Oh, I knows it. I knows it. So the best thing I can do is to go an’ ’ang myself. There ain’t nothin’ for it but that—go an ’ang myself.”
His hearer felt as if scales had fallen from his eyes; for the first time he realized the tragedy of sex—a tragedy that was going on in how many such homes as this? The thought was damning!
“Don’t talk nonsense, Tom,” he said, his hand still on the despairing shoulder. “Look here, I’m going to send your wife some port wine and as soon as she is fit for it we’ll send her and the child down to the Convalescent Home, and, and—oh, it will all come right in the end. You’ll strengthen up yourself after, say, three months, and get a better place.”
But Tom Larkin, who had regained possession of himself, shook his head despondently.
“You’re very kind, sir, an’ I know as St. Olave’s Mission will do heverthing as can be done; but—but you see, sir, I ain’t a genius, nor yet am I a idiot—I’m only worth five and thirty bob a week and lucky to get that these days. I knows it, sir, I knows it. An’ as for the other thing p’r’aps if we’d a bin taught different—God knows.”
Taught different? After all, what had the Church taught this miserable man?
The question bombarded Bernard Alingham’s brain, but he could do nothing but bid the poor fellow take heart, wring his hand with promises to come in again ere long and so go out into the cool night air.
The snow shower had been heavy but had ceased, and the street lay, for a time at least, white, untrodden, pure.
He did not put on his clerical hat—the frosty cold seemed to allay the fierce thoughts that fought within his brain. Ah, here at least, with God’s open sky over your head, man’s mistakes, man’s problems might surcease
“Ah, Jeff, do think—Ah, Jeff, do be kind——”
The cry came as he was passing the Blake house.
The door opened and a woman sped out into the snow.
She was followed closely by a man’s figure, stalwart and strong. He had the woman round the waist in a moment, and his voice rose, unangered, quite kindly. “Don’t be a little fool, Aggy. Ain’t I always bin a kind ’usband to yer? An’ always will be—an’ ain’t yer my lovin’ wife? Sure-lie. Sure-lie. So come in like a good girl and dry those shoes o’ yours. They be all wet with snow, sure-lie, sure-lie.”
Her head was on his shoulder now; she only sobbed gently as he led her back to the house and the door closed behind them.
And Bernard Alingham was left alone under the irresponsive sky; alone with his thoughts.
He did not go back to the Clergy House. He needed something more than tea; something that would help him in what he felt to be a crisis in his soul’s life. He must see, he must understand, he must get some certain guidance on what was, after all, the most important office of the Church. So instead of turning to the quiet precincts of the Church House set in its own garden where peace and the anodyne of immutable doctrine awaited him, he turned to the King’s Road as the nearest route to the world of London.
The fresh fallen snow still lay unsullied on the roofs, and showed like edgings of swansdown on the cornices and window frames; but it had quite gone from the streets. And the pavement lay bare and mottled with mud by the passage of much humanity. It was blistered as if with smallpox, he thought. Yes, humanity could sully most things, even the pure snow from heaven. The shops were all gay with preparations for coming Christmas, and the carcasses of fat animals, slain for the festival, hung decorated with holly and mistletoe in the butchers’ shops. Just six o’clock on a Saturday night! So the workmen’s wives were thronging to make their purchases for the week end; but it was not only provision shops which attracted their attention. The drapery shops made them stop for a minute or two, and round some, where wax mannequins stood petrified at their own super-excellence of attire, crowds gathered, melted away and gathered again.
Bernard Alingham, unlearned in woman’s dress, carried away with him from his brief inspections only one definite impression—a lace collar marked 1s. 11¾d. that, in varying shapes, appeared to do duty in every shop.
So he went on down Pimlico ways. It Was doubtless the rubber roses and other flowers in one shop window which attracted a few womenfolk, for there seemed little else to interest them; but down Buckingham Palace Road a big drapery store gathered quite a crowd. Small wonder; for its windows were beautiful with silks and satins, gay with all sorts of bibelots, and as good as Madame Tussaud’s in its wonderful display of wax figures costumed for every hour, every pastime, every sport. Two girls, shabby, wistful, stood with their noses flattened on the glass.
“Oh, lor!” said one. “Ain’t they pink and green striped pyjamas just lovely? An’ she ain’t so blasted good looking as that! You or me would look as well in ’em. Don’t I wish as ’ow I cud go to bed in ’em this night.”
An elegant figure wrapped in furs, a highly scented bunch of false violets at her neck, overheard the remark, and said with a harsh laugh: “An’ why shouldn’t you, my gurl! You’ve only to say the word. It’s quite easy!” Then flitted on.
And now the Park railings, each spike still with its feathery capping of snow, bordered misty, half-seen trees and green lawns. A different world surely! But the blistered, humanity-soiled pavement was still beneath his feet.
So Piccadilly with its stream of buses and taxis and lorries. Folk going out to theatres and dinners, and flitting, shadowy figures hugging the Park railings to keep from the policemen’s eyes. Then once more the interminable drapers’ shops. The women’s public houses, he thought, as he noticed the crowds that hung round them. So Regent Street, Oxford Street. His eye grew weary with the blaze of light, the marvellous glint of artificial silk, and ever, always, that collar of lace labelled one and elevenpence three farthings. The Park railings gave him some comfort with their hint of an unseen world where Nature reigned supreme, where sex had its times and seasons, where flowers bloomed and seeds ripened, where the birds sang and nested, and the animals prepared for their young when the Great Fiat went forth to produce; to produce by order and rule. So down Westbourne Grove, Kensington, homewards, wearied out and realizing for the first time, that half the space of London shops was devoted to the fancies of womankind.
“Lord! sir, you be late,” said the houseman pityingly. “Shall I ask Cook to send you up sommut to eat, unless, sir, you’ve dined. No, sir; well, good night, your dogs will be glad to see you—they’ve been kicking up a row this last hour.”
“Sorry!” called Bernard Alingham, as he hurried upstairs two steps at a time.
There was something exhilarating in the very thought of the welcome that surely awaited him.
And it was a welcome indeed! Zit and Zoe all over him with yelps of wild delight at Master’s return. After a while with little gulps and snaps on Zoe’s part when she imagined Zit got too much return in pattings.
“Don’t be jealous, little lady,” he said lightly as he pushed her away; then stood aghast, for somehow his words seemed cognate to what his thoughts had been all those tramping hours. There was no time for cogitations, however, for his unfinished sermon which he had commenced in the morning lay on the writing table. The text was “God is Love.” He looked at it distastefully. Excellent in itself, but somehow he could not write on the subject in his present mood.
He put it away in a drawer for future use, took a clean sheet of paper, and setting down for a text, “As in a glass darkly,” began work in grim earnest.
The clock had struck two ere he finished. By the light, ere he turned it out after getting into bed, he could see the two dogs jumbled peacefully, sexlessly, on the rug before the fireplace where a few embers still glowed.
But he did not sleep soundly. His mind was too full of what he had seen and heard that day.
And when he did doze, visions came to him of a woman’s white arm, all coiled about by a snake and he seemed to hear her voice:
“It can’t hurt—it sleeps under my pillow at night.”
Mrs. Ames’s house was what auctioneers call a bijou. That is to say it was small and poky. Now most women would have attempted to overcome these faults by calling on the aid of artistic carpet-makers, furniture-makers and decorators.
Amy Ames, however, was ingenious. In fact ingenuity was the key-note to her whole personality; that, and extreme almost reckless good nature. These two combined made her a charming companion, though they also made her a little unreliable; for her even temper caused her to be shy of unpleasantnesses while her ingenuity always enabled her to find a way out of them. She was briefly a very deft person. And this quality showed in her arrangement of her small and poky house.
George Graham, who found it a favourite haunt, used constantly to enlarge on its merits to various matrons. “It’s not like other houses,” he would say. “The moment you get inside the door, there it is, all silver grey and white with a streak of orange, tangerine, not real red, running up the stairs. And the dining-room door isn’t shut you know how in those mean passage entrances the first thing you see is a closed door? Well, Amy Ames hates closed doors, so she’s had it taken off its hinges and you get a glimpse of silver grey and tangerine. No pictures, no ornaments, just one big settee—a chesterfield, I think they call it—and an umbrella stand. Oh, yes! and a table—sort of hall, you know.
“Then there’s the landing where people used to put glass cases with half-dead ferns. It’s all window now, very pale water green crinkly glass in the middle—she gets it in Venice I believe, you know she lived in Italy quite a long time—with a border of pale green leaves and Tangerine oranges. But it is when you turn the corner that the surprise comes. You expect to see two doors, back and front drawing-rooms; but there aren’t any. She has had the back drawing-room one papered up, and the front one isn’t there, so all you see is a water green window at the end, just like the one behind you, as if it were a long passage, for the rest of the room is screened off by those pale brown, knobbly Morocco screens—she lived there for two years you know—so the front drawing-room is the same size as the back, long and narrow. The window of each is right down to the ground with the crinkly water glass and Tangerine border, and they open right up to the top—awfully dodgy; but it’s her own plan; she’s jolly clever at that sort of thing you know. No curtains, of course. Mrs. Ames says they’re dusty. And rugs are so slippy, she’s had the whole room floored with some tangerine stuff, like those green hard tennis courts, only more rubbery and soft. So the castors—everything is on castors, even the book cases; that sort with glass fronts and shelves you can add on when you get more books slip over it easily. And the chairs—there are not many, Mrs. Ames hates a crowd—are all arm-chairs small and soft; brown velvet—doesn’t show the dirt. There’s no fireplace or those awful ugly radiators; only a porcelain stove, silver grey and white, just like a Chinese pagoda—she was there too, in fact she’s been everywhere I believe. So, somehow, when a fellow comes in from the dingy street and fog, it seems all bright and spacious.”
And if those to whom he thus enthused said sarcastically that it must be dark and cold, he explained that there was electric heat in the stove, and electric light hidden in the cornices, that they made the little back room downstairs into a refectory, and that there was only one old French bonne for servant, as the food came, in foreign fashion, from a restaurant; and uncommon good it was too! Much better than Irish stew and boiled cabbage filling the whole house with horrible smells.
Thus George Graham; and, had Amy Ames been asked, she would have said also that she sat free of most housekeeping problems—except the electricity bill which was large; but against that you had to set comfort and no doctor’s bills for nervous breakdowns, due to domestic worries. And she had had enough of them in the past!
In truth she had. Those years as a young widow with a young child and a miserable income, which she had spent—as George Graham put it—all over the world, had been strenuous. Many had been the subterfuges to which she had been put in order to make both ends meet. Then had come an interval of peace when she had captured a wealthy American who had come to the South of France for his health’s sake. Her buoyant spirits, her intense enjoyment of all amusements had given a fillip to his failing energies; but Fate was not to be forestalled. The marriage was delayed from month to month, until after three years, during which the active, pleasure-loving, absolutely good-tempered woman had kept her fiancé alive, he had died, leaving her a modest competence. As well she deserved, since, saving the conjugal duties, she had been as devoted a nurse as any wife could have been.
So she had come to London, eager—for the first time in her life since the marriage with Ames had not been over successful—to do as she chose. Long years before she had found it easier in view of railway journeys, schools and hotels to lessen her own age and that of Lucilla. And now that she was faced with London society it seemed better to keep up the fiction. A girl on the verge of coming out would be fatal. So Lucilla’s hair remained in long plaits. As her mother would say “Now that all the older women are shingled, and everyone’s petticoats are short a pigtail is the only way you can recognize the schoolroom.”
Luckily the girl’s tastes were not those of her mother, whom she idolized, as the prettiest, daintiest, most companionable creature in the world, as indeed she was. A boarding-school being beyond the family income, she went to classes, played hockey and Lacrosse at a neighbouring, if rather second-rate Ladies’ College, kept every kind of pet she could lay hands on in the attics upstairs, and read enormously. “It will do her no harm” said her mother buoyantly when Mrs. Etherington exclaimed at a girl being allowed to read what she liked. “My father—he was an Irish squireen, my dear—used always to say ‘good whisky never hurt a good man’ and I say that a well-written book never hurts a good girl, and Lucilla’s of the best. To begin with, she won’t read piffle—that comes from my side of the family, though for myself, as long as I can laugh I care don’t for the style—but all the nasty things slip off her like water from a duck’s back; despite her age—the darling!”
Here Mrs. Ames would sometimes feel a faint twinge of conscience relative to that same age; but it soon passed. After all, a girl didn’t require a birth certificate like a boy and Lucilla was attractive and would doubtless marry; when actual age mattered little. For instance, though George Graham was only two and thirty and she herself by the most moderate computation was not far from forty, no one seeing them together would think marriage unsuitable. And what a blessing it would be! Lucilla would get a real good start in life and she herself?—well, George was a perfect dear! She was beginning to get quite fond of him. And he? Well, he was evidently not a marrying man. He had few women friends, but she was one. Her house was to him a house of call, and, good player as he was, he seemed content with her golf, which, of course, was considerably above the usual female standard. So was her bridge. He had not openly declared himself as yet; but with deft handling he might do so at any moment.
Thus when, on the morning of Christmas Eve, Lucilla put her head into the pink and grey room where Mrs. Ames, most becomingly attired in a pink and grey pyjama suit with the daintiest of lace caps half concealing her goldy curls and outlining her pretty sparkling face, lay in bed, having her breakfast off a tray most effectively arranged with silver and china, she was, as usual, in excellent spirits.
“Isn’t Uncle George going to call for you at 9.15?” asked the girl. “It’s Wednesday, you know, and I thought he was.”
Her mother laughed. “As if I should be in bed if he was,” she said, “when it takes me a good hour to—to get myself up. No, it’s Wednesday week—” Suddenly she paused, looked at her daughter and exclaimed: “Why, child, you’ve put your hair up! Why?”
Lucilla at the door blushed slightly and showed signs of retreat.
“Come in, child,” said her mother. “Come in and show me.”
Thus adjured Lucilla entered, sat herself on the bed and without any hesitation carried the war into the enemy’s camp by exclaiming:
“Oh, mum darling, you do look so sweet in that dinkie little cap—I wish Uncle George could see you.”
Mrs. Ames could not forbear a smile. It was not the first time that Lucilla had hinted at George Graham’s admiration and the fact pleased her; but she strove after dignified severity.
“Don’t talk nonsense, Lucilla,” she said. “I asked you why you put your hair up?”
“Well, you won’t let me shingle or bingle or whingle till I’m eighteen,” replied the girl, “and the tails get in my way so when I’m playing hockey that—that I just bundled them up.”
Bundling was hardly the word for the neat, shell-like rosettes which almost obscured Lucilla’s little ears; but Mrs. Ames always responded to beauty, and there was no question that they were extremely becoming; in fact, looking ahead, she decided that when Lucilla had finally to come out their effect might be tried before the crucial step of hair bobbing. So she passed by the question; for the time.
“I’m going, you know, to play with the Lambtons,” continued Lucilla hastily. “And they are giving me lunch, I expect. You see I thought you were to be out——”
“So I am,” replied her mother. “I’m lunching out, and teaing out, so if they ask you to stop—— If not Fanchette——”
“All right, mummie; good-bye,” said the girl, stooping to kiss the powdered and perfumed face.
“Don’t be in such a hurry, my dearest,” protested her mother. “Just pull down the blind, will you, and take away the tray. I’ve finished. And she nestled into her pillows, calling out, as the door closed: “And tell Fanchette to see that the bath water is hot at eleven; that will give me plenty of time. Good-bye, my sweetest, take care of yourself!”
Take care of herself! The words rankled a little, for somehow of late Lucilla’s mind had been stirred to other things besides herself. She had been reading—she was an omnivorous reader—a very dramatic and somewhat sentimental description of a slum parish in the east of London, and the near approach of Christmas made her think of the thousands of unfortunate children to whom the festival would bring little, if any pleasure. Take care of herself! Yes, but who was going to take care of those others? She was not a religious girl, but her wide reading, and comparatively solitary life—for her mother did not trouble herself about more social problems than were involved in the keeping up of her visiting list—had made her think. Then, every time she came back to the little house, made so bright and spacious simply by one woman’s ingenuity, she could not fail to notice the network of mean streets that lay behind the big houses. One of them could be seen—just a tiny corner of it—from the back drawing-room window. George Graham—whom she had learnt to call Uncle George, because, of course, she could not call him George like her mother did, and Mr. Graham was ridiculous—had mentioned when he brought his friend, Bernard Alingham, to meet her mother, that it was Victory Street; and that the ground rents belonged to his father. Then there had been a hot discussion between those two as to where the responsibility for its existence lay.
Victory Street! What a name for a slum. She threw up the window and looked out.
What a beautiful bright morning it was! Just a crispness, not a coldness in the air. A perfect day, more like spring than winter. The very smoke-blackened chimneys looked blue in the sunshiny haze, and far away in a wedge left by the slanting slate roofs there was absolutely sunlight in Victory Street. How many children were there she wondered—and children were so nice.
“Hullo! little one, you’ve put your hair up!” said a laughing voice at her elbow.
She turned to see George Graham, as ever faultlessly got up, his eyes full of admiration, a box of chocolates in his hand.
“Then Mother did make a mistake,” she cried. “It was this Wednesday—I thought it was! Oh, what’s to be done? And she’s asleep!”
“And I can’t wait,” he said, “you see we were to be there at eleven, and I can’t in conscience boost the car along more than sixty and it’s 9.45 now. So it’s no use waking her.” His eyes were still on those burnished bronze shells lit up by a great shaft of sunlight which swept into the room, In truth Lucilla made a pretty picture in her short, straight schoolgirl dress of pale water green. It matched the window. He advanced a step nearer. Look here,” he said, “you come instead of your mother, do!”
She shook her head. “Can’t possibly, besides I’d have to ask Mother, and she’d be so disappointed if she were to wake and find out.”
George Graham stood his ground. “Not half so disappointed as I shall be if I have to go alone, when I was looking forward to such a topping drive, through such lovely country—and then the meet, and the lunch afterwards. Oh, do come, there’s a good child!”
Again she shook her head. I’m afraid Mother—I’ll go and call her, but I know she’s going out to lunch.”
“So much the better,” he said quickly, checking her movement, “and I can’t really wait. Do come, Lucilla! If you won’t, a jolly Christmas Eve I’ll have—all on my little lonesome.”
She was standing now in the full blaze of the sunbeams, holding the box of chocolates in her hand.
“You needn’t really be lonesome, Uncle George——”
“I wish you wouldn’t call me that—I’m not your uncle,” he interrupted pettishly.
A faint frown showed on her forehead. “Then what am I to call you? I can’t say George quite simply like Mum does.”
“Why not?” he queried quite surlily. “I’m not as old as all that, am I?”
She burst into a girlish laugh. “No, not a bit; you’re really the youngest man, I mean real man, I know—you love animals just as I do.”
A satisfied smile replaced the surliness. “And then Uncle”—she paused and gave a little cough—“as I said there’s no reason why you should be lonesome, you’ve so many, many friends, and—and everything you want, and—and——”
“Out with it, child,” he said softly, noting her hesitation and the tenderness which had come to her eyes.
“Yes, she went on dreamily, “everything, and so many people have nothing. You give me chocolates—lots of them: I have heaps of boxes in my room—and the children over there, in your slum, perhaps they have none—not even though it is Christmas Eve. It seems a shame, I should like——”
He had been watching her silently. Then suddenly he laid his hand on her shoulder, his face brimmed over with smiles. “I have it, little one!” he cried, “Let’s go round to Victory Street, steal a car full of kiddies and take them down to the sea! Give ’em buns and cakes and crackers and toys. It’s a ripping idea. Get your hat quickly and come.”
“But——” she began.
“I won’t go without you, so that’s that!” he interrupted excitedly, “so it will be your fault if they don’t get a holiday! Glory! but it will be topping fun. I’ll rattle the car for all it’s worth; bring us all back, alive I hope, by tea-time. Oh, do come! I want you to help me.”
Was it the tone in his voice, the look in his eyes? An unwonted tremor in her own pulses? Who knows? But the car drove swiftly down the street, threaded its way with almost miraculous skill, at least to Lucilla’s estimation, past the “Fox and Goose” and drew up at Tom Larkin’s door.
“I know the chap,” said George, “Bernard Alingham took me to see him—he’s a good sort, but a bit of a fool. Got ten children—at least he had, so we’ve got a good cover to draw anyhow.”
And the children were there, in the small dark room. Five of them, all huddled together by the almost extinct fire; dressed in their best, the girls—three of them—with their hats on: all with the expectant yet wistful eyes of those who await a treat.
“Where’s Father or Mother?” asked George promptly.
A chorus of piping voices replied “Mother’s still in bed, she don’t come down, but Father’s comin’ at dinner-time to bury the biby.”
“We were all going to the Cemetery wiv ’im,” put in a boy’s voice.
“Leastways if we can walk as far,” amended the eldest girl.
“Bury the baby?” echoed George taken aback. “When did it die?”
“Day afore yesterday,” said the boy, “an’ Father’s bin makin’ it a beautiful corfin. It’s cheaper nor buyin’.”
The man and the girl looked at each other doubtfully; but the same thought was in the minds of both: What a Christmas Eve treat to tramp to a cemetery through jostling streets!
“If you don’t mind, Lucilla,” said George in a slightly sacred tone, “you might go up and see Mrs. Larkin, and ask her—Good Lord! It would be better for them surely——”
He did not finish his sentence, for the girl—such a slight buoyant, youthful figure—was already half-way up the ladder-like staircase. It was Lucilla’s first glimpse of the homes of the very poor and her keen, bright eyes were everywhere.
The pinched face that lay among the pillows was less pinched than it had been; but it struck her with sudden dismay. And what was that so small, so still, covered over with a towel that lay on the opposite side of the bed? Was it the “biby” awaiting the “corfin” its father had made for it? At the dormer window a tall woman stood, tacking some twopenny-halfpenny lace into a small—oh, such a small, white box shaped—yes! it must be the coffin. The woman had turned for one instant to look at Lucilla’s entrance, but had turned back immediately to her work, so stood, back towards her, as Lucilla put her request in rather a shaking voice; it was all so new, so strange.
“I’m so sorry your baby died,” she said in her fresh young tones.
An easy tear slipped from the tired-looking eyes. “Yes!” said the tired voice, “’Tis a pity; but she was but a poor piece, though it weren’t her fault, poor little dear. Still it’s over. An’ she ’ad a pretty name Octavia Decima, she bein’ the eighth daughter and tenth child me an’ Tom ’as ’ad. It’s a lot; but it’s the Lord’s doin’. Nell, there, will ’ave it that ’tis a pity she was lawful christened—by Mr. Alingham, him as is curate to St. Olave’s. And of course ’tis more expense in being a Christian. But Tom ’as sat up a’ night makin’ the little dear a real proper corfin—he’s awful neat with is ’ands is Tom. An’ ’e’s painted it white and put in brass nails to it and now Nell, there, is dressin’ it up ah correc’. Nell”—and the weak, weak voice raised itself—“this is the young lidy ’as Mr. Graham ’ave brought asking the kids for a treat—it’s Ellen Bryant ’m, as is a true kind neighbour—”
The woman at the window did not stir, but a voice came harsh, defiant:
“You didn’t ought, Liz, to introduce me. The likes o’ me isn’t fit for the likes o’ her.”
It was a sort of challenge, and it rang through the low, dark room. On the bed the married woman, broken by too much childbearing; by the window the prostitute, the absolute negation of marriage, and between them the girl, looking with half-puzzled eyes at problems which ought to have been settled long centuries ago,
So for an instant, there was silence.
Then came the girl’s voice, reasonable, insistent.
“Why are you not fit for the likes of me?”
Once again the woman at the window did not stir from her employment, but the answer came, hard, almost jeering:
“You wouldn’t understand, missy, if I was to tell ’ee, though mayhap, I’m no worse than others when all’s said an’ done, though I do walk the streets.”
Lucilla’s face had grown stern. “But I ought to understand. I think I do understand. You—you tempt men.” She broke off, remained still as if turned to stone for an instant; then with swift step crossed to where Nell Bryant stood, and laid her soft young hand on the other’s shoulder.
“I am so sorry for you, you poor soul,” she said almost in a whisper.
A whisper came back, scarcely to be heard:
“Thank you, Miss. Thank you kindly.” Then Ellen Bryant faced round and said briskly, “They’d better go Liz. ’Twill be more entertainin’ than a funeral. An’ Tom’ll walk faster without the kiddies trailin’ at his tail. So if you’ll go first, miss, I’ll foller, and see as they ’as what I can giv’m for wraps.”
It was a very grave-eyed Lucilla who sat herself down beside George Graham in the car.
“We’re not quite full up” he said kindly, noticing her looks. “We’ve only got four kids,” (for the eldest boy, who had already been taken to the sea by the St. Olave’s Summer Holiday fund had elected to stay and help Father “bury the biby”; a funeral being the greater novelty) “and the back will hold six, so I vote we make up the pack in another cover. Two more boys will make ’em even.”
So two more were secured from Mrs. Jeff Blake’s family and the car sped on its way.
At first, through the London streets, and afterwards in the sin-stained surroundings of that great festering sore—a big city—Lucilla was very silent.
But when from behind came a great shriek of delight as a frightened squirrel skipped just in front of the car wheels as they raced through the first clump of beech trees, and thereinafter, safe on a branch, chattered and jibbered at the malevolent machine, she turned round and told the children stories about the one she had at home which, at that moment, was doubtless sampling the store of nuts in the room which he had all to himself with two trees to climb up in the corners; all of which Uncle George had given her. Whereat the children’s eyes, losing their wistful look, saw George Graham as a beneficent magician. Then there were stories to tell of the robins, and the red hips and haws, and the white-tailed rabbit that scuttled away into the fern.
So the party became merry, until the car stopping at a confectioner’s shop in a little town, buns and cakes came to stop laughter.
“And we must give them milk—lots of milk—it’s so good for children,” cried Lucilla. “And, oh, George, wouldn’t it be ripping if we could give them each a mug with their names on them? They have them in the china shops, you know, and we could go through some town.”
“As Her Majesty desires,” assented George Graham. “You are bossing the show. If you hadn’t encouraged it, it would never have been.”
So they drove through a town. But the name mugs were not to be had for some of them, since Mr. and Mrs. Larkin had brilliant imaginations; and christened their children out of them. “Boadicea” said the young man in the china shop. “No, sir, we are out of Boadicea—it isn’t often asked for.”
With which common but contradictory excuse they had to be satisfied, George making up to the disappointed recipient by an extra fine mug costing one shilling instead of sixpence. But wasn’t it Christmas Eve, and didn’t a girl’s clear eyes thank him for such lavish expenditure?
So, avoiding houses and cafés and beaches and pierrots, they came at last to a little creek. Just a few square yards of pebbly sand, shut in by seaweed-slimy rocks with the great, wide, blue sea usurping all the rest save the great, wide, blue sky.
And here the car was parked off the road on a little patch of grass, and the whole party helter-skeltered through fern and over rocks and by a faintly trickling stream until they stood with the sunlit waves touching their very feet.
And then, more food, more milk, and games: some of the games that George remembered, some of them that Lucilla knew, and some newfangled, board school ones that had to be taught to the elders by superior youth.
So the day passed until the man cried “pax” from blindman’s buff in which he had had the greatest difficulty in preventing himself from catching Lucilla every time, and sitting on a stone smoking a cigarette watched her playing “Round and round the Mulberry Bush” with the children.
So, time to leave came all too soon, and, laden with mugs and stones and shells and wet seaweed, the youngsters clambered into the car once more.
“Take care, little mother,” said George as the girl caught her foot in a tangle of honeysuckle in trying to get a belated bunch of buds in the shelter of a cranny.
“Take care, ikkle muwer,” echoed the youngest, close on her heels.
They were quieter on the way home. Some of them slept, some sucked toffee somnolently, and others sat still, from sheer excess of satisfaction.
So alive, sleepy, grossly over-fed, they were safely dropped in Victory Street, and George Graham stood beside Lucilla on the doorstep of her home, while the wrinkled French bonne held the door open.
“So, your mother not being in yet, there’s no use in my coming in to tell her,” said George.
“Not the least,” assented Lucilla. “I’ll tell her when she comes in. And thank you ever so much for—our pleasant afternoon.”
“Sounds like a tea party,” protested George grumpily. “I have to thank you for a glimpse of paradise.”
And with that the car slid down the street and disappeared round the corner.
Lucilla watched it with a strange new flutter at her heart.
“I must tell Mummie,” she said to herself as she went in.
But, when Mrs. Ames did come in, it was so late that there was only just time for her to dress, and be off to dine before going to the latest theatrical success.
So Lucilla put off confession till the next morning; but the next morning passed, without bringing—at least to Lucilla’s liking—a fit opportunity for confession. And, after all, what harm had been done? So the crime, if any, remained unconfessed; and, really, it was rather nice having a secret with George—Uncle George.
Meanwhile George instead of driving home went round to see Bernard Alingham; perhaps because he felt unusually virtuous and thought the Clergy House suitable to his feelings.
He found his friend enjoying that most enjoyable of all meals, a bachelor’s cup of tea. Everything in its way was perfect. The Dachsels were asleep on the rug, the buttered toast was down by the fire, the kettle steaming away on the hob.
“So glad,” exclaimed his friend starting up, “I’ll ring for another cup.”
But George Graham stayed his hand. “My dear fellow,” he said, “you’ve known me ever since I was your fag at Eton, and you know I’m not a drunkard or in the habit of taking men’s drinks at tea-time; but, for Heaven’s sake, tell them to bring me a whisky and soda. I’ve had the time of my fife, and I want to drink my own health.”
The White House was one of those countrified, semi-cottage looking houses, that are tucked away in little gardens of their own in St. John’s Wood. Houses that command fabulous rents, that have an air of rural simplicity and are as a rule the abodes of urban complexity.
Whether this one was so or not Alan Graham scarcely knew as he waited in the porch for the doorbell to be answered; but, seen by the moonlight, the surrounding snow on gravel walks and grass, laurel leaves and trailing creepers gave the impression of purity. Then the powdered footman in livery in the ante-hall, the reverend butler waiting solemnly in the inner hall enhanced purity by respectability; also by wealth.
And Christmas decorations were everywhere each in its proper place; no chance sprigs of holly or evergreen; but studied wreaths and garlands betraying the florist’s art. Wealth once more!
One thing was certain, Herkomer must be as rich as rumour said. And Mrs. Herkomer?
She was standing on a white Persian lamb rug in front of the fire in the drawing-room, a curiously simple figure dressed in white, amid all the gorgeousness of blue satin and gold, boule furniture and Sèvres vases. Simple white, with the row of brilliants among her goldy curls and round her neck, vastly different from but oddly reminiscent of the cabaret girl. And she wore a single red rosebud. She was alone.
“I asked you to come early,” she said, “so that I might have a chance of explaining things before Mr. Herkomer returns. He often brings friends back with him.”
There was detachment from her surroundings in voice and manner.
“If you are cold, come closer to the fire,” she said, “and I will tell you as quickly as I can.”
He did feel chilled, by what he scarcely knew, so he went and stood beside her. The firelight gleamed up into both their stooping faces as she went on:
“I didn’t half thank you for the red roses you sent. Of course I knew it was you—there was no one else, for Mother had run away from all her relations and friends long years before. You would have liked my mother. She was so clever—to the very last. When I left her that night, she was going to spend her time in puzzling out a mathematical problem. She was one of the first to pass at Cambridge. They said she ought to have been a wrangler. Then she married. I won’t say anything about my father—I won’t even tell you his name except that he was a beast. No, I won’t say that—it’s a libel upon the animals. Anyhow he was bad, so my mother left him. She was a Roman Catholic then and divorce was impossible. My first recollection of her was when she was teaching. I think we were very happy and contented together. I was to teach too, but I hadn’t her gift for mathematics, so she taught me other things, and there was always the Chelsea Free Library and sometimes the British Museum. It was when I was about sixteen that her eyesight gave way. Perhaps she had shed too many tears; but I never saw them; she was always so cheerful, so companionable, so clever. Then——” she paused a moment. “It would take too long to tell you how it all happened; but a man had come into our paradise; I may have been better-looking than I am now—anyhow he made violent love to me. He was a variety artist, and I suppose it was his anxiety to have me in his power that made him do it, but he used his influence to get me taken on as a singer at his show. Then when—when I wouldn’t—he tried to get me out again. But by that time there was another man—there have always been men, I don’t know why. Besides I had learnt to dance—just a little—you saw me didn’t you? And somehow I pleased the people; so from one thing to the other I became the Lily of Chelsea.” She gave a little laugh, half sob. “It was all hideous, of course,” she went on, “but it paid. I never told Mother. She thought I was teaching. I used to go away and read at the Library to keep up the idea by day. Then there were evening classes to fill up! That is nearly all. No, there’s Mr. Herkomer. He saw me and for two years—— Ah, well! bit by bit he offered everything. But I couldn’t. Mother would have found out he was a Jew—and not—but all that is no use now. I refused. Then you told him Mother had left me. And I was so sick of it all, so sick of showing off to all those people, so weary, so—so lonely, that I consented. We were married a month after you sent the roses, and—and he has been very good to me. I think, in a way, he really loves me!”
She raised her eyes, so lucid, so cool to Alan Graham’s keen, hot ones; and there was silence.
“I don’t know how it will be b ‘and by when he gets tired of me as he will do—naturally; but it is not much to give for peace and quiet in the present—and he has promised that I shall never be public again——”
Once more there was silence, almost oppressive silence.
“And he really is—as good as he can be,” she murmured as if she felt arraigned and sought for excuse.
A sudden bustle, a loud voice with a lisp in it made her stand upright and face round as if to meet an enemy.
“Ah, there he is—and he has brought friends, so it is lucky I asked you to come early. Now you understand, don’t you?”
“Yes, I understand,” he said quietly, but in his heart there was a storm of protest. He had not known till this instant how large a share of him this slender woman with the cool, grey eyes had claimed, and he shrank from the truth: even from the realization that she had known what she was doing, that she had known it fully, and yet had not shrunk from it. Rather would he have thought of her as beguiled by innocence, but she had chosen, deliberately chosen.
And what a choice! Certainly of the three friends he had brought home, Harry Herkomer was the most offensive. They were all of the same type—money lenders, Mammon mongers; but Herkomer was the most successful, therefore the most objectionable. Yet his manner to his wife was kindly, almost gentle; and he greeted Alan Graham with almost uproarious merriment recounting to his confrères the incident at the cabaret and affirming his everlasting gratitude to the man who had given him the straight tip to paradise.
“You won’t have me for long to-night Lil,” he said as he disappeared to put on what he called his togs, the other men being already in evening dress. “For we’ve got a topping wangle on, haven’t we, boys? Good Lord! if it comes off! You shall have the biggest and longest pearl necklace in London, Lil! So we may be called off any moment.”
But the dinner went on with commendable order and exactitude. No dinner, not even that of the King himself, could have been served with more scrupulous care for the proprieties. Oysters began it; consomme royale followed; sole au vin blanc preceded turkey Brillat-Savarin; and through it all the cabaret girl sat urbanely smiling at the disjointed scraps of “ladies’ conversation” which were flung at her between more earnest discussions about the projected tour of the “King of Kings” film in the provinces, and the likelihood of the present wangle being pulled off.
It was not till the bombe à la Nesselrode had come round that the sudden cling of a telephone bell made Harry Herkomer jump from his chair and go to the instrument. He was back in a moment, his face radiant with satisfied greed.
“They’re nibbling,” he said. “So we must be off as soon as we can. Bring coffee at once. Lil, you can amuse Dr. Graham, can’t you? She’s a real clinker at back chat; I can tell you, doctor!”
There was much muffling up in the hall against the cold, a resounding kiss from the master of the house to his wife, coupled with the jocular injunction not to wait up for Hubby as he wouldn’t be home till morning, and Alan Graham found himself alone with the slim figure in white, wondering vaguely if she were indeed a snow maiden, chill to the very heart-strings.
“We will go into the library,” she said, “that is my room. He never comes into it.”
“You see he gives me everything I want,” she added, as after entering the room she saw his eyes travelling in surprise over the book lined walls. No lady’s library this, but the business order of a rich man to please a woman who preferred books to bijouterie. No more thought, no more desire to please had been necessary for the one than for the other. Alan Graham as he glanced round felt that the whole was simply a diamond necklace or thirty pieces of silver.
The table was littered with magazines, papers, writing materials.
He laughed and she laughed too. She seemed a different person here in this room that was all her own. In the blue satined be-gilt drawing-room she had been dignified, collected, frigid. Here she was warm flesh and blood; but still without—without what? In his inmost soul he knew well what it was, but his manhood revolted against the idea. Why should she not be womanhood incarnate? Why should she be so aloof?
“Smoke?” she said, handing him a box of cigarettes.
But he shook his head. More or less of an inveterate smoker as he was, he yet felt he could not do so in her presence; for it was evident she did not indulge in the womanly habit, and he wanted somehow—rather angrily—to be even with her.
So they sat and talked. She was evidently well read, but had lacked that sense of proportion which comes with the rub of other minds. Still it gave her a freshness, an eagerness that was delightful, and as he rose at last to say good night he realized that never once, in those two hours, had he remembered that she was of a different sex; they had talked as man to man, as woman to woman.
“It has been delightful,” she exclaimed, her cool pose of aloofness gone, “do come again whenever you can. I don’t often get anyone like you.”
The words in themselves were, he admitted, enough to turn any man’s head; but as he walked home, chiefly to have the panoply of the stars above him in which to collect his thoughts, he told himself that, if anything, they had cooled the turmoil of his resentment at her disgraceful marriage. Yes, he would go there again; but not too often. So he hesitated between propriety and pleasure.
He found Eve, sitting by the telephone in a fume.
“I wish there were no women in the world,” she raged as he entered the room. “I’ve been trying to get on to a number for the last half-hour, and I’m sure the girl——”
“They always put on men for the night work, I’m told—they’re more reliable,” began her brother.
“Oh, don’t be a fool!” she interrupted.
“Well, they’re not so often in love and so they don’t drivel——”
“Ah, you’ve burjed in at last, thank Heaven!” Then ensued that most tantalizing, one-sided telephone conversation which is calculated to drive the hearer into excited imaginings. It ended with a sigh of relief and a “That’s settled anyhow!” as Eve sank into a chair, and deliberately lighted a cigarette. Her face was very flushed and her hands trembled slightly. “The fact is,” she continued, “it really was rather riling. I had a letter by the last post from Margaret Malpas. That blister Claud Hearsay got on his hand has got poisoned. The local pill-box talks rot. It’s taken me three half-crown wires to make Margaret squirm she’s so calm. But now she’s bringing him along to-morrow morning and I had to fix up a nursing home—and all that sort of thing.
“You’re taking a lot of trouble about that Young man, my dear,” suggested her brother.
She flared up in an instant. “What an inhuman beast you are—just like a doctor. Can’t one do a charitable act sometimes? I don’t often.” And she left him wondering at her temper, for Eve generally sat free of emotion.
As a matter of fact, however, Eve Graham had found herself curiously responsible for the blister on Claud Hearsay’s hand. She had pooh-poohed the injury at the time, had pooh-poohed it afterwards, but the news that it was poisoned upset her strangely. And time proved that she had had some reason for alarm, since Claud Hearsay’s hand gave trouble. For a day or two, indeed, there was a question whether he might not lose it, but the danger passed and with youth and perfect health he made rapid strides to complete recovery. He still had his arm in a sling, however, when Eve, charily admitted to an interview, found him surrounded by every comfort and fussed over by Margaret and her old nurse, in the luxurious rooms to which he had been removed from the nursing home. The weather was bitter, but a huge fire was blazing and the whole place was warm and sweet, like a hothouse, by reason of the lavish flowers everywhere. So it was not the atmosphere which struck a chill to Eve, body and soul, as she entered; it was the certainty that those past days of suffering, during which Margaret had ministered to Claud’s every want, and the close intimacy engendered between helplessness and strength, had brought a new note into their lives; into hers at any rate. And instantly jealousy—the fundamental jealousy which had wrecked the world sprang up betimes between the two women. Unconsciously for the most part; yet still strongly.
But there was no outward manifestation of it.
Eve was her own amusing self, and she flung the few carnations she had brought into the blazing fire with a laugh, saying there was not an empty vase left for them.
“Too bad!” said Claud, laughing also, “but Margaret overwhelms me.” And his hand found hers as she stood beside his chair. She, in her turn, gave a half-embarrassed laugh.
“Yet you aren’t a bit grateful, are you?” she put in. “I pile coals on the fire, Eve, and I give him footwarmers and hot bottles; yet he still complains of the cold—and down at Malpas——”
“Now, Miss Graham, I appeal to you,” interposed Claud Hearsay. “I won’t abuse your perfectly detestable climate; but don’t you agree with me that a country house in a clayey valley without hot baths and with no light to speak of is unendurable in winter? You see, we dispute about this. I want Margaret to put in central heating and electric light and she talks about expense and getting married next month. That, of course, would be delightful, but why not combine pleasures? Why not put off the wedding—I shall die of exposure I feel sure, Margie, if you make me stand in that chilly church and swear swears unless it is warmer. Now, what I say, Miss Graham, is that if we put off ourselves, and put in workmen, we could have a jolly two months say, in the South of France and come home to the jolliest of festivities. Think of it, Margie! The dear old place all bright with sunshine, children scattering primroses and daffies. And no need to go away for a honeymoon. Only the dear old place where we are to live, and ourselves.”
Claud Hearsay was essentially a cat-man; his voice could be as dream-provoking as pussy’s purr, his manner as caressing as pussy’s gentle shouldering of a beloved object.
So the familiar, half serious, half joking talk went on, Eve joining in it sometimes; and always, she scarcely knew why, in favour of escape from snow and frosts, rain and fog, until Margaret, saying that she did not know where to go, and that she hated hotels, Claud appealed to the woman who, sunk in a cushioned arm-chair with the eternal cigarette between her lip’s, was eyeing the pair idly, yet with a certain malevolence of expression.
“I’m sure you could help,” he said. “Margie tells me you generally go abroad after the New Year. You could put her on to some paradise of a place, I expect, couldn’t you?”
What was it that brought a sudden suggestion to Eve Graham’s mind? Perhaps it was the casual mention of paradise. But in an instant a whole plan full fledged sprang into being.
For some years past her brother, George, an enthusiast for golf, had rented a little villa on the Riviera when he could for a month or two join in serious tournaments, and yet feel more at home than in any of the great hotel caravanserais; whence, also, he could get bathing and boating on off days with less preparation and bother. He had met his sister’s ridicule by saying it was not after all so expensive, since, being so near the sea, it let well for the rest of the year, while Alphonse and Anna, the gardener and his wife, did all that was wanted during his brief stay, and looked after the place in his absence. Besides, as it was always kept free for the first months of the New Year, he could go there at a moment’s notice, and take a friend if he wanted to do so.
It was a ridiculous, poky little place, perched on a rock, the only redeeming feature being a rose and orange garden that stretched behind it up the hill; she had seen it often while she stayed in the big hotel caravanserai which was much more to her taste that Le petit Paradis. What a name to give a perfectly uncivilized spot! But Margie was not really civilized! She belonged to the Middle Ages. And Claud? Well! he could make eyes in the orange garden if he wished.
Then, perhaps, she herself——
Anyway, it would keep them within touch. So the suggestion passed into words. “I believe I could,” she said slowly. “George has a little shanty of a place on the Riviera where he retires to live like a savage; no baths, no electric light, Mr. Hearsay. But it’s warm! He generally roosts there after the New Year and I perch in the hotel—something like a holiday! But I’m off it this winter, prefer the mannequin business—more fun; and George—I believe the idiot is really going to give me Mrs. Ames as a sister-in-law; ugh! how I shall hate her—says he’s not ready to wear paint and feathers either; so the place is likely to be vacant. It’s called ‘Le petit Paradis’—just suit you two!”
And she went off into a fit of amused laughter.
“But, my dear Eve!” protested Margaret somewhat horrified and practical as ever, “We couldn’t; besides, how about servants?”
“You’d take Frumpus, of course,” replied Eve, still laughing, “and Frumpus is enough chaperon even for engaged lovers. Then the gardener and his wife—you’d manage A1.”
“It’s the very place,” put in Claud Hearsay enthusiastically, “and if your brother isn’t going— I’m sure, Margie, we should like it immensely. And I’ll do all the business for you, dear; interview the electric people and the hot water people. And you bet your boots, Margie, you aren’t done. I’ll take care of that!”
But Margaret Malpas looked at Eve, then at her fiancé. A definite antagonism had sprung up between the two women, and she felt vaguely that Le petit Paradis was a false step, so far as her interest were concerned.
“But,” she said, “why go so far? Cornwall is quite warm and—and it’s England. I’d rather not. Still,” she glanced at his face and added hurriedly, “if the doctor thinks it advisable.”
Claud Hearsay caught her up eagerly. “Just so, let’s wait on the doctor’s orders; he told me only this morning that if my liver remained sulky I’d better go to a wanner climate for two months. So that settles it! Thank you so much, dearest.” He bent over Margaret’s hand and kissed it gallantly.
“If my brother has made no other plans,” said Eve quietly, adding: “I almost hope he has, for then you could go to Cornwall. It is not so far, and I could run down and see you sometimes, couldn’t I?”
There was challenge in her voice, but Margaret Malpas did not take up the glove. Le petit Paradis was farther away, so much the better.
That same evening a characteristic telegram came to the luxurious rooms:
“George forfeited heaven by swear words when asked if he meant moving delighted you blow in agent’s name Godard.”
Having sent this Eve Graham felt a glow of virtue. If by her silly flight from an unusual sensation she had minimized Claud Hearsay’s hurt, and thereby, possibly, led to subsequent complications, she had done her best to neutralize evil results both for him and for herself!—but, how extraordinarily handsome he was! The handsomest man she had ever seen; but such a boy! Margie seemed centuries older than he was.
Ever since the Reverend Bernard Alingham had taken that walk down Regent Street, Oxford Street, Westbourne Grove and Kensington High Street he had been haunted by a vision of a lace collar priced 1s. 11¾d. He seemed to be constantly seeing it. When he went his rounds of the poorer quarters of his parish, he saw it in the cheap drapers’ shops, often stuck to the glass with postage stamp edging and marked down to 11¾d. as a special attraction. And in Bond Street, there it was again, this time priced as high as one guinea; but always, to masculine eyes, the same thing. A mere bagatelle of flimsy chiffon and lace, coloured or uncoloured, multitudinous in style, but ever the same in shape; just a circlet yoke to fit round some slender neck. He took, at last, to looking on it as, indeed, a yoke that womanhood chose to wear, as something typical of their charm. He actually dreamt of it one night, but then it encircled the shoulders of a marvellously beautiful girl with languishing eyes; and then it was made of marble. Marble, all fretted into the semblance of lace, yet still marble; heavy cold stone against the delicate rose-tinted flesh. He had awakened as from a nightmare, sweating, his pulses bounding. A tumbler of cold water had set them back to normal, but the impression remained. More than once as he noticed that invitation to buy, 11¾d., 1s. 11¾d., or a guinea, he caught himself wondering if women did, indeed, wear a yoke; charming to look at, heavy in reality? Did they all wear it, even that woman whom he had seen with the snake curving up her strong white arm? When this thought came he would laugh, tell himself he was getting dotty, and take refuge in books.
He was a great reader; a man in his profession was bound, he thought, to be acquainted with both sides of any question touching on his work. So he allowed no “Index Expurgatorius.” And as he read he became conscious of a new trend in his mind; it was as if he were seeking some explanation of the lace collar, for so many things seemed to touch on the problem. Even in those hours of recreation, when, an ardent lover of animals, he read of their lives, their loves, their deaths, he was constantly being brought up, as it were, by the question which had by degrees formulated itself thus “In what way does humanity, especially feminine humanity, differ from the beasts that perish?” Sometimes, as he sat pondering this question, Zit and Zoe would come to his knee, impatient at his overlong preoccupation and, with mute, beseeching eyes, demand their daily walk. Then he would jump up, strangely apologetic, and mayhap give those “dumb creatures of God” their greatest treat—a taxi drive to the nearest open spot where they could romp about together, free of horrible hateful things on wheels! Or, for the matter of that, free of everything save the immediate present, and if, by chance, the birds were singing, the clouds drifting by, all visible creation asleep, or awakening to life and joy, what a marvellous thing that present was! Even Bernard Alingham, weighted as he was by the collar of culture felt inclined to romp with his dogs, shouting for glee like a very boy.
It was not often, however, that he and they had this treat; for Christmas and the New Year bring extra work to those whose duties lie amongst the poor; so he was busy. Still, since Victory Street was not really a slum, but only a collection of mean houses gathered behind the mansions of the great, and there were others in the parish which were far more in need of assistance and guidance, it was New Year’s Day before he could pay it his annual visit of good cheer.
And Victory Street, as he walked down it, did not seem inclined for cheerfulness. Quarrelling was going on in the “Fox and Goose”; as he passed it Jeff Blake’s voice came bellowing out:
“A ’appy New Year! Damn you! I don’t see nothin’ ’appy to come! A set o’ blasted idgets as calls ’emselves masters, an’ a set o’ blasted idgets as calls ’emselves workmen! It’s all wrong! Church an’ State, an’ ’Ouses o’ Parlyment, an’ the ’ole blasted lot.”
Not a very cheerful outlook, thought the Reverend Bernard Alingham as he walked on; yet what else could one expect? The strike still lasted. All Victory Street, save the two tailors, was out of work, and most houses had tribes of children. Mrs. Bert Jones, beside whom he stopped to offer good wishes, was the worst offender in this respect! Six infants in less than three years! Appalling! but two sets of twins was Fate’s doing—not hers. A big, bouncing Welshwoman was she, not long past her teens, and still physically unharmed by child bearing, and good for many more. But Myfanwy Jones’s house? And her person? Poor soul! What else could one expect with six infants clinging from breast to hem? And they all looked healthy. That was due to their parents; she was splendidly handsome and strong and vital, while Bert Jones, her husband, was the model of a man—the best bruiser along the river side.
Not like the poor Larkin couple; they—— As he knocked at their door a vague vision of that lace collar came to him; but there was no time to follow it up because of his astonishment when George Graham opened it, and Lucilla Ames showed, seated at a table littered with toys and surrounded by a perfect crowd of children.
She stood up, blushing furiously, and looked at George, who, however, was quite calm and collected.
“How do, Bernard,” he said. “I brought Miss Ames along to distribute—always require a woman to do that sort of thing.”
But Lucilla was more straightforward. “I don’t believe I ought to be here, Mr. Alingham,” she said with quite a severe look at her companion in crime, “for Mother doesn’t know. But Mr. Graham”— the look was intensified—“said he couldn’t and wouldn’t give the children these unless I came, so——”
“Charity covers a multitude of sins, quoted the parson parsonically. “You can tell Mrs. Ames when you get home, can’t you?
Lucilla hesitated; then said quite decidedly;
“No, I can’t, and I don’t mean to, what’s more. I am old enough to be charitable if I choose.” And she held her head up.
At this moment a child broke in with a whimpering: “I ’aven’t ’ad mine, miss,” so the distribution went on, leaving Bernard Alingham amused at the evident confidence between the girl and George, while the latter felt both guilty and admiring. When all the toys had found owners and the recipients had departed, Lucilla sped upstairs to see Mrs. Larkin who was still that weakly in the back, leaving the three men—for Tom Larkin was home at the dinner hour—to the parson’s professional remarks.
“I’m afraid, Larkin,” he said, proper regret in his voice, “that the Street generally is not in the mood for a very Happy New Year. I heard Jeff Blake denouncing everybody as I came along—I fear he wasn’t quite sober.”
Tom Larkin gave an apologetic sniff. “I’m afraid, sir,” he said, “he ain’t often, so to speak, real sober these days. And ’tis ’ard for such as ’ee, sir. He ain’t like me, a slow worker—yes, sir, that’s my complaint—Gord, savin’ your presence, sir, made me a slow worker, an’ ’E didn’t set no limits to my time. Now the H’union, sir, it set a limit to my time, and then dams me for bein’ slow; w’ich ain’t fair. So I goes sweatin’ an’ earn wot they calls statoo-tary wage of thirty-five bob a week, w’ich ain’t enough for seven statoos, sir—we’re seven of a family—wotever it maybe for one. Now I can go on steady for ten hours or more, quite reg’lar, without ’arm to my body, an’ a deal o’ good to my mind, w’ich ain’t much and never will be till Gord, savin’ your presence, sir, give me a noo brain. But ’Ee ain’t done it yet and that’s wot I complains of—they thinks ’emselves Goramighty, though for all they know, they might a’ bin born idgets themselves.” The little man had worked himself up into a state of excitement, and he passed his hand over his mouth in a sort of perplexed apology for his own vehemence. But his two hearers looked at each other and smiled; it was good to hear things put so plainly.
“And Jeff Blake feels it hard too, does he?” asked Bernard Alingham, hoping for more salutary truth.
“He do, sir,” responded Tom Larkin; it was not often he let himself go, still more seldom to attentive listeners. “You see, ’ee’s one o’ the shiners—’ee can do in a hour w’ot I’d do in two. Gord made ’im so; but it ain’t no good to ’im. That’s w’ere it ’urts so. The blimy H’union reg’lar-steals wot he was given w’en ’ee was bore. An’ it’s one thing t’er chuck the money as is yours by right, down of your mates’ throat, an’ feel as if the wings were a-sprouting on yer back, an’ another w’en you’ve got a wife an’ six childer wif more to come, mayhap, starvin’ at home. So I don’t blime Jeff Blake for sayin’ ’ee won’t strike no more; but be a blackleg. You see, sir, w’en a man’s wife looks black at ’im, ’e’ll say anythin’, te’r please ’er, an’ Mrs. Jeff ’ave bin snifftery of late. You tike it from me, sir, the woman is at the bottom of it all”
He had got so far when a perfect tumult in the street without made George Graham open the door and look out.
“Glory!” he said. “There’s going to be a fight!”
Apparently there was. The whole company in the “Fox and Goose” had trooped into the street, others from the houses had joined to form a ring, in the centre of which, lurching considerably, was Jeff Blake, stripped to the waist, while opposite him, looking disdainful, stood the best bruiser on the river-side, Bert Jones.
“Can’t it be stopped?” said the Reverend Bernard Alingham, almost despairingly, as he also went to the door.
Tom Larkin shook his head mournfully. “Not the least use, sir; he’s askin’ for it all the time. Bert give ’ee a black eye last week; but Jeff’s a shiner. ’Ee won’t tike no beatin’. It won’t last long, sir, for ee’s nigh blind drunk, an’ it ain’t safe to interfere, sir,” he went on, for Alingham had made a move forward. “It’d only egg them others on; not as they sides agin Jeff—they know ’ee’s a shiner—but nothin counts agin the blimy Union—’tis money thrown away if they leaves it.”
“Money!” echoed his hearer bitterly. “Money!”
“An’ women,” added Tom Larkin.
George Graham had meanwhile stepped inside again to meet Lucilla whom he had heard on the stairs.
“Don’t go outside, please,” he said with authority in his voice, “there’s a fight going on in the street, and you oughtn’t to see it.”
She pulled up short and looked him full in the face. “Why ought I not to see it?” she asked and there was a ring in hers.
“Because—because, Lucilla, I brought you here. I—I am responsible—you oughtn’t——” he began.
“To have come—I know that,” she broke in icily.
“No, no! But—but—I don’t want you to see it,” he said almost piteously. “It isn’t fit——”
She gave a little derisive laugh. “Isn’t a fight as much a part of the world as you or I, and one ought— one must know one’s world—one’s whole world.”
And, with that, she passed him and went out to stand beside Bernard Alingham and watch.
There was not much to see, however, and almost before she took her stand the fight was over. Jeff Blake had gone at his opponent like a mad bull, and for the moment had delayed the inevitable end by the very furiousness of his onslaught. But now one well directed blow from the right made him stagger, the following left sent him on his back, where he lay dazed by drink, blood streaming from his nose. Hardly had he fallen before Mrs. Jeff, shrieking hysterically, was beside him. Luckily her outburst was unintelligible to Lucilla’s ears, for the language of even respectable women of Aggy Blake’s class when in ungovernable temper is not choice; but it was heard and understood by many women in the crowd, and instantly voices shrilled denials, and all the symptoms of a tooth and nail scrimmage showed themselves.
“This must be stopped,” cried Bernard Alingham, springing forward.
But he was detained by Tom Larkin’s bony hand—it had more force in it than one would have conceived possible.
“No manner o’ use, sir,” he said, “if women want to fight, they fight, and no one can’t persuade ’em to the contrairy; but they don’t ’urt themselves much as a rule—just scratches and sich-like.”
But Tom Larkin was wrong. Something did stop the impending “Ladies’ Battle”; and that was the sudden appearance of a very grand Rolls Royce car, driven at chauffeur’s speed down the street. It scattered the would-be combatants like chaff before the wind and left them agape with a new interest.
“’Twill be that Lil Smith as says she’s married Herkomer; him as loans money,” said one.
“Married or no,” assented a smart looking girl, “I wish I’d a topping turnout like that.”
“She was a gude lass, whatever, an’ minded her auld mither weel—better’n you do——” put in sarcastically the tall Scotchwoman who had recommended a kettleful of boiling water as a corrective for amorous husbands.
Whereupon a minor skirmish began.
In the meantime the Rolls Royce had drawn up a few doors above Tom Larkin’s house, and out of it stepped Alan Graham. His brother could hardly believe his eyes.
“Good Lord! Alan!” he exclaimed. “What the devil are you doing here? “
“I might ask you the same question,” began Alan, looking embarrassed. But by this time a lady, tall, slim, wrapped in costly furs, had stepped out in her turn, and with a little cry of pleasure advanced holding out her hand:
“Mr. Alingham! I’m so glad! Surely you recognize me?” she went on, seeing his look of bewilderment. “I am Lil Smith—you were so kind to Mother.” The nameless accent of affection came into her voice and she paused.
“Of course,” he began, but her eyes had wandered to Lucilla Ames’s fresh, youthful face, and Lucilla’s bright, brown ones had found Lil’s clear, translucent grey ones.
Now, as with man, so with woman. When two of the same type meet there springs up at once a sense of kinship that is seldom at fault.
So when Lil Herkomer said to Lucilla with that gracious aloofness which was her chief charm “I don’t think we know each other, do we?” Lucilla responded with a frank “No, but I should like to.”
Whereupon Alan Graham had no choice but to introduce them, adding “And this is my brother, George.”
Thus designated, the latter had no choice either but to turn stiffly, feeling outraged the while. Why, when he had taken Lucilla out, to do a charitable act it is true, but still on the sly, had Fate made her spectator of a common slum fight, and put upon her the indignity of this introduction to a woman whom Alan had picked up somewhere—curse him!
“We ought to be getting back, Lucilla,” he said almost brusquely.
But Lil Herkomer’s grey eyes turned to him, and she remarked quietly:
“I think I would wait a while, Mr. Graham, and let the street quiet down. Look!”
He looked and was forced to admit her wisdom. The minor skirmish had assumed proportions; every woman in the street, up or down, was engaged in a war of words, with here and there a centre of scratchings and clawings, while the men, apparently appeased, stood jeering and encouraging.
“Dear! Dear!” said Bernard Alingham helplessly.
Then to him came Lil Herkomer’s calm, confident voice:
“They’ll quiet down directly. They always do, Mr. Alingham, and I ought to know.” Here she turned to Lucilla. “You see I lived up this street for years”—here George positively ground his teeth—“with my mother,” she went on, and once again the nameless tone of affection came to her voice. “And when she left me, I kept on the rooms; I—I couldn’t bear to dismantle them, somehow.” She paused, then went on with a smile: “Besides, it is always pleasant to have what rabbits have—a bolt hole; so, if you would like to wait awhile, I can give you a chair if you don’t mind coming up three pair of stairs.”
George Graham attempted to check Lucilla’s ready acceptance, but was completely foiled. She took no notice of his overt hints, apparently absorbed in Lil Herkomer’s further explanation of how she had been bringing Dr. Graham down to see something which had interested him and which might possibly serve to while away the irksomeness of waiting. So they moved upstairs, the two brothers coming last, scowling at each other. Alan because he saw clearly that George misjudged Lil Herkomer, and George because Alan, usually the most discreet of men, should have chosen this day of all others to flaunt his women friends in little Lucilla’s face; Lucilla out on the sly by his, George’s, invitation!
“And perhaps it may interest you, also, Mr. Alingham,” said Lil as she paused to unlock the door, “that is to say if it doesn’t shock you!”
The room was, as Alan Graham recognized at the first glance, exactly as it had been that first night when he had found a dead woman sleeping her last sleep in the arm-chair, and with the recognition came, with a rush, a realization of all that had happened to him since then. That he was in love—in love in the usually recognized sense of the word—with Lil Herkomer was undeniable; but surely, surely there was something beyond and behind that sense, something which bade him stand aside from himself, from his desires, his hopes, his very humanity, and see in her only a bodiless soul? Her voice roused him saying softly to Lucilla:
“Sit you there! It was my mother’s chair, so you, young, happy, must have it. She was old, but she was always happy—and clever Oh, so clever!”
She had found chairs for the others, she had lit the gas stove, with an apology for a shut-up room being unavoidably chilly, and now from a cupboard brought out a small brass bowl and set it on the table where flowers had always been. “It is only a toy, as I told you, Dr. Graham,” she said, smiling, “a toy I played with as a child in India—I was born there, you know—and Mother liked it. I think it meant something to her—the cult of the child most likely.”
It was only a small, rather heavy looking brass bowl, but on the centre of it, standing upright, was the rude brass figure of a man. He had a halo round his head, and on his shoulder he carried the rude sitting brass figure of a very-young child.
“St. Christopher!” said Bernard Alingham at once.
Lil Herkomer shook her head. “Older than that,” she replied, “centuries and centuries older—long before Anno Domini. The child is Krishna (he was an incarnation of Life-Giving, Merciful Vishnu) being saved from the wicked king who ordered all new-born babies to be killed because one was going to be born who would oust him from his sovereignty. Krishna’s earthly father carried him across the river. It was in flood; they were nearly drowning when—the water touched the child’s foot.” She had a water-bottle in her hand, and as she spoke she had been filling the bowl slowly. Slowly the level rose nearer and nearer those little feet, and as she uttered that last “when” the water touched them. There was no sound, nothing to spoil the illusion of miracle; but the water disappeared and—the bowl was empty!
“Awfully neat!” said George Graham admiringly.
“I suppose it’s a siphon.”
“And a double bowl,” added Alan, taking up the toy to examine it more closely.
The Reverend Bernard Alingham sat silent, and Lucilla looked as if it were a real miracle. Her clear, shadowless eyes were fixed on Lil’s, she spoke to her alone;
“The cult of the child,” she said, “but I don’t understand. Was Krishna born miraculously?”
Lil, standing opposite to her, answered, it seemed to her alone:
“Of course. All the gods and demi-gods and heroes and saints of old were so born.”
“But why? It has always puzzled me. There must be some reason.” The girl’s face was eager.
“You should ask Mr. Alingham,” replied Lil. “He should know.”
But Lucilla broke in impatiently:
“No no! He doesn’t—men can’t—they can’t understand, how could they? You can because you’re a woman, so please answer.”
She stood up in her eagerness, and thereinafter it seemed as if only those two, the woman and the girl, were in the room: the others were dummies.
“What harm has a little human baby done”— Lucilla’s voice rang soft yet stern—“that it shouldn’t be good enough to teach others? I don’t mean babies that are born anyhow, but babies whose fathers and mothers love each other, really, truly. Love, they say, is the highest thing in the world, that it is divine. We girls are taught that anyhow—you know we are! Is it true, is it false?”
“Both,” answered Lil; and sudden tears of pity and tenderness had sprung to her eyes as she took the hand which Lucilla had held out impulsively in her appeal. “Both” she repeated then with equal impulse added: “Child, you will learn which in the time to come—Meanwhile remember what a very wise man once said: ‘If I loved a woman as she should be loved, I would never think of marrying her.’”
All three men rose from their seats simultaneously.
“I think we ought to be going,” said George Graham dubiously. “The street must be clear.”
But Lil Herkomer’s seriousness had gone. She laughed gaily.
“Just one moment,” she cried, merriment, amusement, in voice and manner. “Do please sit down again just for a minute, and before you go let me burn some of the Indian incense I always burnt before I left Mother alone. Didn’t you smell it that night you came in first?” She appealed to Alan Graham, and he, startled, confessed memory to himself. “She said it gave her dreams—happy dreams when we were separated. It may do the same for us.” As she spoke she flung a handful of something into the gas stove, and immediately it gave out a thin, blue vapour—a delicious fragrance.
And all stood arrested.
It was all so unconventional, so, in a way, ridiculous and yet touching, here in that room which seemed so redolent of love, that even George Graham could not help a smile—the smile of a child at novelty which it does not understand.
Did they dream? Who knows? But some vague sense of comradeship undoubtedly came to them, judging by the hearty manner in which they said good-bye to each other. And even George Graham had nothing to say against Lucilla’s decision, as they walked home, that Mrs. Herkomer was a perfect angel. What he did say was this:
“Lucilla, your mother must be told. I’ll come in and help you.”
They found Mrs. Ames at tea, looking her very best in a delightful new gown, which she knew suited her perfectly. Perhaps it was this, and the unexpected pleasure of showing it off to George which made her take the record of crime so peacefully; or perhaps she was clever enough to see the advantage of good temper. It had always, hitherto, stood her in good stead. So she only said that, of course, it was extremely wrong of the dear child, but since she had not come out, it did not so much matter, and as for George he knew how she trusted him. How Lucilla had looked on him as a father, at any rate as an uncle for years and years; and what more altogether proper and delightful since the dear child was not eighteen and he was five and thirty.
“Not quite so much as that,” poor George had protested ruefully, “only thirty-two.”
To which she replied that she had always thought he was at least four and thirty. Some men looked older than their years; and at any rate he was sixteen years older—No, really, was it only fourteen? She was always so silly about arithmetic and ages. She never could remember her own—she believed it was thirty-three or thirty-four.
And what could a man say after this save that he would never have thought so!
They were seated together, like the lovers that they were, their hands clasped, his arm round her in protecting fashion while her head rested on his shoulder, and her eyes met his with that look in them which women, good women, seldom give whole-heartedly, save once in their lives. Men call it a look of self-surrender; but it is not so. It is the woman’s look of appropriation which comes with the knowledge that the man is hers; that he, and with him all possible good things are hers, for full possession.
She may try and disguise the truth from herself, but the woman’s outlook, which has been hers always from the very beginning of time, is there.
“This is mine, my own. None shall take it from me. For all happiness it must look to me. I will care for it, love it, cherish it.”
And so on, through all the I’s in the alphabet. In this case, as Margaret Malpas sat beside Claud Hearsay she certainly felt that in giving him what she had given she had, as it were, apportioned him to Malpas and all that she held dear.
They had been at Le petit Paradis for two months; two whole months of uninterrupted content. Frumpus, the inimitable family nurse, maid and housekeeper combined, had, if with many objurgations and complainings as to Anne and Alphonse, managed the household admirably, so, for once in her life, Margaret had been free to let herself go without thought of anyone but Claud.
And he? Well, he was not in love with her, as men count love. He did not fret or fume if she were absent for half an hour, but he was well content with what Fate had assigned to him. His easy temper, his touch of Eastern acquiescence made him fall in with her mood, and he made love, as the saying runs, very prettily. In fact, if only the Malpas lanes were not so muddy! If only there were more distractions there than the daily post—none on Sundays—there would have been no fly in his ointment.
But here, with a really blue sky above them, a really blue sea before them, a real sun to shine upon them, it was easy to forget Malpas, or rather to remember it only as a place where workmen were at work, where contracts had to be kept, and a sharp commercial eye had to see there was no hanky-panky with second-class varnish instead of first, and iron pipes instead of lead ones. “It is no use trying that sort of game on with me,” he had said good-naturedly but firmly to the man from those universal providers, Jilks and James, who had come to take his instructions; and when Margaret had deprecated such plain speaking to an apparently innocent and most gentlemanly representative, he had said: “It is always best to be on the safe side. We do it in India always. And we bargain too! Why, Margie, I got down the price of that going-away dress of yours, sixpence a yard. And Eve—I mean Miss Graham—laughed, and said I should make my fortune in business. I believe I should if I had the chance.”
Still Malpas was a dear old place, and Margie was a dear old thing and he admired her, and her mise en scène immensely. So as he sat beside her in the orange garden at Le petit Paradis he felt sentimental enough to raise her hand to his lips and kiss it tenderly.
She felt a thrill run through her that was almost too exquisitely pleasant. How happy they would be in that future which was coming so near. In another fortnight they would be going home. Then the wedding. Then Malpas, curiously changed, it is true, by baths and electric light; yet still the old place. Well, they two—Claud and she—must live up to the old traditions: they must be a link in the long chain of honourable men and women which, please God, would go on and on. . . .
“I’m going to get my tailor to make me a white serge suit,” said Claud, breaking in on her thoughts. “It will be too cold I expect, even in summer, to wear cotton drill at Malpas; but you don’t know how much more cheerful it is to be in white. Of course I always wore it in Calcutta and it’s really quite smart if you only have the things well cut. You’ve no fault to find with these, have you?”
It certainly would have been hard to pick holes in the figure which jumped to its feet, and paraded before her, absolutely in mannequin fashion.
“The village children will run after you if you do,” she remarked, laughing. “They’ll think you a guy.”
“Will they?” he retorted quickly. “Then I’ll teach them better.”
Quite a savage look had come into his handsome young face, making Margaret protest:
“You wouldn’t hurt them, would you, Claud?”
“Rather!” he replied half in jest, half in earnest. “Laughing at the lord of the manor! Hullo! Here is Frumpus coming to tell us déjeuner is ready. I’m as hungry as a jungly dog! Look, Margie I did you ever see anything so out of place as that figure?”
And in truth Frumpus looked singularly out of harmony with her surroundings.
Le petit Paradis, a quaint sort of castellated cottage, was built on the spur of rock ending the low promontory which stretched out into the blue Mediterranean from the blue Maritime Alps. So the cottage, with the figure coming from it towards the orange and rose and eucalyptus garden that joined land and sea, was outlined clear against the misty blue of distant sea and sky.
“Luncheon is served, miss,” Frumpus said condescendingly, of course, as it was not really her business to make the announcement; but, there being no butler, it was necessary either that it should be made by some one or that worse evil would occur; briefly, luncheon would get cold, an unheard of event in the Malpas household, where for generations the same thing had happened at the same minute day after day, so that if the last trump were to sound at eleven o’clock it would have found the entire ménage engaged in work that belonged specially to that instant of eternity and none other.
“Frumpie,” cried Claud disrespectfully—it was a nursery term of endearment which Margaret still used at times, and which Claud copied when he felt “provocative—“as I’ve told you a dozen times it is not luncheon, it is breakfast. I have only had a roll and a cup of coffee this morning, and you can’t call that a meal.”
“Very good, sir,” replied Frumpus icily, “but at Malpas breakfast is always at 8.45 and it is now twelve, at which time the Squire generally fed the fattening pigs.”
“Pigs? Good Lord! Did he feed the fowls too?” asked Claud with a dramatic look of horror at Margaret.
“Not as a rule, sir,” responded Frumpus, “unless there was chickens; but the Squire didn’t hold with chickens. They took up too much time and there was so much to do, what with being churchwarden, and petty sessions, and district councils, and J.P.’s, and guardians——”
Claud fled from this enumeration of offices he would have to hold, and hand in hand with his fiancée raced to the house, where the, omelette aux rognons which Anne had prepared made him forget the future; for in food, as in all other physical pleasures, he was a gourmet,
So, when in the late afternoon, the declining rays of the sun made walking pleasant, and Margaret appeared in a spotless white dress, dainty enough, but colourless, he remarked lightly that he wished she had put on her blue.
“But you said, dearest,” she protested, “that white made you feel happy—and that——”
“In a man, yes. I suppose because it isn’t really his game. Now a woman can look too virginal. Besides, there’s so much white in this garden. Look at it—all orange-blossom and spindly, white rosebuds. You don’t know how I sometimes wish I could really find a jolly old red one. Hullo—what’s that?”
They were walking in the widest part of the garden and, as they neared the road which runs along the coast, something dazzlingly brilliant showed through the slender boles of the tall eucalyptus trees that here almost replaced the roses, and littered the path with their small, soft, pale green carpels, which, if they were crushed underfoot, gave out a strong smell of their essential oil. Indeed, it was one of Claud’s greatest joys to see Miss Emma Frumpus picking her way cautiously amongst them, because she objected to living in a land where everything suggested influenza.
The dazzling, brilliant flash showed clearer, grew to a woman’s dress; finally to the figure of Eve Graham clothed from head to foot in scarlet.
It suited her.
“Now, Margie! Don’t frown,” she called out when within earshot. “I haven’t come to disturb Paradise—you dear people! you look as if you’d been married for months! I’ve just blown in to ask if I may use the little cove over there” her scarlet parasol dipped westward with a flirt—“for bathing as I used to when George was here. May I?”
She had plunged at once into the lovers’ life, sans greeting, sans explanation, sans everything. She stood provocatively attractive as if she had dropped from the skies.
“My dear Eve!” ejaculated Margaret helplessly. What else was there to say? but—— What was it that surged up in her mind? Fear, or anger?
“Take care!” cried Claud suddenly with a swift spring forward. The next instant he was beside the scarlet figure, his heel upon the head of a long, slender creature that had started to slink away at the sound of approaching footsteps.
Eve looked down; then her laugh rose derisively. “Thanks, Mr. Hearsay,” she said, “but it isn’t a snake—it’s only a blindworm!”
Margaret was beside them now, and looked down also.
“Oh, Claud! what a pity,” she exclaimed.
“The poor thing!”
He looked from one to the other surprised. “But, surely——” he began.
Eve’s mocking laughter rose again. “You couldn’t be expected to know, Mr. Hearsay,” she explained. “It’s only a lizard with its legs inside, and the blessed thing eats mosquitoes. Still”—she looked at Margaret with a queer look, half pity, half defiance—“they say down Malpas way, don’t they, Margie? it is unlucky to kill an orvet just because God made it look like a snake, so let’s do what the children do.”
With the words she stooped over the dead creature which lay straight, stiff as a rod, and with her gloved fingers took it daintily by the tail. Fragile as glass, as she lifted the body, it broke in the middle, and with a laugh she flung the half she held eastwards with the words “That’s for you,” then the other westwards “That’s for you.”
“Now,” she continued, “the charm is complete and you need fear nothing, Mr. Hearsay! All is well.”
“I am sorry,” he began stiffly, “I didn’t mean——”
“And if you had it wouldn’t have mattered,” gibed Eve. “There are heaps of ’em at Malpas, so it’s as well you should know the formula! Isn’t it, Margie darlingest?”
“Why?” queried Claud, “what’s the legend? Why the ill luck?”
He looked from one to the other, Margaret cool in her virginal white, Eve glowing with vitality in her flaming dress. The air, still hot from the noonday sun, was heavy with scent. Orange-blossom, rose, and through it all the aromatic perfume of crushed eucalyptus.
The two women looked at each other, as if expecting speech. When none came, Eve’s laugh rang out carelessly once more. “If you don’t know, Margie, I don’t; but I expect it is some old story about one man and two women! It’s generally that, isn’t it? Such piffle, as if that sort of thing mattered in a world of wireless and motor-cars. And that reminds me! Mine is waiting on the road. Come with me, do; and then I can tell you all about everything. I’ve a lot to tell.”
“We were going for a walk to Bellesquardo——” began Margaret.
“And I’m going to the casino,” interrupted Eve, “much more amusing! Do come. Make her come, Mr. Hearsay.”
And again there was a pause. Once again the man stood irresolute, but the brief colloquy ended in Eve, at the wheel, recounting events to Margaret beside her, while Claud leaned over from the back seat between them. There was in truth something to tell. Old Mr. Graham had really turned the brewing concern into a Limited Liability Company, and he had even gone so far as to offer his daughter a place in the office. This she had accepted; for, though the beer business was not to her taste, the experience would be valuable in what was really her aim, her purpose. The mannequin stunt—which she had now given up—had shown her a career. Briefly, as it were, to out-fashion fashion. She had realized the extent to which dress had absorbed women’s lives. “That and cross word puzzles,” she said, and the very form of her speech, leaving colloquial slang behind it, showed that the question to her was one of mere business, mere money getting, “give the clue to half our activities in life. Why not exploit them? There is nobody in the field as yet; not seriously I mean, and there is money in it. Jilks and James do their best, but when I think of what a woman and a man could do their efforts seem childish. The newspapers are, of course, running puzzledom for all they are worth. Our very laundry book has a new cross word every week. So the material is there—heaps of it—it only wants organizing. Why, I know some people who are making quite decent incomes by solving problems for the usual congenital idiot at so much a head—twenty-four per cent of the possible prize is what they ask—I’d be content with twenty, for it’s a dead certainty, though people don’t see it. But I do. I was born for business; so I’m on the look out for a male twin.” Here she shook her small close cropped head decisively. “I shall find him, of course, one can get anything one wants—really; but it is deuced hard to hoof the whole show. Now, you would do for looks, Mr. Hearsay, you’d be able to wangle the girls, but highlows won’t suit the part, will they, Margie? Besides you’d want to be boss, and that isn’t in the bargain.”
Apparently it was not; for, despite Margaret’s evident unwillingness and Claud Hearsay’s dutiful desire to do as she chose, the party spent a perfectly hectic afternoon—at least to Margaret’s general method of passing time. They drank cocktails, they ate ices, they listened to variety shows, they frequented the roulette table, where Margaret to her own horror won twenty francs which she had perforce to spend in a chocolate shop. In fact, they went through the whole round of normal afternoon life at a Riviera watering place, and through it all Eve Graham showed unfailing spirits unfailing good temper and gaiety. If she poked fun at Margie’s old maidish ideas, she poked still more at Claud’s ignorance of Riviera ways; so that when she finally dropped the two at the gate which led down to Le petit Paradis they both felt vaguely outraged, and Claud, as they walked down the path where the poor blindworm had been sacrificed to his promptitude and chivalry, said decisively:
“I don’t think we will go up to the Splendide this evening, Margie dear, as she asked us. You’re tired, and I don’t care to go without you.”
Whereat she squeezed the arm she held just a tiny bit, and felt supremely happy. He meant it at the time, but after they had spent a pleasant evening together sitting on the rocks in the moonlight and talking over plans for the garden at Malpas, after Emma Frumpus had brought out a tray of tumblers and lemonade and whisky and soda, remarking that at Malpas the Squire always went to bed at 10.30 precisely, and that the lights were out at eleven o’clock, after they had said an affectionate good night, Claud Hearsay had remained on the rocks looking out moodily to sea, feeling vaguely as if he had been rasped all over his mind and body, rasped with a good strong baker’s rasp.
And when the ray from the light in Margaret’s window which he could just see stretching out over the misty water had faded, he went inside, put on a tail coat and a white tie and made his way through the orange and rose and eucalyptus garden to the Hotel Splendide which crowned the heights above the road; he could hear the strains of a jazz band playing fox-trots and charlestons as he made his way upwards.
But it advantaged him very little; for Eve was a centre of a circle of admirers, and only had one dance to spare.
So after a while he came down again to Paradise feeling sadly disgruntled.
But in the next few days it was not always so. Sometimes Eve would come down into Paradise herself, sit on the rocks beside them, hunt with them along the shore for sea urchins which she insisted on being prepared in proper Provencal fashion for déjeuner.
Then sometimes they would go for long excursions in Eve’s car to see the sights of the country-side. It was on one of these that a little incident occurred, slight in itself, but one which left its mark on Eve’s mind. They were looking at a chapel famous for the miracles wrought by a certain Madonna it contained. Margaret had entered it. Claud had remained to help with some slight adjustment of the car. So, as the two passed in together, engaged as ever when they were alone with persiflage, Claud’s hand went out mechanically to the holy water stoup, as if he were about to cross himself, and Eve with alert perception broke in with a quiet:
“Are you a Holy Roman?”
“I was baptized one,” he laughed.
“Does Margaret know?” she asked.
“I hope not; I’m not a professing one anyhow,” he replied lightly and went on with his badinage.
But Eve stored the knowledge thus acquired in her business brain.
Once or twice Claud inveigled Margaret to the Hotel Splendide; but it was not a success. She looked delightful in a blue filmy dress he had chosen for her, and they sat amicably on the terrace between the dances with the cicalas chirping in the pine trees and the stars twinkling overhead. The sea so smooth that each twinkle was reflected on the dim surface until it was hard to say which was heaven, which workaday world. Everything had seemed just as it should be, and yet . . . .
Then, it was such a pity Margaret was a poor swimmer. But for that the three might have enjoyed themselves immensely. In that furthermost cove to the west Eve kept her canoe, for she always bathed from a boat, and it was tantalizing to see her dark head forging through the blue water right in front of Le petit Paradis. She would lie on her back and wave her arms and halloo to Margaret sitting on the rocks.
Yet it was all pleasant enough. There was never any friction between those two. As ever they were the best of friends, though Claud Hearsay was conscious of a feeling that he would have enjoyed their company better had they been apart. So he was fairly astonished when one morning at déjeuner Margaret, with more resolution than she had been wont to show of late, had told him quite decidedly that, having heard sleeping berths were not to be had for love or money in the train de luxe a fortnight hence, as the exodus would have begun, she thought it better to take them next week.
“I heard from Malpas this morning that the weather was fine and warm; and it will give us some time, for there is a lot to be done,” she said with a set of the mouth that was new to Claud Hearsay.
“But it’s so ripping here,” he expostulated. “Why, I am just beginning to enjoy myself: it’s really hot enough to make life bearable.”
“I hope life won’t be unbearable at Malpas,” she replied, resentment and regret battling with the affection in her voice. “It isn’t often so hot there, and—and—somehow this—this doesn’t seem to suit me as well. I—I—don’t sleep.”
He was at her side in a moment. “You poor darling!” he said. “Then of course we had better go.”
She gave a sigh of relief. “I have to go into the town to-day,” she acquiesced, “and I can take the seats. You—you are always so kind, Claud.”
And Claud looked bewilderingly handsome as he protested perpetual kindness, and regrets that the necessity for keeping a golf engagement prevented him accompanying her; but Frumpie would be enough guard; of that he was sure. Had not that French count friend of Eve’s alluded to her as “cette dragon de duenna.”
Now Le petit Paradis, bereft of the presence both of Miss Frumpus and sweet Margaret, seemed to Claud Hearsay a very different place to what it was when the former was there to ensure punctuality, and the latter to ensure complacent content by her devotion.
Then the golf engagement proved a dud, the French count having contracted “flu.” So Claud was left to smoke endless cigarettes, and wish vaguely that by chance Eve should select this afternoon for a visit.
So bit by bit his thoughts were full of her, her unfailing spirits, her animation, her—well she was the antithesis of Margaret in many ways—and for business! . . . .
So, he lay on the hot rocks, he lifted his eyes and saw, far out in the smiling, placid sea a cockle-shell of a canoe. A woman in it—Eve without doubt!
Now, with no eyes prying round, was the time for a real lark. Almost without thought, he flung off coat and waistcoat, kicked off shoes and socks, so, with sleeves rolled up to the elbow and trousers to the knees, plunged into the tepid waters. He was a powerful swimmer, but she must have seen him coming, for she deliberately turned the canoe to the open and paddled swiftly.
Then the instinct of chase, always easily roused even in the most civilized of men, seized on him and turning over on his side he swam for all he was worth. It did not take him long to come within seeing distance of her sparkling, laughing face that matched his own.
“You little devil!” he cried. “I’ll have you in a minute.” But he miscalculated her spirit. Just as he reached out his hand to lay hold of the canoe, she stood up, dived from the farther side, completely oversetting the frail craft which, bottom upwards, floated between him and her, and ere he could get round it her smooth black head showed like a seal’s, yards and yards away, making for the shore.
“Little devil,” he murmured again under his breath, and was after her as quickly as he could.
But she was a strong swimmer also, and lighter in the water than he was. Besides, she had had a good start. In addition he had already expended himself in his pursuit and his recent illness and subsequent lack of exercise with Margaret had put him out of training. Then a certain rush of admiration for her pluck, her impudence, her daring—her very defiance of himself came to hamper his physical efforts, so that it was not until they were almost at the shore that he forged up beside her, and realised that the swim had tried her also to the uttermost. A few more yards and she also would have been done.
“Eve! You little fool!” he cried and there was a world of sudden tenderness in his tone. Tenderness too in the touch that helped her to gain footing on the rocks, tenderness in the kisses which he rained upon her face, her neck, her shoulders, as she stood supported by him, dripping with water, a slim figure, her scanty bathing dress clinging to her shapely limbs.
And he also. As she pushed him from her with a radiant smile there was little to disguise the perfection of his form. So, suddenly she sank back to his arms and laid her smooth, dark head on his shoulder and let him kiss her unrestrained.
“So you love me and I love you,” she said softly, a look of amusement in her eyes. “Well, I suppose it has to be—it’s natural and so far pleasant. What’s to come next remains to be seen, but this is unforgettable——”
He stood looking at her helplessly, for with her last words, she had disengaged herself from his embrace—a mocking figure, full of the allurement of aloofness.
“Forget, if you can! I can’t,” she went on, “and for Heaven’s sake go and change, or you’ll get a liver chill! And then what will Margie say?”
The echo of her derisive laughter went with him as, after watching her disappear over the rocks of the western cove, he went back to Le petit Paradis.
He felt bewildered, lost, conscious only of a wild disturbance in himself that was, somehow, at once aroused and checked by one and the same woman.
Afterwards, anger came to him. He felt tricked, ashamed, the result being that he was more than usually lover-like to another woman on her return.
“I’ve got the tickets,” said Margaret a trifle doubtfully, “but they are for to-morrow. It’s not too soon, is it?”
“The sooner the better,” he replied; and he meant it. Vaguely he hoped that Eve would not hear of their departure before this was an accomplished fact; but Margaret’s sense of conventional politeness forbade this, and she sent up a little note of farewell and regrets to the Splendide.
So Eve arrived at the station, delightfully cool, calm, collected, to say good-bye to darlingest Margie who, unfortunately, looked her worst, worried and flurried by tickets and luggage, and a hundred and one little futile cares.
Eve had brought a huge bunch of carnations. “These are for Margie,” she said cheerfully, “you can give them to her by and by, Mr. Hearsay, when she has recovered. Stay! Here’s one for you—yourself.”
And she had a big, clove-scented, crimson one in his buttonhole, before he could say yea or nay.
“It has been very pleasant,” said Lil Herkomer.
They were in the library, she and Alan Graham, where they had sat and talked many times during the last six weeks; and now he was going away to Paris for a time in order to lecture about his indestructible atom.
He did not want to go. In truth, he scarcely knew what he wished. When he thought of Harry Herkomer, his whole soul and body were filled with impotent rage. He felt as if he could kill him and carry Lil off from this monster’s accursed touch like any knight of old. But when he thought of Lil, so calm, so confident, so absolutely unsmirched in mind, he was lost in admiration for her aloofness, yet angry that she should be so.
“Yes, it has been very pleasant,” he acquiesced somewhat lamely, for he was longing for some real éclaircissement of what, to him, seemed an impossible situation.
Perhaps she fathomed his thoughts, for she went on somewhat remorselessly:
“For me, at any rate. As you will have seen I lead a very solitary life. Briefly I am only of use to Mr. Herkomer in the evenings—and at night. Of late, too, less than usual. I think he is worried about his business; but of that I know nothing. He brings his friends to dine here, he likes to see me well dressed at the head of his table. He likes to hear me speak in a cultured voice, while most of his guests do not. In a way he is proud of me. He gives me everything I want—so it is not much I pay for all this.”
“It is what most women prize,” he said hoarsely. “It—it is the salt of life.”
She shook her head. “There you mistake. You are a doctor—you ought to know that a large proportion of us do not care, except in so far as we have learnt to mix sex and love—love which——”
She paused, her voice faltered just a little, then she went on: “I have often wanted to explain to you. Now, I will. . . . I don’t think I should do what I did now; but, at the time, I was so tired, so weary of exhibiting myself to the crowd. So long as there was a reason for it. . . it had to be. But, then, it seemed a way out, and I didn’t care. He promised there should be no children . . . so I was the only one to suffer. Ah, I know what you will say, what you will think! I am nothing better than the woman who walks the streets—than a common prostitute. So we all, at least most of us, are—we women. Marriage in nine cases out of ten is legalized prostitution. But I didn’t think of it so—not then. One has to have experience before one can understand. And—and—there is the strange part of it all. It doesn’t seem to touch me—the me that has sat and talked and read and disputed with you in this room. And remember—he gave it all—rest and peace and quiet. That was what I asked of him! That was my price—and he has given it.”
She had sunk on a chair and resting her head on her hand where a broad, blatant wedding ring showed, looked at him with a certain resentment in her cool, grey eyes.
“And you do not regret it?” he asked with like resentment.
“So long as he keeps to his bargain, I will keep to mine,” she said. “You will come back and see me, won’t you, on your return?”
“I will come back—and if you ever want help——”
“Cela va sans dire,” she interrupted. “I often wonder why friends take the trouble to say such silly things to each other. Surely it is a foregone conclusion? Good-bye. Try and make your audiences believe that the atom is destructible. For my part I believe it isn’t. All things resolve themselves into something else; change is life, and life is change—and death is only change. Goodbye.”
So they shook hands and parted. As he passed out of the garden of The White House the snowdrops were just—still half buried in the dank London soil—showing dazzlingly white amid their stiff, green spikelets.
When he returned, the crocuses—for the famous firm of florists kept the seasons duly—were in full blossom. Yet, as he entered the gate, the house itself looked unkempt. The shutters were shut and there was a litter of shavings and crumpled paper at the door. He rang repeatedly, but there was no answer. What had happened?
He was just about to walk round the lawn to the library window, to see if that also was closed, when a rattle of a chain behind the door told him it was being unbarred, and a woman’s head peered out. The usual caretaker’s head. Blowsy of face, skinny of neck with a rumpled piece of cheap cotton lace opening wide and giving promise of inadequate and hasty dressing below.
“Mrs. Herkomer?” he said quickly.
“If you mean the lady as ’e kep, I don’t know w’ere she’s gone; but she ain’t ’ere.”
“Mr. Herkomer?” he added still more quickly,
“Wot? Ain’t you ’eard? ’E come ’ome one night, went strite to ’er bedroom w’ere she were lyin’ asleep and shot ’isself through the ’ead. They—the creditors I means—sent me in next day and you never saw such a state as the pillers was in, for ’e’d blown ’is brains out, sure enough. You see—’adn’t you better step in, sir, and take a seat—there’s a cheer lef in the ’all,” she added, for her hearer showed signs of a stagger. “Yes, sir,” she went on, “’ee was a orful sight; but the lady took it wonderful calm—them sort does. And she didn’t make no dispute about their tiking away everythin’ as they c’d lay their ’ands on, even ’er clothes, an’ my! she ’ad a ’eap o’ fine dresses—them sort ’as but it didn’t pay. ’alf nor a quarter wo’t ’e owed even to the tradesmen an’ they do say ’e owes millions on the ’Change—them sort does. So the ’ouse is for sale and if you ’ave come to h’inspect, I’ll show you round with pleasure, sir, an’ I won’t tell you in w’ich room ’e blow ’is brains out, for it’s best forgot. Ain’t it, sir? Them sort o’ things does no one any good—that’s wot I say of them Sunday papers as fills ’emselves with ’errors.”
So she chattered on, as, more to gain time than anything else, though deep down a desire to see once more the places where she had been, assailed him, he took off his hat as if he had been entering a church, and stood in the hall. Empty, still strewn from hasty packing, deserted utterly. So to the dining-room, the drawing-room where the very silken damask had been stripped from the walls. And the library?
Could it really be so? Could the whole comfort, the peace, the perfection of it have vanished like a dream.
“Show me the room where it happened,” he said suddenly. “I—I knew Mrs. Herkomer well.”
The woman looked at him curiously. “So she were married, was she, sir?” she remarked. “Well, then, ’twas a burnin’ shime. But some folk ’ad it she was, an’ some folk ’ad it she wasn’t, so a lady ’adn’t choice which wiy. But I’m glad to ’ear it, bein’ respectable myself, for it will ’elp the pore creature to bear up as she should. This is the room, sir. I’ve washed it an’ washed it, but that stain won’t come out, and they’re sendin’ a carpenter to plane it away, so as it shan’t frighten the good lidies ’as comes ter h’inspect. There’s a many of them, sir, but they ain’t married for the most part.”
Alan Graham turned away sick at heart. Married or not married what did it matter, when one was like Lil, absolutely aloof. He knew where he would find her. She would go back to the room in Victory Street where her mother had died, where he had first seen her. So he took a taxi and drove straight thither. His heart beat, almost with buoyant hope, as he mounted the stairs; but he found the door locked and he had to seek for information from the neighbours.
“Oh, she’ve come back, sure ’nough, as I always said she would,” sniffed Mrs. Jeff Blake bitterly. “Things ’ave changed considerably.” Her own appearance corroborated her words; smiles were gone, she looked discontented, helplessly discontented. “But there ain’t no fur cloaks an’ Rolls Royces now. Them was took from her, as they did ought to ’ave bin.” And she slammed her door in Alan Graham’s face. But the Scotchwoman still at work on her mending sequences of knickerbockers stockings (which she sold to a fashionable tailor for a quarter the price he charged his customers for them) was more merciful.
“She’s aye late in the day comin’ home, sir,” she said, “for she works hard t’ get a livin’ that I ken, an’ if she’s bin misfortunate, it’s maybe not a’ her fault. It’s the men bodies as does it, as I’ve tell’t my man mony a time. She’ll be back, maybe, by nine or thereabouts.”
“Is—is she dancing at the old place?” asked Alan with a catch in his breath.
The Scotchwoman laughed derisively. “No likely, sir. Aince ye desert yon places they’re no ready to tak you back. They’ve gotten some ither body as does as well, mayhap better. No, no! she’s at a café down Islington way where the shopgirls sup, an’ they’re late whiles. An’ as she walks home——”
“Thanks, my good woman,” said Alan hurriedly. The recital of poor Lil’s discomforts was exquisitely painful to him. “I am much obliged for your courtesy.”
“The which ye’re welcome to wi’out payment,” she said, disregarding the half-crown he held out. “Gie it tae the puir lassie hersel’, she’s needin’ it mair than I am; an’ see to it, sir, that you’re no treatin’ her as she has bin treated, for I canna forget how she waited han’ an’ fut on her mither.”
Alan felt inclined to shake the good woman by the hand but the click of her knitting needles kept him at a distance. So he went home to all the comfort and luxury of the Red House. Eve was just home from her fortnight at the Hotel Splendide, a little less vivacious than usual perhaps, and with a more determined set of her laughing lips. While George was as ever his simple self, a trifle dashed at the tighter hold Mrs. Ames had kept over Lucilla of late, but looking forward to the eighteenth birthday which ere long would set the girl free from the schoolroom.
“And the child is really quite sensible,” he said, “so it’s rather a shame to keep her from doing as she likes. But you see she’s awfully fond of her mother who, of course dotes on her—wants to keep her a baby as long as she can.”
“Much more convenient,” remarked Eve sarcastically. “You know I’ve always doubted that girl’s age—she’s so sensible.”
“My dear,” interposed Mrs. Graham, “what possible reason could there be?”
Eve went off into one of her high liquid laughs that rang out like silver, and pointed at George, who blushed furiously.
“Dearest mumsie,” she said, “haven’t I seen you hesitating over your visiting book and saying ‘Mrs. So-and-So will make up the party nicely—oh dear! I forgot she had a daughter and I won’t want two women.’ You dearest old dear! I’m jolly glad I’m home to look after you, you’re too early Victorian for words.”
And all the time Alan Graham, eating braised sweetbreads and souffle à la crème was thinking of Lil serving sausages and mash to shop-girls. It might have been worse, he felt. It might have been shop-boys. Not that Lil would suffer more from one than from the other. It was only his sensibilities, not hers. Did he regret this or did he not? He scarcely knew.
It was nigh ten o’clock when he made his way to Victory Street; in dress suit and patent-leather shoes as he had been that midnight not so long ago, when they had first met. His life had gone on since then, much as it ever had; but hers? God I what a past on which to look back—enough, almost, to upset a woman’s reason.
But it had not upset hers. She opened the door for him calmly, and something in the quiet self-control of face and manner checked his sudden impulse to take her in his arms and comfort her.
“So you have come,” she said. “I hoped you would not; and yet I knew you would. If I had had anywhere else to go, so that you would not find me, I’d have gone; but—but I had no choice. It was all so quick—I was so helpless.”
He could only stumble out regrets that he had not been at home; that she should not have written.
“What would have been the use?” she said quite cheerfully. “One has to bear that sort of thing alone—no one can help, no one.”
She had taken her mother’s chair, and now sat, her hands clasped in front of her, staring at the scarce lit gas fire. The room, he noticed, was almost empty of all else: she had doubtless sold everything she could spare.
“Surely I can, Lil,” he replied with a catch in his voice. “You said I was a friend—and friends can help.”
She looked at him and shook her head. “I think they hurt more than they help. They want to know and we want to forget.” She paused, then went on: “For instance I have to tell you a lot——”
“Don’t,” he cried impulsively, “if you—if it hurts.”
She took no notice, but went on.
“It came as a surprise. I never saw much of him; but I saw less though he entertained more—brought better class people to the house. So one night—but we will skip that. The police came first—they were after him, it seems, anyhow. Then with incredible swiftness the creditors. It seems he never paid anyone. And I—I was his mistress—not his wife. I don’t know if it was true or if it wasn’t. What does it matter now? So they took everything—dresses, jewels, the books, my poor books! Do you know I hadn’t a penny in the wide world; but one of those good ladies who go about helping criminals got hold of me as a lost woman!” She gave a little laugh as her hearer swore. “And what else was I? Lost, absolutely lost, my house of cards all in ruins. So I jumped at what she offered; and it isn’t a café, it’s a sort of restaurant for naughty girls who want to be good.” She gave another little bitter laugh. “Now don’t be angry and swear. It gave me 12/- a week and I could live on that—till the rent here had to be paid. I paid that by selling the things—so now——”
“Now you needn’t worry any more——” he broke in. “I——”
She turned on him sharply. “You will do nothing. I will not have it. Do you remember how I refused to shake hands with you because they were all over paint? Well, I refuse your help because I am all over dirt—mud—filth! I see it now. He was kind to me—but to others? How many poor widows has he not robbed? How many children has he not starved? If he had not shot himself he would have been a prisoner—for life perhaps, and that wouldn’t have been punishment enough. He was a fraud, a liar——”
She had risen from her seat and, he rising also, they faced each other. Her calm had gone, her hands were clenched, she threw her head back proudly; but she spoke less passionately with more of actual defiance in her tone.
“And do you think,” she went on, “that I am going to let you, you whom I respect—you—you whom I love as my ideal of an honourable gentleman—do you think I am going to let you mix yourself up in this—this miserable scandal?” She gave way then and sinking back on her chair covered her face with her hands, as she literally shivered with physical horror and repulsion at herself.
He saw then, that for all her pretended calm, her mind was in no state for argument, scarcely for words. Every atom of him rose up in pity.
“Lil,” he said, softly, standing over her, “Lil, my dear, leave it at that, Love will make it right in the end. But, if I am not to help, what will you do—you can’t live on 12/- a week.”
The kindly common sense of his tone restored her self-control. She looked up with the ghost of a smile. “I don’t mean to try,” she said. “Sit down again and I will tell you what I’m going to do. I’m sorry I lost myself; but—but it isn’t long since it all happened—and I’m only a woman. When I woke up and found——” She paused, gave a faint sob of impatience at herself and went on. “You will laugh—but I am going to make a living out of the craze for cross-word puzzles. It’s pure betting, of course, but people don’t see it, and it’s everywhere—even here in Victory Street, half the houses go in for them, and it’s the same all over the country. I advertised in the ‘Solver’—and it’s a paper devoted to puzzles and nothing else. People send me 2d. and I send them a solution. Of course I mayn’t be right—for there are endless doubles and traps to be avoided—but Mother taught me all about permutations and commutations and that sort of thing. So if I can only get enough subscribers and if I am careful some one of them is sure to get some prize; and I stipulate for twenty-five per cent. of that. Those that fail can get back a penny. Last week I made eight shillings and if I succeed fairly often I shall be able to raise my prices. And it is quite exciting—I’ve no time to think. I work away at the Free Library till it closes, and then——” She had grown interested in her own speech, her face had lost some of its haggard look.
Now, as she glanced at her companion she became apologetic. “I can’t help the women gambling, can I? Of course it is a pure lottery—a worse one than Premium Bonds, but it’s legal. And if people do it themselves it’s educative. No, I can’t help it, the women will anyhow, and they don’t bet on greyhounds or football—you don’t think it wrong, do you?”
Looking at her as she sat before him, so outwardly calm, only her clasped fingers shifting and unclasping themselves, testifying to mental strain, he recognized—as with his doctor training he had to recognize—that her balance was unstable. Small wonder, after what she had gone through.
“No, Lil,” he said quietly, “I don’t think it wrong, and I think that, for the present, it will be better for you to try and get on without—without any aid. But by and by—— Oh, Lil! Lil, I’ll make you love me—by and by—by and by.”
He had risen and held out both his hands to her. She took them in hers slowly.
“By and by,” she repeated. “Perhaps—who knows—at present I am all jangled and out of tune!”
He felt as if he would have crushed her to him in his arms and bidden her find peace there. As if, at any rate, he could have kissed the hands he held. But he did neither. He only begged her, as she held him friend, to let him know if she was ever in need of money; so left her for the moment, at any rate, cheerful, smiling.
As he made his way homewards, however, he formulated a deep laid plot for ensuring to her a plentiful supply of subscribers. That could easily be done. There were heaps of people in this vast London who made scanty livings by addressing envelopes. There was no end, in fact, to the odd ways of trying to get bread and butter—forging false addresses, or true ones if they were to be got by touting! Why, every woman in London might become a confirmed gambler so long as Lil—his Lil—sat free of care. And then his mind wandered, with cursings, to the man who had bought her at the cheap price of marriage—as if a few words in a registry office made any real difference. For the first time in his life he was confronted by all the huge difficulties that beset the problem of marriage, he was glad when sleep came at last to solve them for the time.
When he woke next morning, he found himself curiously uninterested in his work. What matter, it seemed to him, if the atom were indestructible or not, so long as humanity had to suffer at times, as Lil was suffering? So, after a while, he put on his hat and went down to the Hospital where he had been a student, to see an old friend of his who was house-surgeon there. And with him he went the rounds of the wards, and realized that, in a way, the problem of sex had to do with most evils in the world.
He let a whole week elapse before he went to see Lil again. He found her, as might have been expected, quite elate about the number of responses her advertisement in the “Solver” had produced. She had actually made fifteen shillings which, with the twelve she got from the Working Girls’ Supper Restaurant, had kept her in affluence. But she seemed to him even more unstable, more at the mercy of something outside her.
It was as if she were expecting something, dreading something. But he held in check his feelings, his urgent desire to help, to carry her off somewhere to peace and quiet, and contented himself, as best he could, with calm friendship. His daily round amid the helplessness, the suffering of so many, was teaching him patience.
Then a week passed when perforce owing to previous engagements he had to be away; but he wrote her a letter, cheerful, encouraging, telling of how well he had been received by his learned society and how a shining light had prophesied that, in that by and by, his name would be amongst those, who had benefited their kind.
“So you see, my dear,” he had written, “we both have to look forward to that tantalizing future which seems so far off, but which is so surely coming.”
Thus it was nigh the end of March, and the evenings had almost drawn out to summer length before, once more, he mounted the familiar stairs eagerly and knocked at the door.
There was no answer. He knocked again, then waited. But no light footstep came up the stair, it was now dark. Then something crackled under his feet and he struck a match to see what it was.
Just a piece of paper that must have fallen from the door, for a tack still remained in it.
Before the match flickered and went out he read: “Key, if wanted, with Mrs. Blake No. 19.”
With a sudden foreboding of evil he made his way downstairs and knocked at the Blakes’ door. A very different woman appeared to the prim, bustling little house-mother of a few months before. Haggard looking, untidy, unhappy; yet the strike was over and Jeff was getting his full pay once more.
The key, she shrilled? Oh, there it was, though it was over late and but for the necessity of keeping in with Mother Martin whose house it was, she wouldn’t be bothered. Hadn’t she enough trouble of her own? And, to Alan Graham’s polite inquiry if she knew where the late tenant had gone, she replied tartly that she didn’t take any notice of them sort of folk as ought to be ashamed of themselves. Whereupon she slammed the door and he was left in growing darkness with the key in his hand. Over the way the “Fox and Goose” was ablaze with light while noisy shouts of laughter came from within, and he was just meditating the possibility of borrowing a candle when from the next house a voice called:
“Ye’ll be wantin’ a lamp maybe—take yene and bring it back when you’ve done.”
It was the Blakes’ Scotch neighbour; she was knitting as usual; one could hardly have visualized her without the rhythmic flash of her pins. He thanked her and taking the evil smelling hand lamp she held out, went up the stairs again.
An empty room always looks forlorn, desolate; and, although of late all the littlenesses and prettinesses had gone from Lil’s lodgings, they looked unexpressedly mean by the lights of the evil smelling lamp. Not a trace of her presence anywhere. Everything gone; all empty, void.
Why had she not told him? Why had she not written? The questions obsessed heart and brain as with a courteous word or two he gave back the lamp.
Perhaps his face betrayed him, for as the donor took back her possession she looked hard at him; then said:
“Ye’d best come here, my lad, an’ listen a while. Maybe I can tell you something that ye’re fain to know. See you I had yane mysel afore I was marriet and, though it was as much my fault as the lad’s, I ken fine what it’s like at first.”
He stood startled, half comprehending, half indignant.
“You mean——” he began.
“Ay! I mean just that; the lassie—mind you she was aye a good lassie, I’ve aye defended her—has found oot she is tae be a mither, and she’s just rin awa from friends and foes alike. Ay! as I did; but it learnt me a lesson. I’ve aye had a kettle fu’ a’ hot water ready since then; an’, what’s more, if Aggy Blake disna’ haud that tongue o’ hers she’ll be getting some o’ it sure’s my name’s Jean McGregor.”
“You don’t know where she’s gone—what she meant to do?” asked Alan—a most awful fear at his heart.
“Not I! But ye needn’t be skeered o’ that, sir, she isn’t that sort. She come tae say good-bye, for me and her were so to speak freens, and when I speered where’s she was goin’ she jist smiled and said ‘Nowhere partiklar. I go tae bide my time.’”
“I go to bide my time.”
The words seemed to repeat themselves again and again as Alan Graham feeling stunned made his way half instinctively to the river embankment. The grey flood was sweeping past as ever, the bridge showed its dark arches athwart the stream, the little yellow lights of barge and boats were reflected in the water—as ever!
Had she? No, the woman was right. She was not that sort. But—he clenched his hands in impotent wrath—to outrage her, to desert her, to leave her nothing save this legacy. . . .
He tramped up and down for hours and it was long past midnight when he let himself into the Red House.
Its shaded lamp glistened as ever on polished marble and oak. A slip of paper saying that Eve would not return till between two and three and that the hall door must be left on the latch, lay on the table. But beside it was a letter—a letter addressed Alan Graham Esq.
He caught at it with a sort of sob, and tore it open.
It contained but a few words:
“He did not keep his promise. I am going away to bide my time. Please don’t follow.”
The telephone bell rang loudly in Mrs. Ames’s house. She was busy studying a full page advertisement in the “Daily Messenger.”
“Go and listen,” she said to Lucilla, who was feeding her tame squirrel with walnuts by the back window; it was open on to the leads and was decorated with a big crimson rambler rose in a pot. This was Lucilla’s birthday present, for as a rule Mrs. Ames combined generosity with usefulness. It was a large plant in full bloom and, flanked by white hyacinths on either side, fairly shut out the view of slanting back premises and chimneys. “Stay,” she added, “I’d better go myself. It may be George.”
It was George; and thereinafter ensued one of those lop-sided conversations which sometimes convey a good deal to outsiders, sometimes, nothing at all. But Lucilla, for all her apparent absorption in trying to make her pet do tricks, was listening keenly. And she smiled to herself as her mother put down the earpiece after a cordial “Very well, then; as soon after lunch as possible. Goodbye!”
Her first remark, too, after she resumed her chair confirmed her daughter’s diagnosis.
“George doesn’t know it’s your birthday, does he?”
“I couldn’t say, mumsie, unless you told him. Or he may have remembered from last year. We all went to Hampton Court to see the polyanthus if you recollect.”
Mrs. Ames moved uneasily in her chair. “Well, he wants me to go there to-day, only I don’t half like leaving you alone; though of course I’m sure Lady Alice, or anyhow Edna Grosvenor would be glad to come and have tea with you, and I shall be back to dinner. Would you mind very much, darling?”
Lucilla’s smile was kept for the squirrel. A genuine amusement at her mother’s little ways had been growing in her for years past. She knew, perfectly well, that George’s invitation had included herself, a fact that would have irritated most girls; but, deep down in her heart, quite unconfessed, lay an irritation at George himself. Why, ever since the escapade in Victoria Street had he kept away from her so studiously? Why had he devoted himself so exclusively to her mother? Why had he not even brought the child’s offering of a box of chocolates? She had absolutely had to buy some herself wherewith to satisfy her friends, so long accustomed to a plentiful supply! Briefly it would serve George right.
So she said with alacrity:
“Not a bit, dearest. I’ll ’phone round and get them both. Edna’s sure to come—you know she grovels.”
Several of Lucilla’s school friends did that; especially the younger ones.
So after a few minutes a tea party was settled, a confectioner ordered to send in extra cakes, and Mrs. Ames rose with a sigh of relief.
“Now, dearest,” she said sweetly, as she stuffed the “Daily Messenger” behind the sofa cushion and put the “Morning Post” well en evidence on a table while the parish magazine decorated another, “if you will pick up the shells, and take that horrid little beast to its cage upstairs we shall have time to discuss your dresses before twelve, when Mrs. Etherington and Lady Delwar come to settle the constitution of the Women’s League to Women. Dear me! I wish there weren’t so many Leagues; but if one is to be in the fashion one must belong to them all. Stay! I’d better take the ‘Messenger’ with me, there are some awfully cheap dresses in it and, with just a touch here and there, they can be made to look all right. And, now you are out, you will require so much——” This time the sigh was one of regret.
“I don’t think so, mumsie,” said Lucilla on the stairs. “I’ve heaps and heaps that will do quite well: lengthened—or is it shortened?—just a little. I’ve done one and I’ll put it on for you to see.”
As Mrs. Ames, luxurious in her easy chair, waited for Lucilla’s reappearance, her thoughts were not cheerful. At long last the problem of a come-out daughter had to be faced. The child had been awfully sweet about it. Many girls, when that unfortunate incident about the gold locket had occurred (she had never forgiven herself the stupid forgetfulness of the date engraved inside! How could she have forgotten it?) would have made a fuss, and insisted on being out then and there. But Lucilla had laughed and said she was glad to be excused society—as her mother saw it. So they had settled that the next birthday should see the great event. And before that Amy Ames had confidently hoped that her own future would be assured. As Mrs. George Graham her matron’s position would be undeniable, she could retire, up to a certain point, gracefully. And now? If there was one thing she abhorred, it was to see a mother and a daughter dancing in the same room; the mother, possibly, with a callow youth, the daughter with an admiring elderly man! No; it could not be! She would have to give up dancing. She would have to give up her whole attitude in life. Unless George Graham could be brought to book. A horrid vulgar way of looking at it, but with those familiar yet shy men the woman had to take the lead. Of course there was always Sir Francis Tuke—quite nice and in the best society. But he was poor, and she liked George better. Something therefore must be settled one way or the other. To-morrow she would have to take Lucilla to call on some of the best houses, and thereinafter cards of invitation—fewer of course—would come: “the pleasure of Mrs. and Miss Ames’s company.”
The entry of Lucilla in a most becoming costume of pale heliotrope ended Mrs. Ames’s thoughts with a pang of pure jealousy. What chance had a woman of thirty-eight—or was it forty-two?—against the freshness of eighteen—no, twenty?
And how clever the child was! How deftly she had turned the schoolgirl frock into the young debutante’s! She had evidently inherited the art!
“How nice you look,” she said almost involuntarily, “and your hair too! You were right, childie, those gleaming shells suit you admirably.”
The girl flung herself down beside her mother and hugged her with a laugh. “That’s right, you darlingest, sweetest, prettiest of little mums! So let’s forget all about it. I’ve been ever so much happier, ever so much freer, in fact I am ever so grateful——”
This was too much for Mrs. Ames’s good feelings, for, au fond, she really was an excellent, good woman, and she began to cry quietly; quite becomingly.
“Now don’t, darlingest,” said Lucilla, kissing the tears away. “There’s nothing to fuss about. I’m twenty.”
“Not quite,” interposed Mrs. Ames dabbing her eyes with highly scented, lace-edged handkerchief, “you weren’t born till ten o’clock at night.”
Lucilla went off into a fit of tender laughter. Her mother’s little idiosyncrasies invariably tickled her strong sense of humour.
“All right, mother,” she cried, “then to-day I’m still eighteen, and—though I’m sure he asked me too—I would far rather stop at home than go to Hampton Court with Uncle George; and I hope——”
She broke off, jumped to her feet and added vindictively, “I wish he wasn’t quite so stupid.”
“Stupid?” echoed Mrs. Ames protestingly, “Oh, Lucilla! He isn’t stupid.”
“Not with you, perhaps,” answered the girl coolly, “but he is with me—desperately stupid!” And with that she went out of the room, ostensibly to change her frock.
But she did not change it and George Graham, when he came in before his time to find the two still at luncheon, was immediately aware of a very graceful figure in heliotrope with masses of red gold hair coiled like gleaming shells above a pair of ears that were themselves like dainty pink shells.
“Many happy returns of your eighteenth birthday,” he said precisely and specifically. He had made up his mind that no young girl—especially one fourteen years younger than the suitor—ought to be importuned to marry before she was in her twenty-first year. At the same time Eve’s constant assertions that Lucilla was older than she was said to be had made him determined that this enforced period of silence should not be unduly extended. Older than she really was! Great heavens! This apparition in heliotrope and red gold was surely years older than the schoolgirl of yesterday?
And then her reply to his congratulations? It wasn’t her derisive laugh. It was something indefinable as she said lightly: “Dear me! Only my eighteenth? Wouldn’t you congratulate me on my sixteenth—or my twentieth?”
He felt himself grow hot and cold over the last suggestion; but, being by nature a dumb dog, he said nothing except a surprised: “But you are coming too, surely?” when Mrs. Ames, assuring him that she would not be a moment putting on her things, vanished, leaving Lucilla deliberately folding up her table-napkin.
Then she made a mistake by saying:
“You didn’t ask me, did you?” So tried to better her speech by adding: “And if you had I couldn’t, for I have friends coming to tea.”
Now George Graham was sweet-tempered almost to a fault; also, as a rule, he believed what he was told. But somehow the apparition in heliotrope and red gold hair had roused in him a certain masculinity which he seldom felt, and he replied quietly:
“You may have friends coming to tea; but I think you did know that I had asked you to motor down to Hampton Court, as we did last year if you remember?”
She also was assailed by a new, feminine mood and felt inclined to answer back: “Do you? I don’t.” But she refrained and only remarked coldly:
“We had better have our coffee in the drawing-room. It will take Mother at least a quarter of an hour to get ready.”
This again was a tactical mistake, for it gave George time to think as he followed her upstairs, that is to say if coherent thought was compatible with the wild admiration which the sight of her adorable heliotrope dress, her gleaming hair, her trim ankles, roused in him as she flitted before him.
Anyhow when, backed by the crimson rambler and the white hyacinths, she stood supremely dignified holding out a cup of coffee and saying “Here’s yours, Uncle George,” he not only took the cup but with his other hand prisoned the little fingers that held it.
“Lucilla,” he said, and his voice was quite different to anything she had ever heard from him before, “I must ask you to tell me the truth. Is this your eighteenth birthday, or is it not?”
She actually felt nervous; therefore slightly audacious as she replied:
“And if it isn’t?”
“That’s beside the question,” came the masculine voice simply. “I asked—is it or is it not? You must know.”
“What can it matter?” she put in argumentatively, for she was beginning to recover her confidence.
But his reply left her once more tremulous, though the voice had grown gentler, kinder.
“It matters a lot to me,” he said, “listen, and I will tell you.” He had both her hands now and had drawn her nearer to himself, nearer also to the red roses and the white hyacinths against which she stood, a slim figure, girlish utterly with a face that grew softer and more womanly as she listened. “Ever since I first saw you, Lucilla, two years ago—they told me you were sixteen then—I have wanted to marry you; but I waited because—because you see I am so much older; besides, I’m rich, and it wouldn’t have been fair, before you’d seen anything of the world—and other men. But now Oh! for God’s sake, my dear, tell me the truth, if—if you can. I don’t ask you—if you can’t.”
She felt she could have cried at the expression in his usual merry blue eyes; she could have laughed at the absurdity of his words; but she did neither. A great tenderness for this honest gentleman, for his forbearance, his thought, not for himself, but for her, made her say simply:
“It is really my twentieth birthday. You see Mother——”
But his mood had changed in a second. “Twenty? Good Lord! Then you are in your twenty-first year. My dear! My dear, will you marry me? Will you? Will you?”
“But—but I thought,” she protested, “it was Mother——”
He drew back from her and his face was a study.
“What?” he exclaimed. “Oh, Lucilla! You couldn’t have been so foolish. Why, I’ve never even thought of anyone but you, always—always you——” And this time he drew her hands together and stooping kissed them. “Of course I played golf with her,” he went on, “but one doesn’t want to marry a woman because she plays golf well. He wants—at least I want—shall I tell you, dear, what I want? I want some one who will make up for all my shortcomings, who will prevent me from being an idle, useless dog, who will laugh when I laugh, and cry when I cry, who will be a hand fast in life and in death, who will mother the children and mother the dogs and the cats and the chickens and all the animals—even a donkey like me.” He had grown quite excited and his words kept pouring out with a rapidity most unusual. “And I,” he continued, “I will be the father—of—of everything! Lucilla! I’ll wind up the clocks, and pay the outside men, and the coal bills and put out the lights at night, and do everything husbands generally do. Besides—besides”—he paused, and a noticeable break came to his voice—“you shall never feel lonely, dear, never again.”
She was almost in his arms now. Her eyes looked up to his full of dreams, her lips were quivering.
“It sounds beautiful, George,” she said softly. “I wonder if it could be true?”
“It shall be true,” he echoed joyously. “Oh, Lucilla! Can’t you see us, down in the country. I’ll be feeding the chickens, and you—you will be looking after the children, and it will be spring and the apple blossoms looking like snow on the trees and the grass so green, ever so green, and the birds singing.”
His lips were close on hers when a faint, very faint “Oh!” came from behind them, and looking round there was Mrs. Ames sinking into the biggest arm-chair.
Now George Graham, though undoubtedly something of a dumb dog, was emphatically a man of action; so without disengaging Lucilla from his arms more than was needful for locomotion, he wheeled round and said:
“I’m awfully sorry to have startled you, Mrs. Ames, but Lucilla has just promised to marry me!”
And Lucilla herself did not deny the soft impeachment. Perhaps she also was too startled to do so; all she did say was: “Oh, mumsie, I’m sorry too, but I really couldn’t help it.”
Now Mrs. Ames was not so utterly unprepared for the shock as she might have been. The room having no door, her step being light on the luxuriously carpeted stairs, she had had the advantage of overhearing part of the preceding colloquy, and her eager mind had seized on the necessity for saving the situation, as far as she herself was concerned. So she simply said:
“Oh, George! Oh, Lucilla! This is too—too—— Oh, dearest, please bring me my scent-bottle from upstairs, I feel as if I were going to faint——”
She did not faint, however, when the girl, obedient, flew on the errand.
She simply lay back and looked at George with narrowed eyes.
“Do you really mean this?” she said. “You know, you are much too old—fourteen years——”
“Only twelve,” put in George stoutly. “Lucilla has told me all about it; and you know it’s better that the man should be the elder, than the woman, isn’t it?”
It was the only unkind insinuation he made in the conversation that ensued after Amy Ames, with the aid of the scent-bottle, had recovered herself. Nor, indeed, was there any need for such counter-thrusts. Gathering strength as she gripped the full bearings of the situation, and supported by the curious disregard for abstract truth which was her chief characteristic, Amy Ames’s desire to stand well in everybody’s opinion made her by degrees believe in her own complacency. That, and underlying consciousness that she had another string to her bow. Besides, after all, if Lucilla really did prefer to retire as a matron before she had tasted the joys of society, on her head be it; the chief regret being that, as son-in-law, George Graham would have to retire also from his post as favourite partner; for, in addition to being good at all games, he was an excellent dancer.
So as the explanations and conversation went on, she became more and more the somewhat plaintive mother pained at having been kept in the dark so long, yet rejoiced at her darling’s happiness. An attitude which made poor George feel more and more like a criminal until, driving the pair forth with blessings to spend a happy afternoon by themselves at Hampton Court, she went to the telephone to put off Lady Alice and Edna Grosvenor, and he slinked down the stairs after the gracious apparition of Lucilla with his tail between his legs like a dog in disgrace. It was not, indeed, until the motor turned into the wide Embankment Road and the river, broad and sparkling with its curious aloofness from the excrescences with which humanity has tried to imprison it, lay before them that he turned to his companion and said:
“Your mother is a very remarkable woman—most remarkable.”
He might have said it with even more emphasis had he overheard the words with which Mrs. Ames at that moment was concluding her somewhat lengthy visit to the telephone.
“That is kind of you, Sir Francis. Then I shall expect you at 4.30. I have so much to tell you; so much on which I wish for your advice—you have always been so kind Yes, I shall be alone—my daughter has gone out. I always feel so lost without her. Au revoir.”
Anyhow, the vague feeling of defeat would not linger long in George Graham’s healthy mind. How could he be otherwise than joyous with Lucilla beside him, as it were for life? And the sun was shining, the sky was blue, the trees over in Battersea Park were beginning to veil their brown branches with a film of green. The day was one of those days, and his nature was one of those natures which, when they are bright and happy, seem to clamour for universal brightness, universal happiness; so, just as the car was sweeping past the opening to Victory Street George said impulsively:
“I say, Lucilla! Wouldn’t it be rippin’ to take some of the kiddies with us, as we did that first time, you remember?”
And she remembered; so with a swerve that nearly upset the apparition in heliotrope, the car sped down among the mean houses, only to be brought up with disconcerting swiftness at the sight of a tall figure in black coming down the alley.
“It’s Bernard, Bernard Alingham,” cried George. “I fagged for him at Eton, you know. Let’s tell him, do—he’ll be so pleased.”
And he was pleased. He stood bare-headed on the sunny cobbles, he who for his conscience’ sake had foresworn wife and child, and in his inmost heart called down blessings on those two, both so fitted for perfect marriage. Yet all he said was;
“I hope you will be very happy.”
“We mean to be happy!” echoed George joyously. “And everybody’s going to be happy, aren’t they, Lucilla? And now we are going to get hold of some kids and take ’em down to Hampton Court and stuff ’em with tea. Aren’t we, Lucilla?”
The Reverend Bernard Alingham laughed and shook his head. “You’re reckoning without Lord Eustace Percy and the Education Department,” he said. “All at school, my dear boy; but I’ll tell you what,” he added, seeing the disappointment which showed on George’s happy face, “there’s little Mrs. Tom Larkin. She’s just back from the convalescent home and dreadfully down in the mouth without a baby. She lost the last three, you know, and the elder ones are all at school; so she ’ain’t got nothin’ to do without a biby, and a drive would be the very thing. I’ll come along and persuade her.”
He also lifted her into the back seat, for he was tall and strong, left a note for Tom on his return, and waved a farewell to the excursionists as they sped down the road, Mrs. Larkin weeping silently from very excess of good feeling. So, immensely cheered by his own small contribution to the radiant happiness of those two, the celibate made his way home only to be stopped by Mrs. Jeff Blake—who, from afar had seen her neighbour’s good fortune—with endless complaints of her own misfortunes, and especially of Jeff, who, she asserted, had become a hopeless drunkard not fit to be the father of any child, though, thank Heaven, no one could say hers were neglected, though she had to work her fingers to the bone to give them proper food, while Jeff, who didn’t care a rap if she had six or sixteen to look after, wasted good wages at the “Fox and Goose.” Bernard Alingham would have liked to tell her that, in abusing her husband and refusing to speak to him at this late hour of the day, she was wasting breath that earlier might have been of service; but he refrained and contented himself with platitudes about patience and pitifulness. It turned his thoughts nevertheless into the puzzle which was never, nowadays, very far from them, and he caught himself wondering if Lucilla Ames would ever wear the yoke collar of her sex; she had shown no signs of so doing, ever since he had known her; but marriage. . . . And then, suddenly, there rose up in him a great well of gratitude that there were such men as George Graham in the world. Men who—yes; he would admit it—made celibacy a poor artificial imitation of the great renunciation.
Meanwhile the car was speeding away on top through the outskirts of London that in the early spring show at their best. When almond blossom and red ribes adorn the little front gardens above the daffodils and polyanthus, the scented hyacinth and tulips. The two in front didn’t talk much, and Mrs. Tom Larkin wept very silently, very, as it were, obscurely all the way from sheer excess of good feeling.
The tears fell gently from her eyes even at tea, though she persisted in saying she had never been so happy since she married Tom; a remark which, as the gentleman in question was not present, excited no denial. In fact it only led to further somewhat disjointed memories of her time as a nurse girl in service when her mistress had taught her to say polyanthi instead of polyanthus. A piece of learning of which she was still proud. So after a while, since it still grew dark early, and Mrs. Larkin was but newly out of convalescence, home again through the fading lights and the growing ones, as lamp after lamp flashed into brilliance. This time sleep replaced tears for the tired little woman in the back seat; but those two in the front one said little to each other. It was only when, Mrs. Larkin safely deposited with her Tom and her five children, the car drew up at Mrs. Ames’s door that George Graham, waiting for the bell to be answered, said suddenly:
“Do you know, Lucilla, you never answered my question?”
“Did you put one?” she replied demurely.
He gave a little laugh. “I meant to anyhow; but I’ll put it plainly now so there shall be no mistake. Lucilla Ames, will you marry me?”
“George Graham,” she replied, and her voice, though soft was firm, “I will.” And with the words she lifted her face to his regardless of the fact that the baker’s boy, his basket slung on his arm, was passing by.
And George Graham flung his arms about her, and kissed her—his first real kiss—passionately.
So that Fanchette opening the door said in shocked tones:
“Mais, mademoiselle! Ce n’est pas convenable en plein air!”
“Please don’t follow. I will bide my time.” Those words echoed and re-echoed through Alan Graham’s head.
In body he could obey; in mind the thought was ever with him. He could refrain from setting detectives at work, he could give the police the go-by, but he could not prevent all that was spiritual in him following her sorrowful way. Yet even here he failed, for when he tried to visualize the long weary months of waiting he could only break off and swear. He was only a man, so he could not understand those long, long months of waiting. They must be trying enough when the child that was to come was one whom at least one could pardon.
But when it was one whom you abhorred, those long months must be intolerable. He shrank even from the thought of the presence by day by night—of what——?
Small wonder that, beset by fears, he came to look with a growing terror at the sliding, peaceful river. There, and there only was rest, forgetfulness, oblivion, to be found; a surcease from all care. Almost he felt inclined to seek it himself, and a vast pity for the thousands of young girls who had so sought it during the past centuries filled him. Many of them doubtless innocent of offence, all of them, surely, finding the payment hard for an instant’s pleasure.
So he took to haunting the bank up and down, even though in his heart of hearts he knew that Lil was not that sort; that she would not run away; that she would keep to her promise.
Despite his confidence, however, his heart gave a bound when one morning before breakfast, before the big city had awakened to the tragedies, the triumphs of the past night, when he was trying to brush away the sleeplessness which beset him so often by the fresh purity of dawn, he saw a boatman and a couple of policemen engaged over something on the water-side. They formed a dark blot upon the shining shield of the river. Above rose the tall chimneys of the wharf, and the warehouses and factories showed like palaces against the clear morning air.
There was a ripple on the still water; they were dragging something ashore.
It was not his Lil! He knew that, knew it absolutely long before the kindly yet rough hands had lifted what they brought shorewards from the water and laid it gently on mother earth. There it lay among the potsherds and other human refuse left by the receding tide, amongst the mud and unspeakable beastliness of a tidal river that flows through a great city—just a girl, a young girl scarcely out of her teens.
Not a pretty face; but peaceful utterly. A string of common pearls round her neck; her shingled hair dragged by the water over her face. A pitiful figure; only her youth an excuse for the outrage which had brought her there.
Leaning over the parapet he could hear the men’s voices as they spoke in lowered tones.
“Pore thing!” said the boatman as he straightened the crisped arm that looked as if she had tried to hold fast something and had failed to find anything. “She don’t look as if she had known much about it, do she?” There was a certain shame-facedness in his voice as he spoke.
“She h’aint one o’ the reglars anyhow,” replied one of the policemen, “a servant girl most likely, one o’ them gels as ought to know better and doesn’t, because they ain’t towght nothin’, so it comes upon them unawares like.”
Alan Graham leaning over the parapet caught the words “unawares like.”
“Then you mean,” he said, “she didn’t know.”
The policeman looked up with a smile and saluted. “Lor’ bless me no! sir,” he said. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say as any gel to-day doesn’t know. An’ they knows ’ow to take care of ’emselves better nor they did; so there’s not near so many of this sort to pull out as there used to be—not one ’arf. But it ’ud surprise you, sir, to see how many servant gels there are out for a spree o’ nights. That bold, too, they don’t seem to fear nothing.”
“Knows as they’re safe,” sniggered the younger man.
But he was instantly checked by his senior. “That ain’t no business of ours. Bob,” he said severely, “an’, lookee here, don’t stand gassin’ here all the morning! Jist blow round will yer, an’ tell them at the station to ’urry up the ambulance afore folk get passin’ by; they don’t like these sort o’ sights—an’ small blame to them—they didn’t ought to be, that’s flat.”
Already another spectator had joined Alan on the parapet; evidently an outcast who had spent the night on the Embankment.
“She won’t ’unger no more,” he said wistfully.
Alan felt sick at heart. The vast misery of God’s beautiful world came home to him. Why, in Heaven’s name, should such things be allowed? The young girl lying dead in the river’s mud, the white gulls wheeling so curiously over her. Men cackling over her, oblivious that by rights she was the most sacred sight in all creation—a mother giving her mite to the immortality of the world! Or was she in truth degenerate? Was she unfit for the sacred task; so better dead?
And then swiftly came the thought unasked, that no matter what she might be, none could tell what the child might have been. The Saviour for whom the old outworn world was waiting? the greatest poet? the greatest painter? the greatest musician? The mysteries of heredity were unfathomable.
“Men do not gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles.” The unerring wisdom of the Great Teacher came home to him. Strange that it had not come home to the whole world; but was anything more surprising than the ease with which such sayings could be forgotten? Here was the world of humanity busy in procreating itself thoughtlessly—for the sake of a fleeting pleasure—planting waste places with grape vines and sowing thistles broadcast amid their vineyards.
“Well, there’s one less pauper to be ground down by them capitalists,” growled a young workman, going by pipe in mouth to his work.
“One?” grinned his companion. “You bet there’s two of ’em. Gels don’t drown ’emselves for nothin’ nowadays—’as too good a time. Drat ’em, w’y can’t they be satisfied with that instead o’ takin’ a man’s work from ’im? That’s wot they’ve done. They shud be content to ’ave babies.”
Alan moved away. He had seen and heard enough for one morning. As he neared home he met an office girl, neat, spick and span, hurrying to catch her bus. Trim ankles, long rainproof coat, felt hat drawn over her ears, workmen-like attaché case all complete. A business woman undoubtedly. Not a trace of motherhood about her. Possibly there never would be. But would she be content? Or would she learn in her way to take life’s pleasures—as most men do—and cast its responsibilities aside?
Who could say? The world wanted no more children. Would it be content to give up sex?
These questions came to him often, and more than once he had talked them over with Bernard Alingham who, like most of his cloth, was content to handle such subjects as though they were wrapped in fig-leaves. So he got little help from him, even about Lil. Lil to him was simply a wife who had to bear the penalty of having married a man she did not love. She had bargained for ease and comfort as against the primal woman’s duty and she had failed to secure her end.
Briefly her sin had found her out. She was none the less to be pitied. It was none the less grievous that she should have taken it as she did.
To all this Alan in his heart agreed; and yet he found it hard to believe that Lil was at fault; Lil who had seemed to him the embodiment of sexlessness.
He went home to the Red House that morning, feeling dejected, to find Eve fresh home from the Riviera, looking as folks do after a long journey, extraordinarily bright though somewhat weary as to eyes.
She was full of George’s engagement to Lucilla.
“Good old George,” she laughed. “I thought there was something up when he was so shirty about Le petit Paradis. But imagine his having the gumption to frustrate Amy Ames’s schemes. I would give a great deal to have seen the final éclaircissement he must have had with her! But I’m awfully glad. Lucilla’s as nice as they’re made; but I shall always wonder how old she really is—twenty or twenty-two? Not that it matters now she is going to be married—marriage covers a multitude of sins, doesn’t it?”
So she rattled on, somewhat artificially, saying finally that she would take her congratulations down to the Club as she had promised Mum, who was away, to represent her at some function they were having there that afternoon. “I shall see Mrs. Ames there,” she added, “for she’s Vice-President of the-what-is-it Women’s Mission to Women.”
And here suddenly she grew serious and her mobile face hardened.
“As if missions were any good to us,” she continued. “The women can’t really change—except in the fashions. We’re just the same as we were in the beginning. There was a man I knew—a great fat general officer; eyes stuck out like a lobster’s, ever such a red face—and I overheard him saying to a lady ‘Madam, I tell you the woman thou gavest me is as jealous as old boots.’ Well, I laughed and old red tab turned on me like an enraged tiger; but he never said a truer word in his life. That’s what we are—as jealous as old boots. We can’t help it; we were made so.”
Thus she flung off, more like a dragon-fly, Alan thought, than ever; here this moment, gone the next, yet always intent on her own flight, always sure where she was going next. The most uncertain yet the most certain of creatures; in a way bewildering. So unlike Lil: calm, quiet Lil. And so, once more, his mind was with her in her task.
And Eve went about her day’s work, always alert, always almost exuberantly vital, always ready to resent, always ready to amuse or be amused.
She saw Lucilla for five minutes and, for once was natural, affectionate, charming, welcoming her as a sister and prophesying much happiness in the future for her and George if they didn’t overburden themselves with paupers and chickens—both fatiguing on-hangers. “For George,” she said, “sat up till twelve o’clock last night, though I was dropping with sleep after the roughest crossing I ever remember, to tell me all about your visits to Victory Street. You’re a dear good, little, thing, and I admire you immensely. So go on and win—everybody’s everything.”
Then she finally went to the Club. This she found in a great state of excitement over the Women’s Mission, which was to hold its inaugurate meeting with the aid of two bishops and the promise of a royal princess as president. There was quite an array of vice-presidents, Mrs. Etherington of course figuring as the one in chief, and amongst others Mrs. Ames and Mrs. Graham. Eve unfortunately arrived too late to speak for her mother; but the former made a most telling little speech, half full of sentiment and half of sound common sense, in which she besought all her friends to remember that they also were women and not to forget that money was more useful than words.
It was a great success. In fact, some one coming into the tea room after the meeting was over went so far as to say that matters couldn’t be better. They had actually voted for a president, a chaplain and two secretaries. Yes, two! Because so much required to be done, and done at once. Why, it was scarcely to be believed considering the numberless missions and societies of sorts that had lately been started, but the dear bishop had made a most heart-breaking report of the number of parishes in which the poor girls had no place to which they could go of an evening except the dance halls, which of course were not desirable.
Here Eve Graham barged in with her usual common sense. “Why not?” she said. “I have been to several of these dance halls and, so long as you’re all right they are all right. What you should do is not to get a new hall but make sure you’ve a new spirit. If the girls go to charleston they charleston; if they go to get into mischief they get into mischief and there’s an end. It’s just the same if it’s a duchess’s palace—and I’ve experience of both.”
“Dear Miss Graham!” purred the other. “You are so quaint.”
“Am I?” retorted Eve. “No, I’m only natural. If a woman wants to get into mischief she will get into mischief—nothing, no! nothing will prevent her.”
Her high, vibrant voice overbore many others and their owners turned to look at her. And one woman turned her head saying with a sniff: “It’s Eve Graham and she ought to know—there’s nothing she hasn’t done—why, she was a mannequin once.” And a quartette settled down to tea with this as the topic of conversation. But over all the big room, more or less excited pourparlers were going on and every conceivable subject was being canvassed. Politics, art, music, with here and there a modest corner devoted to Eugenics or dress. There was not one subject of social reform left undiscussed, and argument waxed hot in one quarter over coeducation. It was only far away from the hurly-burly in the little coffee room, that Mrs. Etherington sat surrounded by satellites telling of the strain she had put on herself by coming that afternoon after the terrible disturbance of the morning.
“Imagine it,” she said, sniffing delicately at her scent-bottle the while, “two policemen, one a quite nice looking inspector with a waxed moustache and a row of medals; quite a gentleman to look at. And they brought such distressing news. One of my servants had been found in the river—drowned of course. She was a country girl and seemed quite respectable. I need hardly tell you, dear Mrs. Ames, that I am most particular—most particular. All the servants have to go to church.”
“That ought to keep ’em straight,” interposed Eve Graham, who after a short passage of arms with Mrs. Ames had been listening.
“It does as a rule,” replied Mrs. Etherington severely. “I thought she had gone home for a few days—I understood so from the housekeeper—but it seems she went to the river instead. And—and I really hardly like to tell you the wretched story. It seems that she was led astray by another young girl—I have sent her away of course—the upper housemaid told me the tale. You know they always do tell at the last when it’s too late to prevent a house from being dishonoured by incidents of this sort. That by the way is one of the things we must try to teach these girls—Honour among thieves! No, it isn’t quite that, but you know what I mean. Anyhow the housemaid told me. She or the other girl—I really could not listen—borrowed a wedding ring and an eighteen months old baby and went to one of these clinics. Personally I don’t approve of them; but many people, even some of the clergy are in favour of them, and of course the pressure of population is terrible, quite terrible. So of course they instructed her, whichever girl it was—they could do nothing else, could they?—and she went away promising to come back. Then, the other girl—but I really couldn’t listen to the dreadful story—thinking she was able—able to have a good time—but you see she wasn’t—at least that is what I gathered, but of course I couldn’t let the housemaid go into particulars. I simply sent the other girl away. A shocking story, isn’t it, and nobody’s fault except the girl’s own.”
Eve Graham gave a queer little laugh. “A wedding ring,” she said, “is easily borrowed; and a baby isn’t so difficult. I think I should stipulate for a marriage certificate; but it doesn’t so much matter in this case—the population isn’t increased.”
The other woman stared at her.
It was no wonder that the mention of Malpas invariably brought the thought of the Malpas woods; for the old Court looked as if it had been built to centre the forest of beech trees in which it stood. Such magnificent beeches too! Wide-spreading, smooth boled, stretching away and away above a carpeting of green moss and tufted ferns. A little later in the year the bluebells would almost oust the green, but it was early yet, and only in some very sheltered nook a tinted spike, just thinking of turning its coming beauty modestly to earth, could be seen. The house itself bore outwardly small evidence of its extreme antiquity. It was low, even for its bare two stories. There were no turrets, no signs of moat, battlements, of loopholes or escarpments. It was just an English country house, wide-spreading, homely. Its windows, though mullioned, were plentiful and large, and at first sight its only remarkable feature was the over-tall, twisted chimneys. Within, however, it kept its character of being one of the oldest houses in Great Britain. The so-called banqueting-hall with its waggon roof was undoubtedly twelfth century; the chapel, turned into a dining-room, was thirteenth; while some folk hinted that the coal-cellar ante-dated them both. But it was a comfortable house, thanks to the fact that the Squires of Malpas had lived in it uninterruptedly for centuries on centuries. So the gardens and lawns also, which lay to the south with their tall, well-kept yew hedges, were full of rare old English plants, while the sluggish stream, which meandered through the meadows beyond, supplied a stone-edged pond where carp had once been kept and where gold fish now flashed through olive-green water.
The church, the village, lay, as it were, within call round a spur of the encircling beeches which shut in the whole.
It was impossible to avoid going to church, Claud Hearsay had said laughingly that very morning, when it was so close. And Margaret had been no little shocked, for it was Easter Sunday. A peace profound, almost paralysing to his volatile nature brooded over everything. The workmen, who, according to Claud’s business ideas had been an unconscionable time over the job of installing baths and electric light, had, of course, left it unfinished for their five days’ holiday, Friday to Wednesday. Of this he was never tired of complaining. “You should have seen them, Margie,” he had said, “as the clock struck five on Thursday, downing their tools, helter-skelter and literally scooting to catch the first train at the junction. Thank Heaven they don’t do that in India yet!” To which Margaret had replied in extenuation that Good Friday was also a holiday, and that very few town workmen in the country ever took up their job again till the Wednesday. Besides they had really finished the house itself; it was only the Picture Gallery, extending all over the quadrangle of offices, that remained to be done, and even that was partially finished.
“That is what I complain of,” fumed Claud. “Half an hour or an hour’s work would have put that right at any rate. And Jilks and James promised to have all done before our wedding day. Next time I employ an English firm I’ll have a swingeing penalty for every day’s delay. These fellows need it.”
“It is their recognized holiday, remember; and they have so few,” interposed Margaret.
“Few?” exclaimed Claud, now at a white heat. “My dear girl, do you know they have more than one quarter of the year as holidays? To say nothing of two-thirds of each day. But,” he added, seeing her dissenting face, “I don’t grudge it them, if only they’ll work.”
Margaret felt relieved when the big bell over the stable rang for luncheon; since, of course, nothing so modern as a gong could be endured at Malpas Court. But Claude’s face when he saw a huge sirloin of beef, flanked by Yorkshire pudding and baked potatoes, as the sole comestible on the table made her once more apologetic.
“We always have it on Sundays, you know, she said. “Roast beef and plum-pudding it’s the rule.”
It was a hot day for mid-April; very hot, and Claud had discarded his waistcoat.
He heaved a reminiscent sigh. “Do you remember what super-excellent épaulettes aux fonds d’artichauts Anne used to make? I suppose the cook here——” Then once again seeing Margaret’s troubled look, he paused in passing her chair to take her hand and kiss it. “Only isn’t it a bit extravagant to have at least eighteen pounds of solid meat for two people?”
“You forget the servants,” she replied coldly.
He nearly said “Damn the servants,” but he refrained, ate his beef like a man and asked for a second help of flaming pudding. For he was very amiable.
But after luncheon was over, and Margie with many pretty apologies and real regrets had gone off to take Sunday School, as she had done ever since she was confirmed, he sought a hammock outside and went solidly to sleep; there was really nothing else to be done for the present at any rate. By and by when he should have his recognized position as master of the house it would be different. Then, with Frumpie’s authority at a discount, he would be able to hold his own with Margaret—dear, kind, delightful Margaret! Oh, if she had only been—well, a little more like Eve Graham! Eve Graham who was always ready for anything, who was not hampered by silly conventions, who—the thought of her was inwardly disturbing, so he gave an impatient sigh and turned to sleep.
There being no fir trees within miles there were no wood pigeons to disturb him with their reiteration “Take two Taffy Take two.”
In truth, since that fateful moment when Eve Graham had told him some things had got to be sometimes, ever since he had felt the wild passion of having her in his arms, ready and willing as it were to be taken, he had tried to forget all about the incident. For one thing he had been too busy to think. Thanks to Margaret’s unspoken jealousy he had left Le petit Paradis almost immediately and, since coming home, life had gone smoothly enough at Malpas; or, when he had been in town, the inevitable business of settlements and general arrangements had prevented his seeing much of Eve. So “sometimes” had seemed very far off; even if it ever came at all.
Thus, after a while, he slept contentedly, dreamlessly.
He was roused, however, by the sound of crushing gravel. A smart Sunbeam saloon was coming up the drive. Visitors! And there was Margaret, back from Sunday School, fresh and hospitable and welcoming them. The afternoon wouldn’t be so dull after all.
Not by any means! For at some distance from the first came another small car, light, trim in its bright yellow and black, which he recognized instantly. It was Eve Graham’s little two-seater. He felt his colour rise, he felt a sudden pulse of intense life run through him as he saw her slim figure flash out, brilliant, glittering like any dragonfly and fasten itself with kisses on Margaret—his Margaret!
“Oh, there you are, Mr. Hearsay!” she cried, seeing him advancing, “I’m glad you haven’t decided to run away from such a party! But it’s all my fault, Margie darlingest. George and Lucilla—you know them both of course—were dutifully taking future Papa and Mamma-in-law—let me introduce Sir Francis Tuke—for an Easter Sunday drive. So cockney, wasn’t it? So as I had to motor a friend, Alicia Drayton, to the Towers—you know the Draytons, of course; she is to be one of your bridesmaids—I suggested they should come along and see you. And we picked up Professor Enderwick by the way—Professor Enderwick, Miss Malpas—he’s been keen for years to see the dear old place, and I knew you’d love showing it to him. So there we all are, six of us. George and Lucilla, Mrs. Ames and Sir Francis, myself and the Professor! And please don’t fuss about tea and cakes. I always bring them with me when I do these disgraceful things. And, Mr. Hearsay, just listen. The Count—you remember him of course—my ardent admirer, sent me Heaven only knows how many litres of Alpine strawberries; must have ruined himself, the idiot, for he hasn’t a sow—that’s why he wanted to marry an ‘English mees!’ So, Margerina belovedest, if you can raise cream and sugar in this land of milk and honey we can have a real blow out, can’t we?”
So she ran on trying to set every one at their ease. And she succeeded for the most part, so that the whole atmosphere of the dignified old place changed; only Lucilla sat silent, a puzzled look in her fresh, young eyes. It was an idyllic day, warm, cloudless, sunny; so the old grey-haired butler was bidden to bring tea outside, cream in plenty was forthcoming, and the penniless count’s offering eaten unsympathetically. Alpine strawberries, it was agreed, were the best flavoured in the world. Mrs. Ames and Sir Francis Tuke were, of course, absolutely perfect in demeanour; George, simple soul, thought everybody very jolly, the Professor was too much occupied with the past to think of the present; only Lucilla watched Claud and Eve and Margaret with that puzzled look in her eyes.
After tea was over the party divided itself as, inevitably, it had to be divided. Margaret, with the Professor, had to show the antiquities; Sir Francis and Mrs. Ames, the latter pleading age as she was learning to do gracefully, elected to admire the garden, Lucilla and George, attracted by the possibility of trout and the certainty of a brood of young ducklings on the stream, wandered off to the meadows. It was all so inevitable, so fore-ordained; and yet a distinct frown showed on Lucilla’s face, making George say at once:
“What’s wrong, little one?”
“I don’t know,” was the reply, “that’s just it; but—but—why do your sister and Miss Malpas watch Mr. Hearsay as a cat watches a mouse?”
George laughed. “Do they, sharp eyes? Perhaps because he’s about the best looking fellow I ever saw—now isn’t he?”
Lucilla’s nose went up in the air. “I don’t know what you’ve seen,” she said, “but I don t like him. He’s made of jelly. Anybody could do anything with him—and——” She broke off.
“Well, perhaps he is something like a barber’s block,” put in George contentedly. “Some women like that sort of man. I’m glad you don’t.” And with that, his attention being diverted by a swirl in a dark, oily looking pool, imagination flew to fish, and he forgot all else.
Meanwhile Eve and Claud Hearsay were left alone on the lawn, looking at each other. Something in his eyes seemed to embarrass her, for she gave a half-resentful laugh.
“Yes,” she said, “it has all panned out to schedule as I hoped it would. You see I must speak to you; so let us get away from all these grandmother’s tramways”—she pointed to the old house standing so set, so secure—“and have it out like reasonable man and woman. The woods are best, at any rate one can be natural there.”
He said nothing, but followed her lead. How alluring she looked in her vivid greens, all wrinkled and crinkled like the young beech leaves that showed here and there amongst the maze of purple-brown branches overhead. Like them all formless, soft, satiny, crushable! Something new born out of Life’s endless treasure to give some one—perhaps a mere passer-by—a moment’s pleasure.
“No, not here,” she said contemptuously as he indicated a bank, covered with moss which seemed made for a lover’s seat. “One can see the cursed chimneys from here, and I want to get away from everything—except you.”
Except you! How the words thrilled him! Had he not felt like that many times, in the weeks he had spent trying to forget her. He recognized it now. She was the one woman he desired to possess; all else was of no account.
“This will do,” she said at last. “Here we can see nothing but nature. And that—— Oh, Claud! Claud!”
And again she was in his arms, his kisses fast and fierce on face and hair.
“Let be a moment,” she said, again with a half laugh. “We know we love each other—we know—God! what don’t we know?—but we’ve got to have this out reasonably. Sit down beside me—so—that’s comfortable. Now, Claud, I suppose you’ve been trying to forget me. Have you?”
“I couldn’t,” he interposed tempestuously. “Who could forget you, the dearest, most beautiful——”
She checked him as a mother might check her child. “That goes without saying and it has nothing to do with the matter. Well, I’ve been trying to forget you, but—but—I don’t want to. So it’s bound to come, sooner or later, as I told you that day. Now, hush! All that can come by and by—perhaps—— Or rather it will, that’s quite certain. Now what I want you to see is this. You’ve had a spell of Malpas. You know its ways, and Frumpie’s ways and—and Margie’s ways. She’s a dear, good sort, I admit, but do you think you could stick it all your life?”
His hands had left hers, had left her waist and now half hid his face as they supported his head while his eyes were fixed, almost unconsciously, on a little iridescent beetle on the moss which was trying ineffectually to work its way out from the soft cushion, by climbing a broken bent from which it fell incontinently at every effort.
“I don’t think you could; in fact, I’m sure you couldn’t,” went on the inexorable voice. “Sooner or later you’d turn to me, and perhaps—I don’t know, but one can’t be sure—you mightn’t get me then. Anyhow it wouldn’t be so comfortable, now would it?”
He groaned an indistinct negative.
“Now, wouldn’t it be much more sensible not to swear you’ll love, honour and obey—no, it’s not that quite I know, but at Malpas it would be precious like it, wouldn’t it? And would it not, considering how you love me, be more fair to Margaret to back out while you can? What have you to give her? Nothing! Claud! I’ve got it all . . . every bit of it——”
Her hand, slim and white, but like iron in its grip, closed round his wrist, and once again with a cry she was in his arms, his kisses on her lips.
“I told you it was no use, Claud,” she said, withdrawing herself after a space. “Do let us recognize the fact, here, away from all silly conventions, all grandmother’s tramways, that it has got to be some time. Nature has knocked our heads together, as she knocks the animals—”
Here a vague suspicion that she was not on very safe ground made her shift her argument:
“Then, putting what they call the sex urge apart, there are other things to be considered. Your life. Even with humanity it isn’t all making love, is it? You have business ability. With a good start you could make your own fortune, be independent. Think of it, Claud! Think of the excitement, the interest, the success of life if we two—mind you, I don’t make the partnership a sina qua non, but supposing it were? Compared with your droning existence here at Malpas! A baby every year, I expect, whereas we need have none, unless we wish it. Roast beef and plum-pudding for dinner every day, stout at forty, a stroke—a merciful stroke—at fifty. Claud! it isn’t worth it, is it?”
He was silent for a space; then as if the words were wrung from him muttered:
“True, of course; but why didn’t you tell me this before? We—we are to be married in three days—it’s too late—why didn’t you come before?”
For the first time her voice shook: “Why? shall I tell you? Because I thought—I might get over it—because I tried—but I couldn’t, Claud—I couldn’t. I saw that at the Club the other day. I saw that you couldn’t either. The fact is you are all the world to me as a woman. You are all the world to me—all the world. I want you badly.”
It was her turn to rest her head on her hands and look downwards.
Did she also see the iridescent beetle attempting to escape? Possibly; but it would have made no difference to her; it would not have hardened—or softened—her heart in the least. She had come forewarned, forearmed, to tempt this man to her side, if by fair means or foul she could so tempt him; since by the woman’s creed fair or foul are alike to love, divine love. She was modern to the core. Long centuries of confounding passion with love, of holding this compound to be divine, all sufficing, had made it impossible for her to shrink from its consequences. Love, in her code—the love that comes unasked, that claims what it loves was sufficient to excuse or at any rate to palliate even a crime of passion. And this that she was urging was no crime.
Looked at reasonably, even morally, it was not only justifiable but virtuous. It would make that, which to her code was inevitable, comparatively blameless.
So they sat for quite an appreciable time, side by side, silent. Then he spoke, and spoke quietly:
“I admit that you are right, but it is too late. I cannot leave Margaret. She expects——”
“What does she expect?” Eve’s voice rang with scorn. “If she had heard what we have been saying, if she had seen what you and I have done since we came to this wood, do you think she would marry you? No; I know her too well for that. And what will surely come—for, mind you, my love shall be heard—will break her heart. Far better to go away now. Listen, I have planned it all out. You were going up by the late train to-morrow night to finish up business and bring down your best man—what’s his name—De Souza—he told me all about it. Yes; and he told me all about your family and your mother, a staunch Holy Roman and all that.
Well, instead you shall come up with me to-night in the car. It will be wiser for you than having to spend the night here—yes! and safer, for you are so easy to persuade, my poor Claud—and of course it will be hard—you must expect that. But it will be easier, far easier in town; and when the fuss is over, I’ll marry you, Claud, and—and you know what my father has done of course. Well, we’ll have enough, more than enough to start in business; and, oh, Claud, how happy we shall be! Do as we like, live as we like, no village, no church, or tramways, no Frumpie, no anything—just ourselves always—always ourselves.”
He stood up, bewildered. “I—I can’t decide—quite,” he murmured, “but—yes, I’ll come up with you. I shall have time to think—and it will be convenient. I’ve a lot of business to do—yes, I’ll come!”
She smiled to herself, a smile of satisfaction. The battle seemed half over. Amid the distractions of town, away from the sights and sounds of Malpas, the rest would be easy. And even if it were not, there were other means at her disposal—they were at every woman’s disposal for the matter of that—if she cared enough. She could make it impossible for any man of honour—and Claud, poor Claud, was honourable—to marry
Meanwhile the first thing to be done was evidently to stay in the wood as long as they conveniently could. When they returned to the Court, the others would have gone. For Mrs. Ames had been stern on leaving early since she was due at dinner somewhere. That would leave the stage clear for the suggestion that Claud should save time, expense, by driving back in Eve’s car. Thus the affair would be nicely wangled and all, really, in Margaret’s interests. She wouldn’t really be happy with Claud—would she even marry him as a Roman Catholic?
So they wandered through the beech woods until the shadows began to lengthen, scarcely alluding to what had been settled between them, except in so far as it was desirable in every way to look facts in the face, before entering into a contract for life, which, after all, was pure business.
When they returned, the Court looked grey and dismal without the sunshine, but the great log fire burnt brightly in the big drawing-room where Margaret, very cool and calm and placid, sat beside it reading the “Spectator.”
“You are late!” she exclaimed as they entered. “But I don’t think the Professor will mind. He’s up to his ears in old documents in the library—the others have gone, of course.”
The firelight fell on the faces of the two women as they stood opposite to each other, the man between them. There was no question of clawing or scratching, as most possibly there was in the beginning; when the age-long fight of women for possession, for appropriation first began; but each knew that, friends though they were, it was war to the knife.
“Then the Professor did not go with them, as he came,” said Eve, and her tone was cultured, silvery.
“No,” replied Margaret in the same voice. “He was afraid you might feel lonely driving by yourself; and we all agreed that was possible, so it was best he should wait.”
“That was very kind of you,” replied Eve suavely. “Perhaps, Mr. Hearsay, you will be good enough to tell Professor Enderwick that I am ready to start.”
And when he had gone on his errand she stood silent; but Margaret, cool, calm, placid, could not resist the temptation to emphasize:
“They waited some time hoping you would return, but there was some appointment or other they had to keep. And I don’t think Professor Enderwick has found the time too long. I have shown him everything except the Picture Gallery which, unfortunately, is locked, as the workmen have not finished. So as my maid keeps the key, and she has her afternoon out, we had to defer the inspection till next time. Perhaps, after we are married, you will bring the Professor over to lunch. We shall be delighted if you can.”
There was nothing for it but polite thanks; but Eve was inwardly raging. She felt that either wittingly or unwittingly she had been badly ticked off, and her only retort was saying cordially as she went:
“And remember, Mr. Hearsay, as I told you just now if you want a bed in London there is always one at the Red House. My mother will be delighted to be of any convenience. I shall most likely be away. Good-bye, Margie. Sorry I couldn’t be bridesmaid, but it would have been too painful being left out in the cold after all our schoolgirl vows. You know, Mr. Hearsay, she vowed she never would marry, and made me do so too. Real unkind, wasn’t it?”
As she drove home, she wondered if Claud had realized her invitation. Anyhow she could repeat it by wire. On his head be it if he didn’t accept. But he would; he must. And then? Fate would decide. Till then she must prepare other temptations.
Meanwhile Claud, left alone with Margaret, was finding a cold beef and beetroot salad supper somewhat depressing. Yet in point of affection, care, and consideration there was no fault to be found; so, on the whole, it was as well that a spoke had been put in Eve’s wheel. To do anything now would make a devil of a fuss; and, even if it were true that what must be must, there were dozens of households where the ménage was à trois—after a time, of course, after a time. He meant to do his best anyhow to be a decent husband—for the time at any rate. And it really had been cute of Margie!
So being in many ways a trivial creature he could not help smiling and admiring.
And Margaret smiled back. During the time when Professor Enderwick had been engaged in the library and she had been ostensibly reading the “Spectator,” she had taken stock of the situation. Perhaps, if she had known Claud Hearsay at the beginning as she knew him now, after those weeks at Malpas, she would not have sent for him to carry on the Malpas stock. But now his good looks, his almost boyish pliability, had made her as much in love with him as she could be in love with anyone. Yet she was no fool. Both she and Eve were old enough to understand; and Eve was without doubt alluring—more alluring to a man than she was herself. Claud had his faults. Many of them, lovable as he was. The admixture of Indian blood, for instance, meant more than she had realized at first. The horizon did not, ’tis true, seem so cloudless as it ought to have done on the eve, almost, of their wedding day; but the banns had been cried, the wedding-dress—Claud’s choice—lay in the big oak bedroom where Prince Charlie had slept.
Above all, she had annexed this man, and she wanted him for herself and Malpas. And she meant to keep him. He was her property.
So far, her position towards him was much the same as Eve Graham’s. The latter, however, though Margaret did not, could not, grasp its importance, superadded passion: what is nowadays called the sex-urge. Something that is all powerful— irresistible!
Eve Graham, dressed or undressed to perfection in filmy white, sat in the ruddy glow of the fire in her father’s study. The rest of the room was dark, conventional, commercial, for the lights—those terrible electric lights that reveal all ugliness and conceal all beauty—had not been turned on; so her figure showed as if made of flame. Thus the outside of her matched the inside, for her mind was a-fire. She was waiting to see if Claud Hearsay would come, or whether, the initiative of her presence being removed, he had sunk back in acquiescence. Margaret had bested her in yesterday’s endeavour to continue control. It remained to be seen if she could recover it.
If not, disaster lay ahead. What must be, must, of that she felt sure. For the first time in her life fierce passion had come to her; passion in which but one thing seemed certain—that no other woman was going to wrest Claud from her for ever. Modern as she was to her finger-tips, she would have denied it strenuously; but the fact remained, the very thought of dual proprietorship was gall and wormwood to her. What she wanted was appropriation; so in reality her fight was a fight for the conventional, for respectability; briefly for monogamy—as most likely such fights were in the beginning of time when women began to rebel against promiscuity. During the past weeks she had told herself she was trying to forget; but in her heart of hearts she knew she had not been doing anything of the kind. Why should she? That unanswered question had come between her and any renunciation. In her code of morality there was no reason. Margaret, of course, was an old friend. All the more reason why. she should—even vi et armis—be prevented from taking a false step. Claud was emphatically not suitable for the role of Squire; even apart from complications which passion had introduced into the problem. If that were eliminated he would still be a ghastly failure. Therefore she was doing a friendly act in trying to prevent him from making a miserable fiasco of two lives. That her own desires coincided with this conclusion had nothing to do with the matter.
Eve Graham was above all things logical. She had been born with a business brain; as her brother George had said it had been the lack of anything worth doing in her life which had made her hitherto fritter away time and herself. Now two things had, as it were, tumbled into existence—business and passion—and both were absorbing. Whether she would have given up the latter had it interfered with the former is a moot point. Unfortunately the two master impulses coincided. Claud would not only be the lover she desired, he would also be what she said she needed—a business twin.
So as she sat, flame-like herself, by the leaping, flaming fire; her face was set and determined. If she could possibly, by hook or crook, prevent him throwing his talents away, prevent him from repressing a perfectly lawful and natural passion, she meant to do it.
It was growing late! Half-past ten; and the last train was due at a quarter to.
If he did not come she must turn to other means—at the worst she could go down on the morrow and tell Margaret.
What would she have to tell? That depended on fate; but there would be something decisive.
She lit another cigarette and smoked nervously. If they would only be sensible—if they would not, on their heads be it. They would have had their choice.
The sudden clang of a bell startled her from a brown study. So he had come. The first move of the game had been played. Now for a checkmate.
As she went down the wide stairs she turned on light after light; for the house had hitherto been dark. It was empty also, for the master and mistress were away for the Easter holidays, the servants had leave until the whitewashers came in on Tuesday, while she herself was supposed to be refuging at her Club. She had, of course, known this would be the case when she gave her invitation. She had counted on it as an asset to her plans. The only question being how he would take the situation when he found it out—supposing that, shocked, he were to flame off in a hurry full of virtue? That, considering all things, would be amusing, and she gave a little laugh at the idea as she unbarred the hall door.
In her light dress against the sudden radiance of the big sunlight that glittered on the marble pillars and marble floor she showed a perfect apparition of allurement to Claud Hearsay’s dazzled eyes. He stood bewildered.
“Come in quickly and let me shut the door,” she said. “It’s a bitter wind; the fare is two and six; and you had better bring your suit-case with you.”
The commonplace words barred sentiment, and he was too much taken aback by seeing her thus unexpectedly to wonder; so he followed her up stairs without asking himself why she should be doing servants’ duties.
Once in the library, however, with the door shut, she faced him squarely. “Don’t be horrified,” she said “but I am the only person in the house. Father and Mother are at Brighton, the servants on holiday; so there is no fear of our being disturbed. Won’t you put down your suit-case?”
He stared at her incredulously; then the full meaning, or what might be the meaning of the situation came to him, and sudden anger seized on him.
“Eve,” he cried, “this is too bad! It’s a bit too thick! I’ll go elsewhere.”
She gave a little scornful laugh. “If you are afraid—of course. There’s a cab-stand just round the corner. At the same time you will be a fool. I’m not going to bite. And in any case you’d better have some supper first. You won’t get anything at this time of night in an hotel.”
As she spoke she drew a chair to the little table that was daintily set out at the other side of the fireplace, asked nonchalantly if he preferred whisky and soda or champagne, since both were there, then resumed her own chair and relit her cigarette.
Her coolness, her very audacity took him aback. Then he was hungry; hungry and the supper looked good.
It was good, very good. And as she sat opposite him, lounging in her arm-chair calmly smoking, and silent on the subject which both knew was in the air, the humour of her stratagem struck him. She was clever—there was no escaping her cleverness. Then, how she had remembered his preferences! And where on earth had she raised these custard-apples—just because, he supposed, she had heard him say they were better than any English fruit. And Margaret had been vexed, saying that some sour hard English apples were better. Yes, what a lot of trouble Eve must have taken; even to the special blend of Turkish cigarettes, double dosed with opium, which she handed to him when he had satisfied himself with pâté de foie gras.
This kind of thing was worth living; only it was a pity she herself smoked so much—the fire-tip spoilt a very kissable mouth for kisses.
He was beginning to congratulate himself on not having run away when she suddenly threw away her half finished cigarette, leant towards him and said quietly:
“Well, are you going to run away, or are you going to be sensible, and try to clear this matter up? I really don’t seem to care so much as I thought I should, so it’s for you to call.”
She leant back again among her cushions, and waited; an almost derisive smile on her lips.
He shifted uneasily in his chair, and finally admitted that there could be no harm in his listening to what she had to say.
“As you listened to what she had to say,” said Eve derisively. “My poor Claud! you are always listening. Now you will have to make up your mind, I’m afraid. Well, it was really very neat of Margie to tick me off yesterday; but I expect I deserved it. The plan was horribly crude. One is apt to be crude when one loves a man, as I love you, and want you—every atom of you from top to toe to be my very own—for always and ever a day. I didn’t believe in this sort of thing till I met you; but there it is! That is where Margie has the pull over me; she wants other things besides you—Malpas and its traditions for instance. You know, Claud, I don’t believe if she knew you were a baptized Holy Roman she’d marry you till you’d been christened and confirmed in that horrid damp church at Malpas! But that is by the way. The fact remains that I love you body and soul—why I don’t know; but it’s damnable, simply damnable. You, as a man can’t understand men are not so jealous as we women are—you could put up with a harem and be quite nice to all the sultanas. But we can’t. Still you love me and I expect I have only to crook my little finger to get you, haven’t I?” Here she gave a little laugh. “Now oblige me by sitting still. I am not going to crook it. That isn’t my game—yet. We have to talk this over and I have heaps and heaps to say; you shall have yours afterwards.
“Now you and I have, we think, tried to forget. I don’t know why I did. I suppose some beastly Calvinistic scruples I must have inherited from Father—that’s the worst of it! One is made up of such a lot of conflicting elements—I dare say it was your Holy Roman ancestry that made you try to escape, as you say you did. Well, I don’t know if I really tried, but anyhow I didn’t succeed. So there we are—you and I! So the question comes uppermost. What is the wisest thing to do? Is it worth it to go on with this marriage when any fool can see that you will be perfectly miserable at Malpas for the rest of your life?”
“This fool doesn’t,” he interposed surlily, for he was beginning to feel restive at being schooled like a boy. “It remains to be seen.”
“But why on earth should it so remain,” she put in sharply, “when there is no real reason why it should be seen at all? You are not yet married.”
“I shall be in two days,” he persisted obstinately. “No, Eve, it is too late; perhaps if—if I had broken away at first, but now it is of no use. I can’t. We must trust to the future.”
“The future,” she echoed scornfully. “No, look here, you young, yes, you very young man! Perhaps you think that because I inveigled—yes, inveigled is the word—you here to this empty house where no one would know, where no one would be a bit the wiser, that I meant, that I want—what lovers are supposed generally to want, but I don’t! I don’t want a bit of you, Claud Malpas Hearsay! I want the whole of you, every bit, your whole life! My God! I thought I was modern! I thought that civilization, that education had knocked primeval jealousy out of me. That I could be content with a random kiss shared with half a dozen others; but I’m the original woman, the woman who wanted to appropriate, the monogamous woman who insisted on a trousseau and orange blossoms, on bridesmaids and a wedding-cake, who intended to keep the man she had captured by all means, fair or foul—and I mean by fair or foul to get them.”
So far she had got swiftly, almost breathlessly. Now she pulled up and went on more quietly while he sat and stared, only vaguely understanding; for he was a man, and this passion for appropriation in all things did not touch him. So far as proprietorship in the woman herself went, he was doubtless like his kind, but he failed to see the fury which would follow should another woman even order her husband’s dinner!
“All that, however, is more or less by the way. What matters is will you be wise enough to back out while you can? It will be hard, of course, and there will be a devil of a fuss. You will doubtless feel a fool, but it won’t be so bad as what will come after if you persist. I’ve thought it all out and have a proposition to make which, if you accept, will smooth the way very considerably.”
She rose, went to the writing-table and took from a drawer a bundle of papers. She selected one and gave it to him.
“Yes,” she said, noting his look of astonishment, “it’s a draft deed of sale—not signed of course.” She gave an odd little half laugh. “For though I am a fool about you, I’m still a good business woman; but the prelims are all done and it is only awaiting your consent. I’ve been nibbling some time, but I had hard work to get it so far through to-day. Still there it is: a deed of sale for Purvis-Johnson’s drapery store in Calcutta; it’s been on the market some time.”
“Purvis and Johnston,” he echoed, “the oldest establishment. My shop couldn’t touch it in some ways, but the management was bad.”
“Just so; now I hope it will be good. It’s an excellent opening for our beginning. So there’s, also unsigned, your appointment as General Manager and there’s your passage—a single one, see how I trust you—by P. & O! An excellent cabin; starts on Thursday. Now! Haven’t I thought of everything? You have only to sign these—not to-night, think it over, it is time enough to-morrow—then you will only have to write.”
He stood up, half defiant, half attracted.
“Thanks! I can manage my own business so far at any rate,” he said.
Her eyes narrowed. “Can you? I doubt it. You are only a blundering male—you don’t understand the psychology of us women. You would be apologetic—that doesn’t pay. We are not so fond of sob-stuff as you men think—we want sound common sense. Tell her you are a Holy Roman, that though you don’t believe its doctrines a priest might barge in and make stipulations about the children, as he very likely would if he heard that one of the flock in Calcutta was marrying a fairly rich heiress. Then say that you find out that you love some one else, say that Malpas mustn’t suffer; then, if you like go down on your knees, say you aren’t worthy—as you aren’t, my poor Claud.”
He broke in angrily then. “I tell you that if—if I decide to break with Margaret—only I can’t, I can’t—I can manage my own business without your interference. In fact I had better say at once that I refuse.”
She stood quite close to him and laid her hand on his. He felt the thrill of her touch run through him from head to foot.
“Now don’t—not to-night,” she said softly. “Don’t rush in with refusals now in a hurry. You have a lot to think over. Remember it is Margaret’s happiness as well as yours. Don’t be foolish and lose happiness for her and for yourself by grasping at present ease. Now listen!” She drew away, her whole face and figure became instinct with a sort of prophetic warning. “If you marry Margaret, do you suppose I am going to let her filch you away from me for ever? I am not that sort. Can you see me standing by like meek Griselda? I can’t and I won’t. Then what would the esclandre mean for her? It would give her infinitely more grief than if you left her now, for it would touch the honour of Malpas, her fetish Malpas. Besides, what right have you to deceive her, Claud? Go to her now, if you will, and tell her the truth, tell her that even on her wedding night you will be thinking of me—of me only. Do you think she would marry you then? Of course she would not. It would be an insult to her and through her to all the brides that Malpas has had from the beginning of time. It would be a dishonour to them and to her.”
“Hundreds of men marry girls they do not really love,” he said obstinately. “I mean to be a good husband—what harm should I do?”
“Harm?” she echoed. “Yes, that is the man’s code of honour to take all and give nothing. To say you’ll worship when you don’t.” So far she had spoken almost fiercely. Now a new note of tenderness came to her voice; she put her hand on his; and the mere touch of it meant so much to him that as he looked at her his face showed all drawn with his effort at self-control. “My poor Claud! My poor handsome, beautiful boy Claud! It’s a shame you should have two women fighting for you. But that is how it is, how it has been from the very beginning of time—at least I expect so. On the one hand is Margaret, good, old-fashioned Margaret with all her set opinions, her prejudices. Margaret who thinks she loves you, who in a way does love you; Margaret with her Malpas, its pigs, its district counsels, its muddy lanes. On the other you have me—you know what I am, what I can be to you—you whose touch thrills me as mine thrill. Ah! take me in your arms if you like, kiss me if you will, I don’t care—I won’t care. I know you mean to give me everything. Then—perhaps. But I will not take a part of you. I must have the whole—or nothing—as I mean to give it. Do you understand?”
She pushed him from her with such violence that, strong as he was, he almost staggered, so stood defiant, instinct with determination.
“Now go!” she said. “Take a cab if you will, and go for ever—till I choose—or stop and sleep. Father’s bedroom is through that door—you’ll find everything you want. Go—sleep and for God’s sake forget women, dream of Malpas and its muddy lanes, Calcutta and—and its custard apples.” A burst of mocking laughter rang through the room, as swiftly she turned and fled.
He tried to follow, but as she passed the door she turned off the lights and he was left in utter darkness. He fumbled for a moment or two for the switch, until a voice calm, collected, came from where he judged the stairs should be.
“Good night,” it said, “sleep well! Breakfast is at nine o’clock.”
Then he desisted, found his way by the feeble glimmer from the dying embers to the arm-chair and sat down feeling worsted. But his pulses were bounding. Soul and body seemed to crave for the witch woman who had left him unsatisfied, but still strangely content. He felt that with all its turbulence, all its claims, this was life worth living. This was not tame—this did not cloy.
After a while, he took a match from his pocket, located the switch and turned on the light once more; but he did not attempt to follow Eve. He had no inclination to do so. Even the very thought of taking his suit-case, finding a cab and going elsewhere was far from him. He wanted nothing but to go to sleep as she had bidden him and dream. It may be that the cigarettes he had smoked were over plentifully supplied with opium, it may be that the clash of emotions had out-wearied his brain, but he fell asleep in the chair until well past midnight. And when he woke all was so silent, so peaceful that it seemed outrageous to run away; so, somewhat ignominiously, he retired to Mr. Graham senior’s bedroom. It was, of course, the acme of comfort so he was soon a-dream. Mostly of absolute trivialities; of pigs and muddy lanes of sunshine and custard apples; for sleep comes easily to knit up ravelled sleeves with most men, even when there are knotty points to settle. So Claud did not make up his mind one way or the other.
But Eve Graham, up in her own bedroom, was not so placid. Her every nerve was tingling, and, rather to her own surprise, the first thing she did was to throw herself on her bed and burst into a passion of tears. Such a storm of emotion had never before come to her, and for a while she gave way to it. Then she sat up and became more like her own self. She had staked her all on her efforts to gain this man—and immediately, of course, prevent him from making a hash of his life. And she did not mean to lose all—that, indeed, was an impossibility. Claud, or a part of him was hers absolutely; but she wanted all, and she raged against the possibility of gaining less.
Anyhow Margaret should not have him. Margaret was a good enough sort, she was really more or less a friend and had been so from their school days. But she could not be allowed to ruin Claud’s life. So, if the worst came to the worst, she would have to go down to Malpas and tell the truth—even, mayhap, a somewhat exaggerated truth. She did not care what she said—or did. Claud might turn on her, might refuse to have anything further to do with her, but Margaret should not have him.
It was long ere she slept; but when she did she slept soundly, a dreamless sleep.
Meanwhile Margaret down at Malpas had said a very sentimental good-bye to Claud for the last time before the wedding. A good-bye which had at once made her cry and feel extremely content; for he had nice pussy-cat ways, and the very fact that he knew his affection was somewhat pinch-beck made him more careful that it should be elaborately decorated; there was less chance of its being found out. So she settled down at once to work, rather glad that for the time being Claud was not there, since there was much to be done in matters of which naturally he could know nothing; as yet, anyhow; though once he was installed as Squire he must learn them. But what could he know of the thousand and one old-time traditions of a Malpas wedding, the old-world procedure which had always been followed at Malpas marriages. The very regulations for the bridal procession were cut and dried and must be followed—the portions of tea and sugar to be distributed to all the old women in the parish had to be weighed out according to age and merit.
Yes; it was as well Claud should be away; to come back with his best man to take up his rightful position. The marriage settlements were all ready. So far as Claud went they were not very generous, but that could not be helped. Money was already curiously tied up by generation on generation, so that little was to be got at, outside the yearly rentals; but, thank Heaven, Claud had never shown himself greedy. The few hundreds she might have had had already been spent on the electric light and the hot water supply. These had cost more than she had expected; but if Claud were satisfied that was the main point.
Then, the banns had given some trouble. It was always, of course, difficult to get accurate information from such a far-away place as Calcutta, and only that morning the family lawyer had written to say, that if Claud’s family were really staunch Roman Catholics as a certain Father d’Erasmeo S. J. had written to say they were, it might be better to put in a clause to certain assignments in order to prevent moneys getting into hands other than those intended. It had been a very mild letter, fussy and over cautious, at which Claud had laughed.
“There is no fear,” he had said. “I have made a will leaving everything back to you; so your old Dryasdust may be satisfied. It isn’t as if I were a Roman either, but I am not. I’m afraid, Margie dear, I’m not much of anything as yet; but by and by—yes, dearest dear, you shall convert me to your exact brand of Christianity.”
“Ah, Claud, I wish you wouldn’t talk like that,” she had said regretfully. “You came to church with me quite nicely at Easter.”
“I’d go to the devil with you, my dearest,” he had replied with a laugh, a kiss or two, and a penitential whisper. So that question had been settled. And, after all, several of those ancestors who hung in the Picture Gallery had not been remarkable for their piety. That had been left to the females of the family. But the men had been upright, honest gentlemen serving their King and their country well—so she would be well satisfied if her man followed suit.
So she set to work with a will on the various arrangements that had to be made. She meant to walk to the church, just, as it were, round the corner; but of course precautions had to be taken against a possible wet day. She went into the hall and tapped the barometer before writing a final note to the livery stable to have all in readiness in case. But the barometer stood firmly at fair, and she went back to her writing-table feeling quite irrationally that it was a good augury for the life that was to come. It was late, and the orderly household had long since gone to bed when, putting work aside, she retired to her room. But she felt far from sleep, so sat down by the fire in her dressing-gown, feeling physically weary. Not a very good condition in which to envisage the future; yet personally she felt no qualms. Claud was a delightful companion, always ready to give up to her. Her only fears were for Malpas—Malpas which up till then had been the pivot of her life. She had only sent for Claud because of Malpas. Perhaps if she had realized how young, how curiously irresponsible he was—or yet not quite irresponsible, for no one could be keener in some ways, but irresponsive to much she held dear—she might not have considered making him master of Malpas Court. And yet? No, impossible to think of foregoing Claud’s charm, his affectionate ways. Why, if he were as her husband really to dislike the muddy lanes in winter and elect to go abroad, she would have to consent. Was it possible that she was setting him above Malpas—that she was becoming a traitor to her race?
The idea, somehow, pleased instead of repulsing her. She smiled to herself over it. Of course it was not true, but it was a proper feeling for a bride. And she would make him so happy that he would never want to leave home, and the house he had made more beautiful, more homelike than ever! For it was Claud who had made the old place yield up its dark corners, its gloomy rooms! How beautiful it looked when he had turned all the electric lights on at once upstairs and downstairs! A fancy of his this, because he said a house should welcome its guests at once. A pretty fancy—just like him! Always for light and colour, cheerfulness and comfort.
Half to dissipate her unspoken, unacknowledged fear for the traditions of the old house, she stepped into the corridor and turned the necessary switches. There it was! a veritable palace of light! How wise he had been! Yet at first she had objected. Mayhap it might be so in all things. No, not in all. In some she would mould him to the old pattern that had stood the wear and tear of so many centuries. He would recognize its beauty, he would conform more and more to the old traditions. He would grow more and more like his namesake Sir Claud; inside as well as outside.
It was a pity the workmen had not finished in the Picture Gallery. She would have liked to see that brilliantly beautiful face lit up under the sweeping cavalier plume, the face that was so like her Claud.
She would see it! Frumpus had the key of the gallery; but Frumpus by this time was dead asleep. And how soundly she slept Margaret knew of old. It would be easy to go in and get the big bunch of keys which lay always on the table beside the bed. A light would be needed, since Claud—how thoughtful he was for all these little things!—had said it was better not to electrify the servants’ rooms as they never could be trusted to turn off the light economically. He was wrong there perhaps; but it was careful all the same. A light? There was Claud’s electric torch in his room. He had all these new things—gadgets they called them nowadays. This particular gadget was a very powerful one. It was so like Claud, always to have the best of everything; and yet, at the same time, to be so alive to economy. She supposed that was the business outlook, and Eve had it too. The thought of her brought a frown; but only for an instant. That danger was over, the future was clear of the nets and snares which Eve invariably set for all men—unmarried men of course. Margaret could not repress a faint glow of amused pride at the neatness with which she had frustrated one of those deep-laid plans. The memory of it, and Claud’s subsequent behaviour made her feel elated as she went into his room to get the electric torch. How tidy he was! everything put away.
The torch was not to be found on table or in drawer. Could he have taken it with him? As a last resort she looked in the cabin trunk which stood in the corner. Evidently it had been used, either by Frumpus or Claud, as a receptacle for odds and ends—they had been tumbled in any way. There was the torch and beside it a half-open booklet; a manual of devotion, evidently a Roman Catholic one. Sudden curiosity made her turn to the fly leaf: “On his first communion.” Somehow it startled her; for, though she had known Claud’s family were Catholics, he had professed himself a freethinker in matters religious.
His first communion! And somehow she had looked on that simple ceremony on Easter morning when he had come so dutifully, so charmingly to the village church as his first, as, she hoped, the beginning of still closer companionship. Vaguely it was a disappointment, and she felt a trifle dashed as she went to commit theft in Frumpus’s room. But that itself was pure fun. Frumpie snoring, the keys lying in a bunch beside her. An easy task; but the torch had to be put out. Its brilliance would have wakened the Seven Sleepers.
There is something exhilarating in doing what you have never done before. Margaret had never before done burgling by night, and the thought of how Claud would be amused filled her with content. He so irresponsible! Well, she must cultivate that side of life, and then they would be so happy, so superlatively happy together—and, after all, she was only five years older than he was. Only life had been so serious to her always. Yes, she must cultivate youth for his sake. She felt young enough to-night anyhow. Young enough, as she passed the stateroom where in the far bygone Prince Charlie was said once to have slept, to go in and have a look at the wedding dresses.
They looked beautiful. Claud certainly had most excellent taste; and if she could only look half as lovely as that shimmering satin, that cloud-like lace, those dear little orange blossoms tucked away so neatly here and there?
And the going away dress that she was to wear when she was really Claud’s wife! It was almost more beautiful in its soft grey lights with just those shadowy marguerites powdered over it, scarce seen yet there—Marguerites, her name, his choice.
Surely never was woman more blessed in a lover than she. With sudden gratitude and hope and certainty she stooped and kissed the hem of the garment as she turned away.
So every fear had gone as she opened the door of the great gallery and stepped inside. All was dark as pitch save for the one brilliant bar of light from the torch in her hand which sped away into the furthermost corner. Something under her feet made her turn the beam downwards, and she remembered Claud’s vexation at the speed with which the workmen had left their job. For one of the planks of the flooring was up, showing the joists below. Doubtless they might have replaced it and not have left their tools lying about as they evidently had done. Still there was excuse. The gallery was locked. And, after all, this was England and they were English workmen. It was not like it was abroad, where everything left for a moment might be stolen. Here all was safe.
She made her way cautiously to where she knew the portrait she sought had hung for centuries.
It was in a good light, just opposite one of the windows. And in the window was a window-seat. Here she could sit at her ease!
What a very handsome face it was! But not so handsome as her Claud’s!
The beam of brilliance from the electric torch lit up a circle of the picture showing the gay cavalier dress, the flaunt of the feather, the smile in the vivacious face. Were her Claud dressed in like fashion the two would be indistinguishable.
She sat there, rejoicing.
Yes, she had chosen well, chosen a fit father for the generations to come. Without him would be darkness, annihilation. Fancifully, as she sat, she turned off the light in her hand.
All darkness! Nothing left! The old house desolate, the very name forgotten.
She turned it on again. There he was brilliant, beautiful; a whole world of hope and expectation in his laughing eyes.
She did it again, and yet again.
So the minutes passed unheeded. Every atom of her soul and body seemed satisfied; the years could bring her no more content.
Then suddenly the old clock in the stable yard struck. She counted the strokes idly. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve!
Was it possible? So late! With a little laugh she murmured “Claud, my lover! Claud, my husband!” gave one last look and turned to go.
Her slippered foot trod on something hard. It was a workman’s chisel. She stumbled, fell on her knees and put out her hand to save herself. It touched a wire where a plank of the flooring had been removed and not replaced.
There was no sound, no movement. Only a slight tremor that passed in a second, leaving all still, quiet. So she lay, her face upturned, the light, still in her other hand, circling on the picture, on the beautiful eyes, the laughing mouth.
The old clock struck once, and still Margaret lay as if asleep. Did she dream? The measureless content of her face told of naught but peace; as if those old ancestors of hers, unseen in the darkness, had bidden her welcome to a world in which to-day is even as yesterday, where to-morrow is as to-day.
Anyhow, the Picture Gallery had been peopled by shadows for years and years. To-night there was one more; that was all the change.
But far down in the cubby-hole where the butlers at Malpas had slept for centuries, content with half or a quarter the air space allotted by modern hygiene to each human being, an old man turned and turned restlessly, aware even in his dreams that something unusual had come to the old house.
Light! All the windows shining like a fairy palace! The dim old lawns all chequered with brilliance; the very beech woods faintly irradiated.
So the old grey-haired retainer awoke and a lean and slippered pantaloon, half scandalized, half alarmed, stole out into the light. Light everywhere; the lower rooms empty. He stumbled up the stairs. The mistress’s door was open, but he could see no one within, would she be in the state-room where Frumpus had shown him the wedding finery?
No; his heart beat fast. He was half asleep; his old head was attuned to dreams. Could they, those old Malpases, who surely, surely could not approve of new ways, new masters, have spirited her off from changes to come?
The wide door of the Picture Gallery was open. All was dark save—
What was that beam of light far down? What was that lying on the floor? What indeed?
It was not long before things modern had seized upon the old house. Not long before telegraph wires were speeding the news of an awful tragedy to every newspaper office in the kingdom.
“Latest news! Stop press” said the editors.
But even ill news cannot travel fast when there is no address to which to send it, and Claud absolutely uncertain whether he was going had left none behind him save the lawyers’ office. So the “Tragedy at Malpas” in the stop press news lay unnoticed on the breakfast table next morning.
Eve, in the daintiest and most becoming of spring dresses, had been down early to see that all was in order and had not noticed it as the paper lay folded beside Claud’s plate; for the stop press was on the last page amid the latest news.
So she was standing nonchalantly by the fire determined not to broach the all important subject till breakfast was completely over when Claud entered, assuming a calm which he did not feel; for he had really not made up his mind—not quite—what he was going to do.
There is something blinding, bewildering in receiving bad news of those nearest and dearest through the medium of the press. Thousands and thousands of women had this experience during the Great War, and the effect of it remains indelible. Horror almost lost in disbelief and disbelief lost in certainty.
Claud sat down and took up the paper.
Why is it that at such times even the most sceptical call on the Unknown, the Mysterious.
“Claud, what is it?”
Eve was at his side in a second, so between them a crushed newspaper lay on the floor, the words “Terrible Tragedy” visible on its tumbled page.
So they were silent, staring at each other vacantly. She was the first to recover speech.
“You must go down at once,” she said in a trembling voice that could scarcely be heard.
Then he burst out:
“Damn you! do you think I don’t know that? Oh, curse you, curse all women!” So was gone.
She sat down trembling. Fate had stepped in; but to what purpose? She could not think. She sat, her head hidden on her arms, thoughtless, helpless.
“We had not settled,” she murmured more than once. “We had not settled!”
As the hours passed, this grew to be something more than an outcry. It took shape; so by degrees it seemed as if it might bring comfort to the man who was on his way to Malpas. She felt for a moment as if she must send a telegram or a letter to say this; but she was recovering herself, recovering her capable, far-seeing mind. Best with those curses still ringing in her ears to leave him alone—for the present.
So, unsupported, Claud had to face the tragedy as best he might. Mercifully there was much to do; mercifully also his anger blazed furious at the cause of the disaster; and when the coroner suggested that—that after all adequate precautions had been taken by the workmen to ensure safety, since the door had been locked, the key given to a responsible person, he had burst out in a high voice: “Adequate! I say nothing is adequate unless the object is attained; and the only way in which perfect safety could have been assured in this case was by five minutes’ work—only five minutes. I say those men are murderers.”
The family lawyer soothed him as best he could and apologized for his vehemence, while the coroner, as he brought in a verdict of “Death by Misadventure,” alluded sympathetically to the effect which the terrible tragedy must have had on the mind of a young man, so soon to be a bridegroom. Whereat many of the jurors shed a furtive tear and acquiesced whole-heartedly in the finding. And no one apparently but poor Claud thought of that five minutes spent in racing to catch a holiday train, or seemed to doubt that “Death by Misadventure.”
Claud broke down absolutely when he saw poor Margaret lying so peacefully attired in all her wedding finery, as she had been by Frumpie’s hands—those hands that never failed in their duty according to Malpas tradition.
But he had recovered sufficiently to follow her as chief mourner to her resting-place in the Malpas vault; for by this time a faint suspicion of comfort had come to him in the thought “Thank Heaven she will never know.” Since Claud had been truthful when he told Margaret that he was of no religion. His was one of those natures which never feel the want of one.
There was, of course, endless business to be done. Marriage settlements, assignments were all so much waste paper and he point-blank refused to take the cheque for a hundred pounds, which the family lawyer offered, knowing he must be penniless.
“I shall find my way out to India somehow,” he said. “I ought never to have left it.”
But he had changed his name and so, when he signed on for a steward’s job on a liner to Calcutta, he put down Claud Malpas Malpas.
And Eve said nothing. She and the older Grahams sent down flowers, and Mrs. Ames took down a most beautiful broken heart, while Lucilla brought a bunch of early irises; for George had told her that the iris was the flower of love and death.
It was only when the pilot bringing late letters to the liner came aboard that Claud got the following letter, without designation or signature;
“It is better so. You can never again give her an instant’s pain. She has gone beyond us both; but life, for us, remains.”
He read it, swore a great oath, tore it in little pieces and flung them over the side.
They showed like children’s paper boats in the surging, foaming trail of the screw as the ship forged ahead, away from England, away from the past.
But they floated well. Some of them passed through the Sturm und Drang and remained placid on the smooth sea that was left behind.
He watched them idly and wondered.
As on the stage, so in life. Tragedy goes off R. 1; Comedy comes in L. 2. There is little pause: the tears are barely dry ere smiles return.
So, but a short while after Margaret Malpas on the eve of her wedding day had been found lying dead before her ancestor’s picture, there was a very cheerful ceremony at St. Olave’s Church, where Bernard Alingham, in the fullest of canonicals, officiated at the marriage of George Graham and Lucilla Ames. A very cheerful but a very quiet ceremony, since both bride and bridegroom refused a “send-off” wedding. In fact Lucilla refrained even from a bridal garment, somewhat to her groom’s disappointment; though she tempered the blow by promising to wear a really nice one, orange blossoms and all, in the evening when they “got home”; for George, ever a man of few words and many actions, had already secured the most delightful of country cottages within reach of an extra fleet car driven at extra fast speed, since, of course, neither he nor his bride saw the points of a foreign honeymoon; not even at Le petit Paradis.
It is a doubtful point whether the bride’s mother, Mrs. Ames, was pleased or displeased with this lack of ceremony. On the one hand it deprived her of a certain importance as the successful parent who had caught a rich parti for her daughter before the latter had even come out. Then there were many really good houses where an invitation to a real fashionable wedding followed by a reception at a fashionable hotel might well be an introduction to greater intimacy than had been achieved in the past. On the other hand there was the expense; an expense that could ill be afforded in view of her own coming marriage to Sir Francis Tuke; a marriage that would need a better “send-off” than this one, where the bridegroom’s financial position was so abundantly assured. That of Sir Francis was not so. It would need some resplendence to secure a permanent position in society. That was, in fact, why she had consented to George’s plea for a speedy marriage; it saved the necessity for fitting Lucilla out for the season, as well as with a trousseau!
So all worked out for the best; as things generally did with Mrs. Ames. At least so she said. In regard to George’s family, also, a quiet wedding was welcome. His mother had caught cold on her Easter holiday and still suffered from bronchitis. And Eve was quite unaccountably upset by the loss of her old school-friend in so tragic a way. It was no wonder that the fiancé had almost gone out of his mind and, so soon as the funeral was over, had disappeared. Most likely to the East again, whence he had come, for of course the settlements Margaret had made on him were so much waste paper. There was therefore nothing at which to be surprised in his grief; but no one would have thought that Eve Graham had such capacity for affection.
Then Alan, the younger brother, who would, of course, have had to be best man, did not, somehow seem up to the part. He had quite given up that exceedingly interesting indivisible atom of his on which he lectured so charmingly. In fact, he seemed to have given up research work entirely, which was a pity as he had quite made his name at it. Not that it mattered much to the Grahams; they were all rich, and, if report were true, would be richer still now the firm had been made into a Limited Company; since Miss Graham had developed a quite extraordinary capacity for business. Curious, wasn’t it, that the daughter should have inherited her father’s talent while the sons had not? But then heredity was so mysterious. And had dear Mrs. Etherington read that last book on Eugenics? So deeply interesting!
Thus Mrs. Ames at the Club, where every woman, old or young, was agog to know all about weddings. What the bride wore, and how the bridesmaids were dressed. Yet they could laugh at the old story of the husband who, bidden by his sick wife to be sure and notice the bride’s gown, returned triumphant to say “My darling! She was dressed in white!”
Vaguely they most of them felt that this absorbing interest in things matrimonial was somewhat excessive. Perhaps some of them even went so far as to remember the woman’s great privilege after the great climacteric, of standing aside from the hurly-burly of life and sex while still in the plenitude of her intellectual powers. So, having that to give to the world which no man can give—past experience and present aloofness—standing closer to the future paradise in which there will be no marrying or giving in marriage.
But such were few and far between; the majority—dear, simple, unreasoning souls—still used powder and paint long after cosmetic time had passed.
But the wedding, Mrs. Ames reported, had been a great success; an unexpected success. Darling Lucilla had looked sweet in her white serge, George had been so radiant that it was impossible even for a mother to shed a tear, and—would you believe it?—half Victory Street, that horrid, slummy alley at the back of the big houses, had turned out in their best as congregation, while their children! Well, there they were, just like village children, strewing primroses in the bride’s path, and huzza-ing, when the car drove off, like the little gamins they were! It was unbelievable; but, oh, so touching! and yet so cheerful. Everybody had laughed.
That was true. Even Alan—who, tall and dark, somewhat melancholy looking, a great contrast to the bridegroom, had been his brother’s best man: paused as he came out from the vestry where he had remained while the parson was disrobing to say with a half laugh “George does it better than you or I.”
And Bernard Alingham had nodded and replied: “He always did. I remember at Eton, his first term. The head of the house swore that if young Graham burnt his toast again he’d give him a swishing. So along comes George looking as he always did—as he looks still—like a young cherub, with a slice of toast as black as a boot, and we all prepared for action. But in reply to the cheerful: ‘Here it is, sir, nice and hot!’ the head just said ‘Thanks awfully—have a cake, do.”
And both men laughed, as they turned to follow the Victory Street spectators: for it was the parson’s visitation day, and Alan Graham went there often, on the chance of gaining some clue to Lil’s whereabouts; since, despite his many efforts, he had found no trace of her. Perhaps had he put the police on the trail, or employed detectives, he might have been successful; but her last petition that he should not follow, that she should be left to bide her time, remained ever in his mind; so he had contented himself in doing what he could by himself. To this end he had begun by visiting the hospitals and keeping himself in touch with the Salvation and the Church Armies; with, briefly, all the organizations which work amongst the poorest of the poor.
Actuated, at first, by this purely personal quest, he had grown by degrees to take an actual interest in the maladies and misfortunes of London’s vast multitudes of degenerate, diseased, disheartened and despairing men, women and children. He had learnt much of them. The knowledge, the patience, the gentleness which had perforce come to him in hospital, in refuges, in cheap lodging-houses, had made him a very different personality from the smart, self-assured young savant whom Lil Smith had gripped by the hand. And, strangely enough, his terribly material and mundane experiences, so far from contracting that imagination, wherein lies the soul of a man, had enlarged it.
Thus, moved by no whim, but from a feeling that sometimes and somehow it might be of use to Lil, he rented the rooms she had occupied from Mother Martin, and furnished them—as near as he could recollect—to be what they had been that first night when he had come there to find the dead woman resting so peacefully in the arm-chair. More than once he had even put flowers in the little vase where they had been that night—foolish, but kindly!
So, as they passed the familiar stairs a little farther down the street than the “Fox and Goose,” Alan invited his friend to come up and get a book about which they had been talking which he had left there on his last visit; for, not seldom, Alan Graham would pause in his homeward or outward way to see if there was any sign of Lil; and sometimes he would wait reading, quite a long time, half imagining that the door would open and Lil walk in to be cared for, and comforted.
The book was one on the franchise question; somewhat of a burning one even in Victory Street, these days, when a General Parliamentary Election was in the immediate offing. They had met one or two lady canvassers by the way, and it was one of these, at work in the socialist interest on Mrs. Jeff Blake, who had provoked Alan Graham’s instant “That sort of thing oughtn’t to be allowed. Why should anyone be allowed to go about telling palpable lies? It’s absolutely untrue—it must be!”
“Yes,” assented the parson doubtfully, “but it is the sort of thing that is very easily believed—especially by women. Yet they are no worse than the men. I was over at the ‘Fox and Goose’ last evening—it’s as well to be up in the pulse of the people, we parsons can step in sometimes—and there was Jeff Blake and Bert Jones at it hammer and tongs because they both swore the other’s candidate kept half a dozen women in various parts of London. And both the gentlemen are, as I happen to know, most honourable, respectable communicants in their churches and chapel. But if you stop canvassing you ought to stop placards—look at that!” He pointed to a flaming picture which was supposed to represent a rich man’s son, in a little Lord Fauntleroy costume, snatching away a poor little starveling child’s bit of bread and treacle, with the words to his pampered Pekingese dog: “Here, Fido! You’re worth a deal more than that little mongrel beast!”
Alan Graham shrugged his shoulders disdainfully. “That, surely, is too blatant to do much harm,” he protested.
“I don’t know,” replied the other, “you don’t grip how easily the women are gulled. And then they are so amazingly emotional. A lady I know who does a lot of this sort of work told me the other day that going steadily down a mean street where every window showed a placard ‘Vote for the Socialist’ she knocked at a door which was opened by a woman with a haggard face and distraught eyes, who shouted ‘Damn you! comin’ with your blamed politics w’en my ’usband’s just dead’ and slammed the door in her face. Now this lady is awfully kind-hearted and sympathetic; so, feeling sorry, she went round to the next flower shop, scribbled a card with her regrets for intrusion and sent it round with what they call an emblem. Happening to pass through the street next day, she saw, to her surprise, that many of the placards had been replaced by ‘Vote for the Conservatives!’ The touch of nature had done it. And yet,” he added with a whimsical smile, “the emblem had really nothing to do with the question at issue.”
It was after this that Alan Graham invited him upstairs where they sat for a while discussing the possibilities of a more valuable vote; one which should, in some measure, depend upon the mental capabilities of the user, and his or her fitness for using it.
When they came down they found a full-blooded fight raging round the question of the flapper vote which had been started by an indiscreet canvasser; since such burning questions are best passed over in silence when the majority of the audience is composed of married working women.
The Scotswoman, Mrs. Sweet, was particularly severe on the “naked-legged lassies that pit their money on their backs instead of in their pockets”; but the real sting of resentment came when Mrs. Jeff Blake asked the canvasser sarcastically if she really approved of giving a vote to a woman like Ellen Bryant, who, though she was eight and twenty, and had her own furniture in her own lodgings, was undeniably a mere prostitute, gaining her living by fornication? Victory Street was not mealy-mouthed, and it put its case briefly and baldly. Ellen Bryant, despite many good qualities, was a harlot; and was such a criminal to be named with virtuous matrons? Was one who had all the pleasure and none of the pains of sex to go to the polling booths cheek by jowl with wives like Mrs. Jeff Blake? What had she done for the country save debauch its men?
Now, while Mrs. Jeff Blake—as chief spokeswoman, not without a certain rough eloquence born of a deep feeling of resentment against poor Jeff who, since his wife had taken to frump him, had gone considerably to the bad, she was shrilling contempt and abuse on all women of Nell Bryant’s profession, a loud, mocking laugh overbore her diatribes and there was Nell herself, brazen as usual when attacked, ready of tongue and of wit.
“And what are you yourself, Aggy Blake?” she asked viciously. “Where are the kids you should have had these six years past? Haven’t you done as me—taken a man’s money to give pleasure? If you didn’t want no more kids draggling at your petticoats, you should have handed Jeff over to me instead of keepin’ him yourself—dog in the manger!”
Her scorn was scathing; for an instant it even paralysed Aggy Blake’s tongue; but there were others to take up the cudgels. A group of slatternly young women, bobbed hair in wavers, blouses unduly open, skirts above their knees, nude stockings strained to the semblance of bare skin (the only tidy thing about them) rushed to the fray.
“Ga!” shouted one who by her speech had evidently passed out from school in Standard VI.X. “They do say your profession is the oldest in the world; but you are Early Victorian—that’s what you are, Early Victorian, and we girls don’t go nap on that piffle. We’re out to be equal, we are, and I’m damned if we won’t be!”
“We don’t want your chaps,” yelled another, “they’ve got to amuse us! They’ve got to leave us gurls alone—that’s w’y!”
But Nell Bryant was on her in an instant. “That’s why you wear next to no clothes! That’s w’y you paint and powders, an’ darkens yer eyes! That’s w’y you ain’t got no appearance be’ind, as the sayin’ is, but shows all your way up to yer waist when you gets on a bus. That’s w’y—that’s w’y.”
Here Mrs. Jeff Blake’s voice returned to her. “An’ if I don’t want more kids seeing as there’s too many pore folk in the world, wot’s that to you, as ’as none——”
“An’ ain’t it your own fault as there’s too many o’ us?” broke in Nell Bryant. Then as she caught sight of the Reverend Bernard Alingham and his companion edging their way from the stramash, she turned on them excitedly: “Here you there! parson! W’y don’t you tell ’em it’s their fault? W’y don’t you preach wot’s writ in the Bible? W’y don’t you tell ’em as Gor’ Amighty never meant——”
“Whisht, lassie!” came the Scotswoman’s voice, “Dinna be blaspheemious.”
For some reason, difficult to gauge, that strong reasonable woman’s voice had its effect on Nell Bryant’s reckless nature; she turned somewhat appeased to the speaker.
“I ain’t blasphemous, Mrs. Sweet,” she said, “it’s Gord’s truth an’ it’s wrote in the Bible—’ain’t God as sends so many babies—it’s the Devil.”
And with that she forced her way through the knot of slatternly girls, and with a wild laugh and a mocking, “Ta-ta, Harlots” made her way swiftly to the wide street where she knew police protection would await her.
Alan Graham and the parson followed her example more leisurely, leaving Victory Street in a state of turmoil. They did not speak for some time. Then the former said: “That woman has brains. Pity she’s gone wrong—there’s stuff in her. I wonder what she meant about it’s ‘being wrote in the Bible?’”
“I wonder,” echoed Bernard Alingham, but he said no more. So they parted. Alan Graham for a visit to a Mental Hospital which he had arranged, being ever obsessed by the fear lest Lil’s mind, under the great stress she must be undergoing, should give way. For his thoughts over her position—she who as far as he could judge was one of that percentage of women to whom sex is a negligible quantity—were such that he doubted if she would have the strength of mind to bide her time.
So must have felt many and many a poor soul, wronged by war or lust. There had been many such in France; he had seen them with his own eyes.
But they were among their own people; they had the sympathy, the protection of all, and they had the help of priests and people. Lil had none of these things. Of course she had been at fault. In a way it had been her own doing—she ought—— His hands crisped themselves as he thought of her curious knowledge, her curious ignorances—her mind absolutely untouched by her body—God! how cruel!
Yet it had been her fault. But that only made it harder to bear. Poor Lil! poor Lil!
A Mental Hospital is not a cheering place to visit. There is something almost terrible in the spick-and-span nurses with their clanking bunch of keys and their general air of knowing that they have their weekly day out.
And what made the difference between them and those other women, mostly conventional women usually well behaved, with their smiles for the doctor, and obedience to rules and regulations? Just some kink in the brain. And what caused that? In nine cases out of ten, sex! Trouble with husband, trouble with children, overstrain, lack of self-control; all the dreary round of disharmonies that had its origin in the one great disharmony of life.
He spoke to one or two of the patients; they answered him sanely, politely, almost gratefully; but they were mad—hopelessly mad. Of one, a nice-looking young girl, the institution doctor said as they moved on to another ward:
“A sad case that. She murdered her illegitimate child; murdered it cruelly when it was about three months old. Found, I suppose, she couldn’t earn a living by going to service again, yet couldn’t bear to leave the child. Curious clash of instincts—self-preservation and motherhood. Tried to cut her own throat. She’s a lifer, of course, so she won’t be long here. I shall be glad to get rid of her. She gets on my nerves somehow.”
It was then that Alan put the question he was always asking:
“Do you get many women or girls who have broken down mentally before the child is born?”
The doctor shook his head. “No, never; they generally drown themselves.”
He paused to give a sharp order to a nurse who had failed to open a ventilation window.
And Alan Graham left the Mental Hospital with its extreme order, its expensive flowers in vases, its radiators, all its kindnesses and softnesses, as he invariably left the institutions that he visited with a sense of their adequacy yet inadequacy to solve the problem. But he left it also with the certainty that Lil would not drown herself; she was not that sort. She could see that even Death did not solve the problem.
Meanwhile Bernard Alingham in his room at the clergy house was sitting idly in his arm-chair thinking or trying to think. At his feet lay his two dogs, fast asleep waiting for the time when Master should take them for their daily outing. But the low whistle which would seemingly have roused them from the dead never came; so they roused themselves at last, yawned and went to sleep again patiently. Something had happened in Master’s world which had disturbed the usual routine; so, even when he rose with an impatient “Ugh” and went to his writing-table they only opened an eye drowsily and closed it again. Something had to be written; they knew so much—no more.
But Bernard Alingham did not write. He sat with his head on his hands, unable even to find a text for the sermon which was due before next Sunday. He considered one after the other; but they all seemed so superficial. What had that woman Nell Bryant said “Why don’t you preach wots wrote in the Bible?”
What was written in the Bible? He and his like knew it almost by heart. What was it they had missed? If indeed they missed anything?
So after a time he rose and went to his bookshelves; since he could not work, he had better read—read something scientific, material, that would quiet his nerves, and still his imagination. He took down a volume of Metchinkoff’s “Nature of Man,” and turned over the pages idly, seeking for something that might arouse interest. A phrase caught his eye; he sat down and began to read:
“The disharmonies of the digestive tract in man is not so striking as that of the reproductive organs—something abnormal.”
Again and again “disharmony” striking “disharmony.”
What did it mean?
He read on and on, about the acquirements of one organ, the loss of another, until, confused utterly, he gave the longed for whistle, his dogs leapt round him, and he started for a long tramp. His Sunday sermon must wait. Perhaps among the fields and the open spaces some comforting text might come to him which would dispel the clouds that were beginning to hang over his mental horizon.
When he returned it was so late, and he was so tired, that bed seemed more suitable than study. There would be time for that sermon on the morrow.
Yet, still, he had found no suitable text.
And the morrow brought with it, as morrows generally do, its own work. Breakfast was barely over at the Church House before a policeman arrived to report that a serious disturbance had taken place the night before in Victory Street; as a result of which Bert Jones was in custody for assault and Jeff Blake was lying in hospital unconscious, and it was feared with a fracture of the skull.
Meanwhile the whole alley was much upset; police were on duty to prevent further collision between the women. So, perhaps, those in charge of the parish would like to go down and attempt to still the storm.
But there were small outward signs of disturbance when Bernard Alingham arrived. In fact Victory Street had never worn a more peaceful aspect. Even the “Fox and Goose” emitted no voices, no laughter, and all the doors were shut; excepting Mrs. Sweet’s. She stood knitting peacefully at hers as ever.
“How did it come about?” she echoed sagely, “It’s just they women. It was Aggy Blake started it over the wild lass, Nell Bryant. It just beats me two women that are aye thirling at the same pin themselves can hae siccan a contempt for them what’s gettin’ their leevin’ by it. But it didna die down when she took flight like a hawk frae a congregation o’ crows. Aggy jist handit it on to her man, and the Welsh body to her Bert, an’ so, by worktime was o’er, the men was ready for anything. Then Tom Larkin, the silly gowk, started defending the Labour Exchange an’ sayin’ he got a saxpence more out o’ wark than he got in it—an’ so—weel I weel! Ye kin fine that’s a’s fuel to election time fires—there was jist a fine blaze.”
“An’ the hot embers o’t would, maybe, have rekindled the morn, if the wild lass had come haim; but she didna. So, maybe, she’s feared—but that’s no like Nell Bryant. Ay! Ay! It was all they womens!”
So much the parson got from Mrs. Sweet, and a visit or two into houses confirmed her report. Embers were distinctly smouldering and the most he could do for peace was a promise to go down to the hospital, see how Jeff was, and return with a report to Mrs. Jeff who was sobbing hysterically on her bed, and declaring that never did a woman have a more loyal, considerate, absolutely perfect husband than hers had been.
He found Jeff, looking too large for the narrow hospital bed, lying in the casualty ward, distinctly better, but still unable to speak, and he was about to go back with his message of hope when the ward sister passing by said, in the indeterminate tone which hospital officials generally adopt towards visitors, relations and friends:
“Oh, by the way, there’s a woman from the same street in the female ward; perhaps you would like to see her as you’re the parson. It will be your last chance, I fear—she’s bad, very bad. Couldn’t be worse.”
“Name?” he asked succinctly.
“Ellen Bryant,” was the reply. “She was knocked down by a bus in Piccadilly about midnight—broken her back; hopeless, but she is not in any pain—quite paralysed, poor soul!”
“Quite paralysed, poor soul!” The verdict echoed through his brain as he went to the ward. There was no need to point out the bed, for the screens—those fateful screens—were drawn close around it; but they would not keep out the Angel that was coming so fast to free the still active mind from the paralysed body.
She lay absolutely still, so low in the bed that it seemed as if the head on the pillow was the only thing in it. The dark hair framed a deathlike face in which the dark eyes seemed the only sign of life. They rested on him, limpid, beautiful, still full of vitality.
“So it’s you, parson,” she said as he paused beside her pillow. “Come to see me die? Well, I ain’t sorry to go.”
Though her lips scarcely moved, her voice, curiously low in tone for a woman’s, sounded sweet, rich as ever.
“I have come to see if I can do anything for you,” he replied gently, “take a message to friends or relations.”
A smile came to her lips, scornful, derisive, “The likes o’ me ain’t got no friends,” she said. “An’ as for relations—— Curse the lot as were too good to give a ’and w’en I was down; p’raps if I’d ’ad . . . but I ain’t complainin’, parson; not I! I don’t want no excuse. I ain’t ashamed o’ w’ot I’ve bin, or w’ot I’ve done. I’ve worked ’ard an’ I’ve worked honest—w’ich is more than them, as calls ’emselves respectable can say.”
Those dark eyes of hers had lit up with a vital flame which contrasted almost horribly with the deathlike stillness of all else. Only the brain alive—her very breath coming almost imperceptibly, not in gasps, but so soft, so short it would scarcely have stirred a feather. She was evidently still keeping control of herself.
The pathos of it all kept him silent for a space. Then almost involuntarily he laid his hand on the inert, lifeless one that was crossed with the other on her breast, and his voice came soft as he said:
“You’ve had a hard life, sister, I expect.”
A startled look came to her eyes, and she also was silent for a second; and when she spoke her voice also was softer:
“Guess I ’ave; but I didn’t mind so much after a time, seemed to get useter it. If I cud ’ave ’ad a kid ’twould have bin easier for me; but it don’t do—they don’t like ’em. An’ I ain’t complainin’, mind you—the Lord ’ad better places to send ’em to than my arms.”
A sudden imperative curiosity made him say quickly almost unconsciously: “But you told me, not so long ago, it was the Devil who sent the children.”
She gave an odd, little, broken sound, more a cough than a laugh, an expression of pain flitted across her face, was gone, lost in the mocking smile of her eyes. “So ’E do, so ’E do! Don’t it say so in the Bible. Ga! you parsons be fools—don’t know your biz, or don’t choose ter tell it.” A weakness had come to her voice; she was evidently becoming exhausted. Yet still that insatiable curiosity urged him on.
“What is it we don’t choose to tell?” he asked.
“Wot’s writ clear. Wotever do it mean but that more kids ’ad to be born than wot Gord meant at first—so the Devil ’ad to go on with the job—‘I will greatly multiply’—yes, that’s wot’s writ—so it ain’t Gord—it’s the Devil.”
He sat almost as immobile as she was; startled out of even consciousness by the flood of new light:
“I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception.”
Why had he never noticed that before? Why had he not thought? Why had he been so blind, so blind—so blind?
A faint cough, scarce heard, brought him back to the present. Nell Bryant lay still as death, but there was a faint tinge of blood on the hitherto pallid lips. He rose to call a nurse, but she checked him with the sudden appeal in her eyes.
“Promise me,” she said, and her voice was almost a whisper, “promise me honest—you’re a good sort, you are—you’ll tell ’em, an’ I’ll say the prayer—yes! I’ll say I’m sorry so I’ll die easy. Yes, an’ I’ll say the creed—wasn’t I ’ouse-parlour in the rector’s family, so I knows it—promise to tell ’em the truth—pore souls they don’t understand—promise it honest, so I’ll die easy.”
Her voice trailed away into silence.
As he sat there, his warm hand on hers that even as he sat grew colder and colder, it came to Bernard Alingham, not rationally, not logically, but overwhelmingly, with a certitude beyond reasoning, that this might be the Magdalene’s box of precious ointment—that this might be her one offering to heal the souls of others.
What was he to refuse it? How dare he refuse it?
So his hand tightened its clasp as he said “I promise. I promise honest. . . .”
“Our Father which—art——”
Slowly, each word apart from its fellow, yet distinct, unwavering, Nell Bryant was keeping her part of the pact and Bernard Alingham sank on his knees and joined in the confident appeal.
Slower, slower it fell from the stiffening lips:
“And forgive us our trespasses——”
So far—no farther. It was he alone who finished the prayer.
“And deliver us from evil.”
Then he rose to his feet and looked down on the dead woman. The prayer had been answered. She had died easy. She had been delivered from evil.
“I didn’t think it would have been so soon,” said the ward sister complacently as she covered the dead face, “but it was only a question of hours—it might have come any moment—and it is well over. She looks contented enough now, and the police said she was a street walker—strange how little that life seems to mark some women. Did you find out anything about her friends?”
“She had none,” said Bernard Alingham quietly.
So, after he had seen the authorities to arrange for a decent funeral, he walked home by Victory Street; for he had to give his report on Jeff Blake’s condition.
Unfortunately the renewal of hope brought about the old sense of injury in his wife, and Mrs. Jeff was unsympathetic about everything. It would have served Jeff right if his skull had been fractured. And she did hope that Bert Jones anyway would get what he deserved, which was hard labour for knocking down the innocent father of a growing family and nigh doing him in. Then where would she have been with six children and an unborn infant to support? As for Ellen Bryant the world was well quit of the likes of her, and Victory Street in particular. And it was to be hoped that Mother Martin would not agree to take in an undesirable lodger to lower the respectability of the neighbourhood, simply because she was useful in the house. As if any amount of virtue could possibly even palliate the sin of a prostitute.
Thus, somewhat dazed between memories of the street walker’s death and the angry scold’s reprobation, Bernard Alingham made his way back to the Clergy House feeling that he must at all costs redeem his promise. He must tell the truth.
But what was the truth?
He took down his Bible and read the account of the Fall. And when he had read it through, he laid down the book, and sat and wondered why he had been so blind, why he had not seen what was so clearly written in the old legend; for, like most of his cloth nowadays, the first chapters of Genesis were to him but valuable as the far-away wisdoms of a world in its beginnings. He had long outgrown all but the inner meanings of the Creations Story. To him the evening and the morning were countless aeons of time indeterminate, almost trivial before the great fact that somehow, out of nothing, all things were made. As a child he had read of the apple and, with a sneaking sympathy with sin, had hoped it was ripe. As a young man he had rejected the apple in favour of some deeper, more potent temptation. At the Theological College he had discussed many theories from which he had emerged with a general belief that something must have gone wrong with humanity; but there were so many concrete and present evils with which as a young clergyman he had to contend that the great original mistake resolved itself into a somewhat misty disobedience which had nothing to do with twentieth-century problems.
And now, suddenly, out of the blue, had come a swift appreciation of the fact that this bald, almost childish tale, of Mother Eve contained a truth which explained every trouble in the world.
He sat for some time, his head in his hands, not so much thinking, as seeing with his brain the deadly truth of those words: “I will greatly multiply.” The crushing, crowding mass of gradually impoverished humanity—the struggle for existence, the slums of that big city, the degenerates that drag down those who might rise.
He saw all this; but he would not, as yet, see. He told himself that he must test, must prove. So, hastily taking pen and paper, he set to work on his Sunday sermon; that had to be written, come what might. He chose as his text the well worn one “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” That at any rate was indisputable. There he felt safe. He did not whistle to his dogs, and, tails and ears down, they stood disconsolate on the hearth-rug, disappointed; and something of almost passionate affection made him stoop to pat their heads kindly and say “Good doggies—if men were only as obedient!” For he was beginning vaguely to understand that Legend of the Garden of Eden.
The garden of Eden! It was something very different from that peaceful, primeval place, into which he plunged as he made his way through the streets of London.
The season was at its height. The pavements were thronged, the traffic on the road forged its way east or west, north and south by fits and starts. Here a pause, there a rush forward. Advertisements by the score flashed past him, the shop windows, gay with crowded colours, seemed an unending panorama of women’s wants, women’s attire. The vague feeling which had for so long haunted him, that round each woman’s neck hung a hindering yoke, assailed him sharply. To escape it he turned into a hall where a woman was speaking on “Equal Citizenship.” For, being Election time, the whole of England was discussing political questions.
The lady spoke admirably, and yet through all her convincing periods, her keen arguments, he seemed to hear the words which but a short time before he had read—“I will greatly multiply.” “Thy desire shall be to thy husband—he shall rule over thee.”
The speaker showed clearly that as workers women were as able as men; that they were more conscientious, less drunken; but naturally she glossed over their inevitable unreliability, the curious drop in their capability when Nature bade them remember their primal duty; a duty which claims from every woman in her maturity at least a tenth of her time. She glossed over this; but, oh, strange contradiction, oh, amazing ineptitude, she did not glorify woman’s chief claim to equality in the arts of citizenship—the fact that in the fullness of her bodily and mental powers she sits free of sex, and thus stands nearer to the Utopia of which man can only dream. But she spoke so well that she carried her audience with her and the plaudits were loud and long.
Even Bernard Alingham was moved to enthusiasm until, immediately in front of him, a lady of uncertain age who had again and again testified to her appreciation began powdering her nose.
Then he left to resume his perambulations. It was late when he returned to find his dogs, noses down, patiently waiting for him at the door. And their appealing eyes so touched him that, after a hasty supper, he whistled them for a walk in the Pensioners’ Garden, where they gambolled to their hearts’ content while he sat on a bench, his mind full of the puzzle he had set himself to solve. Nor did it leave him when, out-wearied, he set aside his books and went to bed, for when after hours of fruitless tossing he did fall into a restless sleep it was only to dream that he was content in paradise, until he saw Adam powdering Eve’s nose with a pink powder-puff.
The next day he went early to the British Museum Reading Room and spent hours on hours in scanning authorities.
So he learnt many things of which he had been ignorant. He learnt that the most perfect harmony existed amongst most mammals regarding the relation between fertilization and development. That man alone showed absolute disparity. That even in monkeys—those outcasts of the animal world—there was more difference between them and homo sapiens in the structure of the reproductive organs than there was in the brain. He learnt, too, of the disappearance of one detail, the appearance of another, and that these changes were of recent development. And he read wordy explanations of all this which postulated that a convenience to one sex would cause a modification in the other. But this part of his inquiry he set aside. What interested him was to find the cause of that Curse, which, whether it came from God or the Devil, has outlasted time and shows itself to-day in the infinite sorrows of so many women.
So he read the legends of primitive times before, possibly the version he knew had been formulated. He read of the sin of Zu. He went over to the ancient Sumerian antiquities and inspected the seal whereon a man with the horns of an ox is seated opposite a woman in whose ear a serpent is whispering, while over both spreads a tree on whose branches hang two very suggestive fruits. So, interested by this, he read the fragment of the Chaldean account of the Creation, and his delight grew with the opening words:
“The Sea was the Producing Mother; a tree had not grown, a very flower had not unfolded. The Gods themselves had not sprung up.”
What a perfect picture of all embracing peace!
And further on: “He marked the position of the wandering stars. . . . He opened the Great Gates of the Shrouding Darkness . . . and stretches towards the Dawn.”
What a thousand pities that these were but fragments! Yet even the fragments were suggestive.
“With the Lord of thy beauty . . . do no evil . . . thou shalt not approach him . . . the father Ela in the ranks of the angels pronounced the curse. The God Hea heard and his liver was angry . . . because his man had corrupted his purity. . . . To me why dost thou come? Mother thou wilt not be, and I do not eat of eaten food for beauty and charms.” And here he got a hint of why, as the Golden Bough says, Woman is held by primitive man to be surcharged with a power dangerous to man—the exact nature of which is still obscure.”
But here again he seemed off the track; so he turned to medical authorities and read how one thing after another tended to prove that the human offspring required the whole care of its mother for at least three years. He read also of a still noticeable increase in the number of births in spring and autumn, and the fact that all organs were liable to hyperesthesia from constant use; also of many another disharmony that bore remotely on his quest. Yet once again a feeling that there was more to be learnt elsewhere made him go to the Animal physiology authorities. And here he sat with his head on his hands, absorbed before the beautiful lucidity the perfect order of the Law of Nature—the mating time, the breeding time, the time of rest, when sex was quite forgotten.
So it suddenly dawned upon him that the cause of Eve’s curse was her disregard of all but pleasure, her lack of feminine reserve, that feminine reserve which the animals still have. Why had she done this? Why? surely from a desire to have, to keep, to hold! the desire to appropriate; the jealousy of others.
He read no more. The rest was thought. He could trace the whole sequence of events and his mind went back at once to that question in the Legend of Labanw.
“Why dost thou come? Mother thou wilt not be.” She had been jealous of that other female in those far away days before marriage had been instituted.
This then had been the foundations of monogamy—monogamy which had brought such infinite good in its train.
Yes—but if—if it had not brought evil also? If man and woman, gifted with free will, had chosen right—if they had not violated the Law of Nature? Then, indeed, that perfect love of which poets sing would have come to the world.
He spent days looking at the problem from all sides. All this was ancient history. Could anything be done now, in this twentieth century when all humanity was obsessed by sex, to rectify the wrong?
Not much. Yet even if no forward step could be made towards that lost paradise of purity and peace in which godless beasts still lived, there was a difference between having one’s face set one way or the other.
“The truth shall make you free.”
With that verse ringing through his brain, he sat down to write his sermon.
He wrote it many times; his waste-paper-basket filled and filled again. Every word that could startle or offend, every phrase that would shock must be omitted. The fig-leaves must be respected, the fig-leaves which for so many centuries have concealed the naked truth. Yet it must be clear, unmistakable. The Curse of Eve, its cause, its consequences must be set down without flinching.
Before he finished his sermon, he went down to the cemetery where Ellen Bryant had been buried. He had put up a plain cross to mark her grave. On it was no name, no date, nothing but the words:
“He that is without sin amongst you let him cast the first stone.”
The cemetery gardener had planted a few common flowers on the grave. Bernard Alingham stooped, picked one of them, placed it between the leaves of his pocket-book and walked back straight to the Rectory. He found the rector at home. Without preamble he said:
“I have come to tender my resignation of the curacy of St. Olave’s. I am sorry, but it has to be. It is for the good of a Church I shall always love.”
The rector nearly started out of his chair with surprise. He remonstrated, he pleaded; all to no avail. Bernard Alingham averred he could no longer remain among a fashionable congregation. He felt the need of a change; so he had arranged to join a mission to some outer barbarians somewhere. Of course he would preach next Sunday and the Sunday after that; then he would be sailing—he and his dogs—for the wilderness, where there was real work to be done.
He spoke quite calmly; only once, when he mentioned his dogs, did any emotion come to his voice; but when the rector went in to have tea with his daughter—for before this latter celibate day he had been happily married to a wife who died in giving birth to her first child—he said solemnly:
“Amelia! We are to lose Mr. Alingham; but I think he is going to have a nervous break-down.”
It was the last Sunday of his ministrations at St. Olave’s. The church was crowded; for he was a general favourite and there were rumours—which, however, he stoutly denied—that ill health was the cause of his resignation.
“Nothing of the sort,” he said cheerfully. “I never was better. But I feel I am no longer in touch with towns. I need the wilderness. Some day, perhaps, I shall come back and be able to show you the lost road to paradise.”
When he gave out his text, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception,” there was a stir in the congregation.
Was he going to talk about birth-control? It was a subject that was in everybody’s mouth at present, so it was as well, perhaps, that the pulpit should notice it—in a guarded way of course.
Was his sermon guarded? He scarcely knew, but it was as guiltless of offence as he could make it. It dealt with the one great sorrow of humanity, its over-crowding population, and laid the blame upon Women gently, lovingly. He ended with the words he had so often used in the parish:
“Good-bye! Perhaps, some day, I shall be able to come back and show you the lost road to paradise,”
The congregation stood it with absolute good manners. Once or twice there had been a faint rustle as if some lady were about to leave the church; but no one did.
The majority of them would have acquiesced in Mrs. Etherington’s remark to Lady Francis Tuke as they descended the steps:
“The rector was right; he told me the poor fellow was on the verge of a nervous break-down.”
But in Victory Street the verdict was generally that of Mrs. Jeff:
“’E didn’t know an’ I couldn’t understand wot ’e wos talking about. In course we married women ’as our rights, more than them prostitutes like Ellen Bryant, as is a cryin’ shame to a decent neighbourhood.”
Meanwhile Bernard Alingham went down to see his friend and fag before leaving to be solaced by barbarians. He found George and Lucilla gloriously happy in the possession of chickens and dogs, cows and a garden, with the hope of a still dearer possession in the months to come.
The sight of them almost made him regret his sermon; it seemed so far from what was natural; yet it was as well for once to tell the truth. And he saw Alan Graham many times. The two had become great friends and when they shook hands finally on board the ship that was to carry him to the barbarians, Bernard said: “You will find her some where and some time, never fear!”
Summer passed to autumn. Al things went on much as they had done. Mrs. Ames as a married woman led her Sir Francis about on a string most successfully. Eve Graham gave up her constant pursuit of pleasure, worked in the office to the great advantage of the firm, and answered certain deeply blacked letters which after a time began to come to her from Calcutta. For those pieces of torn paper which had survived the Sturm und Drang of the screw’s churned waters were no inapt illustration of the mind of Claud Malpas Malpas. At first these letters were written, he said, to assuage a vague remorse for the tragedy at Malpas Court; though, as Eve never failed to emphasize in her replies, he had not really played false as he had not really settled anything when the news came to him. Afterwards, they became more natural, and the difficulty of stepping back into a place you had left came uppermost. To these she replied that it was always so. That she regretted she could not help. Calcutta was so far away; at home it would be different.
And Alan Graham still kept the rooms in Victory Street ready against the time when Lil would come back to them and to him; as surely she would. It was growing near the time now—it could not be long ere she returned; for he would not allow himself even to think that this would never be.
Yet it came upon him with a shock when one day passing through the casualty ward of one of the hospitals he saw a face on the pillow of a bed which he recognized in an instant. It was Lil. Lil asleep . . . dead asleep. Lil, worn and wan, yet herself; the one woman in the world for him.
He paused arrested, and the ward sister explained: “She was brought here last night unconscious; picked up in the street by the police. Nigh the end of her tether, poor soul! We are sending her over to Queen Charlotte’s as soon as she comes round from the sleeping draught she got to quiet her nerves.”
“Queen Charlotte?” he echoed.
The nurse nodded. “Yes, she is very near her time. Looks half starved, doesn’t she?”
He stood for a moment thinking. Then he sought out the staff sister and the house surgeon.
“If you could move her while she still sleeps it would be better,” he said. “She has had a terribly trying time, and the most that can be done for her is to give her a quiet room and rest. I hold myself responsible.”
The staff sister looked at him doubtfully, the house surgeon sympathetically, but he did not care. All he wanted was to safeguard his Lil; so far as she could be safeguarded.
So it came to pass that when she finally woke to realities from a confused dreaming of ambulances and strange faces, she found herself in the best room of the best maternity home in London. And the best doctor for such cases came to see her after a time. A man who had an excellent bedside manner, and was responsible for bringing many little dukes and duchesses, lords and ladies, not to say princes and princesses, into the world.
He told her to keep up her heart; at which she smiled gently. He spoke of the coming child as a blessing sent to cheer her, and she frowned slightly; but she asked no question, showed no curiosity as to how she came there. She only said quietly to the nurse who fussed in with a cup of beef tea:
“Will you tell Dr. Alan Graham when he calls to inquire that I am very grateful, but that I would rather not see him till—till the child is born.”
He got the message and turned away with a curse in his heart. How she must have suffered in the long months! How she must have hated the task that had been set to her—it must have been hell!
But he respected her wish, he would not try to see her till the task was accomplished, till the wretched accursed child of the miserable suicide should have a separate life. So, in the following days, he sent in for her use every luxury of which he could think; then he went and gloomed in the room where he had first seen her. Would she write to him, he wondered. And when she did not even do this, he gauged in a manner what she had gone through—what was the depth of the degradation she must have felt all those long, weary months.
“She is miserably thin and weak,” reported the matron, “but the doctor hopes to get her through all right. At any rate you have got the best man for the job.”
That was some small comfort. He could ensure ease and rest for the body, but what could he do for the mind, except leave her alone? She had bidden him not follow and he had obeyed. Now she had asked him not to see her and he was doing what she wished.
But how hard it was! For him at any rate. He might never see her again—alive. Women did go through the Valley of the Shadow at such times, and she——
“She grows weaker every day,” said the matron gravely. “Nothing seems to rouse her. I wish it were well over.”
“Well over!” Every atom of him went forth in the wild wish when one morning he was met by the news that a few hours must see the end.
What he did that day he scarcely remembered afterwards. He went into the Park certainly, and watched children sailing boats on the Round Pond. How they shouted with glee when one got safely to the other side! How ready they were with their tears when one was capsized. His boat containing all his life was on the stormy sea. Would it capsize? And what—the idea came to him, curiously enough, for the first time—would have to be done in that case for the accursed child? He felt as if he could have strangled it with his own hands.
There was no news when he went back in the evening. She was very weak, but so far the doctor appeared satisfied.
He did not go home that night. He took a mouthful or two of food at a restaurant, and then walked the streets. More than one woman accosted him. He gave them money—lavish money—and bade them go elsewhere.
It is a queer sensation to watch the dawn—a bright dawn—come to the London streets. Such promise in the unseen sky, such shells of broken promises and idle occupations in the street! Humanity’s litter of a day waiting for the dust cart of oblivion. He watched the great town wake to life—the same old life. He watched impatiently, waiting till such time as it would be decent to disturb those who, doubtless, had been up all night.
As he waited at the door of the home after ringing the bell, a miserable looking, bedraggled woman came along the street carrying a basket of faded flowers. She was evidently on her way to some poorer part after having bought the yesterday’s residue from some regular flower seller. They were long in answering the bell, so, as he stood there, she accosted him. The sudden surge of pity which came to him so often now for helpless, degraded womankind, made him hand her a shilling while he waved away the flowers. But a sudden irradiating smile showed on the coarse, drink-sodden face. “God bless yer Honour,” came a racy Irish brogue.
“Sure it’s a rose for your buttonhole ye must be getting from Kitty M’Cabe.”
And there he was on the doorstep scarcely conscious of the white rosebud he held in his hand, for there is nothing in the wide, wide world so absorbing as that wait on the threshold of a nursing home. The minutes seem hours, one longs and yet dreads for the door to open and bring—what news?
It was opened at last by a somewhat slatternly servant who apparently had been engaged in blackleading the grates, and with a hasty “I know my way” he was upstairs.
“It is over,” said the nurse in the anteroom as he entered, “well over; but, I am sorry, the child was still-born—we tried——”
He heard no more, for a great rush of sheer satisfaction made him careless of all else. Stillborn! what a mercy!
“And she?” he queried quickly.
“She is very weak,” replied the nurse evasively, “you had better stop and see the doctor; he said he would be back in an hour’s time.” And when he stood there looking dazed, she continued: “You see it was a very fine child, a beautiful baby, and she herself was worn out. She—she did well for it. Perhaps you would like to see it?”
Before he could formulate the negative which filled him soul and body, she had removed the white linen cloth from something that lay on a table beside her, and there was the child!
Great God in heaven! The mystery of it!
Washed and dressed in a little infant’s white gown, it lay on the square of white quilted linen, as white, as pure as snow, the little crumpled hands folded on its breast.
Not a trace of the father! The little death-mask with its determined chin and set mouth, so like Lil; the goldy hair—long for a new-born infant’s—sweeping over the broad, white forehead.
Moved by he knew not what impulse of absolute adoration, of absolute confidence in that Strength and Stay which orders all things in due sequence, which is beyond human understanding, he stooped and laid the white rosebud he held on the little waxen hands that had closed on nothing in this world.
So he stood looking. What dignity there was in the tiny form! How came that quiet, self-controlled look of purpose? The nurse’s words, as she went on, answered the unspoken question:
“It was a difficult case—the doctor had to choose between the mother and the child—so the poor little dear——”
There were tears in her voice. So that was it. The child of the suicide had given its life for his Lil.
He felt as if he could have kissed it; but he dared not. It seemed too remote from love or kisses, from laughter or from tears.
The doctor’s entry followed by the matron roused him.
“I am sorry,” said the former, speaking as he thought to the father of the dead child. “I hoped to save them both, but——” He shrugged his shoulders.
“How is she—the mother I mean?” asked Alan Graham swiftly.
The doctor looked at him squarely, almost curiously. “I hope to find her better,” he replied; “if we can rouse her—perhaps you had better wait and hear my report.”
The nurse covered up the dead baby once more and Alan stood waiting, waiting. And as he waited he seemed still to see the little, quiet form with his white rosebud on its crumpled fingers. Poor little soul! What would it, what might it not have done with them? Then a sudden revulsion of feeling swept through him. Who would have thought of his pitying what he had hated—pitying a monster who should never have been born, the fruit of lust and falsehood, the fruit of its father?
The doctor’s re-entry made him feel ashamed of his thoughts, for there was no mistaking the gravity of expression in the self-complacent face.
“She is about as bad as she can be,” came the verdict. “Unless we can rouse her there is little hope. She seems to have lost hold altogether—to be slipping away.” He turned to Alan. “She had a hard fight for it and the child too—as fine a baby as I ever saw, and as pretty, remarkably so—a pity it couldn’t live.” Then suddenly an idea seemed to come to him. “It might rouse her, a last chance. Nurse, you had better take in the child and show it, or stay”—his keen eyes were on Alan—“you haven’t seen her yet, have you? It might be a double stimulus. Who knows? You had better take the child, if you——”
A swift repulsion came to Alan Graham, for an instant he hesitated. Then those words, “A last chance,” came home to him, he stooped and lifted what he had hated all these long months.
How small it felt in his arms, despite the quilt on which it lay.
Now he was in the room. Was that deathlike face, expressionless, immobile, white as the pillow on which it lay, his Lil? What had brought her to this pass? So, on the instant, he hated what lay in his arms as he had never hated it before.
The sunlight was pouring into the room; it even shone brilliant on the bed; the window was wide open to let out the faint small of chloroform which lingers so long. All things had been done to rouse the ebbing vitality that would not be roused, that was fast ebbing away to the Unknown.
“Lil!” came the strong man’s voice. “I have brought you your child!”
Was it his voice or a faint understanding of his words which caused the closed eyelids to tremble—to open? The doctor, the nurses standing by, held their breath. In the room was uttermost silence.
Then again came the full vital voice:
“I have brought you your child, Lil.”
It lay on the bed beside her, the white rosebud on its crumpled fingers.
Slowly, slowly the opened eyes turned to it; slowly, slowly a startled look came to them; slowly, slowly words followed—whispered, half-articulate words:
The eyes closed again—there was silence; but Lil’s right hand shifted. It found its way, blindly as it were, to the dead child, so rested on it caressingly.
“She may do now,” said the doctor after a pause, “let her lie so for a time. We can tell her the truth afterwards—if—if that comes. We can do no more.”
But when he was outside the room he shook Alan by the hand warmly.
“Most successful!” he said. “I expect your—ahem—I expect she will come round. It was just the little cosmic touch that was wanted. It so often is, but we doctors can’t always get it. I am sorry about the child, sir; but the mother always comes first. There will be others, doubtless.”
So smiling and satisfied he passed on to his next job.
He was right about Lil. The little cosmic touch had done its work. She lay still unconscious; but an added strength had come to her heart beats. Something—heaven knows what—had turned her face away from the Valley of the Shadow. She asked no questions, yet she seemed to know that the child was dead-born. Did the fact give her ease, or was it vaguely a disappointment? Alan Graham did not know. On the rare occasions during the first ten days when he was allowed to see her she seemed to be as one awakening from a bad dream; confused, relieved, still uncertain whether to be glad or to weep.
“I think they are generally cremated,” said the nurse when he asked the usual procedure for the bodies of still-born babies, “unless the relatives have gardens. You see the poor little dears aren’t Christians, so they aren’t allowed in cemeteries; though most places reserve a little unconsecrated ground for them—and suicides.”
A sudden wild burst of anger that the sacrifice of life for another should be evened to the wilful shedding of it for self surged up in Alan Graham as he listened, but his only words were a few of arrangement which the nurse wrote down on a memorandum slip. His mind was made up on the instant. The poor little body that had given life for Lil should not lie in a corner despised, rejected of men. The thought brought one of another, outcast in life if not in death—Ellen Bryant the prostitute—there was always her grave; ashes could lie there. And with this thought came a great wonder, a great satisfaction. He knew the story of the street walker. He and Bernard Alingham had discussed it often. It had appeared to them both so pitiful.
“If I could have had a child!” In that vain wish had lain a tragedy. Well, she could have one now. Alingham had asked him to see that the poor woman’s grave was not neglected, since it was her words which had cast the scales from his eyes, her resentment which had shown him the truth.
So one Sunday afternoon Alan Graham went down to the cemetery with a parcel of snowdrop bulbs, and with them scattered the mere handful of ashes which was all that remained of the dignified little form with its crumpled fingers that had closed on nothing in this world.
The task made him feel sad, yet glad. The mystery of Birth and Death seemed to envelop him, yet in a way it seemed also a protection to him against the trivialities of life.
It was a week or more after this that Lil showed her first consciousness of realities.
Alan was sitting beside her bed holding her hand, which till then had been almost his only communication with her. Sometimes the fingers would tremble in his, sometimes they would clasp his; but she seldom spoke. This day, however, as the gloaming shadows were darkening in the room, and the firelight—for the weather was settling into winter—showed its flicking faintly on walls and ceiling, she suddenly said:
“Was it really like Mother, or did I dream it?” He answered her at once in matter of fact tones:
“You did not dream. It was very like your mother—very like you.”
“Tell me,” she said after a pause, “tell me, please.”
“It was a very pretty child—extraordinarily so for a new-born infant. It had your mother’s broad, low forehead, and there were waves of fair hair on it. It had your mouth, your determined chin.”
There was silence; till once more the question came:
“Is there anything more—what was done with it?” There was hesitation, almost fear in the voice.
“When you are well I will show you where it lies,” he answered quickly, paused, then went on unsteadily, “I—I put a white rosebud in the little hands.”
“That—that was kind of you.”
So there came silence between them and, after a while, she slept peacefully.
But long weeks passed ere he could tell her the whole story; months before they could journey together to see the snowdrops blossom.
It was on their way back to the rooms in Victory Street, whither she had insisted on going so soon as she was strong enough to take up life again, that he asked her definitely when she would marry him.
They were sitting on a bench overlooking the river as it slid past the Chelsea Embankment. It was a misty morning in late January. There had been a storm overnight and a whole flock of sea-gulls that had sought shelter in the Pool were swaying and shifting and wheeling above the grey waters, never settling.
She shook her head. “I am storm-driven like the birds. I cannot rest—not yet. Do you remember that first night we met? I said my hand was all over paint—it was smirched. Now I am smirched all over. Let us be friends as we are—surely?”
“Friends, surely” he replied; so held her hand and said no more.
But that night at dinner Eve looked at him queerly and said:
“What’s up with you, my boy? Why do you have ghosts in your eyes? Life’s too short for that sort of thing. The past is always past. It belongs to no one.” Then she branched off suddenly to another subject. “I heard from Claud Hearsay to-day. He is back in Calcutta and doesn’t like it so much as he thought he would. I expect Malpas Court spoilt him; so, probably, he will be coming home soon.”
“Home?” echoed Alan. “But surely all his connections, his interests, are out there.”
Eve’s lip set. “I don’t see why that should be so; after all he has Malpas blood in him. Why shouldn’t he come back? Jilks and James would have him, I expect; he’s got the business flair strong—as I have. He’s dead certain to make money. Then he could buy Malpas—it’s to be sold, you know.”
“Sold?” echoed Alan.
“Yes; the heir at law has already got rid of his own ancestral. Not a paying job nowadays, so he wisely sold it in patches, dirt cheap, to the farmers, who—the blessed idiots—-knowing nothing about repairs and rates, jumped at the idea of being landed proprietors, many of them pledging their credit to get the money. Really fools oughtn’t to be allowed to meddle with business. And Government paid far too high a price for the ancestral mansion, as a county sanatorium or some such social service stunt for spending money. So of course when he inherited Malpas it went the same way. It’s going dirt cheap—the old house I mean--for the land’s all sold separately and it’s not the sort of place to attract the American buyer—too small, and it won’t stand being modernized. Not enough oak beams and panelling to counterbalance wireless, etc. Seems a pity—poor Margaret loved it.” She rose, lit a cigarette, went over to the fire and stared into it moodily.
Alan looked at his sister curiously in his turn. “I believe you are seeing ghosts too,” he said.
“I?” she queried sharply. “I never saw one in my life. No, silly old dear! I would never let the past have a say on the present. I’m for Longfellow: ‘Let the dead past bury its dead’ and have done with them. The living present is enough for me. So cheerio!”
She turned away and left the room with a laugh. Her father, who had found his daughter’s help conducive to more holiday taking than heretofore, was escaping east winds in Tunis, so she had the office to herself. She sat down at the writing-table, opened a drawer and took out one of those long thick envelopes which cost six and eightpence and come from lawyers.
It contained the draft of a deed of sale. She looked it through carefully, made a few annotations on the margin, folded it up again, put it into the already addressed and stamped, long envelope which had been enclosed with it, chucked it into the post basket with a “There! that’s done with!” and turned to other business.
How many months had passed?
That matters not at all. To some Time means much, to others little, though the measure is the same.
To Alan and Lil as they sat together in a pleasant room overlooking the river, days, months, years passed unnoticed. Life remained the same, and their friendship—a friendship for eternity not for Time—grew stronger.
He had a letter in his hand from Bernard Alingham and was reading from it aloud:
“These people are wonderful! I remember talking to you of the savages I was to convert—of the good news of personal salvation which I was to bring to the heathen. My dear Alan, I find them centuries ahead of us in many ways. They know nothing of wireless, the thought of flying is unknown to them, and so far guns are used for killing animals, not for men. They have no parliament, no trades unions, no class war, no guardians of the poor. Yet their cosmogony goes on without a hitch. And their social regulations put ours to shame. In many ways, they seem never to have fallen from grace: at any rate they do their best to obviate the evil which has come on the world by the women’s jealousy, the woman’s desire to appropriate. They have their sexual life in complete control. The women never have more than five children and these at intervals of from three to five years, while the men assure me that the universal custom of a seasoned mating time is not in the least irksome. I cannot help asking myself whether our Western civilization has found a solution of the population problem that is as workable as theirs?
Then in the matter of religion in many ways they shame me. There seems nothing between them and the Great Strength and Stay which upholds all Creation. No Church, no Priesthood, no Symbols. I find it hard to thrust anything between such perfect friendship—for that is the word to use for the unalterable Tie that seems to exist between them and Nature. With God visible in the starry skies there is no need for a chasuble or a cope.”
Alan laid down the letter and crossed to the window where Lil was sitting.
“I feel like that myself, sometimes,” he said, looking down on her as she sat with idle hands watching a boat being warped across the stream against the tide. “I feel, Lil, as if chasubles and copes might come between our friendship.”
She looked up at him quickly and he went down on his knees so as to get nearer to her eyes.
“How long ago is it, Lil,” he asked, “since you told us in the little room in Victory Street of the man who said ‘If I loved a woman as she should be loved, I would never think of marrying her.’ We were all shocked at the time, I remember, for we all rose and said it was time to go! Well, I understand what you meant then. Lil, will you be horrified if I say I don’t want to marry you any longer?”
She gave the oddest little sound between a laugh and a sob.
“And I never wanted to marry you from the beginning, you know that, don’t you, Alan?” she said at last.
He gave a rueful smile. “I am quite aware of that, my dear. I am quite aware that there are dozens of women like you to whom only the thought of chil——”
She stopped him rapidly with a hand upon his mouth. “Not that, Alan, not that,” she cried and sudden passion had come to her voice. “I am smirched from head to foot. I could never have another child—never—never——” And she laid her head down upon his shoulder, burying her face upon his breast.
It took a moment or two for him to steady himself before he said quietly:
“That is why I felt that neither chasuble nor cope should come betwixt our friendship and ‘One who fixes the Pathway of the Wandering Stars.’ Look, Lil! Look up! the boat has almost warped its way across to the other side.
So they settled it.
And not so far away in the library of the Red House Claud Malpas was facing Eve Graham; Eve looking as young as ever, and, if possible, more like a dragonfly than ever, alert, self-willed, determined. He had come back as she had meant him to come back to England some months before, feeling that his dream of remorse was, after all, not worth the trouble it was giving him. He had hated Calcutta, he had hated curry and Catholicism, he had even hated custard apples, and so he had jumped at an offer which had come to him from Jilks and James to take up a subordinate position in their stores. He had known the offer came through Eve’s influence, but he had swallowed his pride and accepted it, telling himself that in some occult way she was partly responsible. Besides he had wanted to see her again. But she, being wise, had known the value of aloofness until now, and there she was again as attractive as ever.
“I don’t ask you to marry me,” came her businesslike tones, “though I imagine when you come to think over it that you will—in fact it appears to me inevitable that you should—but I do ask you to buy Malpas Court from me. It is only right and just to Margaret’s memory that you should. With your present position at Jilks and James you are well able to borrow the two thousand I gave for it—for the matter of that I could do it for you. Then, of course, you having changed your name, are a Malpas; thus the position will be as closely approximated to what it was when poor Margaret’s plans were upset, as it can be. A Malpas will be owner of Malpas Court.”
There was a relentlessness in her voice from which he could not escape; from which, in a way, he did not want to escape. Over and over again during the last six months, in which, as employee of the big firm, he had seen Eve occasionally, and found himself back in London life, the doubt had come to him if it really was necessary to atone to dead Margaret for a treachery which had never been accomplished. At first, in the fullness of shocked remorse, even the thought of Eve had been painful but now. So there was a certain tenderness in his tone as he said evasively:
“I did not know you had bought——”
She interrupted him ere he finished. “No one does. I purposely worked through a Syndicate who require places like Malpas when they are going cheap. So you will really buy from it, and no one will be a bit the wiser.”
He looked at her admiringly. “You are very clever, Eve,” he said. “And you did all this for me!”
But it was no part of her plan that he should become sentimental—as yet. That might—it would, it should—come later. At present her aim was that he should keep his self-respect; that he should not feel schooled; that he should not know how persistently she had hunted him down. Of course she had done so, but it would be better for future happiness that he should not realize the fact. Men were always happier when they thought they were masters. So she answered dryly:
“Naturally. It seemed to be a good business proposition—one of which you, when you returned to normal, would approve. And I should not have lost by it. I have, as it were, only ear-marked the property. The Syndicate would let me off tomorrow, especially if I were to drop a hundred or two off the price; but I wouldn’t, for I could get more than I gave for it now—the market has gone up.”
Sentiment was impossible in such an atmosphere, but he struggled for it by saying:
“It was very good of you. Ah, if we could only forget——”
She turned on him then, dropped her at-arms-length attitude, and spoke in her natural language:
“Now look here, Claud, you and I were fools if you like; but that is vieux jeu. It’s best forgotten. I’m damned if I’m going to have two years ago raked up to spoil a purely business proposition. You have the chance of buying Malpas Court. Now you’re for ever gassing about what Margaret wanted; for ever bemoaning her disappointment. Well, why not play-actor Malpas of Malpas Court, marry a duke’s daughter and start a family of little Malpi? Wouldn’t that lay the ghost? Seems to me it might. In fact, as I’ve been trying to rub it in to you this last half-hour, it’s sound business! You stand to gain on it. So take my advice and close! There’s the address of the Syndicate—you’d better do the biz yourself. Now ta-ta. I’m buried in beer this morning. Cheerio!”
He went away dazed and yet determined. And Eve, so soon as he had gone, rested her head on her hands, and told herself that she was a fool to care, when he—so palpably—had ceased to do so; as men did cease when the woman went out of their life. But care she did! So, by hook or by crook, she must prevent this man from wasting his life—a life that might be so joyous.
Sales of land and houses take an interminable time to complete as a rule; so spring was just appropriating early summer flowers, that, misled by sunny weather, had blossomed over soon, when Claud Malpas of Malpas Court called at the Red House to take Eve Graham down with him for her first sight of the old place since he had bought it. For Eve had strongly advised his refraining from inspection until the bargain was complete.
“You men are so awfully sentimental—not to say hysterical,” she had remarked, “that you might get seeing ghosts. And anyhow a place that has been unoccupied for a year and more always looks dreary. Besides, I want to come with you, and it is as well for you not to run any risk of people making guesses.”
Once again he had gone away, saying to himself that Eve was very clever—very clever indeed.
And now that her whole scheme, so carefully planned, had materialized, the glamour of it prevented him from realizing how small a part his initiative had had in bringing it about.
Eve as it were, was becoming a part of himself; he could, as it were, put up with her for the future.
But Eve wanted more than that. She wanted the whole of this man—the whole that she had once had.
This first glimpse of the house, standing in unkempt, untidy lanes—as half the fine old houses in Great Britain stand to-day—was inexpressively dreary. It looked a veritable house of the dead—of dead Margaret. Eve saw the shrink in her companion’s eyes; but she had foreseen this, she was prepared for it. When a woman really wishes to get a man, there is nothing for which she is not prepared.
So the hall door stood open, and, as Claud Malpas entered, he gave a gasp of surprise and turned to Eve. How clever she was!
The old stuffiness which Margaret had, as it were, fostered had gone; in its place was light and air and colour.
“I told Jilks and James to do it when I first bought the place,” she said coolly. This was not true, but what does abstract truth matter to a woman who is on the primeval quest? “I thought it would sell better; and at first—yes, at first—I went into it more as a business transaction. It was only when I saw how you were wasting your life that the idea of the little Malpi came to me. Now we had better have lunch first. I told Jilks and James to send it and a man.”
“You think of everything,” said Claud tenderly.
“I think that men are always hungry,” snapped Eve cavalierly.
But she was not always so. When they went into the woods that afternoon it was different. Then for the first time Claud noticed that she was dressed in green—the colour she had worn that day—how long ago when she and he——?
If he had had eyes to see he might have known that it was the same dress; but as a rule men do not see these fine fabrications of the feminine brain—a brain made so subtle by centuries of unconscious desire to attract, unconscious desire to appropriate.
So when they came to the first place where he had once suggested that they should rest, the old answer came swiftly:
It was no playacting after that; the past had them in its grip, and the eternal yielding only to possess took place at the next mossy seat out of sight of the chimneys.
They had much to talk about as they drove back to town, and it was not till they reached the iron grille which separated the Red House from the populace that Claud remarked a little doubtfully:
“I think she would have been pleased—the old house and the old name——”
For one instant Eve felt inclined to add “and the old love,” but she forebore. That could come after; for the present all she said was only:
“Yes, Margaret loved the old place better than anything else!”
“Great news, Luce! Eve is going to marry that chap Hearsay after all,” said George Graham, finishing his sister’s letter in which she had imparted the information.
Lucilla, who was stitching away at a pair of youngster’s creepers under an apple tree, pursed her lips slightly.
“You call that news, do you, George?” she answered. “I don’t. I have known it was going to happen ever since—don’t you remember that day when we all drove down to Malpas and had strawberries?”
George stared, caught up his eighteen months son who was grabbing at daisies in the grass, tossed him sky high and set him down again shrieking for more. “No, I don’t, little one,” he said. “I couldn’t remember half the things you do, Luce. It beats me how you women manage to do it. I think you must have been managing man from the beginning of time. Now there’s Tom Larkin—he’s been bothering me for pea-sticks for the last week and now he’s coming to you sure enough that you won’t forget.”
And there was Tom Larkin looking twice the man he had been in Victory Street saluting gravely with a request for pea-sticks which he had twice preferred to master.
“All right, Larkin,” said Lucilla cheerfully. “I’ll give the order this evening. And how’s your wife? When is she coming back to Master George? I’m getting quite tired of him—Georgie, oh! naughty boy, don’t eat the daisies. He wants his Nanna badly, Tom.”
“Not so much has she’s a-wantin’ ’im,” replied Tom. “She always was a one for bibies an’ there never was a biby like Master George, so it’s only fear of perhaps givin’ flu to the blessed h’infant as keeps her away, ma’am—an’ she’s took quarts an’ quarts o’ quinine enough to kill her. She don’t think nothing of the others, ma’am—it’s only the biby, the biby, bless his ’art!”
At that moment George the older came back with a great bowl of fowls’ food in his hand.
Lucilla looked sweet, under the apple tree, and Tom Larkin having retreated, George felt impelled to kiss his dearest dear. To this end he set down the bowl on the grass.
“I wish you didn’t look so kissable, little mother,” he said tenderly with absolute worship in his eyes. “You make me think of every Madonna I ever saw. I’m half afraid——”
“George,” shrieked his wife “look at Baby— he’ll dirty his hands in that horrid stuff.”
And there was Master George within an inch of thrusting both fat, pudgy paws into the fowls’ food! Big George, baulked of his worship, caught the child up and put him protesting into his mother’s arms.
“There, take your son,” he said, laughing, “and don’t you go calling my fowls’ food horrid stuff—there’s nothing common or unclean so long as it’s the right stuff and properly made.”
And he went off whistling through the apple orchard, a slim, youthful looking figure feeling that the world was, if anything, too good.
And the apple blossom fell like snowflakes as the busy birds fluttered and sang amid the branches.