All his doubts and anxieties flocked back on him as time passed and no Americans appeared. Americans. How precious. How clean, and straight, and admirable. Actually he had sometimes, he remembered, thought they weren't. What an aberration. Actually he had been, he remembered, impatient with them when first he came back from France. What folly. Americans. The very word was refreshing, was like clear water on a thirsty day. One American, even one, coming in that afternoon would have seemed to Mr. Twist a godsend, a purifier, an emollient—like some blessed unction dropped from above.
But none appeared; not even Mr. Ridding.
At six o'clock it was quite dark, and obviously too late to go on hoping. The days in California end abruptly. The sun goes down, and close on its heels comes night. In the tea-room the charmingly shaded lights had been turned on some time, and Mr. Twist, watching from the partly open door of his office, waited impatiently for the guests to begin to thin out. But they didn't. They took no notice of the signals of lateness, the lights turned on, the stars outside growing bright in the surrounding blackness.
Mr. Twist watched angrily. He had been driven into his office by the disconcerting and incomprehensible overtures of Mr. Wangelbecker, and had sat there watching in growing exasperation ever since. When six struck and nobody showed the least sign of going away he could bear it no longer, and touched the little muffled electric bell that connected him to Mrs. Bilton in what Anna-Felicitas called a mystical union—Anna II. was really excessively tactless; she had said this to Mrs. Bilton in his presence, and then enlarged on unions, mystical and otherwise, with an embarrassing abundance of imagery—by buzzing gently against her knee from the leg of the desk.
She laid down her pen, as though she had just finished adding up a column, and went to him.
"Now don't talk," said Mr. Twist, putting up an irritable hand directly she came in.
Mrs. Bilton looked at him in much surprise. "Talk, Mr. Twist?" she repeated. "Why now, as though—"
"Don't talk I say, Mrs. Bilton, but listen. Listen now. I can't stand seeing those children in there. It sheer makes my gorge rise. I want you to fetch them in here—now don't talk—you and me'll do the confounded waiting—no, no, don't talk—they're to stay quiet in here till the last of those Germans have gone. Just go and fetch them, please Mrs. Bilton. No, no, we'll talk afterwards. I'll stay here till they come." And he urged her out into the tea-room again.
The guests had finished their tea long ago, but still sat on, for they were very comfortable. Obviously they were thoroughly enjoying themselves, and all were growing, as time passed, more manifestly at home. They were now having a kind of supper of ices and fruit-salads. Five dollars, thought the sensible Germans, was after all a great deal to pay for afternoon tea, however good the cause might be and however important one's own ulterior motives; and since one had in any case to pay, one should eat what one could. So they kept the Annas very busy. There seemed to be no end, thought the Annas as they ran hither and thither, to what a German will hold.
Mrs. Bilton waylaid the heated and harried Anna-Rose as she was carrying a tray of ices to a party she felt she had been carrying ices to innumerable times already. The little curls beneath her cap clung damply to her forehead. Her face was flushed and distressed. What with having to carry so many trays, and remember so many orders, and try at the same time to escape from the orderers and their questions and admiration, she was in a condition not very far from tears.
Mrs. Bilton took the tray out of her hands, and told her Mr. Twist wanted to speak to her; and Anna-Rose was in such a general bewilderment that she felt quite scared, and thought he must be going to scold her. She went towards the office reluctantly. If Mr. Twist were to be severe, she was sure she wouldn't be able not to cry. She made her way very slowly to the office, and Mrs. Bilton looked round the room for the other one. There was no sign of her. Perhaps, thought Mrs. Bilton, she was fetching something in the kitchen, and would appear in a minute; and seeing a group over by the entrance door, for whom the tray she held was evidently destined, gesticulating to her, she felt she had better keep them quiet first and then go and look for Anna-Felicitas.
Mrs. Bilton set her teeth and plunged into her strange new duties. Never would she have dreamed it possible that she should have to carry trays to Germans. If Mr. Bilton could see her now he would certainly turn in his grave. Well, she was a woman of grit, of adhesiveness to her guns; if Mr. Bilton did see her and did turn in his grave, let him; he would, she dared say, be more comfortable on his other side after all these years.
For the next few minutes she hurried hither and thither, and waited single-handed. She seemed to be swallowed up in activity. No wonder that child had looked so hot and bewildered. Mr. Twist didn't come and help, as he had promised, and nowhere was there any sign of Anna-Felicitas; and the guests not only wanted things to eat, they wanted to talk,—talk and ask questions. Well, she would wait on them, but she wouldn't talk. She turned a dry, parchment-like face to their conversational blandishments, and responded only by adding up their bills. Wonderful are the workings of patriotism. For the first time in her life, Mrs. Bilton was grumbled at for not talking.
In the office Anna-Rose found Mr. Twist walking up and down.
"See here," he said, turning on her when she came in, "I'm about tired of looking on at all this twittering round that lot in there. You're through with that for to-day, and maybe for to-morrow and the day after as well."
He waved his arm at the deep chair that had been provided for his business meditations. "You'll sit down in that chair now," he said severely, "and stay put."
Anna-Rose looked at him with a quivering lip. She went rather unsteadily to the chair and tumbled into it. "I don't know if you're angry or being kind," she said tremulously, "but whichever it is I—I wish you wouldn't. I—I wish you'd manage to be something that isn't either." And, as she had feared, she began to cry.
"Anna-Rose," said Mr. Twist, staring down at her in concern mixed with irritation—out there all those Germans, in here the weeping child; what a day he was having—"for heaven's sake don't do that."
"I know," sobbed Anna-Rose. "I don't want to. It's awful being so natu—natu—naturally liquid."
"But what's the matter?" asked Mr. Twist helplessly.
"Nothing," sobbed Anna-Rose.
He stood over her in silence for a minute, his hands in his pockets. If he took them out he was afraid he might start stroking her, and she seemed to him to be exactly between the ages when such a form of comfort would be legitimate. If she were younger ... but she was a great girl now; if she were older ... ah, if she were older, Mr. Twist could imagine....
"You're overtired," he said aloofly. "That's what you are."
"No," sobbed Anna-Rose.
"And the Germans have been too much for you."
"They haven't," sobbed Anna-Rose, her pride up at the suggestion that anybody could ever be that.
"But they're not going to get the chance again," said Mr. Twist, setting his teeth as much as they would set, which wasn't, owing to his natural kindliness, anything particular. "Mrs. Bilton and me—" Then he remembered Anna-Felicitas. "Why doesn't she come?" he asked.
"Who?" choked Anna-Rose.
"The other one. Anna II. Columbus."
"I haven't seen her for ages," sobbed Anna-Rose, who had been much upset by Anna-Felicitas's prolonged disappearance and had suspected her, though she couldn't understand it after last night's finishings up, of secret unworthy conduct in a corner with ice-cream.
Mr. Twist went to the door quickly and looked through. "I can't see her either," he said. "Confound them—what have they done to her? Worn her out too, I daresay. I shouldn't wonder if she'd crawled off somewhere and were crying too."
"Anna-F.—doesn't crawl," sobbed Anna-Rose, "and she—doesn't cry but—I wish you'd find—her."
"Well, will you stay where you are while I'm away, then?" he said, looking at her from the door uncertainly.
And she seemed so extra small over there in the enormous chair, and somehow so extra motherless as she obediently gurgled and choked a promise not to move, that he found himself unable to resist going back to her for a minute in order to pat her head. "There, there," said Mr. Twist, very gently patting her head, his heart yearning over her; and it yearned the more that, the minute he patted, her sobs got worse; and also the more because of the feel of her dear little head.
"You little bit of blessedness," murmured Mr. Twist before he knew what he was saying; at which her sobs grew louder than ever,—grew, indeed, almost into small howls, so long was it since anybody had said things like that to her. It was her mother who used to say things like that; things almost exactly like that.
"Hush," said Mr. Twist in much distress, and with one anxious eye on the half-open door, for Anna-Rose's sobs were threatening to outdo the noise of teacups and ice-cream plates, "hush, hush—here's a clean handkerchief—you just wipe up your eyes while I fetch Anna II. She'll worry, you know, if she sees you like this,—hush now, hush—there, there—and I expect she's being miserable enough already, hiding away in some corner. You wouldn't like to make her more miserable, would you—"
And he pressed the handkerchief into Anna-Rose's hands, and feeling much flurried went away to search for the other one who was somewhere, he was sure, in a state of equal distress.
He hadn't however to search. He found her immediately. As he came out of the door of his office into the tea-room he saw her come into the tea-room from the door of the verandah, and proceed across it towards the pantry. Why the verandah? wondered Mr. Twist. He hurried to intercept her. Anyhow she wasn't either about to cry or getting over having done it. He saw that at once with relief. Nor was she, it would seem, in any sort of distress. On the contrary, Anna-Felicitas looked particularly smug. He saw that once too, with surprise,—why smug? wondered Mr. Twist. She had a pleased look of complete satisfaction on her face. She was oblivious, he noticed, as she passed between the tables, of the guests who tried in vain to attract her attention and detain her with orders. She wasn't at all hot, as Anna-Rose had been, nor rattled, nor in any way discomposed; she was just smug. And also she was unusually, extraordinarily pretty. How dared they all stare up at her like that as she passed? And try to stop her. And want to talk to her. And Wangelbecker actually laying his hand—no, his paw; in his annoyance Mr. Twist wouldn't admit that the object at the end of Mr. Wangelbecker's arm was anything but a paw—on her wrist to get her to listen to some confounded order or other. She took no notice of that either, but walked on towards the pantry. Placidly. Steadily. Obvious. Smug.
"You're to come into the office," said Mr. Twist when he reached her.
She turned her head and considered him with abstracted eyes. Then she appeared to remember him. "Oh, it's you," she said amiably.
"Yes. It's me all right. And you're to come into the office."
"I can't. I'm busy."
"Now Anna II.," said Mr. Twist, walking beside her towards the pantry since she didn't stop but continued steadily on her way, "that's trifling with the facts. You've been in the garden. I saw you come in. Perhaps you'll tell me the exact line of business you've been engaged in."
"Waiting," said Anna-Felicitas placidly.
"Waiting? In the garden? Where it's pitch dark, and there's nobody to wait on?"
They had reached the pantry, and Anna-Felicitas gave an order to Li Koo through the serving window before answering; the order was tea and hot cinnamon toast for one.
"He's having his tea on the verandah," she said, picking out the most delicious of the little cakes from the trays standing ready, and carefully arranging them on a dish. "It isn't pitch dark at all there. There's floods of light coming through the windows. He won't come in."
"And why pray won't he come in?" asked Mr. Twist.
"Because he doesn't like Germans."
"And who pray is he?"
"I don't know."
"Well I do," burst out Mr. Twist. "It's old Ridding, of course. His name is Ridding. The old man who was here yesterday. Now listen: I won't have—"
But Anna-Felicitas was laughing, and her eyes had disappeared into two funny little screwed-up eyelashy slits.
Mr. Twist stopped abruptly and glared at her. These Twinklers. That one in there shaken with sobs, this one in here shaken with what she would no doubt call quite the contrary. His conviction became suddenly final that the office was the place for both the Annas. He and Mrs. Bilton would do the waiting.
"I'll take this," he said, laying hold of the dish of cakes. "I'll send Mrs. Bilton for the tea. Go into the office, Anna-Felicitas. Your sister is there and wants you badly. I don't know," he added, as Li Koo pushed the tea-tray through the serving window, "how it strikes you about laughter, but it strikes me as sheer silly to laugh except at something."
"Well, I was," said Anna-Felicitas, unscrewing her eyes and with gentle firmness taking the plate of cakes from him and putting it on the tray. "I was laughing at your swift conviction that the man out there is Mr. Ridding. I don't know who he is but I know heaps of people he isn't, and one of the principal ones is Mr. Ridding."
"I'm going to wait on him," said Mr. Twist, taking the tray.
"It would be most unsuitable," said Anna-Felicitas, taking it too.
"Let go," said Mr. Twist, pulling.
"Is this to be an unseemly wrangle?" inquired Anna-Felicitas mildly; and her eyes began to screw up again.
"If you'll oblige me by going into the office," he said, having got the tray, for Anna-Felicitas was never one to struggle, "Mrs. Bilton and me will do the rest of the waiting for to-day."
He went out grasping the tray, and made for the verandah. His appearance in this new role was greeted by the Germans with subdued applause—subdued, because they felt Mr. Twist wasn't quite as cordial to them as they had supposed he would be, and they were accordingly being a little more cautious in their methods with him than they had been at the beginning of the afternoon. He took no notice of them, except that his ears turned red when he knocked against a chair and the tray nearly fell out of his hands and they all cried out Houp la. Damn them, thought Mr. Twist. Houp la indeed.
In the farthest corner of the otherwise empty and very chilly verandah, sitting alone and staring out at the stars, was a man. He was a young man. He was also an attractive young man, with a thin brown face and very bright blue twinkling eyes. The light from the window behind him shone on him as he turned his head when he heard the swing doors open, and Mr. Twist saw these things distinctly and at once. He also saw how the young man's face fell on his, Mr. Twist's, appearance with the tray, and he also saw with some surprise how before he had reached him it suddenly cleared again. And the young man got up too, just as Mr. Twist arrived at the table—got up with some little difficulty, for he had to lean hard on a thick stick, but yet obviously with empressement.
"You've forgotten the sugar," said Anna-Felicitas's gentle voice behind Mr. Twist as he was putting down the tray; and there she was, sure enough, looking smugger than ever.
"This is Mr. Twist," said Anna-Felicitas with an amiable gesture. "That I was telling you about," she explained to the young man.
"When?" asked Mr. Twist, surprised.
"Before," said Anna-Felicitas. "We were talking for some time before I went in to order the tea, weren't we?" she said to the young man, angelically smiling at him.
"Rather," he said; and since he didn't on this introduction remark to Mr. Twist that he was pleased to meet him, it was plain he couldn't be an American. Therefore he must be English. Unless, suddenly suspected Mr. Twist who had Germans badly on his nerves that day and was ready to suspect anything, he was German cleverly got up for evil purposes to appear English. But the young man dispersed these suspicions by saying that he was over from England on six months' leave, and that his name was Elliott.
"Like us," said Anna-Felicitas.
The young man looked at her with what would have been a greater interest than ever if a greater interest had been possible, only it wasn't.
"What, are you an Elliott too?" he asked eagerly.
Anna-Felicitas shook her head. "On the contrary," she said, "I'm a Twinkler. And so is my sister. What I meant was, you're like us about coming from England. We've done that. Only our leave is for ever and ever. Or the duration of the war."
Mr. Twist waved her aside. "Anna-Felicitas," he said, "your sister is waiting for you in the office and wants you badly. I'll see to Mr. Elliott."
"Why not bring your sister here?" said the young man, who, being in the navy, was fertile in resourcefulness. And he smiled at Anna-Felicitas, who smiled back; indeed, they did nothing but smile at each other.
"I think that's a brilliant idea," she said; and turned to Mr. Twist. "You go," she said gently, thereby proving herself, the young man considered, at least his equal in resourcefulness. "It's much more likely," she continued, as Mr. Twist gazed at her without moving, "that she'll come for you than for me. My sister," she explained to the young man, "is older than I am."
"Then certainly I should say Mr. Twist is more likely—"
"But only about twenty minutes older."
"What? A twin? I say, how extraordinarily jolly. Two of you?"
"Anna-Felicitas," interrupted Mr. Twist, "you will go to your sister immediately. She needs you. She's upset. I don't wish to draw Mr. Elliott behind the scenes of family life, but as nothing seems to get you into the office you force me to tell you that she is very, much upset indeed, and is crying."
"Crying?" echoed Anna-Felicitas. "Christopher?" And she turned and departed in such haste that the young man, who luckily was alert as well as resourceful, had only just time to lean over and grab at a chair in her way and pull it aside, and so avert a deplorable catastrophe.
"I hope it's nothing serious?" he inquired of Mr. Twist.
"Oh no. Children will cry."
Mr. Twist sat down at the table and lit a cigarette. "Tell me about England," he said. "You've been wounded, I see."
"Leg," said the young man, still standing leaning on his stick and looking after Anna-Felicitas.
"But that didn't get you six months' leave."
"Lungs," said the young man, looking down impatiently at Mr. Twist.
Then the swing doors swung to, and he sat down and poured out his tea.
He had been in the battle of Jutland, and was rescued after hours in the water. For months he was struggling to recover, but finally tuberculosis had developed and he was sent to California, to his sister who had married an American and lived in the neighbourhood of Acapulco. This Mr. Twist extracted out of him by diligent questioning. He had to question very diligently. What the young man wanted to talk about was Anna-Felicitas; but every time he tried to, Mr. Twist headed him off.
And she didn't come back. He waited and waited, and drank and drank. When the teapot was empty he started on the hot water. Also he ate all the cakes, more and more deliberately, eking them out at last with slowly smoked cigarettes. He heard all about France and Mr. Twist's activities there; he had time to listen to the whole story of the ambulance from start to finish; and still she didn't come back. In vain he tried at least to get Mr. Twist off those distant fields, nearer home—to the point, in fact, where the Twinklers were. Mr. Twist wouldn't budge. He stuck firmly. And the swing doors remained shut. And the cakes were all eaten. And there was nothing for it at last but to go.
So after half-an-hour of solid sitting he began slowly to get up, still spreading out the moments, with one eye on the swing doors. It was both late and cold. The Germans had departed, and Li Koo had lit the usual evening wood fire in the big fireplace. It blazed most beautifully, and the young man looked at it through the window and hesitated.
"How jolly," he said.
"Firelight is very pleasant," agreed Mr. Twist, who had got up too.
"I oughtn't to have stayed so long out here," said the young man with a little shiver.
"I was thinking it was unwise," said Mr. Twist.
"Perhaps I'd better go in and warm myself a bit before leaving."
"I should say your best plan is to get back quickly to your sister and have a hot bath before dinner," said Mr. Twist.
"Yes. But I think I might just go in there and have a cup of hot coffee first."
"There is no hot coffee at this hour," said Mr. Twist, looking at his watch. "We close at half-past six, and it is now ten minutes after."
"Then there seems nothing for it but to pay my bill and go," said the young man, with an air of cheerful adaptation to what couldn't be helped. "I'll just nip in there and do that."
"Luckily there's no need for you to nip anywhere," said Mr. Twist, "for surely that's a type of movement unsuited to your sick leg. You can pay me right here."
And he took the young man's five dollars, and went with him as far as the green gate, and would have helped him into the waiting car, seeing his leg wasn't as other legs and Mr. Twist was, after all, humane, but the chauffeur was there to do that; so he just watched from the gate till the car had actually started, and then went back to the house.
He went back slowly, perturbed and anxious, his eyes on the ground. This second day had been worse than the first. And besides the continued and remarkable absence of Americans and the continued and remarkable presence of Germans, there was a slipperiness suddenly developed in the Annas. He felt insecure; as though he didn't understand, and hadn't got hold. They seemed to him very like eels. And this Elliott—what did he think he was after, anyway?
For the second time that afternoon Mr. Twist set his teeth. He defied Elliott. He defied the Germans. He would see this thing successful, this Open Arms business, or his name wasn't Twist. And he stuck out his jaw—or would have stuck it out if he hadn't been prevented by the amiable weakness of that feature. But spiritually and morally, when he got back into the house he was all jaw.
That night he determined he would go into Acapulco next morning and drop in at his bank and at his lawyer's and other places, and see if he could pick up anything that would explain why Americans wouldn't come and have tea at The Open Arms. He even thought he might look up old Ridding. He didn't sleep. He lay all night thinking.
The evening had been spent tete-a-tete with Anna-Felicitas. Anna-Rose was in bed, sleeping off her tears; Mrs. Bilton had another headache, and disappeared early; so he was left with Anna-Felicitas, who slouched about abstractedly eating up the remains of ice-cream. She didn't talk, except once to remark a little pensively that her inside was dreadfully full of cold stuff, and that she knew now what it must feel like to be a mausoleum; but, eyeing her sideways as he sat before the fire, Mr. Twist could see that she was still smug. He didn't talk either. He felt he had nothing at present to say to Anna-Felicitas that would serve a useful purpose, and was, besides, reluctant to hear any counter-observations she might make. Watchfulness was what was required. Silent watchfulness. And wariness. And firmness. In fact all the things that were most foreign to his nature, thought Mr. Twist, resentful and fatigued.
Next morning he had a cup of coffee in his room, brought by Li Koo, and then drove himself into Acapulco in his Ford without seeing the others. It was another of the perfect days which he was now beginning to take as a matter of course, so many had there been since his arrival. People talked of the wet days and of their desolate abundance once they started, but there had been as yet no sign of them. The mornings succeeded each other, radiant and calm. November was merging into December in placid loveliness. "Oh yes," said Mr. Twist to himself sardonically, as he drove down the sun-flecked lane in the gracious light, and crickets chirped at him, and warm scents drifted across his face, and the flowers in the grass, standing so bright and unruffled that they seemed almost as profoundly pleased as Anna-Felicitas, nodded at him, and everything was obviously perfectly contented and happy, "Oh yes—I daresay." And he repeated this remark several times as he looked round him,—he couldn't but look, it was all so beautiful. These things hadn't to deal with Twinklers. No wonder they could be calm and bright. So could he, if—
He turned a corner in the lane and saw some way down it two figures, a man and a girl, sitting in the grass by the wayside. Lovers, of course. "Oh yes—I daresay," said Mr. Twist again, grimly. They hadn't to deal with Twinklers either. No wonder they could sit happily in the grass. So could he, if—
At the noise of the approaching car, with the smile of the last thing they had been saying still on their faces, the two turned their heads, and it was that man Elliott and Anna-Felicitas.
"Hello," called out Mr. Twist, putting on the brakes so hard that the Ford skidded sideways along the road towards them.
"Hello," said the young man cheerfully, waving his stick.
"Hello," said Anna-Felicitas mildly, watching his sidelong approach with complacent interest.
She had no hat on, and had evidently escaped from Mrs. Bilton just as she was. Escaped, however, was far too violent a word Mr. Twist felt; sauntered from Mrs. Bilton better described her effect of natural and comfortable arrival at the place where she was.
"I didn't know you were here," said Mr. Twist addressing her when the car had stopped. He felt it was a lame remark. He had torrents of things he wanted to say, and this was all that came out.
Anna-Felicitas considered it placidly for a moment, and came to the conclusion that it wasn't worth answering, so she didn't.
"Going into the town?" inquired Elliott pleasantly.
"Yes. I'll give you a lift."
"No thanks. I've just come from there."
"I see. Then you'd better come with me," said Mr. Twist to Anna-Felicitas.
"I'm afraid I can't. I'm rather busy this morning."
"Really," said Mr. Twist, in a voice of concentrated sarcasm. But it had no effect on Anna-Felicitas. She continued to contemplate him with perfect goodwill.
He hesitated a moment. What could he do? Nothing, that he could see, before the young man; nothing that wouldn't make him ridiculous. He felt a fool already. He oughtn't to have pulled up. He ought to have just waved to them and gone on his way, and afterwards in the seclusion of his office issued very plain directions to Anna-Felicitas as to her future conduct. Sitting by the roadside like that! Openly; before everybody; with a young man she had never seen twenty-four hours ago.
He jammed in the gear and let the clutch out with such a jerk that the car leaped forward. Elliott waved his stick again. Mr. Twist responded by the briefest touch of his cap, and whirred down the road out of sight.
"Does he mind your sitting here?" asked Elliott.
"It would be very unreasonable," said Anna-Felicitas gently. "One has to sit somewhere."
And he laughed with delight at this answer as he laughed with delight at everything she said, and he told her for the twentieth time that she was the most wonderful person he had ever met, and she settled down to listen again, after the interruption caused by Mr. Twist, with a ready ear and the utmost complacency to these agreeable statements, and began to wonder whether perhaps after all she mightn't at last be about to fall in love.
In the new interest of this possibility she turned her head to look at him, and he told her tumultuously—for being a sailor-man he went straight ahead on great waves when it came to love-making—that her eyes were as if pansies had married stars.
She turned her head away again at this, for though it sounded lovely it made her feel a little shy and unprovided with an answer; and then he said, again tumultuously, that her ear was the most perfect thing ever stuck on a girl's cheek, and would she mind turning her face to him so that he might see if she had another just like it on the other side.
She blushed at this, because she couldn't remember whether she had washed it lately or not—one so easily forgot one's ears; there were so many different things to wash—and he told her that when she blushed it was like the first wild rose of the first summer morning of the world.
At this Anna-Felicitas was quite overcome, and subsided into a condition of blissful, quiescent waiting for whatever might come next. Fancy her face reminding him of all those nice things. She had seen it every day for years and years in the looking-glass, and not noticed anything particular about it. It had seemed to her just a face. Something you saw out of, and ate with, and had to clean whatever else you didn't when you were late for breakfast, because there it was and couldn't be hidden,—an object remote indeed from pansies, and stars, and beautiful things like that.
She would have liked to explain this to the young man, and point out that she feared his imagination ran ahead of the facts and that perhaps when his leg was well again he would see things more as they were, but to her surprise when she turned to him to tell him this she found she was obliged to look away at once again. She couldn't look at him. Fancy that now, thought Anna-Felicitas, attentively gazing at her toes. And he had such dear eyes; and such a dear, eager sort of face. All the more, then, she reasoned, should her own eyes have dwelt with pleasure on him. But they couldn't. "Dear me," she murmured, watching her toes as carefully as if they might at any moment go away and leave her there.
"I know," said Elliott. "You think I'm talking fearful flowery stuff. I'd have said Dear me at myself three years ago if I had ever caught myself thinking in terms of stars and roses. But it's all the beastly blood and muck of the war that does it,—sends one back with a rush to things like that. Makes one shameless. Why, I'd talk to you about God now without turning a hair. Nothing would have induced me so much as to mention seriously that I'd even heard of him three years ago. Why, I write poetry now. We all write poetry. And nobody would mind now being seen saying their prayers. Why, if I were back at school and my mother came to see me I'd hug her before everybody in the middle of the street. Do you realize what a tremendous change that means, you little girl who's never had brothers? You extraordinary adorable little lovely thing?"
And off he was again.
"When I was small," said Anna-Felicitas after a while, still watching her feet, "I had a governess who urged me to consider, before I said anything, whether it were the sort of thing I would like to say in the hearing of my parents. Would you like to say what you're saying to me in the hearing of your parents?"
"Hate to," said Elliott promptly.
"Well, then," said Anna-Felicitas, gentle but disappointed. She rather wished now she hadn't mentioned it.
"I'd take you out of earshot," said Elliott.
She was much relieved. She had done what she felt might perhaps be regarded by Aunt Alice as her duty as a lady, and could now give herself up with a calm conscience to hearing whatever else he might have to say.
And he had an incredible amount to say, and all of it of the most highly gratifying nature. On the whole, looking at it all round and taking one thing with another, Anna-Felicitas came to the conclusion that this was the most agreeable and profitable morning she had ever spent. She sat there for hours, and they all flew. People passed in cars and saw her, and it didn't disturb her in the least. She perfectly remembered she ought to be helping Anna-Rose pick and arrange the flowers for the tea-tables, and she didn't mind. She knew Anna-Rose would be astonished and angry at her absence, and it left her unmoved. By midday she was hopelessly compromised in the eyes of Acapulco, for the people who had motored through the lane told the people who hadn't what they had seen. Once a great car passed with a small widow in it, who looked astonished when she saw the pair but had gone almost before Elliott could call out and wave to her.
"That's my sister," he said. "You and she will love each other."
"Shall we?" said Anna-Felicitas, much pleased by this suggestion of continuity in their relations; and remarked that she looked as if she hadn't got a husband.
"She hasn't. Poor little thing. Rotten luck. Rotten. I hate people to die now. It seems so infernally unnatural of them, when they're not in the fighting. He's only been dead a month. And poor old Dellogg was such a decent chap. She isn't going anywhere yet, or I'd bring her up to tea this afternoon. But it doesn't matter. I'll take you to her."
"Shall you?" said Anna-Felicitas, again much pleased. Dellogg. The name swam through her mind and swam out again. She was too busy enjoying herself to remark it and its coincidences now.
"Of course. It's the first thing one does."
"What first thing?"
"To take the divine girl to see one's relations. Once one has found her. Once one has had"—his voice fell to a whisper—"the God-given luck to find her." And he laid his hand very gently on hers, which were clasped together in her lap.
This was a situation to which Anna-Felicitas wasn't accustomed, and she didn't know what to do with it. She looked down at the hand lying on hers, and considered it without moving. Elliott was quite silent now, and she knew he was watching her face. Ought she, perhaps, to be going? Was this, perhaps, one of the moments in life when the truly judicious went? But what a pity to go just when everything was so pleasant. Still, it must be nearly lunch-time. What would Aunt Alice do in a similar situation? Go home to lunch, she was sure. Yet what was lunch when one was rapidly arriving, as she was sure now that she was, at the condition of being in love? She must be, or she wouldn't like his hand on hers. And she did like it.
She looked down at it, and found that she wanted to stroke it. But would Aunt Alice stroke it? No; Anna-Felicitas felt fairly clear about that. Aunt Alice wouldn't stroke it; she would take it up, and shake it, and say good-bye, and walk off home to lunch like a lady. Well, perhaps she ought to do that. Christopher would probably think so too. But what a pity.... Still, behaviour was behaviour; ladies were ladies.
She drew out her right hand with this polite intention, and instead—Anna-Felicitas never knew how it happened—she did nothing of the sort, but quite the contrary: she put it softly on the top of his.
Meanwhile Mr. Twist had driven on towards Acapulco in a state of painful indecision. Should he or shouldn't he take a turning he knew of a couple of miles farther that led up an unused and practically undrivable track back by the west side to The Open Arms, and instruct Mrs. Bilton to proceed at once down the lane and salvage Anna-Felicitas? Should he or shouldn't he? For the first mile he decided he would; then, as his anger cooled, he began to think that after all he needn't worry much. The Annas were lucidly too young for serious philandering, and even if that Elliott didn't realize this, owing to Anna-Felicitas's great length, he couldn't do much before he, Mr. Twist, was back again along the lane. In this he under-estimated the enterprise of the British Navy, but it served to calm him; so that when he did reach the turning he had made up his mind to continue on his way to Acapulco.
There he spent some perplexing and harassing hours.
At the bank his reception was distinctly chilly. He wasn't used, since his teapot had been on the market, to anything but warmth when he went into a bank. On this occasion even the clerks were cold; and when after difficulty—actual difficulty—he succeeded in seeing the manager, he couldn't but perceive his unusual reserve. He then remembered what he had put down to mere accident at the time, that as he drove up Main Street half an hour before, all the people he knew had been looking the other way.
From the bank, where he picked up nothing in the way of explanation of the American avoidance of The Open Arms, the manager going dumb at its mere mention, he went to the solicitors who had arranged the sale of the inn, and again in the street people he knew looked the other way. The solicitor, it appeared, wouldn't be back till the afternoon, and the clerk, an elderly person hitherto subservient, was curiously short about it.
By this time Mr. Twist was thoroughly uneasy, and he determined to ask the first acquaintance he met what the matter was. But he couldn't find anybody. Every one, his architect, his various experts—those genial and frolicsome young men—were either engaged or away on business somewhere else. He set his teeth, and drove to the Cosmopolitan to seek out old Ridding—it wasn't a place he drove to willingly after his recent undignified departure, but he was determined to get to the bottom of this thing—and walking into the parlour was instantly aware of a hush falling upon it, a holding of the breath.
In the distance he saw old Ridding,—distinctly; and distinctly he saw that old Ridding saw him. He was sitting at the far end of the great parlour, facing the entrance, by the side of something vast and black heaped up in the adjacent chair. He had the look on his pink and naturally pleasant face of one who has abandoned hope. On seeing Mr. Twist a ray of interest lit him up, and he half rose. The formless mass in the next chair which Mr. Twist had taken for inanimate matter, probably cushions and wraps, and now perceived was one of the higher mammals, put out a hand and said something,—at least, it opened that part of its face which is called a mouth but which to Mr. Twist in the heated and abnormal condition of his brain seemed like the snap-to of some great bag,—and at that moment a group of people crossed the hall in front of old Ridding, and when the path was again clear the chair that had contained him was empty. He had disappeared. Completely. Only the higher mammal was left, watching Mr. Twist with heavy eyes like two smouldering coals.
He couldn't face those eyes. He did try to, and hesitated while he tried, and then he found he couldn't; so he swerved away to the right, and went out quickly by the side door.
There was now one other person left who would perhaps clear him up as to the meaning of all this, and he was the lawyer he had gone to about the guardianship. True he had been angry with him at the time, but that was chiefly because he had been angry with himself. At bottom he had carried away an impression of friendliness. To this man he would now go as a last resource before turning back home, and once more he raced up Main Street in his Ford, producing by these repeated appearances an effect of agitation and restlessness that wasn't lost on the beholders.
The lawyer was in his office, and disengaged. After his morning's experience Mr. Twist was quite surprised and much relieved by being admitted at once. He was received neither coldly nor warmly, but with unmistakable interest.
"I've come to consult you," said Mr. Twist.
The lawyer nodded. He hadn't supposed he had come not to consult him, but he was used to patience with clients, and he well knew their preference in conversation for the self-evident.
"I want a straight answer to a straight question," said Mr. Twist, his great spectacles glaring anxiously at the lawyer who again nodded.
"Go on," he said, as Mr. Twist paused.
"What I want to know is," burst out Mr. Twist, "what the hell—"
The lawyer put up a hand. "One moment, Mr. Twist," he said. "Sorry to interrupt—"
And he got up quickly, and went to a door in the partition between his office and his clerks' room.
"You may go out to lunch now," he said, opening it a crack.
He then shut it, and came back to his seat at the table.
"Yes, Mr. Twist?" he said, settling down again. "You were inquiring what the hell—?"
"Well, I was about to," said Mr. Twist, suddenly soothed, "but you're so calm—"
"Of course I'm calm. I'm a quietly married man."
"I don't see what that's got to do with it."
"Everything. For some dispositions, everything. Mine is one. Yours is another."
"Well, I guess I've not come here to talk about marriage. What I want to know is why—"
"Quite so," said the lawyer, as he stopped. "And I can tell you. It's because your inn is suspected of being run in the interests of the German Government."
A deep silence fell upon the room. The lawyer watched Mr. Twist with a detached and highly intelligent interest. Mr. Twist stared at the lawyer, his kind, lavish lips fallen apart. Anger had left him. This blow excluded anger. There was only room in him for blank astonishment.
"You know about my teapot?" he said at last.
"Try me again, Mr. Twist."
"It's on every American breakfast table."
"Including my own."
"They wouldn't use it if they thought—"
"My dear sir, they're not going to," said the lawyer. "They're proposing, among other little plans for conveying the general sentiment to your notice, to boycott the teapot. It is to be put on an unofficial black list. It is to be banished from the hotels."
Mr. Twist's stare became frozen. The teapot boycotted? The teapot his mother and sister depended on and The Open Arms depended on, and all his happiness, and the twins? He saw the rumour surging over America in great swift waves, that the proceeds of the Twist Non-Trickler were used for Germany. He saw—but what didn't he see in that moment of submerged horror? Then he seemed to come to the surface again and resume reason with a gasp. "Why?" he asked.
"Why they're wanting to boycott the teapot?"
"No. Why do they think the inn—"
"The Miss Twinklers are German."
"The half that matters—begging my absent wife's pardon. I know all about that, you see. You started me off thinking them over by that ward notion of yours. It didn't take me long. It was pretty transparent. So transparent that my opinion of the intelligence of my fellow-townsfolk has considerably lowered. But we live in unbalanced times. I guess it's women at the bottom of this. Women got on to it first, and the others caught the idea as they'd catch scarlet fever. It's a kind of scarlet fever, this spy scare that's about. Mind you, I admit the germs are certainly present among us." And the lawyer smiled. He thought he saw he had made a little joke in that last remark.
Mr. Twist was not in the condition to see jokes, and didn't smile. "Do you mean to say those children—" he began.
"They're not regarded as children by any one except you."
"Well, if they're not," said Mr. Twist, remembering the grass by the wayside in the lane and what he had so recently met in it, "I guess I'd best be making tracks. But I know better. And so would you if you'd seen them on the boat. Why, twelve was putting their age too high on that boat."
"No doubt. No doubt. Then all I can say is they've matured pretty considerably since. Now do you really want me to tell you what is being believed?"
"Of course. It's what I've come for."
"You mayn't find it precisely exhilarating, Mr. Twist."
"What Acapulco says—and Los Angeles, I'm told, too, and probably by this time the whole coast—is that you threw over your widowed mother, of whom you're the only son, and came off here with two German girls who got hold of you on the boat—now, Mr. Twist, don't interrupt—on the boat crossing from England, that England had turned them out as undesirable aliens—quite so, Mr. Twist, but let me finish—that they're in the pay of the German Government—no doubt, no doubt, Mr. Twist—and that you're their cat's-paw. It is known that the inn each afternoon has been crowded with Germans, among them Germans already suspected, I can't say how rightly or how wrongly, of spying, and that these people are so familiar with the Miss von Twinklers as to warrant the belief in a complete secret understanding."
For a moment Mr. Twist continued both his silence and his stare. Then he took off his spectacles and wiped them. His hand shook. The lawyer was startled. Was there going to be emotion? One never knew with that sort of lips. "You're not—" he began.
Then he saw that Mr. Twist was trying not to laugh.
"I'm glad you take it that way," he said, relieved but surprised.
"It's so darned funny," said Mr. Twist, endeavouring to compose his features. "To anybody who knows those twins it's so darned funny. Cat's-paw. Yes—rather feel that myself. Cat's-paw. That does seem a bit of a bull's eye—" And for a second or two his features flatly refused to compose.
The lawyer watched him. "Yes," he said. "Yes. But the effect of these beliefs may be awkward."
"Oh, damned," agreed Mr. Twist, going solemn again.
And there came over him in a flood the clear perception of what it would mean,—the sheer disaster of it, the horrible situation those helpless Annas would be in. What a limitless fool he must have been in his conduct of the whole thing. His absorption in the material side of it had done the trick. He hadn't been clever enough, not imaginative enough, nor, failing that, worldly enough to work the other side properly. When he found there was no Dellogg he ought to have insisted on seeing Mrs. Dellogg, intrusion or no intrusion, and handing over the twins; and then gone away and left them. A woman was what was wanted. Fool that he was to suppose that he, a man, an unmarried man, could get them into anything but a scrape. But he was so fond of them. He just couldn't leave them. And now here they all were, in this ridiculous and terrible situation.
"There are two things you can do," said the lawyer.
"Two?" said Mr. Twist, looking at him with anxious eyes. "For the life of me I can't see even one. Except running amoke in slander actions—"
"Tut, tut," said the lawyer, waving that aside. "No. There are two courses to pursue. And they're not alternative, but simultaneous. You shut down the inn—at once, to-morrow—that's Saturday. Close on Saturday, and give notice you don't re-open—now pray let me finish—close the inn as an inn, and use it simply as a private residence. Then, as quick as may be, marry those girls."
"Marry what girls?"
"The Miss von Twinklers."
Mr. Twist stared at him. "Marry them?" he said helplessly. "Marry them who to?"
"You for one."
Mr. Twist stared at him in silence. Then he said, "You've said that to me before."
"Yep. And I'll say it again. I'll go on saying it till you've done it."
"'Well, if that's all you've got to offer as a suggestion for a way out—"
But Mr. Twist wasn't angry this time; he was too much battered by events; he hadn't the spirits to be angry.
"You've—got to—marry—one—of—those—girls," said the lawyer, at each word smiting the table with his open palm. "Turn her into an American. Get her out of this being a German business. And be able at the same time to protect the one who'll be your sister in-law. Why, even if you didn't want to, which is sheer nonsense, for of course any man would want to—I know what I'm talking about because I've seen them—it's your plain duty, having got them into this mess."
"But—marry which?" asked Mr. Twist, with increased helplessness and yet a manifest profound anxiety for further advice.
For the first time the lawyer showed impatience "Oh—either or both," he said. "For God's sake don't be such a—"
He pulled up short.
"I didn't quite mean that," he resumed, again calm. "The end of that sentence was, as no doubt you guess, fool. I withdraw it, and will substitute something milder. Have you any objection to ninny?"
No, Mr. Twist didn't mind ninny, or any other word the lawyer might choose, he was in such a condition of mental groping about. He took out his handkerchief and wiped away the beads on his forehead and round his mouth.
"I'm thirty-five," he said, looking terribly worried.
Propose to an Anna? The lawyer may have seen them, but he hadn't heard them; and the probable nature of their comments if Mr. Twist proposed to them—to one, he meant of course, but both would comment, the one he proposed to and the one he didn't—caused his imagination to reel. He hadn't much imagination; he knew that now, after his conduct of this whole affair, but all there was of it reeled.
"I'm thirty-five," he said helplessly.
"Pooh," said the lawyer, indicating the negligibleness of this by a movement of his shoulder.
"They're seventeen," said Mr. Twist.
"Pooh," said the lawyer again, again indicating negligibleness. "My wife was—"
"I know. You told me that last time. Oh, I know all that" said Mr. Twist with sudden passion. "But these are children. I tell you they're children—"
"Pooh," said the lawyer a third time, a third time indicating negligibleness.
Then he got up and held out his hand. "Well, I've told you," he said. "You wanted to know, and I've told you. And I'll tell you one thing more, Mr. Twist. Whichever of those girls takes you, you'll have the sweetest, prettiest wife of any man in the world except one, and that's the man who has the luck to get the other one. Why, sweetest and prettiest are poor words. She'll be the most delectable, the most—"
Mr. Twist rose from his chair in such haste that he pushed the table crooked. His ears flamed.
"See here," he said very loud. "I won't have you talk familiarly like that about my wife."
Wife. The word had a remarkable effect on him. It churned him all up. His thoughts were a chaotic jumble, and his driving on the way home matched them. He had at least three narrow shaves at cross streets before he got out of the town and for an entire mile afterwards he was on the wrong side of the road. During this period, deep as he was in confused thought, he couldn't but vaguely notice the anger on the faces of the other drivers and the variety and fury of their gesticulations, and it roused a dim wonder in him.
Wife. How arid existence had been for him up to then in regard to the affections, how knobbly the sort of kisses he had received in Clark. They weren't kisses; they were disapproving pecks. Always disapproving. Always as if he hadn't done enough, or been enough, or was suspected of not going to do or be enough.
His wife. Mr. Twist dreadfully longed to kiss somebody,—somebody kind and soft, who would let herself be adored. She needn't even love him,—he knew he wasn't the sort of man to set passion alight; she need only be kind, and a little fond of him, and let him love her, and be his very own.
His own little wife. How sweet. How almost painfully sweet. Yes. But the Annas....
When he thought of the Annas, Mr. Twist went damp. He might propose—indeed, everything pointed to his simply having got to—but wouldn't they very quickly dispose? And then what? That lawyer seemed to think all he had to do was to marry them right away; not them, of course,—one; but they were so very plural in his mind. Funny man, thought Mr. Twist; funny man,—yet otherwise so sagacious. It is true he need only propose to one of them, for which he thanked God, but he could imagine what that one, and what the other one too, who would be sure to be somewhere quite near would ... no, he couldn't imagine; he preferred not to imagine.
Mr. Twist's dampness increased, and a passing car got his mud-guard. It was a big car which crackled with language as it whizzed on its way, and Mr. Twist, slewed by the impact half across the road, then perceived on which side he had been driving.
The lane up to the inn was in its middle-day emptiness and somnolence. Where Anna-Felicitas and Elliott had been sitting cool and shaded when he passed before, there was only the pressed-down grass and crushed flowers in a glare of sun. She had gone home long ago of course. She said she was going to be very busy. Secretly he wished she hadn't gone home, and that little Christopher too might for a bit be somewhere else, so that when he arrived he wouldn't immediately have to face everybody at once. He wanted to think; he wanted to have time to think; time before four o'clock came, and with four o'clock, if he hadn't come to any conclusion about shutting up the inn—and how could he if nobody gave him time to think?—those accursed, swarming Germans. It was they who had done all this. Mr. Twist blazed into sudden fury. They and their blasted war....
At the gate stood Anna-Rose. Her face looked quite pale in the green shade of the tunnelled-out syringa bushes. She as peering out down the lane watching him approach. This was awful, thought Mr. Twist. At the very gate one of them. Confronted at once. No time, not a minute's time given him to think.
"Oh," cried out Anna-Rose the instant he pulled up, for she had waved to him to stop when he tried to drive straight on round to the stable, "she isn't with you?"
"Who isn't?" asked Mr. Twist.
Anna-Rose became paler than ever. "She has been kidnapped," she said.
"How's that?" said Mr. Twist, staring at her from the car.
"Kidnapped," repeated Anna-Rose, with wide-open horror-stricken eyes; for from her nursery she carried with her at the bottom of her mind, half-forgotten but ready to fly up to the top at any moment of panic, an impression that the chief activities and recreations of all those Americans who weren't really good were two: they lynched, and they kidnapped. They lynched you if they didn't like you enough, and if they liked you too much they kidnapped you. Anna-Felicitas, exquisite and unsuspecting, had been kidnapped. Some American's concupiscent eye had alighted on her, observed her beauty, and marked her down. No other explanation was possible of a whole morning's absence from duties of one so conscientious and painstaking as Anna-Felicitas. She never shirked; that is, she never had been base enough to shirk alone. If there was any shirking to be done they had always done it together. As the hours passed and she didn't appear, Anna-Rose had tried to persuade herself that she must have motored into Acapulco with Mr. Twist, strange and unnatural and reprehensible and ignoble as such arch shirking would have been; and now that the car had come back empty except for Mr. Twist she was convinced the worst had happened—her beautiful, her precious Columbus had been kidnapped.
"Kidnapped," she said again, wringing her hands.
Mr. Twist was horror-struck too, for he thought she was announcing the kidnapping of Mrs. Bilton. Somehow he didn't think of Anna-Felicitas; he had seen her too recently. But that Mrs. Bilton should be kidnapped seemed to him to touch the lowest depths of American criminal enterprise and depravity. At the same time though he recoiled before this fresh blow a thought did fan through his mind with a wonderful effect of coolness and silence,—"Then they'll gag her," he said.
"What?" cried Anna-Rose, as though a whip had lashed her. "Gag her?" And pulling open the gate and running out to him as one possessed she cried again, "Gag Columbus?"
"Oh that's it, is it," said Mr. Twist, with relief but also with disappointment, "Well, if it's that way I can tell you—"
He stopped; there was no need to tell her; for round the bend of the lane, walking bare-headed in the chequered light and shade as leisurely as if such things as tours of absence didn't exist, or a distracted household, or an anguished Christopher, with indeed, a complete, an extraordinary serenity, advanced Anna-Felicitas.
Always placid, her placidity at this moment had a shining quality. Still smug, she was now of a glorified smugness. If one could imagine a lily turned into a god, or a young god turned into a lily and walking down the middle of a sun-flecked Californian lane, it wouldn't be far out, thought Mr. Twist, as an image of the advancing Twinkler. The god would be so young that he was still a boy, and he wouldn't be worrying much about anything in the past or in the future, and he'd just be coming along like that with the corners of his mouth a little turned up, and his fair hair a little ruffled, and his charming young face full of a sober and abstracted radiance.
"Not much kidnapping there, I guess," said Mr. Twist with a jerk of his thumb. "And you take it from me, Anna I.," he added quickly, leaning over towards her, determined to get off to the garage before he found himself faced by both twins together, "that when next your imagination gets the jumps the best thing you can do is to hold on to it hard till it settles down again, instead of wasting your time and ruining your constitution going pale."
And he started the Ford with a bound, and got away round the corner into the yard.
Here, in the yard, was peace; at least for the moment. The only living thing in it was a cat the twins had acquired, through the services of one of the experts, as an indispensable object in a really homey home. The first thing this cat had done had been to eat the canary, which gave the twins much unacknowledged relief. It was, they thought secretly, quite a good plan to have one's pets inside each other,—it kept them so quiet. She now sat unmoved in the middle of the yard, carefully cleaning her whiskers while Mr. Twist did some difficult fancy driving in order to get into the stable without inconveniencing her.
Admirable picture of peace, thought Mr. Twist with a sigh of envy.
He might have got out and picked her up, but he was glad to manoeuvre about, reversing and making intricate figures in the dust, because it kept him longer away from the luncheon-table. The cat took no notice of him, but continued to deal with her whiskers even when his front wheel was within two inches of her tail, for though she hadn't been long at The Open Arms she had already sized up Mr. Twist and was aware that he wouldn't hurt a fly.
Thanks to her he had a lot of trouble getting the Ford into the stable, all of which he liked because of that luncheon-table; and having got it in he still lingered fiddling about with it, examining its engine and wiping its bonnet; and then when he couldn't do that any longer he went out and lingered in the yard, looking down at the cat with his hands in his pockets. "I must think," he kept on saying to himself.
"Lunchee," said Li Koo, putting his head out of the kitchen window.
"All right," said Mr. Twist.
He stooped down as though to examine the cat's ear. The cat, who didn't like her ears touched but was prepared to humour him, got out of it by lying down on her back and showing him her beautiful white stomach. She was a black cat, with a particularly beautiful white stomach, and she had discovered that nobody could see it without wanting to stroke it. Whenever she found herself in a situation that threatened to become disagreeable she just lay down and showed her stomach. Human beings in similar predicaments can only show their tact.
"Nice pussy—nice, nice pussy," said Mr. Twist aloud, stroking this irresistible object slowly, and forgetting her ear as she had intended he should.
"Lunchee get cold," said Li Koo, again putting his head out of the kitchen window. "Mis' Bilton say, Come in."
"All right," said Mr. Twist.
He straightened himself and looked round the yard. A rake that should have been propped up against the tool-shed with some other gardening tools had fallen down. He crossed over and picked it up and stood it up carefully again.
Li Koo watched him impassively from the window.
"Mis' Bilton come out," he said; and there she was in the yard door.
"Mr. Twist," she called shrilly, "if you don't come in right away and have your food before it gets all mushed up with cold I guess you'll be sorry."
"All right—coming," he called back very loud and cheerfully, striding towards her as one strides who knows there is nothing for it now but courage. "All right, Mrs. Bilton—sorry if I've kept you waiting. You shouldn't have bothered about me—"
And saying things like this in a loud voice, for to hear himself being loud made him feel more supported, he strode into the house, through the house, and out on to the verandah.
They always lunched on the verandah. The golden coloured awning was down, and the place was full of a golden shade. Beyond it blazed the garden. Beneath it was the flower-adorned table set as usual ready for four, and he went out to it, strung up to finding the Annas at the table, Anna-Felicitas in her usual seat with her back to the garden, her little fair head outlined against the glowing light as he had seen it every day since they had lived in the inn, Anna-Rose opposite, probably volubly and passionately addressing her.
And there was no one.
"Why—" he said, stopping short.
"Yes. It's real silly of them not to come and eat before everything is spoilt," said Mrs. Bilton bustling up, who had stayed behind to give an order to Li Koo. And she went to the edge of the verandah and shaded her eyes and called, "Gurls! Gurls! I guess you can do all that talking better after lunch."
He then saw that down at the bottom of the garden, in the most private place as regards being overheard, partly concealed by some arum lilies that grew immensely there like splendid weeds, stood the twins facing each other.
"Better leave them alone," he said quickly. "They'll come when they're ready. There's nothing like getting through with one's talking right away, Mrs. Bilton. Besides," he went on still more quickly for she plainly didn't agree with him and was preparing to sally out into the sun and fetch them in, "you and I don't often get a chance of a quiet chat together—"
And this, combined with the resolute way he was holding her chair ready for her, brought Mrs. Bilton back under the awning again.
She was flattered. Mr. Twist had not yet spoken to her in quite that tone. He had always been the gentleman, but never yet the eager gentleman. Now he was unmistakably both.
She came back and sat down, and so with a sigh of thankfulness immediately did he, for here was an unexpected respite,—while Mrs. Bilton talked he could think. Fortunately she never noticed if one wasn't listening. For the first time since he had known her he gave himself up willingly to the great broad stream that at once started flowing over him, on this occasion with something of the comfort of warm water, and he was very glad indeed that anyhow that day she wasn't gagged.
While he ate, he kept on furtively looking down the garden at the two figures facing each other by the arum lilies. Whenever Mrs. Bilton remembered them and wanted to call them in, as she did at the different stages, of the meal,—at the salad, at the pudding—he stopped her. She became more and more pleased by his evident determination to lunch alone with her, for after all one remains female to the end, and her conversation took on a gradual tinge of Mr. Bilton's views about second marriages. They had been liberal views; for Mr. Bilton, she said, had had no post-mortem pettiness about him, but they were lost on Mr. Twist, whose thoughts were so painfully preoccupied by first marriage.
The conclusions he came to during that trying meal while Mrs. Bilton talked, were that he would propose first to Anna-Rose, she being the eldest and such a course being accordingly natural, and, if she refused, proceed at once to propose to Anna-Felicitas. But before proceeding to Anna-Felicitas, a course he regarded with peculiar misgiving, he would very earnestly explain to Anna-Rose the seriousness of the situation and the necessity, the urgency, the sanity of her marrying him. These proposals would be kept on the cool level of strict business. Every trace of the affection with which he was so overflowing would be sternly excluded. For instance, he wasn't going to let himself remember the feel of Christopher's little head the afternoon before when he patted it to comfort her. Such remembrances would be bound to bring a warmth into his remarks which wouldn't be fair. The situation demanded the most scrupulous fairness and delicacy in its treatment, the most careful avoidance of taking any advantage of it. But how difficult, thought Mr. Twist, his hand shaking as he poured himself out a glass of iced water, how difficult when he loved the Annas so inconveniently much.
Mrs. Bilton observed the shaking of his hand, and felt more female than ever.
Still, there it was, this situation forced upon them all by the war. Nobody could help it, and it had to be faced with calmness, steadfastness and tact. Calmness, steadfastness and tact, repeated Mr. Twist, raising the water to his mouth and spilling some of it.
Mrs. Bilton observed this too, and felt still more female.
Marriage was the quickest, and really the only, way out of it. He saw that now. The lawyer had been quite right. And marriage, he would explain to the Annas, would be a mere formal ceremony which after the war they—he meant, of course, she—could easily in that land of facile and honourable divorce get rid of. Meanwhile, he would point out, they—she, of course; bother these twins—would be safely American, and he would undertake never to intrude love on them—her—unless by some wonderful chance, it was wanted. Some wonderful chance ... Mr. Twist's spectacles suddenly went dim, and he gulped down more water.
Yes. That was the line to take: the austere line of self-mortification for the Twinkler good. One Twinkler would be his wife—again at the dear word he had to gulp down water—and one his sister-in-law. They would just have to agree to this plan. The position was too serious for shilly-shallying. Yes. That was the line to take; and by the time he had got to the coffee it was perfectly clear and plain to him.
But he felt dreadfully damp. He longed for a liqueur, for anything that would support him....
"Is there any brandy in the house?" he suddenly flung across the web of Mrs. Bilton's words.
"Brandy, Mr. Twist?" she repeated, at this feeling altogether female, for what an unusual thing for him to ask for,—"You're not sick?"
"With my coffee," murmured Mr. Twist, his mouth very slack, his head drooping. "It's nice...."
"I'll go and see," said Mrs. Bilton, getting up briskly and going away rattling a bunch of keys.
At once he looked down the garden. Anna-Felicitas was in the act of putting her arm round Anna-Rose's shoulder, and Anna-Rose was passionately disengaging herself. Yes. There was trouble there. He knew there would be.
He gulped down more water.
Anna-Felicitas couldn't expect to go off like that for a whole morning and give Anna-Rose a horrible fright without hearing about it. Besides, the expression on her face wanted explaining,—a lot of explaining. Mr. Twist didn't like to think so, but Anna-Felicitas's recent conduct seemed to him almost artful. It seemed to him older than her years. It seemed to justify the lawyer's scepticism when he described the twins to him as children. That young man Elliott—
But here Mr. Twist started and lost his thread of thought, for looking once more down the garden he saw that Anna-Felicitas was coming towards the verandah, and that she was alone. Anna-Rose had vanished. Why had he bothered about brandy, and let Mrs. Bilton go? He had counted, somehow, on beginning with Anna-Rose....
He seized a cigarette and lit it. He tried vainly to keep his hand steady. Before the cigarette was fairly plight there was Anna-Felicitas, walking in beneath the awning.
"I'm glad you're alone," she said, "for I want to speak to you."
And Mr. Twist felt that his hour had come.
"Hadn't you better have lunch first?" he asked, though he knew from the look on her face that she wouldn't. It was a very remarkable look. It was as though an angel, dwelling in perfect bliss, had unaccountably got its feet wet. Not more troubled than that; a little troubled, but not more than that.
"No thank you," she said politely. "But if you've finished yours, do you mind coming into the office? Because otherwise Mrs. Bilton—"
"She's fetching me some brandy," said Mr. Twist.
"I didn't know you drank," said Anna-Felicitas, even at this moment interested. "But do you mind having it afterwards? Because otherwise Mrs. Bilton—"
"I guess the idea was to have it first," said Mr. Twist.
She was however already making for the tea-room, proceeding towards it without hurry, and with a single-mindedness that would certainly get her there.
He could only follow.
In the office she said, "Do you mind shutting the door?"
"Not at all," said Mr. Twist; but he did mind. His hour had come, and he wasn't liking it. He wanted to begin with Anna-Rose. He wanted to get things clear with her first before dealing with this one. There was less of Anna-Rose. And her dear little head yesterday when he patted it.... And she needed comforting.... Anna-Rose cried, and let herself be comforted.... And it was so sweet to Mr. Twist to comfort....
"Christopher—" began Anna-Felicitas, directly he had shut the door.
"I know. She's mad with you. What can you expect, Anna II.?" he interrupted in a very matter-of-fact voice, leaning against a bookcase. Even a bookcase was better than nothing to lean against.
"Christopher is being unreasonable," said Anna-Felicitas, her voice softer and gentler than he had yet heard it.
Then she stopped, and considered him a moment with much of the look of one who on a rather cold day considers the sea before diving in—with, that is, a slight but temporary reluctance to proceed.
"Won't you sit down?" said Mr. Twist.
"Perhaps I'd better," she said, disposing herself in the big chair. "It's very strange, but my legs feel funny. You wouldn't think being in love would make one want to sit down."
"I beg your pardon?" said Mr. Twist.
"I have fallen in love," said Anna-Felicitas, looking up at him with a kind of pensive radiance. "I did it this morning."
Mr. Twist stared at her. "I beg your—what did you say?" he asked.
She said, still with that air as she regarded him of pensive radiance, of not seeing him but something beyond him that was very beautiful to her and satisfactory, "I've fallen in love, and I can't tell you how pleased I am because I've always been afraid I was going to find it a difficult thing to do. But it wasn't. Quite the contrary."
Then, as he only staged at her, she said, "He's coming round this afternoon on the new footing, and I wanted to prepare your and Christopher's minds in good time so that you shouldn't be surprised."
And having said this she lapsed into what was apparently, judging from her expression, a silent contemplation of her bliss.
"But you're too young," burst out Mr. Twist.
"Too young?" repeated Anna-Felicitas, coming out of her contemplation for a moment to smile at him. "We don't think so."
Well. This beat everything.
Mr. Twist could only stare down at her.
Conflicting emotions raged in him. He couldn't tell for a moment what they were, they were so violent and so varied. How dared Elliott. How dared a person they had none of them heard of that time yesterday come making love to a girl he had never seen before. And in such a hurry. So suddenly. So instantly. Here had he himself been with the twins constantly for weeks, and wouldn't have dreamed of making love to them. They had been sacred to him. And it wasn't as if he hadn't wanted to hug them often and often, but he had restrained himself as a gentleman should from the highest motives of delicacy, and consideration, and respect, and propriety, besides a great doubt as to whether they wouldn't very energetically mind. And then comes along this blundering Britisher, and straight away tumbles right in where Mr. Twist had feared to tread, and within twenty-four hours had persuaded Anna-Felicitas to think she was in love. New footing indeed. There hadn't been an old footing yet. And who was this Elliott? And how was Mr. Twist going to be able to find out if he were a proper person to be allowed to pay his addresses to one so precious as a Twinkler twin?
Anger, jealousy, anxiety, sense of responsibility and mortification, all tumbled about furiously together inside Mr. Twist as he leaned against the bookcase and gazed down at Anna-Felicitas, who for her part was gazing beatifically into space; but through the anger, and the jealousy, and the anxiety, and the sense of responsibility and mortification one great thought was struggling, and it finally pushed every other aside and got out to the top of the welter: here, in the chair before him, he beheld his sister-in-law. So much at least was cleared up.
He crossed to the bureau and dragged his office-stool over next to her and sat down. "So that's it, is it?" he said, trying to speak very calmly, but his face pulled all sorts of ways, as it had so often been since the arrival in his life of the twins.
"Yes," she said, coming out of her contemplation. "It's love at last."
"I don't know about at last. Whichever way you look at it, Anna II., that don't seem to hit it off as a word. What I meant was, it's Elliott."
"Yes," said Anna-Felicitas. "Which is the same thing. I believe," she added, "I now have to allude to him as John."
Mr. Twist made another effort to speak calmly. "You don't," he said, "think it at all unusual or undesirable that you should be calling a man John to-day of whom you'd never heard yesterday."
"I think it's wonderful," said Anna-Felicitas beaming.
"It doesn't strike you in any way as imprudent to be so hasty. It doesn't strike you as foolish."
"On the contrary," said Anna-Felicitas. "I can't help thinking I've been very clever. I shouldn't have thought it of myself. You see, I'm not naturally quick." And she beamed with what she evidently regarded as a pardonable pride.
"It doesn't strike you as even a little—well, a little improper."
"On the contrary," said Anna-Felicitas. "Aunt Alice told us that the one man one could never be improper about, even if one tried, was one's husband."
"Husband?" Mr. Twist winced. He loved, as we have seen, the word wife, but then that was different.
"It's not time yet to talk of husbands," he said, full of a flaming unreasonableness and jealousy and the sore feeling that he who had been toiling so long and so devotedly in the heat of the Twinkler sun had had a most unfair march stolen on him by this eleventh-hour stranger.
He flamed with unreasonableness. Yet he knew this was the solution of half his problem,—and of much the worst half, for it was after all Anna-Felicitas who had produced the uncomfortable feeling of slipperiness, of eels; Anna-Rose had been quite good, sitting in a chair crying and just so sweetly needing comfort. But now that the solution was presented to him he was full of fears. For on what now could he base his proposal to Anna-Rose? Elliott would be the legitimate protector of both the Twinklers. Mr. Twist, who had been so much perturbed by the idea of having to propose to one or other twin, was miserably upset by the realization that now he needn't propose to either. Elliott had cut the ground from under his feet. He had indeed—what was the expression he used the evening before?—yes, nipped in. There was now no necessity for Anna-Rose to marry him, and Mr. Twist had an icy and forlorn feeling that on no other basis except necessity would she. He was thirty-five. It was all very well for Elliott to get proposing to people of seventeen; he couldn't be more than twenty-five. And it wasn't only age. Mr. Twist hadn't shaved before looking-glasses for nothing, and he was very distinctly aware that Elliott was extremely attractive.
"It's not time yet to talk of husbands," he therefore hotly and jealously said.
"On the contrary," said Anna-Felicitas gently, "it's not only time but war-time. The war, I have observed, is making people be quick and sudden about all sorts of things."
"You haven't observed it. That's Elliott said that."
"He may have," said Anna-Felicitas. "He said so many things—"
And again she lapsed into contemplation; into, thought Mr. Twist as he gazed jealously at her profile, an ineffable, ruminating, reminiscent smugness.
"See here, Anna II.," he said, finding it impossibly painful to wait while she contemplated, "suppose you don't at this particular crisis fall into quite so many ecstatic meditations. There isn't as much time as you seem to think."
"No—and there's Christopher," said Anna-Felicitas, giving herself a shake, and with that slightly troubled look coming into her face again as of having, in spite of being an angel in glory, somehow got her feet wet.
"Precisely," said Mr. Twist, getting up and walking about the room. "There's Christopher. Now Christopher, I should say, would be pretty well heart-broken over this."
"But that's so unreasonable," said Anna-Felicitas with gentle deprecation.
"You're all she has got, and she'll be under the impression—the remarkably vivid impression—that she's losing you."
"But that's so unreasonable. She isn't losing me. It's sheer gain. Without the least effort or bother on her part she's acquiring a brother-in-law."
"Oh, I know what Christopher feels," said Mr. Twist, going up and down the room quickly. "I know right enough, because I feel it all myself."
"But that's so unreasonable," said Anna-Felicitas earnestly. "Why should two of you be feeling things that aren't?"
"She has always regarded herself as responsible for you, and I shouldn't be surprised if she were terribly shocked at your conduct."
"But there has to be conduct," said Anna-Felicitas, still very gentle, but looking as though her feet were getting wetter. "I don't see how anybody is ever to fall in love unless there's been some conduct first."
"Oh, don't argue—don't argue. You can't expect Anna-Rose not to mind your wanting to marry a perfect stranger, a man she hasn't even seen."
"But everybody you marry started by being a perfect stranger and somebody you hadn't ever seen," said Anna-Felicitas.
"Oh Lord, if only you wouldn't argue!" exclaimed Mr. Twist. "And as for your aunt in England, what's she going to say to this twenty-four-hours, quick-lunch sort of engagement? She'll be terribly upset. And Anna-Rose knows that, and is I expect nigh worried crazy."
"But what," asked Anna-Felicitas, "have aunts to do with love?"
Then she said very earnestly, her face a little flushed, her eyes troubled, "Christopher said all that you're saying now, and a lot more, down in the garden before I came to you, and I said what I've been saying to you, and a lot more, but she wouldn't listen. And when I found she wouldn't listen I tried to comfort her, but she wouldn't be comforted. And then I came to you; for besides wanting to tell you what I've done I wanted to ask you to comfort Christopher."
Mr. Twist paused a moment in his walk. "Yes," he said, staring at the carpet. "Yes. I can very well imagine she needs it. But I don't suppose anything I would say—"
"Christopher is very fond of you," said Anna-Felicitas gently.
"Oh yes. You're both very fond of me," said Mr. Twist, pulling his mouth into a crooked and unhappy smile.
"We love you," said Anna-Felicitas simply.
Mr. Twist looked at her, and a mist came over his spectacles. "You dear children," he said, "you dear, dear children—"
"I don't know about children—" began Anna-Felicitas; but was interrupted by a knock at the door.
"It's only the brandy," said Mr. Twist, seeing her face assume the expression he had learned to associate with the approach of Mrs. Bilton. "Take it away, please Mrs. Bilton," he called out, "and put it on the—"
Mrs. Bilton however, didn't take anything away, but opened the door an inch instead. "There's someone wants to speak to you, Mr. Twist," she said in a loud whisper, thrusting in a card. "He says he just must. I found him on the verandah when I took your brandy out, and as I'm not the woman to leave a stranger alone with good brandy I brought him in with me, and he's right here back of me in the tea-room."
"It's John," remarked Anna-Felicitas placidly. "Come early."
"I say—" said a voice behind Mrs. Bilton.
"Yes," nodded Anna-Felicitas, getting up out of the deep chair. "That's John."
"I say—may I come in? I've got something important—"
Mr. Twist looked at Anna-Felicitas. "Wouldn't you rather—?" he began.
"I don't mind John," she said softly, her face flooded with a most beautiful light.
Mr. Twist opened the door and went out. "Come in," he said. "Mrs. Bilton, may I present Mr. Elliott to you—Commander Elliott of the British Navy."
"Pleased to meet you, Commander Elliott," said Mrs. Bilton. "Mr. Twist, your brandy is on the verandah. Shall I bring it to you in here?"
"No thank you, Mrs. Bilton. I'll go out there presently. Perhaps you wouldn't mind waiting for me there—I don't suppose Mr. Elliott will want to keep me long. Come in, Mr. Elliott."
And having disposed of Mrs. Bilton, who was in a particularly willing and obedient and female mood, he motioned Elliott into the office.
There stood Anna-Felicitas.
Elliott stopped dead.
"This isn't fair," he said, his eyes twinkling and dancing.
"What isn't?" inquired Anna-Felicitas gently, beaming at him.
"Your being here. I've got to talk business. Look here, sir," he said, turning to Mr. Twist, "could you talk business with her there?"
"Not if she argued," said Mr. Twist.
"Argued! I wouldn't mind her arguing. It's just her being there. I've got to talk business," he said, turning to Anna-Felicitas,—"business about marrying you. And how can I with you standing there looking like—well, like that?"
"I don't know," said Anna-Felicitas placidly, not moving.
"But you'll interrupt—just your being there will interrupt. I shall see you out of the corner of my eye, and it'll be impossible not to—I mean I know I'll want to—I mean, Anna-Felicitas my dear, it isn't done. I've got to explain all sorts of things to your guardian—"
"He isn't my guardian," corrected the accurate Anna-Felicitas gently. "He only very nearly once was."
"Well, anyhow I've got to explain a lot of things that'll take some time, and it isn't so much explain as persuade—for I expect," he said, turning to Mr. Twist, "this strikes you as a bit sudden, sir?"
"It would strike anybody," said Mr. Twist trying to be stern but finding it difficult, for Elliott was so disarmingly engaging and so disarmingly in love. The radiance on Anna-Felicitas's face might have been almost a reflection caught from his. Mr. Twist had never seen two people look so happy. He had never, of course, before been present at the first wonderful dawning of love. The whole room seemed to glow with the surprise of it.
"There. You see?" said Elliott, again appealing to Anna-Felicitas, who stood smiling beatifically at him without moving. "I've got to explain that it isn't after all as mad as it seems, and that I'm a fearfully decent chap and can give you lots to eat, and that I've got a jolly little sister here who's respectable and well-known besides, and I'm going to produce references to back up these assertions, and proofs that I'm perfectly sound in health except for my silly foot, which isn't health but just foot and which you don't seem to mind anyhow, and how—I ask you how, Anna-Felicitas my dear, am I to do any of this with you standing there looking like—well, like that?"
"I don't know," said Anna-Felicitas again, still not moving.
"Anna-Felicitas, my dear," he said, "won't you go?"
"No, John," said Anna-Felicitas gently.
His eyes twinkled and danced more than ever. He took a step towards her, then checked himself and looked round beseechingly at Mr. Twist.
"Somebody's got to go," he said.
"Yes," said Mr. Twist. "And I guess it's me."
He went straight in search of Anna-Rose.
He was going to propose to her. He couldn't bear it. He couldn't bear the idea of his previous twins, his blessed little Twinklers, both going out of his life at the same time, and he couldn't bear, after what he had just seen in the office, the loneliness of being left outside love.
All his life he had stood on the door-mat outside the shut door of love. He had had no love; neither at home, where they talked so much about it and there wasn't any, nor, because of his home and its inhibitions got so thoroughly into his blood, anywhere else. He had never tried to marry,—again because of his home and his mother and the whole only-son-of-a-widow business. He would try now. He would risk it. It was awful to risk it, but it was more awful not to. He adored Anna-Rose. How nearly the afternoon before, when she sat crying in his chair, had he taken her in his arms! Why, he would have taken her into them then and there, while she was in that state, while she was in the need of comfort, and never let her go out of them again, if it hadn't been that he had got the idea so firmly fixed in his head that she was a child. Fool that he was. Elliott had dispelled that idea for him. It wasn't children who looked as Anna-Felicitas had looked just now in the office. Anna-Rose, it is true, seemed younger than Anna-Felicitas, but that was because she was little and easily cried. He loved her for being little. He loved her because she easily cried. He yearned and hungered to comfort, to pet to take care of. He was, as has been pointed out, a born mother.
Avoiding the verandah and Mrs. Bilton, Mr. Twist filled with recklessness, hurried upstairs and knocked at Anna-Rose's door. No answer. He listened. Dead silence. He opened it a slit and peeped in. Emptiness. Down he went again and made for the kitchen, because Li Koo, who always knew everything, might know where she was. Li Koo did. He jerked his head towards the window, and Mr. Twist hurried to it and looked out. There in the middle of the yard was the cat, exactly where he had left her an hour before, and kneeling beside her stroking her stomach was Anna-Rose.
She had her back to the house and her face was hidden. The sun streamed down on her bare head and on the pale gold rings of hair that frisked round her neck. She didn't hear him till he was close to her, so much absorbed was she apparently in the cat; and when she did she didn't look up, but bent her head lower than before and stroked more assiduously.
"Anna-Rose," said Mr. Twist.
"Come and talk to me."
"Don't think. Come and talk to me, little—little dear one."
She bent her head lower still. "I'm thinking," she said again.
"Come and tell me what you're thinking."
"I'm thinking about cats."
"About cats?" said Mr. Twist, uncertainly.
"Yes," said Anna-Rose, stroking the cat's stomach faster and carefully keeping her face hidden from him. "About how wise and wonderful they are."
"Well then if that's all, you can go on with that presently and come and talk to me now."
"You see," said Anna-Rose, not heeding this, "they're invariably twins, and more than twins, for they're often fours and sometimes sixes, but still they sit in the sun quietly all their lives and don't mind a bit what their—what their twins do—"
"Ah," said Mr. Twist. "Now I'm getting there."
"They don't mind a bit about anything. They just clean their whiskers and they purr. Perhaps it's that that comforts them. Perhaps if I—if I had whiskers and a—and a purr—"
The cat leaped suddenly to her feet and shook herself violently. Something hot and wet had fallen on her beautiful stomach.
Anna-Rose made a little sound strangers might have taken for a laugh as she put out her arms and caught her again, but it was a sound so wretched, so piteous in the attempt to hide away from him, that Mr. Twist's heart stood still. "Oh, don't go," she said, catching at the cat and hugging her tight, "I can't let you go—" And she buried her face in her fur, so that Mr. Twist still couldn't see it.
"Now that's enough about the cat," he said, speaking very firmly. "You're coming with me." And he stooped and picked her up, cat and all, and set her on her feet.
Then he saw her face.
"Good God, Anna-Rose!" he exclaimed.
"I did try not to show you," she said; and she added, taking shelter behind her pride and looking at him as defiantly as she could out of eyes almost closed up, "but you mustn't suppose just because I happen to—to seem as if I'd been crying that I—that I'm minding anything."
"Oh no," said Mr. Twist, who at sight of her face had straightway forgotten about himself and his longings and his proposals, and only knew that he must comfort Christopher. "Oh no," he said, looking at her aghast, "I'm not supposing we're minding anything, either of us."
He took her by the arm. Comfort Christopher; that's what he had got to do. Get rid as quickly as possible of that look of agony—yes, it was downright agony—on her face.
He thought he guessed what she was thinking and feeling; he thought—he was pretty sure—she was thinking and feeling that her beloved Columbus had gone from her, and gone to a stranger, in a day, in a few hours, to a stranger she had never even seen, never even heard of; that her Columbus had had secrets from her, had been doing things behind her back; that she had had perfect faith and trust in her twin, and now was tasting the dreadful desolation of betrayal; and he also guessed that she must be sick with fears,—for he knew how responsible she felt, how seriously she took the charge of her beautiful twin—sick with fear about this unknown man, sick with the feeling of helplessness, of looking on while Columbus rushed into what might well be, for all any one knew, a deadly mess-up of her happiness.
Well, he could reason her out of most of this, he felt. Certainly he could reassure her about Elliott, who did inspire one with confidence, who did seem, anyhow outwardly, a very fitting mate for Anna-Felicitas. But he was aghast at the agony on her face. All that he guessed she was thinking and feeling didn't justify it. It was unreasonable to suffer so violently on account of what was, after all, a natural happening. But however unreasonable it was, she was suffering.
He took her by the arm. "You come right along with me," he said; and led her out of the yard, away from Li Koo and the kitchen window, towards the eucalyptus grove behind the house. "You come right along with me," he repeated, holding her firmly for she was very wobbly on her feet, "and we'll tell each other all about the things we're not minding. Do you remember when the St. Luke left Liverpool? You thought I thought you were minding things then, and were very angry with me. We've made friends since, haven't we, and we aren't going to mind anything ever again except each other."
But he hardly knew what he was saying, so great was his concern and distress.
Anna-Rose went blindly. She stumbled along, helped by him, clutching the cat. She couldn't see out of her swollen eyes. Her foot caught in a root, and the cat, who had for some minutes past been thoroughly uneasy, became panic-stricken and struggled out of her arms, and fled into the wood. She tried to stop it, but it would go. For some reason this broke down her self-control. The warm cat clutched to her breast had at least been something living to hold on to. Now the very cat had gone. Her pride collapsed, and she tumbled against Mr. Twist's arm and just sobbed.
If ever a man felt like a mother it was Mr. Twist at that moment. He promptly sat her down on the grass. "There now—there, there now," he said, whipping out his handkerchief and anxiously mopping up her face. "This is what I did on the St. Luke—do you remember?—there now—that time you told me about your mother—it looks like being my permanent job—there, there now—don't now—you'll have no little eyes left soon if you go on like this—"
"Oh but—oh but—Co-Columbus—"
"Yes, yes I know all about Columbus. Don't you worry about her. She's all right. She's all right in the office at this moment, and we're all right out here if only you knew it, if only you wouldn't cry such quantities. It beats me where it all comes from, and you so little—there, there now—"
"Oh but—oh but Columbus—"
"Yes, yes, I know—you're worrying yourself sick because you think you're responsible for her to your aunt and uncle, but you won't be, you know, once she's married—there, there now—"
"Oh but—oh but—"
"Now don't—now please—yes, yes, I know—he's a stranger, and you haven't seen him yet, but everybody was a stranger once," said Mr. Twist, quoting Anna-Felicitas's own argument, the one that had especially irritated him half-an-hour before, "and he's real good—I'm sure of it. And you'll be sure too the minute you see him. That's to say, if you're able to see anything or anybody for the next week out of your unfortunate stuck-together little eyes."
"Oh but—oh but—you don't—you haven't—"
"Yes, yes, I have. Now turn your face so that I can wipe the other side properly. There now, I caught an enormous tear. I got him just in time before he trickled into your ear. Lord, how sore your poor little eyes are. Don't it even cheer you to think you're going to be a sister-in-law, Anna-Rose?"
"Oh but you don't—you haven't—" she sobbed, her face not a whit less agonized for all his reassurances.
"Well, I know I wish I were going to be a brother-in-law," said Mr. Twist, worried by his inability to reassure, as he tenderly and carefully dabbed about the corners of her eyes and her soaked eyelashes. "My, shouldn't I think well of myself."
Then his hand shook.
"I wish I were going to be Anna-Felicitas's brother-in-law," he said, suddenly impelled, perhaps by this failure to get rid of the misery in her face, to hurl himself on his fate. "Not yours—get your mind quite clear about that,—but Anna-Felicitas's." And his hand shook so much that he had to leave off drying. For this was a proposal. If only Anna-Rose would see it, this was a proposal.
Anna-Rose, however, saw nothing. Even in normal times she wasn't good at relationships, and had never yet understood the that-man's-father-was-my-father's-son one; now she simply didn't hear. She was sitting with her hands limply in her lap, and sobbing in a curious sort of anguish.
He couldn't help being struck by it. There was more in this than he had grasped. Again he forgot himself and his proposal. Again he was overwhelmed by the sole desire to help and comfort.
He put his hand on the two hands lying with such an air of being forgotten on her lap. "What is it?" he asked gently. "Little dear one, tell me. It's clear I'm not dead on to it yet."
She seemed to writhe in her misery.
"Well yes, yes Columbus. We know all about that."
Anna-Rose turned her quivering face to him. "Oh, you haven't seen—you don't see—it's only me that's seen—"