In silence Jan held her close; and in that moment she faced it.
The days went on, strange, quiet days of brilliant sunshine. Their daily life shrouded from the outside world even as the verandah was shrouded from the sun when Lalkhan let down the chicks every day after tiffin.
Peter was their only visitor besides the doctor, and Peter came practically every day. He generally took Jan out after tea, sometimes with the children, sometimes alone. He even went with her to the bank in Elphinstone Circle, so like a bit of Edinburgh, with its solid stone houses, and found that Hugo actually had lodged fifty pounds there in Fay's name. The clerks looked curiously at Jan, for they thought she was Mrs. Tancred. Every one in business or official circles in Bombay knew about Hugo Tancred. His conduct had, for a while, even ousted the usual topics of conversation—money, food, and woman—from the bazaars; and an exhaustive discussion of it was only kept out of the Native Press by the combined efforts of the Police and his own Department. Jan gained from Peter a fairly clear idea of the debacle that had occurred in Hugo Tancred's life. She no longer wondered that Fay refused to leave the bungalow. She began to feel branded herself.
For Jan, Peter's visits had come to have something of the relief the loosening of a too-tight bandage gives to a wounded man. He generally came at tea-time when Fay was at her best, and he brought her news of her little world at Dariawarpur. To her sister he seemed the one link with reality. Without him the heavy dream would have gone on unbroken. Fay was always most eager he should take Jan out, and, though at first Jan had been unwilling, she gradually came to look upon such times as a blessed break in the monotonous restraint of her day. With him she was natural, said what she felt, expressed her fears, and never failed to return comforted and more hopeful.
One night he took her to the Yacht Club, and Jan was glad she had gone, because it gave her so much to tell Fay when she got back.
It was a very odd experience for Jan, this tea on the crowded lawn of the Yacht Club. She turned hot when people looked at her, and Jan had always felt so sure of herself before, so proud to be a daughter of brilliant, lovable Anthony Ross.
Here, she knew that her sole claim to notice was that she had the misfortune to be Hugo Tancred's sister-in-law. Fay, too, had once been joyfully proud and confident—and now!
Sometimes in the long, still days Jan wondered whether their father had brought them up to expect too much from life, to take their happiness too absolutely as a matter of course. Anthony Ross had fully subscribed to the R.L.S. doctrine that happiness is a duty. When they were both quite little girls he had loved to hear them repeat:
If I have faltered more or less In my great task of happiness; If I have moved among my race And shown no glorious morning face; If beams from happy human eyes Have moved me not; if morning skies, Books, and my food and summer rain Knocked on my sullen heart in vain; Lord, Thy most pointed pleasure take, And stab my spirit broad awake.
Surely as young girls they had both shown a "glorious morning face." Who more so than poor Fay? So gay and beautiful and kind. Why had this come upon her, this cruel, numbing disgrace and sorrow? Jan was thoroughly rebellious. Again she went over that time in Scotland six years before, when, at a big shooting-box up in Sutherland, they met, among other guests, handsome Hugo Tancred, home on leave. How he had, almost at first sight, fallen violently in love with Fay. How he had singled her out for every deferent and delicate attention; how she, young, enthusiastic, happy and flattered, had fallen quite equally in love with him. Jan recalled her father's rather comical dismay and astonishment. His horror when they pressed an immediate marriage, so that Fay might go out with Hugo in November. And his final giving-in to everything Fay wanted because Fay wanted it.
Did her father really like Hugo Tancred? she wondered. And then came the certainty that he wouldn't ever have liked anybody much who wanted to marry either of them; but he was far too just and too imaginative to stand in the way where, what seemed, the happiness of his daughter was concerned.
"What a gamble it all is," thought Jan, and felt inclined to thank heaven that she was neither so fascinating nor as susceptible as Fay.
How were they to help to set Hugo Tancred on his legs again, and reconstruct something of a future for Fay? And then there always sounded, like a knell, Fay's tired, pathetic voice: "Don't bother to make plans for me, Jan. For the children, yes, as much as you like. You are so clever and constructive—but leave me out, dear, for it's just a waste of time."
And the dreadful part of it was that Jan felt a growing conviction that Fay was right. And what was more, that Peter felt about it exactly as Fay did, in spite of his matter-of-fact optimism at all such times as Jan dared to express her dread.
Peter learned a good deal about the Ross family in those talks with Jan. She was very frank about her affairs, told him what money she had and how it was invested. That the old house in Gloucestershire was hers, left directly to her and not to her father, by a curious freak on the part of his aunt, one Janet Ross, who disapproved of Anthony's habit of living up to whatever he made each year by his pictures, and saving nothing that he earned.
"My little girls are safe, anyway," he always said. "Their mother's money is tied up on them, though they don't get it except with my sanction till my death. I can't touch the capital. Why, then, shouldn't we have an occasional flutter when I have a good year, while we are all young and can enjoy things?"
They had a great many flutters—for Anthony's pictures sold well among a rather eclectic set. His portraits had a certain cachet that gave them a vogue. They were delicate, distinguished, and unlike other work. The beauties without brains never succeeded in getting Anthony Ross to paint them, bribed they never so. But the clever beauties were well satisfied, and the clever who were not at all beautiful felt that Anthony Ross painted their souls, so they were satisfied, too. Besides, he made their sittings so delightful and flirted with them with such absolute discretion always. The year that Hugo Tancred met Fay was a particularly good year, and Anthony had bought a touring-car, and they all went up to Scotland in it. The girls were always well dressed and went out a good deal. Young as she was, Jan was already an excellent manager and a pleasant hostess. She had been taking care of her father from the time she was twelve years old, and knew exactly how to manage him. When there was plenty of money she let him launch out; when it was spent she made him draw in again, and he was always quite ready to do so. Money as money had no charms for Anthony Ross, but the pleasures it could provide, the kindnesses it enabled him to do, the easy travel and the gracious life were precious to him. He abhorred debt in any form and paid his way as he went; lavishly when he had it, justly and exactly always.
On hearing all this Peter came to the conclusion that Hugo Tancred was not altogether to blame if he had expected a good deal more financial assistance from his father-in-law than he got. Anthony made no marriage settlement on Fay. He allowed her two hundred a year for her personal expenses and considered that Hugo Tancred should manage the running of his own house out of his quite comfortable salary. He had, of course, no smallest inkling of Hugo's debts or gambling propensities. And all might have gone well if only Anthony Ross had made a new will when Fay married; a will which tied up her mother's money and anything he might leave her, so that she couldn't touch the capital. But nothing of the kind was done.
It never occurred to Jan to think of wills.
Anthony Ross was strong and cheerful and so exceedingly young at fifty-two that it seemed absurd that he should have grown-up daughters, quite ludicrous that he should be a grandfather.
Many charming ladies would greatly like to have occupied the position of stepmother to "those nice girls," but Anthony, universal lover as he was within strictly platonic limits, showed no desire to give his girls anything of the sort. Jan satisfied his craving for a gracious and well-ordered comfort in all his surroundings. Fay gratified his aesthetic appreciation of beauty and gentleness. What would he do with a third woman who might introduce discord into these harmonies?
Fay came home for a short visit when Tony was six months old, as Hugo had not got a very good station just then. She was prettier than ever, seemed perfectly happy, and both Anthony and Jan rejoiced in her.
After she went out the Tancreds moved to Dariawarpur, which was considered one of the best stations in their province, and there little Fay was born, and it was arranged that Jan and her father were to visit India and Fay during the next cold weather.
But early in the following November Anthony Ross got influenza, recovered, went out too soon, got a fresh chill, and in two days developed double pneumonia.
His heart gave out, and before his many friends had realised he was at all seriously ill, he died.
Jan, stunned, bewildered, and heart-broken, yet contrived to keep her head. She got rid of the big house in St. George's Square and most of the servants, finally keeping only Hannah, her old Scottish nurse. She paid everybody, rendered a full account of her stewardship to Fay and Hugo, and then prepared to go out to India as had been arranged. Her heart cried out for her only sister.
To her surprise this proposition met with but scant enthusiasm. It seemed the Tancreds' plans were uncertain; perhaps it might be better for Fay and the children to come home in spring instead of Jan going out to them. Hugo's letters were ambiguous and rather cold; Fay's a curious mixture of abandonment and restraint; but the prevailing note of both was "would she please do nothing in a hurry, but wait."
So, of course, Jan waited.
She waited two years, growing more anxious and puzzled as time went on. Her lawyer protested unavailingly at Hugo's perpetual demands (of course, backed up by Fay) for more and more capital that he might "re-invest" it. Fay's letters grew shorter and balder and more constrained. At last, quite suddenly, came the imperative summons to go out at once to be with Fay when the new baby should arrive.
And now after three weeks in Bombay Jan felt that she had never known any other life, that she never would know any other life than this curious dream-like existence, this silent, hopeless waiting for something as afflicting as it was inevitable.
There had been a great fire in the cotton green towards Colaba. It had blazed all night, and, in spite of the efforts of the Bombay firemen and their engines, was still blazing at six o'clock the following evening.
Peter took Jan in his car out to see it. There was an immense crowd, so they left the car on its outskirts and plunged into the throng on foot. On either side of the road were tall, flimsy houses with a wooden staircase outside; those curious tenements so characteristic of the poorer parts of Bombay, and in such marked contrast to the "Fort," the European quarter of the town. They were occupied chiefly by Eurasians and very poor Europeans. That the road was a sea of mud, varied by quite deep pools of water, seemed the only possible reason why such houses were not also burning.
Jan splashed bravely through the mud, interested and excited by the people and the leaping flames so dangerously near. It was growing dusk; the air was full of the acrid smell of burnt cotton, and the red glow from the sky was reflected on the grave brown faces watching the fire.
Any crowd in Bombay is always extremely varied, and Jan almost forgot her anxieties in her enjoyment of the picturesque scene.
"I don't think the people ought to be allowed to throng on the top of that staircase," Peter said suddenly. "They aren't built to hold a number at once; there'll be an accident," and he left her side for a moment to speak to an inspector of police.
Jan looked up at a tall house on her left, where sightseers were collecting on the staircase to get a better view. Every window was crowded with gazers, all but one. From one, quite at the top, a solitary watcher looked out.
There was a sudden shout from the crowd below, a redder glow as more piled cotton fell into the general furnace and blazed up, and in that moment Jan saw that the solitary watcher was Hugo Tancred, and that he recognised her. She gave a little gasp of horror, which Peter heard as he joined her again. "What is it?" he said. "What has frightened you?"
Jan pointed upwards. "I've just seen Hugo," she whispered. "There, in one of those windows—the empty one. Oh, what can he be doing in those dreadful houses, and why is he in Bombay all this time and never a word to Fay?"
Jan was trembling. Peter put his hand under her arm and walked on with her.
"I knew he was in Bombay," he said, "but I didn't think the poor devil was reduced to this."
"What is to be done?" Jan exclaimed. "If he comes and worries Fay for money now, it will kill her. She thinks he is safely out of India. What is to be done?"
"Nothing," said Peter. "He'll go the very minute he can, and you may be sure he'll raise the wind somehow. He's got all sorts of queer irons in the fire. He daren't appear at the flat, or some of his creditors would cop him for debt—it's watched day and night, I know. Just let it alone. I'd no idea he was hiding in this region or I wouldn't have brought you. We all want him to get clear. He might file his petition, but it would only rake up all the old scandals, and they know pretty well there's nothing to be got out of him."
"He looked so dreadful, so savage and miserable," Jan said with a half-sob.
"Well—naturally," said Peter. "You'd feel savage and miserable if you were in his shoes."
"But oughtn't I to help him? Send him money, I mean."
"Not one single anna. It'll take you all your time to get his family home and keep them when you get there. Have you seen enough? Shall we go back?"
"You don't think he'll molest Fay?"
"I'm certain of it."
"Please take me home. I shall never feel it safe to leave Fay again for a minute."
"That's nonsense, you know," said Peter.
"It's what I feel," said Jan.
It was that night Tony's extempore prayer was echoed so earnestly by his aunt.
THE HUMAN TOUCH
Three days later Jan got a note from Peter telling her that Hugo Tancred had left Bombay and was probably leaving India at once from one of the smaller ports.
He had not attempted to communicate in person or by letter with either Jan or his wife.
Early in the morning, just a week from the time Jan had seen Hugo Tancred at the window of that tall house near the cotton green, Fay's third child, a girl, was still-born; and Fay, herself, never recovered consciousness all day. A most competent nurse had been in the house nearly a week, the doctor had done all that human skill could do, but Fay continued to sink rapidly.
About midnight the nurse, who had been standing by the bed with her finger on Fay's pulse, moved suddenly and gently laid down the weak hand she had been holding. She looked warningly across at Jan, who knelt at the other side, her eyes fixed on the pale, beautiful face that looked so wonderfully young and peaceful.
Suddenly Fay opened her eyes and smiled. She looked right past Jan, exclaiming joyfully, "There you are at last, Daddie, and it's broad daylight."
* * * * *
For Jan it was still the middle of the Indian night and very dark indeed.
The servants were all asleep; the little motherless children safely wrapped in happy unconsciousness in their nursery with Ayah.
The last sad offices had been done for Fay, and the nurse, tired out, was also sleeping—on Jan's bed.
Jan, alone of all the household, kept watch, standing in the verandah, a ghostly figure, still in the tumbled white muslin frock she had had no time all day to change.
It was nearly one o'clock. Motors and carriages were beginning to come back from Government House, where there was a reception. The motor-horns and horses' hoofs sounded loud in the wide silent street, and the head lights swept down the Queen's Road like fireflies in flight.
Jan turned on the light in the verandah. Peter would perhaps look up and see her standing there, and realise why she kept watch. Perhaps he would stop and come up.
She wanted Peter desperately.
Compassed about with many relatives and innumerable friends at home, out here Jan was singularly alone. In all that great city she knew no one save Peter, the doctor and the nurse. Some few women, knowing all the circumstances, had called and were ready to be kind and helpful and friendly, as women are all over India, but Fay would admit none but Peter—even to see Jan; and always begged her not to return the calls "till it was all over."
Well, it was all over now. Fay would never be timid and ashamed any more.
Jan had not shed a tear. The longing to cry that had assailed her so continuously in her first week had entirely left her. She felt clear-headed and cold and bitterly resentful. She would like to have made Hugo Tancred go in front of her into that quiet room and forced him to look at the girlish figure on the bed—his handiwork. She wanted to hurt him, to make him more wretched than he was already.
A car stopped in the street below. Jan went very quietly to the door of the flat and listened at the top of the staircase.
Steps were on the stairs, but they stopped at one of the flats below.
Presently another car stopped. Again she went out and listened. The steps came up and up and she switched on the light in the passage.
This time it was Peter.
He looked very tired.
"I thought you would come," Jan said. "She died at midnight."
Peter closed the outer door, and taking Jan by the arm led her back into the sitting-room, where he put her in a corner of the big sofa and sat down beside her.
He could not speak, and Jan saw that the tears she could not shed were in his eyes, those large dark eyes that could appear so sombre and then again so kind.
Jan watched him enviously. She was acutely conscious of trifling things. She even noticed what very black eyebrows he had and how—as always, when he was either angry or deeply moved—the veins in his forehead stood out in a strongly-marked V.
"It was best, I think," Jan said, and even to herself her voice sounded like the voice of a stranger. "She would have been very unhappy if she had lived."
Peter started at the cool, hard tones, and looked at her. Then, simply and naturally, like a child, he took her hand and held it; and there was that in the human contact, in the firm, comfortable clasp, that seemed to break something down in Jan, and all at once she felt weak and faint and trembling. She leaned her head against the pillows piled high in the corner where Fay had always rested. The electric light in the verandah seemed suddenly to recede to an immense distance and became a tiny luminous pin-head, like a far lone star.
She heard Peter moving about in the dining-room behind and clinking things, but she felt quite incapable of going to see what he was doing or of trying to be hospitable—besides, it was his house, he knew where things were, and she was so tired.
And then he was standing over her, holding a tumbler against her chattering teeth.
"Drink it," he said, and, though his voice sounded far away, it was firm and authoritative. "Quick; don't pretend you can't swallow, for you can."
He tipped the glass, and something wet and cold ran over her chin: anything was better than that, and she tried to drink. As she did so she realised she was thirsty, drank it all eagerly and gasped.
"Have you had anything to eat all day?" the dominating voice went on; it sounded much nearer now.
"I can't remember," she said, feebly. "Oh, why did you give me all that brandy, it's made me so muzzy and confused, and there's so much I ought to see to."
"You rest a bit first—you'll be all right presently."
Someone lifted her by the knees and put the whole of her on the sofa. It was very comfortable; she was not so cold now. She lay quite still and closed her eyes. She had not had a real night's sleep since she reached Bombay. Fay was always restless and nervous, and Jan had not had her clothes off for forty-eight hours. The long strain was over, there was nothing to watch and wait for now. She would do as that voice said, rest for a few minutes.
There was a white chuddah shawl folded on the end of the sofa. Fay had liked it spread over her knees, for she was nearly always chilly.
Peter opened it and laid it very lightly over Jan, who never stirred.
Then he sat down in a comfortable chair some distance off, where she would see him if she woke, and reviewed the situation, which was unconventional, certainly.
He had sent his car away when he arrived, as it was but a step to the Yacht Club where he slept. Now, he felt he couldn't leave, for if Jan woke suddenly she would feel confused and probably frightened.
"I never thought so little brandy could have had such an effect," Peter reflected half ruefully. "I suppose it's because she'd had nothing to eat. It's about the best thing that could have happened, but I never meant to hocus her like this."
There she lay, a long white mound under the shawl. She had slipped her hand under her cheek and looked pathetically young and helpless.
"I wonder what I'd better do," thought Peter.
Mrs. Grundy commanded him to go at once. Common humanity bade him stay.
Peter was very human, and he stayed.
About half-past five Jan woke. She was certainly confused, but not in the least frightened. It was light, not brilliantly light as it would be a little later on, but clear and opalescent, as though the sun were shining through fold upon fold of grey-blue gauze.
The electric light in the verandah and the one over Peter's head were still burning and looked garish and wan, and Jan's first coherent thought was, "How dreadfully wasteful to have had them on all night—Peter's electric light, too"—and then she saw him.
His body was crumpled up in the big chair; his legs were thrust out stiffly in front of him. He looked a heartrending interpretation of discomfort in his evening clothes, for he hadn't even loosened the collar. He had thought of it, but felt it might be disrespectful to Jan. Besides, there was something of the chaperon about that collar.
Jan's tears that had refused to soften sorrow during the anguish of the night came now, hot and springing, to blur that absurd, pathetic figure looped sideways in the big chair.
It was so plain why he was there.
She sniffed helplessly (of course, she had lost her handkerchief), and thrust her knuckles into her eyes like any schoolboy.
When she could see again she noticed how thin was the queer, irregular face, with dark hollows round the eyes.
"I wonder if they feed him properly at that Yacht Club," thought Jan. "And here are we using his house and his cook and everything."
She swung her feet off the sofa and disentangled them from the shawl, folded it neatly and sat looking at Peter, who opened his eyes.
For a full minute they stared at each other in silence, then he stretched himself and rose.
"I say, have you slept?" he asked.
"Till a minute ago ... Mr. Ledgard ... why did you stay? It was angelic of you, but you must be so dreadfully tired. I feel absolutely rested and, oh, so grateful—but so ashamed...."
"Then you must have some tea," said Peter, inconsequently. "I'll go and rouse up Lalkhan and the cook. We can't get any ourselves, for he locks up the whole show every blessed night."
* * * * *
In the East burial follows death with the greatest possible speed. Peter and the doctor and the nurse arranged everything. A friend of Peter's who had little children sent for Ayah and Tony and little Fay to spend the day, and Jan was grateful.
Fay and her baby were laid in the English cemetery, and Jan was left to face the children as best she could.
They had been happy, Ayah said, with the kind lady and her children. Tony went straight to his mother's room, the room that had been closed to him for three whole days.
He came back to Jan and stood in front of her, searching her face with his grave, judging gaze.
"What have you done with my Mummy?" he asked. "Have you carried her away and put her somewhere like you do Fay when she's naughty? You're strong enough."
"Oh, Tony!" Jan whispered piteously. "I would have kept her if I could, but I wasn't strong enough for that."
"Who has taken her, then?" Tony persisted. "Where is she? I've been everywhere, and she isn't in the bungalow."
"God has taken her, Tony."
"I think," Jan said, timidly, "it was because she was very tired and ill and unhappy——"
"But is she happier now and better?"
"I hope so, I believe she is ... quite happy and well."
"You're sure?" And Tony's eyes searched Jan's face. "You're sure you haven't put her somewhere?"
"Tony, I want Mummy every bit as much as you do. Be a little good to me, sonny, for I'm dreadfully sad."
Jan held out her hand and Tony took it doubtfully. She drew him nearer.
"Try to be good to me, Tony, and love me a little ... it's all so hard."
"I'll be good," he said, gravely, "because I promised Mummy ... but I can't love you yet—because—" here Tony sighed deeply, "I don't seem to feel like it."
"Never mind," said Jan, lifting him on to her knee. "Never mind. I'll love you an extra lot to make up."
"And Fay?" he asked.
"And Fay—we must both love Fay more than ever now."
"I do love Fay," Tony said, "because I'm used to her. She's been here a long time...."
Suddenly his mouth went down at the corners and he leant against Jan's shoulder to hide his face. "I do want Mummy so," he whispered, as the slow, difficult tears welled over and fell. "I like so much to look at her."
* * * * *
It was early afternoon, the hot part of the day. The children were asleep and Jan sat on the big sofa, finishing a warm jersey for little Fay to wear towards the end of the voyage. Peter, by means of every scrap of interest he possessed, had managed to secure her a three-berth cabin in a mail boat due to leave within the next fortnight. He insisted that she must take Ayah, who was more than eager to go, and that Ayah could easily get a passage back almost directly with people he knew who were coming out soon after Jan got home. He had written to them, and they would write to meet the boat at Aden.
There was nothing Peter did not seem able to arrange.
In the flat below a lady was singing the "Indian Love Lyrics" from the "Garden of Khama." She had a powerful voice and sang with considerable passion.
Less than the dust beneath thy chariot wheel, Less than the rust that never stained thy sword.
Jan frowned and fidgeted.
The song went on, finished, and then the lady sang it all over again. Jan turned on the electric fan, for it was extremely hot, and the strong contralto voice made her feel even hotter. The whirr of the fan in no way drowned the voice, which now went on to proclaim with much brio that the temple bells were ringing and the month of marriages was drawing near. And then, very slowly and solemnly, but quite as loudly as before, came "When I am dying, lean over me tenderly——"
Jan got up and stamped. Then she went swiftly for her topee and gloves and parasol, and fled from the bungalow.
Lalkhan rushed after her to ask if she wanted a "tikka-gharri." He strongly disapproved of her walking in the streets alone, but Jan shook her head. The lift-man was equally eager to procure one, but again Jan defeated his desire and walked out into the hot street. Somehow she couldn't bear "The Garden of Khama" just then. It was Hugo Tancred's favourite verse, and was among the few books Fay appeared to possess, Fay who was lying in the English cemetery, and so glad to be there ... at twenty-five.
What was the good of life and love, if that was all it led to? In spite of the heat Jan walked feverishly and fast, down the shady side of the Mayo Road into Esplanade Road, where the big shops were, and, just then, no shade at all.
The hot dust seemed to rise straight out of the pavement and strike her in the face, and all the air was full of the fat yellow smell that prevails in India when its own inhabitants have taken their mid-day meal.
Each bare-legged gharri-man slumbered on the little box of his carriage, hanging on in that amazingly precarious fashion in which natives of the East seem able to sleep anywhere.
On Jan went, anywhere, anywhere away from the garden of Khama and that travesty of love, as she conceived it. She remembered the day when she thought them such charming songs and thrilled in sympathy with Fay when Hugo sang them. Oh, why did that woman sing them to-day? Would she ever get the sound out of her ears?
She had reached Churchgate Street, which was deserted and deep in shade. She turned down and presently came to the Cathedral standing in its trim garden bright with English flowers. The main door was open and Jan went in.
Here the haunting love-lyrics were hushed. It was so still, not even a sweeper to break the blessed peace.
Restlessly, Jan walked round the outer aisles, reading the inscriptions on marble tablets and brasses, many of them dating back to the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Men died young out in India in those days; hardly any seemed to live beyond forty-two, many died in the twenties. On nearly all the tablets the words "zeal" or "zealous" regularly appeared. With regard to their performance of their duties these dead and gone men who had helped to make the India of to-day had evidently had a very definite notion as to their own purpose in life. The remarks were guarded and remarkably free from exaggerated tributes to the virtues they celebrated. One Major-General Bellasis was described as "that very respectable Officer—who departed this life while he was in the meritorious discharge of his duty presiding at the Military Board." Others died "from exposure to the sun"; nearly all seemed to have displayed "unremitting" or "characteristic zeal" in the discharge of their duties.
Jan sat down, and gradually it seemed as though the spirits and souls of those departed men, those ordinary everyday men—whose descendants might probably be met any day in the Yacht Club now—seemed to surround her in a great company, all pointing in one direction and with one voice declaring, "This is the WAY."
Jan fell on her knees and prayed that her stumbling feet might be guided upon it, that she should in no wise turn aside, however steep and stony it might prove.
And as she knelt there came upon her the conviction that here was the true meaning of life as lived upon the earth; just this, that each should do his job.
THE END OF THE DREAM
She walked back rather slowly. It was a little cooler, but dusty, and the hot pavements made her feet ache. She was just wondering whether she would take a gharri when a motor stopped at the curb and Peter got out.
"What are you doing?" he asked crossly. "Why are you walking in all this heat? You can't play these games in India. Get in."
He held the door open for her.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Ledgard," Jan said, sweetly. "Is it worth while for such a little way?"
"Get in," Peter said again, and Jan meekly got in.
"I was just coming to see you, and I could have taken you anywhere you wanted to go, if only you'd waited. Why didn't you take a gharri?"
"Since you must know," Jan said, smiling at the angry Peter, "I went out because I wanted to go out. And I walked because I wanted to walk."
"You can't do things just because you want to do 'em in this infernal country—you must consider whether it's a suitable time."
Jan made no answer, and silence reigned till they reached the bungalow.
Peter followed her in.
"Where did you go?" he asked. "And why?"
"I went to the Cathedral, and my reason was that I simply couldn't stay in the bungalow because the lady below was singing 'Less than the dust.'"
"I know," Peter said grimly. "Just the sort of thing she would sing."
"She sang very well," Jan owned honestly, "but when Fay was first engaged she and Hugo used to sing those songs to each other—it seemed all day long—and this afternoon I couldn't bear it. It seemed such a sham somehow—so false and unreal, if it only led—to this."
"It's real enough while it lasts, you know," Peter remarked in the detached, elderly tone he sometimes adopted. "That sort of thing's all right for an episode, but it's a bit too thin for marriage."
"But surely episodes often end in marriage?"
"Not that sort, and if they do it's generally pretty disastrous. A woman who felt she was less than the dust and rust and weeds and all that rot wouldn't be much good to a man who had to do his job, for she wouldn't do hers, you know."
"Then you, too, think that's the main thing—to do your job?"
"It seems to me it's the only thing that justifies one's existence. Anyway, to try to do it decently."
"And you don't think one ought to expect to be happy and have things go smoothly?"
"Well, they won't always, you know, whether you expect it or not; but the job remains, so it's just as well to make up your mind to it."
"I suppose," Jan said thoughtfully, "that's a religion."
"It pans out as well as most," said Peter.
The days that had gone so slowly went quickly enough now. Jan had much to arrange and no word came from Hugo. She succeeded in getting the monthly bills from the cook, and paid them, and very timidly she asked Peter if she might pay the wages for the time his servants had waited upon them; but Peter was so huffy and cross she never dared to mention it again.
The night before they all sailed Peter dined with her, and, after dinner, took her for one last drive over Malabar Hill. The moon was full, and when they reached Ridge Road he stopped the car and they got out and stood on the cliff, looking over the city just as they had done on her first evening in Bombay.
Some scented tree was in bloom and the air was full of its soft fragrance.
For some minutes they stood in silence, then Jan broke it by asking: "Mr. Ledgard, could Hugo take the children from me?"
"He could, of course, legally—but I don't for a minute imagine he will, for he couldn't keep them. What about his people? Will they want to interfere?"
"I don't think so; from the little he told us they are not very well off. They live in Guernsey. His father was something in salt, I think, out here. We've none of us seen them. They didn't come to Fay's wedding. I gather they are very strict in their views—both his father and mother—and there are two sisters. But Fay said Hugo hardly ever wrote—or heard from them."
"There's just one thing you must face, Miss Ross," and Peter felt a brute as he looked at Jan pale and startled in the bright moonlight. "Hugo Tancred might marry again."
"Oh, surely no one would marry him after all this!"
"Whoever did would probably know nothing of 'all this.' Remember Hugo Tancred has a way with women; he's a fascinating chap when he likes, he's good-looking and plausible, and always has an excellent reason for all his misfortunes. If he does marry again he'll marry money, and then he might demand the children."
"Perhaps she wouldn't want them."
"We'll hope not."
"And I can do nothing—nothing to make them safe?"
"I fear—nothing—only your best for them."
"I'll do that," said Jan.
They stood shoulder to shoulder in the scented stillness of the night. The shadows were black and sharp in the bright moonlight and the tom-toms throbbed in the city below.
"I wonder," Jan said presently, "if I shall ever be able to do anything for you, Mr. Ledgard. You have done everything for us out here."
"Would you really like to do something?" Peter asked eagerly. "I wouldn't have mentioned it if you hadn't said that just now. Would you write pretty often? You see, I've no people of my very own. Aunts and uncles and cousins don't keep in touch with one out here. They're kind, awfully kind when I go home on leave, but it takes a man's own folk to remember to write every mail."
"I'll write every mail," Jan promised eagerly, "and when you take your next leave, remember we expect you at Wren's End."
"I'll remember," said Peter, "and it may be sooner than you think."
They sailed next day. Jan had spent six weeks in Bombay, and the whole thing seemed a dream.
The voyage back was very different from the voyage out. The boat was crowded, and nearly all were Service people going home on leave. Jan found them very kind and friendly, and the children, with plenty of others to play with, were for the most part happy and good.
The journey across France was rather horrid. Little Fay was as obstreperous as Tony was disagreeably silent and aloof. Jan thanked heaven when the crowded train steamed into Charing Cross.
There, at the very door of their compartment, a girl was waiting. A girl so small, she might have been a child except for a certain decision and capability about everything she did. She seized Jan, kissed her hurriedly and announced that she had got a nice little furnished flat for them till they should go to the country, and that Hannah had tea ready; this young person, herself, helped to carry their smaller baggage to a taxi, packed them in, demanded Jan's keys and announced that she would bring the luggage in another taxi. She gave the address to the man, and a written slip to Jan, and vanished to collect their cabin baggage.
It was all done so briskly and efficiently that it left Ayah and the children quite breathless, accustomed as they were to the leisurely methods of the East.
"Who is vat mem?" asked little Fay, as the taxi door was slammed by this energetic young person.
"Is she quite a mem?" suggested the accurate Tony. "Is she old enough or big enough?"
"Who is vat mem?" little Fay repeated.
"That," said Jan with considerable satisfaction in her voice, "is Meg."
It was inevitable as the refrain of a rondeau that when Jan said "that's Meg" little Fay should demand "What nelse?"
Now there was a good deal of "nelse" about Meg, and she requires some explanation, going back several years.
Like most Scots, Anthony Ross had been faithful to his relations whether he felt affection for them or not; sometimes even when they had not a thought in common with him and he rather disliked them than otherwise.
And this was so in the case of one Amelia Ross, his first cousin, who was head-mistress of a flourishing and well-established school for "young ladies," in the Regent's Park district.
She had been a head-mistress for many years, and was well over fifty when she married a meek, small, nothingly man who had what Thackeray calls "a little patent place." And it appeared that she added the husband to the school in much the same spirit as she would have increased the number of chairs in her dining-room, and with no more appreciable result in her life. On her marriage she became Mrs. Ross-Morton, and Mr. Morton went in and out of the front door, breakfasted and dined at Ribston Hall, caught his bus at the North Gate and went daily to his meek little work. It is presumed that he lived on terms of affectionate intimacy with his wife, but no one who saw them together could have gathered this.
Now Anthony Ross disliked his cousin Amelia. He detested her school, which he considered was one of the worst examples of a bad old period. He suspected her of being hard and grasping, he knew she was dull, and her husband bored him—not to tears, but to profanity. Yet since she was his cousin and a hard-working, upright woman, and since they had played together as children in Scotland and her father and mother had been kind to him then, he could never bring himself to drop Amelia. Not for worlds would he have allowed Jan or Fay to go to her school, but he did allow them, or rather he humbly entreated them, to visit it occasionally when invited to some function or other. Jan's education after her mother's death had been the thinnest scrape sandwiched between many household cares and much attendance upon her father's whims. Fay was allowed classes and visiting governesses, but their father could never bring himself to spare either of them to the regular discipline of school, and Cousin Amelia bewailed the desultory training of Anthony's children.
In 1905, Jan and Fay had been to a party at Ribston Hall: tea in the garden followed by a pastoral play. Anthony was sitting in the balcony, smoking, when the girls came back. He saw their hansom and ran downstairs to meet them, as he always did. They were a family who went in for affectionate greetings.
"Daddie," cried Fay, seizing her father by the arm, "one of the seven wonders of the world has happened. We have found an interesting person at Ribston Hall."
Jan took the other arm. "We can't possibly tell you all about it under an hour, so we'd better go and sit in the balcony." And they gently propelled him towards the staircase.
"Not if you're going to discuss Cousin Amelia," Anthony protested. "You have carrying voices, both of you."
"Cousin Amelia is only incidental," Jan said, when they were all three seated in the balcony. "The main theme is concerned with a queer little pixie creature called Meg Morton. She's a pupil-governess, and she's sixteen and a half—just the same age as Fay."
"She doesn't reach up to Jan's elbow," Fay added, "and she chaperons the girls for music and singing, and sits in the drawing-class because the master can't be quite seventy yet."
"She's the wee-est thing you ever saw, and they dress her in Cousin Amelia's discarded Sunday frocks."
"That's impossible," Anthony interrupted. "Amelia is so massive and square; if the girl's so small she'd look like 'the Marchioness.'"
"She does, she does!" Jan cried delightedly. "Of course the garments are 'made down,' but in the most elderly way possible. Daddie, can you picture a Botticelli angel of sixteen, with masses of Titian-red hair, clad in a queer plush garment once worn by Cousin Amelia, that retains all its ancient frumpiness of line. And it's not only her appearance that's so quaint, she is quaint inside."
"We were attracted by her hair," Fay went on "(You'll go down like a ninepin before that hair), and we got her in a corner and hemmed her in and declared it was her duty to attend to us because we were strangers and shy, and in three minutes we were friends. Sixteen, Daddie! And a governess-pupil in Cousin Amelia's school. She's a niece of the little husband, and Cousin Amelia is preening herself like anything because she takes her for nothing and makes her work like ten people."
"Did the little girl say so?"
"Of course not," Jan answered indignantly, "but Cousin Amelia did. Oh, how thankful I am she is your cousin, dear, and once-removed from us!"
"How many generations will it take to remove her altogether?" Fay asked. "However," she added, "if we can have the pixie out and give her a good time I shan't mind the relationship so much. We must do something, Daddie. What shall it be?"
Anthony Ross smoked thoughtfully and said very little. Perhaps he did not even listen with marked attention, because he was enjoying his girls. Just to see them healthy and happy; to know that they were naturally kind and gay; to hear them frank and eager and loquacious—sometimes gave him a sensation of almost physical pleasure. He was like an idler basking in the sun, conscious of nothing but just the warmth and comfort of it.
Whatever those girls wanted they always got. Anthony's diplomacy was requisitioned and was, as usual, successful; for, in spite of her disapproval, Mrs. Ross-Morton could never resist her cousin's charm. This time the result was that one Saturday afternoon in the middle of June little Meg Morton, bearing a battered leather portmanteau and clad in the most-recently-converted plush abomination, appeared at the tall house in St. George's Square to stay over the week-end.
It was the mid-term holiday, and from the first moment to the last the visit was one almost delirious orgy of pleasure to the little pupil-governess.
It was also a revelation.
It would be hard to conceive of anything odder than the appearance of Meg Morton at this time. She just touched five feet in height, and was very slenderly and delicately made, with absurd, tiny hands and feet. Yet there was a finish about the thin little body that proclaimed her fully grown. Her eyes, with their thick, dark lashes, looked overlarge in the pale little pointed face; strange eyes and sombre, with big, bright pupil, and curious dark-blue iris flecked with brown. Her features were regular, and her mouth would have been pretty had the lips not lacked colour. As it was, all the colour about Meg seemed concentrated in her hair; red as a flame and rippled as a river under a fresh breeze. There was so much of it, too, the little head seemed bowed in apology beneath its weight.
Yet for the time being Meg forgot to be apologetic about her hair, for Anthony and his girls frankly admired it.
These adorable, kind, amusing people actually admired it, and said so. Hitherto Meg's experience had been that it was a thing to be slurred over, like a deformity. If mentioned, it was to be deprecated. In the strictly Evangelical circles where hitherto her lot had been cast, they even tried vainly to explain it away.
She had, of course, heard of artists, but she never expected to meet any. That sort of thing lay outside the lives of those who had to make their living as quickly as possible in beaten tracks; tracks so well-beaten, in fact, that all the flowers had been trodden underfoot and exterminated.
Meg, at sixteen, had received so little from life that her expectations were of the humblest. And as she stood before the glass in a pretty bedroom, fastening her one evening dress (of shiny black silk that crackled, made with the narrow V in front affected by Mrs. Ross-Morton), preparatory to going to the play for the first time in her life, she could have exclaimed, like the little old woman of the story, "This be never I!"
Anthony Ross was wholly surprising to Meg.
This handsome, merry gentleman with thick, brown hair as crinkly as her own; who was domineered over and palpably adored by these two, to her, equally amazing girls—seemed so very, very young to be anybody's father.
He frankly owned to enjoying things.
Now, according to Meg's experience, grown-up people—elderly people—seldom enjoyed anything; above all, never alluded to their enjoyment.
Life was a thing to be endured with fortitude, its sorrows borne with Christian resignation; its joys, if there were any joys, discreetly slurred over. Joys were insidious, dangerous things that might lead to the leaving undone of obvious duties. To seek joy and insure its being shared by others, bravely and honestly believing it to be an excellent thing, was to Meg an entirely unknown frame of mind.
After the play, in Meg's room the three girls were brushing their hair together; to be accurate, Jan was brushing Fay's and Meg admiring the process.
"Have you any sisters?" Jan asked. She was always interested in people's relations.
"No," said Meg. "There are, mercifully, only three of us, my two brothers and me. If there had been any more I don't know what my poor little Papa would have done."
"Why do you call him your 'poor little papa'?" Fay asked curiously.
"Because he is poor—dreadfully—and little, and very melancholy. He suffers so from depression."
"Why?" asked the downright Jan.
"Partly because he has indigestion, constant indigestion, and then there's us, and boys are so expensive, they will grow so. It upsets him dreadfully."
"But they can't help growing," Fay objected.
"It wouldn't matter so much if they didn't both do it at once. But you see, there's only a year between them, and they're just about the same size. If only one had been smaller, he could have worn the outgrown things. As it is, it's always new clothes for both of them. Papa's are no sort of use, and even the cheapest suits cost a lot, and boots are perfectly awful."
Meg looked so serious that Fay and Jan, who were like the lilies of the field, and expected new and pretty frocks at reasonable intervals as a matter of course, looked serious too; for the first time confronted by a problem whose possibility they had never even considered before.
"He must be pleased with you," Jan said, encouragingly. "You're not too big."
"Yes, but then I'm not a boy. Papa's clothes would have made down for me beautifully if I'd been a boy; as it is, they're no use." Meg sighed, then added more cheerfully. "But I cost less in other ways, and several relations send old clothes to me. They are never too small."
"Do you like the relations' clothes?" Fay asked.
"Of course not," said Meg, simply. "They are generally hideous; but, after all, they cover me and save expense."
The spoiled daughters of Anthony Ross gazed at Meg with horror-stricken eyes. To them this seemed a most tragic state of things.
"Do they all," Fay asked timidly, "wear such ... rich materials—like Cousin Amelia?"
"They're fond of plush, as a rule, but there's velveteen as well, and sometimes a cloth dress. One was mustard-coloured, and embittered my life for a whole year."
Jan suddenly ceased to brush Fay's hair and went and sat on the bed beside Meg and put her arm round her. Fay's pretty face, framed in fluffy masses of fair hair, was solemn in excess of sympathy.
"I shouldn't care a bit if only the boys were through Sandhurst and safely into the Indian Army—but I do hate them having to go without nearly everything. Trevor's a King's Cadet, but they wouldn't give us two cadetships ... Still," she added, more cheerfully, "it's cheaper than anything else for a soldier's son."
"Is your father a soldier?" asked Jan.
"Oh, yes, a major in the Westshires; but he had to leave the Army because of his health, and his pension is very small, and mother had so little money. I sometimes think it killed her trying to do everything on nothing."
"Were you quite small when she died?" Fay asked in a sympathetic whisper.
"Oh, no; I was nearly twelve, and quite as big as I am now. Then I kept house while the boys were at Bedford, but when they went to Sandhurst poor little Papa thought I'd better get some education, too, and Uncle John's wife offered to take me for nothing, so here I am. HERE, it's too wonderful. Who could have dreamed that Ribston Hall would lead to this?" And Meg snuggled down in Jan's kind embrace, her red hair spread around her like a veil.
"Are some of the richly-dressed relations nice?" Jan asked hopefully.
"I don't know if you'd think them nice—you seem to expect such a lot from people—but they're quite kind—only it's a different sort of kindness from yours here. They don't laugh and expect you to enjoy yourself, like your father. My brothers say they are dull ... they call them—I'm afraid it's very ungrateful—the weariful rich. But I expect we're weariful to them too. I suppose poor relations are boring if you're well-off yourself. But we get pretty tired, too, when they talk us over."
"But do you mean to say they talk you over to you?"
"Always," Meg said firmly. "How badly we manage, how improvident we are, how Papa ought to rouse himself and I ought to manage better, and how foolish it is to let the boys go into the Army instead of banks and things ... And yet, you know, it hasn't cost much for Trevor, and once he's in he'll be able to manage, and Jo said he'd enlist if there was any more talk of banks, and poor little Papa had to give in—so there it is."
"How much older are they than you?" Jan asked.
"Trevor's nineteen and Jo's eighteen, and they are the greatest darlings in the world. They always lifted the heavy saucepans for me at Bedford, and filled the buckets and did the outsides of the windows, and carried up the coals to Papa's sitting-room before they went to school in the morning, and they very seldom grumbled at my cooking...."
"But where were the servants?" Fay asked innocently.
Meg laughed. "Oh, we couldn't have any servants. A woman came in the morning. Papa dined at his club, and I managed for the boys and me. But, oh dear, they do eat a lot, and joints are so dear. Sheep's heads and things pall if you have them more than once a week. They're such a mixty sort of meat, so gummy."
"I can cook," Jan announced, then added humbly, "at least, I've been to classes, but I don't get much practice. Cook isn't at all fond of having me messing in her kitchen."
"It isn't the cooking that's so difficult," said Meg; "it's getting things to cook. It's all very well for the books to say 'Take' this and that. My experience is that you can never 'take' anything. You have to buy every single ingredient, and there's never anything like enough. We tried being fruitarians and living on dates and figs and nuts all squashed together, but it didn't seem to come a bit cheaper, for the boys were hungry again directly and said it was hog-wash."
"Was your papa a fruitarian too?" Fay asked.
"Oh, no, he can't play those tricks; he has to be most careful. He never had his meals with us. Our meals would have been too rough for him. I got him breakfast and afternoon tea. He generally went out for the others."
Jan and Fay looked thoughtful.
* * * * *
Amelia Ross-Morton was a fair judge of character. When she consented to take her husband's niece as a governess-pupil she had been dubious as to the result. She very soon discovered, however, that the small red-haired girl was absolutely trustworthy, that she had a power of keeping order quite disproportionate to her size, that she got through a perfectly amazing amount of work, and did whatever she was asked as a matter of course. Thus she became a valuable factor in the school, receiving nothing in return save her food and such clothes as Mrs. Ross-Morton considered too shabby for her own wear.
At the end of the first year Meg ceased to receive any lessons. Her day was fully occupied in teaching the younger and chaperoning the elder girls. Only one stipulation did she make at the beginning of each term—that she should be allowed to accept, on all reasonable occasions, the invitations of Anthony Ross and his daughters, and she made this condition with so much firmness that Anthony's cousin knew better than to be unreasonably domineering, as was her usual habit. Moreover, though it was against her principles to do anything to further the enjoyment of persons in a subordinate position, she was, in a way, flattered that Anthony and his girls should thus single out her "niece by marriage" and appear to enjoy her society.
Thus it came about that Meg went a good deal to St. George's Square and nearly always spent part of each holiday with Fay and Jan wherever they happened to be.
The queer clothes were kept for wear at Ribston Hall, and by degrees—although she never had any money—she became possessed of garments more suitable to her age and colouring.
Again and again Anthony painted her. She sat for him with untiring patience and devotion. She was always entirely at her ease with him, and prattled away quite simply of the life that seemed to him so inexpressibly hard and dreary.
Only once had he interfered on her behalf at Ribston Hall, and then sorely against Meg's will. She was sitting for him one day, with her veil of flaming hair spread round her, when she said, suddenly, "I wonder why it is incorrect to send invitations by post to people living in the same town?"
"But it isn't," Anthony objected. "Everybody does it."
"Not in schools," Meg said firmly. "Mrs. Ross-Morton will never send invitations to people living in London through the post—she says it isn't polite. They must go by hand."
"I never heard such nonsense," Anthony exclaimed crossly. "If she doesn't send 'em by post, how does she send them?"
"I take them generally, in the evening, after school, and deliver them at all the houses. Some are fairly near, of course—a lot of her friends live in Regent's Park—but sometimes I have to go quite a long way by bus. I don't mind that in summer, when it's light, but in winter it's horrid going about the lonely roads ... People speak to one...."
Anthony Ross stepped from behind his easel.
"And what do you do?" he asked.
"I run," Meg said simply, "and I can generally run much faster than they do ... but it's a little bit frightening."
"It's infernal," Anthony said furiously. "I shall speak to Amelia at once. You are never to do it again."
In vain did Meg plead, almost with tears, that he would do nothing of the kind. He was roused and firm.
He did "speak to Amelia." He astonished that good lady as much as he annoyed her. Nevertheless Mrs. Ross-Morton used the penny post for her invitations as long as Meg remained at Ribston Hall.
At the end of two years Major Morton, who had removed from Bedford to Cheltenham, wrote a long, querulous letter to his sister-in-law to the effect that if—like the majority of girls nowadays—his daughter chose to spend her life far from his sheltering care, it was time she earned something.
Mrs. Ross-Morton replied that only now was Meg beginning to repay all the expense incurred on her behalf in the way of board, clothing and tuition; and it was most unreasonable to expect any salary for quite another year.
Major Morton decided to remove Meg from Ribston Hall.
Many acrimonious letters passed between her aunt and her father before this was finally accomplished, and Meg left "under a cloud."
To her great astonishment, her meek little uncle appeared at Paddington to see her off. Just as the train was starting he thrust an envelope into her hand.
"It hasn't been fair," he almost shouted—for the train was already beginning to move. "You worked hard, you deserved some pay ... a little present ... but please don't mention it to your aunt ... She is so decided in her views...."
When Meg opened the envelope she found three ten-pound notes. She had never seen so much money before, and burst into tears; but it was not because of the magnitude of the gift. She felt she had never properly appreciated her poor little uncle, and her conscience smote her.
This was at Christmas.
The weariful rich sat in conclave over Meg, and it was decided that she should in March go as companion and secretary to a certain Mrs. Trent slightly known to one of them.
Mrs. Trent was kindly, careless, and quite generous as regards money. She had grown-up daughters, and they lived in one of the Home Counties where there are many country-houses and plenty of sport. Meg proved to be exceedingly useful, did whatever she was asked to do, and a great many things no one had ever done before. She shared in the fun, and for the first time since her mother died was not overworked.
Her employer was as keen on every form of pleasure as her own daughters. She exercised the very smallest supervision over them and none at all over the "quite useful" little companion.
Many men came to the easy-going, lavish house, and Meg, with pretty frocks, abundant leisure and deliriously prim Ribston-Hallish manners, came in for her full share of admiration.
It happened that at the end of July Anthony Ross came up to London in the afternoon to attend and speak at a dinner in aid of some artists' charity. He and Jan were staying with friends at Teddington; Fay, an aunt and the servants were already at Wren's End—all but Hannah, the severe Scottish housemaid, who remained in charge. She was grim and gaunt and plain, with a thick, black moustache, and Anthony liked her less than he could have wished. But she had been Jan's nurse, and was faithful and trustworthy beyond words. He would never let Jan go to the country ahead of him, for without her he always left behind everything most vital to his happiness, so she was to join him next day and see that his painting-tackle was all packed.
The house in St. George's Square was nominally shut up and shrouded in dust-sheets, but Hannah had "opened up" the dining-room on Anthony's behalf, and there he sat and slumbered till she should choose to bring him some tea.
He was awakened by an opening door and Hannah's voice announcing, not tea, but:
"Miss Morton to see you, sir."
There seemed a thousand "r's" in both the Morton and the sir, and Anthony, who felt that there was something ominous and arresting in Hannah's voice, was wide-awake before she could shut the door again.
Sure enough it was Meg, clad in a long grey dust-cloak and motor bonnet, the grey veil flung back from a very pale face.
Meg, looking a wispy little shadow of woe.
Anthony came forward with outstretched hands.
"Meg, my child, what good wind has blown you here this afternoon? I thought you were having ever such a gay time down in the country."
But Meg made no effort to grasp the greeting hands. On the contrary, she moved so that the whole width of the dining-room table was between them.
"Wait," she said, "you mustn't shake hands with me till I tell you what I've done ... perhaps you won't want to then."
And Anthony saw that she was trembling.
"Come and sit down," he said. "Something's wrong, I can see. What is it?"
But she stood where she was, looking at him with large, tragic eyes; laid down a leather despatch-case she was carrying, and seized the edge of the table as if for support.
"I'd rather not sit down yet," she said. "Perhaps when you've heard what I've got to tell you, you'll never want me to sit down in your house again ... and yet ... I did pray so you'd be here ... I knew it was most unlikely ... but I did pray so ... And you are here."
Anthony was puzzled. Meg was not given to making scenes or going into heroics.
It was evident that something had happened to shake her out of her usual almost cynical calm.
"You'd be much better to sit down," he said, soothingly. "You see, if you stand, so must I, and it's such an uncomfortable way of talking."
She pulled out a chair and sat down at the table, took off her gloves, and two absurd small thumbs appeared above its edge, the knuckles white and tense with the strength of her grip.
Anthony seated himself in a deep chair beside the fireplace. He was in shadow. Meg faced the light, and he was shocked at the appearance of the little smitten face.
"Now tell me," he said gently, "just as little or as much as you like."
"This morning," she said hoarsely, "I ran away with a man ... in a motor-car."
Anthony was certainly startled, but all he said was, "That being the case, why are you here, my dear, and what have you done with him?"
"He was married...."
"Have you only just found that out?"
"No, I knew it all along. His wife is hard and disagreeable and older than he is ... and he's thirty-five ... and they can't live together, and she won't divorce him and he can't divorce her ... and I loved him so much and thought how beautiful it would be to give up everything and make it up to him."
"Yes?" said Anthony, for Meg paused as though unable to go on.
"And it seemed very wonderful and noble to do this, and I forgot my poor little Papa and those boys in India, and you and Jan and Fay and ... I was very mad and very happy ... till this morning, when we actually went off in his car."
"But where," Anthony asked in a voice studiously even and quiet, "are he and his car?"
"I don't know," Meg said hopelessly, "unless they're still at the place where we had lunch ... and I don't suppose he'd stay there all this time...."
Anthony felt a great desire to laugh, but Meg looked so woebegone and desperately serious that he restrained the impulse and said very kindly: "I don't yet understand how, having embarked upon such an enterprise, you happen to be here ... alone. Did you quarrel at lunch, or what?"
"We didn't have lunch," Meg exclaimed with a sob. "At least, I didn't ... it was the lunch that did it."
"Made me realise what I had done, and go away."
"Meg dear," said Anthony, striving desperately to keep his voice steady, "was it a very bad lunch?"
"I don't know," she answered with the utmost seriousness. "We hadn't begun; we were just going to, when I noticed his hands, and his nails were dirty, and they looked horrid, and suddenly it came over me that if I stayed ... those hands...."
She let go of the table, put her elbows upon it and hid her face in her hands.
Anthony made no sound, and presently, still with hidden face, she went on again:
"And in that minute I saw what I was doing, and that I could never be the same again, and I remembered my poor little dyspeptic Papa, and my dear, dear brothers so far away in India ... and you and Jan and Fay—all the special people I pray for every single night and morning—and I felt that if I didn't get away that minute I should die...."
"And how did you get away?"
"It was quite simple. There was something wrong with the car (that's how he got his hands so dirty), and he'd sent for a mechanic, and just as we were sitting down to lunch, the waiter said the motor-man had come ... and he went out to the garage to speak to him...."
"Yes?" Anthony remarked, for again Meg paused.
"So I just walked out of the front door. No one saw me, and the station was across the road, and I went right in and asked when there was a train to London, and there was one going in five minutes; so I took a ticket and came straight here, for I knew somehow, even if you were all away, Hannah would let me stay ... just to-night. I knew she would ..." and Meg began to sob feebly.
And, as if in response to the mention of her name, Hannah appeared, bearing a tray with tea upon it. Hannah was short and square; she stumped as she walked, and she carried a tray very high and stately, as though it were a sacrifice. As she came in Meg rose and hastily moved to the window, standing there with her back to the room.
"I thocht," said Hannah, as though challenging somebody to contradict her, "that Miss Morton would be the better for an egg to her tea. She looks just like a bit soap after a hard day's washing."
"I had no lunch," said a muffled, apologetic voice from the window.
"Come away, then, and take yer tea," Hannah said sharply. "Young leddies should have more sense than go fasting so many hours."
As it was evident that Hannah had no intention of leaving the room till she saw Meg sitting at the table, the girl came back and sat down.
"See that she gets her tea, sir," she said in a low, admonitory voice to Anthony. "She's pretty far through."
The tray was set at the end of the table. Anthony came and sat down behind it.
"I'll pour out," he said, "and until you've drunk one cup of tea, eaten one piece of bread-and-butter and one egg, you're not to speak one word. I will talk."
He tried to, disjointedly and for the most part nonsense. Meg drank her tea, and to her own amazement ate up her egg and several pieces of bread-and-butter with the utmost relish.
As the meal proceeded, Anthony noted that she grew less haggard. The tears still hung on her eyelashes, but the eyes themselves were a thought less tragic.
When Hannah came for the tray she gave a grunt of satisfaction at the sight of the egg-shell and the empty plates.
"Now," said Anthony, "we must thresh this subject out and settle what's to be done. I suppose you left a message for the Trents. What did you tell them?"
"Lies," said Meg. "He said we must have a good start. His yacht was at Southampton. And I left a note that I'd been suddenly summoned to Papa, and would write from there. They'd all gone for a picnic, you know—and it was arranged I was to have a headache that morning ... I've got it now with a vengeance ... It seemed rather fun when we were planning it. Now it all looks so mean and horrid ... Besides, lots of people saw us in his motor ... and people always know me again because of my hair. Everyone knew him ... the whole county made a fuss of him, and it seemed so wonderful ... that he should care like that for me...."
"Doubtless it did," said Anthony drily. "But we must consider what is to be done now. If you said you were going to your father, perhaps the best thing you can do is to go to him, and write to the Trents from there. I hope you didn't inform him of your intention?"
"No," she faltered. "I was to write to him just before we sailed ... But you may be perfectly sure the Trents will find out ... He will probably go back there to look for me ... I expect he is awfully puzzled."
"I expect he is, and I hope," Anthony added vindictively, "the fellow is terrified out of his life as well. He ought to be horsewhipped, and I'd like to do it. A babe like you!"
"No," said Meg, firmly; "there you're wrong. I'm not a babe ... I knew what I was doing; but up to to-day it seemed worth it ... I never seemed to see till to-day how it would hurt other people. Even if he grew tired of me—and I had faced that—there would have been some awfully happy months ... and so long as it was only me, it didn't seem to matter. And when you've had rather a mouldy life...."
"It can never be a case of 'only me.' As society is constituted, other people are always involved."
"Yet there was Marian Evans ... he told me about her ... she did it, and everyone came round to think it was very fine of her really. She wrote, or something, didn't she?"
"She did," said Anthony, "and in several other respects her case was not at all analogous to yours. She was a middle-aged woman—you are a child...."
"Perhaps, but I'm not an ignorant child...."
"Oh, Meg!" Anthony protested.
"I daresay about books and things I am, but I mean I haven't been wrapped in cotton-wool, and taken care of all my life, like Jan and Fay ... I know about things. Oh dear, oh dear, will you forbid Jan ever to speak to me again?"
"Jan!" Anthony repeated. "Jan! Why, she's the person of all others we want. We'll do nothing till she's here. Let's get her." And he pushed back his chair and rushed to the bell.
Meg rushed after him: "You'll let her see me? You'll let her talk to me? Oh, are you sure?"
The little hands clutched his arm, her ravaged, wistful face was raised imploringly to his.
Anthony stooped and kissed the little face.
"It's just people like Jan who are put into the world to straighten things out for the rest of us. We've wasted three-quarters of an hour already. Now we'll get her."
"Is she on the telephone?" asked the practical Meg. "Not far off?"
* * * * *
Jan was quite used to being summoned to her father in a tremendous hurry. She was back in St. George's Square before he started for the dinner. Meg was lying down in one of the dismantled bedrooms, and when Jan arrived she went straight to her father in his dressing-room.
She found him on his knees, pursuing a refractory collar-stud under the wash-stand.
"It's well you've come," he said as he got up. "I can't fasten my collar or my tie. I've had a devil of a time. My fingers are all thumbs and I'm most detestably sticky."
He told Jan about Meg. She fastened his collar and arranged his tie in the neatest of bows. Then she kissed him on both cheeks and told him not to worry.
"How can one refrain from worrying when the works of the devil and the selfishness of man are made manifest as they have been to-day? But for the infinite mercy of God, where would that poor silly child have been?"
"It's just because the infinite mercy of God is so much stronger than the works of the devil or the selfishness of man, that you needn't worry," said Jan.
Anthony put his hands on Jan's shoulders and held her away from him.
"Do you know," he said, "I shall always like Hannah better after this. In spite of her moustache and her grimness, that child was sure Hannah would take her in, whether any of us were here or not. Now, how did she know?"
"Because," said Jan, "things are revealed to babes like Meg that are hidden from men of the world like you. Hannah is all right—you don't appreciate Hannah, and you are rather jealous of her moustache."
Anthony leant forward and kissed his tall young daughter: "You are a great comfort, Jan," he said. "How do you do it?"
Jan nodded at him. "It will all straighten out—don't you worry," she said.
All the same, there was plenty of worry for everybody. The man, after his fashion, was very much in love with Meg. He was horribly alarmed by her sudden and mysterious disappearance. No one had seen her go, no one had noticed her.
He got into a panic, and motored back to the Trents', arriving there just before dinner. Mrs. Trent, tired and cross after a wet picnic, had, of course, read Meg's note, thought it very casual of the girl and was justly incensed.
On finding they knew no more of Meg's movements than he did himself, the man—one Walter Brooke—lost his head and confessed the truth to Mrs. Trent, who was much shocked and not a little frightened.
Later in the evening she received a telegram from Jan announcing Meg's whereabouts.
Jan had insisted on this, lest the Trents should suspect anything and wire to Major Morton.
Mrs. Trent, quite naturally, refused to have anything further to do with Meg. She talked of serpents, and was very much upset. She wrote a dignified letter to Major Morton, explaining her reasons for Meg's dismissal. She also wrote to their relative among the weariful rich, through whom she had heard of Meg.
Meg was more under a cloud than when she left Ribston Hall.
But for Jan and Anthony she might have gone under altogether; but they took her down to Wren's End and kept guard over her. Anthony Ross dealt faithfully with the man, who went yachting at once.
Meg recovered her poise, searched the advertisements of the scholastic papers industriously, and secured a post in a school for little boys, as Anthony forced his cousin Amelia to give her a testimonial.
Here she worked hard and was a great success, for she could keep order, and that quality, where small boys are concerned, is much more valuable than learning. She stayed there for some years, and then her frail little ill-nourished body gave out, and she was gravely ill.
When she recovered, she went as English governess to a rich German family in Bremen. The arrangement was only for one year, and at its termination she was free to offer to meet Jan and her charges.
"Now, chicks, this is London, the friendly town," Jan announced, as the taxi drove away from Charing Cross station.
"Flendly little London, dirty little London," her niece rejoined, as she bounced up and down on Jan's knee. She had slept during the very good crossing and was full of conversation and ready to be pleased with all she saw.
Tony was very quiet. He had suffered far more in the swift journey across France than during the whole of the voyage, and it was difficult to decide whether he or Ayah were the more extraordinary colour. Greenish-white and miserable he sat beside his aunt, silent and observing.
"Here's dear old Piccadilly," Jan exclaimed, as the taxi turned out of St. James's Street. "Doesn't it look jolly in the sunshine?"
Tony turned even greener than before, and gasped:
This not very wide street with shops and great houses towering above them, the endless streams of traffic in the road and on the crowded pavements!
"Did Mrs. Bond live in one of those houses?" he wondered, "and if so, where did she keep her ducks? And where, oh, where, were the tulips and the lilies of his dream?"
He uttered no sound, but his mind kept exclaiming, "This! Piccadilly?"
"See," said Jan, oblivious of Tony and intent on keeping her lively niece upon her knee. "There's the Green Park."
Tony breathed more freely.
After all, there were trees and grass; good grass, and more of it than in the Resident's garden. He took heart a little and summoned up courage to inquire: "But where are the tulips?"
"It's too early for tulips yet," Jan answered. "By and by there will be quantities. How did you know about them? Did dear Mummy tell you? But they're in Hyde Park, not here."
Tony made no answer. He was, as usual, weighing and considering and making up his mind.
Presently he spoke. "It's different," he said, slowly, "but I rather like to look at it."
Tony never said whether he thought things were pretty or ugly. All he knew was that certain people and places, pictures and words, sometimes filled him with an exquisite sense of pleasure, while others merely bored or exasperated or were positively painful.
His highest praise was "I like to look at it." When he didn't like to look at it, he had found it wiser to express no opinion at all, except in moments of confidential expansion, and these were rare with Tony.
Meg had found them a nice little furnished flat on the fifth floor in one of the blocks behind Kensington High Street, and Hannah must surely have been waiting behind the door, so instantaneously was it opened, when Jan and her party left the lift.
There were tears in Hannah's eyes and her nose was red as she welcomed "Miss Fay's motherless bairns." She was rather shocked that there was no sign of mourning about any of them except Jan, who wore—mainly as a concession to Hannah's prejudices—a thin black coat and skirt she had got just before she left Bombay.
Tony stared stonily at Hannah and decided he did not like to look at her. She was as surprising as the newly-found Piccadilly, but she gratified no sensuous perception whatsoever.
Ayah might not be exactly beautiful, but she was harmonious. Her body was well proportioned, her sari fell in gracious flowing lines, and she moved with dignity. Without knowing why, Tony felt that there was something pleasing to the eye in Ayah. Hannah, on the contrary, was the reverse of graceful; stumpy and heavy-footed, she gave an impression of abrupt terminations. Everything about her seemed too short except her caps, which were unusually tall and white and starchy. Her afternoon aprons, too, were stiffer and whiter and more voluminous than those of other folk. She did not regard these things as vain adornings of her person, rather were they the outward and visible sign of her office as housekeeper to Miss Ross. They were a partial expression of the dignity of that office, just as a minister's gown is the badge of his.
By the time everyone was washed and brushed Meg returned with the luggage and Hannah brought in tea.
"I thought you'd like to give the bairns their tea yourself the first day, Miss Jan. Will that Hindu body have hers in the nursery?"
"That would be best," Jan said hastily. "And Hannah, you mustn't be surprised if she sits on the floor. Indian servants always do."
"Nothing she can do will surprise me," Hannah announced loftily. "I've not forgotten the body that came back with Mrs. Tancred, with a ring through her nose and a red wafer on her forehead."
Jan, herself, went with Ayah to the nursery, where she found that in spite of her disparaging sniffs, Hannah had put out everything poor Ayah could possibly want.
The children were hungry and tea was a lengthy meal. It was not until they had departed with Ayah for more washings that Jan found time to say: "Why don't you take off your hat, Meg dear? I can't see you properly in that extinguisher. Is it the latest fashion?"
"The very latest."
Meg looked queerly at Jan as she slowly took off her hat.
"There!" she said.
Her hair was cropped as short as a boy's, except for the soft, tawny rings that framed her face.
"Meg!" Jan cried. "Why on earth have you cut off your hair?"
"Chill penury's the cause. I've turned it into good hard cash. It happens to be the fashionable colour just now."
"Did you really need to? I thought you were getting quite a good salary with those Hoffmeyers."
"No English governess gets a good salary in Bremen, and mine was but a modest remuneration, so I wanted more. Do you remember Lady Penelope Pottinger?"
"Hazily. She was pretty, wasn't she ... and very smart?"
"She was and is ... smarter than ever now—mind, I put you on your honour never to mention it—she's got my hair."
"Do you mean she asked you to sell it?"
"No, my child. I offered it for sale and she was all over me with eagerness to purchase. Hair's the defective wire in her lighting apparatus. Her own, at the best, is skimpy and straight, though very much my colour, and what with permanent waving and instantaneous hair colouring it was positively dwindling away."
"I wish you had let it dwindle."
"No, I rather like her—so I suggested she should give her own poor locks a rest and have an artistic postiche made with mine; it made two, one to come and one to go—to the hairdresser. She looks perfectly charming. I'd no idea my hair was so decent till I saw it on her head."
"I hope I never shall," Jan said gloomily. "I think it was silly of you, for it makes you look younger and more irresponsible than ever; and what about posts?"
"I've got a post in view where it won't matter if only I can run things my own way."
"Will you have to go at once? I thought, perhaps——"
"I wish to take this post at once," Meg interposed quickly, "but it depends on you whether I get it."
"On no one else. Look here, Jan, will you take me on as nurse to Fay's children? A real nurse, mind, none of your fine lady arrangements; only you must pay me forty pounds a year. I can't manage with less if I'm to give my poor little Papa any chirps ... I suppose that's a frightful lot for a nurse?"
"Not for a good nurse ... But, Meg, you got eighty when you taught the little boys, and I know they'd jump at you again in that school, hair or no hair."
"Listen, Jan." Meg put her elbows on the table and leaned her sharp little chin on her two hands while she held Jan's eyes with hers. "For nine long years, except that time with the Trents, I've been teaching, teaching, teaching, and I'm sick of teaching. I'd rather sweep a crossing."
"Yet you teach so well; you know the little boys adored you."
"I love children and they usually like me. If you take me to look after Tony and little Fay, I'll do it thoroughly, I can promise you. I won't teach them, mind, not a thing—I'll make them happy and well-mannered; and, Jan, listen, do you suppose there's anybody, even the most superior of elderly nurses, who would take the trouble for Fay's children that I should? If you let me come you won't regret it, I promise you."
Meg's eyes, those curious eyes with the large pupil and blue iris flecked with brown, were very bright, her voice was earnest, and when it ceased it left a sense of tension in the very air.
Jan put out her hand across the table, and Meg, releasing her sharp little chin, clasped it with hers.
"So that's settled," Meg announced triumphantly.
"No." Jan's voice was husky but firm. "It's not settled. I don't think you're strong enough; but, even so, if I could pay you the salary you ought to have, I'd jump at you ... but, my dear, I can't at present. I haven't the least idea what it will all cost, but the fares and things have made such a hole in this year's money I'll need to be awfully careful."
"That's exactly why I want to come; you've no idea of being careful and doing things in a small way. I've done it all my life. You'll be far more economical with me than without me."
"Don't tempt me," Jan besought her. "I see all that, but why should I be comfortable at your expense? I want you more than I can say. Fay wanted it too—she said so."
"Did Fay actually say so? Did she?"
"Yes, she did—not that you should be their nurse, we neither of us ever thought of that; but she did want you to be there to help me with the children. We used to talk about it."
"Then I'm coming. I must. Don't you see how it is, Jan? Don't you realise that nearly all the happiness in my life—all the happiness since the boys left—has come to me through Mr. Ross and Fay and you? And now when there's a chance for me to do perhaps a little something in return ... If you don't let me, it's you who are mean and grudging. I shall be perfectly strong, if I haven't got to teach—mind, I won't do that, not so much as A.B.C."
"I know it's wrong," Jan sighed, "just because it would be so heavenly to have you."
Meg loosed the hand she held and stood up. She lifted her thin arms above her head, as though invoking some invisible power, stretched herself, and ran round the table to kiss Jan.
"And do you never think, you dear, slow-witted thing, that it will be rather lovely for me to be with you? To be with somebody who is kind without being patronising, who treats one as a human being and not a machine, who sees the funny side of things and isn't condescending or improving if she doesn't happen to be cross?"
"I'm often cross," Jan said.
"Well, and what if you are? Can't I be cross back? I'm not afraid of your crossness. You never hit below the belt. Now, promise me you'll give me a trial. Promise!"
Meg's arms were round her neck, Meg's absurd cropped head was rubbing against hers. Jan was very lonely and hungry for affection just then, timid and anxious about the future. Even in that moment of time it flashed upon her what a tower of strength this small, determined creature would be, and how infinitely hard it was to turn Meg from any course she had determined on.
"For a little while, then," so Jan salved her conscience. "Just till we all shake down ... and your hair begins to grow."
Meg stood up very straight and shook her finger at Jan. "Remember, I'm to be a real, proper nurse with authority, and a clinical thermometer ... and a uniform."
"If you like, and it's a pretty uniform."
Meg danced gleefully round the table.
"It will be lovely, it is lovely. I've got it all ready; green linen frocks, big well-fitting aprons, and such beautiful caps."
"Not caps, Meg!" Jan expostulated. "Please not caps."
"Certainly caps. How otherwise am I to cover up my head? I can't wear hats all the time. And how could I ever inspire those children with respect with a head like this? When I get into my uniform you'll see what a very superior nurse I look."
"You'll look much more like musical comedy than sober service."
"You mistake the situation altogether," Meg said loftily. "I take my position very seriously."
"But you can't go about Wren's End in caps. Everybody knows you down there."
"They'll find out they don't know me as well as they thought, that's all."
"Meg, tell me, what did Hannah say when she saw your poor shorn head?"
"Hannah, as usual, referred to my Maker, and said that had He intended me to have short hair He would either have caused it not to grow or afflicted me with some disease which necessitated shearing; and she added that such havers are just flying in the face of Providence."
"So they are."
"All the more reason to cover them up, and I wish to impress the children."
"Those children will be sadly browbeaten, I can see, and as for their poor aunt, she won't be able to call her soul her own."
"That," Meg said, triumphantly, "is precisely why I'm so eager to come. When you've been an underling all your life you can't imagine what a joy it is to be top dog occasionally."
"In that respect," Jan said firmly, "it must be turn and turn about. I won't let you come unless you promise—swear, here and now—that when I consider you are looking fagged—'a wispy wraith,' as Daddie used to say—if I command you to take a day in bed, in bed you will stay till I give you leave to get up. Unless you promise me this, the contract is off."
"I'll promise anything you like. The idea of being pressed to remain in bed strikes me as merely comic. You have evidently no notion how persons in a subordinate position ought to be treated. Bed, indeed!"
"I think you might have waited till I got back before you parted with your hair." Jan's tone was decidedly huffy.
"Now don't nag. That subject is closed. What about your hair. Do you know it is almost white?"
"And what more suitable for a maiden aunt? As that is to be my role for the future I may as well look the part."
"But you don't—that's what I complain of. The whiter your hair grows the younger your face gets. You're a contradiction, a paradox, you provoke conjecture, you're indecently noticeable. Mr. Ross would have loved to paint you."
Jan shook her head. "No, Daddie never wanted to paint anything about me except my arms."
"He'd want to paint you now," Meg insisted obstinately. "I know the sort of person he liked to paint."
"He never would paint people unless he did like them," Jan said, smiling as at some recollection. "Do you remember how he utterly refused to paint that rich Mr. Withells down at Amber Guiting?"
"I remember," and Meg laughed. "He said Mr. Withells was puffy and stippled."
* * * * *
Tony had been cold ever since he reached the Gulf of Lyons, and he wondered what could be the matter with him, for he never remembered to have felt like this before. He wondered miserably what could be the reason why he felt so torpid and shivery, disinclined to move, and yet so uncomfortable when he sat still.
After his bath, on that first night in London, tucked into a little bed with a nice warm eiderdown over him, he still felt that horrid little trickle of ice-cold water down his spine and could not sleep.
His cot was in Auntie Jan's room with a tall screen round it. The rooms in the flat were small, tiny they seemed to Tony, after the lofty spaciousness of the bungalow in Bombay, but that didn't seem to make it any warmer, because Auntie Jan's window was wide open as it would go—top and bottom—and chilly gusts seemed to blow round his head in spite of the screen. Ayah and little Fay were in the nursery across the passage, where there was a fire. There was no fire in this wind-swept chamber of Auntie Jan's.
Tony dozed and woke and woke and dozed, getting colder and more forlorn and miserable with each change of position. The sheets seemed made of ice, so slippery were they, so unkind and unyielding and unembracing.
Presently he saw a dim light. Auntie Jan had come to bed, carrying a candle. He heard her say good night to the little mem who had met them at the station, and the door was shut.
In spite of her passion for fresh air, Jan shivered herself as she undressed. She made a somewhat hasty toilet, said her prayers, peeped round the screen to see that Tony was all right, and hopped into bed, where a hot-water bottle put in by the thoughtful Hannah was most comforting.
Presently she heard a faint, attenuated sniff. Again it came, this time accompanied by the ghost of something like a groan.
Jan sat up in bed and listened. Immediately all was perfectly still.
She lay down again, and again came that sad little sniff, and undoubtedly it was from behind the screen that it came.
Had Tony got cold?
Jan leapt out of bed, switched on the light and tore away the screen from around his bed.
Yes; his doleful little face was tear-stained.
"Tony, Tony darling, what is the matter?"
"I don't know," he sobbed. "I feel so funny."
Jan put her hand on his forehead—far from being hot, the little face was stone-cold. In a moment she had him out of bed and in her warm arms. As she took him she felt the chill of the stiff, unyielding small body.
"My precious boy, you're cold as charity! Why didn't you call me long ago? Why didn't you tell Auntie Jan?"
"I didn't ... know ... what it was," he sobbed.
In no time Tony was put into the big bed, the bed so warm from Auntie Jan's body, with a lovely podgy magic something at his feet that radiated heat. Auntie Jan slammed down the window at the bottom, and then more fairness! She struck a match, there was a curious sort of "plop," and a little fire started in the grate, an amazing little fire that grew redder and redder every minute. Auntie Jan put on a blue dressing-gown over the long white garment that she wore, and bustled about. Tony decided that he "liked to look at her" in this blue robe, with her hair in a great rope hanging down. She was very quick; she fetched a little saucepan and he heard talking in the passage outside, but no one else came in, only Auntie Jan.
Presently she gave him milk, warm and sweet, in a blue cup. He drank it and began to feel much happier, drowsy too, and contented. Presently there was no light save the red glow of the fairy fire, and Auntie Jan got into bed beside him.
She put her arm about him and drew him so that his head rested against her warm shoulder. He did not repulse her, he did not speak, but lay stiff and straight with his feet glued against that genial podgy something that was so infinitely comforting.
"You are kind," Tony said suddenly. "I believe you."
The stiff little body relaxed and lay against hers in confiding abandonment, and soon he was sound asleep.
What a curious thing to say! Jan lay awake puzzling. Tragedy lay behind it. Only five years old, and yet, to Tony, belief was a more important thing than love. She thought of Fay, hectic and haggard, and again she seemed to hear her say in her tired voice, trying to explain Tony: "He's not a cuddly child; he's queer and reserved and silent, but if he once trusts you it's for always; he'll love you then and never change."
Jan could just see, in the red glow from the fire, the little head that lay so confidingly against her shoulder, the wide forehead, the peacefully closed eyes. And suddenly she realised that the elusive resemblance to somebody that had always evaded her was a likeness to that face she saw in the glass every time she did her hair. She kissed him very softly, praying the while that she might never fail him; that he might always have reason to trust her.
THE STATE OF PETER
Meanwhile Peter was making discoveries about himself. He went back to his flat on the evening of the day Jan and the children sailed. Swept and garnished and exceedingly tidy, it appeared to have grown larger during his absence and seemed rather empty. There was a sense of unfilled spaces that caused him to feel lonely.
That very evening he decided he must get a friend to chum with him. The bungalow was much too big for one person.
This had never struck him before.
In spite of their excessive neatness there remained traces of Jan and the children in the rooms. The flowers on the dinner-table proclaimed that they had been arranged by another hand than Lalkhan's. He was certain of that without Lalkhan's assurance that the Miss-Sahib had done them herself before she sailed that very morning.
When he went to his desk after dinner—never before or after did Peter possess such an orderly bureau—he found a letter lying on the blotting-pad, and on each side of the heavy brass inkstand were placed a leaden member of a camel-corps and an India-rubber ball with a face painted upon it, which, when squeezed, expressed every variety of emotion. These, Lalkhan explained, were parting gifts from the young sahib and little Fay respectively, and had been so arranged by them just before they sailed.