When all the guests had gone, Lady Pen seized Miles by the arm and implored him to take her outside for a cigarette. "That little Withells had given her the hump."
Lady Mary said it was bed-time and the servants wanted to lock up. The Squire and Mr. Pottinger melted away imperceptibly to smoke in peace elsewhere.
Lady Pen, still holding Miles in an iron grip, pulled him over to the door, which she shut, led him back, and stood in front of Lady Mary, who was just going to ring for the servants to shut the windows.
"Wait a minute, Aunt Mary. I've got somethin' to say, and I want to say it before Miles."
"Oh, don't let us go into all that to-night," Lady Mary implored, "if what you have to say has anything to do with what you told me before dinner."
"It has and it hasn't. One thing I've decided is that I've got to tell the Trents they are liars; and the other thing is that, though I disapprove with all my strength of the game Miles is playing, I believe that little girl is square...."
"You see," Lady Pen went on, turning to Miles, "I've repeated things to Aunt Mary that I heard from the Trents lately—but I heard a different story at the time—and though I think you, Miles, are throwing yourself away, I won't be a party to spreadin' lies. Somethin' that poudree woman with the good skin said to-night made me feel a swab——"
"I'm glad you've spoken up like this, Pen," Miles said slowly, "for if you hadn't, we couldn't have been friends any more. I promised Meg I wouldn't tell anybody—but I've asked her to marry me ... and though she isn't over keen, I believe I'll get her to do it some day."
"Isn't over keen?" Lady Mary repeated indignantly. "Why, she ought to be down on her knees with joy!"
Miles laughed. "She's not a kneeling sort, Aunt Mary. It's I who'll have to do the kneeling, I can tell you."
Lady Pen was looking straight at her cousin with the beautiful candid eyes that were so like his own. "Just for curiosity," she said slowly, "I'd dearly like to know if Meg Morton ever said anything to you about me—anything rather confidential—I won't be offended, I'd just like to know."
"About you?" Miles echoed in a puzzled voice.
"About my appearance, you know—my looks."
"I think she called you good-looking, like everybody else, but I don't remember that she was specially enthusiastic. To tell you the honest truth, Pen, we've had other things to talk about than you."
"Now listen, you two," said Lady Pen. "That little girl is straight. You won't understand, Miles, but Aunt Mary will. Meg Morton knew I was against her—about you, Miles—women always know these things. And yet she held her tongue when she could have said something true that I'd rather not have talked about. You'll hold your tongue, old chap, and so will Aunt Mary. I've got her hair; got it on this minute. That's why she's such a croppy."
Lady Mary sat down on the nearest chair and sighed deeply.
"It's been a real satisfaction to me, this transformation, because I know where it came from."
Miles took his cousin's hand and kissed it. "If somebody had to have it, I'm glad it's you," he said.
"Yes, she's straight," Lady Pen repeated. "I don't believe there's many girls who would have kept quiet—not when the man they cared about was being got at. You may ring now, Aunt Mary. I'm through. Good night."
* * * * * * * *
"Do you realise," said Peter as they turned out of the dark Manor drive into the moonlit road, "that I've been here on and off over a month, and that we are now nearly at the end of July?"
"You've only just come to us," said Jan. "You can't count the time you stayed at 'The Green Hart' as a visit."
"And now I have come ... I'm not quite sure I've done wisely, unless...."
"Unless I can put something through that I came back from India to do."
Jan did not answer. They walked on in silence, and Peter looked at the moon.
"I think," he said, "you've always had a pretty clear idea why I came home from India ... haven't you?"
"It was time for your leave," Jan said nervously. "It isn't good to stay out there too long."
"I shouldn't have taken leave this year, though, if it hadn't been for you."
"You've always been kind and helpful to me ... I hope it hasn't been very ... inconvenient."
Peter laughed, and stopped in the middle of the road.
"I'm fond of fencing," he said lightly, "and free play's all very well and pretty; but I've always thought that the real thing, with the buttons off the foils, must have been a lot more sport than anything we get now."
Again Jan was silent.
"You've fenced with me, Jan," he said slowly, "ever since I turned up that day unexpectedly. Now, I want a straight answer. Do you care at all, or have you only friendship for me? Look at me; tell me the truth."
"It's all so complicated and difficult," she faltered, and her eyes fell beneath Peter's.
"This caring—when you aren't a free agent."
"Free fiddlestick! You either care or you don't—which is it?"
"I care a great deal too much for my own peace of mind," said Jan.
"I am quite satisfied," said Peter. And if Mr. Withells had seen what happened to the "sensible" Miss Ross just then, his neatly-brushed hair would have stood straight on end.
In the road, too!
"No," said Jan, "it would be like marrying a widow ... with encumbrances."
"But you don't happen to be a widow—besides, if you were, and had a dozen encumbrances, if we want to get married it's nobody's business but our own."
Peter spoke testily. He wanted Jan to marry him before he went back to India in October, and if he got the billet he hoped for, to follow him, taking the two children out, early in November.
But Jan saw a thousand lions in the way. She was pulled in this direction and that, and though she knew she had got to depend on Peter to—as she put it—"a dreadful extent," yet she hesitated to saddle him with her decidedly explosive affairs, without a great deal more consideration than he seemed disposed to allow her.
Hugo, for the present, was quiet. He was in Guernsey with his people, and beyond a letter in which he directly accused Peter Ledgard of abducting Tony when his father was taking him to visit his grandparents, Jan had heard nothing.
By Peter's advice she did not answer this letter. But they both knew that Hugo was only waiting to make some other and more unpleasant demonstration than the last.
"You see," Jan began again, "I've got so many people to think of. The children and Meg and the house and all the old servants.... You mustn't hustle me, dear."
"Yes, I see all that; but I've got you to think of, and if we're married and anything happens to me you'll get your pension, and I want you to have that."
"And if anything happened to me, you'd be saddled with the care of two little children who've got a thoroughly unsatisfactory father, who can always make life hateful for them and for you. No, Peter, it wouldn't be fair—we must wait and see how things work out."
"At present," Peter said gloomily, "it looks as if things were working out to a fair bust-up all round."
This was on the 30th of July.
Peter went up to London, intending to return on the first to stay over the Bank Holiday, but he did not come. He wanted to be within easy reach of recalling cablegram.
Meg got a wire from Miles on Saturday: "Try to come up for to-morrow and Monday I can't leave town must see you."
And half an hour after it, came a note from Squire Walcote, asking her to accept his escort, as he and Lady Mary were going up to the Grosvenor, and hoped Meg would be their guest.
It was during their stay in London that Lady Mary and the Squire got the greatest surprise of their whole lives.
Miles, looking bigger than ever in uniform, rushed in and demanded an interview with Meg alone in their private room. He showed her a special licence, and ordered, rather than requested, that she should marry him at once.
"I can't," she said, "it's no use asking me ... I can't."
"Listen; have you any objection to me?"
Meg pulled a little away from him and pretended to look him up and down. "No ... in fact ... I love every bit of you—especially your boots."
"Have you thought how likely it is that I may not come back ... if there's war?"
"Don't!" said Meg. "Don't put it into words."
"Then why won't you marry me, and let me feel that, whether I'm killed or not, I've had the thing I wanted most in this world?"
"Dear, I can't help it, but I feel if I married you now ... you would never come back ... but if I wait ... if I don't try to grasp this wonderful thing too greedily ... it will come to us both. I daren't marry you, Miles."
"Suppose I'm all smashed up ... I couldn't ask you then ... suppose I come back minus an arm or a leg, or blind or something?"
"If the least little bit of you comes back, I'll marry that; not you or anyone else could stop me then."
"You'd make it easier all round if you'd marry me now...."
"That's it ... I don't want it to be easier. If I was your wife, how could I go on being nurse to those children?"
"I wouldn't stop you—you could go back to Miss Ross and do just exactly what you're doing. I agree with you—the children are cheery——"
Meg shook her head. "No; if I was your wife, it wouldn't do. As it is ... the nursemaid has got her soldier, and that's as it should be."
"Will you marry me the first leave I get, if I live to get any?"
"I'll think about that."
He gave her the ring she had refused before. Such an absurd little ring, with its one big sapphire set with diamonds, and "no backing to it," Miles said.
And he gave her a very heavy brass-studded collar for William, and on the plate was engraved her name and address.
"You see," he explained, "Miss Ross would never really have him, and I'd like to think he was your dog. And here's his licence."
Then Miles took her right up in his arms and hugged her close, and set her gently down and left her.
That night he asked his uncle and a brother-officer to witness his will. He had left most of his money among his relations, but twenty thousand pounds he had left to Meg absolutely, in the event of his being killed before they were married.
His uncle pointed out that there was nothing said about her possible marriage. "She'll be all the better for a little money of her own if she does marry," Miles said simply. "I don't want her to go mourning all her days, but I do want the capital tied up on her so that he couldn't waste it ... if he was an unfortunate sort of chap over money."
The Squire blew his nose.
"You see," Miles went on, "she's a queer little thing. If I left her too much, she'd refuse it altogether. Now I trust to you, Uncle Edward, to see that she takes this."
"I'll do my best, my boy, I'll do my best," said the Squire; "but I hope with all my soul you'll make settlements on her yourself before long."
"So do I, but you never can tell in war, you know. And we must always remember," Miles added with his broad, cheerful smile, "there's a good deal of target about me."
Miles wrote to the little Major, a very manly, straightforward letter, telling him what he had done, but swearing him to secrecy as regarded Meg.
He also wrote to Jan, and at the end, he said, "I am glad she is to be with you, because you really apreciate her."
The one "p" in "appreciate" fairly broke Jan down. It was so like Miles.
Meg, white-faced and taciturn, went back to Wren's End on Tuesday night. The Squire and Lady Mary remained in town.
In answer to Jan's affectionate inquiries, Meg was brief and business-like. Yes; she had seen Miles several times. He was very busy. No, she did not expect to see him again before ... he left. Yes; he was going with the First Army.
Jan asked no more questions, but was quietly, consistently kind. Meg was adorable with her children and surpassed herself in the telling of stories.
The First Army left England for Flanders with the silence of a shadow.
But Meg knew when it left.
That night, Jan woke about one o'clock, conscious of a queer sound that she could neither define nor locate.
She sat up in bed to listen, and arrived at the conclusion that it came from the day-nursery, which was below her room.
Tony was sleeping peacefully. Jan put on her dressing-gown and went downstairs. The nursery door was not shut, and a shaft of light shone through it into the dark hall. She pushed it open a little way and looked in.
Meg was sitting at the table, making muslin curtains as if her life depended on it. She wore her nightgown, and over it a queer little Japanese kimono of the green she loved. Her bare feet were pillowed upon William, who lay snoring peacefully under the table.
Her face was set and absorbed. A grave, almost stern, little face. And her rumpled hair, pushed back from her forehead, gave her the look of a Botticelli boy angel. It seemed to merge into tongues of flame where the lamplight caught it.
The window was wide open and the sudden opening of the door caused a draught, though the night was singularly still.
The lamp flickered.
Meg rested her hand on the handle of the sewing-machine, and the whirring noise stopped. She saw Jan in the doorway.
"Dear," said Jan gently, standing where she was, half in and half out of the door, "are you obliged to do this?"
Meg looked at her, and the dumb pain in that look went to Jan's heart.
Jan came towards her and drew the flaming head against her breast.
"I'm sorry I disturbed you," Meg murmured, "but I was obliged to do something."
William stirred at the voices, and turning his head tried to lick the little bare feet resting on his back.
"Dearest, I really think you should go back to bed."
"Very well," said Meg meekly. "I'll go now."
"He," Jan continued, "would be very angry if he thought you were making curtains in the middle of the night."
"He," Meg retorted, "is absurd—and dear beyond all human belief."
"You see, he left you in my charge ... what will he say if—when he comes back—he finds a haggard Meg with a face like a threepenny-bit that has seen much service?"
"All right, I'm coming."
When Meg got back to her room, she went and leaned over little Fay sleeping in the cot beside her bed. Rosy and beautiful, warm and fragrant, the healthy baby brought comfort to Meg's stricken heart.
Perhaps—who knows—the tramp of that silent army sounded in little Fay's ears, for she stretched out her dimpled arms and caught Meg round the neck.
"Deah Med!" she sighed, and was still.
William stood at attention.
Presently Meg knelt down by her bed, and according to the established ritual he thrust his head into her encircling arm.
"Pray for your master, William," Meg whispered. "Oh, William, pray for your master as you never prayed before."
* * * * * * * *
The strange tense days went on in August weather serene and lovely as had not been seen for years. Young men vanished from the country-side and older men wistfully wondered what they could do to help.
Peter came down from Saturday to Monday, telling them that every officer and every civilian serving in India was recalled, but he had not yet learned when he was to sail.
They were sitting in the wrens' garden with the children.
"Earley's going," Tony said importantly.
"Earley!" Jan exclaimed. "Going where?"
"To fight, of course," little Fay chimed in.
"Oh, poor dear Earley!" Jan sighed.
"Happy, fortunate Earley," said Peter. "I wish I stood in his shoes."
Earley joined the Gloucesters because, he said, "he couldn't abear to think of them there Germans comin' anigh Mother and them childring and the ladies; and he'd better go and see as they didn't."
Mr. Withells called the men on his place together and told them that every man who joined would have his wages paid to his wife, and his wife or his mother, as the case might be, could stop on in her cottage. And Mr. Withells became a special constable, with a badge and a truncheon. But he worried every soldier that he knew with inquiries as to whether there wasn't a chance for him in some battalion: "I've taken great care of my health," he said. "I do exercises every day after my bath; I'm young-looking for my age, don't you think? And anyway, a bullet might find me instead of a more useful man."
No one laughed then at Mr. Withells and his exercises.
Five days after the declaration of war Jan got a letter from Hugo Tancred. He was in London and was already a private in a rather famous cavalry regiment.
"They didn't ask many questions," he wrote, "so I hadn't to tell many lies. You see, I can ride well and understand horses. If I get knocked out, it won't be much loss, and I know you'll look after Fay's kiddies. If I come through, perhaps I can make a fresh start somewhere. I've always been fond of a gamble, and this is the biggest gamble I've ever struck."
Jan showed the letter to Peter, who gave it back to her with something like a groan: "Even the wrong 'uns get their chance, and yet I have to go back and do a deadly dull job, just because it is my job."
Peter went up to town and two days after came down again to "The Green Hart" to say good-bye. He had got his marching orders and was to sail in the Somali from Southampton. Some fifteen hundred civilians and officers serving in India were sailing by that boat and the Dongola.
By every argument he could bring forward he tried to get Jan to marry him before he sailed. Yet just because she wanted to do it so much, she held back. She, too, she kept telling herself, had her job, and she knew that if she was Peter's wife, nothing, not even her dear Fay's children, could be of equal importance with Peter.
The children and Meg and the household had by much thinking grown into a sort of Frankenstein's monster of duty.
Her attitude was incomprehensible to Peter. It seemed to him to be wrong-headed and absurd, and he began to lose patience with her.
On his last morning he sought and found her beside the sun-dial in the wrens' garden.
Meg had taken little Fay to see Lady Mary's Persian kittens, but Tony preferred to potter about the garden with the aged man who was trying to replace Earley. William was not allowed to call upon the kittens, as Fatima, their mother, objected to him vehemently, and Tony cared to go nowhere if William might not be of the party.
Peter came to Jan and took both her hands and held them.
"It's the last time I shall ask you, my dear. If you care enough, we can have these last days together. If you don't I must go, for I can't bear any more of this. Either you love me enough to marry me before I sail or you don't love me at all. Which is it?"
"I do love you, you know I do."
"Well, which is it to be?"
"Peter, dear, you must give me more time. I haven't really faced it all. I can't do anything in such a hurry as that."
Peter looked at her and shook his head.
"You don't know what caring is," he said. "I can't stand any more of this. Do you see that motto on the sun-dial: 'I bide my time'—I've read it and read it, and I've said it over to myself and waited and hoped to move you. Now I can't wait any more."
He kissed her, dropped her hand, and turning from her went out through the iron gate and down the drive. For a moment Jan stood by the sun-dial as though she, too, were stone.
Then blindly she went up the steps into the empty nursery and sat down on an old sofa far back in the room. She leaned face-downward against the cushions, and great, tearing sobs broke from her.
Peter was gone. He would never come back. She had driven him from her. And having done so she realised that he was the one person in the world she could not possibly do without.
Tony's own hen had laid an egg. Carrying it very carefully in a cabbage-leaf, he went, accompanied by the faithful William, to show it to Auntie Jan, and was just in time to see Peter going down the drive.
He went through the wrens' garden and in by the window. For a moment he didn't see his aunt; and was turning to go again when a strange sound arrested him, and he saw her all huddled up at the head of the sofa, with hidden face and heaving shoulders.
He laid his egg on the table and went and pulled at her arm.
"What is the matter?" he asked anxiously. "And why has Peter gone?"
Jan raised her head; pride and shame and self-consciousness were dead in her: "He's gone," she sobbed. "He won't come back, and I shall never be happy any more," and down went her head again on her locked arms.
Tony did not attempt to console her. He ran from the room, and Jan felt that this was only an added pang of abandonment.
Down the drive ran Tony, with William galumphing beside him. But William was not happy, and squealed softly from time to time. He felt it unkind to leave a poor lady crying like that, and yet was constrained to go with Tony because Meg had left him in William's charge.
Tony turned out of the gate and into the road.
Far away in the distance was a man's figure striding along with incredible swiftness. Tony started to run all he knew. Now, seldom as William barked, he barked when people ran, and William's bark was so deep and sonorous and distinctive that it caused the swiftly striding man to turn his head. He turned his body, too, and came back to meet Tony and William.
Tony was puffed and almost breathless, but he managed to jerk out: "You must go back; she's ... crying dreadful. You must go back. Go quick; don't wait for us."
* * * * *
Jan very rarely cried. When she did it hurt fiercely and absorbed all her attention. She was crying now as if she would never stop. If people seldom cry it has a devastating effect on their appearance when they do. Jan's eyelids were swollen, her nose scarlet and shiny, her features all bleared and blurred and almost scarred by tears.
Someone touched her gently on the shoulder, and she looked up.
"My dear," said Peter, "you must not cry like this. I was losing my temper—that's why I went off."
Jan sprang to her feet and flung her arms round his neck. She pressed her ravaged face against his: "I'll do anything you like," she whispered, "if you'll only like it. I can't stand by myself any more."
This was true, for as she spoke her knees gave under her.
Peter held her close. Never had Jan looked less attractive and never had Peter loved her more, or realised so clearly how dear and foolish and wise and womanly she was.
"You see," she sobbed, "you said yourself everyone must do his job, and I thought——"
"But surely," said Peter, "I am your job—part of it, anyway."
Jan sobbed now more quietly, with her head against his shoulder.
Tony and William came and looked in at the window.
His aunt was still crying, crying hard, though Peter was there close beside her, very close indeed.
Surely this was most unreasonable.
"She said," Tony remarked accusingly to Peter, "she was crying because you had gone, so I ran to fetch you back. And now I have fetched you, she's crying worse nor ever."
But William Bloomsbury knew better. William had cause to know the solitary bitter tears that hurt. These tears were different.
So William wagged his tail and ran into the room, jumping joyously on Peter and Jan.
The following corrections were made:
p. 44: Daddy to Daddie, to match all other occurrences (Daddie was very daylight.)
p. 113: log to long (long grey dust-cloak)
p. 113: froward to forward (Anthony came forward)
p. 118: bread-an-butter to bread-and-butter (several pieces of bread-and-butter)
p. 152: minunte to minute (pondered this for a minute)
p. 284: quit to quick ("I came as quick as I could,")
p. 318: fluttered to flattered (rather flattered)
In the Latin-1 plain text version, an a-macron and an o-breve have been removed from the word Jao! (p. 196).
Inconsistencies in hyphenation (e.g. country-side vs. countryside) have not been changed. All dialect and "baby talk" has been left as in the original. Two different types of thought breaks were used in the original: extra whitespace between paragraphs (represented by 5 spaced asterisks in this text) and a line of 8 spaced asterisks (left as in the original.) Ellipses match the original, even when inconsistent. The exception is when they occur at the end of a paragraph, where they are always accompanied by a period.]