'I don't know that I have,' he said.
'It's true, then, what I heard—I felt it was the moment I looked at you, Mr Fraser—I mean, that you're an atheist.'
'A what?' he exclaimed, turning pale with horror. 'Good heavens, Madame, do you know what my profession is?'
He seemed utterly puzzled by her. She managed, all the same, somehow or other to lure him into a conversation in which she heartily took his side. By the end of lunch they were getting on splendidly, though neither of them knew what they were talking about.
And this was one of the curious characteristics of Madame Frabelle. Nobody made so many gaffes, yet no-one got out of them so well. To use the lawyer's phrase, she used so many words that she managed to engulf her own and her interlocutor's ideas. No-one, perhaps, had ever talked so much nonsense seriously as she did that day, but the Rev. Byrne Fraser said she was a remarkable woman, who had read and thought deeply. Also he was enchanted with her interest in him, as everybody always was.
Edith thought she had heard Mr Mitchell saying something to the others that interested her. She managed to get near him when the gentlemen joined them in the studio, as they called the large room where there was a stage, a piano, a parquet floor, and every possible arrangement for amusement. Madame Frabelle moved quickly away, supposing that Edith wished to speak to him for his sake, whereas really it was in order to have repeated something she thought she had heard at lunch.
'Did I hear you saying anything about your old friend, Aylmer Ross?' she asked.
'Yes, indeed. Haven't you heard? The poor fellow has been wounded. He was taken into hospital at once, fortunately, and he's getting better, and is going to be brought home almost immediately, to the same old house in Jermyn Street. I think his son is to meet him at the station today. We must all go and see him. Capital chap, Aylmer. I always liked him. He's travelled so much that—even before the war—I hadn't seen him for three years.'
'Was the wound serious?' asked Edith, who had turned pale.
'They were anxious at first. Now he's out of danger. But, poor chap, I'm afraid he won't be able to move for a good while. His leg is broken. I hear he's got to be kept lying down two or three months.'
'Qu'est ce qu'il y a, Edith?' asked Landi, who joined her.
'I've just heard some bad news,' she said, 'but don't speak about it.'
She told him.
'Bien. Du calme, mon enfant; du calme!'
'But, I'm anxious, Landi.'
'Ca se voit!'
'Do you think—'
'Ce ne sera rien. It's the best thing that could happen to him. He'll be all right.... I suppose you want to see him, Edith?'
'He may not wish to see me,' said Edith.
'Oh yes, he will. You were the first person he thought of,' answered Landi. 'Why, my dear, you forget you treated him badly!'
'Then, if he'd treated me badly he wouldn't care to see me again, you mean?'
'C'est probable,' said Landi, selecting with care a very large cigar from a box that was being handed round. 'Now, be quite tranquil. I shall go and see him directly I leave here, and I'll let you hear every detail. Will that do?'
'Thanks, dear Landi!... But even if he wishes to see me, ought I to go?'
'That I don't know. But you will.'
He lighted the long cigar.
Next morning Edith, who always came down to breakfast, though somewhat late, found on her plate a letter from Lady Conroy, that most vague and forgetful of all charming Irishwomen. It said:
'My DEAR MRS OTTLEY,
Do excuse my troubling you, but could you give me a little information? Someone has asked me about Madame Frabelle. I know that she is a friend of yours, and is staying with you, and I said so; also I have a sort of idea that she was, in some way, connected with you by marriage or relationship, but of that I was not quite sure. I fancy that it is due to you that I have the pleasure of knowing her, anyhow.
'Could you tell me who she was before she married? What her husband was, and anything else about her? That she is most charming and a very clever woman I know, of course, already. To say she is a friend of yours is enough to say that, but the rest I forget.
'Hoping you will forgive my troubling you, and that you are all very well, I remain, yours most sincerely.
'P.S.—I began to take some lessons in nursing when I came across a most charming and delightful girl, called Dulcie Clay. Do you happen to know her at all? Her father married again and she was not happy at home, and, having no money, she went in for nursing, seriously (not as I did), but I'm afraid she is not strong enough for the profession. Remember me to Madame Frabelle.'
Edith passed the letter to Bruce.
'Isn't this too delightful?' she said; 'and exactly like her? She sends Madame Frabelle to me with a letter of introduction, and then asks me who she is!'
'Well,' said Bruce, who saw nothing of the absurdity of the situation, 'Lady Conroy is a most charming person. It looks almost as if she wanted to decline responsibility. I wouldn't annoy her for the world. You must give her all the information she wants, of course.'
'But all I know I only know from her.'
'Exactly. Well, tell her what she told you. Madame Frabelle told us candidly she made her acquaintance at the hotel! But it's absurd to tell Lady Conroy that back! We can't!'
Edith found the original letter of introduction, after some searching, and wrote to Lady Conroy to say that she understood Madame Frabelle, who was no connection of hers, was a clever, interesting woman, who wished to study English life in her native land. She was 'of good family; she had been a Miss Eglantine Pollard, and was the widow of a well-to-do French wine merchant.' (This was word for word what Lady Conroy had told her.) She went on to say that she 'believed Madame Frabelle had several friends and connections in London.'
'The Mitchells, for instance,' suggested Bruce.
'Yes, that's a good idea. "She knows the Mitchells very well,"' Edith went on writing. '"I think you know them also; they are very great friends of ours. Mr Mitchell is in the Foreign Office."'
'And the Conistons?' suggested Bruce.
'Yes. "She knows the Conistons; the nice young brother and sister we are so fond of. She has other friends in London, I believe, but she has not troubled to look them up. The more one sees of her the more one likes her. She is most charming and amiable and makes friends wherever she goes. I don't think I know anything more than this, dear Lady Conroy. Yours very sincerely, Edith Ottley. P.S.—I have not met Miss Dulcie Clay."'
Bruce was satisfied with this letter. Edith herself thought it the most amusing letter she had ever written.
'The clergyman whom she met at lunch yesterday, by the way,' said Bruce, 'wouldn't it sound well to mention him?'
Edith good-naturedly laughed, and added to the letter: '"The Rev. Byrne Fraser knows our friend also, and seems to like her."'
'The only thing is,' said Bruce, after a moment's pause, 'perhaps that might do her harm with Lady Conroy, although he's a clergyman. There have been some funny stories about the Rev. Byrne Fraser.'
'He certainly liked her,' said Edith. 'He wrote her a long letter last night, after meeting her at lunch, to go on with their argument, or conversation, or whatever it was, and she's going to hear him preach on Sunday.'
'Do you feel she would wish Lady Conroy to know that she's a friend of the Rev. Byrne Fraser?' asked Bruce.
'Oh, I think so; or I wouldn't have said it.'
Edith was really growing more and more loyal in her friendship. There certainly was something about Madame Frabelle that everybody, clever and stupid alike, seemed to be attracted by.
Later Edith received a telephone call from Landi. He told her that he had seen Aylmer, who was going on well, that he had begged to see her, and had been allowed by his doctor and nurse to receive a visit from her on Saturday next. He said that Aylmer had been agitated because his boy was going almost immediately to the front. He seemed very pleased at the idea of seeing her again.
Edith looked forward with a certain excitement to Saturday.
* * * * *
A day or two later Edith received a letter from Lady Conroy, saying:
'MY DEAR EDITH,
Thank you so much for your nice letter. I remember now, of course, Madame Frabelle was a friend of the Mitchells, whom I know so well, and like so much. What dears they are! Please remember me to them. I knew that she had a friend who was a clergyman, but I wasn't quite sure who it was. I suppose it must have been this Mr Fraser. She was a Miss Pollard, you know, a very good family, and, as I always understood, the more one knows of her the better one likes her.
'Thanks again for your note. I am longing to see you, and shall call directly I come to London. Ever yours,
'P.S.—Madame F's husband was a French wine merchant, and a very charming man, I believe. By the way, also, she knows the Conistons, I believe, and no doubt several people we both know. Miss Clay has gone to London with one of her patients.'
Bruce didn't understand why Edith was so much amused by this letter, nor why she said that she should soon write and ask Lady Conroy who Madame Frabelle was, and that she would probably answer that she was a great friend of Edith's and of the Mitchells, and the Rev. Byrne Fraser.
'She seems a little doubtful about Fraser, doesn't she?' Bruce said.
'I mean Lady Conroy. Certainly she's got rather a funny memory; she doesn't seem to have the slightest idea that she sent her to you with a letter of introduction. Now we've taken all the responsibility on ourselves.'
'Well, really I don't mind,' said Edith. 'What does it matter? There's obviously no harm in Madame Frabelle, and never could have been.'
'She's a very clever woman,' said Bruce. 'I'm always interested when I hear what she has to say about people. I don't mind telling you that I'm nearly always guided by it.'
'So am I,' said Edith.
Indeed Edith did sincerely regard her opinion as very valuable. She found her so invariably wrong that she was quite a useful guide. She was never quite sure of her own judgement until Madame Frabelle had contradicted it.
* * * * *
When Edith went to call on Aylmer in the little brown house in Jermyn Street, she was shown first into the dining-room.
In a few minutes a young girl dressed as a nurse came in to speak to her.
She seemed very shy and spoke in a soft voice.
'I'm Miss Clay,' she said. 'I've been nursing for the last six months, but I'm not very strong and was afraid I would have to give it up when I met Mr Ross at Boulogne. He was getting on so well that I came back to look after him and I shall stay until he is quite well, I think.'
Evidently this was the Dulcie Clay Lady Conroy had mentioned. Edith was much struck by her. She was a really beautiful girl, with but one slight defect, which some people perhaps, would have rather admired—her skin was rather too dark, and a curious contrast to her beautiful blue eyes. As a rule the combination of blue eyes and dark hair goes with a fair complexion. Dulcie Clay had a brown skin, clear and pale, such as usually goes with the Spanish type of brunette. But for this curious darkness, which showed up her dazzling white teeth, she was quite lovely. It was a sweet, sensitive face, and her blue eyes, with long eyelashes like little feathers, were charming in their soft expression. Her smile was very sweet, though she had a look of melancholy. There was something touching about her.
She was below the usual height, slight and graceful. Her hair, parted in the middle, was arranged in the Madonna style in two thick natural waves each side of her face.
She had none of the bustling self-confidence of the lady nurse, but was very gentle and diffident. Surely Aylmer must be in love with her, thought Edith.
Then Miss Clay said, in her low voice:
'You are Mrs Ottley, aren't you? I knew you at once.'
'Did you? How was that?'
A little colour came into the pale, dark face.
'Mr Ross has a little photograph of you,' she said, 'and once when he was very ill he gave me your name and address and asked me to send it to you if anything happened.'
As she said that her eyes filled with tears.
'Oh, but he'll be all right now, won't he?' asked Edith, with a feeling of sympathy for Miss Clay, and a desire to cheer the girl.
'Yes, I think he'll be all right now,' she said. 'Do come up.'
It was a curious thing about Madame Frabelle that, though she was perfectly at ease in any society, and really had seen a good deal of the world, all her notions of life were taken from the stage. She looked upon existence from the theatrical point of view. Everyone was to her a hero or a heroine, a villain or a victim. To her a death was a denouement; a marriage a happy ending. Had she known the exact circumstances in which Edith went to see the wounded hero, Madame Frabelle's dramatic remarks, the obvious observations which she would have showered on her friend, would have been quite unendurable. Therefore Edith chose to say merely that she was going to see an old friend, so as not to excite her friend's irritable imagination by any hint of sentiment or romance on the subject.
During her absence in the afternoon, it happened that Mrs Mitchell had called, with a lady whom she had known intimately since Tuesday, so she was quite an old friend. Madame Frabelle had received them together in Edith's place. On her return Madame Frabelle was full of the stranger. She had, it seemed been dressed in bright violet, and did nothing but laugh. Whether it was that everything amused her, or merely that laughter was the only mode she knew of expressing all her sentiments, impressions and feelings, Madame Frabelle was not quite sure. Her name was Miss Radford, and she was thirty-eight. She had very red cheeks, and curly black hair. She had screamed with laughter from disappointment at hearing Mrs Ottley was out; and shrieked at hearing that Madame Frabelle had been deputed to receive them in her place. Mrs Mitchell had whispered that she was a most interesting person, and Madame Frabelle thought she certainly was. It appeared that Mrs Mitchell had sent the motor somewhere during their visit, and by some mistake it was a long time coming back. This had caused peals of laughter from Miss Radford, and just as they had made up their minds to walk home the motor arrived, so she went away with Mrs Mitchell, giggling so much she could hardly stand.
Miss Radford also had been highly amused by the charming way the boudoir was furnished, and had laughed most heartily at the curtains and the pictures. Edith was sorry to have missed her. She was evidently a valuable discovery, one of their new treasures, a rare trouvaille of the Mitchells.
Madame Frabelle then told Edith and Bruce that she had promised to dine with the Mitchells one day next week. Edith was pleased to find that Eglantine, and also Bruce, who had by now returned home, were so full of Mrs Mitchell's visit and invitation, that neither of them asked her a single question about Aylmer, and appeared to have completely forgotten all about him.
* * * * *
As Madame Frabelle left them for a moment, Edith observed a cloud of gloom over Bruce's expressive countenance. He said:
'Well, really! Upon my word! This is a bit too much! Mind you, I'm not at all surprised. In fact, I always expected it. But it is a bit of a shock, isn't it, when you find old friends throwing you over like this?'
He walked up and down, much agitated, repeating the same thing in different words: that he had never been so surprised in his life; that it was what he had always known would happen; that it was a great shock, and he had always expected it.
At last Edith said: 'I don't see anything so strange about it, Bruce. It's natural enough they should have asked her.'
'Oh, is it? How would they ever have known her but for us?'
'How could they ask her without knowing her? Besides we went there last. We lunched with them only the other day.'
'That's not the point. You have missed the point entirely. Unfortunately, you generally do. You have, in the most marked way, a woman's weakness, Edith. You're incapable of arguing logically. I consider it a downright slight; no, not so much a slight as an insult—perhaps injury is the mot juste—to take away our guest and not ask us. Not that I should have gone. I shouldn't have dreamed of going, in any case. For one thing we were there last; we lunched there only the other day. Besides, we're engaged to dine with my mother.'
'Mrs Mitchell knew that; that's why she asked Madame Frabelle because she would be alone.'
'Oh, how like you, Edith! Always miss the point—always stick up for everyone but me! You invariably take the other side. However, perhaps it is all for the best; it's just as well. Nothing would have induced me to have gone—even if I hadn't been engaged, I mean. I'm getting a bit tired of the Mitchells; sick of them. Their tone is frivolous. And if they'd pressed me ever so much, nothing in the world would have made me break my promise to my mother.'
'Well, then, it's all right. Why complain?'
Bruce continued, however, in deep depression till they received a message from the Mitchells, asking Edith if she and her husband couldn't manage to come, all the same, if they were not afraid of offending the elder Mrs Ottley. They could go to Bruce's mother at any time, and the Mitchells particularly wanted them to meet some people tomorrow night—a small party, unexpectedly got up.
'Of course you won't go,' said Edith to Bruce from the telephone. 'You said you wouldn't under any circumstances. I'll refuse, shall I?'
'No—no, don't! Certainly not! Of course I shall go. Accept immediately. They're quite right, it is perfectly true we can go to my mother any other day. Besides, I don't think it's quite fair to old friends like the Mitchells to throw them over when they particularly want us and ask us as a special favour to them, like this.'
'You don't think, perhaps, that somebody else has disappointed them, and they asked us at the last minute, to fill up?' suggested Edith, to whom this was perfectly obvious.
Bruce was furious at this suggestion.
'Certainly not!' he exclaimed. 'The idea of such a thing. As if they would treat me like that! Decidedly we will go.'
'All right,' she said, 'just as you wish. But your mother will be disappointed.'
Bruce insisted. Of course the invitation was accepted, and once again he was happy!
* * * * *
And at last Edith was able to be alone, and to think over her meeting with Aylmer. A dramatic meeting under romantic circumstances between two people of the Anglo-Saxon race always appears to fall a little flat; words are difficult to find. When she went in, to find him looking thin and weak, pale under his sunburn, changed and worn, she was deeply thrilled and touched. It brought close to her the simple, heroic manner in which so many men are calmly risking their lives, taking it as a matter of course, and as she knew for a fact that he was forty-two and had gone into the New Army at the very beginning of the war, she was aware he must have strained a point in order to join. She admired him for it.
He greeted her with that bright expression in his eyes and with the smile that she had always liked so much, which lighted up like a ray of sunshine the lean, brown, somewhat hard, face.
She sat down by his side, and all she could think of to say was: 'Well, Aylmer?'
He answered: 'Well, Edith! Here you are.'
He took her hand, and she left it in his. Then they sat in silence, occasionally broken by an obvious remark.
* * * * *
When he had left three years ago both had parted in love, and Aylmer in anger. He had meant never to see her again, never to forgive her for her refusal to use Bruce's escapade as a means of freeing herself, to marry him. Yet now, when they met they spoke the merest commonplaces. And afterwards neither of them could ever remember what had passed between them during the visit. She knew it was short, and that it had left an impression that calmed her. Somehow she had thought of him so much that when she actually saw him again her affection seemed cooler. Had she worn out the passion by dint of constancy? That must be strange. Unaccountably, touched as she was at his wishing to see her just after he had nearly died, the feeling now seemed to be more like a warm friendship, and less like love.
The little nurse had seen her out. Edith saw that she had been crying. Evidently she was quite devoted to Aylmer, and, poor girl, she probably regarded Edith as a rival. But Edith would not be one, of that she was determined. She wondered whether their meeting had had the same effect on Aylmer. She thought he had shown more emotion than she had.
'He will be better now,' Dulcie Clay had said to her at the door. 'Please come again, Mrs Ottley.'
Edith thought that generous.
It seemed to her that Dulcie was as frank and open as a child. Edith, at any rate, could read her like a book. It made her feel sorry for the girl. As Edith analysed her own feelings she wondered why she had felt no jealousy of her—only gratitude for her goodness to Aylmer.
All her sensations were confused. Only one resolution was firm in her mind. Whether he wished it or not, they should never be on the terms they were before. It could only lead to the same ending—to unhappiness. No; after all these years of separation, Edith would be his friend, and only his friend. Of that she was resolved.
'Lady Conroy,' said Bruce thoughtfully, at breakfast next day, 'is a very strict Roman Catholic.'
Bruce was addicted to volunteering information, and making unanswerable remarks.
Madame Frabelle said to Edith in a low, earnest tone:
'Pass me the butter, dear,' and looked attentively at Bruce.
'I sometimes think I shouldn't mind being one myself,' Bruce continued; 'I should rather like to eat fish on Fridays.'
'But you like eating fish on Thursdays,' said Edith.
'And Mr Ottley never seems to care very much for meat.'
'Unless it's particularly well cooked—in a particular way,' said Edith.
'Fasts,' said Madame Frabelle rather pompously, 'are meant for people who like feasts.'
'How true!' He gave her an admiring glance.
'I should not mind confessing, either,' continued Bruce, 'I think I should rather like it.'
(He thought he was having a religious discussion.)
'But you always do confess,' said Edith, 'not to priests, perhaps, but to friends; to acquaintances, at clubs, to girls you take in to dinner. You don't call it confessing, you call it telling them a curious thing that you happen to remember.'
'He calls it conversing,' said Madame Frabelle. She then gave a slight flippant giggle, afterwards correcting it by a thoughtful sigh.
'The Rev. Byrne Fraser, of course, is very High Church,' Bruce said. 'I understood he was Anglican. By the way, was Aylmer Ross a Roman Catholic?'
'I think he is.'
Bruce having mentioned his name, Edith now told him the news about her visit to their friend. Bruce liked good news—more, perhaps, because it was news than because it was good—yet the incident seemed to put him in a rather bad temper. He was sorry for Aylmer's illness, glad he was better, proud of knowing him, or, indeed, of knowing anyone who had been publicly mentioned; and jealous of the admiration visible in both Edith and Madame Frabelle. This medley of feeling resulted in his taking up a book and saying:
'Good heavens! Again I've found you've dog's-eared my book, Edith!'
'I only turned down a page,' she said gently.
'No, you haven't; you've dog's-eared it. It's frightfully irritating, dear, how you take no notice of my rebukes or my comments. Upon my word, what I say to you seems to go in at one ear and out at the other, just like water on a duck's back.'
'How does the water on a duck's back get into the dog's ears?—I mean the duck's ears. Oh, I'm sorry. I won't do it again.'
Bruce sighed, flattened out the folded page and left the room with quiet dignity, but caught his foot in the mat. Both ladies ignored the accident.
When he had gone, Madame Frabelle said:
'Bruce is only a little tidy,' said Edith.
'I know. My husband was dreadfully untidy, which is much worse.'
'I suppose they have their faults.'
'Oh, men are all alike!' exclaimed Madame Frabelle cynically.
'Only some men,' said Edith. 'Besides, to a woman—I mean, a nice woman—there is no such thing as men. There is a man; and either she is so fond of him that she can talk of nothing else, however unfavourably, or so much in love with him that she never mentions his name.'
'Men often say women are all alike,' said Madame Frabelle.
'When a man says that, he means there is only one woman in the world, and he's in love with her, and she is not in love with him.'
'Men are not so faithful as women,' remarked Madame Frabelle, with the air of a discovery.
'Perhaps not. And yet—well, I think the difference is that a man is often more in love with the woman he is unfaithful to than with the woman he is unfaithful with. With us it is different.... Madame Frabelle, I think I'll take Archie with me today to see Aylmer Ross. Tell Bruce so, casually; and will you come with me another day?'
'With the greatest pleasure,' said Madame Frabelle darkly, and with an expressive look. (Neither she nor Edith had any idea what it expressed.)
Edith found Aylmer wonderfully better. The pretty little nurse with the dark face and pale blue eyes told her he had had a peaceful night and had bucked up tremendously. He was seated in an arm-chair with one leg on another chair, and with him was Arthur Coniston, a great admirer of his.
It was characteristic of Aylmer, the moment he was able, to see as many friends as he was allowed. Aylmer was a very gregarious person, though—or perhaps because—he detested parties. He liked company, but hated society. Arthur Coniston, who always did his best to attract attention by his modest, self-effacing manner, was sitting with his handsome young head quite on one side from intense respect for his host, whom he regarded with the greatest admiration as a man of culture, and a judge of art. He rejoiced to be one of the first to see him, just returned after three years' absence from England, and having spent the last three months at the front.
Arthur Coniston (also in khaki), who was a born interviewer, was anxious to know Aylmer's impression of certain things over here, after his long absence.
'I should so very much like to know,' he said, 'what your view is of the attitude to life of the Post-Impressionists.'
Aylmer smiled. He said: 'I think their attitude to life, as you call it, is best expressed in some of Lear's Nonsense Rhymes: "His Aunt Jobiska said, 'Everyone knows that a pobble is better without his toes.'"'
Archie looked up in smiling recognition of these lines, and Edith laughed.
'Excuse me, but I don't quite follow you,' said young Coniston gravely.
'Why, don't you see? Of course, Lear is the spirit they express. A portrait by a post-Impressionist is sure to be "A Dong with a luminous nose." And don't you remember, "The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat"? Wouldn't a boat painted by a Post-Impressionist be pea-green?'
'Perfectly. I see that. But—why the pobble without its toes?'
'Why, the sculptor always surrenders colour, and the painted form. Each has to give up something for the limitation of art. But the more modern artist gives up much more—likeness, beauty, a few features here and there—a limb now and then.'
'Ah yes. I quite see what you mean. Like the statuary of Rodin or Epstein. One sees really only half the form, as if growing out of the sketchy sculpture. And then there's another thing—I hope I'm not wearying you?'
'No, indeed. It's great fun: such a change to hear about this sort of thing again.'
'The Futurists?' asked Arthur. 'What is your view of them?'
'Well, of course, they are already past, They always were. But I should say their attitude to life is that of the man who is looking at the moon reflected in a lake, but can't see it; he sees the reflection of a coal-scuttle instead.'
'Ah yes. They see things wrong, you mean. They're not so real, not so logical, as the Post-Impressionists.'
'Yes, the Futurist is off the rails entirely, and he seems to see hardly anything but railways. But all that noisy nonsense of the Futurists always bored me frightfully,' Aylmer said. 'Affectation for affectation, I prefer the pose of depression and pessimism to that of bullying and high spirits. When the affected young poet pretended to be used up and worn out, one knew there was vitality under it all. But when I see a cheerful young man shrieking about how full of life he is, banging on a drum, and blowing on a tin trumpet, and speaking of his good spirits, it depresses me, since naturally it gives the contrary impression. It can't be real. It ought to be but it isn't. If the noisy person meant what he said, he wouldn't say it.'
'I see. The modern poseurs aren't so good as the old ones. Odle is not so clever as Beardsley.'
'Of course not. Beardsley had the gift of line—though he didn't always know where to draw it—but his illustrations to Wilde's work were unsuitable, because Beardsley wanted everything down in black and white, and Wilde wanted everything in purple and gold. But both had their restraints, and their pose was reserve, not flamboyance.'
'I think you mean that if people are so sickening as to have an affectation at all, you would rather they kept it quiet,' said Edith.
'Exactly! At least, it brings a smile to one's lips to see a very young man pretend he is bored with life. I have often wondered what the answer would be from one of these chaps, and what he would actually say, if you held a loaded pistol to his head—I mean the man who says he doesn't think life worth living.'
'What do you think he would say?' asked Coniston.
'He would scream: "Good heavens! What are you doing? Put that down!"' said Edith.
'She's right,' said Aylmer. 'She always is.'
Dulcie came in and brought tea.
'I hope we're not tiring him,' Edith asked her.
'Oh no. I think it does him good. He enjoys it.'
She sat down with Archie and talked to him gently in the corner.
'After living so much among real things,' Coniston was saying, 'one feels half ashamed to discuss our old subjects.'
However, he and Aylmer continued to talk over books and pictures, Coniston hanging on his lips as though afraid of missing or forgetting a word he said.
Presently Edith told Aylmer about their new friend, Madame Frabelle. He was very curious to see her.
'What is she like?' he asked. 'I can't imagine her living with you. Is she a skeleton at the feast?'
'A skeleton!' exclaimed Coniston. 'Good heavens—no! Quite the contrary.'
'A skeleton who was always feasting would hardly remain one long,' suggested Edith.
'Anyhow,' said Aylmer, 'the cupboard is the proper place for a skeleton.'
Archie had joined the group round Aylmer. Edith sat in a corner for some time, chatting with Dulcie. They arranged that Bruce was to call the next day, and Edith and Madame Frabelle the day after.
When they went away Archie, who had listened very closely to the conversation, said:
'What a lot of manners Mr Coniston has! What did he mean by saying that Spanish painters painted a man in a gramophone?'
Edith racked her brain to remember the sentence. Then she said, with a laugh:
'Oh yes, I know! Mr Coniston said: "The Spanish artists painted—to a man—in monochrome." I can't explain it, Archie. It doesn't matter. Why did you leave Miss Clay and come back to us?'
'Why, I like her all right, but you get tired of talking to women. I get bored with Dilly sometimes.'
'Then you're looking forward to going back to school?'
'I shall like the society of boys of my own sex again,' he said grandly.
'You're not always very nice to Dilly, Archie. I've noticed when anything is given to her, you always snatch at it. You must remember Ladies first.'
'Yes, that's all very well. But then Dilly takes it all, and only gives me what's left.'
Archie looked solemn.
'Edith,' said Bruce, next morning, with some importance of manner, 'I've had a letter from Aylmer—Aylmer Ross, you know—asking me, most particularly, to call on him.'
'Oh, really,' said Edith, who knew it already, as she had asked him to write to Bruce.
'He wants me to come at half-past four,' said Bruce, looking over the letter pompously. 'Four-thirty, to the minute. I shall certainly do it. I shan't lose a minute.'
'I'm afraid you'll have to lose a few minutes,' said Edith. 'It's only ten o'clock.'
Bruce stared at her, folded up the letter, and put it in his pocket. He thought it would be a suitable punishment for her not to see it.
Obviously he was not in the best of humours. Not being sure what was wrong, Edith adopted the simple plan of asking what he meant.
'What do I mean!' exclaimed Bruce, who, when his grievances, were vague, relied on such echoes for his most cutting effects. 'You ask me what I mean? Mean, indeed!' He took some toast and repeated bitterly: 'Ah! You may well ask me what I mean!'
'May I? Well, what were the observations you didn't approve of?'
'Why ... what you said. About several minutes being lost before half-past four.'
'Oh, Bruce dear, I didn't mean any harm by it.'
'Harm, indeed!' repeated Bruce. 'Harm! It isn't a question of actual harm. I don't say that you meant to injure me, nor even, perhaps, to hurt my feelings. But it's a way of speaking—a tone—that I think extremely deplace, from you to me. Do you follow me, Edith? From you to me.'
'That's a dark saying. Well, whatever I said I take it back, if you don't like it. Will that do?'
Bruce was mollified, but wouldn't show it at once.
'Ah,' he said, 'that's all very well. These sort of things are not so easily taken back. You should think before you speak. Prevention is better than cure.'
'Yes, and a stitch in time saves nine—though it doesn't rhyme. And it's no good crying over spilt milk, and two heads are better than one. But, really, Bruce, I didn't mean it.'
'What didn't you mean?'
'Good heavens, I really don't know by now! I'm afraid I've utterly forgotten what we were talking about,' said Edith, looking at the door with some anxiety.
She was hoping that Madame Frabelle would soon come down and cause a diversion.
'Look here, Edith,' said Bruce, 'when an old friend, an old friend of yours and mine, and at one time a very intimate friend—next door to a brother—when such a friend as that has been wounded at the front, fighting for our country—and, mind you, he behaved with remarkable gallantry, for it wasn't really necessary for him to go, as he was beyond the age—well, when a friend does a thing like that, and comes back wounded, and writes, with his own hand, asking me to go and see him—well, I think it's the least I can do! I don't know what you think. It seems to me the right thing. If you disagree with me I'm very sorry. But, frankly, it appears to me that I ought to go.'
'Who could doubt it?'
'Read the letter for yourself,' said Bruce, suddenly taking it out of his pocket and giving it to her. 'There, you see. "Dear Ottley," he says.'
Here Bruce went to her side of the table and leant over her, reading the letter aloud to her over her shoulder, while she was reading it to herself.
'"DEAR OTTLEY,—If you could look in tomorrow about half-past four, I should be very glad to see you. Yours sincerely, AYLMER ROSS." Fairly cordial, I think, isn't it? Or not? Perhaps you think it cold. Would you call it a formal letter?'
Bruce took the letter out of her hand and read it over again to himself.
'Very nice, dear,' said Edith.
'So I thought.' He put it away with a triumphant air.
Edith was thinking that the writing was growing stronger. Aylmer must be better.
'I say, I hope it isn't a sign he's not so well, that he wants to see me. I don't call it a good sign. He's depressed. He thinks I'll cheer him up.'
'And I'm sure you will. Ah, here's Madame Frabelle.'
'I'm afraid I'm a little late,' said their guest, with her amiable smile.
'Oh dear, no—not at all, not at all,' said Bruce, who was really much annoyed at her unpunctuality. 'Of course, if you'd been a minute later I shouldn't have had the pleasure of seeing you at all before I went to the office—that's all. And what does that matter? Good heavens, that's of no importance! Good gracious, this is Liberty Hall, I hope—isn't it? I should be very sorry for my guests to feel tied in any way—bound to be down at any particular time. Will you have some coffee? Edith, give Madame Frabelle a cup of coffee. Late? Oh dear, no; certainly not!' He gave a short, ironical laugh.
'Well, I think I'm generally fairly punctual,' said Madame Frabelle, beginning her breakfast without appearing to feel this sarcasm. 'What made me late this morning was that Archie and Dilly came into my room and asked me to settle a kind of dispute they were having.'
'They regard you quite as a magistrate,' said Edith. 'But it was too bad of them to come and bother you so early.'
'Oh no. Not at all. I assure you I enjoy it. And, besides, a boy with Archie's musical talents is bound to have the artistic temperament, you know, and—well—of course, we all know what that leads to—excitement; and finally a quarrel sometimes.'
'If he were really musical I should have thought he ought to be more harmonious,' Edith said.
'Oh, by the way, Edith, did you consult Landi about him?' Bruce inquired. 'You said you intended to.'
'Oh yes, I did. Landi can see no sign of musical genius yet.'
'Dear, dear!' said Bruce.
'Ah, but I am convinced he's wrong. Wait a few years and you'll find he'll agree with me yet,' said Madame Frabelle. 'I'm not at all sure, either, that a composer like Landi is necessarily the right person to judge of youthful genius.'
'Perhaps not. And yet you'd think he'd know a bit about it, too! I mean to say, they wouldn't have made him a baronet if he didn't understand his profession. Excuse my saying so, won't you?'
'Not at all,' she answered. 'It doesn't follow. I mean it doesn't follow that he's right about Archie. Did he try the boy's voice?' she asked Edith.
'Well, he asked Archie to sing a few notes.'
'And did he?'
'Yes, he did. But they weren't the notes Landi asked him to sing.'
'Then Landi played him two tunes, and found he didn't know one from the other.'
'Well, what of that?'
'Nothing at all. Except that it showed he had no ear, as well as no voice. That is all.'
Madame Frabelle would never own she was beaten.
'Ah, well, well,' she said, shaking her head in an oracular way. 'You wait!'
'Certainly. I shall.'
'By the way, I may be a little late for dinner tonight. I'm going to see an old friend who's been wounded in the war,' Bruce told Madame Frabelle proudly.
It had always been something of an ordeal to Edith when she knew that Aylmer and Bruce were alone together. It was a curious feeling, combined of loyalty to Bruce (she hated him to make himself ridiculous), loyalty to Aylmer, and an indescribable sense of being lowered in her own eyes. When they seemed friendly together it pained her self-respect. Most women will understand the sensation. However, she knew it had to be, and would be glad when it was over.
The next evening Bruce came in, holding himself very straight, with a slightly military manner. When he saw his wife he just stopped himself from saluting.
'That's a man!' he exclaimed. 'That's a splendid fellow.'
Edith didn't answer.
'You don't appreciate him. In my opinion Aylmer Ross is a hero.'
'I hope he's better?'
'Better! He would say so, anyhow. Ah, he's a wonderful chap!' Bruce hummed Tipperary below his breath.
Edith was surprised to find herself suffering no less mental discomfort and irritation while Bruce talked about Aylmer and praised him than she used to feel years ago. It seemed as if three years had passed and altered nothing. She answered coldly. Bruce became more enthusiastic. He declared that she didn't know how to value such a fine character. 'Women,' he repeated, 'don't know a hero when they see one.'
Evidently if Bruce had had his way Aylmer would have been covered with DSO's and VC's; nothing was good enough for him.
On the other hand, if Edith had praised Aylmer, Bruce would have been the first to debiner his actions, undervalue his gifts, and crab him generally.
Edith was not one of those women, far more common than is supposed, who consider themselves aggrieved and injured when a discarded lover consoles himself with someone else. Nor was she one of the numerous people who will not throw away what they no longer want for fear someone else will pick it up. She had such a strong sympathy for Dulcie Clay that she had said to herself several times she would like to see her perfectly happy. Edith was convinced that the nurse adored her patient, but she was not at all sure that he returned the admiration. Edith herself had only seen him alone once, and on that occasion they had said hardly anything to each other. He had been constrained and she had been embarrassed. The day that Arthur Coniston was there and they talked of pictures, Aylmer had given her, by a look, to understand that he would like to see her again alone, and she knew perfectly well, even without that, that he was longing for another tete-a-tete.
However, the next day Edith went with Madame Frabelle.
This was a strangely unsatisfactory visit. Edith knew his looks and every tone of his voice so well that she could see that Aylmer, unlike everybody else, was not in the least charmed with Madame Frabelle. She bored him; he saw nothing in her.
Madame Frabelle was still more disappointed. She had been told he was brilliant; he said nothing put commonplaces. He was supposed to be witty; he answered everything she said literally. He was said to be a man of encyclopaedic information; but when Madame Frabelle questioned him on such subjects his answers were dry and short; and when she tried to draw him out about the war, he changed the subject in a manner that was not very far from being positively rude.
Leaving them for a moment, Edith went to talk to Dulcie.
'How do you think he's getting on?' she said.
'He's getting well; gradually. He seems a little nervous the last day or so.'
'Do you think he's been seeing too many people?'
'He hasn't seen more than the doctor has allowed. But, do you know, Mrs. Ottley, I think it depends a great deal who the people are.'
She waited a moment and then went on in a low voice:
'You do him more good than anyone. You see, he's known you so long,' she added gently, 'and so intimately. It's no strain—I mean he hasn't got to make conversation.'
'Yes, I see,' said Edith.
'Mr. Ross hasn't any near relations—no mother or sister. You seem to take their place—if you understand what I mean.'
Edith thought it charmingly tactful of her to put it like that.
'I'm sure you take their place,' Edith said.
Dulcie looked down.
'Oh, of course, he hasn't to make any effort with me. But then I don't amuse him, and he wants amusement, and change. It's a great bore for a man like that—so active mentally, and in every way—to have to lie perfectly still, especially when he has no companion but me. I'm rather dull in some ways. Besides, I don't know anything about the subjects he's interested in.'
'Don't talk nonsense,' said Edith, smiling. 'I should imagine that just to look at you would be sufficient.'
'Oh, Mrs. Ottley! How can you?'
She turned away as if rather pained than pleased at the compliment.
'I haven't very high spirits,' she said. 'I'm not sure that I don't sometimes depress him.'
'On the contrary; I'm sure he wouldn't like a breezy, restless person bouncing about the room and roaring with laughter,' Edith said.
She smiled. 'Perhaps not. But there might be something between. He will be able to go for a drive in a week or two. I wondered whether, perhaps, you could take him out?'
'Oh yes; I dare say that could be arranged.'
'I have to go out all tomorrow afternoon. I wondered whether you would come and sit with him, Mrs. Ottley?'
'Certainly I will, if you like.'
'Oh, please do! I know he's worrying much more about his son than anybody thinks. You see, the boy's really very young, and I'm not sure he's strong.'
'I suppose neither of them told the truth about their age,' said Edith. 'It reminds one of the joke in Punch: "Where do you expect to go if you tell lies? To the front."'
Miss Clay gave a little laugh. Then she started. A bell was heard ringing rather loudly.
'I'll tell him you're coming tomorrow, then,' she said.
They returned to Aylmer's room.
He was looking a little sulky. He said as Edith came in:
'I thought you'd gone without saying good-bye. What on earth were you doing?'
'Only talking to Miss Clay,' said Edith, sitting down by him. 'How sweet she is.'
'Charming,' said Madame Frabelle. 'Wonderfully pretty, too.'
'She's a good nurse,' said Aylmer briefly. 'She's been awfully good to me. But I do hope I shan't need her much longer.' He spoke with unnecessary fervour.
'Oh, Mr Ross!' exclaimed Madame Frabelle. 'I'm sure if I were a young man I should be very sorry when she had to leave me!'
'Possibly. However, you're not a young man. Neither am I.'
There was a moment's silence. This was really an exceptional thing when Madame Frabelle was present. Edith could not recall one occasion when Eglantine had had nothing to say. Aylmer must have been excessively snubbing. Extraordinary I Wonder of wonders! He had actually silenced Madame Frabelle!
All Aylmer's natural politeness and amiability returned when they rose to take their leave. He suddenly became cordial, cheery and charming. Evidently he was so delighted the visitor was going that it quite raised his spirits. When they left he gave Edith a little reproachful look. He did not ask her to come again. He was afraid she would bring Madame Frabelle.
'Well, Edith, I thoroughly understand your husband's hero-worship for that man,' said Madame Frabelle (meaning she thoroughly misunderstood it). 'I've been studying his character all this afternoon.'
'Do tell me what you think of him!'
'Edith, I'm sorry to say it, but it's a hard, cold, cruel nature.'
'Is it really?'
'Mr Aylmer Ross doesn't know what it is to feel emotion, sentiment, or tenderness. Principle he has, perhaps, and no doubt he thinks he has great self-control, but that's only because he's absolutely incapable of passion of any kind.'
'I see you're amused at my being right again. It is an odd thing about me, I must own. I never make a mistake,' said Madame Frabelle complacently.
As they walked home, she continued to discourse eloquently on the subject of Aylmer. She explained him almost entirely away.
There was nothing Madame Frabelle fancied herself more on than physiognomy. She pointed out to Edith how the brow showed a narrow mind, the mouth bitterness. (How extraordinarily bored Aylmer must have been to give that impression of all others, thought her listener.) And the eyes, particularly, gave away his chief characteristic, the thing that one missed most in his personality.
'And what is that?'
'Can't you see?'
'No, I don't think I can.'
'He has no sense of humour!' said Madame Frabelle triumphantly.
After a few moment's pause, Edith said:
'What do you think of Miss Clay?'
'She's very pretty—extremely pretty. But I don't quite like to say what I think of her. I'd rather not. Don't ask me. It doesn't concern me.'
'As bad as that? Oh, do tell me. You're so interesting about character, Eglantine.'
'Dear Edith, how kind of you. Well, she's very, very clever, of course. Most intellectual. A remarkable brain, I should say. But she's deep and scheming; it's a sly, treacherous face.'
'Really, I can't see that.'
Madame Frabelle put her hand on Edith's shoulder. They had just reached the house.
'Ah, you don't know so much of life as I do, my dear.'
'I should have said she is certainly not at all above the average in cleverness, and I think her particularly simple and frank.'
'Ah, but that's all put on. You'll see I'm right some day. However, it doesn't matter. No doubt she's a very good nurse.'
'Don't abuse her to Bruce,' said Edith, as they went in.
'Certainly not. But why do you mind?'
'I don't know; I suppose I like her.'
Madame Frabelle laughed. 'How strange you are!'
She lowered her voice as they walked upstairs, and said:
'To tell the real truth, she gave me a shiver down the spine. I believe that girl capable of anything. That dark skin with those pale blue eyes! I strongly suspect she has a touch of the tarbrush.'
'My dear! Nonsense. You can't have looked at her fine little features and her white hands.'
'Why is she so dark?'
'There may have been Italian or Spanish blood in her family,' said Edith, laughing. 'It's not a symptom of crime.'
'There may, indeed,' replied Madame Frabelle in a tone of deep meaning, as they reached the door of her room. 'But, mark my words, Edith, that's a dangerous woman!'
* * * * *
An event had occurred in the Ottley household during their absence. Archie had brought home a dog and implored his mother to let him keep it.
'What sort of dog is it?' asked Edith.
'Come and look at it. It isn't any particular sort. It's just a dog.'
'But, my dear boy, you're going to school the day after tomorrow, and you can't take it with you.'
'I know; but I'll teach Dilly to look after it.'
It was a queer, rough, untidy-looking creature; it seemed harmless enough; a sort of Dobbin in Vanity Fair in the canine world.
'It's an inconsistent dog. Its face is like a terrier's, and its tail like a sort of spaniel,' said Archie. 'But I think it might be trained to a bloodhound.'
'You do, do you? What use would a bloodhound be to Dilly?'
'Well, you never know. It might be very useful.'
'I'm afraid there's not room in the house for it.'
'Oh, Mother!' both the children cried together. 'We must keep it!'
'Was it lost?' she asked.
Archie frowned at Dilly, who was beginning to say, 'Not exactly.'
'Tell me how you got it.'
'It was just walking along, and I took its chain. The chain was dragging on the ground.'
'You stole it,' said Dilly.
Archie flew at her, but Edith kept him back.
'Stole it! I didn't! Its master had walked on and evidently didn't care a bit about it, poor thing. That's not stealing.'
'If Master Archie wants to keep a lot of dogs, he had better take them with him to school,' said the nurse. 'I don't want nothing to do with no dogs, not in this nursery.'
'There's only one thing to be done, Archie; you must take care of it for the next day or two, and I shall advertise in the paper for its master.'
'Don't you see it isn't even honest to keep it?'
Archie was bitterly disappointed, but consoled at the idea of seeing the advertisement in the paper.
'How can we advertise it? We don't know what name it answers to.'
'It would certainly be difficult to describe,' said Edith.
They had tried every name they had ever heard of, and Dilly declared it had answered to them all, if answering meant jumping rather wildly round them and barking as if in the very highest spirits, it certainly had.
'It'll be fun to see my name in the paper,' said Archie thoughtfully.
'Indeed you won't see your name in the paper.'
'Well, I found it,' said Archie rather sulkily.
'Yes; but you had no right to find it, and still less to bring it home. I don't know what your father will say.'
Bruce at once said that it must be taken to Scotland Yard. Dilly cried bitterly, and said she wanted it to eat out of her hand, and save her life in a snowstorm.
'It's not a St Bernard, you utter little fool,' said her brother.
'Well, it might save me from drowning,' said Dilly.
She had once seen a picture, which she longed to realise, of a dog swimming, holding a child in its mouth. She thought it ought to be called Faithful or Rover.
All these romantic visions had to be given up. Madame Frabelle said the only thing to do was to take it at once to the Battersea Dogs' Home, where it would be 'happy with companions of its own age'. Immediately after dinner her suggestion was carried out, to the great relief of most of the household. The nurse said when it had gone that she had 'known all along it was mad, but didn't like to say so.'
'But it took such a fancy to me,' said Archie.
'Perhaps that was why,' said Dilly.
* * * * *
The children were separated by force.
For a woman who was warm-hearted, sensitive and thoughtful, Edith had a singularly happy disposition. First, she was good-tempered; not touchy, not easily offended about trifles. Such vanity as she had was not in an uneasy condition; she cared very little for general admiration, and had no feeling for competition. She was without ambition to be superior to others. Then, though she saw more deeply into things than the generality of women, she was not fond of dwelling on the sad side of life. Very small things pleased her, while trifles did not annoy her. Hers was not the placidity of the stupid, fat, contented person who never troubles about other people.
She was rather of a philosophical turn, and her philosophy tended to seeing the brighter side. Where she was singularly fortunate was that though she felt pleasure deeply—a temperament that feels pain in proportion—her suffering, though acute, seldom lasted long. There was an elasticity in her disposition that made her rebound quickly from a blow.
Her affections were intense, but she did not suffer the usual penalty of love—a continual dread of losing the loved object. If she adored her children and was thankful for their health and beauty, she was not exactly what is called an anxious mother. She thought much about them, and was very determined to have her own way in anything concerning them. That, indeed, was a subject on which she would give way to no-one. But as she had so far succeeded in directing them according to her own ideas, she was satisfied. And she was very hopeful. She could look forward to happiness, but troubles she dealt with as they arose.
Certainly, after the first few months of their marriage, Bruce had turned out a disappointment. But now that she knew him, knew the worst of him, she did not think bad. He had an irritating personality. But most people had to live with someone who was a little irritating; and she was so accustomed to his various ways and weaknesses that she could deal with them unmoved, almost mechanically. She did not take him seriously. She would greatly have preferred, of course, that he should understand her, that she could look up to him and lean on him. But as this was not so, she made the best of it, and managed to be contented enough. Three years ago she had not even known she could be deeply in love.
She had loved Aylmer Ross. But even at that time, when Bruce gave her the opportunity, by his wild escapade with Miss Argles, to free herself and marry Aylmer—her ideal of divine happiness at the time—somehow she could not do it. She had a curious sense of responsibility towards Bruce, which came in the way.
Often since then she had had regrets; she had even felt it had been a mistake to throw away such a chance. But she reflected that she would have regrets anyhow. It would have worried her to know that Bruce needed her. For all that, she knew he did, if unconsciously. So she had made up her mind to content herself with a life which, though peaceful, was certainly, to her temperament, decidedly incomplete.
Edith had other sources of happiness more acute than that of the average. She took an intense and keen enjoyment in life itself. Everything interested her, amused her. She was never bored. She so much enjoyed the mere spectacle of life that she never required to be the central figure. When she had to play the part of a mere spectator it didn't depress her; she could delight in society and in character as if at a theatre. On the other hand, as she had a good deal of initiative and a strong personality, she could also revel in action, in playing a principal part. Under a quiet manner her courage was daring and her spirit high. Unless someone or something was actively tormenting her, to an extent quite insupportable, she was contented, even gay.
Her past romance with Aylmer had naturally opened to her a source of delight that she knew nothing of before.
Since she had seen him again she scarcely knew how she felt about it. This day she was to see him again alone, because he wished it, and because Dulcie Clay had begged her to gratify the wish.
Why was it, she asked herself, that the little nurse desired they should be alone together? It was perfectly clear, to a woman with Edith's penetration, that Dulcie was in love with Aylmer. Also, she was equally sure that the girl believed Aylmer to be devoted to her, Edith. Then it must be the purest unselfishness. Dulcie probably, she thought, loved him with a kind of hopeless worship. She had seen him ill and weak, she pitied him, she wanted him to be happy. In return for this generosity Edith felt a generous kindness for her, a sympathy that she would never have believed she could feel at seeing such a beautiful girl on those rather intimate terms with Aylmer.
It must mean, simply, that Edith knew Aylmer cared for her still. A look was enough to convince her that at least he still took a great and deep interest in her. And she wanted to come to an understanding with him, or she could have avoided a tete-a-tete.
During the three years he had been away the feeling had calmed down, but the ideal was still there, and the memory. Whenever Bruce was maddening—which was fairly often—when she heard music, when she saw beautiful scenery, when she was reading a romantic book, when any other man admired her, Aylmer was always in her thoughts.
When Edith saw him again she was not sure that she had not worn out her passion by dwelling on it. But that might easily be caused by the mere gene of the first two or three meetings. There is a shyness, a sort of coldness, in meeting again a person one has passionately loved. To see the dream in flesh and blood, the thought made concrete, once more brings poetry down to prose. Then the terms they met on now were changed. He was playing such a different part. Instead of the strong, determined man who had voluntarily left her, refusing to know her as a friend, and reproaching her bitterly for playing with him, as he called it, here was a broken invalid, a pathetic figure who appealed to entirely different sentiments. There is naturally something maternal in a woman's feeling to a sick man. There was also the halo that surrounds the wounded hero. He was not ill through weakness, but through strength and courage.
She found herself thinking of him day and night, but it was in a different way. It might be because he had not yet referred to their past love affair.
Edith dressed with unusual care to go and see him today. Even if a woman wishes to discourage or to break off all relations with a man, she doesn't, after all, wish to leave a disagreeable impression.
Her prettiness and charm—of which she was modestly but confidently aware, by her experience of its effect—was a great satisfaction. It was remarkably noticeable today. In front of the glass Edith hesitated between her favourite plain sailor hat and a new black velvet toque, which shaded her eyes, contrasting with the fair hair of which very little showed, and giving her an aspect of dashing yet discreet coquetry. She looked younger in the other sailor hat (so she decided when she put it on again) and more as she used to look. Which was the more attractive? She decided on novelty, and went out, finally, in the toque.
Of course only another woman could have appreciated the remarkable fact that she could wear at thirty-five such a small hat and yet look fresh. Certainly a brim was more flattering to most women of her age, but the contour of Edith's face was still as youthful as ever; she had one of those clearly shaped oval faces that are not disposed to growing thick and broad, or to haggardness. The oval might be a shade wider than it was three years ago; that was all the more becoming; did it not make the features look smaller?
* * * * *
As she went out she laughed at herself for giving so much thought to her appearance. It was as though she believed she was going to play an important part in the chief scene of a play.
Once dressed, as usual she lost all self-consciousness, and thought of outside things.
Miss Clay was out, as she had told Edith she would be, and the servant showed her in.
She saw at once that Aylmer, also, had been looking forward to this moment with some excitement. He, too, had dressed with special care; and she knew, without being told, that orders had been given to receive no other visitors.
He was sitting in an arm-chair, with the bandaged leg on the other chair, a small table by his side laid for tea. Even a kettle was boiling (no doubt to avoid interruption). It was his old brown library, where she had occasionally seen him with others in the old days. But this was literally the first time she had seen him in his own house alone.
It was essentially a man's room. Comfortable, but not exactly luxurious; very little was sacrificed to decoration.
There were a few very old dark pictures on the walls. The room was crammed with books in long, low bookcases. On the mantelpiece was a pewter vase of cerise-coloured carnations.
An uncut English Review was in his hand, but he threw it on the floor with a characteristic gesture as she came in.
'You look very comfortable,' said Edith, as she took her seat in the arm-chair placed for her.
He answered gravely, speaking in his direct, quick way, with his sincere manner:
'It was very good of you to come.'
'Shall I pour out your tea?'
'Yes. Let's have tea and get it over.'
She laughed, took off her gloves, and he watched her fingers as they occupied themselves with the china, as though he were impatient for the ceremony to be finished.
While she poured it out and handed it to him he said not a word. She saw that he looked pale and seemed rather nervous. Each tried to put the other at ease, more by looks than words. Edith saw it would worry him to make conversation. They knew each other well enough to exchange ideas without words.
He had something to say and she would not postpone it. That would irritate him.
'There,' said Aylmer, giving a little push to the table. 'Do you want any more tea?'
'Well—do you mind coming a little nearer?'
She lifted the little table, put it farther behind his chair, placed the arm-chair closer to him by the fire, and sat down again. He looked at her for some time with a serious expression. Then he said, rather abruptly and unexpectedly:
'What a jolly hat!'
'Oh, I am glad you like it!' exclaimed Edith. 'I was afraid you'd hate it.'
For the first time they were talking in their old tone, she reflected.
'No, I like it—I love it.' He lowered his voice to say this.
'I'm glad,' she repeated.
'And I love you,' said Aylmer as abruptly, and in a still lower voice.
She didn't answer.
'Look here, Edith. I want to ask you something.'
He seemed to have some difficulty in speaking. He was agitated.
'Have you forgotten me?'
'You can see I haven't, or I wouldn't be here,' she answered.
'Don't fence with me. I mean, really. Are you the same as when I went away?'
'Aylmer, do you think we had better talk about it?'
'We must. I must. I can't endure the torture of seeing you just like anybody else. You know I told you—' He stopped a moment.
'You told me you'd never be a mere friend,' she said. 'But everything's so different now!'
'It isn't different; that's where you're wrong. You're just the same, and so am I. Except that I care for you far more than I ever did.'
'When I thought I was dying I showed your little photograph to Miss Clay. I told her all about it. I suppose I was rather mad. It was just after an operation. It doesn't matter a bit; she wouldn't ever say a word.'
'I'm sure she wouldn't.'
'I had to confide in somebody,' he went on. 'I told her to send you back the photograph, and I told her that my greatest wish was to see you again.'
'Well, my dear boy, we have met again! Do change your mind from what you said last! I mean when you went away.' She spoke in an imploring tone.
'Do you wish to be friends, then?'
She hesitated a moment, then said: 'Yes, I do.'
After a moment's pause he said: 'You say everything's changed. In a way it is. I look at things differently—I regard them differently. When you've been up against it, and seen life and death pretty close, you realise what utter rot it is to live so much for the world.'
Edith stared. 'But ... doesn't it make you feel all the more the importance of principle—goodness and religion, and all that sort of thing? I expected it would, with you.'
'Frankly, no; it doesn't. Now, let us look at the situation quietly.'
After an agitated pause he went on:
'As far as I make out, you're sacrificing yourself to Bruce. When he ran away with that girl, and begged you to divorce him, you could have done it. You cared for me. Everything would have been right, even before the world. No-one would have blamed you. Yet you wouldn't.'
'But that wasn't for the world, Aylmer; you don't understand. It was for myself. Something in me, which I can't help. I felt Bruce needed me and would go wrong without me—'
'Why should you care? Did he consider you?'
'That isn't the point, dear boy. I felt as if he was my son, so to speak—a sort of feeling of responsibility.'
'Yes, quite. It was quixotic rubbish. That's my opinion. There!'
Edith said nothing, remembering he was still ill.
'Well,' he went on, 'now, he hasn't run away from you. He's stayed with you for three years; utterly incapable of appreciating you, as I know he is, bothering you to death.'
'Don't I know him? You're wasting and frittering yourself away for nothing.'
'Don't you think I'd have looked after the children better than he?'
'Yes, I do, Aylmer. But he is their father. They may keep him straight.'
'I consider you're utterly wasted,' he said. 'Well! He's stuck to you, apparently, for these last three years (as far as you know), and now I'm going to ask you something entirely different, for the last time. When I was dying, or thought I was, things showed themselves clearly enough, I can tell you. And I made up my mind if I lived to see you, to say this. Leave Bruce, with me!'
She stared at him.
'In six weeks, when he's tired of telling his friends at the club about it, he'll make up his mind, I suppose, if you insist, or even without, to divorce you. But do you suppose he'll keep the children? No, my dear of course he won't. You'll never have to leave them. I would never ask you that. Now listen!' He put his hand over hers, not caressingly, but to keep her quiet. 'He'll want to marry again, won't he?'
'Very likely,' she answered.
'Probably already he's in love with that woman What's-her-name—Madame Frabelle—who's staying with you.'
Edith gave a little laugh.
'Perhaps he's in love with her already,' continued Aylmer.
'Quite impossible!' said Edith calmly.
'She's a very good sort. She's not a fool, like the girl. She'd look after Bruce very well.'
'So she would,' answered Edith.
'Bruce will adore her, be under her thumb, and keep perfectly 'straight', as you call it—as straight as he ever would. Won't he?'
She was silent.
'You'll get the children then, don't you see?'
'Yes. With a bad reputation, with a cloud on my life, to bring up Dilly!'
He sighed impatiently, and said: 'You see, you don't see things as they really are, even now. How could you ever possibly hurt Dilly? You're only thinking of what the world says, now.
'Hear me out,' he went on. 'Is this the only country? After the war, won't everything be different? Thank goodness, I'm well provided for. You needn't take a farthing. Leave even your own income to Bruce if you like. You know I've five thousand a year now, Edith?'
'I didn't know it. But that has nothing on earth to do with it,' she answered.
'Bosh! It has a great deal to do with it. I can afford to bring your children up as well as Teddy, my boy. We can marry. And in a year or two no one would think any more about it.'
'You bewilder me,' said Edith.
'I want to. Think it over. Don't be weak. I'm sorry, dear, to ask you to take the blame on your side. It's unfair; but after all, perhaps, it's straighter than waiting for an opportunity (which you could easily get in time) of finding Bruce in the wrong.'
Her face expressed intense determination and disagreement with his views.
'Don't answer me,' he said, 'think—'
'My dear boy, you must let me answer you. Will you listen to me?'
'Go on, Edith. I'll always listen to you.'
'You don't realise it, but you're not well,' she said.
He gave an impatient gesture.
'How like a woman! As soon as I talk sense you say I'm not well. A broken leg doesn't affect the brain, remember.'
'No, Aylmer; I don't mean that. But you've been thinking this over till you've lost your bearings, your sense of proportion....'
'Rot! I've just got it! That's what you mean. It comes to this, my dear girl'—he spoke gently. 'Of course, if you don't care for me, my suggestion would be perfectly mad. Perhaps you don't. Probably you regard our romance as a pretty little story to look back on.'
'No, I don't, unless—'
'I won't ask you straight out,' he said. 'I don't suppose you know yourself. But, if you care for me, as I do for you'—he spoke steadily—'you'll do as I ask.'
'I might love you quite as much, and yet not do it.'
'I know it's a big thing. It's a sacrifice, in a way. But don't you see, Edith, that if you still like me, your present life is a long, slow sacrifice to convention, or (as you say) to a morbid sense of responsibility?'
She looked away with a startled expression.
'Well, do you love me?' he said rather impatiently, but yet with his old charm of tenderness and sincerity. 'I have never changed. As you know, after the operation, when they thought I was practically done in—it may seem a bit mad, but I was really more sane than I have ever been—I told Dulcie Clay all about it.'
She stopped him. 'I know you did, my dear, and I don't blame you a bit. She's absolutely loyal. But now, listen. Has nothing occurred to you about her?'
'Nothing, except that I'm hoping to get rid of her as soon as possible.'
'She's madly in love with you, Aylmer.'
He looked contemptuous.
'She's a dear girl,' said Edith. 'I feel quite fond of her.'
'Really, I don't see how she comes in. You are perverse, Edith!'
'I'm not perverse. I see things.'
'She's never shown the slightest sign of it,' said Aylmer. 'I think it's your imagination. But even if it's not, it isn't my business, nor yours.'
'I think it is, a little.'
'If you talk like that, I'll send her away today.'
'Oh, Aylmer! how ungrateful of you to say such a thing! She's been an angel.'
He spoke wearily. 'I don't want angels! I want you!' He suddenly leant forward and took her hands.
She laughed nervously. 'What a compliment.'
Then she disengaged herself and stood up.
Aylmer sighed. 'Now you're going to say, Ought you to talk so much? What is your temperature? Oh, women are irritating, even the nicest, confound them!'
Edith was unable to help laughing.
'I'm afraid I was going to say something like that.'
'Now, are you going to say you won't answer me for fear it will excite me?'
'Don't talk nonsense,' said Edith. 'I take you seriously enough. Don't worry!'
He looked delighted.
'Thank heaven! Most women treat a wounded man as if he were a sick child or a lunatic. It's the greatest rot. I'm nearly well.'
Edith looked round for his tonic, but stopped herself.
'Are you going now?' he asked.
'No, Aylmer. I thought of stopping a few minutes, if you don't mind.'
'Shall we talk of something else,' said Aylmer satirically, 'to divert my thoughts? Hasn't it been lovely weather lately?'
She smiled and sat down again.
'Would you like to know how soon the war will be over?' he went on. 'Oddly enough, I really don't know!'
'Are you going back when you've recovered?' she asked abruptly.
'Of course I'm going back; and I want to go back with your promise.' Then he looked a little conscience-stricken. 'Dear Edith, I don't want to rush you. Forgive me.'
They both sat in dead silence for five minutes. He was looking at the black velvet toque on the fair hair, over the soft eyes. She was staring across at the cherry-coloured carnations in the pewter vase on the mantelpiece.
As has been said, they often exchanged ideas without words.
He remarked, as she glanced at a book: 'Yes, I have read A Life of Slavery. Have you? Do you think it good?'
'Splendid,' Edith answered; 'it's a labour of hate.'
'Quite true. One can't call it a labour of love, though it was written to please the writer—not the public.'
'I wonder you could read it,' said Edith, 'after what you've been through.'
'It took my thoughts off life,' he said.
'Why? Isn't it life?'
'Of course it is. Literary life.'
Edith looked at the clock.
'When am I going to see you again?' he asked in a rather exhausted voice.
'Whenever you like. What about taking you out for a drive next week?'
'I'll think over what you said,' said Edith casually as she stood up.
'What a funny little speech. You're impayable! Oh, you are a jolly girl!'
'"Jolly" girl,' repeated Edith, not apparently pleased. 'I'm thirty-five, with a boy at school and a growing girl of seven!'
'You think too much of the almanac. I'm forty-one, with a son at the front.'
'How on earth did you get your commissions?'
'In the usual way. Teddy and I told lies. He said he was eighteen and I said I was thirty-nine.'
'I see. Of course.'
He rang the bell.
'Will you write to me, dear Edith?'
'No. I'll come and see you, Aylmer.'
'Are you going to bring Archie, Bruce, or Madame Frabelle?'
'Do leave Madame Frabelle at home.'
'Though you don't like her, you might pronounce her name right! She's such a clever woman.'
'She's an utter fool,' said Aylmer.
'Same thing, very often,' said Edith. 'Don't worry. Good-bye.'
She went away, leaving him perfectly happy and very hungry.
* * * * *
Hardly had she gone when Miss Clay came in and brought him some beef-tea on a tray.
To Edith's joy, as they entered the Mitchell's huge, familiar drawing-room, the first person she saw was her beloved confidant, Sir Tito Landi. This was the friend of all others whom she most longed to see at this particular moment.
The extraordinary confidence and friendship between the successful Italian composer and Edith Ottley needs, perhaps, a word of explanation. He was adored equally in the artistic and the social worlds, and was at once the most cynical of Don Juans and the most unworldly of Don Quixotes. He was a devoted and grateful friend, and a contemptuous but not unforgetful enemy.
It was not since his celebrity that Edith had first met him; she had known him intimately all her life. From her earliest childhood she had, so to speak, been brought up on Landi; on Landi's music and Landi's views of life. He had been her mother's music teacher soon after he first made a name in London; and long before he was the star whose singing or accompanying was a rare favour, and whose presence gave a cachet to any entertainment.
How many poor Italians—yes, and many people of other nationalities—had reason to bless his acquaintance! How kind, how warm-hearted, how foolishly extravagant on others was Landi! His brilliant cleverness, which made him received almost as an Englishman among English people, was not, however, the cleverness of the arriviste. Although he had succeeded, and success was his object, no one could be less self-interested, less pushing, less scheming. In many things he was a child. He would as soon dine at Pagani's with a poor sculptor, or a poor and plain woman who was struggling to give lessons in Italian, as with the most brilliant hostess in London. And he always found fashion and ceremony a bore. He was so great a favourite in England that he had been given that most English of titles, a knighthood, just as though he were very rich, or political, or a popular actor. In a childish way it amused him, and he was pleased with it. But though he was remarkable for his courtly tact, he loved most of all to be absolutely free and Bohemian, to be quite natural among really sympathetic, witty, or beautiful friends. He liked to say what he thought, to go where he wished, and to make love when he chose, not when other people chose. He had long been a man with an assured position, but he had changed little since he was twenty-one, and arrived from Naples with only his talent, his bright blue eyes, his fair complexion, his small, dignified figure and his daring humour. Yet the music he wrote indicated his sensitive and deeply feeling nature, and though his conversation could hardly be called other than cynical, nor his jokes puritanical, there was always in him a vein of genuine—not sentimental, but perhaps romantic—love and admiration for everything good; good in music, good in art, good in character. He laid down no rules of what was good. 'Tout savoir c'est tout pardonner' was perhaps his motto. But he was very unexpected; that was one of his charms. He would pass over the most extraordinary things—envious slights, small injuries, things another man would never forgive. On the other hand, he retained a bitter memory, not at all without its inclination for repayment, for other trifles that many would disregard.
* * * * *
Ever since she was a child Edith had been his special favourite. He loved the privilege of calling her Edith, of listening to her confidences, of treating her with loving familiarity. It was a joke between them that, while he used formerly to say, 'Cette enfant! Je l'ai vue en jupe courte, vous savez!' he had gradually reached the point of declaring, 'Je l'ai vue naitre!' almost with tears in his eyes.
This explains why Landi was the only creature to whom Edith could tell everything, and did. Must not all nice people have a confidant? And no girl or woman friend—much as they might like her, and she them—could ever take the place of Landi, the wise and ever-sympathetic.
There was something in his mental attitude that was not unfeminine, direct and assertive as he was. He had what is generally known as feminine intuition, a quality perhaps even rarer in women than in men.
* * * * *
Tonight the persistently hospitable Mrs Mitchell had a large party. Dressed in grey, she was receiving her guests in the big room on the ground floor, and tactfully directing the conversation of a crowd of various and more or less interesting persons.
It was one of those parties that had been described as a Russian Salad, where one ran an equal risk—or took an equal chance—of being taken to dinner by Charlie Chaplin or Winston Churchill, and where society and the stage were equally well represented. Young officers on leave and a few pretty girls filled the vacancies.
As Bruce, Edith and Madame Frabelle came in together, Landi went straight to Edith's side.
Looking at her through his eyeglass, he said, as if to himself, in an anxious tone:
'Elle a quelquechose, cette enfant; oui, elle a quelquechose,' and as the last guest had not arrived he sat down thoughtfully by her on the small sofa.
'Yes, Landi, there is something the matter. I'm longing to tell you about it. I want your advice,' said Edith, smiling.
'Tout se sait; tout se fait; tout s'arrange,' sententiously remarked Landi, who was not above talking oracular commonplaces at times.
'Oh, it isn't one of those things, Landi.'
'Not? Are you sure? Don't be sad, Edith. Be cheerful. Tiens! Tiens! Tiens! How excited you are,' he went on, as she looked at him with perfect composure.
'You will think I have reason to be excited when I tell you.'
He smiled in an experienced way.
'I'll sit next to you at dinner and you shall tell me everything. Tiens! La vieille qui voit double!' He bowed politely as Madame Frabelle came up.
'Dear Sir Tito, what a pleasure to see you again! Your lovely songs have been ringing in my ears ever since I heard them!'
'Where did you hear them? On a piano-organ?' he asked.
'You're too bad! Isn't he naughty? No, when you sang here last.'
Mr Mitchell came up, and Madame Frabelle turned away.
'Dieu merci! La pauvre! Elle me donne sur les nerfs ce soir,' said Landi. 'I shall sit next to you whether the cards are placed so or not, Edith, and you'll tell me everything between the soup and the ices.'
'I will indeed.'
'Madame Meetchel,' he said, looking round through his eyeglass, 'is sure to have given you a handsome young man, someone who ought to drive Bruce wild with jealousy, but doesn't, or ... or ...'
'Or some fly-blown celebrity.'
The door opened and the last guest appeared. It was young Coniston (in khaki), who was invariably asked when there was to be music. He was so useful.
He approached Landi at once.
'Ah, cher maitre, quel plaisir!' he said with his South Kensington accent and his Oxford manner. (He had been a Cambridge man.)
'C'est vrai?' asked Landi, who had his own way of dismissing a person in a friendly way.
Coniston began talking to him of a song. Landi waved him off and went up to Mrs Mitchell, said something which made her laugh and blush and try to hit him with her fan—the fan, the assault and the manner were all out of date, but Mrs Mitchell made no pretence at going with the times—and his object was gained.
* * * * *
Sir Tito took Edith in to dinner.
As they found their places at the long table (Sir Tito had exchanged cards, as though he meant to fight a duel with Edith's destined partner) of course the two turned their backs to one another. On her other side was Mr Mitchell. When Madame Frabelle noticed this, she gave Edith an arch shake of the head, and made a curious warning movement with her hand. Edith smiled at her in astonishment. She had utterly forgotten her friend's fancy about the imaginary intrigue supposed to be going on between her and Mr Mitchell, and she wondered what the gesture meant. Sir Tito also saw it, and, turning round to Edith, said in a low voice:
'Qu'est-ce-qu'elle a, la vieille?'
'I really don't know. I never understand signs. I've forgotten the code, I suppose!'
Mr Mitchell, after a word to the person he had taken down, gladly turned to Edith. He always complained that the host was obliged to sit between the oldest and the most boring guests. It was unusual for him to have so pretty a neighbour as Edith. But he was a collector: his joy was to see a heterogeneous mass of people, eating and laughing at his table. For his wife there were a few social people, for him the Bohemians, and always the younger guests.
'Not bad—not bad, is it?' he said, looking critically round down the two sides of the table, while his kind pink face beamed with hospitable joy.
'You've got a delightful party tonight.'
'What I always say is,' said Mr Mitchell; 'let them enjoy themselves! Dash it, I hate etiquette.' He lowered his voice. 'Bruce is looking pretty blooming. Not so many illnesses lately has he?'
'Not when he's at home,' said Edith.
'Ah! At the F O the dear fellow does, I'm afraid, suffer a good deal from nerves,' said Mr Mitchell, especially towards the end of the day. About four o'clock, I mean, you know! You know old Bruce! Good sort he is. I see he hasn't got the woman I meant him to sit next to, somehow or other. I see he's next to Miss Coniston.'
'Oh, he likes her.'
'Good, good. Thought she was a bit too artistic, and high-browed, as the Americans say, for him. But now he's used to that sort of thing, isn't he? Madame Frabelle, eh? Wonderful woman. No soup, Edith: why not?'
'It makes me silent,' said Edith; 'and I like to talk.'
Mitchell laughed loudly. 'Ha ha! Champagne for Mrs Ottley. What are you about?' He looked up reprovingly at the servant. Mr Mitchell was the sort of man who never knows, after twenty years' intimate friendship, whether a person takes sugar or not.
Edith allowed the man to fill her glass. She knew it depressed Mr Mitchell to see people drinking water. So she only did it surreptitiously, and as her glass was always full, because she never drank from it, Mr Mitchell was happy.
A very loud feminine laugh was heard.
'That's Miss Radford,' said Mr Mitchell. 'That's how she always goes on. She's always laughing. She was immensely charmed with you the day she called on you with my wife.'
'Was she?' said Edith, who remembered she herself had been out on that occasion.
'Tremendously. I can't remember what she said: I think it was how clever you were.'
'She saw Madame Frabelle. I wasn't at home.'
'Ha ha! Good, very good!' Mr Mitchell turned to his other neighbour.
'Eh bien,' said Sir Tito, who was waiting his opportunity. 'Commence!'
At once Edith began murmuring in a low voice her story of herself and Aylmer, and related today's conversation in Jermyn Street.
Sir Tito nodded his head occasionally. When he listened most intently, he appeared to be looking round the table at other people. He lifted a glass of champagne and bowed over it to Mrs Mitchell; then he put his hand to his lips and blew a kiss.
'Who's that for?' Edith asked, interrupting herself.
'C'est pour la vieille.'
'Madame Frabelle! Why do you kiss your hand to her?'
'To keep her quiet. Look at her: she's so impressed, and thinks it so wicked, that she's blushing and uncomfortable. I've a splendid way, Edith (pardon), of silencing all these elderly ladies who make love to me. I don't say "Ferme!" I'm polite to them.'
Edith laughed. Sir Tito was not offended.
'Yes, you needn't laugh, my dear child. I'm not old enough yet pour les jeunes; at any rate, if I am they don't know it. I'm still pursued by the upper middle-age class, with gratitude for favours to come (as they think).'
'Well, what's your plan?'
'I tell Madame Frabelle, Madame Meetchel, Lady Everard—first, that they have beautiful lips; then, that I can't look at them without longing to kiss them. Lady Everard, after I said that, kept her hand before her face the whole evening, so as not to distract me, and drive me mad. Consequently she couldn't talk.'
'Do they really believe you?'
'Evidemment!... I wonder,' he continued mischievously, as he refused wine, 'whether Madame Frabelle will confess to you tonight about my passion for her, or whether she will keep it to herself?'
'I dare say she'll tell me. At least she'll ask me if I think so or not.'
'Si elle te demande, tu diras que tu n'en sais rien! Well, I think....'
'You must wait. Wait and see. Really, it's impossible, my dear child, for you to accept an invitation for an elopement as if it were a luncheon-party. Not only that, it's good for Aylmer to be kept in doubt. Excellent for his health.'
'When I say his health, I mean the health and strength of his love for you. You must vacillate, Edith. Souvent femme varie. You sit on the fence, n'est-ce-pas? Well, offer the fence to him. But, take it away before he sits down. Voila!'
Edith laughed. 'But then this girl, Miss Clay, she's always there. And I like her.'
'What is her nationality?'
'How funny you should ask that! I think she must be of Spanish descent. She's so quiet, so religious, and has a very dark complexion. And yet wonderful light blue eyes.'
'Quelle histoire! Qu'est-ce-que ca fait?'
'The poor girl is mad about Aylmer. He doesn't seem to know it, but he makes her worse by his indifference,' Edith said.
'Why aren't you jealous of her, ma chere? No, I won't ask you that—the answer is obvious.'
'I mean this, that if I can't ever do what he wishes, I feel she could make him happy; and I could bear it if she did.'
'Spanish?' said Landi, as if to himself. 'Ole! ole! Does she use the castanets, and wear a mantilla instead of a cap?'
'How frivolous and silly you are. No, of course not. She looks quite English, in fact particularly so.'
'And yet you insist she's Spanish! Well, my advice is this. If he has a secret alliance with Spain, you should assume the Balkan attitude.'
'Good gracious! What's that?'
'We're talking politics,' said Landi, across the table. 'Politics, and geography! Fancy, Meetchel, Mrs Ottley doesn't know anything about the Balkans!'
'Ha, very good,' said Mitchell. 'Capital. What a fellow you are!' He gave his hearty, clubbable laugh. Mr Mitchell belonged to an exceptionally large number of clubs and was a favourite at all. His laugh was the chief cause of his popularity there.
'Il est fou,' said Landi quietly to Edith. 'Quel monde! I don't think there are half-a-dozen sane people at this table.'
'And if there are, they shouldn't by rights be admitted into decent society. But the dear Meetchels don't know that; it's not public. I adore them both,' he went on, changing his satirical tone, and again apparently drinking the health of Mrs Mitchell, who waved her hand coquettishly from the end of the long table.
'Now listen, my child. Don't see Aylmer for a little while.'
'He wants me to take him out for a drive.'
'Take him for a drive. But not this week. How Madame Frabelle loves Bruce!' he went on, watching her.
'Really, Landi, I assure you you're occasionally as mistaken as she is. And she thinks I'm in love with our host.'
'That's because elle voit double. I don't.'
'What makes you think....'
'I read between the lines, my dear—between the lines on Madame Frabelle's face.'
'She hasn't any.'
'Oh, go along,' said Landi, who sometimes broke into peculiar English which he thought was modern slang. Raising his voice, he said: 'The dinner is exquis—exquis,' so that Mr Mitchell could hear.
'I can't help noting what you've eaten tonight, Landi, though I don't usually observe these things,' Edith said. 'You've had half-a-tomato, a small piece of vegetable marrow, and a sip of claret. Aren't you going to eat anything more?'
'Not much more. I look forward to my coffee and my cigar. Oh, how I look forward to it!'
'You know very well, Landi, they let you smoke cigarettes between the courses, if you like.'
'It would be better than nothing. We'll see presently.'
'Might I inquire if you live on cigars and coffee?'
'No,' he answered satirically; 'I live on eau sucre. And porreege. I'm Scotch.'
'I can't talk to you if you're so silly.'
'You'll tell me the important part on the little sofa upstairs in the salon,' he said. 'After dinner. Tonight, here, somehow, the food and the faces distract one—unless one is making an acquaintance. I know you too well to talk at dinner.'
'Quite true. I ought to take time to think then.'
'There's no hurry. Good heavens! the man has waited four years; he can wait another week. Quelle idee!'
'He's going back,' said Edith, 'as soon as he's well. He wants me to promise before he goes.'
'Does he! You remind me of the man who said to his wife: "Good-bye, my dear, I'm off to the Thirty Years' War." It's all right, Edith. We'll find a solution, I have no fears.'
She turned to Mr Mitchell.
* * * * *
The rest of the evening passed pleasantly. Alone with the women, Madame Frabelle was the centre of an admiring circle, as she lectured on 'dress and economy in war-time,' and how to manage a house on next to nothing a year. All the ladies gasped with admiration. Edith especially was impressed; because the fact that Madame Frabelle was a guest, and was managing nothing, did not prevent her talking as if she had any amount of experience on the subject, although, by her own showing she had been staying at hotels ever since the war began, except the last weeks she had spent with the Ottleys.