The men soon joined them.
A group of war valetudinarians, amongst whom Bruce was not the least emphatic, told each other their symptoms in a quiet corner. They described their strange shiverings down the spine; the curious fits of hunger that came on before meals; the dislike to crossing the road when there was an accident; the inability to sleep, sometimes taking the form of complete insomnia for as much as twenty minutes in the early morning. They pitied each other cordially, though neither listened to the other's symptoms, except in exchange for sympathy with their own.
'The war has got on my nerves; I can't think of anything else,' Bruce said. 'It's an idee fixe. I pant for the morning when the newspaper's due, and then I can't look at it! Not even a glance! Odd, isn't it?'
The Rev. Byrne Fraser, who gave his wife great and constant anxiety by his fantasies, related how he had curious dreams—the distressing part of which was that they never came true—about the death of relatives at the front. Another man also had morbid fancies on the subject of the casualty list, and had had to go and stay at a farm so as to 'get right away from it all'. But he soon left, as he had found, to his great disappointment, that his companions there were not intellectual, and could not even talk politics or discuss literature. And yet they went in (or so he had heard) for 'intensive culture'!...
Presently Sir Tito played his Italian march. The musical portion of the party, and the unmusical alike, joined in the chorus. Then the party received a welcome addition. Valdez, the great composer, who had written many successful operas and had lived so much abroad that he cared now for nothing but British music, looked in after a patriotic concert given in order to help the unengaged professionals. Always loyal to old friends, he had deserted royalty itself tonight to greet Mrs. Mitchell and was persuaded by adoring ladies to sing his celebrated old song, 'After Several Years.' It pleased and thrilled the audience even more than Landi's 'Adieu Hiver'. Indeed, tonight it was Valdez who was the success of the evening. Middle-aged ladies who had loved him for years loved him now more than ever. Young girls who saw him now for the first time fell in love, just as their mothers had done, with his splendid black eyes and commanding presence, and secretly longed to stroke at least every seventh wave of his abundant hair. When Edith assured him that his curls were 'like a flock of goats on Mount Gilead' he laughed, declared he was much flattered at the comparison, and kissed her hand with courtly grace.
Young Mr. Cricker, who came because he wasn't asked, insisted on dancing like Nijinsky because he was begged not to, but his leaps and bounds were soon stopped by a few subalterns and very young officers on leave, who insisted, with some fair partners, on dancing the Fox Trot to the sound of a gramophone.
* * * * *
For a few moments on the little sofa Edith managed to convey the rest of her confidence to Landi. She pointed out how hurried, how urgent, how pressing it was to give an answer.
'He wants a war elopement, I see,' said Landi. 'Mais ca ne se fait pas!'
'Then what am I to say?'
'But, Landi, you know I shan't really ever...'
'Would it give you pleasure to see him married to the Spanish girl?'
'She's not exactly Spanish—she only looks it. Don't laugh like that!'
'I don't know why, but Spain seems always to remind me of something ridiculous. Onions—or guitars.'
'Well, I shouldn't mind her nearly so much as anyone else.'
'You don't mind her,' said Landi. 'Vous savez qu'il ne l'epouse pas? What would you dislike him to do most?'
'I think I couldn't bear anyone else to take my place exactly,' admitted Edith.
'C'est ca! you don't want him to be in love with another married woman with a husband like Bruce? Well, my dear, he won't. There is no other husband like Bruce.
Landi promised to consider the question, and she arranged to go and see him at his studio before seeing Aylmer again.
* * * * *
As they went out of the house Miss Coniston ran after Madame Frabelle and said eagerly:
'Oh, do tell me again; you say soupe a la vinaigre is marvellously nourishing and economical. I can have it made for my brother at our flat?'
'Of course you can! It costs next to nothing.'
Arthur Coniston came up.
'And tastes like nothing on earth, I suppose?' he grumbled in his sister's ear. 'You can't give me much less to eat than you do already.'
'Oh, Arthur!' his sister said. 'Aren't you happy at home? I think you're a pessimist.'
'A pessimist!' cried Mitchell, who was following them into the hall. 'Oh, I hate pessimists! What's the latest definition of them? Ah, I know; an optimist is a person who doesn't care what happens as long as it doesn't happen to him.'
'Yes,' said Edith quickly, 'and a pessimist is the person who lives with the optimist.'
'Dear, dear. I always thought the old joke was that an optimist looks after the eyes, and a pessimist after the feet!' cried Madame Frabelle as she fastened her cloak.
'Why, then, he ought to go to a cheer-upadist!' said Mr Mitchell. And they left him in roars of laughter.
Dulcie Clay, in her neat uniform of grey and white, with the scarlet cross on the front of her apron, was sitting in the room she occupied for the moment in Aylmer's house in Jermyn Street. It was known as 'the second best bedroom'. As she was anxious not to behave as if she were a guest, she used it as a kind of boudoir when she was not in attendance.
It was charmingly furnished in the prim Chippendale style, a style dainty, but not luxurious, that seemed peculiarly suited to Dulcie.
She was in the window-seat—not with her feet up, no cushions behind her. Unlike Edith, she was not the kind of woman who rested habitually; she sat quite upright in the corner. A beautiful little mahogany table was at her right, with a small electric lamp on it, and two books. One of the books was her own choice, the other had been lent to her by Aylmer. It was a volume of Bernard Shaw. She could make neither head nor tail of it, and the prefaces, which she read with the greatest avidity, perplexed her even more than the books themselves. Every now and then a flash of lightning, in the form of some phrase she knew, illumined for a second the darkness of the author's words. But soon she closed the thick volume with the small print and returned to The Daisy Chain.
Dulcie was barely one-and-twenty. She carried everywhere in her trunk a volume called The Wide, Wide World. She was never weary of reading this work with the comprehensive title; it reminded her of schooldays. It was comforting, like a dressing-gown and slippers, like an old friend. Whether she had ever thoroughly understood it may be doubted. If any modern person nowadays were to dip into it, he would find it, perhaps, more obscure than George Meredith at his darkest. Secretly Dulcie loved best in the world, in the form of reading matter, the feuilletons in the daily papers. There was something so exciting in that way they have of stopping at a thrilling moment and leaving you the whole day to think over what would come next, and the night to sleep over it. She preferred that; she never concentrated her mind for long on a story, or any work of the imagination. She was deeply interested in her own life. She was more subjective than objective—though, perhaps, she had never heard the words. Unconsciously she dealt with life only as it related to herself. But this is almost universal with young girls who have only just become conscious of themselves, and of their importance in the world; have only just left the simple objectiveness of the child who wants to look at the world, and have barely begun to feel what it is to be an actor rather than a spectator.
Not that any living being could be less selfish or vain, or less of an egotist than Dulcie. If she saw things chiefly as they were related to herself, it was because this problem of her life was rather an intricate one. Her position was not sufficiently simple to suit her simple nature.
Her mother, who had been of Spanish descent, had died young; her father had married again. He was the sort of man who always married again, and if his present wife, with whom he was rather in love, had passed away he would have undoubtedly married a third time. Some men are born husbands; they have a passion for domesticity, for a fireside, for a home. Yet, curiously, these men very rarely stay at home. Apparently what they want is to have a place to get away from.
The new stepmother, who was young and rather pretty, was not unkind, but was bored and indifferent to the little girl. Dulcie was sensitive; since her father's second marriage she had always felt in the way. Whether her stepmother was being charming to her husband, or to some other man—she was always charming to somebody—Dulcie felt continually that she was not wanted. Her father was kind and casual. He told everyone what he believed, that his second wife was an ideal person to bring up his little daughter.
Therefore it came upon him as a surprise when she told him she was grown up, and still more that she wished to leave home and be a nurse. Mrs. Clay had made no objection; the girl rather depressed her, for she felt she ought to like her more than she did, so she 'backed up' with apparent good nature the great desire to go out and do something.
Dulcie had inherited three hundred a year from her mother. Her father had about the same amount of his own to live on. He believed that he added to it by mild gambling, and perhaps by talking a good deal at his club of how he had been born to make a fortune but had had no luck. His second wife had no money.
Dulcie, therefore, was entirely independent. No obstacles were placed in her way—the particular form that her ambition took was suggested by the war, but in any case she would have done something. She had taken the usual means of getting into a hospital.
Gentle, industrious, obedient and unselfish, she got on well. Her prettiness gained her no enemies among the women as she was too serious about her work at this time to make use of her beauty by attracting men. Yet Dulcie was unusually feminine; she had a natural gift for nursing, for housekeeping, for domesticity. She was not artistic and was as indifferent to abstractions and to general ideas as the ideal average woman. She was tactful, sweet, and, she had been called at school, rather a doormat. Her appearance was distinguished and she was not at all ordinary. It is far from ordinary, indeed it is very rare, to be the ideal average woman. She took great interest in detail; she would lie awake at night thinking about how she would go the next day to a certain inexpensive shop to get a piece of ribbon for one part of her dress to match a piece of ribbon in another part—neither of which would ever be seen by any human being.
Such men as she saw liked and admired her. Her gradual success led her to being sent abroad to a military hospital. She inspired confidence, not because she had initiative, but because one knew she would do exactly as she was told, which is, in itself, a great quality. At Boulogne she made the acquaintance at once of Aylmer, and of the coup de foudre. She worshipped him at first sight. So she thought herself fortunate when she was allowed to come back to London with him. Under orders she continued her assiduous attention. Everyone said she was a perfect nurse.
Occasionally she went to see her father. He greeted her with warmth and affection, and told her all about how, on account of racing being stopped, he was gradually becoming a pauper. When she began telling him of the events in which she was absorbed he answered by giving her news of the prospects for the Cambridgeshire. In the little den in the house in West Kensington, where he lived, she would come in and say in a soft voice:
'Papa dear, you know I shan't be able to stop much longer.'
'Much longer where?'
'Why, with my patient, Mr Ross—Mr Aylmer Ross.'
'Shan't you? Mind you, my dear, there are two good three-year-olds that are not to be sneezed at.' He shook his head solemnly.
It had never occurred to Dulcie for a moment to sneeze at three-year-olds. She hardly knew what they were.
'But what do you advise for me, papa?'
'My dear child, I can't advise. You can't select with any approach to confidence between Buttercup and Beautiful Doll. Mind you, I'm very much inclined to think that More Haste may win yet. Look how he ran in August, when nobody knew anything about him!'
'Yes, I know, papa, but—'
She gave it up.
'Go and see your mother, dear; go and ask her about it,' and he returned to the racing intelligence.
Strange that a man who had not enough to live on should think he could add to his income by backing losers. Still, such was Mr Clay's view of life. Besides, he was just going out; he was always just going out.
She would then go and see her stepmother, who greeted her most affectionately.
Dulcie only kept half her little income for herself at present, a considerable advantage to a woman like Mrs Clay, who declared she was 'expected to dress up to a certain standard, though, of course, simply during war-time.' She would kiss the girl and drag her up to her bedroom to show her a new coat and skirt, or send the general servant up to bring down the marvellously cheap little tea-gown that had just come home.
Both her parents, it will be seen, were ready enough to talk to her, but they were not prepared to listen. All the warmth and affection that she had in her nature very naturally was concentrated on her patient.
Dulcie now sat in the window-seat, wondering what to do. She was sadly thinking what would happen when the time came for her to leave.
In her mind she knew perfectly well that what several people had said was true: the profession she had chosen was too arduous for her physical strength. Besides, now she could not bear the idea of nursing anyone else after Aylmer. She was trying to make up her mind to take something else—and she could not think what.
A girl like Dulcie Clay, who has studied only one thing really thoroughly, could be fitted only to be a companion either to children, whom she adored, or to some tedious elderly lady with fads. She knew she would not do for a secretary; she had not the education nor the gift for it.
The thought of going back to the stepmother who showed so clearly her satisfaction and high spirits in having got rid of her, and of being again the unwanted third in the little house in West Kensington, was quite unbearable.
She had told much of her position to Edith, who was so sympathetic and clever. It would have been a dream of hers, a secret dream, to teach Edith's little girl, whom she had once seen, and loved. Yet that would have been in some ways rather difficult. As she looked out of the window, darkened with fog, she sighed. If she had been the governess at Edith's house, she would be constantly seeing Aylmer. She knew, of course, all about Aylmer's passion. It would certainly be better than nothing to see him sometimes. But the position would have been painful. Also, she disliked Bruce. He had given her one or two looks that seemed rather to demand admiration than to express it; he had been so kind as to give her a few hints on nursing; how to look after a convalescent; and had been exceedingly frank and kind in confiding to her his own symptoms. As she was a hospital nurse, it seemed to him natural to talk rather of his own indisposition than on any other subject. Dulcie was rather highly strung, and Bruce got terribly on her nerves; she marvelled at Edith's patience. But then Edith.... No, she could not go to the Ottleys.
Her other gift—a beautiful soprano voice—also was of hardly any use to her, as she was now placed. When she sang she expressed herself more completely than at any other time, but that also she had not been taught thoroughly; she had been taught nothing thoroughly.
A companion! Though she had not absolutely to earn her living, and kept only half of her little inheritance for herself, what was to become of her? Well, she wouldn't think about it any more that day. At any rate Aylmer talked as though she was to remain some time longer.
When he had returned suddenly to the house in Jermyn Street, a relative had hastily obtained for him the necessary servants; his former valet was at the front; they were all new to him and to his ways, and he had no housekeeper. Dulcie did the housekeeping—could she take that place in his house? No, she knew that she was too young, and everyone else would have said she was too pretty. Only as a nurse would it be correct for her to be his companion.
And from fear of embarrassing him she was hardly ever with him alone. She thought he was abrupt, more cool to her since their return, and guessed the reason; it was for fear of compromising her. How angelic of him; what a wonderful man—how fortunate his first wife must have been. And the boy, Teddy—the charming boy so like his father, whom she had only seen for a day or two before he left to go out. Teddy's presence would help to make it more difficult for her to remain.
In that very short time the boy had distinctly shown her by his marked attention how much he admired her. He thought her lovely. He was devoted to music and she had sung to him.
Aylmer also liked music, but apparently did not care to hear her sing. On the occasion that she did, it seemed to irritate him. Indeed, she knew she was merely the most amateurish of musicians, and could just accompany herself in a few songs, though the voice itself was a rare gift.... How perfect Aylmer had been!... There was a sharp ring. She closed the book, turned out the little electric lamp and went downstairs.
She was looking ideally pretty in the becoming uniform, but uniforms are always becoming, whatever the uniforms or the people may be. The reason of this is too obscure to fathom. One would say that to dress to suit oneself would be more becoming to men and women. Yet, in fact, the limitation and the want of variety in this sort of dress had a singular attraction. However, if she had chosen it to suit her, nothing could have been more becoming. The severity of the form, the dull colour, relieved by the large scarlet cross, showed off to the greatest advantage her dense dark hair, her Madonna-like face and the slim yet not angular lines of her figure. Dulcie's beauty was of a kind that is thrown into relief by excessive plainness of dress.
As she came in, Aylmer looked at her with more observation than usual, and he acknowledged to himself that she was pretty—remarkably pretty, quite a picture, as people say, and he liked her, as one likes a confidante, a reliable friend. He trusted her, remembering how he had given himself away to her that dreadful day in the Boulogne hospital.... And she had another quality that pleased him immensely; she was neither coquettish nor affected, but simple and serious. She appeared to think solely of her duties, and in Aylmer's opinion that was just what a nurse should do.
* * * * *
But Edith's remark that Dulcie was madly in love with him had made a certain impression on his mind. Indeed, everything Edith said, even a merely trivial observation, was of importance to Aylmer. Edith wouldn't have said that unless she meant it. If it was true, did it matter? Aylmer was very free from vanity and masculine coquetry. He had a good deal of pride and great self-respect. Like almost every human being who is superior to the average, he didn't think ill of himself; there were things that he was proud of. He was proud, secretly, of having gone into the army and of having been wounded. It made him feel he was not on the shelf, not useless and superannuated. He took a certain pride also in his judgement, his excellent judgement on pictures and literature. Perhaps, even, having been a spoilt only child, he was privately proud of some of his faults. He knew he was extravagant and impatient. The best of everything was barely good enough for Aylmer. Long before he inherited the property that had come to him a year ago he had never been the sort of young man who would manage on little; who would, for example, go to the gallery by Underground or omnibus to see a play or to the opera. He required comfort, elbow-room, ease. For that reason he had worked really hard at the Bar so as to have enough money to live according to his ideas. Not that he took any special interest in the Bar. His ideal had always been—if it could be combined—to be either a soldier or a man of leisure, devoted to sport, literature and art.
Now he had asserted himself as a soldier, and he meant to go back. But he looked forward to leisure to enjoy and indulge his favourite tastes, if possible, with the only woman he had ever been deeply in love with.
He was particularly attractive to women, who liked his strong will and depth of feeling, his assertive manner and that feeling of trust that he inspired. Women always know when a man will not treat them badly. Teddy's mother, his first wife, he had really married out of pity.
When she died everyone regarded it as a tragedy except himself. He still worshipped his mother, whose little miniature he kept always by him, and he had always fancied that Edith resembled her. This was simply an idee d'amoureux, for there was no resemblance. His mother, according to the miniature, had the dark hair and innocent expression that were the fashion at the time, while Edith was fair, with rather dark eyebrows, grey eyes and the mouth and chin characteristic of Burne-Jones's and Rossetti's pictures. But though she might be in appearance a Burne-Jones, she was very modern. His favourite little photograph of her that he had shown, in his moment of despair, to Dulcie, showed a charming face, sensuous yet thoughtful, under a large hat. She had fur up to her chin, and was holding a muff; it was a snapshot taken the winter before they had parted.
Aylmer worshipped these two women: his dead mother and the living woman whom he had never given up entirely. How unlike were both the types to Dulcie Clay, with her waved Madonna hair, dark skin, large, clear blue eyes, softened by eyelashes of extraordinary length. Her chin was very small, her mouth fine, rather thin; she had a pathetic expression; one could imagine her attending, helping, nursing, holding a child in her arms, but not his intellectual equal, guiding and directing like his mother; and without the social brilliance and charm of Edith.
* * * * *
Seeing him looking at her with a long, observant look, Dulcie became nervous and trembled slightly. She waited for him to speak.
'Come here, Miss Clay. I want to speak to you.'
Instantly she sat down by him.
'I wanted to say—you've been most awfully kind to me.'
Dulcie murmured something.
'I'm nearly well now—aren't I?'
'Dr Wood says you can go out driving next week.'
'Yes; but I don't mean that. I mean, I'm well in myself?'
He spoke quickly, almost impatiently.
'The doctor says you're still suffering from nervous shock;' she answered in a toneless voice, professionally.
'Still, very soon I shan't need any attendance that a valet or a housekeeper couldn't give me, shall I?'
'No, I suppose not.'
'Well, my dear Miss Clay—of course, I shall hate you to go,' he said politely, 'but don't you think we ought to be thinking—'
'Of course I'll go whenever you and Dr Wood think it right.'
'You see,' he went on, 'I know I shall need a housekeeper, especially when Teddy comes back. He's coming back on leave next week'—Aylmer glanced at the telegram in his hand—'and, well—'
'You don't think I could—'
'Of course you would make a splendid housekeeper,' he laughed. 'You are already, but—'
She didn't wish to make him uncomfortable. Evidently he was thinking what she knew herself. But she was so reluctant to go.
'Don't you think I could remain here for a little while?' she said modestly. 'To do the housekeeping and be useful? You see, I've nowhere to go really.'
'But, my dear girl, excuse me, don't you see you're rather too—young. It would be selfish of me to let you.'
He wished to say that it would be compromising, but a certain consciousness prevented his saying it. He felt he would be ridiculous if he put it into words.
'Just as you like. How soon do you think I ought to go?'
Though she tried not to show it, there was a look almost of despair in her face. Her eyes looked startled, as if trying not to shed tears.
He was very sorry for her, but tried to hide it by a cool and impatient manner.
'Well, shall we say in about a fortnight?'
'Certainly.' She looked down.
'I shall miss you awfully,' he said, speaking more quickly than usual to get it over.
She gave a very small smile.
'Er—and then may I ask what you're thinking of doing next?'
'That was just what I was thinking about,' she answered rather naively. 'There are so few things I can do.'
Then fearing this sentence sounded like begging to remain, she hastily added:
'And of course if I don't go home I might be a companion or look after children.'
'I wonder if Mrs Ottley—' began Aylmer. 'She has a dear little girl, and I've heard her say she would soon want someone.'
'Dilly?' said Dulcie, with a slight smile.
There was a moment of intense awkwardness between them.
Then Dulcie said:
'I'm afraid that wouldn't quite do. I'm not clever enough.'
'Oh, rot. You know enough for a child like that. I shall speak to Mrs Ottley about it.'
'It's very, very kind of you, but I would rather not. I think I shall try to be a companion.'
'What's the name of that woman,' Aylmer said good-naturedly, 'that Irish woman, wife of one of the Cabinet Ministers, who came to the hospital at Boulogne and wanted to have lessons?'
'Lady Conroy,' Dulcie answered.
'Yes, Lady Conroy. Supposing that she needed a secretary or companion, would you dislike that?'
'Oh, no, I should like it very much.'
'Right. I'll get Mrs Ottley to speak to her about it. She said she was coming to London, didn't she?'
'Yes. I got to know her fairly well,' said Dulcie. 'She's very charming.'
'She's celebrated for her bad memory,' Aylmer said, with a smile.
'She declares she forgets her own name sometimes. Once she got into a taxi and told the man to drive home. When he asked where that was, she said it was his business to know. She had forgotten her address.'
They both laughed.
'I'll go tomorrow,' said Dulcie, 'and see my stepmother, if you don't want me in the afternoon. Or, perhaps, the day you go for a drive would be better.'
'Tell me, Miss Clay, aren't you happy at home?'
'Oh, it isn't that. They don't want me. I'm in the way. You see, they've got used to my being out of the house.'
'But, excuse me—you don't earn your own living really?'
'No, that isn't really necessary. But I don't want to live at home.'
Her face showed such a decided distaste to the idea that he said no more.
'You're looking very well today,' Dulcie said.
He sighed. 'I feel rather rotten. I can't read, can't settle to anything.'
She looked at him sympathetically. He felt impelled to go on.
'I'm a bit worried,' he continued.
'About your son?'
'No, not about him so much, though I wish he would get a flesh wound and be sent back,' his father said, laughing. 'But about myself.'
She looked at him in silence.
'You know—what I told you.'
She made no answer, looking away to give him time to speak.
'I've made a suggestion,' he said slowly.... 'If it's accepted it'll alter all my life. Of course I shall go out again. But still it will alter my life.'
Suddenly, overpowered by the longing for sympathy, he said to himself aloud.
'I wonder if there's a chance.'
'I don't know what it is,' she murmured, but instinctively she had guessed something of it.
'I don't want to think about it any more at present.'
'Shall I read to you?'
She quietly arranged a pillow behind him and took up a newspaper.
He often liked her to read to him; he never listened to a word of it, but it was soothing.
She had taken up 'This Morning's Gossip' from The Daily Mail, and she began in the soft, low, distinct voice reading from The Rambler:
'Lord Redesdale says that when Lord Haldane's scheme for a Territorial Army was on foot he took it to the—'
Aylmer stopped her.
'Shall I read you a novel?'
'I think I should like to hear some poetry today,' he answered.
She had taken up a pretty, tiny little book that lay on his table, called Lyrists of the Restoration, and began to read aloud:
5165 'Phyllis is my only joy, Faithless as the winds or seas, Sometimes cunning, sometimes coy, Yet she never fails to please.'
'Oh, please, stop,' Aylmer cried.
She looked up.
'It tinkles like an old-fashioned musical-box. Try another.'
'What would you like?' she asked, smiling.
He took up a French book and passed it to her.
'You'll think I'm very changeable, but I should like this. Read me the beginning of La-Bos.'
And she began.
He listened with his eyes closed, lulled by the curious technique, with its constant repetitions and jewelled style, charmed altogether. She read French fluently enough.
'That's delightful,' he said, but he soon noticed she was stumbling over the words. No, it was not suitable for her to read. He was obstinate, however, and was determined she should read him something.
* * * * *
So they fell back on Northanger Abbey.
Lady Conroy had arrived home in Carlton House Terrace, complaining of a headache. She remained on the sofa in her sitting-room for about five minutes, during which time she believed she had been dozing. In reality she had been looking for her glasses, dropping her bag and ringing the bell to send a servant for a handkerchief.
She was a handsome woman of thirty-eight, with black hair turning a little grey, grey Irish eyes and a wonderfully brilliant complexion. She must have been a remarkably good-looking girl, but now, to her great vexation, she was growing a little too fat. She varied between treatments, which she scarcely began before she forgot them, and utter indifference to her appearance, when she declared she was much happier, letting herself go in loose gowns, and eating everything of which she had deprived herself for a day or two for the sake of her figure.
Lady Conroy had often compared herself to the old woman who lived in a shoe, because of her large family. Her friends declared she didn't remember how many children she had. She loved them, but there were certainly weeks when she didn't see the younger ones, for she was constantly absorbed in various different subjects. Besides, she spent most of her life in looking for things.
She was hopelessly careless and had no memory at all.
Suddenly she glanced at the watch on her wrist, compared it with the splendid Empire clock on the mantelpiece, and went with a bewildered look to the telephone on her writing-desk. Having gone through a considerable amount of torture by calling up the wrong number and absently ringing off as soon as she had got the right one, she at last found herself talking to Edith.
'Oh, is that you, dear? How lucky to catch you! Yes.... Yes.... I came back yesterday. Dying to see you. Can't you come round and see me? Oh, you've got on your hat; you were just coming? Of course, I forgot! I knew I had an appointment with someone! How soon will you be here?... In a quarter of an hour? Good! Could you tell me the time, dear?... Four o'clock, thanks. My watch is wrong, and they've never wound the clock up all the time I've been away. Good-bye. Don't be long.... How soon did you say you could come?... Oh, about a quarter of an hour! Do hurry!... I say, I've something very particular to tell you. It's about... Oh, I'm detaining you. Very well. I see. Au revoir.'
As she waited for her visitor, Lady Conroy walked round the room. Nearly everything on which she cast her eye reminded her of a different train of thought, so that by the time Edith was announced by the footman she had forgotten what she wanted to tell her.
'How sweet you look, dear!' cried Lady Conroy, welcoming her most affectionately. 'How dear of you to come. You can't think how I was longing to see you. Can you tell me what day it is?'
'Why, it's Thursday,' Edith said, laughing. 'Don't you remember? You wired to me to come and see you today.'
'Of course; so I did. But, surely, I didn't ask you to come on Thursday?'
'I assure you that you did.'
'Fancy! How stupid of me! Thursday is my day at home. Dear, dear, dear. I forgot to tell Standing; there will be no proper tea. Oh, I've brought such a nice French maid—a perfect wonder. She knows everything. She always knows what I want. One moment, dear; I'll ring for her and give her orders. Wait a minute, though.' She took Edith's hand and patted it affectionately. 'Nobody knows I've come back; it'll be all right. We shan't have any visitors. I'm bursting with news to tell you.'
'And I'm longing to hear what it is.'
Lady Conroy's charming, animated face became blank. She frowned slightly, and a vague look came into her eyes—the pathetic look of someone who is trying to remember.
'Wait a minute—what is it? Oh yes. You know that woman you introduced me to at Dieppe?'
'Don't you know, dear? Good heavens, it was you who introduced her—you ought to know.'
'Do you mean Madame Frabelle?' asked Edith, who was accustomed to Lady Conroy, and could follow the drift of her mind.
'Capital! That's it. How wonderful of you! Yes, Madame Frabelle. How do you like her?'
'Very much. But I didn't introduce her to you. You sent her to me.'
'Did I? Well, it's very much the same. Look here, Edith dear. This is what I want to ask you. I remember now. Oh, do you mind ringing the bell for me? I must tell Marie about the tea, in case people call.'
'You see, dear,' went on her hostess, 'I've undertaken a terrific number of things—Belgian refugees, weekly knitting, hundreds of societies—all sorts of war work. Well, you know how busy I am, even without all that, don't you? Thank heaven the boys are at school, but there are the children in the nursery, and I don't leave them—at least hardly ever—to their nurse. I look after them myself—when I think of it. Oh, they've grown such heavenly angels—too sweet! And how's your pet, Dilly?'
'Very well. But do go on.'
'How right of you to keep me to the point, darling. That's where you're such a comfort always. Do you mind passing me my glasses? Thanks.'
She put them on and immediately took them off. She only needed them for reading.
'Oh yes. I wanted to consult you about something, Edith.'
The footman came in.
'Oh, Standing, send Marie to me at once.... Bother the man, how he keeps worrying! Well, Edith dear, as I've got all this tremendous lot of work to do, I've made up my mind, for the sake of my health, I simply must have a sort of secretary or companion. You see?'
'I quite see. You spoke of it before.'
'Well, how do you think that woman you introduced to me, Madame Frabelle—how do you think she would—? Oh, Marie, today's my day at home; isn't it, Edith?'
'Today is Thursday,' said Edith.
'Thursday! Oh, my dear. Thursday's not my day at home. Well, anyhow, never mind about that. What was I saying, Marie?'
Marie remained respectfully waiting, with a tight French smile on her intelligent face.
'Oh, I know what it was. Marie, I want you to look after certain things for me here—anyhow, at present. I want you to tell the cook that I want tea at four o'clock. Oh no, it's half-past four—well, at five. And there's something I particularly want for tea. What is it?' she asked, looking at Edith. Immediately answering herself she said: 'I know, I want muffins.'
'Madame want "nuffing"?' said Marie.
'No, no, no! Don't be so stupid. It's an English thing, Marie; you wouldn't understand. Something I've forgotten to tell the cook about. It's so cosy I always think in the winter in London. It always cheers me up. You know, what is it?... I know—muffins—muffins!' she said the word carefully to the French maid.
Edith came to the rescue.
'Tell the cook,' she said, 'for madame, that she wants some muffins for tea.'
'Oh, oui. Ah, oui, bien, madame. Merci, madame.'
As the maid was going away Lady Conroy called out:
'Oh, tell the cook it doesn't matter. I won't have them today.'
Edith was already in a somewhat hilarious mood. Lady Conroy didn't irritate her; she amused her almost more than any friend she had. Besides, once she could be got to concentrate on any one subject, nobody was more entertaining. Edith's English humour delighted in her friend's Irish wit.
There was something singularly Irish in the way Lady Conroy managed to make a kind of muddle and untidiness all round her, when she had been in a room a minute or two. When she had entered the room, it was a fine-looking apartment, rather sparsely furnished, with very little in it, all severest First Empire style. There were a few old portraits on striped pale green walls, and one large basket of hot-house flowers on a small table. Yet, since her entrance, the room already looked as if several people had been spending the week in it without tidying it up. Almost mechanically Edith picked up her bag, books, newspaper, cigarettes and the glasses.
'Well, then, you don't think Madame Frabelle would do?' said Lady Conroy.
'My dear Lady Conroy, Madame Frabelle wouldn't dream of going as a companion or secretary. You want a young girl. She's about fifteen years older than you are and she's staying with me as my guest. I shouldn't even suggest such a thing.'
'Why not? It wouldn't be at all a hard place.'
'No, I know. But she doesn't want a place. She's very well off, remember.'
'Good heavens, she can't have much to do then if she's only staying with you,' said Lady Conroy.
'Oh, she has plenty of engagements. No, I shouldn't advise Madame Frabelle. But I do know of someone.'
'Do you? Oh, darling Edith, how sweet of you. Oh, just ring the bell for me, will you?'
'I want to send for Marie, my maid, and tell her to order some muffins for tea. I forgot to tell the cook.'
'But you have already ordered and countermanded them.'
'Oh, have I?—so I have! Never mind, don't ring. It doesn't matter. Who do you know, dear?'
Standing appeared in answer to the bell.
'What do you want, Standing? You mustn't keep bothering and interrupting me like this. Oh, tea? Yes, bring tea. And tell Marie I shan't want her after all.'
Lady Conroy leant back against her cushions and with a sigh went on:
'You see, I'm in the most terrible muddle, dear Edith. I don't know where to turn.'
She turned to her writing-table and opened it.
'Look at this, now,' she said rather triumphantly. 'This is all about my war work. Oh no, it isn't. It's an advertisement from a washer-woman. Gracious, ought I to keep it, do you think? No, I don't think I need.'
She folded it up and put it carefully away again.
'Don't you think yourself I need someone?'
'Yes, I do. I think it would be very convenient for you to have a nice girl with a good memory to keep your things in order.'
'That's it,' cried Lady Conroy, delighted, as she lit a cigarette. 'That's it—someone who will prevent me dropping cigarette ash all over the room and remember my engagements and help me with my war work and write my letters and do the telephoning. That's all I shall want. Of course, if she could do a little needlework—No, no, that wouldn't do. You couldn't expect her to do brainwork as well as needlework.'
Edith broke in.
'Do you remember mentioning to me a girl you met at Boulogne—a nurse called Dulcie Clay?'
'Perfectly well,' answered Lady Conroy, puffing away at her cigarette, and obviously not speaking the truth.
'No, my dear, you don't. But it doesn't matter. Well, this girl has been nursing Mr Aylmer Ross, and he doesn't need her any more—at least he won't after next week. Would you see her and judge for yourself? You might try her.'
'I'm sure I shall if I take her. I'm afraid I'm a trying person. I try everyone dreadfully. Oh, by the way, Edith, I met such a perfect angel coming over. He was a wounded soldier. He belongs to the Black Watch. Doesn't the name Black Watch thrill you? He's in the Irish Guards, so, of course, my heart went out to him.'
'The Irish Guards as well?'
'Oh no. That was another man.'
She put her hand to her forehead.
'I'm worrying you, dear, with my bad memory. I'm so sorry. Well, then, you'll see Madame Frabelle for me?'
'I will if you like, but not as a companion. It's Miss Clay.'
'Miss Clay,' repeated Lady Conroy. 'Ah, here's tea. Do you take milk and sugar. Edith?'
'Let me pour it out,' said Edith, to whom it was maddening to see the curious things Lady Conroy did with the tea-tray. She was pouring tea into the sugar basin, looking up at Edith with the sweetest smile.
'I can't stay long,' Edith went on. 'I'm very sorry, dear, but you remember I told you I'm in a hurry.... I've an appointment at Landi's studio.'
'Landi? And who is that?'
'You know him—the composer—Sir Tito.'
'Oh, darling Sir Tito! Of course I do know him!' She smiled reminiscently. 'Won't you have anything to eat, dear? Do have a muffin! Oh, bother, there are none. I wonder how it is cook always forgets? Then you're going to send Madame Frabelle to see me the day after tomorrow?'
Edith took both her hands and shook them, laughing, as she stood up.
'I will arrange to send Miss Clay to see you, and if you like her, if you don't mind waiting about ten days or a fortnight, you might engage her. It would be doing her a great kindness. She's not happy at home.'
'Oh, poor girl!'
'And she went as a nurse,' continued Edith, 'chiefly because she couldn't think of anything else to do. She isn't really strong enough for nursing.'
'Isn't she? How sad, poor girl. It reminds me of a girl I met at Boulogne. So pretty and nice. In very much the same position really. She also wasn't happy at home—'
'This is the same girl,' said Edith. 'You wrote to me about her.'
'Did I? Good heavens, how extraordinary! What a memory you've got, Edith. Well, then, she's sure to do.'
'Still, you'd better have an interview,' said Edith. 'Don't trouble to ring. I must fly, dear. We'll soon meet again.'
Lady Conroy followed her to the door into the hall, pouring forth questions, sympathy and cheerful communications about the charming young man in the Black Watch. Just before Edith escaped her friend said:
'Oh, by the by, I meant to ask you something. Who is Madame Frabelle?'
Sir Tito lived in a flat in Mayfair, on the second floor of a large corner house. On the ground floor was his studio, which had two entrances. The studio was a large, square, white room, containing a little platform for pupils. A narrow shelf ran all the way round the dado; this shelf was entirely filled with the most charming collection of English and French china, little cottages, birds and figures. Above the shelf was a picture-rail, which again was filled all the way round with signed photographs of friends. Everything in the room was white, even the piano was laque white, and the furniture, extremely luxurious and comfortable, was in colour a pale and yet dull pink. A curtain separated it from another smaller room, which again had a separate entrance into the hall on the left, and, through a very small dressing-room, led into the street on the right side.
Sir Tito was waiting for Edith, spick, span and debonair as always (although during the war he had discarded his buttonhole). He was occupied, as he usually was in his leisure time, not in playing the piano or composing, but—in making photograph frames! This was his hobby, and people often said that he took more pleasure in the carving, cutting out, gumming and sticking together of these objects than in composing the melodies that were known and loved all over the world.
As soon as Edith came in he showed her a tiny frame carved with rosebuds.
'Regarde,' he said, his eyes beaming. 'Voila! C'est mignon, n'est-ce-pas? On dirait un petit coeur! Ravissante, hein?' He gazed at it lovingly.
'Very sweet,' said Edith, laughing. 'Who is it for?'
'Why, it's for your mignonne, Dilly. I've cut out a photograph of hers in the shape of a heart. Gentil, n'est ce pas?'
He showed it to her with childish pleasure. Then he put all traces of the work carefully away in a drawer and drew Edith near to the fire.
'I've just a quarter of an hour to give you,' said Sir Tito, suddenly turning into a serious man of business. And, indeed, he always had many appointments, not a few of which were on some subject connected with love affairs. Like Aylmer, but in a different way, Sir Tito was always being consulted, but, oddly enough, while it was the parents and guardians usually who went to Aylmer, husbands worried about their wives, mothers about their children; to the older man it was more frequently the culprit or the confidant himself or herself who came to confide and ask for help and advice.
'The dreadful thing I've to tell you, Landi, is that I've completely changed.'
'Yes. I'm in love with him all over again.'
'Yes. I don't know how and I don't know why. When he first made that suggestion, it seemed wild—impossible. But the things he said—how absolutely true it is. Landi, my life's been wasted, utterly wasted.'
Landi said nothing.
'I believe I was deceiving myself,' she went on. 'I've got so accustomed to living this sort of half life I've become almost abrutie, as you would say. I didn't realise how much I cared for him. Now I know I always adored him.'
'But you were quite contented.'
'Because I made myself so; because I resolved to be satisfied. But, after all, there's something in what he says, Landi. My life with Bruce is only a makeshift. Nothing but tact, tact, tact. Oh, I'm so tired of tact!' She sighed. 'It seems to me now really too hard that I should again have such a great opportunity and should throw it away. You see, it is an opportunity, if I love him—and I'm not deceiving myself now. I'm in love with him. The more I think about it the more lovely it seems to me. It would be an ideal life, Landi.'
He was still silent.
'You see, Aylmer knows so well how much the children are to me, and he would never ask me to leave them. There's no question of my ever leaving them. And Bruce wouldn't mind. Bruce would be only too thankful for me to take them. And there's another thing—though I despised the idea at the time, there's a good deal in it. I mean that Aylmer's well off, so I should never be a burden. He would love to take the responsibility of us all. I would leave my income to Bruce; he would be quite comfortable and independent. Oh, he would take it. He might be a little cross, but it wouldn't last, Landi. He would be better off. He'd find somebody—someone who would look after him, perhaps, and make him quite happy and comfortable. You're shocked?'
'Ca ne m'etonne pas. It's the reaction,' said Landi, nodding.
'How wonderful of you to understand! I haven't seen him again, you know. I've just been thinking. In fact, I'm surprised at myself. But the more I reflect on what he said, the more wonderful it seems.... Think how he's cared for me all this time!'
'Sans doute. You know that he adores you. But, Edith, it's all very well—you put like that—but could you go through with it?'
'I believe I could now,' she answered. 'I begin to long to. You see, I mistook my own feelings, Landi; they seemed dulled. I thought I could live without love—but why should I? What is it that's made me change so? Why do I feel so frightened now at the idea of losing my happiness?'
'C'est la guerre,' said Sir Tito.
'The war? What has that to do with it?'
'Everything. Unconsciously it affects people. Though you yourself are not fighting, Aylmer has risked his life, and is going to risk it again. This impresses you. To many temperaments things seem to matter less just now. People are reckless.'
'Is it that?' asked Edith. 'Perhaps it is. But I was so completely deceived in myself.'
'I always knew you could be in love with him,' said Landi. 'But wait a moment, Edith—need the remedy be so violent? I don't ask you to live without love. Why should a woman live without the very thing she was created for? But you know you hate publicity—vulgar scandal. Nobody loathes it as you do.'
'It doesn't seem to matter now so much,' Edith said.
'It's the war.'
'Well, whatever's the cause, all I can tell you is that I'm beginning to think I shall do it! I want to!... I can't bear to refuse again. I haven't seen him since our talk. I changed gradually, alone, just thinking. And then you say—'
'Many people have love in their lives without a violent public scandal,' he repeated.
'Yes, I know. I understand what you mean. But I hate deceit, Landi. I don't think I could lead a double life. And even if I would, he wouldn't!'
She spoke rather proudly.
'Pauvre garcon!' said Sir Tito. 'Je l'admire.'
'So do I,' said Edith. 'Aylmer's not a man who could shake hands with Bruce and be friends and deceive him. And you know, before, when I begged him to remain ... my friend ... he simply wouldn't. He always said he despised the man who would accept the part of a tame cat. And he doesn't believe in Platonic friendship: Aylmer's too honest, too real for that.'
'But, Edith, oh, remember, before,' said Landi taking her hand, 'even when Bruce ran away with another woman, you couldn't bear the idea of divorce.'
'I know. But I may have been wrong. Besides, I didn't care for him as I do now. And I'm older now.'
'Isn't this rather sudden, my dear?'
'Only because I've let myself go—let myself be natural! Oh, do encourage me—give me strength, Landi! Don't let me be a coward! Think if Aylmer goes out again and is killed, how miserable I should feel to have refused him and disappointed him—for the second time!'
'Wait a moment, Edith. Suppose, as you say, he goes out again and is killed, and you haven't disappointed him, what would your position be then?'
She couldn't answer.
'How is it your conscientiousness with regard to Bruce doesn't come in the way now? Why would it ruin him less now than formerly?'
'Bruce doesn't seem to matter so much.'
'Because he isn't fighting?' asked Sir Tito.
'Oh no, Landi! I never thought of that. But you know he always imagines himself ill, and he's quite all right really. He'll enjoy his grievance. I know he won't be unhappy. And he's older, and he's not tied to that silly, mad girl he ran away with. And besides, I'm older. This is probably my last chance!'
She looked at Landi imploringly, as if begging his permission.
He answered calmly: 'Ecoute, cherie. When do you see him again?'
'I'm to take him for a drive tomorrow.'
'My dear Edith, promise me one thing; don't undertake anything yet.'
'But why not?'
'You mustn't. This may be merely an impulse; you may change again. It may be a passing mood.'
'I don't think it is,' said Edith. 'Anyhow, it's my wish at present. It's the result of thinking, remember—not of his persuasion.'
'Go for a drive, but give him no hope yet.' He took both her hands. 'Make no promise, except to me. Don't I know you well? I doubt if you could do it.'
'Yes, I could! I could go through anything if I were determined, and if I had the children safe.'
'Never mind that for the present. Live for the day. Will you promise me that?'
She hesitated for a moment.
Then he said:
'Really, dear, it's too serious to be impulsive about. Take time.'
'Very well, Landi. I promise you that.'
'Then we'll meet again afterwards and talk it over. I'll come and see you.'
'Very well. And mustn't I tell him anything? Not make him a little bit happy?'
'Tell him nothing. Be nice to him. Enjoy your drive. Put off all decision at present.'
He looked at her. Her eyes were sparkling, her colour, her expression were deepened. She looked all animation, with more life than he had ever seen in her.... Somehow the sight made his heart ache a little, a very little.
Poor girl! Of course she had been starving for love, and hidden the longing under domestic interests, artistic, social, but human. But she deserved real love, a real lover. She was so loyal, so true herself.
'Tiens! You look like a lamp that has been lighted,' said Sir Tito, chuckling a little to himself. 'Eh, bien!—and the pretty nurse? Does she still dance the Cachuca? I know I'm old-fashioned, but it's impossible for me not to associate everything Spanish with the ridiculous. I think of guitars, mantillas, sombreros, or—what else is it? Ah, I know—onions.'
'She isn't even Spanish, really!'
'Then why did you deceive me?' said Landi, a shade absently, with a glance at his watch and another in the mirror.
'She can't remain with Aylmer. She knows it herself. I'm trying to arrange for her to become a companion for Lady Conroy.'
'You are more particular about her being chaperoned than you were last week.'
'Landi, Aylmer will never care for her. She's a dear, but he won't.'
'Tu ne l'a pas revu? Lui—Aylmer?'
'No, but he's written to me.'
'Oh, for heaven's sake, my child, burn the letters! I daresay it won't be difficult; they are probably all flames already.'
'I did have one lovely letter,' said Edith.
She took it out of her dress. He glanced at it.
'Mon Dieu! To think that a pupil of mine drives about in a taxi-cab with compromising letters in her pocket! Non, tu est folle, veritablement, Edith.'
To please him she threw it into the fire, after tearing a small blank piece of the paper off, and putting this unwritten-on scrap back in the bodice of her dress. As she hurried away, she again promised him not to undertake anything, nor to allow Aylmer to overpower her prudent intention during their drive.
'What time do you start? I think I shall come too,' said Sir Tito, pretending to look at his engagement-book.
He burst out laughing at her expression.
'Ah, I'm not wanted! Tiens! If you're not very careful one person will go with you, I can tell you. And that will be Madame Frabelle.'
'No, she won't. Indeed not! It's the last day of Archie's holidays.'
'He's coming with you?'
'On the front seat, with the chauffeur,' said Edith.
There was a ring at the bell. He lifted the curtain and caressingly but firmly pushed her through into the other room.
* * * * *
Sir Tito had another appointment.
While this drama was taking place in the little house in Sloane Street, Madame Frabelle, who lived for romance, and was always imagining it where it didn't exist, was, of course, sublimely unconscious of its presence. She had grown tired of her fancy about Edith and Mr Mitchell, or she made herself believe that her influence had stopped it. But she was beginning to think, much as she enjoyed her visit and delighted in her surroundings, that it was almost time for her at least to suggest going away.
She had made Edith's friends her own. She was devoted to Edith, fonder of the children than anyone except their grandmother, and strangely, considering she was a visitor who gave trouble, she was adored by the servants and by everyone in the house, with the single exception of Archie.
She was carrying on a kind of half-religious flirtation with the Rev. Byrne Fraser, who was gradually succeeding in making her very high church. Sometimes she rose early and left the house mysteriously. She went to Mass. There was a dreamy expression in her eyes when she came back. A slight perfume of incense, instead of the lavender water that she formerly affected, was now observable about her.
She went to see the 'London Group' and the 'New English' with young Coniston, who explained to her all he had learnt from Aylmer, a little wrong; while she assured him that she knew nothing about pictures, but she knew what she liked.
She bought book-bindings from Miss Coniston, and showed her how to cook macaroni and how to make cheap but unpalatable soup for her brother. And she went to all the war concerts and bazaars got up by Valdez, to meetings for the Serbians arranged by Mrs Mitchell and to Lady Conroy's Knitting Society for the Refugees. She was a very busy woman. But it was not these employments that were filling her mind as she sat in her own room, looking seriously at herself in the glass. Something made her a little preoccupied.
She was beginning to fear that Bruce was getting too fond of her.
The moment the idea occurred to her, it occurred to Bruce also. She had a hypnotic effect on him; as soon as she thought of anything he thought of it too. Something in her slight change of manner, her cautious way of answering, and of rustling self-consciously out of the room when they were left alone together, had this effect. Bruce was enchanted. Madame Frabelle thought he was getting too fond of her! Then, he must be! Perhaps he was. He certainly didn't like the idea at all of her going away and changed the subject directly she mentioned it. He had always thought her a very wonderful person. He was immensely impressed by her universal knowledge and agreeable manners and general charm. Still, Madame Frabelle was fifteen years older than Bruce, and Bruce himself was no chicken. Although he was under forty, his ideal of himself was that he liked only very young girls. This was not true. But as he thought it was, it became very much the same thing. As a matter of fact, only rather foolish girls were flattered at attentions from Bruce. Married women preferred spirited bachelors, and attractive girls preferred attractive boys. In fact, Bruce was not wanted socially, and he felt a little bit out of it among the men through not being among the fighters. The fact that he told everyone that he was not in khaki because he was in consumption didn't seem to make him more interesting to the general public. His neurotic heart bored his friends at the club. In fact there was not a woman, even his mother, except Madame Frabelle, who cared to listen to his symptoms. That she did so, and with sympathy, was one of her attractions.
But as long as she had listened to them in a sisterly, friendly way, he regarded her only as a friend—a friend of whom he was very proud, and whom he respected immensely. As has been said, she impressed him so much that he did not know she bored him. When she began rustling out of the room when they were left alone, and looking away, avoiding his eye when he stared at her absently, things were different, and he began to feel rather flattered. Of course it would be an infernal shame, and not the act of a gentleman, to take advantage of one's position as a host by making love to a fascinating guest. But there was so much sympathy between them! It is only fair to say that the idea would never have occurred to Bruce unless it had first occurred to Madame Frabelle. If a distinguished-looking woman in violet velvet leaves the room five minutes after she's left alone with one—even though she has grey hair—it naturally shows that she thinks one is dangerous. The result of it all was that when Bruce heard Edith was taking Aylmer for a drive, he apologised very much indeed for not going with her. He said, frankly, much as he liked Aylmer, wounded heroes were rather a bore. He hoped Aylmer would forgive him. And Madame Frabelle had promised to take him to the Oratory. She disapproved of his fancy of becoming a Catholic; she was not one herself, though she was extremely high, and growing daily higher, but the music at the Oratory on that particular day was very wonderful, and they agreed to go there. And afterwards—well, afterwards they might stroll home, or—go and have tea in Bond Street.
* * * * *
It was the last day of Archie's holidays, and though it was rather cold his mother insisted on taking him with her.
Aylmer tried to hide the shade that came over his face when he saw the boy, but remembering that he had undertaken to be a father to him, he cheered up as soon as Archie was settled.
It was a lovely autumn day, one of those warm Indian-summer days that resemble early spring. There is the same suggestion of warmer sunshine yet to come; the air has a scent as of growing things, the kind of muffled hopes and suppressed excitement of April is in the deceptive air. This sort of day is dangerous to charming people not in their very first youth.
* * * * *
In high spirits and beyond the speed limit they started for Richmond.
A week later Aylmer and his son were sitting looking at each other in the old brown library. Teddy had come over for ten days' leave from somewhere in France. Everyone, except his father, was astonished how little he had changed. He seemed exactly the same, although he had gone through strange experiences. But Aylmer saw a different look in his eyes. He looked well and brisk—perhaps a little more developed and more manly; his shoulders, always rather thick and broad, seemed even broader, although he was thinner. But it was the expression of the eyes that had altered. Those eyes had seen things. In colour pale blue, they had a slightly strained look. They seemed paler. His sunburn increased his resemblance to his father, always very striking. Both had large foreheads, clearly cut features and square chins. Aylmer was, strictly speaking, handsomer. His features more refined, more chiselled. But Teddy had the additional charm of extreme youth—youth with the self-possession and ease that seemed, as it were, a copy—as his voice was an echo—of his father. The difference was in culture and experience. Teddy had gone out when he was just on the point of going to Balliol, yet seemed to have something of the Oxford manner, characteristic of his father—a manner suave, amiable, a little ironical. He had the unmistakable public-school look and his training had immensely improved his appearance.
Aylmer was disappointed that the very first thing his son insisted on doing was to put on evening clothes and go to the Empire. That was where the difference in age told. Aylmer would not have gone to the Empire fresh from the fighting line. He made no objection, and concealed the tiniest ache that he felt when Teddy went out at once with Major Willis, an elder friend of his. Quite as old, Aylmer thought to himself, as he was. But not being a relative, he seemed of the same generation.
The next evening Teddy spent at home, and sat with his father, who declared himself to be completely recovered, but was still not allowed to put his foot to the ground, Miss Clay was asked to sing to them. Her voice, as has been said, was a very beautiful one, a clear, fine soprano, with a timbre rare in quality, and naturally thrilling. She had not been taught well enough to be a public success perhaps, but was much more accomplished than the average amateur.
Teddy delighted in it. She sang all the popular songs—she had a way that was almost humorous of putting refinement into the stupidest and vulgarest melody. And then she sang some of those technically poor but attaching melodies that, sung in a certain way, without sickening sentimentality or affectation, seem to search one's soul and bring out all that there is in one of romance.
She looked very beautiful, that Aylmer admitted to himself, and she sang simply and charmingly; that he owned also. Why did it irritate him so intensely to see Teddy moved and thrilled, to see his eyes brighten, his colour rise and to see him obviously admiring the girl? When she made an excuse to leave them Teddy was evidently quite disappointed.
The next day Aylmer limped down to the library. To his great surprise he heard voices in the room Dulcie used for her sitting-room. He heard Teddy begging her to sing to him again. He heard her refuse and then Teddy's voice asking her to go out to tea with him.
Aylmer limped as loudly as he could, and they evidently heard him, but didn't mind in the least. He didn't want Miss Clay to stop at home. He was expecting Edith.
'Hang it, let them go!' he said to himself, and he wondered at himself. Why should he care? Why shouldn't she flirt with the boy if she liked, or rather—for he was too just not to own that it was no desire of hers—why shouldn't the boy make up to her? Whatever the reason was, it annoyed him.
Annoyance was soon forgotten when Mrs Ottley was announced.
Since their drive to Richmond there had been a period of extraordinary happiness and delight for Edith. Not another word had been said with reference to Aylmer's proposal. He left it in abeyance, for he saw to his great joy and delight that she was becoming her old self, more than her old self.
Edith was completely changed. The first thing she thought of now in the morning was how soon she should see him again. She managed to conceal it well, but she was nervous, absent, with her eyes always on the clock, counting the minutes. When other people were present she was cool and friendly to Aylmer, but when they were alone he had become intimate, delightful, familiar, like the time, three years ago, when they were together at the seaside. But her mother-in-law had then been in the house. And the children. Everything was so conventional. Now she was able to see him alone. Really alone.... His eyes welcomed her as she came in. Having shut the door quietly, she reached his chair in a little rush.
'Don't take off your hat. I like that hat. That was the hat you wore the day I told you—'
'I'm glad it suits me,' she said, interrupting. 'Does it really? Isn't it too small?'
'You know it does.'
He was holding her hand. He slowly took off the glove, saying: 'What a funny woman you are, Edith. Why do you wear grey gloves? Nobody else wears grey gloves.'
'I prefer white ones, but they won't stay white two minutes'
'I like these.'
'Tell me about Teddy. Don't, Aylmer!'
Aylmer was kissing her fingers one by one. She drew them away.
'Teddy! Oh, there's not much to tell.' Then he gave a little laugh. 'I believe he's fallen in love with Miss Clay.'
'Has he really? Well, no wonder; think how pretty she is.'
'I know. Is she? I don't think she's a bit pretty.'
'She's to see Lady Conroy tomorrow, you know,' Edith said, divining an anxiety or annoyance in Aylmer on the subject.
'Yes. Will it be all right?'
'Well, Teddy's going back on Monday anyway, and I certainly don't need a nurse any more. Headley will do all I want.'
Headley was the old butler.
'What scent do you use, Edith?'
'I hardly ever use any. I don't care for scent.'
'But lately you have,' he insisted. 'What is it? I think I like it.'
'It's got a silly name. It's called Omar Khayyam.'
'I thought it was Oriental. I think you're Oriental, Edith. Though you're so fair and English-looking. How do you account for it?'
'I can't think,' said Edith.
'Perhaps you're a fair Circassian,' said he. 'Do you think yourself you're Oriental?'
'I believe I am, in some ways. I like lying down on cushions. I like cigarettes, and scent, and flowers. I hate wine, and exercise, and cricket, and bridge.'
'That isn't all that's needed. You wouldn't care for life in a harem, would you?' He laughed. 'You with your independent mind and your cleverness.'
'Perhaps not exactly, but I can imagine worse things.'
'I shall take you to Egypt,' he said. 'You've never been there, have you?'
'Never.' Her eyes sparkled.
'Yes, I shall take you to see the Sphinx. For the first time.'
'Oh, you can't. You're looking very well, Aylmer, wonderfully better.'
'I wonder why? You don't think I'm happy, do you?'
'I am,' said Edith.
'Because you're a woman. You live for the moment. I'm anxious about the future.'
'Oh, oh! You're quite wrong. It's not women who live for the moment,' said Edith.
'No, I don't know that the average woman does. But then you're not an average woman.'
'What am I?'
'You're Edith,' he answered, rather fatuously. But she liked it. She moved away.
'Now that's awfully mean of you, taking advantage of my wounded limb.'
She rang for tea.
'And that's even meaner. It's treacherous,' he said, laughing.
She sat down on a chair at a little distance.
'Angel!' he said, in a low, distinct voice.
'It is not for me to dictate,' said Edith, in a tone of command, 'but I should think it more sensible of you not to say these things to me—just now.'
The servant came in with tea.
Just before Archie went back to school he made a remark that impressed Edith strangely. Quite dressed and ready to start, as he was putting on his gloves, he fell into one of his reveries. After being silent for some time he said:
'Why doesn't father fight?'
'I told you before, darling. Your father is not very strong.'
'Is Aylmer older than father?'
'Yes. Aylmer's four years older. Why?'
'I don't know. I wish I had a father who could fight, like Aylmer. And I'd like to fight too, like Teddy.'
'Aylmer hasn't any wife and children to leave. Teddy's eighteen; you're only ten.'
'I wish I was old enough to fight. And I wish father was stronger.... Do you think I shall ever fight in this war?'
'Good heavens, dear! I hope it isn't going to last seven years more.'
'I wish it would,' said Archie ferociously. 'Mother!'
'But what's the matter with father? He seems quite well.'
'Oh, he isn't very well. He suffers from nerves.'
'Nerves! What's nerves?'
'I think, darling, it's time for us to start. Where's your coat?'
She drove him to the station. Most of the way he was very silent As she put him in the train he said.
'Mother, give my love to Aylmer.'
'All right, dear.'
He then said:
'Mother, I wish Aylmer was my father.'
'Oh, Archie! You mustn't say that.'
* * * * *
But she never forgot the boy's remark. It had a stronger influence on her action later than anything else. She knew Archie had always had a great hero-worship for Aylmer. But that he should actually prefer him to Bruce!
She didn't tell Aylmer that for a long time afterwards.
* * * * *
Before returning to the front Teddy had become so violently devoted to Miss Clay that she was quite glad to see him go. She received his attentions with calm and cool friendliness, but gave him not the smallest encouragement. She was three years older, but looked younger than her age, while Teddy looked much older, more like twenty-two. So that when on the one or two occasions during his ten days' leave they went out together, they didn't seem at all an ill-assorted couple. And whenever Aylmer saw the two together, it created the greatest irritation in him. He hardly knew which vexed him more—Dulcie for being attractive to the boy, or the boy for being charmed by Dulcie. It was absurd—out of place. It displeased him.
A day or two after Teddy's departure Dulcie went to see Lady Conroy, who immediately declared that Dulcie was extraordinarily like a charming girl she had met at Boulogne. Dulcie convinced her that she was the same girl.
'Oh, how perfectly charming!' said Lady Conroy. 'What a coincidence! Too wonderful! Well, my dear, I can see at a glance that you're the very person I want. Your duties will be very, very light. Oh, how light they will be! There's really hardly anything to do! I merely want you to be a sort of walking memorandum for me,' Lady Conroy went on, smiling. 'Just to recollect what day it is, and what's the date, and what time my appointments are, and do my telephoning for me, and write my letters, and take the dog out for a walk, and sometimes just hear my little girls practise, and keep my papers in order. Oh, one can hardly say exactly—you know the sort of thing. Oh yes! and do the flowers,' said Lady Conroy, glancing round the room. 'I always forget my flowers, and I won't let Marie do them, and so there they are—dead in the vases! And I do like a few live flowers about, I must say,' she added pathetically.
Dulcie said she thought she could undertake it.
'Well, then, won't you stay now, and have your things sent straight on? Oh, do! I do wish you would. I've got two stalls for the St James's tonight. My husband can't come, and I can't think of anybody else to ask. I should love to take you.'
Dulcie would have enjoyed to go. The theatre was a passion with her, as with most naive people. She made some slight objection which Lady Conroy at once waved away. However, Dulcie pointed out that she must go home first, and as all terms and arrangements absolutely suited both parties, it was decided that Dulcie should go to the play with her tonight and come the next day to take up her duties.
She asked Lady Conroy if she might have her meals alone when there were guests, as she was very shy. A charming little sitting-room, opening out of the drawing-rooms, was put at her disposal.
'Oh, certainly, dear; always, of course, except when I'm alone. But you'll come when I ask you, now and then, won't you? I thought you'd be very useful sometimes at boring lunches, or when there were too many men—that sort of thing. And I hear you sing. Oh, that will be delightful! You'll sing when we have a few tedious people with us? I adore music. We'll go to some of those all-British concerts, won't we? We must be patriotic. Do you know it's really been my dream to have a sweet, useful, sympathetic girl in the house. And with a memory too! Charming!'
Dulcie went away fascinated, if slightly bewildered. It was a pang to her to say good-bye to Aylmer, the more so as he showed, in a way that was perfectly obvious to the girl, that he was pleased to see her go, though he was as cordial as possible.
She had been an embarrassment to him of late. It was beginning to be what is known as a false position, since Headley the butler could now look after Aylmer. Except for a limp, he was practically well.
Anyone who has ever nursed a person to whom they are devoted, helped him through weakness and danger to health again, will understand the curious pain she felt to see him independent of her, anxious to show his strength. Still, he had been perfect. She would always remember him with worship. She meant never to love anyone else all her life.
When she said good-bye she said to him:
'I do hope you'll be very happy.'
He laughed, coloured a little, and said as he squeezed her hand warmly:
'You've been a brick to me, Miss Clay. I shall certainly tell you if I ever am happy.'
She wondered what that meant, but she preferred to try to forget it.
* * * * *
When Dulcie arrived, as she had been told, at a quarter to eight, dressed in a black evening dress (she didn't care to wear uniform at the theatre), she found Lady Conroy, who was lying on the sofa in a tea-gown, utterly astonished to see her.
'My dear! you've come to dine with me after all?'
'No, indeed. I've dined. You said I was to come in time to go to the play.'
'The play? Oh! I forgot. I'm so sorry. I've sent the tickets away. I forgot I'd anyone to go with me. I'm afraid it can't be helped now. Are you very disappointed? Poor child. Well, dear, you'll dine with me, anyhow, as you've come, and I can tell you all about what we shall have to do, and everything. We'll go to the theatre some other evening.'
Dulcie was obliged to decline eating two dinners. She had not found it possible to get through one—her last meal at Aylmer's house. However, as she had no idea what else to do, she remained with Lady Conroy. And she spent a very pleasant evening.
Lady Conroy told her all about herself, her husband, her children and her friends. She told her the history of her life, occasionally branching off on to other subjects, and referring to the angel she had met on a boat who was in the Black Watch, and who, Dulcie gathered, was a wounded officer. Lady Conroy described all the dresses she had at present, many that she had had in former years, and others that she would like to have had now. She gravely told the girl the most inaccurate gossip about such of her friends as Dulcie might possibly meet later. She was confidential, amusing, brilliant and inconsequent. She appeared enchanted with Dulcie, whom she treated like an intimate friend at sight. And Dulcie was charmed with her, though somewhat confused at her curious memory. Indeed, they parted at about eleven the best possible friends; Lady Conroy insisting on sending her home in her car.
Dulcie, who had a sensitive and sensible horror of snobbishness, felt sorry to know that her father would casually mention that his daughter was staying with the Conroys in Carlton House Terrace, and that her stepmother would scold her unless she recollected every dress she happened to see there. Still, on the whole she felt cheered.
She had every reason to hope that she would be as happy as a companion, in love without hope of a return, could be under any circumstances.
Madame Frabelle and Edith were sitting side by side in Edith's boudoir. Madame Frabelle was knitting. Edith was looking at a book. It was a thin little volume of essays, bound by Miss Coniston.
'What is the meaning of this design?' Edith said. 'It seems to me very unsuited to Chesterton's work! Olive-green, with twirly things on it!'
'I thought it rather artistic,' answered Madame Frabelle.
'It looks like macaroni, or spaghetti. Perhaps the idea was suggested by your showing her how to cook it,' said Edith, laughing.
Madame Frabelle looked gravely serene.
'No—I don't think that had anything to do with it.'
'How literal you are, Eglantine!'
'Am I? I think you do me injustice, Edith dear,' returned the amiable guest with a tinge of stateliness as she rolled up her wool.
Edith smiled, put down her book, looked at the clock and rearranged the large orange-coloured cushion behind her back. Then she took the book up again, looked through it and again put it down.
'You're not at all—forgive me for saying so—not the least bit in the world restless today, Edith darling, are you?' said Madame Frabelle in a calm, clear, high voice that Edith found quite trying.
'Oh, I hope not—I think not.'
'Ah, that's well,' and Madame Frabelle, with one slight glance at her hostess, went on knitting.
'I believe I miss Archie a good deal,' said Edith.
'Ah, yes, you must indeed. I miss the dear boy immensely myself,' sympathetically said Madame Frabelle. But Edith thought Madame Frabelle bore his loss with a good deal of equanimity, and she owned to herself that it was not surprising. The lady had been very good to Archie, but he had teased her a good deal. Like the Boy Scouts, but the other way round, he had almost made a point of worrying her in some way or other every day. Edith could never persuade him to change his view of her.
He said she was a fool.
Somehow, today Edith felt rather pleased with him for thinking so. All women are subject to moods, particularly, perhaps, those who have a visitor staying with them for a considerable time. There are moments of injustice, of unfairness to the most charming feminine guest, from the most gentle hostess. And also there are, undoubtedly, times when the nicest hostess gets a little on one's nerves.
So—critical, highly strung—Madame Frabelle was feeling today. So was Edith. Madame Frabelle was privately thinking that Edith was restless, that she had lost her repose, that her lips were redder than they used to be. Had she taken to using lip salve too? She was inclined to smile, with a twinkle in her eye, at Madame Frabelle's remarks, a shade too often. And what was Edith thinking of at this moment? She was thinking of Archie's remarks about Madame Frabelle. That boy had genius!
But there would be a reaction, probably during, or immediately after, tea-time, for these two women were sincerely fond of one another. The irritating fact that Edith was eighteen years younger than her guest made Eglantine feel sometimes a desire to guide, even to direct her, and if she had the disadvantage in age she wanted at least the privilege of gratifying her longing to give advice.
The desire became too strong to be resisted. The advantage of having something to do with her hands while she spoke was too great a one not to be taken advantage of. So Madame Frabelle said:
'I've been wanting to say something to you.'
Edith leant forward, putting her elbows on her knees and her face on her hands, and said:
'Oh, do tell me, Eglantine. What is it?'
'It is simply this,' said the other lady, calmly continuing her knitting.... 'Very often when one's living with a person, one doesn't notice little things a comparative stranger would observe. Is that not so?'
'What have you observed? What's it about?'
'It is about your husband,' said Madame Frabelle.
'What! Bruce?' asked Edith.
'Naturally,' replied Madame Frabelle dryly.
'What have you observed about Bruce?'
'I have observed,' replied Madame Frabelle, putting her hand in the sock that she was knitting, and looking at it critically, her head on one side, 'I have observed that Bruce is not at all well.'
'Oh, I'm sorry you think that. It's true he has seemed rather what he calls off colour lately.'
'He suffers,' said Madame Frabelle, as if announcing a great discovery,' he suffers from Nerves.'
'I know he does, my dear. Who should know it better than I do? But—do you think he is worse lately?'
'I do. He is terribly depressed. He says things to me sometimes that—well, that really quite alarm me.'
'I'm sorry. But you mustn't take Bruce too seriously, you know that.'
'Indeed I don't take him too seriously! And I've done my best either to change the subject or to make him see the silver lining to every cloud,' Madame Frabelle answered solemnly, with a shake of her head.
'I think what Bruce complains of is the want of a silver lining to his purse,' Edith said.
'You are jesting, Edith dear.'
'No, I'm not. He worries about money.'
'But only incidentally,' said Madame Frabelle. 'Bruce is really worried about the war.'
'Naturally. But surely—I suppose we all are.'
'But Mr. Ottley takes it particularly to heart,' said Madame Frabelle, with a kind of touching dignity.
Edith looked at her in a little surprise. Why did she suddenly call Bruce 'your husband' or 'Mr. Ottley'?
'Why this distant manner, Eglantine?' said Edith, half laughing. 'I thought you always called him Bruce.'
'I beg your pardon; yes, I forgot. Well, don't you see, Edith dear, that what we might call his depression, his melancholy point of view, is—is growing worse and worse?'
Edith got up, walked to the other end of the room, rearranged some violets in a copper vase and came back to the sofa again. Madame Frabelle followed her with her eyes. Then Edith said, picking up the knitting:
'Take care, dear, you're losing your wool. Yes; perhaps he is worse. He might be better if he occupied his mind more.'
'He works at the Foreign Office from ten till four every day,' said Madame Frabelle in a tone of defence; 'he looks in at his club, where they talk over the news of the war, and then he comes home and we discuss it again.... Really, Edith, I scarcely see how much more he could do!'
'Oh, my dear, but don't you see all the time he doesn't do anything?—anything about the war, I mean. Now both you and I do our little best to help, in one way or another. You especially, I'm sure, do a tremendous lot; but what does Bruce do? Nothing, except talk.'
'That's just it, Edith. I doubt if your husband is in a fit state of health to strain his mind by any more work than he does already. He's not strong, dear; remember that.'
'Of course, I know; if he were all right he wouldn't be here,' said Edith.' I suppose he really does suffer a great deal.'
'What was it again that prevented him joining?' asked Madame Frabelle, with sympathetic tenderness.
'Neurotic heart,' answered Edith. Though she tried her very utmost she could not help the tone of her voice sounding a little dry and ironical. Of course, she did not in the least believe in Bruce's neurotic heart, but she did not want Madame Frabelle to know that.
'Ah! ah! that must cause him a great deal of pain, but I think so far his worst symptoms are his nervous fears. Look at last night,' continued Madame Frabelle, and now she put down her knitting and folded it into her work-basket.' Last night, because there was no moon, and it wasn't raining, and fairly clear, Mr Ott—Bruce had absolutely made up his mind there would be a Zeppelin raid. It was his own idea.'
'Not quite, dear. Young Coniston, who is a special constable, rang up and told him that there was a chance of the Zeppelins last night.'
'Well, perhaps so. At any rate he believed it. Well, instead of being satisfied when I told him that I had got out my mask, that I saw to the bath being left half-filled with water, helped your husband to put two large bags of sand outside his dressing-room—in spite of all that, do you know what happened in the middle of the night?'
'I'm afraid I don't,' said Edith. 'Since Archie went back to school I have had Dilly in my room, and we both slept soundly all night.'