"Heard the news?" the latter asked curtly. "No. Is there any?" was the quick reply.
"Tallente's broken the truce," Miller announced. "There was rather an acid debate on the Compensation Clauses of Hensham's Allotment Bill. Tallente pulled them to pieces and then challenged a division. The Government Whips were fairly caught napping and were beaten by twelve votes." Dartrey's eyes flashed.
"Tallente is a most wonderful tactician," he said. "This is the second time he's forced the Government into a hole. Horlock will never last the session, at this rate."
"There are rumours of a resignation, of course," Miller went on, "but they aren't likely to go out on a snatched division like this."
"We don't want them to," Dartrey agreed. "All the time, though, this sort of thing is weakening their prestige. We shall be ready to give them their coup de grace in about four months."
The two men were silent for a moment. Then Miller spoke again a little abruptly.
"I can't seem to get on with Tallente," he confessed.
"I am sorry," Dartrey regretted. "You'll have to try, Miller. We can't do without him."
"Try? I have tried," was the impatient rejoinder. "Tallente may have his points but nature never meant him to be a people's man. He's too hidebound in convention and tradition. Upon my soul, Dartrey, he makes me feel like a republican of the bloodthirsty age, he's so blasted superior!"
"You're going back to the smaller outlook, Miller," his chief expostulated. "These personal prejudices should be entirely negligible. I am perfectly certain that Tallente himself would lay no stress upon them."
"Stress upon them? Damn it, I'm as good as he is!" Miller exclaimed irritably. "There's no harm in Tallente's ratting, quitting his order and coming amongst us Democrats, but what I do object to is his bringing the mannerisms and outlook of Eton and Oxford amongst us. When I am with him, he always makes me feel that I am doing the wrong thing and that he knows it."
Dartrey frowned a little impatiently.
"This is rubbish, Miller," he pronounced. "It is you who are to blame for attaching the slightest importance to these trifles."
"Trifles!" Miller growled. "Within a very short time, Dartrey, this question will have to be settled. Does Tallente know that I am promised a seat in his Cabinet?"
"I think that he must surmise it."
"The sooner he knows, the better," Miller declared acidly. "Tallente can unbend all right when he likes. He was dining at the Trocadero the other night with Brooks and Ainley and Parker and Saunderson—the most cheerful party in the place. Tallente seemed to have slipped out of himself, and yet there isn't one of those men who has ever had a day's schooling or has ever worn anything but ready-made clothes. He leaves his starch off when he's with them. What's the matter with me, I should like to know? I'm a college man, even though I did go as an exhibitioner. I was a school teacher when those fellows were wielding pick-axes."
Dartrey looked at his companion thoughtfully. For a single moment the words trembled upon his lips which would have brought things to an instant and profitless climax. Then he remembered the million or so of people of Miller's own class and way of thinking, to whom he was a leading light, and he choked back the words.
"I find this sort of conversation a little peevish, Miller," he said. "As soon as any definite difference of opinion arises between you and Tallente, I will intervene. At present you are both doing good work. Our cause needs you both."
"You won't forget how I stand?" Miller persisted, as they reached their destination.
"No one has ever yet accused me of breaking my word," was the somewhat chilly rejoinder. "You shall have your pound of flesh."
Jane leaned back in her chair, drew off her gloves and looked around her with an appreciative smile. She had somehow the subtle air of being even more pleased with herself and her surroundings than she was willing to admit. Every table in the restaurant was occupied. The waiters were busy: there was an air of gaiety. A faint smell of cookery hung about the place and its clients were undeniably a curious mixture of the bourgeois and theatrical. Nevertheless, she was perfectly content and smiled her greetings to the great Monsieur George, who himself brought their menu.
"We want the best of your ordinary dishes," Tallente told him, "and remember that we do not come here expecting Ritz specialities or a Savoy chef d'oeuvre. We want those special hors d'oeuvres which you know all about, a sole grilled a la maison, a plainly roasted chicken with an endive salad. The sweets are your affair. The savoury must be a cheese souffle. And for wine—"
He broke off and looked across the table. Jane smiled apologetically.
"You will never bring me out again," she declared. "I want some champagne."
"I never felt more like it myself," he agreed. "The Pommery, George, slightly iced, an aperitif now, and the dinner can take its course. We will linger over the hors d'oeuvres and we are in no hurry."
George departed and Tallente smiled across at his companion. It was a wonderful moment, this. His steady success of the last few months, the triumph of the afternoon had never brought him one of the thrills which were in his pulses at that moment, not one iota of the pleasurable sense of well-being which was warming his veins. The new menace which had suddenly thrown its shadow across his path was forgotten. Governments might come or go, a career be made or broken upon the wheel. He was alone with Jane.
"Now tell me all the news at Woolhanger?" he asked.
"Woolhanger lies under a mantle of snow," she told him. "There is a wind blowing there which seems to have come straight from the ice of the North Pole and sounds like the devil playing bowls amongst the hills."
"All stopped, of course. A few nights ago, two stags came right up to the house and quite a troop of the really wild ponies from over Hawkbridge way. We've never had such a spell of cold in my memory. It reminded one of the snowstorm in 'Lorna Doone.'—But after all, I told you all about Woolhanger last night. I want your news."
"I seem to have settled down with the Democrats," he told her. "I do my best to keep the party in line. The great trades unions are, of course, our chief difficulty, but I think we are making progress even with them. Some of the miners' representatives dined with me at the Trocadero the other night. Good fellows they are, too. There is only one great difficulty," he went on, "in the consolidation of my party, and that is to get a little more breadth into the views of these men who represent the leading industries. They are obsessed with the duties that they owe to their own artificers and the labour connected with the particular industry they represent. It is hard to make them see the importance of any other subject. Yet we need these very men as lawmakers. I want them to study production and the laws of production from a universal point of view."
"I can quite understand," she acquiesced sympathetically, "that you have a difficult class of men to deal with. Tell me what the evening papers mean by their placards?"
"We had a small tactical success against the Government this afternoon," he explained. "It doesn't really amount to anything. We are not ready for their resignation at the moment, any more than they are ready to resign."
"You are an object of terror to all my people," she confided smilingly. "They say that Horlock dare not go to the country and that you could turn him out to-morrow if you cared to."
"So much for politics," he remarked drily.
"So much for politics," she assented. "And now about yourself?"
"A little finger of flame burning in an empty place," he sighed. "That is how life seems to me when I take my hand off the plough."
She answered him lightly, but her face softened and her eyes shone with sympathy.
"Aren't you by way of being just a little sentimental?"
"Perhaps," he admitted. "If I am, let me feel the luxury of it."
"One reads different things of you."
"Town Topics says that you have become an interesting figure at many social functions. You must meet attractive people there."
"I only wish that I could find them so," he answered. "London has been almost feverishly gay lately and every one seems to have discovered a vogue for entertaining politicians. There seems to be a sort of idea that dangerous corners may be rubbed off us by a judicious application of turtle soup and champagne."
"Cynic!" she scoffed pleasantly.
"Well, I don't know," he went on. "From any other point of view, some of the entertainments to which I have been bidden appear utterly without meaning. However, it is part of my programme to prove to the world that we Democrats can open our arms wide enough to include every class in life. Therefore, I go to many places I should otherwise avoid. I have studied the attitude of the younger women whom I have approached, purely impersonally and without the slightest hypersensitiveness. They have all been perfectly pleasant, perfectly disposed for conversation or any of the usual social amenities. But they know that I have in the background a wife. To flirt with a married man of fifty isn't worth while."
"It appears to me," she said, with a slight note of severity in her tone, "that you have set your mind upon having a perfectly frivolous time."
"Not at all," he objected. "I have simply been experimenting."
The service of dinner had now commenced, and with George in the background, a haughty head waiter a few yards off, and a myrmidon handing them their dishes with a beatific smile, the conversation drifted naturally into generalities. When they resumed their more intimate talk, Tallente felt himself inspired by an ever-increasing admiration for his companion and her adaptability. During this brief interval he had seen many admiring and some wondering glances directed towards Jane and he realised that she was somehow a person entirely apart from any of the others, more beautiful, more distinguished, more desirable. Of the Lady Jane ruling at Woolhanger with a high hand, there was no trace. She looked out upon the gay room with its voluptuous air, its many couples and little parties carrees, with the friendly and sympathetic interest of one who finds herself in agreeable surroundings and whose only desire is to come into touch with them. Her plain black gown, her simple hat with its single quill, the pearls which were her sole adornment, all seemed part of her. She appeared wholly unconscious of the admiration she excited. She who was sometimes inclined, perhaps, to carry herself a little haughtily in her mother's drawing-room, was here only anxious to share in the genial atmosphere of friendliness which the general tone of her surroundings seemed to demand.
"Well, what was the final result of your efforts towards companionship?" she enquired, after they had praised the chicken enthusiastically and the wave of service had momentarily ebbed kitchenwards.
"They have led me to only one conclusion," he answered swiftly.
"That if you remain on Exmoor and I in Westminster, the affairs of this country are not likely to prosper."
She laughed softly.
"As though I made any real' difference!"
Then she saw a transformed man. The firm mouth suddenly softened, the keen bright eyes glowed. A light shone out of his worn face which few had ever seen there.
"You make all the difference," he whispered. "You of your mercy can save me from the rocks. I have discovered very late in life, too late, many would say, that I cannot build the temples of life with hands and brain alone. Even though the time be short and I have so little to offer, I am your greedy suitor. I want help, I want sympathy, I want love."
There was nothing whatever left now of Lady Jane of Woolhanger. Segerson would probably not have recognised his autocratic mistress. The most timid of her tenant farmers would have adopted a bold front with her. She was simply a very beautiful woman, trembling a little, unsteady, nervous and unsure of herself.
"Oh, I wish you hadn't said that!" she faltered.
"But I must say it," he insisted, with that alien note of tenderness still throbbing in his tone. "You are not a dabbler in life. You have never been afraid to stand on your feet, to look at it whole. There is the solid, undeniable truth. It is a woman's glory to help men on to the great places, and the strangest thing in all the world is that there is only one woman for any one man, and for me—you are the only one woman."
Around them conversation had grown louder, the blue cloud of tobacco smoke more dense, the odour of cigarettes and coffee more pungent. Down in the street a wandering musician was singing a little Neapolitan love song. They heard snatches of it as the door downstairs was opened.
"You have known me for so short a time," she argued. "How can you possibly be sure that I could give you what you want? And in any case, how could I give anything except my eager wishes, my friendship—perhaps, if you will, my affection? But would that bring you content?"
"No!" he answered unhesitatingly. "I want your love, I want you yourself. You have played a woman's part in life. You haven't been content to sit down and wait for what fate might bring you. You have worked out your own destiny and you have shown that you have courage. Don't disprove it."
She looked him in the eyes, very sweetly, but with the shadow of a great disturbance in her face.
"I want to help you," she said. "Indeed, I feel more than you can believe—more than I could have believed possible—the desire, the longing to help. But what is there you can ask of me beyond my hand in yours, beyond all the comradeship which a woman who has more in her heart than she dare own, can give?"
Once more the door was opened below. The voice of the singer came floating up. Then it was closed again and the little passionate cry blotted out. His lips moved but he said nothing. It seemed suddenly, from the light in his face, that he might have been echoing those words which rang in her ears. She trembled and suddenly held her hand across the table.
"Hold my fingers," she begged. "These others will think that we have made a bet or a compact. What does it matter? I want to give you all that I can. Will you be patient? Will you remember that you have found your way along a very difficult path to a goal which no one yet has ever reached? I could tell you more but may not that be enough? I want you to have something to carry away with you, something not too cold, something that burns a little with the beginnings of life and love, and, if you will, perhaps hope. May that content you for a little while, for you see, although I am not a girl, these things, and thoughts of these things, are new to me?"
He drew a little breath. It seemed to him that there was no more beautiful place on earth than this little smoke-hung corner of the restaurant. The words which escaped from his lips were vibrant, tremulous.
"I am your slave. I will wait. There is no one like you in the world."
Tallente found a distant connection of his waiting for him in his rooms, on his return from the House at about half-past six,—Spencer Williams, a young man who, after a brilliant career at Oxford, had become one of the junior secretaries to the Prime Minister. The young man rose to his feet at Tallente's entrance and hastened to explain his visit.
"You'll forgive my waiting, sir," he begged. "Your servant told me that you were dining out and would be home before seven o'clock to change."
"Quite right, Spencer," Tallente replied. "Glad to see you. Whisky and soda or cocktail?"
The young man chose a whisky and soda, and Tallente followed suit, waving his visitor back into his chair and seating himself opposite.
"Get right into the middle of it, please," he enjoined.
"To begin with, then, can you break your engagement and come and dine with the Chief?"
"Out of the question, even if it were a royal command," was the firm reply. "My engagement is unbreakable."
"The Chief will be sorry," Williams said. "So am I. Will you go round to Downing Street and see him afterwards?"
"I could," Tallente admitted, "but why? I have nothing to say to him. I can't conceive what he could have to say to me. There are always pressmen loitering about Downing Street, who would place the wrong construction on my visit. You saw all the rubbish they wrote because he and I talked together for a quarter of an hour at Mrs. Van Fosdyke's?"
"I know all about that," Williams assented, "but this time, Tallente, there's something in it. The Chief quarrelled with you for the sake of the old gang. Well, he made a bloomer. The old gang aren't worth six-pence. They're rather a hindrance than help to legislation, and when they're wanted they're wobbly, as you saw this afternoon. Lethbridge went into the lobby with you."
Tallente smiled a little grimly.
"He took particularly good care that I should know that."
"Well, there you are," Williams went on. "The Chief's fed up. I can talk to you here freely because I'm not an official person. Can you discuss terms at all for a rapprochement?"
"Out of the question!"
"You mean that you are too much committed to Dartrey and the Democrats?"
"'Committed' to them is scarcely the correct way of putting it," Tallente objected. "Their principles are in the main my principles. They stand for the cause I have championed all my life. Our alliance is a natural, almost an automatic one."
"It's all very well, sir," Williams argued, "but Dartrey stands for a Labour Party, pure and simple. You can't govern an Empire by parish council methods."
"That is where the Democrats come in," Tallente pointed out. "They have none of the narrower outlook of the Labour Party as you understand it—of any of the late factions of the Labour Party, perhaps I should say. The Democrats possess an international outlook. When they legislate, every class will receive its proper consideration. No class will be privileged. A man will be ranked according to his production."
Williams smiled with the faint cynicism of clairvoyant youth.
"Sounds a little Utopian, sir," he ventured. "What about Miller?"
"Well, what about him?"
"Are you going to serve with him?"
"Really," Tallente protested, "for a political opponent, or the representative of a political opponent, you're a trifle on the inquisitive side."
"It's a matter that you'll have to face sometime or other," the young man asserted. "I happen to know that Dartrey is committed to Miller."
"I don't see how you can happen to know anything of the sort," Tallente declared, a little bluntly. "In any case, Spencer, my political association or nonassociation with Miller is entirely my own affair, and you can hook it. Remember me to all your people, and give my love to Muriel."
"Nothing doing, eh?" Williams observed, rising reluctantly to his feet.
"You have perception," Tallente replied.
"The Chief was afraid you might be a little difficult about an interview. Those pressmen are an infernal nuisance, anyway. What about sneaking into Downing Street at about midnight, in a cloak and slouch hat, eh?"
"Too much of the cinema about you, young fellow," Tallente scoffed. "Run along now. I have to dress."
Tallente held out his hand good-humouredly. His visitor made no immediate motion to take it.
"There was just one thing more I was asked to mention, sir," he said. "I will be quite frank if I may. My instructions were not to allude to it if your attitude were in the least conciliatory."
"Go on," Tallente bade him curtly.
"There has been a rumour going about that some years ago—while the war was on, in fact—you wrote a very wonderful attack upon the trades unions. This attack was so bitter in tone, so damning in some of its facts, and, in short, such a wonderful production, that at the last moment the late Prime Minister used his influence with you to suspend its publication. It was held over, and in the meantime the attitude of the trades unions towards certain phases of the war was modified, and the collapse of Germany followed soon afterwards. Consequently, that article was never published."
"You are exceedingly well informed," Tallente admitted. "Pray proceed."
"There is in existence," the young man continued, "a signed copy of that article. Its publication at the present moment would probably make your position with the Democratic Party untenable."
"Is this a matter of blackmail?" Tallente asked.
The young man stiffened.
"I am speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister, sir. He desired me to inform you that the signed copy of that article has been offered to him within the last few days."
Tallente was silent for several moments. The young man's subtle intimation was a shock in more ways than one.
"The manuscript to which you refer," he said at last, "was stolen from my study at Martinhoe under somewhat peculiar conditions."
"Perhaps you would like to explain those conditions to Mr. Horlock," Williams suggested.
Tallente held open the door.
"I shall not seek out your Chief," he said, "but I will tell him the truth about that manuscript if at any time we should come together. In the meantime, I am perfectly in accord with the view which your Chief no doubt holds concerning it. The publication of that article at the present moment would inevitably end my connection with the Democratic Party and probably close my political career. This is a position which I should court rather than submit to blackmail direct or indirect."
"My Chief will resent your using such a word, sir," Williams declared.
"Your Chief could have avoided it by a judicious use of the waste-paper basket and an exercise of the gift of silence." Tallente retorted, as the young man took his departure.
Horlock came face to face with Tallente the following afternoon, in one of the corridors of the House and, scarcely troubling about an invitation, led him forcibly into his private room. He turned his secretary out and locked the door.
"A cigar?" he suggested.
Tallente shook his head.
"I want to see what's doing, in a few minutes," he said.
"I can tell you that," Horlock declared. "Nothing at all! I was just off when I happened to see you. You're looking very fit and pleased with yourself. Is it because of that rotten trick you played on us the other day?"
"Rotten? I thought it was rather clever of me," Tallente objected.
"Perfectly legitimate, I suppose," the other assented grudgingly. "That's the worst of having a tactician in opposition."
"You shouldn't have let me get there," was the quick retort.
Horlock drew a paper knife slowly down between his fingers.
"I sent Williams to you yesterday."
"You did. A nice errand for a respectably brought-up young man!"
"Chuck that, Tallente."
"Why? I didn't misunderstand him, did I?"
"Apparently. He told me that you used the word 'blackmail.'"
"I don't think the dictionary supplies a milder equivalent."
"Tallente," said Horlock with a frown, "we'll finish with this once and for ever. I refused the offer of the manuscript in question."
"I am glad to hear it," was the laconic reply.
"Leaving that out of the question, then, I suppose there's no chance of your ratting?"
"Not the faintest. I rather fancy I've settled down for good."
Horlock lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair.
"No good looking impatient, Tallente," he said. "The door's locked and you know it. You'll have to listen to what I want to say. A few minutes of your time aren't much to ask for."
"Go ahead," Tallente acquiesced.
"There is only one ambition," Horlock continued, "for an earnest politician. You know what that is as well as I do. Wouldn't you sooner be Prime Minister, supported by a recognised and reputable political party, than try to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for your friends Dartrey, Miller and company?"
"So this is the last bid, eh?" Tallente observed.
"It's the last bid of all," was the grave answer. "There is nothing more."
"And what becomes of you?"
"One section of the Press will say that I have shown self-denial and patriotism greater than any man of my generation and that my name will be handed down to history as one of the most single-minded statesmen of the day. Another section will say that I have been forced into a well-deserved retirement and that it will remain a monument to my everlasting disgrace that I brought my party to such straits that it was obliged to compromise with the representative of an untried and unproven conglomeration of fanatics. A third section—"
"Oh, chuck it!" Tallente interrupted. "Horlock, I appreciate your offer because I know that there is a large amount of self-denial in it, but I am glad of an opportunity to end all these discussions. My word is passed to Dartrey."
"And Miller?" the Prime Minister asked, with calm irony.
Tallente felt the sting and frowned irritably.
"I have had no discussions of any sort with Miller," he answered. "He has never been represented to me as holding an official position in the party."
"If you ever succeed in forming a Democratic Government," Horlock said, "mark my words, you will have to include him."
"If ever I accept any one's offer to form a Government," Tallente replied, "it will be on one condition and one condition only, which is that I choose my own Ministers."
"If you become the head of the Democratic Party," Horlock pointed out, "you will have to take over their pledges."
"I do not agree with you," was the firm reply, "and further, I suggest most respectfully that this discussion is not agreeable to me."
An expression of hopelessness crept into Horlock's face.
"You're a good fellow, Tallente," he sighed, "and I made a big mistake when I let you go. I did it to please the moderates and you know how they've turned out. There isn't one of them worth a row of pins. If any one ever writes my political biography, they will probably decide that the parting with you was the greatest of my blunders."
He rose to his feet, swinging the key upon his finger.
"One more word, Tallente," he added. "I want to warn you that so far as your further progress is concerned, there is a snake in the grass somewhere. The manuscript of which Williams spoke to you, and which would of course damn you forever with any party which depended for its existence even indirectly upon the trades unions, was offered to me, without any hint at financial return, on the sole condition that I guaranteed its public production. It is perfectly obvious, therefore, that there is some one stirring who means harm. I speak to you now only as a friend and as a well-wisher. Did I understand Williams to say that the document was stolen from your study at Martinhoe?"
"It was stolen," Tallente replied, "by my secretary, Anthony Palliser, who disappeared with it one night in August."
"'Disappeared' seems rather a vague term," Horlock remarked.
"A trifle melodramatic, I admit," Tallente assented. "So were the circumstances of his—disappearance. I can assure you that I have had the police inspector of fiction asking me curious questions and I am convinced that down in Devonshire I am still an object of suspicion to the local gossips."
"I remember reading about the affair at the time," Horlock remarked, as he unlocked the door. "It never occurred to me, though, to connect it with anything of this sort. Surely Palliser was a cut above the ordinary blackmailer?"
Tallente shrugged his shoulders. "A confusion of ethics," he said. "I dare say you remember that the young man conspired with my wife to boost me into a peerage behind my back However!—"
"One last word, Tallente," Horlock interrupted. "I am not at liberty to tell you from what source the offer as to your article came, but I can tell you this—Palliser was not or did not appear to be connected with it in any way."
"But I know who was," Tallente exclaimed, with a sudden lightning-like recollection of that meeting on the railway platform at Woody Bay.—"Miller!"
Horlock made no answer. To his visitor, however, the whole affair was now clear.
"Miller must have bought the manuscript from Palliser," he said, "when he knew what sort of an offer Dartrey was going to make to me and realised how it would affect him. Horlock, I am not sure, after all, that I don't rather envy you if you decide to drop out of politics. The main road is well enough, but the by-ways are pretty filthy."
Horlock remained gravely silent and Tallente passed out of the room, realising that he had finally severed his connection with orthodox English politics. The realisation, however, was rather more of a relief than otherwise. For fifteen years he had been cumbered with precedent in helping to govern by compromise. Now he was for the clean sweep or nothing. He strolled into the House and back into his own committee room, read through the orders of the day and spoke to the Government Whip. It was, as Horlock had assured him, a dead afternoon. There were a sheaf of questions being asked, none of which were of the slightest interest to any one. With a little smile of anticipation upon his lips, he hurried to the telephone. In a few moments he was speaking to Annie, Lady Jane's maid.
"Will you give her ladyship a message?" he asked. "Tell her that I am unexpectedly free for an hour or so, and ask if I may come around and see her?" The maid was absent from the telephone for less than a minute. When she returned, her message was brief but satisfactory. Her ladyship would be exceedingly pleased to see Mr. Tallente.
Tallente found a taxi on the stand and drove at once to Charles Street. The butler took his hat and stick and conducted him into the spacious drawing-room upon the first floor. Here he received a shock. The most natural thing in the world had happened, but an event which he had never even taken into his calculation. There were half a dozen other callers, all, save one, women. Jane saw his momentary look of consternation, but was powerless to send him even an answering message of sympathy. She held out her hand and welcomed him with a smile.
"This is perfectly charming of you, Mr. Tallente," she said. "I know how busy you must be in the afternoons, but I am afraid I am old-fashioned enough to like my men friends to sometimes forget even the affairs of the nation. You know my sister, I think—Lady Alice Mountgarron? Aunt, may I present Mr. Tallente—the Countess of Somerham. Mrs. Ward Levitte—Lady English—oh! and Colonel Fosbrook."
Tallente made the best of a very disappointing situation. He exchanged bows with his new acquaintances, declined tea and was at once taken possession of by Lady Somerham, a formidable-looking person in tortoise-shell-rimmed spectacles, with a rasping voice and a judicial air.
"So you are the Mr. Tallente," she began, "who Somerham tells me has achieved the impossible!"
"Upon the face of it," Tallente rejoined, with a smile, "your husband is proved guilty of an exaggeration."
"Poor Henry!" his wife sighed. "He does get a little hysterical about politics nowadays. What he says is that you are in a fair way to form a coherent and united political party out of the various factions of Labour, a thing which a little time ago no one thought possible."
Tallente promptly disclaimed the achievement.
"Stephen Dartrey is the man who did that," he declared. "I only joined the Democrats a few months ago."
"But you are their leader," Lady Alice put in.
"Only in the House of Commons," Tallente replied.
"Dartrey is the leader of the party."
"Somerham says that Dartrey is a dreamer," the Countess went on, "that you are the man of affairs and the actual head of them all."
"Your husband magnifies my position," Tallente assured her.
Mrs. Ward Levitte, the wife of a millionaire and a woman of vogue, leaned forward and addressed him.
"Do set my mind at rest, Mr. Tallente," she begged. "Are you going to break up our homes and divide our estates amongst the poor?"
"Is there going to be a revolution?" Lady English asked eagerly. "And is it true that you are in league with all the Bolshevists on the continent?"
Tallente masked his irritation and answered with a smile.
"Civil war," he declared, "commences to-morrow. Every one with a title is to be interned in an asylum, all country houses are to be turned into sanatoriums and all estates will be confiscated."
"The tiresome man won't tell us anything," Lady Alice sighed.
"Of course, he won't," Mrs. Ward Levitte observed. "You can't announce a revolution beforehand truthfully."
"If there is a revolution within the next fifteen years," Tallente said, "I think it will probably be on behalf of the disenfranchised aristocracy, who want the vote back again."
Lady English and Mrs. Levitte found something else to talk about between themselves. Lady Somerham, however, had no intention of letting Tallente escape.
"You are a neighbour of my niece in Devonshire, I believe?" she asked.
He admitted the fact monosyllabically. He was supremely uncomfortable, and it seemed to him that Jane, who was conducting an apparently entertaining conversation with Colonel Fosbrook, might have done something to rescue him.
"My niece has very broad ideas," Lady Somerham went on. "Some of her fellow landowners in Devonshire are very much annoyed with the way she has been getting rid of her property."
"Lady Jane," he pronounced drily, "is in my opinion very wise. She is anticipating the legislation to come, which will inevitably restore the land to the people, from whom, in most cases, it was stolen."
"Well, my husband gave two hundred thousand pounds of good, hard-earned money for Stoughton, where we live," Mrs. Ward Levitte intervened. "So far as I know, the money wasn't stolen from anybody, and I should say that the robbery would begin if the Socialists, or whatever they call themselves, tried to take it away from us to distribute amongst their followers. What do you think, Mr. Tallente? My husband, as I dare say you know, is a banker and a very hard-working man."
"I agree with you," he replied. "One of the pleasing features of the axioms of Socialism adopted by the Democratic Party is that it respects the rights of the wealthy as well as the rights of the poor man. The Democrats may—in fact, they most certainly will—legislate to prevent the hoarding of wealth or to have it handed down to unborn generations, but I can assure you that it does not propose to interfere with the ethics of meum and tuum."
"I wish I could make out what it's all about," Lady Alice murmured.
"Couldn't you give a drawing-room lecture, Mr. Tallente, and tell us?" the banker's wife suggested.
"I am unfortunately a little short of time for such missionary enterprise," Tallente replied, with unappreciated sarcasm. "Dartrey's volume on 'Socialism in Our Daily Life' will tell you all about it." "Far too dry," she sighed. "I tried to read it but I never got past the first half-dozen pages."
"Some day," Tallente observed coolly, "it may be worth your while, all of you, to try and master the mental inertia which makes thought a labour; the application which makes a moderately good bridge player should be sufficient. Otherwise, you may find yourselves living in an altered state of Society, without any reasonable idea as to how you got there." Mrs. Ward Levitte turned to her hostess.
"Lady Jane," she begged, "come and rescue us, please. We are being scolded. Colonel Fosbrook, we need a man to protect us. Mr. Tallente is threatening us with terrible things."
"We're getting what we asked for," Lady Alice put in quickly.
Colonel Fosbrook caressed for a moment a somewhat scanty moustache. He was a man of early middle-age, with a high forehead, an aquiline nose and a somewhat vague expression.
"I'm afraid my protection wouldn't be much use to you," he said, regarding Tallente with mild interest. "I happen to be one of the few surviving Tories. I imagine that Mr. Tallente's opinions and mine are so far apart that even argument would be impossible."
Tallente acquiesced, smiling.
"Besides which, I never argue, outside the House," he added. "You should stand for Parliament, Colonel Fosbrook, and let us hear once more the Athanasian Creed of politics. All opposition is wholesome."
Colonel Fosbrook glared. The fact that he had three times stood for Parliament and three times been defeated was one of the mortifications of his life. He made his adieux to Jane and departed, and to Tallente's joy a break-up of the party seemed imminent. Mrs. Ward Levitte drifted out and Lady English followed suit. Lady Somerham also rose to her feet, but after a glance at Tallente sat down again.
"My dear Jane," she insisted, "you must dine with us to-night. You haven't been here long enough to have any engagements, and it always puts your uncle in such a good temper to hear that you are coming."
Jane shook her head.
"Sorry, aunt," she regretted, "but I am dining with the Temperleys. I met Diana in Bond Street this morning."
"I am keeping Thursday for—a friend. Saturday I am free."
"Saturday we are going into the country," her aunt said, a little ungraciously. "Heaven knows what for! Your uncle hates shooting and always catches cold if he gets his feet wet."
Tallente unwillingly held out his hand to his hostess. He seemed to have no alternative but to make his adieux. Jane walked with him towards the door.
"I am horribly disappointed," he confessed, under his breath.
She smiled a little deprecatingly.
"I couldn't help having people here, could I?"
"I suppose not," he answered, with masculine unreasonableness. "I only know that I wanted to see you alone."
"Men are such schoolboys," she murmured tolerantly. "Even you! I must see my friends, mustn't I, when they know that I am here and call?"
"About that friend on Thursday night?" he went on.
"I am waiting to hear from him," she answered, "whether he prefers to dine here or to take me out."
His ill-humour vanished, and with it some of his stiffness of bearing. His farewell bow from the door to Lady Somerham was distinguished with a new affability.
"If we may be alone," he said softly, "I should like to come here."
Nevertheless, his visit left him a little disturbed, perhaps a little irritable. With all the dominant selfishness which is part of a man's love, he had spent every waking leisure moment since their last meeting in a world peopled by Jane and himself alone, a world in which any other would have been an intruder. His eagerly anticipated visit to her had brought him sharply up against the commonplace facts of their day-by-day existence. He began to realise that she was without the liberty accorded to his sex, or to such women as Nora Miall, whose emancipation was complete. Jane's way through life was guarded by a hundred irritating conventions. He began to doubt even whether she realised the full import of what had happened between them. There was nothing gross about his love, not even a speculation in his mind as to its ultimate conclusion. He was immersed in a wave of sentimentality. He wanted her by his side, free from any restraint. He wanted the joy of her presence, more of those soft, almost reluctant kisses, the mute obedience of her nature to the sweet and natural impulse of her love. Of the inevitable end of these things he never thought. He was like a schoolboy in love for the first time. His desires led him no further than the mystic joy of her presence, the sweet, passionless content of propinquity. For the time the rest lay somewhere in a world of golden promise. The sole right that he burned to claim was the right to have her continually by his side in the moments when he was freed from his work, and even with the prospect of the following night before him, he chafed a little as he reflected that until then he must stand aside and let others claim her. In a fit of restlessness he abandoned his usual table in the House of Commons grillroom, and dined instead at the Sheridan Club, where he drank a great deal of champagne and absorbed with ready appreciation and amusement the philosophy of the man of pleasure. This was one of the impulses which kept his nature pliant even in the midst of these days of crisis.
Whilst Tallente was trying to make up for the years of pleasant good-fellowship which his overstudious life had cost him and to recover touch with the friends of his earlier days, Stephen Dartrey, filled with a queer sense of impending disaster, was climbing the steps to Nora's flat. On the last landing he lingered for a moment and clenched his fingers.
"I am a coward," he reflected sadly. "I have asked for this and it has come."
He stood for a moment perfectly still, with half-closed eyes, seeking for self-control very much in the fashion of a man who says a prayer to himself. Then he climbed the last few stairs, rang the bell and held out both his hands to Nora, who answered it herself.
"Commend my punctuality," he began.
"Why call attention to the one and only masculine virtue?" she replied. "Let me take your coat."
He straightened his tie in front of the looking-glass and turned to look at her with something like wonder in his eyes.
"Dear hostess," he exclaimed, "what has come to you?"
"An epoch of vanity," she declared, turning slowly around that he might appreciate better the clinging folds of her new black gown. "Don't dare to say that you don't like it, for heaven only knows what it cost me!"
"It isn't only your gown—it's your hair."
"Coiffured," she confided, "by an artist. Not an ordinary hairdresser at all. He only works for a few of our aristocracy and one or two leading ladies on the stage. I pulled it half down and built it up again, but it's an improvement, isn't it?"
"It suits you," he admitted. "But—but your colour!"
"Natural—absolutely natural," she insisted. "You can wet your finger and try if you like. It's excitement. If you look into the depths of my wonderful eyes—I have got wonderful eyes, haven't I?"
"You will see that I am suffering from suppressed excitement. To-night is quite an epoch. To tell you the truth, I am rather nervous about it."
"Is he here?"
"You shall see him presently," she promised. "Come along."
"Where is Susan?" he asked, as he followed her.
"Gone out. So has my maid. I had a fancy to turn every one else out of the flat. Your only hot course will be from a chafing-dish. You see, I am anxious to impress—him—with my culinary skill. I hope you will like your dinner, but it will be rather a picnic."
Dartrey glanced back at the hall stand. There was no hat or coat there except his own. He followed Nora into the little study, which was separated only by a curtain from the dining room.
"I think your idea is excellent," he pronounced. "And you will forgive me," he added, producing the parcel which he had been carrying under his arm. "See what I have brought to drink your health and his, even if he does not know yet the good fortune in store for him."
He set down a bottle of champagne upon the table. She laughed softly.
"You dear man!" she exclaimed. "Fancy your thinking of it! I thought you scarcely ever touched wine?"
"I am not a crank," he replied. "Sometimes my guests have told me that I have quite a reasonably good cellar for a man who takes so little himself. To-night I am going to drink a glass of champagne."
"Pommery!" she exclaimed. "I hope you'll be able to open it."
"That shall be my task," he promised. "You needn't worry about flippers. I have some in my pocket. And by the by," he added, glancing at the clock, "where is your other guest? It is ten minutes past eight, and I can hear your chafing-dish sizzling."
She threw back the curtain and took his arm. The table was laid for two. He looked at it in bewilderment and then back at her.
"He has disappointed you?"
She smiled up at him.
"He has disappointed me many, many times," she said, "but not to-night."
"I don't—understand," he faltered.
"I think you do," she answered.
He took the chair opposite to hers. The chafing-dish was between them. He was filled with a curious sense of unreality. It was a little scene, this, out of a story or a play. It didn't actually concern him. It wasn't Nora who sat within a few feet of him, bending down over the chafing-dish and stirring its contents vigorously.
"Of course," she said, "I am perfectly well aware that this is an anti-climax. I am perfectly well aware, too, that you will have a most uncomfortable dinner. You won't know what to say to me and you'll be dying all the time to look in your calendar and see if this is leap year. But even we working women sometimes," she went on, smiling bravely up at him, "have whims. I had a whim, Stephen, to let you know that I am very stupidly fond of you, and although it isn't your fault and I expect nothing from you except that you do not alter our friendship, you just stand in the way whenever I think of marrying any one."
Perhaps because speech seemed so inadequate, Dartrey said nothing. He sat looking at her with a queer emotion in his soft, studious eyes, drumming a little on the table with his finger tips, not quite sure what it meant that his heart was beating like a young man's and a queer sensation of happiness was stealing through his whole being.
"Nothing in the world," he murmured, "could alter our friendship."
"What you see before you," she went on, "is an oyster stew. The true hostess, you see, studying her guest's special tastes. It is very nearly cooked and if you do not pronounce it the most delicious thing you ever ate in your life, I shall be terribly disappointed."
Dartrey sat as still as a man upon whom some narcotic influence rested, and his words sounded almost unnatural.
"I am convinced," he assured her, "that I shall be able to gratify you."
"What you get afterwards you see upon the sideboard: cold partridges—both young birds though—ham, salad of my own mixing, and, behold! my one outburst of extravagance—strawberries. There is also a camembert cheese lying in ambush outside because of its strength. I would suggest that during the three minutes which will ensue before I serve you with the stew, you open the champagne. You are so dumbfounded at my audacity that perhaps a little exercise will be good for you."
Dartrey rose to his feet, produced the corkscrew and found the cork amenable. He filled Nora's glass and his own. Then he leaned over her and took her hand for a moment. His face was full of kindness and he was curiously disturbed.
"You are the dearest child on earth, Nora," he said. "I find myself wishing from the bottom of my heart that it were possible that you could be—something nearer and dearer to me."
She looked feverishly into his face and pushed him away.
"Go and sit down and don't be absurd," she enjoined. "Try and forget everything else except that you are going to eat an oyster stew. That is really the way to take life, isn't it—in cycles—and it doesn't matter then whether one's happy times are bounded by the coming night or the coming years. For five minutes, then, a paradise—of oyster stew."
"It is distinctly the best oyster stew I have ever tasted in my life," he pronounced a few minutes later.
"It is very good indeed," she assented. "Now your turn comes. Go to the sideboard and bring me something. Remember that I am hungry and don't forget the salad. And tell me, incidentally, whether you have heard anything of a rumour going around about Andrew Tallente?"
He served her and himself and resumed his seat.
"A rumour?" he repeated. "No, I have heard nothing. What sort of a rumour?"
"A vague but rather persistent one," she replied. "They say that it is in the power of certain people—to drive him out of political life at any moment."
Dartrey's smile was sufficiently contemptuous but there was a note of anxiety in his tone which he could not altogether conceal.
"These canards are very absurd, Nora," he declared. "The politician is the natural quarry of the blackmailer, but I should think no man of my acquaintance has lived a more blameless life than Andrew Tallente."
"I will tell you in what form the story came to me," she said. "It was from a journalist on the staff of one of our great London dailies. The rumour was that they had been indirectly approached to know if they would pay a large sum for a story, perfectly printable, but which would drive Tallente out of political life."
"Do you know the name of the newspaper?" he asked eagerly.
"I was told," Nora answered, "but under the most solemn abjuration of secrecy. You ought to be able to guess it, though. Then a woman whom I met in the Lyceum Chub this afternoon asked me outright if there was any truth in certain rumours about Tallente, so people must be talking about it."
The cloud lingered on Dartrey's face. He ate and drank in his usual sparing fashion, silently and apparently wrapped in thought. From the other side of the pink-shaded lamp which stood in the middle of the table, Nora watched him with a curious, almost a sardonic sadness in her clear eyes. An hour ago she had looked at herself in the mirror and had been startled at what she saw. The lines of her black gown, the most extravagant purchase of her life, had revealed the beauty of her soft and shapely figure. Her throat and bosom had seemed so dazzlingly white, her hair so rich and glossy, her eyes full of the hope, the softness, almost the anticipatory joy of the woman who has everything to offer to the one man in her life. She had felt as she had looked: almost a girl, with music on her lips and joyous things in her heart, nursing that wonderful gift to her sex,—the hopeless optimism begotten of love. And her little house of cards had tumbled so quickly to the ground, the little denouement on which she had counted had fallen so flat. They two were there alone. The little dinner which she had planned was as near perfection as possible. The champagne bubbled in their glasses. The soft light, the solitude, the stillness,—nothing had failed her, except the man. Stephen sat within a few feet of her, with furrowed brow and mind absorbed by a possible political problem.
Nora made coffee at the table, but they drank it seated in great easy chairs drawn up to the fire. She passed him silently a box of his favourite brand of cigarettes. Perhaps that evidence of her forethought, the mute resignation of her restrained conversation with its attempted note of cheerfulness forced its way through the chinks of his unnatural armour. His whole face suddenly softened. He leaned across and took her fingers into his.
"Dear Nora," he sighed, "what a brute I must seem to you and how difficult it is for me to try and tell you all that is in my heart!"
"All tasks that are worth attempting are difficult," she murmured. "Please go on."
"They are such simple things that I feel," he began, "simple and yet contradictory. I should miss you more out of my life than any other person. I shall resent from my very soul the man who takes you from me. And yet I know what life is, dear. I know how inexorable are its decrees. You have a fancy for me, born of kindness and sympathy, because you know that I am a little lonely. In our thoughts, too, we live so much in the same world. That is just one of the ironies of life, Nora. Our thoughts can move linked together through all the flowery and beautiful places of the world, but our bodies—alas, dear! Do you know how old I really am?"
"I know how young you are," she answered, with a little choke in her throat.
"I am fifty-four years old," he went on. "I am in the last lap of physical well-being, even though my mind should continue to flourish. And you are—how much younger! I dare not think."
"Idiot!" she exclaimed. "At fifty-four you are better and stronger than half the men of forty."
"I have good health," he admitted, "but no constitution or manner of living is of any account against the years. In six years' time I shall be sixty years old."
She leaned a little towards him. Now once more the light was coming back into her eyes. If that was the only thing with him!
"In twelve years' time from now," she said, "I, too, shall turn over a chapter, the chapter of my youth. What is time but a relative thing? Who shall measure your six years against my twelve? The years that count in the life of a man or a woman are the measure of their happiness."
She glided from her chair and sank on her knees beside him. Her lips pleaded. He took her gently, far too gently, into his arms.
"Dear Nora," he begged, "be kind to me. It is for your sake. I know what love should mean for you, what it must mean for every sweet woman. You see only the present. It is my hard task to look into the future for you."
"Can't you understand," she whispered feverishly, "that I would rather have that six years of your life, and its aftermath, than an eternity with any other man? Bend down your head, Stephen."
Her hands were clasped around his neck, her lips forced his. For a moment they remained so, while the room swam around her and her heart throbbed like a mad thing. Then she slowly unlocked her arms and drew away. As though unconscious of what she was doing, she found herself rubbing her lips softly with her handkerchief. She threw herself back in her chair a little recklessly.
"Very well, Stephen," she said, "you know your heart best. Drink your coffee and I'll be sensible again directly."
To his horror she was shaken with sobs. He would have consoled her, but she motioned him away.
"Dear Stephen," she pleaded, "I am sorry—to be such a fool—but this thing has lived with me a long time, and—would you go away? It would be kindest."
He rose to his feet, hesitated for one moment of agony, then crossed the room with a farewell glance at the sad little feast. He closed the door softly behind him, descended the stairs and stood for a moment in the entrance hall, looking out upon the street. A cheerless, drizzling rain was falling. The streets were wet and swept with a cold wind. He looked up and down, thought out the way to his club and shivered, thought out in misery the way back to Chelsea, the turning of his latch-key, the darkened rooms. The house opposite was brilliantly lit up. They seemed to be dancing there and the music of violins floated out into the darkness. Even as he stood there, he felt the bands of self-control weaken about him. A vision of the cold, grey days ahead terrified him. He was pitting his brain against his heart. Lives had been wrecked in that fashion. Philosophy, as the years creep on, is but a dour consolation. He saw himself with the jewel of life in his hand, prepared to cast it away. He turned around and ran up the stone steps, light-hearted and eager as a boy. Nora heard the door open and raised her head. On the threshold stood Stephen, transformed, rejuvenated, the lover shining out of his eyes, the look in his face for which she had prayed. He came towards her, speechless save for one little cry that ended like a sob in his throat, took her into his arms tenderly but fiercely, held her to him while the unsuspected passion of his lips brought paradise into the room.
"You care?" she faltered. "This is not pity?"
He held her to him till she almost swooned. The restraint of so many years was broken down.
"Must I, after all, be the teacher?" he asked passionately, as their lips met again. "Must I show you what love is?"
Tallente was seated at breakfast a few mornings later when his wife paid him an unexpected visit. She responded to his greeting with a cold nod, refused the coffee which he offered her and the easy-chair which he pushed forward to the fire.
"I got your letter, Andrew," she said, "in which you proposed to call upon me this afternoon. I am leaving town. I am on my way back to New York, as a matter of fact, and I shall have left the hotel by midday, so you see I have come to visit you instead."
"It is very kind," he answered.
She shrugged her shoulders and looked disparagingly around the plainly furnished man's sitting room.
"Not much altered here," she remarked. "It looks just as it did when I used to come to tea with you before we were married."
"The neighbourhood is a conservative one," he replied. "Still, I must confess that I am glad I never gave the rooms up. I don't think that nature intended me to dwell in palaces."
"Perhaps not," she agreed, a little insolently. "It is a habit of yours to think and live parochially. Now what did you want of me, please?"
"There is a scheme on foot," he began, "to bring about my political ruin."
"You don't mean to tell me," she exclaimed, with a sudden light in her eyes, "that you, my well-behaved Andrew, have been playing around? You are not going to be a corespondent or any-thing of that sort?"
"I used the word 'political,'" he reminded her coldly. "You would not understand the situation, but its interest and my danger centres round a certain document which was stolen from my study at Martinhoe on or just before the day of my arrival from London last August."
"How dull!" she murmured.
"That document," he went on, "was purloined by Anthony Palliser from the safe in my study. It was either upon him when he disappeared, or he disposed of it on the afternoon of my arrival to a political opponent of mine—James Miller."
"I had so hoped there was a lady in the case," she yawned.
"If you will give me your attention for one moment longer," he begged, "it will be all I ask. I want you to tell me, first of all, whether James Miller called at the Manor that afternoon and saw Palliser, whether any one called who might have been helping him, or—"
"Whether you have heard anything of Palliser since his disappearance?"
She looked at him hardly.
"You have brought me here to answer these questions?"
"Pardon me," he reminded her, "your coming was entirely your own idea."
"But why should you expect that I should give you information?" she demanded. "You refused to give me the thing I wanted more than anything in life and you have thrown me off like an old glove. If you are threatened with what you call political ruin, why on earth should I intervene to prevent it?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"You take a severe and I venture to believe a prejudiced view of the situation between us," he replied. "I never promised you that I would make you a peeress. Such a thing never entered into my head. Every pledge I made to you when we were married, I kept. You cannot say the same."
"The man's point of view, I suppose," she scoffed. "Well, I'll tell you what I know, in exchange for a little piece of information from you, which is—what do you know about Anthony Palliser's disappearance?"
He was silent for several moments. The frown on his forehead deepened.
"Your very question," he observed, "answers one of the queries which have been troubling me."
"I have no objection to telling you," she said, "that since that night I have neither seen nor heard of Palliser."
"What happened that night was simple," Tallente explained calmly; "perhaps you would call it primitive. You left the room. I beckoned Palliser to follow me outside. The car was still in the avenue and the servants were taking my luggage in. The spot where we stood on the terrace, too, was exactly underneath your window. I took him by the arm and I led him along the little path towards the cliff. When we came to the open space by the wall, I let him go. I asked him if he had anything to say. He had nothing. I thrashed him."
Tallente raised his eyebrows.
"Palliser was twenty years younger than I and of at least equal build and strength," he said. "It was not my fault that he seemed unable to defend himself."
"But his disappearance—tell me about that?"
"We were within a few feet of the edge of the cliff. I struck him harder, Perhaps, than I had intended, and he went over. I stood there and hooked down, but I could see nothing. I heard the crashing of some bushes, and after that—silence. I even called out to him, but there was no reply. Some time later, Robert and I searched the cliff and the bay below for his body. We discovered nothing."
"It was high tide that night!" she cried. "You know very well that he must have been drowned!"
"I have answered your question," Tallente replied quietly.
There was a cold fury in her eyes. The veins seemed to stand out on her clenched, worn hands. She looked at him with all the suppressed passion of a creature impotent yet fiercely anxious to strike.
"I shall give information," she cried. "You shall be charged with his murder!"
Tallente shook his head.
"You will waste your time, Stella," he said. "For one thing, a woman may not give evidence against her husband. Another thing, there cannot very well be a charge for murder unsupported by the production of the body. And for a third thing, I should deny the whole story."
Her fury abated, though the hate in her eyes remained.
"I think," she declared, "that you are the most coldblooded creature I ever knew."
The irony of the situation gripped at him. He rose suddenly to his feet, filled with an overwhelming desire to end it.
"Stella," he said, "to me you always seemed, especially during our last few years together, cold and utterly indifferent. I know now that I was mistaken. In your way you cared for Palliser. You starved me. My own fault, you would say? Perhaps. But listen. There is a way into every man's heart and a way into every woman's, but sometimes that way lies hidden except to the one right person, and you weren't the right person for me, and I wasn't the right person for you. Now answer the rest of my question and let us part."
"Tell me," she asked, with almost insolent irony, "do you believe that there could ever have been a right person for you?"
"My God, yes!" he answered, with a sudden fire. "I suffer the tortures of the damned sometimes because I missed my chance! There! I'm telling you this just so that you shall think a little differently, if you can. You and I between us have made an infernal mess of things. It was chiefly my fault. And as regards Palliser—well, I am sorry. Only the fellow—he may have been lovable to you, but he was a coward and a sneak to me—and he paid. I am sorry."
She seemed a little dazed.
"You mean to tell me, Andrew," she persisted, "that there is really some one you care for, care for in the big way—a woman who means as much to you as your place in Parliament—your ambition?"
"More," he declared vigorously. "There isn't a single thing I have or ever have had in life which I wouldn't give for the chance—just a chance—"
"And she cares for you?"
"I think that she would," he answered. "She has been brought up in a very old-fashioned school. She knows of you."
Stella smiled a little bitterly.
"Well," she said, "I suppose I am a brute, but I am glad to know that you can suffer. I hope you will suffer; it makes you seem more human anyhow. But in return for your confidence I will answer the other part of your question. The man Miller was at the Manor that afternoon. Palliser confessed to me that he had given him some important document."
"Well, sold him, then. Tony hadn't got a shilling in the world and he would never take a halfpenny from me. He had to have money. He told me about it that night before you came. Miller gave him five thousand pounds for it—secret service money from one of the branches of his party. Now you know all about it."
"Yes, I know all about it," Tallente assented, a little bitterly. "You can take your trip to America without a single regret, Stella. I shall certainly never be a Cabinet Minister again, much less Prime Minister of England. Miller can use those papers to my undoing."
She shrugged her shoulders as she turned towards the door.
"You are like the fool," she said, "who tried to build the tower of his life without cement. All very well for experiments, Andrew, when one is young and one can rebuild, but you are a little old for that now, aren't you, and all your brain and all your efforts, and every thought you have been capable of since the day I met you have been given to that one thing. You'll find it a little difficult to start all over again.—Don't—trouble. I know the way down and I have a car waiting. You must take up golf and make a water garden at Martinhoe. I don't know whether you deserve that I should wish you good fortune. I can't make up my mind. But I will—and good-by!"
She left him in the end quite suddenly. He had not even time to open the door for her. Tallente looked out of the window and watched her drive away. His feelings were in a curiously numb state. For Stella he had no feeling whatever. Her confirmation of Palliser's perfidy had awakened in him no new resentment. Only in a vague way he began to realise that his forebodings of the last few days were founded upon a reality. Whether Palliser lived or was dead, it was too late for him to undo the mischief he had done.
Tallente took up the receiver and asked for Dartrey's number. In half an hour he was on his way to see him.
Tallente had the surprise of his life when he was shown into Dartrey's little dining room. A late breakfast was still upon the table and Nora was seated behind the coffee pot. She took prompt pity upon his embarrassment.
"You've surprised our secret," she exclaimed, "but anyhow, Stephen was going to tell you to-day. We were married the day before yesterday."
"That is why I played truant," Dartrey put in, "although we only went as far as Tunbridge Wells."
Tallente held out a hand to each. For a moment the tragedy in his own life was forgotten.
"I can't wish you happiness, because you have found it," he said. "Wise and wonderful people! Let me see if your coffee is what I should expect, Nora," he went on. "To tell you the truth, I have had rather a disturbed breakfast."
"So have we," Dartrey observed. "You mean the Leeds figures, of course?"
Tallente shook his head.
"I haven't even opened a newspaper."
"Horlock went down himself yesterday to speak for his candidate. Our man is in by five thousand, seven hundred votes."
"Amazing!" Tallente murmured.
"It is the greatest reversal of figures in political history," Dartrey declared. "Listen, Tallente. I was quite prepared to go the Session, as you know, but Horlock's had enough. He is asking for a vote of confidence on Tuesday. He'll lose by at least sixty votes."
"We can't put it off any longer. We shall have to take office. I shall be sent for as the nominal leader of the party and I shall pass the summons on to you. Here is a list of names. Some of them we ought to see unofficially at once."
Tallente looked down the slip of paper. He came to a dead stop with his finger upon Miller's name.
"I know," Dartrey said sympathetically, "but, Tallente, you must remember that men are not made all in the same mould, and Miller is the link between us and a great many of the most earnest disciples of our faith. In politics a man has sometimes to be accepted not so much for what he is as for the power which he represents."
"Has he agreed to serve under me?" Tallente inquired.
"We have never directly discussed the subject," Dartrey replied. "He posed rather as the ambassador when we came to you at Martinhoe, but as a matter of fact, if it interests you to know it, he was strongly opposed to my invitation to you. I am expecting him here every moment—in fact, he telephoned that he was on the way an hour ago."
Miller arrived, a few minutes later, with the air of one already cultivating an official gravity. He was dressed in his own conception of morning clothes, which fitted him nowhere, linen which confessed to a former day's service and a brown Homburg hat. It was noticeable that whilst he was almost fulsome in his congratulations to Nora and overcordial to Dartrey, he scarcely glanced at Tallente and confined himself to a nod by way of greeting.
"Couldn't believe it when you told me over the telephone," he said. "I congratulate you both heartily. What about Leeds, Dartrey?"
"It's the end, I suppose?"
"Absolutely! That is why I telephoned for you. Horlock is quite resigned. I understand that they will send for me, but I wish to tell you, Miller, as I have just told Tallente, that I have finally made up my mind that it would not be in the best interests of our party for me to attempt to form a Ministry myself. I am therefore passing the task on to Tallente. Here is a list of what we propose."
Miller clenched the sheet of paper in his hand without glancing at it. His tone was bellicose.
"Do I understand that Tallente is to be Prime Minister?"
"Certainly! You see I have put you down for the Home Office, Sargent as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Saunderson—"
"I don't want to hear any more," Miller interrupted. "It's time we had this out. I object to Tallente being placed at the head of the party."
"And why?" Dartrey asked coldly.
"Because he is a newcomer and has done nothing to earn such a position," Miller declared; "because he has come to us as an opportunist, because there are others who have served the cause of the people for all the years of their life, who have a better claim; and because at heart, mind you, Dartrey, he isn't a people's man."
"What do you mean by saying that I am not a people's man?" Tallente demanded.
"Just what the words indicate," was the almost fierce reply. "You're Eton and Oxford, not board-school and apprentice. Your brain brings you to the cause of the people, not your heart. You aren't one of us and never could be. You're an aristocrat, and before we knew where we were, you'd be legislating for aristocrats. You'd try and sneak them into your Cabinet. It's their atmosphere you've been brought up in. It's with them you want to live. That's what I mean when I say that you're not a people's man, Tallente, and I defy any one to say that you are."
"Miller," Dartrey intervened earnestly, "you are expounding a case from the narrowest point of view. You say that Tallente was born an aristocrat. That may or may not be true, but surely it makes his espousal of the people's cause all the more honest and convincing? For you to say that he is not a people's man, you who have heard his speeches in the house, who have read his pamphlets, who have followed, as you must have followed, his political career is sheer folly."
"Then I am content to remain a fool," Miller rejoined. "Once and for all, I decline to serve under Tallente, and I warn you that if you put him forward, if you go so far, even, as to give him a seat in the Cabinet of the Government it is your job to form, you will disunite the party and bring calamity upon us."
"Have you any further reason for your attitude," Tallente asked pointedly, "except those you have put forward?"
Miller met his questioner's earnest gaze defiantly.
"I have," he admitted.
"State it now, then, please."
Miller rose to his feet. He became a little oratorical, more than usually artificial.
"I make my appeal to you, Dartrey," he said. "You have put forward this man as your choice of a leader of the great Democratic Party, the party which is to combine all branches of Labour, the party which is to stand for the people. I charge him with having written in the last year of the war a scathing attack upon the greatest of British institutions, the trades unions, an article written from the extreme aristocratic standpoint, an article which, if published to-day and distributed broadcast amongst the miners and operatives of the north, would result in a revolution if his name were persisted in."
"I have read everything Tallente has ever written, and I have never come across any such article," Dartrey declared promptly.
"You have never come across it because it was never published," Miller continued, "and yet the fact remains that it was written and offered to the Universal Review. It was actually in type and was only held back at the earnest request of the Government, because on the very day that it should have appeared, an armistice was concluded between the railway men, the miners and the War Council, and the Government was terrified lest anything should happen to upset that armistice."
"Is this true, Tallente?" Dartrey asked anxiously.
"Perfectly. I admit the existence of the article and I admit that it was written with all the vigour I could command, on the lines quoted by Miller. Since, however, it was never published, it can surely be treated as nonexistent?"
"That is just what it cannot be," Miller declared. "The signed manuscript of that article is in the hands of those who would rather see it published than have Tallente Prime Minister."
"Blackmail," the latter remarked quietly.
"You can call it what you please," was the sneering reply. "The facts are as I have stated them."
"But what in the world could have induced you to write such an article, Tallente?" Dartrey demanded. "Your attitude towards Labour, even when you were in the Coalition Cabinet, was perfectly sound."
"It was more than sound, it was sympathetic," Tallente insisted. "That is why I worked myself into the state of indignation which induced me to write it. I will not defend it. It is sufficient to remind you both that when we were hard pressed, when England really had her back to the wall, when coal was the very blood of life to her, a strike was declared in South Wales and received the open sympathy of the faction with which this man Miller here is associated. Miller has spoken plainly about me. Let him hear what I have to say about him. He went down to South Wales to visit these miners and he encouraged them in a course of action which, if other industries had followed suit, would have brought this country into slavery and disgrace. And furthermore, let me remind you of this, Dartrey. It was Miller's branch of the Labour Party who sent him to Switzerland to confer with enemy Socialists and for the last eighteen months of the war he practically lived under the espionage of our secret service—a suspected traitor."
"It's a lie!" Miller fumed.
"It is the truth and easily proved," Tallente retorted. "When peace came, however, Miller's party altered their tactics and the hatchet was to have been buried. My article was directed against the trades unions as they were at that time, not as they are to-day, and I still claim that if public opinion had not driven them into an arrangement with the Government, my article would have been published and would have done good. To publish it now could answer no useful purpose. Its application is gone and the conditions which prompted its tone disappeared."
"I am beginning to understand," Dartrey admitted. "Tell me, how did the manuscript ever leave your possession, Tallente?"
"I will tell you," Tallente replied, pointing over at Miller. "Because that man paid Palliser, my secretary, five thousand pounds out of his secret service money to obtain possession of it."
Miller was plainly discomfited.
"Who told you that lie?" he faltered.
"It's no lie—it's the truth," Tallente rejoined. "You used five thousand pounds of secret service money to gratify a private spite."
"That's false, anyhow," Miller retorted. "I have no personal spite against you, Tallente. I look upon you as a dangerous man in our party, and if I have sought for means to remove you from it, it has been not from personal feeling, but for the good of the cause."
"There stands your leader," Tallente continued. "Did you consult him before you bribed my secretary and hawked about that article, first to Horlock and now to heaven knows whom?"
"It is the first I have heard of it," Dartrey said sternly.
"Just so. It goes to prove what I have declared before—that Miller's attack upon me is a personal one."
"And I deny it," Miller exclaimed fiercely. "I don't like you, Tallente, I hate your class and I distrust your presence in the ranks of the Democratic Party. Against your leadership I shall fight tooth and nail. Dartrey," he went on, "you cannot give Tallente supreme control over us. You will only court disaster, because that article will surely appear and the whole position will be made ridiculous. I am strong enough—that is to say, those who are behind me will take my word on trust—to wreck the position on Thursday. I can keep ninety Labour men out of the Lobby and the Government will carry their vote of confidence. In that case, our coming into power may be delayed for years. We shall lose the great opportunity of this century. Tallente is your friend, Dartrey, but the cause comes first. I shall leave the decision with you."
Miller took his departure with a smile of evil triumph upon his thin lips. He had his moment of discomfiture, however, when Dartrey coldly ignored his extended hand. The two men left behind heard the door slam.
"This is the devil of a business, Tallente!" Dartrey said grimly.
Nora returned to the room as Miller left.
"I don't know whether you wanted me to go," she said to Dartrey, "but I cannot sit and listen to that man talk. I try to keep myself free from prejudices, but there are exceptions. Miller is my pet one. Tell me exactly what he came about? Something disagreeable, I am sure?"
They told her, but she declined to take the matter seriously.
"A position like this is necessarily disagreeable," she argued, "but I have confidence in Mr. Tallente. Remember, this article was written nine years ago, Stephen, and though for twenty-four hours it may make things unpleasant, I feel sure that it won't do nearly the harm you imagine. And think what a confession to make! That man, who aims at being a Cabinet Minister, sits here in this room and admits that he bribed Mr. Tallente's secretary with five thousand pounds to steal the manuscript out of his safe. How do you think that will go down with the public?"
"A certain portion of the public, I am afraid," Tallente said gravely, "will say that I discovered the theft—and killed Palliser."
"Killed Palliser!" Nora repeated incredulously. "I never heard such rubbish!"
"Palliser certainly disappeared on the evening of the day when he parted with the manuscript to Miller," Tallente went on, "and has never been seen or heard of since."
"But there must be some explanation of that," Dartrey observed.
There was a short silence, significant of a curious change in the atmosphere. Tallente's silence grew to possess a queer significance. The ghost of rumours to which neither had ever listened suddenly forced its way back into the minds of the other two. Dartrey was the first to collect himself.
"Tallente," he said, "as a private person I have no desire to ask you a single question concerned with your private life, but we have come to something of a crisis. It is necessary that I should know the worst. Is there anything else Miller could bring up against you?"
"To the best of my belief, nothing," Tallente replied calmly
"That is not sufficient," Dartrey persisted. "Have you any knowledge, Tallente, which the world does not share, of the disappearance of this man Palliser? It is inevitable that if you discovered his treachery there should have been hard words. Did you have any scene with him? Do you know more of his disappearance than the world knows?"
"I do," Tallente replied. "You shall share that knowledge with me to a certain extent. I had another cause for quarrel with Palliser to which I do not choose to refer, but on my arrival home that night I summoned him from the house and led him to an open space. I admit that I chose a primitive method of inflicting punishment upon a traitor. I intended to thrash Palliser, a course of action in which I ask you, Dartrey, to believe, as a man of honour, I was justified. I struck too hard and Palliser went over the cliff."
Neither Nora nor Dartrey seemed capable of speech. Tallente's cool, precise manner of telling his story seemed to have an almost paralysing effect upon them.
"Afterwards," Tallente continued, "I discovered the theft of that document. A faithful servant of mine, and I, searched for Palliser's body, risking our lives in vain, as it turns out, in the hope of recovering the manuscript. The body was neither in the bay below nor hung up anywhere on the cliff. One of two things, then, must have happened. Either Palliser's body must have been taken out by the tide, which flows down the Bristol Channel in a curious way, and will never now be recovered, or he made a remarkable escape and decided, under all the circumstances, to make a fresh start in life."
Nora came suddenly over to Tallente's side. She took his arm and somehow or other the strained look seemed to pass from his face.
"Dear friend," she said, "this is very painful for you, I know, but your other cause of quarrel with Palliser—you will forgive me if I ask—was it about your wife?"
"It was," Tallente replied. "You are just the one person in the world, Nora, in whom I am glad to confide to that extent."
She turned to Dartrey.
"Stephen," she said, "either Palliser is dead and his death can be brought to no one's door, or he is lying hidden and there is no one to blame. You can wipe that out of your mind, can you not? All that we shall have to consider now is the real effect upon the members of our party as a whole, if this article is published."
"Have you a copy of it?" Dartrey asked.
Tallente shook his head.
"I haven't, but if a certain suspicion I have formed is true, I might be able to get you one. In any case, Dartrey, don't come to any decision for a day or two. If it is for the good of the party for you to throw me overboard, you must do it, and I can assure you I'll take the plunge willingly. On the other hand, if you want me to fight, I'll fight."
"It is extraordinary," he said, "how one realises more and more, as time goes on, how inhuman politics really are. The greatest principle in life, the principle of sticking to one's friends, has to be discarded. I shall take you at your word, Tallente. I am going to consider only what I think would be best for the welfare of the Democratic Party and in the meantime we'll just go on as though nothing had happened."
"If Horlock approaches me," Tallente began—
"He can go out either on a vote of confidence or on an adverse vote on any of the three Bills next week," Dartrey said. "We don't want to drive them out like a flock of sheep. They can go out waving banners and blowing tin horns, if they like, but they're going. It's time the country was governed, and the country, after all, is the only thing that counts.—I am sorry to send you back to work, Tallente, in such a state of uncertainty, but I know it will make no difference to you. Strike where you can and strike hard. Our day is coming and I tell you honestly I can't believe—nothing would make me believe—that you won't be in at the death."
"Don't forget that we meet to-night in Charles Street," Tallente reminded them, as he shook hands.
"Trust Nora," Dartrey replied. "She has been looking forward to it every day."
"I now," Tallente said, as he took up his hat and stick, "am going to confront an editor."
"You are going to try and get me a copy of the article?"
"I am going to try. If my suspicions are correct, you shall have it in twenty-four hours."
Tallente, however, spent a somewhat profitless morning, and it was only by chance in the end that he succeeded in his quest. He strolled into the lounge at the Sheridan Club to find the man he sought the centre of a little group. Greetings were exchanged, cocktails drunk, and as soon as an opportunity occurred Tallente drew his quarry on one side.
"Greening," he said, "if you are not in a hurry, could I have a word with you before lunch?"
"By all means," the other replied. "We'll go into the smoking room."
They strolled off together, followed by more than one pair of curious eyes. An interview between the editor of the daily journal having the largest circulation in Great Britain and Tallente, possible dictator of a new party in politics, was not without its dramatic interest. Tallente wasted no words as soon as they had entered the smoking room and found it empty.
"Do you mind talking shop, Greening?" he asked. "I've been down to your place twice this morning, but couldn't find you."
"Go ahead," the other invited. "I had to go round to Downing Street and then on to see the chief. Sorry you had a fruitless journey."
"I will be quite frank with you," Tallente went on. "What I am going to suggest to you is pure guesswork. A political opponent, if I can dignify the fellow with such a term, has in his possession an article of mine which I wrote some years ago, during the war. I have been given to understand that he means to obtain publication of it for the purpose of undermining my position with the Labour Party. Has he brought it to you?"
"He has," Greening answered briefly.
"Are you going to use it?"
"We are. The article is in type now. It won't be out for a day or two. When it does, we look upon it as the biggest political scoop of this decade."
"I protest to you formally," Tallente said, "against the publication by a respectable journal of a stolen document."
Greening shook his head.
"Won't do, Tallente," he replied. "We have had a meeting and decided to publish. The best I can do for you is to promise that we will publish unabridged any comments you may have to make upon the matter, on the following day."
"I have always understood that there is such a thing as a journalistic conscience," Tallente persisted. "Can you tell me what possible justification you can find for making use of stolen material?"
"The journalistic conscience is permitted some latitude in these matters," Greening answered drily. "We are not publishing for the sake of any pecuniary benefit or even for the kudos of a scoop. We are publishing because we want to do our best to drive you out from amongst the Democrats."
"Did Horlock send Miller to you?" Tallente enquired.
Greening shook his head once more.
"I cannot answer that sort of question. I will say as much as this in our justification. We stand for sane politics and your defection from the ranks of sane politicians has been very seriously felt. We look upon this opportunity of weakening your present position with the Democratic Party as a matter of political necessity. Personally, I am very sorry, Tallente, to do an unfriendly action, but I can only say, like the school-master before he canes a refractory pupil, that it is for your own good."
"I should prefer to remain the arbiter of my own destiny," Tallente observed drily. "I suppose you fully understand that that noxious person, Miller, paid my defaulting secretary five thousand pounds for that manuscript?"
"My dear fellow, if your pocket had been picked in the street of that manuscript and it had been brought to us, we should still have used it," was the frank reply.
Tallente stared gloomily out of the window.
"Then I suppose there is nothing more to be said," he wound up.
"Nothing! Sorry, Tallente, but the chief is absolutely firm. He looks upon you as the monkey pulling the chestnuts out of the fire for the Labour Party and he has made up his mind to singe your paws."
"The Democrats will rule this country before many years have passed," Tallente said earnestly, "whether your chief likes it or not. Isn't it better to have a reasonable and moderate man like myself of influence in their councils than to have to deal with Miller and his lot?"
Greening shrugged his shoulders and glanced at the clock.
"Orders are orders," he declared, "and even if I disbelieved in the policy of the paper, I couldn't afford to disobey. Come and lunch, Tallente."
"Can I have a proof of the article?"
"By all means," was the prompt reply. "Shall I send it to your rooms or here?"
"Send it direct to Stephen Dartrey at the House of Commons."
"I see," Greening murmured thoughtfully, "and then a council of war, eh? Don't forget our promise, Tallente. We'll publish your counterblast, whatever the consequences."
"It isn't decided yet," he said, as they made their way towards the luncheon room, "whether there is to be a counterblast."
"We have achieved a triumph," Jane declared, when the last of the servants had disappeared and the little party of four were left to their own devices. "We have sat through the whole of dinner and not once mentioned politics."
"You made us forget them," Tallente murmured.
"A left-handed compliment," Jane laughed. "You should pay your tribute to my cook. Mr. Dartrey, I have told you all about my farms and your wife has explained all that I could not understand of her last article in the National. Now I am going to seek for further enlightenment. Tell my why the publication of an article written years ago is likely to affect Mr. Tallente's present position so much?"
"Because," Dartrey explained, "it is an attack upon the most sensitive, the most difficult, and the section of our party furthest removed from us—the great trades unions. Some years ago, Lady Jane, since the war, one of our shrewdest thinkers declared that the greatest danger overshadowing this country was the power wielded by the representatives of these various unions, a power which amounted almost to a dictatorship. We have drawn them into our party through detaching the units. We have never been able to capture them as a whole. Even to-day their leaders are in a curiously anomalous position. They see their power going in the dawn of a more socialistic age. They cannot refuse to accept our principles but in their hearts they know that our triumph sounds the death knell to their power. This article of Tallente's would give them a wonderful chance. Out of very desperation they will seize upon it."
"Have you read the article?" Jane enquired.
"This evening, just before I came," Dartrey replied gravely.
"I can understand," Tallente intervened, "that you feel bound to take this seriously, Dartrey, but after all there is nothing traitorous to our cause in what I wrote. I attacked the trades unions for their colossal and fiendish selfishness when the Empire was tottering. I would do it again under the same circumstances. Remember I was fresh from Ypres. I had seen Englishmen, not soldiers but just hastily trained citizens—bakers, commercial travellers, clerks, small tradesmen—butchered like rabbits but fighting for their country, dying for it—and all the time those blackguardly stump orators at home turned their backs to France and thought the time opportune to wrangle for a rise in wages and bring the country to the very verge of a universal strike. It didn't come off, I know, but there were very few people who really understood how near we were to it. Dartrey, we sacrifice too much of our real feelings to political necessity. I won't apologize for my article; I'll defend it."
"It will be a difficult task, Tallente. The spirit has gone. People have forgotten already the danger which we so narrowly escaped—forgotten before the grass has grown on the graves of our saviours."
"Still, you wouldn't have Mr. Tallente give in without a struggle?" Jane asked.
"I hope that Tallente will fight," Dartrey replied, "but I must warn you, Lady Jane, that I am the guardian of a cause, and for that reason I am an opportunist. If the division of our party which consists of the trades unionists refuses to listen to any explanation and threatens severance if Tallente remains, then he will have to go."
"So far as your personal view is concerned," Tallente asked, "you could do without Miller, couldn't you?"
"I could thrive without him," Dartrey declared heartily.
"Then you shall," Tallente asserted. "We'll show the world what his local trades unionism stands for. He has belittled the whole principle of cooperation. He twangs all the time one brazen chord instead of seeking to give expression to the clear voices of the millions. Miller would impoverish the country with his accursed limited production, his threatened strikes, his parochial outlook. Englishmen are brimful of common sense, Dartrey, if you know where to dig for it. We'll materialise your own dream. We'll bring the principles of socialism into our human and daily life and those octopus trades unions shall feel the knife."
Jane laid her hand for a moment upon his arm.
"Why aren't you oftener enthusiastic?"
He glanced at her swiftly. Their eyes met. Fearlessly she held his fingers for a moment,—a long, wonderful moment.
"I was getting past enthusiasms," he said; "I was dropping into the dry-as-dust school—the argumentative, logical, cold, ineffectual school. The last few months have changed that. I feel young again. If Dartrey will give me a free hand, I'll deliver up to him Miller's bones."
Dartrey had come to the dinner in an uncertain frame of mind. No one knew better than he the sinister power behind Miller. Yet before Tallente had finished speaking he had made up his mind.
"I'll stand by you, Tallente," he declared, "even if it puts us back a year or so. Miller carries with him always an atmosphere of unwholesome things. He has got the Bolshevist filth in his blood and I don't trust him. No one trusts him. He shall take his following where he will, and if we are not strong enough to rule without them, we'll wait."
It was a compact of curious importance which the two men sealed impulsively with a grip of the hands across the table, and down at Woolhanger, through some dreary months, it was Jane's greatest pleasure to remember that it was at her table it had been made.
Tallente, seeking about for some excuse to remain for a few moments after the departure of the Dartreys, was relieved of all anxiety by Jane's calm and dignified remark.
"I can't part with you just yet, Mr. Tallente," she said. "You are not in a hurry, I hope, and you are so close to your rooms that the matter of taxies need not worry you. And, Mr. Dartrey, next time you come down to my county you must bring your wife over to see me. Woolhanger is so typically Devonshire, I really think you would be interested."
"I shall make Stephen bring me in the spring," Nora promised. "I shall never forget how fascinated we were with the whole place this last summer. Don't forget that you are coming to the House with me tomorrow afternoon."
"I am looking forward to it," she declared. "The only annoying part is that that stupid man won't promise to speak."
"I shall have so much to say within the next week or so," Tallente observed, a little grimly, "that I think I had better keep quiet as long as I can."
The moment for which Tallente had been longing came then. The front door closed behind the departing guests. Jane motioned to him to come and sit by her side on the couch.
"I love your friends," she said. "I think Mrs. Dartrey is perfectly sweet and Dartrey is just as wonderful as I had pictured him. They are so strangely unusual," she went on. "I can scarcely believe, even now, that our dinner actually took place in my little room here—Stephen Dartrey, the man I have read about all my life, and this brilliant young wife of his. Thank you so much, dear friend, for bringing them."
"And thank you, dear perfect hostess," he answered. "Do you know what you did? You created an atmosphere in which it was possible to think and talk and see things clearly. Do you realise what has happened? Dartrey has done a great thing. He has thrown over the one menacing power in the advancing cause of the people. He is going to back me against Miller."
"What exactly is Miller's position?" she asked.
"Let me tell you another time," he begged. "I have looked forward so to these few minutes with you. Tell me how much time you are going to spare me this next week?"
She looked at him with the slight, indulgent smile of a woman realising and glad to realise her power. To Tallente she had never seemed more utterly and entirely desirable. It was not for him to know that a French modiste had woven all the cunning and diablerie of the sex lure into the elegant shape, the apparent simplicity of the black velvet which draped her limbs. In some mysterious way, the same spirit seemed to have entered into Jane herself. The evening had been one of unalloyed pleasure. She felt the charm of her companion more than ever before. The pleasant light in her eyes, the courteous, half-mocking phrases with which, as a rule, she fenced herself about in those moments when he sought to draw her closer to him, were gone. Her eyes were as bright as ever, but softer. Her mouth was firm, yet somehow with a faint, womanly voluptuousness in its sweet curves. The fingers which lay unresistingly in his hand were soft and warm.
"As much time as you can spare," she promised him. "I thought, though, that you would be busy tearing Miller bone from bone."
"The game of politics is played slowly," he answered, "sometimes so slowly that one chafes. Dear Jane, I want to see you all the time. So much of what is best in me, best and most effective, comes from you."