But with Aylmer there was, and would always be, less real freedom and impersonal frankness, because there was so much more selfconsciousness; in fact because there was an unacknowledged but very strong mutual physical attraction. Edith had, however, felt until now merely the agreeable excitement of knowing that a man she liked, and in whom she was immensely interested, was growing apparently devoted to her, while she had always believed that she would know how to deal with the case in such a way that it could never lead to anything more—that is to say, to more than she wished.
And now, he was going away. Why? And where? However, the first thing to consider was that she would see him today. The result of this consideration was the obvious one. She must do some shopping.
Edith was remarkably feminine in every attribute, in manner, in movement and in appearance; indeed, for a woman of the present day unusually and refreshingly feminine. Yet she had certain mental characteristics which were entirely unlike most women. One was her extreme aversion for shops, and indeed for going into any concrete little details. It has been said that her feeling for dress was sure and unerring. But it was entirely that of the artist; it was impressionistic. Edith was very clever, indeed, most ingenious, in managing practical affairs, as long as she was the director, the general of the campaign. But she did not like carrying out in detail her plans. She liked to be the architect, not the workman.
For example, the small household affairs in the flat went on wheels; everything was almost always perfect. But Edith did not rattle her housekeeping keys, or count the coals, nor did she even go through accounts, or into the kitchen every day. The secret was simple. She had a good cook and housekeeper, who managed all these important but tedious details admirably, under her suggestions. In order to do this Edith had to practise a little fraud on Bruce, a justifiable and quite unselfish one. She gave the cook and housekeeper a quarter of her dress allowance, in addition to the wages Bruce considered sufficient; because Bruce believed that they could not afford more than a certain amount for a cook, while he admitted that Edith, who had a few hundred pounds a year of her own, might need to spend this on dress. Very little of it went on dress, although Edith was not very economical. But she had a plan of her own; she knew that to be dressed in a very ordinary style (that is to say, simple, conventional, comme il faut) suited her, by throwing her unusual beauty into relief. Occasionally a touch of individuality was added, when she wanted to have a special effect. But she never entered a shop; very rarely interviewed a milliner. It was always done for her. She was easy to dress, being tall, slim and remarkably pretty. She thought that most women make a great mistake in allowing dress to be the master instead of the servant of their good looks; many women were, she considered, entirely crushed and made insignificant by the beauty of their clothes. The important thing was to have a distinguished appearance, and this cannot, of course, easily be obtained without expensive elegance. But Edith was twenty-eight, and looked younger, so she could dress simply.
This morning Edith had telephoned to her friend, Miss Bennett, an old schoolfellow who had nothing to do, and adored commissions. Edith, sitting by the fire or at the 'phone, gave her orders, which were always decisive, short and yet meticulous. Miss Bennett was a little late this morning, and Edith had been getting quite anxious to see her. When she at last arrived—she was a nondescript-looking girl, with a small hat squashed on her head, a serge coat and skirt, black gloves and shoes with spats—Edith greeted her rather reproachfully with:
'You're late, Grace.'
'Sorry,' said Grace.
The name suited her singularly badly. She was plain, but had a pleasant face, a pink complexion, small bright eyes, protruding teeth and a scenario for a figure, merely a collection of bones on which a dress could be hung. She was devoted to Edith, and to a few other friends of both sexes, of whom she made idols. She was hard, abrupt, enthusiastic, ignorant and humorous.
'Sorry, but I had to do a lot of—'
'All right,' interrupted Edith. 'You couldn't help it. Listen' to what I want you to do.'
'Go ahead,' said Miss Bennett, taking out a note-book and pencil.
Edith spoke in her low, soft, impressive voice, rather slowly.
'Go anywhere you like and bring me back two or three perfectly simple tea-gowns—you know the sort of shape, rather like evening cloaks—straight lines—none of the new draperies and curves—in red, blue and black.'
'On appro.?' asked Miss Bennett.
'On anything you like, but made of Liberty satin, with a dull surface.'
'There's no such thing.' Grace Bennett laughed. 'You mean charmeuse, or crepe-de-chine, perhaps?'
'Call it what you like, only get it. You must bring them back in a taxi.'
'They're not to cost more than—oh! not much,' added Edith, 'at the most.'
'Economical woman! Why not have a really good tea-gown while you're about it?'
'These will be good. I want to have a hard outline like a Fergusson.'
'Oh, really? What's that?'
'Never mind. And suppose you can't get the shape, Grace.'
'Bring some evening cloaks—the kimonoish kind—I could wear one over a lace blouse; it would look exactly the same.'
'Edith, what curious ideas you have! But you're right enough. Anything else?' said Miss Bennett, standing up, ready to go. 'I like shopping for you. You know what you want.'
'Buy me an azalea, not a large one, and a bit of some dull material of the same colour to drape round it.'
'How extraordinary it is the way you hate anything shiny!' exclaimed Miss Bennett, making a note.
'I know; I only like mat effects. Oh, and in case I choose a light-coloured gown, get me just one very large black velvet orchid, too.'
'Right. That all?'
Edith looked at her shoes; they were perfect, tiny, pointed and made of black suede. She decided they would do.
'Yes, that's all, dear.'
'And might I kindly ask,' said Miss Bennett, getting up, 'any particular reason for all this? Are you going to have the flu, or a party, or what?'
'No,' said Edith, who was always frank when it was possible. 'I'm expecting a visitor who's never seen me in anything but a coat and skirt, or in evening dress.'
'Oh! He wants a change, does he?'
'Don't be vulgar, Grace. Thanks awfully, dear. You're really kind.'
They both laughed, and Edith gently pushed her friend out of the room. Then she sat down on a sofa, put up her feet, and began to read Rhythm to divert her thoughts. Vincy had brought it to convert her to Post-Impressionism.
When Archie and Dilly were out, and Edith, who always got up rather early, was alone, she often passed her morning hours in reading, dreaming, playing the piano, or even in thinking. She was one of the few women who really can think, and enjoy it. This morning she soon put down the mad clever little prophetic Oxford journal. Considering she was usually the most reposeful woman in London, she was rather restless today. She glanced round the little room; there was nothing in it to distract or irritate, or even to suggest a train of thought; except perhaps the books; everything was calming and soothing, with a touch of gaiety in the lightness of the wall decorations. An azalea, certainly, would be a good note. The carpet, and almost everything in the room, was green, except the small white enamelled piano. Today she felt that she wanted to use all her influence to get Aylmer to confide in her more. Perhaps he was slipping away from her—she would have been only a little incident in his existence—while she certainly wished it to go on. Seeing this, perhaps it oughtn't to go on. She wondered if he would laugh or be serious today... whether...
* * * * *
Miss Bennett had come up in the lift with a heap of cardboard boxes, and the azalea. A taxi was waiting at the door.
Edith opened the boxes, cutting the string with scissors. She put four gowns out on the sofa. Grace explained that two were cloaks, two were gowns—all she could get.
'That's the one,' said Edith, taking out one of a deep blue colour, like an Italian sky on a coloured picture post-card. It had a collar of the same deep blue, spotted with white—a birdseye effect. Taking off her coat Edith slipped the gown over her dress, and went to her room (followed closely by Miss Bennett) to see herself in the long mirror.
'Perfect!' said Edith. 'Only I must cut off those buttons. I hate buttons.'
'How are you going to fasten it, then, dear?'
'With hooks and eyes. Marie can sew them on.'
The deep blue with the white spots had a vivid and charming effect, and suited her blonde colouring; she saw she was very pretty in it, and was pleased.
'Aren't you going to try the others on, dear?' asked Grace.
'No; what's the good? This one will do.'
'Right. Then I'll take them back.'
'You're sweet. Won't you come back to lunch?'
'I'll come back to lunch tomorrow,' said Miss Bennett, 'and you can tell me about your tea-party. Oh, and here's a little bit of stuff for the plant. I suppose you'll put the azalea into the large pewter vase?'
'Yes, and I'll tie this round its neck.'
'Sorry it's cotton,' said Miss Bennett. 'I couldn't get any silk the right colour.'
'Oh, I like cotton, if only it's not called sateen! Good-bye, darling. You're delightfully quick!'
'Yes, I don't waste time,' said Miss Bennett. 'Mother says, too, that I'm the best shopper in the world.' She turned round to add, 'I'm dying to know why you want to look so pretty. Who is it?'
With a quiet smile, Edith dismissed her.
'It always seems to me so unlike you,' Aylmer said (he had arrived punctually at twenty minutes to four)—'your extreme fondness for newspapers. You're quite celebrated as a collector of Last Editions, aren't you?'
'I know it's very unliterary of me, but I enjoy reading newspapers better than reading anything else in the world. After all, it's contemporary history, that's my defence. But I suppose it is because I'm so intensely interested in life.'
'Tell me exactly, what papers do you really read?'
She laughed. 'Four morning papers—never mind their names—four evening papers; five Sunday papers: The Academy, The Saturday Review, The Bookman, The World, The English Review.'
'Well, I think it's wicked of you to encourage all this frivolity. And what price The Queen, Horrie Notes, or The Tatler?'
'Oh, we have those too—for Bruce.'
'And does Archie show any of this morbid desire for journalism?'
'Oh yes. He takes in Chums and Little Folks.'
'And I see you're reading Rhythm. That's Vincy's fault, of course.'
'Perhaps it is.'
'How do you find time for all this culture?'
'I read quickly, and what I have to do I do rather quickly.'
'Is that why you never seem in a hurry? I think you're the only leisured-looking woman I know in London.'
'I do think I've solved the problem of labour-saving; I've reduced it to a science.'
'By not working, I suppose.'
'You're wonderful. And that blue....'
'Do you really think so?'
He was beginning to get carried away. He stood up and looked out of the window. The pink and white hyacinths were strongly scented in the warm air. He turned round.
She said demurely: 'It will be nice weather for you to go away now, won't it?'
'I don't think so.' He spoke impulsively. 'I shall hate it; I shall be miserable.'
'Really!' in a tone of great surprise.
'You're dying to ask me something,' he said.
'Which am I dying to ask you: where you're going, or why you're going?' She gave her most vivid smile. He sat down with a sigh. People still sigh, sometimes, even nowadays.
'I don't know where I'm going; but I'll tell you why.... I'm seeing too much of you.'
She was silent.
'You see, Mrs Ottley, seeing a great deal of you is very entrancing, but it's dangerous.'
'In what way?'
'Well—your society—you see one gets to feel one can't do without it, do you see?'
'But why should you do without it?'
He looked at her. 'You mean there's no reason why we shouldn't keep on going to plays with Bruce, dining with Bruce, being always with Bruce?' (Bruce and Aylmer had become so intimate that they called each other by their Christian names.) 'Don't you see, it makes one sometimes feel one wants more and more of you—of your society I mean. One could talk better alone.'
'But you can come and see me sometimes, can't you?'
'Yes; that's the worst of all,' he answered, with emphasis.
Aylmer spoke decidedly: 'I'm not a man who could ever be a tame cat. And also I'm not, I hope, a man who—who would dare to think, or even wish, to spoil—to—'
'And is that really why you're going?' she asked gently.
'You're forcing me to answer you.'
'And shall you soon forget all about it?'
He changed his position and sat next to her on the sofa.
'And so you won't miss me a bit,' he said caressingly. 'You wouldn't care if you never saw me again, would you?'
'Yes, I should care. Why, you know we're awfully good friends; I like you immensely.'
'As much as Vincy?'
'Oh! So differently.'
'I'm glad of that, at any rate!'
There was an embarrassed pause.
'So this is really the last time I'm to see you for ages, Mrs Ottley?'
'But aren't we all going to the theatre tomorrow? With you, I mean? Bruce said so.'
'Oh yes. I mean the last time alone. Yes, I've got a box for The Moonshine Girl. Bruce said you'd come. Lady Everard and Vincy will be there.'
'That will be fun—I love that sort of show. It takes one right away from life instead of struggling to imitate it badly like most plays.'
'It's always delightful to hear what you say. And anything I see with you I enjoy, and believe to be better than it is,' said Aylmer. 'You know you cast a glamour over anything. But the next day I'm going away for three months at least.'
'A long time.'
'Is it? Will it seem long to you?'
'Why, of course. We shall—I shall miss you very much. I told you so.'
'Really?' he insisted.
'Really,' she smiled.
They looked at each other.
Edith felt less mistress of the situation than she had expected. She was faced with a choice; she felt it; she knew it. She didn't want him to go. Still, perhaps.... There was a vibration in the air. Suddenly a sharp ring was heard.
Overpowered by a sudden impulse, Aylmer seized her impetuously by the shoulders, kissed her roughly and at random before she could stop him, and said incoherently: 'Edith! Good-bye. I love you, Edith,' and then stood up by the mantelpiece.
'Mr Vincy,' announced the servant.
'The Moonshine Girl'
The next evening Bruce and Edith were going to the Society Theatre with Aylmer. It was their last meeting before he was to go away, Edith half expected that he would put it off, but there was no change made in the plans, and they met in the box as arranged.
Aylmer had expected during the whole day to hear that she had managed to postpone the party. At one moment he was frightened and rather horrified when he thought of what he had done. At another he was delighted and enchanted about it, and told himself that it was absolutely justified. After all, he couldn't do more than go away if he found he was too fond of her. No hero of romance could be expected to do more than that, and he wasn't a hero of romance; he didn't pretend to be. But he was a good fellow—and though Bruce's absurdities irritated him a great deal he had a feeling of delicacy towards him, and a scrupulousness that is not to be found every day. At other moments Aylmer swore to himself, cursing his impulsiveness, fearing she now would really not ever think of him as he wished, but as a hustling sort of brute. But no—he didn't care. He had come at last to close quarters with her. He had kissed the pretty little mouth that he had so often watched with longing. He admitted to himself that he had really wished to pose a little in her eyes: to be the noble hero in the third act who goes away from temptation. But who does not wish for the beau role before one's idol?
* * * * *
This meeting at the play tonight was the sort of anti-climax that is almost invariable in a London romance. How he looked forward to it! For after Vincy came in only a few banalities had been said. He was to see her now for the last time—the first time since he had given himself away to her. Probably it was only her usual kindness to others that prevented her getting out of the evening plans, he thought. Or—did she want to see him once more?
At dinner before the play Edith was very bright, and particularly pretty. Bruce, too, was in good spirits.
'It's rather sickening,' he remarked, 'Aylmer going away like this; we shall miss him horribly, sha'n't we? And then, where's the sense, Edith, in a chap leaving London where he's been the whole of the awful winter, just as it begins to be pleasant here? Pass the salt; don't spill it—that's unlucky. Not that I believe in any superstitious rot. I can see the charm of the quaint old ideas about black cats and so forth, but I don't for one moment attach any importance to them, nor to the number thirteen, nor any of that sort of bosh. Indeed as a matter of fact, I walked round a ladder only today rather than go under it. But that's simply because I don't go in for trying to be especially original.'
'No, dear. I think you're quite right.'
'And oddly enough—as I was trying to tell you just now, only you didn't seem to be listening—a black cat ran across my path only this afternoon.' He smiled, gratified at the recollection.
'How do you mean, your path? I didn't know you had one—or that there were any paths about here.'
'How literal women are! I mean I nearly ran over it in a taxi. When I say I nearly ran over it, I mean that a black cat on the same side of the taxi (if you must have details) ran away as the taxi drove on.... Yes, Aylmer is a thoroughly good chap, and he and I have enormous sympathy. I don't know any man in the world with whom I have more intellectual sympathy than Aylmer Ross. Do you remember how I pointed him out to you at once at the Mitchells'? And sometimes when I think how you used to sneer at the Mitchells—oh, you did, you know, dear, before you knew them—and I remember all the trouble I had to get you to go there, I wonder—I simply wonder! Don't you see, through going there, as I advised, we've made one of the nicest friends we ever had.'
'Really, Bruce, you didn't have any trouble to get me to go to the Mitchells; you're forgetting. The trouble was I couldn't go there very well until I was asked. The very first time we were asked (if you recollect), we flew!'
'Flew? Why, we went on the wrong night. That doesn't look as if I was very keen about it! However, I'm not blaming you, dear. It wasn't your fault. Mind you,' continued Bruce, 'I consider the Society Theatre pure frivolity. But one thing I'll say, a bad show there is better than a good show anywhere else. There's always jolly music, pretty dresses, pretty girls—you don't mind my saying so, dear, do you?'
'No, indeed. I think so myself.'
'Of course, the first row of the chorus is not what it was when I was a bachelor,' continued Bruce, frowning thoughtfully. 'Either they're not so good-looking, or I don't admire them so much, or they don't admire me as much, or they're a different class, or—or—something!' he laughed.
'You're pleased to be facetious,' remarked Edith.
'My dear girl, you know perfectly well I think there's no-one else in the world like you. Wherever I go I always say there's no-one to touch my wife. No-one!'
Edith got up. 'Very sweet of you.'
'But,' continued Bruce, 'because I think you pretty, it doesn't follow that I think everybody else is hideous. I tell you that straight from the shoulder, and I must say this for you, dear, I've never seen any sign of jealousy on your part.'
'I'd show it soon enough if I felt it—if I thought I'd any cause,' said Edith; 'but I didn't think I had.'
Bruce gave a rather fatuous smile. 'Oh, go and get ready, my dear,' he answered. 'Don't let's talk nonsense. Who's going to be there tonight, do you know?'
'Oh, only Lady Everard and Vincy.'
'Lady Everard is a nice woman. You're going to that musical thing of hers, I suppose?'
'Yes, I suppose so.'
'It's in the afternoon, and it's not very easy for me to get away in the afternoon, but to please you, I'll take you—see? I loathe music (except musical comedies), and I think if ever there was a set of appalling rotters—I feel inclined to knock them off the music-stool the way they go on at Lady Everard's—at the same time, some of them are very cultured and intelligent chaps, and she's a very charming woman. One can't get in a word edgeways, but when one does—well, she listens, and laughs at one's jokes, and that sort of thing. I think I'm rather glad you're not musical, Edith, it takes a woman away from her husband.'
'Not musical! Oh dear! I thought I was,' said Edith.
'Oh, anyhow, not when I'm here, so it doesn't matter. Besides, your being appreciative and that sort of thing is very nice. Look what a social success you've had at the Everards', for instance, through listening and understanding these things; it is not an accomplishment to throw away. No, Edith dear, I should tell you, if you would only listen to me, to keep up your music, but you won't and there's an end of it...That souffle was really very good. Cook's improving. For a plain little cook like that, with such small wages, and no kitchenmaid, she does quite well.'
'Oh yes, she's not bad,' said Edith. She knew that if Bruce had been aware the cook's remuneration was adequate he would not have enjoyed his dinner.
* * * * *
They were in the box in the pretty theatre. Lady Everard, very smart in black, sparkling with diamonds, was already there with Aylmer. Vincy had not arrived.
The house was crammed to the ceiling. Gay, electrical music of exhilarating futility was being played by the orchestra. The scene consisted of model cottages; a chorus of pretty girls in striped cotton were singing. The heroine came on; she was well known for her smile, which had become public property on picture post-cards and the Obosh bottles. She was dressed as a work-girl also, but in striped silk with a real lace apron and a few diamonds. Then the hero arrived. He wore a red shirt, brown boots, and had a tenor voice. He explained an interesting little bit of the plot, which included an eccentric will and other novelties. The humorous dandy of the play was greeted with shouts of joy by the chorus and equal enthusiasm by the audience. He agreed to change places with the hero, who wished to give up one hundred and forty thousand pounds a year to marry the heroine.
'Very disinterested,' murmured Lady Everard. 'Very nice of him, I'm sure. It isn't many people that would do a thing like that. A nice voice, too. Of course, this is not what I call good music, but it's very bright in its way, and the words—I always think these words are so clever. So witty. Listen to them—do listen to them, dear Mrs Ottley.'
They listened to the beautiful words sung, of which the refrain ran as follows:—
'The Author told the Actor, (The Actor had a fit). The Box Office man told the Programme-girl, The Theatre all was in quite a whirl. The call-boy told the Chorus. (Whatever could it be?) The super asked the Manager, What did the Censor see?'
'Charming,' murmured Lady Everard; 'brilliant—I know his father so well.'
'Whose father—the censor's?'
'Oh, the father of the composer—a very charming man. When he was young he used to come to my parties—my Wednesdays. I used to have Wednesdays then. I don't have Wednesdays now. I think it better to telephone at the last minute any particular day for my afternoons because, after all, you never know when the artists one wants are disengaged, does one? You're coming on Wednesday to hear Paul La France sing, dear Mrs Ottley?'
Edith smiled and nodded assent, trying to stop the incessant trickle of Lady Everard's leaking conversation. She loved theatres, and she enjoyed hearing every word, which was impossible while there was more dialogue in the box than on the stage; also, Aylmer was sitting behind her.
The comic lady now came on; there were shrieks of laughter at her unnecessary and irrelevant green boots and crinoline and Cockney accent. She proposed to marry the hero, who ran away from her. There was more chorus; and the curtain fell.
In the interval Vincy arrived. He and Bruce went into the little salon behind the box. Lady Everard joined them there. Edith and Aylmer looked round the house. The audience at the Society Theatre is a special one; as at the plays in which the favourite actor-managers and jeunes premiers perform there are always far more women than men, at this theatre there are always far more men than women.
The stage box opposite our friends was filled with a party of about ten men.
'It looks like a jury,' said Edith. 'Perhaps it is.' 'Probably a board of directors,' said Aylmer.
The first two rows of the stalls were principally occupied by middle-aged and rather elderly gentlemen. Many had grey moustaches and a military bearing. Others were inclined to be stout, with brilliant exuberant manners and very dark hair that simply wouldn't lie flat. There were a great many parties made up like those of our friends—of somebody in love with somebody, surrounded by chaperons. These were the social people, and also there were a certain number of young men with pretty women who were too fashionably dressed, too much made up, and who were looking forward too much to supper. These ladies seemed inclined to crab the play, and to find unimportant little faults with the unimportant actresses. There were many Americans—who took it seriously; and altogether one could see it was an immense success; in other words everyone had paid for their seats...
* * * * *
The play was over; Aylmer had not had a word with Edith. He was going away the next day, and he asked them all to supper. Of course he drove Edith, and Lady Everard took the other two in her motor....
'You're an angel if you've forgiven me,' he said, as they went out.
'Have you forgiven me?' he asked anxiously, as soon as they were in the dark shelter of the cab.
'Yes, oh yes. Please don't let's talk about it any more... What time do you start tomorrow?'
'You think I ought to go then?'
'You say so.'
'But you'd rather I remained here; rather we should go on as we are—wouldn't you?'
'Well, you know I should never have dreamt of suggesting you should go away. I like you to be here.'
'At any cost to me? No, Edith; I can't stand it. And since I've told you it's harder. Your knowing makes it harder.'
'I should have thought that if you liked anyone so very much, you would want to see them all the time, as much as possible, always—even with other people...anything rather than not see them—be away altogether. At least, that's how I should feel.'
'No doubt you would; that's a woman's view. And besides, you see, you don't care!'
'The more I cared, the less I should go away, I think.'
'But, haven't I tried? And I can't bear it. You don't know how cruel you are with your sweetness, Edith...Oh, put yourself in my place! How do you suppose I feel when I've been with you like this, near you, looking at you, delighting in you the whole evening—and then, after supper, you go away with Bruce? You've had a very pleasant evening, no doubt; it's all right for you to feel you've got me, as you know you have—and with no fear, no danger. Yes, you enjoy it!'
He saw in the half-darkness that her eyes looked reproachful.
'I didn't mean it. I'm sorry—I'm always being sorry.' His bitter tone changed to gentleness. 'I want to speak to you now, Edith. We haven't much time. Don't take away your hand a minute....I always told you, didn't I, that the atmosphere round you is so clear that I feel with you I'm in the Palace of Truth? You're so real. You're the only woman I ever met who really cared for truth. You're not afraid of it; and you're as straight and honourable as a man! I don't mean you can't diplomatise if you choose, of course, and better than anyone; but it isn't your nature to deceive yourself, nor anyone else. I recognise that in you. I love it. And that's why I can't pretend or act with you; I must be frank.'
'Please, do be frank.'
'I love you. I'm madly in love with you. I adore you.'
Aylmer stopped, deeply moved at the sound of his own words. Few people realise the effect such words have on the speaker. Saying them to her was a great joy, and an indulgence, but it increased painfully his passionate feeling, making it more accentuated and acute. To let himself go verbally was a wild, bitter pleasure. It hurt him, and he enjoyed it.
'And I'd do anything in the world to get you. And I'd do anything in the world for you, too. And if you cared for me I'd go away all the same. At least, I believe I should...We shall be there in a minute.
'Listen, dear. I want you, occasionally, to write to me; there's no earthly reason why you shouldn't. I'll let you know my address. It will prevent my being too miserable, or rushing back. And will you do something else for me?'
'Angel! Well, when you write, call me Aylmer. You never have yet, in a letter. Treat me just like a friend—as you treat Vincy. Tell me what you're doing, where you're going, who you see; about Archie and Dilly; about your new dresses and hats; what you're reading—any little thing, so that I'm still in touch with you.'
'Yes, I will; I shall like to. And don't be depressed, Aylmer. Do enjoy your journey; write to me, too.'
'Yes, I'm going to write to you, but only in an official way, only for Bruce. And, listen. Take care of yourself. You're too unselfish. Do what you want sometimes, not what other people want all the time. Don't read too much by electric light and try your eyes. And don't go out in these thin shoes in damp weather—promise!'
She laughed a little—touched.
'Be a great deal with the children. I like to think of you with them. And I hope you won't be always going out,' he continued, in a tone of unconscious command, which she enjoyed....'Please don't be continually at Lady Everard's, or at the Mitchells', or anywhere. I hate you to be admired—how I hate it!'
'Fancy! And I was always brought up to believe people are proud of what's called the 'success' of the people that they—like.'
'Don't you believe it, Edith! That's all bosh—vanity and nonsense. At any rate, I know I'm not. In fact, as I can't have you myself, I would really like you to be shut up. Very happy, very well, with everything in the world you like, even thinking of me a little, but absolutely shut up! And if you did go out, for a breath of air, I should like no-one to see you. I'd like you to cover up your head—wear a thick veil—and a thick loose dress!'
'You're very Oriental!' she laughed.
'I'm not a bit Oriental; I'm human. It's selfish, I suppose, you think? Well, let me tell you, if you care to know, that it's love, and nothing else, Edith....Now, is there anything in the world I can do for you while I'm away? It would be kind to ask me. Remember I shan't see you for three months. I may come back in September. Can't I send you something—do something that you'd like? I count on you to ask me at any time if there's anything in the world I could do for you, no matter what!'
No woman could help being really pleased at such whole-hearted devotion and such Bluebeard-like views—especially when they were not going to be carried out. Edith was thrilled by the passionate emotion she felt near her. How cold it would be when he had gone! He was nice, handsome, clever—a darling!
'Don't forget me, Aylmer. I don't want you to forget me. Later on we'll have a real friendship.'
'Friendship! Don't use that word. It's so false—such humbug—for me at any rate. To say I could care for you as a friend is simply blasphemy! How can it be possible for me? But I'll try. Thanks for anything! You're an angel—I'll try.'
'And it's horribly inconsistent, and no doubt very wicked of me, but, do you know, I should be rather pained if I heard you had fallen in love with someone else.'
'Ah, that would be impossible!' he cried. 'Never—never! It's the real thing; there never was anyone like you, there never will be.
Let me look at you once more....Oh, Edith! And now—here we are.'
Edith took away her hand. 'Your scarf's coming off, you'll catch cold,' said Aylmer, and as he was trying, rather awkwardly, to put the piece of blue chiffon round her head he drew the dear head to him and kissed her harshly. She could not protest; it was too final; besides, they were arriving; the cab stopped. Vincy came to the door.
'Welcome to Normanhurst!' cried Vincy, with unnecessary facetiousness, giving them a slightly anxious glance. He thought Edith had more colour than usual. Aylmer was pale.
* * * * *
The supper was an absolute and complete failure; the guests displayed the forced gaiety and real depression, and constrained absentmindedness, of genuine and hopeless boredom. Except for Lady Everard's ceaseless flow of empty prattle the pauses would have been too obvious. Edith, for whom it was a dreary anti-climax, was rather silent. Aylmer talked more, and a little more loudly, than usual, and looked worn. Bruce, whom champagne quickly saddened, became vaguely reminiscent and communicative about old, dead, forgotten grievances of the past, while Vincy, who was a little shocked at what he saw (and he always saw everything), did his very best, just saving the entertainment from being a too disastrous frost.
'Well! Good luck!' said Aylmer, lifting his glass with sham conviviality.' I start tomorrow morning by the Orient Express.'
'Hooray!' whispered Vincy primly.
'Doesn't it sound romantic and exciting?' Edith said. 'The two words together are so delightfully adventurous. Orient—the languid East, and yet express—quickness, speed. It's a fascinating blend of ideas.'
'Whether it's adventurous or not isn't the question, my dear girl; I only wish we were going too,' said Bruce, with a sigh; 'but, I never can get away from my wretched work, to have any fun, like you lucky chaps, with no responsibilities or troubles! I suppose perhaps we may take the children to Westgate for Whitsuntide, and that's about all. Not that there isn't quite a good hotel there, and of course it's all right for me, because I shall play golf all day and run up to town when I want to. Still, it's very different from one of these jolly long journeys that you gay bachelors can indulge in.'
'But I'm not a gay bachelor. My boy is coming to join me in the summer holidays, wherever I am,' said Aylmer.
'Ah, but that's not the point. I should like to go with you now—at once. Don't you wish we were both going, Edith? Why aren't we going with him tomorrow?'
'Surely June's just the nice time in London, Bruce,' said Vincy, in his demure voice.
'Won't it be terribly hot?' said Lady Everard vaguely. She always thought every place must be terribly hot. 'Venice? Are you going to Venice? Delightful! The Viennese are so charming, and the Austrian officers—Oh, you're going to Sicily first? Far too hot. Paul La France—the young singer, you know—told me that when he was in Sicily his voice completely altered; the heat quite affected the veloute of his voice, as the French call it—and what a voice it is at its best! It's not the highest tenor, of course, but the medium is so wonderfully soft and well developed. I don't say for a moment that he will ever be a Caruso, but as far as he goes—and he goes pretty far, mind—it's really wonderful. You're coming on Wednesday, aren't you, dear Mrs Ottley? Ah!'... She stopped and held up her small beaded fan, 'what's that the band's playing? I know it so well; everyone knows it; it's either Pagliacci or Boheme, or something. No, isn't it really? What is it? All the old Italian operas are coming in again, by the way, you know, my dear... Rigoletto, Lucia, Traviata—the bel canto—that sort of thing; there's nothing like it for showing off the voice. Wagner's practically gone out (at least what I call out), and I always said Debussy wouldn't last. Paul La France still clings to Brahms—Brahms suits his voice better than anyone else. He always falls back on Brahms, and dear de Lara; and Tosti; of course, Tosti. I remember...'
* * * * *
Aylmer and his guests had reached the stage of being apparently all lost in their own thoughts, and the conversation had been practically reduced to a disjointed monologue on music by Lady Everard, when the lights began to be lowered, and the party broke up.
'I'm coming to see you so soon,' said Vincy.
It was about a fortnight later.
Edith and Bruce, from different directions, arrived at the same moment at their door, and went up together in the lift. On the little hall-table was a letter addressed to Edith. She took it up rather quickly, and went into the drawing-room. Bruce followed her.
'That a letter, Edith?'
'What do you suppose it is, Bruce?'
'What could I have supposed it was, Edith? A plum pudding?' He laughed very much.
'You are very humorous today, Bruce.'
She sat down with her hat, veil and gloves on, holding the letter. She did not go to her room, because that would leave her no further retreat. Bruce sat down exactly opposite to her, with his coat and gloves on. He slowly drew off one glove, folded it carefully, and put it down. Then he said amiably, a little huskily:
'Letter from a friend?'
'I beg your pardon? What did you say, dear?'
He raised his voice unnecessarily:
'I Said A LETTER FROM A FRIEND!'
She started. 'Oh yes! I heard this time.'
'Edith, I know of an excellent aurist in Bond Street. I wish you'd go and see him. I'll give you the address.'
'I know of a very good elocutionist in Oxford Street. I think I would go and have some lessons, if I were you, Bruce; the summer classes are just beginning. They teach you to speak so clearly, to get your voice over the footlights, as it were. I think all men require to study oratory and elocution. It comes in so useful!'
Bruce lowered his voice almost to a whisper.
'Are you playing the fool with me?'
She nodded amiably in the manner of a person perfectly deaf, but who is pretending to hear.
'Yes, dear; yes, quite right.'
'What do you mean by 'quite right'?' He unfastened his coat and threw it open, glaring at her a little.
'Who—me? I don't know.'
'Who is that letter from, Edith?' he said breezily, in a tone of sudden careless and cheery interest.
'I haven't read it yet, Bruce,' she answered, in the same tone, brightly.
'Oh. Why don't you read it?'
'Oh! I shall presently.'
'When I've opened it.'
He took off his other glove, folded it with the first one, made them into a ball, and threw it across the room against the window, while his colour deepened.
'Oh, do you want to have a game? Shall I send for Archie?'
'Edith, why don't you take off your hat?'
'I can't think. Why don't you take off your coat?'
'I haven't time. Show me that letter.'
'Don't prevaricate with me.' Bruce had now definitely lost his temper. 'I can stand anything except prevarication. Anything in the world, but prevarication, I can endure, with patience. But not that! As if you didn't know perfectly well there's only one letter I want to see.'
'Who's your letter from?'
'How should I know?'
Edith got up and went towards the door. Bruce was beforehand with her and barred the way, standing with his arms outstretched and his back to the door.
'Edith, I'm pained and surprised at your conduct!'
'Conduct!' she exclaimed.
'Don't echo my words! I will not be echoed, do you hear?... Behaviour, then, if you prefer the word.... Why don't you wish me to see that letter?'
Edith quickly looked at the letter. Until this moment she had had an unreasonable and nervous terror that Aylmer might have forgotten his intention of writing what he called officially, and might have written her what she now inwardly termed a lot of nonsense. But she now saw she had made a mistake: it was not his handwriting nor his postmark. She became firmer.
'Look here Bruce,' she said, in a decided voice, quietly. 'We have been married eight years, and I consider you ought to trust me sufficiently to allow me to open my own letters.'
'Oh, you do, do you? What next? What next! I suppose the next thing you'll wish is to be a suffragette.'
'The question,' said Edith, in the most cool, high, irritating voice she could command, 'really, of votes for women hardly enters into our argument here. As a matter of fact, I take no interest in any kind of politics, and, I may be entirely wrong, but if I were compelled to take sides on the subject, I should be an anti-suffragist.'
'Oh, you would, would you? That's as well to know! That's interesting. Give me that letter.'
'Do you think you have the right to speak to me like that?'
'Edith,' he said rather pathetically, trying to control himself. 'I beg you, I implore you to let me see the letter! Hang it all! You know perfectly well, old girl, how fond I am of you. I may worry you a bit sometimes, but you know my heart's all right.'
'Of course, Bruce; I'm not finding fault with you. I only want to read my own letter, that's all.'
'But if I let you out of this room without having shown it me, then if there's something you don't want me to see, you'll tear it up or chuck it in the fire.'
Edith was quite impressed at this flash of prophetic insight. She admitted to herself he was right.
'It's entirely a matter of principle,' she said after another reassuring look at the envelope. 'It's only a matter of principle, dear, I'm twenty-eight years old, we've been married eight years; you leave the housekeeping, the whole ordering of the children's education, and heaps of other quite important things, entirely to me; in fact, you lead almost the life of a schoolboy, without any of the tiresome part, and with freedom, going to school in the day and amusing yourself in the evening, while everything disagreeable and important is thought of and seen to for you. You only have the children with you when they amuse you. I have all the responsibility; I have to be patient, thoughtful—in fact, you leave things to me more than most men do to their wives, Bruce. You won't be bothered even to look at an account—to do a thing. But I'm not complaining.'
'Oh, you're not! It sounded a little like it.'
'But it isn't. I don't mind all this responsibility, but I ought, at least, to be allowed to read my letters.'
'Well, darling, you shall, as a rule. Look here, old girl, you shall. I promise you, faithfully, dear. Oh, Edith, you're looking awfully pretty; I like that hat. Look here, I promise you, dear, I'll never ask you again, never as long as I live. But I've a fancy to read this particular letter. Why not just gratify it? It's a very harmless whim.' His tone suddenly changed. 'What do you suppose there's in the damned letter? Something you're jolly well anxious I shouldn't see.'
She made a step forward. He rushed at her, snatched the letter out of her hand, and went to the window with it.
She went into her own room, shut the door, and threw herself on the bed, her whole frame shaking with suppressed laughter.
* * * * *
Bruce, alone, with trembling fingers tore open the envelope. Never in his life had he been opposed by Edith before in this way. He read these words in stereotyped writing:
'Van will call on receipt of post-card. The Lavender Laundry hopes that you will give them a trial, as their terms are extremely mod—'
Bruce rushed to the door and called out:
'Edith! Sorry! Edie, I say, I'm sorry. Come back.'
There was no answer.
He pushed the letter under the door of her room, and said through the keyhole:
'Edith, look here, I'm just going for a little walk. I'll be back to dinner. Don't be angry.'
Bruce brought her home a large bunch of Parma violets. But neither of them ever referred to the question again, and for some time there was a little less of the refrain of 'Am I master in my own house, or am I not?'
The next morning, when a long letter came from Aylmer, from Spain, Edith read it at breakfast and Bruce didn't ask a single question. However, she left it on his plate, as if by mistake. He might just as well read it.
Vincy had the reputation of spending his fortune with elaborate yet careful lavishness, buying nothing that he did not enjoy, and giving away everything he did not want. At the same time his friends occasionally wondered on what he did spend both his time and his money. He was immensely popular, quite sought after socially; but he declined half his invitations and lived a rather quiet existence in the small flat, with its Oriental decorations and violent post-impressions and fierce Chinese weapons, high up in Victoria Street. Vincy really concealed under an amiable and gentle exterior the kindest heart of any man in London. There was 'more in him than met the eye,' as people say, and, frank and confidential as he was to his really intimate friends, at least one side of his life was lived in shadow. It was his secret romance with a certain young girl artist, whom he saw rarely, for sufficient reasons. He was not devoted to her in the way that he was to Edith, for whom he had the wholehearted enthusiasm of a loyal friend, and the idolising worship of a fanatic admirer. It was perhaps Vincy's nature, a little, to sacrifice himself for anyone he was fond of. He spent a great deal of time thinking out means of helping materially the young art-student, and always he succeeded in this object by his elaborate and tactful care. For he knew she was very, very poor, and that her pride was of an old-fashioned order—she never said she was hard up, as every modern person does, whether rich or poor, but he knew that she really lacked what he considered very nearly—if not quite—the necessities of life.
Vincy's feeling for her was a curious one. He had known her since she was sixteen (she was now twenty-four). Yet he did not trust her, and she troubled him. He had met her at a studio at a time when he had thought of studying art seriously. Sometimes, something about her worried and wearied him, yet he couldn't do without her for long. The fact that he knew he was of great help to her fascinated him; he often thought that if she had been rich and he poor he would never wish to see her again. Certainly it was the touch of pathos in her life that held him; also, of course, she was pretty, with a pale thin face, deep blue eyes, and rich dark red frizzy hair that was always coming down—the untidy hair of the art-student.
He was very much afraid of compromising her, and she was very much afraid of the elderly aunt with whom she lived. She had no parents, which made her more pathetic, but no more free. He could not go and see her, with any satisfaction to either of them, at her home, though he did so occasionally. This was why she first went to see him at his flat. But these visits, as they were both placed, could, of course, happen rarely.
Mavis Argles—this was the girl's extraordinary name—had a curious fascination for him. He was rather fond of her, yet the greatest wish he had in the world was to break it off. When with her he felt himself to be at once a criminal and a benefactor, a sinner and a saint. Theoretically, theatrically, and perhaps conventionally, his relations with her constituted him the villain of the piece. Yet he behaved to her more like Don Quixote than Don Juan....
* * * * *
One afternoon about four o'clock—he was expecting her—Vincy had arranged an elaborate tea on his little green marble dining-table. Everything was there that she liked. She was particularly attached to scones; he also had cream-cakes, sandwiches, sweets, chocolate and strawberries. As he heard the well-known slightly creaking step, his heart began to beat loudly—quick beats. He changed colour, smiled, and nervously went to the door.
'Here you are, Mavis!' He calmed her and himself by this banal welcome.
He made a movement to help her off with her coat, but she stopped him, and he didn't insist, guessing that she supposed her blouse to be unfit for publication.
She sat down on the sofa, and leaned back, looking at him with her pretty, weary, dreary, young, blue eyes.
'It seems such a long time since I saw you,' said Vincy. 'You're tired; I wish I had a lift.'
'I am tired,' she spoke in rather a hoarse voice always. 'And I ought not to stop long.'
'Oh, stay a minute longer, won't you?' he asked.
'Well, I like that! I've only just this moment arrived!'
'Oh, Mavis, don't say that! Have some tea.'
He waited on her till she looked brighter.
'How is Aunt Jessie?'
'Aunt Jessie's been rather ill.'
'Still that nasty pain?' asked Vincy.
She stared at him, then laughed.
'As if you remember anything about it.'
'Oh, Mavis! I do remember it. I remember what was the matter with her quite well.'
'I bet you don't. What was it?' she asked, with childish eagerness.
'It was that wind round the heart that she gets sometimes. She told me about it. Nothing seems to shift it, either.'
Mavis laughed—hoarse, childlike laughter that brought tears to her eyes.
'It's a shame to make fun of Aunt Jessie; she's a very, very good sort.'
'Oh, good gracious, Mavis, if it comes to sorts, I'm sure she's quite at the top of the tree. But don't let's bother about her now.'
'What do you want to bother about?'
'Couldn't you come out and dine with me, Mavis? It would be a change'—he was going to say 'for you', but altered it—'for me.'
'Oh no, Vincy; you can't take me out to dinner. I don't look up to the mark.' She looked in a glass. 'My hat—it's a very good hat—it cost more than you'd think—but it shows signs of wear.'
'Oh, that reminds me,' began Vincy. 'What do you think happened the other day? A cousin of mine who was up in London a little while bought a hat—it didn't suit her, and she insisted on giving it to me! She didn't know what to do to get rid of it! I'd given her something or other, for her birthday, and she declared she would give this to me for my birthday, and so—I've got it on my hands.'
'What a very queer thing! It doesn't sound true.'
'No; does it? Do have some more tea, Mavis darling.'
'No, thanks; I'll have another cake.'
'May I smoke?'
She laughed. 'Asking me! You do what you like in your own house.'
'It's yours,' he answered, 'when you're here. And when you're not, even more,' he added as an afterthought.
He struck a match; she laughed and said: 'I don't believe I understand you a bit.'
'Oh—I went to the play last night,' said Vincy. 'Oh, Mavis, it was such a wearing play.'
'All about nothing, I suppose? They always are, now.'
'Oh no. It was all about everything. The people were so clever; it was something cruel how clever they were. One man did lay down the law! Oh, didn't he though! I don't hold with being bullied and lectured from the stage, do you, Mavis? It seems so unfair when you can't answer back.'
'Was it Bernard Shaw?' she asked.
'No; it wasn't; not this time; it was someone else. Oh, I do feel sometimes when I'm sitting in my stall, so good and quiet, holding my programme nicely and sitting up straight to the table, as it were, and then a fellow lets me have it, tells me where I'm wrong and all that; I should like to stand up and give a back answer, wouldn't you?'
'No; I'd like to see you do it! Er—what colour is that hat that your cousin gave you?'
'Oh, colour?' he said thoughtfully, smoking. 'Let me see—what colour was it? It doesn't seem to me that it was any particular colour. It was a very curious colour. Sort of mole-colour. Or was it cerise? Or violet?... You wouldn't like to see it, would you?'
'Why, yes, I'd like to see it; I wouldn't try it on of course.'
He opened the box.
'Why, what a jolly hat!' she exclaimed. 'You may not know it, but that would just suit me; it would go with my dress, too.'
She took off her own hat, and touched up her hair with her fingers, and tried on the other. Under it her eyes brightened in front of the glass; her colour rose; she changed as one looked at her—she was sixteen again—the child he had first met at the Art School.
'Don't you think it suits me?' she said, turning round.
'Yes, I think you look very charming in it. Shall I put it back?'
There was a pause.
'I sha'n't know what on earth to do with it,' he said discontentedly. 'It's so silly having a hat about in a place like this. Of course you wouldn't dare to keep it, I suppose? It does suit you all right, you know; it would be awfully kind of you.'
'What a funny person you are, Vincy. I should like to keep it. What could I tell Aunt Jessie?'
'Ah, well, you see, that's where it is! I suppose it wouldn't do for you to tell her the truth.'
'What do you mean by the truth?'
'I mean what I told you—how my cousin, Cissie Cavanack,' he smiled a little as he invented this name, 'came up to town, chose the wrong hat, didn't know what to do with it—and, you know!'
'I could tell her all that, of course.'
'All right,' said Vincy, putting the other hat—the old one—in the box.' Where shall we dine?'
'Oh, Vincy, I think you're very sweet to me, but how late dare I get back to Ravenscourt Park?'
'Why not miss the eight-five train?—then you'll catch the quarter to ten and get back at about eleven.'
'Which would you rather I did?'
'Well, need you ask?'
'I don't know, Vincy. I have a curious feeling sometimes. I believe you're rather glad when I've gone—relieved!'
'Well, my dear,' he answered, 'look how you worry all the time! If you'd only have what I call a quiet set-down and a chat, without being always on the fidget, always looking either at the glass or at the clock, one might not have that feeling.'
Her colour rose, and tears came to her eyes. 'Oh, then you are glad when I'm gone!' She pouted. 'You don't care for me a bit, Vincy,' she said, in a plaintive voice.
He sat down next to her on the little striped sofa, and took her hand.
'Oh, give over, Mavis, do give over! I wish you wouldn't carry on like that; you do carry on, Mavis dear, don't you? Some days you go on something cruel, you do really. Reely, I mean. Now, cheer up and be jolly. Give a kiss to the pretty gentleman, and look at all these pretty good-conduct stripes on the sofa! There! That's better.'
'Don't speak as if I were a baby!'
'Do you mind telling me what we're quarrelling about, my dear? I only ask for information.'
'Oh, we're not. You're awfully sweet. You know I love you, Vincy.'
'I thought, perhaps, it was really all right.'
'Sometimes I feel miserable and jealous.'
He smiled. 'Ah! What are you jealous of, Mavis?'
'Oh, everything—everyone—all the people you meet.'
'Is that all? Well, you're the only person I ever meet—by appointment, at any rate.'
His eye instinctively travelled to a photograph of Edith, all tulle and roses; a rather fascinating portrait.
'What about her?' asked Mavis. 'What price Mrs Ottley?'
'Really, Mavis!—What price? No price. Nothing about her; she's just a great friend of mine. I think I told you that before. ... What a frightfully bright light there is in the room,' Vincy said. He got up and drew the blind down. He came back to her.
'Your hair's coming down,' he remarked.
'I'm sorry,' she said. 'But at the back it generally is.'
'Don't move—let me do it.'
Pretending to arrange it, he took all the hairpins out, and the cloud of dark red hair fell down on her shoulders.
'I like your hair, Mavis.'
* * * * *
'It seems too awful I should have been with you such a long time this afternoon,' she exclaimed.
'It isn't long.'
'And sometimes it seems so dreadful to think I can't be with you always.'
'Yes, doesn't it? Mavis dear, will you do up your hair and come out to dinner?'
'Vincy dear, I think I'd better not, because of Aunt Jessie.'
'Oh, very well; all right. Then you will another time?'
'Oh, you don't want me to stay?'
'Yes, I do; do stay.'
'No, next time—next Tuesday.'
'Very well, very well.'
He took a dark red carnation out of one of the vases and pinned it on to her coat.
'The next time I see you,' she said, 'I want to have a long, long talk.'
'Oh yes; we must, mustn't we?'
He took her downstairs, put her into a cab. It was half-past six.
He felt something false, worrying, unreliable and incalculable in Mavis. She didn't seem real.... He wished she were fortunate and happy; but he wished even more that he were never going to see her again. And still!...
He walked a little way, then got into a taxi and drove to see Edith. When he was in this peculiar condition of mind—the odd mixture of self-reproach, satisfaction, amusement and boredom that he felt now —he always went to see Edith, throwing himself into the little affairs of her life as if he had nothing else on his mind. He was a little anxious about Edith. It seemed to him that since Aylmer had been away she had altered a little.
More of the Mitchells
Edith had become an immense favourite with the Mitchells. They hardly ever had any entertainment without her. Her success with their friends delighted Mrs Mitchell, who was not capable of commonplace feminine jealousy, and who regarded Edith as a find of her own. She often reproached Winthrop, her husband, for having known Bruce eight years without discovering his charming wife.
One evening they had a particularly gay party. Immediately after dinner Mitchell had insisted on dressing up, and was solemnly announced in his own house as Prince Gonoff, a Russian noble. He had a mania for disguising himself. He had once travelled five hundred miles under the name of Prince Gotoffski, in a fur coat, a foreign accent, a false moustache and a special saloon carriage. Indeed, only his wife knew all the secrets of Mitchell's wild early career of unpractical jokes, to some of which he still clung. When he was younger he had carried it pretty far. She encouraged him, yet at the same time she acted as ballast, and was always explaining his jokes; sometimes she was in danger of explaining him entirely away. She loved to tell of his earlier exploits. How often, when younger, he had collected money for charities (particularly for the Deaf and Dumb Cats' League, in which he took special interest), by painting halves of salmon and ships on fire on the cold grey pavement! Armed with an accordion, and masked to the eyes, he had appeared at Eastbourne, and also at the Henley Regatta, as a Mysterious Musician. At the regatta he had been warned off the course, to his great pride and joy. Mrs Mitchell assured Edith that his bath-chair race with a few choice spirits was still talked of at St Leonard's (bath-chairmen, of course, are put in the chairs, and you pull them along). Mr Mitchell was beaten by a short head, but that, Mrs Mitchell declared, was really most unfair, because he was so handicapped—his man was much stouter than any of the others—and the race, by rights, should have been run again.
When he was at Oxford he had been well known for concealing under a slightly rowdy exterior the highest spirits of any of the undergraduates. He was looked upon as the most fascinating of farceurs. It seems that he had distinguished himself there less for writing Greek verse, though he was good at it, than for the wonderful variety of fireworks that he persistently used to let off under the dean's window. It was this fancy of his that led, first, to his popularity, and afterwards to the unfortunate episode of his being sent down; soon after which he had married privately, chiefly in order to send his parents an announcement of his wedding in The Morning Post, as a surprise.
Some people had come in after dinner—for there was going to be a little sauterie intime, as Mrs Mitchell called it, speaking in an accent of her own, so appalling that, as Vincy observed, it made it sound quite improper. Edith watched, intensely amused, as she saw that there were really one or two people present who, never having seen Mitchell before, naturally did not recognise him now, so that the disguise was considered a triumph. There was something truly agreeable in the deference he was showing to a peculiarly yellow lady in red, adorned with ugly real lace, and beautiful false hair. She was obviously delighted with the Russian prince.
'Winthrop is a wonderful man!' said Mrs Mitchell to Edith, as she watched her husband proudly. 'Who would dream he was clean-shaven! Look at that moustache! Look at the wonderful way his coat doesn't fit; he's got just that Russian touch with his clothes; I don't know how he's done it, I'm sure. How I wish dear Aylmer Ross was here; he would appreciate it so much.'
'Yes, I wish he were,' said Edith.
'I can't think what he went away for. I suppose he heard the East a-calling, and all that sort of thing. The old wandering craving you read of came over him again, I suppose. Well, let's hope he'll meet some charming girl and bring her back as his bride. Where is he now, do you know, Mrs Ottley?'
'In Armenia, I fancy,' said Edith.
'Oh, well, we don't want him to bring home an Armenian, do we? What colour are they? Blue, or brown, or what? I hope no-one will tell Lady Hartland that is my husband. She'll expect to see Winthrop tonight; she never met him, you know; but he really ought to be introduced to her. I think I shall tell him to go and undress, when they've had a little dancing and she's been down to supper.'
Lady Hartland was the yellow lady in red, who thought she was flirting with a fascinating Slav.
'She's a sort of celebrity,' continued Mrs Mitchell. 'She was an American once, and she married Sir Charles Hartland for her money. I hate these interested marriages, don't you?—especially when they're international. Sir Charles isn't here; he's such a sweet boy. He's a friend of Mr Cricker; it's through Mr Cricker I know them, really. Lady Everard has taken such a fancy to young Cricker; she won't leave him alone. After all he's my friend, and as he's not musical I don't see that she has any special right to him; but he's there every Wednesday now, and does his dances on their Sunday evenings too. He's got a new one—lovely, quite lovely—an imitation of Lydia Kyasht as a water-nymph. I wanted him to do it here tonight, but Lady Everard has taken him to the opera. Now, won't you dance? Your husband promised he would. You both look so young!'
Edith refused to dance. She sat in a corner with Vincy and watched the dancers.
By special permission, as it was so intime, the Turkey Trot was allowed. Bruce wanted to attempt it with Myra Mooney, but she was horrified, and insisted on dancing the 1880 trois-temps to a jerky American two-step.
'Edith,' said Vincy; 'I think you're quieter than you used to be. Sometimes you seem rather absent-minded.'
'Am I? I'm sorry; there's nothing so tedious to other people. Why do you think I'm more serious?'
'I think you miss Aylmer.'
'Yes, I do. He gave a sort of meaning to everything. He's always interesting. And there's something about him—I don't know what it is. Oh, don't be frightened, Vincy, I'm not going to use the word personality. Isn't that one of the words that ought to be forbidden altogether? In all novels and newspapers that poor, tired word is always cropping up.'
'Yes, that and magnetism, and temperament, and technique. Let's cut out technique altogether. Don't let there be any, that's the best way; then no-one can say anything about it. I'm fed up with it. Aren't you?'
'Oh, I don't agree with you at all. I think there ought to be any amount of technique, and personality, and magnetism, and temperament. I don't mind how much technique there is, as long as nobody talks about it. But neither of these expressions is quite so bad as that dreadful thing you always find in American books, and that lots of people have caught up—especially palmists and manicures—mentality.'
'Yes, mentality's very depressing,' said Vincy. 'I could get along nicely without it, I think.... I had a long letter from Aylmer today. He seemed unhappy.'
'I had a few lines yesterday,' said Edith. 'He said he was having a very good time. What did he say to you?'
'Oh, he wrote, frankly to me.'
'Bored, is he?'
'Miserable; enamoured of sorrow; got the hump; frightfully off colour; wants to come back to London. He misses the Mitchells. I suppose it's the Mitchells.'
Edith smiled and looked pleased. 'He asked me not to come here much.'
'Ah! But he wouldn't want you to go anywhere. That is so like Aylmer. He's not jealous; of course. How could he be? It's only a little exclusiveness.... And how delightfully rare that is, Edith dear. I admire him for it. Most people now seem to treasure anything they value in proportion to the extent that it's followed about and surrounded by the vulgar public. I sympathise with that feeling of wishing to keep—anything of that sort—to oneself.'
'You are more secretive than jealous, yourself. But I have very much the same feeling,' Edith said. 'Many women I know think the ideal of happiness is to be in love with a great man, or to be the wife of a great public success; to share his triumph! They forget you share the man as well!'
'I suppose the idea is that, after the publicity and the acclamation and the fame and the public glory and the shouting, you take the person home, and feel he is only yours, really.'
'But, can a famous person be only yours? No. I shouldn't like it.
It isn't that I don't like cleverness and brilliance, but I don't care for the public glory.'
'I see; you don't mind how great a genius he is, as long as he isn't appreciated,' replied Vincy. 'Well, then, in heaven's name let us stick to our obscurities!'
The Agonies of Aylmer
In the fresh cheerfulness of the early morning, after sleep, with the hot June sun shining in at the window, Aylmer used to think he was better. He would read his letters and papers, dress slowly, look out of the window at the crowds on the pavement—he had come back to Paris—feel the infectious cheeriness and sense of adventure of the city; then he would say to himself that his trip had been successful. He was better. When he went out his heart began to sink a little already, but he fought it off; there would be a glimpse of an English face flashing past in a carriage—he thought of Edith, but he put it aside. Then came lunch. For some reason, immediately after lunch his malady—for, of course, such love is a malady—incongruously attacked him in an acute form. 'Why after lunch?' he asked himself. Could it be that only when he was absolutely rested, before he had had any sort of fatigue, that the deceptive improvement would show itself? He felt a wondering humiliation at his own narrow grief.
However, this was the hour that it recurred; he didn't know why. He had tried all sorts of physical cures—for there is no disguising the fact that such suffering is physical, and so why should the cure not be, also? He had tried wine, no wine, exercise, distraction, everything—and especially a constant change of scene. This last was the worst of all. He felt so exiled in Sicily, and in Spain—so terribly far away—it was unbearable. He was happier directly he got to Paris, because he seemed more in touch with England and her. Yes; the pain had begun again....
Aylmer went and sat alone outside the cafe. It was not his nature to dwell on his own sensations. He would diagnose them quickly and acutely, and then throw them aside. He was quickly bored with himself; he was no egotist. But today, he thought, he would analyse his state, to see what could be done.
Six weeks! He had not seen her for six weeks. The longing was no better. The pain seemed to begin at his throat, pressing down gradually on the chest It was that feeling of oppression, he supposed, that makes one sigh; as though there were a weight on the heart. And certain little memories made it acute; sudden flashing vivid recollection of that last drive was like a sharp jagged tear. Had they ever been on nearer terms, and had she treated him badly, it would not have caused this slow and insidious suffering. He was a man of spirit; he was proud and energetic; he would have thrown it off. If he could have been angry with her, or despised her, he could have cured himself in time. Instead of that, all the recollections were of an almost sickening sweetness; particularly that kiss on the day he went to see her. And the other, the second, was also the last; so it had a greater bitterness.
'Rapture sharper than a sword, Joy like o sudden spear.'
These words, casually read somewhere, came back to him whenever he remembered her!
Aylmer had read, heard of these obsessions, but never believed in them. It was folly, madness!
He stood up, tossing his head as though to throw it off.
He went to fetch some friends, went with them to see pictures, to have tea, and to drive in the Bois, accepting also an invitation to dine with a man—a nice boy—a fellow who had been at Oxford with him, and was at the embassy here, a young attache.
He was quite nice: a little dull, and a little too fond of talking about his chief.
Aylmer got home at about half-past six to dress for dinner. Then the torture began again. It was always worse towards evening—an agony of longing, regret, fury, vague jealousy and desire.
He stood and looked out of the window again at the crowd, hurrying along now to their pleasures or their happy homes. So many people in the world, like stars in the sky—why want the one star only? Why cry for the moon?
He had no photograph of her, but he still thought she was like his mother's miniature, and often looked at it. He wished he wasn't going to dine with that young man tonight. Aylmer was the most genial and sociable of men; he usually disliked being alone; yet just now being with people bored him; it seemed an interruption. He was going through a crisis.
Yes; he could not stand anyone this evening. He rang the bell and sent a petit bleu to say he was prevented from dining with his friend. What a relief when he had sent this—now he could think of her alone in peace....
She had never asked him to go away. It was his own idea. He had come away to get over it. Well, he hadn't got over it. He was worse. But it wasn't because he didn't see her; no, he didn't deceive himself. The more he saw of her the worse he would be. Not one man in a thousand was capable of feeling so intensely and deeply as Aylmer felt, and never in his life before had he felt anything like it. And now it came on again with the ebb and flow of passion, like an illness. Why was he so miserable—why would nothing else do? He suddenly remembered with a smile that when he was five years old he had adored a certain nurse, and for some reason or other his mother sent her away. He had cried and cried for her to come back. He remembered even now how people had said: 'Oh, the child will soon forget.' But he wore out their patience; he cried himself to sleep every night. And his perseverance had at last been rewarded. After six weeks the nurse came back. His mother sent for her in despair at the boy's misery. How well he remembered that evening and her plain brown face, with the twinkling eyes. How he kissed his mother, and thanked her! The nurse stayed till he went to school and then he soon forgot all about her. Perhaps it was in his nature at rare intervals to want one particular person so terribly, to pine and die for someone!
That was a recollection of babyhood, and yet he remembered even now that obstinate, aching longing.... He suddenly felt angry, furious. What was Edith doing now? Saying good-night to Archie and Dilly? They certainly did look, as she had said, heavenly angels in their night attire (he had been privileged to see them). Then she was dressing for dinner and going out with Bruce. Good heavens! what noble action had Bruce ever done for him that he should go away? Why make such a sacrifice—for Bruce?
Perhaps, sometimes, she really missed him a little. They had had great fun together; she looked upon him as a friend; not only that, but he knew that he amused her, that she liked him, thought him clever, and—admired him even.
But that was all. Yet she could have cared for him. He knew that. And not only in one way, but in every way. They could have been comrades interested in the same things; they had the same sense of humour, much the same point of view. She would have made him, probably, self-restrained and patient as she was, in certain things. But, in others, wouldn't he have fired her with his own ideas and feelings, and violent passions and enthusiasms!
She was to be always with Bruce! That was to be her life!—Bruce, who was almost indescribable because he was neither bad, nor stupid, nor bad-looking. He had only one fault. 'Il n'a qu'un defaut—il est impossible,' said Aylmer aloud to himself.
He took up a book—of course one of her books, something she had lent him.
* * * * *
Now it was time to go out again—to dinner. He couldn't; it was too much effort. Tonight he would give way, and suffer grief and desire and longing like a physical pain. He hadn't heard from her lately. Suppose she should be ill? Suppose she was forgetting him entirely? Soon they would be going away to some summer place with the children. He stamped his foot like an angry child as he imagined her in her thin summer clothes. How people would admire her! How young she would look! Why couldn't he find some fault with her?—imagine her cold, priggish, dull, too cautious. But he could only think of her as lovely, as beyond expression attractive, drawing him like a magnet, as marvellously kind, gentle, graceful, and clever. He was obliged to use the stupid word clever, as there was no other. He suddenly remembered her teeth when she smiled, and a certain slight wave in her thick hair that was a natural one. It is really barely decent to write about poor Aylmer as he is alone, suffering, thinking himself unwatched. He suddenly threw himself on his bed and gave way to a crisis of despair.
* * * * *
About an hour later, when the pain had somehow become stupefied, he lit a cigarette, ashamed of his emotion even to himself, and rang. The servant brought him a letter—the English post.
He had thought so much of her, felt her so deeply the last few days that he fancied it must somehow have reached her. He read:
'My Dear Aylmer,
'I'm glad you are in Paris; it seems nearer home. Last night I went to the Mitchells' and Mr Mitchell disguised himself as a Russian Count. Nobody worried about it, and then he went and undisguised himself again. But Lady Hartland worried about it, and as she didn't know the Mitchells before, when he was introduced to her properly she begged him to give her the address of that charming Russian. And Vincy was there, and darling Vincy told me you'd written him a letter saying you weren't so very happy. And oh, Aylmer, I don't see the point of your waiting till September to come back. Why don't you come now?
'We're going away for Archie's holidays. Come back and see us and take Freddie with us somewhere in England. You told me to ask you when I wanted you—ask you anything I wanted. Well, I want to see you. I miss you too much. You arrived in Paris last night. Let me knew when you can come. I want you.
The bell was rung violently. Orders were given, arrangements made, packing was done. Aylmer was suddenly quite well, quite happy.
In a few hours he was in the midnight express due to arrive in London at six in the morning—happy beyond expression.
By ten o'clock in the morning he would hear her voice on the telephone.
He met a poor man just outside the hotel selling matches, in rags. Aylmer gave him three hundred francs. He pretended to himself that he didn't want any more French money. He felt he wanted someone else to be happy too.
Edith did not know, herself, what had induced her to write that letter to Paris. Some gradual obscure influence, in an impulsive moment of weakness, a conventional dread of Paris for one's idol. Then, what Vincy told her had convinced her Aylmer was unhappy. She thought that surely there might be some compromise; that matters could be adjusted. Couldn't they go on seeing each other just as friends? Surely both would be happier than separated? For, yes—there was no doubt she missed him, and longed to see him. Is there any woman in the world on whom a sincere declaration from a charming, interesting person doesn't make an impression, and particularly if that person goes away practically the next day, leaving a blank? Edith had a high opinion of her own strength of will. When she appeared weak it was on some subject about which she was indifferent. She took a great pride in her own self-poise; her self-control, which was neither coldness nor density. She had made up her mind to bear always with the little irritations Bruce caused her; to guide him in the right direction; keep her influence with him in order to be able to arrange everything about the children just as she wished. The children were a deep and intense preoccupation. To say she adored them is insufficient. Archie she regarded almost as her greatest friend, Dilly as a pet; for both she had the strongest feeling that a mother could have. And yet the fact remained that they did not nearly fill her life. With Edith's intellect and temperament they could only fill a part.
Bending down to a lower stature of intelligence all day long would make one's head ache; standing on tiptoe and stretching up would do the same; one needs a contemporary and a comrade.
Perhaps till Edith met Aylmer she had not quite realised what such real comradeship might mean, coupled with another feeling—not the intellectual sympathy she had for Vincy, but something quite different. When she recollected their last drive her heart beat quickly, and the little memories of the few weeks of their friend-ship gave her unwonted moments of sentiment. Above all, it was a real, solid happiness—an uplifting pleasure, to believe he was utterly devoted to her. And so, in a moment of depression, a feeling of the sense of the futility of her life, she had, perhaps a little wantonly, written to ask him to come back. It is human to play with what one loves.
She thought she had a soft, tender admiration for him, that he had a charm for her; that she admired him. But she had not the slightest idea that on her side there was anything that could disturb her in any way. And so that his sentiment, which she had found to be rather infectious, should never carry her away, she meant only to see him now and then; to meet again and be friends.
As soon as she had written the letter and sent it she felt again a cheerful excitement. She felt sure he would come in a day or two.
Aylmer arrived, as I have said, eight hours after he received the letter. His first intention was to ring her up, or to speak to Bruce on the telephone. But it so happened that it was engaged. This decided him to have a short rest, and then go and surprise her with a visit. He thought he would have lunch at one (he knew she always lunched with the children at this hour), and would call on her unexpectedly at two, before she would have time to go out. They might have a long talk; he would give her the books and things he had bought for her, and he would have the pleasure of surprising her and seeing on her face that first look that no-one can disguise, the look of real welcome.
Merely to be back in the same town made him nearly wild with joy. How jolly London looked at the beginning of July! So gay, so full of life. And then he read a letter in a writing he didn't know; it was from Mavis Argles, the friend of Vincy—the young art-student: Vincy had given her his address some time ago—asking him for some special privilege which he possessed, to see some of the Chinese pictures in the British Museum. He was to oblige her with a letter to the museum. She would call for it. Vincy was away, and evidently she had by accident chosen the day of Aylmer's return without knowing anything of his absence. She had never seen him in her life.
Aylmer was wandering about the half-dismantled house desoeuvre, with nothing to do, restlessly counting the minutes till two in the afternoon. He remembered the very little that Vincy had told him of Mavis; how proud she was and how hard up. He saw her through the window. She looked pale and rather shabby. He told the servant to show her in.
'I've just this moment got your letter, Miss Argles. But, of course, I'm only too delighted.'
'Thank you. Mr Vincy said you'd give me the letter.'
The girl sat down stiffly on the edge of a chair. Vincy had said she was pretty. Aylmer could not see it. But he felt brimming over with sympathy and kindness for her—for everyone, in fact.
She wore a thin light grey cotton dress, and a small grey hat; her hair looked rich, red, and fluffy as ever; her face white and rather thin. She looked about seventeen. When she smiled she was pretty; she had a Rossetti mouth; that must have been what Vincy admired. Aylmer had no idea that Vincy did more than admire her very mildly.
'Won't you let me take you there?' suggested Aylmer suddenly. He had nothing on earth to do, and thought it would fill up the time. 'Yes! I'll drive you there and show you the pictures. And then, wouldn't you come and have lunch? I've got an appointment at two.'
She firmly declined lunch, but consented that he should drive her, and they went.
Aylmer talked with the eagerness produced by his restless excitement and she listened with interest, somewhat fascinated, as people always were, with his warmth and vitality.
As they were driving along Oxford Street Edith, walking with Archie, saw them clearly. She had been taking him on some mission of clothes. (For the children only she went into shops.) He was talking with such animation that he did not see her, to a pale young girl with bright red hair. Edith knew the girl by sight, knew perfectly well that she was Vincy's friend—there was a photograph of her at his rooms. Aylmer did not see her. After a start she kept it to herself. She walked a few steps, then got into a cab. She felt ill.
So Aylmer had never got her letter? He had been in London without telling her. He had forgotten her. Perhaps he was deceiving her? And he was making love obviously to that sickening, irritating red-haired fool (so Edith thought of her), Vincy's silly, affected art-student.
When Edith went home she had a bad quarter of an hour. She never even asked herself what right she had to mind so much; she only knew it hurt. A messenger boy at once, of course.
'Dear Mr Ross,
I saw you this morning. I wrote you a line to Paris, not knowing you had returned. When you get the note forwarded, will you do me the little favour to tear it up unopened? I'm sure you will do this to please me.
'We are going away in a day or two, but I don't know where. Please don't trouble to come and see me.
Aylmer left Miss Argles at the British Museum. When he went back, he found this letter.
An Extraordinary Afternoon
Aylmer guessed at once she had seen him driving. Being a man of sense, and not an impossible hero in a feuilleton, instead of going away again and leaving the misunderstanding to ripen, he went to the telephone, endeavoured to get on, and to explain, in few words, what had obviously happened. To follow the explanation by an immediate visit was his plan. Though, of course, slightly irritated that she had seen him under circumstances conveying a false impression, on the other hand he was delighted at the pique her letter showed, especially coming immediately after the almost tender letter in Paris.
He rang and rang (and used language), and after much difficulty getting an answer he asked, 'Why he could not get on' a pathetic question asked plaintively by many people (not only on the telephone).
'The line is out of order.'
In about twenty minutes he was at her door. The lift seemed to him preternaturally slow.
'Mrs Ottley is not at home, sir.'
At his blank expression the servant, who knew him, and of course liked him, as they always did, offered the further information that Mrs Ottley had gone out for the whole afternoon.
'Are the children at home, or out with Miss Townsend?'
'The children are out, sir, but not with Miss Townsend. They are spending the day with their grandmother.'
'Oh! Do you happen to know if Mr and Mrs Ottley will be at home to dinner?'
'I've heard nothing to the contrary, sir.'
'May I come in and write a note?'
He went into the little drawing-room. It was intensely associated with her. He felt a little emu.... There was the writing-table, there the bookcase, the few chairs, the grey walls; some pale roses fading in a pewter vase.... The restfulness of the surroundings filled him, and feeling happier he wrote on the grey notepaper:
'DEAR MRS OTTLEY,
I arrived early this morning. I started, in fact, from Paris immediately after receiving a few lines you very kindly sent me there. I'm so disappointed not to see you. Unless I hear to the contrary—and even if I do, I think!—I propose to come round this evening about nine, and tell you and Bruce all about my travels.
'Excuse my country manners in thus inviting myself. But I know you will say no if you don't want me. And in that case I shall have to come another time, very soon, instead, as I really must see you and show you something I've got for Archie. Yours always—'
He paused, and then added:
He went to his club, there to try and pass the time until the evening. He meant to go in the evening, even if she put him off again; and, if they were out, to wait until they returned, pretending he had not heard from her again.
He was no better. He had been away six weeks and was rather more in love than ever. He would only see her—she did want to see him before they all separated for the summer! He could not think further than of the immediate future; he would see her; they could make plans afterwards. Of course, her letter was simply pique! She had given herself away—twice—once in the angry letter, also in the previous one to Paris. Where was she now? What did it mean? Why did she go out for the whole afternoon? Where was she?
* * * * *
After Edith had written and sent her letter to Aylmer in the morning, Mrs Ottley the elder came to fetch the children to dine, and Edith told Miss Townsend to go for the afternoon. She was glad she would be absolutely alone.
'Aren't you very well, dear Mrs Ottley?' asked this young lady, in her sweet, sympathetic way.
Edith was fond of her, and, by implication only, occasionally confided in her on other subjects than the children. Today, however, Edith answered that she was very well indeed, but was going to see about things before they went away. 'I don't know how we shall manage without you for the holidays, Miss Townsend. I think you had better come with us for the first fortnight, if you don't mind much.'
Miss Townsend said she would do whatever Edith liked. She could easily arrange to go with them at once. This was a relief, for just at this moment Edith felt as if even the children would be a burden.
Sweet, gentle Miss Townsend went away. She was dressed rather like herself, Edith observed; she imitated Edith. She had the soft, graceful manner and sweet voice of her employer. She was slim and had a pretty figure, but was entirely without Edith's charm or beauty. Vaguely Edith wondered if she would ever have a love affair, ever marry. She hoped so, but (selfishly) not till Archie went to Eton.
Then she found herself looking at her lonely lunch; she tried to eat, gave it up, asked for a cup of tea.
At last, she could bear the flat no longer. It was a glorious day, very hot, Edith felt peculiar. She thought that if she spent all the afternoon out and alone, it would comfort her, and she would think it out. Trees and sky and sun had always a soothing effect on her. She went out, walked a little, felt worried by the crowd of shoppers swarming to Sloane Street and the Brompton Road, got into a taxi and drove to the gate of Kensington Gardens, opposite Kensington Gore. Here she soon found a seat. At this time of the day the gardens were rather unoccupied, and in the burning July afternoon she felt almost as if in the country. She took off her gloves—a gesture habitual with her whenever possible. She looked utterly restful. She had nothing in her hands, for she never carried either a parasol or a bag, nor even in winter a muff or in the evening a fan. All these little accessories seemed unnecessary to her. She liked to simplify. She hated fuss, anything worrying, agitating.
... And now she felt deeply miserable, perturbed and agitated. What a punishment for giving way to that half-coquettish, half self-indulgent impulse that had made her write to Paris! She had begged him to come back; while, really, he was here, and had not even let her know. She had never liked what she had heard of Mavis Argles, but had vaguely pitied her, wondering what Vincy saw in her, and wishing to believe the best. Now, she assumed the worst! As soon as Vincy had gone out of town—he was staying in Surrey with some of his relatives—she, the minx, began flirting or carrying on with Aylmer. How far had it gone? she wondered jealously. She did not believe Aylmer's love-making to be harmless. He was so easily carried away. His feelings were impulsive. Yet it was only a very short time since Vincy had told her of Aylmer's miserable letter. Edith was not interested in herself, and seldom thought much of her own feelings, but she hated self-deception; and now she faced facts. She adored Aylmer! It had been purely jealousy that made her write to Paris so touchingly, asking him to come back—vague fears that, if he were so depressed in Spain, perhaps he might try by amusements to forget her in Paris. He had once said to her that, of all places, he thought Paris the least attractive for a romance, because it was all so obvious, so prepared, so professional. He liked the unexpected, the veiled and somewhat more hypocritical atmosphere, and in the fogs of London, he had said, were more romantic mysteries than in any other city. Still, she had feared. And besides she longed to see him. So she had unbent and thought herself soon after somewhat reckless; it was a little wanton and unfair to bring him back. But she was not a saint; she was a woman; and sometimes Bruce was trying....
Edith belonged to the superior class of human being whom jealousy chills and cures, and does not stimulate to further efforts. It was not in her to go in for competition. The moment she believed someone else took her place she relaxed her hold. This is the finer temperament, but it suffers most.
She would not try to take Aylmer away. Let him remain with his red-haired Miss Argles! He might even marry her. He deserved it.
She meant to tell Vincy, of course. Poor Vincy, he didn't know of the treachery. Now she must devote herself to the children, and be good and kind to Bruce. At least, Bruce was true to her in his way.
He had been in love when they married, but Edith shrewdly suspected he was not capable of very much more than a weak rather fatuous sentiment for any woman. And anyone but herself would have lost him many years ago, would very likely have given him up. But she had kept it all together, had really helped him, and was touched when she remembered that jealous scene he made about the letter. The letter she wouldn't at first let him see. Poor Bruce! Well, they were linked together. There were Archie, the angel, and Dilly, the pet.... She was twenty-eight and Aylmer forty. He ought not to hold so strong a position in her mind. But he did. Yes, she was in love with him in a way—it was a mania, an obsession. But she would now soon wrestle with it and conquer it. The great charm had been his exclusive devotion—but also his appearance, his figure, his voice. He looked sunburnt and handsome. He was laughing as he talked to the miserable creature (so Edith called her in her own mind).
Then Edith had a reaction. She would cure herself today! No more flirtation, no more amitie amoureuse. They were going away. The children, darlings, how they loved her! And Bruce. She was reminding herself she must be gentle, good, to Bruce. He had at least never deceived her!
She got up and walked on and on. It was about five o'clock now. As she walked, she thought how fortunate she was in Miss Townsend; what a nice girl she was, what a good friend to her and the children. She had a sort of intuition that made her always have the right word, the right manner. She had seemed a little odd lately, but she was quite pleased to come with them to the country. What made her think of Miss Townsend? Some way off was a girl, with her back to Edith, walking with a man. Her figure was like Miss Townsend's, and she wore a dress like the one copied from Edith's. Edith walked more quickly, it was the retired part of the gardens on the way towards the Bayswater Road. The two figures turned down a flowery path.... It was Miss Townsend! She had turned her face. Edith was surprised, was interested, and walked on a few steps. She had not seen the man clearly. Then they both sat down on a seat. He took her hand. She left it in his. There was something familiar in his figure and clothes, and Edith saw his face.
Yes, it was Bruce.
Edith turned round and went home.
So that was how Bruce behaved to her!
The deceit of both of them hurt her immensely. But she pulled herself together. It was a case for action. She felt a bitter, amused contempt, but she felt it half-urgent not to do anything that would lead to a life of miserable bickering and mutual harm.
It must be stopped. And without making Bruce hate her.
She wrote the second note of this strange day and sent it by a messenger.
Giving no reason of any kind, she told the governess that she had decided the children's holidays should begin from that day, and that she was unexpectedly going away with them almost immediately, and she added that she would not require Miss Townsend any more. She enclosed a cheque, and said she would send on some books and small possessions that Miss Townsend had kept there.
This was sent by a messenger to Miss Townsend's home near Westbourne Grove. She would find it on her return from her walk!
And now Edith read Aylmer's note—it was so real, so sincere, she began to disbelieve her eyes this morning.
It gave her more courage; she wanted to be absolutely calm, and looking her very best, for Bruce's entrance.