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Tenterhooks
by Ada Leverson
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He came in with his key. He avoided her eye a little—looked rather sheepish, she thought. It was about seven.

'Hallo! Aren't the children in yet? Far too late for them to be out.' 'Nurse fetched Dilly. She has gone to bed. Archie is coming presently; mother will send him all right.'

'How are you, Edith, old girl?'

'I'm quite well, Bruce.'

'I have a sort of idea, as you know,' he said, growing more at ease, 'that we shall rather miss—a—Miss Townsend, when we first go away. What do you think of taking her for part of the time?' 'Dinner's ready,' announced Edith, and they dined. Towards the end of dinner he was about to make the suggestion again, when Edith said in clear, calm but decided tones:

'Bruce, I am not going to take Miss Townsend away with us. She is not coming any more.'

'Not—Why? What the devil's the idea of this new scheme? What's the matter with Miss Townsend?'

'Bruce,' answered Edith, 'I prefer not to go into the question, and later you will be glad I did not. I've decided that Miss Townsend is not to come any more at all. I've written to tell her so. I'll look after the children with nurse until we come back.... It's all settled.'

Bruce was silent.

'Well upon my word!' he exclaimed, looking at her uneasily. 'Have it your own way, of course—but upon my word! Why?'

'Do you really want me to tell you exactly why? I would so much prefer not.'

'Oh, all right, Edith dear; after all—hang it all—you're the children's mother—it's for you to settle.... No, I don't want to know anything. Have it as you wish.'

'Then we won't discuss it again. Shall we?'

'All right.'

He was looking really rather shamefaced, and she thought she saw a gleam of remorse and also of relief in his eye. She went into the other room. She had not shown him Aylmer's letter.

After ten minutes he came in and said: 'Look here, Edith. Make what arrangements you like. I never want to see—Miss Townsend again.'

She looked a question.

'And I never shall.'

She was really pleased at this, and held out her hand. Bruce had tears in his eyes as he took it. 'Edith, old girl, I think I'll go round to the club for an hour or two.'

'Do. And look here, Bruce, leave it to me to tell the children. They'll forget after the holidays. Archie must not be upset.'

'Whatever you do, Edith, will be—what I mean to say is that—Well, good night; I sha'n't be long.'

Edith was really delighted, she felt she had won, and she did want that horrid little Townsend to be scored off! Wasn't it natural? She wanted to hear no more about it.

There was a ring. It was nine o'clock. It was Aylmer's voice.



CHAPTER XXI

The Great Exception

The absurdly simple explanation, made almost in dumb show, by action rather than in dialogue, was soon given. He was surprised, simply enchanted, at the entire frankness of her recognition; she acknowledged openly that it mattered to her tremendously whether or not he was on intimate terms or flirting with little Miss Argles, or with little Miss anybody. He was not even to look at any woman except herself, that was arranged between them now and understood. They were side by side, with hands clasped as a matter of course, things taken for granted that he formerly never dreamt of. The signs of emotion in her face he attributed of course to the morning's contretemps, knowing nothing of the other trouble.

'It's heavenly being here again. You're prettier than ever, Edith; sweeter than ever. What a time I had away. It got worse and worse.'

'Dear Aylmer!'

'You're far too good and kind to me. But I have suffered—awfully.'

'So have I, since this morning. I felt—'

'What did you feel? Tell me!'

'Must I?'

'Yes!'

'I felt, when I saw you with her, as if I hadn't got a friend in the world. I felt quite alone. I felt as if the ground were going to open and swallow me up. I relied on you so much, far more than I knew! I was struck dumb, and rooted to the spot, and knocked all of a heap, in a manner of speaking, as Vincy would say,' Edith went on, laughing. 'But now, you've cured me thoroughly; you're such a real person.'

'Angel!'

She still left her hand in his. Her eyes were very bright, the result of few but salt tears, the corners of her mouth were lifted by a happy smile, not the tantalising, half-mocking smile he used to see. She was changed, and was, he thought, more lovable—prettier; today's emotion had shaken her out of herself. The reaction of this evening gave a brilliancy to her eyes, happy curves to her lips, and the slight disarrangement of her hair, not quite silky-smooth tonight, gave her a more irresponsible look. She seemed more careless—younger.

'Where's Bruce?' Aylmer asked suddenly.

'He's gone to the club. He'll be back rather soon, I should think.'

'I won't wait. I would rather not meet him this evening. When shall I see you again?'

'Oh, I don't know. I don't think I want to make any plans now.'

'As you wish. I say, do you really think Vincy can care for that girl?'

'I believe he has had a very long friendship of some kind with her. He's never told me actually, but I've felt it,' Edith said.

'Is he in love with her? Can he be?'

'In a way—in one of his peculiar ways.'

'She's in love with him, I suppose,' said Aylmer. 'It was only because she thought it would please him that she wanted to see those things at the museum. I think she's a little anxious. I found her a wild, irritating, unaccountable, empty creature. I believe she wants him to marry her.'

'I hope he won't, unless he really wants to,' said Edith. 'It would be a mistake for Vincy to sacrifice himself as much as that.'

'I hope indeed he won't,' exclaimed Aylmer. 'And I think it's out of the question. Miss Argles is only an incident, surely. She looks the slightest of episodes.'

'It's a very long episode. It might end, though—if she insists and he won't.'

'Oh, bother, never mind them!' Aylmer replied, with boyish impatience. 'Let me look at you again. Do you care for me a little bit, Edith?'

'Yes; I do.'

'Well, what's going to be done about it?' he asked, with happy triviality.

'Don't talk nonsense,' she replied. 'We're just going to see each other sometimes.' 'I'll be satisfied with anything!' cried Aylmer, 'after what I've suffered not seeing you at all. We'll have a new game. You shall make the rules and I'll keep them.'

'Naturally.'

'About the summer?'

'Oh, no plans tonight. I must think.' She looked thoughtful.

'Tell me, how's Archie?' he said.

'Archie's all right—delightful. Dilly, too. But I'm rather bothered.'

'Why should you bother? What's it about? Tell me at once.'

She paused a moment. 'Miss Townsend won't be able to come back any more,' she said steadily.

'Really? What a pity. I suppose the fool of a girl's engaged, or something.'

'She won't come back any more,' answered Edith.

'Will you have to get a new Miss Townsend?'

'I thought of being their governess myself—during the holidays, anyhow.'

'But that will leave you hardly any time—no leisure.'

'Leisure for what?'

'For anything—for me, for instance,' said Aylmer boldly. He was full of the courage and audacity caused by the immense relief of seeing her again and finding her so responsive.

There is, of course, no joy so great as the cessation of pain; in fact all joy, active or passive, is the cessation of some pain, since it must be the satisfaction of a longing, even perhaps an unconscious longing. A desire is a sort of pain, even with hope, without it is despair. When, for example, one takes artistic pleasure in looking at something beautiful, that is a cessation of the pain of having been deprived of it until then, since what one enjoys one must have longed for even without knowing it.

'Look here,' said Aylmer suddenly. 'I don't believe I can do without you.'

'You said I was to make the rules.'

'Make them then; go on.'

'Well, we'll be intimate friends, and meet as often as we can. Once a week you may say you care for me, and I'll say the same. That's all. If you find you don't like it—can't stand it, as you say—then you'll have to go away again.'

'I agree to it all, to every word. You'll see if I don't stick to it absolutely.'

'Thank you, dear Aylmer.'

He paused.

'Then I mustn't kiss you?'

'No. Never again.'

'All right. Never again after tonight. Tonight is the great exception,' said Aylmer.

She made a tardy and futile protest. Then she said:

'Now, Aylmer, you must go.' She sighed. 'I have a lot of worries.'

'I never heard you say that before. Let me take them and demolish them for you. Can't you give them to me?'

'No; I shall give nothing more to you. Good-bye....

'Remember, there are to be no more exceptions,' said Edith.

'I promise.'

She sat quietly alone for half-an-hour, waiting for Bruce.

She now felt sorry for Bruce, utterly and completely indifferent about 'the Townsend case', as she already humorously called it to herself. But, she thought, she must be strong! She was not prepared to lose her dignity, nor to allow the children to be educated by a woman whose faith at least with them and in their home was unreliable; their surroundings must be crystal-clear. It would make a certain difference to them, she thought. How could it not? There were so many little ways in which she might spoil them or tease them, scamp things, or rush them, or be nicer to one of them, or less nice, if she had any sort of concealed relation with their father. And as she had been treated absolutely as a confidante by Edith, the girl had certainly shown herself treacherous, and rather too clearly capable of dissimulation. Edith thought this must have a bad effect on the children.

Edith was essentially a very feminine woman though she had a mental attitude rightly held to be more characteristic of men. Being so feminine, so enraged under her calm and ease, she was, of course, not completely consistent. She was still angry, and very scornful of Miss Townsend. She was hurt with her; she felt a friend had played her false—a friend, too, in the position of deepest trust, of grave responsibility. Miss Townsend knew perfectly well what the children were to Edith, and, for all she knew, there was no-one in Edith's life except Bruce; so that it was rather cruel. Edith intended to keep up her dignity so absolutely that Miss Townsend could never see her again, that she could never speak to Edith on the subject. She wished also, very much, that Bruce should never see her again, but didn't know how to encompass this. She must find a way.

On the other hand, after the first shock and disgust at seeing him, Edith's anger with Bruce himself had entirely passed. Had she not known, for years, that he was a little weak, a little fatuous? He was just as good a sort now as he had ever been, and as she was not blinded by the resentment and fury of the real jealousy of passion, Edith saw clearly, and knew that Bruce cared far more for her than for anybody else; that in so far as he could love anybody he loved her in his way. And she wanted to keep the whole thing together on account of Archie, and for Dilly's sake. She must be so kind, yet so strong that Bruce would be at once grateful for her forbearance and afraid to take advantage of it. Rather a difficult undertaking!...

And she had seen Aylmer again! There was nothing in it about Miss Argles. What happiness! She ought to have trusted him. He cared for her. He loved her. His sentiment was worth having. And she cared for him too; how much she didn't quite know. She admired him; he fascinated her, and she also felt a deep gratitude because he gave her just the sort of passionate worship that she must have always unconsciously craved for.

Certainly the two little events of today had drawn her nearer to him. She had been far less reserved that evening. She closed her eyes and smiled to herself. But this mustn't happen again.

With a strong effort of self-coercion she banished all delightful recollections as she heard Bruce come up in the lift.

He came in with a slightly shy, uncomfortable manner. Again, she felt sorry for him.

'Hallo!' he said.

He gave her a quick glance, a sort of cautious look which made her feel rather inclined to laugh. Then he said:

'I've just been down to the club. What have you been doing?'

'Aylmer's been here.'

'Didn't know he was in town.'

'He's only come for a few days.'

'I should like to see him,' said Bruce, looking brighter. 'Did he ask after me?'

'Yes.'

He looked at her again and said suspiciously:

'I suppose you didn't mention—'

'Mention what?'

'Edith!'

'Yes?'

He cleared his throat and then said with an effort of self-assertion that she thought at once ridiculous and touching:

'Look here, I don't wish to blame you in any way for what—er— arrangements you like to make in your own household. But—er—have you written to Miss Townsend?'

'Yes; she won't come back.'

'Er—but won't she ask why?'

'I hope not.'

'Why?' asked Bruce, with a tinge of defiance.

'Because then I should have to explain. And I don't like explaining.'

There was another pause. Bruce seemed to take a great interest in his nails, which he examined separately one at a time, and then all together, holding both hands in front of him.

'Did Archie enjoy his day?'

'Oh yes,' said Edith.

Bruce suddenly stood up, and a franker, more manly expression came into his face. He looked at her with a look of pain. Tears were not far from his eyes.

'Edith, you're a brick. You're too good for me.'

She looked down and away without answering.

'Look here, is there anything I can do to please you?'

'Yes, there is.'

'What? I'll do it, whatever it is, on my word of honour.'

'Well, it's a funny thing to ask you, but you know our late governess, Miss Townsend? I should like you to promise never to see her again, even by accident. If you meet her—by accident, I mean—I want you not to see her.'

Bruce held out both his hands.

'I swear I'd never recognise her even if I should meet her accidentally.'

'I know it's a very odd thing to ask,' continued Edith, 'just a fancy; why should I mind your not seeing Miss Townsend?'

He didn't answer.

'However, I do mind, and I'll be grateful.'

Edith thought one might be unfaithful without being disloyal, and she believed Bruce now. She was too sensible to ask him never to write a line, never to telephone, never to do anything else; besides, it was beneath her dignity to go into these details, and common-sense told her that one or the other must write or communicate if the thing was to be stopped. If Miss Townsend wrote to him to the club, he would have to answer. Bruce meant not to see her again, and that was enough.

'Then you're not cross, Edith—not depressed?'

She gave her sweetest smile. She looked brilliantly happy and particularly pretty.

'Edith!'

With a violent reaction of remorse, and a sort of tenderness, he tried to put his arm round her. She moved away.

'Don't you forgive me, Edith, for anything I've done that you don't like?'

'Yes, I entirely forgive you. The incident is closed.'

'Really forgive me?'

'Absolutely. And I've had a tiring day and I'm going to sleep. Good night.'

With a kind little nod she left him standing in the middle of the room with that air of stupid distinction that he generally assumed when in a lift with other people, and that came to his rescue at awkward moments—a dull, aloof, rather haughty expression. But it was no use to him now.

He had considerable difficulty in refraining from venting his temper on the poor, dumb furniture; in fact, he did give a kick to a pretty little writing-table. It made no sound, but its curved shoulder looked resentful.

'What a day!' said Bruce to himself.

He went to his room, pouting like Archie. But he knew he had got off cheaply.



CHAPTER XXII

Another Side of Bruce

Ever since his earliest youth, Bruce had always had, at intervals, some vague, vain, half-hearted entanglement with a woman. The slightest interest, practically even common civility, shown him by anyone of the feminine sex between the ages of sixteen and sixty, flattered his vanity to such an extraordinary extent that he immediately thought these ladies were in love with him, and it didn't take much more for him to be in love with them. And yet he didn't really care for women. With regard to them his point of view was entirely that of vanity, and in fact he only liked both men or women who made up to him, or who gave him the impression that they did. Edith was really the only woman for whom his weak and flickering passion had lingered at all long; and in addition to that (the first glamour of which had faded) she had a real hold over him. He felt for her the most genuine fondness of which he was capable, besides trust and a certain admiration. A sort of respect underlay all his patronising good-nature or caprices with her. But still he had got into the habit of some feeble flirtation, a little affair, and at first he missed it very much. He didn't care a straw for Miss Townsend; he never had. He thought her plain and tedious; she bored him more than any woman he had ever met, and yet he had slipped into a silly sort of intrigue, beginning by a few words of pity or sympathy to her, and by the idea that she looked up to him in admiration. He was very much ashamed of it and of the circumstances; he was not proud of his conquest with her, as he generally was. He felt that on account of the children, and altogether, he had been playing it a bit low down.

He was not incapable, either, of appreciating Edith's attitude. She had never cross-questioned him, never asked him for a single detail, never laboured the subject, nor driven the point home, nor condescended even to try to find out how far things had really gone. She hadn't even told him how she knew; he was ashamed to ask.

And, after that promise of forgiveness, she never referred to it; there was never the slightest innuendo, teasing, reproach. Yes, by Jove! Edith was wonderful! And so Bruce meant to play the game too.

For several days he asked the porter at the club if there were any letters, receiving the usual reply, 'None, sir.'

The third day he received the following note, and took it to read with enjoyment of the secrecy combined with a sort of self-important shame. Until now he hadn't communicated with her:—

'Dear Mr Ottley,

Of course you know I'm not returning to the children after the holidays, nor am I going with you to Westgate. I'm very unhappy, for I fear I have offended Mrs Ottley. She has always been very kind to me till now; but I shall let the matter rest. Under the circumstances I suppose I shall not see you any more. May I ask that you should not call or write. I and mother are going to spend the summer at Bexhill with some friends. Our address will be Sandringham, Seaview Road, Bexhill, if you like to write just one line to say good-bye. I fear I have been rather to blame in seeing you without Mrs Ottley's knowledge, but you know how one's feelings sometimes lead one to do what one knows one ought not to ...'

'Sandringham, indeed! Some boarding house, I suppose,' said Bruce to himself. 'What a lot of 'ones'!... Fine grammar for a governess.'

'... Wishing you every happiness (I shall miss the children!).

Yours sincerely,

Margaret Townsend

'P.S.—I shall never forget how happy I was with you and Mrs Ottley.'

Bruce's expression as he read the last line was rather funny.

'She's a silly little fool, and I shan't answer,' he reflected.

Re-reading the letter, he found it more unsatisfactory still, and destroyed it.

The thought of Miss Townsend bored him unutterably; and indeed he was incapable of caring for any woman (however feebly) for more than two or three weeks. He was particularly fickle, vague, and scrappy in his emotions. Edith was the only woman for whom even a little affection could last, and he would have long tired of her but for her exceptional character and the extraordinary trouble and tact she used with him. He didn't appreciate her fine shades, he was not in love with her, didn't value her as another man might have done. But he was always coming back to a certain steady, renewed feeling of tenderness for her.

With the curious blindness common to all married people (and indeed to any people who live together), clever Edith had been entirely taken in, in a certain sense; she had always felt (until the 'Townsend case') half disdainfully but satisfactorily certain of Bruce's fidelity. She knew that he had little sham flirtations, but she had never imagined his going anywhere near an intrigue. She saw now that in that she had been duped, and that if he didn't do more it was not from loyalty to her. Still, she now felt convinced that it wouldn't occur again. She had treated him well; she had spared him in the matter. He was a little grateful, and she believed he would be straight now, though her opinion of him had rather gone down. Edith always felt that she must go to the very extreme of loyalty to anyone who was faithful to her; she valued fidelity so deeply, and now this feeling was naturally relaxed a little. She hadn't the slightest desire for revenge, but she felt she had a slightly freer hand. She didn't see why she should, for instance, deprive herself of the pleasure of seeing Aylmer; she had not told him anything about it.

That day at the club, Bruce in his depression had a chat with Goldthorpe, his golfing companion and sometime confidant. Over a cigarette and other refreshments, Bruce murmured how he had put an end to the little affair for the sake of his wife.

'Rather jolly little girl, she was.'

'Oh yes,' said Goldthorpe indifferently. He thought Edith very attractive, and would have liked to have the duty of consoling her.

'One of those girls that sort of get round you, and appeal to you—you know.'

'Oh yes.'

'Grey eyes—no, by Jove! I should call them hazel, with black lashes, no, not exactly black—brown. Nice, white teeth, slim figure—perhaps a bit too straight. Brownish hair with a tinge of gold in the sun.'

'Oh yes.'

'About twenty,' continued Bruce dreamily. He knew that Miss Townsend was thirty-two, but suspected Goldthorpe of admiring flappers, and so, with a subconscious desire to impress him, rearranged the lady's age.

'About twenty—if that. Rather long, thin hands—the hands of a lady. Well, it's all over now.'

'That's all right,' said Goldthorpe. He seemed to have had enough of this retrospective inventory. He looked at his watch and found he had an appointment.

Bruce, thinking he seemed jealous, smiled to himself.

For a few days after what had passed there was a happy reaction in the house. Everyone was almost unnaturally sweet and polite and unselfish about trifles to everybody else. Edith was devoting herself to the children, Bruce had less of her society than usual. She seemed to assume they were to be like brother and sister. He wouldn't at present raise the question; thinking she would soon get over such a rotten idea. Besides, a great many people had left town; and they were, themselves, in the rather unsettled state of intending to go away in a fortnight. Though happy at getting off so easily, Bruce was really missing the meetings and notes (rather than the girl).

Fortunately, Vincy now returned; he was looking sunburnt and happy. He had been having a good time. Yet he looked a little anxious occasionally, as if perplexed.

One day he told Edith that he had just had a rather serious quarrel with someone who was awfully cross, and carried on like anything and wouldn't give over.

'I guess who she is. What does she want you to do?'

'She wants me to do what all my relations are always bothering me to do,' said Vincy, 'only with a different person.'

'What, to marry?'

'Yes.'

'To marry her, I suppose? Shall you?'

'I'm afraid not,' he said. 'I don't think I quite can.'

'Don't you think it would be rather unkind to her?'

Neither of them had mentioned Miss Argles' name. The fact that Vincy referred to it at all showed her that he had recovered from his infatuation.

'But do you think I'm treating the poor girl badly?'

'Vincy, even if you adored her it would end unhappily. As you don't, you would both be miserable from the first day. Be firm. Be nice and kind to her and tell her straight out, and come and stay with us in the country.'

'Well, that was rather my idea. Oh, but, Edith, it's hard to hurt anyone.'

'You know I saw her driving with Aylmer that day, and I thought he liked her. I found I was wrong.'

'Yes. He doesn't. I wish I could get some nice person to—er—take her out. I mean, take her on.'

'What sort of person? She's pretty in her way. I daresay she'll attract someone.'

'What sort of person? Oh, I don't know. Some nice earl would please her, or one of those artist chaps you read of in the feuilletons—the sort of artist who, when he once gets a tiny little picture skied at the Academy, immediately has fortune, and titles and things, rolling in. A little picture called 'Eventide' or 'Cows by Moonlight', or something of that sort, in those jolly stories means ten thousand pounds a year at once. Jolly, isn't it?'

'Yes, Vincy dear, but we're not living in a feuilleton. What's really going to be done? Will she be nasty?'

'No. But I'm afraid Aunt Jessie will abuse me something cruel.' He thought a little while. 'In fact she has.'

'What does she say?'

'She says I'm no gentleman. She said I had no business to lead the poor girl on, in a manner of speaking, and walk out with her, and pay her marked attention, and then not propose marriage like a gentleman.'

'Then you're rather unhappy just now, Vincy?'

'Well, I spoke to her frankly, and said I would like to go on being her friend, but I didn't mean to marry. And she said she'd never see me again unless I did.'

'And what else?'

'That's about all, thanks very much,' said Vincy.

Here Bruce came in.

'Edith,' he said,' have you asked Aylmer to come and stay with us at Westgate?'

'Oh no. I think I'd rather not.'

'Why on earth not? How absurd of you. It's a bit selfish, dear, if you'll excuse my saying so. It's all very well for you: you've got the children and Vincy to amuse you (you're coming, aren't you, Vincy?). What price me? I must have someone else who can go for walks and play golf, a real pal, and so forth. I need exercise, and intellectual sympathy. Aylmer didn't say he had anywhere else to go.'

'He's going to take his boy, Freddie, away to some seaside place. He doesn't like staying with people.'

'All right, then. I shall go and ask him to come and stay at the hotel, for at least a fortnight. I shall go and ask him now. You're inconsistent, Edith. At one moment you seem to like the man, but as soon as I want to make a pleasant arrangement you're off it. So like a woman, isn't it, Vincy?' He laughed.

'Isn't it?' answered Vincy.

'Well, look here, I'm going right down to Jermyn Street purposely to tell him. I'll be back to dinner; do stop, Vincy.'

Bruce was even more anxious than he used to be always to have a third person present whenever possible.

He walked through the hot July streets with that feeling of flatness —of the want of a mild excitement apart from his own home. He saw Aylmer and persuaded him to come.

While he was there a rather pretty pale girl, with rough red hair, was announced. Aylmer introduced Miss Argles.

'I only came for a minute, to bring back those books, Mr Ross,' she said shyly. 'I can't stop.'

'Oh, thank you so much,' said Aylmer. 'Won't you have tea?'

'No, nothing. I must go at once. I only brought you in the books myself to show you they were safe.'

She gave a slightly coquettish glance at Aylmer, a half-observant glance at Bruce, sighed heavily and went away. She was dressed in green serge, with a turned-down collar of black lace. She wore black suede gloves, a gold bangle and a smart and pretty hat, the hat Vincy pretended had been given to him by Cissie Cavanack, his entirely imaginary cousin, and which he'd really bought for her in Bond Street.

'Well, I'll be off then. I'll tell Edith you'll write for rooms. Look sharp about it, because they soon go at the best hotels.'

'At any rate I'll bring Freddie down for a week,' said Aylmer, 'and then we'll see.'

'Who is that girl?' asked Bruce, as he left.

'She's a young artist, and I lent her some books of old prints she wanted. She's not a particular friend of mine—I don't care for her much.'

Bruce didn't hear the last words, for he was flying out of the door. Miss Argles was walking very slowly; he joined her.

'Pardon me,' he said, raising his hat. 'It's so very hot—am I going your way? Would you allow me to see you home?'

'Oh, you're very kind, I'm sure,' she said sadly. 'But I don't think—I live at Ravenscourt Park.'

Bruce thought there was plenty of time.

'Why how very curious! That's just where I was going,' said he boldly.

He put up his stick. Instead of a taxi a hansom drove up. Bruce hailed it.

'Always like to give these chaps a turn when I can,' he said. It would take longer.

'How kind-hearted you are,' murmured the girl. 'But I'd really rather not, thank you.'

'Then how shall you get back?'

'Walk to the Tube.'

'Oh no; it's far too hot. Let me drop you, as I'm going in your direction.'

He gave her a rather fixed look of admiration, and smiled. She gave a slight look back and got into the cab.

'What ripping red hair,' said Bruce to himself as he followed her.

* * * * *

Before the end of the drive, which for him was a sort of adventure, Mavis had promised to meet Bruce when she left her Art School next Tuesday at a certain tea-shop in Bond Street.

Bruce went home happy and in good spirits again. There was no earthly harm in being kind to a poor little girl like this. He might do a great deal of good. She seemed to admire him. She thought him so clever. Funny thing, there was no doubt he had the gift; women liked him, and there you are. Look at Miss Mooney at the Mitchells' the other day, why, she was ever so nice to him; went for him like one o'clock; but he gave her no encouragement. Edith was there. He wouldn't worry her, dear girl.

As he came towards home he smiled again. And Edith, dear Edith—she, too, must be frightfully keen on him, when one came to think about it, to forgive him so readily about Margaret Tow—Oh, confound Miss Townsend. This girl was a picture, a sort of Rossetti, and she had had such trouble lately—terrible trouble. The man she had been devoted to for years had suddenly thrown her over, heartlessly.... What a brute he must have been! She was going to tell him all about it on Tuesday. That man must have been a fiend!...

'Holloa, Vincy! So glad you're still here. Let's have dinner, Edie.'



CHAPTER XXIII

At Lady Everard's

Lady Everard was sitting in her favourite attitude at her writing-table, with her face turned to the door. She had once been photographed at her writing-table, with a curtain behind her, and her face turned to the door. The photograph had appeared in The Queen, The Ladies' Field, The Sketch, The Taller, The Bystander, Home Chat, Home Notes, The Woman at Home, and Our Stately Homes of England. It was a favourite photograph of hers; she had taken a fancy to it, and therefore she always liked to be found in this position. The photo had been called: 'Lady Everard at work in her Music-Room.'

What she was supposed to be working at, heaven only knew; for she never wrote a line of anything, and even her social notes and invitation cards were always written by her secretary.

As soon as a visitor came in, she rose from the suspiciously clean writing-table, put down the dry pen on a spotless blotter, went and sat in a large brocaded arm-chair in front of some palms, within view of the piano, and began to talk. The music-room was large, splendid and elaborately decorated. There was a frieze all round, representing variously coloured and somewhat shapeless creatures playing what were supposed to be musical instruments. One, in a short blue skirt, was blowing at something; another in pink drapery (who squinted) was strumming on a lyre; other figures were in white, with their mouths open like young birds preparing to be fed by older birds. They represented Harmony in all its forms. There were other attempts at the classical in the decoration of the room; but Lady Everard herself had reduced this idea to bathos by huge quantities of signed photographs in silver frames, by large waste-paper baskets, lined with blue satin and trimmed with pink rosettes, by fans which were pockets, stuffed cats which were paperweights, oranges which were pincushions, and other debris from those charitable and social bazaars of which she was a constant patroness.

With her usual curious combination of weak volubility and decided laying-down of the law, she was preparing to hold forth to young La France (whom she expected), on the subject of Debussy, Edvina, Marcoux, the appalling singing of all his young friends, his own good looks, and other subjects of musical interest, when Mr Cricker was announced.

She greeted him with less eagerness, if less patronage, than her other protege, but graciously offered him tea and permitted a cigarette.

Lady Everard went in for being at once grande dame and Bohemian. She was truly good-natured and kind, except to rivals in her own sphere, but when jealous she was rather redoubtable.

'I'm pleased to see you, my dear Willie,' she said; 'all the more because I hear Mrs Mitchell has taken Wednesdays now. Not quite a nice thing to do, I think; although, after all, I suppose we could hardly really clash. True, we do happen to know a few of the same people.' (By that Lady Everard meant she had snatched as many of Mrs Mitchell's friends away as she thought desirable.) 'But as a general rule I suppose we're not really in the same set. But perhaps you're going on there afterwards?'

That had been Mr Clicker's intention, but he denied it, with surprise and apparent pain at the suspicion.

She settled down more comfortably.

'Ah, well, Mrs Mitchell is an extremely nice, hospitable woman, and her parties are, I know, considered quite amusing, but I do think—I really do—that her husband carries his practical jokes and things a little too far. It isn't good form, it really isn't, to see a man of his age, with his face blacked, coming in after dinner with a banjo, calling himself the Musical White-eyed Kaffir, as he did the last time I was there. I find it deplace—that's the word, deplace. He seemed to think that we were all children at a juvenile party! I was saying so to Lord Rye only last night. Lord Rye likes it, I think, but he says Mr Mitchell's mad—that's what it is, a little mad. Last time Lord Rye was there everybody had a present given them hidden in their table napkins. There had been some mistake in the parcels, I believe, and Miss Mooney—you know, the actress, Myra Mooney—received a safety razor, and Lord Rye a vanity bag. Everybody screamed with laughter, but I must say it seemed to me rather silly. I wasn't there myself.'

'I was,' said Mr Cricker. 'I got a very pretty little feather fan. I suppose the things really had been mixed up, and after all I was very glad of the fan; I was able to give it to—' He stopped, sighed and looked down on the floor.

'And is that affair still going on, Willie dear? It seems to me such a pity. I do wish you would try and give it up.'

'I know, but she won't,' he said in a voice hoarse with anxiety. 'Dear Lady Everard, you're a woman of the world, and know everything—'

She smiled. 'Not everything, Willie; a little of music, perhaps. I know a good voice when I hear it. I have a certain flair for what's going to be a success in that direction, and of course I've been everywhere and seen everything. I've a certain natural knowledge of life, too, and keep well up to date with everything that's going on. I knew about the Hendon Divorce Case long before anyone else, though it never came off after all, but that's not the point. But then I'm so discreet; people tell me things. At any rate, I always know.'

Indeed, Lady Everard firmly believed herself to be a great authority on most subjects, but especially on contemporary gossip. This was a delusion. In reality she had that marvellous talent for not knowing things, that gift for ignorance, and genius for inaccuracy so frequently seen in that cultured section of society of which she was so popular and distinguished a member. It is a talent that rarely fails to please, particularly in a case like her own. There is always a certain satisfaction in knowing that a woman of position and wealth, who plumes herself on her early knowledge and special information, is absolutely and entirely devoid of the one and incorrect in the other. A marked ignorance in a professionally well-informed person has always something touching and appealing to those who are able, if not willing, to set that person right. It was taken for granted among her acquaintances, and probably was one of the qualities that endeared her to them most, that dear Lady Everard was generally positive and always wrong.

'Yes, I do know most things, perhaps,' she said complacently. 'And one thing I know is that this woman friend of yours is making you perfectly miserable. You're longing to shake it off. Ah, I know you! You've far more real happiness in going to the opera with me than even in seeing her, and the more she pursues you the less you like it. Am I not right?'

'Yes, I suppose so. But as a matter of fact, Lady Everard, if she didn't—well—what you might call make a dash for it, I shouldn't worry about her at all.'

'Men,' continued Lady Everard, not listening, 'only like coldness; coldness, reserve. The only way in the world to draw a man on is to be always out to him, or to go away, and never even let him hear your name mentioned.'

'I daresay there's a lot in that,' said Cricker, wondering why she did not try that plan with young La France.

'Women of the present day,' she continued, growing animated, 'make such a terrible, terrible mistake I What do they do when they like a young man? Oh, I know! They write to him at his club; they call at his rooms and leave messages; they telephone whenever they can. The more he doesn't answer their invitations the more they invite him. It's appalling! And what's the result? Men are becoming cooler and cooler— as a class, I mean. Of course, there are exceptions. But it's such a mistake of women to run after the few young men there are. There are such a tremendous lot of girls and married women nowadays, there are so many more of them.'

'Well, perhaps that's why they do it,' said Cricker rather stupidly. 'At any rate—oh, well, I know if my friend hadn't been so jolly nice to me at first and kept it up so—oh, well, you know what I mean—kept on keeping on, if I may use the expression, I should have drifted away from her ages ago. Because, you see, supposing I'm beginning to think about something else, or somebody else, she doesn't stand it; she won't stand it. And the awkward part is, you see, her being on the stage and married makes the whole thing about as awkward as a case of that sort can possibly be.'

'I would not ask you her name for the world,' said Lady Everard smoothly. 'Of course I know she's a beautiful young comedy actress, or is it tragedy? I wonder if I could guess her first name? Will you tell me if I guess right?' She looked arch.

'Oh, I say, I can't tell you who it is, Lady Everard; really not.'

'Only the first name? I don't want you to tell me; I'm discretion itself, I prefer not to know. The Christian name is not Margaretta, is it? Ah! no, I thought not. It's Irene Pettifer! There, I've guessed. The fact is, I always knew it, my dear boy. Your secret is safe with me. I'm the tomb! I—'

'Excuse me, Lady Everard,' said Cricker, with every sign of annoyance, 'it's no more Irene Pettifer than it's you yourself. Please believe me. First of all I don't know Irene Pettifer; I've never even seen her photograph—she's not young, not married, and an entirely different sort of person.'

'What did I tell you? I knew it wasn't; I only said that to draw you. However, have a little more tea, or some iced coffee, it's so much more refreshing I always think. My dear Willie, I was only chaffing you. I knew perfectly well it wasn't either of the people I suggested. The point is, it seems to prey on your mind, and worry you, and you won't break it off.'

'But how can I?'

'I will dictate you a letter,' she said. 'Far be it from me to interfere, and I don't pretend to know more about this sort of thing than anybody else. At the same time, if you'll take it down just as I tell it, and send it off, you'll find it will do admirably. Have you got a pencil?'

As if dully hypnotised, he took out a pencil and notebook.

'It would be awfully kind of you, Lady Everard. It might give me an idea anyway.'

'All right.'

She leant back and half closed her eyes, as if in thought; then started up with one finger out.

'We must be quick, because I'm expecting someone presently,' she said. 'But we've got time for this. Now begin. July 7th, 1912. Have you got that?'

'Yes, I've got that.'

'Or, perhaps, just Thursday. Thursday looks more casual, more full of feeling than the exact date. Got Thursday?'

'Yes, but it isn't Thursday, it's Friday.'

'All right, Friday, or any day you like. The day is not the point. You can send it tomorrow, or any time you like. Wednesday. My dearest Irene.'

'Her name's not Irene.'

'Oh no, I forgot. Take that out. Dear Margaretta. Circumstances have occurred since I last had the pleasure of seeing you that make it absolutely impossible that I could ever meet you again.'

'Oh, I say!'

'Go on. Ever see you or meet you again. You wish to be kind to her, I suppose?'

'Oh yes.'

'Then say: Duty has to come between us, but God knows I wish you well.' Tears were beginning to come to Lady Everard's eyes, and she spoke with a break in her voice. 'I wish you well, Irene.'

'It's not Irene.'

'I wish you well, Margaretta. Some day in the far distant future you'll think of me, and be thankful for what I have done. It's for your good and my own happiness that we part now, and for ever. Adieu, and may God bless you. How do you sign yourself?'

'Oh, Willie.'

'Very well then, be more serious this time: Always your faithful friend, William Stacey Cricker.'

He glanced over the note, his face falling more and more, while Lady Everard looked more and more satisfied.

'Copy that out, word for word, the moment you go back, and send it off,' she said, 'and all the worst of your troubles will be over.'

'I should think the worst is yet to come,' said he ruefully.

'But you promise to do it, Willie? Oh, promise me?'

'Oh yes rather,' said he half-heartedly.

'Word for word?'

'O Lord, yes. That's to say, unless anything—'

'Not a word, Willie; it will be your salvation. Come and see me soon, and tell me the result. Ah! here you are, cher maitre!'

With a bright smile she welcomed Mr La France, who was now announced, gently dismissing Willie with a push of the left hand.

'Good heavens!' he said to himself, as he got into the cab, 'why, if I were to send a thing like that there would be murder and suicide! She'd show it to her husband, and he'd come round and knock me into a cocked hat for it. Dear Lady Everard—she's a dear, but she doesn't know anything about anything.'

He tore the pages out of his pocket-book, and called out to the cabman the address of the Mitchells.

'Ah, chere madame, que je suis fatigue!' exclaimed La France, as he threw himself back against the cushions.

His hair was long and smooth and fair, so fair that he had been spoken of by jealous singers as a peroxide blond. His eyes were greenish, and he had dark eyebrows and eyelashes. He was good-looking. His voice in speaking was harsh, but his manner soft and insidious. His talents were cosmopolitan; his tastes international; he had no duties, few pleasures and that entire want of leisure known only to those who have practically nothing whatever to do.

'Fatigued? That's what you always say,' said Lady Everard, laughing.

'But it is always true,' he said, with a strong French accent.

'You should take more exercise, Paul. Go out more in the air. You lead too secluded a life.'

'What exercises? I practise my voice every day, twenty minutes.'

'Ah, but I didn't mean that. I mean in the open air—sport—that sort of thing.'

'Ah, you wish I go horseback riding. Ver' nice, but not for me. I have never did it. I cannot begun now, Lady Everard. I spoil all the veloute of my voice. Have you seen again that pretty little lady I met here before? Delicious light brown hair, pretty blue eyes, a wonderful blue, a blue that seem to say to everyone something different.'

'What!' exclaimed Lady Everard. 'Are you referring to Mrs Ottley?' She calmed down again. 'Oh yes, she's charming, awfully sweet—devoted to her husband, you know—absolutely devoted to her husband; so rare and delightful nowadays in London.'

'Oh yes, ver' nice. Me, I am devoted to 'er husband too. I go to see him. He ask me.'

'What, without me?' exclaimed Lady Everard.

'I meet him the other night. He ask me to come round and sing him a song. I cannot ask if I may bring Lady Everard in my pocket.'

'Really, Paul, I don't think that quite a nice joke to make, I must say.' Then relenting she said: 'I know it's only your artistic fun.'

'So she ver' devoted to him? He have great confidence in her; he trust her quite; he sure she never have any flirt?'

'He has every confidence; he's certain, absolutely certain!' exclaimed Lady Everard.

'He wait till she come and tell him, I suppose. 'E is right.'

He continued in this strain for some time, constantly going back to his admiration for Edith, and then began (with a good deal of bitterness) on the subject of another young singer, whom he declared to be un garcon charmant, but no good. 'He could not sing for nuts.'

She heartily agreed, and they began to get on beautifully again, when she suddenly said to him:

'Is it true you were seen talking in the park to that girl Miss Turnbull, on Sunday?'

'If you say I was seen, I was. You could not know I talk to her unless I was seen. You could not know by wireless.'

'Don't talk nonsense, Paul,' she answered sharply. 'The point isn't that you were seen, but that you did it.'

'Who did it? Me? I didn't do anything.'

'I don't think it's fair to me, I must say; it hurt my feelings that you should meet Amy Turnbull in the park and talk to her.'

'But what could I say? It is ver' difficul. I walk through the park; she walk through it with another lady. She speak to me. She say: Ah, dear Mr La France, what pleasure to see you! I ask you, Lady Everard, could I, a foreigner, not even naturalised here, could I order her out of the park? Could I scream out to her: Go out, do not walk in ze Hyde Park! Lady Everard do not like you! I have no authority to say that. I am not responsible for the persons that walk in their own park in their own country. She might answer me to go to the devil! She might say to me: What, Lady Everard not like me, so I am not allowed in the park? What that got to do with it? In a case like this, chere madame, I have no legal power.'

She laughed forgivingly and said:

'Ah, well, one mustn't be too exacting!' and as she showed some signs of a desire to pat his hair he rose, sat down to the piano, greatly to her disappointment, and filled up the rest of the time by improvising (from memory). It was a little fatiguing, as she thought it her duty to keep up an expression of acute rapture during the whole of the performance, which lasted at least three-quarters of an hour.



CHAPTER XXIV

Miss Bennett

Since his return Aylmer saw everything through what he called a rose-coloured microscope—that is to say, every detail of his life, and everything connected with it, seemed to him perfect. He saw Edith as much as ever, and far less formally than before. She treated him with affectionate ease. She had admitted by her behaviour on the night he returned that she cared for him, and, for the moment, that was enough. A sort of general relaxation of formality, due to the waning of the season, and to people being too busy to bother, or already in thought away, seemed to give a greater freedom. Everyone seemed more natural, and more satisfied to follow their own inclinations and let other people follow theirs. London was getting stale and tired, and the last feverish flickers of the exhausted season alternated with a kind of languor in which nobody bothered much about anybody else's affairs. General interest was exhausted, and only a strong sense of self-preservation seemed to be left; people clung desperately to their last hopes. Edith was curiously peaceful and contented. She would have had scarcely any leisure but that her mother-in-law sometimes relieved her of the care of the children.

Being very anxious that they should not lose anything from Miss Townsend's absence, she gave them lessons every day.

One day, at the end of a history lesson, Archie said:

'Where's Miss Townsend?'

'She's at Bexhill.'

'Why is she at Bexhill?'

'Because she likes it.'

'Where's Bexhill?'

'In England.'

'Why isn't Miss Townsend?'

'What do you mean, Archie?'

'Well, why isn't she Miss Townsend any more?'

'She is.'

'But she's not our Miss Townsend any more. Why isn't she?'

'She's gone away.'

'Isn't she coming back?'

'No.'

Watching his mother's face he realised that she didn't regret this, so he said:

'Is Miss Townsend teaching anybody else?'

'I daresay she is, or she will, perhaps.'

'What are their names?'

'How should I know?'

'Do you think she'll teach anybody else called Archie?'

'It's possible.'

'I wonder if she'll ever be cross with the next boy she teaches.'

'Miss Townsend was very kind to you,' said Edith. 'But you need not think about her any more, because you will be going to school when you come back from the holidays.'

'That's what I told Dilly,' said Archie. 'But Dilly's not going to school. Dilly doesn't mind; she says she likes you better than Miss Townsend.'

'Very kind of her, I'm sure,' laughed Edith.

'You see you're not a real governess,' said Archie, putting his arm round her neck. 'You're not angry, are you, mother? Because you're not a real one it's more fun for us.'

'How do you mean, I'm not a real governess?'

'Well, I mean we're not obliged to do what you tell us!'

'Oh, aren't you? You've got to; you're to go now because I expect Miss Bennett.'

'Can't I see Miss Bennett?'

'Why do you want to see her?'

'I don't want to see her; but she always brings parcels. I like to see the parcels.'

'They are not for you; she brings parcels because I ask her to do shopping for me. It's very kind of her.'

She waited a minute, then he said:

'Mother, do let me be here when Miss Bennett brings the parcels. I'll be very useful. I can untie parcels with my teeth, like this. Look! I throw myself on the parcel just like a dog, and shake it and shake it, and then I untie it with my teeth. It would be awfully useful.'

She refused the kind offer.

Miss Bennett arrived as usual with the parcels, looking pleasantly business-like and important.

'I wonder if these things will do?' she said, as she put them out on the table.

'Oh, they're sure to do,' said Edith; 'they're perfect.'

'My dear, wait till you see them. I don't think I've completed all your list.' She took out a piece of paper.

'Where did you get everything?' Edith asked, without much interest.

'At Boots', principally. Then the novels—Arnold Bennett, Maxwell—Oh, and I've got you the poem: 'What is it?' by Gilbert Frankau.'

'No, you mean, 'One of us',' corrected Edith.

'Then white serge for nurse to make Dilly's skirts—skirts a quarter of a yard long!—how sweet!—and heaps and heaps of muslin, you see, for her summer dresses. Won't she look an angel? Oh, and you told me to get some things to keep Archie quiet in the train.' She produced a drum, a trumpet, and a mechanical railway train. 'Will that do?'

'Beautifully.'

'And here's your travelling cloak from the other place.'

'It looks lovely,' said Edith.

'Aren't you going to try it on?'

'No; it's sure to be all right.'

'I never saw such a woman as you! Here are the hats. You've got to choose these.'

Here Edith showed more interest. She put them on, said all the colour must be taken out of them, white put in one, black velvet in the other. Otherwise they would do.

'Thanks, Grace; you're awfully kind and clever. Now do you know what you're going to do? You're going to the Academy with me and Aylmer. He's coming to fetch us.'

'Oh, really—what fun!'

At this moment he arrived. Edith introduced them.

'I've been having such a morning's shopping,' she said, 'I deserve a little treat afterwards, don't I?'

'What sort of shopping? I'll tell you what you ought to have—a great cricket match when the shopping season's over, between the Old Selfridgians, and the Old Harrodians,' he said, laughing.

They walked through acres of oil paintings and dozens of portraits of Chief Justices.

'I can't imagine anyone but Royalty enjoying these pictures,' said Edith.

'They don't go to see pictures; they go to view exhibits,' Aylmer answered.

Declaring they had 'Academy headache' before they had been through the second room, they sat down and watched the people.

One sees people there that are to be seen nowhere else. An extraordinary large number of clergymen, a peculiar kind of provincial, and strange Londoners, almost impossible to place, in surprising clothes.

Then they gave it up, and Aylmer took them out to lunch at a club almost as huge and noisy and as miscellaneous as the Academy itself. However, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Edith and Bruce were to take up their abode in their little country house at Westgate next day.



CHAPTER XXV

At Westgate

'I've got to go up to town on special business,' said Bruce, one afternoon, after receiving a telegram which he had rather ostentatiously left about, hoping he would be questioned on the subject. It had, however, been persistently disregarded.

'Oh, have you?'

'Yes. Look at this wire.'

He read aloud:

'Wish to see you at once if possible come up today M.'

'Who is 'M'?'

'Mitchell, of course. Who should it be?' He spoke aggressively, then softened down to explanation, 'Mitchell's in town a few days on business, too. I may be detained till Tuesday—or even Wednesday next.'

Bruce had been to town so often lately, his manner was so vague, he seemed at once so happy and so preoccupied, so excited, so pleased, so worried, and yet so unnaturally good-tempered, that Edith had begun to suspect he was seeing Miss Townsend again.

The suspicion hurt her, for he had given his word of honour, and had been nice to her ever since, and amiable (though rather absent and bored) with the children.

She walked down to the station with him, though he wished to go in the cab which took his box and suit-case, but he did not resist her wish. On the way he said, looking round as if he had only just arrived and had never seen it before:

'This is a very nice little place. It's just the right place for you and the children. If I were you, I should stay on here.'

It struck her he spoke in a very detached way, and some odd foreshadowing came to her.

'Why—aren't you coming back?' she asked jokingly.

'Me? What an idea! Yes, of course. But I've told you—this business of mine—well, it'll take a little time to arrange. Still, I expect to be back on Tuesday. Or quite on Wednesday—or sooner.'

They walked on and had nearly reached the station.

'How funny you are, Bruce!'

'What do you mean? Are you angry with me for going up to see about important business? Why, here you've got Aylmer and his boy at the hotel, my mother and Vincy to stay with you. You've got plenty of companions. I don't suppose you'll miss me much. You see—a—this is a sort of business matter women don't understand. Women are incapable of understanding it.'

'Of what nature is it?'

'How do you mean, nature? It's not of any particular nature. Nature, indeed! How like a woman! It's just business.' He waited a minute. 'Stockbroking; that's what it is. Yes, it's stockbroking. I want to see a chap who's put me in to a good thing. A perfectly safe thing. No gambling. But one has to see into it, you see. Mitchell wants to see me at once, you see. Do you see? You saw his wire, didn't you? I've explained, haven't I? Aren't you satisfied with my explanation?'

'You appear to be—very. But I'm not asking you to tell me any details about the business, whatever it may be.'

They arrived at the station, and Bruce gave her what she thought a very queer look. It was a mixture of fear, daring, caution and a sort of bravado. Anxiety was in it, as well as a pleased self-consciousness.

'Tell me, frankly, something I'd like to know, Bruce.'

'Are you getting suspicious of me, Edith? That's not like you. Mind you, it's a great mistake in a woman; women should always trust. Mistrust sometimes drives a man to—to—Oh, anyhow, it's a great mistake.'

'I only want you to tell me something, Bruce. I'll believe you implicitly if you'll answer.... Do you ever see Miss Townsend now?'

'Never, on my honour! I swear it.' He spoke with such genuine good faith that she believed him at once.

'Thanks. I'm glad. And—have you never since—'

'Never seen her, never written to her, never communicated with her since she left! Don't know where she is and don't care. Now you do believe me?' he asked, with all the earnestness and energy of truth.

'Absolutely. Forgive me for asking.'

'Oh, that's all right.'

He was relieved, and smiled.

'All right, Bruce dear. I'm glad. It would have worried me.'

'Now go, Edith. Don't bother to wait till I get in. I'll write to you—I'll write to you soon.'

She still lingered, seeing something odd in his manner.

'Give my love to my mother,' he said, looking away. 'I say—' Edith.'

'Yes, dear?'

'Oh, nothing.'

She waited on till the train started. His manner was alternately peevish and kind, but altogether odd. Her last glimpse was a rather pale smile from Bruce as he waved his hand and then turned to his paper....

'Well, what does it matter so long as he has gone!' exclaimed Aylmer impatiently, when she expressed her wonder at Bruce's going. The tide was low, and they went for a long walk over the hard shining sand, followed by Archie picking up wonderful shells and slipping on the green seaweed. Everything seemed fresh, lovely. She herself was as fresh as the sea breeze, and Aylmer seemed to her as strong as the sea. (Privately, Edith thought him irresistible in country clothes.) Edith had everything here to make her happy, including Bruce's mother, who relieved her of the children when she wanted rest and in whose eyes she was perfection.

She saw restrained adoration in Aylmer's eyes, love and trust in the eyes of the children. She had all she wanted. And yet—something tugged at her heart, and worried her. She had a strange and melancholy presentiment.

But she threw it off. Probably there was nothing really wrong with Bruce; perhaps only one of those little imaginary romances that he liked to fabricate for himself; or, perhaps, it was really business? It was all right if Mr Mitchell knew about it. Yet she could not believe that 'M' was Mitchell. Bruce had repeated it too often; and, why on earth should Mitchell suddenly take to sending Bruce fantastic telegrams and signing them, for no reason, with an initial?...



CHAPTER XXVI

Goggles

'What divine heavenly pets and ducks of angels they are!' exclaimed Lady Everard rather distractedly. 'Angels! Divine! And so good, too! I never saw such darlings in my life. Look at them, Paul. Aren't they sweet?'

Lady Everard with her party (what Aylmer called her performing troupe) had driven over to Westgate, from where she was staying in the neighbourhood, to have tea with Edith. She had brought with her a sort of juvenile party, consisting of Mr Cricker, Captain Willis and, of course, Paul La France, the young singer. She never moved without him. She explained that two other women had been coming also, but they had deserted her at the last minute.

Paul La France had been trying for an hour and a half to make eyes through motor goggles, which, naturally, was not a success; so he seemed a little out of temper. Archie was staring at him as if fascinated. He went up and said:

'Voulez-vous lend me your goggles?'

'Mais certainement! Of course I will. Voila mon petit.'

'The darling! How sweet and amusing of him! But they're only to be used in the motor, you know. Don't break them, darling, will you? Monsieur will want them again. Ah! how sweet he looks!' as he put them on, 'I never saw such a darling in the whole course of my life! Look at him, Mrs Ottley. Look at him, Paul!'

'Charmant. C'est delicieux,' grumbled La France.

'What a charming little lawn this is, going right down to the sea, too. Oh, Mr Ross, is that you? Isn't this a delightful little house? More tea? Yes, please. Mr La France doesn't take sugar, and—'

'You don't know what I am now,' said Archie, having fixed the goggles on his own fair head, to the delight of Dilly.

'Oh, I guess what you are! You're a motorist, aren't you, darling? That's it! It's extraordinary how well I always get on with children, Mrs Ottley,' explained Lady Everard. 'I daresay it's through being used to my little grandchildren, Eva's two angels, you know, but I never see them because I can't stand their noise, and yet I simply adore them. Pets!'

'What am I?' asked Archie, in his persistent way, as he walked round the group on the lawn, in goggles, followed closely by Dilly, saying, 'Yes, what is he?' looking exactly like a live doll, with her golden hair and blue ribbons.

'You're a motorist, darling.'

'No, I'm not a silly motorist. Guess what I am?'

'It's so difficult to guess, such hot weather! Can you guess, Paul?'

'I sink he is a nuisance,' replied the Frenchman, laughing politely.

'No, that's wrong. You guess what I am.'

'Guess what he is,' echoed Dilly.

'O Lord! what does it matter? What I always say is—live and let live, and let it go at that,' said Captain Willis, with his loud laugh. 'What, Mrs Ottley? But they won't do it, you know—they won't—and there it is!'

'Guess what I am,' persisted Archie.

'Never mind what you are; do go and sit down, and take those things off,' said Edith.

'Not till you guess what I am.'

'Does Dilly know?'

'No, Dilly doesn't know. Guess what I am, grandmamma!'

'I give it up.'

'I thought you'd never guess. Well, I'm a blue-faced mandrill!' declared Archie, as he took the goggles off reluctantly and gave them back to La France, who put them under his chair.

'Yes, he's a two-faced mangle,' repeated Dilly.

He turned round on her sharply. 'Now, don't talk nonsense! You're a silly girl. I never said anything about being a two-faced mangle; I'm a blue-faced mandrill.'

'Well, I said so; a two-faced mangle.'

'Don't say anything at all if you can't say it right,' said Archie, raising his voice and losing his temper.

'Well, they's both the same.'

'No, they jolly well aren't.'

He drew her a little aside. 'A blue-faced mandrill, silly, is real; it's in my natural history book.'

'Sorry,' said Dilly apologetically.

'In my natural history book it is, a real thing. I'm a blue-faced mandrill.... Now say it after me.'

'You's a two-faced mangle.'

'Now you're doing it on purpose! If you weren't a little girl, Dilly—'

'I wasn't doing it on purpose.'

'Oh, get away before I hit you! You're a silly little fool.'

She slowly walked away, calling out: 'And you're a silly two-faced mangle,' in a very irritating tone. Archie made a tremendous effort to ignore her, then he ran after her saying:

'Will you shut up or will you not?'

Aylmer seized hold of him.

'What are you going to do, Archie?'

'Teach Dilly what I am. She says—Oh, she's such a fool!'

'No, Archie, leave her alone; she's only a baby. Come along, old boy. Give Mr Cricker a cup of tea; he hasn't had one yet.'

Archie was devoted to Aylmer. Following him, he handed the tea to Mr Cricker, saying pathetically:

'I'm a blue-faced mandrill, and she knew it. I told her so. Aren't girls fools? They do worry!'

'They are torments,' said Aylmer.

'I wish that Frenchman would give me his goggles to keep! He doesn't want them.'

'I'll give you a pair,' said Aylmer.

'Thanks,' said Cricker,' I won't have any tea. I wish you'd come and have a little talk with me, Ross. Can I have a word with you alone?'

Aylmer good-naturedly went aside with him.

'It's worse than ever,' said Cricker, in low, mysterious tones. 'Since I've been staying with Lady Everard it's been wire, wire, wire—ring, ring, ring—and letters by every post! You see, I thought it was rather a good plan to get away for a bit, but I'm afraid I shall have to go back. Fancy, she's threatened suicide, and telling her husband, and confiding in Lady Everard! And giving up the stage, and oh, goodness knows what! There's no doubt the poor child is absolutely raving about me. No doubt whatever.'

Aylmer was as sympathetic as he knew how.

The party was just going off when La France found that the goggles had disappeared. A search-party was organised; great excitement prevailed; but in the end they went away without the glasses.

When Dilly had just gone to sleep in her cot a frightening figure crept into her room and turned on the electric light.

'Oh, Archie! What is it! Who is it! Oh!... Oh!'

'Don't be frightened,' said Archie, in his deepest voice, obviously hoping she would be frightened. He was in pyjamas and goggles. 'Don't be frightened! Now! Say what I am. What am I?'

'A blue-faced mandrill,' she whined.

He took off the goggles and kissed her.

'Right! Good night, old girl!'



CHAPTER XXVII

The Elopement

The following Tuesday, Edith, Aylmer, Vincy and Mrs Ottley were sitting on the veranda after dinner. They had a charming little veranda which led on to a lawn, and from there straight down to the sea. It was their custom to sit there in the evening and talk. The elder Mrs Ottley enjoyed these evenings, and the most modern conversation never seemed to startle her. She would listen impassively, or with a smile, as if in silent approval, to the most monstrous of paradoxes or the most childish chaff.

Aylmer's attention and kind thought for her had absolutely won her heart. She consulted him about everything, and was only thoroughly satisfied when he was there. His strong, kind, decided voice, his good looks, his decision, and a sort of responsible impulsiveness, all appealed to her immensely. She looked up to him, in a kind of admiring maternal way; Edith often wondered, did she not see Aylmer's devotion? But, if she did, Mrs Ottley thought nothing of it. Her opinion of Edith was so high that she trusted her in any complications....

'Isn't Bruce coming down tonight?' she asked Edith.

'I'm to have a wire.'

'Ah, here's the last post. Perhaps he's written instead.'

Vincy fetched the letters. There was one from Bruce.

Edith went into the drawing-room to read it; there was not sufficient light on the veranda....

In growing amazement she read the following words:—

DEAR EDITH,

'I hope what I am about to tell you will not worry you too much. At any rate I do hope you will not allow it to affect your health. It is inevitable, and you must make up your mind to it as soon as possible. I say this in no spirit of unkindness; far from it. It is hard to me to break the news to you, but it must be done.

'Mavis Argles and I are all in all to each other. We have made up our minds on account of certain circumstances to throw in our lot together, and we are starting for Australia today. When this reaches you, we shall have started. I enclose the address to write to me.

'In taking this step I have, I am sure, acted for the best. It may cause you great surprise and pain. I regret it, but we met and became very quickly devoted to one another. She cannot live without me. What I am doing is my duty. I now ask you, and believe you will grant my request, to make arrangements to give me my freedom as soon as possible. Mind you do this, Edith, for it is really my duty to give my name to Mavis, who, as I have said, is devoted to me heart and soul, and cannot live without me.

'I shall always have the greatest regard and respect for you, and wish you well.

'I am sorry also about my mother, but you must try and explain that it is for the best. You also will know exactly what to do, and how to bring up the children just as well without me as with.

'Hoping this sudden news will not affect your health in any way, and that you will try and stay on a good while at Westgate, as I am sure the air is doing you good, believe me, yours affectionately as always,

'BRUCE.

'P.S.—Mind you don't forget to divorce me as soon as you can for Mavis's sake. Vincy will give you all the advice you need. Don't think badly of me; I have meant well. Try and cheer up. I am sorry not to write more fully, but you can imagine how I was rushed to catch today's steamer.'

She sat alone gazing at the letter under the light. She was divided at first between a desire to laugh and cry. Bruce had actually eloped! His silly weakness had culminated, his vanity had been got hold of. Vincy's horrid little art-student had positively led him into running away, and leaving his wife and children.

Controlling herself, Edith went to the veranda and said to Mrs Ottley that Bruce wasn't coming back for a day or two, that she had neuralgia and was going to retire, but begged Aylmer not to go yet. Of course at this he went at once.

The next morning Aylmer at his hotel received a little note asking him to come round and see Edith, while the others were out.

It was there, in the cool, shady room, that Edith showed him the letter.

'Good God!' he exclaimed, looking simply wild with joy. 'This is too marvellous!—too heavenly! Do you realise it? Edith, don't you see he wants you to make him free? You will be my wife—that's settled—that's fixed up.'

He looked at her in delight almost too great for expression.

Edith knew she was going to have a hard task now. She was pale, but looked completely composed. She said:

'You're wrong, Aylmer. I'm not going to set him free.'

'What?' he almost shouted. 'Are you mad? What! Stick to him when he doesn't want you! Ruin the wretched girl's life!'

'That remains to be seen. I don't believe everything in the letter. The children—'

'Edith!' he exclaimed. 'What—when he doesn't want the children—when he deserts them?'

'He is their father.'

'Their father! Then, if you were married to a criminal who implored you to divorce him you wouldn't, because he was their father!'

'Bruce is not a criminal. He is not bad. He is a fool. He has behaved idiotically, and I can never care for him in the way I used to, but I mean to give him a chance. I'm not going to jump at his first real folly to get rid of him.... Poor Bruce!'

She laughed.

Aylmer threw himself down in an arm-chair, staring at her.

'You amaze me,' he said. 'You amaze me. You're not human. Do you adore this man, that you forgive him everything? You don't even seem angry.'

'I don't adore him, that is why I'm not so very angry. I was terribly hurt about Miss Townsend. My pride, my trust were hurt but after that I can't ever feel that personal jealousy any more. What I have got to think of is what is best.'

'Edith, you don't care for me. I'd better go away.' He turned away; he had tears in his eyes.

'Oh, don't, Aylmer! You know I do!'

'Well, then, it's all right. Fate seems to have arranged this on purpose for us—don't you know, dear, how I'd be good to the children? How I'd do anything on this earth for them? Why, I'd reconcile Mrs Ottley to it in ten minutes; I'd do anything!' He started up.

'I'm not going to let Mrs Ottley know anything about it for the present.'

'You're not going to tell her?'

'No. I shall invent a story to account for his absence. No-one need know. But, of course, if, later—I mean if he persists—'

'Oh, Edith, don't be a fool! You're throwing away our happiness when you've got it in your hand.'

'There are some things that one can't do.' said Edith. 'It goes against the grain. I can't take advantage of his folly to make the path smoother—for myself. What will become of him when they quarrel! It's all nonsense. Bruce is only weak. He's a very good fellow, really. He has no spirit, and not much intellect; but with us to look after him,' she unconsciously said us, and could not help smiling at the absurdity of it,' he will get along all right yet.'

'Edith, you're beyond me,' said Aylmer. 'I give up understanding you.'

She stood up again and looked out of the window.

'Let him have his silly holiday and his elopement and his trip! He thinks it will make a terrific sensation! And I hope she will be seasick. I'm sure she will; she's the sort of woman who would, and then—after—'

'And you'll take him back? You have no pride, Edith.'

She turned round. 'Take him back?—yes; officially. He has a right to live in his own house, with his own children. Why, ever since I found out about Miss Townsend ... I'm sure I was nice to him, but only like a sister. Yes. I feel just like a sister to him now.'

'Oh, good God! I haven't patience with all this hair-splitting nonsense. Brotherly husbands who run away with other girls, and beg you to divorce them; sisterly wives who forgive them and stick to them against their will....'

He suddenly stopped, and held out his hand.

'Forgive me, Edith. I believe whatever you say is right. Will you forgive me?'

'You see, it's chiefly on account of the children. If it weren't for them I would take advantage of this to be happy with you. At least—no—I'm not sure that I would; not if I thought it would be Bruce's ruin.'

'And you don't think I'd be good to the children?'

'Good? I know you would be an angel to them! But what's the use? I tell you I can't do it.'

'I won't tease you, I won't worry you any more,' he said, in a rather broken voice. 'At any rate, think what a terrible blow this is to me. You show me the chance of heaven, then you voluntarily dash it away. Don't you think you ought to consult someone? You have asked no-one?'

'I have consulted you,' she said, with a slight smile.

'You take no notice of what I say.'

'As a matter of fact, I don't wish to consult anyone. I have made my own decision. I have written my letter.'

She took it out of her bag. It was directed to Bruce, at the address he had given her in Australia.

'I suppose you won't let me read it?' he said sadly.

'I think I'd rather not,' she said.

Terribly hurt, he turned to the door.

'No—no, you shall read it!' she exclaimed. 'But don't say anything, make no remark about it. You shall read it because I trust you, because I really care for you.'

'Perhaps I oughtn't to,' he said. 'No, dear; keep it to yourself.' His delicacy had revived and he was ashamed of his jealousy.

But now she insisted on showing it to him, and he read:

'DEAR BRUCE,

'I'm not going to make any appeal to your feelings with regard to your mother and the children, because if you had thought even of me a little this would not have happened. I'm very, very sorry for it. I believe it happened from your weakness and foolishness, or you could not have behaved with such irresponsibility, but I'm trying to look at it quite calmly. I therefore propose to do nothing at all for three months. If I acted on your suggestion you might regret it ever after. If in three months you write to me again in the same strain, still desiring to be free, I will think of it, though I'm not sure that I should do it even then. But in case you change your mind I propose to tell nobody, not even your mother. By the time you get this letter, it will be six weeks since yours to me, and you may look at things differently. Perhaps by then you will be glad to hear that I have told your mother merely that you have been ordered away for a change, and I shall say the same to anyone else who inquires for you. If you feel after this time still responsible, and that you have a certain duty, still remember, even so, you might be very unhappy together all your lives. Excuse me, then, if I don't take you at your word.

'Another point occurs to me. In your hurry and excitement, perhaps you forgot that your father's legacy depended on the condition that you should not leave the Foreign Office before you were fifty. That is about fourteen years from now. If you are legally freed, and marry Miss Argles, you could hardly go back there. I think it would be practically impossible under those circumstances, while if you live in Australia you will have hardly any means. I merely remind you of this, in case you had forgotten.

'I shall regard it all as an unfortunate aberration; and if you regret it, and change your mind, you will be free at any time you like to come back and nothing shall be ever said about it. But I'm not begging you to do so. I may be wrong; perhaps she's the woman to make you happy. Let me know within three months how you feel about it. No-one will suffer except myself during this time, as I shall keep it from your mother, and shall remain here during this time. Perhaps you will be very angry with me that I don't wish to take you at your word, Bruce. At first I thought I would, but I'm doing what I think right, and one cannot do more.

'I'm not going to reproach you, for if you don't feel the claims of others on you, my words will make no difference.

'Think over what I say. Should you be unhappy and wish to separate from her without knowing how, and if it becomes a question of money, as so many things do, I would help you. I did not remind you about your father's legacy to induce you to come back. If you really find happiness in the way you expect, we could arrange it. You see, I have thought of everything, in one night. But you won't be happy.

'EDITH OTTLEY.'

'Remember, whenever you like to come back, you will be welcomed, and nothing shall ever be said about it.'

Aylmer gave her back the letter. He was touched.

'You see,' she said eagerly, 'I haven't got a grain of jealousy. All that part is quite finished. That's the very reason why I can judge calmly.'

She fastened up the letter, and then said with a smile:

'And now, let's be happy the rest of the summer. Won't you?'

He answered that she was impayable—marvellous—that he would help her—devote himself to doing whatever she wished. On consideration he saw that there was still hope.



CHAPTER XXVIII

Bruce Returns

'Never, Edith!' exclaimed Vincy, fixing his eyeglass in his eye, and opening his mouth in astonishment. 'Never! Well, I'm gormed!'

A week had passed since the news of Bruce's elopement. The little group at Westgate didn't seem to have much been affected by it; and this was the less surprising as Aylmer and Edith had kept it to themselves. Mrs Ottley listened imperturbably to Edith's story, a somewhat incoherent concoction, but told with dash and decision, that Bruce had been ordered away for a sea-voyage for fear of a nervous breakdown. She cried a little, said nothing, kissed Edith more than usual, and took the children away for longer walks and drives. With a mother's flashlight of intuition she felt at once certain there was something wrong, but she didn't wish to probe the subject. Her confidence in Edith reached the point of superstition; she would never ask her questions. Edith had assured her that Bruce would come back all right, and that was enough. Personally, Mrs Ottley much preferred the society of Aylmer to that of her son. Aylmer was far more amusing, far more considerate to her, and to everybody else, and he didn't use his natural charm for those who amused him only, as the ordinary fascinating man does. Probably there was at the back of his attentions to Mrs Ottley a vague idea that he wanted to get her on his side—that she might be a useful ally; but he was always charming to elderly women, and inclined to be brusque with younger ones, excepting Edith; he remembered his own mother with so great a cult of devotion, and his late wife with such a depressed indifference.

Edith had asked Aylmer to try and forget what had happened—to make himself believe that Bruce had really only gone away medicinally. For the present, he did as she wished, but he was longing to begin talking to her on the subject again, both because it interested him passionately from the psychological point of view, and far more, naturally, because he had hopes of persuading her in time. She was not bound by letter; she could change her mind. Bruce might and possibly would, insist.

There was difficulty in keeping the secret from Vincy, who was actually staying in the house, and whose wonderful nerves and whimsical mind were so sensitive to every variation of his surroundings. He had the gift of reading people's minds. But it never annoyed anyone; one felt he had no illusions; that he sympathised with one's weaknesses and follies and, in a sense, enjoyed them, from a literary point of view. Probably his friends forgave his clear vision for the sake of his interest. Most people would far rather be seen through than not be seen at all.

One day Vincy, alone on the beach with Edith, remarked that he wondered what had happened to Mavis.

Edith told him that she had run away with a married man.

'Never, Edith!' he exclaimed. 'Who would have thought it! It seems almost too good to be true!'

'Don't say that, Vincy.'

'But how did you hear it? You know everything.'

'I heard it on good authority. I know it's true.'

'And to think I was passing the remark only the other day that I thought I ought to look her up, in a manner of speaking, or write, or something,' continued Vincy; 'and who is the poor dear man? Do you know?'

He looked at her with a sudden vague suspicion of he knew not what.

'Bruce was always inclined to be romantic, you know,' she said steadily.

'Oh, give over!'

'Yes, that's it; I didn't want anyone to know about it. I'm so afraid of making Mrs Ottley unhappy.'

'But you're not serious, Edith?'

'I suppose I'd better show you his letter. He tells me to ask your advice.'

She gave it to him.

'There is only one word for what I feel about it,' Vincy said, as he gave it back. 'I'm gormed! Simply gormed! Gormed, Edith dear, is really the only word.'

'I'm not jealous,' said Edith. 'My last trouble with Bruce seems to have cured me of any feeling of the kind. But I have a sort of pity and affection for him still in a way—almost like a mother! I'm really afraid he will be miserable with her, and then he'll feel tied to her and be wretched all his life. So I'm giving him a chance.'

He looked at her with admiring sympathy.

'But what about other friends?'

'Well—oh, you know—'

'Edith, I'm awfully sorry; I wish I'd married her now, then she wouldn't have bothered about Bruce.'

'But you can't stand her, Vincy.'

'I know, Edith dear; but I'd marry any number of people to prevent anything tiresome for you. And Aylmer, of course—Edith, really, I think Aylmer ought to go away; I'm sure he ought. It is a mistake to let him stay here under these circumstances.'

'Why?' said Edith. 'I don't see that; if I were going to take Bruce at his word, then it would be different, of course.'

'It does seem a pity not to, in some ways; everything would be all nicely settled up, just like the fourth act of a play. And then I should be glad I hadn't married Mavis... Oh, do let it be like the fourth act, Edith.'

'How can life be like a play? It's hopeless to attempt it,' she said rather sadly.

'Edith, do you think if Bruce knew—how much you liked Aylmer—he would have written that letter?'

'No. And I don't believe he would ever have gone away.'

'Still, I think you ought to send Aylmer away now.'

'Why?' she repeated. 'Nothing could be more intensely correct. Mrs Ottley's staying with me—why shouldn't I have the pleasure of seeing Aylmer because Bruce is having a heavenly time on board ship?'

'I suppose there's that point of view,' said Vincy, rather bewildered. 'I say, Edith!'

'About Bruce having a heavenly time on board ship—a—she always grumbles; she's always complaining. She's never, never satisfied... She keeps on making scenes.'

'So does Bruce.'

'Yes. But I suppose if there's a certain predicament—then—Oh, Edith—are you unhappy?'

'No, not a bit now. I think I'm only really unhappy when I'm undecided. Once I've taken a line—no matter what it is—I can be happy again. I can adjust myself to my good fortune.'

Curiously, when Edith had once got over the pain and shock that the letter first gave her, she was positively happier now than she ever had been before. Bruce really must have been a more formidable bore than she had known, since his absence left such a delicious freedom. The certainty of having done the right, the wisest thing, was a support, a proud satisfaction.

During these summer days Aylmer was not so peacefully happy. His devotion was assiduous, silent, discreet, and sometimes his feelings were almost uncontrollable, but he hoped; and he consoled himself by the thought that some day he would really have his wish—anything might happen; the chances were all in his favour.

What an extraordinary woman she was—and how pretty—how subtle; how perfect their life might be together....

He implored Vincy to use his influence.

'I can't see Edith in anything so crude as the—as—that court,' Vincy said.

'But Bruce begs her to do it. What could their life be together afterwards? It's simply a deliberate sacrifice.'

'There's every hope that Miss Argles will never let him go,' said Vincy. 'One has to be very firm to get away from her. Oh, ever so firm, and obstinate, you can't think! How many times a day she must be reproaching Bruce—that will be rather a change for him. However, anything may happen,' said Vincy soothingly. He still maintained, for he had a very strong sense of propriety in matters of form, that Aylmer ought to go away. But Edith would not agree.

* * * * *

So the children played and enjoyed themselves, and sometimes asked after their father, and Mrs Ottley, though a little anxious, enjoyed herself too, and Edith had never been so happy. She was having a holiday. She dismissed all trouble and lived in a sort of dream.

* * * * *

Towards the end of the summer, hearing no more from Bruce, Aylmer grew still more hopeful; he began to regard it as practically settled. The next letter in answer to Edith's would doubtless convince her, and he would then persuade her; it was, tacitly, he thought, almost agreed now; it was not spoken of between them, but he believed it was all right....

* * * * *

Aylmer had come back to London in the early days of September and was wandering through his house thinking how he would have it done up and how he wouldn't leave it when they were married, when a telephone message summoned him to Knightsbridge.

He went, and found the elder Mrs Ottley just going away. He thought she looked at him rather strangely.

'I think Edith wants to speak to you,' she said, as she left the room. 'Dear Edith! Be nice to her.' And she fled.

* * * * *

Aylmer waited alone, looking round the room that he loved because he associated it with her.

It was one of the first cold damp days of the autumn, and there was a fire. Edith came in, in a dark dress, looking pale, and different, he thought. She had seemed the very spirit of summer only a day or two before.

A chill presentiment struck to his heart.

'You've had a letter? Go on; don't keep me in suspense.' He spoke with nervous impatience, and no self-restraint.

She sat down by him. She had no wish to create an effect, but she found it difficult to speak.

'Yes, I've had a letter,' she said quietly. 'They've quarrelled. They quarrelled on board. He hates her. He says he would rather die than remain with her. He's written me a rather nice letter. They quarrelled so frightfully that a young man on board interfered,' she said, smiling faintly. 'As soon as they arrived the young man married her. He's a commercial traveller. He's only twenty-five.... It seems he pitied her so much that he proposed to her on board, and she left Bruce. It wasn't true about the predicament. It was—a mistake. Bruce was grateful for my letter. He's glad I've not told anyone—not done anything. Now the children will never know. But I've told Mrs Ottley all about it. I thought I'd better, now it's over. She won't ask him questions.... Bruce is on his way home.'

'All right!' said Aylmer, getting up. 'Let him come. Forgive him again, that's right! Would you have done that for me?'

'No! Never! If you had once been unfaithful, and I knew it, I'd never have forgiven you.'

'I quite believe it. But why?'

'Because I care for you too much. If you had been in Bruce's position I should never have seen you again. With him it's different. It's a feeling of—it's for him, not for me. I've felt no jealousy, no passion, so I could judge calmly.'

'All right,' repeated Aylmer ironically; 'all right! Judge calmly! Do the right thing. You know best.' He stopped a moment, and then said, taking his hat: 'I understand now. I see clearly at last. You've had the opportunity and you wouldn't take it; you don't care for me. I'm going.'

He went to the door.

'Oh, come back, Aylmer! Don't go like that! You know I care for you, but what could I do? I foresaw this...You know, I can't feel no responsibility about Bruce. I couldn't make my happiness out of someone else's misery. He would have been miserable and, not only that, it would have been his ruin. Bruce could never be safe, happy, or all right, except here.'

'And you think he'll alter, now, be grateful and devoted, I suppose—appreciate you?'

'Do people alter?' she answered.

'I neither know nor care if he will, but you? I could have made you happy. You won't let me. Oh, Edith, how could you torture me like this all the summer?'

'I didn't mean to torture you. We enjoyed being together.'

'Yes. But it makes this so much harder.'

'It would be such a risk!' she answered. 'But is anything worth having unless you're ready to risk every-thing to get it?'

'I would risk everything, for myself. But not for others...If you feel you want to go away,' she said, 'let it be only for a little while.'

'A little while! I hope I shall never see you again! Do you think I'm such a miserable fool—do you think I could endure the position of a tame cat? You forget I'm a man!... No; I'll never see you again now, not if it kills me!'

At these words, the first harsh ones she had ever heard from him, her nerves gave way, and she burst into tears.

This made him irresolute, for his tender-heartedness almost reached the point of weakness. He went up to her, as she lifted her head, and looked at her once more. Then he said:

'No, you've chosen. You have been cruel to me, and you're too good to him. But I suppose you must carry out your own nature, Edith. I've been the victim. That's all.'

'And won't you be friends?' she said.

'No. I won't and I can't.'

He waited one moment more.

* * * * *

'If you'll change your mind—you still can—we can still be happy. We can be everything to each other.... Give him up. Give him up.'

'I can't,' said Edith.

'Then, good-bye.'



CHAPTER XXIX

Intellectual Sympathy

'What are you going to wear tonight, Edith?'

'Oh; anything!'

'Don't say anything. I don't wish you to wear anything. I'm anxious you should look your best, really nice, especially as we haven't been to the Mitchells' for so long. Wear your new blue dress.'

'Very well.'

Bruce got up and walked across the room and looked in the glass.

'Certainly, I'm a bit sunburnt,' he remarked thoughtfully. 'But it doesn't suit me badly, not really badly; does it?'

'Not at all.'

'Edith.'

'Yes?'

'If I've spoken about it once, I've spoken about it forty times. This ink-bottle is too full.'

'I'll see about it.'

'Don't let me have to speak about it again, will you? I wonder who will be at the Mitchells' tonight?'

'Oh, I suppose there'll be the new person—the woman with the dramatic contralto foghorn voice; and the usual people: Mr Cricker, Lady Everard, Miss Mooney—'

'Miss Mooney! I hope not! I can't stand that woman. I think she's absurd; she's a mass of affectation and prudishness. And—Edith!'

'Yes?'

'I don't want to interfere between mother and daughter—I know you're perfectly capable and thoroughly well suited to bringing up a girl, but I really do think you're encouraging Dilly in too great extravagance.'

'Oh! In what way?'

'I found her making a pinafore for her doll out of a lace flounce of real old Venetian lace. Dilly said she found it on the floor. 'On the floor, indeed,' I said to her. 'You mustn't use real lace!' She said, 'Why not? It's a real doll!' Lately Dilly's got a way of answering back that I don't like at all. Speak to her about it, will you, Edith?'

'Oh yes, of course I will.'

'I'm afraid my mother spoils them. However, Archie will be going to school soon. Of course it isn't for me to interfere. I have always made a point of letting you do exactly as you like about the children, haven't I, Edith? But I'm beginning to think, really, Dilly ought to have another gov—' He stopped, looking self-conscious.

'Oh, she's only five, quite a baby,' said Edith. 'I daresay I can manage her for the present. Leave it to me.'

* * * * *

Since his return, Edith had never once referred to Bruce's sea-voyage. Once or twice he had thanked her with real gratitude, and even remorse, for the line she had taken, but her one revenge had been to change the subject immediately. If Bruce wished to discuss the elopement that she had so laboriously concealed, he would have to go elsewhere.

* * * * *

A brilliantly coloured version, glittering with success and lurid with melodrama, had been given (greatly against the hearer's will) to Goldthorpe at the club. One of the most annoying things to Bruce was that he was perfectly convinced, when he was confessing the exact truth, that Goldthorpe didn't believe a word of it.

It was unfortunate, too, for Bruce, that he felt it incumbent on him to keep it from Vincy; and not to speak of the affair at all was a real sacrifice on Vincy's part, also. For they would both have enjoyed discussing it, while Goldthorpe, the only human being in whom Bruce ever really confided, was not only bored but incredulous. He considered Bruce not only tedious to the verge of imbecility, but unreliable beyond the pardonable point of inaccuracy. In fact, Bruce was his ideal of the most wearisome of liars and the most untruthful of bores; and here was poor Vincy dying to hear all about his old friend, Mavis (he never knew even whether she had mentioned his name), ready to revel, with his peculiar humour, in every detail of the strange romance, particularly to enjoy her sudden desertion of Bruce for an unmarried commercial traveller who had fallen in love with her on board.—And yet, it had to be withheld! Bruce felt it would be disloyal, and he had the decency to be ashamed to speak of his escapade to an intimate friend of his wife.

* * * * *

Bruce complained very much of the dullness of the early autumn in London without Aylmer. This sudden mania for long journeys on Aylmer's part was a most annoying hobby. He would never get such a pleasant friend as Aylmer again. Aylmer was his hero.

'Why do you think he's gone away?' he rather irritatingly persisted.

'I haven't the slightest idea.'

'Do you know, Edith, it has sometimes occurred to me that if—that, well—well, you know what I mean—if things had turned out differently, and you had done as I asked you—'

'Well?'

'Why, I have a sort of idea,' he looked away, 'that Aylmer might—well, might have proposed to you!'

'Oh! What an extraordinary idea!'

'But he never did show any sign whatever, I suppose of—well, of—being more interested in you than he ought to have been?'

'Good heavens, no!'

'Oh, of course, I know that—you're not his style. You liked him very much, didn't you, Edith?...'

'I like him very much now.'

'However, I doubt if you ever quite appreciated him. He's so full of ability; such an intellectual chap! Aylmer is more a man's man. I miss him, of course. He was a very great friend of mine. And he didn't ever at all, in the least—seem to—'

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