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The Education of Eric Lane
by Stephen McKenna
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2

Elation battled with annoyance in Eric's mind throughout luncheon. Barbara had sought him out, when a hundred other men—several of them, like George Oakleigh, undisguisedly in love with her—might have been preferred to him; but he was offended by her proprietory attitude towards his work and life. Manders would have the whole story, too, helped out with first-rate mimicry, running through the Thespian Club by dinner-time; it would spread in twenty-fours through all of the London that knew him and half of the London that knew her; and Eric Lane would be quoted as the latest foil or companion in the latest Barbara Neave story. One did not even want the girl to be made a peg for Manders' wit. . . .

The luncheon, Eric observed morosely, was cheaply successful, for Barbara talked with barely concealed desire to lay Grierson and Manders under her spell. By intuition or accident she gave them what tickled their interest most keenly—intimate stories about herself or her friends, the proved history of what to them had hitherto been but alluring gossip, anecdotes of Government House and the minor secrets and scandals of her father's three terms of office. Eric felt that it was a little below the dignity of a girl, who was after all the daughter of a distinguished former viceroy, to be discussing herself and her friends so freely. . . .

They had lost count of time when Grierson looked furtively at his watch and jumped apologetically to his feet. As he hurried out of the room Barbara again asked Eric whether he had a rehearsal that day.

"Because I want to come," she explained wheedlingly, with her head on one side.

Her eyes were dark and tired after her overnight excitement; she had exhausted herself with talking; and for a moment Eric forgot to be irritated and only saw her as a child whom it would be ungracious to disappoint. Then he remembered one phase of a rambling story in which her love of getting her own way had caused her cavalier of the day to wait in his car from midnight until six because she had forgotten to leave a message that she had already gone home. In the story Eric could not remember any apology from Barbara. Triumphs came so quickly and easily that she expected everything and valued nothing; a man was sufficiently rewarded by being allowed to fall in love with her. . . .

"I'm afraid rehearsals aren't open to the public," he told her, brusquely enough to dismiss the appeal, he hoped, but not so brusquely as to hurt her.

She looked at him with the glint of defiance which he had seen once before; then she turned to Manders.

"Please, I want to come to the rehearsal," she begged. "It's your theatre, Mr. Manders."

"It's my play," Eric interrupted.

She turned her head long enough to say:

"I was asking Mr. Manders."

"But it happens that I also——"

Manders intervened with a clucking noise of the tongue.

"Keep the ring, keep the ring!" he cried. "You got out o' bed the wrong side, Eric boy. Don't quarrel, do-ant quarrel! If Lady Barbara wants to come, let her! It's against the rules, but I'll make an exception for her." The girl rewarded him with a glowing smile. "You'll be bored, my dear, I warn you."

"Oh, if I am, I can talk to Eric."

"Look here, Manders, if a rehearsal's worth taking at all, it's worth taking seriously," cried Eric petulantly. "I've plenty of other use for my time."

Manders was faintly amused by the outburst and wholly unmoved. Dire experience of the jealous and irascible had taught him that he could not afford to let other people lose their tempers.

"Lady Barbara will promise not to talk," he prophesied. "We're late, boy."

"I shall talk afterwards," she warned them. "At dinner to-night—Mr. Manders, I can't get Eric to see what bad plays he writes and what good plays he might turn out. He's very funny about it."

"Authors are a rum lot!" said Manders jocosely, slapping Eric's shoulder. "See about a taxi, boy. I don't let my people keep me waiting and I don't want them to wait for me."

It was a defeat for Eric, formally recorded by Barbara with that glint of triumph which was beginning to fill him with misgiving. They drove in silence to a side street off Shaftesbury Avenue and groped their way through the stage-door down a cork-screw staircase and along several short passages which branched disconcertingly to right or left as soon as Barbara fancied that she could walk ahead with impunity. From above came the mechanical runs and flourishes of a piano-organ against the drone of traffic; somewhere below there was a rapid squeak of voices. The corridors and stairs were wrapped in warm darkness, and, after one stumble, Eric felt a hand running down his sleeve and twining round his fingers.

"Are you angry with me?" Barbara whispered. "You were so grumpy in the taxi. And I made such a success of your lunch. Mr. Manders and Mr. Grierson loved me, and I made even you smile."

Eric tried to locate Manders in the velvety darkness before replying.

"You were very amusing," he answered unenthusiastically. "But it's possible to be amusing even when you're making rather a nuisance of yourself to several very busy men."

A sigh fluttered wistfully through the darkness, and he felt her drawing closer to him.

"Aren't you a little bit brutal, Eric?"

"Don't you find every one brutal who doesn't fetch and carry and wait out in the snow for you all night—and give you material for new stories? . . . Stand still while I find the handle."

He led her through a studded iron door into the twilit auditorium. The stalls were swathed in holland covers, and there was a brooding warm desolation which invited undertones. Barbara looked with growing interest at a sprawling group of two men and three women on the stage. Without make-up they were white and featureless in the glare of the foot-lights; they were jaded and a little impatient, too, but Manders, who seemed to make his personality unyielding and metallic on entering a theatre, galvanized them into alertness. A wooden platform had been built over the middle of the orchestra; and, as soon as he had disposed of Barbara in the stalls, Eric mounted it and seated himself in an arm-chair. Manders cautiously squeezed past him, script in hand, to the stage; there was a preliminary cough, a cry of "Beginners, please!" and the rehearsal opened.

Eric allowed the first act to be played without interruption; at the end he jumped up and entered into whispered conversation with Manders, turning the leaves of the manuscript and tapping them impressively with his pencil. One player after another emerged from the wings and stood listening, nodding and discussing as each point was thrashed out. A few minutes later Manders came down into the stalls and sat by Barbara.

"Just a breather," he explained. "No good nagging your people, particularly when they've been at the job for years and you're a new-comer. . . . Some of my spoiled darlings find that a little Eric goes a long way. You're sure you're not bored, my dear?"

"I can't see very well," Barbara answered. "If I had a chair on the little platform——"

Manders wasted an unseen wink on her.

"Well, you mustn't talk to Eric, that's all. And, if you see you're making him nervous, you must run away."

He helped her up and accommodated her with a property foot-stool by Eric's chair, leaving her for a moment's resentful scrutiny by a young woman who had been arguing with winsome persuasiveness about a speech which Eric under pressure from Manders had consented to cut.

"Who's that, Eric?" Barbara whispered, as he settled into place.

"Mabel Elstree."

"H'm. She doesn't seem to like my being here. . . . Does everybody call you Eric?"

"You're well placed to answer that. Now, Lady Barbara, remember your promise: no talking!"

The act was played a second time, taking form and life as all warmed to their work. Eric watched with critical narrowed eyes, no longer scattering pencil-marks in the margin of the script, restrained, impassive and absorbed. Barbara sat with her hands clasped round her ankles and her head resting against his knee. Only when the act was ended did he seem to become aware of her; then he edged away and stood up.

"Better! Very much better! Just turn to the place where——" He rustled back into the middle of the act and had it played through to the curtain.

Half-an-hour later Barbara emerged into sunshine. Eric was tired and rather husky, but pleased and hopeful. His earlier irritability was forgotten save when it obtruded itself reproachfully to remind him that he had been scantly civil to the girl by his side.

"The next thing is a taxi," he murmured, as they came out into Shaftesbury Avenue.

"You wouldn't dream of taking me home and offering me some tea?" she suggested.

"I would not, Lady Barbara," he answered cheerfully. "Your practice of visiting young unmarried men in their rooms should be promptly checked. But I'll drop you in Berkeley Square, if you like."

"That would be more—respectable. It's curious how you seem to have made up your mind not to do anything I ask you."

"It doesn't seem to make much difference to the result."

She ceased pouting and smiled self-confidently for a moment. Then her assurance left her, and she slipped her arm timidly through his.

"Am I being a nuisance, Eric? You said so, and—oh, it did hurt! I honestly enjoyed myself this afternoon; and I wasn't so very much in the way, was I? Don't you like me to enjoy myself? Don't you like to see me happy? Are you sure you're not a little bit sorry you were so brutal to me?"

"My conscience is quite easy, thanks. Lady Barbara——"

He hesitated and felt himself flushing.

"Yes?"

"Lady Barbara—, I don't understand you, I don't begin to understand you."

"You won't write a good play till you do," she laughed. "All your women are romantic dolls. We're much better and much worse than you think. But that wasn't what you started to say."

"I know. . . . Well, you oughtn't to have come to my rooms last night. And you oughtn't to have come to-day, though that wasn't as bad. . . . What d'you imagine people like Grierson or Manders think? What d'you imagine Mabel Elstree thinks, when you sit with your head against my knee?"

She withdrew her arm and walked for some time without speaking.

"I'm sorry if I'm compromising you with your friends," she said at length.

"And whether you compromise yourself doesn't matter?"

"I suppose I'm used to it," she sighed; then, with one of her April changes, the sigh turned into a provocative laugh. "If you don't mind being compromised by me, I'd make you write a wonderful play. My technique's so good. All you have to do is to fall in love with me——"

"I shan't have the opportunity," he interrupted. "We meet to-night at Mrs. Shelley's——"

"And we were so positive that we weren't going!" she murmured. "You don't want to see me again?"

Eric hailed a passing taxi.

"I like meeting you," he told her frankly enough. "You amuse me—and you interest me enormously. But I've work to do . . . for one thing. . . ."

She seated herself in the taxi and held out her hand through the window.

"You might come and call for me to-night," she suggested.

Eric shook his head. He was shy of entering a house to which he had not been officially admitted, confronting a strange butler, being pushed into a room to wait for her, meeting and explaining himself to Lord Crawleigh or one of the brothers, who would look superciliously at "Babs' latest capture." . . .

"I'll meet you at Mrs. Shelley's," he said.

The hand was withdrawn, and he could see her biting her lip.

"I'm sorry," she murmured.

"There's no need to be."

"I was apologizing to myself—for giving you another opportunity of refusing something I asked you to do for me."

Eric walked back to his flat, puzzled and irritated. The girl was intolerably spoiled; nothing that you did was right, there was altogether too much wear and tear in trying to adapt yourself to her moods. . . .

Even if you wanted to. . . .

3

The rehearsal, despite Barbara, was over in good time, and Eric could lie unhurriedly in his bath without fear of being late for Mrs. Shelley's dinner. Two days of his holiday had already slipped away, and he had made little mark on the work which he had schemed to do. To-morrow he would start in earnest. . . .

Barbara. . . . He could not remember what had set him thinking about her. She looked desperately ill, but that was not his fault, nor could he cure her; which disposed of Barbara. . . . What she needed was some one who would pull her up, steady her, master her. . . . Unfortunately—for her—he could not spare the time; nor was it part of his scheme of life to effect her physical and moral regeneration. . . . And it was now the moment to begin dressing.

Mrs. Shelley's house lay between Sloane Square and the river; and Eric arrived punctually to find her insipidly grateful to him for coming. A self-conscious Chelsea party was assembling; there were two war-poets, whose "Trench Songs" and "Emancipation," compensating want of finish with violence of feeling, had made thoughtless critics wonder whether the Great War would engender a new Elizabethan splendour of genius; there was Mrs. Manisty, who claimed young poets as of right and helped them to parturition in the pages of the Utopia Review; there was a flamboyant, short-haired young woman who had launched on the world a war-emergency code of sex-morals under the guise of a novel; there were three bashful aliens suspected of being pianists and one self-assured journalist who told Mrs. Shelley with suitable heartiness that he had not met Mr. Lane, but of course he knew his work and went on to ask Eric if he was engaged on a new "work." The flamboyant woman, Eric observed, talked much of "creation" and its antecedent labour; the trench poets, with professional modesty, referred to their "stuff." A fourth alien entered and was greeted and introduced in halting French, to which he replied in rapid and faultless English.

Eric looked round on a triumph of ill-assortment. He came here partly out of old friendship for his hostess, but chiefly for fear of seeming to avoid a section of society which at least took itself seriously. There was no question of a Byronic descent on Chelsea; these people would ever cringe before the face of success and disparage behind its back, as they had always done; they made a suburb and called it a school. For ten years Eric had listened to their theories and discoveries; after ten years he was still waiting for achievement. The very house, with its "art" shades of upholstery, its hammered brass fenders, its wooden nooks and angles filled with ramshackle bookcases, hard seats and inadequately stuffed cushions, was artificial; it was make-believe, pretentious, insincere. . . .

"Lady Barbara Neave."

There was a rustle of excitement, the more noticeable against the conscientious effort of several not to seem interested. Eric smiled to himself, as the young journalist, interrupted in his discourse on "the aristocracy of illiterates," watched Barbara's entry and posed himself for being introduced. She looked round with slow assurance, fully conscious of the lull in conversation and of the eyes that were taking stock of her. Eric felt an artistic admiration for her way of silently dominating a room.

"Am I late, dear Marion?" she asked, with the smile of startled recognition which made men and women anxious to throw protecting arms round her thin shoulders. "Eric and I have been rehearsing our play—the new one, I mean, that I'm taking in hand—and I had such a lot to do when I got home." She displayed adequate patience, while Mrs. Shelley completed her introductions, and then crossed to Eric's corner. "Glad to see me again?" she whispered. "I've decided that you're to lunch with us on Saturday."

"And I've decided to gladden the hearts of my family by going down to Winchester," he answered.

"But you must go later. I'll come with you, if you'll find a practicable train; I'm going to Crawleigh. Say you'd like to travel down with me."

"I make a practice of sleeping in the train," he answered.

"You won't on Saturday. Sometimes, Eric, I find your little practices and habits and rules rather tiresome; I must educate you out of them. By the way, I want to be seen home to-night."

It was a disappointing dinner for Eric, as, after coming to gratify Barbara, he was separated from her by the length of the table. In conversation Mrs. Shelley always gave people what was good for them rather than what they liked; Barbara was accordingly set next to an art editor, who tried to wheedle from her an article on "Eastern Decoration in Western Houses," while Eric found himself sandwiched without hope of escape between Mrs. Manisty, who discussed poetry which he had not read, and the flamboyant novelist, who had lately discovered and insisted on exposing a mutual-admiration ring in the novel-reviewers of the London press.

If dull, the meal was at least not so embarrassing as his dinner of the night before with Lady Poynter. Barbara seemed chilled by uncongenial company, though she touched his hand on her way to the door and turned, with patent consciousness that she was being watched, to give him a parting smile. Mrs. Manisty also turned, before she could control her curiosity, to see for whom the smile was intended. And, as Eric threw away his match after lighting a cigar, he found two of the men smiling.

In the absence of a host to pull them together, six groups self-consciously set themselves to discover a subject of conversation more worthy of their steel than either the evening communique or the port. The three alien pianists had reduced themselves to a Polish sculptor, an Irish novelist and a Scottish portrait-painter. By sitting next to the journalist, Eric saved himself the effort of talking and recuperated at leisure after the exhausting boredom of dinner. He had looked forward to seeing Barbara again, feeling disappointment that she was not in the big shadowy drawing-room when he arrived—(but she would come any moment)—and a little proprietory thrill of pleasure when she walked straight across the room to him. But her manner, her use of his Christian name—(and Mrs. Shelley knew that they had first met less than twenty-four hours ago)—her clear-voiced, unabashed habit of flirtation, the parting smile at the door. . . .

One of his neighbours interrupted the ill-humoured train of thought by introducing himself in a pleasant, soft brogue.

"Er, me name's Sullivan, Mr. Lane. Ye know Priestley, I expect? Priestley and I have been concocting a great scheme. I have a new book coming out in the spring and I'm wanting a girl's head for the frontispiece. Well, since I saw Lady Barbara to-night, there's only one head that will do for me. And Priestley's the one man to do it. Charcoal, ye know; a single sitting would be enough. Do ye think she would be willing?"

Eric smiled to hide his impatience.

"Why not ask her?" he suggested. "She's fairly well-known, of course; everybody'd recognize it."

"Ah, don't distress yourself! The book's symbolical," Sullivan explained vaguely. "I was wondering now, would ye sound her? Priestley and I don't know her, ye see. And, as ye're a friend——"

"We'll ask her, when we get upstairs," Eric answered.

Three tentative chords broke the silence overhead, and a woman's voice began to sing.

"Butterfly," the journalist jerked out as though he were in the last heat of a competition. "Second act, isn't it? Where Madame Butterfly hears that Pinkerton's ship has been sighted. I never think Butterfly's as bad as some of the high-brows try to make out. If you like that sort of thing, I mean," he added prudently.

Eric held up his hand.

"Please! I want to hear this."

"One fine day, we'll notice A thread of smoke arising on the sea In the far horizon, And then the ship appearing:— Then the trim white vessel Glides into the harbour, thunders forth her cannon. See you? He is coming!— I do not go to meet him. Not I. I stay Upon the brow of the hillock and wait, and wait For a long time, but never weary Of the long waiting. From out the crowded city, There is coming a man— A little speck in the distance, climbing the hillock. Can you guess who it is? And when he's reached the summit Can you guess what he'll say? He will call 'Butterfly' from the distance. I, without answering, Hold myself quietly concealed, A bit to tease him, and a bit so as not to die At our first meeting: and then, a little troubled, He will call, he will call: 'Dear baby-wife of mine, dear little orange-blossom!' The names he used to call me when he came here. . . ."

Eric had allowed his cigar to go out. He lighted it again and turned to his neighbour with an apology, as the voice ceased and then seemed to revive with a last sob of ecstasy.

"She did that very well. Shall we go upstairs? I should like some more. We can take our cigars with us."

Without waiting for an answer, he made for the door and hurried ahead of the others. The drawing-room was sombrely lighted by three low standard lamps which threw the upper half of the room into shadow. He stood for several moments with lips parted and shining eyes, trying to identify three scattered couples of women before reducing the figure at the piano, by elimination, to Barbara.

"I say, was that you?" he demanded.

She made way for him at her side, welcoming him with a chastened smile and wondering at his sudden enthusiasm.

"Did you like it? I'm so glad. I was beginning to think you were a craftsman, but I believe you're an artist. . . . I'm full of accomplishments, Eric. Pity, isn't it, that in spite of it all——?"

She hesitated, wistfully provocative.

"What's a pity?" he asked.

"What you were thinking; that I am what I am."

"I wasn't thinking that," he answered dreamily. "I was wondering if you'd sing again. We couldn't hear you at all downstairs——"

"Enough to bring you up very quickly?"

He sighed with exasperation.

"Yes, if your vanity needs a sop. Was that why you sang?"

She shook her head at him wearily, and he saw undried tears on her cheeks.

"Marion just asked me to sing. It was either that or talking to Yolande Manisty, and I hate her. What would you like me to sing?"

Eric felt ashamed of his rasping harshness.

"I don't know. That particular song always makes me cry. In spite of that," he looked at her, and smiled to himself. "No, I'm going to be very self-sacrificing. You said you wanted me to take you home, and I will—if you'll come at once."

"But it's not half-past nine yet."

"I don't care. My dear child, d'you think I can't see that you're tired, ill, over-excited——"

"It makes the night so long, Eric! But—thank you! I was beginning to think you were a prig, but I believe you're a saint!" The wistfulness left her eyes, and she smiled mischievously. "In moments of emotion how all our habits and practices break down! 'My dear child,' 'My dear child,' 'D'you think I can't see?' 'My dear child,' 'Tired, ill, over-excited.'"

"I'm sorry, Lady Barbara."

He tried to rise, but she pulled him back.

"You baby! Can't I make fun of you ever? It meant so much—just that little change in your voice when you forgot to be inhuman. I prefer 'dear child' to 'Lady Barbara' any day. Do you find it so hard to be affectionate, Eric?"

"I haven't tried. It would be impossible with you. I—I don't understand you. When I was dressing for dinner——"

"You thought you did? I'm so glad you thought of me, when you were dressing for dinner; I've a sort of feeling that it's not your practice to think of me when you're dressing for dinner."

"I don't imagine my affection makes any great difference in your life," he interrupted stiffly.

"Dear Eric, let me laugh at you sometimes! It's good for you and it's ever so good for me. It isn't as if I'd laughed so very much lately. . . . I will come home and I'll go straight to bed. But—don't be too hard on me, Eric."

Her voice was trembling, and her eyes had again filled with tears.

"May I say that I'm 'not in the habit' of being hard on people? But—I don't understand you."

"Ah, now you're repeating yourself," she threw back flippantly over her shoulder, as she went to bid Mrs. Shelley good-night. "I'm telling Marion I've got a headache."

Eric felt that he was slipping into the practice of letting people make a fool of him. . . .

4

Though it was a fine night, they sought in vain for a taxi and had to walk the whole way from Chelsea to Berkeley Square, Barbara with her arm through Eric's and her hand in his, leaning against him.

"I'm going away on Saturday," she reminded him, as they entered Eaton Square.

"High time, too," he answered.

"Do you want to get rid of me as much as all that?" she asked in gentle reproach.

"Well, you'll automatically stop compromising yourself with me. But even that doesn't matter so much as your health, which you're quite deliberately ruining."

She stopped and put her hands on his shoulders, drawing his head to her until she could kiss him. Still capable of being surprised, he thanked Heaven—after a quick survey—that they had Eaton Square to themselves.

"Dear Eric, are you very delicate?" she asked. "It's only when health is mentioned that you become human. Last night, at the very beginning of dinner. . . . And again this evening. If—if I gave in and had a week in bed, I could twist you round my finger. Now, don't pull yourself away and look dignified! Don't you see that I'm paying you a wonderful compliment? You're like a woman—not that that's a compliment. . . ."

She slipped her arm through his again, and they walked on past St. Peter's. Barbara was tired enough by now to be dragging on his arm, and he felt a sudden responsibility for her—as he had felt the night before when she had implicitly entrusted herself to him. He glanced down and found her walking with eyes closed and a faint smile on a very white face. The wind was blowing her hair into disorder, and he bent forward to draw her cloak more warmly over her chest.

She looked up with her eyes dark and sleep-laden.

"Am I coming undressed? Eric, you're very good to me! I shall miss you. Perhaps you'll write to me, perhaps I shall be coming up to London for just one night in about a week's time; we might dine together. Are you coming to lunch on Saturday?"

"I'll give the matter my best consideration. Go to sleep again, child."

"Dear Eric!"

She roused again as they crossed Piccadilly; and at the end of Berkeley Street she again cautiously bade him good-night.

"And about Saturday?"

Until that moment he had decided to be immovable about the Saturday invitation. He did not want to go, he wanted still less to make her think that he was going to please her. But, when she stopped him before walking on alone to her house, he felt that their position must be regularized. He had a certain status of his own—and some little pride.

"Yes, I'll come. Delighted," he said with sudden determination.

"Good-night, dear."

"Good-night, Lady Barbara."

There was time for an unexpected hour's work; but his broken night and jarring day had exhausted him, and he was glad to hurry through his letters and get into bed. Once there he found himself too tired even for the routine of reading the evening paper; and, while he tried to make up his mind to stretch up a hand to the switch, he dropped asleep, clutching the Westminster Gazette and with the light blazing on to his face.

So he found himself five minutes later when the telephone-bell rang. The voice of a child, eager for praise, said:

"I'm in bed, Eric. And the light's out. And I'm going to sleep in one moment."

"I was actually asleep," he answered.

"My dear! And I woke you up? I am sorry. Go to sleep again at once! Good-night!"

But the sudden shock of the bell had made his nerves restless. He had, after all, to read the evening paper and two chapters of a novel before he felt sleepy enough to turn out the light and compose himself.

Contrition, whim or pressure of other business kept Barbara out of his life the next morning. He read his letters unmolested, dictated to his secretary undisturbed and worked until mid-day uninterrupted. Then, as it was his practice to walk for half-an-hour before luncheon, he abandoned his own pretence that he was away from London and strolled along Piccadilly into the Green Park before making for the Thespian Club in Grosvenor Place. At Devonshire House he caught himself pausing to glance down Berkeley Street. . . .

At the club, Manders was lunching with a square-faced law lord and a doctor with humorous, shrewd eyes, who called upon Eric to join them.

"We never see anything of you nowadays," complained Dr. Gaisford.

"I don't have time to get as far away as this for lunch every day," Eric answered, as he pulled a chair in to the table. "You're cutting your vacation short, aren't you, Lord Ettrick?"

"Oh, I had three weeks' fishing in Scotland," the law lord answered. "Ever since I came back, I've been thinking that, if I had my life over again and could choose my own career, on my soul! I'd be a gillie. They're a great breed, and it's a great life."

Manders looked reflectively at the powerful, lined face, tanned yellow over a normally unwholesome white.

"I'd 'a gone into the Navy," he said. "My idea of a holiday is to get into old clothes and moon about the Docks or Portsmouth—anywhere with salt and tar about, you know."

"And what would our young friend do?" asked Dr. Gaisford.

Eric blushed to find three pairs of eyes on him. He thought resentfully over his ten years of journalism; then, with a warm rush of satisfaction, he saw the elaborate little flat in Ryder Street, the bathroom poster of "A Divorce Has Been Arranged," the envelopes from his agent Grierson, containing cheques for—what would they be for?—the invitations, the pleasant hum of work and stir of interest as shewn in letters from country clergymen who objected to his use of the word "God" in a comedy of manners, the deference paid him when he was invited out to be spoiled and petted, the easy triumphs. . . .

"If I had my life over again," he answered slowly, "I should alter—nothing."

Lord Ettrick looked at him with raised eyebrows, chewing his under-lip reflectively.

"I wonder how long you'll say that," he murmured.

A page-boy threaded his way to the table and stood bashfully at a distance with a tarnished salver pressed against his buttons.

"Wanted on the 'phone, sir," he whispered.

Eric rose resignedly and followed the page to a dark, ill-ventilated box behind the porters' desk in the hall.

"Hullo!"

"Is that Eric? Say what you like, my staff-work's extraordinarily efficient!" Barbara's voice rippled into laughter. "You weren't at your flat, I just divined that you'd be lunching at your club. I looked in Who's Who to see which it was. . . . How are you, Eric, dear? I haven't seen or heard of you since last night."

Eric's utterance hardened and became precise.

"I was asleep then; and I'm at lunch now."

"Who are you lunching with?" she enquired with unabashed interest.

"Oh, nobody that matters! What is it, Lady Barbara? What do you want, I mean?"

"I want to talk to you. Don't you like talking to me?"

"At the proper time and in the proper place. I say, you know, this is becoming a little bit tiresome."

There was a short pause; then a crestfallen voice murmured:

"I'm sorry, Eric. I'm truly sorry. I apologize."

"Lady Barbara!" he cried.

There was only a dull click, a silence and then a brisk nasal voice saying, "Number, please?"

Eric strode wrathfully back to the coffee-room.

"You can't do right with that damned girl," he muttered.

His companions were already paying their bills, so he abandoned his cheese and walked upstairs with them to the bright biscuit-coloured card-room overlooking the gardens of Buckingham Palace. While the others drank their coffee, he tried to write a very short, very simple note which somehow rejected his best efforts of phrasing. He had torn up four unsatisfactory drafts when Lord Ettrick threw away his cigar and asked whether any one was walking towards the Privy Council.

"I'm only scribbling one note," Eric answered.

What he was always in danger of forgetting was that Barbara was really only a child; she had begun to speak with a delightful ripple of laughter, and he had driven it from her voice. When she apologized, there was something hurt, something very much surprised—as though he had seen her smiling and slapped the smile away.

"Please forgive me," he wrote. "I didn't mean to be rude."

5

Before deciding whether to send his letter by hand, Eric ascertained that, by posting it, he could be sure of its reaching its destination by the last delivery. Then he walked through the Park with Lord Ettrick, left him at the door of the Privy Council Office and returned home for an hour's work before rehearsal. On leaving the Regency, he came back to Ryder Street and dressed for dinner. His own letters clattered into their wire cage at a quarter past eight, and, before sitting down to dinner, he transferred the telephone to his dining-room. The child was unlikely to refuse so open an invitation to ring up and say that all was well. . . .

There was no call during dinner, no call as he worked in the smoking-room with the telephone and lamp on a table at his elbow, no call when he went to bed, though he lay reading for half-an-hour after his usual time, to be ready for her. The morning brought a pencilled note ("Surprisingly tidy hand," Eric commented, "seeing what she's like"), instinct with a new aloofness and restraint. "After your refreshingly plain hint that I was a nuisance to you, I determined that you should not have occasion to suffer from my importunity. You may lunch with us on Saturday, if you like. And I shall be very glad indeed to see you, but you must not feel that you are doing this to please me. I SAY as you THINK: that I have no claim on you. Barbara."

Eric smiled indulgently and tossed the note into a despatch-box before ringing for his secretary. He must be more careful in future. . . .

When he looked at his engagement-book on Saturday morning, he found that Barbara had named no hour; which was characteristic of her. When he telephoned to the house, there was no answer; which—by no great stretch of calumny—was characteristic of the house in which she lived. Ninety per cent. of the people that he knew lunched at half-past one, excluding a Cabinet Minister, who lunched punctually at a quarter past two, and three Treasury clerks and one novelist who lunched at one; accordingly, at half-past one, he presented himself in Berkeley Square, to be informed by a sedately combative butler that luncheon was at two o'clock but that Barbara was believed to be in her room.

Eric followed his guide up four short flights of marble stairs and was shewn into the untidiest room that he had ever seen, filled in equal measure with the priceless and the worthless. The bindings of Riviere rubbed shoulders with tattered paper-backs; a cabinet of Japanese porcelain was outraged by foolish, intrusive china cats; there was a shelf of Waterford glass with a dynasty of blown-glass pigs, descending from the ten-inch-high parent to the thumb-nail baby of the litter—gravely and ridiculously arranged in a serpentine procession. Fifty kinds of trophy adorned the mantel-piece, ranging from a West African idol at one end to a pathetic, brown-eyed Teddy Bear at the other, with stiff, conventional photographs and occasional miniatures for punctuation. He recognized his own silver flask—and passed on, with a smile. Three small tables were almost buried beneath their load of pink carnations; a box of cigarettes, half-open and half-empty, lay tucked between the cushions in each of three arm-chairs, and the white bearskin rug was littered with The Times, a round milliner's box, two cheque-books and a volume of Ronsard.

The butler looked dispassionately at the confusion and withdrew, giving it up as a hopeless task. A moment later he returned to inform Eric that her ladyship would be with him immediately. Ten minutes later Barbara came in by another door to find him cautiously picking his way through the disorder and examining her books and pictures.

"I didn't expect you so early," she began. "Will you give me a little kiss, or am I still a nuisance?"

"You didn't say any time, so I chanced half-past one," Eric answered. "If you'd told me to come at two, you'd still have been ten minutes late, wouldn't you?" he added with a laugh. "Lady Barbara, your conception of tidiness——"

She opened her eyes wide at him in unfeigned surprise.

"My dear, but you should see my bedroom!" she suggested.

"The purple bedroom?"

"Did you remember that? I believe you're beginning to like me, Eric. Come and sit down instead of fidgeting."

He paused to finish his inspection, ending up with the nursery toy-cupboard on the mantel-piece.

"Hullo! I don't know this one of Jack Waring," he exclaimed on reaching a cabinet photograph in a silver frame.

Barbara lighted a cigarette and came beside him, resting her hand on one shoulder and looking over the other at the photograph, her hair brushing against his cheek.

"He—— Give me another match, Eric; this is burning all down one side—— It's good, don't you think?"

"The best I've ever seen of him, poor chap. I must get his sister to give me one."

"And don't forget that you're going to find out whether they've had any news of him, will you? Johnny Carstairs asked the Foreign Office to make enquiries through Copenhagen and Madrid, but he hasn't been able to find out anything."

"I should be afraid there's nothing to find out," Eric murmured. "He's been missing for weeks."

"But if he's been wounded or lost his identification disc—a hundred things. And it takes months to get news sometimes. D'you like my pig family, Eric?"

"Not among Waterford glass," he answered. "Except as part of the general setting for you."

She replaced the photograph, laughing, and took his arm, leading him round the room and giving him the history of her trophies, until a footman knocked and announced that luncheon was on the table.

Eric spent the next five minutes being pushed round a large library, which seemed to contain twice as many voices as people, and introduced to a second person before he had fixed the identity of the first. Lady Crawleigh was timorous and subdued, with an air of having been all her life interrupted in the middle of her sentences and with a compensating pair of flashing pigeon's eyes which seemed to miss nothing.

"I'm so glad Babs gave us the opportunity of meeting you," she said to Eric. "I enjoyed your play so much. Your first, wasn't it? It must be a glorious sensation to make such a success at the outset."

("She takes in a thousand times more than she ever gives out," Eric said to himself; then he found himself being spun through the rest of the family. "Wonder what she does with it?")

Lord Crawleigh interrupted an indignant, staccato conversation with Lady Maitland, who was holding her own with emphatic shakes of a massive head, to touch finger-tips and introduce him to his sister—the whole done cholerically and with the air of transacting a great deal of tiresome business in a short time.

("Bullies the life out of every one, I've always heard," was Eric's private comment, as he was introduced to a pair of tow-haired young officers with limp hands; "except the girl. And she bullies him.")

"I knew you by sight at Oxford," said Lord Neave, withdrawing his limp hand jerkily, as though he feared that it would be stolen. "You were at Trinity, weren't you? You, er, know my brother Charles—Mr. Lane."

Eric grasped a second limp hand, received a quick, business-like nod from John Gaymer and found himself confronted by the Duchess of Ross.

"No one will introduce us!" she cried shrilly with a vermillion pout. "I've so much wanted to meet you, Mr. Lane. You wouldn't dine when I asked you! Won't some one introduce us properly!"

The babble of high-toned voices, the quick patter of speech, the sense of hurry, the hyperbolical intimacy and enthusiasm were bewildering to a man who was naturally shy and at that moment mentally tired. Eric commended his soul to his humour and circumambulated the room, two steps at a time, until a sudden lessening of noise and tension told him that luncheon had dawned upon Lady Crawleigh as a thing to be not only discussed but eaten.

"We've heard so much about you from Babs," she said, struggling to finish one of her interrupted sentences. "So good of you to bring her home the other night."

Eric poised himself on mental tip-toes, wondering, in general, how far Barbara made her family a party to her life and, in particular, to which night Lady Crawleigh was alluding.

"Really——," he began.

"She gets these turns," Lady Crawleigh pursued. "I blame myself entirely; I allowed her to stay on working at the hospital when she simply wasn't fit for it. Now she has to pay for my weakness."

Eric looked from one to the other.

"I should prescribe three months in the country, bed at ten—and make her stay there for twelve hours."

"I should be out of my mind in a week," Barbara protested.

There was a pause, and Lady Crawleigh, with a rueful shrug, turned away to speak to Gaymer.

"I like the way you order me into bed and out of bed!" Barbara whispered. "If you cared what happened to me, it would be one thing, but, when I'm becoming a bit of a nuisance, you know. . . ."

Eric looked round cautiously and lowered his voice.

"Lady Barbara," he began.

"You persist in that?"

"Babs, then——"

"Yes, but you're receiving a favour, not conferring it."

He drew a deep breath.

"You are the most exasperating——"

"Dear Eric! I can't help teasing you! Are you the clever only child? Well, you ought to be. . . . I don't believe any one's ever teased you before. You mustn't be exasperated by me!"

Her laughter was irresistible, and Eric joined in it.

"Lady Barbara—I'm sorry—Babs, this is serious. You say you'd be out of your mind in a week, if you adopted my prescription. Let me tell you this; if you go on as you're doing now, you will go out of your mind——"

"I shouldn't bother you, if I were in an asylum."

Eric stiffened and turned his attention to the food before him.

"You're not an easy person to talk to——," he began.

"Oh, you dear child!" said Barbara, with a gurgle of laughter. "Two minutes ago it was, 'Ahaw, Lady Crawleigh, I should prescribe . . .' And one minute ago you became earnest and loving and grand-paternal, with your fond advice! Eric, I love you when you're like that! Now don't be self-conscious! 'Your ideahs of tidiness, aw, Lady Barbarah . . .' Whatever people may say, I believe you're intelligent. In time you'll understand." Her eyes softened and ceased to laugh at him. "Less than half a week! In time you'll know what you've done for me, what I very humbly hope and pray you're going to go on doing for me. . . . You'll know why I trust you and love you more than I've ever loved any one in my life before. There! Is that plain enough? I don't say it excuses my being 'tiresome,' but it may explain it. . . . Now don't say, 'Lady Barbarah, I—er—I don't—aw—understand you!'" Her fingers twined their way confidingly between his. "Why bother? Why not go on being just what you are?" she whispered. "Something that's made me think life's still worth living. I don't claim it," she added with a change of tone. "I ask it."

"And will you do something for me in return?" Eric asked. "Will you take six months' complete rest in the country, drop smoking——?"

"But I told you I should go out of my mind in a week!"

"Will you go for six weeks, six days?"

"You want to get rid of me?"

Eric felt his patience ebbing.

"I want to see you looking less of a haggard little wreck than you do now," he exclaimed.

"Then I'll go. Thank you, Eric."

From the end of the table Lord Crawleigh's voice penetrated authoritatively.

"Barbara! . . . Barbara! Are you coming with us by the 4.10?"

She pressed Eric's hand before turning her head.

"I can't come till the 5.40," she said.

"But, my dear Barbara——"

"I—can't, father."

("Bullies the life out of every one, I've always heard," Eric repeated to himself, as Lord Crawleigh subsided into inarticulate blustering. "Except the girl. And she bullies him.")

"I did wonderful staff-work with Waterloo this morning," Barbara confided. "The 5.40 stops at Winchester and Crawleigh."

"I could have told you that," said Eric. "So could Bradshaw, deceased."

"But fancy looking at Bradshaw, when you can persuade some one to look at it for you! . . . And you can't get anywhere in Bradshaw without going through the Severn Tunnel and waiting two hours at Bletchley. Besides, Waterloo rather loved me. Just my voice, you know. . . . We'll go down together. You can wire to your people."

"I told them I'd come by the 5.40."

"But how lucky!"

"How—understanding," he amended.

* * * * *

"If you can be sure of your opponent, you may win by throwing down your weapon. It is the victory of the weak over the strong, the 'tyranny of tears.' Or perhaps it is the victory of the weak over the weaker. But you must be sure of your opponent."—From the Diary of Eric Lane.



CHAPTER THREE

LASHMAR MILL-HOUSE

"I've come back . . . and I was the King of Kafiristan . . . and you've been setting here ever since—O Lord!" RUDYARD KIPLING: "THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING."

1

As the crow flies, Lashmar Mill-House is but five miles from Winchester. By road, however, there are six miles of tolerable grey flint and rusty gravel on the Winchester and Melton turnpike, followed by three Irish miles of unaided forest track. Half of it lies under water for six months of the year; but in the summer a rutted ride projects from stony sand-pockets framed in velvet moss, with tidal-waves of bracken surging up from the dells at the road-side and low branches meeting to net the sun-shine.

At the end of the three miles Swanley Forest seems to have paused for breath. There is a natural clearing a mile long and three quarters of a mile broad—cherished common-land, where the Lashmar villagers walk many assertive miles of a Sunday to preserve their rights of way; where, too, tethered goats and errant geese make good their eleventh-century claim to free pasturage. At one end of the down-soft clearing, a Methodist chapel, two shops and five cottages constitute the village of Lashmar; at the other lies Lashmar Mill-House, slumbering half-hidden by beech trees to the unchanging murmur of the Bort. The relevant deeds and charters prove beyond a doubt that the lord of Lashmar Mill-House has the right to make Lashmar village grind its corn in his mill, paying him in kind and yielding three days' labour a year to grind his. The ambitions of Sir Francis Lane and of his eldest son, however, were not feudal.

The autumn floods were lapping the road-side as Eric and his sister left the twinkling lights behind and turned, after a crackling six miles of metalled high-way, on to the primaeval ride that bored faint-heartedly through the forest. He was tired and uncommunicative, though his journey from Waterloo had been uneventful; once inside the carriage and tucked warmly into a corner, Barbara had closed her eyes, sighed and dropped asleep. Not until he stirred himself to collect his hat and coat did she open her eyes and look round with a tired smile; as the train steamed out of Winchester, an ungloved hand fluttered into sight for a moment.

It was Eric's first visit to Lashmar since the production of the "Divorce" had made his name known throughout England; and he could not conceal from himself that he was trying to render his return agreeably dramatic. Lady Lane assisted the conspiracy by inviting their few neighbours to meet him; Sybil was awaiting him on the platform with ill-suppressed excitement; and it was entirely appropriate that Agnes Waring should dine at the Mill-House on his first night at home.

"Geoff came home on leave yesterday," said Sybil.

"From Scapa? Oh, good! I haven't seen him for a long time," said Eric.

But for Basil, who was in Salonica, the party would be complete; and Eric felt a moment's compunction at having allowed himself to be so much caught up by the work and distractions of London. When the car stopped at the door of the Mill-House, he looked with affection at its squat, sleepy extent, punctuated with lifeless, dark windows and wrapped in age-long slumber; as the door opened, he saw his mother silhouetted against the golden light of the hall.

"At last, Eric!" she cried.

"It's good to be home again, mother," he answered, jumping out of the car and embracing her.

While his sister drove round to the stables, Eric walked arm-in-arm with his mother into the low, warm hall. For more than thirty years Lady Lane had guarded, counselled and provided for an eccentric husband and a turbulent family, shouldering the cares of all, budgeting, nursing and educating on an income which slipped unrewardingly away until she assumed control. She had learned Greek and Latin to help the boys with their home-work and had trained their characters in an austere school of aggressive Puritanism. If she were a little intolerant, at least she reared her children to a lofty sense of honour, a cold chastity of life and speech and a fierce refusal to compromise where truth or personal reputation was concerned. Thanks to her, three boys and one girl were now able to fend for themselves; Sybil, factotum and amanuensis to her father ever since she had learned to read, could support herself anywhere; Geoff was firmly on his feet in the Navy, Basil had passed into the Civil Service a few weeks before the outbreak of war. Lady Lane was justly content with her children; of Eric, whom she had kept alive when the doctors despaired of him, she was justly proud.

"Come into the drawing-room," she said, giving his arm a gentle squeeze. "I've got a fire there."

"Nothing's changed," said Eric wonderingly.

Lashmar Mill-House, for all its size, contained hardly more than two rooms on the ground-floor; a vast, book-lined study for Sir Francis, an equally vast living-room for the rest of the family and, between them, a furtive, dark rectangle where they hurried through their meals. Eric had begged for years to have the back wall removed from the hall to make an adequate dining-room, but his mother had grown middle-aged in a familiar compass and did not care to be told by him too explicitly how the house should be run and improved. In the moment of arrival Eric was too much pleased with his welcome to be critical.

"You look tired," she said, holding his face to the light. "Tell me what you've been doing all this while. You've become a great celebrity, Eric."

"There's nothing much to tell. I've been doing a lot of work, meeting a lot of people. . . . It's been rather fun. . . ."

As soon as she had put away the car, Sybil joined them and stood with her back to the fire and her hands in the pockets of a short tweed skirt, staring idly at her own small feet in their brown stockings and thick brogues and rousing herself with an abrupt jerk of the head when she wanted to intervene with a question.

"You were barely civil, when I rang you up the other night," she interjected, in a pause, with the disconcerting directness of nineteen.

"I was late already, and you were making me later," Eric answered patiently. "That night——? Oh, yes."

He detailed Lady Poynter's dinner to his mother and observed an expression of mixed curiosity and disapproval settling upon his sister's face.

"Mrs. O'Rane? Sonia Dainton that was? H'm," said Sybil. "And Lady Barbara Neave. Are you being taken up by that set now, Ricky?"

"I don't quite know what you mean by 'being taken up.' I met them at dinner. . . . And I lunched with the Crawleighs to-day," he added without filling in the intervening encounters. "Lady Crawleigh wants me to go down there next week-end, but I'm too busy; and week-ends simply wear me out."

"You have made yourself popular with them all at once!" Sybil commented. "What's Lady Barbara like?"

"Interesting girl," Eric answered, casually.

"Is she anything like what people make her out to be?"

Eric smiled tolerantly.

"I don't know enough of what people make her out to be," he replied. Sybil was smiling mysteriously and exasperatingly to herself. . . . "Is the guv'nor working?" he asked his mother.

Eric prowled through the hall to his father's big work-room. Sir Francis was sitting bent over a litter of papers, with a green eye-shade clamped to his lined forehead and an ill-smelling corn-cob drooping from beneath his unassertive grey moustache. In an arm-chair before the fire Geoff was contentedly dozing with the bog-mud steaming from his boots and a half-cleaned gun across his knees. By his side an elderly retriever peered reflectively into the flames and from time to time yawned silently.

"'Evening, everybody," said Eric. "I've been sent to hunt you off to dress, father. You asleep, Geoff? If not, how are you?"

Sir Francis pulled off the eye-shade and held out his hand with a wintry smile. The boy in the arm-chair turned on to his other side and dropped asleep again with a disgusted grunt.

"He's got about a year to make up," explained Sir Francis. "The Grand Fleet doesn't do much sleeping. Well, Eric, what news?"

"Everything very much as usual," was the answer.

"Everything's always very much as usual here," said his father, as he turned out the reading-lamp.

He sighed as he said it, and Eric tried to calculate the number of years in which he had come down like this for the week-end—to be met, before the era of motor-cars, by a fat pony and a governess cart, to be greeted by his mother with affection which he never seemed able to repay, to drift into the library and detach his lank, unaging father from his studies. Sir Francis had accepted marriage and the presence of a wife as he would have accepted a new house and strange house-keeper; children had been born; after the publication of his Smaller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary the friend of a friend had recommended him, through a friend's friend, for a knighthood, and he had bestirred himself with wide-eyed, childish surprise for the investiture and a congratulatory dinner at the Athenaeum, returning to Lashmar Mill-House grievously unsettled and discontented for as much as a week. He had talked of running up to London occasionally, of having these fellows down for the week-end; he had complained that he was growing rusty and losing touch with the world. Then the murmur of the mill-stream had drugged his senses, and he had settled to the Century Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon, Volume VII E-G.

After the restlessness of London, Eric could not at once accommodate himself to the leisurely contentment and placidity of Lashmar.

"Wake up, Geoff!" he cried.

The boy yawned and stretched himself like a cat, then became suddenly active and projected himself across the room, turning in the door-way to shout: "Bags I first bath, Ricky!"

"Well, don't take all the hot water," Eric begged. After the ingenious comfort of his flat in Ryder Street, he could not at once accommodate himself to the simplicity of the Mill-House. "Pity you never turned the east room into a bathroom," he said to his father. "You talked about it for years. We need another one."

It was an old controversy and part of Eric's persistent but fruitless campaign against the studiedly Spartan attitude of Lashmar Mill-House.

"It's rather an unnecessary expense. And we seem to struggle on without it," said Sir Francis.

"I avoid unnecessary struggles as much as possible," Eric answered shortly.

"You couldn't get the work done while the war's on," Sir Francis pointed out, rooting himself firmly in the particular.

Eric walked upstairs, reflecting in moody dissatisfaction on unnecessary struggles. No one ever laid out his dress clothes for him at Lashmar. It never had been done when he was a school-boy, carefully protected from pampering. Sporadic attempts were made, whenever he launched an offensive against the domestic economy of the house; but the maids were always changing, Lady Lane believed that all men-servants drank or stole the cigars. . . . In the last resort, these country-bred girls were so difficult to teach. . . .

Down the passage came the sound of emptying taps and a voice singing cheerfully in the bath.

"Don't stay there all night, Geoff!" Eric cried, banging on the door. "It's a quarter to eight now."

It was five minutes to eight before the bathroom, sloppy and filled with steam, was surrendered to him. No man could have a hot bath and dress in five minutes; he was particularly anxious to appear at his best for the meeting with Agnes. . . .

And the water was tepid. . . .

2

"I have been apologizing for you," said Lady Lane pointedly, as Eric hurried late and ill-humoured into the drawing-room.

He had ready at hand a caustic little speech about inadequate hot-water supply and insufficient bathrooms, but it was intended for domestic consumption and, after one scowl at Geoff, he laid it aside. Family altercations, like family jokes, should be reserved for the family, though no one else emulated his moderation. He wondered whether the servants grew as weary as he did of the story about the cross-country journey from Oxford to Winchester; it was dragged up at his expense whenever any one missed a train—and trains were missed weekly. Servants, of course, could always leave; they always did. Perhaps they made bets which would hear the Oxford-to-Winchester story most often in three months; perhaps they met in sullen conspiracy and pledged themselves to decamp in a body the next time any one heard it. . . .

That tepid bath had chilled his enjoyment of everything. . . .

"I'm sorry to be late," he murmured, stiffly impenitent.

Agnes Waring was in the foreground, talking to his father; he shook hands shyly and squeezed past her to Nares, the apologetic, ineffectual vicar, and from Nares to Mrs. Waring, who was talking to a young officer whom she had brought over with her party. Colonel Waring stood by the fire, retailing safe newspaper opinions on the war and representing to Eric's theatre-trained eyes, with their passion for "types," almost too perfect a picture of the younger brother who had passed from twenty years in a cavalry regiment to half-pay retirement and a certain military pretentiousness of daily life. There was no one else. Had their lives depended on it, Lashmar could not yield another man or woman.

"Entertaining here always reminds me of a musical comedy," Eric murmured to Sybil. "Where one goes, all go:

"Oh, we're all of us a-going back to Lon-don, Over ocean; that's the notion. . . .

"Song and dance. Curtain. Who's the fellow in uniform?"

"Mr. Benyon. A friend of the Warings," Sybil answered. "You're not going to be patronizing, are you?"

Eric pulled up and banished the ill-humour induced generally by the sleepiness of the country and, in particular, by that tepid bath-water. He had looked forward to the week-end, he proposed to enjoy himself; there was no need even to ask where he had been placed at dinner. Sybil, at nineteen, worshipped every word and movement in Agnes Waring at twenty-eight—her way of laughing and speaking, her phraseology, her mental outlook; every opinion was introduced with the words, "Agnes says——" Two years before, when the infatuation was in its perfervid youth, Sybil had made up her mind that her brother was to marry Agnes; the determination was still so strong that she was uneasy at the presence of young Benyon.

Eric had no strong view either way; Agnes was fair, slight and small-featured with observant grey eyes and a good deal of detached humour. Since the incubation of his first unsuccessful play, he had argued out every character and situation with her; when feminine psychology was in dispute, her ruling was accepted without cavil. More than once, as they splashed conversationally through the Lashmar woods, he had felt that she gave even a self-sufficient bachelor something that he lacked and would always lack; and, whenever the ubiquitous, dry celibacy of the Thespian smoking-room oppressed him, his thoughts drifted to Agnes Waring and a doll's house somewhere on the Eaton estate, with one table, two chairs and an avalanche of green silk cushions in the drawing-room. . . . He was not in love with her; but, when Sybil telephoned to find whether he was coming to the country for the week-end, he had resolved to retouch his conception of Agnes. For the first time in his life he could not only afford to marry; he could regard marriage from the standpoint of an eligible bachelor. If he was not in love with Agnes, he was in love with love. . . .

Distant voices wakened him from his reverie, and he found the long, low white-and-gold drawing-room buzzing with congratulations. Benyon had been to the "Divorce" three nights before; old Nares rubbed his hands, coughed and described a proud moment, a very proud moment, when he had been taken behind at the Lyceum and presented to Sir Henry Irving. There followed an ingenuous account of his make-up. . . . Eric smiled elastically, stroking his chin and letting his gaze wander round the white panelled walls, the gilt sofa and chairs and the gold and white overmantel—the coming of Dionysus to Europe in a chariot drawn by lions. He realized for the first time how much he hated overmantels.

Sybil was now talking to Agnes, but she withdrew discreetly at his approach and gave him an opportunity, as they went in to dinner, for a question about Jack.

"We've heard nothing since the August report that he was missing," said Agnes. "I'm keeping my mind a blank. I couldn't build all sorts of wonderful hopes on his being a prisoner and then, perhaps, have to go through the whole thing again. . . . Mother's quite certain, of course; but then mothers are like that, bless them. . . . I'll let you know, if we hear any news, Eric."

"Thanks very much. By the way, can you spare me one of the van Laun photographs of him?"

Agnes thought for a moment and then wrinkled her forehead.

"He was never taken by van Laun."

"But I've seen one."

"Where?"

"He gave one to Lady Barbara Neave."

Her forehead wrinkled in deeper lines of perplexity.

"I didn't know he even knew her. . . . He never mentioned her name; I suppose he thought I should disapprove."

Eric was tempted to coax an opinion of Barbara; but they had known each other for less than a week, and, if he went round collecting the judgements of all who had ever heard of her, no one would believe that a serene, professional spirit of enquiry prompted his curiosity. While native caution kept him hesitating, the opportunity slipped away; Agnes surrendered to the boisterous advances of Geoff, and he turned to find Mrs. Nares tentatively conversational on his left.

For a quarter of an hour Eric listened with one ear to the parish history of Lashmar. Unknown names married and begot families; unknown names sickened and died or were unexpectedly revived when the copiously described symptoms had rendered recovery an affront to the imagination; a few unknown names joined the army; one man was a prisoner, another wounded; and two more lastingly discredited Lashmar by saying that, when the army wanted them, the army could come and take them. Eric was informed that he would hardly know the dear old village now; he felt that he could support the privation with fortitude and hoped its annals might be closed with that felicitous generalization, but Mrs. Nares had recollected her husband's gallant attempt to be accepted as a chaplain and the Bishop's gracefully worded inability to spare him, with a postscript in his own writing to commend such spirit in a man of sixty-two and to hold him up as an example to his juniors.

Eric made mental notes of Mrs. Nares and memorized some of her more engaging mannerisms. If he could work her up, he could find room for her; but he must also find some one to play her with a breathless, unpunctuated patter; Kitty Walters seemed to have gone to America for good, but Dorothy Martlet could take the part. . . . The whole dinner, the atmosphere of the place were a satire on life in a remote country-house. He wondered what the party at Crawleigh Abbey was like. . . .

An unforeseen question rebuked his inattention. Eric disposed of it skilfully; but the thread of thought was snapped, and he looked round the table to see what had been happening since his reverie began. Agnes had been set at liberty by Geoff and was watching Eric as he watched the others. Their eyes met, and both smiled.

"Conscription between your father and Benyon over Sybil's body," he murmured, disentangling the conversations. "Needlework Guild between the guv'nor and Mrs. Nares. Poor old guv'nor. . . . V.A.D. training between mother and the vicar. 'Naval Occasions' between your mother and Geoff. D'you ever feel you'd like to stir all this up with a pole, Agnes? We're too far from the coast for an air-raid. . . . And, if you had one, no one would ever talk about anything else for the rest of his life; it would be like the Famine in Ireland or the Wesley descent on Cornwall." A maid, squeezing through the inadequate fairway behind the chairs, bumped Eric's back and made him spill his wine. "This place gets on my nerves!" he added irritably.

Out of the corner of her eye Agnes looked at his mobile, discontented face and crumbled her bread in silence for a moment.

"Don't give up coming here altogether," she pleaded.

Eric sipped his wine thoughtfully and avoided her eyes. Here was an opportunity, had he cared to take it, for opening up a greater intimacy with Agnes; but his mind was unconcentrated and he did not know what he wanted.

"I suppose I shall come down from time to time," he answered vaguely.

"I've been so looking forward to hearing about all you've been doing. We don't make much history in Lashmar."

It was common ground between them that the Warings lacked money for her to live as independently as all Warings felt that every Waring had a right to live. Each generation of younger brothers had been confined within an ever-narrowing circle; and, but for the war, Jack would now be patiently going the North Eastern Circuit, the first Waring to apply his mind to law; but for Jack and the money spent on him at Oxford, Agnes would have gone to Newnham and prepared a career for herself.

"You're too good for this place, you're wasted," Eric broke out after a moment's silent brooding.

"There's not much choice, is there?"

Eric brooded again.

"Are you happy?" he asked.

"Happier than you are, I think," she answered with a smile.

"Why on earth d'you say that?" he asked in surprise.

"You just seem changed to-night," Agnes replied. "Have you been working too hard?"

Over his port—which would not stand comparison with any from the artful little cellar in Ryder Street—Eric tried to settle in his mind how much she had seen and how much she had imagined. There was assuredly this much change in him, that to-night Agnes was not even waking him to dispassionate interest; he had no attention to spare her. And yet it was not that Barbara had captured his mind; she was nothing but an elf of mischief, dancing in the sunshine backwards and forwards across his path, pelting him with flowers, vanishing and reappearing. Restlessness or discontent must have peeped from behind the suave mask. He had meant to be more friendly, far more friendly; they had not met for nine months;—and both were disappointed.

In the drawing-room Agnes kept her chair a few inches behind the circle of the others, watching, listening and reflecting. Eric seemed to think that he was still at one of the tiresome long parties where he was expected to glitter and to be shewn off; he had talked very well at times, but he felt that he had been making voluble conversation in a nervous dread of silence between them. His new life was rather turning him into a public entertainer; he was enigmatic and unapproachable.

3

As Eric, with caution born of experience, lit one of his own cigars and made room for Geoff at his side, an idea came to him so seductive, so simple and so compelling that he wondered why he had never thought of it before. When Geoff asked: "Are you down here for long, or are you going back on Monday?" Eric answered with unsought inspiration:

"I shall go back on Sunday night."

It had never occurred to him before that, by this facile course, he could avoid an early and cold drive into Winchester, a crowded train, a free fight for the last copy of The Times, a late arrival at the department where he composed propaganda for neutral consumption. And he had never felt so urgent a need to escape from the Mill-House.

"I haven't seen your jolly old play yet," said Geoff. "I suppose I can count on you for a box? If you'll give us dinner first, I might collect a few bright lads and give the thing a bit of a fillip. I should think it must be rather a rag, being famous."

"I suppose that depends on your definition of fame—and of a rag," Eric answered.

"Oh, being invited everywhere," said Geoff unhesitatingly. "Having your photograph in all the papers. Girls waiting in a queue for your autograph. A galaxy of beauty prostrating itself at your feet to get an extra line."

"That sounds more like musical comedy," said Eric doubtfully. "I don't fly as high as that."

Geoff was too young to have outgrown the appeal of the stage. He regarded Eric with as much admiration as one brother accords another and with undisguised envy.

"I did enjoy your play," said Benyon, moving into a chair by his side. "Agnes came up to dine with me, and I took her. . . ."

Eric bowed without listening to the end of the sentence. He was mildly surprised to find Agnes being discussed by her Christian name and wondered why he had not heard of Benyon before. Perhaps it was her fault that they had established no spiritual contact at dinner; she had conceivably lost interest in him, and he wondered whether he was sufficiently interested to make sure. . . .

"The mater told me you'd another thing on the stocks," Geoff went on.

"It's being produced next month," answered Eric.

He looked impatiently round the cramped dining-room, listening for a moment to an altercation between Waring and Nares on the Dardanelles expedition. It was surely worth while to explore Agnes further and to see what part in her life this young Benyon was playing. . . .

Fortified by the wise decision to return to London earlier than he had first intended, Eric entered the drawing-room full of toleration and good-humour. Bending over Mrs. Nares' sofa, he atoned for his inattention during dinner with thirty seconds' belated sparkle and a simple epigram which he had already tried with effect on Mrs. Shelley. They were joined by Mrs. Waring, and, as he had hardly spoken to her all the evening, he consented to talk about his forthcoming play—which he enjoyed as little as a superstitious mother might enjoy describing her unborn child—until in a subsequent regrouping she confided to Sybil that she was very much attached to Eric; he was so unspoiled, so charming. . . .

"Aren't you rather proud of him?" she asked.

"Yes. He's very clever and he's had a big success," Sybil conceded critically. "But, if any one says 'Lane,' the whole world thinks of Eric, while father, who's spent his life——"

She was interrupted by Mr. Nares, who stationed himself at her elbow, coughing apologetically until she gave him an opportunity of asking her to sing. As she went to the piano, Eric moved across the room to Agnes' chair and suggested that they should go out on the terrace.

"It's stifling in here," he grumbled; and, after a quick sidelong glance, Agnes followed him.

They strolled through one of the French windows to a long gravel path, which ran flush with the inky, slow-moving mill-stream. Overhead the trees stretched across the narrow ribbon of water, brushing the back of the house and releasing brittle leaves of copper and dull gold to undulate in the breeze before they settled on the surface and swept gently over the creaking wheel. A crescent moon was reflected unwaveringly in the black water, and the autumn breeze blew a scent of decaying, damp vegetation from the dense woods all around them.

"Remember when we used to have races with paper boats, Agnes?" Eric asked suddenly.

She nodded, wondering why he had reminded her.

"What years ago it seems!"

"Only about five. Though we were both old enough to know better."

"It seems longer," said Agnes, looking at him thoughtfully and wondering whether he had only invited her out there as a demonstration against Sybil for disparaging him to her mother.

"I don't feel a day older."

"You're changed. We were all of us saying that before you came into the drawing-room to-night. Your mother's rather worried about you, Eric."

He lighted a cigarette to shew the steadiness of hand and eyes.

"She needn't bother," he answered easily. "I'm carrying a good deal of sail—but I'm better than I've ever been. Agnes, I don't usually talk about what I'm only thinking of doing, but with you it's different. . . ."

He slipped her arm through his and walked up and down the gravel path describing his conception of a novel as it had revealed itself to him a week before when he was at an Albert Hall concert. His confidence flattered her into disregarding the egotism which made him remember her only when he wanted to talk about himself; she forgot the sensation that he had outgrown her as much as he had outgrown the paper-boat races on the mill-stream by their side. Once the night wind, blowing on to her unprotected shoulders, sent a shiver through her; but it was Eric who coughed, and she wondered whether he knew why Lady Lane always looked so anxiously at his sunken cheeks and starved body. She wondered, too, whether she would have cared for him so much if he had been robust and tranquil as Geoff.

The music had ended long before he had done talking; tentative cries of "Agnes!" passed unheeded, and she was only recalled to the present by the appearance of Colonel Waring in overcoat and soft hat half-way through the open window.

"Bed-time, Agnes," he called out, sniffing the night air. "If you've been giving that girl of mine a chill, Eric——"

"You're not cold, are you?" Eric asked her.

"Not very," she answered with a tired and rather disappointed smile.

"Oh, but why didn't you tell me?" he protested in a convincing voice of concern, as he led her back into the house and helped her into her cloak. As a chorus of farewell rose and isolated them, he lowered his voice. "You'll let me know when you have any news of Jack, won't you?"

"If," she answered wistfully.

"You mustn't lose heart. I expect he's all right, and there's been some hitch in getting the news through. He's all right, Agnes."

"I hope so."

She shook hands and walked despondently into the night. Eric seemed to have become artificial in the last few months—just when he might have helped her most. He lengthened his face and lowered his voice sympathetically, but he was growing into a social puppet and losing his individuality. . . . It had not been a very amusing dinner.

"Did you enjoy yourself?" Colonel Waring asked her, as they settled into the car.

"Very much, thanks," she answered quietly. "I'm rather tired, though."

Benyon told her that Eric's new play was to be produced within a month and invited her to come with him. She answered uncertainly and lapsed into silence.

As the car bumped over the springy turf of Lashmar Common, Eric stood gazing at the stars and drinking in the thousand mingled scents and sounds of the night. Somewhere hard by, a bonfire was pungently smouldering; there was a sour smell where a flock of geese had been feeding all day; flaring acridly across was a transitory reek of burnt lubricating oil, and the hint of a cigar so faint that it was gone before he could be sure of it. . . . The lumbering creak of the mill-wheel rose assertively above the drone and plash of the stream; a shiver of rain and a gentle sigh of wind in the top branches of the trees behind him were suddenly swallowed by the hoot of an owl.

Eric started—and wondered why he was standing there in the cold. Then he remembered that he had stayed to be by himself and to think something out. There was a change somewhere, and he was trying to locate it. He had come to retouch his memory of Agnes, and he had seen her alone and with others; they had talked the conventional jargon of the dinner-table, their fingers had brushed emotion as they discussed her missing brother, and for half an hour they had marched up and down the terrace arm-in-arm, discussing and arguing on an unwritten book, recapturing an old intimacy which he had shared with no one else. In the light of the drawing-room Agnes' grey eyes were black and mysterious; her lips were parted, and her cheeks warmly flushed; he had never seen her look prettier, he had never been more attracted by her.

The change must be in himself; he demanded of her something more volcanic and inspiring than she could give, something to feed his own languid vitality instead of placidly laying him to rest. . . .

Shutting the front door, he went back to the drawing-room, where the family was assembled to compare notes and pool information.

"The vicar's starting a class for making bandages. . . ."

"The Warings haven't heard anything of Jack yet. . . ."

"That Benyon must be one of the Herefordshire lot, I fancy. An old private bank. . . ."

Eric hesitated on the threshold, looking from one to another. Sybil was undisguisedly disappointed; she had so desperately set her heart on his marrying her beloved Agnes, and the night's meeting had brought them no nearer. Lady Lane, still anxious, beckoned him into the room and took his face between her hands, turning it to the light and kissing his eyes again, as on his arrival.

"You look tired, Eric. You'd better go to bed, or you'll never be down to breakfast."

"I wasn't thinking seriously of being down to breakfast in any case," he answered with a yawn.

"Oh, don't be late. It makes so much extra work for the maids, if they have to serve several breakfasts and can't get in to do your room."

He smothered an impatient retort and strolled to a table by the fire where Sybil and her father were sipping long tumblers of hot milk, while Geoff gulped home-made lemonade with avid enjoyment.

"Any whiskey?" he asked, raking the tray with critical eye. He did not greatly want it for himself or at that moment, but every night the same plea had to be preferred, there was the same hesitation and hint of inward struggle, the same unspoken protest, as though the shocked stalwarts of temperance were saying: "You can't want whiskey after claret and port." He was being made to drink for conscience sake. And it was intolerable that Waring, Benyon and Nares should have been sent into the night without a stirrup-cup.

"It's in the dining-room," said Sybil, walking reproachfully to the door.

"Here! All right! I'll ring," Eric cried.

"The servants are all in bed," she answered. "Or, if they're not, they ought to be."

He thanked her suitably on her return, but one discordant, trifling incident coalesced with another, the tepid bath with the whiskey demonstration, to give him a sense of angular discomfort. In a few hours he seemed to spend a month's nervous energy in battling for things that were not worth winning. The whole week-end would be a failure. . . .

The milk tumblers were returned to their tray; Sir Francis filled his corn-cob for the last time; Geoff ferreted curiously among a pile of library novels in one corner, and Lady Lane walked softly round the room, testing the fastenings of the windows, pushing a top-heavy log into security and turning off unnecessary lights. The hall clock, striking eleven, seemed to rouse and inspire them with a common impulse.

"Don't burn the mid-night oil too long," said Lady Lane, brushing Eric's forehead with her lips.

"I simply couldn't sleep, if I went to bed now," he told her. "Good-night, mother. Good-night, everybody."

As the house grew silent he brought in his despatch-box from the hall and began to read through the skeleton of a novel which he had promised himself to write as soon as "The Bomb-Shell" was safely launched. In the second week of the war he had spent an afternoon in a recruiting office with men of all ages and physiques, pressing forward for enrolment. Three over-worked doctors pounded and sounded them, prodding them on to a weighing-machine, measuring their height and chest expansion, testing their eyes. Eric had tried to cheat by memorizing the order of the descending black capitals while he lay on a sofa breathing freely or holding his breath as he was ordered; but the chart was changed before his turn came. When he had dressed, the examining doctor referred him to a row of three weary clerks at a baize-covered table, who informed him that he was rejected. The folio form contained a comment—cardiac something; he could not read the second word. There was no appeal, and, after a moment's indecision, he recognized that there was nothing to do but to go home.

Outside the office his neighbour in the queue overtook and hailed him with the words: "What luck?"

"They've spun me," Eric answered. "There was just a chance that I might slip through in the crowd. . . . What did they say to you?"

"I was spun, too," his companion answered. Then he laughed uneasily and his face was drawn and dazed in the August sunshine. "You wouldn't think you could have much the matter with you and not know anything about it. I always thought I was a first-class life; I haven't had a day's illness in ten years——"

"What did they say?" Eric asked, as the other hesitated in bewilderment.

"They give me anything between three and six months," he answered, moistening two grey lips. "One of the fellows . . . took me on one side, you know . . . asked me a few questions . . ." He broke off and waved to a taxi which was rolling lazily down Whitehall. "I must go and see my own man. Good-bye."

"Good-bye! Good luck!" Eric cried.

As he walked home he wondered how much composure he would shew if a sentence of death were slapped at him like an overdue bill. He wondered, too, what he would do with those testing, supreme three months, if they were all that he was allowed. Stoicism, hedonism, the faith of his childhood, new-fangled mysticisms would join hands and hold revel round his soul for those twelve weeks, those eighty-four days, those two thousand and sixteen hours. . . . The speculation fascinated him until he almost fancied that the sentence had been passed on him. Gradually he wove a drama round it; line by line it took shape for a book that was to be subtiler, finer and more sincere than anything that he had ever written. If only he could find time for six months' uninterrupted work! London had to be not only captured but held; more than ever before, his work was the one thing that mattered. . . .

The clock in the library struck twelve, and he tossed the manuscript skeleton back into his despatch-box. His mind was vaguely disturbed with a sense of duty undone, until he remembered promising to tell Barbara if he heard any news of Jack Waring. For a moment he thought of writing to her; but in fact there was no news, he would have only himself to blame if he re-established communications with her in obedience to a passing whim. She was at Crawleigh, resting and building up her strength; he would be back in full harness within thirty-six hours, and there would be no room for her madcap incursions into his life.

4

The house was very silent when Eric at length mustered resolution to go to bed. The fragrance of many wood fires warmed the passages and staircase with a drowsy scent; once a distant window rattled tremulously in the wind, the hall clock gathered itself together and hesitated before striking; all else was deep-brooding peace.

He turned out the lights and mounted to his room on tip-toe. There was a fancied sound of tranquil breathing, as he paused outside each door in the long, low passage. He at least was awake; his highly-strung new restlessness would not accord with the placidity of these contented people. Twenty-five years ago, his mother had fetched him from Broadstairs for his first Christmas holidays; and he had been wonderfully glad to see her and to be home again. So it had been every holiday; he started with an afternoon's preliminary exploration, flinging open doors, sniffing the familiar scent of leather bindings, lavender and pine-logs, critically watchful for change. Now the change had come in himself; Agnes had commented on it, his mother and Sybil had noticed it. . . .

His bedroom was as he had known it from childhood; a hard brass bed, white painted chest-of-drawers and wash-hand-stand, threadbare green carpet, flowered and festooned pink-and-white wall-paper. (It must have been renewed in twenty-five years, but the pattern was the same.) There was an oak-framed "Light of the World" over the bed, supplemented on the other walls with progressive personal records—eleven podgy, flannelled little boys in quartered chocolate-and-gold caps, guarded and patronized by a flannelled and whiskered master; four lean-faced, stern young school prefects in gowns and white ties; two hundred shivering and draggled young men and girls, pressing together for warmth in the five o'clock chill of a June morning outside the Town Hall of Oxford. There were two shelves of calf-bound, marbled prize books between the windows, a pair of limp, battered racquets over the mantel-piece and a fumed-oak shield with the university and college arms contiguously inclined like the hearts of two lovers.

Eric shed his coat and waist-coat on the bed, lighted a pipe and prowled ruminatively round the room. Somewhere in the shivering ball-group Jack Waring was to be found, marked out by the blue dress-coat of the Bullingdon. Philpot of B.N.C., Trevor of the House, Loring of the House, Crabtree of Magdalen, Flint of Exeter—Eric turned from one blue-coated sign-post to another until he identified Waring with a crumpled shirt front and disordered hair, cross-legged in the front row. It was a smiling, vacuous, uncharacteristic photograph, and he abandoned it for a bulky album stamped with his initials.

He retreated to the bed and sprawled over a group of the "Mystics." This was a detached and scornful club, exasperating to outsiders, tiresome to its members; Waring and he had joined it at the same time and taken possession of it; their vague home intimacy had ripened into an interested friendship as they strolled back to college from the weekly meetings, once more refighting the frigidly abstract battles in which they had lately engaged from the depths of arm-chairs with their feet on the table and piled dessert-plates in their laps. Without effort or desire Waring had set a fashion and founded a school of icy fastidiousness. Within the limits of college discipline, which he scrupulously observed, Waring dissociated himself from the life and conventions of the college, the abbreviations and colloquialisms of Oxford speech, the slovenly mode of dress and juvenility of mind. His serenity floated as smoothly over the collective ideas and standards of his fellows as over intercollegiate jealousies; and, as he left the college distantly alone, the college sought him out, elected him to clubs which he seldom attended and to banquets which he overlaid with baffling and frigid aloofness.

When Waring went to the bar, he shared chambers with Eric for four years in Pump Court; and, though they met at most for an hour each day, there resulted an intimacy which neither could replace when Waring moved to the greater comfort of a bedroom at the County Club. For two or three years before the war they hardly met; Eric, disappointed and sore from want of recognition, was shutting himself away from his former friends, while Waring was gathering together a practice and exploring with discrimination the social diversions of London. The war hardly increased the distance between them, and it was only when Jack Waring was reported to be "missing" that Eric realized he had lost his best and oldest friend.

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