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The Education of Eric Lane
by Stephen McKenna
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He replaced the album in its shelf and went on undressing. So many friends had already been killed in these first fourteen months of war that he had fallen into a "sooner-or-later" frame of mind about all. Their death ceased to surprise and no longer shocked him as it had once done. Until the war, Jack was always at call. Now, when the war ended, he would not come back. . . . Eric shrugged his shoulders and clambered into bed. The Warings were plucky about it, because every day the suspense must become worse; and all the while people would rush up and ask for news, as he had done with Agnes, instead of leaving her to spread the news as soon as she had any. People thought that they were being sympathetic when they were simply tearing the bandage away from the wound to gratify their own curiosity. He would never have asked the question but for his promise to Barbara. . . .

Why, then, was he not letting her know the result? He reached for his despatch-box and settled himself comfortably against the pillows.

"I promised to see if I could get any news of our friend Jack Waring," he began, then hesitated to wonder whether her letters reached Barbara uncensored or whether sharp-eyed, subdued Lady Crawleigh would ask tonelessly, "Who's your letter from, Babs?" Decorum, he decided, should blossom between the lines and shed its waxen petals round each word. . . . "His sister was dining with us to-night, and I am sorry to say . . ." "Did you know him well? He was one of my greatest friends at Oxford. I remember once . . ."

Eric found himself fondly stringing together anecdotes of Jack until he had overshot the limits of a single sheet; it seemed but a moment before he was leaning out of bed to reach a third. "You must forgive me, if I have rather let myself go about him," he ended. "I remember the first weeks of the war, when I had a nervous breakdown. His father's place is about two miles from here, and he used to come round and sit with me. I've only to shut my eyes to see him standing by the fireplace, with his elbow on the mantel-piece and his cheek on his hand, talking to me. And I'd give a great deal to have him here to-night.

"But I'm afraid I'm occupying an unfair proportion of your time and strength at a season when you've faithfully promised to take care of yourself and to have a proper rest. I hope you didn't get carried beyond Crawleigh station; it's been rather on my conscience that I got out at Winchester instead of coming on with you the whole way. Are you aware that you collapsed from sheer exhaustion almost before we were out of Waterloo? I thought you'd fainted and, as you have my only flask of brandy, I had a bad fright. Isn't it worth while to take a little care of yourself? You're so intolerably vain that I needn't remind you that you're very young, extraordinarily lovely at times, very clever and utterly wasted. However, that's your affair, and you're not likely to be much impressed by any advice I give you, nor am I much impressed by my right to give you advice. If I hear any news of Jack, you may be sure that I shall let you know. Now, good-night, good-bye and a speedy recovery."

In reading through his letter, Eric could not help feeling that, where he had sown decorum, a certain intimacy had shot up. But at three o'clock in the morning he could not bother about that.

5

In the first drowsy moments after waking, Eric realized that he was starting at a disadvantage. It was half-past ten. He had therefore missed breakfast, disorganized the housemaids' programme for the day and made himself too late to accompany his mother to church.

"I seem to have broken all the rules of the place before getting out of bed," he told himself, as he rang for hot water.

Then he laughed as he recalled an old "Punch" drawing of an intoxicated reveller in a Tube lift, who also contrived simultaneously to break all the rules by smoking, by not "standing clear of the gates" and, pre-eminently, by not being beware of pickpockets. The laugh put him in good humour and reminded him that good humour must be his sword and shield, if he hoped to get back to London that night without a struggle. He sauntered in search of his brother with a razor in one hand and a shaving-brush in the other to ask which night he would like to dine and have his promised box at the Regency.

When he entered the dining-room, a pencilled note in a distantly familiar writing was lying by his plate.

"Now you MUST admit that my intelligence department is good," he read in slanting, irregular strokes which hinted at a recumbent position and a writing-block balanced against the knees. "You never told me your address. I didn't know where to look for you in the telephone book, you were utterly lost. Eric, will you believe me? I carried the telephone into bed with me; I said, 'Trunks, please,' and Trunks Please said 'Honk!' (Why do they always say 'Honk'? I believe they're Masons, or else they've always just woken up.) Well, I said 'Honk!' too, and asked for your number in Ryder Street; and THEN I found out your address in the country. Don't you think it was rather clever of me? And, dear Eric, don't you think it was VERY sweet of me? I wanted to thank you for something I expect you're quite unconscious of. (What a sentence to throw at the head of a rising dramatist!) I mean your gentleness and care for me yesterday. I always know I'm so safe with you, Eric.

"I'm obeying you to the letter. We've got rather an amusing party here; Gerry Deganway and Sally Farwell, my cousin Johnnie Carstairs (perhaps ONE pinch too much Foreign Office), Bobbie Pentyre, who's on his last leave before going out, his rather tiresome mother, the immaculate George Oakleigh. . . ." Her pen strayed into mischievous comments and absurd stories about the house-party. "But this bores you," she broke off abruptly. "I felt all this week as if I'd been sharing everything with you so extraordinarily. But no one shall say that I don't know when I'm becoming tedious! What I wanted to tell you was this; and I was led astray by this mob of people. I've washed my hands of them! I'm in bed—bed at 7.15 POST MERIDIEM (is that right?) and I'm staying here. I'm honestly resting. But—(a new sheet for this)—I've GOT to be in London next week—Thursday—for a happy day with the dentist. I shall be all alone, the house will be shut up and everything will be as uncomfortable and depressing as it can be. Don't you think it's almost a duty for you to come and dine? I'll have the dusting-sheets in my room lifted up, and we'll crawl underneath them and eat hard-boiled eggs in our fingers off the corner of the table. And I'll play to you; I might even sing to you; in general terms I shall be very sweet to you and, if you don't come, I shall know it's because you're afraid of falling in love with me."

Eric smiled to himself, as he pocketed the letter and prospected for note-paper and an unoccupied table.

"Your picnic dinner sounds most attractive," he wrote. "I shall be delighted to come. It is so characteristic of you not to mention a time that I hesitate to point out the omission. I shall come at 8.0, unless you tell me to the contrary. And I shall insist on your singing. Good-bye. Take care of yourself."

He tossed the letter into the box in the hall, but took it out again immediately. There was too much idle curiosity in the house already. No one would accept his picture of Babs as he saw her; assuredly no one would believe his account of their relationship, if he were in a mood or state to give it. He put on an overcoat and walked, with the confirmed Londoner's shivering hatred of the country in autumn, to the tumble-down shanty which did duty as general store and post office to the hamlet of Lashmar.

Once nerved to face the wet roads and penetrating chill, Eric decided to acquire merit by walking through the woods and meeting the church party on its return. Lady Lane had already shewn off her "sailor son" to the exiguous congregation; it was the turn of "my eldest son, the author, you know," to submit. He could hear all about Basil and generally popularize himself so that he would be allowed to leave that night without protest.

His mood was so radiant that he achieved his effect before the end of luncheon. As Geoff drove him to the station, he almost seemed to have enjoyed himself and to be leaving with regret. . . . Winchester, Basingstoke, Vauxhall, the river and the Houses of Parliament gave him successive thrills of pleasure, as though he had been away from England for years. Pride of possession seized him when he entered Ryder Street; as he shut the front door and looked at his black-framed prints and lustre bowls, he felt like a miser locking himself within his treasure-house to feast his eyes on the signs of his material victory over fate. So many people allowed life to control them instead of controlling life. And, when they had failed through their own inertia, they invented an external destiny to save their faces. Man created God to have somewhere to put the blame. . . .

There was an average pile of letters on his library table. Lady Poynter hoped to get some rather amusing people to lunch on Thursday; could he bear to come again? So sweet of him, if he would. Mrs. O'Rane wrote vaguely of a party which she had in prospect, without apparently knowing very much about it: "a sort of house-warming. I'm not asking you to meet any one in particular, because I don't know who'll be there. It'll be a mob, I warn you. I'm inviting my friends, my husband's inviting his; they'll probably quarrel, and there's sure not to be room for all. Whatever you do, have a good dinner before you come. It doesn't sound attractive, does it? But these things are often nothing like so bad as one fears beforehand. I propose to enjoy MYself."

Eric was amused by her candour and decided to look in for a few minutes.

Lady Maitland, complaining that "Margaret Poynter always ACCAPARER-s my nice young men," invited him to shew his loyalty by coming to dine on Friday. "Babs Neave is coming," she added.

As he had intended to spend Sunday evening in the country, he was absolved from all work and could give undivided attention to the dinner which his cook had improvised. (But he must get an ice-safe capable of holding an adequate week-end supply. Dinner with only a choice of sherry and of gin and bitters, with no opportunity for a cocktail suggested "roughing it" to his mind.) He dined with a book propped against its silver reading-stand leisurely and warm after his bath, comfortable in a soft shirt and wadded smoking jacket.

After dinner he unlocked a branded cedar-wood cabinet, the first that he had ever bought, and looked lovingly at the cigars, rich, dull-brown and ineffably fragrant, bundle pressed shoulder to shoulder with bundle. A new stock of wine had still to be entered in the cellar-book; and he had to find places on his shelves for Hatchard's last consignment. It was not yet easy to realize that, until the success of his play—six thousand pounds sterling in eight calendar months—a new book had been an event. . . .

For a happy hour he arranged and rearranged. At the end, surveying his handiwork with undisguised pleasure, he thought of the bizarre night when Babs Neave had forced her way in. He could still hardly believe that it had occurred. And yet, without shutting his eyes, he could almost see the child, deadly pale, tired, delighted and wholly unexplained, bending forward with her wonderful white arms outstretched to catch poor Agnes Waring's horse-shoe paper-weight, laughing one moment, crying the next, kissing him the moment after. And how she seemed to be in love with him. . . .

He took out a foot-rule and measured the space under the windows for two possible new book-cases. He would need them soon; and they would make the room look better filled. It was a beautiful room, a beautiful flat. From every point of view he was leading a very beautiful life. . . .

The clock struck eleven; and his parlour-maid came in with a syphon, decanter and glasses. He did not drink whiskey once a month, but the tray added a roundness and finish which the Spartans at Lashmar Mill-House were incapable of appreciating. Were they Spartans—or simply people without his instinct for life?

He filled a tumbler with soda-water and subsided into his deepest arm-chair, looking lazily round the room, drawing pleasurably at his cigar and wrapping himself in the softest down of contentment. His diary was within reach, and he thought over his abbreviated week-end. Agnes Waring had dropped out of his life; Barbara had never come into it. There was nothing to record but the names of his mother's guests at dinner. . . .

* * * * *

"There are few things so exhausting as the quiet of the country."—From the Diary of Eric Lane.



CHAPTER FOUR

INTERMEZZO

What hadst thou to do being born, Mother, when winds were at ease As a flower of the spring-time of corn, A flower of the foam of the seas? For bitter thou wast from thy birth, Aphrodite, a mother of strife; For before thee some rest was on earth A little respite from tears A little pleasure of life; For life was not then as thou art, But as one that waxeth in years Sweet-spoken, a fruitful wife; Earth had no thorn, and desire No sting, neither death any dart; What hadst thou to do amongst these, Thou, clothed with a burning fire, Thou, girt with sorrow of heart, Thou sprung of the seed of the seas As an ear from a seed of corn As a brand plucked forth of a pyre, As a ray shed forth of the moon For division of soul and disease, For a dart and a sting and a thorn? What ailed thee then to be born? SWINBURNE: "ATALANTA IN CALYDON."

1

Moral delinquency in England, if of sufficiently ancient lineage, grows venial with the years and, if carried out with adequate ruthlessness or at least success, may quickly find itself invested with grandeur. No one boasts of his own illegitimacy, but most men like it to be known that an ancestress, whose memory is kept green, once enjoyed royal favour. No man tells his guests that they are eating stolen food from stolen plate in a stolen house; but many will admit, without imposing a bond of secrecy, that their great-great-grandfathers went to India to seek their fortune and apparently found it. "He that goes out an insignificant boy in a few years returns a great Nabob," said Burke, without dwelling on the intermediate stages. They will admit almost as readily that their grandfather reluctantly parted with land to the end that railways might be built, or that their fathers ran the blockade and supplied the South and the slave-owners, hazardously and romantically, with munitions of war.

The Neave fortunes had their origin in the character and position of Lord Chancellor Crawleigh; and history has dealt faithfully with him. John, first baron, acquired the Abbey from a misguided supporter of the '15 and left it with sufficient means for its upkeep to his grandson William, the second baron and first viscount, who built on sure foundations. Common sense and a certain practical alertness in the halcyon days of the Enclosure Acts did nothing to diminish the patrimony of Charles, fourth baron, third viscount and first earl, though the estate came to be temporarily encumbered when the good fellowship of John, the second earl, won him the costly regard of the Regent. At a time when the House of Commons was pulling one of its long faces over a periodical schedule of the Prince's debts, a Garter became vacant; and His Royal Highness, with no other means of marking his affectionate gratitude, secured it for his friend with a further step to the coveted rank of marquess. Thereafter the public life of the family was characterized by honour and integrity; and the Garter, re-bestowed as soon as surrendered, became a habit. The second marquess held a sinecure under Lord Aberdeen; another flitted to and fro in shadowy retirement as a Lord-in-Waiting; a third, exploring the United States for the broadening of his mind, married an American wife.

The union infused so much new blood into the declining, short-lived stock that there seemed no limit to the energy and success of the heir. Charles, fifth marquess, was a member of parliament in his twenty-second year, an under-secretary when he was twenty-six and Governor-General of Canada before he was thirty-five. Thereafter, having got him abroad, succeeding governments vied with one another to keep him abroad. The vice-royalty of India followed almost automatically; he spent two years as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to oblige his party leaders and was now in the full vigour of middle age with nothing to do. The House of Lords offered no opportunity to an incurably bad debater; and the radicals by destroying the constitution, bullying the king and playing with revolution had made it a place of arid pomp, whose futility took away something of a man's dignity every time that he went there. Nevertheless, once a viceroy, always a viceroy, as his daughter sometimes reminded him. Lord Crawleigh ruled Berkeley Square and Crawleigh Abbey as though he were still in India, as though, too, he were suppressing the Mutiny single-handed. "Once a mutineer, always a mutineer," Lady Barbara would occasionally say of herself.

This week-end she had irritated her parents by choosing a train convenient neither to family nor guests, by arriving speechless with fatigue and by retiring to her bedroom and announcing that she would probably stay there. Lady Crawleigh felt that prudence, after so long delay, might have timed its coming more opportunely; a houseful of young people could be trusted, in dealing with her sentences, to complete the ruin which her husband had begun; but late hours, excitement and the legacy of her illness had reduced Barbara's strength until Dr. Gaisford pronounced that he could not answer for the result if any pressure were put upon her.

Though the windows were now thickly curtained and a bright fire was burning, Barbara could never come into her bedroom without a shiver. In the spring and summer of 1915, when Crawleigh Abbey was a military hospital, she had worked by night and lain awake by day, deliberately and with the sun shining on her face, for fear of dreaming. Madness or death could be no worse than the torture of being pitilessly and unceasingly watched when she knew that she was only dreaming but could not wake. Of late the form of her dreams had changed, growing less defined; there was no longer the old accusing pair of eyes to reproach and spy on her as soon as the room was in darkness, but she was conscious of vague presences which she could not clearly see. After fainting in the train a month before, she had heard Eric's voice in her sleep, though she could not recognize a face which she had never seen; none of her dream-faces had features. There was a shadow somewhere in all her visions of Eric; some day she feared that the shadow would take form, the eyes would return to watch her. . . .

The fire was so bright that the room grew no darker when she turned off the light; and, though she placed a coloured handkerchief over her eyes, it gave her no protection. When she pulled it impatiently away, the glare was so fierce that she could not see the familiar bookcases and chairs. Gradually the whole room was enveloped in a sheet of flame, and in the midst she saw a gigantic figure on a throne.

"God," she whispered—and knew that she was dead and had come to be judged.

The throne was familiar from an old picture in Siena; God was the Ancient of Days, drawn by Blake for the Book of Job. Strange that, after all, these stories were true. . . . She wondered why He was old or, being old, why He was no older. . . . The white flame beat mercilessly upon her eyes, and she could see that they were alone in Space.

God was waiting for her to confess. . . .

It was idle to confess when God was omniscient, and she kept her lips obstinately closed.

But God and she were alone in Time. He had sat for an eternity before she came to the judgement-seat; He would wait for an eternity and condemn her for an eternity. . . .

"Vanity. . . . I suppose that's what you want me to say." She wondered whether her voice would carry through Space; she was no bigger than God's right hand . . . alone . . . and naked. "I've always been spoiled, and that makes any one vain. Some allowance . . ."

It was idle to excuse herself when God was omniscient.

"I didn't realize what I was doing." (God must know that she was speaking the truth now.) "He never missed an opportunity of hurting me—quite unfairly; I've nothing to be ashamed of before I met him. I made up my mind to shew him I wasn't quite as bad as he thought. He . . . fell in love with me and wanted to marry me. . . . I was taken by surprise . . . mad. . . . I didn't know what I was saying, I told him I couldn't marry any one who wasn't a Catholic. . . ."

Catholic . . .

Barbara stopped short to wonder what God must think of all the jarring sects which laid claim to His exclusive revelation. The Ancient of Days, God the Father, Jehovah, Allah. . . . She had always wondered what He would make of His fratricidal followers. Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox. . . . What must Christ make of the bitter fanatics who swam through blood to a world of universal love?

She had lost her way in the confession; and God brooded in silence over Space and Time, ignoring her, forgetting her. She sank to the ground, hiding her face in her hands and wondering when she had died. Perhaps God had waited until Jack Waring was killed, so that he might testify against her. . . .

"I know it was a lie," she broke out suddenly, "but I didn't realize what I was doing. The next thing . . . Is this Hell? I always felt I was going through Hell on earth. That night . . . I didn't see or hear from Jack for three months; I thought he'd given me up. I was happy for the first time since I'd met him. Then he followed me into the country and asked me again if I'd marry him. He said he was a Catholic now. He'd believed me, he'd done this for me, perjured himself. . . . I remember saying to myself "If there is a God . . ." I didn't know. . . . "If he has a soul to lose. . . ." I couldn't undo it. I did what I could for him, I wrote and said I'd marry him, I swore it by the sign of the Cross. . . . He went out to the war, he never answered; he's killed now. . . . I don't know what you're going to do with me. I've been punished. It can't be any satisfaction to you to send me out of my mind. For a year I've been tortured. Now I was just beginning to forget and to be happy. I suppose you want to take that away. . . . I didn't realize. . . . Why shouldn't I be happy?"

The dim figure on the throne made no answer, and Barbara began to crawl forward. Perhaps God had not heard. . . . But she would spend years crawling through Space. . . .

"I want to get it over. No punishment's as bad as this suspense. You know that. . . . Won't you tell me what I'm to do . . .?"

She crawled forward again, though her knees were aching. Above her loomed God's foot-stool; and she touched it reverently, then beat upon it furiously in the hope that God might rise and kill her again . . . for ever. . . . The sheet of flame marched nearer until it scorched her eyes. Space and Time shrank and were consumed until she found herself kneeling upright, staring wildly at the fire and beating with open palms on the wooden end of the bed.

Barbara fell backwards, pulling the clothes up to her chin.

"Another second . . . and I should have gone mad," she whispered.

Downstairs some one had thrown open a window, some one was playing a piano. She turned on the light and rang for her maid.

"I shall get up for dinner after all," she said. "I mean, I shan't. . . . I don't know what I'm talking about. What—I mean—is: I shall get out of bed for dinner, but I shan't go down. That's clear, isn't it? What's the time?"

"Eight o'clock, my lady."

Then her dream had lasted less than five minutes. . . .

"I'm going to sleep. I shan't want any dinner. Will you bring the telephone in here?"

The maid left the room in bewilderment at the conflicting orders and sought counsel of the housekeeper. Ten minutes later Lady Crawleigh came in to find Barbara in bed with the telephone tucked under one arm and the receiver to her ear. She finished some request for an address, nodded as the answer was given and lifted the instrument to a table by her side.

"Well, my dear, you seem to have given poor Merton a fright," said Lady Crawleigh. "Is anything the matter?"

"I never felt better in my life," answered Barbara.

"Are you coming down to dinner?"

"I don't think I'm well enough for that. . . . You can get on without me. If things seem to hang fire, get Gerry Deganway to give imitations of His Excellency."

Lady Crawleigh bridled at the suggestion.

"That's not at all a respectful way to speak of your father," she observed reprovingly.

"Well, His ex-Excellency, then. That no better? Sorry. He's very amusing—Gerry, I mean. Why not get father to give imitations of Gerry? In its way, that ought to be just as funny."

Her mother advanced reproachfully to the bed and laid her hand upon the rail.

"If you're not feeling well," she said with incontrovertible logic, "you ought to go to sleep instead of telephoning to people and writing to people. If you're all right, you ought to help with these tiresome creatures. They're your guests."

Barbara felt her own pulse and sighed.

"I'm well enough to write one letter," she said, "and perhaps to get up in time for lunch to-morrow."

Then she hunted among the pillows for a pencil and addressed an envelope to "Eric Lane Esq^{re}, Lashmar Mill-House, Lashmar, Near Winchester, Hants."

She was already tired; perhaps, if she could fix her thoughts on Eric until she fell asleep, she would be spared a second vision of judgement. A dressing-gong sounded in the distance, and she debated whether to abandon her letter to Eric and go down. Gerald Deganway would be simperingly sympathetic. "Your mother tells me you're not feeling very grand" (odious phrase). "Poor you!" (Damnable phrase, damnable creature—with his insecure eye-glass and plastered flaxen hair!) Johnny Carstairs would be pontifical and pretentious—"The unhappy Foreign Office comes in for all the kicks. There's a body of three-pound-a-week gentlemen in Fleet Street who'd enforce a real blockade, 'leave it to the Navy,' don't you know, all that sort of thing. I'm aware of them; I sometimes wish I could have a heart-to-heart talk with them. . . ." By staying in bed she was at least keeping the promise that she had given to Eric; the sense of surrender was a novel experiment in emotion.

She finished the letter and switched off the light. Darkness was not going to usher in faces to-night. Her soul felt healed.

"You absurd darling child!"

She whispered the words aloud and felt warm tears over-brimming her eyes. She loved him for his extraordinary callow youth—which had carried the chaste chivalry of sixteen to the age of twice sixteen; she loved his little occasional tender gleams of womanliness. . . . And he was so easy to mystify and tease. She felt the warmth and the taut muscles of his arm round her body as he led her home across St. James' Park, her head on his shoulder, sleeping, secure and forgetful.

"Dear Eric, I wish you were here now!" she murmured.

Lord Crawleigh, indignant that Barbara should desert her own party the first night, but vaguely disquieted that she was ill enough to go to bed of her own volition, peeped into her room on his way down to dinner. There was no answer to his jerky, sharp call of "Barbara" and he turned on the light. Her eyes were closed, but she was smiling; he walked to the bed to make certain that she was not trying any of her tricks on him.

"Barbara!"

"Yes, darling?"

She opened her eyes, and their drowsy contentment faded away.

"I only came to see if you were asleep."

"I'm not—now," she answered wistfully.

"Well, why don't you get some decent sleep? You racket about and overtax your strength and excite yourself. . . . And this is the result!"

"I'll do my best, father."

As he creaked out of the room, she shut her eyes tight and tried in despair to woo herself back to the moment of half-consciousness when Eric drew her cloak across her chest and she roused to ask him sleepily "Am I coming undressed?"

2

Barbara rang for tea at noon and came down to luncheon in a house which was gratifyingly demoralized by her absence. Her father had spent Sunday morning in his study, writing letters; her mother had carried the more devout members of the party to mass and from mass to a vague, bored exploration of the garden, where they could be seen scattered on the lowest terrace, trying to make friends with an unresponsive peacock; the men, headed by Pentyre, were warmly entrenched round the smoking-room fire in a blue tobacco-haze and a litter of Sunday papers. George Oakleigh, in naval uniform, was unashamedly sleeping in a deep window-embrasure, his mouth open and his eyeglasses on his knees. Deganway and Carstairs were arguing in subdued tones and seemed as vacantly uninterested as Pentyre, who had exhausted the feuilleton of his paper and was studying the advertisements.

She was pleased by the stir with which her entrance galvanized them into alertness, by Oakleigh's sympathetic enquiries, even by Deganway's critical examination of her dress.

"Well, make the most of me, everybody," she said. "I'm going back to bed immediately after lunch. What's everybody doing?"

"I've been asleep," Oakleigh answered contentedly.

Barbara looked round her and wrinkled her nose.

"What are you going to do?" she pursued.

"I should like to go on sleeping. . . ."

"Come for a walk, Babs," interrupted Pentyre. "It's my last leave——"

"Then you'd better rest instead of working on my emotions. George, on the other hand, never gets any exercise at the Admiralty, and, as he's never been here before, I think I shall take him round the house. Besides, he hasn't asked me to do anything. Come on, George!"

Oakleigh rose with sufficient alacrity and accompanied her for an hour through the ruins of the Abbey, the Elizabethan reconstruction and the Georgian incrustation. Knowing Barbara, he had secured what he wanted by pretended indifference, though he was less interested in hall and refectory, Prior's house and dormitory than in her knowledge of architecture and early English furniture.

"Another of my accomplishments," she laughed. "George, what sort of reputation have I got? A man was so surprised the other day to find that I could play the piano and sing. . . ."

"I know what I think of you," he answered. "Possibly you know it too."

Barbara looked away abstractedly, as though she had not heard him. Ever since her illness, George had shewn her a tender devotion; and, when Sonia Dainton and her other friends had succumbed to the war-epidemic of marriage, she had fancied that it would be very restful to marry him. The mood lasted for a week, and it was in this time that she had invited him to the Abbey. Then a dream, of which she could remember few details, had shattered the lazy romance which she was weaving; there was a shadow which she knew would take form as Jack Waring, there was a hint of the wild oath which she had taken when she was mad; and she had decided that God was punishing her by opening her eyes to happiness and then throwing a bar of shadow across her path as she struggled to reach it. Those were the days when she heard that Jack was missing, the nights when she prayed to hear that he was dead. Now that George was at hand, she did not want him; she might find peace by marrying him, but she would find nothing more. . . .

"Dear George! You think I'm perfect, don't you?"

"Perfection is meant to be more admired than loved."

"I've nothing but my imperfections to make people love me."

"That's a woman's way of marrying on her debts. . . . You're better, Babs, than when I came to see you in London. I hope you're—happier."

"Ah, if only I could undo. . . ."

She broke off, and George looked at her cautiously to see whether she was trying him with the pose of conscience-stricken penitent, already a little out-moded after fourteen months of war.

"You certainly had your share of scrapes, but there was nothing discreditable in them. Too much vitality——"

She spread out her hands, white and transparent in the sun-light.

"I'd done everything else! Being with father everywhere. . . . And I was driven into it by opposition. I must have been a mule in a previous incarnation. D'you know, if father says he's coming here by the 4.10, I have to come by the 5.40, however inconvenient it may be to everybody—just to assert myself?"

"But that wasn't the only reason," George suggested.

"What d'you mean?"

She had ceased to smile, and two faint lines of annoyance were visible between her eye-brows.

"I'm sorry. It was no business of mine," said George apologetically.

"I don't mind you. But it was no business of the Deganway creature. Can't you break his eye-glass or cut a piece off the end of his nose, George? Did he tell you who I came down with?"

"Deganway is always thorough in his investigations. I'm sorry I mentioned it; I was only teasing you."

"I don't mind you," she repeated. "But it does make things so impossible if father and mother go about fancying. . . . Come to lunch! I'll be in time for one meal," she cried, seizing his arm and hurrying him the length of the echoing refectory.

At luncheon and recurrently through the afternoon Barbara wondered how far Deganway's gossiping tongue had already prejudiced her relations with Eric. If he heard that they were being discussed, he would in all probability strike an attitude and declare that he could not be a party to compromising her any longer. At present he was too novel a distraction for her to spare him easily; already he had become so important to her life that she had forgotten George Oakleigh and the thrill of gratitude and elation which she had felt when he began sluggishly but surely to fall in love with her.

The house-party had dispersed before she came down next day. Breakfast in bed was a dull meal, because she had hoped to find an unsolicited letter from Eric—about anything. She had to wait until the second post, and that only brought her the briefest possible acceptance of her invitation. Not until Tuesday did she receive the long letter which he had written on Saturday night. And the intimacy and tenderness of it were half spoiled even then, for Lady Crawleigh followed her maid into the room, enquired affectionately how Barbara was feeling and settled down to read instructive extracts from The Times.

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Crawleigh Abbey seemed suddenly very big and deserted. Barbara secured a trunk call to Eric's flat on Monday night; but, after twenty minutes to wonder why she shewed so little pride and whether he would be angry with her, a faint voice answered that Mr. Lane was dining out. Something which she could not analyze told her that she would be taking an unfair risk with his affection, if she tried to communicate with him again. She could hardly understand why she was staying in bed and taking so great care of herself; but it was Eric's wish, and she had felt a leap at the heart when he interested himself in her welfare. If he only knew, it would do her much more good to be with him, to tease him and laugh at him and set him attitudinizing and then to charm a word or gesture of affection from him . . . and then to laugh at him again and see him perplexed and exasperated. She was very grateful to him for bringing a new interest into her life. . . .

Little Val Arden had once said, years before the war, that she would find her greatest emotion on the day when she lost her heart. . . .

But it were useless to fall in love with Eric if she could not make him return her love. . . .

Thursday seemed as far away as the throne of God in that ghastly nightmare. . . . She wrote Mrs. Shelley a letter which she hoped would not read so transparently false as it seemed to her in writing.

"Dearest Marion, I feel so rude for never having apologized either for running away myself so early or for dragging Eric Lane away from your delightful party. I was feeling dreadfully tired. I'm in bed now; in fact, I've hardly been out of bed since I came here on Saturday, and he put a pistol to my head and insisted on taking me home. I shall be in London for one or two nights next week. Will you shew that you forgive us by inviting us again? Your affectionate Barbara."

It seemed a pity not to exploit a good idea to the full, and she next wrote to her cousin Amy Loring.

"You said the other day that you had never met Eric Lane, though he was a great friend of Jim's. He was at Margaret Poynter's the other day when I was there. Would you like me to invite him to dine one night next week (I shall be up in London for two or three days)? Ring me up between tea and dinner on Thursday. . . ."

There remained Colonel Grayle, who had jerked out, as she left the "Divorce" with George Oakleigh: "Clever play! Rather like to meet the author. Decent feller, I believe." If she met him again, she could offer to bring about a meeting. . . .

It was regrettable that she and Eric knew so few people in common.

3

Before leaving her dentist, Barbara telephoned to remind Eric of his promise to dine with her. His answering voice was almost audibly guilty, for the engagement had been allowed to fade from his mind, though his watchful secretary would have seen to it later that he kept his appointment.

When he arrived, the house was eerily dark and deserted. The door was opened by a girl in a black dress, presumably—from the absence of cap and apron—Barbara's own maid, and he was conducted through a twilit hall where the great chandeliers were draped in dusting-sheets, up a side staircase and over more dusting-sheets to the door of the boudoir. Here the evidence of desolation ended in vast bowls of autumn roses, a log fire, blazing electric lights and the beginnings of inevitable untidiness—ripped envelopes on the floor, a silk cloak in one chair and gloves in another and, on the hearth-rug, a chinchilla muff with a grey Persian kitten asleep half inside it.

Eric knelt down and played with the kitten until the bedroom door opened and Barbara hurried in.

"Glad to see me, Eric?" she whispered.

"I've—noticed you weren't here," he answered. "You're looking better, Babs. And I like your kitten."

"I brought her up to chaperon you," she explained. "Are you going to be bored, dining alone with me? I warned you what it would be like." She pointed doubtfully towards a table set for two. "We put the dirty plates on the floor, and my maid will take them away when she brings coffee. I've only her and one kitchen-maid to keep me alive. Eric, I've been looking forward to this most enormously. That was a sweet letter you wrote me from Lashmar—I love the name! Lashmar Mill-House—You were very fond of Jack, I could see. Shall we begin?"

Eric looked at the photograph on the mantel-piece before sitting down.

"He was the greatest friend I ever had," he answered wistfully. "An unusual character. If you liked him, he could make you do anything he pleased. . . . Did you see much of him? His sister was surprised to find that you knew him."

Barbara finished her soup without answering. Then, as Eric took away her empty plate, she looked up at him with a slight frown of perplexity.

"Did he never mention me to you?" she asked. "Somehow—I thought you understood, Eric. Didn't any one else tell you? There are so many stories about me——"

"I honestly don't know what you're referring to," said Eric, laying down his knife and fork in perplexity.

She looked at him closely with eyebrows raised.

"When we discussed the photograph, and I asked you to find out anything you could . . . Didn't you see that Jack meant a great deal to me?"

The colour had fled from her cheeks, and she was sitting with head bent forward, deeply preoccupied with the food on her plate. Gazing blankly at her, Eric tried to imagine what kind of intimacy she could have formed with the elusive celibate who never spoke to women or discussed them. . . .

Something was expected of him. . . .

"It never occurred to me," he said lamely. "Of course, Jack never mentioned a word——"

"He wouldn't. . . . Jim knew, but he wouldn't either. . . . There was no one else to give me away. . . . I've always been afraid of saying something in my sleep. . . . I want to forget, forget. . . ."

The words came out in jerks, with a sobbing struggle for breath between. Her head was bent so low that she did not see him rise and come round to her side; a startled shiver passed through her, as he knelt down and put his arm round her shoulders, drawing her to him until her cheek rested against his.

"Babs, dear! Darling Babs!" he whispered. "Don't——"

"Ah, don't tell me not to cry, Eric! I've kept it down, I have been brave, but it's sending me mad!"

She was sliding limply off the chair, as though her bones had been broken in company with her pride and resistance. He led her to a sofa and knelt beside her, sometimes gently chafing her hands, sometimes drying the slow tears which rolled down her cheeks. Once or twice she tried to speak, but he hushed her to silence.

"Darling, you must stop now," he commanded as the tears ceased and she began to sob drily. "When I said 'Don't——,' I was going to say 'Don't stop crying, don't mind me; it will do you good.' But you'll make yourself ill, if you go on." He caught her wrist and gripped it. "Put your feet up, because I'm going to push the sofa to the fire. . . . Your shoulders are frozen. . . . Now I'm going to bring you the lobster. . . . And you haven't had anything to drink yet."

After a single weak protest she entered into the spirit of his fireside picnic and by the time that he had seated himself cross-legged on the floor she was laughing at his apprehensive care in keeping his trousers from losing their crease. When coffee was brought in, he gave her a cigarette and raised her hand clumsily to his lips.

"I'm sorry I've been unsympathetic, Babs." There was no answer, and he could see her staring into the fire with eyes that were covered with a film of tears. "I didn't understand, I thought you were ill and over-excited, or I'd have bitten out my tongue before I snubbed you and told you that you were a nuisance. Will you forgive me?"

The film of tears gathered into shining drops and rolled mournfully down her cheeks.

"As if I had anything to forgive. . . . You'll never speak to me again, if I tell you. And if I don't tell you . . . If I don't tell you, I could never look you in the eyes."

Barbara stared at the fire, and for a moment it seemed as though she were again making confession at the judgement-seat of God.

"I met Jack two years ago," she began hurriedly. "He'd been saying things that hurt me, so I arranged to stay with the Pentyres when he was there and I made him fall in love with me. One night at Ross House he asked me to marry him. I . . . I don't defend myself; I'd never dreamed of marrying him. Even then it wouldn't have been so bad, if I'd told him the truth, if I'd admitted that I'd led him on to punish him. Instead . . . I looked for some excuse which would save my face; I said 'But you aren't a Catholic, are you?' I never saw him again till my cousin Jim Loring's ball just before the war. . . ."

At the memory of their meeting Barbara shuddered until she could not speak. There had been no hint of warning; she was in the drawing-room after dinner when Lady Knightrider's car arrived from Raglan, and Jack put his head in at the door to ask if he might have supper with her.

"I asked him what he'd been doing with himself all the summer," Barbara went on with a spurt. "He said, 'I've just been received into your Church.'"

She paused and stared in terror round the room as though it were changing under her eyes into the haunted banqueting-hall of Loring Castle.

"I couldn't speak. . . . The music stopped, I heard people clapping, it went on again. Then there were voices on the stairs, and Jack asked me again to marry him. I said I couldn't. He wanted to know why. Then . . . then I had to tell him I wasn't in love with him. Then he saw everything."

Barbara looked up quickly, with her hand to her forehead as though to ward off a blow. It was then that Jack stared at her, through her, into her soul; and his eyes had followed her ever since. At first she braced herself to meet his attack, but it was not the occasion for conventional recriminations. If a man's soul could be imperilled, she had handed Jack's over to damnation. God . . . Hell . . . Immortal souls. . . . She had not believed in them till that moment, but there was always that eerie hundredth chance that they existed.

Eerie. . . .

Her attention was captured by the word and wandered away in search of a missing line.

"It's like those eerie stories nurses tell, Of how some actor on a stage played Death, With pasteboard crown, sham orb and tinselled dart, And called himself the monarch of the world; Then, going in the tire-room afterward, Because the play was done, to shift himself, Got touched upon the sleeve familiarly, The moment he had shut the closet door, By Death himself."

Jack had sat silent and motionless, too much dazed even to rise and leave her. There was a sound of more voices in the hall, and Charlie Framlingham waltzed into the room with Jack Summertown and subsided at a table by the door. They had hardly begun supper when George Oakleigh entered to say that war had changed from speculation to probability and that officers were being mobilized. Then at last Jack roused, and she had only a moment for making amends.

"Jack was talking about applying for a commission," she went on. "I went out on to the terrace, I wanted to think. . . . It was no good apologizing. . . . They got into the car, one after another. I was still trying to think. Jack came down the steps. . . . And then I saw that there was only one reparation I could make; I had to offer myself to him, even if he hit me in the mouth. . . . I didn't care about my vanity now; I called out to him, but the others were making such a noise. . . . The car started, I was blinded by the head-lights. When I could see again, there was only a little pin-point of red light. I shouted, ran. . . . Then I came back. When every one else had gone to bed, I told Jim. And I thought he'd have killed me. . . . And then I swore solemnly that Jack should have me if he wanted me. I wrote to him, and he never answered my letter. I tried to see him. And now . . ."

Eric rose and stood by the fire, resting his head on his hand.

"You offered the only reparation in your power," he said at length.

"What am I to do?" she asked dizzily. "I want peace! . . . I told him that, whatever happened, however long the war went on, I should always be here, always ready to keep my promise, always prepared to make what amends I could. . . . I've dedicated myself. If he's alive, until he tells me that he rejects me . . ."

With a sigh of exhaustion, she slipped forward, turning as she fell and burying her arms and face. The rose in her hair trembled to the heaving of her shoulders and scattered a shower of petals over the cushions of the sofa.

4

"And I meant to be so sweet, I meant to make you enjoy yourself until you thought me quite irresistible," Barbara laughed through her tears, kneeling upright on the sofa and dabbing at her eyes. "And then I was going to tell you that I have to come up to my dentist once a week for about two months; and I shall be all alone and I wanted you to promise to make me happy—like to-night."

Her recovery was as sudden as her collapse. Still kneeling with her hands clasped behind her head, she leaned forward until he had to catch her in his arms.

"I don't feel I've made you particularly happy to-night," said Eric, bending one arm into an angle for her head and throwing the other round her waist to hold her on to the sofa.

"I feel as if my spirit were almost clean again. . . . Will you come and see me sometimes, Eric?"

"If you'll go to bed instantly, after leaving a note on the mat to say that you're not to be called till you ring."

There was a touch of frost in the air, as Eric walked home; yet he went slowly, because he wanted to think. Jack was his best friend, and Barbara had behaved. . . . He could not abuse the girl even in thought, after trying to comfort her and saying that she started with a clean slate. But if any other girl had behaved like that . . . any girl who meant nothing to him. Even with Barbara he ought not to be so suavely forgiving at Jack's expense. . . . It was impossible to reconcile loyalty to both of them.

Before going to bed he wrote her a note, inviting her to lunch with him next day at Claridge's before she went back to Crawleigh Abbey; and, as soon as she was sure of his mood, Barbara released her invitations; the quietest possible party with Amy Loring (who was so anxious to meet him because he had known Jim), two days afterwards a dinner for two in Berkeley Square, followed by Mrs. O'Rane's house-warming, later still a decorous and rather dull dinner with Colonel Grayle.

"You might dine with me for a change," Eric suggested, as he drove her home at the end of the week. "I'll get my sister to come and keep you in countenance—she's never seen my flat—and I'll think of another man."

"I'd sooner dine with you alone, Eric," pleaded Barbara.

"On first principles I discourage young girls from visiting bachelors in their rooms. I was born in the 'eighties, and I don't seem to have caught up."

"There are restaurants," Barbara suggested. "It's quite fairly respectable to dine without a chaperon—since the war."

Eric turned and looked out of the window with a frown. He had not troubled to tell her that he had lately received a shock which threatened to make further meetings impossible. During a lull in the tumult at Mrs. O'Rane's party he had heard Lady Maitland's rumbling preparations for an introduction. "Eric Lane? My dear Raymond Stornaway, you mean to say you haven't heard of him? But he's the coming playwright. You've not seen that thing of his——? My memory's like a sieve. . . . You must go." It was very familiar, but, as the other voices fortuitously grew hushed, he heard a new pendant. "But you know her? Babs. Babs Neave. Barbara Neave. Now don't pretend you don't know Lady Barbara Neave! Every one tells me that they're desperately in love with each other. Of course Crawleigh wouldn't hear of it, but he doesn't know what to do. You know what the girl is! If you oppose her. . . . It's an absurd position. You must come along and meet them. And I'll arrange a little party. I think you'd be amused."

"All the restaurants are so crowded nowadays," said Eric.

"But if you telephone for a table——"

He was grown too fond of Barbara to provide people like Lady Maitland with an excuse for saying that he was compromising her; and he was not going to pave the way for an unpleasant altercation with Lord Crawleigh (when he would have nothing to say for himself).

"I'll dine with you, if you like," he suggested.

5

On the morning of the day when "The Bomb-Shell" was to be produced, Eric found his diary overflowing into a new volume. Before snapping the lock for the last time and burying the book in the little steel safe which he had had built behind one of the panels in the dining-room, he turned the pages for ten months, starting with the first night of his first play and ending with the dress rehearsal of the second. The ten months' record was so engrossing that he lay in bed, smoking and reading, instead of ringing for his secretary. One day he had been an unknown journalist; the next—in a phrase of which he could never tire—he awoke to find himself famous. Half-forgotten acquaintances who had sent him cards for dances now invited him to dinners at which he was courted and instantly handed on. At first he had written down, with more pleasure than cynicism, the complimentary phrases which had tickled his vanity; that had soon palled, and the compliments were monotonously framed; after two months he only recorded such triumphs as when old Farquaharson invited him to call. "I would give much to have written your play; I would have given anything to write it at your age." Some day, when Barbara was in a disparaging mood, he would shew her that jealously guarded letter.

An idle whim sent his fingers searching for the Poynter dinner where he had first met her. Since that night her influence, suspected but never established, had caused "Dined with Lady Poynter" to be a frequent entry. Every Thursday he went to Berkeley Square, every Friday Barbara lunched with him in Ryder Street—after sweeping aside his scruples by appealing in his presence to her mother for leave to come to his flat unchaperoned. And for an appreciable part of each week Barbara devoted herself to arranging further meetings in the houses of their friends.

"Took Lady B. home late and circuitously."

Eric was mildly surprised to find how lately their tropical intimacy had begun. Two months. . . . And no one—in court or outside—would believe the truth. . . . "Dined with B. in her boudoir, the house being in curl-papers. She unwontedly communicative, but tired and in need of rest." The discreet phrasing gave him all the reminder that he wanted to construct again the night when she had told him about Jack Waring—she had indeed been communicative——; and any one who broke down as she had done presumably stood in need of rest. . . .

On that night she had turned herself from an adventure into a habit; in place of sentimental tilting there had been born a love without passion. . . .

He laid aside the diary as the telephone-bell rang.

"Hullo? Good-morning, Eric. Many happy returns of the day!"

"But it isn't my birthday."

"It's our new play, stupid. Are you feeling very nervous?"

"Not in the least. If it's going to be a success, it'll be a success; if it's going to be a failure, my feeling nervous won't help things."

"M'yes. I like you better when you're less philosophical and more human. I suppose you're simply flooded with telegrams and letters of good wishes. Darling, I'm so excited! If it doesn't go well—of course, it isn't a good play; I've never said that, have I?"

"I sometimes wonder whether you'll ever say that of any play I write," he laughed.

"Oh, you will do good work some day. But I thought, after knowing me all these weeks—well, if it doesn't make the most tremendous hit, I shall walk quietly out of the theatre and throw myself into the river."

"I certainly shan't jump in after you."

"Not even for the advertisement? Would you miss me, Eric?"

"I'm almost sure to at first," he answered with a laugh. "Babs, I've got to get up now——"

"Don't you dare to ring me off, Eric! I want to know about to-night."

"Scott's at seven."

"And what dress would you like me to wear?"

He pondered over the familiar ritual.

"The one I always call the 'fairy queen,' I think."

"Well, say 'please.'"

"'Please.' I must get up now, or I shall be late at the office. Good-bye, Babs darling."

"Good-bye, sweetheart."

They dined with unnecessary haste. For all his philosophy, Eric's nervousness shewed itself in over-frequent consultation of his watch, and they entered their box before the stalls were half-full. Barbara sat forward, bowing to friends in the familiar, first-night gathering; but he preferred to stand at her side, hidden by a curtain, while she called back the names of the new arrivals. This was a greater ordeal than the evening when his first play was produced, for he was known now, and the critics would judge him by the success and standard of the earlier play; instead of a handful of old colleagues, he was now on nodding terms with a third of the audience; it was a personal trial, and he did not want to fail under their eyes; most of all he did not want to fail before Barbara.

As the curtain went up, he sat down beside her and, after a quick glance at the stage, began to inspect the house. Her hand slipped into his, and he heard a whispered "Cheer up! It's going to be a tremendous success. I will it to be!" Then his attention went back to the house. Why the devil couldn't people take the trouble to arrive in time? Pushing their way in late, blocking the view. . . . Mrs. Shelley, of all people. He knew her well enough to speak plainly about it. . . . The house was very quiet, very cold; expectant, perhaps, but they ought to be warming now. . . . A slip—and another! It was curious that a woman like Mabel Elstree could go on rehearsing and being pulled up over the same thing again and again without ever learning—a moderately intelligent woman too—working at her own job. . . . The last week had been thrown away. . . .

But in all the rehearsals he had never noticed how this opening dragged. Manders had never criticized it (one of the few things he hadn't tried to cut about); and it was dragging. In a moment people would be yawning and talking to one another; the pit would become noisy with its feet; already there was a rustle; if they would only look at the stage instead of trying to learn their programmes by heart! They should have done that before! And still the house was cold. . . . God in heaven! small blame to it!

Eric sat back with tightly shut mouth, then grew suddenly rigid. There was a single quick laugh, the herald for gusty laughter rising simultaneously from a dozen different parts; instead of stopping, it swelled and engulfed the house. Ah, thank God! that sea of vacant, stiff faces had broken! The house was alive and warm. The players, pausing of necessity, breathed thanksgiving before returning to dialogue which had become suddenly imbued with new strength and finish.

Eric felt Barbara's lips at his ear.

"Didn't I say I'd will it for you?" she whispered.

"It might go quite well," he answered, unsuccessfully nonchalant. "Every one's in a good temper now."

"And you can let go my hand for a minute!" She winced and put one knuckle into her mouth. "I stood it as long as I could, but you've been driving my rings into my unhappy finger—All right, darling! kiss the place to make it well. I could see you weren't enjoying yourself, but you wanted me to feel it, too. So sweet of you!"

In the first interval they stayed in the box and allowed themselves to be seen; during the whole of the second an army of their friends laid siege to the door with greetings to Barbara and congratulations to Eric. He would have liked to smoke a cigarette outside with some of his old colleagues; he would have liked still better to think it all over in peace. This was going to be a greater success than the first play! And Barbara, with tears in her eyes, was saying "Come and congratulate us!"

Eric had little idea who flooded the box during that tempestuous ten minutes. Lady Maitland was there with an air of having written the play or at least of having discovered the author. And Gerald Deganway, who never missed a first night, simpering falsetto congratulations. And Colonel Waring and Agnes: he remembered them, because he was so much surprised to see them . . . and he had wanted to introduce Agnes to Babs, and there had been no opportunity. . . . And Colonel Grayle and Sonia O'Rane, who invited them to come back for supper. . . . There was violent reaction after his early nervousness, and he found himself within an inch of giggling. When the lights were lowered and he had hurried the last visitors from the box, he sat down and buried his face in his hands. How long it was he never knew, before Barbara leaned over him, pulling gently at his arm.

"Anything wrong?" he asked.

"Come outside," she whispered.

They walked to a flight of four steps leading through a fire-proof door to the wings.

"Where are you going to?" he asked.

"Sit down; it's quiet here. Now listen carefully: there's only about another twenty minutes, and then they'll want a speech from you. Now, I won't say a word! Just think out a few sentences; don't try to be original or clever; just thank them—the usual thing—as conventional as you can make it." Her solicitous voice trembled and broke. "My own darling, I am so happy to see you happy! I'm so proud of you! Our play! Oh, Eric, thank God for you and all your sweetness to me!"

He looked up with startled eyes, suddenly tired.

"You're an angel, Babs! But you always give me a guilty conscience, when you're like this. I think of the things I might have done and haven't; and I think of the things I have said and done, which I might have spared you."

"Well, go on giving me your love! Why you should talk as if you owed me anything . . ."

A moment later he was alone, with the memory of her lips still trembling on his. He lighted a cigarette and paced up and down the passage, thinking out his speech. She had left the box-door open, and, as the curtain fell, he took up his position where he could see the house applauding. Loud and continuous, gloriously continuous, came the clapping. The curtain was drawn aside, and the players came forward, one by one. A crescendo of cheers greeted Manders, dying down until he could utter his smiling six sentences of acknowledgement. Then there was a pause. The lights were still lowered. Simultaneously in rasping barks came the call of "Author! Author!"

Barbara turned her head and blew him a kiss with the finger-tips of both hands.

"I suppose I'd better put in an appearance," he drawled, stamping on his cigarette-end. "Don't be offended if I don't look at you, Babs; you'd make me forget all I was going to say."

* * * * *

"Affection is the most insidious form of self-indulgence."—From the Diary of Eric Lane.



CHAPTER FIVE

MORTMAIN

"Farewell! if ever fondest prayer For other's weal avail'd on high, Mine will not all be lost in air, But waft thy name beyond the sky.

My soul nor deigns nor dares complain, Though grief and passion there rebel; I only know we loved in vain— I only feel—Farewell!—Farewell!" LORD BYRON: "FAREWELL! IF EVER FONDEST PRAYER."

1

"I don't ask you to say it's a good play," Eric observed to Barbara, as they rumbled slowly home from the O'Ranes' supper-party, "but is it less bad than the other?"

Any natural diffidence had evaporated before the memory of the darkened theatre, the insistent calls of "Author," his effort—while waiting for the applause to die down—to distinguish faces in the stalls, the renewed clapping at his speech's end, the levee in their box and the triumphant supper.

"I'm too happy to be teased, Eric," she answered, nestling to his side. "It isn't the great play that you're going to write some day, when you've learned . . . and suffered; you still get your women out of rag-books and toy-shops; but it's very clever, it's a great success and it's made you happy. That's what matters. Who was the man in the box that you called 'sir'?"

"I call most men 'sir,' if they're older than I am."

"He was with a girl in a grey dress and some rather good pearls."

Eric thought for a moment and looked at her in some surprise.

"That was Colonel Waring—Jack's father. The girl was Jack's sister Agnes."

Barbara did not answer for a moment.

"I thought it was him at first," she whispered.

Since the night of Barbara's confession, Jack's name had never been mentioned. If he were indeed killed, her memory of him would gradually wither and die; and it was almost impossible to discuss him without taking sides and indulging in moral judgements. The Warings had exhausted every means of getting news and would soon be forced to presume his death; perhaps they had already done so, but Eric was avoiding Red Roofs since his discovery that he did not want to marry Agnes. Amid the turmoil of greetings and congratulations, he had found time to feel embarrassed by her presence in the box; until Barbara took the light and colour out of all other women, Agnes had satisfied every demand. He was embarrassed, too, by seeing the two girls face to face, watching, measuring and unobtrusively speculating about each other, as women always did; if there were room for moral judgements, Barbara had no defence against Jack Waring's sister.

"She gave me that glass horse-shoe for luck the night my first play was produced," said Eric irrelevantly.

"And Jack gave me the counterpart," Barbara sighed. "That's why I wanted yours to replace it. Instead of which I only broke yours."

"Well, you haven't broken my luck, as you feared."

Her shoulder, pressing against his, communicated a shudder. Though three months had passed without news of Jack, Barbara could not feel secure even when she was alone with Eric.

"Don't boast. You may yet come to curse the day when we met, you may find I've spoiled your life and broken your luck."

"Luck?" Eric laughed a little scornfully. The success of the "Bomb-Shell" ensured that, if he never wrote another line, he would at least not starve. "When are we going to meet again, Babs?"

Looking out of the window, she saw that their cab was opposite the Ritz and that she had three hundred yards more of him.

"Does it matter?" she asked. "If you're so independent of me?"

"I can live without peach-brandy, but I like it. If you'll dine with me, I'll give you some—and all the food you most like. I owe the O'Ranes a dinner——"

"Oh, we won't have any one else!" she interrupted. Her use of the plural lost none of its charm by familiarity. "I'll come on Friday, if you like."

"On Friday old Ettrick is giving a dinner in my honour at the club. What about Monday? But I shan't let you come alone; as a matter of fact, I've invited the O'Ranes for that night."

"You don't like being alone with me?"

"I'm thinking solely of what would be said."

Barbara pouted and sat silent until she could launch an ultimatum as the cab stopped at her door. The success of his first night was making Eric masterful; and she wanted to test her power.

"If I can't dine with you in the way I like . . ." she began fretfully. "You only want to shew me off to the O'Ranes. . . ."

Eric forgave the petulance because he could see that she was tired. But he was tired too. . . .

"If you don't care about the O'Ranes, I'll see if I can get some one else some other time," he said. "It wouldn't do for you to dine with me alone."

"I believe you're in love with Sonia," she rejoined ill-humouredly.

"What nonsense! . . . Good-night, Babs. Thanks so much for coming."

On reaching home, he wrote to invite Mrs. Shelley for Monday. If Barbara rang him up in the morning, her repentance would be too late; he had only four arm-chairs in the dining-room.

There was no call from Barbara in the morning, neither note nor meeting throughout the day and no call at night. Such a thing had never happened before; there might be some occult cause of offence; his experience of Barbara taught Eric that she would cease to sulk when she wanted him; it was his experience of all women that none repaid a man the trouble of trying to understand her moods. Thursday was like Wednesday (and he knew that she was not returning to Crawleigh until Saturday); Friday was like Thursday—until the evening, when he nervously entered the Thespian Club as guest of honour. The hall-porter projected himself through the window of his box and handed Eric a note.

"All success, dear Eric," he read. "I wish I could be there to hear you. I shall ring you up to-night, and you must tell me all about it. Imagine I'm sitting by you, darling, and don't let the speech disappoint me. B."

He thrust the note into his pocket, as Lord Ettrick came forward to greet him. Congratulations and badinage broke out on all sides; he shook hands until his arm ached and he gave up trying to count the numbers; it was enough that he could recognize one face out of three. . . .

"You seem to have mobilized half the club," Eric commented, looking with gratification at the growing half-circle by the fire.

"You're between Gaisford and me," said Ettrick, detaching him for a cocktail and cigarette at the far end of the room. "I'm proposing your health, you'll have to reply; and that'll be all the speeches, unless we sit late. Manders has promised to come as soon as he can get away from the theatre, and that may start the ball again. By the way, is it official yet? I haven't seen any announcement."

"Is what official?"

"I heard that you were engaged."

Eric's composure poured out of him, and he felt his mouth growing loose.

"Where did you hear that?" he asked with an effort.

"Oh, scores of people have told me. I came to your box rather late the other night, but I was told that the lady in question had been inviting every one to congratulate you both."

For a moment Eric frowned in perplexity; then his face lightened.

"That was on account of the play," he explained. "She came to one or two of the rehearsals, and, on the strength of that, it was always 'our play.' . . . I say, have you really heard that from many people? She's a very great friend of mine, and I shouldn't like to feel that our names were being coupled."

Lord Ettrick wrinkled his forehead in surprise and shook his head with a grim smile.

"Then, my young friend, if that's your ambition, you're not going the right way about it. I'm too busy by day to go out much at night, but any time during the last month or two . . . You know how people talk; and you're both of you pretty well known." Eric's look of mortification roused him to a more conciliatory tone. "It's done now, and, if it doesn't blow over, you'll only have yourself to thank. I wouldn't have mentioned the subject, if I thought it was going to spoil your dinner. But I very nearly congratulated you publicly. . . . Let's see if we're all here."

They returned to the fire, and Ettrick called the roll. Throughout dinner, when Eric ought to have been thinking over his speech, he sat dazed by the warning and his own blindness. Six weeks before, Lady Maitland was proclaiming that he and Barbara were in love with each other; now a dry stick of a law lord, retiring and uninterested in gossip, heard of their engagement from a dozen different mouths and was an inch removed from congratulating him before half the club. Eric might assume that other eyes had observed him calling for her, shopping with her; it was accepted that, when they dined in the same house, he should always take her home; it was almost accepted that one could not be invited to dine without the other. . . .

It hardly lay in his mouth to tell Barbara that she must not compromise herself.

A waiter entered with a telegram for Lord Ettrick, which he read and handed to Eric.

"Regret confined bed severe chill all success to dinner and congratulations and best wishes to our distinguished young friend."

It was signed by the one absentee, whose chair still stood empty on the opposite side. Eric suddenly remembered Barbara's note: "Imagine I'm sitting by you, darling." As he read it, he wished that he could have brought her there; in the morning-room he had wished—no, he had thought how proud he would have been to tell Lord Ettrick that the story was true. If he could see her now in the empty chair, a rose behind one ear, a silk shawl broidered with grey birds in flight, as on the evening when they first met. . . .

But she would hardly come dressed as Carmen. And, however she arrayed herself, the Thespian Club would not admit her. . . .

"Well, have you thought out your speech?" asked Lord Ettrick.

"I've been thinking about what you said before dinner," Eric answered.

"Don't take it too seriously. You know how people talk."

"Yes, but I don't want them to talk like that about her! She's the best friend I've got."

He hesitated in surprise at his own vehemence.

"Have you observed one thing?" Lord Ettrick enquired after a pause. "Neither of us has mentioned the lady's name."

"Well——"

"Exactly. Well, if it wasn't necessary for me, who after all don't go about very much—But you needn't take it to heart."

"Oh, I'm not," said Eric carelessly. "And, as you said, I shall only have myself to blame if the story's not scotched here and now."

"I'll propose the King's health now," said Lord Ettrick, "and then we can have something to smoke."

2

By the simple standard of applause, Eric achieved a success. Abandoning his prepared speech, he followed Lord Ettrick's lead, picked up his cues and surrendered himself to the moment. It was something of a triumph to amuse others when he was so little amused himself.

"Not nearly long enough," said Dr. Gaisford, as Eric looked furtively at the watch on his wrist. He was wondering how soon he could go home and telephone to Barbara.

"Shall we go upstairs or sit here?" asked Lord Ettrick. "Manders ought to be with us in another half-hour."

Eric remembered with consternation that he would be expected to stay at least until midnight. There was no escaping it. Five and thirty men, his friends and entertainers, were preparing for a long, happy session; their chairs were turned at comfortable angles, they had shuffled and sorted themselves into congenial groups, each was at the earliest stage of a long cigar, and they waited on him in turn like an endless series of deputations.

"I've discussed the nightly takings of a theatre with Ettrick," he whispered, when Manders arrived at half-past eleven as vigorous and high-spirited as if he had just got out of bed; "the Dardanelles expedition with Gaisford, the plays of Synge with George Oakleigh, 'The Bomb-Shell' with Vincent Grayle, memories of Jessie Farborough with Deganway, 'The Bomb-Shell' with Grierson, Ibsen with Harry Greenbank, and 'The Bomb-Shell' with Donald Butler. I'm worn out!"

"Stay a bit longer, boy," Manders begged. "I've only just come."

When at last he escaped, there was no taxi to be had, though Eric told a waiter to keep the first that drove up. He covered half of the way to Ryder Street at a run, threw himself on his bed and asked for the familiar number in Berkeley Square.

After a long interval a sleepy voice said: "Yes? My dear, you are late! I've rung you up again and again. I—Eric, I was afraid you were angry with me for sulking."

"I say, Babs!" He began earnestly and had no idea how to go on. "Angry with you? Don't be so ridiculous! I got a very sweet note from you to-night. Thank you. And I think the speech went down all right. I say, Babs. . . ."

"You're out of breath, sweetheart."

"I came home in rather a hurry. Can you see me some time? I suppose you're going to Crawleigh to-morrow—That's no good. Can you dine with me on Tuesday?"

"I wanted you to come here on Tuesday."

"You never said anything about it. Will you be alone?"

"I'm afraid not. Eric, will you be honourable? It's my half-birthday; I always have two a year. I didn't tell you, because I was afraid you'd rush out and buy me a present. And I couldn't bear to receive anything more from you. But will you come without a present? I've got a little party."

"I should love it. Thank you, Babs. But I want to see you alone."

She was silent for several moments.

"You're very mysterious, darling," she said at last.

"I heard something to-night that rather upset me——"

"About Jack?"

A thrill of expectation had come into her voice.

"Oh, no! It's one of those things that wouldn't matter if we weren't all congenital idiots."

"It's not something I've done?"

"My dear child, no!"

"Won't you tell me what it is?"

"I'd rather not on the telephone. I may get a moment on Tuesday; if not, can you dine with me here the next night?"

"Alone?" Her laugh mocked him without malice. "I insist on bringing my kitten."

He joined in the laugh.

"You may bring the kitten. I know I'm asking you to do something that I disapprove of, but I'm rather worried and I must see you alone."

For three days he explored cautiously to discover how far the Ettrick story had spread. Saturday brought him a heavy bundle of news-cuttings; but they were all concerned with "The Bomb-Shell." No one wrote to him, no one confronted him with a blunt question, though Ettrick had protested that the story was common property. When Eric walked to Berkeley Square for the birthday party, he was embarrassed for the first time in shaking hands with Lord Crawleigh; sooner or later he would be summoned to a very unpleasant interview.

It was obvious at a glance that no one would have private conversation with Barbara that night. She stood in the drawing-room at the apex of a triangle with a compact row of parents behind and, supporting them, a longer row of silent, embarrassed brothers; cousins in every degree described a circle round the triangle, and in a wider, looser circle stood people who knew Eric and needed diplomatic handling to hide his forgetfulness of them.

"My aunt's parties are like a Derby Day crowd," panted Amy Loring, as an unseen pianist began to play and they were squeezed into the embrasure of a window. "I've not had time to see who's here yet. Babs, of course, looks divine."

"She looks well in anything," Eric answered. It was dangerous to praise her even to her own cousin lest one more voice should rise to proclaim that he was in love with her.

"You're a great friend of hers, aren't you?" Amy asked. "Some one told me at tea to-day——"

Eric became rigid, and she stopped.

"Yes?"

"My dear Mr. Lane, you don't even know what I was going to say!"

"I think I do."

"Then you aren't very complimentary to Babs."

"I feel a certain responsibility towards her."

"You mustn't mind too much what people say. . . . You know George Oakleigh? Well, in the dark ages, when I came out, he and I were very great friends; we always have been; I've known him all my life, and his cousin married my poor brother. . . . Need I say that quite a number of people . . .? If they'd troubled to think for a moment, they might have remembered that I was a Catholic, but a little thing like that never occurs to them. . . . D'you mind my talking to you like this?" she asked with a smile that sweetened the abruptness of her tone. "When I introduced the subject, you froze up so——"

"Can't you understand?" he interrupted. "I'm very fond indeed of Barbara, but if people talk like this . . ."

"Don't mind what people say, Mr. Lane. . . . I feel we—all the family—owe you such an enormous debt. No one knows what was the matter with Babs, but my aunt was really afraid we might lose her. Of course, she'd led rather a wild and wearing life since she was a child; suddenly she collapsed. I do feel that you've saved her life, you know; she's the old, vital, irresistible Babs once more—except that you've taught her to take care of herself."

"The position is a little awkward. If people talk, if Lord Crawleigh——"

"I think he quite likes you," Amy interrupted.

Eric bowed and pretended for a moment to listen to the music. It was common knowledge that Barbara's fortune was forfeit on the day when she married any one but a Catholic; if he had ever contemplated marrying her, the fees from the "Divorce" and "The Bomb-Shell" would not keep them for six months. He wondered whether Amy Loring's embassage had been inspired.

"I always feel that Lord Crawleigh condemned the world and then allowed it to continue existing on day-to-day reprieves," he said.

"That's rather my uncle's manner. He hasn't insulted you yet? He will."

"He's only seen me once by daylight. I fancy he thinks I'm one of the footmen. If I came to him in any other capacity . . . The industrious ink-slinger, you know——"

Amy tossed her head impatiently.

"I don't know whether you're a genius or not, because I'm not clever about books and things. But you've made an enormous name for yourself, you've a big career before you; and, so long as a man's a gentleman—by which I don't mean what most people do,—I wouldn't let anything stand in the way—except religion, of course. And I'm afraid that doesn't count very much with Babs." She lapsed into silence, as though she had already said too much. "And I know I'm right," she added at length.

"I daresay you are. . . . You see, I've never regarded Barbara as anything but a wonderful friend. We casually dropped into an extraordinary intimacy——"

"It's been too easy, too casual!" she cried. "You've taken it as a matter of course. Neither of you appreciate what you are to the other—I'm simply speaking from my impression; Babs hasn't said anything, naturally, and I've hardly had two words with you until to-night——; if it had been less easy——"

"If your uncle had forbidden me the house?" he suggested.

"If either of you were in danger of losing the other . . . I wonder what you think of me, talking like this?"

"I'm grateful."

The music came to an end, and Gerald Deganway gave imitations of the various ministers whom he had served as private secretary. Eric looked across the room and identified Barbara leaning against the piano. She was better, happier; and he had grown to be very fond of her. So long as they met daily without marrying, he shirked deciding whether he wanted to marry her. It would be pleasant to drift; but, when the cloud of gossip and speculation penetrated into the heart of the Crawleighs' own home, a man of honour could not shirk the decision any longer. He could ask Barbara to marry him; or her father could inspire a paragraph in the press, admitting the rumour in order to contradict it. Failing that, he would have to say good-bye to her, though she had become so much a habit as almost to be part of his life. . . .

The imitations were succeeded by more music, and Eric threaded his way to the piano where Carstairs and Oakleigh were begging Barbara to sing.

"Honestly, I've no voice to-night," he heard her say.

As he drew near, she seemed to feel his presence and turned with a quick smile.

"Can't you manage one?" he asked.

"Well, perhaps one, if you want me to. What shall it be?"

"That thing out of 'Butterfly,'" Eric suggested.

"I'll sing it, if you like."

As Eric sought a chair, Oakleigh looked at him, stroked his chin, sighed gently and withdrew to the bridge-room as though he could not face seeing them together.

3

"I want you to take this seriously," said Eric, when Barbara arrived for dinner. "Don't try to laugh it off by saying I'm conventional; I know I am. The fact is, people are beginning to talk about us. I want to discuss what's to be done."

His earnestness kept Barbara from smiling, and, as he was worried and ill at ease, she beckoned him to a place by her side on the sofa.

"Do you find it so intolerable to have your name joined with mine?" she asked a little wearily.

He looked at her in perplexity. Instead of being embarrassed herself or feeling gratitude that he was embarrassed for her reputation, she spoke as though the gossipers had conferred a favour upon him.

"If the thing were true, it would be another matter altogether. Subject to your parents' approval, I think the best thing would be to get a paragraph into the papers, saying that there's no foundation for the rumour."

"But the rumour hasn't got into the papers yet," she objected.

"I'm meeting it on every hand."

"But, if I don't mind, why should you?" she asked.

"Well, I do mind. I don't like you to be 'talked about.' And I don't care to have people saying that I'm getting you 'talked about,'" he added with heat. "You must try to look at this from a man's point of view. If you were my sister, and some man who had no intention of marrying you, some man whom you had no intention of marrying——"

"You've never asked me," she interrupted.

Eric was shocked into silence. When he was fighting for her reputation, she was once more the coquette as he remembered her at their first meeting.

"I've thought this over, Babs, from every point of view," he went on, with an effort keeping his temper under her look of slightly bored amusement. "There are three ways out of the difficulty; the first is what certain people think the most obvious—that we should make the story true; the second is that we should contradict it publicly—it's the easiest thing in the world to do—and the third is that we should give up seeing each other."

He stood up with the pretence of warming his hands and fidgeted restlessly by the fire. Barbara had lost her expression of amusement and was honestly puzzled that he should make so great a pother about a piece of idle gossip.

They remained without speaking until a maid entered to announce dinner.

"I'm sorry you've been worried," she said gently. "For once it really wasn't my fault. . . . I suppose I'm hardened to this sort of thing. Why don't you just not worry? And give me dinner, because I'm very hungry."

"I can't leave it like that," said Eric, as he accompanied her to the dining-room. "A plain statement in the press——"

"It would simply draw attention to it."

"Well, that's one of the solutions ruled out."

"And I'm left with the choice of marrying you—you haven't asked me yet!—or saying good-bye? There is another alternative, Eric: and that is to shew you're too sensible to mind what silly people say about you."

Eric shook his head obstinately.

"No good, I'm afraid."

"Well, try to think of something else," she sighed. "Don't spoil our evening, sweetheart."

The intermittent presence of the maid, rather than any state of mental satisfaction in Eric, kept the conversation peaceful. He almost forgot the annoyances of the last week in watching Barbara's delighted enjoyment of a new experience so trivial as dining with him for the first time in his own flat. Nothing escaped her curious notice—a wine that he gave her to try with the scallops, the Lashmar chrysanthemums in a flat, blue-glass bowl, the unaging pleasure of an invisibly lighted room, Australian passion-fruit at dessert, a new artist's proof. . . .

"You're really like a child at a pantomime, Babs," he laughed, when they were alone.

She rose slowly and bent over him, touching his forehead with her lips and then kneeling beside his chair.

"I'm interested in everything!" she cried. "I love new experiences! At least, I did. I loved meeting new people, hearing new things—the world was so wonderful. And then—I never understood why I went on living. . . . You made life wonderful for me again. The first night we met, when I came here. . . . You were quite right, Eric, I was a fool. . . . But somehow I wasn't afraid. I knew you'd put your hand in the fire for me."

He stroked her head and gave a sudden shiver. No one would ever know what path he might have chosen that night out of the maze of his disordered emotions.

"In those days you were nothing to me," he murmured.

"But you put all women on pedestals. . . . Eric, will you believe me if I say that I've tried to live up to your conception of me?"

"But do you know what my conception of you is?"

"Something a thousand miles higher than I can ever climb! When I'm restless, lonely, I think of our love, your wonderful devotion—like a mother's to her child . . . and my love for you. Give me your cigarette, Eric."

Before he could see what she was doing, the glowing end had been pressed against her hand until it blackened and died. He saw her eyes shut and her lip whitening as she bit it. Her body swayed and fell forward before the crumpled cigarette dropped on to the carpet.

"You little—Babs, what's the matter with you?"

She opened her eyes, breathing quickly and holding out her hand to shew a vermilion ring with a leprous-white centre.

"I'd put my hand in the fire for you!" she panted.

"You little fool!" He was filled with a desire to hurt her for having hurt herself. "Look here, Barbara. . . ."

But she had risen to her feet and was pressing the wounded hand to her lips.

"You don't know how it hurt!" she cried with a tremble in her voice.

"What good, precisely, d'you think you've done?" he asked.

She snatched a spill from the mantel-piece and thrust it between the bars of the fire.

"If you want it again——!"

Eric dragged her upright with one arm and rang the bell.

"We'll have coffee in the smoking-room," he said. "Barbara, what's the matter with you?"

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