She laughed almost hysterically.
"I feel I'm fighting for my life! That was to shew you I'd do anything in the world you asked me to! And you talk about our giving up meeting . . . like giving up smoking!"
Eric drew a chair to the fire and lighted her cigarette in silence. Only a fool would break that silence for twenty-four hours. . . .
"A bit rash that, isn't it?" he asked, as he cut his cigar.
"You won't ask me anything that I don't want you to," she answered. "And you know there are some things I can't give you."
Coffee was brought in, and he offered her sugar, knowing well—if he had been able to collect himself—that she never took it. Her cigarette went out and required another match. A pile of five books, still in their wrappers, absorbed her.
It was only half-past ten when she forced a yawn and asked him to get her a taxi. He collected a coat and hat from the hall and arranged his muffler elaborately with his back to her.
"Returning to the other thing," he began slowly. "We've not exactly disposed of it, have we?"
"I thought we were going to leave it alone," she answered timidly.
"That's out of the question." He banged open his opera hat and squeezed it shut again. "Why won't you have a simple contradiction in the press?" he pleaded.
"I don't want it. Isn't that enough?"
"Certainly. But . . . I don't want to say good-bye, if I can help it."
Barbara looked at him slowly and carefully; she was utterly at fault.
"It's for you to decide," she said.
"There doesn't seem to be any alternative."
She stood up and wrapped a lace scarf round her throat. As he helped her into her cloak, she looked reflectively round the room. Save that the windows were closed to shut out the December fog, save that there were chrysanthemums in place of roses, nothing had changed since the night when she forced her way in and sipped soda-water from a heavy goblet and broke the glass horseshoe and laughed and talked and suddenly cried. . . .
As he watched, her bones seemed to bend like soft wax, and she sank on to the sofa, burying her face in her arms and sobbing convulsively. Eric stood motionless by the fire, because he could not trust himself to move. Her shoulders, which he had always admired for their line and wonderful whiteness, rose in quick jerks and subsided with a quiver; she shook with the abandonment of a bird in its death-spasm.
"Oh, can't I even cry?" she moaned.
"Darling, you break my heart when you go on like this!" He found himself kneeling on the floor with his arm round her shoulder and drawing her head back until he could kiss her wet cheek. "If you'll shew me any other way out of it——"
"Why can't you let it go on?" she wailed.
"I can't; I suppose I love you too much."
"Too much to give me the one thing—Eric, you're not going to turn me away?"
"I'm not going to take risks with your reputation."
"But it would be just the same! If you put your denial into the paper, people would still go on talking as long as we went on meeting! Does it matter? Do you mind it so much, Eric? Oh, my dear, I can't afford to lose you!"
She fell away from him, and he walked back to the fire. This, then, was the moment that came to every man once—the moment that he forced into the lives of his puppets once a play.
She was still shaken with sobs.
"Barbara, are you listening? You said you'd put your hand in the fire for me. Well, did you mean that?"
He snapped the question at her, and she was galvanized to drag herself upright on the sofa.
"Yes, I said that."
"You'll do anything I ask?"
"Yes." From the slow-drawn answer he knew that more was coming. "I've told you everything. I don't belong to myself. . . . There's one thing that—that I don't think you're going to ask me."
"Because you know I trust you. I always have. I always shall. Oh, God forgive me for the way I've treated you! But it's your fault. Whatever I did, I should know that I could always trust you and that in time you'd understand!" A single sob escaped her, and she steadied herself like a man stopping short at the edge of a precipice. "You've quite made up your mind? . . . I must go now. Will you do something for me?"
"What is it?"
"Won't you trust me? I don't want you to see me home, that's all. It'll remind me of too much. Good-bye, Eric. I used to think I didn't believe in God, but somebody's got to reward you, and I can't. Kiss me—quickly, or I shall start crying again. Good-bye, Eric! Oh, oh—my God!"
She stumbled to the door and twisted blindly at the handle. It was open before he could help her. A grey wedge of fog thrust itself past her as she hurried out of the hall.
"You're not going home alone!" he cried.
Half-way down the first flight of stairs she turned with arms outstretched like a figure nailed to a cross.
"My darling; it's the last thing I shall ever ask you!"
Eric slept little that night. From eleven till two he walked up and down his smoking-room, occasionally throwing himself into a chair for very exhaustion, only to jump up restlessly and resume his aimless pacing. The fingers of his right hand were yellow from the cigarettes that he was always lighting and throwing away; the rest of him became stiff and chilled as the fire died down. "As if I'd murdered her. . . ." The phrase, self-coined, repeated itself in his brain even when he was not thinking of the shaken, nerveless body which he had tried to revive.
His eyes turned again and again to the telephone. It would take Barbara ten minutes to walk home, perhaps twenty in the fog; (he was frightened by the thought of her being alone). By then she might have found something to suggest. . . . The telephone could not be more silent if she were in very truth dead. He sat down at his writing-table and addressed an envelope to her, but he had nothing to put inside it.
"As if I'd murdered her." It made it no easier that Barbara had begged him not to cast her off; wives sometimes begged men to run away with them. Until she drove the burning cigarette-end into her hand, crying out that she was fighting for her life, he had not understood her passionate need of him; yet, when her need was most passionate, there was something in her life to which she would subordinate him. . . . The proposal had been checked on his lips.
The telephone was poignantly silent. She would never ring him up again to tell him her plans for the day, never ramble again through shops and exhibitions, never again ring him up to bid him good-night. The Thursday dinner, the Friday luncheon, their notes at the week-end, the sweet pride of possession, her glorious companionship in his cloistered life were over. For no one else had he ever taken trouble; now he was thrown back on an insufficient self. To-morrow or the next day she might have a headache; never again would she give him a tired smile and say, "Won't you charm the pain away?"
"As if I'd murdered her." Eric crossed the hall to his bedroom. The front door was still open, and on the mat lay Barbara's scarf. He was glad of an excuse to postpone undressing and spent five minutes lovingly packing it in tissue paper for his secretary to carry round. It would be savagery not to write a note. . . .
"Dearest, you left this behind. I hope you didn't take cold without it. It seems ironical for me to say I'll do anything I can for you. But it's true. Eric."
He rose after four hours' sleepless tossing and distracted himself by drawing cheques until the post was delivered. There were many letters, but none from Barbara. He read the Times, dictated to his secretary, handed her the parcel for Berkeley Square and climbed uneasily out of bed. Though he dawdled over his dressing, there was no telephone call to reward him; and, as the Crawleighs were spending Christmas in London, he would not meet her in the train.
Half-way to Winchester he grew drowsy and fancied himself in his dreams once more kneeling on the floor beside the sofa, with his arms round Barbara's shoulders. "As if I'd murdered her." His lips were moving, as he awoke, and he wondered whether the haunting refrain had escaped him.
His sister was waiting for him at Winchester, and he greeted her with a confused affection that struggled to compensate for the pain which he had brought to Barbara.
"We were afraid you might be too much in request to come down here," said Sybil. "Eric, I've been invited to go to a dance in London next week; I suppose you wouldn't like to chaperon me? Mother does so hate leaving the country even for one night."
"Will it be very late? I can't do any work next day, if I don't get a little sleep. As a matter of fact, haven't chaperons ceased to exist?"
"I don't know. I was invited by a man I met at the Warings. He's quite a nice creature, but I can't dine and go even to a charity ball and dance with him all night absolutely on my own. Mother wouldn't let me, even if I wanted to."
Eric shrank from the prospect of sleepless hours in an overheated room.
"It's surprising what things are done nowadays," he said without committing himself.
"Surprising, yes. But we're rather behind the times in Lashmar. You wouldn't like me to go alone, would you?"
"Certainly not!" If people began gossiping about Sybil and her nameless admirer as they gossiped about Barbara and himself, he would very soon drop the young man a plain hint. And he could never make Barbara see that she wanted him to behave as he would allow no one to behave to his own sister. . . . "I'll come if I'm not already booked up."
As he entered the Mill-House, Eric tried to lose himself in the atmosphere of a place where he had spent Christmas for a quarter of a century. His last night in London haunted him, and it was only by trying to console his mother for the absence of her two younger boys that he could avoid thinking of Barbara. There was a busy exchange of presents after dinner, and next day he accompanied his parents to church, as he had done for five and twenty years, finding peace and a welcome in the worm-eaten pew, the cobwebbed window, the top-heavy decorations and the familiar musty books. The state prayers were invoked therein on behalf of "Victoria, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the Princess of Wales and all the Royal Family." And there was an old hymnal with a loose binding; for years Eric had slipped one of the Waverley Novels into its cover to read during the sermon. . . . To-day he listened no more to the sermon than in other years; he wondered what Barbara was doing. . . .
After the carols they lingered in the churchyard to greet their friends. If only she would make up her mind that Jack was dead, there would be no need for this anguished parting; then, though he had never contemplated it until a week before, he could ask Barbara to marry him. As yet, though he wanted her, he had still to find whether he could be content without her; before marrying, she must subordinate obligation, memory and conscience to her need of him. . . . The Warings were waiting at the lych-gate, and he asked Agnes whether she had any news of Jack.
"I'll let you know when we have," she answered, shaking her head. "It's nearly six months now. . . . I'm just keeping my mind a blank."
They turned out of the churchyard and walked in silence towards Lashmar village. For ten years they had always hurried ahead of their parents for a moment together; and, before anything else, Agnes always thanked him for her present. This year Eric had given her nothing; it was unfair to pretend that there was no change of feeling. . . .
"I suppose you're as busy as ever?" she asked abruptly. "The new play seems to be a great success."
"I think it's doing quite well," he assented. "I wish I'd seen more of you that night, Agnes."
"There was such a crowd of people; we only put our heads into the box to congratulate you. Eric, I'd never seen your friend Lady Barbara at close quarters before; she's—bewitching."
Without daring to look at her face, Eric tried to discover from Agnes' tone whether she had chosen or blundered on such a word.
"She varies," he said judicially. "That night—yes, she was looking her best then. Sometimes . . . she's not very strong, you know. . . ."
He broke off, thinking of their last night together. They walked as far as Lashmar Common without speaking, though he knew that his silence betrayed him.
At luncheon Sir Francis proposed the health of his absent sons, and the afternoon passed in lazy talk round the library fire. The smell of the pine logs filled Eric with old memories; he slipped on to a foot-stool and sat with his head resting against his mother's knees, drowsy and a little wistful. He wished that he could go back to a time when life was less complicated and he could still confide in her.
"Tired, old boy?" asked Lady Lane, as she stroked his head.
"No. Only thinking. I can just remember our first Christmas here; there was a party and a Christmas tree, and I retired to the terrace and had a stand-up fight with some young friend, and our nurses came and separated us. A long time ago, mother! Before Sybil was born."
The girl roused at sound of her name.
"You're getting frightfully old, Ricky. It's time you married and settled down."
"I've settled down without marrying. You can't do both, you know."
The drawl in his voice unconsciously irritated the girl.
"Marrying and shaking up is more in your line," she retorted. "You're too successful, too rich, too selfish, Ricky."
"My dear, I lead my life, and you lead yours. Why should either try to disturb the other?"
"Because you lead such a rotten life. Honestly, Ricky, don't you get sick of gadding about night and day with people who only condescend to know you because you're a fashion?"
He smiled lazily at the uncompromising vigour of her criticism.
"To begin with, I don't do it night and day——"
"Ricky, you simply live in your Lady Barbara's pocket. Lots of people have told me. If I were you, I wouldn't let her make a fool of me. After all, you are somebody. Is she going to marry you?"
"I haven't asked her. She's a great friend of mine——"
"H'm. Everybody asks me when you're going to be married. Honestly, they do, Ricky. Three people this week. That's why I say she's making a fool of you. I don't think you know how people are talking."
"Perhaps I do, but I didn't know it had spread as far as here," he sighed.
"Well, you oughtn't to do it; and she oughtn't either," Sybil declared.
Eric gazed long into the fire without answering. How on earth had they come to discuss Babs? He had been dreaming with wistful contentment of simpler, less embarrassed times when at this hour a red-faced nurse would enter and carry him, sleepily protesting, to bed. Sybil had somehow forced the conversation, they had argued—and his father and mother had listened without taking part, thereby ranging themselves on Sybil's side or at least admitting that she was telling them nothing new. . . . Sybil was a tigress for loyalty! Ever since she had decided that he was to marry Agnes, she would have mauled and clawed any other woman who got in the way. And when that woman trifled with the devotion of a Lane and made a fool of one of the sacred family . . . No sister ever imagined that a man could take care of himself. After all, who had suffered by his tragic intimacy with Barbara?
"As if I'd murdered her." What was Babs doing now?
He looked at his watch and pulled himself, stretching and yawning, to his feet.
"I shall go to sleep if I stay here," he said. "Is any one going to dress?"
Twenty minutes later, when he came out of his bath, Lady Lane was sitting in his bedroom.
"I didn't shew you Geoff's last letter," she said. "You'll see he says something about 'The Bomb-Shell'; one of his friends has been to see it and liked it very much."
Eric propped the letter against his looking-glass, as he began to dress.
"I say, have people down here really been marrying me off?" he asked.
Lady Lane's face, reflected in the mirror, was passive and incurious.
"There was some report in one of the papers, I believe," she explained. "I didn't see it myself."
He volunteered nothing, and his mother looked indifferently round the room, now exploring with her foot a shabby place in the carpet, now rising to hook a sagging length of curtain to its ring. She had come into his room to receive confidences and to help him; his moodiness did not invite congratulations and was troubling her.
"I wonder if I shall ever remember to bring some more shirts down here," he mused. "I've three, four, five that I'll give you for your bandage-class."
"I'll take them gratefully," she answered. There was a pause in which he pushed a drawer home, selected a handkerchief and turned off the light over his dressing-table; in another minute they would be downstairs, and the opportunity would be gone. She slipped her arm through his and walked to the door. "There's nothing worrying you, is there, Eric?"
"I'm afraid I've rather a faculty for letting things worry me," he laughed. "If one didn't always have to work against time, at high pressure——"
His mother was not deceived into thinking that work had anything to do with his mood.
"No new worries?" she suggested. "The last month or two . . . You're not looking well; that's why I asked. If you ever feel there's anything I can do . . ."
The subject was dismissed as she opened the door. She was glad that she had given him no opportunity of a denial, for Eric had always told her the truth, hitherto.
He went to bed early and fell asleep at once after the restlessness of the last two nights. When he felt his way back to wakefulness in the morning, there was a subconscious sense that something important had happened; a moment later he remembered with a pang that he and Barbara had said good-bye.
He jumped up and rang for his shaving-water, though it was not yet seven. He must find work to do, he must keep himself continuously occupied; otherwise his brain would go on grinding out that phrase "As if I'd murdered her." . . .
Half-way through the morning a belated postman splashed with expectant Christmas cheerfulness to the Mill-House and unburdened himself of a crushed and tattered load. Eric's share included an envelope addressed in an unknown writing and marked "Urgent," "By hand." His fingers trembled when he found a pencilled note from Barbara.
"My scarf has just arrived. Thank you for sending it; I'm sorry to have been so careless. And I'm afraid I DID catch cold without it. At least I'm in bed, and the doctor says he's going to keep me here. I want you, in spite of everything, to come and see me. Come this afternoon, Eric, before you go down to your people. Just for a moment. I do want to see you so badly. You won't disappoint me, will you? I'm ill, Eric, and so very lonely. Please, please come. Barbara."
He pocketed the letter and went on with the others, reading them mechanically. As her note had reached his flat after he had left, no one could blame him for disregarding her summons; for two days he had been spared the necessity of deciding whether it had to be disregarded; he had another twenty-four hours at Lashmar, no telegrams were delivered on Boxing Day, and she had in fact not telephoned. If the servants had not stamped and forwarded the letter, he would have had no knowledge of it until his return to Ryder Street the following day.
The family was still opening parcels and comparing cards and almanacks in the hall. He filled a pipe and tramped up and down his father's library, trying to decide this question without losing his head. She was ill, he had promised to help her, he wanted to help her, he was glad of any excuse that would spare him a repetition of that waking sense of loss. So far from having murdered her, he was urged to return; and he asked nothing better than to go back.
Sybil was right; they ought neither of them to permit such an intimacy, if nothing were to come of it. Sooner or later there would be unpleasantness; and, instead of the one painful parting which still haunted him, there would be two. The position was unchanged from the time when he invited her to dinner and delivered his ultimatum. He must leave the letter unanswered; if she appealed again, he must be deaf to the appeal. There was no need to pretend that he liked his choice. She might have a chill—or pneumonia; and henceforth he must depend on the newspapers and on chance-met friends to find how she was and what she was doing. The friends, too, accepting him as her guardian, would be more likely to come to him for news; he would have to say that he had not seen her for a week, a month, six months. . . . And they would wonder and gossip about the mysterious estrangement as zealously as about their "engagement"; and the kinder sort, like Lady Poynter, instead of scheming to bring them together, would arrange their parties with a tactful eye to secure that they did not meet. . . .
Eric paused to knock out his pipe and to reflect that, as he had made up his mind, there was nothing to gain by pitying himself or by growing angry with imaginary disputants. Sir Francis and Sybil came into the library to begin the day's work; his mother rustled to and fro, giving her orders. All that he had to do was to find an unoccupied table and settle down to work. The intimacy was over. In time he might care to think about it, he might even be able to meet Barbara, but at present he had to keep his mind absorbed with other thoughts.
He had schooled himself to a semblance of stoicism when he reached his office. It was temporarily undermined by a letter, also marked "Urgent," "By hand," which he found awaiting him.
"I suppose you left London before my note arrived. I sent another and one to Lashmar, but the posts are so bad nowadays that I'm writing to your office as well. I don't think you told me how long you were going to be away, but please, I beg you, come and see me just for a moment when you're back in London. I must see you again, Eric. If you're not back to-morrow, you will be next day, I'm sure. Please ring me up the moment you get this. Barbara."
So she had lain waiting for him all Christmas Day, all Boxing Day; she was waiting now, and he had no idea how to tell her that he could not come.
The telephone rang, and he was surprised to hear Amy Loring's voice instead of Barbara's.
"Is that Mr. Lane? Oh, forgive me for disturbing you at your work. I expect you've heard that poor Babs is ill. Can you get to see her? She'd like it so much."
Eric caught himself resolutely shaking his head at the telephone.
"I'm afraid it's impossible. I've been away for Christmas, and the work here——"
"But can't you manage a moment? Look in on your way home."
"I'm very sorry; it's out of the question." He paused and repeated lamely, "I'm very sorry."
Amy sighed and made a last unsuccessful attempt to move him, only succeeding in reducing him to a state of suppressed irritation which spoiled his work for the morning. He had meant to call in Ryder Street before luncheon to collect his letters, but he could not trust himself to face the appeal which he knew he would find there. It was hard enough to do the right thing without being incited on all hands not to do it—and in the name of affection and charity!
In the afternoon an unfamiliar voice enquired for him by telephone.
"Lady Crawleigh speaking. Mr. Lane, I want you to do something for me, if you'll be so kind. Are you engaged this evening?"
Eric could hardly believe that Barbara had gone the length of appealing to him through her mother.
"Well, I have a man dining with me," he improvised tentatively.
"Oh, can you possibly put him off? I'll tell you why. My husband and I have to dine out, and that means leaving Babs alone. I'm afraid she's not a good patient, and, if you could keep her amused, she'd be less likely to get up or do anything foolish. That's what she's threatening at present. I feel it's very unfair to ask you to change all your plans. . . ."
However unfair, she asked him with an assurance which shewed that she would not take a refusal lightly. Eric smiled grimly to himself. As if London was not full of people who would gladly spend half an hour with Barbara! As if the Crawleighs could not have cancelled their own engagement! It was transparent, but he smiled less at the artifice than at the irony of his being dragged to the house against his will and better judgement. . . .
"I'd come, if I could," he answered hesitatingly. "The trouble is that I've invited this man for eight and I shan't be able to get away from here till half-past seven at earliest. I'll do my best——"
"I'm depending on you, Mr. Lane."
Dinner, but no one to share it with him, had been ordered for a quarter past eight. He telephoned at seven to say that he might be a little late and set out for Berkeley Square. Barbara was alone when he arrived, and he entered her room in some embarrassment. He could not imagine Sybil's receiving male visitors in her bedroom, and he was shy to find himself alone with Barbara and to see her lying in a blue silk kimono with the Persian kitten asleep on a chair by her side and two tables submerged by Madonna lilies. As he hesitated on the threshold, she smiled wistfully and at the same time with a certain triumphant confidence in her setting.
"I was—very sorry to hear you were ill, Babs," he said.
"I've waited for you so long! Won't you kiss me, Eric?"
He picked up the kitten, affecting not to have heard her.
"What is it? A chill? Your mother said—— No, I don't think she told me what it was."
Restraint faltered with every hesitating word, and Barbara pushed the kitten's cushion on to the floor.
"Sit down, darling," she begged.
"I must go in a minute," said Eric, gravely consulting his watch.
"Who have you got dining with you?" He hesitated. "Any one?"
"As a matter of fact, I've not. I lied to your mother. You see I didn't want to meet you, Babs. I didn't want to go through that other night again."
He was still standing; but, without noticing, he had drawn nearer to the bed, and she pulled him gently into the chair.
"Haven't you missed me, Eric?" she whispered.
"Damnably!" His laugh was bitter. "I don't see how it's to be avoided, though. And we only make things worse by prolonging the agony. The infernal story's spread to Lashmar now."
Barbara's lips curled assertively.
"I'm sorry you should suffer so much by association with me. . . . If you aren't expecting any one, will you dine with me, Eric?"
He tried to review his position in the moment allowed him before his answer would begin to seem hesitating. Once in the house, it mattered little whether he stayed one hour or three; but they were fools, both of them, to contrive or assent to his being there. Firmly, if indistinctly, he felt that she was trying to slip behind the decision of their last meeting.
"I'll stay if you like," he said and watched her ring the bell for her maid. "Babs, are you well enough to talk seriously? I don't want to say good-bye, but nothing's changed. We've the choice between a public contradiction——"
"Or a public engagement? Is that what you're afraid of?"
"I'm not afraid of it."
She sank lower in the bed, covering her eyes with her hand.
"You've never asked me to marry you," she said quietly, this time without a taunt.
"You expressly asked me not to."
"You always—boasted that you weren't in love with me."
A hint of triumph in her voice made him wonder in fear and disgust whether this was the way in which she had played with Jack Waring. She was sweeping him faster than he wanted to go; but, for all his misgivings, he could not stop.
"D'you think either of us knew what we meant to the other until these last three days?" he asked gently. "Everything was too easy before," he added, remembering Amy's warning.
Barbara uncovered her eyes and held her arms open to him.
"I've always loved you, Eric."
"I've been—very fond of you."
"And now you want to marry me?" she whispered, and her eyes shone with expectation.
"D'you want me to ask you to?"
For a moment she had seemed to speak with passion, but, before he could notice the transition, he found her only trying on passion's garments.
"No, I don't," she answered slowly. "I couldn't bear it. You know I'm not free! But do you want to give me up? You've had a good deal of me since August and now you've had three days without me. D'you want to marry me?"
Eric felt indistinctly that he was no longer the man who had come reluctantly to the house to do her a favour; yet he had always been able to bring her to her knees by refusing to meet or write to her; if he put her need of him to the test, with separation as an alternative, she must surrender.
"Yes, I do," he answered.
Her hand went up and covered her eyes again. While he waited for her to speak, his memory flung up, one after another, the moods of loss and loneliness that he had undergone since the telephone grew silent and no letter came from her. A warm wave of tenderness swept over him, as he imagined the glory of having her youth and wit and beauty entrusted to him.
"For God's sake, don't ask me that, Eric!" she whispered.
He looked at her in astonishment, wondering dully what she aimed to achieve. If he insisted on asking her, she would certainly consent; but he could not ask her against her will. Suddenly he realized that he knew nothing of women; some, he had been told, liked to be bullied and compelled, others were only to be won by yielding and deference.
"You don't want me to ask you that?"
"No! For God's sake, no! If anything happens, Eric—you know what I mean—if I can, then ask me, please ask me! But not now! I should be miserable and I should make you miserable! Eric, be generous!"
Her fingers were pressed deep into her cheeks, and he could see her bosom rising and falling.
"I oughtn't to have started this subject, Babs," he said, coming back to her side. "If it makes things easier in any way, I'll promise you solemnly never to ask you that question until you give me leave."
She opened her arms a second time. This time he leaned forward and kissed her.
"Thank you, darling!"
"And now I'm going to give you your beef-tea. What made you talk like this, Babs?"
"I wanted to know that you really loved me."
"You knew that before."
"I didn't! No, Eric, when you said good-bye that night——"
Something in his expression stopped her. He had wholly lost sight of their earlier contention, and it was coming back to him—unsettled.
"I'm afraid things are very much where they were that night," he said.
"If I don't promise to marry you, you'll leave me? I can't promise, Eric—yet."
There seemed a dim, treacherous comfort in the adverb, and he stayed with her.
* * * * *
"Wine and love bring a similar intoxication. You can refuse to begin drinking, you can refuse to begin falling in love; (and love at first sight of a woman is as absurd as a morbid craving for drink at first sight of a bottle). You can trust that you will be able to say in time, 'I can no more.' And then you will find that you only see the turning-point when you are past it. The world then says without pity or understanding: 'The man's drunk.'"—From the Diary of Eric Lane.
DAME'S SCHOOL EDUCATION
"ANN: I can neither take you nor let you go. . . . You must be a sentimental old bachelor for my sake. . . . You won't have a bad time. . . . A broken heart is a very pleasant complaint for a man in London if he has a comfortable income." BERNARD SHAW: "MAN AND SUPERMAN."
"I don't know how lately you've seen Eric," said Lady Lane, "but I'm frightened at the way he's losing weight."
Dr. Gaisford smiled reassuringly and rang for tea.
"I've ordered him a complete rest and change for three months."
"But he won't take it! The head of his department wants him to give a course of lectures in America, but he won't leave London. If you're more in his confidence than I am——"
"Eric pays us both the compliment of thinking us too old to have eyes, ears or brains—a common delusion among boys in love. No, he's told me nothing, but he's visibly wearing himself out in adoration of a very fascinating young woman; so, as he won't go away, she shall. There's no present cause for alarm."
"I wish I could think that. . . . Of course, you must never tell him that I've been talking to you behind his back."
The warning was an anticlimax after Lady Lane's desperate remedy of coming to Wimpole Street and presenting all her fears and suspicions for the doctor's diagnosis. In a life-time of anxiety and effort she was hardly more communicative or self-pitying than her son; and Gaisford divined that more than ordinary compulsion had sent her to him.
"Speaking as a friend of both parties," he said, "I don't know what the hitch is. I haven't heard that the parents are making any trouble; and, if they did, I'm afraid naughty little Barbara would just snap her fingers at them."
"You think she's in earnest?" asked Lady Lane doubtfully.
"I do indeed—knowing something of her; and for the first time in her life. . . . I hope it will all come right. In the meantime, she's been ill and her father doesn't like the way the Government's conducting the war, so they're shaking off the dust of England for the Riviera. Eric will have his rest, whether he likes it or not."
For the first fifteen months of the war Lord Crawleigh had carried out a campaign, unsparing to his readers, his hearers and himself, to wake England to a more lively realization of her perils. His position and long record of public service secured him an undisturbed hearing as he floundered through the potentialities of Mittel-Europa with the aid of a lantern and pointer; and his audience was usually rewarded for its patience when he forsook high politics and set its flesh agreeably creeping with a peroration compounded equally of German spies and pro-German ministers. The campaign throve in the south, but slackened in the midlands and stopped short in the north. At the same time Lord Crawleigh's prescriptive right to the "leader" page of all daily papers met with a challenge from certain disrespectful sub-editors who first mislaid him among foreign telegrams and later buried him ignominiously in small type. It was when a thoughtful exegesis on "The War and Indian Home Rule," extending over two columns, had been held up for three days without acknowledgement, apology or explanation, that Lord Crawleigh decided to teach his countrymen a sharp lesson by withdrawing to the south of France until the spring.
Any inducement to leniency was overruled when Barbara succumbed to an attack of pleurisy. As soon as she was fit to move, he ordered his villa to be made ready, set the dismantling of his London house in hand, closed Crawleigh Abbey and carried his wife and daughter to Charing Cross with a relentlessness and speed which gave their departure the appearance of an abduction. The pleurisy developed four days after Christmas, and Eric had not seen Barbara since the night of their sick-room dinner. A week after they reached the Riviera, he heard a story, traced without difficulty to Gerald Deganway, that Lord Crawleigh had spirited Barbara away from the danger of a mesalliance. But, in wrestling with the necessary evils of life, Eric was finding, as others had done before him, that Gerald Deganway was the irreducible minimum; it was of greater importance that for three months no one would have cause to gossip about them; and by that time even the Warings could not reasonably hope for tidings of Jack.
Her departure cleared Eric's mind of its last misgivings and convinced him that Barbara was no longer a casually pleasant companion but an urgently needed wife. In her absence, he was thrown back on the bachelor society of the Thespian Club, though with every meal that he ate there came a growing dread that he would be absorbed into it until younger generations, watching him as he pored over the day's bill of fare with his cronies or grew petulant with the servants, came to regard him as part of the club's furniture—as part of every club's furniture—wifeless, childless, friendless and uninterested, a bore who had outstayed the welcome and even the toleration of a community founded to keep his like from utter loneliness. Sometimes, as he looked at the men who would never marry, he wondered what would become of him if Jack Waring appeared suddenly, if Barbara fell in love with some one else, if she fell out of love as quickly as she had fallen in love. . . .
At the end of March a telegram from Folkestone announced her return and invited him to dine with her.
Eric walked up the familiar stairs, with the august butler, at whose nod or frown he had once trembled, turning at intervals to impart confidences from the advantageous height of an advance stair. ("We" had only come back the day before and were, on the whole, better for the change. He was afraid her ladyship would hardly be dressed yet. . . . If Mr. Lane did not mind waiting a moment. . . . There was the evening paper. . . .) Eric settled himself with a comfortable sense of home-coming, his eyes on Barbara's bedroom door, wondering how she would greet him. Their last dinner together demanded recognition and a subtile modification of manner.
"Darling, how are you after all this time?" Barbara was on her knees by his chair before he realized that she was in the room. "When do you start? You never said a word about it in your letters."
He stood up and pulled her gently to her feet. Invitingly she craned her head forward, offering him her lips.
"Your American tour. The Vieux boulevardier said you were going to deliver a course of lectures in America."
Common-form invitations had reached him from time to time through his agent, but, after the first, he had relegated them unread to the waste-paper basket. And his department was still urging him abroad.
"I've no intention of going yet awhile," he told her. "It was only a newspaper rumour; perhaps some day I shall make it true. You remember that there was another rumour which my mother told me had in fact got into some provincial rag? Some day that also may be true."
He lighted a cigarette and looked at her with a faint, enquiring smile.
"Eric!" she cried with reproachful warning, though he felt that she was enjoying the thin ice on to which they had glided.
As a smile dimpled its way into her cheeks, he tired of the badinage.
"Well, did you have a good time, Babs?" he asked abruptly.
"Good? M'well. . . . I travelled the whole way with all the clothes in the world wrapped round my throat and chest. When I woke up just beyond Marseilles, it was so hot that I threw off one thing after another, until I'd got down to a blouse and skirt. Next morning, there was a glorious hot sun. . . . I jumped out of bed and ran bare-foot into the verandah and stood there—don't be shocked, darling!—in my night-gown, stretching out my arms to gather all the heavenly warmth. I couldn't have coughed if you'd paid me to. It was divine, but I suddenly discovered there was one thing wanting. Can you guess what it was?"
"From your description, most things were wanting."
"Darling, if you're prosaic, I just shan't talk to you. I discovered that I wanted some one to share it with. If you knew the glorious feeling of standing bare-foot on hot marble! I wanted you, Eric! I always want you when I'm happy, because I must share my happiness with some one; and I want you when I'm unhappy, because I'm too proud to shew my unhappiness to any one who doesn't love me. I hate the second-best and I'm so glad to see you again!"
Eric considered her with his head on one side and his hands in his pockets, cautiously and without committing himself.
"Well, Babs, if you don't always have me at hand for all your moods and all your needs——"
He turned away to knock the ash from his cigarette and to avoid a possible change of expression in her eyes.
"My dear, you'll have only yourself to blame."
"I know. Bless you, dear Eric. Somehow, I was afraid you might have changed. Thinking of you all those miles away, I felt you were too good to be true. Let's go down to dinner. You've only got me, I'm afraid. Will you be bored?"
"I don't suppose so," he answered, smiling; but, indefinably, he was disappointed.
The Crawleighs spent a month in London before repairing to Hampshire for the summer.
"Make the most of me," said Barbara, when her father's decision was made known. "You may never see me again."
"I wonder whether you'd mind," Eric mused. "Don't you sometimes feel that I've served my turn?"
"That's a horrid thing to say! If anything took you out of my life . . . Say you're sorry this very moment!"
Eric laughingly complied, but he could not easily shake off his disappointment that Barbara had come back after three months without nerving herself to make a decision. Though Jack Waring's name was still never mentioned, he felt that she was increasingly unreasonable in honouring any superstitious obligation to his memory. A vague, resentful impatience ruffled the serenity of their meetings; and, though they plotted to lunch or dine together daily and counted the remaining hours with jealous concern, Eric was shocked to find himself secretly relieved when Barbara said "Only another week."
"I've not seen very much of you," he grumbled inconsistently. "Why don't you dine with me to-morrow?"
Barbara had undergone some transformation in the last six months until she seemed hardly to need him. In the old days she was a slave to be summoned by a clap of the hands; but, since he had healed her spirit, she was a queen to be courted.
"I'll come, if you like," she said. "It means throwing over George Oakleigh. And I haven't seen him since I came back."
"I shouldn't dream of asking you to do that. I've chosen an unfortunate day. I've chosen rather a lot of unfortunate days lately," he added.
"Is that very gracious, Eric? I've said I'll come."
The desire to get his own way and the growing need of her struggled confusedly with the resolve to be patient and the politic determination to court her as a queen.
"No, you keep to your original plan," he advised her; and then, with thinly-veiled taunt, "It's funny to look back on the old days, when you were miserable if twelve hours passed without our meeting. D'you remember when you used to say how much you needed me?"
"I need you still," she answered, wondering at his new irritability.
"You got on very comfortably without me at the Cap Martin——"
"I should have been very uncomfortable if I hadn't known that you were thinking of me, waiting for me, loving me, even——"
"And you'll get on very comfortably when you're at Crawleigh Abbey," he persisted. "And to-morrow——"
"I've said I'll come to-morrow. Eric, you're not jealous of my dining with other people? You're talking as if you were trying to pick a quarrel. You were always so sweet. . . ."
"I'm not conscious of having changed," he answered stiffly.
But he was conscious of a change in her. While he was still indifferent, she had prostrated herself before him; when he confessed his love, she gathered up his own cast robes of indifference. It was feminine nature, and her "education" of him was at least illustrating the sex-generalizations which a man ought to have learned before leaving his dame's-school.
"Don't let's quarrel, darling!" she begged. "Whatever you ask, I'll do! But, when I give, I want to give everything. Won't you be patient with me?"
Ever since her return to England, Eric's nerves had been strained until he found it first difficult and then impossible to work or sleep. When he met her, there was always some trifling cause of annoyance; when he stayed away, there was hunger and loneliness.
"I wonder how long you'd like me to be patient," he murmured.
"Before I marry you? Is that what you mean? Eric, I promise in the sight of God that I'll marry you as soon as I can do it with a good conscience. You don't want me to be haunted all my life. And now, when we even speak of it . . . It's my punishment."
"I'm sorry, Barbara. I've made you look quite miserable."
She bent his head forward and kissed him.
"I've never been really miserable since I knew that you loved me," she whispered.
Though the quarrel was composed, the taut nerves were still unrelaxed; and, after two more nights of insomnia, Eric was driven to consult his doctor. The examination, with its attendant annoyances of sounding and questioning, weighing and measuring, was tiresomely thorough; but at the end Gaisford could only suggest change of scene and occupation.
"I'm not a good subject for rest," Eric objected.
"I'm not sending you into a home," said Gaisford. "Why not go out to California for six months? You can scribble there as well as anywhere."
"If I work at all, it ought to be this propaganda job," Eric suggested.
"Then do your propaganda job elsewhere. I want to get you out of London. Do you want me to speak frankly? You're seeing much too much of an exceedingly attractive young woman. If you're going to marry her, marry her; if not, break away. Flesh and blood can't stand your present life."
Eric left him without giving a pledge, because he felt too tired for the effort of going away from Barbara for six months. Since he had reduced his hours of work, there was no excuse for this everlasting sense of limp fatigue; granted the fatigue, there was no excuse for his not sleeping. The doctor had paid curiously little attention to the insomnia and was childishly interested in making him blow down a tube and register the cubic capacity of his lungs. There had never been a hint of phthisis in the family, but the medical profession could be trusted to recommend six months in California when a man needed only one injection of morphia to secure a night's sleep.
He had forgotten Gaisford and his advice when Barbara came to say good-bye on her last day in London.
"My dear, have you been ill?" she asked with concern. "I've been told to use my influence to get you away for a holiday. What's been the matter?"
"I don't know. And Gaisford shouldn't discuss one patient with another. He wants me to go to California for six months."
"Then you'll go? You must go!" Barbara's eyes were wide with distress. "I insist!"
"I'm thinking it over," he answered, a little startled. "I'm not a bit keen to leave you, Babs."
"D'you think I'm keen to lose you? Darling Eric, if you know what you mean to me . . . But you've got to get well!"
"I don't know why California should make the—waiting any easier."
"Ah, don't say I've made you ill! I'll say 'yes' Eric. . . . Now. . . . But I should only be able to give you a little piece of myself, I should always be divided. . . . I don't think you really want that, and you'd be simply wretched if you found you'd spoiled my life after saving it. . . . Eric, don't hurry me? It's only April. Wait till twelve months have gone by since the—news. If there's no further news . . . Wait till—my birthday!"
Next morning, Barbara departed to Crawleigh Abbey, and for a month they did not meet. As spring budded and blossomed into summer, Eric counted the days that separated him from the fulfilment of her promise. There was no reason for him to be anxious; but his mind was filled with nervous images, and imagination suggested a thousand fantastic ways in which Barbara might be snatched from him. As her birthday drew near, he forced a meeting with Agnes Waring and once more asked if there was any news of Jack.
"Nothing yet," she answered. "A long time, isn't it?"
"Very long. . . ." He hated himself for the hypocrisy of this conventional solicitude, when he was only impatient for authentic news that his best friend was dead. "You'll let me know . . .?"
"Of course I will, Eric," Agnes answered. "I don't know when——"
Her undramatic courage, reinforced by his own sense of make-believe sympathy, restored him to sincerity. Though he had never been in love with Agnes—as Barbara had taught him to understand the term—he was still fond of her.
"I wish you came to London sometimes," he said, beating his stick against the side of his boot. "It would make a little bit of a break for you. Will you let me give you dinner and take you to a play?"
It was the first time in eight months that he had made her any sign of affection, and she looked at him curiously. Eric wondered whether she imagined that he had failed elsewhere and was drifting back to her.
"Somehow I hardly feel——" she began. "Dick Benyon—you remember we brought him over to dine with you?—wanted me to come. . . ."
"It can't do any harm."
"It can't do any harm, certainly. I'll talk to mother about it."
Two days later she wrote to suggest a night, and Eric felt that he had involuntarily succeeded where young Benyon had failed; a week later he was waiting for her in the lounge of the Carlton. Though she had stipulated for a seven o'clock dinner so that they should be in their places before the curtain went up, half-past seven had struck before she hurried in with breathless apologies.
"It's all right, but I'm afraid your cocktail will be tepid," he said. "I ordered it beforehand to save time. I suppose you couldn't get a taxi."
"Yes." She laid her hand on his arm for support and walked with the same breathlessness into the restaurant. "My head's in a whirl. . . . I nearly telephoned to say I couldn't come—but I didn't see what good that would do. Eric, I want you to straighten this out for me; Jack was reported missing on the 27th——"
"Of August. Last year. Yes."
"Well, father had a letter from Cranborne's the army bankers, just before I left this morning, to say that a cheque had come in—through Holland, I think—dated October the 9th. Apparently a lot of people are traced in that way, and Cranborne's wanted father to know as soon as possible. They sent the cheque and asked father to look at it very carefully and say if he was satisfied that it was Jack's signature; then they'd know what to do about it or something. . . ."
Eric looked at her unwaveringly and bade her finish her story. He tried to tell himself that he had always expected and discounted this.
"I brought the cheque with me and had a long talk with one of the partners. That's why I'm so late. There's no doubt about it, Eric! Mr. Cranborne—told me—as a banker—that he was prepared to honour the cheque—is that the phrase?—as being signed by Jack—on that day. What does it mean, Eric? I want you to explain it all."
A voluble waiter was gesticulating and seeking instructions about the wine.
"Oh, open it now!" Eric exclaimed without turning round. A moment later the champagne was creaming slowly up his glass. He drained it, coughed once and collected himself.
"Let's first hear what Cranborne said," he suggested.
"Oh, he had all sorts of theories! That Jack had lost his memory—he remembered his name all right—; that some one had found the cheque on his body after the push and altered the date—a cheque for ten pounds—; that he'd tried to escape, and those brutes had punished him by not letting us know he was a prisoner. . . . It doesn't matter, does it, Eric? He's alive! That's what I want you to say to me! He's alive!"
"He was alive on the ninth of October," he amended.
"Weeks after the push? Then he's alive now! Isn't he, Eric? He must be! I was right in believing. . . . Eric, will you think me an awful pig, if we waste the tickets to-night? I'd so much, much sooner sit and talk to you. It's so wonderful! It's like a man rising from the dead! It's——"
"You must get some food inside you," he ordered prosaically. "Take your time. Don't try to tell me all about it in one breath."
She gulped a mouthful of fish and looked up with brimming eyes.
"Oh, Eric, if you only understood what it meant. . . ." Her expression changed to blank fear. "You do believe he's still alive?"
"I do." He bent down and fumbled for the wine with a needless clatter in the ice-pail. "Agnes, for your sake, for all your sakes, I'm very, very glad!"
The next morning Eric called on Dr. Gaisford in Wimpole Street before going to his office. His brain felt numbed, and he had to speak with artful choice of words to prevent being tripped up by a stammer. The doctor looked once at his drawn face and pink eye-lids, then pushed a chair opposite his own and tidied away his papers.
"I suppose you have breakfasted, by the way?" he asked.
"Well, I'm not much of a breakfast-eater," Eric answered. "You must forgive a very early call, Gaisford; it's so hard for me to get away during the day. Well, it's the old trouble; I'm sleeping abominably. I took your wretched medicine, but it didn't have any effect."
"H'm. You did not take my advice to go right away."
"It hasn't been practicable so far. I may go—quite soon. But I've a certain number of things to finish off and I want to be absolutely at my best for them." He moistened his lips and repeated "I want to be absolutely at my best for them. I've been rather worried and I've lost confidence in myself."
Gaisford listened to his symptoms, asked a few questions and set about his examination. At the end he made a note in his card-index and wrote out a prescription.
"If you're not careful," he said deliberately, as he blotted it, "you'll have a bad break-down. Now, I never tell people to do things, when I know they're going to disobey me; I shan't order you to California to-day, I shan't knock you off all work. But how soon can you go?"
"Oh—a week, if I have to," Eric answered carelessly.
"Then go in a week. Your own work, your writing—can you drop that absolutely? It's far more exhausting—anything creative—than your office-work. And what's your minimum for your office? Don't do a stroke more than the minimum. As regards your general mode of life . . ."
He ordained a rigid, but familiar, rule of diet, exercise and rest; and Eric's attention began to wander. As well bid him add a cubit to his stature! He wondered how much Gaisford suspected. . . .
He became aware, in mid-reverie, that the doctor had finished speaking.
"And I'm to take this stuff?" Eric tried to read the prescription. "Strychnine—Is that right? Iron? Bromide? I can't make a guess at the other things. I say, Gaisford, will this make me sleep?"
A hint of despair in his voice was not lost on the doctor.
"I hope so. It will tone up your nervous system. But it's only for a week, mind! That's the limit of your reprieve before you go away. Don't imagine that stimulants and sedatives take the place of natural food or rest. Whatever—odds and ends you have to clear up must be cleared up within the next week."
Eric nodded and held out his hand. Gaisford had understood, then. . . . He wondered how long the medicine would take to "tone up" his nerves, for he had written a telegram to Barbara the night before, as soon as Agnes left him.
He walked to his office, trying to face the position more clearly than he had been able to do in the night. Why fret and worry? Barbara's "solemn promise" had already been broken in spirit; if she kept it in form, she would be haunted by a new memory, the intrusive shadow would take on a more terrific outline. There was no proof that Jack was alive . . . but Eric believed without proof; no certainty that he would present his claim . . . but Barbara would see nothing but certainty. Two allegiances, two promises . . . and no one could tell which she would choose.
Eric was walking blindly through streets which only his feet recognized. Regency Theatre. . . . And he had been heading for Whitehall. He would never go to the Regency again without seeing her—either a head leaning against his knee at rehearsal as they sat on a platform over the orchestra, or in their box, hand in hand, as on the first night of "The Bomb-Shell," when his nerves were jangling like the broken wires of a harp; he could never go to Mrs. Shelley's house without hearing her singing Madame Butterfly's song—and without some fool's asking if he had seen anything of Lady Barbara lately. . . .
A telegram was waiting for him, when at last he reached his office: Barbara would come up that day and dine with him; she hoped that he had received no bad news. . . . Eleven o'clock; and he would not see her until eight. He was too restless to work and at one o'clock he handed his papers to a colleague and slunk into the street. His foot-steps were turned towards the Thespian Club; but he could not pass the hall-porter without looking for a note, as on the night when he dined in his triumph with Lord Ettrick; he could not see a page-boy without expecting to find that Barbara had telephoned to him. . . .
Half-way across the Horse Guards' Parade, he encountered George Oakleigh.
"Hallo! Come and have some lunch with me, if you've nothing better to do," he said. "I haven't seen you for a long time."
"Not since we met at Barbara Neave's," answered Oakleigh. "Where is she? I've quite lost sight of her."
"They're all down at Crawleigh," said Eric. Every one would come to him as the leading authority on Barbara's movements. "What about the Carlton? I can usually get hold of a table."
As they entered the lounge, Eric wondered why he had chosen this of all places. Last night's ordeal should have kept him away for ever; and the band was playing a waltz which he had heard when Barbara dined with him on her return from the Cap Martin. Music, especially the seductiveness of the waltz rhythm, was bad enough at any time when one needed to keep one's nerves unstimulated. . . .
When Oakleigh returned to the Admiralty, Eric stood aimlessly in Trafalgar Square, wondering what to do. It was too late for a matinee; and theatres were all becoming reminiscent of Barbara. He had long meant to order a new dessert-service and was only waiting until Barbara was in London again. Perhaps, that night, they would be saying good-bye for ever; he could no longer tell himself stories of the life that he wanted her to share with him. Perhaps, when she came to choose a dessert-service, it would be with some one else; she would give to some one else all that she had given him, all that she had been unable to give him. . . .
He was home before he knew that he was even walking homewards and thankful when his housekeeper came to discuss dinner. He chose a cigar and at once put it back in the box. His hand was shaking; and, if he once began to smoke, he would never stop. Stimulants and sedatives, he must remember, were not the same as natural food and rest; therefore he had drunk nothing at luncheon, therefore he would not smoke now. There was nothing that he could do; and Barbara's train did not reach Waterloo for another hour. . . .
His sense of time became dulled: Barbara was standing in the doorway before he had even thought of dressing.
"My dear! I expected to find you in bed! How dare you give me such a fright? When I got your telegram this morning—oh, I'm out of breath! I ran all the way upstairs!—you'd been saying that you felt so ill! Tell me what it's all about. I had the most awful difficulty with father about getting away; he couldn't make out why I always wanted to rush up to London just when he'd got people staying down there——"
"I didn't mean to work on your emotions," said Eric, as he helped her out of her cloak.
"Sweetheart, whatever I was doing, you know I'd come from the ends of the earth, if you were ill. But I'm afraid father'll think me a fraud. It'll be your fault if I can't get away next week."
Eric had to think for a moment before he recalled that her birthday fell in the following week. It was the first time that she had referred even indirectly to it on her own initiative. He looked at her closely, but her face revealed only high spirits and a radiant pleasure in being with him again.
"I wanted to talk over one or two things with you," he explained, "We shall start fairer if you don't feel you're under any obligation to me——"
She caught hold of his hand and kissed it.
"I shall always feel that, Eric."
"Well, for to-night I want you to feel quite unembarrassed. I want to talk to you about Jack Waring. He was reported missing last August."
Barbara's face grew suddenly grave; and, in a whisper, she supplied the date.
"Well, his sister dined with me last n-night——"
Eric stopped as he caught himself stammering, but Barbara laid her hand imploringly on his arm.
"Go on!" she cried. "I can stand it!"
"They don't know whether he's alive or dead." Her hands were slowly withdrawn from her cheeks, her face regained its composure, and she resettled herself, still breathing a little quickly, on the sofa. "They know nothing," he went on slowly. "But there's reason to suppose that he wasn't killed at the time when he was reported missing. There's reason to suppose that he was alive at the beginning of October."
Still standing with his shoulders leaning against the mantel-piece, Eric told her slowly and colourlessly of the belated cheque. At the end she sat watching him in silence. She too, surely, was trying to convince herself that this was what she had always expected. . . .
"That's all I know. That's all his people know," he added.
"But October. . . . June. . . . Why hasn't he written?"
"You're assuming he's alive. We don't know. He may have been badly wounded, he may have died of wounds——"
"But if he was well enough to write a cheque?"
"I don't pretend to explain it. His sister threshed it all out at the bank yesterday; she and I threshed it all out again last night. And we're none the wiser—except that on the ninth of October he drew, dated and signed a cheque. I think that's certain. There's no doubt about the signature, and no one would trouble to forge a cheque for ten pounds. . . . I always promised to let you know as soon as I had any news, Babs."
She nodded and pressed her knuckles into her eyes.
"October to June . . . instead of August to June," she murmured at length. "And not a word of any kind. What do his people . . .?"
"He'll now be published as 'Previously reported missing, now reported to be missing and a prisoner.' They don't know what to think any more than we do."
She sighed and then looked up to him with a grateful smile.
"Thank you for telling me, Eric."
He turned away and moistened his lips.
"You mustn't forget that it affects my own position," he warned her.
The smile faded from her face, and she looked at him with startled eyes.
It was a silent dinner, for Eric was exhausted and Barbara was thinking deeply. Nearly a year ago, when Jack was first missing, she seemed to have lived through all these emotions, to have been tossed backwards and forwards in her dreams like a plaything of the gods at sport. For twelve months she had been sick with longing to know whether he still wanted her; and, when the gods had tortured her to madness, they let her think that the cruel game was over. She dreamed again of happiness, seeing herself as a child; another child, the very symbol of love and forgiveness, came to bring her peace, and they played together in the sun-drenched loveliness of a dream. Then the gods flung a shadow before her feet. In dream after dream her child-lover begged her to stay, but the shadow parted them and urged her forward. In time she realized that it was Jack's shadow. . . .
Never were dreams more vivid. She knew each note of her lover's voice as he begged her to stay and let him make her happy; and night after night she awoke to find herself stifling in the embrace of the shadow. Every one thought that she was dying; she herself knew that she was being driven mad; and, when the gods saw that she could bear no more, they filled the world with a blaze of light which banished dream and shadow.
"I hoped God had forgotten me," she whispered. "I've been happy too long. What am I to do, Eric?"
"You must follow your inclination."
She sighed and looked away into the shadows beyond the table.
"My inclination's always to do what you want. . . . I'm glad for both our sakes that this came when it did. I couldn't have made you happy while I was uncertain. . . ."
"And, if the war ended to-morrow and Jack came back safe and sound next week, what then?"
"It depends on him. I gave him my solemn promise, when I was trying to make reparation."
"And I don't count at all. After all our love, you could forget me——"
"I could never forget you, sweetheart."
"But—you're willing to try?"
"What else can I do? Oh, what a muddle I've made of our lives!"
Eric had determined to be patient and restrained; but his voice, uncontrolled and scornful, seemed to come from a distance.
"Will you make it any better by keeping faith with Jack and breaking it with me? You'll be unhappy all your life, you'll never forgive yourself, you'll never forget the wrong you've done me, if you marry any one else!"
Barbara's eyes filled with fear.
"You speak as if you were putting a curse on me!"
"I don't believe in curses or blessings or luck or your other superstitions. I'm warning you—and I'll add this. You once undertook my education, but I think I can teach you one thing, one thing about love: it has to be whole-hearted. . . ."
He flung away and stood with his arm on the mantel-piece, fumbling the lock of a cigar-cabinet with clumsy fingers. Barbara made no sound, and after some moments he stole a look at her.
"I know," she answered quietly.
"Well——" He hesitated and then took his plunge. "You've got to decide, Babs."
"You must wait till we've heard something definite."
"No! If we heard to-morrow, to-night, in five minutes' time, it would make no difference. I want the whole of your love, I want to stand first." He waited, but she said nothing. "You've very often told me how much you loved me," he went on, ironical at her silence. "You've told me how you need me, how grateful you are to me, how much you want to make me happy——"
He had dropped into unconscious parody, and its technical excellence set her writhing.
"Don't, Eric! Please!"
"You must decide, Babs."
She buried her face in her hands and sobbed so wildly that he expected at any moment to see his maid's head at the door. For a while he was stoically unmoved; then the crying gave him a pain at the heart, and he stepped forward, only to pull up before he threw away his victory.
"Eric, don't," she cried, as soon as she had mastery of her voice.
"You must decide," he repeated.
"And if I say 'no'?"
"I've said you were under no obligation to me."
"But—you'll turn me away? If I came to you to-morrow and said I'd changed my mind——"
"It would be too late."
She steadied herself and turned round, bending for her gloves and then drawing herself upright to face him.
"I . . . can't . . . now, Eric. . . . Is it still raining? If it is, I'd better have a taxi."
"I'll see if I can get you one."
He had seen this gesture before; and Barbara had followed it with a stream of notes and messages; begging him to come back. Eric walked slowly into the street, giving her generous time for consideration. A taxi stood idle at the top of St. James' Street; and, when he returned with it, she was in the hall, white-faced but collected, turning over the pages of a review.
"Good-bye, Eric," she said quietly. "I'm afraid I've only brought you unhappiness. And my love doesn't seem much use to any one. . . . Don't bother to come down with me."
He went into the smoking-room and dropped limply onto a sofa, waiting for the telephone to ring, waiting for her to confess defeat. A hideous evening—almost as bad as that night before Christmas. His cheeks were burning, and his head ached savagely. Suddenly his theatrical composure and stoicism left him; his body trembled, and he was amazed to feel tears coursing down his cheeks. This, then—he was quite detached about it—was the nervous break-down which Gaisford had prophesied. He had not cried for twenty years . . . and now he could not stop. His heart seemed to have broken loose and to be hammering in space, like the engine of a disabled clock-work toy.
It was still absurdly early, for their scene had taken place among the nut-shells and coffee-cups of dinner. There was time for her to come back, to telephone; she knew by harrowing experience what a parting like this meant. And, while he waited, he must do something! Perhaps she would not break silence till the morning. He would see that she did not wait longer than that. . . .
"Darling Babs," he began. A hot tear splashed on to the paper, and he reached for a fresh sheet. "Darling Babs, It was your choice. I pray God that you will find greater happiness elsewhere. . . ."
He strung sentence to sentence, not knowing what he wrote. Was it not weakness that he should be writing the first letter? But Barbara was probably writing to him at this moment, writing or asking for his number. . . . The night lift-man was bribed to post the letter, because Eric dared not leave the telephone. He sat by it trembling as though with fever, while eleven o'clock struck . . . and midnight . . . and one . . . and three . . . and five. . . .
In the morning he was called at his usual time—to sink back on to the bed almost before he had risen from it. While he waited for his secretary, he telephoned to ask a colleague to shoulder double work for the day and began to think wearily what other engagements he must break. In an interlude of their over-night discussion Barbara had asked him to lunch with her. . . .
With a strangely uncontrolled hand he wrote—"I'm afraid I can't remember what I said in my letter last night. I was feeling too much upset. Didn't you ask me to lunch with you to-day? I'm afraid I'm feeling so ill that I've had to stay in bed. . . ."
When his secretary arrived, he sent her to Berkeley Square with the note. While she was gone, his parlour-maid came in with a swaying mass of White Enchantress carnations and a pencilled note. "May God make you happier than I've been able to do!"
Eric tried to divert his thoughts from the note by giving elaborate instructions about the flowers and his meals for the day. Before he had done, his secretary returned, and he was still dictating when a sound in the hall froze his voice and set his heart thumping.
"I hear Mr. Lane's not well. Do you think he could see me for a moment?"
"I'll enquire, my lady."
As Barbara came into the room, Eric saw that her face was grey with suffering and that she seemed hardly able to keep her heavy lids open.
"Eric, what's the matter?" she asked, coming to his bedside.
In trying to speak softly her voice, already hoarse, disappeared altogether and she rubbed her throat wonderingly.
"What's the matter with us both?" he asked weakly. "Babs . . ." His voice broke. "You look like death!"
Before she turned her face, he could see that she was biting her lip.
"Hush, darling child! I'm only tired; I didn't sleep very well. I kept on remembering that I'd lost some one I loved better than any one in the world," she cried tremulously.
He raised himself on his pillows, stretching out hands that twitched.
"You haven't, Babs! If you want me——"
"Not at that price, darling. If my love for you were everything—there's something else. I don't know what it is. . . . But I've not come to upset you again. Last night I told you that I'd come to you from the ends of the world, if you were ill. Tell me what's the matter, Eric."
She pulled a chair to the bed and gave him her hand, which he covered with kisses.
"I'm broken up! I'm sorry; you can despise me, if you like," he cried. "I can't afford to lose you, Babs: I love you too much."
The tears were standing in his eyes, and the sight steadied her. Pillowing his head on her breast, she ran her fingers through his hair, caressing and soothing him like a child.
"I've done this. . . . You must forgive me, Eric," she whispered. "I didn't see what I was doing; until quite lately I didn't see that you cared for me at all—not to matter, I mean—you were always sweet to me, of course. If I'd known how I was hurting you . . . Won't you wait, Eric? I must let you go now, if you insist; I'm nerved up to it. . . . But is it worth it?"
Eric thought over the change that had come upon them since Christmas.
"No. I can't afford it," he answered wearily.
She bent down and kissed his forehead. Was the kiss rather mechanical? Eric lay with his eyes shut, trying to analyze the double change. Was a nervous break-down always like this? Barbara was stroking his head gently; she had kissed him compassionately, lovingly, but he had fancied a change in her, as though she, too, realized the completeness of his subjugation.
"See if you can't sleep, Eric," she whispered, as he opened twitching lids to take stock of her.
Pity, or some kind of maternal love, then, survived his defeat. . . .
* * * * *
"Average man is a match for average woman, eighteen chances to eighteen, but zero always turns up in woman's favour. Man, being a philosopher and far less interested in woman (who is an incident) than woman is interested in him (who is her life), would cheerfully go on playing with the odds always slightly against him, if he had a clear idea of the value and significance of zero. But zero is woman inexplicable—something fantastically loyal or shiveringly perfidious, savagely cruel or quixotically self-sacrificing, something that is primitive, non-moral and resolved to win at all costs. In the sex-gamble, zero is more than a thirty-six to one chance; it is Poushkin's DAME DE PIQUE and turns up thirty-six times to one. And man shews his indifference or his greatness of soul by continuing to play, by rising imperturbably triumphant over zero. . . . Or perhaps he shews that he is an eternal sex-amateur. . . ."—From the Diary of Eric Lane.
EDUCATION FOR THOSE OF RIPER YEARS
"Verily when an author can approve his wife she was deserving of a better fate." LEONARD MERRICK: "WHEN LOVE FLIES OUT O' THE WINDOW."
"After diagnosis," said Dr. Gaisford, "the prudent physician bases treatment on self-interest. You're not fit to travel by yourself yet, Eric; when I've patched you up, I shall send you away. If you don't go, you'll never do any decent work again."
Having persuaded his patient to stay in bed for a week, the doctor looked in nightly "for five minutes" and stayed sixty-five, smoking three disreputable pipes instead of one and generalizing on life and health.
"It gives me a headache even to think of work," said Eric, his brain half-paralyzed with bromide.
Perhaps it was the bromide, perhaps it was his nervous and bodily exhaustion; the most frightening part of this latest illness was the attendant utter incapacity to make up his mind. When Barbara left him for Crawleigh Abbey, he had resigned from his department and withdrawn the resignation, accepted an invitation to lecture in America—and cancelled the acceptance; every night he led Gaisford through the same argumentative maze; complete rest, partial rest in London or the country, flight from England and all association with Barbara, full work—as soon as he could resume it—to keep him from brooding about her; he could not decide. And from time to time a mocking refrain told him that as an undergraduate and again in the first flush of fame he had aspired to be the new young Byron, dominating London. . . .
"Poisoned rat in a hole," he whispered to himself. . . .
Gaisford would sit with his arms crossed over the back of a chair and his feet twisted round its legs, puffing thoughtfully at his pipe and frowning at his boots. In a long experience of practice among rich and self-conscious patients who would always rather be "interesting" than normal, it was not the first time that he had watched the bloom being rubbed off love; nine broken engagements and balked romances were born of doltish delay; but a mass of sensibility like Eric Lane had not the stamina to wait nor the placidity to go away and forget.
"You told me you had a novel on the stocks," said Gaisford. "I suppose you wouldn't let me see it?"
The first draft of the book was already in type, and, though Eric hated his work to be seen before he had set the last polish on it, the new indecision and weakness of will allowed him to be overpersuaded. Gaisford brought back the manuscript at the end of three days and talked of neurotic impressionism and the methods of literary jerry-builders.
"I hope you're not writing yourself out," he added.
Eric was frightened for the first time since the "Divorce" placed him beyond the reach of want. So many men seemed capable of one play or novel—and then no more.
"One can't always be at concert-pitch," he sighed.
"Then you mustn't go on to the platform till you are."
"It's easy to see you've never been a journalist! The agony, the violence to soul, when you have to come up to scratch, when your copy has to be delivered by a certain hour! Writing without time to revise or even to read what you've already written—the compositors setting up the beginning of an article while you're still writing the middle. . . . And the public pays its twopence and expects us to be always at our best!"
"Well, the public pays me its two guineas and expects me to be always at my best," grunted the doctor. "If I'm off colour, I take things quietly. Otherwise I should defraud the public and ruin my practice at the same time. You must take things quietly until you're fit to work again."
After he had gone, Eric tried to make up his mind what to do. His thoughts ran uncontrolled to painters whose sight had become impaired and composers who had lost their hearing. If he had done violence to the indefinable blend of gift and acquisition which separated the man who could write from those who could not . . . This was a thing to be tested. The scenario of "The Singing-Bird" was ready; he had only been waiting because there was no hurry for another play. There was now every hurry to establish whether he could write a play. If Manders turned up his nose, it would be time indeed for a holiday.
For three months Eric buried himself in his flat, only emerging at the week-end. Lashmar Mill-House gave him proximity to Agnes Waring; and every week he made an excuse to walk over to Red Roofs and ask for tidings of Jack. The news that he was alive seemed better than the suspense of no news; but the tyranny of love was strange when a man could pray for the death of a friend. The Warings' atmosphere of dignified expectancy rebuked him; they made no more pother than if a single letter had gone astray. The colonel motored daily into Winchester and sat on his tribunal; Mrs. Waring presided over her bandaging classes, and Agnes looked after the house. There was no fretting at Red Roofs; the errant letter would come to hand—or it would not; the Warings were a military family. Sharing their suspense for the first time, Eric marvelled at their composure. His own heart quickened its beat whenever he asked with false solicitude whether Agnes had tried to get news through the American or Spanish Embassy, the Prisoners-of-War Clearing-House in Copenhagen or the Vatican. Peace of mind returned a step nearer each time that she shook her head and murmured, "Yes, we tried that. It was no good, though." Then his growing security was checked by a gripe of conscience; he felt like a murderer who stole furtively into the woods by night to see whether prowling animal or pursuing man had disturbed the grave. Well, at least another week had passed. . . . But in a week's time he must undergo the suspense again. Agnes might come to him, radiant as on that night when she dined with him, crying "Eric! You remember that cheque? Well, we heard to-day. . . ."
Extravagant tension and violent relief destroyed the serenity required for good work; but Eric was not dissatisfied with the progress of his play. Ease and command had grown reassuringly; his psychology was surer, perhaps because his own psychological experience had been so much enriched; and his dialogue, losing nothing of its neatness and economy, had taken on an added verisimilitude. It was too early to judge dispassionately; but, as Eric made his last corrections and sent a copy of the script to Manders, he felt a warmer glow of confidence than either of his first plays had inspired.
It was the end of October before he had finished. The strain of work had buoyed him up, but it was succeeded by a debilitating reaction, which impelled him with guilty reluctance to Wimpole Street.
"I'm glad you don't even pretend that you've been following my advice," said the doctor with a hint of impatience, as he brought his examination to an end.
"You know, Gaisford, it's not the least use telling me to do nothing," Eric answered jauntily. "I'm not built that way."
"So I've heard before—from others as well. And the others have found themselves packed off to nursing-homes, which, my dear Eric, are very tedious institutions. Are you going abroad now?"
"Not at the moment."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going back to my office, if I'm still wanted."
Gaisford shrugged his shoulders ruefully.
"You know, Eric, it's a waste of my time and of your money for you to come to me for advice. You've definitely gone back since I saw you in the summer."
"I've been working very hard; but I'm rather pleased with the results."
"I hope it's nothing like that novel you shewed me," said the doctor gloomily.
"I'll send you the script when I get it back from Manders," Eric promised with a laugh.
On his return to official work, Eric found that he could not concentrate his attention on anything until he knew what Manders thought of "The Singing-Bird"; sometimes he wondered whether he could ever concentrate until Barbara had brought his suspense to an end. For three months they had not met or corresponded.
"Dr. Gaisford says I simply make you worse," she told him. "I mustn't add that to my other sins. If you want me, I'm there; but I shan't write to you, and you mustn't write to me. I shall miss you horribly, but your health's more important than my happiness. We're coming back to London in the autumn."
A week before her return, the whole Mill-House party motored over to Red Roofs to dine with the Warings. It was an old promise, and Eric was glad to avail himself of it to break the continuity of his stilted Sunday calls. As he dressed, a note was brought him from Colonel Waring, and he read with some surprise:
"I trust you are not going to fail us to-night. There is a matter on which I want your advice and, perhaps, your help."
Eric tore the note into small pieces and went on with his dressing, only frowning at his own want of control when he found his hand shaking until he could hardly part his hair. There was only one subject on which anybody at Red Roofs could want to consult him; from the fact that Colonel Waring wrote—and wrote to him—some official action was pending; otherwise Agnes would have whispered a word to him before dinner. They had received news that Jack was alive . . . or dead . . . or they had thought of a new means of getting in touch with him. . . .
Eric kept his surprise to himself and drove silently through two miles of thicket and clearing to the south end of Lashmar Wood. Beyond a cordial hand-shake and the smiling statement that he was glad to see him, Colonel Waring vouchsafed no explanation of his letter. Eric looked keenly at Agnes and her mother, but their faces and manner betrayed neither elation nor . . . What else could they betray? he wondered sinkingly. If Jack were dead, the dinner-party would have been postponed. They still hoped for him, but their hopes were not hardy enough to be exposed.
When the men were alone after dinner, Eric's heart missed a beat and he gripped the arms of his chair. The colonel, after fidgeting with a decanter and tidying away the remains of two different conversations, carried his glass to Eric's end of the table and sat beside him, asking with a smile whether his note had been delivered in time.
"This is between ourselves," he began, leaning back with his legs stretched out and frowning at the blue flame of a grenade-shaped cigar-lighter. "We've had news of a kind about Jack." He raised his hand as Eric tried to speak. "No, my dear boy, that's just what we want to avoid! Don't congratulate us—yet. You see, we've been through the racket once. . . ."
"You don't know for certain, then?" Eric asked and wondered whether he was imagining a tremor in his voice.
"No. Let me see, Agnes told you all about the cheque, didn't she? He was missing in August last year, and the cheque was drawn in October. We now know that he was alive in December. It appears . . ."
Eric did not hear the next few sentences. Stoically, yet with an underlying measured jubilance, the old colonel was dragging Jack to security from the presumption of death two months at a time. Alive in October, alive in December! Thirteen months ago, eleven months ago. Some one would have heard of him in February or seen him in April! He was catching up hand over fist. And one day he would land in England, you would meet him in the street without warning; as you dawdled through Berkeley Square, you might see him standing on the door-step of Lord Crawleigh's house.
"I don't for one moment suppose that this is the only case." Colonel Waring was commenting.
Eric looked up with an intelligent nod, wondering what he had been told. Waring, always soldierly and dapper, with a neat care of person which he had handed on to his children, seemed years fresher and younger to-night; the liverish tinge of yellow which settled on his face in cold weather had wholly departed.
"Would you mind giving me the dates again?" said Eric.
"Missing in August; the cheque in October; the row in December. This fellow Britwell" (Eric wished that he had listened to find out who was Britwell) "was taken prisoner at the same time, and they were in the same prisoner's camp. Britwell couldn't say how badly Jack was wounded, because he'd been in hospital himself until the day before the row came. Jack, according to the story, was hauled up for calling one of the guards a 'Schweinhund.' (You know Jack well enough to say if he'd be likely to fling about abuse of that kind without provocation). His only defence was that the guard had told him—in German—to do something, and almost the only German he knew was that word, because they'd shouted it at him when they found him half-unconscious in his trench and kicked him back behind the lines, and the women and children had screamed it at him, in the intervals of spitting in his face at all the stations. And it was the one word that all the camp guards used to every British prisoner. Well, he may have been given the opportunity of apologizing or he may not; if so, he refused it, and the last thing Britwell heard was that he'd been packed off to solitary confinement in a fortress for nine months. December '15 . . . to September or October this year. That explains the cheque, but it doesn't explain why he hasn't written. . . . Of course, he hasn't had much time. . . ."
The stoicism in Waring's composed face became eclipsed for a moment. The boy might have died of his wounds or of ill-treatment; he might have offended a second time and been a second time imprisoned without power to communicate with his friends; he might have been transferred to another camp with an unrelaxing ban on all his letters lest he tried to describe the barbarism of which he had been made a victim. . . .
"I've got that straight so far," said Eric slowly, "Now tell me what I can do."
If the worst came to the worst, he would at least try to surrender his claim on Barbara with a good grace.
"Well, it's the old business: we want news," said Waring. "I tried the War Office as soon as I heard from Britwell, which was a week ago; he's been transferred to Switzerland as one of the badly wounded cases. You know what the War Office is; I may be fed with printed forms for months. . . . Do you know anybody there who can take up the thing personally?"
"If I don't know any one, I can soon get to know the right man."
"We shall be very grateful. Meanwhile don't talk about it—to anybody."
Eric refrained from giving a promise, for he knew that he would have to tell Barbara the following week. Within three hours of his return to London he had set half-a-dozen telephone wires humming, and, before leaving his department, the newly-found freemasonry of the public service had supplied him with all available information. Officially, Captain Waring was "missing;" but his name had not been reported from any German source; unofficially, the War Office had a copy of Major Britwell's letter to Colonel Waring. Nothing more was known. On the other hand, a great deal of new information was pouring in since the convention for the exchange of wounded prisoners. If Captain Waring were incapacitated and if the official German conscience were not too uneasy, he might have the luck to be transferred to Switzerland at any moment.
Eric sent a report to Colonel Waring and wrote to Barbara that night for the first time in three months. "I want you to know as soon as possible that Jack was alive last December. That's eleven months ago, and he may be alive still; the family simply doesn't know. I'll tell you the full story when we meet."
In thanking him, she suggested a night for dining together on her return; and Eric spent three days that were as restless and insupportable as the three hours before a first night. It would hurt intolerably if she behaved as a stranger, when they met; almost as intolerably if she threw herself into his arms—and forced him to remember what he was threatened with losing.
On the evening before they were to meet, the telephone rang, and Manders' voice, brisk and cheerful, enquired if Eric was likely to be at the Thespian Club that night.
"I wanted to talk about this play of yours," he explained. "Well, can you lunch to-morrow, say, half-past one?"
"Yes. I should like to. What do you think of it, Manders?"
There was a pause.
"It's too long to discuss now."
"You can just say whether you like it or not."
"I'll tell you all about it to-morrow. Cheerio, boy."
Eric was irritated by Manders' uncommunicativeness. The fellow could at least have said, "First rate!" or "The best thing you've done." "Too long to discuss now" meant hours of captiousness and months of heroic surgery. And with his late loss of assurance Eric could not say with confidence that it was the best thing he had done. . . .
When he reached the club next day, Eric found that Manders had arrived before him and was ordering luncheon for both.
"D'you like the '06 Ruinart, or is it too dry for you?" he asked.
"Nothing's too dry for me," Eric answered, "but I decline to drink champagne at lunch. I've work to do this afternoon."
His host smiled persuasively and continued to write his bill.
"It'll do you good, boy. Buck you up. Well, how are you? The last time I was here, some old buffer told me you'd been seedy, but that was right away back in the summer. What was the matter?"
"I was only a bit run down," Eric answered. "What did you think of the play?"
Manders gave his bill to a waiter and planted his elbows on the table, pressing his finger-tips together.
"Well, I read it very carefully," he began. "By the way, before I forget it, 'The Bomb-Shell's' doing very well on tour."
Eric chewed his lips impatiently. He would gladly hear about "The Bomb-Shell" later, but he now wanted to pin Manders to a criticism of "The Singing Bird."
"Well, let's keep the wolf from the door as long as we can."
The subject dismissed, he looked up expectantly and found Manders wholly absorbed with his oysters, rejecting red pepper for black, shaking a cautious drop of tabasco vinegar on each, adding a dash of lemon-juice and, when all else was ready, sipping his champagne with preliminary caution. The play would have to be cut about, then; perhaps the actor-manager was disappointed with his own part. . . .
"Well, let's hear all about it," Manders began heartily. "When did you find time to write it? After you'd got 'The Bomb-Shell' out of the way?"
"Not immediately. I knocked off all my other work and concentrated on this thing day and night for three months."
"Three months? You're a quick worker. You know, boy, that would have been a better play if you'd given more time to it."
Manders slipped three oysters into his mouth in rapid succession, and Eric smiled with indulgent patience. One hard-dying school of critics always made quick work a synonym for hasty work.
"I managed to crowd about three years into the three months."
"Ah, that means you're writing with your nerves! Now, if I were you, I'd put the thing aside for six months, clear it out of your head; then, when you come to it with a fresh mind——"
"You don't like it?" Eric interrupted. "Why not?"
"I don't like it in its present form. I don't suppose you want a line-by-line criticism. . . . If you look at it in six months' time, you'll see my objection for yourself."
Eric raised his glass mechanically and was vaguely surprised to find himself drinking champagne. Then he remembered that champagne had been ordered to "buck" him "up"; he remembered, too, Manders' solicitude for his health, the enquiries when the play had been written and how long he had taken to write it, the evasion and silence the night before on the telephone and again at the beginning of luncheon, when he tried to extract a frank opinion. . . . Manders, then, was rejecting the play . . . and trying to be considerate. . . .
"We don't mince matters at rehearsal," he said with a breathless laugh. "You think the play's hopeless?"
Manders looked relieved, but he had known so many disappointments himself and seen others so often crushed by them that his brown, monkey eyes were full of pity.
"It's no use at all. In its present form or any other. If it had been any one but you, I wouldn't have read two pages of it. You may as well take the whole of your physic, boy; you've got to stop writing for the present, you've lost your sense of the theatre, you're forgetting all the tricks you ever learned. D'you know, when I read that thing, I thought for a moment that you were trying to palm off some old thing that you'd written when you were an undergrad?"
For a moment Eric lost his sense of distance; the long coffee-room was full of shouting and discordant laughter; a waiter, who seemed quite near, asked in a remote voice whether he might take the black pepper. . . . Eric gripped the edge of the table, praying that he might not disgrace himself.
"I wonder—why," he murmured faintly.
Manders shrugged his shoulders and filled both glasses encouragingly.
"It often happens. Graham Lever had three plays running in London at the same time; then he chucked romantic comedy and tried to write a revolt-of-the-younger-generation problem play. . . ." Manders omitted to add that Lever had never had another play staged, but Eric's ten years of dramatic criticism enabled him to fill the gap. "George Sharpe failed again and again for eight years; he had one success and then failed for three. It would be hard to think of a man who never loses his touch. Partly it's the author and partly it's the audience; they get tired . . . and, when one kind of play succeeds, all the other men unconsciously imitate, and the managers can only see money in that one kind, so that the public gets sated. With you . . ." He paused to tear his bread into lumps and throw it into his soup. "You probably want some fresh air. You've been living in the theatre too much, you've forgotten what real people are like. If you brought that play down and read it to the company——"