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The Education of Eric Lane
by Stephen McKenna
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His aposiopesis suggested that there would be uproar and danger to life.

"What had I better do?" Eric asked weakly.

"Frankly? Well, scrap your 'Singing Bird' and throw your pen behind the fire. Don't try to write for six months. After that, anything you like to send me . . . I hope you can eat this, by the way?"

Eric found that a sole, half-hidden by mussels, had been placed before him. Manders had taken trouble about the luncheon; he was a good fellow and had tried to soften the blow; throughout the time that they had worked together he had been patient and very human; he was trying to part now on a pleasant note. "Anything you like to send me . . ." It would certainly be read; for a time he would read it himself—the next three failures, say. And then . . . Eric wondered whether he would be able to go back to journalism. The two successful plays would keep him from starving, but he must make a livelihood again . . . and count every shilling before he spent it. The flat must go. . . .

The long triumphal progress which he had enjoyed and disdained rose up in accusing mockery. Here, then, was the end of that life-long dream of domination. For a time Lady Poynter would invite him to her house and ask when the next play was coming out, but her nature and the requirements of her sham-intellectual life demanded that she should drop him when he no longer had any tricks to display. Young Forbes Standish or Carlton Haig—"most promising young playwrights"—would take his place. Perhaps some one like George Oakleigh, who liked him personally, would ask what had become of him; and Lady Poynter would answer easily: "I haven't seen him for a long time. I must find out whether he's in London and get him to lunch one day." And then young Forbes Standish would begin to criticize "The Bomb-Shell" or the "Divorce" with bland patronage. And every one at the Thespian would be tactful and considerate.

"I feel as if I should never be able to write anything again," Eric sighed. "This is the second—facer I've had. There was a novel I started. . . . I'm used up, Manders."

"Take a holiday and don't talk rot!"

Conversation languished through the rest of the meal, and Eric hurried back to his office, pretending that he could not spare time for coffee or a liqueur. It was an office which he had once hated, because it absorbed time and strength which he needed for his own work; he had treated it cavalierly, from time to time writing letters of resignation and throwing them into a drawer. As he settled to the familiar table in the crowded, ill-lit room, he wondered whether he would be of the lucky number for whom the Government service would find openings at the end of the war. He had yet to prove that he could earn a living again as a journalist; and efficiency mattered little in a civil servant, for, if his work were good, some one else would get the credit, and, if it were bad, it would be undiscovered. . . .

A drawling voice from the War Office broke in upon his musings. Had not Mr. Lane been making enquiries about a Captain Waring? His name was on the next list of prisoners to be transferred to Switzerland; his relations would be informed officially.

Eric telephoned at once to Colonel Waring and Barbara. As he dressed for dinner, Agnes arrived in a laden car with both her parents, clamorous for help in securing passports. They were staying at the Charing Cross Hotel with their boxes packed, waiting for further news, and the radiance in their eyes scorched him. Barbara had received the news almost without comment; he wondered what manner she would shew him; perhaps this was the last time that they would ever meet. . . .

"I'm not sure that her ladyship's dressed yet. . . . If you wouldn't mind waiting, sir. . . . I have taken the paper into her ladyship's room. . . . I hope you've been keeping well, sir. . . .?"

Eric started in physical pain at the familiar friendliness of the old butler. The little confidences, introduced with a deprecatory cough, floated down from a height one stair above him. Barbara's room, as ever, was in chaos; her kitten, roused by his entrance, stretched herself and arched her back. Then the other door opened, and Barbara hurried in. Her arms were soft and cool as ever against his cheeks, and he caught a well-remembered breath of carnations as her head bent low on to his breast. He held her close; but his pressure suddenly relaxed, and he stepped back.

"Don't you like kissing me any more?" she asked. "I've been hungry for you all these months!"

"I was thinking what it would be like if you suddenly took yourself out of my life," said Eric.

"Darling, why must you spoil the present by dragging in the future?"

"I can't think of anything else."

Barbara took his arm and led him to a chair.

"I wish you didn't look so frightfully ill," she whispered. "Have you been missing me? My dear, what a mess I seem to have made of our lives! Sit down! Let me take care of you! Let me do what I can for you, darling! It isn't much!"

"I don't think I'd better stay, Babs," said Eric with nervous indecision. "I'm bad company; I shall only get on your nerves and upset you."

The girl shook her head sadly.

"I'm not so happy that there's much to spoil. Eric, I sometimes think you don't quite understand. I'm not miserable because I want Jack and can't get him. I don't know whether I want him or not; that's what makes the suspense such a hell. . . . There was a time when I wasn't sure whether I was in love with him or not. . . . He was stronger that I was, he could have done anything with me. If I hadn't felt his power, I should have paid no attention to him, he couldn't have hurt me, I shouldn't have wanted to punish him. Is that love? I suppose it's one form. . . . When I see him . . . if he says he wants me . . . I don't know what I shall feel like. Love . . . ordinary love. . . . There's never been anything to equal my love for you. . . . So it hasn't been easy for me, has it? Ever since I met you, I've pined to know what was going to happen to me."

Eric looked away and was silent for several moments. She had made a romance of her oath to Jack and had played dramatically with alternate ecstasy and despair, seeing herself as a woman cursed by God. She made a romance of her twin loves and dual obligations, seeing herself as a woman fated to blight all who loved her. She lived for "situations" and conflicts, experimenting in emotion; already a garment of romance had been woven round Jack.

"I came to tell you that I'd seen the Warings to-day," Eric said at length. "They're off to Switzerland as soon as they can get their passports. If you'd care . . . I mean, I can write a letter from my office and enclose anything; it wouldn't be censored then."

Barbara bent her head until her trembling lips were hidden from him.

"It's like you to think of that! Nobody's ever loved any one as you love me! But I won't, Eric. If he wants me . . ."

Eric stared at the fire, kicking one heel against the other toe. If she was in agony of spirit, he could have sworn that she was enjoying the agony.

"Yes, I love you more than any one else ever has. . . . It gives you enormous gratification. . . . But I wonder if you think it's anything more than your own cleverness. I suppose you have some love for me. . . . But, if he wants you, I shall drop out of your life. . . . I was happy, I didn't need you! You wrapped yourself round my life until you saw that I couldn't do without you, and then—if—he—wants you! What have you left for me?"

"Is it nothing to have brought me happiness?" she asked; but his deep-toned reproach, unrehearsed, unstudied and faltering, had broken through her surface emotions and shattered her self-absorption. "Eric, I'm not every one! Your work——"

"D'you think I can ever write again? You never did think much of anything I wrote——"

"You know that I was only teasing you! That first night, when you were so dreadfully pleased with yourself. . . . But I found you were human, after all, when I came home with you——"

"And broke 'the child's toy.'"

"Ah, why did you remind me of that?"

"I was reminded of it myself to-day. I'm not superstitious, but my luck has gone. I can't write any more."

"Eric, that's not true!"

He compressed his lips and shrugged his shoulders, resignedly.

"You know best, no doubt. Since we met, I've written the first draft of a novel, which is unreadable, and a play. . . . I sent the play to Manders about a fortnight ago."

"Without telling me? Don't you like sharing things with me any longer?"

The soft reproach in her voice maddened him. She seemed incapable of seeing that she wanted the whole of him at a time when she was herself momentarily drawing away.

"You choose a curious time to ask that question! There's nothing to share. It's turned down, rejected. Nothing I can do to it will make it even possible. I can't write any more, I'm used up. . . . Yes, we may fairly say that my luck has gone. And that night, you may remember, you recommended me to fall in love, because it would be so good for me. . . ."

4

Since the exchange of incapacitated prisoners began, there had been so many delays and disappointments that the Warings remained in London, with what patience they could muster, until they received news that Jack's party was proceeding to Chateau d'Oex.

For reasons which he was at a loss to define Eric saw them off at Charing Cross. They found time amid their jubilation to be grateful to him for his trouble in making enquiries at the War Office and in expediting the issue of their passports. As chairman of his local military tribunal, the colonel could not be absent from England for any long time on end, but they were proposing tentatively and subject to Jack's condition of health to take a villa and to stay with him by turns. Agnes and her father expected to come back after a week or ten days, leaving Mrs. Waring in charge until Christmas.

As they chatted artificially by the carriage door, there was radiance in the faces of all three; the colonel seemed more upright, Mrs. Waring had shed her set, stoical calm and, with it, about ten years.

"You won't forget to write, Agnes," said Eric, as the guard bustled along the platform, breaking up the little groups like a sheep-dog.

"It may be only a line, but I'll tell you everything when we get back," she promised.

A week passed before her letter reached him.

"We got here after the most impossible journey," Agnes wrote from Chateau d'Oex, "and Jack came to us yesterday. You can't imagine what it was like, seeing him again when we'd NEARLY given up hope! He's very bad—but I suppose I'd better start at the beginning. When he was taken prisoner, he'd been wounded in the head and slightly gassed. The gassing doesn't matter, except that he will always have to take care of his lungs; the head wound has left a scar and a bald place, but he can cover that up. At present he gets the most awful head-aches if he tries to do any work. The Germans let him go because he was simply wasting away on the horrible food they gave him to eat, and he's like a skeleton now. But we're going to feed him up and put that right, and then it'll just be a question how much work and what kind of work he'll be able to do when he's well.

"He's alive, Eric, and that's the great thing. And he's well and strong compared with some of the ghastly wrecks that you see here. I must wait till we meet before I give you a full account of all he's been through, but Major Britwell's story was quite true so far as it went. He DID insult the guard and he WAS carried off to solitary confinement for nine months. He won't talk much about that, though, but he had a most awful time; I honestly wonder that he came through it alive and in his right mind. I could cry when I look at the men here and think what they've suffered. But they CAN'T go through it again, Eric; that's one of the terms of their release, of course. They're out of the war for good; and it may be very unpatriotic, but I for one say 'Thank God!'

"Well, I must come to business. Father and I are staying here for another week, and I want you to do a lot of jobs for us. On a separate sheet you'll find a number of things that I want you to order and have sent out here. And on the back of this you'll find a list of names and addresses. There's so much to do, getting this house straight, that I've very little time for writing. I want you to be an angel and ring up all these people and just tell them (you know them all, I think) what I've told you.

"Jack sends love to you, and we are all deeply grateful for what you have done and what I know you will do for us. I don't think there are any other messages."

The list of names did not contain Barbara's. Eric telephoned to her as soon as he had received the letter, though he knew that she would be in bed and that a tiresome footman would say: "I don't think her ladyship's been called yet, sir. Perhaps you would ring up later." With patience he got into communication with her and read out the first pages of the letter. When she had thanked him, he asked with trepidation whether she had heard from Jack. An hour seemed to pass while she rang for her letters and looked at the postmarks.

"There's nothing from Switzerland," she announced at length.

Eric's heart leapt with relief. Agnes had written; surely Jack could have written, too, had he wished? In the ensuing silence Barbara's voice, suddenly toneless, came back to him.

"I'm sorry, Babs, for your sake."

"Thank you, darling."

"I'll make a point of seeing Agnes as soon as she gets back to England," he went on.

"Thank you, darling."

"And, of course, I'll let you know anything there is to know. Very likely you'll get a letter before I see her."

"Perhaps I shall." Her voice trembled; and Eric, ceasing to weight justice or consider provocation, wished that he had Jack Waring's throat between his hands. "Well, I mustn't keep you from your work. Thank you for telling me, Eric."

"Good-bye, Babs. I suppose it wouldn't amuse you to lunch or dine with me anywhere?"

"Not to-day, I think. But I love you for asking me. Good-bye."

For a week he wrote to her twice daily, trying to forget himself in the effort to keep her amused. They met once at dinner with Lady Maitland; and it hurt him absurdly when as a matter of ritual he was detailed to see Barbara home. On the day named, Colonel Waring and Agnes arrived in London and telephoned, asking him to dine with them at their hotel.

Trepidation hid become his normal mood, and Eric walked into the lounge with his teeth set and the muscles of his cheeks hard. The burgeoning happiness of Agnes was harder to bear than ever, but he achieved a tolerable effect as the undemonstrative, phlegmatic Englishman and mingled suitable congratulations with his many questions.

"I handed on the good news to every one you mentioned," he said at the end of dinner. "And to one or two others who I thought would be interested to hear it. Did he send me any jobs or messages?"

"He wants a pipe, but father can get that. I don't think he sent any messages."

Eric looked at his watch and begged to be excused. It was half-past ten, and he had telephoned to say that he would call for Barbara at eleven and bring her home from a party in Portman Square.

When he reached the house, Eric was disconcerted to learn that Barbara had already left. He was slightly less surprised, on reaching home, to find the hall ablaze with light and Barbara lying at full length on a sofa with her cloak trailing on the carpet and a bottle of eau-de-Cologne clutched in one hand.

She started and opened her eyes as he came into the room.

"Eric, did you go . . .? I'm sorry! I couldn't wait, I couldn't bear being with people. I've been asleep. I've got such a racking headache, darling."

Eric took a bottle of aspirin from the drawer of his writing-table.

"Have you had any of this to-day?" he asked. "Then I can give you fifteen grains. Wait till I've got some water." He returned with a tumbler and two cushions and seated himself at her feet. "Have you heard anything fresh from Switzerland?" he asked. "Well, I'm afraid I haven't, either. I dined with Colonel Waring and Agnes to-night, as you know."

Barbara had uncovered her eyes to hold the tumbler; but she set it on the floor, as he began to speak, and shielded her face.

"H-how is he?" she asked.

"He gets tired rather quickly, but otherwise he's all right. Leading quite a normal life, I mean."

His words were deliberately chosen to shew that Jack was in a state to have written, had he wished. His choice was not wasted on her.

"And what now, Eric?" she asked.

"Isn't that for you to say?"

Barbara uncovered her eyes again and looked slowly round the room. It had become so familiar that she no longer noticed its shape or colouring. Instinctively she knew that the sofa demanded a cushion at her back and that the arm-chair between the fire and window did not. But she had never, until now, consciously observed the carpet and curtains, the breast-high white book-cases and Chippendale writing-table, since the first night when she came there and stood tossing a glass horse-shoe idly into the air and stealing curious glances at the furniture.

She recognized it all now and remembered her earliest emotions, remembered even telling him that the first burning cigarette would spoil his grey carpet. But her vision was blurred; she fancied herself seeing through the walls, penetrating a belt of darkness and piercing other walls beyond which she sat at supper with an undemonstrative, quietly determined young man. The jig and stamp of ragtime echoed overhead—"Dixie! All abo-o-oard for Dixie! Dixie! Tak your tickuts heere for Dixie!"; she heard her own voice—"I love that one-step. Why did you drag me away in the middle?" and Jack Waring's in answer—"Well, you ought to be grateful to me for getting you a table before the rush starts." That was a few hours before war was declared, though the long banqueting-hall of Loring Castle had resounded with rumours and expositions of war throughout dinner. Almost at once Jack asked her to marry him; she once more heard his tranquil explanation—"I've just been received into your church."

A blaze of light. . . . A thunder of voices. . . . Out of the distance she heard him saying, "In fact, you've been lying to me all along? You never intended to marry me?"

A blaze of light; and silence that made her head sing. Jack's face seemed to grow thinner and the gleam in his eyes more brightly cold. The supper-room was emptying, but neither could decide to stand up and say good-bye. Lord Summertown and a brother-officer waltzed in and became noisily cheerful in one corner. Later they heard a car driving past the open windows; George Oakleigh appeared in the doorway; Summertown's companion finished the champagne and rose to his feet protesting fretfully: "To declare war in the middle of supper is not the act of a gentleman. . . ." Then at last she had seen that she had tempted Jack to imperil his soul. . . .

War had seemed a small thing then, though Jack Summertown was to be killed within six weeks and her cousin Jim within a year. It was a thing remote and only important as postponing her punishment from Jack.

"I must get back to London," he said suddenly. "I'm going to ask Summertown for a seat in his car."

For dragging minutes she felt her soul being crucified. While Jack stood talking in the hall or on the steps, she tried to conceal from herself what she had done and, when that was impossible, to nerve herself to make reparation. Then she was blinded by the glare of the head-lights and opened her eyes to find that the car had swept beyond reach of her voice. . . .

Once again everything was warm and dark in the summer night. . . . Slowly the distant wail of the orchestra died from her ears. She had a vague memory of going upstairs with Oakleigh and of seeing him draw Jim aside and whisper to him, but between them lingered a white face with incredulous eyes, and above the music hammered the sound of a broken sentence: "So this was your revenge?" And then, calling Jim to witness, she made the sign of the Cross and swore that she would offer herself, body and soul, to Jack, if he wanted her. . . .

The noise faded out of hearing, and she was once more in a room of blazing light; a man was looking at her, silent, white-faced and reproachful; and a new phrase was beating on her brain.

"I want to know what you're going to do now?"

She stretched out her hand; but Eric did not take it, and her eyes wandered once more idly round the room. The forgotten curtains and grey carpet, the writing-table and neat pile of manuscript flung back to her memory the summer night when she had first come to disturb his peace of mind.

"I make every one miserable!" she cried, and both started at the violation of their long silence.

Eric's head sank lower; but his eyes never left her face. That night she had been like an animal tortured to madness; since that night she had taken all that his love could give her and had repaid it by torturing him to madness in his turn, by destroying his health and ruining his work.

"Eric, I want to give you everything, but I've sworn to God! Until I've seen Jack. . . ."

"You've broken your oath in everything but form. From the first night we met you've belonged to me in all but name."

"But won't you wait? Oh, why will you drive me?"

"I'm not driving you, Babs. I've not asked for anything."

She stood up and drew her cloak round her, glancing once at him and turning quickly away as she saw his hunched body and haggard face. One after the other she slowly drew on her gloves, looking with misty eyes for her bag. As she moved to the door, Eric rose and opened it, gathering up his overcoat with the other hand. They had parted like this so often that he no longer seemed to care. . . . A four-wheeler was ambling along Ryder Street, and he hailed it. Neither spoke until it drew up opposite her house and she saw him fumbling with the handle. Then she laid her fingers on his wrist and chokingly bade him stop.

"I'll marry you, Eric," she said.

"Thank you, Barbara."

She hurried out before he could kiss her and stood with face upturned and eyes tightly shut. God, who had heard the oath taken and broken, was free to strike her now; if He held His hand, it was because He had more subtle punishment in store. . . .

Barbara pulled her cloak over her chest and ran despairingly into the house.

* * * * *

"Loneliness may be so intolerable that I believe God would forgive us our blindest groping after alleviation. But would God forgive me, if, in my groping, I brought such misery of loneliness to another, knowing now what manner of thing it is?"—From the Diary of Eric Lane.



CHAPTER EIGHT

THE STRONGEST THING OF ALL

"Tam saepe nostrum decipi Fabullinum Miraris, Aule? Semper homo bonus tiro est." MARTIAL.

1

"If you care for a six-months' lecturing tour in America," wrote Grierson, "I have an unrivalled offer. You would start in the New Year. . . ."

His agent's letter was the first that Eric opened on the morning after Barbara promised to marry him. As he lay half-awake, waiting to be called, he realized that something had changed the foundations of his life; he was at peace, well and strong, with a heart tuned for adventure and a new tireless energy.

Six o'clock. . . . Seven. . . . Eight. . . . He carried the telephone into the smoking-room, lest he should be tempted to disturb Barbara, and paced bare-foot up and down, wondering how to inaugurate the new life. In marrying a Protestant, she would forfeit the money which she had received under her god-father's will; henceforward he must work and earn for two. In his safe lay a brown-paper parcel containing the manuscript of a novel, unopened since the day when Gaisford so contumeliously flung it back at him. Eric carried the despised book into his bedroom and began to skim the pages. With his new sense of power, he would so re-write it that the doctor should eat humble-pie; and there would be a slice for Manders too. It was no good trying him with another version of the "Singing-Bird"; but "Mother's Son," which had lain neglected ever since it was sent back three years before, needed only a word of change and a touch of polish. October, November, December. . . . Eric would be ready for America in the New Year.

The next letter was from Agnes, begging him to write occasionally to Jack; the next from Lady Lane, wondering when he was coming to Lashmar. A firm of topical photographers respectfully begged leave to send a representative by appointment to interview Mr. Lane and to enrich their gallery with a few camera-studies of the house and of the author at work. The other letters were invitations and charitable appeals.

At ten o'clock he telephoned to ask when he could see Barbara, but was told that she had not yet been called. After two more unsuccessful attempts, he sent a note by hand, inviting himself to tea, and spent the rest of the morning at work on the manuscript of his novel. Shortly before luncheon his interviewer arrived with an assistant bearing a camera, and for half an hour the flat was filled with the smoke and powder of the magnesium flares. Eric submitted sheepishly to being "discovered" looking (in profile) out of his dining-room window, to being "interrupted" at his desk (three-quarter face), to being found taking a moment's respite for thought and a cigarette (full face, with his back to the smoking-room fire); finally he was dressed up in hat and coat and shewn to be saying good-bye in the hall. While the assistant packed up his camera and tripod, Eric allowed himself to be interrogated on his past and future work, his plans and views of art.

"Have you anything new?" asked the interviewer. "I've got all the old stuff out of 'Who's Who'."

Eric spoke vaguely of the novel, the play and the course of lectures in America, remembering the threadbare commonplaces of such illustrated interviews as he had read; it were fruitless to fancy that he could vary the form or fact of what was being so industriously scribbled down.

"Nothing expected for some months? I must work up the back stock. I shall want you to tell me in a minute what started you writing plays. . . . Now, about your engagement?"

"My engagement?" Eric echoed.

The man nodded and moistened the end of his pencil in anticipation.

"Why, that's what I'm here for! I don't say," he added apologetically, "that this stuff wouldn't stand by itself—or come in useful, anyway."

"I'm afraid I don't quite follow."

The man looked at him in patient surprise.

"We supply all the pictures for 'The World and His Wife'," he explained. "They 'phoned through to know if we could let them have up-to-date photographs of you and Lady Barbara Neave——"

"But you spoke of an engagement."

"Isn't it true, then?"

"This sort of thing is really intolerable!" Eric cried. "I don't want to tell other people how to run their business, but in common decency your firm might wait for an official announcement in 'The Times' instead of circulating these rumours——"

"It's only a rumour, then?" said the interviewer blankly, pocketing his note-book.

As he walked to Berkeley Square, Eric decided that, by telling Barbara of his encounter, he would annoy her without bringing relief to himself. The announcement, when it came, would be made with imposing ceremony after a meeting between his father and Lord Crawleigh, an adjustment of religious differences and a distressingly material discussion of settlements. There would be ponderous debates and irritating disagreements; Barbara and he both needed a respite for recuperation. . . .

"I telephoned three times this morning," said Eric, as he was shewn into the drawing-room. "I did so want to talk to you! I was so happy I couldn't sleep."

"I couldn't sleep, either," said Barbara huskily, holding out one hand and covering her eyes with the other.

"Aren't you going to kiss me?"

"If you like. It's your right now."

Eric let fall her hand and drew back, biting his lip.

"That's not a very pretty thing to say, darling," he murmured.

"I'm sorry. . . . I've been haunted all night. It seemed as if God must strike me down. . . . And, whenever I fell asleep, Jack was there, reproaching me, mocking me——"

"He's had his chance," Eric interrupted sharply. "You start absolutely free."

"You mean he's—rejected me?"

After the tragic talk of God's striking her down for taking His name in vain, Eric could not attune himself readily to a whimper of wounded vanity. Barbara's dramatic intensity had hitherto been convincing, and he had never imagined that she was unhappy because she had offered herself to a man and he had repelled her.

"I mean it's—all over. You've no reason to reproach yourself, Babs. . . . I want to talk to you about seeing your father——"

She stopped him with a shudder, and Eric found a difficulty in curbing his impatience. Trying a fresh cast, he described his latest invitation to lecture in America. Barbara listened with half her attention, mechanically agreeing that it would be an experience and a change, mechanically accepting his figures and wounding him with an indifference which was made greater by her early love of sharing his triumphs with him. He hunted through a pile of letters and gave her one in which the previous occupant of his flat offered generous terms for the remainder of the lease.

"We must decide some time when we're going to be married," he said, "and where we're going to live."

"Please, Eric!"

He looked at her in amazement and drew slowly away from her side, walking to the fire-place and resting his forehead on his arm.

"I—don't . . . I don't understand what's the matter," he murmured at length. "Last night . . . You did it of your own free will, Babs. . . . And unless you wanted to hurt me more completely and ingeniously than you've ever succeeded in doing before——"

The girl winced and covered her face with her hands.

"I wouldn't hurt you for the world!" she whispered. "Ah! God! I wish I'd never met you, I wish I'd never been born! Don't you see that I couldn't go on taking, taking, taking with both hands—all your sweetness and gentleness, everything—and giving you nothing in return? When you said that I'd spoiled your work . . . Didn't I see that I'd already ruined your health and made you miserable? I tried to make amends, but it wasn't in my power. I ought never to have given you that promise!"

"Don't you love me any more, Babs?"

"Oh, yes."

"Well, what have I done since last night?"

"You haven't done anything. . . . It was a letter. . . . You remember about Jim Loring's ball just before the war——"

Eric drew her head on to his shoulder and kissed her.

"My darling, that's all so long ago! Why distress yourself with it now?"

"Jack was staying with the Knightriders," she persisted. "Kathleen Knightrider's the only soul who's ever suspected. . . . I never told her. She's heard that Jack has been sent to Switzerland and she wrote this morning to—to congratulate me! I tried to make amends to Jack too. . . . Oh, the mockery of it! All last night I saw the two of you pulling, pulling . . ."

"He's had his chance," Eric told her again.

"I wish God had struck me down," she whispered.

Eric invented an excuse to leave early, for, when Barbara was not reproaching herself for the engagement, she affected the abject humility of a slave whom he had bought for his pleasure. Perhaps she was amusing herself with a new emotion, perhaps she wanted to keep him alert and suspended, perhaps she enjoyed the vision of herself torn between the two men who wanted her more than anything in the world. . . .

2

For the second morning in succession Barbara did not telephone. Eric waited until noon and then asked her to dine with him.

"I will, if you—want me to," she answered with the new servile listlessness; and he wondered again whether she was trying to exact some novel abandonment of adoration or to exhaust him by passive resistance. "I believe we have people dining," she added.

"Well, choose some other night," he suggested.

"Oh, it doesn't matter. Nothing matters. And I'm going to the country to-morrow."

"But I thought you were going to be in London till Christmas."

"I'm supposed to be ill," she answered and hung up the receiver before he could say anything more.

Eric returned to his work, affecting unconsciousness of her alternating indifference and hostility. In the afternoon Agnes Waring telephoned to say that she was unexpectedly in London and would like to have tea with him. He welcomed her cordially, only hoping that she would not stay long enough to clash with Babs, and, guiltily reminded of her letter, put aside his work and began writing to Jack. Once or twice, as he paused to fill his pipe, the old feeling of duplicity came back, as on the Sundays when he walked home from Red Roofs in jubilation after Agnes had told him with her unchanging composure that there was still no news of her brother. And now he was writing a gossipy, facetious letter. . . . Eric tore the envelope in two—and then hesitated. Jack had been given his opportunity, and he had not taken it.

Agnes did not arrive until nearly six o'clock and then came attended by a young officer.

"You remember Mr. Benyon," she said. "We brought him to dine at the Mill-House last year. He hadn't seen 'The Bomb-Shell,' so we went to the matinee to-day."

"Jolly good, if I may say so," murmured Benyon. "Hope you don't mind my buttin' in like this? Agnes said——"

"I obviously couldn't come here alone, Dick," she interrupted; and Eric wondered whether they would have left before Barbara came alone to dine with him.

He wondered too what intimacy Agnes had reached with this young man who was beginning to recur in her life and conversation. They had attained the Christian name milestone without passing it; and she seemed to have brought him as a challenge. Whenever Eric flagged in attention, Agnes brought Benyon up like an army of reserve; whenever Benyon fancied that he had won a position, she rounded on her own reinforcements and admitted Eric to a private intimacy of conversation about Jack. It was a new part for her to play, but no woman seemed able to resist the intoxication of having two men interested in her at the same time. If only she knew that his interest had died more than a year ago, on the night when Barbara sat in that room, on that sofa. . . . Perhaps she did know. He caught her looking at him with an expression which changed almost before their eyes met. Was it desperation, defiance, an indifferent resolve to give him one last chance—or his own hypercritical fancy?

They were still talking when Barbara was announced.

"Gracious! Is it eight?" Agnes cried, looking at her watch. "I thought it was only seven. We must fly. Dick's taking me to a revue."

"Won't you wait for a cocktail?" Eric asked. "By the way, I don't think you know Lady Barbara Neave. Miss Waring, Babs. Mr. Benyon."

The two girls shook hands, and Agnes began searching for her gloves and purse, hurriedly declining Eric's invitation.

"I used to know your brother quite well before the war," said Barbara. "I was so thankful to hear your good news."

Agnes looked up with a quick smile.

"We never quite lost hope," she said.

"Eric told me that you and your people had been out to see him in Switzerland. How did you find him?"

The smile died away in wistfulness.

"Well, he's alive, and that's the great thing," Agnes answered. "The doctors out there don't seem to think that he'll ever be able to do much work with his head again; he'll probably have to give up the bar and live out of doors. You can understand that, when a man's just begun to get a practice together——"

"But is that quite certain?" Barbara interrupted.

"N-no. But it seems probable. There's a report that some of the bad cases are going to be sent home. Then we shall see."

Eric watched the faces of the two girls. Barbara's expressed nothing more than the conventional sympathy of one stranger hearing of another's misfortune; a few months earlier Agnes had not known that Jack and Barbara were even acquainted.

"How soon do you expect him?" asked Barbara.

"Oh, I don't think anything's been decided yet. And you know how long these things take. . . . Eric, if I'd had any idea how late it was . . .!"

He accompanied her to the door and returned to find Barbara still standing, still in her cloak. The flicker of animation which she had presented on meeting Agnes had died down, and she was again the sport of man and the plaything of fate.

"I like her, Eric," she remarked thoughtfully. "Why don't you marry her? Any one can see she's in love with you."

"You're the only person in the world I want to marry," he answered.

Barbara's face twisted in a spasm of pain.

"God! How it hurts when you say that! Eric, I shall make you miserable and be miserable myself! I love you; you know I love you! But I don't want to marry you. Why don't you forget me? Go away——"

"Forget you!" Eric gripped her by the shoulders. "What d'you think would be left, if I lost you?"

Her eyes opened wide with wonder.

"You can't love me as much as that, Eric!"

"I love you so much that I'd sooner have an air-raid to-night and a bomb on my head here, now, than lose you! You're the whole world to me!"

She shook her head miserably and without hope of flattering reassurance.

"I could have killed myself when you told me that I'd destroyed your power of work," she whispered. "And to-night, when that girl said that Jack might never be able to work again . . . It's what I should feel, if we married and I couldn't bear children! I should be incomplete, useless!"

"But you're not responsible."

"I might make things easier. . . ."

So compassion was coming to reinforce or supplant vanity. . . . Eric felt that he knew Barbara's moods in advance. Lady Knightrider—a curse on her name—had started by setting every nerve on edge; the sight of Agnes Waring—with Jack's eyes, hair and voice—had completed her discomfiture; and Barbara had been morbidly drawing one unhappy picture after another. Jack was incapacitated; and, with his pride, he would never win through pity what he had failed to win on merit. Incapacitated or not, Jack was a pauper; and, with his fantastic honour, he would regard himself as an outcast from Barbara's society.

"Even if he can't go back to the bar," said Eric at length, "his father will have no difficulty in getting him a job. Lord Waring could take him on as his agent."

"Oh, I never thought he'd starve! But it must be such a disappointment."

"Well, the war's been such a mix-up that seven men out of ten will change their careers, when they come back. . . . Babs . . . do you care for Jack as much as that?"

She looked up quickly with a gleam of hope in her eyes.

"Are you going to—forget my promise?"

"No! I asked whether you cared for Jack as much as all that."

Barbara shook her head in bewilderment.

"I've given you my heart, Eric. But I owe Jack my soul."

Behind the neat phrasing of the professional trafficker in emotions, Eric felt that she was trying to weary him of their forty-eight hours' engagement. . . .

3

At the beginning of November Eric went to Lashmar for a long week-end. After the first days of his engagement he had hardly seen or heard anything of Barbara. She was presumably at Crawleigh Abbey, but for a week she answered no more than one letter out of three; after that, with a sense that he could do nothing right and that they were fretting each other's nerves, he ceased to correspond and was trying to absorb and exhaust himself with work. Now his novel was in the agent's hand, and "Mother's Son" had been sent to Manders.

As he dawdled before a book-stall at Waterloo, Eric's eye was caught by "The World and His Wife" contents' bill, which announced, with other attractions, an "Illustrated Interview with Mr. Eric Lane." There had not been time for him to receive the article from his news-cutting agency, and he bought a copy to read in the train. The pictures were well reproduced, and he was by now so hardened to the perverse inaccuracy and genial blatancy of the letter-press that he hardly blushed at the aspirations which were attributed to him, until his attention was arrested in mid-paragraph by Barbara's name. Collecting himself and glancing almost guiltily round the somnolent carriage, he turned back to the beginning.

"Rumour has been busy with the names of Mr. Lane and of Lady Barbara Neave, only daughter of the Marquess of Crawleigh. No official announcement has been made, but the young people have been going about together a good deal lately; some of our readers may have seen them at the PREMIERE of 'The Bomb-Shell.' The Stage has of recent years surrendered so much of its beauty and talent to the Peerage that it is high time for the Peerage to make this romantic return to the Stage. . . . Mr. Lane's advice to budding playwrights is reminiscent of Mr. Punch's famous advice to those about to marry—'Don't.' Though the 'Divorce' was his first play to be produced, it was not the first that he had written; like most authors, he had to buy experience. . . ."

There was nothing in the rest of the article to incriminate him, but the offending paragraph was enough in itself. Guiltily Eric looked round a second time. Two of his fellow-passengers, slumbering with mouths agape, were clutching "The World and His Wife" to their stomachs; it was the one periodical of later date than "Punch" and the monthly reviews which his parents took in at the Mill-House. Saturday was made eventful by its appearance; even Sir Francis interested himself in the full-page studies of actresses and debutantes, the house-party groups and snapshots of celebrities in the Park. . . .

As he climbed into the car Eric was careful to let Sybil see that he was carrying the paper in his hand. She had scarcely wormed her way out of the traffic and shot free along the Melton road before she nodded towards the bulging strap of his despatch-box.

"Is that true, Ricky?"

"Is what true?"

"That you're engaged to that woman?"

"Does the paper say so?" Eric enquired loftily. "By the way, Barbara Neave is a great friend of mine, and I don't very much care about hearing her described as 'that woman. . . .' I think the paper only said that 'rumour' had 'been busy with' our 'names.' Rumour's been damnably busy; it won't leave us alone!"

His sister was silent for some moments.

"I hope to Heaven you're not going to make a fool of yourself with her," she exclaimed at length. "She'll wear you out, spoil your work, make you bankrupt in a month——"

"Isn't this rather sweeping about some one you've never even met?" Eric interposed gently.

"You take such jolly good care that we shouldn't meet her," Sybil answered at a tangent.

While he dressed for dinner Lady Lane came into his bedroom, more diplomatic but no whit less insistent. As his mother, she was prepared to make the best of everything and to suppress her own feelings; but, if Eric had committed a crime, he could not have felt greater distaste in putting her off with half-truths.

"You'll tell us—when there's anything to tell?" begged his mother, as they went down to dinner; and Eric felt that he might have saved his elaborate prevarications for a more gullible audience. Sir Francis made no direct allusion throughout the week-end, but, as they sat over their wine on the first night, he enquired spasmodically how old Eric was, how much money he had made during the last year and what literary ventures he had in contemplation.

It was a relief to walk over to Red Roofs next day and have tea with Agnes Waring and her father. For an hour he was spared even indirect references to the unhappy interview, though in his over-sensitive condition he fancied that Agnes was unwontedly frigid in manner, as though a new barrier had been placed between them. Conversation centred about her brother. Humanly speaking, he would be released from Switzerland within a few weeks and would come either to Paris or London; he was, of course, debarred from active service, but the War Office would no doubt test his capabilities of health and brain either in Whitehall or at the Ministere de la Guerre. Eric could count on seeing him almost any day—in England, or, if he could invent a mission, in Paris.

Only when she had walked through the garden to send him on his way across the fields did Agnes touch on the offending article. They were standing on opposite sides of a sun-dial at the end of a fruit-walk; and both were recalling the earlier Sundays when Eric had asked with sympathetically lowered voice: "No news of Jack, I suppose?"

"You're looking as if you wanted a holiday," Agnes volunteered.

"I've been rather worried lately," Eric answered vaguely.

"Not about that——" She looked at him and moved round, slipping her hand through his arm. "I shouldn't worry about a thing like that! She's so well-known that the papers are on to her like cats on a mouse. . . . I liked her that night I met her, Eric."

"It makes my relations with her rather difficult," he laughed.

"But all you've got to do is not to meet her!" Agnes explained in a tone of convincing reason.

"She's—one of the greatest friends I've got," he said.

Agnes rubbed gently at the tarnished motto on the dial.

"That makes it rather difficult, of course," she said at length.

And then it seemed easiest for him to shake hands and walk away without adding anything.

His family by itself on one side, Agnes by herself on the other would not have spurred Eric to action. He was precipitated by the felicitations of an almost complete stranger in the train on Monday morning and held to his course by a succession of congratulatory notes and telephone messages.

"I don't know," he wrote to Barbara on reaching home, "whether you have seen this week's 'World and His Wife.' There's a rather broad hint at our engagement, and I'm receiving congratulations. Isn't this a golden opportunity for publishing the news?"

Barbara's reply was tuned to an uncompromising note which Eric had met but once before—at the beginning of his last illness, when he had threatened to go away from her and the threat had misfired; when, too, he—"one of our conquerors"—had broken down and cringed to her; and she, with drawn cheeks and leaden eyes, had laid his head on her bosom and caressed him, not as a conqueror or a lover, but as a tired, sick child.

"I am so very miserable," she wrote. "Sometimes I could almost wish to die—just to get us all out of this terrible tangle. You'd be happier—after a time, when you'd got over the first feeling of loss and loneliness; and, however lonely and unhappy you'd be without me, it would be nothing to the misery I should bring you, if we were foolish enough to marry. Let me be your devoted, your very loving, very grateful friend! If you try to marry me, you'll be marrying my name, my voice, my clothes, my body; you won't be marrying me; you'll waste your divine love on a woman whose soul is at the other end of the world. Whatever happens, I must do you a hideous wrong."

Eric read the letter three times and left it unanswered.

A very little more of this erotic battledore-and-shuttlecock would send them both out of their minds. It was a mistake to write, when both needed a holiday. He telephoned to his agent and walked to Covent Garden for a consultation about the lecturing-tour in America.

"I'm worn out, I must have a complete change," said Eric. "And I want to start at once."

Grierson was surprised out of his habitual placidity by the nervous vehemence of Eric's manner.

"You'll need a month or two to prepare your lectures," he pointed out.

"You can begin making the arrangements immediately. London's getting on my nerves rather. Three months in the country, three months out there—oh, the war may be over by then. . . . I'm sick of England. . . . If the war's still going on, I shall stay away and go on to Japan. You'll fix that, Grierson?"

He jumped up restlessly and was starting for the door when his agent recalled him.

"Are you in a hurry?" he asked. "There are one or two things I want to talk to you about. Rather good news," he added. "Staines have accepted your novel on our terms. I had a fight over the advance, but your name carried you through."

Eric was not interested in the figures. He was recalling the mood in which he had sent the manuscript to Grierson, when he was working under inspiration. He had grudged the hours wasted on sleep and food when he might have been working for Barbara.

"I seem to have more money than I know what to do with," he answered shortly. "By the way, has Manders given tongue yet about the play?"

"'Mother's Son'? Yes, I wrote you last night. Didn't you get my letter? Oh, he's quite enthusiastic about it. He suggests a few small changes——"

"Manders would," Eric rejoined from habit rather than resentment. He did not care if he never wrote another play; he did not care if they returned to him battered and dog's-eared after months of delay and desultory travel—as in the old days. Manders might cut the thing about to the top of his vulgar Philistine bent.

"He wants to begin rehearsing at once," Grierson went on slowly. "And the 'Divorce' is being revived at the Emperor's. You'll have three plays running in London at the same time."

"I'm not going to stay in England to please Manders," Eric interrupted.

"He'd like to have a talk with you about it before you leave London," said Grierson.

Eric caught himself yawning. It was such futility to discuss a play in which he had lost all interest.

On his return, he yawned again over his letters. It was futile to hear from people in whom he had lost all interest, though a Swiss stamp and a hand-writing which he had almost forgotten quickened the beating of his heart.

"My dear Eric," he read.

"Your letter was a joy to me! Please go on writing. You cannot imagine how home-sick I feel. I want the smell of London again, I want to hear people talking my own language and I want to see 'em in bulk, drifting slowly down the Strand from the Temple. Do you remember the old days when we lived together in Pump Court? I want to go and lunch at the club again and have a little dinner at the Berkeley, say, and go on to a theatre, decently dressed with other people decently dressed too. There's a chance—one lives on hope from day to day—that I may be sent home; I don't seem to be getting any better here: all goes well for a time, and then I get such a head-ache as I would not sell for the minted wealth of the world. Of course, that makes work of any kind rather a problem, and I see myself looking out for a job which I can do at my own convenience, when I feel up to it. The bar doesn't look particularly hopeful, if I'm unable to last out a long case or if I can't appear at all; I'm afraid my standing's hardly good enough to convince any one if I say I've got a case in another court. I think you'll have to expound to me the whole art of writing plays; that's the sort of thing for my one-hour-on-and-six-hours-off condition.

"You're such a celebrity nowadays that I suppose you simply won't look at your humble friends! I saw your first thing the last time I was home—it seems like the Dark Ages now, before my little sojourn in Mittel-Europa. I imagine you're sick of hearing it praised, especially by people who don't know anything about it, but I thought it was an amazingly good play. The moment I was within range of English papers—this was before I got your letter—I went through the advertisements to see if you were still 'drawing all London' (I believe that's the phrase) and found that yet another was going very strong. You seem to have struck oil. The best of good luck to you.

"There's really nothing to tell you about this place. I believe you know Chateau d'Oex; well, there's a little colony of British prisoners of war here, some more knocked about than others, but all pretty glad to be out of Hunland. The Swiss gave us a great reception, and we're allowed pretty fair liberty, though we can't wander at large over the whole of Switzerland. The War Office is very busy trying to start industries out here to keep the men employed and to give training to the unskilled so that they'll have something to do when they're discharged. You may remember that before I was called, I spent a year with a firm of chartered accountants, so I'm supposed to know something of book-keeping. I don't put a very high price on my service, however, because my attendance is rather erratic.

"I suppose it's out of the question for you to come here? Yet a holiday would do you good, I'm sure. If you can't manage it, we must wait till the end of the war or till I'm sent back. And then I dine with you—sumptuously—and make you take me to the latest of your popular successes.

"Write again, old man. Your letter did me no end of good.

"Ever yours

"Jack Waring."

Eric read the letter twice and then locked it in a drawer. It was characteristic of the writer in that he said hardly anything of himself. That might have been expected, and there was no need to be frightened by the hand-writing. A moment later he unlocked the drawer and enclosed the letter in a note to Barbara, reminding her that he had long ago promised to let her have any news that came to him. The promise was before their engagement; but the letter would shew her that Jack was capable of writing.

A week later Jack wrote again.

"I've been shifted to Paris, no longer a prisoner of war, but a more or less free man. I could probably get discharged to-morrow, if I liked, but the army does pay me SOMETHING, and I haven't yet found anything else that will.

"For the last fortnight I've been doing a turn of French-Without-Tears as an interpreter at the MINISTERE DE LA GUERRE. There was so little work to do that the job suited me rather well. Alas! it suited equally well certain others who had a better claim to it, and I'm being transferred to England next week with a vague promise of some light duty at the War Office. The best thing about the new arrangement is that I shall be at home and shall have a chance of seeing you. 'Mr. Eric Lane, the well-known dramatist and author, in his charming Ryder Street residence.' As you probably know, the papers have been full of you; the gaping world now knows to the last inch of your benevolent smile exactly how you work and smoke a cigarette and dress and have your pyjamas laid out. If the photographs are at all good, you seem to have got rather a comfortable billet. Talking of which, if you hear of any cheap and handy rooms within a hundred miles of Whitehall, you might keep me in mind. People out here tell me that London's rather congested. . . ."

There was a chance, Eric reflected, that Jack might have glanced at the pictures in "The World and His Wife" without troubling to read the letter-press. It was so unlikely as not to be worth entertaining. That he had read of the rumoured engagement was as certain as that he made no comment upon it.

Whether he had seen it or not was trivial. All this pernickety analysis was flooded by the overwhelming fact that Jack was coming home. Germany, Switzerland, Paris, London; nearer and nearer. Within seven days he might be taking train for Crawleigh—to shew what was left of him and to ask whether Barbara wished to withdraw her promise. Within six days she might be begging to be set free, appealing to Eric's love and magnanimity. . . .

He determined that, if they were to play battledore-and-shuttlecock with their capability for self-sacrifice, he would strike the first blow and stand ready to see what return she would make.

"Darling Babs, it's essential that I should see you for a moment," he wrote. "And that as soon as possible. Are you going to be in London next week? If so, please fix your own time. If not, what about this? I'm going down to Lashmar for the week-end and, if you can meet me for thirty seconds at Crawleigh station, I'll come straight on to you on Saturday and then get a train back to Winchester. I can't come to the Abbey, obviously, or every one would want to know what was up. The business in hand won't take a moment to discuss, but it's ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE that we should discuss it at once."

As he posted the letter, Eric was conscious that he could have said all that was necessary without a meeting, but he knew well that it was far easier for her to be collected and valiant on paper and at a distance. If Barbara chose to accept his sacrifice, she should do it in his presence, looking into his eyes.

"Has something awful happened?" she wrote in reply. "You do FRIGHTEN me so, when you write like that! I have to come up on Sunday for a charity concert at the Olympic, where I'm a patroness or something. If you really want to see me for only a moment, is it possible for you to meet me at Winchester? The train gets in at 12.29 and leaves at 12.33 (aren't I getting clever with the time-table? As a matter of fact I made father's secretary work it all out for me). If you'd like to wait on the platform, I'll put my head out of the window and we can be together for a moment. Dear Eric, I do hope you're not in any kind of trouble! When you become telegraphic in manner, I always grow nervous. Barbara."

There was suppressed excitement at the Mill-House on Saturday night, when he put in a claim for the car, announced his intention of driving himself and instructed the maids with unusual particularity to see that he did not oversleep himself.

"We're being very mysterious," murmured Sybil.

Eric smiled and said nothing.

He went to bed early in hope that a long night's rest would steady his nerves for an interview which would not be the less trying for its brevity and which, he now saw, had been made inevitably dramatic. It was a perfect autumn morning, as he climbed into the car, with a scented mist rising before his eyes, under the mild warmth of a November sun; Lashmar Woods flaunted their last dwindling recklessness of colour, from ivy-green through fading red to russet and lemon-yellow. He had a rare feeling of peace, as he surrendered to the voiceless magic of the still countryside and to whimsical memories of his own childhood. Life was so much simpler then! Life would again be so much simpler when he had Babs driving by his side. . . . (If he could only drag her from the train and take her home to astonish and subjugate his parents! It would be worth a little mystery to effect that!)

If she dropped like a stone out of his life, he would raise both hands to Heaven and pray God to take away his reason and draw a sponge across his memory. . . .

Barbara was leaning out of the window, as the train drew into the station. Eric ran to her compartment; but for a time they were victimized by the nervous antics of an old lady with cumbrous luggage, who stood in the doorway calling with shrill helplessness for a porter.

"I see your play's going to be produced at the end of the month," said Barbara, waving her hand towards a paper on the opposite seat.

"Are you coming with me to the first night?" he asked.

"Of course!" She watched the departure of the old lady with ill-suppressed eagerness. "Thank goodness, she's gone! What is it, Eric? Why did you want to see me like this?"

"I always want to see you!" he laughed uneasily. Ever since he received her letter, he had been rehearsing an effective little speech; but it was gone from his mind now, and he found himself nervously clearing his throat. "Babs, I'm in rather a hole and I want to do the right thing. For some reason you always talk about my generosity. I've been thinking it over. . . . You're absolutely free, Babs."

"But—why?" she asked blankly.

"Before writing to you, I'd heard from Jack. He'll probably be in England within a week. I—don't want you to feel . . ." He had to leave the sentence unfinished.

Barbara had become very pale and for a moment she said nothing.

"This—doesn't mean that you're—saying good-bye?" she faltered.

"It's a present, not an ultimatum," Eric answered sharply.

So she could still try to make the best of both worlds.

"You've always been wonderfully generous!" she whispered. "I can never repay you."

From her tone and phrasing Eric knew that he had failed. His own sacrifice neither stirred nor shamed her into equal generosity; the volley was over, and the shuttlecock had dropped to the ground.

"Have you tried?" he asked sharply.

There was a whistle and a jolt, as the train began to move. Eric stepped off the foot-board, raised his hat slightly and turned on his heel. Mechanically he set his watch by the station clock. The train had come in late, but it was leaving on time.

"Rather less than two minutes, if anything," he murmured, as he started the engine. "Five weeks since we became engaged. . . ."

Half-way home he steered for a government lorry which was standing unattended by the side of the road. Something older and stronger than himself paralyzed the malevolent muscles of his arm, and the car swerved into safety. . . .

* * * * *

"The slavery of centuries and her own short-lived blooming have robbed woman of open initiative in sex-warfare: she forces man to make the attack, pretending indifference or ignorance. Instead of striking a bargain, she then insists on nominal surrender, which never deceives her. But she is deceived by her own false valuation; she can only see herself in the image that she makes for the beguilement of man. Vanity is the strongest thing of all."—From the Diary of Eric Lane.



CHAPTER NINE

THE EDUCATION OF BARBARA NEAVE

"The mob decrees such feat no crown, perchance, But—why call crowning the reward of quest?" ROBERT BROWNING: "Aristophanes' Apology."

1

In the second week of November Manders began to rehearse "Mother's Son," and, after two attendances, Eric retired to Lashmar for uninterrupted work on his American lectures. Jack might reach London any day, and he could not face a meeting nor wait to be told of an encounter between Jack and Barbara. His own rash magnanimity had set her free and kept him in chains; he had always been so indulgent that he more than half suspected a strain of kindly contempt in her; she had once told him that they would be miserable together because he would always be too gentle to keep her in order. . . . Any day now might see him dismissed like an outworn servant.

With native caution he did not pledge himself to stay at Lashmar for a specified time; that would depend on Jack, on Barbara, on his own work and a dozen other things. It was essential that he should keep himself posted regularly in Jack's movements, and he walked over to Red Roofs on the morrow of his arrival. Agnes gave him all the information that she possessed, but gave it with reservation, as though she were conferring a favour; and, when he left, she walked with him to the gate of the woods and blurted out that she was engaged to Dick Benyon. As he congratulated her, Eric remembered their last parting by the sun-dial, when she had told him not to worry even if gossiping papers coupled his name with Barbara's, when she had pointed out, too, that they could end the gossip in a day by ceasing to meet. She did not seem extravagantly happy; each had lost the other without finding the perfect substitute; but Agnes, with greater wisdom than he had ever shewn towards Barbara, had resolved that a secondary place was not enough.

After that he avoided the Warings, but Sybil returned one night from Red Roofs with a report that Jack was expected there within three days. He had seen a specialist in London and was forbidden to attempt any brain-work for three months; even the easy experiment in Paris had been a mistake. Eric's mind was busy with excuses to get back to London, for with Jack as his neighbour, invalided and bored, it would be necessary to see him daily. The Lanes were, fortunately, too much absorbed in their own life to be suspicious of sudden changes in Eric's plans; affectionate regret greeted his announcement that he was returning to London after the week-end, and his sense of the dramatic was grimly amused by the thought that his train would pass Jack's somewhere between Basingstoke and Brooklands. . . . He might almost be a criminal fleeing from justice.

A note from Jack lay on his hall table, regretting that they had not met, but promising to walk over to the Mill-House the moment that he arrived. It was followed by another, full of mock-indignation.

"If you don't want to see me, you needn't," he wrote. "But for Heaven's sake don't bolt to the country the minute you hear I'm coming to London and then bolt back to London the minute you hear I'm going to the country."

Of course it was all badinage; and yet, if Jack knew everything, the badinage might cover an atrocious hint of his knowledge. . . .

"I'm losing my sense of reality!" Eric muttered.

The same post brought him a long letter from his mother. Jack had come to tea on the day of his arrival looking very well, on the whole, though the wound on his head was still visible.

"He wants to see you," wrote Lady Lane, "and he particularly asked when you would be down here again. I'm afraid poor Jack is in for rather a dull time. He was hoping so much to be well enough to work, and the sentence of three months' complete rest is a great disappointment; but, if he'll feed up and rest, there's no reason why he shouldn't be as well as he ever was; I'm glad to say that his uncle has behaved quite well. After doing NOTHING all these years for him or Agnes or his own brother, he has at last shewn some decent feeling. If Jack has to be a partial invalid all his life, Lord Waring will give him whatever money's necessary to let him live anywhere he likes and take up any hobby he likes; if he wants to marry (I can't imagine that of Jack), there'll be a proper settlement. . . ."

If Jack, who was certainly not going to be a pauper, probably not even an invalid, had passed through London without coming to see Barbara, that meant that he did not want to see Barbara. Perhaps he had seen her. . . .

Eric telephoned to Berkeley Square and found his voice greeted with surprise and apprehensive pleasure.

"I thought you were in the country! You are getting restless, Eric! When did you come up?"

"Only two days ago. Babs . . . Jack's in England; he called here during the week-end, but of course I was away. I . . . I thought you'd like to know."

"Thank you, Eric," she answered quietly.

There was a pause which neither liked to break. At last Eric said:

"He didn't come to see you? Why don't you recognize that it's all over, Babs? You say that your soul isn't yours and that you owe it to Jack; well, he's had the chance to come and claim it."

There was a second pause followed by a sigh.

"It's hard to explain, Eric. You see, only he and I know how much he was in love with me before. I was the only person he'd ever cared for. . . . Even I didn't understand how much he loved me until that night." She sighed again. "I don't believe that, after loving me, he could suddenly cease to love me."

"You gave him pretty good provocation," Eric suggested.

"But you don't cease loving people because they behave badly to you. I've behaved abominably to you. You've given me everything, and all I've done in return is to make you ill and miserable. I've ruined your work, your life—you've told me so, Eric. I've been utterly selfish and heartless. You know I'm vain, you know I'm spoiled, you admit I've behaved atrociously. But you want to marry me in spite of it all."

"I love you in spite of it all."

Barbara said nothing, and her silence was a confession and answer. There were a hundred reasons why Jack had not come to see her yet; his future was uncertain, he must wait for a final verdict from his doctor, he was perhaps still chewing the cud of his resentment. And, when the first reasons were exhausted, her vanity wove a hundred more in stout, impenetrable protection against the fantastic thought that any man could tire of her.

"Oh, I wish you didn't!" Barbara cried at last. "Why don't you go away and forget all about me?"

She had trapped him neatly, as he had no doubt she well knew.

"I can't forget you," he answered, savagely conscious that he was presenting her with new weapons. "Whatever you did, you'd be the biggest thing in my life; I should always need you."

This time she put her triumph into words.

"Don't you think that Jack may need me as badly?"

"He's had his chance. . . ."

Eric discovered suddenly that the wire had ceased to throb. Evidently she had quietly hung up the receiver. In another moment she could only have offered to say good-bye; and that she would not do. He was beginning to know her moods and her nature very well. . . .

Lighting a cigarette, he was trying to think what he had been doing before their conversation started, when the telephone-bell rang.

"Eric? It's me, darling. We were cut off. Eric, don't be bitter with me. I've never done anything to deserve your love, but it's been so wonderful that I won't allow you to say anything which will spoil it. Some day I think you'll look back on it as the biggest thing in your life."

2

As soon as Manders announced the opening night of "Mother's Son," Eric booked his passage to New York for the following week. For the first time he informed his parents that he was leaving England and gave them to understand that he was very fully occupied. There were a hundred and one arrangements to conclude, fare-wells to take; and, when he applied to Gaisford for a medical certificate, he found himself packed off to bed with orders to stay there till the day of sailing.

"If you'll do what I tell you, I'll do my best for you," said the doctor sternly. "If you won't, Eric, on my honour I'll wash my hands of you. Now, which is it to be?"

"I shall get up for my own first night," said Eric.

"You'll do what I tell you. If you're fit to go, you shall go. But I don't think you'll be in a condition to stand the excitement of it."

Two days later Eric sent a message to Barbara, reminding her that she had promised to come with him to the first night and warning her that in all probability he would not be able to go. The doctor, he explained, insisted on absolute quiet and absence of excitement. It would have been more honest to add that the doctor had forbidden him to see any visitors; but Eric hoped that Barbara would hurry round as soon as she heard that he was ill and before he could tell her that he was not allowed to have her there. It was a bitter disappointment when his secretary brought back a message of sympathy. Later in the day he received a present of carnations and grapes. It was only when Gaisford commented on them next morning that his disappointment was mitigated.

"I saw her the other day," explained the doctor. "She was sorry to hear you were ill. I told her that I wasn't letting you see any one."

"Where did you see her?" Eric asked, trying to keep his voice unconcerned.

"At her house. The moment I'd left you. I've attended her since she was a baby, so I felt I knew her well enough to tell her once again to leave you alone."

Not until the afternoon of the production did Gaisford relax discipline; then he admitted rather grudgingly that Eric might go to the theatre if he refused all invitations to supper and came straight back to bed. He was to dine at home and he would be wise to leave the house before any one could call on him for a speech.

Eric tried to find out whether a box had been reserved for him, but by the time that he had received a reply from the theatre and telephoned to Barbara, she was not to be found. Dinner was an agony which he strove to make as short as possible. Ordinary nervousness was reinforced by bitter contrasts of this evening with the night when "The Bomb-Shell" was produced. Then Barbara had dined with him and sat in his box, comforting him in the torturing first moments before the play had come into its own; (and he had driven a ring into her poor finger). It had been a night of triumph for them both. Never, before or since, had they been nearer. . . .

He arrived at the Regency early enough to find the house almost empty. Hiding himself behind the curtains of his box, he watched the familiar audience settling in place, recognizing friends, waving and calling out whispered greetings. Mrs. O'Rane and Colonel Grayle; Lady Poynter and Gerry Deganway; Lady Maitland and one of her boys. . . . He started and drew farther back, though he was already concealed by the curtains. Barbara had come in with George Oakleigh. They were standing in the gangway, waiting to be shewn their seats. While George disposed of his hat and coat, she threw open her cloak and pinned a bunch of carnations into her dress. They talked for a moment, studied their programmes and began talking again. After a few minutes George produced a pair of opera-glasses and took a leisurely survey of the house. Barbara looked with careless deliberation at the box from which she had watched "The Bomb-Shell"; seeing no one in it, she looked away as deliberately and glanced at the watch on her wrist.

Eric began to open a pile of telegrams. "Good wishes." "All possible success"; such a tribute had meant much to him when his first play was produced. . . . Two thirds of the stalls were full, though no doubt there would still be enough constitutional late-comers to spoil the first five minutes of the play. Why people could not take the trouble . . . He pulled himself up and went back to the telegrams; he would not live through the evening if he began to excite himself like this. But what he wanted was to have Barbara by his side, to feel her lips at his ear and to catch her whisper of love and encouragement—"It's going to be a tremendous success! I will it to be!"

He would like to catch her eye. . . . If the first act went even tolerably, he could allow himself to be seen; perhaps she would come and sit with him for the other two. . . .

The lights were lowered, there was a moment's silence, and the curtain rolled noiselessly up. Eric sat forward with his eyes fixed on the stage. Then, as the first line was spoken, he threw himself back in his chair with a smothered oath. A trim programme-seller was tripping down the gangway with mincing daintiness—down and down to the very front row of the stalls. A party of four stumbled after her, whispering and groping in the darkness, while she gave them programmes and herded them into their seats. There were whispered apologies, as they squeezed in front of their neighbours; whispered thanks as one man stood up, crushing himself back, and another stepped into the gangway to let them pass. At last they were in place! And then it was time for the two women of the party to whisper again, gesticulating for a redistribution of seats. The men fussed and fidgeted, untying their mufflers and rolling up their overcoats. And then it was time for all four to rustle their programmes. Every one was looking at them instead of at the stage; there was nothing else to look at! For three minutes they had blocked the view for everybody behind them!

Eric was looking at them himself, first indignant, then startled. . . . He could guess the identity of the first woman, though he could not see her face; of the others there was no doubt. The refraction of the foot-lights shewed him Agnes Waring, with her father in the next seat; on the other side sat Jack. There was no mistaking him; a white circle, the size of a florin, revealed the mark of his scalp wound. . . .

After drawing back instinctively behind his curtain, Eric leaned an inch forward to steal a glance at Barbara. She was in the third row, six feet behind Jack in a direct line; like every one else she had seen the late-comers, she could not have failed to identify Jack. . . . But there was no sign of embarrassment; she did not lower her eyes or affect absorption in her programme; she was looking at the stage. . . . As in "The Bomb-Shell," there came a sudden laugh, sharp as a dog's bark; it was followed by other single laughs, by a boom of throaty, good-tempered chuckling; and the whole house was warmer. Barbara did not laugh, but her white-gloved hands clapped like a child's. She stopped suddenly and touched George Oakleigh's arm, pointing ruefully to a split thumb. Jack Waring sent up a belated rocket of laughter, which started the general laughter again; Eric saw him burying his head, shamefaced, in his hands; Barbara was peeling off the injured glove.

It was conceivable that she had not seen Jack, for she gave no sign of emotion; and, if she had seen him for the first time in more than two years, this would be the strongest emotion of her life. Yet she was watching eagerly, applauding eagerly, wholly engrossed in the play. Once, when the house was silent and concentrated on the stage, she looked round with her earlier deliberation and let her eyes rest on Eric's box. He started guiltily before remembering that she could not see him. Next she borrowed George's glasses and, after a single glance at the stage, raked the four boxes on either side.

"I propose to give the thing a trial. Every one must admit that the present position is intolerable."

The line told Eric that in twenty seconds the curtain would fall. He had hardly any idea how the play was being received, but, obviously, he must not allow any one to see him; he could not stand mouthing inanities to a box full of people when Jack and Barbara were meeting downstairs or when they met—unexpectedly—in his presence. They were within six feet of each other. . . .

And they would meet within six seconds. . . .

There was a burst of sustained applause as the curtain fell. It rose again on the full company, fell and rose again on McGrath and Helen Graye, Constable and Lillian Hartley, Joan Castle and Manders; fell and rose again on Joan Castle and Manders alone. Evidently this play, too, was a success. The lights remained lowered, and the company came forward to take the calls—with the usual pause before Manders made his appearance, the usual extra half-minute's smiling and bowing. With practised unconcern he looked for a moment toward Eric's box and then looked away again, as though he had never expected to see any one there. With a final low bow he backed up-stage, and the heavy blue curtains tumbled into place at a half-seen movement of his hand.

As the lights went up, Eric watched the customary recrudescence of restlessness. Eager and lazy discussions began; surprised, shrill recognitions volleyed across the stalls; the men looked at their programmes to see how many acts remained and tentatively felt for their cigarette-cases. He saw George Oakleigh lean towards Barbara, glance at his watch and draw himself slowly to his feet. The movement was a signal and spur for a dozen others. Barbara moved into his place and called a greeting to Deganway who was on the opposite side; he stood up and bent over her, swinging his eye-glass.

Suddenly Eric found himself trembling. After the usual uncertainty, which he had been watching with one eye, he saw Colonel Waring and Jack squeezing past their neighbours. As they turned into the gangway, Jack stared slowly round him and raised his eye-brows in faint surprise when he caught sight of Barbara. They exchanged bows, she held out her hand; Colonel Waring was introduced, and Deganway excused himself. A moment later the colonel bowed a second time and withdrew. Barbara pointed to the empty seat by her side, and Jack stepped across her into it.

The whole meeting was incredibly suave and unemotional. They were talking—as any other two people in the theatre were talking—without any great interest. After a few minutes Oakleigh returned and shook hands with noticeable warmth; there was a short triangular conversation before the lights were lowered; then Jack hurried back to his place.

When the curtain went up on the second act, Eric scribbled a note of congratulation and apology and sent it to Manders by the hand of a programme seller. Then he put on his hat and coat and stole out of the theatre.

3

The next morning Eric summoned his solicitor and divested himself of all domestic ties and obligations as completely as if he were leaving for the Front. A power of attorney was to be prepared; the books were to be stored, the wine sold and the flat let if he had not returned from America within a stated period. . . .

"You see, I've more money than I can spend," Eric explained. "It's well invested, so that, if I never do another stroke of work, I shall have something to live on. Well, my health's gone to pieces, and I want a long rest and change. This is my opportunity. I'm thirty-three; and I've seen nothing of the world outside Europe. If I start by touring from end to end of America . . .."

He was almost carried away by his own enthusiasm in sketching out the years of wandering which lay ahead. Central America, South America, the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China, the Dutch East Indies, Burmah, India. . . .

"This is all in confidence, of course," he interrupted himself to say. "I haven't breathed a word to my people."

He lacked courage to tell them that he was never coming back. It would be easier if the advertised three months were dragged out to six, the six to twelve. The shock would be mitigated; and he would escape a scene.

When the solicitor was gone, Eric stumbled out of bed and unlocked the safe in his dining-room. There was an infinity of papers to be destroyed and letters to be written. Lady Maitland attacked him at the ill-disguised prompting of her own conscience:

"Why have you neglected us for so long? I hoped to see you at the theatre last night, but Colonel Grayle told me that he thought you were ill. I'm so sorry; and I hope it's not serious. When you're able to get about again, will you telephone and suggest yourself for dinner? I want to talk to you about your play, which I liked quite enormously. . . ."

So he was to be lionized again—with no one to share his triumphs. . . . The next letter was from Mrs. Shelley; the next from Lady Poynter, proposing a date in the following week and asking him to telephone.

"You can accept all these for me," he told his secretary, "or as many as don't clash with anything else. I—I've got to say good-bye to a lot of people before I start," he added unnecessarily. "Keep next Wednesday free for me; I want to get my people up for that."

If Barbara's engagement was going to be published at once, he felt that he could not meet Jack after all; at one time it had seemed as though nothing mattered, but his self-control would break down at such a test. And Jack's headquarters were presumably still in Hampshire. . . .

There was no letter from Barbara next day; and he searched "The Times" vainly for her name. Lunching with George Oakleigh, he met Deganway who had neither news to impart nor questions to ask; at dinner Mrs. Shelley observed with sublime innocence: "You must have been disappointed not to be able to come the other night. Barbara was there, and it was she who told me you were ill." The next day brought no tidings, and Eric had to exert all his strength to keep from writing. It was inhuman of the girl not to tell him—unless she thought that it would be easier to bear a month later, when he was three thousand miles away.

Four days of silence dulled his capacity for suffering; he felt that he would not disgrace himself even if some one appealed to him as the leading authority on Barbara's movements and asked for news of this most romantic engagement. In a week he would be shivering in the danger-zone, zig-zagging round the north coast of Ireland. The power of attorney only awaited his signature, the papers were busily announcing his departure, farewell letters and invitations were pouring in upon him.

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