There was so much to discuss that he found his family easy to handle. They dined in Ryder Street; and, what with inspecting the flat (which seemed now to belong to some other life) and raining down questions of no importance, they contrived not to ask anything that mattered. Yes, he was going for at least three months—perhaps more, because it would be a pity to get as far as San Francisco without going on to Japan. Yes, he would certainly be grateful for any letters of introduction that his father could give him. Yes, he had bought himself an outfit that would last him for years in all climates. . . .
Amid the primitive interrogation Eric looked up suddenly at his parents and sister. They and the two boys in Salonica and the North Sea were all that he had; he was fond of them, and they were devoted to him. His mother was talking as she had done twenty years ago, when she searched for holes in his underclothes and socks before sending him back to school; but he once caught her looking at him as though she understood. . . . His father had roused from an age-long scholar's dream to remember a friend who was now a professor at Columbia University. Sybil was as much excited as if she had been going in his place. . . . He would never see any of them again, after they had been everything to him all these years! And he was sneaking away without telling them that he would never come back.
"You'll send us a cable to say that you've arrived safely," Lady Lane was saying.
Eric promised quickly and harked back to the letters of introduction. After trying for so long not to think of Barbara, he found that he must not think of his own family. They were still expecting him back in April, "when the weather's a bit more settled."
"I only wish you weren't going so soon," said his mother regretfully. "Geoff's due for leave next month."
"Tell him I was sorry to miss him," Eric answered. "I'm afraid the boat won't wait for me."
He walked back with them to their hotel and said good-bye in the hall, explaining that he was unlikely to see them next day. He had promised to lunch with Manders and to dine with the Poynters; and, though either engagement might have been cancelled, he could not screw himself up to a second parting.
It was curious to feel, as he walked home, that he was beginning the last day of his life in London. Only once more would he unlock the street door and enter the dimly-lit hall which Barbara had invaded fifteen months before. . . . In the morning he bade awkward farewell to his secretary. On his way to luncheon he paused on the steps of the Thespian, trying to see it as a club and not as one of many places where Barbara had telephoned to him. . . . Manders, of course, insisted on a champagne luncheon to wish him Godspeed; at intervals he asked how long the tour was to be; and Eric wondered whether a suicide or a condemned man went through this recurrent sense of parting, recurrently spiced with surprise. He would never sit in the oak-panelled dining-room again, never see Manders again. . . .
Throughout the ritual of the day he could not grow accustomed to saying good-bye. It was all so familiar; he never persuaded himself that everything was over. By an error of judgement he was several minutes late in reaching Belgrave Square, as when first he dined there. Lady Poynter protested that she had given up hope of him. Her husband took him aside to enquire whether he found Gabarnac too sweet, because he had a bottle on which he would value expert opinion. It was all so like the night of fifteen months ago that Eric could not believe his passage was booked and his trunks packed. Lady Poynter began counting her guests with jerks of a fat, slow forefinger. "Two, three, five, seven, nine, eleven. . . . Then there's one more. Ah!"
She looked over Eric's shoulder as the door opened and the butler announced:
"Lady Barbara Neave."
Under the blaze of the chandelier and amid a chorus of "Babs darling!" "Hullo, Babs," Eric found no difficulty in remaining composed. She was the more surprised of the two, for, as soon as she caught sight of him, she turned to Lady Poynter, crying:
"Margaret, you must send him home at once! He's been very ill and he's no business to be out of bed!"
"But he's going to America to-morrow, he was telling us."
For a moment Barbara's face was blank. She recovered quickly and repeated: "To-morrow? I've simply lost all count of time."
"Including dinner, darling," said Lady Poynter, with a meaning glance at the clock.
It was all so familiar that Eric's sense of probability would have been outraged, if he had not been put next to Barbara.
"I'm very glad to see you again, Eric," she whispered: "Dr. Gaisford was so gloomy about you. . . . How long have you been allowed out?"
"Oh, a week."
"And you never told me? You never wrote or telephoned——"
Eric felt his face stiffening into unamiable lines as he remembered the agony of the first four days' silence.
"You never wrote or telephoned to me," he interrupted.
"The doctor told me I mustn't. He put me on my honour. I'm not sure that I didn't really break my word when I sent you those flowers." Her hand stole out and sought his under the table. "Don't you think it would have been kind to let me know? Don't you think it's possible I may have been worrying about you?"
Eric dropped his napkin and picked it up again for an excuse to escape her hand.
"Isn't it rather late in the day to begin worrying?" he asked. The girl winced and bit her lip. "I was only a bit overwrought," he added. "Now I'm rather less overwrought. There was nothing else to tell you."
"About America? I saw it in some paper, but I didn't bother about the date. I didn't think it necessary. Eric—Eric, you weren't going away without saying good-bye?"
He turned upon her so suddenly that she was frozen into silence.
"Would you have had anything to say, if you hadn't promised Gaisford not to communicate with me?"
"The usual things, Eric. I'd have told you what I was doing, I'd have sent you my love. If you're tired of that, darling——"
"Not that, Barbara!"
Her eyes opened wide with distress.
"Eric, what's the matter? What have I done? Mayn't I even call you 'darling' now?"
"Are you being quite honest, Barbara?"
"Thank you, Eric!"
"Have you nothing to tell me since last time?"
She looked at him imperiously and considered her words before speaking.
"The last time we met? Or the last time we corresponded? Which d'you mean? The last time we corresponded was when your secretary telephoned to thank me for the flowers. Before that, you sent me a message by her that you probably wouldn't be well enough to take me to your first night. . . . I'd have come round the evening before if Dr. Gaisford hadn't made me promise not to. I've always said that I'd come to you from the ends of the earth if you were ill. When I heard that you weren't allowed to see any one——"
"It wasn't as bad as that," Eric interrupted. "Gaisford let me get up for the first night. I—caught sight of you in the distance. But I left after the first interval."
From the end of the table Lady Poynter was making desperate attempts to attract Eric's attention.
"Mr. Lane, you're the only person who can tell us this——"
Barbara touched his wrist and nodded past him.
"Margaret's trying to speak to you," she said.
Eric galvanized his attention and turned with a murmur of apology.
"Mr. Lane, is it true that 'Mother's Son' was refused three—times?" Lady Poynter asked. She could not have been more righteously indignant if she had been judging the three denials of Saint Peter. "I've never heard of such a thing!"
"It wasn't quite in its present form," Eric explained. "The theme's the same, but I've rewritten almost every word."
Lady Poynter nodded triumphantly.
"Ah! Then I was right!" she informed her neighbour, and Eric was free to turn again to Barbara.
"Where had we got to?" he asked, after a moment's embarrassed silence.
"You came to the theatre after all. You saw me. You left after the first interval," she reminded him fearlessly. "As you seem to be—drawing an indictment, is that the phrase?—don't you think you'd better go on?"
"There's nothing more to say. Once or twice I wondered whether I should get home alive; and, on my soul, I prayed the whole time that I shouldn't. . . . I'm not drawing an indictment. I rather expected to hear from you. . . . It wasn't easy waiting. . . . As for America, I didn't see how it could possibly interest you. . . ." He broke off and whispered to himself, "God! what those days of waiting were like! I should have thought that, after what you'd been through . . . in common humanity——"
"And if I had nothing to tell you?" she interrupted.
For a moment Eric did not understand her. For all her self-possession, there were shadows under her eyes, and she was haggard as on the night when they first met. Jack's appearance, then, and their conversation together had made no difference . . . no difference one way or the other; she had not telephoned because there was nothing to tell him.
"I don't think I've anything more to say, Babs."
An arm interposed itself between them, and he looked down to see what was being put before him. To his surprise they had only reached the fish. He seemed to have been dining for an eternity!
"D'you care to hear what happened?" she asked.
"What d'you think I'm made of?" he muttered.
Barbara began eating her fish and telling her story at the same time. It was short, and she gave it in jerky little sentences. George Oakleigh had telephoned to say that he had two stalls for "Mother's Son" and would be delighted if she would dine and go with him. . . . They arrived and saw a certain number of friends. . . . At the end of the first act George went out to smoke a cigarette. . . . She had just begun talking to Gerry Deganway when she looked up and caught Jack's eye. . . . They were both so much surprised that they became praeternaturally natural. . . .
"I said: 'I've not seen you for a long time. I heard you were home.' He said: 'I got back a fortnight ago.' I asked him how he was and whether he'd had a very awful time in Germany. . . . And he laughed and said he was glad, on the whole, that it was all over, but that he was a fair German scholar now—or something of that kind—and he'd never have taken the trouble to learn another language if it hadn't been for the war. . . . I think he didn't find it easy to slip away; and I hate people leaning over me, when they're talking, so I asked him to sit down till George came back. Then the only thing we talked about was his being wounded and taken prisoner. I'd heard it all before, of course, but I felt I couldn't bear it if we both stopped talking. . . . Then George came along and shook hands. . . . And a moment later Jack went back to his place. You see, there wasn't very much to tell you."
"But is that all?"
"Absolutely all," she sighed.
Eric lapsed into silence, wishing that his brain were not half paralyzed. Then he glanced round the table, counting their numbers.
"Say you're too tired to play bridge, Babs," he begged. "Or say you want to talk to me before I go away; we're such common property here that no one will be surprised. It's our last chance; we may never meet again——"
"Yes! . . . I haven't told even my own people. This is not blackmail, because I arranged it all before I saw you; I never expected to see you again after that night at the theatre. I was just trying to save something out of the wreckage. . . . I'm going away nominally for three months, but I'm not coming back. I could have got on happily enough, if you'd never come into my life; but, once you were there, I couldn't get rid of you. I couldn't go on living in England with you half a mile away, carved out of my life . . . meeting you, seeing you—and knowing that it was all over. I've looked on you as my wife; if you ran away from me and lived with another man, I couldn't keep on a flat next to yours. . . . I felt it at the theatre; I felt I must clear out; I couldn't sink back to any passionless friendship. So I arranged to go away and stay away. After three months I shall say that I'm going for a holiday in South America—or Japan. I've been moving quickly the last few days. This morning—and this afternoon—I knew that everything I was doing was for the last time. And since I've seen you——"
He looked round apprehensively, fearful that he was being overheard.
"You're going away like this from your people? But they love you, Eric! They're so proud of you! You'll break their hearts!"
"I shouldn't have done it eighteen months ago—before you took my education in hand," he answered bitterly. "I've given myself heart and soul to you."
He hardly cared now whether the servants or his neighbours heard him, and Barbara had to press his knee to restrain him.
"Then will you do something for me?" she asked.
"What is it?"
"I want you to come back. Come back in three months, when they expect you."
"I'm not asking for myself! I'm asking for them. You can't be so wicked! It's not like you; I don't know you when you talk like this. You'd break their hearts!"
"I don't know that this comes well from you, Babs."
"Nothing comes well from me. But, if I can't undo the harm I've done, I may at least stop adding to it. If you don't come back . . . When it's too late, you'll never forgive yourself."
He shook his head and looked at her defiantly.
"You should have thought of that when we first met in this room. Only one thing will bring me back or keep me from going."
"Dear Eric, don't start that again!"
"Thanks! It doesn't amuse me to be strung up and cut down and strung up again. . . . I was facing things—till Lady Poynter shewed the devilish irony to arrange this meeting."
"Won't you come back for my sake?" she whispered.
"To be told that you're going to marry some one else?"
"You may not be told that. I don't know."
Eric was filled with a blaze of anger; he had to pause long before he could be sure of his voice.
"You still don't want to let me go? The pathetic invocation of my mother——"
Barbara tried to speak and then turned away with a helpless shrug. Eric woke from a trance to a thunder of opposing voices. Lady Poynter was retailing the secret history of the latest political crisis and the fall of the Coalition Government. His wheezing, well-fed host was attacking the Board of Trade with ill-disguised venom. "They've cut down imports to such an extent," he was saying, "that in six months' time you won't be able to get a cigar fit to smoke. I went to my man this morning—he's a fellow I've dealt with all my life, and my father before me—he promised me half a cabinet—and then made a favour of it!" Another voice enquired in a drawl: "What is it exactly that you're lecturing on, Mr. Lane?"
Barbara's head was still turned from him, and he resigned himself to the reshuffle, noticing with surprise that a finger-bowl had been placed in front of him. He could not remember having eaten anything since the fish. And he had been drinking the rather sickly Gabarnac without tasting it.
"You asked my opinion of this wine, sir," he said to Lord Poynter, belatedly attentive; in a moment he was swallowed up in a discussion which dragged its way through dessert until Lady Poynter pushed back her chair and rustled majestically to the door.
She was hardly outside the room before his host sidled conspiratorially into the empty chair next him.
"Do you know anything of still champagne?" he enquired darkly, as though he were giving a pass-word.
"I've drunk it, of course," answered Eric.
"Of course?" Lord Poynter echoed. "My dear friend, not one man in twenty thousand of your generation has even heard of still champagne. . . ."
It was all wonderfully like that first night fifteen months before. Lord Poynter explained for the tenth time that he never allowed coffee to be brought in until the port wine had circulated for twenty minutes. Not for the first time he apologized for his brandy, retailed the tragedy of the last bottle of Waterloo and, like a sluggard dragging himself from bed, reluctantly moved the adjournment.
They arrived in the drawing-room to find three tables set for bridge. Though he had asked her to talk to him, Eric was relieved to find Barbara already playing; he had nothing more to say. There was nothing, indeed, to keep a man whose train left Euston before noon next day. He waited till Lady Poynter was dummy and then asked her to excuse him.
"Well, I expect you've a great deal to do," she said, shaking hands reluctantly.
"Oh, Eric, aren't you going to take me home?"
Barbara threw out the question casually, but she found time to look up and beseech him with her eyes.
"Are you going to be long?" he asked in the same tone.
"They're a game and sixteen. If you'll smoke one cigarette . . ."
In the next hand Barbara was dummy. After spreading out her cards, she looked round the room, picked up a review and two library novels from a side table and, after a cursory glance, walked to the piano. The bridge-players looked up, as she began to sing; an impatient, "It's you to play, Lady Poynter," passed unheeded; and, one after another, they laid down their hands.
"One fine day, we'll notice A thread of smoke arising on the sea In the far horizon, And then the ship appearing;— Then the trim white vessel Glides into the harbour, thunders forth her cannon. See you? He is coming! I do not go to meet him. Not I. I stay Upon the brow of the hillock and wait, and wait For a long time, but never weary Of the long waiting. From out the crowded city, There is coming a man— A little speck in the distance, climbing the hillock. Can you guess who it is? And when he's reached the summit Can you guess what he'll say? He will call 'Butterfly' from the distance. I, without answering, Hold myself quietly concealed, A bit to tease him, and a bit so as not to die At our first meeting: and then, a little troubled, He will call, he will call: 'Dear baby-wife of mine, dear little orange-blossom!' The names he used to call me when he came here. . . ."
"My dear, why don't you use that beautiful voice of yours more?" asked Lady Poynter, as she ended.
Barbara's face was in shadow, but Eric could see that she was looking across the room at him.
"Oh, not one person in ten million ever wants me to sing," she laughed, as she came back to the table.
Five minutes later she opened her purse, pushed a note across to Lady Poynter and came up to Eric with a smile of gratitude.
"I hope I haven't been long," she said. "Shall we see if we can find a taxi?"
They crossed Belgrave Square and reached Hyde Park Corner in silence. Then Eric felt a drag at his arm, and Barbara whispered: "I'm so tired!"
"I'm afraid there's not a taxi in sight," he said. "Shall we go by tube to Dover Street?"
"We may meet a taxi. Eric, d'you remember the first time——"
He shook free of her arm, as though it were eating into his flesh.
"You felt the evening wouldn't be complete without that—after 'Butterfly'?" he asked.
Barbara stood still, swaying slightly until he caught her wrist.
"I'm shutting my eyes and thinking of the past, the time when we were happy," she gasped. "I can't face the present."
"You can face it as philosophically as I can," he answered. "If love were stronger than vanity . . . I don't blame you. I only blame myself because I was fool enough to believe a woman's word, fool enough to think that, if I gave her everything, she might give me something in return; that, if I shewed her enough magnanimity, I might shame her into being magnanimous. I was hopelessly uneducated in those days."
Barbara held up her hands as though each word struck her in the face.
"D'you want to part like this?" she whispered. "Wouldn't you rather remember the times when I came to you and cried—and you made me happy? I came to you when I was ill; and you just kissed me or stroked my forehead, and I was better. And once or twice, when you were ill, I came to you and laid your head on my breast. . . . Wouldn't you rather remember that, darling?"
"If I could only forget it, I shouldn't regret so bitterly the day when we first met."
She swayed again and caught hold of the wooden standard of a porter's rest. There was still no taxi in sight; Eric felt her pulse and dived into his pocket for a flask. He had never before noticed the rest of its inscription in honour of R. A. Slaney, for twenty-six years Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury. . . .
"Take a sip of this," he ordered.
She drank obediently and thanked him with her eyes.
"I'm better. The first time we met I was fainting in the train. Before I knew you. . . . And I loved you and dreamed of your love for me. I used to hear your voice. . . . No one will ever look after me as you've done; no one will ever understand or love or make allowances for me——"
As he restored the flask to his pocket, Eric saw that the time was within a few minutes of midnight; in less than twenty-four hours he would be at Liverpool; in less than twenty-four minutes he would have lost the thing that was dearest to him in life.
"Barbara, you've seen Jack," he said. "He had his chance; he neglected it. There's the answer we've been waiting for all these weary months. I don't want to worry you when you're ill, but I can't charge my own conscience with the knowledge that I've left undone anything which will stop the present tragedy."
Though she opened her eyes slowly, there was now no trace of faintness or exhaustion.
"He never had a chance! Eric, if you'll think for one moment—in a crowded theatre, with people listening all round——"
"He could have written the moment he left Germany. He could have written or seen you any time since that night. On the night itself he could have asked you to let him come and see you. He didn't raise a finger! And you still hypnotize yourself with one excuse after another—How much longer are you going on?"
"I don't know, Eric." She covered her eyes for a moment and then rose to her feet. "I'm bound in honour, as I've told you a hundred times. When I know definitely——"
"Anything you know will have to be known to-night."
"But if you found a cable waiting for you in New York——"
"It would tell me what I know already—plus the fact that your vanity had been convinced in spite of itself."
"I prefer 'honour' to 'vanity.'"
"Hadn't we better leave 'honour' out of the discussion?"
She looked at him for a moment, her mouth tightly shut; then, declining his arm, she began walking slowly eastward. Opposite Bath House Eric hailed an empty taxi and told the driver to take them to Berkeley Square.
"You wouldn't like me to drop you in Ryder Street?" Barbara asked.
"Not even to gratify your love of artistic finish."
"How you hate me!" she whispered with a catch in her breath.
"No, I love you as much as ever; I need you more than ever. Whatever happens to you, I wish you all happiness. You once undertook my education, but I can tell you that you'll never find the happiness I'm wishing you till you learn to sink yourself and think of other people."
Barbara looked at him like a startled animal, then looked away.
"Haven't I sunk myself, haven't I thought of Jack before any one else for two and a half years?" she whispered.
"No, you've thought solely of yourself—with Jack as a limelight. At this moment you're thinking less of Jack or me than of your amour propre."
"You must be thankful to be rid of me after the way I've sacrificed you to my vanity."
"You'll outgrow your vanity."
"Perhaps Jack still wants me in spite of the way I've behaved to him."
"Perhaps so. I shan't be here to see."
The taxi turned into Berkeley Street, and Eric held out his hand.
"Good-bye, Barbara," he said.
"Won't you come in for a moment?"
"No, thank you."
"Eric, you must! There's something I want to say to you! Eric, I beg you to come in."
He opened the door without answering and stood on the kerb, ready to help her out. She delayed so long that the driver turned curiously round.
"Eric, please!" she entreated.
"Have you your latch-key?"
She gave a choking sob, as she mounted the steps, and Eric set his teeth; suddenly losing control, she gripped him by the arm.
"Eric, you're not going to-morrow!"
"Indeed I am."
"That's immaterial. Good-bye."
He returned to the taxi and pressed himself into the corner, staring ahead so that he should not see the familiar ermine coat on the door-step. Barbara fumbled blindly with the lock and spun round, as the taxi began slowly to turn. As the driver changed speed, she dropped her key and ran twenty yards down the square, crying "Eric!"; but the grinding of the gears drowned her voice.
The tail-light dwindled to a ruby pin-point and vanished. . . .
The telephone-bell was ringing, as Eric entered his flat. He unhooked the receiver and tossed it on to his bed; but after a moment's silence there broke out a persistent metallic buzzing, while the bells in the other rooms rang with all their accustomed clarity. He began to undress; but the merciless noise racked his nerves. There was nothing for it but to tie a handkerchief round the clapper of the bell. . . .
Then he threw himself in shirt and trousers on the bed and buried his face in his hands.
* * * * *
"A man does not continue drinking corked champagne. With women, his palate is less critical."—From the Diary of Eric Lane.