On opening the door, he saw at once that her face was disturbed.
"What is it?"
"It's something to do with him, sir."
It was evident that for Ann there was only one him in the world.
"Well, what of him?"
Ann commenced speaking slowly. Under the stress of her nervousness she forgot the correct demeanor for a high-class parlor-maid and became a country girl, twisting the corner of her white, starched apron in her hands.
"I was noticing the address on that letter your Lordship gave me to post." Tabs thought quickly, "Hullo, we're in for it. That was foolish of me. She's put two and two together."
But Ann reassured him in her next sentence. "It was to a General at the War Office and I was thinking that he might help. Braithwaite and I had an understanding. I'm not saying we were engaged; we weren't. We didn't tell anybody. But we'd made up our minds to get married if he ever came back. If I'd been engaged to him, I'd have a right to make enquiries; but now, in most people's eyes, I was nothing to him. That's—that's the hardest part of it. You see, sir, he was never reported dead or missing or anything. I just stopped hearing from him. So I thought that if this General was your Lordship's friend——"
Tabs' brain had been working. He already had a plan. "You thought that I might persuade him to use his influence to have the records searched?"
She glanced up hopefully. "That's what I was thinking. Would he do it for your Lordship? I don't know how to set about things myself. It's this—this," she almost broke down, "this uncertainty that's a-killing of me. Sister knows about her man, but I——"
Tabs saw the redness of sleeplessness in her eyes; it was true—the uncertainty was killing her. "Don't upset yourself by talking about it," he said kindly. "I'll write to the General and post my request on my way out."
He had supposed he had dismissed her and had seated himself at his desk. A sound behind him warned him; he looked across his shoulder to find her still hovering in the doorway.
She answered his unspoken question as to why she was delaying. "Aren't there any particulars that your Lordship ought to have? Things like his regimental number, and his birthday, and where he was born, and all that? And wouldn't this help?"
She pulled out from her apron-pocket an envelope. "It's one of his letters. If the General was to see it, he'd know I had the right."
"May I glance through it?"
Tabs unfolded the scribbled sheets of paper. They were torn from an Army note-book.
_"My darling Ann:
The jolly old war drags on and seems as though it were never going to end. Not that I've much to kick about, for it's proved a chance for me. Here's the great news. I'm in for my commission and shall soon be 'an officer and a gentleman.' Don't tell his Lordship if you write to him or see him; he's still in the ranks and might not like it. It's funny to think that I shall be his military superior before many weeks are out and that, were he and I to meet, he'd have to salute me. If I come through the war, I sha'n't go back to being a valet. Once having been a gentleman——"_
Tabs ran rapidly through this sheet and turned to the next:—
_"You're wonderfully good. I got the socks that you knitted and the two parcels of food from Harrods. You mustn't spend so much of your money on me. When it's all ended, I'll pay you back. We'll get married and have a little cottage in a little town, the way the song says that we heard together at the Comedy on my last leave. You remember how it goes.
'And we'll have a little mistress in a silken gown. A little doggie, a little cat, A little doorstep, with WELCOME on the mat.'
"My dearest sweetheart, I love you.
"Yours, in the pink, etc."_
Tabs looked up. "May I keep this for the present?—And, by the way, how many more of them have you?"
"Nearly a hundred from the day he enlisted. That's one of the last—I never heard from him whether he lived to get his commission."
When she had vanished, he reread the letter more carefully, made a copy of it and slipped the copy into another envelope addressed to General Braithwaite, together with a note from himself, which read, "One of the important reasons why I am insistent that you shall call on me is contained in the enclosed copy of one of your many letters, the originals of all of which are in my possession. To a man of honor it speaks for itself."
At the red pillar-box, at the foot of the Square, he posted this second missive. "He'll receive them both by the first delivery to-morrow," he thought. "I wonder what he'll—— Rotten! But it can't be helped." Then he turned to the right by the Tube Station, going up the narrow old world passage, behind the backs of houses, through the graveyard of the Brompton Parish Church to Ennismore Gardens and the sudden, railed in solitudes of Hyde Park.
There were few pedestrians about. Until he reached the Park they were for the most part men in evening-dress, going to dinner-parties, like himself. Sometimes they were accompanied by their wives or sweethearts, whose little high-heeled shoes made a sharp tap-a-tap against the pavement. Lamps were lighted. The reluctant twilight was gradually fading; the sunset still glowed faintly above clustered chimney-pots to the west. "I'm going to meet Terry," he told himself. "If the day had worked out as I'd planned, I should be going to ask for her hand in marriage—— When I planned that, I still believed that I was young."
Then he thought forward. Sir Tobias, from the moment he entered, would be scheming to get him to himself. Sir Tobias must be avoided. Directly dinner was ended, he would try to hurry him off and imprison him in his library to discuss this Maisie woman and Adair. Still he was going to see Terry; merely to see her was a compensation which stirred his blood.
He crossed the Serpentine, stretching like a phantom lake, rose and slate-colored, through the Peter Pan haunted glades of Kensington Gardens. Then he emerged from the Victoria Gate and found himself ringing a bell and being admitted by a butler, who relieved him of his coat and hat with the velvet-plush manner of a fashionable surgeon feeling a patient's pulse.
"If you will come this way, Sir Tobias is waiting for your Lordship in the library."
It was happening precisely as he had foreseen; it was being taken for granted that he had come as her father's friend, and therefore in some absurd measure as his contemporary.
As he prepared to follow, his attention was attracted by the scarlet band and gold braid about an officer's cap which was lying carelessly on the hall-table beside a pair of dog-skin gloves.
Sir Tobias was standing astride the hearth-rug with his back towards the fire. As the door opened, he was caught in a last nervous adjustment of his tie.
He was a little man, inclined to be podgy, brimful of a darting kind of energy and dignified with an air of fussy distinction which none of his antics, however grotesque, could diminish. He was Shakespeare as he might have appeared at sixty, after years and a return to Ann Hathaway had quenched the taller flames of his poetic fire. The resemblance was haunting and remarkable: there underlay it a hint of gnome-like agility. One suspected that he affected age as a disguise. The pointed beard was white; the scanty hair had receded from the calm forehead; the eyes were blue and faded, and red about the rims with over-much study. The top part of the face above the cheek-bones was noble; but the lower part fell away to a mouth and chin which were amiable and undecided. At the hour of Tabs' arrival, he was flinging up his hands and spluttering impotently, an inexpert swimmer in the waters of adversity.
"My dear Lord Taborley! My dear fellow!" The moment he discovered his guest in the doorway he came darting forward. "My dear boy, this is real friendship. We missed you and wanted you so much.—So you're out of it at last? I mean the khaki."
The little, wrinkled hand with its stubby fingers reached up timidly in an attempt to pat the big breadth of shoulders.
"Yes, I'm out of it, Sir Tobias."
Tabs didn't want to be patted. He was impatient of polite evasions. He foresaw that he was expected to spend the next five minutes in replying to questions which required no answers—all this as a conventional preface to a discussion of the delicate position of Adair and Maisie. But Tabs had his own problem, and one question in particular about a hat on the hall-table that he was burning to ask. They stood staring at each other, the big, fair man and the worn version of Shakespeare, both wondering how long it would be decorous to chatter before they clinched with the vital topic.
"May as well sit down. There's time for a cigarette. Terry——" Sir Tobias made a short-winded attempt to push a second arm-chair into place beside the fire; Tabs achieved the desired end with one lurch of his body. "Terry brought some one in to tea; he's not gone yet. They never know when to go, these New Army fellows. Good at their job, they tell me, but no polish. I suppose I oughtn't to say that—ungrateful of me! But I'm sick of it all, the invasion of the classes, the women in trousers, the beggars on horseback, the Jazz music. I want the old world back—the womanly women, everybody labeled, and Beethoven."
He pushed the cigarette-box fretfully across to Tabs, having first selected one for himself.
"Beethoven," he snorted, "that's what I want, and no bobbed hair and everybody happily married."
"This New Army chap who's with Terry," Tabs paused to make his voice unanxious and ordinary, "does she see much of him? Is she fond of him?"
"Fond of him!" The little man jerked round quickly. He was in a mood to see the shadow of terror in the most far-fetched suggestion. "If I thought she was, I should pack her off to Lady Dawn and keep her with her until the fellow was dead or——"
"What's the matter with him?" Tabs flipped the ash off his cigarette indifferently.
"The matter with him!" Sir Tobias pulled at the point of his beard, making a mental effort to frame the charge. "If you'd asked me that question five years ago I could have told you; but not now. In 1914 we spoke of a man as belonging to our class and meant that he had our standards of conduct, our code of honor, our sense of public duty, our traditions—that he could be trusted to run true to form. To-day any man's a gentleman, provided he killed enough Germans."
"But still you do feel that there's something the matter with him."
"Yes, but I can't tell you for the life of me why I feel it. In many ways he's admirable: I believe he's about the youngest brigadier we have who rose from the ranks. There was no hanky-panky about his promotion either—no petticoat influence; it was all sheer merit and courage. He was a fighting-man from first to last and shared all the chances. But the trouble is that one doesn't know where he came from, and, therefore, one can't be sure where he's going. I know that sounds snobbish. You have the right to tell me that if a man was good enough to be butchered to save an old chap like myself, he ought to be good enough to sit down with me at the same table. But what people don't realize is that men have been wounded in protecting old chaps like myself in coal-mines, and on railroads, and a thousand other places ever since the world started, but until now we never felt it necessary to offer them a bed in our houses. War asked for the simplest gifts from men, physical strength, uncomplaining endurance and courage. The war's ended, and if those same gifts are to continue to secure social advancement, every policeman who captures a burglar ought to be made a bank-president. When I demand that a man shall have traditions to be my friend, I ask no more than when I refuse to buy a dog without a pedigree."
"But this man, what's he called? If he's as distinguished as you say, I ought to have heard of him."
Before his host could answer, the door was discreetly opened. "Dinner is being served, Sir Tobias."
There was a rush of light footsteps and Terry breezed past the butler. "I know you're going to scold me, Daddy. It's all my fault that you were kept waiting. It took me so long to persuade General Braithwaite. By the time he'd consented—— I had to dress like a hurricane. I'm not at all sure that I'm properly hooked up the back. I know I feel draughty." Then, as though she had not remembered that he was expected, "Why, hullo, Tabs! In a dinner-jacket! You do look peaceful and jolly."
They had taken their places at the square handsome table, illuminated at each corner by a silver candle-stick, red-shaded and electric-lighted. Tabs and Terry were seated side by side, so that he saw her always in profile, except when she turned to him in conversation. He saw the soft roundness of her shoulder, the satin pallor of her throat and breast, the quivering gold of her childishly wavy hair.
The General sat isolated, opposite and facing them. Sir Tobias and his wife sat at either end—had they known it, for all the world like judges.
Lady Beddow was a proud, unbending woman, gracious to her own sort, unquestioningly respectful to those above her, tender in a practical way to those below her and coldly scrutinizing to any one who tapped at her door claiming to be an equal. Being bred to her finger-tips, she was as ill-at-ease as her husband in the jostling democracy of the moment.
In the hall Sir Tobias rather huffily had introduced his guests. Tabs had relieved the tension by smiling quietly at Braithwaite, "The General and I have met before."
It was an uncomfortable dinner from the moment they sat down. Sir Tobias, although he had shown no signs of it in the library, seemed to have developed a resentment at having been kept waiting. No reference was made to this resentment, but Terry and the General were obviously the culprits. Sir Tobias was vaguely unhappy and had to blame somebody. Under the tacitly implied criticism Terry's rebellious spirits rose higher, but the General's authoritative assurance began to crumble.
Sir Tobias was continuing the conversation which had started in the library. He seemed oblivious to the fact that it had then concerned the man who was now present. "You can't make the world afresh with a catastrophe. Men are like water: in a storm they rise above or sink below themselves. When the disturbance is ended, they tend to find their own level. War destroys; it never created anything."
"That's not true, if you'll excuse me for contradicting you. You're speaking without knowledge." Braithwaite uttered himself bluntly as he would have done in his own Headquarters' mess—this despite the fact that it was Tabs whom his host had been addressing.
In his astonishment, Sir Tobias nearly gagged himself with the soup that he was on the point of swallowing. He blinked mildly at this confident young man, his breast ablaze with decorations, whom he had not invited. "Then, in your opinion, what has war ever created," he asked with dangerous courtesy; "this war, for instance, that's just ended?"
"This war that's just ended is the only war of which I have had any experience." Braithwaite glanced across at Terry for encouragement. "I know what it created in me and in thousands like me. It created in us the most valuable of all assets—character. In the bitter test of pain and dirt and despair we found ourselves—found ourselves capable of more nobility than we had ever dreamt possible. We sorted out afresh, in hours that we thought would be our last, all our inherited superstitions and servilities; in so doing we discovered that God and life itself are much kinder than we had been informed. Because of that discovery men who had been timid learnt how to face death gladly, shirkers how to shoulder responsibility, selfish people how to become decent through the fine humanity of sharing. Time-servers learnt how to get up off their bellies and confront misfortune with a laugh. I don't know whether I make myself clear; perhaps one had to be a part of the great game to understand its lessons. That we do understand them is the reward of those who have survived. We've come back to you as uncomfortable fellows; we shall be much more uncomfortable before we're satisfied. We intend to fight for the same equalities in peace that you sent us out to fight for in war. You asked me what this particular war has created; it has created a complete new set of social and spiritual values. It's done away with the uncharity of caste."
During his last words he had been gazing across the table at Tabs with a fearless challenge, as much as to say, "That's who I am. Now expose me."
But Tabs was remembering the coster's reason for not having dragged him into the police-courts, "Served in the ranks, did yer? Then you and me was pals out there!" Braithwaite, whether he knew it or not, had been doing a piece of special pleading for himself. He and Braithwaite, whatever they might be now, had been pals out there. Silently Tabs had been thinking while he had been listening, "You're right and I'm with you. I'd be with you still more if you'd only live up to your standards by sticking to Ann."
It was Sir Tobias who took the offensive. The soup-plates had been removed and the fish-course had not yet been served. He had the leisure to talk. "You men who have been in the Army," he said testily, "especially those of you who have gained your promotion rapidly, always speak as if the rest of us had been receivers of stolen goods until you put on uniforms. Armies are composed of youth; for most of you it was the first time you had tasted authority. It's gone to your heads; you want to brush experience aside and dragoon the older world into new formations. You, who were civilians yourselves, have come back despising us civilians; your contempt is three-parts fear lest you'll fail, as you failed before, in the old civilian competitive struggle. You talk about the virtues war has taught; let's grant them and grant them gratefully—they saved us from destruction. But what about the frantic recklessness it encouraged, the cheap views of bodily chastity, the desperate insistence on momentary happiness?" At the mention of bodily chastity, Lady Beddow from the other end of the table had stuttered a "tut, tut!" Her husband dodged it, as a boy might dodge a wheelbarrow upset in his path. Without shifting his glance he ran on. "A complete new set of social and spiritual values! Rubbish! War places an excessive premium on merely brutal qualities—muscle, bone, sinew, all the paraphernalia of physical endurance. What use has it got for old fellows of intellectual attainments like myself? It takes the greatest poet, singer, painter, violinist; all it can do with him is to thrust a rifle into his hands. All brains look alike, Michael Angelo's or a rag-picker's, when they're spattered in the mud of a trench. Take Lord Taborley here, for instance—all that military stupidity could do with him was to keep him in the ranks for two years. You can't make me believe in your complete new set of social and spiritual values. A complete unrest and insubordination to time-honored moralities is the legacy of war."
Having delivered himself, he tucked his napkin tighter into his waistcoat and attacked the fish-course, as though by this display of gastronomic energy he could somehow strengthen his argument.
It was clear to Tabs that behind all that Sir Tobias had been saying lay his misery over Maisie and Adair. He saw the world always in the personal equation.
"I agree with most of your statements," the General blundered on. "And yet you're wrong. You miss something. I think it's the vision of the stupendous heroism. You never saw it; you don't want to see it. That you never saw it we can understand; but that you shouldn't want to see it, makes us see red. It was something that we did for you, and you take it all for granted. You cheered us and jeered us into going because you were frightened. You handed us white feathers if we hesitated. You dragged us from our jobs and very often we were poor men, who had no such financial security as was yours. You promised that if we would share our lives with you, you'd go fifty-fifty with us on your financial security. There wasn't time to have deeds of agreement drawn up; we took you at your word. And what a lie it was! Why, I passed a blinded officer in Regent Street to-day peddling shoe-laces. The day before a jobless soldier threw himself beneath a train and his last words were, 'Over the top and the best of luck.' There's a Colonel I see by to-night's paper who's gone back to being a policeman. If you see a man in uniform to-day, your unspoken thought is, 'For God's sake take it off.' I tell you it's all wrong. It's that kind of ingratitude that leads to revolution. You talk about the brutality of war; it's not a patch on the brutality of peace. You treated men's lives as yours while the danger lasted, but you insist that your possessions are your own now that it's been averted."
He took a breath and glanced round.
Tabs was nodding unconscious approval. Terry's face reflected the fire of his own passionate indignation and enthusiasm. The butler in the shadows had turned his back non-committally and was making a pretense of fiddling with the next course. Lady Beddow sat very upright and startled, grasping her knife and fork as though they helped to support her. The only person who was still doing justice to the meal was the worn-out version of Shakespeare, who was responsible for the storm.
The silence seemed to call for a final climax. The ex-valet cleared his throat. And it was to his ex-valet that Tabs listened; he had forgotten the General. It was as though the grimness of reality had interrupted a piece of play-acting. There was less heat in Braithwaite's voice now and more reproach. "You said nothing about caste in those days, when you hurried us to the shambles. You promised us—— What was it that you promised us?"
"A kingdom round the corner," Tabs suggested. The next minute he felt Terry's warm little hand clinging to his own beneath the tablecloth.
Braithwaite stared at Tabs to see whether he were jesting; then smiled in relieved friendship at this proof of comradeship from an unexpected quarter. "Yes, perhaps it was that—a future kindliness, where we should all be men together, neither free nor bond." Then again to his host, "You sent us out there where everything was censored. Scarcely a whisper of the truth reached you. The very war-correspondents were instructed to delete the horror and to write nothing that would disturb your calm. We've come back, what are left of us; we think you ought to know what really happened. It isn't that we take much pleasure in telling you, but we think that if you knew, you might be persuaded to keep at least some of your promises. And what do you do? You reassert your privilege to despise us. You stuff your fingers in your ears and talk about caste, and forgetting the war, and getting back to work. Sir Tobias, I'm afraid I'm being far too personal, but you're a sample of millions who weren't there. You're living in a totally altered world of whose very existence you're content to be unaware. Your complacency drives men like myself to the point of madness. We hold that you have no right to be complacent until the bill you put your hand to has been settled. I don't know how Lord Taborley feels; he's not expressed——"
"Tabs feels exactly the way you do and so do I." It was Terry speaking, like the shrill courage of a bugle answering the slow bass of a trumpet-call. "We're the world that purchased victory—we three, while the rest of the world sat back. It was men like you two who got gassed, and wrenched, and tortured, and girls like myself who patched you up and flirted with you so that we might send you back to the Front cheery—girls like myself who hadn't known love, or children, or anything but a nursery sort of happiness. We three and people like us understand, because we paid the price together."
"Really, Terry, I must confess there are times when you shock me." As Lady Beddow rose from her seat, she was the picture of disapproval. From the door, which the butler held open for her, she glanced back. "I think this discussion has gone very far."
As she swept out, she called across her shoulder, as one might call to a pet dog, "Come, Terry."
But Terry did not come; she sat on tightly, just as if she were a man among men. Until coffee had been served and the room was free from servants, there was a pretense at small-talk in which Sir Tobias did not join. He crouched moodily in his chair, an unlighted cigar between his fingers, looking very old and somehow deserted. With the instinctive tenderness which she always showed when she knew that she had hurt, Terry got up and went to him. She linked her arms about his neck and stooped to kiss the bald-spot on his head. "Cheer up, Daddy dear; it isn't half as bad as it sounded. Don't you want me to light your cigar for you?"
Tabs, to distract attention from the reconciliation, addressed the General. It was odd that he should feel so much sympathy for a man whom his letters, already beyond recall, would stir into panic in the morning. "Do you intend to stay in the Army, sir?"
"No. But why do you ask? They're getting rid of all of us who aren't Regulars, no matter how brilliant our service. They're making the Army again a social club. I shall soon be out of uniform."
"And then?" Tabs persisted.
"Oh, then I shall find something else." He spoke airily, but the shadow which crossed his handsome face added plainly as words, "If I can find anything."
"If it isn't impertinence," Tabs sank his voice, "may I ask what you intend to turn to?"
The General eyed him suspiciously, wondering whether he was again about to lay claim to the previous embarrassing acquaintance. "I have several things in view," he said sketchily, "from which a man in my position ought to be able to choose."
"Ought! But that hasn't been the story up-to-date. What of the Colonel you were just telling us about?" Tabs saw that another storm was brewing. He leant across the table and hurried on. "If the worst comes to the worst, I expect your old job's waiting for you. The qualities which have made you what you are to-day, must have been recognized and valued——" Terry had completed her reconciliation with her father and was resting her gaze upon them. Tabs altered his tone. "You put what you said at dinner rather strongly, sir. But I understand what you were driving at—it was the democracy of the front-line where courage, which at its best is unselfishness, was our only standard of aristocracy."
Before the General could make reply, Sir Tobias had raised his bewildered head. "It's a thing that I for one don't want to understand. I don't want to go on living, if what you've said is true."
Tabs turned considerately to the older man. "I think you would if you knew. The difference that war made to all of us who were there was that it taught us to judge men by their good points rather than their defects. It upset all our preconceived notions about society, especially our notions about the extreme value of race and breeding. What we learnt was that there's a breeding of the heart which enables a man from the gutter to run true to the highest form."
Sir Tobias leveled his weary eyes in challenge. "Then what about Adair?"
The name was out at last—the name which he had been trying to get uttered all evening. It didn't matter that Adair hadn't been at the war and had no proper place in the argument. He had wanted to break through his reticence due to his sense of impending family disaster. At last he had done it.
"I think, Daddy," Terry said, "the General and I had better leave you and Tabs to talk alone."
The next thing that Tabs saw was Terry making her escape with this other man. He had it in his power to settle his suspense for all time by saying, "One minute, Terry. You're choosing between the General and myself. It may help you in making your decision to know that Braithwaite was once——" But the coster's definition of fair-play deterred him. This man had been his pal in the trenches; because of that he allowed himself for the second time that day to be shut out from the company of youth. He hadn't discovered how much or how little she knew. By her withdrawal he was made to feel middle-aged—more nearly her father's contemporary than ever. Yet, as an underlying comfort to his distress, he had the remembered pressure of the little hand that had sought his own in secret friendliness.
He turned to Sir Tobias. "Yes, what about Adair? Terry said that you wanted to consult me. If there's anything that I can say or do——"
The door was reopening. Tabs glanced back across his shoulder through the shadows. She was hovering just inside the threshold, hastily clad in her evening-wrap; beyond her in the hall the General stood fidgeting with his cap. Sir Tobias was sitting with his head bowed; he had not heard the sound of her reentry. He spoke evidently believing that they two were alone. "I don't like that fellow. It's the last time he ever comes to my house. Whatever Terry can see in him—— And he's not good for Terry."
She tiptoed back into the hall, pulling the door softly behind her. A moment later the front door closed with a bang.
"What was that?" Sir Tobias looked up gnome-like and startled.
Tabs guessed what it was; but because, as she had said they three had paid the price together, he kept her secret. "General Braithwaite, probably. But you were speaking of Adair?"
Sir Tobias shivered, betraying his nervous tension. "A disturber," he said irritably, "even in his going. And yet, I suppose it's true; we shouldn't be sitting here comfortably to-night if it hadn't been for his sort."
Now that it had been broached, it was anything to avoid the main topic. He drummed with his fingers on the table, ceased drumming and sighed heavily. "Yes, I was speaking of Adair. I don't understand him. I've grown out of touch; I don't seem to understand anybody. I'm left behind, somehow. People do things to-day that they never used to do. They shout about things from the house-tops which all my life I've mentioned only in whispers. Terry does; you heard what she said to-night about never having been loved and never having had children. The loss of delicacy——"
"I wouldn't call it a loss of delicacy." Tabs struck a match. "I would call it a loss of prudishness. We all know that girls are born to be married and that the best of them long to have children. Why shouldn't they own it? You owned it long ago when you bought her dolls. The lid is off false reticences. I hope it stays off; we shall be a much honester world."
"The lid's off! That's the phrase I was searching for." Sir Tobias leant forward confidentially. "You haven't been much in England during the past four years or you'd know how badly the lid is off. You men, when you were in the trenches, lived above yourselves; but, the moment you came home on leave, you taught the world that wasn't in khaki how to live below itself. I could tell you stories——"
"I know." Tabs didn't want to hear those stories. "It was pathetic. Men tried to steal in a handful of hours all the passionate experiences that would have come to them beautifully and legitimately over forty years. It was like snatching from a bargain-counter things that you hadn't time to pay for. You were young and you were so soon to be snuffed out. The unthoughtful took desperately what they believed life owed them. They——"
It was the turn of Sir Tobias to interrupt. "But so did the women—this Maisie woman, for instance. It was astounding—the women one would least have expected. All the desires we had caged through the centuries broke loose—caged with traditions, with public opinion and scriptural penalties." He was delighted with his image and went on to elaborate it. "They broke loose like wild animals from a menagerie. We'd always known they existed. Sometimes we'd paid surreptitious visits to them in books," the old eyes blinked cautiously, "the way one goes to the Zoo, to remind himself that there is a jungle somewhere. But we'd only regarded them as specimens; we'd never expected to meet them roaming about the streets loose or coming as domestic pets into our houses. Now the war's ended and the jungle's all about us; we can't get the animals back into their cages. Fellows like this General Braithwaite don't help matters by telling us that we oughtn't to want to get them back——"
"Perhaps he's one of the animals," Tabs interpolated. "You couldn't expect him to want to be put back."
"Perhaps he is. In fact that's what I've felt about him. That's what's helped me to make up my mind that he shall see no more of Terry." He reached out and tapped Tabs' hand, taking it for granted that he was his ally. "The sight's becoming far too normal—wild beasts everywhere, sunning themselves in impertinent freedom, as if they were house-cats. Nobody's shocked at it any longer. Terry isn't. Lloyd George isn't—at least he pretends he isn't for fear the wild beasts may lose him an election. No one makes a stand. It's left for private individuals like ourselves, to——"
"To do what?"
Sir Tobias lost his stride. He blinked reproachfully. "To get them back into their cages."
For an instant Tabs nearly smiled. "And Adair—is he the first wild beast we tackle? Have we got to get him back into the cage of matrimony? Tell me about Adair."
"It was no cage." Sir Tobias spoke almost resentfully. "His home was a kind of nest and Phyllis was the mother-bird."
The butler had looked in several times to see whether he was free to clear away. For the first time Sir Tobias became aware of him pottering in the shadows. "Perhaps we'd better continue in my library."
He pushed back his chair, dropped his napkin, groped after it feebly, then led the way solemnly across the hall. When he had seated himself before the fire and fortified his courage with a fresh cigar, he plunged headlong into the story of his son-in-law's delinquencies.
"How a man who has a daughter of mine for his wife can find attraction in any other woman is more than I can fathom."
"I agree with you there, sir." Tabs suddenly found himself carried off his feet and on the point of a confession. "If any man were to play false by Terry, I think—I think I'd brain him."
Sir Tobias half-closed his eyes and regarded his guest with sleepy approval. "I somehow knew," he said slowly, "that that was how you felt." Then he opened his eyes wide and darted forward in his chair, as though to trace exactly the effect of his words. He was full of tricks and contradictions, obstinacies and tendernesses, this Punch-like old gentleman with the head of Shakespeare. "I knew that was how you felt," he continued, "because you've seen all the love that has gone to their making. You were already a big fellow when they were still tiny. Wasn't it Terry who first called you Tabs because her tongue couldn't get round Taborley? Ah, I've been so proud of my girls! They were so little and white when they first came to us. They couldn't walk—not a step. One had to carry them everywhere. Then they began to crawl; they couldn't stand up right unless one gave them his hand. And then at last they walked. They walked by one's side at first and soon got tired. But as they grew stronger, they walked away and away, always getting more incomprehensible, till finally—it hasn't happened to Terry yet—till finally they met a man. Wait till you're a father, Lord Taborley; from the moment you give all that whiteness into another's keeping, you never cease to be jealous of him. He can never appreciate what a gift you have made him. He never saw her when she was little and helpless. She's your youth—she's everything vigorous that you were. The first time he affords you with a reason for hating him, you'll hate him like—— The way you said: so that you could brain him without compunction. Adair——I could cheerfully kill him."
Tabs felt rather than heard the pent-up passion in his voice; it alarmed him with its sincerity. "But mayn't you be exaggerating?" he suggested. "Are you sure that Adair—— What I mean to say is, he may be only philandering. Heaps of men do that—go through all the motions of making fools of themselves and actually do nothing. He may be only expressing the discontent of the moment, the revolt from suspense, the flatness of quiet after terrible excitements. One didn't need to be a fighting-man to share those excitements. You say that Phyllis made a nest of her home. Perhaps he didn't like nests. It may be that that's done it. Adair can't have altered so radically over night; he wasn't forceful enough to erupt so disastrously. He was decent——"
"I know nothing definite." The passion had died down. It was again an old and weary man who spoke. "I only know that she believes he's abandoning her and that it makes her wretched. She wants him back; if there's any way of getting him back, she must have him. I never denied anything to my girls. If money will persuade him, it's for you to find out how much. If this Lockwood woman has a price, let her state it. I'll spare nothing. Though everything else has lost its value, money still has the power to purchase. I can't buy back faithfulness and loyalty; but I should be able to buy the appearance of it. If I were you I would tackle this Lockwood woman first."
He tossed the stub of his cigar towards the fire. It fell short in the grate. He picked it up and rammed it deep into the burning coals. He looked a poor, old, pitiful child, uttering embittered heresies. "All women are mercenary; all of them except my wife and daughters. Ah, yes, and Lady Dawn."
Tabs wondered what Lady Dawn had done to gain exemption from this sweeping accusation. "I'll see this Maisie Lockwood to-morrow," he said, "if you can tell me where she lives."
Sir Tobias had risen and was seating himself at his desk. "I'll copy you out her address. I have it somewhere buried among these papers."
He had hidden it so thoroughly that it took a few minutes to find. As he rustled sundry sheets and stooped over them round-shouldered, Tabs had time to reflect. Terry! Where was she? She was so little and unprotected and white. Would a day ever come when a man would play her false? At this moment he had it in his power to prevent that day from ever arriving.
"Ah, here it is!" It was his host talking. Then the painful scratching of the pen commenced.
"Sir Tobias, I want to speak to you about Terry." The scratching of the pen stopped, but the shoulders remained bowed. "This is an unfortunate night for me to choose to talk to you about her, but—— To tell the truth, I feel that if I don't speak to-night I may lose my chance."
"What do you want to say about her?" The shoulders had unhunched themselves, but the head had not turned.
"Only this, that I've loved her for a very long while and that if you don't think I'm too old, I should like your permission to ask her to marry me."
Tabs thought to himself with a glow of satisfaction, "At last I've done it. And done it in just the way and at just the time that I'd always planned."
He felt the pride of a man who had worked on schedule and been punctual to the second.
Sir Tobias turned. His face was composed. It was some seconds before he spoke. "Of course this is no surprise to me. You are old for her. You'll be fifty-five when she's scarcely forty." He paused and Tabs' heart sank. "You're older than her; but then you're wiser. She needs a husband who'll be wise." He sat leisurely as though he were resting from a long journey; then he stretched out his hand. Tabs went over and took it. "My dear fellow, there's only one thing I ask: make her always happy."
The clock in the hall struck midnight. He lifted himself to his feet. "I had no idea how the time had flown. By the way, that's the address—the Maisie woman's."
Tabs took it carelessly. It had become a thing of little consequence. He folded it away in his pocket. "And when shall I see Terry?" Of a sudden he felt that he must see her; see her and make sure of her without loss of time.
"To-morrow, I suppose. Say about eleven."
Tabs thought back. He had expected to receive a call from General Braithwaite about eleven, or at least to hear from him as soon as he had opened his morning's letters. Then he smiled to himself; when once he was engaged to Terry, what General Braithwaite did or did not do would be no longer of any importance.
"Yes, about eleven, if it'll be agreeable to Terry."
"There's not much doubt about its being agreeable to her."
They passed out into the hall. While Tabs found his hat and coat, they spoke only in monosyllables. The servants had gone to bed. The house was intensely silent.
They had got as far as the front-door and Sir Tobias already had his hand upon the latch, when a taxi purred up to the pavement and came to a halt immediately outside. "Some one stopping at the wrong house," he hazarded and threw the door wide. "See you again to-morrow."
"At eleven," Sir Tobias reminded.
"On the dot of eleven," Tabs confirmed.
He passed into the cool night air, wistful with the fragrance of unseen flowers. His eyes were dazed for the moment by the sudden change of light. He made out the blurred silhouette of the taxi and faltered, thinking he might have a chance to hire it; then he saw that its shadowy occupants were climbing back into its deeper darkness. It seemed that Sir Tobias had been right; it had stopped at the wrong house.
As he reached the corner where he turned, he glanced back. The taxi had not moved. Its occupants were again getting out—an officer and a girl. The girl was ringing the bell of the house that he had left, while, the officer was settling with the driver. As he joined her, the door opened, letting fall a shaft of light. There was a brief parley—evidently hurried explanations. Even at that distance he could recognize the indignant tones of Sir Tobias' angry voice. Then he heard the "Shish, Daddy!" from Terry. They entered. The door closed behind them. The taxi moved off in the opposite direction. Again there was silence—nothing but the fragrance of unseen flowers and the wistfulness of the cool, spring night.
CHAPTER THE THIRD
ALL SORTS OF KINGDOMS
Tabs had dressed himself with more than ordinary care. He was rather amused at his self-consciousness in having done so, and a little disdainful of it. Yet he knew that in the winning of a woman the strategy of clothes has its value; he had no intention of losing a trick by negligence. It was nine o'clock when he sat down to breakfast; within two hours he would be seeing Terry.
It was a gay morning, lacquered with sunshine; bustling breezes made young leaves of trees in the little Square murmurous. Ever since he had wakened he had been listening to the gossiping chirp of congregated sparrows and the rolling boom of tumultuous traffic. At intervals across the upland of roofs there had drifted to him the far-blown chime of bells and the slower music of clocks striking. It was like an orchestra scraping its chairs and tuning up before crashing into the overture of the happier world.
Lying beside his plate as he came down he saw a single letter. It was addressed to him in an unfamiliar feminine hand. He picked it up and examined it carefully with the air of a connoisseur. So long as a letter remains unopened, especially when it is to a bachelor from an unknown woman, it retains an atmosphere of adventure. Up to a point he resented the intrusion. This morning his thoughts should have been so utterly Terry's. And yet he was piqued by it.
He slit the envelope. The letter-head was embossed with a crest quite unknown to any but the most modern heraldry. He read:—
_Dear Lord Taborley:
I have been given to understand that you are exceedingly anxious to make my acquaintance. If this is so, I shall be at home when you call to-morrow afternoon. Asking your lenience for this liberty, I remain,
Yours very truly,
Maisie P. Lockwood._
"To-morrow afternoon! Written yesterday! That means the afternoon of to-day.—And why the P—Maisie P. Lockwood? Is that for Pollock, her first husband?—Unusual! A rather naive person!" Then his face went blank. "She must be a thought-reader! How the dickens did she guess that I wanted to make her acquaintance? I scarcely knew it myself at the time that she wrote this letter."
Crushing the scented sheet in his hand, he tossed it into the empty grate. "My dear lady, if you can read minds so accurately at a distance, be assured of this: to-day I shall be too busy with Terry to have any time to spare on you."
The door from the narrow hall partly opened. "May I come in?"
At sound of her voice, he sprang to his feet, upsetting his chair. She made bold to look in at him. "Why, Tabs, you are a late breakfaster. Daddy told me you were planning to see me at eleven; to save you the trouble, I hurried round."
Like a flurry of March sunshine, Terry entered.
He scarcely knew how to greet her. How does one greet a girl whose permission he has yet to gain, whereas her father has already consented? Moreover, there was his last memory of her, at midnight dodging into the taxi to avoid him.
She spared him the trouble of deciding by holding out her hand. "I know that you saw me. That's what I've come to talk about."
Her smile as she said it was both embarrassed and frank. She looked like an honest youngster who had come voluntarily to confess and, if need be, to be spanked. Tabs noticed that her lower lip was tremulous and that she was whipping up her courage. His mind went back to days when she had really been a child and he a man—when he had bound up cut fingers for her, had taken her on fishing expeditions, had taught her to cast her first fly and, as a reward, before the nursery lights went out, had been allowed to see her snuggled safe in bed. Little Terry, she had been his tiny sister in those days whom he had loved with no thought of gain—just a small companion for whom he bought exciting presents wherever he voyaged across the world—a doll's house in China, a quirt in Mexico, a scarlet riding-saddle in Persia. It hurt him to see her afraid of him now—afraid of him because he was about to offer her the greatest of all presents. Was she afraid because he was too old for her?
"You don't need to talk about it unless you like," he said kindly. "Whatever you do or have done is right."
"That's not true." She wrung her hands. "Oh, Tabs, you make it so hard for me when you're generous. I haven't done right. I'm in a tangle. I don't know whether what I'll do in the future will be any better."
They were still standing just as they had confronted each other when she had entered. Tabs glanced round the room at the used breakfast-table, Maisie's crumpled petition lying in the grate, the flood of sunlight and the tops of the heads of passers-by stealing across the pane above the stiff row of tulips. His eyes went back to the flower-face of this young girl as she stood before him, fashionably attired and battling to conceal the storm of her distress. The setting struck him as inadequate and unprivate. The hats which stole by above the row of tulips seemed to belong to spies. At any moment Ann might tap and request that she be allowed to clear the table. He believed that in the next half-hour his dream of the last five years was to be shattered; otherwise, if it had not been to spare him, why should Terry have paid him so unconventional a visit, at such an unconventional hour, when by every law of usage she should have been waiting for him to call on her?
"How about upstairs?" he suggested. "In my study we shall be sure to be undisturbed."
"No, Tabs, dear," and the little added word touched him strangely, "I've got to say at once what has to be said. It's like waiting at the dentist's—it's the waiting that's so wearing." Her face lit up with the ghost of a smile. "When you've faced the real pain, it's over in a second."
She seated herself. Reluctantly he followed her example. But when she was seated, she found herself at a loss for words. She drew off her gloves, and sat there folding and refolding them. He waited for her to commence; the silence was unbroken, save for the laughter of children playing in the Square and the occasional tapping of footsteps on the pavement. He leant across the table and took her hand. "Terry, after all these years you're not afraid of me? You don't need to be. Remember what you've just said: it's the waiting that's so wearing; the real pain's over in a second. Get the real pain over; then we'll plan for the best."
She looked up gratefully with eyes that were almost clear of trouble. "You're gentle—so different from other men. I could almost love you; I do love you. But not quite in the way—— You understand. I trust you more than any one in the world."
"Ah, why?" she echoed. "That's what I wish you could tell me. Why should I be able to offer more to—to some one else whom I trust less? So much less?"
"But is that love, Terry? Isn't it infatuation? Could you keep on offering? Loving means marrying and marrying means being together without respite."
"I know," she nodded wisely. "I know all that. I know it so well that I don't want to marry him or anybody—at least, not yet."
She took his other hand in hers, clinging to it as if she were drowning. "That's the second time you've asked me why. I'll tell you. Because if I don't say 'Yes,' I shall lose him. Even though I may not want him forever, I can't bear to lose him for now. You must know the feeling—you who are in love. And that's why," her voice choked with the tears that she kept back from her eyes, "that's why I promised him last night."
"Last night!" Tabs spoke slowly, trying to bring the finality home to himself.
"Last night," she repeated; "the night that should have been yours. The night I had promised to you for years." Then, in a flame of self-derision, "Why don't you let go my hands and hate me, now that you know how treacherous I am?"
"You're not treacherous." He smoothed the slim fingers as though he were coaxing a child. "You mustn't be unjust to yourself. When we're in love we're all apt to be unjust; I was yesterday, to this man. Injustice, whether to oneself or to some one else, works most of our mischief; one never knows where it ends. We can't control our hearts, Terry; you've tried. You've tried to make your heart love me and it's refused. Don't be miserable because of it; you couldn't help that. And this man—he's a fine fellow. I always knew he was a fine fellow, until seeing him with you yesterday made me jealous and blinded my eyes. He's a finer fellow than ever now. You couldn't love him if he weren't."
She wasn't giving him the enthusiastic attention that his praise deserved. Somewhere at the back of her mind there lay a doubt with which she wrestled while he strove to comfort her. He believed that he had guessed her doubt. "As for not trusting him the way you trust me," he explained, "that's natural. We know the whole of each other's lives; our families are the same kind of families and we share the same kind of friends. Whereas——"
"Whereas," she broke in, "I know nothing about his past, where he lived, who his people were or anything. I know nothing that he enjoyed or laughed at before I saw him lying quietly in our hospital-ward in France. I've questioned him as much as I dared; but always he grows vague. There's something that he's hiding from me. I only gathered that he had known you from the way he pricked up and listened whenever your name was mentioned. That was why, without warning either of you, I——You see, I had to find out. And then, when he met you face to face he—he lied."
"But he did. He lied."
She had withdrawn her hands from his and sat back eyeing him with a clear look of challenge. Tabs was at a loss to explain her change of attitude. Yesterday she had been all for defending this man. What did she gain by accusing him now that she was engaged to him? In any case she had employed too ugly a word. And here was a strange state of affairs, that it should be left to him to defend his successful rival.
"A man is not compelled to know another man unless he likes," he said cautiously. "They may have met some time in the past under unfortunate circumstances—circumstances which are embarrassing to remember. The man to whom that memory is a disadvantage has a right to protect himself by sweeping it clean from his mind."
"But not to lie about it to the girl he says he loves," she declared. "There can be only one motive for such a denial: that it covers up something which is dishonorable."
"But there never was anything dishonorable. That I swear."
"Then he believes that I would think it dishonorable," she insisted; "which means that he doesn't trust me. That's the reason I can't trust him in return. If we don't trust each other now, how can we hope that things would be better if we married?"
Her logic was unanswerable, but she was arguing on the wrong side. At what was she driving? He gave it up. Was she wanting him to tell her where and when he and her future husband had met? The eagerness of her silence seemed to demand as much. But there are rules to every game. No pressure that she could bring to bear could make him tell her that. She recognized those rules by refraining from putting her request into words.
It was he who broke the silence. His tones were puzzled. "You come to me on the morning that I had hoped to be engaged to you myself and you confide all these secrets about this other man. You insist that neither of you trusts the other and that you could find no happiness in marriage. Then why, in heaven's name, Terry, did you pledge yourself to him last night?"
"The fear of losing him——" Her face quivered pitifully. She was on the verge of weeping. "He overheard what Daddy said about forbidding him the house. It seemed our last time together. I couldn't bear that it should be the last. It was to keep him near me for just a little longer that I——"
Tabs rose and limped to the window. He dared not let himself go, the way his instincts urged. They might carry him too far. She looked so much like the little girl in short skirts he had known, as she sat there bravely trying not to cry. He wanted to take her on his knees, as in the old days. Now that she loved another man, he was not allowed to show her comfort in that way any longer. That she should run to him for help and yet love some one else, wounded his pride. What was the matter with him that he had failed to stir her passion? Why could he appeal only to her helplessness?
Inside the communal garden, with its surrounding railings and locked gates, nurses in uniforms were pushing prams. Toddlers were tossing a ball across the lawn and tottering after it with excited shouts. Beneath a tree in the clear sunshine a young mother sat sewing. Other men's women! Other men's babies! He would have to set out in search of his kingdom afresh; all his old quests had been mistaken. But he was older now and lame; he lacked the energy for a new journey. It seemed to him that he would be alone and unwanted always.
A telegraph-girl was mounting the steps. He heard the bell ring without interest. Gazing out, with his back towards Terry, he put to her what he intended should be his final question. "You promised him last night—then why did you hurry round to me this morning?"
Her dress rustled and her breathing quickened. "Because——" she commenced and failed. He did not turn his head. She tried again in a lower voice, "Because I want you to get my promise back."
He swung round and crossed to where she was still sitting. With his hands resting lightly on her shoulders, he stared down at her golden head. "But, Terry dear, why? Look at me. You must tell me."
She did not look at him. "I'm frightened. Nobody knows as yet; so before they know—— Oh, Tabs, you're so clever; you can do anything." And then she repeated whimperingly, like a child over a broken toy, "I want you to get my promise back."
"Listen to me, Terry dearest," he spoke coaxingly, "don't be a baby. What is it that you're asking me to do? Is it to see him for you and to break the news that you've altered your mind over night. You know he'll want reasons. What shall I tell——?"
She lifted her head, stretching back her throat so that all her face looked up at him. "If you'll still have me——" His hands on her shoulders tightened. "Say that you still want me, Tabs." For answer his head slowly nodded, but his eyes never left her eyes. "Tell him that I'm engaged to you, instead."
In the tumult of surprised desire he bent over her, but he got no further, for a tap fell on the panel of the door and the handle turned. He drew himself upright quickly and stepped back aloofly. "What is it?"
"A telegram, your Lordship." Ann entered. "I told the girl to wait in case there was an answer."
He tore it open, glanced through it and handed it to Terry. To Ann he said, "There won't be any answer."
Terry read, "Shall be delighted to have you lunch with me to-day Savoy Hotel one o'clock. Braithwaite." She examined the address and looked up startled, "But it's to you. It's—it's as though he knew we were together. What made him send it?"
When Tabs answered there was no echo of her excitement in his voice. "I wrote him yesterday asking him to call here. Evidently he preferred a more public place."
She glanced at him shrewdly. "Why did you write him? You must have done that between leaving me and coming to our house to dine. I know it's no good my asking you." Her last words were more of a question than an assertion. "I can see that it's no good my asking you." "No, Terry, it's no good. Braithwaite's past is his own secret. But I can pledge you my word that it bears no stain."
"Then why shouldn't he——?" She changed her question. "Shall you meet him to-day at lunch?"
"Shall you tell him what we've——?"
"Not all of it, Terry."
"Why not all of it? Which part are you going to leave out?"
He came again to where she sat and stood gazing down on her. "Terry, why do you want me to tell him? Why can't you tell him yourself? It would be kinder."
"Because—— Oh, Tabs, you do want me, don't you? Because I daren't trust myself to see him."
"And so you want me to tell him we're engaged because you daren't trust yourself to tell him! Isn't that it?"
"And you daren't trust yourself to tell him because the moment you saw him you would fall again under his spell?"
This time she didn't nod, but her eyes gave assent.
"And what does that mean, little Terry? Whether you call it love or fascination, it means that even though you do not see him, your heart is his at present. It means that against your will he's infinitely more to you than I am. It means that you only ask me to become engaged to you in order that you may be strong to break his spell. It doesn't mean that I will be anything more to you to-morrow than I was last night, when you gave him your pledge."
She tried to speak, but he halted her words. "I'm older than you are. Have you thought of that? I'm not the man I was; I'm lame. You can like me as a friend and believe me indispensable; but, if I were your husband, fifteen years from now when you're only the age I am to-day——Have you considered that? My dear, I love you so well, that I'll never let you tie yourself to me, till you're as certain that you can't risk meeting me without loving me as you're certain at this moment that you daren't risk meeting this other man. When you can do that——"
The tenderness in his eyes hurt her. "Directly I can do that, I'll tell you, Tabs. And—and I believe I could almost tell you now."
"If you can now," he said, "there's a test. Will you take my place at lunch and tell Braithwaite?"
She shrank, and tried to smile, and shook her head.
"Then it'll be I who'll have to do it." He tried to assume a cheerful manner. "But I can't give him your reason about being engaged to me. If it were true, which it isn't, it wouldn't be generous. If I carry any message, the only honorable thing for me to do is to inform him of everything."
"Of everything?" she questioned.
"Yes, of everything. I must tell him where the trouble lies and give him his chance to be frank with you. Only when that is done, shall I be free to do my utmost to win you for myself."
She took his hands and drew herself up to him. "Do what you like, Tabs. As long as I know that I've not lost you," her voice became small and almost happy, "I'm content."
She was tiptoeing against him. The next thing he knew he was kissing her warm red mouth.
She was gone. He had watched her from the steps until she had reached the end of the Square where the swirl of passing traffic had engulfed her. At the last moment she had looked back and smiled. For some minutes after she had vanished, he had stood there recalling the way in which her brave little figure had tripped out of sight among the blustering March sunshine and shadows. A child, he thought, impulsive and lacking in perspective, with a child's alacrity for drying its tears and believing in a future happiness. How would she regard this morning years hence in the after-glow of experience? Would she find nothing in its calamities but foolishness? And what relation would he himself bear to her when she had arrived at that stoical calm?
He reentered the house. In the room where they had been together the fragrance of her presence still lingered. The chair was pushed back, just as she had risen from it to lift her warm, red lips to his. How smooth they were! Again like a child's! Everything about her was young and undeveloped. She had kissed simply and gratefully, with none of the blundering, sweet surrender with which a woman clings to her lover. If she had ever kissed Braithwaite, she had not kissed him like that.
And then Tabs was overcome with a reluctant remorse, which was tinged with a shameful sense of triumph. She had offered him her lips in gratitude; they had kindled in him the flames of passion. For the moment he had devoured her with kisses—her eyes, lips, cheeks and hair.
If he were to keep himself in hand, he must fill his days with interests—new interests. He must move among people and normalize himself. He must fight against the melancholy of his obsession. His eyes chanced to rest on the crumpled sheet of scented note-paper tossed into the empty grate. Stooping, he picked it up and smoothed it out. This problem of Maisie would at least divert him—besides, he had promised to do what he could for Adair. He noted the Chelsea address and reread the contents with its sly humility and hint of coquetry: "I have been given to understand that you are exceedingly anxious to make my acquaintance. If this is so, I shall be at home when you call to-morrow afternoon."
She had been quite certain that he would call when she wrote those words. They had all the assurance of one who was fully persuaded of her own powers of charm and beauty.
"Again, Maisie P.," he apostrophized her, "I'm bound to acknowledge that you know more about me than I know about myself. I didn't know that I wanted to make your acquaintance at the time when you were writing this letter. I was quite sure that I wasn't going to call upon you when I read it. In both cases you were the better informed, for I shall be with you as soon as I've fulfilled my Savoy engagement."
An hour later, as he was on his way out, he found Ann waiting for him at the foot of the stairs.
"I don't want to bother your Lordship."
"You're not bothering me. What is it?"
"I've been thinking that if I wrote the particulars down myself——"
"The particulars! What particulars?"
"About Braithwaite, sir. There were things you wouldn't know or might leave out. So I thought that if I stated my case myself, it might make things more sensible-like to your Lordship's friend at the War Office."
"It might. Are those the particulars you have in your hand?"
"Yes, sir. But they're kind of private. I shouldn't like them to be read by just anybody. That's why—— Perhaps, if your Lordship was seeing your friend——"
"As it happens," Tabs spoke with a careless air, "I shall be lunching with him to-day. I can deliver your letter direct."
"Your Lordship is very kind."
"Not in the least, Ann. And remember, whatever happens, that Braithwaite was brave and he'd expect you to be brave. If you're not—— D'you know what you'll do? Whether he's alive or dead, you'll let him down."
Her head lifted proudly, despite the tears in her eyes. "No fear of that, sir. I'll never let my man down."
"That's the way to talk. And don't worry too much. You know the saying about night always being blackest at the hour before the dawn? If we'd only all believe that and cheer up——"
He let himself out. As he walked down the Square he tried to stroll jauntily; probably Ann was watching.
"I could do worse than live up to that advice myself," he thought. Then, "And so I will, by the Lord Harry."
As he passed through the doors into the Savoy, he consulted his watch; he was five minutes late. He halted in the middle of the foyer, gazing round. There was the usual collection of officers on leave or out of hospital, British, Overseas, American, all of them out for a good time and debonair. There were the usual rows of expectant girls, wondering whether their men had forgotten the appointment or whether the fault was theirs in mistaking the place of rendezvous. Here and there through the crowd worried and assertive literary individuals wandered, searching for invariably unpunctual publishers. As though Time pressed behind them with his scythe, hatchet-faced journalists from Fleet Street were making a bee-line for the restaurant. In contrast to this perfervid haste, self-possessed young queens of the footlights lolled with their admirers, importantly believing they were recognized. All the medley of London as it used to be, is and will be again, was there; but nowhere could Tabs descry a General's uniform.
He went to the desk to enquire whether there was any message for him. At mention of the General his enquiry was received with marked respect. Yes, General Braithwaite lived there. No message had been left, but he might be in his room. While they were telephoning and he was waiting, Tabs remembered and smiled at remembering. Under quite other circumstances, on a former occasion, he and Braithwaite had stayed there together. The clerk interrupted his reflections. "The General's not in his room—— Ah, here he comes, your Lordship."
Tabs turned quickly and looked in vain at first. He did not become aware of his host till he was standing almost at his elbow. Then he held out his hand, "How are you, General? You must pardon me for not having picked you out at once. Like all of us, you look different in mufti."
"More like the old Braithwaite your Lordship used to know?" The General smiled. "Well, I have to thank that experience for this at least—that I know where to find the proper tailors. How about lunch? Are you ready?"
Against a window looking out on the Embankment, one of the best tables had been reserved—a further proof of the new esteem in which Braithwaite was held. The head-waiter hurried up immediately to advise what he should eat and passed on his orders to subordinates with as much solemnity as if they had been the details for an offensive. "Yes, my General." "No, my General." When everything had been chosen and there was nothing to do but wait for the first dish to be served, Braithwaite leaned across to Tabs, "Your Lordship is amused. I don't blame you."
Tabs drew out his case and offered him a cigarette. "I'll make a bargain with you, sir. Let's cut out the unfriendly formalities. I'll call you Braithwaite if you'll call me Taborley."
The General blew a puff of smoke into the air and watched it disappear before he answered. In civilian clothes he bore a more distinct resemblance to the man he had been; and yet the resemblance only served to emphasize the change that had taken place in him. The old Braithwaite had been a slight-built, gentle creature, loyal to the point of self-effacement, soft-spoken and dependent on the appreciation of a master for his happiness. The new Braithwaite both in body and character had hardened. His gray eyes had concentrated into command. His clean-shaven cheeks and small military mustache gave him an expression which was tolerantly ironic. The moment you saw him, you knew beyond question that he was ruthlessly aware of what he wanted out of life. He was a sword which had lain hidden in its scabbard and was now withdrawn, glistening, intimidating and fiercely pointed.
Tabs compared his forceful appearance with his own, where in a mirror their reflections sat facing each other. There was little to choose between them in outward gentility, despite the immense disparity of their chances. There was no fault to find; everything about Braithwaite bespoke confidence and refinement—his neatly brushed chestnut hair, his well-cut gray tweeds, his black, woven tie with the horse-shoe scarf-pin of diamonds, his fine white teeth, his trim mustache. He looked a man of iron will and unswerving decision, destined from birth to take control of crises and to shoulder responsibilities. As a last humanizing touch, there was a hint of cavalier devilment about him, of the gambler who was also a sportsman.
The puff of smoke had faded. The General's eyes came back with a twinkle to his guest. "You're right. Between us this 'Your Lordship and General' business would grow tiresome. I never thought the day would come when I'd call you Taborley, however. As for myself, plain Braithwaite's a little reminiscent—— Still, we'll consider that part of our compact settled. And now, what?"
"Do we need to hurry matters?" Tabs questioned. "This isn't a military court of enquiry. It wasn't my idea to meet you as though we were maintaining an armed neutrality. We——"
"But aren't we?" Braithwaite interposed with an air of amused good-humor. Then he lowered his voice, "When you parted from me I was your valet. You didn't hear from me for the best part of four years and believed me dead. You came back to find that I was your superior officer and had tangled things up for you pretty badly. You've threatened me with your knowledge of a previous love-affair and you have it in your power to tangle up my future in return. Under the circumstances what else is possible but an armed neutrality?"
"Let me state the case from another and, I think, a juster angle." Tabs paused to knock the ash from his cigarette. "Before the war you were my valet whom I had always treated as my friend. I believe at that time, if it had come to the show down, you were the man who was closest to my affections and whom I trusted most in all the world. I'm trying to speak soberly, Braithwaite, without any color of exaggeration. We'd been in many tight corners together—perhaps the tightest was when they tried to execute us in Mexico. Anyway, we'd always played the game by each other. In 1914 we both joined in the ranks; in 1918 you finished up as a General, while I was a first lieutenant. There's only one way to account for that: up to 1914 you'd never had your chance; when your chance came, you proved yourself the better man. In a way, though it's difficult for me to confess it, I can understand and sympathize with Terry's preference. Women admire bravery and merit. Ann and I admired them in you; we knew they were there before the war made them public."
He took a breath while he watched what effect the mention of Ann's name had had. The General's expression from being interested and generous had grown suddenly obstinate and set. Tabs hurried on. "So I can understand Terry's preference. And yet, as you've owned, despite your advantages, I hold the winning card. I can joker all your aces by telling—well, the things to which you have referred." He leant forward across the table. "I don't want to have to tell. To do that I should have to make myself still more inferior to you than you have proved me to be in the hardest of all tests. There's only one occasion that would compel——"
"And that?" the General enquired coldly.
Before Tabs could answer, a Major in the Guards who was passing had halted. "Hullo, sir!" he exclaimed, addressing Braithwaite. "I was intending to hunt you up. I've heard a rumor about your transferring to the Regulars. Why don't you have a shot at my outfit?"
Braithwaite introduced Lord Taborley perfunctorily, then returned to his friend's question. "A shot at your outfit! It's too expensive. I've got to make money. Besides, to become a Regular I'd have to sink my rank and live on my pay at that. I can't afford it. To tell the truth, I'm already out of the Army. I handed over the keys of my desk at the War Office this morning. That phase is ended."
"You did! Well, if you've got something better——" The Guardsman nodded assent to a signaled question from a companion at another table. "Don't lose touch with your old set, sir," he added cheerfully as he moved away. "Send us the map-location of your next dug-out."
The lunch arrived. Dishes were obsequiously offered for inspection and approval. While the meal was being served, there was no opportunity for private conversation. Tabs was pondering one fact which he had overheard. "So, he, too, was demobbed yesterday! That's why he took his last chance to become engaged. The glamour of a uniform—— And to-day he's back where he started. Poor chap!"
The over-zealous waiter had at last moved out of range. Braithwaite lifted up his dagger gaze. "And what is that occasion—the one occasion which would compel you to publish my past? Perhaps I can save you the trouble of putting it into words. You mean if I dared to become engaged to Terry Beddow? I am engaged to her. I dared last night; so I must leave you to do your worst."
He smiled with quiet triumph; gradually his smile faded into puzzlement. "You don't seem surprised."
"I'm not," said Tabs. "Why should I be? I myself supposed, that I was engaged to her last night."
It was Braithwaite who showed amazement. "You! Last night!"
"Yes, I, last night."
Braithwaite set down his knife and fork. The bleak look came into his eyes that had given him the nickname at the Front of "Steely Jack." He was silent for a full five seconds; then he said, "Lord Taborley, you're a man of your word, but I find it difficult to believe that."
Tabs' voice was both quiet and kindly when he replied, "You'll find it difficult to believe a good many things before I've ended. Evidently Terry never told you that for over four years she and I had had an understanding that, when peace came, if I survived, we would be married. Last night, while you were proposing to her, I was asking her father's consent. While I was gaining his consent, you were being accepted."
The blank look of astonishment which had overspread the General's face, quickly gave way to one of generous compassion. "On my word of honor, Lord Taborley, I never knew that. I thought—please forgive me—that you were interfering merely out of snobbishness. I ought to have known better. All my dealings with you should have—— I begin to understand."
Tabs' old sense of friendship for the man—his man—was coming back. "You begin," he said, "but you don't fully understand. You and I have to come down to earth. Not unnaturally up till now you've chosen to treat me as an enemy. Perhaps I was when I sent you those two letters yesterday. But I'm not now. I, too, am learning. There was a coster who let me off arrest. Did I tell you about him? I forget. The reason he gave taught me a lot, 'You and me was pals out there.' And you and I were pals out there, Braithwaite—not master and man or junior and senior officer. It would be a burning shame if, now that the war's ended, we should fall to squabbling among ourselves."
"And yet the fact remains," said Braithwaite, "that I, who used to be your servant, have cut you out of Terry. How are we going to remain pals in a case like that?"
Tabs flinched at the bluntness of the words, "cut you out of Terry." For a moment he felt inclined to say right out, "You're mistaken. She's sent me to get her promise back." Instead he said, "How are we going to remain pals! That's what I'm here to talk about. I've made up my mind how I'm going to act. It's about you that I'm concerned. I'm jealous for you, Braithwaite. I'm proud of the fact that, whatever you are to-day, you were once my man—my man in the old clan sense. I want to see you carry yourself as bravely in your new fight as you did in the one that's ended. I think of the two this peace fight will be the more difficult test, especially for men like yourself. I lost caste during the war, while for you it proved a social opportunity. Now that we're back at peace, the process is likely to be reversed. The qualities which gave you high rank in a world at war won't fetch the same market value. You'll have to fight afresh—only this time it'll be against the temptation to sink below your own high standards through bitterness. In a General's uniform you could go anywhere. It was your passport. No one made enquiries. Once you're demobilized, the world asks for other credentials—credentials as to your profession, bank-account, friends, birth. What I'm trying to say is this: there's nothing dishonorable in your past save your own assumption that it was dishonorable. And I want to assure you that it isn't my purpose to drag you down. I couldn't. There's only one man who can do that—yourself. But you can drag yourself below anything that you were if you go on refusing to play fair."
Braithwaite's face went white beneath its tan. He fell to stroking his mustache. "You take a lot upon yourself. It's the first time that I've ever been accused of not playing fair."
"But I accuse you of it." Tabs spoke with an equal quietness. To any one watching they would have appeared to be two handsome men of the soldier type engaged in desultory conversation. "I have to accuse you of it. I want you to glance through this before you answer me."
He drew from his pocket and passed across the letter which Ann had given him that morning—the letter which, to quote her words, "Might make things seem more sensible-like to your Lordship's friend at the War Office." It was unaddressed, but as Braithwaite's eye fell on the sprawling handwriting of the contents, the deep flush which crept across his face betrayed the fact that it was recognized. He commenced to read the sheet with a studied carelessness; as he proceeded, the carelessness gave way to a troubled frown. For some time after he had finished, he sat motionless. When he looked up, his mood was contemptuous. "So this is your price?"
"No price was mentioned."
"But it was implied. You tell me that, at the time that I was being accepted, you yourself were hoping to be engaged to Miss Beddow; then you hand me this letter. What do you suppose I infer? What would any man infer? That your promise to keep my existence a secret from Ann is conditional on the breaking of my engagement with Miss Beddow."
"Handing you Ann's letter wouldn't do that. Your engagement with Miss Beddow is already broken."
Braithwaite jerked his chair back and stared. Then the audacity of such an assertion touched his sense of humor. He fell to laughing. "That at least is an invention."
Tabs showed no resentment. There was something disturbingly convincing about his self-possession. "Didn't I tell you," he asked patiently, "that you'd find it difficult to believe a good many things before I had ended? I had an appointment to see Miss Beddow at her father's house this morning at eleven. Before I'd finished breakfast she was visiting me instead. She had called to make two requests: that I would see you to-day and get her promise back, and that I'd become engaged to her myself."
Braithwaite lurched forward, folding his arms on the table. His voice was thick with passion when he spoke. "What you tell me sounds mad; but you'd gain nothing by telling it if it were not true."
"Nothing," Tabs confirmed.
"No, nothing. If it weren't true, I could go to the telephone and disprove your falsehood inside of ten minutes."
"Then it is true—which means that you've ousted me. And that's why you can afford to be so calm and Christ-like. I've been wondering how you'd contrived this Galilean display of charity."
"You've not heard me out." Tabs still spoke with friendliness. "While we were together your telegram arrived and I agreed to be the bearer of her message. But as for her second request, that I should become engaged to her, I refused that point-blank."
"You what?" The anger cleared from Braithwaite's face, leaving the chalky mask of a tragic harlequin. When he spoke again it was humbly. "You can't blame me for not believing you. You jump about. You say several things which seem to point to a definite conclusion and then at the last moment you change it. I don't know whether you do it to amuse yourself at my expense or whether it's merely the way your mind works. At any rate, it's cruel—this cat and mouse game. I wish you'd be direct."
"That's what I wish to be. You could help me if you'd ask questions."
Braithwaite sighed, wearied beyond endurance. He was becoming less like the General and more like the old dependent Braithwaite every second. "You wanted to marry her last night, only to find she'd promised herself to me already. Then she comes to you this morning, offering herself, and you refuse her. That doesn't make sense. Why did you refuse her?"
"Because if I'd taken her at her word, I shouldn't have been playing fair."
At the recurrence of that phrase "playing fair," a momentary annoyance crept into Braithwaite's eyes. "I've always heard," he commenced, "that in love and war——"
"Everything's fair," Tabs ended his quotation. "Well, in this case, it isn't. It was because she realized, after she'd promised herself to you, that in love everything isn't fair, that she asked me to get her promise back."
"You mean as regards yourself? She'd begun to feel that she wasn't treating you handsomely?"
"I don't mean as regards myself. You were the cause of her change of mind."
"I!" Braithwaite's bewilderment made him hostile. "How could I have caused her to change her mind? I parted with her after midnight; it must have been shortly after nine that she was seeing you. I held no communication with her in any shape or form during the eight or nine hours that elapsed."
"Nevertheless, you were the cause. She realized in the meanwhile that in love everything isn't fair. It isn't fair to ignore a young girl's happiness in order to win her hand. You had done that; though she has no proofs, instinctively she feels it."
Braithwaite shook his head and thrust himself back with the gesture of a man whose patience is completely at an end. "I haven't the vaguest idea what you're hinting at."
"Then I'll be brutally explicit. You've at no time told her who you were or where you came from before you made a name for yourself. You've evaded all her questions. You told a palpable falsehood in her presence when you insisted that you had never known me. You're perfectly aware that, if you approached her father, all the facts about your past, which you're suppressing, would most certainly come out. Your courting has been clandestine, behind the back of her family. It seems perfectly obvious that you're trying to lure her into a runaway match. She has grounds for believing that you do not trust her and, because of that, although you fascinate her, she finds it impossible to trust you in return. She trusts you so little that she did not dare to risk facing you and sent me in her stead. She's so sure that a marriage with you would be unfortunate that, in order to save herself from it, she's willing to become engaged to me, whom she loves only as a friend. You'll wonder why I tell you all this. It's because I want her to be happy. If you really are the man for her, she must have you. But you'll never have the remotest chance of winning her unless you make a clean breast——"
"If I did my chances would be at an end."
"If you believe that," Tabs sought for the most lenient words, "you know what you're doing. You'd despise to cheat at cards, but you don't mind cheating the woman whom you profess to love best.—And then there's Ann."
"I'd rather not discuss Ann." The abrupt pain in Braithwaite's tone betrayed the grumbling ache of an old wound. "I think even you will grant that there are some things in a man's heart which are privately sacred. Ann lies entirely outside the bounds of all justifiable interference on your part."
It took an effort for Tabs to bring himself to break down the barrier of reticence which this depth of feeling had imposed. "I'm sorry, General, but I can't agree with you." He waited for the expected protest. When it did not come, he carried on reluctantly, "I have a high regard for Ann. She's one of my household and that makes me responsible for her to an extent. I can't allow her to be tortured any longer with suspense—she's had more than three years of this horrid nightmare, hovering between hope and dread. Every day of the three years has been unnecessary. Whether you break or keep your promise to her is your concern. Whether she takes action against you when she knows the truth, is hers. But she has the right to know. To see that she knows comes within the bounds of any decent man's justifiable interference. One of us must tell her; the news would come with less grace from myself. But for you to wriggle out of your dilemma with silence, while she goes on breaking her heart, is cowardly—just as cowardly as if you'd deserted in the face of the enemy. I've no doubt you've sentenced more than one poor wretch to be shot at sunrise for doing that."
Tabs pulled out his watch. He had said everything. So far as he was concerned the conversation was at an end. It was nearly three o'clock. Time had traveled quickly. He was surprised at the lateness of the hour. Now that his intentness was relaxed, he let his gaze wander. The room was nearly empty. Most of the gay little ladies who had chattered across the tables to their recently recovered lovers or husbands, had tripped away to continue their spree of celebration at a matinee or in an orgy of shopping. Those who were left were putting on their wraps or sipping the last of their coffee under the reproachful eyes of waiters. Across the window in a brown-gray streak flowed the wind-flecked highway of the Thames.
Braithwaite beckoned for his bill. After the humiliation of what had been said it irked Tabs to have to see him pay it. The trend of the conversation had helped to strip him of the arrogance of his military honors. The mercenary subserviency of the man who handed him his account, seemed to arouse him to the landslide that had taken place in his self-esteem. He made a conscious effort to pull himself together. While he waited for his change, he broke the silence.
"I believe you meant well by coming here. It would be foolish for me to pretend that I'm altogether grateful—grateful for your way of expressing most of the things that we've discussed together. At the same time, Lord Taborley, I owe you an apology if at any point I've misjudged your intentions. As regards Ann, you err in justice when you hold me accountable for all the causes of her tragedy. Both she and I, and Miss Beddow for the matter of that, are the victims of circumstances. It's scarcely my fault that I've outgrown Ann; I'm no more to blame for that than Terry is for having fallen in love with a man who was your servant. I didn't make the war. I didn't promote myself from a valet to a General. I didn't even consciously allure Terry. She fascinates me as much as I fascinate her: I fought against her fascination at first.—But to get back to Ann, I let her slip out of my life because I wanted to spare her. I thought it would be easier for her to believe me dead than to be told that she was—was discarded. I couldn't be expected to foresee that she would display this awkward loyalty of hoping. I didn't know what had happened to her. She's a good-looking girl; I'd pictured her as married to a man of her own class, until you flung this bombshell at me. I'm not callous. Don't misapprehend me. I can still think of her with tenderness. But as for ever treating her again as my equal—— It would be as impossible for me to resume the old relations with her as it would be for your Lordship to commence them." He waited for some word of criticism or encouragement. When Tabs only nodded non-committally, he proceeded more slowly. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm fully aware, now that the war is ended, that as a has-been General who rose from the ranks, I have no marketable value. I have no specialized training to offer to a commercial world which calls for experts. The only knowledge that I have to sell is the old knowledge that you used to purchase. My house of cards has collapsed. To be unwisely frank, my financial resources are limited to little more than my war-gratuity."
"And yet you're anxious to marry Terry," Tabs suggested; "to marry her without letting her know about any of these handicaps of which she would have to share the penalty."
Braithwaite's head went up with a soldierly jerk. The bleak look came into his eyes. He was "Steely Jack" at that moment. "I have the confidence to believe," he said proudly, "that I shall go as far in peace as I did in war. Never to own that you're beaten, never to squeal when you're hurt, never to retreat from a position when once it has been captured must count back here for as much as it did out there. In France I had the reputation for never losing an inch of trench. I don't intend to lose an inch of trench now. My back is to the wall. For the present I can't afford to do anything gratuitously charitable; by the smallest waste of energy I may defeat myself. To hold any correspondence with Ann at this moment might mean the slamming in my own face of every door of opportunity. I'll do my stretcher-bearing when I've won; not a second before."
Against his will, while he listened, the unscrupulous valor of the man stirred Tabs to admiration. Only the after-event could prove whether this verbal display of fireworks was only bombast. "And so that's your ultimatum?" he asked with disquieting sanity.
"Yes, if that's what you call it."
The waiter had returned with the receipted bill. Braithwaite was picking up the change. Not looking at Tabs he said, "A few minutes ago you were consulting your watch. I believe you have an engagement."
"I have. But if we can arrive at any more definite conclusion by talking longer, I'll skip it. It's of no importance."
Braithwaite glanced up. "Not to you, perhaps; but it may be to her."
With that he commenced to lead the way out, choosing a winding path through the maze of tables. Not until they were traversing the great gold and crimson lounge, with its ornate furnishings, did Tabs catch up with him to ask his question. "How did you know about my engagement and whether it was important or not?"
Braithwaite answered carelessly, "It's with Maisie, isn't it? I heard Terry suggest to her that she should make it. She's a nice little woman. I shouldn't like to be the cause of her disappointment. She was looking forward——" The rest was lost as a flunkey requested the registered number of whatever Tabs had left in the cloak-room.
While they waited for the hat and cane to be produced, Tabs made a last attempt to persuade the General to commit himself to some promised course of action. "No one would be more pleased to see you succeed than myself. I'm not trying to hamper you. Neither is Terry; but she insists that unless things are to terminate between you, she must know the truth. Frankness with Terry necessitates frankness with Ann. You'll never succeed, however great your courage, unless you start with your honor solvent. Ann's beneath you, you say—that's why you've outgrown her. It's not my business to dispute the fact. I didn't want to introduce the class view of things; but, by the same showing, you're beneath Terry. She's young to-day: through a lifetime she might outgrow you. She's as much your social superior as you claim to be Ann's. You've discarded Ann on the ground of inequality of rank. In your case Terry's family have a perfect right to raise the same objection."
"Not at all." The answer came like the crack of a whip. Braithwaite drew himself up with the pride of one who had moved men like pawns across the checker-board of life and death. "The two cases afford no parallel. Ann and Terry have remained in the social stations to which they were born, while I—I stand outside all such ready-made, rule of thumb classifications. By sheer impetus of personality I have lifted myself out of the rut, so that not even you, with all your omniscience, dare prophesy how far I am going or where I shall end."
It was plain that further talk would be useless. "I'm afraid I must be going," Tabs said. "I wish you very good luck. I hope we part friends. And of course you understand that I now consider myself entirely free to do my utmost to win Terry for myself."
He extended his hand. Braithwaite made no motion to take it. He held himself erect as if prepared for an affront. His tones were icy when he spoke. "Before I shake hands with you, Lord Taborley, I have to know what you mean by your utmost. With so many playing-cards out against me, I don't stand the ghost of a show unless—— Perhaps I have no right to expect it; I never asked quarter from any man. I was going to say, unless you intend to be gallant——"
Tabs pocketed his hand and turned to limp into the sunlit thunder of the Strand. "The merciful receive mercy, General. Perhaps we shall shake hands some other day. How gallant I am depends entirely upon yourself."
He emerged into the swollen thoroughfare, where the traffic roared and jostled like a torrent through a mountain gorge towards the broader freedom of Trafalgar Square. He turned westward, walking swiftly for the first hundred yards, rather fearing that he might be followed. Then he slowed down; swift walking made his limp too painfully obvious.
He was dissatisfied with both himself and Braithwaite. He felt as though he had gone to meet some one in a wood and had heard only the muttering of a voice and the rustle of retreating footsteps. "If I had only seen his face," he thought.
In recalling Braithwaite, he found himself picturing two persons, of both of whom he had had separate and distinct glimpses: the one the loyal man, who in years gone by had served him faithfully and shared so many of his adventures; the other the arrogant, red-tabbed superior, who had stolen his happiness without warning. It was impossible to resolve the two into one. The first he still regarded with affection. The second—— He had never allowed himself to hate any one. Hatred he held to be back of breeding—a weak man's subterfuge for acknowledging self-distrust. Because he had come so near to hating, he accused himself of censoriousness. "If I had only seen his face—the real man beneath the pretense—I might have understood and helped him," he muttered.
And now he was going to a fresh encounter where even more sympathy would be required. It would be easy to condemn Maisie P. Lockwood. On a superficial judgment she merited nothing else. Three husbands in four and a half years, plus a risky flirtation with a married man were not the credentials of an honorable character. If he followed the advice of Sir Tobias Beddow, he would seek to assess her price at once. But he had never been accustomed to regard women in that light—as a sex whose virtue could be inflated or depressed by the increase or shrinkage of a balance at the bank. Actually he knew very little about women; riding as a knight-errant, with the wonder in his eyes of the mystery that might surprise him round the luck of any corner, he had never given himself much time to learn. His ideas about women were Tennysonian. He liked to believe that they were free from temptations, more true in their emotions, more generous in their affections, more unerring and unstained than men. He extended to them all the reverent tenderness with which he regarded his mothers memory. In this he saw nothing quixotic; to him the most hoydenish girl was a potential mother, whose body possessed a sacredness quite apart from herself as a slim, adventurous ark which would bear the future of the race across the deluge of the ages. He knew, as a matter of fact, that all women were invariably neither saints nor angels; but he clung to his chivalrous superstition as a man prays, though he receives no answers to his prayers. To the recorded cynicism of experimenters in temptation he flung back the challenge of a sadder cynic, "We're all in the gutter; but some of us are looking at the stars."