So in this matter of Maisie, he argued, she couldn't be as shallow as her history would indicate. She was Terry's friend; that, in itself, was a proof of goodness. Terry had been so anxious for him to meet and comprehend her that she had gone behind his back to prompt the appointment. Well, he would make a better job of this second interview than he had of the one that was just ended. He must approach it, at any rate, without prejudice.
While thinking these thoughts he reached Charing Cross. Already he was weary with so small an exertion. He halted, debating whether he should struggle further. Then he became aware of wounded Tommies, chiefly Overseas troops, Canadians and Australians, who from their first landing in England had chosen this quarter of a mile as their happy hunting-ground. They stood propped up against the pavement; they sat among the pigeons on the parapets of Trafalgar Square. They were laughing and chaffing, those one-legged, one-armed, derelict crusaders in their atrocious hospital uniforms. They were thousands of miles from their one and only woman; but their drawn faces grinned cheerfully and their jaws were squared in the old, invincible, obstinate determination never to admit they were down-hearted. The sight of them filled him with strength. Though he saw them only fugitively through gaps in the tide of traffic, he felt their companionship. He would always feel it—the fine, shared courage of men out of sight, who had adventured for an ideal as his companions.
He crossed the top of Whitehall, passed beneath the Admiralty Arch and entered the garnished, graveled, tree-bordered spaciousness of the Mall. His old sense returned—the confidence which the Mall always gave to him—of Empire and world-wideness. As he strolled along, he noticed a board which informed the public that, by following a certain path, one would arrive at the Passport Office. Hidden in the greenness, set down in the bed of an ornamental lake which had been drained when the terror of air raids had threatened, he made out a low-built, sprawling shed. It was like a glimpse of romance. The path which led to its doorway was the first few hundred yards along the road that ran to Rio, Fiji and Tibet. One had but to enter and the journey was commenced. The sight reminded him of something which he had forgotten; that, though every other delight failed, he still possessed the wideness of the world. He could sail away. There were islands of the sea—Stevenson's Samoa, Conrad's Malay Archipelago. If people proved disappointing, there were always the painted solitudes which human disillusions had not withered and could not defile. It was a loophole worth remembering.
Outside Buckingham Palace he made an unpremeditated surrender. A taxi was prowling along by the curb as slowly as regulations allowed. He raised his stick automatically as he caught the driver's eye. When the cab had halted, again he procrastinated with the handle of the door in his hand.
"Where to?" the driver enquired for the second time.
"To Brompton Square," he ordered uncertainly.
The cab was already moving when he changed his mind. Standing up and leaning out of the window, "No. To Chelsea," he shouted above the throbbing of the engine. Then drawing out Maisie's crumpled letter, he read from it the address.
CHAPTER THE FOURTH
THE COMPLICATIONS OF MAISIE
Tabs was not very familiar with Chelsea. He had seen it from the river a score of times, red-walled, umbrageous and old-fashioned. But of the district itself he knew next to nothing, save that up to the war it had been the favorite roosting-place of short-haired women and long-haired men. He wondered whether Maisie's hair was short. He decided in the negative. To have attracted three husbands in four and a half years she must be outwardly conventional. An unconventional woman might persuade one man to marry her, but not three in such rapid succession. She probably belonged to the apparently harmless, sympathetic, sisterly, domestic type. And yet she must be something more than conventional; millions of merely conventional women lacked the prowess to anchor only one man in all the years of their life, whereas, judging by the Adair incident, Maisie had not yet completed her list of husbands. There was an undefined danger in coming into contact with such a woman, which lent this expedition to Chelsea an atmosphere of adventure.
Did she know for what purpose he was visiting her? If she did, she was a bold woman—a strategist. Her position was strengthened by his coming to her in the guise of an invited guest. Then he remembered that he had made a bargain with himself to meet her with a mind unclouded by prejudice.
He had been traveling mean thoroughfares, when suddenly the cab swung into an old-world street of dignified respectability and turned again abruptly into a tiny quadrangle of color-washed, stucco-fronted, timbered houses. In the center was a lawn, surrounded with white posts between which black painted chains hung in loops; the apparent intention was to create the illusion of a village-green. Tabs entered instantly into the spirit of the game—the littleness and childishness of the attempt at quaintness. He liked the bijou privacy of the Court, its greenness and tidiness, and the absurdity of the narrow windows which glinted at him like spectacles. But there was something that he missed.
The driver had climbed down and was opening the door. "Mulberry Tree Court, mister. I forget which number you told me; but there ain't so much of it that you're likely to lose yourself."
"But where's the mulberry tree?" Tabs asked. There was in his voice the discontent of a disappointed child.
"There never was no mulberry tree," the man replied in all seriousness.
"Well, if there isn't a mulberry tree," Tabs laughed, "I suppose we must make shift to do without it."
The man frowned and justified himself grumblingly. "It ain't my bloomin' fault. I've done nothin' with yer bloomin' tree."
"I suppose not," said Tabs as if the matter were still in doubt.
Feeling in his pocket he paid what was owing and watched the cab move off. Even at this last moment he was half-minded to retreat. What business was it of his to interfere in another man's love-affair? He looked stealthily round the Court to see if eyes were watching. All the windows were empty; nothing stirred. The fact that he was not watched reassured him. He glanced at the number on the nearest door, discovered in which direction the numbers ran and decided that his must be the house conspicuous for its marigold-tinted curtains, standing retiringly in the farthest corner.
Once again he hesitated. Should he or should he not? The old nursery-rhyme came wandering into his head with its innocent lilt of jolliness:
"Here we go round the mulberry-bush, The mulberry-bush, the mulberry-bush; Here we go round the mulberry-bush, So early in the morning."
"And so we do," he murmured. "Let's take a chance."
The door—an apple-green door—was opened by a maid as trim as Ann. Was Mrs. Lockwood in? She would enquire. "And your name, please, sir?—Lord Taborley! Certainly."
She left him waiting in the hall, while she went to make her fictional enquiries. He was as sure that they were fictional as if he had glanced into the room upstairs where Maisie was making a last anxious inspection before her mirror. So the pretense was to be that he had called casually and had scarcely been expected.
He tried to learn something of Maisie from the appearance of her hall. It was speckless. Everything in it shone with intense cleanliness and polish. He had noticed the same gleam about the windows, brasses and very doorstep before he had entered. He had noticed it again about the maid who had admitted him. It sent Maisie up very much in his estimation. It almost explained to him how she had managed to get three husbands. Men never know why they fall in love with a woman; more often than not they mistake tidiness for beauty. "If you can't be beautiful, be clean," Maisie's hall seemed to say; "if you can be both, you're invincible." Maisie was invincible, as her conquests proved. This first glimpse of her belongings showed that she loved cleanliness. By a jump in his logic Tabs began to suspect that she must be beautiful.
He had pursued his observations thus far, when he heard a door discreetly closed overhead and the starchy rustling of the maid returning.
"If your Lordship will step into the drawing-room, Madam will be down in a moment."
He found himself in a long artistic room, feminine to a degree, exquisitely restful and yet broad-minded with signs of selection and travel. It was furnished according to no particular period. There was an Italian chest of drawers inlaid with ivory, a Dutch marquetry secretaire, some Louis XVIth chairs, a mirror of old Venetian glass, bronzes, snuff-boxes, specimens of china, odd bits of beaten silver, knick-knacks of all sorts, lying scattered about with apparent carelessness. A fire was burning in the grate. Tea was set out on a table beside a companionable couch. Through French windows the smallest of gardens shone bravely, a-blow with bulb flowers planted in crevices of a rockery, at the foot of which lay an oval pond and a silent fountain. As though to emphasize the game of littleness, a toy-boat floated on the pond's surface.
"Not the woman I had imagined," was his unspoken thought; "not the wily adventuress! But if she's not, then what——"
In an attempt to satisfy his curiosity, he commenced to inspect the room in detail. The first thing he discovered was that all the silver frames, which stood about, contained photographs of the same man. It struck him as an odd exhibition of faithfulness on the part of a woman who had had so many husbands. He counted the photographs; there were no less than five of them, recording the same face from varying angles.
"Which of them, is he," he asked himself, "Pollock, Gervis, or Lockwood? But he mayn't be any of them. Perhaps he's a possible fourth—the latest. If so, here's hoping, for he shuts out Adair."
He turned towards the couch, intending to sit down. As he turned, his gaze encountered an oil-painting hanging above the mantelpiece.
"By George! How did I manage to miss that?"
He stared at it with intense interest—almost with a sense of shock. Somewhere—he could not determine where—he had seen that face before.
The picture was a half-length portrait of a woman. There was something extraordinarily queenly and at the same time patient in her attitude. Her hands, which were out of sight, seemed to be folded. She was seated, leaning forward; her head was turned towards the right, so that her face appeared in profile. She was in extremely low evening-dress of an aquamarine shade, flowered with gold. Her shoulders were sickle-shaped and gleamed like the half-crescent of a young moon. From her throat, which was full and white, hung a splendid string of tan-colored pearls. But it was the slope of her jaw, the way her ears set back, and the rounded strength of her head that gave to her that peculiarly alert beauty. Her dark hair was drawn from off her forehead, making clear in her features an expression of calm challenge. She was a woman who had lived and not always happily. Her calmness was the quiet of almost painful self-control. And her age—— With her atmosphere of experience, it was certainly over thirty. She was not the woman to put back the hands of time for any man.
"It can't be of Maisie," he thought, and yet he hoped. "But it can't be of her," he insisted. "This woman is remote and uncapturable. She's done with passion. She's tasted life to the full and the taste was bitter. She has nothing left but her unquenchable pride, with which she tortures herself: her pride not to submit, not to cry out, to stand always at bay. That's all she has, unless——" And then, speaking aloud in his effort to remember, "I know her. I'm positive. And yet——"
The door behind him opened. "This is nice of you, Lord Taborley.—Ah, you were looking at Di! Most men do that when they visit me. I ought to be jealous. But a word of warning; looking is as far as any of them get."
Tabs found himself shaking hands with a woman who shared the features of the woman in the portrait, but who differed from her in that she was fair, lacked her alluring remoteness and had much more of youth to her credit. Whereas the woman in the portrait looked uncapturable, Maisie's charm lay in her accessibility—the genial promise she held out of being willing and even eager to surrender. Her every tone and gesture proclaimed her anxiety to find this world a pleasant place—her determination to make it pleasant and to be gay under every circumstance.
She was as little, flawless and gleaming as her house. More than half her good looks were due to the immaculate care which she bestowed on her body—the whiteness of her teeth, the fineness of her well-kept hands, the brilliant clearness of her complexion, the wavy smoothness of her abundant flaxen hair which had been brushed and brushed until it shone and glinted like raw gold in sunshine. She would have looked almost too perfect to be genuine, had it not been for her vivid health. She was so dainty in her fragility that one longed and yet scarcely dared to touch her.
The moment she had spoken Tabs had recognized that nothing that she had done or might do could obscure her atmosphere of breeding. He had met men like that, whose sense of race, even when they were at the lowest depths, had kept them superior to their environment. A pale woman of spun silk and gossamer, with cornflower eyes and lips like parted poppy-petals! This woman could be kind to the point of folly—so kind that her folly would appear almost virtue. She was a woman who, though she might love too often, would love so much that to her much would always be forgiven.
"I must apologize," Tabs spoke gently, "for having been found staring at your picture."
He did not know it, but men always spoke gently to Maisie. It was her air of trust and helplessness that did it, her tender trick of creating in each man the belief that she relied peculiarly on him for protection—all of which was totally at variance with the masterly efficiency with which she ran both herself and her house.
"I was staring at your picture," Tabs continued, "because I thought I recognized——"
"I daresay you did," Maisie interrupted. "Though you may not have met her, her face is forever in the papers. Among the family she's known as the Princess Czarina Bolsheviki——"
"She looks it. But is she a princess?"
Maisie laughed. "Not yet, but it won't be her fault if she isn't. It'll have to be a prince next time. If she marries again, she'll stoop to nothing less. Look at the way she carries her head; she almost feels the weight of her coronet already. But she says she's had enough of marriage. We've all said that. Poor dear Di, she misses a lot of fun by her exclusiveness. If I only had half her wealth——"
She evidently wanted Tabs to ask her what she would do with it. Her eyes grew round with spendthrift promises of jolliness, if ever such wealth should come within reach of her tiny, managing hands. She looked as mischievously covetous as a magpie while she waited for him to put the obvious question.
But Tabs wasn't interested in the obvious. He stuck to his enquiry. "What you've told me doesn't help me to recall her," he said. "Who is she? It's most annoying to recognize a face and not to be able to place it against any background."
Maisie pretended to pout. "You're like all the rest of them; you come to see me and do nothing but talk of her. I'd have hidden her in the attic long ago, only she's by Sargent. She's too beautiful for hiding, and then no one can afford to hide her Sargent under a bushel in these hard times."
"And still you've not told me," Tabs reproached her.
"Wouldn't we be more comfortable sitting down?" Maisie slid between the couch and the tea-table, making herself comfortable against a pile of cushions. When Tabs looked round for a seat, he discovered the strategy of the arrangement of the furniture. The nearest available chair to Maisie was at least four yards away; to have selected it would have been to have isolated himself. He would have had to have hailed her ridiculously across the room's breadth. It was plainly intended that he should challenge fate and share the couch, just as Pollock, Gervis, Lockwood, Adair and so many others had done before him.
All this friendliness would make it a little difficult for him presently when he broached the subject of Adair. He had an uneasy feeling that Sir Tobias wouldn't approve of this way of conducting his mission. It was one thing to fly the white flag of truce while you parleyed with the enemy; it was quite another to share the same couch with her in a cozy room, where there were only the two of you and the jumping flames of the fire in the grate made the silver on the small round table glow red. When they weren't talking there was no sound. None of the clamor of London reached them. They might have been in a cave, far removed from everything that disturbed. And, indeed, the little piled-up rockery outside the windows, with the spring flowers blowing and the baby lake, with the toy-boat drifting on its quiet surface, rather created the illusion that this was a cave.
A restful lethargy of kindness was creeping over him. He didn't want to be at enmity with anybody, least of all with this dainty sprite of a woman with the cornflower eyes and the flaxen hair. He no longer wondered that three men in succession, weary of the mud of fighting, had come to her for rest. He could even comprehend Adair's treachery, if it had gone so far as treachery. Adair had found his wife fretful—she had always been crying and hanging round his neck. Here he had found companionship, secret laughter and forgetfulness. The world owed any woman a large debt of liberty who could give men that. Maisie was the kind of woman who could bury twenty husbands and go out next morning to meet the twenty-first. What was far more amazing, she could do it without frivolity or loss of self-respect. She lived a day at a time. She made you feel, the moment you met her, that that was the only tolerable way of living. The excuse for her philosophy was its success. She was an expert in happiness—so expert that she could communicate her secret without waste of words. Probably for most men words were not necessary; for them their happiness was herself.
From her end of the couch Maisie smiled at Tabs dreamily. "You're persistent when you want anything. I suppose you always get your desires?"
"The little things, yes," he replied. "But the big things—they evade me."
"You mean Terry."
She said it without change of tone or expression, with the same happy smile curling up the corners of her uncruel mouth. It was disconcerting to have his private humiliations referred to so frankly, as though they were fitting subjects for casual conversation. But, after all, he reminded himself, his business there was to discuss her equally private affairs. He was hardly in a position to resent anything she might say. It was a duel, and she had drawn first blood. He was quick to see that her purpose in introducing Terry was to gain an advantage while she postponed the inevitable discussion of Adair.
She didn't give him a chance to reply. "I know all about you and Terry," she continued, "and about Braithwaite, too, for the matter of that. Perhaps why Terry evades you is because she isn't one of your really big things. You may have mistaken her for a big thing. If she is one of your truly big things, you'll get her. You're one of the few men who get all that they desire."
It was possible that she was trying to flatter him; nevertheless, against his will, the certainty of her way of talking impressed him. "What makes you think that I get everything that I desire?"
She laughed and snuggled closer into the cushions. "I can't put it into words. I just know by looking at you. You have the air."
"Then what makes you say that Terry may not be one of my big things?"
She glanced up at him amused. "I almost made you angry when I said that.—Do you really want to know? I said it because I don't think that she is one of your big things and, what's more, you don't think that she is either. Now I have made you angry—— But you don't—not the sane you, who was and is and will be to-morrow—the you who'll outlive this disappointment."
He was at one and the same time intrigued and offended by the turn the conversation had taken. His memory groped back to the first conception he had had of this woman—the woman who tricked married men, who used scented note-paper, who interpreted thoughts before they were uttered and forestalled actions before they had been planned—the woman whom he had been instructed to buy off with a price. What was he doing discussing his love-affair with such as her?
His voice was chilling when he spoke. "It's very good of you to take such an interest in me. I ought to be gratified that you should think you know so much about me, and after so short an acquaintance—so very much more than I know about myself."
"But I don't think; I do know far more at this moment than you know about yourself." Her tones were calm and lazy, unembarrassed and pleasant. The red glow of the fire glinting on the silver tea-service seemed the reflection of her cheerfulness.
"If you're so certain that you know, you might tell me," he said stiffly.
"I know—— Do you mind if I smoke?" She leant forward while he held a match to her cigarette. "I know that you're an intensely lonely man. All men have to be lonely till they're thirty if they're going to get anywhere. They have no time to spare. You've had no time to spare for women—that's why you don't understand them. Women were for you a treat in store, until the war broke. Then suddenly you discovered that you had missed the most precious thing in life. You hadn't the time to be wise in your choice, so you turned to some one young and accessible. Her youth seemed to symbolize all that you coveted at the moment; it symbolized going on forever. You weren't really in love with her as an individual; you were in love with the thought of love and youth. You won't believe it, but almost any young girl who was beautiful and willing would have served your purpose. During the terrible years you've clothed her with your own idealism. You've told yourself that it was for her that you were fighting. You've created in your heart a person she never was and hasn't it in her to become. You've thought of her as a second you, with your sense of honor, your passion for unselfishness, your patience and experience gained through suffering. The ideal you've set up for her is contradictory and impossible. Youth isn't considerate, experienced, unselfish, patient. For those qualities you have to go to the middle years. I know what I'm talking about, for I've had three soldier husbands." She said it without self-reproach or self-glory—as though it were the sort of thing that might happen to any woman. "You've been finding out the kind of girl she really is since your return—the kind of girl who prefers General Braithwaite to yourself and can't discriminate between the temporary and the permanent. You're disappointed in her. You've discovered already that she isn't the woman you thought you were loving. You're now only pretending that you still care for her because life would be too empty without your dream and because the right woman, for whom you've already renewed your search, hasn't yet turned up. Somewhere inside you at this moment your sane self is endorsing every word that I'm saying as true."
"That's not so." His contradiction was spoken fiercely.
"But it is so," the sweet voice persisted. "You yourself have tacitly owned it."
There was the sharpness of alarm in his way of asking. Her assurance had startled him out of his brief anger.
She laughed softly. "I think we might have tea; it'll restore our serenity. There's nothing like employing your hands when you want to keep from losing your temper. A woman learns that, even when she's only been married once. When she's been married three times," the cornflower eyes became suddenly innocent, "she knows everything.—Will you touch the bell? It'll save me getting up.—How, you ask. How do I know that you've already renewed your searching? To a man who's as head over heels in love as you profess to be all women, except the one woman, however beautiful, ought to be hanks of hair and bags of bones. I read your thoughts when I caught you gazing at my sister's portrait. You were saying to yourself, 'What if she's the woman!' And you're even sufficiently detached in your affections to acknowledge attraction in a horrid little pestering, too-much-married person like myself."
It was lucky that the maid selected that moment for answering the bell. Things were getting uncomfortably personal. Tabs had the idea that Maisie had been talking against time till she should hear the footsteps of her reenforcements. As the maid entered, she turned towards her with the brightness of relief.
"That's splendid of you, Porter. You guessed what we wanted.—Porter always guesses what I want, Lord Taborley; she's my second self. And Porter can tell your fortune from the cards—can't you, Porter? Only she never reads the cards on a Sunday; she says it brings bad luck. If you come here often, you must try her.—You might take that dish from her.—Thanks awfully. There's room for it here on this corner of the tray."
Tabs smiled inwardly while he did his awkward best to make himself useful. He might know very little about women, but he knew intuitively quite a lot about this particular woman. He knew that Porter had guessed nothing, because nothing had been left to chance. He knew it as surely as he had known what Maisie had been doing in front of her mirror while he had been kept waiting. He knew that long before his arrival every detail of his reception had been prepared and planned, and that Porter had been instructed. The whole morning had been spent in dusting, sweeping, polishing and making ready the various dishes of dainty cakes and neatly-cut sandwiches which were being spread before him. He was certain that the kindly patronage of Maisie's way of addressing Porter was another part of the conspiracy.
Curiously enough it was Porter who made him like and trust her more than he had done as yet. Porter's eyes, when they rested on her mistress, embraced her with a slavish worship; when they rested on him, they warned and dared him. He had the feeling that the man who made Maisie cry was likely to feel a knife in his back. Maisie must be good to be able to call forth such fanatical loyalty from a humble woman. He began to be infected by this atmosphere of idolatry. And yet——
What was Maisie's object in belittling his love for Terry? What did she hope to gain by it? He hardly dared allow himself to suspect; thinking in her presence was like speaking aloud. She heard unspoken words as plainly as those that were uttered. But the suspicion would not be suppressed. Had she formed the audacious plan of winning him for herself? And this despite her three previous marriages, despite her knowledge of why he had visited her, despite his knowledge of Adair!
Quick as a flash her eyes turned on him with a scarcely perceptible shake of her head. The door clicked discreetly as Porter left them. It was like clearing a ring for the second round. The dangerous intimacy, half tender, half inimical, returned.
"There's no harm in being pleasant," her voice was musical and pleading, "however unpleasant the circumstances which have thrown us together. Taking tea with me doesn't set up any social obligation. You won't have to know me again or anything like that. Now that we understand each other—— How do you like your tea? Is it two lumps?"
With the tongs poised ready to pounce, she waited for him to tell her. But he didn't tell her; he smiled inscrutably. He wasn't sure at what he was smiling. Perhaps it was that he was happy—happy in a worldly-wise fashion that he had never been with Terry. He could say anything to this woman and it wouldn't shock her—there was comfort in that.
But she had scared up a doubt in his mind that he might have mistaken his kingdom. Perhaps the recovery of youth wasn't everything. There were things very precious in themselves, which were well lost under certain circumstances. Maisie's youth, for instance. She was far more enchanting now than she could ever have been as a girl. In losing her youth she had gained in sympathy; it was that that made her understand him so well. In a wife you wanted more than youth—the knowledge of a companion. It began to dawn on him that there might be truth in what she had said. Perhaps once again she had known him better than he knew himself. He had been with her less than an hour. He didn't completely trust her, and yet here was this astounding fact: by reason of her experience there were things he could say to her that he would never dream of saying to the girl whom he believed he loved best. And Adair, he, too——
"You hadn't expected that things would be like this," she was saying, "just you and I, sitting like old friends and drinking tea together. You'd nerved yourself up for a vulgar row. I know—— Well, since you won't tell me how many lumps, I'll give you two."
As he bent forward to receive the cup, their hands touched. The contact was electric. A rush of excited vitality seemed to pour into his body from hers. The touch was only for a second, but it left him startled and stark of pretenses. When he sought her eyes, they were calm as ever. "You're a most bewildering woman—the most bewildering I ever met," he confessed.
"Except my sister," she corrected.
He glanced up at the portrait and back to her, comparing the features. "Yes, I see it now. She is your sister. I ought to have guessed. But I haven't met her; so I don't except her."
Maisie busied herself with passing the dishes. She had a way of making everything appear conventional by the unruffled quiet with which she accepted it. At the back of her mind she seemed to be smiling at the domestic scene she had achieved with this man, who should have been her enemy.
"No, you haven't met her," she assented. "But until you've met her, you won't rest; and after you've met her, you won't rest either.—And so you think I'm bewildering! You thought something else, which you didn't have the courage to put into words. Bewildering and dangerous—the most dangerous woman you'd ever met—that was what you meant."
He smiled with a shade of embarrassment. "I might have called you the most disconcerting woman; you're all of that. No man of sense, who valued his peace of mind, would tell any woman she was dangerous."
"I don't see why. Why shouldn't he? Do tell me. I shan't be offended." She leant forward, absorbing him with her childish eyes, her lips parted with expectancy.
"Because——" Tabs checked himself while he studied the tantalizing innocence of her expression. He felt certain that he was going to say something irresistibly unwise. To gain time he looked away and commenced aimlessly stirring his cup. "Well, if you must have it, because to tell a woman that would be to tempt her to be dangerous."
"But I love to be tempted," she said eagerly; "temptation is the yeast of life." And then in a whisper, speaking less to him than to herself, "A woman knows that she's old when temptation ends."
Like ripples from a stone flung into water the poignancy of what she had implied rather than uttered, spread away with a commotion which grew ever fainter. They sat without change of posture at either end of the couch, she bending towards him, he gazing down into his cup as though by staring into it he could retain his grip on the conventions. There was no sound, save the rustling of live coals in the grate. Outside the window the toy boat floated, a symbol of men's and women's ineffectual childishness, always dreaming of adventures on which they never set sail. Tabs pondered the hidden profundity of her words. At last he believed that through her he understood himself. It wasn't youth that he or anybody coveted; it was the more supreme boon of not growing old. He had just arrived at this new self-knowledge when she spoke.
"To be tempted means that one's wanted—wanted dreadfully, so that it hurts. That's living—to be wanted. Not to be wanted is worse than death. When you're dead, you're forgotten and you forget. To be forgotten and to remember is the end of all things. Not to be wanted when you're alive is to beat your flesh against the walls of a tomb. Lord Taborley, I know what you came for." He had set down his cup. She covered his bronzed hands with her own passionate white ones, overwhelming him with a rush of words. "You came to accuse me, to bribe me, to buy me. You didn't want to hear me; I was already condemned. Do you think I don't know what's said about my marriages? I know too well. But it isn't vanity that makes me want to be loved. It's so right to be loved. It isn't wickedness. It's the terror of not being loved—the same terror that makes you cling to Terry though she doesn't want you in return—— We all want to believe that we're wanted. It's human. Without that life's a blank. One can't face up—— And I——"
She tore her hands from him and buried her face, sobbing in the cushions.
He had done it. By some unaccountable blunder he had made her cry. What was it he had said? Only a minute ago she had been so radiant and smiling. His first thought was of Porter; she must not know. This crying must be stopped before she heard it. Any moment she might enter. Even now she might be listening at the door, preparing to enter.
Another conjecture rushed into his mind—this sobbing might be part of a prearranged plan. Tears are the jiu-jitsu of woman's art of self-defense. To the world at large the man is always a villain who has caused them. "But I didn't cause them," he protested to himself. And then, "Dash it all! There's nothing gained by sitting here. I've got to do something."
He roused himself and limped round the table to the end of the couch against which her face was hidden. He could see nothing but the pale gold of her hair, the ivory whiteness of her neck and the pitiful heaving of her fascinating shoulders. She looked extraordinarily like a doll—a broken doll which had been allowed to fall through some one's carelessness.
"Confound it! What a brute I am!" he muttered. "What the dickens does one do with a woman in hysterics?"
He laid his hand very timidly on her silky hair. He had had no idea that it was so silky. "Cheer up!" he said softly. And then again, "I do wish you'd cheer up."
She took not the slightest notice, save that a small white hand scuttled out like a mouse from beneath the cushions and commenced a hurried search. He watched it and formed a hasty guess. It couldn't find the thing for which it had been sent, so he dropped his own large handkerchief in its path, saw it take possession of it and dive again beneath the cushions. It made no difference to the sobbing.
What ought he to do? He couldn't endure the sound—it wrenched him. He bent over her, trying to turn her obstinately hidden face in his direction.
"Maisie!" The word had slipped out. It didn't matter. It mattered so little that he repeated the indiscretion. "Maisie, you mustn't break your heart like that. No one thinks ill of you and you are wanted. You're wanted most awfully. Heaps of people want you."
The shoulders ceased to heave for a fraction of a second, but her face still refused to turn. "Who-oo—who wants me?" Her voice reached him choked with tears and muffled.
Tabs frowned. The question was a poser. Who did want her? He was blessed if he knew. There must be people who wanted her—Adair, for instance. But the mention of Adair would provide her with a reason for a new outburst. There was only one thing to say under the circumstances, so he said it. "I do."
She lay so still that she might have been dead. It was frightening, this sudden silence after such a storm of emotion. It was so frightening that he had to say something more to prove to himself that she could hear. "You're beautiful. You're so gay when you're not crying. I don't think any man could prevent himself from wanting you." And then desperately, in a last effort, "You're most tremendously charming."
Her face never stirred from the cushions, but he was aware that surreptitiously his borrowed handkerchief was being employed industriously.
He had just time to compose his features before a tear-wet eye blinked up at him. It was an eye eloquent with gratitude and babyishly blue. "You're a dear," a small voice whispered.
He had been called many things from time to time, but never before "a dear." To be called "a dear" by a beautiful woman was an entirely new sensation for him. It made him distinctly uncomfortable—almost ashamed. A gift of this sort, even though it hasn't been desired, puts the recipient under an obligation. When once a woman has dubbed a man "a dear," she expects him to live up to the part she has assigned him. Tabs hoped that she hadn't been as sincere as she had sounded.
Taking himself off to the nearest French window, he stood staring out morosely—staring out at the silly little rockery, with the silly little pond at the foot of it, containing the silly little boat that never sailed anywhere. He was cross with himself and even more cross with her. Why couldn't she have behaved sensibly, instead of bursting like a rain-cloud without warning? She made mysteries out of everything, out of himself, Terry and even her sister's portrait. She never gave him a complete answer to any question. She surrounded herself with the atmosphere of a detective novel. He was half-minded to rush into the hall and make good his escape before she involved him further. Sir Tobias could come and conduct his own unpleasantness. How on earth was he going to tackle her concerning Adair now that she had called him "a dear"?
But beneath his irritation and always struggling to surmount it was a quite different emotion—an emotion of tenderness. He kept seeing her as she had lain there sobbing, so fragile and dispossessed and broken. It was the whiteness of her neck that he remembered, the narrowness of her shoulders and the silkiness of her pale gold hair.
He had been standing at the window for perhaps five minutes when her voice reached him from a great distance. "Thanks muchly for the hanky. I'm better now."
"I'm glad," he said with his back towards her, once again on his guard.
As he turned slowly, she greeted him with a smile of welcome and nodded towards her sister's portrait. "She wouldn't have cried, you know."
He had to say something; that seemed as good as anything. He made no attempt to approach her, but stood at bay against the window just where he had turned. He had arrived at one fixed determination; whatever happened, he would not again be entrapped into sharing the couch with her.
In answer to his unenthusiastic enquiry, Maisie shook her head vigorously like a little girl. "No, Di wouldn't. She never cries. Even when we were children we couldn't make her."
It flashed on Tabs that this conversation about the unknown woman was intended as a kind of peace-offering. Not to be ungracious, he roused himself to a show of interest. "Couldn't make her! Surely you weren't so cruel as to try?"
"Here's your hanky," she said, tossing the moist, scrunched ball across to him. "Cruel! We didn't mean to be cruel. I suppose we were. She used to ask us to try. There was a game we played; we called it Christian Martyrs. She was always the martyr; she liked it. All she ever did when we hurt her was to say, 'Do it harder; I can bear more than that.' She was as proud then as she is to-day of all that she could bear. I think that's what made her husband furious. She seemed always to be saying to him, 'Do it harder,' and he certainly did. But neither he nor any one else has ever succeeded in making her cry."
Tabs glanced at the aloof beauty of the painted face—it was like the face of a Roman Empress, so proudly secure in its serenity. "Make her cry! Why should any one want to make her cry? To do that would be a kind of blasphemy."
"That's why," Maisie clasped her hands eagerly. "You've said it for me exactly. I've never known how to put it. It's the holiness of God that tempts men to revile Him. He evades them, outlasts them and yet compels their affection. They have no power over Him and can't destroy Him, though they can destroy everything else in the world. What a man loves and has no power over, he longs to destroy; either that, or to drag it down to his own level, so that he can get his arms round it and comfort its weakness and hug it to his breast. It was that way with Di and her husband. He couldn't drag her down. He couldn't find her weakness. She was always up there. So he reviled her."
A silence fell between them. They stared at each other across the room's breadth, finding each in the other something at the same time intimate and incomprehensible; each feeling that they stood on the verge of a discovery. It was Tabs who spoke.
"Was! Then he's dead?"
She barely nodded. "Killed at the Somme, poor fellow. He must have hated her to the end. In everything else he was large and splendid."
"And his name?"
Again Tabs was striving to remember where he had seen the unknown woman's face. He had seen it—of that he was certain. He had the sense that the circumstances under which he had seen it had been tragic. If he could only make Maisie reveal the name, he might recall.
"His name was Lord Dawn." Seeing the instant puckering of his brows, she asked quickly, "You knew him?"
"Knew him!" Tabs pondered the question. "I'm not sure. But Lady Dawn—I've heard a good deal about her. She had a nursing unit in France, didn't she? Of course she had; you and Terry were with her. It was in her hospital that Terry met Braithwaite. She passed me yesterday, driving with the Queen in the Park; not that I noticed her. It was Terry who did that." He came slowly over from the window to the fireplace and stood gazing level with the picture above the mantelpiece. He spoke wonderingly, "The most beautiful woman in England, they say! So this is Lady Dawn!"
When he had finished his inspection, his interest and absorption were so great that he did what he had vowed he would never do again—he sat down for a second time on the couch beside her.
"There's something wrong," he said quietly. "Either you're misinformed or I'm mistaken. Let's get things straight."
She made no attempt to conceal her amusement. She attributed his seriousness to sudden infatuation—an infatuation which made him seem ridiculously inconstant after his recent professions concerning Terry.
"Something wrong!" she echoed mockingly. "If you think that I've exaggerated anything that I've told you about——" She glanced up at the portrait. "I don't think I'm likely to be misinformed. After all, I'm her——"
"I didn't mean that," he interrupted impatiently. "I was referring to Lord Dawn. If he's the same man, I think both you and she have misjudged him."
Maisie laughed. "Lord Dawn was sufficiently definite. I'm not misjudging him. He left no room for misjudgment."
"But you said that he had died hating her."
"He did, as far as we know. He gave no sign to the contrary."
"But does she, Lady Dawn, think that?"
"Think that he hated her?"
"No, that he died hating her?"
Maisie picked up a cigarette from the table and looked to Tabs for a match. She was getting bored. "Why, certainly. One doesn't want to be cynical, but all the deaths on the casualty-lists weren't total losses. Some of them were releases. They weren't all—well, to put it mildly, occasions for wearing the deepest mourning. There were English wives to whom German shells were merciful—more merciful than English law. If they took lives, there were cases in which they restored freedom."
As Tabs struck a match and held it to her cigarette, his hand trembled. He had to steady his passion before he asked his question. "And you think that she, Lady Dawn, was one of these?"
Maisie blew out a lazy puff of smoke. "Everybody thinks so." Then she added pointedly, "Everybody who knows her and has a right to an opinion."
Tabs refused to be put off. There was a polite forbearance in his tone when he spoke. "The first thing to do is to make sure that my Dawn was the same as yours. Mine was known to us by no title; he was a Captain in the same battalion as myself. He was killed in front of Pozieres.—Ah, I see by the way you start, that so was yours! But here's where the difference comes in; mine loved his wife, if she was his wife, more dearly than any man I have known. His devotion was the talk of the regiment."
She flipped the ash off her cigarette. "Then that puts him out of the running, doesn't it?"
It was the studied carelessness of her gesture that released the trigger of his indignation and made it leap out beyond control. There was in his mind the vision of those blood-baths of the Somme, where men had drowned in the putrescence and been flattened by shells like flies against a wall. They hadn't all been good before they had reached their ordeal. They had come, as most men come, from every kind of prison-house of lust and human error. But they'd been good when they had died. They'd been reborn into valor and tenderness. And now, to hear their imperfections discussed in this pleasant room, so entirely feminine, where everything was safe and warm! Their imperfections were so small as compared with their sacrifice. Modern-day Christs, that's what they were! Christs by the thousands, who had found no Josephs of Arimathea to hide their defilement in garden-sepulchres. There they lay at this moment in the wilderness of corruption where they had fallen, while living people between puffs of cigarettes, undertook to explain why they should not be regretted.
"Puts him out of the running! It doesn't."
He leapt to his feet and commenced to drag himself up and down the room, limping backwards and forwards, while she pressed lazily against the cushions at a loss to account for his excitement.
"It doesn't," he repeated, pausing opposite to her. "He's still in the running. The Dawn whom I knew was a very silent man. He was a man with a sorrow. It made him careless. He was in the war to die. We all knew it. The men adored him because of it. He was the finest officer in the finest of battalions."
He became aware that he was frightening her and sank his voice. The lowered tone only made what he said the more dreadfully impressive.
"There was something funny about him." He all but whispered it. "Something funny that we couldn't understand. We couldn't understand why he should want so much to die. The reason why we couldn't understand was a woman's photograph."
She looked up at him timidly. "Yes!"
"Wherever he went he carried it. When he went into an attack, he carried it next his heart. In billets he slept with it beneath his pillow. He pinned it against the walls of dug-outs. That was where I saw it. I remember now. It was smeared with the mud of a hundred trenches—Boche trenches as well as ours. It looked down on curious sights, did that woman's printed face in the photo." He laughed harshly. "Sights that those of us who were there will spend the rest of our lives in an effort to forget. And here you and I sit and talk—— Well, as I was saying, we couldn't fathom why he should be so keen on death when there was that woman in the world for whom he cared—for whom he cared right up to the last. It was at the Somme, in the attack on Pozieres, that he went west. He was in command of a company that got cut off. When we found him, he had that bit of cardboard so tightly clasped that we couldn't take it from him."
He paused, suddenly exhausted. His indignation had burnt itself out. "I'm tired," he apologized. "I'm afraid I let myself get out of hand. I scared you for a moment. I'm sorry. Do you mind if I sit down?"
She pushed the table back to make it easier for him to take a place beside her. "It's all right," she consoled him. "I know that you're only just out of hospital. Terry told me. You're not really recovered yet. Besides, it was my fault; I spoke lightly. I wasn't thinking what I said. But I don't feel lightly about these things. I couldn't." Then she said something which struck him oddly. "You know my man's out there."
What did she mean by her man? If she had said her men, he could have comprehended. She had lost three husbands in the war. But why did she particularize and say, "My man"? It seemed cruel to the rest. And which of the three was it that she regarded as so peculiarly hers.
He jerked his thoughts back. "There was something you told me about Lord Dawn; you said it explained him. How did it go? I think you said that he hated his wife as men hate God, because they love Him so much and yet He won't come down. Well, out there it wasn't like that. Dawn climbed up to her; yes, and perhaps beyond her. Out there he didn't need to pretend to hate her; he could afford to love her without loss of self-respect. I suppose he thought it was too late to tell her after all that had gone before."
"Either that," Maisie assented, "or else—— It would be like him. Or else because he was too much of a sportsman. As it was, if he were killed, she wouldn't need to be sorry. But if he wrote her that he loved her and had always loved her, and then got killed—— Don't you see, that's where her remorse would start?"
Tabs nodded. "And yet she was his last thought. She ought to know it. It's monstrous that she should go on believing——" He broke off. And then, "She must be told. It's merest justice—whatever it costs."
The light had been failing while they had talked. A tap fell on the door. Coming at that moment when their nerves were jangled, it sounded ominous. Their heads turned sharply. Maisie's voice was unsteady when she asked, "What is it? What do you want?"
"It's Porter, Madam. Dinner is served."
"Oh, come in, Porter. Have you laid a place for Lord Taborley?"
As the maid entered, Tabs rose. "I had no idea—— Why, I've been here for hours. I really must apologize, Mrs. Lockwood, and be going."
However much his reception had been prearranged, dinner had formed no part of the program. The slightly puzzled expression on Maisie's watch-dog's face betrayed that fact to him at a glance.
Maisie laid an arresting hand on his arm. To the maid she said cheerfully, "It's all right, Porter; Lord Taborley is staying."
As Porter was making her exit, he commenced again to protest. Maisie silenced his objections by leaning against him warningly. "You've talked of everything except me," she whispered; "it was about me you came to talk. You must before we part."
Following her across the hall to the dining-room, he reflected on her ability for getting him into deeper and yet deeper water. He had the feeling that he was being led somewhere against his will—somewhere that might be for his good or for his harm, but which would inevitably cut him off from many of his old affections. He had the discomforting sense that he was doing something disloyal to Terry. Heaven knew what promises might not be exacted from him before the evening ended. When would it end? He would have to stay for at least an hour after coffee—that would bring him to nine o'clock. Sir Tobias Beddow would have been expecting him long before that to deliver his account of the result of his mission. Furthermore, Sir Tobias would be demanding an explanation as to how it was that, having asked for Terry's hand the night before, he was still unengaged to her. If he postponed the interview till to-morrow, it would create the appearance of lukewarmness. He couldn't very well excuse himself by saying that he'd spent the afternoon and evening with Maisie. And he couldn't get Maisie to let him off on the plea that Sir Tobias, her harshest critic, was waiting for him. Besides, he had accomplished nothing as yet; Adair Easterday had not been mentioned.
If ever he made good his escape, he prayed that he might never again encounter a woman possessed of charm. His paramount desire was to seize his hat and make a furtive exit. There was nothing to prevent him but the politeness due from a man to a woman—and she traded on it. As he passed into the dining-room he was secretly on his guard. "I wonder what she'll do next to inveigle me?" was his thought.
"It'll be only a little dinner," she explained as they seated themselves. "You weren't expected. But Porter always has something hidden away for an emergency. Don't you, Porter?"
He was getting accustomed to these asides addressed to Porter. He began to perceive that Porter had other uses besides gliding round the table in a cap and apron. She was a conversational stop-gap when situations grew awkward, as they frequently must between an ensnared bachelor and an unchaperoned widow.
And she was eligible; he had to own it as they sat down to their first meal together. Tea hadn't counted as a meal; you can serve tea to anybody. But dinner for two, in an oak-paneled room, when the spring dusk is falling is different. The table was lit by four naked candles. Looped back from the windows hung the marigold-tinted curtains, revealing in triangular patches the courtyard, with its mock village-green and its quaintly timbered houses. It looked very real in the half-light. An electric street-lamp stood out sharply against the fading sky, placid and contemplative as an unclouded moon. Several houses away a woman was singing. Sometimes her voice sank so that he lost the air; but once, when it rose, he caught the words, "Crushing out life, than waving me farewell." He knew what she was singing then and followed the air in his imagination. The atmosphere of the room was vibrant with romance; all that was lacking was his impulse to be romantic.
Maisie was chattering gayly and forestalling his wants. He reserved a small portion of his mind for her conversation—sufficient to enable him to reply "Yes" or "No" when the occasion seemed to demand it. It was clear to him that it made her happy to have a man so entirely at her mercy. She meant immensely well by him. Behind her mist of words she seemed to be saying, "Isn't it nice to be just we two together?"
But he was thinking of the other three soldiermen who had played the game of being "just we two together" before him. The singing voice, drifting through the courtyard, put into words the question of his thought, "Where are you now? Where are you now?" Yes, where were they?
He felt pity and distaste for Maisie in equal proportions. Those men had each in turn caressed her, dipped their hands in the largesse of her pale gold hair, seen their souls' reflection in the cornflower innocence of her eyes, drunk forgetfulness from the poppy-petals of her mouth and gone away to die, believing she was wholly theirs. How little of her was theirs now! She was almost virginal—as though she had never been touched by their passion. And yet there seemed to be one of them whose memory had outstayed the rest, for she had said, "You know, my man's out there." Was she merely a light, predatory woman or—— Or very loving and lonely?
She was speaking more seriously now. "We mustn't tell her. It's natural to be sorry for him now that he's dead." He picked up the thread and guessed that she was referring to Lord Dawn.
"We must tell her," he said.
"But we mustn't," she urged. "For years he tried to make her wretched. There were rumors of other women. She's found peace at last. It wouldn't help him to let her know that he had died loving her out there. He's beyond any help of ours. They all are." He surmised who the they were: the three soldiermen who had sat there before him. In pleading for silence for others, she was pleading for silence for herself. Again she was defending herself against his thoughts. "All of the dead had their chance. Lord Dawn had; there were so many years in which he might have told her. To tell her now would be to rob——"
She broke off as the maid reentered with the coffee. Her tone changed instantly to one of convention. "Not here, Porter. We'll have it in the drawing-room."
As he followed her out across the hall, he glanced at his watch. It was past eight o'clock. He could lose no more time. He must plunge boldly into the subject of his mission and bring his visit promptly to an end. He dreaded the temptation of that feminine room, with its coziness and security and quiet. It made him too much alone with her; she was not a woman that it was wise to be alone with too long.
The moment the maid had left them and the door had closed, he became confirmed in the sanity of this decision. Everything in the room appealed to him to procrastinate. The curtains before the French windows were closely drawn. The hearth had been swept in their absence; the fire glowed more companionably than ever. About the table, where the coffee waited, a solitary lamp shed a golden blur. It was heavily shaded with yellow silk, so that most of its light escaped their faces and fell downwards.
She had seated herself on the couch. When she had filled both cups, she glanced up at him smilingly, patting the vacant place beside her as a sign that he should occupy it. He was standing before the fire, looking immensely tall in the semi-darkness. He could see her plainly where she sat beneath the lamp; but of him she could see nothing but his outline, for his eyes were lost in shadow. When he seemed not to have noticed her sign, "Come," she said coaxingly. "You don't spare yourself at all. You make yourself tired by so much standing."
"Mrs. Lockwood——" She started as he called her that. Twice already she had been Maisie to him. "Mrs. Lockwood, as you reminded me before dinner, it was about you that I came here to talk. Let's get it over. I haven't any idea how far things have gone. I should like to believe that nine-tenths of what's said is nothing more than gossip. But why can't you let him alone? He may mean nothing or a tremendous lot to you—but why can't you?"
CHAPTER THE FIFTH
THE AIR OF CONQUEST
She sat very silently, the way he had seen men sit when they were wounded. She had been expecting the blow and trying to postpone it; now that it had fallen her only feeling was one of peace because the expecting was ended. Her face remained turned towards him, as it had been while he had been talking. As though a mask had dropped, the real, very tired, very young, very lonely Maisie watched him. The wistfulness of her beauty surprised and touched him. Several times her lips moved in an attempt to say something. Then, at last, "What right have you to ask?"
"I should like to claim the right of friendship."
"Of friendship!" She frowned slightly, peering from beneath the lamp in an effort to make out his features. Then her eyes cleared and she smiled. "If you don't mean it, please don't say it. You see, it would hurt afterwards. And—and I should like to have you for my friend."
He came over from the fireplace and seated himself beside her. "We've been almost enemies—just a little afraid of each other. Isn't that so? It's ever so much more comfortable now; we'll be able to talk more easily. Tell me honestly, what do you see in Adair?"
"See in him!"
She commenced sipping her coffee. She looked extraordinarily like Terry used to do years ago, when she was a little lass and had been naughty, and had come reluctantly to ask pardon. He thought that if he went on talking he might make it easier for her.
"You'll wonder why I, who never knew you until to-day, should have taken upon myself to broach this subject."
"I don't wonder," she headed him off. "I know. Terry's my friend. Her father was determined to send somebody, so she worked things in order that you might be sent. She thought that you would be the kindest person."
"She thought that!" Tabs was a little taken back by her assertion; it seemed to pledge him to kindness before he had learnt whether kindness was required or deserved. It made him in a sense her partisan, when he ought to have been impartial.
"I think I can be trusted to be kind," he said; "but you must remember that I've got to be kind all round. I must be kind to Adair's wife and to his children. If this goes much further it will spell tragedy for them."
She shrugged her shoulders and laughed without mirth. "Adair's wife should have remembered to be kind to herself. If a woman can't keep her husband, she never deserved to have won him. And Adair—he's the easiest man to keep in the world; far too easy to be exciting. If she doesn't lose him to me, she'll lose him to some one else, unless——" And then she surprised him, "But she won't lose him to me, for I don't want him."
Tabs sighed with relief and lit himself a cigarette. "Then that's settled. If you don't want him, the trouble's ended, and I think Sir Tobias and all of us owe you an apology."
Again she laughed. This time some of her old mischief had come back. "You go too fast, Lord Taborley. I shouldn't advise any of you to apologize to me yet. It's true that I don't want him for keeps, but——"
Tabs guessed the way the ground lay and went back to the question with which he had started. "What on earth do you see in him? That's what I can't make out."
She kept him waiting for his answer. While he waited, like sunshine struggling through cloud, amused happiness fought its way into her expression. When she turned, she met his gaze with complete candor. She was again a woman of the world. "What do I see in him? Not much—only a makeshift, a second best. Only a man who needs me for the moment because he's lost his direction. You remember our conversation of this afternoon about having to feel that you were needed. He gives me that feeling, so I'm grateful. That's why I have to have him."
"Are you so lonely as to stoop—well, to steal to get it?"
He was sorry he had asked it. She bit her lip in an effort to keep back the tears and to force herself to go on brightly smiling. "Yes, as lonely as all that," she nodded; "so lonely that it's almost a joke."
"No joke." He was at a loss what to say. "But you have friends. You go everywhere. You——"
"Friends!" she interrupted, laughing with the high-pitched note of breaking nerves. "What are friends? People to whom you say, 'How d'you do?' here and 'How d'you do?' there, every one of whom can do without you. I want some one who can't do without me for a second—— No joke, you said. But it is almost a joke to be young, and eager, and good-looking, and to know how to dress, and to be so willing to love, and to live in the world just once, and to hear the world go by you laughing, and to desire so much," she paused for breath, "and to want to give so much that no one is willing to accept. If one didn't laugh over it, it would be more than one could stand. If one didn't treat it as a joke——"
He caught her hands. "Steady, Mrs. Lockwood. Stop laughing at once. There's nothing to laugh about. You're nearly over the edge."
She stared at him with wide eyes, filled with panic, while little ripples of laughter kept escaping from her, which she did her best to suppress.
"Now, listen to me," he continued quietly: "You're not exceptional. You've been expressing something that there's not a man or woman that hasn't felt. I feel it when I realize that I may lose Terry; so does Braithwaite. Lord Dawn felt it when he couldn't drag his wife down to him and couldn't climb up to her. And his wife must have felt it too, when she sat always by herself. Phyllis feels it when she sees that, for the moment, you have more attraction for her husband than she has. And Adair feels it as well, when he risks his good name for a little desperate comfort and is willing to clothe you, for whom he professes to care, with all the appearance of dishonor. You're no exception; it's the feeling that you are exceptional that makes you unscrupulous in your self-pity. Get that into your head, that you're not exceptional. Half the world's with you in the same box; but it smiles and doesn't own it. Have you got that?"
She nodded and tried to withdraw her hands; but he held them fast.
"And now as regards this desire to be wanted; that's perfectly right and natural. There's nobody who doesn't share it. And I understand what you say about mere friendship. It's unsatisfying and impermanent. It's like a meal snatched at a restaurant; none of the dishes or napkins or tables or chairs belong to you. They've been used by other people before you and they'll be used by other people the moment your bill is settled. What you want and what every one wants, is something more than friendship—a human relation with one person who is so much yours that your intimacies are a secret from all the world."
"Some one with whom I can be little," she whispered, "and foolish and off my guard."
He smiled. "That's it exactly. But you won't get that sort of relationship with a man who belongs already to another woman."
"One gets the pretense."
He shook his head. "Not even the pretense. There was a phrase you used about Adair; you said he'd lost his direction. That's true; he has for the moment. Presently he'll refind it and the road leads back to Phyllis. You said something else: you called him a second best. That's all he is, however you take him, whether as a husband, a father or a lover. He lacks earnestness; he has always lacked it. I've been his friend for years; his flabbiness sticks out all over him. But you're not a second best, Mrs. Lockwood. You're a top-notcher—too fine for anything but the best. You really are. You ought to set a higher value on yourself."
She had regained her composure. He showed a willingness to release her hands, but she let them rest where they were like tired birds, while she regarded him with wistful kindness.
"Too fine for anything but the best! It's a long while since I heard any one say that. Reggie used to say it in almost those very words. But then Reggie," she caught her breath at the remembered ecstasy, "Reggie used to think that the sun rose and set for me. He was different from all other men. You advise me to reserve myself for the best. How can I do that, Lord Taborley, when the best is in the past?"
She was very beautiful in the simplicity of her pathos—one of the most beautiful women he had ever met. She had become a little child for the moment and her littleness was baffling. He felt extraordinarily near to her and alone with her. There was no longer any danger in their aloneness. He realized why it was that she was able to give away so much of herself; there was no value in the gift, for her heart was beyond the capture of any man. She was the shuttered house of a vanished happiness, inhabited by a restless ghost. The gold light from the lamp fell in a pool about her. It revealed startlingly the whiteness of her arms and throat, the blueness of her eyes and the primrose gleam of her polished head. She seemed insubstantial as a dream, environed by shadows. And what did she mean by saying that all her best lay in the past? Surely she had misjudged! With her power of charm she could build her world to any pattern.
"The best in the past! None of us know enough about the future to say that. The best lies ahead—always. To believe that brings our best within our grasp."
"For me it can't." She spoke hopelessly. "No believing can do that when your best is dead."
The finality of her despair silenced him. He could feel it like fingers tightening on his throat. He realized in a flash that this was how he, too, would be tempted to speak were he to lose Terry—that, having lost the best, any careless makeshift would suffice to comfort him. While he considered, her hands snuggled closer in his clasp, establishing a new sympathy.
"I think," he said at last, "even though my best were dead, I should try to go on acting as if it lay still ahead. If I did that, round some new turning I might find it waiting for me as a kind of recompense."
She leant forward, peering eagerly into his eyes. "Yes. You would do that. I'm sure of it. I knew you had something to give me the moment we met. That was why I wouldn't let you escape me. I've learnt the secret at last—the secret of your air of conquest. It isn't that you get your desires. It's not that. It's your belief that you will get them that makes you strong."
Somewhere at the back of his head he remembered the pleading of Delilah with Samson, "Tell me, I pray thee, wherein thy great strength lieth."
He laughed. "Perhaps you have guessed. I'm what you might call a round-the-corner person. I have a philosophy all my own; it's a round-the-corner philosophy. I believe that we find everything that we've lost or longed for, if we'll only press on. Everything that we've ever loved or wanted waits for us further up the road, round some hidden turning. It's always further up the road and just out of sight. The whole trick of living is to keep your tail up and march forward with the appearance of success, no matter how badly other people say you've been defeated. More often than not, we're nearer our hidden corners than any of us guess; it's the pluck to struggle the last hundred yards that swings us round the turning and wins our kingdoms for us."
She withdrew her hands and lay back against the cushions. "No amount of courage——" She broke off and tried afresh. "Being brave wouldn't put him again into my arms. You're wondering whom I'm talking about—Reggie Pollock, my only husband. The other two didn't count, any more than Adair counts. I don't say it unkindly. I do want you to believe that. They were passers-by—that was all. They hung their hats in the hall and, somehow, they stopped. They were nice boys, both of them. It seemed a kind of war-work to let them marry me. You see, they needed me; so when they said they loved me, I didn't have the heart to turn them out. I suppose I was too amiable. But they didn't count—not at all."
"The war's over," Tabs reminded her with quiet humor. "How long is this amiability going to last?"
She smiled dreamily. "Adair again! You don't leave him alone for long. If you think that I ever let him make love to me, you're mistaken. It's only that he's unhappy and I can do something for him."
Tabs wasn't at all sure that it was only that. This fatal amiability might have raised quite different expectations in Adair. Like her two latest husbands, he might take a notion to hang his hat in her hall. If he did, would she abate her amiability sufficiently to tell him to hang it somewhere else?
She was drifting; what she needed was either a tow-rope or a rudder. He sent his gaze questing through the shadows.
"Those five photographs, all of the same man—they're of Pollock?"
"He was one of the first of all the aces, wasn't he? It was he who brought down the Zeppelin over Brussels and went missing a few days later. You see, I remember his record. He was outstandingly brave at a time when the world was full of brave men. And you tell me he loved you?"
An expression of triumph flitted across her face. "Not loved." Her voice was full-throated. "He adored me, and to me he was a god whom I worshiped. I'd have gone through hell for him. I'd——"
"No, you wouldn't."
The flatness of the contradiction pulled her up short. "No you wouldn't," he repeated quietly. "You wouldn't even go through this for him. You wouldn't play the game by him when he was dead. He always kept his end up, whatever the odds against him; but you—you couldn't. This was your chance to show that you were worthy of him. While he was alive, you played a winning game; it was easy to be true to him. But he—he was stauncher; he was most to be trusted when the game seemed all but lost. You ought to have kept his spirit alive for us; but you've understood so little of his spirit that you've been willing to put any stranger in his place—to quote your own words, any stranger who chose to hang his hat in your hall. Pollock was a soldier; he didn't need to be sure of victory to show courage. It was in tight corners that he was at his best. You're in a tight corner now, and you're his wife—the wife whom he didn't love, but adored."
The brutal impact of the truth had struck her dumb at first. Her lips had fallen apart. While she had listened, her face had gone white. Now that he paused, she slipped back into the cushions, covering her eyes with her hands. "For God's sake stop torturing me! Though you think I'm as contemptible as that, don't say it. If you must speak, tell me what you think I ought to do."
"Do! Until you find a living man who's his match, carry on as though he were not dead."
She uncovered her eyes and sat upright, staring at him. "As though he were not dead. But Reggie is dead. You know as well as I do that he's dead."
Tabs nodded. "I'm not denying it. But for all that, try to live as though he weren't—as though somewhere up the road, a day, a week, a month, a year hence he would meet you round the corner."
Her interest faded forlornly. "What good would that do? It would only be making believe with myself."
He spoke gently. "Yes, but games of make-believe come true. You couldn't meet him, but you might meet some one his equal—a man who's, perhaps, already waiting for you, while you squander yourself on makeshifts and second bests."
The little silence which had ended his speech dragged on from seconds into minutes. In the quiet room nothing stirred. She attempted to free herself from his gaze by refusing to look at him. Against her will her eyes crept up to his, clashed, evaded, fell back and again crept up to them.
At last, speaking humbly, she said, "I was ashamed. You made me ashamed. Whatever I'd done, if he came back, he wouldn't be ashamed of me. It wouldn't matter how cowardly I'd been or however many husbands I'd had; he'd be so glad to have me in his arms that he wouldn't find time to be ashamed of me. So I'm not going to be ashamed any longer; I'm going to start to live as if he were coming back. It'll be hard at first. Adair—he was nothing. And yet—— I shall miss him, no doubt. You said something this afternoon that you didn't mean."
"Didn't I? What was it?"
"It was when I was crying because nobody wanted me. Do you remember what you said? You said, 'I do,' not meaning a word of it. Could you manage to want me just a little, Lord Taborley? Not for long, you know; only till I've got past the loneliest places—till I've begun almost to persuade myself that he may come back. To think that you wanted me would help."
Before he could answer, she had sprung to her feet, all but over-turning the lamp. "What's that?"
A sharp rat-a-tat-tat had reverberated through the house. While she spoke, it was repeated. Her over-strung nerves gave way. As Tabs rose, she clung to him beseechingly. "Don't let him in. I'm not ready for him. Don't let him in. Go outside and send him away. Tell him anything. But don't let him enter."
Tabs had no clear idea to whom she was referring. It might have been to Adair. It might have been to Pollock. It seemed more likely that it was to her dead husband. This talk about living as though he might come back had probably distraught an imagination already over-taxed.
"He sha'n't enter," he assured her. "There's no need to lose your nerve."
As he passed into the hall, he heard the starchy approach of Porter. He waited and halted her with, "Mrs. Lockwood asked me to answer it."
When he had watched her retreat and vanish, he advanced towards the door. Who was it out there in the darkness whose knock had power to strike such terror? It was a terror the excitement of which he at least remotely shared. The thought crossed his mind, "Is it possible that her longing could have dragged him back?" He felt as though in the stucco-fronted gloom of Mulberry Court, Fate itself stood waiting for him on the other side of the panel. With conscious bravado he stretched out his hand and drew back the latch.
"Is it Mr. Easterday?"
It was a woman's voice that asked the question—a deep voice, thrilling with emotion, that made him wonder what it would sound like with all the stops pulled out. He had opened the door only a little way, expecting that he would have to refuse admittance. At the sound of a woman's voice, his sense of the conventions sprang to life. It must be a good deal past ten and here he was answering Maisie's door as though he were her butler. The kind of conclusions that could be drawn were made plain by the caller's question, "Is it Mr. Easterday?" To be mistaken for Easterday annoyed him. It was tantamount to an accusation. It implied that, even though he were not Easterday, the proprietory way in which he attended to other people's doors at after ten o'clock put Him well within Easterday's class. Tabs was particularly annoyed to hear himself accused by a voice so gracious and pleasant. His surprise had evidently impressed her as furtiveness, for she said, "So it is Mr. Easterday?"
He was at a loss what to do with her—how to turn her away. For Maisie's sake she must not be allowed to enter, for then she would discover that they had been alone. He opened the door a few inches wider and parried to gain time. "If it's Mr. Easterday that you're wanting, you've made a fortunate mistake. This is Mrs. Lockwood's house. But I happen to know an Easterday—an Adair Easterday; he's a personal friend. Perhaps he's the man you're looking for. If so, I can give you his address."
This sally was greeted with a quiet, rather mocking laugh. He was using his eyes, trying to form an estimate of the visitor. She had arrived in a car, which he judged to be private, for in the light reflected from the windshield he could make out the livery of her chauffeur. She was swathed in a sumptuous wrap which looked as though it were of sable. She held it gathered closely about her, so that it fell in soft folds, revealing and at the same time concealing her figure. He was anxious to read her face, but the lower part was snuggled into the fur of the deep collar and the upper part was shadowed by a broad-brimmed tulle hat, from which two bird of paradise plumes spread back like wings on the helmet of a viking. For the rest, she had white kid gloves, which reached up to her elbows. Outside the glove of the left hand she wore a bracelet; every time she stirred the stones struck fire in the semi-darkness. Her hands were very small. Peeping out from below her gown, the buckles on her high-heeled shoes twinkled. She was mysterious, taunting, and strangely commanding. As she hovered there across the threshold, a faint perfume drifted up to him like the intoxicating romance of June rose-gardens under moonlight.
She, too, seemed to have suffered a surprise at hearing the tones in which he had spoken. "His address! Oh, no, it wasn't Mr. Easterday I was wanting. I only supposed—— If Mrs. Lockwood's at home, I should like to see her."
Her voice was like a chime of contralto bells. It made him think of Bernhardt. It imparted to the commonplaces she uttered a quite disproportionate intensity of drama and tragic depth. The way in which she had said, "Oh, no," reverberated in his memory as though the sound still lingered on the air.
"I don't know at all," he commenced. Then he smiled at his confusion. "You see I'm not used to answering doors, and Mrs. Lockwood's not quite herself. She was very tired just now. But if you'll give me your name, I'll——"
If he'd been left to himself, he might have succeeded in creating the impression that he was Maisie's physician. As it was, his conscience was spared the deception by the advent of the inevitable Porter. She sailed up behind him with an appearance so immaculate that it would have shed propriety on the most compromising circumstances. He instantly stood aside to make room for her. "Porter, here's a lady enquiring for——"
But the lady took matters into her own hands. "Mrs. Lockwood in, Porter?"
"Why, certainly, your Ladyship."
"Then why was I shut out? Who is this gentleman who——"
The rest was lost as their voices sank. The next words he caught were her Ladyship's, running up the scale of laughter. "Then I'm not de trop! That's a blessing!"
He fell back, trying to obliterate himself, as with every sign of deference Porter admitted her; but in crossing the hall, she had to pass him. Scarcely pausing, she swept him with a pair of stone-gray eyes, made mischievous for the moment with merriment. "You're no good as a butler," she whispered. "You carry discretion too far."
To his chagrin he recognized her—the one woman whom he would most have chosen to have met in an attitude that was dignified. She entered the drawing-room and was lost to sight. But she had left the door ajar and he heard Maisie's delighted exclamation, "Why, Di, what brings you here so late? This is darling of you!" His position was elaborately false. It grew more false every minute he delayed. He foresaw himself apologizing and being explained. He had no appetite for explanations. Since he had adventured into Mulberry Tree Court, he had twice been tempted to bolt for safety. Now that he was tempted for a third time, he acted blindly on the impulse. Having played the role of butler with too much discretion, he seized his hat and, without a thought of ceremony, adopted a butler's mode of escaping.
In the shrouded emptiness of the London night he felt himself free again. He came into possession of himself and found that he could think with his old definite clearness. In the last few hours events had rushed him off his feet; he had no sooner realized their significance than he had discovered himself in the throes of a new crisis. Now, for the moment, he stood aloof and could consider his actions in their true perspective.
As he turned out of Mulberry Tree Court, he had thought he had heard a voice calling after him. "Lord Taborley! Lord Taborley!" He had looked back across the imitation village-green, where the white posts showed dimly like smudges of chalk. The door of Maisie's house had been opened wide, making a lozenge of gold against the blackness. He had fancied that he had seen her standing there framed, leaning out, and then——Yes, surely he had heard the running of slippered feet along the pavement. He had not waited. He scarcely knew from what he was escaping—perhaps from his fate, from which there is ultimately no escape. He seized his respite, however, for the dread of recapture was strong upon him.
And now all hint of pursuit had died out. Tall houses stood muted against the sky; dim trees cast a leafy obscurity; stars glinted remotely like diamonds set in gun-metal. He found a healing chastity in his sudden aloneness; it roused in him an almost angry desire to recover his lost monasticism.
He was amused to discover himself speculating as to whether women were worth the trouble they occasioned. They coerced men with sentimental arguments to which there were no replies. They wore away men's fortitude with the continual flowing of their tears. They molded men's strength into weakness with the magic caressing of their sex. They promised and disappointed, flattered and allured, captured and despised. Their curiosity was insatiable to possess themselves of secrets, which were no longer valued the moment they were divulged. Their little teasing hands, so destructive and lovable, had commenced the debacle of every human greatness. Throughout the ages, their coaxing, pleading voices could be heard wheedling men's hearts to the same purpose. "Tell me, I pray thee, wherein thy great strength lieth, and wherein thou mightest be bound to afflict thee." The strength of men had eternally roused their resentment, whether they were the Delilahs of long ago or the Maisies of a modern generation. The goal of all their passion, even when it was unselfish, was to bind.
He had nearly been bound, but he had escaped. At the thought that he had escaped, he felt a flood of exultant joy sweep through him. He smiled, believing he had discovered a humorous and more human motive for the exhausting piety of the anchorites. It wasn't their religious self-abnegation that had made them flee to scorched river-beds and desert hiding-places; it was their triumphant satisfaction at having tantalized and eluded feminine pursuit. They fled in order that they might possess, not deny themselves. As they became more emaciated and scarred and as their needs grew less, they listened. What they heard was ample compensation for all that they had foresworn at the hands of life. Far blown from distant haunts of habitation came a sound which in their ears was sweetest music: day and night the painful dragging of chains and the groan of men toiling in servitude to women.
"The Philistines be upon thee, Samson!" When the last sleepy caress had been given, all men who lacked the caution of the anchorite, were sooner or later destined to hear that cry.
How much nobler men had been in a womanless world! Some of them had had to become womanless before they could be noble. Pollock plunging to his death from the clouds, like an eagle struck by a thunderbolt! Lord Dawn with the smile of calm remembrance on his lips, purged of all his fruitless sex-contentions, lying white and quiet beneath the crack and spatter of exploding shells! Braithwaite, the ex-valet, who had proved himself an aristocrat in courage! And he himself, thinking only of duty, with every jealous ambition laid aside!
And now—— The mate of the eagle was a trifler with peacocks and vultures. The man whose face had been molded by his last thought into an expression of serene faithfulness, was recalled only as one who had lived envenomed by disloyalty. Braithwaite, the aristocrat in courage, was now distinguished for his cowardice; he himself was at one and the same time Braithwaite's rival and grudging critic. The Philistines be upon thee, Samson! And he awoke out of his sleep and said, I will go out as at other times and shake myself——Asleep! He felt that he, too, had been asleep. All the men who had been giants in the past five years were either dead or sleeping. And this sudden transformation was the work of women, because men had come back to walk and rest with them in the soft, desired places. The little feminine hands had stripped them of their charity, had taken away their valor and had concealed liers-in-wait in the chamber of their affections.
So his thoughts ran on, amplifying, magnifying, exaggerating the theme of the debilitating effects of women. But from all his accusations he exempted Terry. She was the Joan of Arc of his imagination, who rode on unvanquished across life's battlefields, inspiring to heroism with her shining purity. And he made one other exception—Lady Dawn. It was the Lady Dawn of the portrait he exempted, not the Lady Dawn who had mocked him in passing with her steady stone-gray eyes. In a strange way he discriminated between the portrait and the living woman. The portrait was almost his friend; the living woman was a stranger. The woman in the portrait was after his own heart; she had never been known to cry. "Do it harder; I can bear more than that." He thrilled to the pride of her defiance.
Then he pulled himself up with a start. Again he was thinking about her. Yes, and though he might discriminate between the portrait and the living woman, it was the living woman's eyes that gleamed in the blackness of his mind. There was truth in what Maisie had said, that were he as much in love with Terry as he professed all other women, however beautiful, except the one woman, should be hanks of hair and bags of bones. He consoled himself by arguing that that was precisely what he had been trying to prove them by his sweeping applications of the conduct of Delilah.
Whichever way he viewed his situation, things were in a pretty fair muddle—a muddle which annoyed him because it was so unmerited. He was pledged to Terry, while she held herself unpledged. He was committed to help Maisie—a distinctly unwise little lady for any bachelor to help. As a third party to his problem, Lady Dawn intruded herself—though why she should, he wasn't certain. He would have to see her, however much Maisie dissuaded; it was right that she should know about her husband. Yet was that the entire reason why he was so keen to see her? He assured himself very earnestly that it was, and dismissed her from his mind.
For the rest of the journey home he conscientiously narrowed his imaginings to thoughts of Terry.
It was with thoughts of her that he fitted his key in the latch. The Square was full of newly married couples, some of them little more than boys and girls—youngsters who had waited impatiently and had run together the moment war was ended. Others had been married just long enough to be proudly parading their first baby. Every morning white prams were wheeled out into the garden, there to be watched over by softly spoken nurses. Every night, as dusk came down, expectant mothers paced gently through the shadows, leaning on the arms of ex-officer husbands. It wasn't only in the trees that nests were being built. The Square's name might well have been changed to Honeymoon Square.
And now, as Tabs pushed the door open, preparing to enter, he knew that all up and down the Square, behind the pall of darkness, other doors were being pushed back. Young couples were coming home from dinners and theaters. He could hear the murmur of their laughter, subdued and secret, hinting at intimacies of affection. The men had misplaced their latch-key perhaps; the girls were advising that they search another pocket. Or the lock refused to turn and the girls were whispering how it could be persuaded. Some of them were arriving in taxis; others, less lucky or more economic, were tripping by on foot along the pavement. He noticed how closely they clung together and he thought of Terry. It would be jolly to be young, to build a nest and, by and by, to see your own white pram wheeled out to take its place in the blowy greenness of the garden. He withdrew his key and entered, closing the door behind him.
The house was very still. It was nearly midnight. The maids had gone to bed, leaving lights in the hall and on the landings. As he hung up his hat, the stillness was broken by the sudden ringing of the telephone. It rang in a peevish, scolding manner, as though this were not the first time and it had lost its temper with waiting. He climbed the flight of stairs to his library and, without waiting to switch on the lights, sat down at his table, taking up the receiver.
"Is this Lord Taborley?" a voice inquired.
"Lord Taborley speaking."
"This is Sir Tobias Beddow." There was a pause, followed by a little asthmatic cough. Then, "How are you, my dear fellow? I've been trying to reach you all evening. I was expecting to see you round here this morning at eleven.—No, I don't mean perhaps what you infer. Besides, it wouldn't have been any good if you had called; Terry wandered out, without leaving word where she was going. She didn't get back till nearly lunch-time. Most unaccountable conduct under the circumstances; but since your conduct was equally unaccountable, perhaps it was just as well. But that wasn't what I called you up about."
Tabs smiled in the darkness. Sir Tobias was as simple and crafty as a child; he couldn't keep anything back. Then his mind jumped to the obvious conclusion. Terry hadn't told her parents about her morning interview; her parents naturally supposed that it was his fault that he was not engaged to her as yet. Making an effort to be diplomatic, he said, "Perhaps I can explain my apparent negligence to you later. It must seem unpardonable. I've been busy every minute over things that absolutely couldn't be avoided."
"Of course. Of course." The words were spoken soothingly, but without conviction. "We men understand. It's Lady Beddow who—— Such events are women's great occasions. She's a stickler for form. As you say, you can explain later—— But that wasn't what I called you up about."
Tabs stifled a yawn. He had suddenly discovered he was sleepy.
"What was that you said?" Sir Tobias enquired suspiciously.
"I didn't say anything," Tabs replied politely. "But I think I know what you called me up about. It was about Maisie—I mean Mrs. Lockwood."
"What about her?" The question was asked carelessly; he knew at once that he had missed his guess. It was strange, even though he had guessed wrongly, that Sir Tobias should not display more interest.
"What about her? Only that I've spent the last six hours with her. You asked me to see her as soon as possible, you remember. I had only just got home from being with her, when the telephone rang. She's not the woman we thought her."
"Eh? What's that?"
He repeated what he had said. He was perfectly certain that Sir Tobias had heard the first time. "She's not the woman we thought her." And he added, "There's been some mistake. She hasn't and never did have any designs on Adair. After we'd talked things over, she agreed of her own accord never to see him again."
"She did!" There was a long pause, expressive of skepticism, dissatisfaction, or anything that he cared to conjecture. Then, "When we meet, you can tell me. But that wasn't what I called you up about."
Tabs waited for him to tell him why he had called him up. He waited so long that it seemed to be a competition to see who would compel the other to break the silence first. At last he gave in. "If that wasn't why, why did you?"
He almost heard Sir Tobias blink his eyes—those faded eyes that looked so blind and saw so much. "I called you up about this General Braithwaite. He's been here to see me on the biggest fool's errand, with the most unusual story which, if it's true, partly concerns yourself. It's too late to enter into details this evening. But I thought I'd let you know—— Good night."
"One minute, Sir Tobias——"
Before he could get any further Sir Tobias had hung up. For a few seconds he sat there in the darkness listening; then he hung up also and took himself off to bed.
What object had Braithwaite had in going to see Sir Tobias? Was it his first step in trying to play fair? Was his "fool's errand" a formal request for Terry's hand in marriage and his "unusual story" a manly recital of the facts? And had this great advance in frankness included the telling of Ann? As he tossed sleeplessly from side to side, other problems leapt up to confront him. Had he done wisely in promising Maisie that, in a measure, he would compensate her for the loss of Adair? What would Sir Tobias think of such an intimacy when he got to hear of it? What would even Adair think of it? There was only one person who would not doubt his integrity; that was Terry. And then Lady Dawn—had he actually any moral right to interfere in her affairs? "Do it harder; I can bear more than that." He could hear her saying it in that deep, emotional voice of hers. He could feel her honest stone-gray eyes, probing his soul for motives in the darkness.
Day was breaking and birds were stirring in the mist of greenness that topped his windows, before his eye-lids closed and he slipped off into forgetfulness.
"To-morrow's another new day," he thought as he awoke. One could meet any and every indebtedness to life if he only had a sufficient fund of to-morrows in his bank.
He looked at his watch and leapt out of bed. Nine o'clock! He had slept late. He didn't hurry over his dressing. He could afford to be late for once. The mood of conquest was upon him. Maisie had said that. No, it wasn't the mood but the air of conquest that she'd said he had. Whichever it was, he would prove her a true prophetess. He might not gain all his desires, but he'd at least wear the air of one who was going to gain them. To-morrow was another new day, and to-morrow had arrived.
On coming down to breakfast he scrutinized Ann's features closely to learn whether she had heard anything from Braithwaite. They told him nothing. Presently, however, while she served him, she began to open out.
"Did your Lordship speak to the gentleman at the War Office?"
Tabs had been glancing through the morning paper. He looked up. "Yes, I did, Ann. I placed your letter in his hands, and saw him read it."