"Did he say anything or promise anything to your Lordship?"
Tabs pursed his lips judicially, trying to avoid a lie. "You know what these War Office officials are. They never make promises to any one. But I believe this one's a good-hearted chap. When he realizes how much this thing means to you, I think he'll do his best."
"Then he didn't show your Lordship my letter?"
Tabs had dipped into his newspaper again. He detested the well-meant deceit he was compelled to practice. This time, when he answered, he didn't raise his eyes. "No, he didn't."
But she didn't efface herself, as he had expected. She stood there, to one side of his chair. He felt that she was looking down at him. Just above the edge of his paper he could see her hands clasped together, pressing against each other in agitation. He abandoned his refuge and dropped the paper to the carpet.
"Something more that you want to ask me? What is it?"
"Your Lordship said that when the gentleman realized how much all this meant to me, he'd do his best."
"That's what I said and I'm sure of it."
"What I wanted to ask was, does your Lordship think he has realized?"
It was the way she said it that roused his curiosity. Could she have guessed? Had she read the address on that letter which he had given her to post to General Braithwaite, and put two and two together?
He met her eyes—good, gray eyes, with something of Lady Dawn's grave honesty in their expression. "I think he has realized."
"Thank you, sir; and I'm sorry I had to trouble you."
She withdrew, leaving him with the disturbing sense that she had intended more than she had said. He gathered up the paper from the floor in the hope that a perusal of it might enable him to recover his lost equanimity. In so doing he caught sight of the last page, which contained the photographic items. Braithwaite's face stared up at him. Above it was printed the caption, "Youngest Ranker Brigadier Demobbed Yesterday."
If she had seen that, she knew. If she had seen it, what would be her next move—appeal or revenge? What had been the significance of her final question, "Does your Lordship think he has realized?" Did she know now; had she even known when she had written her letter that it would be received by Braithwaite himself?
If she didn't know and had not seen the paper, he was determined that she should not see it. Before leaving the room, he stuffed it into the empty grate and applied a match. He would play fair by Braithwaite. He was so eager to play fair that he did not turn to go upstairs till every vestige of print had been licked to ashes.
His library occupied the whole of the second story; even at that it was not very large. It had two long French windows, opening onto a veranda which looked out over the Square. The veranda was constructed of wrought iron, painted green, and ran straight across the front of the house. Ann used it for giving her plants an airing; they usually formed a truant garden beyond the panes. There was a smaller window at the back, from which a view could be obtained of the Oratory.
The room was furnished in English red lacquer, which had been transferred from the collection at Taborley House, when Taborley House had been lent to the Americans for a military hospital. The walls were hung with landscapes by Zuccarelli and with Chinese portrait-groups of the Eighteenth Century.
He had scarcely entered before the telephone renewed its irritating clamor, like a fretful child which yelled whenever it heard his footstep. He responded to its fretfulness in very much the same mood, seizing hold of the receiver as though he would shake it into silence.
"Yes. Hullo! Hullo! Yes, this is Lord Taborley. What's that? You didn't catch what I—— It's Lord Taborley speaking, I said."
"Well, I must say you don't sound very nice." It was a woman's amused voice. "Even at this distance, you make me almost afraid. I do hope you haven't been like that all night."
Tabs made his tones more smiling. "I'm sorry if I don't sound sufficiently pleasant. But who are you?"
"Well, who do you think?" There was a snatch of laughter. "I'm Maisie; I mean Mrs. Lockwood. You needn't tell me that you're not frowning, because I can feel it. What's the matter?"
He pulled a wry face at himself in the opposite mirror and shrugged his shoulders. Down the 'phone he said with excessive amiability, "Nothing. I'm top-hole. How are you feeling?"
Her answer came back like a flash, "Vulgar and not very safe." It was followed by a gurgle of merriment.
"I'm not sure that I understand your symptoms."
The gurgle was repeated. "You wouldn't. Lord Taborley never feels vulgar and he's always safe. But this is one of my vulgar days, when I'm not to be trusted. I always have one when Di has been to visit me; it's the relapse after contact with too high standards of respectability. I'm liable to do anything. I married Gervis and Lockwood after being with her. I shall break out to-day if you don't come at once and stop me. Unless—unless you don't want to stop me and would prefer the experiment of being vulgar together."
"The prospect sounds alluring." He was trying to let her down lightly. "But I'm afraid I have too many engagements on hand."
"Oh!" It was the oh of disappointment. When she spoke again her gay irresponsibility had vanished and a coaxing quality had come into her voice. "I know you've only just got home from being with me—I mean comparatively speaking. I don't want to make myself a burden to you, but—— It's such a jolly day. Have you been up long enough to look out of the window? I thought we could go off somewhere—to the Zoo, perhaps, and drink lemonade all among the monkeys and the nuts. I woke up planning it. We'd limit our spending money to five shillings like kiddies, and do all our riding on busses. Doesn't that sound jolly?"
"Immensely," he agreed; "but I'm afraid no amount of jolliness could tempt——"
She broke in on him. "It's the kind of thing I used to do with Adair."
The meaning of this last remark was plain; she was reminding him that if the pair of shoes vacated by Adair were to remain vacated, he must pay the promised price on occasions by wearing them himself. He determined to get behind her diplomatic hints with frankness.
"I don't want you to think, Mrs. Lockwood, that because I have to refuse your first request I'm going back on our contract. There'll be plenty of other opportunities."
He caught her sigh of relief across the line. When she spoke again it was with a new brightness and reasonableness. "I'm glad you said that. So you really are going to help me? I was a wee bit afraid that you'd gone back on your bargain by the way you ran away."
It was his first experience of the advantage a woman gains when she attacks a man from the other end of a telephone. He had trouble in making his voice sound patient. He replied with conscious hypocrisy, "I'm sorry I created the impression of running away."
"You did." Her answer came back promptly. "You created the same impression on us both. I had to do a lot of explaining to Di."
"And I was trying to save you embarrassment," he excused himself.
"Eh! What's that?"
To his immense surprise a third voice—a man's—jumped in on the conversation. "Are you there? Is this Lord Taborley?"
Tabs was just getting ready to confess that he was there and that he was Lord Taborley, when Maisie took matters out of his hands by informing the intruder that the line was occupied and that he was interrupting a conversation.
"I'm sorry," the intruder apologized, "but my time's valuable. I've been kept waiting for the best part of quarter of an hour. Are you the telephone-girl that I'm talking to?"
"Indeed I'm not," said Maisie with considerable haughtiness. "Please get off the line." And then to Tabs, "Are you still there, Lord Taborley? This is Mrs. Lockwood. Can't you postpone some of those engagements so that we can meet to-day?"
At that moment the girl at the switch-board took a hand. There was a confused gabbling and buzzing of voices, out of which the suave tones of the intruder emerged triumphant, saying, "This is Sir Tobias Beddow. Can I speak with Lord Taborley?"
Perhaps Maisie had heard. At all events, the moment Sir Tobias declared himself the line cleared.
But it wasn't what Maisie had overheard that disturbed Tabs; it was the uncertainty as to how much of her conversation had been listened to by Sir Tobias. After all, prospective fathers-in-law are only human and as likely as any other class to jump to damaging conclusions. Tabs hung up the receiver, making it necessary for him to be summoned afresh before he acknowledged his presence at the 'phone. Then, "Good morning, Sir Tobias."
"Good morning, my dear fellow." Sir Tobias was as courtly and friendly as ever. "I called you up to know whether you could run round to see me between now and the forenoon. Yes, the matter I mentioned to you last night. About eleven, you say? Very well, then, I shall expect you."
No sooner had the butler with the velvet-plush manners admitted him than he found himself face to face with Terry. She must have known that he was expected and have been lying in wait for him. Before he could say a word, she pressed a finger to her lips, signaling caution. To the butler she said in a low tone, "It's all right, James; you don't need to wait. I'll announce Lord Taborley." The discreet James showed a fitting appreciation of romance by folding his plump hands across the pit of his stomach, making the ghost of a bow and tiptoeing noiselessly into the nether regions with the stealth of a conspirator.
Terry's face was a picture of innocence. After Maisie she struck him as very young—much too young to love or to know the meaning of love. The sight of her freshness was forbidding. It made him seem jaded. It filled him with a reverence that was not far short of worship. He felt it impossible to think of her as performing the ordinary acts of a mortal world. He had the feeling that she moved on higher levels—that she was a creature too shy and perfect to be made the instrument of passion. She should be guarded in her purity like a vestal virgin, so that her straight young body might be forever valiant and her eyes might never learn the cowardice of tears.
In the brave March sunlight which shafted down on her, her head looked more like a Botticelli angel's than ever. The raw gold of her bobbed hair shone solid as metal, making a sharp edge where it ended against the ivory pallor of her throat. She was dressed in a white tailor-made serge. Her violet eyes danced with eager secrets.
"What are you doing to-day?" she whispered.
"Nothing!" he whispered, "if you want me."
"Then invite me out to lunch. I've such heaps to tell you. Don't let Daddy take you to his club—I know he's going to ask you. And, oh, before I forget, I've told them nothing about yesterday, so don't give me away by accident." Then in a sly aside, just as she was turning the door-knob to admit him to her father's library, "You've been getting on famously with Maisie, haven't you?"
Before he could reply, they were across the threshold. There was a sound as of a rheumaticky hen stirring in its nest. The neck of Sir Tobias craned painfully round the corner of a high-backed chair.
"Here's Lord Taborley to see you, Daddy. Don't keep him forever. He's just invited me to go out with him to lunch."
Having shot her bolt, with the masterly strategy of her sex, she vanished, pulling the door behind her.
What would Shakespeare have said under the circumstances, and what would a suitor have said to Shakespeare when he knew that he was suspected of having gone back on his request for the daughter's hand in marriage? Tabs almost felt that he was in the actual presence of the bard of Stratford, Sir Tobias looked so ineffectually pompous and overweighted with gravity. Both Sir Tobias and Shakespeare, in the opinion of Tabs, were vastly overrated persons; but the only thing Shakespearian about Sir Tobias this morning was the magnificent calmness of his forehead; his podgy body, supported by its stiff little pen-wiper legs was more reminiscent of Punch, as portrayed on the cover of the famous weekly which bears his name.
"Immensely considerate of you to come," puffed Sir Tobias, levering himself out of his chair in order that he might shake hands.
"Not kind at all," Tabs contradicted cheerfully. "I kill two birds with one stone; I have my conversation with you and in half an hour I carry off Terry."
That'll make him hurry up with whatever he has to say, he thought; it sets a time limit.
The old gentleman seemed put out to find himself deprived of his prerogative to be elaborate and prosy. He made a gesture, indicating that Tabs should copy his example and choose a chair. But Tabs ignored it. He had learnt that a man on his feet has the advantage, especially if he stands six foot two in his socks.
"You'll be wanting my news," he suggested. "I told you pretty well everything across the telephone. I think it's a case of everybody having got the wind up—Phyllis particularly. Mrs. Lockwood's a very restful woman. I should call her a man's woman. She's bright and entertaining and pretty, and she owns a charming little house. She had no responsibilities, so she's free to entertain from morning till night. Adair has without doubt visited her more often than was wise. It was remarkably foolish of him to have made a woman-friend whom he didn't share with Phyllis. But I suppose he didn't dare to introduce them after he'd seen that Phyllis was jealous. However that may be, this dread that they may run away together is moonshine. Mrs. Lockwood sets too high a value on herself. Besides, there's only one man whom she loves or ever has loved for that matter. He happens to be dead!"
"One moment, my dear fellow," Sir Tobias interrupted, "I always understood that the lady had had three husbands. Was this man one of them or did she have no affection for any of the men she married?"
Tabs felt himself cornered—and he had been getting on so well. He realized that if once he allowed Sir Tobias to start questioning him he would get tangled up. "She's complex," he explained; "she's complex in her simplicity. She's one of the most simply complicated and complicatedly simple women that I ever met. To understand her you have to talk with her. I talked with her for six hours. The upshot was that she promised to shut her door against Adair."
The innocent old eyes blinked. "I'm not modern, like you, Lord Taborley. I have my suspicions of these simply complicated and complicatedly simple women. Set me down as old-fashioned. Having been only once married, I can't enter into the refinements of feeling of such matrimonially inclined boa-constrictors as Mrs. Lockwood. I sha'n't give myself the chance of meeting her. I'm an old man; it would be too upsetting. If I talked with her, I shouldn't understand. So I must take your word for it that, however much appearances may have been against her, her motives were beyond question." He slipped forward in his chair with a disconcerting suddenness; for a moment his filmy eyes became penetrating. "She seems to have made a deep impression on you, my dear fellow. If your optimism proves correct and through your efforts Adair is free from her clutches, we all owe you a debt of gratitude. But—and I'm sure you won't take amiss what I'm saying—I would advise you, now that you've effected Adair's rescue, not to see too much of her yourself. In fact, if I were you, I wouldn't see her any more if I could help."
It was clear that the benignant, sly old gentleman had overheard a substantial part of Maisie's telephone conversation. It was equally clear that his interference was wisely and kindly intended. He had a perfect right to be scrupulous about the conduct of a man whom he regarded as his future son-in-law; but he had no right to take advantage of the worst managed telephone-system in the world to eavesdrop on a private conversation. At the same time Tabs could hardly accuse him of eavesdropping, so he fell back on his dignity for defense.
"I've always been very well able to take care of myself," he said quietly. "If I hadn't been, I shouldn't have undertaken your mission and have gone to interview the kind of woman you described. I found, however, that she didn't live up to your description of her; in fairness to her I have to let you know that. I don't think you appreciate, Sir Tobias, what a delicate situation you created for both of us. She's a woman of breeding; which goes without saying since she's Lady Dawn's sister—a fact which you withheld from me. You sent me to her house as a kind of moral policeman with a warrant for her arrest. She was well aware of that and she was also aware that the charge you laid against her was almost libelously mistaken. All I can say is that she has behaved very handsomely. Since you and Phyllis have misunderstood her friendship for Adair, she's willing to break off relations. The most courteous and only decent thing that we can do is to cease discussing her. It's an incident which does none of us much credit."
As he had warmed to her defense, Tabs had been very conscious that he was being more than generous—perhaps even more generous than truthful. It hadn't been his intention at the start to depict her as a wronged and spotless angel; but the skepticism of the attentive old image, bleached with disillusions and faded with years, had goaded him to excess.
Sir Tobias had listened, scratching his pointed beard thoughtfully, with entire amiability. He was utterly unimpressed and visibly unashamed. "You're a man of the world, my dear Taborley, and you have the advantage of having seen her. From what you say I gather that she's not bad looking. To the not bad looking much is forgiven. Nevertheless, I stand by my opinion that she's not a safe woman to see too often. However, you're master of your own actions and that's neither here nor there."
He commenced to fumble through his pockets. When he had found his cigarette-case, he proffered it to Tabs, who refused it.
"I wish you'd sit down, my dear fellow."
Tabs glanced at his watch. There was only a quarter of an hour left of the time he had allotted. As a concession to Sir Tobias he seated himself. "It was about General Braithwaite that you called me up last night?"
"Yes. But there's no hurry. We can discuss that over lunch."
Tabs considered that the time had come to be firm. "I'm sorry, Sir Tobias. Terry's lunching with me. We start in something less than fifteen minutes."
Sir Tobias screwed himself round and surveyed his future son-in-law with a mild amazement. For forty years he had been accustomed to having his own way unchallenged. "Terry can wait." He spoke as though the matter was now settled. "What I have to tell you is important."
"And so is what I have to tell Terry." Tabs emphasized his statement by glancing again at his watch.
For a few seconds Sir Tobias was at a loss. To hear himself opposed was a novel experience. Then he thought he had discovered a consoling reason for this obstinacy and smiled loftily, as Shakespeare retired to Stratford might have smiled at hearing himself reminded by Ann Hathaway that he was not so great a man as London had imagined.
"Very well, my dear fellow," he conceded; "young blood will have its way. I withdraw for this once, since your plans are already made."
His forgiveness was brushed aside. Time was pressing. Tabs forced him to the point without further ceremony or waste of words. "When you phoned yesterday evening it was nearly midnight, so the matter must have seemed urgent. You said that General Braithwaite had been to see you on a fool's errand, with a story that partly concerned myself. May I ask how it concerned me?"
"You're brusque, very brusque," Sir Tobias complained. "We could have talked this over much better at my club."
When Tabs showed no signs of relenting, he revealed his real feelings testily. "You know this fellow Braithwaite. You must have recognized him the moment you clapped eyes on him. Why didn't you tell me?"
Tabs looked up quickly, taken aback and slightly resentful at the peremptory tones in which he was addressed. "It wasn't my business. Apart from that, I was aware of nothing to his discredit." Once again as in the case of Maisie, he was allowing himself to be goaded out of justice into excessive generosity.
"Nothing to his discredit! That depends on your point of view." Sir Tobias sniffed audibly. He could be as a rude as a spoilt child. "That depends on how deeply interested you're in—in my daughter."
"I think I gave you proof of my interest, Sir Tobias, the other evening when I asked——"
"Pshaw! You know very well what I'm driving at, Taborley."
"Nevertheless, I should like to hear you put it into words."
Sir Tobias gave one of his remarkable exhibitions of youthfulness. Flinging aside his decrepitude, as though it had been no more than an affectation, he shot bolt upright, gripping the arms of his chair. "Last night, within a handful of hours of my forbidding him the house, he had the impertinence to call here to inform me that he was in love with Terry. Not content with that, he added insult to his impertinence by telling me that he had been your valet. How is it, Taborley, that on that evening when you dined here as his fellow-guest, you never once hinted by look or word that he wasn't the part he was playing? I can't consider that very honorable of you. As an old friend, quite apart from any new relationship, I had the right to expect that my interests were nearer to your heart. It upsets me to find I was mistaken. Have you so little pride in the girl you propose to marry that it doesn't offend you to see her gadding about with ex-servants? You saw them get up and leave the table that night. You heard the front-door bang and knew that they'd gone out together—my daughter with the fellow who used to put the studs into your shirts! And there you sat with me, sipping your coffee and chatting as though it were all perfectly right and normal. Upon my soul, Taborley, you're beyond my comprehending. If I, her father, can feel this indignation, what ought not you to feel? You're supposed to be her lover and you're not jealous. So far as I can see, you're not even disturbed."
Tabs' face had gone suddenly white. He acknowledged to himself that, had he been Terry's father, he would have said no less. When he spoke it was with quiet intensity.
"I am annoyed, Sir Tobias—a good deal more annoyed than I care to own to myself; but I try not to let my annoyance obscure my sense of justice. It isn't fair to consider Braithwaite in the light of a servant. He isn't a servant; he's won his spurs. He arrived at the position he occupies to-day through original and unaided merit. That the man who was my servant, happens to be my rival, is bitterly galling. But I'm not going to let it blind me to the fact that he has qualities of greatness. He proved those qualities, even more than on the battlefield, when he came to you and pluckily told you the truth about himself. God knows what he thought to gain by it; but I'm hats off to him."
Sir Tobias threw out his hands in a disowning gesture. "I don't want to quarrel with you—that's the last thing I desire. But I must confess that I fail to sympathize with your attitude of mind. Magnanimity is all very well, but it's easy to be magnanimous where your affections aren't too deeply concerned. A man in love has no right to be magnanimous—it isn't a healthy sign. Lady Beddow used those very words to me this morning. She feels as I do, that in your attitude to Terry you lack something. You've let two days elapse since you asked my permission to approach her—— You're the same with this Maisie woman—inhumanly, unsatisfactorily magnanimous. You don't identify yourself with our antipathies—you almost side with the people who affront us. It's estranging and distressing. I like a man to be more emphatic in his loyalties and aversions. I like him to show more fire. In days that I can almost remember, Braithwaite's intrusion would have been an occasion for a duel. Terry's mother feels the same about you; it makes her unhappy. 'He lacks ardor'—that was how she expressed it. 'Perhaps, after all, he's too old for Terry,' she said. Personally I don't go as far as that."
Now that he had made an end, Sir Tobias attempted to beam on Tabs with his accustomed suavity. He was skillful in saying offensive things with an air of consideration. When he had said, "Personally I don't go as far as that," he had leant out and patted Tabs' hand with a senile display of affection.
Too old for Terry! Tabs sat pondering the words. They voiced his own doubt—the doubt that had haunted him from the moment of his return. The antiquated version of Shakespeare sat watching him, plucking at his pointed beard and blinking his faded eyes shrewdly.
Suddenly with a cavalier smile of conquest, which was strangely unwarranted, Tabs swung himself to his feet. "Well, Sir Tobias, we've talked for more than our half hour. After all, it doesn't matter a continental what you, or I, or Lady Beddow feels. It's Terry's feelings that count. I shall know what she feels before the afternoon is ended."
He was holding out his hand to the surprised old gentleman, when the door opened just sufficiently to admit Terry's head.
"Come on, your Lordship!" she laughed mockingly, "you've kept me waiting long enough."
CHAPTER THE SIXTH
As Tabs emerged from his interview with Sir Tobias, he found Terry standing in the hall, doing up the last button of her gloves. James, of the velvet-plush manners, lost no time in proffering him his hat and cane, and in flinging the front-door wide. He did it with the air of a sentimentalist who was aiding and abetting an elopement. Tabs had the feeling as he limped along the pavement with Terry tripping at his side, that the eyes of the house which they had left followed them—followed them jealously, romantically, expectantly. There was only one way in which they could give satisfaction and that was by returning to it engaged.
"He lacks ardor. Perhaps, after all, he's too old!" Lady Beddow's criticism drummed in his mind. Not very pleasant hearing!
Silence was maintained till they had rounded a corner and the tall buff house was left behind. Then Terry raised a shy, laughing face. "Downcast, Tabs? You look as though you were bearing the sins of all the world."
"Not of all the world!" he corrected gravely. "Only of three people."
"Then I'm one of them. Who are the other two?"
"You know already—Mrs. Lockwood and Braithwaite. I saved all your necks, but I broke my own."
She brushed against him affectionately. "Tabs, you're a trump."
Her praise displeased him. "I didn't tell you for that."
"Because I thought you ought to know." He slackened his pace. "I thought you ought to know that your father isn't as keen on me as he was, Terry."
"That's all right," she said cheerily; "I am. But what have you been doing to Daddy?"
"Describing Mrs. Lockwood as a lady above reproach and accusing him of uncharity towards Braithwaite."
She tossed her head and laughed outright. "You have become converted!"
"Converted!" He pondered her assertion. "No. I'll acknowledge that I was inclined to be too harsh at first. I may have become more pitiful; but I've not become converted, if by that you mean that I condone what these two people have done. I still think that Mrs. Lockwood's conduct with Adair was inexcusable and that Braithwaite's holding back the truth from you was dishonorable. In talking with your father I gave Braithwaite all the credit for speaking out to him like a man, and I let him suppose that Mrs. Lockwood had given up Adair unconditionally. As you know, Braithwaite didn't come up to scratch till I'd handed him your ultimatum; and Mrs. Lockwood—— But you don't know about her yet. I haven't told you."
"I know," Terry smiled roguishly. "Maisie's a great abuser of the telephone. She called me up this morning to ask whether she might share you with me for a few weeks. When I asked her why, she said to help her to forget Adair. Of course I consented."
Tabs looked down at his companion to see whether her last remark had been sarcastic; to his discomfort he found that it hadn't. "I'm not sure that I like to be lent round like that," he objected. "I was sorry for her last night and promised to help her; but this phoning you up to ask your permission puts an entirely erroneous complexion on the affair."
"Not erroneous if I understand," she assured him, glancing up with tender frankness.
He smiled at the way she cozened him. Was she willing to lend him to another woman because she was so sure of him, or because she didn't care whether she lost him?
"Your father suspects me of being lukewarm about you," he said; "and I can't blame him. He knows nothing about our meeting yesterday. He doesn't know that you care for Braithwaite. All he knows is that I asked his permission to approach you and then let two days elapse. When I did come to his house again it was to defend the two people who have caused him most annoyance. My reason for defending them was that I might make things easier for you. But my position is false, Terry. Every day your parents are expecting that we'll become engaged; every day that we don't——"
They had come to the Marble Arch. "Shall we hop into a taxi?" he enquired.
She shook her head. "Let's walk a little farther—down to Hyde Park Corner. It's easier to say things."
When he had helped her through the traffic and they were sauntering through the Park, she took up the thread of their conversation. "I told you yesterday that I was willing to become engaged to you. I'm willing to-day."
"Willing!" he emphasized. "But you don't want. The man you love is Braithwaite. What difference has this confession of his made?"
She shrugged her shoulders and looked away, so that he should not see the quivering of her mouth. "It's made everything impossible. I admire him more than ever. I admire him for having told the truth and for having climbed so far up by his gallantry. But—— I'm no fool, Tabs. I know that I couldn't marry him without bringing ridicule upon all of us. Noble notions about human equality don't work in practice. He's what he is—fine of his kind. He's finer than you or I, Tabs, only he's not our sort. He couldn't ever become our sort. If I were as big as he is, I might not mind. But I'm little and mean; I care so much for caste. And yet, in spite of that, I want to marry him. I oughtn't to tell you, of all people. But I can't tell him and I can't tell any one—any one but you, Tabs. I want him so much that I'm ashamed sometimes. I wouldn't have my people know it, so you must stick by me. Do at least as much for me as you promised to do for Maisie—stay with me till I can forget him." And then she added ruefully, "It isn't much fun for you after all you'd expected."
He couldn't afford to let her become emotional. Riders and smart equipages were passing. Several times already they had been recognized. The introduction of Maisie's name supplied him with a loophole. "Mrs. Lockwood rather adds to our complication. If I'm not engaged to you and I see something of her, your father will never understand. If I were your father, I wouldn't. To be perfectly frank, he thinks already that I'm lenient to Maisie only because she's good-looking——"
Terry didn't permit him to get further. "Daddy's probably right. Be honest, Tabs. Would you have stood up for her, if you'd found her fat and forty? Of course you wouldn't. Maisie's a dear, but she's dangerous. She can't help being dangerous; it's half her attraction. By the way, we've been walking entirely in the wrong direction."
They had come out by Hyde Park Corner. "How do you make that out?" he asked. "I thought we would lunch at the Ritz."
She began to apologize. "Before I met you this morning, I'd arranged for us to lunch with her—I mean with Maisie. You don't mind, do you? I was speaking with her over the phone and she said we must come because she didn't feel safe."
"She said that to you, too! She said the same thing to me. But you and I, do we want her?"
Terry nodded, making her eyes wide. "We'll all make each other more safe. That's what friends are for. I told her we'd be at her house by one."
"If you told her that——" He was trying to discover whether he was relieved or disappointed. With an eagerness which it was hard to account for, he was wondering whether Lady Dawn would be there. He pulled out his watch. "Twelve-forty-five. We can just do it in a taxi. If you told her that, we'd better stick to your plans."
He hailed a driver who was passing and helped her into the cab.
As he and Terry chugged their way to Mulberry Tree Court he eyed her, sitting beside him. Would he ever get her? If he did, would she prove to be one of his really big things? All men must have thought that their wives would be the really big things in their lives before they married them. How many of them thought that six months after they were married? There was Adair, for instance. But his wife was going to be the big thing—on that he was determined.
And yet, it wasn't very big of Terry to be using him as a stalking-horse for her love for Braithwaite; he felt morally certain that that was what she was doing. She hadn't acknowledged to having seen him, but Tabs felt instinctively that she had seen him. He also felt that within the next twenty-four hours she would be seeing him again. It was impossible for him to accuse her of clandestine meetings of which he had no proof; at the same time he was distressed by the restraint that was put upon himself. As things were, anything might happen. When it did happen, it would happen suddenly and he would be in a measure to blame.
And here again, in this luncheon with Maisie, he was being made a party to her policy of secrecy. There could be no doubt that Sir Tobias was in ignorance of her continual correspondence with Maisie.
He looked at her. How near she seemed to him and yet in reality what miles away! He could listen to her voice. He could touch her. But he could not foresee a single one of her future actions. She was remote and strange and dear. She had offered to become engaged to him, but she was no part of him. She filled him with discomfort and unrest. For the first time he dared to frame his charge against her. It was in almost the same words as the charge which she herself had brought against Braithwaite. He could love her so that it seemed that if he did not win her, he would never be able to love any other woman; but he could not trust her. He began to question whether she had ever been the woman he had tried to think her. Perhaps she was only a dummy and his imagination had clothed her with affection. He had attributed to her adorable qualities——
When all was said, how little he really knew about her! His need of her fought with his sense of discretion. It was not dignified that a man of his position and years should allow himself to become a shuttlecock in the hands of her capricious inexperience. Would he ever be able to bridge that gulf of years! Lady Beddow's unhappy criticism haunted him. "He lacks ardor." Perhaps she was right; experience should marry experience and inexperience inexperience.
As they sped down the Brompton Road, they passed the end of Honeymoon Square. In the enclosed garden among spring flowers children were still playing. Scattered here and there, under the thin shade of blossoming trees, he caught glimpses of white prams with their attendant nurses. The little houses—his own among them—stood all a-row, shoulder to shoulder, looking intensely smiling and habitable. His imagination reconjured all the midnights they had witnessed—the home-comings under cover of darkness, the secret endearments of lovers, the muffled laughter. Then he remembered his own dream, which he had planned to share with her. It was intolerable that it should escape conversion into reality.
It seemed little short of marvelous that she should still sit beside him. She should have vanished with the Square. Had he given her a name, he would have called her his lady in heliotrope, for she was dressed in a heliotrope gown, trimmed round the hem and throat with gray opossum and topped with a little close-fitting turban of color and fur to match. She looked so dainty and subtly haughty, so austere in her virginal beauty, that it seemed to him he must have wronged her with his silent conjectures.
"You're more than ordinarily pretty to-day," he said.
"Am I? What you mean, I suppose, is that you like my gown. It's a new one. I'm wearing it for the first time, especially for you."
She turned her laughing face towards him, violet eyes, flushed cheeks, golden hair, white teeth—everything aflash with instant gratitude. The discovery of how easily he could command her happiness touched him.
"Can I make you as merry as all that just by telling you you're beautiful?"
She compressed her lips and nodded. "It's not being told. That doesn't matter. It's being told by you."
He felt for the moment that he had recovered her—that he had bridged the gulf of the years that divided. Before anything further could be said, they were halting in Mulberry Tree Court.
On entering the house with the marigold-tinted curtains he had glanced round casually for any signs of Lady Dawn. After Porter had shown him into the drawing-room Terry had left him to go in search of Maisie. He walked over to the tall French-windows and found himself once more gazing out on the garden-rockery with its oval lake, its silent fountain and its toy-boat that never sailed anywhere. He made an effort to continue gazing out, for his impulse was to turn and look at the portrait over the fireplace. He tantalized himself by trying to ignore it. But it was strange the fascination that it held for him. He had the feeling that behind his back the face had changed from the profile position in which it had been painted, so that the steady stone-gray eyes were challenging his attention. At last he resisted no longer; walking over to the fireplace, he stood gazing up at it.
For a moment he tried to pretend to himself that his interest was purely an art-interest. It was Sargent's brush-work that he was admiring. Then he smiled, as much to the portrait as to himself. "Princess Czarina Bolsheviki," he murmured, "were you really looking at me when my back was turned? Did you flash your eyes away directly I obeyed your desire? It's the trick of every woman; but you're not like every woman, Princess Czarina Bolsheviki."
It seemed to him almost as though the woman on the canvas was about to relax her pose and quiver into life. The longer he looked, the less aloof she became and the more her serenity trembled. He felt that he knew so much about her—so very much more than he had ever been told. There were experiences of pride and terror which were common to them both—the pride and terror of appalling heart-hunger. He knew for certain, as though those painted lips had confessed it, that he was the one man in the world who had the power to make her cry. And yet he dissociated in his mind the woman of the portrait from the woman who had slipped past him out of the night with the taunting, sideways smile of feminine triumph. The living woman could wound and disappoint; the woman of the portrait was his friend entirely.
He was startled out of the mood into which he had fallen by the sound of footsteps crossing the hall. He was not going to be discovered in that position by Maisie for a second time. He had barely recovered his place by the French window, when she and Terry entered laughing. It would have been easy to have mistaken them for sisters, with their golden heads and clear complexions. Directly he caught sight of them he guessed by the mischief in their eyes that their laughter had been at his expense. It was Terry who spoke. "Oh, Tabs, how could you? It was like a little frightened boy."
He glanced from one to the other of them for further enlightenment. "Do what? If you'll let me know, I'll tell you."
"Run away, like you did last night," Maisie explained. "I've just been describing it to Terry. There was I sitting on the couch when Di entered. The first thing she asked me was, 'Who's your new butler?' I wouldn't tell her. 'He'll be here in a minute,' I said; 'I'll introduce him to you.' We waited for about a minute and, when you didn't come, I went out into the hall. 'He's gone, Madam,' Porter told me in her most Mayfair manner. 'Gone!' I exclaimed. 'He can't have gone without saying good-by.' But I was afraid you had, so I went on to the steps and called after you. I don't know whether you heard me. When I came back into the drawing-room, Di was smiling. 'I've read about lordly butlers,' she said, 'but it's the first time I ever met one.' So there you are! You can imagine what a trouble I had to clear myself. I only downed her suspicions when I assured her that you were on the point of becoming engaged to Terry."
Instantly Terry's eyes sought his; the laughter died out of them. He shared her annoyance that Lady Dawn should have received this piece of information—Lady Dawn of all persons. He wasn't engaged to Terry. He was a long way from being engaged to her—perhaps further at this moment than since his return.
The silence that followed made Maisie aware that she had been guilty of a mistake. He suspected that she had intended to be guilty of it from the start. Nevertheless, she played the part of innocence, making her cornflower eyes eloquent with apology. "Oh, I'm afraid I've put my foot in it. But you are almost engaged, aren't you?"
Tabs laughed good-humoredly. "It's all right, Mrs. Lockwood. You didn't mean to, but you've paid me back in more than my own coin."
Porter relieved the tension at that moment by announcing that lunch was served.
When they had taken their seats in the front-room, overlooking the make-believe village-green, Terry surprised them by saying carelessly, "Oh, Maisie, you remember General Braithwaite whom we nursed in our hospital?"
Maisie looked up sharply, trying to warn her that Porter was still present. "Of course I remember him," she said. "Since then we've both met him a hundred times. I think Lord Taborley would like some bread, Porter."
But Terry wasn't to be deterred. She seemed to be taking a perverse delight in introducing the one subject on which it would have been most fitting for her to have remained silent. "Since Tabs came back we've found out all about the General. You'll never guess who he really is or was. It's difficult to say whether he is or was, now that he's demobilized."
Tabs recognized the blaze of recklessness in her eyes, like the glare of lighted windows after nightfall from which the curtains have been suddenly thrown back. He had seen that look in her eyes at the hunt when, in disobedience to shouted warnings, she had looked back across her shoulder challengingly before taking an audacious jump. There was in her expression the fear of the thing she was about to do and the panic of determination to get it done. He attempted to turn her aside from the danger by slipping in quietly, "I don't think I'd discuss the General at this moment."
"At this moment!" she flashed back with a scared smile. The sound of her own voice seemed to clap spurs to her excitement. "Why not at this moment, dear Tabs? Everything comes out sooner or later. If there's going to be any spreading of gossip, one takes the sting out of it by being the first to spread it. Besides, you oughtn't to mind. You ought to feel most frightfully bucked."
"Nevertheless, I don't think I'd say it."
Then he held his breath for, paying no heed to him, she had turned to Maisie. "You mustn't laugh, but it's too good to keep to oneself. Before he was a General, what do you think he did for a living? He used to clean Lord Taborley's boots. You don't believe it, but it's a fact. Daddy's terribly grim with me over it. Of course it was infra dig to go footing all over town with your best friend's valet. But how was I to know that he'd been that? Daddy says I ought to have sensed it, if I'd had any sort of a social instinct. But here's the funniest thing of all, the way we made the discovery. I'd invited him to dine at our house on the very night that Tabs was Daddy's guest. I'll never forget your faces, Tabs, when Daddy introduced the two of you." She commenced to pantomime the scene with forced gayety; then she pretended to become aware for the first time that they weren't joining in her laughter.
"What's wrong? You look as solemn as a funeral. Don't you find it amusing?"
Porter was leaving the room. Maisie waited till the door had closed. Then, "You didn't intend it to be amusing. Why on earth did you say all this before her?"
Under the rebuke Terry's face flushed defiance. She was near to tears, but she contrived to go on smiling. "When I want all the world to know anything that's private, I mention it before servants. It always works."
"But——" Maisie was at a loss to find a motive for such indiscretion. She glanced helplessly at Tabs. "But," she objected, "surely you don't want all the world to know about this, Terry? You and the General have been such good pals, and—— I have to say it, even though Lord Taborley is present: there were a great number of your friends who were rather afraid——"
"Then they won't have to be afraid any longer," Terry cut in with icy sweetness. "When it's reported to the General that I've told this story, he won't have to be rather afraid either. It'll set all his doubts at rest."
Tabs had sat puzzled and horrified while she had been talking. Everything that he could remember about her was gentle; it wasn't like her to be cruel. Now at last he realized that it was for his sake that she was being cruel—far more cruel to herself than to any one else. She had so little faith in her strength to break with Braithwaite that she was building up a protective wall of contempt by the spread of this damaging story. If Braithwaite heard it, she might well hope to rouse his hatred and save herself further effort.
From across the table her eyes sought his in appeal; his answered hers with intuitive comprehension. But his mind was stunned with apprehension at the discovery that her passion for this man meant so much that his hate would be a lighter burden than his love.
Maisie turned to Tabs with veiled disdain. "I suppose it was you who told her this, Lord Taborley?"
He paid her scant attention and continued looking at Terry. "On the contrary." He spoke with unruffled urbanity. "It was General Braithwaite—Steely Jack as he was nicknamed in the Army. He never lost an inch of trench, so they say. Like your own first husband, Mrs. Lockwood, he's most to be feared when every one else would have given up hoping. Like myself, though he doesn't know it, he's a round-the-corner person. Curious, Terry, that you should have attracted two round-the-corner admirers! It makes one almost believe that you're a round-the-corner person yourself."
He had said it without consciousness of magnanimity. There was nothing magnanimous about stating the truth according to his code of honor. He was seeing the bleak look that would come into Braithwaite's face should he hear of this happening. He was wondering whether Braithwaite possessed the insight into feminine strategy not to take offense, but to interpret it as surrender.
Terry was speaking again. "My dear Maisie, if ever you get to know Lord Taborley, you'll learn to have a better opinion of him. He plays with all his cards on the table. I think most men play like that. It's we women who cheat and carry spare aces and revoke when the game's going against us." Then came her amazing burst of frankness, "Like you did when, to suit your own purpose, you pretended that we were on the point of becoming engaged. Like I did when I told that story just now about Steely Jack. And again like you've done all along in your dealings with Adair. Why, even now, when you're ready to give him up, you can't play the cards that are on the table; you have to try to borrow Lord Taborley from me. Don't get angry. I'm not accusing you especially. We women are all the same; there's not one of us who can stick to the rules of the game." Her glance shifted to Tabs. "You used to think that I was the exception. You see, I'm not. The wonder is that men can even pretend to respect us."
Long after she had finished and the conversation had taken a new turn, she went on gazing at him, raising and lowering her eyes as she ate her lunch, begging him to understand.
"You're wrong, Terry." In her capacity as hostess, Maisie was making an attempt to get away from personalities. She was too convicted by what had been said to consider it wise to defend herself. "You're wrong. Men don't want to respect us. They love us for having faults that they wouldn't tolerate in themselves. They encourage us to cultivate them. It flatters their integrity to discover our dishonesties. They like to believe that we're cowards. They don't expect us to tell the truth. They almost resent our having a sense of honor. The woman who cheats at every turn and then cries in their arms when she's found out, is the kind of woman who always has a man to take care of her. Look at my sister, Lady Dawn. She's never been known to cry. She's missed everything in life through being almost repellently honorable."
In the discussion that followed Tabs took no part, though he was often appealed to for an opinion. As he listened to their modulated flow of voices, their refined and gentle intonations, their evasive, slyly uttered words, he began to have an understanding of what was taking place. It was something primitive—the oldest of all battles. Neither of them wanted him, but each was prompted to covet the pretense of his possession. Their hunting instincts were aroused. He had taken on a sudden value in their eyes because each had discovered that the other was in pursuit of him.
His thoughts went back to Lady Dawn—to her pale aloofness. She wasn't like this—she was different from all other women. It was ridiculous that he should be so sure that she was different when his only proof was a portrait, quite certainly idealized. He began to argue with himself again as to whether he ought to seek her out and endanger her serenity by telling her about Lord Dawn. It would be useless to confide such intentions to Maisie. He would obtain no help from her. She could conceive of no sympathy between a man and woman into which sex did not enter. The thought of sex in connection with Lady Dawn seemed an impertinence.
The discussion went on. Luncheon was at an end. Coffee had been served. Cigarettes were being lighted. Again and again he was referred to. Did he think this and didn't he agree to that? Wasn't this true of the way in which men regarded women? Their differences of opinion seemed so trivial. Their views so immature and amateurish. He watched them with curious, brooding attention. They were so nobly tender in their outward forms. He appreciated the grace of their gestures, the fine-boned smallness of their bodies, the delicacy of their molding, the tendril thinness of their fingers, the sagacity of their tiny aristocratic heads, the seduction of their soft red mouths, the poetry of the fringe of golden lashes in which the pathos of their eyes hung enmeshed—their intrusive, penetrating frailty, which supplicated, denounced and astounded. They were so weak and yet so strong. A man could crush them with one arm. But they could slay a man's soul with their sweetness. They were equipped in every detail by their pale perfection to quicken and to disappoint. To disappoint! That was what they had been trying to persuade him for the past half-hour—that they were Nature's traps, cunningly contrived and baited. The Philistines be upon thee, Samson! Their self-traductions were undermining his faith in all sacredness.
In the silence of his brain he fought—fought against disillusion, claiming exemption for at least one woman from these sweeping denunciations—the woman in the portrait.
A man had been passing and repassing the windows, cut into triangles by the looped back, marigold-tinted curtains. At first he had mistaken him for a different man each time he had passed. Then the lazy certainty had grown up within him that it was always the same man. A man who wanted something—wanted something that was in that house. It wasn't possible to make out his features. He wore a morning-coat and was top-hatted. The swing of his carriage was indefinitely familiar.
And now he had vanished—lost courage, lost patience, given up his quest, perhaps. Through the triangular gaps in the panes the village-green showed untraversed, sunlit, tranquil, garnished.
Without knocking Porter entered, looking worried.
Maisie broke off from her conversation long enough to say, "A little later, Porter. We're not finished."
She was resuming, when Porter again interrupted. "It isn't that, Madam. It isn't——"
"Then what is it?"
With an elaborate air of caution Porter closed the door and set her back against it. "I've told him that it's no good. That you won't see him, Madam."
"Of course not. That's quite right." Maisie bestowed her approval with rapid tolerance. "I can't see any one at present." Then, as an after-thought, "By the way, who is it?"
It was then that Porter let fall her bomb. "It's no good my telling him. He won't go away." Her firmness crumbled. She bleated in a dramatic surrender to distress. The three who heard her caught the commotion of her alarm and waited breathless. Her explanation came at last. "It's Mr. Easterday." The moment she had said it, she turned and fled.
The door had scarcely closed, when Maisie rose from her chair and stood swaying. She sank back, closing her eyes and pressing her hands against her breast. The mask of placidity had been wrenched from her face, leaving it blanched with the conflict between yearning, temptation and loneliness.
"Adair!" she moaned. "My God, I daren't trust myself!"
Unclosing her eyes, she gazed burningly at Tabs.
"I was honest in what I promised. I do want to live as though Reggie weren't dead. How did you put it? As though he were round the corner. As though he were truly coming back."
In the silence that followed she stifled a sob, realizing that it wasn't Tabs who was the obstacle. Turning hysterically to Terry, she laid hold of both her hands. "I can't do it—can't, can't by myself. I can only do it if you'll tell Lord Taborley to help me."
At a nod from Terry he left the table. In the hall he found an odd sight waiting for him. He had to look twice to make certain that this was the Adair Easterday whom he had known, and not a strayed and beflustered wedding-guest.
The man before him was worried to distraction. He had the unhappy, panic-stricken eyes of an over-driven bullock that scents the slaughterhouse. And yet his dress was immaculate; he was tailored and laundered as though for an occasion of joy. Everything that he wore was discreetly festive, from the lavender gloves and shiny topper to the striped trousers and canvas spats. One would have said that he was a caricature of George Grossmith on his way to a garden-party.
But he was hot—terribly hot; far more hot than he had any excuse for being in brisk spring weather. There were beads of perspiration on his forehead; his face was congested with excitement. To lend the touch of humor, which always lurks behind other people's tragedies, he held his top-hat by the brim in his right hand, as though he were taking a collection, while from his left, like a feather-duster, trailed an enormous bunch of roses. He was a short man in the late thirties, red-headed and inclined to be podgy. He was not built to express poetic passions—how many of us are, if it comes to that?—or to sustain their onslaught with dignity. Emotion seemed to have bloated him with unshed tears. There was nothing noble in his distress—only a farcical appearance of wretchedness.
As Tabs crossed the hall to the front-door, just inside of which Adair was standing, he felt an undeserved compassion for him—the kind of compassion one feels for a clumsy dog, which is always getting under people's feet. At the same time he couldn't help marveling that there should be two women at the same time in the world who were willing to compete for such a man's affections.
"I happened to be lunching here," Tabs commenced conventionally. But he altered his tactics promptly. In the presence of his friend's self-advertised misery nothing but the briefest truth seemed adequate.
"Old man, it's no good. She won't see you. She doesn't want you." Forgetting his sense of justice, he placed his hand affectionately on Adair's shoulder.
Adair stared in a full-blown way and nodded. "She never did want me."
He passed no comment on this unforeseen meeting in the little house with the marigold-tinted curtains. He manifested no resentment against this familiar angel who had been deputed to bar the gates of Eden to his approaches. He was incapable of surprise. He was obsessed by the solitary idea of his own forlornness. "I knew it. She never did want me." And then, in a rush of self-pity, "No one ever wanted me."
"Except Phyllis," Tabs suggested.
Adair appeared not to have heard. He stood like a living statue, his top-hat extended, his bunch of roses dangling—the picture of idiotic futility. Genuine emotion, however mean its origin, always has its grand moments. Tabs forgot the silly beginnings of this upset and the endless troubles it had caused. All he saw was a typical ragamuffin of humanity in the grip of the policeman, Nemesis. Adair had been caught trying to do what thousands of other ragamuffins achieved daily with success. He had been arrested red-handed in the act of stealing forbidden happiness. It was his first offense. He was inexpert and had bungled. He had bungled because, while assuming the role of roguery, he had remained at heart an honest man. Now that he was caught, he took the exposure of his dishonesty too seriously.
Tabs had almost forgotten that he had been the last to speak, when Adair repeated his exact words, "Except Phyllis!" And then, "Poor kid! She, too, is unhappy."
Through the marshy obscurities of his humiliation his conscience was building a path. With his two hands he crushed his topper back onto his head. The act had the vehemence of decision. In the doing of it he dropped the roses to the floor. There they lay forgotten—so forgotten that he placed his foot on them without noticing.
"Home! Best be going home," he muttered.
Without further explanation, he drew back the latch and let himself out into the sunlit Court. Delaying long enough to pick up his hat and cane, Tabs followed.
Adair gave no sign of recognition as he caught up with him. Failing to hail a taxi, they boarded a bus. Tabs paid the fares. Adair sat like Napoleon after Waterloo, taking no notice of anything. It was the intensity of his thoughts that kept him silent—not moroseness.
They had reached Clapham Common and had come to his garden-gate, before he acknowledged Tabs' presence.
"I was a fool. I deserved it," he said sadly. "It's ended in exactly the way that any sane man would have expected."
Kicking the gate open, he passed up the path. From the Common Tabs watched him, till he was safely within the house and the door had shut.
As he turned away, he scarcely knew whether to laugh or feel vexed. The misfortunes of others can always be traced to folly; it is only our own misfortunes that are never deserved and never anything less than august. If Adair's love-affair had appeared ridiculous in his eyes, probably his own would afford materials for jest to some one else.
He couldn't forget the top-hat and the trampled roses. The ineffectualness of all passion loomed large. It might have its value as an educative process, but what a waste of energy! For the moment he drew no distinction between Adair's guilty hankering after something which was forbidden and his own honorable love for Terry. The end of all passion was futility.
Then he laughed, for in imagination he saw the world as a crestfallen caricature of George Grossmith, top-hatted and bespatted, wending its unfestive way through the centuries to an eternal garden-party, from which Adam and his lineage were forever debarred.
His exit from Mulberry Tree Court had been so hurried that he had had no time to make arrangements with Terry.
He had no sooner knocked than the door was opened by Maisie. He was slightly embarrassed at being brought face to face with her thus suddenly after the last scene that they had shared. He entered in a tentative manner, only just crossing the threshold, as though he had not much time to spare.
"I called in," he apologized, "because I thought you'd like to know what happened—and to fetch Terry."
"Of course." She spoke with a cheerfulness that astonished him. "I was expecting you." With that she led the way across the hall to the drawing-room.
Carrying his hat, he followed. He clung to his hat purposely; it would serve as a reminder that he had not come to stay long. She was on the point of seating herself, when she spotted it. "Oh, how rude of me!" In the twinkling of an eye she had deprived him of it and vanished. "Captured once more!" he thought.
During the few seconds that she was gone, he looked about him. Everything was as it had been yesterday. A companionable fire glowed in the grate. On a table beside the couch tea was spread. Even as yesterday, the nearest chair to the couch was at least six feet away, making it necessary for any one who did not wish to appear boorish to share the couch with her. There was something else that he had noticed on entering: while he had been away she had made a complete change of toilet. She was now dressed in a filmy gown of emerald green, with shoes, stockings and buckles to match. It was a gown so chic that, had he been a woman, he would have guessed at once that it was the latest from Paquin's. Inasmuch as he was a man, his sole comment was, "Plucky little thorough-bred! You don't catch her owning that she's down." The emerald shade brought out all the values of her coloring, the faint rose of her complexion, the daffodil gold of her flaxen hair. He had expected to be bored by a Magdalene repentant; instead he had found himself confronted by a challenging young Diana. His admiration went out to her for her courage.
Having come back and resettled herself on the couch, she smiled up at him through flickering lashes. "A nice frock, don't you think? Nothing like a new frock after a knock-out for restoring your self-respect."
"It's a charming frock. Where's Terry?"
She clasped her small hands about her knees, leaning her head far back so that her eyes glinted up at his languidly. Perhaps it was necessary to do that in order to see him properly. He was still standing. And yet her attitude served another purpose; it called attention to the firm young lines of her bust and throat, and to the voluptuous curve of her lips, parted in patient expectancy.
"Terry!" Her voice sounded drowsy. "I forgot. I ought to have given you her message. She couldn't stop. She had another engagement."
"An engagement!" He was dumbfounded. "That's strange! She never said anything—— Are you sure she didn't invent it?"
"Certain." Maisie sat up fully awake now. "Quite positive. But she had made up her mind not to keep it till, through no fault of yours, you gave her the chance. You don't want to believe that; it sounds as though she had cheated. You don't know much about women, Lord Taborley. You don't know because you refuse to learn. You're determined, in the face of every proof to the contrary, to live and die in the faith that we're angels." She shook her finger at him. He was amused to discover that he was being scolded. "Angels! We're far from it. We're very much like you men, with this difference, that we're cowards. What you need—this may sound entirely wrong—is a good sensible woman to take you in hand, and give you a run for your money, and teach you your own value. Why, with your position and charm——"
"You must excuse my interrupting. Of course it all depends on what you mean by a run for my money. But are there many good and sensible women who are game for an adventure of that sort?"
"Heaps of them," she assured him, imitating his mock seriousness. "The more outwardly good and sensible, the more inwardly they're willing."
"Humph!" He pretended to be pondering this gem of information. And then, "But you have to own, Mrs. Lockwood, that Terry's not——"
She blocked his protest with a gay little laugh. "I make no exceptions. Terry's exactly like the rest of us—younger and more innocent looking, no doubt, but just as imperfect. As regards this engagement of hers, she breathed no word of it until you had gone. Then she began to flirt with the idea that she might be able to keep it. At last she couldn't resist the temptation any longer. Out she came with it, that she must be going. I'd lay a wager I could name the person with whom——"
"You'd lose your wager."
"I think not." She met the threatened tempest in his eyes with calmness.
"Would you give a name to this person?"
"Where's the good?" She shrugged her dainty shoulders. "We both know it? Steely Jack. Isn't that what you call him?"
Instantly she leant forward. Her whole instinct was to touch him. She hadn't intended to hurt him like that. He looked so defiant, and gaunt and deserted—such a huge, scarred boy of a man. He reminded her of one of those early war-posters, in which a solitary figure was depicted, knee-deep in barbed wire, head bandaged, hurling the last of his bombs.
"Please don't be angry," she pleaded. "I was clumsy; but I was trying to help. When you helped me yesterday, you too were clumsy. You can't put on a new frock, worse luck, the way I've done, to restore your self-respect. But I do wish you'd buy a new something—a new race-horse or a new car—I don't care what as long as it would make you swank. A little swanking would do you all the good in the world; it would keep Terry from knowing how much you care. Terry's not half good enough for you; one day you'll acknowledge it. Still, if you really do think you want her, you can bring her to heel any moment by putting on an indifferent air. Look how jealously she flared up at me at lunch. It makes a woman furious to see her rejections picked up as treasures by another woman. The only reason why Terry brought you here to-day was to see for herself just how deep an impression we'd made on each other."
At last she mustered the courage to touch him. Reaching out, she took his hand and drew him to her. He stood against her knees, looking down.
Her voice was tender. "Some one had to say these things to you, just as you had to say things to me that weren't altogether pleasant. So why shouldn't I to you? After all, we're both in the same box, and the box is labeled NOT WANTED. It pains me to see a man like you, wasting himself on a girl who hasn't the sense to appreciate what he's offering." She raised her eyes to his with a slow smile. "Don't mistake me, Lord Taborley, I'm not trying to secure what you're offering for myself."
He began to see the drift of her argument. Before he could formulate it, she herself had put it into words. "Can't we do a little missionary work, you and I, by appreciating each other just a little?"
Flinging prejudices to the winds, he took a place beside her on the couch. Why shouldn't he? Why should he go on conserving himself so scrupulously for a girl who didn't value his loyalty?
"I should consider it a privilege to be appreciated by you," he said gravely. "But let's start properly. How about dinner at the Berkeley? After that, if you felt like it, we could do a theatre. Would that suit you?"
* * * * *
It was close on midnight when they returned to Mulberry Tree Court. Not until he was handing her out of the taxi and Porter was standing framed in the open doorway, did he remember that he'd imparted none of his important news concerning Adair.
"About Adair——" he commenced. "Or shall I put him off till to-morrow?"
"Till forever." As her feet touched the pavement, she swung around on him with laughter. They had been very happy in the last six hours. She pressed close against him. He caught the sparkle of her eyes as he stooped above her and the faint, sweet fragrance of her hair. She rested an ungloved hand on his arm. It looked dim like a large white moth that had settled there.
"I have few principles to guide me," she whispered, "but the few that I have I observe. I never dig up my dead and I never botanize on the graves of the past. Good-night. Merry dreams to you, Lord Taborley."
With the suddenness of a phantom she went from him. There were a brief few seconds while he heard the ripple of her laughter and the rustling of her dress. Then the door closed. Save for the lamps of the waiting taxi night was again eventless and dark.
That evening was the first of many such adventures. His tall limping figure became a familiar sight in Mulberry Tree Court.
Very early in their friendship he took her advice and delighted her by purchasing a smart two-seater runabout which he drove himself. Sometimes it was at her door shortly after breakfast to transport her to where saddle-horses were waiting in the Park. Sometimes it would turn up about lunch-time and stand impatiently chugging while she changed into sport's clothes, after which it would dash away with her, humming contentedly, into the depths of the country. It was the magic-carpet which obeyed all her desires. After war-days, with their petrol shortages and restricted travel, it seemed more than ordinarily magic. It made emphatic as nothing else could have done, the freedom and serenity which peace had restored. The very fleetness of its obedience prompted her to urge Tabs to take her farther and ever farther afield. There were evenings when they dined within sight of the sea beneath the red roofs of Rye and started back for London across the Sussex downs, driving straight into the eye of the sunset. There were afternoons when they drifted over the Chiltern hills to where the spires and domes of Oxford rise, placid as masts of a sunken ship in an encroaching sea of greenness.
But it was most frequently nearing midnight when the quiet of the secluded Court was wakened by the merry buzzing of the engine. At first it would come from far away, drowsily like the song of a belated bee. Then it would gather in volume and grow more lively, till it panted round the little village-green and quavered into silence in front of Maisie's door. Porter, with the gold light of the hall behind her, would always be there on the threshold to receive her mistress. It was difficult to guess what Porter thought. There were impromptu jaunts to theaters and dances. Porter had seen many gay beginnings and tearful endings. Her face was immobile and respectful at whatever hour he called.
It was a curious friendship that had developed between them—a friendship which lived from hand to mouth, which had the appearance of being more than a friendship, in which nothing was premeditated. Nothing could be premeditated so far as he was concerned. Terry had first call on all his leisure—not that she availed herself of it very often; nevertheless, he held himself in readiness to break every engagement for her. Maisie was his consolation prize when Terry had failed. Maisie was not deceived as to the spare-man place that she held in his affections. She was painfully aware that at any moment their friendship might end as abruptly as it had started. On either side it was based on a common need for kindness, a common tenderness and a common desire for protection from loneliness. In a sense they were each a substitute for something postponed and more satisfying. While he was making up to her for the loss of Adair, she was trying to save him from the rashness of committing himself too fatally to Terry. They were altruists, actuated by self-interested motives.
And yet it was a friendship not untinged by enmity. His enmity was awakened when she became too possessive in the demands which she made and especially when she let fall criticisms, however mild, concerning Terry. These occurrences set him thinking of the other casuals who had ventured on her doorstep, not meaning to stay, and had ended by hanging up their hats in her hall. Her enmity was roused by the courteous circumspection of his behavior. He never admitted her to the privacy of his inmost thoughts. He could be gay and gallant and bountifully generous, but he never permitted her to peep beneath the surface. He addressed her invariably as Mrs. Lockwood. The use of her surname held her at arm's length. She longed most frightfully to hear him call her by the name that was less safe. She denied to herself that she wanted him to make love to her; at the same time she was disappointed at the persistency with which he held her off. She liked to believe that, if he had made love to her, she would have rebuffed him. She rehearsed many times the indignant words with which she would have set him in his place; she would have reminded him that it was for Reggie Pollock she was waiting—as though he were not dead, but only round the corner. To her chagrin Tabs never gave her the least incentive to employ them.
He saw her never more and frequently less than once a day. There was a week at a stretch when he saw nothing of her. She bridged these tedious intervals of expecting by the length of her telephone conversations. Whenever he stayed away for long, she tortured herself with suspicions that his courtship of Terry had begun to prosper. If he returned debonair and smiling, she felt confirmed in these suspicions. He was most dear to her when he returned in an under-mood of distress. She knew then that she was necessary; to be necessary was the passion of her heart. Then she would become gay and tender and mothering—an altogether sweeter, gentler and more self-effacing Maisie.
Whither were they drifting—toward marriage or only toward infatuation? If you had asked Tabs, he would have replied promptly, "Toward neither." He had promised to tide her over the dull spots. She had advised him to take a course of education in his own value in order that he might increase his worth to Terry. She had told him that he ought to let some good sensible woman take him in hand and give him a run for his money. They had accepted each other at their word—that was all.
At the same time he knew that that was not all. He knew that if there was one thing more irritating to her than being addressed as Mrs. Lockwood, it was his way of treating her as if she were good and sensible. Most women would feel affronted at hearing themselves spoken of as anything other than sensible and good. Good and sensible women are the pillars of society, but they are not usually regarded as attractive companions for joyous excursions in two-seater runabouts.
Neither of them was entirely insensitive to the conjectures that their sudden intimacy had given rise to in the minds of onlookers. They were both too well-known and were seen together in too many different places to avoid the breath of gossip—even of scandal. Men were scarce after the wholesale butchery of the war, especially bachelors of Lord Taborley's class. Had he only had the conceit to know it, he had returned to London a strong favorite for the season's matrimonial sweepstakes. More than one anxious mother of unappropriated daughters had set him down for preference on her list of eligibles. When invitations poured in on him and were politely regretted, there was consternation and puzzlement. The puzzlement vanished when the explanation was whispered across a hundred dinner-tables, "Haven't you heard? It's Maisie Lockwood."
Then would follow details of how they had been seen at sundry theaters, at half-a-dozen fashionable hotels and riding together in the Park. "She mounted on one of Lord Taborley's horses of course."
"It's quite a case," people said. "If he doesn't mean matrimony, it would be decent to exercise more discretion. There used to be some talk of Terry Beddow; that's completely ended. Queer the women men fall for, even the quietest of them! No one's sane any longer. Had three husbands already, hasn't she? Quite a crowd! One would scarcely have supposed that an exclusive chap like Taborley would have joined in the queue to make a fourth. And he could have had almost any girl for the asking. There's never any telling."
Veiled references began to appear in the society columns; but not so veiled that they could not be recognized. "A romance is developing between a noble lord, who served in the ranks during the war, and a vivacious beauty, three times widowed, well-known in fashionable circles, etc." One paper published a photograph of them riding side by side. After that sceptics who had not seen for themselves, were persuaded.
It was a mad world—a world in which it was not safe to be censorious. The lid was off the conventions. Every one was shouting for happiness—happiness at all costs. When they could not get it for the asking, they were taking it without thought of law or penalties. There were few who could afford to sit in judgment and many who preferred to laugh. The day of authority was over. Traditions were no longer respected. While the war was on, men and women had been drilled into dumb acquiescence; now that the drilling was abolished, they had become a mob, avid, leaderless and uproarious.
Tabs came to realize that he was not alone in his lost sense of direction. The right to live had been restored, but neither individuals nor nations were sure what they wanted to do with it. After having been as one in their sacrificial certainty, they had arrived at a cross-roads where there was no policeman to take charge. They had broken up into little groups, gathered about their own vociferous stump-orators. The result was babel. Of orators there were a plenty. They abused one another across the Irish Sea. They tried to shout one another down across the Atlantic Ocean. But the hammer-head men of righteousness were gone. After the apocalyptic splendor of mailed knights of Christ charging stern-faced down to Armageddon, the results of victory had been consigned to the weakling care of a race of talkers.
And yet there was music and laughter. Spring rushed on. Feet that had marched, now moved in the rhythm of the dance. Theaters were crowded. Jazz-bands clashed. There were endless processions. Youth beckoned. Chestnut bloom grew white and fell in flurries. Women were no less beautiful. The sun shone thunderously.
If Tabs were foolish, which he did not concede, all the world was his companion in foolishness. Blindly and gropingly he was still going in search of his kingdom. He ignored the gossip which his championship of Maisie had called forth. He despised it. It made him the more compassionate toward her—the more determined to help her to weather the storm. Well-meaning friends undertook to warn him. "She's most beautiful and charming. And she's Lady Dawn's sister, of course. But——Well, to put it frankly, a woman who's been married three times might just as well never have been married at all. Looks as though she'd only squandered her money in rising to the nicety of a marriage-license. I hope you don't mean to marry her, old chap, because she's not your sort."
When Tabs went to the trouble of assuring these well-wishers that he did not intend to marry her and that she was his sort, they slipped their tongues into their cheeks and opened their eyes wide, "Oh, so that's the way of it!"
Maisie reported to him similar experiences. "So you see how I'm regarded, as though I were no better than I should be. And I'm young and I've done nothing wrong. If it wasn't for your friendship, I should be tempted——"
"But you have my friendship!" he assured her.
He tried to rise superior to this petty talk of scandal-mongers, but it was not always possible when he remembered Terry.
He met Terry as often as he could contrive, but he no longer forced himself upon her. He could effect nothing so long as her infatuation for Braithwaite lasted.
Now that Sir Tobias had lost faith in him as a lover, his opportunities for meeting her became more rare. When Sir Tobias lost faith in any one, he made no attempt to disguise it. In the case of Tabs, he let him know it with a fine air of magnanimity, as though he were doing him a kindness. His frankness took the form of communicating some new disparaging criticism, astutely attributed to Lady Beddow, every time he was paid a visit.
Having separated Tabs from Terry by carrying him off to his library on one pretext or another, he would carefully close the door and commence, "You men who've seen service are all unbalanced; it would be unfair to hold any of you responsible. You're no exception, my dear fellow, though you probably don't notice it in yourself. As Lady Beddow was saying to me this morning, 'Poor Lord Taborley, he has a rambling mind. Most likely it's a species of shell-shock. There's a queer look comes into his eyes. It's not always there. It's a look as if he were haunted. You ought to speak to him, Tobias—you're his oldest friend—and advise him to see a specialist. It's lucky we found his weakness out before things between him and Terry went too far.'"
Or he would say, "Lady Beddow and I were talking about you, my dear fellow. You know she's very fond of you. She loved your mother before you. 'The little big lady from America,' she used to call her. She's naturally very much upset at the way in which you're getting yourself talked about. Unfortunately she holds me partly responsible for having induced you to visit this Maisie woman. 'You ought to have known him better,' she says. 'There's an immoral streak in him—an inherited taint, which I, for one, always suspected.' She was wondering whether you have any knowledge of there having been insanity in your family."
After having invented such discomforting surmises and given his wife the credit for them, the old gentleman would blink his crafty eyes and rest his hand affectionately on Tabs' arm. At the end of each visit he was pressed to call again; but when he called, it was to find himself shepherded into the library, safely out of reach of Terry, in order that he might hear his conduct discussed afresh, either directly or by insinuation.
He was unable to defend himself without betraying Terry. She maintained her silence with regard to Braithwaite, refusing to take her parents into her confidence. They naturally attributed the hanging fire of the engagement to Tabs, supposing that on the eve of his proposal he had been ensnared in the net of Maisie. In their eyes he cut a shabby figure.
Behind his back Terry came to his defense. She would hear and believe no wrong of him. This only proved to her parents that her heart still followed him. They thought her very brave and became more gloomy in their accusations. Matters took a serious turn: her health began to fail. When the doctor was summoned, he ascribed the cause to secret worrying and prescribed a complete change. Tabs received no word of this happening, for Terry had become increasingly shy, so that she created the appearance of avoiding him. She quite definitely avoided Maisie.
There came a day in early June when he went to call on her and was informed by the velvet-plush James that Miss Terry was out of London on a visit of undetermined length. When he asked for her address, James shook his head mournfully. She had been ill and was to be spared all disturbing communications. His orders were that her address was to be given to nobody.
"But that order doesn't apply to me," Tabs urged.
James became more profoundly agitated. He averted his eyes, while he fiddled with the last button of his plump waistcoat. "I regret to say, to your Lordship most especially."
"Humph!" Tabs stroked his chin. "Is Sir Tobias at home?"
"Your Lordship would gain nothing by seeing Sir Tobias."
"You might mention to him that I called." With that he descended the steps and climbed into his runabout.
"Turned away!" he thought. "Turned away from Terry's house!" Then his mind went back to two months ago—the hopes he'd had, his meeting with her at the station, his asking her father for her hand in marriage. It was like the old front-line trench, when reenforcements had failed to come up: there was nothing for it but to dig one's self in and stick it out.
He had been shown the door with as little ceremony as an intruding peddler.
From Terry's house he went to Mulberry Tree Court, but the route that he chose was not direct. He drove all over the West End first, through Oxford Street, Bond Street, Piccadilly; then back by way of Regent Street, swinging to the left through Conduit Street, till he again struck Bond Street. He doubled and redoubled on his tracks, moving among crowds, feeling that he must hear the noise of crowds, yet seeing little of the sights on which his eyes rested. It had been like this with him before, after being in too close contact with calamity. It had been like this in war-days, when he had returned on brief leaves out of monstrous offensives to the appalling quiet of a normal world. He hadn't dared to be alone. He had felt that his sanity depended on his rubbing shoulders with people. He had been like a child in an empty house, leaning out of a window to catch the stir of life along the pavements.
The gayety of the London season was at its height. Khaki was growing rare. Signs of war had almost completely vanished. No one wanted to talk about it. No one wanted to read about it. Shops had redecorated their windows with the necessities and luxuries of civilian requirements. There was a wave of spendthrift extravagance abroad. Every one in the streets had the look of being out for a good time. The threat of torturing to-morrows no longer made life haggard. If there was one lesson that the past five years had taught it was that each new day was a gift from the gods, to be enjoyed separately and drained of every available drop of pleasure. The restraints of duty were indefinitely postponed. Men and women sauntered in pairs, aimlessly and joyously. Work was the bondage furthest from their thoughts. They seemed aware of no one but themselves in their ecstasy at being reunited. Racing had been restarted; up and down the gutters newsboys ran shouting the winners. London was a Tommy on leave, insubordinately, humorously, contagiously happy.
As he drove, Tabs argued out his problem. From house-top to house-top the June sky sagged like an azure canopy. Across pavements the afternoon sunshine lay in bars of gold. Flower-sellers stood at intervals along the curb, scenting the air with their country nosegays. A lazy breeze ruffled drooping flags which had been hung out for the latest festival. Everywhere there were girls in their blowy summer dresses—girls of all kinds and sorts. Single girls, married girls, girls who worked for their livings, girls whose business it was to be beautiful, girls who were merely drudges. There were both pathos and urgency in the sight of them. It was not good that they should live alone. They had wasted their youth too long. The great necessity for that waste was ended. Not one of them was a patch on Maisie.