If he did not desire Maisie, why did he miss her? Was it that he would not allow himself to desire her? Why did he encourage his passion for Terry—Terry who in her mild and gentle way had become almost insolently unappreciative? Wouldn't he be wiser to content himself with the woman who was within reach rather than——?
He frowned as the truth dawned on him. For the first time he had acknowledged it. He did love Maisie. Not as he loved Terry, of course; but in a more human way, to the extent of needing her companionship. He had made a discovery that amazed himself—a discovery that thousands of men had made before him: that it was possible for him to love two women at the same tune, utterly differently and yet with entire sincerity. He felt as lowered in his self-esteem as if he had committed bigamy. He was dumbfounded at this new twist that his emotions had developed. Without consulting him, they had played a trick on him which forever disqualified him for the larger role of constant lover. He felt himself pushed down to almost the level of a philanderer—a philanderer not much more august than Adair. The suspicion crossed his mind that, if he could believe himself in love with two women, he couldn't be very mightily in love with either.
But he was impatient of delays—worn out with procrastinations. The magnificent chances of the present were slipping past him. One day he would be old. "Now, now, now, is the appointed time," throbbed his engine. Out of the sheer disorganization of his thoughts a desperate scheme took shape. Why should he not go to Maisie and say, "We're neither of us first in each other's affections. It's a rough-and-tumble world! Why be thin-skinned about it? We may become first later. Let's stop dreaming of kingdoms round the corner and make the best of such kingdoms as are ours to-day."
The idea took hold of him with force. It fascinated him. He turned his car about. In passing through Mayfair he made a detour to glance at Taborley House. The American Hospital had vacated it. It looked ruined and forlorn. He tried to picture it as it might appear if Maisie were its mistress.
Twenty minutes later he drew up before the retiring little villa with its marigold-tinted curtains. He had by no manner of means decided on his course of action. He could not have told you what he was going to say to Maisie. In this as in so many other ways, he believed himself abnormal. No one had ever told him that ninety-nine out of a hundred married men, if they spoke the truth, would have to confess that they had been unaware thirty seconds before they proposed that they were going to do so; and that the most incredible happening in their lives had been when, thirty seconds later, they had discovered that not only had they proposed, but that they had been riotously accepted.
CHAPTER THE SEVENTH
SOME PEOPLE FIND THEIR KINGDOMS
He was in the act of shutting off his engine when he heard himself accosted. "I beg your pardon, but are you, Mr. Gervis?"
It was a pleasant voice—a man's. Keeping his eyes on what he was doing, Tabs answered in the negative. Then he recalled that Gervis had been the name of Maisie's second husband. "If it's the Gervis who used to live here," he indicated the house with a jerk of his head, "I'm afraid you won't find him. He's been dead these three years—killed at the Front."
A quiet chuckle greeted this piece of information, followed by a hearty, "Thank the Lord."
Tabs had finished what he was doing. As he stepped out of the car, he threw a contemptuous glance at the man who could be so callous. He was a slightly built, fresh-complexioned young fellow of middle height, with amiable gray eyes and a fair, closely-trimmed mustache. He belonged to the demobilized subaltern type and had the weary, drawn expression of over-strained nerves that so many young faces had at that time. He was dressed in a smartly fitting suit of striped navy-blue flannel and carried himself with the plucky alertness of a highly bred fox-terrier. He had a clean and gallant bearing which it was difficult to reconcile with the ungenerosity of his last remark. In a neat, unforceful way he would have been handsome, had it not been for a badly healed scar which ran straight across his forehead, only just escaping his eyes.
Before Tabs could say anything, he was apologizing. "That sounded rotten. I'm sorry. But you see, I didn't know the chap. It's his wife that I'm trying to find. She was married to a man named Pollock when I knew her. I was rather a pal of Pollock's, belonged to the same squadron and was shot down at the same time. I've been a prisoner in Germany. Just got back, in fact. As you'll understand, I'm rather out of touch. I thought you'd be able to tell me whether she still lived here."
It was very damping to his ardor at this particular moment to have Maisie's matrimonial past raked up. Within the next half hour he would very possibly be asking her to be his wife. He wasn't sure that he was going to; but meeting this friend of her first husband on her doorstep didn't help him to make up his mind. He was no longer unsympathetic to the young fellow, but he was quite determined that he must be sent about his business.
"As a matter of fact," he said, "the lady you're in search of does live here. But she's not Mrs. Gervis any longer. She's married again. She's Mrs. Lockwood now."
A glint of enmity came into the stranger's eyes. "Then you're Mr. Lockwood, perhaps?"
Tabs answered him with a note of irritation. "I'm not Mr. Lockwood. She's a widow. Lockwood also was killed. But I really don't see why you should stop me on the pavement to ask so many questions. You can find out everything by ringing the bell."
"That's right." The young fellow stroked his mustache. "But I didn't want to do that until I had made certain. Surely you can see how embarrassing—— And now this third chap's gone West, you say. Poor little Maisie, she hasn't had much luck."
It was difficult to be brusque with a man of his own class, especially with a man so genuinely likeable. But he had to get rid of him. After having nerved himself up to the point of being at least prepared to propose to Maisie, he couldn't contemplate an evening of sharing her with a stranger and listening to the merits of her first husband.
"So you're an old friend! Well, I'm afraid she won't be free this evening. I have an appointment with her. But, if you like, I'll mention that I met you and I'll let her know that you'll call—when shall we say—to-morrow? Perhaps you'd care to give me your name——"
The young man smiled good-naturedly. "I couldn't think of troubling you to that extent."
"In that case, I'll have to ask you to excuse me. All kinds of luck to you on your return. It must be rather jolly not to be a prisoner. Good evening."
Tabs crossed the pavement and rang the bell. In order that he might afford no opportunity for further conversation, he stood with his face towards the door while he waited for it to be opened. He was very conscious that the stranger had not departed, but was hovering immediately in rear of him.
It was Porter who answered his summons. "I'm sorry, your Lordship, Mrs. Lockwood is out—— No, she didn't leave any word. She's bound to be back shortly—— Why, certainly, if your Lordship has the time."
While she was closing the front door, he walked across the hall and let himself into the drawing-room. He went directly over to the empty fireplace and gazed up at Lady Dawn's portrait. It always seemed to challenge him—seemed to be trying to say something to him. It was almost as though it were his conscience hanging there on the wall. He had an idea that it reproached him for his silence with regard to Lord Dawn. He felt that, were he to do what his instinctive sense of justice had first urged—go to Lady Dawn and tell her that her husband had cared for her—the painted face would be no longer turned away and the stone-gray eyes no longer averted.
He was haunted by the obsession that he would never have any luck till he had vindicated the dead man's memory.
It was Maisie who had prevented him up to now—Maisie with her laughter, her breezy arguments, her short views of life, her contempt for sentiment, her sledge-hammer motto, with which she shattered the past, "I never dig up my dead." She had made him hesitant about reopening the subject. Her sister was the most beautiful woman in England. A man never knows to what boundaries a woman's jealousy spreads. He feared lest, if he persisted, she might impute to him less lofty motives than the desire to play fair by a comrade-in-arms who had gone West.
Something stirred behind him. He swung about and found himself staring into the face of the stranger who had accosted him on the pavement.
"Sargent painted it ten years ago," the stranger said. "She's not as young as that now."
"How did you get in?" Tabs demanded.
The stranger laughed boyishly. "Not too loud or you'll give the show away. I followed you. The maid raised no objection. She thought we were together—which was exactly what I intended."
"But what do you want? What right have you here?"
"Want! I know what I want. As to my right, that's problematic."
He turned his back on Tabs and commenced to move about the room, picking things up and examining them with a purposeful curiosity. He showed no fear, yet in all his movements there was a calculated stealth. Tabs watched him in amazement, wondering what he ought to do. If it came to grappling with him, unless he carried fire-arms, there was little doubt as to who would get the better of the contest. The man might be a lunatic, a blackmailer, a burglar; by his odd mode of entry, he had laid himself open to every suspicion. But he looked perfectly normal; and if he had been a burglar, he surely would have selected an opportunity when no other man was present. It was an awkward situation, this being shut up alone in a husbandless woman's house with an unknown intruder. It seemed to be an occasion for tact rather than the possible fuss of police interference.
At this moment the stranger made a discovery.
He had been examining the five silver photograph-frames, each in turn, with close attention. With his back towards Tabs he remarked, "It looks as though she hadn't forgotten him. Five reminders of his homely mug and not a solitary one of the also-rans! Numbers Two and Three couldn't have made such a deep impression." He caught his breath in a nervous shudder. "It's queer. Everything's queer when one's just come back. One's so changed that he could court his own wife without being recognized. You, too, were out there I should judge by the way you limp. I wonder whether you've got over the queerness yet. I haven't had time——"
From in front of the empty fireplace, Tabs interrupted him. "Look here, my dear chap, I don't want to be rude and this isn't my house; but what's your game?"
The stranger turned and smiled. His frank gray eyes were amused and friendly. "Upon my word, I haven't any game. I'm like yourself—just paying a visit."
Tabs shook his head and gazed at him fixedly. "It won't do; you know that. You're a gentleman. Gentlemen don't get into unprotected women's houses by your kind of methods."
"They don't. That's a fact." He laughed carelessly. "I suppose this is what comes of having been a prisoner in Germany. One prefers to be underhand."
"Don't you think it's time you stopped fooling?" Tabs spoke in a conversational tone without temper. "There's Mrs. Lockwood to be considered; she may be here at any moment. It's no good coming this returned prisoner trick; all the prisoners in Germany were returned shortly after the Armistice. Eight months have elapsed."
"All right. Have it your own way."
The stranger ceased to wander and sat himself down at Maisie's end of the couch. Pulling out his cigarette-case, he offered it to Tabs. "Have a gasper?—— You don't need to refuse because of Maisie. If she's the Maisie she used to be, she won't object.—— Well, if you won't, I will."
Tabs noticed that his hand trembled in holding the match. The man was a bundle of nerves; he was only maintaining this display of coolness with an effort. Whatever the purpose of his bold intrusion, it was not social, as he had pretended.
"I don't like any man to think me a liar." The man spoke slowly between puffs at his cigarette. "You think it's all bunkum that I'm fresh out of Germany, but it isn't. Do you see that?" He ran his finger across the gash in his forehead. "That and the ill-treatment I received in the prison-camps made me go wuzzy. The only fact about myself that I could remember in all those years was Maisie. So it's natural that I should come to see her first. I wasn't sure of my own identity until a month ago. I suppose I was released at the Armistice, but for seven out of the past eight months I must have wandered in rags over Central Europe. However, all's well that ends well, and here I am."
"But you knew that she'd remarried," Tabs objected suspiciously; "you asked me if I were Gervis."
"A friend of Pollock's told me that," he explained. "Gervis was excusable. But this Lockwood fellow's the third. It's a bit thick! She certainly has been going it." He looked up suddenly. "I've been doing all the talking. What about yourself?"
Tabs crossed the room and opened one of the long French windows which led out into the rockery. The golden afternoon had faded into early evening and a refreshing coolness was in the air. When he came back, he seated himself at the other end of the couch. "Just to show that there's no ill-feeling, I'll accept one of your gaspers, if you'll allow me.——There's nothing for me to explain. My name is Lord Taborley and I'm a friend of Mrs. Lockwood. There's nothing else."
The stranger leaned forward. His humor left him, revealing his premature haggardness. He laid a hand on Tabs' arm and asked a question. "You're fond of her?"
Tabs eyed him in silence, trying to divine what was intended. "At any rate, you are," he said kindly; "I see it now."
"Not fond of her, I'm in love with her." The man's face softened as he made the confession. "I was in love with her when she was still the wife of Pollock. I've been through deep waters. I've had to wait for her like Jacob did for Rachel. I've lost most things—my memory, my health, my very likeness! but never for five minutes have I lost my love for her. She was the only star in my darkness——" The words fell from him with somber sincerity. "I don't know whether you understand——"
But Tabs' thoughts had turned inwards. He was living again the englamored poignancy of the years when Terry had been for him precisely that—the only star in his darkness. The intensity of the vision was like a cry of warning rousing his sleeping idealism from its lethargy. His present errand became a treachery to be swept aside by his refound strength. He recognized the intruder with new eyes, not as an enemy, but as a comrade—a comrade marooned on the selfsame island of loneliness and bound to him by the common experience of a kindred adversity. He was like Crusoe discovering the footprint. Here, quite close to him, was a fellow waif who had drunk deep of his own bitter sense of desertion. With a thrill of sympathy, his heart turned to him.
"The only star in the darkness!" He repeated the stranger's words. "For most of us there's been one woman who was all of that. If she fails us——" He stifled his pessimism. "When stars fail, one waits for the morning."
"So you, too, had your woman!"
The stranger smiled and relaxed against the cushions. "Foolish of me! You can't blame me. Twice I've believed that I'd lost her. First there was Gervis and then this Lockwood. Poor devils, I cry quits on them. But when I found you so at home here, you can guess what I dreaded. And yet you'll never guess why I followed you into this house." He lit a cigarette and crossed his legs. "I didn't want you to escape me till I'd asked a question—— Has it ever entered your head that Pollock might not be dead?"
Tabs started. Then he sat very still. It was the commonplace tone in which the question had been asked that froze his blood. It was as though this man had said, "I can bring him back." For a moment he knew genuine fear—the non-physical fear which the impalpable can awake in the bravest mind. Through the open window the companionable mutter of London entered. The normality of everything on which his eyes rested did its best to reassure him—the mellow evening sunlight in the friendly room, the flowers in the rockery, the toy-boat on the pond. "I never dig up my dead." He remembered Maisie's motto. But what if the dead——
He pulled himself together. Pollock not dead! An absurd suggestion! Maisie had changed her name twice since then—a sufficient proof! The poor fellow was demented. Everything that he had done bore the hall-mark of insanity. He had owned that he had been deranged to within a month ago. Everything that he had said might be quite true. He probably had been the dead man's friend and in love with Maisie at the time of her first marriage. The misfortunes that had befallen him had exaggerated his love into mania—a mania which the news of Gervis and then of Lockwood had rendered active. He felt an immense compassion for the man. There, save for the grace of God, sat himself. But what was to be done? Already Maisie was overdue. Not a second could be wasted. He must humor him and get him out of the house, if a scene was to be prevented.
And all the time the stranger had been watching him—following his thoughts, no doubt. He spoke again. "Don't you agree with me? It would be damned awkward if Pollock came back."
Tabs forced a smile. "I'm not so sure that I do. She never loved any one but her first husband. She's told me so. The other two—— I don't believe she herself knows how they happened. They were soldiers. They weren't long for this world. She didn't want to do them out of anything." He glanced at his watch. "By Jove, and I've not dined yet! I'm afraid I must be off. How about you? I'd be awfully glad if you'd take dinner with me."
The man jumped to his feet, so that Tabs rose with him. But once they were on their feet an amused expression of cunning came into his eyes. It told Tabs plainly that he had seen through the strategy. He shook his head. "Very good of you. But I'm waiting for Maisie." He held out his hand. It was evident that he was determined to take Tabs at his word. "We'll meet again, perhaps. What you've just said piques my curiosity. Before you go, there's one more question. In your opinion what would Maisie's attitude be if Pollock did come back?"
Tabs was instantly aware that he had made a false move. His bluff had been called. He'd made it impossible for himself to prolong his call; at the same time he didn't dare to leave this man behind in the house. It wasn't Maisie that he was thinking of now—he could warn her as she entered the Court—it was Porter. A madman was capable of anything; and yet, confound the chap's deceptiveness, he didn't look mad. There was only one chance of delaying his departure: at all costs he must involve him in an argument.
"If Pollock came back! Curious that you should suggest that! I've sat in this room and discussed the possibility with Mrs. Lockwood by the hour. For the past two months—that's as long as I've known her—I've been helping her to live as though he might come back."
The man's coolness instantly vanished. His excitement grew well-nigh beyond control. "You're not going. Sit down. You've got to explain." He rapped out his sentences in short, quick jerks. His voice had become harsh and imperative. "You can't have any idea what this means to me. It's ridiculous. Why should you, a living man, help her, when she's so beautiful, to save herself for a dead man? She didn't save herself in the case of Gervis and Lockwood."
With a sigh of relief Tabs reseated himself. The man sank down beside him, crowding against him on the couch. His anxiety was sharp-pointed as a dagger. "Quick," he urged.
"I don't know that I can be quick." Tabs spoke leisurely. He paused, trying to think what he should say next. "Here it is in a nutshell. Mrs. Lockwood, as we both know, is a more than ordinarily charming woman. She's the kind who, without being able to prevent herself, draws men. There are women like that. Her three marriages, all taking place so close together gave her a reputation—— You're a man of the world; you'll understand that I'm not trying to say anything derogatory. But three matrimonial adventures in such rapid succession gave her a reputation for lightness. She was young and pretty. She longed to live life. You can't blame her. For a woman life isn't a very full affair without a man. And yet there aren't many men who would be willing to choose a wife with three previous husbands to her credit. It would seem too much like a week-end experiment, without the option of parting when the week was ended. So here was the injustice of her social situation; without having committed a solitary indiscretion, she was damaged goods—debarred from matrimony, yet coveted by men. Do you realize the temptation——"
The man half rose in his irritation. "You're not answering my question." The violence in his tone was unmistakeable. "What I've got to find out is, what put you up to persuading her to live as though Pollock were not dead?"
"I was coming to that." Tabs spoke reassuringly. "Beneath all her gayety I found, when I began to know her, that she was desperate—desperate to live in the sunshine and mortally afraid of shadows. At the least hint of shadows she grew reckless. She believed that her happiness was in the past. So I taught her to play a game—a game that has often saved me from despair. It was just this—to act as though all the goodness one has known still lies ahead; in her case this meant living as though the man whom she had loved were not dead, but waiting for her round some future corner. So that was why—— But I think I've answered your question."
Tabs rose from the couch and limped over to the empty fireplace. He stood there beneath the portrait of Lady Dawn, supporting himself with one arm against the mantel. The room was beginning to fill with dusk. Beyond the threshold of the open window, the rockery-garden was still vaguely golden. The little pond was a silver mirror.
Perhaps two minutes had elapsed. Uncertainly the stranger struggled to his feet. He moved towards the door, halted and came slowly back. He looked very spent, and slim, and wasted in the gathering shadows. As Tabs gazed down at him, he noticed that his face was prodigiously solemn.
"I don't mind now." He swallowed like a small boy getting rid of his emotion. "I don't mind Gervis or Lockwood any longer; it's as though they'd never happened. And I don't feel hard to her, the way I might have. I'm glad you told her about things being round the corner. Because I'm Pollock. I have come back."
Tabs stared at him. He was deeply moved. To humor him in his delusion seemed the height of callousness. Yet what else was possible under the circumstances?
"Of course you're Pollock," he assured him gently. "One wouldn't recognize you from your portraits, but I ought to have guessed."
The man caught the deception in his tone. He lifted up his puzzled gray eyes. "You don't—— No, I see you don't. You don't believe me. Yet I am Pollock."
"My dear chap," Tabs said it coaxingly, "I don't see why you should think I doubt you. I'm quite certain you're Pollock—Reggie Pollock, the first of all the aces: the man who brought down the Zeppelin over Brussels. You see I know all about you. Your picture was in the papers. I've told you that you were expected. So why——"
The front door was heard to open and close. There was the sound of Maisie's voice. They stood rigidly listening in the semi-darkness. Neither of them spoke or stirred. As she entered, a shaft of light from the hall preceded her. Quietly Tabs placed himself between her and the stranger. The stranger made no motion to thwart him; he stood like one turned to stone. Just across the threshold she halted, leaning forward slightly and peering through the shadows.
"Why, Tabs," she laughed, "how romantic of you to sit waiting for me in the twilight!"
Tabs came forward as though he were about to push her back. "I'm not alone, Mrs. Lockwood——"
"I know. Porter told me. But why are you standing in my way?" She laughed again. A shiver of fear cut short her laughter. "What's the matter? I don't see your friend. Why don't you introduce——"
"He's not my friend. He says he's yours."
"Then all the more reason—— Why are you acting strangely? No, please let me into my own room, Tabs."
He had put out his arm to prevent her. Without warning the stranger advanced into the shaft of light. She saw him and fell back screaming, covering her eyes. With a vehemence that was unexpected, he pushed Tabs aside and clasped her to him. "Maisie darling, don't be afraid. I'm real. I know everything. And I don't mind——"
At sound of his voice, she uncovered her eyes. His face was close to hers. The fixed look of terror left her.
Putting out her hands timidly, she ran her fingers along the scar in his forehead. "They've hurt you. Poor you! My Reggie! Oh, my lover, they've hurt you!"
She buried her head against his shoulder and fell to weeping passionately.
Neither of them had seen him go. He had tiptoed past them like a ghost and out into the summer night. The sky was luminous with the dust of stars. A sleepy wind was blowing.
He jumped into his car and sped away, making such haste that one might have thought he was pursued. He wheeled to the left in the direction that led to the Surrey hills. It was the direction he had taken with Terry on that March morning when she had met him at the station. He was making a discovery: that there is no tragedy more difficult to contemplate with charity than the sight of other people's happiness. Their follies we can tolerate and view even with compassion; but their joys are unendurable. Joy separates men with impassable barriers. It transfigures beggars into Lazaruses lying at rest in Abraham's bosom. We view them from afar off and their contentment increases the burning of our torment. No man has yet discovered how to share his joy. Only a god could say, "My joy I give unto you."
They had not seen him go. That was the neglect that rankled. Even though they had seen him, they would not have cared; they would have done nothing to delay him. They were past all caring. Like tired ships, having weathered many storms, they had furled their sails in the harbor of desire. He had slipped by them like a demon vessel, all canvas spread, out-going on his endless voyage.
From the door, before he left, he had looked back. The room was a-silver with twilight. The garden beyond was still vaguely golden. The pond glimmered darkly like a magic mirror. The murmur of London wove patterns on the silence. From the hall across the silver of the dusk, an intrusive shaft of light pointed like a finger at those two entranced, who had refound the peace that time had scattered.
Even though Pollock had not returned, he himself could never have married her. There are violations of the austerity of the soul which the urgings of the flesh cannot accomplish. In the vivid flash of reality that had visited him he knew that now. He was angry—bitterly angry. But his anger was not for her; it was for himself. He could be so audaciously prophetic in the affairs of others. He could advise them and well-nigh compel them to conserve themselves for kingdoms of whose coming there was neither the slightest hope nor warning. His penetrating optimism could foresee the daringly incredible, so that it almost seemed in the case of Maisie that his optimism had created out of the incredible a fact. He could work these miracles of restraint for others; himself he could not restrain. His road ran straight as destiny, yet any lazy kingdom of mildness in a woman's eyes was capable of luring him aside. In his abasement he lost all faith in his self-knowledge. Hadn't he always been the victim of an imagination which had tricked mere liking into a resemblance to passion? He strutted, gestured, despaired till he almost persuaded himself that he was the part he was acting. But had he the faintest conception of what real love meant? Hadn't he always acted a part? Yes, even in the case of Terry!
His saner judgment intervened. He hadn't always been like that. Where had the point of departure started? He traced back the weakness till he came to the moment when he had permitted his sense of justice to be over-ruled by a woman. It had started with Maisie, when he had allowed her to persuade him to hide the truth from Lady Dawn.
He jammed on the brakes, bringing the car to a sudden halt. To go and tell her must be the first step in his redemption. Till that was done the curse of the dead man would follow him. It seemed to him now, as he looked back, that through all the spring and summer the shadow of Lord Dawn had crept behind him. He would go at once. He would go that night. He knew where he could find her. He would set out like a pilgrim of long ago through the moon-drenched, hay-scented sweetness of the country.
His vision turned outwards. He realized for the first time where he had halted. He was within sight of Richmond Park, outside The Star and Garter Hotel, the old haunt of merry-makers, which had now become a permanent hospital for the mutilated. There were lights to mark the windows of men who suffered. As he watched, some leaped up; others were snapped out. He could hear in memory the starchy rustling of nurses and the creaking of springs as the patients turned. There were men in there without arms and legs and faces; he had shared their danger and he had been spared. Surely the God who had covered him with His mantle, had had some plan—some design of goodness for him!
Far below in a curving streak of blessedness the Thames ran silvered by the moonlight. He could see the clumped shadows of woods and the flicker of ripples striking fire against the banks. More distantly London glowed—a golden flower cupped in the hollowed hand of night. Holding his breath he listened to the loudness of the quiet. Subtle ecstasies drifted to him, fluttering like moths against the windows of his mind—"lilies like thoughts, roses like words, in the sweet brain of June." There was a design. Maisie had found her kingdom. Was it too much to expect that round some future turning God had another kingdom waiting?
He drove back to London by the directest route. He would have to get supper before he made a start. By the time he had done that, packed his bag, and refilled his tank it would be close on midnight. Dawn Castle lay somewhere down in Gloucestershire. He knew the road as far as Oxford; after that his ideas were vague.
He was a little daunted by the thought of Lady Dawn. Everything that he had heard about her, including his first meeting with her, had served to daunt him. He pictured her as a woman with a conscience clear-cut as a cameo—a woman, infallible and unsubdued, impatient of foolishness and gentle in her spirit with the cold tranquillity of a landscape under ice. How would she receive him, coming out of nowhere, unheralded and unexplained? And how could he explain the urgency that had compelled him to come to her? It was a delicate task that he had set himself, this seeking out a woman with whom he was unacquainted, that he might tell her that her husband had not hated her when he died. What concern was it of his, she might well ask. If she chose to be hostile, there were no arguments by which he could defend his interference. His sole justification was his deep-rooted conviction that he was doing right.
She never cried. How often Maisie had insisted on her sister's abstinence from tears, as though it was something monstrous that summed up all her character! He would have felt far more comfortable in visiting her if he had been assured that she sometimes cried.
As he turned into Brompton Square, he thought he caught the door of his house in the act of closing. He might have been mistaken. It was dark under the shadow of the trees. Quite possibly it had been the door of a neighbor's house. Nevertheless, he hugged the curb as he drove so that he might scan the face of any one on the pavement. Forty yards from his doorstep, at a point where things were darkest, a man passed him. He was a tall man and walked with the erectness of one who had been a soldier. The way in which he carried himself and strode was extraordinarily reminiscent. Tabs slowed down and looked back; the man moved straight ahead, without hesitancy or sign of recognition. It couldn't be Braithwaite; Ann's vicinity was the least likely place in which to find him.
As Tabs let himself into his house, he found Ann in the hall. "Was there some one here to see me?" he asked.
"There's been no one to see your Lordship," Ann replied respectfully.
He scarcely knew what prompted him to say it. Perhaps it was the healthy neatness of her appearance—the extreme orderliness of her quiet. "Ann, you're the sanest creature I meet anywhere. You've the pluck of one in a million."
She turned to him a face that was flushing and eyes that were unusually bright. "It's good of your Lordship. Your Lordship is always kind."
"No, Ann, only human. I know what you've been through and I'm glad you're getting over it—— I have to be away to-night. I shall need some supper. While you're preparing it, I'll pack."
On the way upstairs he telephoned the garage to send for his car and to return it within the hour. Then he climbed the last flight to his bedroom.
While he packed, he kept pausing and knitting his brows. A ridiculous conviction was forming in his mind. "It couldn't have been," he assured himself. Yet the more he recalled the man on the pavement the more certain he was that he had been Steely Jack. But what motive could Braithwaite have had for calling and why should Ann try to hide the fact that he had called? He had lost trace of him utterly since that day when he had handed him Terry's ultimatum at the Savoy. Since then Terry and he had had many meetings, he did not doubt. Braithwaite's influence clung to her like her shadow. But if he was so in love with Terry, the more reason why he should steer clear of Ann. To have called at Brompton Square would have been asking for a cloudburst. It couldn't have been Braithwaite. And yet——
And then there was Ann. Since that day when the General's portrait had appeared in the papers, she had given up watching for letters marked, "On His Majesty's Service." She had made no further enquiries as to how his Lordship's friend at the War Office was progressing. Her silence told its story; she had learned the truth. In what spirit she had accepted the truth Tabs had no means of guessing. Lady Hamilton, the little maid-of-all-work, had been the beloved of Nelson. Ann was not without her precedent. But the maid-of-all-work had become Lady Hamilton before the Admiral had set eyes on her. Steely Jack was a General, while Ann was still a servant. Her claims would not meet with much applause if they were brought before a jury.
To all appearance she had resigned herself to the inevitable. Tabs was frankly surprised at her magnanimity and fortitude. About her fortitude there could be no question, but concerning her magnanimity he was not a little skeptical. More than once he had caught her singing as she went about her work. She didn't get all the words correctly; she sang them with improvisions, filling in the gaps where her memory failed. Throughout the war the song had been sung to men on leave at the Alhambra by the heroine who acted the revengeful part of Tootsie:
"Some day I'll make you love me. Some day you'll call me 'Dear'. You'll feel so lonely And want me only; I'm sure you'll want me near. I know you can't forget me, Though, dear, for years you'll try. I'll make you miss me And want to kiss me, Bye and bye."
She was a mystery. If she were playing a game, it was a game the intentions of which he could not fathom. The man whom he had passed on the pavement could not have been Braithwaite. Common-sense insisted on that.
While he was at supper she gave him no chance to question her. "I'm motoring down to Dawn Castle," he told her. "I've left the address on my desk. Don't forward any letters till you hear from me. I don't suppose that I shall be there for more than a day. To tell the truth," he glanced up smiling at her seriousness, "I haven't been invited."
Ann refused to be lured off her perch of reticence. She set before him the dish she was carrying. "I'm sure wherever your Lordship goes there's a welcome."
He felt that he was being reproved. He had been conscious of her silent criticism from the moment he had announced that he would be away for the night. He respected Ann and was anxious for her good opinion. She was by long odds the most honorable woman of his acquaintance and the best, because she was the kindest. He had had the feeling throughout the past two months that there was very little that had happened inside his brain that had escaped her. She had disapproved of Maisie. She had shown no enthusiasm for Terry. She had been aware of his dangers when he himself was disguising them with excuses. All this he knew though no word had been exchanged. She had observed in all her dealings with him the decorum to be expected from a high-class servant. And yet she was his trusted friend, whose virtues compelled his admiration and whose loyalty commanded his affection. She thought ahead for him and smoothed his path. Her sense of responsibility was as tender as a sister's. Her humility lent it a touch of pathos. He looked up to her as men instinctively look up to good women in whatever grade of society they find them. The silent knowledge which each had of the other formed a bond of sympathy, the more delicate because it was unuttered.
He said, "Long ago—it must have been before the war—I gave you tickets to see Peter Pan."
"It wasn't to me your Lordship gave them. It was to Braithwaite."
"Was it?" He held her eyes, striving to peer behind their curtained windows. It was the first time that that name had been mentioned between them in casual conversation. "You're right. It comes back to me now. It was the Christmas of 1913 that he took you. Do you remember the fairy who was dying? There was only one way of keeping her alive. Peter Pan had to make the children in the audience promise that they believed in fairies. When they did that, she got well. That's why I'm going to Dawn Castle to-night."
Ann ceased abruptly from what she was doing and stared at her master in concern. He laughed mischievously. "Wrong again, Ann; I've not taken leave of my senses. Two hours ago I made the same mistake. There was a man who asked me whether I believed that Mrs. Lockwood's first husband, who was killed at the Front, would return. While I was wondering how long it would be before he'd grow violent, he proved to me that he was her first husband. So I'm believing in fairies."
A secret happiness lit up her face. "Deep down beneath our doubts, most of us believe in fairies, I think, your Lordship." With a shy smile she left him.
The purring of an engine warned him that the car had returned and was waiting. He could hear Ann in the hall, handing out his bags. He had finished his supper; he might as well be off. As he drove out of the Square, he looked back; she was standing on the steps, gazing after him. He had the restless certainty, now that it was too late, that she had had a secret which, at the last moment, she would have given the world to have shared with him.
Of that night journey in after years he remembered only the deep peace and the ecstasy. He was doing something at last that was right; though why it was right, he would have found it hard to explain. He encountered none of the difficulties he had anticipated in picking up his direction. He flew unswervingly to the mark like a bullet traveling a predestined path. The first sixty miles were familiar; Maisie had covered them with him on many occasions. By every law of emotion each landmark should have stirred some poignant memory, some fresh wistfulness of regret. The fact was that he hardly gave her a thought. When he did, it was only to wish her luck and to congratulate himself on his escape.
Having passed through Oxford lying blanched in moonlight, he climbed out of the Thames valley, striking through uplands across the wold to Burford. From then on all memories were left behind; he had become an explorer in an unknown country.
Everything was sleeping. How trustfully it slept! Trees were hooded like extinguished candles. Flowers throughout the fields clasped their faces in their hands. Birds, like fluffy balls, drowsed on branches. Stars alone were wakeful. They stooped to watch him with intent, companionable glances. Now and then he had to halt to flash his torch on a sign-post or to consult his map. For the most part he took chances and guessed.
Night engulfed him, rushed past him, broke over him. He was like a ship thrusting forward into a trackless ocean.
The paleness of dawn was in the sky as he neared Gloucester. When he entered, its roofs and towers were precipices of gold and fire, straining up to the New Jerusalem which floated in the clouds. The streets of the ancient city had a mystic look, white and hushed and tenantless. But already the cheeky sparrows were about, scandal-mongering beneath the eaves with an unholy disregard for the awe by which they were surrounded.
He left Gloucester in a southwesterly direction. In fields the hay was lying cut. A largesse of dew had been scattered through the hedgerows like loot from the treasure-chests of emperors. Larks were battling up, striving to sing against the very bars of heaven. Every fragrance and sound was a messenger, guaranteeing happiness.
Round a bend in the road he came across a cluster of thatched cottages, their white walls gleaming incandescent in the morning sunshine. Beyond them lay a parkland, from the edge of which rose a wooded knoll, crowned by a moated castle. The next mile-stone warned him that it was the village of Dawn he was approaching.
All day he had waited—a lazy summer day, drowsy with the hum of bees and heavy with the perfume of cottage flowers. On entering the village he had put up at The Dawn Arms, an old-fashioned hunting hostel which owed its prosperity to the fame of the Dawn foxhounds. Having bathed and breakfasted, he had started off to leave his card on Lady Dawn. Arriving at the Castle, he had been informed that her Ladyship had left early that morning and was not expected back till early evening. He had filled in the morning by sleeping and the afternoon by joining a band of sight-seeing trippers who had driven over from Gloucester in gayly-painted chars-a-bancs.
With a spice of amusement, he had paid his shilling for admission at the wooden booth outside the Castle gate and had found himself herded with a crowd of affectionately inclined young women and young men who perspired freely—the latter for the sake of greater comfort had removed their coats and knotted handkerchiefs about their throats. In good time a decrepit ex-butler had appeared to act as guide and had led the excursionists over the Norman part of the ruins. He had shown them the dungeons, the room in which a prince had been murdered and the havoc wrought upon the walls by Cromwellian cannon. The ever recurring theme of his trembling narrative was the prowess and the splendor of the Dawns. He was like a weak-voiced cricket chirping in the sunshine. His stories of bygone lords, who had died in rebellions and crusades, were too ancient to grip the imagination. At first his veneration for the race which he served inspired an outward show of respect on the part of his hearers. But soon, in straggling twos and threes, they lagged behind to explore and pluck wall-flowers from the crannies. Girls, feeling the pressure of lovers' arms about their waists, giggled shrilly. They wandered off to shady nooks in the grass-grown ramparts where woolly sheep looked up somnolently to watch them.
To the few who remained the old man mumbled on. It was the nobility of the late Lord Dawn that he was now recounting—the daring horseman he had been, the deviltry of him, the lust of life he had had, the greatness of his possessions and how he had foregone all this beauty to be hammered into the defilement of the trenches like a rat, cornered in a sewer.
"Visitors are not allowed in the part of the Castle that is inhabited. But, since her Ladyship's away——"
Unlocking a door, he led them through a tunnel to a grilled gate, through the bars of which they saw the Castle's terraced rose-gardens, falling away steeply in a cascade of petals to a water-lilied, green-scummed moat which encircled the stronghold like a necklace of jade. Beside the water's edge a fair-haired boy in a white sailor suit was deeply absorbed in sailing a boat.
"His little Lordship," the old man whispered.
"But I didn't know—— How old?" Tabs questioned.
"Eight years, sir, come December."
Long after he had returned to the inn, the picture of the little boy remained with him. This discovery that Lord Dawn had left a son made him the more certain of the justice of his errand.
The azure and emerald of late afternoon drifted into the ensanguined gold of sunset. The long-tarrying twilight had already settled when a messenger arrived, bearing a note. It was from her Ladyship, regretting her absence and saying that she would be happy to receive a visit from Lord Taborley that evening or at any time that was convenient.
He set out at once. Heretofore, with the exception of Terry, women had meant little to him. But he was curious to meet this woman—curious and eager in a strangely boyish fashion. Every one who had mentioned her had spoken of her with a certain hint of fear, not untinged with adoration. He hadn't been aware how anxious he had been to meet her until her note had summoned him. He wondered whether she had any of the endearing humanity of her sister. He wondered whether what Pollock had said was true, that she looked much older than her portrait. He didn't want her to look older——
He came to the bridge across the moat and the gateway which bore the grooves in which the old portcullis used to slide. He passed through the gateway, under the tower, into the graveled courtyard of the Castle. On three sides the courtyard was loop-holed and sullen, but on the fourth modern windows and a brass-knobbed door had been let into the solid masonry. Above the door, shining down on the whitened steps, a lamp burnt in a wrought-iron socket. Several of the windows were also lighted.
His knock was answered by a gray-haired man, with the gravity of deportment which is peculiar to lawyers, undertakers and footmen. While the man went to inform his mistress, Tabs was left to note how the hall was hung with hunting trophies. Then he heard himself being requested to follow.
Having climbed a winding stair, he was shown into a room in the turret, one side of which was filled by a tall leaded window gazing westward. The landscape which it framed, hung against the darkness like a painted canvas—a far-reaching expanse of tree-dotted pasture, vague with islands of mist and rimmed by the last faint sparks of the sunset. The ceiling was heavily beamed, the furniture Jacobean, the walls paneled and hung with many generations of family portraits. In a wide hearth a fire of coals and logs was burning. In the room's center stood a carved table on which was set a massive silver lamp, casting a solitary illumination.
"Lord Taborley, my Lady."
As his name was announced, he heard the rustle of her dress, and discovered that she had been seated in a low chair by the window. She rose with a slow grace. There was something indefinably tragic and foreordained about her every movement. Maisie's name for her flashed into his mind, "The Princess Czarina Bolsheviki." It suited her exactly. In those surroundings she might have posed as Mary Queen of Scots in prison—a queen without a kingdom whose pride was unbroken. In the dimness his first impression was of her queenly gentleness.
"I can guess why you've come."
The same deep voice that had taunted him at Maisie's, only now it was no longer taunting! He noticed the way she offered him her hand, with the arm fully extended as if to hold him away from her. She was a smaller woman than he had remembered; it was the courage of her bearing that had made her seem taller. He could not see her face distinctly; it was in shadow. But, when she turned, he caught the whiteness of her profile on the dusk, clear-cut and tranquil as a cameo. After having gazed so long at Sargent's painting, he would have recognized anywhere the rounded shapeliness of her head, the hair swept smoothly back from the calm forehead, the splendid strength of her throat and the delicate, wholly feminine half-moon of her shoulders.
"Won't you sit over here? If you would prefer it, we can have more lamps. But they would spoil——" She indicated the vague stretch of country, across which mists were drifting like gray ghosts.
He drew up a chair at an angle to her own, so that he could study her. "You say you think you know why I've come?"
"I was expecting you," she said quietly. He could feel rather than see the steady kindness that was in her stone-gray eyes.
"If you were expecting me, then your sister must have——"
"My sister had nothing to do with my expecting. Can't you think of any one closer?"
He shook his head. At first he had hoped that Maisie had told her and done his work for him. Evidently it wasn't that. She was attributing some other motive to his visit. It was a motive the disclosure of which called for delicacy. She had prearranged his reception. It was no accident that had caused him to find her alone in the dimness of the gathering evening. The scanty lighting of the shadowy room had been stage-set to spare them both embarrassment. "If it wasn't your sister——" He paused at a loss to know how to proceed further.
Her hands came together gently in her lap. When she spoke, her emotional voice had a new tenderness. "Will you allow me to help you? We're not such strangers as we seem. For years I've been interested in you. I was always hearing of your adventures in Mexico, Korea, the Balkans and last of all at the Front. You've been quite a romantic figure in my life. You've always seemed so strong; and I admire strength immensely. I never dreamt that a time would ever come when I would be able to help you. You're in love and she's not in love with you. You're older than she is and it makes you unhappy. She has time to experiment, but for you it's different; your love is bound up with the last of your youth. Because you've been unhappy, you've been unwise. Your foolishness ended yesterday with the return of Reggie Pollock. I received the news of his return this morning. So you came down here to me, which was perfectly natural."
He shifted his gaze and stared out of the window, puzzled and troubled. "Unfortunately for me, Lady Dawn, a good deal of what you've said is true. But I don't see how it makes it natural that I should have come to you. I've been wanting to come for a very long time, but was given to understand that what I had to say might be distasteful."
"You must put that out of your mind." She said it comfortingly, as though to a little boy. "There's nothing distasteful in what you have to say. It may cause awkwardness with Sir Tobias; but if you can assure me that you're really in earnest over Terry, I'll be quite willing to risk that in order to become your ally."
He smiled towards her through the darkness. "There's nothing I should like better than to reckon you as my ally. And now I see why we've been talking at cross-purposes. You think that I've come to wheedle Terry's address out of you. Perhaps I have, since you've put the idea into my head. And with regard to my earnestness, nothing except Terry in the whole world matters. She's romance, self-fulfillment and, as you've said, the last dream of my youth. If I supposed that I were going to lose her, I would rather not have—— But I didn't come here to burden you with my troubles. I came to do something for you—something which I've tried to avoid doing. Something which has forced itself upon me and followed me until—— It's as though I'd been compelled by a personality outside myself. I may make you very unhappy——"
She leant forward, bringing her face so close that he could feel the fanning of her breath. The moon was newly risen; as it shone on the mist, low-lying in the meadows, it made the country-side luminous like a vast lake of milk which washed about the trees and submerged the hedges. In its reflected radiancy for the first time he saw her features clearly. They startled him, leaping together out of the white blur that they had been into something more lovely than he had imagined. He had never seen such calmness. And the calmness was not alone in her expression; the same sculptured quiet was in the white curve of her arms and the gentle swelling of her breast. He knew now why she was declared to be the most beautiful woman in England. But it was the wisdom of her far more than the beauty that enthralled him. There was no weakness that her sympathy could not encompass—nothing that he need be ashamed to tell her. Though she appeared to be about the same age as himself, by reason of her experience she made him feel younger. No woman who had attracted him before had been able to make him feel that. Already he was filled with a strange sense of gratitude.
Very simply she took his hand and folded it between her own.
"You, who have been a soldier, were a little afraid of me. Don't be afraid of me, Lord Taborley. Whatever it is that you've come to do for me, I shall try to be grateful. As for making me unhappy, no one—not even you—has the power to do that."
He looked at her wonderingly. "They say you never cry."
A slow smile flitted across her face and died out. "You want the truth? You yourself tell the truth—— When they say that I never cry, they mean that I never let them see me."
He laughed softly. "I thought it was that: you cry in secret like a man. Not to cry at all would be monstrous; it was that which made me afraid of you. A man doesn't like a woman to be stronger than himself. It was about a man who didn't like a woman to be stronger than himself that I came to talk to you."
She had guessed. Through her hands he could feel the commotion of her life struggle and die down till it grew almost silent. The stillness of the room seemed a backwater of the intenser stillness of the night without.
Her lips scarcely moved. "And the man?"
"But he's dead."
He waited for her to flame up at the indelicacy of his intrusion. He almost hoped she would. When she sat motionless as a statue, he continued apologetically. "I'm trespassing on things sacred. Because of that I've fought to avoid this meeting, knowing all the time that it was inevitable. I've tried to persuade myself that it would be kinder to leave you in ignorance——"
"Of what?" She strove to subdue her apprehension. Her profile showed pale and expressionless, as if chiseled in the solid wall of darkness.
"In ignorance of his grandeur."
He had said the thing most remote from what she had expected. He was aware of her relieved suspense—at the same time of her gentle skepticism. He felt irritated with himself at his choice of words. Grandeur did not express the meaning he had intended. When he made a new start, he stumbled his way gropingly, confused by his consciousness of her unuttered doubts.
"Why I have to tell you this I can hardly say. It's not for his sake. It's certainly not for mine. It's for yours, I fancy. Yes, I'm sure. By doing him justice I shall be able to help you, though I have no reason for supposing that you stand in need of help. It's to do him justice that he's been urging me. Yet why should he have selected me to be his spokesman? I wasn't his friend. I never met him till I reached the Front; out there I really never knew him. No one did. He was like a sleep-walker—a very silent man. You'll be wondering why, if this was the case, I should be so impertinent as to mention his name to you—to you of all persons, who can claim to have known him infinitely more intimately than any one else. And you'll be wondering why, after two months of procrastinating, I motored through the night from London to force my way into your privacy, without forewarning or introduction. If I'm going to be honest, I must run the risk of appearing absurd. I could resist him no longer. He coerced me with ill-luck. Ever since I entered your sister's house and discovered who you were, he's been urging——"
"Who I was!" Her head turned slowly. It was her first intense display of interest.
"I mean your relation to him—that it was you who were his wife. At the Front I didn't know that he was Lord Dawn; he'd blotted out his identity. He was merely gun-fodder like the rest of us—something to be sent over the top to be smashed and then to be left to sink into the mud or else hurried back to be patched up in hospital. He was a company-commander in my battalion. I knew nothing of his past. My acquaintance with him began and ended in the trenches. I don't know much now—only what Maisie's told me." He had been speaking with growing earnestness. Suddenly he flashed into indignant vehemence. "What Maisie's told me! It's false of the man as he was out there. He wants you to believe that. Out there he was different. He may have been paltry and base once; but he was reborn into a new nobility. He was white all through. He was overpoweringly heroic. From the humblest Tommy we all adored him—adored him for the example he set us. He was only cheerful when there was dying to be done—out at rest and in quiet sectors he was gloomy. The men loved him for that; it struck them as humorous. And yet he was utterly indifferent to their love. He'd got beyond caring for what anybody thought of him. He was too absorbed in establishing reasons for thinking well of himself. I learnt things about him—one does in the presence of physical torture. I learnt secrets about the fineness of his spirit which, I believe, he never allowed you to suspect. Probably he never suspected them himself until the ordeal of terror had sifted the gold from the dross. It was the dross that Maisie remembered. But we, who were his comrades in khaki, saw nothing but the gold—his untiring ability to share. You weren't there; nevertheless, that's what I've got to help you to understand. I've got to make you see the new Lord Dawn who was born out there. It was last night, after Pollock returned, that I saw my duty clearly. It came on me in a flash that, if a man who had been counted dead could come back, it was not impossible that this pleading from beyond the grave, which I'd tried to thwart and ridicule——"
He broke off abruptly. It was the wideness of her eyes that warned him. He was conscious that she, too, was feeling that invisible pressure. She was expecting to see something. He followed the direction of her eyes, glancing behind him into the hollow dimness of the room, where the solitary lamp was burning and the vanished lords of Dawn gazed stonily down from their canvases. In that moment he was aware that he had been stating facts as he had never owned them to himself. It was as though his lips had been used——
"Things that he didn't allow me to suspect!" She sighed shudderingly. "He allowed me to suspect so much. But tell me. What were these things? Since they're the reasons for your visit, they must be important."
"They're only part of the reasons."
"There are others?"
"The chief reason is yourself." He spoke cautiously, fearful lest he might lose her attention by rousing her incredulity. Even to himself it sounded preposterous that he, an outsider, should claim to bear so intimate a message from a husband who was dead. "You believed, Lady Dawn, that you had ceased to count in your husband's affections; yet wherever his battalion went, you were present with us. The men and officers knew you, without knowing who you were. You were with us in the mud of the Somme; you went over the top with us in our attacks. More than one young officer believed himself in love with you. Yours was the last woman's face that many a poor fellow looked upon before he went West. We were an emotional lot. Death made us natural as children. Women meant more to us than they ever had before and than they ever will again, perhaps. The nearness to eternity purged us of impurity. It fired us with a wistful kind of chivalry. The change is hard to express. I've known men, who hadn't a wife or sweetheart, cut strange women's portraits from the illustrated papers and treasure them. As we sit here it sounds a waste of sentiment; out there it seemed tragically pathetic. Every man wanted to believe, even though his believing was a conscious pretense, that there was one woman peculiarly his, who would miss——"
He interrupted himself to glance again across his shoulder, following her eyes where they probed the stealthy shadows. Then he brought his gaze back. "That was how I first learnt to know your face—from the portrait which your husband carried. Into whatever danger he was ordered, you went—you accompanied him in the most real sense: he carried you in his heart. From time to time I got glimpses of you. When he thought no one was looking, he would prop your portrait against the walls of dug-outs with a candle lighted before it, as if you were a saint whom he worshiped. You were the inspiration of his steadfastness to duty. What he did, he did for you. His courage was your courage; his kindness was your kindness. He was striving every minute to be worthy of you. I know of what I'm talking, for I did the same for Terry. Late at night one would stumble down greasy dug-out stairs, coming in from a patrol, to find him lost in thought and gazing at you. Or one would find him covering page after page of letters which he never sent. When he was dying, alone and far out in No Man's Land, he must have drawn out your portrait from next his heart. It was so tightly clasped in his hand when we found him, that we couldn't take it from him. I'd almost forgotten all this until two months ago, when I recognized Sargent's painting of you in your sister's house. Then for the first time I discovered your name and who he was. Since then he's given me no rest."
She had been leaning forward, her arm supported on her knee, her chin cushioned in her hand, the white light from the mist-covered meadows falling softly on her through the tall window, revealing the pulse beating in her throat and the trembling of her thin sweet mouth.
"What was it that he wanted you to do for me, Lord Taborley?"
He hesitated, clasping his forehead, like a man whose memory had suddenly gone blank. "I'm not sure. And yet I was sure before I started talking. Didn't you believe that he died hating you?"
She shook her head. "He left a child by me."
"Then, perhaps it wasn't that he hadn't hated you, but that he'd loved you in his last moments. Was it that which he wanted me to tell you?"
Again, with a gesture, she negatived his suggestion. "He'd never have doubted that I would know he had died loving me."
"Then why did he send me?"
Even while he asked it, he marveled at his certainty that she shared his conviction that he had been sent.
She turned her eyes full on his face and let them dwell there searchingly. As he returned her gaze, he noted that she was less young than he had supposed. She was older than her portrait. Her hair, which had looked night-black in the shadows, was prematurely frosted. The moonlight, strengthening, picked out remorselessly each silver thread. She was no longer capable of putting back the hands of time for any man.
She had read his thoughts. The pride went out of her voice. "Perhaps he sent you," she faltered, "that he might give me back a little of what he took."
"What did he take? Anything that I have——"
She leant back in her chair. Her face was again in shadow. "My youth. My happiness."
In the silence which followed he was aware that the third presence had departed.
"Your youth! Your happiness!" He was astounded. "Strange that you should say that! I thought that I alone was searching."
"Let me talk," she begged. "I want to speak about myself. Not for my own sake, but for yours. To men like you who have lived at the Front, life has become a terribly earnest affair. You're like impatient children; what you want you want quickly. You seem to be afraid to postpone anything lest death should carry you off before your desire has been granted. But you're not really different from women like myself. Crises come to all of us, when life grows desperate—when to be alone becomes intolerable: when everything, even one's pleasures, becomes a burden, because they are unshared. Such a crisis would have come to you sooner or later in any event. It comes to every unmarried man and woman. The war only happened to be the means of bringing home to you your loneliness. When it broke, you didn't have time to choose; you seized on Terry, because she was young and pretty and susceptible. You were terrified by the calamity of being blotted out before you had known love. You forgot that there's a worse calamity—and that's being compelled to live forever with a person for whom you have ceased to care. A man like yourself can have any woman he likes, only any woman wouldn't suit. She would have to be unusual—of a high type like yourself. Such women are rare. The thought of Terry attracts you because a marriage with her would seem to halve your years. But why should you want to halve your years? To have lived ought to mean that you have gained experience, which is the most dearly purchased form of knowledge. Why should you be ashamed of it and so anxious to be rid of it? You purchased your experience with blood. It's the most valuable of all your possessions. And if you were to marry Terry, what could she contribute? A pretty face, an unbroken body and all the intolerance of her youth. A pretty face doesn't go far in matrimony. Husbands soon get used to mere prettiness and learn to look behind it for character. A wife, in order to be your friend, would have to be your equal in her understanding of suffering. How much suffering has a girl like Terry had?"
He wasn't angry. He wasn't even offended. What she had been saying had so clarified his thoughts that it had been as if he had been thinking aloud. Her voice was a dark mirror, glancing into which he had recognized himself. His self-knowledge carried him far beyond any arguments of hers. He sat perfectly still with a face of iron, gazing straight before him.
What he had mistaken for chivalry and romance had been nothing but foolishness. He had been enacting the unwisdom of an infatuated boy with the solemnity of a mature man. His clamor had been unprofitable, undignified, absurd—on a level with the amorous hysterics of Grand Opera, save that it had lacked the redeeming storm of contending music. The utter futility of so much wasted feeling bordered on tragedy; the need which it had expressed had been so primitive, so distressingly sincere. He was confronted with the necessity of confessing that his passion for Terry was at an end.
When had it died? Perhaps only since he had entered this quiet room, with its moonlit landscape, its lowered lights and its wise mistress, sitting so gravely alone with her patient beauty and her gently folded hands. But even before he had entered, it must have been dying. For weeks he had been flogging it, like an over-tired horse, into a feeble display of energy. More than anything, his conduct with Maisie proved that.
Maisie's excuse for the error of her many marriages recurred to him—that Gervis and Lockwood had hung up their hats in her hall. Frivolous, yes! But had he been less frivolous in his treatment of Terry? He had felt the compulsion to concentrate his craving to love and be loved on some special woman! Terry had been handiest, so he'd hung his idolatry on her.
But to acknowledge this implied a fickleness of temperament that was disastrous to his self-respect. It deflated him to the proportions of an Adair. It toppled his lofty standards in the dust. It changed him from a loyalist, making a fanatical last stand, into a haggard runaway.
His pride leapt up in his defense. Turning to Lady Dawn, with grim despair he muttered, "But I want her. I can't do without her. I want no one else."
Her voice reached him out of the darkness. "To own that we've been mistaken takes more courage than to persist in the wrong direction. 'I want no one else!' We've all said that. It was through saying it that I brought about my shipwreck. But if you're sure that you want no one else, you must have her. If there's any way of getting her for you, I'll do my best to help."
She made an effort to rise. She stood before him swaying, a blinded look on her face, her eyes closed, her hands stretched out. He placed his arm about her. Her weight sagged against him.
"Not the servants," she whispered. "You and I. Give me air."
With his free hand he jerked the catch and pushed the window wide. The cool dampness of the night streamed in on her. He stood there with her clasped against him, her head stretched back, her body drooping. In the bowl of darkness at the foot of the turret, the rose-garden floated. Out of sight, in the green-scummed moat, a fish leapt with a sullen splash. A bird called. Wheels rumbled on a distant road. Again the silence was unbroken. The moonlight, falling on her face, gave to it an expression of childishness. Her breast and throat, gleaming white as marble, reminded him she was a woman.
She stirred. Her eyes opened. She gazed up at him wonderingly. "I'm better. Foolish of me!" Then, inconsequently, "How tall you are, Lord Taborley!"
He supported her till she could lean across the sill. They leant there together, their faces nearly touching. His arm was still about her; she did not seem to notice it. He was dumb with tremulous expectancy.
"It was about myself that I had to tell you," she whispered. "I was once like you. I wanted no one else. I knew, even while I wanted him, that he could never make me happy. Even when I was most in love with him, he had qualities which I distrusted. After marriage the distrusting grew. Yet all the while I was sorry for him. I would have given anything to undo—— His sins were mine. With another woman, less virtuous, he might have been good. In his yearning he tried to drag me down. I couldn't go, not even if going would have saved him. There was something in me, not exactly pride, that prevented. I have never spoken of this to anybody. I'm saying it to you because——"
She broke off. Why was she saying it? The perfume of June roses under moonlight, mingling with the fragrance of her hair, was intoxicating. His arm about her tightened. Was she only allowing him to hold her out of pity because of his confession?
"Because," she said, "I think before she knows of your visit it would be better that you should go."
He failed to grasp her logic. "But if I stay, she will never know."
She released herself gently and gazed at him reproachfully. "Never know! But you came in order that she might know."
He was more than ever puzzled. He had come to tell her of her husband. Did she not believe him? She seemed to be accusing him. He remembered how she had claimed, when he had entered, that she could guess what had brought him. "I came solely to see you," he said, speaking slowly. "I was compelled, as I've told you. I give you my word of honor that my visit wasn't even remotely related to——"
A sharply indrawn breath cut short what he was saying. They turned quickly, moving instinctively apart. Gazing in from the open door, across the pool of lamplight, was Terry.
CHAPTER THE EIGHTH
ROUND THE CORNER
Lady Dawn was the first to recover her composure. "Why, Terry, I thought you were in bed!"
Terry's eyes shifted from Lady Dawn to Tabs. They were startled and misty with sleep. She seemed only half-awake. Her hand rested on the door as if ready for retreat. Her square little face was flushed; her gold, bobbed hair was flattened where it had pressed against the pillow. She was clad in a filmy negligee; her bare feet had been pushed hastily into slippers and peeped out rosily from beneath the hem. She looked immature—the way she had in days gone by when he had tiptoed to her bedside through the darkness to feel her tight little arms leap stranglingly about his neck. She had been really a tiny girl then. Why couldn't she have stayed like that always? Why need she have roused in him this torturing desire which she did nothing but rebuff?
"I was asleep. I heard voices. I thought——"
What had she thought? How much had she seen and heard? How long had she been standing there?
Tabs attempted to bridge the awkward silence. "I drove down from London." Then he added, "That was last night."
None of them had stirred. Lady Dawn advanced from the window into the pool of lamplight. "I think I know what you thought—that something was wrong. It was. I nearly fainted. If it hadn't been for Lord Taborley——But come inside. Why do you remain standing there?"
Terry stepped just across the threshold. Having closed the door, she leant against it, still holding the knob in her hand. It was plain that she was making an effort to be valiant. She looked fragile as a peeled white wand; like a flower, shy and dew-wet. Life had not yet commenced to break her. The clinging folds of her wrap emphasized her slenderness, the grace of her lines and the girlish contours of her figure.
Lady Dawn went to her and put her arm about her. "You're afraid. Of what are you afraid? Surely not of Lord Taborley? He's been telling me—— To be loved like that—— There was a time when I would have been proud."
Terry's left hand went up to her breast. Her wild violet eyes looked straight before her, seeking always the face of Tabs. They seemed to call to him. He came slowly to the table where she could see him. It was his chance. Lady Dawn was his advocate. It was the chance for which he had waited.
He was contrasting the two women before him; the one in her dainty, enviable promise and the dumb hostility of her youth; the other in the gentleness of her experience and the charity of her dearly purchased understanding. Terry, whom he had loved since she was a child, had become inscrutable. But Lady Dawn—— Was it her suffering that made him know her as he knew himself?
"I hadn't meant to intrude on you," he apologized. "I hadn't the least idea you were here. How should I have had? You disappeared without warning; at your father's house your address was refused me. Lady Dawn will bear me out that, at the very moment you entered, I was assuring her that my visit had nothing to do with you. Probably you heard."
"Nothing to do with me!" There was relief in her way of saying it. She visibly relaxed. "Then it isn't because of me at all that you're here?"
The suppressed eagerness of her question was wounding. She wanted to hear him state more positively that she had had nothing to do with his visit. Whatever she had seen before they had become aware of her, had had no power to rouse her jealousy. She could have given him no stronger proof of how absolutely he had ceased to count. He smiled bitterly. "Not because of you at all, Terry. The reason for my being here is strictly private between Lady Dawn and myself. I didn't come to worry you. You may set your mind at rest."
"Then you didn't know or even suspect——"
He laughed unhappily. "What more can I say to convince you? I haven't the least idea what you suppose I could suspect. What business is it of mine to suspect anything? And if I did, what license should I have to interfere? We're not as we once were. There are no longer any sentimental obligations that would hold us accountable to each other. You've shown me that you consider our relation ended. In the face of that, I should scarcely follow you into the country where, by all accounts, you've come to escape me. It's purely a coincidence that you find me here."
He caught Lady Dawn's eyes resting on him. They were wide and clear and interrogating. He knew what she was remembering: that it was in this room within the hour that he had said, "But I want her. I can't do without her. I want no one else." Self-ridicule tempered his spirit into sharpness. He turned again to Terry.
"Once and for all I should like to set your doubts at rest. You need have no fear that I shall ever inconvenience you. We're bound to meet from time to time, but I pledge you my word that I shall never refer to the past. You're of an age to make decisions for yourself; you've decided against me. You're acting quite within your privilege when you discard old friends. You'll wonder why I state obvious facts. I'm doing so in order that you may feel certain that I've withdrawn whatever claims I had for influencing your movements. I shall always be interested—— But as for presuming that anything that I might say or do would make the least difference to your plans, I shouldn't be so foolish——"
Breaking away from Lady Dawn, she crossed over to him. Resting her hand on his arm, she sank her voice and commenced speaking so hurriedly that he alone could make out what she said.
"I've been false and foolish. I don't need you to tell me. If you knew how miserable I've been and how I've despised myself—— But I can't help it. I go on doing things. I never used to be a beast—least of all to you; never until you wanted me to marry you. If I can act like this now, what sort of a wife—— Can't you understand? I'm trying to spare you. But I won't have you hate me, Tabs. I can't endure that. Every second that I've kept away from you, I've been wanting—not the you that you are now, but the old you. Won't you start afresh, liking me the way you did when—before this happened?" She seized his hand on the impulse and pressed it to her lips. It was the humble act of a small girl. "Love me just a little. I'm not really bad. Please, please forgive me my wickedness, dear Tabs."
He stood dumbfounded and embarrassed. If they had been alone, he would have known what to do. He was at a loss to find a motive for this display of passion. Was it a ruse to get him back? He crushed the suspicion as unworthy. Then was it what she had seen that had made her possessive? Her tears fell scalding on his hands.
He drew her to him. "There, there, little Terry! You mustn't. There's nothing to cry about. There's nothing wicked in not having loved a man. It's a thing that can't be helped."
At the sign of his relenting, she threw away the last of her control. Burying her face against his coat, she clung to him. All that he could see of her was her golden head and her slight body, quivering with sobbing. Her voice reached him muffled. "But I am wicked. I've pushed you from me. If you knew—— If you did, you wouldn't touch me."
There had been no sound, yet something warned him. He looked up. The door was closing.
"Lady Dawn," he called. In his voice there was the tremor of anxiety.
On the point of vanishing, she glanced back across her shoulder. "What is it, Lord Taborley?"
The calmness of her austerity made emotion seem shallow. There was a touch of scorn in her repose.
"Won't you help?"
She smiled faintly. "I was. I was going."
"Then please don't. It's late. Both you and she must be worn out."
Like a figure of silver, she came coldly back. But there was only tenderness in her voice when she spoke. "Terry, did you hear what Lord Taborley said? He thinks he ought to be going."
Slipping her arm about the girl, she led her from him. Their footsteps died out on the turret stairs.
He waited, hoping that Lady Dawn would return. Now that she was gone, he was invaded with his old loneliness. The dead lords eyed him cynically from their canvases. Through leaded panes the moonlight fell. It seemed the sorcery of her spirit. The perfume of the rose-garden was her breath. How pale she had made his dream of Terry! How trivial she made all women look when she stood beside them! There was nothing in this gift of youth for which he had clamored. Terry's youth, had he married her, would have been his scourge. He knew at last what it was that he required at the hands of a woman—it was rest.
There was no sound. The Castle was intensely still. He lowered the wick of the lamp before he left, watched the flame splutter and waited till it sank. Tiptoeing softly down the stairs, he slipped out noiselessly into the romance of the summer's night.
Next morning, for the first few seconds after he had wakened, he lay wondering why he was so happy. Then he remembered.
He had never had a friendship with a woman. From the start, though he had hidden the fact from himself, his supposed friendship with Maisie had been nothing less than lazy courtship. Terry had detected that when she had said that he wouldn't have been so interested in Maisie if she hadn't been so desperately good-looking. Until this morning he had had no faith in such friendships. He had believed that their fundamental attraction, however well concealed, must always be sex. They could never be more than a pretense, in which either the man or the woman was cheating—the one being anxious to give more than friendship, the other deriving amusement from giving less. He had held that such relations between men and women were inherently dishonest, doomed to end in a clash of desire or to broaden into an honorable love affair. There was no middle course between coveting a woman and neglecting her as entirely dispensable.
But this morning his point of view was altered. He was confident that his interest in Lady Dawn was on an utterly different footing. He had never had this peacefulness of feeling for any woman. He marveled at it. He had to fight the disillusion that it might be no more than a mood. His liking for her had come to him so suddenly. Suddenness in the emotions prompted him to distrust. Yet his present contentment seemed as secure as it was incomprehensible. His new affection compensated him for all previous failures and atoned for the humiliation of every past regret.
At that word "affection" he halted himself. Was it affection that he entertained for Lady Dawn? He took a good look at the suspected word and decided that it was. But it was the affection of reverence. In owning this much he qualified his admission by insisting that his affection was totally devoid of passion. Passion in the presence of Lady Dawn looked hysteric and paltry. She inspired a serenity which had nothing to do with the physical. It was the charm of her character that entranced him. Her body scarcely figured in his thoughts; when it did, it failed to stir him. It was no more than the gracious vehicle through which the beauty of her spirit was expressed.
His paramount emotion was gratitude—gratitude that she, who was reputed to be so cold, should so instantly have unveiled herself. There was a startling purity in the frankness with which she had bared her spirit to him. It left him awed and touched. He recognized the generosity which had prompted her; she had realized his need of a woman's trust. And so she had withheld nothing that would comfort him. She had made him feel safe, the way a mother does. She had picked up the little boy that lies hidden in the heart of every man, and had folded him in her breast.
It had been shameless of her. He had not guessed that a woman could be so good.
And she had made him so finally sure of her. He felt that he could leave her and know that her protection would follow him. He could return and be equally certain that none of her understanding would have vanished. She was the first woman who had impressed him with her wisdom; the only one who had had the courage to offer him her strength.
And this was not love. He smiled exultantly. It was nobler and infinitely more rare. Love, as he had read of it and mistaken it in his experience, was a devastating energy, greedy and devouring. It was a continual, nagging contention between self-abasement and hostility. It was a humiliating attempt on the part of a man to barter something, which was persistently undervalued, for the feminine equivalent which was as persistently hoarded. It was an amalgam of physical yearning, wounded vanity and resentment of contempt. It was egotism masquerading as altruism. It was a dancing bear lumbering at the heels of insanity. Of all the passions it was the most hypocritical—a snare-setter, a digger of pitfalls, an enemy disguised as one's dearest friend. He thanked God there was no hint of love in his new-found friendship. Like an outcast fleeing from a storm, he had blundered against the door of this woman's charity, had felt it yield beneath his touch, and had found himself immersed in the blessedness of instant and unmerited rest.
Lazily he commenced to dress. From his window he could see the Castle, perched grave and gray against the forehead of the clouds. He wondered whether she was up, how she was occupying herself, whether she was expecting him? He listened to her voice in the silence of his brain, like the far-away singing of contralto bells. He saw her still face, her slow smiling, the proud, sweet stateliness of her pacing steps. Then his thoughts went back to whether he was expected.
If he were not—— The thought chilled him. She had said nothing to encourage him to seek her afresh. What if his reappearance should cause her embarrassment—an embarrassment which she would betray by withholding herself? It was quite likely she would impute to him wrong motives. Already she might have repented of intimacies she had allowed. He had placed his arm about her. With the injustice of most women, though she had permitted it, she might be blaming him because the act had been witnessed by Terry. Terry of all persons! Having had time to reflect, she might be accusing him of gallantries. It was not so long since she had confused him with Adair. From her untypical knowledge of him she was entitled to estimate him as the kind of man to whom promiscuous caresses were a practice. He turned coward at the recollection of his daring. Last night it had been so involuntary and had seemed so natural. Why had he done it? Why had she allowed it? It had been the liberty of a plow-boy with a village-girl. There would be little room for wonder if, when next they met, she fixed a No Man's Land of pride between herself and his familiarity. She would have good reason, for their companionship would be shared by Terry. Poor little Terry, with her exaggerated sins and distorted self-accusations!
He wandered down to breakfast disturbed by these apprehensions. As the morning dragged by they took shape as facts. Towards noon he could tolerate his uncertainty no longer. He turned his steps in the direction of the Castle, having first determined, if he found himself unwelcome, to announce that the purpose of his visit was to bid good-by before setting out for London.
He had been shown into the turret room and supplied with the daily papers, while the same grave image who had admitted him the night before, had departed in search of her Ladyship. More to calm himself than to satisfy his curiosity, he commenced to glance through the news.
It was a disjointed world that the pages reflected—not at all the kingdom round the corner for which the war had been fought. Honor, patriotism, heroism seemed forgotten words. The old ruthless scramble of commercialism had restarted. The honesty of everybody, whether individuals, governments or nations, was being doubted. Class and race hatreds had broken loose. Strikes were pending. The Allies were allied only in name; they gnashed their teeth at one another across the council-table in Paris. The lying game of diplomacy had been revived. Poison-notes were being exchanged. The tabby-cat statesmen who had been too old to fight, were busy sowing the seeds of future wars. The politicians who had nailed mankind to the cross, were casting lots for the raiment which had survived the sacrifice. No one asked, "Is this righteousness?" The only question was, "How much of it belongs to me?" Meanwhile, the children of honester men who had died, starved by their hundreds of thousands. Mothers pressed sick babies to their milkless breasts. The mutilated, stoical with neglect, shuffled along the pavements. Fanatics of despair turned hopeful eyes to Russia where a devilment was brewing which, should it overboil, would pour destruction across five continents. No one cared.
He glanced through the window at the quiet landscape, lying green and sun-dappled against the wet, gray streak of summer sky. Was his own experience so universal? Were kingdoms perpetually round the corner, always and always out of sight?
As he again took up the paper, his eye was caught by a head-line: STEELY JACK RUNS FOR PARLIAMENT. Immediately he forgot his pessimism and became absorbed. Braithwaite had come out with the true story of his life. He was calling on the seven million men who had seen service to fight on in peace for the ideals for which they had fought in war. He insisted that if they cast their votes together as one man, they could control any election. If they combined with the patriot ex-soldiers of other nations, they could control the world. He was out to smash politics and the disastrous iniquity of political compromise. His aim was to restore the comradeship and sharing which had enabled the old front-line to stand fast. He was establishing a paper. He was speechifying. He was to hold an immense mass meeting in the Albert Hall——
Tabs laughed in sheer excitement. Here was one man at any rate who wasn't content to miss his kingdom. He might have known it. He could see Braithwaite's bleak look as clearly as if he stood before him. His instinct was to join him and say to him, in the words of the coster, "You and me was pals out there." He'd never lost an inch of trench.
"I beg your pardon, your Lordship."
Tabs looked up. The dignified image had returned and was standing in the doorway, with his chin thrust out and his nose at a high angle with his collar.
The man coughed deferentially. "If your Lordship will follow me——"
But at that moment he heard her calling from beneath the turret wall, "Lord Taborley!"
Jumping to his feet, he hurried to the window and leant out. She was in her riding habit, standing on the terrace above the rose-garden. "I've just got back from my morning ride. I have to visit the kennels. I was wondering whether you would accompany me."
He turned to the footman. "If you'll show me the way out to the terrace, I can find Lady Dawn myself."
She had moved farther away to where the steps led down between the rose-bushes. As he came towards her through the sunlight, she pretended not to notice him, but stood meditatively flicking the dust from the toe of her boot with her crop. Even when he joined her, she did not look up. They descended the steps in silence. When they had turned along a path, where no one could observe them, she raised her eyes. "I was afraid you had left."
He smiled, unconsciously imitating her quietness. "And I, too, was afraid. I was afraid you would not want me."
"Why not?" She stopped to pluck a bud in passing. "I should think any woman would want you."
He looked to see if she were chaffing. "Last night," he explained, "you were present when at least one woman didn't want me. That was why——"
She shot a glance at him with her honest, stone-gray eyes. Her hands started out to touch him, but she recalled them. "You must feel sorry for her," she said softly. "She's so young. I think you'll live to thank her. She'll learn that men like you don't come every day—only once in a lifetime."
Uneasily he harked back to her first statement. "Why did you fear that I had left?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "You had nothing for which to stay."
"There was you."
"Me!" She laughed wisely. "You had to say that out of politeness. In a man's world I'm of no consequence. I know how I appear in your eyes. I've been married, so I'm no longer a novelty. I'm not so young as I was; I shall be older. And then I'm a mother—you forget that, Lord Taborley. Oh no, I have no attractions to offer."
"You have friendship."
"Friendship!" She repeated the word with a shake of her head. "Men never want merely friendship; they want less or more. They want vivacity—some one who will halve their years, with whom they can sport and romp. Some one who can have babies to them—little pink babies, with squirmy toes and baldy heads. They want to begin everything afresh. They're not looking for another man's left-overs. Even in the matter of disillusionizing a woman, they want to do that for themselves. Men who've not been married, demand that a woman shall be doing everything, as they are doing it, for the first time. It's their right."
"But there's another side," he protested. "A woman who's been married has gained experience—the most dearly purchased form of knowledge, as you yourself have told me. She can be trusted not to expect the impossible. She's been over the course and knows the pitfalls. She's learnt the value of compromise. She ought to have learnt how to be kind. I think kindness is the thing that matters most. Few people are born with it. You have to have been wretched to acquire the knack of it."
"And yet you have it," she glanced sideways at him humorously, "and you haven't been married."
Realizing the drift of their conversation, he pulled himself up. He feared lest she suspected him of flirting. "You're very generous, Lady Dawn."
They had arrived at a lookout point, where a lichen-covered summerhouse stood, protected on the steeper side by a low stone wall. Below them lay the moat, green-scummed and starred with water-lilies; throbbing in the midday haze, the emerald sward of the parkland seemed to float. Against the wall she halted. "What makes you say that I'm generous?"
For all his thirty-six years, he blushed like a boy. "Because you take me seriously. After last night you might have been either amused or annoyed. The position in which I placed you was false. You thought that I'd come from London to urge Terry to marry me. When I told you that there was no one else in the world, you believed that I knew she was staying with you—that I was trying to persuade you to plead my cause. The anti-climax, after she'd surprised us, was the height of tragical absurdity. It reduced all my high-flown sentiments to farce. I wonder you were able to prevent yourself from laughing. Terry could afford such a scene; she's little more than a child. I can't. With four more years to my age I could pass for her father. No, please. I want to be hard on myself. Let me finish what I'm saying. I've only met you twice; on each occasion I've suffered a loss of dignity. The other time was when I tried to turn you away from Maisie's door. You're probably aware that since then, until Pollock's return, I've seen far more of your sister than was wise. In fact I've offered myself like a job lot. And yet there was a time when I was content to wait. I believed that one had only to be faithful and he'd find what he hoped for round some future corner. You're a proud woman, Lady Dawn. You admire strength almost cruelly. You're inhumanly infallible——"