Her eyes filled. She slipped her hand through his arm and patted it comfortingly. By the contact she was comforting herself as well. "I'm not. I wasn't infallible when I married. My pride came later to cover up my fault. I don't say it to flatter you—any woman would want you."
He gazed down at her. "How gentle you are!"
They strolled along in contented silence. They had trespassed far beyond the bounds of discretion. A diversion was caused when they reached the kennels. He watched her among the leaping hounds. She employed the same tactics to quiet them that she had used with himself. With a coaxing word and a caress she had them crouching at her feet. He listened to the precision of her orders and the definiteness of her enquiries.
"You'd have made a business woman," he remarked.
She laughed. "I could if I'd been forced." And then, "By the way, you're lunching with me, aren't you?"
"I'll be delighted. But, since confessions are the fashion, I may as well make a clean breast. If I had found that you were upset with what happened last night, I'd planned to tell you I was off to London."
"But you're not?"
"One doesn't run away from happiness."
He was afraid he had offended. Her expression clouded. She withdrew and walked a few paces apart. He had come almost to the point of apologizing, when she turned to him eyes that were misty—suspiciously misty for a woman who never cried. "I'm glad you had the courage to tell me, because I haven't felt so happy for—— I daren't own how long."
On entering the Castle, she left him while she went to change for lunch. As he waited, he reminded himself that in a handful of seconds he would be meeting Terry. The anticipation provided him with none of the old elation. With what ecstasy he used to watch for her in days gone by, as though the world was reborn when she stood before him! Far from feeling ecstasy, he was filled with uneasiness. Her presence would recall to him his failure and would mock something beautiful that had commenced in his life. What that something was he hadn't estimated. All he knew was that, with the coming of Lady Dawn, every one of his problems had mysteriously found settlement. He was no longer humiliated. He was once more sure of his direction. He felt unreasonably strong and triumphant, as though the goal of his striving was in sight. His old dread of growing middle-aged impressed him as puerile. Whatever his age, she would always keep pace with him. She was the same age as he was. Had he been younger or older, he might have missed her or gone by her with unseeing eyes.
When he entered the room in which lunch was served, he found that Lady Dawn was alone. Glancing at the table, he perceived with surprise that only two covers had been laid. She read the question in his eyes and answered it.
"Terry's away. I forgot to tell you. She had an early breakfast and motored into Gloucester before I was up. The car's come back without her. She's sent no word as to when or how she proposes to return."
"Something urgent?" he asked casually.
"More likely shopping. A woman's shopping's always urgent. I'm no wiser than you are. The first I heard about her going was when I was informed she had gone."
He relapsed into thought. It wasn't difficult to conjecture the reason for Terry's errand. She'd been no more anxious to meet him just at present than he had been to meet her. She'd taken the day off in the hope that by nightfall he would have departed.
Another solution occurred to him. "Did she ever mention to you a General Braithwaite?"
Lady Dawn met his eyes with a hint of warning. Listeners were present. "I believe she did," she admitted discouragingly.
"The only reason why I asked was that his name's in the morning papers. She may have seen it before she started. If so, it might explain——"
"John will know." Lady Dawn turned to the footman. "Did Miss Beddow read the papers, John, this morning before she left?"
"She did, my Lady. It was after she had read them that she ordered the car."
"Then that's it." Tabs dismissed the subject as unworthy of further discussing. "She went to Gloucester to hurry off a telegram of congratulation. Braithwaite's had a stroke of luck."
"If that is all," Lady Dawn smiled mischievously, "I wonder that she didn't come back in the car. A telegram can be dispatched in five minutes."
From then on, the threat of Terry's return hung over them, urging them to make the most of their respite. Everything that had started between them was so new and uncertain. No time-limit had been set to Tabs' visit; his original reason for coming to Dawn Castle was exhausted. There was no sufficiently plausible excuse for prolonging his stay in the village longer. A little absence, a little carelessness of forgetting, a few new interests and who could say but that this sudden need of each other, which had rushed them together with such compelling impulse, might not subside as unaccountably as it had occurred. In both their hearts this dread was present—this distrust of the permanency of their emotions. If they parted, they might meet again to find the magic irrecoverable.
After lunch they retired to the room in the turret. She chose her favorite chair by the window and sat there sewing, with her work-basket at her feet. He sat opposite, watching the busy occupation of her hands. He noticed that many of the garments which she mended belonged to the small boy whom he had seen in the rose-garden.
She looked up. "I always do everything for Eric."
It was later, when tea was being served, that the small boy himself peered in on them. Tabs caught his jealous eyes peering round the doorway. "Won't you come and talk to me?"
But the child ran away, despite his mother's coaxings, and refused to divulge his place of hiding.
She apologized. "He's not quite eight yet—the only sweetheart I have." Later she said, "I've been thinking of what we talked last night—I mean his father. Would it be too far-fetched to believe that it was really he and not your imagination, that piloted us together?"
"Not far-fetched at all. I'm sure of it. He wanted us to meet that I might tell you——"
"What?" She bent forward, folding her hands in her lap and watching him searchingly. "Not about his heroism; he'd take that for granted. Not that he'd loved me; we both knew it. Not anything self-pitying or weak that would rouse my regret——"
"You know." His assertion was almost a question. "Somehow he's got his message across to you."
She lowered her eyes and resumed her sewing. "I couldn't sleep last night. I lay awake puzzling and remembering—remembering the long waste of years, the loneliness and the love that had turned to bitterness. And now, when ordinarily there would be no chance to make amends, he sends you to me, speaking through your lips and taking possession of your thoughts. He's trying to do something for me—something that will blot out my past for me, as his sacrifice has blotted out his past for him. Something comforting and tender——"
The seconds ticked by. If she had guessed the dead man's desire, she refused to put it into words. The silence grew painful.
Tabs looked at his watch. It was nearer six than five. He rose reluctantly. "I suppose I should be going."
"But you're staying in the village to-night?"
"I hadn't intended. There'll be moonlight. I was planning to be in London by morning."
"Don't do that. You'll make me think you're afraid of meeting Terry. Dine with me to-night."
She had risen. Her gesture was almost one of pleading. He smiled tenderly and took her hand. "Your wishes are mine. I'll run down to the inn and dress."
By the time he returned it was nearly seven. She met him with ill-concealed trouble. "Terry's not back. It's strange. You see I'm responsible for her. And——"
The footman entered with a letter. "For your Lordship."
"Are you sure?" Then Tabs recollected. "Yes, of course. I left my address with Ann."
As he took the letter he scanned the handwriting. "Odd!" When the man had left, he turned to Lady Dawn. "It's from her. Did you guess?"
"But why should she be writing when she'll be seeing you any minute?"
Tabs squared his lips. He began to feel the stirring of a storm of anxiety. "Perhaps, because she doesn't intend to be seeing me any minute." He looked at the postmark. It had been mailed at eleven o'clock that morning in Gloucester. He tore the envelope and commenced to read. Before he had read far, he turned with a worried expression to Lady Dawn. "This concerns you as well." She came and stood beside his elbow. They glanced through the pages together. It was written on commercial note-paper of The New Inn, Gloucester, and ran:
I love you very much—just as much as ever. I always want you to feel sure of that. But my love isn't the kind you've asked for. It never can be. Because of this there are so many things that I've not been able to tell you—so I've been avoiding and deceiving you ever since you came back. I know I've not been honorable. A promise once given ought to be sacred; I gave you my promise that I would marry you. But that's all I could do for you now—just marry you; I couldn't give you the other things you would have a right to expect. I ought to have said, the other things you have earned and deserved more than any man. So, though I married you, I should still be robbing you, which would be even more treacherous than not fulfilling a promise.
That I'm in love with General Braithwaite is no news to you. Love may not be the proper word. At least I'm so infatuated with him that there's no room in my heart for any other man. Do you remember that night in March, when you dined with us and asked my father for my hand, and next morning early I came round in a panic to your house? I didn't dare tell you all my trouble. The General had urged me to elope with him. I wish, wish, wish that I had. I should be his now and sure of him. By delaying and suspecting I've all but lost him.
I always knew that he would be a big man—as big after the war as he was while it lasted. What this morning's papers say about him proves it. So for all these reasons and because I can't bear to face you at the Castle, I'm taking my fate in my hands. Please tell Lady Dawn that I shan't be back and excuse me in any way you can. I'm only carrying one small bag; she can send the rest of my things after me.
There's one request I have to make—that neither of you will notify my father till at least twenty-four hours have elapsed. All my future happiness may depend on your granting this request. It's the last favor I shall ever ask you.
And now, my very dear Tabs, almost my brother, if this hurts you, please take revenge by bundling me out of your mind. I was never your equal, never worthy of you, though you placed me on a pedestal that was far above you. Comfort yourself by believing that if you'd married me, you would have found this out. What a wretched quitter I appear in my own eyes after all you suffered in the trenches, to have reserved this worse suffering for you, when your life has been spared and you had counted on me for happiness. My entire body's not worth your little finger. And yet how good you've always been to me—
You'll get a better woman than I am. I think I already know who she'll be; if I'm right, I shall be so very glad.
I feel so humble—so apologetic. It's such a different ending from the one we dreamt when I saw you off on the troop-train with my hair all blowy down my back. There's nothing gained by recalling that. I meant so well by you; you've always been so much to me, my dearest, loyal Tabs.
Even though you despise me, I still insist on signing myself,
Your ever affectionate
"I'm sorry." It was Lady Dawn.
He shook himself. He was so raw that even her sympathy almost wounded. "Don't pity me. It's she we've got to help. What's to be done?"
"Done! I haven't thought. What can we——"
"We can follow her and bring her back. We've got to—and we haven't much time. You must have read between the lines what her letter meant. After having turned Braithwaite down, she's gone off to beg him to elope with her. When a girl puts herself at a man's mercy like that, there's no knowing how he'll act. The chances are that, whatever he does, it won't be honorable. We're got to prevent her, not only for her own sake, but for his sake as well. He's just started on a great career; if this story leaks out, he'll be smashed. They'll both be smashed, for that matter. If she'd give him time to marry her honestly, it wouldn't matter whether her family had consented. But she doesn't intend to—that's why she's asked us to keep quiet for twenty-four hours. What we've got to do is not to stop her from marrying him—no one cares about that; but to catch her before she runs off with him."
"But we don't know where——"
"No, we don't." He spoke rapidly. "But we can find out. Ann can tell us. Ann's a maid in my house; she was practically engaged to him when he was my valet. Now that I look back, I'm sure she's known everything from the start and has seen this coming. We can get Braithwaite's address from her; when we know that, we shall have laid our hands on Terry."
While he had been speaking, Lady Dawn had been rummaging through her desk. He went and bent over her, his hands on her shoulders. She was fingering a time-table. She looked up at him with her head leant back. "There's no train—nothing that will reach London till morning."
"Then we must motor."
Her face was still raised to his. She spoke softly. "We! You say we every time. Do you mean—— What do you mean, Lord Taborley?"
His intensity relaxed. Flushing with confusion, he stared down at the whiteness of her breast, the queenliness of her, her graying hair and her expectant, tender mouth. "I want you to come with me. I ought to have asked you properly. I've been taking you for granted and ordering you about."
She remained very still, gazing directly up into his troubled eyes. He thought she was judging him. At last she whispered, "Don't be sad. I like you to order me."
They had all night before them. If they left the Castle by ten, they could be in Brompton Square by five in the morning. Nothing would be gained by arriving earlier.
Now that the first shock was over, they went into dinner as if nothing had happened. In the long, dim banqueting-hall there were only the two of them. They sat close together at the illuminated high-table like castaways, marooned on an island, in an ocean of brooding shadows. While they dined they conversed in lowered voices to prevent their plans from being overheard. It was decided to take Lady Dawn's Rolls Royce and to leave the runabout behind. The reason acknowledged was that it would be more dependable. The reason unmentioned was that the presence of a chauffeur would lend an air of much needed propriety.
Gradually as they talked, the seriousness of their errand dropped from sight; their journey took on the complexion of an adventure. Its unconvention clothed it with romance. How unconventional it was they realized when Lady Dawn gave the butler orders concerning her departure. He was an old man, rigid with tradition, who, having served the family for three generations, had acquired the aristocratic bearing of his masters.
"At ten o'clock, your Ladyship. To where? To London! That's a long journey to take at night. And the car will call at the inn first to pick up his Lordship's luggage. Oh, I see, my Lady. I thought at first that your Ladyship was going."
"I am," she corrected with quiet dignity. "Lord Taborley and I are going on an errand of great importance. I don't want this talked about. You understand? And who'll be driving? Witherall! Then warn Witherall to keep silent."
When the butler had withdrawn, she turned to Tabs. "I'm breaking all my precedents for you. I couldn't have told him, if I hadn't had you to keep me in countenance. He looked so shocked that he made me feel as if it were you and I, instead of Terry, who were doing the eloping. I'm sure that's what he thought. There'll be gossip. I shall have to pay the piper; but I'm too happy to-night to look ahead."
"It hadn't occurred to me——" Tabs hesitated. "I've been unpardonably inconsiderate. I see it now—you'll be what they call compromised. In that case, it will be wiser——"
"It won't." She bent towards him laughing. Her pearls, nestling in the white cleft of her bosom, gleamed dully, shaken by her quiet merriment. In the short time that he had known her, she had become extraordinarily girlish—almost girlish enough to put back the hands of time for the proper man. "It won't. It won't be wiser. It's never wiser to turn your back on happiness. I'd dare anything to-night. You've invited me; you can't wriggle out."
"If that's how you feel——" He checked himself. Her mischief warned him. Instinctively he knew that she was about to ask precisely how he thought she felt. He cancelled what he had intended saying and substituted, "It's an ill-wind that blows nobody any good. And it's poor Terry we have to thank for this chance of being together a little longer!"
"Is it a chance? You're not bored? You do want me?"
He raised his eyes slowly. Her pain had startled him. Up to that moment he hadn't been awake to how utterly he had come to want her. For an instant he had a glimpse of the emptiness of life, should he find himself deprived of her comradeship.
"You didn't need to ask me that!" he said quietly. "And now it's my turn to be inquisitive. Does it make you glad to hear me own that I want you?"
He watched her color rise. It was like the elfin tiptoeing of her spirit behind the white transparent walls of her flesh. It climbed the smooth ascent of her breast, passed up the columned tower of her throat and stared out at him excitedly in the brightness of her eyes.
"Men don't ask things like that," she said reproachfully, "at least, only when they're flirting. I sometimes think—— Don't treat me like all the others who were before me."
She held his gaze. "The emotional women and silly girls—— You must have been loved very often, Lord Taborley."
To have defended himself against her tender jealousy would have been futile. She was plainly anxious to believe her accusation. Perhaps it flattered her a little. Perhaps it lent him an added touch of glamor. He was wondering how he should satisfy her. He could remember no hearts that his fascination had broken. He could rake up absolutely—— She was speaking again.
"And yet I'm glad you compelled me to tell you that I wanted you. You're making me do things that I never did before in my life. I'm supposed to be a cold woman. You'll find people who'll say that I'm remote and domineering. I've only one big affection—my little boy. For your sake I'm leaving him alone to-night."
"For whose else?"
"I thought for Terry's."
Her lips parted. The laughter died in her eyes. "In your heart you knew better."
Then he left her and went down to the inn to pack his bag.
He had paid his bill. His luggage had been carried downstairs. There was still a full quarter of an hour to wait. He sat in his bedroom smoking furiously. Before he met her again, he wanted to know precisely what had happened to himself—and, perhaps, to her.
He was filled with self-distrust. His newly discovered propensity for falling in love was genuinely alarming. It wasted his time, upset his plans and robbed him of his mental vigor. It made him a rudderless ship at the mercy of any chance winds of sentiment. Up to less than three months ago the solitary woman in his life had been Terry. Throughout the war, while the masculine world had been making an amorous idiot of itself, he had kept his head clear and gone straight. Things had come to a pretty pass if now, when normality was returning and the excuse for running wild was out-of-date, he should start on his emotional escapades. His love for Terry had been deep-rooted. His fondness for Maisie had been the attempt of a starved heart to satisfy its craving with a substitute. But where was this pursuit of substitutes to end? If it went much further he would gain for himself the reputation of being a limpet who attached himself to any chance rock of feminine amiability. The kind of woman he cared to associate with would avoid him. If ever he were to fall in love again, his attentions would be so shop-worn that——
If ever he were to fall in love again! Within the last twenty-four hours his irresponsible heart had committed this disastrous folly for a third time.
He smiled cynically, as though he were two separate persons, one of whom was cool and calculating, while the other was improvident and scape-grace. How Lady Dawn would despise him, were he to reveal to her the stupid commotion of his mind! His excuse for blundering his way into her privacy had been sufficiently fantastic: that her late husband was employing his living brain to communicate with her from the dead. It must have strained her credulity to the breaking-point. If on top of this he were to propose to her, what possible conclusions could she draw? Either that in order to gain her intimacy, he had perpetrated a cruel fraud; or else that he was so lacking in humor as to believe that Lord Dawn, from beyond the grave, was arranging for his wife's second marriage. The drollery of a dead husband acting match-maker made him smile. In the middle of his smiling he pulled himself up. Why not? Why shouldn't a husband who had wrecked his wife's happiness, try to repair the damage, if that were possible, when through death he had attained a kinder knowledge? The Roman Church prayed to the dead whom it canonized. There were thousands of parents, wives, sweethearts, bereft by the war, who were asserting that their longing had bridged the gulf and penetrated——
He shook himself, as though to struggle free from an invisible assailant. Hallucinations! All these so-called spiritualistic manifestations were the result of over-taxed imagination. To stick to facts was the only safe course; and these were the facts in his case. He had approached Lady Dawn as a matter of duty to tell her the truth about a husband whom she had not known at his best. She had misinterpreted his motive and had believed that he had come to confess to her his own failure. She had been thrown off her guard, had dropped her mask of stoicism and had lavished on him a reckless kindness. But other women had been reckless to him in their kindness. Terry had: so had Maisie. Women's kindness had caused his present predicament—their kindness, plus his awkward knack of valuing their kindness at more than its face worth. He had learnt his lesson. Never again would he be lured into the net of feminine fickleness. When he felt the temptation rising, he would suppress and ignore it; at any rate he would ignore it until the woman, who was rousing his affection, had declared her intentions beyond any chance of mistaking.
And Lady Dawn? She was in a class by herself. He held her sacred. The mere thought that she should ever fall in love with him was impertinence. To talk cheap sentiment would be insulting. It would cause him to lose her friendship—a loss which he could not bear to contemplate. It would be taking a mean advantage of a situation created for an entirely different purpose.—— And yet, dare he trust himself, now that he was in love with her, in the intimate aloneness of a long night drive to London?
He rose to his feet disgusted. If this was the loss of self-control that peace had brought, better a thousand times the rigors of the sacrifice that was ended. Out there he had been strong; here he was a sick dog, licking his sores and whimpering at his own shadow. Self-pity had wrought this wholesale impotence—an impotence which was infecting the entire world. While individuals and nations had thought only of others, they had been valiant; they had raced in generous competition, clean-limbed as athletes, towards the tape, where endeavor ends and eternity commences. And now this lethargy, this cowardice—this monstrous fat of quaking emotion!
A memory flashed back on him—an afternoon in March when he had been obsessed by a similar discontent. It had happened in the Mall, after his interview with Braithwaite and just before his introduction to Maisie. He had come across a sign-board which had announced that, by following a certain path, one would arrive at the Passport Office. That narrow track, vanishing into the bushy greenness, had seemed to him the first five hundred yards of the road that led to world-wideness and freedom. At the end of it lay Samoa, Tibet, the Malay Archipelago—jeweled seas and painted solitudes which human disillusions could not wither. Instantly his will concentrated. By following that road he could become lean-souled again. By reseeking hardships, he could recover his lost discipline. The idea held him spellbound. It meant escape. It meant a return to monasticism. Then and there he determined that he would commence his preliminary enquiries to-morrow.
Going to the window, he leant out. The quaint village street was sleeping. The night was so still that, it scarcely breathed; it lay like a tired child in the firm white arms of the moonlight. Coming smoothly to a halt before the hostel was a powerful car. It was a landaulet and the hood was lowered. Lady Dawn must have altered her plans at the last moment; instead of sending for him, she had come herself! Catching sight of him, she waved her hand. His heart became quiet. Like the night without, his being was flooded with a drifting whiteness that robbed the darkness of its terror.
As he stood by the side of the car talking to her while his bag was being stowed away, her manner was chillingly conventional. It was so conventional that it bordered on the unfriendly. About the unfriendliness of the chauffeur there could be no doubt. The elaborate care with which he tucked the robe about her Ladyship had a distinct air of alert possessiveness.
When Tabs had taken his place beside her and the village was left behind, she relaxed and laughed softly. "Such a trouble I've had! They all disapproved of our expedition—I mean the servants. Their eyes accused me of—— Perhaps it's better not to be explicit. But that was why I called for you, instead of letting you come to the Castle. Did you notice anything queer about Witherall?"
"Your chauffeur? I thought he rather overdid his superciliousness and that he treated you a little as if he were your husband. Apart from that——"
"Apart from that," she laughed, "he made you feel entirely welcome. You mustn't mind him. My servants aren't used to seeing me with an escort. And then—— Well, an all-night ride would be a little difficult to explain to anybody."
"I suppose it would."
They relapsed into silence. It was jolly to be so near to her and, after the fears he had had, to know himself so trusted. She sat quite close to him, so that he could feel the warmth of her body. Her shoulders touched him; sometimes she leant against him with a gentle pressure. Her fragrance was all about him. The robe spread across their knees gave an added touch of intimacy. He glanced down at her sideways. She was wearing a moleskin coat with a deep collar of silver-fox. She had on a moleskin hat, close fitting to her glossy head. Her face was partly hidden by a smart veil. She was immaculate as ever—as composed and stylish as if she were going to a theater-party instead of on an all-night ride to London. But it wasn't her stylishness that impressed him; it was her littleness. She looked very tender and pale as she sat beside him. The moral back of her chauffeur, as seen through the glass, condemned him of unkindness. He had had no right to ask her to accompany him. Why should he have burdened her with his troubles? She must have plenty of her own, with her boy to care for and her estate to manage.
"I've been selfish," he said. "You ought to be in bed and sleeping now."
She smiled. "Always blaming yourself, aren't you? I shouldn't be here unless I'd wanted."
"But why did you want?"
Beneath the robe her hand commenced to grope. It stole into his own and lay there quietly. "Because I couldn't bear to see you hurt. You're so good. In some ways you're so strong; in others you're just as tiny as my Eric. I felt you needed me for the moment."
"For the moment! I shall always need you."
"I wish you might." She shook her head slowly. "But you won't. You'll go away. I shall hear about you—all the big things you're accomplishing and planning. And then I shall remember that for just one night I had you for my very own."
"But we're always going to be friends. I shall be always coming back to you."
"Men don't come back, Lord Taborley. A man of your temperament is least likely to come back. You press forward. You're eager. Wherever you go you form new affections. I'm not like that. I'm cold. You don't think so, but then I'm treating you as I never treated any other man. You slipped under my reserve and reached my heart before I could stop you. Do you know how I'm treating you? Just the way I'd like some good woman to treat my little Eric one day, when I'm not here and he's a man."
"But you're going to be here for a long time—just as long as I am." There was alarm in his assertion. "I couldn't bear to think of your not being in the world. It wouldn't matter so much whether I saw you; it would be the knowledge that I could see you; that would make all the difference."
"Yes, I'm sure. You mustn't think that because there was Terry and—I'm ashamed to have to own it—a passing fancy for your sister, that I'm fickle."
"I don't. I never thought it for a moment. What I thought was that you were unhappy. People do a lot of foolish things when they're unhappy."
"It seems so long since I was unhappy," he said gently. "You've healed everything."
She was shaken as though with a storm of sobbing. No sound escaped her. She did a thing which was as amazing as it was beautiful. Raising his hand which she had been holding, she hugged it against her breast.
During the night he nodded. Once when he wakened, he found her tucking the robe more closely about him. "Go to sleep. You're tired," she whispered, patting his shoulder.
A strange woman—strangely maternal and beautiful! She never seemed to think of herself. The women whom he had known had always demanded that men should do all the giving. Even Terry had been like that. His conception, of love had been of a continual bestowing with no hope of reciprocity. To be allowed to give throughout one's life to the woman beloved had seemed to him to be the maximum of married blessedness. He knew better now. Lady Dawn had given so generously that she had established a new standard; he would never again ask so little from any woman. He began to perceive that all his approaches to love had been self-abasing. In the true sense of the word he had never been in love. Dream-intoxicated, yes! But all that he had experienced had been desire. It was a new thought to him that a man must respect, even more than he desires, the woman whom he covets.
His feeling for Lady Dawn was one of worship. When he wakened to find her watching over him, it seemed to him that the Mother of God sat beside him. When God's Mother is symbolized in a living woman, love is reborn into the world.
The last time he awoke, dawn was breaking. The moon had grown feeble. A chill was in the air. He sat up. "What! Still awake! I don't believe you've slept a wink all night."
"I haven't. I didn't want. I've been enjoying myself."
"You look tired."
He commenced to pile cushions behind her and tried to coax her to take some rest. "If you insist," she assented. "But I'd much rather not. I'm like a child at a party; I want to last out every moment."
"Then let's talk. We're nearing London. We sha'n't get much chance for being alone after we arrive. We don't know what we'll find. We may be whisked away in opposite directions. Before we're separated, I want to acknowledge what I owe you."
"It's cold," she shuddered, drawing closer to him. And then, "You owe me nothing."
He was tempted to place his arm about her, but the cowardice of past failure was strong upon him. He was afraid lest the ordinary gestures of affection would cheapen him in her eyes; he was still more afraid that they might mean to her that he valued her too lightly. He held himself in hand, staring straight before him and speaking quietly.
"I'm the only judge of what I owe you. I came to you broken. Life had made a fool of me. I'd fallen through placing my ideals too high. Everything was slipping. Every belief I'd ever had was open to doubt. Most of all I'd lost faith in the goodness of women. To explain my state of mind I have to tell you that the war had made me fanatical. Like millions of men who went out to die, I'd persuaded myself that I was fighting more than Germans—I was fighting to bring about the new heaven and the new earth. Our politicians promised us as much. You remember their phrases. 'A world safe for democracy! A land fit for heroes to live in.' When all the muck and the heartbreak were ended, we found that outwardly it was the same old world. Heaven was as far away as ever. There were no signs that any one wanted a new earth. Nations which had been comrades, began to wrangle. Soldiers came home to find their jobs held by slackers. The glorious promises had been a death-bed repentance; their insincerity was proved when the world recovered. But our worst disappointment was utterly personal—that despite the magnanimity we had shared and witnessed, we ourselves were no less selfish. For me all these disillusions were epitomized in Terry. I'd fought for her. I'd carried her in my heart. If I'd died, my last thoughts would have been of her. I came back hungry and she disowned me. That she should have done that made humanity a Judas and God a mocker. I don't mean you to believe that I gave way at once to this wholesale injustice. At first I made an effort to struggle against it. I'd always held that great living was a matter of pressing forward, of wearing an air of triumph when you knew you were defeated, of believing, in spite of every proof to the contrary, that further up the road your kingdom waited for you."
He felt the pressure of her friendly hand. "It does," she assured him. "That's what you've taught me. It's what you taught Maisie; it's almost as though you'd willed her husband to come back. You're a great believer. All great believers have been doubters. They give away so much of their faith that at times they have none left for themselves. You limp. Don't flinch; with me there's no need to be sensitive. When you entered my room for the first time, you made me think of another lame man. Do you remember how Jacob wrestled all night with an unknown assailant? When dawn was breaking his thigh was out of joint, but he refused to let his assailant go until he had asked his name. The stranger would not tell him—instead he blessed him. And then Jacob knew it was with God he had wrestled. When the sun rose and he went upon his way, he halted upon his thigh. You have the look that I think he must have had—the look of a man who has been maimed in trying to make God answer questions. It's that look and your very lameness that have given me back something that Lord Dawn took from me—something that he knew, when he sent you, you could give me back: my faith in men, without which a woman can have no happiness."
The ghostly world streamed by, silent-footed and mist-muffled. It was the hour when children are born and weary people die—the hour of new beginnings and ancient endings, when life and death, like soldiers changing guard, salute at the cross-roads of the new day as friends.
At last he broke the silence. "I thought I had nothing to give you. I felt so empty. You seemed so strong and immovable, like a still tree in a forest that was storm-shaken. You made me feel that however the wind raged, beneath your branches there would be always rest. I never knew——" He paused as though he had forgotten what he had set out to say. "I never guessed that a woman could be so good."
"Nor I that there was so good a man."
They clasped hands so tightly that it hurt. The sun was rising as they entered London. Trees dripped gold and birds were chattering as they drove into Brompton Square. It was only when they had halted before the sleeping house, gay with flaming window-boxes, that she released his hand. With the severance of contact he awoke from his trance and remembered the errand that had brought them.
He had opened the door with his latch-key and had stood aside to allow her to pass into the hall, when suddenly he clutched her arm and drew her back. He signed to her to make no sound. Together they stood listening. The early morning stillness was broken by a door shutting smartly at the top of the house, a cheerful whistling and then the unmistakeably firm step of a man descending.
Tabs had no man in his employ, so what was a man doing in his house? There was no secretiveness about the stranger's movements; on the contrary, there was an airy boldness.
The sunlight danced and nickered on the wall as if it shared the excitement of their suspense. The footsteps drew nearer. They paused dramatically. The whistling ceased abruptly. Had the stranger taken warning? A match was struck. He was only lighting a cigarette. The footsteps came on again. At the final bend of the stairs the intruder came in sight. He halted, mirroring their surprise, and stood staring down at them with a bleak, hard look. He was the man whom they had least expected.
Tabs was the first to collect himself. He closed the front door behind him. "Good morning, General. You couldn't have been more prompt if we had telegraphed you that we were coming." When Braithwaite still stared, Tabs continued, "Allow me to introduce you to Lady Dawn and may I ask how long I have had you as my guest?"
Braithwaite drew a puff at his cigarette. His manner was as haughty as if he had been the owner of the house. "Since last night," he said. "I have to thank your Lordship for a bed. Mrs. Braithwaite——" A gleam of amusement shot into his eyes. "Mrs. Braithwaite had a sentiment for spending her first night beneath your roof. Seeing that you were away and that I was so newly wedded"—he made an eloquent gesture—"I could scarcely deny her." Turning on his heel, he commenced to reascend. Across his shoulder he flung back, "Of course I apologize. We'll not trespass further. In a few minutes I'll have her dressed. In half an hour, at the outside, I'll remove her."
"Don't be a fool." Tabs spoke sharply. "You make me wonder which of us is mad."
Braithwaite regarded him for a moment with an enigmatic smile. "I'm not. Yesterday I did the wisest thing of my life." With that he vanished.
Lady Dawn turned to Tabs gently. "If that's the way he feels, then he has. Terry's to be congratulated."
"But why on earth should she have wanted to spend her marriage-night in my house?" Tabs questioned. "My house of all inappropriate places! That's what I can't understand. And what could Ann have been doing to consent? You remember I told you there was a time when he was practically engaged to Ann."
They mounted the stairs till they came to the first landing. Entering the library, with its bright red lacquer, they sat down to await events. But Tabs did not sit long; he was too restless. Having flung wide the French windows which opened out on to the veranda, he kept going to the doorway to listen.
He glanced at his wrist-watch. "Barely six o'clock! Upon my word, I don't relish the idea of her being disturbed. Braithwaite's such a hot-head. For all I care, they can stop here as long as they like. I'll take a holiday so as not to embarrass them." He faced Lady Dawn with troubled frankness. "The question is: are they married? I've been trying to figure things out. They simply can't be unless he met her with a special license in Gloucester. And even then, I can't see how—— But if they're not married, surely he would never have had the audacity to bring her to my house. It would be too preposterous—to the house of a man to whom she was engaged, where she would be waited on by a woman with whom he was once in love."
At that moment Ann entered, pretty and sleepy-eyed, with Braithwaite following close behind. Tabs commenced speaking at once, in order that he might put them at their ease as regards his intentions.
"We're not here to blame any one. You, General, evidently think that I'm hostile. I'm not. As far as you're concerned, Ann, whatever you've done is right. Of course I'm a little taken aback to find that my house was chosen for the honeymoon. But if you'd like to have the use of it for a week or so and Ann doesn't object, I'll clear out and leave you to yourselves. You'll make me really happy if you'll accept the offer; it'll be a proof of friendliness. You're wondering why we surprised you so early. It wasn't to prevent you from marrying. It was because Lady Dawn was responsible for Terry and we felt that a runaway match, with the marriage announced after the event, might damage not only her but you, General, as well. I read yesterday in the papers of what you're doing and I want to say just this to you. You're the better man. You deserved to win. Last time we met you refused to shake my hand. I hope you'll take it now. You can afford to be magnanimous to a rival, now that you're Terry's husband."
Tabs stood with his hand held out. Braithwaite made no motion to accept it; and yet his expression was generous. "I can't shake your hand as Terry's husband, Lord Taborley. I'm not married to her."
Lady Dawn sprang to her feet and came between the two tall men. "Not married to her! But you intend to marry her? You told us you were married."
Braithwaite was still smiling. "I am." To their amazement he slipped his arm about Ann and kissed her sleepy, tender mouth. "Terry is safe with your Ladyship's sister. We took her there when she arrived last night."
He turned to Tabs. "You said that I was the better man. I'm not. It was your sense of duty that always urged me. I have to thank your Lordship for the greatest happiness that can befall any man. You made me see it as my greatest happiness, when I was in danger of becoming a cad. There was one thing you said to me that sank into my mind. 'You'll never succeed, however great your courage, unless you start with your honor solvent.' You saved my honor. I didn't like your methods. But I thank you with all my heart now. If it hadn't been for you, neither Ann nor I would have come safely to our journey's end. I think we'd both like to shake your hand."
It was two hours later. They were finishing their breakfast in the open, on the balcony of the Hyde Park Hotel. From where they sat they could watch a lawn-mower traveling slowly back and forth, patterning the sward with alternate stripes of different colored greenness. They could smell the acrid juices of newly cut grass. Beyond the islands of flowers and vivid candelabra of trees, they could see the wild fowl of the Serpentine rise and drift like phantoms across the sultry stretch of blueness. Wheels of a water-cart grumbled sleepily against the gravel. Moving through the sunlit shadows of the Row, riders were returning from their early morning gallop.
They were still together—just the two of them. They were romantically self-conscious of the domestic appearance which their twoness caused. Only married couples or very ardent lovers rise, while the lazy world is sleeping, to keep each other company at breakfast. They had not had the heart to disturb the General and Ann in their temporary possession of the little nest-like house.
Lady Dawn was speaking. "So you've done it again."
"What have I done?"
"What you did for Maisie. How did you put it last night? You've led them to their kingdom."
He smiled. "I seem to have a faculty for doing that. I do for others what I can't do for myself."
Still not looking at him, she said: "Perhaps you don't find your own kingdom because you're too much in love with the search. You don't want to bring your journey to an end. There are people like that."
"I'm not one of them.—I wish you'd look at me, Lady Dawn. Do you know what I covet most in all the world? Rest and certainty. I don't mean a lazy kind of rest, but the rest of a mind at peace with itself—the certainty we all had while the war was on, when we were adventuring for the advantage of other people. I've done nothing lately that wasn't for myself. I want some one to live for, so that I can forget myself. I've been thinking——"
The waiter presented the bill. Tabs scarcely knew whether to curse or bless. He had been approaching the danger-mark; nevertheless, he wasn't at all sure that he was grateful for the interruption. His heart cried out to him to risk humiliation by one last act of daring. Experience warned him that it is the sins of precaution—the follies left uncommitted—that are most regretted by men of seventy.
She rose as he was gathering up his change. The purpose that had brought them to London was ended. There was no further reason for their being together. If they were to prolong their companionship, a new excuse must be invented. He saw by the tentative manner in which she waited, that she also had realized that. He became perturbed lest she might dismiss him. Speaking hurriedly to forestall her, he said, "I suppose we had better make sure of Terry by hunting her up at Mulberry Tree Court."
She barely nodded. Perhaps she thought, now that Braithwaite had been eliminated as a rival, that this making sure of Terry betokened a rekindling of the old infatuation. A constraint grew up between them. It was not until they were standing on the top of the hotel steps, waiting for her car, that he ventured to correct the wrong impression. "Funny about Terry! If it hadn't been for her, we might never have been friends. The first day of my home-coming she drew my attention to you; it was too late—you had passed. You were driving with the Queen in the Park. I remember what Terry said. She called you Di and spoke of you as the most beautiful woman in England."
She gave no sign that she had heard. As though she were unescorted, she passed before him down the steps. But the moment they were seated in the car, she turned to him. She looked her full age. Her face was pale with more than weariness. He noticed the threads of gray in her hair. Ever since he had seen Ann in her flushed shy exaltation, he had felt more keenly the pathos of Lady Dawn. It was a pathos that found an echo in his heart—the pathos of approaching separation. What purpose did it serve her to be beautiful, if she had no man of her own to admire her?
"You were on the verge of telling me something, when the waiter interrupted," she prompted. "It began like a confession. You'd been speaking about living for other people and your need of rest. Then, you said you'd been thinking——"
"It was about how one could make a man's job out of living," he answered quickly. "It's all wrong that one should feel decent only when he's attempting to get slaughtered. It takes neither brains nor perseverance to be dead. Any one can——"
"But it was about finding rest that you were speaking."
"Yes, but I've burdened you with too many of my troubles." He hesitated, wondering whether he dare tell her what had happened to his heart. "I've done nothing for you. I've only borrowed from your strength. You're the most restful woman, the most calm——" Then he dodged. "But since you ask me of what I was thinking, it was of how I might escape to the old hardships. I thought I'd call at the Passport Office and get in touch with the Royal Geographical Society, and commence arrangements to explore——"
"Then I sha'n't be seeing you again?" She asked it in a tone of dreariness, bordering on terror. Her hands trembled in her lap. She stared straight before her.
"But you will." He forced a cheerfulness into his voice which he was far from feeling. "These things take time. It may be weeks——"
"But you'll go away. I know it."
"I suppose I shall. Sooner or later I shall return. In the meanwhile we can write."
She paid no attention to his consolation. Her face was gray as granite. Her hands kept folding and unfolding. There was something symbolic in their emptiness. "You won't come back. It's the end. You weren't sent, after all."
How or why he said it, he never could tell. The words were utterly unpremeditated. He spoke them, ordinarily and unemotionally, as though throwing out a casual suggestion. "We could get married, if that would make you happier."
"It's what I'd like."
His heart missed a beat. He dared not credit his senses. He glanced down at her, prepared to find that she was mocking. The most beautiful woman in England! There was no mistake; she had actually asked him.
"It's what I should like, too." He spoke conventionally. Nothing in his tone betrayed his emotion. "It's what I've been dreaming from the moment that we met—— When would be convenient?"
"As soon as possible."
"Would a week from to-day suit?"
She nodded, "Or sooner."
Beneath the robe his hand sought hers. He did not trust himself to look at her. She was his, all of her and forever. It was marvelous. The secret clasp of her hand was sufficient for the present. He was still doubtful of his fortune and unnerved by his temerity. He felt aloof and disembodied—an uninvolved spectator. And this was love, the journey's end—this smiling stillness, which was so different from anything he had imagined!
They entered Mulberry Tree Court and drew up before the house with the marigold-tinted curtains. It was while they were waiting for the door to be opened that he broke the silence. Smiling down at her with a guilty, glad expression he asked, "We're engaged now, I suppose?"
She returned his smile less certainly. "I'm ashamed. But you won't go——"
He laughed at the folly of her question. "Go, when I've got you, the woman whom I wanted!"
"Then you won't go exploring? You won't exchange me for hardships?"
"Di, dearest, I've done with searching."
The door was opening. She pulled herself together. Porter stood before them, neatly laundered, with the old suspicious meekness in her glance.
"Good morning, Porter. We've come to see Miss Beddow. We've been told that she's staying with my sister."
"She is, your Ladyship. But none of them are down. She arrived so late and unexpected."
They followed her across the hall into the sun-filled drawing-room, with its fragrant flowers, tall windows, rockery-garden and little oval pond, with the toy boat floating on its surface. The moment the door had closed, he had her in his arms. Now that he was sure of her possession, he held her desperately as if he feared that he were going to lose her. "Closer," she whispered. "Closer." It flashed through his memory that the last time he was in that room, he had been the spectator of just such a union and had fled from it because he was excluded.
She stirred against him, lifting up her face.
"This time you're really crying," he whispered. Stooping he pressed her lips. "They always told me you never——"
Freeing her arms, she clasped him tightly about the neck. He could feel the weight of her body, dragging his face lower. She kissed him passionately, stopping his breath, as though she would breathe into him her very soul. "Oh, my dearest—my very dear! How cruel you were! You made me ask you. I thought I'd never get you."
The door was opening. Terry was watching them. The first they knew of her presence was when she spoke.
"You came to see me."
They broke apart like shameful children and stood regarding her, their hands just touching. She seemed their elder.
"I suppose you have the right to jeer at me," she continued slowly. "I'm left out. I was too cold. I'm too late. I didn't want what was offered at the time it was offered. What I didn't want once, I can't have now. And, perhaps, I still don't want it. Tabs used to speak of kingdoms. I never knew what he meant. You've all found yours—Maisie, Braithwaite, both of you and even Ann. Everybody, except me." She laughed to prevent her tears from falling. "I suppose Tabs would tell me that mine's still round the corner. You would, wouldn't you, Tabs?"
Her need, which had been theirs, penetrated their happiness. They felt again the old wild pang of neglected loneliness. Sargent's painting above the mantelpiece, looking down on them, reminded Lady Dawn of her own forgotten tragedy. It was unendurable that their gladness should bring sorrow to Terry. With a common instinct they went towards her. Lady Dawn placed her arms about her. It was Tabs who spoke.
"Little Terry, you're not left out. You're ours more than ever. We've not robbed you. We couldn't. Of you alone it's true that everything lies before you. All the time you've had your kingdom, though you didn't know it. You still have it—the Kingdom of Youth, for which we older people were all searching."
In the silence that followed there stole to them through the summer sunshine, above the mutter of London, the music of a distant barrel-organ. In the mind of Tabs a picture formed; it was of children dancing along a golden pavement on that first spring morning of his disillusion. The tune which the barrel-organ played was the same. His brain sang words to the music:
"Apres la guerre There'll be a good time everywhere."
And it was no longer an optimism—it was fulfilled promise.
Surely, beyond the bounds of space, Lord Dawn also listened and was happy. For Tabs, as long as life lasted, it would be the marching-song of the kingdom round the corner.