Charmion had heard all about the flat by this time, and had hurt my feelings by treating the whole proposal as a ridiculous joke. She made no attempt to dissuade me—had we not agreed never to interfere in each other's doings?—but she laughed, and said, "Dear goose," and arched her fine brows expressively as she asked how long a lease I proposed to take, "Or, rather, I should say, how short?"
Now I had myself inclined to a short lease with the option of staying on, but opposition stiffened my back, and I there and then decided to go and look at several possibilities which I had hitherto put aside as impracticable because they had to be taken for a term of three to five years. Bridget would go with me—dear, lawless, laughter-loving Bridget, who entered into the play with refreshing zest. Bridget had the real characteristic Irish faculty of looking upon life as an amusing game, and the more novel and unorthodox the game was, the better she was pleased. "Sure it's your own face! It's for you to do what you please with it!" was the easy comment with which she accepted my proposed disguise. She undertook to do most of the work of the flat without a qualm, and shed an easy tear of emotion over the sorrows and difficulties which it was to be my mission to reduce. "Oh, the poor creatures! Will they be starving around us, Miss Evelyn, and the little children crying out for bread?"
"N-not exactly that," I explained. "I want to work among gentlefolk, Bridget—poor gentlefolk, who suffer most of all, because they are too proud to ask for help. But they will probably be short of time, and service, and probably of strength, too, and when I get to know them, they will let me help them in these ways, though they would not accept my money—"
Bridget looked sceptical.
"I wouldn't put it past them!"
I laughed, and dropped the subject.
"Oh, well, time will show. Meantime you understand, don't you, Bridget, that they are not cheerful places that we are going to see? Cheerful positions in London mean big rents, and I mean to live among people who have to count every penny several times over, and try hard to make it into a sixpenny bit. You and I will have sunshine and light at Pastimes—you won't mind putting up with dullness for part of the year?"
"What would be the good of minding? You'd go, whether or not, now you'd got your head set!" returned Bridget bluntly. She added after a pause, "And besides, we'll be getting our own way. I'm thinking we shall be glad of the change. It's not as much as a thought of your own will be left to you, with Mrs Fane by your side."
"You are entirely wrong, Bridget, and it is not your place to make remarks about Mrs Fane. Please don't let me hear you do it again."
"Yes, ma'am," murmured Bridget, turning instantly from a friend into an automaton, as was her custom on the rare occasions when I hardened myself to find fault. The words were submissive enough, but her manner announced that she had said her say, and would stick to it, though Herself, poor thing, must be humoured when she took the high horse. As usual, I retired from the conflict with a consciousness of coming off second best!
The next day I told Charmion that I was "engaged," and true to our delightful agreement, she asked no questions, but quietly disappeared into space. Then, with a ponderous feeling of running the blockade, I put on wig and spectacles and the venerable costume which had been provided for the occasion. Appropriately enough, it had originally belonged to an aunt—Aunt Eliza, to wit—who had handed it to me in its mellowed age, to be bequeathed to one of my many protegees. It was brown in colour—I detest brown, and it cordially detests me in return— and by way of further offence the material was roughened and displayed a mottled check. The cut was that of a country tailor, the coat accentuating the curve of Aunt Eliza's back, while the skirt showed a persistent tendency to sag at the back. When I fastened the last button of the horror and surveyed myself in the glass, I chuckled sardonically at the remembrance of heroines of fiction whose exquisite grace of outline refused to be concealed by the roughest of country garments. Certainly my grace did not survive the ordeal. What good looks I possessed suffered a serious eclipse even before wig and spectacles went on, and as a crowning horror, a venerable "boat-shaped" hat (another relic of Aunt Eliza) and a draggled chenille veil.
Bridget was hysterical with enjoyment over the whole abject effect, but I descended the stairs and passed through the great hall of the hotel with a miserable feeling of running the blockade. Suppose I met anyone! Suppose anyone knew me! Suppose—I flushed miserably at the thought—Charmion herself was discovered sitting in the hall, and raised her lorgnon to quiz me as I passed by!
I need not have troubled. Not a soul blinked an eye in my direction. If by chance a wandering glance met mine, it stared past and through me as though I were impalpable as a ghost. My disguise was a success in one important respect at least—there was no longer anything conspicuous about me; I was just a humble member of society, one of the throng of dun-coloured, ordinary-looking females, who may be seen by the thousand in every thoroughfare in the land, but who, as a matter of fact, are not seen at all, because no one troubles to look. By Bridget's side I passed through the streets of London as through a desert waste.
Half an hour's journey by tube brought us to the first of the flats on my list. It was also the first specimen of its kind which Irish Bridget had ever seen, and the shock was severe. I found myself in the painful position of expecting "a decent body" to live in a kitchen two yards square, with a coal "shed" under the table on which she was supposed to cook, and to sleep in a cupboard, screened in merciful darkness, since, when the electric light was turned on, the vista seen through the grimy panes was so inimitably depressing that one's only longing was to turn it off forthwith!
"Preserve us! Indeed, if it was to die in it we were trying, it would be easy enough, but I'm thinking we'd make a poor show of living, Miss Evelyn! And used to the best as we are, too," said poor Bridget dolefully.
I sprang a good ten pounds in rent at the sound of her pitiful voice, and ran my pencil through every address below that figure.
Ten separate flats did we visit in the course of that day, and it was a proof of what Aunt Emmeline would call my stubbornness that I came through the ordeal without wavering. Regardless of Bridget's appealing eyes, I led the way forward, always affecting a buoyant hope that our next visit would be successful, while mentally I was holding a Jekyll and Hyde argument with my inner self, as follows:—
"Impossible to live in such warrens!"
"Other people manage to live in them all the year round!"
"But, as Bridget says, I have been used to the best."
"Quite time, then, that you take your share of the worst!"
"My health might suffer—"
"You have a good chance to recruit."
"I might lose my looks—"
"Disagreeable—but the world would go on, even if you did. Incidentally, you might improve the looks of other women!"
"It would be awfully dull!"
"At first—yes! Not when you get into stride. Helping other people is the most exhilarating of tonics."
"I have never lived in a town. I should feel cramped, prisoned, stifled for air."
"But think how you would feel when the day came to return to Pastimes! Wouldn't that first hour in the garden be glorious enough to repay you for all the exile?"
Bridget's wheedling voice broke in on my argument:—
"Miss Evelyn, dear, I've been thinking—wouldn't it be a duty-like, to be having a bit of sun? Seems like we could wrestle along a bit better if we faced the right way!"
Poor dear! Above all the drawbacks, it was the darkness of the interiors of those small flats which most perplexed the good countrywoman: the passages lighted only through the ground glass panels of bedroom doors; the windows shadowed by walls of other buildings, which towered up at but a few yards' distance; the kitchens staring blankly into a "well," ornamented with the suggestive spirals of a fire-escape.
"If we could maybe face somewhere where there was a bit of green!" pleaded the eloquent Irish voice. "Sure the leddies and gentlemen you are meaning to help—you'll be more likely to find them in the place you'd choose yourself, if you were settling in earnest?" Bridget rolled an eye at blocks E, F, and G of a colossal pile of buildings which stretched their inky length over the two blocks of a narrow thoroughfare. "Cast your eye over them window curtains!" said she scathingly. "Ye can tell what's inside without troubling to look. A dirty, idle set that will sponge on you, and laugh behind your back!"
I looked, and shuddered, and was thankfully convinced. In my efforts not to aim too high, my standard had fallen impossibly low, and Bridget's keen common sense had been right in prophesying that I was more likely to find a congenial type of people in a neighbourhood which appealed to my own taste.
No sooner said than done! I escorted Bridget to a restaurant, and fed her and myself with lots of good hot food, and then straightway hired a taxi, and drove back to the agents to demand addresses of flats a little further afield, which should have at least a modicum of light and air.
It appeared that I had demanded the thing above all others for which tens of thousands of other women were already clamouring!
"Everybody wants a cheap flat in an open and airy situation. For one that is to let we have a hundred applicants. Of course, if you are prepared to pay a long price—"
"But I am not."
"Quite so. Otherwise I have some fine sites in Campden Hill. Lift. Central heating. Every convenience."
"Seventy pounds is the utmost—"
"Quite so. Then we must rule out Campden Hill, or Hampstead, or Kensington." The agent switched over the leaves of his book, ran his finger down a list, and hesitated, frowning. "There is one vacancy which might suit—a small block of flats on the borders of Hammersmith. The postal address is Kensington. I don't know if you are particular as to address?"
"Not a bit."
"Ah!" The agent evidently thought small beer of me for the admission. "Most ladies are. In this case we can ask an extra five pounds a year because of the Kensington address, and the class of tenants is much better than in the adjoining blocks a few hundred yards off, where the postal address is Hammersmith."
Bridget coughed in an impressive fashion which was intended to say, "Better class! Hark to that now! That's the place for us!" As for me, I was torn between amusement at the rank snobbery of it all, and a tender pity for the pathos that lay behind! Poor strugglers, clinging on to the fringe of society, squeezing out the extra pounds so badly needed for necessities, for—what? The satisfaction of seeing a certain word written on an envelope, or of impressing a shop assistant with its sound. In some cases no doubt there were deeper reasons than snobbishness, and it was thought of them which supplied the pathos. Some careworn men and women had weighed that extra rent in the balance, and had considered that it was "worth while," since a good address might prove an asset in the difficult fight for existence, or perchance some loved one far away had vicariously suffered in past privations, and might be deluded into believing in a false prosperity by the high-sounding address. My ready imagination pictured the image of an invalid mother contentedly informing her neighbours: "My daughter has moved to Kensington. Yes! Such a charming neighbourhood. The gardens, you know. And the royal palace!" Five pounds a year might be worthily expended on such a gain as this!
Well, there seemed nothing for it but to prospect Weltham Mansions at once, so we chartered yet another taxi, and hurried off without delay to have daylight for our inspection. We drove for miles, through streets at first wide and handsome, then growing ever dingier and more "decayed". Is there anything in the world more depressing than a third-rate English suburb? I can imagine being poor contentedly in almost every other land—in India, for instance, I know of impecunious couples who have lived in two tents beneath two mango trees with comfort and enjoyment, but it takes a super Mark Tapley to enjoy poverty in London!
We had left the gardens a long way behind before at long last we reached a block of dull red buildings, the various doorways of which were decorated with different letters and numbers. A 1 to 40—C 41 to 80—D 81 to 120—etcetera, etcetera. The windows were flat, giving a prison-like effect to the exterior, and I was just saying devoutly to myself, "Thank goodness, that's not—" when the taxi stopped, and my eyes caught the fateful letters carved on a dull grey stone!
It was Weltham Mansions, and there were two flats to be let. The porter produced the keys and led us up, up, endless flights of stairs to a crow's nest near the roof, and then down, down again to what was described as the "sub-basement," which, being interpreted, meant that the level of the rooms was a few feet beneath that of the road. Now I had always set my affections on a basement flat, chiefly—let me confess—because the sound of it appealed to my ears as so suitable and appropriate to my new role. Also, to be able to walk in and out, without mounting the stairs, minimised the risk of discovery, which was no light point under the circumstances, but it was a distinct surprise to find that the flat itself appealed to me more than any which I had yet seen. Why? Not because of the rooms themselves, for they were ordinary and prosaic enough, but because the bank which sloped from the floor of the area to the street railings was of grass, closely-growing, well-conditioned grass, broken here and there by tiny, sprouting leaves of—yes! extraordinary as it seems, there could be no doubt about it, for both Bridget and I recognised them in one lightning glance—primroses! Some former tenant who loved the country had planted those roots in a hopeful mood, and they had taken hold, and grown, and multiplied. When spring came the owner of that basement flat would have a primrose bank between herself and the world outside those high railings. She had also a strip of cement area in which she could place tubs filled with soil which would provide blossom for later days. The exposure was south, and the railings were high, so that the tiny garden would be assured of sun and security. The soot would fall, and the dust lie thick, but there would be colour and life, and on the air faint wafts of perfume.
We went back to the porter's room to hear the particulars of the lease, and on my way I stopped to read the list of names printed on little slides on a mahogany board. There were forty in all, and they were as illuminating as such names usually are, when suddenly, three parts down the list, I came upon one which made my heart leap into my mouth. I stood reading the few words over and over, actually spelling the letters in my incredulous surprise, but there it was; there was no doubt about it—the words plainly printed for every one to see—
"Number 32. Mr Wenham Thorold."
Well, talk about fate! There are some circumstances under which one realises at once that it is useless to struggle. This was one! I turned to the porter with an air of resignation.
"I will take the flat. Please prepare the necessary papers, and send them to me to sign." Then I gave him my new name. After due deliberation I had determined to be "Miss Mary Harding," as Wastneys is unusual, and might draw undesirable attention. Miss Mary Harding, of a basement flat!
Our removal into Pastimes—like every other removal since the time when man began to live beneath a roof—took far longer than we expected. I went back to Ireland to gather my possessions, and say good-bye, and Charmion stayed in London to hurry up tradesmen, and make uninteresting purchases of pots and pans, and dusters and door scrapers, and the other needfuls which every house must have, but which are so dull to buy.
When I joined her in the hotel, I found her in a state of haughty displeasure over the extraordinary delay which was attending the work at Pastimes itself. In another person this state of mind would have found vent in "fuming," but Charmion never fumed. She folded her hands, and drooped her white lids, and drawled in a tone of incredulous disgust:—
"I can't understand it. I told them to be quick. I expressly stipulated that they were not to potter."
"Apparently they are not even 'pottering'! They have not begun at all!" I said grimly, as I ran my eye down the letter just received from the "man in charge". It was the ordinary, ultra-polite, ultra-servile production of the tradesman who has not kept his word.
"Dear Madam,—Owing to a press of other work, I regret that I have not been able to commence—"
"Commence! Odious word. It is adding insult to injury to use it. And what can he mean? He seemed so keen about the order. Said he was so slack that he would be able to put on all his hands!"
"I shall write and tell him to do so at once," said Charmion magnificently, and I held my peace and let her do it, knowing that it would be no use to object, and hoping that at least her letter might succeed in extracting some more definite information.
It did! This was it:—
"Madam,—I beg to inform you that Mr Maplestone having rented the house known as 'Uplands,' on behalf of General Underwood, and placed urgent orders with us for its re-decoration, we are regretfully compelled to delay operations at Pastimes for some weeks. We are making all possible speed with the present contract, and beg to assure you that your work shall then be finished with all despatch.
"We have the honour to remain, etcetera."
Charmion and I looked at one another, and looked, and looked, and looked. We were both thinking hard—thinking backward, thinking ahead. Exactly what we thought neither of us put into words; we just sat silently and stared, until presently Charmion rose, marched over to her writing-table, and scribbled a few words on a telegram form. Then she held it out for me to read:—
"Order for decorations at Pastimes cancelled herewith."
"Do you approve?"
"Er—oh, yes, of course—I suppose so. But how shall we—"
"That's easily arranged. Any town firm will be glad of the order. It will be more expensive, but will probably be better done. In any case we have no choice."
"It's such a tiny village. Where could the men sleep?"
"I haven't the slightest idea. That is their business, not mine. We shan't have any difficulty about that," Charmion declared, and she was right, for the West End firm who received our instructions waved aside the question with smiling assurance. They were accustomed to sending workmen all over the country. To the loneliest places. All could be easily arranged. We were left with the impression that if it had been our pleasure to pitch our tent in the Sahara, the frock-coated manager would have executed our wishes with equal ease. So far, so good; but as we left the shop Charmion turned to me, and said darkly:—
"I think, under the circumstances, it might be wise to change our minds about employing country maids, and to engage London ones instead."
"You are afraid—"
"I am afraid of nothing, but I think it probable that the local girls who wrote to us about situations may now be 'urgently' bespoken for service at Uplands."
"Well, he will need servants," I said feebly, and fell to thinking of Uplands itself, and of how unfortunate it seemed that General Underwood should be settling so near ourselves. We had noticed the house, indeed, we could not fail to do so, as it lay a quarter of a mile along the high road from Pastimes, on the direct route from Escott, which was Mr Maplestone's village. It was a handsome-looking house, but painfully prosaic, built of grey stone, unsoftened by creepers, and showing a row of windows flat and narrow, and extraordinarily high. One could just imagine the rooms, like so many boxes, and the hall flag-tiled, and the house full of draughts, for the windows of the principal living-rooms faced perversely towards the north. I hoped the poor General would instal a heating system and a generous supply of rugs; but what chiefly concerned me at the moment was the thought that every time—every single time—that cross, red-headed man came over to visit his relative, he must pass our door!
My imagination immediately conjured up half a dozen irritating encounters. Evelyn returning home on a wet day, bedraggled, not at her best, toiling along the wet lane, and being splashed with mud by the wheels of a giant car, from the cushioned seat of which the Squire and his wife regarded her with lofty disdain. There was a Mrs Maplestone, and I had drawn a mental picture of her, which I felt sure was true to life. Small, meek, rather pretty, with big brown eyes which held a chronic expression of being rather frightened by what had just gone before, and exceedingly anxious as to what should come next. She would probably wear handsome furs, and a hat three seasons old.
Encounter number two represented Evelyn in her best hat and coat, feeling rather spry and pleased with herself, until presently, clinketty clank, round the bend of the road came the quick, staccato beat of horses' hoofs. Mr and Mrs Maplestone cantering past in hunting kit, which at one glimpse killed complacency and substituted disgust for the poor fripperies of town.
Encounter number three was most obnoxious of all. It represented Evelyn solus encountering Mr Maplestone solus and on foot. Approaching him on the unsheltered road, torn by the problem, "Will he bow? Shall I bow? Will he pretend? Shall I pretend?" moving nearer and nearer, and in a final moment of discomfort meeting the stare of blank, angry eyes. Poor man! It must be exhausting to have such a violent temper. I wondered what he looked like when by chance he was happy and pleased!
The West End firm got through their work in record time, and at the end of three weeks Charmion and I took possession, and set to work at the task of putting our house in order. Every woman delights in this work in prospect; in reality, every one comes full tilt against a score of irritating, aggravating contretemps which baulk her carefully-laid schemes.
Our contretemps appeared in a very usual form. The cook and gardener, who had been definitely engaged to meet us on our arrival, and whom we had, therefore, not replaced in town, sent missives instead, to "hope they didn't inconvenience, but they had changed their minds". The two town servants who had arrived were immediately plunged into woe, and, looking into their set, dour faces, one could hear the inward thought, "Don't believe anyone ever was engaged! Just one of their tricks to get us down here to do the work alone." We left them sitting like monuments of woe in the kitchen, and shut ourselves up in the drawing-room to consult.
"Uplands, I conclude," said Charmion coldly.
"Oh, no! I don't believe it. He wouldn't condescend to that!"
"Why not? He stopped the work in the house."
"That was different! After all, he is the Squire, and when it was a case of inconveniencing him, or a stranger—a local tradesman could hardly be expected to put us first. At least, you can understand his position."
"Does the same argument apply to local domestics?"
"It might do; but I don't believe it was used. To give a tradesman an order for now or never, and to—to stoop to bribe a servant to break an engagement—surely they are two different things! I do not believe Mr Maplestone would do it!"
"Well!—we shall see. In the meantime, what about dinner?"
I went back to the kitchen and talked to the Londoners, smiling radiantly the while. I said it was upsetting, but we must expect upsets. No one ever settled into a new house without one. I said there would be no difficulty in getting another cook—we would telegraph for one to-morrow; in the meantime we would just picnic, and do the best we could. I looked from one sulky face to another, and asked confidently:—
"Now, which of you is the better cook?"
The parlour-maid said she was a parlour-maid. She had never been asked to cook. She could make tea.
I said, "Thank you!" and turned to the housemaid.
The housemaid said she was a housemaid, and didn't understand stoves. She had always lived where kitchen-maids were kept.
I said calmly, "Oh, well, it's fortunate that I am a woman, and can cook for the lot of you until help comes. Perhaps you will kindly bring tea into the hall, and then get your own as quickly as possible. I shall require the kitchen by six o'clock."
They were horribly discomposed, and I left them murmuring vaguely in protest, very pleased with myself and my fine womanly attitude, though at the bottom of my heart I knew quite well that Bridget would come to the rescue, and never a saucepan should I be allowed to touch.
As a matter of fact the good soul descended on the slackers like a whirlwind, and the while she drove them before her, treated them to an eloquent lecture upon the future sufferings, privations, rebellions, and retaliations of the prospective husbands of females who had grown to woman's estate, and yet could not cook a meal. Through the green baize door I could hear the continuous torrent of invective, broken at first by protest, later on by soft exclamations of surprise, and finally—oh, the relief of that moment!—by an uncontrollable explosion of laughter. The Cockney mind is keenly alive to humour, and when a racy Irishwoman gets fairly started on a favourite subject, the delicious contradictions of her denunciations are hard to beat! That laughter saved the situation, and the domestic wheels began to move.
Charmion wrote to an emergency lady in town. I didn't see the letter, but I diagnosed its tone. Peremptory and—lavish! Wages no object, but speed essential, or words to that effect. Anyway, in two days' time a married couple arrived, were pleased to approve of us, and settled down with the air of coming to stay. She was an excellent cook, and he seemed a rather indifferent gardener, which just suited our views. If gardeners are experts they want their own way, insist on bedding-out, carpet-beds, and similar atrocities. We meant to run our garden on different lines!
Hurrah! I am so relieved. The truants have not gone to Uplands. I met the cook in the village to-day, recognised her, and tackled her to her face. She flushed and wriggled, looked uncomfortable, but not as penitent as I should have liked to have seen.
"Was it necessary to wait until we had actually arrived, before letting us know that you had changed your mind?"
She stood on one foot, and drew circles on the road with the other.
"Didn't decide myself till just the last minute."
"You hadn't taken another place then? I understood from your note—"
"I'm staying on with my mother. I may go to a lady at Guildford."
Silence. One department of my brain felt an immense relief, the other an immense exasperation.
"Then you were free all the time! Doesn't it strike you as wrong and dishonourable to show such a want of concern for other people's convenience?"
She muttered. I caught the sound of a few words—"I'm not the Only One!" and put on my most dignified air.
"However, it is all for the best. You certainly would not have suited us. I hope for your own sake you will learn to keep your word."
I walked on, nose in the air, aggressively complacent in appearance, but those words rankled!
"Not the only one!" Now what did she mean by that? Obviously the insinuation was meant to go home, but how and where had we been to blame? Not in our treatment of the woman herself. We had offered good wages, and to pay for the time she had been kept waiting; yet something had happened which had made her willing to lose money and time, and that something was not another place! I felt puzzled, and, at the bottom of my heart, worried about it all!
Later on I paid my first visit to the little draper's shop, and ran the fire of a universal scrutiny from the staff. The "young ladies" knew who I was, and were devoured by curiosity, but it was not a friendly curiosity! Instead of the eager smiles which usually greet a new customer, there was a pursed-up gravity, a stolid attention to business, which was decidedly blighting. At home in Ireland every tradesman was more or less a friend, and what they did not know of Kathie's affairs and mine was not worth hearing.
"Pastimes, I believe!" said the sales-woman with the pasty face, when I directed the parcel to be sent home. Was it fancy which read a note of reproach in her intonation?
Coming home, I met General Underwood in a bath-chair, being pushed along by a man in livery. He has white hair and a yellow face. He looks tired and ill, and lonely and sad. I'm sure he hates the bath-chair, and fights horribly with his doctor, who insists on fresh air. He rolled his tired eyes at me as I passed, and said something in a low voice to his attendant. I was misguided enough to turn my head, and behold! the Bath-chair was tilted round so that he might look after me. The man knew me by sight, and was laying bare the whole horrible truth.
"That's her, sir! The lady from Pastimes!" I felt ruffled, and went straight into my "sulky," where I stayed till lunch-time. We had a delicious souffle, and Charmion asked no questions, and went out of the way to be particularly sweet. I felt better every moment, and by the time coffee arrived had quite recovered my spirits.
If the General had lived in Pastimes, he would have had to use the bath-chair just the same, and his hair would have been quite as white! Pastimes could not have made him young! Charmion is right. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I must learn to be more callous and matter-of-fact!
THE VICARAGE CALLS.
On Sunday we went to the Parish Church. At breakfast, Charmion seemed silent and depressed; but, true to our agreement, I asked no questions, and she volunteered no explanation. She said she was not going to church, but later on she changed her mind. I think she saw that I was disappointed, and a trifle shy at going alone, so off we went together— Charmion a marvel of unobtrusive elegance in grey, and I "taking the eye" in sapphire-blue—along the breezy lane, past the closed gates of Uplands, through the shuttered High Street into the tiny square, in a corner of which the church was nooked, with the vicarage garden adjoining the churchyard.
The congregation was assembling from different parts, and everybody who passed stared at us, the men stolidly enough, the women with a curiosity which, to my mind at least, had something antagonistic in its nature. Their pursed lips, their sidelong glances, reminded me of the assistants in the draper's shop; of the cook who muttered that she was not "the only one". I looked at Charmion to see if she felt the atmosphere, but her eyes held the blank, far-off expression which marked her dark hours. She had no attention to spare for village worthies: nothing that they could do or think was of sufficient importance to arouse her attention. Inside, the church was bare and uninteresting, and the musical service poor, but the Vicar himself attracted me greatly. A plain-looking man nearing forty, but with a most expressive and eloquent voice. He read the service exquisitely—so exquisitely, that words which one knew by heart seemed suddenly filled with new meaning. When the time came for the sermon I expected great things. It seemed to me that the man who could so wonderfully interpret the words of others, must be endued with the gift of eloquence for himself. I even braced myself for a mental effort, in case his argument should soar above my head. And then—a child could have followed him! It was absolutely the simplest, plainest, and most intimate address which I had ever heard from a church pulpit. Incidentally, it was also the shortest!
It was ten minutes to twelve o'clock when he folded his arms on top of the open Bible, and leant forward for a long, silent moment, looking earnestly from side to side into the upturned faces of his hearers. Then he began to talk—to talk, not to preach, speaking every word with an inflection of the truest sincerity. The text was "Forgetting the things that are behind, I press towards the mark," and the "talk" ran pretty much like this:—
"How has this week gone with you, Brothers and Sisters? To some it has brought success, to others failure. Bad weather, bad temper, lost control, a host of tiny troubles have sprung upon us unprepared; have worked their will, and left us discouraged and weak. Thank God for beginnings! New years, new months, new weeks—after every twenty-four hours, a new day, with the sun rising over a new world! Last week is dead. All the grieving in the world cannot revive it into life. Bury it! Remember only the lessons it has taught. Forget the things that lie behind. Press forward! This week is alive. This week brings opportunity. Live! Work! Pray! With God's grace make it the best, the truest, the kindliest week you have ever lived."
The clock struck twelve, and the sermon was over. A bare ten minutes, but if he had preached for an hour on end he could not have added to its effect. The congregation listened in tense silence, as though afraid of losing a word. One felt the electric thrill of hope and courage and high resolve which, flooded their hearts; felt it oneself; went out from the church braced in heart and soul.
I want to know more of that man. He could help one along.
I have got my wish. He called with his wife this afternoon—the first callers since we arrived. They were shown into the drawing-room, where Charmion and I were lolling over our tea. There was fruit on the table, besides a selection of cakes from town, and as we had been gardening in the earlier part of the afternoon, and got thoroughly grubby and untidy, we had changed into the tea-gowns which we wear in the evening when we are too lazy to put on more elaborate clothes. They are very nice tea-gowns, and, though I say so who shouldn't, we look exceedingly nice in them, but to the eye of a hard-working country clergyman the whole interior may have looked too luxurious to be approved! His face looked very grave as he shook hands.
Mrs Merrivale is a surprise. The Vicar figures on the church board as the Reverend John C. Merrivale, but she has her cards printed, "Mrs J. Courtney Merrivale," and she calls him "Jacky" in public. She is very young—twenty-two or three at the most—and has a very long neck and a pretty little face, with huge pale-blue eyes, and a minute mouth with coral-pink lips. She is dressed in cheap clothes made in the latest fashion, and she asks questions all the time, and doesn't wait for an answer. When you tell her a definite fact, such as that you have been planting tulips in the garden, she says, "Not really!" or as a change, "Fancy!" or "Just think!" He adores her. Every time he meets her eyes, his grave, strong face softens and glows in a way which makes one feel inclined to cry. Lonely women feel so very lonely at such moments as these! She contradicts him over the most futile things, and says, "No, Jacky, it was three o'clock, not four; I was just getting up from my rest," and he smiles, and doesn't mind a bit.
They had tea, but refused fruit, with an air of being rather outraged by the offer. Mrs Merrivale surreptitiously studied the details of Charmion's tea-gown, and the Vicar and I laboured assiduously at conversation. I had liked him so much on Sunday, and had hoped he would be a real friend; but—things didn't go! I had a miserable feeling that he had paid the call as a matter of duty, that he disapproved of us, that he dreaded our influence on his precious little goose of a wife. There was certainly a restraint in his manner. Everybody seemed restrained in this funny little place. I wonder if it was something in the air!
Having made mental notes concerning the tea-gown, Mrs Merrivale next turned her attention to the room, and stared around with frank curiosity and a barely concealed envy.
"Your room looks so pretty. Jacky, that's exactly the material I wanted for our curtains. You have beautiful china. I'm collecting, too; but"—she gave an expressive shrug. "Of course, this room lends itself; it is so big, and get's all the sun. You remember, Jacky"—she looked at her husband with widened eyes—"Mr Maplestone called it a 'Sun Trap'."
It seemed an innocent enough remark, but the Vicar's grave assent implied a deeper meaning. Mrs Merrivale sighed, and elaborately lengthened her chin.
"Uplands is so bleak. General Underwood feels the cold so much. All the windows of the entertaining rooms seem to look the wrong way."
"He should have some more put in, facing the sun," Charmion suggested in her regal way, and Mrs Merrivale looked as much aghast as if she had suggested pulling down the whole house and building it afresh. I burst hastily into the conversation.
"I think I met General Underwood the other day. In a bath-chair. I was glad that he was well enough to get out. I hope he will soon be quite well."
The Vicar said gravely:—
"He will never be well. The most that can be hoped is that he will not grow worse rapidly. He is a fine man, and has done good service. We are proud to have him back amongst us, but I am afraid, for his own sake, it has been a bad move. He ought to have settled in a kindlier climate."
"Yes, but—" Mrs Merrivale began impulsively, and pulled herself up, and bit her red lip. "Jacky," she said hurriedly, "I'm afraid we must go."
They went, and I felt a worm. It was plain to me now that the parish in general, from the Vicar downward, had absorbed the idea that the strange ladies at Pastimes had played a mean trick on their local hero, and were not inclined to smile upon the ladies in consequence. The Vicar had probably heard the Squire's prejudiced story direct, and from the Manor House and the Vicarage reports had percolated, as such reports will percolate, to the draper's assistants, and the man in the street, down and down to the truant cook herself.
Now the feudal feeling still lingers in English villages, and no self-respecting tenant chooses to range herself against the Squire. The cook's mother, no doubt, lived in a cottage owned by the Squire, and enjoyed perquisites of various sorts which she had no disposition to throw away. Beside the kitchen fire there had, no doubt, been a lengthy conference over that rumour, and the mother had said, "Don't you do it, Mary Jane. If the ladies are across with the Squire, how'll he take it if he hears my daughter's in their service? And half a dozen people with their eyes on this cottage as it is. A nice thing it would be for me if I got notice to quit!" The gardener's mother had probably presented the same argument to him, and the good people who had eyed us askance on Sunday morning were probably reflecting to themselves, "They look all right, but you never know! There was evidently something very unpleasant about that lease. Poor General Underwood, too. Well, we won't be in a hurry to call. We will just wait and see!"
I felt horribly depressed, and somehow Charmion's utter indifference made me feel worse. I do love to be liked; it would poison me to live in an atmosphere of prejudice and suspicion, but she doesn't appear to care. I have a curious conviction that to be socially ostracised would be just what she would prefer. Books, the garden, my companionship— these would supply her need. New claims would be rather a bore.
I am not made like that. I need more. I feel horribly depressed.
Charmion saw it, and spoke out before we went to bed.
"You are worrying, Evelyn. That disagreeable autocrat has succeeded in prejudicing our neighbours against us, and it hurts you. Well, nothing is irrevocable. Say the word, and we will leave the house to-morrow, and put up a bill—to let!"
I jumped nearly out of my skin, with horror and amazement.
"Never! Not for the world. My pride wouldn't let me even if I wanted to do it, and I don't—I don't! I love the house and the life with you even more than I expected, it's only that I'm sorry about. I do like to live at peace with all men. Doesn't it worry you, Charmion, to feel yourself unjustly accused?"
"It would have done once. At your age. Since then"—her eyes took the blank, far-away look which always attended even the faintest allusion to the past—"since then I have lost the power of caring. When one has borne the one big hurt, the gnats have no power to sting."
I looked up eagerly, but she rose from her seat, pressing one hand gently over my eyes.
"No! Don't ask me! You have been very sweet, very forbearing. One great reason why my heart went out to you, Evelyn, was that you never questioned, never tried to probe. Go on being patient! Some day you shall know. I should like to tell you now, but I can't, I can't! You must wait. Some day the impulse will come, then it may be a relief. Till then, Evelyn, you must wait!"
AN ENCOUNTER IN FORCE.
It is three months since we came to Pastimes, and until last week the days have slipped by happily and peacefully enough, but without any happenings worthy of record. We returned the Vicar's call, and were asked to tea to meet ourselves, when Mrs Merrivale took the opportunity to ask me the address of my dressmaker! Two staid dames, who lived in small villa residences, left cards at the door, an attention which we duly returned in kind. The important people in the neighbourhood have left us severely alone, whirling past our gates to pay assiduous calls on General Underwood. He is the local hero, and we are the hard-hearted strangers who did Something—nobody knows precisely what—but Something mean, and underhand, and altogether unwomanly about a lease, and so forced the poor dear General to endure draughts and cold rooms, and seriously retarded his progress towards health! It's no use pretending that I am not sorry about it, for I am; but all the same, they have been happy months. Charmion has seemed so much brighter and more contented, and that itself means much to me, and we have been as happy as bees in our beloved garden, bullying our one man into preparing what he considers absolutely mad effects, and working with him to keep him up to the mark. We have flagged one path, and turfed over another, raised some beds, and sunk others, and contrived a really glorious hot-weather arbour, a good six yards in diameter, and open on three sides, to secure plenty of fresh air and an absence of flies.
Charmion has hardly gone out of the gate, except to church on Sundays, but I take a constitutional every day, and scour the country-side.
My first encounter with the Squire came off about the third week we were here, and my imaginings were wrong in all but two unimportant points. Mrs Maplestone wears voluminous sables and clothes of antique cut; but they look quite charming and appropriate, for—she is antique herself!
She is the Squire's mother, not his wife. He hasn't got a wife; never has had one, and never will. Hates all women and their ways. Avoids feminine society, and has never been known to pay a girl five minutes' attention in his life! Such is the village verdict as repeated to me through Bridget, who has a flair for gossip, and is one of those wonderful people who cannot walk half a mile along a solitary country lane, without hearing, or seeing, or mentally absorbing some interesting item about the lives of her fellow-creatures!
Every night when she brushes my hair she recounts these items to me, and I pretend to be uninterested, and listen with all my ears.
In any case, Mr Maplestone seems very kind and attentive to his mother. I met them (as fancy painted!) when I was coming home from a trudge along the damp lanes, and was looking considerably blown and dishevelled. They were getting out of their car just outside the gates of Uplands—a most malapropos position!—but without the least hesitation he lifted his hat, and bowed, so that I was spared the troubled uncertainty which I had imagined.
I can't say he looked amiable, but at least he was polite, and I was so relieved that I bowed back with quite a broad smile. Mrs Maplestone looked at me more in sorrow than in anger. I suppose she was thinking, "So young and so unkind!" An hour later, from an upstairs window, I saw the car whizzing homewards along the road. It did not stop at our gate. I rather wished it would.
After that we were constantly meeting. There seemed a fate in it. If I darted into the post office to buy a penny stamp, he was there buying tobacco. (You do buy tobacco in village post offices!) If I cut across fields and sat on a stile to rest, he came whistling from the opposite direction, and I had to get up to let him pass. If in leaving the house I turned to the right, I met him advancing to the left. If I turned to the left, behold he was striding manfully to the right! Each meeting was the result of absolute chance, but Mistress Chance can play curious pranks at times, and it really seemed as though she was taking a mischievous delight in bringing about these unwished-for encounters. We always bow ceremoniously to each other; he always frowns, and I always smile. Theoretically I am annoyed and indignant; but at the critical moment the comical side of the situation sweeps over me, and out flashes the smile before I can force it back. It is so absurd to see a big grown man sulking like a child! Quite a good thing he does not intend to marry. His wife would have a nerve-racking time.
Well, as I said before, three months have passed by. Spring has turned into summer, and every day the garden brings fresh, delightful surprises. Uninteresting green sprouts burst into unexpected bloom; the rock garden is a blaze of purple and gold; blackened stems of creepers have disappeared beneath festoons of leaves and flowers.
Charmion and I wear muslin dresses, and eat our meals in the arbour, and lie in hammocks in the little orchard, and rejoice in every moment of the long sunshiny days. Down at the bottom of our hearts, I think we both have a feeling that this is just a little rest by the way. It won't last; we don't even wish it to last. Life is too strenuous to pass in a summer garden; but we needed a rest and it is very, very good for a change. We pack boxes of flowers and send them to the hospitals, and every Saturday afternoon we invite parties of working girls from the nearest towns. They arrive in weird garments, very loud as to colour, and befeathered as to hats, and the village worthies look askance at them, shrug their shoulders, and think small beer of us for entertaining such odd guests.
For three months our lives have been indeed the "annals of a quiet neighbourhood," and then suddenly, last week, something happened!
I said suddenly—I might have said instantaneously, without any exaggeration. The position was this. Scene, a sloping roadway just outside the village area. The stage set with the three principal figures. Enter from left wing, General Underwood, reclining in his bath-chair, being taken for a short ride by his affectionate kinsman, Robert Maplestone. Enter from right wing, Evelyn Wastneys, bearing for home. So far, so good. A similar encounter has happened many times before, but this time the sight of my white-robed figure seemed to upset the Squire's equanimity. He stopped the chair, and turned his head over his shoulder, looking backward over the road along which he had come. It afterwards transpired that the General's valet had been left behind to finish some small duty, and was momentarily expected to follow. At that moment he did appear, and involuntarily Mr Maplestone lifted his hands to wave an imperious summons.
I have said that the road is sloping; just at this point it is very sloping indeed, therefore the bath-chair darted forward, and spun downward with incredible speed. I have a kaleidoscopic picture in my brain which seems to consist of a lot of waving arms—the poor General's arms waving for help, the Squire's arms sawing the air as he raced in pursuit, further back in the road the valet's arms thrown to the sky in an agony of dismay, while down towards me, ever faster and faster, spun that runaway chair.
I had to stop it somehow! There was no one else to do it, so it was "up to me" to do my best. There was no time to be nervous, no time even to think. I stood braced in the middle of the road, and caught at the steering handle as it flashed by. My weight was light, and the General was heavy. I expected to have to hold hard, but what really happened was startling and unexpected, for the steering handle whirled straight round, struck me a severe blow on the arm, and—toppled me right over on to the foot of the chair! I sat down heavily on the General's feet, and the front wheel tore whirling streamers from the bottom of my skirt. The chair swayed, jerked, slackened its speed; two strong hands stretched out and checked it still further; a second pair of hands gripped hold, and brought it to a stand.
Now came the moment when I ought to have been acclaimed, and overwhelmed with grateful acknowledgments as an heroic rescuer, who had risked her own life to save a feeble and suffering old man; but not at all! Quite the contrary! No sooner was his flight safely stopped than the General turned and roared at me with furious voice:—
"You sat on my feet! You are sitting on my feet!—I, with the gout! Get up! Get up!"
Then he turned to Mr Maplestone, and roared at him:—
"What on earth did you mean by letting go?"
Then Mr Maplestone turned to the valet, and roared at him:—
"Why the dickens couldn't you come, instead of hanging about all day?"
Then they all turned on me, and chorused, "Get up! Get up!" and I tried to get up, and the caught streamers of my dress held me fast, and I sat down heavily again—plop, right on top of the poor gouty feet. The General roared more loudly than before, the two other men called out, "Oh, oh!" and I felt as if I should go into hysterics myself. It was a most lacerating scene.
Mr Maplestone took out his penknife and hacked at the ends of my skirt; the valet, who was the only calm and sensible one of the party, lifted me up, and supported me in his arms till I was set free. Then he let go suddenly, and I was so weak and giddy that I nearly fell down a third time. The General closed his eyes and emitted heart-rending groans, and the valet nipped hold of the handle of the chair and made for home as fast as he could go. I stood in the midst of my rags and tatters, and Mr Maplestone stood by my side.
"I hope you are not hurt."
"Oh, not at all!" I said bitterly. I was aching from head to foot. To judge from my sensations, my right arm was paralysed for life. In some mysterious way a wheel seemed to have passed over my feet, and my toes burned like fire. Perhaps they were broken—I could not tell. I had likewise several scrapes and a whole army of bruises, and the skirt of one of my nicest afternoon frocks was torn into ribbons. And not one word of thanks or appreciation. No wonder I was riled. "Oh, not at all. I like it! I am only sorry that I have contrived to hurt General Underwood. Perhaps you will kindly convey my apologies."
He looked at me critically. Aches don't show on the surface, and I expect I looked rather red than pale. The only visible signs of damage were the ends of muslin and lace which strewed the road. He looked at them and said solemnly:—
"Your dress is spoiled! I'm afraid it was partly my fault. I had to get you free, and it was not a moment for deliberation. I'm sorry!"
He really sounded sorry, and that smoothed me down. I murmured that it didn't matter—only a muslin dress—not his fault, while he went on staring fixedly. Then at last he spoke, and what he said gave me an electric shock of surprise.
"It's a good thing," he said, "it wasn't the one with the frills!"
The one with the frills! For a moment my mind was a whirling void; I was too stupefied to think. Then gradually it dawned upon me that he must be alluding to a dress the skirt of which was composed entirely of tiers of flounces. It was a new and favourite possession, and I also was glad that it was spared. But—why should Mr Maplestone—
I gaped at him, and said:—
And he said lucidly:—
"Well, there would have been more to catch, wouldn't there? Besides—" He flushed, and lapsed into silence. Evidently it was inadvisable to continue the subject.
I gathered together my jagged ends, and turned to walk homeward, rather wondering what was going to happen when I began to move. I found I could walk, however, which proved that no bones were broken; but it was a halting performance, and hurt more than I chose to show. If I limped too much, in common politeness Mr Maplestone would be obliged to offer help. I had a vision of Charmion's face if she looked out of the window and beheld us walking arm in arm up the drive!
"Why do you smile?" cried the voice by my side. There was positive offence in the tone, and, as I looked my amazement, he continued accusingly, "You always smile. Every time we meet. It must be an annoyance to stumble against me wherever you go. Yet you smile! And to-day you are hurt, and you still smile!"
"I smile at my thoughts," I said grandiloquently. "And you are wrong, Mr Maplestone. It doesn't annoy me at all. Why should it? You are as free to walk about as I am. I have no right to complain. And my conscience is clear! I have done nothing of which I have reason to be ashamed."
"You mean," he cried, "you mean that?—"
Then his voice broke off sharply, and his forehead wrinkled in dismay. "What's that? That mark on your arm. Blood?"
He pointed. I looked, and sure enough a dull red patch was spreading over the muslin sleeve of my dress. The blow had evidently cut the skin, and this was the result. I felt dreadfully sorry for myself, and rather faint, and altogether considerably worse than I had done before, as a result of beholding these visible signs of injury. So, I was content to see, did Mr Maplestone himself. He really looked horribly worried and distressed, and kept glancing at me with anxious eyes, as if every moment he expected me to collapse.
But he never offered his arm! He came with me as far as the gate, and then held out his hand in farewell. It would have been churlish to refuse, so I put my own hand in his just for a moment.
"Don't shake it, please," I said. "It hurts." And then, because it did seem such an odd thing to say, I smiled again, a feeble watery smile.
He dropped my hand like a hot coal, and fled.
I limped into the house and told Charmion all about it, and cried quarts. I was mottled all over, black and blue.
MRS MERRIVALE CONFESSES.
Next morning a groom came over with kind inquiries from the Hall. Mr and Mrs Maplestone were anxious to hear if Miss Wastneys had recovered from the shock of yesterday. Miss Wastneys returned thanks for kind inquiries. She was suffering a good deal of pain, but her injuries were not serious.
Recovered, indeed! When I was a mass of bruises and aches, to say nothing of jumpy nerves. I was not inclined to make light of my injuries to Mr Robert Maplestone.
Later on the General's valet made his appearance.
"General Underwood was anxious to hear how Miss Wastneys was this morning. He was distressed to hear that she had been hurt."
That was more tactful! Moreover, on receiving the bulletin, the man informed our maid that the old gentleman was rarely upset because he had been rude to the young lady. As soon as he was able he was coming in person to apologise.
Charmion listened quietly to the repetition of this announcement. When the maid left the room, she turned to me as I lay on the sofa, being very sorry for myself, and lifted inquiring brows.
"Well, Evelyn. You know what this means?"
I did, or thought I did, but prevaricated, feeling self-conscious.
"You have cut the knot with your heroic rescue! The Squire will call; the General will call; the neighbouring sheep will follow in their train. We shall be graciously 'forgiven' and admitted into the fold. Our quiet, sent-to-Coventry existence is at an end."
I looked at her anxiously. From voice and manner it was impossible to tell what she was really feeling. Above all things I wanted to please her. But still—
"Are you sorry, Charmion? Would you be sorry? I suppose they will come, but there is no necessity to receive them, if you would rather not. After ignoring us so long, they could not complain. I will leave it to you to decide."
"Then they shall come," she said firmly. "You've been a brick about it, dear, but I'm not blind. I know that it has been a trial for you to be cut off from general society. You are a sociable creature, and need friends around you. We have had a happy tete-a-tete, and I've enjoyed it thoroughly, but it couldn't go on. I should not have allowed it to go on. I am a selfish woman in many ways, but not selfish enough to make a hermit of you at twenty-six. So!—let them all come. In any case, we shall probably be making a move before very long, so we can't be drawn very deeply into the rustic maelstrom!"
"We shall be making a move."
The words gave me a jar. My "Kensington" flat is now in order, and ready to receive my furniture whenever I care to send it in. I am still in love with the Pixie scheme; but, while summer lasts, and the garden grows more beautiful every day, I want to stay here! In my own mind I had settled down till September at least. I had believed that Charmion was as happy as myself, but now the old restlessness sounded in her voice. I looked at her, and saw her eyes staring wearily into space. Oh dear, oh dear, the narcotic of the new life is already losing its power; the grim spectre of the past is casting its shadow between us!
They have called! This afternoon, when we were having tea in the garden, General Underwood's bath-chair appeared suddenly on the scene. First came a crunching of gravel, and when we turned our heads to discover the cause, the front wheel was already turning the corner of the path, and the next moment there was the General smiling benevolently upon us, the valet pushing the handle, and walking by his side the Squire himself, very red in the face and puckered about the brow, exactly like a naughty boy who is being dragged forward to say he is "sorry."
Fortunately there was no time to consider the situation. We shook hands, and found a chair for Mr Maplestone, and ordered more tea, and discussed the weather in its various branches, all with the utmost propriety, until gradually the ice thawed. Charmion is a gracious hostess, and the General is as genial and simple in manner as most men who have spent their lives "east of the Suez". After five minutes in his society one understands why he is the idol of the neighbourhood. He looks ill, poor dear, but his blue eyes are still clear and alert, and he twinkles them at you in such a shrewd, kindly fashion.
Not a word did he say about the accident until tea was half over and I handed him some cake, when he looked full at me, and asked slyly:—
"How is the poor arm?"
"Progressing beautifully, thank you. And—the poor feet?"
"Ah," he said eloquently, "that was a moment! I am ashamed of my ingratitude; but, my dear young lady, if you could have felt—"
"I know," I said humbly. "Eight stone six. But I had no choice; and at the worst, it was not so bad as being spilt into the road."
"Indeed, yes. I am under the impression that I owe you a great deal. It is difficult to express—"
"Please don't!" I said hastily. "I could hardly have done less, but I could very easily have done it in a less clumsy way; and—it's so embarrassing to be thanked! Let us talk of something else. Would you care to see our garden? We have worked very hard at it all spring, and are so proud of our effects. We love showing people round!"
Then I suddenly remembered and blushed, and glanced guiltily at the Squire, to discover that he was doing exactly the same at me, and we all three got up in a hurry, and disputed who should push the bath-chair. The Squire did it, of course, and Charmion and I walked one on each side and played show-women, and the dear old man admired everything he saw, and asked for seeds in the autumn, and offered us seeds in return, and did everything nice and polite that nice polite people do do on garden visits.
As for the Squire, he kept on saying nothing.
Our tour ended at the gate, and when we said our final good-byes, General Underwood explained he was not up to calling, as he was often unable to go out, but that at any time, if we could spare half an hour to visit him, it would be doing a kindness to a lonely old man. "And will you allow me to wish you much happiness and prosperity in your beautiful home?"
Charmion thanked him with serene unconsciousness, and the Squire and I stared elaborately into space, so elaborately that on parting we made two separate dives before we succeeded in finding each other's hands. Then the valet came forward, and the little procession turned out of the gate.
"Charmion," I said solemnly, "I feel a worm. That dear, heroic old man! I wish we had let him have 'Pastimes' ten times over."
"Mistaken heroism, my dear. He can be still more heroic at 'Uplands'."
"Er—what do you think of—the other one?"
"Er—honestly, Evelyn, I don't think of him at all!"
Mrs Maplestone has called, and the three or four other county magnates, none of them particularly interesting from our point of view. We are now formally and definitely "received," and the first result has been a violent increase of intimacy on the part of the Vicar's wife. I think she has always "hankered" to know us, but not having enough individuality to act for herself, she has waited for a lead before taking the plunge.
Now it appears that she is organising a garden fete and wants us to help. It is her own idea, and she says it is for the organ fund. I don't want to be uncharitable, but I think it is equally designed for the amusement and diversion of Delphine Merrivale! I am uneasy about that girl. Nature never designed her for a clergyman's wife; she is restless and bored, while that dear, good, fine man, who loves her so much, is as blind as a bat, and believes that all is well. To-day she sent for me to come to tea, and he came into the room while she was volubly discussing various plans, which struck me as likely to cost more money than they were ever likely to gain. When he appeared she gave a little shrug of impatience, and for a few moments lapsed into silence, but her self-control being soon exhausted, she took up her tale and babbled on as enthusiastically as before.
It appears that every summer a "Sale" is held in the vicarage garden to dispose of the articles manufactured by the "Working Party" throughout the winter session. They consist of serviceable garments for the poor, which are eagerly purchased by the members of the Needlework Guild, and also of a selection of "fancy" articles which nobody wants, such as brush and comb bags of pink and white crochet, shaving paper cases with embroidered backs (first catch the man who uses them!) and handkerchief sachets of white satin, on which are painted (badly) sprays of wild roses and maidenhair fern!
The parish has always meekly assembled itself together for the fray, paid threepence for a plain tea, and departed peacefully on its way; but this year—this year, there is to be a band, and a man to cut out silhouettes, and ices, and strawberries and cream, and quite a variety of excitements.
"A treasure hunt for one, at an entrance fee of a shilling a head. The treasures to be supplied as voluntary offerings by the ladies of the neighbourhood."
Mrs Merrivale paused and cocked an interrogative eye at me, and her husband said gently:—
"Dear, aren't you too ambitious? Our ordinary quiet sale has done very well until now. Why land yourself with a great deal of extra work and fatigue, to say nothing of expense, for an altogether problematical result!"
"Oh, Jacky," she cried deeply. "It is not problematical. We shall make pounds and pounds. I don't mind the work. I like it. Think how lovely it would be if we could clear off the whole debt!"
He smiled at her with the tenderest appreciation. Oh, if any man looked at me like that, I would work my fingers to the bone to help him. Honestly and truly, he believed that she was bracing herself to the fray out of the purest, most disinterested motives. Never for one moment did it occur to him that a grown woman could hanker after such ploys for her own amusement. There is much in his unconsciousness which is beautiful, but—there is danger, too! Surely, surely when two people live together in such a terribly close relationship as husband and wife, before all things it must be necessary to understand!
"Then I leave it to you, dearest," he said. "Arrange as you think best. And now, if Miss Wastneys will excuse me, I must say good-bye. Poor Mrs Evans is worse this afternoon. They fear that an operation may be necessary. She has had terrible pain."
Mrs Merrivale threw out her hand impulsively. I was amazed to see that she had grown quite white.
"Don't, Jacky—don't! You know I can't bear it. Why will you speak of such things when I have begged you not?"
"I'm sorry, darling. I forgot. My mind was so engrossed." He laid his hand on her shoulder as he passed, and said to me, in an apologetic voice, "This poor child is so sensitive. The pain of the world wounds her tender heart. I am inconsiderate in bringing my burdens to her."
The door shut behind him, and we stared at one another for a long tense moment. I knew, and she knew that I knew, and suddenly the long strain of pretending to be what she was not reached the snapping point, and she spoke out in a burst of impotent irritation:—
"It's not true! I'm not tender-hearted. They don't wound me at all, all these sordid miserable details; they just irritate and disgust and asphyxiate. Oh, I'm so tired of it all—so tired—and he doesn't see, doesn't understand! He puts me on a pedestal, and burns incense at my feet, and believes that I am as interested as himself, and all the time—all the time I am smothered with boredom and impatience. I don't know why I am saying all this to you. Yes, I do. I saw in your eyes that you saw through me, and knew what I really felt. Now I suppose you are horribly shocked?"
"Not a bit. I don't understand enough to judge you one way or another; but I wish, as you have begun, you would tell me a little more. I'm young myself, you see, so I should probably understand. Lots of people tell me their secrets, and I'm always sorry, and very rarely shocked. We all have our own faults. Why should we be so very hard on other people because theirs are a different brand from our own?"
She stared at me with her big blue eyes.
"What are your faults?"
"Well," I laughed, "the list would take a long time! Shall we leave it for another day? What I want to know now is, why, with your temperament, did you come to marry a country parson?"
"Because I loved him, of course," came the ready reply. "He came to take duty in our church while our own clergyman was ill, and he stayed in our house. He was so much older than I—fifteen years—that I never thought of him—like that! I just thought he was a dear, and liked to talk to him, and show him about the garden, and get him to help me in little odd ways. He was so learned and serious and staid that all the others were in awe of him, but I ordered him about, and made him wait on me, and teased him because he did it so badly. It was such fun! I enjoyed myself frightfully. Mother read me a long lecture one night, and said Mr Merrivale would be pained to see father's daughter was such a frivolous girl. But he wasn't. He fell in love with me instead. Doesn't that seem queer?"
I didn't think it was queer at all. Imagination conjured up scenes in the summer garden where the gay pretty girl had held her little court, and queened it over the grave, silent man. It was a thousand to one on his falling under the spell. The mischief of it was that he had expected the marriage ceremony to convert a butterfly into a staid, parochial wife. John Courtney Merrivale had a thousand virtues, but imagination was not his strong point.
"I think it was extremely natural. Just what I should have expected to happen. You are very pretty, you know, and I expect you made a charming task-mistress. And, of course, any sane girl must have been interested in him. But—what did you think about the life in this little place?"
"Oh! I didn't think about it at all," she said calmly. "I was so happy, and—excited. And so busy getting my clothes, and the presents, and arranging for the wedding. I had a lovely wedding. Eight bridesmaids carrying rose-staves. And Jacky took me to Switzerland for the honeymoon, and was so young and gay himself. Like a boy. I had a perfectly glorious three months, and then—"
She paused, and the pink and white face puckered into a grimace as she cast an expressive glance to right and left.
"We came home! That was the first shock, seeing all this dingy, hideous furniture, and realising that it had to stay. Jacky likes it because it belonged to his mother, and he thinks it would be wicked waste to sell it for nothing, and buy new. I tried to brighten things up, but—if you look round this room you will realise that a few new things made the effect worse! I gave it up in despair, and all my pretty cushions and embroideries, and pictures and ornaments are hidden away in boxes in the attic."
"Oh, that's hard! You have my unbounded sympathy. I should hate to live in uncongenial surroundings. Isn't there any room in the house you could have for your own, and furnish just exactly as you like?"
"All the rooms are full. I've given up trying to change things now, but they irritate me all the same. When I've been out all the day at meetings and guilds, it would be a rest to come home to a pretty room. I look at those maroon curtains, and this hideous patterny carpet, and feel all nervy and on edge; then Jacky thinks I am tired, and brings me hot milk." She opened her speedwell blue eyes to their fullest width, and stared at me dolefully. "Oh, Miss Wastneys, it is so strenuous to have to live up to an ideal!"
"It would be still more strenuous to—fall short," I said curtly, and she gave a start of dismay.
"Oh, goodness, yes! Anything rather than that! I wouldn't for the world have Jacky find me out."
I felt like an aged grandam admonishing a silly child. Of course in the long run he was bound to find out, for Delphine's discontent was obviously increasing, and the hour was at hand when her self-control would come to a sudden and violent end. Then there would be hasty words and recriminations, the memory of which no after remorse could wipe away. I was sure of it, and said so plainly, qualifying my prophecy with a big "unless."
"Unless you can make up your mind to be honest now, and tell your husband the whole truth. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being young and needing variety in life. Tell him frankly that too much parish gets on your nerves, and that you could do your work better if you went away for a few weeks every three or four months. There must be friends whom you could visit, and who would be glad to have you. After a change of scene and occupation you would come home braced and refreshed, and ready to make a fresh start. And you might speak about the room at the same time. You need not suggest selling any furniture, but just storing some of it away in an attic or cellar, so that you could have a little boudoir of your own. Do be sensible, and tell him to-night. He loves you. He wants you to be happy. He would understand."
She shook her head.
"No. He would be kind and patient. He would agree at once, and never say a word of reproach, but—he wouldn't understand. That's just it. His whole idea of me would be shocked out of existence. He would be disappointed to the bottom of his soul. I—I can't do it, Miss Wastneys; but it's been a relief to grumble to you. Thank you for letting me do it. Things have been just a little better since you and Mrs Fane came to 'Pastimes'. I haven't seen much of you, of course, but I have enjoyed watching you. You wear such lovely clothes, and you are young and interesting. Most of the people are so dull and settled down. I wish you would call me 'Delphine,' and come to see me as often as you can. Just run in any time you are passing, and let me come to you in the same way. I've been so bored. Well, never mind," she brightened suddenly; "the fete will be a little excitement. I am looking forward to that."
An idea flashed into my head. I was sorry for the girl, and intensely, forebodingly sorry for her husband. If one could help to avert the threatened tragedy.
"I am just wondering," I began tentatively. "Of course I can make no definite offer without consulting Mrs Fane, but—would you like it if we lent our grounds for the fete? The extra space might be an advantage, and we could save you trouble by arranging for the tents and refreshments, and perhaps organise some little stall on our own account."
I really thought that might save a good deal of expense, and so add to the profit of the afternoon, and also that with our wider experience we might run the fete on more advanced lines, and so give her, as well as the rest of the parish, a more amusing time; but to my disappointment she flushed, and looked far from pleased.
"Oh, thanks, but—really, this is my affair! If I have all the duty and responsibility of being the Vicar's wife, I don't see why I should give up the fun of being hostess and arranging my own fete in my own way. It's very sweet of you, of course, and I'm very grateful. I hope you won't be offended."
I began to laugh.
"Offended! Why—Delphine, I was thinking entirely of you. I'm immensely relieved, if you want the real truth. That's settled then, and we'll give you some treasures for the Hunt. What would you like? Make up an appropriate list and send it along. Anything you like, up to—say five pounds!"
"Oh, you angel! Will you really?" she cried ecstatically. I had risen this time, and she slid her hand through my arm, and accompanied me to the door. Seen close at hand, her face looked almost child-like in its clear soft tints. I noticed also that her blouse was very fine and delicate, a very different thing from the cheap lace fineries which she had worn when I first saw her. She followed the direction of my eye, stroked down an upstarting frill, and coloured furiously. "Ah, my blouse! Do you admire it? I wrote to town for it, to your dressmaker, and I've ordered a lovely frock. You'll see. For once in my life I shall be really well dressed! Seeing you and Mrs Fane has made me discontented with my dowdy old rags!"
THE GARDEN FETE.
The garden fete came off yesterday, and on the surface was a roaring success. The weather was ideal; the vicarage garden proved all that was necessary in the way of a background, and the arrangements were so extraordinarily complete that my practical mind was constantly confronted with the question, "Won't this cost far more than it gains?" In a big city a charity entertainment may throw out expensive baits with a fair chance of catching a shoal of fat and unwary fish; but in a small village the catch can be calculated to a sou. The big fish of the neighbourhood will heave a sigh of duteous resignation, put a five-pound note in the purse, and start for the fray prepared to spend it all, but not one penny more! The smaller fry carry out the same policy with ten or fifteen shillings. The minnows take half-a-crown, with which they pay for tea, and purchase soap at the provision stall, reporting to their husbands at night that, after all, the money was not wasted. The Vicar might just as well have it as the grocer. All the attractions in the world cannot worm shillings out of a public which is so prudent and canny that it has self-guarded itself by leaving its cash at home!
Many times over yesterday afternoon I saw the flicker of longing in feminine eyes as they gazed upon the tempting novelties displayed upon the stalls, but the next moment the lips would screw, the feet pass by. Guild garments must be bought; tea paid for; tickets bought for the novel Treasure Hunt, wherein—with luck!—one might actually gain by the outlay. The visitors lingered to gaze at the pretty china, and glass, and embroideries with which Delphine had filled her stall; but the afternoon wore on, and it looked as full as ever—horribly full! There were none of those bare, blank spaces which stall-holders love to see. At five o'clock we marked off the odd sixpences; at six o'clock we dropped a whole shilling, but still—hardly a sale!
Delphine looked—a vision! At the first glimpse of her in her cobweb fineries, I was ill-bred enough to gape, whereat she blushed and said hurriedly:—
"Your dressmaker! Yes! Isn't it a duck?"
And knowing the prices which Celeste charges for ducks with such feathers, I wondered, and—feared! Did the Vicar know? Was it possible that with his small stipend he could afford such extravagances? Had the silly little thing ordered, and never asked? Was it my fault for having given the address? Could I have helped doing so, when I was asked? I had said she was expensive. It was some small comfort to remember that, and Charmion would say it was no concern of mine. A dozen such disconcerting thoughts raced through my mind, but I shook them off, and said heartily:—
"It is lovely! You are lovely! I had no idea you were such a beauty. What does your husband say?"
Her face clouded.
"Nothing. Doesn't notice. Likes me as much in an old print. But I—love it! Oh, you don't know what bliss it is to feel 'finished off'. Everything new, good, pretty, and to match!" She gave a rapid swirling movement of the hand to call my attention to such details as shoes and stockings, embroidered bag, and glorified garden hat. "It's nothing to you. You have had them all your life, but I have only longed and—starved!"
She spoke with a passionate emphasis, which to many people would seem out of all keeping with the subject; but I am young, and a girl, so I understood. There are many empty-headed women in whom the craving for pretty things is as strong as the masculine craving for drink and cards. Circumstances have compelled these women to wear the plainest, most useful of clothes, while every shop window shows a tantalising display of colour and beauty, and other women not half so pretty as themselves bloom with a borrowed radiance!
No mere man can understand the inborn feminine joy in the feel of fine smooth fabric, nor the blending of delicate colours, the dainty ruffling of lace. To the rich these things come as a matter of course, and the working classes are satisfied with garish imitations; it is the poor gentlewoman with the cultivated taste, the cultivated longing for beauty, to whom temptation comes in its keenest form. It had come to Delphine, and she had succumbed. I devoutly hoped and prayed that the shock of the coming bill would prevent further extravagances!
Charmion and I took charge of the Treasure Hunt. We had given the treasures, which were laboriously chosen with a view to suitability. Umbrellas (lashed flat to the trunks of trees!) bags, photograph frames, writing cases, boxes of handkerchiefs, chocolate, cigarettes, scent, and—this was a cunning idea!—cash orders on a big London store.
There was a great rush for tickets, and the Vicar—very flurried, and out of his element, poor man!—dragged in the Squire to help us. The Squire had arrived with his mother an hour before, and had sat under a cedar, drinking tea with a selection of old ladies and gentlemen, looking as though he liked it quite well. Whenever he met my eye, he glowered, as if to say, "How dare you look at me!" and I smiled back, as that seemed to annoy him most. Now, as the Vicar brought him up, I could hear his muttered protests: "Rather not! Can't you—isn't there something else?" Pleasing thing, I must say, to have a man forced to help you against his will!
Well, it was no use making a fuss before a score of curious eyes, so for the next half-hour we stood side by side, selling tickets, explaining the rules of the Hunt, marshalling the seekers in readiness for the signal to start. He is capable enough, I will say that for him, and has a patent knack of silencing garrulous questioners. It was the funniest thing in the world to stand at the end of the lawn, and watch these rustic backs—young, old, and fat middle-aged—all poised on one leg, swaying to and fro, straining to be off! Excruciatingly funny to watch the stampede, after the loud "One—two—three—and away!" The plunges, the waddles, the skelter of flying heels! One might have thought the gold of Klondyke was hidden in the kitchen garden. I laughed, and laughed, in a good old Irish paroxysm of merriment, until the tears rolled down my cheeks. Mr Maplestone stared, turned on his heel, and stalked away.
I strolled back to the upper lawn, and the first person I saw was old General Underwood sitting in his bath-chair, which had been drawn under the shade of a tree, so that he might see everything, and yet be well out of the way. He was too much out of the way, poor old dear! to judge by his looks, and agreeably pleased to see my approach.
"Well, young lady, and how are you to-day? You look very fresh and charming!"
"That's very nice of you, General! I do like to be admired. Isn't this rather a dull corner for you? Wouldn't you like to be moved?"
He looked around with his old, blue eyes.
"Everyone seems to have gone. There was quite a crowd here a few minutes ago. I sent my man to the village to post some letters."
"We can manage without him. There is a Treasure Hunt going on at the other end of the garden. That is why this part is so empty. Mrs Merrivale has hidden a lot of parcels among the trees and shrubs, and everyone who pays a shilling can go and search for a treasure."
"Ha!" His face lit up with the hunting instinct, which seems dormant in us all. "Treasures—I see! A good idea. Worth more, I presume, than the entrance shilling?"
"Oh, much, much more." The pride of the donor sounded in my voice; then I looked at the poor, old, tired, wistful face, and had a brilliant idea. "General, shall we go hunting—you and I? I'll push and you'll steer, and we'll both look, and if it's a man's present, it's yours, and if it's a woman's, it's mine, and if it's neutral, we'll toss! They've only just started, so we're in time."
He gripped the handle involuntarily, then loosened it to say:—
"My dear, I'm too heavy. Wait till my man—"
"Nonsense! I'm as strong as a horse. Who waits is lost. To the right, please, General. Straight down this path, and into the herbaceous garden. Quite slowly, and keep a sharp eye between the branches."
He quite chuckled with delight. Viewed from the vantage ground of a bath-chair, a Treasure Hunt was delirious excitement, but he was heavy! I remembered a sharp upward curve some way further on, and had a vision of myself pushing, with arms extended to full length, and feet at a considerable distance between the arms, as I have seen small nursemaids push pram-loads of fat twins. How undignified it would be if I slipped half-way, and the chair backed over my prone body! Then, of course, the thing happened which I might have been sure and certain would happen under the circumstances. We came face to face with Mr Maplestone, and the General called out:—
"Hi, Ralph! There you are. Just the man we want. Miss Wastneys and I are hunting. Come and give a hand."
"Oh, if you have the Squire, you won't need me. I'll go off on my own," I cried quickly; but it was no use, the old man wanted both, and both he would have. The Squire was to push behind; I was to take the handle and pull in front; he himself must be free to hunt, since he was handicapped by old eyes. He issued orders with the assurance of a Commander-in-Chief, and we listened and obeyed.
I started by feeling annoyed and impatient, but honestly, after the first few minutes, it was great fun. The Squire was an abominable pusher; first he pushed too little and left all the work to me; and then, being upbraided, he pushed too hard and tilted me into a run; then we changed places, and he took the wrong turnings, wheeled past plain grass beds where nothing could possibly be hidden; then we both took the back, and the General peered from side to side, and saw nothing, and grew discouraged, and sighed, and said his luck had gone. No treasures for him any more!
I will say for Ralph Maplestone that he is sweet to that old man! He treats him just in the right way, as deferentially as though he were in full health and strength, a martial figure riding gloriously to conquest! We cheered him up between us (I did it rather nicely, too!) and became quite friendly in the process. Two people can't join in pushing a bath-chair and remain de haut en bas. The thing is impossible. I was most nice to Ralph Maplestone, and he appeared to be nice to me.
Suddenly, in the middle of a bush, I saw a glint of brighter green, the tissue-paper wrapping of a treasure, and instantly my fingers gripped the chair. Mr Maplestone would have pushed on, but I frowned and grimaced, and he looked and saw too, and we both puffed and panted, and demanded a rest, during which I stood elaborately at one side of the bush, and he stood at the other, so that the old dear could hardly miss seeing the paper.
Even then I had to give, it a surreptitious push before discovery came; but he had no suspicions, not one, and was as pleased as a boy at the thought that his old eyes had been sharper than our young ones. We all took a turn at opening the parcel, and it turned out to be a vanity bag, fitted with a mirror and other frivolities, so of course it was presented to me, and I arranged my hair in the mirror, and powdered my nose with the puff, just to shock them, which, by the way, it fully succeeded in doing.
"Girls didn't do that in my day!" croaked the General.
"All girls don't do it now!" grunted the Squire.
"My dear, you look far nicer without it." This was the General's second venture. I turned to the Squire and asked solemnly, "Do I?" and he gave one quick look, and then stared past me—through me—blankly into space.
"I am no judge," he said curtly.
Well, let me be honest! It was flirtatious of me, I knew it was, and hurried to rub off the powder, and get back to my briskest, most business-like manner. As we had paid three entrance fees, we were entitled to a treasure apiece, if we could find them, and I insisted upon keeping up the search to the very last moment. It amused the General; it amused me; I honestly believe that it amused Mr Maplestone, as far as he was capable of being amused. He was quite human; once or twice, as we rushed after a "scent," he was even lively. I began to think he might really be quite nice.
We found one other parcel—a box of cigarettes—and then made our way back to the lawn, where the General's valet was waiting, and took over the chair. Delphine came up to me and slipped her hand through my arm.
"Evelyn, you have managed beautifully, but you must be dead tired and longing for tea. I'm going to stand over you and make you rest. Stupid of Jacky to send the Squire to help you! You'd have been happier with anyone else, but he's so dense, so in the clouds, that he doesn't notice these things. Evelyn, isn't it strange how he dislikes you?"
"Who? Your husband?"
"Nonsense. No. You know quite well—Mr Maplestone. At first, of course, one can understand he was prejudiced; but now! And when you have been so nice!"
"Thank you for that. I'm glad you appreciate me. Why are you so sure the Squire does not?"
"Because," she said imperturbably, "he tells me so!"
Curiosity is a terrible thing. It's bad enough when it concerns itself about other people, but when it comes to oneself, it's ten times worse. I ached to ask, "When?" and "Where?" and "How?" and exactly in what words Mr Maplestone's dislike had been expressed, but pride closed my lips, and I would not let myself go. Of course I had known before, but I had imagined that after the chair episode—What stings is not the dislike itself, but the putting it into words to such a confidante as Delphine. No, let me be honest; the dislike itself does sting. I have my own petty feminine craving, and it is to be liked, to have people appreciate and approve of me, if they do nothing more. Even indifference is difficult to bear, but dislike—Well, thank goodness, I have lived in a warm-hearted country among warm-hearted people who have loved me for my name if for nothing else. Really and truly, I believe this ugly, red-headed man is the first person who has ever dared to speak openly of dislike for Evelyn Wastneys!
I pity and despise him. I wouldn't have his approval if I could. Henceforth I shall never think of him, nor mention his name. To me he is dead. All is over between us before anything ever began! It is finished. This is the end. The fete ended at nine o'clock, and Charmion and I, with the other stall-holders, went into the vicarage to enjoy a supper of scraps. As a rule I adore scrap suppers after everyone has gone, and the servants have gone to bed, and the guests make sorties into the pantry, and bring out plates of patties and fruit, and derelict meringues, and wobbling halves of jellies and creams. They taste so good, eaten in picnic fashion before the fire, with a shortage of forks and spoons, and a plate as a lucky chance. But somehow last night things didn't go! I think perhaps there were too many "scraps" which should by rights have been sold and paid for in good hard cash. The Vicar was full of hospitable zeal, and evidently enjoyed pressing the good things upon his guests, but there was something in Delphine's pale glance which checked merriment. She had had her fun, the interest of planning, the excitement of playing hostess to the country-side, the satisfaction of knowing herself to be the best-dressed, most admired woman present, and of queening it over women who had hitherto patronised herself. Poor little butterfly! she had enjoyed her hour, but now the sun had gone down, and she was counting the cost. The treasurer added up the coins handed in from the various stalls and announced the total. There was a little pause.
"Ah!" said the Vicar slowly. "More than last year, but not so much as we hoped. How will it work out, dear, after paying expenses?"
"Oh, Jacky, I'm tired! Can't we have supper in peace, before worrying about money!" she cried pettishly.
Not another word was said.
When we were driving home, Charmion gave me a shock.
"I rather like Mrs Maplestone," she said dreamily. "She is stiff and conventional, and it has never even occurred to her that anyone can disagree with her views, and still have a glimmering of right, but, at least, she is sincere. If one could burrow deep enough beneath the surface, she'd be worth knowing."
"I don't like people who have to be burrowed. Life is too short. And I am perfectly certain that I should shock her into fits. Personally, I don't intend to take the trouble of excavating!"
"That's unfortunate, for she wishes to know you. She has invited us to dinner next Wednesday to meet some friends."
"Charmion! You didn't accept?"
"Certainly I did. Wasn't it your express desire to be sociable, and to know your neighbours?"
"Oh, not them—not there! It's pleasant knowing a few people, but one is at liberty to choose. I think you might have consulted me!"
In the soft dusk she laughed, and stretched out a caressing hand.
"Tired, dear, and—cross? I thought you'd be pleased. Why and wherefore? Tell me the truth?"
"Oh, don't be so tiresome, Charmion. Of course I am tired. I've been on my feet all day long. Cross! Why should I be cross? Only—I don't choose to accept hospitality from that man. I tell you plainly I won't go."
She bowed her head, deliberately, once and again.
"Oh, yes, Evelyn, you will! I gave you your choice, and having made it you will play fair. I should have preferred to remain peacefully at Coventry, but having taken the first step at your request, I don't propose to allow you to force me into society alone."
What could I say? What was it possible to say? There is no way out of it. I shall just have to go!
The Vicar has called to tell us that Delphine has made up her accounts, and that the fete has cleared fifty pounds more than the smaller affair last year. He seemed pleased and proud, and I was delighted, too, and immensely relieved, because I had really been horribly afraid there would be no profit at all! Curious to think where all the money came from to pay heavy expenses, and still clear so much! It just shows how small sums add up. I asked if Delphine were very pleased, and he hesitated, and said:—