"Not a sound out of her since you left! Poor thing! First chance of a bit of peace and quietness she's had for many a long day."
"Well, Mary, you and I are going to give her plenty more!" I said graciously, and Mary made me a slice of buttered toast on the spot to seal the partnership.
Tea was over when the door opened, and a sleepy, flushed face peeped round the door to look at the clock. When she saw the hands pointing to five, she looked as guilty as if she had robbed the bank.
Oh, it's a glorious thing to be able to help other people! It gives one a warm, glowey feeling about the heart which comes in no other way. These last days I have just lived for the moment when I could tuck that poor little woman in her cosy bed, and the other moment when I saw her rested, freshened face on rising. Even at the end of one week she looked a different creature, and felt it too.
"Actually, dear Miss Harding, I begin to feel as if I—I should like a new hat!" she said to me one day over tea. "Do you know the feeling? I think it is the best sign of convalescence a woman could have. For months, almost for years, I have not cared what I wore. Something to cover my head—that was all that was needed. To be always tired— deadly, hopelessly tired—takes the spirit out of one."
"No one should go on being too tired. It's very wrong to allow it."
She looked at me; a long look, affectionate, grateful, reproachfully amused.
"My dear, you live alone, and you have two maids. Evidently—excuse me—you have a comfortable income. My husband's business has been steadily falling off for the last two years. It is not his fault; he works like a horse; no man could have done more, but circumstances have been against him. We keep one maid, who washes, bakes, and cooks, while I tend the babies, make their clothes and my own, knit, and mend, and patch, and darn, take the children out, bathe them, put them to bed, attend to them through the night, do the housekeeping by day, and struggle over the bills when they are in bed. Bobby is three years and a half old, and has had bronchitis and measles. Baby is eleven months, and cuts her teeth with croup. Between them came the little one who died. And then you sit there and tell me I ought not to be tired!"
"I beg your pardon. I'm sorry. I spoke without thinking. You are quite right—I know nothing about it. People who preach to others very often don't. Forgive me!"
"Don't be so penitent! It is really almost a relief to meet a woman who doesn't understand. All my friends are in pretty much the same case as myself, and they haven't got"—she stretched out her hand and timidly patted my arm—"my kind neighbour to help. Miss Harding, I think you must have been a fascinating girl!"
"Oh, I was!" I said warmly, and then made haste to change the conversation. "What about that hat? I'm quite a good amateur milliner. Look out your oddments and let me see what I can do."
NEIGHBOURS—AND REAL WORK.
The fame of me has gone abroad. I have been observed taking the Manners' infants in and out, and the result has been a simultaneous increase of interest, and—loss of prestige. Number 22, like Mrs Manners, pushes her own "pram," but there the resemblance ends. She is a healthy, full-blown young woman, smartly—and unsuitably—attired in the very latest fashion of Kensington High Street. She wears large artificial pearls round her neck, and wafts a strong odour of lily of the valley perfume. Never for the fraction of a second did it occur to me to offer to relieve her of any of her duties; but she cast a pale-blue eye at me, and wove her own little schemes. One afternoon, as I was tucking the coverings round Baby Margaret's feet, she came up to my side, and said in an exceedingly casual manner:—
"Oh, good afternoon. You are Miss Harding? I was just wondering—have you any engagement for the mornings?"
I looked at her calmly, and said I had. Several! Most householders had. She jerked her head, and said impatiently:—
"I didn't mean that. You take Mrs Manners' children out, I see. I might be glad of a little help myself. It's such a bore pram-pushing every day. How much do you charge?"
It is difficult to look haughty through blue spectacles, and while I was trying, it occurred to me that it was a waste of time. It was a plain business question. She did not mean to be insulting, so I smiled instead—rather feebly, I confess—and said:—
"I don't charge. Mrs Manners is not well. It is a pleasure to me to take charge of the children, so that she may have a little rest."
She "begged pardon" hastily, and with repetition, staring the while with incredulous eyes. Quite evidently she considered me a benevolent lunatic, and marked me down as a useful prey. I might not be willing to push her pram, but—The very next evening a small servant knocked at the door with Mrs Lorrimer's compliments, and could Miss Harding lend her a fresh egg? (Her name is Lorrimer, and the children are called Claudia, Moreen, and Eric, and look it.) A fortnight has passed since that encounter, and the tale of her indebtedness to me is now as follows:—
A cup of sugar.
"A bit of butter, as we're run out."
A box of matches and a candle.
"One scuttle of nice cobbles, please. We have only slack left."
"Just a pinch or two of tea, as we forgot to order over Sunday."
Bridget opines that it will go from bad to worse, and recommends putting a foot down. Gossip from the "Well" has it that if you "give in to them, they'll take the very dinner off the table". When it comes to that point, I shall certainly stamp hard; but in the meantime I let things slide. I suspect Mrs Lorrimer of being too much engrossed in herself to trouble about such a detail as providing meals for her spouse. Without my aid he would probably have eaten his pancakes without any lemons, and feasted on dry bread by a smouldering fire. I like myself in the role of an unknown benefactor!
Number 19, who lives directly overhead, does not borrow my food or hire my services, but she does something far worse. Whenever I dare to poke a fire, or play on the piano, or shut a window, or let a door bang, as any ordinary domestic door is bound to bang in the course of a windy day, rap, rap, rap comes a premonitory knocking on the floor, as if to say, "Inconsiderate and selfish worm! How dare you attend to your own comfort at the expense of your neighbours overhead? Have the goodness to be quiet at once!" It's awfully unfair, because when they stoke their anthracite stoves, or throw their boots on the floor at 1 a.m. over my sleeping head, I could only retaliate by climbing to the top of my wardrobe, and knocking the whitewash off my own ceiling. Such are the ironies of life for the tenants of basement flats.
Besides the shoe-dropping, I am often kept awake at night by the sound of angry voices. I sadly fear that Mr and Mrs 19 do not live together in the peace and harmony which could be desired. Subjects of dissension seem generally to arise about 10 p.m., and thereafter deep masculine growls and shrill feminine yaps alternate until the small hours. On these occasions I make up my mind never, never to marry. Especially a bad-tempered man. Especially one bad-tempered man! But, of course, that question was settled long ago.
Hurrah! I am getting on. A most exciting thing has happened. The Manners know Mr Thorold, and last night, when I was sitting with then after dinner (by request!) he came in to call, and we were introduced. He is a delicate, wearied-to-death, and wish-I-were-out-of-it-looking man, but when he smiles or gets interested his face lights up, and he is handsome and interesting. He looked profoundly bored at finding me installed by the fire, but thawed later on, and asked my advice on various domestic problems which lie heavily on his soul.
"My housekeeper has such sensitive feelings. If I find fault, or even mildly suggest an improvement, she collapses into tears, and the children have a poor time of it for the rest of the day. Sometimes I think I must send her away, but I might get some one worse; and I am busy in the city, and have no time to look round."
I did not feel capable of giving advice on this subject, but said soothingly:—
"I wish you would allow the little girls to come to tea with me sometimes. I have seen them coming in and out, and have longed to know them. I'm fond of children, and Mrs Manners will tell you that I can be trusted."
His face lit up; he actually beamed.
"It is good of you! They get so few changes. It would be the greatest treat! If I may I'll bring them myself next Saturday."
Shades of Aunt Eliza! For a moment I felt quite guilty; then I raised my eyes to the Chippendale mirror hanging on the opposite wall, and beheld the douce figure of Miss Harding with a Paisley shawl draped over her black silk shoulders, and I breathed again, and said primly that I should be very pleased, and were the dear little ones allowed currants, or were they limited to plain sponge cake? He said impatiently:—
"Oh, poor kiddies! Anything you like. If they're ill afterwards, it's worth it. I'm afraid I am not much of a disciplinarian, Miss Harding. Life takes that role out of one's hands. Let them be happy—that's what I ask."
His face puckered; he looked so sad, so helpless, so baffled, poor, big, helpless thing, that my heart just ached for him. Aunt Eliza was right—Evelyn Wastneys is not a suitable person to play good fairy to good-looking widowers! If this one looked particularly helpless and harassed for an hour at a stretch, and then asked her to marry him on Tuesday week, she would not have the strength of mind to say no, however much she dreaded the prospect. As he is a susceptible, appealing type of a man, and tired to death of that housekeeper, and Evelyn has—she really has!—a "way with her," it would probably have come to that in the end. But Evelyn Harding may serenely do her best. She will never be put to the test.
The little girls are called Winifred and Marion. They have long pale faces, long fair hair, and charming dark-lashed eyes. Winifred looks delicate, and has an insinuating little lisp; Marion, when amused, has a deep, fat chuckle, which makes one long to hug her on the spot. They are badly dressed, badly shod, their stockings lie in wrinkles all the way up, but they look thorough little ladies despite of all, and "behave as sich". They came to tea on Saturday, and we had hot scones, and jam sandwiches, and cake, and biscuits, and a box of crackers containing gorgeous rings and brooches and tie-pins and bracelets, and of the whole party I honestly believe "Father" enjoyed himself the most. He had four cups of tea, and ate steadily from every plate; and we all played games together afterwards, in the most happy, domestic fashion. Quite evidently he is a home lover, a man whose deepest interests will always centre round his own fireside.
Poor little dead wife! It seems sad that she should be taken away, while unhappy women like Mrs 19 live on and on. If the issues of life and death were in mortal hands, how differently we should arrange things! I know at this moment half a dozen weary old creatures whose lives are no pleasure to themselves or to anyone else, but they live on, while the young and the happy fall by the way. Oh, how many mysteries there are around us! How wonderful, how absorbingly interesting it will be, when the time comes, to hear the explanation of all that seems so tangled to our present understanding! When I realise how uncertain life is, I am all in a tingle to be up and doing, to make myself of real, real use while I am still here. A married woman has her work cut out to make a home; a real happy home is as big an achievement as any one can wish, but when one is single and lonely—
Pause to shed a few self-pitying tears. Pause to wonder if it might not be better to make a man happy rather than to live alone, even if one were not really in love?
Pause to decide. Certainly not! Don't be weak-minded. A grave injustice to him, as well as to yourself.
Pause to dream of Charmion and Kathie, and feel lone and lorn because they don't write.
Grand decision. Always to be kind and considerate. To write regularly to lonely friends. Never to wax cross or impatient, neglect a duty, nor fail to render a service. To devote special attention and lavish special sympathy on spinsters in basement flats.
The orphan came into the room just as I was in the full flush of my resolutions. I snapped her head off, and found fault for five minutes on end. She departed—in tears.
Three weeks have passed by. I have written to Charmion, a letter full of love, and without one complaining word. I have written to Kathie, taking an interest in all the details of her new life; I have written to Delphine, dropping words in season. I have worked hard for the Red Cross classes. I have wheeled out the small Manners, and dispensed various teas to Winifred and Marion Thorold. I have met their father several times at the Manners' flat, and have likewise—low be it spoken—received two evening calls from him in my own domain. He says it is such a comfort to find a kind, motherly woman with whom to talk over his difficulties! He hesitates to trouble Mrs Manners, who is already overworked. Winifred holds one shoulder a little higher than the other. Does that mean anything wrong with the spine? Ought she to lie down flat? Billie, the curly two-year-old, is always catching cold. Do I think his perambulator gets damp in the basement store-room? The grocer's bill was nineteen shillings last week. In "my girl's time" (I love to hear him say "My girl!") it was never above thirteen. Miss Brown, the housekeeper, is hinting that she needs a holiday. It would be a relief to be rid of her, but—who would take charge while she was away?
"Why not make it a general holiday? Lend me the little girls, farm out the babies to relations, throw off responsibilities, and have a real laze yourself. You know you would love it!" I said. "Haven't you a man friend who would take you away?"
"Oh, rather. The best of fellows. We were boys together. He's had a stiff time, too, so he understands. Miss Harding, what a brick you are! Will you really take the girls? I say"—his face lit up with the boyish smile—"it would be a chance to buy them some clothes. Would you do it? Miss Brown has no taste. It's been one of my trials. My girl was so dainty. A pretty hat apiece, and a frock, and stockings to match—that wouldn't break the bank, would it? Do you think five pounds—"
I waved a protesting hand.
"Heaps! Heaps! Leave it to me. I'll make them as pretty as pictures. When—er—when I was young, I was fond of dress. I was considered to have good taste."
He smiled at me in the kind, forbearing manner in which people do smile at elderly women who exploit their own youth, and said vaguely:—
"Yes, I am sure—I am quite sure. Well, I must be off. Thank you for all your kindness."
He departed, but the very next night the maid brought a message to ask if Miss Harding had a thermometer. If so, would she be so very kind as to take Billie's temperature, as he seemed restless and feverish? I draped myself in the Paisley shawl in which I flatter myself I look my plainest and most ancient, ran upstairs, and was shown into Billie's bedroom. He was sitting up in his cot, looking so pretty with his dishevelled golden curls, his big bright eyes, and the fever flush on his cheeks. I guessed 102 at sight; but it was worse than that—close on 103. I gave the thermometer the professional shake, looking, as I felt, pretty serious and troubled, whereupon Miss Brown took alarm at once, being evidently the useful kind of woman who loses her head in illness.
"Is he going to be ill? I don't understand poultices and fomentations; couldn't take the responsibility! As things are, there is more work than I can get through. I hope you will tell Mr Thorold that if Billie is going to be ill, it is absolutely necessary to have help."
I calmed her, and went into the dining-room to report. The air was full of smoke, and Mr Thorold was sitting at one side of the fireplace, talking to another man who was facing him from another big leather chair. They both sprang up at my entrance, and Mr Thorold said:—
"This is my friend, Mr Hallett, of whom I spoke to you lately. We are discussing the possibility of a short trip. Edgar, this is Miss Harding, a very kind neighbour. She has come up on an errand of mercy to see one of the babies, who is a bit off colour. How do you find the small man, Miss Harding?"
He was not a bit anxious. In the interest of the talk with an old friend, the baby ailment had faded from his mind. I hated to bring the shadow to his face, but it had to be done.
"Billie has a high temperature, Mr Thorold. I think a doctor ought to see him."
He looked shocked—incredulous.
"To-night! Wouldn't to-morrow morning—?"
"I should advise you to see him to-night. It may be nothing but a feverish cold, but it is half the battle to start treatment in time. He is nearly 103."
"I will telephone at once," he said shortly, and marched out of the room.
The tenants of Heath Mansions do not, as a rule, run to the extravagance of possessing a private telephone, but down in the basement there is a species of ice cupboard, where, in surroundings of abject dreariness, we deposit our pence and shout messages, to the entertainment and enlightenment of the maids at "Well" windows. Mr Thorold was bound for this haunt, and the nice Mr Hallett and I sat down to entertain one another during his absence.
He is nice! I liked him the moment I saw him, and I went on liking him more and more. He is a big, powerfully-built man, but his face is thin, the fine moulding of the bones showing distinctly beneath their slight covering. The clean line of his jaw is a joy to behold; his eyes are dark and unusually deep-set—I would say "cavernous," if I had not a particular dislike to the word. He has large, expressive hands, and a low-pitched, unusually deliberate way of talking.
"I hope the youngster is not going to develop anything serious!"
"I hope not. He is a dear little fellow. It is so sad to see a child ill."
"It is; but—frankly!" he said, with a slow, grave glance, "I was thinking more of my friend. He has had more than his share of trouble, and another spell of anxiety would be hard luck. It's a big strain on a man to play father and mother to a growing family."
"There is one thing which would be harder! To have no growing family to look after, and to take his mind off himself."
He looked at me sharply, and as sharply looked away. I had a lightning impression that I had touched a tender spot, but it passed the next moment at sound of the perfectly calm, perfectly controlled voice:—
"You think that is so? I should be glad to agree, but Frank has lost an ideal companion. I did not imagine that such young children could fill the gap—"
"In a sense they never can, but they fill so many smaller gaps that it is impossible to think of the big one all the time. If you had any idea what it is to live in a flat this size, with five small children tumbling over each other all day long, laughing and quarrelling and getting into mischief on every conceivable occasion, behaving like perfect little fiends one hour and angels straight from heaven the next—well, you would realise that there isn't much time left over to sit down and nurse a private woe!"
He smiled. He smiles, as the Scotch say, "with deefficulty". The lines of his face are all set for gravity and reserve.
"That is so. But at night? After such a tornado the solitary evenings must seem lonelier than ever."
"I don't imagine there is much time for reflection. There is generally some work to keep him going. Rupert has a weakness for dropping things down the sinks. Last week, for a change, he drove a nail into a gas-pipe. And there are the bills to pay, and new things to order, and endless notes of inquiry and arrangements to be written. His evenings are well filled up."
"I see you are a believer in counter-irritants." The deep-set eyes rested on me with a speculative glance. A practical, unimaginative woman, who has neither understanding nor sympathy for romance—that was obviously the verdict. If he only knew! If he only knew!
Presently Mr Thorold came back and said the doctor would come round almost at once. Would I be so very good as to stay to hear his verdict? Miss Brown was not much use in cases of illness. She lost her head. The trouble to me seems to be that she has lost her heart—if she ever had one to lose!
The doctor said that Billie had bronchitis, and that his lungs were not quite clear. Someone must sit up with him, keep a bronchitis kettle going, and see that he did not kick off the clothes. His temperature must be taken at certain hours. A great deal might depend upon the next few hours. He was afraid it might be difficult to get in a nurse before morning. Was there anyone who could—
Miss Brown promptly put herself out of the running, so what was there left for me to do but modestly to confess that I had passed two Red Cross examinations, could flick a thermometer with the best, and baffle the tricks of the most obstinate bronchitis kettle that ever overbalanced itself, or spat hot water instead of steam.
The three men stood round looking at me with big, grateful eyes, and though I was honestly sorry about Billie, deep down at the bottom of my heart I glowed. This was in very deed being of use! Here was real work lying ready at my hand!
A STRUGGLE FOR A LIFE.
Billie has been desperately ill. For three weeks he has lain at the point of death, his little life hanging by a thread. Two trained nurses have been in attendance, and a third unofficial one, in the person of old Miss Harding! Winifred and Marion are living in my flat; Bridget looks after them, and does our own housekeeping, and also supplements Miss Brown's efforts, which are, to put it mildly, inadequate for the occasion. She does not seem to realise that when people are torn with anxiety they don't appreciate boiled mutton; and that when they sit up half the night, waiting in sickening suspense to hear the next temperature, a hot cup of chocolate can be more precious than rubies.
Therefore Bridget and I manufacture dainties, and carry them upstairs to supplement the supplies.
For the first few days the illness took a normal course, and anxiety, though real, was not acute; but on the fourth day strength failed noticeably, and oxygen was ordered to help the clogged lungs to work. At first it was given every two hours, then hourly, then every half-hour, and every woman who knows anything about nursing understands what that means, plus doses of brandy, struggles to pour as much milk as possible down an unwilling throat, and a constant taking of pulse and temperature, to say nothing of hypodermic injections at those awful moments when there seems no pulse to feel. It means that no one woman, be she ever so competent, can keep up the fight single-handed for twelve hours at a stretch, and that an understudy to work under her may mean the very turning of the scale. I have been understudy by night, and proud I am to record that Nurse proclaims me unusually "handy" for a member of the "laity". Hour after hour we have fought together for the little darling's life, while he lay unconscious against the piled cushions, a waxen image, unrecognisable as the bonnie curly-headed Billie we had loved. We racked our brains to think of new means and new contrivances to fight the ever-increasing danger. With the aid of screens and a sheet we contrived a tent over his cot, through a hole in which the elongated cardboard funnel of the steam-kettle could enter and give increased relief to the breathing. We made mustard poultices with white of egg instead of water, to save needless irritation of the skin; we used the French expedient of putting quinine pads under the armpits to reduce the terrible temperature. Nurse was indefatigable—a miracle of energy and resource—but through all her anxiety and tenderness for the little patient, it was impossible not to recognise the keen professional zest in a "good case."
"Give me a bad pneumonia, and I'm happy!" said she, frankly, and she meant what she said.
At those rare intervals when Billie fell into a fitful sleep, I used to steal out of the room and pay a visit to the dining-room, where, on two arm-chairs on opposite sides of the fire, the poor father and his friend sat drearily smoking, and waiting until the small hours of the morning. It was useless to tell Mr Thorold to go to bed. His wife had breathed her last at two o'clock in the morning, and he was possessed by a dread that Billie would do the same. At three or thereabouts he might be persuaded to move, but until then it was but a waste of breath to ask it. Poor fellow! To have his old friend by his side was the best comfort that was left, but how he must have missed his wife, and how endlessly, breathlessly long the hours must have seemed, sitting with folded hands, with nothing to do but to wait! Even I—an outsider—was oppressed by the difference in the atmosphere of the two rooms. In the sick-room there was suffering indeed, but there was also a constant, earnest fight; here, the heavy, smoke-filled air seemed to breathe of despair!
On those midnight visits, the first thing I did after giving my report, was to open the window, and the second to make a jug of chocolate, beating the powder in the milk till it foamed, in tempting continental fashion. The men shivered and protested. They were in a draught; they were not hungry; they wanted neither chocolate nor sandwiches; but I went on with my preparations in an elderly, persistent fashion, and said if they didn't—well, I did, and I hoped they would not grudge me a little refreshment in the midst of my labours. By the time that the little meal was prepared, the smoke had cleared away and left a little air to breathe, so then I made a favour of shutting the window and poking the fire, and we would sit down together, and—it was wonderful how much we could eat! If Aunt Eliza could have seen me then, what—oh, what would she have said! How I blessed the grey wig and the spectacles, and the few deft, disfiguring touches which made my presence so easy and comfortable, not only for myself but for those two poor, sad, helpless young men. However much one may rail against convention, it remains an unalterable fact that youth and good looks are not the best qualification for indiscriminate work among one's fellow-creatures. I must remember this fact when I grow really old, and apply it as balm to my wounded vanity.
Over the chocolate and sandwiches we would talk—not about Billie, if possible; and I learnt that the two men had first met at Harrow, had then been separated for many years, and had renewed the old friendship during the last two years.
There is evidently a strong sympathy between them—a sympathy of suffering, I think, for with all his charm, it is evident that Mr Hallett is not a happy man. He says little about himself, but I gather that he travels a great deal, that he writes for various reviews, and that—to say the least of it—he is not overburdened with wealth. He never mentions any "belongings," and is evidently unmarried. I wonder why, for he is certainly unusually attractive. Sometimes when we have been sitting talking together, I have been so conscious of this attraction that I have had quite a violent longing to be Evelyn Wastneys once more, and to meet him, so to speak, on his own ground!
He is most nice to me—oh, most nice! He thinks me a kind, sensible, generous old dear; says I deserve a Victoria Cross, and that no block of mansions is complete without me. One night he asked me smilingly if I would come and nurse him if he were ill; another time he said he could almost find it in his heart to wish that my money would disappear, so that he could engage me as a permanent housekeeper. Then Mr Thorold interrupted, and said that the first claim was his, and that if my services were to be bought, no other man should have them unless over his own dead body. They argued jestingly, while I blushed—a hot, overwhelming blush, and seeing it, they paused, looking mystified and distressed, and abruptly changed the conversation. Did they think me ridiculous and a prude, or did that blush for the moment obliterate the sham signs of age, and show them for the moment the face of a girl? I should like to know, but probably I never shall.
For four long weeks Billie's life hung in the balance, for after the pneumonia crisis was passed, unconsciousness continued, and the terrible word "meningitis" was whispered from lip to lip. There were heart-breaking days to be lived through, when the terror was no longer that he might die, but that he might live—deprived of speech, of hearing, possibly of reason itself. Never while I live shall I forget those days; but looking back, I can realise that they have taught me one great lesson, branded it on heart and brain so that I can never, never forget. The lesson is that death is not the last and worst enemy which we are so apt to think it when our dear ones are in its grasp. Oh, there were hours of darkness in which death seemed to us a lovely and beautiful thing, when we blamed ourselves for shrinking from the wrench of giving back a little child into God's tender care. Who could compare a darkened life on earth with the perfected powers, the unimaginable glories of eternity? There were times when our prayers were reversed, and we asked God to take Billie home!
But he lived; he spoke; he opened his dark eyes and smiled upon us; he demanded a battered "boy stout" doll, and hugged it to his pneumonia jacket; he drank his milk, and said "More!" he grew cross and fractious—oh, welcome, gladdening sign!—and said, "Doe away! No more daddies! No more nursies! Don't want nobodies! Boo-hoo-hoo!" and we went and wept for gladness.
Illness, the really critical touch-and-go illness which nurses call "a good case," turns a home into an isolation camp. The outer world retreats to an immeasurable distance, and the watchers stare out of the windows, and behold with stupefaction hard-hearted men and women walking abroad on two legs, with hats on their heads, and umbrellas in their hands, talking and laughing and pursuing their petty avocations, not in the least affected by the fact that the temperature had again soared up to 104, and the doctor spoke gravely about heart strain. It seems inconceivable that human creatures, living a few yards away, are actually going to parties, and attending theatres, trying on new clothes, and worrying about cracked cups.
It was with much the same shock of incredulity that, on descending to my flat one afternoon, I was met with the news that a gentleman was in the drawing-room waiting to see me. Bridget was out walking with the little girls, and the orphan, as usual, had opened the door. I demanded to be told "all about it," upon which she inhaled a deep breath, and set forth her tale after the manner of a witness in the police court.
"He says to me, 'Is Miss Harding at home?' I says, 'Yes, sir, she's at home, but she's out at the moment nursing a little boy upstairs'. He says to me, 'Is Miss Evelyn Wastneys at home?' I says, 'She don't live here, sir. There has some letters come—' He says, 'When will Miss Harding be in?' I says, 'She generally gives us a look, as it might be, about six, before the young ladies settles to bed'. 'Then I'll wait!' he says, takes off his hat, and walked in. I said, 'What name shall I say, please?' He said, 'It doesn't matter about my name. She doesn't know it.'"
I stood silent, digesting the news.
"What sort of a gentleman is he? What does he look like?"
The orphan considered, silently chewing the cud.
"He looks," she opined deliberately, "as if he could give you what for!"
At that, without one second's pause, I scuttled into my own room and locked the door behind me. (I would have "locked and double locked" it, as heroines of fiction do on such occasions, but it has always remained a mystery to me how they manage to do it!) That being done I fell into a chair, and breathlessly confronted—the worst!
It was the Squire! I knew it without a doubt. If the orphan had devoted an hour to her description, she could not have been more apt. In some mysterious way he had tracked me to my lair. I might have known he would do it! He was not the sort of man to be daunted by a closed door. He would put out the whole of his big, indomitable force, till by hook or by crook it flew open, and the secret was revealed. Mercifully, however, it was so far only Miss Harding whom he had discovered; Evelyn Wastneys still eluded his grasp, and if I could summon enough nerve and courage to carry through one final interview, all might yet be well. It was useless to say I would not see him. He would simply wait until I did. The only result would be to arouse his suspicions. I rose slowly and confronted myself in the glass.
The disguise was good, but was it good enough? I hastily opened my "make up" case, and accentuated the lines which the expert had shown were most telling—the curve of the upper lip, the kink in the eyebrow, the long wrinkle from nose to chin. I wrapped my Paisley scarf round my shoulders, took my courage in both hands, and opened the door. I decided to go into the dining-room, draw the casement curtains, seat myself with my back to the light, and—send the orphan to summon him to my presence! I was nervous and scared, but—let me confess it—the moment was not without a fearful joy! My heart was beating with quick, excited throbs. It was the oddest, most inexplicable thing, but I—I really wanted to see him. If a wish could have spirited him away, I could not have brought myself to breathe it. It seemed suddenly as if, unknown to myself, I had missed him, been missing him for a long, long time—
The door opened and he came in.
A DOUBLE EXCITEMENT.
He wore a dark suit, and carried a silk hat in his hand. The conventional dress made a great difference in his appearance; it always does when one is accustomed to see a man in the easy, becoming garb of the country. He looked older, more imposing; in the dim light it seemed to me that he was thinner too, had lost some of his deep tan.
I rose from my chair and bowed. He bowed too, and said:—
"Miss Harding, I believe?"
Long might he believe it! I waved him to a chair, and said suavely, "Pray sit down."
"I—er—I called to ask if you would be kind enough to give me Miss Wastneys' address. I believe her letters are sent to this address."
"May I ask who gave you that information?"
"I'm sorry; but I'm not at liberty to say. It was a discovery which has given me considerable difficulty to make."
"Excuse me, Mr—er—" I stopped short with an admirable air of inquiry.
"My name is Maplestone."
"Thank you! I presume, Mr Maplestone, that you are aware of Miss Wastneys' wish to keep her address private for the moment. Do you consider yourself justified in acting in direct opposition to her wishes?"
"I do," he said sturdily. "I warned her that I would do everything in my power to find her. I am only sorry that I have been so long in doing it."
"I am afraid she would not share your regret. In any case, I cannot take the responsibility of helping you any further."
"You refuse to tell me where to find her?"
"I am sorry to appear discourteous, Mr Maplestone, but I have no choice."
He looked at me, a cool, casual glance, and impatiently frowned. There was no flicker of recognition in his look. To him I was obviously a mere figure-head, an obstinate, elderly woman who stood as an obstacle in his path. He hesitated for a moment, and then said emphatically:—
"My business is imperative. It is absolutely necessary to see Miss Wastneys."
"I think she must decide this point."
"Madam!"—he glared at me reproachfully—"you are probably not aware that I have asked Miss Wastneys to be my wife?"
"I was not aware, Mr Maplestone, that Miss Wastneys had accepted that offer."
"She has not. That is just the point. If she had, I should not need help. But she is going to! That is why I am so anxious to find her—to prevent further waste of time."
Braced against my cushions, I gasped in mingled exasperation and dismay. That tone of certainty impressed me against my will. It required an effort to preserve an unruffled appearance.
"I cannot give you any help, Mr Maplestone. To the best of my belief, you are wrong in your expectations."
"Evelyn—Miss Wastneys is your niece, I believe?"
I bowed, mentally quoting the orphan's qualification:—
"May I ask if she has confided in you—told you the history of our acquaintance?"
For one moment I hesitated, then:—
"I think I may say that I know practically all that there is to tell."
He leant forward suddenly, rested an arm on the table, and fixed me with eager eyes.
"Miss Harding, I want a friend! I want an ally. I came here to-day, hoping to find one in you. Will you be on my side?"
I drew back; but, before I had time to protest, he hurled another crisp, sharp question at my head:—
"Do you love your niece?"
The question appealed to me. I answered promptly, as it were mentally licking my lips:—
"I do! I may say I am much attached to Evelyn. She has faults (judicially), but she is a pleasant, well-meaning girl. She has been (unctuously) very kind to me."
"She is kind to everyone," he said shortly, "except myself! Of course she has faults! Plenty of them. You could not know her without seeing that."
I glared, outraged. Oh, indeed! If my faults are so many and so obvious, why on earth does he—?
"You are very keen-sighted for a lover, Mr Maplestone," I said coldly. "If I were Evelyn, I should prefer the idealism which is usual under the circumstances. But perhaps you do not pose as an ordinary lover."
"I don't know," he said shortly—"I don't know. This is a new experience to me. I can only say one thing"—his voice softened, swelled into deep, low notes—"she is my life. She means everything— the beginning and the end. I shall fight on and on until she is mine."
Miss Harding coughed, and twitched at her shawl, and blinked at the ceiling, and feebly shook her grey head.
"It is a pity," she said weakly, "to make too sure! In these matters force is—er—is out of place. Evelyn must decide. She should not be coerced. If I know her nature, coercion will do no good. She is inclined to obstinacy."
"Coercion would fail, but love—Your niece is very feminine. She would be unhappy alone. She needs to be loved. I have love to give her—enough to satisfy any girl—more than enough! At the bottom of her heart she knows it. She ran away because she was afraid. Left no address."
"Mr Maplestone, I am sorry to appear unkind, but Miss Wastneys' plans were made before she guessed your wishes."
That was true, and hit him hard. His face fell, and he looked so quelled, so dejected, that my heart ached with remorse. What foolish thing I might have said I don't know, but at that moment the door burst open, and Winifred and Marion precipitated themselves into my arms. Taking no notice of the strange man, they proceeded to confide the adventures of their walk. It was "Miss Harding, this; darling Miss Harding, that; Miss Harding, dear, the other," while I undid their mufflers, and smoothed their hair, and smiled in benevolent interest. What could be a finer testimony to Miss Harding's verisimilitude than the blandishments of these sweet innocents?
For some minutes Mr Maplestone's presence was ignored, but when I looked at him again it was to realise with surprised curiosity that his bearing had undergone a startling change. His cheeks had flushed, the weary lines had disappeared, he looked young, brisk, assured. Nothing had happened to account for it; nothing had been said, bearing in the remotest sense on his affairs. I had made no slip of any kind, but had been laboriously elderly and restrained, and yet, there it was—an unmistakable air of satisfaction and relief.
He rose, held out his hand.
"I see you are busy. I won't detain you longer. If you will allow me I will call again."
"Mr Maplestone, excuse my want of hospitality, but it is quite useless."
He retained my hand in his; he spoke in a pleading voice.
"I am a very lonely man. I have no one else to whom I can speak. It would be a pleasure just to see anyone who belonged—I will promise not to be a nuisance. Please let me come!"
"Well!" I said helplessly. "Well!"
Short of being absolutely brutal, what else could I say? Besides—it may be a pleasure to me, too!
That same evening a letter arrived from Charmion. Nothing like having all one's excitements at the same time. It was good to see the dear writing again, and I was in the mood when I badly needed some words of comfort. I tore open the envelope, hoping to find them inside.
This is the letter:—
"Evelyn, Dear,—How is it faring with you, I wonder, in your grey London world, while I laze beneath Italian skies? It is a rest to know that you understand my silence, and don't need to be reminded that it does not mean forgetfulness. That big heart of yours can be very patient and forbearing. I have good cause to know that, but I also know that no one in the world more keenly enjoys a word of love and appreciation, so here's a confession for you, dear. Read it, lock it up in your heart, and never, never refer to it in words! This is it, then. During these last weeks, when I have been fighting the old battle of the last six years, I have discovered to my surprise, and—let me confess it—dismay, that my point of view has strangely altered. I still consider that I have been the victim of one of the cruellest deceptions which a woman could endure; I still believe that in that first ghastly hour of discovery, flight was justified and natural, but—Well, Evelyn, dear! I have been living for months in very close intimacy with a little girl who thinks no evil, and is always ready to find a good explanation for what may on the surface appear to be unkind, and it has had its effect.
"I keep asking myself, 'In my place, what would Evelyn have done?' and the answer disturbs my sleep. You are impulsive, my dear, and your temper is not beyond reproach. If you loved deeply you would be exacting, and would fiercely resent deceit. You would have run away even more impetuously than I did myself, but—but—you would not have kept up your resentment for six long years, or refused the offender a right to speak! If I know my Evelyn, before a month had passed her heart would have softened, and she would be turning special pleader in his defence, racking her brain for extenuating explanations. And if there had been none—I can imagine you, Evelyn, shouldering your burden with a set, gallant little face, going back to your husband, and saying to yourself, 'Am I a coward to be daunted by the failure of one little month? He married me for my money—very well, he shall have his price! I will give it to him, freely and willingly, but I will give him other things too—companionship, interest, sympathy, so that in time to come he shall love me for myself! I am young and pretty and intelligent—I can do it if I care enough to be patient and unselfish. I married him for better or worse. With God's help, I will turn this "worse" into "better" before our lives are done!'
"Oh, I assure you, my dear, I cut a poor figure in my own eyes, when I contrast my conduct with what yours would have been in my place. If we had met years ago things might have gone differently, but now it is too late. Too late for apologies and recantations, that is to say, for they would not be acceptable, even if I could bring myself to the point of offering them. This sounds as if your example had had no real effect after all, but it is not so. Outward circumstances may remain the same, but some of the inward bitterness has gone! Do you remember the old fairy story about the unfortunate king who had three iron bands clamped tightly round his heart? It was the result of a spell, of course, and the only thing which could break their hold was when some mortal did some really fine and noble deed, then with a great bang one of the bands broke loose and conveniently disappeared.
"Well, dear little girl, if your present crack-brained mission is not working out to your satisfaction, if your neighbours in the 'Mansions' (?) are unappreciative or appreciative in objectionable ways—comfort yourself with the reflection that your sweet example has burst one of Charmion's iron bands. I think on reflection one might almost say two, and that she daily blesses you for the relief!
"I can't send you an address. I have no idea where I am going next, but before very long you will see me again. I'll burst in upon you some day, with a Paris hat on my head (and another in my box for a pretty friend!) and snatch you away from your fads and fancies, and carry you off to 'Pastimes,' to gloat over, all to myself! Don't have anything to say to any presumptuous man who may try to lure you away. For the period of our lease you belong to me, and I am not going to give you up.
I smiled, wiped a furtive tear, and carefully folded up the sheet. It did comfort me to know that I had helped Charmion. I thought happily of seeing her again, of all the long interesting talks we would have together.
Incidentally I thought of our lease. If we paid a penalty, we could break it at three years.
Billie is slowly recovering. He is sitting up in his cot, languidly permitting himself to be adored, waited upon by obsequious attendants, and fed upon the fat of the land. This is the period when outsiders cry gushingly to an invalid's relations, "How happy you must be!" But as a cold matter of fact they usually feel very depressed and snappy and bored. This sounds thankless, but it is nothing of the sort; the thankfulness is all there, stored up for later realisation, but for the moment tired nerves are in the ascendant, and pay one out for the long-drawn strain.
Relieved from acute anxiety, Mr Thorold began to think of the cost, count up doctors' visits, and sigh like a furnace; Miss Brown gave notice. "She wasn't blind and she wasn't deaf. She was aware that she was not giving satisfaction, and it would be better for both parties—" The general servant, who had been quite heroic during the time when work went on the twenty-four hours round, now took to banging dishes and muttering as she left the room. Old Miss Harding, having lost much sleep, and spent her few leisure hours in reading aloud to her small guests, exhibited a tendency to tears and self-pity. Mr Hallett, disappointed of a hoped-for holiday with his friend as companion, shrugged his shoulders, and inquired dismally: "What can you expect? Things always go wrong in this miserable world!"
Each man in turns paid visits to my flat, and discussed his troubles at length. Mr Thorold's were mostly financial. What could he do to cut down expenses? Would I recommend sending the children to live in the country? Ridiculously cheap houses could be had, if one did not mind living miles from a station. He himself must, of course, remain in town; but in a cheap boarding-house he could manage to live on very little—say a hundred a year—and when he took a holiday he could "run down to the country". It would be good for the children.
"While it lasted," I said drily. "Their father might live—with luck— for a year or eighteen months. It seems hardly worth while having the expense of a removal for such a short time."
He sighed, looked for a moment as if he were going to declare that he would be glad to be out of it, then pulled himself together and said:—
"Well, but I must pull in somehow to pay for all these extra expenses! Have you anything to suggest?"
"You might let this flat furnished for a few months in spring. The porters tell me there are tenants to be found at that time. Odd, isn't it, that the season should affect 'Weltham Mansions'? It's the lap of the waves, I suppose, but it seems a long way to flow. I could help you to find cheap country quarters, and you could fit in your own holiday at the same time, and so save travelling expenses. Lazing about in a garden may not be exciting, but it's the rest you need. I knew a very tired man who went off for a golfing week with a friend. His wife told me he took a fortnight to recover. She said so to the doctor, and he said, 'Of course! What did you expect? It would have been better if he had gone to bed.'"
He shrugged impatiently.
"Maybe it is quite true. I suppose it is. But when a man has only one fortnight in the year, he might be allowed to enjoy it in his own way! It's an idea, though—letting the flat. Thanks for the suggestion. I'll speak to an agent."
Mr Hallett rested his big shoulders against my cushions, and said in his low, grave tones:—
"You are a woman—you understand these things. Is there any way in which I can help? It's pretty tough to see an old friend worried to death, and just sit and look on—but Thorold's proud, and it's difficult to interfere. It seems a cruel thing that illness should fall so heavily upon the middle classes. The rich are independent, the poor have hospitals; but a man in Thorold's position is no sooner through with the mental torture than he is up against an army of bills. It seems that Billie is bound to keep his nurses for several weeks longer. That's a big item in itself."
It was! Often during these last weeks I had thought to myself what a grand occupation it would be for an independent woman to train as a nurse, and then give one or two doctors leave to call her in to serve— without payment—in cases like the present, where need was great and means were small. I went off into a day-dream in which I saw myself, in cap and apron, acting as ministering angel to the suffering middle class, to be roused by Mr Hallett's voice saying tentatively:—
"I'm a poor man, but I am alone in the world, so there's no object in saving. Why shouldn't I settle a few of the bills for Billie's illness and say nothing about it?"
I shook my head.
"Mr Thorold would find out and be furious. You must help openly, or not at all. You have helped by keeping him company all these weeks."
He hitched his shoulders, and made a grimace of disparagement.
"It's a long time since my company could be called cheering, I'm afraid. Thorold is 'down and out' himself, and he ought to have happy people about him." He turned his dark eyes upon me with sudden interest. "Like you!" he said emphatically, "like you! Excuse a personal remark, Miss Harding, but you seem to have an eternal flow of vitality. Thorold and I were talking about you last night, comparing you with other women of your—er—your generation. We agreed that you left an extraordinary impression of youth!" He looked at me with wistful eyes. He was a lonely man, and I was a woman, conveniently at hand, and possessed of a "feeling heart". An impulse towards confidence struggled to birth. In his eyes I could see it grow.
"I suppose," he began tentatively, "you have had an easy life?"
"In a material sense—yes! But I have had my trials." A wave of self-pity engulfed me and quivered in my voice. "I have been separated, by death or distance, from all my relatives. My best friend is abroad."
"Death—or distance!" he repeated the words in his deep, slow tones, as though they had struck a note in his own heart. "But distance is death, Miss Harding! The worst kind of death. Desolation without peace! Thorold thinks himself brokenhearted, but there are men who would envy him his clean, sweet grief. His sorrow is for himself alone. She is at peace!"
"Ah," I said quickly, "I know what you mean. When we are quite young, death seems the crowning loss, but there are worse things—I've discovered that! I realised it in those terrible days when we feared for Billie's brain. When you love people very much, it would be a daily death to know that they were suffering."
He gazed gloomily into the fire.
"It is extraordinary—the capacity for suffering of the human heart! Physically we are so easily destroyed. An invisible germ will do it, the prick of a finger, a draught of cold air; but a man can live on, suffering mental torture, month after month, year after year, and his weight will hardly decrease by a pound. You read of broken hearts, but there are no such things! Hearts are invulnerable, torture-proof, guaranteed to endure all shocks!"
It occurred to me that it was time that Miss Harding exerted her vitality and stopped this flow of repining. The poor man had evidently had some tragedy in his life which had warped his outlook. He needed cheering—we all needed cheering; proverbially the surest way of cheering yourself is to cheer other people; therefore the sane and obvious way of spending his money was in providing cheer for the company. I said as much, and he said, "Certainly; but how? It was winter time. A winter's day in London holds an insuperable barrier against any possibility of enjoyment." I said, "Not at all! There were heaps of things—heaps of ways." He said, "Would I kindly specify one or two of the 'heaps'?" I said, "Certainly not! The essence of a treat lay in its quality of surprise. It was for him to think." He smiled at me with whimsical amusement, and cried, "You said that just like a girl. You are a girl at heart, Miss Harding, in spite of your grey hairs. What a pity you did not marry, you would have given some man and some kiddies such a thundering good time. I know, of course, that it was your own doing. There must have been—"
"Oh, there were!" I cried glibly. "Several!"
"But you couldn't—You were never tempted?"
"No, never. At least—" Suddenly I found that it was necessary to qualify that denial. "There are two things which are always tempting to a woman, Mr Hallett—love and strength! Every woman would be glad to have a strong, loving man to take care of her—if he were the right man!"
"Well!" he sighed, and rose heavily from his seat. "No doubt you knew best, but—I hope you gave him his chance! We men have many sides, but the best side is apt to remain hidden until some woman brings it out. If he loved you, you owed him something. I hope you played fair and gave him his chance!"
He turned towards the door; we shook hands, and he left without another word. I turned back to the fire, sat me down, and thought.
Ralph Maplestone had demanded his chance, and I had thought myself noble and brave in refusing to give it. He was strong and he was loving; he had asked nothing better than to take care of me. Would the time ever come, when I was really old, when I should sit by a lonely hearth and look back and regret? I thought of Mr Hallett's voice as he spoke those last words, and saw a vision of his face. It is a beautiful face, and I dearly love beauty. What a satisfaction it would be to go through life looking at the curve of that nose and the modelling of that chin and jaw! I thought of the Squire's stern voice, and his blunt, plain-featured face. Always, always, so long as I lived, I should long to take a pair of pincers and tweak that nose into shape, and nip little pieces of flesh from the neck, and pad them on the hollows beneath the cheek-bones. Suddenly I began to laugh. I imagined myself doing it— saw the expression in the blue, startled eyes.
Strange how plain faces can fascinate more than beautiful ones! My laughter died away. It is difficult to keep on laughing by oneself. I was tired, and had been giving out sympathy all day; depression clutched me, and a restless irritability. At this auspicious moment the orphan knocked at the door and announced that Number 19 would be glad to speak a few words.
"Show her in!" I said, and in she came—a pretty, thin, little woman, with a tempery eye.
"I am sorry to intrude, but you must really understand that this is too much! When people live in flats, it is essential that they show some consideration for their neighbours. Will you kindly listen to that?"
I listened. Winifred and Marion were playing at "bears," and chasing Bridget to her death. Engrossed in my own thoughts, I had paid no attention, beyond a subconscious satisfaction that they were enjoying themselves. The roars did not annoy me, but they were certainly fairly loud. I tendered a civil explanation.
"It's Mr Thorold's little girls. Their brother has been dangerously ill. They are staying with me."
"Is there any necessity for them to shriek at the pitch of their voices?"
"They are out for hours every day. This is their play-time before they go to bed. They go at seven."
"And wake at six! For the last fortnight we have been disturbed every morning. My husband wishes me to say that if it goes on he will complain to the landlord. I have complained before, as you know, but without effect. Ever since you came we have been annoyed."
I was furious. Whatever had happened during the last fortnight, no one could have been quieter before. "And what about themselves?" I said coldly. "Do you imagine that the landlord will be able to make children sleep beyond their usual hour?"
"Certainly not, but they can be kept quiet. When people go to bed late"—she stopped short, arrested by my expression, stared for a moment, and then concluded—"they naturally object to being disturbed in the morning. We breakfast at nine. This morning we were kept awake by quarrelling voices for over an hour."
I bowed politely.
"I am sorry. It is most disagreeable. I have had the same experience myself, but at the beginning of the night."
The words jumped out. The moment I had said them I was sorry, and when I saw her poor startled face I could have cried. The slow red rose in her cheeks; we stared into each other's eyes, and both spoke at the same time. She said:—
"Oh-oh! Can you hear?"
"Oh, I'm sorry! I should not have said it. Forgive me! I'm tired and cross after nursing upstairs. I want to quarrel myself. I'm sorry! I'll keep the children quiet. They will soon be going home. Please always let me know if I'm a bother. I'll do everything I can!"
She looked at me—a puzzled look—and mumbled cold thanks. This was a case when my apparent years were against me. If I had been Evelyn—a girl like herself—we would have clasped hands and made friends. As it was, she distrusted the elderly woman who showed an impulsiveness foreign to her years. She departed hurriedly, leaving me plunged in fresh woe.
A nice person I am, to blame a man for having a bad temper! I have hurt a sister woman, who has the hardest lot which any woman can have in life—a loveless home!
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.
MR MAPLESTONE IS PLEASED.
As a result of my suggestion, Mr Hallett has taken Mr Thorold to several concerts, and as a crowning effort actually lured him to a week-end at Brighton. That was last week; and as the day was mild and— almost!—sunny, I suggested to the little girls that we should go holiday-making on our own account, and pay a visit to the Zoo.
The proposal excited great enthusiasm, and an early lunch was ordered so that we could set forth in good time, so as to have a couple of hours with the animals before adjourning to a confectioner's for tea. I remembered my own childhood too well to suggest returning home for the meal. To drink tea out of strange cups, in a strange room, to have a practically unlimited choice of strange cakes—this is a very orgie of bliss to anything "in one figure," and when the tea is followed by a drive home in a taxi, satisfaction approaches delirium. I remembered Mr Thorold's pathetic "Make them happy!" and determined that, if it were in my power, this should be a day to be remembered.
Lunch was finished, I dressed the little girls in their new hats and coats, wriggled their fingers into new gloves, saw to it that there was not a crease in their stockings nor a chink in the lacing of their boots, and had just settled them on the sofa in the drawing-room to wait quietly until I rushed through my own hasty toilette, when—the door opened, and who should walk in but Ralph Maplestone himself!
For different reasons his appearance struck consternation into the breasts of all three beholders. I was naturally overcome with embarrassment as to what he had come for now; the little girls were seized with a devastating fear lest his arrival should interfere with their treat. They leapt to their feet, and rent the air with protestations.
"Oh, oh! It's the Same Man!"
"We're going out! We're going out! We've got on our hats."
"To the Zoo! So's Miss Harding. She's just going to put on her hat."
"It's our treat. Father's away. He's having a treat, and she promised—she promised we could go!"
Tears sounded in the voices, showed in suspicious redness round the eyes. Mr Maplestone smiled—like many grave people he has a beautiful smile—he laid one big hand on the top of each little hat, and swayed them gently to and fro.
"Well, and why not? Of course you are going! All good little girls go to the Zoo, and ride on the elephants, and throw buns to the bears. You are extra good little girls, and so you can see something else—a little bird, not much bigger than a canary, who can talk and say words almost as well as you can yourselves. And think of the monkeys!"
He withdrew one hand and held it out to me across the children's heads, smiling and apologetic.
"I'm afraid I am looked upon as an obstacle. Please don't let me detain you. I would not disappoint them for the world. I can call another day."
But by this time fear had given place to gratitude and the quick affection which children show to grown-ups who understand! Winifred and Marion leapt at his arms, clung, wheedled, and implored.
"You come too! You come too! Show us the bird that talks. We want you. We want you to come with us. Miss Harding wants you. You do want him, don't you, Miss Harding?"
The leap of my heart showed that I did! The very suggestion had been enough to give an altogether different aspect to the expedition; to invest it with a spice of adventure, not to say romance, which was most refreshing to a spinster living in a basement flat! I fought down an inclination to laugh, hoped that I conquered an inclination to blush, and said primly:—
"My dears, you must not be exacting. Mr Milestone has no doubt engagements—"
"Not one!" he contradicted eagerly. "Not one! Please let me come, Miss Harding. It would be a charity, for if you turn me away I shall be at a loose end all the afternoon. I am like a fish out of water in town!"
"You should return to the country," I said sternly. "It is wasting time to remain here."
The children caught at the last sentence, naturally applied it to their own plans, and pranced with renewed impatience.
"Yes! Yes! You said directly after lunch. Put on your hat, Miss Harding—do put it on! We want to see the bird."
He looked at me, lifted his eyebrows, and smiled as if to say that further protest was useless, and indeed it seemed that it was. There was nothing for it but to retire to my room, and put on the boat-shaped hat, the thick, unbecoming veil, and the badly-cut coat, which aided my outdoor disguise.
I looked plain to a degree. Nothing in the world can disfigure a woman more successfully than an unbecoming hat and a cheap black veil, which imparts a dingy, leaden tint to the complexion. I had every reason to be satisfied with my disguise that afternoon, but I wasn't. Not a bit! I felt cross, and irritated, and balked!
We took a taxi and drove straight to the Albert Road entrance, made our way down the steep incline, under the bridge, and up again towards the lion houses. Marion and Winifred hung, one on each of Ralph's arms, chattering in a continuous stream. Child-like, they ignored me in the fascinations of a new friend; also—and this interested me very much!— he was charming with them, hitting just the right combination of sense and nonsense, entering into their ideas, and adapting himself with an enjoyment which was obviously real, not feigned. I reminded myself that this was the first time I had seen him in the company of children.
Mem. Every woman ought to see a man in several circumstances before she accepts him as a husband.
1. In his own home.
2. With his dependents. With children and old people. With his best friend.
3. When he is angry.
4. Tried by the money test.
5. Flirted with by a woman prettier than herself.
We visited the larger animals in turns, and whenever there was a seat the Squire thoughtfully pressed me to sit down, while the children pranced about to let off the steam of their enjoyment. After a few minutes he invariably joined me, and led the conversation to the same topic. Above the roar of the lions, above the jabber of the monkeys, he shouted in my ears to know if I were still obdurate. Wouldn't I help him? Why wouldn't I help him? If I really loved Evelyn, and cared for her welfare, how could I stand aside? I must see—surely I must see that she belonged to the essentially feminine type of women who needed a home!
"I believe there are many women nowadays who are honestly satisfied with an independent career, but she is not one. She is made to love and be loved. She needs a man to look after her."
"The right kind of man!" I said primly. "I agree with your diagnosis, Mr Maplestone, but Evelyn's nature makes it peculiarly essential that she should make a wise choice. If her marriage was a failure, she would suffer greatly. No one but herself can decide who is the Right Man."
Feeding hour was approaching; a furious outburst of roars proclaimed the lions' knowledge of the fact. Mr Maplestone leant his arm on the back of the seat and shouted into my ear:—
"But you know her so well; she has spoken to you. There could be no harm in giving me some hints. Some things might be altered, though others could not. Does she think me an ugly brute?"
His face was close to mine. I looked at the blunt features, the clear, healthful tints, and found nothing that offended my eye.
As I had realised in Mr Hallett's presence, expression counts for more than mere correctness of outline. I turned aside and shook my head.
"The question of appearance does not count. In that respect you have the one qualification which a woman demands."
"Manliness—strength. Evelyn would care little for handsome features."
He sighed relief.
"Disposition then! I made a bad impression at our first meeting. My temper is hasty. I dislike opposition, but if we loved one another we should agree. There would be no opposition."
I smiled at his innocence. It is astonishing how guileless these big, strong men can be. I was about to undeceive him, but before I had time to speak the children were back with a rush, dragging at our arms, and demanding to move on. For the next half-hour we had no private conversation, but at the first chance he began once more.
"Evelyn has been accustomed to the country. I could give her the life she likes. If she wished it I would take a house in town for the season. To a certain extent I believe in women's rights. I should not interfere with her pursuits. I should want her to be happy in her own way."
"Always providing that her husband was the chief consideration, and came before everything else?"
"Of course!" he cried loudly. "Why, of course! What else could you expect?"
I waved my thick dogskin gloves.
"Oh, Mr Maplestone, what is the use of arguing? It all comes back to the one thing. If she loved you the other things would adjust themselves. Without love, without sympathy, all would go wrong."
"There is sympathy. She may not realise it, perhaps, but if she thinks, if you ask her to think, she must acknowledge that, in spite of small surface disagreements, our real selves have drawn together, closer and closer. Ask her if she feels to me as she does towards other men? If there seems no difference between us? I know she does not love me—yet; but if she gave me my chance, I could make her. No, she would not need to be made. You can at least tell her that."
Mr Hallett's words sounded warningly in my ears. I hesitated, weakly compromised.
"Yes—I might go so far. She shall hear what you say, and judge for herself. And now we have really talked enough. Suppose we hear your bird for a change?"
An hour later we drove to Fuller's and indulged in tea. It was curiously enough the sight of one of the well-known angel cakes which recalled Delphine Merrivale to my memory, for she had shown a child-like appreciation of these dainties when they had appeared on our tea-table at "Pastimes". Poor little Delphine! I felt a pang of compunction when I remembered what store she had set on my friendship, and how little, how very little, I had concerned myself about her during the last months! With due caution I proceeded to seek information.
"I hope the tenants at 'Pastimes' are well, and the Vicar and his wife— that pretty little 'Delphine' of whom Evelyn is so fond?"
"The Vicar is not well; been ailing all autumn, but Delphine is going strong. Quite launched out this autumn. Become quite a leader of fashion in our small world."
I felt another pang—of foreboding this time, and said sharply:—
"How very unsuitable! Are you speaking figuratively, Mr Maplestone? Surely a clergyman's wife—"
"Clergymen's wives differ, Miss Harding, as greatly as the wives of other members of society. They are not turned out by a machine, and this particular one is very young, and not particularly wise."
"Apparently not. In what way has she 'launched out'?"
"Oh-oh—" he vaguely waved his hands.
"Smart clothes, you know. Lots of 'em. Dinner parties. Luncheons. Less parish work, and more amusement. Always trotting over to the 'Moat'."
The present owners of the "Moat" were rich City people who gave lavish entertainments, and obviously chose their friends with a consideration of how much amusement could be counted upon in return. Pretty, gay Delphine was a valuable addition to a house-party, and would no doubt receive as many invitations as she cared to accept; but the influence could not be good. Continual association with smart, worldly people would of a certainty heighten her discontent, and lure her into extravagance.
I munched my cake in gloomy silence, which was not lightened by the next remark.
"I'm sorry for Delphine's sake that—she—is away! If you worry it out, this development is her doing. She ought to be there to put on the brake!"
"What do you mean? In what possible way is Evelyn to blame?"
"Who spoke of blame? I didn't! It is natural to her to be dainty and beautiful. She has the money, and she has the taste. What is wrong for the wife of a poor man is a virtue in a rich woman. Even I—a man—who never noticed such things before, found pleasure in her clothes. She had one blue muslin—"
He looked at me with dumb, awed eyes. Surely never did a muslin gown at somewhere about a shilling a yard, reap such a harvest of appreciation. I shall preserve that dress in lavender and rose leaves for evermore.
"Until She came, Delphine had the field to herself in our little village. Any comparisons must have been in her favour. Then suddenly she found herself up against a new standard. Being young and— er—vain, she evidently felt it necessary to her peace of mind to follow the leader. From a spectacular point of view the effect is good."
Spectacular indeed! I was too perturbed, too anxious to speak. Evidently Delphine had been going in for an orgie of extravagance; a pretty serious one too, since it had attracted the attention of a mere man; and some of the responsibility seemed to fall on my own shoulders! I determined to write her a letter that very night, and in absent-minded fashion began to compose its sentences as I poured out second cups of tea. "Although I have not written, you must not think that I have forgotten you. I am leading a busy life, and have little time to spare, but if you should ever need me; if there ever comes a time when you feel I can be of real help, write to me through my lawyers, and I could meet you in town, or even run down for the day."
Yes, that would do! That would open the way for confidences, if she were in a mood to make them. In any case, I should feel more satisfied in my own mind when I had sent off the message, and shown that I was to be found if needed.
Looking up suddenly from the tea tray I beheld Ralph Maplestone smiling to himself across the table, with precisely the same mysterious accession of complaisance that I had noticed on his first visit to the flat. Our eyes met, and he turned aside, drawing in his lips to hide the smile, but the light danced in his eyes, and refused to be quenched.
Most mysterious and perplexing! His moods are evidently very variable. I am glad he was pleased, but I should very much like to know why!
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.
MRS MERRIVALE'S APPEAL.
Every one has noticed that the thought of a friend after a spell of forgetfulness is frequently the harbinger of a sudden meeting, or of the receipt of a letter or message. Such happenings are called "curious coincidences"; but personally I don't consider them curious at all, or at least no more curious than it is to send a message by telephone, and to hear in reply a familiar voice speaking across the space. When the heart sends forth a wireless message of love and goodwill, surely, if we have in any sense grasped the wonderful power of thought, we must believe that the message reaches its destination, and calls forth a response! Right thoughts—thoughts of love and pity and helpfulness— are prayers winged to heaven and earth; bad thoughts—mean and grudging and censorious—well, they injure the person who thinks them so much, that there can't be much poison left for the recipient. In any case, such leaden things can't rise.
This moralising leads up to the fact that while my own letter to Delphine lay unfinished on my desk, a note arrived from Ralph Maplestone, to give me grave news of her husband.
"I am summoned home," he wrote, "in my capacity of vicar's warden. While I have been in town, poor Merrivale has had an attack of influenza, which has been pretty serious, and has left him rather alarmingly weak. I insisted upon calling in a consultant from B—, whose verdict is that the lungs are seriously threatened. I have feared it for some time, and am glad that he is now forced to take care. He is ordered complete rest, and is to get out of England for the spring months. I shall be kept busy here for some weeks, but expect to run up to town for a day's business now and then, when I will give myself the pleasure of calling on you. Meanwhile, will you kindly pass on the news to Miss Wastneys. I know she will be interested. I rely on you to fulfil your kind promise." By the same post came a letter from Charmion, tentatively breaking the news that she would not return for Christmas. Several minor reasons had contributed to this decision, but the big one was that she was still "working out her cure" and could do it better in solitude. What about me? Would I go to Ireland? Could I work in a visit to friends? Rather than think of me sitting alone in my dreary little flat, she would put everything on one side, and come rushing home.
"Dreary little flat, indeed!" I looked round the dainty, rose-lit room, and laughed a derisive laugh. It was strange. I did not feel a bit depressed. Life in the basement flat was very full, very interesting, of late days thrillingly exciting into the bargain. I was not at all sure that I wanted to go back to "Pastimes" so soon. Christmas in the flat offered endless possibilities. I would have a tree! Mrs Manners should help me. Her children would come, and all the Thorolds, and their father, and Mr Hallett. There should be lots of toys, and lots of baubles, but useful things too! Things which should truthfully be "just what I wanted!" Perhaps I would be noble and forgiving and ask Eric and Claudia and Moreen. Poor mites, it wasn't their fault that their mother wore false pearls! The tree should be on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas night I would invite the grown-ups to dinner, and give them a light, dainty feast, with never a shadow of roast beef or plum pudding! They could do their duty by convention at the midday meal.
In two minutes' time I had thought out the whole menu, even the decorations on the table. What fun it would be! How they would all enjoy it! How little Mrs Manners would revel in the shopping expeditions! Her present should be a pretty blouse—something pretty, bought with a view to what is becoming, and not to what will be useful, and wear for several seasons, and then cut up into dusters. An occasional extravagance is such a tonic to a feminine mind! As for the men, Mr Thorold should have a box of cigars. Mr Hallett should have the same. And in the deadliest secrecy I would commission each to buy for the other. Then they would be sure to get the right brand.
As for "Pastimes"—our guest tenant would be delighted to have her stay extended. I wondered if the gardener would pine for Bridget! I wondered if—anyone—would pine for me! Personally the prospect of occasional "calls" pleased me better than the thought of meetings in the country, under the Argus eye of village gossips. In the latter case one would be self-conscious and restrained; in the former, safe from observation, doubly sheltered behind wig and spectacles, there could be no doubt as to which position afforded the better opportunity of getting to know a man's character.
I wrote a letter to Charmion, reassuring her as to Christmas in my "dreary flat"; I tore up the unfinished note to Delphine, and sent another, assuring her of my sympathy, repeating my offers of help. Poor little girl! Her real love for "Jacky" would be in the ascendant now, and all the pleasure and vanities for which she had pined would seem trivial things, compared with his dear life.
I did not write to Mr Maplestone. The difficulty of handwriting came in, and there was no real necessity to answer his note. If I knew Delphine, she would find it a relief to pour forth her woes on paper. I waited confidently for a letter to appear.
Two days passed by, three; I was growing anxious, and debating if I should write again, when there came a loud rat-tat at the door, and a reply-paid telegram was handed in, addressed to Miss Wastneys:—
"Letter received. Need urgent. Unable to leave. Can you come to-morrow. Beg you not to refuse. Delphine."
I seized a pencil, scribbled a hasty "Expect me by train arriving twelve," and having despatched the promise, sat down to consider how I was to keep it. What an excitement to think of feeling young again, and being able to devote my attention to looking as nice as I could, instead of laboriously contriving disfigurements! Under my bed lived a box wardrobe on wheels, in which, carefully stretched and padded to avoid creases, reposed a selection of garments which were certainly not suited to old Miss Harding's requirement. Mentally I reviewed them, selected the prettiest and most becoming, saw a vision of myself putting the last touches before the glass, with Bridget's beaming face watching every stage. Oh, it would be an exhilarating variety, and easy, too— perfectly easy. I would give the orphan leave of absence for two days, and send her rejoicing to stay with "me aunt". Then in leisurely enjoyment I would make my toilette and march complacently into the street. We possess no porter in our modest mansions; ten to one I should pass through the hall unseen, and even if I had the ill-luck to encounter a neighbour—well, if my disguise is good enough to deceive Ralph Maplestone, it can surely defy less interested eyes!
Bridget was as excited as I was. She hustled the orphan out of the flat, and superintended my toilette as eagerly as though I were dressing for a wedding, instead of a country visit.
"Praise the fates, we'll see you looking yourself again! I never was in favour of this dressing up, and playing tricks with a face which anyone else would be proud to have, and to take care of. Not that you hadn't more sense than I gave you credit for! We've been a godsend to this place, and if anyone doubts it, let 'em look at the kitchen book, and see the pounds of good meat I've made into beef tea with me own hands. And you running about by day and by night, waiting on 'em all in turns. There's no doubt but we've done good, but what I say is—why not do it with your own face?"
"Don't be foolish, Bridget! I couldn't do it! Look at me now!"—I swirled round to face her, with a rustle of silk and a flare of skirts. "Do I look the sort of person to wheel out prams, and give tea parties to widowers, and be looked upon as a prop and support by my neighbours?"
"Go away wid you then!" said she, and that was the end of the discussion.
I met no one in the hall. I met no one in the street. I jumped into a taxi at the corner and drove off to the station without running the remotest chance of detection. It was so easy that I determined to do it again! Every now and then just for a change—just to remember what it was like to look nice! I arrived at the station and took my ticket. There was no one I knew upon the platform. I walked to the further end, and took a seat in an empty first-class carriage. The collector came round and looked at the tickets; there was a banging all down the length of the train, a sharp call, "Take your seats, please; take your seats!" The door of my compartment opened and shut. Ralph Maplestone seated himself in the corner opposite mine!
"How do you do, Miss Wastneys," said he, as cool as a cucumber.
"How do you do, Mr Maplestone," said I, as red as a beetroot.
Was it chance? Was it coincidence? Was it a deep and laborious plan? Had he heard from Delphine of my coming and rushed to town for the express purpose of returning in my company? It looked very like it. My wire could not have arrived at the Vicarage until after five in the afternoon, and the next train to town left at nine p.m. There was also an early morning one at eight-thirty. My brain seethed with curious questions, but there seemed only a moment's pause before I spoke again:—
"Have you been staying in town?"
"Er—" his eyes showed a faint flicker of amusement—"not long. You are going down to see Delphine, I suppose. That's good of you. She needs bucking up. The Vicar's pretty bad, but with rest and change there's no reason why he shouldn't pick up. We are arranging to make things easy for them. It will do him no good if she makes herself miserable."
"That's the sort of futile remark that outsiders generally make on these occasions. They make me furious!" I cried, glad of an excuse to work off my self-consciousness in a show of indignation. "Perhaps it won't; but as he belongs to her, and she loves him, she can hardly be expected to be happy! In illness all the sympathy is lavished on the invalid. In reality, the relations are more to be pitied. It's far easier to lie still and bear physical pain than it is to be wracked with anxiety, and fatigue, and responsibility all at the same time."
He said, looking at me with an air of the most profound attention:—
"You are thinner than you were. Your face is thinner—"
"We were not talking about my face. How long has Mr Merrivale really been ill?"
"It's difficult to say. He is the sort of fellow who never thinks about himself, and Delphine is not—not exactly noticing! I fancy she blames herself now; but he never complained, and always went on working at full pressure, till this attack came on, and he went down with a crash."
"And now? How does he seem now?"
His forehead wrinkled into lines.
"Depressed. Nervous. Inclined to be jumpy. He has lived for his work, and hates the idea of giving up, even for a time. He has overtaxed his strength for years, and his nerves are bound to play up. However, once we get them off to the sun, he'll soon pull round."
"And when do they—"
"As soon as possible. It is Delphine who is putting things off. So far as Merrivale himself is concerned, the sooner he starts the better. He'll not grow any stronger where he is. When are you coming back to 'Pastimes'?"
"It's uncertain. Not before Christmas. Is your mother quite well?"
"Quite, thanks. You know that I have made Miss Harding's acquaintance. She is a charming old lady."
"I'm so glad you like her. I knew you had called. Nice little flat, isn't it?"
He growled, his face eloquent with disapproval.
"If you call it 'nice' to live burrowed underground! How sane people can consent to live in town, herded together in a building more like a prison than a home—"
"'The goodness and the grace' did not make us all country squires!" I said shortly, whereat he laughed—quite an easy, genial laugh, and twinkled at me with his blue eyes. It was extraordinary how natural and at his ease he appeared; so different from the stiff, silent man I had known at Escott!
The journey takes exactly sixty minutes, and we talked the whole way. For the first twenty minutes I was on my guard, nerving myself to say "No" for the second time, with due firmness and finality. For the next twenty I was friendly and natural. He was behaving so well that he deserved encouragement. During the third twenty I said less, stared out of the carriage window, and felt a disagreeable feeling of irritation and depression. He went on talking about books and gardens and parish difficulties, and I wasn't interested one bit. One may not wish a man to propose to one for the second time; but, with the echo of vows of undying devotion ringing in one's ears, it is rather daunting to go through an hour's tete-a-tete without one personal remark! He had said that I was thin. Perhaps he found me changed in other ways. Perhaps on meeting me again he found he did not like me as much as he had believed. Perhaps he was glad that I had said "No". We parted at the Vicarage gate; he apparently quite comfortable and composed, I in the lowest depths. What a change from last time!
The door opened, and before I had time to blink Delphine's arms were round me, and a hot, wet cheek pressed against mine. She was sobbing in a hard, breathless way which made my heart leap; but even on the way to her sitting-room I gathered that my first fear was unfounded.
"Jacky was—the same! In bed. So tired—always so tired! Seems to care for nothing. Hardly even"—the blue eyes opened in incredulous misery—"for me!"
"When people are very weak, they can't care. It takes strength even to love—at least, to realise that one loves. I never knew a man who adored his wife more than Mr Merrivale does you; but I expect it suits him better just now to lie quietly and snooze rather than to hold your hand and watch you cry."
She looked guilty at that, and tossed her head with a spice of her old spirit. But the next moment her breath caught in a sob, and she cried desperately:—
"Oh, Evelyn, it's all awful! Other things—everything—far worse than you know. I'm the most miserable creature in the world. I think I shall go mad. I sent for you because—"
"Hold hard for one moment! I'm hungry! I need my lunch! So do you, by the look of you. Shall we have it first, and tackle the serious business afterwards in your room, where we shan't be interrupted. There will be plenty of time; I needn't leave till five."
"I ordered cutlets, and an omelette, and coffee afterwards. All the things you liked best when you were here. But I can't eat a bite. It would choke me. I hate the sight of food."
"Very well then—you can watch me eat mine," I said, with the callousness of one who had heard dozens of people declare the same thing, and then watched them tuck into a square meal. Delphine proved another protester to add to the list. She ate her share of the meal with no sign of choking, and brightened into acutest interest at hearing of my escort from town. The fork stopped half-way to her mouth; her eyes widened to saucer size. In the sheer surprise of the moment she forgot her grief and anxieties.
"But—but—how could he be there? He was here last night. Quite late. Ten o'clock. Walked down after dinner to hear how Jacky was!"
I made a vague sweeping gesture, which was designed to express a lack of all responsibility concerning the Squire's eccentricities, but Delphine's suspicions were aroused, and she was not to be easily put off.
"He must have gone up by the workman's train. And yours left at eleven. How very peculiar! And he said nothing last night. ... Did I tell him you were coming?" She wrinkled her brows in the effort to remember. "Yes, I did. He said something about taking me for a drive to freshen me up, and I said you would be here before lunch. Evelyn, he couldn't possibly have gone to meet you!"
Evidently she suspected nothing. I tried to look composed and natural, and said lightly:—
"It seems preposterous, doesn't it. He certainly did not say so."
She stared at me curiously.
"What did you talk about? About us? Did he say anything about me?"
"Of course. What do you suppose? We had quite an argument, because he seemed to think it a pity that you should injure yourself by fretting, and I said I didn't see how you could do anything else."
She smiled, and tilted her head, her complacency restored.
"That was it, I suppose! He wanted to talk to you before you saw me. He is good. And you argued with him, you say? Disagreed, I suppose. Oh, well—men are always more tender-hearted than women."
I felt annoyed, and munched in silence, staring fixedly at my plate. If this particular man was so much more understanding, why had she summoned me from town?
After lurch Delphine ran upstairs to see her husband for a few minutes, and then returned to me in her little sitting-room. He was tired, she said, and hoped to sleep until tea. She had not told him of my visit; he was so listless and apathetic that it worried him to talk, or to have people talk to him. "I don't believe he will ever be the same again!"
"People always say that in the middle of an illness, but they find their mistake later on. After a long rest the Vicar will be better than he has been for years, and it will be your business to see that he never works so hard again. You were always longing for a change, Delphine. Think how you will enjoy Switzerland, sitting out in the crisp clear air, looking at those glorious mountains, with no house or parish to worry over—nothing to do but wait on your dear man, and watch him growing stronger every day!"
She looked at me dumbly, while the colour faded out of her cheeks, and the pretty curved lips twitched and trembled. I saw her clasp her hands, and brace herself against her chair, and knew that the moment for confession had come, and that it was difficult to find words.
"No worry!" she repeated slowly. "No worry! But that's just what is killing me. I'm so worried, so worried that I feel sometimes, Evelyn, as if I were going out of my mind!"
"You mean—about your husband?" I asked, but the question was really put as a lead; I knew she was not referring to illness.
Delphine shook her head.
"That is bad enough, but it is not the worst. The worst is that through me—through my wretched, selfish, vain, discontented folly, I—I have made it difficult for him even to get well. I—I have got into a horrible mess, Evelyn, and when he hears of it—when he has to hear, he will be so worried, so miserable, so disappointed, that it will bring on a relapse, and he will probably be worse than before. We can neither of us be happy again—never, never, any more!"
"Sounds pretty bad!" I said, startled. "But there must be some way out, or you would not have sent for me to help you. You are going to tell me the whole truth, Delphine! Half confidences are no use. You will speak honestly, and—let me speak honestly to you?"
"Oh, yes! You will do, whether I allow you or not. I know you!"
"Well, then"—I bent forward, staring full in her face—"let's get to the point. Is it another man?"
Her face answered, without the need of words. Amazed resentment blazed out of her blue eyes.
"Another man! I should think not! How hateful of you, Evelyn! I'm despicable enough, but I love Jacky. There's no other man in the world for me. Of course," she paused, and faintly smiled, as at a soothing recollection, "people admire me. I can't help that, and there's no harm so long as I don't flirt. There's the Squire. I think if I were not married, he might want—but I am married, and it's the honest truth that I've never said a word to a man since our marriage that I shouldn't be willing for Jacky to hear. No! it's not that—"
"It's money, then," I said quickly. (So the Squire would "want," would he? Oh, indeed!) "Delphine! you have been getting into debt?"
"Oh, how did you guess?" She turned her head over her shoulder, as though afraid some one might overhear. "Oh, Evelyn, nobody knows but you. I think I have been mad. Goodness knows what I expected to happen in the end. I was in a crazy, rebellious mood, tired to death of being dull and careful, and I had a wild spell of extravagance, ordered whatever I wanted, ran up bills in town. I went to your dressmaker. I was sick of making my own clothes, and looking a frump. I'm young, and I'm pretty, I wanted to look nice while I could. Every one said I did look nice; but she is a terror, that woman of yours! I had no idea of the bill!"
"You did not ask for estimates in advance?"
"How could I? I didn't even know what to order. I just said, 'A pretty dress for the afternoon.' 'A hat with roses.' 'An evening cloak.' Descriptions like that. And there was the habit, too, and little things—oddments. They grow into mountains! And I bought furniture to make my room look pretty and homelike. You remember you said I deserved to have one nice room!"
Apparently this extravagance also could be traced to my influence! It was useless to waste any more words. I went straight to the point.
"Oh!" she started and shivered. "I'm ashamed to say. And now—we are going away, and the bills have to be paid. I'm a new customer, and they keep sending them in. And the house books! They have run on. Jacky gave me some money. I meant to pay them, honestly I did, Evelyn, but somehow the money frittered away till there wasn't enough left. I paid some—but there are others left. Jacky would hate it, if we left the parish in debt."
"How much?" I repeated, and she flushed to the roots of her hair.
"Over—a hundred! Nearer—two, I'm afraid, Evelyn!"
It was more than I had expected. I had to make fresh calculations, and revise several plans. Subconsciously, I had known that the trouble was monetary, and had made a special study of my pass book before leaving the flat.
"I can let you have a hundred at once, and settle the rest of the bills for you next month, if that will do."
She looked at me with tear-filled eyes.
"Do you think I deserve it?"
"I'm not sure that you do, but Mr Merrivale does! He shan't have any new worry just now, if I can prevent it. You are sure you have told me everything, Delphine? That is all!"
"I'll show you the bills. I knew you would help. You were the only person I could bear to ask; but you did not wait to be asked. I do love you, Evelyn, and I shall never forget! You understand, don't you, that it is only a loan? I shall pay you back!"
"I know you will, when you can. It's a comfort that you need not hurry. I can wait for years."
"You will have to, I'm afraid. Three years! I hadn't a penny of my own when I married, but an old aunt left us all two hundred and fifty pounds, to be paid when we were twenty-five. That's my fortune! Jacky teases me about it, for I was always planning what I will do when it comes. I had decided to buy a tiny two-seater, and learn to drive. I told him that it would be useful in the parish, but really I was thinking of the fun for myself. Are you shocked?"