Jimmy drew a long breath. He rose to his feet, stretching his arms wearily.
"I don't deserve that she should forgive me," he said, with a new sort of humility. "But—but if ever she does——" He took a quick step forwards Gladys. "Go and ask her to come and speak to me, there's a dear. I promise you that I won't upset her. I'll do my very best."
She went reluctantly, and as soon as the door had closed behind her, Jimmy Challoner went over to the looking-glass and stared at his pale reflection anxiously. He had always rather admired himself, but this afternoon his pallor and thinness disgusted him. No wonder Christine did not want to look at him or talk to him. He passed a nervous hand over the refractory kink in his hair, flattening it down; then, remembering that Christine had once said she liked it, brushed it up again agitatedly.
It seemed a long time before she came down to him. He was sure that half an hour must have passed since Gladys shut the door on him, before it opened again and Christine stood there, a little pale, a little defiant.
"You want to speak to me," she said. Her voice was antagonistic, the soft curves of her face seemed to have hardened.
"Yes. Won't you—won't you come and sit down?" Jimmy was horribly nervous. He dragged forward a chair, but she ignored it. She shut the door and stood leaning against it.
"I would rather stay here," she said. "And please be quick. If there is anything important to say——"
The indifference of her voice cut him to the heart. He broke out with genuine grief:
"Oh, Christine, aren't you ever going to forgive me?"
Just for a moment a little quiver convulsed her face, but it was gone instantly. She knew by past experience how easily Jimmy could put just that soft note into his voice. She told herself that it was only because he wanted something from her, not that he was really in the very least sorry for what had happened, for the way he had hurt her, for the havoc he had made of her life.
"It isn't a question of forgiveness at all," she said. "I didn't ask you to come here. I didn't want you to come here, I was quite happy without you."
"That is very evident," he said bitterly. The words escaped him before he could stop them. He apologised agitatedly.
"I didn't mean that; it slipped out; I ought not to have said it. I hardly know what I am saying. If you can't ever forgive me, that settles it once and for all, of course; but——"
"Why have you come here? What do you want?"
The question was direct enough, and in desperation he answered it as directly.
"I have come because my brother will be home next week, and I want to know what I am to tell him."
For the first time she blenched a little. Her eyes sought his with a kind of fear.
"Tell him? What do you mean? What does it matter what you tell him?"
"I mean about our marriage. The old boy was so pleased when he knew that I—that you—— It will about finish him if he knows how—if he knows that we—" He floundered helplessly.
"You mean if he knows that you married me out of pique, and that I found it out?" she added bitterly.
He attempted no defence; he stood there miserable and silent.
"You can tell him what you like," said Christine, after a moment. "I don't care in the very least."
"I know you don't. I quite realise that; but—but if, just for the sake of appearances, you felt you could be sufficiently forgiving to—to come back to me, just—just for a little while, I mean," he added with an embarrassed rush. "I—I wouldn't bother you. I—I'd let you do just as you liked. I wouldn't ask anything. I—I——"
"You are inviting me to have a second honeymoon, in fact. Is that it?" she asked bitterly. "Thank you very much. I enjoyed the first so tremendously that, of course, it is only natural you should think I must be anxious to repeat the experiment."
Jimmy flushed to the roots of his hair.
"I deserve everything you can say. I haven't any excuse to offer; and I know you'll never believe it if I were to tell you that—that when Cynthia——"
She put up her hands to her eyes with a little shudder.
"I don't want to hear anything about her; I don't ever want to hear her name again."
"I'm sorry, dear." The word of endearment slipped out unconsciously. Christine's little figure quivered; suddenly she began to sob.
She wanted someone to be kind to her so badly. The one little word of endearment was like a ray of sunshine touching the hard bitterness of her heart, melting it, breaking her down.
"Christine!" said Jimmy in a choked voice.
He went over to her. He put an arm round her, drawing her nearer to the fire. He made her sit in the arm-chair, and he knelt beside her, holding her hand. He wanted to kiss her, wanted to say all the many passionate words of remorse that rose to his lips, but somehow he was afraid. He was not sure of her yet. He was afraid of startling her, of driving her back into cold antagonism and suspicion.
Presently she stopped sobbing; she freed her hand and wiped away the tears.
"It was silly to cry," she said jerkily. "There was nothing to cry for." She was ashamed that she had broken down; angry that the cause of her grief had been that one little word of endearment spoken by Jimmy.
He rose to his feet and went to stand by the mantelshelf, staring down into the fire.
There was a long silence.
"When—when is Horatio coming?" Christine asked him presently.
"I don't know for certain. The cable said Monday, but it may be later or even earlier."
She looked at him. His shoulders were drooping, his face turned away from her.
There was an agony of indecision in her heart. She did not want to make things harder for him than was absolutely necessary; and yet she clung fast to her pride—the pride that seemed to be whispering to her to refuse—not to give in to him. She stared into the fire, her eyes blurred still with tears.
"I suppose he'll stop your allowance if he knows?" she said at last, with an odd little mirthless laugh.
"I wasn't thinking of that," he said quickly. "I don't care a hang what he does; but—but—well, I would have liked him to think things were all right between us, anyway."
He waited a moment. "Of course, if you can't," he said then, jaggedly, "if you feel that you can't I'll tell him the truth. It will be the only way out of it."
A second honeymoon! Christine's own words seemed to ring in her ears mockingly.
She had never had a honeymoon at all yet. That week in London had been only a nightmare of tears and disillusionment and heartbreak. If it meant going through it all again——
She got up suddenly and went to stand beside Jimmy. She was quite close to him, but she did not touch him, though it would have seemed the most natural thing in all the world just at that moment to slip a hand through his arm or to lay her cheek to the rough serge of his coat. She had been so proud of him, had loved him so much; and yet now she seemed to be looking at him and speaking to him across a yawning gulf which neither of them were able to bridge.
"Jimmy, if—if I do—if I come back to you—just for a little while, so that—so that your brother won't ever know, you won't—you won't try and keep me—afterwards? You won't—you won't try and force me to stay with you, will you?"
"I give you my word of honour. I don't know how to thank you. I—I'm not half good enough for you. I don't deserve that you should ever give me a thought; I'm such an awful rotter," said Jimmy Challoner, with a break in his voice. He tried to take her hand, but she drew back.
"It's only—only friends we're going to be," she whispered.
He choked back a lump in his throat.
"Only friends, of course," he echoed, trying to speak cheerily. He knew what she meant; knew that he was not to remember that they were married, that they were just to behave like good pals—for the complete deception of the Great Horatio.
"Thank you, thank you very much," he said again. "And—and when will you—when——" he stammered.
"Oh, not yet," she told him quickly. "There is plenty of time. Next week will do. You can let me know when your brother arrives. I'll come then. I'll——" Someone knocked at the door. It was Gladys. She looked apologetic. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but there's a telegram for Jimmy. I thought it might be important." She handed him the yellow envelope.
Jimmy took it agitatedly. His heart was thumping. He was sure that he knew what were its contents. He broke open the flap. There was a little silence; then he handed the message to his wife.
"Horatio arrives in London to-morrow morning. Wire just received. Thought you ought to know at once.—SANGSTER."
Christine read the message through, then let it flutter to the floor at her feet; she looked up at Jimmy's embarrassed face.
"Well?" she said sharply.
"He's coming to-morrow, you see," Jimmy began stumblingly. "He—he'll be in London to-morrow, so if—so if——" He cast an appealing glance at Gladys.
"I suppose I'm in the way," she said bluntly. "I'll clear out."
She turned to the door, but Christine stopped her.
"You're not in the way—I'd rather you stayed. You may as well hear what we're talking about. Jimmy's brother is coming home, and—and, you see, he doesn't know that I—that we——"
"I've asked her to come back to me—at any rate, for a time," Jimmy interrupted valiantly. "I know I don't deserve it, but it would make such a deuce of a difference if she would—you know what Horatio is—I—I'd give anything to prevent him knowing what a mess I've made of everything," he added boyishly.
They were both looking at Gladys now, Jimmy and Christine, and for a moment she stood irresolute, then she turned to Jimmy's wife. "Well, what are you going to do?" she said, and her usually blunt voice was quite gentle.
Christine moved closer to her friend.
"Oh, what do you think I ought to do?" she appealed in a whisper.
Gladys glanced across at Jimmy Challoner; he looked miserable enough; at the sight of his thin face and worried eyes she softened towards him; she took Christine's hand.
"I think you ought to go," she said.
Jimmy turned away; he stood staring down into the fire; he felt somehow as if they were both taking a mean advantage of Christine; he felt as if he had tried to force her hand; he was sure she did not wish to come back to him, but he was sure, too, that because in her heart she thought it her duty to do so, he would not return to London alone that night.
Nobody spoke for a moment; Jimmy was afraid to look round, then Christine said slowly:
"Very well, what train are we to go by?"
Her voice sounded a little expressionless; Jimmy could not look at her.
"Any train you like," he said jerkily. "My time is yours—anything you want . . . you have only to say what you would like to do."
A few weeks ago she would have been so happy to hear him speak like that, but now the words seemed to pass her by.
"We may as well have dinner first, and go by a fast train," she said. "I hate slow trains. Will you—will you pack some things for me?" She looked at Gladys.
"Of course." Gladys turned to the door, and Christine followed her, leaving Jimmy alone.
He did not move; he stood staring down at the cheery fire, his elbow resting on the mantleshelf.
He wished now that he had not asked this of his wife; he wished he had braved the situation out and received the full vent of the Great Horatio's wrath alone. Christine would think less of him than ever for being the first to make overtures of peace; he could have kicked himself as he stood there.
Kettering loomed in the background of his mind with hateful persistence; Kettering had looked at Christine as if—as if—— Jimmy roused himself with a sigh; it was a rotten world—a damned rotten world.
Upstairs Gladys was packing a suit-case for Christine, and talking about every conceivable subject under the sun except Jimmy.
Christine sat on the side of the bed, her hands folded in her lap. She took no interest in the proceedings, she hardly seemed to be listening to her friend's chatter.
Suddenly she broke into a remark Gladys was making:
"You really think I am doing the right thing, Gladys?"
Gladys sat back on her heels and let a little silk frock she had been folding fall to the floor. She looked at the younger girl with affectionate anxiety.
"Yes, I do," she said seriously. "Things would never have got any better as they were. It's perfectly true, in my opinion, that if you don't see a person for a long time you don't care whether you ever see him again or not, and—and I should hate you and Jimmy to—to have a final separation, no matter what I've said, and no matter what a selfish pig he is."
Christine smiled faintly.
"He can't help not caring for me," she said.
"No, but he can help having married you," Gladys retorted energetically. "Don't think I'm sympathising with him. I assure you I'm not. I hope he'll get paid out no end for what he's done, and the way he's treated you. But—but all the same, I think you ought to go back to him."
"I hate the thought of it," she said with sudden passion. "I shall never forget those days in London. I tried to pretend that everything was all right when anybody was there, just so that the servants should not see, but they all did, I know, and they were sorry for me. Oh, I feel as if I could kill myself when I look back on it all. To think I let him know how much I cared, and all the time—all the time he wouldn't have minded if he'd never seen me again. All the time he was longing for—for that other woman. I know it's horrid to talk like that about her, but—but she's dead, and—and——" she broke off with a shuddering little sigh.
"Things will come all right—you see," said Gladys wisely. She picked up Christine's frock and carefully folded it. "Give him a chance, Christine; I don't hold a brief for him, but, my word! it would be rotten if the Great Horatio found out the truth and cut Jimmy off with a shilling, wouldn't it? Of course, really it would serve him right, but one can't very well tell him so." She shut the lid of the case, and rose to her feet. "There, I think that's all. It must be nearly dinner time."
But Christine did not move.
"I wish you would come with us," she said tremblingly. "Why can't you come with us? I shouldn't mind half so much if you were there."
Gladys glanced at her and away again.
"Now you're talking sheer rubbish," she said lightly. "You remind me of that absurd play, The Chinese Honeymoon, when the bride took her bridesmaids with her." She laughed; she took Christine's hand and dragged her to her feet. "You might smile a little," she protested. "Don't let Jimmy think you're afraid of him."
"I am afraid. I don't want to go." Suddenly she began to cry.
Gladys's kind eyes grew anxious, she stood silent for a moment.
"I'm ever so much happier here," Christine went on. "I hate London; I hate the horrid hotels. I'd much rather be here with you and——" she broke off.
Gladys let go of her hand; there was a pucker of anxiety between her eyes. What had Kettering said to Christine? she asked herself in sudden panic. Surely he had not broken his word to her. She dismissed the thought with a shrug of the shoulders.
"Don't be a baby, Chris," she said a trifle impatiently. "It's up to you this time, anyway. What's the use of being young and as pretty as you are if you can't win the man you want?"
Christine dried her eyes, her cheeks were flushed.
"But I don't want him," she said with sudden passion. "I don't want him any more than he wants me."
Gladys stared at her in speechless dismay, she felt as if a cold hand had been laid on her heart. She was unutterably thankful when the dinner gong broke the silence; she turned again to the door.
"Well, I want my dinner, that's all I know," she said.
She went downstairs without waiting for Christine.
Jimmy met her in the hall; he looked at her with a sort of suspicion, she thought, and she knew she was colouring.
"Look here, Jimmy," she said with sudden brusqueness, "if she comes back here again without you it will be the last time you need ask me for help. You've got your chance. If you can't make her want to stay with you for the rest of your natural life I wash my hands of the whole affair."
"I'll do my best. I——" he floundered.
Gladys caught his arm in friendly fashion.
"I've no right to tell you, I suppose," she said, lowering her voice, "but it won't be easy. I never thought she'd change so, but now—well——" She shrugged her shoulders.
A little flame flashed into Jimmy's eyes.
"You mean that she doesn't care a hang for me now, is that it?" he asked roughly.
Gladys did not answer, she turned her face away.
Jimmy put his hands on her shoulders, forcing her to look at him.
"Gladys, you don't mean—not—not Kettering?"
There was a thrill of agony in his voice.
"I don't know—I can't be sure," Gladys answered him agitatedly. "I don't know anything. It's only—only what I'm afraid of." She moved hurriedly away from him as they heard Christine's footsteps on the landing upstairs.
"I suppose it was wrong of me to have said that," she told herself in a panic as she went in to dinner. "But after all, it serves him right! Perhaps he'll understand now something of what she suffered, poor darling."
Out in the hall Jimmy was standing at the foot of the stairs looking up at Christine.
"I—I feel such an awful brute," he began agitatedly. "I don't deserve that you should consider me in the least. I—I'll do my best, Christine."
She seemed to avoid looking at him. She moved quickly past him.
"Don't let's talk about it," she said nervously. "I'd much rather we did not talk about it." She went on into the dining-room without him.
Jimmy stood for a moment irresolute, he could not believe that it was Christine who had spoken to him like this. Christine, who so obviously wished to avoid being with him.
A sudden flame of jealousy seared his heart, he clenched his fists. Kettering—damn the fellow, how dared he make love to another man's wife!
But he had conquered his agitation before he followed Christine. He did his best to be cheerful and amusing during dinner. He was rewarded once by seeing the pale ghost of a smile on Christine's sad little face; it was as if for a moment she allowed him to raise the veil of disillusionment that had fallen between them and step back into the old happy days when they had played at sweethearts.
But the dinner was over all too soon, and Gladys said it was time to think about trains, and she talked and hustled very cleverly, giving them no time to feel awkward or embarrassed. She was going to escort them to the station, she declared, conscious, perhaps, that both of them would be glad of her company; she said that she wished, she could come with them all the way, but that, of course, they did not want her. And neither of them dared to contradict her, though secretly Jimmy and Christine would both have given a great deal had she suddenly changed her mind and insisted on accompanying them to London.
She stood at the door of the railway carriage until the last minute; she sent all manner of absurd messages, to the Great Horatio; she told Christine to be sure, to give him her love; she kept up a running fire of chaff and banter till the train started away, and a pompous guard told her to "Stand back, there!" and presently the last glimpse of Christine's pale little face and Jimmy's worried eyes had been swallowed up in the darkness of evening.
Then Gladys turned to walk home alone with a feeling of utter desolation in her heart and an undignified smarting of tears in her eyes.
"I hope to goodness I've done the right thing in letting her go," she thought, as she turned out on to the dark road again. "I hope—I beg your pardon," she had bumped into a tall man coming towards her.
He stopped at sound of her voice, it was Kettering.
"Miss Leighton, what in the world——" he began in amazement.
"I've been seeing Jimmy off," Gladys explained airily, though her heart was beating uncomfortably. "Jimmy and Christine; they've gone off on a second honeymoon," she added flippantly.
"Jimmy—and Christine!" he echoed her words in just the tone of voice she had dreaded and expected to hear, half hurt, half angry. She could feel his eyes peering down at her, trying to read her face through the darkness, then he gave a short, angry laugh.
"I suppose you think you are protecting her from me," he said roughly.
Gladys did not answer at once, and when she spoke it was in a queer, strangled voice:
"Or perhaps I am protecting you—from her!"
There was a little silence, then she moved a step from him. "Good night," she said.
He followed. "I will walk back with you." He strode along beside her through the darkness; he was thinking of Christine and Jimmy, speeding away to London together, and a sort of impotent rage consumed him.
Jimmy was such a boy! So ignorant of the way in which to love a woman like Christine; he asked an angry question:
"Whose suggestion was this—this——?" He could not go on.
"I don't know—they agreed between themselves, I think. Horatio is coming home—the Great Horatio, you knew," Gladys told him, her voice sounded a little hysterical.
"And are you staying on here?"
"I shall for the present—till Christine comes back—if she ever does," she added deliberately.
"You mean that you think she won't?" he questioned sharply.
"I mean that I hope she won't."
They walked some little way in silence.
"You'll find it dull—alone at Upton House," he said presently in a more friendly voice.
"Yes." Gladys was humiliated to know how near she was to weeping; she would rather have died than let Kettering know how desolate she felt.
"You don't care for motoring, do you?" he said suddenly. "Or I might come along and take you out sometimes."
"I do, I love it."
She could feel him staring at her in amazement.
"But you said——" he began.
"I know what I said; it was only another way of expressing my disapproval of—of—— Well, you know!" she explained.
"Oh," he said grimly; suddenly he laughed. "Well, then, may I call and take you out sometimes? We shall both be—lonely," he added with a sigh. "And even if you don't like me——"
He waited, as if expecting her to contradict him, but she did not, and it was impossible for him to know that through the darkness her heart was racing, and her cheeks crimson because—well, perhaps because she liked him too much for complete happiness.
Jimmy and Christine travelled to London at opposite ends of the carriage.
Jimmy had done his best to make his wife comfortable, he had wrapped a rug round her though it was a mild night, he had bought more papers and magazines than she could possibly read on a journey of twice the length, and seeing that she was disinclined to talk, he had finally retired to the other end of the carriage and pretended to be asleep.
He was dying for a smoke, he would have given his soul for a cigarette, but he was afraid to ask for permission, so he sat there in durance vile with his arms folded rightly and his eyes half closed, while the train sped on through the night towards London.
Christine turned the pages of her magazines diligently, though it is doubtful if she read a word or saw a single picture.
She felt very tired and dispirited, it was as if she had been forced back against her will to look once more on the day of her wedding, when the cold cheerlessness of the church and vestry had frightened her, and when Jimmy had asked Sangster to lunch with them. The thought of Sangster gave her a gleam of comfort; she liked him, and she knew that he could be relied upon; she wondered how soon she would see him.
And then she thought of Kettering and the last words he had said to her on the steps at Upton House, and a little sigh escaped her. She thought Jimmy was asleep, she put down the magazine and let herself drift. There was something about Kettering that had appealed to her as no other man had ever done, something manly and utterly reliable which she found restful and protecting. She wondered what he would say when he heard that she had gone back to Jimmy, and what he would think.
She looked across at her husband, his eyes were wide open.
"Do you want anything?" he asked quickly.
"No, thank you." She seized upon the magazine again, she flushed in confusion.
"I've been wondering," said Jimmy gently, "where you would like to stay when we get to town. I think you'd be more comfortable in—in my rooms if you wouldn't mind going there, but——"
She interrupted hastily, "I'd much rather go to an hotel. I don't care where it is—any place will do."
She spoke hurriedly, as if she wished the conversation ended.
Jimmy looked at her wistfully, she was so pretty, much prettier than ever he had realised, he told himself with a sense of loss. A thousand times lately he found himself wishing that Cynthia Farrow had not died; not that he wanted her any more for himself, not that it any longer made him suffer to think of her and those first mad days of his engagement, but so that he might have proved to Christine that the fact of her being in London and near to him affected him not at all, that he might prove his infatuation for her to be a thing dead and done with.
Now he supposed she would never believe him. He looked at her pretty profile, and with sudden impulse he rose to his feet and crossed over to sit beside her.
"I want to speak to you," he said, when she made a little movement as if to escape him. "No, I'm not going to touch you."
There was a note of bitterness in his voice, once she had loved him to be near her—a few short weeks ago—and she would have welcomed this journey with him alone, but now things were so utterly changed.
"I must speak to you, just once, about Cynthia," he said urgently. "Just this once, and then I'll never mention her again. I can't hope that you'll believe what I'm going to say, but—but I do beg of you to try and believe that I am not saying all this because—because she—she's dead. If she had lived it would make no difference to me now; if she were alive at this moment she would be no more to me than—than any other woman in the world."
Christine kept her eyes steadily before her; she listened because she could not help herself, but she felt as if someone were turning a knife in her heart.
"The night—the night she died," Jimmy went on disconnectedly, "I was going to make a clean breast of—of everything to you, and ask you to forgive me and let us start again. I was, 'pon my honour I was, but—but Fate stepped in, I suppose, and you know what happened. When I married you I'll admit that—that I didn't care for you as much as—as much as I ought to have done, but now——"
"But now"—Christine interrupted steadily though she was driven by intolerable pain—"now it's too late. I'm not with you to-night for any reason except that—that I think it's my duty, and because I don't want your brother to know or to blame you. We—we can't ever be anything—except ordinary friends. I suppose we can't get unmarried, can we?" she said with a little quivering laugh. "But—but at least we need never be anything more than—than friends——"
Jimmy was very white; Christine had spoken so quietly, so decidedly, they were not angry words, not even deliberately chosen to hurt him, they sounded just final!
He caught her hand.
"Oh, my God, you don't mean that, Christine, you're just saying it to—to punish me, just to—to—pay me out. You don't really mean it—you don't mean that you've forgotten all the old days, you don't mean that you don't care for me any more—that you never will care for me again. I can't bear it. Oh, for God's sake say you don't mean that."
There was genuine anguish in his voice now, and in his eyes, but Christine was not looking at him, she was only remembering that he had once loved another woman desperately, passionately, and that because that woman was no longer living he wished to transfer his affections; she kept her eyes steadily before her, as she answered him:
"I am sorry, I don't want to hurt you, but—but I am afraid that—that is what I do mean."
There was a moment of absolute silence. She did not look at Jimmy; she was only conscious of the fierce desire in her heart to hurt him, to make him feel, make him suffer as he had once made her suffer in the days that seemed so far away now and dead that she could look back with wonderment at herself for the despair she had known then.
She was glad that she no longer suffered; glad that she had lost her passionate love for him in this numbed indifference. She wondered if he really felt her words, or if he were only pretending.
Once he had pretended to her so well that she had married him; now, as a consequence, she found herself suspecting him at every turn, doubting him whenever he spoke.
The train shot into a tunnel, and Christine caught her breath. She shrank a little farther away from Jimmy in the darkness, but she need not have feared. Seeing her instinctive movement he rose at once and walked away to the other side of the carriage. He hardly spoke to her again till they reached London.
It was late then. Christine felt tired, and her head ached. She asked no more questions as to where they were going or what he proposed to do with her. She followed him into the taxi. She did not hear what directions he gave to the driver. It seemed a very little while before they stopped, and Jimmy was holding out his hand to help her to alight.
They went into the hotel together, and for a moment Jimmy left her alone in the wide, empty lounge while he went to make arrangements for her.
She looked round her dully. The old depression she had known when last she was in London returned. She hated the silence of the lounge; even the doors seemed to shut noiselessly, and everywhere the carpets were so thick that footsteps were muffled.
Jimmy came back. He seemed to avoid her eyes.
"I have taken rooms for you; I think you will be comfortable. Will you—will you go up now? I have ordered supper; it will be ready in fifteen minutes. I will wait here."
Christine obeyed wearily. She went up in the lift feeling lonely and depressed. A kind-faced maid met her on the first landing. She went with Christine into her bedroom; she unpacked her bag and made the room comfortable for her; she talked away cheerily, almost as if she guessed what a sore heart the girl carried with her. Christine felt a little comforted as she went downstairs again.
It was nearly eleven o'clock. A few people were having supper in the room to which she was directed. Jimmy was there waiting for her.
They sat down together almost silently.
"A second honeymoon!" Gladys Leighton's words came back to Christine with a sort of mockery.
She looked at her husband. He was pale and silent. He only made a pretence of eating; they were both glad when the meal was over.
There was a moment of awkwardness when they rose from the table.
"I am tired," Christine said when he asked if she would care to go to the drawing-room for a little while. "I should like to go to bed."
"Very well." Jimmy held out his hand. "Good night." He looked at her and quickly away again. "I will come round in the morning."
She raised startled eyes to his face.
"You are not staying here then?"
He coloured a little.
"No; I thought you would prefer that I did not. I shall be at my rooms—if you want me."
"Very well." She just touched the tips of his fingers. The next moment she was walking alone up the wide staircase.
She never slept all night. Though she had felt tired at the end of her journey, she never once closed her eyes now.
She wished she had not come. She hated Jimmy for having persuaded her; she hated Gladys for having practically told her that it was her duty to do as he wished; she hated Jimmy afresh because now, having got her to London, he had gone off and left her.
She did not choose to believe that he had really done so because he thought she would prefer it. She felt lonely and deserted; tears welled into her eyes.
"A second honeymoon!" What a farce it all was.
It seemed an eternity before the rumble of traffic sounded again in the streets and the first grey daylight crept through the blind chinks.
She wondered what Gladys was doing, what Kettering was doing, and if he knew that she had gone, and where.
She deliberately conjured the memory of his eyes and voice as he had last looked at her and spoken.
Her heart beat a little faster at the memory. She knew well enough that he loved her, and for a moment she wondered what life would be like with him to always care for her and shield her.
He was much older than Jimmy. She did not realise that perhaps his knowledge of women and the way in which they liked to be treated was the result of a long apprenticeship during which he had had time to overcome the impulsive, headlong blunderings through which Jimmy was still stumbling.
She was up and dressed early; she had had her breakfast and was ready to go out when Jimmy arrived. He looked disappointed. He had made an effort and got up unusually early for him in order to be round at the hotel before Christine could possibly expect him. He asked awkwardly if she had slept well. She looked away from him as she answered impatiently:
"I never sleep well in London—I hate it."
He bit his lip.
"I'm sorry. What would you like to do this morning?"
"I'm going out."
"You mean that you don't wish me to come?"
Christine shrugged her shoulders.
"Come if you wish—certainly."
They left the hotel together. It was a bright sunny morning, and London was looking its best. Christine rushed into haphazard speech.
"Have you heard from your brother again?"
"No; I hardly expected to."
Something in the constraint of his voice made her look at him quickly.
"I suppose—I suppose he really is coming?" she said with sudden suspicion.
Jimmy flushed scarlet.
"I haven't deserved that," he said.
Christine laughed—a hard little laugh, strangely unlike her.
"I am not so sure," she answered.
They had turned into Regent Street now. A flower-girl thrust a bunch of scented violets into Jimmy's face.
"Buy a bunch for the pretty lady, sir."
Jimmy smiled involuntarily. He looked at Christine.
"May I buy them for you?" He did not wait for her answer; he gave the girl a shilling.
Christine took the flowers indifferently. She kept marvelling at herself. It seemed impossible that she was the same girl who had once walked these very streets with Jimmy, her heart beating fast with happiness. Then, had he given her a bunch of violets, she would have thrilled at the little gift; but now—she tucked them carelessly into the front of her coat. She did not notice when presently they fell out; but Jimmy had seen, and there was a curiously hurt look in his eyes.
They walked through the park. Jimmy met several people he knew; he raised his hat mechanically, making no attempt to stop and speak.
Christine looked at everyone with a sense of antagonism.
Of course all Jimmy's friends knew that once he had loved Cynthia Farrow; no doubt many of them had seen him walking with her through this very park. Something of the old jealousy touched her for a moment. She would never be able to forget, even If she lived for years and years; the memory of the woman who had wrecked her happiness would always be there between them—a shadow which it was impossible to banish.
"What about some lunch?" said Jimmy presently. He glanced at his watch. "It's half past twelve."
"I should like to ask Mr. Sangster to come with us," Christine said quickly. "Is he anywhere—anywhere where we can find him?"
"I can 'phone. He's not on the 'phone himself, but the people downstairs will take a message, if you don't mind waiting for a moment."
"I don't mind at all."
She was dreading another tete-a-tete lunch with her husband. It had been in her mind all the morning to suggest that Sangster came with them. She remembered bitterly how once Jimmy had suggested bringing his friend to share their wedding breakfast. Things had strangely reversed themselves since that morning.
She waited outside the call box while Jimmy went in; she watched him through the glass door. He was standing with his hat at the back of his head, his elbow resting on the wooden box itself. He looked very young, she thought, in spite of his slightly haggard appearance. Something in his attitude reminded her of him as he had been in his Eton days—long-legged and ungainly in his short jacket. She smothered a little sigh. They had drifted such a weary way since then; too far to ever retrace their steps.
Presently he rejoined her.
"I am sorry—Sangster is not in."
"Oh!" She looked disappointed. "Is there—isn't there anyone else we can ask?"
His eyes searched her flushed face bitterly.
"You hate being alone with me as much as all that?"
She looked away.
"I only thought it would be more lively."
"You find me such dull company."
She made no reply.
"Things have changed since we were engaged, haven't they?" said Jimmy then, savagely. "You were pleased enough to be with me then; you never wanted a third."
"Things are reversed—that is all," she told him unemotionally.
He laughed ironically.
"I don't think you know quite how successfully you are paying me out," he said.
"I would rather not talk about it," she interrupted. "It can do no good. I have done as you asked me; I told you I could do no more, that you must expect nothing more."
There was a little silence.
"I'm sorry," said Jimmy stiltedly.
They lunched together.
"I'll get some tickets for a theatre to-night," Jimmy said. "That will kill the time, won't it?"
"I didn't say I found the time drag," she told him.
"No; but you look bored to death," he answered savagely.
It was such an extraordinary situation—that Christine should ever be bored with him. It cut Jimmy to the heart; he looked at her with anger.
She was leaning back in her chair, looking round the room. She was as little interested in him as he had once been in her.
Twenty times during the day he cursed himself for the mad infatuation that had wrecked his happiness. There was something so sweet and desirable about Christine. He would have given his soul just then for one of her old radiant smiles; for just a glimpse of the light in her eyes which had always been there when she looked at him; for the note of shy happiness in her voice when she spoke to him.
The days of delirium which he had spent with Cynthia Farrow seemed like an impossible dream now, when he looked back on them: the late nights and champagne suppers, the glare of the footlights, the glamour and grease paint of the theatre. His soul sickened at the thought of the unnatural life he had led then. All he wanted now was quiet happiness—the life of domesticity for which he had once pitied himself, believing it would be his lot as Christine's husband, seemed the most desirable thing on earth; just he and she—perhaps down in the country—walking through fields and woods, perhaps at Upton House, with the crowd of old memories to draw them together again, and wipe the hard bitterness from little Christine's brown eyes.
It was pouring with rain when they left the restaurant; the bright sunshine of morning had utterly gone, the street was dripping, the pavements saturated.
"We shall have to go home, I suppose," said Jimmy lugubriously.
"Home?" Christine looked up at him. "Do you mean to the hotel?" she asked.
"I suppose so, unless you would care to come to my rooms," said Jimmy, flushing a little. "There's sure to be a fire there, and—and it's pretty comfortable."
For a moment she hesitated, and his heart-beats quickened a little, hoping she would agree to the suggestion; but the next moment she shook her head.
"I don't care to—thank you. I will go back to the hotel."
Jimmy hailed a taxi. He looked moody and despondent once more. They drove away in silence.
"I will go to your rooms if—if you will answer me one thing," said Christine abruptly.
Jimmy stared. The colour ran into his pale face.
"I will answer anything you like to ask me—you know I will."
"Did—did Miss Farrow ever go to your rooms?"
She asked the question tremblingly; she could not look at him. With a sudden movement Jimmy dropped his face in his hands; the hot blood seemed to scorch him; this sudden mention of a name he had never wished to hear again was almost unbearable.
"Yes," he said; "she did." He looked up. "Christine—don't condemn me like that," he broke out agitatedly. He saw the cold disdain in her averted face.
"She lived such a different life from anything you can possibly imagine. It's—well—it's like being in another world. Women on the stage think nothing of—of—the free-and-easy sort of thing. She used to come to my rooms to tea. She used to bring her friends in after the theatre—after rehearsals." He leaned over as if to take her hand, then drew his own away again. "I—I ask you to come now because—because I thought you would take away all the memories I want to forget. Can't you ever forget too? Can't you ever try and forgive me? It's—it's—awful to think that we may have to live together all our lives and that you'll never look at me again as you used to—never be glad to see me, never want me to touch you." His voice broke; he bit his lip till it bled.
Christine clasped her hands hard in her lap.
"It was awful to me too—once," she said dully. "Awful to know that you didn't love me when I was so sure that you did. But I've got over it. I suppose you will too, some day, even if you think it hurts very much just now. I dare say we shall be quite happy together in our own way some day. Lots of married people are—quite happy together, and don't love each other at all."
She dismissed him when they reached the hotel. She went up to her room and cried.
She did not know why she was crying; she only knew that she felt lonely and unhappy. She would have given the world just then for someone to come in and put kind arms round her. She would have given the world to know that there was someone to whom she really mattered, really counted.
Jimmy only wanted her because he realised that she no longer wanted him. The wedding ring of which she had been so proud was now an unwelcome fetter of which she would never again be free.
They went to the theatre in the evening. Jimmy had take great pains to make himself smart; it was almost pathetic the efforts he made to be bright and entertaining. He told her that he had sent a note to Sangster to meet them afterwards for supper. It gave him a sharp pang of jealousy to notice how Christine's eyes brightened.
"I am so glad," she said. "I like him so much."
She was almost friendly to him after that. Once or twice he made her laugh.
He was very careful to keep always to impersonal subjects. He behaved just as if they were good friends out for an evening of enjoyment. When they left the theatre Christine looked brighter than he had seen her for weeks. Jimmy was profoundly grateful. He was delighted that Sangster should see her with that little flush in her cheeks. She did not look so very unhappy, he told himself.
Sangster was waiting for them when they reached the supper-room. He greeted Christine warmly. He told her jokingly that he had got his dress-suit out of pawn in her honour. He looked very well and happy. The little supper passed off cheerily enough. It was only afterwards, when they all drove to the hotel where Christine was staying, that Sangster blundered; he held a hand to Jimmy when he had said good night to Christine.
"Well, so long, old chap."
Jimmy flushed crimson.
"I'm not staying here. Wait for me; I'm coming along."
"You're a silly fool," Jimmy said savagely, as they walked away. "What in the world did you want to say that for?"
"My dear fellow, I thought it was all right. I thought you'd made it up. I'm awfully sorry."
"We haven't made it up—never shall from what I can see," Jimmy snapped at him. "Oh, for the Lord's sake let's talk about something else."
Sangster raised his troubled eyes to the dark starless sky. He had been so sure everything was all right. Jimmy had made no recent confidence to him. He had thought Christine looked well and happy—and now, after all. . . .
"It looks as if we shall have some more rain," he said dully. "It's been awful weather this week, hasn't it?"
"Damn the weather!" said Jimmy Challoner.
Four days passed away, and still the Great Horatio had not arrived in London. He had sent a couple of telegrams from Marseilles explaining that a chill had delayed him.
"Sly old dog," Jimmy growled to Sangster. "He means that he's having a thundering good time where he is."
"Marseilles isn't much of a place. Perhaps he really is ill."
Jimmy grunted something unintelligible.
"I doubt it," he added. "And the devil of it is that Christine doesn't believe me. She doesn't think the old idiot's coming home at all; she doesn't believe anything I tell her—now."
"Nonsense!" But Sangster's eyes looked anxious. He had seen a great deal during the last four days, and for the first time there was a tiny doubt in his mind. Had Christine really lost her love for Jimmy? He was obliged to admit that it seemed as if she had. She never spoke to him if she could help it, and he knew that Jimmy was as conscious of the change as he, knew that Jimmy was worrying himself to a shadow.
"Your brother will turn up when you're least expecting him," he said in his most matter-of-fact voice. "You'll see if he doesn't—and then everything will come right."
Jimmy grunted. He fidgeted round the room and came to anchorage in front of the window. He stood staring out into the not very cheerful street.
Sangster knocked the ashes from his pipe and rose.
"Well, we may as well be going," he said. "I thought you told me we were to lunch with your wife."
"So I did. She's gone shopping this morning—didn't want me. I said we'd meet her at the Savoy at one. I want to call in at my rooms first, if you don't mind." Jimmy spoke listlessly. He was a great deal with Sangster nowadays. Christine so often made excuses for him not to be with her, and he had got into that state when he could not tolerate his own company. He dreaded being left to his thoughts; he would not be alone for a minute if he could help it.
They left Sangster's rooms and went to Jimmy's.
"I asked Christine to come here the other day," Jimmy said with a short laugh as he fitted his key in the door. "She wouldn't, of course."
"Because Cynthia had been here." He looked away from his friend's eyes. "I don't blame her. She'll never understand the difference. That—that other—— I wonder how it ever came about at all now, when I look back."
Sangster followed him silently.
"I shall give the d——d place up," Jimmy said sullenly. "I can't afford to keep it on really; and if she won't come here——"
Sangster made no comment. Jimmy put his hat down on the table and went over to the sideboard for whisky and glasses.
"Don't be a fool, Jimmy," said Sangster.
He shrugged his shoulders when Jimmy told him to mind his own business. He turned away.
"Here's a telegram," he said suddenly.
"Yes—your brother I expect."
Jimmy snatched up the yellow envelope and tore it open. He read the message through:
"Coming to London to-night. Meet me Waterloo eight-thirty."
He laughed mirthlessly.
"The Great Horatio?" Sangster asked.
Jimmy had forgotten the whisky. He took up his hat.
"Come on; I must tell Christine." He made for the door.
"You'd better take the wire to show her," said Sangster. They went out into the street together.
"It's too early to go to the Savoy," said Jimmy. He was walking very fast now. There was a sort of eagerness in his face; perhaps he hoped that his brother's presence, as Sangster had said, would make all the difference. "We'll hop along to the hotel and fetch her."
He walked Sangster off his feet. He pushed open the swing door of the hotel with an impatient hand.
"Mrs. Challoner—my wife—is she in?"
The hall porter looked at Jimmy curiously. He thought he and Christine were the strangest married couple he had ever come across. There was a little twinkle in his solemn eyes as he answered:
"Mrs. Challoner went very early, sir. She asked me to telephone to you at the Savoy at one o'clock and say she was sorry she would not be able to meet you——"
"Not be able to meet me?" Jimmy's voice and face were blank.
"That is what Mrs. Challoner said, sir. She went out with a gentleman,—a Mr. Kettering, she told me to say, sir."
Sangster turned sharply away. For the first time for many weeks he was utterly and profoundly sorry for Jimmy Challoner, as he stood staring at the hall porter with blank eyes. The eager flush had faded from his face; he looked, all at once, ill and old; he pulled himself together with an effort.
"Oh! All right—thanks—thanks very much."
His voice sounded dazed. He turned and went down the steps to the street; but when he reached the pavement he stood still again, as if he hardly knew what he was doing. When Sangster touched his arm he started violently.
"What is it? Oh, yes—I'm coming." He began to walk on at such a rate that Sangster could hardly keep pace with him. He expostulated good-humouredly:
"What's the hurry, old chap? I'm getting old, remember."
Jimmy slackened speed then. He looked at his friend with burning eyes.
"I'll break every bone in that devil's carcass," he said furiously. "I'll teach him to come dangling after my wife. I ought to have known that was his little game. No wonder she won't go anywhere with me. It's Kettering—damn his impertinence! I suppose he's been setting her against me. He and Horace always thought I was a rotter and an outsider. I'll spoil his beauty for him; I'll——" His voice had risen excitedly. A man passing turned to stare curiously.
Sangster slipped a hand through Jimmy's arm.
"Don't be so hasty, old chap. There's no harm in your wife going out to lunch with Kettering if she wants to. Give her the benefit of the doubt for the present, at least."
"She's chucked me for him. She promised to meet me. She thinks more of him than she does of me, or she'd never have gone." There was a sort of enraged agony in Jimmy's voice, a fierce colour burned in his pale face.
Sangster shrugged his shoulders. It was rather amusing to him that Jimmy should be playing the jealous husband—Jimmy, whose own life had been so singularly selfish and full of little episodes which no doubt he would prefer to be buried and forgotten.
Jimmy turned on him:
"You're pleased, of course. You're chuckling up your sleeve. You think it serves me right—and I dare say it does; but I can't bear it, I tell you—I won't—I won't."
The words were boyish enough, but there was something of real tragedy in his young voice, something that forced the realisation home to Sangster that perhaps it was not merely dog-in-the-manger jealousy that was goading him now, but genuine pain. He looked at him quickly and away again. Jimmy's face was twitching. If he had been a woman one would have said that he was on the verge of an hysterical outburst. Sangster rose to the occasion.
"Let's go and get a drink," he said prosaically. "I'm as dry as dust and we haven't had any lunch."
Jimmy said he wasn't hungry, that he couldn't eat a morsel of anything if it were to save his life. He broke out again into a fresh torrent of abuse of Kettering. He cursed him up hill and down dale. Even when they were in the restaurant to which Sangster insisted on going he could not stop Jimmy's flow of expletives. One or two people lunching near looked at them in amazement. In desperation Sangster ordered a couple of brandies; he forced Jimmy to drink one. Presently he quieted a little. He sat with his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. With the passing of his passionate rage, depression seemed to have gripped him. He was sullen and morose, he would not answer when Sangster spoke to him; when they left the restaurant he insisted on going back to Christine's hotel.
He questioned the porter closely. Where had she gone? Had they driven away together or walked?
They had had a taxi, the man told him. He began to look rather alarmed; there was something in Jimmy's white face and burning eyes that meant mischief, he thought. He told the "Boots" afterwards: "We shall hear more of this—you mark my words."
"A taxi—yes. . . . Go on." Jimmy moistened his dry lips. "You—you didn't hear where—what directions? . . ."
"Yes, sir. The gentleman told me to say Euston, told me to tell the driver to go to Euston, I mean, sir——" the man explained in confusion. He was red in the face now and embarrassed.
"Euston," said Jimmy and Sangster together. They looked at one another, Jimmy with a sort of dread in his eyes, Sangster with anxiety.
"Yes, sir. Euston it was, I'm sure. And the gentleman told me to tell the driver to go as fast as he could."
There was a little silence. Sangster slipped a hand through Jimmy's arm.
"Thanks—thanks very much," he said. He led Jimmy away.
He called a taxi and told the man to drive to Jimmy's rooms. He made no attempt to speak, did not know what to say. Jimmy was leaning back with closed eyes.
"Do you think she's gone?" he asked huskily.
Sangster made a hurried gesture of denial:
Jimmy laughed mirthlessly.
"She has," he said. "I know she has. Serves me damned well right. It's all I deserve." There was a little pause. "Well," he said, "she's more than got her own back, if it's any consolation to her to know it."
He felt as if there were a knife being turned in his heart. His whole soul revolted against this enforced pain. He had never suffered like this in all his life before. Even that night at the theatre, when Cynthia Farrow had given him his conge, he had not suffered as now; then, it had been more damage to his pride than his heart; but this—he loved Christine—he knew now that he loved little Christine as he had never loved any other woman, as he never would love anyone again.
He cursed himself for a blind fool. It goaded him to madness to think of the happiness that had been his for the taking, and which he had let fall to the ground. He clenched his teeth in impotent rage. When they reached his rooms he threw his hat and coat aside, and began pacing up and down as if he could not keep still for a moment. Life was insufferable, intolerable; he could not imagine how he was going to get through all the stretch of years lying in wait for him. He had forgotten that the Great Horatio was coming home that night; the Great Horatio had suddenly faded out of the picture; it was no longer a thing of importance if his allowance were cut down, or stopped once and for all. All he wanted was Christine—Christine. He would have given his soul for her at that moment, for just one glimpse of the old trust and love in her brown eyes, for just a sight of the happy smile with which she had greeted him when they were first engaged. They had all been his once, and now he had lost her forever.
Another man had taken and prized the treasure he had blindly thrown away. Jimmy groaned as he paced up and down, up and down.
Sangster was pretending to read. He turned the pages of a magazine, but he saw nothing of what was written there. In his own way he was as unhappy as Jimmy, in his own way he was suffering tortures of doubt and apprehension.
He did not know Kettering; had only seen him once at Upton House; but he fully realised that the man had a strong personality, and one very likely to hold and keep such a nature as Christine's.
But he could not bear to think of the shipwreck this meant for them all. He could not believe that her love for Jimmy had died so completely; she had loved him so dearly.
Jimmy came over to where he sat:
"Go and ring up again, there's a dear chap," he said. His voice was hoarse. "Ring up the hotel for me, will you? She may have come back. . . . Oh, I hope to God she has," he added brokenly.
Sangster rose at once. He held out his hand.
"I'm so sorry, Jimmy. I'd give anything—anything——" he stopped. "But it's all right, you see," he added cheerily, struck by the despair in his friend's face. "She'll be back there by now. We're both getting scared about nothing. . . . I'll ring up."
He walked over to the desk where Jimmy's 'phone stood. There was a moment of suspense as he rang and gave the number.
Jimmy had begun his restless pacing once more. His hands were deep thrust in his trousers pockets, his head bent. His heart seemed to be hammering in his throat as he tried not to listen to what Sangster was saying—tried not to hear.
"Yes. . . . Challoner—Mrs. Challoner. I only wondered if she had returned. . . . Not yet—oh. . . . Yes. . . . A wire. . . . Yes. . . ."
There was a little silence; a tragic silence it seemed to Jimmy. He was standing still now. He felt as if his limbs had lost all power of movement. His eyes were fixed on Sangster's averted face. After a moment Sangster hung up the receiver.
He did not turn at once; when, at last, he moved, it was very slowly. He went across to Jimmy and laid a hand on his arm. "She's not there, old man; but . . . but there's a wire from her—she wired to the manager. . . ." He paused. He looked away from the agony in Jimmy's eyes. He tried twice to find his voice before he could go on, then:
"She—she's not coming back to-night," he said. "The—the wire was sent from—from Oxford . . ."
And now the silence was like the silence of death. Sangster held his breath. He could feel the sudden rigidness of Jimmy Challoner's arm beneath his hand.
Then Jimmy turned away and dropped into a chair by the table. He fell forward with his face hidden in his outstretched arms.
"Oh, my God!" he said in a hoarse whisper.
It was so useless to try and offer any consolation. Sangster stood looking at him with a suspicious moisture in his honest eyes. Christine—little Christine! His heart felt as if it were breaking as he thought of her—of her love for Jimmy—of the first days of their engagement. And now it was in vain that he tried to remember that Jimmy was to blame for it all. He tried to harden his heart against him; but, somehow, he could not. He went over to where he sat and laid a kind hand on his shoulder.
"Don't give up yet, boy." At that moment he felt years older than his friend. "There may be some mistake. Don't let's give up till we're sure—quite sure——"
Jimmy raised his face. His lips were grey and pinched.
"It's no use," he said hopelessly. "No use. . . . Somehow I know it. . . . Oh, my God! If I could only have it over again—just a day. . . ." The anguish in his voice would have wrung a harder heart than Sangster's. For a moment there was unbroken silence in the room. Then Jimmy struggled to his feet.
"I must go after her. She won't come back, I know. But at least I can try. . . . It may not be too late—— Kettering—damn him! . . ." He broke off. He stood for a moment swaying to and fro.
Sangster caught his arm.
"You're not fit to go. Let me. . . . I'll do all I can. . . I give you my word of honour that I'll move heaven and earth to find her. And we may be mistaken. We may. . . ." He broke off. Someone had knocked softly on the door. For a moment neither of them answered, then the handle was softly turned, and Christine stood there on the threshold. . . .
Sangster caught his breath hard in his throat. He looked at her, and he had to hold himself back with an iron hand to keep from rushing to her, from falling at her feet in abasement for the very real doubt and dread that he had cherished against her.
She looked so young—such a child, and her brown eyes were so sweet and shy as she looked at Jimmy—never at him. He realised it with a little stabbing pain that it was not once at him that she looked, but past him, to where Jimmy stood like a man turned to stone.
Then: "Christine," said Jimmy Challoner with a great cry.
He put out his hand and touched her, almost as if he doubted that she was real. His breath was coming fast; he was ashen pale.
"Christine," he said again in a whisper.
Sangster moved past him. He did not look at Christine any more. He walked to the door and opened it. He hesitated a moment, wondering if either of them would see him going, be conscious of his presence. But he might not have been there for all they knew. He went out slowly and shut the door behind him.
It was the shutting of the door that broke the spell, that roused Jimmy from the lethargy into which he had fallen. He tried to laugh.
"I'm sorry. I—I didn't expect you." The words sounded foolish to himself. He tried to cover them. "Won't you sit down? I'm—I'm glad. . . ." A wave of crimson surged to his face. "Oh, my God! I am glad to see you," he said hoarsely.
He groped backwards for his chair and fell into it.
A most humiliating weakness came over him. He hid his face in his hands.
Christine stood looking at him with troubled eyes; then she put out her hand and touched him timidly:
He caught her hand and carried it to his lips. He kissed it again and again—the little fingers, the soft palm, the slender wrist.
"I thought I should never see you again. I couldn't have borne it. . . . Christine—oh my dear, forgive me, forgive me. I'm so wretched, so utterly, utterly miserable. . . ."
The appeal was so boyish—so like the old selfish Jimmy whom Christine had loved and spoilt in the days when they were both children. It almost seemed as if the years were rolled away again and they were down at Upton House, making up a childish quarrel—Jimmy asking for pardon, she only too anxious to kiss and be friends.
Tears swam into her eyes and her lips trembled; but she did not move.
"I want to tell you something," she said slowly.
He looked up, his eyes full of a great dread.
"Not that you're going away—I can't bear it. You'll drive me mad—Christine—little Christine." He was on his knees beside her now, his arms round her waist, his face buried in the soft folds of her dress. "Forgive me, Christine—forgive me. I love you so, and I've been punished enough. I thought you'd gone away with that devil—that brute Kettering. I've been half mad!" He flung back his head and looked at her. She was very flushed. Her eyes could not meet his.
"That's—that's just what I want to tell you," she said in a whisper.
Jimmy's arms fell from about her. He rose to his feet slowly; he tried to speak, but no words would come. Then, quite suddenly, he broke down into sobbing.
He was very much of a boy still, was Jimmy Challoner. Perhaps he would never grow up into a man as Kettering and Sangster understood the word; but his very boyishness was what Christine had first loved in him. Perhaps he could have chosen no surer or swifter way to her forgiveness than this. . . .
In a moment her arms were round his neck. She tried to draw his head down to her shoulder. Her sweet face was all concern and motherly tenderness as she kissed him and kissed him.
"Don't, Jimmy—don't! Oh, I do love you—I do love you."
She began to cry too, and they kissed and clung together like children who have quarrelled and are sorry.
Jimmy drew her into his arms, and they sat clasping one another in the big arm-chair. It was a bit of a squeeze, but neither of them minded. His arms were round her now, her head on his shoulder. He kissed her every minute. He said that he had all the byegone years of both their lives to make up for. He asked her a hundred times if she really loved him; if she had forgiven him; and if she loved him as much as she had done a month ago—two months ago; if she loved him as much as when they were children; and if she would love him all his life and hers.
"All my life and yours," she told him with trembling lips.
He had kissed the colour back to her cheeks by this time. She looked more like the girl he had seen that fateful night in the stalls at the theatre. He kissed her eyes because he said they were so beautiful. He kissed her hair.
Presently she drew a little away from him.
"But I want to talk to you," she said. She would not look at him. She sat nervously twisting his watch-chain.
"Yes," said Jimmy. He lifted her hand and held it against his lips all the time she spoke.
"It's about—about Mr. Kettering," she said in a whisper.
Jimmy swore—a sign that he was feeling much better.
"I don't want to hear his confounded name."
"Oh, but you must—Jimmy. I—I—he——"
"He's been making love to you——"
No answer. Jimmy took her face in his hands, searching its flushed sweetness with jealous eyes.
"Has he?" he demanded savagely.
"N-no . . . but . . . oh, Jimmy, don't look like that. He only came up this morning because—because Gladys is ill. He thought I ought to know and—and—I thought I would go down and see her. But in the train——" she faltered.
"Yes . . ." said Jimmy from between his teeth.
Christine raised her brown eyes.
"He said—he said——" Suddenly she fell forward, hiding her face against his coat. "Oh, it doesn't matter, dear; it doesn't matter, because it was then that I knew it was only you I wanted—only you I loved. I knew that I couldn't bear any other man to say that he loved me—that it was you—only you."
"Oh, my sweet!" said Jimmy huskily. He turned her face and kissed her lips. "I don't deserve it; but—oh, Christine, do believe that there's never been anyone like you in my life; that I've never cared for anyone as I do for you—all that—that other——"
"I know—I know," she was thinking remorsefully of the days when Kettering had seemed to come before Jimmy in her heart; of the days when she had been unhappy because he stayed away. And now there was a deep thankfulness in her heart that he himself had brought things to a climax. She had been so pleased to see him when he called at the hotel that morning. She had never dreamed that sheer longing had driven him to London to see her, or that he had made Gladys the excuse. She had readily agreed to a run down to Upton House to see Gladys. She had started off with him quite happily and unsuspectingly. And then—even now it sent a little shiver of dread through her to think of the way he had spoken—the way he had pleaded with her—looked at her.
He had held her hands, kissed them, he had tried to kiss her, and it had been the touch of his lips that had melted the numbness of her heart and told her that she loved Jimmy; that in spite of everything that had happened, everything he had done, he was the one and only man who would ever count in her life. Passionate revulsion had driven her back to London. She had parted with Kettering then and there. She had told him that she never wished to see him again. She had felt as if she could never be happy till she was back with Jimmy, till she had made it up with him, till they had kissed and forgiven one another. She told him all this now simply enough. The little Christine of happier days had come back from the land of shadowy memories to which she had retreated as she sat on Jimmy's knee and kissed him between their little broken sentences and asked him to forgive her.
"I've never, never loved anyone but you, Jimmy," she said earnestly. "I've never really loved anyone but you."
And Jimmy said, "Thank God!"
He looked at her with passionate thankfulness and love. He told her all that he had suffered since he went to the hotel and found she had gone. He said that she had punished him even more than she could ever have hoped.
"And that wire—— There was a wire to say that you were not coming back," he said with sudden bitter memory. She nodded.
"I sent it from Oxford. We had to change there. I meant to stay with Gladys. Poor Gladys!" she added with a little soft laugh of happiness.
"She can do without you—I can't," he said quickly.
"Really and truly?" she asked wistfully.
Jimmy drew her again into his arms. He held her soft cheek to his own.
"I've never really wanted anything or anyone badly in all my life until now," he said. "Now you're here, in my arms, and I've got the whole world."
They sat silent for a little.
"Happy?" asked Jimmy in a whisper.
"Quite—quite happy," she told him.
"Jimmy, you won't—you won't be horrid to—to Mr. Kettering, will you? He was kind to me—he was very kind to me when—when I was so unhappy."
"Were you very unhappy, my sweet?"
"I'm sorry, darling—so sorry. I can't tell you."
Christine kissed him.
"You won't ever be unkind again, Jimmy?"
"Never—never! Do you believe me?"
She looked into his eyes.
"And you do love me?"
Christine made a little grimace.
"I'm tired of answering that question."
"I shall never be tired of asking it," he said. "And about Kettering? We shan't ever need to see him again, shall we? So there'll be no chance for me to tell him that I should like to punch his beastly head."
Christine laughed happily, then she grew serious all at once.
"Jimmy, do you know that I somehow think he will marry Gladys——"
"What!" said Jimmy in amazement.
She nodded seriously.
"I believe Gladys likes him. I don't know, but I do believe she does. And she'd make him a splendid wife."
Jimmy screwed up his nose.
"Don't let's talk about her," he said. "I'd much rather talk about my own wife——"
"Do you think I shall make a—nice wife, Jimmy?" she asked in a whisper.
Jimmy caught her to his heart.
"Do I? Darling—I can't—somehow I can't answer that question. I'm not half good enough for you. I don't deserve that you——" he began brokenly.
She laid her hand on his lips.
"You're not to say rude things about my husband," she told him with pretended severity.
He kissed the hand that covered his mouth.
"And so when the Great Horatio comes——" said Christine. Jimmy gave a stifled exclamation; he dragged his watch from his pocket.
"By Jove!" he said.
"What's the matter?" she asked anxiously.
"I had a wire from the old chap. We were to meet him at Waterloo this evening at eight-thirty; it's nearly eight now."
Christine climbed down from his knee with a sudden show of dignity.
"We must go at once—of course we must." She came back for a moment to his arms. "Oh, Jimmy, aren't you glad that we're really—really all right, that we haven't got to pretend now the Great Horatio is home?"
"I can never tell you how glad," said Jimmy humbly.
They kissed, and Christine danced over to the looking-glass to put her hat straight.
Jimmy watched her with adoring eyes. Suddenly:
"I shall tell him that we can't stay after to-night," he said decidedly. "I shall tell him that he can't possibly expect it."
Christine looked round.
"Tell whom—your brother? What do you mean—that he can't expect it?"
Jimmy put an arm round her.
"I shall tell him—don't you know what I shall tell him?" he said fondly. He bent his head suddenly to hers. "I'll tell him that we're going away to-morrow"—his voice dropped to a whisper—"on a second honeymoon."
"Oh!" said Christine softly.