As Betty went back into the drawing-room, she heard the visitor say:—"I was born with a kind of horror of dogs, and I'm afraid that in some uncanny way they always know it! It's such bad luck, for most nice people and all the people I myself have cared for in my life, have been dog lovers."
And at that Dolly, who had a most unfortunate habit of blurting out just those things which, even if people are thinking of, they mostly leave unsaid, exclaimed:—"Your husband bred terriers, didn't he? Flick came from him."
Mrs. Crofton made no answer to this, and Janet, who was looking at her, saw her face alter. A curious expression of—was it pain?—it looked more like fear,—came over it. It was clear that Dolly's thoughtless words had hurt her.
Suddenly there came the sound of a tap on the pane of one of the windows, and Mrs. Crofton, whose nerves were evidently very much out of order, gave a suppressed cry.
"It's only Timmy," said Timmy's mother reassuringly, and then she went and opened the window. "I hope you've shut Flick up," she said in a low voice.
"Of course I have, Mum. He's quite quiet now."
As the boy came forward, into the room, he looked straight up into Mrs. Crofton's face, and as she met the enquiring, alien look, she told herself, for the second time that evening, what a pity it was that these nice people should have such an unpleasant child.
Tom came in to say that the pony cart was at the door, and that Jack was waiting there for Mrs. Crofton.
They all went out in the hall to see her off. It was a bright, beautiful, moonlight night, and Rosamund thought the scene quite romantic.
Mr. Tosswill handed his guest into the pony cart with his usual, rather aloof, courtesy; and after all the good-byes had been said, and as Jack drove down the long, solitary avenue, Enid Crofton told herself that in spite of that horrible incident with the dog—it was so strange that Flick should come, as it were, to haunt her out of her old life, the life she was so anxious to forget—she had had a very promising and successful evening. The only jarring note had been that horrid little boy Timmy—Timmy and his hateful dog.
And then suddenly Enid Crofton asked herself whether Godfrey Radmore was likely to go on being as fond of Timmy Tosswill as he seemed to be now. She had been surprised at the reminiscent affection with which he had spoken of his little godson. But there is a great difference between an attractive baby-child of three and a forward, spoilt, undersized boy of twelve. About a week ago, while they were enjoying a delicious little dinner in the Berkeley Hotel grill-room, he had said:—"Although of course none of them know it, for the present at any rate, Master Timmy is my heir; if I were to die to-night Timmy Tosswill would become a very well-to-do young gentleman!"
Even at the time they had been uttered, the careless words had annoyed Enid Crofton; and now the recollection of them made her feel quite angry. All her life long money had played a great part in this very pretty woman's inmost thoughts.
Betty Tosswill sat up in bed and told herself that it was Friday morning. Then she remembered what it was that was going to happen to-day.
It was something that she had thought, deep in her heart, would never happen. Godfrey Radmore was coming back—coming back into her life, and into all their lives. Though everything seemed just the same as when he had left Old Place, everything was different, both in a spiritual and material sense. The War had made a deep wound, nay, far more than one wound, in the spiritual body politic of Old Place. And it was of a very material thing that Betty Tosswill thought first, and most painfully, this morning. This was the fact that from having been in easy circumstances they were now very poor.
When Godfrey Radmore had gone out of their lives there had been a great, perhaps even then a false, air of prosperity over them all. John Tosswill was a man who had always made bad investments; but in that far-off time, "before the War," living was so cheap, wages were so low, the children were all still so young, that he and Janet had managed very well.
Only Betty knew the scrimping and the saving Jack, at Oxford, and Tom, at Winchester, now entailed on the part of those who lived at Old Place. Why, she herself counted every penny with anxious care, and the stupid, kindly folk who asked, just a trifle censoriously, why she wasn't "doing something," now that "every career is open to a girl, especially to one who did so well in the War," would perhaps have felt a little ashamed had they discovered that she was housemaid, parlourmaid, often cook, to a large and not always easily pleased family. They never had a visitor to stay now—they simply couldn't afford it—and she hated the thought of Godfrey, himself now so unnaturally prosperous, coming back to such an altered state of things.
Besides, that was not all. Betty covered her face with her hands, and slow, bitter, reluctant tears began to ooze through her fingers. She had tried not to think of Godfrey and of his coming, these last two or three days. She had put the knowledge of what was going to happen from her, with a kind of hard, defiant determination. But now she was sorry—sorry, that she had not taken her step-mother's advice, and gone away for a long week-end. Betty Tosswill felt like a man who, having suffered intolerably from a wound which has at last healed, learns with sick apprehension that his wound is to be torn open.
Although not even Janet, her one real close friend and confidant, was aware of it, Godfrey had not been the only man in Betty's life. There had been two men, out in France, who had loved her, and lost no time in telling her so. One had been killed; the other still wrote to her at intervals, begging her earnestly, pathetically, to marry him, and sometimes she half thought she would.
But always Godfrey Radmore stood before the door of her heart, imperiously, almost contemptuously, "shooing off" any would-be intruder. And yet to-day she told herself, believing what she said, that she no longer loved him. She remembered now, as if they had been uttered yesterday, the cruel words he had flung at her during their last hour together when he had taunted her with not giving up everything and going off with him—and that though she had known that there was, even then, a part of his acute, clever brain telling him insistently that she would be a drag on him in his new life.... She had also been cut to the heart that Godfrey had not written to her father when his one-time closest friend, her twin-brother, George, had been killed.
To-day for the first time, Betty Tosswill told herself that perhaps she had been mistaken in doing right instead of wrong, in coming here to help Janet with her far from easy task with the younger children, instead of getting a good job, as she knew she could have done, after the War.
There is a modern type of young woman, quite a good young woman, too, who, in Betty's position, would have thought that it was far better that she should go out and earn, say, three or four pounds a week, sending half the money, or a third of the money, home. But poor Betty was no self-deceiver—she was well aware that what was wanted at Old Place in the difficult months, aye, and even years, which would follow the end of the Great War, was personal service.
And so she had come home, making no favour of it, settling into her often tiring and tiresome duties, trying now and again to make Rosamund and Dolly do their share. In a way they did try, but they were both very selfish in their different ways, and only Janet knew all that everyone of them owed to Betty's hard, continuous work, and sense of order. Not that the girl was perfect by any means; now and again she would say a very sharp, sarcastic word, but on the whole she was wonderfully indulgent, kindly and understanding—more like a mother than a sister to the others.
Everyday life is a mosaic of infinitely little things, whatever those who write and talk may say. Betty had come back and settled down to life at home, mainly because her step-mother could no longer "carry on." Janet could not get servants, and if she could have got them, she could not now have paid them. Then there had been the silly, vulgar but highly dangerous affair between Rosamund and their too attractive married "billet". Had Betty been at home that business would almost certainly have been checked in the bud. As for Dolly, she was worse than no good in the home. But—a certain secret hope was cherished both by Janet and by Betty concerning Dolly. The bachelor vicar of the next parish seemed to find a strange pleasure in her society. He was away now in Switzerland and he had written to Dolly a minute account of his long, tiresome journey.
She wondered, with a feeling of pain at her heart, what Godfrey would think of them all. There had been such an air of charm and gaiety about the place nine years ago. Now, beautiful in a sense as was the stately Georgian house, lovely as was the garden, thanks to Janet's cleverness and hard work, there was an air of shabbiness over everything though Betty only fully realised it on the very rare occasions when she got away for a few days for a change and rest with old friends.
This summer her brother Jack had said a word to her, not exactly complainingly, but with a sort of regret. "Don't you think we could afford new furniture covers for the drawing-room?" and Betty had shaken her head. They could afford nothing for the house—she alone knew how very difficult it was to keep up Jack's own modest allowance.
There had been a discussion between herself and Janet as to whether Mr. Tosswill should start taking pupils again in his old age, but they had decided against it, largely because they felt that the class of pupils whom he had been accustomed to take before the war, and who could alone be of any use from the financial point of view, could not now be made really comfortable at Old Place. Betty was ashamed of feeling how much it hurt her pride to know how concerned Godfrey would be to find how poor they had become. She would not have minded this if he had been poor himself. But she hated the thought of a rich Godfrey, who flung money about over foolish, extravagant presents, discovering, suddenly, how altered were their circumstances since the day when he had rushed out of the house throwing the big cheque kind John Tosswill had shamefacedly handed to him, on to the floor.
* * * * *
After Betty had had her own cold bath, and had prepared a tepid one for her father, she dressed quickly, and going over to the dressing-table in the large, low-ceilinged room—a room which, in spite of the fact that everything in it was old and worn, had yet an air of dainty charm and dignity, for everything in it was what old-fashioned people call "good"—she looked dispassionately at herself in the glass.
Her step-mother had said, "You haven't changed one bit!" But that was not true. Of course she had changed—changed very much, outwardly and inwardly, since she was nineteen. For one thing, the awful physical strain of her work in France had altered her, turned her from a girl into a woman. She had seen many terrible things, and she had met with certain grim adventures she could never forget, which remained all the more vivid because she had never spoken of them to a living being.
And then, as she suddenly told herself, with a rather bitter feeling of revolt, the life she was leading now was not calculated to make her retain a look of youth. Last week, in a fit of temper, Rosamund had said to her:—"I only wish you could see yourself! You look a regular 'govvy'!" She had laughed—the rather spiteful words passing her by—for she had never cared either for learning or teaching. But now, as she gazed critically in her mirror, she told herself that, yes, she really did look rather like a nice governess—the sort of young woman a certain type of smart lady would describe as her "treasure". Forty or fifty years ago that was the sort of human being into which she would have turned almost automatically when poverty had first knocked at the door of Old Place. Now, thank God, people who could afford to pay well for a governess wanted a trained teacher, not an untrained gentlewoman for their children.
But Betty did not waste much time staring at herself. Throwing her head back with what had become a characteristic gesture, she went off and called her sisters and brothers before running lightly down the back stairs.
Nanna was already pottering about the kitchen. She had laid and lit the fire, and put the kettle on to boil for Mrs. Tosswill's early cup of tea. The old woman looked up as Betty came into the kitchen, and a rather touching expression came over her old face. She had a strong, almost a maternal affection for her eldest nurseling, and she wondered how Miss Betty was feeling this morning. Nanna had been told of the coming visitor by Timmy, but with that peculiar touch of delicacy so often found in her class, she had said nothing about it to Betty.
"Well, Nanna? I expect Mrs. Tosswill has told you that Mr. Radmore is coming to-day, and that he's to have George's room."
Nanna nodded. "It's quite ready, Miss Betty. I went in there yesterday afternoon while you was all out. He'll find everything there just as he left it. Eh, dear, I do mind how those dear boys loved their stamps and butterflies."
Betty sighed, a sharp, quick sigh. After calling Jack she had thought of going into the room which had been her brother's and Godfrey's joint room in the long, long ago. And then she had decided that she couldn't bear to do so. The room had never been slept in since George had spent his last happy leave for now there was never any occasion to put a visitor in what was still called by Nanna "Master George's room."
"I expect he'll arrive for tea," said Betty, "and I was wondering whether we couldn't make one of those big seed cakes he and George used to be so fond of."
"That's provided for, too," said Nanna quietly.
And then, all at once, almost as though she were compelled to do so by something outside herself, Betty went across the kitchen and threw her arms round her old nurse's neck and kissed her.
"There, there," said Nanna soothingly, "do you mind much, my dearie!"
"No, I don't think I do." Betty winked away the tears. "It's George I'm really thinking of, Nanna."
"But the dear lad is in the Kingdom of the Blessed, my dear. You wouldn't have him back—surely?"
"Not if he's really happier where he is," said the girl, "but oh, Nanna, it's so hard to believe that." She went across to the big old-fashioned kitchen range, and poured the boiling water into a little silver teapot. Then she took the tray to her step-mother's room.
Next she went down into the drawing-room—she always "did" that room while Nanna laid the breakfast with the help of the village girl who, although she was supposed to come in at seven, very seldom turned up till eight. And then, while Betty was carefully dusting the quaint, old-fashioned Staffordshire figures on the mantelpiece, the door opened, and Nanna came in and shut it behind her. "There isn't any wine," she began mysteriously. "Gentlemen do like a little drop of wine after their dinner."
"I think what father and Jack can do without, Mr. Radmore can do without, too," said Betty. For the first time her colour heightened. "In any case, I don't see how we can get anything fit to drink by this evening."
"I was thinking, Miss Betty, that you might borrow a bottle of port wine at Rose Cottage."
"I don't think I can do that," said Betty decidedly, "you see, Miss Pendarth's port is very good port, and we could never give her back a bottle of the same quality."
And then, as Nanna sidled towards the door, the old woman suddenly remarked, a little irrelevantly:—"I suppose you've told Miss Pendarth that Mr. Godfrey is coming, Miss Betty?"
Betty looked round quickly. "No," she said, "I haven't had a chance yet. Thank you for reminding me."
The old woman slipped away, and Betty suddenly wondered whether Nanna had really come in to ask that question as to Miss Pendarth. Somehow Betty suspected that she had.
It was about eleven, when most of her household chores were done, that Betty started off to pay an informal call on Miss Pendarth, in some ways the most outstanding personality in the village of Beechfield.
"Busybody"—"mischief-maker"—"a very kind lady"—"a disagreeable woman"—"a fearful snob"—"a true Christian"—were some of the epithets which had been, and were still, used, to describe the woman to whose house, Rose Cottage, Betty Tosswill, with a slight feeling of discomfort bordering on pain, began wending her way.
Olivia Pendarth and her colourless younger sister, Anne, the latter now long dead, had settled down at Beechfield in the nineties of the last century. When both over thirty years of age, they had selected Beechfield as a dwelling-place because of its quiet charm and nearness to London. Also because Rose Cottage, which, in spite of its unassuming name, was, if a small yet a substantial, red-brick house with a good garden, paddock and stables, exactly suited them, as to price, and as to the accommodation they then wanted. The surviving sister was now rather over sixty, and her income was very much smaller than it had been, but it never even occurred to her to try and sell what had become to her a place of mingled painful and happy memories.
In every civilised country a village is the world in little, though it is always surprising to the student of human nature to find how many distinct types are gathered within its narrow bounds. And if this is true of village communities all over Europe, it is peculiarly true of an English village.
Miss Pendarth was a clever woman. Too clever to be really happy in the life to which she had condemned herself. She had been born many years too early to follow up any of the various paths now open to the intelligent, educated woman. Yet she belonged, by birth and upbringing, to that age-long tradition of command which perhaps counts for most of all to the one class which has remained in England much the same for generations.
The Pendarths had once been very great people in Cornwall, and long records of the family are to be found in all county histories. Olivia Pendarth was wordlessly very proud of their lineage, and it is no exaggeration to say that she would have died rather than in any way disgrace it.
A woman of great activity, she had perforce no way of expending her energies excepting in connection with the people about her, and always in intention at least she spent herself to some beneficent purpose. Yet there was a considerable circle who much disliked her and whom she herself regarded with almost limitless scorn. These were the folk, idle people most of them, and very well-to-do, who, having made fortunes in London, now lived within a radius of five to ten miles round Beechfield.
Miss Pendarth was on excellent terms with what one must call, for want of a better name, the cottage class. To them she was a good, firm, faithful friend, seeing them through their many small and great troubles, and taking real pains to help their sons and daughters to make good starts in life. Many a village mother had asked Miss Pendarth to "speak" to her naughty girl or headstrong son, and as she was quite fearless, her words often had a surprising effect. She neither patronised nor scolded, and it was impossible to take her in.
But when dealing with the affairs of those of her neighbours, who were well-to-do, and who regarded themselves as belonging to her own class, it was quite another matter. With regard to them and their affairs she was what they often angrily accused her of being—a busy-body and even a mischief-maker. Her lively mind caused her to take a great interest—too great an interest—in the private affairs of people some of whom she disliked, and even despised. She was also not as scrupulous as she might have been in repeating unsavoury gossip. Yet, even so, so substantially good a woman was she, that what some people called Miss Pendarth's interfering ways had more than once brought about a reconciliation between husband and wife, or between an old-fashioned mother and a rebellious daughter. It was hopeless to try to keep from her the news of any local quarrel, love-affair, or money trouble—somehow or other she always found out everything she was likely to want to know—and she almost always wanted to know everything.
There was another fact about Miss Pendarth, and one which much contributed to her importance even with the people who disliked and feared her: she was the only inhabitant of the remote Surrey village who was in touch with the world of fashion and society—who knew people whose "pictures are in the papers." Now and again, though more and more rarely as time went on, she would leave Rose Cottage to take part in some big family gathering of the important and prosperous clan to which, in spite of her own lack of means, she yet belonged, and with whom she kept in touch. But she herself never entertained a visitor at Rose Cottage, for a reason of which she herself was painfully aware and which the more careless of those about her did not in the least realise. This reason was that she was very, very poor. Before the War, her little settled income had enabled her to live in comfort in a house which was her own. But now, had not her one servant been friend as well as maid, she could not have gone on living in Rose Cottage; and during the last year, as Betty Tosswill perhaps alone had noticed, certain beautiful things, fine bits of good old silver, delicate inlaid pieces of furniture, and a pair of finely carved gilt mirrors, had disappeared from Rose Cottage.
The house was situated in the village street, with, however, a paved forecourt, in which stood two huge Italian oil jars gay from April to November with narcissi, tulips, or pink geraniums. Miss Pendarth was proud of the fine old Sussex ironwork gate and railing which separated her domain from the village street. The gate was exactly opposite the entrance to the churchyard, while at right angles stood the village post office. From the windows of her drawing-room upstairs, the mistress of Rose Cottage was able to see a great deal that went on in the village of Beechfield.
Miss Pendarth's appearance, as is so often the case with an elderly, unmarried Englishwoman of her class, gave no clue to her clever, decisive, and original character. She had a thin, rather long mouth, what old-fashioned people call a good nose, and grey eyes, and she had kept the slight, rather stiff, figure of her girlhood. She still wore her hair, which was only now beginning to turn really grey, braided in the way which had been becoming to her thirty years before. The effect, if neat, was rather wig-like, and the one peculiar-looking thing about her appearance. She always wore, summer and winter, a mannish-looking tailor-made coat and skirt, and a plainly cut flannel or linen shirt. At night—and she dressed each evening—she alternated between two black dresses, the one a velvet dress gown, the other a sequin-covered satin tea-gown.
Such was the woman to whom Betty Tosswill had thought it just as well to go herself with the news of Godfrey Radmore's coming visit to Old Place, and as she walked slowly up the village street, the girl tried to remind herself that Miss Pendarth had a very kind side to her nature. Of all the letters Betty had received at the time of her brother's death, she had had none of more sincerely expressed sympathy than that from this old friend whom she was now going to see. And yet? Yet what pain and distress Miss Pendarth had caused them all at the time of the Rosamund trouble! Instead of behaving like a true friend, and, as far as possible, stopping the flow of gossip, she had added to its volume, causing the story to be known to a far larger circle than would otherwise have been the case. But Betty, honesty itself, was well aware that her step-mother had made a serious mistake in not telling Miss Pendarth what there was to tell. A confidence she never betrayed.
Betty also reminded herself ruefully that in the far-away days when Godfrey Radmore had been so often an inmate of Old Place, there had been something like open war between himself and Miss Pendarth, and when she had heard of his extraordinary good fortune, she had not hidden her regret that it had fallen on one so unworthy.
As Betty went up to the iron gate and unlatched it, she half hoped that the owner of Rose Cottage would be out. Miss Pendarth, unlike most of her neighbours, always kept her front door locked—you could not turn the handle and walk right into the house.
To-day she answered Betty's ring herself, and with a smile of welcome lighting up her rather grim face she drew the girl into the hall and kissed her affectionately.
"I was just starting to pay my first call on Mrs. Crofton. But I'm so glad. Perhaps you'll be able to tell me something about her. I hear she had supper with you the day she arrived!"
As she spoke, she led the way into a little room off the hall. "I've been trying to make out to what branch of the Croftons she belongs," she went on reflectively. "There was a man called Cecil Crofton in my second brother's regiment a matter of forty years ago."
"She looks quite young," said Betty doubtfully.
"Old enough to know better than to get herself talked about the first hour she arrived," observed Miss Pendarth grimly.
"I don't think she can have done that—"
"Not only did she bring a man with her, a Captain Tremaine,—but just before he left they had some kind of quarrel which was overheard by two of the tradespeople who were calling to leave their cards."
"How—how horrid," murmured Betty. But what really shocked her was that Miss Pendarth should listen to that sort of gossip.
"It was horrid and absurd too, for the man had turned the key in the lock of the sitting-room, and it stuck for a minute or two when one of them tried to unlock the door in answer to the maid's knock!"
"What an extraordinary thing!"
"I could hardly believe the story, but now that I've seen Mrs. Crofton, I'm not so very much surprised!"
"Then you have seen her?" Betty smiled.
"I've just had a glimpse of her," admitted Miss Pendarth grudgingly, "as she came out of church, a day or two ago, with your sister Dolly."
"She's extraordinarily pretty, isn't she?"
"Too theatrical for my taste. But still, yes, I suppose one must admit that she will prove a very formidable rival to most of our young ladies. I'm told she's a war widow—and she certainly behaves as if she were."
"I don't think it's fair to say that!" Betty crimsoned. She felt a close kinship to all those women who had lost someone they loved in the War.
"You mean not fair to the war widows?"
"Yes, that is what I do mean. Only a few of them behave horridly—"
There was a pause. Betty was trying to bring herself to introduce the subject which filled her mind. But Miss Pendarth was still full of the new tenant of The Trellis House.
"I hear that Timmy's dog gave her a fearful fright."
Betty felt astonished, well used as she was to the other's almost uncanny knowledge of all that went on in the village. Who could have told her this particular bit of gossip?
"I wonder," went on the elder lady reflectively, "what made Mrs. Crofton come to Beechfield, of all places in the world. Somehow she doesn't look the sort of woman who would care for a country life."
"Godfrey Radmore first told her of Beechfield," said Betty, and in spite of herself, she felt the colour rise again hotly to her cheeks.
"Godfrey Radmore?" It was Miss Pendarth's turn to be genuinely surprised. "Godfrey Radmore! Then she's Australian? I thought there was something odd about her."
Betty smiled, but she felt irritated. In some ways Miss Pendarth was surely very narrow-minded!
"No, she's not Australian—at least I'm pretty sure she's not. They met during the War, in Egypt. Her husband was quartered there at the same time as Godfrey." She paused uncomfortably—somehow she found it very difficult to go on and say what, after all, she had come here to say this morning.
"I suppose," said Miss Pendarth at last, "that Godfrey Radmore is back in Brisbane by now. One of the strange things about this war has been the way in which those who could have been best spared, escaped."
In spite of herself, Betty smiled again. "Godfrey has come back to England for good," she said quietly, "he's coming to-day for a long week-end."
"D'you mean," asked Miss Pendarth, "that he's coming to stay with this Mrs. Crofton at The Trellis House?"
"Oh, no!" exclaimed Betty. (What odd ideas Miss Pendarth sometimes had.) "He's coming to Old Place of course: he telephoned to Janet from London, and proposed himself."
"I think it's very good of you all to put up with him," said Miss Pendarth drily, "I've never said so before, my dear, but I thought it exceedingly ungrateful of him not to have come down here when he was in England a year ago, I mean when he sent that puppy to your brother Timmy."
Betty remained silent, and for once her old friend felt—what she too seldom did feel—that she might just as well have kept her thoughts to herself.
Miss Pendarth was really attached to Betty Tosswill, but she was one of those people—there are many such—who find it all too easy to hurt those they love.
They both got up.
"I'm afraid you think me very uncharitable," said the older woman suddenly.
Betty looked at her rather straight. "I sometimes think it strange," she said slowly, "that anyone as kind and clever as I know you are, does not make more allowances for people. For my part, I wonder that Godfrey is coming here at all. As I look back and remember all that happened—I don't think that anyone at Old Place behaved either kindly or fairly to him—I mean about our engagement."
Miss Pendarth was moved as well as surprised by Betty's quiet words. The girl was extraordinarily reserved—she very rarely spoke out her secret thoughts. But Miss Pendarth was destined to be even more surprised, for Betty suddenly put out her hand, and laid it on the other's arm.
"I want to tell you," she said earnestly, "that as far as I am concerned, everything that happened then is quite, quite over. I don't think that Godfrey would have been happy with me, and so I feel that we both had a great escape. I want to tell you this because so many people knew of our engagement, and I'm afraid his coming back like this may cause a lot of silly, vulgar talk."
Miss Pendarth was more touched than she would have cared to admit even to herself. "You can count on me, my dear," she said gravely, "and may I say, Betty, that I feel sure you're right in feeling that you would have been most unhappy with him?"
As Betty walked on to the post office she was glad that that little ordeal was over.
* * * * *
John Tosswill was one of those men who instinctively avoid and put off as long as may be, a difficult or awkward moment. That was perhaps one reason why he had not made a better thing of his life. So his wife was not surprised when, after luncheon, he observed rather nervously that he was going out, and that she must tell Godfrey Radmore how sorry he was not to be there to welcome him.
As she remained silent, he added, rather shamefacedly:—"I'll be back in time to have a few words with him before dinner."
Poor Janet! She still loved her husband as much as she had done in the days when he, the absent-minded, gentle, refined scholar, made his way into her heart. Nay, in a sense, she loved him more, for he had become entirely dependent on her. But though she loved and admired him, she no longer relied on him, as she had once done; he had a queer way of failing her at the big moments of life, and now, to-day, she felt it too bad of him to shirk the moment of Godfrey Radmore's return. His presence would have made everything easier, for he had never admitted either to himself or her, that Godfrey had behaved in a strange or untoward manner.
As she turned over the leaves of a nursery-man's catalogue and gazed at the list of plants and bulbs she could not afford to buy, long-forgotten scenes crowded on her memory.
Radmore had been the violent, unreasonable element in the painful episode, for Betty had behaved well, almost too well. The girl would have thrown in her lot with her lover, but both her father and step-mother had been agonised at the thought of trusting her to a man—and so very young a man—who had made such a failure of his life. That he was going out to Australia practically penniless—nay, worse than penniless, saddled with debts of so-called honour—had been, or so they had judged at the time, entirely his own fault.
John Tosswill, who had a very clear and acute mind when any abstract question was under discussion, had told Betty plainly that she would only be a dangerous hindrance to a man situated as Radmore would be situated in a new country, and she had submitted to her father's judgment.
But how ironical are the twists and turns of life! If only they had known what the future was to bring forth, how differently Betty's father and step-mother would have acted! Yet now to-day, Janet tried to tell herself that Betty had had a happy escape. Godfrey had been like a bull in the net during those painful days nine years ago. He had shown himself utterly unreasonable, and especially angry, nay enraged, with her, Janet, because he had been foolish enough to hope that she would take his part against Betty's father.
* * * * *
Acting on a sudden impulse, she went upstairs, and, feeling a little ashamed of what she was doing, went into the room which was to be Godfrey Radmore's. Then she walked across to where stood Timmy's play-box, in order to find the letter which Betty's one-time lover had written to his godson.
The play-box had been George's play-box in the days of his preparatory school, and it still had his name printed across it.
She turned up the wooden lid. Everything in the box was very tidy, for Timmy was curiously grown-up in some of his ways, and so she very soon found the letter she was seeking for.
It was a quaint, humorous epistle—the letter of a man who feels quite sure of himself, and yet as she read it through rapidly, there rose before her the writer as he had last appeared in a railing whirlwind of rage and fury, just before leaving Old Place—he had vowed at the time—for ever. She remembered how he had shouted at her, hurling bitter reproaches, telling her she would be sorry one day for having persuaded Betty to give him up. But though she, Janet Tosswill, had not forgotten, he had evidently made up his mind, the moment he had met with his unexpected and astonishing piece of good luck, to let bygones be bygones. For, after that first letter to his godson, gifts had come in quick succession to Old Place, curious unexpected, anonymous gifts, but even Dolly had guessed at once from whom they came.
No wonder the younger children were all excited and delighted at the thought of his coming visit! Radmore was now looked upon as a fairy godfather might have been. They were too young, too self-absorbed, to realise that these wonderful gifts out of the blue never seemed to wing their way to Betty or Janet. Yet stop, there had been an exception. Last Christmas each had received an anonymous fairing—Betty, a beautiful little watch, set in diamonds, and Janet, a wonderful old lace flounce. Both registered parcels had come from London, Godfrey Radmore being known at the time to be in Australia. But neither recipient of the delightful gift had ever cared to wear or use it.
And meanwhile the man of whom every single human being in Old Place, with the exception of the little village day girl, was thinking this afternoon, was coming ever nearer and nearer to Beechfield in an ecstasy of sentient joy at being "at home" again.
As Radmore motored along the Portsmouth Road through the warmly-beautiful autumn countryside, a feeling of exultation, of intense personal love for, and pride in, the old country, filled his heart. Why had he stayed in London so long when all this tranquil, appealing loveliness of wood, stream, hill and hollow lay close at hand? There are folk who deny the charm of Surrey—by whom this delicious county, with its noble stretches of wild, fragrant uplands, and wide, deep valleys, is dismissed as suburban. But though they would deny it vehemently, the eyes of such folk are holden.
As he was borne along through the soft, lambent air, everything he passed appealed to his heart and imagination. Each of the small, yet dignified, eighteenth-century houses, which add such distinction and grace to each Surrey township—Epsom, Leatherhead, Guildford—gave him a comfortable feeling of his country's well-being, of the essential stability of England. Now and again, in some woodland glade where summer still lingered, he would pass by happy groups engaged in black-berrying; while on the road there waited the charabancs, the motor-cycles, the pony-traps, which had brought them.
Once, when they came to such a spot, he, Radmore, called out to his chauffeur to stop. They were close to the crest of Boxhill, and below them lay spread out what is perhaps the finest, because the richest in human and historic associations, view in Southern England. As he stood up and gazed down and down and down, to his right he saw what looked from up here such a tiny toylike town, and it recalled suddenly a book he had once read, as one reads a Jules Verne romance, "The Battle of Dorking," a soldier's fairy-tale that had come perilously near being a prophecy.
Before Radmore's eyes—blotting out the noble, peaceful landscape, rich in storied beauty—there rose an extraordinarily vivid phantasmagoria of vast masses of armed men in field grey moving across that wide, thickly peopled valley of lovely villages and cosy little towns. He saw as in a vision the rich stretches of arable land, the now red, brown, and yellow spinneys and clumps of high trees, the meadows dotted with sleek cattle, laid waste—while sinister columns of flames and massed clouds of smoke rose from each homestead.
"Drive on!" he called out, and the chauffeur was startled by the harsh note in his employer's generally kindly voice.
On they sped down the great flank of the huge hill, past the hostelry where Nelson bid a last farewell to his Emma, on and on along narrow lanes, and between high hedges starred with autumn flowers. And then, when in a spot so wild and lonely that it might have been a hundred miles from a town—though it was only some ten miles from Beechfield—something went wrong with the engine of the car.
Janet had proposed that tea should be at five o'clock, so as to give the visitor plenty of time to arrive. But from four onwards, all the younger folk were in a state of excitement and expectation—Timmy running constantly in and out of the house, rushing to the gate, from whence a long stretch of road could be seen, till his constant gyrations got on his mother's nerves, and she sharply ordered him to come in and be quiet.
At a quarter to five the telephone bell rang and Jack languidly went to answer it. Then he came back into the drawing-room. "Radmore's had a breakdown," he said briefly, "he's afraid he can't get here till seven."
Here was a disappointing anti-climax!
"Then we'd better all go and have our tea," said Timmy sententiously, and everyone felt, in a dispirited way, that, as usual, Timmy had hit the nail on the head.
They all trooped into the dining-room, but Timmy was the only one who did full justice to the cakes and scones which had been made specially in Godfrey Radmore's honour: all the others felt cross and disappointed, especially Tom and Rosamund, who had given up going to a tennis-party.
Tea was soon over, for everyone talked much less than usual, and then they all scattered with the exception of Timmy and Betty. Janet had someone to see in the village; Tom persuaded Rosamund that they would still be welcome at the tennis-party; Betty stayed to clear the table. She, alone of them all, was glad of even this short respite, for, as the day had gone on, she had begun to dread the meeting inexpressibly. She knew that even Tom—who had only been seven years old when Godfrey went away—would be wondering how she felt, and watching to see how she would behave. It was a comfort to be alone with only Timmy who was still at table eating steadily. Till recently tea had been Timmy's last meal, though, as a matter of fact, he had nearly always joined in their very simple evening meal. And lately it had been ordained that he was to eat meat. But much as he ate, he never grew fat.
"Hurry up!" said Betty absently. "I want to take off the table-cloth. We can wash up presently."
Timmy got up and shook himself; then he went across to the window, Flick following him, while Betty after having made two tray journeys into the kitchen, folded up the table-cloth. Timmy might have done this last little job, but he pretended not to see that his sister wanted help. He thought it such a shame that he wasn't now allowed the perilous and exciting task of carrying a laden tray. But there had been a certain dreadful day when...
Betty turned round, surprised at the child's stillness and silence. Timmy was standing half in and half out of the long French windows staring at something his sister could not see.
Then, all at once, Betty's heart seemed to stop still. She heard a voice, familiar in a sense, and yet so unlike the voice of which she had once known every inflection.
"Hullo! I do believe I see Timothy Godfrey Radmore Tosswill!" and the window for a moment was darkened by a tall, stalwart figure, which looked as if it were two sizes larger than that which Betty remembered.
The stranger took up Timmy's slight, thin figure as easily as a little girl takes up a doll, and now he was holding his godson up in the air, looking up at him with a half humorous, half whimsical expression, while he exclaimed:—"I can't think where you came from? You've none of the family's good looks, and you haven't a trace of your mother!"
Then he set Timmy down rather carefully and delicately on the edge of the shabby Turkey carpet, and stepped forward, into the dining-room.
"I wonder if I may have a cup of tea? Is Preston still here?"
"Preston's married. She has five children. Mother says it's four too many, as her husband's a cripple." Timmy waited a moment. "We haven't got a parlourmaid now. Mother says we lead the simple life."
"The devil you do!" cried Radmore, diverted, and then, not till then, did he suddenly become aware that he and his godson were not alone.
"Why, Betty!" he exclaimed in a voice he tried to make quite ordinary, "I didn't see you. Have you been there the whole time?"—the whole time being but half a minute at the longest.
And then he strode across the room, and, taking her two hands in his strong grasp, brought her forward, rather masterfully, to the window through which he had just come.
"You're just the same," he said, but there was a doubtful note in his voice, and then as she remained silent, though she smiled a little tremulously, he went on:—
"Nine years have made an awful difference to me—nine years and the war! But Beechfield, from what I've been able to see of it, seems exactly the same—not a twig, not a leaf, not a stone out of place!"
"We didn't expect you for another hour at least," said Betty, in her quiet, well-modulated voice.
She was wondering whether he remembered, as she now remembered with a kind of sickening vividness, the last time they had been together in this room—for it was here, in the dining-room of Old Place, that they had spent their last miserable, heart-broken moment together, a moment when all the angry bitterness had been merged in wild, piteous tenderness, and heart-break...
"I had a bit of luck," he answered cheerfully, "as I went out of the house where I had managed to get on to a telephone, there came a car down the road, and I asked the man who was driving it if he would give me a lift. My luck held, for he was actually breaking his journey for half an hour here, at Beechfield!"
He was talking rather quickly now, as if at last aware of something painful, awkward, in the atmosphere.
"Others all out?" he asked. "Perhaps you'll show me my room, godson?"
"Wouldn't you like to see Nanna?" asked Timmy officiously. "She's so looking forward to seeing you. She wants to thank you for the big Shetland shawl she supposes you sent her last Christmas, and she has an idea that the little real silver teapot she got on her birthday came from you too. It has on it 'A Present for a Good Girl.'"
* * * * *
As Radmore followed Timmy up the once familiar staircase, he felt extraordinarily moved.
How strange the thought that while not only his own life, but the lives of all the people with whom he had been so intimately associated, had changed—this old house had remained absolutely unaltered! Nothing had been added—as far as he could see—and nothing taken away, and yet the human atmosphere was quite other than what it had been ten years ago.
Just now, in the moment of meeting, he had avoided asking Betty about George. Betty's twin had been away at the time of Radmore's break with Old Place—away in a sense which in our civilised days can only be brought about by one thing, an infectious illness. At the time the agonising debate was going on at Beechfield, he had been in a fever hospital close on a month, and they were none of them to see him for three more weeks. It had been at once a pain and a relief that he should not be there—yet what good could a boy of nineteen have done?
As to what had happened to George afterwards, Radmore knew nothing. He believed that his friend had joined the Indian Civil Service. From childhood George had always intended to make his career in India, his maternal forebears having all been in the service of John Company.
During the last few days Radmore had thought a great deal of George, wondering what had happened to him during the war—whether, for instance, he had at last managed, as did so many Anglo-Indian officials, to get leave to join the Army? At one moment, before it had entered into his mind to write to his little godson, he had thought of opening up communications through George. But he had rejected the notion. The break had been so complete, and George, after all, was so closely connected with Betty! Considering that he had not mentioned Betty's brother, either when speaking to Janet on the telephone two or three days ago, or again just when he had made his unconventional re-entry into Old Place, it was odd how the thought of Betty's twin haunted him as he followed his little guide upstairs. Odd? No, in a sense very natural, for he and George often raced each other up these very stairs. They had been such pals in spite of the four years' difference between them.
Radmore and Timmy were now in the kind of annex or wing which had been added some fifty years after the original mansion had been built. The lower floor of this annex consisted of one big room which, even in the days of Radmore's first acquaintance with the Tosswills, was only used in warm weather. Above it were two good bedrooms—the one still called "George's room," over-looked the garden, and had a charming view of bracken-covered hill beyond.
Timmy opened the door with a flourish, and Radmore saw at once that only one of the two beds was made up; otherwise the room was exactly the same, with this one great outstanding difference—that it had a curiously unlived-in look. The dark green linoleum on the floor appeared a thought more worn, the old rug before the fireplace a thought more shabby—still, how well things lasted, in the old country!
He walked across to one of the windows, and the sight of the garden below now in its full autumn beauty, seemed to bring Janet Tosswill vividly before him.
"Your mother as great a gardener as ever?" he asked, without turning round, and Timmy said eagerly:—"I should think she is! And we're going to sell our flowers and vegetables. We shall get the money now; the Red Cross got it during the war."
As his godfather remained silent, the boy went on insistently:—"Fifteen shillings a week clear profit is L40 a year, and Mum thinks it will come to more than that."
Radmore turned round.
"I wonder if any of you have yet met a lady who's just come to live here—Mrs. Crofton?"
"Oh, yes, we've met her; in fact she's been to supper." Timmy spoke without enthusiasm, but Radmore did not notice that.
"I was wondering if you and I could go round and see her between now and dinner?"
"I think I could." There was a doubtful touch in Timmy's voice. He knew quite well he ought to stay and help his sister to wash up the tea-things and do certain other little jobs, but he also knew that if he asked Betty to let him off, she would.
"I shan't be a minute," he exclaimed, and a moment later Radmore heard the little feet pattering down the carpetless back stairs, and then scampering up again.
Timmy ran in breathlessly. "It's all right!" he exclaimed, "I can go with you—Mrs. Crofton has got The Trellis House—I'll show you the way there."
"Show me the way there?" repeated Radmore. "Why, I knew The Trellis House from garret to cellar before you were born, young man."
In the hall Timmy gave a queer, side-long look at his companion. "Do you think we'd better take Flick?" he asked doubtfully, "Mrs. Crofton doesn't like dogs."
"Oh, yes, she does," Radmore spoke carelessly. "Flick was bred by Colonel Crofton. I think she'll be very pleased to see him."
Timmy would have hotly resented being called cruel, and to animals he was most humane, yet somehow he had enjoyed Mrs. Crofton's terror the other night, and he was not unwilling to see a repetition of it. And so the three set out—Timmy, Radmore, and Flick. Somehow it was a comfort to the grown-up man to have the child with him. Had he been alone he would have felt like a ghost walking up the quiet, empty village street. The presence of the child and the dog made him feel so real.
The two trudged on in silence for a bit, and then Radmore asked in a low voice:—"Is that busy-body, Miss Pendarth, still alive?"
They were passing by Rose Cottage as he spoke, and Timmy at once replied in a shrill voice:—"Yes, of course she is." And then, as if as an afterthought, he remarked slyly:—"Rosamund often says she wishes she were dead. Do you hate her, too?"
"Hate's a big word," said Radmore thoughtfully, "but there was very little love lost between me and that good lady in the old days."
They passed the lych-gate of the churchyard, and then, following a sudden impulse, Radmore turned into the post-office.
Yes, his instinct had been right, for here, at any rate, was an old friend, but a friend who, from a young man, had become old and grey. Grasping the postmaster, Jim Cobbett, warmly by the hand Radmore exclaimed:—"I'm glad to find you well and hearty, Cobbett." There came the surprised: "Why, it's Mr. Radmore to be sure! How's the world been treating you, sir?"
"Better than I deserve, Cobbett."
"Can you stay a minute, sir—Missus would like to see you, too?" The speaker opened a door out of the tiny shop, and Radmore, followed by Timmy and Flick, walked into a cosy living-room, where an old dog got up and growled at them.
"That dog," said Timmy in a hoarse whisper, "frightened poor Mrs. Crofton very much the other day as she was coming out of church."
For a moment Radmore thought the room was empty. Then, in the dim lamp-light, a woman, who had been sitting by the fireplace, got up.
"Here's Mr. Radmore come all the way from Australia, mother."
"Mr. Radmore?" repeated the woman dully, and Radmore had another, and a very painful, shock.
He remembered Mrs. Cobbett definitely, as a buxom, merry-looking young woman. She now looked older than her husband, and she did not smile at him, as the man had done, as she held out her worn, thin hand.
"A deal has happened," she said slowly, "since you went away."
"Yes," said Radmore, "a deal has happened, Mrs. Cobbett; but Beechfield seems unchanged, I cannot see any difference at all."
"Hearts are changed," she said in a strange voice.
For the first time since he had been in Beechfield, Radmore felt a tremor of real discomfort run through him.
He looked up at the mantelpiece. It was bare save for the photographs, in cheap frames, of two stolid-looking lads, whom he vaguely remembered.
"Those your boys?" he asked kindly, and then, making an effort of memory of which he felt harmlessly proud, he said:—"Let me see, one was Peter and the other was Paul, eh? I hope they're all right, Mrs. Cobbett?"
"In a sense, sir," she said apathetically. "I do believe they are. They was both killed within a month of one another—first Paul, then Pete, as we called him—so Mr. Cobbett and I be very lonely now."
As Radmore and Timmy walked away from the post-office, Radmore said a trifle ruefully:—"I wish, Timmy, you had told me about those poor people's sons. I'm afraid—I suppose—that a good many boys never came back to Beechfield."
He now felt that everything was indeed changed in the lovely, peaceful little Surrey village.
"I expect," said Timmy thoughtfully, "that the most sensible thing you could do"—(he avoided calling Radmore by name, not knowing whether he was expected to address him as "godfather," "Godfrey," or "Major Radmore")—"before we see anybody else, would be to take a look at the Shrine. You have plenty of matches with you, haven't you?"
"The Shrine?" repeated Radmore hesitatingly.
"Yes, you know?"
But somehow Radmore didn't know.
They walked on in the now fast gathering darkness through a part of the village where the houses were rather spread out. And suddenly, just opposite the now closed, silent schoolhouse and its big playground, Timmy stopped and pointed up to his right. "There's our Shrine," he exclaimed. "If you'll give me the box of matches, I'll strike some while you look at the names."
Radmore stared up to where Timmy pointed, but, for a moment or two, he could see nothing. Then, gradually, there emerged against the high hedge a curious-looking wooden panel protected by a slanting, neatly thatched eave, while below ran a little shelf on which there were three vases filled with fresh flowers.
Timmy Tosswill struck a match and held it up, far above his little head. And Radmore saw flash out the gilded words:—
ROLL OF HONOUR, 1914-1918. PASS, FRIEND. ALL'S WELL.
The first name was "Thomas Ingleton," then came "Mons, 22nd August, 1914." Immediately below, bracketed together, came "Peter and Paul Cobbett," followed, in the one case, by the date October 15, 1915, and in the other, November 19, 1915. And then, in the wavering light, there seemed to start out another name and date.
Radmore uttered an exclamation of sharp pain, almost of anger. He did not want the child to see his shocked, convulsed face, but he said quickly:—"Not George? Surely, Timmy, not George?"
Timmy answered, "Then you didn't know? Dad and Betty thought you did, but Mum thought that perhaps you didn't."
"Why wasn't I told?" asked Radmore roughly. "I should have thought, Timmy, that you might have told me when you answered my first letter."
He took the box of matches out of Timmy's hand, and himself lighting a match, went up quite close to the list of names. Yes, it was there right enough.
"When did he, George, volunteer?" he asked.
"On the seventh of August, two days after the War began," said Timmy simply. "He was awfully afraid they wouldn't take him. There was such a rush, you know. But they did take him, and the doctor who saw him undressed, naked, you know, told Daddy"—the child hesitated a moment, then repeated slowly, proudly—"that George was one of the finest specimens of young manhood he had ever seen."
"And when did he go out?"
"He went out very soon; and we used to have such jolly times when he came back, because, you know, he did come back three times altogether, and the second time—Betty hadn't gone to France then—they all went up to London together and had a splendid time. I didn't go; Mum didn't think it worth the expense that I should go, though George wanted me to."
Hardly conscious that he was doing so, Radmore turned round, and began walking quietly on along the dark road, with Timmy trotting by his side. "What I believed," he muttered, half to himself, "was that George was safe in India, and probably not even allowed to volunteer."
"George never went to India," said Timmy soberly. "Betty wasn't well, I think, and as they were twins, he didn't like to go so far away from her. So he got a job in London. It was quite nice, and he used to come down once a month or so." He waited a moment, then went on. "Betty always said he was a born soldier, and that he ought to have been a soldier from the very beginning. As you care so much," he added a little diffidently, "I expect Betty would show you the letters his men wrote about him. Dad has got the letters of his Colonel and of the officers, but Betty has the others."
And then all at once Radmore felt a small skinny hand slipped into his.
"I want to tell you something," muttered Timmy. "I want to tell you two things. I want to tell you that I'm sure George is in Heaven. I don't know if you know, but I sometimes see people who are dead. I saw Pete Cobbett once. He was standing by the back door of the post-office, and that old dog of theirs saw him too; it was just before we got the news that he was killed, so I thought he was back on leave. But I've never seen George—sometimes I've felt as if he were there, but I've never seen him."
For a moment Radmore wondered if he had heard the words aright. What could the child mean? Did Timmy claim the power to see spirits?
"Now I'll tell you the second thing," went on Timmy, his voice dropping to a whisper. "The last time George was home he came into the night nursery one night. Nanna was still busy in the kitchen, so I was by myself. I have a room all to myself now, but I hadn't then. George came in to say a special good-bye to me—he was going off the next morning very early, and Betty wanted to be the only one up to see him go; I mean really early, half past five in the morning. And then—and then—he said to me: 'You'll look after Betty, Timmy? If anything happens to me you'll take my place, won't you, old chap? You'll look after Betty all the days of her life?' I promised I would, and so I will too. But I haven't told her what George said, and you mustn't tell anybody. I've only told you because you're my godfather."
Mrs. Crofton was walking restlessly about her new home—the house that was so new to her, and yet, if local tradition could be trusted, one of the oldest inhabited dwellings in that part of England.
She had felt so sure that Godfrey Radmore would manage to get away from Old Place, and call on her this afternoon, for Jack Tosswill had told her that he was arriving before tea—she felt depressed and disappointed though she had not yet given up hope.
She wondered if he would come alone the first time, or if one of the girls would accompany him. She felt just a little afraid of Rosamund—Rosamund was so very pretty with all the added, evanescent charm of extreme youth. She told herself that it was lucky that she, Enid, and Godfrey Radmore were already friends, and good friends too.
Twice she went up into her bedroom and gave a long, searching, anxious look at herself in the narrow panel mirror which she had fixed on to one of the cupboard doors. That there is no truer critic of herself, and of her appearance, than a very pretty woman, is generally true even of the vainest and most self-confident of her sex.
Enid Crofton had put on a white serge skirt, and a white woolen jumper, the only concession to her new widowhood being that the white jumper was bordered in pale grey of a shade that matched her shoes and stockings. Though her anxious surveys of herself had been reassuring, she felt nervous, and a trifle despondent. She did not like the country—the stillness even of village life got on her nerves. Still, Beechfield was very different from the horribly lonely house in Essex to which she never returned willingly in her thoughts—though sometimes certain memories of all that had happened there would thrust themselves upon her, refusing to be denied.
Fortunately for the new occupant of The Trellis House, a certain type of prettiness gives its lucky possessor an extraordinary sense of assurance and tranquillity when dealing with the average man. Enid Crofton wasn't quite sure, however, if Godfrey Radmore was an average man. He had never made love to her in those pleasant, now far-away days in Egypt, when every other unattached man did so. That surely proved him to be somewhat peculiar.
During the whole of her not very long life she had been petted and spoilt, admired and sheltered, by almost everyone with whom fate had brought her in contact.
Enid Crofton's father had been a paymaster in the Royal Navy named Joseph Catlin. After his death she and her mother had lived on in Southsea till the girl was sixteen, when her mother had pronounced her quite old enough to be "out." Mrs. Catlin was still too attractive herself to feel her daughter a rival, and the two years which had followed had been delightful years to them both. Then something which they regarded as most romantic occurred. On the day Enid was eighteen, and her mother thirty-seven, there had been a double wedding, Mrs. Catlin becoming the wife of a prosperous medical man, while Enid married a young soldier who had just come in for L4,000, which he and his girl-wife at once proceeded to spend.
To-day, in spite of herself, her mind went back insistently to her first marriage—that marriage of which she never spoke, but of which she was afraid she would have to tell Godfrey Radmore some day. She was shrewd enough to know that many a man in love with a widow would be surprised and taken aback were he suddenly told that she had been married before, not once, but twice.
Unknowingly to them both, the young, generous, devoted, lover-husband, to whom even now she sometimes threw a retrospective, kindly thought, had done her an irreparable injury. He had opened to her the gates of a material paradise—the kind of paradise in which a young woman enjoys a constant flow of ready money. Though she was quite unaware of it, it was those fifteen weeks spent on the Riviera, for the most part at Monte Carlo, which had gradually caused Enid to argue herself into the belief that she was justified in doing anything—anything which might contribute to the renewal of that delicious kind of existence—the only life, from her point of view, worth living.
Her first husband's death in a motor accident had left her practically penniless, as well as frightened and bewildered, and so she had committed the mistake of marrying, almost at once, clever, saturnine Colonel Crofton, a man over thirty years older than herself. His mad passion had died down like a straw-fed flame, and when there had come, like a bolt from their already grey sky, the outbreak of War, it had been a godsend to them both.
Colonel Crofton had at once stepped into what had seemed to them both a good income, with all sorts of delightful extras, and allowances, attached to it. And while he was in France, at the back of the Front, absorbed in his job, though resentful of the fact that he was not in the trenches, Enid had shared a small flat in London with another young and lonely wife. The two had enjoyed every moment of war-time London, dancing, flirting, taking part, by way of doing their bit, in every form of the lighter kind of war charities, their ideal existence only broken by the occasional boredom of having to entertain their respective husbands when the latter were home on leave.
Then had come the short interval in Egypt during which the Croftons had met Godfrey Radmore, and, after that for Enid, another delightful stretch of London life.
She had felt it intolerable to go back to the old, dull life, on an income which seemed smaller than ever with rising prices, and everything sacrificed, or so it had seemed to her, to Colonel Crofton's new, dog-breeding hobby. She resented too, perhaps, more bitterly than she knew herself, her husband's altered attitude to herself. From having been passionately, foolishly in love, he had become critical, and, what to her was especially intolerable, jealous. For a time she had kept up with some of her war-time acquaintances, but there was a strain of curious timidity in her nature, and she grew afraid of Colonel Crofton. Even now, when Enid Crofton, free at last, remembered those dreary months in the shabby little manor-house which Colonel Crofton had taken after the Armistice, she told herself, with a quickened pulse, that flesh and blood cannot stand more than a certain amount of dulness and discomfort. But she seldom went back in thought to that hateful time. She had wanted to obliterate, as far as was possible, all recollection of the place where she had spent such unhappy months, and where had occurred the tragedy of her husband's death. And it would have been difficult to find two dwelling-houses more different than the lonely, austere-looking, Fildy Fe Manor, which stood surrounded by water-clogged fields, some two miles from an unattractive, suburban Essex town, and the delightful, picturesque, cheerful-looking Trellis House which formed an integral part of a prosperous-looking and picturesque Surrey village.
* * * * *
At last Mrs. Crofton settled herself down into her low-ceilinged, square little sitting-room, and, looking round at her new possessions, she told herself that outwardly her new home was perfect.
The Trellis House had been for a short time in the possession of a clever, modern architect who had done his best to restore the building to what it must have been before it had been transformed, early in the 19th century, from a farm into a so-called gentleman's house. He had uncovered the old oak beams, stripped five layers of paper off the walls of the living rooms, and laid bare what panelling there was—in fact he had restored the interior of the old building, while leaving the rose and clematis covered trellis which was on the portion of the house standing at right angles to the village street, and which gave it its name.
In a sense it was too much like a stage picture to please a really fine taste. But to Enid Crofton it formed an ideal background for her attractive self. She had sold for very high prices the sound, solid, fine, 18th century furniture, which her husband had inherited, and with the proceeds she had bought the less comfortable but to the taste of the moment, more attractive oak furnishings of The Trellis House.
Enid Crofton was the kind of woman who acquires helpful admirers in every profession. The junior partner of the big firm of house-agents who had disposed of the lease of Fildy Fe Manor had helped her in every way possible, though he had been rather surprised and puzzled, considering that she knew no one there, at her determination to find a house in, or near, the village of Beechfield.
It was also an admirer, the only one who had survived from her war sojourn in Egypt—a cheery, happy, good-looking soldier, called Tremaine, now at home on leave from India—who had helped her in the actual task of settling in. Not that there had been much settling in to do—for the house had been left in perfect order by its last tenant. But Captain Tremaine had fetched her from the hotel where she had stayed in London; he had bought her first-class ticket (Enid always liked someone to pay for her); they had shared a delightful picnic lunch which he provided in the train; and then, finally, reluctantly, he had left The Trellis House—after a rather silly, tiresome, little scene, during which he had vowed that she should marry him, even if it came to his kidnapping her by force!
While hoping and waiting, in nervous suspense, for Godfrey Radmore, she cast a tender thought to Bob Tremaine. Nothing, so she told herself with a certain vehemence, would induce her to marry him, for he had only L200 a year beside his pay, and that, even in India, she believed would mean poverty. Also she had been told that no woman remained really pretty in India for very long. But she was fond of Tremaine—he was "her sort," and far, far more her ideal of what a man should be than was the rich man she had deliberately made up her mind to marry; but bitter experience had convinced Enid Crofton that money—plenty of money—was as necessary to her as the air she breathed.
* * * * *
Suddenly there broke on her ear the peal of an old-fashioned bell, followed by a short, sharp knock on the toy knocker of her front door. Enid started up, her face full of eagerness and pleasure; something seemed to tell her that it was—it must be—Radmore!
While the maid was going to the door, her mind worked quickly. Surely it was very late for a call? He must have been wishing to see her as soon as he possibly could, or he would never have managed to get away from Old Place, and its many tiresome inmates. There came a mischievous smile over her face. Of one of those inmates, the rather priggish Jack Tosswill, she had made a real conquest. Under some flimsy excuse he had come every day, always staying for a considerable time. This very morning he had not gone till she had told him frankly that she only had lunch enough for one!
The door opened slowly, and her smile died away, giving place to a touching, pathetic expression. And then, instead of the tall, dark man she expected to see walk in, there advanced towards her a small, freckled-faced, fair-haired little boy—Timmy Tosswill, the child whom she was already beginning to regard with something akin to real distaste.
But Enid Crofton was never unpleasant in manner to anybody, and she even forced herself to smile, as she exclaimed:—"I was not expecting a visitor so late, but I'm very pleased to see you all the same, Master Timmy! How wonderful that you should have been able to reach my knocker. It's placed so very high up on the door—I think I must get it altered."
"I didn't knock," said Timmy shortly, "it was my godfather who knocked, Mrs. Crofton."
And when Radmore followed his godson into the room he was surprised, even a little touched, at the warmth of Mrs. Crofton's greeting.
She put out both her hands, "I am glad to see you"—and then she added, characteristically, for truth was not in her, "I was afraid you wouldn't have time to look me up for ever so long!"
But though Radmore was pleased by her evident joy in seeing him, he looked at her with a curiously critical eye. He was surprised to find her in a white frock—inclined, even, to be just a little bit shocked.
And there was something else. Enid Crofton had enjoyed the War—she had admitted this just a little shamefacedly a week ago, when they two were having dinner together at the Savoy Grill, where she had been easily the prettiest woman in the room. At the time he had felt indulgently that it was a good thing that someone should have gone through that awful time untouched by the pains and scars of war. But now everything seemed different, somehow. Beechfield was a place of mourning, and in a place of mourning this smiling, beautifully dressed, almost too pretty young creature looked out of place. Still that wasn't her fault, after all.
As the three sat down, Timmy upset the narrow oak stool on which he had placed himself with a great clatter, and Radmore suddenly realised that he had made a mistake in bringing the boy. For the first time since his return to England he saw something like a frown gather on Mrs. Crofton's face. Perhaps, unlike most nice women, she didn't like children?
"I'm awfully grateful to you for having told me about Beechfield," she exclaimed. "Although I've hardly been here a week, I do feel what a delightful place it is! Everybody is so kind and friendly. Why the very first day I was here I was asked to supper at Old Place—and several people have left cards on me already. What sort of a woman is Miss—" she hesitated, "Pendarth?"
Timmy and Radmore looked at one another, but neither spoke for a moment. Then Radmore answered, rather drily:—"In my time, Miss Pendarth was the greatest gossip and busy-body within a radius of thirty miles. She must be an old woman now."
"Oh, I don't think she would like you to call her that!" exclaimed Timmy, and both his grown-up auditors laughed. But Enid Crofton felt a little disappointed, for on Miss Pendarth's card had been written the words:—"I look forward to making your acquaintance. I think I must have known Colonel Crofton many years ago. There was a Cecil Crofton who was a great friend of my brother's—they joined the Ninetieth on the same day." She had rather hoped to find a kindly friend and ally in the still unknown caller.
And then, as if answering her secret thought, Radmore observed carelessly:—"It's wrong to prejudice you against Miss Pendarth; I've known her do most awfully kind things. But she had what the Scotch call a 'scunner' against me when I was a boy. She's the sort of woman who's a good friend and a bad enemy."
"I must hope," said his hostess softly, "that she'll be a good friend to me. At any rate, it was nice of her to come and call almost at once, wasn't it?"
"You've delightful quarters here," observed Radmore. "The Trellis House was a very different place to this in my time; I can remember a hideous, cold and white wallpaper in this room—it looks twice as large as it did then."
"I found the things I sold made it possible for me to buy almost everything in The Trellis House. Tappin & Edge say that I got a great bargain."
"Yes," said Radmore hesitatingly, "I expect you did."
But all the same he felt that his pretty friend had made a mistake, for he remembered some of Colonel Crofton's furniture as having been very good. In the bedroom in which he had slept at Fildy Fe Manor there had been a walnut-wood tallboy of the best Jacobean period. That one piece must certainly have been worth more than all the furniture in this particular room put together.
Poor Enid Crofton! The call to which she had been looking forward so greatly was not turning out a success. Godfrey Radmore seemed a very different man here, in Beechfield, from what he had seemed in London. They talked in a desultory way, with none of the pleasant, cosy, intimacy to which she had insensibly accustomed him; and though Timmy remained absolutely quiet and silent after that unfortunate accident with the stool, his presence in some way affected the atmosphere.
All at once Radmore asked:—"And where's Boo-boo? It's odd I never thought of asking you in London, but somehow one expects to see a dog in the country, even as highly civilised and smart a little dog as Boo-boo!"
"I sold her," answered Mrs. Crofton, in a low, pained tone. "I got L40 for her, and a most awfully good home. Still," she sighed, "of course I miss my darling little Boo—" and then a sharp tremor ran through her, for there suddenly fell on her ears the sound of a dog, howling.
Now Enid Crofton did not believe that what she heard so clearly were real howls, proceeding from a flesh-and-blood dog. She thought that her nerves were betraying her, as they had a way of doing since her husband's death. Often when she fell asleep, there would come to her a strange and horrible nightmare. It was such a queer, uncanny kind of dream for a grown-up woman to have! She used to dream that she was a rat—and that Colonel Crofton's own terrier, a fierce brute called Dandy, was after her.
"That's Flick! Perhaps I'd better go and let him out?" Timmy jumped up as he spoke. "I thought you didn't like dogs, Mrs. Crofton, and so I shut Flick up in your stable-yard. I expect he's got bored, being in there all by himself, in the dark!"
The boy's words brought delicious relief, and then, all at once, she felt unreasonably angry. How stupid of this odious little fellow to have brought his horrid, savage dog with him—after what had happened the other night!
Timmy shot out of the room and so through the front door, and Radmore got up too. "I'm afraid we ought to be going," he said.
His white-clad hostess came up close to him:—"It's so good of you to have come to see me so soon," she murmured. "Though I do like Beechfield, and the people here are awfully kind, I feel very forlorn, Mr. Radmore. Seeing you has cheered me up very much. I hope you'll come again soon."
There fell on the still air the voice of Timmy talking to his dog outside. Mrs. Crofton went quickly past Radmore into the tiny hall; she shut the front door, which had been left ajar; and then she came back.
"It's quite true that I don't like dogs!" she exclaimed. "Poor Cecil's terriers got thoroughly on my nerves last winter. I sometimes dream of them even now."
He looked at her, surprised, and rather concerned. Poor little woman! There were actually tears in her eyes.
"Yes," she went on, as if she could not help the words coming out, "that's the real reason I sold Boo-boo. I even felt as if my poor little Boo-boo had turned against me." There was a touch of excitement, almost of defiance, in her low voice, and Radmore felt exceedingly taken aback and puzzled. This was an Enid Crofton he had never met. "Come, come—you mustn't feel like that"—he took her hand in his and held it closely.
She looked up at him and her eyes filled with tears, and then, suddenly, her heart began beating deliciously. She saw flash into his dark face a look she had seen flash into many men's faces, but never in his, till now—the excited, tender look that she had longed to see there. She swayed a little towards him; dropping her hand, he put out his arms—in another moment, what she felt sure such a man as Radmore would have regarded as irreparable would have happened, had not the door just behind them burst open.
They fell apart quickly, and Radmore, with a sudden revulsion of feeling—a sensation that he had been saved from doing a very foolish thing—turned to see his godson, Timmy Tosswill.
Enid Crofton looked at Timmy, too, and if evil thoughts could kill, the child would have fallen dead. But evil thoughts do not kill, and so all that happened was that Timmy had a sudden, instinctive feeling that he must account for his presence.
Looking up into his godfather's face, he said breathlessly:—"The front door was shut, so I came in, through the kitchen. It's ever so late, Godfrey—after half past seven. Dad will be upset if you're not back to speak to him before dinner!"
* * * * *
As the two, the tall man and the short boy, walked away into the darkness, Radmore was possessed by an extraordinary mixture of feelings. "You've had an escape! You've got well out of what would have been not only a dangerous but an absurd situation," so whispered a secret, inner voice. And yet there was a side of him which felt not only balked and disappointed, but exasperated...
"Do you ever think of people's faces when they're not there?" asked Timmy suddenly, and then, without waiting for an answer, he went on:—"When I shut my eyes, before I go quite off to sleep, you know, I see a row of faces. Sometimes they're people I've never seen at all; but last night I kept seeing Mrs. Crofton's face, looking just as it looked when Flick ran in and growled at her the other night. It was such an awful look—I don't think I shall ever forget it."
As Radmore said nothing, the little boy asked another question: "Do you think Mrs. Crofton pretty?" This time Timmy waited for an answer.
"Yes, I think she's very pretty. But gentlemen don't discuss ladies and their looks, old boy."
"Don't they? How stupid of them!" said Timmy. He added a little shyly, "I suppose a gentleman may talk of his sister?"
Radmore turned hot in the darkness. Was Timmy going to say something of Betty, and of that old, painful, now he hoped forgotten, episode? But Timmy only observed musingly:—"You haven't seen Rosamund yet. Of course we never say so to her, because it might make her vain, but I do think, Godfrey, that she's very, very pretty."
And then, rather to his companion's discomfiture, his queer little mind swung back to the woman to whose house they had just been. "Mrs. Crofton," he observed, with an air of finality, "may be pretty, but she's got what I call a blotting-paper face."
Radmore felt secretly relieved that he and Timmy got home too late for him to see Mr. Tosswill alone before dinner. And when at last he came down, just a minute or two late, for he had to do things for himself to which he had become unaccustomed—unpacking his bag, putting out his evening clothes, placing of studs in his evening shirt, and so on—he found what looked to him like a large party of strangers all gathered together in the dear old drawing-room.
As he walked in among them he looked first with quick interest at the three girls. Yes, Timmy was right—Rosamund was lovely. Dolly struck him as commonplace, though as a matter of fact she looked more attractive than usual. Betty looked very hot—or was it that the exquisite complexion that once had been her chief physical beauty had gone?
After a moment or two Betty slipped out of the room, leaving Radmore and Mr. Tosswill shaking hands quite cordially, if a little awkwardly.
"Well, sir, here I am again, turned up just like a bad penny!" And his host answered absently:—"Yes, yes, Godfrey—very glad to see you, I'm sure."
Then, after he had shaken hands with Janet and Tom, they all stood together on the hearthrug waiting, so Radmore supposed, for the parlourmaid to come in and announce dinner.
But instead of that happening, the door opened and Timmy appeared. "Will you come into the dining-room? Everything's ready now."
They all followed him, three of the younger ones—Tom, Dolly and Rosamund—laughing and whispering together. Somehow Timmy never associated himself with those of his brothers and sisters nearest to him in age.
Radmore came last of all with Janet. He felt as if he were in a strange, unreal dream. It was all at once so like and so unlike what he had expected to find it. All these quiet, demure-looking young strangers, instead of the jolly, familiar children he had left nine years ago—and, as he realised with a sharp pang—no George. He had not known till to-night how much he had counted on seeing George, or at least on hearing all about him. Instead, here was Jack, so very self-possessed—or was it superior?—in his smart evening jacket. He could hardly believe that Jack was George's brother.
For a moment he forgot Betty. Then he saw her come hurrying in. Her colour had gone down, and she looked very charming, and yet—yes, a stranger too.
The table was laid very much as it had been in the old days on a Sunday, when they always had supper instead of dinner at Old Place. But to-day was not Sunday—where could all the servants be?
Janet, looking very nice in the bright blue gown her little son had admired, placed the guest on her right hand. To her left, Timmy, with snorts and wriggles, settled himself. The others all sorted themselves out; Betty sat the nearest to the door, on the right of her father,—lovely Rosamund on his left.
Timmy stood up and mumbled out a Latin grace. How it brought back Radmore's boyhood and early manhood days! But in those days it was Tom, a simple cherubic-looking little boy of seven, who said grace—the usual "For what we are going to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful!" The stranger—how queer to think he was a stranger here, in this familiar room—did not care for the innovation.
They all sat down, and Radmore began to eat his soup, served in a covered cup. It was very good soup, and as he was rather tired and hungry, he enjoyed it. Then Timmy got up and removed the cup and its cover; and suddenly the guest became aware that only four people at the table had taken soup—himself, Mr. Tosswill, Jack, and Timmy. What an odd thing!
They were all rather silent, and Radmore began to have a strange, uncanny feeling that none of them could see him, that he was a wraith, projected out of the past into the present. It was a novel and most disconcerting sensation. But no one glancing at his keen face, now illumined with a half humorous expression of interest, would have guessed the mixed and painful feelings which possessed him.
He stole a look to his left. Janet, in his eyes, was almost unchanged. Of course she looked a thought older, a thought thicker—not so much in her upright figure, as in her clever, irregular-featured face. In the days of his early manhood she had never seemed to him to be very much older than himself—but now she looked a lifetime older than he felt.
Only Mr. Tosswill looked absolutely unchanged. His mild benevolent face, his deep blue eyes, his grey hair, seemed exactly the same as when Radmore had last sat down, in the Old Place dining-room, to a full table. That had been in the Christmas holidays of 1910. Very well he remembered all that had happened then, for he and Betty had just become engaged.
At nineteen Betty Tosswill had belonged to the ideal type of old-fashioned English girlhood—high-spirited, cheerful, artless yet intelligent, with a strong sense of humour. She had worn a pink evening frock during those long-ago Christmas holidays, and had looked, at any rate in her young lover's eyes, beautiful.
They had been ardently, passionately in love, he a masterful, exacting lover, and though seeming older than his age, without any of the magnanimity which even the passage of only a very few years brings to most intelligent men. Poor little Betty of long ago—what a child she had been at nineteen!—but a child capable of deep and varied emotions.
At the time of their parting he had been absorbed in his own selfish sensations of anger, revolt, and the sharp sense of loss, savagely glad that she was unhappy too. But after he had gone, after he had plunged into the new, to him exciting and curious, life of the great vessel taking him to Australia, he had forced himself to put Betty out of his mind, and, after a few days, he had started a violent flirtation with the most attractive woman on board the liner. The flirtation had developed, by the time they reached Sydney, into a serious affair, and had been the determining cause why he had not written even to George. Godfrey Radmore had not thought of that woman for years. But to-night her now hateful, meretricious image rose, with horrid vividness, before him. It had been an ugly, debasing episode, and had dragged on and on, as such episodes have a way of doing.
Wrenching his mind free of that odious memory, he looked across at Betty. Yes, it was at once a relief and something of a disappointment to feel her, too, transformed into a stranger. For one thing she had had, when he had last seen her, a great deal of long fair hair. But she had cut it off when starting her arduous war work, and the lack of it altered her amazingly, all the more that she did not wear her short hair "bobbed," in what had become the prevailing fashion, but brushed back from her low forehead, and staidly held in place by a broad, black, snood-like ribbon.
He looked to his right, down the old-fashioned, almost square dining table. Jack was the least changed, after his father, of the young people sitting at this table. Jack, nine years ago, had been a rather complacent boy, doing very well at school, the type of boy who is as if marked out by fate to do well in life. Yes, Jack had hardly changed at all, but Radmore, looking at Jack, felt a sudden intolerable jealousy for George....
He came back with a start to what was going on around him, and idly he wondered what had happened to all the servants this evening. Truth to tell he had been just a little surprised and taken aback at not finding his bag unpacked and his evening clothes laid out before dinner.
Timmy had slipped out of his chair and brought him a plateful of roast mutton, and now Rosamund was playing waitress, smiling at his elbow, a lovely Hebe indeed, with dishes of potatoes and greens. He helped himself a little awkwardly, while Timmy was taking round platefuls of meat to his father, to Jack, and finally one to his own little self.
Then Betty went out of the room, and came back with a large dish of macaroni cheese, which she put on a side table. Jack got up and whispered something to her rather angrily. He was evidently remonstrating with her for not having allowed him to go and get the dish, for he motioned her rather imperiously back to her seat by her father, while he himself, calling to Dolly to help him, dealt out generous portions of macaroni cheese to those who had not taken meat.
All at once Timmy exclaimed in his shrill voice:—"I like macaroni cheese. Why shouldn't I have a little to-day, too? Here, Tom, you take my meat, and I'll have your macaroni cheese." He did not wait for Tom's assent to this peculiar proposal, and was proceeding to effect the exchange when Tom muttered crossly, while yet, or so Radmore fancied, casting rather longing eyes at Timmy's plate.