Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
IT is the story of a woman who was cruelly deceived—and the desperate action she took in a moment of madness to to free herse1f of a terrible predicament.
E. Phillips Oppenheim, the famous author of Anna the Adventuress, and so many other fascinating romances, has never written a more absorbing story than The Lesser Sin, which begins serial publication in The Herald on Thursday.
IT was the aftermath of the wedding ceremony and I hated it.
I drew Norah away from the noisy little group towards the far end of the platform under the pretext of a few last words. From behind a pile of luggage I looked with chill forebodings at Robert Sherriff, the man whom I had married, and his boon companions, and the longer I looked, the lower sank my heart.
There was evidences of rice upon their clothing, of conviviality in the boisterous words and attitude of my husband. They were flashily but untidily dressed. I felt the terror begin to shine out of my eyes. We were different, Norah and I—of a different world to Robert Sherriff and his noisy friends.
"I wish the train would come!" I exclaimed, looking, anxiously along the line.
"It will be here directly," my sister assured me. "The man said that it was only five minutes late."
I looked back with fascinated but disapproving eyes at the little group from which we had withdrawn ourselves.
"I do think that Robert might have kept out of the refreshment room for these few minutes," I complained. "And as for his friends, I detest them all. Thank goodness, there are not many of them."
"You will be able to make your own friends," Norah reminded me, hopefully. "Wealth can do so much in the world, and Robert assures me that he will be a millionaire before the year is out."
I found myself taking stock of my husband critically, as he stood with his hands in his pockets, the dominant figure in that little group of his business and public house acquaintances. He was largely built, inclined to be florid, with fair hair, slightly curly, a bold, confident face, the large mouth of the confirmed optimist, a curious expression of the eyes, changing without apparent cause from a free challenge to furtiveness. His blue serge suit was not properly brushed, and fitted him badly. His tie was ill-chosen, his new shoes much too brown. I looked away from him with a renewed depression, and I could see the foreboding in Norah's dark eyes as she watched me.
"I hope you will be happy, Phil," she said, with an attempt at cheerfulness.
"I mean to be," I answered. "These last five years have been terrible. I mean to make up for them."
Norah looked at me with somewhat wistful affection. She was three years my senior, but many years older in character and wisdom.
"You were never meant to rough it, dear," she sighed. "You were always meant to wear beautiful clothes and live in beautiful places. It hasn't mattered for me."
"It has mattered for both of us," I declared passionately. "It happened that you found congenial work, and then the war came, and of course your nursing was wonderful. But for me there has been nothing. I hate typing. I hate poverty. I hate ugliness. But Norah," I went on, with a little break in my voice and a furtive glance towards the other end of the platform, "more than anything else in the world I am afraid I hate myself for having married Robert just to escape from it all."
"Rubbish!" she expostulated vigorously. "After all, Robert is very easily influenced. You will be able to polish him; and he is madly in love with you. You are just a little over-nervous, Phillipa, and no wonder. Here's the train—a good thing, too! Good-bye, and if you want me, send for me."
A few distasteful moments followed. I found my hand grasped by a number of objectionable people, listened to jokes in the worst possible taste, felt my cheeks touched by the lips of the best man—a horrible person whose breath reeked of whisky—and finally, in self-defence, after one long look into Norah's anxious face, sank into a seat and closed my eyes.
It was not until the train was moving out of the station that I opened them and looked around me. My first instinct was one of amazement. There were three other people in the compartment, gazing at me with an air of amused curiosity, and the carriage itself was a third-class smoker.
"Robert," I whispered, leaning forward, "surely there is some mistake? You engaged a carriage, didn't you?"
"The train was so jolly full," he explained awkwardly. "I left Harry to telephone and he said he'd done it all right."
"At least we can change into a first class," I begged under my breath. "I hate the way these people stare."
He rose unwillingly to his feet and deposited his bowler hat in the rack above his head. "I'll go and have a look round," he suggested. "Perhaps I'll come across the guard."
He lumbered off through the door which led into the corridor, and I sat with my hands folded in my lap and my eyes fixed upon the smoke-stained country through which we were passing. I was acutely conscious of the observation of my fellow-passengers. Two of them were whispering in the corner. I heard remarks about my hair and complexion. The position was loathsome to me...
Presently Robert returned. "Nothing doing!" he announced, resuming his seat. "The train's full up. We shall have to stick it until we get to London."
"Travel like this all the way to London!" I repeated in dismay.
"We'll be having some luncheon presently," he said. "I've got seats in the car. Here's Tit Bits or John Bull if you'd like something to look at."
I leaned back in my place and closed my eyes firmly.
"Thank you," I replied, "I don't wish to read."
In due course the service of luncheon was announced. I was at first half inclined to remain where I was, but the sight of the packets of sandwiches which my fellow-travellers were producing induced me to stand up and follow Robert. On our way to the restaurant car we passed several empty first-class carriages. It was not until we were wedged into our places, in a stuffy and overcrowded third-class car, with hard seats and very little air, that I opened my lips.
"There were several empty first-class carriages behind, Robert," I said. "Why didn't you secure one of them?"
"All the seats are taken," he assured me. "The people are lunching."
I was convinced that he was lying, but I said nothing more. We had a very ordinary and distasteful meal in a silence which was broken only by my husband's clumsy attempts at conversation.
"Jolly to be off together like this at last!" he declared. "You look fine, Phillipa! A little quiet in those clothes, perhaps, but you seem to get some style out of them. Feeling all right, eh?"
"I am not feeling very well," I told him coldly. "This place is too close, and I don't like the smell of vegetables. I hate our carriage, too. I thought I was never to travel third-class again as long as I lived."
"Nor you shall, my dear, nor you shall!" he assured me hastily. "To-day was entirely an accident. Harry ought to have seen to things better. You wait a bit, just you wait a bit—that's all."
"Are we going to the Savoy or the Carlton when we get, to London?" I enquired.
He hid his face for a moment in a large tankard of beer, the second which he had ordered. "Not quite sure," he confessed, as he set it down. "One of the two—or we might perhaps stop the night at a quieter place I know of—smart little crib it is, though—while we look round. I shall get down to the City to-morrow morning and touch 'em for a few hundreds."
"I thought that you had already drawn your first instalment," I observed.
"Oh, I just had a trifle on account, of course," he replied. "Not worth speaking about, though. Have a glass of port or a liqueur with your coffee?"
"No thank you," I answered. "What time do we get to London?"
I closed my eyes when we returned to our compartment, and pretended to sleep. As a matter of fact, I was furiously and intensely angry. Robert should pay for this, I promised myself. Of course he was used to third-class travelling and the things that go with it. So had I been during the last five years. But he ought to have realised—I had told him plainly enough—that it was to escape from these things primarily that I had married him. He ought, from the moment of our leaving the Registry Office, to have given me a taste of my entrance into the world of luxury—to have shown me what his new wealth could do. He ought to have arranged for the things at which I had hinted—a first-class engaged carriage, filled with flowers, and a specially served luncheon there; a motor-car to await our arrival, a suite of rooms at the hotel for which I had declared my preference. There was a good deal which Robert would have to be taught.
At the London terminus things seemed to go from bad to worse. We had to wait for a taxi, and the porter who disposed of our modest belongings grumbled at his tip. I was too upset to listen to the address which Robert gave, and too furious to speak a word to him during the journey.
Presently we pulled up in an uninteresting and quite unfamiliar street, outside an hotel which had apparently been converted from a row of dwelling-houses.
"What on earth is this place?" I demanded.
"The Frenton Hotel," Robert answered. "Not a bad little place, I can assure you. I thought we'd stay here for the night and just look round. We can choose for ourselves to-morrow."
I descended unwillingly from the taxi cab and followed him into the hall. There was a certain amount of bustle going on here, but none of the appurtenances of luxury. A pile of luggage collected for departure seemed to consist chiefly of travellers' samples, and the people who thronged the place were nearly all men and obviously entirely of the commercial class.
Robert came back to me after a brief absence, swinging a key in his hand. "It's all right," he announced with rather anxious cheerfulness. "We've got a room on the fourth floor."
"A room! A room here on the fourth floor!" I repeated.
He made no answer, and I followed him mechanically to the lift which was propelled by a youth attired in a shabby brown livery and badly needing a clean collar. A casual chamber-maid whom we met in the passage produced a key from underneath her soiled apron and ushered us into a room bearing the number for which Robert had enquired. The boy, who had followed us, set down our bags.
I looked around in horror. There was an iron double bedstead, some cheap pinewood furniture, a species of linoleum instead of a carpet upon the floor, and a framed advertisement of someone's whisky upon the wall. The dressing-table was a few feet long and the mirror cracked.
"Is this the room you have engaged, Robert?" I asked him.
"That's right," he replied. "Nothing much in the way of luxury perhaps—that will come afterwards.... I say, it's awfully jolly to have you here! We're alone at last!"
He advanced towards me. There was a gleam in his eyes which I had seen before and which I hated. I am slight and not very strong, but I managed to push him away. Before he could stop me I had slipped past him and was out in the corridor.
"Come downstairs, Robert," I said. "We must find a place where we can talk."
He looked at me honestly amazed. "We can talk here," he grumbled.
"We cannot," I insisted, walking over towards the iron gates of the lift and ringing the bell. "We are going to talk downstairs."
He thrust his hands into his pockets and stood by my side with the frown of a sulky boy on his face.
"Look here, what's it all about, Phillipa?" he demanded. "If you don't like the room, I'm sorry. We can look round to-morrow. No need for you to be so finicky, all of a sudden."
I had no words to waste and I remained speechless. The lift arrived and we descended. In the crowded hall I spoke to a man in livery. "Is there a lounge or reading room in this place?" I enquired.
He indicated the direction and Robert followed me. We passed into an apartment which I shall remember with horror for the rest of my days. There were many cheap and uncomfortable easy-chairs, violently upholstered in some material of Oriental design, little tables with imitation inlaid tops, intended to suggest Constantinople, but more reminiscent of the Tottenham Court Road. The walls were covered with a lamentable imitation of tapestry and decorated with framed advertisements of various watering- places, whisky, bouillon, and other commodities.
I led the way to a divan and seated myself. Robert blundered into a place by my side.
As I looked around the room, with its scattered groups of unprepossessing-looking people, the depression which had been with me ever since we had left the Registry Office seemed to increase a thousandfold.
"Robert," I began, "I have never deceived you. I refused to marry you time after time. I told you that I did not care enough—that I never could care enough. Then, this last time, you came and told me of your great fortune. I agreed to marry you then, but I was still honest. I told you that I had no feeling for you whatever, and that if I married you it would be to escape from the horrible and unexpected poverty which came upon us after Father's death. You understood that perfectly. Now listen. I did not marry you to travel third-class. I did not marry you to breathe even for five minutes the atmosphere of a place like this. Why have you brought me here? Have you lied to me about your fortune?"
"Lied to you?" he repeated blusteringly. "Not a word. The company have agreed to purchase my options. They are giving me nearly full price."
"Then go and collect some of the money and take me away from here," I insisted.
"It is too late to-day," he protested. "Wait until to-morrow."
"I will not wait until to-morrow," I replied. "Get your hat and go down to the City at once, collect some money and take me to the Savoy."
He rose irresolutely to his feet. I could see that he was staggered. There was nothing whatever left in me of the Phillipa whom he had known for so many years and worshipped from afar, and whom I am convinced he had grown to look upon as a tender clinging sort of creature, whom he could dominate at will as soon as he had persuaded her to marry him.
"It's a silly business to go hurrying these people," he grumbled. "Makes them think I'm over-keen."
"In any case," I concluded, "I decline to spend the night here or anywhere else except at the Milan. I decline to spend it with you at all, unless you go and collect the money and show it to me."
He laughed unpleasantly. I think that this was the first moment when I became quite sure that I hated him.
"You'll have to spend it with me," he declared, "You're my wife."
"We will discuss that later," I answered with unexpected calmness. "Please hurry. There is plenty of time if you go at once. I am sure that the offices in the city will be open until five o'clock: I will wait here."
"It's a damned silly business," he grumbled, rising reluctantly to his feet.
"The sooner you do as I ask the better," I replied.
FOR at least half an hour after Robert's departure I sat on the saddle-backed lounge, a unit amongst that crowd of uncouth provincials, speaking to no one, looking at nothing in particular—just suffering. The shadow of a great apprehension was upon me. So often before had Robert Sherriff bragged to my father, when he had been alive, and to Norah and me of the fortune which he had made, of the fortune which had turned out afterwards to exist only on paper, that I had grown to look upon him as one of those incurable and hopeless optimists, always convinced that the wheel of fortune was about to swing in his direction, never depressed by failure, always believing in the morrow. He belonged to a type which I had heartily despised. This last time, however, his story had borne all the evidences of truth. He had but recently returned from a trip to the Western States of America, apparently penniless and in a condition, for him almost of depression. Then one evening he had suddenly burst into the modest lodgings which Norah and I shared, flaunting a telegram. There it was in black and white. We had both read it.
HANDED IN AT LOTHBURY, LONDON, E.C. OFFER YOU TEN THOUSAND POUNDS AND FOURTH SHARE PROFITS FOR OPTIONS SUBMITTED.
The fourth share of the profits alone, he had assured us, would be worth at least ten thousand a year.
It was like a fairy story. That afternoon I had been told plainly by my employer, the manager of a firm of wholesale grocers, that if I continued to refuse his invitations to dances and the local theatre I could look out for another place. Positions were scarce and I was by no means a highly skilled typist. Besides, I was sick of it all. My father, whose sudden death had thrown us upon our own resources, had been a physician in an excellent practice, but with extravagant tastes. Our home had been comfortable, even luxurious. There had been nothing in our early lives to prepare us for the grim poverty which Norah and I had endured for the last five years. I listened to Robert Sherriff, and I promised to marry him.
Looking back at it now, I began to realise the awful possibility that I had been too hasty, that I had trusted entirely to the word of a man whom I had every reason to believe was untrustworthy. He had made me no presents. He had evaded all mention of a trip abroad—even as far as Paris. He must have known that my own little trousseau was obtained with the utmost difficulty but there had never been a whisper of help from him. Now I was beginning to understand—now, when it was too late. And with it all, weakling though I was, a very grim determination was forming in my mind.
Seated there in these uncongenial surroundings, my mind engrossed in thought, I had lost count of time, but in due course my husband returned. Directly he came into the room I knew that he had been drinking, and I was convinced that he had not been near the City at all. He crossed the room towards me a little unsteadily.
"Well?" I inquired.
"Couldn't see anyone to-day," he announced. "Office just closed. Got an appointment for 11 o'clock to-morrow morning."
"I see," I murmured. "Then you propose to stay here for tonight?"
"Nothing else to be done," he declared, leaning against the back of a chair. "I votes we have a wash and smarten up a bit, eh, and go and have some dinner at the Troc. Afterwards, if you like, we might go to the pictures."
"You said something about stalls for the Hilarity Theatre," I reminded him.
"Do all that sort of thing to-morrow," he promised. I looked around the room. There were very few people present and none within earshot.
"Robert," I asked, "have you been to the City at all?"
"Why, of course," he began.
"Please don't lie to me," I interrupted. "You've been somewhere drinking all the time. You've not been near the City."
"Well, I knew it was no good," he protested. "The chap who is going to pay me the money is out of town."
I remained silent for a moment—a silence which I fancy that he altogether misunderstood.
"Let me ask you this, Robert," I went on presently, "was that telegram which you showed us genuine?"
"Genuine!" he repeated.
"You were in London that morning. Are you sure that you did not send it to yourself?"
Perhaps he thought the moment ripe for confession—a confession which sooner or later was inevitable. He sat down by my side and made a clumsy but unsuccessful attempt to take my hand.
"I did anticipate a bit, Babs, and that's a fact," he admitted. "Mind you, I know the options are worth the money. I shall get it some day—but I couldn't wait. I wanted you. I've wanted you for a long time. I knew there was no other way and if you must have the truth I did send the telegram to myself, just to show. I did it because I was crazy about you. Just forget it, old girl. You need never be afraid of being poor. I'll make the money somehow—that I promise you."
"And at present?"
"For the moment," he confessed, "I am hard up, I went out just now to try and borrow a fiver from a pal, but I couldn't touch him. I was wondering," he went on a little awkwardly, "whether you had brought anything with you."
I murmured something incoherent, and he was apparently wholly deceived by the absence of any outburst on my part. I could see his confidence returning. He was telling himself that we were married fast and sure, and that I intended to behave like a sensible woman. There was no way out of it. I was obviously going to accept the situation.
"We'll have a jolly little evening together," he went on, tripping a little over his words. "If you've got a quid or two put away it will run to a bottle of champagne, and then we'll just forget that the options aren't sold yet. What do you say, Babs, eh?"
I rose to my feet. "I will go and see what I have," I promised. "You can wait here for me."
He was perfectly content, absolutely fatuous in his self- conceit. I crossed the hall and ascended in the lift to that terrible room. My bag was still not unpacked, but there were several small things which I had to collect, I had no idea where I was going, or what I was going to do: but of one thing I was wholly assured, Robert Sherriff had failed in his side of the bargain; I certainly meant to fail in mine. I only prayed that I might get away before he could make a scene. I collected my belongings hurriedly, and with my coat on my arm, and carrying my bag, had started for the door. Then my heart sank. I heard his step outside. He turned the handle and entered.
"Sorry to seem impatient, old dear, but I decided it was about time I had a kiss," he began——
Then he stopped short. My intention was obvious. He looked at me for a moment, his big ugly mouth open with surprise. His face darkened.
"Where are you going?" he demanded.
"To leave you," I answered steadily. "I only married you for money. You haven't any. I'm going."
He closed and locked the door behind him. Then he came towards me. There was again that look in his eyes which I hated—a nauseous, terrifying look.
"You can cut that out, Babs," he said hoarsely. "There's no need for any argument. You and I are married. You belong to me, and you've got to stay with me."
He tried to clasp me in his arms, but I dropped the dressing- case which I was carrying upon his feet, and stepped hastily backwards. I looked round the room wildly for any sort of weapon. There was nothing. I opened my mouth to scream, but before I could make myself heard, his hand was across my lips, his other arm gripped me. It seemed to me that I had never loathed any human being so much in all my life.
"Babs," he went on shakily, "it's no use. I'm your husband. You belong to me. Much better give in quietly."
I had always thought of myself as a person of equable disposition. Norah had spoken sometimes of my temperament, but I had never before been conscious of it. I could just see his loathsome face through a mist of passionate hatred. I felt his arms tightening around me, and I prayed only for the means to kill him. Then suddenly inspiration came. The action itself I have never been able to remember, but my right hand was free and I must have raised it to my hat. It seemed to me that I saw a quivering line of fire. I felt something at the end of my hand forging its way through clothing and flesh. I heard a horrible groan. I saw him fall all doubled up and limp across the bed. Then I caught up my bag, unlocked the door, and, closing it again carefully behind me, crossed the passage, and made my way to the lift.
THE taxi cab which I had engaged outside the hotel, stopped at the end of a long row of shabby houses somewhere in Pimlico. The driver descended and opened the door.
"I don't know anything about lodgings in the ordinary way, Miss," he said, "but I drove a young lady once or twice who used to live here."
"I will go in and enquire," I told him. Even then the terror had begun. I stepped out of the cab with hesitating footsteps, and looked up and down the street furtively. After I had rung the bell I waited in a passion of impatience. Presently I heard heavy footsteps coming down the passage. A stout, untidily dressed woman, with yellow hair and a most unpleasant expression, looked out at me.
"I want apartments," I said. "A bed-sitting-room, if possible. Have you anything to offer?"
She looked me up and down a little puzzled, I think, at my appearance.
"Well, my dear, I'm not that sure," she replied. "I've got the front sitting-room empty, and the lady that lived here before had a bed behind a screen. I've two ladies in the house already, though," she went on, "and I did think of having a man lodger."
I hated the woman. I hated what I could see of the house, but I was desperately anxious to get inside, to get somewhere behind a closed door.
"Couldn't you take me in for a few days?" I begged. "If it isn't too expensive, I could pay you in advance for a week. I've just come up from the country, and I'm tired."
"Any luggage?" she asked, suspiciously. I pointed to my dressing-case, which was in its way a respectable-looking affair. She motioned me to follow her, led me a few steps down a dirty passage, and pushed open a door. The sitting-room which she offered for my inspection might have been a chamber in a palace for all the notice I took of it.
"How much a week?" I enquired.
"It will be thirty bob," she replied, "and if I put in the bed it will be five shillings extra."
I counted out two pounds from my purse.
"Please bring in my bag," I said, "and give the five shillings to the taxi-cab man."
"All right, honey," she agreed.
"You'd like a cup of tea, perhaps, eh? Ninepence I charges for plain tea—or if you'd like a drop of something stronger I dare say I could manage it."
"Bring in the bag, please," I reiterated. "Afterwards I'd like some tea."
She bustled out and obeyed my directions. From behind the curtain I watched her. I watched the taxi-cab drive off. I looked up and down the street. There was no one who seemed to be displaying any particular curiosity about the house. Then I sat down on the edge of a mangy-looking couch with broken springs and waited. The woman brought in my bag and set it down.
"Mrs. 'Ammonds, my name is," she announced. "We'll get on together all right, dearie. You'll 'ave your own latch-key, but I don't like you later than two o'clock in the morning, or the neighbors get fussy. A bit of something 'ot in the middle of the day I never mind cooking, but I likes my lodgers to get their dinner out. That won't trouble you, I dessay. Dinner out, I always hold, is a good start for the evening. Now I'll get you that cup of tea and afterwards we'll see about the bed. There's a washin' stand and such like in the corner."
She left me alone for a few minutes. I remained quite still, trying hard to realise what had happened. Twenty-four hours ago I had pictured myself spending this evening in a luxurious suite at the Milan, surrounded by every comfort and setting my whole mind to making the best of a husband who was doing his utmost to spoil me. Instead I was here in wretched lodgings, alone and in hiding, although the precise reason for my flight seemed to be a subject upon which my mind refused to dwell. A curtain had descended upon those few moments of passionate agony. I had done something, but I could not realise what it was. I was in hiding and I was afraid. That was as far as my mind would travel.
I sat and looked around me. My hands were very cold and my feet felt numb. I could not tell if it was five minutes or an hour before the landlady reappeared with the tea. She set down the tray on the edge of the table and pushed up a chair.
"Ring if you want anything, dearie," she invited. "I'm going to see about the bed."
I rose with some difficulty, and felt my way to the chair; a cane-bottomed one with legs of uneven length, upon which I had some difficulty in balancing myself.
In that blank which seemed to have fallen upon my apprehensions I discovered an intense capacity for taking note of details. The tray in front of me was of common black tin, from which most of the paint had been scraped off. The teapot was of brown earthenware, and the cup and saucer, white with a pink line around, were both chipped in several places. There was some thick bread with a thin coating of margarine, a hard sponge-cake, specks of black upon the few knobs of sugar, and milk of distinctly bluish appearance.
I poured out some tea and drank it. Then I returned to my seat upon the couch. I held a book in my hand which I had picked up upon the table—a paper-covered volume with a violent frontispiece. Again I lost all sense of time. I only knew that it was growing darker when Mrs. Hammonds reappeared. She took away the tray with a querulous remark at my lack of appetite. Later on, she and a smaller but terrible reproduction of herself dragged in an iron bedstead, upon which they placed a straw mattress, a pillow and sheets, and some rather doubtful blankets. Finally she surveyed the arrangements she had made for my comfort with an air of satisfaction, lit an incandescent gas-burner, and drew together some very mouldy curtains.
"Now we begin to look comfortable," she observed. "What about tidying up and going and getting a bit of dinner, eh?"
"I shall go out presently," I told her. "I am not very hungry."
"That's all right," she assented. "Please yourself. There's quite a lively little place top of the street, close to the Music Hall. One of my ladies used to go there regular. Stranger to London, ain't you?"
"I don't know much about it," I confessed. "I've lived in Yorkshire most of my life."
"My first 'usband was a Yorkshireman," she confided. "Name of 'Stocks.'"
I had nothing to say. She turned reluctantly towards the door. At the last moment I called her back. I remembered that there was something that I wanted to know about.
"Could I get an evening paper?" I inquired.
"Bless you. there's boys going by all the time!" she assured me. "Nip out the next time you 'ear them 'ullowin'."
She left me then, and I think that a sort of stupor must have come over me, for when I looked at my watch again it was ten o'clock. In the street I could hear a boy calling newspapers. I found my way out and bought one, took it back into the sitting room, and spread it flat upon the table. It was the first of many horrible moments of frenzied anticipation. Paragraph by paragraph I searched it through. There was nothing; no hint of any tragedy at the Frenton Hotel. I folded it up, locked my door, undressed, and crawled into the very uninviting bed. Then an amazing thing happened—I slept.
I WOKE only once in the night but I woke in agony. I was caught up in the throes of a nightmare, diabolically real and horrible. I saw Robert Sherriff crumpled up at my feet, his loose mouth pitifully open, his eyes, filled only a few minutes before with horrible meaning, bleared now and vacant. I thought for a moment that I felt his hand upon my lips. I discovered that it was my own, striving to stifle the shriek which seemed to have been torn from my lips in that first moment of horrified awakening.
I sat still and listened; hot one second and cold the next. There were still sounds from outside; the hoot of a passing taxi- cab, the siren from a tug in the river. I looked at my watch and found that it was barely two o'clock. Then I sank back on my pillow. Why sleep should have come to me, I cannot tell, but I was asleep again within five minutes and I slept for many hours.
I awoke with the pealing of "Big Ben" in my ears. I counted the strokes drowsily—nine o'clock. A gleam of wintry sunshine had found its way in between the chink of the curtains. The atmosphere of the room was close. I jumped out of bed and cautiously threw open a window. A newspaper boy was passing. I called him to the door, hurried into my dressing-gown, and bought copies of the three papers he carried. I spread them open on the table.
Before I looked at one of them I found time to pause in wonderment at my own sensations. I had opened my eyes with a sense of relief. I was less terrified at the thought that I was probably a murderess in effect as I had been in intention than I was relieved to find myself—myself—free from the taint of Robert Sherriff's kisses. I spread the papers out and I searched through the columns one by one. There was not a single mention of any untoward happening at the Frenton Hotel. If indeed Robert Sherriff was dead the news had not as yet found its way to the press. I folded up the papers, washed and dressed in discomfort and rang the bell for breakfast. It was long in coming and when brought in at last with some grumbling by the minor reproduction of Mrs. Hammond. I gathered that breakfasts were not a feature of the establishment.
"You won't allus be as early as this I hope, Miss," the young person who served me remarked. "We ain't used to our ladies getting up before mid-day."
"I shan't trouble you for very long, I assured her. "I'm going out presently to try and get some work and if I succeed I expect I shall have to move."
She looked at me curiously.
"What sort of work?" she inquired.
"Secretarial," I replied, "typing, or something of that sort."
She giggled as though she thought this an excellent joke.
"It ain't a bad lay," she observed gathering up the table- cloth, crumbs and all. "Wish you luck!"
It was an hour or more before I found courage to put on my hat and leave the house. With the first gulp of fresh air outside I felt my knees begin to shake. I had all the sensations of having passed through a long illness, of having but just risen from my bed. I felt weak and almost tremulous. It seemed, too, a new world upon which I looked—a world filled with terrors. I shivered when a policeman looked at me. Every well-dressed person of nondescript appearance I put down as a detective.
Yet, somehow or other, I managed to reach the Embankment and stood looking over the wall at the wheeling gulls and a trail of coal barges. Up towards Westminster and the city a silver-grey mist hung over the roofs. Down where I was, however, it was clear, and the wind, though cold, was vigorous and refreshing. A young man seeing me so long motionless came up and spoke to me. I moved away. Another got up from a seat and followed me. This time I was terrified, but at a glance from me he fell behind. I walked slowly towards a telegraph office. Arrived there I went in and wrote a message to Norah:—
"ARRIVED SAFELY. WELL. LOVE. PHILLIPA. WILL SEND ADDRESS TOMORROW."
I walked along the Embankment as far as the "Cecil" one way and back to Chelsea Bridge. Then I retraced my steps, and just short of Westminster I found the newsboys with the mid-day edition of the papers. I bought one, sat on a seat, and searched it through. Still not a line of any untoward happening at the Frenton Hotel. I drew a little sigh of relief, made my way back to my rooms, and demanded lunch.
"You're not goin' to have all your meals in, I 'ope," Mrs. Hammond remarked testily, as, after an hour's delay, she brought me in something which she called a mutton chop.
"I wasn't reckoning upon this." I looked at the coarse table- cloth, the common and ill-cleaned cutlery, the miserable-looking piece of meat floating in a sea of grease, and I was able to answer with conviction.
"After to-day, Mrs. Hammond," I told her. "I shall probably require no meals at all."
"Lookin' for a job, Sarah tells me?" she inquired curiously.
"If nothing happens before to-morrow I shall go out and look for one," I replied, a little incautiously.
Mrs. Hammond had apparently already conceived suspicions. She looked at me slyly.
"You're not in trouble, are you?" she demanded.
"In trouble?" I repeated doubtfully.
"Certainly not," I assured her with an inward shudder.
"I'm glad to 'ear it," she answered, her eyes still fixed upon me. "I don't understand your way of goin' on, that's all. You were the scaredest lookin' thing I ever saw when you came in yesterday afternoon, and I heard you call out in the night as though some one were murdering you. I don't pretend to be anything I'm not, but I don't want the police bothering round here. If you're likely to get lagged for anything I'd as soon you moved on."
"I have done nothing I am ashamed of," I told her—"nothing I regret."
She departed only half satisfied.
That afternoon, for some unaccountable reason, my nerve left me. I sat shivering upon the couch in a state of positive terror. Every footfall sounded like the knell of fate. A ring at the bell sent me almost into hysterics. I was haunted by all manner of apprehensions. I saw myself arrested, in prison clothes, in the dock before a crowded Court, and somewhere among the shadows of that stuffy little room I seemed to hear the solemn word—"Guilty."
Guilty I was of "Wilful Murder" without a doubt. There had been murder flaming in my heart; the desire to kill, an overpowering impulse in my brain. A sordid story, too, from the point of view of others; a woman who married her husband for money and kills him because she finds herself deceived. Nothing heroic about it. The woman who marries must take her chance.
At five o'clock, tea, and at last the evening papers. Again no news. By this time I had grown to loathe the little room in which I had passed through such torments. As the dusk deepened into twilight I put on my cloak and walked out. Again I made my way towards the Embankment, fascinated, I think, by the open space and the grim possibilities of the grey, sluggish river. I walked until my knees began to shake, and policemen whom I passed gazed at me curiously. Then I sought the restaurant which Mrs. Hammond had told me about, found a table by the wall, and ordered dinner.
It was a bright little place, thronged with people who mostly seemed to linger for a very short time over their dinner, so that one had the impression of being continually surrounded by fresh faces. I had never taken a meal before alone in a public restaurant and I found it almost an unbelievable experience.
Then three men who were dining together a short distance away sent across to know if I would accept a bottle of wine.
I summoned the head waiter who had shown me to my table, and told him what had happened. He only smiled.
"A young lady of your appearance dining alone," he observed, with a bow which he meant to be gallant, "naturally attracts notice."
"Can you suggest any means by which I can finish my dinner in peace?" I asked him.
"I will do my best," he promised, doubtfully. "You are perhaps from the country."
"I am," I acknowledged, "and I have no desire to make acquaintances."
"I will do my best to see that you are not annoyed, madam," he repeated. "The ladies who dine here alone are, as a rule, anxious to make friends with the customers."
I looked round the room after he had left, and I saw that there were at least half-a-dozen women like myself, dining alone, one or two of whom, however, were carrying on conversations with men at the adjoining tables. I finished my dinner as quickly as I could, and went back to my rooms. Mrs. Hammond met me in the passage and looked at me in surprise.
"Back already!" she exclaimed, "did you go to Pinoni's?"
"Yes, I dined there," I told her. She looked me up and down.
"Didn't you find a friend or two to talk to?" she asked cautiously.
"I am not looking for friends" I answered. "Not of that sort, at any rate."
She looked at me again curiously, and went off muttering something which I did not understand.
I searched the latest edition of the evening paper which I had bought on my way home—again without success. When I folded it up I determined that unless the news I dreaded were in the morning papers I would settle down to forget the existence of Robert Sherriff and everything connected with him. I went to bed before 10 o'clock and slept for many hours quite soundly. In the morning I went out and procured a paper. I read it from the first line to the last, and there was still nothing. I breakfasted at a dairy shop and afterwards I started off to look for work.
MISS GODSTONE, the head of the typewriting establishment which bore her name and for which, through answering an advertisement, I had done a little work at home, received me without enthusiasm, but not unkindly. She made searching inquiries into my qualifications, tested my shorthand, and also my speed with a typewriter.
"You're too much of a beginner for our best jobs," she decided, "and I can't take you on our regular stuff, as we are quite full up. We have inquiries all through the day, however, for temporary assistance, and if you're on the telephone I'll put you on our list."
"There is no telephone, I am afraid, where I am lodging," I confessed.
"Where is that?" she asked.
She looked at me more closely when I told her the address. I saw the change in her face and hastened to explain.
"I know nothing about London," I said. "I arrived a few nights ago, and found myself quite unexpectedly without any friends here. Please tell me if I am staying in the wrong part. My rooms are very uncomfortable and very unpleasant."
"Then I should move at once," she advised, still a little drily. "The neighborhood has not a particularly good reputation."
"Perhaps you could tell me where to go," I ventured.
"It isn't my business to look after my girls except to be sure that they are respectable," she answered curtly. "There's a women's hostel in the next street—number 17 Brown Street—several of my girls live there."
"I'll try it," I promised eagerly. "Can I sit here in your waiting room in case anyone sends?"
"If you like," she assented. "Friday's not a very busy day with us as a rule."
I sat in a barely-furnished apartment, on a hard chair, for about an hour. Then a small child came in.
"If you're Miss Meadows," she said, "you can come into the typing room and do some copying."
I followed her to a room where about a score of young women were already at work. The girl who was in charge left her place, showed me a machine, gave me a stock of papers and carbons, and handed me a pile of manuscript with scarcely a word. I took off my hat and jacket, and started in. I had found work!
At the end of a month I was earning enough to keep myself, and I still had a sovereign left of the little hoard I had brought to London. I had a room—or rather a cubicle—at the girls' hostel, where I had quite good, if somewhat scanty, food, and a certain amount of comfort, and I was on terms of companionship, if not friendship, with one of my fellow-workers, Violet Smith. She was a girl of about my own age—good- looking in a somewhat florid way—and one of the best- natured persons I have ever met in my life. On evenings when she was disengaged, which were not many, we used to take long bus rides into the country, or sometimes, if the weather was bad, go to a cinema show. She was a great talker, a Londoner by birth, and by almost passionate preference. She was a plain-spoken young woman, and always willing to impart to a sympathetic listener her knowledge of the world in which she lived, and its ways. One of the first subjects we discussed was the problem which we were all up against.
"What do you do, Violet," I asked—she had insisted from the first that I should call her "Violet"—"when you are sent out to work at any of these City places and you find the men troublesome?"
She laughed heartily.
"I never do," she answered. "If they're nice and want to take me out to lunch or dinner—why, I let them. If I don't like them I tell them as pleasantly as I can that I have a young man who's very jealous, we are going to be married very soon, and that I daren't go anywhere for fear he should find out."
"But you can't accept invitations to do things from everyone who asks you," I protested, "just because they seem agreeable."
"Why on earth not?" she replied. "It's a fair game. They get what they ask for. If they expect more and are disappointed, that's not our fault. As a matter of fact," she went on, "I think the man trouble is overdone. Most of the girls are fond of talking about terrible positions they find themselves in. I don't believe half of them. Men as a rule are a pretty decent lot. They sum you up all right—go with you as far as you want to go, pretend their hearts are broken when they reach the cul-de- sac, send you a box of chocolates the next morning, and try the same old game with someone else. As a rule it's a girl's own fault if a man gets really fresh with her."
"That's all very well," I observed, a little doubtfully, "but supposing you don't want to go out to lunch or dine, with even the nice ones you meet, or to accept their chocolates or flowers—supposing you want to keep to yourself?"
"Then you shouldn't take up this job," Violet answered bluntly. "You're a square peg in a round hole, I've been watching you, Phillipa, and my advice to you is not to be finicky. Men are all right if they're kept in their places. Besides, how do you expect to get any fun in life if you cut it out with them altogether?"
Violet's was rather a new philosophy to me and I told her so.
"What should you do," I persisted, "if a man for whom you had been working all the morning, when you had finished, coolly put his hand on your shoulder and asked for a kiss?"
"Did that happen to you?" she enquired.
"Yes," I confided. "One morning last week."
"What sort of a man was he?"
"I thought him quite nice up till then," I answered. "He was a barrister."
"I should probably have let him kiss me with reservations," she decided.
"What did you do?"
"Do?" I repeated. "I was very angry and I walked out of the office."
"Idiot!" Violet scoffed, "And he probably hasn't sent for you again."
"Quite true," I confessed. "I had no work afterwards for three days."
"If you're going to keep up that attitude," Violet said firmly, "you had better chuck this job altogether, or take a post as secretary to a woman. You'll hate that worse in time, I promise you."
"I'll have to do something of the sort," I sighed.
"I hate to be kissed and I won't be."
"That isn't the point," she expounded. "You can get out of the actual kiss if you're clever, but the thing to do is to get out of it without making the man feel an idiot. It can be done with a little tact. You can look sorry and all that, and make him believe you're really rather dying to but have been too nicely brought up. He'll stay good-humored then, keep you on at work, and presently drift into being quite pally. Tact is what you want, Phillipa—tact and don't be finicky. And mind you," she continued, "there's the old lady to be considered."
"Who?" I asked.
"Miss Godstone. I don't believe for a moment she'd keep a girl who went too far, but on the other hand she doesn't want her customers offended. She has the reputation here of sending out bright intelligent girls and she wants to keep it. In a way she helps us, too. She's got a black list of her own where she'll never send a girl. I know some of them that are on it. She does her share all right and she expects us to play up. Try and be a little more reasonable, old girl."
"I will," I promised.
"For instance," Violet went on, "I know where you're scheduled for next week, and a very good job it is too! Marlow and Sons, Stockbrokers, in Capel Court. They're a very good firm, comfortable offices, send you out for tea and give you plenty of time for lunch. Old Mr Marlow, though, if he takes a fancy to you, will probably say that he has to go to the South Coast on business for the week-end and would like to take a secretary with him. Don't go. That's all. Mother coming up from the country or something of that sort. It's quite easy. You can even look disappointed."
"Am I going to have a whole week's work there?" I asked.
"They're engaging you for a week," Violet replied, "and perhaps longer. It's a good egg for Miss Godstone. She does jolly well out of it. So you take my tip, Phillipa, and remember—tact, and don't be too finicky. The old lady was just on the verge of being annoyed when you came back on Tuesday, in the middle of the afternoon from that firm of furriers in the City. Your explanation wasn't exactly lucid, either."
"He was a perfectly hateful little beast," I declared indignantly. "I hadn't been in his office half-an- hour——"
"I know," Violet interrupted, coolly. "He'll very likely go on Mother Godstone's black list before long. But meanwhile he pays well, and if a girl can get the work and not offend him—why, it's a feather in her cap... Look here, what about going down to Richmond to-morrow morning? I feel the spring coming."
"I can't," I replied. "I have a sister coming up from Middletown."
"I shall take a lad out, then," Violet decided. "Lunch at Hampton Court, very likely. So long! I'm off to the Pictures with one of my old flames. What about you?"
I glanced at the clock. We had just finished dinner in the refectory of the hostel.
"I am going to St. Pancras to meet my sister," I told her.
THIS first visit of Norah's was in a way momentous. Somehow or other I had managed to conceal from her all my troubles and she had no idea that my married life was not proceeding along normal lines. Her last few letters, however, had displayed a certain amount of curiosity as to subjects upon which I had been silent, and I had thought it best to beg her to come up and see me, if only for a few hours. The first question I asked amazed her. It was when we were leaving the London terminus on our way to the omnibus.
"Norah," I demanded, "Have you heard anything of Robert Sherriff?"
"Have I what?" she, gasped, nearly dropping her satchel.
"Heard anything of Robert Sherriff," I repeated.
"Of Robert? Do you mean to say that he isn't with you?"
I shook my head. The time had come for the truth. "I left him the evening we arrived in London," I confided. "The letters I have written about our being in town here and preparing for a voyage were all false. I have sent for you now to tell you the whole story. It isn't so terrible as it might have been, Norah. Are you tired?"
"Not a bit. Why?"
"Let us walk," I suggested. "I can talk better as we walk. I'm going to tell you everything that has happened to me since I said good-bye to you on the platform at Middletown."
She acquiesced eagerly, and, I told her the whole story. It had been bottled up inside me so long that I told it fully, explicitly, almost eloquently. Norah, after the first few exclamations, listened in absorbed silence. We had reached the hostel just as I finished.
"Well?" I asked.
"You poor darling!" was all she could say.
"You don't blame me?"
"Not a bit," she assured me. "All the same," she went on, with a little sigh of relief, "I am thankful it was no worse, A hat-pin is a very dangerous weapon, Phil."
"I meant to kill him," I admitted; "It's no good concealing the fact. I tried to kill him. The agonies I suffered afterwards weren't a bit for his sake. I was simply afraid of being caught."
We found no place in the hostel where we could talk without being overheard, so we left Norah's bag and went to a Picture Palace nearby, where there was a room in which tea and coffee were served. The apartment was almost deserted as an exciting film was being shown. We sat side by side on a divan and had some coffee.
"Norah," I told her, "I haven't any feeling in the world except one of relief to think that I escaped. If I hadn't, life would have been over for me. I was mad ever to promise to marry Robert. To have lived with him would have been the very worst possible form of torture. All the same, for my own sake, not for his, I want to know what has become of him."
"You never asked at the hotel, I suppose?"
"I dared not go near the place," I confessed. "They would certainly have recognised me as the woman who came with Robert, and for all I know he may be lying there now, desperately ill, and the police may be hunting for me. Since I left off looking for news about him I have been searching the advertisement columns of the papers every day to see if there was any police reward for my apprehension."
"What did you say the name of the hotel was?" Norah inquired.
"The Frenton," I replied. "It is in Frenton Street, near the British Museum."
Norah glanced at the clock. It was barely nine o'clock.
"I will go there now," she suggested. "I will just inquire for Mr Sherriff and tell them the date I know he was there. I may hear something."
"That's just what I was hoping you would do," I confided. "I'll wait here."
The hour of Norah's absence was an hour of purgatory to me. All my old fears seemed to have reasserted themselves. I waited in a fever of impatience, changing my seat a dozen times, an object of constant suspicion to the liveried and bemedalled commissionaire who continually came into the room to stare at me doubtfully. Boulevardiers of various types accosted me. I was offered coffee, chocolates, a box for the performance, a ride home in a taxi-cab.
I was too overwrought to resent any of these advances. All that I could do was to beg almost pathetically to be left alone. One rather terrible youth sat by my side for fully ten minutes, endeavoring to engage me in conversation. He went away, I am sure, absolutely convinced that I was a lunatic, and probably confided his suspicions to the commissionaire, who re-entered the room a few minutes later, with the obvious intention of speaking to me.
At the critical moment, however, Norah reappeared and by that time I had conceived such a horror of the place that I led her from it out into the street. We walked arm in arm along the pavement on the least frequented side of the road. I assailed her with a stream of questions. In a few words she told me all that she had been able to discover.
"Robert seems to have left the hotel on the same night that you did," she said. "At first that was all I could discover. Afterwards I got hold of the hall porter and he was more communicative. He told me that Robert left at about ten o'clock at night, apparently very ill, and was driven to a hospital—only, unfortunately, he does not remember to which one. He complained to the porter that he had met with an accident, and the man said that he walked with great difficulty and was coughing."
"Nothing," Norah assured me. "The man thought, however, that he was very ill indeed. He offered to accompany Robert to the hospital if he would wait half-an-hour, but Robert was apparently too ill to understand what he said and went off alone.
"And they haven't heard of him since?"
"Not a word."
We walked on for some time in silence. I am willing to admit my colossal selfishness where this man was concerned. My thoughts were entirely occupied with personal considerations.
"If he has died since," I said, "it is too late now to arrest me for murder. Besides, he told the man that it was an accident."
"You are quite safe, I am sure," Norah declared. "He has probably recovered and gone abroad."
So that night I abandoned the fears which had made life an actual hell for me. I determined to forget that such a person as Robert Sherriff had ever existed, and to a certain extent I succeeded.
VIOLET was oddly attractive in her light- hearted, flamboyant way. She was one of Miss Godstone's regulars and was practically second in command. She came to me one day soon after Norah's visit to London and made a proposition which wonderfully altered my day-by-day life. There was a tiny flat, it seemed, down in Battersea—a bedroom and sitting-room of diminutive size, and scantily furnished but to be acquired if I wished for them at a price which even I could afford. I went down to look at them at once, and closed the bargain on the spot. They had belonged to one of the regular girls who was leaving to get married.
"But why didn't you have them yourself, Violet?" I asked.
She laughed good-naturedly.
"Too far out for me," she confided. "Besides, I hate being alone even for a minute. The girls at St. Olive's are a quaint lot, most of them, but I'd rather have them to talk to than no one."
I shook my head.
"I can't understand your point of view," I confessed. "To have a tiny place of one's own seems to me, after the last few months, the acme of luxury."
"I'm not so faddy as you are about little things," she said. "The people around don't get on my nerves like they do on yours. Besides, there's just one other objection—I suppose you'll find it out some day, although it won't be the same thing so far as you're concerned."
"What is it?" I asked.
"These men again," she answered. "Directly they know you have a little place of your own they bother so. They're all the time wanting to call for you, wanting to be asked to tea on Sundays, or to came in and have a drink when they bring you home. I'm all right, as you know, but I simply don't want to be bothered with. it. I'm too good-natured to be always saying 'no,' and I've too many friends who know all my movements. You're a quiet little mouse, and inclined to be secretive. You can live there just like Miss Jebson used to. I don't suppose a man ever saw her home in his life; but if he did he'd think it was a boarding house she lived at. I'm much too open—tell everything."
"It's wonderful of you, Violet," I declared. "You can't imagine what a difference it will make to me."
"Well, just remember," she rejoined. "You're not out to take risks. I am, I know, but you're ten times more attractive than I could ever be. If a man, once gets going about you there'll be the devil to pay. You don't look as though you had much of a temperament, but I don't suppose you have that coloured hair for nothing."
"You needn't worry about me," I assured her. "I've had enough of men for a time."
"So there's been a little affair, has there?" she observed. "I thought so when you first came. It's odd what havoc we let them make in our lives. You're looking different now, though."
"I've had a great anxiety removed," I confided. "There is a man I was afraid of, and he's gone away."
We were sitting on the trunk of a tree in Richmond Park—a grey misty afternoon with splashes of sunshine. There was scarcely a breath of wind, and in the distance the trees in the valley, seemed like painted erections emerging out of a waveless sea. Although it was still only late February we both had our hats off, thoroughly warmed with the exercise of walking. There were very few pedestrians about and fewer cars. In less than an hour it would be dusk, and after that twilight fell rapidly.
"You look as though you'd got rid of some trouble," Violet reflected. "Do you know you're horribly good-looking?"
I laughed at her, but she persisted.
"You've got that long slim figure that men rave about," she went on. "Your complexion's creamy and you have just the right- coloured eyes to go with your hair. You aren't going to find life easy, Miss Phillipa."
"Aren't I?" I answered. "It won't be my fault if I don't get what I want out of it, and, anyway, I don't see why I should find it any more difficult than you do. You're happy enough, and men find you much more attractive than they do me."
She scoffed at me.
"That's because I'm easier," she declared. "Men so far are a little afraid of you. You'll meet some who are not before long. Your time, will come all right, and when it does, look out!"
"What a prophet of woe you are this afternoon," I laughed.
She shook her head.
"No one gets very much in earnest about me," she continued. "I'm the right sort to have a lark with and of course they'll take all they can get—all I'm disposed to give—but you're different. When a man takes a fancy to you he's in danger. He runs a risk of losing his head altogether."
"I don't think the men I've met in London so far are in much danger from me," I remarked.
"Perhaps not, but it may happen at any moment," Violet warned me. "We get sent to all sorts of people—members of Parliament, physicians, theatrical managers—Miss Jebson even went to a bishop the other day."
"I suppose you girls who are on the regular staff get the most interesting work," I reflected. "I know you have an awful lot of common sense, Violet, and I never forget your advice, but I haven't seen a man yet I could allow to even give me lunch."
"That'll come," she replied. "We're all tried on the undesirables first. I'm going out to dinner tonight at the Troc, with my latest victim. He's a very nice fellow, but over-eager. I expect I shall have my hands full. However, it will be all the same next week. I wish—"
"Well, what is it you wish, Violet?" I asked.
She was looking across towards those phantasmal trees. Her expression was almost serious.
"I wish that one of them would ask me to marry him," she confessed.
I shivered. The word still had its horrors for me.
"You might not care for him," I replied.
"Care for him!" she repeated scornfully. "You talk like one of those mawkish heroines in the Family Herald. If a boy's nice enough to go out with and talk to at all, he's nice enough to marry. The very fact that he's your own property, that he has the right to kiss you and you to kiss him shuts out the others. That's what love is—shutting out the others. No nice girl wants two men at a time for anything serious. I knock about with a good many, but the first of them who said a really serious word to me—well, there wouldn't be another man on the earth. And we're all alike at heart. Girls can't pick and choose nowadays. Selection's done for us by the preference of the man. If he's decent at all we fall like a ripe plum when he means business. Good job, too! Now what's happening? Friends of yours, Phillipa?"
A large two-seated car had stopped in the road a few yards away. One young man remained at the wheel. Another was advancing towards us. I could just see that was well dressed, good- looking, in a serious sort of way, and apparently a gentleman. For the rest I had never seen him before in my life, and I told Violet so. She looked at the newcomer with frank curiosity.
"We're going to be 'picked up,'" she whispered to me. "Don't you interfere. Leave it all to me."
"But, Violet," I began.
"Shut up!" she whispered.
The young man had reached the tree where we were sitting. He took off his cap and smiled a little deprecatingly.
"I'm afraid I'm going to take a most unpardonable liberty," he said, addressing himself to both of us, but looking at me. "The fact of it is we wondered whether you young ladies would care about a lift back to town. The twilight comes on so rapidly and the omnibuses and trains are so crowded on Sunday evening."
"You are very kind," Violet replied. "I don't think we've met before, have we?"
"To my great regret I must confess that I am afraid we haven't," the young man assented. "But you looked so sensible, both of you, and it really seemed selfish of us to be going back to town with three empty seats."
Violet looked a little longingly at the car.
"It is very kind of you," she admitted frankly, "but I am afraid it can't be done."
He addressed me directly.
"Please be more gracious than your friend," he begged. "I know that ours is an unusual request, and one which in an ordinary way you would decline. Still, the buses are very crowded. If you will permit me to introduce myself, my name is Mr X."
I liked the look of him. I liked his voice, and above all I liked the look of the car. I glanced towards Violet, and she nodded at once.
"We don't want to be stupid about it," she said. "So long as everything's understood. I have an engagement with my young man this evening, and so, I believe, has my friend. If you really mean that you would like to motor us back to London and leave it at that."
"My dear young lady," he interrupted a little gravely, "your subsequent arrangements are entirely your own concern. I'm simply asking for the pleasure of your company so far as anywhere in London where you choose to be set down."
"Under those circumstances," Violet said graciously, "we shall be very glad indeed to accept your offer. My name is Miss Smith, and my friend's is Miss Brown."
"And my friend," he rejoined, laughing, "is Mr Robinson."
We walked down to the car and were introduced to a young man at the wheel who was also quite personable but seemed bored at the whole proceeding. Violet sat in front with him, and I found myself behind with Mr X. He wrapped a rug very carefully about me, and I leaned back with a sigh of content as we started off.
The car was luxuriously hung, and although I love the country and the fresh air, I was never particularly fond of walking.
"I am so glad that you accepted our offer," my new friend said, "I hope you will believe me when I tell you that I am as little used to escapades of this sort as I am sure you are."
"I am glad to hear it," I told him, "although of course there's no harm in it. It is quite a long time since I was in a car, and I love motoring."
"You are a Londoner?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"I have only just come to live there," I confided. "I have lived in Yorkshire all my life."
"Not a favorite county of mine, I'm afraid," he remarked.
"Nor mine," I confessed.
Conversation languished for a few moments. I could see that my companion had tact, and he was very anxious indeed not to offend.
"I wonder if I might say something which may sound almost impertinent," he ventured.
"I'll try and be lenient," I promised him.
"I want to tell you how marvellous I thought your hair," he said. "It is just the shade of bronze-red the old Italian painters used to love, and as we drove up that last gleam of rather watery sunshine had found you out and there were splashes of gold in it. You looked rather wonderful, sitting there."
"I am getting very embarrassed," I laughed. "Are you as candid about their charms to all your women friends?"
"When I feel like it," he confessed. "I'm afraid I'm rather an outspoken person."
I looked at him thoughtfully. As a rule I considered myself a fair judge of character, but this young man puzzled me. He had a pale and somewhat serious face. He was dressed quietly and in the best possible taste. There was nothing about him, what ever, to suggest the man of pleasure. He might very well have been an ambitious young doctor or barrister. Yet there was something about him—something entirely unanalysable which made me a little apprehensive.
"Well, you've said very nice things about me and my hair," I said. "Thank you very much for them. Most people admire my friend a great deal more than they do me."
"Then most people," he declared, "are entirely without discrimination. I like your friend very much. She is frank and has pleasant manners and an attractive face of its type. The type is, however, unfortunately not unusual."
"And mine is?"
"Absolutely. I think that you know that. If you will forgive my saying so, you are the last person in the world one would expect to meet sitting upon a tree in Richmond Park—and with your friend."
"Are you trying to turn my head?" I asked him.
"Nothing in the world would give me greater pleasure," he answered seriously.
"How selfish!" I sighed.
"You might get something in exchange," he reminded me. "I'm somewhat rarely attracted, but when I am it is a serious matter with me."
"You have my sympathy," I assured him.
"I should prefer a little of your regard," he rejoined.
"Isn't that a trifle premature?"
He laughed good-humouredly.
"I apologise. My troublesome candour again. Tell me about yourself."
I shook my head.
"That isn't part of the bargain," I objected. "However, if you want to know, I'm a typist."
"A permanent post or are you attached to an agency?" he inquired.
I shook my head.
"You're too inquisitive," I told him.
"It seems a harmless question," he persisted. "Anyhow, do you like your work?"
"Not particularly. I don't really care about work at all. I do it because I have to."
"That," he said, "is a tragedy. I never in my whole life met anyone in connection with whom the idea of labor of any sort was more incongruous than with you."
"You think that I ought to be just a butterfly?"
"I think that you would easily find a great many people who would be glad of the privilege of setting you free from the necessity of work," he declared.
"The only people who could do that," I answered, "are my relatives, and I haven't any. Or—"
"Or who?" he persisted.
"Or my husband, if by any chance he should appear some day," I concluded.
My companion was silent for some time. We were in Kensington before he spoke again.
"You're a very disturbing person, Miss Brown—or is it Miss Smith?"
"I forget," I acknowledged.
"May I know your real name?" he asked diffidently.
"I would rather you didn't ask me," I admitted.
"I do not wish for a moment," he went on, "to presume beyond the limits which your friend laid down. I am content to accept the fact that you are dining with your friend and that she is dining with hers, and that we must part in a few minutes. But at the same time, I should like to know your name."
Violet looked around from her seat in the front.
"I've asked Mr Robinson to put us down at Piccadilly Circus," she announced. "Is that all right for you?"
"Quite," I agreed.
My companion made a little grimace.
"Is Piccadilly Circus to be the scene of our eternal farewell?" he asked.
"Nothing is eternal," I assured him.
"Not even your obduracy, I hope. Would it be breaking our agreement to ask you to come on to the Milan and have some tea?"
"It would be an impossibility," I replied. "We both have engagements."
The car drew up. Mr X. descended and handed me out.
"Won't you give me the opportunity of seeing you again?" he begged earnestly. I shook my head.
"I am a fatalist," I confided. "If I am to see you again, I shall. Meanwhile, thank you so much for the drive. It has been really delightful, and I hate buses."
We shook hands formally.
"You are content to leave a great deal to fate," he grumbled.
"Quite the best arbitress," I declared.
MY new quarters, into which I moved during the next few days, afforded me the utmost content and happiness. They were on the eighth floor of a block of flats overlooking Battersea Park, which meant that after travelling to the fifth floor in the lift there were still three flights of stone steps to be climbed. To complete the isolation, mine were the only inhabited rooms on this floor, the rest of the space being given up to box- and lumber-rooms. Violet, who came to see me soon after I was established, was horrified.
"I wouldn't sleep up here if you paid me," she declared. "Why, you might be murdered any night and no one the wiser!"
"I don't think anyone wants to murder me," I replied, "and I have nothing worth stealing. Besides, look at the view."
Violet glanced unenthusiastically out of the window across the tangle of lights which seemed to flame away to the horizon.
"Well, everyone to their taste," she said carelessly. "I'd sooner be stuffy in a cubicle with human beings all round me than left alone up here to listen for footsteps in the night. You've made the place look pretty, though," she admitted. "Where did these books and pictures come from?"
"Home," I answered. "We had a few things left over when we were sold up."
"Your father was a doctor, wasn't he?" she remarked. "Mine was a grocer. I don't mind his having been a grocer, but I do think he might have kept out of the Bankruptcy Court. Seven of us there were when he died and not a bob between us. I wonder we didn't have to go on the Parish. Ever seen anything more of our two Richmond Park friends?"
I shook my head.
"I didn't expect to," I said. "I didn't tell Mr X. my name, or where I lived."
"More fool you," Violet declared. "He might have been useful. You'll never get on until you learn to make use of men. Look at this fur coat, for instance," she went on, exhibiting it. "I got it at less than half-price through one of my young men. We worked it through his brother, who's in the fur trade. Nine guineas, and they're selling the same for twenty anywhere in the West End!"
"Very nice," I admitted. "But I don't fancy Mr X. had a brother who was in the fur trade."
"His pal who drove the car was bored stiff," Violet confided. "He scarcely spoke to me all the way to London. It was Mr X.'s little show altogether. I wonder you didn't get on better with him, Phillipa. I should have thought he'd have been just your sort."
"I liked him very much," I admitted. "He behaved very well, too. But you know what I told you before, Vi—I've had a scare about men."
"Well, it would take a dozen of them to scare me," she laughed. "One thing I couldn't do would be to sleep here by myself. What should you do if you heard footsteps coming up in the night?"
"There's a good bolt on my door," I pointed out. "I don't think I should be frightened."
"Makes me creepy to think of it even now, at half-past-six in the evening. I'm getting jumpy. Let's go out somewhere, and I'll stand you a dinner. I had a jolly good week last week."
"I'm obliged to go out," I replied. "My gas stove isn't working until to-morrow, and I haven't anything in the house. But you don't mean to tell me that you're disengaged?"
"I've given my last young man the chuck," she explained. "To tell you the truth I thought he would have been all right. He was just a commercial traveller doing a bit better than most but, as you know, I've been going out with him regularly. He's been as attentive as you please and as affectionate as I've let him be, but not a word about a little house at Golder's Green or anywhere else. Another one of the selfish brutes, I'm afraid, who want everything they can get from a girl for as little as they can give in return... And to think that I left off going out with a fellow who used to take me to the Milan for him! Put on your hat, Phil, it's a rotten world!"
"You're, depressed tonight," I remarked. Violet nodded.
"Yes, and these rooms of yours with a silence you could cut with a knife and the drip-drip of the rain don't make me any better," she confessed. "I'm disappointed about Arthur, I admit. Got to go through it all again with another one, I suppose."
I locked up, and we descended to the street, caught a bus and made our way to the purlieus of Soho. We had a favorite little restaurant there, and were welcomed genially by the proprietor, who found us a small table in a corner and suggested a few alterations in the menu—without extra charge, as he hastened to inform us. We had a cocktail each, and ordered a small bottle of white wine. Violet began to look more cheerful.
"It isn't the Milan," she observed, "but we are on our own, anyway, and if that young man at the window table stares at me any longer I shall put my tongue out at him. Phillipa, do I look fast?"
"Not at all," I assured her, "but you look friendly."
"I suppose that's it," she mused. "If it was worth while I could pick up a fresh beau at every tea shop and restaurant I went into. It's always the same, though—a dinner, a dance, a supper, a theatre, flowers, sweets, even a little morocco case with something in it, but never what one wants. I want to get married, Phillipa."
"I shouldn't hurry," I advised her.
"Can't help it," she replied. "I've knocked about and talked nonsense long enough. I want a home and all the rest of it. Is your fish good. Phillipa? Mine's delicious."
"So is mine," I agreed. "I'm awfully hungry, too. I combined breakfast and luncheon to-day. Had a really lazy time."
"The working girl's Sabbath morn," Violet declared. "Do you know old Godstone's rather bucking about you, Phil?"
"Really?" I exclaimed. Violet nodded.
"You'll be the next regular," she confided; "—probably before the month's out. You've been to some awkward places without any complaint, and you've stuck at it like a brick."
"If it hadn't been for your advice, Violet," I told her, "I should have been home in less than half-an-hour from more than one of them."
"What good would that do?" she asked. "Madam would have been sympathetic, but cold. Her theory is that there are plenty of girls who can keep anyone in their place and still get the work. Those are the sort of girls she wants. Crikey, what a joke. See who's here, Phillipa!"
I looked around. Henry himself, the proprietor, was welcoming with considerable unction a little party of evidently valued clients. There were two young ladies—stars of the musical comedy stage, whose names Violet whispered to me but whom I had already recognised—and two men—Mr X. and his friend who had driven the car. The two young women were beautifully though simply dressed, and one of them wore a chinchilla cape. Mr X., taller and slimmer than ever in his well-cut dinner clothes, was easily the most distinguished-looking figure in the room. Suddenly he caught our rather too earnest gaze I saw him start for a moment. Then, without any hesitation, he whispered to his companion and crossed the room towards us. He stood before our table and bowed pleasantly.
"I am permitted, I hope," he said, "to resume our acquaintance."
"Certainly," I answered. "We have always been very grateful to you for that delightful ride home."
"Will you repeat it?" he asked eagerly. "Next Sunday, any day you like."
"I am afraid not," I replied.
"Why not?" he persisted.
"Because our only excuse the other day," I told him, "was lack of premeditation. Mr X. and Miss Smith—or was it Brown?—are automatically strangers."
He felt in his pocket and produced his card-case. I waved it away. The young lady in the chinchilla cape turned completely round in her chair to see what had become of her escort.
"You must go," I enjoined. "Your people are waiting for you."
For a moment there was a look in his face which I certainly did not like. Then he bowed stiffly and turned on his heel. Violet leaned across the table to me.
"Good tactics," she admitted. "But you push them a little too far. Supposing he gives up now?"
"I hope he will," I retorted. "I don't like him very much."
"Not like him!" she gasped. "Why you're an idiot, Phil! I should have thought you would have been just the one to appreciate class. I bet he's a gentleman."
"He may be," I answered. "I bet you also that he's one of the type you try for a time and drop."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that his instincts are not domestic."
She planted her elbows on the table and demanded coffee from the waiter.
"You're too downright," she pronounced. "It's true I give that sort the go-by when their attentions become particular, but I have a run for my money first—a few dinners, theatres, motor rides, if possible, as it would be with him. Where's your fun in life coming from?"
I laughed softly.
"Violet," I declared, "you're a philosopher."
"You're a fool," she answered brusquely. "Will you answer me a question?"
"Of course I will."
"Exactly what are you out for in life?"
"I will tell you what I am out for," I replied. "I am not out to be the plaything of a man like Mr X."
"No one supposes you are," she agreed. "But you can got some fun out of his being stuck on you—dinners, motor rides, presents, and all that sort of thing."
I shook my head.
"I don't care to receive without giving."
"Pooh!" Violet scoffed. "It's a fair game. He's trying to trick you all the time and you know it. Why shouldn't you retaliate?"
"Quite easy if one hadn't a heart," I assented. "But you know what would happen if for a moment you thought that he was really kind. We are all such fools, and you one of the worst, Violet. That's where the game isn't equal."
"No one could ever fool me," she declared stubbornly.
"I don't believe they could," I acquiesced. "At the same time, you know, Violet, there's a kink about our sex. We've got a weak spot and it's generally the brute who realises it."
Violet was silent. Suddenly she called to a waiter and demanded the bill.
"You're making me feel quite creepy," she confessed... "And after all you never answered my question."
"If you really want to know," I told her, after we had divided the bill, paid our share, and offered the waiter his modest tip, "the thing I want most in life is just what you want."
ON the very next morning Miss Godstone sent for me directly I arrived.
"Miss Meadows," she said, "I am going to give you a very important assignation."
"I am very much obliged," I assured her gratefully.
"I am going to send you to Marlow and Sons, very wealthy stockbrokers in the City, and old clients of mine. They have a considerable number of typists of their own, but when they are bringing out companies they always require help. The address is Number 10a, Capel Court. Ask for Mr Stevens, the managing clerk."
I thanked her and took my leave. In the outer office I saw Violet and stopped for a moment to tell her where I was going.
"Good for you!" she declared. "They're almost our most important clients. Don't forget the crab, though."
"The crab?" I repeated, questioningly.
"Old Mr Marlow," she confided. "For heaven's sake can't you hide your hair or something? As a rule it's towards Fridays he begins to talk about sea air, but he'll never last till the week- end if he sees you looking like that. Tact, remember, tact!"
I laughed, and went out well pleased. A compliment from one's own sex is always the pleasantest thing in life, and I realised quite well that, now the shadow of that great apprehension was passing, my interest in life was becoming re-established. I held myself differently. My feet left the pavement more buoyantly; I remembered again that the world was a good place and that I was young. There was an odour of Spring in the air that morning, patches of blue sky overhead, and a west wind. I bought a bunch of primroses in the Strand before I boarded my bus, and rode down to the City with a smile all the time upon my lips. I found the offices of Messrs Marlow and Sons without any difficulty—very imposing offices they were—and Mr Stevens came out at once to see me. He was a fussy-looking, elderly gentleman, with spectacles pushed back to his forehead.
"Yes, yes," he interrupted, breaking in upon my few words of explanation, "the young lady from Miss Godstone's Typewriting Agency. Miss Meadows, is it? Good, Miss Meadows! There's a cloak closet across the vestibule, if you want to leave anything, and this is where you work," he added, pushing open the door of a large office where half-a-dozen men were busily engaged at stand- up desks. "That's your corner," he went on, pointing to the only table with a chair. "Remington or Williams, whichever you wish. Mr Scannell will give you the copying. Scannell, look after this young lady. Excuse me. Very full morning!"
Mr Stevens took his leave, and I was established in a very few minutes, with a pile of copying before me which looked as though it might last a month. Ours seemed to be the outer office of a whole suite, for people were continually passing through, and in the next room I could hear the click of a tape machine. The work was quite easy and straightforward, although absolutely devoid of interest. At half-past twelve Mr Scannell, an under-sized, worried-looking little man, who was always rushing in and out, and wore a silk hat sizes too large for him, paused before my desk in one of his hurried exits.
"Go to lunch when you like, Miss Meadows," he said—"an hour to an hour and a quarter. We go out at odd times. The office is always open."
I thanked him, and I was on the point of rising from my desk when I received a shock. The outer door opened, and in very leisurely fashion—a great contrast to everyone else—Mr X strolled in. He was passing through to the inner rooms when he saw me. For a moment he remained transfixed. Then he removed his hat and took a quick step towards me.
"I—er—good-morning!" he exclaimed.
"Good-morning," I replied, a little shaken.
He was on the point of entering into further conversation when a sudden idea seemed to strike him.
"I say; Scannell, just a moment;" he called out.
Mr Scannell returned with obvious unwillingness.
"Do me a favour," Mr X begged, laying his hand upon the other's shoulder. "Introduce me to this young lady."
Mr Scannell blinked at him in surprise.
"Young lady typist from Miss Godstone's," he explained.
"Just so," Mr X. acquiesced, "but I suppose she has a name. Couldn't you tell her mine and do the thing in style."
Mr Scannell looked a little dazed.
"This is Mr Raymond Freyne," he announced. "Miss—er—Miss Meadows, I think it is. Anything else, Mr Freyne? I'm overdue in the House."
"Nothing at all, thank you, Scannell," the newcomer replied. "You've been a friend in need."
Mr Scannell took his departure. Mr Raymond Freyne loitered by my desk.
"Are you one of the partners here?" I inquired.
"I could scarcely go as far as that," he admitted. "The firm enjoys the privilege of my efforts on its behalf which it repays, somewhat inadequately, with a salary."
"Is this your usual hour for appearing in the morning?"
Mr Freyne glanced at the clock and seemed somewhat taken aback.
"A little late, perhaps," he confessed. "As a matter of fact, though, I looked in at the House. You will admit, Miss Meadows, that we are now formally acquainted."
"Certainly," I assented, "and what then?"
"Will you give me the pleasure of taking you out to lunch?"
"Impossible," I replied.
"Why?" he demanded.
"In the first place," I explained, "I have a great deal of work to do, and I only intend to be away half-an-hour, anyhow. In the second place, you've only just arrived, and I think it's time you did a little work."
"You don't understand," he said. "I have no set hours. I have my own circle of customers whom I introduce to the firm, and I get an interest in their business. It doesn't matter to the people here whether I come at nine o'clock or at one. You would scarcely believe it, but I am always welcome."
"It seems incredible," I murmured.
"Failing luncheon," he continued, "our present established and authorised terms of acquaintanceship permit me the privilege of inviting you to dine."
"Alas!" I told him, "I do not dine in the sense you mean. My lack of evening clothes confines me to the world of high teas at Soho restaurants."
"Rubbish!" he protested. "Look as sweet as you looked last night at Henry's and I shall be proud to dine with you anywhere."
"I will dine with you in precisely those clothes which are all I possess," I told him, "on Thursday evening."
"It is a long time to wait," he complained.
"It may seem so to you," I conceded, "but I need some new lace for my collar, and I have some idea of retrimming my hat."
"Nevertheless," he persisted, "Thursday is a long time."
"I will give way to the extent of Wednesday," I yielded.
"Bearing in mind the fact that I shall be working under the same roof with you until then," he rejoined, "I accept the amendment. Good-morning Miss Meadows, I hope you will enjoy your lonely bun."
"It's going to be soup to-day," I told him. "I breakfasted at seven."
I found a pleasant and not overcrowded place to lunch, and, with the recollection that I was going to save a dinner during the week, I added a chicken pâté and some fruit to my luncheon. In the afternoon I worked without a break until tea-time, a meal which was served by a superior sort of charwoman who called herself the housekeeper of the premises. It was while I was resting for a moment and stirring my tea that I first saw Mr Marlow, a rotund, elderly-looking gentleman of florid complexion and grey moustache, dressed with the utmost precision. He had been to a Board luncheon, I learned by accident, and was a little flushed. He looked at me, looked again, and I knew what was coming. He had seen my hair. He paused before my desk.
"Good afternoon," he said. "Let me see, you are not a regular employee of the firm, are you?"
"No, sir," I told him. "I've been sent here by Miss Godstone. Your manager, Mr Stevens, has been giving me some copying to do—letters to underwriters, on the subject of one of your new undertakings."
"Quite so, quite so," he murmured, fingering one of my productions. "Very neatly typed, if I may so, Miss—Miss, what did you say your name was?"
"I don't remember having mentioned it, sir," I told him, "but my name is Miss Meadows."
"Good," he said. "I am very glad that Mr Stevens sent for you. I am sure that we shall be able to make good use of you. I have myself a great many letters to dictate this week—more than my secretary can deal with, I fear. I shall count upon your assistance, Miss Meadows. Good afternoon."
He passed on to the inner offices. I looked furtively around at the young men who were working at their desks. They all kept their faces concealed, but I was conscious of a sort of titter in the air. I turned to Mr Scannell, who was pretending to be very busy.
"Was that Mr Marlow?" I asked.
He nodded tersely. He always saved words when he could.
"The senior partner in the firm."
I had finished a very creditable day's work at a quarter to six, and was just covering up my machine when the office telephone went. Mr Scannell answered it and spoke for a moment. Then he turned to me. There was a shadow of a grin upon his face.
"Mr Marlow would like you to take down a letter," he announced.
"I will show you the way to his office."
I groaned inwardly, but I picked up my book.
"Tact," I murmured softly to myself—"Tact."
MR MARLOW appeared to be prodigiously busy when I was ushered into his office. He motioned me to an easy-chair, while he continued his task of signing cheques, transfers and documents of all sorts with amazing celerity. When he had finished he leaned back in his chair, as though exhausted. The young man who had been handing him the papers gathered them up and disappeared.
"Now, young lady," he said, turning towards me, "draw your chair up a little nearer, please. I hate anyone a long way away. Take down, please."
He dictated a couple of letters which appeared to me absolutely unimportant. Afterwards he seemed to go off into a brown study. I noticed, however, that he glanced furtively more than once in my direction.
"Shall I type these and bring them in for you to sign, sir?" I suggested.
He shook his head.
"No, stay where you are. I have some more letters, but I can't think of them for the moment. We've had a busy day."
Again I sat looking straight ahead of me without permitting myself to glance once in his direction.
"You look us though you'd been working hard," he remarked abruptly. "Look as though a little dinner in the West End and a glass of wine would do you good, eh?"
"I am looking forward to it very much, sir," I confided. "I am dining and going to a theatre. That is if I get away in time," I added artlessly.
He frowned slightly.
"The deuce you are!" he exclaimed. "With whom, eh?"
I permitted myself a faintly protesting lift of the eyebrows. "A gentleman friend," I murmured.
"That's the worst of all you good-looking girls," he declared. "You're so much run after you haven't any time to spare for—"
He hesitated for a moment. I think he had decided that I needed handling with a certain amount of care.
"For whom?" I asked gently.
"For friends who might turn out to be of some use to you in the world," he replied. "Do you know that you are a very good- looking girl, Miss Meadows?"
I rose to my feet. The smile, however, was still on my lips as I made my way to the door.
"I'll bring these back for you to sign in a few minutes, sir," I promised, looking back at him pleasantly.
I typed the letters with much care and congratulated myself. So far, so good. I was inclined to fear, however, that that last smile had been it little overdone. It might even lead to trouble on my return. I left the door ajar when I went in with the letters. Mr Marlow pretended to be hard at work, but I could see quite well that he had been waiting for me impatiently.
"Shut the door," he ordered testily.
I obeyed, taking care to look round the room and ascertain the location of the bell before I took the letters over to him. He glanced them through rapidly and signed his name.
"Very good indeed, young lady," he pronounced. "Hand them over to one of the office boys for addressing. So you like a dîner- à-deux and the theatre sometimes, eh?"
"Very much indeed."
Perhaps he missed something in my expression to which he was accustomed when forging his way to success. At any rate he proceeded a little clumsily. He fingered his tie and coughed.
"Upon my word, Miss Meadows," he said. "I should like to take you out myself one evening. What about it, eh?"
I laughed as though I found the idea delightful but impossible.
"You couldn't possibly do that," I assured him.
"Why not?" he demanded.
"For one thing," I continued, "you might be seen with me, which wouldn't do at all, and for another thing, I haven't any clothes for the sort of places you would want to go to."
"Clothes are of no consequence whatever," he declared. "Look as charming as you do at the present moment, and you'll be the best-looking girl in the room wherever we are."
He was edging a little closer to me all the time. I pretended not to notice it, but I managed to put the corner of the desk between us.
"All the same, I'm afraid it wouldn't do," I decided.
"Look here," he asked, letting his hand drop as though by accident upon mine, "what does a new frock cost?"
"A great deal of money," I sighed, withdrawing my own hand gently.
"What do you call a great deal of money?" he persisted.
"At least ten pounds."
His fingers were wandering towards his pocket book. I looked at him earnestly.
"Please don't!" I exclaimed.
"I may have been wrong," I answered after a brief hesitation. "I had quite an unpleasant idea for a moment. It was silly of me. I am sure you wouldn't do anything horrid."
"What did you think I was going to do?" he insisted.
"I was afraid you were going to offer me money," I confessed.
"Well, well!" he ventured. "Nothing so terrible about that that I can see. What's the use of money except to make other people happy?"
I laughed and drew slowly away from the table.
"May I go now, please?" I begged. "I shall barely have time to change and meet my friend."
He stood up, I had realised for some time that this was coming. He brandished a handkerchief which smelt strongly of lavender water.
"Couldn't you give me a kiss first?" he suggested.
He extended his arm, but I was just out of reach. I shook my head quite good-humouredly.
"The first time I have ever seen you!" I protested.
"It isn't going to be the last," he declared.
I made a quick movement and escaped with a cheerful "good- evening." He took a step towards me, but I closed the door firmly. In three minutes' time I was out on the street and on my homeward way.
I met Violet just leaving Miss Godstone's. She looked at me questioningly.
"So far I've been rather a success," I confided. "The manager is pleased with my work, the senior partner thought that I looked tired and a little dinner up in the West End would do me good, and I am dining with Mr X., whose real name is Mr Raymond Freyne, and who has something to do with the firm, on Wednesday night."
"You may be a slow starter," Violet conceded, "but when you're off you can go the pace all right. What did you say to the old man?"
"My dear," I answered, "I used tact."
Violet laughed heartily.
"He gets awfully shirty, if you're not careful," she warned me.
"I didn't give him a chance," I declared. "He looks upon me just now as dazzled but fearful, with a young man in the background whom I am anxious not to offend. I think I can make it last a week all right."
"You're a clever kid if you do," Violet remarked. "You'll make a score with Miss Godstone, too. She wants the firm's business. We're never without a batch of typing for them in the office, apart from the girls we send there; but we've come near trouble once or twice. One girl came home crying and went and told her mother, and there was the devil to pay. Another put the old man's back up, and a third as near as possible got mixed up in a divorce case down at Brighton—that would have finished Miss Godstone. Tell me about Mr X."
I told her what there was to tell. She seemed a little surprised at my comparative lack of enthusiasm.
"I can't understand your not falling for that young man, Phil," she observed. "He's your sort, isn't he?"
"In a way he is," I admitted. "Perhaps I shall be able to tell you more about him after Wednesday night."
"Have you ever met the man whom you would really like to marry?" she asked me a little abruptly.
I was several moments deliberating. Then to her surprise, perhaps a little to my own, I answered her in the affirmative.
"Yes," I replied, "I believe I have."
"You secretive cat!" she exclaimed. "Tell me about him at once."
"It's a little absurd," I confided, "and it isn't in the least romantic. It was when my father was alive. He was chairman of the Literary and Scientific Society in Middletown, and he had a great scientist down to lecture. He stayed with us for the night, and reading through his lecture, found one or two pages badly copied. I was just beginning typing, without any idea of taking it up seriously, and I did them for him. He stayed with us just that one night. I heard him lecture, and said good-bye to him on the platform afterwards. I haven't seen or heard of him since. I am quite sure that I should have married him at any time if he had asked me."
Violet was immensely interested.
"Tell me about him," she insisted.
"You won't be impressed," I warned her. "He seemed about the same age as my father, not in the least good-looking, but tall, very broad-shouldered, black hair, and a queer, strong humorous mouth. Some of the people at the lecture called him supercilious—I am quite sure he wasn't really, but he was tremendously clever. He's a doctor of science, a member of Parliament, and all sorts of things.
"So that's your type, is it?" she remarked.
"I don't know about type," I replied. "As a matter of fact, I never met anyone else like him."
"Does he know about your father's death, and that you are earning your own living?" Violet asked practically.
"How should he?" I expostulated. "I don't suppose that he even remembers my existence. That was the only time in my life I have ever seen him."
We had walked on and on, long past the hostel, turning from street to street always at Violet's direction. Suddenly she caught hold of my arm and we came to a standstill before a small but prosperous-looking grocer's shop. It was half filled with customers, and there were four young men behind the counters. One of them was wearing a white apron and brandishing an implement with which at times he made an attack upon a row of cheeses.
"Tell me what you think of that fellow, Phil?" Violet whispered. "He can't see us—the one with a scoop, I mean."
I watched him with almost fascinated interest. He was of medium height, fresh colour, with a fair moustache, ingenuous blue eyes and fair hair smoothly brushed back. There was nothing distinguished or extraordinary about his appearance, but he had a curious air of dominating the shop. He handled that scoop as no other man could have handled it. The air with which he proffered samples of his wares within its curved enclosure was inimitable. He raised his voice and addressed one of the young men at the other side of the establishment, and that particular young man became galvanised with a new interest and produced exactly what his customer had seemed to be expecting. He spoke but seldom; he had very little need to. I felt that if that shop did not belong to him there was something wrong with the world.
"What do you think of him?" Violet asked.
"I think that he is a Napoleon of grocers," I answered. "I should like to speak to him."
"Come on," she invited.
We entered the shop and stood humbly before the pile of cheeses. The young man wiped his hand upon his apron and shook hands with Violet. She introduced me. His name, it appeared, was Peter Kendrick, and he shook hands with me, also.
"This is a pleasure," he said, in a deep mellow tone. "My busy hour. Anything I can send you?"
"Nothing for the moment," Violet replied. "I just wanted you to know my friend."
"Delighted," the young man assured us. "At eight-thirty I will call at the hostel and take you both to the pictures. Madam, permit me."
He deserted us, and we left the shop, a little breathless.
"There he is," Violet announced. "I made up my mind that you should see him. You've been telling me about your type. Well, in a way he's mine."
"In what way?" I asked.
"I've a dozen of them wanting to take me out," she said. "He's the only one who's ever hinted at marriage. What about it? Do you think I could stick the apron?"
"My dear Violet," I exclaimed fervently, "if you don't you're a fool. I think he's wonderful. Can I stay and go to the pictures with you? I'll come away half-time."
Violet squeezed my arm.
"You're a real pal, Phil," she declared. "I can tell you what I couldn't tell any of the other girls. I do like him a bit."
ON the next day Providence took a hand in my affairs. Twice after Mr Marlow had sent for me to take down letters, and my tact was beginning to feel the strain, an important client was ushered in, under cover of whose presence I managed to escape. As for Mr Raymond Freyne, he did not put in an appearance at the office at all. On the Wednesday morning, however, he arrived at a little after eleven. He came over to me at once.
"Well, Miss Meadows, how are you getting on?" he inquired.
"Quite well, thank you," I answered, without looking up from my typing.
"Turn that noise off a moment, please," he begged. "My head won't stand it this morning."
"I must get on with my work," I explained, taking my fingers from the keys, however, for a moment.
"Then I shall not stay to whisper soft nothings in your ears," he declared. "Will eight o'clock in the Milan grill room suit you?"
"I haven't had time to retrim my hat or put the lace on my dress," I warned him.
"What were you doing last night?" he demanded.
"I went to the pictures," I confessed.
"Well, I can't help that. Tonight it must be. I've waited quite long enough. What about the theatre afterwards?"
"I should prefer the theatre to dinner," I admitted.
"You're brutally candid," he sighed. "Very well, I'll take seats for something that commences late."
Freyne passed on and the die was cast. I was to dine at the Milan at last and under conditions which were at least agreeable. I did not deceive myself for a moment about Mr Raymond Freyne. I liked his voice and his manners, his looks and the way he wore his clothes. There was not the least suggestion of the roué about him; he had indeed the appearance almost of an ascetic. He had never said a word to me that was capable even of a double meaning. There had never been anything in his eyes or expression to remind me of less pleasant experiences. But I had a curious feeling of distrust as regards him. I felt that the menace of his overtures would be far more dangerous than the blatant invitations of Mr Marlow.
Mr Marlow himself appeared presently, very spruce as usual, wearing a grey tall hat with his morning clothes and a carnation in his button-hole. He too, lingered at my desk, slyly he did so as though he had suddenly remembered something. He sent Scannell, who was nearest to me, out of the room on some pretext.
"I was very disappointed, Miss Meadows, not to be able to give you those letters yesterday," he confided. "You left very punctually, didn't you?"
"Not before time, sir," I told him. "I inquired whether your secretary was still here, and they told me yes."
"Quite so," he murmured. "Come to my office in half an hour, will you, please."
"Certainly," I replied. "I hope you won't give me much work, though. I have a terrible lot of copying to do here."
"Pooh! Work for anybody, that!" he declared scornfully. "We can find you something better. If you cared about the City, Miss Meadows," he went on, dropping his voice a little, "I fancy we could arrange something permanent. In half an hour, mind, half an hour."
He strutted off and presently Mr Stevens came to see how I was getting on. It occurred to me for the first time that he was taking a great interest in my work.
"I hoped that I would have finished the first batch by luncheon time," I told him, "but Mr. Marlow has just asked me to go and take some letters down for him in half-an-hour's time."
Mr Stevens looked very black indeed.
"Dear me!" he exclaimed. "What a pity! Very inconsiderate of the chief. Most important work this!"
"I thought that Mr Marlow had his own secretary," I ventured.
"So he has," Mr Stevens assented. "He doesn't make half enough use of her. Perfectly absurd taking you away like this. I shall have to protest. I must protest. You can't earn your money this way."
"It isn't my fault, is it?" I asked.
He patted me absently upon the shoulder.
"No, my dear, no, no," he agreed. "It's not your fault at all. I must have a little talk with you about the work. We must find some way of getting rid of this interference. Let me see—Wednesday, to-day, isn't it. At luncheon time, I think. Where do you lunch, Miss Meadows?"
"A little place at the back of Lombard Court," I replied, "I only take half an hour as a rule."
"Capital! I know the place. Very quiet indeed. Most suitable. Meet you there at a quarter to one, Miss Meadows, and we'll talk things over. Whatever you do, don't be late. Quarter to one. I must really," he added, turning away, "protest to Mr Marlow."
In half an hour's time I presented myself in Mr Marlow's office. I met his own secretary coming out—a lady who had been with the firm, I understood, for twenty years, and to whom I had been introduced on my first arrival. She looked at me with expressionless face and cold, disapproving eyes. There was a touch of scorn as these latter rested upon the note-book I was carrying.
"You will find Mr Marlow disengaged," she said.
Mr Marlow was disengaged and apparently very glad to see me. He himself moved my chair nearer up to the desk.
"Getting on all right in the office?" he asked.
"Very well indeed, thank you," I replied. "Mr Stevens seems very anxious for me to finish the work I have on hand."
"Stevens is an old fool," Mr Marlow declared. "The idea of setting you to do copying. Ridiculous!"
"I'm very glad to have it to do," I told him mildly. "I don't even mind taking down letters."
He stared at me but he accepted the hint. He dictated three letters with great rapidity. Afterwards he sat back and looked at me.
"Miss Meadows," he said, "you look a little tired—distinctly a little tired."
"I am really quite well," I assured him.
"You look as I feel," he continued, "as though a breath of sea air would do you good. I am motoring down to the South Coast this week-end, but I shall have to keep up with the work all the time—markets much too jumpy to cut adrift altogether. I propose that you come with me and look after the correspondence. What do you say?"
"I am afraid, Mr Marlow," I replied, "that Miss Godstone would disapprove."
"God bless my soul!" he exclaimed. "Why bring Miss Godstone into it?"
"Because she sent me here," I explained, "and I have to account to her for all my time. She happens to know, too, that you have already a secretary."
"Stuff and nonsense!" Mr Marlow declared. "It's no business of anyone's except my own whom I take with me, and as for Miss Godstone—what does she give you a week? Three or four pounds, I expect. I'll double it. What do you think of that? Double it!"
I leaned back in my chair and laughed at him.
"Under certain conditions," I admitted cautiously, "I should love to go but can't you see how impossible it is? I should never get another position, and the young man I am engaged to would be most extraordinarily troublesome."
"Chuck him," Mr Marlow advised emphatically. "Don't have anything more to do with him. No good tying yourself up at your time of life and with your appearance."
"Don't be cross, please," I begged, rising to my feet. "I like working here, and I don't want to get into trouble with Miss Godstone, but I can't go to the South Coast with you."
He was immensely disturbed, casting about in his mind for the right arguments, uncertain whether to attempt the blunderingly affectionate or to appeal to any mercenary instincts I might possess. At that precise moment Mr Stevens came in. I was never so pleased to see anyone in my life. He was a little out of breath and seemed agitated.
"Grand Trunks have broken," he announced. "Seemed as safe as a house an hour ago."
There was a tumult of unfamiliar words, bells rang, hatless young men rushed backwards and forwards to and from the House. I crept back to my seat, typed the letters for Mr Marlow, and at a quarter of an hour before my time escaped for lunch. I secured a corner table at my restaurant, and rested there quietly until Mr Stevens appeared.
"Got you out of that," he remarked cheerfully, as he handed his hat to a waiter and caught up the menu. "Two cocktails, Charles, with a dash, and quick! Fried sole to follow, lamb cutlets and peas. Rush the cocktails!"
He sat down opposite to me.
"Well, well!" he said.
"I was very glad to see you this morning," I confessed. "I am afraid Mr Marlow isn't very pleased with me. Have those things really broken, whatever they are, Mr Stevens?"
He smiled benevolently.
"Not quite so badly as I let him think," he confided. "I was pretty sure it was a temporary affair. Things are quieter again now."
"Then he'll send for me again this afternoon," I sighed.
Mr Stevens stroked his chin. Just then the cocktails came.
"My love, dear," he murmured.
I was a little startled, but I drank the cocktail.
"I hope you don't dislike your work with us," he went on, leaning a little across the table.
"I should like it all right," I admitted. "but yours is rather a quaint sort of an office, isn't it? I'm lunching here with you and dining tonight with Mr Raymond Freyne, and Mr Marlow has invited me to spend the week-end with him—as his secretary—at Eastbourne. Don't you think you're all a little over-hospitable?"
"Raymond Freyne is a rascal," Mr Stevens declared, in a tone of deep annoyance. "As for Marlow, I can't find words. He ought to know better at his time of life."
"Well, there it is," I pointed out. "I want to give you all satisfaction, and I've been told to use tact. I can't cope with all this, though, can I?"
"The situation is preposterous," Mr Stevens acquiesced. "I regret very much to hear that you propose to dine with Mr Raymond Freyne."
"I couldn't get out of it," I explained. "He was most insistent. I want to be friends with everybody. What am I to do, Mr Stevens? Please advise me."
"I will," he promised. "Try some lemon with that sole—'colbert' they call it, quite as good as the West End! If you will trust to me, I will get you out of these complications."
"Do tell me how," I begged.
"In the first place," he propounded, "you must not dream of dining with Raymond Freyne tonight. Quite impossible, that!"
"That's all very well," I complained, "but I've arranged to be out for dinner now."
"Quite so. You shall be out for dinner. You shall dine with me. We will dine somewhere quietly—Jules, say."
"Why would it be better for me to dine with you than with Mr Freyne?" I asked.
"My dear child!" Mr Stevens expostulated. "I am an elderly man, far removed from any scandal. Mr Freyne is notorious. He has friends on the musical comedy stage—a sweetheart there, if reports are true. A most improper companion for you! As for Mr Marlow's proposals, they are of course, ridiculous. He has a wife."
"Haven't you?" I enquired.
Mr Stevens coughed.
"That is a different matter," he pointed out. "I have not asked you to go motoring with me to the South Coast."
The spirit of mischief was in me I leaned forward and laughed at him.
"Wouldn't you like to take me to the South Coast, Mr. Stevens?" I asked.
"I—er—my dear Miss Meadows!" he gasped.
"You wouldn't!" I exclaimed reproachfully.
"There's nothing in the world I should like to do so much," he confessed, without any further hesitation.
We continued our meal in silence for some moments. Mr. Stevens watched me a little furtively.
"The city isn't in the least what I expected to find it," I told him presently.
"You aren't at all the sort of person, if I may say so, my dear, whom one expects to see in the city," he rejoined. "You—er—you upset things."
For a minute or two I felt quite in earnest.
"I don't want to upset things, Mr. Stevens," I said. "I just wanted to come down to your office and do your work well, and please everybody, and be sent back with a good character. Now it seems to me I can't please anybody."
"You can please me. if you wish to," he declared, impressively.
"If I do I displease Mr. Raymond Freyne and Mr. Marlow," I replied, "and so on all round the triangle. You'll have to send me away, Mr. Stevens. My tact isn't equal to the situation."
"Dine with me tonight and talk things over," he begged.
"I'm lunching with you now to talk things over," I reminded him, "and we don't seem to have got much further. You're all very nice, but I want to be let alone. can't I be?"
"If that is your wish," he said a little stiffly, "I dare say it can be managed. You are really in earnest?"
"Absolutely," I assured him, "Do be kind to me, Mr Stevens."
"My dear child, no one has any idea of being anything else," he assured me testily. "We're all too kind to you. Now I must got back to the House. I shall pay the bill as I go out and order some coffee for you. You can follow me to the office in about a quarter of an hour's time."
A presence suddenly towered over us. I looked up in surprise. It was Mr Marlow, very red and very angry.
"You here, Stevens?" he exclaimed. "I am surprised. Upon my word I am surprised! I thought little peccadilloes of this sort were kept for the West End and after business hours."
"I am not a peccadillo, Mr Marlow," I protested.
Mr Stevens reached for his hat. He looked as undignified as Mr Marlow did angry.
"You're wanted in the House," the latter said coldly. "They've been shouting for you there for the last ten minutes."
Mr Stevens disappeared. Mr Marlow glared at me.
"Are you coming, with me on Friday?" he asked.
"My young man wouldn't let me," I told him.
He marched away to the other end of the room, where some friends were calling him. My tact had failed me!
MY troubles were all forgotten, for a time at any rate, when after climbing the last of those three flights of stone steps, I opened the door and found Norah in my room awaiting me. For a few moments our conversation was disconnected. I had felt a little hysterical all the way back from the office. The joy of seeing Norah was almost too much for me. In the midst of my incoherences, however, a sudden dread assailed me.
"You have heard something about Robert?" I cried.
"Not a word," she assured me. "I had to come up to take a case back to the hospital to-morrow morning."
I drew a long breath of relief and busied myself preparing some tea.
"You have had no news yourself?" Norah asked hesitatingly.
"Not a word," I replied. "I hope I never shall."
"I have been thinking about you a great deal, Phillipa," she confessed. "I am not sure that you ought not to take some more definite steps towards finding out what has become of him. After all, he is your husband."
"He is not," I insisted passionately. "Those few mumbled words in a Registry Office mean nothing at all to me—nothing! I was prepared to be his wife in return for the things he promised me. He lied to me—and there's an end of it! I hope I may never see him again... There's your tea, Norah. I had some in the office. You haven't got a cigarette, have you? I haven't been able to smoke for three days."
Norah searched in her bag and produced a packet, I threw myself on the couch, my hands clasped behind my head, and gave myself up to a few moments' beatific happiness. How I had hated all those young men swarming about the office with the cigarette cases full and the smell of tobacco always in the air!
"Now tell me about yourself, Phil," my sister enjoined, a little, abruptly. "Just how are you getting along?"
"I've rubbed along somehow, dear," I told her. "It's perfect Hell, though. Today I've had to leave my third assignation for the same reason. Tell me," I asked, suddenly sitting up, "do you think that I look—well—as though I were inviting adventures?"
"Not particularly," was the somewhat unconvincing reply. "You're much too good-looking for this sort of work, of course, and it's a pity about your hair."
"What those men think, I can't imagine," I continued, with a little of the passion I felt, creeping into my tone. "They're all the same—an invitation to dinner, a leer and a suggestion of a new frock, or something of that sort. They think that's enough!... And you can't get away from it. It comes up against you every time. I've just been sent away—very politely, of course, but still sent away—from one of the most respectable stockbrokers' offices in the city. I lunched with the manager, who is a married man living at Forrest Hill, and who suggested a quiet dinner at Jules's this evening. The head of the firm—sixty, if he's a day and also married—kept on sending for me to take down letters—which isn't part of my work even—and then suggested that a few days on the South Coast would do me good. And I'm not an idiot about things either. I do my best to be good-tempered about it all, but it's no use. These men all get angry with one another, and they clear up the situation by sending me away."
"I wish you could get a permanent post," Norah sighed.
"They're hard to get. I think Miss Godstone does her best for me, but she doesn't like my being continually sent back. She's a good woman, of course, in her way; but she thinks, somehow, that we ought to be able to keep the work and yet remain respectable. She's like my only friend here, another girl in the office, who's always talking about 'tact.'"
"Come back to Middletown," Norah begged. "You can share my rooms, and you'll be able to get a living somehow. We send a little typing out from the hospital, which you can have."
"Don't be silly," I replied. "You don't need any rooms. You can live at the hospital for nothing. And, besides, after all, I'm like the moth. All the things I want in life are close to me here. So I beat my wings and flutter and look on. I couldn't stand Middletown again. It was the ugliness and gloom of the place which made me believe Robert when I should have known better."
"I can't see that you're any happier here," Norah protested.
"There's always the thousandth chance of something turning up," I declared. "An actor manager might see me and put me on the stage, or a film producer might take a fancy to the colour of my hair. I am still good-looking, aren't I, Norah?"
"I wish you weren't," was the candid reply. "You're much too good-looking to be up here alone."
I laughed, a little hardly.
"You needn't be afraid," I assured her. "I made one bad bargain. Next time, if there's any man fool enough to want me seriously, he shall pay the price. By the bye," I added, glancing at the clock, "I didn't tell you, did I? I'm dining out tonight with a young man."
Norah was immediately troubled.
"Phillipa!" she exclaimed.
"No need to be alarmed," I told her a little grimly. "This is the first invitation I have accepted. I am doing it out of curiosity. The young man asked me decently, anyhow, and I think he understands. We're dining in a Grill Room, because I haven't an evening dress. I'm going to wear my wedding gown and a hat. A certain amount of humor about it, isn't there, Norah?"
"Who is he?" she enquired.
"He's in this firm of Stockbrokers I've been working for. That's practically all I know about him except that he wears the right sort of clothes and says the right sort of things. He looks serious enough, but I should think he's a bad lot. I shall probably find out before the evening's over."
"Why go?" Norah asked.
"Because I want a good dinner," I confessed frankly. "When I'm at the office I have a bun for lunch—one of those nasty hard things with dried-up sugar on the top—and a cup of wishy-washy coffee. I did have some lunch to-day, but I had no breakfast—couldn't get the gas stove to go. Yesterday I had bacon and eggs for dinner. The night before tea and bread and butter. It's a terrible confession, you know, Norah, but can you wonder that the time comes when the finer edge of one's feelings gets blunted, and one is even inclined to risk a little annoyance for the sake of a dinner. Food is a very great temptation to a hungry, not to say a greedy, person—and I was always a little greedy. May I have another cigarette and then I must change."
"I must go in twenty minutes," Norah announced. "I have to find my way to a hospital in the East End to make arrangements about to-morrow. Can I sleep here?"
"Of course," I assented enthusiastically. "You'll be home first, so you take the key. Don't go to sleep and I'll tell you all about my adventures when I come home."
I knew directly I entered the little reception lounge of the Milan Grill Room, and Raymond Freyne came forward to meet me, that he was satisfied with my appearance.
"You are punctuality itself," he said, as we shook hands for the first time. "Shall we go in at once? I chose a table by the window, as it's such a warm evening."
I followed him into the room, where we immediately received a great deal of attention from the head waiter and his satellites. Our table was against the wall and looked out upon the courtyard with its hedge of purple and pink hydrangeas. There were cocktails upon the table, a bottle of gold-foiled wine in an ice- pail, and the sound of distant music. An attentive waiter placed a cushion for my back and pushed a footstool beneath my feet. I began to feel that one of my dreams was being realised.
"How delightful this is," I murmured.
"I am glad you like the place," he replied. "Do you come here often?"
"I have never been here before in my life," I told him, "nor any place like it."
He seemed politely surprised.
"Never been to the Milan Grill Room! Where do you go generally, then?"
I laughed a little bitterly.
"I know that you were making a mistake about me. I have been in London for between three and four months, and this is the first restaurant of any sort I have been into, except the places where one gets buns and coffee in the luncheon hour."
I could see that he was genuinely puzzled.
"You mustn't mind my astonishment," he said. "You seem so perfectly at home in these surroundings."
"I can assure you that I am not," I answered. "I have lived all my life in a town in Yorkshire called Middletown, which I don't suppose you've ever heard of. My father was a doctor there. He died suddenly and we found there was no money at all. My sister became a nurse and I took up typing. After a time I felt I couldn't stand Middletown any longer, so I came to London to find my fortune. You see I'm repaying your hospitality in the only possible way I can by telling you my family history."
"You will probably find your fortune without any difficulty," he remarked calmly. "I wonder if you realise how extraordinarily good-looking you are."
"So far," I confided, "I haven't found that my looks—such as they are—have been of much assistance to me."
He laughed with the air of one who is pleasantly amused. I liked the restrained way in which he did all these things. His voice, his manner, even his mirth, were subdued. They were like his clothes and personal appointments—inconspicuous, but perfect.
"I can quite believe it," he declared. "Certainly they wouldn't help anyone like you in the city. Has our old friend Mr Marlow invited you to go to Eastbourne with him yet?"
"He mentioned the South Coast," I replied. "I am afraid he is very much annoyed. I don't suppose you've heard about it, but I have really had a most unfortunate day. Mr Stevens took me out to lunch, and invited me to a quiet little dinner this evening at Jules's. When he found that I was engaged, he too, was annoyed. Then Mr Marlow came in and found, us lunching together. More trouble!"
"Old Stevens!" my companion exclaimed. "Well, you have been a success!"
"Have I?" I answered a little drily. "I should look upon myself as a complete failure. At any rate, my work has come to an end."
"You mean that you aren't coming to the office any more?"
"So I understand. Mr Scannell told me this evening that they would telephone when they wanted me. I asked him the question point-blank, and he admitted that they had sent to another agency for help."
"I am heartily ashamed of my business connections," the young man admitted. "At the same time I presume it makes no difference to you. You are employed by Miss Godstone, aren't you?"
"I am employed by her when there is anything to do," I answered. "She couldn't find me anything at all last week, and one has to live just the same."
"What about being my private secretary?" he suggested.
"I am afraid not," I replied. "For one thing, I don't think that you do enough work to require a private secretary."
"You wrong me," he declared earnestly. "I have a lazy manner, but I am really a very busy person. I have a large private correspondence, in addition to the Capel Court business— invitations to answer, you know, and that sort of thing. Besides, I take an interest in racing. You have no idea how many letters I leave unwritten during the day."
I shook my bond. "I am in earnest about my work, such as it is," I told him.
"I'll give you—not as much as you're worth—but quite a good salary," he promised.
I looked at him for a moment and I fancied that he regretted his speech.
"I will admit," I said, "that the question of salary is the vital one, but at the same time the question of an employer is also of some importance. You would not suit me at all."
"That sounds hard," he complained. "I really think I compare favorably with most of them. I haven't asked you to take a trip with me to the South Coast, nor am I married and compelled to invite you to dine with me furtively at Jules's."
"Perhaps," I suggested, "you have broken yourself of that sort of thing."
"On the contrary," he assured me earnestly, "although I flatter myself that I am not promiscuous, I am a very susceptible person. If you should be well-advised enough, for instance, to accept my offer, I should certainly expect you to go about with me now and then—motor trips, dinners, theatres and a dance now and then."
"You are very generous," I murmured, with a touch of sarcasm which, if he appreciated it, he affected to ignore.
"Not at all," he replied. "I don't pretend to be a St. Anthony, but I like to choose my companions with discrimination. Will you pardon my being somewhat personal," he went on, "if I venture to remark that the hat and gown which you are wearing this evening are scarcely compatible with that condition of penury of which you have drawn such a pathetic picture. They were not. I presume, the production of a Middletown modiste."
"The material came from there," I acknowledged. "As a matter of fact I made them both myself."
He looked at me for a moment incredulously.
"And I fancied that I knew something about women's clothes," he exclaimed. "Why, you are an artist, Miss Meadows! By-the-bye, you couldn't possibly let me call you 'Phillipa,' could you? My name is Raymond."
"Of course I couldn't," I declined, "especially at the very moment when you are suggesting yourself as an employer. I couldn't possibly call my chief by his Christian name."
"You are considering my proposition, then?" he asked eagerly.
"Not seriously, I am afraid," I told him. "You see I am not at all sure that you could afford my salary. Are you very well off?"
"Are you very mercenary?" he rejoined.
"Horribly," I confessed. "I've had enough of being poor."
"At any rate," he declared, "I could go one better than Miss Godstone."
"I should require you to go a great deal better," I assured him.
"You wouldn't have such a bad time," he persisted, leaning over the table. "Two or three times a week we could dine together, go to the play now and then, if you liked, and I've got quite a decent little two-seater."
"The ornamental side of the affair seems to be perfect," I admitted, looking with beatific eyes at the soufflé which had just arrived; "especially as your gastronomic ideas appear to be perfectly sound. I should like, however, to know a little more about the work."
"The work?" he repeated.
"Well, it's like this, you see," he explained. "I have a natural antipathy towards writing letters, answering invitations and that sort of thing. Consequently I am always in trouble from which you would save me. Then, besides my connection with Marlow's, I am secretary to another company. There's not much doing just now, but there might be a rush of work at any time."
"Do you keep any clerks?" I enquired. "Have you an office of your own?"
"Not exactly," he admitted, "except my desk at Marlow's."
"Where should I work, then?"
"Up in my suite here," he answered. "Rather cramped quarters, but comfortable."
I shook my head slowly.
"I don't like to damp your enthusiasm when you are giving me such a wonderful dinner," I declared, "but I don't think it would do."
"Why not give it a trial, please?" he begged.
"It's not the sort of thing I'm looking for," I confided. "I want something permanent."
It was just at that moment that the most wonderful thing of my life happened to me. I forgot all that my companion had been saying. I forgot his very existence. Every fibre of my being was absorbed in an unexpected emotion. I sat quite still in my place watching an approaching figure.
I REALISED at that moment the poignancy of that secret hope which had never left me during my sojourn in London, that I might meet this man again. He was walking at the rear of a little procession of people on their way, apparently, through the grill room to the larger restaurant beyond. He was exactly as I had always pictured him; my memory had not played me false in a single detail. If anything, his jaw seemed to have grown a little more set, and his eyebrows a little more bushy. I had known him for less than forty-eight hours, and that years ago, but it seemed to me that I knew perfectly well the meaning of that slightly protruding underlip, his indifferent carriage and rapt expression. He had looked like that for a few minutes when he had been introduced to the Mayor and a few members of the Corporation of Middletown. Without a doubt he was bored. And then suddenly there was a change. The most amazing thing of all happened. He recognised me.
He detached himself from the little company and bore down upon us at once. I was too engrossed with a new and wonderful sensation of pleasure to realise my companion's discomfiture. My mask of cynicism had gone. My eyes were shining as though I were a veritable ingénue.
He took both my hands. He seemed honestly glad to see me. Yet, at the same time, I fancied that I detected somewhere in his tone or manner a note of displeasure.
"My little secretary," he exclaimed. "Phillipa Meadows, isn't it? What on earth are you doing here with my graceless nephew?"
His nephew! What an amazing world!
"I'm living in London, Sir Nigel," I told him. "I've been here for several months. You knew—about Father?"
"Not a word," he answered. "I've been round the world. Two years abroad. Not bad news. I hope?"
"My father died four years ago," I went on. "Norah has been nursing and I've been doing typewriting ever since. I came to London three months ago."
"Do you mean that you have a post here?" he asked, looking at me hard from underneath those bushy eyebrows.
I laughed back at him.
"I'm at Miss Godstone's Typewriting Agency," I confided. "I've been working for her down in the city."
"Where I had the pleasure of meeting Miss Meadows," my companion put in smoothly.
"H'm! You seem to have made the most or your time," his uncle remarked brusquely, as he glanced around at the remains of our banquet. "I hope someone has warned you, Miss Meadows, that this nephew of mine is a bad lot."
"I felt it instinctively," I assured him. "I couldn't refuse a dinner, though."
"Why didn't, you come and see me when you came to London?" Sir Nigel demanded.
"You hadn't even asked me to," I reminded him.
"How the mischief should I know that you were coming?" he replied a little irritably. "Your father was in the best of health when I was at Middletown, and you never said anything about taking up typing as a profession. You've grown better looking," he added abruptly. "Who's taking care of you in London?"
"No one," I answered meekly. "I live by myself."
His expression for a moment became a regular scowl.
"Ridiculous!" he exclaimed. "A girl of your appearance, too! Haven't you any relatives?"
"Not one, except Norah."
"Come and see me to-morrow," he directed, "at five o'clock."
"Where do you live, please?" I asked, my heart beating more quickly.
"Berkeley Square, Number 5a," he told me. "Look after this young lady, Raymond," he added, as he turned away. "Her father was a friend of mine."
I watched him until he disappeared—slightly round- shouldered, but a head taller than anyone else in the throng. Then I drew a little sigh of content and returned to my dinner. The world had become a very different place. It was obvious, however, that my companion was very far from sharing my feelings.
"So I'm put on trust," he murmured quietly. "Is my uncle going to assume a sort of guardianship over you, I wonder?"
"I'm afraid not," I answered. "I don't think, though," I went on, a little mischievously, "that he would quite approve of my accepting the post you were offering me."
"There are times when an uncle is a superfluity," he declared. "I congratulate you upon your conquest. Miss Meadows, at any rate. He very seldom opens his mouth to a woman, and girls he abominates."
"Fancy his being your uncle!" I reflected.
"Have you known him long?"
"He came down to lecture when my father was president of some society in Middletown," I told him. "He stayed at our house, and I re-wrote two pages of his lecture for him. I have never seen him before, or since."
"You seem to have made some impression," he remarked, in that quiet way of his which could sometimes be very unpleasant.
"I have that faculty," I answered, smiling.
"I shouldn't wonder," my companion continued thoughtfully, "if he doesn't offer you some work. He's a tremendously busy man, and I heard them talking the other day about having some typing done."
"Them?" I repeatedly breathlessly. "Who?"
"Howard Boynton, his secretary, and my uncle. Sir Nigel is a bachelor, you know. Boynton is the son of an old pal of his—had his leg shot off in the war. They live together in that great house in Berkeley Square like a couple of old fogeys. I heard them talking the other day about getting someone to do the correspondence and cataloguing. How should you like that, Miss Meadows?"
"I think," I acknowledged, "that it might suit me better than the position you were kind enough to offer."
He tapped his cigarette upon the table.
"The two, I suggest, might be combined," he ventured.
"I shall always be glad, to type your letters for you when I am not busy," I assured him coolly.
"My dear young lady," he protested, "you must flirt with someone. My uncle is a woman-hater, and Howard Boynton is, it possible, worse, besides being the gloomiest person on earth. You'll have to call me in to brighten your spare moments."
"I shall see how you behave."
He had the air of being about to say something but changed his mind.
For the rest of the evening his behavior was irreproachable. I seemed to possess unusual insight with regard to Raymond Freyne, and I could almost read his thoughts. He had all the cunning of the boulevardier of experience. He knew perfectly well that any ordinary advances just then would stand not the slightest chance of success. He was probably weary, too, of facile conquests, and of the temperament to whom a waiting game rather appeals. He took me to the second half of a musical show, which was a complete novelty and which amused me thoroughly. Afterwards, when I firmly refused his offer of supper, he drove me home, over across the solitary stretch of Battersea Bridge, without the slightest attempt at gallantries. When he took leave of me he ventured only so far as to raise my fingers to his lips.
"I shall dine at Berkeley Square to-morrow night," he remarked, "and hear the news. If there's anything I can do to help matters on, you can rely upon me."
"This is very kind of you," I answered gratefully. "There is nothing I should like so much as some sort of a post with your uncle."
I WOKE Norah up with the news, flung open the window and leaned out to gaze over the gardens. A soft spring rain was falling, and the perfume of the lime trees floated up, even to my eighth story sanctuary. Away northwards the lights of the city, although a little blurred, were still insistent. I was somehow conscious of an immense sense of relief; filled, too, with a sense of imminent happenings. This was the dawn, perhaps, of the life towards which I had struggled so feverishly.
Miss Godstone's reception of me on the following morning was cool, not to say frigid.
"I really don't know what to do about you. Miss Meadows," she announced. "I have given you some excellent opportunities, but you don't seem able to stay anywhere."
"I do my best, Miss Godstone. I don't think that anyone can find fault with my work."
"Then, why do they all send you back?" she complained, looking at me over the top of her pince-nez. "I can't understand it. You must be very deficient in tact."
"I don't think it's more tact I need," I ventured.
"What is it, then?" she demanded.
"Do you really wish me to tell you?" I asked.
Miss Godstone glared at me. I discovered afterwards that I had broken the great unwritten law of the place.
"You had better put on your hat, Miss Meadows," she said stiffly. "I should prefer your not applying to me for a reference."
"I am sorry," I rejoined. "I only told you the truth. I don't think you can quite know what some of us have to put up with."
"I have had a long experience in this business," she declared, "and I am convinced that the deportment of the young woman is the key-note of the whole situation. I have no complaints from any of my other employees, and they appear to give satisfaction."
"They are luckier than I, then," I said, with a little sigh. "Good morning, Miss Godstone."
She repented as I reached the door, and called me back.
"Have you anything in view?" she asked.
"An old friend of my father's, whom I met last night, told me that I might go and see him. I am hoping very much that he will find me some employment."
"I hope he will," she replied. "Of course, if you can't find anything, you can come back, and I'll do the best I can for you. It is really very trying, though, to have young ladies who will not get on with my clients."
"I have done my best, Miss Godstone," I assured her. "Thank you very much for saying I may come back. I'll try and manage without, though."
I took a walk in the park, lunched with Violet, to whom I sent a furtive telephone message, and who was immensely interested in my prospects. Precisely at the hour indicated I rang the bell at Number 5a Berkeley Square, and was ushered by a portly man-servant into the most wonderful library I had ever seen. Sir Nigel was seated at a writing-desk at the north end of the room with the window just behind him. A thin young man, wearing spectacles, with a club foot and a discontented mouth, was standing by his side. Sir Nigel shook hands with me and pointed to a chair.
"Let me introduce my secretary, Mr Howard Boynton—Miss Meadows."
We exchanged salutations, and mutually agreed to dislike one another. Mr Boynton resumed his study of a catalogue which he was holding.
"Can you do shorthand?" Sir Nigel asked.
"I am moderately proficient at both shorthand and typing," I told him. "I think I may say that I am a little faster than the average at typing."
"When can you come?" he demanded.
My heart gave a little jump.
"You are going to give me a position?" I asked breathlessly.
"Of course," he answered, a little impatiently. "I thought I told you so last night. Your work at first will be to prepare some catalogues at Mr Boynton's instructions. I warn you that it will be a long and tedious job. Do you mind that?"
"I shall not find it tedious," I declared, "and in any case I am glad of work of any sort."
"M'm! That's all right, then! When can you start?"
"Capital! We're early folk. Be here at half-past nine, if you can."
I was a little dazed, but I gathered that from Sir Nigel's point of view the interview was over. I rose to my feet. The young man leaned over and whispered to his employer:—
"Ah, just so!" the latter said. "About salary. Will five pounds a week do?"
"It is a great deal more than I have been getting," I acknowledged.
The young man leaned across again. Sir Nigel shook his head.
"References!" he exclaimed. "Stuff and nonsense! Miss Meadows is the daughter of an old friend. I need no references. You've been at a typewriting agency, or something of the sort, in London, haven't you, Miss Meadows?"
"I've, been at Miss Godstone's for some months," I told him.
"Quite enough," he declared. "Half-past nine to-morrow morning, Miss Meadows. Don't forget," he went on, glancing at my very simple clothes, "that you'll have to poke about amongst a lot of very dusty books to get dates and correct titles and that sort of thing. You'd better have one of those linen things that go over everything. I dare say you know all about it."
"I'll bring something," I promised.
"Show Miss Meadows out, Howard," Sir Nigel directed.
Mr Boynton walked with me to the door in silence. In the hall he handed me over to a servant.
"I shall do my best to make your work agreeable, Miss Meadows," he said, "but I think it only right to tell you that I am opposed to the idea of a young lady secretary."
"Why?" I asked him.
"I prefer men around," he explained. "As a rule I find them more efficient."
"I shall try to make you change your mind," I rejoined as sweetly as I could.
He remained silent, but his half smile was expressive. Nothing, however, could damp my spirits. I waved my hand to him as I was ushered out, to the evident disapproval of the gloomy- looking butler, and hastened towards the nearest telegraph office, where I sent a message to Norah, telling her of my good fortune. From the same place I telephoned insistently to Violet. She met me an hour afterwards at our favorite place in Soho.
"All right?" she inquired, although I'm sure she had no need to ask, for the reckless happiness with which my whole being seemed to be suddenly filled must have shown itself in my eyes and expression.
"Better than right," I replied. "Violet, it's wonderful! I'm engaged, permanently. Wonderful work, too! I start to-morrow morning."
"How about the old trouble?" she asked doubtfully.
"Not a chance of it," I replied joyously. "Sir Nigel—well, he's too wonderful, but, alas! he's a woman- hater! Howard Boynton, his secretary, whom I shall see most of, not only dislikes women, but told me so frankly. I shan't look at him. I shan't speak to him if I can help it. I'll just do the work as perfectly as I can, and before, long they won't be able to do without me. Henry," I added, turning to the proprietor, who was hovering round, "how much is your cheapest bottle of champagne which won't give us a headache in the morning?"
Henry smiled discreetly.
"I should recommend a Saumur, Madam," he said. "I can give you an excellent Saumur at twelve shillings."
"Does it sparkle?" I demanded.
"But certainly," he assured me. "It is very light and pleasant, and will do you no harm."
We drank the whole bottle and consumed every course of the table d'hôte dinner, with an extra offering from Henry in the shape of some poires Melba. We lingered over our coffee for some time. It was the first absolutely happy evening I had spent in London. Violet was a little alarmed at my high spirits. She felt it her duty, I think, to warn me.
"Phillipa," she said, "you must remember that you aren't settled for life just because you have this post. Anything might happen, you know. You may not be able to get on with Mr Boynton. The work may come to an end."
I laughed more joyously than ever.
"Violet, dear, you don't know half, not a fraction. You can't realise anything of what I am feeling. It isn't the work alone."
"What is it then?" she demanded. I leaned over the table, and, though there was no one near, I whispered to her.
"Day by day," I confided, "hour by hour, I am going to be under the same roof, I am going to work with the only man in the world I could over care for."
"It's dangerous," she remarked doubtfully.
"It's paradise," I scoffed.
WHEN I arrived at Berkeley Square the following morning, at about ten minutes before the time arranged, I was met in the hall by a lady of middle age, who announced herself as housekeeper to the establishment. I took an instant and violent dislike to her, which I am sure was fully reciprocated. She was thin, with sandy hair streaked with grey, and small, inquisitive eyes, which she had a habit of suddenly lowering in conversation. Her clothes were primly cut, but her skirt was a little short for her years, and her stockings, obtrusively of silk. She might have been, I judged, about forty-six years of age, but it seemed to be her intention by lavish use of the powder puff and other artifices, to be taken for at least ten years less.
"Sir Nigel asked me to make your acquaintance this morning," she announced a little stiffly. "If you will follow me I will show you where to put your things and a small sitting-room which you can use when you are not working. My name is Mrs Swabey."
I was prepared to be agreeable to Mrs Swabey or anybody else, and I approved most cordially of the arrangements which had been made for my comfort.
"With regard to your luncheon," she continued. "Sir Nigel asked me to find out from you whether you desired to go out for it or to have it served here."
"Whichever would be more convenient for the work," I replied.
"I fancy that Sir Nigel would prefer your remaining here," she said. "Sometimes he and Mr Boynton are both in. Sometimes one or both are out. If I might venture upon a suggestion, I should recommend your having it served upon a tray in your own sitting- room."
"That would suit me admirably," I acquiesced.
"I must tell you that it was not Sir Nigel's idea," she went on, "but I feel that it is what he and Mr Boynton would prefer. They are old-fashioned, and they like being alone. Although I am Sir Nigel's cousin. I myself have my own suite of apartments in which I lunch, and even dine. I shall be happy to have you take tea with me there one afternoon."
"Thank you very much indeed," I replied.
"If you will come this way," she invited. "I will now take you to the library. Sir Nigel is playing golf this morning, but Mr Boynton is quite ready for you."
I followed her across the hall to the library, where she left me. Mr Boynton, who was seated at his table, rose ungraciously to his feet as I approached. His face, I decided, was not unpleasant, except for its somewhat discontented expression.
"You are ready to start work at once. Miss Meadows?" he asked.
"Certainly," I answered.
"Come this way, please."
He led me to a deep recess between two of the great winged bookcases. A table and comfortable chair had been placed by the window and there were two typewriters with a plentiful supply of papers and carbons in evidence. I could scarcely help smiling at the arrangement of the room. Sir Nigel's very handsome desk was at the further end and Mr Boynton's on my left opposite the door. We were all out of sight of one another.
"To be brief, Miss Meadows," Mr Boynton began, "your work will be first the correspondence, which has never been attended to properly. Sir Nigel wishes you to inaugurate a system of files. Do you understand what we mean?"
"Perfectly," I answered. "The letters I type will be copied, and the carbon copy filed with the original letter. It is the only way to conduct a correspondence reference to which may be required later on."
Mr Boynton nodded.
"Just so," he murmured drily. "The more important part of your work, however, will be the compilation of a complete catalogue of Sir Nigel's books and manuscripts. The greatest exactness is necessary in this work. I have myself taken a shelf from the literary section—shelf D on your left—and I have made out a list which lies on your desk there of the first fifty volumes, classified and described in correct fashion. We wish you to type that copy, and afterwards to continue the catalogue, extracting yourself the information you desire from the volumes themselves. I shall, of course, acquaint you with the geography of the books and the order in which they are to appear."
"That seems very pleasant," I replied. "I will begin the typing at once."
"You will find a Williams and a Remington typewriter there," my mentor concluded, "both are new, and you can use which you prefer. The typewriting firm with whom we deal have filled up the drawers of your desk with all necessaries. If it is absolutely imperative for you to ask me anything, you will find me at my table."
He turned away, and left me to my own devices. I was absurdly light-hearted as I removed the cover from the typewriter I had selected, and looked through the manuscript. I loved the room. I knew I was going to like the work, and I found the faintly musty smell from the calf-bound volumes by which I was surrounded curiously attractive. I started in and soon became absorbed. There was a little clock on my desk, but I never glanced at it. I was amazed when the sedate-looking butler, who had entered the room and already spoken to Mr Boynton, presented himself before my desk.
"Your luncheon is served in the small sitting-room, Miss," he announced.
I looked at the clock, and finding that it was a quarter past one, I rose at once and covered over the typewriter. Mr Boynton appeared round the corner of the towering book-case.
"Everything going all right?" he inquired.
"Quite, thank you," I assured him. "I am about half-way through your list."
He made no further remark, and, turning away, crossed the hall and entered the dining-room. I made my way to my own little apartment, where I found a delightful luncheon set out upon a tray. The butler who had opened the door followed me in.
"Can I serve you with any wine, Miss?" he inquired.
"No thank you," I answered.
"You would perhaps like some illustrated papers to look at," he suggested.
"I should very much indeed," I assented.
He left me for a few moments and returned with an armful of papers and magazines.
"Some coffee will be served when you ring the bell, Miss," he announced. "If there is anything you require at any time, please do not hesitate to let me know. Sir Nigel was very anxious that you should be made comfortable."
"Sir Nigel is very kind," I murmured.
"If you will ring the bell when you are ready for the coffee, Miss," he concluded, "I will bring it myself."
My days of sticky-topped buns were over for the present, at any rate. I lunched off chicken pâtés and cold ham, stewed fruit and cream, and most delicious coffee. In the middle of my meal there was a commotion outside as though a tornado had struck the hall. The front door was slammed, there was a crash of what I gathered afterwards to be a bag of golf-clubs upon the tessellated floor, the sound of heavy footsteps, and a man's voice, deep and thunderous.
"Miller! Where the devil is Miller? Cocktails, at once! Two hot baths upstairs, and luncheon for two in a quarter-of-an-hour! Where the devil's everybody?"
There was a moment's silence, during which I gathered that "Miller" was the butler's name and that he had duly materialised.
"Find Lord Atherley a change of clothes," the stentorian voice continued. "Anything will do. His man will bring some of his own round after lunch. Damn it all, Boynton, we're wet through to the skin—came on in torrents at the ninth hole. Where's the young woman?"
There was another brief silence, and then the door of my sitting-room was abruptly opened and Sir Nigel appeared. He was dressed in a brown homespun suit and was evidently, as he had described himself, soaked to the skin. His cheeks were glowing, however, and his hair wildly disarranged.
"Good morning, young lady," he said. "Don't get up. Have they been looking after you all right?"
"Very well indeed, thank you, Sir Nigel," I answered gratefully.
"Work suit you, eh?"
"Very interesting and very delightful," I assured him. "I don't think I'm making any mistakes."
"Good!" he exclaimed. "God bless my soul, what a morning! I'm off to have a bath, and then eat the biggest lunch of my life. Mind you have a rest before you start typing again. That fellow Howard Boynton will work you to death, if you let him. Three o'clock, don't begin before three o'clock.
He strode away. closing the door quite gently behind him. I heard him outside, shouting for the cocktails, directing his companion to the bathroom, tramping, himself, up the stairs. Then there was silence for a little time. The house seemed to be recovering from some cyclonic disturbance.
Soon after two o'clock I was back gain at work. I was there, in fact, before Mr Boynton, who seemed surprised to see me at my desk when he entered. He made no remark, but seated himself with a pile of books of reference, and I heard the occasional scratching of his pen.
About four o'clock I had completed my list, and ventured to ask him for further instructions. He waved me away.
"I'll start you off again as soon as I've finished this," he declared—"in about half an hour."
He was looking worried, and the pile of manuscript before him seemed to have grown perceptibly.
"Couldn't I help you with what you're doing," I suggested.
He looked up at me with a sour smile.
"Scarcely," he replied. "I'm looking up references and preparing notes for Sir Nigel's speech, in the House tonight."
"Wouldn't they be better typed?" I persisted timidly.
"No," he growled. "Sir Nigel only reads them through once. He seldom glances at them after he commences speaking."
I should have liked very much to have asked the subject of the speech, but Mr Boynton's manner was not encouraging. I went back to my place and began rummaging about amongst the volumes following upon those which I had already catalogued. Presently the door was unexpectedly thrown open, and Sir Nigel entered. In his dark morning-suit, and evidently fresh from the hands of his valet, he was a transformed being. He walked straight over to Boynton's desk.
"How are you getting on, Howard?" he asked. "I shall have finished in ten minutes, sir," was the quiet reply.
"Good lad! Don't forget those notes about Bavaria and the Dresden Flying Corps figures."
"They're all here."
Sir Nigel turned towards his own table. On the way he had to pass the recess at the end of which I was seated. He stopped short and looked at me.
"Have you had tea, Miss Meadows?" he inquired.
"Not yet, Sir Nigel," I answered.
"Good God!" he exclaimed. "Was there ever such an ass in this world as Miller. No tea! And past half-past four!"
He strode to the electric bell and rang it. It was useless my protesting, so I remained quietly in my place.
"Miller," his master said, as the butler presented himself, "how is it you haven't brought tea in for Miss Meadows?"
"Mrs Swabey was not sure at what hour the young lady would be leaving, Sir Nigel. I will bring some in at once."
"Mrs Swabey is—"
Sir Nigel broke off in his speech and coughed. He came back to me a few moments later.
"Order tea in future for whatever time you like," he said. "I'm off in a few minutes. Got to speak in the House tonight."
"What about, Sir Nigel?" I asked. "Is it a scientific question?"
"Lord, no!" he exclaimed. "I'm beginning to forget that I went into the House as a Professor. You don't read the papers, Miss Meadows?"
"Not lately," I admitted. "Only the advertisement columns."
"They call me the 'modern fire-eater,'" he confided. "I support the Army, the Navy, and the Flying Corps. I say that if we don't look out we shall have to fight in a dozen years' time with slings and bows and arrows. We used to think the French were a crazy nation about their frontiers. We've become a nation of stark lunatics ourselves. Did you lose anyone in the war, Miss Meadows?"
"A cousin," I answered, "and one or two friends—nobody nearer."
"You were lucky," he grunted. I lost an uncle, two brothers, and three cousins. That's why, instead of being a grubbing professor at Cambridge. I'm a rich man. I didn't want it though— God knows I didn't want it. He was suddenly serious, very subdued. I saw his attention go wandering off. I knew very well that he was thinking of his speech. I seemed to pass for the time completely out of his thoughts. He walked to the other end of the room with his head in the air. Mr Boynton followed him, and whilst I drank my tea I heard them talking together.
Presently Mr Boynton came down to me.
"Sir Nigel is going through his speech with me here," he said. "I shall not be able to put you in the way of doing anything further to-day. If you will be here at the usual time in the morning, I shall be ready to set you going."
I made my preparations for departure with some reluctance. Sir Nigel was walking up and down the room with his hands in his pockets.
"I suppose," I said to Mr Boynton, who was examining a book which he had taken down from the shelf, "I couldn't stay and listen, if I was quite quiet, could I?"
"Sir Nigel does not care for anyone else in the room," he replied coldly.
"A whim of mine, young lady," Sir Nigel, who had apparently overheard my request, intervened. "An important speech of this sort I like to go through carefully with only Boynton around. If you want to hear the debate though, come down to the House tonight. I'll get you in if I can. I'm due to launch my thunder- bolt at about half-past eight."
I was almost shaking with excitement.
"Where do I go? Whom do I ask for?" I demanded breathlessly.
"Come to the main entrance and send your name in to me," he replied. "If I'm busy I'll send someone out to look after you. Of course, if there's no room it won't be worth while waiting. They'll tell you that on the spot. Friday night, though. Lots of people out of town. You'll probably get a seat all right. Come on, Howard. I want the Air Force figures."
I slipped out of the room as quietly as I could. In the hall I met Mrs Swabey, just returned from a walk. She was fashionably dressed but she looked tired and her expression was morose. She was carrying a small dog and she had another on a lead.
"You are leaving early. Miss Meadows," she remarked.
"He is going through it with Mr Boynton now."
"I am sure," she observed acidly, "you would have made a very appreciative audience."
I smiled at her radiantly. I was too happy to believe that anyone could mean to be really unkind.
"I am going down to the House to hear it," I told her. "Sir Nigel has promised to get me in if he possibly can."
She looked at me without saying a word. Afterwards I realised how difficult that silence must have been. Then she passed on without taking any further notice of me. A footman opened the front door. I paused for a moment on the step. Through the open window of the library I could hear the sonorous roar of Sir Nigel's powerful voice.
THAT night, I think, completed my state of hero- worship. I took a bus down to Westminster half an hour before the time that Sir Nigel had named, and I had no difficulty in finding my way into the hall where about a score of men and women with the obvious air of waiting for somebody were seated on benches set against the wall. Through the swing doors was an imperfect vision of a large rotunda, the floor of which was covered with scraps of paper, and which was occupied by a number of yawning, dishevelled-looking men who seemed utterly bored with themselves and their presence there. Beyond, when a further door was opened for a few seconds, I once caught a glimpse of the interior of the House itself and heard the droning of a voice from some unseen place. Now and then a member came into the hall, looked around and greeted one of the anxious little crowd. The minutes went by and my heart began to sink. There was no sign of Sir Nigel. I began to fear that he might have forgotten me. Then a young, man, greeted with some respect by the policemen on duty, came in and scrutinised us all through his eye-glass. Finally he made his way to me.
"Are you Miss Meadows?" he asked. "Good! Sir Nigel asked me to come and find you. He can't leave—may be called upon at any moment. You'd like to hear the debate, would you?"
"Very, much," I replied, "if it is possible."
"Come this way, then," he invited. "I think there's room."
I followed him upstairs, along corridors, through rooms in which a number of men sat writing, and then up a flight of narrow stairs and into a passage. He looked through the glass at the top of a swing door and pushed it open.
"There's a place there," he whispered: "You'll have to excuse me. I've got some papers for my chief, and he may have a dash at any moment."
He hurried off. I sat on a narrow bench, wedged in with a great many other women, and peered forward as far as I dared. There were scattered groups of men on the raised tiers of seats below; most of them, from their attitudes, in the last stage of boredom. One of them was standing up, and apparently reading something from a sheet of manuscript. Every now and then he paused and looked up as though for encouragement, towards a person of dignified appearance, seated upon a dais, and wearing a wig, and not receiving any, returned to his speech.
I scarcely glanced towards him; I certainly never attempted to listen. I was searching everywhere for Sir Nigel. I noticed, with a little thrill, one or two familiar faces in the front row, but for a long time I could see nothing of him. At last a man who had been leaning forward, talking to one of the Ministers, straightened himself. My heart gave a leap. I recognised him at once, and, curiously enough, at that same moment he looked up at the grille behind which I was seated. A few minutes later the young man, who had been my escort, passing by, leaned over and whispered in his ear. Sir Nigel nodded and glanced up once more. He knew that I was there then. It was entirely foolish, but even that thought pleased me.
The man who had been reading from the manuscript came to an end of his discourse and sat down. It seemed to me that there was a breath of relief everywhere. Four or five figures shot up from their seats in various directions. One of them was apparently selected by the speaker, and the others regretfully sat down again. From the point of view either of entertainment, or instruction, the choice appeared to have been a bad one. The speaker's voice sounded choked and inaudible, and, notwithstanding his anxiety to unburden himself, he seemed completely to have forgotten most of what he had been so eager to say. No one pretended to listen, although there was once a muttered rumble of "Hear, hear." As soon as he had sat down it was obvious that something was going to happen. There were some official words spoken, the significance of which I could not gather. Members came trooping into their places through every door. Then, almost before I realised it, Sir Nigel was on his feet.
He spoke altogether for about three-quarters of an hour, at first quietly enough, and with occasional reference to the sheaf of notes he held. Every word he said was perfectly audible; everyone in the crowded House appeared now to be listening intently. Occasionally there was that strange rumble of approval, now and then an individual "Hear, hear." In a sense it was a new Sir Nigel to me—clear and distinct, though every word he uttered was, he had lost that vein of virile boisterousness to which I was growing accustomed. There was a note instead of restrained but biting sarcasm in the way he hurled facts towards the dozen men on the front bench who were sitting with folded arms listening. He scarcely even made a gesture. From where I sat his face seemed stern and almost pale. Even I in my inexperience, could see that he was making an impression.
There was never anyone more ignorant of general topics than I in those days, I could not attempt to judge of the merits of his arguments. I could see, however, that he was very seriously disturbing the handful of men upon the front bench, against whom much of his discourse appeared to be directed. One of them occasionally interrupted him; only, however, to be promptly and effectually silenced amidst renewed applause from all parts of the House.
I was pitifully handicapped by my ignorance, but I knew that Sir Nigel's theme was a vigorous denunciation against the Government for having let the country drift into a state of complete unpreparedness for any possible state of war. Towards the end he threw the notes which he had been holding impatiently on one side, his broad powerful figure seemed to dilate, his voice became louder, he resorted for the first time to gesture. He seemed suddenly to become a more familiar figure; not perhaps the boisterous, kindly Sir Nigel of the lecture platform and of Berkeley Square, but a man inspired with a passionate desire to reveal the truth—a prophet, touched for a moment, with the living fire.
When he sat down there was almost a tumult in the House which I had thought so solemn and decorous-looking. One could almost feel the emotion which the vigour of his words, those short, jagged sentences, charged with relentless truth, had generated. Then almost before that hoarse, strange-sounding roar of applause had died away, one of the men from the front bench had risen in his place. I stole away as quietly as I could, and, with a mist in front of my eyes, somehow or other found my way back, out of the place, into the courtyard and westwards.
As I walked along it was only by a supreme effort of will that I was able to keep silent. I wanted to call out and tell myself and all the world that on the morrow I should be in the same room with this wonderful person, that he looked at me kindly, that he had stretched out his hand to save me from despair. To me all other men seemed like puppets. I knew that the one reason of my flight from that strange, enchanted little enclosure, was the fear that he might come, that I should have to say ordinary things to him, speak in an ordinary tone, keep back the thrill of vehement adoration which was swelling in my heart. Hero-worship! It was more than that now. It was something which other people wrote and spoke about, and yet of which they were supremely ignorant. It was the greatest thing in the world....
I found myself on the Embankment, very nearly on the same spot where once before I had leaned over the wall and looked ominously down at the sullen water. I had the feeling that some other person had experienced all those things. I found myself remembering the call of the newsboy, my passionate search, morning and evening, through the columns of his papers. It was along here I had walked with that hideous dread in my heart. I thought of those hours of agony now with far away curiosity. I had not the slightest sensation of remorse. I felt nothing but thankfulness that I had had the courage to rid myself of Robert Sherriff by any means in my power; to remain myself for this new and wonderful reason.
As I walked along with the beating of the soft rain upon my cheeks, I was glad, even, of all those minor annoyances of life which had come to me because men had found me desirable. I served up to myself a rechauffé of the compliments I had received, and I rejoiced in them. If only the time would come when he would think what those others had professed to think. I was beautiful, but what was the use of it unless I could persuade him to look at me and realise it. His very kindness seemed to stand in the way. I was his little protegée who had fallen upon evil times, the daughter of a man whom he had known, someone to whom he must be kind. Beyond that I knew very well that he had seen nothing. He had not seen even what Howard Boynton had seen— but he should.
I CROSSED the bridge which spanned the river with footsteps which seemed to grow lighter at every moment. Those three flights of stairs beyond the lift seemed to rise to meet my feet. In my room as I undressed I sang to myself. After I had blown out my candle I leaned out of the window—leaned out so far that I could see the lights still burning in the Houses of Parliament. He was still there, then. I looked at them across the house-tops, across the turgid strip of river ashine with the reflection of the lamps. I looked at them and found my lips moving. Perhaps it was a prayer—or a confession!
I saw Sir Nigel very soon after my arrival at Berkeley Square on the following morning. He had just come out of the dining room and was filling his pipe in the hall as I entered. A Review was tucked under his arm, and even I, who was unaccustomed to his humors, could see that he was in a bad temper.
"Good morning, young lady," he said. "How do you feel about shorthand this morning? Can you take down a letter?"
"I think so, Sir Nigel," I answered.
"Hurry up, then," he enjoined. "I shall be at my desk."
I took off my hat and coat, smoothed my hair, selected a book and pencil from my stock, and went to his end of the room. He sat with the Review open before him, his underlip thrust out, and lightnings flashing from his eyes. He motioned me impatiently to a chair.
"Take this down," he directed. "It's a letter to The Times. Are you ready?"
"Yes," I murmured.
"Go ahead, then."
He began to dictate, slowly enough at first, but gradually increasing his speed as he warmed to the subject. It was the most terrible ordeal I had over endured. It appeared that a certain great scientist, in an article which had just appeared, had alluded to some figures contained in one of Sir Nigel's recent lectures as imaginary. Sir Nigel's wrath was evidenced in damning streams of statistics, formulae, and figures, which he quoted from memory with amazing facility. He made use of scientific terms which were unknown to me; the whole subject, which had something to do with the density of the atmosphere on various planets—was absolutely unintelligible to me. For the first ten minutes I kept up fairly well. Then he began to go faster. Weird technical words for which I could think of no outline flowed from his lips. A torrent of figures followed. I stopped him at last with a little cry.
"Sir Nigel!" I exclaimed. "I am sorry. I can't!"
He seemed to come down from another world.
"Can't what?" he demanded harshly.
"Can't keep up with you," I stammered. "It's all so strange to me. I never heard half these words."
I was very nearly making an utter fool of myself. He looked at me steadily for a moment, and his expression suddenly changed.
"My God!", he exclaimed. "What a brute I am! Of course you couldn't take it down. Boynton couldn't have taken it down. No one could have thought I was jamming it into the ears of those people who were asses enough to go and listen to Seneker. Don't look so terrified, child. You're not going to faint or anything?"
Directly he began to speak kindly I felt the numbness pass.
"I'm quite all right, Sir Nigel," I assured him, biting my lip hard. "I'm so sorry I couldn't keep up."
"Don't be silly," he retorted. "No one in the world could have kept up. I was rattling it off to myself and suddenly I looked at you and saw your face as white as a sheet of parchment, and two great eyes staring at me. Feel better now?"
"I'm quite all right, thank you," I declared again.
"What shall we do about it?" he asked.
"Let me type as much of what I have taken down as seems intelligible," I begged him. "It won't take more than a few minutes. Then you can correct that, and I can take it up from somewhere near where we were if you would go a little slower."
"Hurry back to your desk and get along with it," he directed. "I've plenty to do. I haven't rend The Times or smoked my pipe yet."
After all, I managed to transcribe more of the matter and with greater accuracy than I had ventured to hope.
When I took it to him I saw by his expression that he was pleased. He began to smile as he read on. Presently he took out a heavy gold pencil from his pocket and made a few notes in the margin of the manuscript.
"Thundering good," he pronounced. "You've got the hang of it entirely. Now I'll finish it quite slowly, and afterwards we'll revise the whole thing together."
He recommenced to dictate, this time with almost meticulous care, and I found not the slightest further difficulty. When he had finished he dismissed me with a grin.
"That'll teach old Seneker to be careful how he meddles with my figures," he growled. "Strike it off, roughly at first, then we'll revise it and afterwards you can do it with a copy."
My task was soon completed. He dragged my chair up to his side as we commenced the revision. I tried to keep my attention steadily fixed upon the typed pages, but my heart was beating fast, and I felt the colour coming and going in my cheeks. I liked the close contact with him, the wholesome smell of his homespun clothes, the fresh odour of some aromatic shaving soap, the very gruffness of his voice as he read to himself, and made occasional notes.
When he had finished he leaned back in his place.
"A thundering good job," he repeated. "I couldn't have got that off my chest any other way in twice the time. Type it out, take two copies, count the words approximately, telephone The Times to reserve so much space, and send a carbon copy to Professor Seneker, Athenaeum Club, marked 'Immediate.'"
I had just finished my work when Howard Boynton came in. I gathered that he had been to the British Museum on an errand. Sir Nigel shouted to him from the far end of the room.
"Have you seen what that dunder-headed fool Seneker has dared to do, Howard?" he called out. "Just look at this article. Eleven mistakes in seven pages. Criticism, Howard—criticism of me! Why, the fellow's committed suicide! He'll be the laughing stock of schoolboys. Let me show you."
Their voices dropped for a moment.
"What are you doing about it, sir?" Boynton asked presently.
"I'll show you," was the bellicose reply. "Miss Meadows, how are you getting on there?"
"I've quite finished, Sir Nigel," I answered.
I took him up my copy. He and Boynton read it together. Sir Nigel began to chuckle after the first paragraph. He chuckled all the time. Mr Boynton, when he had finished, looked at me with a peculiar expression in his face.
"Quick work," he remarked.
"A magnificent piece of work," Sir Nigel insisted. "Miss Meadows, I congratulate you. I congratulate myself. Damn Seneker!"
As I was finishing my lunch that day I heard a familiar voice in the hall. Somehow or other I had forgotten all about Raymond Freyne. Half-an-hour afterwards, when I was seated once more at my desk, he came into the room and made his way to my side.
"Well?" he inquired, slipping into a vacant chair. "How is it going?"
"Wonderfully, so far as I am concerned," I replied.
He looked at me thoughtfully. For the first time I realised that notwithstanding his pallor he really was a very good-looking young man. His clothes were exactly right, even the few violets in his buttonhole toned with his tie. His manner, too, was everything it should be. Yet, somehow or other I found myself wishing that he were not Sir Nigel's nephew.
"If it interests you to know it," he said, "you've made a tremendous hit with my uncle. He was talking about your manners and your work half lunch time. Funny how he likes people with quiet manners!—considering he's such a bull in a china-shop himself."
"I don't consider Sir Nigel at all like a bull in a china- shop," I objected, trying not to seem indignant. "He simply has such a marvellous stock of vitality."
"I dare say you're right," my companion acquiesced discreetly. "Anyhow, he's very much impressed by you. I'm not so sure about old Howard."
"Mr Boynton doesn't like me," I confessed. "I'm sorry, but I can't help it."
"He'll get over it," was the encouraging comment.
"I hope so," I sighed. "Anyhow, there's nothing I can do about it."
"Boynton is a strange fellow," my visitor continued. "Of course, he's desperately attached to my uncle."
"I don't wonder at it," I replied. "I think Sir Nigel must be the cleverest man in the world."
Mr Freyne laughed softly. All the time, though, his eyes seemed to be watching me.
"He has a marvellous brain," he acknowledged, "and, if one admires the type, also a marvellous personality. He has his weaknesses, though."
"Has he?" I repeated incredulously.
Again my companion laughed.
"I'll tell you about them later," he said. "Come and dine with me tonight. We'll either dance afterwards or go to a theatre."
"If you'll wait till next week," I suggested. "I shall have a new frock."
"But I can't wait," he objected. "We can go next week as well. As a matter of fact I rather resent the new frock. I like the one you wore last time I took you out."
"Well, you shall have it, and me in it," I laughed. "I'm much too happy to-day to say 'no' to anything anybody asks me."
He rose to his feet, tapping a cigarette upon the corner of my desk.
"That's a very dangerous statement," he warned me. "Shall we say at eight o'clock at Mario's?"
I nodded assent, and just at that moment Sir Nigel came in. He looked at us as though he were a little surprised. Mr Boynton, too, who was following him, smiled faintly as he made his way to his desk.
"That young rascal of a nephew of mine has evidently come to see if we are treating you properly, Miss Meadows," Sir Nigel observed. "He doesn't often honour us for lunch."
"You see," Raymond Freyne explained, as he paused to light his cigarette. "I look upon myself as largely the sponsor for this little arrangement—responsible to both parties. So far I am delighted to find that it seems to be a sort of mutual admiration society."
He took his leave with a word or two of farewell to his uncle, and Mr Boynton. I hoped that he would have alluded to our dinner that evening. He seemed, on the other hand, however, to rather avoid it. His little smile of farewell to me, suggesting almost a secret understanding I found absolutely annoying. I opened my lips to make some remark about the time or our meeting place. Mr Boynton, however, suddenly appeared round the corner of the recess with an armful of books, and the opportunity passed.
IT chanced that I was a few minutes early in arriving at Mario's that evening, and, as I sat on the divan waiting for Raymond Freyne, I picked up a copy of The Times which lay by my side. The first thing I saw at the very top of the personal column, in thick black letters, was the name of "Robert Sherriff."
I gripped the paper with both hands and looked around to be sure that no one had seen my little start of terror. No one, as a matter of fact, was taking the slightest notice of me. There were two or three little groups of people standing about in the small lounge, and a vista of the room beyond in which many people were already dining. Everyone, however, seemed to be engrossed in their own affairs—very pleasant affairs, too, to judge from the numerous little bursts of laughter and the pleasant hum of cheerful voices. I turned back once more to the paragraph and read it:—
"Robert Sherriff.—If the afore- named will communicate with Marlow and Sons, stockbrokers, Capel Court, he will hear of something greatly to his advantage. Any person able to give information as to the present whereabouts of Robert Sherriff, who disappeared from London during the last week of January of the present year, will be liberally rewarded on communicating with Messrs Marlow and Sons."
I laid the paper down stealthily. My heart was beating a little more quickly than usual, but I was not unduly alarmed. It was an amazing coincidence in a way that this advertisement should have emanated from that particular firm, but apart from that there was nothing in the advertisement itself to disturb or alarm me. Robert Sherriff had disappeared, and, brutal though my attitude might seem, I knew that he and all things connected with him had been wiped out of my mind. If I could have got rid of him by any other means I would have taken them, but I knew very well that no other means would have sufficed. Robert Sherriff in those few minutes had meant to have his own way, and I had chosen the only path of salvation. I was alive, and, so far as I was concerned, he was dead. I had no feeling for him but one of hatred: even remorse troubled me but slightly....
Raymond Freyne arrived, punctual to the moment, but full of apologies for my earlier appearance. He found me, I think, very much as usual. He had chosen one of the pleasantest tables in the room. The dinner, which he had apparently ordered over the telephone, was wonderful and the music seductive. The question I had decided to ask him I got off my mind at the first opportunity.
"By-the-bye," I remarked, "I saw the name of my dear friend, Mr Marlow, in the paper I was reading in the lounge—in the personal column, too."
"I know. Piece of jolly bad luck for us. That fellow Sherriff—a most terrible outsider he was—brought us a scheme for financing some options he'd got for the purchase of farms somewhere out in the Western States of America where there was supposed to be oil. We didn't take it on. There didn't seem to be anything in it. But we have a man out there who knows, and a few weeks ago it appears that there was an enormous strike of oil right in the neighborhood—as a matter of fact, on the very land, I believe. I suppose it would be too late now, anyhow, but old Marlow is making an effort to get hold of him."
That closed the subject in which I displayed no further curiosity. We discussed for a few moments the menu, the music and the people. Then I reminded Mr Freyne of our proposed topic of conversation.
"Uncle Nigel," he observed reflectively. "Yes, he's a wonderful fellow in his way. A great brain and amazing versatility. He has his humours and plenty of prejudices, of course. And that reminds me," he went on, watching his glass filled with champagne. "If I were you I wouldn't let him know the circumstances of our first meeting."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Well," he continued, smiling slightly, "I am only considering the subject from your point of view. We stretched the point a little, didn't we, when I had to admit that my acquaintance with you dated from my meeting you in the office. If we went further back, and pleaded guilty to a promiscuous rencontre in Richmond Park, it might—well, I think it would be unwise."
"In what way?" I demanded, suddenly depressed.
"Well, if we pleaded guilty to the whole truth as regards our Richmond Park meeting," he explained deliberately, "it would be rather straining a point to ask anyone to believe that your appearance in the office at Capel Court was entirely a coincidence."
"But it was," I insisted.
"Precisely," he murmured. "But coincidences are a little difficult to explain when one hasn't told the entire truth in the first instance."
"I shall tell Sir Nigel to-morrow afternoon that you spoke to me in Richmond Park one day without an introduction and that you drove me back to London," I decided.
"It you do that," he pointed out, "you will make things most unpleasant for me. You will be the one who prefers candour; I the one who chooses concealment. As the amount of my income depends somewhat upon Uncle Nigel, and my ultimate position in life upon his favour, you will understand, I am sure, that you would be doing me a very serious injury."
"I hate falsehoods," I declared.
"You are very fortunate," he replied, "if you never have to tell them. Most people who are in business or society have to tell one or two a day. When they don't it is usually a matter of selfishness."
I was quite sure at that moment that I was beginning to dislike Raymond Freyne. Even his slow unimpassioned manner of talking was getting on my nerves. I felt that I was in a false position as regards my first meeting with him, and that he was deliberately planning to keep me there. It was at that precise moment that he made his first move towards changing the conversation.
"I am going to tell you something which, no doubt, you've been told dozens of times before in your life," he began.
"Then don't," I begged. "I'd rather hear something new."
"Nevertheless, I shall persevere," he answered. "You are very beautiful."
I decided to take him as lightly as possible.
"You can tell me that as often as you wish," I laughed. "I wonder if I am. I don't think Mr Boynton thinks so."
"Boynton is an ass," my companion pronounced. "Do you know what happens to susceptible people when they go about with beautiful young women?"
"They fall in love with them," I replied promptly. "That is their business in life. I hope you're not going to neglect your duty, Mr Freyne."
"I meant to," he admitted. "As a matter of fact, I am losing ground. Falling in love with you is becoming the happiness of my life as well as the business."
I eyed a new course approvingly.
"You do order delightful dinners, Mr Freyne," I said. "Where were we?"
"I had just addressed a most important remark to you," he reminded me.
"Don't be offended," I begged. "I remember it. You were just telling me that you were falling in love with me, and that you were happy about it."
"The happiness will depend to a large extent upon you," he confided.
"Then it is assured," I declared. "I am a most comfortable person for anyone to be in love with. The few men who have tried it have found me most sympathetic."
"For a young lady from the wilds of Yorkshire," he observed, "you have a very glib tongue."
"I was well educated," I told him. "After I left school we subscribed to a circulating library—"
"Yes," he interrupted. "I can trace the effect of all the advantages you name. At the same time, I should like you to be serious for a moment."
"I couldn't," I replied frankly. "No one could be serious and enjoy a dinner like this."
For the first time within my recollection there was a note of irritation in his tone.
"Can't you believe," he said, "that I am ever in earnest?"
"Not easily," I admitted. "Certainly not about me."
"Then you have not as much insight as I imagined," he decided. "I am very much in love with you, Phillipa."
"I doubt it," I retorted. "If you were you would not use my Christian name without permission."
He dropped his voice a little. He was really very clever, for he managed to get just that caressing note in it which is so hard to force.
"Won't you give me permission to use it, then? I want to call you 'Phillipa.' May I?"
"A fancy of mine. It is scarcely a month since you picked me up in Richmond Park. It is true that we were subsequently introduced by Mr Scannell. But the time is too short. Behave as nicely as you have done since I met you, and ask me twelve months from to-day."
"You give me credit for an inexhaustible stock of patience," he remarked drily.
"I can assure you that I do not," I replied. "I am not expecting that you'll even remember my Christian name twelve months from to-day. At the same time that is precisely when you may call me by it and not before."
He tried sulkiness. It wasn't a great success, because I immediately became more amiable. Before he had decided upon his next move the floor was cleared for dancing and I rose at once to my feet.
He danced very well, and I felt more amiable than ever when at last we sat down. He, on the other hand, seemed to have entered upon an inheritance of gloom.
"Please be more cheerful," I begged. "I'm enjoying myself so much."
"You have no heart," he declared.
"Have you?" I laughed.
"I am beginning to discover that I have," he replied dismally, "and a most uncomfortable possession it is."
"Does it ache very badly?"
I sipped my coffee and slowly recovered my breath.
"Tell me," I asked, "when this fit of gloom passes, what is the next stage of your love fever?"
"A passionate siege," was the prompt reply.
I looked around me with satisfaction.
"Thank goodness, we're safe here!" I exclaimed.
"It will break out the moment we leave," he warned me.
"Then I shall go home by bus."
"Will you dance with me, Mr. Freyne?" I invited, jumping up.
He looked at me with eyes full of cold anger. Nevertheless, he rose to his feet.
"I feel more like wringing your neck," he muttered. "However—"
It was an early night, fortunately for me, and presently we found ourselves standing up while they played "God Save the King." Afterwards we drifted down towards the cloakrooms.
"It's terribly early," he said. "Come in and have some coffee at my rooms before you go home."
"Coffee at this hour of night!" I exclaimed. "I shouldn't sleep a wink, and I have to be at Berkeley Square at nine o'clock in the morning."
"Something else, then? Some more champagne, if you will, I'll get some other people I know to come in."
"Thank you," I told him. "I couldn't possibly. Why do you bother to come home with me?"
We had reached the pavement and the taxi was drawing up. He was holding my arm—a familiarity which I hated, but pretended not to notice.
"Please, be a little kinder to me," he whispered in my ear.
"I am being kind," I replied, "in suggesting that you don't come all that long way down to Battersea."
"You would rather I didn't?"
"I would much rather you didn't."
It did not occur to me at the time, but what really happened was that he lost his temper. He handed me into the taxi, stepped back and quietly closed the door. Then he told the driver some address and handed him some money. Finally, he put his head in at the window. He seemed very pale, and his eyes had certainly narrowed. Nevertheless his voice, though soft, was very distinct.
"I've told him," he said, "to drive you to the devil—where you are sending me."
"Bon voyage!" I laughed, as we started off.
DURING the weeks that followed things went well with me. I did the work which was entrusted to me conscientiously, and even Mr Boynton, who was more than critical, could find no fault with it. I had worked with him for hours at a time without even once exchanging a single remark. On the comparatively few occasions when I was brought into contact with Sir Nigel, I became with an effort the respectful and colorless secretary. I tried my best to make myself an automaton, and, to a great extent I succeeded. At the end of the first month, Mr. Boynton awarded me some niggardly words of praise. A few days later Sir Nigel purposely sought me out and came over to the desk where I was seated in the library.
"Miss Meadows," he said, "your work is exceedingly satisfactory. It is more than satisfactory; it is good."
"I am very glad to hear it, Sir Nigel," I answered, scarcely lifting my eyes.
It was evidently an afternoon when he was not going out. He was wearing, a shockingly old tweed coat, a flannel collar and a dingy-looking tie. His disregard for clothes was proverbial, and in the house especially he looked like a tramp. He went over to his own corner and filled a pipe with tobacco.
"Mind this?" he asked curtly.
"Certainly not," I replied. "I like the smell of tobacco in any form."
"We're not working you too hard, are we?" he continued.
"Not in the least," I assured him. "There are some days when I have scarcely enough to do."
He looked at me closely from underneath his bushy eyebrows.
"What's wrong with you, then?" he asked brusquely. "You came in here the first day like one of Tennyson's women, with your head thrown back and the light of conquest in your eyes. Now you creep about like a mouse, and slip in and out of the house like a shadow. What's wrong? Where's the woman of you gone?"
I leaned back in my place and permitted myself to smile at him.
"Sir Nigel," I confessed, "I am so terribly anxious to stay here that I have been trying hard to make a machine of myself. I knew from the first that Mr. Boynton didn't like me. I had to try and convince him that I really meant to do my duty."
"What's it matter about Boynton?" he demanded. "He's a dear fellow, but an ass where women are concerned. I like you all right.
"You hadn't told me so," I reminded him.
"Well, you know now," he retorted. "Cultivate a little more confidence. Get rid of that scared look."
"I'll try," I promised. "It isn't natural."
"Been dining with that young scapegrace of a nephew of mine, lately?"
"Last Thursday," I told him. "We went to the Opera."
"The devil you did!" he exclaimed, a little surprised. "You're not by way of being musical, are you?
"Oh, no," I assured him, "nothing of that sort. I went to please Mr. Freyne."
"Rubbish!" Sir Nigel scoffed! "Raymond doesn't know one note of music from another. Can you play?"
"I used to play the piano a little," I acknowledged.
He rose and swept the covering off a small grand piano which stood in a distant corner of the room.
"Come on," he invited. "Let's hear you!"
I rose with some trepidation.
"What will Mr. Boynton say if he hears me playing in the middle of the afternoon?" I asked.
"Damn Mr. Boynton!" Sir Nigel exclaimed. "If I ask you to play, that's enough."
My fingers wandered for a moment over the keys. It was, as I had always suspected, a wonderful instrument.
"What do you like?" I asked, looking round at him. "Jazz music?"
He scowled at me.
"Don't be an idiot," he said, "and if you ever play a note of jazz music on that piano, I'll lock it up."
I laughed softly to myself and looked away. If he wanted music, I could give it to him—and I did. When I stopped I found him seated a little in the background with an entirely new expression upon his face. It had suddenly become as gentle as a woman's. When I rose to my feet, however, he became himself again.
"You little fool!" he exclaimed.
"Why?" I asked somewhat startled.
"Not to let me know that you could play like that."
"How was I to know that you were fond of music?"
He growled something inaudible.
"Twice a week," he went on complainingly, "I've had a woman in to play for me—a professional, with mechanical fingers and a wooden head. Didn't you know that?"
"No," I assured him.
"Stay and dine tonight and play to us afterwards," he invited.
"With pleasure," I replied. "I should like to go home first, though."
He looked at me from head to foot.
"Clothes, I suppose," he muttered. "You look very nice as you are."
It was the first approach to a compliment he had ever paid me, and I felt a little thrilled.
"I shall have plenty of time," I told him. "I leave here at six o'clock."
"Where are your rooms?" he asked.
"Battersea! My God, where's that? Never mind, I'll order a car. You'll find it outside at six o'clock. Keep it waiting while, you change."
"It really isn't necessary," I protested. "I can get there quite well by bus."
"Rubbish!" he answered. "I've got four cars, doing nothing in the garage—use them once or twice a week, perhaps. Six o'clock, mind! Now, before you go back to your work play the last movement of that Beethoven Sonata again."
I obeyed and he listened devoutly.
When I had finished he patted me gently on the back. His touch made me nearly cry out. With the music still moving in my pulses I went back to my seat, dizzy with happiness. Sir Nigel re-lit his pipe and moved towards the door. He looked back at me from the threshold.
"Look here," he said, "don't you let Howard Boynton bother you. He's inclined to be a woman-hater, but he's fair enough."
"Is he more of a woman-hater than you, Sir Nigel?" I asked.
"Who the devil said I was?" he demanded.
"Your nephew for one," I replied.
"Silly young ass!" he muttered. "Why doesn't he mind his own business. I like women well enough," he went on, "at a distance."
"How far off?" I ventured.
There was a twinkle in his eyes. For a moment I thought he was coming back. He changed his mind, however.
"Six o'clock, and return here as soon as you've changed," he directed, leaving the room abruptly.
As soon as I was quite sure that he was out of hearing, I took up the telephone receiver which stood upon my desk and rang up Raymond Freyne. He happened for once to be in the office and came to the instrument at once.
"Mr. Freyne," I said, "I'm so sorry, but I cannot go to the theatre with you this evening."
"My dear Miss Phillipa," he protested, "do you realise that this is the first night at the 'Hilarity'? I had very hard work to get the tickets."
"I know, but I can't come," told him.
"You're not ill, I hope," he inquired.
"I'm perfectly well, thanks. The fact of it is that your uncle has asked me to dine here and play to them."
"Asked you to dine there?" he repented incredulously.
There was a brief pause. Then he spoke again. "Can't you put it off till some other evening? I've got a table at Mario's for supper afterwards, too."
"I'm sorry," I reiterated, "but this is the first time your uncle has asked me, and I accepted without thinking. You must please excuse me, Mr. Freyne. You'll find plenty of people delighted to go with you."
"Very well," he answered a little shortly, and rang off.
IT was a very different house which I entered at a few minutes before eight that evening and pervaded by a very different atmosphere. On my morning arrivals as secretary the door was generally opened to me by a young man in a striped linen coat, who left me immediately afterwards to my own devices. To- night the same young man, attired in a very immaculate livery, handed me over to Miller, the solemn-looking butler, who welcomed me for the first time in his life with a bow and himself ushered me into the drawing-room, an apartment into which I had never before penetrated.
The room, in the house of a bachelor, astonished me. It was scantily but exquisitely furnished in the style of a French Louis Seize salon. Beautiful chairs with blue silk coverings, gilt legs and backs, were ranged formally against the walls. The sofas and ottomans were of exactly the same period. Several very ornate cabinets were filled with what I discovered afterwards to be Sèvres china. There were mirrors upon the walls, but no pictures; a marvellous grand piano; polished floors, with white rugs. I had scarcely had time to realise all this unexpected magnificence before the door opened and Sir Nigel entered.
The luxury of the car had been wonderful, the changed atmosphere of the house impressive, but Sir Nigel as host instead of employer presented perhaps the most amazing metamorphosis. His frown had departed, and his bushy eyebrows seemed less menacing. That grim smile of his was so toned down that it had entirely lost its somewhat acid qualities. He shook hands with me and led me to a chair.
"I must apologise for being a few minutes late," he began. "They rang me up from the Royal Geographical Society about my lecture next Thursday—the thing you're typing, you know. I'm afraid we shall have to make some alterations."
"They want you to enlarge upon Tibet, I suppose, I have all the material, you know."
"Well, we won't talk shop," he said, "and I'm not going to let you play till after dinner. Tell me what you think of my eccentric-looking room. Dismal sort of affair, a bachelor's drawing-room. I don't think it's been opened for a month."
"I think it is very wonderful," I ventured.
"That's just how I feel about it," he remarked, a little drily. "My grandfather lived in Paris—Ambassador there, you know—and this room—except for the piano—came practically as it stands from the Palace at Fontainebleau. He brought artists over to decorate the walls and the ceiling in exactly the same fashion. I find a certain beauty in it, but a dead beauty. Do you know Paris, Miss Meadows?"
"I have never been abroad," I told him, a little sadly.
"All the more to look forward to," he observed. "Let me see, how old are you?"
"Wonderful to be twenty-five!" he exclaimed. "A strong man may control his fate and govern his daily life, but we're babies when we try to set the clock back. I played racquets the other day after a round of golf, and it turned my thoughts to the almanac."
"But you are so young, Sir Nigel," I assured him eagerly. "You do so many wonderful things. You seem far younger than Mr. Boynton, and he is only thirty-three."
Sir Nigel smiled.
"Boynton was badly knocked about during the war," he remarked. "Besides, he had a love affair afterwards which seems to have rather upset him. He met a girl in France who let him down somehow or another."
"Is that why you are so kind to him?" I asked.
"Not a bit of it," he answered with a touch of his old bluntness. "I haven't much respect for a man who makes a mistake about a woman. He deserves what he gets as a rule. I'm sorry for Howard for different reasons. He lost his chance at the Bar through his war service, and it's no joke to be minus a foot, especially as he was a great golfer and cricketer in the old days. Then his father was my oldest friend."
The butler threw open the door and formally announced the service of dinner. Sir Nigel gave me his arm.
"We won't wait for Howard," he declared. "He will probably join us in the dining-room. May I be permitted, as an old man," he added, as we started on our way, "to say how much I admire your gown? What do you call the stuff—net, is it—black net?"
"How nice of you to like it," I said gratefully. "I only finished it last night."
"Do you mean that you made it yourself?" he exclaimed.
"My days of comparative prosperity are too recent for me to have saved money to pay dressmaker's bills," I confided. "I make all my indoor clothes myself."
"You have varied gifts, indeed," he remarked. "Here's Howard, waiting for us."
Mr. Boynton, who was standing near the threshold of the dining-room watched our approach gloomily. He bowed and wished me good evening, but did not offer to shake hands. We sat on either side of Sir Nigel at the further end of a long mahogany table. Everything about the room was magnificent, and old-fashioned, from the high-backed oak chairs, the great Georgian sideboard, the rows of oil paintings, even to the cutlery and china on the table, which was decorated with masses of pink roses.
"I have a very prolific flower garden in Surrey," Sir Nigel explained as we took our places, "which supplies us with this sort of thing. A little later on we shall be moving down there. I hope you don't mind the country. Miss Meadows?"
I laughed at the absurdity of the question. Fancy minding being anywhere where he was!
"At this time of the year I should think it would be wonderful," I said.
"Better still, later on," he declared. "Now, Howard, tell me exactly what you said to this fellow from the Royal Society. Want keeping in their places, these chaps do!"
The two men, with an occasional word of apology to me from Sir Nigel, plunged into a long and somewhat intricate discussion. I was perfectly content to sit still, enjoy my dinner, and listen. They were so radically different, both in their way so interesting. Howard Boynton showed as little regard for his appearance in the evening as in the day time. He wore an ill- fitting soft-fronted shirt, a badly arranged tie, and a collar of old-fashioned shape. His pince-nez was unbecoming, and his eyes behind the lenses seemed to have lost their sometimes pleasing expression. Sir Nigel, on the other hand, whose usual attire was careless to a degree, wore his dinner clothes with a different air. His stiff shirt was beautifully laundered, his black pearl studs inconspicuous but admirable. His masses of dark hair were carefully brushed and his forehead was imposing. His speech was a little brusque, perhaps, but convincing. He made Mr. Boynton's attitude on the matter which they were discussing seem almost paltry. Finally, he wound up the whole thing with a somewhat dogmatic decision, and turned abruptly to me.
"These people want me to disclose some confidential notes concerning a visit I paid to Tibet last year with a man who is now dead. They are of no interest scientifically or politically, and I intend to keep them to myself. Tell me about your music. Did you ever study abroad?"
"Not even in London," I sighed. "I went to a man in Leeds for six months, but I am afraid he was only a local celebrity."
"As well, perhaps," he observed. "You preserve individuality at the expense of technique. I suppose you think I'm a queer sort of person to care about music. I do, though. Playing golf, watching cricket, and listening to music are the three chief recreations of my life. You needn't look so shocked. I don't place them on the same level..."
I was forbidden to depart when the port was set upon the table, and we all three went into the drawing-room together. Sir Nigel betrayed a queer impatience to get me to the piano. He hurried me over my coffee, fussed over the lighting of the room, and finally relapsed into the only comfortable chair in the apartment with a little sigh of anticipation. For more than an hour I played, to his apparently immense content and Mr. Boynton's grudging but sincere acknowledgements. The final notes of the wonderful haunting melody of Schumann's third Ètude Symphonique were stealing from my finger tips through the stillness into the dark recesses of the room when the door was softly opened and Mr. Raymond Freyne was announced. In response to a warning gesture from his uncle he stood motionless upon the threshold until the last whisper of the music had died away. Then he came forward in his usual leisurely fashion. He shook hands with Sir Nigel, nodded to Howard Boynton, and came across to me.
"Miss Meadows," he complained, "you are treating me very badly. I had great difficulty in getting those seats for the 'Hilarity.'"
"I am very sorry," I answered. "Your uncle was kind enough to ask me to come and play, and that happens to be the greatest pleasure I have in life. I couldn't resist the opportunity."
"What's this?" Sir Nigel demanded. "Were you engaged to go out with this young man, Miss Meadows?"
"I had invited Miss Meadows to go to the first night of the 'Hilarity' with me and afterwards on to Mario's to dance," Raymond Freyne explained. "She rang up this afternoon and put me off."
"Dear me!" Sir Nigel exclaimed. "You didn't mention the fact that you had an engagement, Miss Meadows."
"I was so afraid that you might not ask me again," I confessed. "In any case I quite thought that Mr. Freyne would be able to find someone else."
"There was no one else," he said, "whom I cared to ask. Can't we come to a compromise? Miss Meadows must have been playing for some time. Can't I have her for the rest of the evening?"
"Certainly, if she wishes," Sir Nigel consented. "Better have it out with her. I'm off to the telephone."
Raymond Freyne leaned over the piano and there was a look in his face which I had never seen there before. Mr. Boynton had followed Sir Nigel from the room and we were momentarily alone.
"Miss Meadows," he said earnestly, "you have made it all right with my uncle. Please give me the rest of the evening. We shall be in time for supper at Mario's and we can dance."
"Thank you," I replied. "I would rather stay here."
If such a thing were possible, I should have said that Raymond Freyne was on the point of losing his temper.
"I shall wait and take you home, then," he declared.
"You will embarrass me very much if you do," I confided. "Sir Nigel is sending me home in the car."
He stood quite still for a moment, and the longer I looked at him the less I liked his appearance. He was very pale and there was an ugly twist about his mouth.
"You are very obdurate this evening," he remarked, as though with an effort.
"I am sorry to have broken my engagement with you," I told him, a little stiffly, "but for once in my life I am being selfish."
I began to play some snatches of music and he left the room without saying good-night. Almost immediately Mr. Boynton entered, but I was so used to being ignored by him that I remained with my fingers still wandering on the keys, almost oblivious of his presence until I suddenly heard his voice.
"You are very clever, Miss Meadows," he said abruptly.
I looked up at him with surprise. He had moved to a chair quite close to the piano and was looking at me with a half quizzical, half contemptuous expression in his face.
"Clever?" I repeated. "Is it clever to bring out what one feels from an instrument like this? It is just like reading somebody else's thoughts. One has only to interpret."
"I wasn't thinking about your music," he muttered.
"What then?" I said wonderingly.
"You are clever in everything you do," he declared. "You are clever in your absorption in your work, your quiet ways, your simple, but, if I may say so, rather effective frocks; clever to have the lamp just where you know that its light will bring the gold from your hair; clever to have Raymond Freyne follow you here, and to refuse to go out with him."
I turned round in my seat. The attack seemed to me so unreasonable that I was more surprised than angry.
"Are you trying to be rude to me?" I demanded.
He laughed harshly.
"Not I," he replied. "It would be as much as my place is worth. I just wanted you to know, though, that we're not all idiots. One of us at any rate understands."
He scowled, but did not, for a moment, reply. I, however, was insistent.
"What is it that you understand?" I repeated.
"That you are a very attractive young woman," he pronounced somberly. "I realise it myself, so does Sir Nigel, which is more important."
My first impulse of anger passed. I remembered this young man's history, and I even permitted, myself to smile upon him.
"I should never have imagined that you found me attractive," I observed.
"Why not?" he answered gloomily. "I have eyes, haven't. You are pretty. You have beautiful hair, a provocative mouth and just the sort of slim figure which is in favor everywhere nowadays. Besides, in an indistinct sort of way you remind me of someone whom I was once very fond of."
"Some one really like me?" I asked.
"Not in the least like you, really," he assured me. "Someone with much more character and stability and unselfishness. Still, there's something about your voice or the way you carry yourself which reminds me of her now and then."
"Well, I have something to be thankful for," I murmured. "You don't actually dislike me, then?"
"Then why aren't you nicer to me?"
"Because I don't like you here about the place," he confided. "You're the same as most girls who have to earn their own living. and are encumbered with good looks—you're a self-seeker."
I considered for a moment. I hated the sound of the word, but I couldn't see in its use any definite cause for offence.
"I have to look after myself, of course," I admitted. "I discovered that the first time I was ever sent out as a typist. But what harm can I do here? I'm not a thief. I don't want anything except my salary. I haven't any matrimonial designs upon you."
He laughed scornfully.
"Why should you have?" he demanded. "I'm very small game."
The door was thrown open and Sir Nigel entered impetuously.
"The whole of the telephone staff at our exchange are blithering fools!" he declared, his tone bristling with irritation. "Remind me to make a formal complaint tomorrow, Howard... So you haven't deserted us, Miss Meadows?"
"I never had the slightest intention of doing so, Sir Nigel," I assured him.
He settled himself down in his easy-chair and drew a little sigh of relief.
"I've ordered the car in three-quarters of an hour," he announced. "Let us make the most of it. I am glad to see that you, too, are developing a taste for music," he added, with faint sarcasm, glancing across towards Mr. Boynton.
The young man settled himself down in his chair doggedly.
"My eyes are bad this evening, sir," he said. "I may as well rest here as anywhere."
Sir Nigel leaned back, half closing his eyes. I played a Nocturne of Chopin's and afterwards a Schumann Novelette. In the background our self-appointed chaperon watched us gloomily.
TO my surprise, when I came into the hall after fetching my wrap, Sir Nigel was standing there, his hat in his hand.
"With your permission," he proposed, as the footman opened the front door, "I am going to ride a little of the way home with you. The house seems so hot this evening, and I have a fancy for a little fresh air."
"It will be delightful," I assured him, "but you really shouldn't have had the car out for me. I'm quite used to omnibuses."
He took his place by my side, and looked at me, leaning back in my corner, with an expression in his eyes which I had never seen there before.
"You don't, somehow, seem made for omnibuses," he said, abruptly. "You're a great deal too good-looking to be going about London alone, anyhow."
For a moment, I felt startled; chilled by a sudden fear. It was the sort of speech I had heard so often before; one of the banal openings which I had learned to dread and avoid. It wasn't that I minded anything Sir Nigel might say to me. I was as plastic, even at that moment, as the most simple-minded and innocent of ingénues. For the reason which lay hidden in my heart, I should have responded to anything he said, but I was terrified lest he might drop from his pedestal—lest what I prayed for should come to me in the wrong way. One glance at his face, however, reassured me. There was not a single trace of that expression, the dawn of which I had learned to fear.
"My invaluable secretary is such a wonderful chaperon," he continued, smiling, "that I seldom have the chance of a word with you alone. I expect that he is even now tearing his hair at this indiscretion of mine."
"Mr. Boynton is very devoted to you," I ventured.
"He's a dear fellow, but a perfect ass," Sir Nigel declared. "Because I have been imposed upon by a few charity-mongers of your sex he believes that I am utterly without discrimination. This afternoon was the first opportunity I had found, Miss Meadows, even of telling you how satisfied I was with your work."
"You really meant what you said?" I asked joyfully.
"Every word of it," he assured me.
I sighed contentedly. We were passing along the Embankment now and a sudden freshness had stolen into the breeze; a freshness which savored almost of the sea. Sir Nigel took off his hat and threw it on to the opposite seat.
"Almost time to think about holidays," he remarked.
"I don't want a holiday," I rejoined quickly. "I'm only just getting into the work."
"We must see what can be arranged," he said. "We might move down to my cottage in Surrey, perhaps. I should have to take Mrs. Swabey or some old fool of a woman as chaperon, I suppose, if you came with us two men. Damned silly idea, anyhow! Perhaps—"
He paused and again during the silence the shadow of that former fear chilled me—chilled even whilst it thrilled me. I ventured to glance towards him and my heart commenced to beat more quickly. Without a doubt there was a change in his expression. He was looking at me almost wistfully. Then without any warning, without any adequate reason, I felt all dread fade away. I felt that it was the most wonderful thing in the world to be riding by his side across Battersea Bridge, pretending to look down at those two curving arcs of lights with the dark river between them and all the time waiting—waiting, without any fear now, but with almost terrified hope for what he might be going to say. His fingers closed suddenly upon my hand. I yielded it unresistingly.
"You don't mind?" he asked.
"No," I answered.
"I wanted to tell you," he went on, "that your coming has made quite a change in my life. Not only the music—that was unexpected, but you yourself. For many years I have been very lonely. Perhaps you have heard why?"
"I have heard nothing," I whispered. "Please tell me."
"I was married when I was a young man," he explained. "I made a mistake. My wife was a defaulter in the one quality which I prize above all others. She told me lies about herself—and finally she left me. She died abroad some fifteen years ago. This part of my history has always been a very ugly background to my life. I know that I am often gruff, often rude, and generally bad-tempered. I wanted you to know why."
"I am very sorry," I murmured a little helplessly.
"Through all these years," he continued, "I have set myself the task of finding content, if not happiness, without turning towards your sex. I felt that a mistake such as I had made was enough for a lifetime. In a measure I have succeeded. It is only since you came that I have found any difficulty about the matter. There, my dear Miss Phillipa Meadows, what do you think of that? No wonder Howard scowls at me when I come under the spell of your music! He knows that I am forty-nine and that you are twenty- five, and he is desperately afraid that I am going to make a fool of myself."
"You are a very young forty-nine, and I am a very old twenty- five," I found courage to murmur.
He held my hand a little more tightly. His voice was softer. There was already something of that note in it which I had longed to hear.
"Is that encouragement?" he demanded.
"It's just the truth," I acknowledged.
Then we both became suddenly conscious that the car had stopped. He stepped out on to the pavement and helped me to alight. High up on the eighth floor of the block of buildings in front of us, a little light was burning. His eyes followed mine towards it.
"Is that your room?" he asked.
"Yes," I assented. "It isn't really so inaccessible as it seems. There's a lift up to the fifth floor."
He stood looking down at me—not weakly resolute, yet with the air of being torn in two directions. His eyebrows were bristling more than ever. His expression was almost fierce. All the time I was wishing passionately that he would ask to come up to my sitting-room, propose a longer ride, anything except say good-night there, with the chauffeur a few feet away and a taxi stand a few yards farther on.
"Thank you so much for bringing me home," I said inanely.
"Thank you for your music and everything," he replied almost gruffly.
I turned slowly away. He waited until I had entered the building and then stepped back into his car. Five minutes later, from my sitting-room window, I watched its lights flashing across Battersea Bridge, with Norah my newly-arrived and unexpected guest, standing by my side.
Norah, from the depths of my easy-chair, smoked thoughtfully, and watched me carefully remove my evening gown and wrap myself in a peignoir.
"You're looking better, Phil," she remarked abruptly.
I helped myself to a cigarette, lit it and stretched myself out on the little sofa, with my hands behind my head.
"Well, I ought to be better," I declared. "For the first time since I left Middletown I have delightful work, and I am being treated like a human being. Norah, it's all wonderful! I've been dining at the house tonight and playing to Sir Nigel."
"You think you'll be able to stay?" she enquired.
"I think so," I replied confidently. "It's a quaint situation. Sir Nigel is a terribly grim person outwardly, but he's becoming nicer to me every day. His nephew, Mr. Raymond Freyne, who is always in and out, finds me attractive, or says he does, and is constantly laying siege to my young affections. Then the other young man, Mr. Howard Boynton, the real secretary, detests me and very nearly told me so this evening."
"And you?" Norah asked, looking at me fixedly.
"I'm not going to tell you any lies, Norah," I replied. "I am desperately in love with Sir Nigel."
"The situation sounds a little complicated," she observed.
"It is," I admitted. "I have to keep Raymond Freyne in his place—no easy task, I can assure you—try and keep the peace with Mr. Boynton, and my secret from Sir Nigel."
Norah threw away the stump of her cigarette and lit another.
"How old is Sir Nigel?"
"Forty-nine. He drove me home tonight, and told me so. I assured him that he was a very young forty-nine and I was a very old twenty-five. Then he held my hand, and I thought he was going to kiss me—but he didn't."
Norah frowned gloomily.
"Life's pretty rotten," she muttered. "It seems to be always the wrong men. If I hadn't been gifted with abnormal presence of mind, my nice doctor, who really is a delightful person, when he doesn't lose his head, would have kissed me in the laboratory the other day."
"Why didn't you let him?" I asked. "Is he married?"
"I don't think so," she replied. "I didn't let him because I didn't want him to."
"It's a queer world," I reflected. "An hour ago, I wouldn't have acknowledged to myself that there was a man in the world I wanted to have kiss me, and yet I was horribly disappointed when Sir Nigel didn't."
Norah looked across at me, doubtfully.
"Supposing he had, Phillipa?" she said. "How on earth could you have gone on with your work there?"
"I don't know," I answered a little recklessly, "and I don't care. I'm feeling only 24 years old really, and I want to be kissed. I love the feeling. Life owes me something. If I get a chance I shall take it. I have only one condition: it must be the right man."
"All talk," Norah scoffed. "You know perfectly well that you wouldn't do anything outrageous any more than I should. We're cursed with all sorts of troublesome instincts. You and I will probably tread the path towards sedate spinsterhood in perfect safety, and curse ourselves for being ourselves."
I felt a sudden lump in my throat. The ghost had risen again—the grey, ugly ghost.
"You forget," I muttered.
Norah crossed the room towards me. She put her arm around my neck and held my face to hers.
"You know that I didn't mean to remind you, Phillipa," she whispered. "I'm sorry."
PARADISE had been growing nearer and nearer. This, although I did not know it at the time, was the supreme day. We had been away from London for nearly a fortnight, and I was working with Mr. Boynton upon a flagged terrace in front of the old Sussex Manor House which Sir Nigel had bought and modernised years ago. Roses and wistaria dropped from the front walls. The cracks between the stone flags were overgrown with flowering mosses. A fountain was playing in the sunk garden immediately below us. Beyond, on either side of the box-bordered walks, was a very paradise of roses, golden snapdragons, delphiniums and paeonies. In the meadow further away were patches of cowslips, and a great clump of yellow marigolds on the banks of the stream.
"I can't imagine anyone having an evil thought in a place like this," I remarked contentedly, as I completed the task upon which we were engaged and leaned back in my chair. "You can't dislike me here quite so violently as you do in London, can you, Mr. Boynton?"
"I have every reason to dislike you more," he answered gloomily. "If it wasn't for you we shouldn't have had Mrs. Swabey inflicted on us. We've always had this place to ourselves before. I hate women about."
"I agree with you so far as Mrs. Swabey is concerned," I conceded readily. "I can't think how Sir Nigel could ever have had such a cousin. He's such a dear himself."
"The idea of a secretary needing a chaperon," my companion went on, still nursing his grievance. "I've been with Sir Nigel for fourteen years off and on, and I've never seen him take serious notice of any woman yet. He's not likely to begin at his time of life."
"Warned off!" I sighed. "What a brutal person you are, Mr. Boynton! What about yourself? Are you really as unapproachable as you seem?"
"You'd have about as much chance with me as with him," was the emphatic reply. "I'm like Sir Nigel. He's had all he wants of women in this world—unless he wants a plaything for half an hour."
"Don't you think that I should make a very agreeable plaything?" I asked ingenuously.
"That's the only risk and it doesn't amount to much," he rejoined callously. "Sir Nigel isn't that sort, as I've told you before. He's a lucky man. He has one of the most wonderful minds of any scientist alive to-day. He doesn't need to fill his brain with junk."
"He likes me to play to him," I reminded my amiable companion.
"So he would Mrs. Swabey if she could play as you do," was the blunt retort. "He used to hire pianists from the Academy of Music. Most of them were hideous—he didn't care a bit."
I looked dreamily up at the very blue sky and sighed.
"You seem determined to crush all my hopes," I complained. "Sir Nigel is looking most attractive today, too. I love that new golf suit of his."
"It you'd spend your spare time improving your mind instead of talking nonsense," Mr. Boynton said severely. "It would be a great deal better for you. You're no worse than other women really, but you're very ignorant."
"I need somebody to take an interest in me," I confided—"tell me what sort of books to read and that sort of thing, you know."
"Too old a dodge," he scoffed. "I really don't care a fig what you do. I was only advising you for your own sake."
"Hopeless person!" I sighed. "If you won't flirt with me, will you give me a cigarette?"
"I haven't got any," he answered, and I don't think secretaries ought to smoke.
"I suppose you're right," I admitted. "Mrs. Swabey would say so, anyhow. Its rather a nuisance that I like all the things a secretary shouldn't, isn't it? It makes me positively ill to hear Miller shaking cocktails in there. I'm going to look very tired directly Sir Nigel gets back, and perhaps he'll ask me to have one. You have been giving me a lot of work, Mr. Boynton."
He scowled at me from his chair.
"I don't require you any more at present, anyhow," he said coldly. "You'd better walk for an hour. Sir Nigel may want you this afternoon."
"The sunshine is making me lazy," I confessed. "Working out here is like a foretaste of paradise. Why should I take exercise? I'd much rather stay here and listen to your bright flow of conversation."
"You turn my head," he muttered. "Why don't you go and help Mrs. Swabey cut the roses."
"A pitiful suggestion!" I rejoined. "Mrs. Swabey hates me almost as much as you do, and she would certainly decline my help... Sir Nigel, at last!" I pointed out. "He's just crossed the stile from the meadow. I'm going to put on my air of fatigue now, and perhaps he'll ask me to have one of those cocktails. It seems to me that I have been typing letters since dawn."
I leaned back in my chair wearily. Sir Nigel came up the path with his golf clubs swung on his shoulder. He was bare-headed, and, notwithstanding his bulk, he walked with the light step of a boy. His face was healthily sunburnt; his tweed clothes were certainly becoming.
"What a morning!" he exclaimed. "Sorry for you two poor people who've been at work! What's the matter with you, Miss Meadows? You look worn out."
"I am a little tired," I confessed. "Stupid of me, isn't it?"
Miller stepped through the French windows, with a cocktail shaker and glasses on a silver tray.
"Serve Miss Meadows with a cocktail, at once," Sir Nigel enjoined. "Do you good, young lady, I should think, from the look of you."
"I should like one very much indeed," I admitted gratefully. "Mr. Boynton is a harder task-master than you are."
"You've done just eleven letters," the latter remarked drily. "I could have typed them myself in an hour."
Mrs. Swabey, in an elaborate summer toilette, joined us. She looked disapprovingly at the cocktail glass in my hand, more disapprovingly still at the cigarette which I was just leaning forward to light.
"Did you have a pleasant game?" she asked Sir Nigel.
"Excellent!" he replied. "Have a cocktail?"
"Thank you, no," she declined. "I don't approve of drinking between meals—or of cigarettes," she added, looking hard at me.
"I am so sorry," I said. "Shall I throw it away, Sir Nigel?"
"Certainly not," he answered brusquely. "Mrs. Swabey meant for herself, I am sure."
There was a moment's silence. I was feeling a little ashamed of myself, and I threw my cigarette into a flower bed.
"I was quite wrong," I admitted quietly, "I don't think I ought to have had the cocktail, but I really was tired."
Sir Nigel followed his cousin to the other end of the paved walk. I tried my hardest not to listen to their conversation, but every word was perfectly audible. Sir Nigel was evidently angry, and at such times his whisper was almost equal to the shout of any man with ordinary lungs.
"What on earth do you mean by bullying Miss Meadows so, Millicent?" he demanded.
Mrs. Swabey smiled in a peculiar fashion. She, at any rate, was deliberate in the pitch of her voice. She was evidently determined that I should hear every word she said.
"I should not call it bullying," she declared. "I may be old- fashioned, but it certainly does not seem to me to be the correct thing for your secretary to be smoking cigarettes and drinking cocktails. I begin to wonder why I was asked here, Nigel."
He made no immediate reply, but there was a very dangerous glitter in his eyes. I made up my mind at that moment that if I had been Mrs. Swabey I should have decamped.
"I begin to wonder," she continued, "whether I was asked here to countenance your flirtation with Miss Meadows, or to protect you from her."
"Don't be a damned fool, Millicent!" he exclaimed.
"The young lady is altogether too much at home and too much in evidence for my liking," Mrs. Swabey blundered on.
"Miss Meadows is the daughter of an old friend of mine," Sir Nigel pointed out.
"Then for that very reason, I think it was a mistake to have her as a secretary," Mrs. Swabey pronounced. "Naturally she doesn't know her place."
"Isn't her place what I choose it to be?" he asked coolly.
"Without a doubt," was the acid reply. "Can I have the car to catch the three o'clock train?"
"By all means," he assented readily.
A shadow of unfamiliar happenings hovered over the house that afternoon. Mrs. Swabey departed soon after lunch, and I made my way as usual to the barn, which Sir Nigel had converted into a study, to await instructions. None were forthcoming, however, so after waiting for half an hour I returned to the small room at the back of the house, which was given over to Mr. Boynton. He looked up from his work as I entered and frowned.
"What is it, Miss Meadows?" he asked.
"I want some work," I answered. "Where is Sir Nigel?"
"Sir Nigel has gone to London," was the curt reply. "You can be of no assistance to me this afternoon. You had better go for a walk, or do anything you like."
"Has Sir Nigel gone to get another chaperon?" I inquired.
"I have no idea," Mr. Boynton rejoined stiffly. "Please do not disturb me..."
It was only when I strolled out into the garden that I realised how little spare time had really come my way since we had moved into the country. I collected one or two books, a box of cigarettes, and a deck chair, and carried them into the shade of a cedar tree at the end of the garden. I leaned back, my head upon a cushion, filled with lazy content. Soon the hum of a distant reaping machine, the murmur of bees and the ripple of the slight wind through the elm trees soothed me off to sleep. At five o'clock I opened my eyes to find Miller standing before me with a small tea-tray.
"Mr. Boynton did not require any tea, madam," he explained, "so I thought you might like to have yours here."
I thanked him and sat up. Afterwards I walked back to the house. There was no news of Sir Nigel, and Mr. Boynton was still immersed in his work. I wandered restlessly about for some time, and finally started out for a walk, crossing the hay-field at the bottom of the garden and passing through the village to the top of the hill beyond.
From here I could catch a faint glimmering vision of the sea, a finger of blue merging into the clouds. In the foreground were fields of yellowing corn, with splashes of red here and there, where the unwanted poppies had sprung up, smooth green meadows, dotted with haycocks; hedges wreathed with flowers; a farm house with mullioned windows and Elizabethan chimneys set in a sheltered hollow of the nearer downs. It was all very beautiful, but I was conscious of a queer sense of loneliness. In the far distance a thin line of white smoke traced the course of the branch line of the railway. I watched it eagerly. It was the train from London. I could faintly hear the whistle as it crossed the viaduct. I waited breathlessly to see whether it stopped at our little station, where passengers from London were set down. It passed on without faltering.
I grew more and more restless as the hour grew later. The silence of the place, which I had always found so fascinating, seemed to get on my nerves. I wandered restlessly about through the gardens, down to the wood, and back again to the barn. There was not a soul in evidence except the gardeners. I summoned up my courage at last and disturbed Mr. Boynton once more.
"What train do you expect Sir Nigel back by?" I asked him.
"No train at all," he answered irritably. "He took the big car and dropped Mrs. Swabey at the station.
"He may not be down until late, then?"
"He may not be down at all if he drives as he did last time I was with him," was the gloomy reply. "He's been fined four times and they've threatened to endorse his license twice."
"You're a cheerful companion for a depressed young woman, aren't you?" I exclaimed. "What a horrible suggestion!"
"What are you depressed about, I should like to know?" he demanded. "You seem to be having things all your own way. Be off, please! I'm just in the thick of this job and I don't want to be disturbed."
I changed for dinner an hour before the accustomed time, and wandered off once more down the garden. I felt that Mr. Boynton's dismal prophecies had been chiefly malicious, but nevertheless my anxiety grew. About a quarter of an hour before the gong sounded Mr. Boynton came down the flagged path towards me. He had changed for dinner, but as usual he had the appearance of having fallen into his things without the help of a mirror or a moment's thought. I realised with his first words that he was a little ashamed and had come to make amends.
"Sir Nigel didn't expect to get back until just on dinner time," he announced. "I was rotting about his driving—perhaps I am a very nervous person, and he frightens me to death. He drives fast, but he's jolly good. Nothing's likely to happen to him, I'm sure. Listen!"
We heard the hum of a motor descending the hill, and presently the grinding of brakes outside the front door.
"Here he is!" Mr. Boynton exclaimed, and hurried off.
I started to follow him, and suddenly found myself almost incapable of movement. My knees were shaking, and there was a funny dried-up feeling in my throat. I saw him push open the gate and stride in, covered with dust from head to foot. He looked at me and hesitated. I still felt powerless to move. He turned towards the door.
"Keep dinner back a quarter of an hour," he shouted to Miller. "Bring me a cocktail up to the bathroom. I shan't be long."
He disappeared in the house. In a few minutes I felt myself growing normal again and I joined Mr Boynton upon the terrace. He was once more his old self—grumpy and unapproachable.
"I wonder what sent Sir Nigel up to London like that," I ventured to remark.
"How the de—mischief should I know?" he replied irritably.
At dinner-time it struck me that something had happened to Sir Nigel. He was much more subdued, and though as a rule he was particular about his food and more particular still about his wine, he ate and drank without criticism or remark. More than once he looked across at me curiously. I became at last almost nervous.
"Have I forgotten to do my hair or anything?" I asked.
He shook his head.
"You're all right," he said shortly. "You look unusual, that's all; as though you had been frightened and then something worth while had happened."
I felt Mr Boynton's eyes upon me. I looked down at my plate.
"I've had a wonderful afternoon," I told him; "a long walk and a delightful rest. What was London like?"
"Hot, dusty, breathless," he replied. "I didn't stay there longer than I could help. Went to the club for a drink and found it shut up—the whole place a wilderness."
"You will be glad to know," Mr. Boynton announced, with the air of one selecting the psychological moment for imparting news of great import, "that I have discovered the fallacy in Professor Bodwin's arguments attacking the French atomic theory. I've had a very pleasant and instructive afternoon."
Sir Nigel appeared unmoved. His eyes were fixed upon a certain portion of the flower garden which led to the wood. Suddenly he became conscious that Mr. Boynton was waiting for a reply.
"What's that, Howard?" he demanded. "You discovered what?"
My vis-à-vis repeated, his statement. Sir Nigel nodded his approval.
"Good!" he exclaimed. "Good! We will go into it tomorrow on the first opportunity."
My Boynton was obviously both puzzled and surprised. Sir Nigel was off again, however, in a brown study. He sent his favorite savory away untasted, suddenly realised the fact, and had it brought back again. After a single glass of port he rose abruptly.
"Let's have our coffee on the terrace," he suggested. "No cigar for me yet, Miller. I'm going to wait a little time."
We lingered over our coffee until the twilight began to draw the color from the landscape. Sir Nigel seemed still curiously unlike his usual self. After a time Mr. Boynton left us, Sir Nigel watched him disappear through the windows and breathed a sigh of relief.
"Shall we walk in the garden?" he proposed.
I rose at once and we passed down the paved way side by side. Presently, however, my companion turned to the left.
"Come into the wood," he said.
I still followed him, although with a curious sense of suspended life, as though everything were merging into a dream. My heart was thumping almost painfully. I wanted one word from him. He opened the gate and closed it. We were also immediately shut out of sight from the Manor House. He took my hand and held it firmly.
"Do you mind?" he asked, a little thickly.
We walked on. At every step we took I seemed to grow more composed, more amazingly content. He led the way to a seat.
"Sit down, please," he said.
I obeyed. He sat by my side.
"Phillipa," he announced unsteadily, "I am going to kiss you."
"Thank God!" I murmured in my heart, even if the words were incoherent on my lips...
I have no idea how long we sat there. When I remembered anything again the twilight had passed into the dusk of approaching night. The silence of the hour had fallen all around us. In the very far distance a nightingale was singing; closer some tree frogs were croaking. Through the canopy of leaves a faint light shone out from the house. Sir Nigel thrust his hand into his pocket and laid a queer little document on my knees.
"Phillipa," he asked; "are you quite certain?"
"Absolutely!" I assured him.
"Do you know what that is?" he demanded.
I shook my head.
"A special marriage licence," he went on. "We are going to be married tomorrow in the village church across the way. I've been to see the parson."
For a single moment I felt a surge of that old horror. I felt my cheeks grow pale; I felt the agony at my heart strings. He drew away and looked at me for a moment, amazed.
"I can't!" I sobbed.
He was almost terrible. His eyes flashed. I heard the wooden back of the seat crack beneath his grip.
"You've lied to me!" he muttered. "You don't care!"
I clung to him passionately. Of my own accord I kissed him; kissed his eyes and his suddenly cruel mouth.
"I love you better than anything else in life, Nigel!" I cried— "better than anything that has ever lived. I was afraid, that's all. I will marry you tomorrow and be the happiest woman on earth."
It was all over. He was himself again—my lover. I felt no longer a single impulse of hesitation. If the risk had been of hell I should have taken it.
THE few months of travel which followed our marriage were so flawlessly happy that I almost dreaded the return to Berkeley Square and the assumption of my new responsibilities. Yet it was a wonderful homecoming. The decorators and furnishers had been busy during our absence and for the first few hours after our arrival I could do nothing but marvel at and admire the result of their labors. I had a suite of rooms furnished in my favorite pale yellow and white, an exquisite bathroom, the exact reproduction of one I had seen and admired in an Italian Palace, and in addition to the drawing-room downstairs, which I had begged should remain unchanged, a smaller reception room for my own friends, luxuriously, almost voluptuously furnished, and decorated in the black and white which was the craze of the moment. The servants were all cordial, as well as respectful. It was not until we reached the library that I felt a moment's trepidation.
"I shall leave you and Howard alone for a few minutes," Nigel said. "He's a queer fellow, and, of course, this has been rather a blow to him. Be kind, for my sake, dear. It you can make friends with him, so much the better."
"I'll do my best," I promised.
"I am going to my den. You'll find me there with a whisky and soda when you've finished."
I entered the room, closing the door behind me. Mr. Boynton was working at his accustomed desk, surrounded by books of reference, and with a typist, whose back was turned towards me, seated a few feet off. They both looked round at my entrance, and Mr. Boynton rose to his feet. For the moment, however, I had forgotten all about him. I was confronted with still another wonderful surprise. It was Violet who rose, beaming, to greet me. She was inclined to be shy for a moment, but I threw my arms, around her and kissed her.
"Violet!" I exclaimed. "How wonderful! How ever did you get here?"
"It was Sir Nigel," she explained. "He wrote to Miss Godstone, asking especially for me, and I have been working with Mr. Boynton for weeks. Phillipa, how well you're looking!"
"I ought to be," I declared, "for I'm the happiest woman on earth. How do you do, Mr Boynton," I went on, holding out my hand. "I do hope that you're going to forgive me, and that we're going to be friends."
"I have nothing to forgive. Lady Chesterleys," he answered gravely. "I only hope that you will be happy, and that you will make Sir Nigel happy."
"If I fail in that, my whole life will be a failure," I told him earnestly. "You may not believe it," I went on, "but I love Sir Nigel almost as much as you do."
He made no definite reply, but somehow his silence did not seem ungracious. He began to put some manuscripts away.
"Are you very busy?" I asked.
"We have practically finished," he answered. "If you want Miss Smith, I can spare her."
"Violet, dear," I begged, "go into my room on this floor, will you, and wait for me—the door exactly opposite. I want to speak to Mr. Boynton for a moment."
She acquiesced at once. I waited until she had departed. Then I turned to Mr. Boynton.
"Please," I said, "I want to speak to you—not with words only, but from my heart. Sir Nigel is very fond of you. He looks upon your help in his work as invaluable. I am afraid you don't like me very much. You called me a self-seeker, didn't you? You think, perhaps, that I have married Sir Nigel for money and position."
He remained quite silent. It was obviously his intention to hear everything that I had to say before he committed himself.
"I want you to believe this," I went on. "I really am desperately and honestly fond of Sir Nigel. I haven't any thought in life except to make him happy. Can't we be great friends? He would like it so much."
Mr. Boynton's gaze never left my face. He seemed to be searching for something there, probing to the back of my eyes.
"Lady Chesterleys," he said, "you have spoken to me very frankly. I appreciate it. I will speak to you in the same way. I objected to your presence, as you surmised. I disliked Sir Nigel's growing infatuation for you, as you were quick to perceive. I detested his marrying you. All this is because I have not trusted you."
"Mr. Boynton!" I exclaimed.
"You can be offended if you like," he continued quietly. "You can complain to Sir Nigel, and very likely you can break up our connection. Nevertheless, I do not think that you will do this. Your frankness of speech has invited a similar attitude on my part. From the moment you came here you seemed to me like a young woman who was suffering from some hurt in the past, who had some secret to conceal. That was my idea. It was for that reason that I dreaded the influence which I saw you were rapidly gaining over Sir Nigel. Assure me upon your word of honor that I am wrong, and here is my hand."
I came over to his side.
"Mr. Boynton," I confessed, "in a sense your insight was correct. There is something in my life of which I am ashamed and which I have never told anyone. That something, however, is not disgraceful it does not stultify my affection for Sir Nigel; it does not in any way affect his honor."
He leaned heavily upon the desk. I could tell from his expression that this was one of the days when his foot was hurting him.
"Take my advice, Lady Chesterleys," he begged. "Whatever that secret may be, tell Sir Nigel now. Tell him so as to avoid the thousandth chance of unhappiness in the future."
"It is too late," I sighed.
"It is not too late," he insisted. "Sir Nigel is, in every sense of the word, a great man; he has a great outlook and an immense fund of sympathy—but no one in this world can ever deceive him twice. He worships truth. He forgives every sin in the decalogue except falsehood or false representation. I'm telling you this, Lady Chesterleys, because I love him as an elder brother, and because I want him to be happy. I'm telling you," he went on, still quite gently, "because you are his wife, because your happiness and his are the same thing, and because I think if you wished it and if you took my advice, we, too, might be friends."
The tears stood in my eyes. He little knew how impossible a thing he asked.
"I couldn't tell him now, Mr Boynton," I said simply. "Perhaps if I had been wise I would have told him before. He spoke to me the night he came down from London with the marriage licence. We were to be married in the morning. I couldn't risk it—I couldn't risk anything. I'd been so unhappy, and I loved him."
There was a moment's silence. I noticed that his hand which had been half-outstretched was withdrawn.
"I have done my duty in warning you," he concluded. "Sir Nigel is a generous man, but he never forgives deceit."
I struggled for words, and then the door opened.
"Am I too soon?" my husband exclaimed. "Howard, old fellow, come and shake hands. You two have almost the air of conspirators. Well, so long as it is a conspiracy to be friends, I have nothing to say against it. Where's the young lady?"
I suddenly remembered Violet.
"Nigel, dear," I said gratefully, "you couldn't have given me a more delightful surprise. I sent her away into my sitting-room. I'm going to her now. Bless you!"
I left them together and went in to Violet. She was still looking about her with wonder.
"To think of your being mistress of all this, Phillipa!" she began. "I beg your pardon, Lady Chesterleys.
"Don't be an idiot," I interrupted. "'Phillipa' then, and 'Phillipa' now. Tell me how you get on with Mr. Boynton."
"I don't get on," she laughed. "He gives me the work and I do it. I think he's quite satisfied. Raymond says—"
"Who?" I Interrupted.
"Mr Freyne, I mean," she corrected herself, with a slight blush in her cheeks—"that Mr. Boynton has a romance concealed somewhere."
"Never mind about Mr Boynton," I said. "Tell me how you got to know Mr Freyne well enough to call him 'Raymond?'"
"I don't, really," she assured me. "The name just slipped off my tongue. You know the sort of young man he is—always kidding you to call him by his Christian name."
"But how did you got to know him at all?" I persisted.
"He came here once or twice to see Mr. Boynton," she explained. "He invests things for your husband, I think. Once Mr. Boynton was out and we got talking, and then he met me one evening as I was leaving, and took me home."
I was silent for a moment, thinking of that windy spring afternoon in Richmond Park.
"I wish I could tell you why, Violet," I confided, "but I don't like Mr Freyne."
"He was very gone on you, once," she remarked.
"He pretended to be," I replied. "I don't think he's ever really fond of anyone except himself. Tell me about my friend, Mr. Kendrick?"
"Oh, he's all right," Violet answered indifferently.
"When are you going to marry him?"
"Never, I should think. It's the apron that puts me off."
"Little snob!" I scoffed. "I love him in it."
"You didn't marry him, though."
"He never asked me," I reminded her. "Still at the hostel?"
"Still there," she assented. "I'm leaving this week."
"Where are you going?" I inquired.
"To your old rooms, I think," she told me.
"Why, Violet," I exclaimed, "you always used to tell me that solitude would drive you mad!"
"Well, the girls at the hostel are driving me mad now," she retorted. "They're so noisy. I thought I'd like a change. I think I'd better go back, Phillipa. I haven't put the letters up yet."
"Wait one moment," I begged. "I want to look at you."
I led her to the light. In a sense she seemed just the same, frankly plebeian, but distinctly attractive, with her clear complexion, her humorous mouth and challenging eyes. Her figure, too, had if anything improved. She was thinner and her clothes were better made.
"Well?" she asked, in a tone of challenge.
"You're a dear, Violet, and just the same as ever," I assured her, sending her away with a kiss.
All the same I made up my mind to have a talk with her as soon as possible about Mr. Raymond Freyne.
THE meeting with Raymond Freyne was the next ordeal I had to face—a very trifling affair compared with the supreme happiness of every hour of the day. He dined with us a few nights after our return. Nigel talked to me about him for a few minutes before his arrival.
"Raymond has always been rather an anxiety to me," he confided. "I don't understand the type. I suppose that's the trouble. He did moderately well at school and college, but didn't even get into his House eleven, and never handled a racquet or an oar. A young man who has no taste whatever for athletics is something outside my jurisdiction."
"Is he clever at his business?" I asked.
"Not that I know of," Nigel replied. "It's a rotten sort of job, anyway, tinkering about on the Stock Exchange. I make him a good allowance, but I'd double it if he was doing any work I approved of. What's he like to talk to, Phillipa? You went out with him once or twice."
"He dances very well," I said. "For the rest, he isn't an easy young man to understand."
"I'm afraid he's tainted with the spurious modernism of an altogether new type of young man," Nigel declared. "I hate it. I like a lad who can drink his tankard of beer, knock up his century now and then, and make some sort of a show on the racquet court. Anyhow, be as nice as you can to him, Phillipa. His mother was my favorite sister, though she married a wrong 'un."
Raymond was ushered in a few moments later, immaculately, almost foppishly, dressed as usual, and certainly a little paler. He greeted us both with apparent warmth, but there was a queer expression in his eyes as he bent over my fingers and kissed them.
"Welcome back, dear—may I say for once—aunt," he murmured.
He straightened himself and looked at me fixedly. He was a born poseur, but I think that for those few moments he was almost natural; to such an extent that I too received a spark of inspiration. I read in the mingled expression of his eyes unwilling admiration, profound resentment, and something uglier than either.
"The Continent and matrimony have both agreed with you," he added.
"And what about your uncle?" I asked.
"Oh, Uncle Nigel is the strong man of his generation," he declared, helping himself almost eagerly to a cocktail. "How he ever triumphed over his athletics so far as to become a clever man, I can't imagine. Your dutiful nephew, sir, drinks to your happiness..."
We three dined alone, for Mr. Boynton had gone to a meeting. Raymond was moody at times and watched me a great deal more than I cared for. My husband and I had plenty to talk about, however, and I ignored him whenever it was possible. After dinner I played, hoping that Raymond would take his departure early. He stayed on, however, until Nigel was summoned out of the room to receive a late caller. I was commencing to play again, but be stopped me.
"Please leave off playing," he begged. "I want to talk to you."
"But I like playing," I objected, drifting into a softer melody.
"Kindly remember that you are my hostess," he insisted. "I love your music, but I love your voice, too."
I rose from the music stool and seated myself in Nigel's easy chair on the other side of the fireplace.
"I hear that you've been seeing something of my dear little friend, Violet Smith."
"Worse than the piano," he replied. "I don't want to waste time talking about Violet Smith."
"You seem in a queer temper," I laughed. "What do you want to talk about?"
"Well, what is there to say about me—except that I'm the happiest woman in London?"
"And I'm the most miserable man," he declared.
"You don't look well," I remarked, with a glance at his pallid checks and querulous mouth. "I hope you haven't been getting into trouble of any sort."
"I am in trouble all the time," he groaned. "I have been in trouble ever since I first met you."
I looked at him squarely.
"Raymond," I said, "shall we have an understanding?"
"We shall have to some time or other," he answered, rising to his feet, "Phillipa."
I held up my hand.
"Stay where you are," I ordered.
"What did you think I was going to do?" he expostulated. "Surely you give me credit for some common-sense. I know that one must be careful—especially in this house, but without moving a step nearer to you, I want to tell you that I still think you are the most adorable thing that ever lived."
"Now, will you listen to me!" I demanded.
"If you'll only say one kind word," he pleaded.
"What I am going to say is this," I continued. "Nothing would make me more unhappy than to cause trouble of any sort between you and your uncle, but if you dare to attempt to say these ridiculous things to me I shall ask him to forbid you the house. Is that plain enough?
"It is quite plain enough," he replied.
"Then be sensible," I begged. "It is foolish for us to quarrel. I am absolutely and entirely in love with my husband. For his sake I should like to be friends with you, but it must be on my terms, not yours."
His eyes were still burning and he was paler than ever.
"Very well," he muttered.
"Now let us talk in friendly fashion," I proposed. "You are a young man of the world, Raymond, and very accomplished, I should imagine, in all the arts of flirtation. I don't want you to flirt seriously with Violet Smith."
A slow smile parted his lips, mirthless and a little cruel.
"Are you going to debar me from my natural compensations?" he inquired.
"I am going to appeal to you as my husband's nephew and as one who I hope is about to become a dear friend," I said. "When I left Violet, she was a forward young woman in her way, perhaps, but she had a right ideas. She was going to marry a man of whom she was quite fond and with whom I am sure she would be happy. Now I come back and I find her changed. She doesn't look so well. She doesn't look so content. Something or somebody has been unsettling her. Have you anything to do with it, Raymond?"
He laughed unpleasantly.
"Not that I know of. She's good fun to take about."
"If you want to please me," I went on earnestly, "you will go back to your musical comedy young ladies. They understand you and your type, while Violet doesn't."
"Why should I try to please you?" he asked. "Will you promise to be just a little kinder to me, if I do as you ask?"
"Not in the way you mean."
"You won't make a bargain with me?"
"I will not," I assured him, "but if you offend me in this matter you will regret it."
He reached out his hand and took a cigarette.
"You are very high-handed," he grumbled.
"I am nothing of the sort," I retorted. "I just want to be friends and I want you to be nice and sensible and do as I ask."
"You're like all the good women I ever knew," he declared cynically.
"And you're like all the selfish men I ever met," I answered impulsively. "You want to receive gold and give pinchbeck... Now, no more bickering, please. Tell me how are my friends Mr. Marlow and Mr. Stevens?"
"Just the same as ever," he replied. "I'll give them your regards."
"And you're going to be nice about Violet?"
He smiled at me in a far away sort of fashion.
"I am always ready to make an arrangement," he said.
Nigel came in just then, a little out of breath and with his hair more tousled than usual.
"Had the devil of a row with that fellow," he announced, "told him to go to Hell, at last. Call himself a scientist, indeed! He knows as much about the atom as I do of the latest musical comedy."
"Come and have your easy-chair and cool off," I laughed. "Raymond can ring for the whisky and soda and I'll play again if you like."
He shook his head regretfully.
"No such luck! I've got to go down to the House. There's some talk of a division after all. The car will be round directly."
"You must go?" I asked, in a tone of disappointment.
"Absolutely necessary! You'll look after Raymond, won't you?"
"I wouldn't undertake such a thing for the world," I declared lightly. "As a matter of fact I'm terribly sleepy. Take him off with you in the car. And don't be later than you can help, Nigel."
Raymond shot a sudden glance at me which I ignored.
"Must I go?" he complained. "When I'm asked to dine I don't expect to turn out before 10 o'clock. I've heaps of interesting things to tell you."
"Another night, then," I begged. "I'm certainly going to bed now."
Raymond appeared to take his dismissal with lazy good nature. He grumbled, but bade me good-night in a normal fashion. I heard him go down the hall with my husband, and the car drove off.
It was perhaps half-an-hour to an hour before I went to bed. Miller had been in to ask me if there were any further orders, and I had told him where to leave the whisky and soda and that the servants could go to bed. There was a single lamp burning in the hall as I ascended the broad staircase. Elsewhere everything was in darkness. I had just reached the first landing, and was on my way to my rooms, when I heard an unexpected sound below. I stopped short and leaned over the bannisters. The latchkey had turned in the front door. It seemed impossible that Nigel should be home so soon. I looked over eagerly. The door was slowly pushed open and closed again. I was on the point of calling out when I stopped. It was not Nigel at all. I caught a glimpse of a white face as this unexpected visitor passed on tiptoe underneath the shadow of the lamp. It was Raymond.
I behaved, of course, like a perfect coward, but I was seized with an uncontrollable fit of terror. I crept into my room and locked and bolted the doors.
I WAS awakened the next morning by a thunderous knocking at the communicating door between my room and Nigel's. I jumped out of bed and opened it. Nigel, in his bath robe, looked in.
"Here, what have I done?" he complained. "Locks and bars last night and this morning!"
"I am frightfully sorry," I told him. "I had a scare last night, and, as you see, I locked myself in, and then went to sleep."
"You might have had a worse one," he said, crossing the room, and sitting at the end of my bed. "I lost my keys. Fortunately Miller sleeps down in the area, so I was able to wake him up by just tapping the window. What was your scare?"
I hesitated. The truth, if I told it to him, must sound either so terrible or so ridiculous. Whilst I hesitated, he went on talking.
"Fancied that you heard a noise, I suppose. I meant to have warned you, Phillipa. It's an old house and it creaks. Tell me honestly. What did you think of Raymond last night?"
"I didn't think he seemed very well," I answered.
"I am anxious about him," Nigel admitted. "His mother was the dearest thing in life, and I suppose for her sake I'm fond of the lad, and yet I'm not sure about him. He worries me sometimes. It isn't only that he has unnatural tastes, and that he's not over- fond of work. I never feel that I understand him. I wish you'd take him in hand, Phillipa."
I shook my head.
"I couldn't do any good, Nigel. I know the people whom I could influence. Raymond isn't one of them."
"If I heard of his doing anything really dishonorable," Nigel sighed, "it would be—well, a knock. He was left in my charge. I have done my best, but it doesn't seem to have amounted to much... Are you getting up to breakfast?"
"Of course I am," I answered. "I can hear Suzette preparing my bath for me now. You are ridiculously early."
"Got a busy day," he announced. "I shan't be able to lunch at home. When is this precious sister of yours turning up?"
"Tomorrow. I had a telegram from her yesterday. She had to find someone to take her place at the hospital."
We engaged in a little further desultory conversation, after which Suzette came to the door for me, and we parted.
At breakfast time, Howard Boynton, who had just arrived, brought Nigel a portion of his correspondence which required immediate attention, and he dictated replies while he drank his coffee. At half-past nine he left in the car to serve upon a Government Commission. I was alone for the day, and I had said nothing about the pale figure I had seen creeping across the hall the night before. I had said nothing, because the whole thing seemed too horrible, too ugly.
I spent an hour of the morning with the new housekeeper—a very interesting and condescending lady, who seemed touched and flattered at my interest in her conduct of the house. Afterwards I ventured to look in at the library.
"I won't keep you a moment," I began.
"It's all right," Violet interrupted. "Mr Boynton's gone out—won't be back till luncheon time."
"Busy?" I asked.
"I've got some copying to do," she answered. "There doesn't seem to be any particular hurry."
Even her tone was different. She seemed listless and preoccupied.
"I want you to stay and have lunch with me, Violet," I said.
"I don't think I can," she began.
"Well, you've just got to," I insisted. "I have a few things to say to you, and it's quite time you heard them. At one o'clock you come across to my room opposite. I shall have luncheon served there just for us two."
"Oh, I'll come," she promised. "I may as well spend my hour with you as anybody else, but I warn you that I'm bad company."
I put my arm around her neck for a moment.
"I shan't find you so, dear," I whispered. "I'm longing to have a good talk with you."
I ordered just the things that I knew Violet used to like for lunch, and arranged that we should be waited upon by one of the maid-servants. We had cocktails and a small bottle of champagne, and chaffed one another very much in the old fashion. As soon as the maid had brought in coffee, I moved my chair nearer to Violet's, and sat there with her, arm in arm.
"Now, my dear," I began, "you've got to listen to me for a few minutes."
She looked at me curiously.
"Well, go ahead."
"Violet," I went on, "in the old days we had some really wonderful talks. You showed me yourself and I showed you myself. You were the stronger then. I heard you expound the working girl's philosophy of life for my benefit, and it was good. Perhaps I profited by it; at any rate I should have done if I had been—what shall I say?—tempted. Are you living up to your own philosophy?"
"Phillipa," she answered, "I've done a damned foolish thing. I've fallen in love."
That was the old Violet. There was still a chance then.
"Well, we're all liable to do that," I said. "The trouble is that I think you've fallen in love with the wrong man."
"You are prejudiced," she declared shortly.
"I may be," I replied. "But first of all, before we go any further, tell me this—"
"You shan't ask me what you are going to," she interrupted. "I'm getting to feel more and more of a fool every day, but it hasn't come yet."
"It will never come," I told her. "You couldn't love a really worthless person for very long, and Raymond Freyne is very nearly worthless."
She tried to draw her arm away, but I gripped it tightly.
"Has he ever said a word about marrying you?" I asked.
"Never," she admitted. "He isn't that sort of a cad. He knows he would never marry me, and I know he never would, but I don't want anyone else, so what am I going to do?"
"I'll tell you what you're going to do," I promised her. "Now listen to me. Do you really believe he cares for you?"
"Yes, I do," she answered frankly.
"You know that his life has been one tissue of affairs with women—those he's succeeded with and those he hasn't. It's a disease with him. There isn't a grain of honesty in his attitude towards them. Why should you think that you are the one for whom he has real feeling?"
"I don't care," was the dogged reply. "I just want him and no one else."
"But you believe," I persisted, "that he really cares for you?"
"I do. He's just as miserable about it in his way as I am. That's why I think—I'm sure—I shall make up my mind to end it."
"You know that he tried to flirt with me," I said.
"Flirt! Yes," she admitted. "That's a different thing."
"Well, I'll go further," I continued. "Last night he had the impertinence to attempt to make love to me here whilst my husband was out of the room."
Violet looked utterly unconvinced.
"He has a way with women," she said. "They always think he's making love to them. He doesn't mean it."
"Now, I'll tell you another thing," I persisted—"a thing I haven't told to a soul. Last night my husband had to go down to the House of Commons. Raymond left with him, after having done all he could to stay behind with me. Just as I was going to bed—the servants had already gone—I heard a key turn in the front door. It was Raymond. He had stolen or picked up his uncle's keys and crept back."
She turned and looked at me.
"I locked myself up in my room. I heard him go into the drawing-room where I had been, and once I fancied I heard him on the stairs. That's all. I went to sleep presently."
"He might have come back for something he left behind," she said obstinately.
"Violet," I confided, "there is no bigger fool in the world than the normally sensible woman who loses her head about a man. That's you, my dear! You're simply piffling! Now, I'm going to test him for you. You believe in him?"
I moved the telephone instrument over to the table. There were two receivers. I gave her one. Then I rang up the office of the firm of Marlow and Sons.
"Is Mr Freyne there?" I enquired.
"Wait a moment and I'll put you through," was the answer.
Presently we heard Raymond's rather languid "Hullo!"
"Is that you, Raymond?" I asked.
"Yes, Who is it?" he answered quickly.
"You!" he exclaimed. And I hoped that Violet noticed the difference in his tone.
"Yes," I admitted cautiously. "Are you alone?"
"Yes. What is it?"
"I want to know whether it was you I saw come back to the house last night after everyone had gone to bed?"
There was a moment's pause. I fancied that I heard a faint exclamation; but after all it was stifled.
"Yes, it was I," he confessed.
"Why did you come?" I asked.
"You know, Phillipa," he answered. "You were cruel to me all the evening. When I got away I couldn't rest. I went to the club. I couldn't stay there. I just wanted one kind word from you, and I felt that I would go mad if I didn't get it. I had a key to the house—I spent last winter there. I came back praying that you might not have gone to bed."
"It was very wrong of you," I said.
"Did you say anything to Sir Nigel?" he asked hesitatingly.
"You dear!" he exclaimed. "Listen, Phillipa. May I come and see you this afternoon?"
"I don't know," I answered. "I want to ask you something."
"Is it true that you are going about a great deal with Violet?"
"I take her out sometimes," he admitted. "She's amusing in her way. I must do something to pass the time."
I felt Violet shiver, but I had all the sensations of a surgeon saving a life.
"Is that all there is in it?" I asked.
"Absolutely," he assured me eagerly. "How can you think anything else—you, Phillipa, when you realise—Oh, I can't tell you these things over the telephone!—but you know, you know just the sort of feeling one would have for a girl like Violet. It wouldn't amount to anything. She doesn't expect it. If you say the word I'll never see her again."
Violet dropped the receiver. I heard a little sob.
"Well, I'll think it over, Raymond," I promised, "and ring you up again."
I rang off. Then I put my arm round Violet's shoulder.
"I know it hurts, dear," I whispered; "but isn't it better?"
"No," she almost shouted. "I'd rather have gone into hell and believed he cared."
She began to be hysterical. I made some more coffee, got some cigarettes, and pushed her into an easy-chair.
"I'm sorry, Violet," I said; "but you had to understand. Raymond Freyne is what we used to call a 'rotter.' He just wants to get as much amusement as he can out of us and he doesn't care a fig who pays the piper. He isn't worth troubling about, dear. And in ten minutes you have to be back at work."
She dried her eyes.
"And to think," she observed wonderingly, "that only a little time ago it was I who was teaching you philosophy!"
She went back to her work; thoughtful, and without doubt heavy-hearted, and yet, I fancied, with already some signs of resignation.
NEXT morning came the meeting to which I had looked forward with such mingled feelings since my return to England. Norah arrived soon after 11 o'clock, and was shown at once into my sitting-room. For the first moment I think that we forgot everything except just our two selves. I kissed her dear sad eyes, which looked at me so strangely, and there was a touch of almost maternal passion in her long, clinging embrace. Then we each had our moment of surprise.
"Phillipa!" Norah exclaimed, looking at me almost incredulously. "I never dreamed that you were half so beautiful!"
"And you, Norah dear," I cried, looking at her with mingled trouble and joy, "you are thinner, and your eyes seem to have grown larger, but you are far more beautiful than I shall ever be."
We sat down on the big divan. Norah's arm was still around me. and I began to talk at once, to tell her of our wonderful time abroad, Paris, Florence, the music, the pictures, Nigel's lovely presents. She listened to me gladly, but after a time she interrupted.
"Phillipa," she said, "it is delightful to see you like this, but there is something I must ask you."
I made a little grimace. I was determined to take nothing seriously.
"Go on, dear," I invited.
"Does your husband know?
"Nothing," I answered a little defiantly.
For a moment she seemed almost horrified.
"Aren't you running a terrible risk, Phillipa?" she asked gravely.
"Isn't it worth it?" I replied. "I wrote and told you what happened. We were down in Sussex—some day you must see that wonderful place, Norah. The old thing he brought down as chaperon was rude to me. He went up to London without a word. When he returned, after dinner, he took me into the wood and showed me a special licence. We were to be married in the morning. I loved him, Norah; you may think I'm a weakling but I could no sooner have risked what might have happened if I had told him the truth, the delay, his half-belief, perhaps—perhaps the loss of everything—I could no more have risked that than I could have stepped deliberately into Hell."
"But Robert Sherriff?" she protested. "He may reappear."
"And he may not," I answered. "Think what I had to tell Nigel, Norah. I had to tell him either that I was a murderess or that I had a husband alive. I couldn't have done it. Sometimes I have moments of fear, of course, but I'm so happy, Norah—so wonderfully happy. It swamps everything. It swamps fear even."
She was silent for a few moments.
"Why not tell him now?" she urged. "He could take steps to find out whether Robert is still alive, and if he is—well, there would be a scandal, of course, but something could be done."
I shook my head.
"Just now, Norah," I confided, "I told you that I had no fear. I have one. Nigel is as fair and broad-minded as a man could be, but he has an almost passionate regard for exactness in truth. If ever he suspects a servant even of exaggeration or prevarication, they have to go. It is almost a craze with him."
"Doesn't that make it all the more dangerous, dear?" Norah asked.
"I can't help it," I answered, a little hardly. "I am just gambler enough to take my chance, and madly happy enough to forget fear. So there we are, Norah."
"You know best, dear," she decided. "I'm not going to preach— least of all to you, my own sister—and after all the great thing is that you should be happy. If you are content and have no apprehensions what does it matter?"
I stood up. It was amazing after those starved years how the capacity for happiness had blossomed through all my senses. The few moments which I had dreaded were over. I was back again in the joy of life.
"Now, I'm going to show you the house, Norah," I said, "and your room. Nigel's coming home for lunch on purpose to see you."
The morning slipped away. In Norah's room I pointed in astonishment to her handbag.
"Where is the rest of your luggage?" I asked.
"My dear child," she explained. "I only got leave for the night with difficulty. I have to catch the nine o'clock train back tomorrow."
It was a disappointment, but she was obdurate. She looked with delighted appreciation at all the little luxuries I had prepared for her, but she never faltered. When we went downstairs Nigel was waiting. He came straight up to her.
"I can't pretend I remember you Norah," he said, grasping her hands "I just remember that there were two of you, and that's all. Glad you've arrived at last. I began to think we should have to come and fetch you."
"She's arrived, but she's trying to tell me that she's going back tomorrow morning," I complained.
"Ridiculous rubbish!" Nigel declared. "I never heard anything so absurd. We can't listen to it."
"But I am a working woman," Norah explained, smiling. "I have a large hospital almost directly under my control."
"Give it up," Nigel insisted. "You're too young for a job like that. Leave it to the elder women. Phillipa expects you to come and live with her. So do I. We'll make you happy—find you a husband, if you like, won't we, Phillipa?"
"What about Mr. Boynton?" I suggested.
Nigel roared with laughter.
"Dear old Howard!" he exclaimed. "No good to anyone, I'm afraid, Miss Norah. He's a confirmed bachelor. I've sent him down to Somerset for a few days. My tenants there seem to want me to rebuild the place. Think we'll have to go and live there ourselves, Phillipa."
Luncheon was served soon afterwards, and Norah and my husband were soon deep in the discussion of an article of his in one of the recent reviews with reference to some new application of the X-rays. Norah, interested, soon became her old self again. When we returned to my sitting-room for our coffee, Nigel took her by the arm.
"Now, Norah," he said, "we want to get all this rubbish about running a hospital out of your mind. You can do lots of good work in London. I happen, too—not through my own efforts—to be stupidly rich. You're going to be a sensible woman, have your rooms here, your decent family allowance, and keep Phillipa company when I'm away."
"Are you often away?" Norah asked.
"Never," he admitted, "and don't mean to be—but that doesn't matter."
"You're very generous and very kind—just what I knew you must be, Sir Nigel," she said, "but you see I have rather an independent spirit and I take life perhaps a little seriously. Phillipa, I know, in her heart feels sorry for me because I work hard. She needn't. I am happier running my hospital than I should be living here, even with Phillipa."
There was a finality about Norah's words which made argument difficult. We tried our best, however, to break her resolution, without the slightest success. She spent the day with us, though, and a very delightful day it was. There was just one incident which perplexed me and which certainly gave me no pleasure. Just before dinner a box from the florist's was brought in, filled with wonderful red and white roses. Nigel and I unpacked it together and we both stared at the card with some surprise.
"Raymond, the young devil!" Nigel exclaimed. "You have made a conquest."
"I wish he wouldn't do such silly things," I said.
"Well, I wouldn't be cross with him," Nigel replied good- humouredly. "The boy meant it well."
I was not so sure.
We had an early dinner at a restaurant and took Norah to a play, which she enjoyed immensely. We were all seated afterwards in my little room before going to bed when Raymond Freyne was announced. I looked at him with some surprise, for it was nearly half-past eleven.
"I saw your lights going, so I looked in for a whisky and soda," he explained. "I'm going to a dance at Lady Glenowen's round the corner."
He was introduced to Norah, and sat down with us for a few minutes. "It was very charming of you to send me the roses, Raymond," I said, "but please don't send me any more. Sir Nigel sends me too many as it is."
"I thought a woman couldn't have too many flowers," he remarked.
"That depends," I answered.
By some evil chance exactly the thing which I had dreaded happened. My husband wound up a little discussion with Norah by taking her across the hall to the library to look at the model of an instrument of his own invention. Raymond Freyne stretched out his hand absently for a cigarette.
"Your interest in my affairs flatters me," he murmured.
"I have no interest in your affairs whatever," I rejoined. "If I have interfered in any way in your amours it is for Violet's sake. I look upon you as a highly undesirable companion for her."
"What have you been telling her, I wonder," he speculated.
"Nothing but the exact truth," I replied. "It was you who told her, not I."
"Is this a puzzle?" he demanded.
I shrugged my shoulders and pointed to the telephone.
"You see," I explained, "there are two receivers."
He sat for a moment quite still. Then he began to laugh very softly. It was not at all a pleasant sound.
"Excellent!" he exclaimed. "And to think that after your message I went out and half-ruined myself buying roses!"
"It was certainly a waste of money," I admitted.
"And to think," he went on, "that ever since I have been doing nothing except rack my brains as to how I could catch a glimpse of you before the evening was over."
"Well, you have succeeded," I rejoined coldly, "and you know the truth. That is so much to the good."
He looked at me curiously.
"Are you really in love with my uncle?" he asked.
"I am," I assured him. "If you weren't so horribly egotistical you would have realised that long ago."
He rose to his feet. We could hear Sir Nigel's voice in the passage.
"Well," he murmured, in a tone as soft as velvet, yet with a note in it which I could feel was full of menace. "I must wait till 'love's dream' passes!"
"It will never pass," I declared, "and although I don't like to say it when you are Sir Nigel's nephew, I am going to tell you, Raymond, that I don't like you at all."
He looked at me and his eyes bore out the threat in his tone.
"Heaven forbid," he said with mock fervor, "that you should ever have cause to dislike me."
He took his leave. Afterwards, in my room, Norah, who was sitting with me whilst I undressed, startled me by a sudden question.
"Phillipa," she asked, "why does that young man who called this evening dislike you so much?"
"I have interfered with one of his flirtations," I replied. "I did it in rather a mean way, perhaps, but it was the only way likely to be effectual."
"It seems a pity," Norah remarked.
"What seems a pity?" I demanded.
"For you to have enemies amongst your husband's relatives," she explained. "That young man would do you an injury if he could, and do it, I should think, in a very malicious way."
I shrugged my shoulders. I had no fear of Raymond Freyne.
"I shall never give him the chance," I declared lightly.
THERE followed weeks and months of pleasant turmoil. I had numberless calls to return, dinner parties and receptions to attend, and an extensive scheme of hospitality to embark upon. To my surprise, Nigel entered into this social whirlpool with every sign of contentment, almost happiness. He grumbled a little when we were separated, as we were sometimes of necessity, for the greater part of the evening, but in a general way, he played the parts both of guests and host to perfection, and had obvious pleasure in my success. By mutual consent, however, we always kept one day in the week for home, and, though I never pretended that I did not thoroughly enjoy these new phases of gaiety, I believe that we equally looked forward to the selected evenings, upon which we dined alone, and entertained ourselves with music. We naturally saw a great deal of Raymond, and his attitude, although on the surface it was irreproachable, always filled me with a vague uneasiness. He seemed to have the air of continually watching me, and persistently offered me undesired attentions. It seemed almost as though he wished to pose before Nigel and the world as my cavalier servant. One day I spoke out my mind to him.
"You don't like me, Raymond. You know that you resent my interference with Violet. Why do you continually offer me those attentions?"
He smiled at me; a cryptic, somewhat sinister smile, which I hated. We were sitting out the latter part of a dance together in an overcrowded ballroom.
"It is clear, my dear lady," he replied, "that you utterly fail to understand me. You yourself have forbidden me to speak to you frankly. I must be content to be misunderstood."
"I prefer to dance," I told him curtly.
He obeyed without protest. He was always most obedient, and I was certainly as a rule ungracious; yet I am not sure that there were not people who looked upon this attitude of mine as a pose, who watched his continual haunting of my presence, and thought just what they chose to think. For myself, in time, I grew almost used to it. My conscience was clear, my dislike so engrained that the only sensations I had were of occasional irritation. As against that I knew that Nigel welcomed our seeming friendship, and would have been greatly distressed if I had told him exactly how I felt. So I let things drift. It seemed to be the sanest course.
One day it occurred to me that I had not seen Violet for several weeks. Rather remorseful, I went into the library where Mr. Boynton was at work.
"Mr. Boynton," I said, "can't you find some work for Violet Smith soon?"
"We have required very little typing lately, Lady Chesterleys," he explained. "I think, however, that there is rather an accumulation of letters. Shall I send for her?"
"I wish you would," I answered. "I want to have a talk with her. See if she can come this morning?"
Mr. Boynton rang up the office, and Violet was reported presently to be on her way. I cancelled an unimportant appointment for luncheon, and carried her off to my sitting-room at one o'clock. The moment I saw her I regretted that I had let her remain out of my sight for so long.
"You are thinner, Violet," I. said.
"Good job, too!" she answered. "I shall never have your sweeping curves, but there was a time when I feared that I might be dumpy."
"You are not only thinner in the body," I went on; "but you are thinner in the face. You don't look well. Any confessions?"
"None whatever," she replied. "Perhaps that's why I don't look well. I'm fed up with men—bored stiff!"
"You haven't," I began—
"Chuck it," she interrupted. "I haven't spoken to Mr Freyne again, if that's what you mean. Don't want to, either. All the same, I sometimes wonder whether I wouldn't rather not have known."
"Idiot!" I scoffed. "What about Mr. Kendrick?"
"Chucked me," she answered. "He hasn't been near. I haven't heard from him for weeks."
"Why don't you write?" I suggested. Violet tossed her head.
"I'm not that sort. If he is stupid enough to take offence because I went about with Mr. Freyne—well, he must do it, that's all."
"He doesn't know, then, that that little affair is over?" I asked.
"And not likely to, so far as I am concerned," Violet rejoined. "Men call find out things if they want to. He evidently doesn't want."
Violet enjoyed her lunch, and I said no more about Mr. Kendrick, but that afternoon I ordered a car, and with some difficulty found my way to the establishment over which he presided. When I entered the shop he was standing in his usual position of vantage, his scoop in his hand, cheeses in front of him, but an eye all round the shop. He welcomed me with a little bow. I went up to him and shook hands—a proceeding which did not embarrass him in the least, although he kept me waiting while he rubbed his hands on his apron.
"Very glad to see your ladyship," he said.
"Why can't I buy things from you, Mr Kendrick?" I asked.
"Why not indeed, your ladyship?" he replied briskly, handing me a little pamphlet. "This is my price-list. Compare it with the stores or anywhere else you like. Shall I step round and wait upon your housekeeper?"
"Do," I begged. "Come any time you like. By the bye, you haven't seen Violet lately, have you?"
"No," he answered gloomily.
"She lunched with me today," I confided. "I didn't think she looked at all well."
"Going out too much, perhaps," he sighed.
"More likely not to be going out at all," I answered severely. "You haven't been kind to her, Mr. Kendrick. She has been very lonely."
Mr. Kendrick looked astonished and aggrieved. His gesture with the cheese scoop was almost threatening.
"Well, I like that!" he exclaimed. "Last time I heard of her she was going out nearly every night with a young gentleman I had no fancy for. Gave me the chuck properly."
"My dear man, you are hopelessly out of date," I informed him. "She finished with the young man you're speaking of long ago. I'll guarantee that she hasn't seen or spoken to him for over six weeks."
Mr Kendrick was shaken. He looked at me in a perturbed fashion.
"Then why didn't she let me know?" he demanded.
"My dear man, it's not her place to run about after you," I pointed out severely. "You've been most neglectful. You ought to have found out. She has been very unhappy."
"Your ladyship," he said, "I can scarcely believe it."
A daring scheme entered into my mind.
"Mr Kendrick," I invited, "come up and see my housekeeper at about half-past seven, and stay on and have dinner with us quietly. Violet will be there, and you can talk to her."
"It is very good of your ladyship," he replied doubtfully. "I'll come and see your housekeeper, if I may—you know what a one I am for business—but as for sitting down to dinner—"
"Don't be absurd, Mr Kendrick," I interrupted. "All sensible people have quite got over being so foolish. A large grocer who is also a peer took me in to dinner last night. I didn't like him though. I rather like you, you know, Mr. Kendrick. You can't pretend that there's any real difference between a grocer in a small way, and a grocer in a large way."
"Still—" he began.
"At half-past seven," I insisted, "and you had better come with your mind made up to be as agreeable as possible to Violet. I consider you've treated her very badly. And if you don't mind, please don't change. Sir Nigel never does when he's going to the House. We're quite alone, except for Violet."
I marched out of the shop with the price-list in my hand, and leaving Mr. Kendrick for once in his life somewhat dazed. Nigel entered into my scheme enthusiastically, as I knew that he would, but I had some little difficulty with Violet.
"It's all ridiculous," she declared. "Of course, he would come so long as you asked him—talk about it for months afterwards, I should think. He doesn't want to see me at all. He'd walk all round London for a new account."
"My dear," I told her, "don't be foolish! We all have our work in life, and for a man his work must be important. I admire Mr. Kendrick excessively. I like him, or I should not ask him here. Go home and put on a pretty frock—not an evening one—and get back here at half-past seven."
She went off with some apparent reluctance, but with already an added briskness in her movements. Precisely at half-past seven Mr. Kendrick was announced. He was wearing a black frock coat and grey trousers, black bow tie, and linen of almost obtrusive whiteness. He had had his hair cut and his face shone. I gave him very little time for conversation, but took him at once to see Mrs. Swabey's successor. She gave him a friendly reception.
"I've looked through your lists, Mr. Kendrick," she said. "Her ladyship tells me that she wishes me to deal, so far as I can, with you. With regard to—"
I made my escape, leaving Mr. Kendrick with replenished confidence, dilating fervently upon the general character of his wares. I found Violet in the sitting-room, looking very pretty in a simple black dress, but a little nervous.
"I hope you don't mind, the ribbon in my hair," she said apologetically. "Peter always likes it, and he does notice so."
"A ribbon in your hair," Nigel exclaimed, as he made his entrance. "I like it myself, Miss Smith. Very becoming, I call it. Wouldn't suit Phillipa, but then no one else in the world, not even you, Miss Smith, has hair like hers. Where's the young man?"
"Busy with Mrs. Grey," I replied. "He'll be here directly."
"Where are the cocktails?" my husband demanded. "Confound that follow! He gets later and later with them every evening."
"They're on the sideboard, waiting for you to shake them," I pointed out. "He brought them in a few minutes ago."
"I'm getting as blind as a bat," Nigel declared. "Miss Smith, take a glass and hold it out. This is Mr. Kendrick, I suppose," he went on as the young man entered. "Can't shake hands with you for a moment. Give Lady Chesterleys a glass, will you? That's right, and one for yourself. Very pleased to see you, Mr. Kendrick. Miss Smith, I believe that that terrible fellow Boynton has been working you too hard. You look tired—Boynton," he added, as Mr. Boynton put in his appearance—"why the devil have you been working Miss Smith like this? I hear her infernal typewriter going up to the moment I leave the house and the moment I come back. You're a slave-driver!"
"I think Miss Smith likes work," Mr. Boynton replied. "I often tell her to leave off for a few minutes."
Dinner was announced. Nigel took Violet's hand and drew it through his arm.
"Bring my wife, Kendrick," he said. "We're a small party. I've got to leave in three-quarters of an hour at the latest. You mustn't hurry."
The dinner-time conversation was a little obvious but very satisfactory. Mr. Kendrick and Nigel discussed economics, the former proving himself very sound and extremely intelligent. Nigel, with his usual tact, was apparently convinced on several minor points, and complimented his guest on his sound fiscal views. Afterwards he hurried off in response to a telephone message from Westminster, accompanied by Mr. Boynton. I played the piano for half an hour, and then was summoned out of the room. When I returned without undue haste, I found exactly what I had hoped for. Violet's hair was rather crumpled, Mr. Kendrick's honest face was glowing with happiness, and they were sitting very close together upon the divan. Mr. Kendrick rose at once at my entrance and coughed in an embarrassed manner.
"Lady Chesterleys," he announced, "we would like you to be the first to know our secret."
"Your secret!" I laughed.
IT seemed to me that during that forthcoming Spring everything that I had prayed for in life fell to my lot. My new acquaintances were fast becoming friends. Nigel, somehow or other, found time to take me to Ranelagh and Hurlingham, to Ascot and Goodwood. Afterwards we spent two months of the summer in Sussex, and from there we went to Scotland, where Nigel had a gloriously situated shooting lodge. For six weeks we shot and fished, played golf and picnicked on the moors.
It was early in October before we found ourselves once more in London. The house in Berkeley Square seemed homelike and cheerful after our long absence; Mrs Grey and all the servants genuinely pleased to have us back again. I had long ago lost all sense of foreboding. The happiness of my life was so real and complete that it seemed to have driven away every disquieting thought. I even welcomed Raymond when he put in his appearance to dine with us on our first night at home, and I was almost glad to see Mr. Boynton, who, though he still preserved a gloomy demeanor, was, I fancied, becoming to some extent reconciled to my presence.
We were all seated in the drawing-room after dinner, drinking our coffee, after which I was to play. Nigel, with vast content, was studying a photograph of me which had appeared that week in the frontispiece of the Tatler.
"At last," he announced, passing it to Howard Boynton, "I have achieved fame. You see what it says here, I am the husband of the beautiful Lady Chesterleys."
Mr Boynton studied the picture with some apparent interest. Raymond waved it away.
"I cut it out and mounted it directly I saw it," he declared. "It adorns my dressing-table at the present moment. It is a very wonderful picture."
Nigel looked at it once more and back at me with a smile.
"Marvellous thing to be pilloried like that," he remarked. "I don't suppose that a few millions of my country-people will ever have the chance of gazing upon my lineaments except as the husband of 'the beautiful Lady Chesterleys.' You're better- looking than you were, Phillipa. I wonder how many of your Middletown friends would recognise this?"
I felt a cold shiver even when the careless words left his lips. There was no one alive who mattered, I told myself. There was no one who could matter. Yet for the first time for many months I suddenly thought of Robert. I saw that hideous little bed-room, felt that surge of passionate aversion, felt the hot odour of his drink-sodden breath, saw him staring at me helplessly when he realised what had happened. Then with a great effort I pulled myself together. Nigel had noticed nothing. He had picked up the paper and was still studying the picture. Raymond, however, was watching me, his cold steadfast eyes intensely curious.
"Middletown," I repeated, with a little shudder, but some attempt at lightness. "I don't suppose there is a soul there now who would recognise me. You couldn't realise in that one short visit of yours, Nigel, what a horrible place it was."
Nigel smiled at me sympathetically. I rose to my feet and seated myself at the piano. It was while I was removing my rings that the world seemed to come crashing about my ears. In a sense there was a ghastly appositeness about the fact that it should have been Raymond who opened the gates of Hell.
"Middletown," he remarked doubtfully. "What does the name of that place remind me of? Oh, I know—my new pal, Robert Sherriff."
I was too stunned for immediate realisation, I seemed to be hearing that sentence over and over again; uncomprehending at first, sick with horror as its meaning slowly became clear. Raymond's new friend. Robert Sherriff! His friend! That was the strange part of it, Raymond, the supercilious, alluding to such a person as Robert Sherriff as "my friend." My fingers crashed upon the notes of the piano. I played for a few minutes. Then Nigel rose and came over to me. He looked at me anxiously.
"Phillipa!" he exclaimed. "What is the matter?"
"Matter?" I repeated, struggling to make my voice sound natural.
"I was afraid that you weren't well, dear," he whispered, putting his arm round my waist. "You've lost all your color, and—you were playing discords."
Raymond brought me over a liqueur glassful of brandy. I drank it up. If there was to be a fight, at least I would not give in before it started.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I had a headache before dinner, and the name of that place always makes me feel miserable for a moment. I'm sorry, Nigel dear. I'll play to you in a minute."
"Rubbish!" he protested. "You'll do nothing of the sort. You're not fit to sit up there. Why, damn it, you nearly fainted!"
He suddenly picked me up in his arms, and carried me to the divan, placed pillows under my head, and, ringing the bell for my maid, ordered scent bottles and eau-de-cologne. I kept on assuring everybody that I was quite all right, but I felt the color drained out of my cheeks and I had a feeling almost like what death might be at my heart. Raymond rose to his feet.
"I think we'd better give up our idea of a musical evening," he suggested. "I'm quite sure Lady Chesterleys will not be fit to play this evening."
For the first time in my life I hated seeing him go. I felt I must know the truth about his friend, Robert Sherriff. I motioned him back to his place.
"Don't be an idiot, Raymond," I expostulated. "I shall be quite all right in five or ten minutes. Please go on talking as though I weren't here. Go on with what you were saying."
He resumed his seat, although with some reluctance.
"I forgot what I was saying," he admitted. "Oh, I know, we were speaking of Middletown, weren't we? Well, at any rate, the place has achieved one notoriety. It has produced a millionaire."
"A millionaire?" I repeated. "Middletown?"
"Man I was speaking of, named Sherriff," Raymond explained. "Queer card he is, too. Some time ago he tried to get us to take up some options he had on some land out on the West Coast of America, but old Marlow wasn't having any. He'd have sold them to us outright for a couple of thousand pounds, but the whole thing seemed to us too much in the air. Afterwards old Marlow got a hint that there had been a rich find of oil in the neighborhood and we advertised for Sherriff but it was too late. The fellow was starving in the streets of New York when he saw in an evening paper that oil had been found on some of the land. A near thing it was. His was only an option to purchase and when he read the news it had only a month to run, and he hadn't a dollar in the world."
"Quite dramatic," my husband observed. "What did he do?"
"A damned sensible thing," Raymond declared. "He went to a first class Bank, worried his why up to one of the directors, and got them to finance it for him. The consequence is that today he's a millionaire many times over. He's sold a million pounds' worth of property for cash, and he's still making about a thousand pounds a day on what's left."
Sir Nigel leaned over my couch.
"I wish you'd go to bed, Phillipa," he begged. "You don't look, fit for anything else."
"I'd rather sit up," I assured him. "I'm interested in Raymond's story. Where did you meet this wonderful person, Raymond?"
"He's on my floor at the Milan," the young man explained. "I was lucky enough to run against him in the Bar the day he arrived— gave him a few hints about the place and so on. He's a client now, and a good one, I bought fifty thousand pounds' worth of War Loan for him only yesterday."
"Is he married?" I asked.
"If so, he hasn't mentioned it," Raymond, replied. "There's no woman with him. I rather imagine from something I heard him say that he's by way of being a woman hater. A woman served him a dirty trick once, or something of the sort."
Robert Sherriff alive and at the Milan, with all his dreams realised! A millionaire! At any moment the blow might fall! No wonder that I lay there with my heart beating faintly and my limbs numbed with fear.
"Queer chap," Raymond continued. "He's drinking like a fish. A few nights ago he was so drunk that he was positively maudlin— kept on calling out for 'Babs,' whoever she may be. I think if he's got any friends at Middletown, they ought to come and look after him."
"Do you remember the name, my dear?" Nigel asked me.
I fenced with the truth. To tell Nigel a direct lie was one of the most [difficult things in the world.*]
[* Line missing in source file. Text in brackets added after comparison with a similar sentence in Oppenheim's novel Mr Mirakel. —R.G.]
"I seem to remember it," I murmured. "Probably he was a patient of my father's at some time or another. Now I'm going to play."
They all protested, but I would listen to no one. I played for an hour. Afterwards when they had gone away Nigel insisted on bringing me himself to my room.
"How's the head?" he asked.
"Better," I answered. "Nigel, I'm a baby tonight. Don't leave me."
"I won't," he promised, "but I wish you'd tell me what's the matter. Your heart's wonderful, your nerves have always seemed perfect, and yet for a moment tonight I thought you must faint. You weren't annoyed about anything—worried, unhappy?"
I flung my arms around his neck and clung to him passionately. He was like a pillar of strength. So long as my arms were linked around him I felt safe.
"I am afraid, Nigel," I cried but; "afraid of my own happiness— afraid that it can't last. It's too wonderful!"
"Idiot!" he scored. "Why, we haven't begun living yet. Think of the wonderful things we're going to do. There's the yacht and the Riviera next season; our trip to India and Japan in the spring. What on earth are those tears for?"
"I am afraid," I sobbed; "afraid of losing it all—of losing you."
He laughed tenderly, a little indulgently. I could see very well that he had come to the conclusion that I was suffering from a rare fit of nerves.
"Here comes Suzette," he said. "Let her hurry you into bed. I'll go and have my whisky and soda and come back. And, sweetheart—"
"Yes," I answered, still clinging to him.
"Don't have these nervous fears," he begged. "Remember you aren't alone any longer. You have a husband—pretty hefty fellow, too, notwithstanding his years. Nothing in the world could happen to you."
I let him go reluctantly. As soon as I was in bed I lay listening eagerly for his returning footsteps. All the dreams and ambitions of my younger days had been for the pagan things of life. Now that I had attained these I knew that there was only one thing that counted—one thing, to lose which would be worse than death.
For the first time since my marriage to Nigel I woke on the following morning with a heavy heart. Even the sound of his firm footsteps and cheerful whistling in the next room failed to console me. I lay quite still, back in the nightmare of my fears. The entrance of Suzette with my tea-tray, the sound of her pleasant voice and brisk movements, the filling of my bath, her suggestions as to my attire, all seemed to belong to another world. It was one of my worst half hours. I was full of fear and self-pity, fallen from the pinnacles of happiness to the depths of despair.
The effort had to be made, however, so I forced a smile in answer to my husband's affectionate enquiries and endeavored to show some interest in Suzette's suggestions as to my toilette. We breakfasted, as we nearly always did when we were alone, in a little sitting-room opening out of my bedroom. Nigel, who, considering his temperament, was full of tact, made no remark about my appearance, but I saw him glance at me once or twice anxiously.
"Busy day?" he asked.
I glanced at my engagement book, which Suzette always produced with my letters.
"Some people lunching," I reminded him, "the Rendrews and Morleys, Nina Salmon and Raymond, a picture show in the afternoon, nothing for dinner, but the Goston House reception afterwards. You're in the lunch, you know, Nigel."
"Rather!" he assented. "As a matter of fact, I'm not going out till the afternoon. I'm afraid I shan't be able to manage the reception, though. They're expecting a few words from me in the House tonight."
"Receptions aren't much fun, anyhow," I observed. "There won't be any dancing, I'm afraid, and Lady Goston's idea of music is generally a couple of ballads and a harp solo. I shall stay a quarter of an hour and come and look down at you."
"You'll make me horribly nervous," he declared.
"I shall do nothing of the sort, and you know it," I replied. "You haven't a nerve in your body."
He picked up his letters presently and came over and kissed me.
"I must get to work," he announced. "Got to root out some statistics for tonight. Nothing I can do for you?"
"Don't you do everything in the world?" I asked, holding him to me for a moment with a little burst of passion.
"And don't you give me everything in the world worth having, little wife?" he answered, kissing me almost fiercely.
Then I was left alone, with my pile of letters—mostly invitations—and my thoughts.
At twelve o'clock Norah made an entirely unexpected appearance. Directly she entered the room I knew that she had come up from Middletown by the morning train, and that she had heard. I waited in agony until the door was closed.
"Has he been to Middletown?" I asked, breathlessly. "Has he seen anyone who could tell him?"
Norah saw how it was with me, and her tone was almost cheerful.
"I only saw it in the paper," she said. "And Phillipa dear—it's a terrible business, and something will have to be done; but remember this, there wasn't a soul in Middletown except for two or three terrible friends of his, who knew anything about you two—and, of those, one has gone abroad and the other two have disappeared. You know, we haven't half a dozen friends of our own left in Middletown, and they, none of them, have the faintest idea about you and Robert Sherriff. So you see, you're not in any danger for the moment. There's time to think. Thank heaven he never called you Phillipa—always that silly 'Babs.'"
"Why?" I asked.
She showed me an advertisement in the personal column of The Times, which she was carrying:
I AM AT THE MILAN HOTEL,
WAITING FOR YOU.
I HAVE KEPT MY WORD.
I threw the paper on to the ground.
"I had rather have been told that he was dead and that I had killed him," I said. "What shall we do, Norah?"
"You want my advice?" she asked.
"Of course I do."
"Go to your husband. Let us both go and tell him everything."
"I would sooner die," I declared.
"Women have had worse things to confess and been forgiven," she persisted gently.
I shook my head.
"The time for the truth has gone by. I took my risk and I lost. I think Nigel would have forgiven me then."
"Then there is only one other course," Norah continued. "I will go and see Robert Sherriff. I will tell him that you are happily married to someone else, and appeal to his generosity."
"You won't tell him to whom, Norah," I begged.
"Of course not," she replied. "If he's obstinate, he'll have to find that out. I'm afraid it won't be difficult, Phillipa, with all his money."
"There's one thing all his money will never buy," I declared fiercely, "and that is a single word or thought of kindness from me. Let him know that, Norah. I'd atone in any possible manner, do penance until it half killed me—but for him, nothing."
"You will be alone this afternoon?" Norah asked.
"From three o'clock," I told her.
"I will come back as soon as I can," she promised.
Our luncheon party was in its way an interesting one, and I did my best to keep up my reputation as a hostess. Raymond arrived a little late, and I fancied—although of course it could be nothing but fancy—that he looked at me curiously. It was not long before he started the subject of Robert Sherriff.
"It really beats all the romances I ever heard of," he began. "The man seems to have been nothing but an adventurer all his life, and in one single day he was transformed into a millionaire. Yet he hasn't a friend in the world. He picks up companions in the bar, takes them upstairs, quarrels with them, and turns them out. People there are getting afraid of him now. Last night I saw him tip the waiter who brought him a bottle of brandy ten pounds. You know that he came from your part of the world. Lady Chesterleys?" he added, looking across at me.
"You told me so last night," I reminded him. "On the other hand," I added lightly, "from your description he seems scarcely the sort of man a respectably brought up doctor's daughter would have been likely to come across."
"I suppose not," he acquiesced. "I'm quite expecting that there will be a blockade of the whole floor today by all the 'Babses' in London. He advertised for one 'Babs' in the agony column of The Times this morning. By the bye, Lady Chesterleys," he went on a little abruptly, "wasn't that your sister I saw crossing the Square."
"Very likely," I assented. "She's in town for a day."
Nigel looked up, interested at once.
"I hope she's staying here," he remarked.
"I'm not sure whether she has to go back tonight," I replied. "She's on her way to a hospital somewhere. I only saw her for a moment or two."
"I have a great admiration for your sister," Nigel continued kindly, "I should be very hurt if she stayed anywhere else in London but here."
"I'll tell her so," I promised, smiling at him. "She's coming back again this afternoon, anyhow."
Raymond was very silent for the rest of the meal. I glanced at him once or twice, and I hated him. I could see him turning it all over in his mind, and wondering whether there might not be some connection between these things—my sudden indisposition last night directly after he had mentioned Robert Sherriff's name—the fact that he came from Middletown—Norah's unexpected arrival from there. In the drawing-room, when coffee was being served, he came and sat by my side.
"Lady Chesterleys," he said, "you may not believe it, but I wish to be your friend."
"You are very kind, Raymond," I answered. "I prefer friends to enemies at any time."
"They are safer," he remarked thoughtfully. "If you should ever have need of me, you know where I am to be found. I am very discreet, and very devoted."
I laughed carelessly.
"This is very mysterious," I said.
"I have known mysteries crop up in the most unexpected places," he rejoined.
I had got rid of everyone half an hour before Norah reappeared. Directly I saw her face I knew that she had no good news.
"It is Robert Sherriff right enough," she announced. "I have seen him."
"Tell me everything," I begged.
"The trouble of it is that there is so little to tell," she admitted. "The only thing which he would discuss fully was his money. He showed me papers and letters and telegrams. I fancy that the reports are all true and that he is really fabulously rich."
"What does that matter?" I exclaimed impatiently. "What about the rest?"
"He would answer me nothing," Norah said. "He would reply to no questions. He listened to all that I had to say and made no comment. He says nothing but one thing. 'Babs must come to see me. I will talk with her.'"
"Did he seem as though he were going to be reasonable?" I asked.
Norah took my hand.
"Frankly, dear, I don't know," she acknowledged. "I must warn you of one thing, however. His infatuation for you seems just as great as ever. He has whole rows of jewel cases he showed me—'all for Babs.'"
"Did you explain to him that those things meant nothing to me now? I have them, but I have something far more wonderful. Didn't you tell him this. Norah—that I loved Nigel?"
"I told him," she assured me.
"What did he say?"
"Nothing! He just remained quite stolid. All that I could get out of him was 'I must see Babs.'"
"What am I to do?" I asked helplessly.
"I am afraid," she confessed, "that you must see him. I am quite sure that nothing can be done without."
"Supposing I don't go?"
"Then he is going to employ detectives to find you," Norah replied. "I am afraid, dear, if he really sets about it seriously, it wouldn't be very difficult."
"When does he want me to go?" I asked.
"He said that he should wait in every evening from eight o'clock until midnight. If you have not come in a week, then he will set out to find you."
"I must get it over," I decided. "I will go tonight."
IN one respect fate was kind to me that evening. Just as I was descending to dinner a servant brought me a square envelope marked "immediate." Inside were a few printed lines explaining that, owing to a slight fire at Goston House that morning, the Countess of Goston's reception would be held at the Milan Hotel. I showed the card to Nigel as I took my place at the dinner table.
"You're sure you feel up to going?" he asked anxiously.
"Certain," I answered. "I'm rather looking forward to it, in fact."
"Capital! May Goston is an old friend, and I'd like you to show up. You needn't stay more than half an hour or so. Where's Norah?"
"She had to go back. She's coming up on Saturday for the weekend."
"That's good," Nigel declared. "We don't see enough of your sister, Phillipa. She ought to make us a long visit. By the by, Raymond rang me to know if he could look after you tonight. He knew I had to go down to the House. I told him I was sure you'd be delighted."
My heart sank. Here was another unforeseen difficulty to deal with.
"Is he calling for me?" I asked.
"At half-past nine," Nigel answered. "He seemed to think you might get a dance or two if you went early."
I made no remark and a few minutes later Fraser, Nigel's own servant, brought in his coat and hat.
"I beg your pardon, Sir Nigel," he announced, "but they have rung up from the House to say you are wanted immediately. The car is at the door now."
Nigel glanced at the clock and made a wry face, finished his wine hurriedly, and rose at once to his feet.
"Don't overtire yourself, Phillipa," he begged. "If you get home first I shall come in and wish you good-night."
I held out my arms to him, and for a moment he was surprised at the fervor of my embrace. He responded to it warmly, however, and afterwards raised my fingers to his lips.
"Somehow or other I feel that it is going to be a terrible time before I shall see you again," I confided.
"It won't be," he assured me. "I shall come home from the House like a schoolboy as soon as I've said my piece. There's not likely to be a division tonight."
He bustled off. With the closing of the front door it seemed to me that a chapter of my life was finished. Who could tell what might not happen before we met again. I sat for a moment or two in my place, then I went into my sitting-room and waited for coffee. It had scarcely been served when there was another knock at the door. To my surprise, Howard Boynton, whom I had not seen all day, presented himself.
"You have a moment to spare, Lady Chesterleys?" he asked.
"Of course," I answered. "Come in and sit down. Let me ring for some more coffee."
He shook his head.
"Thank you," he said, "I have not dined yet. I have been down to Richmond to see some one for Sir Nigel."
"You know that Sir Nigel has gone down to the House?" I remarked.
"Yes, I know," he answered quietly. "He does not require me there till later on. As a matter of fact, I only called in here because I thought that I would like to have a word with you."
"Do sit down, please," I begged. "You make me quite nervous, standing up there."
He acquiesced, seating himself on a very hard and uncomfortable chair, his hands clasped around the knee of his injured leg.
"Lady Chesterleys," he said, "I have come to repeat some advice I once gave you."
"Some advice?" I echoed.
"You may remember a conversation we had about the time of your marriage to Sir Nigel. I spoke to you then of his passionate love of truth, his rigid insistence upon it in all the ordinary affairs of life. You hinted at some little trouble in the background of your days, and I begged you, however important or unimportant it might be, to tell Sir Nigel everything."
"Yes," I acknowledged, "I remember."
"And you refused."
He moved his position a little uneasily. He had taken off his glasses and was looking directly at me. To my surprise there was a gleam of something almost like kindliness in his expression.
"I will admit, Lady Chesterleys," he went on, "that I have been very prejudiced against you. I admit that when you first came here as mistress of the house I regarded you in no friendly fashion. I have not altogether changed my attitude, but in common justice I am bound to admit one thing: you have made Sir Nigel very happy."
"I have given him every scrap of love my body or soul could hold," I murmured.
"I am inclined to believe that," he acknowledged, "and because I believe it I have come to repeat my offer of friendship. I have come to urge you again to share your secret, whatever it may be, with Sir Nigel."
I looked at him with a dim sense of apprehension.
"Why do you come just now, Mr Boynton?" I asked.
"Because," he answered, not unkindly, "I am a great believer in the simple issues of life. I believe in cause and effect. Last night in the drawing-room you almost fainted. You had the appearance of one who is confronted with some terrible nightmare. Today in your eyes there is something of the look dumb creatures have when they expect to be hurt. Therefore, Lady Chesterleys, it has occurred to me that some shadow of that tragedy or disaster of which you once spoke is hovering over you."
I gazed intently into the fire. It would be easier to tell him the truth than to tell Sir Nigel, and yet, even if I did, how could he help me? I knew enough of Robert Sherriff's obstinacy to be very sure that he would treat with no ambassadors. If he had made up his mind to deal with me alone I should have to go to him.
"You are mistaken, Mr. Boynton," I assured him calmly. "I have been a little troubled about a different matter altogether."
"You yourself," he said, in a still graver tone, "point now to that other foreboding which I must confess has troubled me. I do not know whether you are aware of it, Lady Chesterleys, but you should be. It has been hinted—I regret to say by Mr. Raymond Freyne himself—that your acquaintance with him did not begin in the office of Messrs. Marlow and Sons; that he was, in fact, a much older friend than Sir Nigel has any idea of."
"What is the significance of this?" I demanded.
Mr. Boynton looked at me steadfastly. It seemed to me that much of the kindliness had gone from his face.
"You may think I am a spy," he continued. "I prefer to call myself a close observer. Sir Nigel's peace and happiness are the most important things to me in life. There is little, therefore, that goes on in this house of which I do not take note. I do not approve of Raymond Freyne. I do not approve of his persistent attentions to you."
"Neither do I," I answered. "You are not going to suggest that I have encouraged them?"
"I trust not," he replied gloomily. "At the same time, no one is so clever in the world as the woman who wishes to conceal a love affair. That young man pursues you with an insistence which, under the circumstances, is little, less than disgraceful. He must, before now, have given you cause for plain speaking—yet he is still there."
"Would you have me complain to Sir Nigel?" I asked. "You know as well as I do that it would be a great trouble to him if I were to do so."
Mr. Boynton was silent for a moment. Then he looked up at me.
"Lady Chesterleys," he said, "it would be a greater trouble still to Sir Nigel if he knew that, whilst he was absent, Raymond Freyne was seen to enter this house with his keys after midnight, and to leave it in the small hours of the morning."
FOR some moments I felt utterly incapable of speech, Then I found myself beginning to laugh—not very naturally, perhaps, but still to laugh. Even if it was to be looked upon in the light of an accusation, my conscience with regard to Raymond Freyne was so perfectly clear that I scarcely even felt indignation.
"Really," I remarked, "I feel as though the days of the inquisition were back again. Are you ready to pass on to the next charge, Mr. Boynton? Perhaps you think that I'm secretly poisoning Sir Nigel or something of the sort."
"Lady Chesterleys, I beg that you will not adopt that tone," he said. "Let me assure you of this; there is no need, at present at any rate, for you to regard me as an enemy."
"Very well then," I rejoined. "It is my turn to ask you a question. Do you believe there is anything of the nature you suggest between that young man, my husband's nephew, and myself?"
"I am glad that you have asked me that question," he confessed. "I am glad to be able to answer it. I do not believe that at present there is anything beyond some slight indiscretion between you and Raymond Freyne."
"Do you believe that I was aware of his secret visit here on the night you speak of?"
"You have shown no surprise at hearing of it," he reminded me. "I will accept your word in the matter."
I was silent for a moment.
"I was aware of it," I admitted. "I saw him enter from the top of the banisters on my way to my room. I went straight there and locked myself in. My answer to all that you have said concerning Raymond Freyne is simply this: the young man pursues me with attentions which are wholly and absolutely undesired. The only reason I do not appeal to Sir Nigel is because I know it would make him very unhappy. That is the entire and simple truth. If you can help me in any way to bring Raymond Freyne to a realisation of the position, I should consider it a friendly act."
"I might be able to do that," he conceded. "I do not think that I should be exceeding my duty as Sir Nigel's secretary and devoted friend if I were to take this matter up with Raymond Freyne. But, Lady Chesterleys, you do not give me your whole confidence. You leave always behind in my mind a shadow of mistrust. You see I have come to you this evening and I have made a frank confession. I like you better than when you first came here. I am beginning to believe in the truth of your affection for Sir Nigel. I am beginning to see that it is in your power to make him happy. For God's sake don't spoil everything! Take the word of one who knows him as I do. Whatever there may be to tell, tell the truth."
A servant knocked at the door.
"Mr Freyne has called for your ladyship," he announced.
Mr. Boynton's face darkened. The old sneer was back for a moment upon his lips.
"Show Mr Freyne into the drawing-room," I directed.
I waited until the door was closed. Then I turned almost appealingly to my companion.
"I saw the change in your face," I complained. "But think how unfair you are. That young man knew that I was going to Lady Goston's this evening. He rang up Sir Nigel whilst I was out and asked if he might take me. Sir Nigel, of course, said 'yes.' I had no idea that he was going to ring up. I would much rather have gone alone."
"What you say may be true," he acknowledged. "On the other hand it may be only partly true."
I rose to my feet.
"I am afraid," I said, "if that is your altitude, that the friendship you offer is only a poor thing."
He, too, rose.
"Lady Chesterleys," he declared, "the day that you offer me or Sir Nigel your entire confidence, that day will seal the friendship between you and me. Until then I give you full warning—what you will not tell me I shall seek in my own way to discover."
I rang the bell.
"You can show Mr. Raymond Freyne in here and tell him that I am ready," I said to the servant who answered it. "Tell Suzette to bring my cloak and fan... By-the-bye, I never asked you, Mr. Boynton," I added, "would you care for some dinner here? Sir Nigel mentioned that you would be late. You've been down to Richmond for him, haven't you?"
"Thank you very much," he replied, "I shall dine at my club or a restaurant on my way to Westminster, Sir Nigel may want me."
He passed Raymond Freyne on his way out, the two men exchanging a familiar although slight salutation. Raymond looked after him with a little grimace.
"Poor old Howard seems to be getting gloomier every day," he remarked. "I hope you don't take him too seriously."
"He is very devoted to Sir Nigel," I replied. "One feels inclined to forgive him almost anything for that."
There was a brief silence. He was watching me as I stood touching my hair lightly in front of the mirror.
"You don't like to be told such things, by me at any rate," he observed a little bitterly, "but I must tell you that you're looking wonderful tonight."
"How fortunate for you, since you are to be my escort," I rejoined.
He looked at me with a light in his eyes which I hated. Just then Suzette returned with my cloak and fan and we moved off to the car. Raymond took his place by my side in silence. He remained silent for the first part of the drive.
"Did you mind my ringing up Sir Nigel and asking if I might take you this evening?" he enquired at last.
"I thought, considering all things, that it was rather uncalled for," I told him.
"You would rather have gone alone."
"On the whole, yes."
He was silent again for a few minutes, and when I glanced towards him I was amazed to see signs of unmistakable agitation in his face. I was convinced then of what I had suspected for a long time—that in his way he was in earnest about me. During the last few occasions upon which we had met he had talked less and paid me fewer compliments. He was plainly ill at ease now; longing to take the opportunity of our isolation to pursue his usual methods, yet terrified of offending me. I took advantage of his condition to ask him a question which otherwise I should scarcely have dared to frame.
"How is your new friend—the oil millionaire?"
"Sherriff? Oh, he's all right," was the careless reply. "He drinks too much; that's all that's the matter with him."
"Are you going to see him this evening?" I enquired.
Raymond shook his head.
"He sports his oak every night from eight to twelve—women, I suppose. I'd just as soon not run across any of them. I don't think his taste in the species would be wonderful."
I laughed a little hysterically. Raymond looked at me in surprise.
"Don't take too much notice of me this evening," I begged, "I think I'm in a queer mood. I was even wondering just now whether you, if the occasion came, would be capable of a real act of generosity—a really chivalrous action."
He leaned a little closer towards me. He was unused to self- restraint, and his effort at it almost distorted his features.
"For the one person," he declared. "I should be capable of doing anything in the world—for the one price."
"For the one price!" I repeated scornfully. "Real generosity doesn't set a price upon its favors."
"When one loves," he muttered, "when one is in torment, one has no conscience."
We were in the courtyard of the Milan Hotel now and I was safe from anything unpleasant. I laughed almost naturally.
"You can set your mind at ease," I assured him. "I have no favors to ask you or to grant. Tell the chauffeur to wait, will you? I might leave at any time tonight. I feel capricious."
"If caprice means change, for heaven's sake indulge in it," he pleaded passionately. "I've had nothing but unkindness from you up to now. Couldn't you change, just for a night—an hour?"
"Never," I answered, with all the distaste I really felt ringing in my tone.
THE reception was held in two very large rooms, usually given over to such functions, and was very much more crowded than I had expected. Lady Goston who had been one of my earliest sponsors in society was very charming to me.
"My dear," she declared, in reply to some expression of sympathy on my part with regard to the fire, "it's a mercy we weren't burnt to the ground. An electric wire did something it ought not to have done—I never understand those things, fused, I think— and in a few minutes the morning-room and a part of the hall were all ablaze. You see we had central heating put in a few years ago and all the wood-work about the place is far too dry."
"You were fortunate to be able to get these rooms at a moment's notice," I observed.
"I suppose I was," she admitted, "but you've no idea what a business it's been transferring everything. Then Mademoiselle Heime absolutely declined to sing here, and I don't know that I blame her. Everyone said that it was impossible. We're relying chiefly on dancing. I do hope you'll amuse yourself, dear. I see you've brought that good-looking nephew of Nigel's with you. Rather a mauvais sujet, I'm afraid, but Marjorie says that he dances divinely. No chance of seeing Nigel tonight, I suppose?"
"I'm afraid not," I regretted. "He went off to the House directly after dinner."
Her eyes were already wandering away towards some newcomers.
"If only there were a few more like Nigel!" she sighed. "I can't think what's come to our politicians, nowadays. Women, too, in the House! My dear, I don't approve of it. I'm old-fashioned, I suppose, but I don't."
I passed on and found myself among a little crowd of people, most of whom I knew slightly. I talked to a good many old and new friends, and each time when I disentangled myself from them I found Raymond waiting like a shadow at my elbow.
"I positively insist upon your going and speaking to some of these other people, Raymond," I told him at last. "I permitted you to escort me here, but I will not have you at my heels the whole of the evening."
"I am waiting to dance with you," he protested. "They have your favourite band, and the floor is not in the least overcrowded."
"I should like to know how you know anything about it?" I asked.
"I slipped away for a moment whilst you were talking to Lady Goston," he replied. "It really is quite decent there, and the music is wonderful."
I suffered myself to be persuaded. It was better, at any rate, to dance with him than to have him by my side, assuming that irritating air of proprietorship and scowling at everyone to whom I spoke. Afterwards I let him bring me some wine and sandwiches from the buffet and we sat and watched the dancing. Certainly Raymond had not exaggerated. The floor was good and not overcrowded, and the music wonderful. Yet I danced, as I talked, like one in a dream. The whole night seemed to me fantastic and unreal. Before me always loomed the same thing. If I had let my mind dwell upon it, I think that I should have gone mad.
"Why need we bother about anyone else now?" Raymond pleaded. "You've spoken to no end of people—done your duty thoroughly, I should say. Let's dance again, or if you're tired we might find a corner out in the lounge and talk."
"We will do nothing of the sort," I replied. "There are heaps of girls here whom you must know who want to dance, and I don't agree with you in the least that I've done my duty by just speaking to those few people. One ought to wander round and make oneself agreeable."
"Just five minutes longer," he begged, "then I promise to go and dance with Marjorie Goston, or any one else you choose. I'll leave you for a whole half-an-hour."
"I really can't see what good the five minutes is to you," I rejoined a little ungraciously. "I'm not in the least in the humour for conversation."
"I've reached that state of imbecility," he confided, dropping his voice a little, "when just to sit near you, to feel that we are together, is the greatest happiness I can have."
I scarcely heard what he said. A sudden inspiration had come to me.
"By-the-bye," I asked him, "isn't this the place where you live?"
"Yes," he answered eagerly, "I'm on the fourth floor in the court."
"Near your new friend, the oil king?"
"Very nearly opposite," he admitted. "As a matter of fact, my rooms are just above where we're sitting now. I just turn to the right at the top of the lounge, go through the small smoking room, take the lift, get out at the fourth floor, and number eighty-nine, my little suite is just opposite. Sherriff, the oil fellow, has number ninety, and practically all the rooms on the other side."
"Very interesting," I murmured, rapidly, committing what he had said to memory.
"It would take me," he went on deliberately, with a tremor in his voice which I did not at that moment understand, "less than two minutes to get there from here, Phillipa!".
"Come up with me now and see my sitting-room—just for five minutes. We needn't stay longer. No one would have the slightest idea where we had gone. Don't you remember how nearly you came and had coffee with me there the first time we ever dined together?"
"I remember nothing or the sort," I replied, "because I never had any idea of accepting your invitation. As to going there now—I can't imagine what you mean by suggesting such a thing. You must think that I'm out of my mind."
"You've driven me out of mine," he muttered. "Come for a few minutes, Phillipa. You know you're tired and it would be perfectly restful there. The back way up is always deserted and we shouldn't, meet a soul. I promise I'd—I'd behave."
At any other time I suppose I should have left him there, or should have said things which would have brought about the crisis which was always hovering round. Just then, however, I was not in the least myself. I felt and behaved like a puppet. I was angry, but it seemed as though it was some other person's anger I was feeling.
"Raymond," I told him, "I think that you are the densest person I ever knew—either that, or you're intolerably conceited."
"You know quite well what's the matter with me," he declared despairingly.
I waved his words on one side.
"Listen to me, please," I went on, "unless you wish me to send you away for always. Marjorie is exactly opposite us, talking to Lady Dunkirk and her aunt. You are to go across at once and ask her to dance. If she refuses, ask her to introduce you to someone else. You're not to return to me for at least half an hour. If I have not left, you will find me upstairs."
He rose to his feet with a gesture of submission. Although I hated him, I think that, if I had been in a normal state of mind, I should have been a little sorry for him, too.
"Very well," he agreed, in a resigned tone, "although I warn you that if I find you have left when the half-hour is up, I shall follow you to Berkeley Square. Can't I take you somewhere, to somebody, first?"
"No," I insisted. "I shall remain here until I see that you are doing your duty. Then I know precisely what I wish to do."
He left me without further protest. I watched him accost Marjorie Goston, and, after a brief conversation, commence to dance with her. Then I rose to my feet, and, stopping now and then to speak to an acquaintance and then to speak to acquaintances, made my way to the reception room, in which Lady Goston was still receiving her guests.
"You're not leaving yet, my dear Phillipa?" she remonstrated. "They're just going to open the supper-room, and I'm expecting a whole crowd of people, whom you know, presently. Goston will take you in himself if you will wait five minutes."
I made some excuse and escaped from the lounge. I hurried, following Raymond's directions, through the smoke-room to the back lift. There was no servant in attendance, rather to my relief, and I ran lightly up the stairs, passing no one on the way. On the fourth floor I paused. The corridor, which was softly and luxuriously lit, was empty. I stole slowly along it. Number eighty-nine was the first door on my right. A little further along on the left I came to number ninety. Once more I looked up and down. There was not a soul in sight. I pressed the bell. Then I noticed that the door was ajar. I pushed it open and found myself in a small hall. As I did so the door of the inner room opened. A familiar figure stood there, looking out, framed in the lights from the apartment behind. I recognised him with a sinking heart. His face was a little puffier; his eyes had little sacks underneath. He still seemed to stand for all the things I detested—for coarseness, untidiness, and weak brutality. He peered out at me, and the note of almost venomous triumph in his tone terrified me.
"It's Babs! My God!"
I recovered my breath during the next few seconds, and became myself again—unexpectedly cool, miserably calm. I looked behind to see that the outer door was closed. Then I stepped past Robert into a large and gorgeously furnished sitting-room.
"Shut the door and come in," I directed.
He obeyed me, and, returning, stood a few yards away, gazing at me in rapt fashion. He was in evening dress, with a white waistcoat and white tie, but his coat was crumpled as though he had been lying down in it, and his shirt was creased. He was fatter than before; his eyes, at close quarters, seemed unduly protuberant, and there were heavy lines underneath them. He seemed, too, very badly out of condition. He was breathing heavily as he looked at me. On a sideboard were ranged a large number of bottles, soda-water syphons and glasses. The air, though the room was a large one, seemed heavy with cigar smoke, and the unpleasant odour of strong drinks.
"Babs," he muttered, "you've come, then!"
"I have come," I said, "because you insisted. Norah has told you all about it?"
"Yes, Norah has told me," he admitted.
There was a brief but significant pause. I asked him the question which had crept into my mind so many times.
"What happened to you that night?"
"The night when you tried to kill me?"
"Yes," I answered, "if I'd had a better weapon I should have done it."
He looked at me for a moment in horror. Then he went to the sideboard and poured himself out a drink.
"My God, you're hard, Babs!" he groaned.
"I want to know what became of you," I reminded him.
"I felt ill," he said, "and I drove off to a hospital. I had haemorrhage that night, and I was in bed more or less for a month. When I recovered I'd learnt one lesson, at any rate. Bluffing was no use with you, you'd never look at me as a poor man. I went back to the States. I still had my options, and I kept them. I found odd jobs of work in New York, and somehow or other made money enough to go West again. Out there I went over the land once more. They'd found oil now not too far away, and I could have sold my options at a fair price. I wouldn't do it. The men who'd granted them came round. They wanted to buy them back. I pretended that I wanted twelve hours to consider the matter. I skipped it back to New York that night. I shouldn't have been alive if I hadn't. I was pretty nearly starving. I didn't want a partner, or I could have had dozens. I wanted everything for myself—for you."
"At last they couldn't keep the news secret any longer. There was oil on my land. I went to a bank. They lent me the money to purchase. After that—well, we were at work in a month. The stuff came rushing out of the earth. Babs, you can't realise it! I sold five million dollars' worth of shares. I've got that in Treasury bonds at the Bank of England. What I left is bringing in a thousand a day and more."
He paused for breath. His eyes were fixed upon me. He looked like an ugly, terrified child, appealing for a kindly word.
"I am glad that you have been fortunate, Robert," I said, "even though your fortune came too late for me to share it with you."
He leaned against the table.
"What do you mean?" he muttered. "You're my wife."
I shook my head.
"Indeed I am not," I denied. "Those few lines at the Registry Office count for nothing. I am not your wife, and I never have been. I took a risk about your turning up, it is true. I married another man, and I am very happy."
He moistened his lips with his tongue, and moved a little nearer to me. I did not flinch. I was not conscious of feeling the slightest fear.
"I suppose I shall have to forgive you for that," he said thickly. "You might have waited, though. I hoped—God, how I hoped!—that I should find you as I left you, struggling on a bit, glad to find all the things you wanted tumbling into your lap. Look here, I've got something to show you Babs."
He staggered across to a safe in a corner of the room and came back with an armful of morocco cases. One by one, he opened them and threw their contents on to the table. There were ropes of pearls, a diamond necklace with stones of amazing size, a coronet of emeralds.
"I bought most of this stuff at Tiffany's and Cartier's," he declared. "There's a couple of hundred thousand pounds' worth there. Try some of them on. They're all yours."
"I wouldn't touch them," I replied. "My husband gives me all the jewels I require."
He stared at me, half stupidly, half viciously.
"I'm your husband!" he insisted.
"You are not," I assured him, "and you never will be. I came here to tell you that. I have married a man whom I love and who is able to give me everything I desire in life. You can make trouble if you want to. I hope you won't. Nothing in the world will bring me away from him to you."
"Make trouble? I'll make Hell!" he shouted. "Don't talk to me of other husbands. You're mine, Babs—mine!"
He lumbered over towards me. There was evil in his eyes, but I was not in the least alarmed.
"Robert," I warned him, "if you touch me, I shall kill you. This time I am in earnest, mind. I shall make no mistake about it, either. You should have learnt your lesson by now. No one shall touch me against my will."
He stood only a few feet away breathing heavily. I could see the muscles of his throat rise and expand, the veins at the back of his hand standing out like blue cords. It looked as though in a single moment, I should be in his clasp, at his mercy, swept into Hell; but he dared not touch me.
"Babs," he cried hoarsely, "I don't want to quarrel. I've got right on my side. The law will force you to come to me. I've got what you were willing to sell yourself for less than two years ago, and you're my wife."
"You're too late, Robert," I said. "I belong to another man. I belong to him gladly, I love him. You know how much kindness you have ever had from me. You know I never made any pretence, about the matter. I hate you!"
He went to the sideboard, and to my horror I saw him drink half a tumblerful of raw spirits. Then he sat in an easy-chair between me and the door.
"What's, your husband's name?" he demanded.
"I suppose you will be able to find that out, if you want to," I answered. "I shan't tell you."
"A damned nice home-coming this," he groaned.
"I didn't ask you to come home. I hoped you never would."
He looked at me with drunken ferocity. Suddenly he pointed to the bottles upon the sideboard.
"It is you who've driven me to this," he declared.
I made no reply. Perhaps my expression was sufficient.
"Look here," he promised, "I'll give it all up, if you say the word. Never another drop as long as I live."
"Your habits do not interest me," I assured him. "I have come here because you insisted upon it. You know just what you have to hope for from me. What do you mean to do?"
He leaned a little forward in his chair.
"I'll answer that question," he replied. "I was a pauper and I swore I'd be a millionaire. Well, I am. I wanted you. I swore I'd have you. And I will."
"You made one effort," I reminded him, "with the help of a pack of lies. You didn't succeed, did you? You never will succeed."
He half rose, clumsily but deliberately, to his feet. His eyes were fixed upon me. I had the feeling that grim things were coming, and for a moment my courage wavered. Then he suddenly collapsed and became maudlin. He fell back in the chair and began to cry like a child.
"The jewels, Babs," he sobbed. "They're all yours. I wouldn't give one away. I chose every one myself. Then your room's ready here. I've filled it with presents for you. It's been ready from the moment I arrived. I said I was expecting my wife at any moment. They fill it with flowers every morning. Come and look at it, Babs. It's the sort of room you wanted—that night."
"What I wanted that night has nothing to do with the matter any longer," I said. "You failed me utterly, and I have found happiness my own way. You can wreck it if you will, but you will gain nothing for yourself by doing so."
"You're my wife," he said doggedly. "You've got to come. The law will make you."
"The law will never make me," I scoffed. "You know very little about women, Robert, or you wouldn't talk such nonsense. I came here to ask you to forget all about me and that foolish five minutes in the Registry Office at Middletown. Will you?"
"No," he answered stubbornly.
"Then I am going," I announced. "There's nothing left to stay for."
He stood squarely on his feet. He was a man for a moment.
"There's this to stay for," he declared. "You're my wife. This is your home. I've been waiting for you for a long time. Now you're here you shan't leave it. Do you hear that, Phillipa? You shan't leave it!"
I actually laughed at him. How I found the courage, I don't know, but I laughed. He moved towards me, and there was something menacing about his bulk, his slow, unwieldy movements, the twitch of passion in his features, and the sombre, hungry fire of his eyes.
"This time you haven't a hat pin," he muttered, "and, by God, if you had, it would be all the same!"
"Robert," I begged, "don't make me desperate. If you touch me I'll kill myself or you."
"Get on with the killing, then," he answered fiercely, as he thrust his arm out towards me.
I felt his hot breath upon my cheek, the grip of his fingers upon my shoulder. Then my right hand shot down to the bottom of the little bag I had been clutching—for, after all, I was not unprepared.
"Let me go!" I cried.
"Never!" he replied.
My hand flashed out from the bag. The report of the pistol seemed to me like the roar of a cannon. There was a mist before my eyes—or was it smoke. I saw him go reeling backwards, and I rushed, unhindered, to the door.
Outside, there were no signs of any disturbance—not even a servant in sight. I paused for a moment, looking up and down, then I hurried toward the darker passage which led to the lift. A young man was coming towards me. I stopped short, with a little exclamation. So did he. I was face to face with Raymond!
I was aware of no interregnum of time, of no conscious movement. I simply opened my eyes and found myself lying on a very comfortable sofa in an utterly unfamiliar room with Raymond pouring water over my face.
"Thank God!" he exclaimed. "Feeling better?"
"I'm all right," I answered, trying to sit up. "What happened?"
"I met you in the corridor just now, looking like a ghost," he explained. "It was pretty dark and I suppose seeing me startled you. At any rate you fainted. I had almost to drag you in here."
"Where am I?" I demanded.
"In my rooms. I found you coming away from them. Oh, Phillipa, why didn't you tell me you were coming?"
"Why didn't I tell you?" I repeated vaguely.
I sat up and tried to think. He brought me a little brandy and I drank it slowly. By degrees it all came back to me.
"How long have I been here?" I asked.
"Less than a minute," he assured me. "I had no sooner got you on to the sofa and begun spraying you with cold water than you opened your eyes. You gave me an awful fright, though."
"I have never fainted before in my life," I told him.
"What made you do it?" he asked curiously. "How long had you been up here?"
He sat on the sofa by my side and tried to hold one of my hands, but I drew it firmly away.
"Why do you treat me in this absurd way?" he demanded. "I tried to ask you downstairs to come up and sit with me for a little time. You heard me tell you where my rooms were. You simply looked at me like an icicle. Yet, you come up by yourself and without saying a word to me. Why can't you be reasonable, Phillipa? It would make it so much easier."
"You think that I came up here to your rooms, to see you?"
"I might have been up to see this millionaire from Middletown."
"You might, but you're not quite so mad as that," he declared. "The man's off his head with drink almost every night. Phillipa, be sensible, dear. You're here now, anyhow."
"Yes, I am here," I admitted, "and I want to go."
"You can't yet, you're not well enough," he insisted. "Besides—"
I sat up and sipped a little more of the brandy. Whilst I did so I looked around the room. It was a typical bachelor's apartment and the walls were covered with photographs and sketches. My own picture, cut out from the Tatler and framed, was on the mantelpiece. I cannot imagine why I took the slightest interest in any of these things. I only know that I clung to the present. If I had let my thoughts slip backward only for a moment, I think that I should have shrieked aloud.
"My presiding genius," he remarked, pointing to the picture.
"I suppose," I answered coldly, "directly my photograph appears in a public paper it becomes public property. Otherwise, I should consider it a liberty."
He laughed softly and leaned a little over me.
"I think we might banish that talk of liberties now, don't you?" he suggested.
"Don't, be absurd," I enjoined. "Do you think I came up here to allow you to make love to me?"
"I'm hoping so," he admitted confidently. "It does have that appearance, doesn't it?"
"Not in the least," was my scornful reply. "I won't tell you what I came for, but it had nothing to do with any personal interest in you."
"Don't keep this up any longer, Phillipa, please," he begged. "You are here with me now, where you have been in my dreams so many nights. Be yourself, dear. We're safe. Not a soul knows where we are or could ever know. Tell me that you haven't meant to be so cruel to me."
"Raymond," I said, "you are making a hideous mistake. Leave me alone for a moment—I must think."
"You should have finished with thinking before you came, dear," he whispered, bending still lower over the couch. "You can't imagine that now you're here, I shall let you go."
I rose to my feet.
"You wilfully misunderstand the situation," I declared. "Whatever I came here for—I tell you again, it was not to see you or to be alone with you. My opinion of you is what it has always been. I don't like you, and I don't trust you."
He moved a step nearer to me, and his face for a moment seemed almost satyr-like.
"Then it's a pity you're here alone with me in my rooms at a few minutes after midnight," he pointed out. "No, you needn't look towards the door. I locked it when we came in."
"Then you can unlock it," I directed. "I am quite ready to go."
"But I," he answered, "am not ready to let you go. I begin to think that you need a master, dear. I am tired of humoring you. I'm about to try other tactics."
"Just how are you going to commence?" I asked.
"I'm going to kiss you first of all," he announced.
My quietness deceived him. He stepped towards me and I struck him across the lips. He staggered back and I saw the blood coming from his mouth. He covered it with his handkerchief, cursing.
"You little devil!" he exclaimed. "You shall pay for this in a moment."
"Shall I?" was my almost indifferent retort. "I don't think so."
"I didn't drag you here," he went on. "You came of your own accord. I told you where to come and you came. Now you're here, you're going to stay until I choose to let you go."
I laughed a little wildly.
"There's a certain monotony about this evening," I declared. "Don't be absurd, Raymond. If you want to know the truth, I didn't come to see you at all. I haven't felt well all day or I shouldn't have fainted. Take me back to the reception for a minute or two and then find my car."
"I'm damned if I will!" he answered. "You've kept me mad with longing for the touch of your lips day after day. You've laughed at me. It's my turn now. It isn't worth while calling out," he added, as he moved nearer towards me. "There's only my old friend across the way on this floor, and he's too drunk at this time of night to hear anything. Phillipa!"
He made a quick movement forwards and then, with a sudden exclamation, stiffened. There was a sharp knocking at the door— not a usual summons, but the impatient hammering of someone carrying a stick or umbrella. He looked at me aghast.
"Who the devil can that be?" he exclaimed.
I had no idea of the catastrophe at hand. I was wholly engrossed with the opportunity of making my own escape.
"How should I know who your friends are?" I retorted. "Better open the door and see."
He hesitated for a moment. The summons was repeated even more imperatively. With a little oath he moved across the room.
"Who's there?" he demanded.
The rapping became thunderous. He threw open the outer door. I heard his gasp of astonishment. Then the inner door was opened, and for a moment I thought I should faint again. I began to laugh hysterically. My husband and Howard Boynton had pushed their way past Raymond and were standing upon the threshold.
I suppose I must have been entirely overwrought, or perhaps my indifference arose from the fact that I had never attached any significance in my own mind to the compromising circumstances of my presence in Raymond's rooms. I only know that I began to laugh as I realised Mr. Boynton's horrified expression.
"What on earth is Mr. Boynton looking at me like that for?" I demanded.
It was not only Mr. Boynton. For a single moment I thought that I had never seen Nigel appear so ill. There was a strained look upon his face, and he staggered a little after his first entrance into the room. He recovered himself, however, almost immediately, and came over towards me.
"Found the reception boring, did you, Phillipa?" he remarked. "Raymond, you do yourself pretty well up here. Have you got such a thing as a whisky and soda?"
"A whisky and soda?" Raymond gasped.
"Not an unusual thing to ask for, is it?" Nigel continued. "I'll have brandy if it's more convenient. I see that you've been drinking brandy."
"Lady Chesterleys was faint," Raymond explained. "That is why I brought her in here. I have plenty of whisky and soda. One moment."
He crossed the room towards the sideboard. Mr. Boynton was looking first at him and then at Nigel, as though he could scarcely believe his senses.
"Faint, eh?" Nigel repeated. "Damned nonsense, coming to this show tonight. Standing about and dancing, I suppose, and not even a sandwich to eat. You haven't to go back again, I hope. I can't very well present myself in these clothes.
"No," I said. "I'm not going back again."
"I saw the car outside and told him to be ready," my husband continued. "Very good whisky, Raymond. You youngsters do seem to get hold of the right stuff somehow. What a devil of a row outside!"
"It's the oil-well millionaire," Raymond explained, his voice still sounding cracked and unnatural. "He's always having visitors at all hours of the night."
"Well, we'll get away," Nigel suggested, "before he finds out that Phillipa's an old Middletownian and gathers us in too. Nothing more to wait for, is there Howard?"
"I suppose not, sir," Mr. Boynton admitted in a low tone.
Nigel picked up his hat which he had laid on the table at his entrance.
"Your hair looks as though it needed a little attention, Phillipa," he observed. "Better go into the cloak room when you get down. You needn't bother to see us off, Raymond," he continued. "We can find our way all right. Let me see you some time tomorrow, though. Come along, Phillipa, if you're ready."
We left the room, Mr. Boynton following. There seemed to be an unusual commotion in the corridor, and several of the doors opposite stood open. My knees were shaking again, and I hung on to Nigel's arm convulsively. Down in the hall of the Court I suddenly remembered my cloak. The car was outside waiting, and I turned to Nigel.
"I'll fetch my cloak tomorrow," I faltered.
"Good idea," he assented. "Are you coming with us, Howard?"
"I'll walk, if you don't mind, sir," Mr. Boynton replied.
Nigel handed me in and took the place by my side. We rolled out of the Courtyard. As soon as we were well on our way he turned to me and gripped my wrist fiercely.
"Now tell me what the hell you were doing in Raymond's rooms?"
I COMMENCED my explanation seated side by side with Nigel in the limousine, his fingers still gripping my wrists, his deep-set grey eyes filled with a light which I had never seen there before, seeming to draw from my heart the very last word of truth there was to be spoken. I finished it, curled up on his knee, in the most comfortable easy-chair in my sitting- room, my arms twined around his neck, and sobbing the fever out of my tired body. With every word I realised the insanity of which I had been guilty. Nigel understood everything, sympathised with everything. There was a certain gravity in his face when I had finished, but not a shade of anger.
"Well," he remarked at last, "It doesn't seem to me that I shall be pulling down any thunderbolts after all. It was quite natural that you should faint when you saw Raymond, considering what you had gone through, and it was quite natural, under the circumstances, that he should take you back to his room. I don't see quite what else he could have done. I'm perfectly certain that we can get the marriage with Robert Sherriff annulled, and I shouldn't think that they'd press any charge of bigamy. The only thing I'm a little uneasy about is what happened in Sherriff's room when you left tonight."
"Nothing really happened," I declared. "I just told him I was going out, snatched that little pistol you gave me in Cairo from my bag, and walked towards the door. He tried to stop me, and I pointed it anywhere—at the ceiling I think—and fired. I heard him shout something. He was angry, but he did not attempt to come any nearer. As soon as I reached the door I threw the pistol down and ran out. Then I met Raymond.
"You don't think you hit him by any chance, do you?" Nigel asked.
"I don't think so," I answered. "I didn't aim at him."
Nigel was perfectly wonderful that night. We sat over the fire for an hour or so longer, and every moment my heart seemed to grow lighter. Even when he tried to warn me that a certain amount of trouble might be ahead for us I only laughed.
"If this fellow Sherriff is really vindictive," he pointed out, "there will certainly be a nominal prosecution. I don't see how the Crown can avoid it."
"I don't care if you haven't changed, Nigel," I assured him.
"You may even have to serve a nominal sentence."
I held him a little tighter.
"I'll go to prison for years if you'll care for me just the same when I come out."
"I can't frighten you, then?" he laughed.
"Not unless you tell me that you care for me less," I replied.
He rose to his feet, still holding me in his arms.
"Well, I'm going to carry you up to bed," he announced. "As for loving you—"
He stopped short. It was past three o'clock in the morning, and the house was in silence. Perhaps for that reason there seemed something almost menacing in the shrill ringing of an unexpected bell. He set me down upon the sofa.
"What the devil's that?" he exclaimed.
"The front door bell," I answered. "Perhaps it's Mr. Boynton."
"He has his key," Nigel muttered. "Besides, he wouldn't be coming here tonight. I suppose I'd better answer it."
I suddenly clutched at him.
"Don't leave me, Nigel," I begged. "Don't leave me here, alone."
He laughed reassuringly.
"My dear child," he protested, "it can't be anything. I must go though."
He kissed me once more and hurried out. I heard him open the door and I heard voices. Presently he reappeared, looking rather grave. He was accompanied by two men, strangers to me, plainly dressed, official-looking persons, whose identity I did not for the moment suspect.
"Phillipa," he announced, "these two gentlemen are detectives from Scotland Yard. It seems that something has happened to Mr. Robert Sherriff at the Milan Hotel this evening and they wish to ask you a few questions."
One of the men held out his hand.
"Not exactly that, sir," he interposed, with a certain amount of hesitation. "In fact, I must warn her ladyship against answering any questions unless she feels entirely disposed to do so."
"There isn't any reason why I shouldn't tell you everything that I know," I answered. "What have you come here for, if not to ask me about it."
The man coughed.
"The fact of the matter is, your ladyship," he confided, "that Mr. Sherriff has been shot and is not expected to live. You are the only person known to have visited him this evening. Have you anything to say about it?"
"Once more warning your ladyship that you're not obliged to answer any questions," the other man put in.
"I am ready to tell what I know here or anywhere," I answered. "It is perfectly true that I visited Mr. Sherriff in his rooms this evening."
"On what business?"
My husband stopped me.
"I do not think that it is necessary to go into those matters now," he objected. "My wife is perfectly willing to tell you what happened there. She has just told me."
"If your ladyship will be so kind, then," one of the men assented.
"I went to see Mr. Sherriff this evening to make an appeal to him," I said. "He refused my request, and we had a stormy interview. I took a pistol with me in my bag because I was afraid of him. He was always a coward. When I wished to leave he tried to stop me. I fired the pistol off, intending only to frighten him, and without aiming it at him. Then I made my way out of the room. Directly afterwards I fainted."
Both the man who had been taking down what I said and his companion seemed very grave.
"I shall not pursue these investigations," the senior of the two declared. "The matter is, I fear, too serious. I am very sorry, sir," he added, turning to Nigel, "but it is my duty to arrest her ladyship."
"You have no warrant," my husband protested.
"My discretion is sufficient in a case of this gravity," the inspector replied.
"But you're not proposing to take her to the police station in those clothes, are you?" Nigel remonstrated.
The man hesitated.
"The case is a very serious one indeed, Sir Nigel," he said. "I wish to show you and your wife every consideration, but my duty stands first. The utmost I can do is to telephone for a wardress and, in her presence, her ladyship may change her clothes, and pack a small bag. Except under these restrictions, sir, I must tell you that it is impossible to let the lady out of my sight."
"Is the man's condition really serious?" Nigel asked.
"I regret to say that it is extremely so," was the grave reply.
"Very well, do as you suggest," my husband acquiesced. "The instrument is at your elbow."
We were a curious quartette. The senior of the two detectives at the telephone, the other standing as though on duty within a yard or two of us and watching our every movement; Nigel, distinctly shaken and very anxious to console me; I, who should have been the most deeply concerned person, entirely at my ease and perfectly satisfied with the situation. I held Nigel tightly by the arm, and I mocked at his rather clumsy efforts to make me realise the seriousness of my position.
"You see, Phillipa," he explained, "if you really did shoot him, and if he does die, you will probably have to face a terrible ordeal."
I tightened my clasp upon his arm.
"Nigel dear," I assured him, "the greatest ordeal I could have ever had to face was the agony of not knowing—about you. You care, just the same?"
"There isn't any 'but,'" I interrupted impetuously. "So long as I know that what you have told me is the truth, my heart will keep light if they do all sorts of horrid things to me. As a matter of fact, you know, Nigel, I hadn't the least idea of killing him. I didn't even want to hurt him. I just wanted to get out of that room without being touched. I would rather have killed him—much rather—than have felt one of his kisses upon my lips. So I don't care. You've forgiven me, and that's all that matters."
Presently the wardress arrived, and in her presence I was permitted to change my clothes. Suzette, aroused from her slumbers, terrified and tearful, packed me a small bag of necessaries. About four o'clock we reached Marlborough street police station. I signed a brief copy of the statement I had made, bade good-night to Nigel, which was the hardest part of all, and was conducted to an apartment which was really a cell, but which had been specially prepared for my comfort. Even then I could not feel depressed and had not a moment's uneasiness. Ten minutes after I had undressed, I was fast asleep.
MY awakening on the following morning was, in its way, somewhat of a shock to me. There was no China tea by my bedside, no warm bath perfumed with my favorite salts, no Suzette to hand me my silken dressing-gown and consult with me gravely as to my attire for the day. The arrangements for my comfort and cleanliness, although I believe indulgent, were, to say the least of it, primitive. And I still didn't care. Whatever I might be going to suffer, I had not lost Nigel.
"Does anyone know how Mr. Sherriff is—the man I am supposed to have shot?" I asked the wardress.
"He is still alive," the woman told me. "That is all that can be said."
"Is he likely to live?" I persisted.
"The chances seem to be against him," she answered gravely. "Please do not ask me any more questions."
Soon after I had had my breakfast—a cup of coffee and some bread and butter—I was escorted by two warders into a sort of bare waiting-room. Mr. Pleydell, Nigel's lawyer, was there, and with him Sir James Rathbourne, the famous criminal advocate, whom I had met once or twice at dinner. Mr. Pleydell mumbled a few commonplace remarks. His companion, however, went straight to more vital matters.
"Lady Chesterleys," he said, "I want you to turn your mind back to the last few minutes of your interview with Robert Sherriff, I take it that he tried to prevent your leaving the room."
"He stood in the way—and he threatened me," I confided with a little shiver.
"Where did you point the pistol when you fired?"
"I can't remember," I answered—"anywhere. I simply wanted to frighten him."
"You didn't point it directly at him?"
"I am certain I didn't," I declared.
"Would you think it possible that you could have shot him in the back of the head?"
"I should have thought it quite impossible," I replied.
"To the best of your belief he was unhurt when you left the room?"
"Unhurt, but frightened and half drunk," I replied.
"Outside in the lobby you met Mr. Raymond Freyne, and fainted," he went on. "Mr. Freyne, I understand, took you into his room."
"How long was it before you came to?"
"I have no idea," I told him. "Less than a minute, I believe. I was quite all right when my husband and Mr. Boynton arrived."
The two men whispered together for a moment.
"What will happen to me?" I inquired.
"That is difficult to say at present," Sir James replied gravely. "You will be brought up formally before the magistrates this morning, charged with feloniously wounding with intent to kill. Under the circumstances no evidence other than your statement will be tendered, and a remand will be applied for by the prosecution, and assented to by us. The great point is, of course, whether Robert Sherriff lives or dies. If he dies there will be a Coroner's Inquest which you will attend. If the Coroner's jury find that you fired the shot which caused Sherriff's death, they will probably return a verdict of 'Wilful Murder' against you. You will then be brought up again before the magistrates, where the proceedings will be little more than formal, and tried at the Sessions next month."
"Shall I be allowed to see my husband and have books?" I ventured.
"While you are under remand, the usual privileges will be allowed you," Sir James explained. "As soon as you are committed for trial, a more rigorous discipline will ensue. If, by any chance Robert Sherriff should die, such privileges as you now enjoy will, I fear, be withdrawn."
They asked me a few more questions, none of which seemed to me to be very much to the point.
"When shall I be able to see my husband?" I asked, anxiously.
"He is in the Court now," Sir James told me. "You will be brought up before the magistrates within half an hour. After that, he will probably be allowed to visit you."
I am convinced that, at that moment, they both looked upon me as guilty of a particularly cold-blooded crime. Even Mr. Pleydell seemed frightened to look at me, and Sir James, though perfectly polite, was frigid in the extreme. Presently, I was led back to my quarters. Half an hour later, the wardress and a policeman escorted me up into the Police Court, which, to my surprise, was packed with people. The Magistrate's attitude toward me was kindly, but restrained, and there was a shocked expression in his benevolent face. The whole proceedings, however, did not last more than ten minutes. The two detectives who had visited us in Berkeley square on the night of the murder and arrested me, were examined, and my statement read out. A remand was applied for by an elderly gentleman, who said that he represented the Crown, and agreed to by Sir James. I was conducted back to my cell, and, after a few minutes' delay, was escorted into the sort of waiting-room, and allowed to talk to Nigel.
"You poor darling!" were his first words.
I actually laughed. It was a fact that I was more light- hearted at that moment than I had been at any time since hearing of the news of Robert Sherriff's return to life.
"It's rather terrible, of course," I said, "but I haven't really done anything much, Nigel. If Robert Sherriff had been a different sort of man—less drunken and more determined—I should certainly have killed him deliberately. If I have killed him now it was an accident. I am sorry, but I had to defend myself. I belonged to you."
He smiled at me tenderly.
"You must stick to that all the time, dear," he warned me. "You only meant to frighten him. It is important, because, I am very much afraid, from all I hear, that Robert Sherriff will die."
"Then I shall be tried for murder!" I exclaimed, momentarily awed.
"We can't tell what will happen," he replied. "Boynton is my great mainstay just now. I never looked upon him as particularly a champion of yours, but just now, he seems absolutely sanguine about the whole affair. He's got hold of some idea. I don't know what it is, but he's working at it night and day."
"Have you seen anything of Raymond?" I asked.
Nigel's face was for a moment clouded.
"Raymond's attitude in the matter scarcely commends itself to me," he admitted. "At the same time, one must make allowances, I suppose. He is terribly shaken."
Our time was up, and Nigel was hurried away. Late in afternoon I began to notice a change in my environment. I was moved into a grimmer-looking cell, and a policeman stood all the time outside. Several of the appurtenances of my dressing-case were withdrawn. A gleam of sympathy shone in the wardress's hard face when she answered my question.
"Mr. Robert Sherriff, the gentleman as was shot," she told me, "died an hour ago."
I BELIEVE it to be perfectly true that under certain circumstances a woman can be far more callous than a man. The death of Robert Sherriff left me absolutely unmoved. I felt the difference almost at once, however, in the attitude of the people around me. There was a little awe mingled with the respect which the warders had always shown me; a little more kindliness from the wardress. I was to be removed to Wandsworth prison in a few days, they told me—directly after the coroner's inquest. Everyone, it seemed, took it for granted that the jury would bring in a verdict of "Wilful Murder" against me, and that I should then be tried at the approaching sessions. To my surprise, though, Sir James Rathbourne, who came to see me twice, was far more cheerful now than he had been when the charge was of a slighter nature. He was curiously non-committal, but he begged me to keep up my spirits. Nevertheless, I was not in the least prepared for what happened, at the coroner's inquest.
I don't think I was really depressed when that day came, but I was terribly disappointed at not having been allowed to see either Norah or Nigel. When I was taken into the bald-looking room where the proceedings were held I could scarcely listen at first for looking at them. Norah was terribly distressed, but Nigel had a peculiar expression in his face—an expression of absolute hopefulness. More than once I could see that he was trying to convey something of the same sort to me. Presently I heard my name called, and with a wardress on one side and a policeman on the other, I stepped forward. A lawyer from a seat in front of the coroner's table got up and examined me.
"Your name is Phillipa Chesterleys?" he inquired.
"You knew the deceased?"
"You once went through a form of marriage with him?"
"Yes. I left him on the same day."
"So we understand," he went on. "There was a quarrel about money affairs?"
"He deceived me completely," I explained. "I felt myself justified in leaving him."
"And subsequently you married Sir Nigel Chesterleys?"
I made no answer to this. To the astonishment of every one, however, a woman seated somewhere in the back of the court, accompanied by a man in horn-rimmed spectacles, and of distinctly transatlantic appearance, answered it for me.
"I guess not," she called out.
The Coroner frowned and knocked the table. The man in the horn-rimmed spectacles rose.
"Sir," he said, "my client does not wish to interfere with the business of the court. I am an American lawyer, and I shall ask, on her behalf, to be permitted to make a statement later on."
He sat down, and that was sensation number one. Even my own lawyer, and Nigel looked at the pair in amazement. The prosecuting lawyer continued with me.
"I shall not ask you many question," he said, "because these proceedings will probably be conducted at greater length in another court. How did you learn that Robert Sherriff was alive, and that he had returned to England?"
"Through the newspapers," I replied.
"And you sent your sister to see him?"
"And as a result of your sister's visit you subsequently visited him yourself on the night of his death?"
"You took with you the pistol now lying on the table?"
I glanced at it.
"To protect myself," I replied.
"Against your own husband?"
"I did not consider him as my husband. He was a violent man, and I was determined that he should not touch me."
"Very good. You had an interview with him?"
"What was the nature of that interview?"
"I endeavored to persuade him to leave me in peace."
"And he refused?"
"He wished you to take your place as his wife?"
"In the end he tried to prevent your leaving?"
"And you threatened him with the pistol?"
"He refused, I presume, to let you go, and you shot him?"
"I did not shoot at him," I replied. "I shot anywhere—towards the ceiling, I thought—just to frighten him. He staggered away and I ran out."
"In the corridor you met Mr. Raymond Freyne?"
"Directly you saw him you fainted?"
"The next thing you remember you were in his rooms and he was with you?"
"You know nothing more of the affair?"
The lawyer sat down. Sir James Rathbourne rose.
"You did not take that pistol with you with any idea of killing Robert Sherriff?" he asked.
"Not at all," I replied. "I took it to defend myself and frighten him. I knew that he was a coward."
"You believe that you fired a the ceiling?"
"You were surprised to know that Robert Sherriff had been shot in the back of the head?"
"Very," I answered.
"How many barrels of the pistol were loaded when you put it in your bag?"
"All six," I replied.
"You are confident of this?"
"And you only fired one?"
"I am absolutely sure of that."
"I may have to ask you a further question later on," Sir James said. "At present, please sit down."
The two detectives gave evidence as to my arrest. Afterwards Raymond Freyne was called. There was no reply. A little whispered conversation took place among the lawyers. Presently, to my surprise, Howard Boynton was called, and at once answered to the summons.
"Your name is Howard Boynton?" Sir James asked him.
"You occupy the position of private secretary to Sir Nigel Chesterleys?"
"You were with him at the time of his marriage to Lady Chesterleys?"
"To a certain extent, you disapproved of that marriage?"
"I take it then, that you have not been on particularly friendly terms with Lady Chesterleys?"
Mr. Boynton hesitated.
"I had no definite cause of complaint against her," he said. "I looked upon her as too young for Sir Nigel, and I believed her to be of a frivolous disposition."
"You suspected her of a flirtation with Mr. Raymond Freyne?"
"To some extent, I did."
"Where were you on the night in question?"
"I was down at Richmond on business, during the earlier part of the evening. Later, I went down to the House of Commons to see Sir Nigel. I just missed him, and I then went to the Milan Grill Room to get something to eat."
"Precisely. And whilst on your way to the smoke room afterwards you saw Lady Chesterleys."
"You saw her ascend the staircase which led to the fourth floor of the Court?"
"What did you do then?"
"I telephoned to Sir Nigel, hurried hack and took the lift to the fourth floor."
"What did you see?"
"I was just in time to see Lady Chesterleys enter number 90, the room occupied by the late Mr. Robert Sherriff."
"What did you do then?"
"I waited at the far corner of the corridor until she came out."
"Did you hear any shots?"
"I thought I heard one. I was not sure."
"You are certain that you did not hear two?"
"What did Lady Chesterleys do when she left the room?"
"She walked down the corridor away from me and turned to the left."
"So did not go near Mr. Freyne's room."
"What happened then?"
"Whilst I was hesitating what to do I heard a little moan, and a moment later Mr. Freyne came round the corner practically carrying Lady Chesterleys. She had evidently fainted."
"Mr. Freyne took her into his room and closed the door."
"What happened afterwards?"
"I saw the door of Mr. Sherriff's room open and Mr. Sherriff come out."
There was a little sob from someone at the back of the Court—I fancied that it was Norah—and then a ripple of sensation. Sir James leaned a little forward. He spoke very slowly and very distinctly.
"This was after Lady Chesterleys had left?"
"You saw Mr. Sherriff come out, apparently unhurt?"
"He seemed so."
"What did Mr. Sherriff do then?"
"He knocked at Mr. Freyne's door opposite."
"What happened then?"
"Mr. Freyne opened the door. The two men together crossed into number ninety."
"How long were they there?"
"About five minutes."
"Did you hear anything?"
"I fancied again that I heard a shot."
"What happened at the end of the five minutes."
"Mr. Freyne came out alone. He looked up and down the corridor for a minute and then hurried into his own apartment."
"What did you do then?"
"I went downstairs to meet Sir Nigel. Afterwards I took him up to Mr. Freyne's room."
"There is one question, Mr. Boynton. I shall ask you later," Sir James concluded. "For the present please sit down."
Sir James made a sign to someone in the back of the court. A detective presently appeared carrying two trays, the smaller of which he placed on the table. Both were piled with jewellery. Over the smaller one a cloth was placed.
"I wish to recall Lady Chesterleys for a minute," Sir James said.
I stepped forward. Sir James pointed to the jewellery.
"During your visit to the deceased did he show you some jewellery?"
"He did," I answered.
"Is this some of it?"
"Do you happen to remember any article of jewellery which he showed you which is not here?"
I considered for a moment.
"Yes," I replied, "there was an emerald tiara, shaped like a Russian head-dress, and a wonderful rope of pearls."
Sir James swept the covering off the smaller tray.
"Are these they?" he asked.
"Yes," I answered.
He waved me away.
"Detective John Marlowe," he called.
The detective took my place.
"You recognise this jewellery?"
"Where have you seen it before?"
"The jewellery on the larger tray in number ninety, sir, the room occupied by the deceased."
"And the emerald tiara and pearl necklace?"
"I found those, sir, concealed under a loose board, in the sitting-room of number eighty-nine."
"The room occupied by Mr. Raymond Freyne?"
"You have examined room number ninety closely, I believe, during the last few days?"
"Did you see any signs of a hole caused by a bullet?"
"There was a bullet in the ceiling, sir, which had gone halfway through."
Sir James turned to the coroner.
"There is further evidence which I could bring before you, sir," he said, "but I am here to defend Lady Chesterleys, and not to arrogate in any way the privileges of my friend whose function it is to prosecute. I will simply venture to remind you, sir, that a bullet was removed from the skull of the deceased on the night of his admission to hospital, and that two chambers of the revolver lying on the table before you have been fired—not one."
For the next few minutes the whole thing became for me merely a mumble of words. The coroner addressed half a dozen sentences or so to the jury, and I was dimly conscious of hearing their verdict of wilful murder against Raymond Freyne. After that there was a little confusion. Sir Nigel pushed his way to my side. The warders withdrew at once.
"They haven't any power to release you here," he told me, his dear eyes shining into mine. "We'll have to go back to Marlborough Street."
I grasped his hand.
"I'm so sorry about Raymond," I faltered.
The strained look had all gone from his face. He smiled wonderfully.
"It's a damned selfish world, dear," he declared. "I'm so glad about you that I can't think of anything else."
They were all crowding around me, when suddenly the American from the back of the Court succeeded in making himself heard.
"Sir," he began—
"This is a Coroner's Court and the enquiry is over," the Coroner reminded him.
"I must be allowed to speak, sir, then, on behalf of my client for the benefit of the Press," the man insisted. "The first witness here, Lady Chesterleys, announced that she had gone through the ceremony of marriage with the deceased, Robert Sherriff, within the last few years. I take this opportunity, on behalf of my client, the lady by my side, to announce that that certificate of marriage is not worth the paper it is written on. The deceased was married to my client at Springfield, Massachusetts, twelve years ago last July. We have the certificate and necessary witnesses with us, and I have entered an injunction in the Courts this morning restraining anyone from interfering with the property of the deceased."
I think at that moment that I should have fainted but for Nigel. He suddenly burst out laughing.
"Not even bigamy," he whispered in my ear.
THERE we were, back in my sitting-room, weary with talking, wearied out with tumultuous joy, yet almost insanely happy. Odd questions kept coming into one's mind, and by degrees the little things which I had been too dazed to understand became clear.
"Tell me, Nigel," I asked, "what was the question that Sir James was going to ask Mr. Boynton afterwards, and didn't?"
Nigel's arm tightened a little round my waist, and he was momentarily grave.
"He was going to ask Boynton the question which would have occurred to any sensible being, why he didn't come forward before the magistrates, and save us these few days' anxiety."
"What was the reason?"
"Because he wanted to give Raymond a chance," Nigel explained. "Against the law, of course. But then, we all break the law sometimes, in our hearts, if we don't do it actually. He wanted to give the lad a chance either to get away or to do what I am afraid he has done... Today we're not going to talk any more about that. I did my best for Raymond, and the best wasn't good enough. He had a bad father, and the taint was too strong. What's become of Norah?"
"Being tactful," I told him, "she's gone up to change for dinner early."
"Boynton will be here directly," Nigel said. "I told him to come in and see you. That'll be all right, won't it?"
"All right? I should think so," I replied gratefully. "If it hadn't been for him after all, think what we might have gone through!"
"He's a dear fellow," Nigel declared. "In a queer mood this afternoon, though. Thinks he's seen a ghost or something of the sort."
Mr. Boynton came in a few minutes later. I got up at once and held out my hands.
"You did everything that was right, Howard," I said. "We're going to be friends, aren't we?"
"If you can trust so poor a judge of character as I am," he answered.
We all sat down together and talked. Howard Boynton, without that little cloak of reserve which he had always assumed with me, seemed like a different person.
"Tell us where you've been for the last hour or two," Nigel insisted.
Mr. Boynton smiled at me a little whimsically.
"I must make a confession," he announced. "I know Lady Chesterleys will scarcely believe me, because she always thinks I'm such a woman-hater—but there it is. I had my little romance in France—at least, for me it was a very great romance—and then, through some unfortunate happening, it all came to an end. Still the memory has been there, and the quaintest part of it all—don't laugh, please—is that I never knew her name. I never knew anything, but Sister Gertrude."
I stared at him for a moment.
"Why, that's what—" I began. "Tell me how all this is connected with today?" I went on breathlessly.
"Because I thought I saw her in court," he confessed.
I stared at him again. Nigel wondered what was the matter with me. I was suddenly recalling Norah's face when we had met in the house after it was all over. It was as though she had seen something wonderful. Even when she had kissed me, there had been a new expression in her eyes. I had put it down to the agitation, and the great relief after all our anxiety. And yet even at the time it had seemed to me that there was something else. I opened my lips and closed them again, sitting forward now, tense with excitement. The door had opened, and Norah had appeared; very simply dressed for the evening, but still with that rapt look in her face.
"I'm not too soon, am I?" she asked.
Then Howard Boynton stood up, and they both seemed to realise at the same instant that this was the meeting, the hope of which, even after many disappointments, had still lingered in their hearts. As Norah came across the room I couldn't believe for a moment that she was my elder sister, or that I had ever been called beautiful while she was about. Her face was transfigured— so much so that the glow from it seemed to shine in his eyes as he took her hands. Nigel dragged me away.
"Time we went and changed," he declared. "Our turn to be tactful," he added, sotto voce, as we moved towards the door.
It was the most wonderful dinner mortals ever ate. In the drawing-room beforehand, one by one, the maid-servants, at their urgent request, had been permitted to come in and pay their respects to me. As for Miller, he was quite inarticulate, and, after he had made his little speech, he had to set down his tray of cocktails and hurry from the room. We were compelled to disconnect the telephone and open the doors of both the letter boxes, so that the letters and telegrams could find their way in. Nigel behaved all the time like a boy enjoying a huge joke, but towards the end of dinner time he began to realise the situation.
"I'm not sure that we shall be able to stick it," he declared. "I think—"
"What about joining us for part of our honeymoon?" Howard Boynton interrupted—"part of it," he reiterated hastily.
"And I used to call you a slowcoach!" Nigel gasped. "Another glass of champagne. Miller... Where are you going?"
"That is one of the small detail," Mr. Boynton admitted, "which we haven't absolutely settled yet. We thought of the South of France."
"Good!" Nigel approved. "You can have the Daimler—Southampton, Havre, Chartres, Tours, Montepelier, Marseilles, Monte Carlo. We'll go Folkestone, Paris, Aix-les- Bains, and arrive there—say, a week ahead of you."
"But we aren't married yet!" Norah exclaimed.
"We shall be tomorrow," Mr. Boynton declared, firmly.
"But the hospital?"
"It's had you for several years when you ought to have been doing your duty by me," he insisted.
Of course, Norah gave in. Then, just as we were moving into the other room, Miller appeared, with distress written in his face. He appealed to me.
"Your ladyship," he announced, "it's taken both the men and myself all we can do to keep the people away from the door— friends and photographers and Press gentlemen, all mixed up together. There's two of them got in somehow, and I can do nothing with them."
"Why, I should say not," said a transatlantic voice from just outside the door. "I'm going to step right in, Joseph."
They entered together; a stout middle-aged woman, with sharp eyes, a not unpleasant expression, and an exceedingly piercing voice; and her escort, the American lawyer, still in his quiet business suit and horn-rimmed spectacles. He looked at us a little deprecatingly. There was nothing in the least apologetic about Mrs Sherriff.
"My dear," she began, addressing herself to me. "I'm wise to the whole story now, and I just had to come and tell you that I don't bear you any ill-will. Robert was a bad lot, and that's a fact. He meant well, but he was weak—weak as water. He was cunning, too. Say, he hid his traces up pretty well from me, through the years!"
"He was really married to you all the time?" I faltered. "Do sit down, please."
"I will not, my dear," was the firm reply. "I guess a little reunion like this isn't to be disturbed lightly. This what I've come to say, and I'll say it and get. Mr. Slate here was all against my coming, but he don't know anything. You've got out of this little trouble all right," she went on, "but in a way it must have been a great disappointment to you to have been only sort of half-married to a man who, if the oil keep on rising, might soon have been one of the richest in this little island. Well, that can't be helped and I guess I'll be able to make the dollars fly. There was some of this jewellery, though, I guess he was thinking of you when he bought it—and pearls especially never did take my fancy—so show about them, Mr. Slate!"
The little man produced a dull leather case from his pocket, and his companion laid it upon the table before me. At close quarters they were certainly the most wonderful pearls I had ever seen in my life, all perfectly matched, and with a shade of pink in them which seemed to come and go.
"You just keep them, my dear," Mrs Sherriff insisted. "It's only fair as I've got the millions, and if poor Bob could know he'd be tickled to death for you to have them. And so, good-night all! Come along, Mr. Slate."
They were a most astonishing couple. They refused to discuss the matter, refused to remain in the house another moment. We watched their taxi cab drive off from the front door. Afterwards we discovered that Norah and Howard Boynton had disappeared. Nigel drew my arm through his.
"It seems to me," he declared happily, "that we are going to spend a lonely evening. Now for the first part—please—"
He led me to the drawing-room and over to the piano. Then he drew up his favorite chair and placed it in the position he liked best. He sat there within a few feet of me, the grim look gone from his mouth, hair a little untidy for the same reason that my own hair was ruffled—the man I loved. With tears in my eyes—tears of thankfulness—the smile which answered his one of ineffable happiness, I did his bidding, and, if my fingers had never made music before, there was music in the room that night.