COMEDIES OF COURTSHIP
By Anthony Hope
"It is a familiar fact that the intensity of a passion varies with the proximity of the appropriate object." Mr. Leslie Stephen, 'Science of Ethics'
"How the devil is it that fresh features Have such a charm for us poor human creatures?" Lord Byron, 'Don Juan'
Charles Scribner's Sons New York 1896
Copyright, 1896 Charles Scribner's Sons
Copyright, 1894, 1896, by Anthony Hope
"The Wheel of Love," published in Scribner's Magazine during the past year, and "The Lady of the Pool," both protected by American copyright, are here printed for the first time in book form. The four other stories appeared without their author's consent or knowledge, with their titles changed beyond recognition, and combined with other unauthorized material, in a small volume printed by an American firm. They are here given for the first time in their proper form and by my authority.
The Wheel of Love The Lady of the Pool The Curate of Poltons A Three-Volume Novel The Philosopher in the Apple Orchard The Decree of Duke Deodonato
THE WHEEL OF LOVE
THE VIRTUOUS HYPOCRITES
AT first sight they had as little reason for being unhappy as it is possible to have in a world half full of sorrow. They were young and healthy; half a dozen times they had each declared the other more than common good-looking; they both had, and never knew what it was not to have, money enough for comfort and, in addition that divine little superfluity wherefrom joys are born. The house was good to look at and good to live in; there were horses to ride, the river to go a-rowing on, and a big box from Mudie's every week. No one worried them; Miss Bussey was generally visiting the poor; or, as was the case at this moment, asleep in her arm-chair, with Paul, the terrier, in his basket beside her, and the cat on her lap. Lastly, they were plighted lovers, and John was staying with Miss Bussey for the express purpose of delighting and being delighted by his fiancee, Mary Travers. For these and all their mercies certainly they should have been truly thankful.
However the heart of man is wicked. This fact alone can explain why Mary sat sadly in the drawing-room, feeling a letter that was tucked inside her waistband and John strode moodily up and down the gravel walk, a cigar, badly bitten, between his teeth, and his hand over and again covertly stealing toward his breast-pocket and pressing a scented note that lay there. In the course of every turn John would pass the window of the drawing-room; then Mary would look up with a smile and blow him a kiss, and he nodded and laughed and returned the salute. But, the window passed, both sighed deeply and returned to lingering those hidden missives.
"Poor little girl! I must keep it up," said John.
"Dear good John! He must never know," thought Mary.
And the two fell to thinking just what was remarked a few lines back, namely, that the human heart is very wicked; they were shocked at themselves; the young often are.
Miss Bussey awoke, sat up, evicted the cat, and found her spectacles.
"Where are those children?" said she. "Billing and cooing somewhere, I suppose. Bless me, why don't they get tired of it?"
They had—not indeed of billing and cooing in general, for no one at their age does or ought to get tired of that—but of billing and cooing with one another.
It will be observed that the situation promised well for a tragedy. Nevertheless this is not the story of an unhappy marriage.
If there be one thing which Government should forbid, it is a secret engagement. Engagements should be advertised as marriages are; but unless we happen to be persons of social importance, or considerable notoriety, no such precautions are taken. Of course there are engagement rings; but a man never knows one when he sees it on a lady's hand—it would indeed be impertinent to look too closely—and when he goes out alone he generally puts his in his pocket, considering that the evening will thus be rendered more enjoyable. The Ashforth—Travers engagement was not a secret now, but it had been, and had been too long. Hence, when Mary went to Scotland and met Charlie Ellerton, and when John went to Switzerland and met Dora Bellairs-the truth is, they ought never to have separated, and Miss Bussey (who was one of the people in the secret) had been quite right when she remarked that it seemed a curious arrangement. John and Mary had scoffed at the idea of a few weeks' absence having any effect on their feelings except, if indeed it were possible, that of intensifying them.
"I really think I ought to go and find them," said Miss Bussey. "Come, Paul!"
She took a parasol, for the April sun was bright, and went into the garden. "When she came to the drawing-room window John was away at the end of the walk. She looked at him: he was reading a letter. She looked in at the window: Mary was reading a letter.
"Well!" exclaimed Miss Bussey. "Have they had a tiff?" And she slowly waddled (truth imposes this word-she was very stout) toward the unconscious John. He advanced toward her still reading; not only did he not see her, but he failed to notice that Paul had got under his feet. He fell over Paul, and as he stumbled the letter fluttered out of his hand. Paul seized it and began to toss it about in great glee.
"Good doggie!" Cried Miss Bussey. "Come then! Bring it to me, dear. Good Paul!"
John's face was distorted with agony. He darted toward Paul, fell on him, and gripped him closely. Paul yelped and Miss Bussey observed, in an indignant tone, that John need not throttle the dog. John muttered something.
"Is the letter so very precious?" asked his hostess ironically.
"Precious!" cried John. "Yes!—No!—It's nothing at all."
But he opened Paul's mouth and took out his treasure with wonderful care.
"And why," inquired Miss Bussey, "are you not with Mary, young man? You're very neglectful."
"Neglectful! Surely, Miss Bussey, you haven't noticed anything—like neglect? Don't say——"
"Bless the boy! I was only joking. You're a model lover."
"Thank you, thank you. I'll go to her at once," and he sped towards the window, opened it and walked up to Mary. Miss Bussey followed him and arrived just in time to see the lovers locked in one another's arms, their faces expressing all appropriate rapture.
"There's nothing much wrong," said Miss Bussey; wherein Miss Bussey herself was much wrong.
"What a shame! I've left you alone for more than an hour!" said John. "Have you been very unhappy?" and he added, "darling." It sounded like an afterthought.
"I have been rather unhappy," answered Mary, and her answer was true. As she said it she tucked in a projecting edge of her letter. John had hurriedly slipped his (it was rather the worse for its mauling) into his trousers-pocket.
"You—you didn't think me neglectful?"
"I was thinking of you all the time,"
"And I was thinking of you, dear."
"Are you very happy?"
"Yes, John; aren't you?"
"Of course I am. Happy! I should think so," and he kissed her with unimpeachable fervor.
When a conscientious person makes up his mind that he ought, for good reasons, to deceive somebody, there is no one like him for thorough-paced hypocrisy. When two conscientious people resolve; to deceive one another, on grounds of duty, the acme of duplicity is in a fair way to be reached. John Ashforth and Mary Travers illustrated this proposition. The former had been all his life a good son, and was now a trustworthy partner, to his father, who justly relied no less on his character than on his brains. The latter, since her parents' early death had left her to her aunt's care, had been the comfort and prop of Miss Bussey's life. It is difficult to describe good people without making them seem dull; but luckily nature is defter than novelists, and it is quite possible to be good without being dull. Neither Mary nor John was dull; a trifle limited, perhaps, they were, a thought severe in their judgments of others as well as of themselves; a little exacting with their friends and more than a little with themselves. One description paints them both; doubtless their harmony of mind had contributed more than Mary's sweet expression and finely cut features, or John's upstanding six feet, and honest capable face, to produce that attachment between them which had, six months before this story begins, culminated in their engagement. Once arrived at, this ending seemed to have been inevitable. Everybody discovered that they had foretold it from the first, and modestly disclaimed any credit for anticipating a union between a couple so obviously made for one another.
The distress into which lovers such as these fell when they discovered by personal experience that sincerely to vow eternal love is one thing, and sincerely to give it quite another, may be well imagined, and may well be left to be imagined. They both went through a terrible period of temptation, wherein they listened longingly to the seductive pleading of their hearts; but both emerged triumphant, resolved to stifle their mad fancy, to prefer good faith to mere inclination, and to avoid, at all costs, wounding one to whom they had sworn to be true. Thus far their steadfastness carried them, but not beyond. They could part from their loved ones, and they did; but they could not leave them without a word. Each wrote, after leaving Scotland and Switzerland respectively, a few lines of adieu, confessing the love they felt, but with resolute sadness saying farewell forever. They belonged to another.
It was the answers that Mary and John were reading when Miss Bussey discovered them.
"MY DEAR MISS TRAVERS: I have received your letter. I can't tell you what it means to me. You say all must be over between us. Don't be offended—but I won't say that yet. It can't be your duty to marry a man you don't love. You forbid me to write or come to you; and you ask only for a word of good-by. I won't say good-by. I'll say Au revoir—au revoir, my darling."
This was John's:
"MY DEAR MR. ASHFORTH: What am I to say to you? Oh, why, why didn't you tell me before? I oughtn't to say that, but it is too late to conceal anything from you. Yes, you are right. It must be good-by. Yes, I will try to forget you. But oh, John, it's very, very, very difficult. I don't know how to sign this—so I won't. You'll know who it comes from, won't you? Good-by. Burn this."
These letters, no doubt, make it plain that there had been at least a momentary weakness both in Mary and in John; but in a true and charitable view their conduct in rising superior to temptation finally was all the more remarkable and praiseworthy. They had indeed, for the time, been carried away. Even now Mary found it hard not to make allowances for herself, little as she was prone to weakness when she thought of the impetuous abandon and conquering whirl with which Charlie Ellerton had wooed her; and John confessed that flight alone, a hasty flight from Interlaken after a certain evening spent in gazing at the Jungfrau, had saved him from casting everything to the winds and yielding to the slavery of Dora Bellairs's sunny smiles and charming coquetries. He had always thought that that sort of girl had no attractions for him, just as Mary had despised 'butterfly-men' like Charlie Ellerton. Well, they were wrong. The only comfort was that shallow natures felt these sorrows less; it would have broken Mary's heart (thought John), or John's (thought Mary), but Dora and Charlie would soon find consolation in another. But here, oddly enough, John generally swore heartily and Mary always began to search for her handkerchief. "They're as affectionate as one could wish when they're together," mused Miss Bussey, as she stroked the cat, "but at other times they're gloomy company. I suppose they can't be happy apart. Dear! dear!" and the good old lady fell to wondering whether she had ever been so foolish herself.
SYMPATHY IN SORROW
"Give me," observed Sir Roger Deane, "Cannes, a fine day, a good set to look at, a beehive chair, a good cigar, a cocktail on one side and a nice girl on the other, and there I am! I don't want anything else."
General Bellairs pulled his white mustache and examined Sir Roger's figure and surroundings with a smile.
"Then only Lady Deane is wanting to your complete happiness," said he.
"Maud is certainly a nice girl, but when she deserts me——"
"Where is she?"
"I don't know."
"I do," interposed a young man, who wore an eye—glass and was in charge of a large jug. "She's gone to Monte."
"I might have known," said Sir Roger. "Being missed here always means you've gone to Monte—like not being at church means you've gone to Brighton."
"Surely she doesn't play?" asked the General.
"Not she! She's going to put it in a book. She writes books you know. She put me in the last—made me a dashed fool, too, by Jove!"
"That was unkind," said the General, "from your wife."
"Oh, Lord love you, she didn't mean it. I was the hero. That's how I came to be such an ass. The dear girl meant everything that was kind. Who's taken her to Monte?"
"Charlie Ellerton," said the young man with the eye-glass.
"There! I told you she was a kind girl. She's trying to pull old Charlie up a peg or two. He's had the deuce of a facer, you know."
"I thought he seemed less cheerful than usual."
"Oh, rather. He met a girl somewhere or other—I always forget places—Miss—Miss—hang it, I can't remember names—and got awfully smitten, and everything went pleasantly and she took to him like anything—, and at last old Charlie spoke up like a man, and——" Sir Roger paused dramatically.
"Well?" asked the General.
"She was engaged to another fellow. Rough, wasn't it? She told old Charlie she liked him infernally, but promises were promises, don't you know, and she'd thank him to take his hook. And he had to take it, by Gad! Rough, don't you know? So Maud's been cheering him up. The devil!"
"What's the matter now?" inquired the General.
"Why, I've just remembered that I promised to say nothing about it. I say, don't you repeat it, General, nor you either, Laing."
The General laughed.
"Well," said Sir Roger, "he oughtn't to have been such a fool as to tell me. He knows I never remember to keep things dark. It's not my fault."
A girl came out of the hotel and strolled up to where the group was. She was dark, slight, and rather below middle height; her complexion at this moment was a trifle sallow and her eyes listless, but it seemed rather as though she had dressed her face into a tragic cast, the set of the features being naturally mirthful. She acknowledged the men's salutations and sat down with a sigh.
"Not on to-day?" asked Sir Roger, waving his cigar toward the lawn-tennis courts.
"No," said Miss Bellairs.
"Are you seedy, Dolly?" inquired the General.
"No," said Miss Bellairs.
Mr. Laing fixed his eye-glass and surveyed the young lady.
"Are you taking any?" said he, indicating the jug.
"I don't see any fun in vulgarity," observed Miss Bellairs.
The General smiled. Sir Roger's lips assumed the shape for a whistle.
"That's a nasty one for me," said Laing.
"Ah, here you are, Roger," exclaimed a fresh clear voice from behind the chairs. "I've been looking for you everywhere. We've seen everything—Mr. Ellerton was most kind—and I do so want to tell you my impressions."
The new-comer was Lady Deane, a tall young woman, plainly dressed in a serviceable cloth walking-gown. By her side stood Charlie Ellerton in a flannel suit of pronounced striping; he wore a little yellow mustache, had blue eyes and curly hair, and his face was tanned a wholesome ruddy-brown. He looked very melancholy.
"Letters from Hell," murmured Sir Roger.
"But I was so distressed," continued his wife. "Mr. Ellerton would gamble, and he lost ever so much money."
"A fellow must amuse himself," remarked Charlie gloomily, and with apparent unconsciousness he took a glass from Laing and drained it.
"Gambling and drink—what does that mean?" asked Sir Roger.
"Shut up, Deane," said Charlie.
Miss Bellairs rose suddenly and walked away. Her movement expressed impatience with her surroundings. After a moment Charlie Ellerton slowly sauntered after her. She sat down on a garden-seat some way off. Charlie placed himself at the opposite end. A long pause ensued.
"I'm afraid I'm precious poor company," said Charlie.
"I didn't want you to be company at all," answered Miss Bellairs, and she sloped her parasol until it obstructed his view of her face.
"I'm awfully sorry, but I can't stand the sort of rot Deane and Laing are talking."
"Can't you? Neither can I."
"They never seem to be serious about anything, you know," and Charlie sighed deeply, and for three minutes there was silence.
"Do you know Scotland at all?" asked Charlie at last.
"Only a little."
"There last year?"
"No, I was in Switzerland."
"Do you know Interlaken?"
"May I have a cigarette?"
"Of course, if you like."
Charlie lit his cigarette and smoked silently for a minute or two.
"I call this a beastly place," said he.
"Yes, horrid," she answered, and the force of sympathy made her move the parasol and turn her face towards her companion. "But I thought," she continued, "you came here every spring?"
"Oh, I don't mind the place so much. It's the people."
"Yes, isn't it? I know what you mean."
"You can't make a joke of everything, can you?"
"Indeed no," sighed Dora.
Charlie looked at his cigarette, and, his eyes carefully fixed on it, said in a timid tone:
"What's the point, for instance, of talking as if love was all bosh?"
Dora's parasol swept down again swiftly, but Charlie was still looking at the cigarette and he did not notice its descent, nor could he see that Miss Bellairs's cheek was no longer sallow.
"It's such cheap rot," he continued, "and when a fellow's—I say, Miss Bellairs, I'm not boring you?"
The parasol wavered and finally moved.
"No," said Miss Bellairs.
"I don't know whether you—no, I mustn't say that; but I know what it is to be in love, Miss Bellairs; but what's the good of talking about it? Everybody laughs."
Miss Bellairs put down her parasol.
"I shouldn't laugh," she said softly. "It's horrid to laugh at people when they're in trouble," and her eyes were very sympathetic.
"You are kind. I don't mind talking about it to you. You know I'm not the sort of fellow who falls in love with every girl he meets; so of course it's worse when I do."
"Was it just lately?" murmured Dora.
"Ah! And—and didn't she——?"
"Oh, I don't know. Yes, hang it, I believe she did. She was perfectly straight, Miss Bellairs. I don't say a word against her. She-I think she didn't know her own feelings until—until I spoke, you know—and then——"
"Do go on, if—if it doesn't——"
"Why, then, the poor girl cried and said it couldn't be because she—she was engaged to another fellow; and she sent me away."
Miss Bellairs was listening attentively.
"And," continued Charlie, "she wrote and said it must be good-by and—and——"
"And you think she——?"
"She told me so," whispered Charlie. "She said she couldn't part without telling me. Oh, I say, Miss Bellairs, isn't it all damnable? I beg your pardon."
Dora was tracing little figures on the gravel with her parasol.
"Now what would you do?" cried Charlie. "She loves me, I know she does, and she's going to marry this other fellow because she promised him first. I don't suppose she knew what love was then."
"Oh, I'm sure she didn't," exclaimed Dora earnestly.
"You can't blame her, you know. And it's absurd to—to—to—not to—well, to marry a fellow you don't care for when you care for another fellow, you know!"
"Of course you can hardly imagine yourself in that position, but suppose a man liked you and-and was placed like that, you know, what should you feel you ought to do?"
"Oh, I don't know," exclaimed Dora, clasping her hands. "Oh, do tell me what you think! I'd give the world to know!"
Charlie's surprised glance warned her of her betrayal. "You mustn't ask me." she exclaimed hastily.
"I won't ask a word. I—I'm awfully sorry, Miss Bellairs."
"Nobody knows," she murmured.
"Nobody shall through me."
"You're not very—? I'm very ashamed."
"Why? And because of me! After what I've told you!"
Charlie rose suddenly.
"I'm not going to stand it," he announced.
Dora looked up eagerly.
"What? You're going to——?"
"I'm going to have a shot at it. Am I to stand by and see her——? I'm hanged if I do. Could that be right?"
"I should like to know what one's duty is?"
"This talk with you has made me quite clear. We've reasoned it out, you see. They're not to be married for two or three months. A lot can be done in that time."
"Ah, you're a man!"
"I shall write first. If that doesn't do, I shall go to her."
Dora shook her head mournfully.
"Now, look here, Miss Bellairs you don't mind me advising you?"
"I ought not to have let you see, but as it is—"
"You do as I do, you stick to it. Confound it, you know, when one's life's happiness is at stake—"
"Oh, yes, yes!"
"One mustn't be squeamish, must one?"
And Dora Bellairs, in a very low whisper, answered, "No."
"I shall write to-night."
"Yes. Now promise me you will too."
"It's harder for me than you."
"Not if he really——."
"Oh, indeed, he really does, Mr. Ellerton."
"Then you'll write?"
"Well—it must be right. Yes, I will."
"I feel the better for our talk, Miss Bellairs, don't you?"
"I do a little."
"We shall be friends now, you know; even if I bring it off I shan't be content unless you do too. Won't you give me your good wishes?"
"Indeed I will."
"Shake hands on it."
They shook hands and began to stroll back to the tennis-courts.
"They look a little better," observed Sir Roger Deane, who had been listening to an eloquent description of the gaming-tables.
Dora and Charlie walked on towards the hotel.
"Hi!" shouted Sir Roger. "Tea's coming out here."
"I've got a letter to write," said Charlie.
"Well, Miss Bellairs, you must come. Who's to pour it out?"
"I must catch the post, Sir Roger," answered Dora.
They went into the house together. In the hall they parted.
"You'll let me know what happens, Mr. Ellerton, won't you? I'm so interested."
"Oh—well, perhaps," and the sallow of her cheeks had turned to a fine dusky red as she ran upstairs.
Thus it happened that a second letter for John Ashforth and a second letter for Mary Travers left Cannes that night.
And if it seems a curious coincidence that Dora and Charlie should meet at Cannes, it can only be answered that they were each of them just as likely to be at Cannes as anywhere else. Besides, who knows that these things are all coincidence?
A PROVIDENTIAL DISCLOSURE
On Wednesday the eleventh of April, John Ashforth rose from his bed full of a great and momentous resolution. There is nothing very strange in that, perhaps it is just the time of day when such things come to a man, and, in ordinary cases, they are very prone to disappear with the relics of breakfast. But John was of sterner stuff. He had passed a restless night, tossed to and fro by very disturbing gusts of emotion, and he arose with the firm conviction that if he would escape shipwreck he must secure his bark by immovable anchors while he was, though not in honor, yet in law and fact, free; he could not trust himself. Sorrowfully admitting his weakness, he turned to the true, the right, the heroic remedy.
"I'll marry Mary to—day fortnight," said he. "When we are man and wife I shall forget this madness and love her as I used to."
He went down to breakfast, ate a bit of toast and drank a cup of very strong tea. Presently Mary appeared and greeted him with remarkable tenderness. His heart smote him, and his remorse strengthened his determination.
"I want to speak to you after breakfast," he told her.
His manner was so significant that a sudden gleam of hope flashed into her mind. Could it be that he had seen, that he would be generous? She banished the shameful hope. She would not accept generosity at the expense of pain to him.
Miss Bussey, professing to find bed the best place in the world, was in the habit of taking her breakfast there. The lovers were alone, and, the meal ended, they passed together into the conservatory. Mary sat down and John leant against the glass door opposite her.
"Well?" said she, smiling at him.
It suddenly struck John that, in a scene of this nature, it ill-befitted him to stand three yards from the lady. He took a chair and drew it close beside her. The thing had to be done and it should be done properly.
"We've made a mistake, Mary," he announced, taking her hand and speaking in a rallying tone.
"A mistake!" she cried; "oh, how?"
"In fixing our marriage——."
"My darling!" said John (and it was impossible to deny admiration to the tone he said it in), "no. So late! What are we waiting for? Why are we wasting all this precious time?"
Mary could not speak, but consternation passed for an appropriate confusion, and John pursued his passionate pleadings. As Mary felt his grasp and looked into his honest eyes, her duty lay plain before her. She would not stoop to paltry excuses on the score of clothes, invitations, or such trifles. She had made up her mind to the thing; surely she ought to do it in the way most gracious and most pleasing to her lover.
"If Aunt consents," she murmured at last, "do as you like, John dear," and the embrace which each felt to be inevitable at such a crisis passed between them.
A discreet cough separated them. The butler stood in the doorway, with two letters on a salver. One he handed to Mary, the other to John, and walked away with a twinkle in his eye. However even our butlers do not know everything that happens in our houses (to say nothing of our hearts), although much they may think they do.
John looked at his letter, started violently and crushed it into his pocket. He glanced at Mary; her letter lay neglected on her lap. She was looking steadily out of the window.
"Well, that's settled," said John. "I—I think I'll have a cigar, dear."
"Yes, do, darling," said Mary, and John went out.
These second letters were unfortunately so long as to make it impossible to reproduce them. They were also very affecting, Dora's from its pathos, Charlie's from its passion. But the waves of emotion beat fruitlessly on the rock-built walls of conscience. At almost the same moment, Mary, brushing away a tear, and John, blowing his nose, sat down to write a brief, a final answer. "We are to be married today fortnight," they said. They closed the envelopes without a moment's delay and went to drop their letters in the box. The servant was already waiting to go to the post with them and a second later the fateful documents were on their way to Cannes.
"Now," said John, with a ghastly smile, "we can have a glorious long day together!"
Mary was determined to leave herself no loophole.
"We must tell Aunt what—what we have decided upon this morning," she reminded him. "It means that the wedding must be very quiet."
"I shan't mind that. Shall you?"
"I shall like it of all things." she answered. "Come and find Aunt Sarah."
Miss Bussey had always—or at least for a great many years back—maintained the general proposition that young people do not know their own minds. This morning's news confirmed her opinion.
"Why the other day you both agreed that the middle of June would do perfectly. Now you want it all done in a scramble."
The pair stood before her, looking very guilty.
"What is the meaning of this—this (she very nearly said 'indecent') extraordinary haste?"
Miss Bussey asked only one indulgence from her friends. Before she did a kind thing she liked to be allowed to say one or two sharp ones. Her niece was aware of this fancy of hers and took refuge in silence. John, less experienced in his hostess's ways, launched into the protests appropriate to an impatient lover.
"Well," said Miss Bussey, "I must say you look properly ashamed of yourself [John certainly did], so I'll see what can be done. What a fluster we shall live in! Upon my word you might as well have made it tomorrow. The fuss would have been no worse and a good deal shorter."
The next few days passed, as Miss Bussey had predicted, in a fluster. Mary was running after dress makers, John after licenses, Cook's tickets, a best man, and all the impedimenta of a marriage. The intercourse of the lovers was much interrupted, and to this Miss Bussey attributed the low spirits that Mary sometimes displayed.
"There, there, my dear," she would say impatiently—for the cheerful old lady hated long faces—"you'll have enough of him and to spare by and by."
Curiously this point of view did not comfort Mary. She liked John very much, she esteemed him even more than she liked him, he would, she thought, have made an ideal brother. Ah, why had she not made a brother of him while there was time? Then she would have enjoyed his constant friendship all her life; for it was not with him as with that foolish boy Charlie, all or nothing. John was reasonable; he would not have threatened—well, reading—his letter one way, Charlie almost seemed to be tampering with propriety. John would never have done that. And these reflections, all of which should have pleaded for John, ended in weeping over the lost charms of Charlie.
One evening, just a week before the wedding, she roused herself from some such sad meditations, and, duty-driven, sought John in the smoking-room. The door was half open and she entered noiselessly. John was sitting at the table; his arms were outspread on it, and his face buried in his hands. Thinking he was asleep she approached on tiptoe and leant over his shoulder. As she did so her eyes fell on a sheet of note-paper; it was clutched in John's right hand, and the encircling grasp covered it, save at the top. The top was visible, and Mary, before she knew what she was doing, had read the embossed heading—nothing else, just the embossed heading—Hotel de Luxe, Cannes, Alpes Maritimes.
The drama teaches us how often a guilty mind rushes, on some trifling cause, to self-revelation. Like a flash came the conviction that Charlie had written to John, that her secret was known, and John's heartbroken. In a moment she fell on her knees crying, "Oh, how wicked I've been! Forgive me, do forgive me! Oh, John, can you forgive me?"
John was not asleep, he also was merely meditating; but if he had been a very Rip Van Winkle this cry of agony would have roused him. He started violently—as well he might—from his seat, looked at Mary, and crumpled the letter into a shapeless ball.
"You didn't see?" he asked hoarsely.
"No, but I know. I mean I saw the heading, and knew it must be from him. Oh, John!"
"Yes. He's—he's staying there. Oh, John! Really I'll never see or speak to him again. Really I won't. Oh, you can trust me, John. See! I'll hide nothing. Here's his letter! You see I've sent him away?"
And she took from her pocket Charlie's letter, and in her noble fidelity (to John—the less we say about poor Charlie the better) handed it to him.
"What's this?" asked John, in bewilderment. "Who's it from?"
"Charlie Ellerton," she stammered.
"Who's Charlie Ellerton? I never heard—but am I to read it?"
"Yes, please, I—I think you'd better."
John read it; Mary followed his eyes, and the moment they reached the end, without giving him time to speak, she exclaimed, "There, you see I spoke the truth. I had sent him away. What does he say to you, John?"
"I never heard of him in my life before."
"John! Then who is your letter from?"
He hesitated. He felt an impulse to imitate her candor, but prudence suggested that he should be sure of his ground first.
"Tell me all," he said, sitting down. "Who is this man, and what has he to do with you?"
"Why don't you show me his letter? I don't know what he's said about me."
"What could he say about you?"
"Well he—he might say that—that I cared for him, John."
"And do you?" demanded John, and his voice was anxious.
Duty demanded a falsehood; Mary did her very best to satisfy its imperious commands. It was no use.
"Oh, John," she murmured, and then began to cry.
For a moment wounded pride struggled with John's relief; but then a glorious vision of what this admission of Mary's might mean to him swept away his pique.
"Read this," he said, giving her Dora Bellairs's letter, "and then we'll have an explanation."
Half an hour later Miss Bussey was roused from a pleasant snooze. John and Mary stood beside her, hand in hand. They wore brother and sister now—that was an integral part of the arrangement—and so they stood hand in hand. Their faces were radiant.
"We came to tell you, Auntie dear, that we have decided that we're not suited to one another," began Mary.
"Not at all," said John decisively.
Miss Bussey stared helplessly from one to the other.
"It's all right, Miss Bussey," remarked John cheerfully. "We've had an explanation; we part by mutual consent."
"John," said Mary, "is to be just my brother and I his sister. Oh, and Auntie, I want to go with him to Cannes."
This last suggestion, which naturally did not appear to any well-regulated mind to harmonize with what had gone before, restored voice to Miss Bussey.
"What's the matter with you? Are you mad?" she demanded.
John sat down beside her. His friends anticipated a distinguished Parliamentary career for John; he could make anything sound reasonable. Miss Bussey was fascinated by his suave and fluent narrative of what had befallen Mary and himself; she could not but admire his just remarks on the providential disclosure of the true state of the case before it was too late, and sympathized with the picture of suffering nobly suppressed which grew under his skilful hand; she was inflamed when he ardently declared his purpose of seeking out Dora; she was touched when he kissed Mary's hand and declared that the world held no nobler woman. Before John's eloquence even the stern facts of a public engagement, of invited guests, of dresses ordered and presents received, lost their force, and the romantic spirit, rekindled, held undivided sway in Miss Bussey's heart.
"But," she said, "why does Mary talk of going to Cannes with you?"
"Mr. Ellerton is at Cannes, Aunt," murmured Mary, shyly.
"But you can't travel with John."
"Oh, but you must come too."
"It looks as if you were running after him."
"I'll chance Charlie thinking that," cried Mary, clasping her hands in glee.
Miss Bussey pretended to be reluctant to undertake the journey, but she was really quite ready to yield, and soon everything was settled on the new basis.
"And now to write and tell people," said Miss Bussey. "That's the worst part of it."
"Poor dear! We'll help," cried Mary. "But I must write to Cannes."
"Wire!" cried John.
"Of course, wire!" echoed Mary.
"The first thing tomorrow."
"Mary, I shall never forget——."
"No, John, it's you who——." and they went off in a torrent of mutual laudation.
Miss Bussey shook her head.
"If they think all that of one another why don't they marry?" she said.
THE TALE OF A POSTMARK
"Yes," said Lady Deane, "we leave today week: Roger has to be back the first week in May, and I want to stop at one or two places en route."
"Let's see. To-day's the 19th, no, the 20th; there's nothing to remind one of time here. That'll be the 27th. That's about my date; we might go together if you and Deane have no objection."
"Oh, I should be delighted, General; and shall you stay at all in Paris?"
"A few days—just to show Dolly the sights."
"How charming! And you and I must have some expeditions together. Roger is so odd about not liking to take me."
"We'll do the whole thing, Lady Deane," answered General Bellairs, heartily. "Notre Dame, the Versailles, the Invalides, Eiffel Tower."
Lady Deane's broad white brow showed a little pucker.
"That wasn't quite what I meant," said she. "Oh, but Roger could take Dora to those, couldn't he, while you and I made a point of seeing some of the real life of the people? Of studying them in their ordinary resorts, their places of recreation and amusement."
"Oh, the Francais, and the opera, and so on, of course."
"No, no, no," exclaimed Lady Deane, tapping her foot impatiently and fixing her gray eyes on the General's now puzzled face. "Not the same old treadmill in Paris as in London! Not that, General!"
"What then, my dear lady?" asked he. "Your wish is law to me," and it was true that he had become very fond of his earnest young friend. "What do you want to see? The Chamber of Deputies?"
Sir Roger's voice struck in.
"I'm not a puritanical husband, Bellairs, but I must make a stand somewhere. Not the Chamber of Deputies."
"Don't be silly, Roger dear," said Lady Deane, in her usual tone of dispassionate reproof.
"I can't find out where she does want to go to," remarked the General.
"I can tell you," said Sir Roger, and he leant down and whispered a name; in the General's ear. The General jumped.
"Good heavens!" he exclaimed. "I haven't been there since the fifties. Is it still like what it used to be?"
"How should I know?" inquired Sir Roger. "I'm not a student of social phenomena. Maud is, so she wants to go."
Lady Deane was looking on with a quiet smile.
"She never mentioned it," protested the General.
"Oh, of course if there's a worse place now!" conceded Sir Roger.
"I'll make up my mind when we arrive," observed Lady Deane. "Anyhow I shall rely on you, General."
The General looked a little uncomfortable.
"If Deane doesn't object——."
"I shouldn't think of taking my wife to such places."
Suddenly Dora Bellairs rushed up to them.
"Have you seen Mr. Ellerton?" she cried. "Where is he?"
"In the smoking-room," answered Sir Roger. "Do you want him?"
"Would you mind? I can't go in there: it's full of men."
"After all we must be somewhere," pleaded Sir Roger as he went on his errand.
"Dolly," said the General, "I've just made a charming arrangement. Lady Deane and Sir Roger start for Paris to-day week, and we're going with them. You said you'd like another week here."
"It's charming our being able to go together, isn't it?" said Lady Deane. Dora's face did not express rapture, yet she liked the Deanes very much.
"Oh, but——" she began.
"Well?" asked her father.
"I rather want to go a little sooner."
"I'm afraid," said Lady Deane, "we shan't get Roger to move before then. He's bent on seeing the tennis tournament through. When did you want to go, Dora?"
"Well, in fact—to—night."
"My dear Dolly, what a weathercock you are! It's impossible. I'm dining with the Grand Duke on Monday. You must make up your mind to stay, young woman."
"Oh, please, papa——."
"But why do you want to go?" asked the General, rather impatiently.
Dora had absolutely no producible reason for her eagerness to go. And yet—Oh, if they only knew what was at stake! "We're to be married in a fortnight!" She could see the words dancing before her eyes. And she must waste a precious week here!
"Do you want me, Miss Bellairs?" asked Charlie Ellerton, coming up to them.
"Yes. I want—oh, I want to go to Rumpelmayer's."
"All right. Come along. I'm delighted to go with you."
They walked off in silence. Dora was in distress. She saw that the General was immovable.
Suddenly Charlie turned to her and remarked,
"Well, it's all over with me, Miss Bellairs."
"What? How do you mean?"
"My chance is gone. They're to be married in a fortnight. I had a letter to say so this morning."
Dora turned suddenly to him.
"Oh, but it's too extraordinary," she cried. "So had I!"
"Why, a letter to say they were to be married in a fortnight."
"Yes. Mr. Ellerton—who—who is your friend?"
"Her name's Mary Travers."
"And who is she going—to marry?"
"Ah! She hasn't told me that."
A suspicion of the truth struck them both. Charlie produced his letter.
"She writes," he said, showing the postmark, "from Dittington."
"It is! It is!" she cried. "It must be Mary Travers that Mr. Ashforth is going to marry!"
"Is that your friend?"
"Yes. Is she pretty, Mr. Ellerton?"
"Oh, awfully. What sort of a fellow is he?"
"Isn't it a deuced queer thing?"
"Most extraordinary. And when we told one another we never thought——."
"How could we?"
"Well, no, we couldn't, of course."
A pause followed. Then Charlie observed: "I suppose there's nothing to be done."
"Nothing to be done, Mr. Ellerton! Why if I were a man I'd leave for England tonight."
"And why can't you?"
"Papa won't. But you might."
"Ye—es, I suppose I might. It would look rather odd, wouldn't it?"
"Why, you yourself suggested it!"
"Yes, but the marriage was a long way off then."
"There's the more reason now for haste."
"Of course, that's true, but——."
"Oh, if papa would only take me!" A sudden idea seemed to strike Charlie; he assumed an air of chivalrous sympathy. "When shall you go?" he asked. "Not till to-day week," she said. "We shan't get to England till three or four days before it." Dora knew nothing of the proposed stay in Paris.
"Look here, Miss Bellairs," said Charlie, "we agreed to stand by one another. I shall wait and go when you do."
"You're risking everything."
"If she'll break it off ten days before, she'll do the same four days before."
"If she really loves you she will."
"Anyhow we'll stand or fall together."
"Oh, I oughtn't to let you, but I can't refuse. How kind you are!"
"Then that's settled," said Charlie, "And we must try to console one another till then."
"The suspense is awful, isn't it?"
"Of course. But we must appear cheerful. We mustn't betray ourselves."
"Not for the world! I can never thank you enough. You'll come with us all the way?"
"Thank you again."
She gave him her hand, which he pressed gently.
"Hullo!" said he. "We seem to have got up by the church somewhere. Where were we going to?"
"Why, to Rumpelmayer's."
"Oh, ah! Well, let's go back to the hotel."
Wonderings on the extraordinary coincidence, with an occasional reference to the tender tie of a common sorrow which bound them together, beguiled the journey back, and when they reached the hotel Dora was quite calm. Charlie seemed distinctly cheerful, and when his companion left him he sat down by Deane and remarked in a careless way, just as if he neither knew nor cared what the rest of them were going to do, "Well, I shall light out of here in a few days. I suppose you're staying some time longer?"
"Off in a week," said Sir Roger.
"Oh, by Jove, that's about my mark. Going back to England?"
"Yes, I suppose—so—ultimately. We shall stay a few days in Paris en route. The Bellairs' go with us."
"Oh, do they?"
Sir Roger smiled gently.
"Surprised?" he asked.
Charlie ignored the question.
"And you aren't going to hurry?" he inquired.
"Why should we?"
Charlie sat silent. It was tolerably plain that, unless the few days en route were very few indeed, John Ashforth and Mary Travers were in a fair way to be prosperously and peacefully married before Dora Bellairs set foot in England. And if he stayed with the Bellairs', before he did, either! Charlie lit a cigarette and sat puffing and thinking.
"Dashed nice girl, Dora Bellairs," observed Sir Roger.
"I do. She's the only girl I ever saw that Laing was smitten with."
"Laing!" said Charlie.
"Well, what's the matter? He's an uncommon good chap, Laing—one of the best chaps I know—and he's got lots of coin. I don't expect she'd sneeze at Laing."
It is, no doubt, taking a very serious responsibility to upset an arrangement arrived at deliberately and carried almost to a conclusion. A man should be very sure that he can make a woman happy—happier than any other man could-before he asks her to face the turmoil and the scandal of breaking off her marriage only a week before its celebration. Sure as he may be of his own affection, he must be equally sure of hers, equally sure that their mutual love is deep and permanent. He must consider his claims to demand such a sacrifice. What remorse will be his if, afterwards, he discovers that what he did was not, in truth, for her real happiness! He must be on his guard against mere selfishness or mere vanity masquerading in the garb of a genuine passion.
As these thoughts occurred to Charlie Ellerton he felt that he was at a crisis of his life. He also felt glad that he had still a quiet week at Cannes in which to revolve these considerations in his mind. Above all, he must do nothing hastily.
Dora came out, a book in her hand. Her soft white frock fluttered in the breeze, and she pushed back a loose lock of dark hair that caressed her check.
"A dashed nice girl, upon my honor," said Sir Roger Deane.
"I say, old chap, I suppose you're in no hurry. You'll put in a few days in Paris? We might have a day out, mightn't we?"
"I don't know yet," said Charlie, and, when Deane left him, he sat on in solitude.
Was it possible that in the space of a week—? No, it was impossible. And yet, with a girl like that——.
"I did the right thing in waiting to go with her, anyhow," said Charlie, comforting himself.
A SECOND EDITION
"Don't you think it's an interesting sort of title?" inquired Lady Deane of Mr. Laing.
Laing was always a little uneasy in her presence. He felt not only that she was analyzing him, but that the results of the analysis seemed to her to be a very small residuum, of solid matter. Besides, he had been told that she had described him as a "commonplace young man," a thing nobody could be expected to like.
"Capital!" he answered, nervously fingering his eye glass. "The Transformation of Giles Brockleton! Capital!"
"I think it will do," said Lady Deane complacently.
"Er—what was he transformed into, Lady Deane?"
"A man," replied the lady emphatically.
"Of course. I see," murmured Laing apologetically, stifling a desire to ask what Giles had been before.
A moment later the author enlightened him.
"Yes," said she, "into a man, from a useless, mischievous, contemptible idler, a parasite, Mr. Laing, a creature to whom——"
"What did it, Lady Deane?" interrupted Laing hastily. He felt somehow as if he were being catalogued.
"Just a woman's influence."
Laing's face displayed relief; he felt that he was in his depth again.
"Oh, got married, you mean? Well, of course, he'd have to pull up a bit, wouldn't he? Hang it, I think it's a fellow's duty.
"You don't quite understand me," observed Lady Deane coldly. "He did not marry the woman."
"What, did she give him the—I mean, wouldn't she have him, Lady Deane?"
"She would have married him; but beside her he saw himself in his true colors. Knowing what he was, how could he dare? That was his punishment, and punishment brought transformation."
As Lady Deane sketched her idea, her eyes kindled and her tone became animated. Laing admired both her and her idea, and he expressed his feeling's by saying:
"Remarkable sort of chap, Lady Deane. I shall read it all right, you know."
"I think you ought," said she, rising, and leaving him to wonder whether she had "meant anything."
He gave himself a little shake, as though to escape from the atmosphere of seriousness which she had diffused about him, and looked round. A little way off he saw Dora Bellairs and Charlie Ellerton sitting side by side. His brow clouded. Before Charlie came it had been his privilege to be Miss Bellairs's cavalier, and although he never hoped, nor, to tell the truth, desired more than a temporary favor in her eyes, he did not quite like being ousted.
"Pretty good for a fellow who's just had the bag!" he remarked scornfully, referring to Roger Deane's unauthorized revelation.
It was the day before the exodus to Paris. Dora's period of weary waiting had worn itself away, and she was acknowledging to Charlie that the last two or three days had passed quicker than she had ever thought they could.
"The first two days I was wretched, the next two gloomy, but these last almost peaceful. In spite of—you know what—I think you've done me good on the whole."
"Don't mention it," said Charlie, flinging his arm over the back of the seat and looking at his companion.
"And now—in the end," pursued Dora, "I'm actually a little sorry to leave all this; it's so beautiful," and she waved her parasol vaguely at the hills and the islands, while with the other hand she took off her hat and allowed the breeze to blow through her hair.
"It is jolly, isn't it?" she asked.
"I should rather think it was," said Charlie. "The jolliest I've ever seen." It was evident that he did not refer to the scenery.
"Oh, you promised you wouldn't," cried Dora reproachfully.
"Well, then, I'll promise again," he replied, smiling amiably.
"What must I think of you, when only a week or so ago——? Oh, and what must you think of me to suppose I could? Oh, Mr. Ellerton!"
"Like to know what I think of you?" inquired Charlie, quite unperturbed by this passionate rebuke.
"Certainly not," said she, with dignity, and turned away. A moment later, however, she attacked him again.
"And you've done nothing," she said indignantly, "but suggest to papa interesting places to stop at on the way, and things he ought to see in Paris. Yes, and you actually suggested going home by sea from Marseilles. And all the time you knew it was vital to me to get home as soon as possible. To me? Yes, and to you last week. Shall I tell you something, Mr. Ellerton?"
"Please," said Charlie. "Whisper it in my ear," and he offered his head in fitting proximity.
"I shouldn't mind who heard," she declared. "I despise you, Mr. Ellerton."
Charlie was roused to a protest.
"For downright unfairness give me a girl!" said he. "Here have I taken the manly course! After a short period of weakness—I admit that—I have conquered my feelings; I have determined not to distress Miss Travers by intruding upon her; I have overcome the promptings of a cowardly despair; I have turned my back resolutely on a past devoid of hope. I am, after a sore struggle, myself again. And my reward, Miss Bellairs, is to be told that you despise me. Upon my honor, you'll be despising Simon Stylites next."
"And you wrote and told Miss Travers you were coming!"
"All right. I shall write and toll her I'm not coming. I shall say, Miss Bellairs, that it seems to me to be an undignified thing——"
"To do what I'm going to do? Thank you, Mr. Ellerton."
"Oh, I forgot."
"The irony of it is that you persuaded me to do it yourself."
"I was a fool; but I didn't know you so well then."
"What's that got to do with it?"
"You didn't know yourself, I'm afraid," she remarked. "You thought you were a man of some—some depth of feeling, some constancy, a man whose—whose regard a girl would value, instead of being——"
"Just a poor devil who worships the ground you tread on."
Dora laughed scornfully.
"Second edition!" said she. "The first dedicated to Miss Travers."
And then Charlie (and it is thing's like these which shake that faith in human nature that we try to cling to) said in a low but quite distinct voice:
"Oh, d——n Miss Travers!"
Dora shot—it almost looked as if something had shot her, as it used, in old days, Miss Zazel—up from her seat.
"I thought I was talking to a gentleman," said she, "I suppose you'll use that—expression—about me in a week."
"In a good deal less, if you treat me like this," said Charlie, and his air was one of hopeless misery.
We all recollect that Anne ended by being tolerably kind to wicked King Richard. After all, Charlie had the same excuse.
"I don't want to be unkind," said Dora more gently.
"I'll do anything in the world to please you."
"Then make papa go straight to Paris, and straight on from Paris," said Dora, using her power mercilessly.
"Oh, I say, I didn't mean that, Miss Bellairs."
"You said you'd do anything I liked."
Charlie looked at her thoughtfully.
"I suppose you've no pity?" he inquired.
"For you? Not a bit,"
"You probably don't know how beautiful you are?"
"Don't be foolish, and—and impertinent."
She was standing opposite to him. With a sudden motion, he sprang forward, fell on one knee, seized her ungloved hand, covered it with kisses, sprang up, and hastened away, crying as he went:
"All right. I'll do it."
Dora stood where he left her. First she looked at her hand, then at Charlie's retreating back, then again at her hand. Her cheek was flushed and she trembled a little.
"John never did that," she said, "at least, not without asking. And even then, not quite like that."
She walked on slowly, then stopped and exclaimed:
"I wonder if he ever did that to Mary Travers."
And her last reflection was:
"Poor boy. He must be—oh, dear me!"
When Charlie reached the tennis-courts, he was, considering the moving scene through which he had passed, wonderfully calm. In fact he was smiling and whistling. Espying Sir Roger Deane, he went and sat down by him.
"Roger," said he, "I'm going with you and the Bellairs' to-morrow."
"I know that."
"Miss Bellairs wants to go straight through to England without stopping anywhere."
"She'll have to want, I expect."
"And I've promised to try and get the General to do what she wants."
"Have you though?"
"I suppose, Roger, old fellow—you know you've great influence with him—I suppose it's no use asking you to say a word to him?"
"Not a bit."
"Because Maud particularly wants him to stay with us in Paris."
"Oh, of course, if Lady Deane wishes it, I mustn't say a word. She's quite made up her mind about it, has she?"
"Well, I suppose so."
"She's strong on it, I mean? Not likely to change?"
"I think not, Charlie."
"She'd ask him to stay, as a favor to her?"
"I shouldn't at all wonder."
"Oh, well then, my asking him won't make much difference."
"Frankly, I don't see why it should."
"Thanks. I only wanted to know. You're not in a hurry, Roger? I mean, you won't ask your wife to go straight on?"
"No, I shan't, Charlie. I want to stop myself."
"Thanks, old chap! See you at dinner," and Charlie strolled off with a reassured air.
Sir Roger sat and thought.
"I see his game," he said to himself at last, "but I'm hanged if I see hers. Why does she want to get back to England? Perhaps if I delay her as much as I can, she'll tell me. Hanged if I don't! Anyhow I'm glad to see old Charlie getting convalescent."
The next morning the whole party left Cannes by the early train. The Bellairs, the Deanes, and Charlie Ellerton travelled together. Laing announced his intention of following by the afternoon train.
"Oh," said Lady Deane, "you'll get to Paris sooner than we do." Dora looked gloomy; so did Charlie, after a momentary, hastily smothered smile.
The porter approached and asked for an address. They told him the Grand Hotel, Paris.
"If anything comes to-day, I'll bring it on," said Laing.
"Yes, do; we shall have no address before Paris," answered General Bellairs.
They drove off, and Laing, feeling rather solitary, returned to his cigar. An hour later the waiter brought him two telegrams, one for Dora and one for Charlie, he looked at the addresses.
"Just too late, by Jove! All right, garcon, I'll take 'em," and he thrust them into the pocket of his flannel jacket. And when, after lunch, he could not stand the dullness any longer and went to Monte Carlo, he left the telegrams in the discarded flannels, where they lay till—the time when they were discovered. For Mr. Laing clean forgot all about them!
A MAN WITH A THEORY
Even Miss Bussey was inclined to think that all had happened for the best. John's eloquence had shaken her first disapprobation; the visible happiness of the persons chiefly concerned pleaded yet more persuasively. What harm, after all, was done, except for a little trouble and a little gossip? To these Mary and John were utterly indifferent. At first they had been rather shy in referring, before one another, to their loves, but custom taught them to mention the names without confusion, and ere long they had exchanged confidences as to their future plans. John's arrangement was obviously the more prudent and becoming. He discountenanced Mary's suggestion of an unannounced descent on Cannes, and persuaded her to follow his example and inform her lover that she would await news from him in Paris. They were to put up at the European, and telegrams there from Cannes would rind them on and after April 28th. All this valuable information was contained in the dispatches, which lay, with their priceless messages, on the said April 28th, in Mr. Arthur Laing's flannel jacket, inside his portmanteau, on the way to Paris.
Paris claims to be the centre of the world, and if it be, the world has a very good centre. Anyhow Paris becomes, from this moment, the centre of this drama. Not only was Arthur Laing being whirled there by the Nice express, and Miss Bussey's party proceeding thither by the eleven o'clock train from Victoria—Mary laughed as she thought it might have been her honeymoon she was starting on—but the Bellairs and their friends were heading for the same point. Miss Bussey's party had the pleasanter journey; they were all of one mind; Miss Bussey was eager to reach Paris because it was the end of the journey; John and Mary desired nothing but the moment when with trembling fingers they should tear open their telegrams in the hall of the hotel. The expedition from the south did not enjoy a like unanimity; but before following their steps we may, in the interest of simplicity, land the first detachment safely at its destination.
When Mary and John, followed by Miss Bussey—they outstripped her in their eagerness—entered the hotel, a young man with an eye-glass was just engaging a bedroom. John took his place beside the stranger, and asked in a voice, which he strove to render calm, if there were any letters for——.
"Beg pardon, sir. In one moment," said the clerk, and he added to Laing, "Number 37, sir." Laing—Oh, the irony of things!—turned on John and his companion just that one supercilious glance which we bestow on other tourists, and followed his baggage upstairs.
"Anything," resumed John, "for Miss Travers or Mr. Ashforth?" And he succeeded in looking as if he did not care a straw whether there were or not.
After a search the porter answered, "Nothing, sir."
"What?" exclaimed John, aghast? "Oh, nonsense, look again."
Another search followed; it was without result.
John saw Mary's appealing eyes fixed on him.
"Nothing," he said tragically.
"Have you taken the rooms, Mr. Ash forth?" inquired Miss Bussey.
"No. I'm sorry. I forgot all about them."
Miss Bussey was tired; she had been seasick, and the train always made her feel queer.
"Has neither of you got an ounce of wits about you?" she demanded, and plunged forward to the desk. John and Mary received their numbers in gloomy silence, and mounted the stairs.
Now Arthur Laing in his hasty survey of the party had arrived at a not unnatural but wholly erroneous conclusion. He had seen a young man, rather nervous, a young woman, looking anxious and shy, and an elderly person, plainly dressed (Miss Bussey was no dandy) sitting (Miss Bussey always sat as soon as she could) on, a trunk. He took John and Mary for a newly married couple, and Miss Bussey for an old family servant detailed to look after her young mistress's entry into independent housekeeping.
"More infernal honeymooners," he said to himself, as he washed his hands. "The place is always full of 'em. Girl wasn't bad-looking, though."
The next morning, unhappily, confirmed him in his mistake. For Miss Bussey, overcome by the various trials of the day before, kept her bed, and when Laing came down, the first sight which met his eyes was a breakfast-table, whereat Mary and John sat tete-a-tete. He eyed them with that mixture of scorn and envy which their supposed situation awakens in a bachelor's heart, and took a place from which he could survey them at leisure. There is a bright side to everything; and that of Laing's mistake was the pleasure he derived from his delusion. Sticking his glass firmly in his eye, he watched like a cat for those playful little endearments which his cynical mood—he was, like many of us, not at his best in the morning—led him to anticipate. He watched in vain. The young people were decorum itself; more than that, they showed signs of preoccupation; they spoke only occasionally, and then with a business-like brevity.
Suddenly the waiter entered, with a hand fid of letters which he proceeded to distribute. Laing expected none, and kept his gaze on his honeymooners. To his surprise they showed animation enough now; their eyes were first on the waiter's approaching form; the bridegroom even rose an inch or two from his seat; both stretched out their hands.
Alas, with a little bow, a smile, and a shrug, the waiter passed by, and the disappointed couple sank back, with looks of blank despair.
Surely here was enough to set any open-minded man on the right track! Yes; but not enough to free one who was tied and bound to his own theory.
"She's dashed anxious to hoar from home!" mused Laing. "Poor girl! It ain't over and above flattering to him, though."
He finished his breakfast and went out to smoke. Presently he saw his friends come out also; they went to the porter's desk and he hoard one of them say "telegram." A sudden idea struck him.
"I am an ass!" said he. "Tell you what it is they've wired for rooms somewhere—Monte, most likely—and can't start till they get an answer."
He was so pleased with his explanation that his last doubt vanished and he watched Mary and John start for a walk—the fraternal relations they had established would have allowed such a thing even in London, much more in Paris—with quite a benevolent smile.
"Aunt Sarah is really quite poorly," remarked Mary as they crossed the road and entered the Tuileries Gardens. "She'll have to stay in all to-day and perhaps tomorrow. Isn't it hard upon her? Paris amuses her so much."
John expressed his sympathy.
"Now if it had been you or I," he ended, "we shouldn't have minded. Paris doesn't amuse us just now."
"Oh, but, John, we must be ready to start at any moment."
"You can't start without Miss Bussey,"
"I think that in a wagon-lit——" began Mary.
"But what's the good of talking?" cried John, bitterly. "Why is there no news from her?"
"He might have wired—John, is it possible our telegrams went astray?"
"Well, we must wait a day or two; or, if you like, we can wire again."
"I—I can't do that, John. Suppose he'd received the first, and—and—"
"Yes, I see. I don't want to humiliate myself either."
"We'll wait a day, anyhow. And, now, John, let's think no more about them! Oh, well, that's nonsense; but let's enjoys ourselves as well as we can."
They managed to enjoy themselves very well. The town was new to Mary, and John found a pleasure in showing it off to her. After a morning of sight-seeing, they drove in the Bois, and ended the day at the theatre. Miss Bussey, unfortunately, was no better. She had sent for an English doctor and he talked vaguely about two or three days in bed. Mary ventured to ask whether her aunt could travel.
"Oh, if absolutely necessary, perhaps; but much better not," was the answer.
Well, it was not absolutely necessary yet, for no letter and no telegram arrived. This was the awful fact that greeted them when they came in from the theatre.
"We'll wire the first thing to-morrow," declared John, in a resolute tone. "Write yours to-night, Mary, and I'll give, them to the porter—"
"Oh, not mine, please," cried Mary, in shrinking bashfulness. "I can't let the porter see mine!"
"Well, then, we'll take them out before breakfast to-morrow."
To this Mary agreed, and they sat down and wrote their dispatches. While they were so engaged Laing jumped out of a cab and entered the room. He seized an English paper, and, flinging himself into a chair, began to study the sporting news. Presently he stole a glance at Mary. It so chanced that just at the same moment she was stealing a glance at him. Mary dropped her eyes with a blush; Laing withdrew behind his paper.
"Shy, of course. Anybody would be," he thought, with a smile.
"Did you like the piece, Mary?" asked John.
"Oh, very much. I wish Aunt Sarah could have seen it. She missed so much fun."
"Well, she could hardly have come with us, could she?" remarked John.
"Oh, no," said Mary.
"Well, I should rather think not," whispered Laing, who failed to identify 'Aunt Sarah' with the elderly person on the trunk.
"I shouldn't have been happy if she had," said Mary.
"I simply wouldn't have let her," said John, in that authoritative tone which so well became him.
"No more would I in your place, old chap," murmured Mr. Laing.
"Thanks for all your kindness, John. Good-night."
"I'm so glad you've had a pleasant day. Good-night, Mary."
So they parted—with a good-night as calm, as decorous, as frankly fraternal as one could wish (or wish otherwise). Yet its very virtues undid it in the prematurely suspicious eyes of Arthur Laing. For no sooner was he left alone than he threw down his paper and began to chuckle.
"All for my benefit, that, eh? 'Goodnight, Mary!' 'Good-night, John!' Lord! Lord!" and he rose, lit a cigarette, and ordered a brandy-and-soda. And ever and again he smiled. He felt very acute indeed.
So vain is it for either wisdom or simplicity, candor or diplomacy—nay, for facts themselves—to struggle against a Man with a Theory. Mr. Laing went to bed no more doubting that Mary and John were man and wife than he doubted that he had 'spotted' the winner of the Derby. Certitude could no farther go.
THE SIGHTS OF AVIGNON
"It's a curious thing," observed Roger Deane, "but this fellow Baedeker always travels the opposite way to what I do. When I'm coming back, he's always going out, and vice versa. It makes him precious difficult to understand, I can tell you, Miss Dora. However I think I've got him now. Listen to this! 'Marseilles to Arles (Amphitheatre starred) one day. Arles to Avignon (Palace of the Popes starred) two days—slow going that—Avignon to——'"
"Do you want to squat in this wretched country, Sir Roger?" demanded Dora angrily.
A faint smile played round Sir Roger's lips.
"You're the only one who's in a hurry." he remarked.
"No, I'm not. Mr. Ellerton is in just as much of a hurry."
"Then he bears disappointment better."
"What in the world did papa and—well, and Lady Deane, you know—want to stop here for?"
"You don't seem to understand how interesting Marseilles is. Let me read you a passage. 'Marseilles was a colony founded about 600 B.C.'—What? Oh, all right! We'll skip a bit. 'In 1792 hordes of galley-slaves were sent hence to Paris, where they committed frightful excesses.' That's what Maud and your father are going to do. 'It was for them that Rouget—' I say, what's the matter, Miss Dora?"
"I don't know why you should enjoy teasing me, but you have nearly made me cry, so perhaps you'll be happy now."
"You tried to take me in. I pretended to be taken in. That's all."
"Well, it was very unkind of you."
"So, after all, it's not a matter of indifference to you at what rate we travel, as you said in the train to-day?"
"Oh, I had to. I—I couldn't let papa see."
"And why are you in a hurry?"
"I can't tell you; but I must—oh, I must!—be in England in four days."
"You'll hardly get your father to give up a day at Avignon."
"Well, one day there; then we should just do it, if we only slept in Paris."
"Yes, but my wife——"
"Oh, you can stay. Don't say anything about Paris yet. Help me to get there. I'll make papa go on. Please do, Sir Roger. I shall be so awfully obliged to you; so will Mr. Ellerton."
"Charlie Ellerton? Not he! He's in no hurry."
"What do you mean? Didn't you hear him to-day urging papa to travel straight through?"
"Oh, yes, I heard that."
"You were there then."
"What of that?"
"He's not so pressing when you're away."
"I don't understand. Why should he pretend to be in a hurry when he isn't?"
"Ah, I don't know. Don't you?"
"Not in the least, Sir Roger. But never mind Mr. Ellerton. Will you help me?"
"As far as Paris. You must look out for yourself there."
These terms Dora accepted. Surely at Paris she would hear some news of or from John Ashforth. She thought he must have written one line in response to her last letter, and that his answer must have been so far delayed as to arrive at Cannes after her departure; it would be waiting for her at Paris and would tell her whether she was in time or whether there was no more use in hurrying. The dread that oppressed her was lest, arriving too late in Paris, she should find that she had missed happiness by reason of this wretched dawdling in Southern France.
Seeing her meditative, Deane slipped away to his cigar, and she sat in the hotel hall, musing. Deane's revelation of Charlie's treachery hardly surprised her; she meant to upbraid him severely, but she was conscious that, if little surprised, she was hardly more than a little angry. His conduct was indeed contemptible; it revealed an utter instability and fickleness of mind which made her gravely uneasy as to Mary Travers's chances of permanent happiness. Yes, scornful one might b; but who could be seriously angry with the poor boy? And perhaps, after all, she did him injustice. Some natures were more prone than others to sudden passions; it really did not follow that a feeling must be either shallow or short-lived because it was sudden; whether it survived or passed away would depend chiefly on the person who excited it. It was clear that Mary Travers was incapable of maintaining a permanent hold over Charlie's affections, but another girl might—might have. If so, it would perhaps be a pity if Charlie and Mary Travers were to come together again. She doubted very much if they were suited to one another. She pictured Mary as a severe, rather stern young woman; and she hardly knew whether to laugh or groan at the thought of Charlie adapting himself to such a mate. Meanwhile her own position was certainly very difficult, and she acknowledged its thorniness with a little sigh. To begin with, the suspense was terrible; at times she would have been almost relieved to hear that John was married beyond recall. Then Charlie was a great and a growing difficulty. He had not actually repeated the passionate indiscretion, of which he had been guilty at Cannes, but more and more watchfulness and severity were needed to keep him within the bounds proper to their relative positions, and it was odious to be disagreeable to a fellow-traveller, especially when he was such a good and devoted friend as Charlie.
Sir Roger loyally carried out his bargain. Lady Deane was hurried on, leaving Marseilles, with its varied types of humanity and its profound social significance, practically unexplored; Aries and Amphitheatre, in spite of the beckoning "star," were dropped out of the programme, and the next day found the party at Avignon. And now they were once more for a moment in harmony. Dora could spare twenty-four hours; Lady Deane and the General were mollified by conscious unselfishness; the prospect of a fresh struggle at Paris lay well in the background and was discreetly ignored; Charlie Ellerton, who had reached the most desperate stage of love, looked neither back nor forward. It was enough for him to have wrung four-and-twenty hours of Dora's company from fate's reluctant grasp. He meant to make the most of it.
She and he sat, on the afternoon of their arrival, in the gardens, hard by the Cathedral, where Lady Deane and the General wore doing their duty. Sir Roger had chartered a cab and gone for a drive on the boulevards.
"And we shall really be in Paris to-morrow night?" said Dora. "And in England, I hope, six-and-thirty hours afterwards. I want papa to cross the next evening. Mr. Ellerton, I believe we shall be in time."
Charlie said nothing. He seemed to be engrossed by the magnificent view before him.
"Well? Have you nothing to say?" she asked.
"It's a sin to rush through a place like this," he observed. "We ought to stay a week. There's no end to see. It's an education!"
By way, probably, of making the most of his brief opportunity, he went on gazing, across the river which flowed below, now towards the heights of Mont Ventoux, now at the ramparts of Villeneuve. Dora, on the other hand, fixed pensive eyes on his curly hatless head, which leant forward as he rested his elbows on his knees. He had referred to the attractions of Avignon in tones of almost overpowering emotion.
Presently he turned his head towards her with a quick jerk.
"I don't want to be in time," he said, and, with equal rapidity, he returned to his survey of Villeneuve.
Dora made no answer, unless a perplexed wrinkle on her brow might serve for one. A long silence followed. It was broken at last by Charlie. He left the landscape with a sigh of satisfaction, as though he could not reproach himself with having neglected it, and directed his gaze into his companion's eyes. Dora blushed and pulled the brim of her hat a little lower down over her brow.
"What's more," said Charlie, in deliberate tones, and as if no pause had occurred between this remark and his last, "I don't believe you do."
Dora started and straightened herself in her seat; it looked as if the rash remark were to be met with a burst of indignation, but, a second later, she leant back again and smiled scornfully.
"How can you be so silly, Mr. Ellerton?" she asked.
"We both of us," pursued Charlie, "see now that we made up our minds to be very foolish; we both of us mistook our real feelings; we're beginning—at least I began some time ago, and you're beginning now—to understand the true state of affairs."
"Oh, I know what you mean, and I ought to be very angry, I suppose; but it's too absurd."
"Not in the least. The absurd thing is your fancying that you care about this follow Ashforth."
"No, you must really stop, you must indeed. I don't——"
"I know the sort of fellow he is—a dull dry chap, who makes love as if he was dancing a minuet."
"You're quite wrong."
"And kisses you as if it was part of the church service."
This last description, applied to John Ashforth's manner of wooing, had enough of aptness to stir Dora into genuine resentment.
"A Girl doesn't like a man less because he respects her; nor more because he ridicules better men than himself."
"Don't be angry. I'm only saying what's true. Why should I want to run him down?"
"I suppose—well, I suppose because——"
"You're a little bit—but I don't think I ought to talk about it."
"Jealous, you were going to say."
"And that shows you know what I mean."
"Well, by now I suppose I do. I can't help your doing it or I would."
Charlie moved closer, and leaning forward till his face was only a yard from hers, while his hand, sliding along the back of the seat, almost touched her, said in a low voice, "Are you sure you would?"
Dora's answer was a laugh—a laugh with a hint of nervousness in it. Perhaps she knew what was in it, for she looked away towards the river.
"Dolly," he whispered, "shall I go back to Cannes? Shall I?"
Perhaps the audacity of this per saltum advance from the distance of Miss 'Bellairs' to the ineffable assumption involved in 'Dolly' made the subject of it dumb.
"I will, if you ask me," he said, us she, was silent for a space.
Then with profile towards him and eyes away, she murmured,
"What would Miss Travers say if you turned back now?"
The mention of Mary did not on this occasion evoke any unseemly words. On the contrary, Charlie smiled. He glanced at his companion. He glanced behind him and round him. Then, drilling his deep design into the semblance of an uncontrollable impulse, he seized Dora's hand in his and, before she could stir, kissed her cheek.
She leapt to her feet.
"How dare you?" she cried.
"How could I help it?"
"I'll never speak to you again. No gentleman would have—oh, I do hope you're ashamed of yourself!"
Her words evidently struck home. With an air of contrition he sank on the seat.
"I'm a beast," he said ruefully. "You're quite right, Miss Bellairs. Don't have anything more to say to me. I wish I was—I wish I had some—some self-control—and self-respect, you know. If I were a fellow like Ashforth now, I should never have done that! Of course you can't forgive me," and, in his extremity of remorse, he buried his face in his hands.
Dora stood beside him. She made one step as if to leave him; a glance at him brought her back, and she looked down at him for a minute. Presently a troubled doubtful little smile appeared on her face; when she realized it was there, she promptly banished it. Alas! It was too late. The rascal had been peeping through his fingers, and, with a ringing laugh, he sprang to his feet, caught both her hands, and cried, "Shocking, wasn't it? Awful?"
"Let me go, Mr. Ellerton."
"Why? Why, when you——?"
"Sir Roger's coming. Look behind you."
"Oh, the deuce!"
An instant later they were sitting demurely at opposite ends of the seat, inspecting Villeneuve with interest.
In another moment Deane stood before them, puffing a cigarette, and wearing an expression of amiability tempered by boredom.
"Wonderful old place, isn't it, Deane?" asked Charlie.
"Such a view, Sir Roger!" cried Dora, in almost breathless enthusiasm.
"You certainly," assented Deane, "do see some wonderful sights on this Promenade. I'm glad I came up. The air's given you quite a color, Miss Dora."
"It's tea-time," declared Dora suddenly. "Take me down with you, Sir Roger. Mr. Ellerton, go and tell the others we're going home to tea."
Charlie started off, and Sir Roger strolled along by Miss Bellairs's side. Presently he said:
"Still anxious to get to Paris?"
"Why shouldn't I be?" she asked quickly.
"I thought perhaps the charms of Avignon would have decided you to linger. Haven't you been tempted?"
Dora glanced at him, but his face betrayed no secondary meaning.
"Tempted? Oh, perhaps," she answered, with the same nervous little laugh, "but not quite led astray. I'm going on."
MR. AND MRS. ASHFORTH (1)
All that evening Miss Bellairs was not observed—and Deane watched her very closely—to address a word to Charlie Ellerton; even 'good-night' was avoided by a premature disappearance and unexpected failure to return. Perhaps it was part of the same policy of seclusion which made her persuade Lady Deane to travel to Paris with her in one compartment and relegate the men to another—a proposal which the banished accepted by an enthusiastic majority of two to one. The General foresaw an infinity of quiet naps and Deane uninterrupted smoking; Charlie alone chafed against the necessary interruption of his bold campaign, but, in face of Dora's calm coldness of aspect, he did not dare to lift up his voice.
Lady Deane was so engrossed in the study—or the search for opportunities of study—of sides of life with which she was unfamiliar as to be, for the most part, blind to what took place immediately around her. General Bellairs himself (who vaguely supposed that some man might try to make love to his daughter five years hence, and thereupon be promptly sent off with a flea in his ear) was not more unconscious than she that there was, had been, or might be anything, as the phrase runs, 'between' the two junior members of the party. Lady Deane had no hints to give and no questions to ask; she seated herself placidly in a corner and began to write in a large note-book. She had been unwillingly compelled to 'scamp' Marseilles, but, as she wrote, she found that the rough notes she was copying, aided by fresh memory, supplied her with an ample fund of material. Alternately she smiled contentedly to herself, and gazed out of the window with a preoccupied air. Clearly a plot was brewing-, and the author was grateful to Dora for restricting her interruptions to an occasional impatient sigh and the taking up and dropping again of her Tauchnitz.
With the men tongues moved more.
"Well, General," said Deane, "what's Miss Dora's ultimatum about your staying in Paris?"
Charlie pricked up his ears and buried his face behind La Vie Parisienne.
"You'll think me very weak, Deane," rejoined the General, with an apologetic laugh, "but I've promised to go straight on if she wants me to."
"And does she?"
"I don't know what the child has got in her head, but she says she'll tell me when she gets to Paris. We shall have a day with you anyhow; I don't think she's so set on not staying as she was, but I don't profess to understand her fancies. Still, as you see, I yield to them."
"Man's task in the world," said Deane. "Eh, Charlie? What are you hiding behind that paper for?"
"I was only looking at the pictures."
"Quite enough too. You're going to stay in Paris, aren't you?"
"Don't know yet, old fellow. It depends on whether I get a letter calling me back or not."
"Hang it, one might as well be in a house where the shooting turns out a fraud. Nobody knows that he won't have a wire any morning and have to go back to town. My wife 'll be furious if you desert her, General."
"Oh, I hope it won't come to that."
"I hope awfully that I shall be able to stay," said Charlie, with obvious sincerity.
"Then," observed Deane with a slight smile, "if the General and Miss Bellairs leave us you can take my wife about."
"I should think you might take her yourself," and he gently kicked Deane. He was afraid of arousing the General's dormant suspicions.
It was late at night when they arrived in Paris, but the faithful Laing was on the platform to meet them, and received them with a warm greeting. While the luggage was being collected by Deane's man, they stood and talked on the platform. Presently the General, struck by a sudden thought, asked:
"I suppose nothing came for us at Cannes, oh, Laing? You said you'd bring anything on, you know."
Laing interrupted a pretty speech which he was trying to direct into Dora's inattentive ears.
"Beg pardon, General?"
"No letters for any of us before you left Cannes?"
"No, Gen—" he began, but suddenly stopped. His mouth remained open and his glass fell from his eye.
The General, not waiting to hear more than the first word, had rushed of to hail a cab and Deane was escorting his wife. Dora and Charlie stood waiting for the unfinished speech.
The end came slowly and with a prodigious emphasis of despair.
"Oh, by Jove!"
"Well, Mr. Laing?" said Dora.
"The morning you left—just after—there were two telegrams."
"For me?" said each of his auditors.
"One for each of you, but
"Oh, give me mine."
"Hand over mine, old chap."
"I—I haven't got 'em."
"I—I'm awfully sorry, I.——I forgot 'em."
"Oh, how tiresome of you, Mr. Laing!"
"Send 'em round first thing to-morrow, Laing."
"But—but I don't know where I put 'em. I know I laid 'em down. Then I took 'em up. Then I put 'em—where the deuce did I put 'em? Here's a go, Miss Bellairs! I say, I am an ass!"
No contradiction assailed him. His victims glared reproachfully at him.
"I must have left them at Cannes. I'll wire first thing in the morning, Miss Bellairs; I'll get up as soon as ever the office is open. I say, do forgive me."
"Well, Mr. Laing, I'll try, but——"
"Laing! Here! My wife wants you," shouted Sir Roger, and the criminal, happy to escape, ran away, leaving Dora and Charlie alone.
"They must have been from them," murmured Dora.
"No doubt; and that fool Laing——"
"What has he done with them?"
"Lit his pipe with them, I expect."
"Oh, what shall we do?"
"I don't know."
"What—what do you think they said, Mr. Ellerton?"
"How can I tell? Perhaps that the marriage was off!"
"Oh!" escaped from Dora.
"Perhaps that it was going on."
"It's worse than ever. They may have asked for answers."
"And they won't have written here!"
"Sure not to have."
"And—and I shan't know what to do. I—I believe it was to say he had broken off the marriage."
"Is the wish father to the thought?"
The lights of the station flickered, but Charlie saw, or thought he saw, a hasty unpremeditated gesture of protest.
"Dolly!" he whispered.
"Hush, hush! How can you now—before we know?"
"The cab's waiting," called Deane. "Come along."
They got in in silence. The General and the Deanes went first, and the three young people followed in a second vehicle. It was but just twelve, and the boulevards were gay and full of people.
Suddenly, as they were near the Opera, they saw the tall figure of an unmistakable Englishman walking away from them down the Avenue de l'Opera. Dora clutched Charlie's arm with a convulsive grip.
"Hullo, what's the—" he began, but a second pinch enforced silence.
"See that chap?" asked Laing, pointing to the figure. "He's at my hotel."
"Is he?" said Dora in a faint voice.
"Yes, I've got a good deal of amusement out of him. He oughtn't to be out so late though, and by himself, too!"
"Who is it?" asked Charlie.
"I don't know his name."
"And why oughtn't he to be out?"
"Because he's on his honeymoon,"
"What?" cried Dora.
"Just married," explained Laing. "Wife's a tallish girl, fair, rather good-looking; looks standoffish though."
"You—you're sure they're married, Mr. Laing?" gasped Dora, and Charlie, in whom her manner had awakened a suspicion of the truth, also waited eagerly for the reply.
"What, Miss Bellairs?" asked Laing in surprise.
"Oh, I mean—I mean you haven't made a mistake?"
"Well, they're together all day, and nobody's with them except a lady's-maid. I should think that's good enough."
With a sigh Dora sank back against the cushions. They were at the hotel now; the others had already entered, and, bidding Laing a hearty good-night, Dora ran in, followed closely by Charlie. He did not overtake her before she found her father.
"Well, Dolly," said the General, "there's no letter."
"Oh," cried Dolly, "I'll stay as long as ever you like, papa."
"That's right," said Deane. "And you, Charlie?"
Charlie took his cue.
"A month if you like."
"Capital! Now for a wash—come along, Maud—and then supper!"
Dora lingered behind the others, and Charlie with her. Directly they were alone, he asked:
"What does it all mean?"
She sat down, still panting with agitation.
"Why—why, that man we saw—the man Mr. Laing says is on his honeymoon, is—is——"
"Dolly! And his wife! By Jove! It's an exact description of Mary Travers!"
"The telegrams were to say the marriage was to be at once."
"Yes, and—they're married!"
A short pause marked the astounding conclusion. Then Charlie came up very close and whispered:
"Are you broken-hearted, Dolly?"
She turned her face away with a blush.
"Are you, Dolly?"
"I'm very much ashamed of myself," she murmured. "Oh, Mr. Ellerton, not just yet!" and in deference to her entreaty Charlie had the grace to postpone what he was about to do.
When the supper was ready Sir Roger Deane looked round the table inquiringly.
"Well," said he, "what is it to be?"
"Champagne—champagne in magnums!" cried Charlie Ellerton, with a ringing laugh.
MR. AND MRS. ASHFORTH (2)
Miss Bussey was much relieved when the doctor pronounced her convalescent and allowed her to come downstairs. To fall ill on an outing is always exasperating, but beyond that she felt that her enforced seclusion was particularly unfortunate at the moment. Here were two young people, not engaged nor going to be engaged to one another; and for three days or more circumstances had abandoned them to an inevitable and unchaperoned tete-a-tete! Mary made light of it; she relied on the fraternal relationship, but that was, after all, a fiction, quite incapable, in Miss Bussey's opinion, of supporting the strain to which It had been subjected. Besides Mary's sincerity appeared doubtful; the kind girl, anxious to spare her aunt worry, made light of the difficulties of her position, but Miss Bussey detected a restlessness in her manner which clearly betrayed uneasiness. Here, of course, Miss Bussey was wrong; neither Mary nor John were the least self-conscious; they felt no embarrassment, but, poor creatures, wore out their spirits in a useless vigil over the letter-rack.
Miss Bussey was restored to active life on the morning after the party from Cannes arrived in Paris, and she hastened to emphasize the fact of her return to complete health by the unusual effort of coming down to breakfast. She was in high feather, and her cheery conversation lifted, to some extent, the gloom which had settled on her young friends. While exhorting to patience she was full of hope, and dismissed as chimerical all the darker explanations which the disconsolate lovers invented to account for the silence their communications had met with. Under her influence the breakfast-table became positively cheerful, and at last all the three burst into a hearty laugh at one of the old lady's little jokes.
At this moment Arthur Laing entered the room. His brow was clouded. He had searched his purse, his cigar-case, the lining of his hat—in fact every depository where a careful man would be likely to bestow documents whose existence he wished to remember; as no careful man would put such things in the pocket of his 'blazer', he had not searched there; thus the telegrams had not appeared, and the culprit was looking forward, with some alarm, to the reception which would await him when he 'turned up' to lunch with his friends, as he had promised to do. Hardly, however, had he sat down to his coffee when his sombre thoughts were cleared away by the extraordinary spectacle of young Mr. and Mrs. Ashforth hobnobbing with their maid, the latter lady appearing quite at home and leading the gayety and the conversation. Laing laid down his roll and his knife and looked at them in undisguised amazement.
For a moment doubt of his cherished theory began to assail his mind. He heard the old lady call Ashforth "John;" that was a little strange, and it was rather strange that John answered by saying: "That must be as you wish; I am entirely at your disposal." And yet, reflected Laing, was it very strange, after all? In his own family they had an old retainer who called all the children, whatever their age, by their Christian names, and was admitted to a degree of intimacy hardly distinguishable from that accorded to a relative.
Laing, weighing the evidence pro and contra, decided that there was an overwhelming balance in favor of his old view, and dismissed the matter with the comment that, if it ever befell him to go on a wedding-tour, he would ask his wife to take a maid with rather less claims on her kindness and his toleration.
That same morning the second pair of telegrams, forwarded by post from Cannes, duly arrived. Dora and Charlie, reading them in the light of their recent happy information, found them most kind and comforting, although in reality they, apart from their missing forerunners, told the recipients nothing at all. John's ran: "Am in Paris at European. Please write. Anxious to hear. Everything decided for the best.—John." Mary's to Charlie was even briefer; it said, "Am here at European. Why no answer to last?"
"It's really very kind of Mr. Ashforth," said Dora to Charlie, as they strolled in the garden of the Tuileries, "to make such a point of what I think. I expect the wire that stupid Mr. Laing lost was just to tell me the date of the marriage."
"Not a doubt of it. Miss Tr—Mrs. Ashforth's wire to me makes that clear. They want to hear that we're not desperately unhappy. Well, we aren't, are we, Dolly?"
"Well, perhaps not."
"Isn't it extraordinary how we mistook our feelings? Of course, though, it's natural in you. You had never been through anything of the sort before. How could you tell whether it was the real thing or not?"
Dora shot a glance out of the corner of her eye at her lover, but did not disclaim the innocence he imputed to her; she knew men liked to think that, and why shouldn't they, poor things? She seized on his implied admission and carried the war into his country.
"But you,—you who are so experienced—how did you come to make such a mistake?"
Charlie was not at a loss.
"It wasn't a mistake then," he said. "I was quite right then. Mary Travers was about the nicest girl I had ever seen. I thought her as charming as a girl could be."
"Oh, you did! Then why——"
"My eyes have been opened since then."
"What did that?"
"Why don't you ever pronounce my name?"
"Never mind your name. What opened your eyes?"
"Why, yours, of course."
"What nonsense! They're very nice about it, aren't they? Do you think we ought to call?"
"Shall you feel it awkward?"
"Yes, a little. Shan't you? Still we must let them know we're here. Will you write to Mrs. Ashforth?"
"I suppose I'd better. After lunch 'll do, won't it?"
"Oh, yes. And I'll write a note to him. I expect they won't be staying here long."
"I hope not. Hullo, it's a quarter past twelve. We must be getting back. Laing's coming to lunch."
"Where arc the Deanes?"
"Lady Deane's gone to Belleville with your father to see slums, and Roger's playing tennis with Laing. He said we weren't to wait lunch. Are you hungry, Dolly?"
"Not very. It seems only an hour since breakfast."
"How charming of you! We've been walking here since ten o'clock."
"Mr. Ellerton, will you be serious for a minute? I want to say something important. When we meet the Ashforths there mustn't be a word said about—about—you know."
"Oh, I couldn't! So soon! Surely you see that. Why, it would be hardly civil to them, would it, apart from anything else?"
"Well, it might look rather casual."
"And I positively couldn't face John Ashforth. You promise, don't you?"
"It's a nuisance, because, you see, Dolly——
"You're not to get into the habit of saying 'Dolly'. At least not yet."
"If you're good. Now promise!"
"We're not engaged."
"Nor thinking of it,"
"That's very nice of you, and when the Ashforths are gone——"
"I shall be duly rewarded?"
"Oh, we'll see. Do come along. Papa hates being kept waiting for his meals, and they must have finished their slums long ago."
They found Lady Deane and the General waiting for them, and the latter proposed an adjournment to a famous restaurant near the Opera. Thither they repaired, and ordered their lunch.
"Deane and Laing will find out where we've gone and follow," said the General. "We won't wait," and he resumed his conversation with Lady Deane on the events of the morning.
A moment later the absentees came in; Sir Roger in his usual leisurely fashion, Laing; hurriedly. The latter held in his hand two telegrams, or the crumpled debris thereof. He rushed up to the table and panted out, "Found 'em in the pocket of my blazer—must have put 'em there—stupid ass—never thought of it—put it on for tennis—awfully sorry."
Wasting no time in reproaches, Dora and Charlie grasped their recovered property.
"Excuse me!" they cried simultaneously, and opened the envelopes. A moment later both leant back in their chairs, the pictures of helpless bewilderment.
Dora had read: "Marriage broken off. Coming to you 28th. Write directions—European, Paris."
Charlie had read: "Engagement at end. Aunt and I coming to Paris—European, on 28th. Can you meet?"
Lady Deane was writing in her notebook. The General, Sir Roger, and Laing were busy with the waiter, the menu, and the wine-list. Quick as thought the lovers exchanged telegrams. They read, and looked at one another.