E-text prepared by Al Haines
LOVE AT PADDINGTON
W. PETT RIDGE
Thomas Nelson and Sons London, Edinburgh, Dublin Leeds, Melbourne, and New York Leipzig: 35-37 Koenigstrasse. Paris: 189, rue Saint-Jacques
NOVELS BY THE SAME AUTHOR.
Mord Em'ly. Secretary to Bayne, M.P. A Son of the State. Lost Property. 'Erb. A Breaker of Laws. Mrs. Galer's Business. The Wickhamses. Name of Garland. Sixty-nine Birnam Road. Splendid Brother. Thanks to Sanderson.
First Published in 1912
LOVE AT PADDINGTON.
Children had been sent off to Sunday school, and the more conscientious reached that destination; going in, after delivering awful threats and warnings to those who preferred freedom of thought and a stroll down Edgware Road in the direction of the Park. As a consequence, in the streets off the main thoroughfare leading to Paddington Station peace and silence existed, broken only by folk who, after the principal meal of the week, talked in their sleep. Praed Street was different. Praed Street plumed itself on the fact that it was always lively, ever on the move, occasionally acquainted with royalty. Even on a Sunday afternoon, and certainly at all hours of a week-day, one could look from windows at good racing, generally done by folk impeded by hand luggage who, as they ran, glanced suspiciously at every clock, and gasped, in a despairing way, "We shall never do it!" or, optimistically, "We shall only just do it!" or, with resignation, "Well, if we lose this one we shall have to wait for the next."
Few establishments were open in Praed Street, shutters were up at the numerous second-hand shops, and at the hour of three o'clock p.m. the thirst for journals at E. G. Mills's (Established 1875) was satisfied; the appetite for cigars, cigarettes, and tobacco had scarcely begun. Now and again a couple of boys, who had been reading stories of wild adventure in the Rocky Mountains, dashed across the road, upset one of Mrs. Mills's placard boards, and flew in opposite directions, feeling that although they might not have equalled the daring exploits of their heroes in fiction, they had gone as far as was possible in a country hampered by civilization.
"Young rascals!" said Mrs. Mills, coming back after repairing one of these outrages. The shop had a soft, pleasing scent of tobacco from the brown jars, marked in gilded letters "Bird's Eye" and "Shag" and "Cavendish," together with the acrid perfume of printer's ink. "Still, I suppose we were all young once. Gertie," raising her voice, "isn't it about time you popped upstairs to make yourself good-looking? There's no cake in the house, and that always means some one looks in unexpectedly to tea."
"Gertie! Don't you hear me when I'm speaking to you?"
"Beg pardon, aunt. I was thinking of something else."
"You think too much of something else, my dear," said Mrs. Mills persuasively. "I was saying to a customer, only yesterday, that you don't seem able lately to throw off your work when you've finished. You keep on threshing it out in your mind. And it's all very well, to a certain extent, but there's a medium in all things." Mrs. Mills went to the half-open door, that was curtained only in regard to the lower portion. "Trimming a hat," she cried protestingly. "Oh, my dear, and to think your mother was a Wesleyan Methodist. Before she came to London, I mean."
Her niece surveyed the work at arm's length. "I've done all I want to do to it," she said.
Mrs. Mills ordered the hat to be put on that she might ascertain whether it suited, and this done, and guarded approval given, asked to be allowed to try it on her own head. Here, again, the results, inspected in the large mirror set in a narrow wooden frame above the mantelpiece, gained commendation; Mrs. Mills declared she would feel inclined to purchase a similar hat, only that Praed Street might say she was looking for a second husband. Besides, she never went out.
"Your poor mother was just as handy with her needle as what you are. We'd go along together to have a look at the shops in Oxford Street, and the moment she returned home, she'd set to work, and alter something to make it look fashionable." Mrs. Mills sighed. "Little good it brought her, though, in the long run."
"I am sure," remarked the girl quickly, "it never brought her any harm."
"Didn't help to get hold of anybody better than your father, at any rate. But they're both gone, and it's no use talking."
Some one entered the shop.
"Your friend Miss Radford," she announced. "Now there won't be a chance for any one else to speak."
The visitor justified the prophecy, by entering the parlour with a breathless "Oh, I've got such news!" checking herself on encountering Mrs. Mills. Mrs. Mills asked, with reserve, concerning the health of Miss Radford's mother, and mentioned (not apparently for the first time) that the lady, in her opinion, ought to be living on a gravel soil. Miss Radford, obviously suffering from repressed information, promised to deliver the advice, word for word, and in the meantime gave her own warm thanks.
"Old nuisance!" she remarked, as the half-curtained door closed. "I wonder how you can put up with her."
"My aunt is very good to me."
"Isn't it a pity," said the visitor inconsequently, "that you're so short? Well, not exactly short, but certainly only about middle height. I think"—she glanced at the mirror complacently—"my idea is it's partly because I'm tall that I attract so much notice. I'm sure the way they gaze round after I'm gone by—Well, it used to make me feel quite confused, but I've got over that. You don't have to put up with such experiences, Gertie."
"Afraid I forget to turn to see if they're looking."
"You've got rather a thoughtless disposition," agreed the other. "Once or twice lately, when I've been telling you things that I don't tell to everybody, it's struck me that you've been scarcely listening." The door was closed, but Miss Radford verified this before proceeding. "What do you think?" she asked in an awed voice. "Whatever do you think? Two of my old ones have met. Met at a smoking concert apparently. And they somehow started talking, and my name cropped up, and," tearfully, "they've written me such a unkind letter, with both their names to it. On the top of it all, the latest one caught sight of me yesterday afternoon, dressing the window at our establishment, so that he won't put in an appearance at the Marble Arch this evening."
"Because I told him I was an artist. Said I had a picture in the Royal Academy the year before last."
"You are rather foolish at times, aren't you?"
"I wish, darling," wailed Miss Radford, "that you could tell me something I don't know."
The clock on the mantelpiece struck the half-hour, and Mrs. Mills's niece, suddenly alarmed, said she would not be absent for more than ten minutes, an announcement the visitor received with an incredulous shake of the head. As a fact, Gertie returned in five minutes fully apparelled, to discover Miss Radford improved in spirits and ready for more conversation.
"A new blouse?" she cried, interrupting herself. "And you never told me. Gertie Higham," solemnly, "this isn't what I call friendship."
The girl went straight through the shop, and looking up and down Praed Street, remarked to Mrs. Mills that it intended to be a fine evening. The elder lady said it was high time Gertie found a young man to take her out; the girl answered composedly that perhaps Mr. Trew might call and do her this service.
"Or Fred Bulpert?" remarked the aunt pointedly.
"No," she answered, "not Mr. Bulpert, thank you. Mr. Trew is different."
"He isn't the man he was when I first knew him."
"I like him because he's the man he is."
She turned quickly at the sound of a deep, husky voice. Mr. Trew, on the mat, opened his arms at sight of her, and beamed with a face that was like the midday sun; she took his sleeve and pulled him to the pavement.
"At five minutes to five," she whispered urgently, "you're going to take me for a walk in Hyde Park."
"At four fifty-five to the minute," he agreed. "What's the game, may I kindly ask?"
"I'll tell you later on."
"I hadn't noticed it," he said loudly, re-entering the shop, "until my attention was drawed to it by the little missy here. But there it is right enough on the playcards. 'Motor omnibuses for London.'" He shook his head, and, leaning across the counter, addressed Mrs. Mills. "Light of my life, sunshine of my existence—"
"Don't you begin your nonsense," ordered the lady, not displeased.
"—And sweetheart when a boy, I warn you against putting any of your ill-gotten gains into that sort of speculation. They may perhaps start one from the Elephant and it'll get about as fur as the Obelisk, and there it'll stick. And they'll have to take it to pieces, and sell it for scrap iron. I know what I'm talking about."
"That's unusual in your case," said Mrs. Mills.
"I get light-headed when I see you," explained Mr. Trew. "I was took like it the first time I ran across you up in the gallery of the old Princess's, seeing 'Guinea Gold,' and you've had the same effect on me ever since. What's more, you glory in it. You're proud of the wonderful influence you exercise over me. And all I get out of you is a 'aughty smile."
"The fact is," declared Mrs. Mills, "you get too much attention from the ladies. It spoils you!"
"See how she spurns me," he cried, turning to Gertie. "You wouldn't treat a gentleman like that, would you, missy? You wouldn't play football with an honest, loving heart, I'm sure. Oh, come on," with pretended desperation, "let's have a cigar, and try to forget all about it. A twopenny one; same as you sell to members of the House of Lords."
"You're staying to tea," suggested Mrs. Mills, allowing him to make a selection from a box.
"I've got to leave just before five o'clock. Going to take the little missy here out for a promenade."
"Now that is kind and thoughtful of you," declared the other. "With all your silliness, you're not half a bad sort. Gertie, go in and lay the table."
Miss Radford, after inspecting the new-comer over the half-curtain, decided to leave, although, as she pointed out, this was an opportunity for enjoying her company that rarely occurred. In confidence, the young woman remarked that what she hoped might happen at a future date was that she would meet some one possessing a disengaged brother, in which case she guaranteed to bring all her influence to bear in favour of Gertie Higham. Gertie said this was kind, and Miss Radford mentioned that she always felt ready to do a favour whenever she happened to be in good spirits.
The three sat at table, with Mrs. Mills in a position that commanded a view of the shop. Mr. Trew had brought a bag of prawns in the tail-pocket of his coat, secured, he asserted, after enormous trouble and expense from the sea coast of Marylebone Road that very afternoon; they were, anyway, good prawns, and went admirably with thin bread and butter, and Gertie would have eaten more but for anxiety concerning progress of the hands of the clock. Mr. Trew, discussing the products of the sea, regretted that he was bound, by his work, to London—
"Horses is my occupation," he said, "but the ocean's my hobby."
—And derided town, charging it with stuffiness in this month of August, and moreover empty. He wished he were on the pier at Southend, or at Margate, or at any place, in fact, where he might see the waves rolling in and rolling out again, and shy pebbles at them.
"Gertie could have had her holiday this month," remarked Mrs. Mills, glancing with pride at her niece, "but she preferred not. I don't feel sure whether she did right or whether she did wrong in giving them up. There's more unlikely places than a seaside boarding-house to pick up a future husband." She gave details of a case of a young woman living in Harrow Road, who, in the summer of 1900, met at Eastbourne a gentleman with one arm, invalided home from the war; an engagement immediately followed. Later, the girl discovered he was already married, and that he had gone away from his wife and children, taking with him the compensation given to him by his employers, a firm of builders at Willesden.
"I expect the missy is keeping her eyes open, if the truth was known."
"But no definite results," contended Mrs. Mills. "That's what I complain of. At her age I had three after me."
"This was long before I came on the scene," explained Mr. Trew to Gertie; "otherwise there would have been bloodshed. Is this meal ad lib., or do I have to pay extra for another cup of tea?"
"I don't want her to worry about it; I only want her to keep it in view. What I should like more than anything would be to see a young man who was fond of her come in here, at a time like this, and take his piece of bread and butter, fold it, enjoy it, and sing to us afterwards."
"You're certain about that, aunt?"
"Providing he had a decent voice." The shop bell rang. Mrs. Mills half rose and recognized the customer. "We are now about to get all the news of the neighbourhood," she said desolately.
Gertie anticipated her, and, going in, served the lady with a copy of Fireside Love Stories. Returned with an imperative message.
"I shall have to see her," admitted Mrs. Mills. "She won't be happy until she gets some piece of scandal off her mind."
"Fair one," said Trew, with a wave of his hand, "every moment will seem like a century until you return!"
Gertie was fixing her newly-trimmed hat with the aid of the mirror, and Mr. Trew was describing an accident witnessed the day before near Hyde Park corner, when sound of commotion came from the street; he seized his peaked cap and hurried through the shop. Gertie followed. Conversation between the two ladies had been interrupted by the same cause and they were outside the doorway, looking on at a small crowd that acted as escort to an ambulance in charge of two policemen; the aim of every one appeared to be to snatch the privilege of securing a view of the man partly hidden by the brown hood of the conveyance. Mrs. Mills sent the customer across to obtain particulars, and remarking cheerfully to Mr. Trew and the girl, "You two off? Don't be late back, mind!" turned to the more interesting subject. Children were running up from side streets, grateful for anything likely to break the serenity of the afternoon.
"If he's damaged hisself," said Mr. Trew, as the ambulance stopped at the hospital, "he's going to the right place to get repaired."
"It's to be hoped he has friends."
"Everybody's got the friends they deserve to have. Are we going the direction to suit you, missy, or would you rather have gone Edgware Road way?"
"Let's turn down London Street," she suggested. "It will be quiet there. I've something to tell you." She rolled her parasol carefully. "And I want your help, Mr. Trew."
Three youths near the underground station, with apparently no urgent occupation, came forward hopefully on seeing Gertie; detecting the fact that she was in the company of a big, burly man, they had to pretend a sudden interest in a shuttered window. The two, going into Norfolk Square, walked on the narrow pavement near the railings of the garden.
"Mr. Trew, I've got a young man!"
"That's the best news," he exclaimed heartily, "I've heard this summer!"
"And I want somehow to get him asked indoors. Once aunt sees him and hears him talk, it will be all right. But I'm nervous about it, and I don't know how to manage."
"This," he said, holding up a forefinger, "is just where old Harry Trew comes in. This is exactly the sort of job he's fitted for. If he hadn't took up with another occupation he'd have found himself by this time in the Foreign Office. Do you want it arranged for to-night?"
"Right you are! You're going to meet him, I take it, presently. You asked me to come out with you simply as an excuse for that purpose. Very well, then. I've got a standing invite, as you very well know, to drop in at the nine o'clock meal any Sunday evening I like. Your aunt expects me." The forefinger became emphatic. "You simply arrange for him to meet me, say, outside the Met. at ten minutes to the hower; I shall be carrying a Lloyd's in my right hand. I brings him along," continued Mr. Trew exultantly; "I introduces him as a young personal friend of mine that I met on the steamer going to Clacton, year before last. Your aunt says at once that any friend of mine is a friend of her'n. You and him pretend not to know each other, but you gradually become acquainted, and your aunt asks him, at the finish, to look in again. Does that sound all right, or can you suggest a better plan?"
"It's splendid," she cried.
"I think," he continued, "I shall mention in the course of the evening that his father was the best friend I ever had in the world. When I was in a slight financial difficulty once, his father—your young man's father, I mean—came to my assistance. And him not well off neither. Turning-point of my life. But for that help I should, likely enough, have gone down, and down, and down." He looked at her for approval. "What's wrong with that?"
"He's a gentleman!"
Mr. Trew gazed for a few moments at a baby in a perambulator.
"I was born in 'fifty-five, the year of the Crimea War," he said deliberately, "and if my mother had had her way, I sh'd have been christened Sebastopol, which wouldn't have been any catch to a public man like myself. If I'm spared till next year, I shall be celebrating my jubilee, and all London will be illuminated, I expect, with military troops lining the streets. But what I want to tell you, missy, is that, all that time, I've never seen any good resulting from a girl in your position of life becoming friendly with any chap who was considerably above her in regard to what we call social status. On the other hand, I've seen harm come from it."
"There's going to be none in my case," she said quickly.
"I know, I know! I'm perfectly sure of that. That is to say, I'm absolutely certain that is your view now. I can't quite explain what I mean to any one of your age and your sex. If I was a well-educated man"—here he took off his cap and rubbed the top of his head with the peak—"I could find words to wrop it up somehow. The long and the short of it is, you relinquish the idea. To oblige me"—persuasively—"and to gratify your aunt, who's been pretty good to you since you were a child—"
"I don't forget that."
"—And for your own peace of mind in the future, give it all up, and you wait a bit until you find some one belonging to your own set."
"There isn't the distance between the sets there used to be," she argued.
He took hold of the railings with both hands, and tried to shake them in an effort of thought.
"What's the young chap's name?"
"I don't know."
"There you are!"—with gloomy triumph—"don't that prove the truth of everything I've been saying?"
"He doesn't know mine."
"That isn't an argument."
"Quite so," the girl agreed. "It's only a statement of fact. He will tell me his name directly I ask him, and I shall tell him my name the moment he asks me."
"No occupation, I suppose?"
"He works for his living."
"Then," turning reproachfully upon her, "what did you mean by saying he was a gentleman, and upsetting me to this extent?"
"He is a gentleman," persisted Gertie. "I can tell the difference."
Mr. Trew sighed, and took out his watch. Gertie glanced at it.
"I must go," she said. "I promised to meet him not far from the shop at half-past."
"I'd do anything to help you, missy," he declared, "because I like you. And it's just because I like you that I don't feel particular inclined to assist him. He ought to keep to his own sphere. There's a lot of talk about breaking down the barriers that divide one class from another, but, I tell you, it's a job that wants very careful handling. And I've got as much sense as most, and I rather enjoy interfering with other people's affairs, but this is an undertaking I don't care to tackle. You'll excuse me for speaking my mind, won't you? It's a habit I've got into."
"It's a good habit," said Gertie. "I practise it myself."
On the return, Mr. Trew, cap now at the back of his head, and his rubicund face bearing indications of seriousness, pointed out that the girl was in a berth in Great Titchfield Street, which he described as not so dusty, earning twenty-five shillings a week, and with Saturday afternoons and Sundays free; a good home, and everything ready for her when she returned, tired out, at night; first-class feeding, able to dress well. Mr. Trew, without daring to say whether he was right or whether he was wrong, begged to suggest there were many girls worse treated by fortune; it did seem to him that these advantages ought not to be given up lightly.
"There he is!" she cried excitedly. "Across there. Near the second-hand furniture shop."
"Your aunt's calling you," he said.
Mrs. Mills was out on the pavement, scooping at the air with her right arm. Gertie instinctively obeyed the order; Mr. Trew kept pace with her. The three entered the shop, and Mrs. Mills, with a touch of her heel, closed the door, went inside the tobacco counter, and, across it, spoke rapidly and vehemently, with the aid of emphatic gesture, for five minutes by the clock. Mr. Trew, disregarding rules of etiquette, sat down, whilst the two stood, and became greatly interested in the mechanism of a cigar-cutter.
"Who told you all this, aunt?" asked the girl calmly, when Mrs. Mills had finished.
"The lady customer who was here when you went out. Do you deny it? Of course, if it isn't correct that you've been seen walking about with a young swell, I've lost my temper for nothing."
"Girls will be girls," interposed Mr. Trew.
"Not in my house."
"It's all perfectly correct," announced Gertie.
Mrs. Mills looked around in a dazed way.
"Trew," she cried, "what's to be done?"
"You've had your say, old beauty," he remarked slowly. "Now let me and her go into the parlour and have some music—music of a different kind."
The girl hesitated, and looked through the window. He touched her shoulder. "I sh'd take it as a special favour."
He came out a few minutes later, and mentioned to Gertie's aunt that he had a message to deliver. The music within ceased; the lid of the pianoforte closed.
"Trew," she said.
"Queen of my heart."
"This isn't the only upset I've had. Who do you think it was in that ambulance cart this afternoon? I hopped across to have a look." Leaning over the counter, she whispered.
"That complicates matters, so far as she is concerned," he admitted. "I hoped he'd vanished for good. We shall want all the diplomacy that we've got stored away to deal with this."
Mr. Trew could scarcely be suspected of exceeding his instructions; he had, upon his return, given privately an account of the words used, with frequent use of the phrases, "I says to him," and "He says to me." But as evenings of the week went by, and other girls at Hilbert's, on leaving at the hour of seven, were met by courageous youths near the door, and by shyer lads at a more reticent spot (some of these took ambush in doorways, affecting to read cricket results in the evening paper), then Gertie Higham began to wonder whether the message had been communicated in the precise tone and manner that she had given it. The blue pinafored girls, stitching gold thread in the workroom at Hilbert's, cultivated little reserve, and when they had occasion to enter the office they sometimes told her of young men encountered (say) at a dance, of ardent protestations of love, faithful promises to meet again.
"And from that day to this," the accounts finished, "not so much as a sign of his lordship."
There was encouragement in the thought that he knew the number in Great Titchfield Street; was aware that she walked thence to Praed Street. And each evening on the way home a straw hat temporarily imposed upon her, a tall boyish figure and an eager method of walking deceived. At Praed Street, Mrs. Mills, noting that time had not been wasted on the journey, beamed approval and made much of her niece, telling her she was a good, sensible girl; one bound to get on in the world. Gertie did not leave again after her arrival, but turned out a room upstairs, and swept and dusted with extraordinary energy.
Good spirits increased at Great Titchfield Street when Friday came, and men at the looms above sang loudly; girls who had borrowed small sums were reminded by lenders that the moment for payment was close at hand. At the hour, wages were given through the pigeon-hole of the windows by Madame, with the assistance of Gertie, and the young women hung up pinafores, pinned hats, and flew off with the sums as though there was danger of a refund being demanded. When they had gone, Madame, dispirited by the paying out of money, said there was not now the profit in the business that there had been in her father's day, when you charged what you liked, and everybody paid willingly. To restore cheerfulness, the two faced each other at the sloping desks, and Madame dictated whilst Gertie took bills, headed "Hilbert's Military Accoutrement Manufacturers," and wrote the words, "To a/c rendered." Later, she left to Madame the task of locking up.
Near the print shop over the way, a tall young figure in a tweed suit marched from one unlighted lamp-post to another; the girl drew back to the staircase, snatching a space for consideration. The next moment she was crossing the street with the air of an art patron anxious to inspect before making a purchase.
"You gave me such a start," she declared, as a hand touched her shoulder lightly. "I'd begun to think you'd disappeared altogether. Where've you been hiding?"
"Do you mind very much," he asked, gazing down at her contentedly, "if I honour you with my company a part of the way?"
"No objection whatever. Hasn't it been a scorcher? Up there, what with the heat and the noise of the machines going, it's made my head ache."
"You won't care to go to a concert then. Shall we have a boat again in Regent's Park? We are both magnificent sailors."
"I'd rather be somewheres where we can talk."
"Why," he declared, "that is just what I should prefer. The similarity in our tastes is almost alarming."
"Primrose Hill is rather a nice open space."
"Sounds perfectly delightful," he agreed; "but I can't in the least guess where it is."
"I know my way about London," said Gertie Higham.
They walked along Oxford Street, the girl endeavouring to keep in step with him, and he attempting to keep in step with her; they appeared to decide near to Wells Street that it would be more convenient to fall back on individual methods. At the corner of Tottenham Court Road Gertie hailed a yellow omnibus which was on the point of starting; she skipped up the steps with a confidence that made the conductor's warning "'Old tight!" superfluous.
"You didn't mind my sending out that message the other evening?" Beginning the conversation breathlessly.
"I considered it kind of you to be so thoughtful."
"It wasn't exactly that. I didn't want a row with aunt. What did you think of Mr. Trew?"
"Do you know, it occurred to me that he looked rather like an omnibus driver."
"He is an omnibus driver."
"Better than that—a friend. I s'pose you're somewhat particular about relations?"
The conductor came, and the girl had thought of other questions by the time fares to the Adelaide were paid. A man on the seat in front turned to ask her companion for a match; he handed over a silver box that bore a monogram. She begged permission, when it was given back, to look at the case.
"Which stands for the Christian name?"
"And D. is for the surname then—H. D."
"Henry Douglass," he said.
"I like the sound of it," she declared. "What do you think the name of the forewoman at our place of business is?" She chattered on, and he listened attentively, as though the sound of her voice was all that mattered.
At the Adelaide they alighted, and, walking up the short hill, found Regent's Park Road; she explained the geography of the district, pointed out that away south it was all open country until you came to Marylebone Road. And was it not wonderful how fresh and bracing the air seemed up here, even on a summer's evening; you could easily imagine yourself miles and miles away from London. Did he care for the country? She did not. For one thing, the people there had such an odd way of speaking that it was a trouble to realize what they were driving at. She sometimes wondered whether they understood each other.
"You're letting me do all the talk," she remarked, as they took seats in the enclosed space at the top of the hill. Boys were playing on the slopes, punctuating the game with frequent disputes. A young couple seated near a tree attracted her notice; the girl's eyes were closed, head resting on the shoulder of the young man, who had an aspect of gloomy resignation.
"Sillies some people make of themselves, don't they?" she said.
"I suppose we are, most of us, ludicrous to other people."
"Do you laugh at me sometimes?"
"No, no," he said earnestly; "I like you too much to do that."
"You think you're a bit fond of me," she said, gazing ahead and speaking deliberately, "because I'm different from most of the girls you're in the habit of meeting, and my ways make a change for you. That's about all. You'd soon get tired of me and my manner if we saw much of each other. I know it won't last."
"I shall not trouble to contradict that," he remarked good-temperedly, "because I know you don't believe it yourself. Why, it would be absolutely splendid to be always with you."
Another couple walked by, breathless after the climb. Gertie, recognizing her friend Miss Radford, nodded; and that young lady, after a short scream of astonishment, gave a bow, and nudged her blushing companion as an instruction to imitate the example by raising his hat.
"I'm glad she's seen us," said Gertie. "Didn't the young fellow turn red?"
"He's a junior clerk in my office."
"What a score for me!" she cried exultantly. "I've a good mind to ask you now what you do for a living exactly, only that I'd rather find everything out bit by bit."
"You queer little person," he said affectionately. "Tell me instead about yourself. What is a day like at your place of business? Do you mind—it helps to concentrate my attention—if I hold your hand whilst you talk?"
"Why should I?" asked Gertie.
There could be no doubt, as she progressed with the description of Great Titchfield Street, that her mind was well occupied with the daily work; she gave the recital clearly and well, avoiding repetition and excluding any suggestion of monotony. Every moment of the hours there seemed to engage her interest. It was her duty to keep the books, and keep them straight; to answer the telephone, and sometimes make purchases of reels of gold thread and of leather. The looms and the netting machine were worked by men; the rest was done by girls. The forewoman was described, and her domestic troubles lightly sketched (Miss Rabbit's father backed horses, excepting when they came in first). Madame herself was spoken of in lowered respectful tones—partly because of her high position, partly because of shrewd and businesslike methods. Madame, it appeared, attributed any success she attained to the circumstance that she had steered clear of matrimony. Madame told the girls sometimes that you could wed yourself to business, or you could wed yourself to a man, but women who tried to do both found themselves punished for bigamy, sooner or later. Gertie was a favourite of Madame's; the main reason was, the girl thought, that—
"Shan't tell you!" she said, interrupting herself.
"Let me hear the worst," begged young Douglass cheerfully. "I have, just for the moment, the courage of a lion."
"Well, the reason is that she's under the impression I don't care much for—for anybody special."
"And is Madame correct in her sanguine anticipations?"
"She was. Until a month or so ago."
He took the other hand quickly.
"Let's move on," she recommended, rising sedately. "I don't want to be too late on pay night. Aunt will be thinking I've been knocked down and robbed of my purse. She's country-bred—Berkshire—and she says she doesn't trust Londoners." They went down the slope.
"Does she happen to know the town of Wallingford, I wonder?"
He declared, on receiving the answer, that nothing could be more fortunate; this was, indeed, pure luck. For he too was acquainted with Wallingford, and especially well he knew a village not far off: if he could but meet Gertie's aunt, here was a subject of mutual interest. Throwing away the serious manner that came intermittently, he challenged her to race him down to the Albert Road gate; and she went at her best speed, not discouraged by shouts from youngsters of "Go it, little 'un!" They arrived together at the gate, where Gertie had to rest for a few moments to regain breath. She pointed out that skirts hampered one; he admitted he ought to have given her fifty yards start. They took Regent's Park more demurely.
"When you get a colour," he said, "you look like a schoolgirl."
"As a matter of fact, I shan't see twenty again."
"Do you want to?"
"No," she replied candidly; "I'm as happy just now as ever I want to be. It'll always be something to look back upon."
"I wish," he said with earnestness, "that you wouldn't talk as though our friendship was only going to be temporary."
"We never know our luck," she remarked. "Aunt was saying only the other evening, 'Gertie,' she said—Now I've been and let you know my name."
He repeated it twice quietly to himself.
"Have you been fond of any one before this?" she asked. The girl had so many questions that her mind jumped from one topic to another.
"Oh yes," he answered. "When I was a schoolboy at Winchester I fell in love—deeply in love. She was a widow, and kept a confectioner's shop. Good shop, too."
"Nothing more serious than that?" He shook his head. "Glad I'm the first," she said. "And I wish my plan for getting you acquainted with aunt had come off the other night. It would have made it all seem more legal, somehow."
"We'll manage it," he promised. "Meanwhile, and always, don't forget that you are my dear sweetheart."
Miss Radford called at Praed Street, inquiring anxiously; and Mrs. Mills, summoning invention to her aid, said Gertie was not in. Mrs. Mills followed this up by mentioning that an occasional visit from Miss Radford could be tolerated, but it was not necessary for her to be always in and out of the place. Miss Radford, asserting that she never forced her company upon any one, swung out of the shop; and Mrs. Mills said to the cat that they did not want too many flighters about.
"Why, Mr. Bulpert!" With a quick change of manner to a newcomer. "This is a pleasant surprise. Mr. Trew was talking about you not two days ago."
The young man took the chair near the counter and, giving it a twirl, sat down heavily, and rested his chin on the back. "I'm putting on too much avoirdupois," he said gloomily. "Saturday, I had to get into evening dress, and it was as much as I could do to make the waistcoat buttons meet."
"You ought to take more exercise."
"What's the use of talking like that? If I take more exercise, I find myself with a bigger appetite, and then I'm worse off than ever." He dismissed the problem as insoluble. "Where's Gertie? I've got a new recitation that she'd very much like to hear. I place a certain value on her criticism."
"I'll call her down. And, Mr. Bulpert, I want you to be as nice and pleasant to her as you can. I had to talk rather sharply to her not many days ago; now I'd like to make it up. I'm bound to say she took it very well."
"You won't forget," he urged, "that I'm a man who can always get any amount of refined society. Sought after as I am for al fresco concerts and what not—"
"I know," agreed Mrs. Mills. "Only Gertie hasn't many friends, and I want her, just now, to make the most of 'em."
She called her niece, and Gertie came, turning the page of a book, entitled, "Hints for Gentlewomen." Gertie offered her hand to Bulpert, and remarked that he was growing stout; he advised her, with some vehemence, to take to glasses before her eyesight became further impaired. Mrs. Mills went back to the shop with a waggish caution against too much love-making. Bulpert, after shifting furniture, took up a position on the white hearthrug, and gave a stirring adventure in the life of a coastguardsman who saved from a wreck his wife and child. At the end, Bulpert mopped face, readjusted collar, and waited for congratulations.
"Did you make it up out your own head, Mr. Bulpert?"
"I did not make it up out of my own head," he said resentfully. "That isn't my line, and well you know it. It was written by a chap your cousin, Clarence Mills, introduced me to."
"Ask him to write it again. It seems to me a stupid piece. The wife's been away for ten years, and the baby is eighteen months old."
"That does require a slight alteration. But what about my rendering of it?"
"Overdone," answered Gertie. "If only you'd stand up and say them quietly, your pieces would go a lot better."
"But I've got to convey the meaning to the ordience."
"Give 'em credit for some intelligence. When the coastguardsman is going out to the wreck, it isn't necessary to wave your arms about like a windmill. You say he's swimming, and that's enough. And if a floating spar knocked him senseless before he got to the wreck, I don't believe he could take them both in his arms and swim back to the shore."
"It says he did in the poetry," contended Bulpert with warmth. "The whole fact of the matter is that you don't in the least know what you're talking about." A sound of voices came from the shop, and Gertie flushed. "Now it's no use your getting hot-tempered about it," he went on. "You speak your mind to me, and I'm entitled to speak my mind to you. What you suffer from is nothing more nor less than sheer ignorance. Imperfect education; that's what the complaint is called."
"Gertie!" A call from the shop.
"Do come here just a moment. Here's the strangest coincidence I ever came across." Gertie obeyed with signs of nervousness. "This young gentleman tells me that he knows Ewelme, and he's actually been inside the house where I was born!"
"How do you do?" said Gertie.
"And he's going down there again shortly," went on Mrs. Mills with animation, "and he means to bring me back some roses from the garden. Isn't it good of him?"
"Your daughter is fond of flowers?"
"She's only my niece," explained Mrs. Mills volubly. "Her mother kicked the bucket some years ago, and her father—What's Wallingford like now, sir? I've said over and over again that I'd one day take the Great Western to go and have a look and see what alterations had been made. But," regretfully, "it's never been anything more than talk. I'd like Gertie to see the place though, so that she could tell whether it comes up to my description."
He seemed inclined to make an impetuous offer, but a brief shake of the girl's head arrested him. A boy entered and asked for an evening newspaper, and Gertie attended to the transaction.
"By the bye," turning to the stationery counter, "I want one or two magazines." Their heads came closely together as a selection was being made; she whispered a caution not to stay too long. In a louder voice, Gertie announced that the total cost was two shillings and sixpence. Mrs. Mills beamed across from the tobacco counter, and asked whether he knew who was keeping "The Lamb"; Henry Douglass could not supply the information, but guaranteed to obtain particulars, and bring them to Praed Street. Mrs. Mills declared herself ashamed to give so much trouble.
"Are you in business, sir, may I ask?"
"I am, in a very small way, an architect."
"Really?" said Gertie interestedly.
"But," said Mrs. Mills, "you're not wearing a white tie!"
"She's thinking of an archbishop," remarked Bulpert, coming forward. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, sir. Daresay you know me by name." He found a card in his letter-case, and Henry took it near the light to examine the wording.
"'Fred W. Bulpert,'" he read. "'Society Entertainer and Elocutionist.'"
"That's in the evenings, of course," said Bulpert. "By day, I'm in the West Central district. Post Office, to tell you the truth. I'll trouble you for the card back, because I'm running somewhat short of them. And if you should be arranging a concert at any time, either for your own benefit or any body else's, you might bear me in mind. F. W. B. is a great draw, if I may say so, because, you see, a lot of people have heard him before."
The customer asked whether there was an underground station near; Mrs. Mills instructed Gertie to walk along with the young gentleman, and to point out the building. As they left, she urged Henry not to forget his promise concerning the roses.
"Nice, quiet-spoken lad," she commented. "I wish Gertie would take up with some one like him, or even you, and forget all about that society young man she's been seen strolling with."
"I hadn't heard about that," said Bulpert seriously. "What are the solid facts of the matter? Why am I kept in the dark about everything?"
Mr. Trew, off duty, and carrying his whip, came to Praed Street late on a Saturday night, and his look of anxiety disappeared at once when he saw that Mrs. Mills and her niece were on excellent terms with each other. He explained that there was no time to spare, because his old landlady had a hot supper ready, and it was not wise, on these occasions, to keep her or the meal waiting. He delivered his news. Pleasant, elderly gent on the front seat started conversation by talking about prison life, and Trew gave some particulars of a case with which he was acquainted. One subject leading to another, the gent said, as the omnibus was crossing Oxford Street, "Driver, do you ever go to the Zoological Gardens on a Sunday afternoon?" and thereupon handed over the two tickets, expressing a hope that the visit would be enjoyed by the other and his wife.
"And me being nothing more than a lonely bachelor," said Trew, "I thought perhaps the little missy here might favour me with her company."
"It'll do her the world of good," declared Mrs. Mills.
They met the next day near the West Entrance at half-past three. Mr. Trew, arriving early, had been listening to oratory at different groups, and he mentioned to Gertie that in his opinion some of the speakers might well be transferred to the Gardens, and kept in a cage; what he failed to understand was why people could not set to and make the best of the world, instead of pretending it was all bad. They went through the turnstiles, and divided attention between animals and visitors; the former could be identified with the help of labels. Mr. Trew said, in regard to the people, that it was difficult to tell which were housemaids, and which were ladies of title.
"Oddly enough," remarked Gertie, "I was intending to be here this afternoon, in any case."
"Trust me," he said, self-reproach fully, "for coming in second. Never actually won a race in my life yet. Is it the same young feller?"
"I'm not one to chop and change."
"When we run across him, I'll make myself scarce."
"You'll do nothing of the kind, Mr. Trew."
He pointed out, in the crocodile house, one or two regular customers of the Baker Street to Victoria route, and when they recognized him he became purple with content. A short youth was making notes near a tank in the corner. Mr. Trew, nudging Gertie, went to him and, in a gruff voice, asked what the deuce he was doing there; the youth turned to give a retort.
"I've got your young lady cousin with me," explained Mr. Trew. "Come along, and help with the task of looking after her."
Clarence Mills was pleased to meet Gertie, and, as the three went towards the red-bricked lions' house, mentioned that he proposed to write a dialogue sketch of the Zoo; up to the present little worth recording had been overheard, and he expected he would, as usual, be compelled to invent the conversations.
"I read all of yours, Clarence, that appear in the newspapers," said Gertie.
"That doesn't take up a great deal of your time," he remarked.
"But you're getting on, aren't you?"
"I think of going in for the boot-black business," he said. "I believe I could make a reputation there."
"Don't you go losing 'eart," advised Mr. Trew. "I shouldn't be in the position I occupy now if I hadn't made up my mind, from the start, not to get low-spirited. If any disappointments come your way, simply laugh at 'em. They can stand anything but that. Who is this I see on the far horizon?"
"Don't let him catch sight of us just yet," begged the girl apprehensively. "He seems to have ladies with him."
Henry's companions entered the house, as the roaring within became insistent, and he looked up and down eagerly. Gertie gave a whistle.
"You and I have met before," he said smilingly to Mr. Trew.
"I was a Boy Messenger then, sir."
Gertie introduced her cousin with a touch of pride.
"I am trying to think," said Clarence, "where I saw your name to-day."
"Haven't made a name yet," remarked Henry. "Only been at it for about eighteen months. I say! We don't want to go into that enormous crowd. We'll stroll round and see how the penguins are getting on. They sometimes look as though they were thinking of giving me a commission to draw up plans for new Law Courts."
At one of the open windows the two ladies were standing, watching over many heads the high tea that was being served to the impatient animals. The younger one happened to turn as Gertie and her friends went by; she raised her eyebrows.
"Everybody one knows appears to be here," said Henry Douglass. "I wish you had agreed instead to run out with me from Baker Street Station into the country."
"Can't do that yet," she answered definitely. "Not until we know each other a great deal better."
"Your rules of conduct are precise."
"You'll like me all the better later on," said Gertie, "because of that. Always supposing," she continued, "that you do go on liking me."
"So far as I can gather," he remarked good-temperedly, "I am persona grata now at Praed Street."
"I don't know what that means," she said; "but aunt has quite taken to you. Just look at this! Isn't it extr'ordinary?—Clarence," she called over her shoulder to her cousin, "here is most likely where you saw the name this afternoon."
She examined the inscription framed on the bars. "Presented to the Society by Sir Mark Douglass."
"No," said Clarence Mills. "That wasn't it. My sluggish memory will arouse presently, and then I shall be able to exhibit signs of intelligence."
They were looking down from the terrace at the white bear in his pit, when a high voice came above the moderate tones of the crowd; Henry took Gertie's arm, and began to talk rapidly of Nansen and the North Pole, but this did not prevent her from glancing over her shoulder. The people gave way to the owner of the insistent voice, and she, after inspection through pince-nez, made bitter complaint of the clumsiness of the bear, his murky appearance, the serious consequences of indiscriminate feeding. Henry endeavoured to detach the members of his party, but they appeared enthralled by the commanding tones.
"I thought we should meet again," said the younger woman, addressing Henry.
"Miss Loriner," he said to Gertie, with signs of reluctance. "A friend of my sister-in-law."
"I am Lady Douglass's companion," remarked Miss Loriner.
"She seems ratty about something," said Gertie.
"She has what they call the critical faculty," mentioned the other, with a twinkle of the eye. "I happen to be aware of the fact."
Lady Douglass was looking around with the air of one searching for fresh subjects; Henry led Gertie to her, and made the introductions. Lady Douglass expressed the view that the Gardens were horribly tiring, regretted her ill-luck in visiting on a crowded afternoon. "But no misfortune," she added wearily, "seems to escape me!"
It was not until they descended the steps that the group had an opportunity for forming itself. Miss Loriner, recognizing the girl's perturbation of mind, took her ahead, thus foiling the intentions of Lady Douglass; they could hear her talking of literature to Clarence Mills in a patronizing way. Gertie's cousin said resolutely, "But George Meredith never wrote a poem with that title. You are thinking of Owen Meredith." Lady Douglass answered, with pride, that she never troubled to remember the names of authors.
"Clarence is standing up to her," remarked Gertie.
"She gets so little contradiction," said Miss Loriner, "that it will have all the charm of novelty. I daren't do it, of course."
"You're thinking of your bread and butter."
"That's about all I should have to eat if I lost this berth."
"Wouldn't care for the job myself."
"I can't do anything else," explained Miss Loriner. "Did you say your cousin was a journalist? I wish I could do something like that. I want to write a novel, badly."
"That's probably how you would write it. Why, even Clarence is finding some trouble over the job. And he's got a brain."
"I suppose that is an advantage," admitted the other serenely. "How long have you known Mr. Douglass?"
"Her husband must get precious tired of the sound of her voice."
"He does. He goes away a good deal. The war in South Africa was a Godsend to him. Just now he is out somewhere—I forget where. How long have you—"
"There are no children."
Gertie glanced back at Lady Douglass in a more friendly way. Clarence had been dropped owing, apparently, to want of sympathy, and Trew was selected as one more likely to agree with arguments.
"Mr. Douglass's mother is in town," mentioned Miss Loriner, "but she is resting this afternoon."
"I wasn't aware he had a mother."
"Oh!" With illumination. "Then you haven't known him long. They are very fond of each other. She is a dear soul. When matters go wrong down at Ewelme, it is old Mrs. Douglass who puts everything right."
They were separated by a child who had been startled by a look from an amiable dromedary. Henry came forward.
"I am going to ask my sister-in-law," he said deliberately, "to invite you down to Morden Place. Thank her, won't you?"
"I'll thank her," replied Gertie, "but I shan't accept the invitation."
"I'd see that she was civil to you."
"And I shall see," said the girl obstinately, "that she doesn't get many chances of being anything else. I'd no idea you had swell relatives; otherwise I'd never have gone on with it."
He went back disappointedly, and Mr. Trew, making his escape with every sign of relief, told Gertie that, with what he might term a vast and considerable experience of womankind (including one specimen who, in May of '99, gave him advice on the task of driving horses through London streets), this particular one was, he declared, the limit. He described himself as feeling bruised, black and blue, all over. Without wishing to interfere in matters which did not concern him, he ventured to suggest that Gertie might possibly be fortunate in her young man, but she could scarcely claim to be called lucky in her young man's relations.
"I'm going to chuck it," she replied desperately. "Chuck it altogether. You were correct in what you said, that Sunday night, about distances, and I was wrong."
Mr. Trew, flustered by this instant agreement, began to hedge. He did not pretend, he said, to be always right; he could recollect many occasions when he had been considerably wide of the mark. In fact, a bigger blunderhead, excepting in regard to certain matters, of which this was not one, probably did not exist. Trew begged to point out that the middle-aged party walking along behind them was, after all, only one middle-aged party, and there was no reason to assume that she could knock out every opponent she encountered. At the finish of his argument, Trew urged his young companion to put on the gloves, and show what she could do.
"Think I had better not," she said, less definitely. "I shan't like feeling myself beaten, but it's wiser to do that now than to leave it till later."
Mr. Trew became reproachful, almost sarcastic. This, then, was the stuff that his little friend, niece of his old friend, was made of, was it? Crumpling up at the first signs of opposition; stepping out of the ring directly her opponent held up fists! If Gertie represented the young woman of to-day, give Mr. Trew the young woman of thirty years ago. He had changed his mind recently on an important subject—a thing he rarely did—and half decided to extend the power of voting to the other sex, but the present case induced him to believe first thoughts were best.
"I'll have another go then," announced Gertie Higham; "but I don't guarantee I shall win."
"If I hadn't rather a lot of money out just now," he declared encouragingly, "I'd put every penny of it on you."
They stopped near to the semicircular cage where the condors, in evening dress and white boa around the neck, surveyed the garden with the aloof manner of the higher aristocracy. Gertie waited for an advance; this did not come. Miss Loriner, at the command of Lady Douglass, furnished the hour, and a scream of dismay was given, followed by the issuing of orders. Henry must conduct them out of this dreadful Park; Henry must find a hansom with a reliable horse, and a driver of good reputation. Also Henry must come on to see his mother, and take her on to a tea appointment at Cadogan Gardens, thus saving trouble to Lady Douglass, who was really so fagged and wearied by this exhausting afternoon that rest, in a partially darkened room, was nothing short of imperative.
"Yes," said Gertie, answering Henry's questioning look; "you go!"
Lady Douglass remembered to give a word of farewell when she was a distance of about ten yards away. "So pleased to have met you!" she said casually. Henry, near the gates, turned and waved his hand, and Gertie responded cheerfully.
"Now I want to scream!" she said.
Clarence Mills declared his intention of providing tea, and Trew admitted a cup or so would not be likely to prove injurious to the system; might, indeed, have a soothing effect on the mind. They found an enamelled table on the lawn, and directly Gertie took the handle of the teapot she was able to announce that she felt considerably improved in temper. Her cousin gave an imitation of Lady Douglass's speech and manner, and Gertie imitated the imitation. Mr. Trew had a difficulty in deciding which was the more admirable, but asserted either was to be preferred to the original, and during the progress of the shilling meal they affected to be distinguished members of society, to the great astonishment of folk at neighbouring tables, and to the diversion of an interested waiter. Completely restored now to her normal mood, Gertie mentioned a number of alert repartees which she would have made if Henry's sister-in-law had given suitable openings.
"I suppose," remarked Mr. Trew, emptying his cup by giving it a jerk over his shoulder, "that, after all, she isn't nearly so bad as she's painted. She certainly did look to me somewhat made-up; it's a custom amongst her set, I believe. Often wonder whether it takes anybody in."
"He said she was going to invite me to her house in the country, but she didn't. Wouldn't mind meeting Henry's mother, just once, to find out what she is like."
"It was something on the tape," mentioned her cousin, again endeavouring to arouse memory. "That was where I saw the name. If you two care to come along to my club, I'll run in, and make sure."
"We can get a Waterloo omnibus from the York and Albany corner," said Mr. Trew.
He warned them, in ascending the steps, that he was going to have a rare lark with the driver, whose face, it appeared, was new on the road. They took seats in front, and Mr. Trew, adopting a rustic accent, inquired of the driver whether the canal below represented the river Thames; in regard to Trinity Church, near Portland Road Station, he asked if he was right in assuming this to be St. Paul's; at Peter Robinson's he put another question, and, information given, demanded whether Oxford Circus was being run by Barnum. These and other inquiries were courteously replied to; and when the three alighted near the fountain and Trew, looking up, thanked the new driver for his kindness, the driver said, "Ta-ta, old True till Death," whipping the omnibus on the near side to call the conductor's attention to an approaching customer.
Mr. Trew, depressed by the failure of his elaborate scheme, walked behind the young people, grumbling self-reproachfully. "Him recognizing me all along, and calling me by my nickname at the finish!"
Clarence Mills ran up the staircase of his club, and the two walked inside the railings of the square, inspected the bust of Shakespeare at the centre. A few people were sitting about. The palatial houses of amusement on the northern and the western side enjoyed their day of rest, but gave hints of startling attractions for the coming week. Mr. Trew considered Shakespeare a well-meaning writer, but somewhat old fashioned in methods, and was surprised to find that Gertie had thoroughly enjoyed "The Tempest" at His Majesty's.
"Was you alone?"
"No. Mr. Douglass took me."
"That accounts for it," he said knowingly.
Clarence Mills came looking for them with anxiety. The two hurried forward and met him at the gate; his forehead remained contracted.
"Her husband's yacht," he announced, "has been seized by natives. All on board put to death." They gazed at each other.
"So that turns her," remarked Trew slowly, "into a widow woman. There's no family, as I understand; consequently, it makes a bit of diff'rence to Gertie's young man."
The girl sighed.
"I'm sorry for her," she said. "Very sorry indeed. And it means that my path won't be none the easier!"
Madame Hilbert and the forewoman in Great Titchfield Street consulted each other only when crises occurred; the girls knew that if Madame came to the doorway, saying, "Miss Rabbit, just half a second, please," and the forewoman was absent for half an hour, then some matter of supreme importance was being discussed. The establishment was in close touch with the military service at home and abroad, and the best stroke good fortune could make in favour of Hilbert's was to arrange a stately ceremonial in India, some alteration in the dress of officers, or anything that made uniforms necessary. The girls' workroom, even at ordinary times, presented an aspect of enormous wealth, with everywhere a display of gold—loose threads of it on the tables, collected threads being sewn on foundations, epaulettes in course of making, heavy dependent nuggets hung upon scarves. Gold floated in the air, and when the sun came through the windows it all looked as though one could play the conjurer, and perform the enchanting trick of making a dash with the hand and secure sovereigns. Many of the girls wore glasses because continued attention to the glistening colours affected the eyes; sometimes a worker became pale of features, anaemic and depressed, and had to hurry off to the sea-side, and Miss Rabbit referred to this as an act of Providence. For the most part, the girls were healthy and cheerful, and they had the encouragement of good wages. Miss Rabbit, it was reported, took home every Saturday two pounds ten shillings; the very youngest assistant made twelve shillings a week.
"I do hope," said Madame, at a special private conference, "it doesn't mean she's taking up religion." The forewoman shook her head. "I've known cases in my time where it's come on suddenly, and it's thrown a girl clean off her balance. If it isn't religion it must be love. Love has just about the same effect with some of us. Have you ever been gone on any one, Miss Rabbit?"
"Only to a very moderate extent," replied the forewoman precisely. "And it's such a long while ago, Madame, that I've nearly forgot all about it."
"I don't like to see one of my girls turn like this all at once," said Madame with anxiety. "Moreover, she's the handy one in the business. There's nothing she doesn't know about the work, and little she can't do. If anything happened to you, I've always had the idea of putting her in your position."
Miss Rabbit's features twitched; she corrected the slip at once by assuming a look of cordial agreement. "You always know the right thing to do, Madame," she murmured reverently.
"How'd it be to call her in, and both of us have a talk to her, and find out whether she's got anything on her mind?"
"That's a splendid notion," admitted Miss Rabbit with enthusiasm. "Or shall I have a quiet chat with her first, and pave the way, so to speak?"
"I wish you would," said Madame. "You're not particularly clever, but I believe you've got a kind heart."
The forewoman that evening, whilst the girls were washing and sharing the brush and comb, and complaining that hair came out by the handful, entered the office; announcing the occasion as her birthday, she asked Miss Higham to leave books, and assist in celebrating the event by taking with her a cup of chocolate. Gertie wanted to reach home early in order to see whether an expected letter had arrived, but the invitation suggested a rare compliment, and, with a stipulation arranging that the hospitality should not exceed the space of twenty minutes, she accepted. In an A.B.C. shop at the corner, later, Gertie raised her large cup and wished Miss Rabbit many happy returns. Her eyes wandered rather eagerly about the crowded tables; the inspection over, she sighed.
"Wonder if I can trust you, dear," said Miss Rabbit, resting elbows. "I've been so often taken in over friendships with people that I suppose I'm more cautious than most. But there's a look about you—perhaps, though, I'd better keep on the safe side."
"I'm not one to chatter."
"I know, I know. That's why I've always took to you specially." Again Miss Rabbit stopped. She stirred her cup of chocolate slowly.
"If it's good news," advised Gertie, "tell me. I can do with some just now. If it's not, keep it to yourself."
"It's rather serious news, and that's why I think you ought to be told. First of all, you must promise me, on your soul and honour, not to breathe a word of it to anybody. Above all, not to Madame."
"I promise," she said.
"Very well then"—with a satisfied air—"it's like this." She leaned across the marble table. "Our show is going to burst up."
The dramatic announcement over, and the appropriate ejaculation, the correct look of amazement and despair given. Miss Rabbit warmed to her task, and became voluble; at each new paragraph of her discourse she exacted a fresh guarantee that the information would go no further, that the bond of absolute secrecy should be respected. Once, she felt it necessary to say that if the other communicated a single word of the confidences to any third party, she, Miss Rabbit, would feel it her duty to haunt Miss Higham to the last hour of her life. Put briefly, the news came to this. That Madame was in financial difficulties; that her name and address might be found in the bankruptcy list any coming Wednesday or Saturday; that no one was likely to be stupid enough to take over the business; that the members of the staff, men and girls, would find themselves turned out into a cold, hard world. The drawback of being connected with a business of a special nature like theirs was that there existed but few of a similar nature, and these were already fully supplied with assistants. Miss Rabbit herself intended to look out for another berth ere the market became swamped by many applications; with piety, she called attention to a well-known text which said, "Go thou and do likewise." Outside the A.B.C. shop, Miss Rabbit, in extorting thanks for her generous behaviour, demanded, once more, a promise.
"Say it after me," she ordered. "'I will never utter a single syllable of all this to a solitary living soul.'" Her instructions complied with, she remarked that a great load was now taken from her mind, and asked Gertie for advice on the point whether to go home by omnibus or Tube railway.
The girl arrived at Praed Street after a brisk walk that was intended to detach the mind from disturbing incident. In the broad thoroughfare of Portland Place (which looked as though it started with the idea of being a long, important roadway to the north, and became suddenly reminded, to its great astonishment, that Regent's Park barred the way) she had glanced up at the large houses, and wished she lived in one; in that case she would receive Henry Douglass, at the end of the silence that had come since the last meeting, and after listening to him, reject his advances haughtily. That was the phrase. Reject his advances haughtily. She had read it more than once in the literature which attracted her in the days before Henry. Since she had known him, a course of reading, adopted at his suggestion, took her away from the more flowery and romantic pages, but in the old serial stories the folk had nothing to do but to make love to each other, with intervals for meals and rest; they were not restricted to evening hours; the whole day was at their service. And certainly the ladies never found themselves burdened with the anxiety of losing a weekly wage, in Great Titchfield Street, and the prospect of difficulty in finding one to replace it.
"I'm home, aunt," she announced, entering the shop.
"So I see," remarked Mrs. Mills. Two customers were being served at the newspaper counter, and two were waiting on the tobacco side. Gertie attended to the orders for cigarettes; the shop cleared.
"Is there a letter for me?" she asked.
Mrs. Mills shook her head curtly.
"Has—has any one called?"
"Now, let me think." Her aunt deliberated carefully in the manner of a conscientious witness impressed by the taking of the oath. "Yes, Miss Radford looked in and went again. Left word that she wanted you to go with her for an outing next Saturday afternoon. Said she wanted a breath of fresh air. Mr. Trew is inside—and that reminds me, I've got something to say to him. Wait here, like a dear, and look after the shop." Mrs. Mills closed the door carefully behind her as she went into the parlour.
"So, Mr. Trew, I packed him off about his business," she said, obviously continuing a half-finished recital. "I said, 'She asked me to tell you that she thought it better for both parties that you and her shouldn't see each other again.' Don't blame me, do you?"
Mr. Trew rubbed his chin with the knuckle of a finger and remarked that, by rights, he ought to have a shave.
"I stopped his two letters when they came," went on Mrs. Mills. "Many a woman in my position would have been curious enough to open them; I didn't. I simply put them in a drawer where they can be found when the trouble's all over. No one can blame me for that, surely."
Mr. Trew mentioned that it was a rummy world, and the methods adopted by the people living in it did not make it the less rummy.
"I see what you mean," she said aggrievedly. "You think I've gone too far. But you yourself admitted at the start, when she was meeting that other young gentleman, that high and low never mixed well. And when I heard that this one was likely to come into property, I made up my mind to take the bull by the horns. What's that you say? Speak out, if you've got anything in your head."
"When you take the bull by the horns," said Trew, advancing to the white hearthrug, "what happens is a toss up. I can't tell you yet whether you've done right or whether you've done wrong; but if you put the question to me a 'underd years hence, I shall be able to answer you. What's pretty clear to me is that you're fond of her, and I'm fond of her, and all we want is to see her comfor'ble and happy. Whether you're taking the right track to gain that object is more than I can say. Personally, I shouldn't care to go so far as you've gone."
"That's because you're a coward."
"Delight of my juvenile heart," said Mr. Trew, "it's quite likely you've hit on precisely the right explanation. Only thing is, it seems to me somewhat rough on the little missy."
Miss Radford was studying the arrival of trains list at Paddington in order to ascertain from which platform the 1.20 p.m. started; she had assumed the slightly demented appearance that so many take when they enter a railway station. Turning from the poster distractedly, she clutched at the arm of a sailor, and was putting to him agitated inquiries concerning the Great Western service when Gertie Higham interposed, and released the naval man from a duty for which he was not adequately equipped. Firmly and resolutely she conducted Miss Radford to the correct platform, where they found seats in a compartment; and Miss Radford in vain tried to remember whether it was that sitting facing the engine or sitting with her back to the engine gave her a headache. Gertie had obtained the tickets, and Miss Radford wanted hers; Gertie retained possession. On the question of finance, she said a settlement could be arranged when the outing was over. Other passengers entered, including two lads, who set at once on the work of studying scientific books; Miss Radford, changing her manner, dropped her parasol as the train started, and one of the youths picked it up, without disengaging his attention from the volume, and handed it to her.
"Thanks awfully," she said, in refined and slightly languid tones; "I am such a clumsy creature"—partly addressing her friend, but mainly speaking to the entire compartment. "Really, I seem quite lost without my maid to look after me."
"You managed to get away from the shop in good time," remarked Gertie.
"What an irritating girl you are, to be sure!" whispered Miss Radford aggrievedly. "No help at all when I'm trying to make a good impression. Wish now I hadn't asked you to come along with me; I only did it because I couldn't get any one else. What's become of that young swell I saw you with on Primrose Hill?"
"I really don't know."
Miss Radford spoke complacently of her intense love of the country and keen anticipation of the joy to be found at Burnham Beeches, and when the train stopped at Slough the compartment mentioned to her that this was where she ought to alight. Gertie, interposing, said that they were, in reality, going further. On Miss Radford asking, in astonished tones, "Whatever for?" she received information that the desire was to get well away from the crowd. The two, changing at a junction, found a small train on another platform that had but a single line; Miss Radford took the precaution of inquiring of the engine-driver whether he considered it safe. The two lads crossed the bridge, and, to her intense annoyance, entered a smoking-compartment.
"I daresay, perhaps"—recovering from this blow—"that we shall manage to run across some others before the day's out."
"Well, upon my word," declared the astonished Miss Radford, "you grow more and more peculiar every day!"
They discovered themselves, immediately after leaving the station yard, in an old-fashioned town with large houses close to the brick pavement; cyclists raced along the narrow roadway, and folk carried baskets in the direction of the river. Gertie stopped to put an inquiry to a policeman, and declined to satisfy her companion's curiosity either in regard to the question or to the answer. Turning to the right, they came to a market-place and a town hall, and, amongst the small shops, one that they noted as a suitable place for tea. The sun was warm, and folk were shopping with suitable deliberation; dogcarts stood outside the principal establishments, motor cars brought up new supplies of clients. Gertie appeared greatly interested in the occupants of these conveyances; some of the ladies were so well protected from dust that identification would not have been easy. Miss Radford mentioned that she had not seen so many funny figures about since the fifth of November of the previous year.
"Where are we off to now?" she demanded.
"A good long walk."
"Not me!" replied Miss Radford with determination. "I've got new shoes on. You leave me somewhere with a magazine to read, and go off on your own, and come back when you're tired."
"You won't be lonely?"
"I can always find a pleasure," said Gertie's friend haughtily, "in my own company."
The riverside, Miss Radford decided, was a suitable spot for rest; she could sit there and, in the intervals of application to literature of the day, watch young men hiring boats and setting out to Shillingford or Cholsey. So Gertie Higham started out across the bridge and walked alone through a village where every shop sold everything, where the police station was a homely, comfortable cottage, and children played on wide grass borders of the road. At the cross-roads she went to the left; an avenue of trees gave a shade that was welcome. The colour came to her face as she strode along briskly, and this was not entirely due to hurry or to the rays of the afternoon sun. Once or twice she almost stopped, as though considering the advisability of returning.
An ivy-covered house stood at the side of iron gates, and Gertie watched it as she approached. An elderly man was clipping hedges; he arrested his work, with an evident hope that conversation would occur.
"No, young 'ooman," he said, "that ent where her ladyship lives. That's only the gate lodge what you're looking at. A good ha'f-mile 'fore you come the house itself. Do you know her, may I inquire?"
"We've met in London."
"Well"—slowly, and making the most of the opportunity—"she ent pleased to see many of her visitors, if all I hear is true; but no doubt she'd be gratified to see you. I'm only a new-comer hereabouts, so to speak, but—" He shook his head thoughtfully, and, taking off his hat, readjusted the cabbage leaf that lined it. "I don't blame Sir Mark for going off and getting killed. After all, it ent as though she were left chargeable to the parish, as you may say."
"She is quite well to do, I suppose?"
"Plenty of money about, as me and you would rackon it. I understand she complains of not having enough—but there, some people are never satisfied. Going to give a party next week," he added confidentially. "Not a great turn-out, because they're all in black, so to speak. So fur as I can gain from the local newspaper—"
"You say it's half a mile up to the house?"
"You can't very well miss it if you foller your nose," said the old man, hurt by the interruption.
Through the iron gates Gertie saw two figures coming around the curve of the gravelled carriage-way; she took ambush hurriedly near to an oak tree. Henry's voice could be heard, with an occasional remark from Miss Loriner. "And if I promise to worship you all my life," Henry was saying, "will you then give me my heart's desire?" His companion did not reply; he repeated the last words. "You must first," she said, "make a name in the world, and show yourself worthy of a woman's love." They turned as they reached the gates, and when Henry next spoke his remarks did not reach the girl near the oak tree.
"And haven't you been a time!" complained Miss Radford. "Over a hower altogether, according to my watch. And I'm simply dying for a cup of tea. There's only been one young gentleman who waved his hand to me; I was so cross that I didn't wave back. Whatever are you dodging up to now?"
"I'm going to hire a boat," said Gertie, "and take you out on the river."
"You can't row."
"Some one learnt me—taught me on the lake in Regent's Park."
Miss Radford declared, on the journey home, that she envied her friend's good spirits; in her own case, she always found that if she became more than ordinarily cheerful she inevitably paid for it by subsequent depression. Gertie recommended her to adopt the method of not magnifying grievances; if you wanted to view trouble, you could take opera-glasses, but you should be careful to hold them the wrong way round. The studious youths entered the compartment at Goring, their books now put away in pockets, and similarly cheered by exercise; one, seated opposite Gertie, touched her foot with his shoe at Pangbourne, and she took no notice. When he did this again at Tilehurst, she came down heavily upon his toes, and gave, for her clumsiness, an apologetic word that he accepted sulkily. Near to Paddington, Miss Radford mentioned that, in her opinion, men were most frightfully stupid, and to her surprise Gertie agreed.
Gertie Higham relieved her aunt from duty in the shop, and a letter brought by the postman at nine o'clock was handed over the counter to her direct; the official recommended her to accept the offer, and put the young gentleman out of his misery. The communication was written in a large hand, about twelve words to a page, and liberally underlined. Printed in the corner were a telegraphic address, a telephone number, directions concerning nearest railway station. For heading, Morden Place, Ewelme.
"DEAR MISS HIGHAM,—We shall be so glad if you can pay us a visit on Friday next and stay over for the week-end. Dear Henry is particularly anxious that you should be here on Saturday evening.
"What a wonderful summer we are having!!!—Yours sincerely,
The girl found a sheet of the best notepaper on the shelves, and wrote at once.
"DEAR LADY DOUGLASS,—I shall not be able to come to you next Friday. I am rather busy.
"It is indeed a capital summer. I am enjoying it.—Yours sincerely,
An easy matter to obtain a full list of other manufacturers in the same line of business, and when Madame entrusted her with important errands,—
"I'm sending you, my dear, because I know I can rely upon you!"
—Then advantage was taken of the opportunity to skip up a staircase and, opening a door that had the word "Inquiries" painted upon it, set upon the task of routing the defence, to obtain an interview with some responsible individual. Usually the answer was that no vacancy existed, but this did not prevent a brief cross-examination. Why was she leaving Great Titchfield Street, and was it because there did not exist a sufficient amount of work, and had Hilbert's secured any important contracts lately, and had the firm any special work in view? To which questions Miss Higham replied with caution and reserve, so that frequently the responsible individual came out of his office, walking with her down the stairs in the endeavour to obtain useful information. As a rule, the discussion ended with a command that she should look in again when it chanced she was passing by. At Great Titchfield Street, when Miss Rabbit and Gertie happened to be, for the moment, alone, the forewoman begged her in a low, confidential whisper not to put off till to-morrow anything she could do to-day, adding that procrastination was the thief of time.
"The fact is," said Miss Rabbit, with a burst of private candour, "I don't care what happens so long as you are safe. Very strange, isn't it, dear?"
It seemed to the perplexed girl, at this period, that life was made up of incidents which could not be spoken about freely. There was no one with whom she could share the knowledge acquired at Wallingford; that had to be endured alone. At Praed Street she found her aunt gazing at her curiously, sometimes beginning a sentence, and stopping, as one fearful of trespassing on prohibited ground. When Mr. Trew called, he and Mrs. Mills conferred in undertones, breaking off when the girl came near, and speaking, in an unconvincing way, of an interesting murder in South London; Trew thought the police could find the missing man if they only went the right way about it. Great Titchfield Street, from eight o'clock in the morning till nearly eight at night, appeared to be enveloped in a dense fog, with Madame showing none of the distraction of mind natural to one on the edge of a financial crisis, and Bunny conveying friendliness by nods and furtive winks; the girls, as always, chattered freely of their small romances, not concealing their derisive attitude towards young men, excepting as means of escort and paymasters where sweets and tram-tickets were involved; any slackening of attention in these details, and dark hints were given of an intention of giving the sack. Listening, Gertie came to the conclusion that her own case was unique, in that she had allowed Henry Douglass to assume the position of autocrat. One of the men who worked the netting machine spoke to her exultantly of wisdom in managing his wife; the method adopted was, it seemed, to contradict every blessed thing she said.
On the top of all this comes Frederick Bulpert, encountered near Queen's Hall one evening at five minutes to eight, trying to make up his mind whether to spend a shilling on a promenade concert or to disburse the money on a steak—Bulpert very glad to meet Gertie, because he has something to say to her that he cannot speak of to any one else; something which must be regarded (says Frederick) as strictly entre nous. A spot of rain, and the stout young man says with a reckless air, "Oh, come on in!" and Gertie agrees to accompany him, with two provisions: first, that she shall be allowed to pay for herself; second (because aunt has a new trick of requiring every minute between Great Titchfield Street and Praed Street to be accounted for), that Frederick will see her home later to the shop. Gertie thinks a dose of music will do her as much good as anything.
"I don't claim," he admits, "to have an over and above savage breast, but I must confess it soothes me at times."
They are in time to take up position near the fountain in the centre of the promenade, to join in the welcome given to the leading men of the orchestra, to swell the applause offered to the conductor, to sing—this being the opening night—the National Anthem. Frederick takes what he calls seconds; neighbours misunderstand it for an expression of disloyalty. Then the programme starts. Frederick Bulpert, new silk hat at back of head, and arms folded, listens to the "William Tell" overture, Handel's "Largo," and the suite from "Peer Gynt" with the frown of a man not to be taken in and unwilling to be influenced by the approbation exhibited by people round him. A song follows, and he remarks to Gertie that a recitation would be more in keeping with the style of the entertainment. A violin solo with a melody that cries softly about love, the love of two people, with anxieties at first, at the end perfect triumph.
"We'll have a stroll out in the corridor," commands Bulpert. "That last piece has made me feel somewhat decollete."
They gain the outer circle when Gertie has persuaded him to give to her the task of leading through the crowd; her smile obtains a free way that his truculent methods fail to obtain.
"I'm going to give up the Post Office," he announces impressively, "and I'm going in for the stage."
"If you can make money at it, there's no reason why you shouldn't."
Bulpert shows disappointment at the form of this agreement.
"I've come to the conclusion," he goes on, "that I'm not acting fairly towards the world in concentrating my abilities on the serving out of stamps and the issuing of postal orders. Besides which, I get no time for study. Evening before last, at the Finsbury Town Hall, I came as near to finding my memory fail as ever I've been. I'm burning the candle at both ends."
"Hope you'll have good luck."
"I shall deserve to have it," he concedes. "I sometimes stand at the side of the platform, and I see other parties trying in the same line, and I have to admit to myself that I do put something into my renditions of our poets and humorists that they fail to convey. Furthermore—"
"I don't want to miss the Henry the Eighth dances."
"Mention of him leads up to what I want to see you about. If I go on the stage—and to tell you the truth, I haven't completely made up my mind as yet—I shall want a certain amount of comfort at home. A professional man can't be bothered about domestic affairs. He has to keep his mind on his work."
"Where does Henry the Eighth come in?"
Bulpert takes her arm. "I had an idea of asking you, Gertie, to marry me."
A pause of nearly half a minute.
"Do you mind if I think it over before giving a definite answer?"
"I'm agreeable to that," he says, "providing you don't take too thundering long about it."
Thus, a new perplexity was added to those that Gertie Higham already bore upon her shoulders. There existed arguments in favour of accepting Bulpert's offer. He belonged to her own set; he was not in a position to comment upon her manner of speech, and there would be the satisfaction of knowing that she was in all respects his equal; in many his superior. Bulpert was perhaps a trifle pompous, more than a trifle conceited, but he was steady. If she married him, it would be a distinct score to arrange that it occurred ere Henry Douglass and Miss Loriner became united; were Gertie to send a small white box containing sugared cake after, the newspapers announced this fashionable wedding, the effect of the gift would be marred.
"I want to serve him out," she argued to herself, "for the way he treated me. It's only fair!"
Mrs. Mills was obviously delighted by the visits of Bulpert, and her ingenuity in leaving the young people together in the shop parlour proved that she was a mistress in the art of strategy. Bulpert excused himself to Gertie for omitting to invite her to the play, or for other outings, on the grounds that he was saving money; but he sometimes took her along to Paddington Station to see the night expresses start, and twice they went together to a large open place of entertainment in Edgware Road where you could, by dropping a penny in the slot, inspect a series of pictures that proved less exciting than the exhibited title; at the same expense you heard Miss Milly Manton's latest song, and George Limpsey's celebrated triumph in, "I wish I didn't talk so much to Clara!" On the evening of a day when Gertie had called upon the last firm of the list, she told Bulpert, as they met near Marble Arch, that if he cared to ask her now to be his wife she would accept him.
"Right you are," he said. "Then we'll consider the matter as practically settled."
They found Mr. Trew outside the shop when they returned; seeing them, he assumed the attitude of a figure taking snuff, and Gertie knew from this he was in good spirits. Mrs. Mills made the announcement that supper was waiting—a special meal because royalty had gone by that day to take train for Windsor—and Mr. Trew suggested Bulpert should have first cut at the food, the while he and the little missy strolled up and down to enjoy the evening air.
"I was bound to come along and see you," he said. "When I got the news I nearly fell off my seat. Should have done, only that I was strapped in. You remember Miss—what-was-her-name—we met at the Zoo that Sunday afternoon."
Mr. Trew stopped to make his announcement in a dramatic form.
"She's going to get spliced."
"So I guessed," remarked Gertie.
"But can you guess who to?"
"I think I can."
"Oh," he said regretfully. "Of course, if I'm not the first in the field with the news, there's an end of it. I sh'd say they'd be a very comfortable, 'appy, get-on-well-together couple, once they settle down."
She made a remark in a trembling voice.
"Of course you hope they will," he echoed heartily. "You and him have always got along well together. As I said, he hasn't took much time about it. Finished his book, he tells me."
"Mr. Trew, who are you talking about?"
"Why, your cousin Clarence, of course. I know it's correct because I got the information straight from the stable. And he would have called round to tell you, only he was busy. Said he wanted to see you soon, because he'd got a message. I won't be certain; there was a lot of traffic about, but I rather fancy it was something in the nature of a pressing invite."
The days that followed were racing days for Gertie. At Great Titchfield Street a special order came in, and Madame held a kind of rehearsal, that the girls might know exactly what to do if the inspector called. The inspector represented the State, which, in the opinion of Madame and Miss Rabbit and all the assistants, male and female, was an interfering busybody hampering industry, and preventing honest workers from earning useful pay for unlimited overtime. To Great Titchfield Street, by day, came private letters by express messenger for Gertie, and more than one telegram; she generally found a communication awaiting her on the return home to Praed Street. Miss Rabbit accepted the statement that these came from Gertie's cousin, referring to nothing more romantic than a visit to the country; in private conversation with senior girls in the workroom, she said, rather bitterly, that Miss Higham surely took her for a born idiot.
Clarence proved himself alert and quick witted in retort, with an answer ready for every objection. When Gertie, as a final argument, put forward the matter of evening dress, he took her straightway to a celebrated firm (one-half of the lady passengers in public conveyances along the route gave, as their instruction and appeal to conductors, "Set me down as near as you can to Brown and Hodgkinson's!"), and there was purchased a blouse of white lace—costing so much that Gertie, on hearing the amount, had to clutch at one of the high chairs; and as Clarence paid readily with gold, the polite young woman on the other side of the counter assured him it was well worth the money. Gertie, at another establishment, bought a pair of slippers, saying to herself that they would come in handy, even though she did not go to Ewelme. Reluctance to accept the invitation conveyed through Clarence was supported at Praed Street by her aunt, who declared the girl would be like a fish out of water; that she would wish herself home again before she had been there the space of two minutes. But for Mrs. Mills's over-earnest counsel it is likely Gertie might have kept her threat (or promise) to back out at the last moment. On the Friday night, Mrs. Mills mentioned that the Douglass people were probably only asking Gertie in order to enjoy a laugh at her expense. The following morning, to her aunt's astonishment and open dismay, Gertie took a carefully-packed portmanteau along to the cloakroom at Paddington Station. In the afternoon she found herself, for the first time in her life, seated in a second-class carriage.
"Afraid you've had rather a rush," said her cousin.
"It isn't only that," she admitted, breathlessly. "I'm excited about this visit."
"Not more so than I am. All the same, I feel very much indebted to you, Gertie, for coming with me. The letter was worded in a way that meant I was to bring you, or not go at all. You see Mary—Miss Loriner—is only a companion at Morden Place. She couldn't have asked me on her own responsibility."
The girl closed her eyes and snuggled back in the corner. If Henry exhibited any special sign of affection, she would have to draw herself up to her full height and say, "Mr. Douglass, you're evidently not aware that you are speaking to an engaged lady." If he went so far as to propose marriage, the situation would be still more dramatic. "Mr. Douglass, you appear to have left it too late. I am already pledged to another!" There were alternative remarks prepared, and she felt certain that any one of them would be telling and effective. Clearly, he wanted to see her; otherwise so much trouble would not have been expended over the present visit; it was her business to make him see that a London girl was not to be taken up and dropped, and taken up again.
"Manners," she said resolutely, opening her eyes, and addressing a barge on the canal, "manners. That's what some people have got to be taught!"
The short train brought them slowly to the one platform of the station, and before she realized it, Henry Douglass was holding both of her hands, and looking down at her affectionately. He turned to give a welcome to her cousin, and Gertie told herself there was no necessity, for the present, to be dignified or reserved; that could come later. Outside the station, Miss Loriner was talking to a horse that seemed impatient to make its way in the direction of home; she and Clarence took seats at the back of the dogcart with a light rug spread over knees; they made no complaint of overcrowding.
"Can you really drive?" inquired Gertie with anxiety. "You never used to speak about it when Mr. Trew was talking."
"Life," answered Henry Douglass, "is too short to allow one to brag about everything. I do the best I can." They took the corner and went at a good pace through the town. "By Jove," he went on, enthusiastically, "you have no idea how I've missed you."
The first of the selected reproofs would have come in here appropriately, but a motor car was coming in the opposite direction with, as it seemed to her, the definite intention of running into their conveyance; she grabbed nervously at Henry's arm. When she looked again the car had gone, leaving dust as a slight memento of the encounter.
"Don't take it away!" he begged.
Here again either of the sentences might have been delivered; Gertie decided it would be sufficient to refrain from acceding to his request. Henry saluted with his whip folk who passed by, and told her who they were; stopped at one shop to take a parcel of wools intended for his mother. He had talked about Gertie to his mother, and she was anxious to meet Miss Higham.
"She'll be still more anxious to see me go away."
"You wouldn't say that," he asserted, "if you knew her."
"It's really Lady Douglass I'm afraid of. Look at that board, 'Trespassers will be prosecuted.' I feel it's meant for me."
"Trespassers," he said, "as a matter of fact, cannot be prosecuted. The board is all nonsense. Trespassers can only be prosecuted when they do some sort of damage."
She glanced around to watch a baby in the garden of a cottage; Clarence Mills and Miss Loriner were kissing. Gertie did not speak again until they reached the iron gates.
"I want to show you the tennis court," he said. "The man here can drive your cousin and Miss Loriner up to the house." She hesitated as he, stepping down, held out his hand. "My mother is waiting there!"
They found the grey-haired old lady resting on a low white enamelled seat, watching a game of singles between two stout men, who had the distressed look of those who play for the sake of health and figure. The ruddier of the two was pointed out as Mr. Jim Langham, brother to Lady Douglass; the other, a barrister with leanings in the direction of political work, and a present desire to be amiable towards everybody in the neighbourhood who possessed a vote.
"Now, you are to sit down here, Miss Higham," said the old lady, "and talk to me. I may interrupt you, now and again, but you mustn't mind that. One of the few privileges of age."
"I don't know what to talk about."
"Talk about yourself. I've heard about you from Henry, but I want to verify the information. You work for your living, don't you? Well now, that is interesting. I did the same before I was married. I married rather well, and then, of course, there was no necessity for me to go on with it."
"When my dear mother says she wants you to talk to her," explained Henry, "what she really means is that she wishes to talk to you. If you don't mind, I'll go over and teach these men how to play tennis."
Jim Langham came across directly that the game was finished, interrupting the two as they were getting on good terms with each other; on the way, he shouted an order to a gardener working near. He was effusive over the introduction to Gertie, showing his perfect teeth, and expressing the hope that she would not have to leave on Monday. The gardener brought a tumbler on a tray, and a syphon.
"At this time of the day?" said Mrs. Douglass, glancing at the contents of the glass.
"Good whisky," retorted Jim Langham, taking a small quantity of soda, "makes one feel like another man altogether."
"In that case," said the old lady, "by all means have the drink. My dear," to Gertie, "give me my stick and we'll walk up to the house and have tea."
"I'll come with you," remarked Jim Langham.
"You will stay where you are," ordered Mrs. Douglass.
Gertie, at Great Titchfield Street, had invented a house, doubled it, and multiplied it by ten; it came as a surprise to her to find that the residence was a solid building of fair extent with a parapet wall of stone in front, broad steps leading to the open doors. On the lawn tea was being set out by a man-servant; he lighted the wick underneath a silver kettle. Lady Douglass, in black, made an effective entrance down the steps in the company of a dog that looked like a rat.
"How perfectly charming of you to come and see us," she cried, extending a limp hand. "We do so want some one to brighten us up. Darling," to old Mrs. Douglass, "why didn't you tell them to send the bath-chair for you?"