THE DARK TOWER
BY PHYLLIS BOTTOME
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY J. H. GARDNER SOPER
NEW YORK THE CENTURY CO. 1916
Copyright, 1916, by THE CENTURY CO.
Published, September, 1916
Dauntless the slughorn to my lips I set, and blew "Child Roland to the dark tower came." —Robert Browning
TO W. W. D. H.
"God forbid that I should do this thing.
If our time be come, let us die manfully for our brethren And let us not stain our honour."
I Maccabees, ix, 10.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"I shall never be dangerous for you, Miss Rivers," he said gently
"You may have to take her as a daughter-in-law, though," Winn remarked without turning round from the sideboard.
In his heart there was nothing left to which he could compare her
"I don't want a chance," whispered Claire
"You've got to live," said Winn, bending grimly over him; "You've got to live!"
THE DARK TOWER
Winn Staines respected God, the royal family, and his regiment; but even his respect for these three things was in many ways academic: he respected nothing else.
His father, Admiral Sir Peter Staines, had never respected anything; he went to church, however, because his wife didn't. They were that kind of family.
Lady Staines had had twelve children. Seven of them died as promptly as their constitutions allowed; the five survivors, shouted at, quarreled over, and soundly thrashed, tore themselves through a violent childhood into a rackety youth. They were never vicious, for they never reflected over or considered anything that they did.
Winn got drunk occasionally, assaulted policemen frequently, and could carry a small pony under each arm. Charles and James, who were in the navy, followed in the footsteps of Sir Peter; that is to say, they explored all possible accidents on sea or ashore, and sought for a fight as if it were a mislaid crown jewel.
Dolores and Isabella had to content themselves with minor feats and to be known merely as the terrors of the neighborhood, though ultimately Dolores succeeded in making a handsome splash by running away with a prize-fighting groom. She made him an excellent wife, and though Lady Staines never mentioned her name again, it was rumored that Sir Peter met her surreptitiously at Tattersall's and took her advice upon his horses.
Isabella, shocked and outraged by this sisterly mischance, married, in the face of all probability, a reluctant curate. He subsided into a family living given to him by Sir Peter, and tried to die of consumption.
Isabella took entire control of the parish, which she ruled as if it were a quarter-deck. She did not use her father's language, but she inherited his voice. It rang over boys' clubs and into mothers' meetings with the penetration and volume of a megaphone.
Lady Staines heartily disliked both her daughters, and she appeared not to care very deeply for her sons, but of the three she had a decided preference for Winn. Winn had a wicked temper, an unshakable nerve, and had inherited the strength of Sir Peter's muscles and the sledge-hammer weight of Lady Staines's wit. He had been expelled from his private school for unparalleled insolence to the head master; a repetition of his summing up of that gentleman's life and conduct delighted his mother, though she assisted Sir Peter in thrashing him for the result.
It may have contributed to his mother's affection for him that Winn had left England at nineteen, and had reached thirty-five with only two small intervals at home.
His first leave had kept them all busy with what the Staines considered a wholly unprovoked lawsuit; a man whom Winn had most unfortunately felt it his duty to fling from a bus into the street, having the weak-minded debility to break his leg had the further audacity to claim enormous damages. The Staines fought the case en bloc with splendid zeal, and fiery eloquence. It would probably have resulted better for their interests if they had not defied their own counsel, outraged the respectable minds of the jury, and insulted the learned judge. Under these circumstances they lost their case, and the rest of Winn's leave was taken up in the Family's congenial pursuit of laying the blame on each other.
The second and more fatal visit heralded Winn's marriage. He had not had time to marry before. It would not be true to say that women had played no part in his experiences, but the part they had played was neither exalted nor durable. They figured in his imagination as an inferior type of game, tiresome when captured. His life had been spent mainly in pursuit of larger objects. He had been sent straight from Sandhurst to South Africa, where he had fought with violence and satisfaction for two years, winning the D. S. O., a broken nose, and a cut across the face. When the fighting was over, he obtained leave for a two-years' exploring expedition into the heart of West Africa. Ten men had gone on this expedition, and two survived. Winn never talked of these experiences, but he once admitted to a friend that the early study of his sisters' characters had saved him in many awkward moments. He had known how to appeal to female savages with the unerring touch of experience.
From West Africa he was called to the Indian frontier, where he put in seven years in variegated and extremely useful service. He received his majority early, and disappeared for two years into Tibet, Manchuria, and China. After that he came back to England for polo, and met Estelle Fanshawe. She was lovely, gentle, intensely vain, and not very truthful.
Lady Staines disposed of her at once as "a mincing ninny." The phrase aggravated Winn, and his fancy deepened. It was stimulated by the fact that Estelle was the belle of the neighborhood and had a large supply of ardent admirers. It was almost like running a race with the odds against you. Winn was not a conceited man, and perhaps he thought the odds more against him than they actually were. He was the second son of a man who was immensely rich, (though Sir Peter was reported stingy to his children). Everybody knew who the Staines were, while the Fanshawes after every effort and with nearly every attraction had not become a part of public knowledge. Besides, Estelle had been made love to for some time, and Winn's way was undeniably different from that of her other admirers.
He met her at a dance, and insisted upon dancing with her the whole evening. He took her card away from her, and scored off all her indignant partners. In the interval of these decisive actions he made love to her in a steady, definite way that was difficult to laugh at and impossible to turn aside.
When he said good-night to her he told her that he would probably come and see her soon. She went away in a flutter, for his words, though casual, had had a sharply significant sound; besides, he had very nearly kissed her; if she had been more truthful, she would have said quite.
She didn't, in thinking it over, know at all how this had happened, and she generally knew precisely how these things happened.
Lady Staines told her son at breakfast a few mornings later what she thought of Miss Fanshawe.
"She's a girl," she observed, knocking the top off her egg, "who will develop into a nervous invalid or an advanced coquette, and it entirely depends upon how much admiration she gets which she does. I hear she's religious, too, in a silly, egotistical way. She ought to have her neck wrung."
Sir Peter disagreed; they heard him in the servants' hall.
"Certainly not!" he roared; "certainly not! I don't think so at all! The girl's a damned pretty piece, and the man's one of my best tenants. He's only just come, and he's done wonders to the place already. And I won't have the boy crabbed for fancying a neighbor! It's very natural he should. You never have a woman in the house fit to look at. Who the devil do you expect your boys to marry? Negresses or bar-maids?"
"Gentlewomen," said Lady Staines, firmly, "unless their father's behavior prevents them from being accepted."
Winn said nothing. He got up and began cutting ham at the sideboard. His mother hesitated a moment; but as she had only roused one of her men, she made a further effort in the direction of the other.
"The girl's a mean-spirited little liar," she observed. "I wouldn't take her as a housemaid."
"You may have to take her as a daughter-in-law, though," Winn remarked without turning round from the sideboard.
Sir Peter grunted. He didn't like this at all, but he couldn't very well say so without appearing to agree with his wife, a thing he had carefully avoided doing for thirty years.
Lady Staines rose and gathered up her letters.
"You're of age," she said to her son, "and you've had about as much experience of civilized women as a European baby has of crocodiles, and you'll be just about as safe and clever with them. As for you, Peter, pray don't trouble to tell me what you think of the Fanshawes in a year's time. You've never had a tenant you haven't had a lawsuit with yet, and this time you'll be adding Winn's divorce proceedings to your other troubles. I should think you might begin to save toward the damages now."
Sir Peter's oaths accompanied his wife across the dining-room to the door, which her son opened ceremoniously for her. Their eyes crossed like swords.
"If I get that girl, you'll be nice to her," Winn said in a low voice.
"As long as you are," replied Lady Staines, with a grim smile. He did not bang the door after her, as she had hoped; instead, he went to see the girl.
It was eleven o'clock when Winn arrived at the Fanshawes. Estelle was barely dressed, she always slept late, had her breakfast in bed, and gave as much trouble as possible to the servants.
However, when she heard who had called to see her, she sent for a basket and some roses, and five minutes later strolled into the drawing-room, with her hat on, and the flowers in her hands.
Her mother stayed in the garden and nervously thought out the lunch.
Winn seized the basket out of Estelle's hands, took her by the wrists, and drew her to the window.
She wasn't frightened of him, but she pretended to be. She said, "Oh, Major Staines!" She looked as soft and innocent as a cream-fed kitten. Winn cleared his throat. It made him feel rather religious to look at her. He did not of course see her as a kitten; he saw her approximately as an angel.
"Look here," he said, "my name's Winn."
"You're hurting my wrists," she murmured. He dropped them. "Winn," she said under her breath.
"I say," he said after a moment's pause, "would you mind marrying me?"
Estelle lifted her fine China blue eyes to his. They weren't soft, but they could sometimes look very mysterious.
"Oh," she said, "but, Winn—it's so sudden—so soon!"
"Leave's short," Winn explained, "and besides, I knew the moment I looked at you, I wanted you. I don't know how you feel, of course; but—well—I'm sure you aren't the kind of girl to let a fellow kiss you, are you, and mean nothing?"
Estelle's long lashes swept her cheeks; she behaved exquisitely. She was, of course, exactly that kind of girl.
"Ah," she said, with a little tremble in her voice, "if I do marry you—will you be kind to me?"
Winn trembled, too; he flushed very red, and suddenly he did the funniest, most unlikely thing in the world: he got down on his knees beside her, and taking both her hands in his, he kissed them.
"I'll be like this as much as ever you'll let me," he said gravely.
He had a great craving for sweetness, delicacy, and gentleness; he began to tell her in little short, abrupt sentences how unworthy he was of her, not fit to touch her really—he was afraid he'd been horribly rough—and done lots of things she would have hated (he forgot to mention that he'd ever done anything worth doing as well); he explained that he didn't know any women a bit like her; there weren't any, of course, really like—but she knew what he meant. So that he expected she'd have to teach him a lot—would she—if she didn't mind, and overlook his being stupid?
Estelle listened thoughtfully for a few minutes, then she asked him if he didn't think eight bridesmaids would be better than four?
He got up from his knees then.
He didn't like discussing the wedding, and he got bored very soon and went away, so that Mrs. Fanshawe didn't need to have the special lunch she had ordered, after all.
They were to have a very short engagement, and Estelle decided on four bridesmaids and four pages; she was so small herself that children would look prettier and more innocent.
There was something particularly charming about a young wedding, and they were to have a celebration first—Estelle was most particular about that—and a wedding breakfast afterwards of course. Winn was extraordinarily kind to her; he let her settle everything she liked and gave her exactly the ring she wanted—an immense emerald set with diamonds. He wasn't in the least particular about where they spent the honeymoon, after making a very silly suggestion, which Estelle promptly over-ruled, that they might go to the East Coast and make a study of fortifications.
He agreed that London would do just as well, with theaters, and he could look up a man he knew at the War Office. Certainly they should go to the Ritz if Estelle liked it; but it was rather noisy.
The one point he did make was to have a young officer he liked, who had been with him in China, Lionel Drummond, as his best man, instead of his cousin Lord Arlington. His brothers were out of the question, as he couldn't have one without having a row with the other. Estelle wanted Lord Arlington, but when she pressed the point, Winn gave her a most extraordinary sharp look and said, "I thought I told you I wanted that boy Drummond?" It was a most peculiar and disconcerting look, well known in the Staines family. Trouble usually followed very quickly upon its heels. Estelle shivered and gave in and was rewarded by a diamond brooch.
This showed her how important shivering was going to be in her married life.
The only really disagreeable time Estelle had during her engagement was the short half hour in which Lady Staines fulfilled her maternal duties.
It was a rainy day and Lady Staines had walked two miles across the fields in what looked like a cricket cap, and a waterproof.
She cleaned her boots as carefully as she could in the hall. They were square-toed and hob-nailed and most unsuitable for a drawing-room.
Mrs. Fanshawe literally quailed before them. "You shouldn't have parquet floors," Lady Staines remarked, holding out her hand; "in the country, it's the ruin of them unless you wear paper soles," she glanced searchingly at Mrs. Fanshawe's and Estelle's feet. "And that of course is the ruin of your feet. Probably you've lived in London all your lives?"
Mrs. Fanshawe found herself in the position of apologizing for what had hitherto been her proudest boast. Lady Staines looked tolerantly around her. "London's a poor place," she observed, "and very shoddy. When my friends the Malverns lived here, they had old oak and rather nice chintzes. I see you go in for color schemes and nicknacks. I hope Estelle won't find Staines uncomfortable; however, she probably won't be with us often."
She turned to her future daughter-in-law. "You are Estelle, my dear, ain't you?" she demanded. "And I dare say you can't speak a word of French in spite of your fine name. Can you?"
Estelle hesitated and blushed. "Not very much, I'm afraid," she truthfully murmured. It flashed through her mind that with Lady Staines you must be truthful if there was any possible chance of your being found out.
"Hum!" said Lady Staines thoughtfully. "I can't see what people spend so much on education for nowadays. I really can't! And you're going to marry my second son, ain't you?" she demanded. "Well, I'm sure it's very kind of you. All the Staines have tempers, but Winn's is quite the worst. I don't want to exaggerate, but I really don't think you could match it in this world. He generally keeps it, too! He was a nasty, murderous, little boy. I assure you I've often beaten him till he was black and blue and never got a word out of him."
Mrs. Fanshawe looked horrified. "But my dear Lady Staines," she urged, "surely you tried kindness?"
Lady Staines shook her head. "No," she said, "I don't think so, I don't think I am kind—very. But he's turned out well, don't you think? He's the only one of my sons who's got honors—a 'D.S.O.' for South Africa, and a C.B. for something or other, I never know what, in China; and he got his Majority extraordinarily young for special services—or he wouldn't have been able to marry you, my dear, for his father won't help him. He doesn't get drunk as often as the other two boys, either; in fact, on the whole, I should call him satisfactory. And now he's chosen you, and I'm sure we're all very grateful to you for taking him in hand."
Mrs. Fanshawe offered her visitor tea; she was profoundly shocked, but she thought that tea would help. Lady Staines refused it. "No, thank you very much," she said. "I must be getting back to give Sir Peter his. I shall be late as it is, and I shall probably hear him swearing all down the drive. We shall all be seeing more than enough of each other before long. But there's no use making a fuss about it, is there? We're a most disagreeable family, and I'm sure it'll be worse for you than for us."
Estelle accompanied her future mother-in-law to the door. She had not been as much shocked as her mother.
Lady Staines laid her small neat hand on the girl's arm. She looked at her very hard, but there was a spark of some kind, behind the hardness; if the eyes hadn't been those of Lady Staines, they might almost have been said to plead.
"I wonder if you like him?" she said slowly.
Estelle said, "Oh, dear Lady Staines, believe me—with all my heart!"
Lady Staines didn't believe her, but she smiled good-humoredly. "Yes, yes, my dear, I know!" she said. "But how much heart have you got? You see his happiness and yours depend on that. The woman who marries a Staines ought to have a good deal of heart and all of it ought to be his."
Estelle put on an air of pretty dignity. "I have never loved any one before," she asserted with serene untruthfulness (she felt sure this fact couldn't be proved against her), "and Winn believes in my heart."
"Does he?" said his mother. "I wonder. He believes in your pretty face! Well, it is pretty, I acknowledge that. Keep it as pretty as you can."
She didn't kiss her future daughter-in-law, but she tapped her lightly on the shoulder and trudged back with head erect through the rain.
"It's a bad business," she said to herself thoughtfully. "He's rushed his fence and there's a ditch on the other side of it, deep enough to drown him!"
Winn wanted, if possible, a home without rows. He knew very little of homes, and nothing which had made him suppose this ideal likely to be realized.
Still he went on having it, hiding it, and hoping for it.
Once he had come across it. It was the time when he had decided to undertake a mission to Tibet without a government mandate. He wanted young Drummond to go with him. The job was an awkward and dangerous one. Certain authorities had warned Winn that though, if the results were satisfactory, it would certainly be counted in his favor, should anything go wrong no help could be sent to him, and he would be held personally responsible; that is he would be held responsible if he were not dead, which was the most likely outcome of the whole business.
It is easy to test a man on the Indian frontier, and Winn had had his eye on Lionel Drummond for two years. He was a cool-headed, reliable boy, and in some occult and wholly unexpressed way Winn was conscious that he was strongly drawn to him. Winn offered him the job, and even consented, when he was on leave, to visit the Drummonds and talk the matter over with the boy's parents. It was then that he discovered that people really could have a quiet home.
Mrs. Drummond was a woman of a great deal of character, very great gentleness, and equal courage. She neither cried nor made fusses, and no one could even have imagined her making a noise.
It was she who virtually settled, after a private talk with Winn, that Lionel might accompany him. The extraordinary thing that Mrs. Drummond said to Winn was, "You see, I feel quite sure that you'll look after Lionel, whatever happens."
Winn had replied coldly, "I should never dream of taking a man who couldn't look after himself."
Mrs. Drummond said nothing. She just smiled at Winn as if he had agreed that he would look after Lionel. General Drummond was non-committal. He knew the boy would get on without the mission, but he also seemed to be influenced by some absurd idea that Winn was to be indefinitely trusted, so that he would say nothing to stop them. Lionel himself was wild with delight, and the whole affair was managed without suspicion, resentment, or hostility.
The expedition was quite as hard as the authorities had intimated, and at one point it very nearly proved fatal. A bad attack of dysentery and snow blindness brought Lionel down at a very inconvenient spot, crossing the mountains of Tibet during a blizzard. The rest of the party said with some truth that they must go forward or perish. Winn sent them on to the next settlement, keeping back a few stores and plenty of cartridges. He said that he would rejoin them with Drummond when Drummond was better, and if he did not arrive before a certain date they were to push on without him.
They were alone together for six weeks, and during these six weeks Winn discovered that he was quite a new kind of person; for one thing he developed into a first-rate nurse, and he could be just like a mother, and say the silliest, gentlest things. No one was there to see or hear him, and the boy was so ill that he wouldn't be likely to remember afterwards. He did remember, however, he remembered all his life. The stores ran out and they were dependent on Winn's rifle for food. They melted snow water to drink, and there were days when their chances looked practically invisible.
Somehow or other they got out of it, the boy grew better, the weather improved, and Winn managed, though the exact means were never specified, to drag Lionel on a sledge to the nearest settlement, where the rest of the party were still awaiting them.
After that the expedition was successful and the friendship between the two men final. Winn didn't like to think what Mrs. Drummond would say to him when they got back to England, but she let him down quite easily; she gave him no thanks, she only looked at him with Lionel's steady eyes and said, smiling a little, "I always knew you'd bring him back to me."
Winn did not ask Lionel to stay at Staines Court until the wedding. None of the Staines went in much for making friends, and he didn't want his mother to see that he was fond of any one.
The night before the wedding, however, Lionel arrived in the midst of an altercation as to who had ordered the motor to meet the wrong train.
This lasted a long time because all the Staines, except Dolores, were gathered together, and it expanded unexpectedly into an attack on Charles, the eldest son, whose name had been coupled with that of a lady whose professional aptitudes were described as those of a manicurist. There was a moment when murder of a particularly atrocious and internecine character seemed the only possible outcome to the discussion—then Charles in a white fury found the door.
Before he had gone out of earshot Sir Peter asked Lionel what his father would do if presented with a possible daughter-in-law so markedly frail? Sir Peter seemed to be laboring under the delusion that he had been weakly favorable to his son's inclinations, and that any other father would have expressed himself more forcibly. Lionel was saved from the awkwardness of disagreeing with him by an unexpected remark from Lady Staines.
"A girl from some kind of a chemist's shop," she observed musingly. "I fancy she's too good for Charles."
Sir Peter, who was fond of Charles, said the girl was probably not from a chemist's shop; and described to the horror of the butler, who had entered to prepare the tea-table, just what kind of a place she probably was from.
Lady Staines looked at Winn, and said she didn't see that it was much worse to marry a manicure girl than one who looked like a manequin. They were neither of them types likely to do credit to the family. Winn replied that, as far as that went, bad clothes and good morals did not always go together. He was prepared apparently with an apt illustration, when Isabella's husband, the Rev. Mr. Betchley, asked feebly if he might go up-stairs to rest.
It was quite obvious to everybody that he needed it.
The next morning at breakfast the manicure girl was again discussed, but in a veiled way so as not really to upset Charles before the wedding.
Winn escaped immediately afterwards with Lionel. They went for a walk, most of which was conducted in silence; finally, however, they found a log, took out their pipes, and made themselves comfortable.
Lionel said, "I wish I'd seen Miss Fanshawe; it must be awfully jolly for you, Winn."
Winn was silent for a minute or two, then he began, slowly gathering impetus as he went on: "Well—yes, of course, in a sense it is. I mean, I know I'm awfully lucky and all that, only—you see, old chap, I'm frightfully ignorant of women. I know one sort of course—a jolly sight better than you do—but girls! Hang it all, I don't know girls. That's what worries me—she's such a little thing." He paused a moment. "I hope it's all right," he said, "marrying her. It seems pretty rough on them sometimes, I think—don't you—I fancy she's delicate and all that." Lionel nodded. "It does seem rather beastly," he admitted, "their having to have a hard time, I mean—but if they care for you—I suppose it works out all right." Winn paid no attention to this fruitless optimism. He went on with his study of Estelle. "She's—she's religious too, you know, that's why we're to have that other service first. Rather nice idea, I think, don't you, what? Makes it a bit of a strain for her though I'm afraid, but she'd never think of that. I'm sure she's plucky." Lionel also was quite sure Estelle must be plucky.
"Fancy you getting married," Lionel said suddenly. "I can't see it somehow."
"I feel it funny myself," Winn admitted. "You see, it's so damned long, and I never have seen much of women. I hope she won't expect me to talk a lot or anything of that kind. Her people, you know, chatter like so many magpies—just oozes out of 'em."
"We must be off," Lionel said.
They stood up, knocked the ashes out of their pipes, and prepared to walk on.
It was a mild June day, small vague hills stretched behind them, and before them soft, lawn-like fields fell away to the river's edge.
Everywhere the green of trees in a hundred tones of color and with delicate, innumerable leaf shadows, laid upon the landscape, the fragrance and lightness of the spring.
They were in a temperate land, every yard of it was cultivated and civilized, immensely lived on and understood. None of it had been neglected or was dangerous or strange to the eye of man.
Simultaneously the thought flashed between them of other lands and of sharper vicissitudes; they saw again bleak passes which were cruel death traps, and above them untrodden alien heights; they felt the solemn vastness of the interminable, flawless snows. They kept their eyes away from each other—but they knew what each other was feeling, adventure and danger were calling to them—the old sting and thrill of an unending trail; and then from a little hollow in the guarded hills rang out the wedding bells.
Lionel looked a little shyly at his chief. "I wonder," he said, as Winn made no response, "if we can ever do things—things together again, I mean—I should like to think we could." Winn gave him a quick look and moved hastily ahead over the field path toward the church. "Why the devil shouldn't we?" he threw back at Lionel over his shoulder.
Estelle's wedding was a great success, but this was not surprising when one realized how many years had been spent in preparation for it. Estelle was only twenty-three, but for the last ten years she had known that she would marry, and she had thought out every detail of the ceremony except the bridegroom. You could have any kind of a bridegroom—men were essentially imperfect—but you need have only one kind of ceremony, and that could be ideal.
Estelle had visualized everything from the last pot of lilies—always Annunciation ones, not Arum, which look pagan—at the altar to the red cloth at the door. There were to be rose-leaves instead of rice; the wedding was to be in June, with a tent in the garden and strawberries.
If possible, she would be married by a bishop; if not, by a dean. The bishop having proved too remote, the dean had to do. But he was a fine-looking man, and would be made a bishop soon, so Estelle did not really mind. The great thing was to have gaiters on the lawn afterward.
The day was perfect. Estelle woke at her usual hour in the morning, her heart was beating a little faster than it generally did, and then she remembered with a pang of joy the perfect fit of her wedding-gown hanging in the wardrobe. She murmured to herself:
"One love, one life." She was not thinking of Winn, but she had always meant to say that on her wedding morning.
Then she had early tea. Her mother came in and kissed her, and Estelle implored her not to fuss, and above all not to get red in the face before going to church, where she was to wear a mauve hat.
It was difficult for Mrs. Fanshawe not to fuss, Estelle was the most expensive of her children and in a way the most important; for if she wasn't pleased it was always so dreadful. There were half a dozen younger children and any of them might do something tiresome.
Estelle arrived at the church five minutes late, on her father's arm, followed by four little bridesmaids in pink and white, and four little pages in blue and white. The effect was charming.
The village church was comfortably full, and with her eyes modestly cast down Estelle managed to see that all the right people were there, including the clergyman's daughters, whom she had always hated.
The Fanshawes and her mother's relations the Arnots had come down from town. They all looked very prosperous people with good dressmakers and tailors, and most of them had given her handsome silver wedding presents or checks.
They were on one side of the church just as Estelle had always pictured them, and on the other were the Staines and their relations. The Staines had very few friends, and those they had were hard riding, hunting people, who never look their best in satin. There was no doubt that the Staines sitting in the front seat were a blot on the whole affair.
You couldn't tell everybody that they were a county family, and they didn't look like it. They were too large and coarse, and took up far too much room. There they sat, six big creatures in one pew, all restless, all with big chins, hard eyes, jutting eyebrows, and a dreadful look as if they were buccaneering. As a matter of fact they all felt rather timid and flat, and meant to behave beautifully, though Sir Peter needn't have blown his nose like a trumpet and stamped simultaneously just as Estelle entered.
At the top of the aisle Winn waited for his bride; and his boots were dusty. Standing behind him was the handsomest man that Estelle had ever seen; and not only that, but the very kind of man she had always wished to see. It made Estelle feel for a moment like a good housekeeper, who has not been told that a distinguished guest was coming to dinner. If she had known, she would have ordered something different. She felt in a flash that he was the kind of bridegroom who would have suited the ceremony.
He was several inches taller than Winn, slim, with a small athletic head and perfectly cut Greek features; his face would have been a shade too regular and too handsome if he had not had the very same hard-bitten look in his young gray eyes that Winn had in his bright, hawk-like brown ones. Lionel was looking at Estelle as she came up the aisle in a tender, protective, admiring way, as if she were a very beautiful flower. This was most satisfactory, but at least Winn might have done the same. Instead of looking as if he were waiting for his bride, he looked exactly as if he were holding a narrow pass against an enemy. His very figure had a peculiarly stern and rock-like expression. His broad shoulders were set, his rather heavy head erect, and when he did look at Estelle, it was an inconceivably sharp look as if he were trying to see through her.
She didn't know, of course, that on his way to church he had thought every little white cloud in the blue sky was like her, and every lily in a cottage garden. There was a drop of sardonic blood in him, that made him challenge her even at the moment of achieved surrender.
"By Jove," he thought to himself, "can she be as beautiful as she looks?"
Then the service began, and they had the celebration first, and afterward the usual ceremony, perfectly conducted, and including the rather over-exercised "Voice that Breathed o'er Eden." The dean gave them an excellent, short and evasive address about their married duties, a great deal nicer than anything in the Prayer Book, and the March from Lohengrin took them to the vestry. In the vestry Winn began to be tiresome. The vicar said:
"Kiss the bride," and Winn replied:
"No, thanks; not at present," looking like a stone wall, and sticking his hands in his pockets. The vicar, who had known him from a boy, did not press the point; but of course the dean looked surprised. Any dean would.
The reception afterwards would have been perfect but for the Staines, who tramped through everything. Estelle perpetually saw them bursting into places where they weren't wanted, and shouting remarks which sounded abusive but were meant to be cordial to cowering Fanshawes and Arnots. It was really not necessary for Sir Peter to say in the middle of the lawn that what Mr. Fanshawe wanted was more manure.
It seemed to Estelle that wherever she went she heard Sir Peter's resonant voice talking about manure.
Lady Staines was much quieter; still she needn't have remarked to Estelle's mother, "Well—I'm glad to see you have seven children, that looks promising at any rate." It made two unmarried ladies of uncertain age walk into a flower-bed.
Winn behaved abominably. He took the youngest Fanshawe child and disappeared with him into the stable yard.
Even Charles and James behaved better than that. They hurled well-chosen incomprehensible jokes at the clergyman's daughters—dreadful girls who played hockey and had known the Staines all their lives—and these ladies returned their missiles with interest.
It caused a good deal of noise, but it sounded hearty.
Isabella, being a clergyman's wife, talked to the Dean, who soon looked more astonished than ever.
At last it was all comfortably over. Estelle, leaning on her father's arm in pale blue, kissed her mother. Mrs. Fanshawe looked at the end rather tactlessly cheerful. (She had cried throughout the ceremony, just when she had worn the mauve hat and Estelle had hoped she wouldn't.)
Mr. Fanshawe behaved much more suitably; he said to Winn with a trembling voice, "Take care of my little girl," and Winn, who might have said something graceful in reply, merely shook his father-in-law's hand with such force that Mr. Fanshawe, red with pain, hastily retreated.
Lionel Drummond was charming and much appreciated everywhere; he retrieved Winn from the stable yard when no one could guess where he was, and was the first person to call Estelle, Mrs. Staines; he wound up the affair with a white satin slipper.
When they drove off, Estelle turned toward Winn with shining eyes and quivering lips. It was the moment for a judicious amount of love-making, and all Winn said was:
"Look here, you know, those high-heeled things on your feet are absolutely murderous. They might give you a bad tumble. Don't let me see you in 'em again. Are you sure you're quite comfortable, and all that?"
He made the same absurd fuss about Estelle's comfort in the railway carriage; but it was one of the last occasions on which he did it, because he discovered almost immediately that however many things you could think of for Estelle's comfort, she could think of more for herself, and no matter how much care or attention was lavished upon her, it could never quite equal her unerring instinct for her own requirements.
After this he was prepared to be ardent, but Estelle didn't care for ardor in a railway train, so she soon stopped it. One of the funny things she discovered about Winn was that it was the easiest possible thing to stop his ardor, and this was really odd, because it was not from lack of strength in his emotion. She never quite discovered what it did come from, because it didn't occur to her that Winn would very much rather have died than offend or tire the woman he loved.
She thought that Winn was rather coarse, but he wasn't as coarse as that!
Estelle had a great deal that she wanted to talk over about the wedding. The whole occasion flamed out at her—a perfect project, perfectly carried out. She explained to Winn at length who everybody was and how there had been some people there who had had to be taken down, and others who had had to be pushed forward, and her mother explained to, and her father checked, and the children (it was too dreadful how they'd let Bobby run after Winn), kept as much out of the way as possible.
Winn listened hard and tried to follow intelligently all the family histories she evolved for him. At last after a rather prolonged pause on his part, just at a point when he should have expressed admiration of her guidance of a delicate affair, Estelle glanced at him and discovered that he was asleep! They hadn't been married for three hours, and he could go to sleep in the middle of their first real talk! She was sure Lionel Drummond wouldn't have done any such thing. But Winn was old—he was thirty-five—and she could see quite plainly now that the hair round the tops of his ears was gray. She looked at him scornfully, but he didn't wake up.
When he woke up he laughed.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed, "I believe I've been to sleep!" but he didn't apologize. He began instead to tell her some things that might interest her, about what Drummond, his best man, and he, had done in Manchuria, just as if nothing had happened; but naturally Estelle wouldn't be interested. She was first polite, then bored, then captious. Winn looked at her rather hard. "Are you trying to pay me back for falling asleep?" he asked with a queer little laugh. "Is that what you're up to?" Estelle stiffened.
"Certainly not," she said. "I simply wasn't very interested. I don't think I like Chinese stories, and Manchuria is just the same, of course."
Winn leaned over her, with a wicked light in his eyes, like a naughty school boy. "Own up!" he said, laying his rough hand very gently on her shoulder. "Own up, old lady!"
But has anybody ever owned up when they were being spiteful?
Estelle didn't. She looked at Winn's hand till he withdrew it, and then she remarked that she was feeling faint from want of food.
After she had had seven chicken sandwiches, pate de foie gras, half a melon, and some champagne, she began to be agreeable.
Winn was delighted at this change in her and quite inclined to think that their little "breeze" had been entirely due to his own awkwardness. Still, he wished she had owned up.
It took Winn a month to realize that he had paid his money, had his shy, and knocked down an empty cocoanut.
He couldn't get his money back, and he must spend the rest of his life carrying the cocoanut about with him.
It never occurred to him to shirk the institution of marriage. The church, the law, and the army stood in his mind for good, indelible things. Estelle was his wife as much as his handkerchief was his handkerchief. This meant that they were to be faithful to each other, go out to dinner together, and that he was to pay her bills. He knew the great thing in any tight corner was never under any circumstances to let go. All the dangers he had ever been in, had yielded, only because he hadn't.
It was true he had not been married before, but the same rule no doubt held good of marriage. If he held on to it, something more bearable would come of it. Then one could be out of the house a good deal, and there was the regiment. He began to see his way through marriage as a man sees his way through a gap in an awkward fence. The unfortunate part of it was that he couldn't get through the gap unless Estelle shared his insight.
He would have liked to put it to her, but he didn't know how; he never had had a great gift of expression, and something had brought him up very short in his communications with his wife.
It was so slight a thing that Estelle herself had forgotten all about it, but to a Staines it was absolutely final. She had told the gardener that Winn wanted hyacinths planted in the front bed. Winn hadn't wanted a garden at all, and he had let her have her way in everything else; but he had said quite plainly that he wouldn't on any account have hyacinths. The expression he used about them was excessively coarse, and it certainly should have remained in Estelle's memory. He had said, that the bally things stank. Nevertheless, Estelle had told the gardener that the master wanted hyacinths, and the gardener had told Winn. Winn gazed at the gardener in a way which made him wish that he had never been a gardener, but had taken up any other profession in which he was unlikely to meet a glance so "nasty." Then Winn said quietly:
"You are perfectly sure, Parsons, that Mrs. Staines told you it was my wish to have the hyacinths?" And the gardener had said:
"Yes, sir. She did say, sir, as 'ow you 'ad a particler fancy for them." And Winn had gone into the house and asked Estelle what the devil she meant? Estelle immediately denied the hyacinths and the gardener. People like that, she said, always misunderstand what one said to them.
"Very well, then," Winn replied. "He has lied to me, and must go. I'll dismiss him at once. He told me distinctly that you had said I liked them."
Estelle fidgeted. She didn't want the gardener to go. She really couldn't remember what she'd said and what she hadn't said to him. And Winn was absurd, and how could it matter, and the people next door had hyacinths, and they'd always had them at home!
Winn listened in silence. He didn't say anything more about the gardener having lied, and he didn't countermand the hyacinths; only from that moment he ceased to believe a single word his wife said to him. This is discouraging to conversation and was very unfair to Estelle; for she might have told the truth more often if she had not discovered that it made no difference to her husband whether she told it to him or not.
Estelle knew that her heart was broken, but on the whole she did not find that she was greatly inconvenienced.
In an unhappy marriage the woman generally scores unless she is in love with her husband. Estelle never had been in love with Winn; she had had an agreeable feeling about him, and now she had a disagreeable feeling about him, but neither of these emotions could be compared with beaten-brass hot-water jugs, which she had always meant to have when she was married.
If Winn had remained deeply in love with her, besides making things more comfortable at meals it would have been a feather in her cap. Still his cruelty could be turned into another almost more becoming feather.
She said to herself and a little later to the nearest clergyman, "I must make an offering of my sorrow." She offered it a good deal, almost to every person she met. Even the cook was aware of it; but, like all servants, she unhesitatingly sided with the master. He might be in the wrong, but he was seldom if ever in the kitchen.
They had to have a house and servants, because Estelle felt that marriage without a house was hardly legal; and Winn had given way about it, as he was apt to do about things Estelle wanted. His very cruelty made him particularly generous about money.
But Estelle was never for a moment taken in by his generosity; she saw that it was his way of getting out of being in love with her. Winn was a bad man and had ruined her life—this forced her to supplement her trousseau.
Later on when he put down one of his hunters and sold a polo pony so that she could have a maid, she began to wonder if she had at all found out how bad he really was?
There was one point he never yielded; he firmly intended to rejoin his regiment in March.
The station to which they would have to go was five thousand feet up, lonely, healthy, and quite unfashionable. Winn had tried to make it seem jolly to her and had mentioned as a recommendation apparently that it was the kind of place in which you needn't wear gloves. It was close to the border, and women had to be a little careful where they rode.
Estelle had every intention of being careful; she would, she thought, be too careful ever to go to the Indian frontier at all. She had often heard of the tragic separations of Anglo-Indian marriages; it was true that they were generally caused by illness and children, but there must be other methods of obtaining the same immunities.
She had never had any difficulty with the doctor at home; she relied on him entirely, and he had invariably ordered her what she wanted, after a nice quiet talk.
Travers, the regimental doctor, was different, he looked exactly like a vet, and only understood things you had actually broken. Still Estelle put her trust in Providence; no self-respecting higher Power could wish a woman of her type to be wasted on a hill station. Something would happen to help her, and if not, she would be given grace to help herself.
One day Winn came down to breakfast with a particularly disagreeable expression. He said "good-morning" into his newspaper as usual without noticing her pathetic little smile.
He only unburied himself to take his second cup of coffee, then he said, without looking at her,
"It's a beastly nuisance, the War Office want me to extend my leave—hanged if I do."
Estelle thanked Heaven in a flash and passed him the marmalade. She had never dreamed the War Office could be so efficient.
"That shows," she said gracefully, "what they think of you!"
Winn turned his sardonic eyes towards her. "Thanks," he drawled, "I dare say it's the kind of thing you'd like. They propose that I should stay on here at the Staff College for another year and write 'em a damned red tape report on Tibet." His irony, dropped from him. "If it was a job," he said in a low voice, "I'd go like a shot."
"Mightn't it mean promotion?" she asked a little nervously. Winn shrugged his shoulders. "I can write anything they want out there," he said gloomily. "All I want is ink! What I know I've got in my head, you see. I'd take that with me."
"But you couldn't talk things over with them or answer their questions, could you?" Estelle intelligently ventured. She had an intelligence which ripened along the line of her desires.
"I could tell them anything they want to know in ten minutes!" said Winn impatiently. "They don't want information, they want a straight swift kick! They know what I think—they just want me to string out a lot of excuses for them not to act! Besides the chief thing is—they'd have to send for me, if there was a row—I know the ground and the other chaps don't. I wish to God there'd be a row!"
Estelle sighed and gazed pathetically out of the window. Her eyes rested on the bed where the hyacinths were planted, and beyond it to gorse bushes and a corrugated iron shed.
They were at Aldershot, which was really rather a good place for meeting suitable people. "What do you intend to do?" she asked, trembling a little. Winn was at his worst when questioned as to his intentions; he preferred to let them explode like fire-crackers.
"Do!" he snorted, "Write and tell 'em when they've got any kind of job on the size of six-pence I'll be in it! And if not Tibet's about as useful to draw up a report on—as ice in the hunting season—and I'm off in March—and that's that!"
A tear rolled down Estelle's cheek and splashed on the tablecloth; she trembled harder until her teaspoon rattled.
Winn looked at her. "What's up?" he asked irritably. "Anything wrong?"
"I suppose," she said, prolonging a small sob, "you don't care what I feel about going to India?"
"But you knew we were always going out in March didn't you?" he asked, as if that had anything to do with it! The absurd face value that he gave to facts was enough to madden any woman. Estelle sobbed harder.
"I never knew I should be so unhappy!" she moaned. Winn looked extremely foolish and rather conscience-stricken; he even made a movement to rise, but thought better of it.
"I'm sure I'm awfully sorry," he said apologetically. "I suppose you mean you're a bit sick of me, don't you?" Estelle wiped her eyes, and returned to her toast. "Can't you see," she asked bitterly, "that our life together is the most awful tragedy?"
"Oh, come now," said Winn, who associated tragedy solely with police courts and theaters. "It's not so bad as all that, is it? We can rub along, you know. I dare say I've been rather a brute, but I shall be a lot better company when I'm back in the regiment. We must buck up, that's all! I don't like to bother you about it, but I think you'd see things differently if we had a kid. I do really. I've seen heaps of scratch marriages turn out jolly well—when the kids began to come!"
"How can you be so disgustingly coarse!" shuddered Estelle. "Besides, I'm far too delicate! Not that you would care if I died! You'd just marry again!"
"Oh, no! I shouldn't do that," said Winn in his horrid quiet way which might mean anything. He got up and walked to the window. "You wouldn't die," he observed with his back turned to her. "You'd be a jolly sight stronger all the rest of your life! I asked Travers!"
"Oh!" she cried, "you don't mean to tell me that you talked me over with that disgusting red-faced man!"
"I don't talk people over," said Winn without turning round. "He's a doctor. I asked his opinion!"
"Well," she said, "I think it was horrible of you—and—and most ungentlemanly. If I'd wanted to know, I'd have found out for myself. I haven't the slightest confidence in regimental doctors."
Winn said nothing. One of the things Estelle most disliked in him was the way in which it seemed as if he had some curious sense of delicacy of his own. She wanted to think of Winn as a man impervious to all refinement, born to outrage the nicer susceptibility of her own mind, but there were moments when it seemed as if he didn't think the susceptibilities of her mind were nice at all. He was not awed by her purity.
He didn't say anything of course, but he let certain subjects prematurely drop.
Suddenly he turned round from the window and fixed his eyes on hers. She thought he was going to be very violent, but he wasn't, he talked quite quietly, only something hard and bright in his eyes warned her to be careful.
"Look here," he said, "I've thought of something, a kind of bargain! I'll give in to you about this job, if you'll give in to me about the other! It's no use fighting over things, is it?
"If you'll have a kid, I'll stay on here for a year more; if you won't, I'll clear out in March and you'll have to come with me, for I can't afford two establishments. I don't see what else to offer you unless you want to go straight back to your people. You'd hardly care to go to mine, if they'd have you.
"But if you do what I ask about the child—I'll meet you all the way round—I swear to—you shan't forget it! Only you must ride straight. If you play me any monkey tricks over it—you'll never set eyes on me again; and I'm afraid you'll have to have Travers, because I trust him, not some slippery old woman who'd let you play him like a fish! D'you understand?"
Estelle stared aghast at this mixture of brutality and cunning. Her mind flew round and round like a squirrel in a cage.
She could have managed beautifully if it hadn't been for Travers. Travers would be as impervious to handling as a battery mule. She really wouldn't be able to do anything with Travers. He looked as if he drank; but he didn't.
Of course having a baby was simply horrid; lots of women got out of it nowadays who were quite happily married.
It was disgusting of Winn to suggest it when he didn't even love her.
But once she had one, if she really did give way, a good deal might be done with it.
Maternity was sacred; being a wife on the other hand was "forever climbing up the climbing wave," there was nothing final about it as there was in being able to say, "I am the mother of your child!"
Her wistful blue eyes expanded. She saw her own way spreading out before her like a promised land. "I can't," she said touchingly, "decide all this in a minute."
He could stay on for two years at the War Office, and Estelle meant him to stay without inconvenience to herself. He tried bargaining with her; but her idea of a bargain was one-sided.
"I sometimes feel as if you kept me out of everything," she said at last.
Estelle was feeling her way; she thought she might collect a few extras to add to her side of the bargain.
Apparently she was right. Winn was all eagerness to meet her. "How do you mean?" he asked anxiously.
"Oh," she said contemplatively, "such heaps of things! One thing, I don't expect you've ever noticed that you never ask your friends to stay here. I've had all mine; you've never even asked your mother! It's as if you were ashamed of me."
"I'll ask her like a shot if you like," he said eagerly. Estelle was not anxious for a visit from Lady Staines, but she thought it sounded better to begin with her. She let her pass.
"It's not only your relations," she went on; "it's your friends. What must they think of a wife they are never allowed to see?"
"But they're such a bachelor crew," he objected. "It never occurred to me you'd care for them—just ordinary soldier chaps like me, not a bit clever or amusing."
Estelle did not say that crews of bachelors are seldom out of place in the drawing-room of a young and pretty woman. She looked past her husband to where in fancy she beheld the aisle of a church and the young Adonis, who had been his best man, with eyes full of reverence and awe gazing at her approaching figure.
"I thought," she said indifferently, "you liked that man you insisted on having instead of Lord Arlington at the wedding?"
"I do," said Winn. "He's my best friend. I meet him sometimes in town, you know."
"He must think it awfully funny," said Estelle, sadly, "our never having him down here."
"He's not that sort," said Winn. "He was my sub, you know. He wouldn't think anything funny unless I told him to. We know each other rather well."
"That makes it funnier still," said Estelle, relentlessly.
"Oh, all right," said Winn, after a moment's pause. "Have him down here if you like. Shall I write to him or will you?"
"He's your friend," said Estelle, politely.
"Yes," said Winn, "but it's your idea." There was a peculiar look in his eyes, as if he wanted to warn her about something. He went to the door and then glanced back at her, apparently hoping that she had changed her mind.
Estelle hadn't the faintest intention of changing her mind. She had already decided to put sweet peas in Lionel's room and a marked copy of "The Road Mender."
"You may as well ask him yourself," said Winn, "if you really want him to come."
It was time, Estelle felt, that the real things of life should come back to her. She had had them before marriage—these real things—light, swift, contacts with chosen spirits; friendships not untinged with a liability to become something less capable of definition. But since her marriage she had been forced into a world of secondary experiences. Winn, to begin with, had stood very much in the way, and when he had ceased to block the paths of sentiment she had not found a substitute. At Aldershot, where they lived, there was an unspoken rule that brides should be left alone. Women called, and men were polite, but when Estelle began those delicate personal conversations which led the way to deeper spiritual contacts she discovered that nothing followed. She could not say that she found the men elusive; stone walls are not elusive, but they do not lend themselves to an easy way across country. As to women, theoretically Estelle desired their friendship just as much as that of men; but in practice she generally found them unsympathetic, and incapable of the finest type of intimacy. They did not seem to know what the word devotion meant. Men did, especially young men, though the older ones talked more about it. Estelle had already seen herself after marriage as a confidante to Winn's young brother officers. She would help them as only a good woman can. (She foresaw particularly how she would help to extricate them from the influences of bad women. It was extraordinary how many women who influenced men at all were bad!) Estelle never had any two opinions about being a good woman herself. She couldn't be anything else. Good women held all the cards, but there was no reason why they shouldn't be attractive; it was their failure to grasp this potentiality, which gave bad women their temporary sway.
It was really necessary in the missionary career open to young and attractive married women, to be magnetic. Up to a certain point men must be led on, because if they didn't care for you in the right way you couldn't do anything with them at all. After that point, they must be gently and firmly stopped, or else they might become tiresome, and that would be bad both for them and for you. Especially with a husband like Winn, who seemed incapable of grasping fine shades, and far too capable of dealing roughly and brutally with whatever he did grasp. There had been a dress, for instance, that he simply refused to let Estelle wear—remarking that it was a bit too thick—though that was really the last quality it had possessed.
The question of congenial friendship was therefore likely to be a difficulty, but Estelle had never forgotten Lionel Drummond. When she stopped thinking about Winn except as an annoyance, it became necessary for her to think of somebody else, and her mind fixed itself at once upon her husband's friend. It seemed to her that in Lionel Drummond she would find a perfect spiritual counterpart. She dreamed of a friendship with him too deep for mere friendliness, too late for accepted love; and it seemed to her exactly the kind of thing she wanted. Hand in hand they would tread the path of duty together, surrounded by a rosy mist.
They might even lead Winn to higher things; but at this point Estelle's imagination balked. She could not see Winn being led—he was too truculent—and he had never in his tenderest moments evinced the slightest taste for higher things. It would be better perhaps if they simply set him a good example. He would be certain not to follow it.
She and Lionel would have terrible moments, of course. Estelle thrilled at the thought of these moments, and from time to time she slightly stretched the elastic of the path of duty to meet them. They would still keep on it, of course; they would never go any further than Petrarch and Laura. These historic philanderers should be their limit, and when the worst came to the worst, Estelle would softly murmur to Lionel, "Petrarch and Laura have borne it, and we must bear it too."
She became impatient for Lionel's arrival and bought a new and exquisitely becoming blue chiffon dress. Both she and her maid were so struck by her appearance that when Estelle heard Winn banging about at the last moment in his dressing room, she knocked at his door. Even the lowest type of man can be used as a superior form of looking glass. He shouted "Come in!" and stared at her while he fumbled at his collar stud; then he lifted his eyebrows and said "War-paint—eh?"
"I only wanted to remind you, dear," said Estelle patiently, "that the key of the wine cellar is in my bureau drawer."
Lionel arrived before Winn had finished dressing. Estelle greeted him with outstretched hands. "I am so very glad to see you at last," she said in her softest, friendliest voice. "I think it will do Winn good to have you here."
Lionel laughed shyly.
"I shouldn't have thought," he said, "that Winn would need much more good."
"Ah, my dear fellow!" said Winn's voice behind him, "you don't know how great my needs are. Sorry I couldn't meet you."
Estelle's beautiful, wavering eyes rested for a moment on her husband. She had never known a man to dress so quickly, and it seemed to her an unnecessary quality.
The dinner was a great success. Both men were absurdly gay. Winn told good stories, laughed at Lionel, and rallied his young wife. She had never seen him like this before, and she put it down to the way one man sets off another.
Estelle felt that she was being a great success, and it warmed her heart. The two men talked for her and listened to her; she had a moment when she thought that perhaps, after all, she needn't relegate Winn to a lower world.
They accepted with enthusiasm her offer to sing to them after dinner and then they kept her waiting in the drawing-room for an hour and a half.
She sat there opposite a tall Italian mirror, quivering with her power, her beauty, her ability to charm, and with nothing before her but the empty coffee-cups.
She played a little, she even sang a little (the house was small) to recall them to a sense of her presence, but inexplicably they clung to their talk. Winn who at ordinary times seemed incapable of more than disconnected fragments of speech was (she could hear him now and then quite distinctly) talking like a cataract; and Lionel was, if anything, worse. Her impatience turned into suspicion. Probably Winn was poisoning his friend's mind against her. Perhaps he was drinking too much, Sir Peter did, and people often took after their fathers. That would have to be another point for Lionel and her to tackle. At last they came in, and Lionel said without any attempt at an apology:
"We should love some music, Mrs. Winn."
Winn said nothing. He stuck his hands into his pockets, and stood in front of the fireplace in a horribly British manner while she turned over her songs. Estelle sang rather prettily. She preferred songs of a type that dealt with bitter regret over unexplained partings. She sang them with a great deal of expression and a slight difficulty in letting go of the top notes. After she had sung two or three, Lionel said:
"Now, Winn, you sing."
Estelle started. She had never before heard of this accomplishment of her husband's. It occurred to her now that Lionel would think it very strange she hadn't, but he need never know unless Winn gave her away. She need not have been afraid. Winn said quietly, as if he said it to her every evening, "D'you mind playing for me, Estelle?" Then he dragged out from under her music a big black book in which he had painstakingly copied and collected his selection of songs.
He had a high, clear baritone, very true and strangely impressive; it filled the little room. When he had finished, Lionel forgot to ask Estelle to sing again. Winn excused himself; he said he had a letter or two to write and left them.
"It's jolly, your both singing," Lionel said, looking at her with the same admiring friendliness he had shown her before. She guessed then that Winn had said nothing against her. After all, at the bottom of her heart she had known he wouldn't. You can't live with a man for five months and not know where you are safe.
Estelle smiled prettily.
"Yes," she said gently, "music is a great bond," and then she began to talk to Lionel about himself.
She had a theory that all men liked to talk exclusively about themselves, and it is certain that most men enjoyed their conversation with her; but in this particular instance she made a mistake. Lionel did not like talking about himself, and above all he disliked sympathetic admiration. He was not a conceited man, and it had not occurred to him that he was a suitable subject for admiration. Nor did he see why he should receive sympathy. He had had an admirably free and happy life with parents who were his dearest friends, and with a friend who was to him a hero beyond the need of definition.
Still, he wouldn't have shrunk from talking about Winn with Estelle. It was her right to talk about him, her splendid, perfect privilege. He supposed that she was a little shy, because she seemed to slip away from their obvious great topic; but he wished, if she wasn't going to talk about Winn, she would leave his people alone.
She tried to sympathize with him about his home difficulties, and when she discovered that he hadn't any, her sympathy veered to the horrible distance he had to be away from it.
"Oh, well," said Lionel, "it's my father's old regiment, you know; that makes it awfully different. They know as much about my life as I do myself, and when I don't get leave, they often come out to me for a month or two. They're good travelers."
"They must be simply wonderful!" Estelle said ecstatically. Lionel said nothing. He looked slightly amazed. It seemed so funny that Winn, who hadn't much use for ecstasy, should have married a so easily ecstatic wife.
"I do envy you," she said pathetically, "all that background of home companionship. We were brought up so differently. It was not my parents' fault of course—" she added rather quickly. Something in Lionel's expression warned her that he would be unsympathetic to confidences against parents.
"Well, you've got Winn," he said, looking at her with his steadfast encouraging eyes, "you've got your background now." He was prepared to put up with a little ecstasy on this subject, but Estelle looked away from him, her great eyes strangely wistful and absorbed. She was an extraordinary exquisite and pretty little person, like a fairy on a Christmas tree, or a Dresden china shepherdess, not a bit, somehow, like a wife.
"Yes," she said, twisting her wedding ring round her tiny manicured finger. "But sometimes I am a little anxious about him—I know it's silly of me."
Lionel's shyness fell away from him with disconcerting suddenness. "Why are you anxious?" he demanded. "What do you mean, Mrs. Winn?"
Estelle hesitated, she hadn't meant to say exactly what her fear was, she only wanted to arouse the young man's chivalry and to talk in some way that approached intimacy.
Everything must have a beginning, even Petrarch and Laura.
She found Lionel's eyes fixed upon her with a piercing quality difficult to meet. He obviously wouldn't understand if she didn't mean anything—and she hardly knew him well enough to touch on her real difficulties with Winn, those would have to come later.
But she must be anxious about something—she was forced into the rather meager track of her husband's state of health.
"I don't quite know," she mused, "of course he seems perfectly strong—but I sometimes wonder if he is as strong as he looks."
Lionel brushed her wonder aside. "Please tell me exactly what you've noticed," he said, as if he were a police sergeant and she were some reluctant and slightly prevaricating witness.
She hadn't, as a matter of fact, noticed anything. "He sometimes looks terribly tired," she said a little uncertainly, "but I dare say it's all my foolishness, Mr. Drummond. I am afraid I am inclined to be nervous about other people's health—" Estelle sighed softly. She often accused herself of faults which no one had discovered in her. "Winn, I am sure, would be the first to laugh at me."
"Yes, I dare say he would," said Lionel quietly. "But I never will, Mrs. Winn." She raised her eyes gratefully to him—at last she had succeeded in touching him.
"You see," Lionel explained, "I care too much for him myself."
Her eyes dropped. She had a feeling that Petrarch and Laura had hardly begun like that.
The next few days were very puzzling to Estelle; nobody behaved as she expected them to behave, including herself. She found Lionel always ready to accept her advances with open-hearted cordiality, but she had to make the advances. She had not meant to do this. Her idea had been to be a magnet, and magnets keep quite still; needles do all the moving. But this particular needle (except that it didn't appear at all soft) might have been made of cotton wool.
And Winn wouldn't behave at a disadvantage; he was neither tyrannical nor jealous. He left her a great deal to Lionel, and treated her with good-natured tolerance in private and with correct attention before his friend.
In theory Estelle had always stated her belief in platonic friendship, but she had never been inconvenienced by having to carry it out. One thing had always led to another. She had imagined that Lionel (in his relations with her) would be a happy mixture of Lancelot and Galahad. The Galahad side of him would appear when Lancelot became inconvenient—and the Lancelot side of him would be there to fall back upon when Galahad got too dull. But in their actual relation there seemed to be some important ingredient left out. Of course Lancelot was guilty and Estelle had never for a moment intended Lionel to be guilty, but on the other hand Lancelot was in love with the Queen.
This quality was really essential.
Lancelot had had a great affection for the King of course, but that had been subsidiary; and this was what puzzled Estelle most, was Lionel's feeling for her subsidiary to his feeling for Winn?
Lionel was delightful to her; he waited on her hand and foot; he studied all her tastes and remembered everything she told him. Could playing polo with Winn, going out for walks in the rain, and helping to make saddles in Winn's musty, smelling den appeal to him with greater force than her society? He wasn't in love with any one else, and if men weren't in love with any one else, they were usually in love with Estelle. But with Lionel everything stopped short. They conversed confidentially, they used each other's Christian names, but she was left with the sensation of having come up against an invisible barrier. There was no impact, and there was no curtness; there was simply empty space. She was not even sure that Lionel would have liked her at all if she hadn't been Winn's wife. As it was, he certainly wanted her friendship and took pains to win it. It must be added that he won more than he took pains to win. Estelle for the first time in her life stumbled waveringly into a little love.
The visit prolonged itself from a week to a fortnight. Estelle did not sleep the night before Lionel went. She tossed feverishly to and fro, planning their parting. Surely he would not leave her without a word? Surely there must be some touch of sentiment to this separation, horrible and inevitable, that lay before them?
She remembered afterwards that as she lay in the dark and foresaw her loneliness she wondered if she wouldn't after all risk the Indian frontier to be near him? She was subsequently glad she had decided that she wouldn't.
It was a very wet morning, and Lionel was to leave before lunch. Winn went as usual into his study to play with his eternal experiments in leather. Lionel went with him. She heard the two men laughing together down the passage. Could real friends have laughed if they had minded parting with each other?
She sat at her desk in the drawing-room biting nervously at her pen. He was going; was it possible that there would be no farewell?
Just some terrible flat hand-shake at the door under Winn's penetrating eyes.
But after a time she heard steps returning. Lionel came by himself.
"Are you busy?" he asked. "Shall I bother you if we talk a little?"
"No," she said softly. "I hoped you would come back."
Lionel did not answer for a moment. For the first time in their acquaintance he was really a little stirred. He moved about the room restlessly, he wouldn't sit down, though half unconsciously she had put her hand on the chair beside her.
"Do you know," he said at last, "I've got something to say to you, and I'm awfully afraid it may annoy you."
Was it really coming, the place at which he would have to be stopped, after all her fruitless endeavors to get him to move in any direction at all? It looked like it; he was very obviously embarrassed and flushed; he did not even try to meet her eyes.
"The fact is," he went on, "I simply can't go without saying it, and you've been so awfully good to me—you've let me feel we're friends." He paused, and Estelle leaned forward, her eyes melting with encouragement.
"I am so glad you feel like that, Lionel," she murmured. "Do please say anything—anything you like. I shall always understand and forgive, if it is necessary for me to forgive."
"You're awfully generous," he said gratefully. She smiled, and put out her hand again toward the chair. This time he sat down in it, but he turned it to face her.
He was a big man and he seemed to fill the room in which they sat. His blue-gray eyes fixed themselves on hers intently, his whole being seemed absorbed in what he was about to say.
"You see," he began, "I think you may be making a big mistake. Naturally Winn's awfully fond of you and all that and you've just started life, and you like to live in your own country, surrounded by jolly little things, and perhaps India seems frightening and far away." Estelle shrank back a little; he put his hand on the back of her chair soothingly. "Of course it must be hard," he said. "Only I want to explain it to you. Winn's heart is yours, I know, but it's in his work, too, as a man's must be, and his work's out there; it's not here at all.
"When I came here and looked about me, and saw the house and the garden and the country, where we've had such jolly walks and talks—it all seemed temporary somehow, made up—not quite natural, I can't explain what I mean but not a bit like Winn. I needn't tell you what he is, I dare say you think it's cheek of me to talk about him at all, I can quite understand it if you do, only perhaps there's a side of him I've seen more of, and which makes me want to say what I know he isn't—what I don't think even love can make him be—he isn't tame!"
He stopped abruptly; Estelle's eyes had hardened and grown very cold.
"I don't know what you mean," she said. "Has he complained of my keeping him here?"
Lionel pushed back his chair.
"Ah, Mrs. Winn! Mrs. Winn!" he exclaimed half laughingly, and half reproachfully; "you know he wouldn't complain. He only told me that he wasn't coming back just yet, and I—well, I thought I saw why he wasn't."
"Then," she said, turning careful eyes away from him, "if he hasn't complained, I hardly see why you should attack me like this. I suppose you think I am as unnatural and—and temporary as our surroundings?"
Lionel stood up and looked down at her in a puzzled way.
"Oh, I say, you know," he ventured, "you're not playing very fair, are you? Of course I'm not attacking you. I thought we were friends, and I wanted to help you."
"Friends!" she said. Her voice broke suddenly into a hard little laugh. "Well, what else have you to suggest to me about my husband—out of your friendship for me?"
"You're not forgiving me," he reminded her gently, not dreaming what it was she had been prepared to forgive. "But perhaps I'd better go on and get it all out while I'm about it. You know it isn't only that I think he won't care for staying on here, but I think it's a bit of a risk. I don't want to frighten you, but after a man's had black water fever twice, he's apt to be a little groggy, especially about the lungs. England isn't honestly a very good winter place for him for a year or two—"
Estelle flung up her head.
"If he was going to be an invalid," she said, "he oughtn't to have married me!"
The silence that followed her speech crept into every corner of the room. Lionel did not look puzzled any more. He stood up very straight and stiff; only his eyes changed. He could not look at her; they were filled with contempt. He gave her a moment or two to disavow her words; he would have given his right hand to hear her do it.
"I beg your pardon," he said at last. "I have overstated the case if you imagine your husband is an invalid. I think, if you don't mind," he added, "I'll see if my things are ready."
"Please do," she said, groping in her mind for something left to hurt him with. "And another time perhaps you will know better than to say for my husband what he is perfectly competent to say for himself."
"You are quite right," Lionel said quietly; "another time I shall know better." The rain against the windows sounded again; she had not heard it before.
He did not come back to say good-by. She heard him talking to Winn in the hall, the dogcart drove up, and then she saw him for the last time, his fine, clear-cut profile, his cap dragged over his forehead, his eyes hard, as they were when he had looked at her. He must have known she stood there at the window watching, but he never looked back. She had expected a terrible parting, but never a parting as terrible as this. Mercifully she had kept her head; it was all she had kept.
It was shortly after Lionel's departure that Estelle realized there was nothing between her and the Indian frontier except the drawing-room sofa. She fixed herself as firmly on this shelter as a limpet takes hold upon a rock. People were extremely kind and sympathetic, and Winn himself turned over a new leaf. He was gentle and considerate to her, and offered to read aloud to her in the evenings.
Nothing shook her out of this condition. The baby arrived, unavailingly as an incentive to health, and not at all the kind of baby Estelle had pictured. He was almost from his first moments a thorough Staines. He was never very kissable, and was anxious as soon as possible to get on to his own feet. At eight months he crawled rapidly across the carpet with a large musical-box suspended from his mouth by its handle; at ten he could walk. He tore all his lawn frocks on Winn's spurs, screamed with joy at his father's footsteps, and always preferred knees to laps.
His general attitude towards women was hostility, he looked upon them as unfortunate obstacles in the path of adventure, and howled dismally when they caressed him. He had more tolerance for his mother who seemed to him an object provided by Providence in connection with a sofa, on purpose for him to climb over.
Her maternal instinct went so far as to allow him to climb over it twice a day for short intervals. After all he had gained her two years.
Estelle lay on the sofa one autumn afternoon at four o'clock, with her eyes firmly shut. She was aware that Winn had come in, and was very inconsiderately tramping to and fro in heavy boots. He seldom entered the drawing-room at this hour, and if he did, he went out again as soon as he saw that her eyes were shut.
Probably he meant to say something horrible about India; she had been expecting it for some time. The report on Tibet was finished, and he could let his staff work go when he liked.
He stood at the foot of her couch and looked at her curiously. Estelle could feel his eyes on her; she wondered if he noticed how thin she was, and how transparent her eyelids were. Every fiber in her body was aware of her desire to impress him with her frailty. She held it before him like a banner.
"Estelle," he said. When he spoke she winced.
"Yes, dear," she murmured hardly above a whisper.
"Would you mind opening your eyes?" he suggested. "I've got something I want to talk over with you, and I really can't talk to a door banged in my face."
"I'm so sorry," she said meekly; "I'm afraid I'm almost too exhausted to talk, but I'll try to listen to what you have to say."
"Thanks," said Winn. He paused as if, after all, it wasn't easy to begin, even in the face of this responsiveness. She thought he looked rather odd. His eyes had a queer, dazed look, as if he had been drinking heavily or as if somebody had kicked him.
"Well," she asked at last, "what is it you want to talk about? Suspense of any kind, you know, is very bad for my heart."
"I beg your pardon," he said. "It was only that I thought I'd better mention I am going to Davos."
"Davos!" She opened her eyes wide now and stared at him. "That snow place?" she asked, "full of consumptives? What a curious idea! I never have been able to understand how people can care to go there for sport. It seems to me rather cruel; but, then, I know I am specially sensitive about that kind of thing. Other people's pain weighs so on me."
"I didn't say I was going there for sport," Winn answered in the same peculiar manner. He sat down and began to play with a paper-cutter on his knee. "As a matter of fact, I'm not," he went on. "I've crocked one of my lungs. They seem to think I've got to go. It's a great nuisance."
It was curious the way he kept looking at her, as if he expected something. He couldn't have told exactly what he expected himself. He was face to face with a new situation; he wasn't exactly frightened, but he had a feeling that he would like very much to know how he ought to meet it. He had often been close to death—but he had never somehow thought of dying, he wasn't close to death now but at the end of something which might be very horrible there would be the long affair of dying. He hoped he would get through it all right and not make a fuss or be a bother to anybody. It had all come with a curious suddenness. He had gone to Travers one day because when Polly pulled he had an odd pain in his chest. He had had a toss the week before, and it had occurred to him that a rib might be broken; but Travers said it wasn't that.
Travers had tapped him all over and looked grave, uncommonly grave, and said some very uncomfortable things. He had insisted on dragging Winn up to town to see a big man, and the big man had said, "Davos, and don't lose any time about it." He hadn't said much else, only when Winn had remarked, "But, damn it all, you know I'm as strong as a horse," he had answered, "You'll need every bit of strength you've got," and all the way home Travers had talked to him like a Dutch uncle.
It was really funny when you came to think of it, because there wasn't anything to see or even feel—except a little cough—and getting rather hot in the evenings, but after Travers had finished pitching into him Winn had written to Lionel and made his will and had rather wondered what Estelle would feel about it. He hadn't wanted to upset her. He hadn't upset her. She stared at him for a moment; then she said:
"How odd! You look perfectly all right. I never have believed in Travers."
Winn mentioned the name of the big man.
"It does sound rather rot," he added apologetically. He still waited. Estelle moved restlessly on the sofa.
"Well," she said, "what on earth am I to do? It's really horribly inconvenient. I suppose I shall have to go back to my people for the winter unless you can afford to let me take a flat in London."
"I'm afraid I can't afford that," said Winn. "I think it would be best for you to go to your people for the winter, unless, of course, you'd rather go to mine. I'm going down there to-morrow; I've written to tell them. I must get my father to let me have some money as it is. It's really an infernal nuisance from the expense point of view."
"I couldn't go to your people," said Estelle, stiffly. "They have never been nice to me; besides, they would be sure to teach baby how to swear." Then she added, "I suppose this puts an end to your going to India."
Winn dropped his eyes.
"Yes," he said, "this puts an end to my going back to India for the present. I've been up before the board; they're quite agreeable. In fact, they've been rather decent to me."
Estelle gave a long sigh of relief and gratitude. It was really extraordinary how she had been helped to avoid India. She couldn't think what made Winn go on sitting there, just playing with the paper-knife.
He sat there for a long time, but he didn't say any more. At last he got up and went to the door.
"Well," he said, "I think I'll just run up and have a look at the kid."
"Poor dear," said Estelle, "I'm frightfully sorry for you, of course, though I don't believe it's at all painful—and by the way, Winn, don't forget that consumption is infectious."