THE SENSATIONALISTS: II
THE EDUCATION OF ERIC LANE
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By STEPHEN McKENNA
THE SENSATIONALISTS PART ONE: LADY LILITH PART TWO: THE EDUCATION OF ERIC LANE PART THREE: In preparation
SONIA MARRIED SONIA MIDAS AND SON NINETY-SIX HOURS' LEAVE THE SIXTH SENSE SHEILA INTERVENES
NEW YORK GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
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THE EDUCATION OF ERIC LANE
AUTHOR OF "LADY LILITH," "SONIA MARRIED," "MIDAS AND SON," "SONIA," "NINETY-SIX HOURS' LEAVE," ETC.
NEW YORK GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
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COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
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TO THE WITTIEST WOMAN IN LONDON
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I AN EXPERIMENT IN EMOTION 11
II LADY BARBARA NEAVE 52
III LASHMAR MILL-HOUSE 88
IV INTERMEZZO 120
V MORTMAIN 149
VI DAME'S SCHOOL EDUCATION 184
VII EDUCATION FOR THOSE OF RIPER YEARS 210
VIII THE STRONGEST THING OF ALL 237
IX THE EDUCATION OF BARBARA NEAVE 260
THE EDUCATION OF ERIC LANE
"Because lust was not good enough, the Celt invented romance." —SHANE LESLIE: The End of a Chapter.
THE EDUCATION OF ERIC LANE
AN EXPERIMENT IN EMOTION
". . . A genial . . . bachelor, whom the outside world called selfish because it derived no particular benefit from him. . . ." OSCAR WILDE: "THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY."
Eric Lane, visible only from ear to chin above the water-line, peered through the steam of the bathroom at a travelling-clock on his dressing-table. The bath would have been improved by another half handful of verbena salts; but, even lacking this, the water was still too hot to be lightly dismissed with an aggrieved gurgle down the waste-pipe. It was an added self-indulgence to know that, if he lay gently boiling himself for more than another minute, he would be late for dinner with Lady Poynter; but, if any one had to suffer, let it be Lady Poynter. It was not his fault that the rehearsal of "The Bomb-Shell" had dragged on until after seven; something had to be sacrificed—the letters which his secretary had left for him to sign, or the hot bath, or the cigarette and glass of sherry as he dressed, or (in the last resort and quite obviously) Lady Poynter. He had already foregone a cocktail, which would have made him two minutes later.
As the water began to cool, Eric threw a towel over his shoulders, wiped the steam from the face of the clock and began to dry himself slowly, looking round with ever-fresh delight at the calculated ingenuity of comfort in his new flat. It was his reward for the successful play. For ten years after coming down from Oxford he had lived in the Temple, first with Jack Waring and afterwards by himself; lonely, hard-working years, when he had painfully learned the value of money and time. With one play running indefatigably, another rehearsing and a third in sight of completion, he had decided to construct a frame better suited to his new position. Ten years ago he had dreamed at Oxford of a day when he would burst upon London as a new young Byron; and, when the dream was almost forgotten, he found himself living in its midst. He was courted and quoted, photographed and "paragraphed"; Lady Poynter and the rich, malcontent world which aspired to intelligence humbly invited him to dine, and it did not matter whether she wanted to pay him homage or to exhibit him as her latest celebrity. It was time to leave the Temple and to burst, fully equipped, upon London. A friend in the artillery made over the remainder of his lease, and Eric gave himself a fortnight's holiday to order the furnishing and decoration of the six tiny rooms. When he surveyed telephone and dictaphone, switches and presses, files and cases, tables and lights, he felt that the ease and beauty of which he had dreamed were dulled and stunted by the reality.
Over the dressing-table hung a framed poster of his play: "Regency Theatre" in a scroll of blue lettering: "A Divorce Has Been Arranged" under it; then his own name; then the cast. Eric looked affectionately at the trophy, as he began to comb his dripping, black hair. He was proud of the play and grateful to it; grateful for money, reputation and the added importance of himself. As he entered the Carlton that day one unknown woman had whispered to another, "Isn't that Eric Lane? I thought he was older." He was boy enough to be gratified that seventeen people had stopped him that morning between Grosvenor Street and Piccadilly. Eight months ago no one outside Fleet Street or the Thespian Club had heard of him. Jack Waring and O'Rane, Loring and Deganway always seemed to regard him as a harmless eccentric who wrote unacceptable plays for his own amusement. . . .
The hair-brushing completed, he put on a dressing-gown and crossed the hall to his smoking-room for the sherry and cigarette. On the table lay a pile of typewritten letters, awaiting his signature, and another pile not yet opened and secured from the late summer breeze by a glass paper-weight. It was shaped like a horse-shoe and had been sent him on his first night, to be followed by a telegram: "Best wishes for all possible success Agnes." He had kept it for luck and in gratitude to Agnes Waring, who had been a sympathetic, if rather undiscriminating, friend for many years. Until eight months ago he had never earned enough money to think of marrying; and, at thirty-two, he told himself that he was not a marrying man; but more than once in the early hours of triumph he had thought of Agnes and of his own return to Lashmar; they had often talked jestingly of the day when he would come back famous, and behind the jest lay a hint of romance and sentiment which told him that she was waiting for him and believed in his success when he himself doubted it.
Next to the letters lay an album in which his secretary had at last finished pasting his press-cuttings. He could not resist the temptation to glance at two or three of his favourite notices before opening the letters. The critics had treated him kindly, for he had been a critic himself and had not scrupled to secure a good press; but mere flattery never kept a bad play running. . . . He decided that he was going to enjoy his dinner with the Poynters, though the chiming of the clock in the hall warned him that he could not hope to be dressed and in Belgrave Square by a quarter past eight. The new Byron would achieve an effect, if he gained the reputation of always being ten minutes late for everything; but the pose offended Eric's sense of tidiness. Signing his letters, he ripped open half-a-dozen envelopes and glanced at the contents, pushed the news-cutting album neatly into its shelf and hurried into his bedroom with a glass of sherry in his hand.
It was time to order a taxi, and a tall Scotch parlour-maid, of whom he lived in secret dread, came in answer to his ring. He would have preferred a man, but men were unprocurable in war-time. He let fall a word of instruction on the correct way of laying out dress-clothes and was beginning to get ready in earnest, when the telephone-bell rang simultaneously in bedroom, bathroom, dining-room and smoking-room. As he finished his sherry, he tried to remember where he had left the instrument.
"Hul-lo," he cried, exploring to see whether the bathroom chair was dry.
"That you, Ricky? Sybil speaking. I say, are you coming down on Saturday? You've not been here for months, and we want to see you."
Eric sighed patiently before he remembered that the sigh was unlikely to carry as far as Winchester. The prophet could look for affection in his own country and in his own house; he would not find honour.
"If you feel I'm essential to the family happiness——" he began.
"You're not. But we've got some people dining on Saturday—Agnes Waring amongst others. You can bring your work with you. . . . Say you'll come, like a good boy, and don't be selfish."
"Well, I might," Eric answered. "Good-bye, Sybil."
"You needn't be in such a hurry! What are you doing to-night?"
"I'm being—extraordinarily—late for dinner with some people I don't know," he answered.
His sister's voice in reply was slightly aggrieved.
"I wouldn't detain you for worlds. I only wanted to know if you'd seen a full-page photograph of yourself——"
"In the 'Gallery.' Yes, I know the editor and I got him to shove it in. As my own advertising agent, I take a lot of beating. Good-bye, Sybil."
"Good-bye, selfish pig. You're being spoilt by success, you know."
Eric made no answer, but, as he snatched up his hat and cane, still more as he settled himself in the taxi with his feet on the opposite seat, he reflected with philosophic indulgence how wide of the mark his sister had fired. He was self-satisfied, perhaps, as he had some reason to be; self-sufficient, assuredly, as he had set out to become. After all, he could have entered the Civil Service ten years before, as his father had wished; and there would have been ten years of material comfort, an unchallengeable social position, a wife, a home, spiritual paralysis and soul-destroying domestic worries as his portion. Instead, he had elected to make his own way in a hard and somewhat despised school. A young journalist had no status. People invited him to their houses, because he had been at the same college as their sons, because other people had already taken the plunge; but he had always had enough detachment to recognize where the intimacy was to stop.
Now he was being accepted at his own valuation. As he passed the Ritz, two officers and a girl hailed a taxi and told the driver to take them to the Regency. At eleven o'clock they would be saying: "Good show, that." (Had he not loitered in the hall of the theatre, with coat-collar turned up, to hear just that?) In another month they would be going to "The Bomb-Shell," because it was by the fellow who wrote "A Divorce Has Been Arranged." . . . He had money, friends, adulators and the health to do a full day's work. In speaking to Sybil, he had only hesitated because he was not sure whether he wanted to meet Agnes Waring yet. When they became engaged. . . . If they became engaged, he would lose in interest with the women like Lady Poynter who were always inviting him to be lionized. . . .
As the taxi drew up in Belgrave Square, he looked at his watch. Twenty-seven minutes past eight. He handed his hat and cane to a footman and followed the butler upstairs with complete self-possession. As he was asked his name at the door of the drawing-room, however, he stammered:
"Mr. Eric L-lane."
It was intolerable that he could not overcome that stammer, so entirely alien to a new young Byron. . . .
Lady Poynter had finished dressing and was writing in her diary when her maid entered to ask whether Mrs. Shelley might come in. At luncheon the Duchess of Ross had complained that no one would give her a chance of meeting young Eric Lane; Gerald Deganway had murmured, "One poor martyr without a lion"; and, as Deganway was incapable of originating anything, Lady Poynter felt that she was not infringing any copyright in recording the jest against that day when Eleanor Ross tried to steal any more of her young men the moment she had put a polish on them and made them known. . . .
"Angel Marion!" cried Lady Poynter, throwing down her pen so that it described an inky semi-circle. "The idea of asking!"
She embraced her guest as effusively as she had addressed her. Lady Poynter was forty-eight years of age, daily increasing in bulk, masculine in voice, intellectual through vanity and childless by preference. Her husband was rich, patient, stupid and self-indulgent, bearing with her literary passions and in self-defence displaying that care for household comfort which it was Lady Poynter's pride to neglect. Why, she asked, were men given brains if they made gods of their bellies? Mrs. Shelley was the widow of a well-known free-lance journalist, who in his day had brought her into contact with a sufficient number of authors for her to imitate on austerely simple lines the symposia of wit and learning which Lady Poynter assembled on the strength of her own personality and her husband's cellar. There was a long-standing gentle competition between the two, which they abandoned in common hostility to Lady Maitland, who excelled them both in the ruthlessness and speed of her hunting. At the moment, however, Mrs. Shelley had eclipsed both her rivals by the chance of having known Eric Lane for ten years; to Lady Maitland he was still "Mr. Eric," to Lady Poynter "Mr. Lane."
"You don't mind my coming like this, do you?" she asked timidly, disengaging herself from Lady Poynter's embrace and indicating her commandant's uniform. "I was at the hospital until eight."
"As if I minded what you wore!" her hostess cried. "In war-time, when we haven't a moment to turn round . . .! And it isn't as if this were a party."
Mrs. Shelley walked to a mirror and looked thoughtfully at her unassertive reflection. Her hair was a dusty brown, her eyes an unsoftening grey, and her cheeks, which were careworn with exacting, humble ambition, acted at once as frame and background for a thin nose and unrelaxing mouth.
"You always say that, darling," she protested gently, leaning forward to the mirror and dabbing at herself with a powder-puff. "And it means the most delightful——"
"I've got Eric Lane coming," interrupted Lady Poynter, groping for a crumpled half-sheet of paper marked as with the sweeping strokes of a hay-rake in soft mud. "Who else? Sonia O'Rane you know; Max—or did Max say he was dining at his club? It doesn't matter, because I can't pretend that Max contributes much, even though he is my husband; then there's my nephew, Johnnie Gaymer; and Babs Neave——"
"Dear Babs," murmured Mrs. Shelley with conscientious enthusiasm. It was her favourite boast that she sincerely tried to make allowances for all and permitted ill-speaking of none. In the years before the war, when Lady Barbara's friends were wondering whether they really could continue to know her, Mrs. Shelley remained embarrassingly loyal. "I haven't seen her for months."
"She's been nursing at Crawleigh all this time, simply wearing herself out. I've never seen any one so changed. We met in Bond Street this morning; I hadn't meant to invite her, but I felt I must do something. . . ." Lady Poynter projected herself from the sofa and rustled to the door, murmuring: "I must find out whether Max is dining at home to-night."
Mrs. Shelley made her way downstairs to the drawing-room and stood on the balcony outside one of the French windows, looking down through the warm dusk on Belgrave Square. An open taxi drew up at the door, and she watched Mrs. O'Rane descending daintily and smiling at the driver; a second taxi drove from the opposite corner of the square, and Captain Gaymer, in Flying Corps uniform, jumped out and hurried to the door, looking apprehensively at his watch. Mrs. Shelley left the balcony and shook hands with Lord Poynter who was dutifully dressed in time to receive any guests who might arrive before his wife appeared.
"Two. Four," he counted timidly. "Babs Neave is sure to be late. That leaves only Lane. Does every one know him?"
An indistinct murmur was drowned by Gaymer, who knitted his brows and repeated:
"Lane? Eric Lane? The dramatist fellow? I saw something about him in one of the picture-papers to-day, when I was having my hair cut. Oh, I know! He'd left London, and letters weren't going to be forwarded. Didn't he tell you?" he asked as his aunt crossed the room in concern.
Lady Poynter's jaw fell in affronted indignation. Lady Maitland had already secured Mr. Lane for luncheon, the Duchess of Ross had wired: "Don't know you but must. Have just seen your play. When will you dine?" and Mrs. Shelley had staked out a claim before any one else had heard of the man.
"That is really too abominable," she cried. "He made a note of the time in his book . . . only two days ago. . . . And then he hasn't the consideration even to telephone."
She counted the numbers and turned angrily, as the door was thrown open. After pausing on the threshold to see who was present, Lady Barbara Neave entered the room falteringly and with a suggestion that she was belatedly repenting a too venturesome effect in dress. The men, she knew, were only watching her eyes and waiting for the surprised smile of recognition which always made them feel that they had been missed; but Mrs. Shelley, she would wager, was privately noting that a dove-coloured silk dress and a scarlet shawl embroidered with birds in flight made a white face look ashen; Sonia O'Rane was probably wondering why her maid did not tell her that a band of black tulle with a red rose at one side simply emphasized her hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. . . . She moved listlessly and smiled mysteriously to herself as though unconscious that every one was silent and watchful; then the surprised smile transfigured her, she kissed the other women with childlike abandon, leaving the men to watch and envy.
"Babs, darling, it is sweet of you to come. I've no party for you," said Lady Poynter, forgiving the girl's lateness and forgetting her own discomfiture.
Barbara shook her head and looked round the room with eyes which had lost their momentary colour, as though the light behind them had been doused.
"I've forgotten what it's like to meet people and try to talk intelligently," she laughed with the mirthlessness of physical exhaustion. "Well, Max! And Johnnie! I'm sorry to be late, Margaret, but until the last moment I didn't know that I should feel up to coming."
"If you'd thrown me over, too——" began Lady Poynter. "Give us some light, Max. My dear, you're losing all your looks, and that black thing gives you a face like a sheet of mourning note-paper. You must take proper care of yourself. And you're nothing but skin and bones."
Barbara smiled again, as listlessly as before.
"Yes. My maid has given notice; I don't do her credit. . . . But I'm a dull subject of conversation. How's dear Marion been all this time?"
She broke up the group by drawing Mrs. Shelley to a sofa with her and again looked cautiously round the room. This was the first time that she had dined out since her illness, almost the first time since the beginning of the war; and the light and noise, magnified by fancy and sensitive nerves, made her dizzy. Her mother and the doctor had tried to keep her at home; but natural obstinacy and uncontrollable whim had been too much for them. A few weeks ago she had fainted in the train, as she returned to London from Crawleigh Abbey; an unknown man had taken care of her, but, though she remembered his voice, she was too giddy to see or recall his face. On arriving at her father's house in Berkeley Square, she found her fingers grasping a silver flask with a monogram "E. L."; and that morning, when Lady Poynter invited her to dinner, she had divined that "E. L." must stand for Eric Lane. The coincidence would not have been worth following by itself, but in the latter days of her illness she had repeatedly dreamed of a child with the stranger's voice; and, vaguely and shamefacedly, Barbara believed that dreams had an influence on life and were glimpses beyond the veil of the unknown. She was coming to believe, too, in predestination as the one cause able to explain a long series of isolated acts for which she could not hold herself responsible; and to-night predestination would be put to the test, for half-a-dozen people had already invited her to meet Eric Lane and for one reason or another she had never been able to accept. It was the thought that she might be meeting him at last which had so taken away her composure that she had hardly been able to cross the room.
"I don't think it's worth waiting," muttered Lady Poynter, her indignation returning reinforced by hunger. "You might ring the bell, Max, and find whether any telephone message has been received——"
"It's Eric Lane," Mrs. Shelley explained. "Captain Gaymer was saying that he'd left London."
"Oh! I'm sorry. I've never met him," said Barbara.
Evidently she was predestined never to meet him; and the noise and light made her too giddy to decide whether she was relieved or disappointed. Predestination was winning another round; and, while she was ill and unresisting, it was comforting to feel that she was not responsible for all the follies and the one crime which had ruined her life; but it was sad to feel that she would never meet the hero of her dream-romance. He might have filled the whole of a life that for a year had been empty and aching; at the lowest computation, their meeting would have been an experiment in emotion. . . .
Lord Poynter had shambled flat-footedly half-way to the bell, when the door was thrown open again and the butler announced "Mr. Eric Lane." There was a tiny stir of interest among those who had not met him and of surprise among all. Eric's eyes narrowed for a moment under the light of the chandelier; then he collected himself, swiftly identified Lady Poynter and shook her hand with a murmur of apology for his lateness.
"But, dear man, we'd given you up!" she exclaimed. "Why did you frighten us by announcing in the papers that you'd left London? You've not met Max, have you?"
Eric shook hands with Lord Poynter.
"That was my s-secretary," he explained. Shyness was rushing in waves to his head, and he could only save himself from disgrace by pretending to be more icily collected than any one in the room. "I'm f-frightfully overworked at present with rehearsals and things, so I applied for a f-fortnight's leave from my department and everybody thinks I'm f-fishing in Scotland or doing a walking tour on Dartmoor. This party is my f-final dissipation, Lady Poynter."
He looked round to see with whom he had still to shake hands. As he began to speak, Barbara had shivered so violently that Mrs. Shelley turned at the movement; then she tried to remember even seeing his face as he bent over her in the train and carried her along the platform at Waterloo. She was paralyzed with dread of the moment when he would recognize her, for she had nothing adequate to the drama of their meeting. . . . He shook hands first with those nearest to him, and she hastened to make a mental picture before he saw that she was watching him; black hair, a thin face restless with vitality, bloodless lips tightly shut and eyes that were out of keeping with the assurance of the face—eyes unexpectedly big and soft, deep in colour and timid in expression, reminding her of the stammer and quick eagerness of his speech.
He was shaking hands now with Mrs. Shelley, and Barbara grew rigid with fear. His face turned, and their eyes met; but he passed on to Gaymer without recognizing her. She found herself trembling with relief; and the reaction swept away disappointment and all interest but dislike. Voice and eyes, movements and manner became hateful to her; she longed for an opportunity of upsetting his precarious composure, of pricking his conceit and hurting him. If Margaret Poynter did not put her next to him, she would walk out of the room and go home. . . .
The butler entered to announce that dinner was served, and Lady Poynter, with an unconcentrated "Babs, you haven't met Mr. Lane, have you?" tried to remember her ordering of the table.
"Tell me who 'Babs' is," Eric begged in an undertone, as he and Gaymer prepared to follow the others down to the dining-room.
"Babs Neave? Don't you know her?" Gaymer asked in surprise.
"Oh, by name, of course. I didn't recognize her."
"She's been rather ill, I think."
As he pulled his napkin out of its folds, Eric stole a glance at Barbara. By sight he had known her distantly for years as a girl who hardly missed a first night or private view; she was always to be found acting, reciting or at least selling programmes at charity matinees; he had seen her at Stage Society performances, and the illustrated papers gave her a full-page photograph after any of the big costume balls. And, like most of his generation, he knew her by reputation better than by sight; for half-a-dozen years her epigrams and escapades had been on every one's lips; while he was still at Oxford and she a child of twelve, her cousin Lord Loring had wondered despairingly what was to be done with her. On the disclosure of her name, Eric had expected to see some one flamboyant and assertive. He was relieved to find her quiet and reserved, a little hostile, perhaps bored and certainly ill.
"I'm so sorry to hear you've not been well," he began timidly. Her expression and the angle at which she was seated convinced him that he had left an unfavourable impression on her, and he half feared a rebuff. "I suppose, like every one else, you've been overworking?"
"You'll find me thoroughly dull," Barbara announced abruptly, with the candour of one who studies her effects and with a brusqueness which discouraged further advances. "The doctor says—oh, Mrs. O'Rane's trying to attract your attention."
Eric felt himself dismissed and, submitting to her hint, looked over the malachite bowls of white roses to the place where Mrs. O'Rane was leaning forward with one elbow on the table and her other hand repressing Gaymer. The cast of the "Divorce" was being slightly changed, and they had thought it worth while to venture a sovereign on the name of one nonentity who was retiring in favour of another. Eric adjudicated in Gaymer's favour and was turning to give Barbara a last chance, when he found that the flood-gates were open and that every one, taking his time from Lady Poynter, was prepared to discuss dramatic art in general and, in particular, the construction and history of his play. Their enquiries were simple-minded; bombarded from four different quarters at once, he took the questions at the volley; then, as they seemed interested, he became more expansive, losing his stammer and straying unconsciously into an unrehearsed lecture. There were occasional objections and challenges; but Lady Poynter silenced them ruthlessly with a "Now, my dear, you mustn't interrupt when Mr. Lane's explaining the whole basis of his art," and he discovered suddenly that he was talking well.
"I expect you're tired of hearing it, but I loved that play of yours," said his hostess with a beaming glance which confidently asked her other guests whether she was not well justified in summoning them to meet him. "I've been to see it three times."
"I've been twice, and some one's taking me to it again to-morrow," continued Mrs. O'Rane, for whom no subject of conversation was complete until she had decorated it with a personal touch.
"Even I've been once," murmured Barbara, rousing reluctantly from the silence which she had maintained since the beginning of dinner: "George Oakleigh insisted on taking me. It seems to be having a great success, Mr. Lane."
Eric smiled a little self-consciously; but her deliberate avoidance of enthusiasm chilled him after Lady Poynter's extravagant appreciation.
"No one here seems to have escaped it," he said.
"I kept thinking how clever of you it was to write it," she went on, half to herself.
Such criticism led to nothing but a second self-conscious smile; and, knowing her reputation, he had expected something more stimulating.
"Was it a good house?" he asked.
"Very full, if that's what you mean." She looked past him and lowered her voice. "It was full of Lady Poynters," she went on. "Rows and rows of them. They took it conscientiously, they laughed at the jokes, they missed nothing, even the obvious things; and, if I went next week, I should find them all there again—or other people exactly like them. It was a wonderful—" she hesitated and looked at him long enough to see that he was perplexed, if not annoyed—"experience."
"I hope you don't regret going?"
"Very few plays are as amusing as the audience," she answered thoughtfully. "Oh, I wouldn't have missed it for anything. I wondered what you were like. . . ." She turned to look at him with leisurely and unsmiling interest. "I expected to find you much younger. How old are you? Twenty-six? Thirty-two! You're ten years older than I am! What in the world have you been doing with yourself?"
"That would take rather a long time to tell!" he laughed.
"I don't expect it would. Life is not measured by days, but by sensations. . . ."
"Those you experience or those you create?" Eric interrupted.
Barbara turned away and nodded to herself.
"It's like that, is it?" she murmured. "Are you declaring war? If so, you're clever enough to fight with your own weapons instead of picking up the rusty swords of men I've already beaten. You knew little Val Arden, of course? And my cousin Jim Loring? They taught you to call me a 'sensationalist.' Labels are an indolent man's device for guessing what's inside a bottle without tasting."
"They sometimes prevent accidental poisoning."
"If the right labels are on the right bottles. That's what I have to find out. And it's worth an occasional risk. . . . Sensationalist! I collect new emotions, but you must be bourgeois yourself if you want to epater le bourgeois. Now, you can't have had many emotions, or you wouldn't have written that play. And yet—what were you doing before?" she demanded abruptly.
"I followed the despised calling of a journalist."
She nodded and began eating her quail without explaining herself further. Eric was nettled by her tone, for she was taking pains to let him see that she had not liked his play, perhaps even that she despised him for writing it. He half turned to Lady Poynter, but she was deep in conversation with her nephew. For a time he, too, concentrated his attention on the quail; but every one else was talking, and, though Barbara's challenge was too pert to be taken seriously, he felt that half-praise from her was more valuable than the adulation of women like Mrs. Shelley who were content to worship success for its own sake.
"What was the precise meaning of the 'Ah!'?" he enquired lazily.
"'Meaning'; not 'precise meaning.' You surely don't want me to see that you're rather losing your temper and trying to cover it up by being dignified. You've been so careful with your effects, too! . . . I said 'Ah,' because you'd given me the clue I was looking for. You were a very clever journalist, I should think."
"Isn't that rash on half an hour's acquaintance?"
"You're forgetting your play—for the first time since it was produced! I felt that, however bad it was as a play, it was first-rate journalism. I've told you that I kept thinking how clever of you it was to write it. You mustn't think I didn't enjoy myself. The construction's quite tolerable, and the dialogue's admirable—not a word too much, not a syllable put in for 'cleverness,' no epigrams for epigrams' sake. And you've got a good sense of the theatre."
"I was a dramatic critic for some years. Hence my good press."
"Ah! Well, I felt that night that, if you weren't too old and set, you might live to write a really good play." He bowed slightly. "Have you a cigarette? I hate people smoking in the middle of meals; but Margaret's begun, and I must have something to drown it. Now that, I suppose, would be called an ironical bow, wouldn't it? I mean, in your stage directions? You must guard against that kind of thing, you know."
"I will endeavour to do so, Lady Barbara."
"'Try,' not 'endeavour.' And you mustn't talk like your own characters; you've no idea how debilitating that is. It's bad enough when you try to drag us into the world of your plays, but it's intolerable if you try to drag your plays into our world. Did you ever read a story about a boy who lost all sense of reality by going to the theatre too much? He became dramatic. He slapped his forehead and groaned—— Well, we don't slap our foreheads or groan, however great the provocation. And in moments of stress he would shake hands with people and turn away to hide his emotion. And it wasn't only in gestures, he became dramatic in conduct. When compromising letters came into his hands, he used to burn them unread and without any one looking on, which is manifestly absurd. I forget what happened to him in the end, but I expect he was charged with something he hadn't done to save the husband of the woman he wanted to marry—and whom he'd have made perfectly miserable, if she hadn't taken him in hand very firmly at the outset. And he'd have insisted on having all their quarrels in her bedroom."
Barbara seemed to have talked away her listlessness. The champagne had brought colour into her cheeks and eyes. Eric looked at her with new interest, waiting for the next abrupt change.
"I'm not finding you as thoroughly dull as you warned me to expect," he observed, borrowing her candour of speech.
"I should think not! I'm never dull when it's worth while taking any trouble. I didn't think you were worth while, till you began talking. Then I saw that in spite of the play——"
"I didn't think I should be spared that," he murmured.
"And the poses——"
"Oh, my dear child, you've postured and advertised yourself till every one's sick of you! A good press—I should think you had! You're never out of it! An announcement that you've left London—and the intolerable effrontery of telling us all about it! The only way you could escape from your mob of adorers."
"I don't think I used the word 'adorers'; and I've got to find time somehow to rehearse my new play."
His voice had grown a little stiff. Barbara smiled to herself and discovered suddenly that the desire to hurt him was dead.
"When's the new play coming out?" she asked.
"In the middle of next month."
"You can't make it later?"
"Are you afraid you won't be able to attend the first night?" he laughed.
"God forbid! But I shan't have time to complete your education in a month. Now, I'm talking seriously. Put that play off! You're only a child, you've made a mint of money out of this present abomination. If you'll wait till I've educated you——"
Her pupils had dilated until the irises were swamped in black. The early warm flush had shrunk and intensified into two vivid splashes of colour over her cheek-bones. Neurotic, Eric decided; but arresting and magnetic.
"And what do you propose to teach me?" he enquired.
As he spoke, he was conscious of a lull in the conversation. Without looking round, he knew that every one was watching them and that both their voices had risen a tone.
"Life!" she cried. "You've never met men and women. I told George Oakleigh so that night. That's why the public loves your play."
Eric turned to Lady Poynter.
"I have a new play coming out next month," he explained, "and Lady Barbara wants me to hang it up till she's taught me—did you say 'life'?"
"Yes! Margaret, darling, any young man may write one successful bad play——"
There was a gasp of orotund protest from Lady Poynter.
"My dear Babs!"
"Of course it's a bad play! What I don't know about bad plays isn't worth knowing, I've seen so many of them! Have you ever met a woman, Mr. Lane? Have you ever even fancied that you were in love?"
Eric took a cigarette and lighted one for Barbara.
"I thought I knew a lot about life when I was twenty-two," he said, studiedly reflective. "I'd just come down from Oxford."
Her attention seemed to have wandered to her cigarette, for she drew hard at it and then asked for another match.
"Which was your college?" she enquired with neurotic suddenness of transition.
"Did you know my brother? He must have been up about your time. He was at the House."
"I knew him by sight. Tall, fair-haired man; he was on the Bullingdon. I never met him, though. I didn't know many men at the House."
Barbara thought for a moment.
"I don't believe I know any one who was at Trinity in your time. Did you ever meet a man called Waring?"
"Jack Waring of New College? I've known him all my life. They're neighbours of ours in Hampshire. You know he's missing?"
Barbara nodded quickly.
"So I heard. . . . I suppose nothing definite's known?"
"I haven't met any of the family since the news was published, but I shall see his sister this week-end."
"Well, if you can find out anything without too much bother——"
"Oh, she's a great friend of mine," Eric explained. "It's no trouble."
Barbara turned to him with a rapid backward cast to her earlier quest.
"Are you in love with her? Oh, but why not?" she demanded querulously. "It would do you so much good—as a man and as a writer. You'll never get rid of your self-satisfaction till then; and you'll never write a good play. It's such a pity, when you've everything except the psychology. Why don't you fall in love with me? I could teach you such a lot, and you'd never regret it." Barbara caught her hostess' eye and picked up her gloves. "You'd write a tolerable play in the middle of it, a work of genius at the end——"
Eric's laugh interrupted her eager outpour.
"I'm quite satisfied to be an observer of life."
"Dear child, you're quite satisfied with everything. You're sunk in soulless contentment; you shirk emotion because it would force you to see below the pink-and-white surface; that's why you write such bad plays. Margaret!" She approached Lady Poynter with outstretched arms. "I've argued myself hoarse trying to persuade Mr. Lane to fall in love with me. Do see what you can do! He shews all the obstinacy of a young, weak man; he won't see how much I should improve him. When he'd learnt life at my hands——"
Lady Poynter threw a crushing arm round the girl's waist.
"Come on, Babs. You're looking better than you did," she said. "I told you you'd fall in love with him," she added, as they walked upstairs.
"There's nothing much the matter with Babs," commented Gaymer meaningly, as he shut the door and settled into a chair beside Lord Poynter.
As Barbara's voice faded and died away, an air of guilty quiet settled upon the dining-room. Eric tidied himself a place among her wreckage of crumpled napkin, sloppy finger-bowl, nut-shells and cigarette-ash. For ten minutes he could rest; conversation with either of his companions threatened to be as difficult as it was unnecessary. John Gaymer, in upbringing, intellect, habits of mind and method of speech, belonged to a self-centred world which cheerfully defied subjugation by a brigade of Byrons, reinforced by a division of Wesleys and an army of Rousseaus; for him there was one school and no other, one college and no other, one regiment, club, restaurant, music-hall, tailor, hairdresser and no other. Eric was always meeting John Gaymers and never penetrating below the sleek, well-bred and uninterested exterior; they were politely repellent, as though an intrusion from outside would disturb their serenity and the advantageous bargain which they had struck with life; it might cause them to think, and thought was a synonym of death. The Flying Corps, at first sight, was an unassimilating environment for a John Gaymer, but this one had not gone in alone and he had certainly not been assimilated. A closely knit and self-isolated group had formed itself there, as it could be trusted to form itself in a house-party or under the shadow of the guillotine, genially unapproachable and uncaringly envied.
To shew his fairness and breadth of mind Eric tested the specimen under his hand with politics, the war and a current libel action, only to be rewarded at the third venture. Before surrendering to his desire for silence and rest, he glanced under lowered lids at his host's blue-tinged, loosely-hanging cheeks. Conscientiously silent when his wife wished to discuss literature with her new discoveries, Lord Poynter became dutifully loquacious when exposed defenceless to the task of entertaining them and took refuge in gusty, nervous geniality or odd, sly confidences on matters of no moment.
"Aren't you drinking any port wine?" he demanded of Eric after brooding indecision.
"Thank you, yes. It's a '63, isn't it?" Eric asked, as he helped himself and passed the decanter.
Lord Poynter's discoloured eyes shone with interest for the first time that night.
"Ah, come now! A kindred spirit!" he wheezed welcomingly. "I'll be honest with you; I was in two minds whether to give you that wine to-night. Women don't appreciate it, they're not educated up to it. It was that or the Jubilee Sandeman, and I'm not an admirer of the Jubilee wines. Very delicate, very good," he cooed, "but—well, you'll understand me if I call them all women's wines. Now, if you like port, I've a few bottles of '72 Gould Campbell. . . . Johnny, your grandfather would have had a fit, if he'd seen you trying to drink port wine with a cigarette in your mouth. Not that it makes much difference, when people have been smoking all the way through dinner; your palate's tainted before you come to your wine. People pretend that it makes a difference whether you approach the tobacco through the wine or the wine through the tobacco. I don't see it, myself. . . ."
His tongue uncoiled, he soliloquized on wines of the past and present, as the survivor of a dead generation might dwell dotingly on the great men and beautiful women of a long life-time. Empire, devolving its cares upon his shoulders, enabled him—as he explained with sly gusto—to secure that there should be no inharmonious inruption of coffee and liqueurs until the sacred wine had been in reverent circulation for twenty minutes. Half-way through, warming to his new friend, he rang for a bottle of wood port first known to history in 1823, when it was already a middle-aged wine, and fortified from every subsequent vintage.
"I don't say you'll like it, but it's an experience," he told Eric with an air of cunning, respectable conspiracy. "Like a ve-ery dry sherry. If I may advise you, I would say, 'Drink it as a liqueur'; don't waste your time on my brandy, I'm afraid I've none fit to offer you. There was a tragedy about my last bottle of the Waterloo. . . ."
He diverged into a long and untidy story about a dinner-party in honour of a late Austrian Ambassador which coincided with the collapse of his wife's maid with pneumonia. Eric, listening with half his brain, wondered whether any one would believe him if he transplanted the room, the conversation and Lord Poynter into a play; with the other half he thought of Lady Barbara's advice that he should fall in love, if not with her, at least with somebody. His sister's telephone message had started the train of thought; he was looking forward to the week-end and the opportunity of meeting Agnes Waring. The time would come—if there were many hosts like Lord Poynter and if they all talked "Hibernia" port and Tuileries brandy, it would come very soon—when he would grow tired of being pushed from one house to another and made to talk for the diversion of sham intellectuals. In this, at least, he had had enough of his triumphal progress; there was rest and companionship in being married, it was the greatest of all adventures. . . . He wondered how Agnes would acquit herself at a party like this; he would not like people to cease inviting him because they felt bound to invite a tiresome wife as well. . . .
Gaymer, too, was growing impatient of his uncle's cellar Odyssey and was calling aloud for a cigar, while he scoured the side-board for Benedictine.
"They'll be wondering where we've got to," said Lord Poynter guiltily, recalling his mind from a distance and lapsing into silence. And Eric felt compunction in helping to cut short the man's one half-hour of happiness in the day.
In the drawing-room they found the four women seated at a bridge-table, disagreeing over the score. Lady Poynter archly reproached her husband and Gaymer for "monopolizing poor Mr. Lane"; there was a shuffling of feet, cutting, changing of chairs, and Mrs. Shelley crept to the door, whispering that she had to start work early next day or she would not dream of breaking up such a delightful party; she was promptly arrested and brought back by Mrs. O'Rane with the offer of Lady Maitland's brougham, which was to call for her at eleven. After an exhibition of half-hearted self-effacement by all, a new four was made up, and Eric found himself contentedly alone on a sofa with Lord Poynter mid-way between him and the table, uncertain whether to watch the game or venture on more conversation. He had whispered: "I can tell you a story about that cigar you're smoking . . .," when, at the end of the second hand, Barbara looked slowly round, pushed back her chair and walked to the sofa.
"Thinking over your wasted opportunities?" she asked, as she sat down beside Eric.
"There are none," he answered lazily. "I've been a great success to-night. I can see that our host won't rest content till I've promised to dine here three times a week to drink his port; I've been good value to Lady Poynter; if I play bridge, I shall lose a lot of money to Gaymer—not that I don't play quite a fair game, but I'm sure, without even seeing him, that he plays a diabolically good game and I know I shall cut against him. Mrs. Shelley? Every one's always a success with her; talking to her is as demoralizing as cracking jokes from the Bench. Mrs. O'Rane wants me to write her a duologue—just as one draws a rabbit for a child . . . . That only leaves you. And you capitulated more completely even than Poynter, without the '63 port as an introduction and bond."
Barbara looked at him with a dawning smile.
"I think you're the most insufferably conceited young man I've ever met!" she exclaimed.
"I'm adjusting the balance. If you hadn't disparaged me the whole way through dinner. . . . Now, when you got up here, you pumped Mrs. Shelley with both hands for everything you could get her to tell you about me. Didn't you?"
Eric smiled to himself.
"She's the only one here who knows me, but she didn't tell you much."
"I shan't say."
Three impatient voices from the bridge-table met and struggled in an unmelodious chorus of "Babs! Come—here!"
She returned a moment later, but had hardly sat down before Gaymer spread out the substantial remains of his hand with a challenge of "Any one anything to say about the rest? Babs, don't keep us waiting again!"
As she stood up, Eric rose, too, and said good-bye.
"I have some work to finish before I go to bed," he told her.
"Won't you wait and see me home? Sonia O'Rane's got a brougham, and we'll borrow it first."
Eric laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
"Certainly, if you wish it."
"You're not very gracious," she pouted.
"It was so transparent. You could go with Mrs. O'Rane. Or Gaymer would be delighted to find you a taxi. Or you could go on foot."
She drew herself up to her full height.
"Instead of which I humiliated myself by asking a small thing which was just big enough to give you the opportunity of being rude."
She turned away to the table, but stopped at the sound of laughter from Eric. He had hesitated a moment before taking the risk, but laughter seemed the only corrective for her theatrical dignity.
"I spend hours each day watching people rehearsing this sort of thing," he murmured.
"Why do you imagine I ask you to see me home?" she demanded, with a petulant stamp.
"Partly because you're enjoying me; partly because you know I want to work and you think it will be such fun to upset my arrangements even by ten minutes."
Barbara smiled at him over her shoulder.
"We're a game all," she pleaded, motioning him back to the sofa.
Eric smiled and lit a cigarette from the stump of his cigar.
Ten minutes later they were driving along Piccadilly towards Berkeley Square, Eric rather tired, Barbara excited and restlessly voluble.
"Is Mr. Lane going to forget our second meeting as quickly and completely as he forgot the first?" she asked.
"The first?" Eric echoed. "This is the first time I've set eyes on you—except in the distance at theatres and places."
"It's the first time I've ever seen your face; but I recognized your voice and, if you will come into the house for a moment, I can restore a certain flask."
Eric turned on her in amazement.
"Was that you? Well . . . Good . . . Good Heavens!"
Barbara laughed softly.
"Try not to forget me so quickly again! I've still to apologize for being such a beast when we met to-night. I was ill . . . and miserable——"
"I had no idea!" Eric cried. "And I stared at you for an hour on end—trying to count your pulse by a watch without a second-hand. . . . But you've changed so! I used to catch sight of you before the war——"
"I've travelled a lot since then," she interrupted. "The whole way through Purgatory to Hell."
Eric tried to remember whether the war had robbed her of any one but Jim Loring.
"Since that day you've changed so much again."
"Perhaps I'm taking a holiday from Hell. And, as you know, I'm not a good traveller."
He let down the window and threw away the end of his cigarette.
"I thought you were going to die that day," he murmured half to himself. "When I handed you over to your maid. . . . Lady Barbara, why don't you take a little more care of yourself?"
"D'you think I should be missed?"
"I can well imagine—— Here! He's going wrong!"
The carriage had overshot Berkeley Street; but, as Eric leaned towards the open window, Barbara caught him suddenly by the wrist and shoulder until she had turned him to face her.
"Where d'you live?" she demanded peremptorily; and, when he had told her, "Put your head out and tell him to go there."
"But we're almost in Berkeley Square now."
"Do as I tell you! I'm coming to pay you a call."
He disengaged her hands and lay back in his corner.
"It's a little late for you to be calling on me," he said.
With a quick tug and push she had opened the window on her own side before he could stop her.
"Oh, will you drive to 89 Ryder Street first, please," he heard her say. Then she sank back with a pursed-up smile of triumph. "I've no intention of going to bed yet," she explained.
"I've no intention of opening the door till I've taken you home," he rejoined.
She made no answer till the carriage drew up opposite his flat.
"It would be deplorable if you made a scene on the pavement," she observed carelessly.
Then she stepped out and told the driver to go back to Belgrave Square for Mrs. O'Rane.
It was a moon-lit night between half-past eleven and twelve. Ryder Street had roused to life with a widely-spaced but steady stream of men returning to bed from Pall Mall and sparing the fag-end of their attention for the unexpected tall girl who stood wrapped in a long silk shawl in the shadow of a bachelor door-way. The brougham turned round and drove away. Eric lighted another cigarette.
"Am I right in thinking that you're being obstinate?" Barbara enquired after some moments of silence.
"If you want me to take you home, I'll take you home. Otherwise I shall leave you here, go round to the club, explain that I've lost my latch-key and get a bed there."
"You're almost oriental in your hospitality," she laughed.
"I've no hospitality to spare for a girl of twenty-two at this hour of the night."
She stretched out her arm to him. In observing the beauty of her slender, long fingers and the whiteness of her arm against the long fringe of the shawl, Eric forgot his guard. She twitched the cigarette from his lips and laughed like a child, as she blew out a cloud of smoke. Cigarette, shawl and manner suddenly reminded him of Carmen.
"You're so conventional," she sighed.
Eric became suddenly irritable.
"Lady Barbara, you're behaving idiotically!" he cried. "I know you'd do anything for a new sensation, but I'm not going to help. Possibly I'm old-fashioned. If you think——"
"I'm so thirsty," she interrupted. "Have you any soda-water?"
"You're sure to find plenty in Berkeley Square."
"But you're afraid to give me any, afraid of being compromised?"
"I've too many things to be afraid of without bothering about that. Lady Barbara, you've several brothers, I've one sister. If one of your brothers saw fit to invite my sister to a bachelor flat——"
"But you haven't invited me!"
"I should horsewhip him," Eric resumed jerkily.
She considered him curiously with her head on one side.
"You know, I don't feel afraid of you," she told him. "I could trust you anywhere. You're not old enough to understand that yet, but you will."
"Then for the present it's irrelevant. Come along, Lady Barbara."
He advanced a step, but she only smiled at him without moving. Eric looked angrily round, but the stream of passers-by, though sluggish, shewed no signs of drying up. A clock inside the hall began to chime midnight, and he turned on his heel. As he did so, a taxi turned into the street, and an officer climbed gingerly out and hoisted himself across the pavement on two crutches. Barbara coughed and drew her shawl round her until half her face was hidden.
"But, Eric dear, you can't have lost the key," she expostulated, purposefully clear.
Over the shawl her eyes were gleaming with mischief and triumph.
The officer looked quickly from one to the other.
"Hullo! You locked out?" he enquired sympathetically. "Rotten luck! Here, let me put you out of your misery! Hope you haven't been waiting long?"
"That is sweet of you," said Barbara. "Long? I seem to have been standing here all day. Come on, Eric; I'm frightfully tired; I want to sit down."
She walked into the hall, beckoning him with a jerk of her head. The officer bade them good-night and limped to a ground-floor flat at the end.
"I'm going to my club, Lady Barbara," said Eric with slow distinctness from the door-step.
"Then I shall bang on every door I see until I find your flat," she retorted promptly. "I've told you, I want some soda-water. And, Eric——"
"Yes, Lady Barbara."
"Eric, I always get what I want. Who lives here, do you suppose? We'll try his door first."
Eric came in and walked to the foot of the stairs. Barbara slipped her arm through his, but he shook it away.
"I'm tired," she explained. "I wish you wouldn't be so rough with me."
She replaced her arm, and, rather than engage in a childish brawl, Eric left it there, though the touch of her fingers on his wrist set his blood tingling. They walked slowly, for he was trying to set his racing thoughts in order. This, then, was the true Lady Barbara Neave. He had never believed the fantastic stories about her, but she was now gratuitously shewing him that she was of those who stopped at nothing.
He felt the sudden unpitying disgust of a disappointed idealist. She was very young, with expressions which made her wholly beautiful at times. . . . "Virginal" was the word he was trying to find. . . . He wondered how to rid himself of her without a scene.
"If you'll let go my arm, I'll open the door," he said with stiff patience.
She walked into the small inner hall and looked round her with unaffected interest.
"I've never been in a man's rooms before," she remarked and Eric knew that she was speaking the truth. An extraordinary sense of power came to him, rushing to his head. The tired eyes and wistful mouth, the haggard cheeks, the cloud of fine hair, the white arms and slender hands fed his hungry love of beauty. And he had attracted her until she lay at his mercy. . . .
"I want to see everything, Eric," she said gently.
He hardly heard the words; but her tone was confiding, and she slipped her hand into his. A latent sense of the dramatic came to his rescue.
"You seem to have put yourself pretty completely into my power," he observed, closing the front door behind them.
"I know you so much better than you know me," she answered.
"I don't quite follow."
She laughed gently to herself, then put her arms round his neck and kissed him.
"No. . . . And you won't for years . . . not till I've educated you. . . . Am I right in thinking that you've forgotten all about my soda-water?"
Eric led her into the dining-room and gave her a tumbler of soda-water with a hand that trembled.
She had taken him by surprise as much as if she had struck him in the face. Incuriosity and fastidiousness, partly timid, partly romantic, had conspired to let him reach the age of two-and-thirty without ever kissing or being kissed. The act, now that he had experienced it, was nothing. A warm body, yielding in self-surrender, had pressed against him for a moment; two hands had impelled his head forward; he had been blinded for an instant by a scented billow of hair; then his cheeks had been touched as though a leaf had blown against them. That was the temperate analysis of kissing. . . .
"It's a nice room, Eric," she murmured, glancing slowly round over the top of her tumbler at the panelled walls and shining oak table. "And I like your invisible lighting. It's restful, and I hate a glare. What other rooms have you?"
"Kitchen next door," he answered with intentional abruptness; "then the servants' room—you won't make a noise, will you? or you'll wake them up. Bathroom, spare room, my own room, smoking-room. No, the limits of my unconventionality are soon reached; you can finish your soda-water in the smoking-room, and then I'll take you home."
"But I should like to see your room," she answered with the grave persistence of an unreasonable child. "Mine's purple and white in London—purple carpet, purple curtains, purple counterpane—and nothing but white—except the rose-wood, of course—at Crawleigh."
"This is the smoking-room," said Eric, conscientiously firm and unimpressed.
Barbara gave a little gasp of pleasure as he flooded the room with light. Book-cases surrounded three walls, stretching half-way to the ceiling and topped with rose-bowls and bronzes. The fourth was warmed by long rose Du Barry curtains over the two windows; between them stood a Chippendale writing-table. The rest of the room was given up to an irregular circle of sofas and arm-chairs, white-covered and laden with rose Du Barry satin cushions, surrounding a second table.
"I am glad I came!" she cried. "You know how to make yourself comfortable, Eric! Of course, the first cigarette I drop on your adorable grey carpet—you see how it matches my dress?—the first cigarette spoils it for ever. And the roses!" With a characteristically impulsive jerk she dragged the tulle band and artificial flower from her hair, tossed them to Eric and stretched her hand up for a red rose to take their place. "Ah! beloved celibate! not a mirror in the room! I shall have to——"
"Please stay where you are, Lady Barbara."
She crammed the rose carelessly into her hair and dropped on the nearest sofa.
"Do take that coat off and sit down here!" she begged him.
"I'm waiting to take you home."
"But I'm not going home yet. I'm enjoying myself, I'm happy."
"I'm waiting to take you home," he repeated.
She pouted and glanced up at him through half-closed eyes.
"You don't care whether I'm happy or not. You're soullessly selfish!" She looked round and helped herself to a cigarette; then her hand crept invitingly, with the shy daring of a mouse, along the sofa. "I want a match."
Eric took the cigarette and replaced it in its box.
"Bed-time," he said. "This meeting was not of my contriving, Lady Barbara, and, when you've learned the meaning of words, you'll find that it won't affect your happiness——"
His flow was arrested by a startling gasp.
"Oh, it's no good!" Barbara cried. "You're hopeless, hopeless."
To his amazement she had sprung to her feet, angry and disfigured, forgetting to break through his guard, tossing her weapon away; no longer teasing, imperious or purposely reckless; and without one of her disarming lapses into simplicity. It was the mingled pain and anger of a flesh-wound clumsily reopened. The next moment she had collapsed on the sofa, stiffly upright, staring at him with hot eyes. Then the set cheeks and compressed lips relaxed like the scattering petals of a blown rose; her mouth drooped, her eyes half-closed, and she began to cry.
Eric looked in consternation at her puckered, pathetic face, suddenly colourless save for dark rings round the big, hollow eyes. Then he sat down and drew her to him, patting her hand and talking to her half as if she were a child, half as though she were capable of understanding his weighty diagnosis.
"Lady Barbara! Lady Barbara! Are you listening to me? You mustn't cry—really. . . . It takes away all your prettiness. Now, you were fairly hard on me at dinner, weren't you? But I do possess some intelligence; I didn't need to have Lady Poynter shouting from the house-top that you were ill. You're worn out, you ought to be in bed and you ought to stay there, instead of exciting yourself. Lady Barbara, please stop crying! I don't know what I said, but I'm very humbly sorry. Won't you stop?"
She stiffened herself with a jerk and smiled as abruptly.
"It was my fault. I've not been well and I've been very miserable. Give me a little kiss, Eric, to shew you're not angry with me."
She leaned forward and put her hands on his shoulders again.
"Why should I be angry with you?" he asked with a defensive laugh.
Her hands dropped into her lap.
"You won't kiss me?"
"What difference would it make?"
"I ask you to. What difference would it make to you?"
Eric fumbled industriously with a cigarette.
"It so happens that I've never kissed any one," he said, "except my mother and sister, of course." Then, as she sat hungrily reproachful, he repeated: "What difference would it make?"
"You wouldn't understand . . ." she sighed. "And yet I thought you would. Where did you get that tray from, Eric? You've never been to India, have you?"
"It was given me by an uncle of mine. Lady Barbara—If it will give you any satisfaction. . . ."
He kissed her forehead with shame-faced timidity and became discursively explanatory.
"The candle-sticks were looted during the Commune," he began hurriedly. "I was given them as a house-warming present. The clock . . ."
Barbara was wandering listlessly round the room and paying little attention to what he was saying. She explored the book-cases, ransacked the writing-table and looked curiously at the horse-shoe paper-weight.
"You can give this to me, Eric," she suggested over her shoulder.
"I'm afraid it was a present. Given me on my first night."
"It would still be a present, if you gave it to me. I had one, but I broke it. All my luck's left me since then. Are you superstitious?"
"Not—in—the—least! I keep this for associations and a toy. If I could bring out a play on Friday the thirteenth——"
"If you're not superstitious, there's no excuse for not giving it to me."
She tossed the horse-shoe into the air and caught it neatly with her right hand.
"I'll see if I can get you another one," he promised, "but I don't know whether they're made in England."
"It might make all the difference to me," she pleaded, catching the horse-shoe with her left hand. "It's only a toy to you—a child's toy."
Eric shook his head at her. Barbara pouted and threw the horse-shoe a third time into the air, bending forward to catch it behind her back as it dropped. Eric, watching apprehensively, saw a flash of apprehension reflected for an instant in her eyes; then there was a tinkle of broken glass.
"Oh, my dear! I wouldn't have done that for the world!" she cried, pressing her hands against her cheeks. "I've destroyed your luck now! What a fool I was! Abject fool!"
"What does it matter?" Eric laughed.
"I wouldn't have done that for the world," she repeated with a white face.
"And you're living in the year of grace nineteen-fifteen? It's only—What did we call it? A child's toy. And, between ourselves, it wasn't a very efficient paper-weight. I can assure you I shan't miss it."
"Perhaps you will some day. And then you'll lift up your hands and curse the hour when you first met me."
Eric looked complacently at the airy room, the crowded book-cases, the soft chairs, the bellying curtains and the neat pile of manuscript on his writing-table:
"Aren't you perhaps exaggerating your potential influence on my life?" he suggested.
Barbara went back to her sofa and helped herself to a cigarette without hurry or fear that this time it would be taken from her; she smiled for a match—and smiled again when it was given her.
"Aren't you perhaps boasting too soon, my self-satisfied young friend? Your education's only just beginning."
Eric lighted a cigarette and sat down beside her. He no longer insisted that, for health or propriety, she must go home at once; and in some forgotten moment he had involuntarily taken off his overcoat.
"I wonder what you think you can teach me," he mused. "I wonder what you know, to start with."
"I know life."
"A considerable subject."
"I've had considerable experience."
The clock on the mantel-piece chimed one. Neither seemed to notice it, for Barbara was becoming autobiographical. Her story was ill-arranged and discursive, with personal characteristics of Lord Crawleigh sandwiched between her life at Government House, Ottawa, and a thwarted romance between her brother and a designing American. She flitted from her four years in India to Viceregal Lodge, Dublin, with a procession of damaging encounters with her father as stepping-stones in the narrative. (From her account it was Lord Crawleigh who sustained most of the damage.) He could never shake off a certain pro-consular manner in private life and had reduced his sons to blundering and untrustworthy aides-de-camp and his wife to a dignified but trembling squaw. Barbara alone resisted him.
"What can he do?" she asked. "He whipped me till I was ten, but I'm too big for that now. He can't very well lock me in my room, because the servants would leave in a body. They adore me. If he'd tried to stop my allowance, I should have gone on the stage—we've settled that point once and for all with Harry Manders, half-way through the stage-door of the Hilarity. Now I've got my own money. Mind you, I adore father, and he adores me; most people adore me; but I must do what I like. You see that now; but I had to shew you, I had to break my way in here by main force."
Eric looked up in time to catch a glint in her eyes. It was unexpected and disconcerting. He had been imagining that she was merely over-indulged; but the glint warned him that Barbara would make a bad enemy, cruel perhaps and unscrupulous certainly. The next moment she was again like a child, grown haggard with fatigue; and he gave her a slice of cake and some milk, which she accepted obediently and with a certain surprised gratitude.
"Where d'you imagine all this is going to end?" he asked her, though the question was addressed more to himself. "You're twenty-two, you've been everywhere, seen everything, met everybody. You're utterly uncontrolled and so sated and restless that, rather than go to bed, you'll compromise yourself by sitting talking to me half the night in a bachelor flat."
"Poor Val Arden used to talk like that. He always called me Lady Lilith, because I was older than good and evil. I'm sorry Val's dead; he was such fun. 'In six years' time—one asks oneself the question. . . .' It wasn't 'rather than go to bed,' not altogether."
"It's a nervous disease," Eric interrupted shortly.
"Because I cried just now? I was very unhappy, Eric."
"My dear Lady Barbara, you live in superlatives. You don't know what happiness or unhappiness means. You were badly overwrought then, so you cried and said you were miserable."
She looked at him and raised her eyebrows without speaking.
"It's wonderful how wrong quite clever people can be," she said at length. "I was miserable, I wanted to be kissed, I was hungry for the smallest crumb of affection. I wanted to be happy. . . . And you can only see me as neurotic. D'you feel you're a good judge?"
Eric smiled complacently and again glanced lovingly round the room. Barbara sighed in pity and looked at her watch.
"I seem to have come in the way rather," she interrupted.
"The butterfly that settles on the railway track may be said, I suppose, to come in the way of a train. . . . I'm going to take you home now."
"You're not sorry I came? I'm not."
"It was worth while meeting you," he laughed.
As Eric struggled with the sleeves of his coat, she twined her arms round his neck. The scent of carnations was now faintly blended with the deeper fragrance of the single rose behind her ear.
"And you'd never kissed any one before," she whispered.
It was nearly day-light when they found themselves in the street. Two special constables, striding resonantly home, looked curiously at them; but Barbara had again pulled up her shawl until it covered half her face. Piccadilly was at the mercy of scavengers with glistening black waders and pitiless hoses; otherwise they seemed to have all London to themselves.
With a head aching from fatigue, Eric tried to reconstruct the fantastic evening. Little detached pictures jostled their unconvincing way through his brain—Lady Poynter's formal dining-room and the barren, self-conscious literary discussion; Lord Poynter's wheezing confidences about the wood port which should properly be taken as a liqueur. He saw again the bridge-table with Gaymer, neat, immaculate and repellent, calling in a high nasal voice for Barbara to rejoin them. The drive home was a blank until he was galvanized by her leaning through the window and directing the coachman to Ryder Street. Thereafter facts gave place to emotions, and the other emotions to an incredulous elation that Barbara Neave should have thrown herself at his feet. Perhaps, of course, she was only emotion-hunting. . . . But she had lain at his mercy. . . . Perhaps that, too, was an emotion to be wooed, enjoyed and recorded. Any one less artificial could at least be glad that they were passing out of each other's life, as they had come into it, without expectation or regret.
"You'd better not come any farther," she advised him, as they reached the end of Berkeley Street. "If anybody should be awake and looking out of the window . . ."
He nodded and held out his hand.
"You have your latch-key?"
"Yes, thanks. Good-night, Eric."
"Good-bye, Lady Barbara."
* * * * *
"Between men on the Stock Exchange it is a platitude that you can only get a price in selling what some one else wants to buy; between men and women outside the Stock Exchange this is often considered a paradox."—From the diary of Eric Lane.
LADY BARBARA NEAVE
"CONSTANTINE: From seventeen to thirty-four . . . the years which a man should consecrate to the acquiring of political virtue . . . wherever he turns he is distracted, provoked, tantalised by the bare-faced presence of woman. How's he to keep a clear brain for the larger issues of life? . . . Women haven't morals or intellect in our sense of the words. They have other incompatible qualities quite as important, no doubt. But shut them away from public life and public exhibition. It's degrading to compete with them . . . it's as degrading to compete for them. . . ." GRANVILLE BARKER: "THE MADRAS HOUSE."
The latest, costliest and most ingenious mechanical device in Eric's bedroom was an electric dial and switchboard communicating with the kitchen and so constructed that, by moving a clock-hand, the corresponding dial abandoned the non-committal elusiveness of "Please call me at——" for "Please call me at 8.00 (or 9.00 or 9.30)." There was something calculatedly dissolute about the invention (which cost L17.10 and had struck work four times in three weeks). After a long night of work or frolic, the sybarite moved the hand on for twelve hours—his last conscious act before collapsing into bed; if, again, he had retired early or were so much debauched that he could not sleep, he wearily set the hand for "Please call me now."
Eric looked with smarting eyes first at the luminous clock, then at the dial. Half-past five, coupled with "Please call me at eight." He undressed ruminatively, reheated his hot-water can at the gas-ring, methodically folded his clothes, smoothed his trousers away in their press, selected a suit for the following day, washed face and hands, brushed teeth and hoisted himself into bed. The dial must stand as he had left it. Lady Barbara Neave had come—and gone; she was not going to disturb his work.
His sleep seemed to be interrupted almost instantly by the arrival of a maid with tea, rusks, letters and The Times. His head was hot, but he was singularly untired; that would come later.
His letters varied little from day to day; two appeals for free sittings with Bond Street photographers; four receipts; one bill; a dignified protest from a country clergyman who had been shocked by the line: "Oh, you're not sending me down with that woman, Rhoda? She's God's first and most perfect bore." There was an ill-written request for leave to translate his play into French, three news-cuttings to herald his new play, a conventional letter from his mother, two petitions for free stalls from impecunious friends and nine invitations to luncheon or dinner. He had hardly finished reading them, when a pencilled note, sent by hand from Mrs. Shelley, made the tenth.
Eric piled his correspondence under the butter-dish to await his secretary's arrival and turned methodically to The Times. Half-an-hour later he rang for his housekeeper and subjected her book to scrutiny. A leather-bound journal with a snap-lock lay on his table, and he next wrote his diary for the previous day. "So to dinner—rather late—with Lady Poynter to meet her nephew, Capt. Gaymer (R. F. C). Mrs. O'Rane (as beautiful as ever, but too voluble for my taste), Mrs. Shelley and Lady Barbara Neave. Meredithian debate on wine with Lord P., which I would give anything to put into a play. Bridge; but I cut out." He hesitated and drummed with his fingers on the thick creamy pages. "Took Lady B. home rather late and circuitously."
Then his secretary knocked and settled herself on the edge of an arm-chair.
"Good-morning," Eric began. "Will you write first of all to the manager of the bank——"
The telephone rang with a dull drone at the foot of his bed, and the girl made tentative movements of discreet departure.
"No, you deal with this!" Eric cried. "Out of London. You're not sure when I shall be back. Can you take a message?"
The girl picked up the instrument, while Eric glanced again through his letters.
"Hullo! Yes. Yes. He's—away, I'm afraid. . . . But, you see, he's away. . . ." She looked despairingly at Eric. "He's awa-ay!" Then breathlessly she clapped the receiver back.
"It was Lady Barbara Somebody; I couldn't hear the surname. She said you weren't away and she must speak to you. I thought it was best——"
Eric had to collect himself before answering. In the sane cold light of early morning the overnight escapade was a draggled, unromantic bit of folly. If he met Barbara again, he would make things as easy as possible: there would be no allusions, no sly smiles; the whole thing was to be forgotten. And yet she was already digging it from under the lightly sprinkled earth. If she were throwing herself on his mercy, it was unnecessary; he had said "Good-bye . . ." very distinctly. And she must surely know that she need not beg him not to talk. . . .
"You were quite right," he told his secretary. "Where were we? Oh, the manager——"
The bell rang again. Eric frowned and picked up the receiver, while the girl, after a moment's hesitation, tip-toed out of the room. Barbara had already disturbed his time-table for thirty seconds. . . .
"Hullo? Mr. Lane is away at present," he said. There was a pause. "I told you yesterday, Lady Barbara. Just as when you say 'Not at home.' . . . I'm exceedingly busy and I must have a few days to myself. Good-bye."
The constant factor in her overnight autobiography was that every one had always done what Barbara wanted; but, if she fancied that she was going to break into a working-day with any of her nonsense, she would be disappointed.
At the other end of the line a gentle, rather tired voice said:
"Don't cut me off. If you know the trouble I've had to get hold of you! Eric, why aren't you in the book? Another device for escaping your adorers? I've been pursuing you round London for a good half-hour; then your people at the theatre——"
"Is it anything important?" he interrupted curtly.
"It's very important that you should listen most politely and carefully and patiently and attentively when I'm talking to you. So far you haven't asked how I am, you haven't told me how you are——"
"I've suggested that I'm very busy," he interrupted her again.
"But I don't allow that sort of thing to stand in the way."
"And I don't allow any one to break into my time. Good-bye——"
"Eric, don't you dare ring me off! I want to know whether you'll lunch here to-day. I've collected rather an amusing party."
"I'm afraid I can't."
"Where are you lunching? At home? Then you can certainly come. . . . I don't care who's lunching with you. . . . If you don't—Well, you'll see. In the meantime, has Marion Shelley invited you to dine to-night and are you going?"
"Yes, to the first; no, to the second," Eric answered. "Lady Barbara——"
"It must be 'yes' to the second, too, dear Eric. I rang her up at cock-crow to say that you wanted her to invite us together. You do, you know; you want to see whether last night's impression was true; that's why I asked you to lunch. . . . Now I want to know if you've a rehearsal to-day, because, if so——"
"Lady Barbara, I am going to cut you off," said Eric distinctly.
He hung up the receiver and was about to ring for his secretary, when his memory was arrested by the picture of Barbara springing to her feet, reviling him, collapsing on the sofa and bursting into tears. "Bully her, and she cries," he murmured impatiently. "Don't bully her, and she bullies you. I'm not cut out for the part of tame cat. Another forty-eight hours, and she'll expect me to drive round London and look at dresses with her. . . ." But if his petulance had made her cry again . . . Eric hunted for a pen and, without involving himself in delicacies of address, wrote—"I am not discourteous by preference, but you drive me to it. La comedia e finita." He left the note unsigned and asked his secretary to have it sent by hand to Berkeley Square. When it had left him past recall, he felt that he could have done better; and he knew that he would have done best of all by not writing. . . . But he was irritated by her too insistent unconventionality; irritated and yet rawly elated by his ascendancy over her.
His secretary returned, and he dictated to her until half-past nine struck. It was his signal to get up so that he could be dressed by ten, so that he could work from ten till one, so that he could walk out and lunch at one-thirty, observing his time-table punctually.
The telephone rang again, and Mrs. Shelley enquired tonelessly whether he had received her invitation.
"Oh, Eric! I did hope you could come!" she exclaimed. "Can't you reconsider? Poor Babs seems so anxious to see you again."
Mrs. Shelley, then, had the wit to guess where the initiative lay.
"I'm afraid that the privilege of gratifying Lady Barbara's whims——"
He forgot how he had meant to finish the sentence, and there was a pause.
"Don't you like her, Eric?" asked Mrs. Shelley. "Most people fall a victim the first time they meet her."
"I've outgrown the susceptible age," he laughed. "And, anyway, I'm working. It's awfully kind of you to invite me, Mrs. Shelley——"
"Eric, I wish you'd reconsider," she interrupted before he could repeat his refusal. "I feel you'll be doing her a kindness by coming; you amused her and turned her thoughts. . . . I was dreadfully distressed last night; she looked as if she were going into a decline. . . ."
In contrast to Mrs. Shelley's toneless voice Eric heard again Barbara's abrupt, startling cry, "You're hopeless, hopeless!"—just before she collapsed limply on the sofa and cried about something which she would not explain. . . .
"You make it impossible for me to refuse," he said with an uneasy laugh.
"I'm so grateful! I knew you'd come, Eric."
He threw back the bed-clothes and rang for his bath.
"I suppose Lady Barbara will think she knew I was coming, too," he said to himself. "I don't mind being made a fool of once. . . ."
At noon he tidied his papers and lighted a cigarette while he waited for a call from his agent. The "Divorce" was being produced in America; and for an arid, perplexing half-hour Mr. Grierson, with eyes half-closed in the grey smoke of his cigar, pushed cables, letters, copies and a draft agreement across the table.
"Stay and have some lunch," Eric suggested, as half-past twelve struck. "Manders is due any time now. He wants me to make certain alterations in the 'Bomb-Shell,' and you can keep me in countenance. I'm getting rather tired of being told: 'Of course, with great respect, Lane, you're a new-comer to the theatre. . . .' New-comer I may be, but it doesn't lie in Manders' mouth to say so, if he'll trouble to calculate how many thousands I've put in his pocket. . . . Isn't this the sort of time when one has a cocktail?"
Grierson's eyes lighted up at the suggestion, and Eric rang for ice. He was in the middle of his preparations when Harry Manders entered in a suit of light tweeds, clutching a flat-brimmed bowler hat in one hand and a leather-topped cane in the other.
"'Mornin', Eric. Hullo, Phil! Sinister combination for a poor devil of an actor-manager—author and agent. What's this you're givin' me? Well, only up to the top—On my honour, boy, only up to the top!" He nodded over the brimming glass with a knowing "Well, chin-chin!" and subsided diagonally into a chair with his legs across one arm.
"I thought Grierson's age and experience might save my play from further amateur surgery," Eric explained.
"Tootaloo," chirped Manders resiliently and dragged a crumpled script from his pocket. Eric's obstinate assurance would have exasperated any other manager, but, as Manders wearily said, "I've been too long at the game to lose my temper."
With that they settled to work and argued their way through the marked passages of Manders' copy heatedly and without reaching conviction or agreement. Once Grierson rose and shook a second cocktail; twice a maid announced that luncheon was on the table. Something, which he attributed to his broken night, made Eric unreasonable to a point where he knew that he was being unreasonable. He was too tired for anything except sustained obstinacy, and his companions grated on him.
"Oh, let's have something to eat!" he exclaimed at length. "The second act's got to stand as I wrote it. We shan't do any good by talking. . . ."
"Now don't you be in a hurry, boy," began Manders. "Turn back to the beginning. . . ."
Eric looked at his watch.
"Don't forget we've a rehearsal," he said. "I don't know what there is for lunch, but it will be tepid."
"Then let's wait for it to get cold. Now, in the first act you said—Damn!"
He flapped the script impatiently on his knee as the now familiar knock of Eric's parlour-maid was heard yet again.
"Lady Barbara Neave to see you, sir," she whispered a little breathlessly.
"Will you please say that I can't possibly see any one?" Eric answered curtly. "Tell her that two gentlemen have come to see me on business. Ask her to leave a message."
He turned to find Manders smiling, as though to say, "Why didn't you tell us? We should have understood. We're men of the world."
"The first act," Eric repeated earnestly. "As you will, but do go ahead with it. I want some lunch."
For five seconds the three men turned the limp, dog's-eared pages until they had found the place. Manders cleared his throat unreservedly and then looked up with an expression of ebbing patience, as the door opened again. This time there was no knock, and Lady Barbara walked in after hesitating for a moment on the threshold to identify Eric. She was wearing a black dress with a transparent film of grey hanging from the shoulders, a black hat shaped like a butterfly's wings with her hair visible through the spider's web crown. One hand swung a sable stole, the other carried to and from her mouth a half-eaten apple.
"Eric, please invite me to lunch with you!" she begged. "You've such delicious food. I was shewn into your dining-room and I could hardly resist it. There's a dressed crab—I behaved perfectly, I didn't touch it—and, if all three of you had the weeniest little bit less, there'd be enough for us all. Hullo, there's Mr. Manders!"
She shook hands and waited for Eric to introduce Grierson.
"You're interrupting an important discussion, Lady Barbara."
"Is it about your new play? Oh, then I can help! But, if you knew how hungry I was——"
"They're expecting you to lunch at home," Eric interrupted. "You told me you had a party."
"But I've just telephoned to say that I've been invited to lunch here! I've burnt your boats. Father was perfectly furious, because mother's lunching with Connie Maitland, and he counted on me to see him through."
As she smiled at Eric with her head on one side, he realized that work was over for the morning.
"I daresay there will be enough for four," he answered.
"Then for goodness' sake let's begin before any one else turns up unexpectedly!" she cried, catching him by the sleeves and drawing him to the door.
Grierson and Manders smiled and followed them, carefully brushing cigar-ash from their clothes and smoothing the back of their hair.