THE IMAGINARY MARRIAGE
by Henry St. John Cooper
A MASTERFUL WOMAN
"Don't talk to me, miss," said her ladyship. "I don't want to hear any nonsense from you!"
The pretty, frightened girl who shared the drawing-room at this moment with Lady Linden of Cornbridge Manor House had not dared to open her lips. But that was her ladyship's way, and "Don't talk to me!" was a stock expression of hers. Few people were permitted to talk in her ladyship's presence. In Cornbridge they spoke of her with bated breath as a "rare masterful woman," and they had good cause.
Masterful and domineering was Lady Linden of Cornbridge, yet she was kind-hearted, though she tried to disguise the fact.
In Cornbridge she reigned supreme, men and women trembled at her approach. She penetrated the homes of the cottagers, she tasted of their foods, she rated them on uncleanliness, drunkenness, and thriftlessness; she lectured them on cooking.
On many a Saturday night she raided, single-handed, the Plough Inn and drove forth the sheepish revellers, personally conducting them to their homes and wives.
They respected her in Cornbridge as the reigning sovereign of her small estate, and none did she rule more autocratically and completely than her little nineteen-year-old niece Marjorie.
A pretty, timid, little maid was Marjorie, with soft yellow hair, a sweet oval face, with large pathetic blue eyes and a timid, uncertain little rosebud of a mouth.
"A rare sweet maid her be," they said of her in the village, "but terribul tim'rous, and I lay her ladyship du give she a rare time of it...." Which was true.
"Don't talk to me, miss!" her ladyship said to the silent girl. "I know what is best for you; and I know, too, what you don't think I know—ha, ha!" Her ladyship laughed terribly. "I know that you have been meeting that worthless young scamp, Tom Arundel!"
"Oh, aunt, he is not worthless—"
"Financially he isn't worth a sou—and that's what I mean, and don't interrupt. I am your guardian, you are entirely in my charge, and until you arrive at the age of twenty-five I can withhold your fortune from you if you marry in opposition to me and my wishes. But you won't—you won't do anything of the kind. You will marry the man I select for you, the man I have already selected—what did you say, miss?
"And now, not another word. Hugh Alston is the man I have selected for you. He is in love with you, there isn't a finer lad living. He has eight thousand a year, and Hurst Dormer is one of the best old properties in Sussex. So that's quite enough, and I don't want to hear any more nonsense about Tom Arundel. I say nothing against him personally. Colonel Arundel is a gentleman, of course, otherwise I would not permit you to know his son; but the Arundels haven't a pennypiece to fly with and—and now—Now I see Hugh coming up the drive. Leave me. I want to talk to him. Go into the garden, and wait by the lily-pond. In all probability Hugh will have something to say to you before long."
"Oh, aunt, I—"
"Shut up!" said her ladyship briefly.
Marjorie went out, with hanging head and bursting heart. She believed herself the most unhappy girl in England. She loved; who could help loving happy-go-lucky, handsome Tom Arundel, who well-nigh worshipped the ground her little feet trod upon? It was the first love and the only love of her life, and of nights she lay awake picturing his bright, young boyish face, hearing again all the things he had said to her till her heart was well-nigh bursting with love and longing for him.
But she did not hate Hugh. Who could hate Hugh Alston, with his cheery smile, his ringing voice, his big generous heart, and his fine manliness? Not she! But from the depths of her heart she wished Hugh Alston a great distance away from Cornbridge.
"Hello, Hugh!" said her ladyship. He had come in, a man of two-and-thirty, big and broad, with suntanned face and eyes as blue as the tear-dimmed eyes of the girl who had gone miserably down to the lily-pond.
Fair haired was Hugh, ruddy of cheek, with no particular beauty to boast of, save the wholesomeness and cleanliness of his young manhood. He seemed to bring into the room a scent of the open country, of the good brown earth and of the clean wind of heaven.
"Hello, Hugh!" said Lady Linden.
"Hello, my lady," said he, and kissed her. It had been his habit from boyhood, also it had been his lifelong habit to love and respect the old dame, and to feel not the slightest fear of her. In this he was singular, and because he was the one person who did not fear her she preferred him to anyone else.
"Hugh," she said—she went straight to the point, she always did; as a hunter goes at a hedge, so her ladyship without prevarication went at the matter she had in hand—"I have been talking to Marjorie about Tom Arundel—"
His cheery face grew a little grave.
"Well, it is absurd—you realise that?"
"I suppose so, but—" He paused.
"It is childish folly!"
"Do you think so? Do you think that she—" Again he paused, with a nervousness and diffidence usually foreign to him.
"She's only a gel," said her ladyship. Her ladyship was Sussex born, and talked Sussex when she became excited. "She's only a gel, and gels have their fancies. I had my own—but bless you, they don't last. She don't know her own mind."
"He's a good fellow," said Hugh generously.
"A nice lad, but he won't suit me for Marjorie's husband. Hugh, the gel's in the garden, she is sitting by the lily-pond and believes her heart is broken, but it isn't! Go and prove it isn't; go now!"
He met her eyes and flushed red. "I'll go and have a talk to Marjorie," he said. "You haven't been—too rough with her, have you?"
"Rough! I know how to deal with gels. I told her that I had the command of her money, her four hundred a year till she was twenty-five, and not a bob of it should she touch if she married against my wish. Now go and talk to her—and talk sense—" She paused. "You know what I mean—sense!"
A very pretty picture, the slender white-clad, drooping figure with its crown of golden hair made, sitting on the bench beside the lily-pond. Her hands were clasped, her eyes fixed on the stagnant green water over which the dragon-flies skimmed.
Coming across the soundless turf, he stood for a moment to look at her.
Hurst Dormer was a fine old place, yet of late to him it had grown singularly dull and cheerless. He had loved it all his life, but latterly he had realised that there was something missing, something without which the old house could not be home to him, and in his dreams waking and sleeping he had seen this same little white-clad figure seated at the foot of the great table in the dining-hall.
He had seen her in his mind's eye doing those little housewifely duties that the mistresses of Hurst Dormer had always loved to do, her slender fingers busy with the rare and delicate old china, or the lavender-scented linen, or else in the wonderful old garden, the gracious little mistress of all and of his heart.
And now she sat drooping like a wilted lily beside the green pond, because of her love for another man, and his honest heart ached that it should be so.
"Marjorie!" he said.
She lifted a tear-stained face and held out her hand' to him silently.
He patted her hand gently, as one pats the hand of a child. "Is—is it so bad, little girl? Do you care for him so much?"
"Better than my life!" she said. "Oh, if you knew!"
"I see," he said quietly. He sat staring at the green waters, stirred now and again by the fin of a lazy carp. He realised that there would be no sweet girlish, golden-haired little mistress for Hurst Dormer, and the realisation hurt him badly.
The girl seemed to have crept a little closer to him, as for comfort and protection.
"She has made up her mind, and nothing will change it. She wants you to—to marry me. She's told me so a hundred times. She won't listen to anything else; she says you—you care for me, Hugh."
"Supposing I care so much, little girl, that I want your happiness above everything in this world. Supposing—I clear out?" he said—"clear right away, go to Africa, or somewhere or other?"
"She would make me wait till you came back, and you'd have to come back, Hugh, because there is always Hurst Dormer. There's no way out for me, none. If only—only you were married; that is the only thing that would have saved me!"
"But I'm not!"
She sighed. "If only you were, if only you could say to her, 'I can't ask Marjorie to marry me, because I am already married!' It sounds rubbish, doesn't it, Hugh; but if it were only true!"
"Supposing—I did say it?"
"Oh, Hugh, but—" She looked up at him quickly. "But it would be a lie!"
"I know, but lies aren't always the awful things they are supposed to be—if one told a lie to help a friend, for instance, such a lie might be forgiven, eh?"
"But—" She was trembling; she looked eagerly into his eyes, into her cheeks had come a flush, into her eyes the brightness of a new, though as yet vague, hope. "It—it sounds so impossible!"
"Nothing is actually impossible. Listen, little maid. She sent me here to you to talk sense, as she put it. That meant she sent me here to ask you to marry me, and I meant to do it. I think perhaps you know why"—he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it—"but I shan't now, I never shall. Little girl, we're going to be what we've always been, the best and truest of friends, and I've got to find a way to help you and Tom—"
"Hugh, if you told her that you were married, and not free, she wouldn't give another thought to opposing Tom and me—it is only because she wants me to marry you that she opposes Tom! Oh, Hugh, if—if—if you could, if it were possible!" She was trembling with excitement, and the sweet colour was coming and going in her cheeks.
"Supposing I did it?" he said, and spoke his thoughts aloud. "Of course it would be a shock to her, perhaps she wouldn't believe!"
"She would believe anything you said..."
"It is rather a rotten thing to do," he thought, "yet...." He looked at the bright, eager face, it would make her happy; he knew that what she said was true—Lady Linden would not oppose Tom Arundel if marriage between Marjorie and himself was out of the question. It would be making the way clear for her: it would be giving her happiness, doing her the greatest service that he could. Of his own sacrifice, his own disappointment he thought not now; realisation of that would come later.
At first it seemed to him a mad, a nonsensical scheme, yet it was one that might so easily be carried out. If one doubt was left as to whether he would do it, it was gone the next moment.
"Hugh, would you do—would you do this for me?"
"There is very little that I wouldn't do for you, little maid," he said, "and if I can help you to your happiness I am going to do it."
She crept closer to him; she laid her cheek against his shoulder, and held his hand in hers.
"Tell me just what you will say."
"I haven't thought that out yet."
"But you must."
"I know. You see, if I say I am married, naturally she will ask me a few questions."
"When she gets—gets her breath!" Marjorie said with a laugh; it was the first time she had laughed, and he liked to hear it.
"The first will probably be, How long have I been married?"
"Do you remember you used to come to Marlbury to see me when I was at school at Miss Skinner's?"
"That was three years ago. Supposing you married about then?"
"Fine," Hugh said. "I married three years ago. What month?"
"June," she said; "it's a lovely month!"
"I was married in June, nineteen hundred and eighteen, my lady," said Hugh. "Where at, though?"
"Why, Marlbury, of course!"
"Of course! Splendid place to get married in, delightful romantic old town!"
"It is a hateful place, but that doesn't matter," said Marjorie. She seemed to snuggle up a little closer to him, her lips were rippling with smiles, her bright eyes saw freedom and love, her heart was very warm with gratitude to this man who was helping her. But she could not guess, how could she, how in spite of the laughter on his lips there was a great ache and a feeling of emptiness at his heart.
"So now we have it all complete," he said. "I was married in June, nineteen eighteen at Marlbury; my wife and I did not get on, we parted. She had a temper, so had I, a most unhappy affair, and there you are!" He laughed.
"All save one thing," Marjorie said.
"Goodness, what have I forgotten?"
"Only the lady's name."
"You are right. She must have a name of course, something nice and romantic—Gladys something, eh?"
Marjorie shook her head.
"Clementine," suggested Hugh. "No, won't do, eh? Now you put your thinking cap on and invent a name, something romantic and pretty. Let's hear from you, Marjorie."
"Do you like—Joan Meredyth?" she said.
"Splendid! What a clever little brain!" He shut his eyes. "I married Miss Joan Meredyth on the first of June, or was it the second, in the year nineteen hundred and eighteen? We lived a cat-and-dog existence, and parted with mutual recriminations, since when I have not seen her! Marjorie, do you think she will swallow it?"
"If you tell her; but, Hugh, will you—will you?"
"Little girl, is it going to help you?"
"You know it is!" she whispered.
"Then I shall tell her!"
Marjorie lifted a pair of soft arms and put them about his neck.
"Hugh!" she said, "Hugh, if—if I had never known Tom, I—"
"I know," he said. "I know. God bless you." He stooped and kissed her on the cheek, and rose.
It was a mad thing this that he was to do, yet he never considered its madness, its folly. It would help her, and Hurst Dormer would never know its golden-haired mistress, after all.
IN WHICH HUGH BREAKS THE NEWS
Lady Linden had just come in from one of her usual and numerous inspections, during which she had found it necessary to reprove one of the under-gardeners. She had described him to himself, his character, his appearance and his methods from her own point of view, and had left the man stupefied and amazed at the extent of her vocabulary and her facility of expression. He was still scratching his head, dazedly, when she came into the drawing-room.
"Hugh, you here? Where is Marjorie?"
"Down by the pond, I think," he said, with an attempt at airiness.
"In a moment you will make me angry. You know what I wish to know. Did you propose to Marjorie, Hugh?"
"Did I—" He seemed astonished. "Did I what?"
"Propose to Marjorie! Good heavens, man, isn't that why I sent you there?"
"I certainly did not propose to her. How on earth could I?"
"There is no reason on earth why you should not have proposed to her that I can see."
"But there is one that I can see." He paused. "A man can't invite a young woman to marry him—when he is already married!"
It was out! He scarcely dared to look at her. Lady Linden said nothing; she sat down.
"Hugh!" She had found breath and words at last. "Hugh Alston! Did I hear you aright?"
"I believe you did!"
"You mean to tell me that you—you are a married man?"
He nodded. He realised that he was not a good liar.
"I would like some particulars," she said coldly. "Hugh Alston, I should be very interested to know where she is!"
"I don't know!"
"You are mad. When were you married?"
"June nineteen eighteen," he said glibly.
"Good gracious! That is where Marjorie used to go to school!"
"Yes, it was when I went down to see her there, and—"
"You met this woman you married? And her name?"
"Joan," he said—"Joan Meredyth!"
"Joan—Meredyth!" said Lady Linden. She closed her eyes; she leaned back in her chair. "That girl!"
A chill feeling of alarm swept over him. She spoke, her ladyship spoke, as though such a girl existed, as though she knew her personally. And the name was a pure invention! Marjorie had invented it—at least, he believed so.
"You—you don't know her?"
"Know her—of course I know her. Didn't Marjorie bring her here from Miss Skinner's two holidays running? A very beautiful and brilliant girl, the loveliest girl I think I ever saw! Really, Hugh Alston, though I am surprised and pained at your silence and duplicity, I must absolve you. I always regarded you as more or less a fool, but Joan Meredyth is a girl any man might fall in love with!"
Hugh sat gripping the arms of his chair. What had he done, or rather what had Marjorie done? What desperate muddle had that little maid led him into? He had counted on the name being a pure invention, and now—
"Where is she?" demanded Lady Linden.
"I don't know—we—we parted!"
"We didn't get on, you see. She'd got a temper, and so—"
"Of course she had a temper. She is a spirited gel, full of life and fire and intelligence. I wouldn't give twopence for a woman without a temper—certainly she had a temper! Bah, don't talk to me, sir—you sit there and tell me you were content to let her go, let a beautiful creature like that go merely because she had a temper?"
"She—she went. I didn't let her go; she just went!"
"Yes," Lady Linden said thoughtfully, "I suppose she did. It is just what Joan would do! She saw that she was not appreciated; you wrangled, or some folly, and she simply went. She would—so would I have gone! And now, where is she?"
"I tell you I don't know!"
"You've never sought her?"
"Never! I—I—now look here," he went on, "don't take it to heart too much. She is quite all right—that is, I expect—"
"You expect!" she said witheringly. "Here you sit; you have a beautiful young wife, the most brilliant girl I ever met, and—and you let her go! Don't talk to me!"
"No, I won't; let's drop it! We will discuss it some other time—it is a matter I prefer not to talk about! Naturally it is rather—painful to me!"
"So I should think!"
"Yes, I much prefer not to talk about it. Let's discuss Marjorie!"
"Marjorie is the sweetest little soul in the world, and—"
"It's a pity you didn't think of that three years ago!"
"And Tom Arundel is a fine fellow; no one can say one word against him!"
"I don't wish to discuss them! If Marjorie is obsessed with this folly about young Arundel, it will be her misfortune. If she wants to marry him she will probably regret it. I intended her to marry you; but since it can't be, I don't feel any particular interest in the matter of Marjorie's marriage at the moment! Now tell me about Joan at once!"
"Believe me, I—I much prefer not to: it is a sore subject, a matter I never speak about!"
"Oh, go away then—and leave me to myself. Let me think it all out!"
He went gladly enough; he made his way back to the lily-pond.
"Marjorie," he said tragically, "what have you done?"
"Oh, Hugh!" She was trembling at once.
"No, no, dear, don't worry; it is nothing. She believes every word, and I feel sure it will be all right for you and Tom, but, oh Marjorie—that name, I thought you had invented it!"
Marjorie flushed. "It was the name of a girl at Miss Skinner's: she was a great, great friend of mine. She was two years older than I, and just as sweet and beautiful as her name, and when you were casting about for one I—I just thought of it, Hugh. It hasn't done any harm, has it?"
"I hope not, only, don't you see, you've made me claim an existing young lady as my wife, and if she turned up some time or other—"
"But she won't! When she left school she went out to Australia to join her uncle there, and she will in all probability never come back to England."
Hugh drew a sigh of relief. "That's all right then! It's all right, little girl; it is all right. I believe things are going to be brighter for you now."
"Thanks to you, Hugh!"
"You know there is nothing in this world—" He looked down at the lovely face, alive with gratitude and happiness. His dreams were ended, the "might-have-been" would never be, but he knew that there was peace in that little breast at last.
JOAN MEREDYTH, TYPIST
Mr. Philip Slotman touched the electric buzzer on his desk and then watched the door. He was an unpleasant—looking man, strangely corpulent as to body, considering his face was cast in lean and narrow mould, the nose large, prominent and hooked, the lips full, fleshy, and of cherry—like redness, the eyes small, mean, close together and deep set. The over—corpulent body was attired lavishly. It was dressed in a fancy waistcoat, a morning coat, elegantly striped trousers of lavender hue and small pointed—toed, patent—leather boots, with bright tan uppers. The rich aroma of an expensive cigar hung about the atmosphere of Mr. Slotman's office. This and his clothes, and the large diamond ring that twinkled on his finger, proclaimed him a person of opulence.
The door opened and a girl came in; she carried a notebook and her head very high. She trod like a young queen, and in spite of the poor black serge dress she wore, there was much of regal dignity about her. Dark brown hair that waved back from a broad and low forehead, a pair of lustrous eyes filled now with contempt and aversion, eyes shielded by lashes that, when she slept, lay like a silken fringe upon her cheeks. Her nose was redeemed from the purely classical by the merest suggestion of tip-tiltedness, that gave humour, expression and tenderness to the whole face—tenderness and sweetness that with strength was further betrayed by the finely cut, red-lipped mouth and the strong little chin, carried so proudly on the white column of her neck.
Her figure was that of a young goddess, and a goddess she looked as she swept disdainfully into Mr. Philip Slotman's office, shorthand notebook in her hand.
"I want you to take a letter to Jarvis and Purcell, Miss Meredyth," he said. "Please sit down. Er—hum—'Dear Sirs, With regard to your last communication received on the fourteenth instant, I beg—'"
Mr. Slotman moved, apparently negligently, from his leather-covered armchair. He rose, he sauntered around the desk, then suddenly he flung off all pretence at lethargy, and with a quick step put himself between the girl and the door.
"Now, my dear," he said, "you've got to listen to me!"
"I am listening to you." She turned contemptuous grey eyes on him.
"Hang the letter! I don't mean that. You've got to listen about other things!"
He stretched out his hand to touch her, and she drew back. She rose, and her eyes flashed.
"If you touch me, Mr. Slotman, I shall—" She paused; she looked about her; she picked up a heavy ebony ruler from his desk. "I shall defend myself!"
"Don't be a fool," he said, yet took a step backwards, for there was danger in her eyes.
"Look here, you won't get another job in a hurry, and you know it. Shorthand typists are not wanted these days, the schools are turning out thousands of 'em, all more or less bad; but I—I ain't talking about that, dear—" He took a step towards her, and then recoiled, seeing her knuckles shine whitely as she gripped the ruler. "Come, be sensible!"
"Are you going to persist in this annoyance of me?" she demanded. "Can't I make you understand that I am here to do my work and for no other purpose?"
"Supposing," he said, "supposing—I—I asked you to marry me?"
He had never meant to say this, yet he had said it, for the fascination of her was on him.
"Supposing you did? Do you think I would consent to marry such a man as you?" She held her head very proudly.
"Do you mean that you would refuse?"
He seemed staggered; he looked about him as one amazed. He had kept this back as the last, the supreme temptation, the very last card in his hand; and he had played it, and behold, it proved to be no trump.
"I would neither marry you nor go out with you, nor do I wish to have anything to say to you, except so far as business is concerned. As that seems impossible, it will be better for me to give you a week's notice, Mr. Slotman."
"You'll be sorry for it," he said—"infernally sorry for it. It ain't pleasant to starve, my girl!"
"I had to do it, I had to, or I could not have respected myself any longer," the girl thought, as she made her way home that evening to the boarding-house, where for two pounds a week she was fed and lodged. But to be workless! It had been the nightmare of her dreams, the haunting fear of her waking hours.
In her room at the back of the house, to which the jingle of the boarding-house piano could yet penetrate, she sat for a time in deep thought. The past had held a few friends, folk who had been kind to her. Pride had held her back; she had never asked help of any of them. She thought of the Australian uncle who had invited her to come out to him when she should leave school, and then had for some reason changed his mind and sent her a banknote for a hundred pounds instead. She had felt glad and relieved at the time, but now she regretted his decision. Yet there had been a few friends; she wrote down the names as they occurred to her.
There was old General Bartholomew, who had known her father. There was Mrs. Ransome. No, she believed now that she had heard that Mrs. Ransome was dead; perhaps the General too, yet she would risk it. There was Lady Linden, Marjorie Linden's aunt. She knew but little of her, but remembered her as at heart a kindly, though an autocratic dame. She remembered, too, that one of Lady Linden's hobbies had been to establish Working Guilds and Rural Industries, Village Crafts, and suchlike in her village. In connection with some of these there might be work for her.
She wrote to all that she could think of, a letter of which she made six facsimile copies. It was not a begging appeal, but a dignified little reminder of her existence.
"If you could assist me to obtain any work by which I might live, you would be putting me under a deep debt of gratitude," she wrote.
Before she slept that night all six letters were in the post. She wished them good luck one by one as she dropped them into the letter-box, the six sprats that had been flung into the sea of fortune. Would one of them catch for her a mackerel? She wondered.
"You'd best take back that notice," Slotman said to her the next morning. "You won't find it so precious easy to find a job, my girl; and, after all, what have I done?"
"Annoyed me, insulted me ever since I came here," she said quietly. "And of course I shall not stay!"
"Insulted you! Is it an insult to ask you to be my wife?"
"It seems so to me," she said quietly. "If you had meant that—at first—it would have been different; now it is only an insult!"
Three days passed, and there came answers. She had been right, Mrs. Ransome was dead, and there was no one who could do anything for Miss Meredyth.
General Bartholomew was at Harrogate, and her letter had been sent on to him there, wrote a polite secretary. And then there came a letter that warmed the girl's heart and brought back all her belief and faith in human nature.
"MY DEAREST CHILD,
"Your letter came as a welcome surprise—to think that you are looking for employment! Well, we must see to this—I promise you, you will not have far to look. Come here to me at once, and be sure that everything will be put right and all misunderstandings wiped out. I am keeping your letter a secret from everyone, even from Marjorie, that your coming shall be the more unexpected, and the greater surprise and pleasure. But come without delay, and believe me to be,
"Your very affectionate friend, "HARRIET LINDEN."
"P.S.—I suggest that you wire me the day and the train, so that I can meet you. Don't lose any time, and be sure that all past unhappiness can be ended, and the future faced with the certainty of brighter and happier days."
Over this letter Joan Meredyth pondered a great deal. It was a warm-hearted and affectionate response to her somewhat stilted little appeal. Yet what did the old lady mean, to what did the veiled reference apply?
"So you mean going, then?" Slotman asked.
"I told you I would go, and I shall. I leave to-morrow."
"You'll be glad to come back," he said. He looked at her, and there was eagerness in his eyes. "Joan, don't be a fool, stay. I could give you a good time, and—"
But she had turned her back on him.
She had written to Lady Linden thanking her for her kindly letter.
"I shall come to you on Saturday for the week-end, if I may. I find there is a train at a quarter-past three. I shall come by that to Cornbridge Station.
"Believe me, "Yours gratefully and affectionately, "JOAN MEREDYTH."
There was a subdued excitement about Lady Linden during the Thursday and the Friday, and an irritating air of secretiveness.
"Foolish, foolish young people! Both so good and so worthy in their way—the girl beautiful and clever, the man as fine and honest and upright a young fellow as ever trod this earth—donkeys! Perhaps they can't be driven—very often donkeys can't; but they can be led!"
To Hugh Alston, at Hurst Dormer, seven miles away, Lady Linden had written.
"MY DEAR HUGH,
"I want you to come here Saturday; it is a matter of vital importance." (She had a habit of underlining her words to give them emphasis, and she underscored "vital" three times.) "I want you to time your arrival for half-past five, a nice time for tea. Don't be earlier, and don't be later. And, above all, don't fail me, or I will never forgive you."
"I expect," Hugh thought, "that she is going to make a public announcement of the engagement between Marjorie and Tom Arundel."
It was precisely at half-past five that Hugh stepped out of his two-seater car and demanded admittance at the door of the Manor House.
"Oh, Mr. Alston," the footman said, "my lady is expecting you. She told me to show you straight into the drawing-room, and she and—" The man paused.
"Her ladyship will be with you in a few moments, sir."
"There is festival in the air here, Perkins, and mystery and secrecy too, eh?"
"Yes, sir, thank you, sir," the man said. "This way, Mr. Alston."
And now in the drawing-room Hugh was cooling his heels.
Why this mystery? Where was Marjorie? Why didn't his aunt come?
Then someone came, the door opened. Into the room stepped a tall girl—a girl with the most beautiful face he thought he had ever seen in his life. She looked at him calmly and casually, and seemed to hesitate; and then behind her appeared Lady Linden, flushed, and evidently agitated.
"There," she said, "there, my dears—I have brought you together again, and now everything must be made quite all right! Joan, darling, here is your husband! Go to him, forgive him if there is aught to forgive. Ask forgiveness, child, in your turn, and then—then kiss and be friends, as husband and wife should be."
She beamed on them both, then swiftly retreated, and the door behind Joan Meredyth quickly closed.
FACE TO FACE
It was, Hugh Alston decided, the most beautiful face he had ever seen in his life and the coldest, or so it seemed to him. She was looking at him with cool questioning in her grey eyes, her lips drawn to a hard line.
He saw her as she stood before him, and as he saw her now, so would he carry the memory of the picture she made in his mind for many a day to come—tall, perhaps a little taller than the average woman, tall by comparison with Marjorie Linden, brown of hair and grey of eye, with a disdainfully enquiring look about her.
He was not a man who usually noticed a woman's clothes, yet the picture impressed on his mind of this girl was a very complete one. She was wearing a dress that instinct told him was of some cheap material. She might have bought it ready-made, she might have made it herself, or some unskilled dressmaker might have turned it out cheaply. Poverty was the note it struck, her boots were small and neat, well-worn. Yes, poverty was the keynote to it all.
It was she, womanlike, who broke the silence.
"Well? I am waiting for some explanation of all the extraordinary things that have been said to me since I have been in this house. You, of course, heard what Lady Linden said as she left us?"
"I heard," he said. His cheeks turned red. Was ever a man in a worse position? The questioning grey eyes stared at him so coldly that he lost his head. He wanted to apologise, to explain, yet he knew that he could not explain. It was Marjorie who had brought him into this, but he must respect the girl's secret, on which so much depended for her.
"Please answer me," Joan Meredyth said. "You heard Lady Linden advise us, you and myself, to make up a quarrel that has never taken place; you heard her—" She paused, a great flush suddenly stole over her face, adding enormously to her attractiveness, but quickly as it came, it went.
What could he say? Vainly he racked his brains. He must say something, or the girl would believe him to be fool as well as knave. Ideas, excuses, lies entered his mind, he put them aside instantly, as being unworthy of him and of her, yet he must tell her—something.
"When—when I used your name, believe me, I had no idea that it was the property of a living woman—"
"When you used my name? I don't understand you!"
"I claimed that I was married to a Miss Joan Meredyth—"
"I still don't understand you. You say you claimed that you were married—are you married to anyone?"
"Then—then—" Again the glorious flush came into her cheeks, but was gone again, leaving her whiter, colder than before, only her eyes seemed to burn with the fire of anger and contempt.
"I am beginning to understand, for some reason of your own, you used my name, you informed Lady Linden that you—and I were—married?"
"Yes," he said.
"And it was, of course, a vile lie, an insolent lie!" Her voice quivered. "It has subjected me to humiliation and annoyance. I do not think that a girl has ever been placed in such a false position as I have been through your—cowardly lie."
He had probably never known actual fear in his life, nor a sense of shame such as he knew now. He had nothing to say, he wanted to explain, yet could not, for Marjorie's sake. If Lady Linden knew how she had been deceived, she would naturally be furiously angry, and the brunt of her anger would fall on Marjorie, and this must not be.
So, silent, unable to speak a word in self-defence, he stood listening, shame-faced, while the girl spoke. Every word she uttered was cutting and cruel, yet she shewed no temper. He could have borne with that.
"You probably knew of me, and knew that I was alone in the world with no one to champion me. You knew that I was poor, Mr. Alston, and so a fit butt for your cowardly jest. My poverty has brought me into contact with strange people, cads; but the worst, the cruellest, the lowest of all is yourself! I had hoped to have found rest and refuge here for a little time, but you have driven me out. Oh, I did not believe that anything so despicable, so unmanly as you could exist. I do not know why you have done this, perhaps it is your idea of humour."
"Believe me—" he stammered, yet could say no more; and then a sense of anger, of outraged honesty, came to him. Of course he had been foolish, yet he had been misled. To hear this girl speak, one would think that he had deliberately set to work to annoy and insult her, she of whose existence he had not even known.
"My poverty," she said, and flung her head back as she spoke, "has made me the butt, the object for the insolence and insult of men like yourself, men who would not dare insult a girl who had friends to protect her."
"You are ungenerous!" he said hotly.
She seemed to start a little. She looked at him, and her beautiful eyes narrowed. Then, without another word, she turned towards the door.
The scene was over, yet he felt no relief.
She did not hear, or affected not to. She turned the handle of the door, but hesitated for a moment. She looked back at him, contempt in her gaze.
"You are ungenerous," he said again. He had not meant to say it; he had to say something, and it seemed to him that her anger against him was almost unreasonable.
She made no answer; the door closed on her, and he was left to try and collect his thoughts.
And he had not even apologised, he reflected now. She had not given him an opportunity to.
Pacing the room, Hugh decided what he would do. He would give her time to cool down, for her wrath to evaporate, then he would seek her out, and tell her as much as he could—tell her that the secret was not entirely his own. He would appeal to the generosity that he had told her she did not possess.
"Eh?" He started.
"What does this mean? You don't mean to tell me, Hugh, that all my efforts have gone for nothing?"
Lady Linden had sailed into the room; she was angry, she quivered with rage.
"I take an immense amount of trouble to bring two foolish young people together again, and—and this is the result!"
"What's the result?"
"She has gone!"
"Did you know she had gone?"
"No, I knew nothing at all about her."
"Well, she has. She left the house twenty minutes ago. I've sent Chepstow after her in the car; he is to ask her to return."
"I don't suppose she will," Hugh said, remembering the very firm look about Miss Joan Meredyth's mouth.
"And I planned the reconciliation, I made sure that once you came face to face it would be all right. Hugh, there is more behind all this than meets the eye!"
"That's it," he said, "a great deal more! No third person can interfere with any hope of success."
"And you," she said, "can let a girl like that, your own wife, go out of your life and make no effort to detain her!"
"For two pins," said Lady Linden, "I would box your ears, Hugh Alston."
"PERHAPS I SHALL GO BACK"
Perhaps she was over-sensitive and a little unreasonable, but she would not admit it. She had been insulted by a man who had used her name lightly, who had proclaimed that he was her husband, a man who was a complete stranger to her. She had heard of him before from Marjorie Linden, when they were at school together.
Marjorie had spoken of this man in effusive admiration. Joan's lips curled with scorn. She did not question her own anger. She did not ask herself, was it reasonable? Had not the man some right to defend himself, to explain? If he had wanted to explain, he had had ample opportunity, and he had not taken advantage of it. No, it was a joke—a cruel, cowardly joke at her expense.
Poor and alone in the world, with none to defend her, she had been subjected to the odious attentions of Slotman. She was ready to regard all men as creatures of the same type. She had allowed poverty to narrow her views and warp her mind, and now—
"I beg your pardon, ma'am—"
She was walking along the road to the station. She turned, a man had pulled up in a small car; he touched his hat.
"My lady sent me after you, Mrs. Alston."
Joan gripped her hands tightly. She looked with blazing eyes at the man—"Mrs. Alston..." Even the servant!
"My lady begs that you will return with me. She would be very much hurt, ma'am, if you left the house like this, her ladyship begs me to say."
"Who was your message for?"
"For you, ma'am, of course," said the man.
"Ma'am—Mrs. Alston!" So this joke had been passed on even to the servants, and now she was asked to return.
"Go back and tell Lady Linden that I do not understand her message in the least. Kindly say that the person you overtook on the road was Miss Joan Meredyth, who is taking the next train to London." She bent her head, turned her back on him, and made her way on to the station.
Half an hour later she was leaning back wearily on the dusty seat of a third-class railway carriage, on her way back to the London she hated. Now she was going back again, because she had nowhere else to go. As she sat there with closed eyes, and the tears on her cheeks, she counted up her resources. They were so small, so slender, yet she had been so careful. And now this useless journey had eaten deeply into the little store.
She had no more than enough to keep her for another week, one more week, and then.... She shivered at the thought of the destitution that was before her.
Dinner at the boarding-house was over when she returned, but its unsavoury and peculiar smell still pervaded the place.
"Why, Miss Meredyth, I thought you were away for the week-end, at least," Mrs. Wenham said. "I suppose you won't want any dinner?"
"No," Joan said. "I shall not want anything. I—I—" She paused. "I was obliged to come back, after all. Perhaps you could let me have a cup of tea in my room, Mrs. Wenham?"
"Well, it's rather inconvenient with all the washing-up to do, and as you know I make it a rule that boarders have to be in to their meals, or go without—still—"
"Please don't trouble!" Joan said stiffly.
The woman looked up the stairs after the tall, slight figure.
"Very well, then, I won't!" she muttered. "The airs some people give themselves! Anyone would think she was a lady, instead of a clerk or something."
There was a letter addressed to Joan waiting for her in her room. She opened it, and read it.
"I suppose you are in a temper with me, and I don't think you have acted quite fairly. A man can't do more than ask a girl to be his wife. It is not usually considered an insult; however, I say nothing, except just this: You won't find it easy to get other work to do, and if you like to come back here on Monday morning, the same as usual, I think you will be doing the sensible thing.
"Yours, "PHILIP SLOTMAN."
She had never meant to go back. This morning she had thanked Heaven that she had looked her last on Mr. Philip Slotman, and yet a few hours can effect such changes.
The door was open to her; she could go back, and pick up her life again where she had dropped it before her journey to Cornbridge. After all, Slotman was not the only cad in the world. She would find others, it seemed to her, wherever she went.
At any rate, Slotman had opened the door by which she might re-enter. As he said, work would be very, very hard to get, and it was a bitter thing to have to starve.
"Perhaps," she said to herself wearily as she lay down on her bed, "perhaps I shall go back. It does not seem to matter so very much after all what I do—and I thought it did."
"THE ONLY POSSIBLE THING"
For the first time since when, as a small, curly-headed boy, Hugh Alston had looked up at her ladyship with unclouded fearless eyes, that had appealed instantly to her, he and she were bad friends. Hugh had driven back to Hurst Dormer after a brief battle with her ladyship. He had seen Marjorie for a few moments, had soothed her, and told her not to worry, that it was not her fault. He had kissed her in brotherly fashion, and had wondered a little at himself for the slight feeling of impatience against her that came to him. He had never been impatient of her before, but her tears this afternoon unreasonably annoyed him.
"She's a dear, sweet little soul, and over tender-hearted. Of course, she got me into this mess, and of course, bless her heart, she is worrying over it; but it can't be helped. As for that other girl!" His lips tightened. It seemed to him that Miss Joan Meredyth had not shone any more than he had. She had taken the whole thing in bad part.
"No woman," said Hugh to himself, "has any sense of humour!" In which he was wrong, besides which, it had nothing to do with the case.
"I am disappointed in Hugh," Lady Linden said to her niece. "I don't often admit myself wrong; in this matter I do. I regarded Hugh Alston as a man utterly and completely open and above board. I find him nothing of the kind. I am deeply disappointed. I am glad to feel that my plans with regard to Hugh Alston and yourself will come to nothing."
"Hold your tongue! and don't interrupt me when I am speaking. I have been considering the matter of you and Tom Arundel. Of course, your income is a small one, even if I released it, but—"
"Aunt—we—we wouldn't mind, I could manage on so little. I should love to manage for him." The girl clasped her hands, she looked with pleading eyes at the old lady.
"Well, well, we shall see!" her ladyship said indulgently. "I don't say No, and I don't say Yes. You are both young yet. By the way, write a letter to Tom and ask him to dine with us to-morrow."
"Thank you, aunt!" Marjorie flushed to her eyes. "Oh, thank you so much!"
"My good girl, there's nothing to get excited about. I don't suppose that he will eat more than about half a crown's worth."
Meanwhile, Hugh Alston had retired to his house at Hurst Dormer in a none too happy frame of mind. He had rowed with Lady Linden, had practically told her to mind her own business, which was a thing everyone had been wishing she would do for the past ten years, and no one had ever dared tell her to.
Altogether, he felt miserably unhappy, furious with himself and angry with Miss Joan Meredyth. The one and only person he did not blame was the one, only and entirely, to blame—Marjorie!
This Sunday morning Hugh in his study heard the chug-chug of a small and badly driven light car, and looked out of the window to see Marjorie stepping out of the vehicle.
"Hugh," she said a few moments later, "I am so—so worried about you. I hate to think that all this trouble is through me. Aunt thinks I have gone to church, but I haven't. I got out the car, and drove here myself. Hugh, what can I do?"
"There's one thing you can't do, child, and that is drive a car! There are heaps of things you can do. One of them is to go back and be happy, and not worry your little head over anything."
"But I must, it is all because of me; and, Hugh, aunt has asked Tom to dinner to-day."
"I hope he has a good dinner," said Hugh.
"Hugh!" She looked at him. "It is no good trying to make light of it. I know you've been worried. I know you and—and Joan must have had a scene yesterday, or she wouldn't have left the house without even seeing me."
"We had—a few words; I noticed that she did seem a little angry," he said.
"Poor Joan! She was always so terribly proud; it was her poverty that made her proud and sensitive, I think."
He nodded. "I think so, too. Poverty inclines her to take an exaggerated view of everything, Marjorie. She took it badly."
The girl slipped her hand through his arm. "Is—is there anything I can do? It is all my fault, Hugh. Shall I confess to aunt, and then go and see Joan, and—"
"Not on your life, you'll spoil everything. I am out of favour with the old lady; she will take Tom into favour in my place. All will go well with you and Tom, and after all that is what I worked for. With regard to Miss Joan Meredyth—" He paused.
"Yes, Hugh, what about Joan? Oh, Hugh, now you have seen her, don't you think she is wonderful?"
"I thought she had a very unpleasing temper," he said.
"There isn't a sweeter girl in the world," Marjorie said.
"I didn't notice any particular sweetness about her yesterday. She had reason, of course, to feel annoyed, but I think she made the most of it, however—" He paused.
"Yes, Hugh, what shall you do? I know you have something in your mind."
"You are right; I have. I am going to do the only thing that seems to me possible just now."
"And that is?"
"Seek out Miss Joan Meredyth, and ask her to become my wife in reality."
MR. SLOTMAN ARRIVES AT A MISUNDERSTANDING
At half-past nine on the Monday morning Miss Joan Meredyth walked into Mr. Slotman's office, and Mr. Slotman, seeing her, turned his head aside to hide the smirk of satisfaction.
"Women," he said to himself, "are all alike. They give themselves confounded airs and graces, but when it comes to the point, they aren't born fools. She knows jolly well she wouldn't get another job in a hurry, and here she is."
But Mr. Slotman made up his mind to go cautiously and carefully. He would not let Miss Meredyth witness his sense of satisfaction.
"I am glad you have returned, Miss Meredyth. I felt sure that you would; there's no reason whatever we shouldn't get on perfectly well."
The girl gave him a stiff little inclination of her head. She had done much personal violence to her sense of pride, yet she had come back because the alternative—worklessness, possible starvation and homelessness—had not appealed to her. And, after all, knowing Mr. Slotman to be what he was, she was forewarned and forearmed.
So Joan came back and took up her old work, and Mr. Slotman practised temporarily a courtesy and a forbearance that were foreign to him. But Mr. Slotman had by no means given up his hopes and desires. Joan appealed to him as no woman ever had. He admired her statuesque beauty. He admired her air of breeding; he admired the very pride that she had attempted to crush him with.
A woman like that could go anywhere, Slotman thought, and pictured it to himself, he following in her trail, and finding an entry into a society that would have otherwise resolutely shut him out. For like most men of his type, self made, egregious, and generally offensive, he had an inborn desire to get into Society and mingle with his betters.
On the Monday morning there had been delivered to Hugh Alston by hand a little note from Marjorie; it was on pink paper, and was scented delicately. If he had not been so very much in love with Marjorie, the pink notepaper might have annoyed him, but it did not. The faint fragrance reminded him of her.
She wrote a neat and exquisite hand; everything that she did was neat and exquisite, and remembering his hopes of not so long ago, he groaned a little dismally to himself as he reverently cut the envelope.
"MY DEAR HUGH,
"I have managed to get the address from aunt. It is 'Miss Joan Meredyth, care Mrs. Wenham, No. 7, Bemrose Square, London, W.C.' I have been thinking so much about what you said, and hoping that your plan may succeed. I am sure that you would be very, very happy together...."
(Hugh laughed unmusically.)
"Tom has been here all the afternoon and evening, and aunt has been perfectly charming to him. Hugh, I know that everything is going to be right now, and I owe it all to you. You don't know how grateful I am, dear. I shall never, never forget your goodness and sweetness to me, dear old Hugh.
"Your loving "MARJORIE."
With something approaching reverent care, Hugh put the little pink-scented note into his pocket-book.
To-night he would go to Town, to-morrow he would interview Miss Joan Meredyth. He would offer her no explanations, because the secret was not his own, and nothing must happen now that might upset or tell against Marjorie's happiness.
He would express regret for what had happened, ask her to try and realise that no indignity and no insult had ever been intended against her, and then he would offer her his hand, but certainly not his heart. If she felt the sting of her poverty so, then perhaps the thought of his eight thousand a year would act as balm to her wounded feelings.
At this time Hugh Alston had a very poor opinion of Miss Meredyth. He did not deny her loveliness. He could not; no man in his senses and gifted with eyesight could. But the placid prettiness of Marjorie appealed to him far more than the cold, disdainful beauty of the young woman he had called ungenerous, and who had in her turn called him a cad.
It was Mrs. Wenham herself who opened the hall door of the house in Bemrose Square to Mr. Hugh Alston at noon on the day following.
Though certainly not dressed in the height of fashion, and by no means an exquisite, Mr. Hugh Alston had that about him that suggested birth and large possessions. Mrs. Wenham beamed on him, cheating herself for a moment into the belief that he had come to add one more to the select circle of persons she alluded to as her "paying guests."
Her face fell a little when he asked for Miss Meredyth.
"Oh, Miss Meredyth has gone to work," she said.
"Yes, she's a clerk or something in the City. The office is that of Philip Slotman and Company, Number sixteen, Gracebury."
"You think that I could see her there?" asked Hugh, who had little knowledge of City offices and their routine and rules, so far as hirelings are concerned.
"I suppose you could; you are a friend of hers?"
"Well, I don't know that it is usual for visitors to call on lady clerks. If I might make a suggestion I'd say send in your card to Mr. Slotman, and ask his permission to see Miss Meredyth."
"Thanks!" Hugh said. "If that's the right thing to do, I'll do it."
Half an hour later Mr. Slotman was examining Hugh's card.
"Who is he?"
"A tall, well-dressed gentleman, sir; young. Looks as if he's up from the country, but he's a gentleman all right," the clerk said.
"Very good, I'll see him."
Slotman rose as Hugh came in. He recognised the man of position and possessions, a man of the class that Slotman always cultivated.
"I wish to ask your permission to interview Miss Meredyth. I understand that, in business hours, the permission of the employer should be asked first."
"Delighted!" Slotman said. "You are a friend of Miss Meredyth's?" He looked keenly at Hugh, and the first spark of jealousy was ignited in his system.
"Hardly that, an acquaintance only," said Hugh.
Slotman felt relieved.
"Miss Meredyth is in the outer general office. You could hardly talk to her there. If you will sit down, I will go out and send her to you, Mr.—Alston." He glanced at the card.
"Thanks, perhaps you would be so kind as not to mention my name to her," said Hugh.
"Something up!" Slotman thought. He was an eminently suspicious man; he suspected everyone, and more particularly all those who were in his pay. He suspected his clerks of wasting their time—his time, the time he paid for. He suspected them of filching the petty cash, stealing the postage stamps, cheating him and getting the better of him in some way, and in order to keep a watch on them he had riddled his suite of offices with peepholes, listening holes, and spyholes in every unlikely corner.
A small waiting office divided his private apartment from the General Office, and peepholes cunningly contrived permitted anyone to hear and see all that passed in the General Office, and in his own office too.
He found a young clerk in the waiting office, and sent him to Miss Meredyth.
"Ask Miss Meredyth to go to my office at once, not through this way, and then you remain in the General Office till I send for you," said Slotman.
This gave him the advantage he wanted. He locked both doors leading into the waiting office, and took up his position at the spyhole that gave him command of his own office.
He could see his visitor plainly. Hugh Alston was pacing the room slowly, his hands behind his back, his face wearing a look of worry. Slotman saw him pause and turn expectantly to the door at the far end of the room.
Slotman could not see this door, but he heard it open, and he knew by the look on the man's face that Joan had come in.
"Why are you here? How dare you follow me here?"
"I have dared to follow you here, to express my deep regret for what is past," Hugh said. He looked at the girl, her white face, the hard line made by a mouth that should be sweet and gentle.
It seemed, he thought, that the very sight of him roused all that was cold and bitter in her nature.
"Am I to be tormented and insulted by you all my life?" she asked.
"You are unreasonable! You cannot think that this visit is one that gives me any pleasure," Hugh said.
"Then why do you come?"
"I asked permission of your employer to see you, and he kindly placed his office at our disposal. I shall not keep you long."
"I do not intend that you shall, and in future—"
"Will you hear what I have to say? Surely I am not asking too much?"
"Is it necessary?"
"To me, very! I wish to make a few things plain to you. In the past—I had no intention of hurting or of disgracing you—"
Slotman started, and clenched his hands. What did that man mean? He wondered, what could such words as those mean?
"But as I have shamed and angered you, I have come to offer the only reparation in my power—a poor one, I will admit."
He looked at her, paused for a moment to give her an opportunity of speaking, but she did not speak. She looked at him steadily.
"May I briefly explain my position? I am practically alone in the world. My home is at Hurst Dormer, one of the finest old buildings in Sussex. I have an income of eight thousand a year."
"What has this to do with me?"
"Only that I am offering it to you, myself and all I possess. I am asking you to do me the honour of marrying me. It seems to me that it is the one and the only atonement that I can make for what has passed."
"You are—very generous! And—and you think that I would accept?"
"I hoped that you might consider the offer."
Slotman gripped at the edge of the table against which he leaned.
He could scarcely believe his own ears—Joan, who had held her head so high, whom he had believed to be above the breath of suspicion!
If it were possible for such a man as Mr. Philip Slotman to be shocked, then Slotman was deeply shocked at this moment. He had come to regard Joan as something infinitely superior to himself. Self-indulgent, a libertine, he had pursued her with his attentions, pestered her with his admiration and his offensive compliments. Then it had slowly dawned on the brain of Mr. Philip Slotman that this girl was something better, higher, purer than most women he had known. He had come to realise it little by little. His feelings towards her had undergone a change. The idea of marriage had come to him, a thing he had never considered seriously before. Little by little it grew on him that he would prefer to have Joan Meredyth for a wife rather than in any other capacity. He could have been so proud of her beauty, her birth and her breeding.
And now everything had undergone a change. The bottom had fallen out of his little world of romance. He stood there, gasping and clutching at the edge of the table, while he listened to the man in the adjoining room offering marriage to Joan Meredyth "as the only possible atonement" he could make her!
Naturally, Mr. Philip Slotman could not understand in the least why or wherefore; it was beyond his comprehension.
And now he stood listening eagerly, holding his breath waiting for her answer.
Would she take him, this evidently rich man? If so, then good-bye to all his hopes, all his chances.
Within the room the two faced one another in momentary silence. A flush had come into the girl's cheeks, making her adorable. For an instant the coldness and hardness and bitterness were all gone, and Hugh Alston had a momentary glimpse of the real woman, the woman who was neither hard, nor cold, but was womanly and sweet and tender.
And then she was her old self again, the bitterness and the anger had come back.
"I thank you for making everything so clear to me, your wealth and position and your desire to make—to make amends for the insult and the shame you have put on me. I need hardly say of course that I refuse!"
"Did you ever expect me to accept? I think you did not!"
She gave him a slight inclination of the head and, turning, went out of the room, and Hugh Alston stood staring at the door that had closed on her.
THE DREAM GIRL
"She is utterly without generosity; she is cold and hard and bitter, and she has made a mountain out of a molehill, built up a great grievance on what was, after all, only a foolish and ill-considered statement. She is pleased to feel herself deeply insulted, and she hates me for what I did in perfect innocence. I have done all that I can do. I have offered to make amends in the only way I can think of, and she refuses to accept either that or my apologies. Very well, then... But what a lovely face it is, and for just that moment, when the hardness and bitterness were gone..." He paused; his own face softened. One could not be angry for long with a vision like that, which was passing before his mind, conjured up by memory.
Just for that instant, when the flush had come into her cheeks, she had looked all those things that she was not—sweet, womanly, tender, and gentle, a woman with an immense capacity for love.
"Bah!" said Hugh. "I'm an idiot. I shall go to a theatre to-night, forget all about her, and go home to-morrow—home." He sighed a little drearily. For months past he had pictured pretty Marjorie Linden as queen of that home, and now he knew that it would never be. His house would remain lonely and empty, as must his life be.
He sighed sentimentally, and took out Marjorie's little pink note from his pocket-book. He noticed for the first time that it was somewhat over-scented. He realised that he did not like the smell of scent, especially on notepaper, and pink was not his favourite colour. In fact, he disliked pink. Marjorie was happy, Lady Linden was beaming on Tom Arundel, the cloud had lifted from Marjorie's life. Hugh tore up the pink, smelly little missive, and dropped the fragments into the grate of the hotel bedroom.
"That's that!" he said. "And it's ended and done with!"
He was amazed to find himself not broken-hearted and utterly cast down. He lighted his pipe and puffed hard, to destroy the lingering smell of the pink notepaper. Then he laughed gently.
"By every right I should now be on my way to the bar to drown dull care in drink. She's a dear little soul, the sweetest and dearest and best in the world. I hope Tom Arundel will appreciate her and make the little thing happy. I would have done my best, but somehow I feel that Tom is the better man, so far as Marjorie is concerned."
Grey eyes, not disdainful and cold and scornful, but soft, and filled with kindliness and gentleness, banished all memory of Marjorie's pretty pathetic blue eyes. Why, Hugh thought, had that girl looked at him like that for just one moment? Why had she appeared for that instant so different? It was as if a cold and bitter mask had fallen from her face, and he had had a peep at the true—the real woman, the woman all love and tenderness and gentleness, behind it.
"Anyhow, it doesn't matter," said Hugh. "I've done what I believed to be the right thing. She turned me down; the affair is now closed, and we'll think of something else."
But it was not easy. At his dinner, which he took in solitary state, he had a companion, a girl with grey eyes and flushed cheeks who sat opposite to him at the table. She said nothing, but she looked at him, and the beauty of her intoxicated him, and the smile of her found an answer on his own lips. She ate nothing, nor did the waiter see her; so far as the waiter was concerned, there was an empty chair, but Hugh Alston saw her.
"Why," he asked, "why can you look like that, and yet be so different? That look in your eyes makes you the most beautiful and wonderful thing in this world, and yet..."
He laughed softly to himself. He was uttering his thoughts aloud, and the unromantic waiter stared at him.
"Beg your pardon, sir?" he asked.
"That's all right!" Hugh said. "What won the three-thirty?"
"I don't think there was any racing to-day, sir," the man said.
He went away, not completely satisfied as to this visitor's sanity, and Hugh drifted back into dreams and memories.
"You are very wonderful," he said to himself, "yet you made me very angry; you hurt me and made me furious. I called you ungenerous, and I meant it, and so you were. Yet when you look at me with your eyes like that and the colour in your cheeks, I can't find one word to say against you."
He went to the theatre that night. It was a successful play. All London was talking of it, but Hugh Alston never remembered what it was about. He was thinking of a girl with cold disdainful looks that changed suddenly to softness and tenderness. She sat beside him as she had sat opposite to him at dinner. On the stage the actors talked meaningless stuff; nothing was real, save this girl beside him.
"What's the matter with you, my good fellow, is," Hugh said to himself, as he walked back to the hotel that night, "you're a fickle man; you don't know your own mind. A week ago you were dreaming of Marjorie; you considered blue eyes the most beautiful thing in the world. You would not have listened to the claims of eyes of any other colour, and now—Bless her dear little heart, she'll be happy as the day is long with Tom Arundel, with his nice fair hair parted down the middle, and her pretty scented notepaper. Of course she'll be happy. She would have been miserable at Hurst Dormer, and so should I have been; seeing her miserable, I should have been miserable myself. But I shall go back to Hurst Dormer to-morrow and start on that renovation work. It will give me something to occupy my time and attention."
That night, much to his surprise, Hugh found he could not sleep.
"It's the strange bed," he said. "It's the noise of the London streets." Sleeplessness had never troubled him before, but to-night he rolled and tossed from side to side, and then at last he sat bolt upright in the bed.
"Good Lord!" he said. "Good Lord, it can't be!" He stared into the thick darkness and saw an oval face, crowned by waving brown hair, that glinted gold in the highlights. He saw a sweet, womanly, tender, smiling mouth and a pair of grey eyes that seemed to burn into his own.
"It can't be!" he said again. And yet it was!
"Bless my soul!" said General Bartholomew. He had turned to the last page and looked at the signature. "Alicia Linden! I haven't heard a word of her for five and twenty years. A confoundedly handsome girl she was too. Hudson, where's my glasses?"
"Here, General," said the young secretary.
The General put them on.
"My dear George," he read.
It was a long letter, four pages closely written in Lady Linden's strong, almost masculine hand.
"...I remember that when she visited me years ago, she told that me you were an old friend of her father's. This being so, I think you should combine with me in trying to bring these two wrong-headed young people together. I have quarrelled with Hugh Alston, so I can do nothing at the moment; but you, being on the spot so to speak, in London, and Hugh I understand also being in London..."
"What the dickens is the woman drivelling about?" the General demanded. "Hudson!"
"Read this letter carefully, digest it, and then briefly explain to me what the dickens it is all about."
The secretary took the letter and read it carefully.
"This letter is from Lady Linden, of Cornbridge Manor House, Cornbridge. She is deeply interested in a young lady, Miss Joan Meredyth. At least—" Hudson paused.
"Joan, pretty little Joan Meredyth—old Tom Meredyth's girl. Yes, go on!"
"Three years ago," Hudson went on, "Miss Meredyth was married in secret to a Mr. Hugh Alston—"
"Hugh Alston, of course—bless me, I know of Hugh Alston! Isn't he the son of old George Alston, of Hurst Dormer?"
"Yes, that would be the man, sir. Her ladyship speaks of Mr. Alston's house, Hurst Dormer."
"That's the man then, that's the man!" said the General, delighted by his own shrewdness. "So little Joan married him. Well, what about it?"
"They parted, sir, almost at once, having quarrelled bitterly. Lady Linden does not say what about, and they have never been together since. A little while ago she received a letter from Miss Meredyth, as she still continues to call herself, asking her assistance in finding work for her to do. And that reminds me, General, that a similar letter was addressed to you by Miss Meredyth, which I sent on to you at Harrogate."
"Must have got there after I left. I never had it—go on!"
"Lady Linden urges you to do something for the young lady, and do all in your power to bring her and Mr. Alston together. She says if you could effect a surprise meeting between them, good may come of it. She is under the impression that they will not meet intentionally. Miss Meredyth's address is, 7 Bemrose Square, and Mr. Alston is staying at The Northborough Hotel, St. James. Of course, there is a good deal besides in the letter, General—"
"Of course!" the General said. "There always is. Well, Hudson, we must do something. I knew the girl's father, and the boy's too. Tom Meredyth was a fine fellow, reckless and a spendthrift, by George! but as straight a man and as true a gentleman as ever walked. And old George Alston was one of my best friends, Hudson. We must do something for these two young idiots."
"Very good, sir!" said Hudson. "How shall we proceed?"
The General did not answer; he sat deep in thought.
"Hudson, I am getting to be a forgetful old fool," he said. "I'm getting old, that's what it is. Before I went to Harrogate I was with Rankin, my solicitor. He was talking to me about the Meredyths. I forget exactly what it was, but there's some money coming to the girl from Bob Meredyth, who went out to Australia. No, I forget, but some money I know, and now the girl apparently wants it, if she is asking for influence to get work. Go and ring Rankin up on the telephone. Don't tell him we know where Joan Meredyth is, but give him my compliments, and ask him to repeat what he told me the other day."
Hudson went out. He was gone ten minutes, while the General dozed in a chair. He was thinking of the past, of those good old days when he and Tom Meredyth, the girl's father, and George Alston, the lad's father, were all young fellows together. Ah, good old days, fine old days! When the young blood coursed strong and hot in the veins, when there was no need of Harrogate waters, when the limbs were supple and strong, and the eyes bright and clear. "And they are gone," the old man muttered—"both of them, and a lot of other good fellows besides; and I am an old, old man, begad, an old fellow sitting here waiting for my call to come and—" He paused, and looked up.
"I have been speaking to Mr. Rankin, sir. He wished me to tell you—" Hudson paused; his face was a little flushed, as with some inward excitement.
"Before his death, which occurred six months ago, Mr. Robert Meredyth, who had made a great deal of money in Australia, re-purchased the old Meredyth family estate at Starden in Kent, Starden Hall, meaning to return to England, and take up his residence there. Unfortunately, he died on board ship. His wife was dead, his only son was killed in the war, and he had left the whole of his fortune, about three hundred thousand pounds, and the Starden Hall Estate, to his niece, Miss Joan Meredyth."
"By George! so the girl's an heiress!"
"And a very considerable one!"
"We won't say a word about it—not a word, Hudson. We'll get the girl here, and patch up this quarrel between her and her young husband. When that's done we'll spring the news on 'em, eh?"
"I think it would be a good idea, General," Hudson said.
"IN SPITE OF EVERYTHING"
Slotman leaned across his table. His eyes were glaring his face was flushed a dusky red.
Against the wall, her face white as death, but her eyes unafraid, the girl stood staring at him, in silent amazement.
"And you—you've given yourself airs, set yourself up to be all that you are not! You've held me at arm's length, and all the time—all the time you're nothing—nothing!" the man shouted. "I know all about you! I know that a man offered you marriage to atone for the past—to atone—you hear me? I tell you I know about you, and yet you dare—dare to give yourself airs—dare to pretend to be a monument of innocence—you!"
"You are mad!" the girl said quietly.
"Yes, that's it—mad—mad for you! Mad with love for you!" Slotman laughed sharply. "I'm a fool—a blind, mad fool; but you've got me as no other woman ever did. I tell you I know about you and the past, but it shall make no difference. I repeat my offer now—I'll marry you, in spite of everything!"
It seemed to Joan that a kind of madness came to her, born of her fear and her horror of this man.
She forced her way past him, and gained the door, how she scarcely remembered. She could only recall a great and burning sense of rage and shame. She remembered seeing, as in some distant vision, a man with scared eyes and sagging jaw—a man who, an utter coward by nature, had given way at her approach, whose passion had melted into fear—fear followed later by senseless rage against himself and against her.
So she had made her retreat from the office of Mr. Philip Slotman, and had shaken the dust of the place off her feet.
It was all very well to bear up and show a brave and determined face to the enemy, to give no sign of weakness when the danger threatened. But now, alone in her own room in the lodging-house, she broke down, as any sensitive, highly strung woman might.
Joan looked at her face in the glass. She looked at it critically. Was it the face, she asked herself, of a girl who invited insult? For insult on insult had been heaped on her. She had been made the butt of one man's senseless joke or lie, whatever it might be; the butt of another man's infamous passion.
"Oh!" she said, "Oh!" She clasped her cheeks between her hands, and stared at her reflection with wide grey eyes. "I hate myself! I hate this face of mine that invites such—such—" She shuddered, and moaned softly to herself.
Beauty, why should women want it, unless they are rich and well placed, carefully protected? Beauty to a poor girl is added danger. She would be a thousand, a million times better and happier without it.
She grew calmer presently. She must think. To-morrow the money for her board here would be due, and she had not enough to pay. She would not ask Slotman for the wages for this week, never would she ask anything of that man, never see him again.
Then what lay before her? She sat down and put her elbows on the dressing table with its dingy cheap lace cover, and in doing so her eyes fell on a letter, a letter that had been placed here for her.
It was from General Bartholomew, an answer to the appeal she had written him at the same time that she had written to Lady Linden. It came now, kindly, friendly and even affectionate, at the very eleventh hour.
"I was away, my dear child, when your letter came. It was forwarded to Harrogate to me. Now I am back in London again. Your father was my very dear friend; his daughter has a strong claim on me, so pack your things, my dear, and come to me at once. I am an old fellow, old enough to have been your father's father, and the little note that I enclose must be accepted, as it is offered, in the same spirit of affection. It will perhaps settle your immediate necessities. To-morrow morning I shall send for you, so have all your things ready, and believe me.
"Yours affectionately, "GEORGE BARTHOLOMEW."
She cried over the letter, the proud head drooped over it; bright tears streamed from the grey eyes.
Could Hugh Alston have seen her now, her face softened by the gladness and the gratitude that had come to her, he would have seen in her the woman of his dreams.
The banknote would clear everything. She did not scruple to accept it in the spirit of affection in which it was offered. It would have been churlish and false pride to refuse.
He had said that he would send for her when the morning came; he had taken it for granted that she would go, and there was no need to answer the letter. And when the morning came she was ready and waiting, her things packed, her last bill to Mrs. Wenham paid.
The maid came tapping on the door.
"Someone waiting for you, miss, in the drawing-room."
Joan went down. It would be the old fellow, the warm-hearted old man himself come to fetch her! She entered the big ugly room, with its dingy wall-paper and threadbare carpet, its oleographs in tarnished frames, its ancient centre ottoman, its elderly piano and unsafe, uncertain chairs. How she hated this room, where of evenings the 'paying guests' distorted themselves.
But she came into it now eagerly, with bright eyes and flushed cheeks, and hand held out, only to draw back with sudden chill.
It was Mr. Philip Slotman who rose from the ottoman.
"Joan, I've come to tell you I am sorry, sorry and ashamed," he said. "I was mad. I want you to forgive me."
"There need be no talk of forgiveness," she said. "You are the type of man one can perhaps forget—never forgive!"
He winced a little, and his face changed to a dusky red.
"I said more than I meant to say. But what I said, after all, was right enough. I know more about you than I think you guess. I know about that fellow, that—what's his name?—Alston—who came. I know why he came."
"You are a friend of his, perhaps? I am not surprised."
"I never saw him before in my life, but I know all about him—and you—all the same. He was willing to act fairly to you after all, and—"
"What is this to do with you?" she asked.
"A lot!" he said thickly. "A lot! Look here!" He took another step towards her. "Last night I behaved like a mad fool. I—I said more than I meant to say. I—I saw you, and I thought of that fellow—and—and you, and it drove me mad!"
"Why?" She was looking at him with calm eyes of contempt, the same look that she had given to Hugh Alston at their last meeting.
"Why—why?" he said. "Why?" He clenched his hands. "You know why, you know I love you! I want you! I'll marry you! I'll dig a hole and bury the past in it—curse the past! I'll say nothing more, Joan. I swear before Heaven I'll never try and dig up the past again. I forgive everything!"
"You—you forgive everything?" Her eyes blazed. "What have you to forgive? What right have you to tell me that you forgive—me?"
"I can't let you go, I can't! Joan, I tell you I'll never throw the past in your face. I'll forget Alston and—"
The door behind the girl opened, the maid appeared.
"Miss," she said, "there's a car waiting down below. The man says he is from General Bartholomew, and he has come for you."
"Thank you. I am coming now. My luggage is ready, Annie. Can you get someone to carry it down?"
Joan moved to the door. She looked back at Slotman. "I hope," she said quietly, "that we shall never meet again, Mr. Slotman, and I wish you good morning!" And then she was gone.
Slotman walked to the window. He looked down and saw a car, by no means a cheap car, and he knew the value of things, none better. He waited, unauthorised visitor as he now was, and saw the girl come out, saw the liveried chauffeur touch his cap to her and hold the door for her, saw her enter. Presently he saw luggage brought down and placed on the roof of the limousine, and then the car drove away.
Slotman rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, I'll be hanged! And who the dickens is General Bartholomew? And why should she go to him, luggage and all? Is it anything to do with that fellow Alston? Has she accepted his offer after all?" He shook his head. "No, I don't think so."
The General put his two hands on Joan's shoulders. He looked at her, and then he kissed her.
"You are very welcome, my dear," he said. "I blame myself, I do indeed. I ought to have found out where you were long ago. Your father was one of my dearest friends, God rest his soul. I knew him well, and his dear little wife too—your mother, my child, one of the loveliest women I ever saw. And you are like her, as like her as a daughter can be like her mother. Bless my heart, it takes me back when I see you, takes me back to the day when Tom married her, the loveliest girl—but I am forgetting, I am forgetting. You've brought your things?" he asked. "Hudson, where's Hudson? Ring for Mrs. Weston, that's my housekeeper, child. She'll look after you. And now you are here, you will stay here with us for a long time, a very long time. It can't be too long, my dear. I am a lonely old man, but we'll do our best to make you happy."
"I think," Joan said softly, "that you have done that already! Your welcome and your kindness, have made me happier than I have been for a very, very long time."
THE GENERAL CALLS ON HUGH
Hugh Alston lingered in London, why, he would not admit, even to himself. In reality he had lingered on in the hope of seeing Joan Meredyth again. How he should see her, where and when, he had not the faintest idea; but he wanted to see her even more than he wanted to see Hurst Dormer.
He had thought of going to the city and calling on Mr. Philip Slotman again. But he had not liked Mr. Slotman.
"If I see her, she will only suggest that I am annoying and insulting her," Hugh thought. "I suppose I thought that I was doing a very fine and very clever thing in asking her to be my wife!" His face burned at the thought. He had meant it well; but, looking back, it struck him that he had acted like a conceited fool. He had thought to make all right, by bestowing all his possessions and his person on her, and she had put him in his place, had declined even without thanks.
"And serve me jolly well right!" Hugh said. "Who?" he added aloud.
"Gentleman, sir—General Bartholomew," said the hotel page.
"And who on earth is he?"
"Short, stout gentleman, sir, white whiskers."
"That's quite satisfactory then; I'll see him," said Hugh.
He found the General in the lounge.
"You're Hugh Alston," said the General. "I'd know you anywhere. You are your father over again. I hope that you are as good a man."
"I wish I could think so," Hugh said, "but I can't!" He shook hands with the General. He had a dim recollection of the old fellow, as one of his father's friends, who in the old days, when he was a child, had come down to Hurst Dormer; but the recollection was dim.
"How did you find me out here, sir?"
"Ah, ha! That's it—just a piece of luck! The name struck me—Alston—I thought of George Alston. I said to myself, 'Can this be his boy?' And you are, eh? George Alston, of Hurst Dormer."
The General rambled on, but he forgot to explain to Hugh how it was that he had found him out at the Northborough Hotel, and presently Hugh forgot to enquire, which was what the General wanted.
"You'll dine with me to-night, eh? I won't take no—understand. I want to talk over old times!"
"I thought of returning to Sussex to-night," said Hugh.
"Not to be thought of! I can't let you go! I shall expect you at seven."
The old fellow seemed to be so genuinely anxious, so kindly, so friendly, that Hugh had not the heart to refuse him.
"Very well, sir; it is good of you. I'll come, I'll put off going till to-morrow. I remember you well now, you used to come for the shooting when I was a nipper."
Not till after the old fellow had gone did Hugh wonder how he had unearthed him here in the Northborough Hotel. He had meant to ask him—he had asked him actually, and the General had not explained. But it did not matter, after all. Some coincidence, some easily understandable explanation, of course, would account for it.
"And to-morrow I shall go back," Hugh thought, as he drove to the General's house in a taxicab. "I shall go back to Hurst Dormer, I shall get busy doing something and forget everything that I don't want to remember."
But his thoughts were with the girl he had seen last in Mr. Slotman's office. And he saw her in memory as he had seen her for one brief instant of time—softened and sweetened by some thought, some influence that had come to her for a moment. What influence, what thought, he could not tell; yet, as she had been then, so he saw her always and remembered her.
A respectful manservant took Hugh's coat and hat; he led the way, and flung a door wide.
"General Bartholomew will be with you in a few moments, sir," he said; and Hugh found himself in a large, old-fashioned London drawing-room.
"To-morrow," Hugh was thinking, "Hurst Dormer—work, something to occupy my thoughts till I can forget. It is going to take a lot of forgetting, I suppose I shall feel more or less a cad all my life, though Heaven knows—"
He swung round suddenly. The door had opened; he heard the swish of skirts, and knew it could not be General Bartholomew.
But who it would be he could not have guessed to save his life. They met again for the third time in their lives. At sight of him the girl had started and flushed, had instinctively drawn back. Now she stood still, regarding him with a steadfast stare, the colour slowly fading from her cheeks.
And Hugh stood silent, dumbfounded, astonishment clearly shown on his face.
"I TAKE NOT ONE WORD BACK"
"I will do you the justice, Mr. Alston, to believe that you did not anticipate this meeting?"
"You will only be doing me justice if you do not believe it," Hugh said.
The girl bent her proud head. "I did not know that you were a friend of General Bartholomew's?"
"Nor I till to-day, Miss Meredyth."
"I don't understand."
Hugh explained that he had not seen the General since he was a child, till the General had unearthed him at the Northborough Hotel that afternoon.
Joan frowned. Why had the General done that? Why had he, not three minutes ago, patted her on the shoulder, smiled on her, and told her to run down and wait for him in the drawing-room? Suddenly her face burned with a glowing colour. It seemed as if all the world were in league together against her. But this time this man was surely innocent. She had seen the look of astonishment on his face, and knew it for no acting.
"I came here yesterday," she said quietly, "in response to a warm invitation from the General, who was my father's friend."
"My father's too!"
"I—I wanted a home, a friend, and I accepted his invitation eagerly, but since you have come—"
"My presence makes this house impossible for you, of course," Hugh said, and his voice was bitter. "Listen to me, I may never have an opportunity of speaking to you again, Joan." He used her Christian name, scarcely realising that he did so.
"You feel bitterly towards me, and with reason. You have made up your mind that I have deliberately annoyed and insulted you. If you ask me to explain what I did and why I did it, I cannot do so. I have a reason. One day, if I am permitted, I shall be glad to tell you everything. I came here to London like a fool, a senseless, egotistical fool, thinking I should be doing a fine thing, and could put everything right by asking you to become my wife in reality. I can see now what sort of a figure I made of myself, and how I must have appeared to you when I was bragging of my possessions. I suppose I lack a sense of humour, Joan, or there's something wrong with me somewhere. Believe me, senseless and crude as it all was, my intentions were good. I only succeeded in sinking a little lower, if possible, in your estimation, and now I wish to ask your pardon for it."
"I am glad," she said quietly, "that you understand now—"
"I do, and I have felt shame for it. I shall feel better now that I have asked you to forgive. Joan," he went on passionately, "listen! A fool is always hard to separate from his folly. But listen! That day when I saw you in the City, when I made my egregious proposal to you—just for a moment you were touched, something appealed to you. I do not know what it was—my folly, my immense conceit—for which perhaps you pitied me. But it was something, for that one moment I saw you change. The hard look went from your face, a colour came into your cheeks, your eyes grew soft and tender—just for one moment—"
"What does all this—"
"Listen, listen! Let me speak! It may be my last chance. I tell you I saw you as I know you must be—the real woman, not the hard, the condemning judge that you have been to me. And as I saw you for that one moment, I have remembered you and pictured you in my thoughts; and seeing you in memory I have grown to love that woman I saw, to love her with all my heart and soul."
Love! It dawned on her, this man, who had made a sport of her name, was offering her love now! Love! she sickened at the very thought of it—the word had been profaned by Philip Slotman's lips.
"I believe," she thought, "I believe that there is no such thing as love—as holy love, as true, good, sweet love! It is all selfish passion and ugliness!"
"Just now, Mr. Alston"—her voice was cold and scornful, and it chilled him, as one is chilled by a drenching with cold water—"just now you said perhaps you lacked humour. I do not think it is that, I think you have a sense of humour somewhat perverted. Of course, you are only carrying this—this joke one step further—"
"And as you drove me from Cornbridge Manor, I suppose you will now drive me from this house. Am I to find peace and refuge nowhere, nowhere?"
"If—if you could be generous!" he cried.
She flushed with anger. "You have called me ungenerous before! Am I always to be called ungenerous by you?"
"Forgive me!" His eyes were filled with pleading. He did not know himself, did not recognise the old, happy-go-lucky Hugh Alston, who had accepted many a hard knock from Fate with a smile and a jest.
"And so I am to be driven from this home, this refuge—by you?" she said bitterly. "Oh, have you no sense of manhood in you?"
"I think I have. You shall not be driven away. I, of course, am the one to go. Through me you left Cornbridge, you shall not have to leave this house. I promise you, swear to you, that I shall not darken these doors again. Is that enough? Does that content you?"
"Then I shall have at least something at last to thank you for," she said coldly. And yet, though she spoke coldly, she looked at him and saw something in his face that made her lip tremble. Yet in no other way did she betray her feelings, and he, like the man he was, was of course blind.
It was strange how long they had been left alone, uninterrupted. The strangeness of it did not occur to him, yet it did to her. She turned to the door.
"Joan, wait," he pleaded—"wait! One last word! One day I shall hope to explain to you, then perhaps you will find it in your heart to forgive. For the blunder that I made in Slotman's office, for the further insult, if you look on it as such, I ask you to forgive me now. It was the act of a senseless fool, a mad fool, who had done wrong and tried to do right, and through his folly made matters worse. To-night perhaps I have sinned more than ever before in telling you that I love you. But if that is a sin and past all forgiveness, I glory in it. I take not one word of it back. I shall trouble you no more, and so"—he paused—"so I say good-bye."
"Good-bye!" He held out his hand to her, but she looked him full in the face.
"Good-bye!" she said, and then turned quickly, and in a moment the door was closed between them.
He did not see her hurry away, her hands pressed against her breast. He did not see the face, all womanly and sweet, and soft and tender now. He had only the memory of her brief farewell, the memory of her cold, steady eyes—nothing else beside.
THE GENERAL CONFESSES
"My dear, my dear, life is short. I am an old man, and yet looking back it seems but yesterday since I was a boy beginning life. Climbing the hill, my dear, climbing the hill; and when the top was gained, when I stood there in my young manhood, I thought that the world belonged to me. And then the descent, so easy and so swift. The years seem long when one is climbing, but they are as weeks when the top is passed and the descent into the valley begins." He paused. He passed his hand across his forehead. "I meant to speak of something else, of you, child, of your life, of love and happiness, and of those things that should be dear to all us humans."
"I know nothing of love, and of happiness but very, very little," she said.
He took her hand and held it. "You shall know of both!" he promised. "There is strife, there is ill-feeling between you and that lad, your husband."
She wrenched her hand free, her face flushed gloriously.
"You!" she cried. "You too !"
"Yes, I too! I sought him out yesterday, and asked him to this house on purpose that you and he should meet, praying that the meeting might bring peace to you both. I knew the lad's father as I knew yours. Alicia Linden wrote to me and told me all about this unhappy marriage of yours. She told me that she loved you both, that you were both good, that life might be made very happy for you two, but for this misunderstanding—"
"Don't!—don't. Oh, General Bartholomew, how can I make you understand? It is untrue—I am not his wife! I have never been his wife. It was a lie! some foolish joke of his that he will not or cannot explain!"
He looked at her, blinking like one who suddenly finds himself in strong light after the twilight or darkness.
"I never saw that man in my life before I met him at Lady Linden's house, not two weeks ago. All that he has said about our marriage, his and mine, are foolish lies, something beyond my understanding!"
The General waved his hands helplessly.
"It is all extraordinary! Where can that foolish old woman have got hold of this story? What's come to her? She used to be a very clear-minded—"
"It is not she, it is the man—the liar!" Joan cried bitterly. "I tell you I don't understand the reason for it. I cannot understand, I don't believe there is any reason. I believe that it is his idea of humour—I can't even think that he wanted to annoy and shame and anger me as he has, because we were utter strangers."
She stood at the window, looking out into the dull, respectable square. She saw a man ascend the steps and ring on the hall door-bell, but he did not interest her.
"I shall find work to do," she said, "soon. I am grateful to you for—for taking me in, for giving me asylum here for a time—very, very grateful. I know that you meant well when you brought that man and me face to face last night—that man—" She paused.
She could see him now, that man with eager and earnest pleading in his eyes, with hands outstretched to her, as he told her of his love. And seeing him in memory, there came into her cheeks that flush that he had seen and remembered, and into her eyes the dewy, softness that banished all haughtiness, and made her for the moment the tender woman that she was.
"So," she said, "so I shall find work to do, and I will go out again and earn my living and—"
"There will be no need!" the General said.
"I cannot stop here and live on your charity!"
"There will be no need," he repeated.
"Mr. Rankin," announced a servant. The door had opened, and the man she had been watching came in.
He shook hands with the General.
"Joan, this is Mr. Rankin. Rankin, this is Miss Joan Meredyth."
She turned to him and bowed slightly.
"You will allow me to congratulate you, Miss Meredyth. Believe me, it is a great happiness to me that at last, after much diligent seeking, I have, thanks to the General here, found you. General—you have told her?" He broke off, for there was a puzzled look in the girl's face.