The Kingdom Round the Corner—A Novel
BOOKS BY MR. DAWSON
THE KINGDOM ROUND THE CORNER
THE GARDEN WITHOUT WALLS
SLAVES OF FREEDOM
LAST CHANCE RIVER
THE ROAD TO AVALON
THE LITTLE HOUSE—Illustrations by Stella Langdale
THE SEVENTH CHRISTMAS—Illustrations by Edmund Dulac
THE UNKNOWN COUNTRY—Illustrations by W.C. Rice
CARRY ON: LETTERS IN WAR-TIME
THE GLORY OF THE TRENCHES
OUT TO WIN: THE STORY OF AMERICA IN FRANCE
LIVING BAYONETS: A RECORD OF THE LAST PUSH
THE TEST OF SCARLET: A ROMANCE OF REALITY
FLORENCE ON A CERTAIN NIGHT
THE WORKER AND OTHER POEMS
"I'm sorry," Tabs apologized. "I didn't mean anything unkind."
The Kingdom Round the Corner—A Novel
By CONINGSBY DAWSON
Illustrated by W.D. Stevens
"To every man the woman whom he loves is as Mother Earth was to her legendary son: he has but to kneel and kiss her breast to know that he is strong again."—Michelet
Cosmopolitan Book Corporation
M C M X X I
Copyright, 1921, by Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, New York.—All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including that of the Scandinavian
Printed in the United States of America
CHAPTER I PAGE AN ALTERED WORLD 7
RETRIEVERS OF YOUTH 54
ALL SORTS OF KINGDOMS 94
THE COMPLICATIONS OF MAISIE 134
THE AIR OF CONQUEST 172
TRAMPLED ROSES 217
SOME PEOPLE FIND THEIR KINGDOMS 262
ROUND THE CORNER 311
The Illustrations by
"I'M SORRY," TABS APOLOGIZED. "I DIDN'T MEAN ANYTHING UNKIND." (Page 33) Frontispiece
TABS EXTENDED HIS HAND. BRAITHWAITE MADE NO MOTION TO TAKE IT. 130
"MRS. LOCKWOOD, WHY CAN'T YOU LET ADAIR ALONE?" 172
"I WAS AFRAID YOU HAD LEFT" 324
The Kingdom Round the Corner
CHAPTER THE FIRST
AN ALTERED WORLD
It was on a blustering March morning in 1919 that Tabs regained his freedom. His last five months had been spent among doctors, having sundry bullets extracted from his legs. He walked with a limp which was not too perceptible unless he grew tired. His emotions were similar to those of a man newly released from gaol: he felt dazed, vaguely happy and a little lost. He felt dazed because he hadn't remembered that the world was so wide and so complicated. He felt lost because he was discovering that this wasn't the same old world that he had left in 1914. It hadn't paid him the compliment of marking time during his absence; it had marched impolitely forward. He would have to hurry to overtake it. What made him feel most lost at the moment was the fact that he had only just realized how his bravest years had been escaping. The reason for this realization was Terry. He had been accustomed to think of himself as in the first flush of manhood, with all life's conquests still lying ahead; it was therefore a little disconcerting to be told, as a matter of course, that he had only four more years to go till he was forty. "I'll be there at the station to meet you," Terry had written him. And then, she had added laughingly, "Father orders me to say that he only gives his permission because you're such an old friend and nearly middle-aged."
Middle-aged! He, Tabs, middle-aged! The thought was appalling. It was a slander so almost true as to be incapable of disproving. He had to-day, to-morrow, and the next day; after that people would have the right to say of him that he was middle-aged. That was the real sacrifice that he had made in the war—he had given to it the last of his youth. And he had not been aware of this until he had received that letter.
Now that he was aware of it, he rebelled against the sacrifice. He refused to be robbed. He would not allow himself to become middle-aged. Why, he hadn't begun to live yet. He'd only been experimenting up to the point when the war had started. He'd been thirty-one then, a man full of promise, and now he was dubbed middle-aged. He remembered with indignation the theory that men of forty ought to be chloroformed to make room for the younger generation. "But, hang it, one's years have nothing to do with it," he protested; "in my spirit I belong to the younger generation." So, to the rumbling accompaniment of the train, he argued his claims passionately. Had he formed them into a petition he would have prayed, "God, make me young again." It would have been because of Terry that he would have prayed.
And yet he was happy—vaguely happy, as any man must be to whom the right to live has been restored. For the past half decade his horizon, and that of all the men with whom he had intimately associated, had been dwarfed by the thought of dying. Throughout that period he had dared to hope for nothing personal; he had belonged body and soul to unseen forces which had hurried him without explanation from one hell to another. He had had to subdue his pride to their authority and to train his courage to contemplate the shock of annihilation. Now, at the end of almost five years, the will and the body which had been so ruthlessly snatched from him, had been as ruthlessly flung back into his own keeping. All of a sudden, after having been enslaved in every detail, his will and body were set free and no one cared what became of them. They could be his playthings; he was allowed to do with them what he liked. But what did he like? It was a problem. He could so easily spoil them. When he reminded himself of how easily he could spoil them the fear of death, which would never again trouble him, was replaced by the fear of failure. He was furious to find that he was still capable of fearing. He had so confidently believed that, whatever the past five years had stolen from him, they had at least brought him the reward of never again knowing fear of any sort.
That morning by the earliest train he had shaken off the dust of camps and started in civilian dress as his own master on the new journey. It was characteristic of him to start early and to slip out of his latest phase with so little fuss. For the first two years of his service, while men of his class were gaining high promotions, he had served in the ranks. He had done it as a uselessly proud protest. In the ranks one did the real work, faced most of the danger and won the fewest decorations. He had loved the ranks for their quiet self-effacement and had preferred to be reckoned in their number.
It had been dawn when he had started. From the top of the hill above the camp he had gazed back at the huddled, sleeping rows of hutments. How lacking in individuality they were! How wilfully ugly! You could see their like in the rear of all armies. The military mind seemed incapable of appreciating differences and beauty. How stereotyped the past five years had been; yes, and, while the danger had threatened, how ennobled with duty! So ennobled that there had been times when it had almost seemed that he was on the point of finding his kingdom.
What he hadn't expected was that he would be alive to-day. With that thought gratitude had bubbled up and he had limped away, whistling, through dim lanes and budding hedgerows to the little wayside country station.
But once on board the train to London, he began to feel more like a fugitive escaping than a hero returning. This wasn't the end of soldiering that imagination had painted. There had been strident bands and hysteric shouting to start him on his way to the conflict. There had been pictorial challenges to his courage pasted on every hoarding. There had been extravagant promises of the welcome which would await him if he survived. Who remembered them to-day? He hummed over the words of the latest promise, "If you come back, and you will come back, the whole world's waiting for you." Was it? He doubted. There was something unpleasantly furtive about the way in which men were being stripped of their outward signs of valor and dribbled back into civilian life. It almost seemed that statesmen had discovered something to be ashamed of in the unforeseen heroism by which the world had been rescued.
What did it matter? The world had been saved, and he had helped to save it. No one could deprive him of that knowledge. His joy leapt up. What did it matter if other people considered him nearly middle-aged? He and Terry must prove to them the contrary. He was free; that was what counted. Free to reckon his life by more than stretches of twenty-four hours. Free to rise or go to bed when he liked. Free to travel to the ends of the earth. Free to speak his mind without the dread of a court-martial. Never again would he be compelled to issue orders which he knew to be unwise; never again would he be compelled to obey them. He was free. And there was Terry——
Across the carriage-windows landscapes went leaping: the bleak clearness of brisk March skies; the shining grayness of meadows from which mists were slowly rising; the faint flush of greenness which was gathering in hedges; the shy pageant of spring unfolding, with the promised certainty of new summers which are never ending. The world looked young. As the train dashed by, new-born lambs, unused to such disturbances, tottered, bleating, after their mothers. Buds were bursting. Sap was rising. The chapped scars of winter were vanishing. Things which had seemed dead were being convulsed with life. He watched it all gladly and yet impatiently; it was for the end of the journey that he was waiting.
On nearing London the train slowed down as though reluctant to leave the country. Twice it halted and he consulted his wrist-watch with a frown. Then it crept through Battersea, wound snake-like across the gleaming Thames, and came to rest in Victoria Station. Despite his lameness, he was the first passenger to alight. He had no luggage to attend to, save the newly-purchased bag which he carried. He lost no time in hurrying down the platform; when he hurried his limp became more pronounced. As he passed through the barrier he slackened his pace. By reason of his greater height he could glance above the heads of the crowd; his eyes went questing in all directions. They failed to find what they sought. He delayed until nearly all the people from the incoming trains had scuttled into the holes of the Underground; then, masking his disappointment, he wandered out into the station-yard to hail a taxi. An Army Staff car was drawn up against the curb. A thrill of hostility shot through him. How often, in the old days, when marching up to an attack, had he and his comrades huddled to the side of the road like sheep that these khaki-colored collies of the shepherds, who had driven them up to die, might splash arrogantly past them! He eyed it casually and was passing on, when a girl in the back seat stood up frantically waving. She was dressed in the latest whim of fashion; but it was her that he saw rather than her appointments. Her gold bobbed hair was like a Botticelli angel's. Her eyes were clear and deep as violets. She was exquisitely vibrant and alive—scarcely beautiful; her nose turned up and was too short for that. One sought for the right words to express her attraction. Perhaps it was due to her light-hearted health and girlish freshness.
As he came up eagerly, limping with the effort, she reached out her hand. "Tabs, fancy you not knowing me! I don't need to call you Lord Taborley, do I? Between us it's still Tabs."
"Terry dear! My dear Terry, at last!" He spoke queerly as though he had been running. Then, seeing how his intensity startled her, he let go her hand and laughed. "You can't blame me for not having spotted you. Where's all your beautiful hair that was so blowy?"
She glanced up through her lashes at the tall man. "'I'm growing such a big girl now'—you remember the refrain from the song at the Gaiety? That's why. When you were a young man, girls put their hair up to show they were of age; nowadays they bob it."
"So that's the explanation!" He climbed in and took his seat beside her. "That's another thing that disguised you. How was I to guess that you'd wangle a Staff car to meet an ex-lieutenant?"
"It belongs to a friend at the War Office." She nodded her permission to the trim girl-soldier at the wheel to start. "He lent it to me when he heard that I was to meet you this morning. Taxis are so scarce, and I didn't know how well you could walk, so——" She turned from the subject abruptly. "You're so changed. I scarcely recognized you at first. I was expecting that you'd still be in uniform."
"I was demobbed yesterday. So you find me changed! For better or for worse? Confess, Terry."
She was aware that beneath his assumption of gayety he was hiding something—something that pained. He had been hurt too much already. With impulsive sympathy she laid her hand on his arm. "It isn't a case of better or worse. Between people like ourselves appearances don't matter. I think to me you were handsomest of all as a Tommy. How proud I was of you, Tabs, when you first joined up! Do you remember how I used to strut along beside you—— And that last night, when you went for the first time to the Front?"
He remembered, and waited with boyish expectancy. She had stopped suddenly and glanced away from him. For the second time his intensity had frightened her. He said nothing—did nothing to help her. She mustered her courage to turn back with a smile. "It's long ago, isn't it. Tabs? I've grown such a big girl now."
He brushed aside her attempt to divert him. "But you find a difference in me?"
"A difference! You mean the difference between a man in uniform and in mufti? Why, yes. A uniform made you look younger. It did that for most men."
"But more for me than for most." He was pitiless towards himself now that he had forced her to answer. "I've aged more than the five years since you slipped your arm into mine as we marched through the darkness to the troop-train. You never shed a tear, Terry. You kept your promise. Often and often when I was afraid in the trenches I remembered you, a white and gold slip of a girl with dry eyes, waving and waving. And then, somehow, because you'd kept your promise not to cry——"
"Don't," she whispered. "Please don't. It's all ended. Everything's new and beginning afresh."
"Beginning with you," he questioned, "where it left off?"
If she heard him, she ignored the interrogation in his voice.
The girl-soldier at the wheel relieved the situation. Since leaving the station she had been running slower and slower, glancing back across her shoulder and trying to catch their attention. Just short of the great cross-roads at Hyde Park Corner she brought the car to a halt.
"What's the matter, Prentys?" Terry asked. "Anything wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong, miss; but you've not told me where to go."
The girl spoke so reproachfully that Terry laughed. "Awfully sorry, Prentys. It's Lord Taborley's fault. He didn't tell either of us. What are your plans, Tabs? Where do you want to go?"
He caught at her question and examined it. To go—where did he want to go? He had been so certain when he had boarded the train to London early that morning. Ever since he had said good-by to her, nearly five years ago, he had known quite definitely. Each time that he had had a glimpse of her on those brief leaves from the Front, he had been more and more sure of the desired direction. Her letters coming up to him under shell-fire had made him even more certain—those letters compassionate with unashamed sincerity, written with a girl's admiration for a man who was jeopardizing his all that she might live in safety.
And now, when he was free at last to go where he chose and she herself asked him, he could find no answer to her question. Why couldn't he? He looked at her thoughtfully with the frown of his problem in his eyes. What change had come over her? Or was it he who was altered? She had seemed so absolutely his while the terror of battle had kept them apart. She had written and acted as though she was his right up to—— Yes, right up to the point when he had been in a position to claim her.
Between him and Terry there had been no engagement—only a wealth of interchanged affection; interchanged for the most part on paper. Once and only once had marriage been mentioned—on the night that he had set out for the first time for the Front. "You won't ask me, Tabs; I know that. You're too honorable. So I've got to say it. When you come back I'm going to marry you."
"If I come back, little Terry," he had corrected.
"But you will—you must," she had pleaded, "for my sake."
"I'll try. I'll try so hard," he had promised. "But I won't marry you till I'm out of khaki or the war is ended."
"And I'll meet you at the train the moment you're free and we'll be married that very day."
All this five years ago on a murky station in the tragedy of parting, while Belgium was being trampled and the troop-train waited. She had eluded the vigilance of her parents and had met him outside the barracks, without forewarning. Through the gloom of streets and the blur of the accompanying crowd, he had seen her face loom up. Her arm had slipped through his; she had marched beside him like any Tommy's sweetheart. She had been seventeen at the time; to-day she was two-and-twenty. In the years that had followed he had taken no step to make that girlish promise binding, yet increasingly its fulfillment had been the goal towards which he had struggled.
After she had joined Lady Dawn's Nursing Unit and had gone to France he had missed her on his leaves; by some fatality they had been always missing. She had existed for him only in their correspondence and in his vivid imagination. And now, after so much hoping, she had become again a reality. He had been prepared for strangeness, but not for—— Was it her youth, which was to have flung wide all doors, that formed the barricade? Her youth which, if shared, would have put back the hands on the face of Time! Her relentless, flaunting youth! Youth which is forever hostile to age!
Her growing and puzzled expression of impatience forced him to narrow his answer to the requirements of the moment. "What are my plans, you asked? I haven't any. I'm a man at a loose end and at a beginning—like all the world, as you yourself just stated."
"I know what you're going to say—that every one has to live somewhere. I have a place all right—my old place."
"Shall I tell Prentys to drive you there?"
He shook his head and thrust out his long legs, throwing his weight more heavily against the cushions. "Not unless you didn't read my letter."
Her habitual sunniness clouded. "Tabs, you're trying to be beastly. If I hadn't read it, I shouldn't have known to have met you, or when, or where."
"Then you remember that it reminded you of——"
She cut him short, glancing furtively at the girl at the wheel to see whether she had been listening. "I don't forget easily. Where do you want to go? Would a run into the country suit you?"
"In what direction?"
"Makes no difference."
She whispered something to the girl; the car semi-circled and gathered speed, shooting through the traffic which was lumbering towards the Fulham Road and Surrey.
Now that he had gained his point, he didn't seem inclined for conversation. He lolled back with his eyes half-shut; she sat bolt upright, ignoring his presence.
He recalled to-day as he had pictured it. Terry was to have been still the girl-woman who had wanted him so badly that she had been brave enough to ask for him. She was to have been precisely and in every detail the girl from whom he had parted. She was to have been on the platform waiting for him, and he....
Pshaw! What a sentimentalist and how easily disappointed! The old fight was still on in another form. It was never ended. Life was a fight from start to finish, calling for new and yet newer courage. He refused to be defeated. He would not be embittered. He would win his kingdom round the corner, even though it proved to be a different kingdom from the one he had expected. Terry couldn't have stayed seventeen always, which was the miracle he had demanded. She was a woman. He would have to teach her to love him afresh. There was no time to be lost. For all he knew there might be a rival—perhaps the mysterious some one at the War Office who had lent her this car. He leant forward good-humoredly, touching her hand to attract her attention, "Terry."
She turned slowly, almost reluctantly. What new and disturbing question was he going to ask? She hadn't been prepared for this altered man with his limp and his gauntness and his strained intensity. She couldn't bring herself to believe that this grave, spent, unlaughing person at her side was Tabs, the gallant, care-free comrade she had asked to marry her. She was shocked both at him and at herself. And she had wanted to be so glad—to make him feel that every one was so happy at having him back——
At the sound of her name, spoken like that, a little thrill of his old-time power stirred her; it traveled up to her eyes, so that she had to press back the tears before she turned.
"Terry, it was sentimental blackmail. I'm sorry."
"What was? I don't understand."
"That last letter. I oughtn't to have reminded you. What one promises at seventeen doesn't hold good. It was sporting of you to keep the promise by meeting me this morning, but—— What I'm trying to say is this; I'm forgetting everything that you would like me to forget."
"But I'm not sure that I want you to forget anything." She widened her lips into a smile from which the trouble was only half dispelled. "It sounds horrid and unfriendly, this talk of forgetting, as though—— It sounds so much worse when it's put into words, as though we had something of which to be ashamed."
"No, it's not like that. May I be terrifically honest—just as we used?"
She eyed him doubtfully. It was evident that she was still timid of the truth. Then she nodded.
"Well, you know how it was between us before I went away. You were of an age when most people still thought of you as a child. You were outwardly, but inside you were almost a woman. The little girl did things and promised things that the woman wouldn't approve to-day. And then take my side of it. I went out to a place where life seemed at an end and where, because of that, one became selfish in the demands he made on the people whom he had left behind—especially on the women. It was impossible to be normal; probably I'm not quite normal now. But the point is this: every man in khaki thought intensely of some one girl. It didn't matter whether he had the right to think of her; he just thought of her, and wrote to her, and carried her photo with him up to an attack, as if he had the right. He wasn't even much disturbed as to whether, in allowing him to love her, she loved him in return or was merely being patriotic; he didn't expect to live to put things to a test. All he wanted was the belief that one woman loved him. You understand, she was very often only a makeshift—a symbol for the woman he would have married if death hadn't been in such a hurry. Well, for some of us Death has had time to spare and we've come back—come back starved, emotional, tyrannic—passionate to possess all the things for which our hearts have hungered and of which they have been deprived so long. It was easy to strip ourselves of everything when we thought we were going to die. But now that we know we're going to live we're tempted to recover some of our lost years by violence. You must be patient with us, Terry; we're sick children, querulous, eager to take offense and over-exacting. I was like that when I blackmailed you into meeting me this morning. It was unworthy of me to have treated that child's promise as binding."
"But I was seventeen; I wasn't a child. And I wanted to meet you—I did truly."
"Letting me down lightly?" he smiled.
"No, an honest fact."
When he gazed at her with kindly incredulity, she edged herself closer and bent forward in a generous effort to persuade him.
"Don't you see that what you've said of yourself was true of me as well?"
"I wasn't talking in particular of myself," he parried; "I was including all the other men."
"Yes, but especially of yourself. It was of yourself that you were talking. What you've said of yourself is true of me and—oh, of almost all women. We saw you men march away; you seemed lost to us forever. Everything seemed at an end. So we did what you did—chose one man who would embody all our dreams and become especially ours. We wrote to him, shopped for him, placed his portrait on our dressing-tables, were anxious for him and, oh, so proud of him. We didn't stop to ask whether he was the man with whom we could live for always. There wasn't any always. It didn't look as though there was ever again going to be any always. And then the horror stopped and we found ourselves with a man on our hands—a man who, though we had known him so well, would come back to us different. We hadn't meant to cheat him when we made all those promises; but now that he's really ours, we're not sure that we—— All the ecstasies and tears that we wrote to him on paper——" She made a helpless gesture with her hands. "They don't seem real. It's not our fault. They belonged to the part of nurses and soldiers that we were acting. And now we've slipped out by the stage-door and we've become ourselves. Don't you see, Tabs, we men and girls have got to find out afresh who we are? We've almost forgotten."
She seemed to have made an end, when something else occurred to her. She recommenced hurriedly, "We women have been spendthrifts, too; we've given away more than was wise—little bits of ourselves, not always to the one man—sometimes in the wrong directions. But which is the right direction? When people who were risking so much for us begged for a little of our affection, we never thought of that. We simply gave recklessly—little bits of ourselves. Now that we've regained a future, with room for remorse and things like that, we've become suddenly cautious. The swing of the pendulum——" She turned to him, as though proffering a smile for his forgiveness, "It's our sudden caution that makes us seem mean and ungracious. But I was tremendously interested about meeting you."
"Interested! Not glad or ecstatic. It's a long road from dreams to facts."
She said it humbly. He tried to catch the expression in her eyes, but all he saw was the flickering gold of her hair as the wind tossed it against the rounded whiteness of her neck. His brain kept muttering, "Little bits of herself! What did she mean by that?"
A barrel-organ was grinding out a tune; children danced in the sunshine on the pavement. As they flashed down the street the music followed them. She twisted to look back and he caught her eyes. "Tabs, do you know what it's playing?"
"Can't say I do."
"It's out of the Elsie Janis revue at The Palace. I think it was written especially for this moment." She listened till the air reached the refrain and then sang the words, "Apres la guerre, there'll be a good time everywhere."
His stern face relaxed at her childishness. "Will there, Terry? I hope so. Musical chaps aren't reliable authorities. They're——"
"You must know so," she interrupted valiantly. Then, forgetting her caution, she slipped her small gloved fingers into the palm of his big brown hand. "You must. Even though I disappoint you ever so badly, you must know so, dear Tabs. You must seize your own good time at whatever cost. One girl isn't all the world."
"I wonder whether what we've been saying explains Adair."
They were crossing one of the bridges over the Thames. He wasn't sure which one. Moreover, he didn't care; it was enough for him that, wherever they were going, they were going together—racing into a sun-crazed world where spring romped and shouted like a hoyden. Above lazy chimney-pots trees patched the sky-line with sudden greenness. At a greater distance soft contours of hills lay shadowed beneath stampeding clouds. Coldly silver beneath the bridge the river flashed, dimpled here and there by rapid feet where breezes, like adventurous children, rushed across it. He noted the bowed windows of little houses along the banks, their whitened steps and shining brasses. He caught the far-blown fragrance of hyacinths; it set him dreaming of drifting bloom and flower-strewn ways of woodlands. A happy world, whatever the mental state of its inhabitants! A world which was doing its bravest best to play the game by mankind! A world which was whispering at every portal of the senses that the business of living was immensely worth while! A world which——! He had reached this point, when the mention of Adair brought him back to the cause of his philosophizing—the inscrutable tenderness of the girl, half sorceress, half penitent, seated at his side. She had recovered her calmness by withdrawing her thin fingers from his enclosing hand.
Adair Easterday! He didn't want to discuss him; he had more important things to talk about. Speaking absent-mindedly, "Adair doesn't need any explaining," he said.
"Oh, doesn't he?" she laughed softly and looked away, creating the impression that she was leaving volumes unexpressed.
Her air of wisdom provoked him. "Well, I've known him since we were boys at school together and I've never found him much of a conundrum. He's brilliant, and lazy, and kind. I think of all the men I've known he's the one who's most truly a gentleman; he's the one who has given most promise and who has fewest accomplishments to his credit. He may have puzzled you as his sister-in-law; but to me, a man of his own age, he presents no mystery. If anything he's too obvious; that and the fact that he allows himself to be too much absorbed by his wife are two of the reasons for his lack of success."
"He doesn't allow himself to be too much absorbed by his wife now." She had turned deliberately that she might watch the effect of her words. "He doesn't even pretend to care for Phyllis any longer."
"Not care for her—his own wife! Nonsense! You can't make me believe that." Then he reined himself in, for he suddenly realized that he was unconsciously adopting the tones of an elder. "That was a terribly modern accusation for you to make, Terry, just as if loyalties and affections were ostrich-plumes and ermine to be worn or discarded with the fashion."
"That's just what they do seem to have become since we've all stopped fighting," she persisted. "And please don't look at me like that, Tabs, as though you were my commanding-officer. I'm not trying to be a cynical young person; I'm simply stating facts. Look at all the men for whom the war was a social leg-up. They were plumbers and bank-clerks and dentists in 1914; by the end of 1918 they were Majors and Colonels and Brigadiers. They didn't know where the West End was till they got into uniforms. Since then they've learnt the way into all the clubs and fashionable hotels; they've spent money like water; they've been the companions of men and women whom they couldn't have hoped to have met unless the war had shaken us all out of our class-snobbishness. But now that the war's ended, these men whom every one flattered for their bravery and whose social failings they excused while there was fighting to be done, have become worse snobs than ourselves. They've been educated out of the class for which they were fitted. War was their chance; it's ended, and now they have to go back to their humble jobs, which are the only ones by which they can gain a livelihood. Worse still, they've got to go back to their wives, who haven't shared their grandeurs, but who've played the game by them, taking care of their children and standing by the wash-tub. Some of them can't face up to the change. Peace has turned the world up-side-down. We're walking on our heads. You're just out of hospital, but you'll know what I mean when you've been a week in London."
"But nothing of what you've been saying applies to Adair Easterday," he objected. "He wasn't a profiteer in khaki; he wasn't even in khaki. He made nothing; he lost nearly everything he had. Moreover, whatever faults he may have, he's always been a thorough-bred—a stickler for honor; the kind of chap who, if he had to sink, would go down with all his colors flying. Where his wife is concerned, he's a lover-for-all-time kind of fellow."
She shook her head obstinately. "He isn't now. He's standing on his head like the rest of us."
"I'm certain you're mistaken." He paused, half-minded to let the matter rest. He hated this contending. In the old days he and Terry had never argued. He glanced at her; she was smiling in a sorry, amused fashion. It made him feel that in accusing Adair she had cast suspicion on every man's constancy—his own included. Reluctantly he set himself to prove to her that she was incorrect.
"When you were in France with Lady Dawn's Nursing Unit, I spent most of my leaves with Phyllis and Adair. We went about together. I lived in their house, got to love their kiddies, knew all that went on there. I think a part of my motive was that being with your sister seemed to bring you nearer. I'm not going to pretend that I didn't notice frictions and irritations. Adair was humiliated at being rejected by the Army because he wasn't up to physical standards. He tried every trick, but was always turned down. He didn't like to be seen about town; he felt that people were accusing him of being a slacker. He looked so well that he had always to be explaining why he wasn't in the trenches. It tried his temper. Wherever he went soldiers were being treated as heroes. Women were pleased to be seen escorted by a uniform—his own wife as well. And I'm bound to say Phyllis didn't help him. She prided herself on having held on to her man as though it were something that she'd done herself. Adair used to flare up in a passion and tell her not to be a fool; then, because her foolishness was all because she loved him, her feelings were hurt. But to say that he doesn't love her is an exaggeration. If there's anything the matter, the trouble is not with his heart but with his nerves."
"Then you really haven't heard? I thought everybody——" She stifled a yawn. "It's the wind against my face. It always makes me sleepy," she apologized. "Since you haven't heard, I suppose I oughtn't to tell you. He's become the sort of skeleton in our family cupboard—— You're still incredulous! That will please mother. She'll be almost happy when she learns that there's at least one person who hasn't been told about it. She thinks that all the world talks of nothing else. As for Daddy, Phyllis was always his favorite and he adores her children. He goes about trying to find some one who'll volunteer to horsewhip Adair. I can't say that I feel that way myself." Her hand stole out and touched his arm caressingly; it seemed as though she were appealing for herself. "We've all either done or are on the verge of doing something foolish that we're sure to regret. It's not a time to be hard on anybody. To-morrow we may stand in need of sympathy ourselves. Horror has shell-shocked every one, civilians as well as fighting-men. The blackness of insecurity——! We're all convalescing." She halted abruptly, biting her lip and peering at him, suddenly aware that she had been confessing herself. When he only looked puzzled, she finished lightly, "So, you see, Tabs, though you'll think me terribly immoral, I keep a soft place in my heart for our skeleton."
"But you don't tell me anything positive," he complained. "What has Adair done?"
"Done!" She stared at him. "That's what I have been telling you. He's fallen in love with some one else."
He was unwilling to believe what he had heard.
"Some one else! Impossible!—— I'm sorry, Terry; I didn't mean that I doubted your word. You mustn't be offended, but—— I'm picturing Phyllis. At her best she was good and sweet and pretty enough to hold any man. She was such a loyal little pal—only second best to you, Terry. And Adair—he was such a white man, so patient with her and so devoted to the kiddies. I can't see him in the role of a runaway. And what on earth would he gain by it that he hasn't got already? I don't want to think that what you've told me—— It makes all fidelity seem so contemptibly temporary."
Terry spoke gently. "Not that. It's infidelity that is temporary. A lot of us are unfaithful for the moment—it's a symptom of our illness. You said something a little while ago about trying to regain one's lost years by violence—that's what he's doing. He's mislaid the knack of happiness with Phyllis; he's trying to recover it with some one else."
Tabs was still rebelling against the facts. "But he was such a staid old fellow."
Terry ignored his discursiveness. "I don't think I've done wrong in letting you into our family secrets. You'll be made a part of them as soon as you meet Daddy. When he heard that you were coming to town and that I was going to see you, he said, 'Thank God for that. Taborley will be able to do something.' He has a pathetic belief in you, Tabs. One of the reasons why I was at the station this morning was that I might have the chance to tell you first, before any one else had prejudiced you with bitterness. Daddy wants you to dine with him to-night. He expects you to be the kind of moral policeman who makes the arrest. But it can't be done with morality. I don't think even you could manage to persuade Adair at the present—not with moral arguments, anyhow."
"Because I've seen her."
It was at this moment that a sound like a pistol-shot occurred. The car commenced to bump. The girl-driver applied the brakes, guided the car to the side of the road and jumped out.
"Quite like the Front," Terry cried cheerfully; "I expect you feel at home when you hear a noise like that."
Tabs looked round. He had been too busy talking to notice where they were. To the right, through wind-rumpled, tree-dotted meadows ran the Thames, still intensely silver in the sunshine, but somehow blither and more young than in London. Clouds flew high; everything was riotously spacious. Scattered through the vivid stretch of landscape ivy-covered houses stood squarely in their park-lands. Set down in the level distance, like children's toys, cattle browsed. The quiet greenness had become starred as far as eye could carry with a gentle rain of myriad tinted petals.
"The car's got a sense of beauty," he laughed; "it chooses carefully when it wants to break down."
"And it's all at the Government's expense," Terry smiled, glancing back at him across her shoulder as she scrambled out. "So it's a back tire. How long will it take to put right, Prentys?—— Then we may as well walk and let you overtake us. I don't think we're more than a mile from Old Windsor. We'll get something to eat at the little inn by the riverside. You remember the one I mean? We've been there several times when the General was with us."
"What General is that?" Tabs asked as they trudged along between the hedges.
"The General who lent me the car," she replied.
"Oh, your friend at the War Office! I suppose he's one of the dug-outs who's been there all the time."
"He isn't. He rose from the ranks. He's only been at a desk job since the Armistice." She spoke defensively, with a certain resentment. Tabs was quick to detect the sharpness in her voice. "I'm sorry," he apologized; "I didn't mean anything unkind."
She halted with a sudden gesture of concern. "I am inconsiderate. I never thought of it. Won't this walking wear you out?"
"She's changing the subject," he told himself. "I wonder why?" Aloud he said, "Not a bit. But I can't stride along the way we used in the old days."
Branching off to the right, they came down to a little inn by the water-side. It was shabby with the look of disrepair which all inns had at that time. Its paint was chapped and faded; its windows cracked and held together by pasted strips of paper. The putty had perished in places, so that some of the panes were on the point of falling out. Nevertheless, it had a brave look of carrying on triumphantly, for tulips and crocuses were springing neat as ever from the turf and it was over-hung by a green mist of trees just coming into leafage. They entered and took their seats at a table from which they could watch the pale flowing of the river through the spangled peace of the outside world.
"It was lucky we broke down." Terry sat watching him with her square little face cushioned in her hands. "You see I'm training myself to believe," she explained, "that everything happens for the best."
"A comforting philosophy for the lazy," he smiled. "It lets us all out of resisting temptation. Why resist anything, if everything happens for the best? If it were true, it would give us the license to be as flabby as we liked—which rather falls in line with what we were saying about Adair. But who is she—this woman? You say you've seen her."
"You'll know soon enough for your peace of mind—probably you'll see her yourself before the day is out."
"But can't you even tell me her name?"
"Her name's Maisie Lockwood for the present."
"For the present! Why for the present?"
"Because one's never certain about Maisie. She was Maisie Gervis once and Maisie Pollock before that; there must have been a time when she was Maisie Something Else."
Tabs couldn't quite make up his mind whether he ought to laugh or frown. The suspicion had crossed his mind that this composed imp of a girl, who could look so immensely the young lady when she liked, was playing a sly game with him. However he pretended to take her seriously. "In most social sets names are fairly permanent."
Terry laughed outright and looked away from him, following the river with her eyes. "There's nothing permanent about Maisie. I think that's her attraction; that's what makes people forgive her everything. She starts each day afresh—it really is a new day for her, with no old hates or griefs or dreads to drag her down. She has no regrets because she remembers nothing. Whatever happened yesterday she puts out of mind; she forgets everything except her willingness to be friends."
"Her names as well, according to your account."
"Yes, there's no denying that. Until the war ended, if you'd not seen her for a month, you were never quite sure how you ought to address her. Even now one's liable to make a mistake. To-day she's Maisie Lockwood; to-morrow she may be Maisie Anything—Mrs. Adair Easterday, perhaps."
Under her willful mystifications his calmness was getting ruffled. While he listened to her, he kept comparing this day with the other day that his imagination had painted. The world was to have been so much better and kinder when the agony of the trenches was ended. It was in order that it might be better that so many men had not come back. And this was the kinder world—a world in which men, saved from the jaws of death, met the girls they had loved as strangers, in whose presence, if they were to avoid offense, they must pick their words! A world full of men like Adair, who had been honorable until others had made them safe by their sacrifice, and of women like Maisie of the many names, who forgot her yesterdays that she might seize her selfish personal happiness!
"Terry," he spoke with a show of patience, "do you think it's a matter about which to jest? There's your sister and her kiddies; their future's at stake. If I'm to be of any help——" He broke off, for a voice inside his brain had started talking, "You're old. That's exactly the way in which her father speaks to her." Was it her thoughts that he had heard? Her face was lowered; he could see nothing but the top of her golden head. Youth radiated from her; even in his anger it intoxicated him.
"So if I'm to help," he picked up his thread, "you mustn't mock. It isn't decent, Terry; the situation's too serious. Let me have the facts. How does she come by all these different names? Does she call herself something different with each new dress?"
Terry's eyes were wide and sorry. "No, with each new husband, but——" There came a break in her voice, "Oh, Tabs, I can't bear that you should be cross with me. You've been disappointed in me from the moment we met. We're not the same. And I know it's not all my fault. And——"
Her lips trembled. He was in terror lest she would give way to crying. If it hadn't been for the table that parted them with its unromantic debris of dishes—— As it was he leant across and assured her earnestly, "I'm not cross with you, my dearest girl. I'm—— Terry, how is it that we've drifted so apart? I keep groping after the old Terry; for a minute I think I've found her, and then she's no longer there."
Drying her eyes, she nodded. "It hurts most frightfully. That's what I keep doing, barking my shins in the dark, trying to follow the old Tabs. He's always going away from me——"
"I think it's the laughter that I miss most," she said presently; "you've grown so stern."
"I've seen stern things happen—a kind of Judgment Day. It's remembered things that are so silencing."
"I know what you mean. I saw some of those things in our hospital in France." She shut her eyes as if the memory was unbearable. "But don't be hard on people who have a right to be young and who want to forget. It isn't that they're ungrateful." Then she surprised him, "People like Maisie and myself."
"Don't couple yourself with her." He spoke more sharply than he had intended.
"But she was with me out there," she expostulated. "That was how she met her second husband, Gervis. She nursed him."
"It makes no difference how she met him; she's not in your class—a woman who has been divorced three times."
"But she hasn't. Whatever made you think that?" Terry shot upright on her chair, for all the world like a startled rabbit.
"You told me she'd had three husbands." He was once more puzzled and uncertain of his ground. "You as good as said that she wouldn't be averse to making a fourth of Adair. I therefore conjectured——"
"You conjectured all wrong," she cut him short. "They died for their country."
"All of them?" He was making a rapid calculation as to how long could have elapsed between each re-marriage.
"One at a time, of course," she added. "She was married to the first the first week of the war."
"Even so it was quick work. May I light a cigarette? Three husbands in four years! She must be a very alluring person!"
Terry laughed nervously. "She is, though you mayn't think it. I can see you don't; you think she's horrid. But let me tell you it takes a smart woman to bring three men to the point of matrimony when the world's so full of unmarried girls. And they were every one of them more or less famous—the kind of men of whom any woman would be proud. You'll remember Pollock—Reggie Pollock; he was one of the earliest of our aces—the man who brought down the Zeppelin over Brussels and got killed himself a few days later, no one quite knew how. There was a mystery about his death. He was the man to whom she was first married."
"A splendid chap! And I recall her now. Her portrait was in the illustrated papers at the time of her third marriage. It was headed A Conscientious War-Worker or something like that. And I don't forget the name the soldiers called her when they read the papers in the trenches."
"Did they call her something?" She was gazing at him intently. "Was it something brutal that you wouldn't like to tell me?"
"It was something true," he said, pinching out his cigarette with quiet fierceness.
"Oh, I don't know——" She broke off to ask the waitress whether the car had arrived and was answered in the affirmative. "I don't know about its being true. After all, she made three men happy before they went West. I don't see that she'd have been any more to be admired if she'd allowed the last two to go wretched."
Tabs half-rose and then reseated himself. "An awful woman! Insatiable! A Lucrezia Borgia, without Lucrezia Borgia's excuse."
"I knew you'd say that." Terry spoke hopelessly in a tone that dragged. "How do you or I know what excuses she had? How do we know why anybody does anything—what hidden reasons they have? And yet we're always so eager to condemn! I wanted to be the first to let you know about Adair because you always used to understand. You would have understood if you'd been the you that you were. I thought that if I explained to you about Maisie—— But what's the use!"
She rose from her chair and stood leaning against the table, looking wilted and pathetic. When she spoke again the heat had gone out of her words and was replaced by an appealing tenderness. "Don't you see what it is—why it is that I don't condemn? I'm so sorry for them—so sorry for you, for myself, for everybody. It hurts me here, Tabs." She laid her hand against her breast. "We all want what we've spent in the lost years. We want it so impatiently. We can't get it; but we want it at once—now. The things one wants are always in the past or the future, so one cheats to get them now."
He hadn't the remotest idea what she was trying to tell him. She was stirred by some deep emotion—some overwhelming loneliness. For a moment it crossed his mind that she also was tempted—fascinated by some lurement of dishonor kindred to Adair's. He put the thought from him as preposterous and disloyal. Yet it recurred. Ever since they had met she had been talking curiously—talking about having given away bits of herself to people who were hungry, little bits of herself in wrong directions. She had coupled her own case with this unspeakable Maisie's. What was her problem?
She stood there with her head bowed, like a child self-accused of wrong-doing, with all the flaunting joy of spring tapping against the window on which she had turned her back. Then it dawned on him why she was standing; he was between the door of escape and herself. He stepped aside. As she moved eagerly forward, he caught her by the points of her elbows and arrested her going. The wild violet eyes fluttered up to his fearfully and fell as he towered over her.
"My very dearest!" He spoke gently in a voice from which all passion had been purged. "Don't blame me if I simply can't understand. Though I never become any more to you than I am now, I shall always be your comrade, believing in you and loving you. Remember that."
When he released her she fled from him, leaving him alone in the shabby room.
When he found her, she was talking to the girl-soldier in the yard of the inn. "But do you think that you can manage it, Prentys? It'll be all right in the open country, but I'm not sure that I want to risk it in the London traffic. We're merely joy-riding and, if anything happened to the car when you weren't on military duty——"
"I don't see that we've got much choice, miss," the girl answered. "The General's orders to me were explicit, and you know what he is: obedience and no explanations. We've barely time to do it."
Their backs were towards the inn. Tabs strolled up and made a pretense of inspecting the new tire.
"Anything I can do?" he asked casually.
It was Prentys who answered him. "I sprained my left wrist, sir, back there along the road." She held it out to him painfully as proof. It was all bound up and puffy. "It isn't very much use, sir; so I've only one hand and I don't know whether I'll be able——"
Terry interrupted and took up the running. "I thought that the car was ours for the day. Prentys has just told me that General Braithwaite ordered her to pick him up at the War Office this afternoon at three-thirty. Now that she's sprained her wrist, she'll have to drive so carefully that there's scarcely time to do it."
Tabs couldn't help smiling at the pompous importance of little people in this newly enfranchised world. It was only yesterday that for him also the foibles of Generals had been sacred. Generals had been gods whose tantrums and mental rheumatics had thrown whole armies into a fume and fret. For him that day was ended, but it still existed for this slim girl-soldier. He was sorry for her.
"You needn't be upset," he said kindly. "I haven't renewed my license, but I can drive. No one's likely to interfere with me in an Army car. Jump in and I'll get you there with a quarter of an hour in hand."
It was Terry who had spoken. Her brows puckered with thoughtfulness, she was gazing far away into the green distance. He waited for her to amplify her objection. When she maintained silence, he prompted her. "If it's me and my bag that's the trouble, you don't need to worry. After I've driven you both to the War Office, I can fudge round for a taxi. One can usually wangle one in the neighborhood of Whitehall."
Before he had ended, he knew that his guess had missed fire. It wasn't his comfort that was disturbing her.
"All right," she said reluctantly. "I suppose there's no other way. Get into the back, Prentys; I'll ride in front with Lord Taborley."
He was glad to have something to occupy his attention—to be able to talk without the necessity of regarding her. They were both embarrassed by the memory of their recent tempest of emotion. "Braithwaite! So that's the name of the good fairy who gave us our day in the country. I don't remember him; but that's not remarkable. Generals at the Front were as common as policemen in London; you found one at every street corner. As for trenchdwellers like myself, we never came in touch with them except when we were in for a wigging. We came in touch with them all right then."
She made no remark. He had the feeling that she was annoyed with herself for having let the General's name escape her. Up to that point she had referred to him anonymously as "a friend at the War Office." Tabs tried to switch to another subject without making the change offensively apparent. "Now that I'm a free man, I've got to reorganize a household."
She kindled into interest, "Taborley House is still a hospital, isn't it?"
"Yes, I handed it over to the Americans. I was glad to do that for my mother's sake. After all, I'm half American. At least a third of my boyhood was spent in the States. But they're sending most of their wounded home now, so I shall soon have it back on my hands. But that wasn't what I meant. It was too big for me; I never lived there."
"Then what did you mean?"
He realized that she was encouraging him to continue talking because the topic was safe—not because it held much attraction for her.
"What I meant was that I'll have to try to collect up my old servants. I don't know where they all are, or who's alive and who's dead. There's one man I'm particularly anxious to discover."
He slowed down, tooting his horn vigorously as they rounded an awkward corner. When they were again on the level she reminded him: "You were saying that you were anxious to discover——"
"Oh, that man of mine! There isn't much to tell! He looked after me while I was up at the 'Varsity; when I left, I carried him off. I was always wandering, so I made him my body-servant. When we were leading civilized lives in cities he acted as my valet-butler-secretary. When we were adventuring in the remoter parts of the world, he was my companion-friend. I had a real affection for the chap; he was so genuinely distinguished and quick to learn. He'd have gone far if things had kept on. As it is, he's probably gone farther."
"Gone farther?" She sounded half-asleep—politely lackadaisical.
"Gone West," he explained shortly. "His letters became fewer. We joined up together in the ranks. You know all about my end of it. I suppose it was my mother's democratic Americanism that made me do that. We got drafted into different regiments. After the fighting had been going for a year, he stopped corresponding. The funny thing was that none of my letters to him was returned."
She was so bored that she was scarcely listening. He cut the matter short by adding, "It was your mention of General Braithwaite that started me gossiping."
She pulled herself together with a jerk and instantly became all attention. "How? How could my mentioning General Braithwaite do that?"
He noticed again her unreasonable suspicion of hostility each time he made a reference to this man. Thinking it the wiser policy to overlook it, he answered evenly, "Because his name also happened to be Braithwaite."
Fully fifteen minutes elapsed. "She's quite fed up with my valet," he told himself. He hadn't been able to contrive any fresh topic which was sufficiently innocuous, so he'd been keeping silent. They were again passing over the bridge beneath which, like a gleaming sword, lay the Thames, barriered on either bank by the little bow-windowed houses, with their shining brasses and whitened steps. They were already catching up with the throng of London traffic when she shook herself out of her self-absorption by saying, "There must be thousands of Braithwaites in the world."
He glanced at her out of the corners of his eyes. Her latest conversational effort tickled his sense of humor—it was so wholly inadequate. He laughed outright. "That's better; the high spirits will soon be coming back—— Thousands of Braithwaites! My dear Terry, there must be hundreds of thousands." Then in a graver voice, "But though there were thousands of millions, it wouldn't restore to me my one loyal man."
"You loved him?" She uttered her guess softly.
"Yes, and I—it's a queer thing to say about one's valet—I admired him tremendously."
It was the best part of five years since Tabs had driven a car. He hadn't yet regained his old dexterity. He wasn't expert enough to attend to the wheel and at the same time to carry on a conversation. As he left the bridge he had to pass a coster's barrow which was drawn up beside the curb. The coster was dressed in the soiled khaki of a man recently released from the Army; his barrow was piled high with narcissi and daffodils, and a drowsy donkey drooped between the shafts. In avoiding a suicidal pedestrian, Tabs misjudged the room that he had to spare. He felt a jolt, guessed what had happened, and jammed on his brakes. A policeman in front of him was holding up a magisterial hand. Behind him a stream of familiar trench profanity was gathering in volume; under other circumstances he would have found a certain enjoyment in the sound. He looked back and saw what he expected: the barrow overturned; the flowers scattered, the donkey surprised out of its drowsiness, thrown on its back and kicking in its harness; the coster straddling the sudden ruin and calling down all the rigors of the law. A crowd was running together; it hesitated between the coster and Tabs, uncertain as to which would provide the more exciting entertainment. When the policeman waving his note-book approached the car, it plunked for Tabs.
The policeman was a stout, fat-fingered, immovable kind of person. He said nothing till he had penciled down the car's official number. Tabs gave his name and address. "Lord Taborley, etc." The policeman lifted his slow eyes to judge for himself whether the Lord part of his information looked probable. The lean aristocratic face which he encountered seemed to correspond with the specifications recorded. He asked to see his Lordship's license. Tabs embarked on explanations, pointing to the bandaged wrist of Prentys as a confirmation of his facts. While he was explaining the coster joined them, having got his donkey on to its legs. He was violent with anger and burning to expound the justice of his cause. Suddenly he struck out a convincing line of argument, "Look at 'im, the bloomin' slacker—the pasty h'aristocrat. 'E didn't see no fightin'. Not 'im. But now the war's been won by poor blokes like meself, 'e ain't ashamed ter go banging abart in h'Army cars."
"I know how you feel," Tabs said. "But you're mistaken; I served in the ranks two years myself. I was only demobbed yesterday; to-day's my first day out of uniform. I'll pay you whatever you think fair; so you don't need to work yourself up."
The man's attitude changed completely. He removed his cap and scratched his head. "Served in the ranks, did yer? Then you and me was pals out there!" He turned to the policeman, "'E ain't done me as much damidge as if one of them there Big Berthas 'ad landed."
The policeman let his fat eyes wander from the coster to Tabs, from Tabs back to the coster. "I wuz too old ter go," he said inconsequently; "but me son's out there and won't ever come back." He crossed out the particulars he had written down so laboriously; when that was done, he fumbled his note-book back into his pocket. "If your mate 'ere says that it's h'all right, sir, it's h'all right so far as I'm consarned. Your fust day h'out of the h'Army! Well, well!" He looked at Terry with a world of understanding, wheeled about slowly and went ponderously back to his corner.
"That was sportsmanly of you." It was Tabs speaking. "I'd like to know how much——"
The coster shook his head. "It don't cost you nothink. Me and you used ter share."
Tabs protested. The man climbed the running-board and pushed his grime-stained hand into the car. "Call it quits, mister, and shake for luck. And now the little lady, if she don't h'object."
Terry shook his hand daintily. So there wasn't going to be a fight after all! Everything had been settled amicably! With an air of disappointment the crowd dispersed.
"Came pretty well out of that!" Tabs remarked as the car started forward.
"You're not to talk." Terry's voice was high-strung and emphatic. "You can't talk and drive—and you've got to drive like mad."
"Why? What's the hurry?"
"The hurry! We've wasted twenty minutes; we've barely time to get there."
"Oh, the General! I'd forgotten. Well, it won't do the old boy any harm to wait. Lord, the hours he and his sort have kept me waiting on parade-grounds in France!"
Then he remembered that this General wasn't an old boy. If he wasn't old, there was all the less reason for making so much effort not to be late. Nevertheless, to please Terry—— He could feel her body twitching. Every time he had to slow down for traffic he was aware of her impatience. Why was it of such vital importance to her that they should arrive in time? She wasn't too punctual by habit. A thought struck him; it was like a searchlight pointing out many things that had been dark. Her anxiety wasn't that they should arrive in time, but before time. She didn't intend, if she could prevent it, that he should meet the owner of the car. Had it not been for the double accident of Prentys spraining her wrist and having failed to mention that the car must be back by three-thirty, he would never have been allowed to know that there was a General. Terry had been compelled to let him drive if the borrowed car was to be returned; but her main object now was to reach the War Office a few minutes early and to smuggle him off before an introduction would be necessary. If they arrived punctually or late, the General might be already on the pavement—— Tabs bit his lip. He hated petty intrigue. He demanded a man's code of honor from the woman he adored and made no feeble excuses for feminine dishonesty. This was the worst disappointment she had given him.
As they approached Hyde Park, when it was too late to turn off into a side-street, he saw that the road ahead was blocked. He worked the car as far forward as possible and then had to halt. Terry was nervously consulting her watch. "The time?" he asked.
"Then this puts the lid on it." He beckoned to a policeman, "What's holding us up?"
"The Queen's expected, so I'm told, sir, though us didn't 'ave no proper warning."
At that moment the crowd out of sight commenced cheering. The cheering spread and drew nearer. It was taken up by people who were strung across the road immediately in front. A carriage flashed by in which two ladies were sitting, one of whom was bowing from right to left. Despite her irritation at the delay, Terry stood up so that she could get a clearer view above the clustered heads. The cheering grew deafening, then lessened, and sank to a hoarse murmur beneath the trees of the Park. As she reseated herself and the traffic lurched forward, she turned to Tabs, "You noticed who it was?"
"Yes, but the lady who was with her?"
"I didn't see."
"It was Diana—Lady Dawn with whom I nursed. She's supposed to be the most beautiful woman in England."
"Don't know her. So I shouldn't have placed her if I had seen her."
They made a clear run of it from Hyde Park Corner to Whitehall and drew up quite marvelously before the War Office on the second.
"Done it," said Tabs as he shut off the engine. "It's zero hour exactly."
But Terry wasn't there to listen to him, as he discovered when his attention was free and the engine had ceased to throb. Almost before they had halted, she had nipped out of the car and was hailing a taxi which was on the point of moving off. His bag was already in process of being whisked from one vehicle to the other. This indecent haste to be rid of him roused his obstinacy; he sat still where he was and watched.
She returned a little breathless and self-congratulatory. "There! Wasn't that clever of me? Taxis are scarce. If I hadn't collared you that one you might have—— Come on, Tabs, if you're stiff in your lame leg, give me your hand and I'll——"
At that moment the dingy swing-doors of the War Office flew open and a red-tabbed, handsome figure of a man, with gold braid on his cap and crossed swords on his epaulettes, came briskly out on to the steps. He caught sight of Terry and, throwing her an airy salute, came with an eager stride towards her. He wasn't the old fogy Tabs had so persistently imagined. He was young, barely thirty, lean, tall and swift-moving as an arrow—very much what Tabs had been before he had spent himself at the war.
"Hulloa, Terry! This is ripping. I didn't expect you—— But what's all this? An accident! What have you been doing to Prentys?"
The voice was glad and frank, though its habit of command was unmistakable. Every gesture bespoke authority and arrogance of body. Even in this moment of geniality, "Obedience and no explanations" was written all over him. He was a man who believed his acceptable importance to be a verity established beyond the pale of challenge. Yet there was something lacking—a sureness of refinement, a last considerateness. With the first word he had spoken, Tabs had detected that he wasn't quite the part.
Terry had hurried forward to meet him. She was saying something in a voice so subdued that it did not carry. She had so contrived their grouping—or was it an accident?—that the General's face was hidden.
Tabs waited, then turned to Prentys, "My taxi-man's getting impatient. Will you give my thanks to the General for his kindness and make the explanations?—— And I hope that your wrist will soon be better."
He had given the driver his address and was stepping into the taxi, when he heard Terry's voice, "Why, you're running away! You mustn't go without meeting the General. General Braithwaite, I want to introduce you to Lord Taborley, of whom I've spoken to you so often."
Tabs limped back to the pavement and found the General regarding him intently. "I'm glad to make Lord Taborley's acquaintance," he said formally. And then to Terry, "You didn't tell me that it was for Lord Taborley you were borrowing my car."
Before Terry could reply, Tabs was answering for her, "Then I have to apologize to you, sir, as well as to thank you. But we've used the same car often, haven't we? In fact, I'm certain that we've met many times."
"Never to my knowledge." The General drew himself up stiffly. "You mistake me. It's the first time I've had the pleasure."
The two tall men stood glooming at each other. Tabs had it on the tip of his tongue to say something more, but glanced at Terry and thought better of it. Instead he addressed her, "Do I drive you home?"
The General interrupted. "It'll be out of your way. I'm going right past Miss Beddow's house."
For the first time since they had been introduced Terry came between their hostility. "How did you know where Lord Taborley lived and that it would be out of his way? You said that this was the first time you had met him."
Tabs refused to make her the witness of a quarrel. "Since General Braithwaite knows where I live, perhaps he will call and explain that to me later. I can't keep my cab waiting longer—are you riding with me, Terry?"
She avoided his eyes. "With the General." And then, "You won't forget that you're dining to-night with father?"
"To-night. At seven-thirty, I suppose, as usual?"
He raised his hat. As he drove away he felt compelled to look back just once to assure himself. He caught the General's features in full sunlight; he had not been mistaken.
"So that's why my letters to him weren't returned, and that's why he didn't write! He's gone farther than far with a vengeance." He clenched his fists and frowned savagely at his crippled leg. "I felt so sure of her—and to have to compete with my own valet!"
CHAPTER THE SECOND
RETRIEVERS OF YOUTH
The taxi had scarcely drawn up before a small, prim house in Brompton Square when the door was opened by a neat maid in immaculate cap and apron. She was so neat and respectful as to appear almost passionless. She had the high complexion of a Country girl, good gray eyes, a slim, attractive figure and dark, wavy hair which escaped rebelliously from beneath her cap. One wondered how she looked in her off-duty moments, when she wasn't saying, "Yes, your Lordship" and "No, your Lordship." Tabs mustered a smile and called to her, "Thank you, Ann. I'll be with you in a moment."
As he paid the fare, he let his eyes wander. The outside of the house had been painted white, evidently in honor of his home-coming. The work had been only recently completed, for the chalked warning on the pavement was not yet obliterated, "Wet Paint Beware." He had given no orders; it was Ann's doing—her accustomed, tactful thoughtfulness. The steps were speckless as a newly laundered shirt, the brasses polished to the brilliancy of precious metal. His window-boxes—— He glanced along the fronts of his neighbors' houses; they hadn't put theirs out yet. His were ahead of everybody's; they made a cheerful splash of red, with their soldierly upstanding tulips, above the long serried line of area-railings. Again Ann's doing! And the snow-white curtains behind each row of panes were also Ann's.
The driver clicked his "For Hire" sign into the upright position and chugged away to join the flow of traffic which thumped orchestrally past the end of the Square. Tabs climbed the three low steps separately; he had been used to take them at a bound. He tried to climb them slowly as though from choice, and not from necessity. He was very conscious that Ann was watching. As she closed the door behind him he said, "So you knew I was coming? You received my telegram?"
"Yes, your Lordship."
"I was sorry I couldn't tell you the exact hour. I didn't know it myself. I hope you didn't trouble to prepare lunch."
"It was no trouble, your Lordship."
"Then you've managed to get some one in the kitchen? They tell me that all the cooks have become bus-conductresses or lady-secretaries."
"I did, your Lordship. My sister—the one who lost her husband at Mons. I thought you wouldn't object——"
He cut her short. "Ann, you know I never object; you never need to go into details. Whatever you've done is right. From what I've seen already you've done splendidly."
Under his praise she flushed and became a little less the servant. "I was afraid you might think I'd taken too much upon myself, what with the flower-boxes and having the house repainted. I wanted to have things nice for your Lordship after——" She hesitated for a word, and then burst out, "After all the dirt and beastliness! Your Lordship ought never to have gone in the ranks, begging your pardon; you weren't fitted for it. You ought to have gone as a General. Then you wouldn't have come home with that poor leg and——" She saw him wince and changed the subject. "But about doing things without orders, I knew that if Braithwaite—if Braithwaite——" Her voice sagged and her eyes misted over. At last Tabs saw how she looked in her off-duty moments, when she wasn't occupied with being respectful. The sudden memory came back of intuitions he had had that she and his valet might one day marry. From time to time he had twitted them on their fondness, taking an idle pleasure in forwarding the match. And Braithwaite had kissed her before he marched away. Ridiculous to remember it now! It signified nothing. People in their station kissed when they felt kindly, and on that occasion they had had an epoch-making pretext.
Her eyes were searching his with a hungry wistfulness. "What I was meaning, your Lordship, was that if he had been spared, he'd have done things on his own and gone ahead, the same as he always did. So I, seeing as how he wasn't——"
Tabs touched her shoulder gently. "It's all right, Ann. I appreciate your motives. I'm glad you went ahead. But you haven't shaken hands yet."
He glanced in at the dining-room before he went upstairs. The table was spread for dinner. Cut flowers were standing about in vases. The very silver had a festive shine.
"Again I have to be sorry," he told her. "I'm dining with Sir Tobias Beddow."
"And Miss Terry," she inquired, "is she well?"
When he went to climb the narrow stairs she refused to permit him to carry his bag. He guessed the reason—that he might be freer to support himself by the rail of the banisters. On the first small landing, which looked out at the back on to the Oratory and the graveyard of the Parish Church, there were still more flowers. When he reached his bedroom, three flights up, he found that his evening clothes had been all laid out and just as carefully as if Braithwaite—the old Braithwaite whom he had loved—had been there before him.
As she unpacked his bag, opening and closing drawers, "I shall have to look round for another valet," he said.
"Please don't." Her tone was sharp with earnestness.
Tabs felt sorry for her. She, too, like all the world was wanting the thing that she could never have. He wondered whether it wouldn't be kinder to tell her and let her know the worst. "But sha'n't I, Ann?"
With simple pathos, which was the more touching because it was so unconscious, she clasped her hands, "He might come back. He was never reported. My letters were returned unopened. I've not given over hoping. I shouldn't like him to find that your Lordship—— If he found another man in his place, he might feel like he hadn't been wanted. Me and sister can manage——"
He got no further, for her eyes were meeting his with an appeal that was desperate. "A strange man—his ways would be different. He'd make one know that everything—everything was ended."
She glanced hurriedly round for a last time to make sure that there was nothing she had omitted—collar, tie, silk socks, dress-shoes, shaving-water, razor. "I'll be listening for the bell in case there's anything that I've forgotten, sir."
With that she closed the door between himself and her emotion. As she rustled discreetly down the stairs, he thought he heard a sound of sobbing.
It was too early to dress—not five o'clock yet. He made an estimate of the time he had to spare. If he walked across the Park to Sir Tobias Beddow's, that would take him from a half to three-quarters of an hour. At the earliest he wouldn't have to leave the house till six-thirty. So he had the best part of two hours during which to think out his line of conduct and to dress. At dinner he would meet Terry—how would she act? And what was the right thing for him to do as her family's trusted friend? He felt very tired. It took a tremendous lot out of one pretending to other people that one wasn't tired. He was ashamed to have to own to himself how quickly nowadays he could use up his physical reserves. For the moment there was no one to watch him; he stretched himself out at full length on the couch.
He was glad to be back in this friendly house with its narrow stairways and endearing littleness; it had been his American mother's before him. Within its walls were the exquisite traces of a temperament and taste that had been hers. She hadn't always been a great lady; to the end of her days there had remained with her the love of small things which one finds in nun-like New England towns. There had been times when the ostentation and entertaining at Taborley House had become too much for her; this nest of refuge had been her secret—her place of retreat where she had regarnered her sincerities. She had loved the Square's old-fashioned primness, its tininess, its unchanging atmosphere of rest. It was scarcely invaded by the strum of London. In the cloud of greenness which drifted above its communal garden, one could still listen to the country sounds of birds. At the back gray religion spoke in the tolling bell of the Parish Church; through Sabbath stillnesses one could catch the pealing of the organ in the Oratory and the mutter of worshipers at prayer. Tabs had kept the house as she had left it. It was something faithful to which to return, however much he failed in the search for his kingdom and however far he wandered.
However much he failed! This first day of freedom had been anything but successful. He felt as though every hope that he had had had been blotted out; that morning he had had no plan for the future which had not included Terry. What would be the upshot? Would Braithwaite accept his challenge to visit him? If he did, what then? He, Tabs, couldn't very well ask his ex-valet, merely because he was his ex-valet, to desist from loving the same girl. He had no doubt that Braithwaite, in his new incarnation as a General, did dare to love her. He had little doubt that Terry had shown herself at least susceptible to the glamor of his infatuation. How far had the matter gone between them? There lay the guess.
He searched back, trying to piece together phrases which would indicate the correct answer. There was her disturbing confession about having given away bits of herself, little bits of herself in wrong directions. There was her reticence as to the ownership of the car and the way in which she had tried to prevent a meeting. There was her sympathy for Maisie's matrimonial excesses; her unnatural tolerance for Adair; her reiterated excuse for the current love-madness, that people had the right at any cost to be happy; and the eagerness with which she had seized on his own words, "to recover our lost years by violence." In the silence of his brain he heard her voice pleading, urgent with pain and underlying terror, "Don't you see why I don't condemn? I'm sorry for you, for myself, for everybody." His knowledge of the world told him that impassioned latitudinarians were most frequently found among those who had themselves offended the conventions. Whatever Terry knew or did not know, she was certainly aware that a match between herself and General Braithwaite was completely off the map and would be regarded by every one who counted as a mesalliance.
And what did she know? Not that Braithwaite had been a valet—most decidedly not that he had been his valet; at most she suspected that they had been acquainted when Braithwaite had moved in humbler circles. Had she been possessed of the exact truth, she would never have borrowed a car from that quarter to meet her ex-lover on his home-coming. She had been testing—trying to discover. She had scented a mystery—one for the solving of which none of the General's explanations had proved convincing. Then had come the unforeseen encounter outside the War Office and Braithwaite's falsehood, which even Terry had detected. "You mistake me. It's the first time I've had the pleasure." What was the man's game? Did he hope to erase his old identity? Did he think——
At this point Tabs' patience broke down. "Dash it all," he muttered, "if there hadn't been a war, the fellow would have been running my bath-water at this moment."
If there hadn't been a war! But there had; and this was only one of the many preposterous situations which had resulted from it. Terry was right in at least one thing that she had said—the world was upside down and walking on its head.
As he lay there thinking, with the topmost branches of the trees in the Square weaving a tracery of green shadows against his windows, a sudden inspiration came to him. He sat up. "By Jove, I've got it. Terry's proud as Lucifer. I can stop this nonsense at any time by telling her who her lover was. Braithwaite will have to call to see me; I can force him to it. When he calls, the door will be opened by Ann. I can hold the threat over him that, if he doesn't promise to break with Terry, I'll expose him."
He went across to his writing-table, selected a pen and wrote:—
_General Braithwaite, The War Office, Whitehall, London.
I shall be pleased to see you any time to-morrow at my house in Brompton Square, which you know so well. The matter which we have to discuss is urgent.
Yours truly, Taborley._
He addressed the envelope, sealed it and rang the bell. When Ann appeared, he handed it to her. "Please see that it's posted immediately."
He had done something decisive. For the time being he felt happier. "Nothing like getting a thing off your chest!" He took a bath and, having slipped into his dressing-gown, commenced to shave. Between these acts he whistled snatches of street-songs to prove to himself his genuine light-heartedness. It was while he was drying his razor that he started on the wrong air. Where had he heard it? Oh, yes, the sunlit street, the children dancing and a voice at his side murmuring the words of the refrain, "Apres la Guerre, there'll be a good time everywhere."
The old argument commenced again, but with a new justice. "What have I really got against this chap? To rise from a private to a General is no crime; it's to his credit. We all had his chance and some of us had more influence; yet he got there."
He tried to eliminate his own desires and wounded pride from the problem. For five years he had been nothing and had been glad to be nothing, that the cause which he believed to be righteous might triumph by his self-effacement. What sickness of soul had overtaken him that, on this, his first day of freedom, he had immediately surrendered to this orgy of outrageous selfishness? It was Terry that mattered and only Terry. The stronghold of her happiness was threatened by Braithwaite's lie. There was a kingdom for everybody, his old theory. As for himself, if he had been mistaken and his kingdom was not Terry, then he must press on, for it lay further up the road round some newer turning. Meanwhile, at whatever cost to himself he must rescue Terry's happiness.
His heroic state of mind lasted no longer than it takes to set down. He was demanding too much of his exhausted capacity for self-abnegation. He was starving for her. His old hunger to win her swept over him ravenously. Only by winning her could his lost youth be regained.
He had almost completed dressing when there came a tap at the door. Finishing what he was doing in front of the mirror, he answered, "Yes, what is it, Ann?"
"Before you go, I should like to speak with your Lordship."
"Is it important? I've not got too much time."
"It's—it's something to do with myself."
"All right. Half a second."