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The Lady of the Basement Flat
by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey
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The Lady of the Basement Flat, by Mrs George de Horne Vaizey.

The scene opens with the marriage of one of a pair of sisters, and her departure for North America. The other sister is left feeling very much at a loss, but she hits on the idea of renting a small London flat in a poor area, making herself look like a very elderly woman, and finding acts of kindness to do for her neighbours. She takes the name of Miss Harding.

However the married sister's marriage founders, and she comes back to England. Both the sisters rent a nice place in the country and spend a lot of effort in decorating it. So Miss Harding has occasional spells of living as her original young self with her sister, before returning to her basement flat. As usual with this author, with her fascination with illness, a child of one of the neighbours, Billie, becomes very ill and needs roound-the-clock nursing. Miss Harding plays a big part in this. But one day a chance remark by another of the tenants in the block of flats makes it clear that the reason why the married sister's marriage had foundered was no more than a misunderstanding. So Miss Harding is able to fix her sister's problems, and Miss Harding herself finds a husband, in her true and original identity, and so ends her parallel existence as Miss Harding.



THE LADY OF THE BASEMENT FLAT, BY MRS GEORGE DE HORNE VAIZEY.



CHAPTER ONE.

WHY NOT?

At three o'clock this afternoon Evelyn Wastneys died. I am Evelyn Wastneys, and I died, standing at the door of an old country home in Ireland, with my hands full of ridiculous little silver shoes and horseshoes, and a Paris hat on my head, and a trembling treble voice whispering in my ear:—

"Good-bye, Evelyn darling—darling! Thank you—thank you for all you have been to me! Oh, Evelyn, promise you will not be unhappy!"

Then some mysterious hidden muscle, whose existence I had never before suspected, pulled two little strings at the corners of my mouth, and my lips smiled—a marionette smile—and a marionette voice cried jauntily:—

"Unhappy? Never! Why, I am free! I am going to begin to live."

Then I watched a tall bridegroom in tweeds tenderly help a little bride in mole-coloured taffeta and sable furs into the waiting car, the horn blew, the engines whirled, a big hand and a little one flourished handkerchiefs out of the window, a white satin shoe danced ridiculously after the wheels, and Aunt Emmeline cried sensibly:—

"That's over, thank goodness! The wind is sharp! Let's have tea!"

She hurried into the house to give orders, and the old Evelyn Wastneys stood staring after the car, as it sped down the drive, passed through the lodge gates, and spun out into the high road. She had the strangest, most curious feeling that it was only the ghost of herself who stood there—a ghost in a Paris hat and gown, with long suede gloves wrinkled up her arms, and a pendant of mingled initials sparkling on her lace waistcoat. The real, true Evelyn—a little, naked, shivering creature—was skurrying after that car, bleating piteously to be taken in.

But the car rolled on quicker and quicker, its occupants too much taken up with themselves to have time to waste on dull other people. In another minute it was out of sight, but the ghost did not come back. The new Evelyn lingered upon the steps, waiting for it to return. There was such a blank, empty ache in the place where her heart used to be. It seemed impossible that that skurrying little ghost would not come back, nestle again in its own place, and warm up the empty void. But it never came back. The new Evelyn turned and walked into the house.

"Well, it has all gone off very well! Kathleen looked quite nice, though I always do say that a real lace veil is less becoming than tulle. There was a rose and thistle pattern right across her nose, and personally I think those sheaves of lilies are too large. I hope she'll be happy, I am sure! Mr Anderson seems a nice man; but one never knows. It's always a risk going abroad. A young Canadian proposed to me as a girl. I said to him, 'Do you think you could be nice enough to make up to me for home, and country, and relations and friends, and associations and customs, and everything I have valued all my life?' He said it was a matter of opinion. What did I think? I said it was ridiculous nonsense. No man was nice enough! So he married Rosa Bates, and I hear their second boy is a hunchback. You are eating nothing, my dear. Take a scone. Let's hope it's all for the best!"

"Best or worst, it's done now," I said gloomily. Basil Anderson was certainly "nice," and, unlike Aunt Emmeline, my sister Kathleen entertained no doubt that he could fill every gap—home, country, friends, a selection of elderly aunts, and even that only sister who had so far acted as buffer between herself and the storms of life. At this very moment the mole-coloured toque was probably reclining comfortably on the tweed shoulder, and a smile was replacing tears as a big booming voice cried comfortably:—

"Evelyn! Oh, she'll be all right! Don't worry about Evelyn, honey. Think of me!"

Following the line of the least resistance, I took the scone and chewed it vacantly. Figuratively speaking, it tasted of dust and ashes; literally, it tasted of nothing at all, and the tea was just a hot fluid which had to be swallowed at intervals, as medicine is swallowed of necessity.

Aunt Emmeline helped herself systematically from each of the plates in turn, working steadily through courses of bread and butter, sandwiches, scone, petits fours, and wedding cake. She was a scraggy woman, with the appetite of a giant. Kathie and I used to wonder where the food went! Probably to her tongue!

"Of course," said Aunt Emmeline, continuing her thoughts aloud, as was her disconcerting habit, "Kathleen has money, and that gives a wife a whip hand. I begged her only yesterday to stand up for herself. Those little fair women are so apt to be bullied. I knew a case. Well, mind, we'll hope it mayn't come to that! If she is sensible and doesn't expect too much, things may work out all right. Especially for the first years. If anything does go wrong, it will be your fault, Evelyn, for spoiling her as you have done."

"Thanks very much for the cheering thought," I said snappily. Aunt Emmeline helped herself to a sandwich, and blinked with exasperating forbearance.

"Not cheerful, perhaps, but it may be useful! If you'd taken my advice. It's never too late to mend, Evelyn."

"Even at twenty-six?"

Aunt Emmeline surveyed me critically. She was taking stock, and considering just how young, how old, how fresh, how damaged those lengthy years had left my physical charms. I looked in a long glass opposite, and took stock at the same time. A smart young woman—oh, very smart indeed, for as Kathie had argued, if you can't "blow" expense for your only sister's wedding, when on earth are you going to do it? Light brown hair, "still untouched by grey," hazel eyes with very long, very finely marked eyebrows (secretly they are the joy of my life!) good features, and a sulky expression. The old Evelyn used to be very good-looking—(she's dead now, so I can say so, as much as I like)—this new one is good-looking too, in a disagreeable, unattractive kind of way. If you saw her dining at the next table in an hotel you would say, "Rather a fine-looking girl!" And the man with you would reply, "Think so! Too much of a temper for my fancy. Glad she don't belong to me." I realised as much as I looked in the glass, and that made me crosser than ever. If I had been alone, able to cry, or storm, or grizzle, or go to bed just as I liked, I could have borne it better; but fancy losing your home, and your occupation, and the only person in all the world you really loved, all in one day, and coming straight from the wreck to have tea with Aunt Emmeline!

The sandwich was finished before the inspection. A piece of scone followed.

"Of course," said Aunt Emmeline, "you are not in your first bloom. That we can't expect. Your colour is a little harder and more fixed" (the figure in the glass gave a spasmodic jerk. The sulky expression was pierced by a gleam of fear. "Fixed!" Good gracious! She might be talking of those old people who have little red lines over their cheek-bones in the place of "bloom". It's ridiculous to say I am "fixed". It is a matter of indifference to me how I look, but I do insist on truth!) "and your air of pride and independence is unbecoming in an unmarried girl. Men like to see a girl sweet, clinging, pliant."

"What men?"

"All men!"

"Oh! And in my case, for instance, to whom would you suggest I should proceed to cling?"

"That," said Aunt Emmeline briskly, "is precisely what I wish to discuss." She lifted the last morsel of scone from the plate, stared at it, and popped it into her mouth. "My dear, has it ever occurred to you to think what you are going to do?"

"Aunt Emmeline, for the last months it has rarely occurred to me to think of anything else!"

"Very well then, that's all to the good. As I said to Aunt Eliza, let us leave her alone till Kathleen has gone. Evelyn is obstinate, and if you interfere she will only grow more pig-headed. Let her find things out for herself. Experience, Eliza, will do more than either you or I. Sooner or later, even Evelyn must realise that you can't run a house, and garden, and stable, in the same way on half the ordinary income. Now that Kathleen is married, she naturally takes with her her own fortune."

She looked at me expectantly, and I smiled, another stiff, marionette smile—and said:—

"How true! Curiously enough, that fact has already penetrated to my dull brain!"

"Now I do hope and pray, Evelyn, that you are not going to argue with me," cried Aunt Emmeline, with a sudden access of energy which was positively startling. "It's ridiculous saying that because there is only one mistress instead of two, expense will therefore be halved. I have kept house for thirty-three years, and have never once allowed an order at the door, so I may be supposed to know. Nonsense! The rent is the same, I suppose, and the rates, and the taxes. You must sit down to a decent meal even if you are alone, and it takes the same fire to cook four potatoes as eight. Your garden must be kept going, and if you do away with one horse, you still require a groom, I suppose, to look after the rest. Don't talk to me of economising; you'd be up to your neck in debt before a year was over—if you weren't in a lunatic asylum with nervous depression, living alone in that hole-in-a-corner old house, with not a soul but servants to speak to from morning till night. You have a nervous temperament, Evelyn. You may not realise it, but I remember as a child how you used to fidget and dash about. Dear Kathie sat still and sucked her thumb. I said at the time, 'Evelyn is better-looking, but mark my words, Kathie will be married first!' And you see! It's because I love you, my dear, and you are my dear sister's child that I warn you to beware of living alone in that house!"

"Thank you so much," I said nastily. (When people presage a remark by saying that they only say it because they love you, you may lay long odds that it's going to be disagreeable!) "It certainly sounds a gruesome prospect. Not even a choice between bankruptcy and mania, but a certainty of both! And within a year, too! Such a short run for one's money! Aunt Eliza had some suggestion to make, then? And you evidently approved. Would you mind telling me exactly what it was?"

"That is what I am trying to do, but you will interrupt. Naturally, your home is with us, your mother's sisters. You shall have the blue room over the porch. If you wish it, we are willing that you should bring your own pictures. The silver and valuables you can send to the bank, and the furniture can be sold. You shall pay us five guineas a week, and we will keep your horse, and house old Bridget if you don't want to part from her. She can attend to your room, and sleep in the third attic. There would be no extras except washing, and a fire in your room. You know how we live; every comfort, but no excess. I disapprove of excess. Eliza and I have often regretted that you and Kathie have such extravagant ways. Early tea, as if you were old women, and bare shoulders for dinner. You may laugh, my dear, but it's no laughing matter. One thing leads to another. You can't wear an evening dress and sit down to a chop. Soup and fish and an entree before you know where you are. We have high tea. You would save money on evening gowns alone. A dressy blouse is all that is required."

Aunt Emmeline paused to draw breath, twitched, jerked, and resolutely braced herself to say a difficult thing.

"And—and we shall welcome you, my dear! We shall be p-pleased to have you!"

Through all her protestation of welcome, through all her effort at warmth, the plain, unflattering truth forced its way out. To entertain a young independent niece beneath their roof might seem to the two aunts a duty, but, most certainly, most obviously, it would not be a pleasure! I was quite convinced that for myself it would be a fiery trial to accept the offer; but it was a shock to realise that the aunts felt the same!

I reviewed the situation from the two points of view, the while Aunt Emmeline feverishly hacked at the hard sugar coating of the cake. For a young, comparatively young woman, to go from the liberty of her own home to share the stuffy, conventional, dull, proper, do-nothing-but-fuss-and-talk-for-ever-about-nothing life of two old ladies in a country town would obviously be a change for the worse; but for the aforesaid old ladies to have their trivial life enriched by the advent of a young, attractive, and (when she is in a good temper!) lively and amusing niece, this should surely be a joy and a gain! But it wasn't a joy. The poor old dears were shuddering at the thought that their peaceful routine might be spoiled. They didn't want "a bright young influence!" They wanted to be free to do as they liked— sup luxuriously on cocoa and an egg, turn up black cashmere skirts over wadded petticoats, and doze before the fire, discuss the servants' failings by the hour, drink glasses of hot water, and go to bed at ten o'clock.—As she hacked at the sugar crust, the corners of Aunt Emmeline's lips turned more and more downward. My silence had been taken for consent, and in the recesses of her heart she was saying to herself, "Farewell! a long farewell to all our frowstings!" I felt sorry for the poor old soul, and hastened to put her out of her misery.

"It's very good of you, Aunt Emmeline. And Aunt Eliza. Thank you very much, but I have quite decided to have a home of my own, even though I can't afford to keep on The Clough. I am going to live in London."

Just for one second, uncontrollable relief and joy gleamed from the watching eyes, then the mask fell, and she valiantly tried to look distressed.

"Ah, Evelyn! Obstinate again! Setting yourself up to know better than your elders. There'll be a bitter awakening for you some day, my dear, and when it comes you will be glad enough of your old aunties' help. Well! the door will never be closed against you. However hard and ungrateful you may be, we shall remember our duty to our sister's child. Whenever you choose to return—"

"I shall see the candle burning in the casement window!"

She looked so pained, so shocked, that if I had had any heart left I should have put my arms round her neck, and begged her pardon with a kiss; but I had no heart, only something cold, and hard, and tight, which made it impossible to be loving or kind, so I said hastily:—

"I shall certainly want to pay you a visit some day. It is very kind of you to promise to have me. After living in London, Ferbay will seem quite a haven of rest."

Aunt Emmeline accepted the olive branch with a sniff.

"But why London?" she inquired.

"Why not?" I replied. It was the only answer it seemed possible to make!



CHAPTER TWO.

AUNT ELIZA SPEAKS.

It is two days after the wedding. Kathie has been Mrs Basil Anderson for forty-eight hours, and no doubt looks back upon her spinster existence as a vague, unsatisfactory dream. She is reclining on a deck-chair on board the great ship which is bearing her to her new home, and her devoted husband is hovering by her side. I can just imagine how she looks, in her white blanket coat, and the blue hood—just the right shade to go with her eyes—an artful little curl, which has taken her quite three minutes to arrange, falling over one temple, and her spandy little shoes stretched out at full length. I know those shoes! By special request I rubbed the soles on the gravel paths, so that they might not look too newly married. Quite certainly Kathie will be throwing an occasional thought to the girl she left behind her, a "poor old Evelyn!" with a dim, pitiful little ache at the thought of my barren lot. Quite certainly, too, for one moment when she remembers, there will be twenty when she forgets. Quite right, of course! Quite natural, and wife-like, and just as it should be, and only a selfish, ungenerous wretch could wish it to be otherwise. All the same—

I wrenched myself out of the aunts' clutches yesterday morning on the plea of going home to tidy up. Though the wedding took place from their house, all the preparatory muddle happened here, and it will take days and days to go through Kathie's rooms alone, and decide what to keep, what to give away, and what to burn outright.

The drawers were littered with pretty rubbish—oddments of ribbon, old gloves, crumpled flowers, and the like. It goes against the principles of any right-minded female to give away tawdry fineries, and yet—and yet—Could I bear to destroy them? To see those little white gloves shrivel up in the flames, the high heeled little slippers crumple and split? It would seem like making a bonfire of Kathie herself.

I tidied, and arranged, and packed into fresh parcels, working at fever heat with my hands, while all the time the voice in my brain kept repeating, "Now, Evelyn, what are you going to do? What are you going to do, my dear, with your blank new life?"

To leave the old home and start afresh—that is as far as I have got so far—but I must make up my mind, and quickly too, for this house is too full of memories to be a healthy shelter. Kathie and I have lived here ever since we left school, first with father, then after his death with an old governess-companion. Since her marriage a year ago we have been alone, luxuriating in our freedom, and soothing the protestations of aunts by constant promises to look out for a successor. Then Kathie met Basil Anderson, and no one was cruel enough to grudge us our last months together.

Now I am alone, with no one in the world to consider beside myself, with my own home to make, my own work to find, my own happiness to discover. Does it make it better or worse, I wonder, that I am rich, and the question of money does not enter in? Ninety-nine people out of a hundred would answer at once that it is better, but I'm not so sure. If I had a tiny income, just enough to ensure me from absolute want, hard regular work would be necessary, and might be good for body and brain. I want work! I must have it if I am to keep going, but the mischief is, I have never been taught to be useful, and I have no idea what I could do! I can drive a car. I can ride anything that goes on four legs. I can dance, and skate, and arrange flowers with taste. I can re-trim a hat, and at a pinch make a whole blouse. I can order a nice meal, and grumble when it is spoiled. I can strum on the piano and paint Christmas cards. I can entertain a house-party of big-wigs.

I have also (it seems a queer thing to say!) a kind of genius for simply—being kind! The poor people in the village call me "the kind one," to distinguish me from Kathie, who, poor lamb! never did an unkind thing in her life. But she didn't always understand, that was the difference. When they did wrong she was shocked and estranged, while I felt dreadfully, dreadfully sorry, and more anxious than ever to help them again. Kathie used to think me too mild, but I don't know! The consequences of sin are so terrible in themselves, that I always long to throw in a lot of help with the blame. The people about here seem to know this by instinct, for they come to me in their troubles and anxieties and—shames, poor souls! and open their hearts as they do to nobody else. "Sure then, most people are kind in patches," an old woman said to me one day; "'tis yourself that is kind all round!"

I don't know that it's much credit to do what is no effort, and certainly if I could choose a role in life it would be to play the part of a good fairy, comforting people, cheering them up, helping them over stiles, springing delightful little surprises upon them, just where the road looked blocked! The trouble is that I've no gift for organised charity. I have a pretty middling strong will of my own ("pigheadedness" Aunt Emmeline calls it!) and committees drive me daft. They may be useful things in their way, but it's not my way. I want to get to work on my own, and not to sit talk, talk, talking over every miserable, piffling little detail. No! If I play fairy, I must at least be free to wave my own wand, and to find my own niche where I can wave it to the best advantage. The great, all-absorbing question is—where and how to begin?

Advertisements are the orthodox refuge of the perplexed. Suppose, for the moment, that I advertised, stating my needs and qualifications in the ordinary shilling-a-line fashion. It would run something like this:—

"Lady. Young. Healthy. Good appearance. Seeks occupation for a loving heart. Town or country. Travel if required."

It sounds like an extract from a matrimonial paper. I wonder how many, or, to speak more accurately, how few bachelors would exhibit any anxiety to occupy the vacancy. I might add "private means," and then the answers would arrive in sacks, I should have the offer of a hundred husbands, and a dozen kind homes, with hot and cold water, cheerful society, a post office within a mile, and a golf course in the neighbourhood. A hundred mothers of families would welcome me to their bosoms, and a hundred spinsters would propose the grand tour and intellectual companionship; but I want to be loved for myself, and in return to love, and to help—

I am not thinking of marriage. Some day I shall probably fall in love, like everyone else, and be prepared to go off to the Ural Mountains or Kamtschatka, or any other remote spot, for the privilege of accompanying my Jock. I shall probably be just as mad, and deluded, and happy, and ridiculous as any other girl, when my turn comes; but it hasn't come yet, and I'm not going to sit still and twiddle my thumbs pending its approach. I'm in no hurry! It is in my mind that I should prefer a few preliminary independent years.

Aunt Eliza drove over this afternoon to "cheer me up". She means well, but her cheering capacities are not great. Her mode of attack is first to enlarge on every possible ill, and reduce one to a state of collapse from pure self-pity, and then to proceed to waft the same troubles aside with a casual flick of the hand. She sat down beside me, stroked my hand (I hate being pawed!) and set plaintively to work.

"Poor dear! I know you are feeling desolate. It's so hard for you, isn't it, dear, having no other brother or sister? Makes it all the harder, doesn't it, dear! And Kathie leant on you so! You must feel that your work is gone. Stranded! That's the feeling, isn't it? I do understand. But"—(sudden change to major key)—"she is happy! You must forget yourself in her joy!"

I said, "Oh! yes," and removed my hand under pretence of feeling for a handkerchief. Her face lengthened again, and she drew a deep sigh.

(Minor.) "I always feel it is the last straw for a woman when she has to give up her home in a time of trouble. A home is a refuge, and you have made The Clough so charming. It will be a wrench to move all the dear old furniture, and to leave the garden where you and Kathie were so happy together. Wherever you look, poor dear, you must feel a fresh stab. Associations!—so precious, aren't they, to a woman's heart? (Major.) But material things are of small value, after all, dear. We learn that as we grow old! A true woman can make a home wherever she goes—"

"I—I suppose she can."

(Minor.) "But of course the loneliness is a handicap. Having no one who needs you, no one to welcome you home. So sad! Especially in the evenings! Solitary people are apt to grow morose. You will miss Kathie's bright happy ways. (Quick change!) Well! Well! No one need be lonely in this world. There are thousands of suffering souls fainting by the wayside for lack of the very help which it is in your power to give. If I could just tell you of some cases I know!"

I pricked up my ears.

"I wish you would. I like to hear about other people's troubles!"

"My dear! Such a startling way of putting things! You don't mean it. I know your tender heart! Of course the worst cases are in the big cities. London, now! Every time I go to London, and travel as one is obliged to do from one end of the city to the other, I look out upon those endless rows and rows of streets of small houses, and at the great towering blocks of flats at every turn, and feel appalled at the thought of the misery that goes on inside!"

"And the joy!"

"My dear, what kind of joy can there be in such places?"

"Not your kind perhaps, nor mine, but real enough all the same. People love one another, and have their own pleasures and interests. Little clerks come home to little wives and tell of little successes. Women in ugly houses buy some new piece of ugliness, and find it beautiful, and rejoice. Babies toddle about—fat, pretty things, with curly mops."

She stared at me blankly.

"Curly mops! What does it matter whether their hair curls or not? Ah, my dear, in such circumstances children are not all joy. I had a letter from a friend the other day—Lady Templar. We were at school together. Her nephew, Wenham Thorold, has lost his wife. Married at twenty-three. So silly! A clergyman's daughter, without a sou. Now, of course, she dies, and leaves him with five small children."

"Very inconsiderate!"

"Very inconvenient for the poor man! Only thirty-five, and a baby in arms. How will it help him if its hair curls? He puts the elder children to bed himself after his day's work. Quite pathetic to hear of! Wouldn't he have been happier with one?"

"Possibly—for the present. Later on the five will help him, and he will be glad and proud."

"Children dragged up by strangers are not always a credit and pride. I hope these may be, but—If you'd heard my friend's tales! They live in a flat. Quite a cheap block in some unfashionable neighbourhood. No society. He has one small maid and a housekeeper to look after the children. Most inefficient, Adela says. Holes in their stockings, and shrieks the moment their father is out of the building!"

"What was he like?"

"He? Who? Oh, the poor father! Handsome, she said, but haggard. The Templar nose. Poor, helpless man!"

A horrible feeling surged over me. I felt it rise, swell, crash over my head like a flood of water—a conviction that I was listening to no tale, but to a call—that Providence had heard my cry for work, and had answered it in the person of Wenham Thorold—handsome and haggard— in the person of little Thorold girls with holes in their stockings, of little Thorold boys who shrieked, and a Thorold baby with problematic hair that might, or might not, curl.

I cowered at the prospect. All very well to talk of my own way, and my own niche, all very well to dream of fairy wands, and of the soothing, self-ingratiating role of transforming other people's grey into gold, while the said people sat agape, transfixed with gratitude and admiration, but—how extraordinarily prosaic and unromantic the process became when worked out in sober black and white. To mend stockings, to stifle shrieks, to be snubbed by a cross housekeeper; probably, in addition, to be sent to Coventry by the handsome and haggard one, under suspicion of manoeuvring for his affections. Yes, at the slightest interference he would certainly put me down as a designing female, with designs on his hand. At this last thought I sniggered, and Aunt Eliza looked severe.

"No subject for mirth, Evelyn. I'm surprised! You who are always talking of wanting to help—"

"But could I help him? I will, if I can. I have money and time, and am longing for work. Could I banish the housekeeper, and introduce a variation by paying to take her place?"

Aunt Eliza looked at the ceiling, and informed it obviously, though dumbly, that when nieces talked nonsense it was waste of breath to reply. Outraged dignity spoke in her rigid back, in the thin contour of her cheek.

"A Wastneys to speak of being a housekeeper!"

I realised that I had gone too far, for to jest at the expense of the family pride was an unpardonable offence, so I added hastily:—

"Or I might take a flat hard by, and do good by stealth! Win the housekeeper's heart, and then take charge of the five when she gads forth. Some of the other tenants might need help too. In those great big buildings, where scores of families live under one roof, there must always be somebody who needs a helping hand. It would be rather a charming role to play good fairy to the mansions!"

Even as I spoke a flash of inspiration seemed to light up my dark brain. My own careless words had created a picture which charmed, which intrigued. It was as though a veil had lifted, and I caught sight of beckoning hands. I saw before me a great, grim building, storey after storey rising in unbroken line, the dusty windows staring into the windows of a twin building across the road, just as tall, just as unlovely, just as desolate. I saw a bare entrance hall, in which pale-faced men and women came and went. I passed with them into so-called "homes" where electric light burned day and night, and little children played in nurseries about the size of a comfortable bed. Everybody, as it seemed, was worn down with the burden of the inevitable daily task, so that there was no energy left for beauty, for gaiety, for joy. Suppose—oh, suppose there lived in that building one tenant whose mission it was to supply that need, to be a Happiness-Monger, a Fairy Godmother, a—a—a living bran pie of unexpected and stimulating helps.

For the first moment since that motor car turned out of the gate, bearing away the bride and bridegroom, a glow of warmth took the place of the blank ache in the place where my heart used to be. It hurt a little, just as it hurts when the circulation returns to frozen limbs, but it was a wholesome hurt, a hundred times better than the calm that had gone before. There glowed through my veins the exultation of the martyr. Now farewell to ease and luxury, to personal desires and ambitions. Henceforth I lived only to serve the race!

"Oh, Auntie, it's a glorious idea. Why didn't I think of it before? My vocation is ready and waiting for me, but I should never have found it if it hadn't been for you! Why shouldn't I take a little flat in some unfashionable block, and play good fairy to my neighbours? A free, unmarried woman is so useful! There ought to be one in every family, a permanent 'Aunt Mary,' to lend a hand in its joys and sorrows, its spring cleanings, and its—jams! Nowadays Aunt Marys are so scarce. They are absorbed in their own schemes. Why shouldn't I take up the role, and be a universal fairy to the mansions—devoting my idle time to other people who need me, ready to love and to scold, to bake and to brew, to put my fingers in other people's pies, leaving behind sugar for them, and pulling out plums for myself of soothing, and comfort, and joy!" My voice broke suddenly. I was awfully lonely, and the thought of those figurative plums cut to the heart. The tears trickled down my cheeks; I forgot where I was, and to whom I was speaking, and just sobbed out all that was in my heart.

"Oh! Oh! To be needed again! To have some one to care for! That would help—that would fill the gap—that would make life worth while."

Instinctively I stretched out my hands, in appeal for sympathy and understanding.

"Oh, don't be silly!" said Aunt Eliza.



CHAPTER THREE.

CHARMION FANE INTERVENES.

During the next days the idea of making my home in London, and playing fairy godmother to the tenants in a block of flats, took an ever-deepening root in my heart. I pondered on it incessantly and worked out plans as to ways and means.

Bridget should go with me as general factotum, for my method of living must be as simple as possible, since the neighbours would be more likely to confide their troubles to the ear of one who was, apparently, in the same position of life as themselves. Smart clothing would be unnecessary also, and a hundred and one luxuries of a leisured life. I mentally drew up a list of things taboo, and regarded it with—let me be honest—lingering regret. I was quite, quite willing to deny myself, but it is folly to pretend that it didn't cost a pang. I like good clothes and dainty meals, and motor-cars, and space, and luxury, and people to wait upon me when I'm tired, and unlimited supplies of flowers, and fruit, and hot water, to say nothing of my own little share of variety and fun. Down at the bottom of my heart, a lurking doubt of myself stirred into life, and spoke with insistent voice:—

"All very well, Evelyn, but can you keep it up? Are you brave enough, strong enough, unselfish enough to give up all that has hitherto made your life, and to be satisfied with living through others? Won't the time come when nature will rebel, and demand a turn for yourself? And then, Evelyn, then what are you going to do? Could you ever respect yourself again if, having put your shoulder to the wheel, you drew back and lapsed into selfish indifference?"

As for Aunt Emmeline, she turned on the cold tap, and kept it on at a continuous trickle.

"Exaggerated nonsense! You always were exaggerated, Evelyn, from a child. Be kind, of course; that's only your duty, but I call it officious and presumptuous to interfere in other people's lives. You of all people! At your age! With your looks—"

"What have my looks to do with it?"

"My dear, it is not your fault, but I've said it before, and I say it again—you are showy! There is something about you which makes people stare. Dear Kathie could pass along quietly, or sit in a corner of a room and be conveniently overlooked, but you—I am not paying you a compliment, my dear, I consider it is a misfortune!—you take the eye! Wherever you go, people will notice you and gossip about your movements. At twenty-six, and with your appearance, I ask you candidly, as aunt to niece—do you consider yourself a suitable person to live alone, and minister to widowers?"

"Well, if you put it like that, I don't! But what of the children who shriek, and have holes in their stockings? Mightn't they like me better just because I am young and look nice?"

I laughed as I spoke, but Aunt Emmeline was so pleased that I showed some glimmerings of reason, that she said suavely:—

"Wait ten years, dear! Till your hair is grey! You will age early with those sharp features. In ten or twelve years you can do as you please."

I thought, but did not say:—

"My dear aunt, but I shall do it now!"

A week passed by, while I pondered and worried, and then at last came a "lead" from without. A morning dawned when Bridget brought my letters with my early tea, and set them down on the table by my bed.

"Four letters this morning, and only one of the lot you'll be caring to see."

Bridget takes a deep interest in my correspondence, and always introduces a letter with a note of warning or congratulation: "That bothering creature is worrying at you again!"

"There's a laugh you'll be having over Master George's fun!"

"You paid that bill before. Don't be letting them come over you with their tricks!"

It is, of course, reprehensible behaviour on the part of a maid, presumptuous, familiar, interfering; but Bridget is Bridget, and I might as soon command her not to use her tongue, as to stop taking an interest in anything that concerns "Herself". As a matter of fact, I don't try. Servility, and decorum, and a machine-like respect are to be hired for cash at any registry office; but Bridget's red-hot devotion, her child-like, unshakable conviction that everything that Miss Evelyn does and says, or doesn't say and doesn't do, is absolutely right—ah, that is beyond price! No poor forms and ceremony shall stand between Bridget and me!

I lifted the letters, and had no difficulty in selecting the one which would "give me joy". Strangely enough, it was written by one of the newest of my friends, one whose very existence had been unknown to me two years before.

We had met at a summer hotel where Kathie and I chanced to be staying, and never shall I forget my first sight of Charmion Fane as she trailed into the dining-room and seated herself at a small table opposite our own. She was so tall and pale and shadowy in the floating grey chiffon cloak that covered her white dress, she lay back in her chair with such languor, and drooped her heavy eyelids with an air of such superfine indifference to her fellow-men, that Kathie and I decided then and there that she was succumbing to the effects of a dangerous operation, and— with care—might be expected to last six or eight weeks.

We held fast to this conclusion till the next morning, when we met our invalid striding over the moors, clad in abbreviated tweeds, and the manniest of hard felt hats. Kathie said that she was plain. I said, "Well, not plain exactly, but queer!" At dinner the same night, we amended the verdict, and voted her "rather nice". Twenty-four hours later she represented our ideal of female charm, and we figuratively wept and rent our garments because she exhibited no interest in our charming selves. An inspection of the visitors' book proved that her name was "Mrs Fane," but that was not particularly enlightening, especially as no home address was given.

But on the third day, just as we were beginning to concoct dark schemes by means of which we could force acquaintanceship, the "grey lady" entered the lounge, marched unhesitatingly across to our corner, stood staring down at us as we sat on the sofa, and said shortly:—

"This is ridiculous! We are wasting time! We three are the only really interesting people in the hotel; we are dying to know each other—and we know it! Come for a walk!" And lo! in another minute we were on the high road, Kathie on one side, I on the other, gazing at her with adoring eyes, while she said briskly:—

"My name is Charmion Fane. I am quite alone. No children. Thirty-two. I don't live anywhere in particular. Just prowl round from one place to another. If there are any other dull, necessary details that you want to know, ask!—and get them over. Then we can talk!"

We laughed, and replied with similar biographical sketches on our own account, and then we did talk—about books, and travels, and hobbies, and mankind in general, and gradually, growing more and more intimate (or rather conscious of our intimacy, for we were friends after the first hour!) of our personal hopes, fears, difficulties, and mental outlooks.

When we came in, Kathie and I faced each other in our bedroom, almost incoherent with pleasure and excitement.

"Well! What an afternoon! My dear, isn't she—" Kathie waved her hands to express a superlative beyond the power of words.

"She is!"

"The most fascinating, the most interesting, the most original—"

"And she likes us, too! As much as we like her. Isn't it glorious?"

"She hasn't spoken to another soul. How could we have called her plain! Evelyn, did you notice that she never spoke of her husband? She wears grey and violet, so he has probably been dead for some years, but she never referred to him in the slightest possible way."

"Would it be likely, Kathie, in our very first talk?"

"Yes!" declared Kathie sturdily. "Not intentionally, perhaps, but with ordinary people it would have slipped out. 'We went to Italy. My husband liked this or that.' She never advanced even as far as the 'we'. She must have been dreadfully, dreadfully fond of him!"

I wondered! The death of a beloved husband or wife is a devastating blow; but when the memory is beautiful, time softens it into a hallowed sweetness. It is the bitter sorrow which refuses to be healed, which fills the heart with a ceaseless unrest. Not even to Kathie would I express my doubts, but the conviction weighed upon me that the cloud which hung over Charmion Fane was the remembrance of unhappiness rather than joy!

For the next fortnight the greater part of our time was spent in Charmion's company; generally we were a party of three, but in every day there came a precious hour or so when I had her alone, and hugged the secret confidence that the tete-a-tete was as welcome to her as to myself.

Everything that was to be told about my own uneventful life she knew before many days were passed, but of her own past she never spoke. From incidental remarks we found that she had been the godchild of a well-known politician long since dead, and that at eighteen she had been presented at Court, which two discoveries proved useful, as they were enough to convince the aunts that Charmion was a safe and desirable acquaintance.

Before she was twenty the scene had apparently shifted to America, where she had lived for several years, and presumably—though she never said so—had met her husband and spent her brief married life. Widowed— childless—thirty-two. Those few words supplied all that I knew of Charmion Fane, except the obvious facts which were patent to the eye.

She was oddly undemonstrative, and for all her charm had a manner which made it impossible to approach one step nearer than she herself decreed. Even when it came to the moment of saying good-bye, I could not tell whether she wished to continue our friendship, or would be content to let it drop as a passing incident of travel; but to my joy she held on to my hand with a grip which was almost an appeal, and her thin, finely-cut lips twitched once and again. She looked full into my face with her strange eyes, the pupil large, the iris a light grey, ringed with an edge of black, and said simply, "I'll miss you! But—it will go on. We will always be friends." That was all, and during the two years which had passed since that day we had met only once, for another short summer holiday, and repeated invitations to The Clough had received the same refusal—"I am not ready for visit-making."

Letters I had received in plenty, and she had sent Kathie a handsome— really an extraordinarily handsome gift on her marriage, and to me the dearest of letters, understanding everything without being told, entering into my varying moods with exquisite comprehension. In return, I had poured out my heart, telling her of my loneliness, my difficulty about the next step, and now, at last, here came the reply.

I sent Bridget away, drank my tea at a gulp, and settled down to read in luxurious enjoyment. It was a longer letter than I had yet received, and I had a premonition that it would clear the way. But I did not realise how epoch-making it was to prove.

"Dear Evelyn Wastneys,—I've been through it, my dear, and I know! It doesn't bear talking of, so we won't talk, but just pass on. What next? you ask. I have been trying to solve that problem for the last four years, and am no nearer a solution, so I can't tell you, my dear, but I have an idea which might possibly provide a half-way house for us both till the clouds lift.

"This summer I happened—literally happened!—upon a small country place about two hours' rail from town. An agent would describe it as a 'desirable gentleman's residence, comprising four entertaining rooms and eight bedrooms, glass, stabling, and grounds of four acres, artistically laid out'. But never mind the agent; take it from me that that house is ideal. Long, low, irregular rooms just waiting to be made beautiful; no set garden, but a wilderness of flowers, and a belt of real woodland; dry soil, all the sun that is to be had, and an open country-side agreeably free from villadom. I was tempted—badly tempted, but could not face settling down alone. Only last week the agent wrote to me again.

"Evelyn, we fit each other; we are friends by instinct. How would you like to take that house with me for the next two or three years, and furnish it between us with our best 'bits'?

"Understand, before we go any further—not for a moment do I suggest that we settle down to a definite home, and a jog-trot country life. I couldn't stand it for one, and I doubt whether you could either, but—we suit each other, Evelyn; there's that mysterious psychological link between us which makes it good to be together. I have a feeling that we could put in some good times in that house!

"Financially, it would be an economy—we should save storage of furniture, and have a convenient refuge in case of illness. The place is cheap, and could be run with quite a small staff, and would be a pleasant means of returning hospitalities. We could settle down for as long as it suited us—three months, two months, a few weeks, as the case might be—and then, when the impulse to roam came upon us, we should simply rise up and depart. I should never ask where you were going. If you asked me, I should not reply. Probably I should not know. On certain months of the year the house might become the exclusive property of one owner, when she might invite her own friends, and disport herself as she pleased. Again, we might devote a certain period to charity, and entertain lame dogs. There's no end to the good and the pleasure that might be got out of that house. 'Pastimes' is its name; isn't it quaint and suggestive? And on the enclosed sheet you will behold elaborate calculations of the sum which it would cost to run. The figures are over the mark, for I never delude myself by under-calculating in money matters. For my own part, I can pay up, and have enough over to wander at will. Can you do the same? If not, say no at once, and the project is buried for evermore. You must not be tied. I refuse to be a party to shutting you up in the depths of the country for the whole year round. You have had enough of that. What you need now is movement, and the jostle of other lives; but if, in addition, you can afford a rest-house, a summer lodgment, a sanatorium for mind and body, and a meeting-place with a friend, then pack your box, Evelyn, come and look at Pastimes with me!

"Your friend, Charmion Fane."

I threw down the letter and seized the sheet of calculations in an agony of eagerness. A glance at the final addition brought relief. Yes! I could do it—pay my full share, and still have a handsome margin left over. Once satisfied on that point, there could not be a moment's hesitation, for it would be glorious to share a house with Charmion, and to have her companionship for some months of each year. My whole life was transfixed by the prospect, and yet she was right! I could not have accepted the offer if it had meant a permanent settling down to a luxurious country life. I was too restless, too eager for experience, too anxious to discover my very own work, and to do it in my very own way.

The picture of that old English house, with its panelled rooms, set in a surrounding wealth of flowers and green, gripped hold of my imagination; but here was an odd thing. It was powerless to banish another picture, in which there was no rose and no blue, but only dull neutral tints—the picture of a basement flat in a grey London road, with electric burners instead of sun, and for view, a vista of passing feet belonging to bodies cut off from sight.

I could not, even for Charmion, give up the prospect of that flat, and all that it had come to mean; but—let me acknowledge it honestly—it was balm and relief to know that I could have a means of escape, and that at culminating moments of weariness, when everything seemed wry and disappointing, and the whole weight of seven storeys seemed to be pressing down on my brains, I could bang my door, turn the key, and fly off to peace and beauty, and a healing pandering to personal tastes!

Woman is a complex character, and I am no better than my kind. I feel it in me to be an angel of self-denial and patience for, say, the third of the year! I know for a certain fact that I should have a bad lapse if I tried to keep it up for the remaining thirds. Now, thanks to Charmion, the way was made easy, and I could put my hand to the plough without fear of drawing back.

I leapt out of bed in a tingle of excitement. Impossible to lie still when things were happening at such a rapid rate. The sun was shining, and, looking at a belt of trees in the distance, I could catch a faint shimmer of green. It is perhaps the most intoxicating moment of the year, when that first gleam of spring greets the eye, and this special year it held an added exhilaration, for it seemed to speak of the budding of fresh personal life.

I laughed; I sang; the depression of the last weeks fell from me like a cloak, and I faced the future glad and undismayed. With the reading of that letter had come an end to indecision. I now knew exactly what I was about to do. Write to Charmion, and fix the earliest possible date for a meeting in town. From town we would inspect Pastimes, the while I instituted inquiries for a suitable flat. The two homes secured, I would then return to The Clough, and divide my furniture into two batches, send them off to their several destinations, and follow myself, hot foot. It would take some time to put both dwellings in order, but it would be interesting work. I love the making of interiors, and if Pastimes must be fitted beautifully to do justice to itself, still more would it be needful to turn the uninspiring "flat" into a haven of comfort and cheer.

At this precise moment my prancing brought me in front of the long mirror, and what I beheld therein brought me up with a gasp. Twenty-six is quite a venerable age, but at moments of happiness and exhilaration it has a disconcerting trick of switching back to seventeen. That smiling, bright-eyed, pink-and-white-cheeked girl in the glass, with two long pigtails of hair hanging to her waist, looked really absurdly juvenile! Given a small stretch of imagination, you might have believed that she was a flapper preparing for her last term at school; by no possible mental effort could you have placed her as a douce maiden lady, living alone in London, devoting herself to good works in a manner as adventurous as it was unusual.

Mothers of children would insinuate that I was a child myself; troubled matrons would purse their lips, and say, "I can't tell you, my dear. You are too young." Certainly, oh, most certainly, men of all ages would put me down as a designing minx! In vain industry, self-sacrifice and generosity—that young face, that bright youthful colouring would nullify all my efforts.

It was true—it was true! I looked, as Aunt Eliza had pointed out, a dozen years too young for the part. People would stare, people would talk, people would advise me to go back and live with my aunts, and wait ten years.

In a frenzy of impatience I seized the two long plaits, and twisted them now this way, now that. Astonishing the difference which hair-dressing can make! I have read of a heroine who passed successfully as her own twin sister by the simple device of plainly brushed hair and puritanical garments, the sister, of course, sporting marcelle waves and Parisian costumes. I dipped my brush in the water-jug and dragged back my own hair in a plastered mass, clamping the plaits to my head. I looked like a Dutch doll! Clean and chubby, and, alas! considerably younger than before. I parted it in the middle, and glued it over my ears. I looked like a naughty schoolgirl, who had had her hair dressed by a maiden aunt. I piled the plaits in a coronet over my forehead; I looked like a portrait of a Norwegian damsel dressed for her bridal. I threw down the brush in disgust, and stamped with impatience.

No use! Not a bit of use! All the hair-dressing in the world could not make me look old, or even approximately middle-aged. The ugliest flannel blouse that was ever made, while it would certainly be hideously unbecoming, could not add one year, let alone ten, to my age.

It was a bitter blow. All that morning I went about pondering the desperate question of how to look old. Aunt Emmeline had prophesied that I should know soon enough, "with those beaked features," but I wanted to know now, not in any permanent, disagreeable fashion, but as a kind of sleight-of-hand trick, by which I could be mature one day and the next in blooming youth. Elderly in London, young at Pastimes. A douce, unremarkable "body" in the basement flat, and in Surrey a lady of leisure, rings on her fingers and bells on her toes!

Aunt Eliza would have cried once more, "Oh, don't be silly!" if I had confronted her with such a problem. I said, "Don't be silly!" to myself many times over in the course of that day, but I persisted in being silly all the same. At the back of my mind lingered the conviction that if I went on thinking long enough a solution would come.

How could I manage to look old? I asked the question of myself every hour of the next few days. I asked it of everyone I met, and was fatuously assured that I demanded the impossible; at long last I asked it of old Bridget, whose sound common sense had come to my rescue times and again.

"Sure, my dear, your husband will manage that for you!" was Bridget's instant solution.

"Not the husband I shall choose!" I replied with easy assurance.

A moment's pause was devoted to the problematical Prince Charming whose mission it would be to keep me young, then I asked tentatively:—

"What shall I look like, Bridget, when I am old?"

Bridget folded her arms and regarded me with a critical stare.

"Your hair will turn grey, and them fine straight brows of yours will grow thin, or maybe fall out altogether, and leave you with none. An' you'll wear spectacles, and have lines round your eyes. But it's neither the grey hairs nor the specs that spoils the looks. It's not them that's the worst!"

I stared at her open-mouthed, trembling between shrinking and curiosity.

"It's the shape of the cheeks!" said Bridget darkly. "Yourself now, and the ladies of your age, it's pretty, slim bits of faces you have, going to a peak at the chin. When you're old, it runs to squares and doubles. Look to your cheeks, miss, if you wants to keep young!" She unfolded her arms, stretched them at full length, and comfortably folded them again. Her broad chest heaved in a cackle of amused reminiscence.

"Sure, d'ye reminder Miss Kathleen when she play-acted the ould lady, the last Christmas party?"

Poor old Bridget! She got the surprise of her life in my reception of that simple question. Jumping out of my chair, dancing round, whooping and hurraying "like a daft thing," as she afterwards described my movements. Then to find herself at one moment enthusiastically patted on the back, and at the next to be pushed towards the door, and exhorted to hurry!—hurry!—to mount to the attic, and bring down the old tin box—well, it was disconcerting, to say the least of it, and Bridget's dignity was visibly upset. She had forgotten that all the "make ups" which we had used for various Christmas festivals were stored away in that old tin box, and consequently could not guess that I was fired with an ambition to try on Kathie's disguise forthwith.

Ten minutes later I was standing before the glass and enthusiastically acclaiming the truth of Bridget's statement, as I stared at the reflection of a spectacled dame with grizzled eyebrows, grey hair banded smoothly over the ears, and a bulging fullness at the base of each cheek! It was the cheeks that made the disguise! Spectacles and hair still left the personality of the face untouched; even the bushy eyebrows were but a partial disguise, but with the insertion of those small india-rubber pads came an utter and radical change. That chubby, square-faced woman was not Evelyn Wastneys. Never by any possibility could she see forty again. So far as propriety went, she might roam alone from one end of the world to the other. If she lived in the largest block of flats that was ever erected, her neighbours would regard her comings and goings with serene indifference. Admirable woman! She did not "take the eye". I met her spectacled glance with a beam of approval.

"I have it!—I have it! I must dress for the part! In London I'll be a middle-aged aunt; in Surrey, a niece—my own niece and namesake, who, of her charity, consents to receive some of her auntie's protegees and give them a good time!" The wildness, the audacity of the project made to me its chief appeal. My life interest had been so sheltered, so hedged round by convention, that at times it had seemed as though there was a wall of division between me and every other human creature. It was so difficult to show oneself in one's real colours, to see and know other people as they really were. But now!—oh, what a unique and exhilarating experience it would be to taste at the same time the romance of youth and the freedom of age, to witness the different sides of other characters as exhibited in their treatment of aunt and niece.

That one illuminating suggestion of Bridget's has cleared the way. From the moment of hearing there had been no real hesitation; before night fell my plans were made, and a telegram to Charmion was speeding on its way. A new life lay before me—a dual life, teeming with interest and possibility. On one hand, my fate must be to some extent bound up with that of Charmion Fane, the most interesting and, in a sense, mysterious woman I had ever met; on the other, I was plunging into the unknown, and transforming myself into a new personality, to meet the new circumstances. I stared at myself in the glass and solemnly shook my grey head.

"Evelyn, my dear, be prepared! You are going to have an adventurous time!"



CHAPTER FOUR.

A TALK IN LONDON.

The aunts expressed a mitigated approval of Charmion's proposal. Mrs Fane came of a good family, and was "very well left". Her married estate, moreover, gave her the privilege of chaperonage, so that the dual establishment might be quite a good arrangement, all things considered, "until—"

"Until!" echoed Aunt Eliza eloquently, nodding coyly at me, while I stared into space with basilisk calm. I object to references to my problematical marriage—especially by aunts. The great "until" never arrived for them, yet they feel quite annoyed because twenty-six has found me still a spinster!

I made my journey to London with a sense of great adventure, Bridget going with me in the dual role of maid and mentor. She was the only person who was to accompany me into the new life, and experience had proved that her sound common sense might be trusted to act as a brake on the wheels of my own impetuosity. We stayed the morning in town, when I interviewed a house agent, and set him on the search for suitable flats, and then we adjourned to the West End to buy a becoming new hat. It always soothes me to buy hats. In times of doubt and depression it is an admirable tonic to the feminine mind. At three o'clock we left Waterloo for our two hours' journey, and arrived at the old-fashioned inn, which was to act as rendezvous, before half-past five.

Charmion was awaiting us in a private sitting-room, long, oak-beamed, spotlessly clean, and a trifle musty, with that faint but unmistakable mustiness which hangs about old rooms and old furniture. Tea was set out on one half of the oak dining-table. The china was of the old-fashioned white and gold order, the cups very wide at the brim and cramped at the handle, and possessing a dear little surprise rose at the base, which peeped out through a hoar frost of sugar as you drained the last gulp. Charmion laughed at my delight over that rose, but I was in the mood to be pleased, to see happy auguries in trivial happenings. I hailed that rose as a type of unexpected joys.

Charmion was dressed in business-like grey tweeds, with a soft grey felt hat slouched over her head. She looked very pale, very frail, intensely, vibratingly alive. This extraordinary contradiction between body and mind made a charm and mystery which it is difficult to express in words. One longed to protect and shield her, to tuck her up on a sofa, and tend her like a fragile child, at the very same moment that mentally one was sitting at her feet, domineered by the influence of a master mind!

I ate an enormous tea, and Charmion crumbled a piece of cake upon her plate; then we had the things taken away, and drew up to the fire, and toasted our toes, and looked into each other's eyes, and exclaimed simultaneously—"Well?"

Hitherto we had talked on general subjects, Kathleen's marriage, the break-up of the old home, my own journey, etcetera, but now we were free from interruption for an hour at least, and the great subject could be safely tackled.

"Evelyn! Do you realise that nothing is settled, and that nothing need be, unless you are absolutely, whole-heartedly sure?"

"I am absolutely whole-hearted about several things already. What sort of things were you thinking about?"

"Well, take the house first. It meets my ideal, but it mayn't be yours. You must promise to give an unvarnished opinion."

"Make your mind easy! If there is one thing that I may claim to be above all others, it is 'unvarnished'. I have a brutal frankness in expressing my own opinion. If, through nice feeling, I try to disguise it, my manner shrieks it aloud!"

"That's all right then. I'm glad to hear it. Next comes the question of time. We should have to take a lease of three years. I don't know if you'd care to bind yourself for so long."

That reminded me of the aunts' "until", and I said solemnly, "Charmion, tell me the worst. Is there an eligible bachelor who owns the next 'place' ready to discover me picking his roses, or trespassing on his side of the stream, and to make love to me forthwith? They always do in books, you know, when girls go to live in country houses."

Charmion smiled her slow, languorous smile.

"I have amused myself with looking up the names of the people living in all the big houses around: They seem uniformly made up of couples. To the best of my belief, there is not a single man, bachelor or widower, within many miles."

I said, "Oh!" and felt the faint, natural dismay which any human girl would feel in the circumstances. Charmion herself was enough romance for the present, and a precipitate "lover next door" would for the moment have been de trop, but still—

My expression (unvarnished!) evidently betrayed my feelings, for Charmion smiled, sighed, and stretched out a caressing hand.

"Let's be honest. It is foolish to set up a partnership in the dark. Is there anyone, Evelyn, who may swoop down upon us at a moment's notice, and carry you off to share his house?"

"To the best of my knowledge there is not a solitary one. I'm quite sure of one thing, and that is, that however wildly he swooped, I wouldn't go!"

"But there must be—you are so pretty, Evelyn, and so attractive—there must have been."

"Oh yes; two. But not real lovers, Charmion, only—pretendus. One was young and needy and ambitious, and thought that I should look very well sitting at the head of his table. Incidentally, that my money would be useful to provide the table and the things upon it. The other—he was rather a dear, and he cared enough to give me a pang. But he was happily married last year to a girl who is as un-like me in every respect as you can possibly imagine. They are both ancient history now."

"And you? You yourself? You have never been in love?"

If any other woman had asked me such a question there would have been short shrift with her. Charmion herself had never before attempted such personalities; but now, when she deemed it necessary, she spoke without a flicker of hesitation, her grey eyes staring full into mine. It would have seemed ridiculous to take offence.

"Once. At first sight. Quite bowled over. We met at an hotel."

She knew what I meant, made a dainty little grimace, and bent her head in a small bow of acknowledgment, which somehow managed to look quite regal and stately. I longed to put one or two questions in return. Widows have been known to marry again! Why should I not wish to be reassured on my own account? Why should it be wrong for me to force confidences, when she herself had led the way? It would not be wrong; it would be right, and prudent, and praiseworthy. The only objection was, I could not do it. After that little bow of acknowledgment, Charmion threw back her head until it rested on the high cushioned back of her chair.

"That's settled then," she said quietly.

Her heavy lids drooped over her eyes, her fine white hands were folded in her lap. There was in voice and manner an air of finality, which was as impervious as a barrier of barbed wire. Not for any bribe in the world would I have attempted to scale it.

The next morning, bright and early, we chartered a "fly," and lumbered along two miles of country lanes, and then, suddenly turning a corner, found ourselves at the gate of Pastimes. It was a dull, grey day, of which I was glad, for any place can look attractive in spring sunshine. I have seen even a third-rate London square look quite frisky and inviting with a shimmer of green over the black trees, and the spring-cleaned windows sending out flashes of light; it's a very different spectacle on a November afternoon. Five minutes' acquaintanceship with Pastimes showed, however, that its predominating quality was cheerfulness. There was a great deal of panelling on the walls, but it was of white wood, not oak, and the old, small latticed windows had been converted into deep bays, filled with great panes of plate glass—a pagan proceeding from an artistic point of view, but infinitely cheerful and healthy. There was a large central hall from either side of which opened two rooms of medium size, facing respectively east and west; a quaint descent of two steps led the way to a really spacious drawing-room, through the great windows of which was a lovely vista of velvet lawn, and a great cedar drooping its green branches to the ground.

Parallel with the drawing-room, and also facing south, was a long glassed-in apartment which had evidently been used to harbour plants, garden-chairs, and impedimenta, but which revealed itself to our eyes as an ideal sun-parlour for chilly days. Sheltered from draughts by the outstanding walls, yet with a glass roof and frontage to catch every ray of sun, the parlour would be an ideal refuge for spring and autumn. So far as public rooms went, we were well off with five apartments at the disposal of two people.

"Mine!—yours!—ours!" cried Charmion, waving her hands descriptively, first towards the two smaller rooms, and then to the other three in turn.

"In the hall we will eat; the big room shall be no ordinary formal drawing-room, but a living-room a deux. The sun-parlour also we shall share, but the 'sulkies' shall be private ground, hermetically sealed against intruders! There is a spare room upstairs which can be spared for muddles. I have a fastidiously tidy eye. It offends me to see things scattered about, but my hands will go on scattering them, so it is necessary for my peace of mind to have a muddle-room where I can deposit bundles at a moment's notice, and feel sure that they will not be tidied away. Well, shall we go upstairs and see the bedrooms?"

"Where are the stairs?" I asked curiously, for from no corner of the hall was there a glimpse of staircase visible. I had not thought about it before, but now I realised that it was just this absence which gave that touch of comfort and privacy which is wanting in the ordinary entrance "lounge". There was no draughty well, no galleried space overhead, from which curious ears could overhear private confidences. I stared round mystified, till Charmion opened yet another doorway, and behold! there was the staircase, the oddest, curliest specimen of its kind, mounting up and up within a narrow well, for all the world like the steps in a church tower, except that these were wide and shallow, and that a thick brass rod had been placed on the outer wall to act as a banister in the case of need. Whoever had built Pastimes had plainly believed that stairs were needed for the purpose of transit only, and had refused to waste space on their adornment.

On the first landing were several good bedrooms, two of which possessed big sunny balconies, facing south.

"That settles it!" I told Charmion. "If I had had any doubts before, the balconies would have decided me, once for all. All my life I have yearned to have a bedroom opening on to a really big balcony. I'm crazy about balconies! Think of the happy hours one has spent on balconies in Switzerland and Italy! To have been in a room without one would have been to lose half the joy. And even in England—think of all the things one can do on a balcony of one's very own. Sleep out when it is hot. Air your mattress. Hang up your sponge. Grow your pet flowers. Dry your hair. Cry it out quietly when you feel blue. Sentimentalise over the railings when you feel rose."

Charmion's fine brows arched, her lids drooped over her eyes. I recognised the same expression which her face had worn the night before, when for a moment I had seemed on the point of questioning her about her own romance. Once more I felt myself up against an impenetrable wall of reserve, and hastily switched the conversation to the more prosaic topic of cupboards. The very sound of a balcony bristles with romance, but cupboards may be discussed with safety under the most lacerating circumstances. There is something comfortably safe and stodgy about them. And Pastimes was so rich in this respect that we spent a happy half-hour appointing their future uses, and jotting down notes for their improvement.

Later on we visited the gardens, beautiful even in their sleep, and promising a very paradise for summer days. The lawns and flower beds immediately around the house were exquisitely in order, but by far the greater part of the grounds was uncultivated. There was a strip of real woodland, where the light filtered down through the branches of tall old trees on to a carpet of dried leaves and bracken, through which could be seen the close-growing green shoots which foretold a harvest of bulbs. Later on no doubt there would be primroses and bluebells, and when summer came, if I knew anything about it, there would be two hammocks swinging between spreading branches, and two happy women reposing therein. It was this real country air which gave Pastimes its chief charm.

That evening Charmion came to my room, and we sat together by the fire and talked for three solid hours. As a rule, I get fidgety in the evening when talk is the only amusement, but I can sit and listen to Charmion for as long as she chooses to go on. She is—interesting! She says things in an interesting way, and has interesting things to say. I have met extraordinarily clever and well-informed people who are terrible bores. Charmion would be interesting if she told one how to make an egg flip! As I watched the delicate play of expression on the tired face, which was yet so thrillingly alive, as I listened to the slow soft drawl of her voice, I felt a sudden rush of thankfulness and exhilaration.

"Charmion!" I cried suddenly, "aren't you thankful to be rich?"

She flinched as though I had struck her, and turned upon me a wild-eyed look of affront.

"Rich? Who says I am rich? Who has been talking about my affairs? Have you—have you been making inquiries to find out what I am worth?"

I stared, deeply offended.

"I have not. Perhaps it would have been more business-like if I had, but I accepted your word. I asked a simple question because at the moment I happened to be feeling particularly thankful that I could afford to share Pastimes with you, and I imagined that you might possibly feel the same."

I paused, waiting expectantly for words of apology and excuse, but none came. Charmion stared at me below knitted brows, and said shortly:—

"Yes, it is true. You ought to have business references. You shall have them! My lawyer shall write to you at once. I was a wretch to speak so sharply, Evelyn, but—you touched a sore point! Thankful? No, indeed! Money is a curse. The greatest handicap a woman can have. If I had my life to live again, I should choose to be a penniless working girl!"

She had taken off her rings and dropped them in a sparkling little heap on her lap, the while she softly polished her long pink nails. Her padded kimona was of pink silk, heavily embroidered with roses, her feet were thrust into slippers of the same shade and material. A more luxurious figure it would be difficult to imagine. I rolled an expressive eye, and she shrugged her shoulders in response.

"Oh, of course, I am an artificial product, and the chains hold fast. I don't take any particular interest in my appearance, but it is an ingrained habit to go through a certain routine. It would annoy me to have dull nails, so I polish them as you see; also, though I am dead tired, I shall have my hair brushed for half an hour before going to bed, and then steam my foolish face. It bores me profoundly, but it would bore me more to feel unkempt. So far as that goes, I should do exactly the same on twopence a week!"

"Minus a maid and appliances?"

Charmion shrugged daintily.

"Soap and water are cheap, fortunately."

"I beg your pardon! Not your kind of soap. You might find even hot water a difficulty. I imagine that girls on twopence a week have to consider the price of boiling a kettle. Their hot water is not 'laid on'. Moreover, the poor dears must be 'dead tired,' in a way which you and I cannot even imagine."

"It is their life," Charmion said loftily.

"Excuse me—I mean to live! That's why I am thankful to have money, because it gives me more scope to live thoroughly."

"Poor innocent! What a delusion. Money shuts the door of your cage. A golden cage, excellently padded, but—its bars shut out all the best things of life!"

I laughed again, for the statement was so opposed to all accepted theories.

"What best things, for example?"

"Confidence," said Charmion solemnly. "Trust in one's fellow-creatures." She lifted her heavy lids as she spoke, and her eyes looked into mine. In their grey depths was a blank, empty expression, which once seen is never forgotten, for it speaks of a hurt so deep and keen that the memory of it breaks the heart. I leapt from my seat and wrapped Charmion in my arms.

"Oh, my dear, my dear, there is one person you can trust! Whatever happens, Charmion, you can count on me! Darling! I know you have had troubles. I don't ask to hear about them. I only want to be allowed to love you, and to do all I can to help and to comfort. Never, never be afraid to ask for anything I can do. I would put you before myself, Charmion, if it ever came to a choice between our different interests—I would indeed! Don't you believe it is true?"

She laid her two hands on my shoulders and smiled.

"You dear thing! I believe it is. You would sacrifice yourself for me, and I should accept the sacrifice. It is the way we are made. You to give, and I to demand. Let us pray, my dear, that the day may never come when our interests do clash. Of a certainty, poor Evelyn, you would come off worse!"



CHAPTER FIVE.

PASTIMES—AND MR MAPLESTONE.

The next morning, bright and early, we called on the house-agent to sign and seal the agreement which should make us the happy owners of Pastimes for a term of years agreeably elastic.

Mr Edwards was a small, dapper little man, typically house-agenty in manner, even to the point of assuring us gravely that another tenant was urgently in the field, and that we had secured our lease by the very skin of our teeth.

Charmion lifted incredulous eyebrows.

"But, Mr Edwards, you wrote to me a second time, only a fortnight ago, to say the house was still on your hands!"

"Quite so, madam. And it was. But only on Monday Mr Maplestone motored over from Wembly. Mr Maplestone is Squire there—a very influential gentleman in these parts. He is looking out a house for a relative, and had only just heard that Pastimes was vacant. He drove over, as I say, and telegraphed to his friend that the house was too good to lose. He expected a reply this evening."

"When it will be too late!" Charmion said calmly. "You told him, of course, that you were in treaty with another tenant?"

"I did, madam. Quite so. But"—the little man hesitated, and fidgeted uncomfortably—"Mr Maplestone is—er—accustomed to get his own way! I explained that I must accept a definite offer, and that you had the first option, but I am afraid that he hardly realises—"

Charmion waved an imperial hand.

"We are not concerned with Mr Maplestone, or what he expects. Pastimes is ours, and that settles the question. To-morrow morning Miss Wastneys and I will meet you at eleven o'clock, to go over the house together. It is in good order, but we shall require a little decoration and painting here and there. You will be able to advise us how to get it done well and quickly. When I say quickly I mean quickly! Plenty of men must be put on to begin the work and finish it in a few days' time, not one or two who will drag on for weeks. You can get us an estimate for time, as well as for cost."

Mr Edwards bowed, murmured, and waved his hands. He looked overcome, poor man, as well he might, for if one would-be client demanded his own way, the other was obviously determined to have hers. Between the two his path was not easy! I smiled at him ingratiatingly, just to help things along, but he took little notice of me. Obviously, in Charmion's company I did not "take the eye!"

On the way home I expressed sympathy for the disappointed Mr Maplestone, but Charmion refused to agree.

"I don't know the man, so his pleasures and disappointments don't enter into my sphere. Promiscuous universal sympathy is too great a tax on the nervous system. Why should I distress myself about a man I have never seen?"

"Not distress yourself exactly, but you might cast a kindly thought. He will be disappointed, and the poor little agent will have a bad half-hour."

"Now you are asking sympathy for the agent, too! Evelyn, aren't you the least little bit in the world inclined to wear your heart on your sleeve?"

"Charmion, aren't you the least little bit inclined to be hard?"

She agreed with unflinching candour.

"I am. It's the safer plan if one doesn't want to be hurt!"

"But—what about the other people? Mayn't they be hurt instead?"

She looked at me gravely for a moment, then with a smile which grew gradually broad and roguish.

"We ought to strike a happy mean between us, eh, Evelyn? You are all credulity and gush, and I refuse to disturb myself about other people, or their affairs."

"That's not true! You disturbed yourself about me!"

"Because it affected myself. I had grown fond of you, and so you entered into my life. Pure selfishness, my dear!"

"I don't believe it! I won't believe it! It's no good trying to disillusion me, Charmion. I've put you on a topmost pinnacle, and it would take a mighty effort to tumble you down!"

"Dear thing!" murmured Charmion fondly. "Well—suppose we talk of the drawing-room walls? I'm a great believer in occupying oneself with the next step. Revelations of character will follow in due course—I plump for white!"

"White certainly. A warm cream white, with not a touch of blue in it. And the prevailing colour?"

"Let's count three quickly, and then each say what we think!"

We counted, and the two words leapt crisply forth.

"Rose!" said I.

"Purple!" said Charmion. Then we looked at one another beneath puckered brows.

"Rose lights up better!"

"Purple is more uncommon."

"Rose is more cheerful in winter!"

"Purple is restful in summer!"

It seemed for a moment as if we had reached an impasse, then came an illuminating thought.

"Why not—both? They harmonise well. Purple curtains and carpet—the plain colour, very soft and subdued, and cushions and shades of the right rose. With our united treasures we ought to have a lovely room. Where are your things, Charmion?"

"Stored," she said shortly. "I tried a house for a few months, but it was too lonely an experience. But I have a passion for beautiful furniture. It has amused me to pick up good specimens here and there. Now we shall enjoy them together! Wait till you see my Spanish leather screen!"

"Wait till you see my Chinese cabinet!" I retorted, and we talked "things" industriously for the next hour.

After luncheon Charmion settled herself to write business letters, drawing a big screen round her writing-table, the better, as she informed me, to protect herself against my chatter.

"You promise to be quiet, but in five minutes' time you begin again! Now please to remember that to all intents and purposes I am in another room, and that until I choose to come forth, I am dead to you and everyone else! Do you understand? These letters positively must get off to-night!"

"Dear me! I don't want to talk! I shall be thankful to sit by the fire and enjoy a quiet read," I said loftily, and promptly drew up an old arm-chair, and buried myself in the book which I had bought to while away the hours of my journey, and then left unread, because my own affairs were at the moment so much more absorbing than those of a fictitious heroine. Now that my mind was more at ease, I found the story interesting enough, and had read on for about an hour with undisturbed enjoyment, when suddenly the door was flung open, and a voice announced:—

"Mr Maplestone!"

I leapt up, putting up a hasty hand to smooth my ruffled hair. That was the worst of having only one sitting-room! Visitors were hurled in upon one without a moment's warning. Happy Charmion behind the screen! I stared across the room and beheld a tall—very tall—thin man, with short reddish hair and light blue, angry-looking eyes. He was dressed in riding costume, which, so far as his figure went, became him exceedingly well. He was probably somewhere about thirty-five, and one glance at his tightly-set lips and firm square chin was enough to demonstrate the truth of Mr Edwards' assertion that he was "a gentleman who likes his own way". He had probably heard by now that for once he was to be thwarted, and had come to tell me what he thought about it. At this moment I forgot to be sorry for his disappointment in my exceeding sympathy for myself! I glanced helplessly at the screen.

"Mrs Fane, I believe."

"I am Miss Wastneys. Mrs Fane is engaged. Perhaps it is something that I—"

He laid his hat and stick on the table.

"May I have a few minutes' conversation? You will allow me to sit down?"

"Certainly."

I pushed aside the easy-chair and seated myself on one of the six "uprights" which were ranged about the room. It felt so much more business-like and supporting. Mr Maplestone seated himself opposite to me, and rested his hands on his knees.

"I am told that you have some idea of renting a house called Pastimes, near here!"

"We have taken Pastimes. Mrs Fane and myself have this morning signed the lease."

He waved an impatient hand.

"This morning! So I am told. Edwards has behaved very badly. I warned him that things should not be hurried through."

"They have not been hurried. It is several months since Mrs Fane first saw the house, and three weeks since negotiations were opened a second time."

"I only heard this week that the house was vacant."

"And should Mr Edwards"—(the innocent inquiry of my voice was growing more and more marked)—"was it his duty to have told you?"

His eyes sent out a flash. I could see the muscles of his hand clench against his knee. I had scored a point, and his anger was correspondingly increased.

"Perhaps I had better explain," he began in a tone of elaborate forbearance. "I live at Wembly. Most of the land between here and there belongs to me. Pastimes happens to be outside the limit, and so it escaped my memory. I have not been over it before. I did not know the last tenants. For the last few weeks I have been looking for a house for my friend—a member of the family who is returning from abroad. Invalided!"

He pronounced the last word with emphasis, staring fixedly at me the while. I adapted my features to express polite commiseration.

"It is natural that he should wish to live within driving distance of his friends."

"Oh, quite!"

"The moment that I saw Pastimes I knew for a sure thing that it would be just his house—"

"I am sorry, but as he has not seen it, he can't be disappointed. There must be other houses—"

"I have already said I have been searching round for—the—last—three— weeks," Mr Maplestone repeated, in the carefully deliberate tone which disguises irritation. "Nothing else will suit anything like so well."

I murmured indefinitely, and glanced at the screen. Mentally I could see Charmion leaning back in her chair, smiling her slow fine smile, inquisitively waiting to see just how firm or how weak I could be. I was not inclined to be weak. There was something in the personality of this big domineering man which roused an imp of contradiction. We sat silent, eyeing one another across the room.

"I believe you and—er—Mrs Fane are strangers to this neighbourhood?"

"Yes! That is so."

"You have no—er—special link or attraction?"

I saw the trap, and protested blandly.

"Oh, yes! We are delighted with Pastimes. It exactly suits our requirements."

Mr Maplestone frowned, and fidgeted to and fro, then suddenly leant forward, straightening his face into what was obviously intended to be a smile.

"Miss Wastneys! Will you forgive me if I am perfectly frank and honest, and tell you exactly what is in my mind?"

"Of course I will. I am sure," I declared mendaciously, "there can be nothing to forgive!"

He had the grace to look a trifle ashamed, but his resolution did not waver. Not a bit! He looked straight in my eyes, and said deliberately:—

"I want Pastimes! For the moment it has slipped through my fingers, but a couple of hours cannot seriously affect your arrangements. On my cousin's behalf I am anxious to take over the lease. It would be an act of grace on your part if you would agree to this arrangement, and deal with me as his representative!"

The audacity of it! For a moment I was silent for sheer want of breath, but I could feel the blood rushing into my cheeks, and knew that my eyes were sending out flashes to meet his own. My appearance must have prepared him for my answer before it came, uttered in a very calm, very haughty, aggravatingly deliberate tone.

"We are not in the habit of changing our plans in a couple of hours. Pastimes suits us. It is unnecessary to look for another house. The matter was decided this morning."

"You understand that my cousin is an invalid, and that he has a special reason for wishing to live in this neighbourhood?"

"There are other houses. Pastimes is not the only one that is vacant."

"It is the only one that is suitable," he repeated doggedly, and there followed a silence during which he sat back in his chair, staring at me with the light blue eyes, which of all eyes in the world can look at once the coldest and the most angry. If he could have done what he wanted at that moment, he would have taken me by the shoulders and shaken me well. To have made up his mind that a thing must be, and to find himself thwarted by a bit of a girl—it was unsupportable!—so unsupportable, that even now he refused to believe it could be true. Giving himself a little shake, like a dog who rouses himself to fresh efforts, he again made that industrious attempt at a smile, and began slowly:—

"I am afraid I have made a bad beginning! Please forgive me if I have seemed discourteous. When we have talked things over quietly, I have no doubt that we shall be able to reach a satisfactory agreement."

"I'm afraid I can't see how that can be! There is only one Pastimes, so one of us is bound to be disappointed!"

He pounced on that as if scenting a hopeful weakness.

"Exactly. Yes; but the disappointment would vary in intensity. That is what I am anxious to point out. When Edwards told me that the tenant was a lady I felt reassured, for it is a matter in which a woman's kindliness and good heart—"

My eyes roved to the screen. Charmion's ears were assuredly open at this moment, straining to hear my reply. I raised my eyebrows, and said frostily:—

"We are speaking of a business arrangement. I am afraid that is the only light in which we can consider the matter. We shall honourably fulfil our part of the agreement which we have signed."

"You refuse to show any consideration for an invalid returning home— after many years?"

"Not at all. If it is ever in our power, as neighbours, to show him any kindness, we shall be eager to do all that is possible—short of giving up our own house for his benefit. Would you do it yourself, Mr Maplestone—for the sake of a stranger you had never seen?"

He stood staring at me, his cheeks bulging with the moving lumps which show that people are swallowing down words which they dare not allow themselves to say. With the same air of elaborate patience which he had shown before, he explained slowly:—

"My cousin has been stationed in India. In a border regiment. He has served his country for thirty years. Now he has had a paralytic stroke, and is making his way home by slow stages. A man who has worked and suffered as he has done deserves a home, and the gratitude of his fellow-countrymen."

"There are two sides to every question, Mr Maplestone. If I chose to go into details, I might convince you that Mrs Fane and I have our own claims, which seem to us equally strong."

He leapt from his seat, and advanced until he stood directly facing my chair.

"That finishes it! It is no use appealing to your feelings. Let us make it pure business then! I offer you a hundred pounds down for the reversion of the lease!"

So it had come to this. Bribery undisguised! I lowered my eyelids, and sat silent, an image of outraged dignity.

"You refuse! It is not enough? Two hundred then! Three!"

Still silence. But my listening ears caught a threatening rustle behind the screen.

"Three hundred! It is a good offer. You are not bound to this neighbourhood. You can find other houses to suit you. Still not enough? Name your own terms then. How much will you take?"

"A million pounds!"

The words leapt out of my mouth as it seemed of their own volition. I was tired of this farcical bargaining, and determined to put an end to it, once for all. I stood up and faced his blank stare of amazement, without at least any outward shrinking.

"Surely it is useless to prolong this bargaining. It is very unpleasant and humiliating."

Mr Maplestone set his square jaw.

"You are only one partner to this transaction. Mrs Fane is probably your senior. If I were to see her, she might be induced to name a more—er—shall I say reasonable (oh, the cutting sarcasm of that tone!) figure."

"Two millions."

The high clear tone struck across the room. Mr Maplestone wheeled round and beheld Charmion standing just outside the opening of the screen, one hand raised to rest lightly on the curved wood coping. She might have posed as a picture of graceful, imperturbed ease, so calm, so smiling, so absolutely unflurried and detached in both manner and bearing did she appear. Mr Maplestone looked at her and—this was a curious thing—at one glance realised his defeat. All my efforts at dignity and firmness had failed to convince him, but behind Charmion's frail, essentially feminine exterior, those keen eyes had at once detected that strain of inflexibility which I was only slowly beginning to realise.

It was hopeless to bandy words. The Squire knew as much, and turned to the table to lift his hat and whip. He gave a short scornful laugh.

"The terms seem a trifle—high! I am afraid I must retire from the bidding. Pastimes is yours. I hope"—he looked from me to Charmion, and his expression was not pleasant to see—"I hope you may not have cause to repent your bargain!"

We bowed. He bowed. The door opened and shut. Charmion looked at me and shrugged her shoulders.

"A declaration of war! We have begun our campaign by quarrelling with the most 'influential gentleman in these parts!' Things are getting exciting, Evelyn!"

I did not speak. Reaction had set in, and I felt a pang of remorse. I did not want to quarrel with anyone, influential or uninfluential. I was sorry I had been ungracious. I felt a pang of sympathy for the poor, big, bad-tempered man riding homeward after his defeat.

I wondered when and how we should meet him again.



CHAPTER SIX.

HUNTING THE FLAT.

Leaving the workmen to carry out the necessary decorations at Pastimes, Charmion and I adjourned to London to buy carpets and curtains, and a score of necessary oddments. We found it a fascinating occupation, and grew more and more complimentary to each other as each day passed by.

"Charmion, you have exquisite taste! That's just the shade I had chosen myself."

"You have a perfect eye for colouring, Evelyn. I always know that your choice will be exactly my own."

Sometimes we saw the humour of these self-satisfied compliments, sometimes we were so busy and engrossed that we accepted them open-mouthed. I suppose in every mind personal preference is magnified into the standard of perfection, and all the arguing in the world will fail to convince A that he is—artistically speaking—colour-blind, or B that her drawing-room is a bazaar of trumpery odds and ends! All the more reason to be thankful that we agreed. We were convinced that our taste was unique; but supposing for one moment that it was bad, we should at least share a comfortable delusion!

The oak entrance hall was to be ornamented with old delft. The curtains and chair coverings were to be of the same shade of blue. The parquet floor was to be supplied with rugs of warm Eastern colours. Exactly the right shade of violet-purple had been found for the drawing-room, and I should be ashamed to say how many shops we ransacked for the chair coverings, until at last we found the identical pattern to satisfy our demands. Certainly I should be ashamed to confess what we paid for the piece. Charmion was appallingly extravagant! That was another discovery which I had made in the last days. It seemed as if she found a positive satisfaction in paying abnormal prices, not with the purse-proud bombast of the nouveau riche, but rather with the almost savage relief of a slave who shakes off a few links of a hated chain. I was a little alarmed at the total to which our purchases amounted; but I comforted myself with the thought, nothing new would be required for a long, long time, and that, if I found my income running short, I could always retire to my flat, and live on a figurative twopence under Bridget's clever management.

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