THE MAKING OF A SOUL
Author of "The Desert Dreamers," "The Will of Allah," "The Lure of the Desert," "Flower of Grass," etc.
London: Hutchinson & Co. Paternoster Row
Barry Raymond drew the latchkey out of the door and entered his small flat in Kensington just as the clock in the tiny hall chimed the hour of ten.
It was a wet night; and he drew off his Burberry and hung it up with a sense of pleasure in being again in his cosy little eyrie at the top of the chilly stone steps.
Humming a tune, he crossed the diminutive hall and went into the sitting-room, where the cheerful crackle of a small wood fire gave an air of comfort to the hearth.
On the table, where his admirable man-servant had placed it, was a tray bearing glasses, a siphon and a bottle of whisky; and beside the tray were the few letters which had come by the last post; while in a conspicuous place lay a telegram in its tawny envelope; and this, naturally enough, was the first thing Barry touched.
Taking it up, he tore it open decisively; and as the envelope fell to the ground he unfolded the pink paper and read the message scrawled thereon.
"Just arrived Southampton will be with you about ten o'clock. OWEN."
The paper fluttered to the floor and Barry consulted his watch hastily.
"Ten o'clock! Why, it's that now. So Owen's home. By Jove, what an unlucky day he's chosen!"
He stood still for a moment, rapt, it would seem, in contemplation of an unpleasant vision. Then with a shrug of his shoulders he moved to the fireplace and turned on more light.
"Well, it'll have to be done sooner or later; but"—for a second a rueful smile lit up his despondent young face—"I wish I hadn't got to do it ... and at ten o'clock at night into the bargain!"
He looked round him as though considering some serious matter.
"Food—and drink. Here's drink, anyhow. What about food?"
Seizing a hand-lamp from the bureau at his elbow, he quitted the room and made for the kitchen, which his man had left, as usual, in the perfection of neatness on his departure two hours ago.
Hastening to the cupboard which did duty, in the flat, for a pantry, Barry flung open the door and surveyed the shelves with anxious eyes.
Ah! There was plenty of food, of a sort, and suddenly Barry remembered, with gratitude, the fact that he had intended to dine at home, and had been prevented doing so at the eleventh hour owing to an unexpected invitation which he had then regarded as an unmitigated bore, but now looked upon as a direct interposition of Providence.
A cold roast chicken, an apple tart and cream, cheese and biscuits—surely the traveller could make a meal off these provisions, and Barry carried them gaily into the sitting-room and laid the table with much good-will and no little celerity.
Knives, forks, glasses—for he intended to share the meal—salt, pepper, bread—in a dozen light-hearted journeys he managed to bring everything he considered necessary; and he was just standing back to admire his own handiwork when the electric bell pealed loudly through the silent flat.
"Here he is, by Jove!" Barry all but dropped the vase of chrysanthemums he was carrying to the table, and setting it down hastily he went to the door, in a flutter of anticipation, of hospitality, and, if the truth be told, of nervousness.
Opening the door:
"Is that you, Owen?" he asked—a superfluous question, for he knew his visitor well enough. "Come in, old chap—you must be soaked—it's a frightful night!"
"Soaked—I should just say I am!" Owen Rose accepted the invitation and stepped inside, shaking himself like a dog as he did so. "Lord, Barry, what a climate! I declare I'd sooner live in Timbuctoo!"
"Oh, the climate's all right—only a bit moist," returned Barry philosophically. "But come on in—take off your coat and come to the fire. Any luggage?"
"No, I've sent it on to my place." He drew himself out of his big coat as he spoke. "I thought I'd come up and see you for half an hour first of all. Jolly glad you're at home. You got my wire?"
"Yes, a few minutes ago. Come and have something to eat." They were in the sitting-room by now. "There's not much, but I hadn't time to kill the fatted calf."
"Looks like it." Owen's eyes roamed over the cheerful little supper-table. "Barry, you're a fraud. Chicken, apple-pie—what more can man desire? But I confess I am hungry, though I didn't come for a meal."
"Well, sit down and let's begin," said Barry practically. "I dined at my aunt's to-night, and as usual I couldn't get much to eat! She asked me so many questions about ..." he coloured and hurried on "... about everything, that by the time I'd finished answering them dinner was over!"
"I see." Owen accepted the plate Barry handed him. "Well, you're looking very fit, Barry. How's things?"
"Oh, fair." Barry paused in the act of pouring out a whisky-and-soda. "That's to say, I'm still with old Joliffe, and got a rise of screw last quarter."
"Did you! Well, wait till we get the review going, and see if I don't tempt you away from that dictatorial old boss of yours!"
"Oh, I'll come to you all right," said Barry gaily. "But in the meantime I'd better hang on in the House of Rimmon, hadn't I? You see ..." He broke off, the colour mounting to his face.
"Of course. You're thinking of Olive. Quite right, too. How is she, Barry? Well?"
"A 1." Barry fell to on his supper with renewed zest. "Longing to see you, old chap. By the way"—he slid rather dexterously away from the subject—"you promised her a skin or something, didn't you? Have any luck?"
"Luck! Rather! I bagged one tiger who was really magnificent—he'll make a grand hearthrug for you and Olive. He was a splendid brute and I was lucky to get him. Of course, I've had luck all the way through. By gad, Barry, there's nothing like big-game shooting to make one fit! You know what I was like when I set out—and look at me now!"
Thus invited, Barry looked; and he was bound to admit that his friend was right.
Eighteen months previous to this wet night of January, Owen Rose had been so severely injured in a motor-accident that his life had been despaired of; and although he had eventually recovered, he had been left so unlike himself that a return to the normal round was impossible.
There was only one prescription, his doctors agreed, and that was the agreeable, if expensive, one of travel. Only by gaining complete change of scene, complete change, also, of life and routine, could he hope to recapture his old splendid vitality and abundant health; and since luckily Owen was by no means a poor man, the prescription was not so hard to carry out as might have been the case with another patient.
True, this break in his life interfered with several cherished projects. In the first—and most important—place, his marriage must be delayed; and although Miss Vivian Rees was only twenty, and might be considered fully young to be a bride, the delay, to the ardent lover, was vexatious, at the least.
Then the review, to which he had alluded in his conversation with Barry, had perforce to be shelved; and although there was plenty of time for the production of such a literary newcomer, he had felt, at the moment, as though called upon to abandon altogether a beloved ideal.
But the fiat had gone forth; and indeed he had agreed entirely with the medical verdict which pronounced him unfit to shoulder fresh tasks until his old strength should be regained. Therefore, unwillingly, but none the less unflinchingly, he had made preparations to leave England for a year's leisurely travel in the East, starting, as it were, from Bombay and journeying onwards wherever the fancy took him.
It happened that during his travels he fell in with a couple of old schoolfellows who were on the verge of a sporting expedition; and Owen, who by that time was tired of his loafing method of travel, jumped with alacrity at an invitation to join the party.
They had glorious sport; and in the excitement and vigour of the chase Owen regained all his old bodily strength and added thereto a quite fresh store of health and spirits. When at length he turned his face homewards he knew himself to be in such condition as he had never before experienced; and as he sat opposite his host to-night, eating and drinking gaily in this quiet room, he presented to Barry a picture of such perfect health as is rarely met with in the streets of London.
"Yes." Barry brought his leisurely survey to a close. "You do look uncommonly fit, I suppose you've had a gorgeous time."
Thus invited, Owen launched forth into an account of some of his most thrilling adventures, and the time flew as he recounted the tale of the glorious nights and days he had lived through, or made his hearer laugh with his stories of the various attendants and their humours.
The clock had chimed the hour of midnight before the friends left the table; and then, sitting by the rosy fire, with pipes alight, each one felt that the moment had come in which a deeper subject might well be introduced.
Yet Barry, at least, would cheerfully have ignored that subject; for he foresaw, with friendship's intuition, that the thing he had to say would effectually mar and break the midnight peace; and as the moment drew near in which he must strike a fatal blow at his friend's serenity he fell into an embarrassed silence very unlike his recent cordiality.
At last it came—the question he had dreaded.
"I say, Barry, have you seen much of Vivian lately?" Although the subject affected the speaker so vitally, he was so calmly, confidently sure of the reply that his tone was quiet and unagitated. Even though Barry paused for a quite perceptible fraction of time before he replied, the other man was too certain of the answer to notice the pause.
"I ... I have seen her—yes." He spoke without removing his pipe from between his teeth, which might account for the curious thickness of his tone.
"And how is she? All right, I suppose? You see"—Owen laughed rather diffidently—"my return was to be a surprise to her. I wasn't coming for another couple of months, you know, and then all at once I couldn't bear it any longer. I simply had to come."
"But—haven't you corresponded all this time?"
"Well, not regularly. You know Vivian hates writing letters as much as I do; and I couldn't give her any settled addresses while we were moving about, so we agreed that we would not expect much from each other in that way!"
"I see. But—you have heard from her?"
"Oh, yes, now and then. Of course she had my banker's address and could cable to me from time to time. I got one cable from her in December—on my birthday, it was—and she said she was writing, but I never got the letter."
"In December. I see." And so he did—saw a vision of half-unwilling treachery, of hesitating loyalty, of dying faith, which turned his heart sick within him.
"I wrote to her for Christmas, of course, and sent her a card now and then." He seemed to be excusing his own quite allowable slackness in the matter. "You see, I really had no time for letter-writing, and I knew she would understand and forgive me."
"You ... did you tell her you were coming home to-day?"
"Yes. I wired to her a week ago.... I half expected she'd come down to meet me." He laughed shamefacedly. "But you know what her people are. I expect they'd think it frightfully unnecessary to do that. Of course, I'm going there first thing in the morning."
"You ... you haven't been there yet, then?" Barry hated himself for his fatuity as he put the question.
"No. Fact is, I was a perfect savage when I landed ... a beard half a yard long!" He laughed jovially. "Had to get trimmed up a bit ... but in any case she would probably have been out somewhere or other to-night."
"Yes. I see."
"But first thing in the morning, it's a taxi for mine, as the Americans say. And I shall catch her alone, after breakfast, before anyone's about."
"Yea." Barry paused, cursing himself for his cowardice, and then plunged recklessly into the quicksand before him. "Owen, old man, have you heard anything about Miss Rees lately?"
"Heard anything?" He laid down his pipe and stared at his questioner. "Why should I hear anything? What is there to hear?"
Before replying Barry rose, and stood leaning against the mantelpiece; and as he looked down on his friend his heart was wrung within him at the cruelty of fate.
"You ... you've not seen her name in the papers?" His throat was dry, but he went on bravely.
"Papers? I've not looked at a newspaper for months. And anyway, what should I see about Vivian in any paper?"
"Only ... I thought you might have done." Barry was finding his task almost incredibly hard, and his brow was pearled with fine drops of moisture as he stood before his friend.
"What was there to see, Barry?" Owen's voice was quiet—dangerously quiet. "Is there anything wrong with Vivian? Is she—has she been ill?"
"Then ... God! man, what are you trying to tell me?" His forced calm was breaking up. "Out with it—whatever it is. Is Vivian—is she dead?"
"No—oh, no." He spoke hurriedly, thankful that he could at least answer that question in the negative.
"Then ... what is it? Come, Barry"—Owen spoke through his teeth in a hoarse tone quite unlike his usual voice—"if Vivian is not dead, not ill ... what is this wonderful piece of news I might have read in the papers—and did not?"
There was a moment's tense silence, broken only by the crackling of the gay little fire on the hearth.
Then Barry said heavily:
"Miss Rees was married to Lord Saxonby this morning."
For a moment there was a silence fraught with a thousand possibilities. Then Owen sprang from his seat and crossing the intervening space, as it were in a bound, seized his friend savagely by the shoulders.
"Say that again, Barry! Say it if you dare!"
With a fury of which he was unconscious he shook the other man violently; and Barry broke away with an expression of annoyance.
"Good God, Owen, what do you think you're doing? What do you mean by attacking me like this!"
"I'm going to knock your damned head off for telling me a lie!" His tone was dangerous. "How dare you say that Vivian is married when you know she is engaged to me?"
"Look here, Owen." Barry stood facing him, panting a little. "It's only because you're my pal that I don't retaliate in kind. Any other man who calls me a liar has to go through it, and that's a fact. But as it's you, and as I know I've done the business badly—well"—his voice grew suddenly wistful—"let's sit down and talk it over quietly, shall we?"
Something in his tone made the other man turn cold; and when he replied his manner had lost its vehemence.
"See here, Barry, I'm sorry I attacked you like that. The fact is, I ... I think I can't have understood rightly what you were trying to tell me. You said something just now about Miss Rees being married to Lord Saxonby. Well, what, exactly, did you mean?"
The very quietness with which he spoke made it still more difficult for Barry to answer him.
"I meant just what I said." He fidgeted nervously with a cigarette as he spoke. "Miss Rees was married—quietly—to Lord Saxonby this morning."
"Lord Saxonby? You mean that chap who hung round her before I went away?" Owen's voice was studiously self-controlled, but his hand shook as he played with a silver pencil-case on the table before him.
"Yes. That's the man."
"I see." For a moment he bent his head over the table, and when he looked up Barry understood that he had accepted the truth at last. "So she's played me false, has she? Married another fellow without troubling to let me know. Well, there's no more to be said, I suppose. I must make up my mind to be the laughing-stock of my friends, to be pointed at by men and women, jeered at in the clubs, as the fellow who was jilted ... thrown over for another fellow!"
He paused; then resumed in a louder tone.
"It's an ugly word, Barry—jilted. And by Jove, it's an ugly thing. Odd how naturally women take to it, isn't it? They won't steal, as a rule—draw the line at murder, but they think nothing of making damned fools of men who are insane enough to believe in them!"
He laughed bitterly; and his eyes looked grim.
"It would have been quite easy to let me know, wouldn't it?" He flung the question at his friend. "A sixpenny wire—even a cable wouldn't have ruined her, would it? And it would have been much less brutal than to let me come home expecting to find a blushing bride waiting for me!"
"I expect she ... she thought you'd see it in the papers," said Barry rather lamely. "Although it was kept pretty quiet here there were paragraphs about it, of course, and she may have supposed you would see them."
"Hardly the thing to leave it to chance," said Owen drily. "After all, when one gets out of an invitation to dinner, one generally sends an excuse; but ..." he broke off, and his eyes blazed suddenly "... look here, Barry, you know, and I know, that this woman has played a low-down trick on me. I thought her—well, no matter what I thought her—but anyway I know her now for what she is. And I'll be infinitely obliged to you if you'll be good enough to drop the subject now and for evermore."
"I say, old chap, I'm awfully sorry——"
Barry's impulsive speech got no further, for the other raised his hand to cut it short.
"All right, Barry, we'll take it all as said. Henceforth no such person as Miss Rees—I mean Lady Saxonby—exists for me; and if you'll remember that it will make things easier for us both."
"Very well, Owen." Barry felt emboldened to light a cigarette; and then, with a tactlessness born of mental discomfort, he asked a blundering question. "What shall you do now, old man? Have another shot at big game for a bit, or what?"
"Another shot—I say, Barry, why on earth should I go back the moment I've got home? Oh, I see!" He smiled cynically. "You mean town won't be very pleasant for a bit? Well, I daresay it won't, but thank God no one will dare to say much to me!" His jaw squared itself rather aggressively. "But I don't intend to quit. On the contrary, my firm intention is to remain here, do some good work, and, incidentally, marry."
Barry swung round and faced him, openly surprised.
"Oh, I don't know ... at the moment; but someone. You look astonished, Barry! Why shouldn't I marry? Ah, I see! You think because one woman's turned me down no one else will care to risk her happiness with me! Well, of course my value is considerably depreciated, no doubt; but after all, men are in the minority, and I daresay I'll be able to find some girl to take pity on me!"
"Don't talk like that, Owen!" Barry spoke hastily, and his blue eyes looked rather stern. "You don't want a girl to take you out of pity, do you? That's not much of a basis for a happy marriage, is it?"
"No, Barry." He took the rebuke well. "I was talking like a fool. But honestly, I do mean to marry—as soon as possible. Oh, I daresay I'm taking it the wrong way, but it seems to me that there's only one thing for a man in my position to do, and that is to show that he's not heart-broken because one unscrupulous woman has treated him badly!"
"That's all very well—but what about the other woman? Are you going to marry the first girl you meet, irrespective of love, or what are you going to do? I can understand your feeling for Miss Rees has changed its nature—love and hate are akin, I know, but still——"
"No, Barry, you're wrong." He spoke very gently. "I don't hate Vivian. Why should I? She merely exercised her feminine prerogative and changed her mind. Besides, one only hates big things. Vivian isn't big. She's very small, or she'd not have done this thing. If she'd asked me to release her, I'd have done it, and never have uttered a reproach. It's the heartlessness, the unnecessary cruelty of this that hurts me so. I loved her, Barry, and she knew it. Loved her in the right way, in the way a man should love the woman he's going to marry; and my love meant so little to her that she chucked it away without even telling me she was tired of it."
"But to marry, out of revenge, as it were, is small too."
"Out of revenge? Come, Barry, what are you thinking of?" Owen rose and spoke with an eerie joviality. "There'll be no revenge about it! Mayn't I marry and settle down like another man? I'll guarantee that the first woman who wants me can have me; and if she plays the game she shan't regret it, for I'll play it too!"
"But where will you look for her?" Barry could not understand this attitude of mind.
"Look for her? Oh, I'll look for her all right—and she'll turn up, never fear!" He moved restlessly. "There's always some woman ready to enter a man's life when he throws the door ajar—and here I'm positively flinging it open, inviting the little dears to come in!"
"But, I say, Owen"—Barry looked anxiously at his friend—"you ... you'll be careful, won't you? I mean, you won't let any twopenny-halfpenny little chorus-girl, or ... or girl out of a shop come in, will you? You see, if you let them all know...."
"Chorus-girls are sometimes worth a good deal more than twopence-halfpenny," Owen reminded him quietly, "and I daresay a girl out of a shop would make a jolly decent wife. But I wasn't contemplating them when I spoke."
"Of course not," assented Barry hastily. "I only meant——"
"You only meant to give me good advice," said Owen, more kindly than he had yet spoken. "All right, old man, I understand. You must forgive me if I'm cross-grained to-night. You see I've had a shock——"
He broke off abruptly.
"There, I'm not going to whine about it. It's over, done with, and a new chapter's started." He yawned ostentatiously. "Barry, I shall call upon your good offices as best man yet—unless you hurry up and marry Miss Lynn first."
"Oh, Olive and I are in no hurry!" He laughed a trifle awkwardly. "You see, she is so young—only just eighteen—and her people won't hear of it for a couple of years."
"Well, that will soon pass." He turned towards the door. "I must be off now, Barry—it's late, and I'm pretty fagged. See you in the morning, I suppose?"
"Of course. I say, Owen, sure you won't stay here to-night? I can give you a bed, you know."
"Thanks awfully, old chap, but I'd rather get home. I've heaps of things to see to. Thanks all the same."
Still talking, the friends crossed the hall, and Barry unlatched the door of the flat.
"Well, so-long, Barry. Awfully glad to have seen you again." He gripped the younger man's hand, and Barry understood what the grip implied.
"Good-night, Owen. See you to-morrow."
Two minutes later Owen had disappeared round a bend in the staircase; and Barry went slowly back into his sitting-room, feeling curiously tired, as though he had been indulging in some violent physical exercise.
"Poor old chap! What a beast that girl is!" He had never liked Miss Rees, and now felt, naturally, that his dislike was justified. "But I hope to goodness he doesn't go and do anything rash. He's got a pretty good head on him, though, and I daresay a lot of this talk is mere bravado."
He turned off the light and went into his bedroom. On the dressing-table stood a silver frame holding a photograph; and Barry took up the frame and studied the portrait carefully.
"Olive, you'd never play me a trick like that, would you! My God, I hope you don't! It would just about kill me to have to lose faith in you!"
The deep eyes looked up at him candidly, the sweet mouth seemed to smile; and with a sudden blissful certainty that the original of the photograph was as true and straightforward as the picture proclaimed her to be, Barry put down the frame again, and began, whistling, to prepare for bed.
A month later Barry relinquished his post as secretary to the man he called "old Joliffe," and announced himself to be from henceforth at Owen's disposal.
The review to which the latter had alluded was a long-standing ideal of Owen Rose's. From his earliest youth he had been attracted by the journalistic side of life, and seeing no means of editing a London daily at an early age, he had wisely determined to learn the whole business of newspaper journalism from the beginning. At the ago of eighteen he was sub-editor on a big provincial daily; but his brilliant and versatile intelligence soon wearied of the monotony of the life, and he came to London to demand the right of admittance into Fleet Street.
At that time, luckily for himself, he was on terms of friendship with a well-known editor; and what his own talent might have found difficulty in obtaining was placed unexpectedly within his reach. Before he was twenty-five he was well-known in the newspaper world; and since, on his twenty-fifth birthday, he came into possession of the comfortable income left to him by his father many years before, he was able to turn his back definitely on any soul-destroying drudgery and devote his time and brains to better work. Beneath his journalistic ability there was a sound and delicate literary flair; and it had long been his dream to found a magazine which, while neither commonplace nor unduly "precious," should hit a happy mean between the cheap magazines devoted to more or less poor fiction, and the somewhat pompous reviews which held up the light of learning and research in a rather severe and forbidding fashion.
He would have a little fiction—of the highest order. A comparatively large portion of the review was to be devoted to poetry, both as regarded original verse and the critical appreciation of modern poetry as a whole. Articles on art, music, the drama, were all to find a home in his pages; and there was to be a judicious sprinkling of science to add a little ballast to the lighter freight.
But what he intended to be the striking feature of the review was the tone which was to prevail throughout. It was to be warm, eager, enthusiastic, optimistic. He intended himself to write a series of articles dealing with the future in relation to the past. Each subject—music, literature, humanitarianism, mysticism, and a dozen others—would be treated in turn; and while in no wise belittling the magic inventiveness of an age which has given us an Edison, a Marconi, and a whole host of brilliant explorers, birdmen, and others equally daring and distinguished, he intended to remember always the enormous debt which we of this century owe to the glorious past.
Possibly in Owen's very enthusiasm, in the eager, ardent spirit of his dreams, there was more of the spirit of the future than of the past—but he intended to hold the balance as evenly as possible.
On one point he was firm. While hoping that his review would be in every way a serious contribution to the more valuable literature of the day, the literature which was worth something, he intended it to be strictly non-political. There would be no room within its covers for writers with axes to grind. No acrimonious discussions, thinly-veiled in pedantry, should mar the harmony of the pages; no party cries should echo from the editorial offices; and although he aimed, in some measure, at instructing and uplifting his readers, it was their betterment as human beings, rather than as citizens—so far as the two may be divorced—with which he intended to concern himself.
He was fortunate in his collaborators. At his back he had an old friend of his fathers', a gifted, if somewhat inarticulate, man of letters, who had longed, in his early life, for the opportunity to do what Owen was doing; and was generous enough to feel that, though his own working days were over, he might well use a little of his wealth in helping another man to realize their mutual dream.
Everything was to be on a strictly business-like footing. Owen, as editor, was to receive a moderate salary—moderate because he felt that in the circumstances the backing he received was worth more than any emolument. Also he was sufficiently well-off to waive the matter if he chose until the review was on firm financial ground. Barry, as his personal secretary and general second-in-command, was to receive a generous sum; and the rest of the men, all young, ardent, and fired with a whole-hearted belief in Owen as their chief, were to be remunerated according to their work and ability.
A certain Miss Lucy Jenkins had been selected as typewriter and assistant at what seemed to her the princely sum of forty shillings a week; and by the beginning of February activity at headquarters, a pleasant, though not palatial suite of offices in Victoria Street, Westminster, was in full swing.
The first number of the Bridge was to make its appearance at Easter; and Owen was meditating one morning over the possible inclusion of a little set of verses which had reached him from a hitherto-unknown contributor, when Barry appeared in the doorway leading to his inner sanctum with a worried look in his frank blue eyes.
"Hallo, Barry, anything wrong?" Owen put down the paper he held and looked at his young colleague with a smile.
"Well, it's no end of a bore!" Barry frowned distastefully. "That stupid Jenkins woman has gone and landed herself in Holloway!"
"Holloway?" Owen repeated the word in surprise.
"Yes. I knew she was a Militant Suffragette, but I thought she would have more sense than to go mixing herself up in brawls with the police!"
"And she hasn't?"
"No. On Saturday afternoon"—this was Monday—"she went and marched in a procession of women out to smash windows or something of the sort, got into a row and kicked a bobby in the ribs. The end was she got locked up that night."
"Where is she now?"
"Brought up before the magistrate this morning and sentenced to fourteen days without an option for violence," said Barry laconically. "I've just had a note from her mother, who's nearly distracted, begging me to keep her place open for her, but I don't see how we can do that."
"Certainly not," said Owen decidedly. "I'll have no militant women on my staff, and the sooner they understand that the better. She wasn't any great treasure, either. She was too fond of revising the stuff she had to type; and her ideas and mine clashed considerably when it came to punctuation."
"I suppose I must advertise for someone to take her place, then," said Barry, with a sigh.
"Yes. Get a younger girl this time, if you can. Miss Jenkins had reached the certain—or uncertain—age when women take to militant suffragism. She didn't like being corrected when she made mistakes, and used to argue with me till you'd have thought it was she who ran the office, and not I."
"All right. I'll do my best."
"Not too young, though," said Owen, half-maliciously, "or she'll be thinking about her best boy all day instead of working. Of course that's a bit better than militancy, less upsetting; but women are so incomprehensible when they're in what they are pleased to call love that it's rather difficult to know what they're driving at."
"Oh, all right!" Owen's flippancy disturbed Barry, and he spoke shortly, whereupon Owen smiled meaningly, and Barry went out of the room rather hurriedly.
Once safe in his own sanctum he lamented the unkind Fate which had given Owen's heart as a plaything into the hands of an unscrupulous woman such as Miss Rees had proved herself to be. Although Owen rarely mentioned the subject, Barry knew well enough that he had not relinquished the idea of a speedy marriage. Once or twice Owen had asked him his opinion of this or that woman with whom they were both acquainted; but so far he had shown no signs of forming any new engagement, though Barry lived in a state of apprehension lest his friend should suddenly announce a more or less undesirable tie.
For Owen, perhaps naturally, shunned the women of his own set. They all knew too much, knew the history of his disastrous engagement too well—were, in many cases, friends of the woman who had jilted him; and were therefore no acquaintances for a man in his mood.
But there were other women, with whom, before his departure for the East, he had been on terms of casual acquaintance; the daughters of City friends, girls who lived in Kensington or Hampstead, girls with brothers who had knocked up against the young men in athletic or journalistic circles; an actress or two; good-hearted, ordinary young women for the most part, commonplace in spite of suburban leanings towards "culture," and in many cases entirely out of sympathy with the aims and ideals of both Owen and his friend.
As a matter of fact Owen and Barry were too busy during these strenuous days to have time for social delights; but now and then they met one or other of these various girls, visited one of the actresses on a "first night," dined, reluctantly, in Earl's Court or Belsize Road, and on the following morning Owen would ask Barry, half-teasingly, whether Rose or Sybil or Gwendoline struck him as the most suitable bride for an already jilted bachelor.
Barry never took up the subject, showed plainly by his manner that he did not like the jest; but the occasional queries went to show that the idea of marriage was still in his friend's thoughts; and Barry was now and again seriously uneasy lest some designing woman—that was the way he put it—should make the vague possibility into an accomplished fact.
And then, just when the idea seemed to be fading, lost in the pressure of work, the interest of bringing forth the first realization of a lifelong dream, the woman herself—but she was not designing—came.
Miss Antonia Gibbs came from the typewriting office with excellent testimonials. Though but eighteen years of age, she was vouched for as a steady, conscientious worker, well-educated and of exceptional intelligence. Quick, accurate, and possessed of a capital memory, she would seem to be the ideal typist for an office such as that presided over by Owen Rose; and after perusing the certificates and other documents forming what one might call her dossier, Owen had really no choice but to engage the prodigy.
When she received the letter announcing the fact Miss Gibbs danced with delight.
"Two pounds a week! Think of it!" Thus she besought her cousin Fanny, a rather full-blown young woman employed in a "drapery-house" at Brixton. "And easy hours—with an hour off for lunch! Isn't it lovely!"
"You'll have the office 'commish' to pay," her cousin reminded her, "and I know all about those short hours! Sound well, but they generally want overtime out of you—without paying for it either!"
"Do they?" Antonia's joy was momentarily checked. Then she recovered her spirits. "Anyway, even then it's a good post, and I can easily pay the commission out of two pounds!"
"Yes, of course." Fanny, whose natural optimism was somewhat impaired by her experience in drapers' shops, cheered up also. "It's a grand opportunity for you, Toni, and mind you make the most of it."
"Rather," returned Toni gaily. "I'm to start to-morrow, so this is my last free night. Aren't you glad some people are coming in to tea?"
"Yes." Fanny, recalled to the immediate present, began her preparations for the tea-party. "Josh'll be pleased to hear of your luck, Toni; he's real fond of you, you know."
"Is he?" Toni, pulling off her flannel blouse, spoke a trifle absently.
"Yes. If I weren't fond of you myself I declare I'd be jealous! Don't know how it is, all the boys seem to take to you straight away, Toni, and you don't care a pin for any of 'em!"
"Perhaps that's why," said Toni cheerfully, voicing a truth without in the least realizing it. "After all, who is there to care for? Jack Brown, or young Graves, or that funny little Walter Britton out of Lea and Harper's?" She plunged her glowing face into a basin of cold water as she spoke.
"No. I s'pose they're not quite your sort." Fanny stared thoughtfully at her cousin. "I don't know how it is, Toni—you are my cousin, your father was Dad's own brother—and yet you're as different from us as—as chalk from cheese."
She in her turn had uttered a profound truth. Between Toni and the rest of the commonplace lower-middle-class household was a great gulf fixed, a gulf which was the more inexplicable because it was clearly visible to the parties on either side of the chasm.
Red-faced, brawny Fred Gibbs, the butcher, his equally red-faced, though slightly more refined wife, and their several sons and daughters, belonging, most of them, to the category of "fine" boys and girls, were a good-humoured, kindly people enough; yet between them and the pretty, dark-eyed Antonia there was not the slightest vestige of resemblance, either in looks, manners, or disposition.
Not that Toni gave herself airs. On the contrary, she was the most cheerful and light-hearted little soul in the world. She flung herself bodily into all the family's interests and pursuits, helped her uncle with his books and her aunt with her housework, was Fanny's sworn confidante and ally in all matters of the heart. The younger children adored her for her good looks, her vivacity, her high spirits; and even the flashes of rage which now and then marred her usually sunny temper were fascinating in their very fire.
Yet—with it all she was not, never would be, one of them. Fanny was inclined to put it down to her foreign blood—for Toni's mother had been Italian. The elder Gibbs fancied the girl's superior education was responsible—for Toni had been to a real "Seminary for Young Ladies," in contradistinction to the Council School attended by her cousins; while as for Toni herself, though she was as fully conscious as the rest that she was "different, somehow," she could never say, with any certainty, in what the difference lay.
Perhaps a psychologist would have found Antonia's position an interesting one. Briefly, her history was this.
The Gibbs were North-Country people, a good old yeoman family who had been in service with an older and more aristocratic people in the county of Yorkshire. The family, however, had begun, a few generations back, to die out. Instead of the usual lusty sons, only daughters had been born to most of the Gibbs, and they in their turn married and died, in the nature of things relinquishing their own name, until there were few left.
So the race dwindled, until old Matthew Gibbs and his two sons Fred and Roger were the last representatives of the old stock; and to the father's bitter disappointment neither boy would consent to settle down on the farm and carry out the tradition of the family. Fred, always a pushing, commercially-minded lad, found farming too slow and unprofitable to satisfy him, and he took service in a butcher's shop at York, as a first step towards his goal, London, in which city he eventually made his home, married a Cockney girl, and settled down for the rest of his prosperous life.
The second son, Roger, early showed a desire to travel; and though his father would have kept him at home, he realized that after all youth will be served, and let the boy go out into the world as soon as he had passed his eighteenth birthday.
Being possessed of unlimited confidence, exceptional strength and a light-hearted determination to make something of life, Roger was successful from the start. As is often her way with those from whom she means, later, to exact a heavy toll, Fate smiled upon the good-looking young man who faced her so gaily. He got one post after another: secretary, mechanic, groom—for he was equally clever with hands and head. In this or that capacity he travelled quite extensively for some years, and finally, having a natural bent for languages, came to Rome in the position of courier to a rich American family. It happened that the daughter of the house had an Italian maid, a beautiful, refined girl from Southern Italy; and the young people quickly fell in love. In spite of his apparent irresponsibility Roger had saved a little money, and within six months he had married his Italian girl and carried her off to live in a village on the side of a mountain not far from Naples, where for four blissful years they lived in perfect contentment.
Old Matthew Gibbs, having in his later years sustained heavy agricultural losses, was dead, and there was nothing to call Roger back to England. He much preferred, indeed, to remain in the South, and as their wants were simple he and his wife were able to live quite comfortably on Roger's own little bit of money and the few lire he made through the kindly offices of the village priest, who liked the gay young Englishman and put many odd jobs—translation, the acting as interpreter and guide to tourists, and other things of the sort—in his way.
When Toni came to complete the trio, their happiness was complete; and for three years after her birth the little house on the hill-side was the home of joy and love and all the pleasant domestic virtues and graces.
When the child was three years old, the elder Antonia, herself only a girl, died, after twenty-four hours' fever; and in one black hour Roger paid for all the sunny days with which Fortune had so lavishly endowed him.
When at length he summoned up resolution to face the future he determined, with a passionate desire to carry out his young wife's unspoken entreaty, to devote himself to his child; and with this intention he stayed on bravely in the little home from which the sunshine had departed.
For nearly six years they lived together in the tiny village near Naples; and gradually the pall began to lift from the young man's spirit, and the sunshine and the flowers, the blue sky and sea, and the snow-capped mountains made their appeal once again to the warm, ardent soul which sorrow had darkened.
During these six years father and daughter had lived frugally, almost as the peasants lived; yet with a daintiness, an order, which were unknown to the peasants. The little Antonia—Toni, as they called her—grew straight and strong as she played on the mountain slopes, or ate the simple meals of grapes and bread and goat's flesh provided for her by the old housekeeper, Fiammetta, who ruled both the pretty child and the handsome young father with a rule of iron which yet made life a very well-ordered and gracious existence.
But when Toni had almost reached her ninth birthday the change came. The good old priest died; and with the death of his sole friend Roger Gibbs found life in the village impossible.
Truth to tell, it was a marvel he had borne it so long. Only a numbing blow such as he had received could have stunned his faculties into acquiescence with this sleepy, uneventful existence; and now, suddenly, his soul awoke from its peaceful slumber and demanded life, and yet more life.
Italy became all at once unendurable. The nomad spirit was aroused, and nothing would satisfy the man but a fresh start in life's pilgrimage.
His little daughter, too, must be educated; and although he loved the child with all the concentrated passion of a man who has lost the woman of whom the child is his only memento, he yet felt that the time had come when he must shake himself free from the trammels of domesticity and live once again the life of a man in some free, wild, adventure-filled land.
A month after Father Pietro's death Roger and his little daughter Antonia were in England. The father's first object was to seek out his brother Fred and see if he and his wife would take charge of the child for a short time; and this he found both Fred and his comely spouse very willing to do. There were other children in the home who were only too ready to welcome the pretty little Toni; and after a stay of some weeks in the noisy Brixton house Roger Gibbs had bidden his little daughter farewell, and had gone forth once more, this time as assistant purser on a liner, a post to which one of his former employers had assisted him opportunely. It was a chance to see more of the world, and the man embraced it gladly enough, though it would certainly prove irksome in the end.
After that it was long before Toni saw her father again. At regular intervals he sent money for her maintenance; and she grew up with her cousins, attending the big Council School in the next street with them, and sharing in all the ups and downs of the Gibbs family.
When she was thirteen Roger returned from an expedition to Peru, in the course of which he had amassed a respectable sum of money, and father and daughter met again, a meeting fraught, on Roger's side, with something like disappointment.
Four years of London life had transformed the olive-skinned, dreamy-eyed child into a pale, long-legged girl who, although she had not lost her soft Southern voice, used the colloquialisms of street and playground with unpleasing fluency. True, she wore her shabby clothes with an air of grace, but contact with other children had developed her into a sharp, somewhat pert gamine, who was reputed quick at her lessons, but equally, and less meritoriously, quick with her tongue.
Within her father's mind disillusionment reigned supreme. Naturally, it was not the fault of the child that she had taken on so quickly the colour of her environment; nor, fortunately, was it too late to overlay those traits with other and more pleasing characteristics. But thinking of the soft-eyed, gentle, loving Italian girl he had married, Roger resolved that her child should have another chance before it was too late; and with that object in mind he scoured the neighbourhood until he found what suited him, a quiet, old-fashioned ladies' school, conducted by two prim but kindly women who appeared to him likely to have the influence he sought.
The Misses Holland were interested in his story, pleased with the idea of softening and refining the child, half-Italian, half-Londoner, and made things easy for the bronzed and handsome father; with the result that from that time Toni's connection with the Council School ceased, and she became a boarder, on surprisingly low terms, at the aforesaid School for Young Ladies; where she remained until she was close on seventeen.
These years were the turning point of Antonia's life. Here, in company with twenty other girls, somewhat above her in station, she learnt, among other things, the virtues of gentleness, quietness in voice and movement, unselfishness, and many kindred things; and those years of happy, monotonous toil, broken only by pleasant, friendly treats, or gentle, old-fashioned punishments, were full of use and value to the growing girl.
On her seventeenth birthday she was to leave school for good; and it had been settled that her father was then to return to England and make a home for her—a hope which the girl had hugged to her heart through all these quiet years.
But on the very day which should have seen her emancipation something happened.
The liner on which Roger was hastening back to England, after a year in the East, went down in a mighty gale off Gibraltar; and Roger Gibbs was among the drowned.
* * * * *
Of course all hope of that little home was at an end now. No more remittances could be looked for, the store of money left for her education was all spent; and though it seemed incredible that Roger should have made no provision for his daughter's future, such indeed proved to be the fact.
Doubtless he had intended to settle down, to obtain some post in England; but as things turned out there was nothing left for Antonia. Let it be said at once that her relations behaved well. The Misses Holland, too, would have taken her to help in the school but for the unexpected advent of a needy niece of their own; but from the first Antonia set her face against teaching.
She did not like it, would rather go in for business, she said; and the upshot of it all was that after some time she managed to obtain a post in a large typewriting office in order to learn the work, after which she was required to give her services for a period of twelve months for a nominal salary in return for the teaching and business training bestowed upon her.
It was not a very good bargain; but she closed with it in lieu of a better opening; and when, in a few weeks from the date of her aunt's tea-party, she would be free to earn her living in her own way, she would be able to defray the expense to which that same aunt had been put during her time of apprenticeship.
* * * * *
So rapid is thought that between the beginning and ending of the task of changing her outdoor shoes and stockings for slightly better ones, Antonia's quick mind had flashed back over those years which had, so she owned to herself, made all the difference; but not for worlds would she have let her cousin know that she recognized any such difference.
"Different! Not a bit of it!" She looked up and spoke with more warmth than usual. "And as for the boys liking me—well, you're engaged, and I'm not!"
"Well, yes, there is that to be said!" Fanny regarded with affection the cheap gold ring, set with imitation rubies, which adorned her plump hand. "But you know, Toni, you could got Mr. Dowson any minute if you tried!"
"Mr. Dowson!" Toni, occupied in brushing out her black hair, tossed her head with a little foreign gesture peculiar to her. "Why, Fan, how could I marry Mr. Dowson! He's very nice, and good-hearted, but his chest is narrow, and he's going bald!"
"Well, that's not his fault," returned Fanny practically, "and it's not with age either, because he's quite young. I expect it's with studying so hard."
"I daresay—but still ... of course he's clever," owned Toni rather grudgingly, "he must be, to be a dentist, but—no, Fan, I'm not going to marry Mr. Dowson, so there!"
"Oh, all right." Fanny was a philosopher. "You know your own business best. Will you do me up, dear, and tell me how you like my frock? I think myself it's rather striking."
Thus besought, Toni stuck the last pin-casually in her hair and came to give her assistance in the matter of "doing up."
Miss Frances Gibbs' dress was composed of a bright rose-pink voile, bought cheaply at a sale, ornamented with a sash of ribbon of an equally vivid hue of violet; and striking it certainly was, in the sense that one felt inclined to collapse at sight of it. Miss Gibbs' figure being of the order which dressmakers call "full," the effect was distinctly startling; and as Fanny had carefully arranged her abundant hair in as many rolls as she could possibly manage, it is to be inferred that she presented a more overpowering effect than ever.
Although, possibly owing to her Italian blood, Toni herself had a weakness for bright colours, on other people, this daring juxtaposition of pink and violet was a trifle bizarre even for her taste; and she looked critically at Fanny as the latter paraded under the gas jet in order to show off the "creation" to its best advantage.
"Well?" Fanny's tone was anxious; and Antonia flung scruple to the winds.
"It's lovely, Fan, and you look scrumptious in it!" She hastily produced from a paper bag a bunch of violets she had intended for her own adornment. "Here, let me pin these in for you, they will finish you off beautifully."
"But they're yours, Toni!"
"Oh, never mind me!" Toni laughed recklessly. "I've not got a Josh waiting for me downstairs—and anyway, I don't much care to wear flowers, they die so quickly, poor dears."
Her own frock, an oft-washed white muslin, was donned in a second. A bright green ribbon round her waist, a pair of greenstone earrings put in beneath the clustering black hair, giving her a quaintly picturesque look, and Antonia was ready for the evening's jollity.
As the cousins ran downstairs together, an appetising smell of roasting chickens came to their nostrils, and Toni sniffed appreciatively.
"I wish Uncle Fred had a birthday every week! Isn't it fun having people in and playing games afterwards!"
"Rather, but I wish we'd been going to the theatre!"
"Well, so do I," conceded Toni, "but anyhow this is better than one of our usual dull evenings!"
Half an hour later the feast was in full progress. The table in the little "front room" literally groaned with good things; indeed, so liberally was it provided that half-way through the meal the butcher insisted on removing the vase of chrysanthemums which stood proudly in the middle on a green paper mat, alleging as he did so that "them flowers took up a sight too much room"—an axiom to which he stuck in spite of his daughter's remonstrances.
Besides the family there were three guests. Mr. Joshua Lee who was engaged to Fanny, naturally had the place of honour beside her; and from that vantage ground he played the part of prospective son-in-law to perfection, removing the plates, running about in search of a mislaid salt-cellar, and generally acquitting himself, so Fanny thought proudly, like a perfect gentleman.
The other two guests were less busy. One of them, Mr. Britton, sat beside his hostess and carried on an animated conversation with her as to the nature and effect of the various patent medicines they had mutually sampled; while the remaining guest, Mr. Dowson, sat next to Antonia, and endeavoured, without much success, to attract her attention to himself.
Halfway through one of his most intimate speeches Toni interrupted him ruthlessly.
"Aunt Jean, where's Lu?"
"Got smacked and sent to bed for stealing jam," her youngest cousin informed her unctuously. "My! She did howl! I guess Ma thumped her pretty well!"
"I did whip her rather hard," confessed Mrs. Gibbs half-apologetically. "I was real vexed with her when I found her with her fingers in the jar! But there, she's been wanting a smacking long enough, and I expect it'll do her good," she finished up cheerfully.
"Poor Lu! And she'd been so looking forward to to-night!" Toni's soft heart was wrung for the culprit. "Did she have any tea, Auntie?"
"Not she. I sent her straight off to bed." Mrs. Gibbs' tone was uneasy now. "And she didn't eat no dinner to-day, she was that excited!"
"Oh, poor Lu! Can't I take her up something, Aunt Jean?"
Mrs. Gibbs appeared to consider the question, though everyone at the table knew very well that her mother-heart had relented towards her darling long ago.
"Well, I don't mind if you do take her just a bite," she said presently; and amid much laughter and sympathetic joking a tray was fitted out with various delicacies and entrusted to the willing hands of Antonia.
Up she went, finding Lu's room in darkness, Lu herself lying sullenly awake, refusing to be comforted.
Her plump little person had strongly resented the force of her mother's stern hand; but her vanity was more severely hurt by the fact that the visitors downstairs would know both the cause and the method of her punishment. Therefore she turned away and pretended to be asleep; but Toni's gentle hand pulling down the clothes, Toni's soft voice murmuring of forgiveness and compensation were too much for the child.
She sat up, disclosing the tear-stains on her round cheeks in the light of the candle Toni carried, and allowed herself to be comforted with alternate bites of chicken and sips of lemonade.
"That's better!" Toni gave her a plate of trifle, and brushed back the tangled curls from the hot little forehead. "Now eat that up and then I must run away. They're waiting for me, you know, so when you've finished you must give me a kiss and go straight to sleep."
"Yes, Toni." Lu lay obediently down, soothed by the girl's kind tone. "I'll go to sleep all right if ... if Ma'll come up and say good-night!"
"Of course she will!" Toni smiled at the child's involuntary clinging to the mother who had punished her. "I'll tell her you're waiting—and now I must fly! Good-night, Ducky, sleep well!"
She kissed the child, her eyes very soft as she bent over the bed; and then, picking up the tray, she ran swiftly downstairs again and re-entered the room where tea was rapidly drawing to an end.
"How kind-hearted you are, Miss Toni," said Mr. Dowson admiringly as she slipped into her seat beside him. "Lots of people would have said the kiddy deserved to be whipped and sent to bed."
"I daresay she did, but that didn't make it any better—for her," laughed Toni, with a vivid remembrance of her aunt's corrective powers. "I know what Auntie's whippings are like, you see, and they're no joke!"
"You don't mean to say Mrs. Gibbs ever dared to ... to punish you, Miss Antonia?" His pale-blue eyes were aghast at the thought of such sacrilege.
"Oh, rather!" Toni laughed joyously at his face of horror. "She's whipped me heaps, of times.... I expect I deserved it, too, for I can assure you I was never a pattern child!"
"I ... I would like to see anyone venture to lay a hand on you," said Mr. Dowson earnestly—too earnestly for Toni's liking. "Miss Antonia, if you ... if you would only give me the right ..."
Bang! An hilariously-disposed little Gibbs had exploded a cracker in the young man's ear; and Mr. Dowson, blushing to the very edge of his extremely high collar, subsided rather wrathfully.
Much to Antonia's relief the party rose from the table a moment later; and with a stern determination in her mind not to allow Mr. Dowson another opportunity to make the avowal which she knew very well trembled on his lips, Toni bustled gaily about, helping to clear the table and make things ready for the evening's festivity.
Mr. Dowson's pale eyes followed her about rather wistfully. To him the white-clad, black-crowned little figure represented a dream—the fulfilment, rather, of an ideal which he had never dared to hope would materialize in his own hard-working, rather grey and sordid life.
Although, thanks to a kindly patron, Leonard Dowson had been able to carry out his desire and qualify as a dentist, he was under no delusion as to his social position. He came of humble, illiterate folk, and he knew well enough that in a fashionable, high-class practice he would be altogether out of place.
He set up his surgery, therefore, in the populous neighbourhood of Brixton; and now, after five years' strenuous toil, he was beginning to pay his way, beginning also to dream of a wife to bear him company in the dingy, narrow house in which he dwelt.
That Antonia Gibbs would ever consent to be his wife he almost feared to believe. He wooed her persistently, quietly, bringing her books—which she seldom opened—an occasional bunch of flowers, or, more rarely still, a box of sweets of some variety which his professional soul warranted harmless, for Mr. Dowson was conscientiousness itself, and nothing would have persuaded him to place his lady-love's little white teeth in jeopardy, even though by such means she might be brought into contact with him.
For her sake he scraped and saved, denying himself the least luxury, so that if she came to him he could at least offer her a decent home; and every act of petty self-sacrifice was sweet to him because it was endured for her.
Yet Toni never gave him a second thought. To her, in her vivid youth, Mr. Dowson, with his thirty-five years, his prematurely bald head, his narrow chest, was a being of another race than her own. She knew—the minx—that the man was deeply and quietly in love with her, but with the unconscious cruelty of youth she ignored his suffering, and possibly despised him ever so little that he continued to sigh for something which he ought to have known was, for him, unattainable.
Yet to-night, her spirits raised by her unexpected good-fortune, Toni showed herself more than usually bewitching; and although she managed to stave off the declaration which still trembled on the young man's lips, she played games with him in the most friendly fashion, and bade him good-night at last with so sweet a smile that he almost fell upon his knees then and there and kissed the slim little feet in their cheap patent shoes!
He did not do it, fortunately. He retained just sufficient common sense to know that the proceeding would have annoyed his divinity; and instead he merely squeezed her hand and murmured a few inarticulate words which meant a good deal more than they contrived to convey.
Then, arriving at home, he went to bed—and dreamed of Toni.
But Toni's dreams—the rainbow dreams of happy youth—were of a very different quality.
Precisely at nine o'clock on the following morning Antonia presented herself at the office of the new review; and was forthwith conducted to the editor's room.
Here Owen and Barry were waiting for her; and at the sight of the trim little figure in the doorway the faces of both men brightened.
In truth Toni was pleasant to look upon. She had taken off her hat and coat in the little ante-room, and as she stood there in her black frock, with its demure little white turn-down collar, she looked very young, very shy, and if the truth must be told, very pretty. Whereupon Barry, who loved all pretty girls in a harmless, kindly fashion, rejoiced exceedingly; while even Owen, to whom things feminine were at present anathema, owned to himself that she was certainly more attractive to have about the place than her sour-faced predecessor.
It was Barry who put her at her ease, of course. Not being troubled with shyness he greeted her in friendly fashion, bade her come in, and pointed out to her the chair, behind the typewriter, which she was expected to fill.
Yes, she said, in answer to questioning, she was used to a Remington. No, she had never been connected with journalism before. Yes, she was well up in ordinary office work, and—in answer to Owen, this—she knew pretty well the rules of composition, grammar, etc.
"That's good." Owen spoke formally, and Toni decided instantly that she liked Mr. Raymond the better of the two. "Well, I have here an article I want you to type at once, and then—can you read proof?"
Blushing, she owned her inability to do so. Privately, she was not at all sure what he meant, but dread of Miss Hardy's wrath should she be returned to the office marked "Incompetent" forced her to add quickly:—
"But I'm sure I could learn if—if you wouldn't mind showing me how to do it."
"I'm sure you could." Barry spoke kindly and she turned to him with a feeling of relief. "When you have typed that article for Mr. Rose I'll show you how, and then you'll manage all right."
"Teach her now," advised Rose, looking up from the manuscript he was scanning. "This stuff wants a bit of revising, and you might as well do something for your living, Barry, you lazy wretch."
Barry smilingly disclaimed any right to the title.
"I'm ready to work as hard as anyone," he said gaily.
"But as I'm only considered fit to do the theatrical criticisms and play office-boy to you, Owen, naturally I find time to make holiday now and then. Well, Miss ... er ..."
"Gibbs." She supplied him with the name as he hesitated.
"Gibbs? You won't mind being known as 'Our Miss Gibbs,' will you?" His tone was free of all offence, and Toni smiled in response. "Now, here's a chair for me, and if only our chief will hold his peace for half an hour, I'll soon put you wise, as the Yankees say."
He sat down beside her, and pulling a couple of galley proof-sheets towards him, began to initiate her into the mysteries of "reading." For all his laughing manner he was an excellent teacher; and after twenty minutes of his clear and lucid exposition the girl felt she was beginning to grasp her lesson thoroughly. She proved, too, wonderfully quick at detecting mistakes, and Barry, who had petitioned the heads of the office they had selected not to send him any Council School product, was pleased to find that her spelling was admirable, her grammar passable, and her memory retentive.
As to the meaning which the article they were correcting conveyed to her, Barry was a little doubtful.
It was a short summary, by a famous Catholic writer, of some of the lesser-understood aspects of mysticism; and Barry suspected that a good deal of it was Greek to her, though she did her best to answer him intelligently when he questioned her, rather artfully, on the correct reading of a somewhat involved sentence.
As a matter of fact, Toni was wondering inwardly what on earth it was all about. Her education, though sound so far as it went, had been thoroughly old-fashioned; and at this period of her development it is to be feared there were whole tracts of mind and brain left vacant—for Toni belonged, by adoption at least, to a class who read only for amusement and occupation, and are not in the least anxious to try their mental teeth on any abstract theories or philosophies of life. She was at present all for the concrete. Things seen and known were of importance, things unseen were alike uninteresting and incredible. The abstract virtues were all very well, but life was much too vivid and important to allow itself to be ousted by dreams and speculations.
Something of this Barry, who had an almost femininely swift intuition, guessed as he sat beside Toni on this first morning; but Toni was much too intent on her work to wonder what he thought of her; and by the time she had done a little typing, taken down a few letters, and read a short proof all by herself, it was one o'clock, and she was dismissed in search of lunch.
When she returned, nearly an hour later, she found Owen alone, studying a dummy copy of the review; and seeing she was interested, Owen handed it over for her to see.
"The Bridge." She quoted the title a little dubiously. "Is that what you call it? But—what does it mean?"
Taking it back into his own hands, Owen pointed with a pencil to the design on the cover.
"Here is the Bridge, you see, and this stream of people passing over it symbolize the present generation. This side of the bridge represents the past, from which the present comes; this, over the bridge, is the future, towards which the pilgrims are hastening. The idea is to bridge the gulf between past and future, between the old worlds and the new; and with that in mind we try, while never neglecting the storehouse of the past, to point to the future, with all its wonderful, and as yet unwon, rewards and discoveries."
She murmured a word or two, and he went on with a note of enthusiasm in his voice.
"Personally, I look to the future with confidence. Some people say the golden age of poetry, of music and letters generally, is past; but I don't agree. I think that there will be a fresh Renaissance presently, that there will be found fresh hands to pass on the sacred torch ... there's a flood of brilliant youth let loose in the world just now; and every bit of help the Bridge can give is at the service of that marvellous band."
He broke off suddenly, the light of the visionary gleaming in his eyes; but seeing, with a slight pang of disappointment, that his outburst was unintelligible to his hearer, he threw down the paper and laughed.
"There, Miss Gibbs, I have finished! Don't start me on the subject unless you're ready to be bored. Talk to Barry about it—he is able to look upon the Bridge quite sanely, as a means of providing bread and butter; but I'm afraid I'm a bit of a fanatic."
Toni, uncertain of her ground, but desperately anxious to appear intelligent, murmured something shyly, and Rose pulled out his watch with a smile.
"After two already! Well, Miss Gibbs, I'm off for lunch. You might just sort these papers out a bit, will you? We seem to have let things get into rather a muddle."
"I'll do it at once. There would be plenty of room for everything if some of these papers wore tidied up."
"Yes, I suppose you're right." Owen, who loved order, but was too impatient to preserve it, spoke dubiously. "Of course some of those papers are done with, but you wouldn't know which to keep, would you?"
"Perhaps Mr. Raymond would help me?"
Owen's face cleared.
"Of course—do the idle young beggar good. All right, Miss Gibbs, he shall give you a hand this afternoon when he gets back. He's an awfully good sort, you know, though I pretend to rag him. He's as clever as you please, and with it all as obliging and unspoilt as possible. Well, I'd better go. You can get along all right, can you?"
Receiving her reply, he lit a cigarette and went out, assuring himself that so far she promised well.
"Pretty little thing, and anxious to please us. Shallow, I expect, emotional probably, and not brainy enough to appreciate the symbolism of the Bridge. Well, we don't want too brilliant a typist, after all—Miss Jenkins and her 'culture' were a bit trying at times!"
And then meeting by chance an old friend who insisted on carrying him off to lunch, Owen speedily forgot that such a person as Miss Antonia Gibbs existed in the world.
It did not take Miss Fanny Gibbs very long to discover that her cousin's new post held for her an interest beyond that which an unusually congenial situation might be expected to hold.
In Miss Gibbs' world one's "job" was generally of very secondary importance to one's private affairs; and the fact is not to be wondered at when one remembers that the life of the average shop or business girl can by no manner of means be called either pleasant or exciting.
Hitherto Toni had been fully in accord with her cousin's opinion. Although the robust, if promiscuous, flirtations in which Fanny, before her engagement, had indulged freely had never appealed to the more fastidious Toni, she had always been quite ready to join in any fun which might be going. She had eaten sweets gaily in the cheap seats of theatre or picture-palace, had made one at the many informal and harmless little gatherings for which Fanny had a taste; and had cheerfully and quite normally grumbled if detained at the office one moment longer than she considered fair.
But of late Antonia had altered strangely; and Fanny's shrewd eyes noted the change almost from the first.
To begin with, Toni was always in a fidget to get to work. Miss Gibbs took her annual week's holiday just then, and had plenty of time to note her cousin's behaviour; and the way in which Toni swallowed her breakfast and clad herself for the start was a revelation to one who knew her former dilatory nature.
Toni had always been careful of her appearance—more so than her cousin considered at all necessary; but now she was absolutely ridiculous, so thought Fanny, with her new Peter-Pan collars and her fussy attention to her pretty hands, set off by tiny lace cuffs to match the collars. Her black frock, only a year old, was perfectly good and serviceable yet; but the extravagant creature must needs make herself another one in her spare time, and never had she been so particular about the cut, nor so incessant in her demands on Fanny for a helping hand with the "trying-on." She bought herself a new hat, too, a little soft affair in which she looked perfectly delicious; and as the days went by it seemed to Fanny that her cousin was growing prettier and more attractive every week, with a still more bewitching colour in her rounded cheeks, and a still more sparkling light in her Southern eyes.
Yet even her woman's wit could not fathom the mystery of Toni's new joy in life. When interrogated concerning her employers, Toni was always vague. That there were two of them Fanny knew; but from Toni's extremely colourless description, Miss Gibbs gathered that neither was at all what the girls called interesting; and Mr. Rose, at least, almost middle-aged. (Heaven knows what flight of fancy on the part of Toni—Toni, whose magic romance was the shyest, most delicate fantasy in the world—was responsible for that fallacy!)
That Barry was younger Fanny understood; but so lightly did Toni touch upon his kindness that Fanny could not be accused of density in her conception of him as a nonentity in whom her little cousin could take no interest.
Yet that someone was responsible for Toni's sudden outburst of new beauty Miss Gibbs felt assured; and it gradually dawned upon her that there were other men about the place to whom Miss Antonia Gibbs might well appeal.
When questioned about these others, the subordinates who were workers like herself, Antonia at first stared, then coloured impatiently, and finally laughed, with a queer note of impishness in her laughter which puzzled Fanny more than ever.
That she, who was privileged to breathe the same atmosphere as Owen Rose, could be supposed even to realize the existence of any outsider was in itself absurd, if not almost insulting; but Toni was quick to see that here was the opportunity she sought to conceal her wonderful, presumptuous dream.
For she was in love—she knew it now—wildly, deliriously, gloriously in love with Owen. To her he was the embodiment of all that was most noble, most god-like in man. His voice was music, his commands gifts, his rare vexation as the frown of Jove. She trembled and turned pale at his footstep, and when he spoke to her suddenly her heart throbbed and her colour came and went until she felt as though he must observe her emotion.
In a word, she was in love; and when it is remembered that on one side of her Toni was purely of the South—the glowing, ardent, passionate South—it is not to be wondered at that this new emotion dominated her whole being to the exclusion of all else.
Her love, indeed, was pathetic in its young ignorance. Anyone could have told her that she was wasting her treasure, that it was the act of a fool to pour out her priceless gift at the feet of one who did not want it, who would consider it a mere presumption.
Her place in Owen's life was that of a servant, a subordinate; and her common sense should have told her that in that light alone would Owen inevitably behold her. Vaguely she realized this—knew well enough that he never thought of her save as his more or less useful secretary, but after all, she could not be expected to reason out this thing too closely. Its very vagueness, indeed, lent it charm. Her love was veiled, as it were, in a most delicate, most diaphanous mist, which took from it all earthliness, and left it intangible, magical as some gift from fairyland. So far, no hint of desire had entered into it. It was all unselfish, girlish adoration, an almost childish reverence for one immeasurably her superior; and though she made her new dress and adjusted her little bits of muslin and lace with scrupulous care, it was not so much in the hope that she might find favour in Owen's eyes as in the personal longing to make herself more worthy of the love within her.
It never entered her head that Owen would suspect her secret. Indeed, the whole affair was so dream-like, of so unsubstantial, so gossamer a lightness, that merely to speculate upon her romance would have been to shatter it, as one might put a finger through a fairy cobweb.
She loved—and at present that was enough. To be with Owen daily, to sit in the same room, breathe the same air, obey his wishes, help him with his work, was all she desired; and being at heart an incurable little optimist, she was content to weave her rose-coloured dreams, spin her shining web, with no anxiety about the future to shadow and darken her thoughts.
Yet Barry, with his quick intuition, was uncannily aware of the girl's infatuation; and it was Barry who, through his very knowledge of her secret, precipitated the inevitable revelation.
* * * * *
One day during Toni's absence for lunch the two men were sitting together in Owen's room when Owen suddenly threw a large unmounted photograph across to his friend.
"What's this, Owen? Oh—your house at Willowhurst, isn't it? By Jove, it's a lovely place—I wonder you don't live there."
The moment he had spoken he would willingly have recalled his words, but Owen gave him no time.
"You forget—I was going to live there!" His smile was forced. "The people who have had it for years cleared out last October, and it was all put in apple-pie order then, in anticipation of my wife's arrival."
Barry, red and embarrassed, said nothing, but examined the photograph with unnecessary minuteness.
"Seems a pity the place should stand idle," went on Owen musingly. "It's a jolly old house, and been in the family for centuries—built before the river became fashionable—and the grounds are really fine; some gorgeous old trees and shrubs in them."
"How far from town?" Barry put the first question that suggested itself.
"Oh, not far—twenty or thirty miles. You can get up easily in a car or by a fast train. Greenriver—that's the house—is really charmingly situated, with big grounds at the back, and the river just beneath the house."
"You lived there as a youngster?"
"Yes. When my father died my mother couldn't bear to live there, and we let the place. After her death I could have gone back, but somehow I didn't want to. It was only when I met Vivian——"
He broke off suddenly, and springing to his feet, began to pace up and down.
"By Jove, Barry, what fools we men make of ourselves over women! Just because Vivian was kind, smiled on me, seemed really interested in my affairs, I told her everything—all sorts of things I haven't even told you, old chap! We used to go for strolls together in the summer evenings—once or twice we motored down to Richmond and went for a walk in the park ... we used to talk about all sorts of things ... women are the very deuce for leading men on to talk. They pretend to be so interested, ask such gentle little questions, are so sympathetic, so kind ... and when it comes to sport, a girl like Vivian can talk as well as any man."
He sighed impatiently.
"We didn't talk sentiment—those days. We were chums—the best of chums ... discussed flying, motoring—she used to drive a little car of her own. Sometimes we played golf—and, by Jove, she could pretty nearly beat me! She was interested in all the things I liked, was a rattling good shot with a rifle, and hadn't a nerve in her. Clever, too; could talk on all sorts of subjects, and had read books I'd never even heard of! She spoke three or four languages ... but—but it wasn't that."
He broke off in his rambling talk to light a cigarette, and then continued, in the same musing tone.
"It was something else. She was so handsome, so—so fine, somehow. I used to think, when we were engaged, that she was like Brunhilde, or some of the other Wagnerian heroines. Sometimes I couldn't help thinking"—he coloured—"what splendid children a woman like that would have. She ... she satisfied one, somehow. You knew she was sound in every way—the sort of woman one would always be proud of—and when I thought of her as the mistress of Greenriver, I——"
He threw away his cigarette impatiently.
"What a fool I am! What a damned fool you must think me, raving about a woman who played me the shabbiest trick a woman could play! God! When I think of it—think how I was deceived, I—I hate the woman! I hate myself for being such a fool, but I hate her more! Well, she's married now—good luck to her!—and there's only one thing for me to do; I must get married too!"
"But why?" Barry's blue eyes were very kindly as they looked at his friend. "Why not go on as you are for a bit longer?"
"Why not?" He stretched out his arms with a curious, restless gesture. "Because I've got unsettled, I suppose. You see, when you've looked on yourself as practically a married man, planned everything, renounced your bachelor ways and anticipated a new and more settled existence, well, somehow you can't go back to the old state of things. There's the house, too. I feel as though I wanted to live in it again—the servants are clamouring for me to go there. I promised, you know, and the river is so lovely in the summer...."
"Well, why not go down and have a car?"
"Go there—alone?" He spoke bitterly. "No, thanks. That would be folly. I meant to go with my wife——"
Suddenly he stopped in his restless pacing and faced Barry with gleaming eyes.
"By gad, Barry! Why shouldn't I take my wife there after all?"
"Your wife?" Even the quick-witted Barry was at fault.
"Yes. My wife." He laughed at the other man's face. "Oh, I'm not married yet, but why shouldn't I be? I swore I'd marry the first woman who'd have me, and it's just occurred to me—Barry, do you thing she would have me?"
"She? What she?" demanded Barry in justifiable bewilderment.
"Why, our excellent little secretary and typist—our Miss Gibbs—our Antonia, known at home as Toni!"
Barry's boyish face flushed crimson, and for a second he looked so angry that Owen stared in genuine amazement.
"Well, Barry, what's up? I assure you my intentions are strictly honourable! If she'll have me, she shall step into the shoes vacated by Miss Vivian Rees, and succeed to the house, the car, the boats, and all the rest of the worldly goods which weren't sufficient to tempt my beautiful fiancee!"
"See here, Owen." Barry's voice was quiet. "I suppose you're ragging, but let me tell you I think the rag's in execrable taste, and I'll be obliged if you'll drop the subject."
For a second Owen seemed about to retort in the same tone. Then, quite suddenly, his face changed.
"Say, Barry, why all these frills? You surely didn't think I meant any harm—any disrespect to the girl?"
"Of course not." He spoke rather coldly. "Only—well, I don't like to hear you joking about marrying Miss Gibbs. She's a decent little thing, and far too good to be made a cat's paw in a game of revenge."
Owen looked at his friend quietly.
"You're right, Barry, and if I were only joking it would be a bit low-down. But suppose I mean it? Suppose I ask the girl to marry me, quite quietly, not entering into any heroics or telling any condemned lies, and she accepts me, what then?"
Barry's heart gave a sudden throb of dismay. There was something behind Owen's calm manner which made him feel vaguely uneasy. Could it be that Owen too had surprised Toni's pitiful little secret—that he knew—had known all along that the girl was not so indifferent to him as she wished to appear?
For the moment Barry was nonplussed. If it were so, if Owen knew, and, knowing, chose to take the risk of the girl's acceptance, had he any right to interfere?
That Toni would accept, Barry felt almost convinced; and yet, fond as he was of his friend, fond as he was, too, of the girl with whom he had worked during these weeks of spring, Barry was clear-sighted enough to feel assured that such a marriage would not make for happiness.
It might answer for a time. If Toni wore genuinely attached to Rose, as Barry was inclined to believe, it was possible—nay, probable—that her affection for him would bring out the best in Owen's nature, and he would repay that affection with a real and kindly consideration. But when the first freshness had worn off, when Owen should have grown used to the girl's shy gratitude and devotion, when her prettiness, her radiant youth, her naive simplicity should have ceased to charm, what then would remain?
For all his sporting instincts Owen was primarily a man of letters, versatile, brilliant, even distinguished in his way; and Barry foresaw a bitter disillusionment for each of the pair when the real dissimilarity of their natures should, as must inevitably happen, become apparent to both.
To Toni, who never willingly opened a book, her husband's delight and absorption in the masterpieces of literature must be a constant wonder; while to Rose, Toni's ignorance, her youthful, unashamed lack of interest in the "things which matter" would be a perpetual irritation.
Although not so brilliant as his friend, Barry experienced at times flashes of almost uncanny insight; and as he contemplated the possibility of this marriage he had a sudden clear conviction that it would not, could not, turn out successfully.
"See here, Owen"—he faced the other man resolutely—"you must know the thing is quite impossible. Miss Gibbs is a nice little girl, a pretty little thing and as straight as a die. But she is not your equal in any sense; neither socially nor intellectually; and though you may not believe it, you would regret the marriage in a week."
Owen looked at him, half-affectionately, half-quizzically, for a moment.
"Why should I, Barry? Toni may not be of very exalted birth, but she is a hundred times more ladylike than half the flappers one meets in Society nowadays, with their cigarette-cases, their bridge purses and their slangy talk. One of those loud young women would be the death of me in a week—and you know Toni's voice is delightfully soft, with quite a Southern intonation—caught in Italy, I expect."
"But what of her education—or lack of it?" Barry went on relentlessly. "You know quite well that the girl is a little ignoramus in reality. She has read nothing, been nowhere, learned precious little; and she has no more conversation than—than a Persian cat."
"That's a bad simile," said Owen calmly. "A Persian cat doesn't talk much, I admit, but it is a most fascinating piece of mystery when it sits still and says nothing. And Miss Gibbs may in reality be just as mysterious."
"Oh, you're impossible!" Barry spoke impatiently, and Owen's manner changed.
"Come, Barry, confess the truth. You're afraid Toni will jump at me—to put it baldly. You know"—for a second he hesitated—"you know, Barry, I'm not blind, and I can't help seeing that the girl has ... well, taken a fancy to me; and if that is so, seeing that the woman I wanted wouldn't have me, why shouldn't I offer myself to the one who ... would perhaps take me if I asked her to?"
"You really mean to ask her, then?"
"Yes. I know you won't approve, old chap, but I'm going to do it all the same. The girl may refuse me, you know, and then there'll be no harm done."
And nothing could move him from the attitude he had adopted. The utmost concession Barry could wring from him was a promise to wait for a week at least before carrying out his plan; and during the whole of that week Barry did his utmost to dissuade his friend from taking a step which he foresaw would end in disaster.
He argued, cajoled, even thundered, in vain. He spoke of disparity of tastes, of habits, of views on life in general; and Owen laughingly reminded him that dissimilarity in tastes was supposed to be a good foundation for wedded happiness.
He pointed out that although Antonia herself was a lady in the best sense of the word, neither he nor Owen knew anything of her family; and he endeavoured to alarm Rose by his vigorous sketch of her possibly undesirable relations.
"I tell you the girl's an orphan," said Owen, smiling as Barry finished painting an imaginary portrait of a very unattractive mother-in-law. "She lives with an uncle and aunt and a family of cousins somewhere Brixton way."
"Then I suppose the wedding will take place in Brixton," said Barry, with an assumption of polite interest, and Owen coloured in spite of himself.
"No—at least, not in a church. I can't face a regular wedding, Barry, seeing my bride isn't the one I expected to lead to the altar. I think the Registrar will have to tie the knot, and we'll dispense with all the fuss of satins and veils and white flowers that I was dreading with all my heart!"
Something in his tone—a hint of dreary disappointment, of a wretchedness hitherto well concealed, made Barry feel compunction for his own rough handling of what must have been in reality a sore subject; and quite suddenly he abandoned his own superior, not to say condemnatory, attitude for a more human, more sympathetic frame of mind.
"I say, old chap"—Owen's eyes lightened with pleasure at the friendly tone—"I've been an awful beast all this time. The fact is, I've thought only of the girl's point of view. It didn't seem fair she should be used as a sort of tool to make your position easier; but after all, I believe on my soul she'd ask nothing better than to marry you; and I know you'd treat her decently, so—so if——"
"If I like to do it, you'll give me your blessing, eh, Barry?" Owen's smile was a little melancholy. "Well, I'll take advantage of your permission and put it to the little girl herself. She may refuse me, of course—Miss Rees didn't find me irresistible, did she?" A hint of the deadly wound she had dealt him coloured his tone. "But unless I'm a conceited fool I believe I have a sporting chance at least—and I'd like to show Lady Saxonby she's not the only woman in the world for me!"
At that moment Toni herself entered the room; and with an effort both men greeted her as usual, and proceeded to the ordinary routine of the day's work without giving her any indication that she had interrupted a discussion of the highest importance to herself.
Antonia had just returned from lunch on the following day when Owen called her to him; and she hastened to obey the summons, still wearing her hat and coat.
"Oh, Miss Gibbs"—his tone was admirably casual. "I've been wondering whether you would mind helping me this afternoon. I want some books from my house down at Willowhurst to verify some quotations in an article I am writing for the next number of the Bridge."
"Yes, Mr. Rose?"
"I intended first going down in the car for them, but as it seems a pity to bring a lot of old books up to town, I thought if you would come down too, bringing the little Blick typewriter with you, I could get you to copy out the quotations I want, and I needn't take the books away."
Insensibly Toni's eyes brightened.
"Yes, Mr. Rose. I should be very pleased."
"That's right. Well, I'll go out and get some lunch. Will you be ready in half an hour?"
"Yes—I've just time to run through these letters."
"Very well. Au revoir! I'll be back at half-past two."
He went out, and Antonia joyfully pirouetted round the room before settling to work—somewhat to the surprise of Barry, who entered at that moment.
"Hallo, Miss Gibbs—practising the turkey-trot, or what?"
She stopped, blushing hotly, and tried in vain to look unconcerned.
"No, Mr. Raymond. Only—Mr. Rose wants me to motor down to Willowhurst with him about some books—and it's such a lovely day!"
"You like motoring?" Barry could not resist a sympathetic smile.
"Oh, I just love it!" She clasped her hands in rapture. "Of course, I've only been in taxis and char-a-bancs and things, but I've always wanted to go in a real motor-car—a private one, I mean!"
"Have you never been in one?" Her childish confession made Barry feel half pitiful, half dismayed.
"No, how should I?" She laughed, showing her pretty teeth whole-heartedly. "You know girls in my position don't go about in motors! Of course"—with one of her sudden changes of mood she paled and spoke slowly—"if my father had lived things would have been different."
"You lived in Italy together?"
"Yes." She sank into a chair, and went on speaking dreamily, her chin cradled in her hollowed hands. "We lived in a village not far from Naples. Oh, how beautiful Italy is in the spring, when the pink almond-blossom makes the hill-sides look like a great rose-garden ... and the oranges and lemons flame out among the dark-green leaves—and the roads are hot and white, and the blue sea lies at the back of everything, sparkling in the sunshine...."