THE MOON OUT OF REACH
THE HOUSE OF DREAMS-COME-TRUE, THE SPLENDID FOLLY, THE LAMP OF FATE, ETC.
GROSSET & DUNLAP
Made in the United States of America
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
I THE SHINING SHIP II THE GOOD SAMARITAN III A QUESTION OF EXTERNALS IV THE SKELETON IN THE CUPBOARD V "PREUX CHEVALIER" VI A FORGOTTEN FAN VII THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR VIII THE MIDDLE OF THE STAIRCASE IX A SKIRMISH WITH DEATH X INDECISION XI GOING WITH THE TIDE XII THE DOUBLE BARRIER XIII BY THE LOVERS' BRIDGE XIV RELATIONS-IN-LAW XV KING ARTHUR'S CASTLE XVI SACRED TROTH XVII "THE KEYS OF HEAVEN" XVIII "TILL DEATH US DO PART" XIX THE PRICE XX THE CAKE DOOR XXI LADY GERTRUDE'S POINT OF VIEW XXII THE OFFERING OF FIRST-FRUITS XXIII A QUESTION OF HONOUR XXIV FLIGHT! XXV AN UNEXPECTED MEETING XXVI "THE WIDTH OF A WORLD BETWEEN" XXVII THE DARK ANGEL XXVIII GOOD-BYE! XXIX ON THIN ICE XXX SEEKING TO FORGET XXXI TOWARDS UNKNOWN WAYS XXXII THE GREEN CAR XXXIII KEEPING FAITH XXXIV THE WHITE FLAME XXXV THE GATES OF FATE XXXVI ROGER'S REFUSAL XXXVII THE GREAT HEALER
Away in the sky, high over our heads, With the width of a world between, The far Moon sails like a shining ship Which the Dreamer's eyes have seen.
And empty hands are outstretched, in vain, While aching eyes beseech, And hearts may break that cry for the Moon, The silver Moon out of reach!
But sometimes God on His great white Throne Looks down from the Heaven above, And lays in the hands that are empty The tremulous Star of Love.
NOTE:—Musical setting by Adrian Butt. Published by Edward Schuberth & Co., 11 East 22nd Street, New York.
THE MOON OUT OF REACH
THE SHINING SHIP
She was kneeling on the hearthrug, grasping the poker firmly in one hand. Now and again she gave the fire a truculent prod with it as though to emphasise her remarks.
"'Ask and ye shall receive'! . . . 'Tout vient a point a celui qui sait attendre'! Where on earth is there any foundation for such optimism, I'd like to know?"
A sleek brown head bent determinedly above some sewing lifted itself, and a pair of amused eyes rested on the speaker.
"Really, Nan, you mustn't confound French proverbs with quotations from the Scriptures. They're not at all the same thing."
"Those two run on parallel lines, anyway. When I was a kiddie I used to pray—I've prayed for hours, and it wasn't through any lack of faith that my prayers weren't answered. On the contrary, I was enormously astonished to find how entirely the Almighty had overlooked my request for a white pony like the one at the circus."
"Well, then, my dear, try to solace yourself with the fact that 'everything comes at last to him who knows how to wait.'"
"But it doesn't!"
Penelope Craig reflected a moment.
"Do you—know—how to wait?" she demanded, with a significant little accent on the word "know."
"I've waited in vain. No white pony has ever come, and if it trotted in now—why, I don't want one any longer. I tell you, Penny"—tapping an emphatic forefinger on the other's knee—"you never get your wishes until you've out-grown them."
"You've reached the mature age of three-and-twenty"—drily. "It's a trifle early to be so definite."
"Not a bit! I want my wishes now, while I'm young and can enjoy them—lots of money, and amusement, and happiness! They'll be no good to me when I'm seventy or so!"
"Even at seventy," remarked Penelope sagely, "wealth is better than poverty—much. And I can imagine amusement and happiness being quite desirable even at three score years and ten."
Nan Davenant grimaced.
"Philosophers," she observed, "are a highly irritating species."
"But what do you want, my dear? You're always kicking against the pricks. What do you really want?"
The coals slipped with a grumble in the grate and a blue flame shot up the chimney. Nan stretched out her hand for the matches and lit a cigarette. Then she blew a cloud of speculative smoke into the air.
"I don't know," she said slowly. Adding whimsically: "I believe that's the root of the trouble."
Penelope regarded her critically.
"I'll tell you what's the matter," she returned. "During the war you lived on excitement—"
"I worked jolly hard," interpolated Nan indignantly.
The other's eyes softened.
"I know you worked," she said quickly. "Like a brick. But all the same you did live on excitement—narrow shaves of death during air-raids, dances galore, and beautiful boys in khaki, home on leave in convenient rotation, to take you anywhere and everywhere. You felt you were working for them and they knew they were fighting for you, and the whole four years was just one pulsing, throbbing rush. Oh, I know! You were caught up into it just the same as the rest of the world, and now that it's over and normal existence is feebly struggling up to the surface again, you're all to pieces, hugely dissatisfied, like everyone else."
"At least I'm in the fashion, then!"
Penelope smiled briefly.
"Small credit to you if you are," she retorted. "People are simply shirking work nowadays. And you're as bad as anyone. You've not tried to pick up the threads again—you're just idling round."
"It's catching, I expect," temporised Nan beguilingly.
But the lines on Penelope's face refused to relax.
"It's because it's easier to play than to work," she replied with grim candour.
"Don't scold, Penny." Nan brought the influence of a pair of appealing blue eyes to bear on the matter. "I really mean to begin work—soon."
"When?" demanded the other searchingly.
Nan's charming mouth, with its short, curved upper lip, widened into a smile of friendly mockery.
"You don't expect me to supply you with the exact day and hour, do you? Don't be so fearfully precise, Penny! I can't run myself on railway time-table lines. You need never hope for it."
"I don't"—shortly. Adding, with a twinkle: "Even I'm not quite such an optimist as that!"
As she spoke, Penelope laid down her sewing and stretched cramped arms above her head.
"At this point," she observed, "the House adjourned for tea. Nan, it's your week for domesticity. Go and make tea."
Nan scrambled up from the hearthrug obediently and disappeared into the kitchen regions, while Penelope, curling herself up on a cushion in front of the fire, sat musing.
For nearly six years now she and Nan had shared the flat they were living in. When they had first joined forces, Nan had been at the beginning of her career as a pianist and was still studying, while Penelope, her senior by five years, had already been before the public as a singer for some considerable time. With the outbreak of the war, they had both thrown themselves heartily into war work of various kinds, reserving only a certain portion of their time for professional purposes. The double work had proved a considerable strain on each of them, and now that the war was past it seemed as though Nan, at least, were incapable of getting a fresh grip on things.
Luckily—or, from some points of view, unluckily—she was the recipient of an allowance of three hundred a year from a wealthy and benevolent uncle. Without this, the two girls might have found it difficult to weather the profitless intervals which punctuated their professional engagements. But with this addition to their income they rubbed along pretty well, and contrived to find a fair amount of amusement in life through the medium of their many friends in London.
Penelope, the elder of the two by five years, was the daughter of a country rector, long since dead. She had known the significance of the words "small means" all her life, and managed the financial affairs of the little menage in Edenhall Mansions with creditable success. Whereas Nan Davenant, flung at her parents' death from the shelter of a home where wealth and reckless expenditure had prevailed, knew less than nothing of the elaborate art of cutting one's coat according to the cloth. Nor could she ever be brought to understand that there are only twenty shillings in a pound—and that at the present moment even twenty shillings were worth considerably less than they appeared to be.
There are certain people in the world who seem cast for the part of onlooker. Of these Penelope was one. Evenly her life had slipped along with its measure of work and play, its quiet family loves and losses, entirely devoid of the alarums and excursions of which Fate shapes the lives of some. Hence she had developed the talent of the looker-on.
Naturally of an observant turn of mind, she had learned to penetrate the veil that hangs behind the actions of humanity, into the secret, temperamental places whence those actions emanate, and had achieved a somewhat rare comprehension and tolerance of her fellows.
From her father, who had been for thirty years the arbiter of affairs both great and small in a country parish and had yet succeeded in retaining the undivided affection of his flock, she had inherited a spice of humorous philosophy, and this, combined with a very practical sense of justice, enabled her to accept human nature as she found it—without contempt, without censoriousness, and sometimes with a breathless admiration for its unexpectedly heroic qualities.
She it was who alone had some slight understanding of Nan Davenant's complexities—complexities of temperament which both baffled the unfortunate possessor of them and hopelessly misled the world at large.
The Davenant history showed a line of men and women gifted beyond the average, the artistic bias paramount, and the interpolation of a Frenchwoman four generations ago, in the person of Nan's great-grandmother, had only added to the temperamental burden of the race. She had been a strange, brilliant creature, with about her that mysterious touch of genius which by its destined suffering buys forgiveness for its destined sins.
And in Nan the soul of her French ancestress lived anew. The charm of the frail and fair Angele de Varincourt—baffling, elusive, but irresistible—was hers, and the soul of the artist, with its restless imagination, its craving for the beautiful, its sensitive response to all emotion—this, too, was her inheritance.
To Penelope, Nan's ultimate unfolding was a matter of absorbing interest. Her own small triumphs as a singer paled into insignificance beside the riot of her visions for Nan's future. Nevertheless, she was sometimes conscious of an undercurrent of foreboding. Something was lacking. Had the gods, giving so much, withheld the two best gifts of all—Success and Happiness?
While Penelope mused in the firelight, the clatter of china issuing from the kitchen premises indicated unusual domestic activity on Nan's part, and finally culminated in her entry into the sitting-room, bearing a laden tea-tray.
"Hot scones!" she announced joyfully. "I've made a burnt offering of myself, toasting them."
"What an infant you are, Nan," she returned. "I sometimes wonder if you'll ever grow up?"
"I hope not"—with great promptitude. "I detest extremely grown-up people. But what are you brooding over so darkly? Cease those philosophical reflections in which you've been indulging—it's a positive vice with you, Penny—and give me some tea."
Penelope laughed and began to pour out tea.
"I half thought Maryon Rooke might be here by now," remarked Nan, selecting a scone from the golden-brown pyramid on the plate and carefully avoiding Penelope's eyes. "He said he might look in some time this afternoon."
Penelope held the teapot arrested in mid-air.
"How condescending of him!" she commented drily. "If he comes—then exit Penelope."
"You're an ideal chaperon, Penny," murmured Nan with approval.
"Chaperons are superfluous women nowadays. And you and Maryon are so nearly engaged that you wouldn't require one even if they weren't out of date."
"Are we?" A queer look of uncertainty showed in Nan's eyes. One might almost have said she was afraid.
"Aren't you?" Penelope's counter-question flashed back swiftly. "I thought there was a perfectly definite understanding between you?"
"So you trot tactfully away when he comes? Nice of you, Penny."
"It's not in the least 'nice' of me," retorted the other. "I happen to be giving a singing-lesson at half-past five, that's all." After a pause she added tentatively: "Nan, why don't you take some pupils? It means—hard cash."
"And endless patience!" commented Nan, "No, don't ask me that, Penny, as you love me! I couldn't watch their silly fingers lumbering over the piano."
"Well, why don't you take more concert work? You could get it if you chose! You're simply throwing away your chances! How long is it since you composed anything, I'd like to know?"
"Precisely five minutes—just now when I was in the kitchen. Listen, and I'll play it to you. It's a setting to those words of old Omar:
'Ah, Love! could you and I with Fate conspire To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire, Would not we shatter it to bits—and then Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!'
I was burning my fingers in the performance of duty and the appropriateness of the words struck me," she added with a malicious little grin.
She seated, herself at the piano and her slim, nervous hands wandered soundlessly a moment above the keys. Then a wailing minor melody grew beneath them—unsatisfied, asking, with now and then an ecstasy of joyous chords that only died again into the querying despair of the original theme. She broke off abruptly, humming the words beneath her breath.
Penelope crossed the room and, laying her hands on the girl's shoulders, twisted her round so that she faced her.
"Nan, it's sheer madness! You've got this wonderful talent—a real gift of the gods—and you do nothing with it!"
Nan laughed uncertainly and bent her bead so that all Penelope could see was a cloud of dusky hair.
"I can't," she said.
"Why not?" Penelope's voice was urgent. "Why don't you work up that last composition, for instance, and get it published? Surely"—giving her a little wrathful shake—"surely you've some ambition?"
"Do you remember what that funny old Scotch clairvoyant said to me? . . . 'You have ambition—great ambition—but not the stability or perseverance to achieve.'"
Penelope's level brows contracted into a frown and she shook her head dissentingly.
"It's true—every word of it," asserted Nan.
The other dropped her hands from Nan's shoulders and turned away.
"You'll break everyone's heart before you've finished," she said. Adding in a lighter tone: "I'm going out now. If Maryon Rooke comes, don't begin by breaking his for him."
The door closed behind her and Nan, left alone, strolled restlessly over to the window and stood looking out.
"Break his!" she whispered under her breath. "Dear old Penny! She doesn't know the probabilities in this particular game of chance."
The slanting afternoon sunlight revealed once more that sudden touch of gravity—almost of fear—in her face. It was rather a charming face, delicately angled, with cheeks that hollowed slightly beneath the cheek-bones and a chin which would have been pointed had not old Dame Nature changed her mind at the last moment and elected to put a provoking little cleft there. Nor could even the merciless light of a wintry sun find a flaw in her skin. It was one of those rare, creamy skins, with a golden undertone and the feature of a flower petal, sometimes found in conjunction with dark hair. The faint colour in her cheeks was of that same warm rose which the sun kisses into glowing life on the velvet skin of an apricot.
The colour deepened suddenly in her face as the sound of an electric bell trilled through the flat. Dropping her arms to her sides, she stood motionless, like a bird poised for flight. Then, with a little impatient shrug of her shoulders, she made her way slowly, almost unwillingly, across the hall and threw open the door.
"You, Maryon?" she said a trifle breathlessly. Then, as he entered: "I—I hardly expected you."
He took both her hands in his and kissed them.
"It's several years since I expected anything," he answered. "Now—I only hope."
"Come in, pessimist, and don't begin by being epigrammatic on the very doorstep. Tea? Or coffee? I'm afraid the flat doesn't run to whisky-and-soda."
"Coffee, please—and your conversation—will suffice. 'A Loaf of Bread . . . and Thou beside me singing in the Wilderness' . . ."
"You'd much prefer a whisky-and-soda and a grilled steak to the loaf and—the et ceteras," observed Nan cynically. "There's a very wide gulf between what a man says and what he thinks."
"There's a much wider one between what a man wants and what he gets," he returned grimly.
"You'll soon have all you want," she answered. "You're well on the way to fame already."
"Do you know," he remarked irrelevantly, "your eyes are exactly like blue violets. I'd like to paint you, Nan."
"Perhaps I'll sit for you some day," she replied, handing him his coffee. "That is, if you're very good."
Maryon Rooke was a man the merit of whose work was just beginning to be noticed in the art world. For years he had laboured unacknowledged and with increasing bitterness—for he knew his own worth. But now, though, still only in his early thirties, his reputation, particularly as a painter of women's portraits, had begun to be noised abroad. His feet were on the lower rungs of the ladder, and it was generally prophesied that he would ultimately reach the top. His gifts were undeniable, and there was a certain ruthlessness in the line of the lips above the small Van Dyck beard he wore which suggested that he would permit little to stand in the way of his attaining his goal—be it what it might.
"You'd make a delightful picture, Sun-kissed," he said, narrowing his eyes and using one of his most frequent names for her. "With your blue violet eyes and that rose-petal skin of yours."
Nan smiled involuntarily.
"Don't be so flowery, Maryon. Really, you and Penelope are very good antidotes to each other! She's just been giving me a lecture on the error of my ways. She doesn't waste any breath over my appearance, bless her!"
"What's the crime?"
"Lack of application, waste of opportunities, and general idleness."
"It's all true." Rooke leaned forward, his eyes lit by momentary enthusiasm. They were curious eyes—hazel brown, with a misleading softness in them that appealed to every woman he met. "It's all true," he repeated. "You could do big things, Nan. And you do nothing."
Nan laughed, half-pleased, half-vexed.
"I think you overrate my capabilities."
"I don't. There are very few pianists who have your technique, and fewer still, your soul and power of interpretation."
"Oh, yes, there are. Heaps. And they've got what I lack."
"And that is?"
"The power to hold their audience."
"You lack that? You who can hold a man—"
She broke in excitedly.
"Yes, I can hold one man—or woman. I can play to a few people and hold them. I know that. But—I can't hold a crowd."
Rooke regarded her thoughtfully. Perhaps it was true that in spite of her charm, of the compelling fascination which made her so unforgettable—did he not know how unforgettable!—she yet lacked the tremendous force of magnetic personality which penetrates through a whole concourse of people, temperamentally differing as the poles, and carries them away on one great tidal wave of enthusiasm and applause.
"It may be true," he said, at last, reluctantly. "I don't think you possess great animal magnetism! Yours is a more elusive, more—how shall I put it?—an attraction more spirituelle. . . . To those it touches, worse luck, a more enduring one."
"Far more. Animal magnetism is a thing of bodily presence. Once one is away from it—apart—one is free. Until the next meeting! But your victims aren't even free from you when you're not there."
"It sounds a trifle boring. Like a visitor who never knows when it's time to go."
"You're trying to switch me off the main theme, which is your work."
She sprang up.
"Don't bully me any more," she said quickly, "and I'll play you one of my recent compositions."
She sauntered across to the piano and began to play a little ripping melody, full of sunshine and laughter, and though a sob ran through it, it was smothered by the overlying gaiety. Rooke crossed to her side and quietly lifted her hands from the keys.
"Charming," he said. "But it doesn't ring true. That was meant for a sad song. As it stands, it's merely flippant—insincere. And insincerity is the knell of art."
Nan skimmed the surface defiantly.
"What a disagreeable criticism! You might have given me some encouragement instead of crushing my poor little attempt at composition like that!"
Rooke looked at her gravely. With him, sincerity in art was a fetish; in life, a superfluity. But for the moment he was genuinely moved. The poseur's mask which he habitually wore slipped aside and the real man peeped out.
"Yours ought to be more than attempts," he said quietly. "It's in you to do something really big. And you must do it. If not, you'll go to pieces. You don't understand yourself."
"And do you profess to?"
"A little." He smiled down at her. "The gods have given you the golden gift—the creative faculty. And there's a price to pay if you don't use the gift."
Nan's "blue violet" eyes held a startled look.
"You've got something which isn't given to everyone. To precious few, in fact! And if you don't use it, it will poison everything. We artists may not rust. If we do, the soul corrodes."
The sincerity of his tone was unmistakable. Art was the only altar at which Rooke worshipped, it was probably the only altar at which he ever would worship consistently. Nan suddenly yielded to the driving force at the back of his speech.
"Listen to this, then," she said. "It's a setting to some words I came across the other day."
She handed him a slip of paper on which the words were written and his eyes ran swiftly down the verses of the brief lyric:
Away in the sky, high over our heads, With the width of a world between, The far Moon sails like a shining ship Which the Dreamer's eyes have seen.
And empty hands are out-stretched in vain, While aching eyes beseech, And hearts may break that cry for the Moon, The silver Moon out of reach!
But sometimes God on His great white Throne Looks down from the Heaven above, And lays in the hands that are empty The tremulous Star of Love.
Nan played softly, humming the melody in the wistful little pipe of a voice which was all that Mature had endowed her with. But it had an appealing quality—the heart-touching quality of the mezzo-soprano—while through the music ran the same unsatisfied cry as in her setting of the old Tentmaker's passionate words—a terrible demand for those things that life sometimes withholds.
As she ceased playing Maryon Rooke spoke musingly.
"It's a queer world," he said. "What a man wants he can't have. He sees the good gifts and may not take them. Or, if he takes the one he wants the most—he loses all the rest. Fame and love and life—the great god Circumstance arranges all these little matters for us. . . . And mighty badly sometimes! And that's why I can't—why I mustn't—"
He broke off abruptly, checking what he had intended to say. Nan felt as though a door had been shut in her face. This man had a rare faculty for implying everything and saying nothing.
"I don't understand," she said rather low.
"An artist isn't a free agent—not free to take the things life offers," he answered steadily. "He's seen 'the far Moon' with the Dreamer's eyes, and that's probably all he'll ever see of it. His 'empty hands' may not even grasp at the star."
He had adapted the verses very cleverly to suit his purpose. With a sudden flash of intuition Nan understood him, and the fear which had knocked at her heart, when Penelope had assumed that there was a definite understanding between herself and Rooke, knocked again. Poetically wrapped up, he was in reality handing her out her conge—frankly admitting that art came first and love a poor second.
He twisted his shoulders irritably.
"Last talks are always odious!" he flung out abruptly.
"Last?" she queried. Her fingers were trifling nervously with the pages of an album of songs that rested against the music-desk.
He did not look at her.
"Yes," he said quietly. "I'm going away. I leave for Paris to-morrow."
There was a crash of jangled notes as the album suddenly pitched forward on to the keys of the piano.
With an impetuous movement he leaned towards her and caught her hand in his.
"Nan!" he said hoarsely, "Nan! Do you care?"
But the next moment he had released her.
"I'm a fool!" he said. "What's the use of drawing a boundary line and then overstepping it?"
"And where"—Nan's voice was very low—"where do you draw the line?"
He stood motionless a moment. Then he gestured a line with his hand—a line between, himself and her.
"There," he said briefly.
She caught her breath. But before she could make any answer he was speaking again.
"You've been very good to me, Nan—pushed the gate of Paradise at least ajar. And if it closes now, I've no earthly right to grumble. . . . After all, I'm only one amongst your many friends." He reclaimed her hands and drew them against his breast. "Good-bye, beloved," he said. His voice sounded rough and uneven.
Instinctively Nan clung to him. He released himself very gently—very gently but inexorably.
"So it's farewell, Sun-kissed."
Mechanically she shook hands and her lips murmured some vague response. She heard the door of the flat close behind him, followed almost immediately by the clang of the iron grille as the lift-boy dragged it across. It seemed to her as though a curious note of finality sounded in the metallic clamour of the grille—a grim resemblance to the clank of keys and shooting of bolts which cuts the outer world from the prisoner in his cell.
With a little strangled cry she sank into a chair, clasping her hands tightly together. She sat there, very still and quiet, staring blankly into space. . . .
And so, an hour later, Penelope found her. She was startled by the curious, dazed look in her eyes.
"Nan!" she cried sharply. "Nan! What's the matter?"
Nan turned her head fretfully from one side to the other.
"Nothing," she answered dully. "Nothing whatever."
But Penelope saw the look of strain in her face. Very deliberately she divested herself of her hat and coat and sat down.
"Tell me about it," she said practically. "Is it—is it that man?"
A gleam of humour shot across Nan's face, and the painfully set expression went out of it.
"Yes," she said, smiling a little. "It is 'that man.'"
"Well, what's happened? Surely"—with an accent of reproof—"surely you've not refused him?"
Nan still regarded her with a faintly humorous smile.
"Do you think I ought not—to have refused him?" she queried.
Penelope answered with decision.
"Certainly I do. You could see—anyone could see—that he cared badly, and you ought to have choked him off months ago if you only meant to turn him down at the finish. It wasn't playing the game."
Nan began to laugh helplessly.
"Penny, you're too funny for words—if you only knew it. But still, you're beginning to restore my self-respect. If you were mistaken in him, then perhaps I've not been quite such an incredible fool as I thought."
"Mistaken?" There was a look of consternation in Penelope's honest brown eyes. "Mistaken? . . . Nan, what do you mean?"
"It's quite simple." Nan's laughter ceased suddenly. "Maryon Rooke has not asked me to marry him. I've not refused him. He—he didn't give me the opportunity." Her voice shook a little. "He's just been in to say good-bye," she went on, after a pause. "He's going abroad."
"Listen to me, Nan." Penelope spoke very quietly. "There's a mistake somewhere. I'm absolutely sure Maryon cares for you—and cares pretty badly, too."
"Oh, yes, he cares. But"—in a studiously light voice that hid the quivering pain at her heart—"a rising artist has to consider his art. He can't hamper himself by marriage with an impecunious musician who isn't able to pull wires and help him on. 'He travels the fastest who travels alone.' You know it. And Maryon Rooke knows it. I suppose it's true."
She got up from her chair and came and stood beside Penelope.
"We won't talk of this again, Penny. What one wants is a 'far Moon' and I'd forgotten the width of the world which always seems to lie between. My 'shining ship' has foundered. That's all."
THE GOOD SAMARITAN
Penelope tapped sharply at Nan's bedroom door.
"Nan, are you ready? Your taxi's waiting outside."
"Ticking tuppences away like the very dickens, too!" returned Nan, emerging from her room dressed for a journey.
It was a week or two later and in response to a wire—and as the result of a good deal of persuasion on the part of Penelope—Nan had accepted an engagement to play at a big charity concert in Exeter. Lady Chatterton, the organiser of the concert, had offered to put her up for the couple of nights involved, and Nan was now hurrying to catch the Paddington West-country train.
"I've induced the taxi-driver to come up and carry down your baggage," pursued Penelope. "You'll have to look fairly sharp if you're to catch the one-fifty."
"I must catch it," declared Nan. "Why, the Chattertons are fourteen miles from Abbencombe Station and it would be simply ghastly if they sent all that way to meet me—and there was no me! Besides, there's a rehearsal fixed for ten o'clock to-morrow morning."
While she spoke, the two girls were making their way down the circular flight of stone steps—since the lift was temporarily out of order—preceded by the driver grumblingly carrying Nan's suit-case and hat-box. A minute or two later the taxi emitted a grunt from somewhere within the depths of its being and Nan was off, with Penelope's cheery "Good luck!" ringing in her ears.
She sat back against the cushions and gasped a sigh of relief. She had run it rather close, but now, glancing down at her wrist-watch, she realised that, failing a block in the traffic, she would catch her train fairly easily.
It was after they had entered the Park that the first contre-temps occurred. The taxi jibbed and came abruptly to a standstill. Nan let down the window and leaned out.
"What's the matter?" she asked with some anxiety.
The driver, descending leisurely from his seat, regarded her with a complete lack of interest.
"That's just w'ot I'm goin' to find out," he replied in a detached way.
Nan watched him while he poked indifferently about the engine, then sank back into her seat with a murmur of relief as he at last climbed once more into his place behind the wheel and the taxi got going again.
But almost before two minutes had elapsed there came another halt, followed by another lengthy examination of the engine's internals. Engine trouble spelt disaster, and Nan hopped out and joined the driver in the road.
"What's wrong?" she asked. She looked down anxiously at her wrist-watch. "I shall miss my train at this rate."
"I cawn't 'elp it if you do," returned the man surlily. He was one of the many drivers who had taken advantage of a long-suffering public during the war-time scarcity of taxi-cabs and he hoped to continue the process during the peace. Incivility had become a confirmed habit with him.
"But I can't miss it!" declared Nan.
"And this 'ere taxi cawn't catch it."
"Do you mean you really can't get her to go?" asked Nan.
"'Aven't I just bin sayin' so?"—aggressively. "That's just 'ow it stands. She won't go."
He ignored Nan's exclamation of dismay and renewed his investigation of the engine.
"No," he said at last, straightening himself. "I cawn't get you to Paddington—or anyw'ere else for the matter o' that!"
He spoke with a stubborn unconcern that was simply maddening.
"Then get me another taxi—quick!" said Nan.
"W'ere from?"—contemptuously. "There ain't no taxi-rank 'ere in 'Yde Park."
Nan looked hopelessly round. Cars and taxis, some with luggage and some without, went speeding past her, but never a single one that was empty.
"Oh"—she turned desperately to her driver—"can't you do anything? Run down and see if you can hail one for me. I'll stay by the taxi."
He shook his bead.
"Callin' taxis for people ain't my job," he remarked negligently. "I'm a driver, I am."
Nan, driven by the extreme urgency of her need, stepped out into the middle of the road and excitedly hailed the next taxicab that passed her carrying luggage. The occupant, a woman, her attention attracted by Nan's waving arm, leaned out from the window and called to her driver to stop. Nan ran forward.
"Oh, are you by any chance going to Paddington?" she asked eagerly. "My taxi's broken down and I'm afraid I'll miss my train."
The woman smiled her sympathy. She had a delightful smile.
"How awful for you! But I'm not going anywhere near there. I'm so sorry I can't help."
The taxicab slid away and Nan stood once more forlornly watching the stream go by. The precious moments were slipping past, and no one in the world looked in the least as if they were going to Paddington. The driver, superbly unconcerned, lit up a cigarette, while Nan stood in the middle of the road, which seemed suddenly to have almost emptied of traffic.
All at once a taxi sped up the wide road with only a single suit-case up-ended in front beside the chauffeur. She planted herself directly in its path, and waved so frantically that the driver slowed up, although with obvious reluctance. Someone looked out of the window, and with a vague, troubled surprise Nan realised that the cab's solitary passenger was of the masculine persuasion. But she was far beyond being deterred by a mere detail of that description.
"Are you going to Paddington?" she asked breathlessly.
"Yes, I am," came the answer. The speaker's voice had a slight, well-bred drawl in it, reminiscent of the public school. "Can I do anything for you?"
"You can drive me there, if you will," she replied, with the bluntness of despair. "My taxi's broken down."
"But with pleasure."
The man was out of his own cab in an instant, and held the door open while she paid her fare and ordered her luggage to be transferred. The driver showed no very energetic appreciation of the idea; in fact, he seemed inclined to dispute it, and, at the end of her patience, Nan herself made a grab at her hat-box with the intention of carrying it across to the other taxicab. In the same moment she felt it quietly taken from her and heard the same drawling voice addressing her recalcitrant driver.
"Bring that suit-case across and look sharp about it."
There was a curious quality of authority in the lazy voice to which the taxi-man responded in spite of himself, and he proceeded to obey the order with celerity. A minute later the transference was accomplished and Nan found herself sitting side by side in a taxi with an absolute stranger.
"He was a perfect beast of a driver!" was her first heart-felt ejaculation.
The man beside her smiled.
"I'm sure he was—a regular 'down-with-everything' type," he replied.
She stole a veiled glance at him. His face was lean, with a squarish jaw, and the very definitely dark brows and lashes contrasted oddly with his English-fair hair and blue-grey eyes. In one eye he wore a horn-rimmed monocle from which depended a narrow black ribbon.
"I can't thank you enough for coming to my rescue," said Nan, after her quick scrutiny. "It was so frightfully important that I should catch this train."
Somehow the brief question compelled an explanation, although it held no suggestion of curiosity—nothing more than a friendly interest.
"Yes. I have a concert engagement to-morrow, and if I missed this train I couldn't possibly make my connection at Exeter. I change on to the South-Western line there."
"Then I'm very glad I sailed in at the crucial moment. Although you'd have been able to reach your destination in time for the concert even had the worst occurred to-day. You could have travelled down by an earlier train to-morrow; if everything else had failed."
"But they've fixed a rehearsal for ten o'clock to-morrow morning."
"That certainly does complicate matters. And I suppose, in any case, you'd rather not have to play in public immediately after a long railway journey."
"How do you know I play?" demanded Nan. "It's just conceivable I might be a singer!"
A distinct twinkle showed behind the monocle.
"There are quite a number of 'conceivable' things about you. But I heard Miss Nan Davenant play several times during the war—at concerts where special seats were allotted to the wounded. I'm sorry to say I haven't heard you lately. I've only just come back from America."
"Oh, were you in the war?" she asked quickly.
"Why, naturally." He smiled a little. "I was perfectly sound in wind and limb—then."
Nan flushed suddenly. She knew of one man who had taken no fighting part. Maryon Rooke's health was apparently more delicate than anyone had imagined, and his artistes hands were, so he explained, an asset to the country, not to be risked like hands made of commoner clay. This holding back on his part had been the thing that had tortured Nan more than anything else during the long years of the war, in spite of the reasons he had offered in explanation, not least of which was the indispensability of his services at Whitehall—in which he genuinely believed.
"It's simply a choice between using brains or brawn as cannon-fodder," he used to say. "I'm serving with my brain instead of with my body."
And Nan, attracted by Rooke's odd fascination, had womanlike, tried to believe this and to thrust aside any thoughts that were disloyal to her faith in him. But, glancing now at the clever, clean-cut face of the man beside her, with its whimsical, sensitive mouth and steady eyes, she realised that he, at least, had kept nothing back—had offered brain and body equally to his country.
"And now? You look quite sound in wind and limb still," she commented.
"Oh, I've been one of the lucky ones. I've only got a game leg as my souvenir of hell. I just limp a bit, that's all."
"I'm so sorry you've a souvenir of any kind," said Nan quickly, with the spontaneousness which was part of her charm.
"Now that's very nice of you," answered the man. "There's no reason why you should burden yourself with the woes of a perfect stranger."
"I don't call you a perfect stranger," replied Nan serenely. "I call you a Good Samaritan."
"I'm generally known as Peter Mallory," he interjected modestly.
"And you know my name. I think that constitutes an introduction."
"Thank you," he said simply.
"The thanks are all on my side," she answered. "Here we are at Paddington, and it's entirely due to you that I shall catch my train."
The taxi pulled up and stood panting.
"Shares, please!" said Nan, when he had paid the driver.
For an instant a look of swift negation flashed across Mallory's face, then he replied composedly:
"Your share is two shillings."
Nan tendered a two-shilling piece, blessing him in her heart for refraining from putting her under a financial obligation to a stranger. He accepted the money quite simply, and turning away to speak to a porter, he tucked the two-shilling piece into his waistcoat pocket, while an odd, contemplative little smile curved his lips.
There was some slight confusion in the mind of the porter, who exhibited a zealous disposition to regard the arrivals as one party and to secure them seats in the same compartment.
Mallory, unheard by Nan, enlightened him quietly.
"I see, sir. You want a smoker?"
Mallory nodded and tipped him recklessly.
"That's it. You find the lady a comfortable corner seat. I'll look after myself."
He turned back to Nan.
"I've told the porter to find you a good seat. I think you ought to be all right as the trains aren't crowded. Good-bye."
Nan held out her hand impulsively.
"Good-bye," she said. "And, once more, thank you ever so much."
His hand closed firmly round hers.
"There's no need. I'm only too glad to have been of any service."
He raised his hat and moved away and Nan could see the slight limp of which he had spoken—his "souvenir of hell."
The porter fulfilled his obligations and bestowed her in an empty first-class carriage, even exerting himself to fetch a newspaper boy from whom she purchased a small sheaf of magazines. The train started and very soon the restaurant attendant came along. Since she detested the steamy odour of cooking which usually pervades the dining-car of a train, she gave instructions that her lunch should be served to her in her own compartment. This done, she settled down to the quiet monotony of the journey, ate her lunch in due course, and finally drowsed over a magazine until she woke with a start to find the train at a standstill. Thinking she had arrived at St. David's Station, where she must change on to another line, she sprang up briskly. To her amazement she found they were not at a station at all. Green fields sloped away from the railway track and there was neither house nor cottage in sight. The voices of the guard and ticket-collector in agitated conference sounded just below and Nan thrust her head out of the window.
"Why are we stopping?" she asked. "Have we run into something?"
The guard looked up irritably. Then, seeing the charming face bent above him, he softened visibly. Beauty may be only skin deep, but it has an amazing faculty for smoothing the path of its possessor.
"Pretty near, miss. There's a great piece of timber across the line. Luckily the driver saw it and just pulled up in time, and a miss is as good as a mile, isn't it?"
"How horrible!" ejaculated Nan. "Who d'you think put it there?"
"One of they Bolshies, I expect. We've got more of them in England than we've any need for."
"I hope you'll soon get the line clear?"
The guard shook his head discouragingly.
"Well, it'll take a bit of time, miss. Whoever did, the job did it thoroughly, and even when we get clear we'll have to go slow and keep a sharp look-out."
"Then I shall miss my connection at Exeter—on to Abbencombe by the South-Western?"
"I'm afraid you will, miss."
Her face fell.
"It's better than missing a limb or two, or your life, maybe," observed the guard with rebuke in his tones.
She nodded and tipped him.
"Much better," she agreed.
And the guard, with a beaming smile, moved off to the other end of the train, administering philosophic consolation to the disturbed passengers on his way.
It was over half-an-hour before the obstruction on the line was removed and the train enabled to steam ahead once more.
Nan, strung up by the realisation of how close she had been to probable death, found herself unable to continue reading and gazed out of the window, wondering in a desultory fashion how long she would have to wait at St. David's before the next train ran to Abbencombe. It was impossible now for her to catch the one she had originally proposed to take. She was faintly disquieted, too, by the fact that she could not precisely recollect noticing any later train quoted in the time-table.
The train proceeded at a cautious pace and finally pulled into St. David's an hour late. Nan jumped out and made enquiry of a porter, only to learn that her suspicions were true. There was no later train to Abbencombe that day!
Rather shaken by the misadventures of the journey, she felt as though she could have screamed at the placidly good-natured porter: "But there must be! There must be another train!" Instead, she turned hopelessly away from him, and found herself face to face with Peter Mallory.
"In trouble again?" he asked, catching sight of her face.
She was surprised into another question, instead of a reply.
"Did you come down by this train, then, too?" she asked.
"Yes. I travelled smoker, though."
"So did I. At least"—smiling—"I converted my innocent compartment into a temporary smoker."
But she was pleased, nevertheless, that neither their unconventional introduction, nor the fact that he had rendered her a service, had tempted him into assuming he might travel with her. It showed a rarely sensitive perception.
"I suppose you've missed your connection?" he pursued.
"Yes. That's just it. The last train to Abbencombe has gone, and my friends' car was to meet me there. I'm stranded."
He pondered a moment.
"So am I. I must get on to Abbencombe, though, and I propose to hire a car and drive there. Will you let me give you a lift? Probably your chauffeur will still be at the Station. The side-line train is a very slow one and stops at every little wayside place on the way. To make sure, we could telephone from here to the Abbencombe station-master, asking him to tell your man to wait for you as you're coming on by motor."
"Oh—" Nan almost gasped at his quick masculine grip of the situation. Before she had time to make any answer he had gone off to see about telephoning.
It was some little time before he returned, but when he finally reappeared, his face wore an expression of humorous satisfaction.
"I've fixed it all," he said. "Your car has just arrived at Abbencombe and the chauffeur told to wait there. I've got hold of another one here for our journey. Now let me put you into it and then I'll see about your luggage."
Nan took her seat obediently and reflected that there was something tremendously reliable about this man. He had a genius for appearing at the critical moment and for promptly clearing away all difficulties. Almost unconsciously she was forced into comparing him with Maryon Rooke—Rooke, with his curious fascination and detached, half-cynical outlook on life, his beautiful ideals and—Nan's inner self flinched from the acknowledgment—his frequent fallings-short of them. Unwillingly she had to confess to the fact that Maryon was something both of poseur and actor, with an ineradicable streak of cynicism in his composition added to a strange undercurrent of passion which he rarely allowed to carry him away. Apart from this he was genuine, creative artist. Whereas Peter Mallory, beautifully unself-conscious, was helpful in a simple, straightforward way that gave one a feeling of steadfast reliance upon him. And she liked his whimsical smile.
She was more than ever sure of the latter fact when he joined her in the car, remarking smilingly:
"This is a great bit of luck for me. I should have had a long drive of twenty-five miles all by myself if you hadn't been left high and dry as well."
"It's very nice of you to call it luck," replied Nan, as the car slid away into the winter dusk of the afternoon. "Are you usually a lucky person? You look as if you might be."
Under the light of the tiny electric bulb which illuminated the car she saw his face alter suddenly. The lines on either side the sensitive mouth seemed to deepen and a weary gravity showed for an instant in his grey-blue eyes.
"Appearances are known to be deceitful, aren't they?" he answered, with an attempt at lightness. "No, I'm afraid I've not been specially lucky."
"In love or in cards?"
The words left Nan's lips unthinkingly, almost before she was aware, and she regretted them the moment they were spoken. She felt he must inevitably suspect her of a prying curiosity.
"I'm lucky at cards," he replied quietly.
There was something in his voice that appealed to Nan's quick, warm sympathies.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" she said, rather tremulously. "Perhaps, some day, the other kind of luck will come, too."
"That's out of the question"—harshly.
"Do you know a little poem called 'Empty Hands'?" she asked. "I set it to music one day because I liked the words so much. Listen."
In a low voice, a trifle shaken by reason of the sudden tensity which had crept into the atmosphere, she repeated the brief lyric:
"But sometimes God on His great white Throne Looks down from the Heaven above, And lays in the hands that are empty The tremulous Star of Love."
As she spoke the last verse Nan's voice took on a tender, instinctive note of consolation. Had she been looking she would have seen Peter Mallory's hand clench itself as though to crush down some sudden, urgent motion. But she was gazing straight in front of her into the softly lit radiance of the car.
"Only sometimes there isn't any star, and your hands would be 'outstretched in vain,' as the song says," he commented.
"Oh, I hope not!" cried Nan. "Try to believe they wouldn't be!"
Mallory uttered a short laugh.
"I'm afraid it's no case for 'believing.' It's hard fact."
Nan remained silent. There was an undertone so bitter in his voice that she felt as though her poor little efforts at consolation were utterly trivial and futile to meet whatever tragedy lay behind the man's curt speech. It seemed as though he read her thought, for he turned to her quickly with that charming smile of his.
"You'd make a topping pal," he said. And Nan knew that in some indefinable way she had comforted him.
They drove on in silence for some time and when, later on, they began to talk again it was on ordinary commonplace topics, by mutual consent avoiding any by-way that might lead them back to individual matters. The depths which had been momentarily stirred settled down once more into misleading tranquillity.
In due course they arrived at Abbencombe, and the car purred up to the station, where the Chattertons' limousine, sent to meet Nan, still waited for her. The transit from one car to the other was quickly effected, and Peter Mallory stood bareheaded at the door of the limousine.
"Good-bye," he said. "And thank you, little pal. I hope you'll never find your moon out of reach."
Nan held out her hand. In the grey dusk she felt him carry it to his lips.
"Good-bye," he said once more.
A QUESTION OF EXTERNALS
It was a grey November afternoon two days later. A faint, filmy suggestion of fog hung about the streets, just enough to remind the Londoner of November possibilities, but in the western sky hung a golden sun, and underfoot there was the blessing of dry pavements.
Penelope stood at one of the windows of the flat in Edenhall Mansions, and looked down at the busy thoroughfare below. Hither and thither men and women hurried about their business; there seemed few indeed nowadays of the leisured loiterers through life. A tube strike had only recently been brought to a conclusion, and Londoners of all classes were endeavouring to make good the time lost during those days of enforced stagnation. Unfortunately, time that is lost can never be recovered. Even Eternity itself can't give us back the hours which have been flung away.
Rather bitterly Penelope reflected that, in spite of all our vaunted civilisation and education, men still resorted, as did their ancestors of old, to brute force in order to obtain their wishes. For, after all, a strike, however much you may gloss over the fact, is neither more nor less than a modern substitute for the old-time revolt of men armed with pikes and staves. That is to say, in either instance you insist on what you want by a process of making other people thoroughly uncomfortable till you get your way—unless they happen to be stronger than you! And incidentally a good many innocent folk who have nothing to do with the matter get badly hurt in the fray.
All the miseries which inevitably beset the steadfast worker when a strike occurs had fallen to Penelope's lot. She had scrambled hopelessly for a seat on a motor-'bus, or, driven by extremity into a fit of wild extravagance, had vainly hailed a taxi. Sometimes she had been compelled to tramp the whole way home, through drenching rain, from some house at which she had been giving a lesson, in each case enduring the very kind of physical stress which plays such havoc with a singer's only capital—her voice. She wondered if the strikers ever realised the extra strain they inflicted on people so much less able to contend with the hardships of a worker's life than they themselves.
The whirr and snort of a taxi broke the thread of her thoughts. With a grinding of brakes the cab came to a standstill at the entrance to the block of flats, and after a few minutes Emily, the unhurried maid-of-all-work, whom Nan's sense of fitness had re-christened "our Adagio," jerked the door open, announcing briefly:
Penelope turned quickly, and a look of pleasure flashed into her face.
"Kitty! Back in town at last! Oh, it's good to see you again!"
She kissed the new-comer warmly and began to help off her enveloping furs. When these—coat, stole, and a muff of gigantic proportions—were at last shed, Mrs. Barry Seymour revealed herself as a small, plump, fashionable little person with auburn hair—the very newest shade—brown eyes that owed their shadowed lids to kohl, a glorious skin (which she had had the sense to leave to nature), and, a chic little face at once so kind and humorous and entirely delightful, that all censure was disarmed.
Her dress was Paquin, her jewellery extravagant, but her heart was as big as her banking account, and there was not a member of her household, from her adoring husband down to the kitchen-maid who evicted the grubs from the cabbages, who did not more or less worship the ground she walked on. Even her most intimate women friends kept their claws sheathed—and that, despite the undeniable becomingness of the dyed hair.
"We only got back to town last night," she said, returning Penelope's salute with fervour. "So I flew round this morning to see how you two were getting on. I can't think how you've managed without the advantage of my counsels for three whole months!"
"I don't think we have managed too well," admitted Penelope drily.
"There! What did I say?"—with manifest delight. "I told Barry, when he would go up to Scotland just for the pleasure of killing small birds, that I was sure something would happen in my absence. What is it? Nothing very serious, of course. By the way, where's Nan this morning?"
"Playing at a concert in Exeter. At least, the concert took place last night. I'm expecting her back this afternoon."
"Well, that's good news, not bad. How did you induce her to do it? She's been slacking abominably lately."
Penelope nodded sombrely.
"I know. I've been pitching into her for it. The Peace has upset her."
"She's like every other girl. She can't settle down after four years of perpetual thrills and excitement. But if she'd had a husband fighting"—Kitty's gay little face softened incredibly—"she'd be thanking God on her knees that the war is over—however beastly," she added characteristically, "the peace may be."
"She worked splendidly during the war," interposed Penelope, her sense of justice impelling the remark.
"Yes"—quickly. "But she's done precious little work of any kind since. What's she been doing lately? Has she written anything new?"
Penelope laughed grimly.
"Oh, a song or two. And she's composed one gruesome thing which makes your blood run cold. It's really for orchestra, and I believe it's meant to represent the murder of a soul. . . . It does!"
"She's rather inclined to err on the side of tragedy," observed Kitty.
"Especially just now," added Penelope pointedly.
Kitty glanced sharply across at her.
"What do you mean? Is anything wrong with Nan?"
"Yes, there's something very wrong. I'm worried about her."
"Well, what is it?"—impatiently.
"It's all the fault of that wretched artist man we met at your house."
"Do you mean Maryon Rooke?"
"Yes"—briefly. "He's rather smashed Nan up."
"He? Nan?" Kitty's voice rose in a crescendo of incredulity. "But he was crazy about her! Has been, all through the war. Why, I thought there was practically an understanding between them!"
"Yes. So did most people," replied Penelope shortly.
"For goodness' sake be more explicit, Penny! Surely she hasn't turned him down?"
"He hasn't given her the chance."
"You mean—you can't mean that he's chucked her?"
"That's practically what it amounts to. And I don't understand it. Nan is so essentially attractive from a man's point of view."
"How do you know?" queried Kitty whimsically. "You're only a woman."
"Why, because I've used my eyes, my dear! . . . But in this case it seems we were all mistaken. If ever a man deliberately set himself to make a woman care, Maryon Rooke was the man. And when he'd succeeded—he went away."
Kitty produced a small gold cigarette case from the depths of an elaborate bead bag and extracted a cigarette. She lit it and began smoking reflectively.
"And I suppose all this, coming on top of the staleness of things in general after the war, has flattened her out?"
"It's given her a bad knock."
"Did she tell you anything about it?"
"A little. He came here to say good-bye to her before going to France—"
"I know," interpolated Kitty. "He's going there to paint Princess Somebody-or-other while she's staying in Paris."
"Well, I came in when he'd left and found Nan sitting like a stone statue, gazing blankly in front of her. She wouldn't say much, but bit by bit I dragged it out of her. Since then she has never referred to the matter again. She is quite gay at times in a sort of artificial way, but she doesn't do any work, though she spends odd moments fooling about at the piano. She goes out morning, noon, and night, and comes back dead-beat, apparently not having enjoyed herself at all. Can you imagine Nan like that?"
"Not very easily."
"I believe he's taken the savour out of things for her," said Penelope, adding slowly, in a voice that was quite unlike her usual practical tones: "Brushed the bloom off the world for her."
"Poor old Nan! She must be hard hit. . . . She's never been hurt badly before."
"Never—before she met that man. I can't forgive him, Kitty. I'm horribly afraid what sort of effect this miserable affair is going to have on a girl of Nan's queer temperament."
Kitty turned the matter over in her mind in silence. Then with a small, sage nod of her red head, she advanced a suggestion.
"Bring her over to dinner to-morrow—no, not to-morrow, I'm booked. Say Thursday, and I'll have a nice man to meet her. She needs someone to play around with. There's nothing like another man to knock the first one out of a woman's head. It's cure by homeopathy."
Penelope smiled dubiously.
"It's a bit of bad luck on the second man, isn't it—if he's nice? You know, Nan is rather fatal to the peace of the male mind."
"Oh, the man I'm thinking of has himself well in hand. He's a novelist—and finds safety in numbers. His mother was French."
"And Nan's great-grandmother. Kitty, is it wise?"
"Extreme measures are sometimes necessary. He and she will hit it off together at once, I know."
As Kitty finished speaking there came a trill at the front-door bell, followed a minute later by a masculine knock on the door.
"Come in," cried Penelope.
The door opened to admit a tall, fair man who somehow reminded one of a big, genial Newfoundland.
"I've called for my wife," he said, shaking hands with. Penelope, and smiling down at her with a pair of lazily humorous blue eyes. "Can I have her?"
"In a minute, Barry"—Kitty nodded at him cheerfully. "We're just settling plans about Nan."
"Nan? I should have imagined that young woman was very capable of making her own plans," returned Barry Seymour, letting his long length down into a chair. "In fact, I was under the impression she'd already made 'em," he added with a grin.
"No, they're unsettled at present," returned Kitty. "She's not very keen about Maryon Rooke now." Kitty was of the opinion that you should never tell even the best of husbands more than he need know. "So we think she requires distraction," she pursued firmly.
"And who's the poor devil you've fixed on as a burnt-offering?" enquired Seymour, tugging reflectively at his big, fair moustache.
"It certainly is a man," conceded Kitty.
"Naturally," agreed her husband amicably.
"But I'm not going to tell you who it is or I know you'd let the cat out of the bag, and then Nan will be put off at the beginning. Men"—superbly—"never can keep a secret."
"But they can use their native observation, my dear," retorted Barry calmly. "And I bet you five to one in gloves that I tell you the name of the man inside a week."
"In a week it won't matter," pronounced Kitty oracularly. "Give me a week—and you can have all the time that's left."
"Well, we'd better occupy what's left of this afternoon in getting back home, old thing," returned her husband. "Or you'll never be dressed in time for the Granleys' dinner to-night."
Kitty looked at the clock and jumped up quickly.
"Good heavens! I'd forgotten all about them! Penelope, I must fly! Thursday, then—don't forget. Dinner at eight."
She caught up her furs. There was a faint rustle of feminine garments, a fleeting whiff of violets in the air, and Kitty had taken her departure, followed by her husband.
A short time afterwards a taxi pulled up at Edenhall Mansions and Nan stepped out of it. Penelope sprang up to welcome her as she entered the sitting-room. She was darning stockings, foolish, pretty, silken things—Nan's, be it said.
"Well, how did it go?" she asked eagerly.
"The concert? Oh, quite well. I had a very good reception, and this morning's notices in the newspapers were positively calculated to make me blush."
There was an odd note of indifference in her voice; the concert did not appear to interest her much. Penelope pursued her interrogation.
"Did you enjoy yourself?"
A curious look of reminiscence came into Nan's eyes.
"Oh, yes. I enjoyed myself. Very much."
"I'm so glad. I thought the Chattertons would look after you well."
She omitted to add that someone else had looked after her even better—someone distinctly more interesting than dear old Lady Chatterton, kindest soul alive though she might be. For some reason or other Nan felt reluctant to share with Penelope—or with anyone else just at present—the fact of her meeting with Peter Mallory.
"You caught your train all right at Paddington?" went on Penelope.
Nan's mouth tilted in a faint smile.
"Quite all right," she responded placidly.
Finding that the question and answer process was not getting them very far, Penelope resumed her darning and announced her own small item of news.
"Kit's been here this afternoon," she said.
Nan shrugged her shoulders.
"Just my luck to miss her," she muttered irritably.
"No, it isn't 'just your luck,' my dear. It's anyone's luck. You make such a grievance of trifles."
In an instant Nan's charming smile flashed out.
"I am a beast," she said in a tone of acquiescence. "What on earth should I do without you, Penny, to bully me and generally lick me into shape?" She dropped a light kiss on the top of Penelope's bent head. "But, truly, I hate to miss Kit Seymour. She's as good as a tonic—and just now I feel like a bottle of champagne that's been uncorked for a week."
"You're overtired," replied Penelope prosaically. "You're so—so excessive in all you do."
"The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," she acknowledged. "Well, what's the Kitten's news? What colour is her hair this season?"
"Red. It suits her remarkably well."
Nan rippled with mirth.
"I never knew a painted Jezebel so perfectly delightful as Kitty. Even Aunt Eliza can't resist her."
Mrs. McBain, generally known to her intimates as "Aunt Eliza," was a connection of Nan's on the paternal side. She was a lady of Scottish antecedents and Early Victorian tendencies, to whom the modern woman and her methods were altogether anathema. She regarded her niece as walking—or, more truly, pirouetting aggressively—along the road which leads to destruction.
Penelope folded a pair of renovated stockings and tossed them into her work-basket.
"The Seymours want us to dine there on Thursday. I suppose you can?" she asked.
"With all the pleasure in life. Their chef is a dream," murmured Nan reminiscently.
"As though you cared!" scoffed Penelope.
Nan lit a cigarette and seated herself on the humpty-dumpty cushion by the fire.
"But I do care—extremely." she averred. "It isn't my little inside which cares. It's a purely external feeling which likes to have everything just right. If it's going to be a dinner, I want it perfect from soup to savoury."
Penelope regarded her with a glint of amusement.
"You're such a demanding person."
"I know I am—about the way things are done. What pleasure is there in anything which offends your sense of fitness?"
"You bestow far too much importance on the outside of the cup and platter."
Nan shook her head.
"Mon verre n'est pas grand, mais—Je bois dans mon verre." she quoted, frivolously obstinate.
"Bah!" Penelope grunted, "The critical faculty is over-developed in you, my child."
"Not a bit! Would you like to drink champagne out of a kitchen tea-cup? Of course not. I merely apply the same principle to other things. For instance, if the man I married ate peas with a knife and made loud juicy noises when he drank his soup, not all the sterling qualities he might possess would compensate. Whereas if he had perfect manners, I believe I could forgive him half the sins in the Decalogue."
"Manners are merely an external," protested Penelope, although privately she acknowledged to a sneaking agreement with Nan's point of view.
"Well," retorted Nan. "We've got to live with externals, haven't we? It's only on rare occasions that people admit each other on to their souls' doorsteps. Besides"—argumentatively—"decent manners aren't an external. They're the 'outward and visible sign.' Why"—waxing enthusiastic—"if a man just opens a door or puts some coal on the fire for you, it involves a whole history of the homage and protective instinct of man for woman."
"The theory may be correct," admitted Penelope, "though a trifle idealistic for the twentieth century. Most men," she added drily, "Regard coaling up the fire as a damned nuisance rather than a 'history of homage.'"
"It oughtn't to be idealistic." There was a faint note of wistfulness in Nan's voice. "Why should everything that is beautiful be invariably termed 'idealistic'? Oh, there are ten thousand things I'd like altered in this world of ours!"
"Of course there are. You wouldn't be you otherwise! You want a specially constructed world and a peculiarly adapted human nature. In fact—you want the moon!"
Nan stared into the fire reflectively.
"I wonder," she said slowly, "if I shall get it?"
Penelope glanced at her sharply.
"It's highly improbable," she said. "But a little philosophy would be quite as useful—and a far more likely acquisition."
As she finished speaking a bell pealed through the flat—pealed with an irritable suggestion that it had been rung unavailingly before. Followed the abigail's footstep as she pursued her unhurried way to answer its imperative demand, and presently a visitor was shown into the room. He was a man of over seventy, erect and well-preserved, with white hair and clipped moustache. There was an indefinable courtliness of manner about him which recalled the days of lace ruffles and knee-breeches. The two girls rose to greet him with unfeigned delight.
"Uncle!" cried Nan. "How dear of you to come just when our spirits were at their lowest ebb!"
"My dears!" He kissed his niece and shook hands with Penelope. Nan pushed an armchair towards the fire and tendered her cigarette case.
"You needn't be afraid of them, Uncle David," she informed him reassuringly. "They're not gaspers."
"Sybarite! With the same confidence as if they were my own." And Lord St. John helped himself smilingly.
"And why," he continued, "has the barometer fallen?"
"You can't expect it to be always 'set fair'!"
"I'd like it to be," returned St. John simply.
A fugitive thought flashed through Nan's mind that he and Peter Mallory were merely young and old representatives of a similar type of man. She could imagine Mallory growing into the same gracious old manhood as her uncle.
"A propos," pursued Lord St. John, with a twinkle, "your handmaiden appears to me a quite just cause and impediment."
"Oh, our 'Adagio'?" exclaimed Nan. "We've long since ceased to expect much from her. Did she keep you waiting on the doorstep long?"
"Only about ten minutes," murmured St. John mildly. "But seriously, why don't you—er—give her warning?"
"My dear innocent uncle!" protested Nan amusedly. "Don't you know that that sort of thing isn't done nowadays—not in the best circles?"
"Besides," added Penelope practically, "we should probably be only out of the frying pan into the fire. The jewels in the domestic line are few and far between and certainly not to be purchased within our financial limits. And frankly, there are very few jewels left at any price. Most of the nice ones got married during the war—the servants you loved and regarded as part of the family—and nine-tenths of those that are left have no sense of even giving good work in return for their wages—let alone civility! The tradition of good service has gone."
"Have you been having much bother, then?" asked St. John concernedly. "You never used to have trouble with maids."
"No. But everyone has now. You wouldn't believe what they're like! I don't think it's in the least surprising so many women have nervous break-downs through nothing more nor less than domestic worry. Why, the home-life of women these days is more like a daily battlefield than anything else!"
Penelope spoke strongly. She had suffered considerably at the hands of various inefficient maids and this, added to the strain of her own professional work, had brought her at one time to the verge of a break-down in health.
"I'd no idea you were so strong on domestic matters, Penelope," chaffed St. John, smiling across at her.
"I'm not. But I've got common sense, and I can see that if the small wheels of the machine refuse to turn, the big wheels are bound to stick."
"If only servants knew how much one liked and respected a really good maid!" murmured Nan with a recrudescence of idealism.
"Do wages make any difference?" ventured St. John somewhat timidly. Penelope was rather forcible when the spirit moved her, and he was becoming conscious of the fact that he was a mere ignorant man.
"Of course they do—to a certain extent," she replied.
"Money makes a difference to most things, doesn't it?"
"There are one or two things it can't taint," he answered quietly, but now you've really brought me to the very object of my visit."
"I thought it was a desire to enquire after the health of your favourite niece," hazarded Nan impertinently.
"So it was. And as finance plays a most important part in that affair, the matter dovetails exactly!"
He smoked in silence for a moment. Then he resumed:
"I should like, Nan, with your permission, to double your allowance and make it six hundred a year."
"You see," he pursued, "though I'm only a mere man, I know the cost of living has soared sky-high, including"—with a sly glance at Penelope—"the cost of menservants and maidservants."
"Well, but really, Uncle, I could manage with less than that," protested Nan. "Four or five hundred, with what we earn, would be quite sufficient—quite."
St. John regarded her reflectively.
"It might be—for some people. But not for you, my child. I know your temperament too well! You've the Davenant love of beauty and the instinct to surround yourself with all that's worth having, and I hate to think of its being thwarted just for lack of money. After all, money is only of value for what it can procure—what it does for you. Well, being a Davenant, you want a lot of the things that money can procure—things which wouldn't mean anything at all to many people. They wouldn't even notice whether they were there or not. So six hundred a year it will be, my dear. On the same understanding as before—that you renounce the income should you marry."
Nan gripped his hand hard.
"Uncle," she began. "I can't thank you—"
"Don't, my dear. I merely want to give you a little freedom. You mayn't have it always. You won't if you marry"—with a twinkle. "Now, may I have my usual cup of coffee—not from the hands of your Hebe!"
She nodded and slipped out of the room to make the coffee, while Penelope turned towards the visitor with an expression of dismay on her face.
"Do forgive me, Lord St. John," she said. "But is it wise? Aren't you taking from her all incentive to work?"
"I don't believe in pot-boiling," he replied promptly. "The best work of a talent like Nan's is not the work that's done to buy the dinner."
He lit another cigarette before he spoke again. Then he went on rather wistfully:
"I may be wrong, Penelope. But remember, my wife was a Davenant, nearer than Nan by one generation to Angele de Varincourt. And she was never happy! Though I loved her, I couldn't make her happy."
"I should have thought you would have made her happy if any man could," said Penelope gently.
"My dear, it's given to very few men to make a woman of temperament happy. And Nan is so like my dear, dead Annabel that, if for no other reason, I should always wish to give her what happiness I can." He paused, then went on thoughtfully: "Unfortunately money won't buy happiness. I can't do very much for her—only give her what money can buy. But even the harmony of material environment means a great deal to Nan—the difference between a pert, indifferent maid and a civil and experienced one; flowers in your rooms; a taxi instead of a scramble for a motor-'bus. Just small things in such a big thing as life, but they make an enormous difference."
"You of all men surely understand a temperamental woman!" exclaimed Penelope, surprised at his keen perception of the details which can fret a woman so sorely in proportion to their apparent unimportance.
St. John hardly seemed to hear her, for he continued:
"And I want to give her freedom—freedom from marriage if she wishes it. That's why I stipulate that the income ceases If she marries. I'm trying to weight the balance against her marrying."
Penelope looked at him questioningly.
"But why? Surely love is the best thing of all?"
"Love and marriage, my dear, are two very different things," commented St. John, with an unwonted touch of cynicism. After a moment he went on: "Annabel and I—we loved. But I couldn't make her happy. Our temperaments were unsuited, we looked out on life from different windows. I'm not at all sure"—reflectively—"that the union of sympathetic temperaments, even where less love is, does not result in a much larger degree of happiness than the union of opposites, where there is great love. The jar and fret is there, despite the attraction, and love starves in an atmosphere of discord. For the race, probably the mysterious attraction of opposites will produce the best results. But for individual happiness the sympathetic temperament is the first necessity."
There was a silence, Penelope feeling that Lord St. John had crystallised in words, thoughts and theories that she sensed as being the foundation of her own opinions, hitherto unrecognised and nebulous.
Presently he spoke again.
"And I don't really think men are at all suited to have the care and guardianship of women."
"Unfortunately they're all that Providence has seen fit to provide," replied Penelope, with her usual bluntly philosophical acceptance of facts.
"And yet—we men don't understand women. We're constantly hurting them with our clumsy misconceptions—with our failure to respond to their complexities."
Penelope's eyes grew kind.
"I don't think you would," she said.
"Ah, my dear, I'm an old man now and perhaps I understand. But there was a time when I understood no better than the average youngster who gaily asks some nice woman to trust her future in his hands—without a second thought as to whether he's fit for such a trust. And that was just the time when a little understanding would have given happiness to the woman I loved best on earth."
He spoke rather wearily, but contrived a smile as Nan entered, carrying a cup of coffee in her hand.
"My compliments, Nan. Your coffee equals that of any Frenchwoman."
"A reversion to type. Don't forget that Angele de Varincourt is always at the back of me."
St. John laughed and drank his coffee appreciatively, and after a little further desultory conversation took his departure, leaving the two girls alone together.
"Isn't he a perfect old dear?" said Nan.
"Yes," agreed Penelope. "He is. And he absolutely spoils you."
Nan gave a little grin.
"I really think he does—a bit. Imagine it, Penny, after our strenuous economies! Six hundred a year in addition to our hard-earned pence! Within limits it really does mean pretty frocks, and theatres, and taxis when we want them."
Penelope smiled at her riotous satisfaction. Nan lived tremendously in the present—her capacity for enjoyment and for suffering was so intense that every little pleasure magnified itself and each small fret and jar became a minor tragedy.
But Penelope was acutely conscious that beneath all the surface tears and laughter there lay a hurt which had not healed, the ultimate effect and consequence of which she was afraid to contemplate.
THE SKELETON IN THE CUPBOARD
"Nan, may I introduce Mr. Mallory?"
It was the evening of Kitty's little dinner—a cosy gathering of sympathetic souls, the majority of whom were more or less intimately known to each other.
"As you both have French blood in your veins, you can chant the Marseillaise in unison." And with a nod and smile Kitty passed on to where her husband was chatting with Ralph Fenton, the well-known baritone, and a couple of members of Parliament. Each of them had cut a niche of his own in the world, for Kitty was discriminating in her taste, and the receptions at her house in Green Street were always duly seasoned with the spice of brains and talent.
As Nan looked up into the face of the man whose acquaintance she had already made in such curious fashion, the thought flashed through her mind that here, in his partly French blood was the explanation of his unusual colouring—black brows and lashes contrasting so oddly with the kinky fair hair which, despite the barber's periodical shearing and the fervent use of a stiff-bristled hair-brush, still insisted on springing into crisp waves over his head and refused to lie flat.
"What luck!" he exclaimed boyishly. "I must be in the Fates' good books to-night. What virtuous deed can I have done to deserve it?"
"Playing the part of Good Samaritan might have counted," suggested Nan, smiling. "Unless you can recall any particularly good action which you've performed in the interval."
"I don't think I've been guilty of a solitary one," he replied seriously. "May I?" He offered his arm as the guests began trooping in to dinner—Penelope appropriately paired off with Fenton, whom she had come to know fairly well in the course of her professional work. Although, as she was wont to remark, "Ralph Fenton's a big fish and I'm only a little one." They were chattering happily together of songs and singers.
"So France has a partial claim, on you, too?" remarked Mallory, unfolding his napkin.
"Yes—a great-grandmother. I let her take the burden of all my sins."
"Not a very heavy one, I imagine," he returned, smiling.
"I don't know. Sometimes"—Nan's eyes grew suddenly pensive—"sometimes I feel that one day I shall do something which will make the burden too heavy to be shunted on to great-grandmamma! Then I'll have to bear it myself, I suppose."
"There'll be a pal or two around, to give you a hand with it, I expect," answered Mallory.
"I don't know if there will even be that," she answered dreamily. "Do you know, I've always had the idea that sometime or other I shall get myself into an awful hole and that there won't be a single soul in the world to get me out of it."
She spoke with an odd note of prescience in her voice. It was so pronounced that the sense of foreboding communicated itself to Mallory.
"Don't talk like that. If you think it, you'll be carried forward to just such disaster on the current of the thought. Be sure—quite, quite sure—that there will be someone at hand, even if it's only me"—quaintly.
"The Good Samaritan again? But you mightn't know I was in a difficulty," she protested.
"I think I should always know if you were in trouble," he said quietly.
There was a new quality in the familiar lazy drawl—something that was very strong and steady. Although he had laid no stress on the word "you," yet Nan was conscious in every nerve of her that there was an emphatic individual significance in the brief words he had just uttered. She shied away from it like a frightened colt.
"Still you mightn't come to the rescue, even if I were struggling in the quicksands," she answered.
"I should come," he said deliberately, "whether you wanted me to come or not."
Followed a brief pause, charged with a curious emotional tensity. Then Mallory remarked lightly:
"I enjoyed the Charity Concert at Exeter."
"Were you there?" exclaimed Nan in surprise.
"Certainly I was there. When I was as near as Abbencombe, you don't suppose I was going to miss the chance of hearing you play, do you?"
"I never thought of your being there," she answered.
"And now that I know you've French blood in your veins, I can understand what always puzzled me in your playing."
"What was that?"
"The un-English element in it."
"Am I too unreserved then?" she shot at him.
His grey-blue eyes smiled back at her.
"One doesn't ask reserve of a musician. He must give himself—as you do."
She flushed a little. The man's perception was unerring.