THE PHANTOM LOVER
RUBY M. AYRES
AUTHOR OF A BACHELOR HUSBAND, THE SCAR, ETC.
GROSSET & DUNLAP
Made in the United States of America
Copyright, 1921, BY W. J. WATT & COMPANY
Printed in the United States of America
TO MY FRIEND
THE REAL 'JUNE MASON'
IN THIS STORY
THE PHANTOM LOVER
Somewhere out in the night a woman was crying, crying desolately. The sad, rather monotonous sound broke the silence of the street and floated through the open window of a room where Micky Mellowes was wondering how the deuce he should get through the long evening lying before him.
Micky was in a bad temper. It was not often that he was in a bad temper, but he had begun the day by waking with a headache, which was still with him, and which accounted for the wide open window and the breath of icy air which was filling the room and fluttering the curtains; and half an hour ago some people with whom he had been going to dine had rung up and told him that the party was off owing to the sudden death of a relative, thereby leaving the evening long and empty on his hands.
It was New Year's Eve, too, which made matters a thundering sight worse.
He wondered if Marie Deland was feeling as sick about it as he was. Micky was in the middle of an interesting flirtation with Marie, which bade fair to develop into something deeper with careful engineering on the part of her family, for Micky was a catch, and though so far he had proved himself singularly adroit in avoiding mothers with marriageable daughters, the Delands were beginning to pat each other on the back and to look pleased.
When the sound of crying reached him he had been feeling so thoroughly fed-up with life that it had seemed impossible for anything ever to interest him again; but now he climbed out of his chair with a faint show of energy and strolled over to the window.
It was a cold, clear night, with myriads of stars in the dark sky that seemed to shed a faintly luminous light to earth, bright enough at all events for Micky to distinguish the figure of a girl walking slowly along the pathway below.
She was walking so slowly and dispiritedly that a sort of vague curiosity stirred in Micky's heart; here, at least, was some one even more fed-up with life than he himself, and with a sudden impulse he turned from the window, and, snatching up a hat and coat which he had thrown down when he came in an hour earlier, made for the stairs.
He was half-way down when an apologetic cough at his elbow arrested him; he stopped and turned.
"Well, what is it?"
"If you please, sir, Mr. Ashton has just sent round to ask if you could make it convenient to be in at ten o'clock this evening, as he wants to see you particularly."
Micky looked surprised; Ashton had been very particularly engaged for that evening, he knew. Evidently something had happened to upset his plans as well.
"Ten o'clock? All right; I dare say I shall be in."
He went on down the stairs.
Out on the path he paused and looked up and down the street.
The impulse that had sent him out had died away; it was beastly cold, and much more comfortable by the fire. He hesitated, and in that moment he saw the figure of the girl again.
She had stopped now in the light of a street lamp, and seemed to be looking at something she carried in her arms—a child! Surely not a child!
Micky's curiosity was aroused. He buttoned the collar of his coat more closely round his chin and went on.
The girl had moved too, almost as if she felt instinctively that she was being followed, and as Micky drew abreast with her she shrank a little to one side as if afraid.
"What's the matter?" asked Micky bluntly.
They were some few yards from the lamp now. But, as she turned to look up at him with startled eyes, its yellow light fell on her face; and Micky saw with amazement that she was quite young and exceedingly pretty, in spite of the distress in her eyes, and the tears that were still wet on her cheeks.
"What's the matter?" he asked again, more gently, and waited for the pathetically shaken denial which he felt sure would come.
"Nothing—nothing at all."
"Nothing!" There was a note of exasperation in his voice. "You were crying—I heard you, and people don't walk about the streets at this time of night and cry if there's nothing the matter. If that's a baby you've got with you, you ought to know better than to——" He broke off. She was laughing, a weak, uncertain little laugh.
"A baby!" she said tremulously. "It isn't a baby; it's a cat."
"A cat!" Micky's voice was full of disgust. He looked down at her from his superior height with sudden suspicion. If this was just a hoax?
"Well, what's the matter anyway?" he asked again.
She looked away from him without answering.
Micky began to feel a bit of a fool; he wished he had not yielded to the impulse to follow her. After all, it was no business of his if a stranger chose to walk about his road and weep; he looked at her impatiently.
Her hair beneath its not very smart hat shone golden in the lamplight, and the little oval of cheek and rounded chin which was all he could see of her averted face somehow touched a forgotten chord in his heart and made him think of his boyhood and the girl-mother who had not lived long enough to be more than a memory....
"Don't think I'm interfering or trying to annoy you," he said again. "But if there is anything I can do to help you...."
She shook her head.
"There isn't anything.... I ought to have known better than to let you hear that I was crying ... there's nothing the matter, I——" Then quite suddenly she broke down again into bitter sobbing. "Oh, I'm so miserable—so utterly miserable—I wish I were dead!"
Micky was appalled; he had heard women say that sort of thing before, and had said it himself scores of times, but never with that note of tragedy which he heard in this girl's voice.
Ten minutes ago he had considered himself the most miserable of mortals because he had been let down over a dinner; he was ashamed of his temper now as he stood there in the starlight and listened to this girl's sobbing.
"Look here," he said after a moment, "you'll never feel any better if you stay out here in the cold. I don't suppose you've had a respectable meal for hours either—I know what women are. Where do you live? You'll soon feel better when you get beside a fire and have something to eat."
"I'm not going home any more," she said.
She spoke quite quietly, but with a sort of despair which there was no mistaking.
Micky was a rapid thinker. He had clean forgotten his headache. This was adventure with a capital letter. There was still something of romance in the world which his jaded palate had not yet tasted.
"I'm sure you're tired," he said gently, "and probably fed-up. So am I. I was just wondering what in the world to do with myself when I heard you crying. It made me feel a sort of kinship with you—it did, upon my word. If I'd been a woman I dare say I should have been howling like anything. Will you come along with me and let me give you some supper? I'm hungry too...."
She shrank back from him with a little gesture of fear.
"Oh no—please let me go!..."
She tried to pass him, but Micky barred the way.
"You can't walk about the streets all night," he said determinedly. "The cat will hate it anyway, even if you don't mind." There was a hint of laughter in his voice, though he had never felt more serious in all his life. "And if you don't want me to take pity on you, you might at least take pity on me ... please don't think I'm a bounder trying to annoy you or anything like that ... perhaps I want a friend just as badly as you do...." He stopped, aghast at his own temerity.
"If you do," she said tremulously, "I am more sorry for you than I can say."
"I'm glad you said that," Micky answered, "because now you'll come along and have that supper with me. There's a little cafe quite near here that I know. If we are both miserable, we can at least be miserable together."
Something told him that this girl was at the end of her tether; that she was desperate, and his first casual curiosity concerning her deepened in the most surprising fashion.
He felt in some inexplicable way that a curtain had been lifted from a phase of life hitherto hidden from him; as if he were standing on the threshold of a new world, where women only weep for something real and tragic, not just butterfly tears of petulance like the women of his own class.
The girl was silent for a moment; then suddenly she laughed, a hard little laugh of recklessness.
"Very well," she said. "I suppose I may as well."
Micky was infinitely relieved; somehow he had not really thought that she would allow him to accompany her.
They walked along for a few steps in silence. Once or twice the cat, tucked under the girl's arm, gave a faint mieow of protest, and Micky smiled to himself in the darkness.
It was the cat that seemed to give such a real touch of pathos to the whole adventure, he thought, and wondered why. He looked down at her deprecatingly.
"Let me carry it," he suggested.
"Carry it?" she echoed. "What do you mean?—Oh, the cat; no, thank you. He wouldn't like it: he hates strangers."
"Oh!" said Micky. He felt chagrined. "Is it a great pet?" he asked.
"Yes." She hunched her queer burden more closely under her arm. "It isn't really mine," she explained. "But they were so unkind to it in the house that I had to bring it."
Micky was dying to ask questions, but somehow it hardly seemed a propitious moment. He did not speak again till they reached the little cafe.
It was a quiet little downstairs place, and just now was almost deserted.
Micky chose a corner table which was partially screened from the rest of the room. As he stood up to take off his coat he looked at the girl interestedly.
She was better than pretty, he decided with a little pleasurable thrill; he could not remember when he had seen a face that appealed to him so strongly in spite of its pathos and the tear stains round her eyes.
And such sweet eyes they were!—really grey with dark lashes and daintily pencilled brows. She looked up suddenly, meeting his earnest regard.
"Well?" she said. There was a touch of defiance in her voice; the colour had risen in her white cheeks.
"Well?" said Micky with a friendly smile.
He sat down opposite to her; he was thanking his lucky stars that the Delands' message had reached him before he changed into evening clothes; somehow as he looked at this girl he felt slightly ashamed of his own lazy, luxurious life and the banking account which, like the cruse of oil, never failed. That this girl had no surplus of this world's goods he was certain, though she was neatly dressed and was unmistakably a lady. Her gloves were worn and had been carefully mended, and her coat looked far too thin for such a cold night.
"Well, what are we going to have?" he asked. It was surprising how cheerful he felt. "And what about that wonderful cat of yours? By the way, hasn't it got a name?"
She smiled faintly.
"I call him Charlie," she said.
"Charlie!" Micky's eyes twinkled. "Well, it's original, anyway," he said with a chuckle. "And Charlie must have some milk, I suppose. I say, he's a bit thin, isn't he?" he asked dubiously.
She had taken off the shawl which had been wrapped about it, and the poor animal sat on her lap blinking in the light, a forlorn enough specimen, with a long tail and fierce eyes.
The girl stroked its head.
"He's been half starved," she said. "You'd be thin if you hadn't had any more to eat than he's had."
"I'm sure I should," said Micky humbly. He thought guiltily of the waste which he knew went on in his own establishment; it was odd that it had never struck him before that there must be many people in the world, not to mention cats, who would be glad enough of the waste from his table.
He picked up the menu to hide his discomfort. When the waiter came he ordered the best dinner the restaurant served. He was conscious that the girl was watching him anxiously. When the waiter had gone, she said, "I can't afford to have a dinner like that."
Micky flushed crimson.
"I thought you were dining with me," he stammered. "I—I hope you will—I shall be only too honoured...."
Her grey eyes met his anxiously.
"I've never done a thing like this before," she said in distress. "I don't know what you are thinking of me ... but ... well, I suppose I was just desperate...." She broke off biting her lip, then she rushed on again. "I don't suppose you'll ever see me any more, so it doesn't really matter much, but...."
"I hope to see you again, many times," said Micky, with an earnestness that surprised himself.
She looked away, and her face hardened.
"I suppose men are all the same," she said, after a moment. "However...." she shrugged her shoulders with a sort of recklessness that made Micky frown. She leaned back in her chair with sudden weariness. "It's very kind of you," she said disinterestedly.
"It's not kind at all," he hastened to assure her. "I'm much more pleased to be with you than you are to be with me. If it hadn't been for you I should have spent this evening alone—New Year's Eve, too," he added, with a sort of chagrin and a sudden memory of Marie Deland.
"New Year's Eve!" she echoed. She closed her eyes for a moment, and Micky had an uncomfortable sort of feeling that she was looking back on the year that was dying and could see nothing pleasant in the whole of the twelve months. Presently she opened them again with a little sigh. "Well, I don't want another year like the last one," she said.
"You won't have," he told her promptly. "I've got a sort of feeling that there are lots of good things coming along for you. The luck has to change some time or other, and if you've had a rotten time in the past you won't have it in the future."
"I don't believe in luck," she said.
"Don't you? I do," Micky declared. He hated the despondency in her face; he felt a strong desire to see her smiling and happy. He rattled on, talking any nonsense that came into his head.
The waiter came down the room and set the dishes on the table. He gave a sort of supercilious sniff when Micky asked for a saucer of milk for the cat. He looked at Charlie with scorn—Charlie, curled up on the girl's lap now and purring lustily.
"Of course, you know, we really ought to have a bottle of wine," Micky said dubiously. "Just something cheap, as it's New Year's Eve."
He would like to have given her champagne, but dared not suggest it. He was quite sure that if she knew he was a rich man she would fly off at a tangent. He ordered an inexpensive bottle of red wine and filled her glass.
"Well, here's luck to the New Year," he said sententiously. "And to our delightfully unexpected meeting," he added.
She flushed up to her eyes.
"Are you always as kind to people as you have been to me?" she asked tensely.
"Oh, I say!" he protested. "You don't call this being kind, do you? I assure you it's just pure selfishness. I should have spent my evening alone if we hadn't met—and I hate being alone; I bore myself stiff in five minutes. I'm just—honoured that you should have allowed me to eat my supper with you. If you knew how beastly fed-up I was feeling ... the world seemed a positively loathsome place."
She laughed; she leaned her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands, looking at him with thoughtful eyes.
"Are you poor?" she asked with disarming frankness.
"Poor as a church mouse," said Micky promptly. "At least"—he hastened to amend his words—"I'm one of those unfortunate beggars who spend money as fast as they get it. I've never saved a halfpenny in my life."
This at least was the truth.
"Neither have I—I've never had one to save...."
The despondency was back again in her voice; Micky broke in hastily—
"Before we go any further I think we ought to know one another's names." He fumbled in a pocket for a card, but changed his mind quickly, remembering that his cards bore the address of the expensive flat which he honoured with his presence. "My name is Mellowes," he said. "I've got several Christian names as well, but people call me Micky...." He waited, looking at her expectantly. "Won't you tell me yours?" he asked.
She was staring down at her plate. He could see the dark fringe of lashes against her cheeks. Suddenly she looked up.
"Why do you want to know my name? We shall never meet again, I——"
Micky leaned a little forward.
"If we don't," he said quietly, "it will be the greatest disappointment I have ever had."
She looked at him with a sort of fear.
"You don't mean that," she said, with a catch in her voice. "You don't really mean that ... you're just one of those men who say things like that to every woman you——" She broke off, struck by the chagrin in Micky's face. "No—I oughtn't to have said that," she went on hurriedly. "I beg your pardon ... I ought not to have said it, and I will tell you my name if you really want to know. My name is Esther—Esther Shepstone."
"Thank you!" said Micky. "And now we're going to drink to good resolutions for the New Year ... have you made one yet?"
She shook her head.
"What's the use? Besides ... I don't want to make any."
"Very well, then, I'll make one for you." He refilled her glass and handed it to her. "Now say after me: 'I resolve that during the coming year I will be good friends with Micky Mellowes——' Oh, I say, don't—please don't...."
She had dropped her face in her hands again, and Micky had a miserable conviction that she was crying.
But he was wrong, for presently she looked up again, and her eyes were dry, though a little hard and bright.
"I don't believe in a man's friendship for a woman," she said. "But I'll say it, if you like," and she took the glass from his hand.
"And to-morrow," said Micky presently, "I'm going to take you out to tea or something—if I may," he added hurriedly.
He waited, but she did not speak. "May I?" he asked.
She was twisting the stem of her wineglass nervously; after a moment she began to speak jerkily.
"When I came out to-night I didn't mean to go back any more," she said. Her voice was low and full of a weary bitterness. "I was so unhappy I didn't want to live." She caught her breath. "If it hadn't been for you"—she was looking at him now with shame in her eyes. "If it hadn't been for you I shouldn't have gone back—ever——" she added. "But now...."
"But now," said Micky as she paused, "you're going back, and we're going to start the new year—friends, you and I! Is that a bargain?" he asked.
Outside Micky hailed a taxicab.
"You're much too tired to walk," he said when she protested. "And it will be a new experience for Charlie," he added with a twinkle.
He put her into the cab, and stood for a moment at the door.
"And the address?" he asked.
She hesitated, looking away from him; then suddenly she told him.
"It's Brixton Road—it's—it's a very horrid boarding-house," she added with a half-sigh.
"Boarding-houses are all horrid," said Micky cheerily. "But I'll come down myself to-morrow and see how bad it really is."
He tried to see her face.
"Shall you be in if I come in the afternoon?" he asked anxiously.
"About four, then," said Micky. He groped for her hand, found it, and pressed it. "Good-night," he said.
And the next moment Micky was alone in the starlight.
He stood looking after the taxi with a queer sense of unreality. Had he just dreamt it all, and was there really no such girl as Esther Shepstone? No Charlie? He shook himself together with a laugh. Of course it was real, all of it! He walked on soberly through the cold night.
To-morrow he would go to the very horrid boarding-house in the Brixton Road and see her again.
Esther! He liked her name; there was something quaint and old-world about it. It seemed impossible that they had only met a few hours ago.
His headache had quite vanished. He was whistling a snatch of song when he let himself into the house and went upstairs.
He opened the door of his sitting-room, and then stopped dead on the threshold. The lights were burning fully, and a man was ensconced in his favourite armchair by the fire—Ashton. Lord! he had forgotten all about Ashton.
Micky looked guiltily at the clock—nearly eleven!—he began a half-apology.
"Awfully sorry, old man—I was kept.... Been waiting long?"
"I got here at ten."
Ashton climbed out of the chair and looked at Micky with a sort of shamefacedness.
"Don't take your coat off," he said suddenly. "I want you to come out again——"
"Out! Now! Look at the time, man!"
"I know—it's only eleven.... I'm catching the midnight to Dover...."
"Dover! What in the world...."
Ashton turned round and looked down at the fire with a sort of embarrassment.
"It's the mater," he said jerkily. "She's found out——"
Micky looked puzzled.
"Found out! What on earth...."
Ashton made an impatient gesture. He was a good-looking man, with dark eyes that could look all manner of things without in the least meaning them.
"About that girl at Eldred's," he said in a strangled voice. "You know! I told you about her. Lord, man, don't look so confoundedly ignorant! I told you about her," he broke off. "Well, some one's told the mater, and this morning...." he shrugged his shoulders. "There's been old Harry to pay! She told me if I didn't give her up she'd cut me out of her will. She would, too!" he added, in savage parenthesis.
"Well! and what did you say?"
Ashton looked round.
"Hang it all! what could I say? Told her I would, of course."
There was a sharp silence.
"I thought you liked the girl," said Micky bluntly.
The other man winced.
"So I did—so I do.... It's a rotten shame. If you'd ever seen her ... you never have, have you?"
"Neither has the mater.... Women are all the same; because the girl has to work for her living they think she isn't fit for me to marry.... It's all a lot of rot.... However—beggars can't be choosers—and so I'm off to-night."
Micky looked at him keenly.
"You mean that you're going without a word to the girl?"
"What can I do?—I went and saw her this morning—we had a rotten scene. I meant to tell her it was all up, but somehow I couldn't; I'm too dashed fond of her, and that's the truth. I can't bear to see her cry—it makes me feel such a cur...."
He waited a moment, but Micky made no comment.
"So the only thing is to clear out," Ashton went on jerkily. "I can't afford to quarrel with the mater, you know that.... Perhaps some day...." He stopped. "After all, she can't live for ever," he added brutally.
Micky said nothing.
"So I'm off to-night," Ashton went on with an effort. "I wanted to see you—I knew I could trust you...." He fumbled in a pocket. "There's a letter here.... I've written—I couldn't see her again. I know I'm a coward, but ... well, there it is!"
He threw the letter down on the table.
"Will you go and see her, old chap, and give her that?" he asked with an effort. "Tell her I—oh, tell her what you like," he went on fiercely. "Tell her that if I could afford it...."
He stopped again, and this time the silence was unbroken for some minutes.
Then he roused himself and picked up his coat. "Well, I must be getting along. I left my baggage at the station."
He looked at Micky. "I suppose you think I'm an infernal sweep, eh?" he asked curtly.
"No," said Micky.
He had always expected that Ashton's romance would end like this, and he felt vaguely sorry for the girl, though he had never seen her. She must have expected it, too, he thought. She must have known Ashton's position all along. He followed his friend out of the room.
"You haven't told me her address," he said suddenly.
He decided that it would be better to send the letter—he did not want to see her. He hated a scene as much as Ashton did.
Ashton was at the top of the stairs.
"It's on the letter. What have you done with it?"
There was an irritable note in his voice. "Don't leave it lying there for that man of yours to see."
Micky went back into the room. The letter lay on the table where Ashton had thrown it down.
He picked it up, glancing casually at the written address as he did so. Then suddenly his tall figure stiffened, and a curiously blank look filled his eyes, for the name scribbled there in Ashton's writing was—
"Miss Esther Shepstone," and, below it, the number of the very horrid boarding-house in the Brixton Road.
Micky stood staring at the envelope in his hand. He felt as if something had happened to paralyse all power of action.
Esther Shepstone and Ashton's girl from Eldred's were one and the same; that was all he could grasp, and it sounded absurd and impossible.
He had heard so much of this girl—Ashton had talked about her times without number—Lallie he had called her; now he came to think of it, Micky could not remember having ever heard her spoken of by any other name; and Lallie and Esther Shepstone were one and the same.
Was this, then, why she had cried, because of Ashton...?
Ashton called to him impatiently from the stairs.
"What the deuce are you doing? I shall miss my train."
Micky roused himself with a start, and, dropping the letter into his pocket, went slowly out of the room; he felt as if he could not have hurried had his life depended upon it; there was an absurdly cold sort of feeling round his heart.
It was ridiculous, of course; it was nothing to him if the girl with whom he had dined an hour ago loved Ashton; he had never seen her before. That sounded an absurd truth, too; it seemed impossible that until this evening he and she had never met.
"For heaven's sake, hurry up, man," said Ashton again sharply.
He was at the bottom of the stairs; the face he turned over his shoulder to Micky looked pale and harassed.
Micky quickened his steps and joined his friend in the porch below; they stood together out on the path waiting for a taxicab.
Micky glanced at Ashton with a curious sense of unreality; he felt as if he had never seen him before; it seemed impossible that this Ashton could know Esther—and Charlie!
A taxicab drew up to the kerb; Ashton banged open the door and got in. Micky followed, and they drove some way in silence.
"I'll take thundering good care I don't stay away long," Ashton said suddenly, with a sort of growl. "And if the mater thinks it will make me forget Lallie——"
"I thought her name was Esther," said Micky quietly. He was looking out of the window into the starry night.
"So it is—but I always call her Lallie." He looked at his friend with a sort of vague suspicion. "How do you know what her name is?" he asked.
"I saw it on the letter you gave me."
"I think it would be better if you posted it to her yourself and have done with it," Micky said with an effort. "I'm a rotten hand at this sort of thing. It can't do any good if I go and see her."
"You said you would go—you might be a sport and stick to your word," Ashton protested. "I'd do the same for you any day."
Micky rather doubted it, but did not like to say so.
"If you knew how sick I am about the whole business," Ashton went on jerkily. "You may not believe me, but I tell you, Micky, that I'd marry that girl to-morrow if only——"
"If only—what?" Micky asked as he paused.
"Oh, you know! What the dickens can I do without a bob to my name except what the mater chooses to dole out? I tell you," he went on with a sort of snarl, "it'll be very different when I get the money. Gad! if only I'd got it now!"
"Money isn't everything," said Micky sententiously. "And if you like the girl, why not marry her and face it out?"
Ashton gave a savage little laugh.
"It's all very fine for you to say that money isn't everything—that's only because you've got it, and are never likely to be without it. You don't know what it feels like to be up to your eyes in debt and not knowing where to turn for a fiver. Bah! what's the good of talking?" He let down the window with a run, turning his face to the keen night air.
They were nearing their destination, and there was still something he wanted to say to Micky which so far, he had been afraid to put into words.
"Well, I suppose I shan't be seeing you again for a bit," he said, with rather a forced laugh. "You've been a good pal to me, Micky——"
Micky said "Rot!" rather shortly; he frowned in the darkness; Ashton got on his nerves; he rather wished he had not come to see him off.
"Oh, but you have—whether you like me to say so or not," the other man went on obstinately. "And—and there's one last thing I'm going to ask you before I go...."
He waited, but Micky did not speak.
The taxi was turning into the station yard now, moving slowly because of the congested traffic.
"If you could give Lallie some money," Ashton went on with a rush. "I'd send her some, but I've only just got enough to get out of the way with. I'll pay you back as soon as the mater condescends to send me another cheque...."
Micky's face felt hot.
"Hasn't she—hasn't she got any, then?" he asked with an effort.
"No—at least I promised her some when I saw her this morning. She—she's left Eldred's. You see"—he drew a hard breath—"you see, I hoped we'd be able to get married, and so—well, there was no sense in her staying on there. She was worked to death, poor kid."
He glanced at Micky, but could not see his face.
"You understand, don't you?" he said, encouraged by his silence. "She owes them a bit at the boarding-house where she is living. I promised to wipe it off for her, but the mater cutting up rough altered everything, and so ... if you could give her a little——"
"I'll see to it," said Micky. He opened the door of the taxi and got out before it was at a standstill. He took off his hat and let the cold air play on his hot forehead. He could hardly trust himself to speak.
He was thankful when Ashton went off to see to his luggage. He walked into the station and found himself aimlessly staring at a notice board. He could not remember when he had felt so furiously angry.
Had Ashton changed? he was asking himself in bewilderment. Or was it merely that he had never seen the man he really was until to-night?
He tried to remember what Ashton had told him about Esther Shepstone in the past. That she had been at Eldred's he knew, and that Eldred's was a place where women bought silk petticoats and things he also knew. He had heard Marie Deland and her friends talking about it lots of times. Marie had once invited him to accompany her there when they had been out together, but he had refused and had waited outside for her. Now he came to think of it, that was about all Ashton had ever told him of Esther Shepstone.
He knew that Ashton had been seen about with her a great deal; knew that he had had to stand a lot of harmless chaff in consequence; he himself had joked about Ashton's "latest" as they had all called her: it seemed a memory to be ashamed of, when he thought of the way he had heard her sobbing in the street that night, of the distress in her eyes, of the hopeless way in which she had spoken.
Ashton rejoined him.
"Buck up! The train's in."
They went along the platform, followed by a porter with Ashton's baggage. Micky looked at it resentfully; Ashton was evidently prepared to enjoy himself; this was no rush after mere solitude and forgetfulness.
He stood stiffly at the carriage door while Ashton stowed his smaller traps on the rack. Presently he came to the window.
"You'll do the best you can, won't you, old man?" There was a real anxiety in his eyes, but Micky was not looking at him; he answered stiffly—
"Yes, I'll do what I can."
"She'll soon get another job," Ashton went on, with forced confidence. "I'm sorry she left Eldred's, now it's come to this, but how was I to know?" he appealed to Micky, but he might as well have appealed to a brick wall for all response he got.
"And when I come back——" he said again. "Tell her that when I come back many things may be all right again ... tell her that, will you?"
"I'll tell her," said Micky stolidly.
The guard was blowing his whistle now, doors were being shut.
Micky roused himself and looked at his friend.
"Are you—er—are you going to write to her?" he asked constrainedly.
"No—it's better not—far better let the thing drop till I come back. I've explained it all in my letter—she'll understand. It's no use writing—don't you think it's better not——"
Micky hunched his shoulders.
"It's your affair," he said laconically.
"Yes, well, I shan't write—I'll send you my address as soon as I know where I'm staying, and you can let me know what she said and how she takes it.... Oh, confound it!"
A porter had come along and slammed the door; the train was slowly moving; Micky was vaguely glad that there had been no time in which to shake hands. A moment, and he was walking away alone down the platform.
His hands were deep thrust in the pockets of his coat; he took no notice of anything; he walked on and out of the station.
Well, this had been an eventful New Year's Eve with a vengeance; he glanced up at the clock in the dome behind him—only a quarter to twelve now, and yet so much had been crowded into the past four hours. Since the moment when the Delands rang up to cancel his engagement to dine he seemed to have stepped out of the old world into a new. He wondered what Esther Shepstone was doing in the very horrid boarding-house of which she had told him—if she was thinking of Ashton.
What a cad the man was, what a cad!—he was amazed that he had not discovered it before—to clear off and leave a girl like this, without a word of farewell except the letter. He wondered if he meant to deliver it and admit that he knew Ashton, or if he meant just to stick a stamp on and post it to her.
He realised that there was nothing very much to be proud of in an admission that he knew Ashton, and yet they had been friends for years.
It was striking twelve when he got home; he stood for a moment on the doorstep, looking up at the starry sky.
Several clocks were chiming midnight in the distance; he listened with a queer sense of fatalism.
This was the strangest New Year's Eve he had ever spent in his life. At this hour last year he had been dancing the old year out, and to-night, had things gone as he had thought, he would have been somewhere with Marie Deland—he might even have proposed to her by this time. He smiled faintly, remembering that the intention had really been somewhere in the background of his mind; but that, too, had faded out now to give place to other, more important, factors.
Nine, ten, eleven, twelve! He counted the strokes mechanically; there was a breathless pause, then the clash of bells.
Some irrepressibles in a block of flats near by raised a cheer; the front door of a house opposite was open, and Micky caught a glimpse of a crowded hall and black-coated men and girls in pretty frocks.
He felt strangely removed from all the noise and laughter; after a moment he turned and went up to his room.
The fire had been carefully made up and his slippers and dressing-gown put to warm. Micky looked at them with a sort of disgust; it was sickening for a healthy grown man to be so pampered; he kicked the slippers into a corner and tossed the dressing-gown on to the couch.
He wondered what sort of a room Esther Shepstone had in the very horrid boarding-house—what odd corner the thin black cat curled into to sleep.
He took Ashton's letter from his pocket and stuck it up against the clock on the mantelshelf.
"Miss Esther Shepstone...."
It was fate, that's what it was! He wondered if she would ever have lived to get that letter had fate not thrown her across his path that night.
She had been desperate—at the end of her tether, and all for the sake of that cad Ashton.
He turned his back on the letter and lit a cigarette, but he let it go out almost at once, and turned back again to stare once more at the name scrawled on the envelope.
What had Ashton written to her? It worried him because he did not know. Ashton had had other love-affairs—not quite such serious ones, perhaps, but still serious enough—and Micky knew that when he had wearied of them he had set about getting free of them by the shortest route, caring little if it were also a brutal one. He thought of the despair he had seen in Esther's face that evening; he dreaded that there might be something in Ashton's farewell letter that would plunge her back more deeply into her misery.
Out in the night the bells were still ringing joyously.
It was New Year's morning, and perhaps, if he sent that letter ... He stood quite still for a moment, staring at it; then suddenly he threw his cigarette into the fire and snatched the letter down from the shelf.
He tore it open impulsively and drew out the enclosure. He unfolded it and began to read. The silence of the room was unbroken save for the little crisp sound as Micky turned the paper; then the letter fluttered to the rug at his feet and lay there, half-curled up, as if it were ashamed of the words it bore and wished to hide them.
Micky raised his eyes and looked at his reflection in the glass above the mantelshelf. The pallor of his face surprised him, and the look of passionate anger in his eyes.
He was a man of the world. He was no better and no worse than many of the men whom he knew and called his friends, but this letter, in its brutal callousness, seemed to shame his very manhood.
He had liked Ashton, had been his constant companion for months, but he had never suspected him of being capable of this.
He supposed he ought to be ashamed of having opened the letter, but he was not ashamed; he was glad that he had been able to spare the girl this last and hardest blow of all—the knowledge that the man whom she loved and trusted was unworthy.
Presently he picked the letter up from the rug. He picked it up with the tips of his fingers, as if it were something repulsive to him, and threw it down on the table.
The first few words stared up at him as it lay there.
"DEAR LALLIE,—By the time you get this letter I shall be out of England, and I hope you won't make things worse for me than they already are by trying to find out where I have gone or by writing to my people and making a scene. The worst of these little flirtations is that they always have to end, as this must, and you must have known it."...
Micky drew in his breath hard; not an hour ago in this very room Ashton had made out how cut-up he was at the turn his affairs had taken, and yet all the time he had written this letter.
He flicked over a page and read on:—
"... I shall never forget you and the good times we've had together. I should try and get back at Eldred's, if I were you. It's a good thing we didn't get married as matters have turned out, or the fat would have been in the fire with a vengeance. As it is, I shall have all my work cut out to put the mater in a good temper again. I am sending you some money by Mickey Mellowes; he's a friend of mine and as rich as Croesus, and as selfish as the devil. If he offers to take you out, let him, by all means. It wouldn't be a bad thing if he took a fancy to you; he doesn't care a hang for any one but himself. If only I'd got half his money ... but what's the use of talking about it? Anyway, this is good-bye; I shan't write again. Be a sensible girl, and try to see things from my point of view. It would only have meant ruin for both of us if I'd stuck to you. Good-bye; I send you my love for the last time.
And this from the man whom she loved; the man who had pretended to love her!
Micky dragged forward a chair with his foot and sat down straddlewise. He leaned an elbow on the chair-back and ran his fingers through his hair with a sort of bewilderment.
"He's as rich as Croesus and as selfish as the devil...."
And this from Ashton, his friend—the man whom he had helped out of scrapes scores of times; the man to whom he had lent money without the least hope of its ever being returned; Micky felt as if he had a blow in the face.
His thoughts were in a whirl; the whole world needed readjusting. Was he selfish? he asked himself in perplexity—if so, it was quite unconsciously, and anyway Ashton was the last person who should have made the accusation.
"I am sending you some money by a friend of mine...."
There was no hint that the money was first to be borrowed; he had evidently been sure of his prey; Micky swore under his breath.
Of course, Ashton had not dreamed of the letter being opened, had not dreamed of anything but that his carefully-made plans would be minutely carried out and nothing more said.
Micky sat for a long time, lost in thought; the hands of the clock crawled round to one and the chime struck; he looked up then, glancing at the clock vaguely.
If he had not met Esther Shepstone there might have been no Esther in the world at all now; if he allowed that letter to reach its destination he would be plunging her back again into the abyss of despair from which he had dragged her only that evening. She loved Ashton; of that Micky was sure. Very well then, she should at least have some part of her ideal left to her.
He went over to his desk and took up paper and pen; he spread Ashton's letter out before him and studied the writing carefully.
Ordinary sort of writing, rather unformed and sprawly, but after a trial run Micky managed a very presentable copy of it.
He sat back in his chair and eyed his handiwork with pride; he had missed his vocation, he told himself with a chuckle; he ought to have been a forger.
Then he dipped the pen in the ink again and squared his elbows. He had never written a love-letter in his life, but he knew positively that he was about to write one now.
He thought of Esther and the wistfulness of her grey eyes; she was the girl whom a man could love. He coloured a little as the thought involuntarily crossed his mind; she was a girl whom—he began to write rapidly.
"My darling little girl——"
Micky was naturally rather eloquent with his pen, though he had never before tried it in this especial direction.
"This is the most difficult letter I have ever had to write in all my life; first, because I love you so much; and, secondly, because I am afraid it is going to hurt you nearly as much as it hurts me. Dear, as it will be some time before I see you again, and because I cannot explain everything to you, I am going to ask you to trust me till we meet again. I am leaving England to-night...."
Micky paused and ran his fingers through his hair agitatedly before he struggled on once more: "I shall be thinking of you every minute till we meet again, and of the happy times we have had together. I will write to you whenever I can...." The pen paused, and Micky groaned, recalling that Ashton had said he should not write at all.
"It'll have to do, anyway," he muttered, and again the pen flew: "I'm not much of a hand at writing letters, as you know, but you must try and read between the lines, and guess at all I would say were we together ... All I will say to you when we meet again."
That last sentence was rather neat, Micky thought with pride, then a wave of compunction swept through his heart as he remembered the tragedy behind it all, and he finished the page soberly enough: "Ever yours, Raymond Ashton."
"Damn him!" said Micky under his breath, as he blotted the signature; then he took two ten-pound notes from a drawer in his desk, and, enclosing them in the envelope, sealed and stamped it.
It was half-past one, but Micky climbed into his coat again. He locked Ashton's letter into his desk, and, taking the one he had written, went quietly down to the street.
The world was sleeping and deserted, and Micky's footsteps echoed hollowly along the pavement.
"You're a fool, you know!" he told himself, with a sort of humour. "You're a bally fool, my boy! It won't end here, you see if it does."
But he went on to the pillar-box at the street corner.
When he reached it he stood for a moment with the letter in his hand.
"You're a fool," he told himself again hardily. "Micky, my boy, you're a bally idiot, interfering with what doesn't concern you—with what doesn't concern you in the very least."
He looked up at the stars and thought of Esther Shepstone, of her eyes and her wavering smile, and the soft note in her voice as she had asked him—
"Are you always as kind to every one as you have been to me?"
No concern of his! It was every concern of his; he knew that he was only living for the hours to pass before he saw her again. No concern of his! when the greatest miracle of all the world had come to pass during those last hours of the old year, inasmuch that Micky Mellowes, heartwhole and a bachelor for thirty odd years, had been bowled over by a girl without a shilling to her name—a girl who loved another man, but a girl to whom Micky had without wishing it, without knowing it, dedicated the rest of his life!
He was her champion for the future, some one to stand between her and the callousness of the man of whom even now she was probably thinking.
"No concern of mine!" said Micky to himself with fine scorn. "Why, of course it is! Every concern of mine."
He squared his shoulders and dropped the envelope into the pillar-box.
And so Micky Mellowes posted his first love-letter.
In spite of the events of the night Micky Mellowes slept soundly. It was half-past nine when he woke, to find his man Driver moving noiselessly about the room.
When he saw that Micky was awake he approached the bed.
"Good-morning, sir, and a happy New Year."
Driver had an expressionless voice; he announced tea or tragedy in exactly the same tone.
"Eh?" said Micky vacantly; the words opened the door of memory, and he sat up with a start. It was New Year's Day, and last night ... ye gods! what had not happened last night? Micky tingled to the tips of his fingers as he remembered the letter he had written and posted; he had expected to feel rotten about it in the light of day; it was an agreeable surprise to find that he did not feel anything of the kind.
When he went in to breakfast there was a pile of letters waiting for him; he looked them through carelessly—there was one from Marie Deland, which he opened with a vague feeling of nervousness.
Marie was a nice little girl; he really was quite fond of her, and yet ... surely the days of miracles had not yet passed away, seeing that in a few short hours his feeling for her had changed from something warmer to more brotherly affection.
It made him feel uncomfortable to read what she had written; it was really only quite an ordinary letter of regret that she had not seen him last night, but Micky imagined he could read more between the lines.
"... I quite hoped you would drop in, if only for a few moments," so she wrote. "It's been so dull. I am writing this alone in the library."
Micky knew that library well; he and she had spent a good deal of time there together talking sweet nothings; he wondered if he would have been an engaged man by this time if that relative of the Delands had not so conveniently died, and if Esther had not chosen his particular street in which to weep.
He screwed the letter up and tossed it into the fire; he would answer it some time, or call; there was no immediate hurry. When he had finished his breakfast he went to his locked desk and took out Ashton's letter—somehow until he actually saw it again he could not quite believe that the events of last night had not all been a dream; but the letter was real enough, at all events with its callous beginning to "Dear Lallie."
The morning seemed to drag; twice people rang him up on the 'phone and asked him to lunch, but Micky was not in the mood for lunch; he felt a suppressed sort of excitement, as if something of great import were about to happen.
Driver looked at him woodenly once or twice; his face was as expressionless as his voice, but his dull eyes saw everything, and behind them his keen brain wondered what had happened to make Micky so restless.
Towards one o'clock he ventured a gentle reminder.
"You have an engagement for half-past three, sir—Miss Langdon's."
Micky was yawning over the paper then; he looked up with an absurdly blank face.
"Oh, I say!—well, I can't go, anyway. What was it for? I'm going out—I've got an important appointment."
Driver never showed surprise at anything if he felt it.
"It was a musical 'At 'Ome,' sir," he answered stolidly. "Shall I ring up and say that you won't be able to come?"
"Yes, ring up," said Micky. He coloured self-consciously beneath the man's stoic eyes and hurriedly buried his head again in the newspaper.
At three o'clock he changed his clothes for an immaculate morning-coat and grey trousers; then, remembering what Esther had said about the very horrid boarding-house, he changed them again for the oldest tweed suit in his possession, and a pair of brown boots that had seen their best days and long since been condemned by Driver.
"How in the world do I get to Brixton?" Micky asked the man when he was ready. "I know I could take a taxicab, but I don't want to. What other ways are there?"
Driver told him.
"There's the train, sir, or a tram."
Micky jumped at the tramcar. He was sure that people who lived in Brixton must all use tramcars.
"How long would a tramcar take?" he asked.
Driver considered. Finally he said that he thought it might be the best part of an hour.
Micky glanced at the clock. It was already a quarter past three. He took up his hat hurriedly and went out into the street.
A taxicab would have to do for to-day anyway. He could dismiss it at the corner of the road and walk the last few yards. A moment later he was being whirled through the streets.
He sat leaning back in the corner with his feet up on the seat opposite, feeling decidedly nervous.
Supposing he did not see Esther—supposing she were not there? Supposing she had purposely given him the wrong address? Supposing ... oh, supposing a thousand and one things! Micky was full of apprehension when at last the taxicab stopped at the corner of the Brixton Road and the driver came to the door to ask what number.
Micky scrambled out.
"Oh, I'll walk the rest of the way."
He paid the man liberally, and set out along the crowded pathway. There were so many people about that he thought it must be a market day or something. A word with a policeman elicited the information that he was at quite the wrong end of the street for the number he wanted. Micky was rather glad. He felt that he needed time in which to collect his thoughts, and yet when at last he reached his destination he felt as nervous as a kitten and strongly inclined to go back. But he went on and up the bare strip of garden which led to the front door of the house. It wasn't such a bad-looking house, he thought. Not nearly as bad as he had expected from the girl's description. In fact, once upon a time it must have been rather a palatial residence, but all the windows now were boxed up with cheap, starchy-looking curtains, and there was a sort of third-rate atmosphere about the basement and the cheap knocker on the front door.
Micky looked for a bell, but there wasn't one, so he knocked.
It seemed a long time before anybody came. When at last they did he heard them coming for a long time before the door was opened, heard slipshod steps on shiny linoleum, and a husky sort of breathless cough.
The owner of the cough was young and scared-looking, in shoes several sizes too large for her, and a skirt several inches too short. When Micky asked for Miss Shepstone she stared without answering for a moment, then she turned and slopped back the way she had come, leaving the door on the chain.
Micky chuckled to himself; she evidently did not like the look of him.
He waited patiently; then he heard another step along the shiny linoleumed floor of the hall—a very different step this time—and, turning eagerly, he saw Esther herself in the doorway.
"I didn't really think you would come," she said breathlessly.
For a moment Micky could not find his tongue. If he had thought this girl pretty last night with the tears in her eyes he thought her a thousand times prettier now. She looked as if some magician hand had wiped the distress from her face and convinced her that the sun still shone.
She wore the same clothes she had worn last night, but even they seemed somehow to have changed. There was a bunch of violets pinned in her jacket. Micky wondered if it were the violets that were responsible for the alteration.
"When I make an appointment I always keep it," he said.
He had almost added "with any one like you," but thought better of it. "And are you going to let me take you out to tea?" he asked.
She hesitated; she glanced back into the dingy hall behind her.
"I am leaving here to-day," she said. "My box has gone already. If you will wait a moment ... I would ask you in, but you'd hate it so."
"I'll wait outside," said Micky.
He went down into the street. For the moment he had quite forgotten all about Ashton and the letter which must by this time be in Esther's possession.
"And what about Charlie?" he asked whimsically when she joined him.
She smiled, shaking her head.
"I sent him on—in a basket. Nobody wants him here—he only gets badgered about all day long; so I'm taking him with me. Do you think I ought not to?"
"I think Charlie is a most fortunate cat," said Micky.
She did not take him seriously.
"I think he will be happier with me anyway," she said "I'm going to quite a nice boarding-house now. I went out this morning and found it." She looked up at him with a smile. "I don't think even you would mind coming to tea there," she said.
"I thought you were going to say mind coming there to live," Micky told her audaciously. "I've been looking about for fresh diggings; I'm tired of mine." He stopped and glanced behind him. "Can we get a tramcar here?"
"I'm not tired," she said quickly.
"Well, I must admit that I am," Micky answered. He hated walking at the best of times, and he did not like to suggest another taxicab. "Let's go on top."
They climbed up and found a front seat; there was a working man next to them smoking shag in a clay pipe; he looked at Micky and Esther doubtfully, then asked—
"Does your good lady mind smoke, mister?"
"I don't mind at all," she said, laughing.
"You got home all right last night, then?" Micky said presently. "After you had gone I wished I had seen you safely in...."
"It's kind of you, but I was quite all right." There was a note of constraint in her voice. "I should like to thank you for what you did for me last night," she said hesitatingly.
"If it hadn't been for you...." She stopped.
Micky did not know what to say.
"Anyway, it's all right now, eh?" he asked presently, with awkward cheerfulness. "I thought it would be; when things look so black that they can't possibly look any blacker, they always begin to mend. I've found that out before; I don't know if you have."
"I found it out this morning."
Micky looked down at her. She was sitting with her hands clasped together in her lap; there was a little flush in her cheeks, and her lips were curved into a faint smile.
"It seems so wonderful too," she went on softly, "that it should have happened on New Year's Day——"
"Fares, all fares, please," said the conductor beside them. Micky dived into a pocket and found a shilling.
"Two, please," he said.
He had paid for and shared taxicabs with Marie Deland times without number, but it had never given him quite the same pleasurable little thrill as he experienced at this moment.
There was something so pleasantly familiar about this tramcar ride, the fact of sharing the same uncomfortable seat with Esther Shepstone.
"Penny ones?" the conductor asked.
Micky looked at the girl.
"Where shall we get off?" he asked.
"Penny ones will do," she said.
Micky took the tickets and pocketed his change.
"I don't know if there are any decent teashops round here," he said dubiously. "If you would rather go up to the West End...."
But finally they found a confectioner's quite close to where the penny fare ended.
Micky looked round critically.
"Is this all right?" he asked. "I've never been here before."
"I have, often," she said. She was drawing off her gloves.
Micky glanced hurriedly at her hands; she was wearing a ring. Hardly knowing that he did so, he leaned across and touched it.
"Is that an engagement ring?" he asked. His voice sounded a little breathless.
She looked up at him, drawing her hand away.
"Why do you ask me?"
He drew back; he shrugged his shoulders.
"I beg your pardon. I suppose I have no right to ask."
He ordered tea. He talked rather forced platitudes for the rest of the time. He was just going to call for the bill, when Esther Shepstone said suddenly—
"Mr. Mellowes, I should like to tell you something."
"Yes!" Micky did not look at her. Somehow he could not trust himself.
"I don't in the least know why I want to tell you," she said again nervously. "But—you've been so kind to me...."
"Yes!" said Micky gently, as she paused. "Yes, what is it?"
She was twisting her teaspoon, and she kept her eyes lowered.
"Last night, when I met you—I was very unhappy ... There didn't seem anything to live for in the world.... I don't know if you've ever felt like that, or if you have ever cared for any one—really cared, I mean—but if you have...." She stopped again.
"I think I understand," Micky said, with an effort. "You mean that there's some one, some man...."
She raised her grey eyes to his face.
"Yes, that's what I mean."
"Some man you care for—care for very much," Micky went on slowly. "Perhaps some one you have quarreled with—who hadn't been quite as ... kind as he might have been——"
The soft colour flooded her face.
"Did you guess—last night?" she asked shyly.
"Did I? I am not sure, perhaps." He drew a long breath that was half a sigh. "Well?" he queried.
"I don't know why I am telling you this——" she said again, with a sort of distress. "It cannot interest you, but, somehow, I think I should like you to know."
"It interests me very much—I am honoured that you should tell me." Micky looked again at the ring she wore; quite a cheap little ring, with a couple of inferior diamonds. "You mean that you are engaged to be married?"
"Yes; at least——" The words were only a whisper.
Micky sat very still.
"Well, I suppose you will have me for a friend all the same, won't you?" he asked with an effort.
She looked at him in faint amazement.
"I thought if I told you that perhaps you'd rather not...." She stopped in confusion.
Micky leaned a little closer over the table.
"You said last night that you didn't believe in a man's friendship for a woman," he said. "Well, I am going to make you believe in it. I'm going to be your friend. The fact that you are engaged makes no difference to me, if it doesn't to you."
She looked at him earnestly.
"If you mean that," she said, "I think I'm very glad."
"Thank you. I suppose I mustn't ask who the—the lucky man is?"
She shook her head.
"I can't tell you. And he's away now—out of England."
Her voice changed a little, her eyes looked past Micky as if for the moment she had forgotten him.
Micky watched her jealously.
"And so whatever was wrong last night is all right to-day, is that it?" he asked with an effort.
"Yes ... somehow I never thought it would be, but this morning——"
"This morning?" he echoed as she stopped.
"I had a letter this morning," she told him, and her voice had softened so wonderfully that Micky caught his breath. "Oh, I wonder if you have ever been as unhappy as I was last night, and then had a letter, a wonderful letter like I had this morning? There was something in it that seemed to put everything right straight away; something that I've always wanted before and never had. I can't explain it any better than that, but perhaps you understand. I'm just telling you because I feel so happy I must tell somebody, and because I didn't want you to misjudge him as I did yesterday. I thought he didn't really care, and I wanted to die, but to-day, when his letter came——" She broke off into a little happy laugh.
Micky had rammed his clenched hands into his pockets; the blood was hammering in his temples; his brain felt in a whirl; somehow in all his wildest imaginings he had never dreamed of this.
It was his letter that had brought that new look of happiness to her eyes! His letter which perhaps even then lay against her heart; the first love-letter he had ever written to any woman, and she believed it to have been written by Raymond Ashton!
He did not realise how long he sat there without speaking till Esther spoke to him again. There was a little anxious note in her voice.
"I'm afraid I've bored you horribly with all this. I know it's no interest to you, but I felt that I must tell somebody."
Micky roused himself with an effort.
"It's of great interest to me," he said. "And you mustn't ever say a thing like that again. We're going to be friends, and real friends are always interested in everything that concerns the other. I'm more glad than I can say that you're happy. I only hope it's going to last for ever."
Perhaps there was a dubious note in his voice, for an anxious gleam crept into the girl's eyes.
"You sound as if you don't think that it will," she said quickly.
Micky made a hurried disclaimer.
"I do think so, of course I do! You deserve all the happiness you can get, and whoever the man is, if he doesn't make you happy——"
He stopped, with frowning memory of Ashton and their parting only last night.
He hoped in his heart that they would never meet again; if they did, he realised that there would be quite a few nasty things he would feel called upon to say to him.
The waitress brought the bill at that moment and put an end to further conversation, for which he was thankful. He realised that he was getting rather out of his depth. He breathed more freely when they were safely out in the street.
"And where is the new boarding-house?" he asked presently. He wanted to change the subject; every moment he was afraid that he would say something to give himself away. He supposed he had behaved like an impetuous fool. He ought never to have posted that letter—ought never to have opened Ashton's; and yet—if he had not done so.... He looked down at the girl beside him, and wondered grimly how she would have felt if he had allowed that callous farewell to reach her.
"It's quite close to where we are now," she told him. "It's rather more expensive than the last one, but it's well worth the extra money, and"—she glanced up at him smilingly—"I'm better off to-day than I was yesterday," she explained. "And when I go back to work again——"
"Are you going back, then?" he asked quickly.
"Of course I am. I must do something, and they will take me back at Eldred's, I know——"
"Eldred's!" Micky frowned. "That's the petticoat shop, isn't it?"
"Yes; how did you know?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"I've seen the place lots of times. A girl I know buys all her——" He stopped. "Do you want to go back there?" he asked.
"Not particularly, but it's easier than looking for a fresh place, and I know they will take me. I'm in the workroom, and it's not really such a hard life."
Micky did some rapid thinking; it was surprising how easily his brain had taken to hard work during the last twenty-four hours.
"Why don't you get a job as a companion to a nice old lady or somebody?" he suggested vaguely.
She laughed again.
"It doesn't sound a bit attractive," she said frankly. "I think you need an awful lot of patience. It's very kind of you to be interested, but I think I shall go back to Eldred's, for a time, at least."
Micky did not like the idea at all, but he let the subject drop.
"Are you going back to the Brixton Road?" he asked after a moment.
"Oh no; I paid them before I left this afternoon, so I shall go straight to the new place."
"I should like to walk there with you, if I may," said Micky.
"Of course you may."
"And when shall I see you again?" he asked. "You're not going to vanish for days, are you? I've got no end of time to kill, and——"
"But I haven't," she reminded him. "At least, I shan't have when I start work. But I should like to see you again," she added kindly.
"Thank you," said Micky with faint sarcasm.
He felt vaguely disappointed with the whole afternoon. She was holding him so decidedly at arm's length. He supposed it was that infernal fellow Ashton that stood between them. There was a sort of irony, too, in the fact that he himself had by his own action established him more firmly than ever in this girl's affections.
And the fellow was not worth a thought! That was the rotten part of it. As he looked at her he felt strongly tempted to blurt out the truth; to tell her that it was he who wrote that letter—to undeceive her once and for all.
But the thing was manifestly impossible. She would probably think it an abominable thing to have opened Ashton's letter; she would probably be furious if he let her know that the money she had received had come from him. Whichever way he turned he seemed to be in a corner.
They had reached the new boarding-house now, and Micky was relieved to see that it was a decided improvement on the one in the Brixton Road.
The windows were not boxed up, and the steps and the bell were clean. It was on the sunny side of the road, too, and had an air of cheerfulness about it.
"It's much better than the other one, isn't it?" Esther asked.
"Streets better," he assured her. "I shouldn't mind living here myself...." He waited, but she made no comment, and he felt rather snubbed.
There was a little silence.
"Don't you like the place where you are living now?" she asked after a moment. "Don't they make you comfortable there?"
"Oh, it's comfortable enough," said Micky. He wondered if he looked as guilty as he felt. "But I don't believe in sticking on anywhere too long. A change is good for every one. I shall be shifting out some day soon, I expect."
There was a little silence.
"I shall see you again soon," he said. "And if there is anything I can do for you——"
"Thank you, but there isn't." She spoke quite kindly, but Micky had the uncomfortable sort of feeling that her thoughts were elsewhere. He waited a moment, then held out his hand.
"Good-bye, and thank you for my tea."
She nodded and smiled and turned away from him.
There was nothing else for Micky to do but to go; he raised his hat and walked off disconsolately.
When Esther went upstairs to her room in No. 11 Elphinstone Road, she found the door standing open, and she could hear some one talking inside.
She stood still for a moment in amazement; she thought perhaps she had made a mistake and come to the wrong room, but a glance reassured her; the number of her room was 23, and this one was 23; she pushed the door wider and went in.
Her boxes were there, standing one upon the other, so as to make more space in the small room, and on the rather shabby rug by the fireplace a woman was kneeling with her back to the door.
She did not hear Esther enter, and for a moment the girl stood staring at her in blank amazement. She could not see her face, but she could see that the woman was small and slightly built, with a wealth of jet black hair coiled in becoming carelessness with a couple of yellow pins to fasten it.
She wore a yellow blouse, which Esther would have thought hideous on any one else, but somehow against that dark coil of hair it looked decidedly picturesque.
Esther moved a little, deliberately knocking against a chair to attract attention, and the girl on the hearthrug looked round with a startled exclamation; then scrambled to her feet.
"I heard there was a cat," she explained. "Lydia told me that he was shut up here alone, so I just had to come in and see him. I hope you don't mind. I brought him some milk."
For a moment Esther was too taken aback to answer. She looked from the little woman in the yellow blouse to Charlie, sprawled on the rug and purring lustily, and then back again to the little woman.
She was very attractive looking, that was Esther's first thought, and her next that she had never seen any one with such a beautiful complexion.
"You're Miss Shepstone, aren't you?" her visitor queried in the friendliest of tones. "You see, I know quite a lot about you already. Lydia told me—Lydia's the housemaid—you'll like her; she's a really nice girl. My name is June Mason—I live here, too, and I hope we will be great friends."
There was something so breezily disarming about her that Esther held out her hand.
"You're very kind. I hardly know what to say...."
"Don't say anything," Miss Mason answered airily. "I'm going to like you; I knew I should somehow when I first heard your name. I believe in that sort of thing—I don't know if you do, but as soon as Lydia told me who it was that had taken this room I knew I should like you. I think your name is sweet—Esther! So quaint and old-world. Have you had your tea?—yes, oh, what a shame! I've got some ready for you in my room. Oh, I hope you don't think it's awful cheek," she broke out with a sort of embarrassment. "I've got a sitting-room here as well as a bedroom, and I always make my own tea, it's better than you can get downstairs. I've got a fire there too, and if you're ever cold I hope you'll come and sit with me. I'm out a good deal but you can always use my room when I'm not there, if you care to. Take off your hat and come and see it now, or are you too tired? I don't want to worry you."
"I'm not a bit tired," Esther said, laughing; she felt a little bewildered by this sudden offer of friendship, but June Mason interested her, and after a moment she took off her hat obediently.
"We'll bring the cat too," Miss Mason said; she swooped down with a quick movement and caught the cat up in her arms. "I love cats," she said. "What's his name?"
"Charlie," said Esther shyly. "He's very thin, but they weren't kind to him where he belonged before...."
"What a shame! I simply loathe people who are not kind to animals. Never mind, he'll soon get all right. Now come along—I'll help you unpack your boxes presently."
She led the way downstairs, and Esther followed.
She had been feeling a little scared of this new boarding-house. She felt grateful for this girl's unaffected overture.
"Mine's the best room in the house," Miss Mason informed her. She pushed open the door of a room immediately below Esther's. "Sit down and make yourself at home. I'll get the tea in half a minute. I know you'll have another cup. I shall, anyway. Do you smoke?"
"No," said Esther.
"Well I do. I hope you're not shocked. I find it's so soothing when you've got nerves; and I'm a frightfully nervy person. I am hardly ever still; I'm always on the go."
Esther could well believe it. She looked on with a slightly dazed feeling while June Mason lit a cigarette and bustled about the room.
It was a very comfortable room, with plenty of easy-chairs and lots of cushions all in the same pale shade of mauve.
"I didn't think there would be any rooms as comfortable as this in the house," Esther said. "I suppose you pay a great deal for it, though."
"I don't know about that. Most of the furniture is mine and all the cushions. Do you like my cushions?"
She put down the teapot, which she had been about to fill, and caught up one of the cushions, plumping its softness together with her white hands.
"Mauve is my lucky colour," she rattled on. "Everything I do in mauve turns out well. But perhaps you don't believe in a superstition like that?"
Esther was rather bewildered.
"I'm not sure. I never thought about it," she said hesitatingly. "But it's a very pretty colour."
Miss Mason dropped the cushion to the floor, and stooping picked Charlie up and deposited him on it.
"Doesn't he look sweet?" she demanded. "And a black cat is lucky too, you know, so that's a comfort."
She went back to the teapot, made the tea, and poured out a cup for Esther.
"Is that chair comfy?—yes, lean back! What are you looking at? Oh, my photographs! Yes. I have got a lot, haven't I? Lydia dusts them for me! Lydia's a treasure! You'll love her. When I get married she's going to leave here and come with me——"
Esther looked interested.
"Are you going to be married?" she asked.
Miss Mason laughed.
"Am I? No, I'm not. I'm too fond of my independence. Not that I don't like men. I do like them, and I've got some awfully good pals amongst them, too. Look!"
She turned with one of her rapid movements, caught up a photograph from the shelf and handed it to Esther.
"There! that's one of the nicest men I ever met in my life," she said enthusiastically. "Don't you think he's got a ripping face?"
Esther took the portrait laughingly—she thought June Mason one of the most amusing people she had ever met—then she caught her breath on a little smothered exclamation as she found herself looking straight into the pictured eyes of Micky Mellowes.
June Mason was too occupied with a fresh cigarette to notice the blank look that filled Esther's eyes.
She sat there in the big chair, staring at Micky's portrait with a sense of foreboding. Surely it was something bigger than just chance that had introduced him into her life for the second time.
"He's one of the best," June Mason went on. She dragged forward another chair and plumped down into it comfortably.
"Don't you admire him?" She opened her eyes wide, looking across at Esther.
"Yes, oh yes! I think he's quite nice," Esther said stiltedly. "But not a bit good-looking, do you think?" she asked, with a sort of hesitation.
Miss Mason took the portrait from her and held it at arm's length.
"Um!" she said critically. "Perhaps he isn't, but I like him so much, you see, that I'm not a fair judge. He's been a good friend to me, at all events."
She got up, replaced the frame on the shelf, and plumped back once more amongst her mauve cushions.
"My people wanted me to marry him at one time," she went on airily. "I might have done so only I liked him too well. He didn't care for me, except as a friend, and it seemed a shame to spoil it, so I put my foot down."
"You mean that you refused him?"
Esther was interested; she was remembering how Micky had told her that he had never really cared for any woman in all his life.
"He never asked me, my dear," Miss Mason answered candidly. "I let him see that it wouldn't be any good if he did, and I know he was frightfully relieved. We were never so nearly in love with one another as we were when we both knew that we didn't mean to get married." She chuckled reminiscently. "It finished me with my people, though," she added, "so I cleared out and came here."
"And—Micky?" Esther asked. "I—I mean Mr. Mellowes...."
Miss Mason looked faintly surprised.
"How did you know his name?" she asked. "Did I tell you? I suppose I did. Oh, he's all right; he's the kind of man who always will be all right. He's got another girl on the tapis now. I don't know if it will come to anything, though. Anyway, she's not good enough for him."
"You seem very fond of him," Esther said.
"I am. He's a dear! I should love to see him happily married to a girl with a heart of gold like his own. I think I know him better than most people, and his little corner of the world would be amazed if they knew the amount of good Micky manages to do."
She had flushed up with her own enthusiasm. Her curious eyes (Esther could not decide if they were grey, blue, or green, or a mixture of all three) were very bright and expressive.
"I've heard lots of rotten things said about him," she went on, "and I know that none of them are really deserved—at least most of them are not. He isn't a saint—but what man is, I should like to know? But Micky's the sort who would give his life for a friend or any one little and weak. Do you know"—she flung away the half-smoked cigarette and leaned forward with her elbows on her knees—"last winter, down in the country, I saw Micky go into a dirty pond in evening dress to rescue a drowning cat. What do you think of that?"
"A—a—cat!" said Esther faintly. She looked at Charlie, and remembered how Micky had paid for milk for him the night of their strange meeting.
"A miserable drowning cat!" Miss Mason went on with tragic emphasis. "He heard it mewing from the road, and he went in after it without stopping to think. Now, I call a man a hero who will do a thing like that when he is on his way to a dance he is very keen about, don't you?"
"Yes," said Esther. Her heart warmed towards Mellowes. Kind as he had been to her, she had not been quite sure of him; it made her feel happier to hear him so warmly championed.
"You'll be sick to death of my chatter," June Mason broke out with sudden change of voice. She helped herself to a third cigarette. "I hope you don't mind smoke," she apologised. "I'm always at it; I think I smoke dozens a day——"
"Or throw them away half smoked," Esther thought amusedly. "I don't mind at all," she answered.
"You haven't told me a thing about yourself," Miss Mason reminded her reproachfully. "And it's not fair that I should do all the talking. I know your name, and that's about all. Have you got any people? Where do you come from?"
Esther flushed a little.
"There isn't much to tell you. I haven't any people. I was born in India, and my mother died there. I don't know anything about my father. I was sent home to an aunt, and she looked after me till about three years ago, when she died. I came to London then, and they took me on at Eldred's—do you know Eldred's?"
"Do I not?" said Miss Mason fervently. "Scrumptious things they make; but what prices! I can't afford them very often, but I go in there a good deal. I know the manager, and he's going to do some business for me—at least I hope he is. If I can get my stuff into his place it will be a splendid thing. All London shops there, you know; all London with any money, that is!"
Esther looked mystified.
"Your stuff!" she echoed. "What do you mean?"
June Mason laughed merrily. She had a very infectious laugh and a trick of covering her face with her hands while she was laughing.
"I forgot that you didn't know!" she said. "I seem to know you so well, I can't remember that we never saw one another before to-day. My dear, I make face cream. Wait a moment."
She sprang up and disappeared behind a mauve curtain into an adjoining room. Esther heard her moving about, opening and shutting boxes and singing a snatch of song all the time. Presently she came back with a tray crowded with little pots and phials of all sizes and descriptions. She plumped down on her knees beside Esther's chair.
"There you are!" she said lightly, though there was an odd dash of pride in her voice. "Face cream, night and day cream, eyelash tonic, and all the rest of it! Of course, I'm only just starting—I'm not like those people who advertise in all the papers and charge about a guinea for a shilling jar; but my stuff is as good as theirs any day, and better, because it's pure. Look!" She took a lid off a little white pot with a mauve label and held it to Esther.
"Isn't that a glorious perfume?" she demanded. She sniffed it herself with relish. "And it's all my invention, and I'm as proud of it as a cat would be of nine tails. When I've got things a little more ship-shape, Micky's going to put it on the market for me. It wants a man behind all these sort of things you know. I can do all the donkey work, but I've got no head for business. I never know the difference between a loss and a profit. It was partly over this that I quarrelled with my people—they said it was low-down to make face cream and sell it—they're awful snobs! So I just cleared off and changed my surname and came here. I'm quite happy, and if I haven't got as much money as I had, I don't mind—I've got my liberty, and that's worth every thing."
"I think you're just wonderful," Esther said. She picked up a lid from one of the little pots and looked at the mauve and white label.
"June Mason's natural beautifier...."
She looked at the glowing face opposite to her.
"Do you use it for your own skin?" she asked shyly.
Miss Mason chuckled; she pushed the tray to one side along the floor.
"I don't mind telling you that I've never used cream to my skin at all," she said. "But people think I do, and so there you are! Have some more tea?"
She refilled Esther's cup and lit another cigarette. "So that's what I am," she said. "And now go on, and tell me about yourself. You said you were at Eldred's!"
"Yes, I was there for two years. I rather liked it! I love pretty things, and I was in the workroom. They paid me quite well, too, though it was hard work, and then—well, then I left——" her voice changed subtly.
The query was only interested, and not at all impertinent.
"Well—well—I thought I was going to be married. He—well, he asked me to leave to marry him, and so I did...."
"But you're not married?"
"No——" Esther was looking away into the fire. "No, I'm not married," she said in a stifled voice. "He—my fiance—has had to go away on business—abroad, and I don't know when I shall see him again."
Her voice sounded sad and dispirited.
"You poor little thing!" said June Mason. She leaned over and laid her hand on Esther's. "Never mind! The time will soon pass, and then he'll come back and you'll live happily ever after——"
"I know. I keep on telling myself it's foolish to worry. I felt quite happy this morning. I had a letter from him, and somehow when I read it things didn't seem half so bad; but——"
"And you'll have another to-morrow, I expect." Miss Mason insisted. "And another the next day, and one every day while he's away. There! That's better," she added cheerily as Esther laughed.
"I don't like to see you look so sad. I'm going to cheer you up. I shan't allow you to be miserable. And anyway," she added, with a sudden softening, "you've got some one who loves you, and that's worth everything else in the world."
"Yes," said Esther. Her eyes shone and she thought of the letter which was even then lying against her heart. Somehow she had never realised how much he really cared for her till to-day.
"And what are you going to do till he comes home?" Miss Mason asked interestedly. "If you had something to do you'd find the time pass ever so much more quickly."
"It's a question of having to do something rather than how to pass the time," Esther said. "I haven't any money except what I can make. My aunt left me a little when she died, but it was only a very little, and I spent most of it at first while I was looking for work. So I'm going back to Eldred's—if they will have me, and I think they will."
Miss Mason said "Humph!"
"I think you're too good for a petticoat shop," she said bluntly. "You're wasted there! Nobody sees you, and you're so pretty——"
"Oh, what nonsense!" Esther exclaimed. She laughed in sheer amusement. To her it seemed absurd for this girl to call her pretty; she considered June Mason such a personality—so attractive!
She really did make a picturesque figure as she sat there with her mauve cushions all around her. Her yellow blouse and dark hair and wonderful rose-leaf skin reminded one of some brilliant portrait painted by a master-hand.
Esther would have been surprised could she have known the thought in June's mind at that moment.
"She's just sweet! I don't know when I've seen a face I admire more. Micky would adore her! She's just the sort of woman he always raves about. I must ask him to tea to meet her one day."
"There are heaps of other berths going besides Eldred's, you know," she said earnestly. "However, you must do as you like, of course." She threw away another unfinished cigarette. "Do you think we are going to be friends?" she asked.
"I am sure we are," Esther said. She really did think so; she had never met any one in the least like June Mason before. She began to feel glad that she had come to this house. It was much more expensive than the Brixton Road, certainly, but it was well worth it, even if only because she had met this quaint little woman.
It was nearly seven o'clock before she thought of going back to her own room, and then it was only the chiming of a clock on the shelf that roused her.
"Nearly seven!" She started up in dismay. "I had no idea it was so late. I am sorry for having stayed so long."
"There's nothing to be sorry for," June declared. "You may go shares with this room if you like. I'm out so much, it isn't used half the time. Think it over, will you?"
Esther flushed nervously.
"It's awfully kind of you; I should love to, but I couldn't afford it. I'm really paying more money now than I ought to. I want to save, too——"
Miss Mason laughed.
"For the wedding! Lucky girl! I hope you'll ask me to come and see you married—and I hope he's very nice," she added.
"He is," said Esther eagerly. "And he's very handsome," she added shyly.
But Miss Mason was not impressed.
"I don't care a fig if a man is handsome or not," she said bluntly. "If he's just manly and straightforward and kind, that's all I expect him to be. Now look here—we have dinner at half-past seven in this establishment. It's only supper really, but we all put on our best blouses—if we've got any—and call it dinner. I'll call for you on the way down and we'll go in together. I'll tell Mrs. Elders you are going to share my table, if you like; it's deadly dull sitting alone."
"I should like to sit with you very much," Esther said eagerly. "But I really haven't got a 'best' blouse." She glanced down at the plain white silk shirt she wore; it had been washed many times, and had lost its first freshness.
"Come down as you are, then," Miss Mason urged, "and I will too! I hate changing. This yellow rag is good enough for the old tabbies we get here."
Esther went half-way down the stairs and came back.
"Charlie—I've forgotten Charlie."
"Charlie can stay where he is till bedtime," June declared. "You can come up and fetch him then. Hurry, or you'll be late."
Esther went down to her room, feeling more light-hearted than she had done for a long time.
As she unpacked her boxes and tidied her hair she could hear June Mason moving about upstairs, singing cheerily.
"I'm going to like her—I'm going to like her awfully," she told herself. She hurried to be ready in time, but the rather unmelodious dinner-bell had clanged through the house twice before June came to the door.
"You've unpacked, then?" she said. She looked round the small room approvingly. "I can see you're one of the tidy ones," she said. "I'm not; I wish I were. However, we can't all be the same. Are you ready?"
She took Esther's arm and they went downstairs together.
"Every one knows you're coming," June said as they neared the dining-room. "Every one always knows everything that goes on here. Don't take any notice if they stare a lot; they must stare at something, poor darlings. I'll tell you who they all are and all about them."
The dining-room was a long, narrow sort of room that looked as if it once had been two rooms recently thrown into one; the floor was covered with slippery green linoleum, and there was a long table running almost the length of the room, with a few smaller ones on either side.
A grey-haired woman with pebble glasses stood at the head of the long table; Esther recognised her as the proprietress, Mrs. Elders.
She said good-evening to Esther and stared frigidly at June, as if she did not like to see the two girls together. She did not approve of the little face cream lady, though she was careful never to say so, as June was one of her best paying propositions.
Esther was glad when they reached their own table; glad, too, that she was more or less out of the way of curious glances.
The dinner was plain, but infinitely superior to the fare she had had to put up with in the Brixton Road.
"Do you have all your meals here?" she asked June presently.
"No—only breakfast and supper—and not always supper. I go out with friends sometimes. Every one hasn't given me up just because my family have. But the food is quite good here. They're rather too fond of rice and stewed apples; but it might be worse. Turn round presently and look at the man behind you with the grey hair. Isn't he handsome? We call him the colonel, though I don't believe he's a colonel at all. He's a dear, but he always complains about everything. I know he gives notice regularly on Saturday morning and takes it back again on Saturday night. Mrs. Elders would think he wasn't well if he missed giving her notice."
She laughed, and turning in her chair spoke to a young man who was sitting alone at one of the smaller tables behind her.
"Is your cough better?" she asked. "I'm going to give you some special stuff to-night for it. No, it isn't at all nasty." She turned back to Esther. "May I introduce Mr. Harley—he's the most interesting person in the whole house. He writes stories and things, Mr. Harley, this is Miss Shepstone—a great friend of mine."
Harley bowed. He was pale, delicate-looking young man with fine dark eyes.
"You never told me that you knew Miss Shepstone," he said to June.
"I didn't know her till this afternoon," she answered promptly; "but I make friends quickly, as you know."
"You'll like Harley," she told Esther presently in an undertone. "He's very clever, but so delicate, poor boy! He ought to live in the country instead of in London. He's the sort of person I should love to help if I were rich."
"It must be wonderful to be rich," Esther said. There was a little flush in her cheeks; she was really enjoying herself. "It's the dream of my life to have enough money to be able to do anything I like," she added earnestly. "Just for a month! If I could be really rich just for one month I wouldn't mind going back to being poor again."
Miss Mason said "Rubbish!" briskly. "Money can't buy happiness, my dear, and don't you forget it. My people think it can, and lots of other people think the same. It only shows what fools they are. It was the money my people couldn't get over when I declined to marry Micky Mellowes...." She made a little wry face. "I remember my mother coming into my room one night in her dressing-gown—poor soul!—when she heard I'd told Micky there was nothing doing, and saying tragically: 'June, you must be mad—stark, staring mad! Why, the man's as rich as Croesus!'"
"Rich!" Esther was conscious of an odd little sinking at her heart. "Is Mr. Mellowes rich, then?" she asked constrainedly.
Miss Mason was helping herself to a pat of butter. She held it poised for a moment on the end of her knife while she answered—
"Rich? I should think he is! He's one of the richest men in London."
"One of the richest men in London!—but he——" Esther had been going to add "But he told me that he was poor;" she only just checked the words in time.
"He's the despair of all the match-making mammas," she said lightly. "Over thirty, he is, and still a bachelor! I'm not sure if he isn't on the verge of being caught now, but you never can tell! With a little luck he may escape—she isn't good enough for him, anyway. Have you finished? I'm dying for a cigarette, and we aren't allowed to smoke here. Come up to my room and I'll make you some coffee; the stuff they give us here isn't fit to drink."
She pushed back her chair and rose, and Esther followed.
She kept her eyes down as she walked the length of the room; the colour rose in her cheeks as she realised how every one was staring at her. The colonel, whom June had declared was not a colonel at all, rose and held the door open for them to pass out.
June chuckled as they went upstairs.
"You've made an impression, my dear! It isn't often he does that for any one." She slipped an arm through Esther's. "Why are you frowning so? Have I said anything to annoy you?"
"Of course not. I was only thinking.... Do you—do your friends ever come here to see you?"
She was thinking of Micky Mellowes, and wondering if he ever came to the boarding-house, and if so, why he had not told her that he knew somebody living here. After all, if he had deceived her in one instance he would do so in many others—she felt a curious sense of hurt pride; why had he gone out of his way to tell her he was a poor man, when all the time——?
"To tell you the truth," June said frankly, "none of my friends know where I am living. Call it false pride if you like, but there you are. I have all my letters, except business ones, sent to my club—I belong to an unpretentious club—I'll take you there some day—and not even Micky knows that I live here. You see, when I flew in the face of providence, otherwise my noble family, they stopped my allowance, so as I'm entirely self-supporting, I had to be careful and live inexpensively, so I came here. And I'm very comfortable. If I want to meet any of my friends we meet out somewhere. I think it's better; it leaves me quite free...."
They were back in her room again now, and Charlie had looked up with one eye from his mauve cushion, and purred, by way of a greeting.
June lit a cigarette and rushed about in pursuit of the coffee-pot. All her movements were quick. She seemed to breathe life and energy.
Esther walked over to the fireplace, and found herself looking at Micky's photograph.
After all, he was just like all the other men she had ever known; apparently none of them could be simple and sincere; she supposed it had been his way of condescending to her, to pretend that he was poor and in similar circumstances to herself; perhaps he had guessed that she would never have allowed him to pay for her supper or tea, or have talked to her as he had done, if she had known him to be a rich man.
She need never see him again, that was one thing; her heart hardened as she met the frankness of his pictured eyes; he was not as honest as he looked.
She had mistaken condescension for kindness. She bit her lip with mortification as she recalled the confidence she had made to him only that afternoon. He was probably laughing at it now, and no doubt would repeat all she had said to his friends as a good joke.
She went to her own room as soon as she had had the coffee. She made the excuse that she was tired, but when she went upstairs she sat down on the side of the bed and made no effort to undress. A sort of shadow seemed to have fallen on her spirits. She felt mortified that Micky should so deliberately have lied to her; her cheeks burned as she thought of the despair she had been in last night when she met him. She hoped she would never see him again.
She looked round the little room with angry eyes. If only Fate had set her feet in sunnier paths. She looked at the plain furniture and cheap carpet; the wallpaper was hideous; there was a frightful oleograph of two Early Victorian women with crinolines and ringlet curls hanging over the mantlepiece. They both looked smug and self-satisfied. There was an enlarged photograph of a bald-headed man wearing a Masonic apron on another wall. He was fat and had his right hand plastered carefully along a chair-back to bring into prominence a large signet ring. Esther looked at him and shivered. She felt utterly alone and cut off from the world. She longed for Raymond Ashton with all her soul. She hated Micky Mellowes because his kindly condescension had made her feel her position more acutely now she knew him to be what he was.