E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE SECOND HONEYMOON
RUBY M. AYRES
Author of A Bachelor Husband, The Scar, Etc.
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers Made in the United States of America Copyright, 1921, by W. J. Watt & Company
I THE PAST INTERVENES II JILTED! III THE TWO WOMEN IV JIMMY GETS NEWS V SANGSTER TAKES A HAND VI JIMMY DEMANDS THE TRUTH VII LOVE AND POVERTY VIII THE SECOND ENGAGEMENT IX MOTHERLESS X JIMMY HAS A VISITOR XI HUSBAND AND WIFE XII SANGSTER IS CONSULTED XIII CHRISTINE HEARS THE TRUTH XIV BITTERNESS XV SANGSTER SPEAKS IN RIDDLES XVI THE PAST RETURNS XVII JIMMY BREAKS OUT XVIII KETTERING HEARS SOMETHING XIX A CHANCE MEETING XX LOVE LOCKED OUT XXI THE COMPACT XXII TOO LATE! XXIII THE UNEXPECTED
THE SECOND HONEYMOON
THE PAST INTERVENES
James Challoner, known to his friends and intimates as Jimmy, brushed an imaginary speck of dust from the shoulder of his dinner jacket, and momentarily stopped his cheery whistling to stare at himself in the glass with critical eyes.
Jimmy was feeling very pleased with himself in particular and the world in general. He was young, and quite passably good-looking, he had backed a couple of winners that day for a nice little sum, and he was engaged to a woman with whom he had been desperately in love for at least three months.
Three months was a long time for Jimmy Challoner to be in love (as a rule, three days was the outside limit which he allowed himself), but this—well, this was the real thing at last—the real, romantic thing of which author chaps and playwright Johnnies wrote; the thing which sweeps a man clean off his feet and paints the world with rainbow tints.
Jimmy Challoner was sure of it. His usually merry eyes sobered a little as he met their solemn reflection in the mirror. He took up a silver-backed brush and carefully smoothed down a kink of hair which stood aggressively erect above the rest. It was a confounded nuisance, that obstinate wave in his hair, making him look like a poet or a drawing-room actor.
Not that he objected to actors and the stage in the very least; on the contrary, he had the profoundest admiration for them, at which one could hardly wonder seeing that Cynthia—bless her heart!—was at present playing lead in one of the suburban theatres, and that at that very moment a pass for the stage box reposed happily in an inner pocket of his coat.
Cynthia was fast making a name for herself. In his adoring eyes she was perfect, and in his blissful heart he was confident that one day all London would be talking about her. Her photographs would be In every shop window, and people would stand all day outside the pit and gallery to cheer her on first nights.
When he voiced these sentiments to Cynthia herself, she only laughed and called him a "silly boy"; but he knew that she was pleased to hear them all the same.
Jimmy Challoner gave a last look at his immaculate figure, took up his coat and gloves and went out.
He called a taxi and gave the address of the suburban theatre before he climbed in out of the chilly night and sat back in a corner.
Jimmy Challoner was quite young, and very much in love; so much in love that as yet he had not penetrated the rouge and grease-paint of life and discovered the very ordinary material that lies beneath it. The glare of the footlights still blinded him. Like a child who is taken for the first time to a pantomime, he did not realise that their brilliance is there in order to hide imperfections.
He was so perfectly happy that he paid the driver double fare when he reached the theatre. An attentive porter hurried forward.
Just at the moment Jimmy Challoner was very well known in that particular neighbourhood; he was generous with his tips for one thing, and for another he had a cheery personality which went down with most people.
He went round to the stage door as if he were perfectly at home there, as indeed he was. The doorkeeper bade him a respectful good evening, and asked no questions as he went on and up the chill stone passage.
At the top a door on the right was partly open. A bar of yellow light streamed out into the passage. A little flush crept into Challoner's youthful face. He passed a hand once more nervously over the refractory kink before he went forward and knocked.
A preoccupied voice said, "Come in."
Challoner obeyed. He stood for a moment just inside the door without speaking.
It was not a very large room, and the first impression it gave one was that it was frightfully overcrowded.
Every chair and table seemed littered with frocks and furbelows. Every available space on the walls was covered with pictures and photographs and odds and ends. The room was brilliantly lit, and at a dressing-table strewn with make-up boxes and a hundred and one toilet requisites, a girl was reading a letter.
At first glance she looked very young. She was small and dainty, with clearly cut features and beautiful hair, the most beautiful hair in all the world Jimmy Challoner thought for the thousandth time as he stood in the doorway looking across at her with his foolish heart in his eyes. She seemed to feel his gaze, for she turned sharply. Then she drew in her breath hard, and hurriedly thrust the letter away in a drawer as she rose to her feet.
"You!" she said; then, "Jimmy, didn't—didn't you get my letter?"
Challoner went forward. His confident smile had faded a little at the unusual greeting. It was impossible not to realise that he was not exactly welcome.
"No, I haven't had a letter," he said rather blankly. "What did you write about? Is anything the matter?"
She laughed rather constrainedly. "No—at least, I can't explain now." Her eyes sought his face rather furtively. "I'm in a hurry. Come round after the first act, will you?—that's the longest interval. You won't mind being sent away now, will you? I am due on almost directly."
She held her hand to him. "Silly boy! don't frown like that."
Challoner took the hand and drew her nearer to him. "I'm not going till you've kissed me."
There was a touch of masterfulness in his boyish voice. Cynthia Farrow half sighed, and for a moment a little line of pain bent her brows, but the next moment she was smiling.
"Very well, just one, and be careful of the powder."
Challoner kissed her right on the lips. "Did you get my flowers? I sent roses."
"Yes, thank you so much, they are lovely."
She glanced across the room to where several bouquets lay on the table. Challoner's was only one of them.
That was what he hated—having to stand by and allow other men to shower presents on her.
He let her go and walked over to the table where the flowers lay. He was still frowning. Across the room Cynthia Farrow watched him rather anxiously.
A magnificent cluster of orchids lay side by side with his own bouquet of roses; he bent and looked at the card; a little flush crept into his cheek.
"Mortlake again! I hate that fellow. It's infernal cheek of him to send you flowers when he knows that you're engaged to me——"
He looked round at her. She was standing leaning against the littered dressing-table, eyes down-cast.
There was a moment of silence, then; Challoner went back and took her in his arms.
"I know I'm a jealous brute, but I can't stand it when these other fellows send you things."
"You promised me you wouldn't mind."
"I know, but—oh, confound it!" A faint tap at the door was followed by the entrance of a dresser. Challoner moved away.
"After the first act, then," he said.
"Yes." But she did not look at him.
He went away disconsolately and round to the stage box. He was conscious of a faint depression. Cynthia had not been pleased to see him—had not been expecting him. Something was the matter. He had vexed her. What had she written to him about, he wondered?
He looked round the house anxiously. It was well filled and his brow cleared. He hated Cynthia to have to play to a poor house—she was so wonderful!
A lady in the stalls below bowed to him. Challoner stared, then returned the bow awkwardly.
Who the dickens was she, he asked himself?
She was middle-aged and grey-haired, and she had a girl in a white frock sitting beside her.
They were both looking up at him and smiling. There was something eagerly expectant in the girl's face.
Challoner felt embarrassed. He was sure that he ought to know who they were, but for the life of him he could not think. He met so many people in his rather aimless life it was impossible to remember them all.
His eyes turned to them again and again. There was something very familiar in the face of the elder woman—something—— Challoner knit his brows. Who the dickens——
The lights went down here, and he forgot all about them as the curtains rolled slowly up on Cynthia's first act.
Challoner almost knew the play by heart, but he followed it all eagerly, word by word, as if he had never seen it before, till the big velvet curtains fell together again, and a storm of applause broke the silence.
Challoner rose hastily. He had just opened the door of the box to go to Cynthia when an attendant entered. He carried a note on a tray.
"For you, sir."
Challoner took it wonderingly. It was written in pencil on a page torn from a pocket-book.
"A lady in the stalls gave it to me, sir," the attendant explained, vaguely apologetic.
Jimmy unfolded the little slip of paper, and read the faintly pencilled words. "Won't you come and speak to us, or have you quite forgotten the old days at Upton House?"
Challoner's face flashed into eager delight. What an idiot he had been not to recognise them. How could he have ever forgotten them? Of course, the girl in the white frock was Christine, whose mother had given his boyhood all it had ever known of home life!
Of course, he had not seen them for years, but—dash it all! what an ungrateful brute they must think him!
For the moment even Cynthia was forgotten in the sudden excitement of this meeting with old friends. Challoner rushed off to the stalls.
"I knew it must be you," Christine's mother said, as Jimmy dropped into an empty seat beside her. "Christine saw you first, but we knew you had not the faintest notion as to who we were, although you bowed so politely," she added laughing.
"I'm ashamed, positively ashamed," Jimmy admitted, blushing ingenuously. "But I am delighted—simply delighted to see you and Christine again—I suppose it is Christine," he submitted doubtfully.
The girl in the white frock smiled. "Yes, and I knew you at once," she said.
Challoner was conscious of a faint disappointment as he looked at her. She had been such a pretty kid. She had hardly fulfilled all the promise she had given of being an equally pretty woman, he thought critically, not realising that it was the vivid colouring of Cynthia Farrow that had for the moment at least spoilt him for paler beauty.
Christine was very pale and a little nervous-looking. Her eyes—such beautiful brown eyes they were—showed darkly against her fair skin. Her hair was brown, too, dead brown, very straight and soft.
"By Jove! it's ripping to see you again after all this time," Jimmy Challoner broke out again eagerly. He looked at the mother rather than the daughter, for though he and Christine had been sweethearts for a little while in her pinafore days, Jimmy Challoner had adored Mrs. Wyatt right up to the time when, in his first Eton coat, he had said good-bye to her to go to school and walked right out of their lives.
"And what are you doing now, Jimmy?" Mrs. Wyatt asked him. "I suppose I may still call you Jimmy?" she said playfully.
"Rather! please do! I'm not doing anything, as a matter of fact," Challoner explained rather vaguely. "I've got rooms in the Temple, and the great Horatio sends me a quarterly allowance, and expects me not to live beyond it." He made a little grimace. "You remember my brother Horace, of course!"
"Of course I do! Is he still abroad?"
"Yes, he'll never come back now; not that I want him to," Jimmy hastened to add, with one of those little inward qualms that shook him whenever he thought of his brother, and what that brother would say when he knew that he was shortly to be asked to accept Cynthia Farrow as a sister-in-law.
The great Horatio, as Jimmy disrespectfully called the head of his family, loathed the stage. It was his one dread that some day the blueness of his blood might run the risk of taint by being even remotely connected with one of its members.
"He's not married, of course?" Mrs. Wyatt asked.
Challoner chuckled. "Married! Good Lord, no!" He leaned a little forward to look at Christine.
"And you?" he asked. "Has the perfect man come along yet?"
It had been an old joke of his in the far away days, that Christine would never marry until she found a perfect man. She had always had such quaintly romantic fancies behind the seriousness of her beautiful brown eyes.
She flushed now, shaking her head. "And you?" she asked. "Are you married?"
Challoner said "No" very quickly. He wondered whether he ought to tell them about Cynthia. The thought reminded him of his promise to go to her after the first act. He rose hastily to his feet.
"I quite forgot. I've got an appointment. If you'll excuse me, I'll come back, if I may."
He bowed himself off. Christine's beautiful eyes followed him wistfully.
"I never thought he'd be half so good-looking when he grew up," she said. "And yet somehow he hasn't altered much, has he?"
"He hasn't altered in manner in the least," Mrs. Wyatt laughed. "Fancy him remembering about your perfect man, Christine? We must ask him to dinner one night while we are in London. How funny, meeting him like this. I always liked him so much. I wonder he hasn't got married, though—a charming boy like that!" But her voice sounded as if she were rather pleased to find Challoner still a bachelor.
"I don't know why he should be married," Christine said. "He's not very old—only twenty-seven, mother."
"Is that all? Yes, I suppose he is—the time goes so quickly."
Challoner, meanwhile, had raced off to the back of the stage. He could not imagine how on earth he had even for one second forgotten his appointment. He was flushed with remorse and eagerness when he reached Cynthia's room.
A dresser was retouching her hair. Challoner waited impatiently till Cynthia sent her away. It occurred to him that she was deliberately detaining her. He bit his lip.
But at last she was dismissed, and the door had hardly closed before he stepped forward.
"Darling!" his eager arms were round her. "Are you angry with me? Did you think I had forgotten? I met some old friends—at least, they spotted me from the stalls and sent a note, and, of course, I had to go and speak to them."
She was standing rather stiffly within the circle of his arms.
"You're not wild with me?" he asked in a whisper. "I'm so sorry. If you knew how badly I wanted to see you."
He kissed her lips.
She was singularly unresponsive, though for a moment she let her head rest against his shoulder. Then she raised it and moved away.
"Jimmy, I want to talk to you. No, stay there," as he made a little eager movement to follow. "Stay there; I can't talk to you if you won't be sensible."
"I am sensible." Challoner dragged up a chair and sat straddled across it, his arms on the back, looking at her with ardent eyes. She kept her own averted. She seemed to find it hard to begin what it was she wanted to say. She stood beside the dressing-table absently fingering the trinkets lying there. Among them was a portrait of Challoner in a silver frame. The pictured eyes seemed to be watching her as she stood trying to avoid the human ones. With sudden exasperation she turned.
"Jimmy, you'll hate me—you'll—oh, why didn't you get my letter?" she broke out vehemently. "I explained so carefully, I——" she stopped.
There was a little silence. Challoner rose to his feet. He was rather white about the lips. There was a dawning apprehension in his eyes.
"Go on," he said. "What is it you—you can't—can't tell me?"
But he knew already, knew before she told him with desperate candour.
"I can't marry you, Jimmy, I'm sorry, but—but I can't—that's all."
The silence fell again. Behind the closed door in the crowded theatre the orchestra suddenly broke into a ragtime. Challoner found himself listening to it dully. Everything felt horribly unreal. It almost seemed like a scene in a play—this hot, crowded room; the figure of the woman opposite in her expensive stage gown, and—himself!
A long glass on the wall opposite reflected both their figures. Jimmy Challoner met his mirrored eyes, and a little wave of surprise filled him when he saw how white he was. He pulled himself together with a desperate effort. He tried to find his voice.
Suddenly he heard it, cracked, strained, asking a one-word question.
She did not answer at once. She had turned away again. She was aimlessly opening and shutting a little silver powder-box lying amongst the brushes and make-up. All his life Jimmy Challoner remembered the little clicking noise it made.
He could see nothing of her face. He made a sudden passionate movement towards her.
"Cynthia, in God's name why—why?"
He laid his hands on her shoulders. She wriggled free of his touch. For an instant she seemed to be deliberately weighing something in her mind. Then at last she spoke.
"Because—because my husband is still living."
"Still—living!" Jimmy Challoner echoed the words stupidly. He passed a hand over his eyes. He felt dazed. After a moment he laughed. He groped backwards for a chair and dropped into it.
"Still—living! Are you—are you sure?"
So it was not that she did not love him. His first thought was one of utter relief—thank God, it was not that!
She put the little silver box down with a sort of impatience. "Yes," she said. She spoke so softly he could hardly catch the monosyllable.
Challoner leaned his head in his hands. He was trying desperately to think, to straighten out this hopeless tangle in his brain, but everything was confused.
Of course, he knew that she had been married before—knew that years and years ago, before she had really known her own mind, she had married a man—a worthless waster—who had left her within a few months of their marriage. She had told him this herself, quite straightforwardly. Told him, too, that the man was dead.
And after all he was still living!
The knowledge hammered against his brain, but as yet he could not realise its meaning. Cynthia went on jerkily.
"I only knew—yesterday. I wrote to you. I—at first I thought it could not be true. But—but now I know it is. Oh, why don't you say something—anything?" she broke out passionately.
Challoner looked up. "What can I say, if this is true?"
"It is true," her face was flushed. There was a hard look in her eyes as if she were trying to keep back tears. After a moment she moved over to where he sat and laid a hand on his shoulder.
Jimmy Challoner turned his head and kissed it.
"Don't take it so badly, Jimmy. It's—it's worse for me," her voice broke. A cleverer man than Jimmy Challoner might have heard the little theatrical touch in the words, but Jimmy was too genuinely miserable himself to be critical.
At the first sob he was on his feet. He put his arms round her; he laid his cheek against her hair; but he did not kiss her. Afterwards he wondered what instinct it was that kept him from kissing her. He broke out into passionate protestations.
"I can't give you up. There must be some way out for us all. You don't love him, and you do care for me. It can't be true, it's—it's some abominable trick to part us, Cynthia."
"It is true," she said again. "It is true."
She drew away from him. She began to cry, carefully, so as not to spoil her make-up. She hid her face in her hands. Once she looked at him through her white fingers to see how he was taking it. Jimmy Challoner was taking it very badly indeed. He stood biting his lip hard. His hands were clenched.
"For God's sake don't cry," he broke out at length. "It drives me mad to see you cry. I'll find a way out. We should have been so happy. I can't give you up."
He spoke incoherently and stammeringly. He was really very much in love, and now the thought of separation was a burning glass, magnifying that love a thousandfold.
There were voices outside. Cynthia hastily dried her eyes. She did not look as if she had been crying very bitterly.
"That's my call. I shall have to go. Don't keep me now. I'll write, Jimmy. I'll see you again."
"You promise me that, whatever happens?"
"I promise." He caught her fingers and kissed them. "Darling, I'll come back for you when the show's over. I can't bear to leave you like this. You do love me?"
"Do you need to ask?"
The words were an evasion, but he did not notice it. He went back to the stage box feeling as if the world had come to an end.
He forgot all about the Wyatts in the stalls below. Christine's brown eyes turned towards him again and again, but he never once looked her way. His attention was centered on the stage and the woman who played there.
She was so beautiful he could never give her up, he told himself passionately. With each moment her charm seemed to grow. He watched her with despairing eyes; life without her was a crude impossibility. He could not imagine existence in a world where he might not love her. That other fellow—curse the other fellow!—he ground his teeth in impotent rage.
The brute had deserted her years ago and left her to starve. He had not the smallest claim on her How. By the time the play was ended Jimmy Challoner had worked himself into a white heat of rage and despair.
Christine Wyatt, glancing once more towards him as the curtain rose for the final call, wondered a little at the tense, unyielding attitude of his tall figure. He was standing staring at the stage as if for him there was nothing else in all the world. She stifled a little sigh as she turned to put on her cloak.
The house was still applauding and clamouring for Cynthia to show herself again. Challoner waited. He loved to see her come before the curtain—loved the little graceful way she bowed to her audience.
But to-night he waited in vain, and when at last he pushed his way round to the stage door it was only to be told that Miss Farrow had left the theatre directly the play was over.
Challoner's heart stood still for a moment. She had done this deliberately to avoid him, he was sure. He asked an agitated question.
"Did she—did she go alone?"
The doorkeeper answered without looking at him, "There was a gent with her, sir—Mr. Mortlake, I think."
Challoner went out into the night blindly. He had to pass the theatre to get back to the main street. Mrs. Wyatt and Christine were just entering a taxi. Christine saw him. She touched his arm diffidently as he passed.
Challoner pulled up short. He would have avoided them had it been at all possible.
Mortlake! she had gone with that brute, whilst he—he answered Mrs. Wyatt mechanically.
"Thanks—thanks very much. I was going to walk, but if you will be so kind as to give me a lift."
He really hardly knew what he was saying. He took off his hat and passed a hand dazedly across his forehead before he climbed into the taxi and found himself sitting beside Christine.
He forced himself to try to make conversation. "Well, and how did you enjoy the play?"
It was a ghastly effort to talk. He wondered if they would notice how strange his manner was.
"Immensely," Mrs. Wyatt told him. "I've heard so much about Cynthia Farrow, but never seen her before. She certainly is splendid."
"She's the most beautiful woman I have ever seen," said Christine.
Challoner shot her a grateful look. Most women were cats and never had a word of praise for one of their own sex. He felt slightly comforted.
"If you've nothing better to do, Jimmy," said Mrs. Wyatt, "won't you come back to the hotel and have some supper with us? We are only up in town for a fortnight. Do come if you can."
Challoner said he would be delighted. He was very young in some ways. He had not the smallest intention of calling on Cynthia that night. He wished savagely that she could know what he was doing; know that in spite of everything he was not breaking his heart for her.
She was with that brute Mortlake; well, he was not going to spend the next hour or two alone with only his thoughts for company.
He wondered where Cynthia had gone, and if she had known all along that Mortlake was calling for her. He ground his teeth.
The two women were talking together. They did not seem to notice his silence. Christine's voice reminded him a little of Cynthia's; a sudden revulsion of feeling flooded his heart.
Poor darling! all this was not her fault. No doubt she was just as miserable as he. He longed to go to her. He wished he had not accepted the Wyatts' invitation. He felt that it was heartless of him to have done so. He would have excused himself even now if the taxi had not already started.
Mrs. Wyatt turned to him. "I suppose you are very fond of theatres?"
"Yes—no—yes, I mean; I go to heaps." He wondered if his reply sounded very foolish and absent-minded. He rushed on to cover it. "I've seen this particular play a dozen times; it's a great favourite of mine. I—I'm very keen on it."
"I think it is lovely," said Christine dreamily.
She was leaning back beside him in the corner. He could only see her white-gloved hands clasped in the lap of her frock.
"You must let me take you to some," he said. He had a rotten feeling that if he stopped talking for a minute he would make a fool of himself. "I often get passes for first nights and things," he rambled on.
Christine sat up. "Do you! oh, how lovely! I should love to go! Jimmy, do you—do you know any people on the stage—actors and actresses?"
"I know some—yes. I know quite a lot."
"Not Miss Farrow, I suppose?" she questioned eagerly.
"Yes—yes, I do," said Challoner.
She gave a little cry of delight. "Oh, I wish I could meet her—she's so beautiful."
Challoner could not answer. He would have given worlds had it been possible to stop the cab and rush away; but he knew he had got to go through with it now, and presently he found himself following Mrs. Wyatt and Christine through the hall of the hotel at which they were staying.
"It's quite like old times, isn't it?" he said with an effort. "Quite like the dear old days at Upton House. Don't I wish we could have them again."
"The house is still there," said Mrs. Wyatt laughing. "Perhaps you will come down again some day."
Challoner did not think it likely. There would be something very painful in going back to the scene of those days, he thought. He was so much changed from the light-hearted youngster who had chased Christine round the garden and pulled her hair because she would not kiss him.
He looked at her with reminiscent eyes. There was a little flush in her pale cheeks. She looked more like the child-sweetheart he had so nearly forgotten.
Mrs. Wyatt had moved away. He and Christine were alone. "I used to kiss you in those days, didn't I?" he asked, looking at her. He felt miserable and reckless.
She looked up at him with serious eyes. "Yes," she said almost inaudibly.
Something in her face stirred an old emotion in Jimmy Challoner's heart. This girl had been his first love, and a man never really forgets his first love; he leaned nearer to her.
"Christine, do you—do you wish we could have those days over again?" he asked.
A little quiver crossed her face. For a moment the beautiful brown eyes lit up radiantly. For a moment she was something better than just merely pretty.
He waited eagerly for her answer. His pride, if nothing deeper, had been seriously wounded that night. The tremulous happiness in this girl's face was like a gentle touch on a hurt.
"Do you—do you wish it?" he asked again.
"Yes," said Christine softly. "Yes, if you do."
It was late when Jimmy got home to his rooms; he was horribly tired, and his head ached vilely, but he never slept a wink all night.
The fact that Cynthia's husband was alive did not hurt him nearly so much as the fact that Cynthia had avoided him that evening and left the theatre with Mortlake. Jimmy hated Mortlake. The brute had such piles of money, whilst he—even the insufficient income which was always mortgaged weeks before the quarterly cheque fell due, only came to him from his brother. At any moment the Great Horatio might cut up rough and stop supplies.
Jimmy was up and dressed earlier than ever before in his life. He went out and bought some of the most expensive roses he could find in the shops. He took them himself to Cynthia Farrow's flat and scribbled a note begging her to see him if only for a moment.
The answer came back verbally. Miss Farrow sent her love and best thanks but she was very tired and her head ached—would he call again in the afternoon?
Challoner turned away without answering. There was a humiliating lump in his throat. At that moment he was the most wretched man in the whole of London. How on earth could he get through the whole infernal morning? And was she always going to treat him like this in the future? refusing to see him—deliberately avoiding him.
He wandered about the West End, staring into shop windows. At twelve o'clock he was back again at his rooms. A messenger boy was at the door when he reached it. He held a letter which Challoner took from him. It was from Cynthia Farrow.
He tore it open anyhow. His pulses throbbed with excitement. She had relented, of course, and wanted to see him at once. He was so sure of it that it was like a blow over the heart when he read the short note.
DEAR JIMMY,—I am afraid you will be hurt at what I am going to say, but I am sure it is better for us not to meet again. It only makes things harder for us both, and can do no good. I ought to have said good-bye to you last night, only at the last moment I hadn't the courage. If you really care for me you will keep away, and make no attempt to see me. I can never marry you, and though we have had some very happy days together, I hope that you will forget me. Please don't write, either; I really mean what I say, that this is good-bye.
The messenger boy fidgeted uncomfortably, staring at Jimmy Challoner's white face. Presently he ventured a question. "Is there an answer, sir?"
Challoner turned then, "No, no answer."
He let himself into his rooms and shut the door. He felt as if he were walking in space. For the moment he was unconscious of any emotion.
He walked over to the window and read the letter again. The only thing about it that really struck him was its note of finality.
This was no petulantly written dismissal. She had thought it well out; she really meant it.
He was jilted! The word stung him into life. His face flamed. A wave of passionate anger swept over him. He was jilted! The detestable thing for which he had always so deeply pitied other men of his acquaintance had happened to him. He was no longer an engaged man, he was discarded, unwanted!
For the moment he forgot the eloquent fact of Cynthia's marriage. He only realised that she had thrown him aside—finished with him.
And he had loved her so much. He had never cared a hang for any other woman in all his life in comparison with the devotion he had poured at Cynthia's feet.
He looked round the room with blank eyes. He could not believe that he had not fallen asleep and dreamed it all. His gaze was arrested by Cynthia's portrait on the shelf—it seemed to be watching him with smiling eyes.
In sudden rage he crossed the room and snatched it up. He stood for a second holding it in his hand as if not knowing what to do with it, then he dashed it down into the fireplace. The glass splintered into hundreds of fragments. Jimmy Challoner stood staring down at them with passionate eyes. He hated her. She was a flirt, a coquette without a heart.
If he could only pay her out—only let her see how utterly indifferent he was. If only there was some other woman who would be nice to him, and let him be nice to her, to make Cynthia jealous.
He thought suddenly of Christine Wyatt, of the little flame in her brown eyes when last night he had reminded her of the old days at Upton House. His vain man's heart had been stirred then. She liked him at all events.
Mrs. Wyatt had said that she hoped they would see much of him while they were in London. If he chose, he knew that he could be with them all day and every day. Cynthia would get to hear of it, Cynthia would know that he was not wearing the willow for her. He would not even answer her letter. He would just keep away—walk out of her life.
For a moment a sort of desolation gripped him. He had been so proud of her, thought so much of their future together; made such wonderful plans for getting round the Great Horatio; and now—it was all ended—done for!
His careless face fell into haggard lines, but the next instant he got a fresh grip of himself. He would show her, he would let her see that he was no weakling, no lovelorn swain pleading for denied favours. He squared his shoulders. He took up his hat and went into the street again. He called a taxi and gave the address of the hotel where Christine and her mother were staying.
THE TWO WOMEN
Christine was just crossing the hall of the hotel when Jimmy Challoner entered it. She saw him at once, and stood still with a little flush in her face.
"I was just thinking about you," she said. "I was just wondering if you would come and see us to-day; somehow I didn't think you would."
She spoke very simply and unaffectedly. She was genuinely pleased to see him, and saw no reason for hiding it. "Have you had lunch?" she asked. "Mother and I are just going to have ours."
If he had given way to his own inclinations he would have gone without lunch—without everything. He was utterly wretched. The kindness of Christine's eyes brought a lump to his throat. He did not want her to be kind to him. She was not the woman he wanted at all. Why, oh, why was he here when his heart was away—God alone knew where—with Cynthia!
What was she doing? he was asking himself in an agony, even while he followed Christine across the hall to the dining-room; had she really meant him to accept that note of dismissal as final? or had it just been written in a moment of petulance?
He had not meant to think about her; he had vowed to put her out of his thoughts for ever, to let her see that he would not wear the willow for her; and yet—oh, they were all very well, these fine resolves, but when a chap was utterly—confoundedly down and out——
He found himself shaking hands with Christine's mother.
"Jimmy hasn't had any lunch," Christine was saying. "So I asked him to have some with us."
Her voice sounded very gay; the little flush had not died out of her cheeks.
"I am very pleased you have come," said Christine's mother. She shook hands with Jimmy, and smiled at him with her mother-eyes.
Jimmy wished they would not be so kind to him. It made him feel a thousand times more miserable.
When he began to eat he was surprised to find that he was really hungry. A glass of wine cheered him considerably; he began to talk and make himself agreeable. As a matter of course, they talked about the old days at Upton House; Jimmy began to remember things he had almost forgotten; there had been an old stable-loft——
"Do you remember when you fell down the ladder?" Christine asked him laughingly. "And the way you bumped your head——"
"And the way you cried," Jimmy reminded her.
"Didn't she, Mrs. Wyatt?"
Mrs. Wyatt laughed.
"Don't refer to me, please," she said. "I am beginning to think that I never knew half what you two did in those days."
Christine looked at Jimmy shyly.
"They were lovely days," she said with a sigh.
"Ripping!" Jimmy agreed. He tried to put great enthusiasm into his voice, but in his heart he knew that he had long since outgrown the simple pleasures that had seemed so great to him then. He thought of Cynthia, and the wild Bohemianism of the weeks that had passed since he first got engaged to her; that was life if you pleased, with a capital letter. It seemed incredible that it was all ended and done with; that Cynthia wanted him no longer; that his place in her life was filled by another man; that he would never wait at the theatre for her any more; never—— He caught his breath on a great sigh. Christine looked at him with her brown eyes. She, at least, had never outgrown the old days; to her they would always be the most wonderful of her whole life.
"And what are we going to do this afternoon?" Mrs. Wyatt asked when lunch was ended.
"Anything you like," said Jimmy. "I am entirely at your disposal."
"Mother always likes a nap after lunch," said Christine laughing. "She never will stir till she has had it."
"Very well; then you and I will go off somewhere together," said Jimmy promptly. "At least"—he looked apologetically at Mrs. Wyatt—"if we may?" he added.
"I think I can trust you with Christine," said Christine's mother. "But you'll be in to tea?"
Jimmy promised. He did not really want to take Christine out. He did not really want to do anything. He talked to Mrs. Wyatt while Christine put on her hat and coat. When they left the hotel he asked if she would like a taxi.
"Of course not. I love walking."
"Do you?" said Jimmy. He was faintly surprised. Cynthia would never walk a step if she could help it. He pondered at the difference in the two women.
They went to the Park. It was a fine, sunny afternoon, cold and crisp.
Christine wore soft brown furs, just the colour of her eyes, Jimmy Challoner thought, and realised that her eyes would be very beautiful to a man who liked dark eyes in preference to blue, but—thoughts of Cynthia came crowding back again. If only he were with her instead of this girl; if only—— Christine touched his arm.
"Oh, Jimmy, look! Isn't that—isn't that Miss Farrow?"
Her voice was excited. She was looking eagerly across the grass to where a woman and a man were walking together beneath the trees.
Jimmy's heart leapt to his throat; for a moment it seemed to stop beating.
Yes, it was Cynthia right enough; Cynthia with no trace of the headache with which she had excused herself to him only that morning; Cynthia walking with—with Henson Mortlake.
Christine spoke again, breathlessly.
"Is it? Oh, is it Miss Farrow, Jimmy?"
"Yes," said Jimmy hoarsely.
Cynthia had turned now. She and the man at her side were walking back towards Jimmy and Christine.
As they drew nearer Cynthia's eyes swept the eager face and slim figure of the girl at Jimmy's side. There was the barest flicker of her lids before she raised them and smiled and bowed.
Jimmy raised his hat. He was very pale; his mouth was set in unsmiling lines.
"Oh, she is lovely!" said Christine eagerly. "I think she is even prettier off the stage than she is on, don't you? Actresses so seldom are, but she—oh, don't you think she is beautiful, Jimmy?"
"Yes," said Challoner. He hated himself because he could get nothing out but that monosyllable; hated himself because of the storm of emotion the sight of Cynthia had roused in his heart.
She had looked calm and serene enough; he wondered bitterly if she ever thought of the hours they had spent together, the times he had kissed her, the future they had planned. He set his teeth hard.
And apparently the fact that her husband still lived was no barrier to her walking with Mortlake. He hated the little bounder. He——
"Who was that with her?" Christine asked. "I didn't like the look of him very much. I do hope she isn't going to marry him."
"She's married already," said Jimmy. He felt a sort of impatience with Christine; she was so—so childish, so—so immaturish, he thought.
"And do you know her husband?" she asked. She turned her beautiful eyes to his pale face.
"I've never seen him," said Jimmy. "But I should think he's a brute from what I've heard about him. He—he—oh, he treated her rottenly."
"What a shame!" Christine half turned and looked after Cynthia Farrow's retreating figure. "Jimmy, wouldn't you be proud of such a beautiful wife?"
Jimmy laughed, rather a mirthless laugh.
"Penniless beggars like me don't marry beautiful wives like—like Miss Farrow," he said with a sort of savagery. "They want men with pots and pots of money, who can buy them motor-cars and diamonds, and all the rest of it." His voice was hurt and angry. Christine looked puzzled. She walked on a little way silently. Then:
"I shouldn't mind how poor a man was if I loved him," she said.
Jimmy looked down at her. Her face was half-hidden by the soft brown fur she wore, but he could just get a glimpse of dark lashes against her pale cheek, and the dainty outline of forehead and cheek.
"You won't always think that," he told her cynically. "Some day, when you're older and wiser than you are now, you'll find yourself looking at the L. s. d. side of a man, Christine."
"I never shall," she cried out indignantly. "Jimmy, you are horrid!"
But Jimmy Challoner did not smile.
"Women are all the same," he told her darkly.
Oh, he was very, very young indeed, was Jimmy Challoner!
JIMMY GETS NEWS
There was a letter from the "Great Horatio" on Jimmy's plate the following morning. Jimmy looked at the handwriting and the foreign stamp and grimaced.
The Great Horatio seldom wrote unless something were the matter. He was a good many years older than Jimmy, and Jimmy held him in distinct awe.
He finished his breakfast before he even thought of breaking the seal, then he took up the letter and carried it over with him to the fire.
Jimmy Challoner was breakfasting in his dressing-gown. It was very seldom that he managed to get entirely dressed by the time breakfast was ready. He sat down now in a big chair and stuck his slippered feet out to the warmth.
He turned his brother's letter over and over distastefully. What the deuce did the old chap want now? he wondered. He gave a sigh of resignation, and broke open the flap.
He and the Great Horatio had not met for two years.
Horatio Ferdinand Challoner, to give him his full name, was a man whose health, or, rather, ill-health, was his hobby.
All his life he had firmly believed himself to be in a dying state; all his life he had lived more or less at Spas, or on the Riviera, or at health resorts of some kind or another.
He was a nervous, irritable man, as unlike Jimmy as it is possible for two brothers to be.
For the past two years he had been living in Australia. He had undertaken the voyage at the suggestion of some new doctor whose advice he had sought, and he had been so ill during the six weeks' voyage that, so far, he had never been able to summon sufficient pluck to start home again.
Jimmy had roared with laughter when he heard; he could so well imagine his brother's disgust and fear. As a matter of fact, it suited Jimmy very well that the head of the family should be so far removed from him. He hated supervision; he liked to feel that he had got a free hand; that he need not go in fear of running up against Horatio Ferdinand at every street corner.
He read his brother's closely written pages now with a long-suffering air. Jimmy hated writing letters, and he hated receiving them; most things bored him in these days; he had been drifting for so long, and under Cynthia Farrow's tuition he would very likely have finally drifted altogether into a slack, nothing-to-do man about town, very little good to himself or anyone else.
Horatio Ferdinand wrote:—
DEAR JAMES,— (He hated abbreviations; he would never allow people to call him "Horace"; his writing was cramped and formal like himself.) I have heard a rather disquieting rumour about you from a mutual friend, and shall be glad if you will kindly write to me upon receipt of this letter and inform me if there is any truth in the allegation that you are constantly seen in the company of a certain actress. I hardly think this can be so, as you well know my dislike of the stage and anything appertaining thereto. My health is greatly improved by my visit here, and all being well I shall probably risk making the return voyage after Christmas. Upon second consideration, I shall be glad if you will cable your reply to me, as the mail takes six weeks, as you know.—Your affectionate brother.
Jimmy crushed the letter in his hand.
"Damned old idiot!" he said under his breath. He got up, and began striding about the room angrily. The tassels of his dressing-gown swung wildly at each agitated step; the big carpet slippers he wore flapped ungracefully.
"Confounded old fathead."
Jimmy was flushed, and his eyes sparkled. He ran his fingers through his hair, making it stand on end. After a few strides he felt better. He went back to the armchair and took up his brother's letter once more.
After a moment he laughed, rather a sore laugh, as if something in the stilted wording of the letter hurt him.
What would he not have given now to be able to cable back:
"Quite right; she is my wife."
But as it was——
"Let him think what he likes. I don't care a hang," was the thought in Jimmy Challoner's mind.
He sat there with his chin drooping on his breast, lost in unhappy thought.
It was not yet two days since Cynthia had sent him away; it seemed an eternity.
Did she miss him at all? did she ever wish she could see him? ever wish for one hour out of the happy past? Somehow he did not think so. Much as he had loved her, Jimmy Challoner had always known hers to be the sort of nature that lived solely for the present; besides, if she wanted him, she had only got to send—to telephone. He looked across at the receiver standing idle on his desk.
So many times she had rung him up; so many times he had heard her pretty voice across the wire:
"Is that you, Jimmy boy?"
He would never hear it again. She did not want him any more. He was—ugly word—jilted!
Jimmy writhed in his chair. That any woman should dare to so treat him! The hot blood surged into his face.
It was a good sign—this sudden anger—had he but known it. When a man can be angry with a woman he has once loved he is already beginning to love her less; already beginning to see her as less perfect.
Some one tapped at his door; his man entered.
Costin was another bone of contention between Jimmy and the Great Horatio.
"I never had a valet when I was your age," so his brother declared. "What in the wide world you need a valet for is past my comprehension."
Jimmy had felt strongly inclined to answer that most things were past his comprehension, but thought better of it; he could not, at any rate, imagine his life without Costin. He knew in his heart that he had no least intention of sacking Costin, and Costin stayed.
"If you please, sir," he began now, coming forward, "Mr. Sangster would like to see you."
"Show him up," said Jimmy. He rose to his feet and stood gnawing his lower lip agitatedly.
How much did Sangster know, he wondered, about Cynthia? He would have liked to refuse to see him, but—well, they would have to meet sooner or later, and, after all, Sangster had been a good friend to him in more ways than one.
Jimmy said: "Hallo, old chap!" with rather forced affability when Sangster entered. The two men shook hands.
Sangster glanced at the breakfast-table.
"I'm rather an early visitor, eh?"
"No. Oh, no. Sit down. Have a cigarette?"
There was little silence. Jimmy eyed his friend with a sort of suspicion. Sangster had heard something. Sangster probably knew all there was to know. He shuffled his feet nervously.
Sangster was the sort of man at whom a woman like Cynthia Farrow would never have given a second glance, if, indeed, she thought him worthy of a first. He was short and squarely built; his hair was undeniably red and ragged; his features were blunt, but he had a nice smile, and his small, nondescript eyes were kind.
He sat down in the chair Jimmy had vacated and looked up at him quizzically.
"Well," he said bluntly, "is it true?"
"True! what the——"
The other man stopped him with a gesture.
"Don't be an ass, Jimmy; I haven't known you all these years for nothing. . . . Is it true that Cynthia's chucked you?"
"Yes." Jimmy's voice was hard. He stared up at the ceiling under scowling brows.
Sangster said "Humph!" with a sort of growl. He scratched his chin reflectively.
"Well, I can't say I'm sorry," he said after a moment. "It's the best thing that's ever happened to you, my son."
Jimmy's eyes travelled down from the ceiling slowly; perhaps it was coincidence that they rested on the place on the mantelshelf where Cynthia's portrait used to stand.
"Think so?" he said gruffly. "You never liked her."
"I did—but not as your wife. . . . She's much more suited to Henson Mortlake—I always thought so. He'll keep her in order; you never could have done."
Jimmy had been standing with his elbow on the mantelpiece; he swung round sharply.
"Mortlake; what's he got to do with it?" he asked fiercely. "What the deuce do you mean by dragging him in? It was nothing to do with Mortlake that she—she——"
Sangster was looking at him curiously.
"Oh! I understood—what was the reason, then?" he asked.
Jimmy turned away. He found the other man's eyes somehow disconcerting.
"She's married already," he said in a stifled voice. "I—I always knew she had been married, of course. She made no secret of it. He—the brute—left her years ago; but last week—well, he turned up again. . . . She—we—we had always believed he was dead."
There was a little silence. Sangster was no longer looking at Jimmy; he was staring into the fire. Presently he began to whistle softly. Jimmy rounded on him.
"Oh, shut up!" he said irritably.
Sangster stopped at once. After a moment:
"And the—er—husband!" he submitted dryly. "You've—you've seen him, of course."
"No, I haven't. If I did—if I did, I'd break every bone in his infernal carcase," said Jimmy Challoner, between his teeth.
He stared down at his friend with defiant, eyes as he spoke.
Sangster said "Humph!" again. Then: "Well, there's as good fish in the sea as any that were caught," he said cheerily. "Look at it philosophically, old son."
Jimmy kicked a footstool out of his way. He walked over to the window, and stood for a moment with his back turned. Presently:
"If anyone asks you, you might as well tell them the truth," he said jerkily. "I—don't let them think that brute Mortlake——"
He broke off.
"I'll tell 'em the truth," said Sangster.
He leaned over the fire, poking it vigorously.
"What are you doing to-night, Jimmy?" he asked, "I'm at a loose end——"
"I'm taking some people to the theatre—old friends! Met them quite by chance the other night. Haven't you heard me speak of them—the Wyatts?"
"By Jove, yes!" Sangster dropped the poker unceremoniously. "People from Upton House. You used to be full of them when I first knew you, and that's how many years ago, Jimmy?"
"The Lord only knows!" said Jimmy dispiritedly. "Well, I've got a box for a show to-night, and asked them to come. Christine's dead nuts on theatres. Remember Christine?"
"I remember the name. Old sweetheart of yours, wasn't she?"
"When we were kids."
"Oh, like that, is it? Well, ask me to come along too."
"My dear fellow—come by all means."
Jimmy was rather pleased at the suggestion. "You'll like Mrs. Wyatt—she's one of the best."
"Oh she's all right; but she's only a child still," said Jimmy Challoner with all the lordly superiority of half a dozen years.
SANGSTER TAKES A HAND
"And so you and Jimmy were children together," said Arthur Sangster.
The curtain had just fallen on the first act, and the lights turned up suddenly in the theatre had revealed Christine's face to him a little flushed and dreamy.
Sangster looked at her smilingly. Jimmy had called her a child; but he had not said how sweet a child she was, he thought, as his eyes rested on her dainty profile and parted lips.
She seemed to wake from dreaming at the sound of his voice. She gave a little sigh, and leaned back in her chair.
"Yes," she said. "We used to play together when we were children."
"Such a long, long time ago," said Sangster, half mockingly, half in earnest.
She nodded seriously.
"It seems ages and ages," she said. She looked past him to where Jimmy sat talking to her mother. He might have sat next to her, she thought wistfully. Mr. Sangster was very nice, but—she caught a little sigh between her lips.
"Jimmy has told me so much about you," Sangster said. "I almost feel as if I have known you for years."
"Has he?" That pleased her, at all events. Her brown eyes shone as she looked at him. "What did he tell you?" she asked, interestedly.
"Oh, all about Upton House, and the fine time you used to have there; all about the dogs, and an old horse named Judas."
She laughed too, now.
"Judas—he died last year. He was so old, and nearly blind; but he always knew my step and came to the gate." Her voice sounded wistful. "Jimmy used to ride him round the field, standing up on his back," she went on eagerly. "Jimmy could ride anything."
"Jimmy is a very wonderful person," said Sangster gravely.
She looked rather puzzled.
"Do you mean that?" she asked. "Or are you—are you joking?"
He felt suddenly ashamed.
"I mean it, of course," he said gently. "I am very fond of Jimmy, though I haven't known him as long as you have."
"How long?" she asked.
He made a little calculation.
"Well, it must be five years," he said at length. "Or perhaps it is six; the time goes so quickly, I lose count."
"And do you live in London too?"
"Yes; I live in an unfashionable part of Bloomsbury."
"No; Jimmy lives in the Temple."
It evidently conveyed nothing to her.
"And do you know his brother—the great Horatio?" she asked laughingly.
"I had the honour of meeting him once," he answered with mock gravity.
"So did I—years ago. Isn't he funny?"
"Very." Sangster agreed. He thought it a very mild word with which to describe Horatio Ferdinand; he pitied Jimmy supremely for having to own such a relative. The stage bell rang through the theatre, the curtain began to swing slowly up.
"We went to see Cynthia Farrow the other night," Christine said. "Isn't she lovely?"
"I suppose she is!"
"Suppose! I think she's the most beautiful woman I have ever seen," Christine declared vehemently. "Jimmy knows her, he says." She turned her head. "Do you know her too?"
"You don't sound as if you like her," she said quickly.
He laughed in spite of himself.
"Perhaps because she doesn't like me," he answered.
"Doesn't she?" Christine's grave eyes searched his face. "I like you, anyway," she said.
Sangster did not look at her, but a little flush rose to his brow.
"Thank you," he said, and his voice sounded, somehow, quite changed.
As the curtain fell on the second act, he rose quietly from his seat and went round to where Jimmy stood.
"Take my place," he said in an undertone. Jimmy looked up. He had not been following the play; he had been thinking—thinking always of the same thing, always of the past few weeks, and the shock of their ending.
He rose to his feet rather reluctantly. Sangster sat down beside Mrs. Wyatt.
Once or twice he looked across to Christine. She and Jimmy were not talking very much, but there was a little smile on Christine's face, and she looked at Jimmy very often.
Jimmy sat with his chin in the palm of his hand, staring before him with moody eyes. Sangster felt a sort of impatience. What the deuce could the fellow ever have seen in Cynthia Farrow? he asked himself. Was he blind, that he could not penetrate her shallowness, and see the small selfishness of her nature?
A pretty face and laugh, and an undoubted knowledge of men—they were all the assets she possessed; and Sangster knew it. But to Jimmy—Sangster metaphorically shrugged his shoulders as he looked at his friend's moody face.
How could he sit there next to that child and not realise that in his longing he was only grasping at a shadow? What was he made of that he saw more beauty in Cynthia Farrow's blue eyes than in the sweet face of his boyhood's love?
Sangster was glad when the play was over; theatres always bored him. He did not quite know why he had invited himself to Jimmy's box to-night. When they rose to leave he smiled indulgently at Christine's rapt face.
"You have enjoyed it," he said.
"Yes—ever so much. But I liked Miss Farrow and the play she was in better."
Jimmy turned sharply away; nobody answered.
"We're going on to Marnio's to supper," Jimmy said as they crossed the foyer. "Christine has never been there."
She looked up instantly.
"No, I haven't."
"It's the place to see stage favourites," Sangster told her.
In his heart he was surprised that Jimmy should choose to go there. He thought it extremely probable that Cynthia Farrow and some of her numerous admirers would put in an appearance; but it was not his business, and he raised no objection.
When they entered the long room he cast a swift glance round. She was not here yet, at all events; one could only hope that she would not come at all.
Everything was new and wonderful to Christine. She was like a child in her delight. She sat in a corner of one of the great, softly cushioned sofas, and looked about her with wide eyes.
Jimmy sat beside her. Sangster had manoeuvred that he should. He and Mrs. Wyatt were opposite.
The orchestra was playing a dreamy waltz. The long room was brilliantly lit, and decorated with pink flowers.
Christine leaned across and squeezed her mother's hand.
"Oh, isn't it just too lovely?" she said.
Mrs. Wyatt laughed.
"You will turn Christine's head, Jimmy," she said to Challoner. "She will find Upton House dull after all this gaiety."
Jimmy was slightly bored. It was no novelty to him. He had spent so many nights dining and supping in similar places to Marnio's. All the waiters knew him. He wondered if they were surprised to see him without Cynthia Farrow. For weeks past he and she had been everywhere together. He met Sangster's quizzical eyes; he roused himself with an effort; he turned to Christine and began to talk.
He told her who some of the people were at the other tables. He pointed out a famous conductor, and London's most popular comedian. Christine was interested in everyone and everything. Her eyes sparkled, and her usually pale face was flushed. She was pretty to-night, if she had never been pretty before.
"I suppose you come here often?" she said. She looked up into Jimmy's bored young face. "I suppose it's not at all new or wonderful to you?"
"Well, I'm afraid it isn't; you see——" He broke off; he sat staring across the room with a sudden fire in his eyes.
A man and woman had just entered. The woman was in evening dress, with a beautiful sable coat. Her hand was resting on the man's arm. She was looking up at him with smiling eyes.
Jimmy caught his breath hard in his throat. For a moment the gaily lit room swam before him—for the woman was Cynthia Farrow, and the man at her side was Henson Mortlake.
JIMMY DEMANDS THE TRUTH
Sangster had been sitting with his back to the door by which Cynthia and her escort had entered. When he saw the sudden change in Jimmy Challoner's face, he turned in his chair quickly.
Cynthia was seated now. She was languidly drawing off her long white gloves. A waiter had taken her sable coat; without it the elaborate frock she wore looked too showy; it was cut too low in the neck. A diamond necklace glittered on her white throat.
Sangster turned back again. Under cover of the table he gave Jimmy a kick. He saw that Christine had noticed the sudden change in his face. To hide his friend's discomfort he rushed into speech. He tried to distract the girl's attention; presently Jimmy recovered himself.
Mrs. Wyatt alone had not been conscious of any disturbing element.
She had lived all her life in the country, and her few visits to London had been exceedingly brief, and always conducted on the most severe of lines—a dull, highly respectable hotel to stay in, stalls for plays against which no single newspaper had raised a dissentient voice, and perhaps a visit to a museum or picture gallery.
It had only been under protest that she had consented to visit the suburban theatre at which Cynthia Farrow was playing.
Under the guidance of Jimmy Challoner, London had suddenly been presented to her in an entirely fresh light. Secretly she was thoroughly enjoying herself, though once or twice she looked at Christine with rather wistful eyes.
Christine was so wrapped up in Jimmy . . . and Jimmy!—of course, he must know many, many other women far more attractive and beautiful than this little daughter of hers. She half sighed as she caught the expression of Christine's eyes as they rested on him.
Suddenly Jimmy rose.
"Will you excuse me a moment? . . . There is a friend of mine over there. . . . Please excuse me."
Sangster scowled. He thought Jimmy was behaving like a weak fool. He would have stopped him had it been at all possible; but Jimmy had already left the table and crossed to where Cynthia was sitting.
The sight of her in Mortlake's company for the second time that day had scattered his fine resolutions to the winds. There was a raging fire of jealousy in his heart as he went up to her.
A waiter was filling her glass with champagne, Mortlake was whispering to her confidentially across the corner of the table.
"Good evening," said Jimmy Challoner.
He did his best to control his voice, but in spite of himself a little thrill of rage vibrated through it.
Mortlake raised himself and half frowned.
"Evening," he said shortly.
Cynthia extended her hand; she was rather pleased than otherwise to see him. She liked having two strings to her bow; it gave her worldly heart an odd little pang as she met the fierceness of Jimmy's eyes. . . . He was such a dear, she thought.
Marnio's was not a place where he could make a scene either, even supposing . . . she shot a quick glance at Mortlake. After all, it was rather unfortunate Jimmy should have seen them together—just at present, at any rate; it would not have mattered in a week or two's time. She wondered if he had heard anything, if already he had discovered by some unforeseen means how she had lied to him? . . . She gave him one of the sweetest smiles.
"Are you having supper here, Jimmy? I didn't see you."
It was not the truth. She had seen him the moment she entered, but she thought it more effective to pretend otherwise.
"I am over there with friends," said Jimmy curtly. He glanced across to the table he had just left, and met Christine's eyes.
Somehow he felt uncomfortable. He looked sharply away again, and down at the beautiful smiling face raised to his.
"When may I come and see you?" he asked bluntly.
He spoke quite distinctly; Mortlake must have heard every word.
Cynthia looked nonplussed for a moment; then she laughed.
"Come any time you like, my dear boy. . . . I am always pleased to see you—any afternoon, you know."
She smiled and nodded. Jimmy felt that he had been dismissed. After a moment he walked away.
His heart was a dead weight in his breast. He sat down again beside Christine. She turned to him eagerly.
"Wasn't that Miss Farrow? . . . . Oh, Jimmy, why didn't you tell me?"
Jimmy drained his wineglass before answering.
"I forgot you were interested; I'm sorry. . . . She isn't alone, you see, or—or I would introduce her—if you cared for me to, that is."
"I don't think Miss Wyatt would care for Miss Farrow," said Arthur Sangster quietly.
Jimmy looked furious. Angry words rushed to his lips, but he choked them with an effort.
"Narrow-minded old owl!" he said, half jokingly, half in earnest.
Later, when the two men had left Mrs. Wyatt and Christine at their hotel, and were walking away together, Jimmy burst out savagely:
"What the devil do you mean about Christine not liking Cynthia? . . . It's a gross piece of impertinence to say such a thing."
"It's the truth, all the same," said Sangster imperturbably. "The two girls are as different as chalk from cheese. Miss Wyatt would soon dislike Cynthia—they live in different worlds."
"Fortunately for Cynthia perhaps," said Jimmy savagely. "For pure, ghastly dullness, recommend me to what is called the 'best society' . . . . Christine is only a child—she always will be as long as she is tied to her mother's apron-strings. I like Mrs. Wyatt awfully, but you must admit that we've had a distinctly dull evening."
There was a moment's silence.
"If you really think that," said Sangster quietly, "I should keep away from them, and I should most certainly give up paying attention to Miss Wyatt."
Jimmy Challoner stopped dead. He turned and stared at his friend.
"What the devil are you talking about?" he demanded. His face looked furious in the yellow light of a street lamp they were passing. "I pay attention to Christine! Why"—he laughed suddenly—"She's only a child."
"Very well, you know your own business best, of course; and Jimmy——"
Sangster hesitated; finally:
"Did—did Cynthia say anything to you to-night?—anything special, I mean?"
Jimmy laughed drearily.
"She said it was cold, or something equally interesting. She also said that I might call upon her any afternoon, and that she was always pleased to see her 'friends.'" He accented the last word bitterly. "What did you expect her to say to me?" he inquired.
"Nothing; at least . . . you know what they are saying in the clubs?"
"What are they saying?"
"That she is engaged to Mortlake."
Through the darkness he heard Jimmy catch his breath hard in his throat.
"Of course, that may be only club talk," he hastened to add kindly.
"I never thought it could be anything else," said Jimmy with a rush. "I know it's a lie, anyway. How can she be engaged to Mortlake, or any other man—if her husband is living?"
"No," Sangster agreed quietly. "She certainly cannot be engaged to any other man if her husband is still living."
There was an underlying meaning in his voice. Jimmy swung round savagely.
"What are you trying to get at?" he asked. "If you know anything, tell me and have done with it."
"I don't know anything; I am only repeating what I have heard."
"A pack of gossiping old women"—savagely.
They walked a few steps silently.
"Why not forget her, Jimmy?" said Sangster presently. "She isn't the only woman in the world. Put her out of your life once and for all."
"It's all very fine for you to talk . . . things are not forgotten so quickly. She's done with me—I told you so—and . . . oh, why the devil can't you mind your own business?"
LOVE AND POVERTY
But in spite of his fine sounding words, Jimmy had not done with her, and the next afternoon—having shaken off Sangster, who looked in to suggest a stroll—he went round to Cynthia Farrow's flat.
She was not alone; half a dozen theatrical people, most of whom Jimmy knew personally, were lounging about her luxuriously furnished boudoir. They were all cheery people, whom Jimmy liked well enough as a general thing, but to-day their chatter bored him; he hardly knew how to contain himself for impatience. He made up his mind that he would stay as long, and longer than they did—that wild horses should not drag him away till he had spoken with Cynthia alone.
She was very kind to him. It might have struck a disinterested observer that she was a little afraid of him—a little anxious to propitiate him; but none of these things crossed Jimmy's mind.
He adored her, and she knew it; he would do anything in the world for her, and she must know that too. Why, then, should she be in the very least afraid of him?
He found himself talking to an elderly woman with dyed hair, who had once been a famous dancer. She was pleasant enough company, but she had not yet realised that her youth was a thing of the past. She ogled Jimmy as if she had been eighteen, and simpered and giggled like a girl.
She was the last of them all to leave. It struck Jimmy that Cynthia had purposely asked her to stay, but he could not be sure. Anyway, it did not matter to him. He meant to stay there all night or until he had spoken with her alone.
As soon as the door had closed on the rustling skirts of the dancer's juvenile frock, Jimmy rushed over to where Cynthia was sitting.
She was smoking a cigarette. She threw it pettishly into the fire as he dropped on his knees beside her.
"Cynthia," said Jimmy Challoner hoarsely, "aren't you—aren't you just a little bit pleased to see me?" It was a very boyish appeal; Cynthia's face softened before it. She laid a hand for a moment on his shoulder.
"I am always pleased to see you, Jimmy; you know that. I hope we shall always be friends, even though—even though——"
Jimmy caught her hand and covered it with kisses.
She moved restlessly.
"Jimmy, you're such a boy." There was a hint of impatience now in her voice. "Aren't you ever going to grow up?"
He rose to his feet and moved away from her, The momentary flash of happiness had fallen from him; he felt very old and miserable as he stood leaning his elbow on the mantelshelf staring down at the fire. She no longer cared for him; something in her voice told him that as no actual words would have done. She had not wanted him to come here to-day. Even now she wished that he would go away and leave her. He suddenly remembered what Sangster had said last night. He turned abruptly, looking down at Cynthia.
She was sitting up now, looking before her with puckered brows. One small foot tapped the floor impatiently.
Jimmy moved nearer to her.
"Do you know what they are saying in the clubs?" he demanded.
She raised her eyes, she shrugged her slim shoulders.
"They are always saying something! What is it now?"
But her voice was not so indifferent as she would have had it; her eyes were anxious.
"They are saying that you are engaged to Mortlake."
Jimmy's eyes never left her face; it was a tragic moment for him. Cynthia's white hands clasped each other nervously.
"Are they?" she said. "How—how very amusing."
Her eyes had fallen now; he could only see the outline of darkened lashes against her cheek.
He waited a moment, then he strode forward—he covered the space between them in a stride; he put a hand beneath her chin, forcing her to look at him.
"Is it true?" he asked. "Is it true?"
His voice was strangled; his breath came tearing from between clenched teeth.
Cynthia shivered away from him, back against the pile of silken cushions behind her.
"Don't hurt me, Jimmy; don't hurt me," she whimpered.
He took her by the shoulders and shook her. "Is it true—is it true?"
For a moment he thought she was going to refuse to answer; then suddenly she dragged herself free. She started up, and stood facing him pantingly.
"Yes," she said defiantly. "Yes, it is true."
And then the silence fell again, long and unbroken.
It seemed an eternity to Jimmy Challoner; an eternity during which he stood there like a man in a dream, staring at her flushed face.
The world had surely come crashing about him in ruins; for the moment, at least, he was blind and deaf to everything.
When at last he could find his voice—
"It was all—a lie then—about your—husband!—a lie—to—to get rid of me."
"If you like to put it that way."
Jimmy turned blindly to the door. He felt like a drunken man. He had opened it when she called his name; when she followed and caught his hand, holding him back.
"Jimmy, don't go like that—not without saying good-bye. We've been such friends—we've had such good times together."
She was sobbing now; genuine enough sobs they seemed. She clung to him desperately.
"I always loved you; you must have known that I did, only—only—— Oh, I couldn't bear to be poor! That was it, Jimmy. I couldn't face being poor."
Jimmy stood like a statue. One might almost have thought he had not been listening. Then suddenly he wrenched his hand free.
"Let me go, for God's sake—let me go!"
He left her there, sobbing and calling his name.
She heard him go down the stairs—heard the sullen slam of a distant door; then she rushed over to the window.
It was too dark to see him as he strode away from the house; everything seemed horribly silent and empty.
Jimmy had gone; and Cynthia Farrow knew, as she stood there in the disordered room, that by sending him away she had made the greatest mistake of her selfish life.
THE SECOND ENGAGEMENT
Out in the night Jimmy Challoner stood for a moment in the darkness, not knowing where to go or what to do.
He had had a bad shock. He could have borne it if she had only thrown him over for that other man; but that she should have thought it worth while to lie to him about it struck him to the soul. She had made a fool of him—an utter and complete fool; he would never forgive her as long as he lived.
After a moment he walked on. He carried his hat in his hand. The cool night air fanned his hot forehead.
He had lost everything that had made life worth living; that was his first passionate thought. Nobody wanted him—nobody cared a hang what became of him; he told himself that he could quite understand poor devils who jumped off bridges.
He went into the first restaurant he came to, and ordered a neat brandy; that made him feel better, and he ordered a second on the strength of it. The first shock had passed; anger took its place.
He would never forgive her; all his life he would never forgive her; she was not worth a thought. She had never been worth loving.
She was a heartless, scheming woman; little Christine Wyatt had more affection in the clasp of her hand than Cynthia had in the whole of her beautiful body.
The thought of Christine recalled Sangster's words.
Sangster was a fool; he did not know what he was talking about. Christine and he had been sweethearts as children certainly, but that anything more could ever exist between them was absurd.
But he began to remember the little flush that always crept into Christine's face when she saw him, the expression of her beautiful eyes; and the memory gave him back some of his lost self-confidence. Christine liked him, at all events; Christine would never have behaved as Cynthia had done . . . Christine. . . . Jimmy Challoner hailed a passing taxi, and gave the address of the hotel where Christine and her mother were staying.
His desire for sympathy drove him there; his desire to be with someone who liked his company. He was bruised all over by the treatment he had received from Cynthia Farrow; he wanted balm poured on his wounds.
The hall porter told him that Mrs. Wyatt was out, but that he thought the young lady——
"It's Miss Wyatt I wish to see," said Jimmy impatiently.
After a moment he was asked to come upstairs. He knew the Wyatts had a private sitting-room. Christine was there by the fire when he entered.
"Jimmy," she said eagerly.
Jimmy Challoner went forward with outstretched hand.
"I hope you don't mind my coming again so soon; but I was bored—thoroughly fed-up," he explained stumblingly.
Christine looked radiant. She had not yet learned to disguise her true feelings. Jimmy was still holding her hand; she tried gently to free it.
"Don't—don't take it away," said Jimmy. The double dose of brandy and his own agitation had excited him; he drew her over to the fire with him; he hardly knew what he was doing.
Suddenly: "Will you marry me, Christine?" he said.
There was a sharp silence.
Christine's little face had grown as white as death; her soft brown eyes were almost tragic.
"Marry you!" She echoed his words in a whisper. "Marry you," she said again. "Oh, Jimmy!" She caught her breath in something like a sob. "But—but you don't love me," she said in a pitiful whisper.
Jimmy lost his head.
"I do love you," he declared. "I love you most awfully . . . Say yes, Christine—say yes. We'll be ever so happy, you and I; we always got on rippingly, didn't we?"
Nobody had ever made love to Christine before, since the days when Jimmy Challoner had chased her round the garden for kisses, and she had always loved him. She felt giddy with happiness. This was a moment she had longed for ever since that night in the suburban theatre when she had looked up into the stage box and seen him sitting there.
Jimmy had got his arm round her now; he put his hot cheek to her soft hair.
"Say yes, Christine," he whispered; but he did not wait for her to say it. He could be very masterful when he chose, and with sudden impulsive impatience he bent and kissed her.
Christine burst into tears.
He had swept her off her feet. A moment since she had never dreamed of anything like this; and now—now her head was on Jimmy Challoner's shoulder, and his arm round her.
"Don't cry," he said huskily. "Don't cry—I didn't mean to be a brute. Did I frighten you?"
He was already beginning to realise what he had done. A little cold shiver crept down his spine.
He had kissed this girl and asked her to marry him; but he did not love her. There was something still of the old boyish affection for her in his hearty but nothing more. Remorse seized him.
"Don't cry," he begged again with an effort. "Would you like me to go away? . . . Oh, don't cry, dear."
Christine dried her eyes.
"It's—it's only be-because I'm so h-happy," she said on the top of a last sob. "Oh, J-Jimmy—I do love you."
The words sounded somehow infinitely pathetic. Jimmy bit his lip hard. His arm fell from about her waist.
"I—I'm not half good enough for you," he stammered.
He really meant that. He felt himself a perfect rotter beside her innocent whole-hearted surrender. Christine was looking at him with tearful eyes, though her lips smiled tremulously.
"Oh, Jimmy—what will mother say?" she whiskered. "And—and Mr. Sangster?"
Jimmy laughed outright then. She was such a child. Why on earth should it matter what Sangster said?
Christine did not know why she had spoken of him at all; but his kind face had seemed to float into her mind with the touch of Jimmy's lips. She was glad she had liked him. He was Jimmy's friend; now he would be her friend, too.
There was an awkward silence. Jimmy made no attempt to kiss her again—he did not even touch her.
He was thinking of the night when he had asked Cynthia to marry him. It had been in a taxi—coming home from the theatre. In imagination he could still smell the scent of the lilies she wore in her fur coat—still feel the touch of her hair against his cheek.
That had been all rapture; this—he looked at Christine remorsefully. Poor child, she missed nothing in this strange proposal. Her eyes were like stars. As she met Jimmy's gaze she moved shyly across to him and raised her face.
"Kiss me, Jimmy," she said.
Jimmy kissed her very softly on the cheek. She put her hands up to his broad shoulders.
"And—and you do—really—love me?" she asked wistfully.
Jimmy could not meet her eyes, but—
"Of course I do," he said.
* * * * * *
It was late when Jimmy got back to his rooms that night. Mrs. Wyatt had insisted on him staying to dinner. There was no doubt that she was delighted at the turn affairs had taken, though she had said that it was soon—very soon. They must be engaged a few months at least, to make sure—quite sure.
She kissed Jimmy—she kissed Christine; she said she was very happy.
Jimmy felt a cad. He was thankful when the evening was ended. He drew a great breath of relief when he walked away from the hotel.
He was an engaged man—and engaged to Christine. He felt as if someone had snapped handcuffs on his wrists.
Being Christine's fiance would mean a very different thing from being engaged to Cynthia.
The two girls lived very different lives, had been brought up very differently.
Jimmy had liked the free and easy Bohemianism of the set in which Cynthia moved; he was not so sure about Christine's.
He was utterly wretched as he walked home. He had tied himself for life; there would be no slipping out of this engagement.
Poor little Christine! she deserved a better man. He felt acutely conscious of his own unworthiness.
He walked the whole way home. He was dog tired when he let himself into his rooms. Sangster rose from a chair by the fire.
Jimmy stifled an oath under his breath as he shut the door.
Sangster was the last man he wished to see at the present moment. He kept his eyes averted as he came forward.
"Hallo!" he said. "Been here long?"
"All the evening. Thought you'd sure to be in. Costin said you'd be in to dinner, he thought."
"I meant to . . . stayed with the Wyatts, though."
Jimmy helped himself to a whiskey. He knew that Sangster was watching him. His gaze got unbearable. He swung round with sharp impatience. "What the devil are you staring at?" he demanded irritably.
"Nothing. What a surly brute you're getting. Got a cigarette?"
Jimmy threw his case over.
"By the way," he said with overdone carelessness, "I've got some news for you. It'll be in all the papers to-morrow, so I thought I might as well tell you first." There was a little pause.
"Well?" said Sangster shortly.
Jimmy struck a match on the sole of his shoe.
"I'm engaged," he said, "to Christine."
It seemed a long, long time before Sangster moved or spoke. After a moment Jimmy Challoner swung round irritably.
"Well, why don't you say something?" he demanded. "It's a nice friendly way to receive news. Why the devil don't you say something?" he asked again angrily.
Sangster said something then; something which Jimmy had never expected.
"You ought to be shot!"
And then the silence fell once more.
Jimmy kicked at the blazing coals furiously; he had got very red.
"You ought to be shot!" said Sangster again. He rose to his feet; he threw his unsmoked cigarette into the grate and walked towards the door.
"Here—come back! Where are you going? Of all the bad-tempered beggars——" His face was abashed; there was a sort of wavering in his voice. He moved a step forward to overtake his friend.
Sangster looked back at him with biting contempt in his honest eyes.
"I'm fed up with you," he said. "Sick to death of you and your abominable selfishness. I—oh, what's the good of talking——?" He was gone with a slam of the door.
Jimmy dragged a chair forward and flung himself into it. His face was a study; now and then he gave a little choked exclamation of rage.
What the deuce did Sangster mean by taking such an attitude? It was like his infernal cheek. It was no business of his if he chose to get engaged to Christine and half a dozen other girls at the same time. Anyone would think he had done a shabby trick by asking her to marry him; anyone would think that there had been something disgraceful in having done so; anyone would think——
"Damn it all!" said Jimmy Challoner.
He took a cigarette and lit it; but it went out almost immediately, and he flung it into the fire and lit another.
In a minute or two he had thrown that away also; he lay back in his chair and closed his eyes.
He was an engaged man—it was no novelty. He had been engaged before to a woman whom he adored. Now he was engaged to Christine, the girl who had been his boyhood's sweetheart; a girl whom he had not seen for years.
He wondered if she believed that he loved her. He sat up, frowning. He did love her—of course he did; or, at least, he would when they were married and settled down. Men always loved their wives—decent men, that is.
He tried to believe that. He tried to forget the heaps and heaps of unhappy marriages which had been brought before his notice; friends of his own—all jolly decent chaps, too.
But, of course, such a thing would never happen to him. He meant to play the game by Christine, she was a dear little thing. But the face of Cynthia would rise before his eyes; he could not forget the way she had cried that evening, and clung to him.
He forgot how she had lied and deceived him; he remembered only that she loved him—that she admitted that she still loved him.
It was all the cursed money. If only the Great Horatio would come out of his niggardly shell and stump up a bit! It was not fair—he was as rich as Croesus; it would not hurt him to fork out another five hundred a year.
Jimmy leaned his head in his hands; his head was aching badly now; he supposed it was the quantity of brandy he had drunk. He got up from his chair, and, turning out the light, went off to bed. But the darkness seemed worse than the light; it was crowded with pictures of Cynthia. He saw her face in a thousand different memories; her eyes drew and tortured him. She was the only woman he had ever loved; he was sure of that. He was more sure of it with every passing, wakeful second.
He never slept a wink till it began to get light. When at last he fell asleep he had dreadful dreams. He woke up to the sound of Costin moving about the room. He turned over with a stifled groan.
"Good morning, sir," said Costin stolidly.
Jimmy did not condescend to answer. Pale sunlight was pouring through the window. He closed his eyes; his head still ached vilely. He got up late, and dressed with a bad grace.
He ate no breakfast. He tried to remember whether he had promised to go round to the Wyatts' that morning or not; everything was a blank in his mind except the one fact that he was engaged to Christine.
He could remember that clearly enough, at all events.
About eleven he took his hat and went out. He was annoyed because the sun was shining; he was annoyed because London was looking cheerful when he himself felt depressed beyond measure.
Unconsciously he found his way to the Wyatts' hotel; they were both out, for which he was grateful.
"Miss Wyatt left a message for you in case you called, sir," the porter told him. "She said would you come back to lunch?"
Jimmy muttered something and walked away. He had no intention of going back to lunch; he wandered down Regent Street. Presently he found himself staring in at a jeweller's window. That reminded him; he would have to buy Christine a ring.
He wondered if Cynthia intended to keep the one he had given to her; it had cost him a fabulous sum. He had been hard up for weeks afterwards in consequence; and even then it was not nearly so fine as some she already had—as some Mortlake could afford to give her, for instance.
He could not yet realise that this detestable thing had really happened to him. He made up his mind that if Christine would have him, he would marry her at once. There was nothing to wait for—and he wanted to let Cynthia see that he was not going to wear the willow for her.
He turned away from the window and the dazzling rows of diamond rings and walked on. He remembered that he had not answered his brother's letter; on the spur of the moment he turned into the nearest post office and sent a cable:
Letter received. Am engaged to Christine Wyatt, of Upton House. You remember her.—JAMES.
He never signed himself "Jimmy" when he was writing to the Great Horatio. The cable, together with his brother's address, cost him fifteen shillings; he grudged the expense, but he supposed it had to be sent.
He wandered on again up the street.
He had some lunch by himself, and went back to the Wyatts' hotel. Christine came running down the stairs to meet him; her eyes were dancing, her face flushed.
"Oh, Jimmy!" she said. She looked as if she expected him to kiss her, he thought; after a moment he lightly touched her cheek with his lips.
"I'm sorry I couldn't come to lunch," he said stiltedly. "I—er—I had an engagement. If you care to come out——"
He knew he must sound horribly casual and indifferent; he tried in vain to infuse some enthusiasm into his voice, but failed.
Christine seemed to notice nothing amiss; she assented eagerly when he suggested they should go and look at the shops.
"You—er you must have a ring, you know," he said.
His heart smote him when he saw the way her lips trembled. He took her hand remorsefully.
"I mean to make you very happy," he said. He dropped her hand again and moved away.
In his mind he kept comparing this with the first days of his engagement to Cynthia. He had not been tongue-tied and foolish then; he had not needed to be reminded that it was usual to kiss a girl when you were engaged to her; he—oh, confound it!
Christine had gone for her hat and coat.
"Mother is not at all well," she said anxiously when she came back. "Do you know, Jimmy, I have thought sometimes lately that she really isn't so well and strong as she tries to make me believe."
Jimmy was not impressed; he said that he thought Mrs. Wyatt looked A1; not a day older than when she had mothered him down at Upton House all those years ago. Christine was pleased; she adored her mother; she was quite happy as they left the hotel together.
"You choose what you like," he told her when they were in the jeweller's shop. The man behind the counter thought him the most casual lover he had ever yet served. He looked at Christine with a sort of pity; she was so eager and happy. He brought another tray of diamond rings.
Christine appealed to Jimmy Challoner.
"I would much rather you chose one for me. Which one would you like best?"
He shook his head.
"I don't mind—anything you like; you've got to wear it." He saw a little swift look of amazement in her eyes; he roused himself.
"Diamonds are nice," he said with more enthusiasm.
Christine chose a single stone; the ring just fitted, and she turned her little hand about delightedly to show Jimmy how the diamond flashed.
She felt as if she were walking on air as they left the shop. Now and then she glanced at Jimmy as if afraid that she had dreamed all this.
She had loved him all her life; she was sure that he, too, must have loved her, or he would never have asked her to be his wife.
They had tea together. Over the buttered muffins Jimmy said suddenly:
"Christine, why can't we get married—soon, I mean!"
Lovely colour dyed her face.
"But—but we've only just got engaged," she said breathlessly.
"I know; but engagements are always short nowadays. If you are willing——"
Apparently she was more than willing; she would have married him that minute had he suggested it, She said she must speak to her mother about it.