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Title: The Education of Eric Lane
Author: McKenna, Stephen, 1888-1967
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Education of Eric Lane" ***

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THE SENSATIONALISTS: II

THE EDUCATION OF ERIC LANE

STEPHEN McKENNA


       *       *       *       *       *


By STEPHEN McKENNA

THE SENSATIONALISTS
  PART ONE: LADY LILITH
  PART TWO: THE EDUCATION OF ERIC LANE
  PART THREE: _In preparation_

SONIA MARRIED
SONIA
MIDAS AND SON
NINETY-SIX HOURS' LEAVE
THE SIXTH SENSE
SHEILA INTERVENES


NEW YORK
GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY

       *       *       *       *       *



THE EDUCATION OF
ERIC LANE

BY

STEPHEN McKENNA

AUTHOR OF "LADY LILITH," "SONIA MARRIED,"
"MIDAS AND SON," "SONIA," "NINETY-SIX
HOURS' LEAVE," ETC.

NEW YORK
GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY


       *       *       *       *       *

COPYRIGHT, 1921,
BY GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA


       *       *       *       *       *

             TO
      THE WITTIEST WOMAN
          IN LONDON

       *       *       *       *       *



CONTENTS


  CHAPTER                                                           PAGE

     I AN EXPERIMENT IN EMOTION                                       11

    II LADY BARBARA NEAVE                                             52

   III LASHMAR MILL-HOUSE                                             88

    IV INTERMEZZO                                                    120

     V MORTMAIN                                                      149

    VI DAME'S SCHOOL EDUCATION                                       184

   VII EDUCATION FOR THOSE OF RIPER YEARS                            210

  VIII THE STRONGEST THING OF ALL                                    237

    IX THE EDUCATION OF BARBARA NEAVE                                260



THE EDUCATION OF ERIC LANE


    "Because lust was not good enough, the Celt invented romance."
            --SHANE LESLIE: _The End of a Chapter._



THE EDUCATION OF ERIC LANE



CHAPTER ONE

AN EXPERIMENT IN EMOTION

    ". . . A genial . . . bachelor, whom the outside world called
    selfish because it derived no particular benefit from him. . . ."
            OSCAR WILDE: "THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY."


1

Eric Lane, visible only from ear to chin above the water-line, peered
through the steam of the bathroom at a travelling-clock on his
dressing-table. The bath would have been improved by another half
handful of verbena salts; but, even lacking this, the water was still
too hot to be lightly dismissed with an aggrieved gurgle down the
waste-pipe. It was an added self-indulgence to know that, if he lay
gently boiling himself for more than another minute, he would be late
for dinner with Lady Poynter; but, if any one had to suffer, let it be
Lady Poynter. It was not his fault that the rehearsal of "The
Bomb-Shell" had dragged on until after seven; something had to be
sacrificed--the letters which his secretary had left for him to sign, or
the hot bath, or the cigarette and glass of sherry as he dressed, or (in
the last resort and quite obviously) Lady Poynter. He had already
foregone a cocktail, which would have made him two minutes later.

As the water began to cool, Eric threw a towel over his shoulders, wiped
the steam from the face of the clock and began to dry himself slowly,
looking round with ever-fresh delight at the calculated ingenuity of
comfort in his new flat. It was his reward for the successful play. For
ten years after coming down from Oxford he had lived in the Temple,
first with Jack Waring and afterwards by himself; lonely, hard-working
years, when he had painfully learned the value of money and time. With
one play running indefatigably, another rehearsing and a third in sight
of completion, he had decided to construct a frame better suited to his
new position. Ten years ago he had dreamed at Oxford of a day when he
would burst upon London as a new young Byron; and, when the dream was
almost forgotten, he found himself living in its midst. He was courted
and quoted, photographed and "paragraphed"; Lady Poynter and the rich,
malcontent world which aspired to intelligence humbly invited him to
dine, and it did not matter whether she wanted to pay him homage or to
exhibit him as her latest celebrity. It was time to leave the Temple and
to burst, fully equipped, upon London. A friend in the artillery made
over the remainder of his lease, and Eric gave himself a fortnight's
holiday to order the furnishing and decoration of the six tiny rooms.
When he surveyed telephone and dictaphone, switches and presses, files
and cases, tables and lights, he felt that the ease and beauty of which
he had dreamed were dulled and stunted by the reality.

Over the dressing-table hung a framed poster of his play: "_Regency
Theatre_" in a scroll of blue lettering: "_A Divorce Has Been Arranged_"
under it; then his own name; then the cast. Eric looked affectionately
at the trophy, as he began to comb his dripping, black hair. He was
proud of the play and grateful to it; grateful for money, reputation and
the added importance of himself. As he entered the Carlton that day one
unknown woman had whispered to another, "Isn't that Eric Lane? I thought
he was older." He was boy enough to be gratified that seventeen people
had stopped him that morning between Grosvenor Street and Piccadilly.
Eight months ago no one outside Fleet Street or the Thespian Club had
heard of him. Jack Waring and O'Rane, Loring and Deganway always seemed
to regard him as a harmless eccentric who wrote unacceptable plays for
his own amusement. . . .

The hair-brushing completed, he put on a dressing-gown and crossed the
hall to his smoking-room for the sherry and cigarette. On the table lay
a pile of typewritten letters, awaiting his signature, and another pile
not yet opened and secured from the late summer breeze by a glass
paper-weight. It was shaped like a horse-shoe and had been sent him on
his first night, to be followed by a telegram: "_Best wishes for all
possible success Agnes._" He had kept it for luck and in gratitude to
Agnes Waring, who had been a sympathetic, if rather undiscriminating,
friend for many years. Until eight months ago he had never earned enough
money to think of marrying; and, at thirty-two, he told himself that he
was not a marrying man; but more than once in the early hours of triumph
he had thought of Agnes and of his own return to Lashmar; they had often
talked jestingly of the day when he would come back famous, and behind
the jest lay a hint of romance and sentiment which told him that she was
waiting for him and believed in his success when he himself doubted it.

Next to the letters lay an album in which his secretary had at last
finished pasting his press-cuttings. He could not resist the temptation
to glance at two or three of his favourite notices before opening the
letters. The critics had treated him kindly, for he had been a critic
himself and had not scrupled to secure a good press; but mere flattery
never kept a bad play running. . . . He decided that he was going to
enjoy his dinner with the Poynters, though the chiming of the clock in
the hall warned him that he could not hope to be dressed and in Belgrave
Square by a quarter past eight. The new Byron would achieve an effect,
if he gained the reputation of _always_ being ten minutes late for
everything; but the pose offended Eric's sense of tidiness. Signing his
letters, he ripped open half-a-dozen envelopes and glanced at the
contents, pushed the news-cutting album neatly into its shelf and
hurried into his bedroom with a glass of sherry in his hand.

It was time to order a taxi, and a tall Scotch parlour-maid, of whom he
lived in secret dread, came in answer to his ring. He would have
preferred a man, but men were unprocurable in war-time. He let fall a
word of instruction on the correct way of laying out dress-clothes and
was beginning to get ready in earnest, when the telephone-bell rang
simultaneously in bedroom, bathroom, dining-room and smoking-room. As he
finished his sherry, he tried to remember where he had left the
instrument.

"Hul-lo," he cried, exploring to see whether the bathroom chair was dry.

"That you, Ricky? Sybil speaking. I say, are you coming down on
Saturday? You've not been here for months, and we want to see you."

Eric sighed patiently before he remembered that the sigh was unlikely to
carry as far as Winchester. The prophet could look for affection in his
own country and in his own house; he would not find honour.

"If you feel I'm essential to the family happiness----" he began.

"You're not. But we've got some people dining on Saturday--Agnes Waring
amongst others. You can bring your work with you. . . . Say you'll come,
like a good boy, and don't be selfish."

"Well, I might," Eric answered. "Good-bye, Sybil."

"You needn't be in such a hurry! What are you doing to-night?"

"I'm being--_extraordinarily_--late for dinner with some people I don't
know," he answered.

His sister's voice in reply was slightly aggrieved.

"I wouldn't detain you for worlds. I only wanted to know if you'd seen a
full-page photograph of yourself----"

"In the 'Gallery.' Yes, I know the editor and I got him to shove it in.
As my own advertising agent, I take a lot of beating. Good-bye, Sybil."

"Good-bye, selfish pig. You're being spoilt by success, you know."

Eric made no answer, but, as he snatched up his hat and cane, still more
as he settled himself in the taxi with his feet on the opposite seat, he
reflected with philosophic indulgence how wide of the mark his sister
had fired. He was self-satisfied, perhaps, as he had some reason to be;
self-sufficient, assuredly, as he had set out to become. After all, he
could have entered the Civil Service ten years before, as his father had
wished; and there would have been ten years of material comfort, an
unchallengeable social position, a wife, a home, spiritual paralysis and
soul-destroying domestic worries as his portion. Instead, he had elected
to make his own way in a hard and somewhat despised school. A young
journalist had no status. People invited him to their houses, because he
had been at the same college as their sons, because other people had
already taken the plunge; but he had always had enough detachment to
recognize where the intimacy was to stop.

Now he was being accepted at his own valuation. As he passed the Ritz,
two officers and a girl hailed a taxi and told the driver to take them
to the Regency. At eleven o'clock they would be saying: "Good show,
that." (Had he not loitered in the hall of the theatre, with coat-collar
turned up, to hear just that?) In another month they would be going to
"The Bomb-Shell," because it was by the fellow who wrote "A Divorce Has
Been Arranged." . . . He had money, friends, adulators and the health to
do a full day's work. In speaking to Sybil, he had only hesitated
because he was not sure whether he wanted to meet Agnes Waring yet. When
they became engaged. . . . _If_ they became engaged, he would lose in
interest with the women like Lady Poynter who were always inviting him
to be lionized. . . .

As the taxi drew up in Belgrave Square, he looked at his watch.
Twenty-seven minutes past eight. He handed his hat and cane to a footman
and followed the butler upstairs with complete self-possession. As he
was asked his name at the door of the drawing-room, however, he
stammered:

"Mr. Eric L-lane."

It was intolerable that he could not overcome that stammer, so entirely
alien to a new young Byron. . . .


2

Lady Poynter had finished dressing and was writing in her diary when her
maid entered to ask whether Mrs. Shelley might come in. At luncheon the
Duchess of Ross had complained that no one would give her a chance of
meeting young Eric Lane; Gerald Deganway had murmured, "One poor martyr
without a lion"; and, as Deganway was incapable of originating anything,
Lady Poynter felt that she was not infringing any copyright in recording
the jest against that day when Eleanor Ross tried to steal any more of
her young men the moment she had put a polish on them and made them
known. . . .

"Angel Marion!" cried Lady Poynter, throwing down her pen so that it
described an inky semi-circle. "The idea of asking!"

She embraced her guest as effusively as she had addressed her. Lady
Poynter was forty-eight years of age, daily increasing in bulk,
masculine in voice, intellectual through vanity and childless by
preference. Her husband was rich, patient, stupid and self-indulgent,
bearing with her literary passions and in self-defence displaying that
care for household comfort which it was Lady Poynter's pride to neglect.
Why, she asked, were men given brains if they made gods of their
bellies? Mrs. Shelley was the widow of a well-known free-lance
journalist, who in his day had brought her into contact with a
sufficient number of authors for her to imitate on austerely simple
lines the symposia of wit and learning which Lady Poynter assembled on
the strength of her own personality and her husband's cellar. There was
a long-standing gentle competition between the two, which they abandoned
in common hostility to Lady Maitland, who excelled them both in the
ruthlessness and speed of her hunting. At the moment, however, Mrs.
Shelley had eclipsed both her rivals by the chance of having known Eric
Lane for ten years; to Lady Maitland he was still "Mr. Eric," to Lady
Poynter "Mr. Lane."

"You don't mind my coming like this, do you?" she asked timidly,
disengaging herself from Lady Poynter's embrace and indicating her
commandant's uniform. "I was at the hospital until eight."

"As if I minded what you wore!" her hostess cried. "In war-time, when we
haven't a moment to turn round . . .! And it isn't as if this were a
party."

Mrs. Shelley walked to a mirror and looked thoughtfully at her
unassertive reflection. Her hair was a dusty brown, her eyes an
unsoftening grey, and her cheeks, which were careworn with exacting,
humble ambition, acted at once as frame and background for a thin nose
and unrelaxing mouth.

"You always say that, darling," she protested gently, leaning forward
to the mirror and dabbing at herself with a powder-puff. "And it means
the _most_ delightful----"

"I've got Eric Lane coming," interrupted Lady Poynter, groping for a
crumpled half-sheet of paper marked as with the sweeping strokes of a
hay-rake in soft mud. "Who else? Sonia O'Rane you know; Max--or did Max
say he was dining at his club? It doesn't matter, because I can't
pretend that Max contributes much, even though he is my husband; then
there's my nephew, Johnnie Gaymer; and Babs Neave----"

"Dear Babs," murmured Mrs. Shelley with conscientious enthusiasm. It was
her favourite boast that she sincerely tried to make allowances for all
and permitted ill-speaking of none. In the years before the war, when
Lady Barbara's friends were wondering whether they really could continue
to know her, Mrs. Shelley remained embarrassingly loyal. "I haven't seen
her for months."

"She's been nursing at Crawleigh all this time, simply wearing herself
out. I've never seen any one so changed. We met in Bond Street this
morning; I hadn't _meant_ to invite her, but I felt I must do
_some_thing. . . ." Lady Poynter projected herself from the sofa and
rustled to the door, murmuring: "I _must_ find out whether Max is dining
at home to-night."

Mrs. Shelley made her way downstairs to the drawing-room and stood on
the balcony outside one of the French windows, looking down through the
warm dusk on Belgrave Square. An open taxi drew up at the door, and she
watched Mrs. O'Rane descending daintily and smiling at the driver; a
second taxi drove from the opposite corner of the square, and Captain
Gaymer, in Flying Corps uniform, jumped out and hurried to the door,
looking apprehensively at his watch. Mrs. Shelley left the balcony and
shook hands with Lord Poynter who was dutifully dressed in time to
receive any guests who might arrive before his wife appeared.

"Two. Four," he counted timidly. "Babs Neave is sure to be late. That
leaves only Lane. Does every one know him?"

An indistinct murmur was drowned by Gaymer, who knitted his brows and
repeated:

"Lane? Eric Lane? The dramatist fellow? I saw something about him in one
of the picture-papers to-day, when I was having my hair cut. Oh, I know!
He'd left London, and letters weren't going to be forwarded. Didn't he
tell you?" he asked as his aunt crossed the room in concern.

Lady Poynter's jaw fell in affronted indignation. Lady Maitland had
already secured Mr. Lane for luncheon, the Duchess of Ross had wired:
"Don't know you but must. Have just seen your play. When will you dine?"
and Mrs. Shelley had staked out a claim before any one else had heard of
the man.

"That is really _too_ abominable," she cried. "He made a note of the
time in his book . . . only two days ago. . . . And then he hasn't the
consideration even to telephone."

She counted the numbers and turned angrily, as the door was thrown open.
After pausing on the threshold to see who was present, Lady Barbara
Neave entered the room falteringly and with a suggestion that she was
belatedly repenting a too venturesome effect in dress. The men, she
knew, were only watching her eyes and waiting for the surprised smile of
recognition which always made them feel that they had been missed; but
Mrs. Shelley, she would wager, was privately noting that a dove-coloured
silk dress and a scarlet shawl embroidered with birds in flight made a
white face look ashen; Sonia O'Rane was probably wondering why her maid
did not tell her that a band of black tulle with a red rose at one side
simply emphasized her hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. . . . She moved
listlessly and smiled mysteriously to herself as though unconscious that
every one was silent and watchful; then the surprised smile transfigured
her, she kissed the other women with childlike abandon, leaving the men
to watch and envy.

"Babs, darling, it _is_ sweet of you to come. I've no party for you,"
said Lady Poynter, forgiving the girl's lateness and forgetting her own
discomfiture.

Barbara shook her head and looked round the room with eyes which had
lost their momentary colour, as though the light behind them had been
doused.

"I've forgotten what it's like to meet people and try to talk
intelligently," she laughed with the mirthlessness of physical
exhaustion. "Well, Max! And Johnnie! I'm sorry to be late, Margaret, but
until the last moment I didn't know that I should feel up to coming."

"If _you_'d thrown me over, too----" began Lady Poynter. "Give us some
light, Max. My dear, you're losing all your looks, and that black thing
gives you a face like a sheet of mourning note-paper. You _must_ take
proper care of yourself. And you're nothing but skin and bones."

Barbara smiled again, as listlessly as before.

"Yes. My maid has given notice; I don't do her credit. . . . But I'm a
dull subject of conversation. How's dear Marion been all this time?"

She broke up the group by drawing Mrs. Shelley to a sofa with her and
again looked cautiously round the room. This was the first time that she
had dined out since her illness, almost the first time since the
beginning of the war; and the light and noise, magnified by fancy and
sensitive nerves, made her dizzy. Her mother and the doctor had tried to
keep her at home; but natural obstinacy and uncontrollable whim had been
too much for them. A few weeks ago she had fainted in the train, as she
returned to London from Crawleigh Abbey; an unknown man had taken care
of her, but, though she remembered his voice, she was too giddy to see
or recall his face. On arriving at her father's house in Berkeley
Square, she found her fingers grasping a silver flask with a monogram
"E. L."; and that morning, when Lady Poynter invited her to dinner, she
had divined that "E. L." must stand for Eric Lane. The coincidence would
not have been worth following by itself, but in the latter days of her
illness she had repeatedly dreamed of a child with the stranger's voice;
and, vaguely and shamefacedly, Barbara believed that dreams had an
influence on life and were glimpses beyond the veil of the unknown. She
was coming to believe, too, in predestination as the one cause able to
explain a long series of isolated acts for which she could not hold
herself responsible; and to-night predestination would be put to the
test, for half-a-dozen people had already invited her to meet Eric Lane
and for one reason or another she had never been able to accept. It was
the thought that she might be meeting him at last which had so taken
away her composure that she had hardly been able to cross the room.

"_I_ don't think it's worth waiting," muttered Lady Poynter, her
indignation returning reinforced by hunger. "You might ring the bell,
Max, and find whether any telephone message _has_ been received----"

"It's Eric Lane," Mrs. Shelley explained. "Captain Gaymer was saying
that he'd left London."

"Oh! I'm sorry. I've never met him," said Barbara.

Evidently she was predestined never to meet him; and the noise and light
made her too giddy to decide whether she was relieved or disappointed.
Predestination was winning another round; and, while she was ill and
unresisting, it was comforting to feel that she was not responsible for
all the follies and the one crime which had ruined her life; but it was
sad to feel that she would never meet the hero of her dream-romance. He
might have filled the whole of a life that for a year had been empty
and aching; at the lowest computation, their meeting would have been an
experiment in emotion. . . .

Lord Poynter had shambled flat-footedly half-way to the bell, when the
door was thrown open again and the butler announced "Mr. Eric Lane."
There was a tiny stir of interest among those who had not met him and of
surprise among all. Eric's eyes narrowed for a moment under the light of
the chandelier; then he collected himself, swiftly identified Lady
Poynter and shook her hand with a murmur of apology for his lateness.

"But, dear man, we'd given you up!" she exclaimed. "Why did you frighten
us by announcing in the papers that you'd left London? You've not met
Max, have you?"

Eric shook hands with Lord Poynter.

"That was my s-secretary," he explained. Shyness was rushing in waves to
his head, and he could only save himself from disgrace by pretending to
be more icily collected than any one in the room. "I'm f-frightfully
overworked at present with rehearsals and things, so I applied for a
f-fortnight's leave from my department and everybody thinks I'm
f-fishing in Scotland or doing a walking tour on Dartmoor. This party is
my f-final dissipation, Lady Poynter."

He looked round to see with whom he had still to shake hands. As he
began to speak, Barbara had shivered so violently that Mrs. Shelley
turned at the movement; then she tried to remember even seeing his face
as he bent over her in the train and carried her along the platform at
Waterloo. She was paralyzed with dread of the moment when he would
recognize her, for she had nothing adequate to the drama of their
meeting. . . . He shook hands first with those nearest to him, and she
hastened to make a mental picture before he saw that she was watching
him; black hair, a thin face restless with vitality, bloodless lips
tightly shut and eyes that were out of keeping with the assurance of the
face--eyes unexpectedly big and soft, deep in colour and timid in
expression, reminding her of the stammer and quick eagerness of his
speech.

He was shaking hands now with Mrs. Shelley, and Barbara grew rigid with
fear. His face turned, and their eyes met; but he passed on to Gaymer
without recognizing her. She found herself trembling with relief; and
the reaction swept away disappointment and all interest but dislike.
Voice and eyes, movements and manner became hateful to her; she longed
for an opportunity of upsetting his precarious composure, of pricking
his conceit and hurting him. If Margaret Poynter did not put her next to
him, she would walk out of the room and go home. . . .

The butler entered to announce that dinner was served, and Lady Poynter,
with an unconcentrated "Babs, you haven't met Mr. Lane, have you?" tried
to remember her ordering of the table.

"Tell me who 'Babs' is," Eric begged in an undertone, as he and Gaymer
prepared to follow the others down to the dining-room.

"Babs Neave? Don't you know her?" Gaymer asked in surprise.

"Oh, by name, of course. I didn't recognize her."

"She's been rather ill, I think."

As he pulled his napkin out of its folds, Eric stole a glance at
Barbara. By sight he had known her distantly for years as a girl who
hardly missed a first night or private view; she was always to be found
acting, reciting or at least selling programmes at charity _matinées_;
he had seen her at Stage Society performances, and the illustrated
papers gave her a full-page photograph after any of the big costume
balls. And, like most of his generation, he knew her by reputation
better than by sight; for half-a-dozen years her epigrams and escapades
had been on every one's lips; while he was still at Oxford and she a
child of twelve, her cousin Lord Loring had wondered despairingly what
was to be done with her. On the disclosure of her name, Eric had
expected to see some one flamboyant and assertive. He was relieved to
find her quiet and reserved, a little hostile, perhaps bored and
certainly ill.

"I'm so sorry to hear you've not been well," he began timidly. Her
expression and the angle at which she was seated convinced him that he
had left an unfavourable impression on her, and he half feared a rebuff.
"I suppose, like every one else, you've been overworking?"


3

"You'll find me thoroughly dull," Barbara announced abruptly, with the
candour of one who studies her effects and with a brusqueness which
discouraged further advances. "The doctor says--oh, Mrs. O'Rane's trying
to attract your attention."

Eric felt himself dismissed and, submitting to her hint, looked over the
malachite bowls of white roses to the place where Mrs. O'Rane was
leaning forward with one elbow on the table and her other hand
repressing Gaymer. The cast of the "Divorce" was being slightly changed,
and they had thought it worth while to venture a sovereign on the name
of one nonentity who was retiring in favour of another. Eric adjudicated
in Gaymer's favour and was turning to give Barbara a last chance, when
he found that the flood-gates were open and that every one, taking his
time from Lady Poynter, was prepared to discuss dramatic art in general
and, in particular, the construction and history of his play. Their
enquiries were simple-minded; bombarded from four different quarters at
once, he took the questions at the volley; then, as they seemed
interested, he became more expansive, losing his stammer and straying
unconsciously into an unrehearsed lecture. There were occasional
objections and challenges; but Lady Poynter silenced them ruthlessly
with a "Now, my dear, you mustn't interrupt when Mr. Lane's explaining
the whole basis of his art," and he discovered suddenly that he was
talking well.

"I expect you're tired of hearing it, but I _loved_ that play of yours,"
said his hostess with a beaming glance which confidently asked her other
guests whether she was not well justified in summoning them to meet him.
"I've been to see it three times."

"I've been twice, and some one's taking me to it again to-morrow,"
continued Mrs. O'Rane, for whom no subject of conversation was complete
until she had decorated it with a personal touch.

"Even I've been once," murmured Barbara, rousing reluctantly from the
silence which she had maintained since the beginning of dinner: "George
Oakleigh insisted on taking me. It seems to be having a great success,
Mr. Lane."

Eric smiled a little self-consciously; but her deliberate avoidance of
enthusiasm chilled him after Lady Poynter's extravagant appreciation.

"No one here seems to have escaped it," he said.

"I kept thinking how clever of you it was to write it," she went on,
half to herself.

Such criticism led to nothing but a second self-conscious smile; and,
knowing her reputation, he had expected something more stimulating.

"Was it a good house?" he asked.

"Very full, if that's what you mean." She looked past him and lowered
her voice. "It was full of Lady Poynters," she went on. "Rows and rows
of them. They took it conscientiously, they laughed at the jokes, they
missed nothing, even the obvious things; and, if I went next week, I
should find them all there again--or other people exactly like them. It
was a wonderful--" she hesitated and looked at him long enough to see
that he was perplexed, if not annoyed--"experience."

"I hope you don't regret going?"

"Very few plays are as amusing as the audience," she answered
thoughtfully. "Oh, I wouldn't have missed it for anything. I wondered
what you were like. . . ." She turned to look at him with leisurely and
unsmiling interest. "I expected to find you much younger. How old are
you? Twenty-six? _Thirty-two!_ You're ten years older than I am! What in
the world have you been doing with yourself?"

"That would take _rather_ a long time to tell!" he laughed.

"I don't expect it would. Life is not measured by days, but by
sensations. . . ."

"Those you experience or those you create?" Eric interrupted.

Barbara turned away and nodded to herself.

"It's like that, is it?" she murmured. "Are you declaring war? If so,
you're clever enough to fight with your own weapons instead of picking
up the rusty swords of men I've already beaten. You knew little Val
Arden, of course? And my cousin Jim Loring? _They_ taught you to call me
a 'sensationalist.' Labels are an indolent man's device for guessing
what's inside a bottle without tasting."

"They sometimes prevent accidental poisoning."

"If the right labels are on the right bottles. That's what I have to
find out. And it's worth an occasional risk. . . . Sensationalist! I
collect new emotions, but you must be _bourgeois_ yourself if you want
to _épater le bourgeois_. Now, _you_ can't have had many emotions, or
you wouldn't have written that play. And yet--what were you doing
before?" she demanded abruptly.

"I followed the despised calling of a journalist."

"Ah!"

She nodded and began eating her quail without explaining herself
further. Eric was nettled by her tone, for she was taking pains to let
him see that she had not liked his play, perhaps even that she despised
him for writing it. He half turned to Lady Poynter, but she was deep in
conversation with her nephew. For a time he, too, concentrated his
attention on the quail; but every one else was talking, and, though
Barbara's challenge was too pert to be taken seriously, he felt that
half-praise from her was more valuable than the adulation of women like
Mrs. Shelley who were content to worship success for its own sake.

"What was the precise meaning of the 'Ah!'?" he enquired lazily.

"'Meaning'; not 'precise meaning.' You surely don't want me to see that
you're rather losing your temper and trying to cover it up by being
dignified. You've been so careful with your effects, too! . . . I said
'Ah,' because you'd given me the clue I was looking for. You were a very
clever journalist, I should think."

"Isn't that rash on half an hour's acquaintance?"

"You're forgetting your play--for the first time since it was produced!
I felt that, however bad it was as a play, it was first-rate journalism.
I've told you that I kept thinking how clever of you it was to write it.
You mustn't think I didn't enjoy myself. The construction's quite
tolerable, and the dialogue's admirable--not a word too much, not a
syllable put in for 'cleverness,' no epigrams for epigrams' sake. And
you've got a good sense of the theatre."

"I was a dramatic critic for some years. Hence my good press."

"Ah! Well, I felt that night that, if you weren't too old and set, you
might live to write a really good play." He bowed slightly. "Have you a
cigarette? I hate people smoking in the middle of meals; but Margaret's
begun, and I must have something to drown it. Now _that_, I suppose,
would be called an ironical bow, wouldn't it? I mean, in your stage
directions? You must guard against that kind of thing, you know."

"I will endeavour to do so, Lady Barbara."

"'Try,' not 'endeavour.' And you mustn't talk like your own characters;
you've no idea how debilitating that is. It's bad enough when you try to
drag us into the world of your plays, but it's intolerable if you try to
drag your plays into our world. Did you ever read a story about a boy
who lost all sense of reality by going to the theatre too much? He
became dramatic. He slapped his forehead and groaned---- Well, we
_don't_ slap our foreheads or groan, however great the provocation. And
in moments of stress he would shake hands with people and turn away to
hide his emotion. And it wasn't only in gestures, he became dramatic in
conduct. When compromising letters came into his hands, he used to burn
them unread and without any one looking on, which is manifestly absurd.
I forget what happened to him in the end, but I expect he was charged
with something he hadn't done to save the husband of the woman he wanted
to marry--and whom he'd have made perfectly miserable, if she hadn't
taken him in hand very firmly at the outset. And he'd have insisted on
having all their quarrels in her bedroom."

Barbara seemed to have talked away her listlessness. The champagne had
brought colour into her cheeks and eyes. Eric looked at her with new
interest, waiting for the next abrupt change.

"I'm not finding you as thoroughly dull as you warned me to expect," he
observed, borrowing her candour of speech.

"I should think not! I'm never dull when it's worth while taking any
trouble. I didn't think you _were_ worth while, till you began talking.
Then I saw that in spite of the play----"

"I didn't think I should be spared that," he murmured.

"And the poses----"

"Poses?"

"Oh, my dear child, you've postured and advertised yourself till every
one's sick of you! A good press--I should think you had! You're never
out of it! An announcement that you've left London--and the intolerable
effrontery of telling us all about it! The only way you could escape
from your mob of adorers."

"I don't think I used the word 'adorers'; and I've _got_ to find time
somehow to rehearse my new play."

His voice had grown a little stiff. Barbara smiled to herself and
discovered suddenly that the desire to hurt him was dead.

"When's the new play coming out?" she asked.

"In the middle of next month."

"You can't make it later?"

"Are you afraid you won't be able to attend the first night?" he
laughed.

"God forbid! But I shan't have time to complete your education in a
month. Now, I'm talking seriously. Put that play off! You're only a
child, you've made a mint of money out of this present abomination. If
you'll wait till I've educated you----"

Her pupils had dilated until the irises were swamped in black. The early
warm flush had shrunk and intensified into two vivid splashes of colour
over her cheek-bones. Neurotic, Eric decided; but arresting and
magnetic.

"And what do you propose to teach me?" he enquired.

As he spoke, he was conscious of a lull in the conversation. Without
looking round, he knew that every one was watching them and that both
their voices had risen a tone.

"Life!" she cried. "You've never _met_ men and women. I told George
Oakleigh so that night. That's why the public loves your play."

Eric turned to Lady Poynter.

"I have a new play coming out next month," he explained, "and Lady
Barbara wants me to hang it up till she's taught me--did you say
'life'?"

"Yes! Margaret, darling, any young man may write _one_ successful bad
play----"

There was a gasp of orotund protest from Lady Poynter.

"My _dear_ Babs!"

"Of course it's a bad play! What I don't know about bad plays isn't
worth knowing, I've seen so many of them! Have you _ever_ met a woman,
Mr. Lane? Have you ever even _fancied_ that you were in love?"

Eric took a cigarette and lighted one for Barbara.

"I thought I knew a lot about life when I was twenty-two," he said,
studiedly reflective. "I'd just come down from Oxford."

Her attention seemed to have wandered to her cigarette, for she drew
hard at it and then asked for another match.

"Which was your college?" she enquired with neurotic suddenness of
transition.

"Trinity."

"Did you know my brother? He must have been up about your time. He was
at the House."

"I knew him by sight. Tall, fair-haired man; he was on the Bullingdon. I
never met him, though. I didn't know many men at the House."

Barbara thought for a moment.

"I don't believe I know any one who was at Trinity in your time. Did you
ever meet a man called Waring?"

"Jack Waring of New College? I've known him all my life. They're
neighbours of ours in Hampshire. You know he's missing?"

Barbara nodded quickly.

"So I heard. . . . I suppose nothing definite's known?"

"I haven't met any of the family since the news was published, but I
shall see his sister this week-end."

"Well, if you can find out anything without too much bother----"

"Oh, she's a great friend of mine," Eric explained. "It's no trouble."

Barbara turned to him with a rapid backward cast to her earlier quest.

"Are you in love with her? Oh, but why not?" she demanded querulously.
"It would do you so much good--as a man and as a writer. You'll never
get rid of your self-satisfaction till then; and you'll never write a
good play. It's such a pity, when you've everything except the
psychology. Why don't you fall in love with me? I could teach you such a
lot, and you'd never regret it." Barbara caught her hostess' eye and
picked up her gloves. "You'd write a tolerable play in the middle of it,
a work of genius at the end----"

Eric's laugh interrupted her eager outpour.

"I'm quite satisfied to be an observer of life."

"Dear child, you're quite satisfied with _every_thing. You're sunk in
soulless contentment; you shirk emotion because it would force you to
see below the pink-and-white surface; that's why you write such bad
plays. Margaret!" She approached Lady Poynter with outstretched arms.
"I've argued myself hoarse trying to persuade Mr. Lane to fall in love
with me. Do see what you can do! He shews all the obstinacy of a young,
weak man; he won't _see_ how much I should improve him. When he'd learnt
life at my hands----"

Lady Poynter threw a crushing arm round the girl's waist.

"Come on, Babs. You're looking better than you did," she said. "I _told_
you you'd fall in love with him," she added, as they walked upstairs.

"There's nothing much the matter with Babs," commented Gaymer meaningly,
as he shut the door and settled into a chair beside Lord Poynter.


4

As Barbara's voice faded and died away, an air of guilty quiet settled
upon the dining-room. Eric tidied himself a place among her wreckage of
crumpled napkin, sloppy finger-bowl, nut-shells and cigarette-ash. For
ten minutes he could rest; conversation with either of his companions
threatened to be as difficult as it was unnecessary. John Gaymer, in
upbringing, intellect, habits of mind and method of speech, belonged to
a self-centred world which cheerfully defied subjugation by a brigade of
Byrons, reinforced by a division of Wesleys and an army of Rousseaus;
for him there was one school and no other, one college and no other, one
regiment, club, restaurant, music-hall, tailor, hairdresser and no
other. Eric was always meeting John Gaymers and never penetrating below
the sleek, well-bred and uninterested exterior; they were politely
repellent, as though an intrusion from outside would disturb their
serenity and the advantageous bargain which they had struck with life;
it might cause them to think, and thought was a synonym of death. The
Flying Corps, at first sight, was an unassimilating environment for a
John Gaymer, but this one had not gone in alone and he had certainly not
been assimilated. A closely knit and self-isolated group had formed
itself there, as it could be trusted to form itself in a house-party or
under the shadow of the guillotine, genially unapproachable and
uncaringly envied.

To shew his fairness and breadth of mind Eric tested the specimen under
his hand with politics, the war and a current libel action, only to be
rewarded at the third venture. Before surrendering to his desire for
silence and rest, he glanced under lowered lids at his host's
blue-tinged, loosely-hanging cheeks. Conscientiously silent when his
wife wished to discuss literature with her new discoveries, Lord Poynter
became dutifully loquacious when exposed defenceless to the task of
entertaining them and took refuge in gusty, nervous geniality or odd,
sly confidences on matters of no moment.

"Aren't you drinking any port wine?" he demanded of Eric after brooding
indecision.

"Thank you, yes. It's a '63, isn't it?" Eric asked, as he helped himself
and passed the decanter.

Lord Poynter's discoloured eyes shone with interest for the first time
that night.

"Ah, come now! A kindred spirit!" he wheezed welcomingly. "I'll be
honest with you; I was in two minds whether to give you that wine
to-night. Women don't appreciate it, they're not educated up to it. It
was that or the Jubilee Sandeman, and I'm _not_ an admirer of the
Jubilee wines. Very delicate, very _good_," he cooed, "but--well, you'll
understand me if I call them all _women's_ wines. Now, if you _like_
port, I've a few bottles of '72 Gould Campbell. . . . Johnny, your
grandfather would have had a fit, if he'd seen you trying to drink port
wine with a cigarette in your mouth. Not that it makes much difference,
when people have been smoking all the way through dinner; your palate's
tainted before you come to your wine. People pretend that it makes a
difference whether you approach the tobacco through the wine or the wine
through the tobacco. I don't see it, myself. . . ."

His tongue uncoiled, he soliloquized on wines of the past and present,
as the survivor of a dead generation might dwell dotingly on the great
men and beautiful women of a long life-time. Empire, devolving its cares
upon his shoulders, enabled him--as he explained with sly gusto--to
secure that there should be no inharmonious inruption of coffee and
liqueurs until the sacred wine had been in reverent circulation for
twenty minutes. Half-way through, warming to his new friend, he rang for
a bottle of wood port first known to history in 1823, when it was
already a middle-aged wine, and fortified from every subsequent vintage.

"I don't say you'll like it, but it's an experience," he told Eric with
an air of cunning, respectable conspiracy. "Like a _ve-ery_ dry sherry.
If I may advise you, I would say, 'Drink it as a liqueur'; don't waste
your time on my brandy, I'm afraid I've none fit to offer _you_. There
was a tragedy about my last bottle of the Waterloo. . . ."

He diverged into a long and untidy story about a dinner-party in honour
of a late Austrian Ambassador which coincided with the collapse of his
wife's maid with pneumonia. Eric, listening with half his brain,
wondered whether any one would believe him if he transplanted the room,
the conversation and Lord Poynter into a play; with the other half he
thought of Lady Barbara's advice that he should fall in love, if not
with her, at least with somebody. His sister's telephone message had
started the train of thought; he was looking forward to the week-end and
the opportunity of meeting Agnes Waring. The time would come--if there
were many hosts like Lord Poynter and if they all talked "Hibernia" port
and Tuileries brandy, it would come very soon--when he would grow tired
of being pushed from one house to another and made to talk for the
diversion of sham intellectuals. In this, at least, he had had enough of
his triumphal progress; there was rest and companionship in being
married, it was the greatest of all adventures. . . . He wondered how
Agnes would acquit herself at a party like this; he would not like
people to cease inviting him because they felt bound to invite a
tiresome wife as well. . . .

Gaymer, too, was growing impatient of his uncle's cellar Odyssey and
was calling aloud for a cigar, while he scoured the side-board for
Benedictine.

"They'll be wondering where we've got to," said Lord Poynter guiltily,
recalling his mind from a distance and lapsing into silence. And Eric
felt compunction in helping to cut short the man's one half-hour of
happiness in the day.

In the drawing-room they found the four women seated at a bridge-table,
disagreeing over the score. Lady Poynter archly reproached her husband
and Gaymer for "monopolizing poor Mr. Lane"; there was a shuffling of
feet, cutting, changing of chairs, and Mrs. Shelley crept to the door,
whispering that she had to start work early next day or she would not
dream of breaking up such a delightful party; she was promptly arrested
and brought back by Mrs. O'Rane with the offer of Lady Maitland's
brougham, which was to call for her at eleven. After an exhibition of
half-hearted self-effacement by all, a new four was made up, and Eric
found himself contentedly alone on a sofa with Lord Poynter mid-way
between him and the table, uncertain whether to watch the game or
venture on more conversation. He had whispered: "I can tell you a story
about that cigar you're smoking . . .," when, at the end of the second
hand, Barbara looked slowly round, pushed back her chair and walked to
the sofa.

"Thinking over your wasted opportunities?" she asked, as she sat down
beside Eric.

"There are none," he answered lazily. "I've been a great success
to-night. I can see that our host won't rest content till I've promised
to dine here three times a week to drink his port; I've been good value
to Lady Poynter; if I play bridge, I shall lose a lot of money to
Gaymer--not that I don't play quite a fair game, but I'm sure, without
even seeing him, that he plays a diabolically good game and I know I
shall cut against him. Mrs. Shelley? Every one's always a success with
her; talking to her is as demoralizing as cracking jokes from the Bench.
Mrs. O'Rane wants me to write her a duologue--just as one draws a rabbit
for a child . . . . That only leaves you. And you capitulated more
completely even than Poynter, without the '63 port as an introduction
and bond."

Barbara looked at him with a dawning smile.

"I _think_ you're the most insufferably conceited young man I've ever
met!" she exclaimed.

"I'm adjusting the balance. If you hadn't disparaged me the whole way
through dinner. . . . Now, when you got up here, you pumped Mrs. Shelley
with both hands for everything you could get her to tell you about me.
Didn't you?"

"Well?"

Eric smiled to himself.

"She's the only one here who knows me, but she didn't tell you much."

"I shan't say."

Three impatient voices from the bridge-table met and struggled in an
unmelodious chorus of "_Babs!_ Come--here!"

She returned a moment later, but had hardly sat down before Gaymer
spread out the substantial remains of his hand with a challenge of "Any
one anything to say about the rest? Babs, don't keep us waiting
_again_!"

As she stood up, Eric rose, too, and said good-bye.

"I have some work to finish before I go to bed," he told her.

"Won't you wait and see me home? Sonia O'Rane's got a brougham, and
we'll borrow it first."

Eric laughed and shrugged his shoulders.

"Certainly, if you wish it."

"You're not very gracious," she pouted.

"It was so transparent. You could go with Mrs. O'Rane. Or Gaymer would
be delighted to find you a taxi. Or you could go on foot."

She drew herself up to her full height.

"Instead of which I humiliated myself by asking a small thing which was
just big enough to give you the opportunity of being rude."

She turned away to the table, but stopped at the sound of laughter from
Eric. He had hesitated a moment before taking the risk, but laughter
seemed the only corrective for her theatrical dignity.

"I spend hours each day watching people rehearsing this sort of thing,"
he murmured.

"Why do you _imagine_ I ask you to see me home?" she demanded, with a
petulant stamp.

"Partly because you're enjoying me; partly because you know I want to
work and you think it will be such fun to upset my arrangements even by
ten minutes."

Barbara smiled at him over her shoulder.

"We're a game all," she pleaded, motioning him back to the sofa.

Eric smiled and lit a cigarette from the stump of his cigar.

Ten minutes later they were driving along Piccadilly towards Berkeley
Square, Eric rather tired, Barbara excited and restlessly voluble.

"Is Mr. Lane going to forget our second meeting as quickly and
completely as he forgot the first?" she asked.

"The first?" Eric echoed. "This is the first time I've set eyes on
you--except in the distance at theatres and places."

"It's the first time I've ever seen your face; but I recognized your
voice and, if you will come into the house for a moment, I can restore a
certain flask."

Eric turned on her in amazement.

"Was that _you_? Well . . . Good . . . Good Heavens!"

Barbara laughed softly.

"Try not to forget me so quickly again! I've still to apologize for
being such a beast when we met to-night. I was ill . . . and
miserable----"

"I had no idea!" Eric cried. "And I stared at you for an hour on
end--trying to count your pulse by a watch without a second-hand. . . .
But you've changed so! I used to catch sight of you before the war----"

"I've travelled a lot since then," she interrupted. "The whole way
through Purgatory to Hell."

Eric tried to remember whether the war had robbed her of any one but Jim
Loring.

"_Since_ that day you've changed so much again."

"Perhaps I'm taking a holiday from Hell. And, as you know, I'm not a
good traveller."

He let down the window and threw away the end of his cigarette.

"I thought you were going to die that day," he murmured half to himself.
"When I handed you over to your maid. . . . Lady Barbara, why don't you
take a little more care of yourself?"

"D'you think I should be missed?"

"I can well imagine---- Here! He's going wrong!"

The carriage had overshot Berkeley Street; but, as Eric leaned towards
the open window, Barbara caught him suddenly by the wrist and shoulder
until she had turned him to face her.

"Where d'you live?" she demanded peremptorily; and, when he had told
her, "Put your head out and tell him to go there."

"But we're almost in Berkeley Square now."

"Do as I tell you! I'm coming to pay you a call."

He disengaged her hands and lay back in his corner.

"It's a little late for you to be calling on me," he said.

With a quick tug and push she had opened the window on her own side
before he could stop her.

"Oh, will you drive to 89 Ryder Street first, please," he heard her say.
Then she sank back with a pursed-up smile of triumph. "I've _no_
intention of going to bed yet," she explained.

"I've no intention of opening the door till I've taken you home," he
rejoined.

She made no answer till the carriage drew up opposite his flat.

"It would be deplorable if you made a scene on the pavement," she
observed carelessly.

Then she stepped out and told the driver to go back to Belgrave Square
for Mrs. O'Rane.

It was a moon-lit night between half-past eleven and twelve. Ryder
Street had roused to life with a widely-spaced but steady stream of men
returning to bed from Pall Mall and sparing the fag-end of their
attention for the unexpected tall girl who stood wrapped in a long silk
shawl in the shadow of a bachelor door-way. The brougham turned round
and drove away. Eric lighted another cigarette.

"Am I right in thinking that you're being obstinate?" Barbara enquired
after some moments of silence.

"If you want me to take you home, I'll take you home. Otherwise I shall
leave you here, go round to the club, explain that I've lost my
latch-key and get a bed there."

"You're almost oriental in your hospitality," she laughed.

"I've no hospitality to spare for a girl of twenty-two at this hour of
the night."

She stretched out her arm to him. In observing the beauty of her
slender, long fingers and the whiteness of her arm against the long
fringe of the shawl, Eric forgot his guard. She twitched the cigarette
from his lips and laughed like a child, as she blew out a cloud of
smoke. Cigarette, shawl and manner suddenly reminded him of Carmen.

"You're so conventional," she sighed.

Eric became suddenly irritable.

"Lady Barbara, you're behaving idiotically!" he cried. "I know you'd do
anything for a new sensation, but I'm not going to help. Possibly I'm
old-fashioned. If you think----"

"I'm so thirsty," she interrupted. "Have you any soda-water?"

"You're sure to find plenty in Berkeley Square."

"But you're _afraid_ to give me any, afraid of being compromised?"

"I've too many things to be afraid of without bothering about that. Lady
Barbara, you've several brothers, I've one sister. If one of your
brothers saw fit to invite _my_ sister to a bachelor flat----"

"But you _haven't_ invited me!"

"I should horsewhip him," Eric resumed jerkily.

She considered him curiously with her head on one side.

"You know, I don't feel afraid of you," she told him. "I could trust you
anywhere. You're not old enough to understand that yet, but you will."

"Then for the present it's irrelevant. Come along, Lady Barbara."

He advanced a step, but she only smiled at him without moving. Eric
looked angrily round, but the stream of passers-by, though sluggish,
shewed no signs of drying up. A clock inside the hall began to chime
midnight, and he turned on his heel. As he did so, a taxi turned into
the street, and an officer climbed gingerly out and hoisted himself
across the pavement on two crutches. Barbara coughed and drew her shawl
round her until half her face was hidden.

"But, Eric dear, you can't have _lost_ the key," she expostulated,
purposefully clear.

Over the shawl her eyes were gleaming with mischief and triumph.

The officer looked quickly from one to the other.

"Hullo! You locked out?" he enquired sympathetically. "Rotten luck!
Here, let me put you out of your misery! Hope you haven't been waiting
long?"

"That _is_ sweet of you," said Barbara. "Long? I seem to have been
standing here all day. Come on, Eric; I'm frightfully tired; I want to
sit down."

She walked into the hall, beckoning him with a jerk of her head. The
officer bade them good-night and limped to a ground-floor flat at the
end.

"I'm going to my club, Lady Barbara," said Eric with slow distinctness
from the door-step.

"Then I shall bang on every door I see until I find your flat," she
retorted promptly. "I've told you, I want some soda-water. And,
Eric----"

"Yes, Lady Barbara."

"Eric, I always get what I want. Who lives here, do you suppose? We'll
try his door first."

Eric came in and walked to the foot of the stairs. Barbara slipped her
arm through his, but he shook it away.

"I'm tired," she explained. "I wish you wouldn't be so rough with me."

She replaced her arm, and, rather than engage in a childish brawl, Eric
left it there, though the touch of her fingers on his wrist set his
blood tingling. They walked slowly, for he was trying to set his racing
thoughts in order. This, then, was the true Lady Barbara Neave. He had
never believed the fantastic stories about her, but she was now
gratuitously shewing him that she was of those who stopped at nothing.

He felt the sudden unpitying disgust of a disappointed idealist. She
was very young, with expressions which made her wholly beautiful at
times. . . . "Virginal" was the word he was trying to find. . . . He
wondered how to rid himself of her without a scene.

"If you'll let go my arm, I'll open the door," he said with stiff
patience.

She walked into the small inner hall and looked round her with
unaffected interest.

"I've never been in a man's rooms before," she remarked and Eric knew
that she was speaking the truth. An extraordinary sense of power came to
him, rushing to his head. The tired eyes and wistful mouth, the haggard
cheeks, the cloud of fine hair, the white arms and slender hands fed his
hungry love of beauty. And he had attracted her until she lay at his
mercy. . . .

"I want to see everything, Eric," she said gently.

He hardly heard the words; but her tone was confiding, and she slipped
her hand into his. A latent sense of the dramatic came to his rescue.

"You seem to have put yourself pretty completely into my power," he
observed, closing the front door behind them.

"I know you so much better than you know me," she answered.

"I don't quite follow."

She laughed gently to herself, then put her arms round his neck and
kissed him.

"No. . . . And you won't for years . . . not till I've educated you. . . .
Am I right in thinking that you've forgotten all about my soda-water?"


5

Eric led her into the dining-room and gave her a tumbler of soda-water
with a hand that trembled.

She had taken him by surprise as much as if she had struck him in the
face. Incuriosity and fastidiousness, partly timid, partly romantic, had
conspired to let him reach the age of two-and-thirty without ever
kissing or being kissed. The act, now that he had experienced it, was
nothing. A warm body, yielding in self-surrender, had pressed against
him for a moment; two hands had impelled his head forward; he had been
blinded for an instant by a scented billow of hair; then his cheeks had
been touched as though a leaf had blown against them. That was the
temperate analysis of kissing. . . .

"It's a nice room, Eric," she murmured, glancing slowly round over the
top of her tumbler at the panelled walls and shining oak table. "And I
like your invisible lighting. It's restful, and I hate a glare. What
other rooms have you?"

"Kitchen next door," he answered with intentional abruptness; "then the
servants' room--you won't make a noise, will you? or you'll wake them
up. Bathroom, spare room, my own room, smoking-room. No, the limits of
my unconventionality are soon reached; you can finish your soda-water in
the smoking-room, and then I'll take you home."

"But I should _like_ to see your room," she answered with the grave
persistence of an unreasonable child. "Mine's purple and white in
London--purple carpet, purple curtains, purple counterpane--and nothing
but white--except the rose-wood, of course--at Crawleigh."

"This is the smoking-room," said Eric, conscientiously firm and
unimpressed.

Barbara gave a little gasp of pleasure as he flooded the room with
light. Book-cases surrounded three walls, stretching half-way to the
ceiling and topped with rose-bowls and bronzes. The fourth was warmed by
long _rose Du Barry_ curtains over the two windows; between them stood
a Chippendale writing-table. The rest of the room was given up to an
irregular circle of sofas and arm-chairs, white-covered and laden with
_rose Du Barry_ satin cushions, surrounding a second table.

"I _am_ glad I came!" she cried. "You know how to make yourself
comfortable, Eric! Of course, the first cigarette I drop on your
adorable grey carpet--you see how it matches my dress?--the first
cigarette spoils it for ever. _And_ the roses!" With a
characteristically impulsive jerk she dragged the tulle band and
artificial flower from her hair, tossed them to Eric and stretched her
hand up for a red rose to take their place. "Ah! beloved celibate! not a
mirror in the room! I shall _have_ to----"

"Please stay where you are, Lady Barbara."

She crammed the rose carelessly into her hair and dropped on the nearest
sofa.

"_Do_ take that coat off and sit down here!" she begged him.

"I'm waiting to take you home."

"But I'm not going home yet. I'm enjoying myself, I'm happy."

"I'm waiting to take you home," he repeated.

She pouted and glanced up at him through half-closed eyes.

"You don't care whether I'm happy or not. You're _soullessly_ selfish!"
She looked round and helped herself to a cigarette; then her hand crept
invitingly, with the shy daring of a mouse, along the sofa. "I want a
match."

Eric took the cigarette and replaced it in its box.

"Bed-time," he said. "This meeting was not of my contriving, Lady
Barbara, and, when you've learned the meaning of words, you'll find that
it won't affect your _happiness_----"

His flow was arrested by a startling gasp.

"Oh, it's no good!" Barbara cried. "You're hopeless, hopeless."

To his amazement she had sprung to her feet, angry and disfigured,
forgetting to break through his guard, tossing her weapon away; no
longer teasing, imperious or purposely reckless; and without one of her
disarming lapses into simplicity. It was the mingled pain and anger of a
flesh-wound clumsily reopened. The next moment she had collapsed on the
sofa, stiffly upright, staring at him with hot eyes. Then the set cheeks
and compressed lips relaxed like the scattering petals of a blown rose;
her mouth drooped, her eyes half-closed, and she began to cry.

Eric looked in consternation at her puckered, pathetic face, suddenly
colourless save for dark rings round the big, hollow eyes. Then he sat
down and drew her to him, patting her hand and talking to her half as if
she were a child, half as though she were capable of understanding his
weighty diagnosis.

"Lady Barbara! Lady Barbara! Are you listening to me? You mustn't
cry--_really_. . . . It takes away _all_ your prettiness. Now, you were
fairly hard on me at dinner, weren't you? But I do possess _some_
intelligence; I didn't need to have Lady Poynter shouting from the
house-top that you were ill. You're worn out, you ought to be in bed and
you ought to stay there, instead of exciting yourself. Lady Barbara,
_please_ stop crying! I don't know what I said, but I'm very humbly
sorry. Won't you stop?"

She stiffened herself with a jerk and smiled as abruptly.

"It was my fault. I've not been well and I've been very miserable. Give
me a little kiss, Eric, to shew you're not angry with me."

She leaned forward and put her hands on his shoulders again.

"Why should I be angry with you?" he asked with a defensive laugh.

Her hands dropped into her lap.

"You won't kiss me?"

"What difference would it make?"

"I ask you to. What difference would it make to you?"

Eric fumbled industriously with a cigarette.

"It so happens that I've never kissed any one," he said, "except my
mother and sister, of course." Then, as she sat hungrily reproachful, he
repeated: "What _difference_ would it make?"

"You wouldn't understand . . ." she sighed. "And yet I thought you
would. Where did you get that tray from, Eric? You've never been to
India, have you?"

"It was given me by an uncle of mine. Lady Barbara--If it will give you
any satisfaction. . . ."

He kissed her forehead with shame-faced timidity and became discursively
explanatory.

"The candle-sticks were looted during the Commune," he began hurriedly.
"I was given them as a house-warming present. The clock . . ."

Barbara was wandering listlessly round the room and paying little
attention to what he was saying. She explored the book-cases, ransacked
the writing-table and looked curiously at the horse-shoe paper-weight.

"You can give this to me, Eric," she suggested over her shoulder.

"I'm afraid it was a present. Given me on my first night."

"It would still be a present, if you gave it to me. I had one, but I
broke it. All my luck's left me since then. Are you superstitious?"

"Not--in--the--_least_! I keep this for associations and a toy. If I
_could_ bring out a play on Friday the thirteenth----"

"If you're not superstitious, there's no excuse for not giving it to
me."

She tossed the horse-shoe into the air and caught it neatly with her
right hand.

"I'll see if I can get you another one," he promised, "but I don't know
whether they're made in England."

"It might make all the difference to me," she pleaded, catching the
horse-shoe with her left hand. "It's only a toy to you--a child's toy."

Eric shook his head at her. Barbara pouted and threw the horse-shoe a
third time into the air, bending forward to catch it behind her back as
it dropped. Eric, watching apprehensively, saw a flash of apprehension
reflected for an instant in her eyes; then there was a tinkle of broken
glass.

"Oh, my _dear_! I wouldn't have done that for the world!" she cried,
pressing her hands against her cheeks. "I've destroyed your luck now!
What a fool I was! Abject fool!"

"What _does_ it matter?" Eric laughed.

"I wouldn't have done that for the world," she repeated with a white
face.

"And you're living in the year of grace nineteen-fifteen? It's
only--What did we call it? A child's toy. And, between ourselves, it
wasn't a very efficient paper-weight. I can assure you I shan't miss
it."

"Perhaps you will some day. And then you'll lift up your hands and curse
the hour when you first met me."

Eric looked complacently at the airy room, the crowded book-cases, the
soft chairs, the bellying curtains and the neat pile of manuscript on
his writing-table:

"Aren't you perhaps exaggerating your potential influence on my life?"
he suggested.

Barbara went back to her sofa and helped herself to a cigarette without
hurry or fear that this time it would be taken from her; she smiled for
a match--and smiled again when it was given her.

"Aren't you perhaps boasting too soon, my self-satisfied young friend?
Your education's only just beginning."

Eric lighted a cigarette and sat down beside her. He no longer insisted
that, for health or propriety, she must go home at once; and in some
forgotten moment he had involuntarily taken off his overcoat.

"I wonder what you think you can teach me," he mused. "I wonder what you
know, to start with."

"I know life."

"A considerable subject."

"I've had considerable experience."

The clock on the mantel-piece chimed one. Neither seemed to notice it,
for Barbara was becoming autobiographical. Her story was ill-arranged
and discursive, with personal characteristics of Lord Crawleigh
sandwiched between her life at Government House, Ottawa, and a thwarted
romance between her brother and a designing American. She flitted from
her four years in India to Viceregal Lodge, Dublin, with a procession of
damaging encounters with her father as stepping-stones in the narrative.
(From her account it was Lord Crawleigh who sustained most of the
damage.) He could never shake off a certain pro-consular manner in
private life and had reduced his sons to blundering and untrustworthy
_aides-de-camp_ and his wife to a dignified but trembling squaw. Barbara
alone resisted him.

"What can he do?" she asked. "He whipped me till I was ten, but I'm too
big for that now. He can't very well lock me in my room, because the
servants would leave in a body. They adore me. If he'd tried to stop my
allowance, I should have gone on the stage--we've settled _that_ point
once and for all with Harry Manders, half-way through the stage-door of
the Hilarity. Now I've got my own money. Mind you, I _adore_ father,
and he adores me; most people adore me; but I must do what I like. _You_
see that now; but I had to shew you, I had to break my way in here by
main force."

Eric looked up in time to catch a glint in her eyes. It was unexpected
and disconcerting. He had been imagining that she was merely
over-indulged; but the glint warned him that Barbara would make a bad
enemy, cruel perhaps and unscrupulous certainly. The next moment she was
again like a child, grown haggard with fatigue; and he gave her a slice
of cake and some milk, which she accepted obediently and with a certain
surprised gratitude.

"Where d'you imagine all this is going to end?" he asked her, though the
question was addressed more to himself. "You're twenty-two, you've been
everywhere, seen everything, met everybody. You're utterly uncontrolled
and so sated and restless that, rather than go to bed, you'll compromise
yourself by sitting talking to me half the night in a bachelor flat."

"Poor Val Arden used to talk like that. He always called me Lady Lilith,
because I was older than good and evil. I'm sorry Val's dead; he was
such fun. 'In six years' time--one asks oneself the question. . . .' It
wasn't 'rather than go to bed,' not altogether."

"It's a nervous disease," Eric interrupted shortly.

"Because I cried just now? I was very unhappy, Eric."

"My dear Lady Barbara, you live in superlatives. You don't know what
happiness or unhappiness means. You were badly overwrought then, so you
cried and said you were miserable."

She looked at him and raised her eyebrows without speaking.

"It's wonderful how wrong quite clever people can be," she said at
length. "I _was_ miserable, I _wanted_ to be kissed, I was _hungry_ for
the smallest crumb of affection. I wanted to be _happy_. . . . And you
can only see me as neurotic. D'you feel you're a good judge?"

"Of happiness?"

Eric smiled complacently and again glanced lovingly round the room.
Barbara sighed in pity and looked at her watch.

"_I_ seem to have come in the way rather," she interrupted.

"The butterfly that settles on the railway track may be said, I suppose,
to come in the way of a train. . . . I'm going to take you home now."

"You're not sorry I came? _I'm_ not."

"It was worth while meeting you," he laughed.

As Eric struggled with the sleeves of his coat, she twined her arms
round his neck. The scent of carnations was now faintly blended with the
deeper fragrance of the single rose behind her ear.

"And you'd never kissed any one before," she whispered.

It was nearly day-light when they found themselves in the street. Two
special constables, striding resonantly home, looked curiously at them;
but Barbara had again pulled up her shawl until it covered half her
face. Piccadilly was at the mercy of scavengers with glistening black
waders and pitiless hoses; otherwise they seemed to have all London to
themselves.

With a head aching from fatigue, Eric tried to reconstruct the fantastic
evening. Little detached pictures jostled their unconvincing way through
his brain--Lady Poynter's formal dining-room and the barren,
self-conscious literary discussion; Lord Poynter's wheezing confidences
about the wood port which should properly be taken as a liqueur. He saw
again the bridge-table with Gaymer, neat, immaculate and repellent,
calling in a high nasal voice for Barbara to rejoin them. The drive home
was a blank until he was galvanized by her leaning through the window
and directing the coachman to Ryder Street. Thereafter facts gave place
to emotions, and the other emotions to an incredulous elation that
Barbara Neave should have thrown herself at his feet. Perhaps, of
course, she was only emotion-hunting. . . . But she had lain at his
mercy. . . . Perhaps that, too, was an emotion to be wooed, enjoyed and
recorded. Any one less artificial could at least be glad that they were
passing out of each other's life, as they had come into it, without
expectation or regret.

"You'd better not come any farther," she advised him, as they reached
the end of Berkeley Street. "If anybody _should_ be awake and looking
out of the window . . ."

He nodded and held out his hand.

"You have your latch-key?"

"Yes, thanks. Good-night, Eric."

"Good-bye, Lady Barbara."

       *       *       *       *       *

    "_Between men on the Stock Exchange it is a platitude that you can
    only get a price in selling what some one else wants to buy; between
    men and women outside the Stock Exchange this is often considered a
    paradox._"--From the diary of Eric Lane.



CHAPTER TWO

LADY BARBARA NEAVE

    "CONSTANTINE: From seventeen to thirty-four . . . the years which a
    man should consecrate to the acquiring of political virtue . . .
    wherever he turns he is distracted, provoked, tantalised by the
    bare-faced presence of woman. How's he to keep a clear brain for
    the larger issues of life? . . . Women haven't morals or intellect
    in our sense of the words. They have other incompatible qualities
    quite as important, no doubt. But shut them away from public life
    and public exhibition. It's degrading to compete with them . . .
    it's as degrading to compete for them. . . ."
            GRANVILLE BARKER: "THE MADRAS HOUSE."


1

The latest, costliest and most ingenious mechanical device in Eric's
bedroom was an electric dial and switchboard communicating with the
kitchen and so constructed that, by moving a clock-hand, the
corresponding dial abandoned the non-committal elusiveness of "_Please
call me at_----" for "_Please call me at 8.00 (or 9.00 or 9.30)._" There
was something calculatedly dissolute about the invention (which cost
£17.10 and had struck work four times in three weeks). After a long
night of work or frolic, the sybarite moved the hand on for twelve
hours--his last conscious act before collapsing into bed; if, again, he
had retired early or were so much debauched that he could not sleep, he
wearily set the hand for "_Please call me now._"

Eric looked with smarting eyes first at the luminous clock, then at the
dial. Half-past five, coupled with "_Please call me at eight._" He
undressed ruminatively, reheated his hot-water can at the gas-ring,
methodically folded his clothes, smoothed his trousers away in their
press, selected a suit for the following day, washed face and hands,
brushed teeth and hoisted himself into bed. The dial must stand as he
had left it. Lady Barbara Neave had come--and gone; she was not going to
disturb his work.

His sleep seemed to be interrupted almost instantly by the arrival of a
maid with tea, rusks, letters and _The Times_. His head was hot, but he
was singularly untired; that would come later.

His letters varied little from day to day; two appeals for free sittings
with Bond Street photographers; four receipts; one bill; a dignified
protest from a country clergyman who had been shocked by the line: "Oh,
you're not sending me down with _that_ woman, Rhoda? She's God's first
and most _perfect_ bore." There was an ill-written request for leave to
translate his play into French, three news-cuttings to herald his new
play, a conventional letter from his mother, two petitions for free
stalls from impecunious friends and nine invitations to luncheon or
dinner. He had hardly finished reading them, when a pencilled note, sent
by hand from Mrs. Shelley, made the tenth.

Eric piled his correspondence under the butter-dish to await his
secretary's arrival and turned methodically to _The Times_. Half-an-hour
later he rang for his housekeeper and subjected her book to scrutiny. A
leather-bound journal with a snap-lock lay on his table, and he next
wrote his diary for the previous day. "_So to dinner--rather late--with
Lady Poynter to meet her nephew, Capt. Gaymer (R. F. C). Mrs. O'Rane (as
beautiful as ever, but too voluble for my taste), Mrs. Shelley and Lady
Barbara Neave. Meredithian debate on wine with Lord P., which I would
give anything to put into a play. Bridge; but I cut out._" He hesitated
and drummed with his fingers on the thick creamy pages. "_Took Lady B.
home rather late and circuitously._"

Then his secretary knocked and settled herself on the edge of an
arm-chair.

"Good-morning," Eric began. "Will you write first of all to the manager
of the bank----"

The telephone rang with a dull drone at the foot of his bed, and the
girl made tentative movements of discreet departure.

"No, you deal with this!" Eric cried. "Out of London. You're not sure
when I shall be back. Can you take a message?"

The girl picked up the instrument, while Eric glanced again through his
letters.

"Hullo! Yes. Yes. He's--away, I'm afraid. . . . But, you see, he's
_away_. . . ." She looked despairingly at Eric. "He's _awa-ay_!" Then
breathlessly she clapped the receiver back.

"It was Lady Barbara Somebody; I couldn't hear the surname. She said you
weren't away and she _must_ speak to you. I thought it was best----"

Eric had to collect himself before answering. In the sane cold light of
early morning the overnight escapade was a draggled, unromantic bit of
folly. If he met Barbara again, he would make things as easy as
possible: there would be no allusions, no sly smiles; the whole thing
was to be forgotten. And yet she was already digging it from under the
lightly sprinkled earth. If she were throwing herself on his mercy, it
was unnecessary; he had said "Good-_bye_ . . ." very distinctly. And she
must surely know that she need not beg him not to talk. . . .

"You were quite right," he told his secretary. "Where were we? Oh, the
manager----"

The bell rang again. Eric frowned and picked up the receiver, while the
girl, after a moment's hesitation, tip-toed out of the room. Barbara had
already disturbed his time-table for thirty seconds. . . .

"Hullo? Mr. Lane is away at present," he said. There was a pause. "I
told you yesterday, Lady Barbara. Just as when you say 'Not at home.'
. . . I'm exceedingly busy and I _must_ have a few days to myself.
Good-bye."

The constant factor in her overnight autobiography was that every one
had always done what Barbara wanted; but, if she fancied that she was
going to break into a working-day with any of her nonsense, she would be
disappointed.

At the other end of the line a gentle, rather tired voice said:

"Don't cut me off. If you _know_ the trouble I've had to get hold of
you! Eric, why aren't you in the book? Another device for escaping your
adorers? I've been pursuing you round London for a good half-hour; then
your people at the theatre----"

"Is it anything _important_?" he interrupted curtly.

"It's very important that you should listen _most_ politely and
carefully and patiently and attentively when I'm talking to you. So far
you haven't asked how I am, you haven't told me how you are----"

"I've _suggested_ that I'm very busy," he interrupted her again.

"But I don't allow that sort of thing to stand in the way."

"And _I_ don't allow any one to break into my time. Good-bye----"

"Eric, don't you dare ring me off! I want to know whether you'll lunch
here to-day. I've collected rather an amusing party."

"I'm afraid I can't."

"Where _are_ you lunching? At home? Then you can certainly come. . . . I
don't care _who's_ lunching with you. . . . If you don't--Well, you'll
see. In the meantime, has Marion Shelley invited you to dine to-night
and are you going?"

"Yes, to the first; no, to the second," Eric answered. "Lady
Barbara----"

"It must be 'yes' to the second, too, dear Eric. I rang her up at
cock-crow to say that you wanted her to invite us together. You do, you
know; you want to see whether last night's impression was true; that's
why I asked you to lunch. . . . Now I want to know if you've a rehearsal
to-day, because, if so----"

"Lady Barbara, I am going to cut you off," said Eric distinctly.

He hung up the receiver and was about to ring for his secretary, when
his memory was arrested by the picture of Barbara springing to her feet,
reviling him, collapsing on the sofa and bursting into tears. "Bully
her, and she cries," he murmured impatiently. "Don't bully her, and she
bullies you. I'm not cut out for the part of tame cat. Another
forty-eight hours, and she'll expect me to drive round London and look
at dresses with her. . . ." But if his petulance had made her cry again
. . . Eric hunted for a pen and, without involving himself in delicacies
of address, wrote--"_I am not discourteous by preference, but you drive
me to it. La comedia è finita._" He left the note unsigned and asked his
secretary to have it sent by hand to Berkeley Square. When it had left
him past recall, he felt that he could have done better; and he knew
that he would have done best of all by not writing. . . . But he was
irritated by her too insistent unconventionality; irritated and yet
rawly elated by his ascendancy over her.

His secretary returned, and he dictated to her until half-past nine
struck. It was his signal to get up so that he could be dressed by ten,
so that he could work from ten till one, so that he could walk out and
lunch at one-thirty, observing his time-table punctually.

The telephone rang again, and Mrs. Shelley enquired tonelessly whether
he had received her invitation.

"Oh, Eric! I _did_ hope you could come!" she exclaimed. "Can't you
reconsider? Poor Babs seems so anxious to see you again."

Mrs. Shelley, then, had the wit to guess where the initiative lay.

"I'm afraid that the privilege of gratifying Lady Barbara's whims----"

He forgot how he had meant to finish the sentence, and there was a
pause.

"Don't you like her, Eric?" asked Mrs. Shelley. "Most people fall a
victim the first time they meet her."

"I've outgrown the susceptible age," he laughed. "And, anyway, I'm
working. It's awfully kind of you to invite me, Mrs. Shelley----"

"Eric, I wish you'd reconsider," she interrupted before he could repeat
his refusal. "I feel you'll be doing her a kindness by coming; you
amused her and turned her thoughts. . . . I was dreadfully distressed
last night; she looked as if she were going into a decline. . . ."

In contrast to Mrs. Shelley's toneless voice Eric heard again Barbara's
abrupt, startling cry, "You're hopeless, hopeless!"--just before she
collapsed limply on the sofa and cried about something which she would
not explain. . . .

"You make it impossible for me to refuse," he said with an uneasy laugh.

"I'm so grateful! I _knew_ you'd come, Eric."

He threw back the bed-clothes and rang for his bath.

"I suppose Lady Barbara will think _she_ knew I was coming, too," he
said to himself. "I don't mind being made a fool of _once_. . . ."

At noon he tidied his papers and lighted a cigarette while he waited for
a call from his agent. The "Divorce" was being produced in America; and
for an arid, perplexing half-hour Mr. Grierson, with eyes half-closed in
the grey smoke of his cigar, pushed cables, letters, copies and a draft
agreement across the table.

"Stay and have some lunch," Eric suggested, as half-past twelve struck.
"Manders is due any time now. He wants me to make certain alterations in
the 'Bomb-Shell,' and you can keep me in countenance. I'm getting rather
tired of being told: 'Of course, with great respect, Lane, you're a
new-comer to the theatre. . . .' New-comer I may be, but it doesn't lie
in Manders' mouth to say so, if he'll trouble to calculate how many
thousands I've put in his pocket. . . . Isn't this the sort of time when
one has a cocktail?"

Grierson's eyes lighted up at the suggestion, and Eric rang for ice. He
was in the middle of his preparations when Harry Manders entered in a
suit of light tweeds, clutching a flat-brimmed bowler hat in one hand
and a leather-topped cane in the other.

"'Mornin', Eric. Hullo, Phil! Sinister combination for a poor devil of
an actor-manager--author _and_ agent. What's this you're givin' me?
Well, only up to the top--On my honour, boy, only up to the top!" He
nodded over the brimming glass with a knowing "Well, chin-chin!" and
subsided diagonally into a chair with his legs across one arm.

"I thought Grierson's age and experience might save my play from further
amateur surgery," Eric explained.

"Tootaloo," chirped Manders resiliently and dragged a crumpled script
from his pocket. Eric's obstinate assurance would have exasperated any
other manager, but, as Manders wearily said, "I've been too long at the
game to lose my temper."

With that they settled to work and argued their way through the marked
passages of Manders' copy heatedly and without reaching conviction or
agreement. Once Grierson rose and shook a second cocktail; twice a maid
announced that luncheon was on the table. Something, which he attributed
to his broken night, made Eric unreasonable to a point where he knew
that he was being unreasonable. He was too tired for anything except
sustained obstinacy, and his companions grated on him.

"Oh, let's have something to eat!" he exclaimed at length. "The second
act's got to stand as I wrote it. We shan't do any good by talking. . . ."

"Now don't you be in a hurry, boy," began Manders. "_Turn_ back to the
beginning. . . ."

Eric looked at his watch.

"Don't forget we've a rehearsal," he said. "I don't know what there is
for lunch, but it will be tepid."

"Then let's wait for it to get cold. Now, in the first act you
said--Damn!"

He flapped the script impatiently on his knee as the now familiar knock
of Eric's parlour-maid was heard yet again.

"Lady Barbara Neave to see you, sir," she whispered a little
breathlessly.

"Will you please say that I can't possibly see any one?" Eric answered
curtly. "Tell her that two gentlemen have come to see me on business.
Ask her to leave a message."

He turned to find Manders smiling, as though to say, "Why didn't you
tell us? _We_ should have understood. We're men of the world."

"The _first_ act," Eric repeated earnestly. "_As_ you will, but do go
ahead with it. I want some lunch."

For five seconds the three men turned the limp, dog's-eared pages until
they had found the place. Manders cleared his throat unreservedly and
then looked up with an expression of ebbing patience, as the door opened
again. This time there was no knock, and Lady Barbara walked in after
hesitating for a moment on the threshold to identify Eric. She was
wearing a black dress with a transparent film of grey hanging from the
shoulders, a black hat shaped like a butterfly's wings with her hair
visible through the spider's web crown. One hand swung a sable stole,
the other carried to and from her mouth a half-eaten apple.

"Eric, _please_ invite me to lunch with you!" she begged. "You've such
delicious food. I was shewn into your dining-room and I could hardly
resist it. There's a dressed crab--I behaved _perfectly_, I didn't touch
it--and, if all three of you had the weeniest little bit less, there'd
be enough for us all. Hullo, there's Mr. Manders!"

She shook hands and waited for Eric to introduce Grierson.

"You're interrupting an important discussion, Lady Barbara."

"Is it about your new play? Oh, then I can help! But, if you knew how
hungry I was----"

"They're expecting you to lunch at home," Eric interrupted. "You told me
you had a party."

"But I've just telephoned to say that I've been invited to lunch here!
I've burnt your boats. Father was perfectly furious, because mother's
lunching with Connie Maitland, and he counted on me to see him through."

As she smiled at Eric with her head on one side, he realized that work
was over for the morning.

"I daresay there will be enough for four," he answered.

"Then for goodness' sake let's begin before any one else turns up
unexpectedly!" she cried, catching him by the sleeves and drawing him to
the door.

Grierson and Manders smiled and followed them, carefully brushing
cigar-ash from their clothes and smoothing the back of their hair.


2

Elation battled with annoyance in Eric's mind throughout luncheon.
Barbara had sought him out, when a hundred other men--several of them,
like George Oakleigh, undisguisedly in love with her--might have been
preferred to him; but he was offended by her proprietory attitude
towards his work and life. Manders would have the whole story, too,
helped out with first-rate mimicry, running through the Thespian Club by
dinner-time; it would spread in twenty-fours through all of the London
that knew him and half of the London that knew her; and Eric Lane would
be quoted as the latest foil or companion in the latest Barbara Neave
story. One did not even want the girl to be made a peg for Manders'
wit. . . .

The luncheon, Eric observed morosely, was cheaply successful, for
Barbara talked with barely concealed desire to lay Grierson and Manders
under her spell. By intuition or accident she gave them what tickled
their interest most keenly--intimate stories about herself or her
friends, the proved history of what to them had hitherto been but
alluring gossip, anecdotes of Government House and the minor secrets and
scandals of her father's three terms of office. Eric felt that it was a
_little_ below the dignity of a girl, who was after all the daughter of
a distinguished former viceroy, to be discussing herself and her friends
so freely. . . .

They had lost count of time when Grierson looked furtively at his watch
and jumped apologetically to his feet. As he hurried out of the room
Barbara again asked Eric whether he had a rehearsal that day.

"Because I want to come," she explained wheedlingly, with her head on
one side.

Her eyes were dark and tired after her overnight excitement; she had
exhausted herself with talking; and for a moment Eric forgot to be
irritated and only saw her as a child whom it would be ungracious to
disappoint. Then he remembered one phase of a rambling story in which
her love of getting her own way had caused her cavalier of the day to
wait in his car from midnight until six because she had forgotten to
leave a message that she had already gone home. In the story Eric could
not remember any apology from Barbara. Triumphs came so quickly and
easily that she expected everything and valued nothing; a man was
sufficiently rewarded by being allowed to fall in love with her. . . .

"I'm afraid rehearsals aren't open to the public," he told her,
brusquely enough to dismiss the appeal, he hoped, but not so brusquely
as to hurt her.

She looked at him with the glint of defiance which he had seen once
before; then she turned to Manders.

"Please, I want to come to the rehearsal," she begged. "It's your
theatre, Mr. Manders."

"It's my play," Eric interrupted.

She turned her head long enough to say:

"I was asking Mr. Manders."

"But it happens that I also----"

Manders intervened with a clucking noise of the tongue.

"Keep the ring, keep the ring!" he cried. "You got out o' bed the wrong
side, Eric boy. Don't quarrel, do-ant quarrel! If Lady Barbara wants to
come, let her! It's against the rules, but I'll make an exception for
her." The girl rewarded him with a glowing smile. "You'll be bored, my
dear, I warn you."

"Oh, if I am, I can talk to Eric."

"Look here, Manders, if a rehearsal's worth taking at all, it's worth
taking seriously," cried Eric petulantly. "I've plenty of other use for
my time."

Manders was faintly amused by the outburst and wholly unmoved. Dire
experience of the jealous and irascible had taught him that he could not
afford to let other people lose their tempers.

"Lady Barbara will promise not to talk," he prophesied. "We're late,
boy."

"I shall talk afterwards," she warned them. "At dinner to-night--Mr.
Manders, I can't get Eric to see what bad plays he writes and what good
plays he might turn out. He's very funny about it."

"Authors are a rum lot!" said Manders jocosely, slapping Eric's
shoulder. "See about a taxi, boy. I don't let my people keep me waiting
and I don't want them to wait for me."

It was a defeat for Eric, formally recorded by Barbara with that glint
of triumph which was beginning to fill him with misgiving. They drove in
silence to a side street off Shaftesbury Avenue and groped their way
through the stage-door down a cork-screw staircase and along several
short passages which branched disconcertingly to right or left as soon
as Barbara fancied that she could walk ahead with impunity. From above
came the mechanical runs and flourishes of a piano-organ against the
drone of traffic; somewhere below there was a rapid squeak of voices.
The corridors and stairs were wrapped in warm darkness, and, after one
stumble, Eric felt a hand running down his sleeve and twining round his
fingers.

"Are you angry with me?" Barbara whispered. "You were so _grumpy_ in the
taxi. And I made such a success of your lunch. Mr. Manders and Mr.
Grierson loved me, and I made even you smile."

Eric tried to locate Manders in the velvety darkness before replying.

"You were very amusing," he answered unenthusiastically. "But it's
possible to be amusing even when you're making rather a nuisance of
yourself to several _very_ busy men."

A sigh fluttered wistfully through the darkness, and he felt her drawing
closer to him.

"Aren't you a _little_ bit brutal, Eric?"

"Don't you find every one brutal who doesn't fetch and carry and wait
out in the snow for you all night--and give you material for new
stories? . . . Stand still while I find the handle."

He led her through a studded iron door into the twilit auditorium. The
stalls were swathed in holland covers, and there was a brooding warm
desolation which invited undertones. Barbara looked with growing
interest at a sprawling group of two men and three women on the stage.
Without make-up they were white and featureless in the glare of the
foot-lights; they were jaded and a little impatient, too, but Manders,
who seemed to make his personality unyielding and metallic on entering a
theatre, galvanized them into alertness. A wooden platform had been
built over the middle of the orchestra; and, as soon as he had disposed
of Barbara in the stalls, Eric mounted it and seated himself in an
arm-chair. Manders cautiously squeezed past him, script in hand, to the
stage; there was a preliminary cough, a cry of "Beginners, please!" and
the rehearsal opened.

Eric allowed the first act to be played without interruption; at the end
he jumped up and entered into whispered conversation with Manders,
turning the leaves of the manuscript and tapping them impressively with
his pencil. One player after another emerged from the wings and stood
listening, nodding and discussing as each point was thrashed out. A few
minutes later Manders came down into the stalls and sat by Barbara.

"Just a breather," he explained. "No good nagging your people,
particularly when they've been at the job for years and you're a
new-comer. . . . Some of my spoiled darlings find that a little Eric
goes a long way. You're sure you're not bored, my dear?"

"I can't _see_ very well," Barbara answered. "If I had a chair on the
little platform----"

Manders wasted an unseen wink on her.

"Well, you mustn't talk to Eric, that's all. And, if you see you're
making him nervous, you must run away."

He helped her up and accommodated her with a property foot-stool by
Eric's chair, leaving her for a moment's resentful scrutiny by a young
woman who had been arguing with winsome persuasiveness about a speech
which Eric under pressure from Manders had consented to cut.

"Who's that, Eric?" Barbara whispered, as he settled into place.

"Mabel Elstree."

"H'm. She doesn't seem to like my being here. . . . Does _everybody_
call you Eric?"

"You're well placed to answer that. Now, Lady Barbara, remember your
promise: no talking!"

The act was played a second time, taking form and life as all warmed to
their work. Eric watched with critical narrowed eyes, no longer
scattering pencil-marks in the margin of the script, restrained,
impassive and absorbed. Barbara sat with her hands clasped round her
ankles and her head resting against his knee. Only when the act was
ended did he seem to become aware of her; then he edged away and stood
up.

"Better! Very much better! Just turn to the place where----" He rustled
back into the middle of the act and had it played through to the
curtain.

Half-an-hour later Barbara emerged into sunshine. Eric was tired and
rather husky, but pleased and hopeful. His earlier irritability was
forgotten save when it obtruded itself reproachfully to remind him that
he had been scantly civil to the girl by his side.

"The next thing is a taxi," he murmured, as they came out into
Shaftesbury Avenue.

"You wouldn't dream of taking me home and offering me some tea?" she
suggested.

"I would not, Lady Barbara," he answered cheerfully. "Your practice of
visiting young unmarried men in their rooms should be promptly checked.
But I'll drop you in Berkeley Square, if you like."

"That would be more--respectable. It's curious how you seem to have made
up your mind not to do anything I ask you."

"It doesn't seem to make much difference to the result."

She ceased pouting and smiled self-confidently for a moment. Then her
assurance left her, and she slipped her arm timidly through his.

"Am I being a nuisance, Eric? You said so, and--oh, it _did_ hurt! I
honestly enjoyed myself this afternoon; and I wasn't so very much in the
way, was I? Don't you like me to enjoy myself? Don't you like to see me
happy? Are you sure you're not a little bit sorry you were so brutal to
me?"

"My conscience is quite easy, thanks. Lady Barbara----"

He hesitated and felt himself flushing.

"Yes?"

"Lady Barbara--, I don't understand you, I don't begin to understand
you."

"You won't write a good play till you do," she laughed. "All your women
are romantic dolls. We're much better and much worse than you think. But
that wasn't what you started to say."

"I know. . . . Well, you oughtn't to have come to my rooms last night.
And you oughtn't to have come to-day, though that wasn't as bad. . . .
What d'you imagine people like Grierson or Manders think? What d'you
imagine Mabel Elstree thinks, when you sit with your head against my
knee?"

She withdrew her arm and walked for some time without speaking.

"I'm sorry if I'm compromising you with your friends," she said at
length.

"And whether you compromise yourself doesn't matter?"

"I suppose I'm used to it," she sighed; then, with one of her April
changes, the sigh turned into a provocative laugh. "If _you_ don't mind
being compromised by _me_, I'd make you write a _wonderful_ play. My
technique's so good. All you have to do is to fall in love with me----"

"I shan't have the opportunity," he interrupted. "We meet to-night at
Mrs. Shelley's----"

"And we were so _positive_ that we weren't going!" she murmured. "You
don't want to see me again?"

Eric hailed a passing taxi.

"I like meeting you," he told her frankly enough. "You amuse me--and you
interest me enormously. But I've work to do . . . for one thing. . . ."

She seated herself in the taxi and held out her hand through the window.

"You might come and call for me to-night," she suggested.

Eric shook his head. He was shy of entering a house to which he had not
been officially admitted, confronting a strange butler, being pushed
into a room to wait for her, meeting and explaining himself to Lord
Crawleigh or one of the brothers, who would look superciliously at
"Babs' latest capture." . . .

"I'll meet you at Mrs. Shelley's," he said.

The hand was withdrawn, and he could see her biting her lip.

"I'm sorry," she murmured.

"There's no need to be."

"I was apologizing to myself--for giving you _another_ opportunity of
refusing something I asked you to do for me."

Eric walked back to his flat, puzzled and irritated. The girl was
intolerably spoiled; nothing that you did was right, there was
altogether too much wear and tear in trying to adapt yourself to her
moods. . . .

Even if you wanted to. . . .


3

The rehearsal, despite Barbara, was over in good time, and Eric could
lie unhurriedly in his bath without fear of being late for Mrs.
Shelley's dinner. Two days of his holiday had already slipped away, and
he had made little mark on the work which he had schemed to do.
To-morrow he would start in earnest. . . .

Barbara. . . . He could not remember what had set him thinking about
her. She looked desperately ill, but that was not his fault, nor could
he cure her; which disposed of Barbara. . . . What she needed was some
one who would pull her up, steady her, master her. . . .
Unfortunately--for her--he could not spare the time; nor was it part of
his scheme of life to effect her physical and moral regeneration. . . .
And it was now the moment to begin dressing.

Mrs. Shelley's house lay between Sloane Square and the river; and Eric
arrived punctually to find her insipidly grateful to him for coming. A
self-conscious Chelsea party was assembling; there were two war-poets,
whose "Trench Songs" and "Emancipation," compensating want of finish
with violence of feeling, had made thoughtless critics wonder whether
the Great War would engender a new Elizabethan splendour of genius;
there was Mrs. Manisty, who claimed young poets as of right and helped
them to parturition in the pages of the _Utopia Review_; there was a
flamboyant, short-haired young woman who had launched on the world a
war-emergency code of sex-morals under the guise of a novel; there were
three bashful aliens suspected of being pianists and one self-assured
journalist who told Mrs. Shelley with suitable heartiness that he had
not _met_ Mr. Lane, but of course he knew his _work_ and went on to ask
Eric if he was engaged on a new "work." The flamboyant woman, Eric
observed, talked much of "creation" and its antecedent labour; the
trench poets, with professional modesty, referred to their "stuff." A
fourth alien entered and was greeted and introduced in halting French,
to which he replied in rapid and faultless English.

Eric looked round on a triumph of ill-assortment. He came here partly
out of old friendship for his hostess, but chiefly for fear of seeming
to avoid a section of society which at least took itself seriously.
There was no question of a Byronic descent on Chelsea; these people
would ever cringe before the face of success and disparage behind its
back, as they had always done; they made a suburb and called it a
school. For ten years Eric had listened to their theories and
discoveries; after ten years he was still waiting for achievement. The
very house, with its "art" shades of upholstery, its hammered brass
fenders, its wooden nooks and angles filled with ramshackle bookcases,
hard seats and inadequately stuffed cushions, was artificial; it was
make-believe, pretentious, insincere. . . .

"Lady Barbara Neave."

There was a rustle of excitement, the more noticeable against the
conscientious effort of several not to seem interested. Eric smiled to
himself, as the young journalist, interrupted in his discourse on "the
aristocracy of illiterates," watched Barbara's entry and posed himself
for being introduced. She looked round with slow assurance, fully
conscious of the lull in conversation and of the eyes that were taking
stock of her. Eric felt an artistic admiration for her way of silently
dominating a room.

"Am I late, dear Marion?" she asked, with the smile of startled
recognition which made men and women anxious to throw protecting arms
round her thin shoulders. "Eric and I have been rehearsing our play--the
new one, I mean, that I'm taking in hand--and I had such a lot to do
when I got home." She displayed adequate patience, while Mrs. Shelley
completed her introductions, and then crossed to Eric's corner. "Glad to
see me again?" she whispered. "I've decided that you're to lunch with us
on Saturday."

"And I've decided to gladden the hearts of my family by going down to
Winchester," he answered.

"But you must go later. I'll come with you, if you'll find a practicable
train; I'm going to Crawleigh. Say you'd like to travel down with me."

"I make a practice of sleeping in the train," he answered.

"You won't on Saturday. Sometimes, Eric, I find your little practices
and habits and rules rather tiresome; I must educate you out of them. By
the way, I want to be seen home to-night."

It was a disappointing dinner for Eric, as, after coming to gratify
Barbara, he was separated from her by the length of the table. In
conversation Mrs. Shelley always gave people what was good for them
rather than what they liked; Barbara was accordingly set next to an art
editor, who tried to wheedle from her an article on "Eastern Decoration
in Western Houses," while Eric found himself sandwiched without hope of
escape between Mrs. Manisty, who discussed poetry which he had not read,
and the flamboyant novelist, who had lately discovered and insisted on
exposing a mutual-admiration ring in the novel-reviewers of the London
press.

If dull, the meal was at least not so embarrassing as his dinner of the
night before with Lady Poynter. Barbara seemed chilled by uncongenial
company, though she touched his hand on her way to the door and turned,
with patent consciousness that she was being watched, to give him a
parting smile. Mrs. Manisty also turned, before she could control her
curiosity, to see for whom the smile was intended. And, as Eric threw
away his match after lighting a cigar, he found two of the men smiling.

In the absence of a host to pull them together, six groups
self-consciously set themselves to discover a subject of conversation
more worthy of their steel than either the evening _communiqué_ or the
port. The three alien pianists had reduced themselves to a Polish
sculptor, an Irish novelist and a Scottish portrait-painter. By sitting
next to the journalist, Eric saved himself the effort of talking and
recuperated at leisure after the exhausting boredom of dinner. He had
looked forward to seeing Barbara again, feeling disappointment that she
was not in the big shadowy drawing-room when he arrived--(but she would
come any moment)--and a little proprietory thrill of pleasure when she
walked straight across the room to him. But her manner, her use of his
Christian name--(and Mrs. Shelley knew that they had first met less than
twenty-four hours ago)--her clear-voiced, unabashed habit of flirtation,
the parting smile at the door. . . .

One of his neighbours interrupted the ill-humoured train of thought by
introducing himself in a pleasant, soft brogue.

"Er, me name's Sullivan, Mr. Lane. Ye know Priestley, I expect?
Priestley and I have been concocting a great scheme. I have a new book
coming out in the spring and I'm wanting a girl's head for the
frontispiece. Well, since I saw Lady Barbara to-night, there's only one
head that will do for me. And Priestley's the one man to do it.
Charcoal, ye know; a single sitting would be enough. Do ye think she
would be willing?"

Eric smiled to hide his impatience.

"Why not ask her?" he suggested. "She's fairly well-known, of course;
everybody'd recognize it."

"Ah, don't distress yourself! The book's symbolical," Sullivan
explained vaguely. "I was wondering now, would ye sound her? Priestley
and I don't know her, ye see. And, as ye're a friend----"

"We'll ask her, when we get upstairs," Eric answered.

Three tentative chords broke the silence overhead, and a woman's voice
began to sing.

"_Butterfly_," the journalist jerked out as though he were in the last
heat of a competition. "Second act, isn't it? Where Madame Butterfly
hears that Pinkerton's ship has been sighted. I never think
_Butterfly's_ as bad as some of the high-brows try to make out. If you
_like_ that sort of thing, I mean," he added prudently.

Eric held up his hand.

"_Please!_ I want to hear this."

        "_One fine day, we'll notice
    A thread of smoke arising on the sea
    In the far horizon,
    And then the ship appearing:--
    Then the trim white vessel
    Glides into the harbour, thunders forth her cannon.
    See you? He is coming!--
    I do not go to meet him. Not I. I stay
    Upon the brow of the hillock and wait, and wait
    For a long time, but never weary
    Of the long waiting.
    From out the crowded city,
    There is coming a man--
    A little speck in the distance, climbing the hillock.
    Can you guess who it is?
    And when he's reached the summit
    Can you guess what he'll say?
    He will call 'Butterfly' from the distance.
    I, without answering,
    Hold myself quietly concealed,
    A bit to tease him, and a bit so as not to die
    At our first meeting: and then, a little troubled,
    He will call, he will call:
    'Dear baby-wife of mine, dear little orange-blossom!'
    The names he used to call me when he came here_. . . ."

Eric had allowed his cigar to go out. He lighted it again and turned to
his neighbour with an apology, as the voice ceased and then seemed to
revive with a last sob of ecstasy.

"She did that very well. Shall we go upstairs? I should like some more.
We can take our cigars with us."

Without waiting for an answer, he made for the door and hurried ahead of
the others. The drawing-room was sombrely lighted by three low standard
lamps which threw the upper half of the room into shadow. He stood for
several moments with lips parted and shining eyes, trying to identify
three scattered couples of women before reducing the figure at the
piano, by elimination, to Barbara.

"I say, was that you?" he demanded.

She made way for him at her side, welcoming him with a chastened smile
and wondering at his sudden enthusiasm.

"Did you like it? I'm so glad. I was beginning to think you were a
craftsman, but I believe you're an artist. . . . I'm full of
accomplishments, Eric. Pity, isn't it, that in _spite_ of it all----?"

She hesitated, wistfully provocative.

"What's a pity?" he asked.

"What you were thinking; that I am _what_ I am."

"I wasn't thinking that," he answered dreamily. "I was wondering if
you'd sing again. We couldn't hear you at all downstairs----"

"Enough to bring you up very quickly?"

He sighed with exasperation.

"Yes, if your vanity needs a sop. Was that why you sang?"

She shook her head at him wearily, and he saw undried tears on her
cheeks.

"Marion just asked me to sing. It was either that or talking to Yolande
Manisty, and I hate her. What would you like me to sing?"

Eric felt ashamed of his rasping harshness.

"I don't know. That particular song always makes me cry. In spite of
that," he looked at her, and smiled to himself. "No, I'm going to be
very self-sacrificing. You said you wanted me to take you home, and I
will--if you'll come at once."

"But it's not half-past nine yet."

"I don't care. My dear child, d'you think I can't see that you're tired,
ill, over-excited----"

"It makes the night so long, Eric! But--thank you! I was beginning to
think you were a prig, but I believe you're a saint!" The wistfulness
left her eyes, and she smiled mischievously. "In moments of emotion how
all our habits and practices break down! 'My dear child,' 'My dear
child,' 'D'you think I can't see?' 'My dear child,' 'Tired, ill,
over-excited.'"

"I'm sorry, Lady Barbara."

He tried to rise, but she pulled him back.

"You baby! Can't I make fun of you _ever_? It meant so much--just that
little change in your voice when you forgot to be inhuman. I prefer
'dear child' to 'Lady Barbara' any day. Do you find it so hard to be
affectionate, Eric?"

"I haven't tried. It would be impossible with you. I--I don't understand
you. When I was dressing for dinner----"

"You thought you did? I'm so glad you thought of me, when you were
dressing for dinner; I've a sort of feeling that it's not your practice
to think of me when you're dressing for dinner."

"I don't imagine my affection makes any great difference in your life,"
he interrupted stiffly.

"Dear Eric, let me laugh at you sometimes! It's good for you and it's
ever so good for me. It isn't as if I'd laughed so very much lately. . . .
I _will_ come home and I'll go _straight_ to bed. But--don't be too
hard on me, Eric."

Her voice was trembling, and her eyes had again filled with tears.

"May I say that I'm 'not in the habit' of being hard on people? But--I
don't understand you."

"Ah, now you're repeating yourself," she threw back flippantly over her
shoulder, as she went to bid Mrs. Shelley good-night. "I'm telling
Marion I've got a headache."

Eric felt that he was slipping into the practice of letting people make
a fool of him. . . .


4

Though it was a fine night, they sought in vain for a taxi and had to
walk the whole way from Chelsea to Berkeley Square, Barbara with her arm
through Eric's and her hand in his, leaning against him.

"I'm going away on Saturday," she reminded him, as they entered Eaton
Square.

"High time, too," he answered.

"Do you want to get rid of me as much as all that?" she asked in gentle
reproach.

"Well, you'll automatically stop compromising yourself with me. But even
that doesn't matter so much as your health, which you're quite
deliberately ruining."

She stopped and put her hands on his shoulders, drawing his head to her
until she could kiss him. Still capable of being surprised, he thanked
Heaven--after a quick survey--that they had Eaton Square to themselves.

"Dear Eric, are you very delicate?" she asked. "It's only when health is
mentioned that you become human. Last night, at the very beginning of
dinner. . . . And again this evening. If--if I gave in and had a week in
bed, I could twist you round my finger. Now, don't pull yourself away
and look dignified! Don't you see that I'm paying you a wonderful
compliment? You're like a woman--not that that's a compliment. . . ."

She slipped her arm through his again, and they walked on past St.
Peter's. Barbara was tired enough by now to be dragging on his arm, and
he felt a sudden responsibility for her--as he had felt the night before
when she had implicitly entrusted herself to him. He glanced down and
found her walking with eyes closed and a faint smile on a very white
face. The wind was blowing her hair into disorder, and he bent forward
to draw her cloak more warmly over her chest.

She looked up with her eyes dark and sleep-laden.

"Am I coming undressed? Eric, you're very good to me! I shall miss you.
Perhaps you'll write to me, perhaps I shall be coming up to London for
just one night in about a week's time; we might dine together. Are you
coming to lunch on Saturday?"

"I'll give the matter my best consideration. Go to sleep again, child."

"Dear Eric!"

She roused again as they crossed Piccadilly; and at the end of Berkeley
Street she again cautiously bade him good-night.

"And about Saturday?"

Until that moment he had decided to be immovable about the Saturday
invitation. He did not want to go, he wanted still less to make her
think that he was going to please her. But, when she stopped him before
walking on alone to her house, he felt that their position must be
regularized. He had a certain status of his own--and some little pride.

"Yes, I'll come. Delighted," he said with sudden determination.

"Good-night, dear."

"Good-night, Lady Barbara."

There was time for an unexpected hour's work; but his broken night and
jarring day had exhausted him, and he was glad to hurry through his
letters and get into bed. Once there he found himself too tired even for
the routine of reading the evening paper; and, while he tried to make up
his mind to stretch up a hand to the switch, he dropped asleep,
clutching the _Westminster Gazette_ and with the light blazing on to his
face.

So he found himself five minutes later when the telephone-bell rang. The
voice of a child, eager for praise, said:

"I'm in bed, Eric. And the light's out. And I'm going to sleep in one
moment."

"I was actually asleep," he answered.

"My _dear_! And I woke you up? I _am_ sorry. Go to sleep again at
_once_! Good-night!"

But the sudden shock of the bell had made his nerves restless. He had,
after all, to read the evening paper and two chapters of a novel before
he felt sleepy enough to turn out the light and compose himself.

Contrition, whim or pressure of other business kept Barbara out of his
life the next morning. He read his letters unmolested, dictated to his
secretary undisturbed and worked until mid-day uninterrupted. Then, as
it was his practice to walk for half-an-hour before luncheon, he
abandoned his own pretence that he was away from London and strolled
along Piccadilly into the Green Park before making for the Thespian Club
in Grosvenor Place. At Devonshire House he caught himself pausing to
glance down Berkeley Street. . . .

At the club, Manders was lunching with a square-faced law lord and a
doctor with humorous, shrewd eyes, who called upon Eric to join them.

"We never see anything of you nowadays," complained Dr. Gaisford.

"I don't have time to get as far away as this for lunch every day,"
Eric answered, as he pulled a chair in to the table. "You're cutting
your vacation short, aren't you, Lord Ettrick?"

"Oh, I had three weeks' fishing in Scotland," the law lord answered.
"Ever since I came back, I've been thinking that, if I had my life over
again and could choose my own career, on my soul! I'd be a gillie.
They're a great breed, and it's a great life."

Manders looked reflectively at the powerful, lined face, tanned yellow
over a normally unwholesome white.

"I'd 'a gone into the Navy," he said. "My idea of a holiday is to get
into old clothes and moon about the Docks or Portsmouth--anywhere with
salt and tar about, you know."

"And what would our young friend do?" asked Dr. Gaisford.

Eric blushed to find three pairs of eyes on him. He thought resentfully
over his ten years of journalism; then, with a warm rush of
satisfaction, he saw the elaborate little flat in Ryder Street, the
bathroom poster of "A Divorce Has Been Arranged," the envelopes from his
agent Grierson, containing cheques for--what _would_ they be for?--the
invitations, the pleasant hum of work and stir of interest as shewn in
letters from country clergymen who objected to his use of the word "God"
in a comedy of manners, the deference paid him when he was invited out
to be spoiled and petted, the easy triumphs. . . .

"If I had my life over again," he answered slowly, "I should
alter--nothing."

Lord Ettrick looked at him with raised eyebrows, chewing his under-lip
reflectively.

"I wonder how long you'll say that," he murmured.

A page-boy threaded his way to the table and stood bashfully at a
distance with a tarnished salver pressed against his buttons.

"Wanted on the 'phone, sir," he whispered.

Eric rose resignedly and followed the page to a dark, ill-ventilated box
behind the porters' desk in the hall.

"Hullo!"

"Is that Eric? Say what you like, my staff-work's extraordinarily
efficient!" Barbara's voice rippled into laughter. "You weren't at your
flat, I just _divined_ that you'd be lunching at your club. I looked in
_Who's Who_ to see which it was. . . . How are you, Eric, dear? I
haven't seen or heard of you since last night."

Eric's utterance hardened and became precise.

"I was asleep then; and I'm at lunch now."

"Who are you lunching with?" she enquired with unabashed interest.

"Oh, nobody that matters! What is it, Lady Barbara? What do you want, I
mean?"

"I want to talk to you. Don't you _like_ talking to me?"

"At the proper time and in the proper place. I say, you know, this is
becoming a little bit tiresome."

There was a short pause; then a crestfallen voice murmured:

"I'm sorry, Eric. I'm truly sorry. I apologize."

"Lady Barbara!" he cried.

There was only a dull click, a silence and then a brisk nasal voice
saying, "Number, please?"

Eric strode wrathfully back to the coffee-room.

"You can't do right with that damned girl," he muttered.

His companions were already paying their bills, so he abandoned his
cheese and walked upstairs with them to the bright biscuit-coloured
card-room overlooking the gardens of Buckingham Palace. While the others
drank their coffee, he tried to write a very short, very simple note
which somehow rejected his best efforts of phrasing. He had torn up four
unsatisfactory drafts when Lord Ettrick threw away his cigar and asked
whether any one was walking towards the Privy Council.

"I'm only scribbling one note," Eric answered.

What he was always in danger of forgetting was that Barbara was really
only a child; she had begun to speak with a delightful ripple of
laughter, and he had driven it from her voice. When she apologized,
there was something hurt, something very much surprised--as though he
had seen her smiling and slapped the smile away.

"_Please forgive me_," he wrote. "_I didn't mean to be rude._"


5

Before deciding whether to send his letter by hand, Eric ascertained
that, by posting it, he could be sure of its reaching its destination by
the last delivery. Then he walked through the Park with Lord Ettrick,
left him at the door of the Privy Council Office and returned home for
an hour's work before rehearsal. On leaving the Regency, he came back to
Ryder Street and dressed for dinner. His own letters clattered into
their wire cage at a quarter past eight, and, before sitting down to
dinner, he transferred the telephone to his dining-room. The child was
unlikely to refuse so open an invitation to ring up and say that all was
well. . . .

There was no call during dinner, no call as he worked in the
smoking-room with the telephone and lamp on a table at his elbow, no
call when he went to bed, though he lay reading for half-an-hour after
his usual time, to be ready for her. The morning brought a pencilled
note ("Surprisingly tidy hand," Eric commented, "seeing what she's
like"), instinct with a new aloofness and restraint. "_After your
refreshingly plain hint that I was a nuisance to you, I determined that
you should not have occasion to suffer from my importunity. You may
lunch with us on Saturday, if you like. And I shall be very glad indeed
to see you, but you must not feel that you are doing this to please me.
I SAY as you THINK: that I have no claim on you. Barbara._"

Eric smiled indulgently and tossed the note into a despatch-box before
ringing for his secretary. He must be more careful in future. . . .

When he looked at his engagement-book on Saturday morning, he found that
Barbara had named no hour; which was characteristic of her. When he
telephoned to the house, there was no answer; which--by no great stretch
of calumny--was characteristic of the house in which she lived. Ninety
per cent. of the people that he knew lunched at half-past one, excluding
a Cabinet Minister, who lunched punctually at a quarter past two, and
three Treasury clerks and one novelist who lunched at one; accordingly,
at half-past one, he presented himself in Berkeley Square, to be
informed by a sedately combative butler that luncheon was at two o'clock
but that Barbara was believed to be in her room.

Eric followed his guide up four short flights of marble stairs and was
shewn into the untidiest room that he had ever seen, filled in equal
measure with the priceless and the worthless. The bindings of Riviere
rubbed shoulders with tattered paper-backs; a cabinet of Japanese
porcelain was outraged by foolish, intrusive china cats; there was a
shelf of Waterford glass with a dynasty of blown-glass pigs, descending
from the ten-inch-high parent to the thumb-nail baby of the
litter--gravely and ridiculously arranged in a serpentine procession.
Fifty kinds of trophy adorned the mantel-piece, ranging from a West
African idol at one end to a pathetic, brown-eyed Teddy Bear at the
other, with stiff, conventional photographs and occasional miniatures
for punctuation. He recognized his own silver flask--and passed on, with
a smile. Three small tables were almost buried beneath their load of
pink carnations; a box of cigarettes, half-open and half-empty, lay
tucked between the cushions in each of three arm-chairs, and the white
bearskin rug was littered with _The Times_, a round milliner's box, two
cheque-books and a volume of Ronsard.

The butler looked dispassionately at the confusion and withdrew, giving
it up as a hopeless task. A moment later he returned to inform Eric that
her ladyship would be with him immediately. Ten minutes later Barbara
came in by another door to find him cautiously picking his way through
the disorder and examining her books and pictures.

"I didn't expect you so early," she began. "Will you give me a little
kiss, or am I still a nuisance?"

"You didn't say any time, so I chanced half-past one," Eric answered.
"If you'd told me to come at two, you'd still have been ten minutes
late, wouldn't you?" he added with a laugh. "Lady Barbara, your
conception of tidiness----"

She opened her eyes wide at him in unfeigned surprise.

"My dear, but you should see my bedroom!" she suggested.

"The purple bedroom?"

"Did you remember that? I believe you're beginning to like me, Eric.
Come and sit down instead of fidgeting."

He paused to finish his inspection, ending up with the nursery
toy-cupboard on the mantel-piece.

"Hullo! I don't know this one of Jack Waring," he exclaimed on reaching
a cabinet photograph in a silver frame.

Barbara lighted a cigarette and came beside him, resting her hand on one
shoulder and looking over the other at the photograph, her hair brushing
against his cheek.

"He---- Give me another match, Eric; this is burning all down one
side---- It's good, don't you think?"

"The best I've ever seen of him, poor chap. I must get his sister to
give me one."

"And don't forget that you're going to find out whether they've had any
news of him, will you? Johnny Carstairs asked the Foreign Office to make
enquiries through Copenhagen and Madrid, but he hasn't been able to find
out anything."

"I should be afraid there's nothing to find out," Eric murmured. "He's
been missing for weeks."

"But if he's been wounded or lost his identification disc--a hundred
things. And it takes months to get news sometimes. D'you like my pig
family, Eric?"

"Not among Waterford glass," he answered. "Except as part of the general
setting for you."

She replaced the photograph, laughing, and took his arm, leading him
round the room and giving him the history of her trophies, until a
footman knocked and announced that luncheon was on the table.

Eric spent the next five minutes being pushed round a large library,
which seemed to contain twice as many voices as people, and introduced
to a second person before he had fixed the identity of the first. Lady
Crawleigh was timorous and subdued, with an air of having been all her
life interrupted in the middle of her sentences and with a compensating
pair of flashing pigeon's eyes which seemed to miss nothing.

"I'm so glad Babs gave us the opportunity of meeting you," she said to
Eric. "I enjoyed your play so much. Your first, wasn't it? It must be a
glorious sensation to make such a success at the outset."

("She takes in a thousand times more than she ever gives out," Eric said
to himself; then he found himself being spun through the rest of the
family. "Wonder what she does with it?")

Lord Crawleigh interrupted an indignant, staccato conversation with
Lady Maitland, who was holding her own with emphatic shakes of a massive
head, to touch finger-tips and introduce him to his sister--the whole
done cholerically and with the air of transacting a great deal of
tiresome business in a short time.

("Bullies the life out of every one, I've always heard," was Eric's
private comment, as he was introduced to a pair of tow-haired young
officers with limp hands; "except the girl. And she bullies him.")

"I knew you by sight at Oxford," said Lord Neave, withdrawing his limp
hand jerkily, as though he feared that it would be stolen. "You were at
Trinity, weren't you? You, er, know my brother Charles--Mr. Lane."

Eric grasped a second limp hand, received a quick, business-like nod
from John Gaymer and found himself confronted by the Duchess of Ross.

"No one will introduce us!" she cried shrilly with a vermillion pout.
"I've _so_ much wanted to meet you, Mr. Lane. You _wouldn't_ dine when I
asked you! Won't _some one_ introduce us _properly_!"

The babble of high-toned voices, the quick patter of speech, the sense
of hurry, the hyperbolical intimacy and enthusiasm were bewildering to a
man who was naturally shy and at that moment mentally tired. Eric
commended his soul to his humour and circumambulated the room, two steps
at a time, until a sudden lessening of noise and tension told him that
luncheon had dawned upon Lady Crawleigh as a thing to be not only
discussed but eaten.

"We've heard so _much_ about you from Babs," she said, struggling to
finish one of her interrupted sentences. "_So_ good of you to bring her
home the other night."

Eric poised himself on mental tip-toes, wondering, in general, how far
Barbara made her family a party to her life and, in particular, to which
night Lady Crawleigh was alluding.

"Really----," he began.

"She gets these turns," Lady Crawleigh pursued. "I blame myself
entirely; I allowed her to stay on working at the hospital when she
simply wasn't fit for it. Now _she_ has to pay for _my_ weakness."

Eric looked from one to the other.

"I should prescribe three months in the country, bed at ten--and make
her stay there for twelve hours."

"I should be out of my mind in a week," Barbara protested.

There was a pause, and Lady Crawleigh, with a rueful shrug, turned away
to speak to Gaymer.

"I _like_ the way you order me _into_ bed and _out_ of bed!" Barbara
whispered. "If you cared what happened to me, it would be one thing,
but, when I'm becoming a bit of a nuisance, you know. . . ."

Eric looked round cautiously and lowered his voice.

"Lady Barbara," he began.

"You persist in that?"

"Babs, then----"

"Yes, but you're receiving a favour, not conferring it."

He drew a deep breath.

"You are the most exasperating----"

"Dear Eric! I can't help teasing you! Are you the clever only child?
Well, you ought to be. . . . I don't believe any one's ever teased you
before. You mustn't _be_ exasperated by me!"

Her laughter was irresistible, and Eric joined in it.

"Lady Barbara--I'm sorry--Babs, this is serious. You say you'd be out of
your mind in a week, if you adopted my prescription. Let me tell you
this; if you go on as you're doing now, you _will_ go out of your
mind----"

"I shouldn't bother you, if I were in an asylum."

Eric stiffened and turned his attention to the food before him.

"You're not an _easy_ person to talk to----," he began.

"Oh, you dear child!" said Barbara, with a gurgle of laughter. "_Two_
minutes ago it was, 'Ahaw, Lady Crawleigh, I should prescribe . . .' And
_one_ minute ago you became earnest and loving and grand-paternal, with
your fond advice! Eric, I love you when you're like that! Now don't be
self-conscious! 'Your ideahs of tidiness, aw, Lady Barbarah . . .'
Whatever people may say, I believe you're intelligent. In time you'll
understand." Her eyes softened and ceased to laugh at him. "Less than
half a week! In time you'll know what you've done for me, what I very
humbly hope and pray you're going to go on doing for me. . . . You'll
know why I trust you and love you more than I've ever loved any one in
my life before. There! Is that plain enough? I don't say it excuses my
being 'tiresome,' but it may explain it. . . . Now don't say, 'Lady
Barbarah, I--er--I don't--aw--understand you!'" Her fingers twined their
way confidingly between his. "Why bother? Why not go on being just what
you are?" she whispered. "Something that's made me think life's still
worth living. I don't _claim_ it," she added with a change of tone. "I
ask it."

"And will you do something for me in return?" Eric asked. "Will you take
six months' complete rest in the country, drop smoking----?"

"But I told you I should go out of my mind in a week!"

"Will you go for six weeks, six _days_?"

"You want to get rid of me?"

Eric felt his patience ebbing.

"I want to see you looking less of a haggard little wreck than you do
now," he exclaimed.

"Then I'll go. Thank you, Eric."

From the end of the table Lord Crawleigh's voice penetrated
authoritatively.

"Barbara! . . . Barbara! Are you coming with us by the 4.10?"

She pressed Eric's hand before turning her head.

"I can't come till the 5.40," she said.

"But, my dear Barbara----"

"I--_can't_, father."

("Bullies the life out of every one, I've always heard," Eric repeated
to himself, as Lord Crawleigh subsided into inarticulate blustering.
"Except the girl. And she bullies him.")

"I did wonderful staff-work with Waterloo this morning," Barbara
confided. "The 5.40 stops at Winchester _and_ Crawleigh."

"I could have told you that," said Eric. "So could Bradshaw, deceased."

"But fancy looking at Bradshaw, when you can persuade some one to look
at it for you! . . . And you can't get _any_where in Bradshaw without
going through the Severn Tunnel and waiting two hours at Bletchley.
Besides, Waterloo rather loved me. Just my voice, you know. . . . We'll
go down together. You can wire to your people."

"I told them I'd come by the 5.40."

"But how lucky!"

"How--understanding," he amended.

       *       *       *       *       *

    "_If you can be sure of your opponent, you may win by throwing down
    your weapon. It is the victory of the weak over the strong, the
    'tyranny of tears.' Or perhaps it is the victory of the weak over
    the weaker. But you must be sure of your opponent._"--From the Diary
    of Eric Lane.



CHAPTER THREE

LASHMAR MILL-HOUSE

    "I've come back . . . and I was the King of Kafiristan . . . and
    you've been setting here ever since--O Lord!"
            RUDYARD KIPLING: "THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING."


1

As the crow flies, Lashmar Mill-House is but five miles from Winchester.
By road, however, there are six miles of tolerable grey flint and rusty
gravel on the Winchester and Melton turnpike, followed by three Irish
miles of unaided forest track. Half of it lies under water for six
months of the year; but in the summer a rutted ride projects from stony
sand-pockets framed in velvet moss, with tidal-waves of bracken surging
up from the dells at the road-side and low branches meeting to net the
sun-shine.

At the end of the three miles Swanley Forest seems to have paused for
breath. There is a natural clearing a mile long and three quarters of a
mile broad--cherished common-land, where the Lashmar villagers walk many
assertive miles of a Sunday to preserve their rights of way; where, too,
tethered goats and errant geese make good their eleventh-century claim
to free pasturage. At one end of the down-soft clearing, a Methodist
chapel, two shops and five cottages constitute the village of Lashmar;
at the other lies Lashmar Mill-House, slumbering half-hidden by beech
trees to the unchanging murmur of the Bort. The relevant deeds and
charters prove beyond a doubt that the lord of Lashmar Mill-House has
the right to make Lashmar village grind its corn in his mill, paying
him in kind and yielding three days' labour a year to grind his. The
ambitions of Sir Francis Lane and of his eldest son, however, were not
feudal.

The autumn floods were lapping the road-side as Eric and his sister left
the twinkling lights behind and turned, after a crackling six miles of
metalled high-way, on to the primæval ride that bored faint-heartedly
through the forest. He was tired and uncommunicative, though his journey
from Waterloo had been uneventful; once inside the carriage and tucked
warmly into a corner, Barbara had closed her eyes, sighed and dropped
asleep. Not until he stirred himself to collect his hat and coat did she
open her eyes and look round with a tired smile; as the train steamed
out of Winchester, an ungloved hand fluttered into sight for a moment.

It was Eric's first visit to Lashmar since the production of the
"Divorce" had made his name known throughout England; and he could not
conceal from himself that he was trying to render his return agreeably
dramatic. Lady Lane assisted the conspiracy by inviting their few
neighbours to meet him; Sybil was awaiting him on the platform with
ill-suppressed excitement; and it was entirely appropriate that Agnes
Waring should dine at the Mill-House on his first night at home.

"Geoff came home on leave yesterday," said Sybil.

"From Scapa? Oh, good! I haven't seen him for a long time," said Eric.

But for Basil, who was in Salonica, the party would be complete; and
Eric felt a moment's compunction at having allowed himself to be so much
caught up by the work and distractions of London. When the car stopped
at the door of the Mill-House, he looked with affection at its squat,
sleepy extent, punctuated with lifeless, dark windows and wrapped in
age-long slumber; as the door opened, he saw his mother silhouetted
against the golden light of the hall.

"At last, Eric!" she cried.

"It's good to be home again, mother," he answered, jumping out of the
car and embracing her.

While his sister drove round to the stables, Eric walked arm-in-arm with
his mother into the low, warm hall. For more than thirty years Lady Lane
had guarded, counselled and provided for an eccentric husband and a
turbulent family, shouldering the cares of all, budgeting, nursing and
educating on an income which slipped unrewardingly away until she
assumed control. She had learned Greek and Latin to help the boys with
their home-work and had trained their characters in an austere school of
aggressive Puritanism. If she were a little intolerant, at least she
reared her children to a lofty sense of honour, a cold chastity of life
and speech and a fierce refusal to compromise where truth or personal
reputation was concerned. Thanks to her, three boys and one girl were
now able to fend for themselves; Sybil, factotum and amanuensis to her
father ever since she had learned to read, could support herself
anywhere; Geoff was firmly on his feet in the Navy, Basil had passed
into the Civil Service a few weeks before the outbreak of war. Lady Lane
was justly content with her children; of Eric, whom she had kept alive
when the doctors despaired of him, she was justly proud.

"Come into the drawing-room," she said, giving his arm a gentle squeeze.
"I've got a fire there."

"Nothing's changed," said Eric wonderingly.

Lashmar Mill-House, for all its size, contained hardly more than two
rooms on the ground-floor; a vast, book-lined study for Sir Francis, an
equally vast living-room for the rest of the family and, between them, a
furtive, dark rectangle where they hurried through their meals. Eric had
begged for years to have the back wall removed from the hall to make an
adequate dining-room, but his mother had grown middle-aged in a
familiar compass and did not care to be told by him too explicitly how
the house should be run and improved. In the moment of arrival Eric was
too much pleased with his welcome to be critical.

"You look tired," she said, holding his face to the light. "Tell me what
you've been doing all this while. You've become a great celebrity,
Eric."

"There's nothing much to tell. I've been doing a lot of work, meeting a
lot of people. . . . It's been rather fun. . . ."

As soon as she had put away the car, Sybil joined them and stood with
her back to the fire and her hands in the pockets of a short tweed
skirt, staring idly at her own small feet in their brown stockings and
thick brogues and rousing herself with an abrupt jerk of the head when
she wanted to intervene with a question.

"You were _barely_ civil, when I rang you up the other night," she
interjected, in a pause, with the disconcerting directness of nineteen.

"I was late already, and you were making me later," Eric answered
patiently. "That night----? Oh, yes."

He detailed Lady Poynter's dinner to his mother and observed an
expression of mixed curiosity and disapproval settling upon his sister's
face.

"Mrs. O'Rane? Sonia Dainton that was? H'm," said Sybil. "And Lady
Barbara Neave. Are you being taken up by _that_ set now, Ricky?"

"I don't quite know what you mean by 'being taken up.' I met them at
dinner. . . . And I lunched with the Crawleighs to-day," he added
without filling in the intervening encounters. "Lady Crawleigh wants me
to go down there next week-end, but I'm too busy; and week-ends simply
wear me out."

"You _have_ made yourself popular with them all at once!" Sybil
commented. "What's Lady Barbara like?"

"Interesting girl," Eric answered, casually.

"Is she anything like what people make her out to be?"

Eric smiled tolerantly.

"I don't know enough of what people make her out to be," he replied.
Sybil was smiling mysteriously and exasperatingly to herself. . . . "Is
the guv'nor working?" he asked his mother.

Eric prowled through the hall to his father's big work-room. Sir Francis
was sitting bent over a litter of papers, with a green eye-shade clamped
to his lined forehead and an ill-smelling corn-cob drooping from beneath
his unassertive grey moustache. In an arm-chair before the fire Geoff
was contentedly dozing with the bog-mud steaming from his boots and a
half-cleaned gun across his knees. By his side an elderly retriever
peered reflectively into the flames and from time to time yawned
silently.

"'Evening, everybody," said Eric. "I've been sent to hunt you off to
dress, father. You asleep, Geoff? If not, how are you?"

Sir Francis pulled off the eye-shade and held out his hand with a wintry
smile. The boy in the arm-chair turned on to his other side and dropped
asleep again with a disgusted grunt.

"He's got about a year to make up," explained Sir Francis. "The Grand
Fleet doesn't do much sleeping. Well, Eric, what news?"

"Everything very much as usual," was the answer.

"Everything's always very much as usual here," said his father, as he
turned out the reading-lamp.

He sighed as he said it, and Eric tried to calculate the number of years
in which he had come down like this for the week-end--to be met, before
the era of motor-cars, by a fat pony and a governess cart, to be greeted
by his mother with affection which he never seemed able to repay, to
drift into the library and detach his lank, unaging father from his
studies. Sir Francis had accepted marriage and the presence of a wife as
he would have accepted a new house and strange house-keeper; children
had been born; after the publication of his Smaller Anglo-Saxon
Dictionary the friend of a friend had recommended him, through a
friend's friend, for a knighthood, and he had bestirred himself with
wide-eyed, childish surprise for the investiture and a congratulatory
dinner at the Athenæum, returning to Lashmar Mill-House grievously
unsettled and discontented for as much as a week. He had talked of
running up to London occasionally, of having these fellows down for the
week-end; he had complained that he was growing rusty and losing touch
with the world. Then the murmur of the mill-stream had drugged his
senses, and he had settled to the Century Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon,
Volume VII E-G.

After the restlessness of London, Eric could not at once accommodate
himself to the leisurely contentment and placidity of Lashmar.

"Wake up, Geoff!" he cried.

The boy yawned and stretched himself like a cat, then became suddenly
active and projected himself across the room, turning in the door-way to
shout: "Bags I first bath, Ricky!"

"Well, don't take all the hot water," Eric begged. After the ingenious
comfort of his flat in Ryder Street, he could not at once accommodate
himself to the simplicity of the Mill-House. "Pity you never turned the
east room into a bathroom," he said to his father. "You talked about it
for years. We _need_ another one."

It was an old controversy and part of Eric's persistent but fruitless
campaign against the studiedly Spartan attitude of Lashmar Mill-House.

"It's rather an unnecessary expense. And we seem to struggle on without
it," said Sir Francis.

"I avoid unnecessary struggles as much as possible," Eric answered
shortly.

"You couldn't get the work done while the war's on," Sir Francis pointed
out, rooting himself firmly in the particular.

Eric walked upstairs, reflecting in moody dissatisfaction on unnecessary
struggles. No one ever laid out his dress clothes for him at Lashmar. It
never _had_ been done when he was a school-boy, carefully protected from
pampering. Sporadic attempts were made, whenever he launched an
offensive against the domestic economy of the house; but the maids were
always changing, Lady Lane believed that all men-servants drank or stole
the cigars. . . . In the last resort, these country-bred girls were so
difficult to teach. . . .

Down the passage came the sound of emptying taps and a voice singing
cheerfully in the bath.

"Don't stay there all night, Geoff!" Eric cried, banging on the door.
"It's a quarter to eight now."

It was five minutes to eight before the bathroom, sloppy and filled with
steam, was surrendered to him. No man could have a hot bath and dress in
five minutes; he was particularly anxious to appear at his best for the
meeting with Agnes. . . .

And the water was tepid. . . .


2

"I have been apologizing for you," said Lady Lane pointedly, as Eric
hurried late and ill-humoured into the drawing-room.

He had ready at hand a caustic little speech about inadequate hot-water
supply and insufficient bathrooms, but it was intended for domestic
consumption and, after one scowl at Geoff, he laid it aside. Family
altercations, like family jokes, should be reserved for the family,
though no one else emulated his moderation. He wondered whether the
servants grew as weary as he did of the story about the cross-country
journey from Oxford to Winchester; it was dragged up at his expense
whenever any one missed a train--and trains were missed weekly.
Servants, of course, could always leave; they always did. Perhaps they
made bets which would hear the Oxford-to-Winchester story most often in
three months; perhaps they met in sullen conspiracy and pledged
themselves to decamp in a body the next time any one heard it. . . .

That tepid bath had chilled his enjoyment of everything. . . .

"I'm sorry to be late," he murmured, stiffly impenitent.

Agnes Waring was in the foreground, talking to his father; he shook
hands shyly and squeezed past her to Nares, the apologetic, ineffectual
vicar, and from Nares to Mrs. Waring, who was talking to a young officer
whom she had brought over with her party. Colonel Waring stood by the
fire, retailing safe newspaper opinions on the war and representing to
Eric's theatre-trained eyes, with their passion for "types," almost too
perfect a picture of the younger brother who had passed from twenty
years in a cavalry regiment to half-pay retirement and a certain
military pretentiousness of daily life. There was no one else. Had their
lives depended on it, Lashmar could not yield another man or woman.

"Entertaining here always reminds me of a musical comedy," Eric murmured
to Sybil. "Where one goes, all go:

    "_Oh, we're all of us a-going back to Lon-don,
     Over ocean; that's the notion_. . . .

"Song and dance. Curtain. Who's the fellow in uniform?"

"Mr. Benyon. A friend of the Warings," Sybil answered. "You're not
going to be patronizing, _are_ you?"

Eric pulled up and banished the ill-humour induced generally by the
sleepiness of the country and, in particular, by that tepid bath-water.
He had looked forward to the week-end, he proposed to enjoy himself;
there was no need even to ask where he had been placed at dinner. Sybil,
at nineteen, worshipped every word and movement in Agnes Waring at
twenty-eight--her way of laughing and speaking, her phraseology, her
mental outlook; every opinion was introduced with the words, "Agnes
says----" Two years before, when the infatuation was in its perfervid
youth, Sybil had made up her mind that her brother was to marry Agnes;
the determination was still so strong that she was uneasy at the
presence of young Benyon.

Eric had no strong view either way; Agnes was fair, slight and
small-featured with observant grey eyes and a good deal of detached
humour. Since the incubation of his first unsuccessful play, he had
argued out every character and situation with her; when feminine
psychology was in dispute, her ruling was accepted without cavil. More
than once, as they splashed conversationally through the Lashmar woods,
he had felt that she gave even a self-sufficient bachelor something that
he lacked and would always lack; and, whenever the ubiquitous, dry
celibacy of the Thespian smoking-room oppressed him, his thoughts
drifted to Agnes Waring and a doll's house somewhere on the Eaton
estate, with one table, two chairs and an avalanche of green silk
cushions in the drawing-room. . . . He was not in love with her; but,
when Sybil telephoned to find whether he was coming to the country for
the week-end, he had resolved to retouch his conception of Agnes. For
the first time in his life he could not only afford to marry; he could
regard marriage from the standpoint of an eligible bachelor. If he was
not in love with Agnes, he was in love with love. . . .

Distant voices wakened him from his reverie, and he found the long, low
white-and-gold drawing-room buzzing with congratulations. Benyon had
been to the "Divorce" three nights before; old Nares rubbed his hands,
coughed and described a proud moment, a _very_ proud moment, when he had
been taken behind at the Lyceum and presented to Sir Henry Irving. There
followed an ingenuous account of his make-up. . . . Eric smiled
elastically, stroking his chin and letting his gaze wander round the
white panelled walls, the gilt sofa and chairs and the gold and white
overmantel--the coming of Dionysus to Europe in a chariot drawn by
lions. He realized for the first time how much he hated overmantels.

Sybil was now talking to Agnes, but she withdrew discreetly at his
approach and gave him an opportunity, as they went in to dinner, for a
question about Jack.

"We've heard nothing since the August report that he was missing," said
Agnes. "I'm keeping my mind a blank. I couldn't build all sorts of
wonderful hopes on his being a prisoner and then, perhaps, have to go
through the whole thing again. . . . Mother's quite certain, of course;
but then mothers are like that, bless them. . . . I'll let you know, if
we hear any news, Eric."

"Thanks very much. By the way, can you spare me one of the van Laun
photographs of him?"

Agnes thought for a moment and then wrinkled her forehead.

"He was never taken by van Laun."

"But I've seen one."

"Where?"

"He gave one to Lady Barbara Neave."

Her forehead wrinkled in deeper lines of perplexity.

"I didn't know he even knew her. . . . He never mentioned her name; I
suppose he thought I should disapprove."

Eric was tempted to coax an opinion of Barbara; but they had known each
other for less than a week, and, if he went round collecting the
judgements of all who had ever heard of her, no one would believe that a
serene, professional spirit of enquiry prompted his curiosity. While
native caution kept him hesitating, the opportunity slipped away; Agnes
surrendered to the boisterous advances of Geoff, and he turned to find
Mrs. Nares tentatively conversational on his left.

For a quarter of an hour Eric listened with one ear to the parish
history of Lashmar. Unknown names married and begot families; unknown
names sickened and died or were unexpectedly revived when the copiously
described symptoms had rendered recovery an affront to the imagination;
a few unknown names joined the army; one man was a prisoner, another
wounded; and two more lastingly discredited Lashmar by saying that, when
the army wanted them, the army could come and take them. Eric was
informed that he would hardly know the dear old village now; he felt
that he could support the privation with fortitude and hoped its annals
might be closed with that felicitous generalization, but Mrs. Nares had
recollected her husband's gallant attempt to be accepted as a chaplain
and the Bishop's gracefully worded inability to spare him, with a
postscript in his own writing to commend such spirit in a man of
sixty-two and to hold him up as an example to his juniors.

Eric made mental notes of Mrs. Nares and memorized some of her more
engaging mannerisms. If he could work her up, he could find room for
her; but he must also find some one to play her with a breathless,
unpunctuated patter; Kitty Walters seemed to have gone to America for
good, but Dorothy Martlet could take the part. . . . The whole dinner,
the atmosphere of the place were a satire on life in a remote
country-house. He wondered what the party at Crawleigh Abbey was
like. . . .

An unforeseen question rebuked his inattention. Eric disposed of it
skilfully; but the thread of thought was snapped, and he looked round
the table to see what had been happening since his reverie began. Agnes
had been set at liberty by Geoff and was watching Eric as he watched the
others. Their eyes met, and both smiled.

"Conscription between your father and Benyon over Sybil's body," he
murmured, disentangling the conversations. "Needlework Guild between the
guv'nor and Mrs. Nares. Poor old guv'nor. . . . V.A.D. training between
mother and the vicar. '_Naval Occasions_' between your mother and Geoff.
D'you ever feel you'd like to stir all this up with a pole, Agnes? We're
too far from the coast for an air-raid. . . . And, if you had one, no
one would ever talk about anything else for the rest of his life; it
would be like the Famine in Ireland or the Wesley descent on Cornwall."
A maid, squeezing through the inadequate fairway behind the chairs,
bumped Eric's back and made him spill his wine. "This place gets on my
nerves!" he added irritably.

Out of the corner of her eye Agnes looked at his mobile, discontented
face and crumbled her bread in silence for a moment.

"Don't give up coming here altogether," she pleaded.

Eric sipped his wine thoughtfully and avoided her eyes. Here was an
opportunity, had he cared to take it, for opening up a greater intimacy
with Agnes; but his mind was unconcentrated and he did not know what he
wanted.

"I suppose I shall come down from time to time," he answered vaguely.

"I've been so looking forward to hearing about all you've been doing. We
don't make much history in Lashmar."

It was common ground between them that the Warings lacked money for her
to live as independently as all Warings felt that every Waring had a
right to live. Each generation of younger brothers had been confined
within an ever-narrowing circle; and, but for the war, Jack would now be
patiently going the North Eastern Circuit, the first Waring to apply his
mind to law; but for Jack and the money spent on him at Oxford, Agnes
would have gone to Newnham and prepared a career for herself.

"You're too good for this place, you're wasted," Eric broke out after a
moment's silent brooding.

"There's not much choice, is there?"

Eric brooded again.

"Are you happy?" he asked.

"Happier than you are, I think," she answered with a smile.

"Why on earth d'you say that?" he asked in surprise.

"You just seem changed to-night," Agnes replied. "Have you been working
too hard?"

Over his port--which would not stand comparison with any from the artful
little cellar in Ryder Street--Eric tried to settle in his mind how much
she had seen and how much she had imagined. There was assuredly this
much change in him, that to-night Agnes was not even waking him to
dispassionate interest; he had no attention to spare her. And yet it was
not that Barbara had captured his mind; she was nothing but an elf of
mischief, dancing in the sunshine backwards and forwards across his
path, pelting him with flowers, vanishing and reappearing. Restlessness
or discontent must have peeped from behind the suave mask. He had meant
to be more friendly, far more friendly; they had not met for nine
months;--and both were disappointed.

In the drawing-room Agnes kept her chair a few inches behind the circle
of the others, watching, listening and reflecting. Eric seemed to think
that he was still at one of the tiresome long parties where he was
expected to glitter and to be shewn off; he had talked very well at
times, but he felt that he had been making voluble conversation in a
nervous dread of silence between them. His new life was rather turning
him into a public entertainer; he was enigmatic and unapproachable.


3

As Eric, with caution born of experience, lit one of his own cigars and
made room for Geoff at his side, an idea came to him so seductive, so
simple and so compelling that he wondered why he had never thought of it
before. When Geoff asked: "Are you down here for long, or are you going
back on Monday?" Eric answered with unsought inspiration:

"I shall go back on Sunday night."

It had never occurred to him before that, by this facile course, he
could avoid an early and cold drive into Winchester, a crowded train, a
free fight for the last copy of _The Times_, a late arrival at the
department where he composed propaganda for neutral consumption. And he
had never felt so urgent a need to escape from the Mill-House.

"I haven't seen your jolly old play yet," said Geoff. "I suppose I can
count on you for a box? If you'll give us dinner first, I might collect
a few bright lads and give the thing a bit of a fillip. I should think
it must be rather a rag, being famous."

"I suppose that depends on your definition of fame--and of a rag," Eric
answered.

"Oh, being invited everywhere," said Geoff unhesitatingly. "Having your
photograph in all the papers. Girls waiting in a queue for your
autograph. A galaxy of beauty prostrating itself at your feet to get an
extra line."

"That sounds more like musical comedy," said Eric doubtfully. "I don't
fly as high as that."

Geoff was too young to have outgrown the appeal of the stage. He
regarded Eric with as much admiration as one brother accords another and
with undisguised envy.

"I _did_ enjoy your play," said Benyon, moving into a chair by his side.
"Agnes came up to dine with me, and I took her. . . ."

Eric bowed without listening to the end of the sentence. He was mildly
surprised to find Agnes being discussed by her Christian name and
wondered why he had not heard of Benyon before. Perhaps it was her fault
that they had established no spiritual contact at dinner; she had
conceivably lost interest in him, and he wondered whether he was
sufficiently interested to make sure. . . .

"The mater told me you'd another thing on the stocks," Geoff went on.

"It's being produced next month," answered Eric.

He looked impatiently round the cramped dining-room, listening for a
moment to an altercation between Waring and Nares on the Dardanelles
expedition. It was surely worth while to explore Agnes further and to
see what part in her life this young Benyon was playing. . . .

Fortified by the wise decision to return to London earlier than he had
first intended, Eric entered the drawing-room full of toleration and
good-humour. Bending over Mrs. Nares' sofa, he atoned for his
inattention during dinner with thirty seconds' belated sparkle and a
simple epigram which he had already tried with effect on Mrs. Shelley.
They were joined by Mrs. Waring, and, as he had hardly spoken to her all
the evening, he consented to talk about his forthcoming play--which he
enjoyed as little as a superstitious mother might enjoy describing her
unborn child--until in a subsequent regrouping she confided to Sybil
that she was very much attached to Eric; he was so unspoiled, so
charming. . . .

"Aren't you rather proud of him?" she asked.

"Yes. He's very clever and he's had a big success," Sybil conceded
critically. "But, if any one says 'Lane,' the whole world thinks of
Eric, while father, who's spent his life----"

She was interrupted by Mr. Nares, who stationed himself at her elbow,
coughing apologetically until she gave him an opportunity of asking her
to sing. As she went to the piano, Eric moved across the room to Agnes'
chair and suggested that they should go out on the terrace.

"It's stifling in here," he grumbled; and, after a quick sidelong
glance, Agnes followed him.

They strolled through one of the French windows to a long gravel path,
which ran flush with the inky, slow-moving mill-stream. Overhead the
trees stretched across the narrow ribbon of water, brushing the back of
the house and releasing brittle leaves of copper and dull gold to
undulate in the breeze before they settled on the surface and swept
gently over the creaking wheel. A crescent moon was reflected
unwaveringly in the black water, and the autumn breeze blew a scent of
decaying, damp vegetation from the dense woods all around them.

"Remember when we used to have races with paper boats, Agnes?" Eric
asked suddenly.

She nodded, wondering why he had reminded her.

"What years ago it seems!"

"Only about five. Though we were both old enough to know better."

"It seems longer," said Agnes, looking at him thoughtfully and wondering
whether he had only invited her out there as a demonstration against
Sybil for disparaging him to her mother.

"I don't _feel_ a day older."

"You're changed. We were all of us saying that before you came into the
drawing-room to-night. Your mother's rather worried about you, Eric."

He lighted a cigarette to shew the steadiness of hand and eyes.

"She needn't bother," he answered easily. "I'm carrying a good deal of
sail--but I'm better than I've ever been. Agnes, I don't usually talk
about what I'm only _thinking_ of doing, but with you it's
different. . . ."

He slipped her arm through his and walked up and down the gravel path
describing his conception of a novel as it had revealed itself to him a
week before when he was at an Albert Hall concert. His confidence
flattered her into disregarding the egotism which made him remember her
only when he wanted to talk about himself; she forgot the sensation that
he had outgrown her as much as he had outgrown the paper-boat races on
the mill-stream by their side. Once the night wind, blowing on to her
unprotected shoulders, sent a shiver through her; but it was Eric who
coughed, and she wondered whether he knew why Lady Lane always looked so
anxiously at his sunken cheeks and starved body. She wondered, too,
whether she would have cared for him so much if he had been robust and
tranquil as Geoff.

The music had ended long before he had done talking; tentative cries of
"Agnes!" passed unheeded, and she was only recalled to the present by
the appearance of Colonel Waring in overcoat and soft hat half-way
through the open window.

"Bed-time, Agnes," he called out, sniffing the night air. "If you've
been giving that girl of mine a chill, Eric----"

"You're not cold, are you?" Eric asked her.

"Not very," she answered with a tired and rather disappointed smile.

"Oh, but why didn't you tell me?" he protested in a convincing voice of
concern, as he led her back into the house and helped her into her
cloak. As a chorus of farewell rose and isolated them, he lowered his
voice. "You'll let me know when you have any news of Jack, won't you?"

"_If_," she answered wistfully.

"You mustn't lose heart. I expect he's all right, and there's been some
hitch in getting the news through. He's all right, Agnes."

"I hope so."

She shook hands and walked despondently into the night. Eric seemed to
have become artificial in the last few months--just when he might have
helped her most. He lengthened his face and lowered his voice
sympathetically, but he was growing into a social puppet and losing his
individuality. . . . It had not been a very amusing dinner.

"Did you enjoy yourself?" Colonel Waring asked her, as they settled into
the car.

"Very much, thanks," she answered quietly. "I'm rather tired, though."

Benyon told her that Eric's new play was to be produced within a month
and invited her to come with him. She answered uncertainly and lapsed
into silence.

As the car bumped over the springy turf of Lashmar Common, Eric stood
gazing at the stars and drinking in the thousand mingled scents and
sounds of the night. Somewhere hard by, a bonfire was pungently
smouldering; there was a sour smell where a flock of geese had been
feeding all day; flaring acridly across was a transitory reek of burnt
lubricating oil, and the hint of a cigar so faint that it was gone
before he could be sure of it. . . . The lumbering creak of the
mill-wheel rose assertively above the drone and plash of the stream; a
shiver of rain and a gentle sigh of wind in the top branches of the
trees behind him were suddenly swallowed by the hoot of an owl.

Eric started--and wondered why he was standing there in the cold. Then
he remembered that he had stayed to be by himself and to think
something out. There was a change somewhere, and he was trying to locate
it. He had come to retouch his memory of Agnes, and he had seen her
alone and with others; they had talked the conventional jargon of the
dinner-table, their fingers had brushed emotion as they discussed her
missing brother, and for half an hour they had marched up and down the
terrace arm-in-arm, discussing and arguing on an unwritten book,
recapturing an old intimacy which he had shared with no one else. In the
light of the drawing-room Agnes' grey eyes were black and mysterious;
her lips were parted, and her cheeks warmly flushed; he had never seen
her look prettier, he had never been more attracted by her.

The change must be in himself; he demanded of her something more
volcanic and inspiring than she could give, something to feed his own
languid vitality instead of placidly laying him to rest. . . .

Shutting the front door, he went back to the drawing-room, where the
family was assembled to compare notes and pool information.

"The vicar's starting a class for making bandages. . . ."

"The Warings haven't heard anything of Jack yet. . . ."

"That Benyon must be one of the Herefordshire lot, I fancy. An old
private bank. . . ."

Eric hesitated on the threshold, looking from one to another. Sybil was
undisguisedly disappointed; she had so desperately set her heart on his
marrying her beloved Agnes, and the night's meeting had brought them no
nearer. Lady Lane, still anxious, beckoned him into the room and took
his face between her hands, turning it to the light and kissing his eyes
again, as on his arrival.

"You look tired, Eric. You'd better go to bed, or you'll never be down
to breakfast."

"I wasn't thinking seriously of being down to breakfast in any case," he
answered with a yawn.

"Oh, don't be late. It makes so much extra work for the maids, if they
have to serve several breakfasts and can't get in to do your room."

He smothered an impatient retort and strolled to a table by the fire
where Sybil and her father were sipping long tumblers of hot milk, while
Geoff gulped home-made lemonade with avid enjoyment.

"Any whiskey?" he asked, raking the tray with critical eye. He did not
greatly want it for himself or at that moment, but every night the same
plea had to be preferred, there was the same hesitation and hint of
inward struggle, the same unspoken protest, as though the shocked
stalwarts of temperance were saying: "You can't want whiskey after
claret _and_ port." He was being made to drink for conscience sake. And
it was intolerable that Waring, Benyon and Nares should have been sent
into the night without a stirrup-cup.

"It's in the dining-room," said Sybil, walking reproachfully to the
door.

"Here! All right! I'll ring," Eric cried.

"The servants are all in bed," she answered. "Or, if they're not, they
ought to be."

He thanked her suitably on her return, but one discordant, trifling
incident coalesced with another, the tepid bath with the whiskey
demonstration, to give him a sense of angular discomfort. In a few hours
he seemed to spend a month's nervous energy in battling for things that
were not worth winning. The whole week-end would be a failure. . . .

The milk tumblers were returned to their tray; Sir Francis filled his
corn-cob for the last time; Geoff ferreted curiously among a pile of
library novels in one corner, and Lady Lane walked softly round the
room, testing the fastenings of the windows, pushing a top-heavy log
into security and turning off unnecessary lights. The hall clock,
striking eleven, seemed to rouse and inspire them with a common impulse.

"Don't burn the mid-night oil too long," said Lady Lane, brushing Eric's
forehead with her lips.

"I simply couldn't sleep, if I went to bed now," he told her.
"Good-night, mother. Good-night, everybody."

As the house grew silent he brought in his despatch-box from the hall
and began to read through the skeleton of a novel which he had promised
himself to write as soon as "The Bomb-Shell" was safely launched. In the
second week of the war he had spent an afternoon in a recruiting office
with men of all ages and physiques, pressing forward for enrolment.
Three over-worked doctors pounded and sounded them, prodding them on to
a weighing-machine, measuring their height and chest expansion, testing
their eyes. Eric had tried to cheat by memorizing the order of the
descending black capitals while he lay on a sofa breathing freely or
holding his breath as he was ordered; but the chart was changed before
his turn came. When he had dressed, the examining doctor referred him to
a row of three weary clerks at a baize-covered table, who informed him
that he was rejected. The folio form contained a comment--cardiac
something; he could not read the second word. There was no appeal, and,
after a moment's indecision, he recognized that there was nothing to do
but to go home.

Outside the office his neighbour in the queue overtook and hailed him
with the words: "What luck?"

"They've spun me," Eric answered. "There was just a chance that I might
slip through in the crowd. . . . What did they say to you?"

"I was spun, too," his companion answered. Then he laughed uneasily and
his face was drawn and dazed in the August sunshine. "You wouldn't think
you could have much the matter with you and not know anything about it.
I always thought I was a first-class life; I haven't had a day's illness
in ten years----"

"What did they say?" Eric asked, as the other hesitated in bewilderment.

"They give me anything between three and six months," he answered,
moistening two grey lips. "One of the fellows . . . took me on one side,
you know . . . asked me a few questions . . ." He broke off and waved to
a taxi which was rolling lazily down Whitehall. "I must go and see my
own man. Good-bye."

"Good-bye! Good luck!" Eric cried.

As he walked home he wondered how much composure he would shew if a
sentence of death were slapped at him like an overdue bill. He wondered,
too, what he would do with those testing, supreme three months, if they
were all that he was allowed. Stoicism, hedonism, the faith of his
childhood, new-fangled mysticisms would join hands and hold revel round
his soul for those twelve weeks, those eighty-four days, those two
thousand and sixteen hours. . . . The speculation fascinated him until
he almost fancied that the sentence had been passed on him. Gradually he
wove a drama round it; line by line it took shape for a book that was to
be subtiler, finer and more sincere than anything that he had ever
written. If only he could find time for six months' uninterrupted work!
London had to be not only captured but held; more than ever before, his
work was the one thing that mattered. . . .

The clock in the library struck twelve, and he tossed the manuscript
skeleton back into his despatch-box. His mind was vaguely disturbed with
a sense of duty undone, until he remembered promising to tell Barbara if
he heard any news of Jack Waring. For a moment he thought of writing to
her; but in fact there was no news, he would have only himself to blame
if he re-established communications with her in obedience to a passing
whim. She was at Crawleigh, resting and building up her strength; he
would be back in full harness within thirty-six hours, and there would
be no room for her madcap incursions into his life.


4

The house was very silent when Eric at length mustered resolution to go
to bed. The fragrance of many wood fires warmed the passages and
staircase with a drowsy scent; once a distant window rattled tremulously
in the wind, the hall clock gathered itself together and hesitated
before striking; all else was deep-brooding peace.

He turned out the lights and mounted to his room on tip-toe. There was a
fancied sound of tranquil breathing, as he paused outside each door in
the long, low passage. He at least was awake; his highly-strung new
restlessness would not accord with the placidity of these contented
people. Twenty-five years ago, his mother had fetched him from
Broadstairs for his first Christmas holidays; and he had been
wonderfully glad to see her and to be home again. So it had been every
holiday; he started with an afternoon's preliminary exploration,
flinging open doors, sniffing the familiar scent of leather bindings,
lavender and pine-logs, critically watchful for change. Now the change
had come in himself; Agnes had commented on it, his mother and Sybil had
noticed it. . . .

His bedroom was as he had known it from childhood; a hard brass bed,
white painted chest-of-drawers and wash-hand-stand, threadbare green
carpet, flowered and festooned pink-and-white wall-paper. (It _must_
have been renewed in twenty-five years, but the pattern was the same.)
There was an oak-framed "Light of the World" over the bed, supplemented
on the other walls with progressive personal records--eleven podgy,
flannelled little boys in quartered chocolate-and-gold caps, guarded and
patronized by a flannelled and whiskered master; four lean-faced, stern
young school prefects in gowns and white ties; two hundred shivering and
draggled young men and girls, pressing together for warmth in the five
o'clock chill of a June morning outside the Town Hall of Oxford. There
were two shelves of calf-bound, marbled prize books between the windows,
a pair of limp, battered racquets over the mantel-piece and a fumed-oak
shield with the university and college arms contiguously inclined like
the hearts of two lovers.

Eric shed his coat and waist-coat on the bed, lighted a pipe and prowled
ruminatively round the room. Somewhere in the shivering ball-group Jack
Waring was to be found, marked out by the blue dress-coat of the
Bullingdon. Philpot of B.N.C., Trevor of the House, Loring of the House,
Crabtree of Magdalen, Flint of Exeter--Eric turned from one blue-coated
sign-post to another until he identified Waring with a crumpled shirt
front and disordered hair, cross-legged in the front row. It was a
smiling, vacuous, uncharacteristic photograph, and he abandoned it for a
bulky album stamped with his initials.

He retreated to the bed and sprawled over a group of the "Mystics." This
was a detached and scornful club, exasperating to outsiders, tiresome to
its members; Waring and he had joined it at the same time and taken
possession of it; their vague home intimacy had ripened into an
interested friendship as they strolled back to college from the weekly
meetings, once more refighting the frigidly abstract battles in which
they had lately engaged from the depths of arm-chairs with their feet on
the table and piled dessert-plates in their laps. Without effort or
desire Waring had set a fashion and founded a school of icy
fastidiousness. Within the limits of college discipline, which he
scrupulously observed, Waring dissociated himself from the life and
conventions of the college, the abbreviations and colloquialisms of
Oxford speech, the slovenly mode of dress and juvenility of mind. His
serenity floated as smoothly over the collective ideas and standards of
his fellows as over intercollegiate jealousies; and, as he left the
college distantly alone, the college sought him out, elected him to
clubs which he seldom attended and to banquets which he overlaid with
baffling and frigid aloofness.

When Waring went to the bar, he shared chambers with Eric for four years
in Pump Court; and, though they met at most for an hour each day, there
resulted an intimacy which neither could replace when Waring moved to
the greater comfort of a bedroom at the County Club. For two or three
years before the war they hardly met; Eric, disappointed and sore from
want of recognition, was shutting himself away from his former friends,
while Waring was gathering together a practice and exploring with
discrimination the social diversions of London. The war hardly increased
the distance between them, and it was only when Jack Waring was reported
to be "missing" that Eric realized he had lost his best and oldest
friend.

He replaced the album in its shelf and went on undressing. So many
friends had already been killed in these first fourteen months of war
that he had fallen into a "sooner-or-later" frame of mind about all.
Their death ceased to surprise and no longer shocked him as it had once
done. Until the war, Jack was always at call. Now, when the war ended,
he would _not_ come back. . . . Eric shrugged his shoulders and
clambered into bed. The Warings were plucky about it, because every day
the suspense must become worse; and all the while people would rush up
and ask for news, as he had done with Agnes, instead of leaving her to
spread the news as soon as she had any. People thought that they were
being sympathetic when they were simply tearing the bandage away from
the wound to gratify their own curiosity. He would never have asked the
question but for his promise to Barbara. . . .

Why, then, was he not letting her know the result? He reached for his
despatch-box and settled himself comfortably against the pillows.

"_I promised to see if I could get any news of our friend Jack Waring_,"
he began, then hesitated to wonder whether her letters reached Barbara
uncensored or whether sharp-eyed, subdued Lady Crawleigh would ask
tonelessly, "Who's your letter from, Babs?" Decorum, he decided, should
blossom between the lines and shed its waxen petals round each word. . . .
"_His sister was dining with us to-night, and I am sorry to say_ . . ."
"_Did you know him well? He was one of my greatest friends at Oxford.
I remember once_ . . ."

Eric found himself fondly stringing together anecdotes of Jack until he
had overshot the limits of a single sheet; it seemed but a moment before
he was leaning out of bed to reach a third. "_You must forgive me, if I
have rather let myself go about him_," he ended. "_I remember the first
weeks of the war, when I had a nervous breakdown. His father's place is
about two miles from here, and he used to come round and sit with me.
I've only to shut my eyes to see him standing by the fireplace, with his
elbow on the mantel-piece and his cheek on his hand, talking to me. And
I'd give a great deal to have him here to-night._

"_But I'm afraid I'm occupying an unfair proportion of your time and
strength at a season when you've faithfully promised to take care of
yourself and to have a proper rest. I hope you didn't get carried beyond
Crawleigh station; it's been rather on my conscience that I got out at
Winchester instead of coming on with you the whole way. Are you aware
that you collapsed from sheer exhaustion almost before we were out of
Waterloo? I thought you'd fainted and, as you have my only flask of
brandy, I had a bad fright. Isn't it worth while to take a little care
of yourself? You're so intolerably vain that I needn't remind you that
you're very young, extraordinarily lovely at times, very clever and
utterly wasted. However, that's your affair, and you're not likely to be
much impressed by any advice I give you, nor am I much impressed by my
right to give you advice. If I hear any news of Jack, you may be sure
that I shall let you know. Now, good-night, good-bye and a speedy
recovery._"

In reading through his letter, Eric could not help feeling that, where
he had sown decorum, a certain intimacy had shot up. But at three
o'clock in the morning he could not bother about that.


5

In the first drowsy moments after waking, Eric realized that he was
starting at a disadvantage. It was half-past ten. He had therefore
missed breakfast, disorganized the housemaids' programme for the day and
made himself too late to accompany his mother to church.

"I seem to have broken all the rules of the place before getting out of
bed," he told himself, as he rang for hot water.

Then he laughed as he recalled an old "Punch" drawing of an intoxicated
reveller in a Tube lift, who also contrived simultaneously to break all
the rules by smoking, by not "standing clear of the gates" and,
pre-eminently, by not being beware of pickpockets. The laugh put him in
good humour and reminded him that good humour must be his sword and
shield, if he hoped to get back to London that night without a struggle.
He sauntered in search of his brother with a razor in one hand and a
shaving-brush in the other to ask which night he would like to dine and
have his promised box at the Regency.

When he entered the dining-room, a pencilled note in a distantly
familiar writing was lying by his plate.

"_Now you MUST admit that my intelligence department is good_," he read
in slanting, irregular strokes which hinted at a recumbent position and
a writing-block balanced against the knees. "_You never told me your
address. I didn't know where to look for you in the telephone book, you
were utterly lost. Eric, will you believe me? I carried the telephone
into bed with me; I said, 'Trunks, please,' and Trunks Please said
'Honk!' (Why do they always say 'Honk'? I believe they're Masons, or
else they've always just woken up.) Well, I said 'Honk!' too, and asked
for your number in Ryder Street; and THEN I found out your address in
the country. Don't you think it was rather clever of me? And, dear Eric,
don't you think it was VERY sweet of me? I wanted to thank you for
something I expect you're quite unconscious of. (What a sentence to
throw at the head of a rising dramatist!) I mean your gentleness and
care for me yesterday. I always know I'm so safe with you, Eric._

"_I'm obeying you to the letter. We've got rather an amusing party here;
Gerry Deganway and Sally Farwell, my cousin Johnnie Carstairs (perhaps
ONE pinch too much Foreign Office), Bobbie Pentyre, who's on his last
leave before going out, his rather tiresome mother, the immaculate
George Oakleigh. . . ._" Her pen strayed into mischievous comments and
absurd stories about the house-party. "_But this bores you_," she broke
off abruptly. "_I felt all this week as if I'd been sharing everything
with you so extraordinarily. But no one shall say that I don't know when
I'm becoming tedious! What I wanted to tell you was this; and I was led
astray by this mob of people. I've washed my hands of them! I'm in
bed--bed at 7.15 POST MERIDIEM (is that right?) and I'm staying here.
I'm honestly resting. But--(a new sheet for this)--I've GOT to be in
London next week--Thursday--for a happy day with the dentist. I shall be
all alone, the house will be shut up and everything will be as
uncomfortable and depressing as it can be. Don't you think it's almost
a duty for you to come and dine? I'll have the dusting-sheets in my room
lifted up, and we'll crawl underneath them and eat hard-boiled eggs in
our fingers off the corner of the table. And I'll play to you; I might
even sing to you; in general terms I shall be very sweet to you and, if
you don't come, I shall know it's because you're afraid of falling in
love with me._"

Eric smiled to himself, as he pocketed the letter and prospected for
note-paper and an unoccupied table.

"_Your picnic dinner sounds most attractive_," he wrote. "_I shall be
delighted to come. It is so characteristic of you not to mention a time
that I hesitate to point out the omission. I shall come at 8.0, unless
you tell me to the contrary. And I shall insist on your singing.
Good-bye. Take care of yourself._"

He tossed the letter into the box in the hall, but took it out again
immediately. There was too much idle curiosity in the house already. No
one would accept his picture of Babs as he saw her; assuredly no one
would believe his account of their relationship, if he were in a mood or
state to give it. He put on an overcoat and walked, with the confirmed
Londoner's shivering hatred of the country in autumn, to the tumble-down
shanty which did duty as general store and post office to the hamlet of
Lashmar.

Once nerved to face the wet roads and penetrating chill, Eric decided to
acquire merit by walking through the woods and meeting the church party
on its return. Lady Lane had already shewn off her "sailor son" to the
exiguous congregation; it was the turn of "my eldest son, the author,
you know," to submit. He could hear all about Basil and generally
popularize himself so that he would be allowed to leave that night
without protest.

His mood was so radiant that he achieved his effect before the end of
luncheon. As Geoff drove him to the station, he almost seemed to have
enjoyed himself and to be leaving with regret. . . . Winchester,
Basingstoke, Vauxhall, the river and the Houses of Parliament gave him
successive thrills of pleasure, as though he had been away from England
for years. Pride of possession seized him when he entered Ryder Street;
as he shut the front door and looked at his black-framed prints and
lustre bowls, he felt like a miser locking himself within his
treasure-house to feast his eyes on the signs of his material victory
over fate. So many people allowed life to control them instead of
controlling life. And, when they had failed through their own inertia,
they invented an external destiny to save their faces. Man created God
to have somewhere to put the blame. . . .

There was an average pile of letters on his library table. Lady Poynter
hoped to get some rather amusing people to lunch on Thursday; could he
bear to come again? _So_ sweet of him, if he would. Mrs. O'Rane wrote
vaguely of a party which she had in prospect, without apparently knowing
very much about it: "_a sort of house-warming. I'm not asking you to
meet any one in particular, because I don't know who'll be there. It'll
be a mob, I warn you. I'm inviting my friends, my husband's inviting
his; they'll probably quarrel, and there's sure not to be room for all.
Whatever you do, have a good dinner before you come. It doesn't sound
attractive, does it? But these things are often nothing like so bad as
one fears beforehand. I propose to enjoy MYself._"

Eric was amused by her candour and decided to look in for a few minutes.

Lady Maitland, complaining that "_Margaret Poynter always ACCAPARER-s my
nice young men_," invited him to shew his loyalty by coming to dine on
Friday. "_Babs Neave is coming_," she added.

As he had intended to spend Sunday evening in the country, he was
absolved from all work and could give undivided attention to the dinner
which his cook had improvised. (But he must get an ice-safe capable of
holding an adequate week-end supply. Dinner with only a choice of sherry
and of gin and bitters, with no opportunity for a cocktail suggested
"roughing it" to his mind.) He dined with a book propped against its
silver reading-stand leisurely and warm after his bath, comfortable in a
soft shirt and wadded smoking jacket.

After dinner he unlocked a branded cedar-wood cabinet, the first that he
had ever bought, and looked lovingly at the cigars, rich, dull-brown and
ineffably fragrant, bundle pressed shoulder to shoulder with bundle. A
new stock of wine had still to be entered in the cellar-book; and he had
to find places on his shelves for Hatchard's last consignment. It was
not yet easy to realize that, until the success of his play--six
thousand pounds sterling in eight calendar months--a new book had been
an event. . . .

For a happy hour he arranged and rearranged. At the end, surveying his
handiwork with undisguised pleasure, he thought of the bizarre night
when Babs Neave had forced her way in. He could still hardly believe
that it had occurred. And yet, without shutting his eyes, he could
almost see the child, deadly pale, tired, delighted and wholly
unexplained, bending forward with her wonderful white arms outstretched
to catch poor Agnes Waring's horse-shoe paper-weight, laughing one
moment, crying the next, kissing him the moment after. And how she
seemed to be in love with him. . . .

He took out a foot-rule and measured the space under the windows for two
possible new book-cases. He would need them soon; and they would make
the room look better filled. It was a beautiful room, a beautiful flat.
From every point of view he was leading a very beautiful life. . . .

The clock struck eleven; and his parlour-maid came in with a syphon,
decanter and glasses. He did not drink whiskey once a month, but the
tray added a roundness and finish which the Spartans at Lashmar
Mill-House were incapable of appreciating. Were they Spartans--or simply
people without his instinct for life?

He filled a tumbler with soda-water and subsided into his deepest
arm-chair, looking lazily round the room, drawing pleasurably at his
cigar and wrapping himself in the softest down of contentment. His diary
was within reach, and he thought over his abbreviated week-end. Agnes
Waring had dropped out of his life; Barbara had never come into it.
There was nothing to record but the names of his mother's guests at
dinner. . . .

       *       *       *       *       *

    "_There are few things so exhausting as the quiet of the
    country._"--From the Diary of Eric Lane.



CHAPTER FOUR

INTERMEZZO

    What hadst thou to do being born,
        Mother, when winds were at ease
    As a flower of the spring-time of corn,
        A flower of the foam of the seas?
    For bitter thou wast from thy birth,
        Aphrodite, a mother of strife;
    For before thee some rest was on earth
        A little respite from tears
        A little pleasure of life;
    For life was not then as thou art,
        But as one that waxeth in years
    Sweet-spoken, a fruitful wife;
        Earth had no thorn, and desire
    No sting, neither death any dart;
        What hadst thou to do amongst these,
        Thou, clothed with a burning fire,
    Thou, girt with sorrow of heart,
        Thou sprung of the seed of the seas
    As an ear from a seed of corn
        As a brand plucked forth of a pyre,
    As a ray shed forth of the moon
        For division of soul and disease,
    For a dart and a sting and a thorn?
    What ailed thee then to be born?
            SWINBURNE: "ATALANTA IN CALYDON."


1

Moral delinquency in England, if of sufficiently ancient lineage, grows
venial with the years and, if carried out with adequate ruthlessness or
at least success, may quickly find itself invested with grandeur. No one
boasts of his own illegitimacy, but most men like it to be known that an
ancestress, whose memory is kept green, once enjoyed royal favour. No
man tells his guests that they are eating stolen food from stolen plate
in a stolen house; but many will admit, without imposing a bond of
secrecy, that their great-great-grandfathers went to India to seek their
fortune and apparently found it. "He that goes out an insignificant boy
in a few years returns a great Nabob," said Burke, without dwelling on
the intermediate stages. They will admit almost as readily that their
grandfather reluctantly parted with land to the end that railways might
be built, or that their fathers ran the blockade and supplied the South
and the slave-owners, hazardously and romantically, with munitions of
war.

The Neave fortunes had their origin in the character and position of
Lord Chancellor Crawleigh; and history has dealt faithfully with him.
John, first baron, acquired the Abbey from a misguided supporter of the
'15 and left it with sufficient means for its upkeep to his grandson
William, the second baron and first viscount, who built on sure
foundations. Common sense and a certain practical alertness in the
halcyon days of the Enclosure Acts did nothing to diminish the patrimony
of Charles, fourth baron, third viscount and first earl, though the
estate came to be temporarily encumbered when the good fellowship of
John, the second earl, won him the costly regard of the Regent. At a
time when the House of Commons was pulling one of its long faces over a
periodical schedule of the Prince's debts, a Garter became vacant; and
His Royal Highness, with no other means of marking his affectionate
gratitude, secured it for his friend with a further step to the coveted
rank of marquess. Thereafter the public life of the family was
characterized by honour and integrity; and the Garter, re-bestowed as
soon as surrendered, became a habit. The second marquess held a sinecure
under Lord Aberdeen; another flitted to and fro in shadowy retirement as
a Lord-in-Waiting; a third, exploring the United States for the
broadening of his mind, married an American wife.

The union infused so much new blood into the declining, short-lived
stock that there seemed no limit to the energy and success of the heir.
Charles, fifth marquess, was a member of parliament in his twenty-second
year, an under-secretary when he was twenty-six and Governor-General of
Canada before he was thirty-five. Thereafter, having got him abroad,
succeeding governments vied with one another to keep him abroad. The
vice-royalty of India followed almost automatically; he spent two years
as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to oblige his party leaders and was now in
the full vigour of middle age with nothing to do. The House of Lords
offered no opportunity to an incurably bad debater; and the radicals by
destroying the constitution, bullying the king and playing with
revolution had made it a place of arid pomp, whose futility took away
something of a man's dignity every time that he went there.
Nevertheless, once a viceroy, always a viceroy, as his daughter
sometimes reminded him. Lord Crawleigh ruled Berkeley Square and
Crawleigh Abbey as though he were still in India, as though, too, he
were suppressing the Mutiny single-handed. "Once a mutineer, always a
mutineer," Lady Barbara would occasionally say of herself.

This week-end she had irritated her parents by choosing a train
convenient neither to family nor guests, by arriving speechless with
fatigue and by retiring to her bedroom and announcing that she would
probably stay there. Lady Crawleigh felt that prudence, after so long
delay, might have timed its coming more opportunely; a houseful of young
people could be trusted, in dealing with her sentences, to complete the
ruin which her husband had begun; but late hours, excitement and the
legacy of her illness had reduced Barbara's strength until Dr. Gaisford
pronounced that he could not answer for the result if any pressure were
put upon her.

Though the windows were now thickly curtained and a bright fire was
burning, Barbara could never come into her bedroom without a shiver. In
the spring and summer of 1915, when Crawleigh Abbey was a military
hospital, she had worked by night and lain awake by day, deliberately
and with the sun shining on her face, for fear of dreaming. Madness or
death could be no worse than the torture of being pitilessly and
unceasingly watched when she knew that she was only dreaming but could
not wake. Of late the form of her dreams had changed, growing less
defined; there was no longer the old accusing pair of eyes to reproach
and spy on her as soon as the room was in darkness, but she was
conscious of vague presences which she could not clearly see. After
fainting in the train a month before, she had heard Eric's voice in her
sleep, though she could not recognize a face which she had never seen;
none of her dream-faces had features. There was a shadow somewhere in
all her visions of Eric; some day she feared that the shadow would take
form, the eyes would return to watch her. . . .

The fire was so bright that the room grew no darker when she turned off
the light; and, though she placed a coloured handkerchief over her eyes,
it gave her no protection. When she pulled it impatiently away, the
glare was so fierce that she could not see the familiar bookcases and
chairs. Gradually the whole room was enveloped in a sheet of flame, and
in the midst she saw a gigantic figure on a throne.

"God," she whispered--and knew that she was dead and had come to be
judged.

The throne was familiar from an old picture in Siena; God was the
Ancient of Days, drawn by Blake for the Book of Job. Strange that, after
all, these stories were true. . . . She wondered why He was old or,
being old, why He was no older. . . . The white flame beat mercilessly
upon her eyes, and she could see that they were alone in Space.

God was waiting for her to confess. . . .

It was idle to confess when God was omniscient, and she kept her lips
obstinately closed.

But God and she were alone in Time. He had sat for an eternity before
she came to the judgement-seat; He would wait for an eternity and
condemn her for an eternity. . . .

"Vanity. . . . I suppose that's what you want me to say." She wondered
whether her voice would carry through Space; she was no bigger than
God's right hand . . . alone . . . and naked. "I've always been spoiled,
and that makes any one vain. Some allowance . . ."

It was idle to excuse herself when God was omniscient.

"I _didn't_ realize what I was doing." (God must know that she was
speaking the truth now.) "He never missed an opportunity of hurting
me--quite unfairly; I've nothing to be ashamed of before I met him. I
made up my mind to shew him I wasn't quite as bad as he thought. He . . .
fell in love with me and wanted to marry me. . . . I was taken by
surprise . . . mad. . . . I didn't know what I was saying, I told him I
couldn't marry any one who wasn't a Catholic. . . ."

Catholic . . .

Barbara stopped short to wonder what God must think of all the jarring
sects which laid claim to His exclusive revelation. The Ancient of Days,
God the Father, Jehovah, Allah. . . . She had always wondered what He
would make of His fratricidal followers. Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox.
. . . What must Christ make of the bitter fanatics who swam through
blood to a world of universal love?

She had lost her way in the confession; and God brooded in silence over
Space and Time, ignoring her, forgetting her. She sank to the ground,
hiding her face in her hands and wondering when she had died. Perhaps
God had waited until Jack Waring was killed, so that he might testify
against her. . . .

"I know it was a lie," she broke out suddenly, "but I _didn't_ realize
what I was doing. The next thing . . . Is this Hell? I always felt I was
going through Hell on earth. That night . . . I didn't see or hear from
Jack for three months; I thought he'd given me up. I was happy for the
first time since I'd met him. Then he followed me into the country and
asked me again if I'd marry him. He said he _was_ a Catholic now. He'd
believed me, he'd done this for me, perjured himself. . . . I remember
saying to myself "If there _is_ a God . . ." I didn't know. . . . "If he
_has_ a soul to lose. . . ." I couldn't undo it. I did what I could for
him, I wrote and said I'd marry him, I swore it by the sign of the
Cross. . . . He went out to the war, he never answered; he's killed now.
. . . I don't know what you're going to do with me. I've _been_
punished. It can't be any satisfaction to you to send me out of my mind.
For a year I've been tortured. Now I was just beginning to forget and to
be happy. I suppose you want to take _that_ away. . . . I _didn't_
realize. . . . Why _shouldn't_ I be happy?"

The dim figure on the throne made no answer, and Barbara began to crawl
forward. Perhaps God had not heard. . . . But she would spend years
crawling through Space. . . .

"I want to get it over. No punishment's as bad as this suspense. _You_
know that. . . . Won't you tell me what I'm to do . . .?"

She crawled forward again, though her knees were aching. Above her
loomed God's foot-stool; and she touched it reverently, then beat upon
it furiously in the hope that God might rise and kill her again . . .
for ever. . . . The sheet of flame marched nearer until it scorched her
eyes. Space and Time shrank and were consumed until she found herself
kneeling upright, staring wildly at the fire and beating with open palms
on the wooden end of the bed.

Barbara fell backwards, pulling the clothes up to her chin.

"Another second . . . and I should have gone mad," she whispered.

Downstairs some one had thrown open a window, some one was playing a
piano. She turned on the light and rang for her maid.

"I shall get up for dinner after all," she said. "I mean, I shan't. . . .
I don't know what I'm talking about. What--I mean--is: I shall get out
of _bed_ for dinner, but I shan't go down. _That's_ clear, isn't it?
What's the time?"

"Eight o'clock, my lady."

Then her dream had lasted less than five minutes. . . .

"I'm going to sleep. I shan't want any dinner. Will you bring the
telephone in here?"

The maid left the room in bewilderment at the conflicting orders and
sought counsel of the housekeeper. Ten minutes later Lady Crawleigh came
in to find Barbara in bed with the telephone tucked under one arm and
the receiver to her ear. She finished some request for an address,
nodded as the answer was given and lifted the instrument to a table by
her side.

"Well, my dear, you seem to have given poor Merton a fright," said Lady
Crawleigh. "Is anything the matter?"

"I never felt better in my life," answered Barbara.

"Are you coming down to dinner?"

"I don't think I'm well enough for that. . . . You can get on without
me. If things seem to hang fire, get Gerry Deganway to give imitations
of His Excellency."

Lady Crawleigh bridled at the suggestion.

"That's not at all a respectful way to speak of your father," she
observed reprovingly.

"Well, His ex-Excellency, then. That no better? Sorry. He's very
amusing--Gerry, I mean. Why not get father to give imitations of Gerry?
In its way, that ought to be just as funny."

Her mother advanced reproachfully to the bed and laid her hand upon the
rail.

"_If_ you're not feeling well," she said with incontrovertible logic,
"you ought to go to sleep instead of telephoning to people and writing
to people. If you're all right, you ought to help with these tiresome
creatures. They're _your_ guests."

Barbara felt her own pulse and sighed.

"I'm well enough to write one letter," she said, "and perhaps to get up
in time for lunch to-morrow."

Then she hunted among the pillows for a pencil and addressed an envelope
to "_Eric Lane Esq^{re}, Lashmar Mill-House, Lashmar, Near Winchester,
Hants_."

She was already tired; perhaps, if she could fix her thoughts on Eric
until she fell asleep, she would be spared a second vision of judgement.
A dressing-gong sounded in the distance, and she debated whether to
abandon her letter to Eric and go down. Gerald Deganway would be
simperingly sympathetic. "Your mother tells me you're not feeling very
grand" (odious phrase). "Poor you!" (Damnable phrase, damnable
creature--with his insecure eye-glass and plastered flaxen hair!) Johnny
Carstairs would be pontifical and pretentious--"The unhappy Foreign
Office comes in for all the kicks. There's a body of three-pound-a-week
gentlemen in Fleet Street who'd enforce a _real_ blockade, 'leave it to
the Navy,' don't you know, all that sort of thing. I'm aware of them; I
sometimes wish I could have a heart-to-heart talk with them. . . ." By
staying in bed she was at least keeping the promise that she had given
to Eric; the sense of surrender was a novel experiment in emotion.

She finished the letter and switched off the light. Darkness was not
going to usher in faces to-night. Her soul felt healed.

"You absurd darling child!"

She whispered the words aloud and felt warm tears over-brimming her
eyes. She loved him for his extraordinary callow youth--which had
carried the chaste chivalry of sixteen to the age of twice sixteen; she
loved his little occasional tender gleams of womanliness. . . . And he
was so easy to mystify and tease. She felt the warmth and the taut
muscles of his arm round her body as he led her home across St. James'
Park, her head on his shoulder, sleeping, secure and forgetful.

"Dear Eric, I wish you were here now!" she murmured.

Lord Crawleigh, indignant that Barbara should desert her own party the
first night, but vaguely disquieted that she was ill enough to go to bed
of her own volition, peeped into her room on his way down to dinner.
There was no answer to his jerky, sharp call of "Barbara" and he turned
on the light. Her eyes were closed, but she was smiling; he walked to
the bed to make certain that she was not trying any of her tricks on
him.

"Barbara!"

"Yes, darling?"

She opened her eyes, and their drowsy contentment faded away.

"I only came to see if you were asleep."

"I'm not--now," she answered wistfully.

"Well, why don't you _get_ some decent sleep? You racket about and
overtax your strength and excite yourself. . . . And this is the
result!"

"I'll do my best, father."

As he creaked out of the room, she shut her eyes tight and tried in
despair to woo herself back to the moment of half-consciousness when
Eric drew her cloak across her chest and she roused to ask him sleepily
"Am I coming undressed?"


2

Barbara rang for tea at noon and came down to luncheon in a house which
was gratifyingly demoralized by her absence. Her father had spent Sunday
morning in his study, writing letters; her mother had carried the more
devout members of the party to mass and from mass to a vague, bored
exploration of the garden, where they could be seen scattered on the
lowest terrace, trying to make friends with an unresponsive peacock; the
men, headed by Pentyre, were warmly entrenched round the smoking-room
fire in a blue tobacco-haze and a litter of Sunday papers. George
Oakleigh, in naval uniform, was unashamedly sleeping in a deep
window-embrasure, his mouth open and his eyeglasses on his knees.
Deganway and Carstairs were arguing in subdued tones and seemed as
vacantly uninterested as Pentyre, who had exhausted the _feuilleton_ of
his paper and was studying the advertisements.

She was pleased by the stir with which her entrance galvanized them into
alertness, by Oakleigh's sympathetic enquiries, even by Deganway's
critical examination of her dress.

"Well, make the most of me, everybody," she said. "I'm going back to bed
immediately after lunch. What's everybody doing?"

"I've been asleep," Oakleigh answered contentedly.

Barbara looked round her and wrinkled her nose.

"What are you _going_ to do?" she pursued.

"I should like to go _on_ sleeping. . . ."

"Come for a walk, Babs," interrupted Pentyre. "It's my last leave----"

"Then you'd better rest instead of working on my emotions. George, on
the other hand, never gets any exercise at the Admiralty, and, as he's
never been here before, I think I shall take him round the house.
Besides, he hasn't _asked_ me to do anything. Come on, George!"

Oakleigh rose with sufficient alacrity and accompanied her for an hour
through the ruins of the Abbey, the Elizabethan reconstruction and the
Georgian incrustation. Knowing Barbara, he had secured what he wanted by
pretended indifference, though he was less interested in hall and
refectory, Prior's house and dormitory than in her knowledge of
architecture and early English furniture.

"Another of my accomplishments," she laughed. "George, what sort of
reputation _have_ I got? A man was so surprised the other day to find
that I could play the piano and sing. . . ."

"I know what _I_ think of you," he answered. "Possibly you know it too."

Barbara looked away abstractedly, as though she had not heard him. Ever
since her illness, George had shewn her a tender devotion; and, when
Sonia Dainton and her other friends had succumbed to the war-epidemic of
marriage, she had fancied that it would be very restful to marry him.
The mood lasted for a week, and it was in this time that she had invited
him to the Abbey. Then a dream, of which she could remember few details,
had shattered the lazy romance which she was weaving; there was a shadow
which she knew would take form as Jack Waring, there was a hint of the
wild oath which she had taken when she was mad; and she had decided that
God was punishing her by opening her eyes to happiness and then throwing
a bar of shadow across her path as she struggled to reach it. Those were
the days when she heard that Jack was missing, the nights when she
prayed to hear that he was dead. Now that George was at hand, she did
not want him; she might find peace by marrying him, but she would find
nothing more. . . .

"Dear George! You think I'm perfect, don't you?"

"Perfection is meant to be more admired than loved."

"I've nothing but my imperfections to make people love me."

"That's a woman's way of marrying on her debts. . . . You're better,
Babs, than when I came to see you in London. I hope you're--happier."

"Ah, if only I could _undo_. . . ."

She broke off, and George looked at her cautiously to see whether she
was trying him with the pose of conscience-stricken penitent, already a
little out-moded after fourteen months of war.

"You certainly had your share of scrapes, but there was nothing
discreditable in them. Too much vitality----"

She spread out her hands, white and transparent in the sun-light.

"I'd _done_ everything else! Being with father everywhere. . . . And I
was driven into it by opposition. I must have been a mule in a previous
incarnation. D'you know, if father says he's coming here by the 4.10, I
_have_ to come by the 5.40, however inconvenient it may be to
everybody--just to assert myself?"

"But that wasn't the only reason," George suggested.

"What d'you mean?"

She had ceased to smile, and two faint lines of annoyance were visible
between her eye-brows.

"I'm sorry. It was no business of mine," said George apologetically.

"I don't mind _you_. But it was no business of the Deganway creature.
Can't you break his eye-glass or cut a piece off the end of his nose,
George? Did he tell you who I came down with?"

"Deganway is always thorough in his investigations. I'm sorry I
mentioned it; I was only teasing you."

"I don't mind _you_," she repeated. "But it does make things so
impossible if father and mother go about fancying. . . . Come to lunch!
I'll be in time for one meal," she cried, seizing his arm and hurrying
him the length of the echoing refectory.

At luncheon and recurrently through the afternoon Barbara wondered how
far Deganway's gossiping tongue had already prejudiced her relations
with Eric. If he heard that they were being discussed, he would in all
probability strike an attitude and declare that he could not be a party
to compromising her any longer. At present he was too novel a
distraction for her to spare him easily; already he had become so
important to her life that she had forgotten George Oakleigh and the
thrill of gratitude and elation which she had felt when he began
sluggishly but surely to fall in love with her.

The house-party had dispersed before she came down next day. Breakfast
in bed was a dull meal, because she had hoped to find an unsolicited
letter from Eric--about anything. She had to wait until the second post,
and that only brought her the briefest possible acceptance of her
invitation. Not until Tuesday did she receive the long letter which he
had written on Saturday night. And the intimacy and tenderness of it
were half spoiled even then, for Lady Crawleigh followed her maid into
the room, enquired affectionately how Barbara was feeling and settled
down to read instructive extracts from _The Times_.

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Crawleigh Abbey seemed suddenly very big
and deserted. Barbara secured a trunk call to Eric's flat on Monday
night; but, after twenty minutes to wonder why she shewed so little
pride and whether he would be angry with her, a faint voice answered
that Mr. Lane was dining out. Something which she could not analyze told
her that she would be taking an unfair risk with his affection, if she
tried to communicate with him again. She could hardly understand why she
was staying in bed and taking so great care of herself; but it was
Eric's wish, and she had felt a leap at the heart when he interested
himself in her welfare. If he only knew, it would do her much more good
to be with him, to tease him and laugh at him and set him attitudinizing
and then to charm a word or gesture of affection from him . . . and then
to laugh at him again and see him perplexed and exasperated. She was
very grateful to him for bringing a new interest into her life. . . .

Little Val Arden had once said, years before the war, that she would
find her greatest emotion on the day when she lost her heart. . . .

But it were useless to fall in love with Eric if she could not make him
return her love. . . .

Thursday seemed as far away as the throne of God in that ghastly
nightmare. . . . She wrote Mrs. Shelley a letter which she hoped would
not read so transparently false as it seemed to her in writing.

"_Dearest Marion, I feel so rude for never having apologized either for
running away myself so early or for dragging Eric Lane away from your
delightful party. I was feeling dreadfully tired. I'm in bed now; in
fact, I've hardly been out of bed since I came here on Saturday, and he
put a pistol to my head and insisted on taking me home. I shall be in
London for one or two nights next week. Will you shew that you forgive
us by inviting us again? Your affectionate Barbara._"

It seemed a pity not to exploit a good idea to the full, and she next
wrote to her cousin Amy Loring.

"_You said the other day that you had never met Eric Lane, though he
was a great friend of Jim's. He was at Margaret Poynter's the other day
when I was there. Would you like me to invite him to dine one night next
week (I shall be up in London for two or three days)? Ring me up between
tea and dinner on Thursday. . . ._"

There remained Colonel Grayle, who had jerked out, as she left the
"Divorce" with George Oakleigh: "Clever play! Rather like to meet the
author. Decent feller, I believe." If she met him again, she could offer
to bring about a meeting. . . .

It was regrettable that she and Eric knew so few people in common.


3

Before leaving her dentist, Barbara telephoned to remind Eric of his
promise to dine with her. His answering voice was almost audibly guilty,
for the engagement had been allowed to fade from his mind, though his
watchful secretary would have seen to it later that he kept his
appointment.

When he arrived, the house was eerily dark and deserted. The door was
opened by a girl in a black dress, presumably--from the absence of cap
and apron--Barbara's own maid, and he was conducted through a twilit
hall where the great chandeliers were draped in dusting-sheets, up a
side staircase and over more dusting-sheets to the door of the boudoir.
Here the evidence of desolation ended in vast bowls of autumn roses, a
log fire, blazing electric lights and the beginnings of inevitable
untidiness--ripped envelopes on the floor, a silk cloak in one chair and
gloves in another and, on the hearth-rug, a chinchilla muff with a grey
Persian kitten asleep half inside it.

Eric knelt down and played with the kitten until the bedroom door opened
and Barbara hurried in.

"Glad to see me, Eric?" she whispered.

"I've--noticed you weren't here," he answered. "You're looking better,
Babs. And I like your kitten."

"I brought her up to chaperon you," she explained. "Are you going to be
bored, dining alone with me? I warned you what it would be like." She
pointed doubtfully towards a table set for two. "We put the dirty plates
on the floor, and my maid will take them away when she brings coffee.
I've only her and one kitchen-maid to keep me alive. Eric, I've been
looking forward to this most enormously. That was a sweet letter you
wrote me from Lashmar--I love the name! Lashmar Mill-House--You were
very fond of Jack, I could see. Shall we begin?"

Eric looked at the photograph on the mantel-piece before sitting down.

"He was the greatest friend I ever had," he answered wistfully. "An
unusual character. If you liked him, he could make you do anything he
pleased. . . . Did you see much of him? His sister was surprised to find
that you knew him."

Barbara finished her soup without answering. Then, as Eric took away her
empty plate, she looked up at him with a slight frown of perplexity.

"Did he never mention me to you?" she asked. "Somehow--I thought you
understood, Eric. Didn't any one else tell you? There are so many
stories about me----"

"I honestly don't know what you're referring to," said Eric, laying down
his knife and fork in perplexity.

She looked at him closely with eyebrows raised.

"When we discussed the photograph, and I asked you to find out anything
you could . . . Didn't you see that Jack meant a great deal to me?"

The colour had fled from her cheeks, and she was sitting with head bent
forward, deeply preoccupied with the food on her plate. Gazing blankly
at her, Eric tried to imagine what kind of intimacy she could have
formed with the elusive celibate who never spoke to women or discussed
them. . . .

Something was expected of him. . . .

"It never occurred to me," he said lamely. "Of course, Jack never
mentioned a word----"

"_He wouldn't_. . . . Jim knew, but _he_ wouldn't either. . . . There
was no one else to give me away. . . . I've always been afraid of saying
something in my sleep. . . . I want to _forget, forget_. . . ."

The words came out in jerks, with a sobbing struggle for breath between.
Her head was bent so low that she did not see him rise and come round to
her side; a startled shiver passed through her, as he knelt down and put
his arm round her shoulders, drawing her to him until her cheek rested
against his.

"Babs, dear! Darling Babs!" he whispered. "Don't----"

"Ah, don't tell me not to cry, Eric! I've kept it down, I _have_ been
brave, but it's sending me mad!"

She was sliding limply off the chair, as though her bones had been
broken in company with her pride and resistance. He led her to a sofa
and knelt beside her, sometimes gently chafing her hands, sometimes
drying the slow tears which rolled down her cheeks. Once or twice she
tried to speak, but he hushed her to silence.

"Darling, you must stop now," he commanded as the tears ceased and she
began to sob drily. "When I said 'Don't----,' I was going to say 'Don't
stop crying, don't mind me; it will do you good.' But you'll make
yourself ill, if you go on." He caught her wrist and gripped it. "Put
your feet up, because I'm going to push the sofa to the fire. . . . Your
shoulders are frozen. . . . Now I'm going to bring you the lobster. . . .
And you haven't had anything to drink yet."

After a single weak protest she entered into the spirit of his fireside
picnic and by the time that he had seated himself cross-legged on the
floor she was laughing at his apprehensive care in keeping his trousers
from losing their crease. When coffee was brought in, he gave her a
cigarette and raised her hand clumsily to his lips.

"I'm sorry I've been unsympathetic, Babs." There was no answer, and he
could see her staring into the fire with eyes that were covered with a
film of tears. "I _didn't_ understand, I thought you were ill and
over-excited, or I'd have bitten out my tongue before I snubbed you and
told you that you were a nuisance. Will you forgive me?"

The film of tears gathered into shining drops and rolled mournfully down
her cheeks.

"As if _I_ had anything to forgive. . . . You'll never speak to me
again, if I tell you. And if I don't tell you . . . If I don't tell you,
I could never look you in the eyes."

Barbara stared at the fire, and for a moment it seemed as though she
were again making confession at the judgement-seat of God.

"I met Jack two years ago," she began hurriedly. "He'd been saying
things that hurt me, so I arranged to stay with the Pentyres when he was
there and I made him fall in love with me. One night at Ross House he
asked me to marry him. I . . . I don't defend myself; I'd never dreamed
of marrying him. Even then it wouldn't have been so bad, if I'd told him
the truth, if I'd admitted that I'd led him on to punish him. Instead
. . . I looked for some excuse which would save _my_ face; I said 'But you
aren't a Catholic, are you?' I never saw him again till my cousin Jim
Loring's ball just before the war. . . ."

At the memory of their meeting Barbara shuddered until she could not
speak. There had been no hint of warning; she was in the drawing-room
after dinner when Lady Knightrider's car arrived from Raglan, and Jack
put his head in at the door to ask if he might have supper with her.

"I asked him what he'd been doing with himself all the summer," Barbara
went on with a spurt. "He said, 'I've just been received into your
Church.'"

She paused and stared in terror round the room as though it were
changing under her eyes into the haunted banqueting-hall of Loring
Castle.

"I couldn't _speak_. . . . The music stopped, I heard people clapping,
it went on again. Then there were voices on the stairs, and Jack asked
me again to marry him. I said I couldn't. He wanted to know why. Then
. . . then I _had_ to tell him I wasn't in love with him. Then he saw
everything."

Barbara looked up quickly, with her hand to her forehead as though to
ward off a blow. It was then that Jack stared at her, through her, into
her soul; and his eyes had followed her ever since. At first she braced
herself to meet his attack, but it was not the occasion for conventional
recriminations. If a man's soul could be imperilled, she had handed
Jack's over to damnation. God . . . Hell . . . Immortal souls. . . . She
had not believed in them till that moment, but there was always that
eerie hundredth chance that they existed.

Eerie. . . .

Her attention was captured by the word and wandered away in search of a
missing line.

    "_It's like those eerie stories nurses tell,
    Of how some actor on a stage played Death,
    With pasteboard crown, sham orb and tinselled dart,
    And called himself the monarch of the world;
    Then, going in the tire-room afterward,
    Because the play was done, to shift himself,
    Got touched upon the sleeve familiarly,
    The moment he had shut the closet door,
    By Death himself._"

Jack had sat silent and motionless, too much dazed even to rise and
leave her. There was a sound of more voices in the hall, and Charlie
Framlingham waltzed into the room with Jack Summertown and subsided at a
table by the door. They had hardly begun supper when George Oakleigh
entered to say that war had changed from speculation to probability and
that officers were being mobilized. Then at last Jack roused, and she
had only a moment for making amends.

"Jack was talking about applying for a commission," she went on. "I went
out on to the terrace, I wanted to _think_. . . . It was no good
_apologizing_. . . . They got into the car, one after another. I was
still trying to think. Jack came down the steps. . . . And then I saw
that there was only one reparation I _could_ make; I had to offer myself
to him, even if he hit me in the mouth. . . . I didn't care about my
vanity now; I called out to him, but the others were making such a
noise. . . . The car started, I was blinded by the head-lights. When I
could see again, there was only a little pin-point of red light. I
shouted, ran. . . . Then I came back. When every one else had gone to
bed, I told Jim. And I thought he'd have killed me. . . . And then I
swore solemnly that Jack should have me if he wanted me. I wrote to him,
and he never answered my letter. I tried to see him. And now . . ."

Eric rose and stood by the fire, resting his head on his hand.

"You offered the only reparation in your power," he said at length.

"What am I to do?" she asked dizzily. "I want peace! . . . I told him
that, whatever happened, however long the war went on, I should always
be here, always ready to keep my promise, always prepared to make what
amends I could. . . . I've dedicated myself. If he's alive, until he
tells me that he rejects me . . ."

With a sigh of exhaustion, she slipped forward, turning as she fell and
burying her arms and face. The rose in her hair trembled to the heaving
of her shoulders and scattered a shower of petals over the cushions of
the sofa.


4

"And I meant to be so sweet, I meant to make you enjoy yourself until
you thought me quite irresistible," Barbara laughed through her tears,
kneeling upright on the sofa and dabbing at her eyes. "And then I was
going to tell you that I have to come up to my dentist once a week for
about two months; and I shall be all alone and I wanted you to promise
to make me happy--like to-night."

Her recovery was as sudden as her collapse. Still kneeling with her
hands clasped behind her head, she leaned forward until he had to catch
her in his arms.

"I don't feel I've made you particularly happy to-night," said Eric,
bending one arm into an angle for her head and throwing the other round
her waist to hold her on to the sofa.

"I feel as if my spirit were almost clean again. . . . Will you come and
see me sometimes, Eric?"

"If you'll go to bed _instantly_, after leaving a note on the mat to say
that you're not to be called till you ring."

There was a touch of frost in the air, as Eric walked home; yet he went
slowly, because he wanted to think. Jack was his best friend, and
Barbara had behaved. . . . He could not abuse the girl even in thought,
after trying to comfort her and saying that she started with a clean
slate. But if any other girl had behaved like that . . . any girl who
meant nothing to him. Even with Barbara he ought not to be so suavely
forgiving at Jack's expense. . . . It was impossible to reconcile
loyalty to both of them.

Before going to bed he wrote her a note, inviting her to lunch with him
next day at Claridge's before she went back to Crawleigh Abbey; and, as
soon as she was sure of his mood, Barbara released her invitations; the
quietest possible party with Amy Loring (who was so anxious to meet him
because he had known Jim), two days afterwards a dinner for two in
Berkeley Square, followed by Mrs. O'Rane's house-warming, later still a
decorous and rather dull dinner with Colonel Grayle.

"You might dine with _me_ for a change," Eric suggested, as he drove her
home at the end of the week. "I'll get my sister to come and keep you in
countenance--she's never seen my flat--and I'll think of another man."

"I'd sooner dine with you alone, Eric," pleaded Barbara.

"On first principles I discourage young girls from visiting bachelors in
their rooms. I was born in the 'eighties, and I don't seem to have
caught up."

"There _are_ restaurants," Barbara suggested. "It's quite fairly
respectable to dine without a chaperon--since the war."

Eric turned and looked out of the window with a frown. He had not
troubled to tell her that he had lately received a shock which
threatened to make further meetings impossible. During a lull in the
tumult at Mrs. O'Rane's party he had heard Lady Maitland's rumbling
preparations for an introduction. "Eric Lane? My dear Raymond Stornaway,
you mean to say you haven't heard of him? But he's _the_ coming
playwright. You've not seen that thing of his----? My memory's like a
_sieve_. . . . You must _go_." It was very familiar, but, as the other
voices fortuitously grew hushed, he heard a new pendant. "But you know
_her_? Babs. Babs Neave. Barbara Neave. Now don't pretend you don't know
Lady Barbara Neave! Every one tells me that they're desperately in love
with each other. Of course Crawleigh wouldn't _hear_ of it, but he
doesn't know what to do. You know what the girl is! If you oppose her.
. . . It's an absurd position. You must come along and meet them. And
I'll arrange a little party. I think you'd be amused."

"All the restaurants are so crowded nowadays," said Eric.

"But if you telephone for a table----"

He was grown too fond of Barbara to provide people like Lady Maitland
with an excuse for saying that he was compromising her; and he was not
going to pave the way for an unpleasant altercation with Lord Crawleigh
(when he would have nothing to say for himself).

"I'll dine with you, if you like," he suggested.


5

On the morning of the day when "The Bomb-Shell" was to be produced, Eric
found his diary overflowing into a new volume. Before snapping the lock
for the last time and burying the book in the little steel safe which he
had had built behind one of the panels in the dining-room, he turned the
pages for ten months, starting with the first night of his first play
and ending with the dress rehearsal of the second. The ten months'
record was so engrossing that he lay in bed, smoking and reading,
instead of ringing for his secretary. One day he had been an unknown
journalist; the next--in a phrase of which he could never tire--he awoke
to find himself famous. Half-forgotten acquaintances who had sent him
cards for dances now invited him to dinners at which he was courted and
instantly handed on. At first he had written down, with more pleasure
than cynicism, the complimentary phrases which had tickled his vanity;
that had soon palled, and the compliments were monotonously framed;
after two months he only recorded such triumphs as when old Farquaharson
invited him to call. "_I would give much to have written your play; I
would have given anything to write it at your age._" Some day, when
Barbara was in a disparaging mood, he would shew her that jealously
guarded letter.

An idle whim sent his fingers searching for the Poynter dinner where he
had first met her. Since that night her influence, suspected but never
established, had caused "_Dined with Lady Poynter_" to be a frequent
entry. Every Thursday he went to Berkeley Square, every Friday Barbara
lunched with him in Ryder Street--after sweeping aside his scruples by
appealing in his presence to her mother for leave to come to his flat
unchaperoned. And for an appreciable part of each week Barbara devoted
herself to arranging further meetings in the houses of their friends.

"_Took Lady B. home late and circuitously._"

Eric was mildly surprised to find how lately their tropical intimacy had
begun. Two months. . . . And no one--in court or outside--would believe
the truth. . . . "_Dined with B. in her boudoir, the house being in
curl-papers. She unwontedly communicative, but tired and in need of
rest._" The discreet phrasing gave him all the reminder that he wanted
to construct again the night when she had told him about Jack
Waring--she had indeed been communicative----; and any one who broke
down as she had done presumably stood in need of rest. . . .

On that night she had turned herself from an adventure into a habit;
in place of sentimental tilting there had been born a love without
passion. . . .

He laid aside the diary as the telephone-bell rang.

"Hullo? Good-morning, Eric. Many happy returns of the day!"

"But it isn't my birthday."

"It's our new play, stupid. Are you feeling very nervous?"

"Not in the least. If it's going to be a success, it'll _be_ a success;
if it's going to be a failure, my feeling nervous won't help things."

"M'yes. I like you better when you're less philosophical and more human.
I suppose you're simply flooded with telegrams and letters of good
wishes. Darling, I'm so excited! If it doesn't go well--of course, it
isn't a _good_ play; I've never said that, have I?"

"I sometimes wonder whether you'll ever say that of any play I write,"
he laughed.

"Oh, you _will_ do good work some day. But I thought, after knowing me
all these weeks--well, if it doesn't make the most tremendous hit, I
shall walk quietly out of the theatre and throw myself into the river."

"I certainly shan't jump in after you."

"Not even for the advertisement? Would you miss me, Eric?"

"I'm almost sure to at first," he answered with a laugh. "Babs, I've got
to get up now----"

"Don't you dare to ring me off, Eric! I want to know about to-night."

"Scott's at seven."

"And what dress would you like me to wear?"

He pondered over the familiar ritual.

"The one I always call the 'fairy queen,' I think."

"Well, say 'please.'"

"'Please.' I must get up now, or I shall be late at the office.
Good-bye, Babs darling."

"Good-bye, sweetheart."

They dined with unnecessary haste. For all his philosophy, Eric's
nervousness shewed itself in over-frequent consultation of his watch,
and they entered their box before the stalls were half-full. Barbara sat
forward, bowing to friends in the familiar, first-night gathering; but
he preferred to stand at her side, hidden by a curtain, while she called
back the names of the new arrivals. This was a greater ordeal than the
evening when his first play was produced, for he was known now, and the
critics would judge him by the success and standard of the earlier play;
instead of a handful of old colleagues, he was now on nodding terms with
a third of the audience; it was a personal trial, and he did not want to
fail under their eyes; most of all he did not want to fail before
Barbara.

As the curtain went up, he sat down beside her and, after a quick glance
at the stage, began to inspect the house. Her hand slipped into his, and
he heard a whispered "Cheer up! It's going to be a tremendous success. I
will it to be!" Then his attention went back to the house. Why the devil
couldn't people take the trouble to arrive in time? Pushing their way in
late, blocking the view. . . . Mrs. Shelley, of all people. He knew her
well enough to speak plainly about it. . . . The house was very quiet,
very cold; expectant, perhaps, but they ought to be warming now. . . . A
slip--and another! It was curious that a woman like Mabel Elstree could
go on rehearsing and being pulled up over the same thing again and again
without ever learning--a moderately intelligent woman too--working at
her own job. . . . The last week had been thrown away. . . .

But in all the rehearsals he had never noticed how this opening dragged.
Manders had never criticized it (one of the few things he _hadn't_ tried
to cut about); and it was dragging. In a moment people would be yawning
and talking to one another; the pit would become noisy with its feet;
already there was a rustle; if they would only look at the stage instead
of trying to learn their programmes by heart! They should have done that
before! And still the house was cold. . . . God in heaven! small blame
to it!

Eric sat back with tightly shut mouth, then grew suddenly rigid. There
was a single quick laugh, the herald for gusty laughter rising
simultaneously from a dozen different parts; instead of stopping, it
swelled and engulfed the house. Ah, thank God! that sea of vacant, stiff
faces had broken! The house was alive and warm. The players, pausing of
necessity, breathed thanksgiving before returning to dialogue which had
become suddenly imbued with new strength and finish.

Eric felt Barbara's lips at his ear.

"Didn't I say I'd will it for you?" she whispered.

"It might go quite well," he answered, unsuccessfully nonchalant. "Every
one's in a good temper now."

"And you can let go my hand for a minute!" She winced and put one
knuckle into her mouth. "I stood it as long as I could, but you've been
_driving_ my rings into my unhappy finger--All right, darling! kiss the
place to make it well. I could _see_ you weren't enjoying yourself, but
you wanted me to feel it, too. So sweet of you!"

In the first interval they stayed in the box and allowed themselves to
be seen; during the whole of the second an army of their friends laid
siege to the door with greetings to Barbara and congratulations to Eric.
He would have liked to smoke a cigarette outside with some of his old
colleagues; he would have liked still better to think it all over in
peace. This was going to be a greater success than the first play! And
Barbara, with tears in her eyes, was saying "Come and congratulate us!"

Eric had little idea who flooded the box during that tempestuous ten
minutes. Lady Maitland was there with an air of having written the play
or at least of having discovered the author. And Gerald Deganway, who
never missed a first night, simpering falsetto congratulations. And
Colonel Waring and Agnes: he remembered them, because he was so much
surprised to see them . . . and he had wanted to introduce Agnes to
Babs, and there had been no opportunity. . . . And Colonel Grayle and
Sonia O'Rane, who invited them to come back for supper. . . . There was
violent reaction after his early nervousness, and he found himself
within an inch of giggling. When the lights were lowered and he had
hurried the last visitors from the box, he sat down and buried his face
in his hands. How long it was he never knew, before Barbara leaned over
him, pulling gently at his arm.

"Anything wrong?" he asked.

"Come outside," she whispered.

They walked to a flight of four steps leading through a fire-proof door
to the wings.

"Where are you going to?" he asked.

"Sit down; it's quiet here. Now listen carefully: there's only about
another twenty minutes, and then they'll want a speech from you. Now, I
won't say a word! Just think out a few sentences; don't try to be
original or clever; just thank them--the usual thing--as conventional as
you can make it." Her solicitous voice trembled and broke. "My own
darling, I am so happy to see you happy! I'm so proud of you! _Our_
play! Oh, Eric, thank God for you and all your sweetness to me!"

He looked up with startled eyes, suddenly tired.

"You're an angel, Babs! But you always give me a guilty conscience, when
you're like this. I think of the things I might have done and haven't;
and I think of the things I have said and done, which I might have
spared you."

"Well, go on giving me your love! Why _you_ should talk as if you owed
_me_ anything . . ."

A moment later he was alone, with the memory of her lips still trembling
on his. He lighted a cigarette and paced up and down the passage,
thinking out his speech. She had left the box-door open, and, as the
curtain fell, he took up his position where he could see the house
applauding. Loud and continuous, gloriously continuous, came the
clapping. The curtain was drawn aside, and the players came forward,
one by one. A crescendo of cheers greeted Manders, dying down until he
could utter his smiling six sentences of acknowledgement. Then there was
a pause. The lights were still lowered. Simultaneously in rasping barks
came the call of "Author! Author!"

Barbara turned her head and blew him a kiss with the finger-tips of both
hands.

"I suppose I'd better put in an appearance," he drawled, stamping on his
cigarette-end. "Don't be offended if I don't look at you, Babs; you'd
make me forget all I was going to say."

       *       *       *       *       *

    "_Affection is the most insidious form of self-indulgence._"--From
    the Diary of Eric Lane.



CHAPTER FIVE

MORTMAIN

    "Farewell! if ever fondest prayer
      For other's weal avail'd on high,
    Mine will not all be lost in air,
      But waft thy name beyond the sky.

    My soul nor deigns nor dares complain,
      Though grief and passion there rebel;
    I only know we loved in vain--
      I only feel--Farewell!--Farewell!"
            LORD BYRON: "FAREWELL! IF EVER FONDEST PRAYER."


1

"I don't ask you to say it's a good play," Eric observed to Barbara, as
they rumbled slowly home from the O'Ranes' supper-party, "but is it less
bad than the other?"

Any natural diffidence had evaporated before the memory of the darkened
theatre, the insistent calls of "Author," his effort--while waiting for
the applause to die down--to distinguish faces in the stalls, the
renewed clapping at his speech's end, the _levée_ in their box and the
triumphant supper.

"I'm too happy to be teased, Eric," she answered, nestling to his side.
"It isn't the great play that you're going to write some day, when
you've learned . . . and suffered; you still get your women out of
rag-books and toy-shops; but it's very clever, it's a great success and
it's made you happy. That's what matters. Who was the man in the box
that you called 'sir'?"

"I call most men 'sir,' if they're older than I am."

"He was with a girl in a grey dress and some rather good pearls."

Eric thought for a moment and looked at her in some surprise.

"That was Colonel Waring--Jack's father. The girl was Jack's sister
Agnes."

Barbara did not answer for a moment.

"I thought it was _him_ at first," she whispered.

Since the night of Barbara's confession, Jack's name had never been
mentioned. If he were indeed killed, her memory of him would gradually
wither and die; and it was almost impossible to discuss him without
taking sides and indulging in moral judgements. The Warings had
exhausted every means of getting news and would soon be forced to
presume his death; perhaps they had already done so, but Eric was
avoiding Red Roofs since his discovery that he did not want to marry
Agnes. Amid the turmoil of greetings and congratulations, he had found
time to feel embarrassed by her presence in the box; until Barbara took
the light and colour out of all other women, Agnes had satisfied every
demand. He was embarrassed, too, by seeing the two girls face to face,
watching, measuring and unobtrusively speculating about each other, as
women always did; if there were room for moral judgements, Barbara had
no defence against Jack Waring's sister.

"She gave me that glass horse-shoe for luck the night my first play was
produced," said Eric irrelevantly.

"And Jack gave me the counterpart," Barbara sighed. "That's why I wanted
yours to replace it. Instead of which I only broke yours."

"Well, you haven't broken my luck, as you feared."

Her shoulder, pressing against his, communicated a shudder. Though three
months had passed without news of Jack, Barbara could not feel secure
even when she was alone with Eric.

"Don't boast. You may yet come to curse the day when we met, you may
find I've spoiled your life and broken your luck."

"Luck?" Eric laughed a little scornfully. The success of the
"Bomb-Shell" ensured that, if he never wrote another line, he would at
least not starve. "When are we going to meet again, Babs?"

Looking out of the window, she saw that their cab was opposite the Ritz
and that she had three hundred yards more of him.

"Does it matter?" she asked. "If you're so independent of me?"

"I can live without peach-brandy, but I like it. If you'll dine with me,
I'll give you some--and all the food you most like. I owe the O'Ranes a
dinner----"

"Oh, we won't have any one else!" she interrupted. Her use of the plural
lost none of its charm by familiarity. "I'll come on Friday, if you
like."

"On Friday old Ettrick is giving a dinner in my honour at the club. What
about Monday? But I shan't let you come alone; as a matter of fact, I've
invited the O'Ranes for that night."

"You don't like being alone with me?"

"I'm thinking solely of what would be said."

Barbara pouted and sat silent until she could launch an ultimatum as the
cab stopped at her door. The success of his first night was making Eric
masterful; and she wanted to test her power.

"If I can't dine with you in the way I like . . ." she began fretfully.
"You only want to shew me off to the O'Ranes. . . ."

Eric forgave the petulance because he could see that she was tired. But
he was tired too. . . .

"If you don't care about the O'Ranes, I'll see if I can get some one
else some other time," he said. "It wouldn't do for you to _dine_ with
me alone."

"I believe you're in love with Sonia," she rejoined ill-humouredly.

"What nonsense! . . . Good-night, Babs. Thanks so much for coming."

On reaching home, he wrote to invite Mrs. Shelley for Monday. If Barbara
rang him up in the morning, her repentance would be too late; he had
only four arm-chairs in the dining-room.

There was no call from Barbara in the morning, neither note nor meeting
throughout the day and no call at night. Such a thing had never happened
before; there might be some occult cause of offence; his experience of
Barbara taught Eric that she would cease to sulk when she wanted him; it
was his experience of all women that none repaid a man the trouble of
trying to understand her moods. Thursday was like Wednesday (and he knew
that she was not returning to Crawleigh until Saturday); Friday was like
Thursday--until the evening, when he nervously entered the Thespian Club
as guest of honour. The hall-porter projected himself through the window
of his box and handed Eric a note.

"_All success, dear Eric_," he read. "_I wish I could be there to hear
you. I shall ring you up to-night, and you must tell me all about it.
Imagine I'm sitting by you, darling, and don't let the speech disappoint
me. B._"

He thrust the note into his pocket, as Lord Ettrick came forward to
greet him. Congratulations and badinage broke out on all sides; he shook
hands until his arm ached and he gave up trying to count the numbers; it
was enough that he could recognize one face out of three. . . .

"You seem to have mobilized half the club," Eric commented, looking
with gratification at the growing half-circle by the fire.

"You're between Gaisford and me," said Ettrick, detaching him for a
cocktail and cigarette at the far end of the room. "I'm proposing your
health, you'll have to reply; and that'll be all the speeches, unless we
sit late. Manders has promised to come as soon as he can get away from
the theatre, and that may start the ball again. By the way, is it
official yet? I haven't seen any announcement."

"Is _what_ official?"

"I heard that you were engaged."

Eric's composure poured out of him, and he felt his mouth growing loose.

"Where did you hear that?" he asked with an effort.

"Oh, scores of people have told me. I came to your box rather late the
other night, but I was told that the lady in question had been inviting
every one to congratulate you both."

For a moment Eric frowned in perplexity; then his face lightened.

"That was on account of the play," he explained. "She came to one or two
of the rehearsals, and, on the strength of that, it was always 'our
play.' . . . I say, have you really heard that from many people? She's a
very great friend of mine, and I shouldn't like to feel that our names
were being coupled."

Lord Ettrick wrinkled his forehead in surprise and shook his head with a
grim smile.

"Then, my young friend, if that's your ambition, you're not going the
right way about it. I'm too busy by day to go out much at night, but any
time during the last month or two . . . You know how people talk; and
you're both of you pretty well known." Eric's look of mortification
roused him to a more conciliatory tone. "It's done now, and, if it
doesn't blow over, you'll only have yourself to thank. I wouldn't have
mentioned the subject, if I thought it was going to spoil your dinner.
But I very nearly congratulated you publicly. . . . Let's see if we're
all here."

They returned to the fire, and Ettrick called the roll. Throughout
dinner, when Eric ought to have been thinking over his speech, he sat
dazed by the warning and his own blindness. Six weeks before, Lady
Maitland was proclaiming that he and Barbara were in love with each
other; now a dry stick of a law lord, retiring and uninterested in
gossip, heard of their engagement from a dozen different mouths and was
an inch removed from congratulating him before half the club. Eric might
assume that other eyes had observed him calling for her, shopping with
her; it was accepted that, when they dined in the same house, he should
always take her home; it was almost accepted that one could not be
invited to dine without the other. . . .

It hardly lay in his mouth to tell Barbara that she must not compromise
herself.

A waiter entered with a telegram for Lord Ettrick, which he read and
handed to Eric.

"_Regret confined bed severe chill all success to dinner and
congratulations and best wishes to our distinguished young friend._"

It was signed by the one absentee, whose chair still stood empty on the
opposite side. Eric suddenly remembered Barbara's note: "_Imagine I'm
sitting by you, darling._" As he read it, he wished that he could have
brought her there; in the morning-room he had wished--no, he had thought
how proud he would have been to tell Lord Ettrick that the story was
true. If he could see her now in the empty chair, a rose behind one ear,
a silk shawl broidered with grey birds in flight, as on the evening when
they first met. . . .

But she would hardly come dressed as Carmen. And, however she arrayed
herself, the Thespian Club would not admit her. . . .

"Well, have you thought out your speech?" asked Lord Ettrick.

"I've been thinking about what you said before dinner," Eric answered.

"Don't take it too seriously. You know how people talk."

"Yes, but I don't want them to talk like that about _her_! She's the
best friend I've got."

He hesitated in surprise at his own vehemence.

"Have you observed one thing?" Lord Ettrick enquired after a pause.
"Neither of us has mentioned the lady's name."

"Well----"

"Exactly. Well, if it wasn't necessary for me, who after all don't go
about very much--But you needn't take it to heart."

"Oh, I'm not," said Eric carelessly. "And, as you said, I shall only
have myself to blame if the story's not scotched here and now."

"I'll propose the King's health now," said Lord Ettrick, "and then we
can have something to smoke."


2

By the simple standard of applause, Eric achieved a success. Abandoning
his prepared speech, he followed Lord Ettrick's lead, picked up his cues
and surrendered himself to the moment. It was something of a triumph to
amuse others when he was so little amused himself.

"Not nearly long enough," said Dr. Gaisford, as Eric looked furtively at
the watch on his wrist. He was wondering how soon he could go home and
telephone to Barbara.

"Shall we go upstairs or sit here?" asked Lord Ettrick. "Manders ought
to be with us in another half-hour."

Eric remembered with consternation that he would be expected to stay at
least until midnight. There was no escaping it. Five and thirty men, his
friends and entertainers, were preparing for a long, happy session;
their chairs were turned at comfortable angles, they had shuffled and
sorted themselves into congenial groups, each was at the earliest stage
of a long cigar, and they waited on him in turn like an endless series
of deputations.

"I've discussed the nightly takings of a theatre with Ettrick," he
whispered, when Manders arrived at half-past eleven as vigorous and
high-spirited as if he had just got out of bed; "the Dardanelles
expedition with Gaisford, the plays of Synge with George Oakleigh, 'The
Bomb-Shell' with Vincent Grayle, memories of Jessie Farborough with
Deganway, 'The Bomb-Shell' with Grierson, Ibsen with Harry Greenbank,
and 'The Bomb-Shell' with Donald Butler. I'm worn out!"

"Stay a bit longer, boy," Manders begged. "I've only just come."

When at last he escaped, there was no taxi to be had, though Eric told a
waiter to keep the first that drove up. He covered half of the way to
Ryder Street at a run, threw himself on his bed and asked for the
familiar number in Berkeley Square.

After a long interval a sleepy voice said: "Yes? My dear, you _are_
late! I've rung you up again and again. I--Eric, I was afraid you were
angry with me for sulking."

"I say, Babs!" He began earnestly and had no idea how to go on. "Angry
with you? Don't be so ridiculous! I got a very sweet note from you
to-night. Thank you. And I think the speech went down all right. I say,
Babs. . . ."

"You're out of breath, sweetheart."

"I came home in rather a hurry. Can you see me some time? I suppose
you're going to Crawleigh to-morrow--That's no good. Can you dine with
me on Tuesday?"

"I wanted you to come here on Tuesday."

"You never said anything about it. Will you be alone?"

"I'm afraid not. Eric, will you be honourable? It's my half-birthday; I
always have two a year. I didn't tell you, because I was afraid you'd
rush out and buy me a present. And I couldn't bear to receive anything
more from you. But will you come _without_ a present? I've got a little
party."

"I should love it. Thank you, Babs. But I want to see you alone."

She was silent for several moments.

"You're very mysterious, darling," she said at last.

"I heard something to-night that rather upset me----"

"About Jack?"

A thrill of expectation had come into her voice.

"Oh, no! It's one of those things that wouldn't matter if we weren't all
congenital idiots."

"It's not something I've done?"

"My dear child, no!"

"Won't you tell me what it is?"

"I'd rather not on the telephone. I may get a moment on Tuesday; if not,
can you dine with me here the next night?"

"_Alone?_" Her laugh mocked him without malice. "I insist on bringing my
kitten."

He joined in the laugh.

"You may bring the kitten. I know I'm asking you to do something that I
disapprove of, but I'm rather worried and I must see you alone."

For three days he explored cautiously to discover how far the Ettrick
story had spread. Saturday brought him a heavy bundle of news-cuttings;
but they were all concerned with "The Bomb-Shell." No one wrote to him,
no one confronted him with a blunt question, though Ettrick had
protested that the story was common property. When Eric walked to
Berkeley Square for the birthday party, he was embarrassed for the first
time in shaking hands with Lord Crawleigh; sooner or later he would be
summoned to a very unpleasant interview.

It was obvious at a glance that no one would have private conversation
with Barbara that night. She stood in the drawing-room at the apex of a
triangle with a compact row of parents behind and, supporting them, a
longer row of silent, embarrassed brothers; cousins in every degree
described a circle round the triangle, and in a wider, looser circle
stood people who knew Eric and needed diplomatic handling to hide his
forgetfulness of them.

"My aunt's parties are like a Derby Day crowd," panted Amy Loring, as an
unseen pianist began to play and they were squeezed into the embrasure
of a window. "I've not had time to see who's here yet. Babs, of course,
looks divine."

"She looks well in anything," Eric answered. It was dangerous to praise
her even to her own cousin lest one more voice should rise to proclaim
that he was in love with her.

"You're a great friend of hers, aren't you?" Amy asked. "Some one told
me at tea to-day----"

Eric became rigid, and she stopped.

"Yes?"

"My dear Mr. Lane, you don't even know what I was going to say!"

"I think I do."

"Then you aren't very complimentary to Babs."

"I feel a certain responsibility towards her."

"You mustn't mind too much what people say. . . . You know George
Oakleigh? Well, in the dark ages, when I came out, he and I were very
great friends; we always have been; I've known him all my life, and his
cousin married my poor brother. . . . Need I say that _quite_ a number
of people . . .? If they'd troubled to think for a moment, they might
have remembered that I was a Catholic, but a little thing like that
never occurs to them. . . . D'you mind my talking to you like this?" she
asked with a smile that sweetened the abruptness of her tone. "When I
introduced the subject, you froze up so----"

"Can't you understand?" he interrupted. "I'm very fond indeed of
Barbara, but if people talk like this . . ."

"Don't mind what people say, Mr. Lane. . . . I feel we--all the
family--owe you such an enormous debt. No one knows what was the matter
with Babs, but my aunt was really afraid we might lose her. Of course,
she'd led rather a wild and wearing life since she was a child; suddenly
she collapsed. I do feel that you've saved her life, you know; she's the
old, vital, irresistible Babs once more--except that you've taught her
to take care of herself."

"The position is a little awkward. If people talk, if Lord
Crawleigh----"

"I think he quite likes you," Amy interrupted.

Eric bowed and pretended for a moment to listen to the music. It was
common knowledge that Barbara's fortune was forfeit on the day when she
married any one but a Catholic; if he had ever contemplated marrying
her, the fees from the "Divorce" and "The Bomb-Shell" would not keep
them for six months. He wondered whether Amy Loring's embassage had been
inspired.

"I always feel that Lord Crawleigh condemned the world and then allowed
it to continue existing on day-to-day reprieves," he said.

"That's rather my uncle's manner. He hasn't insulted you yet? He
_will_."

"He's only seen me once by daylight. I fancy he thinks I'm one of the
footmen. If I came to him in any other capacity . . . The industrious
ink-slinger, you know----"

Amy tossed her head impatiently.

"I don't know whether you're a genius or not, because I'm not clever
about books and things. But you've made an enormous name for yourself,
you've a big career before you; and, so long as a man's a gentleman--by
which I _don't_ mean what most people do,--I wouldn't let anything stand
in the way--except religion, of course. And I'm afraid that doesn't
count very much with Babs." She lapsed into silence, as though she had
already said too much. "And I know I'm right," she added at length.

"I daresay you are. . . . You see, I've never regarded Barbara as
anything but a wonderful friend. We casually dropped into an
extraordinary intimacy----"

"It's been too easy, too casual!" she cried. "You've taken it as a
matter of course. Neither of you appreciate what you are to the
other--I'm simply speaking from my impression; Babs hasn't said
anything, naturally, and I've hardly had two words with you until
to-night----; if it had been less easy----"

"If your uncle had forbidden me the house?" he suggested.

"If either of you were in danger of losing the other . . . I wonder what
you think of me, talking like this?"

"I'm grateful."

The music came to an end, and Gerald Deganway gave imitations of the
various ministers whom he had served as private secretary. Eric looked
across the room and identified Barbara leaning against the piano. She
was better, happier; and he had grown to be very fond of her. So long as
they met daily without marrying, he shirked deciding whether he wanted
to marry her. It would be pleasant to drift; but, when the cloud of
gossip and speculation penetrated into the heart of the Crawleighs' own
home, a man of honour could not shirk the decision any longer. He could
ask Barbara to marry him; or her father could inspire a paragraph in the
press, admitting the rumour in order to contradict it. Failing that, he
would have to say good-bye to her, though she had become so much a habit
as almost to be part of his life. . . .

The imitations were succeeded by more music, and Eric threaded his way
to the piano where Carstairs and Oakleigh were begging Barbara to sing.

"Honestly, I've no voice to-night," he heard her say.

As he drew near, she seemed to feel his presence and turned with a quick
smile.

"Can't you manage one?" he asked.

"Well, perhaps one, if you want me to. What shall it be?"

"That thing out of '_Butterfly_,'" Eric suggested.

"I'll sing it, if you like."

As Eric sought a chair, Oakleigh looked at him, stroked his chin, sighed
gently and withdrew to the bridge-room as though he could not face
seeing them together.


3

"I want you to take this seriously," said Eric, when Barbara arrived for
dinner. "Don't try to laugh it off by saying I'm conventional; I _know_
I am. The fact is, people are beginning to talk about us. I want to
discuss what's to be done."

His earnestness kept Barbara from smiling, and, as he was worried and
ill at ease, she beckoned him to a place by her side on the sofa.

"Do you find it so intolerable to have your name joined with mine?" she
asked a little wearily.

He looked at her in perplexity. Instead of being embarrassed herself or
feeling gratitude that he was embarrassed for her reputation, she spoke
as though the gossipers had conferred a favour upon him.

"If the thing were true, it would be another matter altogether. Subject
to your parents' approval, I think the best thing would be to get a
paragraph into the papers, saying that there's no foundation for the
rumour."

"But the rumour hasn't got into the papers yet," she objected.

"I'm meeting it on every hand."

"But, if I don't mind, why should you?" she asked.

"Well, I _do_ mind. I don't like you to be 'talked about.' And I don't
care to have people saying that I'm getting you 'talked about,'" he
added with heat. "You must try to look at this from a man's point of
view. If you were my sister, and some man who had no intention of
marrying you, some man whom you had no intention of marrying----"

"You've never asked me," she interrupted.

Eric was shocked into silence. When he was fighting for her reputation,
she was once more the coquette as he remembered her at their first
meeting.

"I've thought this over, Babs, from every point of view," he went on,
with an effort keeping his temper under her look of slightly bored
amusement. "There are three ways out of the difficulty; the first is
what certain people think the most obvious--that we should make the
story true; the second is that we should contradict it publicly--it's
the easiest thing in the world to do--and the third is that we should
give up seeing each other."

He stood up with the pretence of warming his hands and fidgeted
restlessly by the fire. Barbara had lost her expression of amusement and
was honestly puzzled that he should make so great a pother about a piece
of idle gossip.

They remained without speaking until a maid entered to announce dinner.

"I'm sorry you've been worried," she said gently. "For once it really
wasn't my fault. . . . I suppose I'm hardened to this sort of thing. Why
don't you just not worry? And give me dinner, because I'm very hungry."

"I can't leave it like that," said Eric, as he accompanied her to the
dining-room. "A plain statement in the press----"

"It would simply draw attention to it."

"Well, that's one of the solutions ruled out."

"And I'm left with the choice of marrying you--you haven't asked me
_yet_!--or saying good-bye? There _is_ another alternative, Eric: and
that is to shew you're too sensible to mind what silly people say about
you."

Eric shook his head obstinately.

"No good, I'm afraid."

"Well, try to think of something else," she sighed. "Don't spoil our
evening, sweetheart."

The intermittent presence of the maid, rather than any state of mental
satisfaction in Eric, kept the conversation peaceful. He almost forgot
the annoyances of the last week in watching Barbara's delighted
enjoyment of a new experience so trivial as dining with him for the
first time in his own flat. Nothing escaped her curious notice--a wine
that he gave her to try with the scallops, the Lashmar chrysanthemums in
a flat, blue-glass bowl, the unaging pleasure of an invisibly lighted
room, Australian passion-fruit at dessert, a new artist's proof. . . .

"You're really like a child at a pantomime, Babs," he laughed, when they
were alone.

She rose slowly and bent over him, touching his forehead with her lips
and then kneeling beside his chair.

"I'm interested in everything!" she cried. "I love new experiences! At
least, I _did_. I loved meeting new people, hearing new things--the
world was so wonderful. And then--I never understood why I went on
living. . . . _You_ made life wonderful for me again. The first night
we met, when I came here. . . . You were quite right, Eric, I was a
fool. . . . But somehow I wasn't afraid. I knew you'd put your hand in
the fire for me."

He stroked her head and gave a sudden shiver. No one would ever know
what path he might have chosen that night out of the maze of his
disordered emotions.

"In those days you were nothing to me," he murmured.

"But you put all women on pedestals. . . . Eric, will you believe me if
I say that I've tried to live up to your conception of me?"

"But do you know what my conception of you is?"

"Something a thousand miles higher than I can ever climb! When I'm
restless, lonely, I think of our love, your wonderful devotion--like a
mother's to her child . . . and my love for you. Give me your cigarette,
Eric."

Before he could see what she was doing, the glowing end had been pressed
against her hand until it blackened and died. He saw her eyes shut and
her lip whitening as she bit it. Her body swayed and fell forward before
the crumpled cigarette dropped on to the carpet.

"You little--Babs, what's the matter with you?"

She opened her eyes, breathing quickly and holding out her hand to shew
a vermilion ring with a leprous-white centre.

"_I'd_ put my hand in the fire for _you_!" she panted.

"You little fool!" He was filled with a desire to hurt her for having
hurt herself. "Look here, Barbara. . . ."

But she had risen to her feet and was pressing the wounded hand to her
lips.

"You don't _know_ how it hurt!" she cried with a tremble in her voice.

"What good, precisely, d'you think you've done?" he asked.

She snatched a spill from the mantel-piece and thrust it between the
bars of the fire.

"If you want it again----!"

Eric dragged her upright with one arm and rang the bell.

"We'll have coffee in the smoking-room," he said. "Barbara, what's the
matter with you?"

She laughed almost hysterically.

"I feel I'm fighting for my life! That was to shew you I'd do anything
in the world you asked me to! And you talk about our giving up meeting
. . . like giving up smoking!"

Eric drew a chair to the fire and lighted her cigarette in silence. Only
a fool would break that silence for twenty-four hours. . . .

"A bit rash that, isn't it?" he asked, as he cut his cigar.

"You won't ask me anything that I don't want you to," she answered. "And
you know there are some things I _can't_ give you."

Coffee was brought in, and he offered her sugar, knowing well--if he had
been able to collect himself--that she never took it. Her cigarette went
out and required another match. A pile of five books, still in their
wrappers, absorbed her.

It was only half-past ten when she forced a yawn and asked him to get
her a taxi. He collected a coat and hat from the hall and arranged his
muffler elaborately with his back to her.

"Returning to the other thing," he began slowly. "We've not exactly
disposed of it, have we?"

"I thought we were going to leave it alone," she answered timidly.

"That's out of the question." He banged open his opera hat and squeezed
it shut again. "Why won't you have a simple contradiction in the press?"
he pleaded.

"I don't want it. Isn't that enough?"

"Certainly. But . . . I don't want to say good-bye, if I can help it."

Barbara looked at him slowly and carefully; she was utterly at fault.

"It's for you to decide," she said.

"There doesn't seem to be any alternative."

She stood up and wrapped a lace scarf round her throat. As he helped her
into her cloak, she looked reflectively round the room. Save that the
windows were closed to shut out the December fog, save that there were
chrysanthemums in place of roses, nothing had changed since the night
when she forced her way in and sipped soda-water from a heavy goblet and
broke the glass horseshoe and laughed and talked and suddenly cried. . . .

As he watched, her bones seemed to bend like soft wax, and she sank on
to the sofa, burying her face in her arms and sobbing convulsively. Eric
stood motionless by the fire, because he could not trust himself to
move. Her shoulders, which he had always admired for their line and
wonderful whiteness, rose in quick jerks and subsided with a quiver; she
shook with the abandonment of a bird in its death-spasm.

"Barbara!"

"Oh, can't I even cry?" she moaned.

"Darling, you break my heart when you go on like this!" He found himself
kneeling on the floor with his arm round her shoulder and drawing her
head back until he could kiss her wet cheek. "If you'll shew me _any_
other way out of it----"

"Why can't you let it go on?" she wailed.

"I can't; I suppose I love you too much."

"Too much to give me the one thing--Eric, you're not going to turn me
away?"

"I'm not going to take risks with your reputation."

"But it would be just the same! If you _put_ your denial into the
paper, people would still go on talking as long as we went on meeting!
Does it matter? Do you mind it so much, Eric? Oh, my dear, I can't
afford to lose you!"

She fell away from him, and he walked back to the fire. This, then, was
the moment that came to every man once--the moment that he forced into
the lives of his puppets once a play.

"Barbara!"

She was still shaken with sobs.

"Barbara, are you listening? You said you'd put your hand in the fire
for me. Well, did you mean that?"

He snapped the question at her, and she was galvanized to drag herself
upright on the sofa.

"Yes, I said that."

"You'll do anything I ask?"

"Yes." From the slow-drawn answer he knew that more was coming. "I've
told you everything. I don't belong to myself. . . . There's one thing
that--that I don't think you're going to ask me."

"Why not?"

"Because you know I trust you. I always have. I always shall. Oh, God
forgive me for the way I've treated you! But it's your fault. Whatever I
did, I should know that I could always trust you and that in time you'd
understand!" A single sob escaped her, and she steadied herself like a
man stopping short at the edge of a precipice. "You've quite made up
your mind? . . . I must go now. Will you do something for me?"

"What is it?"

"Won't _you_ trust _me_? I don't want you to see me home, that's all.
It'll remind me of too much. Good-bye, Eric. I used to think I didn't
believe in God, but somebody's got to reward you, and I can't. Kiss
me--quickly, or I shall start crying again. Good-bye, Eric! Oh, oh--my
God!"

She stumbled to the door and twisted blindly at the handle. It was open
before he could help her. A grey wedge of fog thrust itself past her as
she hurried out of the hall.

"You're not going home alone!" he cried.

Half-way down the first flight of stairs she turned with arms
outstretched like a figure nailed to a cross.

"My darling; it's the last thing I shall ever ask you!"


4

Eric slept little that night. From eleven till two he walked up and down
his smoking-room, occasionally throwing himself into a chair for very
exhaustion, only to jump up restlessly and resume his aimless pacing.
The fingers of his right hand were yellow from the cigarettes that he
was always lighting and throwing away; the rest of him became stiff and
chilled as the fire died down. "_As if I'd murdered her._ . . ." The
phrase, self-coined, repeated itself in his brain even when he was not
thinking of the shaken, nerveless body which he had tried to revive.

His eyes turned again and again to the telephone. It would take Barbara
ten minutes to walk home, perhaps twenty in the fog; (he was frightened
by the thought of her being alone). By then she might have found
something to suggest. . . . The telephone could not be more silent if
she were in very truth dead. He sat down at his writing-table and
addressed an envelope to her, but he had nothing to put inside it.

"_As if I'd murdered her._" It made it no easier that Barbara had begged
him not to cast her off; wives sometimes begged men to run away with
them. Until she drove the burning cigarette-end into her hand, crying
out that she was fighting for her life, he had not understood her
passionate need of him; yet, when her need was most passionate, there
was something in her life to which she would subordinate him. . . . The
proposal had been checked on his lips.

The telephone was poignantly silent. She would never ring him up again
to tell him her plans for the day, never ramble again through shops and
exhibitions, never again ring him up to bid him good-night. The Thursday
dinner, the Friday luncheon, their notes at the week-end, the sweet
pride of possession, her glorious companionship in his cloistered life
were over. For no one else had he ever taken trouble; now he was thrown
back on an insufficient self. To-morrow or the next day she might have a
headache; never again would she give him a tired smile and say, "Won't
you charm the pain away?"

"_As if I'd murdered her._" Eric crossed the hall to his bedroom. The
front door was still open, and on the mat lay Barbara's scarf. He was
glad of an excuse to postpone undressing and spent five minutes lovingly
packing it in tissue paper for his secretary to carry round. It would be
savagery not to write a note. . . .

    "_Dearest, you left this behind. I hope you didn't take cold without
    it. It seems ironical for me to say I'll do anything I can for you.
    But it's true. Eric._"

He rose after four hours' sleepless tossing and distracted himself by
drawing cheques until the post was delivered. There were many letters,
but none from Barbara. He read the _Times_, dictated to his secretary,
handed her the parcel for Berkeley Square and climbed uneasily out of
bed. Though he dawdled over his dressing, there was no telephone call to
reward him; and, as the Crawleighs were spending Christmas in London, he
would not meet her in the train.

Half-way to Winchester he grew drowsy and fancied himself in his dreams
once more kneeling on the floor beside the sofa, with his arms round
Barbara's shoulders. "_As if I'd murdered her._" His lips were moving,
as he awoke, and he wondered whether the haunting refrain had escaped
him.

His sister was waiting for him at Winchester, and he greeted her with a
confused affection that struggled to compensate for the pain which he
had brought to Barbara.

"We were afraid you might be too much in request to come down here,"
said Sybil. "Eric, I've been invited to go to a dance in London next
week; I suppose you wouldn't like to chaperon me? Mother does so hate
leaving the country even for one night."

"Will it be very late? I can't do any work next day, if I don't get a
little sleep. As a matter of fact, haven't chaperons ceased to exist?"

"I don't know. I was invited by a man I met at the Warings. He's quite a
nice creature, but I can't dine and go even to a charity ball and dance
with him all night absolutely on my own. Mother wouldn't let me, even if
I wanted to."

Eric shrank from the prospect of sleepless hours in an overheated room.

"It's surprising what things _are_ done nowadays," he said without
committing himself.

"Surprising, yes. But we're rather behind the times in Lashmar. _You_
wouldn't like me to go alone, would you?"

"Certainly not!" If people began gossiping about Sybil and her nameless
admirer as they gossiped about Barbara and himself, he would very soon
drop the young man a plain hint. And he could never make Barbara see
that she wanted him to behave as he would allow no one to behave to his
own sister. . . . "I'll come if I'm not already booked up."

As he entered the Mill-House, Eric tried to lose himself in the
atmosphere of a place where he had spent Christmas for a quarter of a
century. His last night in London haunted him, and it was only by trying
to console his mother for the absence of her two younger boys that he
could avoid thinking of Barbara. There was a busy exchange of presents
after dinner, and next day he accompanied his parents to church, as he
had done for five and twenty years, finding peace and a welcome in the
worm-eaten pew, the cobwebbed window, the top-heavy decorations and the
familiar musty books. The state prayers were invoked therein on behalf
of "Victoria, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the Princess of Wales and
all the Royal Family." And there was an old hymnal with a loose binding;
for years Eric had slipped one of the Waverley Novels into its cover to
read during the sermon. . . . To-day he listened no more to the sermon
than in other years; he wondered what Barbara was doing. . . .

After the carols they lingered in the churchyard to greet their friends.
If only she would make up her mind that Jack was dead, there would be no
need for this anguished parting; then, though he had never contemplated
it until a week before, he could ask Barbara to marry him. As yet,
though he wanted her, he had still to find whether he could be content
without her; before marrying, she must subordinate obligation, memory
and conscience to her need of him. . . . The Warings were waiting at the
lych-gate, and he asked Agnes whether she had any news of Jack.

"I'll let you know when we have," she answered, shaking her head. "It's
nearly six months now. . . . I'm just keeping my mind a blank."

They turned out of the churchyard and walked in silence towards Lashmar
village. For ten years they had always hurried ahead of their parents
for a moment together; and, before anything else, Agnes always thanked
him for her present. This year Eric had given her nothing; it was unfair
to pretend that there was no change of feeling. . . .

"I suppose you're as busy as ever?" she asked abruptly. "The new play
seems to be a great success."

"I think it's doing quite well," he assented. "I wish I'd seen more of
you that night, Agnes."

"There was such a crowd of people; we only put our heads into the box to
congratulate you. Eric, I'd never seen your friend Lady Barbara at close
quarters before; she's--bewitching."

Without daring to look at her face, Eric tried to discover from Agnes'
tone whether she had chosen or blundered on such a word.

"She varies," he said judicially. "That night--yes, she was looking her
best then. Sometimes . . . she's not very strong, you know. . . ."

He broke off, thinking of their last night together. They walked as far
as Lashmar Common without speaking, though he knew that his silence
betrayed him.

At luncheon Sir Francis proposed the health of his absent sons, and the
afternoon passed in lazy talk round the library fire. The smell of the
pine logs filled Eric with old memories; he slipped on to a foot-stool
and sat with his head resting against his mother's knees, drowsy and a
little wistful. He wished that he could go back to a time when life was
less complicated and he could still confide in her.

"Tired, old boy?" asked Lady Lane, as she stroked his head.

"No. Only thinking. I can just remember our first Christmas here; there
was a party and a Christmas tree, and I retired to the terrace and had a
stand-up fight with some young friend, and our nurses came and separated
us. A long time ago, mother! Before Sybil was born."

The girl roused at sound of her name.

"You're getting frightfully old, Ricky. It's time you married and
settled down."

"I've settled down without marrying. You can't do both, you know."

The drawl in his voice unconsciously irritated the girl.

"Marrying and shaking up is more in your line," she retorted. "You're
too successful, too rich, too selfish, Ricky."

"My dear, I lead my life, and you lead yours. Why should either try to
disturb the other?"

"Because you lead such a rotten life. Honestly, Ricky, don't you get
sick of gadding about night and day with people who only condescend to
know you because you're a fashion?"

He smiled lazily at the uncompromising vigour of her criticism.

"To begin with, I don't do it night and day----"

"Ricky, you simply live in your Lady Barbara's pocket. Lots of people
have told me. If I were you, I wouldn't let her make a fool of me. After
all, you _are_ somebody. Is she going to marry you?"

"I haven't asked her. She's a great friend of mine----"

"H'm. Everybody asks me when you're going to be married. Honestly, they
do, Ricky. Three people this week. That's why I say she's making a fool
of you. I don't think you know how people are talking."

"Perhaps I do, but I didn't know it had spread as far as here," he
sighed.

"Well, you oughtn't to do it; and she oughtn't either," Sybil declared.

Eric gazed long into the fire without answering. How on earth had they
come to discuss Babs? He had been dreaming with wistful contentment of
simpler, less embarrassed times when at this hour a red-faced nurse
would enter and carry him, sleepily protesting, to bed. Sybil had
somehow forced the conversation, they had argued--and his father and
mother had listened without taking part, thereby ranging themselves on
Sybil's side or at least admitting that she was telling them nothing
new. . . . Sybil was a tigress for loyalty! Ever since she had decided
that he was to marry Agnes, she would have mauled and clawed any other
woman who got in the way. And when that woman trifled with the devotion
of a Lane and made a fool of one of the sacred family . . . No sister
ever imagined that a man could take care of himself. After all, who had
suffered by his tragic intimacy with Barbara?

"_As if I'd murdered her._" What was Babs doing now?

He looked at his watch and pulled himself, stretching and yawning, to
his feet.

"I shall go to sleep if I stay here," he said. "Is any one going to
dress?"

Twenty minutes later, when he came out of his bath, Lady Lane was
sitting in his bedroom.

"I didn't shew you Geoff's last letter," she said. "You'll see he says
something about 'The Bomb-Shell'; one of his friends has been to see it
and liked it very much."

Eric propped the letter against his looking-glass, as he began to dress.

"I say, have people down here really been marrying me off?" he asked.

Lady Lane's face, reflected in the mirror, was passive and incurious.

"There was some report in one of the papers, I believe," she explained.
"I didn't see it myself."

He volunteered nothing, and his mother looked indifferently round the
room, now exploring with her foot a shabby place in the carpet, now
rising to hook a sagging length of curtain to its ring. She had come
into his room to receive confidences and to help him; his moodiness did
not invite congratulations and was troubling her.

"I wonder if I shall _ever_ remember to bring some more shirts down
here," he mused. "I've three, four, five that I'll give you for your
bandage-class."

"I'll take them gratefully," she answered. There was a pause in which he
pushed a drawer home, selected a handkerchief and turned off the light
over his dressing-table; in another minute they would be downstairs, and
the opportunity would be gone. She slipped her arm through his and
walked to the door. "There's nothing worrying you, is there, Eric?"

"I'm afraid I've rather a faculty for letting things worry me," he
laughed. "If one didn't always have to work against time, at high
pressure----"

His mother was not deceived into thinking that work had anything to do
with his mood.

"No new worries?" she suggested. "The last month or two . . . You're not
looking well; that's why I asked. If you ever feel there's anything I
can do . . ."

The subject was dismissed as she opened the door. She was glad that she
had given him no opportunity of a denial, for Eric had always told her
the truth, hitherto.

He went to bed early and fell asleep at once after the restlessness of
the last two nights. When he felt his way back to wakefulness in the
morning, there was a subconscious sense that something important had
happened; a moment later he remembered with a pang that he and Barbara
had said good-bye.

He jumped up and rang for his shaving-water, though it was not yet
seven. He must find work to do, he must keep himself continuously
occupied; otherwise his brain would go on grinding out that phrase "_As
if I'd murdered her_." . . .


5

Half-way through the morning a belated postman splashed with expectant
Christmas cheerfulness to the Mill-House and unburdened himself of a
crushed and tattered load. Eric's share included an envelope addressed
in an unknown writing and marked "Urgent," "By hand." His fingers
trembled when he found a pencilled note from Barbara.

    "_Christmas Eve._

    "_My scarf has just arrived. Thank you for sending it; I'm sorry to
    have been so careless. And I'm afraid I DID catch cold without it.
    At least I'm in bed, and the doctor says he's going to keep me here.
    I want you, in spite of everything, to come and see me. Come this
    afternoon, Eric, before you go down to your people. Just for a
    moment. I do want to see you so badly. You won't disappoint me, will
    you? I'm ill, Eric, and so very lonely. Please, please come.
    Barbara._"

He pocketed the letter and went on with the others, reading them
mechanically. As her note had reached his flat after he had left, no one
could blame him for disregarding her summons; for two days he had been
spared the necessity of deciding whether it had to be disregarded; he
had another twenty-four hours at Lashmar, no telegrams were delivered on
Boxing Day, and she had in fact not telephoned. If the servants had not
stamped and forwarded the letter, he would have had no knowledge of it
until his return to Ryder Street the following day.

And then?

The family was still opening parcels and comparing cards and almanacks
in the hall. He filled a pipe and tramped up and down his father's
library, trying to decide this question without losing his head. She was
ill, he had promised to help her, he wanted to help her, he was glad of
any excuse that would spare him a repetition of that waking sense of
loss. So far from having murdered her, he was urged to return; and he
asked nothing better than to go back.

And then?

Sybil was right; they ought neither of them to permit such an intimacy,
if nothing were to come of it. Sooner or later there would be
unpleasantness; and, instead of the one painful parting which still
haunted him, there would be two. The position was unchanged from the
time when he invited her to dinner and delivered his ultimatum. He must
leave the letter unanswered; if she appealed again, he must be deaf to
the appeal. There was no need to pretend that he liked his choice. She
might have a chill--or pneumonia; and henceforth he must depend on the
newspapers and on chance-met friends to find how she was and what she
was doing. The friends, too, accepting him as her guardian, would be
more likely to come to him for news; he would have to say that he had
not seen her for a week, a month, six months. . . . And they would
wonder and gossip about the mysterious estrangement as zealously as
about their "engagement"; and the kinder sort, like Lady Poynter,
instead of scheming to bring them together, would arrange their parties
with a tactful eye to secure that they did not meet. . . .

Eric paused to knock out his pipe and to reflect that, as he had made up
his mind, there was nothing to gain by pitying himself or by growing
angry with imaginary disputants. Sir Francis and Sybil came into the
library to begin the day's work; his mother rustled to and fro, giving
her orders. All that he had to do was to find an unoccupied table and
settle down to work. The intimacy was over. In time he might care to
think about it, he might even be able to meet Barbara, but at present he
had to keep his mind absorbed with other thoughts.

He had schooled himself to a semblance of stoicism when he reached his
office. It was temporarily undermined by a letter, also marked "Urgent,"
"By hand," which he found awaiting him.

    "_Christmas Day._"

    "_I suppose you left London before my note arrived. I sent another
    and one to Lashmar, but the posts are so bad nowadays that I'm
    writing to your office as well. I don't think you told me how long
    you were going to be away, but please, I beg you, come and see me
    just for a moment when you're back in London. I must see you again,
    Eric. If you're not back to-morrow, you will be next day, I'm sure.
    Please ring me up the moment you get this. Barbara._"

So she had lain waiting for him all Christmas Day, all Boxing Day; she
was waiting now, and he had no idea how to tell her that he could not
come.

The telephone rang, and he was surprised to hear Amy Loring's voice
instead of Barbara's.

"Is that Mr. Lane? Oh, forgive me for disturbing you at your work. I
expect you've heard that poor Babs is ill. Can you get to see her? She'd
like it so much."

Eric caught himself resolutely shaking his head at the telephone.

"I'm afraid it's impossible. I've been away for Christmas, and the work
here----"

"But can't you manage a moment? Look in on your way home."

"I'm very sorry; it's out of the question." He paused and repeated
lamely, "I'm very sorry."

Amy sighed and made a last unsuccessful attempt to move him, only
succeeding in reducing him to a state of suppressed irritation which
spoiled his work for the morning. He had meant to call in Ryder Street
before luncheon to collect his letters, but he could not trust himself
to face the appeal which he knew he would find there. It was hard enough
to do the right thing without being incited on all hands _not_ to do
it--and in the name of affection and charity!

In the afternoon an unfamiliar voice enquired for him by telephone.

"Lady Crawleigh speaking. Mr. Lane, I want you to do something for me,
if you'll be so kind. Are you engaged this evening?"

Eric could hardly believe that Barbara had gone the length of appealing
to him through her mother.

"Well, I have a man dining with me," he improvised tentatively.

"Oh, can you possibly put him off? I'll tell you why. My husband and I
have to dine out, and that means leaving Babs alone. I'm afraid she's
not a good patient, and, if you could keep her amused, she'd be less
likely to get up or do anything foolish. That's what she's threatening
at present. I feel it's very unfair to ask you to change all your
plans. . . ."

However unfair, she asked him with an assurance which shewed that she
would not take a refusal lightly. Eric smiled grimly to himself. As if
London was not full of people who would gladly spend half an hour with
Barbara! As if the Crawleighs could not have cancelled their own
engagement! It was transparent, but he smiled less at the artifice than
at the irony of his being dragged to the house against his will and
better judgement. . . .

"I'd come, if I could," he answered hesitatingly. "The trouble is that
I've invited this man for eight and I shan't be able to get away from
here till half-past seven at earliest. I'll do my best----"

"I'm depending on you, Mr. Lane."

Dinner, but no one to share it with him, had been ordered for a quarter
past eight. He telephoned at seven to say that he might be a little late
and set out for Berkeley Square. Barbara was alone when he arrived, and
he entered her room in some embarrassment. He could not imagine Sybil's
receiving male visitors in her bedroom, and he was shy to find himself
alone with Barbara and to see her lying in a blue silk kimono with the
Persian kitten asleep on a chair by her side and two tables submerged by
Madonna lilies. As he hesitated on the threshold, she smiled wistfully
and at the same time with a certain triumphant confidence in her
setting.

"I was--very sorry to hear you were ill, Babs," he said.

"I've waited for you so long! Won't you kiss me, Eric?"

He picked up the kitten, affecting not to have heard her.

"What is it? A chill? Your mother said---- No, I don't think she told me
what it was."

Restraint faltered with every hesitating word, and Barbara pushed the
kitten's cushion on to the floor.

"Sit down, darling," she begged.

"I must go in a minute," said Eric, gravely consulting his watch.

"Who have you got dining with you?" He hesitated. "Any one?"

"As a matter of fact, I've not. I lied to your mother. You see I didn't
want to meet you, Babs. I didn't want to go through that other night
again."

He was still standing; but, without noticing, he had drawn nearer to the
bed, and she pulled him gently into the chair.

"Haven't you missed me, Eric?" she whispered.

"Damnably!" His laugh was bitter. "I don't see how it's to be avoided,
though. And we only make things worse by prolonging the agony. The
infernal story's spread to Lashmar now."

Barbara's lips curled assertively.

"I'm sorry you should suffer so much by association with me. . . . If
you aren't expecting any one, will you dine with me, Eric?"

He tried to review his position in the moment allowed him before his
answer would begin to seem hesitating. Once in the house, it mattered
little whether he stayed one hour or three; but they were fools, both of
them, to contrive or assent to his being there. Firmly, if indistinctly,
he felt that she was trying to slip behind the decision of their last
meeting.

"I'll stay if you like," he said and watched her ring the bell for her
maid. "Babs, are you well enough to talk seriously? I don't want to say
good-bye, but nothing's changed. We've the choice between a public
contradiction----"

"Or a public engagement? Is that what you're afraid of?"

"I'm not afraid of it."

She sank lower in the bed, covering her eyes with her hand.

"You've never asked me to marry you," she said quietly, this time
without a taunt.

"You expressly asked me not to."

"You always--boasted that you weren't in love with me."

A hint of triumph in her voice made him wonder in fear and disgust
whether this was the way in which she had played with Jack Waring. She
was sweeping him faster than he wanted to go; but, for all his
misgivings, he could not stop.

"D'you think either of us knew what we meant to the other until these
last three days?" he asked gently. "Everything was too easy before," he
added, remembering Amy's warning.

Barbara uncovered her eyes and held her arms open to him.

"I've always loved you, Eric."

"I've been--very fond of you."

"And now you want to marry me?" she whispered, and her eyes shone with
expectation.

"D'you want me to ask you to?"

For a moment she had seemed to speak with passion, but, before he could
notice the transition, he found her only trying on passion's garments.

"No, I don't," she answered slowly. "I couldn't bear it. You _know_ I'm
not free! But do you want to give me up? You've had a good deal of me
since August and now you've had three days without me. D'you _want_ to
marry me?"

Eric felt indistinctly that he was no longer the man who had come
reluctantly to the house to do her a favour; yet he had always been able
to bring her to her knees by refusing to meet or write to her; if he put
her need of him to the test, with separation as an alternative, she must
surrender.

"Yes, I do," he answered.

Her hand went up and covered her eyes again. While he waited for her to
speak, his memory flung up, one after another, the moods of loss and
loneliness that he had undergone since the telephone grew silent and no
letter came from her. A warm wave of tenderness swept over him, as he
imagined the glory of having her youth and wit and beauty entrusted to
him.

"For God's sake, don't ask me that, Eric!" she whispered.

He looked at her in astonishment, wondering dully what she aimed to
achieve. If he insisted on asking her, she would certainly consent; but
he could not ask her against her will. Suddenly he realized that he knew
nothing of women; some, he had been told, liked to be bullied and
compelled, others were only to be won by yielding and deference.

"You don't want me to ask you that?"

"No! For God's sake, no! If anything happens, Eric--you know what I
mean--if I _can_, then ask me, please ask me! But not now! I should be
miserable and I should make you miserable! Eric, be generous!"

Her fingers were pressed deep into her cheeks, and he could see her
bosom rising and falling.

"I oughtn't to have started this subject, Babs," he said, coming back to
her side. "If it makes things easier in any way, I'll promise you
solemnly never to ask you that question until you give me leave."

She opened her arms a second time. This time he leaned forward and
kissed her.

"Thank you, darling!"

"And now I'm going to give you your beef-tea. What made you talk like
this, Babs?"

"I wanted to know that you really loved me."

"You knew that before."

"I didn't! No, Eric, when you said good-bye that night----"

Something in his expression stopped her. He had wholly lost sight of
their earlier contention, and it was coming back to him--unsettled.

"I'm afraid things are very much where they were that night," he said.

"If I don't promise to marry you, you'll leave me? I can't promise,
Eric--yet."

There seemed a dim, treacherous comfort in the adverb, and he stayed
with her.

       *       *       *       *       *

    "_Wine and love bring a similar intoxication. You can refuse to
    begin drinking, you can refuse to begin falling in love; (and love
    at first sight of a woman is as absurd as a morbid craving for drink
    at first sight of a bottle). You can trust that you will be able to
    say in time, 'I can no more.' And then you will find that you only
    see the turning-point when you are past it. The world then says
    without pity or understanding: 'The man's drunk.'_"--From the Diary
    of Eric Lane.



CHAPTER SIX

DAME'S SCHOOL EDUCATION

    "ANN: I can neither take you nor let you go. . . . You must be a
    sentimental old bachelor for my sake. . . . You won't have a bad
    time. . . . A broken heart is a very pleasant complaint for a man
    in London if he has a comfortable income."
            BERNARD SHAW: "MAN AND SUPERMAN."


1

"I don't know how lately you've seen Eric," said Lady Lane, "but I'm
frightened at the way he's losing weight."

Dr. Gaisford smiled reassuringly and rang for tea.

"I've ordered him a complete rest and change for three months."

"But he won't take it! The head of his department wants him to give a
course of lectures in America, but he won't leave London. If you're more
in his confidence than I am----"

"Eric pays us both the compliment of thinking us too old to have eyes,
ears or brains--a common delusion among boys in love. No, he's told me
nothing, but he's visibly wearing himself out in adoration of a very
fascinating young woman; so, as _he_ won't go away, she shall. There's
no present cause for alarm."

"I wish I could think that. . . . Of course, you must never tell him
that I've been talking to you behind his back."

The warning was an anticlimax after Lady Lane's desperate remedy of
coming to Wimpole Street and presenting all her fears and suspicions for
the doctor's diagnosis. In a life-time of anxiety and effort she was
hardly more communicative or self-pitying than her son; and Gaisford
divined that more than ordinary compulsion had sent her to him.

"Speaking as a friend of both parties," he said, "I don't know what the
hitch is. I haven't heard that the parents are making any trouble; and,
if they did, I'm afraid naughty little Barbara would just snap her
fingers at them."

"You think she's in earnest?" asked Lady Lane doubtfully.

"I do indeed--knowing something of her; and for the first time in her
life. . . . I hope it will all come right. In the meantime, she's been
ill and her father doesn't like the way the Government's conducting the
war, so they're shaking off the dust of England for the Riviera. Eric
will have his rest, whether he likes it or not."

For the first fifteen months of the war Lord Crawleigh had carried out a
campaign, unsparing to his readers, his hearers and himself, to wake
England to a more lively realization of her perils. His position and
long record of public service secured him an undisturbed hearing as he
floundered through the potentialities of Mittel-Europa with the aid of a
lantern and pointer; and his audience was usually rewarded for its
patience when he forsook high politics and set its flesh agreeably
creeping with a peroration compounded equally of German spies and
pro-German ministers. The campaign throve in the south, but slackened in
the midlands and stopped short in the north. At the same time Lord
Crawleigh's prescriptive right to the "leader" page of all daily papers
met with a challenge from certain disrespectful sub-editors who first
mislaid him among foreign telegrams and later buried him ignominiously
in small type. It was when a thoughtful exegesis on "The War and Indian
Home Rule," extending over two columns, had been held up for three days
without acknowledgement, apology or explanation, that Lord Crawleigh
decided to teach his countrymen a sharp lesson by withdrawing to the
south of France until the spring.

Any inducement to leniency was overruled when Barbara succumbed to an
attack of pleurisy. As soon as she was fit to move, he ordered his villa
to be made ready, set the dismantling of his London house in hand,
closed Crawleigh Abbey and carried his wife and daughter to Charing
Cross with a relentlessness and speed which gave their departure the
appearance of an abduction. The pleurisy developed four days after
Christmas, and Eric had not seen Barbara since the night of their
sick-room dinner. A week after they reached the Riviera, he heard a
story, traced without difficulty to Gerald Deganway, that Lord Crawleigh
had spirited Barbara away from the danger of a _mésalliance_. But, in
wrestling with the necessary evils of life, Eric was finding, as others
had done before him, that Gerald Deganway was the irreducible minimum;
it was of greater importance that for three months no one would have
cause to gossip about them; and by that time even the Warings could not
reasonably hope for tidings of Jack.

Her departure cleared Eric's mind of its last misgivings and convinced
him that Barbara was no longer a casually pleasant companion but an
urgently needed wife. In her absence, he was thrown back on the bachelor
society of the Thespian Club, though with every meal that he ate there
came a growing dread that he would be absorbed into it until younger
generations, watching him as he pored over the day's bill of fare with
his cronies or grew petulant with the servants, came to regard him as
part of the club's furniture--as part of every club's furniture--wifeless,
childless, friendless and uninterested, a bore who had outstayed the
welcome and even the toleration of a community founded to keep his like
from utter loneliness. Sometimes, as he looked at the men who would
never marry, he wondered what would become of him if Jack Waring
appeared suddenly, if Barbara fell in love with some one else, if she
fell out of love as quickly as she had fallen in love. . . .

At the end of March a telegram from Folkestone announced her return and
invited him to dine with her.

Eric walked up the familiar stairs, with the august butler, at whose nod
or frown he had once trembled, turning at intervals to impart
confidences from the advantageous height of an advance stair. ("We" had
only come back the day before and were, on the whole, better for the
change. He was afraid her ladyship would hardly be dressed yet. . . . If
Mr. Lane did not mind waiting a moment. . . . There was the evening
paper. . . .) Eric settled himself with a comfortable sense of
home-coming, his eyes on Barbara's bedroom door, wondering how she would
greet him. Their last dinner together demanded recognition and a subtile
modification of manner.

"Darling, how are you after all this time?" Barbara was on her knees by
his chair before he realized that she was in the room. "When do you
start? You never said a word about it in your letters."

He stood up and pulled her gently to her feet. Invitingly she craned her
head forward, offering him her lips.

"About what?"

"Your American tour. The _Vieux boulevardier_ said you were going to
deliver a course of lectures in America."

Common-form invitations had reached him from time to time through his
agent, but, after the first, he had relegated them unread to the
waste-paper basket. And his department was still urging him abroad.

"I've no intention of going yet awhile," he told her. "It was only a
newspaper rumour; perhaps some day I shall make it true. You remember
that there was another rumour which my mother told me had in fact got
into some provincial rag? Some day that also may be true."

He lighted a cigarette and looked at her with a faint, enquiring smile.

"Eric!" she cried with reproachful warning, though he felt that she was
enjoying the thin ice on to which they had glided.

As a smile dimpled its way into her cheeks, he tired of the badinage.

"Well, did you have a good time, Babs?" he asked abruptly.

"Good? M'well. . . . I travelled the whole way with all the clothes in
the world wrapped round my throat and chest. When I woke up just beyond
Marseilles, it was so hot that I threw off one thing after another,
until I'd got down to a blouse and skirt. Next morning, there was a
glorious hot sun. . . . I jumped out of bed and ran bare-foot into the
verandah and stood there--don't be shocked, darling!--in my night-gown,
stretching out my arms to gather all the heavenly warmth. I couldn't
have coughed if you'd paid me to. It was divine, but I suddenly
discovered there was one thing wanting. Can you guess what it was?"

"From your description, most things were wanting."

"Darling, if you're prosaic, I just shan't talk to you. I discovered
that I wanted some one to share it with. If you _knew_ the glorious
feeling of standing bare-foot on hot marble! I wanted _you_, Eric! I
always want you when I'm happy, because I must share my happiness with
some one; and I want you when I'm unhappy, because I'm too proud to shew
my unhappiness to any one who doesn't love me. I hate the second-best
and I'm so glad to see you again!"

Eric considered her with his head on one side and his hands in his
pockets, cautiously and without committing himself.

"Well, Babs, if you _don't_ always have me at hand for all your moods
and all your needs----"

"Yes?"

He turned away to knock the ash from his cigarette and to avoid a
possible change of expression in her eyes.

"My dear, you'll have only yourself to blame."

"I know. Bless you, dear Eric. Somehow, I was afraid you might have
changed. Thinking of you all those miles away, I felt you were too good
to be true. Let's go down to dinner. You've only got me, I'm afraid.
Will you be bored?"

"I don't suppose so," he answered, smiling; but, indefinably, he was
disappointed.


2

The Crawleighs spent a month in London before repairing to Hampshire for
the summer.

"Make the most of me," said Barbara, when her father's decision was made
known. "You may never see me again."

"I wonder whether you'd mind," Eric mused. "Don't you sometimes feel
that I've served my turn?"

"That's a horrid thing to say! If anything took you out of my life . . .
Say you're sorry this very moment!"

Eric laughingly complied, but he could not easily shake off his
disappointment that Barbara had come back after three months without
nerving herself to make a decision. Though Jack Waring's name was still
never mentioned, he felt that she was increasingly unreasonable in
honouring any superstitious obligation to his memory. A vague, resentful
impatience ruffled the serenity of their meetings; and, though they
plotted to lunch or dine together daily and counted the remaining hours
with jealous concern, Eric was shocked to find himself secretly
relieved when Barbara said "Only another week."

"I've not seen very much of you," he grumbled inconsistently. "Why don't
you dine with me to-morrow?"

Barbara had undergone some transformation in the last six months until
she seemed hardly to need him. In the old days she was a slave to be
summoned by a clap of the hands; but, since he had healed her spirit,
she was a queen to be courted.

"I'll come, if you like," she said. "It means throwing over George
Oakleigh. And I haven't seen him since I came back."

"I shouldn't dream of asking you to do that. I've chosen an unfortunate
day. I've chosen rather a lot of unfortunate days lately," he added.

"Is that very gracious, Eric? I've said I'll come."

The desire to get his own way and the growing need of her struggled
confusedly with the resolve to be patient and the politic determination
to court her as a queen.

"No, you keep to your original plan," he advised her; and then, with
thinly-veiled taunt, "It's funny to look back on the old days, when you
were miserable if twelve hours passed without our meeting. D'you
remember when you used to say how much you needed me?"

"I need you still," she answered, wondering at his new irritability.

"You got on very comfortably without me at the Cap Martin----"

"I should have been very uncomfortable if I hadn't known that you were
thinking of me, waiting for me, loving me, even----"

"And you'll get on very comfortably when you're at Crawleigh Abbey," he
persisted. "And to-morrow----"

"I've said I'll come to-morrow. Eric, you're not jealous of my dining
with other people? You're talking as if you were trying to pick a
quarrel. You were always so sweet. . . ."

"I'm not conscious of having changed," he answered stiffly.

But he was conscious of a change in her. While he was still indifferent,
she had prostrated herself before him; when he confessed his love, she
gathered up his own cast robes of indifference. It was feminine nature,
and her "education" of him was at least illustrating the
sex-generalizations which a man ought to have learned before leaving his
dame's-school.

"Don't let's quarrel, darling!" she begged. "_Whatever_ you ask, I'll
do! But, when I give, I want to give everything. Won't you be patient
with me?"

Ever since her return to England, Eric's nerves had been strained until
he found it first difficult and then impossible to work or sleep. When
he met her, there was always some trifling cause of annoyance; when he
stayed away, there was hunger and loneliness.

"I wonder how long you'd like me to be patient," he murmured.

"Before I marry you? Is that what you mean? Eric, I promise in the sight
of God that I'll marry you as soon as I can do it with a good
conscience. You don't want me to be haunted all my life. And now, when
we even speak of it . . . It's my punishment."

"I'm sorry, Barbara. I've made you look quite miserable."

She bent his head forward and kissed him.

"I've never been _really_ miserable since I knew that you loved me," she
whispered.

Though the quarrel was composed, the taut nerves were still unrelaxed;
and, after two more nights of insomnia, Eric was driven to consult his
doctor. The examination, with its attendant annoyances of sounding and
questioning, weighing and measuring, was tiresomely thorough; but at
the end Gaisford could only suggest change of scene and occupation.

"I'm not a good subject for rest," Eric objected.

"I'm not sending you into a home," said Gaisford. "Why not go out to
California for six months? You can scribble there as well as anywhere."

"If I work at all, it ought to be this propaganda job," Eric suggested.

"Then do your propaganda job elsewhere. I want to get you out of London.
Do you want me to speak frankly? You're seeing much too much of an
exceedingly attractive young woman. If you're going to marry her, marry
her; if not, break away. Flesh and blood can't stand your present life."

Eric left him without giving a pledge, because he felt too tired for the
effort of going away from Barbara for six months. Since he had reduced
his hours of work, there was no excuse for this everlasting sense of
limp fatigue; granted the fatigue, there was no excuse for his not
sleeping. The doctor had paid curiously little attention to the insomnia
and was childishly interested in making him blow down a tube and
register the cubic capacity of his lungs. There had never been a hint of
phthisis in the family, but the medical profession could be trusted to
recommend six months in California when a man needed only one injection
of morphia to secure a night's sleep.

He had forgotten Gaisford and his advice when Barbara came to say
good-bye on her last day in London.

"My dear, have you been ill?" she asked with concern. "I've been told to
use my influence to get you away for a holiday. What's been the matter?"

"I don't know. And Gaisford shouldn't discuss one patient with another.
He wants me to go to California for six months."

"Then you'll go? You _must_ go!" Barbara's eyes were wide with distress.
"I insist!"

"I'm thinking it over," he answered, a little startled. "I'm not a bit
keen to leave you, Babs."

"D'you think I'm keen to lose you? Darling Eric, if you know what you
mean to me . . . But you've got to get well!"

"I don't know why California should make the--waiting any easier."

"Ah, don't say _I've_ made you ill! I'll say 'yes' Eric. . . . Now. . . .
But I should only be able to give you a little piece of myself, I should
always be divided. . . . I don't think you really want that, and you'd
be simply wretched if you found you'd spoiled my life after saving it.
. . . Eric, don't hurry me? It's only April. Wait till twelve months have
gone by since the--news. If there's no further news . . . Wait till--my
birthday!"

Next morning, Barbara departed to Crawleigh Abbey, and for a month they
did not meet. As spring budded and blossomed into summer, Eric counted
the days that separated him from the fulfilment of her promise. There
was no reason for him to be anxious; but his mind was filled with
nervous images, and imagination suggested a thousand fantastic ways in
which Barbara might be snatched from him. As her birthday drew near, he
forced a meeting with Agnes Waring and once more asked if there was any
news of Jack.

"Nothing yet," she answered. "A long time, isn't it?"

"Very long. . . ." He hated himself for the hypocrisy of this
conventional solicitude, when he was only impatient for authentic news
that his best friend was dead. "You'll let me know . . .?"

"Of course I will, Eric," Agnes answered. "I don't know _when_----"

Her undramatic courage, reinforced by his own sense of make-believe
sympathy, restored him to sincerity. Though he had never been in love
with Agnes--as Barbara had taught him to understand the term--he was
still fond of her.

"I wish you came to London sometimes," he said, beating his stick
against the side of his boot. "It would make a little bit of a break for
you. Will you let me give you dinner and take you to a play?"

It was the first time in eight months that he had made her any sign of
affection, and she looked at him curiously. Eric wondered whether she
imagined that he had failed elsewhere and was drifting back to her.

"Somehow I hardly feel----" she began. "Dick Benyon--you remember we
brought him over to dine with you?--wanted me to come. . . ."

"It can't do any _harm_."

"It can't do any harm, certainly. I'll talk to mother about it."

Two days later she wrote to suggest a night, and Eric felt that he had
involuntarily succeeded where young Benyon had failed; a week later he
was waiting for her in the lounge of the Carlton. Though she had
stipulated for a seven o'clock dinner so that they should be in their
places before the curtain went up, half-past seven had struck before she
hurried in with breathless apologies.

"It's all right, but I'm afraid your cocktail will be tepid," he said.
"I ordered it beforehand to save time. I suppose you couldn't get a
taxi."

"Yes." She laid her hand on his arm for support and walked with the same
breathlessness into the restaurant. "My head's in a whirl. . . . I
nearly telephoned to say I couldn't come--but I didn't see what good
that would do. Eric, I want you to straighten this out for me; Jack was
reported missing on the 27th----"

"Of August. Last year. Yes."

"Well, father had a letter from Cranborne's the army bankers, just
before I left this morning, to say that a cheque had come in--through
Holland, I think--dated October the 9th. Apparently a lot of people are
traced in that way, and Cranborne's wanted father to know as soon as
possible. They sent the cheque and asked father to look at it very
carefully and say if _he_ was satisfied that it was Jack's signature;
then they'd know what to do about it or something. . . ."

Eric looked at her unwaveringly and bade her finish her story. He tried
to tell himself that he had always expected and discounted this.

"I brought the cheque with me and had a long talk with one of the
partners. That's why I'm so late. There's no doubt about it, Eric! Mr.
Cranborne--told me--as a banker--that he was prepared to honour the
cheque--is that the phrase?--as being signed _by Jack_--_on_ that day.
What does it mean, Eric? I want you to explain it all."

A voluble waiter was gesticulating and seeking instructions about the
wine.

"Oh, open it now!" Eric exclaimed without turning round. A moment later
the champagne was creaming slowly up his glass. He drained it, coughed
once and collected himself.

"Let's first hear what Cranborne said," he suggested.

"Oh, he had all sorts of theories! That Jack had lost his memory--he
remembered his name all right--; that some one had found the cheque on
his body after the push and altered the date--a cheque for ten pounds--;
that he'd tried to escape, and those brutes had punished him by not
letting us know he was a prisoner. . . . It doesn't matter, does it,
Eric? He's _alive_! That's what I want you to say to me! He's _alive_!"

"He was alive on the ninth of October," he amended.

"Weeks after the push? Then he's alive now! _Isn't_ he, Eric? He _must_
be! I was right in believing. . . . Eric, will you think me an awful
pig, if we waste the tickets to-night? I'd so much, much sooner sit and
talk to you. It's so wonderful! It's like a man rising from the dead!
It's----"

"You must get some food inside you," he ordered prosaically. "Take your
time. Don't try to tell me all about it in one breath."

She gulped a mouthful of fish and looked up with brimming eyes.

"Oh, Eric, if you only understood what it meant. . . ." Her expression
changed to blank fear. "You do _believe_ he's still alive?"

"I do." He bent down and fumbled for the wine with a needless clatter in
the ice-pail. "Agnes, for your sake, for all your sakes, I'm very, very
glad!"


3

The next morning Eric called on Dr. Gaisford in Wimpole Street before
going to his office. His brain felt numbed, and he had to speak with
artful choice of words to prevent being tripped up by a stammer. The
doctor looked once at his drawn face and pink eye-lids, then pushed a
chair opposite his own and tidied away his papers.

"I suppose you _have_ breakfasted, by the way?" he asked.

"Well, I'm not much of a breakfast-eater," Eric answered. "You must
forgive a very early call, Gaisford; it's so hard for me to get away
during the day. Well, it's the old trouble; I'm sleeping abominably. I
took your wretched medicine, but it didn't have any effect."

"H'm. You did _not_ take my advice to go right away."

"It hasn't been practicable so far. I may go--quite soon. But I've a
certain number of things to finish off and I want to be absolutely at
my best for them." He moistened his lips and repeated "I want to be
absolutely at my best for them. I've been rather worried and I've lost
confidence in myself."

Gaisford listened to his symptoms, asked a few questions and set about
his examination. At the end he made a note in his card-index and wrote
out a prescription.

"If you're not careful," he said deliberately, as he blotted it, "you'll
have a bad break-down. Now, I never tell people to do things, when I
know they're going to disobey me; I shan't order you to California
to-day, I shan't knock you off all work. But how soon can you go?"

"Oh--a week, if I have to," Eric answered carelessly.

"Then go in a week. Your own work, your writing--can you drop that
absolutely? It's far more exhausting--anything creative--than your
office-work. And what's your minimum for your office? Don't do a stroke
more than the minimum. As regards your general mode of life . . ."

He ordained a rigid, but familiar, rule of diet, exercise and rest; and
Eric's attention began to wander. As well bid him add a cubit to his
stature! He wondered how much Gaisford suspected. . . .

He became aware, in mid-reverie, that the doctor had finished speaking.

"And I'm to take this stuff?" Eric tried to read the prescription.
"Strychnine--Is that right? Iron? Bromide? I can't make a guess at the
other things. I say, Gaisford, will this make me sleep?"

A hint of despair in his voice was not lost on the doctor.

"I hope so. It will tone up your nervous system. But it's only for a
week, mind! That's the limit of your reprieve before you go away. Don't
imagine that stimulants and sedatives take the place of natural food or
rest. Whatever--odds and ends you have to clear up must be cleared up
within the next week."

Eric nodded and held out his hand. Gaisford had understood, then. . . .
He wondered how long the medicine would take to "tone up" his nerves,
for he had written a telegram to Barbara the night before, as soon as
Agnes left him.

He walked to his office, trying to face the position more clearly than
he had been able to do in the night. Why fret and worry? Barbara's
"solemn promise" had already been broken in spirit; if she kept it in
form, she would be haunted by a new memory, the intrusive shadow would
take on a more terrific outline. There was no proof that Jack was alive
. . . but Eric believed without proof; no certainty that he would
present his claim . . . but Barbara would see nothing but certainty. Two
allegiances, two promises . . . and no one could tell which she would
choose.

Eric was walking blindly through streets which only his feet recognized.
Regency Theatre. . . . And he had been heading for Whitehall. He would
never go to the Regency again without seeing her--either a head leaning
against his knee at rehearsal as they sat on a platform over the
orchestra, or in their box, hand in hand, as on the first night of "The
Bomb-Shell," when his nerves were jangling like the broken wires of a
harp; he could never go to Mrs. Shelley's house without hearing her
singing Madame Butterfly's song--and without some fool's asking if he
had seen anything of Lady Barbara lately. . . .

A telegram was waiting for him, when at last he reached his office:
Barbara would come up that day and dine with him; she hoped that he had
received no bad news. . . . Eleven o'clock; and he would not see her
until eight. He was too restless to work and at one o'clock he handed
his papers to a colleague and slunk into the street. His foot-steps
were turned towards the Thespian Club; but he could not pass the
hall-porter without looking for a note, as on the night when he dined in
his triumph with Lord Ettrick; he could not see a page-boy without
expecting to find that Barbara had telephoned to him. . . .

Half-way across the Horse Guards' Parade, he encountered George
Oakleigh.

"Hallo! Come and have some lunch with me, if you've nothing better to
do," he said. "I haven't seen you for a long time."

"Not since we met at Barbara Neave's," answered Oakleigh. "Where is she?
I've quite lost sight of her."

"They're all down at Crawleigh," said Eric. Every one _would_ come to
him as the leading authority on Barbara's movements. "What about the
Carlton? I can usually get hold of a table."

As they entered the lounge, Eric wondered why he had chosen this of all
places. Last night's ordeal should have kept him away for ever; and the
band was playing a waltz which he had heard when Barbara dined with him
on her return from the Cap Martin. Music, especially the seductiveness
of the waltz rhythm, was bad enough at any time when one needed to keep
one's nerves unstimulated. . . .

When Oakleigh returned to the Admiralty, Eric stood aimlessly in
Trafalgar Square, wondering what to do. It was too late for a _matinée_;
and theatres were all becoming reminiscent of Barbara. He had long meant
to order a new dessert-service and was only waiting until Barbara was in
London again. Perhaps, that night, they would be saying good-bye for
ever; he could no longer tell himself stories of the life that he wanted
her to share with him. Perhaps, when she came to choose a
dessert-service, it would be with some one else; she would give to some
one else all that she had given him, all that she had been unable to
give him. . . .

He was home before he knew that he was even walking homewards and
thankful when his housekeeper came to discuss dinner. He chose a cigar
and at once put it back in the box. His hand was shaking; and, if he
once began to smoke, he would never stop. Stimulants and sedatives, he
must remember, were not the same as natural food and rest; therefore he
had drunk nothing at luncheon, therefore he would not smoke now. There
was nothing that he could do; and Barbara's train did not reach Waterloo
for another hour. . . .

His sense of time became dulled: Barbara was standing in the doorway
before he had even thought of dressing.

"My dear! I expected to find you in bed! How _dare_ you give me such a
fright? When I got your telegram this morning--oh, I'm out of breath! I
ran all the way upstairs!--you'd been saying that you felt so ill! Tell
me what it's all about. I had the most awful difficulty with father
about getting away; he couldn't make out why I always wanted to rush up
to London just when he'd got people staying down there----"

"I didn't mean to work on your emotions," said Eric, as he helped her
out of her cloak.

"Sweetheart, _whatever_ I was doing, you know I'd come from the ends of
the earth, if you were ill. But I'm afraid father'll think me a fraud.
It'll be your fault if I can't get away next week."

Eric had to think for a moment before he recalled that her birthday fell
in the following week. It was the first time that she had referred even
indirectly to it on her own initiative. He looked at her closely, but
her face revealed only high spirits and a radiant pleasure in being with
him again.

"I wanted to talk over one or two things with you," he explained, "We
shall start fairer if you don't feel you're under any obligation to
me----"

She caught hold of his hand and kissed it.

"I shall always feel that, Eric."

"Well, for to-night I want you to feel quite unembarrassed. I want to
talk to you about Jack Waring. He was reported missing last August."

Barbara's face grew suddenly grave; and, in a whisper, she supplied the
date.

"Well, his sister dined with me last n-night----"

Eric stopped as he caught himself stammering, but Barbara laid her hand
imploringly on his arm.

"Go on!" she cried. "I can stand it!"

"They don't know whether he's alive or dead." Her hands were slowly
withdrawn from her cheeks, her face regained its composure, and she
resettled herself, still breathing a little quickly, on the sofa. "They
know nothing," he went on slowly. "But there's reason to suppose that he
wasn't killed at the time when he was reported missing. There's reason
to suppose that he was alive at the beginning of October."

Still standing with his shoulders leaning against the mantel-piece, Eric
told her slowly and colourlessly of the belated cheque. At the end she
sat watching him in silence. She too, surely, was trying to convince
herself that this was what she had always expected. . . .

"That's all I know. That's all his people know," he added.

"But October. . . . June. . . . Why hasn't he written?"

"You're assuming he's alive. We don't know. He may have been badly
wounded, he may have died of wounds----"

"But if he was well enough to write a cheque?"

"I don't pretend to explain it. His sister threshed it all out at the
bank yesterday; she and I threshed it all out again last night. And
we're none the wiser--except that on the ninth of October he drew, dated
and signed a cheque. I think that's certain. There's no doubt about the
signature, and no one would trouble to forge a cheque for ten pounds. . . .
I always promised to let you know as soon as I had any news, Babs."

She nodded and pressed her knuckles into her eyes.

"October to June . . . instead of August to June," she murmured at
length. "And not a word of any kind. What do his people . . .?"

"He'll now be published as 'Previously reported missing, now reported to
be missing and a prisoner.' _They_ don't know what to think any more
than we do."

She sighed and then looked up to him with a grateful smile.

"Thank you for telling me, Eric."

He turned away and moistened his lips.

"You mustn't forget that it affects my own position," he warned her.

The smile faded from her face, and she looked at him with startled eyes.


4

It was a silent dinner, for Eric was exhausted and Barbara was thinking
deeply. Nearly a year ago, when Jack was first missing, she seemed to
have lived through all these emotions, to have been tossed backwards and
forwards in her dreams like a plaything of the gods at sport. For twelve
months she had been sick with longing to know whether he still wanted
her; and, when the gods had tortured her to madness, they let her think
that the cruel game was over. She dreamed again of happiness, seeing
herself as a child; another child, the very symbol of love and
forgiveness, came to bring her peace, and they played together in the
sun-drenched loveliness of a dream. Then the gods flung a shadow before
her feet. In dream after dream her child-lover begged her to stay, but
the shadow parted them and urged her forward. In time she realized that
it was Jack's shadow. . . .

Never were dreams more vivid. She knew each note of her lover's voice as
he begged her to stay and let him make her happy; and night after night
she awoke to find herself stifling in the embrace of the shadow. Every
one thought that she was dying; she herself knew that she was being
driven mad; and, when the gods saw that she could bear no more, they
filled the world with a blaze of light which banished dream and shadow.

"I hoped God had forgotten me," she whispered. "I've been happy too
long. What am I to do, Eric?"

"You must follow your inclination."

She sighed and looked away into the shadows beyond the table.

"My inclination's always to do what you want. . . . I'm glad for both
our sakes that this came when it did. I couldn't have made you happy
while I was uncertain. . . ."

"And, if the war ended to-morrow and Jack came back safe and sound next
week, what then?"

"It depends on him. I gave him my solemn promise, when I was trying to
make reparation."

"And I don't count at all. After all our love, you could forget me----"

"I could never forget you, sweetheart."

"But--you're willing to _try_?"

"What else can I do? Oh, what a muddle I've made of our lives!"

Eric had determined to be patient and restrained; but his voice,
uncontrolled and scornful, seemed to come from a distance.

"Will you make it any better by keeping faith with Jack and breaking it
with me? You'll be unhappy all your life, you'll never forgive yourself,
you'll never forget the wrong you've done me, if you marry any one
else!"

Barbara's eyes filled with fear.

"You speak as if you were putting a curse on me!"

"I don't believe in curses or blessings or luck or your other
superstitions. I'm warning you--and I'll add this. You once undertook my
education, but I think I can teach you one thing, one thing about love:
it has to be whole-hearted. . . ."

He flung away and stood with his arm on the mantel-piece, fumbling the
lock of a cigar-cabinet with clumsy fingers. Barbara made no sound, and
after some moments he stole a look at her.

"I know," she answered quietly.

"Well----" He hesitated and then took his plunge. "You've got to decide,
Babs."

"You must wait till we've heard something definite."

"No! If we heard to-morrow, to-night, in five minutes' time, it would
make no difference. I want the whole of your love, I want to stand
first." He waited, but she said nothing. "You've very often told me how
much you loved me," he went on, ironical at her silence. "You've told me
how you need me, how grateful you are to me, how much you want to make
me happy----"

He had dropped into unconscious parody, and its technical excellence set
her writhing.

"_Don't_, Eric! _Please!_"

"You must decide, Babs."

"_No!_"

She buried her face in her hands and sobbed so wildly that he expected
at any moment to see his maid's head at the door. For a while he was
stoically unmoved; then the crying gave him a pain at the heart, and he
stepped forward, only to pull up before he threw away his victory.

"Eric, _don't_," she cried, as soon as she had mastery of her voice.

"You must decide," he repeated.

"And if I say 'no'?"

"I've said you were under no obligation to me."

"But--you'll turn me away? If I came to you to-morrow and said I'd
changed my mind----"

"It would be too late."

She steadied herself and turned round, bending for her gloves and then
drawing herself upright to face him.

"I . . . can't . . . now, Eric. . . . Is it still raining? If it is, I'd
better have a taxi."

"I'll see if I can get you one."

He had seen this gesture before; and Barbara had followed it with a
stream of notes and messages; begging him to come back. Eric walked
slowly into the street, giving her generous time for consideration. A
taxi stood idle at the top of St. James' Street; and, when he returned
with it, she was in the hall, white-faced but collected, turning over
the pages of a review.

"Good-bye, Eric," she said quietly. "I'm afraid I've only brought you
unhappiness. And my love doesn't seem much use to any one. . . . Don't
bother to come down with me."

He went into the smoking-room and dropped limply onto a sofa, waiting
for the telephone to ring, waiting for her to confess defeat. A hideous
evening--almost as bad as that night before Christmas. His cheeks were
burning, and his head ached savagely. Suddenly his theatrical composure
and stoicism left him; his body trembled, and he was amazed to feel
tears coursing down his cheeks. This, then--he was quite detached about
it--was the nervous break-down which Gaisford had prophesied. He had
not cried for twenty years . . . and now he could not stop. His heart
seemed to have broken loose and to be hammering in space, like the
engine of a disabled clock-work toy.

It was still absurdly early, for their scene had taken place among the
nut-shells and coffee-cups of dinner. There was time for her to come
back, to telephone; she knew by harrowing experience what a parting like
this meant. And, while he waited, he must do something! Perhaps she
would not break silence till the morning. He would see that she did not
wait longer than that. . . .

"_Darling Babs_," he began. A hot tear splashed on to the paper, and he
reached for a fresh sheet. "_Darling Babs, It was your choice. I pray
God that you will find greater happiness elsewhere._ . . ."

He strung sentence to sentence, not knowing what he wrote. Was it not
weakness that he should be writing the first letter? But Barbara was
probably writing to him at this moment, writing or asking for his
number. . . . The night lift-man was bribed to post the letter, because
Eric dared not leave the telephone. He sat by it trembling as though
with fever, while eleven o'clock struck . . . and midnight . . . and one
. . . and three . . . and five. . . .

In the morning he was called at his usual time--to sink back on to the
bed almost before he had risen from it. While he waited for his
secretary, he telephoned to ask a colleague to shoulder double work for
the day and began to think wearily what other engagements he must break.
In an interlude of their over-night discussion Barbara had asked him to
lunch with her. . . .

With a strangely uncontrolled hand he wrote--"_I'm afraid I can't
remember what I said in my letter last night. I was feeling too much
upset. Didn't you ask me to lunch with you to-day? I'm afraid I'm
feeling so ill that I've had to stay in bed._ . . ."

When his secretary arrived, he sent her to Berkeley Square with the
note. While she was gone, his parlour-maid came in with a swaying mass
of White Enchantress carnations and a pencilled note. "_May God make you
happier than I've been able to do!_"

Eric tried to divert his thoughts from the note by giving elaborate
instructions about the flowers and his meals for the day. Before he had
done, his secretary returned, and he was still dictating when a sound in
the hall froze his voice and set his heart thumping.

"I hear Mr. Lane's not well. Do you think he could see me for a moment?"

"I'll enquire, my lady."

As Barbara came into the room, Eric saw that her face was grey with
suffering and that she seemed hardly able to keep her heavy lids open.

"Eric, what's the matter?" she asked, coming to his bedside.

In trying to speak softly her voice, already hoarse, disappeared
altogether and she rubbed her throat wonderingly.

"What's the matter with us both?" he asked weakly. "Babs . . ." His
voice broke. "You look like death!"

Before she turned her face, he could see that she was biting her lip.

"Hush, darling child! I'm only tired; I didn't sleep very well. I kept
on remembering that I'd lost some one I loved better than any one in the
world," she cried tremulously.

He raised himself on his pillows, stretching out hands that twitched.

"You _haven't_, Babs! If you want me----"

"Not at that price, darling. If my love for you were everything--there's
something else. I don't know what it is. . . . But I've not come to
upset you again. Last night I told you that I'd come to you from the
ends of the world, if you were ill. Tell me what's the matter, Eric."

She pulled a chair to the bed and gave him her hand, which he covered
with kisses.

"I'm broken up! I'm sorry; you can despise me, if you like," he cried.
"I can't afford to lose you, Babs: I love you too much."

The tears were standing in his eyes, and the sight steadied her.
Pillowing his head on her breast, she ran her fingers through his hair,
caressing and soothing him like a child.

"_I've_ done this. . . . You must forgive me, Eric," she whispered. "I
didn't see what I was doing; until quite lately I didn't see that you
cared for me at all--not to matter, I mean--you were always sweet to me,
of course. If I'd known how I was hurting you . . . Won't you wait,
Eric? I must let you go now, if you insist; I'm nerved up to it. . . .
But is it worth it?"

Eric thought over the change that had come upon them since Christmas.

"No. I can't afford it," he answered wearily.

She bent down and kissed his forehead. Was the kiss rather mechanical?
Eric lay with his eyes shut, trying to analyze the double change. Was a
nervous break-down always like this? Barbara was stroking his head
gently; she had kissed him compassionately, lovingly, but he had fancied
a change in her, as though she, too, realized the completeness of his
subjugation.

"See if you can't sleep, Eric," she whispered, as he opened twitching
lids to take stock of her.

Pity, or some kind of maternal love, then, survived his defeat. . . .

       *       *       *       *       *

    "_Average man is a match for average woman, eighteen chances to
    eighteen, but zero always turns up in woman's favour. Man, being a
    philosopher and far less interested in woman (who is an incident)
    than woman is interested in him (who is her life), would cheerfully
    go on playing with the odds always slightly against him, if he had a
    clear idea of the value and significance of zero. But zero is woman
    inexplicable--something fantastically loyal or shiveringly
    perfidious, savagely cruel or quixotically self-sacrificing,
    something that is primitive, non-moral and resolved to win at all
    costs. In the sex-gamble, zero is more than a thirty-six to one
    chance; it is Poushkin's DAME DE PIQUE and turns up thirty-six times
    to one. And man shews his indifference or his greatness of soul by
    continuing to play, by rising imperturbably triumphant over zero. . . .
    Or perhaps he shews that he is an eternal sex-amateur._ . . ."--From
    the Diary of Eric Lane.



CHAPTER SEVEN

EDUCATION FOR THOSE OF RIPER YEARS

    "Verily when an author can approve his wife she was deserving of a
    better fate."
            LEONARD MERRICK: "WHEN LOVE FLIES OUT O' THE WINDOW."


1

"After diagnosis," said Dr. Gaisford, "the prudent physician bases
treatment on self-interest. You're not fit to travel by yourself yet,
Eric; when I've patched you up, I shall send you away. If you don't go,
you'll never do any decent work again."

Having persuaded his patient to stay in bed for a week, the doctor
looked in nightly "for five minutes" and stayed sixty-five, smoking
three disreputable pipes instead of one and generalizing on life and
health.

"It gives me a headache even to think of work," said Eric, his brain
half-paralyzed with bromide.

Perhaps it was the bromide, perhaps it was his nervous and bodily
exhaustion; the most frightening part of this latest illness was the
attendant utter incapacity to make up his mind. When Barbara left him
for Crawleigh Abbey, he had resigned from his department and withdrawn
the resignation, accepted an invitation to lecture in America--and
cancelled the acceptance; every night he led Gaisford through the same
argumentative maze; complete rest, partial rest in London or the
country, flight from England and all association with Barbara, full
work--as soon as he could resume it--to keep him from brooding about
her; he could not decide. And from time to time a mocking refrain told
him that as an undergraduate and again in the first flush of fame he had
aspired to be the new young Byron, dominating London. . . .

"Poisoned rat in a hole," he whispered to himself. . . .

Gaisford would sit with his arms crossed over the back of a chair and
his feet twisted round its legs, puffing thoughtfully at his pipe and
frowning at his boots. In a long experience of practice among rich and
self-conscious patients who would always rather be "interesting" than
normal, it was not the first time that he had watched the bloom being
rubbed off love; nine broken engagements and balked romances were born
of doltish delay; but a mass of sensibility like Eric Lane had not the
stamina to wait nor the placidity to go away and forget.

"You told me you had a novel on the stocks," said Gaisford. "I suppose
you wouldn't let me see it?"

The first draft of the book was already in type, and, though Eric hated
his work to be seen before he had set the last polish on it, the new
indecision and weakness of will allowed him to be overpersuaded.
Gaisford brought back the manuscript at the end of three days and talked
of neurotic impressionism and the methods of literary jerry-builders.

"I hope you're not writing yourself out," he added.

Eric was frightened for the first time since the "Divorce" placed him
beyond the reach of want. So many men seemed capable of one play or
novel--and then no more.

"One can't always be at concert-pitch," he sighed.

"Then you mustn't go on to the platform till you are."

"It's easy to see you've never been a journalist! The agony, the
violence to soul, when you _have_ to come up to scratch, when your copy
_has_ to be delivered by a certain hour! Writing without time to revise
or even to read what you've already written--the compositors setting up
the beginning of an article while you're still writing the middle. . . .
And the public pays its twopence and expects us to be always at our
best!"

"Well, the public pays me its two guineas and expects _me_ to be always
at _my_ best," grunted the doctor. "If I'm off colour, I take things
quietly. Otherwise I should defraud the public and ruin my practice at
the same time. You must take things quietly until you're fit to work
again."

After he had gone, Eric tried to make up his mind what to do. His
thoughts ran uncontrolled to painters whose sight had become impaired
and composers who had lost their hearing. If _he_ had done violence to
the indefinable blend of gift and acquisition which separated the man
who could write from those who could not . . . This was a thing to be
tested. The scenario of "The Singing-Bird" was ready; he had only been
waiting because there was no hurry for another play. There was now every
hurry to establish whether he could write a play. If Manders turned up
his nose, it would be time indeed for a holiday.

For three months Eric buried himself in his flat, only emerging at the
week-end. Lashmar Mill-House gave him proximity to Agnes Waring; and
every week he made an excuse to walk over to Red Roofs and ask for
tidings of Jack. The news that he was alive seemed better than the
suspense of no news; but the tyranny of love was strange when a man
could pray for the death of a friend. The Warings' atmosphere of
dignified expectancy rebuked him; they made no more pother than if a
single letter had gone astray. The colonel motored daily into Winchester
and sat on his tribunal; Mrs. Waring presided over her bandaging
classes, and Agnes looked after the house. There was no fretting at Red
Roofs; the errant letter would come to hand--or it would not; the
Warings were a military family. Sharing their suspense for the first
time, Eric marvelled at their composure. His own heart quickened its
beat whenever he asked with false solicitude whether Agnes had tried to
get news through the American or Spanish Embassy, the Prisoners-of-War
Clearing-House in Copenhagen or the Vatican. Peace of mind returned a
step nearer each time that she shook her head and murmured, "Yes, we
tried that. It was no good, though." Then his growing security was
checked by a gripe of conscience; he felt like a murderer who stole
furtively into the woods by night to see whether prowling animal or
pursuing man had disturbed the grave. Well, at least another week had
passed. . . . But in a week's time he must undergo the suspense again.
Agnes might come to him, radiant as on that night when she dined with
him, crying "Eric! You remember that cheque? Well, we heard to-day. . . ."

Extravagant tension and violent relief destroyed the serenity required
for good work; but Eric was not dissatisfied with the progress of his
play. Ease and command had grown reassuringly; his psychology was surer,
perhaps because his own psychological experience had been so much
enriched; and his dialogue, losing nothing of its neatness and economy,
had taken on an added verisimilitude. It was too early to judge
dispassionately; but, as Eric made his last corrections and sent a copy
of the script to Manders, he felt a warmer glow of confidence than
either of his first plays had inspired.

It was the end of October before he had finished. The strain of work had
buoyed him up, but it was succeeded by a debilitating reaction, which
impelled him with guilty reluctance to Wimpole Street.

"I'm glad you don't even pretend that you've been following my advice,"
said the doctor with a hint of impatience, as he brought his examination
to an end.

"You know, Gaisford, it's not the least use telling me to do nothing,"
Eric answered jauntily. "I'm not built that way."

"So I've heard before--from others as well. And the others have found
themselves packed off to nursing-homes, which, my dear Eric, are very
tedious institutions. Are you going abroad now?"

"Not at the moment."

"What _are_ you going to do?"

"I'm going back to my office, if I'm still wanted."

Gaisford shrugged his shoulders ruefully.

"You know, Eric, it's a waste of my time and of your money for you to
come to me for advice. You've definitely gone back since I saw you in
the summer."

"I've been working very hard; but I'm rather pleased with the results."

"I hope it's nothing like that novel you shewed me," said the doctor
gloomily.

"I'll send you the script when I get it back from Manders," Eric
promised with a laugh.


2

On his return to official work, Eric found that he could not concentrate
his attention on anything until he knew what Manders thought of "The
Singing-Bird"; sometimes he wondered whether he could ever concentrate
until Barbara had brought his suspense to an end. For three months they
had not met or corresponded.

"Dr. Gaisford says I simply make you worse," she told him. "I mustn't
add that to my other sins. If you want me, I'm there; but I shan't write
to you, and you mustn't write to me. I shall miss you horribly, but your
health's more important than my happiness. We're coming back to London
in the autumn."

A week before her return, the whole Mill-House party motored over to Red
Roofs to dine with the Warings. It was an old promise, and Eric was glad
to avail himself of it to break the continuity of his stilted Sunday
calls. As he dressed, a note was brought him from Colonel Waring, and he
read with some surprise:

    "_I trust you are not going to fail us to-night. There is a matter
    on which I want your advice and, perhaps, your help._"

Eric tore the note into small pieces and went on with his dressing, only
frowning at his own want of control when he found his hand shaking until
he could hardly part his hair. There was only one subject on which
anybody at Red Roofs could want to consult him; from the fact that
Colonel Waring wrote--and wrote to him--some official action was
pending; otherwise Agnes would have whispered a word to him before
dinner. They had received news that Jack was alive . . . or dead . . .
or they had thought of a new means of getting in touch with him. . . .

Eric kept his surprise to himself and drove silently through two miles
of thicket and clearing to the south end of Lashmar Wood. Beyond a
cordial hand-shake and the smiling statement that he was glad to see
him, Colonel Waring vouchsafed no explanation of his letter. Eric looked
keenly at Agnes and her mother, but their faces and manner betrayed
neither elation nor . . . What else could they betray? he wondered
sinkingly. If Jack were dead, the dinner-party would have been
postponed. They still hoped for him, but their hopes were not hardy
enough to be exposed.

When the men were alone after dinner, Eric's heart missed a beat and he
gripped the arms of his chair. The colonel, after fidgeting with a
decanter and tidying away the remains of two different conversations,
carried his glass to Eric's end of the table and sat beside him, asking
with a smile whether his note had been delivered in time.

"This is between ourselves," he began, leaning back with his legs
stretched out and frowning at the blue flame of a grenade-shaped
cigar-lighter. "We've had news of a kind about Jack." He raised his hand
as Eric tried to speak. "No, my dear boy, that's just what we want to
avoid! Don't congratulate us--_yet_. You see, we've been through the
racket once. . . ."

"You don't know for certain, then?" Eric asked and wondered whether he
was imagining a tremor in his voice.

"No. Let me see, Agnes told you all about the cheque, didn't she? He was
missing in August last year, and the cheque was drawn in October. We now
know that he was alive in December. It appears . . ."

Eric did not hear the next few sentences. Stoically, yet with an
underlying measured jubilance, the old colonel was dragging Jack to
security from the presumption of death two months at a time. Alive in
October, alive in December! Thirteen months ago, eleven months ago. Some
one would have heard of him in February or seen him in April! He was
catching up hand over fist. And one day he would land in England, you
would meet him in the street without warning; as you dawdled through
Berkeley Square, you might see him standing on the door-step of Lord
Crawleigh's house.

"I don't for one moment suppose that this is the only case." Colonel
Waring was commenting.

Eric looked up with an intelligent nod, wondering what he had been told.
Waring, always soldierly and dapper, with a neat care of person which he
had handed on to his children, seemed years fresher and younger
to-night; the liverish tinge of yellow which settled on his face in
cold weather had wholly departed.

"Would you mind giving me the dates again?" said Eric.

"Missing in August; the cheque in October; the row in December. This
fellow Britwell" (Eric wished that he had listened to find out who was
Britwell) "was taken prisoner at the same time, and they were in the
same prisoner's camp. Britwell couldn't say how badly Jack was wounded,
because he'd been in hospital himself until the day before the row came.
Jack, according to the story, was hauled up for calling one of the
guards a 'Schweinhund.' (You know Jack well enough to say if he'd be
likely to fling about abuse of that kind without provocation). His only
defence was that the guard had told him--in German--to do something, and
almost the only German he knew was that word, because they'd shouted it
at him when they found him half-unconscious in his trench and kicked him
back behind the lines, and the women and children had screamed it at
him, in the intervals of spitting in his face at all the stations. And
it was the one word that all the camp guards used to every British
prisoner. Well, he may have been given the opportunity of apologizing or
he may not; if so, he refused it, and the last thing Britwell heard was
that he'd been packed off to solitary confinement in a fortress for nine
months. December '15 . . . to September or October this year. That
explains the cheque, but it doesn't explain why he hasn't written. . . .
Of course, he hasn't had much time. . . ."

The stoicism in Waring's composed face became eclipsed for a moment. The
boy might have died of his wounds or of ill-treatment; he might have
offended a second time and been a second time imprisoned without power
to communicate with his friends; he might have been transferred to
another camp with an unrelaxing ban on all his letters lest he tried to
describe the barbarism of which he had been made a victim. . . .

"I've got that straight so far," said Eric slowly, "Now tell me what I
can do."

If the worst came to the worst, he would at least try to surrender his
claim on Barbara with a good grace.

"Well, it's the old business: we want news," said Waring. "I tried the
War Office as soon as I heard from Britwell, which was a week ago; he's
been transferred to Switzerland as one of the badly wounded cases. You
know what the War Office is; I may be fed with printed forms for months.
. . . Do you know anybody there who can take up the thing personally?"

"If I don't know any one, I can soon _get_ to know the right man."

"We shall be very grateful. Meanwhile don't talk about it--to anybody."

Eric refrained from giving a promise, for he knew that he would have to
tell Barbara the following week. Within three hours of his return to
London he had set half-a-dozen telephone wires humming, and, before
leaving his department, the newly-found freemasonry of the public
service had supplied him with all available information. Officially,
Captain Waring was "missing;" but his name had not been reported from
any German source; unofficially, the War Office had a copy of Major
Britwell's letter to Colonel Waring. Nothing more was known. On the
other hand, a great deal of new information was pouring in since the
convention for the exchange of wounded prisoners. If Captain Waring were
incapacitated and if the official German conscience were not too uneasy,
he might have the luck to be transferred to Switzerland at any moment.

Eric sent a report to Colonel Waring and wrote to Barbara that night for
the first time in three months. "_I want you to know as soon as possible
that Jack was alive last December. That's eleven months ago, and he may
be alive still; the family simply doesn't know. I'll tell you the full
story when we meet._"

In thanking him, she suggested a night for dining together on her
return; and Eric spent three days that were as restless and
insupportable as the three hours before a first night. It would hurt
intolerably if she behaved as a stranger, when they met; almost as
intolerably if she threw herself into his arms--and forced him to
remember what he was threatened with losing.

On the evening before they were to meet, the telephone rang, and
Manders' voice, brisk and cheerful, enquired if Eric was likely to be at
the Thespian Club that night.

"I wanted to talk about this play of yours," he explained. "Well, can
you lunch to-morrow, say, half-past one?"

"Yes. I should like to. What do you think of it, Manders?"

There was a pause.

"It's too long to discuss now."

"You can just say whether you like it or not."

"I'll tell you all about it to-morrow. Cheerio, boy."

Eric was irritated by Manders' uncommunicativeness. The fellow could at
least have said, "First rate!" or "The best thing you've done." "Too
long to discuss now" meant hours of captiousness and months of heroic
surgery. And with his late loss of assurance Eric could not say with
confidence that it _was_ the best thing he had done. . . .


3

When he reached the club next day, Eric found that Manders had arrived
before him and was ordering luncheon for both.

"D'you like the '06 Ruinart, or is it too dry for you?" he asked.

"Nothing's too dry for me," Eric answered, "but I decline to drink
champagne at lunch. I've work to do this afternoon."

His host smiled persuasively and continued to write his bill.

"It'll do you good, boy. Buck you up. Well, how are you? The last time I
was here, some old buffer told me you'd been seedy, but that was right
away back in the summer. What was the matter?"

"I was only a bit run down," Eric answered. "What did you think of the
play?"

Manders gave his bill to a waiter and planted his elbows on the table,
pressing his finger-tips together.

"Well, I read it very carefully," he began. "By the way, before I forget
it, 'The Bomb-Shell's' doing very well on tour."

Eric chewed his lips impatiently. He would gladly hear about "The
Bomb-Shell" later, but he now wanted to pin Manders to a criticism of
"The Singing Bird."

"Well, let's keep the wolf from the door as long as we can."

The subject dismissed, he looked up expectantly and found Manders wholly
absorbed with his oysters, rejecting red pepper for black, shaking a
cautious drop of tabasco vinegar on each, adding a dash of lemon-juice
and, when all else was ready, sipping his champagne with preliminary
caution. The play would have to be cut about, then; perhaps the
actor-manager was disappointed with his own part. . . .

"Well, let's hear all about it," Manders began heartily. "When did you
find time to write it? After you'd got 'The Bomb-Shell' out of the way?"

"Not immediately. I knocked off all my other work and concentrated on
this thing day and night for three months."

"Three months? You're a quick worker. You know, boy, that would have
been a better play if you'd given more time to it."

Manders slipped three oysters into his mouth in rapid succession, and
Eric smiled with indulgent patience. One hard-dying school of critics
always made quick work a synonym for hasty work.

"I managed to crowd about three years into the three months."

"Ah, that means you're writing with your nerves! Now, if I were you, I'd
put the thing aside for six months, clear it out of your head; then,
when you come to it with a fresh mind----"

"You don't like it?" Eric interrupted. "Why not?"

"I don't like it in its present form. I don't suppose you want a
line-by-line criticism. . . . If you look at it in six months' time,
you'll see my objection for yourself."

Eric raised his glass mechanically and was vaguely surprised to find
himself drinking champagne. Then he remembered that champagne had been
ordered to "buck" him "up"; he remembered, too, Manders' solicitude for
his health, the enquiries when the play had been written and how long he
had taken to write it, the evasion and silence the night before on the
telephone and again at the beginning of luncheon, when he tried to
extract a frank opinion. . . . Manders, then, was rejecting the play . . .
and trying to be considerate. . . .

"We don't mince matters at rehearsal," he said with a breathless laugh.
"You think the play's hopeless?"

Manders looked relieved, but he had known so many disappointments
himself and seen others so often crushed by them that his brown, monkey
eyes were full of pity.

"It's no use at all. In its present form or any other. If it had been
any one but you, I wouldn't have read two pages of it. You may as well
take the whole of your physic, boy; you've got to stop writing for the
present, you've lost your sense of the theatre, you're forgetting all
the tricks you ever learned. D'you know, when I read that thing, I
thought for a moment that you were trying to palm off some old thing
that you'd written when you were an undergrad?"

For a moment Eric lost his sense of distance; the long coffee-room was
full of shouting and discordant laughter; a waiter, who seemed quite
near, asked in a remote voice whether he might take the black pepper. . . .
Eric gripped the edge of the table, praying that he might not
disgrace himself.

"I wonder--_why_," he murmured faintly.

Manders shrugged his shoulders and filled both glasses encouragingly.

"It often happens. Graham Lever had three plays running in London at the
same time; then he chucked romantic comedy and tried to write a
revolt-of-the-younger-generation problem play. . . ." Manders omitted to
add that Lever had never had another play staged, but Eric's ten years
of dramatic criticism enabled him to fill the gap. "George Sharpe failed
again and again for eight years; he had one success and then failed for
three. It would be hard to think of a man who never loses his touch.
Partly it's the author and partly it's the audience; they get tired . . .
and, when one kind of play succeeds, all the other men unconsciously
imitate, and the managers can only see money in that one kind, so that
the public gets sated. With you . . ." He paused to tear his bread into
lumps and throw it into his soup. "You probably want some fresh air.
You've been living in the theatre too much, you've forgotten what real
people are like. If you brought that play down and read it to the
company----"

His aposiopesis suggested that there would be uproar and danger to life.

"What had I better do?" Eric asked weakly.

"Frankly? Well, scrap your 'Singing Bird' and throw your pen behind the
fire. Don't try to write for six months. After that, anything you like
to send me . . . I hope you can eat this, by the way?"

Eric found that a sole, half-hidden by mussels, had been placed before
him. Manders had taken trouble about the luncheon; he was a good fellow
and had tried to soften the blow; throughout the time that they had
worked together he had been patient and very human; he was trying to
part now on a pleasant note. "Anything you like to send me . . ." It
would certainly be read; for a time he would read it himself--the next
three failures, say. And then . . . Eric wondered whether he would be
able to go back to journalism. The two successful plays would keep him
from starving, but he must make a livelihood again . . . and count every
shilling before he spent it. The flat must go. . . .

The long triumphal progress which he had enjoyed and disdained rose up
in accusing mockery. Here, then, was the end of that life-long dream of
domination. For a time Lady Poynter would invite him to her house and
ask when the next play was coming out, but her nature and the
requirements of her sham-intellectual life demanded that she should drop
him when he no longer had any tricks to display. Young Forbes Standish
or Carlton Haig--"most promising young playwrights"--would take his
place. Perhaps some one like George Oakleigh, who liked him personally,
would ask what had become of him; and Lady Poynter would answer easily:
"I haven't seen him for a long time. I must find out whether he's in
London and get him to lunch one day." And then young Forbes Standish
would begin to criticize "The Bomb-Shell" or the "Divorce" with bland
patronage. And every one at the Thespian would be tactful and
considerate.

"I feel as if I should never be able to write anything again," Eric
sighed. "This is the second--facer I've had. There was a novel I
started. . . . I'm used up, Manders."

"Take a holiday and don't talk rot!"

Conversation languished through the rest of the meal, and Eric hurried
back to his office, pretending that he could not spare time for coffee
or a liqueur. It was an office which he had once hated, because it
absorbed time and strength which he needed for his own work; he had
treated it cavalierly, from time to time writing letters of resignation
and throwing them into a drawer. As he settled to the familiar table in
the crowded, ill-lit room, he wondered whether he would be of the lucky
number for whom the Government service would find openings at the end of
the war. He had yet to prove that he could earn a living again as a
journalist; and efficiency mattered little in a civil servant, for, if
his work were good, some one else would get the credit, and, if it were
bad, it would be undiscovered. . . .

A drawling voice from the War Office broke in upon his musings. Had not
Mr. Lane been making enquiries about a Captain Waring? His name was on
the next list of prisoners to be transferred to Switzerland; his
relations would be informed officially.

Eric telephoned at once to Colonel Waring and Barbara. As he dressed for
dinner, Agnes arrived in a laden car with both her parents, clamorous
for help in securing passports. They were staying at the Charing Cross
Hotel with their boxes packed, waiting for further news, and the
radiance in their eyes scorched him. Barbara had received the news
almost without comment; he wondered what manner she would shew him;
perhaps this was the last time that they would ever meet. . . .

"I'm not _sure_ that her ladyship's dressed yet. . . . If you wouldn't
mind waiting, sir. . . . I _have_ taken the paper into her ladyship's
room. . . . I hope you've been keeping well, sir. . . .?"

Eric started in physical pain at the familiar friendliness of the old
butler. The little confidences, introduced with a deprecatory cough,
floated down from a height one stair above him. Barbara's room, as ever,
was in chaos; her kitten, roused by his entrance, stretched herself and
arched her back. Then the other door opened, and Barbara hurried in. Her
arms were soft and cool as ever against his cheeks, and he caught a
well-remembered breath of carnations as her head bent low on to his
breast. He held her close; but his pressure suddenly relaxed, and he
stepped back.

"Don't you like kissing me any more?" she asked. "I've been hungry for
you all these months!"

"I was thinking what it would be like if you suddenly took yourself out
of my life," said Eric.

"Darling, why must you spoil the present by dragging in the future?"

"I can't think of anything else."

Barbara took his arm and led him to a chair.

"I wish you didn't look so frightfully ill," she whispered. "Have you
been missing me? My dear, what a mess I seem to have made of our lives!
Sit down! Let me take care of you! Let me do what I can for you,
darling! It isn't much!"

"I don't think I'd better stay, Babs," said Eric with nervous
indecision. "I'm bad company; I shall only get on your nerves and upset
you."

The girl shook her head sadly.

"I'm not so happy that there's much to spoil. Eric, I sometimes think
you don't quite understand. I'm not miserable because I want Jack and
can't get him. I don't know whether I want him or not; that's what
makes the suspense such a hell. . . . There was a time when I wasn't
sure whether I was in love with him or not. . . . He was stronger that I
was, he could have done anything with me. If I hadn't felt his power, I
should have paid no attention to him, he couldn't have hurt me, I
shouldn't have wanted to punish him. Is that love? I suppose it's one
form. . . . When I see him . . . if he says he wants me . . . I don't
know what I shall feel like. Love . . . ordinary love. . . . There's
never been anything to equal my love for you. . . . So it hasn't been
easy for me, has it? Ever since I met you, I've pined to know what _was_
going to happen to me."

Eric looked away and was silent for several moments. She had made a
romance of her oath to Jack and had played dramatically with alternate
ecstasy and despair, seeing herself as a woman cursed by God. She made a
romance of her twin loves and dual obligations, seeing herself as a
woman fated to blight all who loved her. She lived for "situations" and
conflicts, experimenting in emotion; already a garment of romance had
been woven round Jack.

"I came to tell you that I'd seen the Warings to-day," Eric said at
length. "They're off to Switzerland as soon as they can get their
passports. If you'd care . . . I mean, I can write a letter from my
office and enclose anything; it wouldn't be censored then."

Barbara bent her head until her trembling lips were hidden from him.

"It's like you to think of that! Nobody's ever loved any one as you love
me! But I won't, Eric. If _he_ wants me . . ."

Eric stared at the fire, kicking one heel against the other toe. If she
was in agony of spirit, he could have sworn that she was enjoying the
agony.

"Yes, I love you more than any one else ever has. . . . It gives you
enormous gratification. . . . But I wonder if you think it's anything
more than your own cleverness. I suppose you have some love for me. . . .
But, if he wants you, I shall drop out of your life. . . . I was
happy, I didn't need you! You wrapped yourself round my life until you
saw that I couldn't do without you, and then--_if--he--wants you_! What
have you left for me?"

"Is it nothing to have brought me happiness?" she asked; but his
deep-toned reproach, unrehearsed, unstudied and faltering, had broken
through her surface emotions and shattered her self-absorption. "Eric,
I'm not every one! Your work----"

"D'you think I can ever write again? You never _did_ think much of
anything I wrote----"

"You know that I was only teasing you! That first night, when you were
so dreadfully pleased with yourself. . . . But I found you _were_ human,
after all, when I came home with you----"

"And broke 'the child's toy.'"

"Ah, why did you remind me of that?"

"I was reminded of it myself to-day. I'm not superstitious, but my luck
_has_ gone. I can't write any more."

"Eric, that's not true!"

He compressed his lips and shrugged his shoulders, resignedly.

"You know best, no doubt. Since we met, I've written the first draft of
a novel, which is unreadable, and a play. . . . I sent the play to
Manders about a fortnight ago."

"Without telling me? Don't you like sharing things with me any longer?"

The soft reproach in her voice maddened him. She seemed incapable of
seeing that she wanted the whole of him at a time when she was herself
momentarily drawing away.

"You choose a curious time to ask that question! There's nothing to
share. It's turned down, rejected. Nothing I can do to it will make it
even possible. I can't write any more, I'm used up. . . . Yes, we may
fairly say that my luck has gone. And that night, you may remember, you
recommended me to fall in love, because it would be so good for me. . . ."


4

Since the exchange of incapacitated prisoners began, there had been so
many delays and disappointments that the Warings remained in London,
with what patience they could muster, until they received news that
Jack's party was proceeding to Château d'Oex.

For reasons which he was at a loss to define Eric saw them off at
Charing Cross. They found time amid their jubilation to be grateful to
him for his trouble in making enquiries at the War Office and in
expediting the issue of their passports. As chairman of his local
military tribunal, the colonel could not be absent from England for any
long time on end, but they were proposing tentatively and subject to
Jack's condition of health to take a villa and to stay with him by
turns. Agnes and her father expected to come back after a week or ten
days, leaving Mrs. Waring in charge until Christmas.

As they chatted artificially by the carriage door, there was radiance in
the faces of all three; the colonel seemed more upright, Mrs. Waring had
shed her set, stoical calm and, with it, about ten years.

"You won't forget to write, Agnes," said Eric, as the guard bustled
along the platform, breaking up the little groups like a sheep-dog.

"It may be only a line, but I'll tell you everything when we get back,"
she promised.

A week passed before her letter reached him.

"_We got here after the most impossible journey_," Agnes wrote from
Château d'Oex, "_and Jack came to us yesterday. You can't imagine what
it was like, seeing him again when we'd NEARLY given up hope! He's very
bad--but I suppose I'd better start at the beginning. When he was taken
prisoner, he'd been wounded in the head and slightly gassed. The gassing
doesn't matter, except that he will always have to take care of his
lungs; the head wound has left a scar and a bald place, but he can cover
that up. At present he gets the most awful head-aches if he tries to do
any work. The Germans let him go because he was simply wasting away on
the horrible food they gave him to eat, and he's like a skeleton now.
But we're going to feed him up and put that right, and then it'll just
be a question how much work and what kind of work he'll be able to do
when he's well._

"_He's alive, Eric, and that's the great thing. And he's well and strong
compared with some of the ghastly wrecks that you see here. I must wait
till we meet before I give you a full account of all he's been through,
but Major Britwell's story was quite true so far as it went. He DID
insult the guard and he WAS carried off to solitary confinement for nine
months. He won't talk much about that, though, but he had a most awful
time; I honestly wonder that he came through it alive and in his right
mind. I could cry when I look at the men here and think what they've
suffered. But they CAN'T go through it again, Eric; that's one of the
terms of their release, of course. They're out of the war for good; and
it may be very unpatriotic, but I for one say 'Thank God!'_

"_Well, I must come to business. Father and I are staying here for
another week, and I want you to do a lot of jobs for us. On a separate
sheet you'll find a number of things that I want you to order and have
sent out here. And on the back of this you'll find a list of names and
addresses. There's so much to do, getting this house straight, that I've
very little time for writing. I want you to be an angel and ring up all
these people and just tell them (you know them all, I think) what I've
told you._

"_Jack sends love to you, and we are all deeply grateful for what you
have done and what I know you will do for us. I don't think there are
any other messages._"

The list of names did not contain Barbara's. Eric telephoned to her as
soon as he had received the letter, though he knew that she would be in
bed and that a tiresome footman would say: "I don't think her ladyship's
been called yet, sir. Perhaps you would ring up later." With patience he
got into communication with her and read out the first pages of the
letter. When she had thanked him, he asked with trepidation whether she
had heard from Jack. An hour seemed to pass while she rang for her
letters and looked at the postmarks.

"There's nothing from Switzerland," she announced at length.

Eric's heart leapt with relief. Agnes had written; surely Jack could
have written, too, had he wished? In the ensuing silence Barbara's
voice, suddenly toneless, came back to him.

"I'm sorry, Babs, for _your_ sake."

"Thank you, darling."

"I'll make a point of seeing Agnes as soon as she gets back to England,"
he went on.

"Thank you, darling."

"And, of course, I'll let you know anything there is to know. Very
likely you'll get a letter before I see her."

"Perhaps I shall." Her voice trembled; and Eric, ceasing to weight
justice or consider provocation, wished that he had Jack Waring's throat
between his hands. "Well, I mustn't keep you from your work. Thank you
for telling me, Eric."

"Good-bye, Babs. I suppose it wouldn't amuse you to lunch or dine with
me anywhere?"

"Not to-day, I think. But I love you for asking me. Good-bye."

For a week he wrote to her twice daily, trying to forget himself in the
effort to keep her amused. They met once at dinner with Lady Maitland;
and it hurt him absurdly when as a matter of ritual he was detailed to
see Barbara home. On the day named, Colonel Waring and Agnes arrived in
London and telephoned, asking him to dine with them at their hotel.

Trepidation hid become his normal mood, and Eric walked into the lounge
with his teeth set and the muscles of his cheeks hard. The burgeoning
happiness of Agnes was harder to bear than ever, but he achieved a
tolerable effect as the undemonstrative, phlegmatic Englishman and
mingled suitable congratulations with his many questions.

"I handed on the good news to every one you mentioned," he said at the
end of dinner. "And to one or two others who I thought would be
interested to hear it. Did he send me any jobs or messages?"

"He wants a pipe, but father can get that. I don't think he sent any
messages."

Eric looked at his watch and begged to be excused. It was half-past ten,
and he had telephoned to say that he would call for Barbara at eleven
and bring her home from a party in Portman Square.

When he reached the house, Eric was disconcerted to learn that Barbara
had already left. He was slightly less surprised, on reaching home, to
find the hall ablaze with light and Barbara lying at full length on a
sofa with her cloak trailing on the carpet and a bottle of
_eau-de-Cologne_ clutched in one hand.

She started and opened her eyes as he came into the room.

"Eric, did you go . . .? I'm sorry! I couldn't wait, I couldn't bear
being with people. I've been asleep. I've got such a racking headache,
darling."

Eric took a bottle of aspirin from the drawer of his writing-table.

"Have you had any of this to-day?" he asked. "Then I can give you
fifteen grains. Wait till I've got some water." He returned with a
tumbler and two cushions and seated himself at her feet. "Have you heard
anything fresh from Switzerland?" he asked. "Well, I'm afraid I haven't,
either. I dined with Colonel Waring and Agnes to-night, as you know."

Barbara had uncovered her eyes to hold the tumbler; but she set it on
the floor, as he began to speak, and shielded her face.

"H-how is he?" she asked.

"He gets tired rather quickly, but otherwise he's all right. Leading
quite a normal life, I mean."

His words were deliberately chosen to shew that Jack was in a state to
have written, had he wished. His choice was not wasted on her.

"And what now, Eric?" she asked.

"Isn't that for you to say?"

Barbara uncovered her eyes again and looked slowly round the room. It
had become so familiar that she no longer noticed its shape or
colouring. Instinctively she knew that the sofa demanded a cushion at
her back and that the arm-chair between the fire and window did not. But
she had never, until now, consciously observed the carpet and curtains,
the breast-high white book-cases and Chippendale writing-table, since
the first night when she came there and stood tossing a glass horse-shoe
idly into the air and stealing curious glances at the furniture.

She recognized it all now and remembered her earliest emotions,
remembered even telling him that the first burning cigarette would spoil
his grey carpet. But her vision was blurred; she fancied herself seeing
through the walls, penetrating a belt of darkness and piercing other
walls beyond which she sat at supper with an undemonstrative, quietly
determined young man. The jig and stamp of ragtime echoed
overhead--"Dixie! All abo-o-oard for Dixie! Dixie! Tak your tickuts
heere for Dixie!"; she heard her own voice--"I love that one-step. Why
did you drag me away in the middle?" and Jack Waring's in answer--"Well,
you ought to be grateful to me for getting you a table before the rush
starts." That was a few hours before war was declared, though the long
banqueting-hall of Loring Castle had resounded with rumours and
expositions of war throughout dinner. Almost at once Jack asked her to
marry him; she once more heard his tranquil explanation--"I've just been
received into your church."

A blaze of light. . . . A thunder of voices. . . . Out of the distance
she heard him saying, "In fact, you've been lying to me all along? You
never intended to marry me?"

A blaze of light; and silence that made her head sing. Jack's face
seemed to grow thinner and the gleam in his eyes more brightly cold. The
supper-room was emptying, but neither could decide to stand up and say
good-bye. Lord Summertown and a brother-officer waltzed in and became
noisily cheerful in one corner. Later they heard a car driving past the
open windows; George Oakleigh appeared in the doorway; Summertown's
companion finished the champagne and rose to his feet protesting
fretfully: "To declare war in the middle of supper is not the act of a
gentleman. . . ." Then at last she had seen that she had tempted Jack to
imperil his soul. . . .

War had seemed a small thing then, though Jack Summertown was to be
killed within six weeks and her cousin Jim within a year. It was a
thing remote and only important as postponing her punishment from Jack.

"I must get back to London," he said suddenly. "I'm going to ask
Summertown for a seat in his car."

For dragging minutes she felt her soul being crucified. While Jack stood
talking in the hall or on the steps, she tried to conceal from herself
what she had done and, when that was impossible, to nerve herself to
make reparation. Then she was blinded by the glare of the head-lights
and opened her eyes to find that the car had swept beyond reach of her
voice. . . .

Once again everything was warm and dark in the summer night. . . .
Slowly the distant wail of the orchestra died from her ears. She had a
vague memory of going upstairs with Oakleigh and of seeing him draw Jim
aside and whisper to him, but between them lingered a white face with
incredulous eyes, and above the music hammered the sound of a broken
sentence: "So this was your revenge?" And then, calling Jim to witness,
she made the sign of the Cross and swore that she would offer herself,
body and soul, to Jack, if he wanted her. . . .

The noise faded out of hearing, and she was once more in a room of
blazing light; a man was looking at her, silent, white-faced and
reproachful; and a new phrase was beating on her brain.

"_I want to know what you're going to do now?_"

She stretched out her hand; but Eric did not take it, and her eyes
wandered once more idly round the room. The forgotten curtains and grey
carpet, the writing-table and neat pile of manuscript flung back to her
memory the summer night when she had first come to disturb his peace of
mind.

"I make _every one_ miserable!" she cried, and both started at the
violation of their long silence.

Eric's head sank lower; but his eyes never left her face. That night
she had been like an animal tortured to madness; since that night she
had taken all that his love could give her and had repaid it by
torturing him to madness in his turn, by destroying his health and
ruining his work.

"Eric, I _want_ to give you everything, but I've sworn to God! Until
I've seen Jack. . . ."

"You've broken your oath in everything but form. From the first night we
met you've belonged to me in all but name."

"But won't you wait? Oh, why will you _drive_ me?"

"I'm not driving you, Babs. I've not asked for anything."

She stood up and drew her cloak round her, glancing once at him and
turning quickly away as she saw his hunched body and haggard face. One
after the other she slowly drew on her gloves, looking with misty eyes
for her bag. As she moved to the door, Eric rose and opened it,
gathering up his overcoat with the other hand. They had parted like this
so often that he no longer seemed to care. . . . A four-wheeler was
ambling along Ryder Street, and he hailed it. Neither spoke until it
drew up opposite her house and she saw him fumbling with the handle.
Then she laid her fingers on his wrist and chokingly bade him stop.

"I'll marry you, Eric," she said.

"Thank you, Barbara."

She hurried out before he could kiss her and stood with face upturned
and eyes tightly shut. God, who had heard the oath taken and broken, was
free to strike her now; if He held His hand, it was because He had more
subtle punishment in store. . . .

Barbara pulled her cloak over her chest and ran despairingly into the
house.

       *       *       *       *       *

    "_Loneliness may be so intolerable that I believe God would forgive
    us our blindest groping after alleviation. But would God forgive me,
    if, in my groping, I brought such misery of loneliness to another,
    knowing now what manner of thing it is?_"--From the Diary of Eric
    Lane.



CHAPTER EIGHT

THE STRONGEST THING OF ALL

    "Tam saepe nostrum decipi Fabullinum
     Miraris, Aule? Semper homo bonus tiro est."
            MARTIAL.


1

"_If you care for a six-months' lecturing tour in America_," wrote
Grierson, "_I have an unrivalled offer. You would start in the New
Year_. . . ."

His agent's letter was the first that Eric opened on the morning after
Barbara promised to marry him. As he lay half-awake, waiting to be
called, he realized that something had changed the foundations of his
life; he was at peace, well and strong, with a heart tuned for adventure
and a new tireless energy.

Six o'clock. . . . Seven. . . . Eight. . . . He carried the telephone
into the smoking-room, lest he should be tempted to disturb Barbara, and
paced bare-foot up and down, wondering how to inaugurate the new life.
In marrying a Protestant, she would forfeit the money which she had
received under her god-father's will; henceforward he must work and earn
for two. In his safe lay a brown-paper parcel containing the manuscript
of a novel, unopened since the day when Gaisford so contumeliously flung
it back at him. Eric carried the despised book into his bedroom and
began to skim the pages. With his new sense of power, he would so
re-write it that the doctor should eat humble-pie; and there would be a
slice for Manders too. It was no good trying him with another version
of the "Singing-Bird"; but "Mother's Son," which had lain neglected ever
since it was sent back three years before, needed only a word of change
and a touch of polish. October, November, December. . . . Eric would be
ready for America in the New Year.

The next letter was from Agnes, begging him to write occasionally to
Jack; the next from Lady Lane, wondering when he was coming to Lashmar.
A firm of topical photographers respectfully begged leave to send a
representative by appointment to interview Mr. Lane and to enrich their
gallery with a few camera-studies of the house and of the author at
work. The other letters were invitations and charitable appeals.

At ten o'clock he telephoned to ask when he could see Barbara, but was
told that she had not yet been called. After two more unsuccessful
attempts, he sent a note by hand, inviting himself to tea, and spent the
rest of the morning at work on the manuscript of his novel. Shortly
before luncheon his interviewer arrived with an assistant bearing a
camera, and for half an hour the flat was filled with the smoke and
powder of the magnesium flares. Eric submitted sheepishly to being
"discovered" looking (in profile) out of his dining-room window, to
being "interrupted" at his desk (three-quarter face), to being found
taking a moment's respite for thought and a cigarette (full face, with
his back to the smoking-room fire); finally he was dressed up in hat and
coat and shewn to be saying good-bye in the hall. While the assistant
packed up his camera and tripod, Eric allowed himself to be interrogated
on his past and future work, his plans and views of art.

"Have you anything _new_?" asked the interviewer. "I've got all the old
stuff out of '_Who's Who_'."

Eric spoke vaguely of the novel, the play and the course of lectures in
America, remembering the threadbare commonplaces of such illustrated
interviews as he had read; it were fruitless to fancy that he could vary
the form or fact of what was being so industriously scribbled down.

"Nothing expected for some months? I must work up the back stock. I
shall want you to tell me in a minute what _started_ you writing plays.
. . . Now, about your engagement?"

"My engagement?" Eric echoed.

The man nodded and moistened the end of his pencil in anticipation.

"Why, that's what I'm here for! I don't say," he added apologetically,
"that this stuff wouldn't stand by itself--or come in useful, anyway."

"I'm afraid I don't quite follow."

The man looked at him in patient surprise.

"We supply all the pictures for '_The World and His Wife_'," he
explained. "They 'phoned through to know if we could let them have
up-to-date photographs of you and Lady Barbara Neave----"

"But you spoke of an engagement."

"Isn't it true, then?"

"This sort of thing is really intolerable!" Eric cried. "I don't want to
tell other people how to run their business, but in common decency your
firm might wait for an official announcement in '_The Times_' instead of
circulating these rumours----"

"It's only a rumour, then?" said the interviewer blankly, pocketing his
note-book.

As he walked to Berkeley Square, Eric decided that, by telling Barbara
of his encounter, he would annoy her without bringing relief to himself.
The announcement, when it came, would be made with imposing ceremony
after a meeting between his father and Lord Crawleigh, an adjustment of
religious differences and a distressingly material discussion of
settlements. There would be ponderous debates and irritating
disagreements; Barbara and he both needed a respite for recuperation. . . .

"I telephoned three times this morning," said Eric, as he was shewn into
the drawing-room. "I did so want to talk to you! I was so happy I
couldn't sleep."

"I couldn't sleep, either," said Barbara huskily, holding out one hand
and covering her eyes with the other.

"Aren't you going to kiss me?"

"If you like. It's your right now."

Eric let fall her hand and drew back, biting his lip.

"That's not a very pretty thing to say, darling," he murmured.

"I'm sorry. . . . I've been haunted all night. It seemed as if God
_must_ strike me down. . . . And, whenever I fell asleep, Jack was
there, reproaching me, mocking me----"

"He's had his chance," Eric interrupted sharply. "You start absolutely
free."

"You mean he's--rejected me?"

After the tragic talk of God's striking her down for taking His name in
vain, Eric could not attune himself readily to a whimper of wounded
vanity. Barbara's dramatic intensity had hitherto been convincing, and
he had never imagined that she was unhappy because she had offered
herself to a man and he had repelled her.

"I mean it's--all over. You've no reason to reproach yourself, Babs. . . .
I want to talk to you about seeing your father----"

She stopped him with a shudder, and Eric found a difficulty in curbing
his impatience. Trying a fresh cast, he described his latest invitation
to lecture in America. Barbara listened with half her attention,
mechanically agreeing that it would be an experience and a change,
mechanically accepting his figures and wounding him with an indifference
which was made greater by her early love of sharing his triumphs with
him. He hunted through a pile of letters and gave her one in which the
previous occupant of his flat offered generous terms for the remainder
of the lease.

"We must decide some time when we're going to be married," he said, "and
where we're going to live."

"_Please_, Eric!"

He looked at her in amazement and drew slowly away from her side,
walking to the fire-place and resting his forehead on his arm.

"I--don't . . . I don't understand what's the matter," he murmured at
length. "Last night . . . You did it of your own free will, Babs. . . .
And unless you wanted to hurt me more completely and ingeniously than
you've ever succeeded in doing before----"

The girl winced and covered her face with her hands.

"I wouldn't hurt you for the world!" she whispered. "Ah! God! I wish I'd
never met you, I wish I'd never been born! Don't you _see_ that I
couldn't go on taking, taking, taking with both hands--all your
sweetness and gentleness, everything--and giving you nothing in return?
When you said that I'd spoiled your work . . . Didn't I see that I'd
already ruined your health and made you miserable? I _tried_ to make
amends, but it wasn't in my power. I ought never to have given you that
promise!"

"Don't you love me any more, Babs?"

"Oh, yes."

"Well, what have I done since last night?"

"You haven't done anything. . . . It was a letter. . . . You remember
about Jim Loring's ball just before the war----"

Eric drew her head on to his shoulder and kissed her.

"My darling, that's all so long ago! Why distress yourself with it now?"

"Jack was staying with the Knightriders," she persisted. "Kathleen
Knightrider's the only soul who's ever suspected. . . . _I_ never told
her. She's heard that Jack has been sent to Switzerland and she wrote
this morning to--to congratulate me! I tried to make amends to Jack too.
. . . Oh, the mockery of it! All last night I saw the two of you
pulling, pulling . . ."

"He's had his chance," Eric told her again.

"I wish God _had_ struck me down," she whispered.

Eric invented an excuse to leave early, for, when Barbara was not
reproaching herself for the engagement, she affected the abject humility
of a slave whom he had bought for his pleasure. Perhaps she was amusing
herself with a new emotion, perhaps she wanted to keep him alert and
suspended, perhaps she enjoyed the vision of herself torn between the
two men who wanted her more than anything in the world. . . .


2

For the second morning in succession Barbara did not telephone. Eric
waited until noon and then asked her to dine with him.

"I will, if you--want me to," she answered with the new servile
listlessness; and he wondered again whether she was trying to exact some
novel abandonment of adoration or to exhaust him by passive resistance.
"I believe we _have_ people dining," she added.

"Well, choose some other night," he suggested.

"Oh, it doesn't matter. Nothing matters. And I'm going to the country
to-morrow."

"But I thought you were going to be in London till Christmas."

"I'm supposed to be ill," she answered and hung up the receiver before
he could say anything more.

Eric returned to his work, affecting unconsciousness of her alternating
indifference and hostility. In the afternoon Agnes Waring telephoned to
say that she was unexpectedly in London and would like to have tea with
him. He welcomed her cordially, only hoping that she would not stay long
enough to clash with Babs, and, guiltily reminded of her letter, put
aside his work and began writing to Jack. Once or twice, as he paused to
fill his pipe, the old feeling of duplicity came back, as on the Sundays
when he walked home from Red Roofs in jubilation after Agnes had told
him with her unchanging composure that there was still no news of her
brother. And now he was writing a gossipy, facetious letter. . . . Eric
tore the envelope in two--and then hesitated. Jack had been given his
opportunity, and he had not taken it.

Agnes did not arrive until nearly six o'clock and then came attended by
a young officer.

"You remember Mr. Benyon," she said. "We brought him to dine at the
Mill-House last year. He hadn't seen 'The Bomb-Shell,' so we went to the
_matinée_ to-day."

"Jolly good, if I may say so," murmured Benyon. "Hope you don't mind my
buttin' in like this? Agnes said----"

"I obviously couldn't come here alone, Dick," she interrupted; and Eric
wondered whether they would have left before Barbara came alone to dine
with him.

He wondered too what intimacy Agnes had reached with this young man who
was beginning to recur in her life and conversation. They had attained
the Christian name milestone without passing it; and she seemed to have
brought him as a challenge. Whenever Eric flagged in attention, Agnes
brought Benyon up like an army of reserve; whenever Benyon fancied that
he had won a position, she rounded on her own reinforcements and
admitted Eric to a private intimacy of conversation about Jack. It was a
new part for her to play, but no woman seemed able to resist the
intoxication of having two men interested in her at the same time. If
only she knew that his interest had died more than a year ago, on the
night when Barbara sat in that room, on that sofa. . . . Perhaps she did
know. He caught her looking at him with an expression which changed
almost before their eyes met. Was it desperation, defiance, an
indifferent resolve to give him one last chance--or his own
hypercritical fancy?

They were still talking when Barbara was announced.

"Gracious! Is it _eight_?" Agnes cried, looking at her watch. "I thought
it was only seven. We must fly. Dick's taking me to a _revue_."

"Won't you wait for a cocktail?" Eric asked. "By the way, I don't think
you know Lady Barbara Neave. Miss Waring, Babs. Mr. Benyon."

The two girls shook hands, and Agnes began searching for her gloves and
purse, hurriedly declining Eric's invitation.

"I used to know your brother quite well before the war," said Barbara.
"I was so thankful to hear your good news."

Agnes looked up with a quick smile.

"We never _quite_ lost hope," she said.

"Eric told me that you and your people had been out to see him in
Switzerland. How did you find him?"

The smile died away in wistfulness.

"Well, he's alive, and that's the great thing," Agnes answered. "The
doctors out there don't seem to think that he'll ever be able to do much
work with his head again; he'll probably have to give up the bar and
live out of doors. You can understand that, when a man's just begun to
get a practice together----"

"But is that quite certain?" Barbara interrupted.

"N-no. But it seems probable. There's a report that some of the bad
cases are going to be sent home. Then we shall see."

Eric watched the faces of the two girls. Barbara's expressed nothing
more than the conventional sympathy of one stranger hearing of another's
misfortune; a few months earlier Agnes had not known that Jack and
Barbara were even acquainted.

"How soon do you expect him?" asked Barbara.

"Oh, I don't think anything's been decided yet. And you know how long
these things take. . . . Eric, if I'd had any idea how late it was . . .!"

He accompanied her to the door and returned to find Barbara still
standing, still in her cloak. The flicker of animation which she had
presented on meeting Agnes had died down, and she was again the sport of
man and the plaything of fate.

"I like her, Eric," she remarked thoughtfully. "Why don't you marry her?
Any one can see she's in love with you."

"You're the only person in the world I want to marry," he answered.

Barbara's face twisted in a spasm of pain.

"God! How it hurts when you say that! Eric, I shall make you miserable
and be miserable myself! I love you; you know I love you! But I don't
want to marry you. Why don't you forget me? Go away----"

"Forget you!" Eric gripped her by the shoulders. "What d'you think would
be left, if I lost you?"

Her eyes opened wide with wonder.

"You can't love me as much as that, Eric!"

"I love you so much that I'd sooner have an air-raid to-night and a bomb
on my head here, now, than lose you! You're the whole world to me!"

She shook her head miserably and without hope of flattering reassurance.

"I could have killed myself when you told me that I'd destroyed your
power of work," she whispered. "And to-night, when that girl said that
Jack might never be able to work again . . . It's what I should feel, if
we married and I couldn't bear children! I should be incomplete,
useless!"

"But _you_'re not responsible."

"I might make things easier. . . ."

So compassion was coming to reinforce or supplant vanity. . . . Eric
felt that he knew Barbara's moods in advance. Lady Knightrider--a curse
on her name--had started by setting every nerve on edge; the sight of
Agnes Waring--with Jack's eyes, hair and voice--had completed her
discomfiture; and Barbara had been morbidly drawing one unhappy picture
after another. Jack was incapacitated; and, with his pride, he would
never win through pity what he had failed to win on merit. Incapacitated
or not, Jack was a pauper; and, with his fantastic honour, he would
regard himself as an outcast from Barbara's society.

"Even if he can't go back to the bar," said Eric at length, "his father
will have no difficulty in getting him a job. Lord Waring could take him
on as his agent."

"Oh, I never thought he'd starve! But it must be such a disappointment."

"Well, the war's been such a mix-up that seven men out of ten will
change their careers, when they come back. . . . Babs . . . do you care
for Jack as much as that?"

She looked up quickly with a gleam of hope in her eyes.

"Are you going to--forget my promise?"

"No! I asked whether you cared for Jack as much as all that."

Barbara shook her head in bewilderment.

"I've given you my heart, Eric. But I owe Jack my soul."

Behind the neat phrasing of the professional trafficker in emotions,
Eric felt that she was trying to weary him of their forty-eight hours'
engagement. . . .


3

At the beginning of November Eric went to Lashmar for a long week-end.
After the first days of his engagement he had hardly seen or heard
anything of Barbara. She was presumably at Crawleigh Abbey, but for a
week she answered no more than one letter out of three; after that, with
a sense that he could do nothing right and that they were fretting each
other's nerves, he ceased to correspond and was trying to absorb and
exhaust himself with work. Now his novel was in the agent's hand, and
"Mother's Son" had been sent to Manders.

As he dawdled before a book-stall at Waterloo, Eric's eye was caught by
"_The World and His Wife_" contents' bill, which announced, with other
attractions, an "Illustrated Interview with Mr. Eric Lane." There had
not been time for him to receive the article from his news-cutting
agency, and he bought a copy to read in the train. The pictures were
well reproduced, and he was by now so hardened to the perverse
inaccuracy and genial blatancy of the letter-press that he hardly
blushed at the aspirations which were attributed to him, until his
attention was arrested in mid-paragraph by Barbara's name. Collecting
himself and glancing almost guiltily round the somnolent carriage, he
turned back to the beginning.

"_Rumour has been busy with the names of Mr. Lane and of Lady Barbara
Neave, only daughter of the Marquess of Crawleigh. No official
announcement has been made, but the young people have been going about
together a good deal lately; some of our readers may have seen them at
the PREMIÈRE of 'The Bomb-Shell.' The Stage has of recent years
surrendered so much of its beauty and talent to the Peerage that it is
high time for the Peerage to make this romantic return to the Stage. . . .
Mr. Lane's advice to budding playwrights is reminiscent of Mr.
Punch's famous advice to those about to marry--'Don't.' Though the
'Divorce' was his first play to be produced, it was not the first that
he had written; like most authors, he had to buy experience._ . . ."

There was nothing in the rest of the article to incriminate him, but the
offending paragraph was enough in itself. Guiltily Eric looked round a
second time. Two of his fellow-passengers, slumbering with mouths agape,
were clutching "_The World and His Wife_" to their stomachs; it was the
one periodical of later date than "_Punch_" and the monthly reviews
which his parents took in at the Mill-House. Saturday was made eventful
by its appearance; even Sir Francis interested himself in the full-page
studies of actresses and _débutantes_, the house-party groups and
snapshots of celebrities in the Park. . . .

As he climbed into the car Eric was careful to let Sybil see that he was
carrying the paper in his hand. She had scarcely wormed her way out of
the traffic and shot free along the Melton road before she nodded
towards the bulging strap of his despatch-box.

"Is that true, Ricky?"

"Is what true?"

"That you're engaged to that woman?"

"Does the paper say so?" Eric enquired loftily. "By the way, Barbara
Neave is a great friend of mine, and I don't very much care about
hearing her described as 'that woman. . . .' I think the paper only said
that 'rumour' had 'been busy with' our 'names.' Rumour's been damnably
busy; it won't leave us alone!"

His sister was silent for some moments.

"I hope to _Heaven_ you're not going to make a fool of yourself with
her," she exclaimed at length. "She'll wear you out, spoil your work,
make you bankrupt in a month----"

"Isn't this rather sweeping about some one you've never even met?" Eric
interposed gently.

"You take such jolly good care that we shouldn't meet her," Sybil
answered at a tangent.

While he dressed for dinner Lady Lane came into his bedroom, more
diplomatic but no whit less insistent. As his mother, she was prepared
to make the best of everything and to suppress her own feelings; but, if
Eric had committed a crime, he could not have felt greater distaste in
putting her off with half-truths.

"You'll tell us--when there's anything to tell?" begged his mother, as
they went down to dinner; and Eric felt that he might have saved his
elaborate prevarications for a more gullible audience. Sir Francis made
no direct allusion throughout the week-end, but, as they sat over their
wine on the first night, he enquired spasmodically how old Eric was, how
much money he had made during the last year and what literary ventures
he had in contemplation.

It was a relief to walk over to Red Roofs next day and have tea with
Agnes Waring and her father. For an hour he was spared even indirect
references to the unhappy interview, though in his over-sensitive
condition he fancied that Agnes was unwontedly frigid in manner, as
though a new barrier had been placed between them. Conversation centred
about her brother. Humanly speaking, he would be released from
Switzerland within a few weeks and would come either to Paris or London;
he was, of course, debarred from active service, but the War Office
would no doubt test his capabilities of health and brain either in
Whitehall or at the Ministère de la Guerre. Eric could count on seeing
him almost any day--in England, or, if he could invent a mission, in
Paris.

Only when she had walked through the garden to send him on his way
across the fields did Agnes touch on the offending article. They were
standing on opposite sides of a sun-dial at the end of a fruit-walk; and
both were recalling the earlier Sundays when Eric had asked with
sympathetically lowered voice: "No news of Jack, I suppose?"

"You're looking as if you wanted a holiday," Agnes volunteered.

"I've been rather worried lately," Eric answered vaguely.

"Not about that----" She looked at him and moved round, slipping her
hand through his arm. "_I_ shouldn't worry about a thing like that!
She's so well-known that the papers are on to her like cats on a mouse.
. . . I liked her that night I met her, Eric."

"It makes my relations with her rather difficult," he laughed.

"But all you've got to do is not to meet her!" Agnes explained in a tone
of convincing reason.

"She's--_one_ of the greatest friends I've got," he said.

Agnes rubbed gently at the tarnished motto on the dial.

"That makes it rather difficult, of course," she said at length.

And then it seemed easiest for him to shake hands and walk away without
adding anything.

His family by itself on one side, Agnes by herself on the other would
not have spurred Eric to action. He was precipitated by the
felicitations of an almost complete stranger in the train on Monday
morning and held to his course by a succession of congratulatory notes
and telephone messages.

"_I don't know_," he wrote to Barbara on reaching home, "_whether you
have seen this week's '_World and His Wife_.' There's a rather broad
hint at our engagement, and I'm receiving congratulations. Isn't this a
golden opportunity for publishing the news?_"

Barbara's reply was tuned to an uncompromising note which Eric had met
but once before--at the beginning of his last illness, when he had
threatened to go away from her and the threat had misfired; when, too,
he--"one of our conquerors"--had broken down and cringed to her; and
she, with drawn cheeks and leaden eyes, had laid his head on her bosom
and caressed him, not as a conqueror or a lover, but as a tired, sick
child.

"_I am so very miserable_," she wrote. "_Sometimes I could almost wish
to die--just to get us all out of this terrible tangle. You'd be
happier--after a time, when you'd got over the first feeling of loss and
loneliness; and, however lonely and unhappy you'd be without me, it
would be nothing to the misery I should bring you, if we were foolish
enough to marry. Let me be your devoted, your very loving, very grateful
friend! If you try to marry me, you'll be marrying my name, my voice, my
clothes, my body; you won't be marrying me; you'll waste your divine
love on a woman whose soul is at the other end of the world. Whatever
happens, I must do you a hideous wrong._"

Eric read the letter three times and left it unanswered.

A very little more of this erotic battledore-and-shuttlecock would send
them both out of their minds. It was a mistake to write, when both
needed a holiday. He telephoned to his agent and walked to Covent Garden
for a consultation about the lecturing-tour in America.

"I'm worn out, I must have a complete change," said Eric. "And I want to
start at once."

Grierson was surprised out of his habitual placidity by the nervous
vehemence of Eric's manner.

"You'll need a month or two to prepare your lectures," he pointed out.

"You can begin making the arrangements immediately. London's getting on
my nerves rather. Three months in the country, three months out
there--oh, the war may be over by then. . . . I'm sick of England. . . .
If the war's still going on, I shall stay away and go on to Japan.
You'll fix that, Grierson?"

He jumped up restlessly and was starting for the door when his agent
recalled him.

"Are you in a hurry?" he asked. "There are one or two things I want to
talk to you about. Rather good news," he added. "Staines have accepted
your novel on our terms. I had a fight over the advance, but your name
carried you through."

Eric was not interested in the figures. He was recalling the mood in
which he had sent the manuscript to Grierson, when he was working under
inspiration. He had grudged the hours wasted on sleep and food when he
might have been working for Barbara.

"I seem to have more money than I know what to do with," he answered
shortly. "By the way, has Manders given tongue yet about the play?"

"'Mother's Son'? Yes, I wrote you last night. Didn't you get my letter?
Oh, he's quite enthusiastic about it. He suggests a few small
changes----"

"Manders would," Eric rejoined from habit rather than resentment. He did
not care if he never wrote another play; he did not care if they
returned to him battered and dog's-eared after months of delay and
desultory travel--as in the old days. Manders might cut the thing about
to the top of his vulgar Philistine bent.

"He wants to begin rehearsing at once," Grierson went on slowly. "And
the 'Divorce' is being revived at the Emperor's. You'll have three plays
running in London at the same time."

"I'm not going to stay in England to please Manders," Eric interrupted.

"He'd like to have a talk with you about it before you leave London,"
said Grierson.

Eric caught himself yawning. It was such futility to discuss a play in
which he had lost all interest.

On his return, he yawned again over his letters. It was futile to hear
from people in whom he had lost all interest, though a Swiss stamp and a
hand-writing which he had almost forgotten quickened the beating of his
heart.

"_My dear Eric_," he read.

"_Your letter was a joy to me! Please go on writing. You cannot imagine
how home-sick I feel. I want the smell of London again, I want to hear
people talking my own language and I want to see 'em in bulk, drifting
slowly down the Strand from the Temple. Do you remember the old days
when we lived together in Pump Court? I want to go and lunch at the club
again and have a little dinner at the Berkeley, say, and go on to a
theatre, decently dressed with other people decently dressed too.
There's a chance--one lives on hope from day to day--that I may be sent
home; I don't seem to be getting any better here: all goes well for a
time, and then I get such a head-ache as I would not sell for the minted
wealth of the world. Of course, that makes work of any kind rather a
problem, and I see myself looking out for a job which I can do at my own
convenience, when I feel up to it. The bar doesn't look particularly
hopeful, if I'm unable to last out a long case or if I can't appear at
all; I'm afraid my standing's hardly good enough to convince any one if
I say I've got a case in another court. I think you'll have to expound
to me the whole art of writing plays; that's the sort of thing for my
one-hour-on-and-six-hours-off condition._

"_You're such a celebrity nowadays that I suppose you simply won't look
at your humble friends! I saw your first thing the last time I was
home--it seems like the Dark Ages now, before my little sojourn in
Mittel-Europa. I imagine you're sick of hearing it praised, especially
by people who don't know anything about it, but I thought it was an
amazingly good play. The moment I was within range of English
papers--this was before I got your letter--I went through the
advertisements to see if you were still 'drawing all London' (I believe
that's the phrase) and found that yet another was going very strong. You
seem to have struck oil. The best of good luck to you._

"_There's really nothing to tell you about this place. I believe you
know Château d'Oex; well, there's a little colony of British prisoners
of war here, some more knocked about than others, but all pretty glad to
be out of Hunland. The Swiss gave us a great reception, and we're
allowed pretty fair liberty, though we can't wander at large over the
whole of Switzerland. The War Office is very busy trying to start
industries out here to keep the men employed and to give training to the
unskilled so that they'll have something to do when they're discharged.
You may remember that before I was called, I spent a year with a firm of
chartered accountants, so I'm supposed to know something of
book-keeping. I don't put a very high price on my service, however,
because my attendance is rather erratic._

"_I suppose it's out of the question for you to come here? Yet a holiday
would do you good, I'm sure. If you can't manage it, we must wait till
the end of the war or till I'm sent back. And then I dine with
you--sumptuously--and make you take me to the latest of your popular
successes._

"_Write again, old man. Your letter did me no end of good._

"_Ever yours_

"_Jack Waring._"

Eric read the letter twice and then locked it in a drawer. It was
characteristic of the writer in that he said hardly anything of himself.
That might have been expected, and there was no need to be frightened by
the hand-writing. A moment later he unlocked the drawer and enclosed
the letter in a note to Barbara, reminding her that he had long ago
promised to let her have any news that came to him. The promise was
before their engagement; but the letter would shew her that Jack was
capable of writing.

A week later Jack wrote again.

"_I've been shifted to Paris, no longer a prisoner of war, but a more or
less free man. I could probably get discharged to-morrow, if I liked,
but the army does pay me SOMETHING, and I haven't yet found anything
else that will._

"_For the last fortnight I've been doing a turn of French-Without-Tears
as an interpreter at the MINISTÈRE DE LA GUERRE. There was so little
work to do that the job suited me rather well. Alas! it suited equally
well certain others who had a better claim to it, and I'm being
transferred to England next week with a vague promise of some light duty
at the War Office. The best thing about the new arrangement is that I
shall be at home and shall have a chance of seeing you. 'Mr. Eric Lane,
the well-known dramatist and author, in his charming Ryder Street
residence.' As you probably know, the papers have been full of you; the
gaping world now knows to the last inch of your benevolent smile exactly
how you work and smoke a cigarette and dress and have your pyjamas laid
out. If the photographs are at all good, you seem to have got rather a
comfortable billet. Talking of which, if you hear of any cheap and handy
rooms within a hundred miles of Whitehall, you might keep me in mind.
People out here tell me that London's rather congested._ . . ."

There was a chance, Eric reflected, that Jack might have glanced at the
pictures in "_The World and His Wife_" without troubling to read the
letter-press. It was so unlikely as not to be worth entertaining. That
he had read of the rumoured engagement was as certain as that he made no
comment upon it.

Whether he had seen it or not was trivial. All this pernickety analysis
was flooded by the overwhelming fact that Jack was coming home. Germany,
Switzerland, Paris, London; nearer and nearer. Within seven days he
might be taking train for Crawleigh--to shew what was left of him and to
ask whether Barbara wished to withdraw her promise. Within six days she
might be begging to be set free, appealing to Eric's love and
magnanimity. . . .

He determined that, if they were to play battledore-and-shuttlecock with
their capability for self-sacrifice, he would strike the first blow and
stand ready to see what return she would make.

"_Darling Babs, it's essential that I should see you for a moment_," he
wrote. "_And that as soon as possible. Are you going to be in London
next week? If so, please fix your own time. If not, what about this? I'm
going down to Lashmar for the week-end and, if you can meet me for
thirty seconds at Crawleigh station, I'll come straight on to you on
Saturday and then get a train back to Winchester. I can't come to the
Abbey, obviously, or every one would want to know what was up. The
business in hand won't take a moment to discuss, but it's ABSOLUTELY
IMPERATIVE that we should discuss it at once._"

As he posted the letter, Eric was conscious that he could have said all
that was necessary without a meeting, but he knew well that it was far
easier for her to be collected and valiant on paper and at a distance.
If Barbara chose to accept his sacrifice, she should do it in his
presence, looking into his eyes.

"_Has something awful happened_?" she wrote in reply. "_You do FRIGHTEN
me so, when you write like that! I have to come up on Sunday for a
charity concert at the Olympic, where I'm a patroness or something. If
you really want to see me for only a moment, is it possible for you to
meet me at Winchester? The train gets in at 12.29 and leaves at 12.33
(aren't I getting clever with the time-table? As a matter of fact I
made father's secretary work it all out for me). If you'd like to wait
on the platform, I'll put my head out of the window and we can be
together for a moment. Dear Eric, I do hope you're not in any kind of
trouble! When you become telegraphic in manner, I always grow nervous.
Barbara._"

There was suppressed excitement at the Mill-House on Saturday night,
when he put in a claim for the car, announced his intention of driving
himself and instructed the maids with unusual particularity to see that
he did not oversleep himself.

"We're being very mysterious," murmured Sybil.

Eric smiled and said nothing.

He went to bed early in hope that a long night's rest would steady his
nerves for an interview which would not be the less trying for its
brevity and which, he now saw, had been made inevitably dramatic. It was
a perfect autumn morning, as he climbed into the car, with a scented
mist rising before his eyes, under the mild warmth of a November sun;
Lashmar Woods flaunted their last dwindling recklessness of colour, from
ivy-green through fading red to russet and lemon-yellow. He had a rare
feeling of peace, as he surrendered to the voiceless magic of the still
countryside and to whimsical memories of his own childhood. Life was so
much simpler then! Life would again be so much simpler when he had Babs
driving by his side. . . . (If he could only drag her from the train and
take her home to astonish and subjugate his parents! It would be worth a
little mystery to effect that!)

If she dropped like a stone out of his life, he would raise both hands
to Heaven and pray God to take away his reason and draw a sponge across
his memory. . . .

Barbara was leaning out of the window, as the train drew into the
station. Eric ran to her compartment; but for a time they were
victimized by the nervous antics of an old lady with cumbrous luggage,
who stood in the doorway calling with shrill helplessness for a porter.

"I see your play's going to be produced at the end of the month," said
Barbara, waving her hand towards a paper on the opposite seat.

"Are you coming with me to the first night?" he asked.

"Of course!" She watched the departure of the old lady with
ill-suppressed eagerness. "Thank goodness, she's gone! What is it, Eric?
Why did you want to see me like this?"

"I always want to see you!" he laughed uneasily. Ever since he received
her letter, he had been rehearsing an effective little speech; but it
was gone from his mind now, and he found himself nervously clearing his
throat. "Babs, I'm in rather a hole and I want to do the right thing.
For some reason you always talk about my generosity. I've been thinking
it over. . . . You're absolutely free, Babs."

"But--why?" she asked blankly.

"Before writing to you, I'd heard from Jack. He'll probably be in
England within a week. I--don't want you to feel . . ." He had to leave
the sentence unfinished.

Barbara had become very pale and for a moment she said nothing.

"This--doesn't mean that you're--saying good-bye?" she faltered.

"It's a present, not an ultimatum," Eric answered sharply.

So she could still try to make the best of both worlds.

"You've always been wonderfully generous!" she whispered. "I can never
repay you."

From her tone and phrasing Eric knew that he had failed. His own
sacrifice neither stirred nor shamed her into equal generosity; the
volley was over, and the shuttlecock had dropped to the ground.

"Have you tried?" he asked sharply.

There was a whistle and a jolt, as the train began to move. Eric stepped
off the foot-board, raised his hat slightly and turned on his heel.
Mechanically he set his watch by the station clock. The train had come
in late, but it was leaving on time.

"Rather less than two minutes, if anything," he murmured, as he started
the engine. "Five weeks since we became engaged. . . ."

Half-way home he steered for a government lorry which was standing
unattended by the side of the road. Something older and stronger than
himself paralyzed the malevolent muscles of his arm, and the car swerved
into safety. . . .

       *       *       *       *       *

    "_The slavery of centuries and her own short-lived blooming have
    robbed woman of open initiative in sex-warfare: she forces man to
    make the attack, pretending indifference or ignorance. Instead of
    striking a bargain, she then insists on nominal surrender, which
    never deceives her. But she is deceived by her own false valuation;
    she can only see herself in the image that she makes for the
    beguilement of man. Vanity is the strongest thing of all._"--From
    the Diary of Eric Lane.



CHAPTER NINE

THE EDUCATION OF BARBARA NEAVE

    "The mob decrees such feat no crown, perchance,
     But--why call crowning the reward of quest?"
            ROBERT BROWNING: "_Aristophanes' Apology._"


1

In the second week of November Manders began to rehearse "Mother's Son,"
and, after two attendances, Eric retired to Lashmar for uninterrupted
work on his American lectures. Jack might reach London any day, and he
could not face a meeting nor wait to be told of an encounter between
Jack and Barbara. His own rash magnanimity had set her free and kept him
in chains; he had always been so indulgent that he more than half
suspected a strain of kindly contempt in her; she had once told him that
they would be miserable together because he would always be too gentle
to keep her in order. . . . Any day now might see him dismissed like an
outworn servant.

With native caution he did not pledge himself to stay at Lashmar for a
specified time; that would depend on Jack, on Barbara, on his own work
and a dozen other things. It was essential that he should keep himself
posted regularly in Jack's movements, and he walked over to Red Roofs on
the morrow of his arrival. Agnes gave him all the information that she
possessed, but gave it with reservation, as though she were conferring a
favour; and, when he left, she walked with him to the gate of the woods
and blurted out that she was engaged to Dick Benyon. As he
congratulated her, Eric remembered their last parting by the sun-dial,
when she had told him not to worry even if gossiping papers coupled his
name with Barbara's, when she had pointed out, too, that they could end
the gossip in a day by ceasing to meet. She did not seem extravagantly
happy; each had lost the other without finding the perfect substitute;
but Agnes, with greater wisdom than he had ever shewn towards Barbara,
had resolved that a secondary place was not enough.

After that he avoided the Warings, but Sybil returned one night from Red
Roofs with a report that Jack was expected there within three days. He
had seen a specialist in London and was forbidden to attempt any
brain-work for three months; even the easy experiment in Paris had been
a mistake. Eric's mind was busy with excuses to get back to London, for
with Jack as his neighbour, invalided and bored, it would be necessary
to see him daily. The Lanes were, fortunately, too much absorbed in
their own life to be suspicious of sudden changes in Eric's plans;
affectionate regret greeted his announcement that he was returning to
London after the week-end, and his sense of the dramatic was grimly
amused by the thought that his train would pass Jack's somewhere between
Basingstoke and Brooklands. . . . He might almost be a criminal fleeing
from justice.

A note from Jack lay on his hall table, regretting that they had not
met, but promising to walk over to the Mill-House the moment that he
arrived. It was followed by another, full of mock-indignation.

_"If you don't want to see me, you needn't_," he wrote. "_But for
Heaven's sake don't bolt to the country the minute you hear I'm coming
to London and then bolt back to London the minute you hear I'm going to
the country_."

Of course it was all badinage; and yet, if Jack knew everything, the
badinage might cover an atrocious hint of his knowledge. . . .

"I'm losing my sense of reality!" Eric muttered.

The same post brought him a long letter from his mother. Jack had come
to tea on the day of his arrival looking very well, on the whole, though
the wound on his head was still visible.

"_He wants to see you_," wrote Lady Lane, "_and he particularly asked
when you would be down here again. I'm afraid poor Jack is in for rather
a dull time. He was hoping so much to be well enough to work, and the
sentence of three months' complete rest is a great disappointment; but,
if he'll feed up and rest, there's no reason why he shouldn't be as well
as he ever was; I'm glad to say that his uncle has behaved quite well.
After doing NOTHING all these years for him or Agnes or his own brother,
he has at last shewn some decent feeling. If Jack has to be a partial
invalid all his life, Lord Waring will give him whatever money's
necessary to let him live anywhere he likes and take up any hobby he
likes; if he wants to marry (I can't imagine that of Jack), there'll be
a proper settlement_. . . ."

If Jack, who was certainly not going to be a pauper, probably not even
an invalid, had passed through London without coming to see Barbara,
that meant that he did not want to see Barbara. Perhaps he _had_ seen
her. . . .

Eric telephoned to Berkeley Square and found his voice greeted with
surprise and apprehensive pleasure.

"I thought you were in the country! You _are_ getting restless, Eric!
When did you come up?"

"Only two days ago. Babs . . . Jack's in England; he called here during
the week-end, but of course I was away. I . . . I thought you'd like to
know."

"Thank you, Eric," she answered quietly.

There was a pause which neither liked to break. At last Eric said:

"He didn't come to see you? Why don't you recognize that it's all over,
Babs? You say that your soul isn't yours and that you owe it to Jack;
well, he's had the chance to come and claim it."

There was a second pause followed by a sigh.

"It's hard to explain, Eric. You see, only he and I know how much he was
in love with me before. I was the only person he'd ever cared for. . . .
Even I didn't understand how much he loved me until that night." She
sighed again. "I don't believe that, after loving me, he could suddenly
cease to love me."

"You gave him pretty good provocation," Eric suggested.

"But you don't cease loving people because they behave badly to you.
I've behaved abominably to _you_. You've given me everything, and all
I've done in return is to make you ill and miserable. I've ruined your
work, your life--you've told me so, Eric. I've been utterly selfish and
heartless. You know I'm vain, you know I'm spoiled, you admit I've
behaved atrociously. But you want to marry me in spite of it all."

"I love you in spite of it all."

Barbara said nothing, and her silence was a confession and answer. There
were a hundred reasons why Jack had not come to see her yet; his future
was uncertain, he must wait for a final verdict from his doctor, he was
perhaps still chewing the cud of his resentment. And, when the first
reasons were exhausted, her vanity wove a hundred more in stout,
impenetrable protection against the fantastic thought that any man could
tire of her.

"Oh, I wish you _didn't_!" Barbara cried at last. "Why don't you go away
and forget all about me?"

She had trapped him neatly, as he had no doubt she well knew.

"I can't forget you," he answered, savagely conscious that he was
presenting her with new weapons. "Whatever you did, you'd be the biggest
thing in my life; I should always need you."

This time she put her triumph into words.

"Don't you think that Jack may need me as badly?"

"He's had his chance. . . ."

Eric discovered suddenly that the wire had ceased to throb. Evidently
she had quietly hung up the receiver. In another moment she could only
have offered to say good-bye; and that she would not do. He was
beginning to know her moods and her nature very well. . . .

Lighting a cigarette, he was trying to think what he had been doing
before their conversation started, when the telephone-bell rang.

"Eric? It's me, darling. We were cut off. Eric, don't be bitter with me.
I've never done anything to deserve your love, but it's been so
wonderful that I won't allow you to say anything which will spoil it.
Some day I think you'll look back on it as the biggest thing in your
life."


2

As soon as Manders announced the opening night of "Mother's Son," Eric
booked his passage to New York for the following week. For the first
time he informed his parents that he was leaving England and gave them
to understand that he was very fully occupied. There were a hundred and
one arrangements to conclude, fare-wells to take; and, when he applied
to Gaisford for a medical certificate, he found himself packed off to
bed with orders to stay there till the day of sailing.

"If you'll do what I tell you, I'll do my best for you," said the doctor
sternly. "If you won't, Eric, on my honour I'll wash my hands of you.
Now, which is it to be?"

"I shall get up for my own first night," said Eric.

"You'll do what I tell you. If you're fit to go, you shall go. But I
don't think you'll be in a condition to stand the excitement of it."

Two days later Eric sent a message to Barbara, reminding her that she
had promised to come with him to the first night and warning her that in
all probability he would not be able to go. The doctor, he explained,
insisted on absolute quiet and absence of excitement. It would have been
more honest to add that the doctor had forbidden him to see any
visitors; but Eric hoped that Barbara would hurry round as soon as she
heard that he was ill and before he could tell her that he was not
allowed to have her there. It was a bitter disappointment when his
secretary brought back a message of sympathy. Later in the day he
received a present of carnations and grapes. It was only when Gaisford
commented on them next morning that his disappointment was mitigated.

"I saw her the other day," explained the doctor. "She was sorry to hear
you were ill. I told her that I wasn't letting you see any one."

"Where did you see her?" Eric asked, trying to keep his voice
unconcerned.

"At her house. The moment I'd left you. I've attended her since she was
a baby, so I felt I knew her well enough to tell her once again to leave
you alone."

Not until the afternoon of the production did Gaisford relax discipline;
then he admitted rather grudgingly that Eric might go to the theatre if
he refused all invitations to supper and came straight back to bed. He
was to dine at home and he would be wise to leave the house before any
one could call on him for a speech.

Eric tried to find out whether a box had been reserved for him, but by
the time that he had received a reply from the theatre and telephoned to
Barbara, she was not to be found. Dinner was an agony which he strove
to make as short as possible. Ordinary nervousness was reinforced by
bitter contrasts of this evening with the night when "The Bomb-Shell"
was produced. Then Barbara had dined with him and sat in his box,
comforting him in the torturing first moments before the play had come
into its own; (and he had driven a ring into her poor finger). It had
been a night of triumph for them both. Never, before or since, had they
been nearer. . . .

He arrived at the Regency early enough to find the house almost empty.
Hiding himself behind the curtains of his box, he watched the familiar
audience settling in place, recognizing friends, waving and calling out
whispered greetings. Mrs. O'Rane and Colonel Grayle; Lady Poynter and
Gerry Deganway; Lady Maitland and one of her boys. . . . He started and
drew farther back, though he was already concealed by the curtains.
Barbara had come in with George Oakleigh. They were standing in the
gangway, waiting to be shewn their seats. While George disposed of his
hat and coat, she threw open her cloak and pinned a bunch of carnations
into her dress. They talked for a moment, studied their programmes and
began talking again. After a few minutes George produced a pair of
opera-glasses and took a leisurely survey of the house. Barbara looked
with careless deliberation at the box from which she had watched "The
Bomb-Shell"; seeing no one in it, she looked away as deliberately and
glanced at the watch on her wrist.

Eric began to open a pile of telegrams. "Good wishes." "All possible
success"; such a tribute had meant much to him when his first play was
produced. . . . Two thirds of the stalls were full, though no doubt
there would still be enough constitutional late-comers to spoil the
first five minutes of the play. Why people could not take the trouble
. . . He pulled himself up and went back to the telegrams; he would not
live through the evening if he began to excite himself like this. But
what he wanted was to have Barbara by his side, to feel her lips at his
ear and to catch her whisper of love and encouragement--"It's going to
be a tremendous success! I _will_ it to be!"

He would like to catch her eye. . . . If the first act went even
tolerably, he could allow himself to be seen; perhaps she would come and
sit with him for the other two. . . .

The lights were lowered, there was a moment's silence, and the curtain
rolled noiselessly up. Eric sat forward with his eyes fixed on the
stage. Then, as the first line was spoken, he threw himself back in his
chair with a smothered oath. A trim programme-seller was tripping down
the gangway with mincing daintiness--down and down to the very front row
of the stalls. A party of four stumbled after her, whispering and
groping in the darkness, while she gave them programmes and herded them
into their seats. There were whispered apologies, as they squeezed in
front of their neighbours; whispered thanks as one man stood up,
crushing himself back, and another stepped into the gangway to let them
pass. At last they were in place! And then it was time for the two women
of the party to whisper again, gesticulating for a redistribution of
seats. The men fussed and fidgeted, untying their mufflers and rolling
up their overcoats. And then it was time for all four to rustle their
programmes. Every one was looking at them instead of at the stage; there
was nothing else to look at! For three minutes they had blocked the view
for everybody behind them!

Eric was looking at them himself, first indignant, then startled. . . .
He could guess the identity of the first woman, though he could not see
her face; of the others there was no doubt. The refraction of the
foot-lights shewed him Agnes Waring, with her father in the next seat;
on the other side sat Jack. There was no mistaking him; a white circle,
the size of a florin, revealed the mark of his scalp wound. . . .

After drawing back instinctively behind his curtain, Eric leaned an inch
forward to steal a glance at Barbara. She was in the third row, six feet
behind Jack in a direct line; like every one else she had seen the
late-comers, she could not have failed to identify Jack. . . . But there
was no sign of embarrassment; she did not lower her eyes or affect
absorption in her programme; she was looking at the stage. . . . As in
"The Bomb-Shell," there came a sudden laugh, sharp as a dog's bark; it
was followed by other single laughs, by a boom of throaty, good-tempered
chuckling; and the whole house was warmer. Barbara did not laugh, but
her white-gloved hands clapped like a child's. She stopped suddenly and
touched George Oakleigh's arm, pointing ruefully to a split thumb. Jack
Waring sent up a belated rocket of laughter, which started the general
laughter again; Eric saw him burying his head, shamefaced, in his hands;
Barbara was peeling off the injured glove.

It was conceivable that she had not seen Jack, for she gave no sign of
emotion; and, if she had seen him for the first time in more than two
years, this would be the strongest emotion of her life. Yet she was
watching eagerly, applauding eagerly, wholly engrossed in the play.
Once, when the house was silent and concentrated on the stage, she
looked round with her earlier deliberation and let her eyes rest on
Eric's box. He started guiltily before remembering that she could not
see him. Next she borrowed George's glasses and, after a single glance
at the stage, raked the four boxes on either side.

"_I propose to give the thing a trial. Every one must admit that the
present position is intolerable._"

The line told Eric that in twenty seconds the curtain would fall. He had
hardly any idea how the play was being received, but, obviously, he must
not allow any one to see him; he could not stand mouthing inanities to
a box full of people when Jack and Barbara were meeting downstairs or
when they met--unexpectedly--in his presence. They were within six feet
of each other. . . .

And they would meet within six seconds. . . .

There was a burst of sustained applause as the curtain fell. It rose
again on the full company, fell and rose again on McGrath and Helen
Graye, Constable and Lillian Hartley, Joan Castle and Manders; fell and
rose again on Joan Castle and Manders alone. Evidently this play, too,
was a success. The lights remained lowered, and the company came forward
to take the calls--with the usual pause before Manders made his
appearance, the usual extra half-minute's smiling and bowing. With
practised unconcern he looked for a moment toward Eric's box and then
looked away again, as though he had never expected to see any one there.
With a final low bow he backed up-stage, and the heavy blue curtains
tumbled into place at a half-seen movement of his hand.

As the lights went up, Eric watched the customary recrudescence of
restlessness. Eager and lazy discussions began; surprised, shrill
recognitions volleyed across the stalls; the men looked at their
programmes to see how many acts remained and tentatively felt for their
cigarette-cases. He saw George Oakleigh lean towards Barbara, glance at
his watch and draw himself slowly to his feet. The movement was a signal
and spur for a dozen others. Barbara moved into his place and called a
greeting to Deganway who was on the opposite side; he stood up and bent
over her, swinging his eye-glass.

Suddenly Eric found himself trembling. After the usual uncertainty,
which he had been watching with one eye, he saw Colonel Waring and Jack
squeezing past their neighbours. As they turned into the gangway, Jack
stared slowly round him and raised his eye-brows in faint surprise when
he caught sight of Barbara. They exchanged bows, she held out her hand;
Colonel Waring was introduced, and Deganway excused himself. A moment
later the colonel bowed a second time and withdrew. Barbara pointed to
the empty seat by her side, and Jack stepped across her into it.

The whole meeting was incredibly suave and unemotional. They were
talking--as any other two people in the theatre were talking--without
any great interest. After a few minutes Oakleigh returned and shook
hands with noticeable warmth; there was a short triangular conversation
before the lights were lowered; then Jack hurried back to his place.

When the curtain went up on the second act, Eric scribbled a note of
congratulation and apology and sent it to Manders by the hand of a
programme seller. Then he put on his hat and coat and stole out of the
theatre.


3

The next morning Eric summoned his solicitor and divested himself of all
domestic ties and obligations as completely as if he were leaving for
the Front. A power of attorney was to be prepared; the books were to be
stored, the wine sold and the flat let if he had not returned from
America within a stated period. . . .

"You see, I've more money than I can spend," Eric explained. "It's well
invested, so that, if I never do another stroke of work, I shall have
_something_ to live on. Well, my health's gone to pieces, and I want a
long rest and change. This is my opportunity. I'm thirty-three; and I've
seen nothing of the world outside Europe. If I start by touring from end
to end of America . . .."

He was almost carried away by his own enthusiasm in sketching out the
years of wandering which lay ahead. Central America, South America, the
Pacific Islands, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China, the Dutch East
Indies, Burmah, India. . . .

"This is all in confidence, of course," he interrupted himself to say.
"I haven't breathed a word to my people."

He lacked courage to tell them that he was never coming back. It would
be easier if the advertised three months were dragged out to six, the
six to twelve. The shock would be mitigated; and he would escape a
scene.

When the solicitor was gone, Eric stumbled out of bed and unlocked the
safe in his dining-room. There was an infinity of papers to be destroyed
and letters to be written. Lady Maitland attacked him at the
ill-disguised prompting of her own conscience:

"_Why have you neglected us for so long? I hoped to see you at the
theatre last night, but Colonel Grayle told me that he thought you were
ill. I'm so sorry; and I hope it's not serious. When you're able to get
about again, will you telephone and suggest yourself for dinner? I want
to talk to you about your play, which I liked quite enormously._ . . ."

So he was to be lionized again--with no one to share his triumphs. . . .
The next letter was from Mrs. Shelley; the next from Lady Poynter,
proposing a date in the following week and asking him to telephone.

"You can accept all these for me," he told his secretary, "or as many as
don't clash with anything else. I--I've got to say good-bye to a lot of
people before I start," he added unnecessarily. "Keep next Wednesday
free for me; I want to get my people up for that."

If Barbara's engagement was going to be published at once, he felt that
he could not meet Jack after all; at one time it had seemed as though
nothing mattered, but his self-control would break down at such a test.
And Jack's headquarters were presumably still in Hampshire. . . .

There was no letter from Barbara next day; and he searched "_The
Times_" vainly for her name. Lunching with George Oakleigh, he met
Deganway who had neither news to impart nor questions to ask; at dinner
Mrs. Shelley observed with sublime innocence: "You must have been
disappointed not to be able to come the other night. Barbara was there,
and it was she who told me you were ill." The next day brought no
tidings, and Eric had to exert all his strength to keep from writing. It
was inhuman of the girl not to tell him--unless she thought that it
would be easier to bear a month later, when he was three thousand miles
away.

Four days of silence dulled his capacity for suffering; he felt that he
would not disgrace himself even if some one appealed to him as the
leading authority on Barbara's movements and asked for news of this most
romantic engagement. In a week he would be shivering in the danger-zone,
zig-zagging round the north coast of Ireland. The power of attorney only
awaited his signature, the papers were busily announcing his departure,
farewell letters and invitations were pouring in upon him.

There was so much to discuss that he found his family easy to handle.
They dined in Ryder Street; and, what with inspecting the flat (which
seemed now to belong to some other life) and raining down questions of
no importance, they contrived not to ask anything that mattered. Yes, he
was going for at least three months--perhaps more, because it would be a
pity to get as far as San Francisco without going on to Japan. Yes, he
would certainly be grateful for any letters of introduction that his
father could give him. Yes, he had bought himself an outfit that would
last him for years in all climates. . . .

Amid the primitive interrogation Eric looked up suddenly at his parents
and sister. They and the two boys in Salonica and the North Sea were all
that he had; he was fond of them, and they were devoted to him. His
mother was talking as she had done twenty years ago, when she searched
for holes in his underclothes and socks before sending him back to
school; but he once caught her looking at him as though she understood.
. . . His father had roused from an age-long scholar's dream to remember
a friend who was now a professor at Columbia University. Sybil was as
much excited as if she had been going in his place. . . . He would never
see any of them again, after they had been everything to him all these
years! And he was sneaking away without telling them that he would never
come back.

"You'll send us a cable to say that you've arrived safely," Lady Lane
was saying.

Eric promised quickly and harked back to the letters of introduction.
After trying for so long not to think of Barbara, he found that he must
not think of his own family. They were still expecting him back in
April, "when the weather's a bit more settled."

"I only wish you weren't going so soon," said his mother regretfully.
"Geoff's due for leave next month."

"Tell him I was sorry to miss him," Eric answered. "I'm afraid the boat
won't wait for me."

He walked back with them to their hotel and said good-bye in the hall,
explaining that he was unlikely to see them next day. He had promised to
lunch with Manders and to dine with the Poynters; and, though either
engagement might have been cancelled, he could not screw himself up to a
second parting.

It was curious to feel, as he walked home, that he was beginning the
last day of his life in London. Only once more would he unlock the
street door and enter the dimly-lit hall which Barbara had invaded
fifteen months before. . . . In the morning he bade awkward farewell to
his secretary. On his way to luncheon he paused on the steps of the
Thespian, trying to see it as a club and not as one of many places where
Barbara had telephoned to him. . . . Manders, of course, insisted on a
champagne luncheon to wish him Godspeed; at intervals he asked how long
the tour was to be; and Eric wondered whether a suicide or a condemned
man went through this recurrent sense of parting, recurrently spiced
with surprise. He would never sit in the oak-panelled dining-room again,
never see Manders again. . . .

Throughout the ritual of the day he could not grow accustomed to saying
good-bye. It was all so familiar; he never persuaded himself that
everything was over. By an error of judgement he was several minutes
late in reaching Belgrave Square, as when first he dined there. Lady
Poynter protested that she had given up hope of him. Her husband took
him aside to enquire whether he found Gabarnac too sweet, because he had
a bottle on which he would value expert opinion. It was all so like the
night of fifteen months ago that Eric could not believe his passage was
booked and his trunks packed. Lady Poynter began counting her guests
with jerks of a fat, slow forefinger. "Two, three, five, seven, nine,
eleven. . . . Then there's one more. Ah!"

She looked over Eric's shoulder as the door opened and the butler
announced:

"Lady Barbara Neave."

Under the blaze of the chandelier and amid a chorus of "Babs darling!"
"Hullo, Babs," Eric found no difficulty in remaining composed. She was
the more surprised of the two, for, as soon as she caught sight of him,
she turned to Lady Poynter, crying:

"Margaret, you must send him home at once! He's been very ill and he's
no business to be out of _bed_!"

"But he's going to America to-morrow, he was telling us."

For a moment Barbara's face was blank. She recovered quickly and
repeated: "_To-morrow?_ I've simply lost all count of time."

"Including dinner, darling," said Lady Poynter, with a meaning glance at
the clock.

It was all so familiar that Eric's sense of probability would have been
outraged, if he had not been put next to Barbara.

"I'm very glad to see you again, Eric," she whispered: "Dr. Gaisford was
so gloomy about you. . . . How long have you been allowed out?"

"Oh, a week."

"And you never told me? You never wrote or telephoned----"

Eric felt his face stiffening into unamiable lines as he remembered the
agony of the first four days' silence.

"You never wrote or telephoned to me," he interrupted.

"The doctor told me I mustn't. He put me on my honour. I'm not sure that
I didn't really break my word when I sent you those flowers." Her hand
stole out and sought his under the table. "Don't you think it would have
been kind to let me know? Don't you think it's possible I may have been
worrying about you?"

Eric dropped his napkin and picked it up again for an excuse to escape
her hand.

"Isn't it rather late in the day to begin worrying?" he asked. The girl
winced and bit her lip. "I was only a bit overwrought," he added. "Now
I'm rather less overwrought. There was nothing else to tell you."

"About America? I saw it in some paper, but I didn't bother about the
date. I didn't think it necessary. Eric--Eric, you _weren't_ going away
without saying good-bye?"

He turned upon her so suddenly that she was frozen into silence.

"Would _you_ have had anything to say, if you hadn't promised Gaisford
not to communicate with me?"

"The usual things, Eric. I'd have told you what I was doing, I'd have
sent you my love. If you're tired of that, darling----"

"Not _that_, Barbara!"

Her eyes opened wide with distress.

"Eric, what's the matter? What have I done? Mayn't I even call you
'darling' now?"

"_Are_ you being quite honest, Barbara?"

"Thank you, Eric!"

"Have you nothing to tell me since last time?"

She looked at him imperiously and considered her words before speaking.

"The last time we met? Or the last time we corresponded? Which d'you
mean? The last time we corresponded was when your secretary telephoned
to thank me for the flowers. Before that, you sent me a message by her
that you probably wouldn't be well enough to take me to your first
night. . . . I'd have come round the evening before if Dr. Gaisford
hadn't made me promise not to. I've always said that I'd come to you
from the ends of the earth if you were ill. When I heard that you
weren't allowed to see any one----"

"It wasn't as bad as that," Eric interrupted. "Gaisford let me get up
for the first night. I--caught sight of you in the distance. But I left
after the first interval."


4

From the end of the table Lady Poynter was making desperate attempts to
attract Eric's attention.

"Mr. Lane, you're the only person who can tell us this----"

Barbara touched his wrist and nodded past him.

"Margaret's trying to speak to you," she said.

Eric galvanized his attention and turned with a murmur of apology.

"Mr. Lane, is it true that 'Mother's Son' was refused _three--times_?"
Lady Poynter asked. She could not have been more righteously indignant
if she had been judging the three denials of Saint Peter. "I've never
_heard_ of such a thing!"

"It wasn't quite in its present form," Eric explained. "The theme's the
same, but I've rewritten almost every word."

Lady Poynter nodded triumphantly.

"Ah! Then I was right!" she informed her neighbour, and Eric was free to
turn again to Barbara.

"Where had we got to?" he asked, after a moment's embarrassed silence.

"You came to the theatre after all. You saw me. You left after the first
interval," she reminded him fearlessly. "As you seem to be--drawing an
indictment, is that the phrase?--don't you think you'd better go on?"

"There's nothing more to say. Once or twice I wondered whether I should
get home alive; and, on my soul, I prayed the whole time that I
shouldn't. . . . I'm not drawing an indictment. I rather expected to
hear from you. . . . It wasn't easy waiting. . . . As for America, I
didn't see how it could possibly interest you. . . ." He broke off and
whispered to himself, "God! what those days of waiting were like! I
should have thought that, after what _you'd_ been through . . . in
common humanity----"

"And if I had nothing to tell you?" she interrupted.

For a moment Eric did not understand her. For all her self-possession,
there were shadows under her eyes, and she was haggard as on the night
when they first met. Jack's appearance, then, and their conversation
together had made no difference . . . no difference one way or the
other; she had not telephoned because there was nothing to tell him.

"I don't think I've anything more to say, Babs."

An arm interposed itself between them, and he looked down to see what
was being put before him. To his surprise they had only reached the
fish. He seemed to have been dining for an eternity!

"D'you care to hear what happened?" she asked.

"What d'you think I'm made of?" he muttered.

Barbara began eating her fish and telling her story at the same time. It
was short, and she gave it in jerky little sentences. George Oakleigh
had telephoned to say that he had two stalls for "Mother's Son" and
would be delighted if she would dine and go with him. . . . They arrived
and saw a certain number of friends. . . . At the end of the first act
George went out to smoke a cigarette. . . . She had just begun talking
to Gerry Deganway when she looked up and caught Jack's eye. . . . They
were both so much surprised that they became praeternaturally
natural. . . .

"I said: 'I've not seen you for a long time. I heard you were home.' He
said: 'I got back a fortnight ago.' I asked him how he was and whether
he'd had a very awful time in Germany. . . . And he laughed and said he
was glad, on the whole, that it was all over, but that he was a fair
German scholar now--or something of that kind--and he'd never have taken
the trouble to learn another language if it hadn't been for the war. . . .
I think he didn't find it easy to slip away; and I hate people leaning
over me, when they're talking, so I asked him to sit down till George
came back. _Then_ the only thing we talked about was his being wounded
and taken prisoner. I'd heard it all before, of course, but I felt I
couldn't bear it if we both stopped talking. . . . Then George came
along and shook hands. . . . And a moment later Jack went back to his
place. You see, there wasn't very much to tell you."

"But is that all?"

"Absolutely all," she sighed.

Eric lapsed into silence, wishing that his brain were not half
paralyzed. Then he glanced round the table, counting their numbers.

"Say you're too tired to play bridge, Babs," he begged. "Or say you want
to talk to me before I go away; we're such common property here that no
one will be surprised. It's our last chance; we may never meet
again----"

"But, Eric----?"

"Yes! . . . I haven't told even my own people. This is not blackmail,
because I arranged it all before I saw you; I never expected to see you
again after that night at the theatre. I was just trying to save
something out of the wreckage. . . . I'm going away nominally for three
months, but I'm not coming back. I could have got on happily enough, if
you'd never come into my life; but, once you were there, I couldn't get
rid of you. I couldn't go on living in England with you half a mile
away, carved out of my life . . . meeting you, seeing you--and knowing
that it was all over. I've looked on you as my wife; if you ran away
from me and lived with another man, I couldn't keep on a flat next to
yours. . . . I felt it at the theatre; I felt I must clear out; I
couldn't sink back to any passionless friendship. So I arranged to go
away and stay away. After three months I shall say that I'm going for a
holiday in South America--or Japan. I've been moving quickly the last
few days. This morning--and this afternoon--I knew that everything I was
doing was for the last time. And since I've seen you----"

He looked round apprehensively, fearful that he was being overheard.

"You're going away like this from your people? But they love you, Eric!
They're so proud of you! You'll break their hearts!"

"I shouldn't have done it eighteen months ago--before you took my
education in hand," he answered bitterly. "I've given myself heart _and_
soul to you."

He hardly cared now whether the servants or his neighbours heard him,
and Barbara had to press his knee to restrain him.

"Then will you do something for me?" she asked.

"What is it?"

"I want you to come back. Come back in three months, when they expect
you."

"And then?"

"I'm not asking for myself! I'm asking for them. You _can't_ be so
wicked! It's not like you; I don't know you when you talk like this.
You'd break their hearts!"

"I don't know that this comes well from you, Babs."

"Nothing comes well from me. But, if I can't undo the harm I've done, I
may at least stop adding to it. If you don't come back . . . When it's
too late, you'll never forgive yourself."

He shook his head and looked at her defiantly.

"You should have thought of that when we first met in this room. Only
one thing will bring me back or keep me from going."

"Dear Eric, don't start that again!"

"Thanks! It doesn't amuse _me_ to be strung up and cut down and strung
up again. . . . I was facing things--till Lady Poynter shewed the
devilish irony to arrange this meeting."

"Won't you come back for my sake?" she whispered.

"To be told that you're going to marry some one else?"

"You may not be told that. I don't know."

Eric was filled with a blaze of anger; he had to pause long before he
could be sure of his voice.

"You _still_ don't want to let me go? The pathetic invocation of my
mother----"

Barbara tried to speak and then turned away with a helpless shrug. Eric
woke from a trance to a thunder of opposing voices. Lady Poynter was
retailing the secret history of the latest political crisis and the
fall of the Coalition Government. His wheezing, well-fed host was
attacking the Board of Trade with ill-disguised venom. "They've cut down
imports to such an extent," he was saying, "that in six months' time you
won't be able to get a cigar fit to smoke. I went to my man this
morning--he's a fellow I've dealt with all my life, and my father before
me--he promised me _half_ a cabinet--and then made a favour of it!"
Another voice enquired in a drawl: "What is it exactly that you're
lecturing on, Mr. Lane?"

Barbara's head was still turned from him, and he resigned himself to the
reshuffle, noticing with surprise that a finger-bowl had been placed in
front of him. He could not remember having eaten anything since the
fish. And he had been drinking the rather sickly Gabarnac without
tasting it.

"You asked my opinion of this wine, sir," he said to Lord Poynter,
belatedly attentive; in a moment he was swallowed up in a discussion
which dragged its way through dessert until Lady Poynter pushed back her
chair and rustled majestically to the door.

She was hardly outside the room before his host sidled conspiratorially
into the empty chair next him.

"Do you know anything of still champagne?" he enquired darkly, as though
he were giving a pass-word.

"I've _drunk_ it, of course," answered Eric.

"Of course?" Lord Poynter echoed. "My dear friend, not one man in twenty
thousand of your generation has even _heard_ of still champagne. . . ."

It was all wonderfully like that first night fifteen months before. Lord
Poynter explained for the tenth time that he never allowed coffee to be
brought in until the port wine had circulated for twenty minutes. Not
for the first time he apologized for his brandy, retailed the tragedy of
the last bottle of Waterloo and, like a sluggard dragging himself from
bed, reluctantly moved the adjournment.

They arrived in the drawing-room to find three tables set for bridge.
Though he had asked her to talk to him, Eric was relieved to find
Barbara already playing; he had nothing more to say. There was nothing,
indeed, to keep a man whose train left Euston before noon next day. He
waited till Lady Poynter was dummy and then asked her to excuse him.

"Well, I expect you've a great deal to do," she said, shaking hands
reluctantly.

"Oh, Eric, aren't you going to take me home?"

Barbara threw out the question casually, but she found time to look up
and beseech him with her eyes.

"Are you going to be long?" he asked in the same tone.

"They're a game and sixteen. If you'll smoke _one_ cigarette . . ."

In the next hand Barbara was dummy. After spreading out her cards, she
looked round the room, picked up a review and two library novels from a
side table and, after a cursory glance, walked to the piano. The
bridge-players looked up, as she began to sing; an impatient, "It's you
to play, Lady Poynter," passed unheeded; and, one after another, they
laid down their hands.

          "_One fine day, we'll notice
    A thread of smoke arising on the sea
    In the far horizon,
    And then the ship appearing;--
    Then the trim white vessel
    Glides into the harbour, thunders forth her cannon.
    See you? He is coming!
    I do not go to meet him. Not I. I stay
    Upon the brow of the hillock and wait, and wait
    For a long time, but never weary
    Of the long waiting.
    From out the crowded city,
    There is coming a man--
    A little speck in the distance, climbing the hillock.
    Can you guess who it is?
    And when he's reached the summit
    Can you guess what he'll say?
    He will call 'Butterfly' from the distance.
    I, without answering,
    Hold myself quietly concealed,
    A bit to tease him, and a bit so as not to die
    At our first meeting: and then, a little troubled,
    He will call, he will call:
    'Dear baby-wife of mine, dear little orange-blossom!'
    The names he used to call me when he came here_. . . ."

"My dear, why don't you use that beautiful voice of yours more?" asked
Lady Poynter, as she ended.

Barbara's face was in shadow, but Eric could see that she was looking
across the room at him.

"Oh, not one person in ten million ever wants me to sing," she laughed,
as she came back to the table.

Five minutes later she opened her purse, pushed a note across to Lady
Poynter and came up to Eric with a smile of gratitude.

"I hope I haven't been long," she said. "Shall we see if we can find a
taxi?"


5

They crossed Belgrave Square and reached Hyde Park Corner in silence.
Then Eric felt a drag at his arm, and Barbara whispered: "I'm so tired!"

"I'm afraid there's not a taxi in sight," he said. "Shall we go by tube
to Dover Street?"

"We may meet a taxi. Eric, d'you remember the first time----"

He shook free of her arm, as though it were eating into his flesh.

"You felt the evening wouldn't be complete without that--after
'Butterfly'?" he asked.

Barbara stood still, swaying slightly until he caught her wrist.

"I'm shutting my eyes and thinking of the past, the time when we were
happy," she gasped. "I can't face the present."

"You can face it as philosophically as I can," he answered. "If love
were stronger than vanity . . . I don't blame you. I only blame myself
because I was fool enough to believe a woman's word, fool enough to
think that, if I gave her everything, she might give me something in
return; that, if I shewed her enough magnanimity, I might shame her into
being magnanimous. I was hopelessly uneducated in those days."

Barbara held up her hands as though each word struck her in the face.

"D'you _want_ to part like this?" she whispered. "Wouldn't you rather
remember the times when I came to you and cried--and you made me happy?
I came to you when I was ill; and you just kissed me or stroked my
forehead, and I was better. And once or twice, when you were ill, I came
to you and laid your head on my breast. . . . Wouldn't you rather
remember _that_, darling?"

"If I could only forget it, I shouldn't regret so bitterly the day when
we first met."

She swayed again and caught hold of the wooden standard of a porter's
rest. There was still no taxi in sight; Eric felt her pulse and dived
into his pocket for a flask. He had never before noticed the rest of its
inscription in honour of R. A. Slaney, for twenty-six years Member of
Parliament for Shrewsbury. . . .

"Take a sip of this," he ordered.

She drank obediently and thanked him with her eyes.

"I'm better. The first time we met I was fainting in the train. Before I
knew you. . . . And I loved you and dreamed of your love for me. I used
to hear your voice. . . . No one will ever look after me as you've done;
no one will ever understand or love or make allowances for me----"

As he restored the flask to his pocket, Eric saw that the time was
within a few minutes of midnight; in less than twenty-four hours he
would be at Liverpool; in less than twenty-four minutes he would have
lost the thing that was dearest to him in life.

"Barbara, you've seen Jack," he said. "He had his chance; he neglected
it. There's the answer we've been waiting for all these weary months. I
don't want to worry you when you're ill, but I can't charge my own
conscience with the knowledge that I've left undone anything which will
stop the present tragedy."

Though she opened her eyes slowly, there was now no trace of faintness
or exhaustion.

"He never had a chance! Eric, if you'll think for one moment--in a
crowded theatre, with people listening all round----"

"He could have written the moment he left Germany. He could have written
or seen you any time since that night. On the night itself he could have
asked you to let him come and see you. He didn't raise a finger! And you
still hypnotize yourself with one excuse after another--How much longer
are you going on?"

"I don't know, Eric." She covered her eyes for a moment and then rose to
her feet. "I'm bound in honour, as I've told you a hundred times. When I
know definitely----"

"Anything you know will have to be known to-night."

"But if you found a cable waiting for you in New York----"

"It would tell me what I know already--plus the fact that your vanity
had been convinced in spite of itself."

"I prefer 'honour' to 'vanity.'"

"Hadn't we better leave 'honour' out of the discussion?"

She looked at him for a moment, her mouth tightly shut; then, declining
his arm, she began walking slowly eastward. Opposite Bath House Eric
hailed an empty taxi and told the driver to take them to Berkeley
Square.

"You wouldn't like me to drop you in Ryder Street?" Barbara asked.

"Not even to gratify your love of artistic finish."

"How you hate me!" she whispered with a catch in her breath.

"No, I love you as much as ever; I need you more than ever. Whatever
happens to you, I wish you all happiness. You once undertook my
education, but I can tell you that you'll never find the happiness I'm
wishing you till you learn to sink yourself and think of other people."

Barbara looked at him like a startled animal, then looked away.

"Haven't I sunk myself, haven't I thought of Jack before any one else
for two and a half years?" she whispered.

"No, you've thought solely of yourself--with Jack as a limelight. At
this moment you're thinking less of Jack or me than of your _amour
propre_."

"You must be thankful to be rid of me after the way I've sacrificed you
to my vanity."

"You'll outgrow your vanity."

"Perhaps Jack still wants me in spite of the way I've behaved to _him_."

"Perhaps so. I shan't be here to see."

The taxi turned into Berkeley Street, and Eric held out his hand.

"Good-bye, Barbara," he said.

"Won't you come in for a moment?"

"No, thank you."

"Eric, you must! There's something I want to say to you! Eric, I _beg_
you to come in."

He opened the door without answering and stood on the kerb, ready to
help her out. She delayed so long that the driver turned curiously
round.

"Eric, please!" she entreated.

"Have you your latch-key?"

She gave a choking sob, as she mounted the steps, and Eric set his
teeth; suddenly losing control, she gripped him by the arm.

"Eric, you're _not_ going to-morrow!"

"Indeed I am."

"When?"

"That's immaterial. Good-bye."

He returned to the taxi and pressed himself into the corner, staring
ahead so that he should not see the familiar ermine coat on the
door-step. Barbara fumbled blindly with the lock and spun round, as the
taxi began slowly to turn. As the driver changed speed, she dropped her
key and ran twenty yards down the square, crying "Eric!"; but the
grinding of the gears drowned her voice.

The tail-light dwindled to a ruby pin-point and vanished. . . .

The telephone-bell was ringing, as Eric entered his flat. He unhooked
the receiver and tossed it on to his bed; but after a moment's silence
there broke out a persistent metallic buzzing, while the bells in the
other rooms rang with all their accustomed clarity. He began to undress;
but the merciless noise racked his nerves. There was nothing for it but
to tie a handkerchief round the clapper of the bell. . . .

Then he threw himself in shirt and trousers on the bed and buried his
face in his hands.

       *       *       *       *       *

    "_A man does not continue drinking corked champagne. With women, his
    palate is less critical._"--From the Diary of Eric Lane.


THE END





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