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Title: Happy House
Author: Riddle, Betsey, Stolzenberg, Freifrau von Hutten zum
Language: English
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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.

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HAPPY HOUSE

The BARONESS VON HUTTEN



HAPPY HOUSE

by

The BARONESS VON HUTTEN

Author of "Pam," "Pam Decides," "Sharrow," "Kingsmead," etc.



[Illustration]

New York
George H. Doran Company

Copyright, 1920,
By George H. Doran Company



_TO MISS LILY BETTS_


MY DEAR LILY: _We three, one of us in a chair, and two of us upside down
on the grass-plot, have decided that this book must be dedicated to you,
in memory of how we did not work on it at Sennen Cove, and how we did
work on it here. So here it is, with our grateful love, from_

  _Your affectionate_
  _Richard, and Hetty, and B. v. H._
  PENZANCE



HAPPY HOUSE



CHAPTER I


Mrs. Walbridge stood at the top of the steps, a pink satin slipper in
her hand, looking absently out into the late afternoon. The July
sunlight spread in thick layers across the narrow, flagged path to the
gate, and the shadows under the may tree on the left were motionless, as
if cut out of lead. The path was strewn with what looked like
machine-made snowflakes, and a long piece of white satin ribbon had
caught on the syringa bush on the right of the green gate, and hung like
a streak of whiter light across the leaves. Someone inside the house was
playing a fox-trot, and sounds of tired laughter were in the air, but
the well-known author, Mrs. Walbridge, did not hear them. She was
leaning against the side of the door, recklessly crushing her new grey
frock, and her eyes were fixed on the gate in the unseeing stare of
utter fatigue. Presently the music stopped and the sudden silence seemed
to rouse her, for, with a deep sigh and a little shake of the head that
was evidently characteristic, she turned and went slowly into the house.

A few minutes later a brisk-looking young man in a new straw hat came
down the street and paused at the gate, peering up at the fanlight to
verify his whereabouts. Number eighty-eight did not seem to satisfy
him, but suddenly his eyes fell on the gate. On its shabby green were
painted the words, very faded, almost undecipherable, "Happy House," and
with a contented nod the young man opened the gate and went quickly up
the steps. No one answered his ring, so he rang again. Again the silence
was unbroken, but from somewhere far off he heard the sound of laughter
and talking, and, peering forward into the little hall, he took a small
notebook from his pocket and wrote a few words in it, whistling softly
between his teeth. He was a freckled-faced young man with a tip-tilted
nose, not in the least like the petals of a flower, and with a look of
cheery cheekiness. After a moment he went into the passage and thrust
his head into the open drawing-room door. The room was filled with
flowers, and though the windows were wide open, it smelt close, as if it
had already been full of people. The walls were covered with pink and
white moiré paper, whose shiny surface was broken by various pictures.
Watts's "Hope" in a gilt frame dominated the mantelpiece; a copy of "The
Fighting Téméraire" faced it, and there were a good many photographs
elaborately framed, grouped, like little families, in clusters. Between
the windows hung an old, faded photogravure of "The Soul's Awakening,"
and "Alone at Last" revealed its artless passion over a walnut
chiffonier laden with small pieces of china. The young man in the straw
hat, which was now pushed far back on his sweat-darkened fair hair,
stood in the middle of the room and looked round, scratching his head
with his pencil. His bright eyes missed nothing, and although he was
plainly a young man full of buoyant matter-of-factness, there was scorn,
not unkindly, but decided, in his merry but almost porcine eyes as he
made mental notes of his surroundings.

"Poor old girl," he muttered. "Hang that 'bus accident. I wish I'd been
here in time for the party----" Then his shrewd face softened as the
deeper meaning of the room reached him. It was ugly; it was commonplace,
but it was more of a home than many a room his journalistic activities
had acquainted him with. By a low, shabby, comfortable-looking arm-chair
that stood near the flower-filled grate was a dark-covered table on
which stood five photographs, all in shiny silver or leather frames. Mr.
Wick stood over the table tapping his teeth softly with his pencil, and
moving his lips in a way that produced a hollow tune. "So that's the
little lot," he said to himself in a cheerful, confidential voice.
"Three feminines and two masculines, as the Italians say. And very nice
too. Her own corner, I bet. Yes, there's her fountain pen." He took it
up and made a note of its make and laid it carefully down. There was a
little fire-screen in the shape of a banner of wool embroidery on the
table. "That's how she keeps the firelight out of her eyes when she's
working in the winter. Poor old girl. What ghastly muck it is, too----
Good thing for her the public likes it. Now, then, what about that bell?
Guess I'll go and have another tinkle at it." He started to the door,
when it was pushed further open and the owner of the house came in. Mr.
Wick knew at the first glance that it was the owner of the house. A
fattish, middle-aged man in brand new shepherd's plaid trousers and a
not quite so new braided morning-coat.

"Hallo! I--I beg your pardon----" the new-comer began, not at all in
the voice of one who begs pardon. Mr. Wick waved his hand kindly.

"Oliver Wick's my name," he explained. "I come from _Round the Fire_ for
an account of the wedding, but I got mixed up with a rather good 'bus
smash in Oxford Street, and that's why I'm late."

"Oh, I see. Want a description of the wedding, do you? Clothes and so
on? I'm afraid I'm not much good for that, but if you'll come into the
garden I'll get one of my daughters to tell you. Some of the young
people are still there, as a matter of fact."

Mr. Walbridge had stopped just short of being a tall man. His
figure had thickened and spread as he grew older and his hips were
disproportionately broad, which gave him a heavy, clumsy look. In his
reddish, rather swollen face were traces of what had been great beauty,
and he had the unpleasant manner of a man who consciously uses his charm
as a means to attain his own ends.

"Come into the dining-room first and have a glass of the widow," he
suggested, as he led the way down the narrow passage towards an open
door at the back of the house.

Mr. Wick, who had no inhuman prejudice against conviviality, followed
him into the dining-room and partook, as his quick eyes made notes of
everything on which they rested, of a glass of warmish, rather doubtful
wine.

"I suppose Mrs. Walbridge will give me five minutes?" the young man
asked, setting down his glass and taking a cigarette from the very shiny
silver case offered him by his host. Mr. Walbridge laughed, showing the
remains of a fine set of teeth artfully reinforced by a skilled
dentist.

"Oh, yes. My wife will quite enjoy being interviewed. Women always like
that kind of thing, and, between you and me and the gate-post," he
poured some champagne into a tumbler and drank it before he went on,
"interviewers don't come round quite as they used in her younger days."

Mr. Wick despised the novels of the poor lady he had come to interview,
but he was a youth not without chivalry, and something in his host's
manner irritated him.

"She has a very good book public, anyhow, has Violet Walbridge. You
mustn't mind me calling her that. I shouldn't call Browning Mr.
Browning, you know, or Victoria Cross Miss Cross."

Walbridge nodded. "Oh, yes, they're pretty stories, pretty stories,
though I like stronger stuff myself. Just re-reading 'L'Assommoir'
again. Met Zola once when I was living in Paris. Always wondered how he
smashed his nose. Well, if you're ready, let's come down into the garden
where the ladies are."

The garden of Happy House was a long narrow strip almost entirely
covered by a grass tennis court, and bounded by a narrow, crowded,
neglected herbaceous border. As he stood at the top of the steep flight
of steps leading down to where the group of young people were sprawled
about in dilapidated old deck-chairs or on the grass, Mr. Wick's quick
eyes saw the herbaceous border, and, what is more, they understood it.
It was a meagre, squeezed, depressed looking attempt, and the young man
from Brondesbury knew instinctively that, whereas the tennis court was
loved by the young people of the family, the wild and pathetic flowers
belonged to the old lady he had come to interview. Somehow he seemed to
know, as he told his mother later, quite a lot about Violet Walbridge,
just through looking at her border.

The sun was setting now, and a little wind had come up, stirring the
leaves on the old elm under whose shade, erratic and scant, the little
group were seated. Three or four young men were there, splendid, if
rather warm, in their wedding garments, and several young women and
girls, the pretty pale colours of their fine feathers harmonising
charmingly with the evening. At the far end of the garden a lady was
walking, with a blue silk sunshade over her shoulder. As the two men
came down the steps Mr. Walbridge pointed to her.

"There's my wife," he said. "Shall I come and introduce you?"

"No, thank you. No, no, I'll go by myself," the young man answered
hastily, and as he went down across the lawn he heard a girl's voice
saying laughingly: "Reporter to interview Mrs. Jellaby." The others
laughed, not unkindly, but their laughter lent to Mr. Wick's approach to
Mrs. Walbridge a deference it might otherwise not have had. She had not
heard him coming, and was standing with her back to him, her head and
shoulders hidden by the delphinium-blue sunshade, and when she turned,
starting nervously at the sound of his voice, he realised with painful
acuteness that delphinium blue is not the colour to be worn by daylight
by old ladies. Her thin, worn face, in which the bones showed more than
in any face he had ever seen, was flooded with the blue colour that
seemed to fill all the hollows and lines with indigo, and her large
sunken eyes, on which the upper eyelids fitted too closely, must have
been, the young man noticed, beautiful eyes long ago. They were of that
most rare eye-colour, a really dark violet, and the eyebrows on the very
edge of the clearly defined frontal bone were slightly arched and well
marked over the temples. When he had told her who he was and his errand,
she flushed with pleasure and held out her hand to him, and he, whose
profession is probably second only to that of dentistry in its
unpopularity, was touched by her simple pleasure.

"My Chief thought the public would be interested in the wedding. He
tells me this daughter--the bride, I mean--was the original of--of--one
of your chief heroines."

Violet Walbridge led the way to an old, faded green garden seat, on
which they sat down.

"Yes, she's the original of 'Rose Parmenter,'" she helped him out
gently, without offence at his having forgotten the name. "I wish you
had seen her. But you can say that she was looking beautiful, because
she was----"

Mr. Wick whipped out his notebook and his beautifully sharpened pencil,
contrived a little table of his knees, and looked up at her.

"'Rose Parmenter'--oh, yes. That's one of your best-known books, isn't
it?"

"Yes, that and 'Starlight and Moonlight.' They sold best, though 'One
Maid's Word' has done very well. That," she added slowly, "has been done
into Swedish, as well as French and German. 'Queenie's Promise' has been
done into six languages."

Her voice was very low, and peculiarly toneless, but he noticed a little
flush of pleasure in her thin cheeks--a flush that induced him, quite
unexpectedly to himself, to burst out with the information that a friend
of his sister--Jenny _her_ name was--just revelled in his companion's
works. "Give me a box o' chocs," Kitty will say, "and one of Violet
Walbridge's books, and I wouldn't change places with Queen Mary."

Without being urged, Mrs. Walbridge gave the young man details he
wanted--that her daughter's name was Hermione Rosalind; that she was the
second daughter and the third child, and that she had married a man
named Gaskell-Walker--William Gaskell-Walker.

"He belongs to a Lancashire family, and they've gone to the Lakes for
their honeymoon." The author waved her thin hand towards the group of
young people at the other end of the lawn. "There's the rest of my
flock," she said, her voice warming a little. "The tall man who's
looking at his watch is my other son-in-law, Dr. Twiss of Queen Anne
Street, Cavendish Square. He married my eldest daughter, Maud, four
years ago. Their little boy was page to-day. He's upstairs asleep now."

As she spoke one of the girls in the group left the others and came
towards her and Wick.

"This is your daughter, too?" the young man asked, a little throb of
pleasure in his voice.

"Yes, this," Mrs. Walbridge answered, taking the girl's hand, "is my
baby, Griselda. Grisel, dear, this is Mr.--Mr.----"

"Wick," said the young man. "Oliver Wick."

"You've come to interview Mum?" Miss Walbridge asked, a little
good-natured raillery in her voice.

The young man bowed. "Yes. I represent _Round the Fire_, and my Chief
thought that the public would be interested in an account of the
wedding----" His eyes were glued to the young girl's face. She was very
small, and, he thought to himself, the blackest white girl he had ever
seen; so dark that if he had not known who she was he might have
wondered whether she were not the whitest black girl--her hair was
coal-black and her long eyes like inkwells, and her skin, smooth as
vellum, without a touch of colour, was a rich golden brown. She was
charmingly dressed in canary-coloured chiffon, and round her neck she
wore a little necklet of twisted strands of seed pearls, from which hung
a large, beautifully cut pearl-shaped topaz.

"I came to tell you, Mum," she went on, glancing over her shoulder at
one of the upper windows, "that Hilary's awake and bawling his head off,
and Maud wants you to go up to him."

Mrs. Walbridge rose and Wick noticed, although he could not have
explained it, how very different were her grey silk draperies from the
yellow ones of her daughter. She had, moreover, sat down carelessly, and
the back of her frock was crushed and twisted.

"It's my little grandson," she explained. "He's always frightened when
he wakes up. I'll go to him. Perhaps you'd like my daughter to show you
the wedding presents, Mr. Wick."

Oliver Wick was very young, and he was an ugly youth as well, but
something about him held the girl's attention, in spite of his being
only a reporter. This something, though she did not know it, was power,
so it was perfectly natural that the little, spoilt beauty should lead
him into the house to the room upstairs where the presents were set
forth. His flowery article in the next number of _Round the Fire_
expressed great appreciation of the gifts, but there was no detailed
account of them, and that was because, although he looked at them and
seemed to see what he was looking at, he really saw nothing but Miss
Walbridge's enchanting little face.

"Do you ever read any of Mum's novels?" the girl asked him at last, as
they stood by the window, looking down over the little garden into the
quiet, tree-bordered road.

The young man hesitated, and she burst out laughing, pointing a finger
of scorn at him.

"You've not?" she cried. "Own up. You needn't mind. I'm sure I don't
blame you; they're awful rubbish--poor old Mum! I often wonder who it is
_does_ read them."

As she finished speaking, the door into the back room opened, and Mrs.
Walbridge came out, carrying the little boy who had been crying. His
long, fat legs, ending in shiny patent leather slippers, hung limply
down, and his towsled fair head leant on her shoulder. He was dressed in
cavalier costume of velvet and satin, and his fat, stupid face was
blotted and blurred with tears. He looked so very large and heavy, and
Mrs. Walbridge looked so small and old and tired that the young man went
towards with his arms held out.

"Let me carry him down for you," he said. "He's too heavy----"

Griselda laughed. "My mother won't let you," she said gaily. "She always
carries him about. She's much stronger than she looks."

Mrs. Walbridge didn't speak, but, with a little smile, went out of the
room and slowly downstairs. Her daughter shrugged her shoulders.

"Mum's not only superannuated as to novels," she announced, smoothing
her hair in front of a glass; "she's the old-fashioned mother and
grandmother. She won't let us do a thing."

Her bright beauty had already cast a small spell on the young man, but
nevertheless he answered her in a flash:

"Do you ever try?"

She stared for a moment. In spite of his journalistic manner and what is
really best described as his cheek, Oliver Wick was a gentleman, and the
girl had instinctively accepted him as such. But at the abrupt, frank
censure in his voice she drew herself up and assumed a new manner.

"Now that you've seen the presents," she said, in what he knew she
thought to be a haughty tone, "I think I must get back to my friends."

He grinned. "Righto! Sorry to have detained you. But I haven't quite
finished my talk with Mrs. Walbridge. I'm sure she won't mind giving me
a few tips about her next book. Our people love that kind of
thing--_eat_ it."

He cast his eye about the pleasant sunny room, and then, as he reached
the door, stopped.

"I suppose this is _your_ room?" he asked, with bland disregard of her
manner.

"What do you mean?"

"Well--different kinds of pictures, you know; brown wallpaper, and
that's a good Kakemono. Hanabosa Iccho, isn't it?"

Miss Walbridge's face expressed surprise too acute to be altogether
courteous.

"I--I don't know," she said. "I know it's a very good one. Mother bought
it for Paul--that's my brother--he's very fond of such things--for his
birthday and at Christmas--his room is being painted, so some of his
things are in here."

The young man looked admiringly at the grey and white study of monkeys
and leaves.

"I've got an uncle who collects them," he said, "and that's a jolly good
one. I suppose that Mrs. Walbridge goes in for Japanese art too?"

"Poor mother!" The girl laughed. "She doesn't know a Kakemono from a
broomstick. Paul found that one at some sale and asked her to give it to
him."

They went slowly down the stairs, the girl's pretty white hand sliding
lightly along the polished rail in a way that put all thought of
Japanese art out of the young man's active mind. He was going to be a
great success, for he had the conquering power of concentrating not only
his thoughts but his feelings on one thing at a time; and for the moment
the only thing in the world was Griselda Walbridge's left hand.



CHAPTER II


Happy House was a big old house with rooms on both sides of the door,
and a good many bedrooms, but it was old-fashioned in the wrong way,
like a man's straw hat, say, of the early seventies. It was inconvenient
without being picturesque. There was only one bathroom, and the passages
were narrow. Most of the children had been born there, indeed all of
them except Paul, for the prudent Mrs. Walbridge had bought it out of
the proceeds of her first book, "Queenie's Promise"--a book that is even
now dear to thousands of romantic hearts in obscure homes. Paul had been
born in the little house at Tooting Bec, for there it was that the Great
Success had been written. In those days might have been seen walking
under the fine trees of the common, a little dowdy figure with a bustle
and flowing unhygienic draperies, that was the newly married Mrs.
Ferdinand Walbridge, in the throes of literary invention. But just
before the birth of Maud Evelyn the removal had been made; the hastily
gathered, inexpensive household gods had been carried by the faithful
Carter Paterson to Walpole Road and set up in their over-large, rather
dwarfing shrine. Those were the days of limitless ambition and mad, rosy
dreams, when Ferdinand was still regarded by his young wife much in the
way that Antony Trollope's heroines worshipped their husbands a short
time before. The romantic light of the runaway match still hung round
him and his extraordinary good looks filled her with unweakened pride.

They hung up Mr. Watts's "Hope," the beautiful and touching "Soul's
Awakening" (which, indeed, bore a certain resemblance to Walbridge at
that time), she arranged her little odds and ends of china, and her few
books that her father had sent her after the half-hearted reconciliation
following Paul's birth, and one of the first things they bought was a
gilt clock, representing two little cupids on a see-saw. Mrs.
Walbridge's taste was bad, but it was no worse than the taste of the
greater part of her contemporaries of her own class, for she belonged
body and soul to the Philistines. She hadn't even an artistic uncle
clinging to the uttermost skirts of the pre-Raphaelites to lighten her
darkness, and, behold, when she had made it, her little kingdom looked
good to her. She settled down light-heartedly and without misgivings, to
her quadruple rôle of wife, mother, housekeeper and writer. She had no
doubt, the delicate little creature of twenty, but that she could
"manage" and she had been managing ever since. She managed to write
those flowery sentimental books of hers in a room full of crawling,
experimental, loud-voiced babies; she managed to break in a series of
savage handmaidens, who married as soon as she had taught them how to do
their work; she managed to make flowers grow in the shabby, weed-grown
garden; she managed to mend stair-carpets, to stick up fresh wallpapers,
to teach her children their prayers and how to read and write; she
managed to cook the dinner during the many servantless periods. The fate
of her high-born hero and heroine tearing at her tender heart, while
that fabulous being, the printer's devil, waited, in a metaphorical
sense, on her doorstep. But most of all, she managed to put up with
Ferdinand. She had loved him strongly and truly, but she was a
clear-sighted little woman, and she could not be fooled twice in the
same way, which, from some points of view, is a misfortune in a wife. So
gradually she found him out, and with every bit of him that crumbled
away, something of herself crumbled too. Nobody knew very much about
those years, for she was one of those rare women who have no confidante,
and she was too busy for much active mourning. Ferdinand was an
expensive luxury. She worked every day and all day, believed in her
stories with a pathetic persistence, cherishing all her press
notices--she pasted them in a large book, and each one was carefully
dated. She had a large public, and made a fairly large, fairly regular
income, but there never was enough money, because Walbridge not only
speculated and gambled in every possible way, but also required a great
deal for his own personal comforts and luxuries. For years it was the
joy of the little woman's heart to dress him at one of the classic
tailors in Savile Row; his shirts and ties came from a Jermyn Street
shop, his boots from St. James's Street, and his gloves (he had very
beautiful hands) were made specially for him in the Rue de Rivoli. For
many years Ferdinand Walbridge (or Ferdie, as he was called by a large
but always changing circle of admiring friends) was one of the most
carefully dressed men in town. He had an office somewhere in the city,
but his various attempts at business always failed sooner or later, and
then after each failure he would settle down gently and not ungratefully
to a long period of what he called rest.

When the three elder children were eight, six and three, a very bad time
had come to "Happy House." Little had been known about it except for the
main fact that Mr. Walbridge was made a bankrupt. But Caroline Breeze,
the only woman who was anything like an intimate friend of the
household, knew that there was, over and above this dreadful business, a
worse trouble.

Caroline Breeze was one of those women who are not unaffectionately
called "a perfect fool" by their friends, but she was a close-mouthed,
loyal soul, and had never talked about it to anyone. But years
afterwards, when the time had come for her to speak, she spoke, out of
her silent observation, to great purpose. For a long time after his
bankruptcy Ferdie Walbridge walked about like a moulting bird; his
jauntiness seemed to have left him, and without it he wilted and became
as nothing. During this three years Mrs. Walbridge for the first time
did her writing in the small room in the attic--the small room with the
sloping roof and the little view of the tree-tops and sky of which she
grew so fond, and which, empty and desolate though it was, had gradually
grown to be called the study; and that was the time when Caroline Breeze
was of such great use to her. For Caroline used to come every day and
take the children, as she expressed it, off their mother's hands.

In '94 Mrs. Walbridge produced "Touchstones," in '95 "Under the Elms"
and in '96 "Starlight and Moonlight." It was in '98 that there appeared
in the papers a small notice to the effect that Mr. Ferdinand Walbridge
was discharged from his bankruptcy, having paid his creditors twenty
shillings in the pound.

Naturally, after this rehabilitation, Mr. Walbridge became once more his
charming and fascinating self, and was the object of many
congratulations from the entirely new group of friends that he had
gathered round him since his misfortune.

"Most chaps would have been satisfied to pay fifteen shillings in the
pound," more than one of these gentlemen declared to him, and Ferdie
Walbridge, as he waved his hand and expressed his failure to comprehend
such an attitude, really almost forgot that it was his wife and not
himself who had provided the money that had washed his honour clean.

Caroline Breeze, faithful and best of friends, lived up three pairs of
stairs in the Harrow Road, and one of her few pleasures was the keeping
of an accurate and minute record of her daily doings. Perhaps some
selections from the diary will help to bring us up to date in the story
of "Happy House."

_October_, 1894--_Tuesday._--Have been with poor Violet. Mr. Walbridge
has been most unfortunate, and someone has made him a bankrupt. It is a
dreadful blow to Violet, and poor little Hermy only six weeks old.
Brought Maud home for the night with me. She's cutting a big tooth. Gave
her black currant jam for tea. Do hope the seeds won't disagree with
her....

_Wednesday._--Not much sleep with poor little Maud. Took her round and
got Hermy in the pram, and did the shopping. Saw Mr. Walbridge for a
moment. He looks dreadfully ill, poor man. Told me he nearly shot
himself last night. I told him he must bear up for Violet's sake....

_A week later._--Went to "Happy House" and took care of the children
while Violet was at the solicitors. She looks frightfully ill and
changed, somehow. I don't quite understand what it is all about. Several
people I know have gone bankrupt, and none of their wives seem as upset
as Violet....

_November 5th._--Spent the day at "Happy House" looking after the
children. Violet had to go to the Law Courts with Mr. Walbridge. He
looked so desperate this morning that I crept in and hid his razors. He
dined at the King's Arms with some of his friends, and Violet and I had
high tea together. She looks dreadfully ill, and the doctor says she
must wean poor little Hermy. She said very little, but I'm afraid she
blames poor Mr. Walbridge. I begged her to be gentle with him, and she
promised she would, but she looked so oddly at me that I wished I hadn't
said it.

_November 20th._--Violet has moved into the top room next the nursery to
be nearer the children. I must say I think this is wrong of her. She
ought to consider her husband. He looks a little better, but my heart
aches for him.

_February_, 1895.--Violet's new book doing very well. Third edition out
yesterday. She's getting on well with the one for the autumn. Such a
pretty title--"Under the Elms." It's about a foundling, which I think is
always so sweet. She's very busy making over the children's clothes.
Ferdie (he says it is ridiculous that such an intimate friend as I am
should go on calling him Mr. Walbridge) has gone to Torquay for a few
weeks as he's very run down. Mem.--I lent him ten pounds, as dear Violet
really doesn't seem quite to understand that a gentleman needs a little
extra money when he's away. He was sweet about her. Told me how very
good she was, and said that her not understanding about the pocket money
is not her fault, as, of course, she is not quite so well born as he. He
is very well connected indeed, though he doesn't care to have much to do
with his relations. He's to pay me back when his two new pastels are
sold. They are at Jackson's in Oxford Street, and look lovely in the
window....

_November_, 1895.--Violet's new book out to-day--"Under the Elms"--a
sweet story. She gave me a copy with my name in it, and I sat up till
nearly two, with cocoa, reading it. Very touching, and made me cry, but
has a happy ending. I wish I had such a gift.

_January 13th_, 1896.--Just had a long talk with poor Ferdie. He is
really very unlucky. Had his pocket picked on his way home from the city
yesterday with £86 15s. 4d. in his purse. Does not wish to tell poor
Violet. It would distress her so. He had bought some shares in some kind
of mineral--I forget the name--and they had gone up, and he had been
planning to buy her a new coat and skirt, and a hat, and lovely presents
for all the children. He's such a kind man. He was even going to buy six
pairs of gloves for me. The disappointment is almost more than he can
bear. Sometimes I think Violet is rather hard on him. I couldn't bear to
see him so disappointed, so I am lending him £50 out of the Post Office
Savings Bank. He's going to pay me six per cent. It's better than I can
get in any other _safe_ investment. He's to pay me at midsummer.
_N.B._--That makes £60.

_February 12th_, 1896.--Paul's birthday. Went to tea to "Happy House."
Violet made a beautiful cake with white icing, and had squeezed little
pink squiggles all over it in a nice pattern. She gave him a fine new
pair of boots and a bath sponge. His daddy gave him a drum--a real
one--and a large box of chocolates.

_February 13th_, 1896.--Ferdie came round at seven this morning to ask
me to help nurse Paul. He was ill all night with nettle-rash in his
throat, and nearly choked, poor little boy. I've been there all day.
Susan told me Ferdie's grief in the night was something awful. It's a
good thing Violet does not take things so to heart. Odd about the
chocolate. It seems it's always given him nettle-rash.

_September 4th_, 1896.--Darling Hermy's second birthday. Her mother made
her a really lovely coat out of her Indian shawl. I knitted her a
petticoat. Dear Ferdie gave her a huge doll with real hair, that talks,
and a box of chocolates, which we took away from her, as Paul cried for
some. Ferdie had quite forgotten that chocolates poison Paul. He was
very wonderful this evening after the children had gone to bed. He had
made some money (only a little) by doing some work in the city, and he
had bought Violet a lovely pair of seed-pearl earrings. I suppose she
was very tired, because she was really quite ungracious about them, and
hurt his feelings dreadfully. There was also some trouble about the gas
man, which I didn't quite understand. But afterwards, when I had gone
upstairs to take a last look at the children, they had a talk, and as I
came downstairs I saw him kneeling in front of her with his head in her
lap. He has such pretty curly hair, and when I came in he came to me and
took my hand and said he didn't mind my seeing his tears, as I was the
same as a sister, and asked me to help influence her to forgive him, and
to begin over again. It was very touching, and I couldn't help crying a
little. I was so sorry for him. Violet is really rather hard. I
suggested to her that after all many nice people go bankrupt, and that
other women have far worse things to bear, and she looked at me very
oddly for a moment, almost as if she despised me, though it can't have
been that....

_September 30th_, 1896.--Have been helping Violet move her things back
into the downstairs room. Ferdie was so pleased. He brought home a great
bunch of white lilac--in September!--and put it in a vase by the bed. I
thought it was a lovely little attention.

_July 4th_, 1897.--A beautiful little boy came home this morning to
"Happy House." They are going to call him Guy, which is Ferdie's
favourite name. He was dreadfully disappointed it wasn't a little girl,
so that she could be named Violet Peace. He's so romantic. What a pity
there is no masculine name meaning Peace....



CHAPTER III


Mr. Oliver Wick's ideas of courtship were primitive and unshakable. On
one or two clever, ingenious pretexts he visited "Happy House" twice
within the month after his first visit, in order, as he expressed it to
himself, to look over Miss Walbridge in the light of a possible wife.
That he was in love with her he recognised, to continue using his own
language, "from the drop of the hat," "from the first gun." But although
he belonged to the most romantic race under the sun, Mr. Wick was no
fool, and whereas anything like a help-meet would have displeased him
almost to the point of disgust, he had certain standards to which any
one with claims to be the future Mrs. Oliver Wick must more or less
conform. He didn't care a bit about money--he felt that money was his
job, not the girl's--but she'd got to be straight, she'd got to be a
good looker, and she'd got to be good-tempered. No shrew-taming for
him--at least not in his own domestic circle.

One evening, shortly after his third visit to "Happy House," the young
man was standing at the tallboys in his mother's room in Spencer
Crescent, Brondesbury, tying a new tie over an immaculate dress shirt.

"I'm going to do the trick to-night," he declared, filled with pleasant
confidence, "or bust."

Mrs. Wick, who looked more like her son's grandmother than his mother,
sat in a low basket chair by the window, stretching, with an old, thin
pair of olive-wood glove stretchers, the new white gloves that were to
put the final touch of splendour to the wooer's appearance.

She was a pleasant-faced old woman, with a strong chin and keen, clear
eyes, and when she smiled she showed traces of past beauty.

"Well, of course," she said, snapping the glove-stretchers at him
thoughtfully, "you know everything--you always did--and far be it from
me to make any suggestions to you."

He turned round, grinning, his ugly face full of subtle likeness to her
handsome one.

"Oh, go on," he jeered, "you wonderful old thing! Some day your pictures
will be in the penny papers as the mother of Baron Wick of Brondesbury.
Of course I know everything! Look at this tie, for instance. A
Piccadilly tie, built for dukes, tied in Brondesbury by Fleet Street.
What's his name--D'Orsay--couldn't do it better. But what were you going
to say?"

She laughed and held out the gloves. "Here you are, son. Only this. I
bet you sixpence she won't look at you. She'll turn you down; refuse
you; give you the cold hand; icy mit--what d'you call it? And then,
you'll come back and weep on my shoulder."

Mr. Wick, who had taken the gloves, stood still for a minute, his face
full of sudden thought.

"She may," he said, "she may. I don't care if she does. I tell you she's
lovely, mother. She'd look like a fairy queen if the idiots who paint
'em realised that fairies ought to be dark, and not tow-coloured. Of
course she'll refuse me a few times, but her father'll be on my side."

"Why?"

"Because he's a rather clever old scoundrel, and he'll know that I'm a
succeeder--a getter."

The old woman looked thoughtful. "I haven't liked anything you told me
about _him_, Olly. But, after all, he has paid up, and lots of good men
have been unfortunate in business."

The young fellow took up his dress-coat, which was new and richly lined,
and drew it on with care.

"Oh, I'm not marrying into this family because I admire my future
father-in-law," he answered. "I haven't any little illusions about him,
old lady. It's his wife who's done the paying, or I'm very much
mistaken. She's an honest woman--poor thing."

There was such deep sympathy in his voice that his mother, who had
risen, and was patting and smoothing the new coat into place on his
broad shoulders, pulled him round till he faced her, and looked down at
him, for she was taller than he.

"Why are you so sorry for her?"

He hesitated for a moment, and his hesitation meant much to her.

"I don't know. She never says anything, of course. She seems happy
enough, but I believe--I believe she's found him out----"

"God help her," Mrs. Wick answered.

The young man remembered this episode as he sat opposite his hostess at
dinner an hour and a half later. The dining-room had been re-papered
since he had drunk that glass of luke-warm wine in it the day of
Hermione's wedding, and his sharp eyes noticed the absence of several
ugly things that had been there then. Stags no longer hooted to each
other across mountain chasms over the sideboard, and one or two good
line drawings hung in their place.

"How do you like it?" Griselda asked him. "Paul and I have been cheering
things up a bit."

"Splendid," he replied promptly. "I say, how beautiful your sister is!"

Griselda's rather hard little face softened charmingly as she looked
across the table, where the bride was sitting. Hermione Gaskell-Walker
was a very handsome young woman in an almost classical way, and her
short-sighted, clever-looking husband, who sat nearly opposite her,
evidently thought so too, for he peered over the flowers at her in
adoration that was plain and pleasing to see.

"They've such a jolly house in Campden Hill. His father was Adrian
Gaskell-Walker, the landscape painter, and collected things."

Mr. Wick nodded, but did not answer, for he was busy making a series of
those mental photographs, whose keenness and durability so largely
contributed to his success in life. He had an amazing power of storing
up records of incidents that somehow or other might come in useful to
him, and this little dinner party, which he had decided to be a
milestone on his road, interested him acutely in its detail.

By candlelight, in perfect evening dress, Ferdinand Walbridge's slightly
dilapidated charms were very manifest. On his right sat an elderly lady
about whom Mr. Wick's apparatus recorded only one word--pearls.

Next to her came Paul Walbridge, looking older than his twenty-nine
years--thin, delicate, rather high shouldered, with remarkably glossy
dark hair and immense soft, dove-coloured eyes. He looked far better
bred, the young man decided, than he had any right to look; his hands,
in particular, might have been modelled by Velasquez.

"Supercilious----" Wick thought, and then paused, not adding the "ass"
that had come into his mind, for he knew that Paul Walbridge was not an
ass, although he would have liked to call him one.

Next Paul came the beautiful Hermione, with magnificent shoulders white
as flour, and between her and her mother sat a man named Walter
Crichell, a portrait painter, one of the best in the secondary school--a
man with over-red lips and short white hands with unpleasant, pointed
fingers.

"That fellow's a stinker," Wick decided, never to change his mind.

Next came the hostess, thin, worn, rather silent, in the natural
isolation of an old woman sitting between two young men, each of whom
had youth and beauty on his far side.

Then, of course, came Oliver himself and Grisel. Next to Grisel,
Gaskell-Walker, the lower part of whose face was clever, but who would
probably find himself handicapped by the qualities belonging to too
high, too straight a forehead; and next him, consequently on the host's
left, sat Crichell's wife. Young Wick could not look at her very
comfortably without leaning forward, but he caught one or two glimpses
of her face as Walbridge bent over her, and promised himself a good look
in the drawing-room. She was worth it, he knew. A soft, velvety brown
creature, a little on the fat side, but rather beautiful. It was plain,
too, that the old man admired her.

Mr. Wick studied his host's face for a moment as he thus completed his
circle of observation, and so strong were his feelings as he looked at
Mr. Walbridge that quite unintentionally he said "Ugh!" aloud.

"What did you say?" It was Mrs. Walbridge who spoke--her first remark
for quite a quarter of an hour--and in her large eyes was the anxious,
guilty look of one who has allowed herself to wool-gather in public.

Wick started, blushed scarlet, and then burst out laughing at his
dilemma.

"I didn't say anything," he answered. "I was only thinking. I beg your
pardon, Mrs. Walbridge."

Her worn face softened into a kind smile, and he noticed that her teeth
were even and very white.

"It is awful, isn't it," she said, "to--to get thinking about things
when one ought to be talking? I'm afraid I'm very dull for a young man
to sit next."

"Oh, come, Mrs. Walbridge," he protested, "when you know how they all
lapped up that article I wrote about you."

She bridled gently. "It was a very nice article." After a minute she
added anxiously, her thin fingers pressing an old blue enamel brooch
that fastened the rather crumpled lace at her throat: "Tell me, Mr.
Wick, do you--do you really think that--that people like my books as
much as they used to?"

"You must have a very big public," he answered, wishing she had not put
the question.

"Yes, I know I have, but--you see, of course I'm not young any more, and
the children--they know a great many people, and bring some of them here
and--I've noticed that while they are all very kind, they don't seem to
have--to have really read my books."

"Don't they?" said Wick, full of sympathy. "Dear me!"

She shook her head. "No, they really don't, and I've been wondering
if--if it is that they're beginning to find me--a little old-fashioned."

What he wanted to say in return for this was: "But, bless your heart,
you _are_ old-fashioned, the old-fashionest old dear that ever lived!"
What he did say was: "Well, I suppose lots of people think Thackeray and
Dickens old-fashioned----" But when Grisel turned just then and fired
some question at him, he felt a weak longing to mop his brow. It had
been a narrow escape, and he would not have hurt the old lady's feelings
for worlds. Something about this faded, exhausted-looking little old
literary bee touched the young fellow in a quite new way.

"Gosh!" he thought; "now if it was mother, she wouldn't let people think
her old-fashioned; she wouldn't _be_ old-fashioned. My word, wouldn't
she just sit up at night and write something to beat Wells, and Elinor
Glyn, and the rest of them into a cocked hat!"

Grisel, in white--white that would have done very well, he thought, in
Grosvenor Square or St. James's--was in her best mood that night, and as
they talked he felt himself slipping lower and lower into the
abyss--that pleasant abyss on the edge of which he had hovered so many
times before without letting himself go.

It was then that the question of Bruce Collier's book rose. It was
Crichell who brought up the subject, and as he described the book he
enthusiastically waved his peculiarly white hands, which Mr. Wick
thought, with some disgust, looked as if they were on the point of
sprouting into horrid white tubers like potatoes in a dark cellar.

"The finest book I've read for years," he declared. "Magnificent piece
of work."

"Walter's quite mad about it," his wife put in, leaning forward and
making motions with her hand and throat like those of a sunning pigeon.
"He dined with us last night--Mr. Collier--and he's an extraordinary
creature. Never touched a drug in his life, yet he knows all about
it--and as for the other things----" she shrugged her shoulders and
laughed. Her husband shook his fist at her.

"Now, Clara," he said, "curb that tongue of yours, my dear, or you'll
shock Mrs. Walbridge. Have you read the book, Mrs. Walbridge, 'Reek'?"

The little writer shook her head. "No, I haven't very much time for
reading. I've just read 'The Rosary.' What a delightful book it is!"

Grisel stretched her hand across Wick and took hold of her mother's.

"Never mind, darling, you shan't be teased, and you mustn't read 'Reek.'
I shouldn't dream of allowing you to."

Walbridge, in whose handsome, swollen eyes a new little flame was
showing, looked up from a whispered talk with Mrs. Crichell and smiled
at his wife.

"No, darling," he agreed, "I can't have you reading such books. It would
ruin your style. I'm sure Mr. Wick agrees with me, don't you, Mr. Wick?
Mr. Wick is a great admirer of your books," he added in an insufferable
way.

She didn't speak, but Wick saw her thin lips quiver a little, and
hastened to answer:

"I'm only a business man, Mr. Walbridge, and know nothing at all about
literature, but I know this much--I bet the chap who wrote 'Reek' would
give his eye-tooth to have Mrs. Walbridge's sales!"

Hermione Gaskell-Walker raised her heavy-lidded eyes and smiled at him
gratefully, as she murmured, "Darling mum," and, stimulated by his
success, Mr. Wick ended the conversation by saying firmly, as Mrs.
Walbridge caught the eye of the pearl lady: "Filthy book, anyhow; not
fit to be read by ladies----"

       *       *       *       *       *

Some hours later a not very crestfallen young man sat in the small
dining-room of 11, Spencer Crescent, Brondesbury, and ate poached eggs
on toast--he was always ready for poached eggs--and announced to his
dressing-gowned and beslippered mother that the lady of his choice had
rejected him.

"Couldn't dream of it," he announced cheerfully, reaching for butter
with his own knife in a way only permissible at such out-of-hour meals.
"She pretended to be surprised, you know, and then, when that didn't
work, she tried to assume that I was mad. Pretty little piece, she is,
mother. Dimples in her lovely face she's got, and eyes like two little
black suns, shining away----"

His mother coughed drily. "You don't seem remarkably cast down," she
observed, rubbing her nose with her thumb--a broad and capable thumb,
"and here was I wasting my tissue in an agony of fear about my
broken-hearted boy."

He cocked his head as little snub-nosed dogs do, indeed, he all but
cocked one ear, and his eyes twinkled.

"You and your tissue, indeed! You don't think I thought she was going
to jump down my throat, do you? I'd hate a girl who took me first time.
I like being refused--looks well. I hope she'll refuse me three or four
times more."

"If she could see you eat poached eggs in your shirt-sleeves, with all
the varnish off your hair, she'd go on refusing you to the crack o'
doom," retorted the old lady.

Then they went to bed, and in five minutes the rejected one was snoring
comfortably.



CHAPTER IV


"Roseleaves and Lavender," Violet Walbridge's last novel, was selling
pretty well, but a few days after the dinner party the author left her
house about half-past eleven, mounted a No. 3 bus, settled herself in
the prow and travelled down to the Strand in answer to a rather pressing
invitation from her publishers.

It was a fine October morning, with a little tang in the air, so
windless that some early falling leaves left their boughs with an air of
doubt and travelled very slowly, almost hesitatingly, towards the earth.
All the smoke went straight up into the sky, and several caged birds on
the route were singing loudly outside their windows. The bus was full of
people, more or less all of them of the type who made Mrs. Walbridge's
public, and there were, without doubt, several girls sitting almost
within reach of her who would have felt it in the nature of an adventure
to meet the author of "Queenie's Promise" and "One Maid's Word." It is
interesting to think that there are fewer people who would genuinely
thrill at the sight of George Meredith, if he were still alive, than
would thrill at having met such a writer as Violet Walbridge. But no one
knew who the little, dowdily dressed woman was, and her journey to
Charing Cross was uneventful. God, who gives all mercies, gave the gift
of vanity, and Mrs. Walbridge, although very humble-minded, was not
without her innocent share in the consoling fault. More than once she
had given herself the pleasure of telling some casually met stranger
who she was. Once her yearly holiday at Bexhill had been given a glow of
glory by the fact that she had by chance found the chambermaid at the
little hotel, engrossed to the point of imbecility in "Starlight and
Moonlight." Delicately, shyly, she had made known to the girl the fact
of her identity, and the reverence, almost awe, of the poor ignorant
servant in meeting the author of that splendid book had made her very
happy for many hours.

Another time a working man in a train had been quarrelling with his wife
for the possession of a torn copy of "Aaron's Rod" (a book which Mrs.
Walbridge privately considered a little strong), and as she got out of
the train and the man handed her down her holdall, she had thrown the
exciting information of her identity into his face and run for her life,
feeling herself akin to Dickens, Miss Ethel M. Dell, Robert Louis
Stevenson, and all the other great ones of the earth. But these splendid
events had never been frequent, and of late years they had almost ceased
to occur. And as the little lady got off the bus at Charing Cross and
blundered apologetically into a tall, rosy-faced girl, who clutched _The
Red Magazine_ to her breast, she wondered wistfully if the girl would
have been delighted if she had told her.

       *       *       *       *       *

Messrs. Lubbock & Payne, publishers, had their offices in the Strand,
and Mrs. Walbridge's appointment was for half-past eleven. She felt a
little nervous and depressed as she went up in the lift, for Mr. Lubbock
was a very imposing man, whose fine bay-windowed waistcoat always
overawed her a little. However, it was probably the glory of the golden
autumn day that had got on her nerves. She was always sad on such days,
so she tried to look bold and successful as she passed Wheeler, the old
clerk, Mr. Lubbock's right-hand man, whom she had known for a quarter of
a century.

Wheeler, however, did not respond to her remarks about the weather as he
had once done, and when she had waited nearly half an hour her
depression had grown still greater, and she was finally ushered into the
inner office with hands and feet icy with fear.

Harrison Lubbock, a large, abnormally clean-looking old gentleman, with
a ruff of silky white hair round his polished scalp, greeted her kindly,
but without enthusiasm.

"I've asked you to call, Mrs. Walbridge," he began at once with a
pronounced glance at the clock, "on a little matter of business. Mr.
Payne and I have been talking things over of late--business matters you
understand--and we have come to the conclusion that there are one or two
of our authors to whom a few words of advice might be of use." He
paused, and she looked at him anxiously.

"I see," she said, her face growing a little paler. "I--I'm one of those
authors?"

He bowed, and the soft folds of his beautifully shaved double chin
dropped a little lower over his high collar.

"Yes, yes, quite so. You're a very old, shall I say, client?--of
ours----"

She would have liked to reply that at that moment the word patient might
be more applicable to her, but she dared not, and after a moment he went
on:

"I think we may say that we are very old friends."

This was awful. She was no business woman, and she had little knowledge
of the world, but even she knew that it meant danger, in an interview
avowedly a business interview, when friendship was invoked. She
stammered something, and he went on:

"Your books have sold--sell--very well, on the whole. We have done our
best for them, and, as you know, the cost of publishing and
advertising--particularly advertising--has nearly doubled since the
war."

Again he paused, and this time she bowed, being afraid to say that she
knew conditions were such that her percentage on sales had gone down,
while the sale price of her books had gone up to seven and six. She
noticed Mr. Lubbock's sleeve-links; they were new ones and very neat, of
gold and platinum. How she wished she could buy a pair like that for
Paul! In the old days her envy would have been for Ferdie. Mr. Lubbock
cleared his throat, fitted his fat finger-tips neatly together, and
began to be sprightly.

"Amazing how the output of books of fiction has increased of late years,
isn't it? Dear me, I can remember when 2250 would have been considered a
big output, and now there are so many good writers, so many excellent
writers, Mrs. Walbridge, that we are forced by competition and market
conditions to bring out nearly three times that number. I wonder if you
have kept up with the new writers," he went on after a pause, "Mrs.
Levett, Joan Kelly, Austen Goodheart, and so on--and Wanda Potter. Wanda
Potter's last book sold over a hundred thousand."

"I haven't read any of them, I'm afraid. I've so little time----" She
tried to smile and felt as if her lips were freezing.

"Just so, just so; exactly what I was saying to Payne. 'Mrs. Walbridge
is a very busy woman,' I said to Payne. 'She hasn't time--she can't be
_expected_ to have time--to read all these things, so it's quite natural
that--that----'" He broke off, and taking up a little bronze figure of a
poodle, that served as a paper weight, he examined it carefully for a
moment. "I'm sure you understand what I mean, Mrs. Walbridge," he said
at last.

She was looking at the corner of his polished mahogany writing table;
she was looking at two carefully jointed bits of wood, finely grained
and smoothly welded together, but what she saw was "Happy House"; Ferdie
and his new cedar cigar chest yawning to be filled; of an unpaid
tailor's bill; of his annual cough (Ferdie coughed himself regularly to
Torquay every autumn); she saw Paul and his new edition de luxe of
Swinburne, and the Rowlandson "Horse Fair" he had taken her to see in
King Street, St. James's--the "Horse Fair" that was to cost "only
eighteen guineas." She saw the little sea-green frock that hung in the
great Frenchman's window in Hanover Square, the little frock that would
look so beautiful on Grisel. She saw a vision of a hecatomb of roasts of
beef and saddles of mutton, and oysters, and burgundy, that she was
longing to offer up to her family gods. She saw the natural skunk coat
she had been planning to give to poor dear Caroline for Christmas. She
saw the new bathroom, on which the men were already working, that was to
be Grisel's. Then these things passed away, and the corner of the table
again appeared, and Mr. Lubbock was saying, in that kind, dreadful voice
of his: "I feel quite sure that you understand our position, Mrs.
Walbridge, and, after all, the reduction is not of very great
consequence."

Before she could speak the telephone bell rang. He took up the receiver
and bent forward, politeness and courtesy expressed in every line of his
big figure as clearly as if the telephone had been a person he was
speaking to.

"Oh--oh, yes, is that you, Payne?" she heard him say. "Yes, what an odd
coincidence, she's here with me now!" and Mrs. Walbridge knew that it
was no coincidence; that they had planned it all out between them, and
for a moment she had a wild idea of flight. She would run and run down
the narrow, dusty stairs and out into the street, and not hear any of it
said. It seemed that she could bear the reduction of her money, but that
she could not bear it discussed by these two men who held not only her,
but "Happy House" and everybody in "Happy House" in the hollow of their
hands. But she dared not move, and presently Mr. Payne came in.

Mr. Payne was a little, yellowish-pink man, who looked like a weazel. He
had lashless and browless blue eyes, and his nose was sharp and his
teeth looked very sharp. He was brisk and brusque in his manner, and he
dashed at the subject of the smaller price for the next book with an
abruptness that was only one degree more bearable than Mr. Lubbock's
smoothness.

"Yes, yes," he declared, shaking hands rather violently. "I knew you
understood, Mrs. Walbridge, didn't I, Lubbock? 'Mrs. Walbridge is a
business woman,' I said, 'and of course she'll understand that the war
has changed things very considerably, to say nothing of the--of
the--ah--inevitable march of time.'"

"I was telling Mrs. Walbridge," Lubbock joined in, "that I thought it
would be a good plan for her to read some of the new books. Haven't we
got Wanda Potter's 'Rice Paper'? Excellent story, excellent--and sells
well." He called up someone on the telephone, and smiling into it,
working his rough eyebrows genially, he gave orders for someone named
Briggs to get Miss Potter's last book for Mrs. Walbridge. "Wait a
minute, George. What other ones would you suggest? Oh, yes, and Mr.
Goodheart's 'New Odyssey.' Useful book that," to Mrs. Walbridge. "You
take them, with our compliments, and just--just go through them----"

Mrs. Walbridge had risen and stood before the table, her hands clutching
very hard at her shabby leather bag.

Mr. Payne was about to speak, when something in her face stopped him.
They had known her for years. They had treated her very well, and they
had made a great deal of money out of her. But both of them felt at that
moment that until then they had never quite known her. Her face was very
white, and her immense hollow eyes were full of almost unbearable
misery. But it was the bravery of her that struck them both.

"Do I understand," she said quietly, "that you mean that I am
old-fashioned--too old-fashioned?" They did not answer, and she went on,
not realising that they both felt that she had turned the tables on
them. "You mean that my books don't sell so well as they did because
they are not up to date, because I'm--old."

"Good gracious, Mrs. Walbridge," broke in Mr. Payne, with the horrid
facetiousness of well-meaning vulgarity, "what an idea! We simply mean
that because you are so busy you have not had time to--how shall I say
it?--to keep exactly up to date. But a lady with your gifts and your
great experience is not going to pretend that she finds any difficulty
in changing this----"

She bowed. "Thank you, Mr. Payne. I think I understand. My new book
would have been ready in a few days, but if you can give me an extra
fortnight, I'll go through it again and try to--to modernise it a
little."

Then she said good morning, and went quietly out.

Mr. Lubbock let himself heavily down into his swivel chair.

"Dear me," he said, being a man of unblemished vocabulary, "that was
very unpleasant, Payne."

Mr. Payne lit a cigarette. "It was beastly," he retorted, blinking
rapidly through the smoke. "Upon my word, it's quite upset me. Poor old
thing! She'll never be able to do it, Lubbock. Never in this world. By
God, it's quite upset me! I'll have a pint of champagne for my lunch."

       *       *       *       *       *

Violet Walbridge had a little shopping to do. She had to go to
Sketchley's to get some blouses that had been cleaned for Griselda; she
went to Selfridges for a paper box of opened oysters for Paul, who was
at home with a cold; and she had two bills to pay in Oxford Street. When
these things were done, and she had bought a bunch of chrysanthemums
from a flower-girl, she took her place near the kerb and waited for her
bus. And then it was that the malicious gods struck her their final blow
for that day. Two young women stood near her, laden with parcels,
cheerfully talkative. One of them had been to a dance the night before;
the other one's baby had a new tooth, a very remarkable tooth, it
seemed, and both of them were in a state of pleasant turmoil and fret
about frocks that they were having made. Mrs. Walbridge listened to them
innocently, standing first on one foot and then on the other to rest
herself, her various parcels hugged close under her arms, the oysters
borne like a sacred offering in both hands.

"Dear me," one of the young women said suddenly, "it's after one
o'clock!"

Mrs. Walbridge started, for one o'clock was her lunch hour, and her
husband was very particular about punctuality in others.

"I meant to pop in to the _Times_ Book Club and get something to read,"
declared the mother of the baby with the new tooth, "but it's too late.
Have you read that thing 'Reek'? I've forgotten who it's by--somebody
new."

"No. I've been down for it for days and days, but I can't get it. I've
read a splendid new book, though--Wanda Potter's 'Rice Paper'--awfully
clever, and Joan Kelly's 'Ploughshares.'"

"I had an ulcerated tooth the other day," answered her friend, "and
couldn't go out, and sent Winnie to Boots' with a list of books, and
they were all out, so that nice red-haired girl--_you_ know--picked out
some herself and sent me, and guess what one of them was. Violet
Walbridge's last one--'Rosemary and Lavender'--or something----"

The other one laughed. "Oh, I know. 'Sage and Onions,' George calls it.
_Awful_ trash--can't stand her nowadays."

A bus arrived at that moment, and the two young women going on top, Mrs.
Walbridge crept inside, and sat crushed between two large uncomfortable
women, her face bent over the oysters.

"'Sage and Onions,'" she kept repeating under her breath, "'Sage and
Onions'----"

Ferdie was very much annoyed because she was late for lunch, and called
her very selfish to be out parading the streets doing idiotic errands
when she ought to be at home.



CHAPTER V


"Lord Effingham" was the book on which Mrs. Walbridge was at work, and
she sat the greater part of the next three nights reading the books that
Mr. Lubbock had given her, with a view to freshening up her nearly
finished novel. She could not read during the day, because she had too
much to do.

The plumbers had played havoc with the house in getting the new bathroom
in, and the cook had to leave even more unexpectedly than cooks
generally leave because her only sister was marrying and she had to go
home and look after her mother. This domestic complication is familiar
to many, but it didn't make it any easier for Mrs. Walbridge. Nor did
things improve when Maud Twiss and her husband went for a second
honeymoon to Ireland, leaving little Hilary at "Happy House."

Mrs. Walbridge loved her grandson; but he was a querulous, spoilt child,
and at the best of times his presence was upsetting. Now, with no cook,
with plumbers and the dreadful necessity of modernising "Lord
Effingham," the little boy nearly drove her mad.

One morning, about four weeks after her interview with Mr. Lubbock, she
was sitting in her little attic at the back of the house, surrounded by
closely written sheets of foolscap into which she had red-inked her
desperate efforts at enlivening--Lady Tryx, the heroine, had started on
a new career of endless cigarettes and cocktails, and a hitherto
blameless housemaid, who at first had been dismissed by an unkind
countess on a charge of theft, was now burdened with an illegitimate
baby; but even this failed to brighten up the dull level of decency that
was so discouraging to the publishers. Violet Walbridge was a failure at
illegitimacy and lawless passion, and, what was worse, she knew it.

It was cold up in the attic, for there was no fireplace, and something
had gone wrong with her oil-stove. Paul had promised to see to it before
going to the City that morning, but he had forgotten, so his mother had
to put an old flannel dressing-gown on over her ordinary clothes and
wrap her aching feet in a shawl. Her hands were covered with red ink,
for her cheap stylographic pen leaked, and her pretty black hair, wavy
and attractively threaded with white, was tumbled and loose.

She was utterly discouraged and unhappy about the book. "Lord
Effingham," with ridiculous perseverance, insisted on pursuing his so
blightingly blameless career. Her effort had put the book, such as it
was, completely out of shape, and she could have cried with despair as
she sat there staring through the curtainless window at the sky. Her
burden was so very great, and it made it worse, although she had always
prided herself on keeping her secret, that no one knew how utterly
dependent the whole household of "Happy House" was on her books.

Her husband had an office and regarded himself as a business man; Paul
worked in a bank, and poor Guy had been called up and was in France. (He
had been with some stockbrokers in the City.) But none of them had ever
contributed anything serious to the upkeep of the house.

Paul's salary was small, and his mother considered that the poor boy
really needed all that he made, because he was one of those people who
are very dependent on beautiful surroundings. He was a poet, too, and
had written some charming verse, most of which was still unpublished,
but every line of which was carefully copied in a vellum covered book
someone had sent to his mother one Christmas from Florence.

Somehow that morning her mind was full of the now long absent Guy. Guy
was the troublesome one. They were all tabulated in her mind--Hermione
being the beauty, and Maud, "my eldest girl," while Paul was artistic.

There had been scrapes in Guy's early days (he was only twenty-one now).
Certainly his tendencies had been inherited from his father--full grown
cap-â-pie tendencies they were, sprung whole, it seemed, from Ferdie's
brain, as Pallas Athene sprang from her father, Zeus's. The boy was fond
of billiards and devoted to horses, and there had been a time--a very
tragic time--when he had shown signs of being too fond of whisky and
soda. But that was past. Twice he had been home on leave from the front,
and he had undoubtedly improved in many ways.

A year ago there had been an Entanglement--(Mrs. Walbridge thought of it
with a capital in her mind)--with a young Frenchwoman in Soho, but that
too seemed to have died down and now that the war was certainly going to
end before long--this dreadful war to which we in England had so
dreadfully become accustomed--he would be coming back. She sighed, for
Guy's return would mean an even severer strain on her resources. He was
rather a dandy and fond of clothes, but he had grown and expanded of
late, and would need new things.

She looked down with something very much like hatred at the impeccable
"Lord Effingham," whose persistent virtue and the wholesome tendencies
of whose female friends were such drawbacks to her living children.

She struggled on and wrote a few pages, realising that the
interpolations she had made were as clumsy and damaging to her story as
were the red ink words that expressed them to the fair sheets of her
manuscript.

Presently she heard footsteps, and a familiar little cough, coming up
the stairs. It was Ferdinand coming, she knew, for a talk with her about
his visit to Torquay.

"Dear me, Violet, why can't you write downstairs like a Christian," he
began fretfully, turning up his coat collar and plunging his hands into
his trouser pockets. "All this affectation of needing quiet and solitude
for such work as yours is simply ridiculous."

She glanced up at him without moving. "I'm sorry, Ferdie," she said
gently, "but indeed it isn't affectation. I really can't work when
people are going in and out, and poor little Hilary is so noisy."

"Poor little Hilary! Damn nonsense! I slept very badly last night, and
had just got nicely off this morning about half-past nine, when he came
into my room and waked me--wanted my boot-jack for a boat, little
beast!"

"Oh, I _am_ sorry--I told him he mustn't disturb you. I'd just gone down
to show Jessie how to make the mince----"

"Jessie's cooking is abominable. I don't know why you haven't got
someone by this time."

When Ferdie's indignation had died away, he began again.

"What I want to know is about my rooms at Torquay. Has Mrs. Bishop
written?"

"Yes. Her letter came this morning. I've got it somewhere here"--she
rummaged about, but failed to find the letter. "I must have left it
downstairs. She says she can't let you have the front room, because some
general has got it and is going to stay all winter."

"Damnation! Just the kind of thing that always happens to me."

The clear morning light, falling undiluted from the sky, seemed to
expose his mean soul almost cruelly, and his wife turned her eyes
hastily away. She had known him now, as he really was, for many years
and yet somehow the memory of what he had once seemed to be, what he had
been to her, in her loving imagination, came back to her with painful
force, and smote her to the heart.

"She says there is a very nice room at the back----"

He rose impatiently, waving his beautiful hands, on which the veins were
beginning to stand out ominously.

"Oh, of course, you _would_ think it delightful for me to have a room at
the back. Nobody but _you_ ever _does_ appreciate beauty, views or
anything of that kind. When am I to go?"

"The room will be ready on Wednesday. But, listen, Ferdie, if you think
you can't bear it, why don't you write to Mrs. Bishop yourself and ask
her to look out something for you? You see, she knows you, so she'd take
more pains than if I wrote----"

A smile that she knew and hated crept round his mouth. "Yes, that's
possible, she might," he answered. "Nice little woman, Mrs. Bishop, and
although she is only a boarding-house keeper, she knows a gentleman when
she sees him."

At the door he paused. "Well, I'll go and write to her. I suppose you've
got some money, my dear? I paid my last cent to the income-tax man the
other day. I'm sure you needn't have declared all that money to them,
Violet----"

"I only told them the truth, Ferdie."

It was an old quarrel, this about the declaration to the income-tax
people, and one in which he was always beaten, so, with a shrug, he went
downstairs.

After a moment he called, his musical voice hoarse with the effort:
"Violet--I say, Violet, have my new shirts come?"

"I--I didn't know you had ordered any, dear----"

"Oh, didn't you? No, I may have forgotten to tell you. Well, I did.
Thought I might as well get two dozen while I was about it. Things are
going up so."

There was a little pause and then she said, "I hope you got them at that
nice place in Oxford Street?"

He had begun to whistle, but now he stopped and snarled out, "No, I
didn't then. I suppose it's _my_ business where I order my own shirts? I
got them at my usual shirt-makers in Jermyn Street."

Mrs. Walbridge went quietly back into her little study and sat down.

       *       *       *       *       *

That afternoon she went by Underground to Oxford Street and from there
walked in a cold grey rain to Queen Anne Street, where her daughter,
Mrs. Twiss, lived. Doctor Twiss lived in one-half of a roomy old house
in Queen Anne Street. His waiting-room and his consulting-room were at
the left of the door, those on the right belonging to a fashionable
dentist--but the rest of his rooms were two flights upstairs, the
dentist, who was a rich man, occupying the whole of the first floor.

Mrs. Walbridge paused before she rang at the upstairs door, for she was
very tired, and her usually placid thoughts seemed broken and confused.
Maud was her eldest daughter and in some ways the most companionable,
but she was a selfish woman and devotedly fond of her husband and little
boy, so that she had scant room for anyone else in her life.

"If only Maud would be sympathetic," Mrs. Walbridge thought, as she
finally rang.

"Mrs. Twiss is in the bedroom," the maid told her, "she ain't very well
to-day. I think the sea voyage upset 'er."

Mrs. Walbridge nodded to her and went down the narrow rose-walled
passage and knocked.

Mrs. Twiss was lying down on a divan at the foot of her bed, reading.

"Oh, Mum," she cried, without getting up, "how sweet of you to come so
soon! How are you, all right? We've had the most glorious
time--Moreton's put on four pounds and never looked better in his life."

Mrs. Walbridge sat down and looked round at the pleasant, familiar room.
There were plenty of flowers about and piles of new books, and all the
illustrated weeklies, and on a little Moorish table close to the divan
stood a gilt basket full of chocolates.

"You seem to be having a comfortable afternoon, my dear."

Maud laughed.

"I am. I expect we shall have a pretty bad time when we begin to count
up--travelling is fearfully expensive now--Moreton had to send home for
an extra fifty pounds. So we're taking it easy to-day. He's gone to the
hospital, and we're dining at the Carlton and going to see 'Chu Chin
Chow' to-night."

There was a little pause. Mrs. Walbridge was very unaccustomed to
telling bad news; being told it was more in her line. But she was in
such distress that she had thought she must tell Maud about Lubbock and
Payne. It would have done her good just to talk it over. But now, when
she tried, she found she could not.

"Caroline had taken Hilary to the Zoo when your telephone message came,"
she began, "or I would have brought him along. He's been very good,
Maud, and his appetite is splendid. I got him a bottle of cod liver oil
and malt, because I thought his little ribs stuck out a bit when I
bathed him----"

"Oh, the pet! I'm longing to see him! We've brought him all sorts of
presents. Oh, Mum, I was going to get you a sweet little bracelet of old
Irish paste--you know--a thing in four little chains. But at the last
minute Moreton found we had spent so much that I had to give him my last
fiver. So you'll take the will for the deed, won't you?"

"Of course, darling, how sweet of you to think of it. I'm glad Moreton
is so much better," Mrs. Walbridge began after a moment, "I hope he'll
have lots of patients this winter."

Maud's fair face clouded. She was a big, handsome woman, though less
shapely in her features than her sisters, and already showed signs of
being very fat in a few years' time, although she was only twenty-eight.

"I hope so, too," she grumbled. "Things are really awfully serious. I
believe all the tradespeople put their prices up when they hear this
address."

"I suppose it wouldn't--I suppose it wouldn't do for you to go and live
in a cheaper house?" Mrs. Walbridge faltered.

Maud sat straight up in her horror and dropped a half-bitten chocolate
on the floor.

"My goodness, mother, what a perfectly poisonous idea! Why, it would
ruin Moreton after having begun here. _Of course_ we can't."

She came and sat down on a stool near her mother and leaned her head on
her mother's knees.

"I'm longing to see Hilary," she repeated, playing with a bit of her
silk dressing-gown nervously. "And I have something to tell him,
Mum--he'll--he'll be having a little sister in the spring."

Poor Mrs. Walbridge sat perfectly still for a moment, her hand on her
daughter's silky brown hair. Another baby, another duty, another worry,
and she would be the only one who would really suffer, although Maud and
her gay, well-meaning young husband would talk a great deal about their
responsibilities.

"Mum," Maud said coaxingly. "Darling, you've got a new book coming out,
haven't you? Don't go and buy Paul any more of those nasty Japanese
things; those monkeys make me sick anyhow. Be a lamb, and let me have a
hundred pounds to see me through, will you?"

There was nothing particularly imploring in her voice, for she was quite
used to asking favours of her mother, and repeated favours always turn
into rights sooner or later. When her mother didn't answer, she screwed
round on her stool and looked up.

"Why, Mum," she cried, "what's the matter? Why do you look like that?"

Mrs. Walbridge kissed her. "Nothing, dear, I'm tired. I've been working
very hard."

She rose and her big daughter scrambled to her feet, laughing merrily.

"Oh, you old pet! Was it working hard at it's psychological masterpiece?
Anybody'd think you were what's-his-name, who wrote 'Elektra'!" She
laughed again, pleasant, full-throated, musical laughter, that yet cut
her hearer to her sore heart.

"Don't--don't laugh, dear," she said gently. "I know my bodes are awful
rubbish, but----"

Mrs. Twiss stared and took another chocolate.

"Oh, darling," she murmured. "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. We
all _love_ your books. Well, you'll let me have the hundred, won't you,
pet? We're going to name her Violet."

The little sad face under the old-fashioned, pheasant-winged hat
softened a little. "I'll do my best, dear," she said. "Now I must go.
Give my love to Moreton."



CHAPTER VI


It was about a week after Mrs. Walbridge's visit to Mrs. Twiss that
Griselda went to the play with old Mrs. Wick and her son. Greatly to the
girl's astonishment, Mr. Wick turned up two or three days after her
decided rejection of him, and his manner had shown nothing of the
traditional depression of the refused young man. Indeed, he seemed
particularly gay, and had brought her some sweets--sticky balls rolled
in wax paper, that he told her were the best sweets on earth.

"My mother made 'em," he said. "She's great at making things. These ones
are a sort of nougat. You try one--_you'll_ see----"

The uncouth looking sweetmeats were indeed delicious, and the two young
people sat at the top of the stairs leading to the garden (for it was
one of those odd, lost summer days that wander along through our island
winters like lonely strayed children), and munched and talked, and
talked and munched, in as friendly a way, Griselda thought, as if he had
never mentioned marriage to her.

"I don't like your frock," he said suddenly, speaking with difficulty,
for his mother's sweets were sticky. "You're too dark for blue. Makes
you look yellow."

"Well, upon my word!" The girl was full of innocent airs and graces;
little affectations blossomed all over her, and perhaps they were only
the blossom of future graces. But somehow, this odd reporter person, as
she called him to her mother, clutched at these premature flowerets
like a black frost, and she found herself being as natural as a little
boy with him.

"You are polite," she remarked.

He smiled from ear to ear.

"No, I'm not. I'm very rude, but it's true. You ought to wear green and
brown, or yellow or white. Imagine a buttercup dressed in blue serge!"

Everyone likes to talk about himself or herself, so for a moment Grisel
enjoyed herself thoroughly, as they gravely discussed the different
kinds of flowers that she might be said to resemble. Then he invited her
to go to the play, and when she refused demurely, he chuckled with
delight.

"Oh, now you think I'm the ignorant young man," he retorted. "You think
I don't know that you couldn't go with me alone. (Of course, so far as
that's concerned you _could_--all the smart girls, dukes' and earls'
daughters, do)--but I have not invited you to. My mother's coming with
us."

"Your mother?"

"Yes. Naturally she's anxious to meet you."

She looked at him innocently, her eyes like black-heart cherries with
the sun on them.

"Why should your mother wish to meet me?"

"Oh," he answered. "Don't you realise that I'm an only son?"

"What's that got to do with it?"

He looked at her gravely, his flexible lips steady as iron. "Most
mothers want to know the girl their son's going to marry, don't you
think?"

Before she could help it, she laughed. "But her sons aren't going to
marry me."

"No, but her son is. I am. Oh, yes," he went on before she could speak.
"We shan't be married this winter, of course, but in the spring we
shall. You may choose a nice month. It'll be a proud day for you, my
dear, and jolly lucky you'll be to get me!"

She rose and refused another sweet. "No thanks, we must go in now. I've
got a lot to do. My father's not very well, and I may have to go down to
Torquay to look after him if he doesn't get better."

"Miss Walbridge," he spoke in a voice that to her was quite new, and
when she turned, looking at him over her shoulder, something in the
dignity of his face forced her to turn completely round and wait.

"Don't think me a perfect fool," he said. "I can't help teasing you.
You--you're so little and so young. What I'd like to do would be to lift
you up on my shoulder and run round and round the garden with you, and
scare the life out of you, but I daren't do that, so I have to tease
you. Besides, you know," he added very gravely, "it is true that I love
you, and I mean you to marry me."

Mrs. Walbridge, who was in the dining-room packing some bottles of
home-made beef-tea to send to Torquay, could not help overhearing the
rest of this conversation. She never forgot it, or the young man's face
as he finished speaking to Griselda, who suddenly seemed more
responsible, more grown-up than her mother had ever seen her.

"Please don't say anything more about that, Mr. Wick," she said gently.
"I like you very much--we all do, even my mother, who's so
old-fashioned--but I can't possibly marry you."

The four young eyes stared into each other for what seemed a long time,
and then he drew back courteously to let her pass.

"I'll not say anything more about it for three months," he declared. "I
promise you that."

       *       *       *       *       *

Thus the arrangement about going to the play had been made, and when the
evening came Mr. Wick drove up in a taxi and carried his prize off to
the box at the theatre, where he had already installed his mother.

       *       *       *       *       *

When Grisel came home she went up to her mother's room, slipping out of
her frock and putting on her mother's shabby old dressing-gown, that she
declared to be a perfect disgrace, and sat on the foot of the bed
describing the adventures of the evening.

"She's a perfect old dear, Mum," the girl declared. "Very large, not
exactly fat, you know, but big. Very little hair, brushed quite flat,
and done up in a tiny bun at the back, and the most beautiful manners,
like some old-fashioned duchess. Like an old duchess in one of your
books, Mum--that kind--not like a _live_ one----"

"I see," murmured Mrs. Walbridge. "How did you like the play?"

"Oh, it was very pretty. Mary Grey looked perfectly beautiful. She's
such a dear, but I wish she had sung. _They_ liked it awfully, but
somehow I never understand Shakespeare's plays--never quite know what
they are driving at, I mean. The place was packed, and I saw lots of
people I know. The Murchisons were there, and Dickie Scotts, and that
awful Pellaby woman, _covered_ with pearls and jewels. Johnny Holden
came up just as we were leaving, and told me that he had seen Guy. He's
only just back. He said Guy's awfully fit, and has done some very good
caricatures. He says there's going to be an armistice as sure as eggs is
eggs. The Hun is a dead man according to him. And, oh, Mother, you'll
never guess--Oliver Wick went out on the 28th of August, 1914, and was
all through the Big Push and the retreat from Mons. Fancy his never
telling us! Johnny mentioned it. He was wounded there--during the
retreat. One of his fingers is quite stiff. I never noticed it, did
you?"

Mrs. Walbridge shook her head. "No, I never did. So he's been out?"

"Yes, and he only had one leave all the time. He was invalided out last
year--there's a bullet somewhere inside him still. His mother says she
thinks it must be in his brain. She _does_ adore him, Mum."

Mrs. Walbridge was silent, for she envied this other woman, not exactly
her son, but her love for her son. Her own boys were very dear to her,
but one quality was lacking in her love for them, and that was
adoration. For although she was only a fourth-rate novelist, she had the
sad gift of unswerving clear-sightedness, and no merciful delusion
blinded her when she looked at her own children.

Grisel had stopped brushing her pretty hair, which lay like two wings
over her young breast, framing her little quick face, and bringing out
its vivid whiteness. She was sitting with the silver brush on her knees,
and in her eyes brooded an unusually deep thought.

"You like him, my dear, don't you?"

The girl started. "Who? Oh, Oliver? No--I mean----" She rose and put
the brush on the dressing-table.

"How nice that you call him Oliver," commented her mother, in a
matter-of-fact voice. "I like him, too. I think he's a delightful young
fellow. So boyish, isn't he?"

Grisel came to the bed, her momentary embarrassment scattered to the
winds by the sober sense of her mother's words.

"Yes, he's a dear," she said simply, "but his mother's a perfect pet,
and she's coming to see us. You'll love her, Mum." At the door she
turned. "Good-night, Mum darling. Don't worry about your old book. It's
sure to come out all right. What did you say the name of it was?"

"'Lord Effingham.'"

The girl stepped back in surprise at her mother's tone. "Why, good
gracious, Mum, you spoke as if he were a real man and you hated him! I
hope he isn't one of the modern horrors, like that dreadful man in
'Reek.'" She ran back to the bed and gave her mother a little stroke and
shake. "I couldn't dream of allowing you to write horrid modern books
about beastly real people," she said protectingly. Then she went to bed.

       *       *       *       *       *

The next morning a telegram arrived from Torquay, saying that Mr.
Walbridge was no better, and asking his wife to come down and look after
him. She had expected just such a wire (for he was one of those people
who always become ill when they are bored or lonely) and she had already
arranged to send Grisel down.

The girl liked Torquay and had two or three friends there, and it would
be a pleasant change for her. Besides, her mother thought, if things
were going to be really bad, it would be better to have the children out
of the way.

So Grisel, much pleased, and not at all worried about her father, went
off, and for several days after her departure Mrs. Walbridge worked
uninterruptedly in the deserted drawing-room. The weather had changed,
and it was intensely stormy and wet, so there was something pleasant in
the shut-in feeling of the firelit room.

Paul, now the only one at home, was, of course, at the bank all day, and
most evenings he either dined out or went out immediately after dinner.
He was a silent man, very preoccupied with his own thoughts and
possessed of the negative gift of taking no interest whatever in other
people's affairs. He scorned curiosity with all his heart, and never
suspected that curiosity is very often only an expression of human
interest.

Of late, too, his mother had noticed he had been even more silent and
absent-minded than ever, and she wondered if he was having a love
affair. She dared not ask him, however, and so the long days and longer
evenings passed in almost unending hard work for the little writing
woman, and finally she arrived at a certain amount of success with the
troublesome "Lord Effingham."

Her book was entirely changed. Such atmosphere as it had ever had she
had destroyed, and, very proud of the illegitimate baby she had
introduced into its innocent pages, she one night packed up the
manuscript and ran out to a greengrocer in the neighbourhood, where
lived an old man who sometimes did errands for her.

Old Mr. King was at home, and would be delighted to go round the next
morning at half-past nine to take the very valuable parcel safely down
to Messrs. Lubbock & Payne.

She thanked the greengrocer's wife, who was the old man's daughter, and,
putting up her umbrella, went out again into the wet.

It was a shiny black night, full of storm noises and unceasing rain, and
when she reached "Happy House" Mrs. Walbridge stood for a moment under
her umbrella, leaning against the little green gate, where the name was
now almost illegible, and looked about her, breathing more freely in the
thought that the book was done; for good or evil; that she had done her
best by it, and that if it failed, it must just fail.

She felt more cheerful now that "Lord Effingham" was off her hands.
Things _must_ improve, she thought.

The political news was much better; the armistice might be signed any
day, and perhaps when Guy came back he would, after all, be helpful to
her.

Ferdie was better. She had had a letter that morning, and little Grisel
was having a happy time with her friends. There was to be a dance, and
she had written for her new white satin frock to be sent down.

"I must go to Swan & Edgars and get her a new pair of satin slippers,"
she thought, as she went up the steps, and opened the door with her
latchkey. "Fancy the little minx dancing her last pair through the other
night!"

She went down into the kitchen and made herself a cup of extra strong
cocoa to drink in bed. Cocoa in bed with a book is a very cosy thing.

The boys had always thought her a frump, and Guy in particular hated
her old black velvet evening gown, and, now that he had been in Paris
and seen all the smart clothes, he would despise the black velvet gown
more than ever. If only she could have some kind of a new evening frock.
Grey would do. Iron grey would wear almost as well as black. She set
down her cup of cocoa with a little sigh. Ridiculous to think about that
kind of thing when she only had one hundred and eighty pounds in the
bank.

Then she read a few pages of "Thomas à Kempis," turned out her light,
and lay still in the dark waiting for sleep.



CHAPTER VII


Paul's room was a large one at the back on the second floor. It looked
into the elm tree, and was very pleasant and quiet.

A few days after Mrs. Walbridge had sent the manuscript of "Lord
Effingham" to her publishers, she was in Paul's room, helping him hang a
new picture that he had picked up at a sale. His mother thought it a
very ugly picture; in fact, she thought it not nice, but she said
nothing, for her opinion was of no value to him, and she knew it.

It was a sunshiny day, and the naked boughs of the old tree stirred and
made odd little noises as the east wind attacked it in gusts. The
shadows of the branches danced across the dull green walls and made the
gleams of light on the picture glasses die and come to life again in a
way that gave the large room something the air of a glade in a wood.

Paul, in his shirt-sleeves, stood on a pair of steps hammering a nail
into the exact spot in the wall that he had decided on after long
measurement and reflection.

"I do hope you're wearing your thick Jaegers, darling," his mother said,
as she took the hammer from him and held up the picture.

"Not yet," he said. "I'm going to put them on to-morrow." He hung up the
picture and backed gravely off the ladder, looking up at it, a smile of
pride and satisfaction softening his over-delicate, rather supercilious
face. "A little gem, Mother, though you probably don't think so," he
announced good-naturedly. "Bruce Collier wanted it. He's got a fine
collection."

"Bruce Collier," Mrs. Walbridge pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I've
heard his name. Who is he, Paul?"

"The chap who wrote 'Reek.' Crichell was talking about him here one
night in the summer. There's the book an the table. He gave it to me."

She picked the book up and opened it. "What beautiful paper," she said
slowly, "and I love the print, Paul."

He nodded. "Oh, yes. Nares publishes him. Now I'm going to put the
Kakemono here, Mother." He indicated a blank space on the wall near his
writing-table. "Will you get it? You won't be sorry to have it out of
the girls' room, will you?"

She went obediently towards the door, and at it she turned.

"You'll be surprised, dear, but, do you know, I have got quite used to
those monkeys, and really like them now!"

He looked up from filling his pipe and smiled at her, his narrow face--a
face of a type so often seen nowadays in very young men--too
small-featured, too clean-cut, too narrow in the brow, too lacking in
the big old British qualities, both good and bad, and yet full of
uncreative cleverness--lighted by whimsical, not unkindly, astonishment.

"'Violet Walbridge confesses to a passion for Honobosa Iccho,'" he
declaimed, as if quoting a possible headline. "No, no, Mother darling,
that won't do. You must stick to Marcus Stone. Trot along and get it,
there's a dear."

She trotted along and got it, and brought it back, carefully rolled on
its stick.

"Grisel will be sorry to find it gone," she said, as he hung it on the
nail and let it slowly slide down the wall. "She loves it."

"She loves it because Wick knew about the artist. Imitative little
monkey, Grisel."

His mother stared at him. It was on her lips to say, "So are you--so are
you an imitative monkey," for she realised that these new artistic
tastes of his were derived from some model and not from any instinctive
search for a peculiar kind of beauty. Instead she only said, referring
to an old pet name of her own for her children, "Yes, one of God's
apelets, and so are you, Paul."

He had backed to the far side of the room and stood surveying the effect
of the Kakemono with much satisfaction.

"Yes, dear," he murmured, without listening to her. "That's very good,
just there. The light catches it just right."

As he spoke, Jessie, the maid, came in, still straightening a hastily
tied-on cap and apron.

"A gentleman downstairs to see you, sir."

Paul nodded.

"Oh, Mr. Crichell! We're going to the Grafton Galleries together to see
that 'Moonlight in the Trenches' fellow's pictures."

"Please, Mr. Paul, it ain't Mr. Crichell." Jessie was still standing by
the door.

"Oh, who is it?"

"I don't know, sir. Not at all a nice gentleman. I wouldn't leave him
alone in the drorin'-room if I was you."

The girl left the room, and Mrs. Walbridge sat down suddenly. Paul's
face had changed, and she was frightened.

"Look here, Mother," he said, "I'm afraid it's a brute of a fellow on
business. I told him I'd kill him if he came here, but"--the young man
waved his long, nervous hands helplessly--"he's come, you see."

Her big hollow eyes were fixed on him with a strained, unwinking stare.

"Oh, Paul," she whispered, "what is it?"

He moved irresolutely towards the door, came back, took up his coat and
then threw it on to the divan under the Rowlandson "Horse Fair."

"Look here, Mother," he said, "I must get him out of the house. Suppose
you go and tell him--tell him that I'm not in. Perhaps you'd better say
that I'm out of town."

"Is it a bill?" she asked tonelessly, without moving.

"No--that is--not exactly. The fact is, it's a money-lender. Alfred
Brock put me on to a good thing in the City, and it--it went wrong
somehow, so I borrowed fifty pounds of this chap--Somerset's his
name--and I---- But go and tell him I'm out. I'll explain it all to you
afterwards," he broke off nervously.

She walked to the window and stood looking out, and he thought she was
crying.

"Don't, Mother, please don't," he exclaimed. "It's quite all right. I
shall have the money next week, and the brute's just got to wait, that's
all."

But she was not crying, and that was not why she had turned her face
from him. And what she saw, oddly enough, as she looked out into the
empty boughs of the elm tree, was the face of old Mrs. Wick, whose
picture young Wick carried in his pocket, and had once shown her. "What
a happy woman, what a happy woman!" she was saying under her breath.
After a pause she turned round.

"I'll not say you're out, Paul, and I won't say you're away. I'll see
the man, and I'll tell him you'll pay him next week."

Across his white face flashed the wild impatience of the man who,
knowing that there is for his ailment only one remedy and that a
desperate one, is offered some homely, perfectly inefficacious
substitute.

"Don't be a----" he broke out. But she went downstairs without heeding
him.

The man stood in the middle of the drawing-room, looking round at the
homely furniture. Being what she was, Mrs. Walbridge had, of course,
expected a florid and bediamonded Jew, instead of which the man was a
stocky, red-faced, snub-nosed Englishman, who approached to her innocent
ideal of a prize-fighter.

"Good morning."

At her voice he whirled round and about awkwardly.

"Sorry to trouble you, m'm, I'm sure," he began, grasping the situation
with what to her seemed marvellous quickness. "Young gentleman had
better come down hisself."

"My son----" she began.

But he waved her into silence with a small, roughcast looking hand.

"No good sayin' he's out of town, ma'am, or even spendin' the day on the
river, 'cos he ain't."

Mrs. Walbridge looked at him, a slow wave of understanding creeping to
her brain.

"I wasn't going to tell you that my son is out, or away," she returned
quietly. "He's upstairs. He's extremely sorry, but he will not be able
to pay you your--your little account until next week."

The man stared at her in honest surprise, and then his red face melted
into rather pleasant curves of irrepressible laughter.

"Well, I'll be--I'll be blowed!" he cried, slapping his knee. "Did he
send you down to tell me that? My governor will laugh at that."

They talked, this ill-assorted pair, for about half an hour, and then
the man left the house very quietly, bowing at the door with real
respect to the lady who had so amused him. He had heard of Violet
Walbridge all his life, and vaguely remembered having read "Queenie's
Promise" when he was about sixteen, and had the mumps, and to think that
she should be like this! Very much "blowed" and inclined to being
damned, as he told his wife later, he disappeared out of Mrs.
Walbridge's life.

She went upstairs, and found Paul walking up and down the room, smoking
cigarettes furiously, his neglected pipe on the mantelpiece.

"Lord, Mother, what an age you've been!" he cried, petulantly. "Was it
Somerset himself?"

"No, this man's name was Green. He tells me, Paul, that they have
applied to you several times; that the money was due last week."

He nodded sulkily. "Yes, it was. If Alfred Brock hadn't been a fool, it
wouldn't have happened. Brock shall never see a penny of my money
again."

"He told me," his mother went on, her hand on the door handle, "that he
knew you had a collection of pictures and things, and he--he was going
to make you sell some of them."

"The swine! Poor mother," he added carelessly, "a nasty half hour for
you, I'm afraid. What did you say to him to make him go?"

Mrs. Walbridge looked curiously round the room as if she saw it for the
first time. The Rowlandson, the Kakemono, the exquisite little Muirhead,
the French pastel that shocked her; the beautiful adjustable
reading-chair, with its lectern-like bookrest; the fourteenth century
Persian prayer rug; the odds and ends of good china on the mantelpiece.
All these treasures, so dear to Paul, that she, in her innocence, had
regarded as inexpensive whims, had received a new value through the odd
medium of Mr. Green.

"I didn't say much to him, Paul," she answered slowly. "I--I paid him."

She went out and closed the door. The young man took a hasty step
towards it, then hesitated and went back to his arm-chair. It was jolly
decent of her. He'd thank her and give her a kiss for it at tea time. He
must think of something graceful and appropriate to say. Meantime he was
chilly and uncomfortable, so, leaning forward, he lit a match and set
fire to the coal-heaped grate. "Jolly decent of mother," he thought,
leaning back to watch the glowing of the fire. "Those absurd books of
hers really are pretty useful, after all."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was pleasant that evening to have a long letter from Grisel, and Mrs.
Walbridge, who had been busy since Mr. Green's departure in getting off
a basket of beef-tea, home-made potted meat, and red-currant jelly, to
Torquay, and who had been bound by an old promise to take tea with poor
Caroline, found the letter when she came in, and as Paul, after his
hurried thanks, had gone out for the rest of the day and evening, she
changed into her warm dressing-gown, and settled down to her supper tray
in the drawing-room, with a pint of ale and a nicely browned sausage,
and Grisel's letter.

Grisel wrote a peculiarly delightful hand, each letter small and
well-shaped, and nearly as clear as print. She was also fluent and had a
certain gift for description, so that her letters were a real treat to
her mother. This one, written on several sheets of beautiful pale grey
paper with "Conroy Hall" in one corner, promised to be an unusually
delightful one, for it contained, she saw, glancing through it, a full
description of the ball at which her daughter had worn the new satin
shoes she had sent her from Swan & Edgars.

     "_Darling Mum,_" Griselda began, "_I haven't written for several
     days because I've been having such a good time that there wasn't a
     minute for anything except frivoling! You'll gather from this that
     the poor old Dad is better, and his headaches have gone. I don't
     think it was anything but liver myself. And he's been hob-nobbing
     with some old friends who have turned up at one of the big
     hotels--I forget which._

      "_I came here the day before yesterday to stay with Elsie, and
      I've never had such a good time in my life. Fred has put an awful
      lot of money into the place and furnished it splendidly, so it's
      really wonderful. He's like a little white rat, it's no good
      concealing that, but then he's like such a very_ NICE _white rat,
      and he adores Elsie, and thinks nothing's too good for her.
      They've lived like fighting cocks all through the war. How they
      get the food I can't imagine! Of course, they make their own
      butter, and have swindled the Government like anything, which, of
      course, is great fun._

      "_Elsie has just had a lot of new clothes from London, and really
      looks a dream, although she's as fat as a little pig. Of course,
      they've done a lot of entertaining of wounded for years now,
      otherwise I don't think they would have known there is a war.
      Elsie says she's awfully glad there's no Vere de Vere blood in
      Fred, or he would have minded things more. He really is a typical
      nouveau riche out of a novel (not one of your novels, darling)._

      "_Did I tell you how glad I was that you've got 'Lord Effingham'
      into shape? It'll be a relief to your poor mind. I found 'From
      Sunlight to Shadow' in the library, and have been reading it, and
      I think it's perfectly sweet. I really did enjoy it very much. It
      reminded me of Rosa N. Carey. How I used to love her books when I
      was a kid!_

      "_We have no men-servants here, but Fred's going to get a dozen or
      so as soon as the Armistice is signed. Meantime there are swarms
      of lovely footmanettes, too pretty for words, in violet frocks and
      lace caps and aprons. They all look as if George Grossmith had
      drilled them, somehow. One rather expects them to burst out into
      song, but they don't._

      "_Well, the ball was a great success. I'm writing in bed. It's
      after lunch. We danced till after five, and I was such a belle,
      Mum! All the girls down here seem to be six foot tall, and many of
      them have that new uniform-walk--I'm sure serving in different
      corps made the women's feet all spread; they are big and thick
      about the ankles, too--so I appeared as the old-fashioned
      Christmas pantomime fairy, done in white and gold. That's what
      Fred said. My frock really was as good as anybody's, you darling.
      Hundreds of beautiful youths rolled up to contend for the honour
      of a dance. It really was fun after the over-femaled parties we
      have been to lately, and I felt like Queenie, or that girl in
      'Touchstones,'--the cruel one who broke hearts. Oh, Mother
      darling, what a noodle you are not to know that it's the man who
      does the heart-breaking nowadays!_

      "_Lady Sybil Ross was here with her twins. They looked just like
      partridge eggs, they're so speckly, but they're nice girls; but
      they treated me as if I was a little doll of some kind, as if they
      were surprised that I could talk and walk, being so small as I am.
      Fanny Ross has been engaged three times, and each time the man has
      been killed at the front. Isn't it awful? But I couldn't help
      laughing. There didn't seem to be any reason why she should stop
      being engaged to one after the other for ever, and it doesn't seem
      to hurt her in the least._

      "_Father came last night, of course, and you would have been proud
      of him; he looked such a beautiful old pet. Of course, his diet
      and the water wagon have done wonders for his looks. His eyes are
      as clear as a child's--or were the first part of the evening, but
      rather fell off towards the end (off the water wagon, I mean!) Of
      course, he was quite all right, you know, but he was very genial
      and his eyes a bit swimmy. Poor old Dad._

      "_Did I tell you that Clara Crichell's here? She's staying with
      her mother, who has taken a house, and she and Dad had the time of
      their lives together. She's very pretty, but towards the end of
      the evening she looked rather like a squashed tomato, I thought.
      Seriously, I think she's quite crazy about father. I'm so glad
      you're old-fashioned, darling, and that I don't have to chaperon
      you too. A frisky young mother is an awful responsibility for a
      girl, and I should hate to have to ask anyone's intentions about
      my Mamma!_

      "_I've just had the most scrumptious lunch--heavenly sweetbreads
      in little paper boats, and eggs done in some wonderful French way,
      and grape-fruit salad, and a sweet little carafe like a
      scent-bottle, full of some divine white wine. I love having my
      meals in bed, and I adore having a maid to look after me. If I
      marry a rich man, never again as long as I live will I put on my
      stockings myself, I swear it!_

      "_Well, I went to supper with an awfully nice boy (I forget his
      name), who urged me to marry him and share his pension as a 2nd
      Lieutenant. I've danced my new shoes to ribbons--war satin, of
      course--and the next evening frock I have must be black, darling.
      Lots of girls younger than I are wearing black, and it's so
      becoming._

      "_I had a ridiculous present from Oliver yesterday--four beautiful
      giant kippers tied up in blue ribbon. Of course, he thought I was
      at Mrs. Bishop's, but wasn't he a goose to send me kippers?_

      "_By the way, I've a serious beau--a most charming old man, Sir
      John Barclay. He's perfectly delightful. Quite old and frightfully
      rich. Snow-white hair and the most lovely tenor voice. He's
      staying in the house, and, though I say it as shouldn't, is my
      slave. He sang 'The Banks of Allan Water' the other day, and made
      me cry. Such a sweet, young-sounding voice it is. He sent me the
      loveliest flowers this morning. Really, it looks very much as if
      he was going to offer himself and his worldly goods to me! I hope
      he doesn't, because he really is a dear, and he looks as if he
      might mind being hurt._

      "_How are you, dearest? You must enjoy being all alone. Do eat
      enough; don't live on toast and tea, and don't let Jessie forget
      your hot bottle._

      "_Dearest love to you,_

  "GRISEL.

     "_P. S.--When you send me a new pair of slippers, please send me a
     pair of stockings too, as there are simply no soles left in my last
     pair._"



CHAPTER VIII


Mr. Wick, on his way to "Happy House" one very wet afternoon, in the
beginning of November, gave way to pleasant dreams. He knew that the
lady of his affections was still in Torquay, for he had had a letter
from her, but she had bidden him go and see her mother, and collect one
or two books that she wanted, and send them down to her.

"I'm rather worried about Mum," she had written, "without any particular
reason. I wish you'd go and take a look at her and let me know if
everything's all right."

Mr. Wick, who had had a serious conflict with his chief a few days
before, and come out with streaming colours, was feeling very happy, in
spite of the pouring rain and the dreadful uniformity of the
wet-November-afternoon faces about him. He was one step farther on
towards his goal, which was nothing less than becoming a great newspaper
proprietor and running the political world from a swivel chair somewhere
in Fleet Street. And it was very sweet to him to be sent in this
intimate way by Griselda Walbridge to inspect and report on her mother.

And now, under the shelter of his dripping umbrella, he was finishing a
book, which he had read conscientiously, though with incredible
swiftness. Since his meeting with Griselda, he had taken the trouble to
look through half a dozen of Mrs. Walbridge's books, and could see (for
he was unconsciously a very good critic) what the secret of their
success was.

"Very slow," he explained to his mother. "Nothing much happens and there
are the same people in all of them, with different names. She always has
pretty names for the girls, and the men are usually swells. Kind of book
a woman could read while she's knitting, or boiling the clothes, or
bathing the baby, without either losing the thread of the story or
scamping her work."

But this new book, he realised, had lost that easy quality. There were
pages of undigested realism scattered through it; several of the stock
characters were missing. There was, for instance, no faithful old family
butler, no sinuous foreign adventuress. (The innocence of Violet
Walbridge's adventuresses was prodigious, in spite of the desperate
epithets she showered on them) and there was a superfluous infant,
nameless, and as unnecessary to the story as it was to his mother, whose
presence was as inappropriate as that of Gaby Deslys at a Quaker
meeting.

"That baby puts the lid on," the young man thought, stuffing the book in
his mackintosh pocket and feeling in the other pocket for the safety of
the treasure he had put there. "She'll bust the whole show if she goes
on like that. She can't do the new stuff, and her old patients won't
stand such strong doses as this."

As he got off the bus his mind was engaged with wondering whether Mrs.
Walbridge had any fortune apart from her pen.

"Strikes me that Paul is something of an _objet de luxe_," he reflected,
as he turned off Albany Street. "Bank clerks oughtn't to go messing about
with stockbrokers, and that fellow Brock is a bad egg. When I've
married Griselda, pretty pet, we shan't have very much to do with
Master Paul. The other one, Guy, the soldier, looks a decent lad. I like
that photograph."

As he reached the house his pace slackened and over his shrewd
journalistic face came an odd softening as if for a moment his very
thoughts had stopped using slang. The green swing gate with its half
effaced words touched him anew. The more he knew of Mrs. Walbridge and
her family, the greater seemed the pathos of the name of her house.

"I suppose she named it that years ago when she was young," he thought
gently. "I suppose she kept the paint fresh at first, and then later it
didn't seem worth while."

A very modern product was this Oliver Wick--the kind of a man that could
not have existed a quarter of a century ago, when young men were either
gentlemen or cads, as the saying went. He had set out to make a great
fortune and he was going to make it. He was conscious to his finger-tips
of his powers and his gift of observation and of managing inferior
minds. His habitual language was a jargon composed of journalistic,
sporting, and society slang, yet his mind was open to the most tender
impressions, his sharp little eyes always ready to soften to a tear, and
he loved and read poetry with avidity.

Now he stood for a moment in the pouring rain, touched to the quick by
the pathos of the shabby little gate of the unsuccessful, overworked old
novelist.

       *       *       *       *       *

He found Mrs. Walbridge sitting by the fire in her expressionless
drawing-room, reading. She was so engrossed in her book that, after a
hurried greeting, she at once began to talk of it.

"Oh, Mr. Wick," she cried, forgetting to ask him to sit down, which,
however, he promptly did, "have you read this?"

He glanced at the book. "Yes, it's the book Mr. Crichell talked about
that night at dinner here." After a second he added a little awkwardly,
"I--I wouldn't read it if I were you, Mrs. Walbridge."

She closed the book and drew back in her chair with a little flush.

"I--I've nearly finished it. Everyone's been talking about it, and I
found it in my son's room."

He was silent for a moment, for he did not know quite what to say to
her, to this old lady whose literary stockpot produced such a harmless
and uniform brew.

"Reek" was not important enough to be called strong meat; it was just a
thoroughly nasty book whose author dwelt lovingly on obscene side-issues
of ordinary life, and in whose three hundred odd pages of closely
printed matter there was not a word, nor even a suggestion that could
help or even cheer for a moment any conceivable reader.

"Disgusting rubbish," he declared after a moment. "My old mother read
the first chapter and marched down with it in the tongs and put it in
the kitchen fire." He chuckled at the vision of the old lady's slow
progress down the narrow passage, with the tongs held straight out
before her. "That showed my young sister Jenny what _she_ thought of
it!" He paused and then went on very quickly, with a little flicker of
colour in his thin, white face, "You won't let Grisel read it?"

Mrs. Walbridge shuddered. "Dear me, no. Not that she would understand
it," she added slowly.

There was a pause and the young man watched the firelight playing over
the hollowed, haggard face with the deeply-lined white brow, and the
tired violet eyes. It came to him suddenly how very pretty she must have
been in her youth--her youth, so long ago, and before he was born (he
was twenty-six). And then she said slowly, in a hesitating voice:

"It's such a stupid book. It's so badly put together and the people
aren't real."

If a six months' old baby had sat up in its cradle and quoted Plato to
him the young journalist could not have been more surprised. That Violet
Walbridge, of all people on earth, should criticise the construction of
a novel by Bruce Collier! Bruce Collier, who was undoubtedly the head of
the new school of writers, and about whom most serious critics wrote
columns in the morning papers. He stared at her in frank, almost
open-mouthed astonishment, and she went on without apparently noticing
his emotion, and speaking modestly, but with a sureness that he had
never observed in her before.

"You see, if Swithin Cleveland had been in the ruins that time--_you_
know--he could not possibly have written that letter to Sophia."

"Why couldn't he?" stammered Wick.

For a few minutes he listened to her soft, rather unmodulated voice, as
she unfolded her ideas to him, and then suddenly he jumped up and
slapped his knee.

"By Jove," he shouted, "you're right, you're right, Mrs. Walbridge, and
not one of them--the critics I mean--has seen it!"

He tramped up and down the room, talking rapidly, brandishing his arms
in a characteristically ungraceful, but expressive way.

"Why don't you write an article about it? I'll make my chief print it in
one of his decent papers. Not that--not that," he broke off stammering
hopelessly, "_Round the Fire_ isn't very good in its _way_, you
know--but I mean in _Cosmos_ or _The Jupiter_."

Mrs. Walbridge laughed softly. "Don't apologise for _Round the Fire_,"
she said. "I think I know exactly what it is."

He sat down again. The wind was whipping against the window with a
delightful crackling noise. The corner by the homely hearth in the dim,
inexpressive drawing-room was very pleasant in its way, and he liked, he
very greatly liked, the old-fashioned lady in the shabby grey gown--the
lady whom, if he had to stop the stars in their courses to accomplish
it, was going to be his mother-in-law. He had always liked Mrs.
Walbridge; he had always known that she held qualities that in a
mother-in-law would be shining ones, but she had a personality a little
too like this drawing-room of hers, too like the old mirror that hung
over the mantelpiece and was a little cloudy, a little obscure, and now,
behold, something had breathed on the mirror and it had cleared! Like a
flash he saw the future. Himself England's greatest newspaper king, in a
great, fine, romantic old house somewhere--St. James's Square for
choice, failing that, Manchester Square might do--and by his side was
his lovely little blackest white girl, and beside her, in subdued grey
velvet and lace, the perfect mother-in-law, perfect because, not only
had she been capable of producing a wife fit for the greatest man in
England, and of being herself gently and quietly and modestly
impressive, but she possessed that great blessing to a man in the
position that he would be in, a keenly critical mind, and the mind would
be, he felt, in a way his, because he had discovered it. He was sure
that no one in her household or among her friends even suspected Mrs.
Walbridge of such an astonishing possession.

"Look here," he said at the end of half an hour or so, when they had
discussed Mr. Collier's rather putrescent masterpiece pretty thoroughly,
"I suppose Grisel's told you that I mean to marry her?"

"She's told me that you'd asked her."

"Oh, that's nothing," he waved his hand impatiently, "asking her, I
mean. I have asked her two or three times, just for the sake of form,
you know. But she's got to do it sooner or later. I'm in no hurry."

"Dear me," murmured his hostess, a little frightened by the novelty of
his point of view.

"Yes. You mustn't think me cheeky or--dashing, you know," he protested
gravely. "I'm not really. I only mention it now to you so that you would
understand what I'm going to say."

"Yes?" She spoke very gently, and her eyes were kind and benign.

"I was going to ask you," he said, his manner suddenly changing to one
that impressed her, unconsciously to both of them. "I was going to ask
you if you don't think you could do something to modernise your style a
little. Just from the business point of view, I mean."

He saw her wince, but kept on, with benevolent ruthlessness.

"I've been reading over some of your books since I met you, and I like
'em, and I quite see the reason for their popularity." He broke off
shortly, and asked her, his head cocked on one side, his lips pursed
fiercely: "How are your sales now, compared to what they were, say, ten
years ago?"

Mrs. Walbridge took up the poker and bent over the fire. He knew she was
doing it to hide her face, and moved slightly so that he could keep on
looking at her, for he meant to have the truth, and knew that this
truthful lady would not hesitate to lie to him on this occasion.

"About the same, I think," she said in an undertone, poking the fire
destructively.

He took the poker out of her hand, and by pointing it at her, forced her
slowly back into her chair.

"Oh, come now," he protested. "Honour bright--man to man, you
know--_business_----"

There was a pause, after which she said: "Well, then, if you put it like
that, no! my sales have been growing less for some years now, slowly,
until--until quite lately. My last book was really almost a failure.
Don't," she added, clasping her thin hands and bending forward a little,
"don't mention this to Grisel, will you? They none of them know. I--I
didn't like to worry them."

The young man rose and walked to the window, saying: "Oh, hell!" under
his breath.

"Of course I won't tell Grisel," he almost shouted from between the lace
curtains; "but doesn't your husband know?"

"Oh, no--no. They none of them do. It would only worry them, you know."

"It must worry you, doesn't it?"

Neither of them noticed that the young man, who might so well have been
one of her younger children, was behaving quite as if he were what he
had destined himself to be, a powerful and experienced king of
journalism. And she, who had written books while he was crawling on his
nursery floor, sat before him with folded hands, answering his questions
with the simplicity and lack of reserve of a child. For once he had
broken her barriers down, he realised how the poor thing was relieved
and glad to talk about her troubles.

Thus it came that she told him all about that dreadful interview with
Messrs. Lubbock & Payne, and of her struggles with "Lord Effingham."

"I've modernised it," she said, with hopefulness that made him want to
cry, "but it didn't seem very good to me. But then I don't suppose one's
ever a very good judge of one's own work----"

"Then one ought to be," he thrust in brutally. "Every man and every
woman ought to be the best judge of his or her work. Any other kind of
talk's nonsense. You ought to know your best book. Don't you? Because if
you don't, I can tell you."

She trembled as she looked up at him. "I know you're going to say
'Queenie's Promise,'" she said feebly.

He shook his head. "Well, it isn't, then. It's the 'Under Secretary.' I
read that through from start to finish in the Underground the other day,
and it's--it's got the makings of a real good story."

At this moment the door opened, and Jessie brought in the tea, and by
doing so changed these two bewitched people back to their real selves,
and the millionaire newspaper king found himself once more only a young
reporter, and the trembling literary aspirant at his feet became, as at
the wave of a wand, again the tired, once mildly successful old
novelist, his hostess and potential mother-in-law.

They were both embarrassed for a few minutes, and then, as they drank
their tea, Mrs. Walbridge found herself, to her great though gentle
surprise, telling him what she instinctively called the story of her
life.

"My father was a solicitor," she said, "in Lincoln's Inn, and we lived
in Russell Street. It's a boarding-house now. I went past it the other
day on my way to the Tube, and it brought it all back so clearly! My
mother died when I was a child, and one of my aunts brought me up. She
was very old-fashioned, and rather an invalid, so as a child I saw
hardly anyone but her and my nurse, and once in a long while my father.
For years I never read anything but Miss Yonge's books, and Edna
Lyall's, and _The Girl's Own Paper_. My aunt was very particular about
my books."

"She must have been," growled the young man, trying to eat his toast
silently, so that he could hear.

"I never went to school, but had a series of governesses, all very sad
women. Most governesses seem to be sad, don't they? And all oldish, and
not in very good health. I was allowed to read Sir Walter Scott's poems,
and one or two of Dickens as I grew older. But I never liked Dickens; he
writes about such common people. I loved Bulwer, and my aunt allowed me
to read several of his. My aunt died when I was sixteen, and six months
after her death my father went to Mexico on business, which would have
made him a very rich man if it had turned out as he hoped. One of my old
governesses came to stay in the house while he was gone. Her name was
Miss Sweet, and I liked her because she was sentimental and had a soft
voice, and wasn't at all particular about dates. Then it was that I
wrote my first book--or not quite then, for I was nearly eighteen, but
my father was still away."

She hesitated for a moment. She was allowing her voice more scope since
the gloom had thickened in the quiet room. The young man did not move,
for he feared to disturb her.

"It was a caretaker in the next house which had long been empty that put
the idea into my head. She was an old woman with a niece, who lived with
her, and the niece was very pretty. The story was a dreadful one--a
tragedy, and the girl committed suicide. I can't quite tell you," the
quiet voice went on, "what it meant to an ignorant girl, sheltered as I
was, to be plunged into the midst of such horrors. Poor old Mrs. Bell
waked us up in the middle of the night when it happened, and I went
alone, as Miss Sweet had a bad attack of asthma."

She shuddered, and reaching to the back of a chair, took from it and
wrapped round her shoulders a little old red shawl. On and on went the
quiet voice, telling the story with a kind of neat dexterity and absence
of the overburdening adjectives common to such narration.

Wick was amazed and filled with pity at the thought of what life had
been to this woman to reduce her powers to the deadly level of the tales
that she poured out regularly every autumn.

"It was a dreadful business, as you see, but somehow after the first it
didn't frighten or upset me much, though it made poor Miss Sweet quite
ill. Afterwards we went down to Lulworth Cove for a change, and it was
while we were down there that I wrote the book. I was very happy then.
Your work," she added, with a touch of innocent vanity, "not being
creative, you may not realise what writing a book really is, but it's
very wonderful. I used to sit on the rocks and scribble away by the
hour. I think it was very good too, and I was proud of it. And the day
after we got home, in the autumn--we had been called back by a telegram
saying that my father had reached Liverpool--I packed up the manuscript
on the dining-room table and addressed it to Mr. Murray. Someone had
spilt a little black currant jam on the tablecloth, and as I arranged
the pages I managed to smear a little of it across the title, and I
remember getting cold water and a bit of cotton-wool and washing it off,
and then drying it before the kitchen fire, and mending the spoilt
letters with a very fine pen, so that it would look nice. 'Hannah' was
the name of it. Not a very good title, but that was the way it came to
me," she added softly, and her voice trailed away into silence.

The darkness increased suddenly, and the firelight made a lake of colour
on the hearthrug, the only colour left in the room.

"Well," Wick asked hoarsely, "did John Murray publish it?"

She laughed. "John Murray never saw it. I left it on the hall table that
night, and was going to register it myself in the morning. When my
father came in late he noticed it, and opened it."

"Well----?"

Somehow he never forgot the feel of the room at that moment, or the
chill sound of the next words as they fell on his waiting ears.

"He burnt it." After a little while she went on: "He was horrified by
it. I suppose it was not very proper, written by a young girl, and he
had never known that I understood about such things, but of course I
did, after the adventure of poor Kitty Bailey. Ring the bell, will you,
Oliver? It's growing very dark."

He rang, and while the lamp was being brought he knelt on the old
hearthrug and mended the fire. In a few moments the crude, unlovely room
was piteously bright, and the mystery had flown.

"Weren't you very angry?" Wick asked, as the door closed on the maid.

"I? Oh, no. It was he who was angry--my father. I think he was too hard
on me, but it didn't matter very much. It was probably very badly
written, though at the time I thought it was good."

Wick held out his hand. "Well, I must be off. Thank you so much for
telling me, Mrs. Walbridge. Did you go on writing at once then?"

Her thin, small-boned hand quivered in his as she answered:

"Oh, no. I didn't write again until--until after my marriage."

They stood looking very kindly at each other, the old woman and the
young man, and then she said suddenly, as he took up his hat and stick:

"I don't know why I told you, except, perhaps, that it happened, the
burning of 'Hannah,' I mean, thirty-five years ago to-day. I was
thinking about it before you came."

As he hurried through the rain towards the 'bus, the young man counted
back.

"That makes her fifty-two," he said. "I thought she was older than
that."

As he squeezed into the crowded interior of "everybody's carriage," as
de Amicis calls it, a feeling of great pity swept over him. "How it must
have hurt," he thought, "for her to remember it like that."



CHAPTER IX


The Gaskell-Walkers returned from their very long honeymoon a few days
later and spent the night at Happy House, their own house being not
quite ready for them.

It having rained without ceasing for a week at the Lakes, the young man
had taken his bride to North Devon, where he had hired a car and they
had spent a delightful time tearing over the country as fast as they
could go, which happened to be Mr. Gaskell-Walker's higher form of
enjoyment. He had made notes of the distance traversed each separate
day, and to Mrs. Walbridge's bewildered mind, it seemed as if they had
been nowhere, but had spent their time going from or to different
places. However, her pretty daughter was in blooming health, and
displayed her airs and graces in an artless and becoming way like some
pretty bird. Wracked with worry, almost unbearably anxious about her new
work, on which subject her publishers had maintained a silence which
looked ominous. Mrs. Walbridge gave herself up to delight for a few
hours in watching the happiness of these young people and hearing their
comfortable plans for the future. She had never seen the house in
Campden Hill, but Hermione had been taken there shortly before her
wedding, and was delighted with everything about it. The drawing-room
was apparently the only drawing-room in London that was over twenty feet
long, and the art treasures, about which the young woman talked
vaguely, but with immense satisfaction, seemed to be various and
valuable.

"There is a whole room full of Chinese dragons," Gaskell-Walker told her
at dinner, "wicked-looking, teethy devils of all sizes. I used to be
awfully frightened of them when I was a kid."

"And the loveliest Indian screens, mother, you know, that dull,
crumbly-looking wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl."

Mrs. Walbridge had no idea of the exact income of her son-in-law, but
she knew that the young couple intended to keep three servants and that
Billy was partner in a fairly prosperous, though new, stockbroking firm
in Throgmorton Street. He was not so sympathetic to her as Maud's
husband. Moreton Twiss was young and full of boyish high spirits and a
kind of innocent horse-play, that even the arrival of Hilary had in no
wise quieted; and for some reason his untidy black hair and twinkling
eyes were dearer to her than the correct smartness of the more
conventional Gaskell-Walker.

Gaskell-Walker was ten or twelve years older than the other man,
although he had married the younger daughter, and being extremely
short-sighted, he wore pince-nez, without which his mother-in-law had
never seen him. She was one of those people who prefer eyes to be
unglazed. However, everything pointed to happiness being in store for
Hermy, for she and her husband were very much in love with each other,
he rather more than she was, which her mother felt to be as things
should be. And the little dinner was very pleasant, Paul being at his
best, which was very good, so good that he rarely produced it for family
use, and Hermy, being a daughter for any mother's eyes to rest upon with
pride, in her pretty sapphire-blue frock, with the charming diamond
pendant her husband had given her for her wedding present, blinking on
her lovely bosom.

"What news from Guy?" the bride asked, as they lingered in the
old-fashioned way over their walnuts and port.

"I had a beautiful letter from him only this afternoon. I am going to
show it to you. He's very well and seems to have made some nice friends
amongst the officers."

Gaskell-Walker laughed. "Trust Master Guy to make friends," he said,
cracking a nut with care, his over-manicured nails flashing as he did
so. "Easier to make than to keep them in his case."

"Like the Governor," commented Paul carelessly.

"Children, children," Mrs. Walbridge glanced with anxious eyes from the
one to the other, "I do wish you wouldn't speak of your father so--or
Guy either, Paul, if you don't mind."

Gaskell-Walker bowed courteously. "I am sorry, Mrs. Walbridge," he
answered, plainly meaning what he said, "I was only chaffing. We always
tease the brat about his new intimate friends, and I didn't mean to say
a word against him."

"Is father really better?" Hermione put in, smiling at her mother over
the top of her glass. "I hear he is carrying on anyhow with Clara
Crichell. Who was it told us so, Billy?"

"Oh, shut up, Hermy," put in Paul with a glance at his mother, who,
however, had paid no attention to the remark.

It was a peculiarity of Mrs. Walbridge's children that, while each one
of them individually was capable of hurting her a dozen times a day, not
one of them could bear one of the others to inflict the slightest
scratch on her.

"The kid's having a grand time," Paul went on to his sister, "with Fred
and Elsie Ford. Balls and dinners every night and adorers by the dozen,
so Archie Pratt told me. He had been down there--he's a cousin of
Elsie's, you know. He says the kid's the success of the place. Seemed
rather smitten himself, I thought."

"I loathe Archie Pratt," murmured Hermione, "he smells of white rose and
is always talking about biplanes and monoplanes."

"He is an A1 airman," put in her husband, "they say he is down for a
D. S. O. for that Italian business. By the way, Paul, I hear the
Armistice is most certainly going to be signed next week."

Paul nodded. "Yes, according to the paper it is, but some of these
duffers will probably put it off."

"No. I have it pretty straight. It really is going to be. The Hun cannot
possibly hold out any longer. It's funny the way they cling to that
figure-head of the Kaiser. But his nerve seems to be completely broken.
He won't be able to stick it out."

Mrs. Walbridge pushed back her chair. "Guy says they expect it to be
signed on Monday or Tuesday--the French expect it, I mean."

"What is Guy going to do then?" asked Gaskell-Walker, as he opened the
door.

His mother-in-law looked at him vaguely. "Do? I don't know. I suppose
he'll go back to the City. Mr. McCormick promised to take him back, but
I don't know--he hasn't said anything about it. I'll get his letter."

They went upstairs to the girl's room, for Paul had long since
established his æsthetic inability to sit in "the mausoleum," as he
called the drawing-room, and there, among the pretty modern
knick-knacks and pictures, the mother read her soldier son's letter.

It was a good letter, unoriginal and typical in its lack of grumbling
and rather artificial cheerfulness. The writer called his friends and
comrades by odd nicknames, vegetable and otherwise; he gave the details
of the food, and the delights of sleeping in a bed once more after
eighteen months of trench life. Then at the last there was something
over which Mrs. Walbridge hesitated for a moment--something which was
plainly very important to her. Billy Gaskell-Walker got up.

"I'll just go down and get a cigar out of my coat pocket," he said
kindly.

But Mrs. Walbridge stopped him. "No, no, Billy, don't go," she said,
"I'd like you to hear because you are going to be brothers now." She
could not tell him that it was Paul before whom she had hesitated to
read the more intimate part of the letter.

Paul sat at the far end of the room, reading a newspaper, his smoothly
brushed hair gleaming over the back of Grisel's favourite chair.

"Of course, you know that Guy has been rather foolish," his mother went
on after a pause, putting on her spectacles again. "But he is only
twenty-one, after all, and that's not so very old, is it?"

Curiously enough the stranger, the man who was nothing to her or to her
boy by blood, understood her better and was closer to her at that moment
than either her son or her daughter. Gaskell-Walker drew his chair a
little nearer and took his cigarette out of his mouth, a queer little
unpremeditated act of homage which she noticed and for which she was
grateful.

"A man of twenty-one," he said slowly, "is not a man at all, he's only
a child, and Guy is so good-looking, he's so full of what women call
charm----" he broke off with an expressive shrug, and after smiling
gratefully at him, and lowering her voice a little that she might not
disturb Paul's study of the _Evening Standard_, his mother-in-law went
on with the letter, reading in a low, moved voice:

     "'_Dear old Mum, I shall be awfully glad to get back. I've been
     thinking quite a lot lately and I can see better than I used to
     what a selfish young cub I've always been to you. Of course, it's
     your own fault that we're all such pigs. You've been too good to
     us!_'--That," the reader broke off to say, "is ridiculous.--'_But
     then I've just sort of taken everything for granted. It's been part
     of nature that you should sit up in the little garret room, slaving
     away at writing books to do things and buy things for us. It never
     struck me before that you don't have much of a time, but it does
     now, and when I come back I'm going to try to be a little more
     decent to you. It isn't that I didn't love you----_'" Her voice
     fell still lower and she shot another nervous glance at the back of
     Paul's immovable head. "'_I always did--we all do, of course. It's
     just possible that we're all selfish without meaning to be and I've
     been the worst, because, of course, Paul has been working for years
     and has no time to do very much, and it's different with the girls.
     But I'd give something nice now, when I think about it all out
     here, if I hadn't always been such a hound about going upstairs for
     you and down to the kitchen and little things like that. Your poor
     old feet must have been pretty tired sometimes chasing about doing
     things for us, and in future I'm going to do the chasing._'"

"Bless him," put in Hermione lazily, "he's a good child. We must kill
the fatted calf for him when he comes home. Billy, we'll have a
beautiful party----."

Gaskell-Walker nodded. "Bravo, Brat," he approved gently. "We mustn't
tease him any more. Perhaps," he added thoughtfully, "I might get him a
job in Throgmorton Street. Don't think much of McCormick, anyway.

"There's a little more," went on Mrs. Walbridge, who had not listened to
this conversation, but was bending over her letter, partly, it struck
her son-in-law, to hide her eyes, "it's about--about that poor girl--you
know."

Paul turned round in his chair and rested his chin on its black satin
back.

"Francine, you mean"--he laughed with a little sneer, "what about her?
The youth seems to be making his soul in earnest, but I have my doubts
as to whether the lady will be satisfied with the rôle he offers her."

"Oh, shut up, Paul, you're a cat," Hermione almost snapped, in her
unusual vehemence. "Unless, I am very much mistaken you liked the girl
yourself till the Brat came along and wiped your eye."

"Shut up, you two. Go on, Mrs. Walbridge," interrupted Gaskell-Walker.
"The girl's no worse than most young fellow's first adventure. Go and
chew your bone on the mat, you two, if you've got to squabble. I want to
hear what the Brat says."

After a pained look at her elder son, Mrs. Walbridge went on with the
letter, Paul walking ostentatiously indifferent to the piano and
turning over the music on top of it as she did so.

     "'_I know you have been worried to death about my silly scrape with
     that girl, but it really wasn't so bad as you all thought. I can't
     tell you about it in a letter, but I will when I see you and then
     you'll see that I wasn't quite such an ass as most people imagined.
     Anyhow, I straightened it all out the best way I could before I
     went back after my last leave, and I know you'll be glad to hear
     that I didn't treat her badly._' That's all he said about her. Then
     he asks about his bullfinch--we've not told him it died--and sends
     his love to everyone." Her voice shook a little as she read on.
     "'_Tell old Paul I'm awfully glad to hear he's doing so well, and
     hope he'll soon be able to get out of that cursed bank. I wish he'd
     write to me, letters are a great boon out here. Give the girls each
     a kiss and tell Billy that a little stick won't do Mrs. Hermy any
     harm, when she goes through her manners at home!_' Isn't it a very
     nice letter, Billy?"

"It is indeed, Mrs. Walbridge, there's good stuff in the Brat, and for
one, I'm going to do my best to help it come out. He'll have a good time
at our house--we both like entertaining, and I've done pretty well this
year, and it'll be nice for him to have a cheery place to go to, full of
young people. We must get some pretty flappers to amuse him, Hermy, and
then he won't want to go wasting his time in silly places."

Paul turned. "I rather think," he drawled, "that we haven't, in spite of
all these virtuous plans, heard the last of the excellent Francine.
Good-night, Gaskell-Walker." He left the room, closing the door very
softly behind him.

"I do wish," snapped Hermy, "that Paul would slam the door when he's
furious, like a Christian. That cat-footed way of his drives me mad."

A little later Mrs. Walbridge accompanied her guests to their room,
where everything had been prepared for them with the most minute and
loving care.

"There's the cold milk, Billy, on your side, and Hermy's hot milk is in
the thermos. The windows are open at the top about a foot. Is that
right?"

Hermione kissed her mother, who, after a minute's hesitation, kissed her
again.

"That's poor little Guy's kiss," the elder woman said. "Oh, Hermy, I'm
so glad he's coming home."

Mrs. Walbridge then held out her hand to her son-in-law. "Good-night.
Billy, it's nice having you here. You've been very kind about Guy. It
has made me happy."

Gaskell-Walker peered closely into her face, for he had taken his
glasses off. He was a selfish man, and not particularly tender-hearted,
selfishness after forty having a tendency to grow a thick membrane over
the feelings. But something in her face touched him.

"Good-night, dear Mrs. Walbridge," he said gently. "Will you allow your
new son-in-law to kiss you good-night?" And he bent and kissed her on
her soft cheek.



CHAPTER X


At half-past seven on the morning of Armistice Day Caroline Breeze, who
was an early waker, but a late riser, was sitting up in bed reading. Her
small, high up flat was very comfortable, and the good old woman had
only to cross the room to light her gas-ring and prepare her morning
tea. This she had done half an hour before, and was now propped up
against many pillows with a pleasantly furnished tea-tray on her lap,
bread and butter in one hand, which she dipped shamelessly into her tea,
as she read, with avid, dreamy eyes, a new novel.

Miss Breeze was about sixty, and of irredeemable plainness, being the
victim of that cruel form of indigestion that makes the nose red and the
eyes watery. Her sparse grey hair, the front part of which was by day
covered by a front of grey glossiness with but few pretences at
concealment, that now hung, carefully brushed, on the foot of her bed
like a bloodless and innocently come by war trophy, was screwed up on
top of her big square head. She wore a little flannel jacket of the
wrong shade of pink; her eiderdown, her window curtains, her wallpaper
were pink, all too, of that pathetically wrong shade, but being
comfortably colour blind, or taste blind, she knew nothing of this, and
regarded her room as a bower of beauty and charm. The book she was
reading was intensely interesting; there was in it a most cruelly
treated companion, a revolting lap-dog that had to be taken for walks
in the park, and a handsome nephew who ground his teeth in moments of
emotion, and had designs on Rosamund (that was the governess's name). So
engrossed was the good lady that presently she allowed her bit of bread
and butter to soak too long in the tea, and as she raised it to her
mouth it disintegrated, and fell with a horrid splash on her jacket.

"Oh, dear, how disgusting!" the old lady said aloud, laying down her
book and removing the tea-soaked and buttery bread with a knife. "I do
hope it's going to end all right."

When she had rubbed the front of her jacket vigorously with her napkin,
she took up the book, and with a furtive air turned to the last page.
This habit of looking at the end before she got to it was one of which
Miss Breeze was very ashamed, but she was so tender-hearted that when
she saw in the story any signs of possible tragedy, she really could not
resist taking a hasty glance at the ending, just to see if things were
all right. If they were she went back to the tale with undisturbed zest,
and undiminished excitement over the intervening troubles of the
heroine. But if the author had been so foolish as to allow death or
misunderstanding to blight the life of her heroine, Caroline Breeze
closed the book and never opened it again.

She had just resumed her reading, when a ring came at her door. The
postman did not ring, and she did not receive telegrams, so she was
startled, and sat staring owl-like through her glasses towards the door.
The ring was repeated, followed by a quick tapping of ungloved fingers
on the panel, and she heard a voice:

"Let me in, Caroline, it's only me."

"Good gracious. It's Violet!"

Slipping the tray from her knees to the little bamboo table at the side
of the bed, Miss Breeze wrapped the eiderdown round her, and scuttled
across and opened the door. She kissed her guest and they both went back
into the warm bedroom; for the fire in the little drawing-room would not
be lit until just before Miss Breeze got up, and lying in bed in the
morning was her one self-indulgence.

"My dear, take your hat off and sit down in the comfortable chair.
Whatever has brought you here at this hour?"

"Trouble," answered Mrs. Walbridge simply, doing as she was told. "I
want you to do something for me, Caroline, it's a favour. I've very
little time, so I can't explain. I must have some money."

"Money!" Miss Breeze had known Mrs. Walbridge for many years, but she
had never suspected that her friend had money troubles.

"Yes, I must have some at once, and I want you to--to pawn these for
me."

Opening her bag, she took out a little old case into which she had
crowded her two or three old-fashioned diamond rings, and two pairs of
earrings, one of seed pearls, the other of pale sapphires clumsily set
in diamond chips and thick gold.

Caroline Breeze had never been inside a pawnshop in her life, but she
did not protest against the horrid errand.

"I'll get up at once and go," she said. "What do you think they ought to
give me?"

Mrs. Walbridge, who was very pale, and whose eyes looked larger and more
sunken than ever, shrugged her shoulders helplessly. "I haven't the
slightest idea," she said.

"What's that book?" she added sharply, the crimson cover of her friend's
novel catching her eyes.

Miss Breeze's face, already so red and white in the wrong places, turned
a deep bluish colour of extreme embarrassment. "Oh, it's--it's just a
book," she stammered, laying her hand on it. "I--I thought I'd like to
read it, just to see if it really is good."

Mrs. Walbridge, who had risen, held out her hand.

"Let me see it, Caroline," she said quietly, and Miss Breeze gave it to
her. "I thought so--Beryl J. Bell. I've seen it advertised. Jones &
Hayward advertise a great deal. Is it--is it good?"

Mrs. Walbridge's voice shook a little, and Caroline Breeze turned her
eyes away.

"Nothing extra," she answered in a voice that tried to be indifferent.
"I suppose they spend a lot of money in advertising her."

Forgetting her hurry, Mrs. Walbridge sat down again and looked eagerly
through the book. There was a long silence, a flutter of pages being the
only noise in the quiet room. Caroline Breeze's faithful heart ached for
her friend, and in her wisdom she said nothing. But Mrs. Walbridge spoke
after she had closed the book and laid it down on the bed.

"I suppose you know," her voice was very quiet and the colour had died
away from her face, leaving the shadows and lines in it deeper than
ever. "I suppose you know that 'Lord Effingham' is--a failure?"

Caroline made a dreadful grimace, rumpling up her nose and protruding
her thick lips two or three times rapidly, a way she had when she was
embarrassed or distressed.

"Oh, no," she protested, "not a failure. I've noticed that the critics
don't seem to like it _quite_ so much as the others, but----"

"Don't. It's a failure, Caroline, and it's right that it should be. I
tried to change it, to make it more modern, and I've spoiled it
completely. It's neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring."

"Oh, Violet!" Poor Miss Breeze's watery eyes overflowed a little, the
tears did not fall, but spread awkwardly, scantily, over her rutted
cheeks, and made her plain face even plainer. "I love your books, and I
love this one too. If they had let you alone it would have been sweet."

"Yes, but they didn't let me alone, and they were right not to. They
weren't unkind, they were right."

There was something innocently pathetic in the little figure by the bed.
The plain old felt hat was on one side of her head, and in the
strengthening morning light she looked a really old woman--an unhappy,
hopeless old woman.

"I'm old-fashioned, Caroline--out of date. That's what it is. These new
people--that woman for instance, Beryl J. Bell--she's young, she
believes in her books, her mind isn't tired like mine. I know." She rose
and moved nervously about the room, speaking in a quick undertone. "I've
always known that my books aren't very good of course--not like Hichens,
I mean, and Mrs. Humphrey Ward, and Arnold Bennett--but they were good
of their kind, and people did like them, I know they did. I've had
letters from people I've never even heard of, showing how much they
liked them, and how they had helped them. But now they're old-fashioned
even among old-fashioned ones. That's it." She stood still to utter the
saddest of cries. "I'm old, Caroline. I'm old."

Poor Caroline Breeze burst into loud snuffling sobs, and rising from her
bed, her skimpy nightgown clinging to her bony legs, she embraced her
poor friend, and tried to comfort her with love and lies. Violet
Walbridge did not cry. She was never a tearful woman, and at this moment
was far past such a show of feeling.

"Get back into bed, dear. You'll catch cold," she said gently, patting
her friend's bony shoulder. "I must go now or they'll miss me. Come to
lunch when you've been to the pawnshop. It's good of you to go. I know I
ought to go myself, but somehow I can't, with my own things, and I
thought it would not be so bad for you, because you can _tell_ the man
that it's for a friend."

This idea she cherished, poor innocent lady, as one of great
originality, and to Miss Breeze as well it appeared valuable. But even
now, grieved as she was for her friend, it never occurred to the
faithful Caroline that the financial situation of "Happy House" could
possibly be one of more than temporary tightness.

Mrs. Walbridge never talked of money matters and for all Miss Breeze
knew might have a regular income quite apart from her books. So the kind
old maid's assumption was that one of the boys had got into a scrape,
and that Mrs. Walbridge wished to help him without her husband's
knowledge. For, in spite of the fact that Ferdie Walbridge, on the
strength of having once paid back ten pounds of his original loan from
Miss Breeze, had on several occasions borrowed further small sums of
her, to avoid, he said, bothering poor Violet about trifles, Caroline
still cherished her pristine belief that husbands were superior beings,
who ought not to be troubled by small matters by their wives.

As the friends parted Caroline ventured one question. "There's another
book sold to Lubbock & Payne, isn't there? On that last contract, I
mean."

Mrs. Walbridge shook her head. "No, this is the last of the three. I--I
dare say I shall hear from them shortly."

Caroline Breeze went back to her room, and dressed and prepared to go on
her, to her, so strange and adventurous errand.

No one saw Mrs. Walbridge come home, and the morning dragged along with
its usual round of dull duties, until about half past ten, when Miss
Breeze arrived, her long queer figure, in her tight-fitting jacket edged
with strips of shabby mink, and her oddly rakish hat decorated with a
scrap of gold lace and a big bunch of pink roses.

"I've been, dear," she burst out eagerly, as she came into the attic
room, where her friend sat at her work-table, "and I've got fifty-two
pounds. Isn't it splendid?"

Mrs. Walbridge's face fell. "Oh, thanks--that's very good," she said,
"and I'm so grateful to you, Caroline."

"It wasn't a bit like what I had expected," Miss Breeze explained,
unbuttoning her jacket, and pulling out her cherished lace frill. "I
rather thought there would be little pens, you know, like the ones in
Dickens, with a young man leaning across a counter. But it was exactly
like a shop and there was a very nice little back room, and such a
polite man, a Christian. He said the diamonds were very good, but small,
and he didn't seem to believe me when I told him it was for a friend.
Wasn't it odd of him?"

Mrs. Walbridge nodded. She had taken up a pencil and was making some
notes on an old envelope, "twenty-six, thirty-six," she murmured. "Are
they really signing the Armistice to-day?" she asked a moment later,
looking up.

"Yes, I think so. The streets are crowded, everybody seems to be waiting
for something. I don't see why they don't sign the peace at once, and
not waste time over an armistice; it would be far simpler."

Mrs. Walbridge rose. "Let's go downstairs, dear," she said.

But at that moment a sudden ringing of bells filled the air--bells from
all sides, bells big, bells small, bells musical and bells harsh. The
two women stared at each other.

"That must be it," Miss Breeze cried. "I thought they were going to fire
off cannon."

Mrs. Walbridge went to the little window and opened it. The sun was
shining, and the sky was as clear as if they looked at it from some
empty moor. She stood and looked up.

"Thank God," she said. "Now all the sons and brothers and lovers will be
coming home--those who are left----"

"And husbands," agreed Miss Breeze, clasping her hands.

As the cannon began to roar, Violet Walbridge turned and looked at her
friend with a curious expression in her fine eyes. "And husbands," she
added softly.

       *       *       *       *       *

While the two women were having their simple lunch the house door burst
open and Griselda came running in, glowing with colour and happiness,
looking the picture of youth and beauty, in a little close-fitting fur
cap and stole of the same kind of fur. The Fords had motored her up to
town to see the celebrations and to go to a ball at one of the big
hotels that night.

"Oh, mother," she cried, "aren't you glad it's over--the war, I mean?"

She sat down at the table, and leaning her chin in her hand, watched the
two women as they pecked at their bread and cheese.

"Aren't you surprised to see me? We only came up on the spur of the
moment. Fred said it was a historical event, and we ought not to miss
it, and he telephoned through and got rooms. The prices are perfectly
fearful, but he really doesn't care what he spends. So here we are. They
sent me up here in the car."

"Where," asked her mother, in an odd, dry little voice, "did you get
those furs?"

Griselda, who had taken off the stole, glanced down at it carelessly.
"Oh, this. Elsie gave it to me. Fred gave her some heavenly sables the
other day, so she didn't want these any more."

"I gave you my beaver set."

The girl glanced curiously at her mother's face. "I know you did, dear,
and it's very nice, of course. But beaver doesn't suit me, and besides
it's very old fashioned."

Mrs. Walbridge started at the last word, and her wedding ring struck
sharply against a glass.

"Old fashioned?" she said. "Yes, I suppose it is. Well, come upstairs,
dear, and take your things off in my room. Jessie's turning yours out
to-day, but it'll be ready in a little while."

Griselda caught up her stole and threw it round her shoulders. "Oh, I'm
not staying," she explained carelessly. "We're at the Ritz. It's only
for two or three days, so I thought I wouldn't--upset things here--and
besides, Elsie wanted me. Sir John Barclay is motoring her and me back
on the day after to-morrow----"

"Who is Sir John Barclay?" asked Miss Breeze interestedly. Grisel
laughed.

"Try to bear it, Caroline," she said, "but he's not young and handsome;
he's old. _Very_ nice," she added, patronisingly, "but really old. White
hair and all that. Isn't it a pity, for he's as rich as
Croesus--copper in Africa it is, and sheep and cows in South America.
I wish he'd adopt me as a favourite grandchild." As she spoke a long,
throaty honk of a motor horn was heard. "That's Peters. I promised Elsie
I wouldn't be late, and he's reminding me. We're lunching at the Carlton
with Sir John, so I really _mustn't_ be late. Good-bye, dears."

She kissed both the women and they all three walked to the hall door
together.

"Oh, I forgot to tell you," the girl went on, as she opened the door.
"Dad says he's going to stay on for another fortnight. He says his
health's better, but really and truly he's having the time of his life
and is a thoroughly gay old dog. Oh, yes, and he wants you to send him
some new pajamas--only two or three pairs, and you're not to send him
mauve ones. Rather naughty of him to be so particular, isn't it?"

"Griselda!" Mrs. Walbridge's voice was very stern, and the girl made a
funny little face as she ran down the path.

They watched her get into the big car, and waved their hands to her as
it bore her quietly away.

The two women went back into the house and sat down in the drawing-room.
The fire had gone out during the excitement of the morning, and the room
looked more than ever unlovely and uninhabited. Mrs. Walbridge stood for
a moment gazing down at the five photographs.

"Dear Grisel is having a splendid time, isn't she?" asked Caroline
warmly. "How nice for her to have such rich friends."

Mrs. Walbridge did not answer. Her eyes were still fixed on the pictures
of her five children.



CHAPTER XI


A week later Mrs. Walbridge received a letter from her publishers. It
was a very kind letter, for, after all, publishers are human beings, and
Mr. Lubbock and Mr. Payne were really sorry to hurt their poor little
client.

"'Pon my word, it really makes me feel quite miserable," Mr. Lubbock had
told his partner, with perfect sincerity, as they drew up a rough draft
of the letter for Miss Borlays, their most confidential secretary, to
type.

Mr. Payne nodded in agreement. "Poor old thing, it'll be an awful blow,
and I half suspect," he added, "that she supports that rascally,
good-looking husband of hers by her earnings."

"There are a lot of children, too, Payne. I've forgotten how many, but a
great many," added Mr. Lubbock, smoothing his impeccable waistcoat.
"Poor little woman. I wish we didn't have to do it. Of course, she has
grown absolutely out of date, and this last book is disastrous,
positively disastrous."

However, after some discussion, the two men decided, for the sake of old
times and long friendship, to accept one more book from Mrs. Walbridge.

"We'll buy outright," Lubbock suggested. "What do you say? Give her a
cheque for five hundred pounds and let her deliver the manuscript when
she likes. That'll let her down a bit easier."

Mr. Payne nodded. "Five hundred pounds is a lot of money," he protested
feebly. "We shan't sell as many copies either after this last mess.
However, we'll do it."

When they had finished the rough draft and sent it in to the efficient
Miss Borlays, the two men went out to lunch, and had a bottle of Clos
Vogeot to console themselves, both for what was practically a gift of a
large sum of money, and also for their sincere sympathy with that poor
little superannuated scribbler. After his third glass of the excellent
and mellowing wine, Mr. Lubbock even recalled to his friend how very
pretty Mrs. Walbridge had been twenty years ago.

"I remember thinking I had never seen such eyes in my life," the good
gentleman murmured reminiscently, "and I was only just married in those
days, too."

       *       *       *       *       *

The letter was less of a blow to Mrs. Walbridge than might have been
expected, for, when faced with absolute ruin, an unexpected five hundred
pounds comes very nearly like manna from heaven. Her relief when she had
cashed the cheque and actually had the notes folded away in her shabby
little old bag was so great that she had to struggle to keep the tears
from her habitually tearless eyes. She did not go straight home from the
bank, and restraining herself with a violent effort from rushing in to
thank Mr. Lubbock and Mr. Payne--a course which she knew would be
extremely distressing to them both--she did an unjustifiable but very
forgivable thing. She went to Peter Robinson's and spent twenty-seven
pounds nineteen and sixpence on a muff and stole for Griselda. This she
had sent straight to her daughter, and, sitting at the counter in the
shop, she wrote a little letter on a bit of paper out of one of her
notebooks.

     "_My darling_," she said, in her beautiful, clear writing, "_here's
     a little present for you. I can't bear you to accept things from
     anyone but me. Explain to Elsie Ford, and I'm sure she'll
     understand your asking her to take back the beautiful furs she so
     kindly wanted to give you._

      "_When are you coming back? I don't want to cut your pleasure
      short, but you've been away for a long time now, and I miss you.
      Oliver came to see me yesterday, and he has a box for 'Roxana,'
      and wants you and me and a friend of his, a young man, to go with
      him on Thursday. Guy will be coming back any day now, and
      Christmas is near--and in fact I want my baby very badly._

  "_Your loving mother_,
  "VIOLET WALBRIDGE."

This note she pinned on the muff, and herself folded the soft paper over
it as it lay in the box. The girl who had sold it to her was very
sympathetic and pleasant, and promised that it should go off that very
day. When these things were accomplished, Mrs. Walbridge went on to
Campden Hill, where she was lunching with Hermione.

Hilltop Road, Campden Hill, is a blind alley, beautifully quiet, with
grass growing between the cobble-stones that pave it. It is a quiet,
sunny, tree-sheltered place, with five or six engardened houses on
either side, the smallest of which belonged to the Gaskell-Walkers. Even
now, in November, a few scraggy roses and some brown-edged hydrangeas
still garnished the sodden garden, and Mrs. Walbridge noticed with
pleasure, as she went up the path, that the painters were evidently out.
The door and windows glittered steadily in the glory of new bottle-green
paint, and the windows themselves had lost the hollow-eyed look
incidental to houses where the housemaids are not yet settled down to a
religious respect for their blinds.

She was a little late for lunch, but Maud was the only other guest, and,
as Maud was very hungry, they had not waited for her, and she found them
sitting cosily over curried eggs in the pretty dining-room. She had not
seen Maud for about a fortnight, and was pleased to find her looking
well and rosy. Hilary was at the seaside with his Grannie Twiss, and
Maud and Moreton, she was told, had been having a high old time doing
the theatres.

"We are praying," the young wife added pleasantly, "for bubonic plague,
or cholera, or something. Poor Moreton's only had three patients since
we got back, and one of them only had neuralgia from his tooth, and
Moreton had to send him across the passage to Mr. Burton to pull out a
few. That," she added, reaching for the salt, "was rather bitter."

Hermione, looking radiantly pretty in her smart trousseau coat and
skirt, was full of simple news about her husband and her house and their
plans.

"Billy's not forgotten his promise about the Brat," she said, after a
while. "He's asked Mr. Browning, his partner, you know, and he says he
thinks they could make some kind of a place for him--for Guy, I mean."

"That's very kind of him. I haven't heard from Guy for over a week. I
suppose he'll be coming any day now, bless him."

Then she was asked and told news of Paul, and this information was given
and accepted rather coldly, for Paul was not a favourite with his
brother and sisters, and their interest was only conventional.

"I believe he did rather well in something; I forget what, copper or
something, last week," Mrs. Walbridge explained. "He's bought a lovely
teapot with flowers all over it, and a picture--a water-colour of Venice
that he says will be worth double what he paid for it in a few years."

"Grisel's having a grand time," one of the young women exclaimed towards
the end of the lunch. "Elsie Ford is jolly good to her."

Her mother's delicate eyebrows stirred a little ruefully. "I don't like
this new custom of taking presents from one's friends," she said.

"Nonsense, mother. Everybody does it, and Elsie's so rich it doesn't
matter to her what she gives away. Do you remember how we despised her
for marrying Fred Ford, Hermy?"

Hermione nodded. "Yes; he was dreadful in those days, wasn't he? There
wasn't a decent 'o' in him. Real cockney."

"She's toned him down a lot, though," put in the other, "and he has a
trick of picking up smart slang--really _good_ slang, you know--that
makes him quite possible. When's the kid coming home, mum?"

"A few days before Christmas. I had a letter from her yesterday. They
are doing a lot of motoring, which, of course, Grisel loves. There's an
old gentleman named Barclay who is very kind to her," she said.

Hermione Gaskell-Walker burst out laughing. "You'll be having the kind
old gentleman for a son-in-law if you don't look out, you innocent old
pet," she said, lighting her coffee machine, and blowing out the match.
"Elsie told me--I met her the other day in Harrod's when she came up for
that special performance at His Majesty's--that the old man was crazy
about the kid, and," she added with satisfaction, "rolling--simply
rolling."

Her mother looked bewildered. "Rolling----?"

"In money, dear. He's extremely rich--cattle, I think, in Argentina. She
always was the best-looking of the three of us, so it's only fair she
should make the best match."

Maud interrupted her indignantly. "Best match, indeed! An old man like
that. How sickening of you, Hermy. I wouldn't give up Moreton for all
the millionaires in the world."

Mrs. Walbridge patted her hand. "That's right, dear," she murmured, and
Mrs. Gaskell-Walker looked a little ashamed of herself.

"You needn't think I'm not fond of Billy, for I am. He's absolutely
perfect. I was only speaking from the worldly point of view, and it
would be funny if the kid should burst out into a title, and millions,
while Moreton is hunting illusive patients, and Billy worrying himself
dead on the Stock Exchange."

After lunch Mrs. Walbridge was taken over the house, which was very
comfortable and full of things that she supposed must be beautiful,
although to her they were for the most part grotesque, if not ugly. The
mattresses, and such homely appurtenances, were oldish, she found, and
rather shabby, but everything downstairs was imposing, and that,
Hermione thought, was the chief thing.

"By the way, mother," the young wife burst out as they came down the
steep staircase, "what about that Wick man? There's not going to be any
trouble with him, I hope?"

"Trouble?"

"Yes, with Grisel, I mean. Billy took a fancy to him rather, and asked
him to come and see us, so he turned up the other Sunday for supper.
He's very nice. We both liked him, but there's something very odd about
him, don't you think?"

Maud laughed. "It's only that he says all the things that most people
only think."

"I like him," Mrs. Walbridge announced firmly. "I like him very much.
Did he say anything to you about Griselda, Hermy--or to Billy?"

"No, not exactly. But when he talked about the future, and he always
does talk about the future (I never knew anyone who seemed to have less
use for the past, or even the present), he seemed to assume that she
would always be there, with him, I mean."

"He's asked her to marry him, and she's refused him."

"Really? He doesn't seem much cast down by it. I never saw a more cheery
person in my life. Billy says he'll be a great success some day."

Maud went part of the way home with her mother, and asked her again for
the loan. Mrs. Walbridge hesitated.

"I don't quite see how I can, dear," she said behind her muff, for they
were in a bus. "My--my last book has not sold quite so well as the
others."

Maud nodded. "I've seen some of the notices. Awfully sorry, dear. By the
way, why don't you try to brighten up your style a little? They're
awfully sweet and all that, but they are a little old-fashioned, you
know."

"I--I tried to brighten up 'Lord Effingham,'" her mother faltered, and
Maud laughed with kindly meant amusement that cut deep.

"'Lord Effingham' really was the limit. That baby was most shocking. We
blushed for you, Moreton and I. Moreton says he thinks you don't read
enough of the new stuff. Oh, I don't mean really good stuff, like Wells
and May Sinclair and that lot, but the second-rate ones that sell so
well--Mrs. Llovitt and Austen Goodheart, and so on. This Bell woman,
too--what's her name?--Beryl J. Bell. I don't think her book is really
better than yours, but every second person one meets is reading it."

Before they parted she returned again to the question of the loan.

"If you possibly can you'll let me have it, won't you? We really are
rather at our wits' end. Everyone is so dreadfully healthy just now, and
the rent is pretty bad--quarter-day coming. I do want some pretty things
for little Violet. I should hate her to wear Hilary's left-offs."

A little smile, that was almost whimsical, touched Mrs. Walbridge's
flexible lips.

"My children all wore each other's left-offs," she said softly, "and it
didn't seem to hurt them. Grisel looked very sweet in your long robes.
However, I'll see what I can do, darling, and I _can_ let you have
twenty-five--only don't mention it to Paul, will you?"

She changed buses at Oxford Circus, and after waiting a long time on the
corner, she gave up trying to force her way into the overcrowded buses
(for she hadn't the gift of crowds) and walked home. It was nearly
tea-time when she reached Happy House, and after a hasty cup of tea she
went up to her little attic study and sat down to work.

When Paul came home at dinner-time he was not unreasonably annoyed to
find his mother still writing.

"Do come down," he called. "Dinner's on the table, and I'm hungry."

When she appeared, he looked with distaste at her ruffled hair and
ink-stained finger.

"Really, mother," he exclaimed irritably, "I do think you might manage
to be in time for meals. It's disgusting to a man to get home and have
to wait for his food."

"I shan't be a minute, dear," she said. "I must just wash my hands and
brush my hair."

"Oh, bother your hands and your hair; come along. I'm going to the
play--gallery--with Bruce Collier, to the Coliseum, so I shan't have to
dress, but I've very little time."

Mrs. Walbridge was a careful housekeeper, but things will go wrong
sometimes in every house, and this was one of those occasions for her.
She had a new cook whom she ought, she knew, to have superintended, but
the call of her book had been too loud and she had forgotten all about
dinner. The soup was lumpy and luke-warm, and the leg of mutton
quivering and purple. Paul watched it as she cut the first slice (she
always did the carving), and threw down his napkin angrily.

"Raw meat--that's really too much! I'll go to the club and get a
sandwich."

Tears rose to her eyes. "Oh, Paul, I _am_ sorry, very sorry," she cried,
"and I don't wonder you're annoyed, but don't go. Let me make you a
Welsh rabbit."

He shook his head and rose. "No, no. I'd rather go."

"I--I--it was my fault," she went on. "I got so interested in my book
that I utterly forgot dinner."

At the door he turned and looked back at her pitilessly.

"Your book! If your books were worth while there'd be some excuse for
artistic absent-mindedness, but considering the stuff you turn out, I
shouldn't think such mundane details as soup and mutton need be so
infinitely beneath you."

       *       *       *       *       *

Mrs. Walbridge sat still for several minutes, staring at the closed
door, a strange look on her pale face. Presently she rose, the look in
her eyes intensifying, almost solidifying, to one that would
immeasurably have astonished her son if he could have seen it. Lighting
a lamp, she went quickly upstairs to her little writing room, and,
unfastening the buttons of her right sleeve, freeing her wrist, she took
up her pen and began to write. Day had begun to light her square of sky
when she crept down quietly to bed the next morning.



CHAPTER XII


A few days before Christmas Ferdinand Walbridge and his youngest
daughter came home. It, was over two months since his wife had seen him,
and she was very much struck by his look of health and youth.

"The sea air has done you a world of good, Ferdie," she commented
gently.

He shot a quick glance at her out of marvellously cleared and unswollen
eyes.

"Torquay agrees with me," he answered shortly; "always did."

Then he told her with genuine pleasure--for, like so many men with whom
selfishness is almost a disease, he liked spending money, and was rather
generous than otherwise--that he had made a good thing from a tip in
copper, given him by a friend in Torquay.

"Sir John Barclay," he explained. "Grisel will have written you about
him."

She nodded. "Oh, yes. The kind old gentleman."

"Exactly, the kind old gentleman." He laughed. "He and I are very
friendly, and, as I say, he put me on to this thing, and I cleared a
couple of hundred pounds."

She was about to ask him if he couldn't manage some of the quarterly
bills with part of the money, when he cut the ground from under her feet
by taking from his pocket five five-pound notes and handing them to her.

"That's just a little present for you, old girl," he said, "to help you
out with Christmas."

Before she had finished thanking him, the house door had banged behind
him.

Grisel had not arrived yet, as she was coming by car with the Fords, who
were spending Christmas at the Savoy, and Mrs. Walbridge ran out and
bought some flowers to decorate the girl's room.

She had not forgiven Paul for the episode of the underdone mutton. He
had hurt her many times before, but he had never so thoroughly disgusted
her, and her indignation, that she knew to be justified and fair, was in
an odd way a strength to her. She had worked for hours every day on her
new book, and was behindhand in consequence with her Christmas plans,
but Grisel must have flowers. She spent nearly three pounds of the
twenty-five her husband had given her at the beautiful shop in Baker
Street, and then, because she was afraid of crushing them, took a taxi
home, and was met by a look of cold raillery by Paul, who was letting
himself into the house with his latchkey as she drove up.

"I hope Lubbock & Payne are paying you well for the new masterpiece," he
said, as she came up the steps laden with flowers. He was surprised at
the look she gave him in return.

"Your father made me a present this morning," she said quietly, "and if
I choose to buy flowers with some of it that doesn't concern you, my
dear Paul."

Up in the girls' room (as the upstairs sitting-room was still called,
although only one girl was left) she had half an hour of real pleasure,
filling vases with water and arranging flowers to the best advantage.
She was passionately devoted to the pretty things, but for many years
now had had to give up buying them, or trying to keep growing things in
the house. Growing plants need care and time, and Mrs. Walbridge had
little leisure for such delightful attentions.

But now Grisel was coming home, so she felt perfectly satisfied in
spending such an enormous sum of money as nearly three pounds on
adorning the girl's room.

Her husband had not known at what time the Fords and their guest would
reach London. They would, no doubt, lunch on the way, and as Sir John
Barclay was coming up with them, they would probably stop to explore any
old churches they might pass. He had a passion for routing about in
chilly, romantic old churches.

"Fond of arches, and architecture, and flying buttresses and things," he
added, with the pleasant disdain of one to whom those chaste joys make
no appeal.

So, when the flowers were arranged, and the blinds drawn down, and the
fire lit, Mrs. Walbridge went to her own room and put on her only
afternoon dress. It looked very shabby, she thought, as she stood in
front of the glass. It had never been much of a frock, and she had worn
it and worn it and worn it. It was of black silk, of some thin, papery
kind that looked cracked in a strong light, and the sleeves were very
old-fashioned, with something wrong about the shoulders. She sighed a
little, and then gave her pretty curly hair a last smooth of the brush
and went downstairs.

She was a little anxious lest one of the children might notice the
absence of her rings, and the seed pearl earrings, which, being one of
her husband's very few gifts, were a part of her immemorial gala attire;
she was almost sure that he would notice their absence, and she felt
that she would die with shame if any of them knew about the pawning.

The new cook had produced some unexpectedly tempting-looking cakes, and
Jessie, much elated by her reinstatement as a one-job woman, was waiting
in all the glories of new cap and apron, to open the door to Miss
Griselda, while the mistress, in the dreary drawing-room, sat down by
the fire to wait for her daughter.

She was lost in thought over her new book, which was engrossing her very
deeply. She heard a sudden knocking on the glass panel of the house
door, and jumped up and ran to open the door, flinging out her arms and
crying:

"Oh, my darling!"

"Thanks, Mrs. Walbridge. I like being called your darling. You might
kiss me too, if you don't mind. It's Christmas time."

Oliver Wick laughed cheerfully as the little lady started back in
fright. "That's what I call a nice warm welcome," the young man went on,
following her into the hall and hanging up his hat.

"Then she hasn't come? May I come in and wait? I've really come to see
her, you know, but I've got a very decent excuse--a note from my mother,
saying how delighted we shall be to dine with you on Christmas Eve." He
produced a letter and followed his hostess into the drawing-room,
carrying something that looked like a small hatbox with great care.

Mrs. Walbridge read the note and expressed her satisfaction at its
contents.

"What have you got in that box," she added.

"Flowers for Grisel," he answered promptly. "Beauties. Just look." He
raised the lid of his box and showed her an enormous bunch of closely
packed Parma violets. "Aren't they lovely?" he asked, beaming with
pleasure, "and won't she love them?"

"She will indeed. Let's go upstairs and put them in water, shall we?"

And thus it was that when Griselda Walbridge reached home after having
stayed nearly two months with the Freddie Fords at Conroy Hall, Torquay,
she found Mr. Wick awaiting her with a curious air of belonging to the
household as much, or even more, than she did.

"You're fatter," he said, looking at her critically, his small eyes shut
as if she were a picture and he an expert, "and you've got that nasty
red stuff on your lips. Oh, fie!"

Mrs. Walbridge watched them happily, as she leant back in Hermione's
favourite old chair by the fire. There was something in this friendly,
busy youth that she loved. He gave her a safe feeling, and she decided,
as she watched his sparring with her daughter, that she would be glad to
see Grisel safely married to him. He was poor, she knew, but she had
unconsciously accepted his own ideas about his future, and knew that his
poverty was merely a temporary thing, and that he was headed straight
for power and wealth. Besides, power and wealth were not things that she
had ever greatly valued.

Grisel was thinner, she went on thinking. She looked taller in her
beautifully fitting chestnut brown skirt and chiffon tan blouse. The
girl had changed. She looked more grown up, more of what her mother
innocently characterised as "a society girl." Her manner, too, was
different. She seemed at once a little bored and excited about
something.

She had opened her dressing-case and taken out a variety of little
belongings and was darting about the room like, her mother thought, a
swallow, settling these things in their old places. A handsomely framed
photograph of her father (his gift on her last birthday) she put on the
mantelpiece, and turned with a little laugh.

"Isn't Dad looking splendid," she said. "He's been motoring a lot, you
know, and it's done him a world of good."

"Oh, I didn't know he went with you," her mother observed, surprised.
Grisel took a little silver and enamel cigarette box out of her pocket
and put it on the table.

"He didn't go with us," she answered carelessly. "The Crichells had
their car, you know, and he and Clara used to knock about a bit."

"Surely, my dear, you don't call Mrs. Crichell by her Christian name?"

"Don't I? I call everybody by their Christian names--everyone does. The
old ones hate being 'Miss-ed'--reminds them of their age, you see. Even
Elsie's mother hated being called Mrs. Hulbert, but, of course, I
wouldn't call her Pansy! She really _is_ old. Must be as old as you,
dear, though I must say she doesn't look it."

Oliver Wick glanced quickly at Mrs. Walbridge, but looked away in
relief, for he saw that she was untouched by the girl's careless remark,
and he realised with a pang of satisfaction that her sensitiveness lay
far from such matters as age and looks.

"Did you see much of that Mrs. Crichell?" he asked, as she sat down and
lit a cigarette. She laughed.

"Yes. I know you hate her, but she's really not so bad, and Mr. Crichell
and she entertained a good deal. They had an awfully nice house there."

"I don't hate her," said Oliver Wick quietly, "but she's vulgar, and too
idle and empty-headed to be much good, or happy. Women like that are
always on the edge of making beasts of themselves, even if they don't do
it."

"Oh, a Daniel come to judgment!" she jeered. "You seem very wise, this
afternoon."

"Yes," he answered drily. "I'm always rather sage on Saturdays. Friday's
pay day, you know, at my shop, and nothing makes a man feel so wise as
money in his breeches pocket. You," he added, "have, on the contrary,
gained chiefly in folly, I should say."

She laughed. "Have I? I'm not at all sure of that."

There was something thoughtful in her voice and face, and her mother
looked at her wonderingly.

Oliver's face was imperturbable. "Who's the man?" he asked, and she
actually jumped, so that her cigarette fell out of her amber holder to
the floor.

"What d'you say?" she asked, as she picked up the cigarette. "Who was
the what?"

"Man--the man you're contemplating marrying?"

All that there was of the new and the strange in Griselda seemed to her
mother to flower in her answer to the young man's question.

She threw back her head and laughed, her pretty throat shown to the best
advantage as she did so. Then coolly looking at Wick from under her
lashes in a consciously attractive way, she drawled:

"I'm not going to tell you his name, though you're perfectly right, oh
shrewd young knight of the fountain pen."

Wick was shrewd, but he was also very young, and Mrs. Walbridge felt a
little pang of pain as she saw how white he had grown and what a smitten
look had come to his face. After a second he rallied, and lit a
cigarette, but he had been badly hurt, and his face showed it as he
said, with a laugh:

"That's a phase all attractive young girls go through--trying to make up
their minds to marry some rich man they don't like, before they have the
sense to settle down with the handsome object of their true affections."

"The object being you, I suppose?" she retorted.

"Grisel, Grisel," her mother protested gently. "You really go too far,
my dear."

The girl laughed. "Poor mother. You're longing to tell me it isn't
womanly, aren't you? But it's very kind of you to have brought me the
violets, Oliver, and I'm glad to see you, and all that----" She held out
her hand carelessly, with something of the air of a stage queen, "but
I'm dining out, and must have a talk with mother before I dress, so I'm
afraid you must go now."

He rose at once, apologising nervously and sensitively for having stayed
too long, and Mrs. Walbridge went down to the door with him. He was very
slow in getting into his coat, and she purposely did not look at him.
She knew he was suffering, and she had an absurd feeling that he was
hers, that she had written him--that she knew exactly what he was going
through, and what he was going to do.

Then he opened the door and turned round, grinning broadly and holding
out his hand.

"She got the first one in that round, didn't she?" he asked. "Never
mind, I'll get her yet, the young minx! Oh, my word," he added,
relapsing suddenly into helpless, conscious pathos: "What a little
beauty she is! My knees feel like wet tissue paper."

Before she could speak he had bent and kissed her (for though he was not
very tall, he was taller than she), and was gone into the darkness.



CHAPTER XIII


The Christmas Eve dinner party was rather a large one. Hermione and her
husband could not come, as they were obliged to dine with relations of
the Gaskell-Walkers. But the Twiss's were there, and Mr. and Mrs.
Crichell, and Paul and the Wicks, and, to Griselda's joy, the great
Bruce Collier honoured them with his presence. She knew that this
condescension was due to his having once met her coming out of the house
when he was on his way to see Paul.

Walbridge had, as usual, helped by spending all his available money on
things of a showy and convivial nature. The quarterly gas bill was still
unpaid, and he was having serious trouble with his tailor, but he had
sent in a case of champagne, and a box of the best cigars money could
buy, and all sorts of impressive, though unnecessary dainties, such as
caviare, pâté de foie, brandied cherries, oysters and so on, besides a
fifteen-pound turkey, which quite put out of joint, as Grisel expressed
it, "the pope's nose of the poor little eleven-pounder mother had bought
for the occasion."

Ferdie had been very fussy and tiresome ever since he came back from
Torquay, and at the last minute, distrustful of the new cook's powers,
he had insisted on getting a woman in for the Christmas Eve dinner. The
permanent cook wept all day, and went through the usual procedure of
reproaches and threats, but she finally quieted down, by the help of a
bottle of port, and the dinner really was excellent.

At the last minute the table had had to be redecorated, because Ferdie
had been seized with a desire to have orchids. Mrs. Walbridge sat
patiently by and watched him remove her time-honoured design of holly
and mistletoe and smilax, and then arrange the lovely purple and mauve
things that she now saw for the first time in her life without a shop
front between her and them. She dared not ask the price; she dared not
offer to help him, for he was extraordinarily irritable, and in spite of
his look of renewed health and youth, moved to violent invective by the
slightest word or suggestion. She watched him now as he darted from side
to side of the table trying the effect of the different clear-glass
vases, full of the expensive flowers that his wife privately thought so
much less lovely than roses or sweet peas.

He was looking very handsome, and had certainly renewed his youth in a
way that made her feel, as she raised her eyes to the glass that always
hung opposite his place at table, that she looked older and more dowdy
than ever. And yet there was something in his face that displeased her,
and seemed to give her an odd kind of warning. After a while she rose
and went quietly to the door.

"Where are you going?" he asked sharply.

"I'm going up to write a little."

"Oh, rubbish! Go down to the kitchen and make sure that everything's all
right. That's far more important."

"I've been down to the kitchen," she answered gently, with something in
her eyes that disconcerted him. "Everything is all right, and as you are
going to arrange the seats I'm going to write for a while."

She went upstairs and closed the door, and sat down before her
work-table, where her lamp always stood nowadays filled and trimmed,
with a box of matches by its side.

       *       *       *       *       *

Old Mrs. Wick, rather imposing in grey, with some fine lace, and a cap,
and a handsome old brooch of Irish paste and black enamel, necessarily
sat on Ferdie Walbridge's right at dinner. Mrs. Crichell, very handsome
in jade green velvet, sat on his left, as she had sat, Oliver
remembered, from his place on Mrs. Walbridge's left, that night in the
early autumn, when he had first dined at the house.

Oliver was very proud of his old mother, and with good reason, for her
plain, strong face was by far the most arresting, apart from the mere
fact of superficial beauty, at the table. His little sister too, whose
soft red hair foamed over her head like scarlet soap-suds, bore the
proximity of three very good-looking young women remarkably well. She
was plainly by far the most intelligent of the four, and once or twice
when the celebrated Mr. Collier laid down the law with even more than
his usual cocksureness, little Jenny dashed in, as her delighted brother
thought, and wiped the floor with him. He was a pretentious, posing man,
Mr. Collier, disposing of such writers as Thomas Hardy and Meredith with
a few words of amused contempt.

"Hardy has talent," he said, screwing his glass in his eye, and studying
Griselda's charming face with relish. "Of course, he writes well, but
he's very old-fashioned, and far too long-winded. There's not one of his
books that would not be better for a little judicious paring down."

"And who," put in Jenny Wick's high, clear voice, "whom do you suggest
as a parer?"

Collier glared at her, and Paul who, for some reason, had hardly taken
his eyes off his red-headed _vis-à-vis_, gave a sudden laugh, although
he had had no intention of doing so.

"I like your sister," Maud Twiss said pleasantly, turning to Oliver, and
speaking in an undertone. "She's a dear little thing."

"Isn't she," he answered, "very like me, don't you think?"

And Maud, who knew him less well than the other members of the family,
was a little disconcerted, and blushed. She looked very handsome when
she blushed, and Crichell leant across the table to her, waving those
white hands of his in the way that was so singularly distasteful to
Wick. Once more the young man was reminded of things sprouting in dark
places, and then his quick imagination improved on this crude vision,
and he seemed to catch a glimpse of blind sea-worms writhing in some
sunless cavern.

"When are you going to sit to me, Mrs. Twiss?" the painter asked. But
Twiss, who sat the other side of Jenny, leant over and answered for his
wife.

"Never, Mr. Crichell. She's no time for portraits."

Paul, who disliked his younger brother-in-law, sneered at this, and Maud
saw him.

"I saw you yesterday, Paul," she said, without lowering her voice. "You
didn't see me, did you?"

He turned to her with a little snarl. "Yesterday? No, I didn't."

"I thought not. I was lunching at the Piccadilly Grill with Elynor
Twiss."

Paul didn't answer, but he turned to Mrs. Wick and made some unimportant
remark to her. The old lady was amused by the situation, and she did not
like Paul, whereas Maud struck her as a kind, pretty young woman who
ought to be aided and abetted in her attack on a disagreeable,
pettish-minded brother.

"No," she returned, in her sonorous voice, "I never did. Do you often go
to the Piccadilly Grill, Mr. Walbridge? I was there with Oliver the
other day."

Paul was furious. He didn't mind bear baiting, but he did object to
being the bear, and Oliver, who knew his mother and her wicked ways, and
who had also caught a pained look in Mrs. Walbridge's eyes, leaned
across Maud and made a sign to the old lady. The sign consisted of
slipping the forefinger of his right hand down into his collar and
giving it a jerk as if he felt a little breathless. Mrs. Wick laughed.
She loved teasing, but this was an old signal used only when Oliver felt
that she really had gone far enough. So she nodded good-humouredly at
her son and let the subject of the Piccadilly Grill drop.

After that the dinner went on pleasantly enough, and Mrs. Walbridge saw
with pleasure that Ferdie really seemed to be enjoying himself. Mr.
Walbridge, like everybody else, had the qualities of his defects, and he
was a very good host.

Mrs. Wick was old and plain, and did not interest him in the least, but
she was his guest, and he was charming to her--charming, that is, as far
as a man may be said to be charming to a woman who is not at all charmed
by him. Pretty Mrs. Crichell, on his left, talked a good deal to Moreton
Twiss, who admired and took pleasure in her beauty, as every man ought
always to admire and take pleasure in the beauty of any pretty woman.
To do them justice, most of them do.

Grisel, of all the people at the table, seemed the least amused, Wick
thought. Mr. Collier plainly admired her, but she seemed to derive less
satisfaction from this circumstance than might have been expected, and
he knew that she had never liked Crichell, who sat on her right. When
her brilliant little face was in repose, it had a new look of fatigue
and boredom. Wick watched her constantly throughout dinner, for he was
hampered by no wish to conceal his admiration, and he came to the
conclusion that she was not only preoccupied, but worried about
something. He wondered if Walbridge knew the cause of this worry, for
the girl turned more than once towards her father, and looked at him in
a way that puzzled her observer.

They went upstairs for coffee, the girls' sitting-room being not only
larger and pleasanter than the drawing-room, but the piano also being
there, and when the men had come in and Oliver made a bee-line for
Grisel, he found that she looked even more nervous and tired than he had
thought.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

She shook her head. "Tired. Besides it's very warm in here."

"Come and sit by the window."

She obeyed him listlessly, and they sat down in the window seat that
looked down over the little path leading round the house to the kitchen
door.

"I do wish," the girl burst out suddenly, "that mother wouldn't have the
Crichells here."

He stared at her. "But I thought you liked her. Why do you call her by
her Christian name if you don't?"

"I don't say I don't like her. I saw you looking at his hands at dinner.
Aren't they beastly?"

"Horrid. Has he done anything--anything you don't like?"

She shook her head. "Oh, no. But I--I wish they hadn't come."

As she spoke Wick's sister began to play, something very modern, of
which he could make neither head nor tail. But she played brilliantly,
and with what seemed almost unequalled facility, although he knew what
hours of daily hard work went to its perfection.

Grisel leant back in her corner, and shut her eyes for a minute. She was
really pale, and looked seriously troubled and puzzled. He turned and
watched the listening group round the fire. Mrs. Crichell lay back in a
low chair, her beautiful arms hanging loose over its sides. She was
really lovely, the young man thought--as lovely, that is, as a woman of
forty could possibly be, and Mr. Collier evidently agreed with him, for
his eyes were fixed on her. Crichell had taken up a magazine, folded
back the last page, and was rapidly sketching Maud Twiss, who sat
looking away from him and did not see what he was doing. Twiss had gone
to the telephone and Paul stood near the piano, watching Jenny, as her
red head bobbed funnily over the keys as she played.

Mrs. Walbridge had left the room, and Walbridge stood leaning against
the door in a pose often drawn by du Maurier in the eighties.

"I say," Wick whispered to Grisel, hoping to make her laugh, "your
father is most awfully good-looking. Perfectly splendid to-night, isn't
he?"

She gave a little pettish start. "Oh, do be quiet," she snapped. "If
you knew how sick and tired I was of having father's good looks drummed
into me----"

She rose and marched over to the chair her mother had left, and sat
down, staring at her father, as if she disliked him intensely.

Wick sat still, feeling very much injured, for, after all, most girls
would like to hear their father praised--at least, most pretty girls. Of
course, if she had been plain, he reflected gravely, one could
understand her being so shirty.

As Jenny stopped playing, Mrs. Walbridge came back into the room, and
approached Mrs. Crichell.

"I'm so sorry," she said kindly, "but someone has just telephoned to
your husband from his mother's house and asked if he's not going on
there."

Mrs. Crichell unfurled her fan, which was of black feathers like some
big wing. "Dear me, how tiresome!" she said. "He's having such a good
time, sketching Maud, and she doesn't even see him. Walter," she called.

Crichell turned. "Yes?"

She gave him the message, and he rose without any comment. "You'll let
me take this magazine with me, Mrs. Walbridge?" he asked.

Maud turned and stared at him. She was a little annoyed, but plainly
thought the matter not worth making a fuss about, and Mrs. Crichell rose
and took up her gloves, and gave herself a little shake more than ever
like a sleek pigeon that has been sitting in the sun.

"Oh, need you go too?" Mrs. Walbridge asked, hospitably.

She hesitated. "No--I don't know--Walter, what d'you think?"

"I think," he said coldly, "you might as well stay where you are. My
mother is not well," he explained to his hostess, "and she's quite
alone."

Ferdie Walbridge came forward. "Have a whisky and soda before you go,
old man," he said warmly. "I'll bring Mrs. Crichell home in a taxi. We
want her to sing for us; we couldn't think of letting her go yet."

Crichell stood with his back towards Oliver Wick, and he had clasped his
hands behind him in a way he had. Wick did not catch what he said in
reply to this remark, but noticed his hands move, and again thought of
the writhing of the unpleasant sea-worms.

When her husband had gone, Mrs. Crichell sang, accompanying herself; or
rather she cooed little Spanish and Mexican ballads, the words of which
no one present could understand, although their meaning was made fairly
clear by the extreme eloquence of her face and gestures.

"That's very clever," old Mrs. Wick commented to Moreton Twiss who sat
near her.

"It's very nearly wonderful," the old woman insisted gently.

Twiss looked at her, his good-looking, blue-chinned face rather
critical. "Oh, well, if you admire it," he said, "I've nothing more to
say. Personally I don't. In fact," he added, confidentially, leaning
forward, "I can't bear the woman, so probably I'm unfair to her
singing."

Later in the evening Jenny Wick accompanied Paul, as he sang some old
ballads full of a kind of academic gruesomeness. He had, singularly, a
delightfully warm baritone voice, and sang well. His rendering of "Lord
Edward My Son" was extremely fine, and little Jenny Wick was delighted,
and they arranged to meet during the holidays so that she might show him
a lot of queer Basque songs that her father had collected years ago.

Mrs. Wick and Mrs. Walbridge had a long talk before the evening was
over, and though they were intensely reserved women in different ways,
the observant Oliver saw with delight that their attitude showed promise
of a real friendship.

When he said good-night to Mrs. Walbridge, he invited her to kiss him,
but this she refused to do, patting his cheek instead.

It was late, and the Twisses and Mr. Collier had gone long since. Mrs.
Wick and her daughter and son left at the same time that Mrs. Crichell
and Mr. Walbridge started out on their hunt for a taxi, for none had
been on the rank when they telephoned.

The Crichells lived in Hamilton Terrace, so the walk would not be very
long, and when finally at the corner a belated taxi did draw up and
showed signs of being willing to accept a fare, Mrs. Crichell refused to
take it.

"I really live only just round the corner," she said kindly to the old
woman, "and it's a long way to Baker Street. Do take it, Mrs. Wick."

So the three Wicks said "Good-night," and got into the taxi, and the
other two walked on.

"Well, mother," the young man asked, putting an arm round each of his
companions as he sat bodkin between them, "did you enjoy your evening?"

"I did, son," she returned. "What a queer world it is! To think that all
of us will be just a handful of churchyard mould, somewhere, in a few
years' time."

Jenny burst out laughing. "And may I ask which of the guests to-night
struck you as being particularly mouldy?"

But Mrs. Wick was serious. "Don't try to be funny, Jenny," she answered
gravely. "It really struck me that it is strange, when you come to think
of it, how important we all feel, and what rubbish we all are." After a
minute she added, with apparent irrelevance, "That Violet Walbridge of
yours is a fine, brave little soul, Olly. I like her."

"I knew you would. And what," the young man added, "did you think of
your future daughter-in-law?"

"She's very pretty, but--you'll be annoyed with me for saying so--but I
should like her better if she were more like her mother."

The young man gave her a little squeeze. "Her mother's twice the woman
she is, of course. But then, on the other hand," he added, "she's young,
and has plenty of time to improve."

The cab had stopped at Baker Street Station, and as he jumped out and
turned to help the old lady, he added, "You wouldn't like me to marry
Mrs. Walbridge, even if she was free, would you? She really _is_ a
little too old for me!"



CHAPTER XIV


The day after Christmas--a day spent by the "Happy House" people at
Campden Hill, where, also, Maud and her husband and little Hilary were
present--Violet Walbridge achieved the business talk with her husband
that she had had in her mind ever since his return, and which, in some
way difficult to define, he seemed to be trying to escape. It was late,
in the afternoon of Boxing Day, and the others had gone to a matinée,
and he was to dine with the Crichells and go to a play in the evening.
He was resting. He seemed to rest a good deal lately, she noticed, and
when she had asked Grisel that morning if it seemed to her to mean that
he was not feeling quite well, the girl had surprised her by laughing in
a new, harsh way, and giving her a hasty, unexpected kiss.

"It's only a beauty cure, darling," she said. "Can't you see that? He
takes more care of his looks nowadays than any woman, except perhaps
Clara Crichell."

"How do you mean, dear?" For Mrs. Walbridge was singularly ignorant
about such matters, and in all her life had used no more subtle cosmetic
than ordinary cold cream, and water and soap.

"Clara! My goodness, I've seen her having it done. A woman comes to her
every morning of her life--a Mrs. Bryant here in town, and a Frenchwoman
at Torquay, and they rub grease into her face and knead it and flap it
with wet cotton wool, and tap it with litch bags full of dried leaves
and herbs soaked in something. Oh, it's a wonderful business." The girl
tossed her head with the contempt of her nineteen years for such
devices. "I don't like her much, mother," she added, suddenly, with a
change of voice, turning to the glass and doing something to her smooth
hair.

Mrs. Walbridge nodded. "I know. I don't think I like her much either.
But she's very pretty. People enjoy meeting her, and your father seems
to have taken a fancy to her."

Griselda had said no more, but when the lady's name came up on Boxing
Day between Ferdie and herself, Violet Walbridge remembered what her
daughter had said. Her husband had had a sleep, she knew, but when she
heard him moving about over her head, as she sat in the drawing-room
sewing, she rose, folded her work and went upstairs. He was sitting in
front of the dressing-table pouring some yellow liquid over his hair
with one hand, while, with the other, he rubbed. The room smelt of
orange flowers.

"Ferdie," she began, sitting down near him, "I want to have a little
talk with you."

He frowned and set down his bottle. "Oh, dear me," he protested. "I do
wish you'd let me alone. This is holiday time. No one wants to talk
business at Christmas."

But she was firm, and put on her glasses, and opened the little notebook
she had brought with her. "I'm sorry," she said, "but we really must
settle matters. I'm sure I don't like it any more than you do, Ferdie,
and, besides, what I have to say is--is very unpleasant, and difficult
for me."

He stopped rubbing his wavy hair, which stood up tumbled all over his
head, giving him an absurdly boyish, helpless look. "Don't tell me this
cook's going to leave!"

She shook her head. "No, it's worse than that. I've been worried for a
long time now, but I didn't like to trouble you, because you weren't
well--and then--the holidays, and Grisel coming home, and all. But I
really can't put it off any longer."

So she told him, as he sat there at her little old dressing-table
wrapped in a fine, new, brocaded dressing-gown, that he had bought, he
said, in Torquay, but which, nevertheless, she had seen, in folding it
that morning, had been made by Charvet in Paris. He looked (although the
simile didn't occur to her) like a rather battered Greek statue--rather
injured and scratched old statue, not quite free from mould, and the
effects of damp and sun, but the lines of him were splendid, and the
late afternoon light very favourable.

She told him--and after the first he listened without comment--about the
gradual decrease of her sales, and her slowly coming to realise that
this was the result not only of the change in the taste of the younger
generation, but of her own basic old-fashionedness.

"I tried, you know, to brighten up my style in 'Lord Effingham,' and I
failed."

He looked at her oddly, as he sat with his chin on his breast. "I know,"
he said, not unkindly. "I was sorry about that. Of course, we're none of
us as young as we used to be, Violet."

She was considered by her family to be unobservant, because she rarely
mentioned the little things she saw, but she had always seen a good
deal, and now she did not miss the satisfied little glance he gave to
his face in the mirror. He felt, she knew, that he himself was the
exception to that horrid rule about growing older, and for a moment she
felt the ageing woman's exasperation at the greater stability of men's
looks. Her exasperation, however, was very mild, and quite kindly.

Then she showed him Messrs. Lubbock & Payne's letter, and explained
about the five hundred pounds.

"How much have you got left of that?" he asked.

"Exactly two hundred. There was the quarter's rent, and the man called
twice about the gas, so I had to pay him, and the piano bill came, and
then there were your pyjamas, and Melton came himself about your last
suits, and was really rather unpleasant, so I paid him twenty pounds on
account. Then there was a little matter in which I had to help one of
the boys."

She waited, expecting him to make some disagreeable remark about her
eternal ability and willingness to go to the boys' rescue, but to her
surprise he said nothing, and sat with folded arms, listening in
silence.

"Grisel had to have one or two things," she went on, after a moment,
"and then I wanted to help Maud get her things for the new baby, and Guy
wanted ten pounds, poor boy. I've written it all down here. I'll leave
it with you, Ferdie. And then Christmas, you know, was rather expensive,
and I don't," she added honestly, "seem very clever at getting things
cheap." Still he didn't answer, and something in his silence gave her a
little sensation of fear. "Are you listening?" she asked timidly.

He rose and walked about the room, the tassels of his dressing-gown
trailing after him, his head down. She had expected him to scold, even
to rail at her, and she had gathered up her courage to meet such a
scene, but this queer silence, and the unmistakable look of pity in his
face were harder to bear than any amount of reproaches or anger would
have been.

She suddenly felt very old, and very tired, and very helpless. She had
been independent and self-reliant for over a quarter of a century, ever
since, in fact, she had first found out what her handsome husband really
was. But now at this crisis she wanted--she longed for some kind, strong
person to take the reins out of her weary hands and drive the coach for
her for a while.

"You mean then," he said at last, "that if this new book fails, you--you
won't be selling any others?"

She hesitated. "If this one should be good they _might_ make another
contract," she said. "I don't know. I'm afraid it's very bad, although
it seems to come to me easily and quickly.

"But what are you going to do?" he asked, turning round and looking at
her, still with that grave, disconcerting kindness that seemed so far
off, as if it had nothing to do with him. She made a little gesture with
her hands.

"I don't know, Ferdie. What do _you_ think we had better do?"

"I think," he began slowly--then his face cleared. "There's the
telephone bell," he cried. "It's--it's a man about a speculation. I'll
just go down and see." He hurried downstairs. When he came back he was
smiling, and had an almost silly aspect of happiness.

She caught her breath. What if, after all, now, when she had failed,
Ferdie was going to be successful and make up for all her years of
struggle! "Is it all right?" she asked.

"All right? Oh, yes." He sat down again and began to comb his hair,
parting it with infinite care, skilfully avoiding, she noticed, the thin
place at the crown.

"I'll think all this over, my dear," he said hastily, as the clock
struck half-past six. "I must dress now. We're dining early. By the way,
I hope you aren't encouraging any nonsense with that journalist
fellow--with Grisel, I mean."

"Oliver Wick? I shouldn't know how to encourage or discourage," she
answered, "even if I wanted to do either. Times have changed since our
day, Ferdie."

"My God, yes; they have indeed!" he agreed. "But there must be no
nonsense about her marrying that boy. I thought she seemed a little
lackadaisical and dull since we got back, and I heard her talking to him
on the telephone this morning. It would be a great pity to throw her
away on a little nobody like him." This was one of his ducal moments,
and she never protested against his assumption that he belonged to the
great ones of the earth. So she said nothing, and when he had come back
from turning on the water in the bathroom, she got up, knowing that he
wished to be alone.

"Do you think--do you think you can think of something?" she asked, as
she reached the door. "I was wondering if you would mind if we let the
house and moved to some cheaper one."

"No, no, no," he burst out. "We'll do nothing of the kind. That's
perfectly impossible."

A little touched by his unexpected vehemence, she smiled back at him.

"I didn't know you cared so much for poor old 'Happy House,'" she said.

"Run along, my dear girl. I must dress. Don't bother your head. Things
will turn out all right. If I'm not very much mistaken, Sir John
Barclay is going to ask Grisel to marry him. If he does, she'll be the
luckiest girl alive."

Mrs. Walbridge stared at him, her face a sudden, distressing red. "Oh,
Ferdie! But he's an old man!"

Walbridge, who had reached the bathroom door, drew himself up, playing
shoulders and chest, and his fine, big, muscular throat. "Nonsense! He's
only fifty-four. _I'm_ fifty-four!"

She nodded and said no more. He was fifty-five, but that didn't matter
one way or the other, she felt.

As she went downstairs the telephone again rang and she answered it. It
was Grisel, apparently in a great hurry.

"Mother, darling, I've just met Oliver, and he says he's coming to the
house this evening--and I don't want to see him."

"Why, dear?" her mother asked, looking gently and kindly at the
telephone.

"Well--I can't go into it on the telephone--I'm telephoning you from the
Underground. Sir John Barclay is here. He was at the play too, you know,
and I'm dining with him. Yes, alone. Yes I _am_, mother. No, I don't
have to dress, we're going to a grill-room somewhere. Oh, please don't
fuss!" The girl's voice was irritable and sharp. "Do you understand?
Tell Oliver I can't get back."

"I shall tell him," Mrs. Walbridge said firmly, "that you're dining with
Sir John Barclay."

Grisel made a little inarticulate sound, and then her mother heard her
sigh impatiently. "All right. Just as you like. It doesn't matter, but
for goodness' sake don't let him stay late. I must go now, darling.
You'll make it all right, won't you? Good-bye."

She rang off, and her mother stood looking at the telephone as if it
were a human being, as most people have found themselves doing at one
time or other.

She dined alone, not even seeing Walbridge before he slipped out while
she was in her attic-room writing. Very soon after dinner Oliver
arrived, and although he said little and insisted on being very merry,
telling her some ridiculous stories, she had an unhappy evening. She had
tried to avoid telling him where Grisel was, but it had been impossible,
for there was something uncanny about him, he was such a good guesser,
and as soon as she had explained that Griselda was out, he had known all
about it.

"Dining with Sir John Barclay, I suppose, in some grill-room," he said
shortly.

"Yes. He seems," she added, "to be a charming old gentleman."

"Oh, the devil! Old gentleman indeed!" he went on, without apologising.
"I saw him to-day as they came out of the theatre. I knew where they
were going, you see, and managed to get round there just as the play was
out. He's a fine-looking man, and a gentleman, and I'd like to wring his
neck."

"Surely," she said, not insincerely, for her husband's impressions were,
she knew, not always very accurate, "why shouldn't an old man--for he is
old compared to Grisel--like to take a pretty girl out to dinner?"

Wick cocked his head on one side, and deliberately shut one eye in a way
that would have been vulgar if he had been vulgar himself.

"No, no, Mrs. Walbridge, that won't do, that won't do at all," he said,
in a way that made her laugh. "You know as well as I do that Grisel's a
minx. She's trying to make up her mind to marry Sir John Barclay because
he's rich and she doesn't want to see me because----" he broke off
suddenly and his voice changed to one of great softness, "she's almost
half in love with me already."

Mrs. Walbridge clasped her hands and looked at him nervously. "I don't
think that's fair," she said, "to say that about a young girl."

"Oh, my hat! Anything's fair to a man who's fighting for his life--and
that's me. Oh, yes. I know it sounds absurd and anyone but you would
laugh at me. But I _am_ fighting for my life, and what's more," he said
with finality, rising as if to emphasise his speech, "I'm going to win.
I'm going to get her. She's a spoilt, selfish, mercenary little minx,
but I love her and I'm going to change her into an angel."

Mrs. Walbridge did not like to have her baby called mercenary, and
spoilt, and selfish. Perhaps she liked it less for knowing that it was
true, but the young man swept away her protests by further invective,
and finally she was bound to admit that the girl's long stay with the
rich and luxury-loving Fords had not done her any good. Wick smiled, and
looked at the clock.

"Done her good! It's nearly ruined her. Most men would give her up in
disgust since she's been back this time--but not me. I'll go now, or
she'll be coming in."

They shook hands and as he got to the door he looked round with a
comical groan. "If only," he said, "if only she wasn't so easy to look
at."



CHAPTER XV


Griselda, during several days, was hardly at home at all. The Fords were
still in town; she had lunched one day in Queen Anne Street, the next at
Campden Hill, and nearly every night the Fords fetched her to take her
to a play or a party.

Mrs. Walbridge could, of course, have forced the girl into a
confidential talk, but she was not of the kind who do force people to
talk against their will, and it was very plain to her that her daughter
was avoiding her, although the girl was oddly enough at the same time
full of little sudden bursts of affection and unusually generous in the
matter of little passing hugs and kisses for her mother.

Mrs. Walbridge was less troubled than she otherwise would have been by
this preoccupation of her daughter, owing to the fact that she herself
was very much taken up with the new book she was writing. She had made
several attempts, for she felt weighed down with gratitude to her
publisher in sending her the cheque before the book was written, and she
had rather lost sight of the fact that this, kind though it was, was in
reality a _douceur_ to sweeten the hard fact of her dismissal from their
list of authors. She had begun and destroyed several novels before she
got really started, and now this new one was filling her mind day and
night, although she felt grave doubts as to whether it was going to be
good. It was dreadful to her to reflect that the book might turn out as
much of a failure as "Lord Effingham" had been, and thus cause pecuniary
loss to Mr. Lubbock and Mr. Payne. So she worked day and night, her pen
flying over the paper in a way that roused Paul's grave doubts as to the
results of her labour.

"You can't possibly write a book that way, mother," the young man said
one day when he had come up to her study to have her mend a glove that
he had split. "You ought to see the way Collier writes. Works for hours
over one bit, and weighs every word."

Mrs. Walbridge said nothing, for it would not have been any good, she
thought. She did not express her conviction that the result of Mr. Bruce
Collier's word-weighing was hardly worth while, but, as she stitched at
the glove, the young man, who was in a good mood, went on, not unkindly,
to encourage her, as he expressed it, to take more pains with her work.
He did not know that her contract with Lubbock & Payne had come to an
end, with no prospect of renewal. She had not again referred the matter
to her husband, and he had not mentioned the subject to her. She was
living in the curious isolation of a writer engaged in congenial work.
She was deliberately allowing her mind to rest from pecuniary cares for
a few days, in order that her novel might progress satisfactorily.

"You ought to work regularly," Paul explained. It was Sunday morning,
and he looked very smart, turned out as he was for a luncheon party
after church parade. "Collier does. And I met Miss Potter, who writes
about mediæval Constantinople--her books sell enormously--and she told
me that she writes as regularly as she eats her meals--two hours in the
morning and two hours in the afternoon. That's what keeps her brain so
fresh."

Mrs. Walbridge, who had read one of the books in question and did not
consider it remarkable for mental freshness, stitched silently, and bit
off the thread with her sharp little teeth.

"My dear boy," she said, "when you were children I wrote every afternoon
for four solid hours. I couldn't write in the morning because I had to
help make the beds, and do the marketing, and wash and dress you all,
and get some of you off to school and others out for a walk with either
poor Caroline, or Fanny Perkins. Then I had to cook your father's lunch
myself, because he always had a delicate stomach; and when was I to do
any work in the morning to keep my brain fresh?"

Paul was surprised. His mother so rarely defended herself, and he felt
under the mild humorousness of her manner, a distinct appreciation of
the fact that he had made rather a fool of himself by his admonition.
Feeling more like a son, and less like a superior being than he had felt
for some years, he drew on the gloves with a little laugh.

"I daresay you are right," he admitted. "I didn't realise all that. But
whatever you did in those days you're certainly not writing like that on
this book. Twice now when I've come in very late I've seen the light
under this door, and you're looking very tired."

She _was_ very tired, and her eyes filled with tears at the unexpected
sign of interest.

"Will you be back to lunch? Oh, no. You told me you wouldn't. I'll walk
over and get Caroline. A little fresh air will do me good."

He frowned. "Where's Grisel? I've not seen her for days. Doesn't she
ever stay in nowadays?"

"She's lunching at the Henry Twisses with Moreton and Maud."

"And where's father?" He glanced sharply at her as he spoke. She took up
her pen and pulled a hair off its nib.

"I think he said he was lunching with the Crichells."

"No, he's not. Crichell went to Birmingham yesterday about his one-man
show."

"Did he?" she said indifferently. "I wasn't really listening. Tell
Jessie to call me at twelve, will you? I lose track of time," she added
apologetically, "when I'm shut away up here."

The young man went out, and she settled down again to her work. The
holidays were nearly over, and her book was approaching its end.

"I do hope," she said, as Jessie called her and she went down to dress
for going to fetch Caroline Breeze, "I do hope it'll be good."

The house was very quiet. It struck her as she went downstairs, with her
jacket and hat on, that it was quieter than a house ought to be with two
young people living in it. She longed suddenly for Guy--her naughty boy.
He was troublesome, but he was pleasantly noisy, and though he had no
voice like Paul, she liked hearing him sing, and even whistle, as he
went up and down the stairs, and his untidy hats and gloves in the hall
looked friendly and hearty somehow.

She met Miss Breeze as she turned off Albany Street, and they walked
back together.

"I've seen nothing of you lately," Miss Breeze complained pleasantly. "I
was thinking in church this morning--during the sermon that is--that I
should be glad when the holidays are over."

"It's more my book than the holidays. Oh, Caroline, I'm so worried about
it."

Miss Breeze, who was rather pathetically dressed for church in all her
best clothes, looked anxiously down at her friend.

"Dear me, Violet, I do hope you've not been trying to write one of those
horrid modern books. Mrs. Barker lent me several the other day, and I do
think it's quite wrong to write such books. I read two of Rosa Carey's
after them, just to take the taste out of my mouth."

Mrs. Walbridge shook her head. "Oh, no, of course I wouldn't do such a
thing as that. But I'm afraid it isn't anything like so good as my best
books, although I must say I'm enjoying writing it." She frowned in a
puzzled way. "If only it could be good, and Mr. Lubbock would make a new
contract with me!"

The two friends walked quietly on in the mild winter morning, discussing
the probability of the new book pleasing Mr. Lubbock and Mr. Payne. It
never occurred to Miss Breeze to ask to be allowed to look at the
manuscript, nor to Mrs. Walbridge to suggest reading a part of it aloud
to her. Mrs. Walbridge had never read one word of her own work aloud to
a soul since the very early days in Tooting Bec, when she sat on a sofa
with her, as yet, unchipped Greek god beside her, and read him the most
sentimental bits of "Queenie's Promise."

The two women had a long quiet day together, and then, as no one came in
at supper time, they had a boiled egg and a cup of tea apiece, and went
out for a little walk in the dark, a mild pleasure to which Mrs.
Walbridge was rather attached, although she had been very seldom able to
gratify it, owing to the little trammels of family life. It gave her an
indefinable pleasure to see the lights behind drawn curtains, and to
catch an occasional glimpse of a cosy fire through forgotten windows;
she liked to see people--happy, chattering people--opening their own
house door with keys and going into the shelter and comfort of their own
homes. There was a clear, poetic little thrill for her in a sight that
exasperate many people--that of humble lovers bare-facedly embracing at
street corners. Even overfed old ladies leading frightful pugs and
moth-eaten Scotch terriers seemed to ring a little bell in her heart,
but these, of course, were faces of the morning. However, there were
several openings of doors that happened opportunely that evening for her
benefit, and one charming picture of three white-shod, white-frocked
children racing down a high flight of steps screaming with rapture at
meeting their father who, when his hat was knocked off by their
onslaught, revealed a bald and shining head, and a fat plebeian face,
but whom the children obviously adored. The little Walbridges had never
greeted their father in this way, and she rather envied the protesting
mother, who stood at the top of the steps.

"It's very pleasant walking at night," the kind Caroline, who really
hated it, exclaimed, as this particular door closed on the happy family.
And Mrs. Walbridge gave her arm a little squeeze and did not speak.

Caroline's tall and gaunt and forbidding person was yet shy and full of
old-fashioned tremors. It caused her real fear to be out alone after
nightfall, so Mrs. Walbridge accompanied her to her door, and went back
to "Happy House" alone. She had forgotten her key, and so knocked on the
panels of the door with her knuckles. Someone was in the drawing-room
and was, she thought, sure to hear her. No one did hear at first, and,
after a moment, she knocked again. Presently the door opened and
Griselda let her in. The girl had been crying, and her usually smooth
hair was untidy and damp-looking. But when they were in the
drawing-room, and before her mother could ask her what was the matter,
she burst into a little laugh.

"Well, mother dear, you must give me your blessing, for I'm engaged to
be married."

Mrs. Walbridge sat down and took off her glasses. She knew that the girl
was on the verge of an uncontrollable breakdown, and it was her nature
to discourage uncontrollable breakdowns.

"Are you, my dear?" she asked quietly. "Of course you've my blessing. I
suppose it's Sir John Barclay. Haven't I had two daughters married
before, and don't I know the signs?" Her little joke did its duty, and
quieted Grisel.

"But you've never even seen him--Sir John--John I mean."

"I've heard about him from your father, and from Mrs. Ford. They say
he's charming."

The girl rose and began to smooth her hair before the glass.

"He is," she said. "He's a darling. Oh, I forgot to show you this," and
she held out her little left hand on which hung a huge ruby in a ring
far too big for her. "It's got to be made smaller," she said. "Not the
ruby, but the ring," and she laughed, and the laugh sounded more natural
this time.

Mrs. Walbridge rose and kissed her. "Well, my dear," she said, "it'll be
very funny to hear you called 'my Lady,' but I don't mind confessing to
you that I think Sir John, however nice he may be, is a very lucky man.
Come along, let's have a cup of cocoa."

Both maids were out, so they went down into the quiet, clean kitchen,
lit the gas-ring, and had a little feast such as they had had many times
before.

Violet Walbridge had described hundreds of sentimental scenes between
newly engaged girls and their mothers, but she did not herself behave in
the least as one of her characters would have done, for, instead of
provoking a scene, and confidences and tears, and a display of back
hair, such as she had been rather fond of in her novels, she carefully
avoided all reference to the signs of tears on her daughter's face, and
they talked only of the most matter of fact aspects of the engagement.
Sir John was going to Argentina as soon as the authorities would let
him, it seemed, and wanted the wedding to be in September, immediately
after he returned.

"I was awfully afraid," the girl added naïvely, "that he was going to
marry me now, and take me with him to South America."

Her mother sipped her cocoa reflectively, and did not raise the question
of the exact meaning of the word afraid.

"Oh, no," she said, "much nicer in every way to wait till he comes back.
I think your father will be pleased; he seems to like him very much."

"Ye-e-e-s." Grisel looked up quickly from her ring, which she was
twisting round her finger in the lamp light. "Oh, yes. Father will be
pleased."

"They are great friends, aren't they?" her mother asked, as the clock
struck half-past ten.

Grisel hesitated. "Well, I don't know that they are great friends," she
said in a thoughtful voice. "Sir John is very different from father, you
know. He's very dignified and rather stern, and he couldn't bear the
Crichells. But father likes him, anyhow----"

"Well, come along, dear, we must get to bed. I don't know where anyone
in the household is, but they've got keys, of course."

"Poor mother, you've been alone all day." There was sudden compunction
in Grisel's voice as they went up the dark stairs to the ground floor.

"Oh, no. I haven't. I've not been alone at all," the mother answered
gaily. "Caroline came to lunch and stayed all the afternoon. I just
walked home with her----"

She would have liked to go into her child's bedroom with her on that
important evening of her life, and help her undress, and even brush her
hair, as one of the mothers in her own books would have done. But though
she was old-fashioned herself, she knew that her daughter was not. So
they kissed on the landing, and separated for the night without any
further display of sentiment. But it was a long, long time before Violet
Walbridge slept that Sunday. At half-past twelve she crept out and saw
the light still burning in Grisel's room, and at two she did the same
thing. Finally, knowing that she could not sleep, she put on her
dressing-gown and padded softly upstairs in her old felt slippers to the
room in the attic, and, having lit her lamp, did two hours hard work,
while the winter sky was gradually drained of its darkness, and the
clear grey that is neither darkness nor light took the place of the
night, to give way slowly, as if reluctantly, to the morning.

She wrote rapidly, her face white and sharp, bent over the paper. She
had forgotten now her sad conviction of the book's worthlessness. Words
came out in a torrent, as if independently of herself, and her hand
struggled to keep up with her ideas. She knew that this was the wrong
way to write--that the great novelists whom she so admired worked
carefully, measuring their words, weighing each one as if it was a
pearl--her own facility having always been like that of an older child
telling tales by the fire to the little ones. She had connected the
mediocrity of her work with this fatal ease of narration. She had been
scorned kindly (for one of her troubles had never been that horrid one
of envy and bitterness in the minds of others) for this effortless
facility, and she knew it. But now she could no more have held back for
what she called polishing her phrases than a little brook in full
freshet forcing itself into a pool. On and on she wrote, forgetting
fatigue, forgetting her troubles, forgetting everything but the fate of
the people she was describing, and at last, just as the clock struck
five, her pen wrote "finis" to her twenty-third novel, and laid itself
down. She sat for a moment staring at the paper, suddenly very tired,
and conscious that her feet were numb with cold. She went to the window
and looked out into the livid unfriendly light, and then, stuffing the
manuscript into the drawer of her table, she crept downstairs.

As she went back to her room, it occurred to her that she had not heard
Ferdie come in. He had slept on a camp bed in his dressing-room since
his return, because of his cough, which, he said, troubled him a good
deal at night.

She opened his door softly. He lay there asleep, with the growing
daylight falling on his face. She stood for a moment, looking at him,
wondering that she had not heard him come in, reproaching herself mildly
for her indifference to him, and deliberately recalling him as he had
been in the old days, when she first knew him.

How handsome he had been! She remembered the day--it was in winter
too--when she had crept downstairs in the old house in Russell Street,
and joined him in a musty, smelling, old "growler," that took them to
the train for High Wycombe, where they had been married before lunch.
Poor Ferdie! He had failed her utterly; she had suffered, and suffered
silently; but as she looked at him there as he slept, her eyes filled
with tears. He looked very lonely, very pathetic somehow, and helpless.
The thin place shone out from his tumbled hair, and for a moment she was
gripped by the helpless pathos of the briefness of life, of the
inexorable march gravewards of every human being. Poor Ferdie, she
thought again, as she went sadly back to bed.

She had no doubt failed him, too, and now they were both old.



CHAPTER XVI


As Mrs. Walbridge went down to breakfast the next morning, she was
conscious of a hope that Paul would not be too pleased about his
sister's engagement. She had not stopped to analyse her feeling, but it
was not an unkind one. For Paul to be greatly pleased, would, she knew,
mean that the worst side of his nature was touched by the event. So it
was with some relief that she found the young man and his sister in the
dining-room quarrelling.

"It's disgraceful," he declared, as she opened the door. "He's nearly
old enough to be your grandfather."

Mrs. Walbridge's heart gave a thump of pleasure at this speech, not that
she dreamed of his words having any influence on Grisel, but because
honest indignation over an abstract right or wrong was very rarely
roused in her son.

"Paul, Paul," she said gently, as she rang the bell and sat down behind
the old-fashioned, acorn-topped, silver-plated tea equipage.
"Good-morning, children."

Grisel kissed her and sat down at her place near the door, the chair
with its back to the fire had always been Paul's.

"My romantic brother feels that I am wasting my young life in marrying
Sir John Barclay," she declared, laughing lightly.

Paul grunted, and unfolded the morning paper. "There are plenty of men
who aren't beggars. I _do_ call it disgusting of Grisel to marry an old
man simply because he's rich."

He looked younger and softer in his unexpected anger, and his mother's
eyes rested on him with an odd expression of surprised relief. "He's
right in theory, you know, darling," she agreed, turning to the girl.
"Everybody'll say the same thing."

Grisel gave her ring a twist, and said nothing till the door had closed
on the maid. Then she helped herself to butter. "Oh, I know. Crabbed age
and youth--but Sir John--John, I mean--isn't crabbed--that's just the
point. He's a perfectly charming man, and everyone says so, mother, and
he's ever so young in some ways. He's worth," she added, with an odd
little flush of humility, "worth a dozen of me."

"Nobody denies that," put in Paul, taking his tea from his mother.
"You're a useless little baggage enough, everyone knows that. And I
shouldn't say a word if there was any chance of you even really liking
him, to say nothing of--of----" He broke off, and added gravely, as if
he were making use of words that he feared, "of loving him."

His mother stared at him. "Why, what _do_ you mean, Paul? You're being
very rude, and it's wrong of you. Of course Grisel likes Sir John,
and--and many women have loved husbands much older than themselves," she
added shamefacedly, aware of her own duplicity, for she was a devoted
believer in the union of youth to youth, and the growing old together of
happy married couples. Whence she drew this romantic belief it would be
hard to say, for the experience had certainly not come her way, and as
it happened several of her married friends had come to grief. But it was
her belief, and probably one of the secrets of the popularity of her
books, for in her heyday people liked pleasant stories about pleasant
people, who suffered, of course, through the machinations of the wicked,
but who made their way steadily, through floods of tears, to the safe
shores of the old-fashioned happy ending.

"I suppose the old fellow wears a padded coat and stays," Paul went on,
less angry now, and settling down to a solid enjoyment of tormenting his
little sister.

"Ass! He's only fifty-two, and isn't a bit that kind."

"What kind?"

"Oh, well, trying to be young. A stale beau. He seems a mere boy, for
instance, in some ways, beside father."

Paul scowled and said nothing. His mother had noticed several times of
late that there was some kind of dissension between him and his father,
but they had never been very friendly, no house being big enough for two
absolutely selfish men, and their interests had always clashed. But
during the last few weeks this antagonism had seemed to quicken into
something more definite, and Mrs. Walbridge wondered vaguely, as she ate
her breakfast, what it meant.

Grisel, who was pale, was yet too young to bear in her face any ugly
traces of her sleepless night, and she went through the meal with a kind
of resolute gaiety. She was full Of her own affairs, and declared her
intention of ringing up the girls as soon as she had finished eating,
and telling them the news.

"Maud and Moreton will be delighted," she declared. "They liked him so
much that night, and he's giving Billy some kind of work, something in
the City, that Billy says will be awfully useful to him, because Sir
John is so well known. Billy and Hermy were frightfully pleased. Wasn't
it kind of him?--of Sir John, I mean."

"Oh, now she's experiencing the joys of patronage," commented Paul,
spreading strawberry jam on his toast. "She'll be getting us all little
jobs, mother. Oh, hell!"

He was not a young man who used bad language, and his mother was
surprised as well as shocked at it. But before she could remonstrate the
door opened, and Ferdie came in, pale and tired-looking, with heavy eyes
and nervous twitching of his eyebrows, that boded evil things for his
companions.

Grisel looked at him sharply, and Paul, turning, fixed his eyes so
unswervingly on his father's face that his father snapped at him.

"What the deuce are you glaring at?"

"You," said the young man, coolly. "It's no good, Guv'nor, you can't
keep it up at your time of life. You'll be as plain as the rest of us if
you go on like this."

His words were not so offensive to his mother as they would have been to
most women, as addressed by son to father, for Ferdie Walbridge's
character was such that though his children undoubtedly had a certain
pride in him because of his good looks, and a kind of affection that was
not empty of pity, he had never, even when they were very little
children, inspired the least fear or even respect in them.

She looked, however, anxiously from one to the other of the three faces
round the table, and was relieved when Grisel, with a little determined
air of excitement, held out her left hand, and waved it under her
father's swollen, surly eyes.

"Look at that, oh beau sabreur," she cried, "and behold the future Lady
Barclay, and rejoice."

"Hallo, hallo!" His boorishness disappeared like a flash, and a
surprising amount of boyish beauty and delight rested on his face for a
moment, like the light from a passing torch. He kissed her and murmured
a few words of delight and sympathy, and taking up his cup walked about
the room, sipping tea and talking to himself as much as to the others.

"Good girl, good girl--you'll be very happy--Sir John Barclay's a fine
man. I knew it. I saw it coming! I'm not surprised. Violet, what did I
tell you? Well, are you proud of your baby, old woman?"

He gave his wife a rough thump on the back as he passed her chair. "He's
a baronet too. Delightful fellow, delightful." He stopped short, drawing
himself up and preening in the way that was half infuriating and half
pathetic. "Fancy his being _my_ son-in-law with that white hair!"

Mrs. Walbridge really could not bear him when he did that, so she rose,
ashamed of her feeling of disgust, and went out of the room.

Presently she heard the door slam, and knew that Paul had left. So,
after her daily interview with the cook, she went up to her study, and
sat down to think. Sir John Barclay would be coming to-day to see her,
and the interview would be a difficult one for her, for she was ashamed
of her daughter's decision; she was a bad liar, and she had always
shunned with a kind of fastidious pain, the sight of an old man in love
with a young girl. Then, too, there was Oliver, and her intimate
knowledge of him. Poor Oliver! He would be coming, and he would have to
be told, and his queer face would have that dreadful look of pain in it,
and then he would laugh and be ridiculous, and that would be still
worse. She wished Ferdie would say something to her about their
business affairs, but he hadn't said a word. He seemed able to put
troublesome thoughts clean away out of his mind, but she couldn't. What
was to become of them all? If only this book would please Mr. Lubbock
and Mr. Payne!

She heard the telephone bell ring faintly, and opening the door after a
moment heard the sound of Grisel's voice a little high and unnatural, it
seemed to her.

"He's the greatest dear," the girl was saying. "I knew you and Moreton
would be glad."

Mrs. Walbridge closed the door, and sat down. She was so used to
moulding events in her novels that it seemed to her intolerable and
almost ridiculous that in real life, in this matter of her little
daughter, for instance, events so obstinately refused to be moulded. She
ought to be able to make Oliver Wick suddenly rich enough to snatch her
away from this monstrous old man, who coveted her youth and beauty.
Unconsciously Mrs. Walbridge had fallen into the language of her
novels--and love should triumph among roses in the last chapter. But now
she could no nothing. Grisel had made her choice, and the old monster
was to triumph. Her only comfort in this dreary reverie was that Paul,
selfish, hard Paul, should unconsciously have taken sides with her in
her hatred of the marriage. She had never understood Paul. He was to her
not so much like a closed book as like a book written in a foreign
language of which she knew only a word or two here and there. She had
expected him to be pleased, because of Sir John Barclay's riches, and lo
and behold he was as displeased as she was, and full of a regret that,
though bitterly expressed, was, she knew, based on a genuine
sentimental disapproval of mercenary marriages.

After a while she opened the drawer of the table and took out the
manuscript, and, more in the hope of forgetting for a while about Grisel
than for anything else she began to read it. How flat it was! How dull!
The people were all unnatural; their language silly and vulgar. Her face
settled into lines of utter misery as she read. Mr. Lubbock and Mr.
Payne would never publish such stuff. She heard a clock strike once or
twice as she sat reading. The sound conveyed nothing to her. On and on
she read, and when finally the page with "finis" caught her eye she
realised that it must be late, and started up guiltily. Her misery was
too deep for tears, but as she closed the door on the failure she spoke
aloud to herself. "Written out," she said slowly. "That's what it is.
I'm old, and I'm written out."

       *       *       *       *       *

Early that afternoon a woman who lived on the same landing as Miss
Breeze, came to "Happy House" with a note.

Caroline was in bed with a bad go of asthma, and would Violet come to
see her? Mrs. Walbridge went to the girls' room, where Griselda was
writing notes, and told her.

"Poor Caroline! I suppose I ought to go, dear, but I don't want to miss
Sir John when he comes."

Grisel, who had been very gay and full of laughter all day, looked up
sombrely.

"Oh, he won't be here before tea-time, I should think," she said. "He's
very busy, you know. Besides, father's in. Don't stay long. It'll be all
right."

"Writing letters, are you?" her mother asked foolishly.

She nodded. "Yes. Ever so many people I've got to tell, of course. Looks
so silly written down. 'I know you will be glad to hear,' 'I'm sure you
will be surprised when I tell you'"--she jabbed viciously at a clean
sheet of paper with her pen, sending a spray of ink across it.

"Have you written to Oliver Wick?"

"No, I haven't. He's such a goose. I thought perhaps you would write to
Mrs. Wick."

"You must write and tell him at once, daughter," Violet Walbridge said
sternly, and Grisel did not answer.

Caroline Breeze thought her friend looked very tired, and though she
didn't say so, very plain, when she came in to her bedroom, a small
bunch of asters in her hand. Miss Breeze had been ill, but felt better
now, and was sitting up in bed smoking a medicated cigarette, the smell
of which was very dreadful to Mrs. Walbridge. To her surprise, the
sentimental Caroline was rapturous with delight over the news of the
engagement. Darling Grisel, she was sure, would be very happy. "Better
to be an old man's darling than a young man's slave," she cried.

"No young man wanted her to be his slave," protested Mrs. Walbridge,
with mild horror.

"That Oliver Wick did." Caroline had never liked the young Mr. Wick,
Violet knew, because, plain and unalluring old woman that she was, she
resented the young man's lack of beauty. He failed in every way to come
up to her standard of a lover, and Grisel, of all the "Happy House"
children, having been her special care and pet, she felt that she had a
kind of right to object to such an unattractive and penniless young man
venturing to approach the girl, who was nearer to her than any young
thing in the world.

"She'll pay for dressing, too, Grisel will," Caroline declared, shaking
her head vigorously, and inhaling the thick yellow smoke from her
cigarette. "Where are they going to live? I suppose he'll be getting her
a house in one of the swell squares. Berkeley Square would be my
choice," she added. "By the way, Violet, it's a splendid name, Barclay.
I wonder if he's any relation to--isn't there an earldom of that name?"

Violet shook her head. "I'm sure I don't know," she said indifferently.
"I do wish he was younger. Why, he's older than I am, Caroline!"

"Fudge and nonsense! Fifteen years younger, to all intents and purposes.
Besides, Ferdie told me one day that he has magnificent health. That
always makes a difference, to say nothing of his money," she added
vaguely. "It'd be lovely to have someone in the family with plenty of
money."

"It won't make much difference to us," commented Mrs. Walbridge.

"No, of course not, but still--oh, Violet, I do hope they'll like the
book! By the way, I was reading a paper yesterday about a girl who got a
prize in some competition. She only got the fourth prize, and it was a
hundred pounds! Why don't you try for one of them?"

Mrs. Walbridge was humbled-minded, but she had her pride. "I saw that
thing. It was some rubbish that they print in pale blue paper
covers--scullery maid's romance!"

Caroline bridled. "I'm sure I didn't mean to offend you. As far as
that's concerned, there are a lot of competitions, and some very good
writers write for them. Harbottle's offering a thousand pounds for a
good novel, to start off his new five shilling edition."

But Mrs. Walbridge was not to be beguiled into paths of speculative
dalliance. "I'm writing my book, as you know, for Lubbock & Payne," she
said, "and even if I had a chance of winning a prize, which I haven't,
it wouldn't be honest to offer my book to anybody else."

The talk then turned again to Grisel and her prospects.

Somehow, although her dear old friend had done her best to cheer her up,
it was with a very flagging heart that Mrs. Walbridge reached "Happy
House" at tea-time.

She was afraid to face in her own mind the latent fear she had about
Oliver Wick. But she was tired, and could not put him resolutely out of
her mind, and she looked a very weary, faded little creature, on the
very verge of old age, as she toiled up the steps and opened the door.

Voices upstairs in the girls' room. She went up a few steps and
listened. Yes, there was a man's voice she had never heard before. Sir
John Barclay had come.

For a moment she thought of going to her own room and putting on her
afternoon dress. She knew how shabby she looked; she had on her oldest
hat, for the afternoon had looked threatening, and she had not touched
her hair since the early morning. Then, with a little sigh, she went
straight on. It wouldn't matter to this prospective bridegroom that his
lovely little sweetheart's mother was a dowdy old woman; and she was
tired, and wanted a cup of tea more than anything in the world. So,
without pausing, she opened the door and went in.

Maud and Hermy were both there, and they were all sitting round the
tea-table at which Grisel, very flushed and excited and pretty,
presided. The stranger sat with his back to the door. She had only time
to see that it was a straight, broad, strong back, surmounted by a
well-shaped head, covered with thick white hair, when the girls saw her
and rose in a little covey, fluttering towards her with cries of
excitement and affection.

"Oh, mother, isn't he delightful?" Maud whispered as she kissed her, and
Hermione's face expressed real unselfish sympathy and happiness. And
then Grisel, taking her by the hand, smiled over her shoulder.

"Come, John," she said, "this is mother."

The big man stood still in the middle of his advance, a puzzled, queer
look in his face, which even looked, she noticed, a little pale.

"Isn't it," he began, and broke off. Then he came up to her and held out
his hands. "Surely," he said, slowly, "you used to be Miss Violet
Blaine?"

"Yes." She was staring at him with utter amazement, so strange was his
manner, and the three young women were also staring.

"What do you mean, John?" Griselda burst out, after a pause that seemed
interminable. "What's the matter?"

Then the man laughed, gave himself a little shake and taking Mrs.
Walbridge's hand, bent and kissed it with a grace that proved that he
had lived long in some Latin country.

"Nothing's the matter," he said, in a pleasant deep voice, "except that
I knew your mother over thirty years ago, and I hadn't realised that you
were her child."

They all sat down, the three girls chattering in amazed amusement and
amused amazement. The two elders said little, and then, when Mrs.
Walbridge had been given her cup of tea and drunk a little of it, she
looked up with her big clear eyes at the man who was going to marry her
daughter.

"It seems very rude," she said gently, "but you know I don't remember
you! Are you quite sure you are not mistaken?"

"Why, how can he be, Mum, when he knew your name?" laughed Hermione. "Do
tell us about it, Sir John."

Barclay crossed his knees and folded his arms. He was a man with a fine,
smooth shaven face of the kind that might belong equally well to either
a very fine actor or a judge. His light blue eyes had a fair and level
gaze, and his finest feature, his mouth, was strong and benevolent, with
well-set corners, and firmness without harshness.

"It's quite natural," he said to Mrs. Walbridge, "that you should not
remember me. We met just before I went to the Argentine, as it was then
called, thirty-one years ago, at the house of some people named Fenwick,
near High Wycombe. You were staying in the house, and my father was the
dean of the parish, and the Fenwick boys and girls were my best friends.
We had a picnic to Naphill, and danced, and we drove on a brake to
Chalfont St. Giles to see Milton's house. Now do you remember?"

A deep, beautifying flush swept across the face under the deplorable old
hat. "I remember the picnic perfectly. A bottle of cold tea got broken
and ruined somebody's frock, do you remember? And I remember Milton's
house, but," she shook her head a little embarrassed but truthful, "I'm
awfully sorry, but I can't remember you."

There was a little pause, during which his fine face did not change.

"You were very preoccupied, I think," he added. "You weren't
particularly happy at the time, and I was only a long-legged loon of a
boy of twenty-one. But I remember," he went on, "I've always
remembered."

"Well, then, darling, you won't mind having Sir John as a son-in-law,
will you?"

It was Hermione who spoke. She was always the readiest of speech, being
the least fine of feeling of the three girls, and the slight strain that
lay on them all merged away at her commonplace words.

Sir John took his leave a few minutes later, and as he shook hands with
Mrs. Walbridge, he looked down at her very kindly, very gently. The
three others had gone into the bedroom on purpose to leave the two
elders alone a moment.

"She's very young, you know," Violet Walbridge said, without
preliminary.

"I know. I shall never forget that." And she felt as she went to her own
room that he had made her a solemn and very comforting promise.



CHAPTER XVII


To Mrs. Walbridge's surprise and relief, Oliver Wick made no sign for
several days, although she herself had written to his mother on some
pretext and mentioned the engagement in a casual reference that she
regarded as very dishonest, though necessary, and probably useful. The
morning of New Year's Eve an answer to her note had come from old Mrs.
Wick, and she read it several times.

     "_Dear Mrs. Walbridge,--Thanks very much for your note telling me
     of the engagement. I am sure you will be glad to know that that
     queer son of mine is not coming to 'Happy House' at present. He's
     very unhappy, less I think because he has given up hope of marrying
     Grisel, than because he is disappointed in her for becoming engaged
     to a man he is convinced she does not love. I can tell you this
     quite frankly because he is so fond of you that I am sure you know
     him well and will understand._

      "_He is as much like a fussy old mother as a lover in his attitude
      towards your daughter. He does so resent her knowing and liking
      people he despises, such as that poor Mr. and Mrs. Ford, for
      instance, and the Crichells. I met Mrs. Crichell the other day at
      the Leicester Galleries. She's certainly very pretty, but as I saw
      from your face that you dislike her, I don't mind telling you that
      I do too. There's something very unpleasant about her. However,
      it's very rude of me to abuse your acquaintances, so I'll stop._

      "_Jenny will be seeing your son New Year's Day, as she's going to
      accompany him in some songs at Mrs. Gaskell-Walker's, so we hope
      to hear good news of you all then._

  "_Yours sincerely,_
  "FRANCES WICK."

Oliver carried out his intention, and nothing was seen of him at "Happy
House" for some time. Things went very smoothly. Grisel seemed happy,
and Sir John's devotion to her seemed to her mother exactly what it
should have been--neither slavish nor domineering, without that touch of
patronage, so often seen in old men, however much they may be in love,
towards their young sweethearts. He had never again referred to their
early acquaintance, and Mrs. Walbridge was conscious of a sincere regret
that, do what she would, she could not recall him as a youth to her
memory.

He was very kind to every one of the family, and Walbridge very often
lunched with him at his Club in the City, and spoke vaguely of good
things he had been put on by his prospective son-in-law. Walbridge never
lost sight of the joke of his (Ferdinand Walbridge) being father-in-law
to a man of Barclay's age. But he seemed very disposed to make every
possible use of Barclay's experience and kindness.

One day, towards the end of January, Mrs. Walbridge sat by the fire in
the drawing-room, working hard at her new book. It was bitterly cold, so
cold that she had been obliged to come down from her study in the attic.

Guy, who had been detained in Paris on some regimental business,
greatly to his own disgust, had written that he was coming back in a few
days, and Mrs. Walbridge's feelings as she sat there in the quiet house,
more nearly approached happiness than she had felt for a long time.
Griselda, who had been lunching with Maud at her mother-in-law's house,
had not come in, and apparently a long, quiet afternoon was before Mrs.
Walbridge. Her new book, after all, was going on fairly well, and Mr.
Payne had written her a very kind letter in reply to her explanation
about her failure with the other one, and he had given her an extension
of time that promised to make the completion of "Rosemary" an easy
matter. She wrote on and on, and then suddenly, in the middle of her
work, and rather to her disappointment, Sir John Barclay was announced
by the proud Jessie.

"I'm afraid I'm disturbing you," he said kindly, sitting down by the
fire and warming his hands. "Are you working on your book? I've just had
news calling me to Scotland. Where's Grisel?"

She explained, saying that Grisel had gone to Maud. "You're sure to find
her there."

He nodded. "All right. I'll go and take her out to dinner, and she can
take me down to the station, and then Smith can drive her home." He
looked at his watch. "It's only half-past four. You're sure I'm not
disturbing you? Would you rather have me go?"

"Oh, no. Ring the bell and I'll give you some tea. Yes, I'm working at
my book," she went on. "I've got to get it done as soon as I can; the
publishers want it."

He looked very kind and interested as he sat there, his handsome head
turned towards her, his strong hands held up to the fire--so kind, that
suddenly she found herself telling him about her other book, "Lord
Effingham"--the failure.

"I'd worked so hard at it," she said, "and it seemed to go
well--although I never liked it much; it wasn't a very nice book. And
then when I read it through I saw how hopelessly bad it was."

He pleased her by accepting her verdict without flattery and
contradiction.

"Perhaps you were too tired. You seem to me to have a great many
different duties----"

She shook her head. "No, I wasn't tired, and I've always been used to
writing in a hugger-mugger kind of way," she added, with a simple vanity
that touched him. "I could always concentrate."

"Who are your publishers?" he asked after a moment. "Oh, yes, good
men--good men. I'm not much of a novel reader myself, but of course I
know their name."

And then to her own surprise she told him the tragedy of the expired
contract. He listened attentively, his whole mind fixed on her story.
When she had finished he put one or two shrewd questions to her, and
reflected over her answers, after which he said: "I may as well tell you
that I knew this before, Mrs. Walbridge."

She started.

"Oh, did you? Do you know them--Mr. Lubbock and Mr. Payne, I mean?"

"No. Your husband told me several weeks ago."

Something in his face betrayed to her his distaste either at Walbridge's
confidence or the manner in which it had been made, and she flushed
faintly. For Ferdie had, she knew, often disgusted people.

He looked at her thoughtfully, and then to her surprise his face
changed, and with a very young smile he broke out: "After all, you've
changed very little!"

"Oh, Sir John! I'm an old woman," she protested sincerely, "and I was
only a child then."

He nodded.

"I know. The outside of you has changed, of course, but you're much the
same in other ways. For instance, you are still worrying to death about
something--that business of the book, I suppose--just as you were then.
I remember one day in the vicarage garden we had been playing tennis, I
tried to persuade you, silly young cub that I was, to confide in me."

"Oh," she cried suddenly, clasping her hands, "didn't you wear a red
blazer--red and white stripes? And hadn't you some ridiculous nickname?"

"Good. You've remembered. I am glad." He threw his head back and
laughed, and she liked the shine of his white teeth in the firelight.
"Of course I had. They called me 'Scrags.'"

She was silent for a little while, and he knew that she was seeing again
the shabby old rectory garden with its roses and hollyhocks, and its
lumpy tennis lawn, and himself, the youth in the scarlet blazer.

"It was my old school blazer," he told her in a gentle voice, not to
interrupt too much the current of her thoughts. "I remember it was too
short in the arms, and I was rather ashamed of it. I thought," he added
whimsically, "that you might laugh at it."

"I?" The gentle astonishment in her eyes amused him.

"Yes, you. Some day I'll tell you about it, but not now. I've a piece of
good news for you," he added. "Your husband and I had a long talk this
morning, and as his present business arrangements seem rather
unsatisfactory, and as I happen to need a--kind of partner in one of my
little business concerns, I've persuaded him to take the position. It's
nothing very brilliant," he went on hurriedly, frightened by the change
in her face. "Only five hundred a year, but he seems to think he would
prefer it to this present work he is doing----"

The look she turned on him was astonishingly like a look of anger, and
for some reason it delighted him in its contrast to her husband's easy
gratitude. He hated scenes, and was not very well versed in the ways of
women, but for reasons of his own his heart sang as she rose.

"I understand very little about business," she said coldly. "But it's
very kind of you to give a position to my husband. I think, if you will
excuse me, I will leave you now. I am sure Grisel will be back here
soon, and I've a seamstress upstairs."

Instead of going to fetch her, he waited there over an hour for Grisel,
walking up and down the room, and without visible impatience.

When his little sweetheart arrived she ran upstairs for a warmer coat
for they were going to motor. She was gone some time and when they were
in the car and he had tucked her luxuriously up in a big rug of flexible
dark fur she explained to him why she had kept him waiting.

"It was poor mother. Something's upset her. She was crying--actually
crying. I don't think I've ever seen my mother cry before. There she
was, face down on her bed, just howling like a child----"

He winced. "You must learn, dearest," he said gently, "not to tell me
things I have no business to know."

She looked up at him through her long lashes and laughed wickedly.
"Perhaps if you try long enough," she returned, "you'll make a lady of
me."

But his face remained grave. "Your mother," he said, "is a splendid
woman, my dear. I've a very great admiration for her."

Griselda loved her mother; most girls do love their mothers, but this
homage, from a man she admired and respected so much, surprised her.

"Mother? Little old Mum?" she repeated naïvely. "She's a dear, of
course----"

Barclay looked down at her.

"You'll think me an awful old fogey," he said slowly, "but I do
seriously wish, my little dear, that you would show a little more--well,
understanding, for your mother--to her, I mean."

"Oh, it's _you_ who don't understand," she returned as gravely as he.
"_I_ understand, we all do, a great deal more about mother than she
could bear to know. Father's always been a beast, but we have to pretend
to her that we don't know it----"

They drove on, a little closer together mentally than they had ever been
before. Grisel had been very sweet, very womanly, for that short moment,
and she, for her part, had, for a brief time, been able to regard him
less as the old man she was going to marry for his money, than as a kind
and companionable contemporary.

Meantime Mrs. Walbridge had another guest. She had gone up to her
writing room, and was working on her new book, when Jessie announced
that Mr. Crichell was in the young ladies' room.

"Mr. Crichell?"

"Yes, m'm, and he's in a great hurry."

"Didn't he ask for master?"

"No, m'm," the girl returned with decision, "he asked for you, quite
partic'lar, m'm."

It struck Mrs. Walbridge as odd that Crichell should have asked for her,
for she hardly knew him. But she smoothed her hair and turned down her
sleeve, calling out to Jessie as she went to bring up some more tea.

"Not for me, Mrs. Walbridge," Crichell began, hearing her last words.
"No tea, thanks. I've come on a--very unpleasant errand."

She saw that he was very much disturbed, his sleek face being blurred by
queer little dull red patches. Sitting down by the fire she motioned him
to do the same. But he remained standing, his short legs far apart, his
hands behind his back.

"What I have to say will be painful to you," he went on hurriedly. "But
it's no worse for you than it is for me. In fact, not so bad, for you
must have had some kind of an idea----"

He broke off, seeing from her face that she had even now no notion of
what he was driving at.

"I don't understand at all," she said quietly. "Do sit down, Mr.
Crichell."

"It's no good beating about the bush," he resumed, still standing. "It's
just this. I'm--I'm going to divorce my wife, and Walbridge will be
co-respondent."

"Walbridge?" she repeated stupidly, staring at him with what he
viciously called to himself, the face of an idiot. "My husband?"

"Yes, your husband--and my wife's lover. Pretty little story, isn't it?"
As she was about to speak, he went on, purposely lashing himself, it
struck her, into a fury. "I've suspected something for a long time.
Haven't you?"

She shook her head. "No." But as she spoke she remembered certain
half-forgotten little happenings that might have roused her curiosity
had she been more interested in her husband.

"Now don't tell me it isn't true, because it is," he snapped, again
interrupting her as she was about to speak.

She was very sorry for him, and looked at him compassionately as he
stood there twisting and waving his white hands.

"I'm not going to tell you it isn't true, Mr. Crichell," she answered
gently. "I suppose it is, and I'm very, very sorry for you."

Swamped as he was by hurt egotism, he did not fail to observe the
peculiarity of her attitude.

"Very kind of you," he muttered, at a loss. "I--I am sorry for you, too.
In fact, we're in rather a ridiculous position, you and I, aren't we?"
His loud laugh was very shrill, and she held up her hand warningly.

"Hush."

Then he sat down and told her the story. How for months, ever since the
late summer, in fact, he had noticed a change in his wife.

"She always had a lot of boys buzzing about and it never occurred to me
to suspect Walbridge. I--why he's twenty years older than I am--or near
it. I came up and down to town a good deal, and knew they used to see a
good deal of each other, but, as I say, the fact of his age blinded me,
damn him! Then, a week ago, that night here, I--I caught them looking at
each other, and when I got back from seeing my mother--(it was Clara,
by the way, who told my mother where we were going to be, and put her up
to telephoning for me), I took the trouble to find out what time she had
got home, and found that he had come back with her and stayed till three
o'clock."

Mrs. Walbridge started. That was the morning when she had stood by her
husband's bedside watching him as he lay asleep.

"So after that--my God, it's only a week ago!--I kept my eyes open, and
to-day I found these."

He pulled a bundle of letters out of his breast pocket, and tossed them
into her lap. The letters were tied with a piece of yellow ribbon, and
taking hold of them by the ribbons, Mrs. Walbridge held them out to him.

"I don't want to see them," she said.

"You'd better--to convince you."

"But I am convinced."

He rose solemnly, and put the letters back into his pocket.

"Then I'll not detain you any longer. I thought I'd better come and tell
you myself."

At the door he turned.

"Dirty trick, wasn't it? Seen enough of women to know better. But I
trusted her----"

They stared at each other for a moment, and then he came back into the
room.

"I'm very sorry for you, too," he said awkwardly. "You take it so
quietly that I rather forgot----"

She laughed a little. "Perhaps," she said, "you'll think better of
it--of divorcing her. There are so many things to be considered, Mr.
Crichell."

But at this his fury rose again, and he shouted that nothing in heaven
or earth would prevent his divorcing her. "And you'll have to do the
same," he added, almost menacingly.

"Why should I divorce my husband?"

"Surely you don't want him after this?"

"I want him," she replied very slowly, as if feeling for the right
words, "exactly as much as I've wanted him for many years, Mr.
Crichell."

As she spoke they heard the rattle of a latchkey in the front door.

"That's Ferdie," she said hastily. "Oh, you won't have a quarrel with
him, will you?"

"No. I've already seen him--I've nothing more to say. How can I get out
without meeting him?"

With pathetic knowledge of her husband, she bade him stay where he was.

"I'll tell him you're here, and he'll go into the dining-room."

At the foot of the stairs she met Walbridge taking off his coat, a
curiously boyish look in his face. "Ferdie," she said quietly, "Mr.
Crichell's in the girls' room."

With a little smile of almost bitter amusement, she watched him as he
tiptoed into the dining-room and closed the door.

When Crichell had gone she joined her husband. He was smoking and
walking up and down, a glass of whisky and soda in his hand.

"Well," he began at once, with the little nervous bluster of the man who
doubts his own courage, "I suppose he's told you."

"Yes, he's told me," and then she added, without seeing the strangeness
of her words. "I'm so sorry."

He stared, and then, with a little laugh of relief, drained his glass
and set it down.

"It had to be," he announced with visible satisfaction at the romantic
element of the situation. "But I'm sorry, too, Violet, very sorry. I've
fought long and hard."

She looked at him with a little gleam in her eyes that arrested his
attention, although he told himself it could not possibly be a gleam of
amusement.

"No, Ferdie," she said, "I don't think you fought long and hard. I don't
think you fought at all."

Looking pitifully like a pricked balloon, he dropped into a chair and
gripped the edge of the dining-room table.

"What do you mean, Violet? _Really!_" he murmured, with the indignation
of a sensitive man confronted with a feminine lack of delicacy.

"Oh, I don't want to hurt your feelings, Ferdie, and no doubt you do
feel extremely romantic. But it would save time if you didn't try to be
romantic with me. You see, I know you very well."

Before he could gather his wits together to answer her, she had gone on
quietly:

"I won't tell you what I think of your treating Mr. Crichell in this
way, after accepting his hospitality all winter. It would not do any
good, and it wouldn't interest you. But I am wondering if you couldn't
persuade him, in some way, not to make a scandal. Don't interrupt me.
Wait a minute. It will be so dreadful for her--for Mrs. Crichell, I
mean. How could you have been so careless as to let him find out?"

Walbridge leant across the table towards her, his face almost imbecile
in his open-mouthed amazement.

"Do you--do you know what you are talking about?" he stammered. "Are you
sane at all? I never heard of such a thing in my born days."

"Oh, yes, I'm sane enough. But I don't want the children to know. It's
an awfully bad example for Guy; he'll be home in a day or two. Just
think, he's only twenty-one, and he doesn't know--I mean he thinks--oh,
yes, it would be awful if there was a scandal."

Ferdinand Walbridge made a great effort and managed to scramble to his
feet, mentally as well as physically.

"My dear," he said, modulating his beautiful voice with instinctive
skill, "you don't understand. This is not an amourette. I _love_ Clara
Crichell. It is the one wish of my life to make her--to marry her."

For many years her indifference to her husband had been so complete, so
unqualified by anything except a little retrospective pity, that he had
never dreamed of the thoroughness of her knowledge of him. She had never
cared to let him know; she had been busy, and it had not seemed worth
while, and now she found difficulty in making him understand her
position, without unnecessarily hurting his feelings.

"But you can't marry her," she said slowly. "There's _me_."

"Surely you'll not be so wicked as to ruin our lives," he went on,
secretly, she knew, rather enjoying himself, "because of an
old-fashioned, obsolete prejudice? What's divorce nowadays? A mere
nothing."

"I know," she said wearily, for she felt suddenly very tired. "Most
people think so, but I don't."

"But you don't mean to say that you want a man who no longer loves you?"

It was nearly six o'clock, and the room was lighted only by firelight.
In the charitable gloom Walbridge looked very handsome, and the attitude
he instinctively struck was not unbeautiful theoretically. She looked
at him for a moment.

"My dear Ferdie," she said at last, "I can't talk any more now because
Hermy and Billy and Mr. Peter Gaskell-Walker are dining with us at
half-past seven, and I've several things to see to. And as to your
loving me, you know perfectly well that you've not loved me for nearly
thirty years."

He was too utterly baffled to find a word in reply, and by the time he
could speak she had left the room.

As he dressed for dinner, having unsuccessfully tried to get into her
room, he reflected with sincere self-pity that it was small wonder he
had fallen in love with a beautiful, sympathetic woman like Clara.
Violet was plainly not quite sane. He gave a vicious jerk to his tie as
he reached this point.

"Why, damn it all," he muttered, "she doesn't seem to care a hang!"



CHAPTER XVIII


All this happened on a Thursday, and on the following Wednesday Mrs.
Walbridge went out quietly, and sent a telegram to Oliver Wick's office,
asking him to come and see her that evening. She was to be alone--alone,
it seemed to her distracted mind, for the first time for weeks. For
every day and all day some one or other of her family had been with her,
trying to persuade her to do the thing her soul detested--to divorce her
husband.

Maud was very vehement. Her indignation with her father knew no bounds,
and Moreton Twiss agreed with his wife. He was a quick-witted man, with
a good gift of words, that he poured out unmercifully over the poor
little lady, until she felt literally beaten to death.

"It's perfectly disgusting of him," Maud interrupted once. "I should
think you would loathe the sight of him. I'm sure I do."

But Mrs. Walbridge did not loathe the sight of her husband. That is, she
did not loathe him appreciably more than she had done for years. They
might say what they liked. Billy Gaskell-Walker, too, to her amazement,
broke into the most hideous, strange language the moment the subject of
his father-in-law came up--called him all the names under the heavens.
But nothing made any difference. Paul might sneer and make his most
razorlike remarks about his father and the lady whom he wished to make
their stepmother; Grisel might cry and beg her mother for her sake to
put her father clean away.

"It's like a bad rat, or something," the girl said in her high
fastidiousness. "He makes the house unpleasant."

But rail, scorn, revile as they might, Mrs. Walbridge had her
standpoint, and stuck to it. She did not believe in divorce, and she
wasn't going to divorce her husband. What was more, after three days of
exasperated wrangling discussion, she surprised them all by bidding them
be quiet.

They were having tea, all of them, in the girls' room. The air was thick
with cigarette smoke, and the two sons-in-law and Paul were drinking
whisky and soda. Mrs. Walbridge, looking very small in the corner of the
big sofa, suddenly sat bolt upright and looked angrily round at them.

"Oh, hold your tongues, all of you," she cried in a voice of authority.
"You mustn't speak of him like that. I won't have it. He's my husband,
not yours. Poor fellow!"

They all stared at her as if she had taken leave of her senses, which,
indeed, one or two of them privately believed she must have done.

"Oh, mother, how can you?" It was naturally Griselda, the baby, who
dared defy her. "You don't seem to realise what an utter beast he's
been, and how we all loathe him for treating you--yes, _you_--like
this."

"Poor fellow, indeed! Have a little pride, mother," suggested Paul, as
if he had said "have a little marmalade." But she didn't waver.

"Yes, poor fellow. I'm extremely sorry for him. You none of you seem to
realise what a pitiful thing it is for an old man, the father of a
family of grown-up children, to be making such a ridiculous spectacle of
himself."

Literally aghast, they stared, first at her, then at each other, and in
the silence she marched in triumph out of the room. Her misery was very
great, in spite of the queerness of her attitude, for she felt keenly
the pathos of her utter detachment of attitude, and her mind was thrown
back violently into the old days thirty years before, when she had loved
him, when she had believed in him, and defied and given up her whole
little world for his sake.

Poor Sir John Barclay still remembered her unhappiness and preoccupation
in the old days that summer at High Wycombe, but she had not told him
she had been suffering because she had been sent to the country by her
furious father to get her away from Ferdinand Walbridge. He did not know
how she had hoped against hope that Walbridge would, by some means, find
out where she was and get a letter to her, or manage to see her. She had
almost forgotten these things herself, until this business of Clara
Crichell had brought them back to her memory. It was a tragic,
heart-breaking thing, she felt, that an honest, romantic, deep love such
as hers had been for the beautiful young man her father had so detested,
could ever die so utterly as hers had.

It was dreadful to her, and seemed a shameful thing, that she could feel
no pang of jealousy or loneliness in the knowledge that her husband, her
companion for thirty years and the father of her five children, was
prepared to give up these children, his home life and her companionship
for another woman. Instead of what she believed would have been normal
emotions, she was conscious of a deep sorrow that he had been such a
fool as to fall in love with a woman of Mrs. Crichell's type, for she
knew with uncanny clearness exactly what Mrs. Crichell was. If only he
had fallen in love with someone who might possibly make him happy,
someone who was companionable and ambitious! But this woman, she knew,
was so like himself in her laziness, mental vacuity and self-centred
one-sidedness, that they were bound to destroy each other.

The whole family had assumed that her sole reason for refusing the
divorce was a semi-religious objection to that institution. It was true
that, although she was not a religious woman, her innate respect for the
forms of the church gave her the greatest possible horror of the divorce
court, but she knew, though none of the others seemed to suspect it,
that if Clara Crichell had been a different kind of woman, one with whom
she could, so to speak, trust her poor, faulty Ferdie, her objections
would have been bound to give way, in the course of time, to the
combined wishes of her family and friends. And she was afraid to utter
this instinctive fear of Mrs. Crichell because, although she knew little
of real life, she had an uncanny knowledge of the mental workings of the
men and women in books, who are, after all, more or less, like human
beings; and she felt that she could not bear to be misunderstood, as she
was certain to be if she uttered one word of personal objection to Mrs.
Crichell. They would all think she was jealous, and she would be unable
to persuade them that she was not.

Oliver found her pacing up and down her drawing-room in her afternoon
gown, which she had forgotten to fasten down the back, and which showed
a pathetic strip of merino petticoat.

"Something's wrong with your back here," he said. "Shall I hook it up? I
often fasten Jenny's new-fangled things, and they hook up to her neck.
Well, here I am, Mrs. Walbridge, _à la disposition di Usted_."

One of his useful little gifts was a way of keeping in mind, and
reproducing with impeccable inflection, little once-heard scraps of
foreign languages, and somehow it comforted the worried woman to hear
him talking so much in his usual manner; in spite of Grisel's
engagement, his world had not turned over.

"Have you--have you heard anything about us lately?" she began
nervously, as they sat down, and she nodded at his battered old
cigarette case, held interrogatively up to her.

"Yes," he answered abruptly, his manner changing. "I hear that Grisel
has a string of pearls, and is growing very fond of her aged suitor."

"He's not an aged suitor, and you mustn't call him one.

"Well, then, her gay young spark. It doesn't really matter, and she's
not really happy, and I know it, and so do you."

"Oh, Oliver, please don't make me unhappy about that. Things are bad
enough without Grisel's coming to grief."

He pricked his ears. "What do you mean--things are bad enough? What's
happened? I'm not going to worry you. I'm sorry----"

"It's about--it's about Mr. Walbridge. I don't quite know how to tell
you."

Oliver looked hastily round the room. "Oh, no, he's not here. He went
away yesterday morning."

"Gone away? Good heavens! Has he been losing money?"

"No; he has no money," she answered simply. "It's much worse than that.
It's--it's about a lady."

He gave a long whistle. "By golly! Is it, though? Then I'll bet it's
that over-ripe woman who sat next him at dinner--the painter's wife."

"Yes, it is. They have fallen in love with each other."

The young man threw his cigarette in the fire in his excitement.

"No! They can't have. Why, bless me, he's an old man--I beg your pardon.
But he isn't _young_, is he?"

"That doesn't matter. He's fallen in love with her and Mr. Crichell's
found out."

"My hat! The man with the nasty fingers."

"Yes. And they're all after me--not a soul stands up for me, Oliver. So
that's why I sent for you. I thought perhaps you would."

"Of course I will. You want someone to see you through divorcing him.
Well, I'm your boy. Have you got a solicitor? And--excuse me speaking so
plainly--have you got proofs?"

She laughed forlornly at his mistake. "Oh, my dear, you've got it all
wrong. It's the other way about. It's they that want me to divorce him
and I--I won't."

His face changed. He looked at her with surprise and commiseration in
his eyes.

"Oh, I see," he said quietly. "I didn't understand."

He felt that it would be indecorous for him to ask this old lady, as he
considered her, whether she really cared for the husband he had always
found so unpleasant, but he could in no way account for her refusing to
take the obvious course.

She saw his perplexity and went straight to the point. "You see," she
said, "I know what you are thinking, but I've known Mr. Walbridge for a
long time, and I know that he couldn't possibly be happy with a woman as
selfish and self-centred as Mrs. Crichell."

"Then you want him to be happy?" He spoke very gravely, his voice
sounding like that of a man very much older than himself.

She was grateful to him for not showing any surprise at her attitude.

"Oh, yes. I should like him to be happy. You're too young to understand,
Oliver. I hope you never will understand. But I'm not at all angry with
him, and I've always disliked Mrs. Crichell very much."

"So have I. Couldn't bear her, and neither could my mother. But why did
you send for me, Mrs. Walbridge? I'll do any mortal thing for you, but
the better I understand, the more useful I shall be."

"Oh, I just want you to stand up for me when they all attack me, and try
to make me divorce him."

"I see. I certainly think the choice ought to be yours. But," he added,
"I don't agree with you. I--I think you're making a mistake. By the way,
has the lady any money?"

"Oh, yes, she's quite well off."

There was a pause, at the end of which he said, "Well, I--it beats me.
Why do you suppose she wants him?" Then he added, feeling that he had
failed in tact, in thus speaking of the man who, after all, was his
companion's husband, and whom she wanted, in her queer way, to help.
"Well, it beats me."

"Mr. Walbridge has always been considered a very handsome man," she
said, in a voice of complete clarity and explanation. And then the door
opened and Griselda came suddenly in, wrapped in a big fur-collared
velvet cloak.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, on seeing Wick. "I didn't know anyone was here.
They all went on to the opera," she said, sitting down and letting her
cloak slip back, "and my head ached--I think I've a cold coming on--so I
got a taxi and came home. How are you, Oliver, and how is your mother? I
saw Jenny the other day, but I was in a taxi and she didn't see me."

"They're both well, thanks," he answered. "It's a long time since I saw
you, young lady."

"Yes, it is."

There was a pause, and Mrs. Walbridge glanced anxiously from one to the
other of the two painstakingly indifferent faces.

"No letters, mother?" the girl asked.

"Yes, there are two for you. One from Sir John."

"Good, I'll go and get them." She held out her hand to Oliver. "Then
I'll go on up to bed. I really do feel rather bad. Good-night."

He held her hand closely. "You're a nice young minx," he told her,
laughing. "I suppose you think I ought to congratulate you on your
engagement."

"It's a matter of complete indifference to me whether you do or not."

"Grisel, Grisel!" put in her mother.

Still he held her hand, his critical eyes looking her up and down.

"Good-night," she said again, trying to withdraw her hand.

"You're losing your looks," he declared. "You're too thin, and your eyes
are sunk into your head. It won't do, Grisel. You'll have to give in.
You used to be the prettiest thing alive, and unless you own up to your
old gentleman and confess to me that you can't live without me, you'll
soon have to join the sad army of the girls who aren't so pretty as they
feel."

She was furiously angry--so angry that she could not speak, and when he
suddenly let go her hand, she stumbled back and nearly fell. She left
the room without a word, and he sat down and hid his face for a moment
in his hands.

Mrs. Walbridge was indignant with him, but somehow she dared not speak,
and after a minute he rose.

"I'll go now," he said. "I'm done. Little brute!"

"I'm so sorry for you," she said, which was quite different from what
she had meant to say.

"I know you are, and I deserve it; I deserve everybody's pity. But damn
it all," he added, with sudden brightness, pushing back the strands of
straight dun-coloured hair that hung down over his damp forehead, "I'll
get her yet."

She went with him to the door, and they stood on the step in the bitter
cold of the still night.

"You'll stand by me then? You'll believe," she added earnestly, laying
her hand on his sleeve, "that I'm not just being a cat; that I really am
doing what I know will be best for him in the long run?"

"If you suddenly spat at me and scratched my eyes out and ran up the
wall there, and sat licking your fur, I shouldn't believe you were a
cat. But, mind you, Mrs. Walbridge, I think you are making a great
mistake. What on earth will you do with him about the house in this
frame of mind?"

"Oh, don't make it any harder for me. I know that I'm right."

They parted very kindly, and she went back into the house, knowing that
he would, as she expressed it, take sides with her. But something of the
virtue of her resolution seemed to have gone out of her, for, young as
he was, she respected his shrewdness and his instinct, and it depressed
her to know that he disapproved of her determination.

The next evening, Wick dined with the Gaskell-Walkers in Campden Hill.
He was the only guest, and Hermione told him at once that they had sent
for him in order to talk over this disgusting business of her father's.
When Gaskell-Walker had laid before him the combined reasons of the
whole tribe for wishing for the divorce, Wick sat down his glass and
looked at his host.

"I agree with every word you've said," he answered, without unnecessary
words. "It's a great mistake, but I know why she's doing it."

"That's more than any of _us_ knows," mourned Hermione. "I feel that I
never wish to look my father in the face again."

"Oh, that's going too far," the young man protested. "He's an awful old
scoundrel, of course, but still, there are plenty more like him."

Before they parted, Wick uttered a word of wisdom. "She won't give in to
you, or any of you, or to me," he said. "There's nothing so obstinate in
this world as a good woman fighting for a principle, and the fact that
the principle is perfectly idiotic has no bearing on the case. But your
mother's an old-fashioned woman, Mrs. Gaskell-Walker, and she's written
so many sentimental stories that her whole mind is coloured by them. If
you can get Mrs. Crichell to go to your mother and grovel and tear her
hair and cry, your mother would divorce your father." Then he went his
way.

"By Jove!" Gaskell-Walker said to his wife. "I believe he's right. Stout
fellow! I'll put your father up to this. I'll look him up at lunch at
Seeley's to-morrow."



CHAPTER XIX


Mrs. Walbridge never told any of her children what it was that made her
so suddenly decide, two days after her interview with Oliver Wick, to do
as her husband begged her, and give him his freedom, as he invariably
called it. Freedom is a prettier word than divorce, and he had a natural
instinct for eliminating ugly words from his life, although he had never
been very particular about steering clear of the deeds to which the
words fitted.

"Very well, Ferdie," she said to him, the Sunday morning when he came to
get his clothes and various little belongings. "You shall have it, your
freedom. I'll give it to you."

In his muddle-headed gratitude, he nearly kissed her. She drew back, an
irrepressible smile twitching at her lips. He was such a goose!

"I think," he said, "you had better get Gaskell-Walker to manage things
for you. It--it might be rather awkward for Paul. You see, we can't have
_her_ name brought into it"--there was actual reverence in his voice at
the words--"and I'll have to take certain steps."

"Oh, I know," she said quietly. "She told us yesterday. Don't have any
more in the papers than you can help, will you?" she added, "it's all so
horrid."

"Oh, her name won't be mentioned at all--thanks to your kindness," he
added, a little grandiloquently.

She looked at him with a queer expression. "I wasn't thinking of her
name. I was thinking of ours--yours and mine, and the children's,
Ferdinand."

He winced when she called him Ferdinand. It reminded him of some
earlier, painful scenes in their life, when she had been unable to
pronounce the shorter version of his name.

He rose and walked up and down the ugly room. "I hope you believe," he
began, clearing his throat, "that I'm very sorry about all this. Such
things are always unpleasant, but I assure you, Violet, that it--it was
stronger than I."

"We needn't go into that. Have you enough money to live comfortably till
your marriage?"

He nodded. "Oh, yes. I signed my papers with Barclay the day he went
away, you know, and have been at the office every day. I--I intend," he
went on, groping for words, "to give you half of my salary; that's two
hundred and fifty a year, and I thought perhaps if you moved into a
smaller house,--there will only be you and Guy then, and he'll soon be
earning something--that--that you might manage to get on all right."

She nodded. "Oh, yes, I shall manage." She didn't add that up to this
she always had managed to keep, not only herself, but, for the greater
part of their married life, him as well.

"I'm sorry about that business of your books," he resumed, with another
awkward pause, during which he took a cigarette out of a very beautiful
new gold case, which he hurriedly stuffed back into his pocket. "I hope
this new one will be a success. I do, really, Violet."

She looked at his nervous, heated face with a queer, incongruous pity
that seemed to her almost undignified.

"I'm sure you do, Ferdie," she answered kindly. "There's no reason on
earth why you should not wish me well. I certainly wish you every
happiness."

He was relieved and grateful at her lack of resentment, but at the same
time it piqued him a little. He felt that it was not altogether normal
of her to take things quite like this. He looked at her curiously, and
her face seemed old, very plain, linked as it was to his memory of Clara
Crichell's luscious beauty. He was very sorry for her, not only for
being that most contemptible of creatures, an old woman without charm,
but also because she was losing him.

They parted in the most friendly way, after he had telephoned for a taxi
and laden it with his various boxes and bags.

"Where shall I send your letters?" she asked.

"Oh, you mustn't know where I am," he declared nervously, "or they'll
bring in collusion. Gaskell-Walker will do it all for you." He paused on
the step, looking up at the house into which, thirty years ago, they had
come together, full of hopes and plans, and across his still beautiful,
degenerate face there swept a little cloud of sentimental regret.
"Life's a queer thing, isn't it?" he murmured, taking off his hat and
standing bare-headed.

She nodded. "Yes, it is." Then she added quickly, "Never mind, Ferdie,
it's all right. The children will come round after a bit. It's natural
they should be annoyed just at first."

"If ever there's anything I can do for you," he added, incongruously,
"after this business is over, of course, you'll let me know, won't you?"

He went his way, and she stood looking after him. It was all remarkably
odd, but perhaps oddest of all was that he had failed to understand at
the end of all these years, how little she could miss him; that it had
always been she that had taken care of him, and that therefore that it
was he who would miss the prop for the loss of which he was
conventionally compassionating her.

For several days after this, nothing at all happened, and the attention
of her little world was turned towards Hermione, whose mother-in-law had
unexpectedly died, leaving her an attractive, though not very valuable,
collection of old jewelry. The inspection and re-designing of these
treasures came as a real boon to the whole family.

"I feel as if my mind had been washed again after this nasty business of
father's," Maud Twiss declared, after two or three days of excitement.
"I think Hermy's wrong to have those opals set that way, but then
they're her's and not mine, so it doesn't matter. What a pity the old
lady had such a passion for cameos--they don't suit Hermy at all--but
I'd give my head for that star sapphire."

It was the 12th of February, and Maud had arrived first of the little
group of people invited to dine at "Happy House" in honour of Paul's
birthday.

Mrs. Walbridge had not felt much inclined for any festivities, but Paul
for some reason insisted on a little party, and the atmosphere being
cleared by the progress of the regular proceedings towards the divorce,
the others had backed him up. Sir John Barclay was still away, and
Moreton Twiss had been obliged to go to an annual Club dinner, but the
Wicks were coming, and Paul had added various delicacies to the menu in
a way that was so like his father, that his mother was a little
saddened by it. Paul too, she knew, would always be able to spend money
on things that pleased him, and she foresaw that he would never have a
penny for dull details like gas bills or cooks. He even brought in an
armful of flowers, and Maud, who had a new tea-gowny garment for the
occasion, arranged them for him, in the very vases his father had bought
to hold his orchids the night of the Christmas Eve party. It seemed
years ago, Mrs. Walbridge thought, and yet it was only about seven
weeks.

Grisel had objected strongly to the Wicks being invited. She pretended
to be very annoyed with Oliver for what she called his idiotic and
underbred behaviour that night when she had come in after the
dinner-party.

"He's sure to be tiresome again, mother. His peculiar brand of humour
doesn't happen to appeal to me." But when Mrs. Walbridge had suggested
to Paul that the Wicks were not absolutely necessary to his birthday
party he declared pettishly that there wouldn't be any party if it
wasn't for Jenny Wick. She was the best accompanist he had ever had, and
an extremely nice girl--not a bit like her cub of a brother.

Grisel might, of course, have dined out, but, like many other families,
although they quarrelled with each other, and did not particularly like
each other, the Walbridges yet hung together in a helpless, uncongenial
kind of way, and always remembered and mildly recognised each other's
birthdays.

Grisel came downstairs while Maud was putting the last touches to the
red and white roses that had been Paul's choice. The girl had a new
frock of black, with heavy gold embroidery, and though very pale and
heavy-eyed, her beauty was undeniably growing, as the baby curves left
her face and what can only be called the elegance of its bony structure
became more apparent. Her jaw-bone was a thing of real beauty, and the
likeness of her brow to her mother's was very great.

"Oh, Grisel, what a love of a frock!" Maud cried, kissing her. "Where
_did_ you get it?"

"Greville and Ross. Glad you like it."

Maud settled the last Jacquemenot in its place, and put her arm round
her sister's waist. "Let's go into the drawing-room," she said. "I'd
hate going upstairs. Never, never again shall I have another baby."

"You look beautiful, Maud," the girl assured her earnestly. "It suits
you somehow."

"Nonsense! But what's the matter with _you_, dear? You look tired out."

"Yes, I've been making a fool of myself. Three dances in the last five
days."

"When's John coming home?"

They sat down on the uncomfortable sofa under the gilt mirror, and
Griselda leant back against a non-existent cushion, and sat up with a
little scowl.

"Oh, he will be back in a day or two, thank goodness. Oh, Maud, I have
missed him so; you have no idea," she insisted, "how much I have missed
him!"

Before her marriage Maud Twiss, who, after all, was nine years older
than Grisel, had been rather jealous of her little sister's greater
charm and beauty. But since she had been married her feelings had
changed and the sisters had grown towards each other a little. Hermione
had always been more selfish than Maud, and, besides, she and Grisel had
much the same hair and profiles, so the youngest girl had always been
inclined to like the eldest one best. They sat there on the sofa
discussing things in general, but avoiding two subjects--the divorce
and Oliver Wick. Fortunately the Gaskell-Walkers arrived before the
Wicks, and shortly after the arrival of Jenny and Oliver, Bruce Collier
turned up with a young Frenchman as fifth man.

Everyone had some kind of present for Paul, who accepted them with
extreme seriousness and regarded himself--most unusual in a young
Englishman--as the legitimate centre of attraction of the evening. Paul
had a disconcerting way, for all his disagreeable mannerisms and
selfishness, of doing certain things that reminded his mother almost
unbearably of his babyhood and little boyhood. And this evening, as he
stood, as pleased as possible, at the little table where all his
presents were spread out, she wondered if the others were as struck as
she was by the incongruity of his manner. Red-headed little Jenny Wick,
who stood near her, read her thoughts.

"Isn't he funny," the girl said in an undertone, shaking her fat silk
curls and wrinkling up her snow-white but befreckled little nose. "He's
just like a baby. I wish I had brought him a rattle."

"They're all like babies," murmured Mrs. Walbridge absently, her eyes
fixed on space. "Every one of them."

"Have you heard the news?" the girl asked, mysteriously, drawing her
hostess a little to one side, under pretence of looking at a picture
near the mantelpiece.

"News! No, what news?" Poor Mrs. Walbridge started, for, at the present
crisis in her life, all news seemed to point towards her own domestic
trouble.

Jenny looked very wise. "He'll be telling you himself, no doubt, but I
don't mind telling you first. It's Oliver."

Mrs. Walbridge looked at young Wick, who was talking, with every
appearance of complete happiness, to Hermione, with whom he was very
good friends. "What is it?" she asked. "I've not seen him for nearly a
fortnight."

"I know. He's been very busy. The fact is he's engaged to be married,
and we see hardly anything of him, mother and I."

Mrs. Walbridge felt the ground rock under her feet. How could it be
possible that Oliver Wick was engaged when only a few nights ago he had
sat before her in the room downstairs shaken to the heart by misery
about Grisel? "Are you--are you _sure_?" she faltered.

Jenny laughed. "Well, I ought to be. We hear nothing but Dorothy from
morning till night--that is, whenever we _do_ see him, he talks of
nothing else. And isn't it ridiculous, her name's Perkins?"

"Dorothy Perkins! That is a coincidence. I'm sure I hope they'll be very
happy. Does your mother like her?" the poor lady murmured, trying to get
her bearings.

"Oh, we've never seen her, mother and I. She lives at Chiswick and her
mother's an invalid, so she hardly ever leaves her. We've seen her
picture, though, and she's lovely."

Dinner was announced at that moment, and Mrs. Walbridge, never as long
as she lived, could remember one thing about the meal, except that young
Latour, who sat next to her and knew not a word of English, had the most
beautiful manners she had ever seen in her life, and really almost made
her believe--almost, but not quite--that the few remaining crumbs of her
schoolgirl French that she was able to scrape together and offer him,
were not only comprehensible but eloquent. He was a very small young man
with black hair, so smooth and glossy that it looked like varnish, and
a long, long white nose, sensitive nostrils and bright darting eyes like
those of an intelligent bird. Bruce Collier, who prided himself on his
perfect French, tried at first to translate the conversation of the
young man and his hostess to each other, but "Mossioo Latour," as Mrs.
Walbridge laboriously called him, waved aside his offered aid with a
cigarette-stained, magnanimous hand.

"Mais non, mais non, mêlez vous de vos affaires, mon cher," he
protested, "Nous nous entendons parfaitement bien, n'est-ce pas, Madame
Vollbridge?"

And Mrs. Walbridge nodded and said, "Oh ooee." She said "oh ooee" many
times, also "Je ne say pas" and "N'est-ce pas." And she loved the young
man for his painstaking courtesy. But after a while he drifted naturally
into a more amusing dialogue with Hermione, whom he obviously admired
very much, and Mrs. Walbridge was left to her confused realisation of
the utter perfidy of man. Oliver Wick engaged! She would have been burnt
at the stake for her belief in the reality of his love for Griselda; yet
there he was, radiantly happy, chattering and joking with everyone in
turn, and no doubt, the mother thought, with most unjust and
inconsequent anger, the picture of that Dorothy Perkins in his pocket.
And she looked at Griselda's over-tired, nervous little face and hated
Oliver Wick.

The Wicks, who were spending the night with some friends in the
neighbourhood, were the last to leave, for Jenny and Paul (who had sung
a great deal and unusually well during the evening) had some new songs
to try. So after all the others had gone, the two went to the piano and
set to work on seriously trying over some rather difficult music of
Ravel and some of the more modern Russians.

Mrs. Walbridge, Grisel, and Oliver sat by the fire, Oliver extremely
busy roasting chestnuts, which he offered in turn to his hostesses on an
ash-tray. He was squatting in front of the grate, laughing and jesting
with every appearance of an almost silly satisfaction with life, and
when at last, even Mrs. Walbridge refusing to eat any more burnt
chestnuts, he rose with a sigh and sat down between them.

"What a delightful evening," he said. "That's a lovely gown, Grisel. I
don't think I ever saw you look better."

"Thanks," she murmured.

"When's Sir John coming back?"

She started and looked at him in surprise; it was the first time that he
had mentioned Sir John's name that evening.

"He'll be back the day after to-morrow."

"You must be awfully glad," he said sympathetically.

There was a little pause while the music rose to a loudness greater than
was comfortable as a background to conversation. Then he said gently,
"I'm sorry I made such a fool of myself the last time I saw you, Grisel.
I meant it, you know. I was perfectly serious--puppy love, you know!
Heavens, how I must have bored you! Well, it's all over now and I've
made my manners. And now," he added with a look of proud shyness in his
face, "I've got something to tell you."

"Yes?" Grisel murmured.

"It's this. I--I'm engaged to be married to the sweetest girl in all the
world."

The words seemed vaguely familiar to Mrs. Walbridge, and then she
realised that she had written them often.

"Her name is Perkins, isn't it?" said Mrs. Walbridge kindly, but with
ludicrous effect.

"Mother!" said Grisel sharply.

Wick took a leather case from his pocket. "Here's her picture," he said.
"You're the very first people I've shown it to, except my dear old
mother and my little sister."

This, too, seemed vaguely familiar to the novelist. Indeed, she had a
feeling that none of the conversation was true--that she was writing it
in one of her own books.

Grisel took the photograph and held it towards her mother; they looked
at it together.

"Oh, she's beautiful!" Mrs. Walbridge cried in amazement.

He nodded. "Isn't she? And this picture isn't half good enough. You see,
her colouring is so wonderful!"

"She's lovely," Grisel said slowly, "simply lovely. I think I've seen
her somewhere, too."

He took the photograph and gazed at it in dreamy ecstasy.

"If you ever had," he said, "you couldn't possibly forget her." Then he
added shyly to Mrs. Walbridge, "Isn't it wonderful that such a girl
could ever have looked at a fellow like me?"

Paul's beautiful voice, so utterly unlike himself, rose and fell softly
in a charming song of Chausson's about lilacs, and there was a little
silence for a minute.

"Mrs. Perkins is an invalid," Oliver went on at last, when he had put
the picture away in his left-hand breast pocket, "so my poor girl hardly
ever leaves her. She's a most devoted daughter."

"_H'm!_"

"I beg your pardon?" he asked turning deferentially to Grisel.

"Oh, no--I didn't say anything. Do tell us more about the Perkins
family," she said with a grand air.

"About the father and mother? Oh, there isn't much to tell. Except that
they have managed to produce Dorothy. The father's a painter--a very bad
painter. A charming old man. Looks like William de Morgan; big forehead,
you know--white hair. They are very poor, but of course that doesn't
matter."

Mrs. Walbridge was beginning to feel more comfortable, and shook her
head in unqualified assent.

"Of course it doesn't, as long as you--love each other."

"Ah!" the young man murmured, his voice ringing unmistakably true, "I
love the girl all right."

"She'll value your constancy, I should think," Griselda drawled,
"ridiculous creature that you are."

He gazed at her humbly.

"You're quite right to laugh at me," he returned, "I did make a perfect
fool of myself about you, but, after all, I'm not so very old, you
know."

"How can you be sure," she asked, trying to look like a dowager, "that
you really _do_ love now? I should think that you'd be a little nervous
about it."

The music had ceased, and his sister came forward.

"Come along, Olly, we must be off. It's frightfully late."

She began to roll up her music, and Wick answered Griselda's question.

"I'm perfectly sure," he said gravely, "that I've found my girl--what
poets call my mate. And I shall love her till I die."

"I hope you will, I'm sure," put in Mrs. Walbridge warmly, to cover
Grisel's unkind air of distance. And when she had let the Wicks out of
the door with Paul, she hurried upstairs to reprove her daughter for her
unsympathetic manner, but Griselda had gone to bed.



CHAPTER XX


Early the next morning old Mrs. Wick, who also had been spending the
night in town with the friends where her children were staying, was
gratified, while she was still in bed, by a visit from her son, who
burst into the room apparently more than delighted with himself and the
way his particular world was wagging.

"A most beautiful party, mother," he exclaimed, wrapping himself up in
her eiderdown, for his pyjamas were old, and worn, and chilly. "And the
wretch looked lovelier than ever."

"I hope you aren't going to backslide, Oliver," she said severely,
taking her spectacles out of their old case and putting them on so that
she might look at him over their tops.

"Oh, dear no, but I don't mind owning to you, mother, that if it wasn't
for Dorothy, I _might_ be in danger! She used to be a fairy princess,
but now she's a princess of ideal royalty. Such a beautiful gown--worth,
I'm sure, twenty-five guineas, and a little string of lovely
pearls--_his_ gift, and the big ruby. I shall never," he added
thoughtfully, "be able to dress poor Dorothy like that."

His mother regarded him suspiciously.

"Oh, go on," she said, "with your Dorothy."

He rose, and did a few steps of the "Bacchanal à la Mordkin," whistling
the music through his teeth. "Speak not, oh aged one," he then cried,
striking an attitude, "with disrespect of the moon-faced and altogether
irreproachable Dorothy."

Mrs. Wick shook her head. "I'm really sorry for you, Oliver," she said.
"You're so silly, and as to your Dorothy Perkins, I believe her name's
Harris."

He grinned. "Well, perhaps it is. After all, there's very little
difference between Perkins and Harris. And it's done the trick. Oh,
mother, you should have seen me! I was an absolute gem of
half-shamefaced love-sickness."

"I don't see why you had to tell all that rubbish to Jenny and me," the
old woman protested, a little offended, rubbing her nose with her thumb.

"But of course I had to! Jenny's seeing that soft idiot of a Paul every
day, and would be sure to give it away." He chuckled. "I saw her
whispering it as a great secret to the old lady and she was so surprised
she never ate a bit of dinner--it was a good dinner, too."

"You're a rascal," his mother declared comfortably, "and you deserve to
have her marry twenty old gentlemen."

He sat down, his face suddenly grave.

"Ah no, mother. All's fair in love and war. I haven't yet made up my
mind which of the two this is, but it's one. She's a pig-headed little
brute, my lovely love is, and as obstinate as a mule. She's made up her
mind to marry this man and be rich and comfortable, and I don't think
anything on earth could have stopped her, except----" he grinned
wickedly, "just this--jealousy. She nearly died with jealousy before my
eyes. Ah, if you could have heard her! 'Please tell us more about the
Perkins family,'" he mimicked, "and her little chin went further and
further in the air. She hated me like hell!--but, oh, she loved me!"

A maid knocked at the door and brought in a little round tray with a cup
of tea on it.

"Your tea's in your room, sir," she said. And then he sent her to bring
it to him.

"I want you to go and see them, mother. You aren't to go and tell Jenny,
mind you, that--that her name's Harris, but I want you to go to 'Happy
House'--what a name for it, by the way!--and tell them all sorts of
things about the Perkins. Don't forget that they live at Chiswick, and
that the old man's an unsuccessful artist--miniatures," he added
thoughtfully, "is his line, and Mrs. Perkins is an invalid.

"Yes, I know. You told us that. What's the matter with her? Heart
disease, I suppose."

"Not at all. Stomach. She never digests anything except--what do you
call it--koumiss. Yes, she lives on koumiss."

"When are you going away, Oliver?" the old lady asked presently, between
two sips of what is to Britons closer to nectar than any other liquid on
earth.

"Either to-night or to-morrow. And oh, I forgot, don't say anything to
them--the 'Happy House' people, I mean--about me and my doings."

"Why, don't they know about Sparks?"

"Nope. They don't know anything about what has been happening lately.
They think I'm still the penniless reporter. That's very important, too.
It's the penniless reporter Miss Minx has got to propose to, _not_ the
latest and favourite discovery of the Great Chief."

"I don't think that's quite fair," his mother said. "After all, it's a
great deal to expect any girl to marry a young man who is penniless as
well as a nobody."

"But I'm not a nobody, and I'm going to be a very big somebody, and she
ought to _know_ that I shall be a success. Did the girl think," he added
angrily, waving his arm, "that I would let her starve, or send her on
the stage to keep me? No. She ought to have understood, and now she's
got to be punished."

She felt, this wise and clever old hen, that this hatchling of hers was
not even an ordinary barnyard duck, that he was a wild, alien bird,
capable of almost any flight.

"Well, my dear, your description of Dorothy Perkins has rather made my
mouth water," she declared, as he rose and took a look out of the
passage to see if he could nip back unobserved to his room (he had
forgotten to bring his dressing-gown). "Such a lovable, home-keeping,
devoted daughter you made her!"

"Exactly. Where I was canniest though," he returned, "was when I made
her perfectly lovely as well. That little brute would never believe in a
_plain_ girl."

"But where did you get the photograph? It really is exceptionally
lovely."

"I bought her at a photographers in Birmingham, when I was there the
week before last. I had to take the man out to lunch to persuade him to
sell it. She's an Irish girl--was governess to some rich Jew in
Edgbaston, and she married a vet. in the army, and has gone to Egypt, so
it's as safe as a church. Now mind, mother," he bent over and kissed
her, and gave her a little hug, "mind you don't give it away to Jenny. I
shall be back in about a week, and you must keep the flag flying for me
while I'm away."

"All right, dear, I will. I don't like telling lies, but I do it very
well when I want to. Any brothers and sisters--the Perkins's, I mean?"

"No. Only child. I'm going to lunch to-day," he said, "with some of our
_other_ editors--ahem! I see myself being very chummy with the editor of
the _English Gentleman_. Oh, Lord!"

"Yes, dear. Wait a minute, Olly. Just suppose," his mother said, looking
at him seriously over her glasses, "just suppose that things did go
wrong, and that after all she married Sir John Barclay."

He stood still, put his hand on the door, an almost grotesque figure in
his faded pink and white striped flannel pyjamas.

"I don't know," he said slowly. "It would be pretty bad, mother; worse
than you think." After a pause he shook his head and opened the door
wide. "It isn't going to happen," he said, "and I'm not going to weaken
myself by looking at the bad side of things." Then he went out and she
heard his door close.

An hour later, as Oliver went downstairs to breakfast, the telephone
bell rang and, as he was expecting a call from the office, he answered
it. The thing buzzed for a minute and then he heard a voice say, "Is--is
that Mr. Catherwood's house?"

Putting his hand over the receiver and turning his head well away, the
young man answered in a loud and fervid whisper, "Yes, you blessed lamb,
you little darling devil, it _is_ Mr. Catherwood's house!" Then he took
his hand away and said in an affected voice, "Yes, moddom."

"I have tried three Catherwoods in the book," continued the voice,
struggling witty nervous hesitation. "I don't know the Christian name of
the one I am looking for, but is there a Mr. Wick staying there?"

"Yes, moddom."

"Will you please call him to the phone. Tell him it's Miss Griselda--I
mean Miss Walbridge--Bridge--B-r-i-d-g-e."

Dancing with joy, his voice perfectly steady, he pretended to
misunderstand her. "Miss Burbridge, moddom?"

"No, no--oh," and a little troubled sigh chased the laughter from his
face.

"I'll call him," he said, almost forgetting himself and adding "moddom"
spasmodically. Then after a moment he spoke in his own voice. "Hallo,
what is it? Is it you, Grisel?"

"Yes, oh Oliver, I _have_ had such a time getting you. Listen, we're in
awful trouble. Guy's dying in Paris and they have telegraphed for mother
to come. The telegram came late last night. She's never been out of
England in her life and hasn't the slightest idea how to travel and--and
Paul won't be able to go; he couldn't get a pass now the Peace
Conference is on--a friend of his tried last week in almost the same
circumstances, and he couldn't----"

"I know, I know."

"Mother wants you to come round and tell her about things. Paul will go
to the Foreign Office for her, but she knows you know Paris well, and
then you can tell her about getting there--trains, and so on, on the
other side of the channel. Will you come?"

He came perilously near forgetting the Perkins's at that moment.

"I'll come at once. Perhaps you'll give me some breakfast?"

"Oh, yes, anything. Do come."

Then he added, "What a pity Sir John isn't here. He would have been a
great comfort to you now."

"Yes," vaguely, "wouldn't he? Oh, we're all so frightened about Guy."

"What's the matter with him, do you know?" he asked, as Mr. Catherwood
came downstairs and nodded to him through the banisters. Grisel
explained that it was pneumonia following on "flu," and he heard her
blow her poor little nose.

Promising to come round at once, he went and explained to his host, and
ten minutes later jumped out of his taxi and ran up the steps of "Happy
House."

Grisel and Mrs. Walbridge were at breakfast, but Paul had hurried off
straight to the house of some minor Foreign Office official whom he
happened to know. Mrs. Walbridge already had her hat on, he noticed, and
anything more helpless and pathetic than her haggard, tear-stained,
bewildered face Oliver thought he had never seen in his life. She kissed
him absent-mindedly as if he had been a son, and he sat down and Grisel
plied him with food.

Grisel, who had been crying (for she and Guy were nearly of an age and
had always been fond of each other), said, "You never saw him--he is
such a dear! Oh, it's too cruel to have fought all through the war, and
now----"

"Hush, hush," he said, patting her wrist with a fine imitation of
brotherly detachment, "give the poor boy a chance. Who sent the
telegram?"

"A nurse."

"H'm. Where is he?"

"He's at a private hospital. The telegram's in mother's bag."

As she spoke, the maid brought in the letters, and Grisel looked through
them listlessly. One, addressed in firm, bold writing to herself, Wick
knew instinctively must come from Sir John. There was only one for Mrs.
Walbridge, and as Grisel handed it to her mother she said:

"Don't open it, dear. I'm sure it's only a bill." Mrs. Walbridge did not
even look at it.

"What time does the train start," she asked impatiently. "Oliver, you
must help me. I've never been out of England, and I can't speak French."

Grisel opened her letter and read it through indifferently. "John will
be back to-morrow night."

"Oh, then you'll be all right, darling," Mrs. Walbridge returned. "You'd
better go and stay with Hermy. Or would you rather have Miss Wick come
and stay with you here?"

"I don't want anyone to come and stay with me, and I don't want to go to
Hermy's. I shall stay here, where I belong. Oh, mother, mother, if only
we knew--if only we _knew_."

She bent down over the table and burst into tears, crying into her poor
little handkerchief, that Wick saw had already received more than its
share of moisture. He took a nice clean handkerchief from his own
pocket, and gave it to her.

"Take this," he said kindly. "It's got some Florida water on it too."

She took it, between a laugh and a moan, and buried her face in its
happy folds. Then he took out a notebook and his famous fountain pen,
and began to scribble.

"Are you writing notes down for me?" Mrs. Walbridge asked. "Put down all
the little things. Remember that I know absolutely nothing about travel.
Oh, if only Paul could have gone with me."

He noticed that neither of them had mentioned, or apparently so much as
given a thought to the absent husband and father.

"Paul couldn't get a permit, as you said on the telephone. Things have
tightened up worse than ever now that the Peace Conference has really
begun."

Mrs. Walbridge nodded. "I know."

He rose and put his pen in his pocket. "I must be off now," he said.
"I've several things to do. Can you arrange to go by the one-thirty
train?"

"Yes. Paul rang up this Mr. White, and he said he would manage to pull
it through."

"Good." The young man went to the desolate little woman and put his hand
on her shoulder. "Cheer up, Mrs. Walbridge," he said. "Lots of people
pull through pneumonia, and I believe Guy's going to. I have a kind of
feeling that he is."

She smiled at him, a little consoled, as one often is by just such
foolish hopefulness.

"If only there wasn't that Conference," she said, beautifully
disregarding the world's interests, "then Paul could come with me."

"Well, Paul can't, but--now, listen to me--I can, and I'm going to."

She stared at him. "To the station, you mean?"

"No, I don't. I mean to Paris. Now you mustn't keep me. I've got a
thousand things to do, but I'll be here in a taxi at twelve o'clock.
Shall I get the tickets?"

"Oh, yes, do. Oh, how good you are!" In her relief and gratitude she
leant her head against his shoulder and cried a little. Grisel looked
on, very pale and tense. "Can--can you leave Miss Perkins?" she asked
forlornly.

For a moment he trembled on the brink of abject confession. Then he
girded up his loins.

"Oh, yes," he said. "She'll quite understand. Very understanding girl.
I--I'll ring her up from the office."

"If--if you'd like to ring her up from here"--Grisel's voice shook a
little, and he bent his face over Mrs. Walbridge's jaded hat to hide a
smile of triumph that he could not repress--"mother and I will be
upstairs in my room--with the door shut."

"No, thanks. I've got to get to the office anyhow, and I'll ring her up
from there."



CHAPTER XXI


Guy Walbridge did not die. He was very ill, and many weeks passed before
his mother could bring him back to England; but after the first part of
her stay in Paris he was out of danger, and her letters, particularly
those she wrote to Caroline Breeze, showed that she was having a happy
time. One of these letters had perhaps better be given, as it explains a
good many things. She went to Paris on the 13th of February. This letter
was written the first Tuesday in March, and was dated at a
boarding-house in the Rue St. Ferdinand. One evening after dinner
Grisel, to whom Caroline had brought the letter in the afternoon,
according to directions in it, read it aloud to Oliver and Jenny Wick
and Sir John Barclay, as they sat round the fire in the girls' room.

"She really seems to be having a good time," Grisel began, taking the
thin sheets out of the envelope and throwing the end of her cigarette
into the fire. "I'm glad too. She needed a change."

Barclay smiled at her. "Isn't it," he asked, "the first change your
mother has ever had?"

She nodded. "Yes. I know you think we're awful, the way we treat her,
John," she added, "but she never wanted to go away. I think her best
holidays have always been when we were all off staying somewhere, and
she had the house to herself."

"I don't," commented Jenny Wick, with a shrewd little grimace. "I think
she likes best to have you one at a time--all to herself."

Oliver said nothing. It was the second time that he had been to the
house since his return, but the first in which he had been there quite
in this way--_en famille_--for the two brothers-in-law were there on the
other occasion, and there had been things about the journey to Paris
that he had not cared to tell them.

"Well, never mind that," he said. "Go on with the letter."

"'MY DEAR CAROLINE,'--The first part's about--oh, about Caroline's
landlady's twins--not very interesting. Let me see. Oh, here we are:
'_We've been for a long drive in the Bois de Boulogne. You've no idea
how different it is from Hyde Park, but it's very nice, just the
same._'"

"Speaks the Islander," from Wick.

"'_It is very cold here, colder, I think, than London, but it's clear
and sunny. I feel very well, and in the last few days I have begun to
get fatter; you'll be surprised to hear, Caroline, that I've had to let
out my afternoon dress. I got a very nice piece of----_' Oh, I won't
read this."

"Yes, do," shouted Oliver. "I want to know what she got a nice piece
of."

"'_Of lace at the Galleries Lafayette, and a little woman here has made
me a fichu that quite brightens up the old black satin._' Isn't she a
dear? '_I went to Notre Dame this morning. It's beautiful, and I like
the homely way poor people come in and say their prayers for a few
minutes and then go out again. There were two market baskets full of
vegetables just inside the door this morning, and a flower-girl burning
candles before a statue. Of course it's idolatrous, but it's a very
pretty custom._'"

Oliver laughed. "Imagine one of the Piccadilly Circus flower-girls
strolling in for a moment's spiritual comfort to Westminster Abbey!"

"'_I bought some very nice scones at a little shop near the Louvre, and
Guy did enjoy them with his tea. But guess what they cost, my dear.
Fifty centimes apiece--sixpence! The prices here are perfectly dreadful.
Oh, I bought E. V. Lucas's "Wanderer in Paris," and go out for a couple
of hours every day, when Guy doesn't want me, with it, and it's very
delightful. Paris must have changed very much, and no one could call it
gay now, and I never saw such deep mourning in my life. Half the women
are in black, real old-fashioned widows' weeds, not like our war widows'
little ballet skirts._

"'_It's quite as east-windy and dusty as London, and the taximen are
perfect fiends. They say that the family of anyone killed by a vehicle
is obliged to pay for obstructing the traffic. Of course if this is
true, it explains why they drive so fast._'"

Sir John laughed. "This, I take it, is the novelistic imagination of
which we hear so much."

"'_Thanks very much for sending me "Haycocks" and "Bess Knighthood."
I've read "Haycocks," and like it very much in some ways, but as for
"Bess Knighthood," how could it have taken that prize? Fancy getting a
thousand pounds for such a book! I saw it at Brentano's, and the man
told me everybody was reading it. I think it's rather a cruel book, and
I don't believe any family could really be quite so horrid._'"

Grisel looked up. "That's true. They were perfect brutes, weren't they?
Poor old Mum! I suppose she's a little jealous. I _loved_ it myself!"

"It's going to be dramatised. Did I tell you, Grisel?" Wick lighted a
cigarette as he spoke. "It'll make a splendid play. I never heard of the
author before, did you? E. R. East. Man or woman?"

"Oh, woman, of course. No, I don't think I ever heard of her before.
What a wonderful thing," Grisel added, "to get a thousand pounds prize
just for writing a story."

"Just for writing a story." Wick grinned. "Philistine!"

"Oh, mother speaks about that--listen:

"'_Do you remember that day, Caroline dear, when you wanted me to write
a book for the competition? Just imagine "Sunlight and Shadow" or "One
Maid's Word" being judged by the Committee that awarded that thousand
pounds!_"

"Poor mother. I mustn't forget to tell her when I write that Mr. Payne
wrote a very nice letter about her new book. It's coming out in a few
days. I do hope it'll be a success, poor darling. You know, it's a
dreadful thing, John, but I can't get through a book of mother's
nowadays."

"Can't you, my dear?"

"No. They _are_ about such dull people. I wish I liked them, because she
must know I don't."

"Oh, she's used to that," he answered. "Paul is remarkably frank about
it. But go on; finish the letter."

The next page was devoted to a description of the famous pictures and
statues which Mrs. Walbridge was making a point of seeing. It was
plainly a surprise to her that this had turned out to be not altogether
an unpleasant fulfilment of duty.

"'_I really love some of the pictures_,' she explained naïvely, '_and I
almost forgot to come home for lunch the day I went to the Luxembourg.
Some day I shall try to make time to go to the National Gallery._'"

Wick groaned. "Oh--oh dear! She's like a child," he said. "Why, do you
know, she positively trembled with excitement when the train stopped and
she first noticed one of those long, straight roads edged with
poplars--the kind that are always in illustrated magazines. She even
thought the fisher wives with their caps picturesque. I'm going to take
her on some sprees in London when she gets back. We're going to the
Tower together, and she wants to see the Cathedral at St. Albans."

"'_There's a lady in the house_,'" Grisel began again, after an
unamiable glance at the young man, "'_who's been buying clothes to go to
South America with. Yesterday I went with her to two or three
dressmakers, and the things really are lovely, Caroline. Of course they
seem very young, and one or two of this Mrs. Hammerton's would have
looked to me childish on Grisel, but it's the fashion here, and they
certainly do wear their clothes better than we do. I've got a lovely hat
for Grisel--black. (All the prettiest hats seem to be black.) And Hermy
will be delighted with an evening frock I have got for her. Maud's box
went off the other day. You never saw such darling little things in your
life. I wish I could be home to help nurse her, but Dr. Butler won't let
Guy come back for a long time yet, and he wants us to go to Cannes at
the end of next week. Doesn't it seem odd that I should be travelling
about like this at my time of life? I wonder if the Mediterranean really
is as blue as people say! I wish Oliver was going to be here. I rather
dread the journey, although Guy really speaks good French now._

"'_I wish, my dear, you would go and see Ferdie and look over his
things. It would be perfectly safe for you to go, as you aren't one of
the family. I had a very nice letter from him the other day--about Guy,
of course--but he seems to feel it rather difficult to look after his
own underclothes, and so on. I don't suppose he has a whole sock to his
name----_'"

Grisel broke off and looked round her audience. "Isn't that just like
Mum?" she said. "I suppose she'll be mending Mrs. Crichell's--no, Mrs.
Walbridge's--things by this time next year."

"I saw Crichell to-day," said Sir John gravely. "The case is down one of
the first in the Trinity term. They've got all the evidence and so on.
Ugh! What a beastly business it is! The woman ought to be whipped; and
as for your father, my dear----" He broke off, and Grisel laughed.

"Oh, go on. Don't spare father. I'm sure I don't mind what you say about
him. Paul saw him dining somewhere with the--lady who has sold herself
as scapegoat. I should think there would be a good deal of money in that
kind of job nowadays. Quite an idea!" she added flippantly.

"Oh, shut up, Grisel." It was Jenny who spoke.

But Grisel sat with the letter on her lap. An idea had occurred to
her--an idea that would have occurred to anyone less self-engrossed than
she many weeks before.

"John," she burst out, "is father still in that office of yours?"

"Yes."

"But--but how can he stay? Wouldn't you rather have him go?"

Barclay came back to his chair. "No," he said quietly. "I prefer to have
him stay."

"But----" She flushed and rose. "But how can he stay and take your money
when you feel about him as you do?"

"It's quite all right, my dear. Business is one thing and friendship
another."

But she over-rode his words. "Nonsense! You only gave him a job--well,
it's a kind of charity now that you're no longer friends."

"Nonsense, Grisel." It was Wick who spoke. "You don't seriously think
that Sir John would have given your father the job unless he knew he was
going to be useful? Business men don't do that kind of thing. Isn't that
right, sir?"

Barclay bowed his head. "Yes. It is your father's knowledge of French
that is of value to me. His domestic difficulties have made no change in
that."

Grisel had forgotten all about little Jenny, with whom she was not very
intimate, and went on rapidly, her pride aflame.

"Is he going to stay on in your--in your employ, then, after his
marriage to that disgusting woman?"

"I hope so. You forget," Barclay added in a grave voice, "that if your
father were not working he would be unable to continue to support your
mother and----" he hesitated a little "you."

She shivered and went to the fire. "I see. Yes, I see," she murmured.
Then she picked up the letter again, and read them a detailed account of
what the doctor had told her mother about Guy's condition. The letter
ended by asking Miss Breeze to take it to "Happy House," as the writer
was too busy to set it all down a second time.

Grisel folded it up, and put it back into the envelope.

"My mother had a note from her," Wick remarked, "two or three days ago,
it was. And she sent Jenny two pairs of gloves. I like to think," he
added, "of her there in Paris running about with the E. V. Lucas under
her arm, seeing things she has always heard of. She also," he added,
"wrote a charming note to Miss Perkins."

"Did she? Has Miss Perkins written to her?"

He nodded. "Yes. She was awfully touched by the letter. So was Mrs.
Perkins. Your mother's promised to go and see them as soon as she gets
home."

Grisel smiled with a touch of condescension. "By the way, as she's so
confined to the house by her mother's health, you might take me to see
her one afternoon. Or--or Sir John would let us go in the car."

Sir John nodded. "Any day you say, my dear."

Wick was terrified for a moment, and then agreed to the proposal with
becoming enthusiasm.

"That _would_ be kind of you," he answered. "I've been longing to
suggest it, but didn't quite like to."

She looked at him sideways, and he saw her knuckles whiten.

"When can you go?" he went on, pursuing his advantage with a beaming
face. "Could you go to-morrow?"

"I'm afraid I've got to go to Derby," Sir John put in. "I'm motoring two
men down on rather important business."

"And on Friday," Grisel added hastily, "I've an engagement."

"What about Saturday?" he insisted, thoroughly enjoying himself.

"Saturday I'm going to be with Maud all day."

He shrugged his shoulders. "There you are! Always busy. But I do want
you to meet Doll. I'm sure you'll like her. She's awfully interested in
you. I think," he added fatuously as his downright little sister stared
at him in amazement approaching open-mouthed astonishment, "she was
inclined to be--well, it sounds ridiculous, but girls are all alike--to
be a little jealous of you just at first, Grisel. But of course that's
all right now."

Grisel tossed her head. "I should think so," she retorted.

Sir John watched them with a puzzled look in his clear eyes. Their talk
seemed to him to be in surprisingly bad taste. He had noticed before
that the subject of Miss Perkins seemed to bring out in them both a
quality that he could not define, but that he greatly disliked, and it
was odd that Grisel at such moments displeased him far more than young
Wick. He was a clear-sighted man who had seen a good deal of the world,
and of course it had not escaped him that Wick must only very recently
have been in love with Grisel, for sometimes he had caught in the young
man's eyes a look that was at least reminiscent of a stronger feeling
than Miss Perkins might have approved of. He felt a mild curiosity about
Miss Perkins, whose photograph he had seen, and whose beauty was
undeniable, and he remembered that the last time Wick had been at the
house he had dropped on the floor, and left, a fat letter in a delicate
grey envelope, addressed in a pretty hand, and that Grisel, who had
found it, remarked, as he propped it up against a brass candlestick:
"Chiswick postmark. Miss Perkins, of course."

Barclay reflected, as he walked home that night, that if it were not for
Miss Perkins he should feel extremely sorry for young Wick. He liked the
boy. He liked him for his initiative and general air of success.
Incidentally he knew through a friend who was high up in the hierarchy
in Fleet Street, of which the head was a man whom Oliver called his
Chief, of this youth's recent and rapid promotion, and the confidential
position to which he had been raised over the heads of dozens of more
experienced and older men. He had said nothing of these things at "Happy
House," and so far as he could judge Oliver was regarded there still as
the unimportant, though pushful reporter, who had been sent to write up
Hermione's wedding in the previous July. Why the young man was
concealing his remarkable advance Barclay had no idea. But he did not
consider it his business to tell what he knew, and even Wick himself had
no idea of his rival's information. "The beautiful Miss Perkins," the
elder man thought, as he walked along in the bright moonlight, "will be
My Lady before she has been married five years, or I'm very much
mistaken."

Meantime, Wick, who now had a room in a little blind alley off Fleet
Street, was toiling upstairs thoroughly tired in every sense. He had
expected Miss Perkins to effect a quicker revolution than she had been
able to do. He was overworked, for the great man who had taken him in
hand was testing him at every point, and things were not being made easy
for him; that was not the great man's way. He had, moreover, to contend
with the very natural jealousy of a good many men at the office, over
whose resentful heads he had been promoted, and their protests were
none the less bitter because they were forced to be silent ones.
Criticism of the Chief's plans, or even whims, were not tolerated in
Fleet Street. Wick found his work hampered and retarded in every
possible way, but he was too clever to speak a word of protest during
his rare but fruitful interviews with the "Boss," whose eyes twinkled as
he asked him each time that they met: "Well, Mr. Wick, things going
well, I hope?" And Wick, knowing that he knew (for he knew everything),
that things were being made damnably hard for him, invariably answered
with a corresponding twinkle and a pugnacious tightening of the lips:
"Top-hole." But now, after this second evening he had spent at "Happy
House" since his return from Paris, he was worn out and discouraged, and
he sat down on the edge of his bed, the moonlight pouring in through the
uncurtained window, and allowed his face to drop and line without
restraint.

"I'll go and see mother to-morrow," he said aloud, "and tell her all
about it. She'll set me right, if I'm settable. The only decent thing in
the whole world is that Mrs. Walbridge is having the time of her life in
Paris, bless her! What a stupid letter!" He took a letter from his
pocket and tossed it on to the dressing-table. "I wonder what they would
say if they could read mine! Ah, well."

As he got into bed and blew out his candle, he groaned heavily. "Damn
Miss Perkins," he said.



CHAPTER XXII


One day in early May Sir John Barclay, who had been lunching at "Happy
House," managed to slip as he went down the steps into the garden and
tore the tendons away from one of his ankles. Grisel telephoned for the
doctor, who bound it up and gave Sir John, who was suffering acute pain,
a quietening draught of some kind, and went away leaving Grisel and her
lover in the dismal drawing-room alone together.

"Did it hurt much?" she asked anxiously.

He nodded, "Yes, ridiculously. It is odd how a little injury like that
can hurt so much more than a good many serious ones." After a moment he
added, looking thoughtfully at her as she moved about setting the room
to rights, "It is exactly the same with mental pain, too, my dear. Ever
noticed that?"

"What do you mean?" She turned at the door, grasping the basin of cold
water in which the bandages had been wetted.

"I mean that some little annoyance or disappointment," he went on
slowly, feeling his way, "often causes one more real discomfort than a
big blow would."

She nodded listlessly. "I suppose so. I'll be back in a minute, John."

The strengthening spring sunshine fell through a window full on his face
as he waited for her to come back, and there was something very
thoughtful and a little sad in his strong blue eyes. In spite of his
white hair he looked very young for his years, and his face, finely
modelled and dignified, held a look of mental clarity and freshness,
that, combined with its dominant expression of quiet energy, was very
striking. But a heat wave had been hovering over London for the last
three days and the humid warmth had tired everyone, and even he looked a
little fagged.

As Grisel came back and drew together the hideous lace curtains that the
doctor had wrenched to the ends of the poles, he said gently:

"This heat is exhausting you, my dear. You look fagged and worn."

"Why not say hideous at once?" she laughed, with a little edge in her
voice and her slim hands moving restlessly as she sat down.

"For two reasons, the first is that you are not looking or never could
look hideous; the second that I am too old and too old-fashioned for the
brutal frankness that seems so popular nowadays." After a moment he
added quietly, "I leave that kind of downrightness to younger men--such
as Oliver Wick."

She started. "Oliver Wick's manners are perfectly abominable, and they
seem to get worse. The beautiful Miss Perkins does not appear to have a
very good influence on him."

John Barclay's blue eyes did not waver from her face.

"And yet," he said, "there is no doubt, at least to my mind, that the
young man is very much in love."

"Oh, he's _always_ very much in love," she retorted, the edge in her
voice sharpening. "Why, it is only nine months ago that he was making a
perfect fool of himself about--about a friend of mine."

Barclay nodded. "Yes, I gathered from something his mother said that
the young lady with the floral name has not the advantage of being his
first love. I suppose the girl--the other girl," he took a cigarette
case from his pocket and lit a cigarette, "didn't care about him."

Grisel rose. "Oh, give me a cigarette. Care about him? I should think
she didn't. He bored the life out of the poor girl with his
scenes--and--and," she struck a match, "his absurd white face."

"Dear me, I should have called him rather brown," commented Sir John
mildly. "Quite a brown young man, I should have said."

"Oh, yes, but he used to turn white, and all those hideous lines in his
face used to look suddenly so sharp and--and so deep."

"Very emotional he must be. You knew the young lady well, then?"

Grisel shot a quick glance at him. "Yes--yes, I did. She was a friend of
mine. She has--she is in South America now."

"I see. But we are digressing. What I started to say was that as you are
looking so tired, and as it is so frightfully hot, and as my foot is
going to make me pretty useless for a few days, suppose we go for a
little motor tour?"

Her face brightened, "Oh yes, let's. Couldn't we go to the sea, John,
I--I think the sea up north somewhere would brace me--I mean all of us
up and make us feel better."

"Good! What do you think of Yorkshire, Whitby or Robinhood Bay? Could
you start to-morrow?"

She flushed with pleasure and came over and kissed his forehead, at
which he smiled a little sadly in his growing wisdom.

"We can get Caroline to go with us," the girl resumed, sitting down on
the sofa and smoothing the shawl which she had spread over his bandaged
foot. "Poor old Caroline, she never gets any pleasure, and she will love
it."

"I think perhaps you had better ring up Jackson" (he gave the number)
"and tell him to get the car ready for a long run to-morrow; and if you
and Paul don't mind, and will put me up to-night, you might tell Jackson
to send Bob up with my clothes and things. It would not hurt this foot
to be perfectly quiet till we start, and Bob can make the compresses,
and bandage it, as well as any doctor."

After a little pause she answered, "Yes, that would be splendid. You can
have mother's room, and Bob can sleep in--in the dressing-room. Shall I
go and tell Caroline?"

"No, go and telephone." He repeated the number. "Better get Jackson at
once. By the way, Miss Perkins' young man will be coming in this
afternoon, won't he?"

She nodded, "Yes, oh dear, I had forgotten. He and Jenny are coming to
dinner. Paul has a lot of new Russian music----"

Barclay sat there and listened to her pretty voice at the telephone, the
thoughtful look in his face deepening though not saddening, and when she
came back he asked her abruptly if she thought Paul and Jenny Wick were
falling in love with each other.

She stood in a pool of sunlight on the other side of the mantelpiece,
twisting the ruby on her finger. She had grown a little thin during the
hot weather, and her slight, graceful figure looked almost too
unsubstantial in the little dove coloured frock.

"Paul and Jenny?" she murmured, "I don't know, John, I have been
wondering myself."

"Would you--would you like it if they did?" he asked.

"I don't know. I like Jenny very much; she is too good for Paul,
really."

He nodded, "Yes, I see what you mean, but on the other hand she draws
out the very best that there is in the boy."

"Paul is not a boy, he's thirty."

"Thirty is boyhood to fifty-three," he answered smiling. "I like the
little lady with her edible looking curls, and her music is _real_
music, based on the best things in her; music is no good at all when it
is built only on the emotions. Of course, if they do marry, the
energetic journalist would be almost a member of the family--he and his
wife."

Grisel laughed and gave a comic shiver. "Oh dear, oh dear, then I should
have to live cheek and jowl with perfection; it would be dreadful."

"By that time, dear," he said gravely, "you and I will not be living
exactly cheek and jowl with anyone at 'Happy House.'"

"No, no, of course not. I was only thinking"--she broke off a little
confused, and he laughed.

"Oh, John," she said, "you are such a dear and I am so fond of you! You
always make everything so much nicer--and so much easier to bear."

As she spoke Jessie came in with the tea tray, and when she had gone
out, and Grisel was pouring out the tea with sudden gaiety and high
spirits, Barclay went on as if they had not been interrupted:

"That sounds almost as if you had things to bear."

Her eyes darkened. "Well, haven't I? After all, it's not very pleasant
to have one's own father make such a ridiculous fool of himself as my
father is doing. I suppose you saw that article in the _Express_
yesterday?"

He nodded, "Yes, a very decent little article; the papers have behaved
very well on the whole, considering that he is, well--your mother's
husband."

She looked at him blankly and then understood. "Oh, mother's books you
mean! Yes, I suppose that does make it a little better known, the
divorce business, I mean--poor mother!"

"Why poor mother, Grisel?"

"The books, you know," she returned vaguely, stirring her tea.
"They--they are so awful, John."

"Are they?"

She nodded. "Yes. So old-fashioned and sentimental and utterly unreal. I
have not been able to get through one for years."

"Haven't you?" he answered reflectively. "I read one the other day, and,
thanks I suppose to my own old-fashionedness and sentimentality, I quite
liked it."

"Not really! What was it?"

"It was called, I think, 'The Under Secretary.'"

She nodded, "Yes, that's one of the best ones, and you know it used to
be very popular. The later ones are awful, and, oh, John," the girl's
beautiful face was filled with real sympathy, "'Lord Effingham' was
perfectly dreadful--you know she tried to modernise it--you never read
such hopeless stuff in your life."

"Yes, I looked at that one day somewhere. It struck me as being very
pathetic, Grisel."

She shrugged her shoulders. "I suppose so, but then lots of other
writers have changed with the times--advanced I mean--only mother seems
to have stuck back in the eighties somewhere. It is not so much that her
stories are bad," she went on with an air of disinterested criticism
that rather jarred on her hearer, "it is the way she tells them that is
so--so hopelessly out of fashion. Why just look at Marjory Brendon, and
Miss Thirsk and Eugene and Olive Parker, their books are just as
hopeless as mother's from a _literary_ point of view, but they sell like
anything because they're modern."

"Yes, I am not much of a novel reader," he said, "and when I do read a
novel I like the old ones, Dickens and Thackeray and so on, but I must
say I do not see much of the modern ones that are considered literary.
The two or three I have struck have been either deadly dull in their
wealth of utterly unattractive details, or so filthy that they ought to
be burnt; that book Paul lent me, for instance, 'Reek,' is not fit for
any decent young woman to read."

Grisel nodded, "Yes, it is horrid. I began it, but mother wouldn't let
me finish it. I love 'Haycocks,' don't you?"

He shook his head. "No. Of course it is beautifully written, but people
with such undeveloped minds and such lack of knowledge of anything
except turnips and sheep, don't interest me."

"That is the one my mother likes. Yes, I know what you mean about the
turnips," the girl added thoughtfully, "but I suppose it is a perfect
picture of the lives of such people. It is selling splendidly. I like
'Bess Knighthood' better, only I don't believe any family could be so
horrid to each other. Yet it is told in an odd, attractive way. Mother
couldn't bear it, yet it got the 1,000 dollar prize. 'Young Bears at
Play' was the book I liked best of all. Oliver gave us those two, and I
laughed till I was limp over it. Betterton is a funny man."

They talked on and on very pleasantly, very cosily, and as the draught
given him by the doctor began to take effect Barclay's eyes grew heavy
and his voice gradually softer; finally his head fell back against the
pillow and he slept.

Grisel sat for some time looking at him in his unconsciousness, and it
seemed to the girl that she was really seeing for the first time this
man who was to be her husband. She studied his face closely; its well
marked eyebrows and strong serene mouth; a good face it was, she saw,
the best of faces. And then she gave a little shiver and rose, for
somehow the intimacy of the little scene was painful to her.

After a minute she went quietly out of the room and down into the
garden. A little wind had risen as the sun began to go down, and the
leaves in the big elm tree were stirring with small, brisk sounds, as if
they, too, felt better for the coolness. The sky was unusually bright in
its hard blueness, and the two lilac bushes, one purple and the other
white, that had been gently grilling all day, sent out strong waves of
sweetness as they swayed in the freshening air. Grisel Walbridge sat
down on the steps and gazed out across the garden. One or two of the
earlier rose bushes were starred with half-open buds, and a patch of
some intensely yellow flower in one of the pathetic herbaceous borders
caught her eye--so yellow it was that it looked like a pool of
concentrated light--an altar of sunshine, the girl thought absently.
Then her mind went back to the sleeping man in the drawing-room. "How
handsome he looked," she said to herself resolutely. "How kind his face
is, and how strong. I certainly am a very lucky girl." Yet somehow she
seemed to know better than ever before what it was she was really doing
in marrying this kind powerful man. Strong and placid and handsome as he
undoubtedly was, the relaxation of sleep had revealed one thing very
clearly to her. His face was as smooth, and more unlined than that of
many much younger men whom she knew--the flesh looked firm and sound,
and the muscles were shapely and did not sag, but she moved restlessly
and leaning her head against the handrail on which a climbing rose had
swung its first clumps of thick pink blossom. "He's old," she said,
"old." In her security of perfect solitude she had, without knowing it,
spoken aloud, and Oliver Wick, who had come down the passage
noiselessly, on rubber-soled tennis shoes, heard her, without her having
heard him, and for several minutes he stood in the doorway quite
motionless, his white flannelled figure sharply outlined against the
inner darkness, his tennis racquet in his hand, listening, as it seemed
to him, to the repeated echo of her words. They seemed to go on for a
long time, the words, "He is old--he is old."

Presently he tiptoed back into the house and a moment later came
bounding out into the sunshine very noisily, so noisily that she turned
with an irritated frown, and on her seeing who it was her frown
deepened. "Oh, it is you," she said ungraciously, "I thought you were
coming to _dinner_, you and Jenny."

"We are; Jenny is spending the night with Mrs. Gaskell-Walker, and I am
at the Catherwoods."

"I see. Will you come upstairs? Sir John is asleep in the drawing-room.
He has sprained his ankle and is asleep."

Wick expressed proper regret at the accident, but declined to go in.

"I have a message for you," he went on, sitting down, pulling up the
knees of his trousers, "from Dorothy. She's awfully sorry to have missed
you on Tuesday."

"Yes, I was sorry too, but I thought you quite understood that I was
going to tea with Hermione."

He shook his head. "No, I muddled it somehow, fool that I am. And about
Monday, I am afraid it is no good after all, for she is going to
Birmingham to see her grandmother, who is ill. She had a wire while I
was there last night."

"Oh, I am sorry," Grisel said stiffly, picking a cluster of pink roses
and smelling them. "I hope the old lady will soon be better."

Mr. Wick had apparently great faith in the recuperative powers of his
betrothed's grandmother.

"Oh, she'll be all right; they are a splendidly healthy family, the
Wandsworths. It is her _mother's_ mother, you see."

Grisel looked at him. "Mrs. Perkins herself does not seem to be like the
rest of them, then," she suggested maliciously.

He did not flinch. "No, poor thing, she's the exception that proves the
rule. She's always bemoaning it. However, they are trying massage now, a
peculiar kind of massage and dumb-bells, and I really believe it is
going to do her good."

Grisel nodded indifferently. "I hope so, I am sure. Have you been
playing tennis?"

"Yes, Joan Catherwood and I had four sets. She beat me hollow, too. How
pretty these roses are!"

She nodded. "Yes, aren't they; I love them." Then she stroked her cheek
with a pretty cluster as if it had been a powder puff.

Wick picked a bunch and smelt it.

"Lovely things," he murmured in a rather maudlin voice. "I am glad you
like them, Grisel."

"Glad? Why?"

His small eyes looked at her reproachfully.

"My dear girl," he said, "don't you understand, don't you realise why
they are my favourite flowers?"

She stared for a moment and then rose impatiently.

"Oh, of course, 'Dorothy Perkins,'" she said shortly. "Come along in,
it's too hot here."

As he followed her, Mr. Wick treated himself to a silent chuckle, and
kicked over the edge of the veranda the clump of roses she had dropped.



CHAPTER XXIII


Caroline Breeze's diary at this time contained several items that bear
on the history of that year at "Happy House." Miss Breeze had indeed
been glad to chaperon Griselda to Yorkshire, and the journey and short
stay there was to her delightful in every respect.

"Sir John," she wrote on one occasion, "is the most chivalrous man, his
manners are perfectly beautiful. One would think by his politeness to me
that it must be me he was engaged to (which, of course, in point of
years might be considered more suitable), and not Grisel at all. He
behaves as if she was not exactly a daughter, but a niece he was very
fond of."

In another place she gives way to reflection about Grisel herself. "A
very much spoiled girl. I suppose her winter with the Fords at Torquay
has turned her head a little, for I am sure she never used to be so
changeable and hard to please. She is almost fretful sometimes and dear
Sir John is so patient with her. He is a wonderful man. He seems to have
taken a great fancy to that tiresome Mr. Wick, and he has invited him
down here for Sunday. (This was written at Whitby.) I am sorry he is
coming and so is Grisel. She told me yesterday that he bores her to
death. It rather surprises me, for he never struck me as exactly a
bore."

Then a little later she describes the visit.

"Mr. Wick has been to Weston-super-Mare to see Miss Perkins, who is
there with some friends, after nursing her grandmother. Grisel was
quite cross with him and although, of course, one sympathises with the
young man's raptures about his sweetheart, I must admit he rather rubs
her in--Miss Perkins, I mean.

"Sir John seems very much interested in Miss Perkins, and, if she had
come to Scarborough as she intended at first, he was going to take us
over in the car to see her. I am quite sorry her friends decided to go
to Weston-super-Mare instead, for I should love to see her. They are
going to be married in November, and really Mr. Wick's expression when
he talks about her is very nearly ridiculous."

A week later the diary goes on:

"We are going back to-morrow, for Paul has had a wire from dear Violet,
saying they are leaving Cauterets and coming to Paris on their way home.
I shall be glad to see Violet, it seems years since she went. Oliver is
going to bring them back from Paris, where he has gone in connection
with the signing of the Peace. Miss Perkins has written a charming
letter to Grisel; she must be a lovely girl.

"Grisel and Sir John are to be married in October, as he has to go to
the Argentine at the end of that month and she wants to go with him. I
hope the change will do her good, for she really looks ill and doesn't
seem at all herself."

Mr. Wick about this time writes to his mother from Paris.

     "_It was wildly successful, but I nearly broke down a dozen times,
     sometimes into a roar of laughter and sometimes into tears of pity.
     She does so hate my poor Dorothy, mother, she is as jealous as a
     Turk and so in love with me that I wonder everyone in the world
     doesn't see it, but they don't. I rather had some doubts about Sir
     John once or twice, he is no fool, and I have caught him looking at
     me in a rather understanding way. He displays an almost suspicious
     interest in my young woman. I made a little slip and had her headed
     for Scarborough, but I saw in his eyes a plan for driving us all
     over there to see her, so I had Billy Barnes wire me from
     Birmingham that their plans were changed and I packed them all off
     to Weston-super-Mare, a place that I am sure Dorothy would enjoy if
     she really existed._

      "_There is only one thing, mother dear, that disturbs me at all,
      and that is Sir John Barclay. He is a splendid old fellow and I am
      afraid he is going to be upset over our marriage. However, that
      can't be helped, and after all a man of his age has no real right
      to romance! That belongs to us_"--and so on and so on.

On the morning after her return Grisel came downstairs to find a
telegram just being handed in at the door. It was addressed to her and
announced that her mother and brother would arrive that night. It was
from Wick, dated Paris. She was a little late that morning, and Paul had
nearly finished his breakfast when she opened the dining-room door.

"They are coming to-night, Paul," she said. "This wire has just come
from Oliver."

Paul slew a wasp on the edge of his jam-baited plate and then took the
telegram.

"Good!" he said. "I shall be glad to see them, and Guy will like those
new songs of mine; we must get Jenny to come in to-morrow night and I
will sing them."

She sat down.

"You like Jenny very much, don't you?" she asked gently.

He looked up, his clever face, sometimes so highly repellent, almost
tender.

"Jenny is a dear," he declared, "she is the best accompanist I have ever
had and her taste of music is perfect."

Grisel, who had poured out her coffee, leaned her chin on her clasped
hands and looked at him thoughtfully.

"It is not only the music, you know," she said, "I think it is her
kindness that I like so much. Although she is so little and quick, her
mind always seems to jump towards the nice things in people instead of
like us--we always jump towards the faults. Instinctively, we seem to,
don't we, Paul?"

He was silent for a moment, apparently studying with deep interest the
remains of the wasp on his plate.

"Yes, I suppose we do. You and I and Hermione certainly do. We get that
from our beautiful father, no doubt. Mother and Maud are different, but
then, of course Jenny Wick has had a great pull in her mother. Mrs. Wick
is a fine old----" he paused, and added gravely, "_fellow_. That's what
she is like, a fine old man, whereas our father was always like a
spoilt, and--_not_ fine--woman. By the way," he suddenly felt in his
pocket. "I had a letter from father last night. He seems to be in
trouble of some kind."

"He would." Grisel answered indifferently. "Perhaps Clara Crichell is
sick of him; I should think she would be by this time."

Paul tossed the letter to her across the table.

"All she ever saw in him was his looks," he answered, "and he is looking
particularly handsome just now--or was three weeks ago. Barclay keeps
him pretty busy and he is on the water wagon, so as far as his beauty
goes he is flourishing like a rose."

Grisel opened the letter, which was written in pencil on a half sheet of
paper.

     "_Dear Paul_," it said, "_let me know when your mother is coming
     back, as I must see her. What on earth is she doing in Paris so
     long? They say everything is frightfully expensive there now._

      "_Thanks for sending me my bathing suit, I have had one or two
      good swims and feel the better for them. I have been trying to
      find new rooms. This is an awful hole I am in, but London is so
      full of those beastly Colonials and Americans that I cannot get in
      anywhere._

      "_Is Grisel all right? I saw her sitting in Sir John's car in
      front of Solomons the other day, but she did not see me._ I WAS ON
      A BUS. _I thought she looked seedy. Do write and tell me the news,
      and mind you let me know as soon as you know when your mother and
      Guy are coming back; it really strikes me as very odd her
      galloping about France like this at her age._

  "_Your affectionate father_,
  "FERDINAND WALBRIDGE."

"Characteristic, isn't it?" Paul asked.

She nodded. "Yes, very. Something has happened to upset him. Wouldn't it
be awful, Paul," she added, unconscious of any oddity in her speech, "if
Clara chucked him after all and we had to take him back!"

"Take him back, indeed!"

"Yes, mother would, you know, if he came to grief."

He rose. "Not while I'm alive, she won't," he said, with the amazing
firmness of the powerless. "Well, I must be off. I will send up some
flowers if I can find any that are not a guinea a bloom." He hesitated
and turned at the door. "Will you ring up Jenny and say they are coming,
or shall I? They might dine instead of to-morrow----"

"You don't want Jenny here the first night they are back, do you?"

"Well, yes; to-morrow would be better, of course, but I have just
remembered that I have an engagement to-morrow. Mother likes
Jenny--she's never in anybody's way--and it will cheer Guy up to hear
some music after his journey."

He went out, leaving his sister smiling over the peculiar and highly
characteristic logic of his last speech. How like Paul! She knew that
Oliver Wick would be sure to come straight to "Happy House" with his
charges, because there was luggage to be seen to and carried up, and a
thousand little matters to be settled before he went off to Brondesbury,
so it would be after all only natural for him to stay and have a bit of
dinner before he went on to Brondesbury, and as for Jenny, she was
staying, as she so often did, with Joan Catherwood.

Barclay, who was going away in a day or two, was to have taken her out
to dinner, but she rang him up at his office and asked him to dine at
"Happy House" instead, he being, as she told herself with decision, one
of the family. She gave the number and after the usual delay a voice
from the office answered her.

"Hallo, yes, you wish to speak to Sir John. Who is it, please?"

Grisel started, for it was her father's voice speaking to her.

"It is Miss----" she began nervously, and then making a face at herself,
she went on, "It is Grisel, father. Is John there?"

Ferdie Walbridge's soft voice had an unmistakable thrill in it as he
spoke again.

"Oh, it is you, dear! How are you, Grisel, and when is mother--I mean
your mother--coming home?"

"They are coming to-night; Paul had a wire this morning from Mr. Wick."

There was a little pause and she could almost see her father's
beautiful, self-indulgent face sharpen for a moment with surprise. He
had a way at such moments of catching his underlip sharply back with his
white teeth, and inflating his nostrils. This she knew he was doing now.

"To-night! Dear me, I hope they will have had a good crossing." Then he
added pitifully, "Dear me, Grisel, is it not--strange--that I should not
be there when they come?"

Grisel laughed. "Well, really, father!" she said.

"Oh, I know, I know. Of course, it is all my own fault," he was playing
on his voice now, and it was very pleasant to hear, although she
despised him for doing it. "But when you are my age, my child, you will
know that habit is a great thing and that old ties are not easily
broken."

"I know that already," she snapped, "I thought it was you who didn't."

After a pause, feeling that he was about to become lyrical, she cut him
short by asking pleasantly:

"How are--the Crichells?"

There was a pause and then he nobly replied:

"Poor Crichell, for whom I am very sorry, is coming back to-day. He has
been in Scotland and--er--Mrs. Crichell----"

"Oh, don't mind me, father, call her Clara," she interrupted, conscious
of and quite horrified by her own bad taste, and yet somehow unable to
keep back the words.

"Thank you, my dear. _Clara_ is staying with some friends in
Herefordshire."

"Well," she went on with a change of tone, "will you tell John I am
here, and want to speak to him?"

Again she could almost see her father gazing at her with noble reproach.

"I will tell him," he said with magnificent rhythm and throb in his
voice, "I will tell him, my child, that you are here----"

Then, knowing that he would add "God bless you," she snatched the
receiver from her ear and held it against her hip so as not to hear the
words.

During the morning Caroline Breeze came in to see how her recent
travelling companion felt after their journey. The summer winds and sun
that had been so kind to Griselda, painting her delicate face with
mellow brown and dusky crimson, had attacked poor Caroline's plain old
countenance with unkind vehemence. Her lashless eyes looked red and raw,
like Marion's nose in Shakespeare, and her thin and unusual
cartilaginous nose was not only painted scarlet, but highly varnished as
well and there were two little patches on her cheeks that were peeling;
but the good creature had no envy or even the mildest resentment at fate
in her long, narrow body. She was delighted to see the girl looking
brighter, and happier, and gave vent to a curious noise, nearly like a
crow, over the news of the arrival.

"Oh dear," she kept repeating, rubbing her dry hands together with a
rough scrape, "I shall be glad to see Violet--I _shall_ be glad to see
Violet," and then she went down into the kitchen to undertake all the
more tiresome errands that must be done in order to achieve a really
brilliant reception for the travellers.

Grisel was busy all day in a pleasant, unwearying manner. She filled her
mother's room with flowers out of the garden and arranged those sent by
Paul in the glasses for the table.

In the afternoon Jenny Wick arrived, with a basket of green peas that
had been sent to her mother by a friend in the country and that Mrs.
Wick had sent on as a little present to the "Happy House" people.

Late in the afternoon the cook, who was Grisel's devoted slave, being
very busy with some elaborate confections in the kitchen, the two girls
sat on the back steps where the Dorothy Perkins roses would, before
long, be in their full glory, and shelled the peas, each with a big blue
check apron over her frock.

"I guess this is the first time that ruby has ever shelled peas," Jenny
exclaimed after a while. "It _is_ a beauty, Grisel."

Grisel nodded, and her utter indifference struck the other girl.

"Funny," she remarked shrewdly, "how easily one gets used to things. You
were nearly off your head about that ruby at first, weren't you, and now
you don't care a bit about it."

"Oh, yes I do. It is very beautiful, but--well, that's just as you say.
One does get used to things--some things that is," she added sombrely.

Jenny, whose little cream-coloured face was peppered all over with large
pale freckles, like the specks in _eau de vie de Dantzig_, added a
handful of peas to the pan, that glittered like silver in the bright
sun.

"It's grand that people do get used to things," she reflected, screwing
up her little nose, "almost as good as getting _over_ things. Oh,
Grisel, do you remember how miserable poor Olly used to be about you?"

"Nonsense! He thought he was, but he wasn't, really."

"You don't know. He was frightfully unhappy. Mother and I were worried
to death----"

Grisel laughed. "Poor fellow. But anyhow it didn't last very long, did
it?"

"No, but it would have done," Jenny agreed with a shrewd shake of her
curls, "if Dorothy had not come along."

"We were going over to see 'Dorothy,' if she had come to Scarborough."

"Yes, it was tiresome, their going to that other place. Oliver has been
having such fun in Paris choosing an engagement ring for her; he has got
a beauty, he says, a very old one. An emerald with diamonds around it."

The two girls were intimate enough for Grisel to be able without
rudeness to exclaim at the obvious expensiveness of this choice.

"Yes, of course, it is," Jenny agreed, "but naturally he would want to
give her something worth while."

Grisel glanced at her big ruby and went on shelling peas.



CHAPTER XXIV


The various preparations for the dinner that night turned out, however,
to be more or less in vain, for the travellers were delayed and did not
reach the house until nearly ten o'clock. Dinner had been arranged for
eight, and when half past eight had struck Grisel rang and sent word to
cook that they would not wait any longer.

"The cook," she explained to Sir John, "is a sensitive soul and very
particular about having _her_ things ruined by waiting."

Sir John laughed. "Well, I am glad, for my part I'm hungry. The sea air
has given me a furious appetite."

Little Jenny Wick looked at him thoughtfully. She did not think him
looking well and her bright eyes revealed the thought.

He smiled down at her. "I know what you are thinking, Miss Jenny," he
said, as if speaking to a child. "The heat has fagged me a little, but
I'm really very well. How is your mother?" he added, for he and old Mrs.
Wick had struck up a great friendship and more than once he had taken
her for long rides in his car by himself.

Although she was the mother of so young a girl as Jenny, Mrs. Wick was
several years older than her new friend, and treated him rather in an
elder-sisterly way that had a great charm for him whose people had been
dead for years, and who at "Happy House" was so very much the elder of
everyone.

So now he was glad to hear that Mrs. Wick was well, and looking forward
to seeing him before long.

"We must have a long spin some day before I go away," he answered. "I
always enjoy a talk with your mother."

Jenny nodded. "So does she with you, Sir John."

"She's so glad Olly is coming back she doesn't know what to do with
herself," the girl added, giving a little shake in a bird-like way to
her pretty frilly frock, as she rose to go in to dinner. "The way she
prefers that boy to me is simply scandalous."

Barclay laughed. "You look ill-treated. I suppose," he added as they
crossed the hall _en masse_, "Miss Perkins will be very glad, too, if
she is back yet, that is from Weston-super-Mare!"

"Yes, she and her mother and father are at Bury St. Edmunds now, with
some relations of Mr. Perkins. Mother went down the other day and spent
a couple of nights, but they could not put me up."

The dinner was rather silent, for everyone was disappointed by the
non-arrival of the travellers. Paul, who was in good form and the happy
temper that Jenny Wick's presence always produced in him, did most of
the talking, for he was intensely interested in a lot of new songs,
Russian and Spanish, that he had just got and, with the naïvete that was
in his case, as it so often is, only a form of selfishness, he assumed
that everyone else was as deeply interested as he was.

Grisel, who had not seen her lover that day until he arrived rather late
for dinner, told him in a low voice of her talk with her father on the
telephone.

"He really was upset about something," she added at the end of the
story. "Of course, he was not so upset as he seemed, but there _is_
something wrong, I'm sure. I believe mother would take him back if Clara
Crichell did not marry him after all."

"What on earth makes you think that she won't marry him?" he asked,
puzzled. "No woman alive would go through all this business of the
divorce and the publicity unless she really cared for the man."

Grisel shrugged her thin shoulders. "Oh, well, I don't know. You see, we
know him so well that I suppose we instinctively fear she may have got
to know him and--and--not liked what she has learnt."

It struck Barclay as a very sad thing for a man that his own daughter
should judge him in this unrancorous but pitiless way.

"I rather like your father, you know," he said slowly, "in some ways. He
is very much nicer away from home than he is in it."

"He must be," she answered, with the charity of utter indifference. "He
must be charming somewhere, and he certainly isn't when he is here!"

"It struck me the last time I saw him," Barclay went on slowly, "that he
was not--very happy. I suppose he misses your mother."

Grisel stirred, and he hastened to explain.

"Oh, yes, I mean just that--misses your mother. She has taken care of
him for years, you know, and I don't imagine Mrs. Crichell would be as
patient with his moods and vagaries as your mother has always been."

Then suddenly the memory of her father in his less pleasant phases swept
over Grisel, and her face was grim and tight as she answered:

"No, and I hope she isn't! His hot milk last thing at night, and his
four grades of underclothing, and his trouser-pressing machines, and
his indigestion! His hot bottles in the middle of the night every time
he's dined too well, and poor mother poking around in the kitchen
heating kettles on the gas-ring! Oh, no, Mrs. Crichell won't much _like_
that side of her beau sabreur, as she calls him."

After dinner, as they walked in the garden, Sir John told her that he
had met Walter Crichell that morning.

"The poor wretch looks miserably unhappy," he said. "Those white hands
of his look--look shrunken in their skin--rather as if he had kid gloves
on."

Grisel shuddered. "Ugh! his hands are loathsome! After all," she added a
moment later, staring at a rose-bush, "there is no reason why the poor
wretch should be hurt like this just because he has horrid hands! Oh!
John," she cried, catching his arm almost as if she were frightened,
"what an awful lot of misery there is in the world."

He covered her small hand with his big, strong, brown one.

"Yes, dear, there is. A great deal of it is inevitable and has to be
borne, but the other kind--the kind that can be avoided--ought always, I
think, to be avoided. It is right that it _should_ be avoided."

She loosed his arm and looked up at him as they walked on.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that when people find they have made mistakes--and everyone does
find that once in a while--I think that no consideration of pride or
advantage ought to stand in the way of open confession and restoration."

There was a little pause.

"You are thinking about mother and father. You mean that if Mrs.
Crichell finds she has been mistaken, she ought to say so and go back to
her husband, even though people laughed at her for it."

"No, I was not thinking of the Crichells or your father."

The great heat had gathered masses of thick, quilted-looking clouds over
London, and nervous little spurts of wind startled the trees every now
and then and stirred the heavy-headed roses. The air smelt of dust and
drying vegetation.

Grisel looked up. "There's going to be a storm," she said. "Shall we go
in?"

"If you like, dear; but the storm won't break yet awhile. Though," he
stood looking up at the sky for a moment, his thick white hair moving,
she thought, just as the leaves on the trees moved in the spasmodic
wind, "there is going to be one."

They went slowly into the drawing-room, although the others were
upstairs, and Paul's beautiful voice was already heard trying one of the
new songs.

"Let's stay here," he suggested. "It's cooler on this side of the house,
and I don't feel inclined for music to-night."

"Neither do I," she said, "but Paul does, so we shall have it! Yes, it
is cool in here. Give me a cigarette, John, will you?"

He did so, and they sat in almost unbroken silence, smoking. Presently
the door-bell rang, and voices were heard outside.

"That's Moreton and Maud," Griselda explained, without rising. "They
have motored up from Burnham Beeches to see Guy."

"You ought to go up to them, oughtn't you?" he asked gently.

"No; they will be all right, and they'll love hearing the songs, and
Paul will tell them we are in the garden." Again they were silent.

The air was extremely oppressive in spite of the rising wind, and
Grisel's head ached faintly. Every now and then one of the long lace
curtains would blow into the room and writhe about as if reaching for
something, to sink back listlessly into its place.

"How heavy the scent of those lilacs is," the girl said after a while,
glancing at a big bowl of them on the table, and Barclay raised his head
suddenly, with a new look in his face.

"Yes; that brings back to me a story that I've been thinking of telling
you. I think I will tell you now, Grisel," he said. "Something that
happened in my youth. My father was a parson, and there were six of us
children. My mother died when I was about eight, and an old aunt of
ours, my father's sister, came and lived with us and brought us up. She
was a good woman, absolutely without imagination, and she looked rather
like Miss Breeze. When I think of my Aunt Susan I always see her behind
a kind of barricade of baskets full of mending of all kinds. She spent
the greater part of her life with a boy's stocking drawn up over her
left arm and a needle full of wool in her right hand. She did her best
by us, poor woman, but she bored us, every one, and I suppose she could
not have been very wise about our health, because before I left home
four of us had died, two--the twins, who had never been very strong--of
pneumonia, and the other two of diphtheria. It is not very interesting,
but it explains just a little the way I felt that day----" He broke
off.

"I was just twenty-one," he went on, smiling at her, "an awkward colt of
a boy, too big for my clothes, and too hungry for my father's income,
and one day my sister Celia, the only other one of us who lived to grow
up----"

"I know--the one who died in New Zealand."

"Yes. Well, one day Celia and I went up to Coops Hall, our nearest
neighbours, some people named Fenwick, to plan tennis. It was a day like
yesterday, very sunny and hot, and it must have been about this time of
the year, because the white lilacs--a great clump of them of which Mrs.
Fenwick was very proud--were in full bloom, and the air thick with their
scent."

He glanced at the bowl on the table as he spoke.

"I remember perfectly well how I felt as we came up the incline of the
lawn to the tulip trees where two or three hammocks were slung and where
the Fenwick girls and their brother were sitting. That is one of the
moments in my life of which I can still always recapture the very
_feel_." After a moment he went on. "She was standing, leaning on a
croquet mallet, with her sideface towards me. Her left profile, which
was always better than the right--and still is for that matter----" He
smiled, his face singularly sweetening at the thought.

"But, John!" the girl cried in amazement, "you romantic old thing, you
are telling me a love story!"

He looked at her gravely. "I am, my dear. The only love story I ever had
until I met you."

She shrank back in her big chair as if drawing away from a too close
physical touch, and he went on.

"She wore a blue and white striped dress, as it used to be called in
those days, bunched up at the back over a bustle, and, oh dear me, how
her hair shone in the sun! It was rather a saintly face," he went on
after a moment, "but the hair was the hair of a siren, full of waves and
tendrils, and bewitching high lights and shades. Well, I was introduced
to her, and we played croquet together, and then we had tea. And that
was all. Did you ever read a little poem, 'There is a lady sweet and
kind'?"

She shook her head. "No, John. You know I don't like poetry much."

"Well, listen. I don't remember the exact words, but it's like this:

  "'There is a lady sweet and kind,
  Was never face so pleased my mind;
  I did but seeing her pass by,
  And yet I loved her until I die.

  "'Cupid has wounded and doth range
  Her country and she my love doth change;
  But change the earth and change the sky,
  But still will I love her till I die.'

"Well, my dear, I was exactly like that romantic youth. For over a
quarter of a century my mind remained perfectly true to the memory of
that sad-faced girl in the garden. She came once to my father's rectory,
and we played tennis, and after that I didn't see her again for over
thirty years."

Grisel watched him with wide, fascinated eyes, as if he was someone she
had never seen before. She was trying to do what is so hard for a young
person to do--look back into an old person's youth and really see that
youth face to face.

"Why was she unhappy?" she asked as he paused and very slowly lit
another cigarette.

"Oh, that, too, was a romance. Hers, just as she was mine. She had been
sent to the Fenwicks to try to distract her mind and draw her away from
a young man to whom she was attached."

"Did you ever tell her that you had fallen in love with her?"

"Good heavens, no! I was not a lover. I was a worshipper, and she was so
beautiful, so perfect----" He broke off. "Ah, my dear, that's the kind
of love that's worth having."

She watched him, her face changing to one of less detached curiosity.

"Dear me, John," she said, "you alarm me, for this kind of love is
certainly not what you give me."

She laughed, but he looked at her very seriously.

"No," he said, "it is not. I give you the best I have got, but it is not
much for a young creature like you."

She flushed, and her face contracted for a second.

"Oh, I hope you don't think I am ungrateful," she stammered.

He shook his head. "No, it is only that I'm wondering if it was not
wrong of me to persuade you to accept--so little."

"But, John, I----"

"Wait a moment, Grisel. I have been thinking about this for a long time
now, and this seems the right moment to say it. Hallo! it's raining!" he
broke off, looking out of the window.

"It has been raining for a long time," she said dully. "Go on, please."

The air, quickened by the quiet rush of water, came in refreshingly at
the window, and the music upstairs had ceased, so that the silence was
very perfect.

"I think," Barclay went on, looking at her with a reassuring
smile, "that it is my duty to advise you to think it all over
again--everything."

"Oh, John," she faltered, "this is my fault. It is because I have been
dull and moody. You think I'm ungrateful. You _must_ think I am, but,
indeed, I am not."

"Any marriage that is based on gratitude," he said sharply, leaning
forward in the gloom, "is bound to go smash. I mean exactly what I say,
Grisel: you must think it all over again. I have told you the truth; you
know just how I feel, and, of course, you have known all along that you
do not love me as"--he rose and came slowly towards her--"as, say, Miss
Perkins presumably loves Wick."

She stood facing him with quickened breath. "Miss Perkins has nothing to
do with it, John," she said with a quiet dignity that touched him. "If
you wish to break our engagement, I--I am quite willing to let you do
so, of course, but _I_ don't wish to break it." She turned and went out
of the room.

He went to the window and stood looking out into the delightful rain; he
could smell fresh leaves and revived flowers; the very smell of wet dust
was pleasant.

For a long time he stood there, going over in his mind the scene that
had just passed. It struck him as very odd that Grisel had not guessed
that the girl in his story had been her mother. He could not, in his
well-balanced middle age, realise the savage strength of her youthful
egotism. It seemed strange to him, but it was very plain, that the only
interest in his story lay, to her, in the fact that it explained why he
had not much left to give her--_her_. The story itself seemed to her, he
could see, as remote as if its actors had been contemporaries of Noah.
It was too far off for her to feel it. Quite different, however, it had
been when he mentioned Miss Perkins' name. Half anxiously he had hoped
by mentioning Miss Perkins to precipitate the crisis that he felt to be
on its way, but nothing happened. His gun had missed fire.

"I shall have to have a talk with Mrs. Walbridge," he said to himself at
last as the clock struck half-past nine. "Something has got to be done,
poor little thing----" Then he went upstairs and joined the others.



CHAPTER XXV


When the taxi drew up at the gate, Maud and Paul and Grisel ran
downstairs.

Moreton Twiss, who was reading and smoking in the corner, did not come
to the window, and Barclay and Jenny leaned out in the wet, watching the
little scene of greeting in the glistening band of light from the open
door.

Finally the house door was banged, and the taxi drove away.

"Shall we go down?" Jenny asked, dancing with excitement. "I do so want
to see Guy!"

"I think we had better wait where we are. If they want us they will come
up here or send for us. Look here, Miss Wick," Barclay went on, struck
by a sudden idea, "I am worried about Grisel. What do you think of her?"

Jenny, whose face was contradictory in that it was at once the face of
an elf, and of a very practical modern girl, sat down on the back of a
chesterfield and looked at him thoughtfully.

"I have been wondering," she said after a pause, "if you noticed it
too."

"Oh, then you _have_ seen?"

"Seen? Why, of course. I have never seen anyone change so in my life.
Everybody says she looks so much better for being at the sea, but she
does not. That's nothing but sunburn, and she is as thin as a herring
and as nervous"--she broke off, looking round for a simile--"as a wild
cat. I was speaking to my brother about her only the other day."

"Ah!" Something in Sir John's voice struck her, and again she looked at
him penetratingly. "What did your brother say?" he went on, meeting her
gaze. "He strikes me as a pretty shrewd fellow."

"He is--or ought to be--but since he became engaged he seems unable to
think of anyone but his blessed Dorothy. He said he thought Grisel
looked very well and seemed extremely happy."

Sir John was silent for a moment, but the peculiarity of his expression
did not escape his observant companion.

"He was very keen on Grisel himself at one time, you know, Oliver was,"
she added, "but they always fight nowadays. Of course, she is not
perfect like his Dorothy, but I don't mind telling you, Sir John, that
if it wasn't for _you_ I should be very sorry that he ever met Dorothy."

"Do you think Grisel could ever have--come to care for your brother?"

Barclay's voice was very quiet and kind, but the girl hesitated for a
moment, eyeing him in a perplexed way before she answered.

"Oh, I am sure I don't know! Rather stupid to talk about it to _you_,
anyway. I suppose----"

"I don't see that at all, and I should really rather like to know your
opinion," he added slowly, "of my defeated rival." After a pause: "I
mean, what do you think would have happened if _he_ had been the
successful one?"

"Well, then," Jenny said, weighing her words and obviously striving for
the exact expression of her thoughts, "I do not think they would have
got on very well if--if you had not come along. You see," she explained
as she smiled in an encouraging way, "Oliver is as clever as the Old
Nick. He is so silly sometimes, and talks in such an idiotic way that
lots of people think he must be a fool, but he isn't; and although he
was so in love with Grisel--and you can hardly believe it now, from the
way he drivels about Dorothy Perkins--but he was in love with
Grisel--there was never any of the 'love is blind' business about him.
He always saw right through her."

"Poor little thing!" Barclay murmured with a laugh. "Anyway, she refused
him!"

"Oh, yes; but he used to go for her about things and tease the life out
of her. That, of course, was good for Grisel. She gets too much
flattery. I do hope," the intelligent little creature went on, so
earnestly that there seemed nothing ridiculous in her assumption of
equality of knowledge and years with her companion, "that you are not
going to spoil her, Sir John!"

"I hope not. So you think that an occasional wigging does her good."

"Rather! It does us _all_ good. I know _I_ get on a high horse every now
and then, and start galloping off, and then Master Oliver cracks his
whip, and down we come in the dust, and I know it is good for me."

He liked her, liked her thoroughly, with her mixture of music and
sharpness; above all, he liked her for not apologising for her perfectly
fair criticism of her friend. He was a man who inclined to be very
impatient of unnecessary apologies.

"Well, well," he said, as, in answer to a message brought up by Jessie,
they went downstairs. "Miss Perkins seems to have played a rather
important part in all our lives, doesn't she? I am afraid my poor
Grisel could never compete with her in the matter of womanly
perfection."

"Oh, I don't suppose Dorothy is as bad--as _good_--as Oliver thinks,"
the girl laughed. "No girl ever was, but still----"

The first thing that met Sir John's eyes as he opened the dining-room
door was Oliver Wick's face. Oliver sat opposite him, and as Jenny went
into the room Barclay stood for a moment watching the scene of greeting
and exclamations and introductions, and it struck him that there was
something very odd in Wick's face as he, too, looked on after kissing
his sister.

The young man looked at once triumphant and touched, and in an odd way,
despite the triumph, hurt.

Barclay's impression that something very strange was going on in the
room strengthened as he advanced to the table. Then Mrs. Walbridge,
whose back had been towards him, and over whose chair Jenny was leaning,
turned and held out her hand. Barclay stared almost open-mouthed, then
he fell back a step, glanced sharply at Wick, whose complexity of
expression had simplified, he saw, to one of sheer pride of achievement
and delight.

It was, indeed, Mrs. Walbridge whose hand her old adorer now held in
his, but it was an entirely new Mrs. Walbridge. A beautifully dressed,
much younger, shyly self-possessed woman, whose faint blush of pleasure
in his plainly-shown surprise gave her an oddly reminiscent look of the
girl in the garden of so many years ago.

Her hair, which since he had found her again had been carelessly
smoothed back, and dulled from lack of care, now shone almost with the
old lustre, and its bewitching curliness was made the highest use of.
Her metamorphosis was so complete and so striking that it would have
been foolish to try to ignore it, and he found himself saying simply as
he released her hand:

"I never should have known you, Mrs. Walbridge." She laughed and bade
him sit down.

"I know," she said, "Paul hardly _did_ know me as I got out of the cab,
did you, Paul?"

"No," the young man answered, "I was never so surprised in my life."

"It is all Oliver's doing," she went on, as she began her interrupted
dinner. "He would have it. Wait till you see some of the things he has
bought me, Maud! He went to all the dressmakers with me, and was so
fussy about my hats that I nearly threw them in his face." But her smile
at the young man across the table was a very loving one.

He beamed back at her in a way that struck the new-comer as being
enviable. He himself felt suddenly very old, very isolated. Violet
Walbridge's husband had been a dismal failure, and her children were
selfish, and spoilt, and not one of them, he had always thought, really
appreciated her, but here was this queer journalistic young man whose
odd gifts were certainly more than intelligence and might easily be the
youthful growth of genius, plainly loving and understanding her like the
most perfect of sons. Barclay envied her.

"I did," Oliver was saying. "With my own hand I did it. With my little
bow and arrow I killed cock sparrow of British clothes and unselfish
indifference! Wait till you see the evening dress we got. My word! And
there's a tea-gown. We had a most unseemly scene over that tea-gown;
nearly came to blows, didn't we, _petite mère_?"

She laughed. "I shall never dare wear it; it's the most unrespectable
looking garment. I only got it to make him stop talking." She went on,
turning to Griselda. "He talked the two saleswomen nearly into collapse,
and the _premier vendeuse_ went and got Madame Carlier herself. His
words flowed, and flowed, like a dreadful, devastating river, and they
were all nearly drowned."

"So you got the tea-gown as a plank to save them," Oliver grinned. "Some
day when we are married, Grisel"--Grisel, started violently, and after a
momentary pause, during which he bit his lip, he went on in an injured
voice, "What is the matter? _Aren't_ you going to be married? I
certainly am! I was going to say, when we are _all_ married I can tell
my wife about our dreadful scenes in the lingerie shop and _chez la
corsetière_. Oh, la, la!"

"Oh, la, la."

Mrs. Walbridge blushed scarlet, and whispered to Maud, who sat next her,
that he had really been dreadful over her night gowns. "The girl who
served us laughed till she was black. I really don't know _what_ she
thought we were!"

Guy, who was more like his mother than any of the others, and who
looked, despite his serious illness, particularly fit and well, now took
up the tale and went on with it.

"He is an awful fellow, really, is Wick, and I can only hope his real
mother has more fight in her than mine."

"She's mine, too, yours is," Wick interrupted, his voice steady, but his
eyes bright. "She has adopted me, and I have adopted her."

"How will Miss Perkins like this new relationship and all that it
entails?" Barclay asked, looking away from Mrs. Walbridge for the first
time for several minutes.

"Oh, she'll be delighted! She's _longing_ to meet Mrs. Walbridge and all
of them, particularly, of course," he added politely, "Grisel."

For some reason everyone at the table turned and looked at Grisel. She
was leaning back in her chair, her face clearly alarmingly white, and
her nose looked pointed.

Paul, who sat next to her, took hold of her hand.

"What is the matter," he asked roughly.

She moved a little and forced herself to speak. "It's my head. I have
felt rather bad all day, haven't I?" she added, turning to Barclay with
pathetic eagerness.

He rose. "Yes, dear, your head was bad before dinner, even. Come, I'll
take you out into the air."

Paul opened the door and Grisel and Barclay went out, and the others
heard the veranda door open and close behind them.

"Grisel looks like the very deuce," nodded Guy gruffly. "Can't think
what you have all been dreaming of to let her get into such a state."

"It really has been frightfully hot," Jenny Wick said explanatorily.
"I've felt like a rag all day, and Grisel isn't nearly so strong as I
am."

Mrs. Walbridge looked anxiously at her eldest daughter.

"How do _you_ think she is, Maud?"

Maud shrugged her shoulders. "She certainly looks bad enough to-night,
but, of course, I have seen very little of her--our being down at
Burnham Beeches--what do you think, Moreton?"

The young doctor hesitated for a moment. "It is her nerves," he said.
"She strikes me as being a bit upset about something. Most probably,
poor kid, it's this affair about--about her father."

Young Wick had stopped eating, and was rolling a bit of bread absently
between his thumb and first finger. His fair eyebrows were twisted into
an odd frown and his mouth was set.

Mrs. Walbridge rose. "I'm going to see if she is all right," she
declared anxiously, but Paul put out a detaining hand.

"Don't, mother, John will look after her. He'll see that she is all
right. Don't worry, she is a bit run down, but that is nothing. I think
I know something that will put everything straight," he added. "I should
have waited for him to tell you himself, but as you are worried he won't
mind my telling you now. You know how anxious he has been to get back to
Argentina?"

"Yes."

"Well, he had a letter to-night from some big official, saying that they
would let him go the moment peace is signed. Peace will certainly be
signed this week, and he will get off I should think next week, and I
believe--mind you, I don't know, only think--that he is going to ask
Grisel to marry him at once and go out with him."

"That's a very good plan," declared Moreton Twiss with all the authority
of the doctor, "the sea journey would put her to rights, better than
anything in the world. Splendid."

"Did he tell you he was going to suggest this?" Mrs. Walbridge asked in
a faltering voice. "Oh, Paul, I don't want her to go so soon."

"Nonsense, mother, you must not be selfish," returned Paul, briskly. "I
was very late getting back to-night, and he picked me up at the corner
in his car and showed me the letter. He didn't exactly suggest it, in
fact, I rather think it was I who asked him if he would not be wanting
her to marry him at once under the circumstances, but I'd like to bet £5
on his doing it at this moment out there in the rain."

As he spoke they heard the outside door closing again, and after a
moment Barclay came into the dining-room alone.

"Grisel has gone upstairs," he said. "Her head is pretty bad. She may
come down later."

They all went up to the girls' room, and shortly after the Twiss' and
the Wicks who were spending the night with the Catherwoods, left, and
the rain having ceased, Paul walked back with them.

When they had gone Mrs. Walbridge, Sir John and Guy sat on for a while
in the pleasant, flower-filled room, and presently Mrs. Walbridge asked
Guy to leave her alone with Sir John, and the young man said
"Good-night," and went out.

Mrs. Walbridge sat very slim and graceful-looking in her new clothes,
and, what was still more remarkable, her new bearing, on the black
chesterfield, and Barclay walked up and down the room restlessly, his
hands behind him, his head sunk thoughtfully on his breast.

Neither of them spoke for a long time, and then Mrs. Walbridge broke the
silence.

"Sir John," she began abruptly, "I do hope you are not going to want to
take Grisel back with you to South America next week?"

He turned. "So Paul has told you?"

"Yes. I hope you don't mind."

"Not at all. That is why I told him."

"He thought--he thought you might be asking her to marry you at
once--while you were on the veranda I mean."

He shook his head. "No, I didn't mention it to her." Then he went on
very deliberately, looking her straight in the face, "Mrs. Walbridge, I
do not wish to marry your daughter."

As soon as she had grasped that she really had heard the words, she
sprang to her feet, years younger in her anger.

"What do you mean?" she cried.

He smiled sadly. "Don't be angry, I have the greatest possible esteem
and admiration for Grisel."

"But you do not wish to marry her?"

"No! I do not."

In those few short days of long ago he had never seen Violet Blaine
angry, and since he had found her again she had seemed so timid, so
flattened by life, that he had been unable to conceive of her in any
mood but that of her daily one of gentle unobtrusive hopelessness; and
now, as she blazed at him, standing there with clenched hands and
shortened breath, he suddenly felt twenty years younger, as if all sorts
of recent things had been only a dream, and that this--this only, was
real.

He looked at her with such plain-to-be-seen satisfaction and admiration,
that she was startled and drew back, losing her bearings, and then he
spoke.

"You and I," he said, "are too old to do anything but speak plainly to
each other; affectations and pretty little pretences are part of the
pageant of youth; we have no right to them. So I will be quite short in
telling you what I have to say. Grisel is a delightful girl as well as
a most beautiful one, but I made a mistake in asking her to marry me. I
do not wish to marry her; I do not love her."

Again her righteous anger blazed up to his curious gratification and
delight, but he went on doggedly.

"I have been trying this afternoon to make her break off the engagement,
but I have failed, so I shall have to do it myself."

"But it is outrageous, abominable! You have no right to treat my
daughter so."

"I have no right," he said, "to treat any woman in the world with less
than entire honesty, and least of all your daughter."

Something in his voice penetrated through her anger into her mind and
mitigated her glance a little as she answered:

"What do you mean? Why least of all my daughter?"

There was a little pause, then his simple words fell very quietly on the
silence. "Because," he said, "for over thirty years I have loved you."

She could not answer for a moment so deep was her amazement, and then,
as so often is the case, she could only repeat his words.

"Loved me!"

"Yes, you. I have never married, never in my life used the word love to
any woman until I met Grisel, and that was because you were always there
in my memory, and there was no room for anyone else."

"But I did not even remember you!"

"No! And you have no idea," he added, smiling sadly, "how after thirty
years those words of yours-'that you did not remember me'--hurt me.
Well, there you are. Such as I am I have been absolutely faithful to my
boyish love for you."

So many different feelings were struggling in her mind that her face was
tremulous with varied fleeting expressions. Her beautiful deep eyes were
wet, and her lips looked fuller and red, more like the lips of a girl
than they had done for years.

"When I met her at Torquay," he went on, looking away from her with
delicacy, "I had no idea she was your daughter. I had never even heard
your married name, but something in her, particularly a trick she has
with her hands, and then the shape of her ears, always recalled you, and
I encouraged myself, deliberately encouraged myself, to fall in love
with her. I very nearly succeeded too," he added smiling. "Who could
not? Such a charming child."

There was a little pause. It had begun to rain again and the soft
pattering sound on the windows filled the air.

"Then I came here and saw you. You, as the years had made you--as the
years of Ferdinand Walbridge had made you," he added, with sudden
firmness.

She looked up still with the odd air of youth in her face. "Poor
Ferdie," she murmured, "he never meant it, you know."

"They never do," he answered dryly. "The very worst husbands are those
who did not mean it."

"Well, then," he went on, after a moment, "I had a good deal of
thinking, one way and another, and it struck me that if I could make her
happy it would make you happy as well. And I tried."

"Oh, you have, you have; you have been so good," she interrupted,
clasping her hands. "It's only that she is not very well."

He shrugged his shoulders. "Surely you must see," he asked slowly, "what
is the matter with her?"

"Then there _is_ something the matter with her?"

"Of course there is. Why, look at her," he rejoined roughly. "She nearly
fainted under your very noses out of sheer misery to-night, and not one
of you saw the reason."

She stared at him, her lips moving faintly, and at last she said:

"What was the reason?"

"Wick, young Wick. She is madly in love with him, and he is worth it."

A worldlier woman or a less wise one might have suspected that Barclay
was using young Wick as a means to help him out of an irksome
engagement, but Mrs. Walbridge knew.

"So I was right," she murmured thoughtfully. "I had begun to think I was
wrong." Then she started, clenching the arms of her chair hard.

"Oh, dear," she cried, "what about Miss Perkins?"

He laughed. "That's the question; what about Miss Perkins? There _is_
something about her; some mystery, I mean. But never mind that now. The
point is this. Grisel has practically refused to break off her
engagement with me, so I shall just have to screw up my courage and
break mine with her. A nasty job."

"You must not mention Oliver to her. It would not be fair, because of
Miss Perkins."

He looked at her curiously. "You don't mean to say that you still think
that Wick cares a button about Dorothy Perkins or anyone else except
Grisel?"

"But if he doesn't--oh, how dreadful it all is--why is he engaged to
her?"

"That I don't know. I shall know by this time to-morrow." He looked at
his watch. "It is only eleven now. I wonder," he went on slowly, "if I
could get him on the telephone? May as well get it over at once."

She told him the number, and acting on certain instructions of his went
to Grisel's room while he was telephoning. The girl was sitting by the
window still dressed, but with her hair plaited in a long tail down her
back, which gave her an odd effect of being a child dressed in some one
else's clothes. "My head was so bad," she explained. "I have been
brushing my hair."

"Good, I am glad you have not gone to bed, darling, for John is still
here and wants to see you in a little while."

"Oh, mother, it's so late."

Mrs. Walbridge kissed her smooth, black, old-fashioned, silky hair. "I
know, dear, but he has had an important telegram, and wishes to speak to
you about it. Oh, look, it has stopped raining, and the moon is coming
out!"

She stood for a while looking out into the delicate gleams of the
rain-soaked garden, and then said gently:

"Grisel, darling, have you seen Miss Perkins yet?"

"No, but he--he showed me the ring he has got for her."

"Yes, I saw it, too. I think that the girl who marries Oliver," the
mother went on, pitifully conscious of the futility of searching for the
most painless words, "will be very, very happy."

Grisel nodded without speaking.

"You see, in Paris, and travelling with him, I--I have got to know him
so well. He--he is a splendid fellow, Grisel, under all his nonsense."

"I know, mother," the girl's voice was very low, and very gentle.

After a moment Mrs. Walbridge went on, going to the back of her
daughter's chair, and stroking her little head with smooth, regular
movements.

"Sometimes I have wished, dear, that you--that you could have cared for
him."

"I!" The girl broke away from her gentle hand and faced her. "What if I
_had_ cared for him? Thank God I didn't; but what if I had? A splendid
kind of love _that_ was to trust--would have been--I mean. Why it was
only a week after--after that time in the drawing-room when he looked so
awful--_not_ a week after that, that he was engaged to this beast of a
Perkins girl. I--I hate him," she cried, suddenly breaking down with an
unreserved voice that at once frightened and relieved her mother.

Kneeling by the window she cried, cried as her mother knew she had not
done for years, her little shoulders shaking, her forehead on the window
sill.

"Hush, dear, you must not cry. Better wash your face and sniff some
camphor. Remember John will be wanting to see you in a few minutes."

Violet Walbridge had forced herself to speak coldly and in a voice
devoid of sympathy, and the effect of this manoeuvre showed in the
girl's rising almost at once and darting into the bathroom. Her mother
heard the roaring of the cold water and stood for a moment listening.
Then, without a word, she went back to Barclay.



CHAPTER XXVI


"Have you any idea why I asked you to come back, Wick?"

Oliver Wick, who had been told to sit down opposite Sir John, looked up
at him for a long minute. The young man's face was white, and seemed
suddenly to have grown thin, but in his still excitement his eyes were
oddly lucent. At last he answered:

"Well, sir," he said, his voice so tense that while it did not tremble
it vibrated a little. "I do not know exactly _why_, but I think I know
what it's about."

"Good. Then we need not waste any time."

The clock struck as he spoke, and Barclay, who was smoking a cigar,
waited until the silence was undisturbed before saying quietly, "It's
about Griselda Walbridge."

Wick murmured, "I thought as much."

"I want," Barclay went on, watching the young face very closely, "your
help in a matter of great importance both to Grisel and to me."

"I'd do a great deal for you, sir. I'd do anything in the
world--for--Griselda."

"I am glad to hear you say that. Well, what steps would you advise me to
take in order to--to break off my engagement to Griselda?"

The hot red leaped to Wick's face, and he started violently, but he did
not speak for a time; his surprise was unblemished by his having had any
suspicion that the interview was going to take this turn, and for a
moment he was incapable of sane speech. When he could find his voice it
was to exclaim blandly, "Why do you ask me?"

"Because," the older man answered in a perfectly even voice, "I know
that she loves you."

Wick rose. "Oh, you know that!"

"I do, and because of this I have suggested to her that perhaps, when
she did me the honour of accepting me, she--she made a mistake."

A sudden grin, as disconcerting as it was irresistible, appeared on the
young man's face, and they both waited for it to disappear much as they
might have waited for the withdrawal of an intruding stranger.

"Oh, no, she didn't make any mistake," Wick broke out when he could
again control his facial muscles. "She knew perfectly well when she
accepted you; knew--that--well, sir"--he proceeded boldly, yet with a
very charming deference--"that she loved me."

"Surely she never told you this?" Barclay's voice was stern.

"Oh, bless my soul, no never; in fact," the grin again quivered on his
lips for a second, "she did some pretty tall lying about it, poor little
minx."

"I see. Then, to be brief, you have known all along that I was bound to
be disappointed?"

"Yes, sir." Wick's brightly shining, smiling eyes met his fairly and
squarely. "You see, she meant to marry you and did her best, but--well,
I knew she would break down in the end."

"Neither of you seem," the elder man said, but with a hint of dryness in
his voice, "to have considered my feelings much."

But Wick protested, "Oh, yes, we did--I mean to say _I_ did. I thought
a lot about you at one time and another, sir."

"And to what conclusions did these--reflections--lead you?"

Wick, who was still standing, took out his cigarette case and snapped it
thoughtfully several times.

"To this," he returned at last, "that though I was really sorry for you,
it just could not be helped."

"I see, youth must have its day."

"Yes, or 'every dog' is better. What I mean is that really, you know,
normally, your day for that particular form of happiness ought to have
been, well--before we--Griselda and I, were even born."

There was so much odd gentleness in the way he voiced his ruthless
theory that Barclay was touched.

"You are not far out there," he answered unemotionally, "only my day
never did come. It was a kind of false dawn--and then--ah, well, it is
rather late, so suppose we get to business. As matters stand at present,
this young lady happens to be engaged not to you, but to me, and what is
more, she--she has practically refused to break the engagement, so it is
left to me. And this," he added cheerfully, "is a little hard on me,
don't you think?"

"I do. Do you want me to do it for you?"

"No. I want to hear your ideas about the matter. For example, what would
you suggest as a good first step?"

Wick thought for a moment. "I don't quite see the first step, but the
_end_ is perfectly clear."

"Yes?"

"She must propose to me." The young man's voice was full of confidence,
and he appeared to be unconscious of the absurdity of his suggestion.

"Grisel--Grisel to propose to you? Nonsense, Wick!"

"But she must. Look here, Sir John." Wick, who had sat down, leaned
forward, his elbows on his knees, and spoke very earnestly.

"You know nothing about me, sir, so, if you don't mind, I'd better tell
you a little. You see, they--the Walbridges--think that I am still the
little Fleet Street reporter I was when they first knew me, but--I am
not. For several months"--he talked on, explaining his position with a
modest pride that pleased his hearer.

"So I am actually speaking to the editor of a London newspaper!" Sir
John at last smiled kindly.

"Yes. _Sparks_ is a rotten paper, but his making me editor of it is only
a trick of the chiefs to find out what I am made of, so I don't mind.
He's a sly old devil, long sighted and crafty, and he has, so to speak,
laid me wide open and is now poking about in my in'ards to find out all
about me." He laughed. "Lord, how the old man is sweating, trying to
tire me out, and I get fresher and fresher! Oh, yes," he went on after
another chuckle, "I am his latest YOUNG MAN and I have got better works
than most of them and I am bound to succeed all right. So that's that."
His mouth set, and he was silent for a moment, plainly looking into the
future. "And by the time I am your age, Sir John," he said slowly, "I
shall be what Fleet Street calls a 'Great Man.' I shall also be a
multi-millionaire. Miss Minx will never starve."

"Yes, but you forget that she is still engaged to me."

Wick's eyes lost their far-off look.

"So she is," he admitted, "so she is. Guess I am going on a bit too
fast. However," he went on with an air of conclusiveness, "she can't
very well marry you if you don't want her, and you don't. So let's get
on." He had rumpled his fine mouse-coloured hair, which stood up
ludicrously, and he now tried to smooth it down, which made it more
absurd than before.

Sir John watched him with a smile. "Well, now that we understand each
other," the older man began, "suppose you tell me something else. I
think I am not wrong in assuming that you--love Griselda?"

He had been half afraid to put the question, not that he doubted the
gist of the reply, but that he shrank from a possible awkwardness or
unbeautiful expression of it. He had been wrong.

Wick dropped his hands and turned to him his symmetrical face excited
and bold looking, his eyes blooming with youth and love.

"Yes," he said with dignity, "I do. And----"

"You believe that her love for you is big enough to bring her to the
point of--of--well--foregoing the thing for whose sake she accepted me?"

"Of course I do, but--you can see for yourself that she has not been
happy. I have made it just as hard for her as I possibly could, too. I
have not told her about _Sparks_, or the chiefs taking a shine to me, or
my rise in salary. I--I wanted her to have a bad time, I--I wanted the
little wretch to feel what she was going to give up in giving up you,
and all your things, just for me. For the penniless, obscure kid I was
at first."

"And you think that she will do this now?"

"Yes, poor little thing, oh, yes, she will!" He mused for a moment and
then his face sharpened again and he added testily, "But I won't ask her
to."

"You mean that she must ask you?" Barclay spoke more gently. "Well, when
she has asked you to marry her--what are you going to do about poor Miss
Perkins?"

Wick literally bounced to his feet, as if the name had been a bomb
dropped into the room.

"Oh, Miss Perkins--Miss Perkins," he repeated almost idiotically.

"Yes. This is bound to be something of a blow to her." Barclay's face
was very grave, but there was a slight quiver in his voice.

Oliver Wick had, just then, no ear for slight quivers.

"I--oh, she'll be all right," he murmured feebly.

"You mean that she won't mind?"

"Oh, no, she won't mind. She's a remarkably sensible girl----" then he
burst into a roar of laughter. "Look here, Sir John," he gasped, "it's
no good, I have a horrible confession to make to you. I shall have to
murder Miss Perkins!" Again he shouted with childish, almost painfully
loud laughter, and Sir John laughed with him.

At last Sir John wiped his eyes. "I take it you will be able to kill the
lady without much bloodshed?" he asked. "I--I have been suspecting as
much."

       *       *       *       *       *

The moon was flooding the rain bejewelled garden with light as Griselda
Walbridge came down the steps. She walked slowly, as if her little feet
were heavy, and her smooth dark head was bent. At the foot of the steps
she stopped and looked around. "John," she called softly, "John, are you
there?"

No one answered, and she shrank back against the rose-festooned
handrail. The moonlight was very bright, but the shadows were black and
solid-looking, and it was later, too, than she had ever been alone in
the garden.

In the silence she turned and looked up the steps to the open house
door. Her mother had told her that Barclay was waiting for her in the
garden and now where was he, she wondered. In the clear light her small
face, a little hard in reality, looked unusually child-like and
spiritual. She stared up at the sky, and across the garden, and then,
thinking that Barclay for some reason had not waited for her after all,
walked slowly along across the tennis lawn.

She was dressed in true sapphire blue, the best colour of all for
moonlight, and presently she stopped by a rose tree and pulled a deep
red rose, her big ruby glowing as she tugged at the tough stem and then,
emboldened and soothed by the perfect quiet, she went slowly on, holding
the rose against her cheek.

Near the old bench where her mother and Oliver had sat on Hermione's
wedding day, she started back frightened and then gave a nervous little
laugh.

"Oh, here you are," she cried.

The owner of the cigarette came out of the shadow, and again she cried
out, this time in a very different voice, "Oh, it is _you_."

"Yes, it is me," Wick answered britannically. "Oh, Grisel, Grisel, do
look at that moon----"

He drew her hand through his arm and thus old-fashionedly linked they
stood in silence for a moment.

Then she said, "Where is--Sir John? Mother said he was here waiting for
me."

Wick stared at the moon a moment longer and then said quietly:

"Grisel, I love you!"

"Oliver, you are crazy!"

"No, sit down on the bench."

"Thanks, I'd rather not, I must go in----"

"Sit down----"

"No, thanks."

"Grisel, sit down."

"No."

"Grisel, sit down!"

Grisel sat down, and he sat beside her.

"Did you hear what I said a minute ago?" he went on quietly.

"Not being deaf, I did. What they call lunal madness, I suppose." Her
voice shook, but her tone was one of awful hauteur.

"Lunar, no such word as lunal. Grisel, I love you."

"Really," she protested, "I must go in."

"Grisel, I----"

"I," she broke out furiously, "you say that again and I shall--yell."

"Yell then, it will do you good. Yell like hell. And you love me."

She sprang to her feet. "I don't. What an abominable thing to say.
How--how----"

"How dare I? Easy. Almost as easy as looking at you, my pretty. Grisel,
we love each other."

She burst into nervous, shrill laughter, and then suddenly stopped.

"I cannot help laughing, you are such an idiot," she said, "but I am
very angry. Have you forgotten that I am--engaged to John----"

"John be damned."

Helpless tears crowded into her eyes and her throat swelled suddenly.
"How hateful you are."

"I am not hateful, darling. I am your true love."

"Oh, Oliver," she cried in despair, her feelings so varied, and so
entangled, that she could not straighten them out. "What about Dorothy
Perkins?"

"Dorothy Perkins is a flower."

"A--a what?"

"_A flower._ I mean to say, she is a creeper."

"Oliver," she laid her hand on his arm and peered anxiously into his
face. "What is the matter with you? Aren't you well?"

"Yes, dear, I am well, but she _is_ a creeper." He stretched out his arm
and pointed. "There she is on the steps." Then he saw that she was
really alarmed for his sanity.

"Grisel, darling, that rose, that rose climbing on the steps, is the
only Dorothy Perkins I know."

"But----"

"No, it is true. I--I made her up, my little darling."

"How could you make her up?" she wailed. "You could not make up a girl!"

"But she isn't a girl, sweetheart. I invented her, to make you jealous."

Suddenly Grisel broke down and their great moment was upon them. When
she had cried herself into exhausted quiet in his arms he wiped her eyes
on his handkerchief.

"Oh, I--I _have_ hated her so, Oliver. But--whose was the photograph
then?"

He explained.

"But _Jenny_ talked about her, and even your mother."

"Of course, that's what mothers are for."

Suddenly she sat up and smoothed her hair. "Oh, dear me, what--what will
poor John say?"

Wick stiffened. Now came the test. "What do you mean?" he asked.

"Why, when I tell him. Poor John!"

He stuffed the damp handkerchief back into his pocket, and lit a
cigarette.

"When you tell him what?"

"Why, about us."

Wick very deliberately puffed at his cigarette. "I don't think I would
mention it," he said.

"Oliver, what do you mean?"

He rose, and walked up and down in front of her.

"I mean that because I just lost my head and made a fool of myself there
is no reason that that splendid old fellow should be--worried."

"Worried!" she almost screamed. "I don't understand you."

"Well, I mean, my dear, that because--I behaved like a cad and--and
kissed a girl who is going to marry another man--a man a thousand times
my superior in every way--there is no reason for _his_ being troubled by
knowing about it. I am ashamed of myself, and I beg your pardon, and I
am sure you will forgive me."

The pallor made her in the moonlight look almost unearthly, and he was
obliged to bend his eyes resolutely away from her, during the pause that
ensued.

"Then you--then you meant nothing by it?" she stammered.

"No. At least--oh, well--of course you know that I love you, but I quite
agree with you that to marry a penniless young beggar like me would be
madness----"

She was so amazed, so honestly horrified by his cynical cold-bloodedness
that for a moment she could not speak.

"How--how can I marry him after _that_?" she gasped.

"Oh, quite easily, dear. You forgive me, and I will forgive you and we
will both blame--the moon," he waved his hand, "and the roses," and then
she broke down.

"I can't, I can't," she wailed, "you know I can't. Oh, Oliver, if you
love me you must marry me."

Wick, though deeply stirred, held his ground.

"I don't see any _must_," he said morosely, and at last his triumph
came.

"But you will, won't you?" she cried. "Oh, Oliver, you will marry me?"

       *       *       *       *       *

At about this time Mrs. Walbridge and Sir John Barclay sat together in
the girls' room. Mrs. Walbridge's eyes, strangely youthful-looking,
fixed thoughtfully on her companion. They had had a long talk, and now,
at the end of it, she put a question to him.

"But you," she said gently, "are you sure you will not be unhappy,
John?"

And he said, his grave face full of serenity, "Yes. I have always known
that I was too old for her, you know, Violet--I suppose I may call you
Violet now?"

In the moonlight her little blush gave her face a marvellous look of
girlishness, and his eyes shone as he looked at her.

"Your--your divorce case is on for Wednesday, isn't it," he asked after
a little pause.

"Yes. I suppose they will be married in six months time? Oh, John, I
hope so--poor Ferdie, he--he doesn't bear trouble very well. I do hope
it will be all right."

They talked on, and he told her that he should not stay long in South
America, that in November he would come back to London for good.

"Oh, I am so glad," she answered. "I am very glad. For I shall be a
little lonely later on. Griselda will go very soon, and Paul really
cares for little Jenny, and I hope--of course I shall have Guy for a
while--I must tell you about Guy, John--the war has--taught him such a
lot. He is changed enormously. Do you know, he and I are better friends
than I have ever been with any of the others? I am so thankful--but
still, he is young, and of course will be full of his own interests, and
I shall be glad to have you near--one of my own age--but will you _like_
living always in London?"

Barclay nodded. "Yes, I shall always live in London. Somewhere not too
far from--here."



CHAPTER XXVII


It was one o'clock when Mrs. Walbridge at last found herself alone. She
was very tired, but so happy and excited that she did not want to go to
bed, and after walking restlessly about the girls' room, and the
drawing-room, living over again the happenings of the last few crowded
hours, she went softly up two flights of stairs and opened the door of
her little study.

It was many weeks since she had sat there at the old table, and the
moonlight revealed a thick layer of dust over the inky blotting-paper
and the cheap, china ink-stand. Noiselessly she opened the window and
stood looking out at the night. She had always loved the quiet, dark
hours and the mystery and purity of night had all her life made a strong
appeal to her imagination. The millions of people who lay helpless and
innocent in sleep; the rest from scheming and struggle; the renewal of
strength; and the ebbing towards dawn of enfeebled life. The very fact
that some of the great thoroughfares of London were being washed--laved
she mentally called it--and purified from their accumulation of ugly
unhygienic filth; all these things made night a time of beauty and
romance to this writer of sentimental rubbish. It seemed, she had always
thought, to make the sin-defiled old world young and innocent again for
a few hours, and this night was to be an unforgettable one to her.

Guy had come back finer, and with greater promises of nobility than
ever before. Grisel had finally come--been dragged--to her senses, and
would worthily fulfil her womanhood with Oliver, whom Mrs. Walbridge
told herself she loved nearly as much as she loved her own sons. In
reality she loved the young journalist far more than even Guy, but this
she did not, and never was, to know.

She went on counting her blessings. Maud's baby was lovely, and strong,
and patients were really beginning, if not exactly to flock at least, to
come in decent numbers to Moreton Twiss. Hermione was enjoying what to
her mother seemed an almost unparalleled social success, among people
innocently believed by Mrs. Walbridge to be of very high society indeed;
little Jenny Wick seemed to like Paul, and if she married him he seemed
to stand a very good chance of improving in every way, of becoming
kinder and less selfish.

Thus, standing in the moonlight, Mrs. Walbridge thankfully reviewed the
many good things in her life.

"To be sure," she thought, her face clouding, "it was very sad about
Ferdie, it was a dreadful, almost tragic thing that their old life,
however trying and disappointing it had been to her, should have been
broken in this way. Like many other women she felt that, though her
husband was a bad one he was, because he had been the lover of her youth
and was the father of her children, a thing of odd pathos and even value
to her. He was like," she thought, "a bit of china--a bowl or a
jug--bought by her in her youth, and though she had been deceived in
thinking it genuine and though it was cracked all over, she yet
preferred to keep it than to lose it."

Carrying on the simile, the divorce case seemed to her like a public
sale, in which all the blemishes and cracks of her poor jug would be
exposed to indifferent observers.

All this she felt very sharply, but at the same time there was an
immense relief that never again would Ferdie live under the same roof
with her, that she would never again have to listen to his boasting, to
hear his plausible, usually agreeable lies, to endure his peevish
reproaches when things went wrong. Never again, she told herself with an
odd little smile, need she have fried liver for breakfast. Ferdie
cherished for fried liver a quite impossible ideal of tenderness and
juiciness, and every Sunday morning for a quarter of a century she had
come downstairs praying that the liver might be all right this time. And
it never was all right. No, she would never have fried liver on her
table again.

Then she thought about Paris. Paris, once Guy was out of danger, had
been wonderful in its freedom from household cares, its lack of
responsibility to anyone. At first she had hardly been able to believe
that no one would ask her where she was going, and instantly suggest her
not going there, but somewhere else. And then Cannes! One of her
favourite literary devices had always been to send the heroines to the
Sunny South.

She had written lavishly of the tropical heat, the incredible blueness
of the quiet sea, of the wealth of flowers in that vague bepalaced land,
but the reality (although the sea was not quite so blue as she had
expected it to be) overwhelmed her. The best of all had been the gentle,
balmy laziness that gradually wrapped her round and enveloped her, the
laziness that even an occasionally sharp, dusty wind could not dispel.

Best of all she had had no duties. Not one. And she had sat on her
balcony in a comfortable cane rocking-chair, by the hour. "I just sat,
and sat, and sat," she thought, leaning against the window sill. "How
beautiful it was." And, now that her regret about her cracked jug had
been softened by time, and mitigated by the variety of new joys that had
come to her, she could henceforth, in a more decorous British way, go on
sitting.

Paul would, of course, continue to bully her and to nag, but if, as she
hoped, little Jenny cared enough about him to marry him, he would turn
his bullying and nagging attentions, in a very modified way, to her. It
was, Mrs. Walbridge reflected innocently, right that a man should give
up tormenting his mother once he had a wife of his own. And little
red-headed Jenny could, she thought with a smile, look after herself.

As for Mrs. Crichell--once she, too, was Mrs. Ferdie, _she_ would no
doubt look after herself. It was a rather startling thought, that of two
Mrs. Ferdies! "I suppose I shall be Mrs. Violet?"

The clock on the stairs struck again, and Mrs. Violet started. "Good
gracious," she murmured aloud, "how dreadfully late it is."

She looked round the little room once more, recalling the hundreds of
hours she had sat there grilling in summer; freezing in winter, working
on her books, and then with a queer little smile she went downstairs.
She told herself resolutely as she went that this was perfectly
ridiculous; that she _must_ go to bed but she didn't want to go to bed,
and, moreover, she suddenly realised that she was hungry.

In her excitement she had eaten very little dinner, and after locking
the front door she ran down into the kitchen. After a hurried
examination of the larder, and experiencing a new and what she felt to
be un-British distaste for cold mutton, she decided to scramble some
eggs. Lighting the gas-ring, she broke three eggs into a yellow bowl,
and began to beat them briskly with a silver fork.

The kitchen was a pleasant place, newly painted and whitewashed, and a
row of highly flourishing pink and white geraniums garnished the long
low window. Really, a _very_ nice kitchen, its mistress mused happily.

When she had whipped the eggs enough, she set the table, spreading a
lace teacloth on one end of it, and reaching down a plate and a cup and
saucer from the rack. She was smiling now, for there was to her gentle
spirit of adventure something rather romantic in this solitary, very
late meal.

"I do not know," she said as she set the saucepan on the ring and
dropped a big bit of butter into it, "whether it is supper or
breakfast."

Then a sudden idea came to her. She set the saucepan on the table and
flew to the larder, whence, after a hurried search, she brought back two
large fine tomatoes. She had always been extremely fond of scrambled
eggs with tomatoes, but Ferdie loathed tomatoes, and Paul had inherited
his distaste for them, so she had long since renounced this innocent
gluttony. Now Ferdie had gone, and Paul was asleep, and there was
nothing on earth to prevent her having "Spanish eggs," as she called
them. She turned the savoury mess, very much peppered and salted, out on
to two slices of buttered toast, and sat down with the teapot at hand,
to enjoy herself.

"I will--I will tell John about this," she reflected gaily. "He'll
laugh."

She had been so busy up to this, since he had told her, that she had
hardly had time to think about it, but now, as she ate, she went back
over their talk together. It seemed to her very wonderful that such a
man should have cared for her, and her mind was full of pathetic
gratitude to him for what she did not at all realise he must often have
regarded as a perfect nuisance.

Here she had been, she thought, struggling along at "Happy House" with
Ferdie and the children, losing her youth, and her hopes, and her looks,
and there--somewhere--anywhere--had been that fine, handsome, successful
man, loving her! It was most wonderful. "I hope, though," her thoughts
went on as she began on her delicious hot eggs, "that he didn't _mean_
anything by what he said about the divorce--and his always living
somewhere near--us."

She had written nearly two dozen very sentimental novels, and was an
adept at happy endings, but she blushed in her solitude at the thought
that Barclay might possibly be contemplating for her and him anything so
indecorous as in their case it would be, as such a happy ending.

"Oh, no, I am sure he didn't--but how wonderful it would be to have him
for a friend. For the boys too, with his fine character and his
cleverness." Oh, yes, she was going to be very proud of him, and the
fragrance of the old romance would always hang over their friendship.
And then suddenly she blushed hotly, and laid down her fork.

"Violet Walbridge," she said severely, precisely as she would have made
one of her own heroines in like case apostrophise herself, "you are not
being honest. You know that he _did_ mean something. You know that he
will--not now, of course, but after a long, long time--ask you--to be
his wife." Feeling very wicked, and very shy, she faced the question for
a moment, and then took a long drink of tea--a long draught of tea her
heroine would have called it--"but if he does," she decided, her eyes
full of tears, "it won't be for ages, and I need not decide now. I can
tell him when the time comes that--that----" as she reached this point
her eyes happened to fall on a pot of white paint that was standing on a
shelf in the corner. Cook, she supposed, had been painting something in
the scullery and the pot had been forgotten. Her face changed.

It was very odd. She had been meaning for years to have the words "Happy
House" renewed on the gate, but the irony of the name had somehow forced
her into putting it off, and for a long time now she had been dating her
letters just 88, Walpole Road, and not using the name at all; the
romantic, foolish name, it had come to look to her now. She rose with a
smile, and reached down the pot, and stood stirring the thick paint with
the brush.

"Now," she thought, "it really _is_ 'Happy House'--or it's going to
be"--and she would have the words there again.

Refreshed by the tea and food, she felt less than ever inclined for bed
and, laughing aloud at her own folly, she decided that she would paint
the words on the gate herself.

The moon was still shining, yet it was too early for any prying eye to
see her, and it would, she thought, with that novelist's imagination of
hers--the thing without which not even the worst novel could possibly
be written--be a romantic and splendid ending to the most wonderful day
in her life.

Opening the area door softly she crept up the steps with the pot and
brush in her hand, and went down the flagged path. The moon was paling
and the shadows lay less distinctly on the quiet road, but the general
gloom seemed greater. Not a soul was in sight; not a sound broke the
sleepy stillness; not a light shone in any window. Opening the gate, and
closing it again to steady it, Mrs. Walbridge, forgetting her beautiful
frock, knelt down on the pavement and set to work. The poor old words,
last renewed, she remembered the day Paul came of age, when Ferdie had
given one of his characteristic parties, were nearly obliterated.

Very carefully the thankful little woman worked, her heart singing.
Darling Grisel, how happy she had looked when she left her lying in bed,
the big ruby gone from her finger, and the little old emerald bought in
Paris for Miss Perkins, in its place. It was really wonderful how well
everything was turning out! Paul and Jenny had certainly advanced a good
deal in their friendship during her absence. Jenny must marry him, oh
dear, and Mrs. Crichell _must_ marry Ferdie, too. John, dear, wise
romantic John thought she would, and, after all, she thought, as her
brush worked, poor Ferdie had lots of good qualities really, and she,
Violet, had always been too dull, too staid for him.

"Clara Crichell liked entertaining, and really has great talents as a
hostess and I always was dreadful at parties." She dipped the brush in
again and began on the "y." "He is one of those people for whom success
is really good," she went on; "who knows but that he may turn out very
well as the husband of a rich woman, poor Ferdie----"

"Violet!" She started and ruined the "H" in "House." Poor Ferdie stood
before her.

"Ferdie, is it you?" she cried stupidly, still kneeling.

"Yes, of course it is me," he snapped crossly. "What on earth are you
doing out here in the middle of the night?"

Scrambling to her feet she answered anxiously, "I--I am just painting.
But why are you here?"

"Let's go into the house and I will tell you," he said. "I have come
home, Violet!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Half an hour later Ferdinand Walbridge sat in the kitchen of "Happy
House," drinking tea and eating scrambled eggs--without tomatoes. He had
on a velvet jacket of Paul's, for he was cold, and the glass out of
which he had drunk a stiff brandy and soda still stood on the table.
Beside him sat his wife, her face full of troubled sympathy.

"Enough salt?" she asked presently.

He nodded. "The food at the Rosewarne is beastly, it has played the very
deuce with my digestion----"

"Did you have hot water every morning?"

"No, it was luke warm half the time and made me feel sick."

He went on eating in silence, and she studied his face. That he should
look ill, and unhappy, did not, after what he had told her, surprise her
much; what did strike her was his look of age. She had often seen him
when he was ill, but this was the first time that his face not only
showed his real age, but looked actually older. The lines in it seemed
deeper, and his eyes, under heavy suddenly wrinkled lids, lustreless and
watery. He had cried a good deal of course, she reflected pitifully, but
never before had his easy tears made his eyes look like that.

"I do think," he murmured resentfully, "that you might have remembered
that I like China tea."

"I did remember, Ferdie, but there is not any in the house. You know all
the rest of us prefer Ceylon."

He grunted and went on eating. "Poor china jug," she thought, "his
cracks were very apparent now."

"Oh, Ferdie," she broke out, "I am really awfully sorry for you."

He looked up, his haggard face a little softened.

"Yes, I believe you really are, Violet, and I can tell you one thing,
Clara wouldn't be if she was in your shoes."

She didn't answer, for she really did not know what to say about
Clara--Clara, who had behaved so cruelly to poor Ferdie.

"She is a woman," he burst out, "with no heart, absolutely none."

"Perhaps she--perhaps she is sorry for Mr. Crichell," she suggested
timidly.

He laughed. "Sorry? Not she. I tell you it is the legacy that has done
it. The legacy. She always could twist Crichell around her little
finger, and the very minute she heard the news, off she went to him and
made up. You mark my words, the greater part of that legacy will be
hanging round her neck before very long."

"But, Ferdie, she can't be as bad as that. No woman could. People often
make mistakes, you know, and she may have found that--that--after all,
her heart was really his."

He rose and stared at her rudely. "Like one of the awful women in your
novels! I tell you, it was the legacy that did it. Perfectly revolting,
because, after all," he added with an odious, fatuous laugh, "all other
things being equal, it's _me_ she loves. Why, I never saw a woman----"
he broke off, seeming to realise suddenly the bad taste of his attitude.
"But that's not the point," he went on, nervously--"the point is
this----"

She drew a long breath and clenched her hands in her lap to fortify
herself for the coming scene. Nothing, she knew, not even the real
suffering he had been through, could induce Ferdie to forego a dramatic
scene.

"Hum," he cleared his throat violently and Mrs. Walbridge, instinctively
true to her wifely duty, answered:

"Yes, Ferdinand?"

"Well," he made a little gesture with his handsome hand, which struck
her as being not quite so clean as usual. "I have done wrong, and--I beg
your pardon." His voice was sonorous and most musical, and as he
finished speaking he dropped his head on his breast in a kind of
splendid compromise between the attitude of shame and a court bow.

"I--I forgive you, Ferdie, of course, I forgive you," but she knew that
he had not yet got his money's worth out of the situation.

"Violet," he began again--and then as if for the first time, he looked
at her, not as a refuge, or a feather-bed, or a soothing draught, but as
a woman. "Why, what----" he stammered, staring, "what have you been
doing with yourself? You look--different somehow. You look years
younger, and--and where did you get that gown?" To her dismay he ended
on a sharp note of suspicion.

"I bought it in Paris," she answered quietly.

"Bought it? Why, it is worth twenty guineas, if it's worth a penny!
Violet, I--I hope you have not been--forgetting that you are my wife,
while I have been away?"

She nearly laughed, he was so ridiculous, but her deep eyes filled with
tears over the pathos of it.

"Listen, Ferdie," she said gently, "you need not worry about me. I am an
old woman now and I have always been a good woman. I bought this dress,
and several others, in Paris, with money that I got as a prize for a
book."

He stared at her stupidly with his blood-shot eyes.

"Yes, a book you have probably read. It's called 'Bess Knighthood.'"

"You--you didn't write 'Bess Knighthood!'"

"Yes, I did. After 'Lord Effingham' was such a failure, I just--just sat
down and wrote 'Bess Knighthood.' I don't know how I did it--it went so
fast I could hardly remember it, when it was done." A wan smile stirred
her lips, which seemed to have lost their recent fullness and looked
flat and faded, "but I got the prize."

"Oh." He looked annoyed, and she realised at once that he felt injured,
for it had always given him a pleasant feeling of superiority to laugh
at her looks, and now he could laugh no more.

"Yes," she resumed, drawing herself up a little in her pride, "and I
have not spent very much--I have got nearly five hundred pounds left, so
if you need some, Ferdie----"

The early day was by now coming in over the geraniums, and in its wan
light, each of them thought how ruinous the other looked.

Walbridge gazed at his wife. "You are fagged out," he said pompously.
"It is very late, I think we had better go upstairs," and without a word
she followed him up into the hall.

"One of your old pyjama suits is in the dressing-room chest-of-drawers,"
she said, as he went on up the front stairs, leaning heavily on the
handrail. "I--I have one or two things to do, Ferdie."

He turned, looking down, dominating her even now in her miserable
triumph.

"All right," he said, "I--I will sleep in the dressing-room. Don't be
long, Violet," and Ferdinand Walbridge went to bed.

       *       *       *       *       *

Mrs. Walbridge took up the pot of paint and the sprawling brush from
where they were lying on the pavement and looked at the words on the
gate. "Happy" stood out neatly, but the "H" in "House" was obliterated
by a great splash, and the remaining letters, untouched by the fresh
paint, looked by contrast more faded and faint than ever.

"Dear me," she thought, "what a mess." And then, because she was a tidy
woman, as well as to avoid questions and conjectures, she rubbed off the
smear of paint as well as she could with one of the new Paris
handkerchiefs, and resumed her interrupted task.

In a few moments her work was done, and the words she had chosen for the
new house thirty years ago showed out once more distinctly on the green
gate. She rose to her knees, too tired for thought, sensible only of a
violent longing for sleep; to-morrow, she knew, she must think. She must
think about the turn things were taking; about the coming back of her
husband, and the resumption of the old daily routine; of Ferdie's
fretfulness, of liver for breakfast, and, most of all, she must think
about Sir John Barclay.

"Poor John," she thought, giving a last look at the words on the gate,
"and poor Ferdie. Oh, how tired I am----" she went into the house and
shut the door.





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