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Title: A Valiant Ignorance; vol. 1 of 3 - A Novel in Three Volumes
Author: Dickens, Mary Angela
Language: English
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                          A VALIANT IGNORANCE



                                   A

                           VALIANT IGNORANCE

                                A Novel

                                  BY

                          MARY ANGELA DICKENS

           AUTHOR OF “CROSS CURRENTS,” “A MERE CYPHER,” ETC.

                       “Thy gold is brass!”
                            PRINCE HOHENSTIEL SCHWANGAU

                          _IN THREE VOLUMES_

                                VOL. I.

               London MACMILLAN & CO. AND NEW YORK 1894



                          A VALIANT IGNORANCE



CHAPTER I


“MY DEAR MAMMA,

     “I hope you are quite well. I am quite well, and Smut is quite
     well. Her tail is very fat. I hope papa is quite well. I have a box
     of soldiers. The captain has a horse. Uncle Richard gave them to
     me. There is a hole in the horse, and he sticks in tight. Auntie is
     quite well, and so is nurse, and so is cook.

“I am, your loving Son,

“JULIAN.”



It was the table d’hôte room of one of the best hotels in Nice; a large
room, gay and attractive, according to its kind, as fresh paint, bright
decoration, and expanse of looking-glass could make it. From end to end
were ranged small tables, varying in size but uniform in the radiant
spotlessness of their white cloths, and the brightness of their silver,
china, or glass; and to and fro between the tables, and from the tables
to the door, moved active waiters, whose one aim in life seemed to be
the anticipation of the wishes of the visitors for whose pleasure alone
they apparently existed.

It was early, and _déjeuner_ proper was hardly in full swing as yet. But
a good many of the tables were occupied, and a subdued hum of
conversation pervaded the air; a hum compounded of the high-pitched
chatter of American women and the quick, eager volubility of French
tongues, backed by a less pronounced but perfectly perceptible
undercurrent of German and English; the whole diversified now and then
by a light laugh.

The sounds were subdued because the room was large and sparsely filled,
but they were gay. The smiling alacrity of the waiters was apparently at
once a symptom of, and a subtle tribute to, the humour of the hour.
There were sundry strongly-marked faces here and there among the little
groups; middle-aged men to whom neither ambition nor care could have
been empty words; middle-aged women with lines about their faces not
lightly come by; young girls with the vague desire and unrest of youth;
young men with its secrets and its aspirations. But all individuality of
care, anxiety, or desire seemed to be in abeyance for the time being;
enjoyment--somewhat conventional, well-dressed enjoyment, of the kind
that rather covers up trouble as not “the thing” than disperses it--was
evidently the order of the day. It was within three days of the
carnival, and the visitors who were crowding into Nice came one and all
with fixedly and obviously light-hearted intention.

The link between the little letter--not little by any means in a
material sense, since its capitals sprawled and staggered over a large
sheet of foreign letter paper--and the smart, pleasure-seeking
atmosphere of the Nice table d’hôte room, was a woman who sat at a
little table by one of the open windows. And she was much more easily to
be identified, arguing from her appearance and manner, with her present
surroundings than with the images conjured up by the blotted letter in
her hand. She was a small woman, with a very erect little figure, the
trimness of which was accentuated by the conventional perfection of the
dress she wore; it was not such a dress as would commend itself to the
fashionable woman of to-day--at that date, eighteen hundred and
seventy-two, tailor-made garments for ladies were not--but it had won a
glance of respect, nevertheless, from every woman in the room in the
course of the few minutes which had elapsed since its wearer had
entered. Her hair was fair; very plentiful and very fashionably dressed.
Her eyes were blue; her colouring pale. If she had had no other claims
on a critic’s attention, no more marked characteristics, she might have
been called rather pretty. She was rather pretty, as a matter of fact,
but her prettiness was dwarfed, and put out of sight by the stronger
influence of her manner and expression.

As she sat there reading her letter, neither moving nor speaking, she
was stamped from head to foot--as far as externals went--as one of a
type of woman which commands more superficial homage than perhaps any
other--the woman of the world. The self-possession, the quiet,
unquestioning assurance, even the superficiality of her expression in
its total absence of intellectuality or emotionalism, spoke to
character; the narrow character, truly, which is cognisant only of
shallow waters, knows them, and reigns in them. But it was a noticeable
feature about her that even this character had gone to the accentuation
of the type in her. As to her age, it would have been extremely
difficult to guess it from her appearance. Her face was quite
unworn--evidently such emotions as she had known had gone by no means
deep--and yet it was not young; there was too much knowledge of the
world about it for youthfulness. As a matter of fact, she was twenty-six
years old. She was sitting alone at the little table by the window, and
her perfect freedom from nervousness, or even consciousness of the
admiring glances cast at her, emphasized her perfect self-possession.

A waiter, smiling and assiduous even beyond the smiling assiduity with
which he had waited at other tables, appeared with her breakfast, and as
he arranged it on the table, she replaced the blotted letter in its
envelope with a certain lingering touch that was apparently quite
unconscious, and contrasted rather oddly with her self-possessed face.

The envelope was addressed in a woman’s writing to “Mrs. William
Romayne, Hôtel Florian, Nice.” It was one of a pile, and she took up the
others and looked them through. They all bore the same name.

“There are no letters for Mr. Romayne?” she said to the waiter
carelessly.

The voice was rather thin, and, as would have been expected from her
face, slightly unsympathetic, but it was refined and well modulated. Her
French was excellent.

The waiter thus questioned showed a letter--a business-like looking
letter in a blue envelope--which he had brought in on his tray; and
presented it with a torrent of explanation and apology. It had arrived
last night, before the arrival of monsieur and madame, and with
unheard-of carelessness, but with quite amazing carelessness indeed, it
had been placed in a private sitting-room ordered by another English
monsieur, who had arrived only this morning. By the valet of this
English monsieur it had been given to the waiter this moment only; by
the waiter it was now given to madame with ten million desolations that
such an accident should have occurred. Monsieur had seemed so anxious
for letters on his arrival! If madame would have the goodness to
explain!

Madame stopped the flood of protestations with a little gesture. However
it might affect monsieur, the accident did not appear to disturb her
greatly. Indeed, it was inconceivable that she should be easily ruffled.

“Let Mr. Romayne have the letter at once,” she said, “and send him also
a cup of coffee and an English newspaper!”

The waiter signified his readiness to do her bidding with the greatest
alacrity, took the letter from her with an apologetic bow, laid by her
side a newspaper for madame’s own reading, as he said, and retired. Left
once more alone, madame proceeded to breakfast in a dainty, leisurely
fashion, ignoring the newspaper for the present, and drawing from the
envelope in which she had replaced the childish little epistle, a second
letter. It was a long one, and she read it placidly as she went on with
her breakfast.

     “MY DEAR HERMIA,” it ran, “Julian has just accomplished the
     enclosed with a great deal of pride and excitement. The wild
     scrawls that occur here and there were the result of imperative
     demands on his part to be allowed to write ‘all by himself’! The
     dear pet is very well, and grows sweeter every day, I believe. You
     were to meet Mr. Romayne at Mentone, on the second, I think he
     said, and to go on to Nice the next day, so I hope you will get
     this soon after you arrive there. I hope the change will do Mr.
     Romayne good. He came here to see Julian yesterday, and I did not
     think him looking well, nor did father. He only laughed when father
     told him so. We were so glad to get your last letter. You are not a
     very good correspondent, are you? But, of course, you were going
     out a great deal in Paris and had not much time for writing. You
     seem to have had a delightful time there.

     “Dennis Falconer came back last week. He has been away nearly a
     year, you know. He is very brown, and has a long beard, which is
     rather becoming. The Royal Geographical are beginning to think
     rather highly of him, father is told, and he will probably get
     something important to do before long. Father wanted him to come
     and stay here, but he has gone back to his old chambers. Not very
     cousinly of him, I think!

     “You don’t say whether you are coming to London for the season? I
     asked Mr. Romayne, but he said he did not know what your plans
     were. I do so hope you will come, though I am afraid I should not
     be pleased if the spirit should move you to settle down in England
     and demand Julian! However, I suppose that is not very likely?

                     “With much love, dear Hermia,

                    “Your very affectionate Cousin,

                          “FRANCES FALCONER.”



Mrs. Romayne finished the letter, which she had read with leisurely
calm, as though her interest in it was by no means of a thrilling
nature, and then opened and glanced through, the others which were
waiting their turn. They were of various natures; one or two came from
villas about Nice, and consisted of more or less pressing invitations;
one was from a well-known leader of society in Rome--a long, chatty
letter, which the recipient read with evident amusement and interest.
There were also one or two bills, at which Mrs. Romayne glanced with the
composure of a woman with whom money is plentiful.

Breakfast and correspondence were alike disposed of at last, and by this
time the room was nearly full. The laughter and talk was louder now, the
atmosphere of gaiety was more accentuated. Outside in the sunshine in
the public gardens a band was playing. Mrs. Romayne was alone, it is
true, and her voice consequently added nothing to the pervading note,
but her presence, solitary as it was, was no jarring element. She was
not lonely; her solitude was evidently an affair of the moment merely;
she was absolutely in touch with the spirit of the hour, and no
laughing, excited girl there witnessed more eloquently or more
unconsciously to the all-pervading dominion of the pleasures of life
than did the self-possessed looking little woman, to whom its pleasures
were also its businesses--the only businesses she knew.

She had gathered her letters together, and was rising from her seat with
a certain amount of indecision in her face, when a waiter entered the
room and came up to her. “Some ladies wishing to see madame were in the
salon,” he said, and he handed her as he spoke a visiting-card bearing
the name, “Lady Cloughton.” Underneath the name was written in pencil,
“An unconscionable hour to invade you, but we are going this afternoon
to La Turbie, and we hope we may perhaps persuade you to join us.”

“The ladies are in the salon, you say?” said Mrs. Romayne, glancing up
with the careless satisfaction of a woman to whom the turn of events
usually does bring satisfaction; perhaps because her demands and her
experience are alike of the most superficial description.

“In the salon, madame,” returned the waiter. “Three ladies and two
gentlemen.”

He was conducting her obsequiously across the room as he spoke, and a
moment later he opened the door of the salon and stood aside to let her
pass in.

A little well-bred clamour ensued upon her entrance; greetings,
questions and answers as between acquaintances who had not met for some
time, and met now with a pleasure which seemed rather part and parcel of
the gaiety to which the atmosphere of the dining-room had witnessed than
an affair of the feelings. All Mrs. Romayne’s five visitors were
apparently under five-and-thirty, the eldest being a man of perhaps
three or four-and-thirty, addressed by Mrs. Romayne as Lord Cloughton;
the youngest a pretty girl who was introduced by the leader of the
party, presumably Lady Cloughton, herself quite a young woman, as “my
little sister.” They were all well-dressed; they were all apparently in
the best possible spirits, and bent upon enjoyment; and gay little
laughs interspersed the chatter, incessantly breaking from one or the
other on little or no apparent provocation. Eventually Lady Cloughton’s
voice detached itself and went on alone.

“We heard you were here,” she said, “from a man who is staying here. We
are at the Français, you know. And we said at once, ‘Supposing Mrs.
Romayne is not engaged for to-morrow’--so many people don’t come, you
see, until the day before the carnival, and consequently, of course, one
has fewer friends and fewer engagements, and this week is not so full,
don’t you know--‘supposing she has no engagement for to-morrow,’ we
said, ‘how pleasant it would be if she would come with us to La Turbie.’
We have to make Mr. Romayne’s acquaintance, you know. So charmed to have
the opportunity! I hope he is well?”

“Fairly well, thanks,” replied his wife. “He has been in London all the
winter--his business always seems to take him to the wrong place at the
wrong time--and either the climate or his work seems to have knocked him
up a little. He seems to have got into a shocking habit of sitting up
all night and staying in bed all day. At least he has acted on that
principle during the week we have been together. He is actually not up
yet.”

Mrs. Romayne smiled as she spoke; her husband’s “shocking habits”
apparently sat very lightly on her; in fact, there was something
singularly disengaged and impersonal in her manner of speaking of him,
altogether. Her visitor received her smile with a pretty little
unmeaning laugh, and went on with much superficial eagerness:

“He may, perhaps, be up in time for our expedition, though! We thought
of starting in about two hours’ time. They say the place is perfectly
beautiful at this time of year. Perhaps you know it.”

“No,” returned Mrs. Romayne. “Oddly enough I have never been to Nice
before. I have often talked of wintering here, but I have always
eventually gone somewhere else! Are you here for the first time?” she
added, turning to the young man, whom she had received as Mr. Allan, and
who evidently occupied the position of mutual acquaintance between
herself and her other visitors. He was answering her in the affirmative
when Lord Cloughton struck in with a cheery laugh.

“He’s been here two days, and he has come to the conclusion that Nice is
a beastly hole, Mrs. Romayne!” he said. “This afternoon’s expedition is
really a device on our part for cheering him up. He let himself be
persuaded into putting some money into a new bank, and the new bank has
smashed. Have you seen the papers? Now, Allan hasn’t lost much,
fortunately; it isn’t that that weighs upon him. But he is oppressed by
a sense of his own imbecility, aren’t you, old fellow?”

The young man laughed, freely enough.

“Perhaps I am,” he said. “So would you be, Cloughton, wouldn’t he, Mrs.
Romayne? And don’t tell me you wouldn’t have done the same, because any
fellow would, in my place. However, if Mrs. Romayne is more likely to
join us this afternoon if the proceedings are presented to her in the
light of a charity, I’m quite willing to pose as an object! Take pity on
me, Mrs. Romayne, do!”

“I shan’t pity you,” answered Mrs. Romayne lightly. “You don’t seem to
me to be much depressed, and your misfortunes appear to be of your own
making. But I shall be delighted to go with you this afternoon,” she
continued, turning to Lady Cloughton. “And I feel sure that Mr. Romayne
will also be delighted.”

“That is quite charming of you!” exclaimed Lady Cloughton, rising as she
spoke. “Well, then, I think if we were to call for you--yes, we will
call for you in two hours from now. So glad you can come! The little boy
quite well? So glad. In two hours, then! Au revoir.”

There was a flutter of departure, a chorus of bright, meaningless, last
words, and Mrs. Romayne stood at the head of the great staircase, waving
her hand in farewell as her visitors, with a last backward glance and
parting smiles and gestures, disappeared from view. She stood a moment
watching some people in the hall below, whose appearance had struck her
at dinner on the previous evening, and as she looked idly at them she
saw a man come in--an Englishman, evidently just off a journey, and “not
a gentleman” as she decided absently--and go up to a waiter who was
standing in the dining-room doorway. The Englishman evidently asked a
question and then another and another, and finally the waiter glanced
up the stairs to where Mrs. Romayne stood carelessly watching, and
obviously pointed her out to his interlocutor, asking a question in his
turn. The Englishman, after looking quickly in Mrs. Romayne’s direction,
shook his head in answer and walked into the dining-room.

With a vague feeling of surprise and curiosity Mrs. Romayne turned and
moved away. She retraced her steps, evidently intending to go upstairs,
but as she passed the open door of the drawing-room she hesitated; her
eyes caught by the bright prospect visible through the open windows
which looked out over the public gardens and the blue Mediterranean; her
ears caught by the sounds from the band still playing outside. She
re-entered the room, crossed to the window and stood there, looking out
with inattentive pleasure, the dialogue she had witnessed in the hall
quite forgotten as she thought of her own affairs. She thought of the
immediate prospects of the next few weeks; wholly satisfactory prospects
they were, to judge from her expression. She thought of the letters she
had received that morning, mentally answering the invitations she had
received. She thought of the acquaintances who had just left her, and of
the engagement she had made for that afternoon; and then, as if the
necessity for seeing her husband on the subject had by this means become
freshly present to her, she turned away from the window and went out of
the room and up the staircase. On her way she chanced to glance down
into the hall and noticed the Englishman to whom the waiter had pointed
her out, leaning in a reposeful and eminently stationary attitude
against the entrance. She would ask who he was, she resolved idly. She
went on until she came to a door at the end of a long corridor, outside
which stood a dainty little pair of walking shoes and a pair of man’s
boots. She glanced at them and lifted her eyebrows slightly--a
characteristic gesture--and then opened the door.

It led into a little dressing-room, from which another doorway on the
left led, evidently, into a larger room beyond. The glimpse of the
latter afforded by the partly open door showed it dim and dark by
contrast with the light outside; apparently the blind was but slightly
raised. There was no sunshine in the dressing-room, either, though it
was light enough; and as Mrs. Romayne went in and shut the door she
seemed to pass into a silence that was almost oppressive. The band, the
strains of which had reached her at the very threshold, was not audible
in the room; in shutting the door she seemed to shut out all external
sounds, and within the room was absolute stillness.

The contrast, however, made no impression whatever upon Mrs. Romayne.
She was by no means sensitive, evidently, to such subtle influence. She
glanced carelessly through the doorway into the dim vista of the bedroom
beyond, and going to the other end of the dressing-room knelt down by a
portmanteau, and began to search in it with the uncertainty of a woman
whose packing is done for her by a maid. She found what she wanted;
sundry dainty adjuncts to out-of-door attire, one of which, a large lace
sunshade, required a little attention. She took up an elaborate little
case for work implements that lay on the table, and selected a needle
and thread, and a thimble; and perhaps the dead silence about her
oppressed her a little, unconsciously to herself, for she hummed as she
did so a bar or two of the waltz she had shut out as she shut the door.
Then with the needle moving deftly to and fro in her white, well-shaped
hands, she moved down the dressing-room, and standing in the light for
the sake of her work, she spoke through the doorway into the still, dark
bedroom.

“The Cloughtons have been here, William,” she said. “The people I met in
Rome this winter; I think I told you, didn’t I? They wanted us to go to
La Turbie with them this afternoon, and I said we would. That is to say,
I only answered conditionally for you, of course. Will you go?”

There was no answer, no sound of any kind. Not so much as a stir or a
rustle to indicate that the sleep of the man hidden in the dimness
beyond--and only sleep surely could account for his silence--was even
broken by the words addressed to him. Yet the voice which proceeded from
the serene, well-appointed little figure standing in the sombre light of
the dressing-room, with its attention more or less given to the trivial
work in its hands, was penetrating in its quality, though not loud.

Mrs. Romayne paused a moment, listening. Then, with that expressive
movement of her eyebrows, she went back again to the dressing-table she
had left, took up a little pair of scissors which were necessary to give
the finishing touch to her work, gave that finishing touch with careless
deliberation, studied the effect with satisfaction, and then laid down
the sunshade, and returned to the doorway into the bedroom. She stood on
the threshold this time, and the darkness before her and the sombre
light behind her seemed to meet upon her figure; the silence and
stillness all about her seemed to claim even the space she occupied.

“William!” she said crisply. “William!”

Again there was no answer; no sound or stir of any sort or kind. And for
the first time the silence seemed to strike her. She moved quickly
forward into the dimness.

“William! Are you asleep----”

Her eyes had fallen on the bed, and she stopped suddenly. For it was
empty. She paused an instant, and in that instant the silence seemed to
rise and dominate the atmosphere as with a grim and mighty presence,
before which everything shallow or superficial sank into insignificance.
All that was typical and conventional about the woman standing in the
midst of the stillness, arrested by she knew not what, suddenly seemed
to stand out jarring and incongruous, as though unreality had been met
and touched into self-revelation by a great reality. Then it subsided
altogether, and only the simplest elements of womanhood were left--the
womanhood common to the peasant and the princess--as the wife took two
or three quick steps forward. She turned the corner of the bed that hid
the greater part of the room from her, and then staggered back with a
sharp cry. At her feet, partly dressed, there lay the figure of the man
to whom she had been talking; his right hand, dropped straight by his
side, clenched a revolver; his face--a handsome face probably an hour
ago--was white and fixed; his eyes were glassy. On the floor beside him
lay an open letter--a letter written on blue paper.

William Romayne was asleep indeed. His wife might tear at the bell-rope;
the hotel servants might hurry and rush to and fro; even the
recently-arrived Englishman might render his assistance. But it was all
in vain. William Romayne was beyond their reach.



CHAPTER II


The long railway journey from Paris to Nice was nearly over. The
passengers, jaded and tired out, for the most part, after a night in the
train, were beginning to rouse to a languid interest in the landscape;
to become aware that dawn and the uncomfortable and unfamiliar early day
had some time since given place to a fuller and maturer light; and to
consult their watches, reminding themselves--or one another, as the case
might be--that they were due at Nice at twelve-fifteen.

Alone in one of the first-class carriages was a passenger who had
accepted the situation with the most matter-of-fact indifference from
first to last. He had made his arrangements for the night, with the
skill and deliberation of an experienced traveller; and as the morning
advanced he had composed himself, as comfortably as circumstances
permitted, in a corner of his carriage, now and then casting a keen,
comprehensive glance at the country through which he was being carried.
These glances, however, were evidently instinctive and almost
unconscious. For the most part he gazed straight before him with a
preoccupied frown and a grave and anxious expression in marked contrast
with his physical imperturbability. He was a man of apparently three or
four-and-thirty; tall; rather lean than thin; and very muscular-looking.
His face, and the right hand from which he had pulled off the glove,
were bronzed a deep red-brown, and he wore a long brown beard; but he
was not otherwise remarkable-looking. His eyes, indeed, were very keen
and steady, but the rest of his face conveyed the impression that he
owed these characteristics rather to trained habits of material
observation than to general intellectual depths; the mouth was firm and
strong, but neither sensitive nor sympathetic, and the straight,
well-cut nose was as distinctly too thin as the rather high forehead was
too narrow. On a much-worn travelling-bag on the seat beside him, was
the name Dennis Falconer.

The train steamed slowly into the station at Nice at last; the traveller
stepped out on to the platform, and the shade of grave preoccupation
which had touched him seemed to descend on him more heavily and
all-absorbingly as he did so. He was walking down the platform, looking
neither to the right nor the left, when he was stopped by a quick
exclamation from a little wiry man with a shrewd, clever face who had
just come into the station.

“Falconer, as I’m alive,” he cried. “Well met, my boy!”

The gravity of the younger man’s face relaxed for the moment into a
smile of well-pleased astonishment.

“Dr. Aston!” he exclaimed. “Why, I was thinking of looking you up in
London! I’d no idea you were abroad!”

The other man laughed, a very pleasant, jovial laugh.

“I’m taking a holiday,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ve any particular
right to it! But I don’t know these places, and I took it into my head
that I should like to have a look at a carnival in Nice. And you, my
boy? Just back from Africa, you are, I know. You’ve come for the
carnival by way of a change, eh?”

Falconer’s face altered.

“No!” he said gravely, and with a good deal of restraint. “I’ve not come
for pleasure. Very much the reverse, I’m sorry to say.”

He paused, apparently intending to say no more on the subject. But the
keen, kindly interest in his hearer’s face, or something magnetic about
the man, influenced him in spite of himself.

“I don’t know whether the facts about this bank business are known here
yet,” he said, “but if they are you’ll understand, Aston, when I tell
you that I and my old uncle are the only male relations of William
Romayne’s wife.”

A quick flash of grave intelligence passed across Dr. Aston’s face. He
hesitated, and glanced dubiously at the younger man.

“When did you leave London?” he said abruptly.

“Yesterday morning,” was the somewhat surprised reply.

“You’ve come in good time, my boy,” said Dr. Aston very gravely. “Mrs.
Romayne wants a relation with her if ever she did in her life. Was her
husband ever a friend of yours, Dennis?”

“I have never met him. I know very little even of his wife. What is it,
doctor?”

“William Romayne shot himself yesterday morning!”

A short, sharp exclamation broke from Falconer, and then there was a
moment’s total silence between the two men as the sudden, unspeakable
horror in Falconer’s face resolved itself into a shocked, almost
awestruck gravity.

“I am thankful to have met you,” he said at last in a low, stern voice;
“and I am more than thankful that I came.”

He held out his hand as he spoke, as though what he had heard impelled
him to go on his way, and Dr. Aston wrung it with warm sympathy.

“We shall meet again,” he said. “Let me know if I can be of any use. I
am staying at the Français.”

Grave and stern, but not apparently shaken or rendered nervous by the
news he had heard, or by the prospect of the meeting before him, as a
sympathetic or emotional man must have been, Dennis Falconer strode out
of the station. Grave and stern he reached his destination, and enquired
for Mrs. Romayne. His question was answered by the proprietor himself,
supplemented by half-audible ejaculations from attendant waiters, in a
tone in which sympathetic interest, familiarity, and even a certain
amount of resentment were inextricably blended.

Monsieur would see Madame Romayne--_cette pauvre madame_, of a demeanour
so beautiful, yes, even in these frightful circumstances, so beautiful
and so distinguished? Monsieur had but just arrived from
England--monsieur had then perhaps not heard? Monsieur was aware? He was
a kinsman of madame? Monsieur would then doubtless appreciate the so
great inconvenience occasioned, the hardly-to-be-reckoned damage
sustained by one of the first hotels in Nice, by the event? Monsieur
would see madame at once? But yes, madame was visible. There was, in
fact, a monsieur with her even now--an English monsieur from the
English Scotland Yard. Madame had sent---- But monsieur was indeed in
haste.

Monsieur left no possibility of doubt on that score. The waiter, told
off by a wave of the proprietor’s hand on the vigorous demonstration to
that effect evoked by the mention of the monsieur from Scotland Yard,
had to hasten his usual pace considerably to keep ahead of those quick,
firm footsteps, and it was almost breathlessly that he at last threw
open a door at the end of a long corridor.

“Mr. Romayne’s name is public property in connection with the affair,
then, in London, since yesterday morning?”

The words, spoken in a hard, thin, woman’s voice, came to Falconer’s ear
as the door opened; and the waiter’s announcement, “A kinsman of
madame,” passed unheeded as he moved hastily forward into the room.

It was a small private sitting-room, evidently by no means the best in
the hotel. With his back to the door stood a young man in an attitude of
professional calm, rather belied by a certain nervous fingering of the
hat he held, which seemed to say that he found his position a somewhat
embarrassing one. Facing him, and indirectly facing the door, stood Mrs.
Romayne.

She was dressed in black from head to foot, but the gown she wore was
one that she had had in her wardrobe--very fashionably made, with no
trace of mourning about it other than its hue.

Emphasized, perhaps, by the incongruity of her conventional smartness,
but a result of the past twenty-four hours independent of any such
emphasis, all the more salient points of her demeanour of the day before
seemed to be accentuated into hardness. Her perfect self-possession, as
she faced the young man before her--it was the man she had noticed on
the previous morning questioning the waiter--was hard; her perfect
freedom from any touch of emotion or agitation was hard; her face, a
little sharpened and haggard, and reddened slightly about the eyelids,
apparently rather from want of sleep than from tears, was very hard; her
eyes, brighter than usual, and her rather thin mouth, were eloquent of
bitterness, rather than desolation, of spirit.

She turned quickly towards the door as Falconer entered, and looked at
him for an instant with an unrecognising stare. Then, as he advanced to
her without speaking, and with outstretched hand, something that was
almost a spasm of comprehension passed across her face, settling into a
stiff little society smile.

“It is Dennis Falconer, isn’t it?” she said, holding out her hand to
him. “I ought to have known you at once. I am very glad to see you.”

“My uncle thought---- We decided yesterday morning----”

Dennis Falconer hesitated and stopped. He was thrown out of his
reckoning, taken hopelessly aback, as it were, by something so entirely
unlike what he had expected as was her whole bearing; though, indeed, he
had been quite unconscious of expecting anything. But Mrs. Romayne
remained completely mistress of the situation.

“It is very kind of you,” she said, with the same hard composure. “It
was very kind of my uncle.” She hesitated, hardly perceptibly, and then
said, the lines about her mouth growing more bitter, “You have heard?”

Falconer bowed his head in assent, and she turned toward the young man,
who had drawn a little apart during this colloquy.

“This gentleman comes from Scotland Yard,” she said. “Perhaps you will
be so kind as to go into matters with him. I do not understand business
or legal details. Mr. Falconer will represent me,” she added to the
young man, who bowed with an alacrity that suggested, as did his glance
at Falconer, that the prospect of conferring with a man rather than a
woman was a distinct relief to him. Then, before Falconer’s not very
rapid mind had adjusted itself to the situation, she had bowed slightly
to the young man and left the room.



CHAPTER III


Three days before, the name of William Romayne had been widely known and
respected throughout Europe as the name of a successful and
distinguished financier. Now, it was the centre of a nine-days’ wonder
as the name of a master swindler, detected.

A bank, established in London within the last twelve months in
connection with a company offering an exceptionally high rate of
interest, had suddenly suspended payment. The circumstances were so
ordinary, and the explanation offered so plausible, that at first no
suspicion of underhand dealings presented itself. It was in connection
with the first whispers--which ran like wildfire through financial
London--of something beneath the surface, that it first became known
that William Romayne had some connection, as yet undefined by rumour,
with the bank in question; a fact hitherto quite unknown. The whispers
grew with rapidity which was almost incredible even to the whisperers,
into a definite and authentic shout of accusation; and with the exposure
of an outline of such daring and ingenious fraud as had not been
perpetrated for many a day, another fact had become public property. The
exposure had been brought about by an incredibly short-sighted blunder
on the part of the master mind by which the whole affair had been
conceived. William Romayne’s was the master mind, and William Romayne,
in trying to overreach alike his dupes and his confederates, had
overreached himself. His own hand had created the clue which had led
eventually to the ruin of the scheme he had originated. His death, with
the news of which the London Stock Exchange was ringing only a few hours
after it was known in Nice, was the forfeit paid by a strong nature to
which success in all its undertakings was the very salt of life.

Mrs. Romayne, on leaving the sitting-room, passed along the passages to
her own room--not that which she had entered twenty-four hours before to
consult with her husband as to the pleasure expedition of the
afternoon--her face and manner altering not at all. Her composure was
evidently neither forced nor unreal. The emotion created in her by the
tragic circumstances through which she was living was obviously not the
heartbroken shame and despair naturally to be attributed to a wife so
situated, but a bitter and burning resentment. Had William Romayne
passed away in the ordinary course of nature, or by any violent
accident, his widow would have mourned him with conventional lamentation
and with a certain amount of genuine regret. He had committed suicide,
as the letter lying by his side revealed to his wife even while she
hardly realised that he was indeed dead, as his only way of escape from
the consequences of fraud on the brink of detection; and his widow’s
attitude to his memory under these circumstances was the natural outcome
of the character of their married life.

Hermia Stirling at nineteen had been a pretty, practical, matter-of-fact
girl, with her rather shallow nature somewhat prematurely matured. She
had been an orphan from her babyhood, and having no near relations in
England, her nineteen years of life had been lived under varied
auspices, resulting in more desultory education, moral as well as
mental, than was good for her. The most impressionable of those years,
however--those from fourteen to nineteen--had been passed with
connections of her mother’s, young and wealthy society women, with no
ideas beyond society life, and with little perceptible principle but
that of social expediency. Hermia was just nineteen, just out, and
taking to the life before her with the ease and zest of a born woman of
the world, when one of these ladies died, and the other married and went
away to America with her husband. At this juncture the girl’s guardian,
her father’s only brother, returned from India to settle in London with
his only child, a girl two years older than Hermia; and it was obvious
that his home must be also Hermia’s. But neither old Mr. Falconer nor
his daughter had the slightest taste or capacity for fashionable life,
and before she had spent six months with them the world had become to
Hermia an insufferably dull and tiresome place.

She had known William Romayne in society. He was rich, he was handsome,
and he was very popular; there was that indefinable something about him,
manner, magnetism, or tact, which constitutes a kind of dominating
charm. He was not the less “somebody” in that he was vaguely understood
to be a business man of some sort, with dealings in shares and stocks
all over the world--a locality which lent a picturesque haziness to his
affairs. Consequently, when he followed Hermia into her new life and
asked her to marry him, she passed over the fact that he was
five-and-twenty years her senior, and consented with the practical
promptitude of a nature for which romance and sentiment were not. For
eighteen months she and her husband had lived in a large house in Eaton
Square, entertaining and being entertained through two brilliant
seasons, which took away any girlishness which Hermia had ever
possessed, and gave her qualities which she admired infinitely more. She
found her husband very pleasant, very easy to live with, and, after the
first six months, quite unexacting. His business took him into the City
every day at this time, though, as his wife said, complacently, he was
not the least like the ordinary City man; but at the end of the season
which followed on the birth of their child he announced that he would
have to spend certainly six months, possibly more, in America.

He showed no ardent desire to take his wife with him, and his wife had
no desire whatever to go. She wanted to spend the rest of the summer at
one of the fashionable health resorts, and to winter in Rome. Such an
arrangement was accordingly made between them in the simplest, most
matter-of-fact way, arguing no shadow of ill-will on either side; and
during the four years which had elapsed since then, husband and wife had
each gone his or her own way, meeting when occasion served for a month
or two at a time, now in London, now in Paris, now in Rome; and
presumably finding the arrangement mutually satisfactory. The little boy
had been left for the most part to the care of Mrs. Romayne’s cousin,
Frances Falconer. Mrs. Romayne regarded him with the careless,
half-dormant affection of a woman to whom her child owes nothing but
bare life; to whom its arrival in the world has been rather a tiresome
interlude, merely, in her round of pleasures and pursuits; who has had
no time since, and has seen no occasion to make time, to give it that
care which other people, as it seemed to her, could give it quite as
well as she; and who is waiting, vaguely, until it shall be “grown up,”
to find it interesting.

That her husband’s “business” had taken him in the course of those four
years into every corner of the globe where the passing of money from
hand to hand is elevated into a science, Mrs. Romayne knew; and with
that fact her knowledge of his affairs began and ended. He made her an
ample allowance; whenever they met she found him the same handsome,
rather callous, but withal fascinating man; clever with a cleverness
which she could appreciate--the cleverness which made money, and held a
position in society--and she had asked nothing more of him. Her regard
for him, if regard that could be called which was more truly
indifference, had been founded on appreciation of his success. Before
failure, before the social disgrace which must be the lot of a detected
swindler and suicide, it disappeared totally and instantaneously, to be
replaced by a burning sense of personal outrage and insult.

It was late in the afternoon before she left her room again. Dennis
Falconer received a message to the effect that Mrs. Romayne was sure
that he must be tired, and begged that he would not think of her until
he had lunched and rested.

When she did reappear she was in widow’s weeds, and the contrast between
her dress, with its tragic significance of desolation, and her face,
untouched with feeling, was inexpressible.

Dennis Falconer was in the sitting-room when she entered it. His sense
of duty was largely developed, and he was also keenly sensible of the
moral aspect of the affair with which he was brought into such close
contact. The first of these senses kept him in waiting in anticipation
of the appearance of the woman for whose assistance he was there; and
the second weighed so heavily upon him that the publicity of the hotel
smoking-room would have been intolerable to him under the circumstances.

He rose quickly as Mrs. Romayne came in, a look of slight constraint on
his face.

Dennis Falconer had no near relation, and perhaps this absence of close
ties to England had had something to do with his adoption of the life of
a traveller and explorer in connection with the Royal Geographical
Society. Old Mr. Falconer, Mrs. Romayne’s uncle, was his second cousin
only, though the younger man had been brought up to address him as
uncle; but in so small a clan distant relationship counts for more than
in a family where first cousins and brothers and sisters abound, and
there was nothing strange to Dennis Falconer or to Mrs. Romayne in the
fact of his coming to her support, even though they hardly knew one
another. But Falconer had been chilled and even repelled by her manner
of the morning, and he was very conscious now of having his cousin’s
acquaintance to make, and of approaching the process with a vague
prejudice against her in his mind.

This prejudice was not dissipated by her first words, spoken with a
suavity somewhat low in pitch, truly, but with a tacit ignoring of the
significance of their meeting which seemed to the man she addressed--to
whom society life with its obligations and conventionalities was
practically an unknown quantity--simply jarring and unsuitable.

“I hope you are rested!” she said. “I suppose, though, that to such a
traveller as you are, the journey from London to Nice is nothing. I hear
from Frances constantly about your exploits, and she tells me that we
are to expect great things of you. What a long time it is since we met!”

She sat down as she spoke, with a hard little smile, and Falconer
murmured something almost unintelligible. Thinking that his manner arose
from mere embarrassment, instinct dictated to her to set him at his
ease; and with no faintest comprehension of his attitude of mind she
proceeded to chat to him about his own affairs, asking him questions
which elicited coherent answers indeed, but answers which grew terser
and sterner until she thought indifferently that her cousin was a
rather heavy person. At last there came a pause; a pause during which
Falconer gazed grimly and uncomfortably at the floor. And when Mrs.
Romayne broke it, it was with a different tone and manner, hard and
matter-of-fact.

“The detective told you more than he told me, possibly,” she said. “If
there is anything more for me to hear, I should like to hear it. You had
better, I think, read this letter. Mr. Romayne received it yesterday
morning.”

She handed him that letter written on blue paper which had lain by the
dead man’s side, and Falconer took it in silence.

The letter was from one of William Romayne’s confederates. It was the
desperate letter of a desperate man who knew himself to be addressing
the man to whom he was to owe ruin and disgrace. The crisis had
evidently been so wholly unexpected that detection was actually imminent
before the criminals recognised it as even possible. The gist of the
letter was contained in the statement that before it met the eyes of the
man for whom it was intended, the whole scheme would be exploded.

Falconer read it through, his face very stern. He finished it and
refolded it, still in silence, and Mrs. Romayne said in a dry, thin
voice:

“It bears out, as you see, what the detective no doubt told you--that
there was so little ground for suspicion three days ago that he was sent
out merely to watch, and without even a warrant. He found a telegram
waiting for him here from his authorities yesterday morning.”

“He told me so!” answered Falconer distantly and constrainedly, handing
her back the letter as he spoke without comment.

“There is not the faintest possibility of hushing it up, I conclude?”
she asked, in the same hard voice.

Falconer looked at her for a moment, the indefinite disapprobation of
her, which had been growing in him almost with every word she said,
taking form in his face in a distinct expression of reprobation.

“Not the faintest!” he said emphatically. “Nor do I see that such a
possibility is in any way to be desired.”

She glanced at him with a quick movement of her eyebrows. She did not
speak, however, and a silence ensued between them; one of those
uncomfortable silences eloquent of conscious want of sympathy. It was
broken this time by Falconer, who spoke with formal politeness and
restraint.

“You will wish to get away from this place as soon as possible, no
doubt,” he said. “There may be some slight delay before we are put into
possession of the papers and other effects at present in the hands of
the authorities here. But I will, of course, do all I can to hasten
matters.”

“Thanks!” she said. “The papers? Oh, you mean Mr. Romayne’s papers! Are
there any, do you think? A will, I suppose?”

“The will, if there is one, will be so much waste paper, I fear,” said
Falconer with uncompromising sternness. “There is no chance of any
property being saved, even if it was possible to wish for such a thing.
But there may be papers, nevertheless; in fact, no doubt there must be;
and you will, of course, wish to have them.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Romayne thoughtfully; “yes, of course.” She paused a
moment, and then added in a dry, constrained voice: “Do you mean me to
understand that I am absolutely penniless?”

“Was your own money in your own hands, or in Mr. Romayne’s?”

“In Mr. Romayne’s.”

“Then I fear there can be no doubt that such is the case.”

Falconer spoke very stiffly and distantly, and Mrs. Romayne rose from
her chair a little abruptly, and walked to the window. When she turned
to him again it was to speak of the formalities necessary with the Nice
authorities, and a few moments later the interview was ended by the
appearance of dinner.

During the few days that followed, the distance between them, which that
first interview established so imperceptibly but so certainly, never
lessened; it grew, indeed, with their contact with one another.

To Falconer Mrs. Romayne’s whole attitude of mind, her whole
personality, was simply and entirely antipathetic. That a woman under
such circumstances should speak, and act, and think as Mrs. Romayne
spoke, and acted, and--as far as he could tell--thought; with so little
sense of any but the social aspect of her husband’s crime; with so
little realisation of the ruin that crime had brought to hundreds of
innocent people; with so little moral feeling of any kind; was in the
highest degree reprehensible to him. Having assumed a mental attitude of
reprehension, he stopped short; his perceptions were not sufficiently
keen to allow of his understanding that some pity might be due also.

Suffering is not always to be estimated by the worth of the object
through which it is inflicted; not often, indeed, in this world, where
the sum of man’s suffering is out of all proportion greater than the sum
of man’s spirituality. Mrs. Romayne’s conception of life might be in the
last degree narrow and selfish, and as such it might be in the highest
degree to be deprecated; but such as it was it was all she had, and
within its limits her life was now in ruin. Her aims and ends in life
might be of the poorest, and deserving of unsparing condemnation; but
she had nothing beyond, and the pain of their overthrow was to her
dormant sensibility not so very disproportionate to the suffering
inflicted on a more sensitive organisation by the shattering of higher
hopes.

Mrs. Romayne, for her part, found her cousin, with the reserve and
formality of demeanour which the situation developed in him, simply a
tiresome and uncongenial companion. He was very attentive to her. His
manner, as she acknowledged to herself more than once with a heavy sigh,
was excellent, and he managed her difficult and painful affairs with
admirable strength and tact; she learnt in the course of those few days
to respect him and depend on him, in spite of herself and even against
her will. But it was not surprising that the end of their enforced dual
solitude should be looked for more or less eagerly by both parties. They
were almost entirely dependent on one another for companionship.
Falconer, it is true, saw Dr. Aston once or twice; but of Mrs. Romayne’s
acquaintances not one had even left a card of condolence upon her.
Neither the Cloughtons nor any other of the pleasure-seekers who had
previously been so anxious for her society, showed any sign of being
aware of her existence under her present circumstances.

The form taken by Falconer’s first allusion to the probable limits of
their detention in Nice had created in both of them, by one of those
vague chains of idea which are so unaccountable and so often
experienced, a tendency to think and speak of the termination of that
detention, when they did speak together on the subject, as “when the
papers are given up.” There was some question, at one time, as to
whether or no even the private papers of William Romayne would be
returned to his widow. And these same papers, thus surrounded by an
element of painful uncertainty, and at the same time elevated into a
kind of order of release, obtained in the minds of both a fictitious
importance on their own account. Mrs. Romayne found herself thinking
about them, conjecturing about them, even dreaming about them; until at
last, when they were actually placed in her hand, they possessed a
curious fascination for her.

It was about midday when she and Falconer returned from their final
appearance before the authorities. She stood in the middle of the room
holding the large, shabby despatch-box, lately handed to her with a
grave “Private papers, madame”; the noise of the carnival floated in at
the window in striking contrast with the two sombre figures.

“I think I will go and look them over!” she said in a low, rather
surprised voice. “You would like to go out, perhaps. Please don’t think
about me. I will spend the day quietly indoors.”

He answered her courteously, and she left the room slowly, with her eyes
fixed curiously on the despatch-box in her hand.



CHAPTER IV


Mrs. Romayne carried the despatch-box to her bedroom and set it down on
a small table. She and Falconer were leaving Nice on the following
morning, and her maid was just finishing her packing. Mrs. Romayne
inspected the woman’s arrangements, gave her sundry orders, and then
dismissed her. Left alone, she made one or two trifling preparations for
the journey on her own account, and when these were completed to her
satisfaction, she drew the table on which she had placed the
despatch-box to the open window, and seated herself.

She drew the box towards her and unlocked it, and there was nothing in
her face as she did so but the hard resentment which had grown upon it
during the last few days, just touched by an indefinite and equally
hard curiosity. The interest which those papers possessed for her had
been created by purely artificial means; intrinsically they were nothing
to her. The position which the possession of them had occupied in her
thoughts lately was the sole source of the impulse under which she was
acting now; under any other circumstances she might hardly have cared to
look at them.

She raised the lid and paused a moment, looking down at the compact mass
of papers within with a sudden vague touch of more personal interest.
The box was nearly full. The various sets of papers were carefully and
methodically fastened together, and endorsed evidently upon a system.
Mrs. Romayne hesitated a moment, and then took out a packet at random.

It consisted of bills all bearing dates within the last six months; all
sent in by leading London tradesmen, and all for large amounts. Mrs.
Romayne glanced at the figures, and her eyebrows moved with an
expression of slight surprise, which was almost immediately dominated by
bitter acceptance and comprehension. She opened none, however, until
she came to one bearing the name of a well-known London jeweller. She
read the name and the amount of the bill, and paused; then a new
curiosity came into her eyes, and she unfolded the paper quickly. The
account was a very long one, and as her eyes travelled quickly down it,
taking in item after item, a dull red colour crept into her face, and
her eyes sparkled with contemptuous resentment. She was evidently
surprised, and yet half-annoyed with herself for being surprised.
Two-thirds of the items in the bill in her hand were for articles of
jewellery not worn by men, and not one of these had ever been seen by
William Romayne’s wife.

She stuffed the paper back into its fastening, tossed the bundle away
and took another packet from the box with quickened interest. It
consisted of miscellaneous documents, all, likewise, connected with her
husband’s life in London during the past winter, but of no particular
interest. The next packet she opened was of the same nature, and with
that the top layer of the box came to an end.

The papers below were evidently older; of varying ages, indeed, to judge
from their varying tints of yellow. Disarranging a lower layer in
taking out the packet nearest to her hand, Mrs. Romayne saw that there
were older papers still, beneath, and realised that the box before her
contained the private papers of many years; probably all the private
papers which William Romayne had preserved throughout his life. She
opened the packet she had drawn out, hastily and with an angry glitter
in her eyes. It consisted of businesslike-looking documents, not likely,
as it seemed, to be of any interest to her.

She glanced through the first unheedingly enough, and then, as she
reached the end, something seemed suddenly to touch her attention. She
paused a moment, with a startled, incredulous expression on her face,
and began to re-read it slowly and carefully. She read it to the end
again, and her face, as she finished, was a little pale and
chilled-looking. She freed another paper from the packet almost
mechanically, with an absorbed, preoccupied look in her eyes, opened it
and read it with a strained, hardly comprehending attention which grew
gradually and imperceptibly, as she went on from paper to paper, into a
kind of stupefied horror. She finished the thick packet in her hands,
and then she paused, lifting her pale face for a moment and gazing
straight before her with an indescribable expression on its shallow
hardness, as though she was realising something almost incredibly bitter
and repugnant to her, and was stunned by the realisation. Then her
instincts and habits of life and thought seemed to assert themselves, as
it were, and to dominate the situation. Her expression changed; the
stupefied look gave place to what was little deeper than bitter
excitement; a patch of angry colour succeeded the pallor of a moment
earlier; and her eyes glittered.

Turning to the despatch-box again, she proceeded to ransack it with a
hasty eagerness of touch which differed markedly from the careless
composure of her earlier proceedings. Paper after paper was torn open,
glanced through--sometimes even re-read with a feverish attention--and
tossed aside; sometimes with a sudden deepening of that angry flush;
sometimes with a movement of the lips, as though an interjection formed
itself upon them; always with a heightening of her excitement; until one
packet only remained at the bottom of the box. Mrs. Romayne snatched it
out, and then started slightly as she saw that it did not consist, as
the majority of the others had done, of business papers, but of letters
in a woman’s handwriting. Nor was it so old as many of the papers she
had looked at, some of which had borne dates twenty-five years back. She
opened it with a sudden hardening of her excitement, which seemed to
mark the change from almost impersonal to intensely personal interest.
She saw that the date was that of the second year after her marriage;
that each letter was annotated in her husband’s writing; and then she
began deliberately to read, her lips very thin and set, her eyes cold
and hard. She read the letters all through, with every comment inscribed
on them, and by the time she laid the last upon the table her very lips
were white with vindictive feeling strangely incongruous on her little
conventional face. She sat quite still for a moment, and then rose
abruptly and stood by the window with her back to the table, looking
out upon the evening sky.

The strength of feeling died out of her face, however, in the course of
a very few minutes, leaving it only very white and rather
strange-looking, as though she had received a series of shocks which had
made a mark even on material so difficult to impress as her artificial
personality; and she turned, by-and-by, and contemplated the table,
littered now with documents of all sorts, as though she saw, not the
actual heaps of papers, but something beyond them contemptible and
disgusting to her beyond expression. Then suddenly she moved forward,
crammed the papers indiscriminately into the despatch-box, forced down
the lid, and carried the box out of the room down the stairs towards the
sitting-room where she had left Dennis Falconer.

It was an impulse not wholly consistent with the self-reliance of her
ordinary manner; but that manner had been acquired in a world where
shocks and difficulties were more or less disbelieved in. Face to face
with so unconventional a condition of affairs Mrs. Romayne’s
conventional instincts were necessarily at fault; and there being no
strong motive power in her to supply their place, it was only natural
that she should relieve herself by turning to the man on whom the past
few days had taught her to rely.

Dennis Falconer was not in the sitting-room when she opened the door,
but as she stood in the doorway contemplating the empty room, he came
down the corridor behind her.

“Were you looking for me?” he said with distant courtesy as he reached
her. He made a movement to relieve her of the box she carried, and as he
did so he was struck by her expression. “Is there anything here you wish
me to see?” he said quickly and gravely.

“Yes,” she said; she spoke in a dry, hard voice, about which there was a
ring of excitement which made him look at her again, and realise vaguely
that something was wrong.

He followed her into the room, and she motioned to him to put the box on
the table.

“I have been looking them over,” she said, indicating the papers with a
gesture, “and I have brought them to you. They are very interesting.”

She laughed a bitter, crackling little laugh, and the disapproval in
ambush in Dennis Falconer’s expression developed a little.

“Do you wish me to go over them now, and with you?” he enquired stiffly.

“Not with me, I think, thank you,” she answered, the novel excitement
about her manner finding expression once more in that harsh laugh. “One
reading is enough. But now, if you don’t mind. There are business points
on which I may possibly be mistaken”--she did not look as though she
spoke from conviction--“and--I should like you to read them. I will go
out into the garden; it is quite empty always at this time, and I want
some air.”

Her tone and the glance she cast at the despatch-box as she spoke made
it evident that it was not closeness of material atmosphere alone that
had created the necessity.

“I will read them now, certainly, if you wish it,” he returned.

Then, as she took up a book which lay on a table with a mechanical
gesture of acknowledgement, he opened the door for her and she went out
of the room. He came back to the table, drew up a chair, and opened the
despatch-box.

Two hours later Dennis Falconer was still sitting in that same chair,
his right hand, which rested on the table, clenched until the knuckles
were white, his face pale to the very lips beneath its tan. In his eyes,
fixed in a kind of dreadful fascination on the innocent-looking piles of
papers before him, there was a look of shocked, almost incredulous
horror, which seemed to touch all that was narrow and dogmatic about his
ordinary expression into something deep and almost solemn. The door
opened, and he started painfully. It was only the waiter with
preliminary preparations for dinner, and recovering himself with an
effort Falconer rose, and slowly, almost as though their very touch was
repugnant to him, began to replace the papers in the box. He locked it,
and then left the room, carrying it with him.

Dinner was served, and Mrs. Romayne had been waiting some two or three
minutes before he reappeared. He was still pale, and the horror had
rather settled down on to his face than left it; but it had changed its
character somewhat; the breadth was gone from it. It was as though he
had passed through a moment of expansion and insight to contract again
to his ordinary limits. Mrs. Romayne was standing near the window; the
excitement had almost entirely subsided from her manner, leaving her
only harder and more bitter in expression than she had been three hours
before. She glanced sharply at Falconer as he came towards her with a
constrained, conventional word or two of apology; answered him with the
words his speech demanded; and they sat down to dinner.

It was a silent meal. Mrs. Romayne made two or three remarks on general
topics, and asked one or two questions as to their journey of the
following day; and Falconer responded as briefly as courtesy allowed. On
his own account he originated no observation whatever until dinner was
over, and the final disappearance of the waiter had been succeeded by a
total silence.

Mrs. Romayne was still sitting opposite him, one elbow resting on the
table, her head leaning on her hand as she absently played with some
grapes on which her eyes were fixed. Falconer glanced across at her once
or twice, evidently with a growing conviction that it was incumbent on
him to speak, and with a growing uncertainty as to what he should say.
This latter condition of things helped to make his tone even unusually
formal and dogmatic as he said at last:

“Sympathy, I fear, must seem almost a farce!”

She glanced up quickly, her eyes very bright and hard.

“Sympathy?” she said drily. “I don’t know that there is any new call for
sympathy, is there? After all, things are very much where they were!”

A kind of shock passed across Falconer’s face; a materialisation of a
mental process.

“What we know now----” he began stiffly.

“What we knew before was quite enough!” interrupted Mrs. Romayne. “When
one has arrived violently at the foot of the precipice, it is of no
particular moment how long one has been living on the precipice’s edge.
While nothing was known, Mr. Romayne was only on the precipice’s edge,
and as no one knew of the precipice it was practically as though none
existed. Directly one thing came out it was all over! He was over the
edge. Nothing could make it either better or worse.”

She spoke almost carelessly, though very bitterly, as though she felt
her words to be almost truisms, and Falconer stared at her for a moment
in silence. Then he said with stern formality, as though he were making
a deliberate effort to realise her point of view:

“You imply that Mr. Romayne’s fall--his going over the edge of the
precipice, if I may adopt your figure--consisted in the discovery of his
misdeeds. Do you mean that you think it would have been better if
nothing had ever been known?”

Mrs. Romayne raised her eyebrows.

“Of course!” she said amazedly. Then catching sight of her cousin’s face
she shrugged her shoulders with a little gesture of deprecating
concession. “Oh, of course, I don’t mean that Mr. Romayne himself would
have been any better if nothing had ever come out,” she said
impatiently. “The right and wrong and all that kind of thing would have
been the same, I suppose. But I don’t see how ruin and suicide improve
the position.”

She rose as she spoke, and Falconer made no answer.

Mrs. Romayne had touched on the great realities of life, the everlasting
mystery of the spirit of man with its unfathomable obligations and
disabilities; had touched on them carelessly, patronisingly, as “all
that kind of thing.” She was as absolutely blind to the depth of their
significance as is a man without eyesight to the illimitable spaces of
the sky above him. To Falconer her tone was simply scandalising. He did
not understand her ignorance. He could not touch the pathos of its
limitations and the possibilities by which it was surrounded. The grim
irony of such a tone as used by the ephemeral of the immutable was
beyond his ken.

“I have several things to see to upstairs,” Mrs. Romayne went on after a
moment’s pause. “I shall go up now, and I think, if you will excuse me,
I will not come down again. We start so early. Good night!”

“Good night!” he returned stiffly; and with a little superior,
contemptuous smile on her face she went away.



CHAPTER V


Dennis Falconer had been alone for nearly an hour, when his solitude was
broken up by the appearance of a waiter, who presented him with a card,
and the information that the gentleman whose name it bore was in the
smoking-room. The name was Dr. Aston’s, and after a moment’s reflection
Falconer told the waiter to ask the gentleman to come upstairs. Falconer
had spent that last hour in meditation, which had grown steadily deeper
and graver. It seemed to have carried him beyond the formal and dogmatic
attitude of mind with which he had met Mrs. Romayne, back to the borders
of those larger regions he had touched when he sat looking at William
Romayne’s papers; and there was a warmth and gratitude in his reception
of Dr. Aston when that gentleman appeared, that suggested that he was
not so completely sufficient for himself as usual.

“The smoking-room is very full, I imagine?” he said, as he welcomed the
little doctor. “My cousin has gone to bed, and I thought if you didn’t
mind coming up, doctor, we should be better off here.”

Dr. Aston’s answer was characteristically hearty and alert. Knowing it
to be Falconer’s last night at Nice, he had come round, he said, just
for a farewell word, and to arrange, if possible, for a meeting later on
under happier circumstances. A quiet chat over a cigar was what he had
not hoped for, but the thing of all others he would like. He settled
himself with a genial instinct for comfort in the arm-chair Falconer
pulled round to the window for him; accepted a cigar and prepared to
light it; glancing now and again at the younger man’s face with shrewd,
kindly eyes, which had already noticed something unusual in its
expression.

Dr. Aston and Dennis Falconer had met, some six years before, in Africa,
under circumstances which had brought out all that was best in the young
man’s character; and Dr. Aston had been warmly attracted by him. Being
a particularly shrewd student of human nature, he had taken his measure
accurately enough, subsequently, and knew as certainly as one man may of
another where his weak points lay, and how time was dealing with them.
But his kindness for, and interest in, Dennis Falconer had never abated;
perhaps because his insight did not, as so much human insight does, stop
at the weak points.

Dennis Falconer, for his part, regarded Dr. Aston with an affectionate
respect which he gave to hardly any other man on earth.

There was a short silence as the two men lit their cigars, and then Dr.
Aston, with another glance at Falconer’s face, broke it with a kindly,
delicate enquiry after Mrs. Romayne. Falconer answered it almost
absently, but with an instinctive stiffening, so to speak, of his face
and voice, and there was another pause. The doctor was trying the
experiment of waiting for a lead. He was just deciding that he must make
another attempt on his own account when Falconer took his cigar from
between his lips and said, with his eyes fixed on the evening sky:

“I’m always glad to see you, doctor; but I never was more glad than
to-night.”

A sound proceeded from the doctor which might have been described as a
grunt if it had been less delicately sympathetic, and Falconer
continued:

“I’ve been trying to think out a problem, and it was one too many for
me: the origin of evil.”

He was thoroughly in earnest, and nothing was further from him than any
thought of lightness or flippancy. But there was a calm familiarity and
matter-of-course acquaintanceship with his subject about his tone that
produced a slight quiver about the corners of the little doctor’s mouth.
He did not speak, however, and the movement with which he took his cigar
from between his lips and turned to Falconer was merely sympathetic and
interested.

“Of course, I know it’s an unprofitable subject enough,” continued
Falconer almost apologetically. “We shall never be much the wiser on the
subject, struggle as we may. But still, now and then it seems to be
forced on one. It has been forced on me to-day.”

“Apropos of William Romayne?” suggested Dr. Aston, so delicately that
the words seemed rather a sympathetic comment than a question.

“Yes,” returned Falconer. “We have been looking through his private
papers.” He paused a moment, and then continued as if drawn on almost in
spite of himself. “You knew him by repute, I dare say, doctor. He had
one of those strong personalities which get conveyed even by hearsay. A
clever man, striking and dominating, universally liked and deferred to.
Yet he must have been as absolutely without principle as this table is
without feeling.”

He struck the little table between them with his open hand as he spoke;
and then, as though the expression of his feelings had begotten, as is
often the case, an irresistible desire to relieve himself further, he
answered Dr. Aston’s interested ejaculation as if it had been the
question the doctor was at once too well-bred and too full of tact to
put.

“There were no papers connected with this last disgraceful affair, of
course; those, as you know, I dare say, were all seized in London. It’s
the man’s past life that these private papers throw light on. Light, did
I say? It was a life of systematic, cold-blooded villainy, for which no
colours could be dark enough.”

He had uttered his last sentence involuntarily, as it seemed, and now he
laid down his cigar, and turning to Dr. Aston, began to speak low and
quickly.

“They are papers of all kinds,” he said. “Letters, business documents,
memoranda of every description, and two-thirds of them at least have
reference to fraud and wrong of one kind or another. Not one penny that
man possessed can have been honestly come by. His business was
swindling; every one of his business transactions was founded on fraud.
He can have had no faith or honesty of any sort or kind. He was living
with another woman before he had been married a year. All that woman’s
letters--he deceived her abominably, and it’s fortunate that she
died--are annotated and endorsed like his ‘business’ memoranda;
evidently kept deliberately as so much stored experience for future
use!”

Dr. Aston had listened with a keen, alert expression of intent
interest. His cigar was forgotten, and he laid it down now as if
impatient of any distraction, and leant forward over the table with his
shrewd, kindly little eyes fixed eagerly on Falconer. Human nature was a
hobby of his.

Falconer’s confidence, or more truly perhaps the manner of it, had swept
away all conventional barriers, and the elder man asked two or three
quick, penetrating questions.

“How far back do these records go?” he asked finally.

“They cover five-and-twenty years, I should say,” returned Falconer.
“The first note on a successful fraud must have been made when he was
about four-and-twenty. Why, even then--when he was a mere boy--he must
have been entirely without moral sense!”

“Yes!” said the doctor, with a certain dry briskness of manner which was
apt to come to him in moments of excitement. “That is exactly what he
was, my boy! It was that, in conjunction with his powerful brain, that
made him what you called, just now, dominating. It gave him
vantage-ground over his fellow-men. He was as literally without moral
sense as a colour-blind man is without a sense of colour, or a homicidal
maniac without a sense of the sanctity of human life.”

An expression of rather horrified and entirely uncomprehending protest
spread itself over Falconer’s face.

“Romayne was not mad,” he objected, with that incapacity for penetrating
beneath the surface which was characteristic of him. “I never even heard
that there was madness in the family.”

“You would find it if you looked far enough, without a doubt!” answered
the doctor decidedly. “This is a most interesting subject, Dennis, and
it’s one that it’s very difficult to look into without upsetting the
whole theory of moral responsibility, and doing more harm than enough. I
don’t say Romayne was mad, as the word is usually understood, but all
you tell me confirms a notion I have had about him ever since this
affair came out. He was what we call morally insane. I’ll tell you what
first put the idea into my head. It was the extraordinary obtuseness,
the extraordinary want of perception, of that blunder of his that burst
up the whole thing. Look at it for yourself. It was a flaw in his
comprehension of moral sense only possible in a man who knew of the
quality by hearsay alone. He must have been a very remarkable man. I
wish I had known him!”

“I have heard the term ‘moral insanity,’ of course,” said Falconer
slowly and distastefully, ignoring the doctor’s last, purely æsthetic
sentence, “but it has always seemed to me, doctor, if you’ll pardon my
saying so, a very dangerous tampering with things that should be sacred
even from science. I cannot believe that any man is actually incapable
of knowing right from wrong.”

“The difficulty is,” said the doctor drily, “that the words right and
wrong sometimes convey nothing to him, as the words red and blue convey
nothing to a colour-blind man, and the endearments of his wife convey
nothing to the lunatic who is convinced that she is trying to poison
him.” He paused a moment, and then said abruptly: “Are there any
children?”

Falconer glanced at him and changed colour slightly.

“Yes,” he said slowly. “One boy!”

The keen, shrewd face of the elder man softened suddenly and
indescribably under one of those quick sympathetic impulses which were
Dr. Aston’s great charm.

“Heaven help his mother!” he said gently.

Falconer moved quickly and protestingly, and there was a touch of
something like rebuke in his voice as he said:

“Doctor, you don’t mean to say that you think----”

“You believe in heredity, I suppose?” interrupted the doctor quickly.
“Well, at least, you believe in the heredity you can’t deny--that a
child may--or rather must--inherit, not only physical traits and
infirmities, but mental tendencies; likes, dislikes, aptitudes,
incapacities, or what not. Be consistent, man, and acknowledge the
sequel, though it’s pleasanter to shut one’s eyes to it, I admit. Put
the theory of moral insanity out of the question for the moment if you
like; say that Romayne was a pronounced specimen of the common
criminal. Why should not his child inherit his father’s tendency to
crime, his father’s aptitude for lying and thieving, as he might inherit
his father’s eyes, or his father’s liking for music--if he had had a
turn that way? You’re a religious man, Falconer, I know. You believe, I
take it, that the sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children.
How can they be visited more heavily than in their reproduction? You
mark my words, my boy, that little child of Romayne’s--unless he
inherits strong counter influences from his mother, or some far-away
ancestor--will go the way his father has gone, and may end as his father
has ended!”

There was a slight sound by the door behind the two men as Dr. Aston
finished--finished with a force and solemnity that carried a painful
thrill of conviction even through the not very penetrable outer crust of
dogma which enwrapped Dennis Falconer--and the latter turned his head
involuntarily. The next instant both men had sprung to their feet, and
were standing dumb and aghast face to face with Mrs. Romayne. She was
standing with her hand still on the lock of the door as if her attention
had been arrested just as she was entering the room; she had apparently
recoiled, for she was pressed now tightly against the door; her face was
white to the very lips, and a vague thought passed through Falconer that
he had never seen it before. It was as though the look in her eyes, as
she gazed at Dr. Aston, had changed it beyond recognition.

There was a moment’s dead silence; a moment during which Dr. Aston
turned from red to white and from white to red again, and struggled
vainly to find words; a moment during which Falconer could only stare
blankly at that unfamiliar woman’s face. Then, while the two men were
still utterly at a loss, Mrs. Romayne seemed gradually to command
herself, as if with a tremendous effort. Gradually, as he looked at her,
Falconer saw the face with which he was familiar shape itself, so to
speak, upon that other face he did not know. He saw her eyes change and
harden as if with the effort necessitated by her conventional instinct
against a scene. He saw the quivering horror of her mouth alter and
subside in the hard society smile he knew well, only rather stiffer
than usual as her face was whiter; and then he heard her speak.

With a little movement of her head in civil recognition of Dr. Aston’s
presence, she said to Falconer:

“My book is on that table. Will you give it to me, please?”

Her voice was quite steady, though thin. Almost mechanically Falconer
handed her the book she asked for, and with another slight inclination
of her head, before Dr. Aston had recovered his balance sufficiently to
speak, she was gone.

The door closed behind her, and a low ejaculation broke from the doctor.
Then he drew a long breath, and said slowly:

“That’s a remarkable woman.”

Falconer drew his hand across his forehead as though he were a little
dazed.

“I think not!” he said stupidly. “Not when you know her!”

“Ah!” returned the doctor, with a shrewd glance at him. “And you do know
her?”

If Falconer could have seen Mrs. Romayne an hour later, he would have
been more than ever convinced of the correctness of his judgement. The
preparations for departure were nearly concluded; she had dismissed her
maid and was finishing them herself with her usual quiet deliberation,
though her face was very pale and set.

But it might have perplexed him somewhat if he had seen her, when
everything was done, stop short in the middle of the room and lift her
hands to her head as though something oppressed her almost more heavily
than she could bear.

“End as his father ended!” she said below her breath. “Ruin and
disgrace!”

She turned and crossed the room to where her travelling-bag stood, and
drew from it a letter, thrust into a pocket with several others.

It was the blotted little letter which began “My dear Mamma,” and when
she returned it to the bag at last, her face was once again the face
that Dennis Falconer did not know.



CHAPTER VI


There are two diametrically opposed points of view from which London
life is regarded by those who know of it only by hearsay; that from
which life in the metropolis is contemplated with somewhat awestruck and
dubious eyes as necessarily involving a continuous vortex of society and
dissipation; and that which recognises no so-called “society life”
except during the eight or ten weeks of high pressure known as the
season. Both these points of view are essentially false. In no place is
it possible to lead a more completely hermit-like life than in London;
in no place is it possible to lead a simpler and more hard-working life.
On the other hand, that feverish access of stir and movement which makes
the months of May and June stand out and focus, so to speak, the
attention of onlookers, is only an acceleration and accentuation of the
life which is lived in certain strata of the London world for eight or
nine months in the year. A large proportion of the intellectual work of
the world is done in London; to be in society is a great assistance to
the intellectual worker of to-day on his road to material prosperity;
consequently a large section of “society” is of necessity in London from
October to July; and, since people must have some occupation, even out
of the season, social life, in a somewhat lower key, indeed, than the
pitch of the season, but on the same artificial foundations, goes on
undisturbed, gathering about it, as any institution will do, a crowd of
that unattached host of idlers, male and female, whose movements are
dictated solely by their own pleasure--or their own weariness.

It was the March of one of the last of the eighties. A wild March wind
was taking the most radical liberties with the aristocratic
neighbourhood of Grosvenor Place, racing and tearing and shrieking down
the chimneys with a total absence of the respect due to wealth. If it
could have got in at one in particular of the many drawing-room windows
at which it rushed so vigorously, it might have swept round the room and
out again with a whoop of amusement. For the room contained some twelve
ladies of varying ages and demeanours, and, with perhaps one or two
exceptions, each lady was talking at the top of her speed--which, in
some cases, was very considerable--and of her voice--which as a rule was
penetrating. Every speaker was apparently addressing the same elderly
and placid lady, who sat comfortably back in an arm-chair, and made no
attempt to listen to any one. Perhaps she recognised the futility of
such a course.

The elderly and placid lady was the mistress of the very handsomely and
fashionably furnished drawing-room and of the house to which it
belonged. Her dress bore traces--so near to vanishing point that their
actual presence had something a little ludicrous about it--of the last
lingering stage of widow’s mourning. Her name was Pomeroy, Mrs. Robert
Pomeroy, and she was presiding over the ladies’ committee for a charity
bazaar.

Fashionable charities and their frequent concomitant, the fashionable
bazaars which have superseded the fashionable private theatricals of
some years ago, are generally and perhaps uncharitably supposed by a
certain class of cynical unfashionables to have their motive power in a
feminine love of excitement and desire for conspicuousness. Perhaps
there is another aspect under which they may present themselves; namely,
as a proof that not even a long course of society life can destroy the
heaven-sent instinct for work, even though the circumstances under which
it struggles may render it so mere a travesty of the real thing. From
this point of view, and when the promoter of a charitable folly is a
middle-aged woman, who puts into the business an almost painfully
earnest enthusiasm which might have been so useful if she had only known
more of any life outside her own narrow round, the situation is not
without its pathos. But when, as in the present instance, a
long-established, self-reliant, and venerable philanthropic institution
is suddenly “discovered,” taken up, and patronised by such a woman as
the secretary and treasurer of the present committee; a woman who would
have been empty-headed and vociferous in any sphere, and who had been
moulded by circumstances into a pronounced specimen of a certain type of
fashionable woman, dashing, loud, essentially unsympathetic; the
position, in the incongruities and discrepancies involved, becomes
wholly humorous.

Mrs. Ralph Halse, in virtue of her office as secretary and treasurer,
was sitting at Mrs. Pomeroy’s right hand; her conception as to the
duties of her office seemed to be limited to a sense that it behoved her
never for a single instant to leave off addressing the chair, and this
duty she fulfilled with a conscientious energy worthy of the highest
praise. She had “discovered” the well-known and well-to-do institution
before alluded to about a month earlier.

“Such a capital time of year, you know, when one has nothing to do and
can attend to things thoroughly!” she had explained to her friends. She
had determined that “something must be done,” as she had rather vaguely
phrased it, and she had applied herself exuberantly and forthwith to
the organisation of a bazaar. The season was Lent; philanthropy was the
fashion; Mrs. Halse’s scheme became the pet hobby of the moment, and the
ladies’ committee was selected exclusively from among women well known
in society.

The committee was tremendously in earnest; nobody could listen to it and
doubt that fact for a moment. At the same time a listener would have
found some difficulty in determining what was the particular point which
had evoked such enthusiasm, because, as has been said, the members were
all talking at once. Their eloquence was checked at last, not, as might
have been the case with a cold-blooded male committee, by a few short
and pithy words from the gently smiling president, but by the appearance
of five o’clock tea. The torrent of declamatory enthusiasm thereupon
subsided, quenched in the individual consciousness that took possession
of each lady that she was “dying for her tea,” and had “really been
working like a slave.” The committee broke up with charming informality
into low-toned duets and trios. Even Mrs. Ralph Halse ceased to address
the chair, though she could not cease to express her views on the vital
point which had roused the committee to a state bordering on frenzy; she
turned to her nearest neighbour. Mrs. Halse was a tall woman,
good-looking in a well-developed, highly coloured style, and appearing
younger than her thirty-eight years. She was dressed from head to foot
in grey, and the delicate sobriety of her attire was oddly out of
keeping with her florid personality. As a matter of fact, the hobby
which had preceded the present all-absorbing idea of the bazaar in her
mind--Mrs. Halse was a woman of hobbies--had been ritualism of an
advanced type; perhaps some of the fervour with which her latest
interest had been embraced was due to a certain sense of flatness in its
predecessor; but be that as it may, her present very fashionable attire
represented her idea of Lenten mourning.

“I don’t see myself how there can be two opinions on the subject,” she
said. Mrs. Ralph Halse very seldom did see how there could be two
opinions on a subject on which her own views were decided. “Fancy dress
is a distinct feature, and of course there must be more effect and more
variety when each woman is dressed as suits her best, than when there is
any attempt at uniform. You agree with me, Lady Bracondale, I’m sure?”

The woman she addressed was of the pronounced elderly aristocratic type,
tall and thin, aquiline-nosed and sallow of complexion. She seemed to be
altogether superior to enthusiasm of any kind, and her manner was of
that unreal kind of dignity and chilling suavity, in which nothing is
genuine but its slight touch of condescension.

“Fancy dress is a pretty sight,” she said. “But it is perhaps a drawback
that of course all the stall-holders cannot be expected to wear it.” The
words were spoken with an emphasis which plainly conveyed the speaker’s
sense that no such abrogation of dignity could by any possibility be
expected of herself. “What is your opinion, Mrs. Pomeroy?” Lady
Bracondale added, turning to the chairwoman of the committee.

Mrs. Pomeroy’s attention was not claimed for the moment otherwise than
by her serene enjoyment of her cup of tea, which she was sipping with
the air of a woman who has done, and is conscious of having done, a hard
afternoon’s work. Perhaps it is somewhat fatiguing to be talked to by
twelve ladies all at once. Lady Bracondale’s question was one which Mrs.
Pomeroy rarely answered, however, even in her secret heart, so she only
smiled now and shook her head thoughtfully.

“Miscellaneous fancy dress gives so much scope for individual taste,
don’t you think?” said Mrs. Halse.

“Of course it does, my dear Mrs. Halse. Every one can wear what they
like, and that is very nice,” answered Mrs. Pomeroy comfortably.

“But, on the other hand, a quiet uniform can be worn by any one,” said
Lady Bracondale with explanatory condescension.

“By any one, of course. So important,” assented the chairwoman with
bland cheerfulness. Then, as Mrs. Halse’s lips parted to give vent to a
flood of eloquence, she continued placidly, in her gentle, contented
voice: “Mrs. Romayne is not here yet. I wonder what she will say!”

“I met her at the French Embassy last night,” said Mrs. Halse, with a
slightly aggressive inflection in her voice, “and she told me she meant
to come if she could make time. Apparently she has not been able to!”

“Mrs. Romayne?” repeated Lady Bracondale interrogatively. “I don’t think
I’ve met her? Really, one feels quite out of the world.”

There was a fine affectation of sincerity about the words which would,
however, hardly have deceived the most unsophisticated hearer as to the
speaker’s position in society, or her own appreciation of it. Lady
Bracondale was distinctly a person to be known by anybody wishing to
make good a claim to be considered in society, and she was loftily
conscious of the fact. She had only just returned to town from
Bracondale, where she had been spending the last two months.

“Romayne?” she repeated. “Mrs. Romayne! Ah, yes! To be sure! The name
is familiar to me. I thought it was. There was a little woman, years
ago, whom we met on the Continent. Her husband--dear me, now, what was
it? Ah, yes! Her husband failed or--no, of course! I recollect! He was a
swindler of some sort. Of course, one never met her again!”

“This Mrs. Romayne is the same, Ralph says,” said Mrs. Halse, sipping
her tea. “At least, her husband was William Romayne, who was the moving
spirit in a big bank swindle--and a lot of other things, I
believe--years ago. She turned up about two months ago, and took a house
in Chelsea. Lots of money, apparently. She has a grown-up son--he would
be grown-up, of course--who is going to the bar.”

“But, dear me!” said Lady Bracondale with freezing stateliness, “does
she propose to go into society? It was a most scandalous affair, my dear
Mrs. Pomeroy, as far as I remember. A connection of Lord Bracondale’s
lost some money, I recollect; and I think the man--Romayne, I mean, of
course--poisoned himself or something. We were at Nice when it happened.
He committed suicide there, and it was most unpleasant! She can’t
expect one to know her!”

Eighteen years had passed since the same woman had expressed herself as
eager to make the acquaintance of “the man,” and the haze which had
wrapped itself in her mind about the tragedy which had frustrated her
desire in that direction, was not the only outcome for her of the
passing of those years. Lady Bracondale had been Lady Cloughton eighteen
years ago, the wife of the eldest son of the Earl of Bracondale; poor,
and with a somewhat perfunctorily yielded position. She and her husband
had been, moreover, a cheery, easy-tempered pair, living chiefly on the
Continent, and getting a good deal of pleasure out of life. His father’s
death had given to Lord Cloughton the family title and the family lands;
and with his accession to wealth, importance, and responsibilities, his
wife’s whole personality had gradually seemed to become transformed. Her
satisfaction in her new dignities took the form of living rigidly up to
what she considered their obligations. Laxity, frivolity of any kind,
seemed to her to abrogate from the importance of her position. She
ranged herself on the side of strict decorum and respectability, and
became more precise than the precisians. Her husband at the same time
developed talents latent in his obscurity, and became a prominent
politician; and the ultra-correct and exclusive Lady Bracondale was now
in truth a power in society.

Consequently, the tone in which she disposed of the intruder, who had
ventured unauthorised to obtain recognition during her absence, was
crushing and conclusive. But Mrs. Pomeroy’s individuality was of too
soft a consistency to allow of her being crushed; and she replied
placidly, and with unconscious practicality.

“People do know her, dear Lady Bracondale,” she said. “She had some
friends among really nice people to begin with, and every one has called
on her. I really don’t know how it has happened, but it is years and
years ago, you know, and she really is a delightful little woman. Quite
wrapped up in her boy!”

Almost before the words were well uttered, before Lady Bracondale could
translate into speech the aristocratic disapproval written stiffly on
her face, the door was flung open, and the footman announced “Mrs.
Romayne!”



CHAPTER VII


Eighteen years lay between the events which Lady Bracondale recalled so
hazily and the Mrs. Romayne who crossed the threshold of Mrs. Pomeroy’s
drawing-room as the footman spoke her name. Those eighteen years had
changed her at once curiously more and curiously less than the years
between six-and-twenty and four-and-forty usually change a woman. She
looked at the first glance very little older than she had done eighteen
years ago; younger, indeed, than she had looked during those early days
of her widowhood. Such changes as time had made in her appearance seemed
mainly due to the immense difference in the styles of dress now
obtaining. The dainty colouring, the cut of her frock, the pose of her
bonnet, the arrangement of her hair, with its fluffy curls, all seemed
to accentuate her prettiness and to bring out the youthfulness which a
little woman without strongly marked features may keep for so long. The
fluffy hair was a red-brown now, instead of a pale yellow, and the
change was becoming, although it helped greatly, though very subtly, to
alter the character of her face. The outline of her features was perhaps
a trifle sharper than it had been, and there were sundry lines about the
mouth and eyes when it was in repose. But these were obliterated, as a
rule, by a characteristic to which all the minor changes in her seemed
to have more or less direct reference; a characteristic which seemed to
make the very similarity between the woman of to-day and the woman of
eighteen years before, seem unreal; the singular brightness and vivacity
of her expression. Her features were animated, eager, almost restless;
her gestures and movements were alert and quick; her voice, as she spoke
to an acquaintance here and there, as she moved up Mrs. Pomeroy’s
drawing-room, was brisk and laughing. Her dress and demeanour were the
dress and demeanour of the day to the subtlest shade; she had been a
typical woman of the world eighteen years before; she was a typical
woman of the world now. But in the old days the personality of the woman
had been dominated by and merged in the type. Now the type seemed to be
penetrated by something from within, which was not to be wholly
suppressed.

She came quickly down the long drawing-room, smiling and nodding as she
came, and greeted Mrs. Pomeroy with a little exaggerated gesture of
despair and apology.

“Have you really finished?” she cried. “Is everything settled? How
shocking of me!” Then, as she shook hands with Mrs. Halse, she added,
with a sweetness of tone which seemed to cover an underlying tendency
which was not sweet: “However, we have such a host in our secretary that
really one voice more or less makes very little difference.”

“Well, really, I don’t know that we have settled anything!” said Mrs.
Pomeroy. “We have talked things over, you know. It is such a mistake to
be in a hurry! Don’t you think so?”

“I’ve not a doubt of it,” was the answer, given with a laugh. “My dear
Mrs. Pomeroy, I have been in a hurry for the last six weeks, and it’s a
frightful state of things. You’ve had a capital meeting, though. Why, I
believe I am actually the only defaulter!”

The hard blue eyes were moving rapidly over the room as Mrs. Romayne
spoke; there was an eager comprehensive glance in them as though the
survey taken was in some sense a survey of material or--at one
instant--of a battle-ground; and it gave a certain unreality to their
carelessness.

“The only defaulter. Yes,” agreed Mrs. Pomeroy comfortably. “And now,
Mrs. Romayne, you must let me introduce you to a new member of our
committee; quite an acquisition! Why, where--oh!” and serenely oblivious
of the stony stare with which Lady Bracondale, a few paces off, was
regarding the opposite wall of the room just over the newcomer’s bonnet,
Mrs. Pomeroy, with her kind fat hand on Mrs. Romayne’s arm, approached
the exclusive acquisition. “Let me introduce Mrs. Romayne, dear Lady
Bracondale!” she said with unimpaired placidity.

The stony stare was lowered an inch or two until it was about on a level
with Mrs. Romayne’s eyebrows, and Lady Bracondale bowed icily; but at
the same moment Mrs. Romayne held out her hand with a graceful little
exclamation of surprise. It was not genuine, though it sounded so; those
keen, quick, blue eyes had seen Lady Bracondale and recognised her in
the course of their owner’s progress up the room, and had observed her
withdrawal of herself those two or three paces from Mrs. Pomeroy’s
vicinity; and it was as they rested for an instant only on her in their
subsequent survey of the room that that subtle change suggestive of a
sense of coming battle had come to them. They looked full into Lady
Bracondale’s face now with a smiling ease, which was just touched with a
suggestion of pleasure in the meeting.

“I hardly know whether we require an introduction,” said Mrs. Romayne;
she spoke with cordiality which was just sufficiently careless to be
thoroughly “good form.” “It is so many years since we met, though, that
perhaps our former acquaintanceship must be considered to have died a
natural death. I am very pleased that it should have a resurrection!”

She finished with a little light laugh, and Lady Bracondale found,
almost to her own surprise, that they were shaking hands. If she had
been able to analyse cause and effect--which she was not--she would have
known that it was that carelessness in Mrs. Romayne’s manner that
influenced her. A powerful prompter to a freezing demeanour is withdrawn
when the other party is obviously insensible to cold.

“It is really too bad of me to be so late!” continued Mrs. Romayne,
proceeding to pass over their past acquaintance as a half forgotten
recollection to which they were both indifferent, and taking up matters
as they stood with the easy unconcern and casual conversationalism of a
society woman. “At least it would be if my time were my own just now.
But as a matter of fact my sole _raison d’être_ for the moment is the
getting ready of our little place for my boy. I ought to have shut
myself up with carpenters and upholsterers until it was done! I assure
you I can’t even dine out without a guilty feeling that I ought to be
seeing after something or other connected with chairs and tables!”

She finished with a laugh about which there was a touch of
artificiality, as there had been about her tone as she alluded to her
“boy.” Perhaps the only thoroughly genuine point about her, at that
moment, was a certain intent watchfulness, strongly repressed, in the
eyes with which she met Lady Bracondale’s gorgon-like stare; and
something about the spirited pose of her head and the lines of her face,
always recalling, vaguely and indefinitely, that idea of single combat.
Lady Bracondale, however, was not a judge of artificiality, and Mrs.
Romayne’s manner, with its perfect assurance and careless assumption of
a position and a footing in society, affected her in spite of herself.
The stony stare relaxed perceptibly as she said, stiffly enough, but
with condescending interest:

“You are expecting your son in town?”

“I am expecting him every day, I am delighted to say!” answered Mrs.
Romayne, with a little conventional gush of superficial enthusiasm.
“Really, you have no idea how forlorn I am without him! We are quite
absurdly devoted to one another, as I often tell him, stupid fellow. But
I always think--don’t you?--that a man is much better out of the way
during the agonies of furnishing, so I insisted on his making a little
tour while I plunged into the fray. He was very anxious to help, of
course, dear fellow. But I told him frankly that he would be more
hindrance than help, and packed him off--and made a great baby of myself
when he was gone. Of course I have had to console myself by making our
little place as perfect as possible, as a surprise for him! You know how
these things grow! One little surprise after another comes into one’s
head, and one excuses oneself for one’s extravagance when it’s for one’s
boy.”

“Are you thinking of settling in London?” enquired Lady Bracondale.

She was unbending moment by moment in direct contradiction of her
preconceived determination. Mrs. Romayne was so bright and so
unconscious. She ran off her pretty maternal platitudes with such
careless confidence, that iciness on Lady Bracondale’s part would have
assumed a futile and even ridiculous appearance.

“Yes!” was the answer. “We are going to settle down a regular cosy
couple. It has been our castle in the air all the time his education has
been going on. He is to read for the bar, and I tell him that he will
value a holiday more in another year or two, poor fellow. But I’m afraid
I bore about him frightfully!” she added, with another laugh. “And it is
rather hard on him, poor boy, for he really is not a bore! I think you
will like him, Lady Bracondale. I remember young men always adored you!”

Lady Bracondale smiled, absolutely smiled, and said
graciously--graciously for her, that is to say:

“You must bring him to see me! I should like to call upon you if you
will give me your card.”

Mrs. Romayne was in the act of complying--complying with smiling
indifference, which was the very perfection of society manner--when Mrs.
Pomeroy, evidently moved solely by the impetus of the excited group of
ladies of which she was the serenely smiling centre, bore cheerfully
down upon them.

“Perhaps we ought to vote about the fancy dress before we separate this
afternoon,” she suggested, “or shall we talk it over a little more at
the next meeting? Perhaps that would be wiser. Mrs. Romayne----”

She looked invitingly at Mrs. Romayne as if for her opinion on the
subject, and the invitation was responded to with that ever-ready little
laugh.

“Oh, let us put it off until the next meeting,” she said. “I am ashamed
to say that I really must run away now. But at the next meeting I
promise faithfully to be here at the beginning and stay until the very
end.”

Whereupon it became evident that the greater part of the committee was
anxious to postpone the decision on the knotty point in question, and
was conscious of more or less pressing engagements. A general exodus
ensued, Mrs. Halse alone remaining to expound her views to Mrs. Pomeroy
all by herself and in a higher and more conclusive tone than before.

A neat little coupé was waiting for Mrs. Romayne. She gave the coachman
the order “home” at first, and then paused and told him to go to a
famous cigar merchant’s. She got into the carriage with a smiling
gesture of farewell to Lady Bracondale, whose brougham passed her at the
moment; but as she leant back against the cushions the smile died from
her lips with singular suddenness. It left her face very intent; the
eyes very bright and hard, the lips set and a little compressed. The
lines about them and about her eyes showed out faintly under this new
aspect of her face in spite of the eager satisfaction which was its
dominant expression. The battle had evidently been fought and won and
the victor was ready and braced for the next.

She got out at the cigar merchant’s, and when she returned to her
carriage there was that expression of elation about her which often
attends the perpetration of a piece of extravagance. But as she was
driven through the fading sunlight of the March afternoon towards
Chelsea, her face settled once more into that intent reflection and
satisfaction.

It was a narrow slip of a house at which her coupé eventually stopped,
wedged in among much more imposing-looking mansions in the most
fashionable part of Chelsea. But what it lacked in size it made up in
brightness and general smartness. It had evidently been recently done up
with all the latest improvements in paint, window-boxes, and fittings
generally, and it presented a very attractive appearance indeed.

Mrs. Romayne let herself in with a latch-key, and went quickly across
the prettily decorated hall into a room at the back of what was
evidently the dining-room. She opened the door, and then stood still
upon the threshold.

The light of the setting sun was stealing in at the window, the lower
half of which was filled in with Indian blinds; and as it fell in long
slanting rays across the silent room, it seemed to emphasize and, at the
same time, to soften and beautify an impression of waiting and of
expectancy that seemed to emanate from everything that room contained.
It was furnished--it was not large--as a compromise between a
smoking-room and a study, and its every item, from the bookcases and
the writing-table to the bronzes on the mantelpiece, was in the most
approved and latest style, and of the very best kind. Every conceivable
detail had evidently been thought out and attended to; the room was
obviously absolutely complete and perfect--only on the writing-table
something seemed lacking, and some brown paper parcels lay there waiting
to be unfastened--and it had as obviously never been lived in. It was
like a body without a soul.

The lingering light stole along the wall, touching here and there those
unused objects waiting, characterless, for that strange character which
the personality of a man impresses always on the room in which he lives,
and its last touch fell upon the face of the woman standing in the
doorway. The artificiality of its expression was standing out in strong
relief as if in half conscious, half instinctive struggle with something
that lay behind, something which the aspect of that empty room had
developed out of its previous intentness and excitement. With a little
affected laugh, as though some one else had been present--or as though
affectation were indeed second nature to her--Mrs. Romayne went up to
the writing-table and began to undo the parcels lying there. They
contained a very handsome set of fittings for a man’s writing-table, and
she arranged them in their places, clearing away the paper with
scrupulous care, and with another little laugh.

“What a ridiculous woman!” she said half aloud, with just the intonation
she had used in speaking to Lady Bracondale of her “little surprises”
for “her boy.” “And what a spoilt fellow!”

She turned away, went out of the room, with one backward glance as she
closed the door, and upstairs to the drawing-room. She had just entered
the room when a thought seemed to strike her.

“How utterly ridiculous!” she said to herself. “I quite forgot to notice
whether there were any letters!”

She was just crossing the room to ring for a servant when the front-door
bell rang vigorously and she stopped short. With an exclamation of
surprise she went to the door and stood there listening, that she might
prepare herself beforehand for the possible visitor, for whom she
evidently had no desire. “How tiresome!” she said to herself. “Who is
it, I wonder?” She heard the parlourmaid go down the hall and open the
door.

“Mrs. Romayne at home?”

With a shock and convulsion, which only the wildest leap of the heart
can produce, the listening face in the drawing-room doorway, with the
conventional smile which might momently be called for just quivering on
it, half in abeyance, half in evidence, was suddenly transformed. Every
trace of artificiality fell away, blotted out utterly before the swift,
involuntary flash of mother love and longing with which those hard blue
eyes, those pretty, superficial little features were, in that instant,
transfigured. The elaborately dressed figure caught at the door-post, as
any homely drudge might have done; the woman of the world, startled out
of--or into--herself, forgot the world.

“It’s Julian!” the white, trembling lips murmured. “Julian!”

As she spoke the word, up the stairs two steps at a time, there dashed a
tall, fair-haired young man who caught her in his arms with a delighted
laugh--her own laugh, but with a boyish ring of sincerity in it.

“I’ve taken you by surprise, mother!” he cried. “You’ve never opened my
telegram!”



CHAPTER VIII


Mrs. Romayne had been left, eighteen years before, absolutely penniless.
When Dennis Falconer took her back from Nice to her uncle’s home in
London, she had returned to that house wholly dependent, for herself and
for her little five-year-old boy, on the generosity she would meet with
there. Fortunately old Mr. Falconer was a rich man. There had been a
good deal of money in the Falconer family, and as its representatives
decreased in number, that money had collected itself in the hands of a
few survivors.

A long nervous illness, slight enough in itself, but begetting
considerable restlessness and irritability, had followed on her return
to London. So natural, her tender-hearted cousin and uncle had said,
though, as a matter of fact, such an illness was anything but natural
in such a woman as Mrs. Romayne, and anything but consistent with her
demeanour during the early days of her widowhood. Partly by the advice
of the doctor, partly by reason of the sense, unexpressed but shared by
all concerned, that London was by no means a desirable residence for the
widow of William Romayne, old Mr. Falconer and his daughter left their
quiet London home and went abroad with her. No definite period was
talked of for their return to England, and they settled down in a
charming little house near the Lake of Geneva.

In the same house, when Julian was seven years old, Frances Falconer
died. Her death was comparatively sudden, and the blow broke her
father’s heart. From that time forward his only close interests in life
were Mrs. Romayne and her boy. The vague expectation of a return to
London at some future time faded out altogether. Mr. Falconer’s only
desire was to please his niece, and she, with the same tendency towards
seclusion which had dictated their first choice of a Continental home,
suggested a place near Heidelberg. Here they lived for five years more,
and then Mr. Falconer, also, died, leaving the bulk of his property to
Mrs. Romayne. The remainder was to go to Dennis Falconer; to his only
other near relation, William Romayne’s little son, he left no money.

So seven years after her husband’s death Mrs. Romayne was a rich woman
again; rich and independent as she had never been before, and
practically alone in the world with her son. In her relations with her
son, those seven years had brought about a curious alteration or
developement.

The dawnings of this change had been observed by Frances Falconer during
the early months of Mrs. Romayne’s widowhood. She had spoken to her
father with tears in her eyes of her belief that her cousin was turning
for consolation to her child. Blindly attached to her cousin, she had
never acknowledged her previous easy indifference as a mother. She stood
by while the first place in little Julian’s easy affections was
gradually won away from herself not only without a thought of
resentment, but without any capacity for the criticism of Mrs.
Romayne’s demeanour in her new capacity as a devoted mother. To her that
devotion was the natural and beautiful outcome of the overthrow of her
cousin’s married life. To sundry other people the new departure
presented other aspects. Dennis Falconer, spending a few days at the
house near the Lake of Geneva, regarded with eyes of stern distaste what
seemed to him the most affected, superficial travesty of the maternal
sentiment ever exhibited. Meditating upon the subject by himself, he
referred Mrs. Romayne’s assumption of the character of devoted mother to
the innate artificiality of a fashionable woman denied the legitimate
outlet of society life. He went away marvelling at the blindness of his
uncle and cousin, and asking himself with heavy disapprobation how long
the pose would last.

Time, as a matter of fact, seemed only to confirm it. The half-laughing,
wholly artificial manner with which Mrs. Romayne had alluded to her
“boy” in Mrs. Pomeroy’s drawing-room was the same manner with which, in
his early school-days, she had alluded to her “little boy,” only
developed by years. Mr. Falconer’s death and her own consequent
independence had made no difference in her way of life. Julian’s
education had been proceeded with on the Continent as had been already
arranged, his mother living always near at hand that they might be
together whenever it was possible. In his holidays they took little
luxurious tours together. But into society Mrs. Romayne went not at all
until Julian was over twenty; when the haze of fifteen years had wound
itself about the memory of William Romayne and his misdeeds.

Of those misdeeds William Romayne’s son knew nothing. The one point of
discord between old Mr. Falconer and his niece had been her alleged
intention of keeping the truth from him, if possible, for ever. Mr.
Falconer’s death removed the only creature who had a right to protest
against her decision. When Julian, as he grew older, asked his first
questions about his father, she told him that he had “failed,” and had
died suddenly, and begged him not to question her. And the boy, careless
and easy-going, had taken her at her word.

With the termination of Julian’s university career, it became necessary
that some arrangement should be made for his future. As Julian grew up,
the topic had come up between the mother and son with increasing
frequency, introduced as a rule not, as might have been expected, by the
young man, whom it most concerned, but by Mrs. Romayne. From the very
first it had been presented to him as a foregone conclusion that the
start in life to which he was to look forward was to be made in London.
London was to be their home, and he was to read for the English bar; on
these premises all Mrs. Romayne’s plans and suggestions were grounded,
and Julian’s was not the nature to carve out the idea of a future for
himself in opposition to that presented to him. Consequently the
arrangements, of which the bright little house in Chelsea was the
preliminary outcome, were matured with much gaiety and enthusiasm, in
what Mrs. Romayne called merrily “a family council of two”; and a
certain touch of feverish excitement which had pervaded his mother’s
consideration of the subject, moved Julian to a carelessly affectionate
compunction in that it was presumably for his sake that she had
remained so long away from the life she apparently preferred.

The arrangement by which Mrs. Romayne eventually came to London alone
was not part of the original scheme. As the time fixed for their
departure thither drew nearer, that feverish excitement increased upon
her strangely. It seemed as an expression of the nervous restlessness
that possessed her that she finally insisted on his joining some friends
who were going for two months to Egypt, and leaving her to “struggle
with the agonies of furnishing,” as she said, alone.

The arrangement had separated the mother and son for the first time
within Julian’s memory. The fact had, perhaps, had little practical
influence on his enjoyment in the interval, but it gave an added fervour
to his boyish demonstration of delight in that first moment of meeting
as he held her in his vigorous young arms, and kissed her again and
again.

“To think of my having surprised you, after all!” he cried gleefully, at
last. “You ought to have had my telegram this morning. Why, you’ve got
nervous while you’ve been alone, mother! You’re quite trembling!”

Mrs. Romayne laughed a rather uncertain little laugh. She was indeed
trembling from head to foot. Her face was very pale still, but as she
raised it to her son the strange, transfigured look had passed from it
utterly, and her normal expression had returned to it in all its
superficial liveliness, brought back by an effort of will, conscious or
instinctive, which was perceptible in the slight stiffness of all the
lines. At the same moment she seemed to become aware of the close,
clinging pressure with which her hand had closed upon the arm which held
her, and she relaxed it in a gesture of playful rebuke and deprecation.

“What would you have, bad boy?” she said lightly. “Don’t you know I hate
surprises? Oh, I suppose you want to flatter yourself that your poor
little mother can’t get on without you to take care of her! Well,
perhaps she can’t, very well. There’s a demoralising confession for you,
sir!”

But it was not such a confession as her face had been only a few minutes
before; in fact, the spoken words seemed rather to belie that mute
witness. They were spoken in her ordinary tone, and the gesture with
which she laid her hand on his arm to draw him into the drawing-room was
one of her usual pretty, affected gestures--as sharp a contrast as
possible to the first clinging, unconscious touch.

“Let me look at you,” she said gaily, “and make sure that I have got my
own bad penny back from Africa, and not somebody else’s!”

She drew him laughingly into the fullest light the fading day afforded,
and proceeded to “inspect” him, as she said, her face full of a
superficial vivacity, which seemed to be doing battle all the time with
something behind--something which looked out of her hard, bright eyes,
eager and insistent.

Julian Romayne was a tall, well-made young man--taller by a head than
the mother smiling up at him; he was well developed for his twenty-three
years, slight and athletic-looking, and carrying himself more gracefully
than most young Englishmen. But except in this particular, and in a
slight tendency towards the use of more gesture than is common in
England, his foreign training was in no wise perceptible in his
appearance. The first impression he made on people who knew them both
was that he was exactly like his mother, and that his mother’s features
touched into manliness were a very desirable inheritance for her son;
for he was distinctly good-looking. But as a matter of fact, only the
upper part of his face, and his colouring, were Mrs. Romayne’s. He had
the fair hair which had been hers eighteen years ago; he had her blue
eyes and her pale complexion, and his nose and the shape of his brow
were hers. But his mouth was larger and rather fuller-lipped than his
mother’s, and the line of the chin and jaw was totally different. No
strongly-marked characteristics, either intellectual or moral, were to
be read in his face; his expression was simply bright and good-tempered
with the good temper which has never been tried, and is the result
rather of circumstances than of principle.

That strange something in Mrs. Romayne’s face seemed to retreat into the
depths from which it had come as she looked at him. She finished her
inspection with a gay tirade against the coat which he was wearing, and
Julian replied with a boyish laugh.

“I knew you’d be down upon it!” he said. “I say, does it look so very
bad? I’ll get a new fit out to-morrow--two or three, in fact! Mother,
what an awfully pretty little drawing-room! What an awfully clever
little mother you are!”

He flung his arm round her again with the careless, affectionate
demonstrativeness which her manner seemed to produce in him, and looked
round the room with admiring eyes. They were the eyes of a young man who
knew better than some men twice his age how a room should look, and
whose appreciation was better worth having than it seemed.

“You’re quite ready for me, you see!” he declared delightedly. “What did
you mean, I should like to know, by wanting to keep me away for another
fortnight?”

There was a moment’s pause before Mrs. Romayne spoke. She looked up into
his face with a rather strange expression in her eyes, and then looked
away across the room to where a little pile of accepted invitations lay
on her writing-table. That curious light at once of battle and of
triumph was strong upon her face as it had not been yet.

“Yes,” she said at last, and there was an unusual ring about her voice.
“I am quite ready for you!”

Something more than the furnishing of a house had gone to the
preparation of a place in society for the widow and son of William
Romayne, and only the woman who had effected that preparation knew how,
and how completely it had been achieved.

A moment later Mrs. Romayne’s face had changed again, and she was
laughing lightly at Julian’s comments as she disengaged herself from his
hold, and went towards the bell.

“Foolish boy!” she said as she rang. “I’m glad you think it’s nice.
We’ll have some tea.”

She had just poured him out a cup of tea, and quick, easy question and
answer as to his crossing were passing between them, when the front-door
bell rang, and she broke off suddenly in her speech.

“Who can that be?” she said. “Hardly a caller; it must be six o’clock!
Now, I wonder whether, if it should be a caller, Dawson will have the
sense to say not at home? Perhaps I had better----” she rose as she
spoke, and moved quickly across the room to the door. But she was too
late! As she opened the drawing-room door she heard the street door open
below, and heard the words, “At home, ma’am.” With the softest possible
ejaculation of annoyance she closed the door stealthily.

“Such a nuisance!” she said rapidly. “What a time to call! I trust they
won’t----” And thereupon her face changed suddenly and completely into
her usual society smile as the door opened again, and she rose to
receive her visitors. “My dear Mrs. Halse!” she exclaimed, “why, what a
delightful surprise! Now, don’t say that you have come to tell me that
anything has gone wrong about the bazaar?” she continued agitatedly.
“Don’t tell me that, Miss Pomeroy!”

She was shaking hands with her younger visitor as she spoke, a girl of
apparently about twenty, very correctly dressed, as pretty as a girl
can be with neither colour, expression, nor startlingly correct
features, whose eyes are for the most part fastened on the ground. She
was Mrs. Pomeroy’s only child. She did not deal Mrs. Romayne the blow
which the latter appeared to anticipate, but reassured her in a neatly
constructed sentence uttered in a rather demure but perfectly
self-possessed voice.

Mrs. Halse had been prevented for the moment from monopolising the
conversation by reason of her keen interest in the good-looking young
man standing by the fireplace; but Miss Pomeroy’s words were hardly
uttered before she turned excitedly to Mrs. Romayne. If she was going to
make a mistake the disagreeables of the position would be with her
hostess, she had decided.

“It’s your son, Mrs. Romayne?” she cried. “It must be, surely! Such a
wonderful likeness! Only, really, I can hardly believe that your son--I
was ridiculous enough to expect quite a boy! Oh, don’t say that he has
just arrived and we are interrupting your first _tête-à-tête_! How
truly frightful! Let me tell you this moment what I came for and fly!”

Mrs. Romayne answered her with a suave smile.

“I am going to introduce my boy first, if you don’t mind,” she said, and
then as Julian, in obedience to her look, came forward, with the easy
alacrity of a young man whose social instincts are of the highly
civilised kind, she laid her hand on his arm with an artificial air of
affectionate pride, and continued lightly: “Your first London
introduction, Julian. Mrs. Ralph Halse, Miss Pomeroy! He has only just
arrived, as you guessed,” she added in an aside to Mrs. Halse, “and no
doubt he is furiously angry with me for allowing him to be caught with
the dust of his journey on him.”

But Julian’s anger was not perceptible in his face, or in his manner,
which was very pleasant and ready. Even after he had handed tea and cake
and subsided into conversation with Miss Pomeroy, Mrs. Halse found it
difficult to concentrate herself on the business which had brought her
to Chelsea. Her speech to Mrs. Romayne, as to the brilliant idea which
had struck her just after the committee broke up, was as voluble as
usual, certainly, but less connected than it might have been.

“That’s all right, then. Such a weight off my mind!” she said, as she
copied an address into her note-book with a circumstance and importance
which would have befitted the settlement of the fate of nations. “It is
so important to get things settled at once, don’t you think so? The
moment it occurred to me I saw how important it was that there should
not be a moment’s delay, and I said to Maud Pomeroy: ‘Let us go at once
to Mrs. Romayne, and she will give us the address, and then dear Mrs.
Pomeroy can write the letter to-night.’” Here Mrs. Halse’s breath gave
out for the moment, and she let her eyes, which had strayed constantly
in the direction of Julian and Miss Pomeroy, rest on the young man’s
good-looking, well-bred face. “We must have your son among the stewards,
Mrs. Romayne,” she said. “So important! Now, I wonder whether it has
occurred to you, as it has occurred to me, that a man or two--just a man
or two”--with an impressive emphasis on the last word, as though three
men would be altogether beside the mark--“would be rather an advantage
on the ladies’ committee? Now, what is your opinion, Mr. Romayne? Don’t
you think you could be very useful to us?”

She turned towards Julian as she spoke, quite regardless of the fact
that Miss Pomeroy’s correctly modulated little voice was stopped by her
tones; and Mrs. Romayne turned towards him also. He and Miss Pomeroy
were sitting together on the other side of the room, and as her eye fell
upon the pair, a curious little flash, as of an idea or a revelation,
leaped for an instant into Mrs. Romayne’s eye.

Julian moved and transferred his attention to Mrs. Halse, with an easy
courtesy which was a curiously natural reproduction of his mother’s more
artificial manner, and which was at the same time very young and
unassuming. He laughed lightly.

“I shall be delighted to be a steward,” he said, “or to be useful in any
way. But the idea of a ladies’ committee is awe-inspiring.”

“You would make great fun of us at your horrid clubs, no doubt,”
retorted Mrs. Halse. “Oh, I know what you young men are! But you can be
rather useful in these cases sometimes, though, of course, it doesn’t do
to tell you so.”

She laughed loudly, and then rose with a sudden access of haste.

“We must really go!” she said. “Maud”--Mrs. Halse had innumerable girl
friends, all of whom she was wont to address by their Christian
names--“Maud, we are behaving abominably. We mustn’t stay another
moment, not another second.”

But they did stay a great many other seconds, while Mrs. Halse pressed
Julian into the service of the bazaar in all sorts and kinds of
capacities, and managed to find out a great deal about his past life in
the process. When at last she swooped down upon Maud Pomeroy,
metaphorically speaking, as though that eminently decorous young lady
had been responsible for the delay, and carried her off in a very
tornado of protestation, attended to the front door, as in courtesy
bound, by Julian, Mrs. Romayne, left alone in the drawing-room, let her
face relax suddenly from its responsive brightness into an unmistakeable
expression of feminine irritation and dislike.

“Horrid woman!” she said to herself. “Patronises me! Well, she will talk
about nothing but Julian all this evening, wherever she may be--and she
goes everywhere--so perhaps it has been worth while to endure her.”
Then, as Julian appeared again, she said gaily: “My dear boy, they’ve
been here an hour, and we shall both be late for dinner! Be off with you
and dress!”

It was a very cosy little dinner that followed. Mrs. Romayne, as
carefully dressed for her son as she could have been for the most
critical stranger, was also at her brightest and most responsive. They
talked for the most part of people and their doings; society gossip.
Mrs. Romayne told Julian all about Mrs. Halse’s bazaar; deriding the
whole affair as an excuse for deriding its promoter, but with no
realisation of its innate absurdity; and giving Julian to understand, at
the same time, that it was “the thing” to be in it; an idea which he was
evidently quite capable of appreciating. Dinner over, she drew his arm
playfully through hers and took him all over the house.

“Let me see that you approve!” she said with a laughing assumption of
burlesque suspense.

The last room into which she took him was the little room at the back of
the dining-room; and as his previous tone of appreciation and pleasure
developed into genuine boyish exclamations of delight at the sight of
it, the instant’s intense satisfaction in her face struck oddly on her
manner.

“You like it, my lord?” she said. “My disgraceful extravagance is
rewarded by your gracious approval? Then your ridiculous mother is silly
enough to be pleased.” She gave him a little careless touch, half shake
and half caress, and Julian threw his arm round her rapturously.

“I should think I did like it!” he said boyishly. “I say, shan’t I have
to work hard here! Mother, what an awfully jolly smoking table!”

“Suppose you smoke here now,” suggested Mrs. Romayne, “by way of taking
possession? Oh, yes! I’ll stay with you.”

She sat down, as she spoke, in one of the low basket-chairs by the fire,
taking a little hand-screen from the mantelpiece as she did so. And
Julian, with an exclamation of supreme satisfaction, threw himself into
a long lounging-chair with an air of general proprietorship which sat
oddly on his youthful figure; and proceeded to select and light a cigar.

A silence followed--rather a long silence. Julian lay back in his chair,
and smoked in luxurious contentment. Mrs. Romayne sat with her dainty
head, with its elaborate arrangement of red-brown hair, resting against
a cushion, her face half hidden by the shade thrown by the fire-screen
as she held it up in one slender, ringed hand. She seemed to be looking
straight into the fire; as a matter of fact her eyes were fixed on the
boyish face beside her. She was the first to break silence.

“It is two, nearly three, months since we were together,” she said.

The words might have been the merest comment in themselves; but there
was something in the bright tone in which they were spoken,
something--half suggestion, half invitation--which implied a desire to
make them the opening of a conversation. Julian Romayne’s perceptions,
however, were by no means of the acutest, and he detected no undertone.

“So it is!” he assented, with dreamy cheerfulness.

“How long did you spend in Cairo?”

The question, which came after a pause, was evidently another attempt on
a new line. Again it failed.

“Didn’t I tell you? Ten days!” said Julian lazily.

Mrs. Romayne changed her position. She leant forward, her elbow on her
knee, her cheek resting on her hand, the screen still shading her face.

“The catechism is going to begin,” she said gaily.

Julian’s cigar was finished. He roused himself, and dropped the end into
the ash-tray by his side as he said with a smile:

“What catechism?”

“Your catechism, sir,” returned his mother. “Do you suppose I am going
to let you off without insisting on a full and particular account of
all your doings during the last ten weeks?”

“A full and particular account of all my doings!” he said. “I say, that
sounds formidable, doesn’t it? The only thing is, you’ve had it in my
letters.”

“The fullest and most particular?” she laughed.

“The fullest and most particular!”

“Never mind,” she exclaimed, leaning back in her chair again with a
restless movement, “I shall catechise all the same. My curiosity knows
no limits, you see. Now, you are on your honour as a--as a spoilt boy,
understand.”

“On my honour as a spoilt boy! All right. Fire away, mum!”

He pulled himself up, folding his hands with an assumption of “good
little boy” demeanour, and laughing into her face. She also drew herself
up, and laughed back at him.

“Question one: Have you lost your heart to any pretty girl in the past
ten weeks?”

“No, mum.”

“Question two: Have you flirted--much--with any girl, pretty or plain?”

“No, mum.”

“Have you overdrawn your allowance?”

“No, mum. I’ve got such a jolly generous mother, mum!”

“Have you---- Oh! Have you any secrets from your mother?”

The question broke from her in a kind of cry, but she turned it before
it was finished into burlesque, and Julian burst into a shout of
laughter.

“Not a solitary secret! There, will that do?”

She was looking straight into his face--her own still in shadow--and
there was a moment’s pause; almost a breathless pause on her part it
seemed; then she broke into a laugh.

“That will do capitally,” she said. “The catechism is over.”

She rose as she spoke, and added a word or two about a note she had to
write.

“We may as well go up into the drawing-room if you have finished
smoking,” she said. “It is an invitation from some friends of the
Pomeroys--a dinner. By-the-bye, don’t you think Miss Pomeroy a very
pretty girl?”

Julian’s response was rather languid, but his mother did not press the
point. She turned away to replace the screen on the mantelpiece, and as
she did so a thought seemed to strike her.

“Oh, Julian!” she said. “Did you go to Alexandria? What about those
curtains you were to get me?”

Her back was towards Julian, and she did not notice the instant’s
hesitation which preceded his reply. He was putting his cigar-case into
his pocket, and the process seemed to demand all his attention.

“I didn’t go to Alexandria, unfortunately,” he said lightly. “The
Fosters had been there, and didn’t care to go again.”

The clock struck twelve that night when Mrs. Romayne rose at last from
the chair in front of her bedroom fireplace in which she had been
sitting for more than an hour. The fire had gone out before her eyes
unnoticed, and she shivered a little as she rose. Her face was strangely
pale and haggard-looking, and the red-brown hair harmonised ill with
the anxiety of its look.

“It begins from to-night!” she said to herself. “It is his man’s life
that begins from to-night!”



CHAPTER IX


“Quite a presentable fellow!”

There was an unusual ring of excitement in Mrs. Romayne’s voice; it was
about ten o’clock in the evening, and she was standing in the middle of
her own drawing-room, looking up into Julian’s face, as he stood before
her, having just come into the room, smiling back at her with a certain
touch of excitement about his appearance also. He was in evening dress;
he had evidently bestowed particular pains upon his attire, and the
flower in his buttonhole was an exceptionally dainty one.

Mrs. Romayne was also in evening dress, and in evening dress of the most
elaborate description. From the point of view of the fashion of the day,
her appearance was absolutely perfect; no detail, from the arrangement
of her hair to the point of the silk shoe just visible beneath her
skirt, had been neglected; everything was in good taste and in the
height of fashion, and the effect of the whole, heightened by the
background afforded by the quiet little drawing-room with its softly
shaded lamps, was almost startling in its suggestion of luxury and
refinement. The fashion of the moment was peculiarly becoming to Mrs.
Romayne, and evening dress, with its artificialities and its
conventionalities, always enhanced her good points, strictly
conventional as they were. With that light of excitement on her face,
and a certain suggestion about her of verve and vivacity, she looked
almost charming enough to justify the boyish exclamations of exaggerated
admiration into which Julian had broken on entering the room.

There was an eager, restless happiness in her eyes, which leapt up into
almost triumphant life as she gave a little touch to Julian’s
buttonhole; and then pushed him a step or two further back, that she
might look at him again, and repeated her commendatory words with a
laugh. Then, on a little gesture from her, he picked up her cloak, which
lay on a chair near, put it carefully about her, and, opening the door
for her, followed her downstairs.

Nearly three weeks had elapsed since Julian’s arrival in London, and in
that time, short as it was, his expression had changed somewhat. There
was a quickened interest and alertness about it which detracted from his
boyishness, inasmuch as it made him look as though life had actually
begun for him. It would have been wholly untrue to say that any touch of
responsibility or ambition had dawned upon his good-looking young face;
but a subtle something had come to it which was, perhaps, a
materialisation of a mental movement which did duty for those emotions.
In the course of those three weeks he had had several interviews with
the man with whom he was to read; all the preliminaries of his legal
career had been settled; and in more than one half-laughing talk with
his mother on the conclusion of some arrangement, the preliminaries had
been far outstripped, and he had been conducted in triumph to the bench
itself.

But in all these buildings of castles in the air, there was a factor in
the foundations of his fortunes never allowed by his mother to drop out
of sight; the main factor it became when she was the architect,
relegating to a subordinate position even the hard work on which Julian
was wont to expatiate with enthusiasm and energy. Sometimes as a means,
sometimes as an end, sometimes as the sum total of all human ambition,
social success, social position were woven into all his schemes for the
future as they talked together; woven in with no direct statements or
precepts; but with an insidious insistence, and a tacit assumption of
their value in the scale of things as a truism in no need of
formulation.

Society life had begun for him with the very day after his arrival in
town, and had moved briskly with him through the following weeks;
briskly, but in a small way. Easter had intervened, and no large
entertainments had been given. To-night was to be, as Mrs. Romayne said
gaily as she settled her train and her cloak in the brougham into which
he had followed her, his first public appearance. They were on their way
to the first “smart affair” of the coming season; a dance to be given at
a house in Park Lane; not very large, but very desirable, at
which--again on Mrs. Romayne’s authority--all the right people would be.

“You must dance, of course, but not all the evening, Julian!” his mother
said, as their drive drew to an end. “I shall want to introduce you a
good deal. And don’t engage yourself for supper if you can help it. I’m
sorry to be so hard upon you!”

She finished with a laugh, light as her tone had been throughout. Then
their carriage drew up suddenly, and her face, in shadow for the moment,
changed strangely. For an instant all the happiness, all the excitement
and superficiality died out of it, quenched in a kind of revelation of
heartsick anxiety so utterly out of all proportion with the occasion, as
to be absolutely ghastly; ghastly as only a momentary revelation of the
cruel cross-purposes and incongruities of life can be. The next moment,
as Julian sprang out of the carriage and turned to help her out, her
expression changed again.

It took them some time to get up to the drawing-room, for though the
party was by no means a crush, they had arrived at the most fashionable
moment, and the staircase was crowded. Salutations, conveyed by graceful
movements of the head, passed across an intervening barrier of gay
dresses and black coats between Mrs. Romayne and numbers of
acquaintances above her or below her on the stairs; and as she smiled
and bowed she murmured comments to Julian--names or data, criticisms of
dress or appearance--until at last patience, and the continual movement
of the stream of which they made part, brought them face to face with
their hostess. The conventional handshake, the conventional words of
greeting passed between that lady and Mrs. Romayne, and then the latter
indicated Julian with a smiling gesture.

“Let me introduce my boy, Lady Arden,” she said. “So glad to have the
opportunity!”

She spoke with an accentuation of that self-conscious, self-deriding
maternal pride which was her usual pose, setting, as it were, her tone
for the night. And certainly Julian, as he bowed, and then shook the
hand Lady Arden held out to him, was a legitimate subject for pride. His
sense of the importance of the occasion had given to his manner and
expression not only that touch of excitement which made him positively
handsome, but a certain added readiness and assurance, by no means
presuming and very attractive. Lady Arden’s eyes rested on him with
obvious approval, as she said the few words the situation demanded with
unusual graciousness, and a sign from her brought one of her daughters
to her side. She introduced Julian to the girl.

“Take care of Mr. Romayne, Ida,” she said. “He has only lately come to
London. Find him some nice partners.”

“And let me have him back by-and-by, please, Lady Ida!” laughed Mrs.
Romayne, as they passed on with the girl into the room. “There are some
friends of his mother’s to whom he must spare a little time to-night.”

The gay replies with which Julian and his guide--who after a
comprehensive glance at him had shown considerable readiness to do her
mother’s bidding--disappeared in the crowd were lost to Mrs. Romayne;
her attention was claimed by a man at her elbow.

“May I have a dance, Mrs. Romayne?” he said.

Mrs. Romayne shook hands and laughed.

“Well, really I don’t know,” she said; “I think I must give up dancing
from to-night. I’ve got a great grown-up son here, do you know. Look,
there he is with Lady Ida Arden! Nice-looking boy, isn’t he? It doesn’t
seem the right thing for his mother to be dancing about, now does it?”

She laughed again, a gay little laugh, well in the key she had set in
her first introduction of Julian, and the man to whom she spoke
protested vigorously.

“It seems to me exactly the right thing,” he said. “The idea of your
having a grown-up son is the preposterous point, don’t you know. Come,
I say, Mrs. Romayne, don’t be so horribly hard-hearted!”

“But I must introduce him, don’t you see. I must do my duty as a
mother.”

“Lady Ida is introducing him! She has introduced him to half-a-dozen of
the best girls in the room already.”

The colloquy, carried on on either side in the lightest of tones,
finally ended in Mrs. Romayne’s promising a “turn by-and-by,” and the
couple drifted apart; Mrs. Romayne to find acquaintances close at hand.
Among the first she met was Lady Bracondale, condescendingly amiable, to
whom she pointed out Julian, with laughing self-excuse. He was dancing
now, and dancing extremely well.

“I am so absurdly proud of him!” she said. “I want to introduce him to
you by-and-by, if I can catch him. But dancing men are so inconveniently
useful.”

Some time had worn away, and she had repeated the substance of this
speech in sundry forms to sundry persons, before Julian rejoined her.
She had cast several rather preoccupied glances in his direction, when
she became aware of him on the opposite side of the room, threading his
way through the intervening groups in her direction, just as she was
accosted by a rather distinguished-looking, elderly man.

“How do you do, Mrs. Romayne? They tell me that you have a grown-up son
here, and I decline to believe it.”

He spoke in a pleasant, refined voice, marred, however, by all the
affectation of the day, and with a tone about it as of a man absolutely
secure of position and used to some amount of homage. He was a certain
Lord Garstin, a distinguished figure in London society, rich, well-bred,
and idle. He was troubled with no ideals. Fashionable women, with all
the weaknesses which he knew quite well, were quite as high a type of
woman as he thought possible; or, at least, desirable; and he had a
considerable admiration for Mrs. Romayne as a very highly-finished and
attractive specimen of the type he preferred.

She shook hands with him with a laugh, and a gathering together of her
social resources, so to speak, which suggested that in her scheme of
things he was a power whose suffrage was eminently desirable.

“It is true, notwithstanding,” she said brightly. “I am the proud
possessor of a grown-up son, Lord Garstin; a very dear boy, I assure
you. We are settling down in London together.”

“Is it possible?” was the answer, uttered with exaggerated incredulity.
“And what are you going to do with him, may I ask?”

“He is reading for the bar----” began Mrs. Romayne; and then becoming
aware that the subject of her words had by this time reached her side,
she turned slightly, and laid her hand on Julian’s arm with a pretty
gesture. “Here he is,” she said. “Let me introduce him. Julian, this is
Lord Garstin. He has been kindly asking me about you.”

Julian knew all about Lord Garstin, and his tone and manner as he
responded to his mother’s words were touched with a deference which made
them, as his mother said to herself, “just what they ought to be.” The
elder man looked him over with eyes which, as far as their vision
extended, were as keen as eyes need be.

“A great many of your mother’s admirers will find it difficult to
realise your existence,” he said pleasantly. “Though of course we have
all heard of you. You are going to the bar, eh?”

Lord Garstin had a great following among smart young men, and the fact
was rather a weakness of his. He liked to have young men about him; to
be admired and imitated by them. His manner to Julian was characteristic
of these tastes; free from condescension as superiority can only be when
it is absolute and unassailable, and full of easy familiarity.

Mrs. Romayne, standing fanning herself between them, listened for
Julian’s reply with a certain intent suspense beneath her smile; Lord
Garstin’s approval was so important to him. The simple, unaffected
frankness of the answer satisfied her ear, and Lord Garstin’s
expression, as he listened to it, satisfied her eye; and with a laughing
comment on Julian’s words, she allowed her attention to be drawn away
for the moment by an acquaintance who claimed it in passing.

There was a slight flush of elation on her face when, a few moments
later, the chat between Lord Garstin and Julian being broken off, the
former moved away with a friendly nod to the young man, and a little
gesture and smile to herself, significant of congratulation.

“Come and walk round the room,” she said gaily, slipping her hand
through Julian’s arm. “There are hundreds of people you must be
introduced to.”

During the half-hour that followed, Julian was introduced to a large
proportion of those people in the room who were best worth knowing. Mrs.
Romayne seemed to have wasted no time on the acquaintance of
mediocrities.

His presentation to Lady Bracondale had just been accomplished, when
Mrs. Halse appeared upon the scene and greeted Mrs. Romayne with
stereotyped enthusiasm.

“Such a success!” she said in a loud whisper, as Julian talked to Lady
Bracondale. “Everybody is quite taken by surprise. I don’t know why,
I’m sure, but I don’t think any one was prepared for such a charming
young man. I’ve been quite in love with him ever since I saw him first,
you know, and we really must have him on the bazaar committee.” Mrs.
Halse had been out of town for Easter, and the affairs of the bazaar had
been somewhat in abeyance in consequence. “Mr. Romayne,” she continued,
seizing upon Julian, “I want to talk to you. You really must help
me----”

At this juncture the man who had pressed Mrs. Romayne to dance earlier
in the evening came up to her and claimed the promise she had made him
then. She cast a glance of laughing pity at Julian, intended for his
eyes alone, and moved away.

“It was too bad, mother,” he declared, laughing, as he met her a little
later coming out of the dancing-room. “Now, to make up you must have one
turn with me--just one. We haven’t danced together for ages.”

He was full of eagerness, a little flushed with the excitement of the
evening, and her laughing protestations, her ridicule of him for
wanting to dance with his mother, went for nothing. They only let loose
on her a torrent of boyish persuasion, and finally she hesitated,
laughed undecidedly, and yielded. She, too, was a little flushed and
elated, as though with triumph.

“One turn, then, you absurd boy!” she said; and she let him draw her
hand through his arm and lead her back into the dancing-room. They went
only half-a-dozen times round the room in spite of his protestations
against stopping, but Mrs. Romayne was too excellent a dancer and too
striking a figure for those turns to pass unnoticed. When she stopped
and made him take her, flushed and laughing, out of the room, she was
instantly surrounded by a group of men vehemently reproaching her for
dancing with her son to the exclusion of so many would-be partners, and
laughingly denouncing Julian.

“I couldn’t help it!” she protested gaily. “Yes, I know it’s a
ridiculous sight, but we are rather ridiculous, we two, you know! Come,
Julian, take me home this moment! Let me disappear covered with
confusion.”

She went swiftly downstairs as she spoke, laughing prettily, and a few
minutes later Julian, with a good deal of extraneous and wholly
unnecessary assistance, was putting her into her carriage.

The whole evening had gone off admirably, Mrs. Romayne said the next
morning; repeating the dictum with which she had parted from Julian at
night, with less excitement, but with undiminished satisfaction.

During the course of the next three or four weeks that satisfaction--a
certain genuine and deliberate satisfaction which seemed to underlie the
superficial gaiety and brightness of her manner--seemed to grow upon
her. The season had begun early, and very gaily, and she and Julian were
in great request. It was perhaps as well that little work was expected
of the embryo barrister before the winter, for he and his mother were
out night after night; welcomed and made much of wherever they went, as
so attractive a pair--one of whom was steeped to the finger-tips in
knowledge of her world--were sure to be. Mrs. Romayne arranged a series
of weekly dinner-parties in the little house at Chelsea, which promised
to be, in a small way, one of the features of the season. They were very
small, very select, and very cheery; no better hostess was to be found
in London, and there was a touch of sentiment about the relation between
the hostess and the pleasant young host, which was by no means without
charm for the guests.

Mrs. Halse’s bazaar, too, which was affording far more entertainment to
its promoters than it seemed at all likely to afford to its supporters,
served to bring Julian into special prominence. He was not clever, but
there is a great deal to be done in connection with a bazaar on which
intellect would be thrown away, and Julian proved himself what Mrs.
Halse described effusively as “a most useful dear!” an expression by
which she probably meant to convey the fact that he was always ready to
toil for the ladies’ committee, without too close an investigation into
the end to be attained by the said toiling. He was quite an important
person at all the meetings connected with the bazaar, and the fact gave
him a standing with the innumerable “smart” people concerned which he
would otherwise hardly have attained so soon.

His introduction to Lord Garstin resulted, about a fortnight after it
took place, in an invitation to a bachelor dinner. An invitation to one
of Lord Garstin’s dinners was, in its way, about as desirable a thing as
a young man “in Society” could receive; and the pleased, repressed
importance on Julian’s face as he came into the drawing-room to his
mother before he started to keep the engagement, was like a faint
reflection of the satisfaction with which Mrs. Romayne’s expression was
transfused.

“You’re going?” she said brightly. “Well, I shall be at the Ponsonbys’
by half-past eleven, and I shall expect you there some time before
twelve. Enjoy yourself, sir!”

He kissed her with careless affection, and she patted him on the
shoulder for a conceited boy as he hoped, lightly, that she would not
find her solitary evening dull; she had refused to dine out without
him, saying laughingly that she should enjoy a holiday; and then he went
off, whistling gaily and arranging his buttonhole.

It wanted a few minutes only to the dinner-hour when he arrived at the
club where the dinner was to be given. Three of his fellow guests were
already assembled, and to two of these--well-known young men about
town--he had already been introduced.

“You know these two fellows, I think,” said Lord Garstin lightly,
“but”--turning to the third man--“Loring tells me that you and he have
not yet been introduced. I’m delighted to perform the ceremony! Mr.
Julian Romayne--Mr. Marston Loring!”

Julian held out his hand with a frank exclamation of pleasure. He had
recognised in Mr. Marston Loring a young man whom he had seen about
incessantly during the past month, and who had excited a good deal of
secret and boyish admiration in him by reason of a certain assumption of
_blasé_ cynicism with which an excellent society manner was just
sufficiently seasoned to give it character. It was conventional
character enough, but it was not to be expected that Julian should
understand that.

“I’m awfully glad to meet you,” he said pleasantly. “I’ve known you by
sight for ages!”

“And I you!” was the answer, spoken with a slight smile and a touch of
cordiality which delighted Julian. “The pleasure is distinctly mutual.”

Marston Loring was not a good-looking young man; his features, indeed,
would have been insignificant but for the presence of that spurious air
of refinement which life in society usually produces; and for something
more genuine, namely, a strength and resolution about the mould of his
chin and the set of his thin lips which had won him a reputation for
being “clever-looking” among the superficial observers of the social
world. He was nine-and-twenty, but his face might have been the face of
a man twenty years older--so entirely destitute was it of any of the
gracious possibilities which should characterise early manhood. It was
pale and lined, and worn with very ugly suggestiveness; and there were
stories told about him, whispered and laughed at in many of the houses
where he was received, which accounted amply for those lines. The pose,
too, which it pleased him to adopt was that of elderly superiority to
all the illusions and credulities of youth. Marston Loring was a man of
whom it was vaguely but universally said that he had “got on so well!”
Reduced to facts, this statement meant, primarily, that with no
particular rights in that direction he had gradually worked his way into
a position in society--a position the insecurity and unreality of which
was known only to himself; and, secondarily, that by dint of influence,
hard work--hard work was also part of his pose--and a certain amount of
unscrupulousness, he was making money at the bar when most men dependent
on their profession would have starved at it.

He had brown eyes, dull and curiously shallow-looking, but very keen and
calculating, and they were even keener than usual as they gave Julian
one quick look.

“I think we belong to the same profession?” he said with easy
friendliness. “You are reading with Allardyce, are you not? A good man,
Allardyce.”

“So they tell me,” answered Julian, not a little impressed by the
critical and experienced tone of the approbation. “I can’t say I’ve done
much with him yet. One doesn’t do much at this time of year, you know.”

Loring smiled rather sardonically.

“That’s what it is to be a gentleman of independent fortune,” he said.
“Some people have to burn the candle at both ends.”

The five minutes’ chat which ensued before the arrival of the fifth
guest--a certain Lord Hesseltine, known only by sight to Julian--and the
announcement of dinner, was just enough to create a regret in Julian’s
mind when he found that he and his new acquaintance were seated on
opposite sides of the table. Loring’s contribution to the general
conversation throughout dinner, witty, cynical, and assured, completed
his conquest, and when, on the subsequent adjournment of the party to
the smoking-room, Loring strolled up to him, cigar in hand, the prospect
of a _tête-à-tête_ was greatly to Julian’s satisfaction.

“What an odd thing it is that we should never have been introduced
before!” he began, lighting his own cigar and scanning the other man
with youthful, admiring eyes.

“It is odd,” returned Loring placidly, throwing himself into an
arm-chair as he spoke, and signing an invitation to Julian to establish
himself in another. “Especially as, like every one else, I’ve been an
immense admirer of your mother all this year. I wonder whether you
recognise what a lucky fellow you are, Romayne?”

Julian’s eyes sparkled with pleasure at the easy familiarity of the
address, and he crossed his legs with careless self-importance, as he
answered, with the lightness of youth:

“I ought to, oughtn’t I? I say, I know my mother would be awfully
pleased to know you. You must let me introduce you to her. Are you
coming on to the Ponsonbys’ to-night?”

“I shall be only too delighted,” answered Loring, watching the smoke
from his cigar with his dull, brown eyes, and answering the first part
of Julian’s speech. “No, unfortunately I’ve got an affair in Chelsea
to-night, and another in Kensington. But we shall meet to-morrow night
at the Bracondales’, I suppose?”

“Of course,” assented Julian eagerly. “That will be capital!”

There was a moment’s pause, broken by Loring with a reference to a
political opinion formulated by one of the other men at dinner; and a
talk about politics ensued, eager on Julian’s part, cynical and
effectively reserved on Loring’s. A political discussion, when the
discussers hold the same political faith, has much the same effect in
promoting rapid intimacy between men, granted a predisposition towards
intimacy on either side, as a discussion of the reigning fashion in
dress has with a certain class of women. When Lord Garstin’s
dinner-party began to break up, and Loring and Julian rose to take their
departure, they parted with a hand-clasp which would have befitted an
acquaintanceship three months, rather than three hours old.

“Good night,” said Julian. “Awfully pleased to have met you, Loring.
See you to-morrow night. My mother will be delighted.”

“I shall be delighted,” said Loring. “All right, then. To-morrow night
we’ll arrange that look in at the House. Good night.”

A few minutes’ talk with Lord Garstin, who had taken a decided fancy to
“that charming little woman’s boy,” and Julian was standing on the
pavement of St. James’s Street, with that pleasant sense of exhilaration
and warmth of heart, which is an attendant, in youth, on the
inauguration of a new friendship.

It was a night in early May, and a fine, hot day had ended, as evening
drew on, in sultry closeness. The clouds had been rolling up steadily,
though not a breath of air seemed to be stirring now, and it was evident
that a storm was inevitable before long. Julian was hot and excited; he
had only a short distance to go; he looked up at the sky and
decided--the wish being father to the thought--that it would “hold up
for the present,” and that he would walk.

He set out up St. James’s Street and along Piccadilly, taking the right
road by instinct, his busy thoughts divided between satisfaction at the
idea of belonging to the “best” club in London, introduced thereinto by
Lord Garstin; and Loring and his gifts and graces. He had just turned
into Berkeley Street when a rattling peal of thunder roused him with a
start, and the next instant the thunder was followed by a perfect deluge
of rain.

It was so sudden and he was so entirely unprepared, that his only
instinct for the moment was to step back hastily into the shelter of a
portico in front of which he was just passing; and as he did so, he
noticed a young woman who must have been following him up the street, a
young woman in the shabby hat and jacket of a work-girl, take refuge,
perforce, beneath the same shelter with a shrinking movement which was
not undignified, though it seemed to imply that she was almost more
afraid of him than of the drenching, bitter rain. Then, his reasoning
powers reasserting themselves in the comparative security of the
portico, he began to consider what he should do. He was within seven
minutes’ walk of his destination, but seven minutes’ walk in such rain
as was beating down on the pavement before him would render him wholly
unfit to present himself at a party; and “of course,” as he said to
himself, there was not a cab to be seen. A blinding flash of lightning
cut across his reflections, and drove him back a step or two farther
into shelter involuntarily. And as a terrific peal of thunder followed
it instantaneously, he glanced almost unconsciously at the sharer of his
shelter.

“By Jove!” he said to himself.

The girl had retreated, as he himself had done, and was standing close
up against the door of the house to which the portico belonged, in the
extreme corner from that which he himself occupied. But except for that
tacit acknowledgement of his presence, she seemed no longer conscious of
it. She was looking straight out at the storm, her head a little lifted
as though to catch a glimpse of the sky; and her face, outlined by her
dark clothes and the dark paint of the door behind her, stood out in
great distinctness. It was rather thin and pale, and very
tired-looking; the large brown eyes were heavy and haggard. It was not
worthy of a second glance at that moment, according to any canon of the
world in which Julian lived, and yet it drew from him that exclamation
of startled admiration. He had never seen anything like it, he told
himself vaguely.

Apparently the intent gaze, of which he himself was hardly conscious,
affected its object. She moved uneasily, and turning as if
involuntarily, met his eyes.

The next instant she was moving hastily from under the portico, when the
driver of a hansom cab became aware of Julian’s existence, and pulled up
suddenly.

“Hansom, sir?” he shouted.

“Yes!” answered Julian quickly, dashing across the drenched pavement. “A
hundred and three, Berkeley Square!”



CHAPTER X


All the rooms in the house in Chelsea were bright and pretty, and by no
means the least attractive was the dining-room. The late breakfast-hour
fixed by Mrs. Romayne, “just for the season,” as she said, gave plenty
of time for the sun to find its way in at the windows; and on the
morning following Julian’s dinner with Lord Garstin the sunshine was
dancing on the walls, and the soft, warm air floating in at the open
windows, as though the thunderstorm of the previous evening had cleared
the air to some purpose.

The two occupants of the room, as they faced one another across the
dainty little breakfast-table, had been laughing and talking after their
usual fashion ever since they sat down; talking of the party of the
night before and of engagements in the future; and finally reverting to
Lord Garstin’s dinner and Marston Loring, of whom Julian had already had
a great deal to say.

“I have a kind of feeling that he and I are going to be chums, mother!”
he said as he carried his coffee-cup round the table to her to be
refilled. “I think he took to me rather, do you know!”

“That’s a very surprising thing, isn’t it?” returned his mother,
laughing. “And you took to him? Well, if you must pick up a chum, you
couldn’t do it under better auspices than Lord Garstin’s.”

“I took to him no end!” answered Julian eagerly. “I do hope you’ll like
him.”

“I think I am pretty sure to like him,” said Mrs. Romayne graciously. “I
remember hearing about him some time ago--that he was quite one of the
rising young men of the day. He was to have been introduced to me then.
I forget why it didn’t come off. There’s your coffee!”

Julian took his cup with a word of thanks and turned back to his chair;
and his mother began again.

“Mr. Loring is a member of the Prince’s, I suppose?” she said. The
“Prince’s” was the name of the club at which Lord Garstin’s dinner had
been given. “I suppose you will want to be setting up a club in no time,
sir?”

Julian laughed, and then replied somewhat eagerly and confidentially, as
though in unconscious response to a certain invitation in his mother’s
tone.

“Well, of course a fellow does want a club, mother,” he said. “One feels
it more and more, don’t you know! Of course I should awfully like to
belong to the Prince’s.”

“And why not?” responded his mother brightly, watching him rather
narrowly as she spoke. “Lord Garstin would put you up, I’ve no doubt, if
I asked him.”

Julian’s eyes sparkled.

“It would be first-rate!” he exclaimed. “Mother, it’s awfully jolly of
you!” He paused a moment and then continued tentatively: “It would be
rather expensive, you know. That’s the only thing!”

“So I suppose!” answered his mother, laughing. “Oh, you’re a very
expensive luxury altogether! However, I imagine another hundred a year
would do?” Then as he broke into vehement demonstrations of delight and
gratitude, she added with another laugh which did not seem to ring quite
true: “I don’t think you need ever run short of money!”

There was a moment’s pause as Julian, the picture of glowing
satisfaction, finished his breakfast, and then Mrs. Romayne rose.

“What are you going to do this morning?” she said. “Read?”

Julian glanced out of the window.

“Well,” he said, “it’s an awfully jolly morning, isn’t it? I promised to
see after some live-stock for Miss Pomeroy’s stall--puppies, and
kittens, and canary birds. Rum idea, isn’t it? What are you doing this
morning, dear?”

It turned out that Mrs. Romayne had nothing particular on her hands
beyond a visit to a jeweller in Bond Street, and accepting very easily
his substitution of Miss Pomeroy’s commission for the legal studies to
which he was supposed to devote himself in the mornings, she took up
his reference to the weather, and suggested that they should drive
together to execute first his business and then her own.

“It will be rather nice driving this morning,” she said. “And we can
take a turn in the Park.”

Certainly there was a certain amount of excuse for those people who had
already begun to say that Mrs. Romayne was never happy without her son
by her side.

She spared no pains, however, to make him happy with her; and as they
drove along there was probably no brighter or brisker talk than theirs
in progress in all London. They drove through the West End streets and
penetrated, in search of Miss Pomeroy’s requirements, into regions into
which Mrs. Romayne had hardly ever penetrated before; regions which
rather amused her to-day in their squalor. When Julian had done his
commission in plenty of time to undo it and do it again before the
bazaar came off, as he remarked with a laugh, they turned back again and
went to Bond Street.

“I have a little private matter to attend to here,” said Julian, as he
followed his mother into the jeweller’s shop. “You just have the
kindness to stop at your end of the shop, will you, please, and leave me
to mine?”

Mrs. Romayne laughed and shook her head at him. It was within a few days
of her birthday, which was always demonstratively honoured by her son.

“Now, you are not to be extravagant,” she said, holding up a slender,
threatening finger with mock severity. “Mind, I will not have it. I
shall descend upon you unawares, and keep you in order.”

She let him leave her with another laugh, and he disappeared to the
other end of the shop, while she followed a shopman to a counter near
the door. Just turning away from it, she met Mrs. Pomeroy and her
daughter.

“Now, this is really most delightful!” exclaimed Mrs. Pomeroy, if any
speech so comfortable and so entirely unexcited may be described as an
exclamation. “It is always charming to see you, dear Mrs. Romayne, of
course; but it really is particularly charming this morning, isn’t it,
Maud?”

“That’s very nice,” said Mrs. Romayne brightly, turning to Maud Pomeroy
with a smile, and pressing the girl’s hand with an affectionate
familiarity developed in her with regard to Miss Pomeroy by the last few
weeks. A hardly perceptible touch of additional satisfaction had come to
her face as she saw the mother and daughter. “Please tell me why?”

“Yes, of course,” said Mrs. Pomeroy placidly; she sat down as she spoke
with that instinct for personal ease under all circumstances, which was
her ruling characteristic. “That is just what I want to do. My dear Mrs.
Romayne, it is the bazaar, of course. It really is a most awkward thing,
isn’t it, Maud? It seems that we have asked twenty-one ladies--all most
important--to become stall-holders, and we can’t possibly make room for
more than eighteen stalls! Now, what would you---- Ah, Mr. Romayne, how
do you do?”

Mrs. Pomeroy had broken off her tale of woe as placidly as she had
begun it, and had greeted Julian with comfortable cordiality. He had
come up hastily, not becoming aware of his mother’s companions until he
was close to them.

“This is awfully lucky for me!” he exclaimed. “I want a lady desperately
for half a minute, and my mother won’t do. Miss Pomeroy,” turning
eagerly to the demure, correct-looking figure standing by Mrs. Pomeroy’s
side, “will you come to the other end of the shop with me for half a
minute? It would be awfully good of you.”

The words were spoken in a tone of fashionable good-fellowship--the
pseudo good-fellowship which passes for the real thing in
society--which, as addressed by Julian Romayne to Miss Pomeroy and her
mother, was one of the results of his work in connection with the
bazaar; and before Miss Pomeroy could answer, Mrs. Romayne interposed.
Somebody very frequently did interpose when Miss Pomeroy was addressed.
No one ever seemed to expect opinions or decisions from her; perhaps
because she was her mother’s daughter; perhaps because of her curiously
characterless exterior; while the fact that she had never been known to
controvert a statement--in words--doubtless accentuated the tendency of
her acquaintance to make statements for her.

“It will be awfully good of you,” Mrs. Romayne said to her now,
laughing, “if you are kind enough to help this silly fellow, to insist
on his remembering that his mother will be very angry indeed if he is
extravagant. I shall have to give up having a birthday, I think.”

Then as Julian, with a gay gesture of repression to his mother, waited
for Miss Pomeroy’s answer with another pleading, “It would be ever so
good of you,” the girl, with a glance at her mother, said, with a
conventional smile, “With pleasure,” and walked away by his side.

Mrs. Pomeroy looked after Julian with an approving smile. He was a
favourite of hers.

“Such a nice fellow,” she murmured amiably; and Mrs. Romayne laughed her
pretty, self-conscious laugh.

“So glad you find him so,” she said. “Oh, by-the-bye, dear Mrs. Pomeroy,
can you tell me anything about a Mr. Marston Loring? He goes everywhere,
doesn’t he? I think I have seen him at your house.”

“Oh, yes,” returned Mrs. Pomeroy, as placidly as ever, but with a
decision which indicated that she was giving expression to a popular
verdict, not merely to an opinion of her own. “He is quite a young man
to know. Very clever, and rising. I don’t know what his people were; he
has been so successful that it really doesn’t signify, you know. He
lives in chambers--I don’t remember where, but it is a very good
address.”

“Has he money?” asked Mrs. Romayne.

“I really don’t know,” said Mrs. Pomeroy. “He is doing extremely well at
the bar. By the way, they say,” and herewith Mrs. Pomeroy lowered her
voice and confided to her interlocutor two or three details in
connection with Marston Loring’s private life--the life which in the
world no one is supposed to recognise--which might have been considered
by no means to his credit. They were not details which affected his
society character in any way, however, and Mrs. Romayne only laughed
with such slight affectation of reprobation as a woman of the world
should show.

“Men are all alike, I suppose,” she said, with that fashionable
indulgence which has probably done as much as anything else towards
making men “all alike.” “By-the-bye, he was Lord Dunstan’s best man,
wasn’t he?”

Mrs. Pomeroy was just confirming to Mr. Marston Loring what was
evidently a certificate of social merit, when Julian and Miss Pomeroy
reappeared, and Mrs. Romayne, with an exclamation at herself as a
“frightful gossip,” turned to the shopman, who had been waiting her
pleasure at a discreet distance, and transacted her business.

“We haven’t settled anything about this trying business of the
twenty-one stall-holders,” said Mrs. Pomeroy plaintively, as she
finished. “Now, I wonder--we were thinking of taking a turn in the Park,
weren’t we, Maud?” Mrs. Pomeroy had a curious little habit of constantly
referring to her daughter. “It would be so kind of you, dear Mrs.
Romayne, if you would send your carriage home and take a turn with us,
you and Mr. Romayne, and I would take you home, of course. I really am
anxious to know what you advise, for there seems to be an idea that I am
in some way responsible for the awkwardness. So absurd, you know. I am
quite sure I have only done as I was told.”

Apparently it had not occurred to Mrs. Pomeroy that to do as you are
told by four or five different people with totally different ends in
view is apt to lead to confusion.

Mrs. Romayne fell in with the plan proposed, after an instant’s demur,
with smiling alacrity, and the “turn in the Park” that followed was a
very gay one. Miss Pomeroy and Julian laughed and talked together--that
is to say, Julian laughed and talked in the best of good spirits, and
Miss Pomeroy put in just the correct words and pretty smiles which were
wanted to keep his conversation in full swing. Mrs. Romayne and Mrs.
Pomeroy, facing them, disposed of the difficulty in connection with the
bazaar, after a good deal of irrelevant discussion, by saying very
often, and in a great many words, that three more stalls must be got in
somewhere; a decision which seemed to Mrs. Pomeroy to make everything
perfectly right, although she had had it elaborately demonstrated to her
that such a course was absolutely impossible.

It was half-past one when Mrs. Romayne and Julian were put down at their
own door, and the barouche drove off amid a chorus of light laughter and
last words. The sunshine, the fresh air, the movement, or something less
simple and less physical, seemed to have had a most exhilarating effect
on Mrs. Romayne. Her face was almost as radiant in its curiously
different fashion as Julian’s was radiant with the unreasoning good
spirits of youth.

“Such nice people!” she said lightly. “I wonder whether lunch is ready?
I’m quite starving! Oh, letters!” taking up three or four which lay on
the hall-table. “Let us trust they are interesting!” She turned into the
dining-room as she spoke, sorting the envelopes in her hand. “One for
you--your friend Von Mühler, isn’t it?” she said, tossing it to Julian
carelessly. “One for me--an invitation obviously. One from Mrs.
Ponsonby, about her stall, I suppose. And one from----”

She stopped suddenly. The last letter of the pile was contained in a
small square envelope, and addressed in what was obviously a man’s
handwriting--a good handwriting, clear and strong, but somewhat cramped
and precise. “Mrs. William Romayne, 22, Queen Anne Street, Chelsea.” A
curious stillness seemed to come over the little alert figure as the
pale blue eyes caught sight of the writing, and then Mrs. Romayne moved
and walked slowly away to the window, still with her eyes fixed on the
envelope. She paused a moment, and then she opened it and drew out a
sheet of note-paper bearing a few lines only in the same small, clear
hand.

“Well, mother, and what have your correspondents got to say? I have had
no end of a screed from Von Mühler.”

Nearly ten minutes had passed, and Mrs. Romayne started violently. She
thrust the letter--still open in her hand, though she was looking
fixedly out of the window--back into its envelope and turned. Her face
had altered curiously and completely. All its colour, all the genuine
animation which had pervaded it as she came into the room, had
disappeared; it was pale and hard-looking, and the lines about the mouth
and eyes were very visible.

“A dinner invitation from Lady Ashton,” she said, “and a long rigmarole
from Mrs. Ponsonby to tell me that she is resigning her stall, and why
she is doing it. Poor Mrs. Pomeroy should be grateful to her!”

Her tone was an exaggeration of her bright carelessness of ten minutes
before, forced and unnatural; her back was towards the window, or even
Julian’s boyish eyes might have noticed the stiff unreality of the smile
with which she spoke.

They sat down to lunch together, but the strange change which had come
to her did not pass away. Julian did most of the talking, though the
readiness of her comments and her smiles--which left her lips always
hard and set, and never seemed to touch her eyes--prevented his being in
the least aware of the fact. Their afternoon was spent apart; but when
they met again there was that about her face which made Julian say with
some surprise:

“Are you tired, mother?”

They were going to a large dinner-party before the very smart “at home”
to which Julian and Mr. Loring had referred on the previous evening as
an opportunity for meeting, and Mrs. Romayne was magnificently dressed.
There were diamonds round her throat and in her hair, and as they
flashed and sparkled, seeming to lend glow and animation to her face as
she laughed at him for a ridiculous boy, Julian thought carelessly that
he must have imagined the drawn look which had struck him--though he had
only recognised it as “tired-looking”--on his mother’s face. As though
his words had startled or even annoyed her, she gave neither Julian nor
any one else any further excuse for taxing her with fatigue. Throughout
the long and rather dull dinner she was vivacity itself; her face always
smiling, her laugh always ready. As the evening went on a flush made
its appearance on her cheeks, as though the mental stimulus under which
that gaiety was produced involved a veritable quickening of the pulses;
and her son, when he met her in the hall after she had uncloaked for
their second party, thought that he had never seen his mother look
“jollier,” as he expressed it.

“We must look out for Loring,” he said eagerly. “Oh, there he is,
mother, just inside the doorway! That clever-looking fellow, do you see,
with a yellow buttonhole?”

It was easier to recognise an acquaintance than to approach within
speaking distance of him; and some time elapsed, during which Mrs.
Romayne and Julian exchanged greetings on all sides, and were received
by Lady Bracondale, before they found themselves also just inside the
doorway. Mrs. Romayne had given one quick, keen glance in the direction
indicated by Julian, and then had become apparently oblivious of Mr.
Marston Loring’s existence until Julian finally exclaimed:

“Well met, Loring! Awfully pleased to see you! Mother, may I introduce
Mr. Marston Loring?”

She turned her head then, and bent it very graciously, holding out her
hand with her most charming smile.

“I have known you by sight for a long time, Mr. Loring!” she said. “I am
delighted to make your acquaintance!”

“The delight is mine!” was the response, spoken with just that touch of
well-bred deference which is never so attractive to a woman as when it
is exhibited in conjunction with such a personality as Loring’s. “It is
one for which I have wished for a long time!”

“Seen the papers to-night?” interposed Julian eagerly. “We’ve lost
Nottingham, you see!”

He was alluding to a bye-election which had led to the political
discussion of the evening before, and Loring nodded.

“I see,” said Loring. “Romayne has told you, no doubt,” he went on,
turning to Mrs. Romayne, “that we foregathered to a considerable extent
last night over politics--and other things.” The last words were spoken
with a glance at the younger man which seemed to ascribe to their
acquaintance an altogether more personal and friendly footing than
political discussion alone could have afforded it, and Mrs. Romayne
laughed very graciously.

“Yes; he has told me!” she said. “I am rather thinking of getting a
little jealous of you, Mr. Loring.”

A few minutes’ more talk followed--talk in which Loring bore himself
with his usual cynical manner, just tempered into even unusual
effectiveness--and then Mrs. Romayne prepared to move on.

“You must come and see us,” she said to Loring. “Julian will give you
the address. I am at home on Fridays; and I hope you will dine with us
before long!”

She gave him a pretty nod and an “_au revoir_,” and turned away.

“He’s awfully jolly, isn’t he, mother?” exclaimed Julian, as soon as
they were out of earshot.

“Very good style,” returned Mrs. Romayne approvingly. “He is just the
kind of man to get on. You have a good deal of discrimination, sir,”
she added.

The mother and son were separated after that, and about half an hour
later Mrs. Romayne caught sight of Julian disappearing with a very
pretty girl, whose face she did not know, in the direction of the
supper-room, just as she herself was greeted by Lord Garstin and pressed
to repair thither.

“Thanks, no,” she said lightly. “There is such a crowd, and I really
don’t want anything.”

She paused. That accentuated vivacity was still about her, as she looked
up at Lord Garstin with a little smile and a gesture which he thought
unusually charming.

“I want a little chat with you, though, very much,” she said with pretty
confidence. “I’m going to ask you to give me some advice, do you know.
Will it bore you frightfully?”

“On the contrary, it will delight me,” was the ready and by no means
insincere response.

Mrs. Romayne made a gracious and grateful movement of her head.

“I would rather take your opinion than that of any other man I know,”
she said confidentially. She stopped and laughed slightly. “It’s about
my boy, of course!” she said. “I want to know what you think of a club
for a young man in his position? Do you think, now, that it is a good
thing?”

“Emphatically, yes,” returned Lord Garstin. “I consider a good club of
the first importance to a young man. Your young man ought to be a member
of the Prince’s.” He paused a moment, looking at her as she nodded her
head softly, waiting as though for further words of wisdom from him, and
thought what a delightful little woman she was. “Suppose I talk to him
about it?” he said pleasantly. “I will see to it with pleasure if you
would like it.”

Nothing, certainly, could have been more delightful than Mrs. Romayne’s
manner, as she spoke just the right words of graceful acknowledgement
and acceptance. Then she made a gaily disparaging comment on club life,
and Lord Garstin’s advocacy of it, and a few minutes’ bantering,
laughing repartee followed--that society repartee of which Mrs. Romayne
was a mistress. From thence she drifted into talk about the party, and a
complaint of the heat of the room.

“It is time we were going, I think!” she remarked, with a gay little
laugh. “But a mother is a miserable slave, you see! I am ‘left until
called for,’ I suppose!”

“If I were not absolutely obliged to go myself,” returned Lord Garstin,
“I shouldn’t encourage such a suggestion on your part. But as that is
the case, unfortunately, shall I find your boy first and send him to
you?”

Mrs. Romayne shook her head with another laugh.

“I saw him retire to the supper-room a little while ago with a very
pretty girl,” she said. “I make it a point never to hurry him under such
circumstances! But if you should meet him you might tell him that I am
quite ready when he is. Good night!”

The room was not by any means crowded now; it was getting late and a
great many people were in the supper-room. The corner of the room in
which Mrs. Romayne was standing happened to be nearly deserted; there
was no one near her, and after Lord Garstin left her, she stood still,
fanning herself and looking straight before her with her bright smile
and animated expression rather stereotyped on her face. Suddenly, as if
involuntarily, she turned her head; she looked across to the other side
of the room and met the eyes of a man standing against the wall, who had
been looking fixedly at her ever since Lord Garstin joined her. For an
instant not the slightest perceptible change of expression touched her
face; only the very absoluteness of its immobility suggested that that
immobility was the result of a sudden and tremendous effort of
self-control; then the colour faded slowly from her cheeks and from her
lips; the smile did not disappear but it gradually assumed a ghastly
appearance of being carved in marble; her eyes widened slightly and
became strangely fixed. The man was Dennis Falconer, and he and she were
looking at one another across the gulf of eighteen years.

It was only for a moment. Then Mrs. Romayne, still quite colourless,
lifted her eyebrows prettily and made a gesture of amazed recognition,
and Falconer moved and came slowly towards her.

“What a surprising thing!” she exclaimed, holding out her hand. “I had
no idea you were here to-night! How do you do? Welcome home!”

Her tone was perfectly easy and gracious; so ultra-easy, indeed, that it
deprived her words of any personal or emotional significance whatever,
and relegated their meeting-place with subtle skill to the most
conventional of society grounds. The rather distinguished-looking man
with the good reserved manner who stood before her accepted the position
with grave readiness.

“Thank you,” he said. He spoke with distant courtesy, about which there
was not even the suggestion of that matter-of-course friendliness, as of
distant kinship, which had made her reception of him nearly perfect as a
work of art. “It is a great pleasure to me to be in England again.”

“You have been away--let me see--two years?” said Mrs. Romayne, with
the vivacious assumption of intelligent interest which the social
situation demanded. “Five, is it? Really? And you have done wonderful
things, I hear. Funnily enough, I have been hearing about you only
to-night. I must congratulate you.”

He bent his head with a courteous gesture of thanks.

“You have had my note, I hope?” he said. “You are settled in London now,
Thomson tells me.”

Thomson was the family lawyer, and he and Dennis Falconer himself were
Mrs. Romayne’s trustees under old Mr. Falconer’s will.

“Oh, yes!” she answered suavely. “I had it to-day, just before lunch. So
nice of you to write to me. Yes, we are settled----”

She had been fanning herself carelessly throughout the short colloquy,
glancing at Falconer or about the room with every appearance of perfect
ease; but now, as her eyes wandered to the other end of the room
something seemed to catch her attention. She hesitated, appeared to
forget what she had intended to say, tried to recover herself, and
failed.

Julian had come into the room, and was just parting gaily from some one
in the doorway. Dennis Falconer did not take up her unfinished sentence;
he followed the direction of her eyes across the room until his own
rested upon Julian, and then he started slightly and glanced down at the
woman by his side.

Mrs. Romayne laughed a rather high, unnatural laugh. She faced him with
her eyes very hard and bright, and her lips smiling; and through all the
artificiality of her face and manner there was something lurking in
those hard, bright eyes as she did it, something not to be caught or
defined, which made the movement almost heroic.

“You recognise him?” she said lightly. “Ridiculously like me, isn’t he?”

At that moment Julian started across the room, evidently to come to his
mother. He came on, stopping incessantly to exchange good-nights,
laughing, bowing, and smiling; and, as though there were a fascination
for them about his gay young figure, the man and woman standing
together at the other end of the room watched him draw nearer and
nearer. Words continued to come from Mrs. Romayne, a pretty,
inconsequent flow of society chatter, but it no more tempered the
strange gaze with which her eyes followed her son than did the unheeding
silence with which Falconer received them as his grave eyes rested also
on the young man. The whole thing was so incongruous; the expression of
those two pair of eyes was so utterly out of harmony with their
surroundings, and with the laughing, unconscious boy on whom they were
fixed; that they seemed to draw him out from the brightly dressed,
smiling groups through which he passed, and isolate him strangely in a
weird atmosphere of his own.

“Here you are, sir!” cried his mother gaily, looking no longer at Julian
as he stood close to her at last, but beyond him.

“Lord Garstin told me you were ready to go, dear,” said Julian
pleasantly. “I hope I haven’t kept you?”

“There was no hurry,” she answered, smiling; her voice was a little
thin and strained. “We will go now, I think, but I want to introduce you
first to some one whose name you know. This is your cousin, Dennis
Falconer.”



CHAPTER XI


It was a rather close afternoon in the third week of May. Fine weather
had lasted without a break for more than a fortnight; for the last two
or three days there had been little or no breeze; and the inevitable
effect had been produced upon London. The streets were a combination of
dust, which defied the water-carts; and glare, which seemed to radiate
alike from the heavy, smoky-blue sky, the houses, and the pavements. It
was only half-past three, and Piccadilly was as yet far from being
crowded. The pavement was mainly occupied by the working population,
which hurries to and fro along the London streets from morning to night
regardless of fashionable hours; and the few representatives of the
non-working class--smartly-dressed women and carefully got-up and
sauntering men--stood out with peculiar distinctness. But the figure of
Dennis Falconer, as he walked westward along the north side of
Piccadilly, was conspicuous not only on these rather unenviable terms.

At the first glance it would have seemed that the past eighteen years
had altered him considerably, and altered him always for the better;
analysed carefully, the alteration resolved itself into a very
noticeable increase of maturity and of a certain kind of strength; and
the improvement into the fact that his weak points were of a kind to be
far less perceptible as such on a mature than on an immature face. His
face was thin and very brown; there were worn lines about it which told
of physical endurance; and in the sharper chiselling of the whole the
thinness of the nose and the narrowness of the forehead were no longer
striking. The somewhat self-conscious superiority of his younger days
had disappeared under the hand of time, and a certain sternness which
had replaced it seemed to give dignity to his expression. The keen
steadiness of his eyes had strengthened, and, indeed, it was their
expression which helped in a very great degree to make his face so
noticeable. He no longer wore a beard, and the firm, square outline of
his chin and jaw were visible, while his mouth was hidden by a
moustache; iron-grey like his hair. He was very well dressed, but there
was that about the simple conventionality of his attire which suggested
that its correctness was rather a concession to exterior demands than
the expression of personal weakness.

More than one of the people who turned their heads to look at him as he
walked down Piccadilly were familiar with that grave, stern face; it had
been reproduced lately in the pages of all the illustrated papers, and
people glanced at it with the interest created by the appearance in the
flesh of something of a celebrity. Falconer had done a great deal of
good work for the Geographical Society in the course of the past
eighteen years; work characterised by no brilliancy or originality of
intellectual resource, but eminently persevering, conscientious, and
patient. During the last year, however, a chapter of accidents had
conspired to invest the expedition of which he was the leader with a
touch of romance and excitement with which his personality would never
have endued it. The achievement in which the expedition had resulted had
been hailed in England as a national triumph, and Dennis Falconer found
himself one of the lions of the moment.

But the position, especially for a man who believed himself to attach no
value whatever to it, had been somewhat dearly bought. Falconer, as he
walked the London streets on that May afternoon, was trying to realise
himself as at home in them, settled among them, perhaps, for an
indefinite period; and the effort brought an added shade of gravity to
his face. The terrible physical strain of the last six months; a strain
the severity of which he had hardly realised at the time, as he endured
from day to day with the simple, unimaginative perseverance of a man for
whom nerves have no existence; had told even upon his iron constitution;
and a couple of great London doctors had condemned him to a year’s
inactivity at least, under penalties too grave to be provoked.

He turned down Sloane Street, and another quarter of an hour brought
him to number twenty-two, Queen Anne Street. He rang, was admitted, and
ushered upstairs into the drawing-room.

The room was empty, and Falconer walked across it, glancing about him
with those keen, habitually observant eyes of his, and on his face there
was something of the stiffness and reserve which had characterised his
voice a minute earlier as he asked for Mrs. Romayne.

Until the night, now nearly a fortnight ago, when they had met in Lady
Bracondale’s drawing-room, Dennis Falconer had seen Mrs. Romayne only
once since their journey from Nice had ended in old Mr. Falconer’s
house. That one occasion had been his visit to his uncle--so called--in
his Swiss home in the second year of Mrs. Romayne’s widowhood.

He had been in Europe several times since then and had always made a
point of visiting old Mr. Falconer, but on every subsequent occasion it
had happened--rather strangely, as he had thought to himself once or
twice--that Mrs. Romayne was away from home. After old Mr. Falconer’s
death communication between them occurred only at the rarest intervals.
Dennis Falconer was Mrs. Romayne’s only remaining relation, and in this
capacity had been left by her uncle one of her trustees; but any
necessary business was transacted by his fellow trustee--old Mr.
Falconer’s lawyer. But the clan instinct was very strong in Falconer; it
brought in its wake a whole set of duties and obligations which for most
men are non-existent; and the sense of duty which had been
characteristic of him in early manhood had only been more deeply--and
narrowly--engraved by every succeeding year.

Arrived in London, and knowing Mrs. Romayne to be settled there, he had
considered it incumbent on him to call on her, and had written the note
which she had received nearly a fortnight ago. He had written it with
much the same expression on his face--only a little less pronounced,
perhaps--as rested on it now that he was waiting for Mrs. Romayne in her
own drawing-room. Through all the changes brought about by the passing
of eighteen years, the mental attitude produced in him towards Mrs.
Romayne during those weeks of dual solitude at Nice had remained almost
untouched, except inasmuch as its disapproval had been accentuated by
everything he had heard of her since. It had been vivified and rendered,
as it were, tangible and definite by the short interview at Lady
Bracondale’s party, which had made her a reality instead of a
remembrance to him.

He was standing before a large and very admirable photograph of
Julian--Julian at his very best and most attractive--contemplating it
with a heavy frown, when the door behind him opened under a light, quick
touch, and Mrs. Romayne came into the room.

“It is too shocking to have kept you waiting!” she said. “So glad to see
you! I gave myself too much shopping to do, and I have had quite a
fearful rush!”

Her voice and manner were very easy, very conventionally cordial; and,
as it seemed to Falconer, there was not a natural tone or movement about
her. It was her “at home” afternoon, and she was charmingly dressed in
something soft and pale-coloured; her eyes were very bright, and the
play of expression on her face was even more vivacious and effective
than usual--exaggeratedly so, even.

She shook hands and pointed him to a seat, sinking into a chair herself
with an affectation of hard-won victory over the “fearful rush”; the
subtle assumption of the most superficial society relation as alone
existing between them was as insidious and as indefinable as it had been
on their previous meeting, and seemed to set the key-note of the
situation even before she spoke again.

“It is a frightful season!” she said. “Really horribly busy! They say it
is to be a short one--I am sure I trust it is true, if we are any of us
to be left alive at the end--and everything seems to be crammed into a
few weeks. Don’t you think so? You are very lucky to have arrived
half-way through.”

“London just now does not seem to be a particularly desirable place,
certainly,” answered Falconer; his manner was very formal and reserved,
a great contrast to her apparent ease.

“No!” she said, lifting her eyebrows with a smile. “Now, that sounds
rather ungrateful in you, do you know, for London finds you a very
desirable visitor. One hears of you everywhere.”

“I am afraid I must confess that I take very little pleasure in going
‘everywhere,’” returned Falconer stiffly. “Social life in London seems
to me to have altered for the worse in every direction, since I last
took part in it.”

“And yet you go out a great deal!” with a laugh. “That sounds a trifle
inconsistent!”

“I am not sufficiently egotistical to imagine that my individual refusal
to countenance it would have any effect upon society,” answered
Falconer, still more stiffly. “To tolerate is by no means to approve.”

Falconer’s reasons for the toleration in question--the real reasons, of
which he himself was wholly unconscious--would have astonished him not a
little, if he could have brought himself to realise them, in their
narrow conventionality. Fortunately it did not occur to Mrs. Romayne to
ask for them. With the ready tact of a woman of the world she turned the
conversation with a gracefully worded question as to his recent
expedition. He answered it with the courteous generality--only rather
more gravely spoken--with which he had answered a great many similar
questions put to him during the past week by ladies to whom he had been
introduced in his capacity of momentary celebrity; and she passed on
from one point to another with the superficial interest evoked by one of
the topics of the hour. Her exaggerated comments and questions, more or
less wide of the mark, were exhausted at length, and a moment’s pause
followed; a fact that indicated, though Falconer did not know it, that
the preceding conversation had involved some kind of strain on the
bright little woman who had kept it up so vivaciously. The pause was
broken by Falconer.

“You have heard,” he said, “of poor Thomson’s illness?”

It would hardly be true to say that Mrs. Romayne started--even
slightly--but a curious kind of flush seemed to pass across her face.
As she answered, both her voice and her manner seemed instinctively to
increase and emphasize that distance which she had tacitly set between
them; it was as though the introduction into the conversation of a name
their mutual familiarity with which represented mutual interests and
connections had created the instinct in her.

“Yes, poor man!” she said carelessly. “There has been a good deal of
illness about this season, somehow.”

“I am afraid it is a bad business,” went on Falconer, with no
comprehension of the turn she had given to the conversation, and with
his mental condemnation of what seemed to him simple heartlessness on
her part not wholly absent from his voice. “There was to be a
consultation to-day; and I shall call this evening to hear the result.
But I am afraid there is very slender hope.”

“How very sad!” said Mrs. Romayne with polite interest.

Falconer bent his head in grave assent, and then with a view to arousing
in her shallow nature--as it seemed to him--some remembrance at least
of the usefulness to her of the man whose probable death she
contemplated so carelessly, he said with formal courtesy:

“Thomson has done all the work connected with our joint trusteeship so
admirably hitherto that there has been no need for my services. But if,
while he is ill, you should find yourself in want of his aid in that
capacity, I need not say that I am entirely at your command.”

Again that curious flush passed across Mrs. Romayne’s face, leaving it
rather pale this time.

“Thanks, so much!” she said quickly. “I really could not think of
troubling you. I’ve no doubt I shall be able to hold on until Mr.
Thomson is well again. Thanks immensely! You will not be within reach
for very long, I suppose?”

“I shall be in London for a year, certainly,” answered Falconer,
acknowledging her tacit refusal to recognise any claim on him in the
formal directness of his reply. Then, as she uttered a sharp little
exclamation of surprise, he added briefly; “I am in the doctors’ hands,
unfortunately. There is something wrong with me, they say.”

“I am very sorry----” she began prettily, though her eyes were rather
hard and preoccupied. But at that moment the door opened to admit an
influx of visitors, and Falconer rose to go.

“So glad to have seen you!” she said as she turned to him after
welcoming the new-comers. “You won’t have a cup of tea? It is always
rather crushing when a man refuses one’s tea, isn’t it, Mrs. Anson?”
turning as she spoke to a lady sitting close by. Then as she gave him
her hand, speaking in a tone which still included the other lady in the
conversation, she alluded for the first time to Julian. The whole call
had gone by without one of those references to “my boy” with which all
Mrs. Romayne’s acquaintances were so familiar, that such an omission
under the circumstances would have been hardly credible to any one of
them.

“I’m so sorry you have missed my boy!” she said now with her apologetic
laugh. “I’m afraid I am absurdly proud of him--isn’t that so, dear Mrs.
Anson?--but he really is a dear fellow.”

“He is going to the bar, I believe?” said Falconer; his face and voice
alike were uncompromisingly stern and unbending.

“Yes!” answered Julian’s mother. “He is not clever, dear boy, but I hope
he may do fairly well. Good-bye! Shall you be at the Gordons’ to-night?
We are going first to see the American actor they rave about so. A funny
little domestic party--I and my son and my son’s new and particular
‘chum.’ Good-bye!”

Mrs. Romayne’s face did not regain its normal colour as she turned her
attention to her other callers, nor did those faint lines about her
mouth and eyes disappear. She was particularly charming that afternoon,
but always, as she welcomed one set of visitors or parted from another,
laughing, talking or listening so gaily, there was a faint, hardly
definable air of preoccupation about her. She had a great many visitors,
and the afternoon grew hotter as it wore on. When she dressed for dinner
that night, finding herself strangely nervous, irritable with her maid,
and “on edge altogether,” as she expressed it, she was very definite
and distinct in her self-assurances that such an unusual state of things
was owing solely to the heat and “those tiresome people”; rather
unnecessarily distinct and explicit it would have seemed, since there
was apparently no chance of contradiction.

The acquaintanceship between Julian and Marston Loring had developed
during the past fortnight with surprising rapidity. They had dined
together at the club, they had smoked together in Loring’s chambers, and
they had met incessantly at dances, “at homes,” or dinners, on all of
which occasions Mrs. Romayne had been uniformly gracious to her son’s
friend.

At a garden-party a few miles out of London, admittedly the greatest
failure of the season, when Loring and the Romaynes had walked about
together all the afternoon with that carelessness of social obligations
which a dull party is apt to engender, the scheme for the present
evening had been arranged; Loring adding a preliminary dinner at a
restaurant, with himself in the capacity of host to Mrs. Romayne and her
son, to the original suggestion that they should go together to the
theatre.

Julian was in high spirits as they drove off to keep their engagement,
but his mother’s responses to his chatter were neither so ready nor so
bright as usual. He glanced at her once or twice and then said boyishly:

“You look awfully done up, mother!”

Mrs. Romayne turned to him quickly, her eyes sparkling angrily, her
whole face looking irritable and annoyed.

“My dear Julian,” she said sharply, “it’s a very bad habit to be
constantly commenting on people’s appearance; especially when your
remarks are uncomplimentary. You told me I looked tired the other day.
Please don’t do it again!”

Such an ebullition of temper was an almost unheard-of thing with Mrs.
Romayne, and Julian could only stare at her in helpless
astonishment--not hurt, but simply surprised, and inclined to be
resentful. He could not realise as a woman might have done the jarred,
quivering state of nerves implied in such an outbreak; and he simply
thought his mother was rather odd, when a moment later she stretched
out her hand hastily, and laid it on his with a quick, tight squeeze.

“That was abominably cross, dear!” she said in a voice which shook.
“Don’t mind! I am all right now.”

But she was not all right, and though she made a valiant effort to
collect her forces and appear so, her gaiety throughout dinner was
strained and forced. Loring’s quick perception realised instantly that
something was wrong with her, and his demeanour under the circumstances
was significant at once of the work of the past fortnight, and of his
individual capacity for turning everything to his own ends. With a tacit
assumption of a certain right to consider her, he evinced just such a
delicate appreciation of her mood as gave her a sense of rest and
soothing, without letting her feel for a moment that he found anything
wanting in her. His pose was always that of a man to whom youth or even
early manhood, with its follies and inexperiences, is a thing of the dim
past, and he used that pose now to the utmost advantage; combining a
mental equality with the mother with an actual equality with the son as
his contemporary in a manner which made him seem in a very subtle way
equally the friend of each. He talked, of course, almost exclusively to
Mrs. Romayne, never, however, failing to include Julian in the
conversation; and he so managed the conversation as to take all its
trouble on his own shoulders, and give Mrs. Romayne little to do but
listen and be entertained.

He succeeded so well that the dinner-hour, by the time it was over, had
done the work of many days in advancing his dawning intimacy with Mrs.
Romayne.

She felt better, she told herself as they entered the theatre--told
herself with rather excessive eagerness and satisfaction, perhaps
because of something within, of which the quick, nervous movement of her
hands as she unfastened her cloak was the outward and visible sign.

The curtain was just going up as they seated themselves, and during the
first quarter of an hour the two seats to their left remained empty.
Then Mrs. Romayne, whose attention was by no means chained to the stage,
became aware of the slow and difficult approach of a flow of
loudly-whispered and apologetic conversation, combined with the large
person of a lady; and a moment or two later she was being fallen over by
Mrs. Halse, who was followed by a girl, and who continued to explain the
situation fluently and audibly, until a distinct expression of the
opinion of the pit caused her to subside temporarily.

She began to talk again before the applause on the fall of the curtain
had died away, and her voice reached Mrs. Romayne, to whom her remarks
were addressed, across the girl who was with her, and Julian, who was
sitting on his mother’s left hand, with gradually increasing
distinctness.

“So curious that our seats should be together!” were the first words
Mrs. Romayne heard. “I have just been meeting a connection of yours. The
explorer, you know--Dennis Falconer. So fascinating! Oh, by-the-bye--my
cousin. I don’t think she has had the pleasure of being introduced to
you, though she has met your son. Miss Hilda Newton--Mrs. Romayne.”

Miss Hilda Newton was a very pretty, dark girl of a somewhat pronounced
type. She had large, perceptive, black eyes, singularly unabashed; a
charming little turned-up nose; and a rather large mouth with a good
deal of shrewd character about it. She was understood to be a country
cousin of Mrs. Halse’s, with whom she had been staying for the last
three weeks; but only a very critical and rather unkind eye could have
traced the country cousin in her dress, which had a great deal of style
and dash about it. She acknowledged Mrs. Halse’s introduction of her
with rather excessive self-possession, and after a casual word or two to
Mrs. Romayne, addressed herself to Julian; it was she with whom he had
disappeared to supper at Lady Bracondale’s “at home,” and they had
evidently seen a good deal of one another in the interval.

Mrs. Romayne had noticed them together more than once, and she had taken
a dislike to Miss Newton’s pretty, independent face and manners. In her
present mood it was an absolute relief to her to find in the girl a
legitimate excuse for irritation, and a reason for the fact that Mrs.
Halse’s speech had somehow undone all the work of the early part of the
evening, and set her nerves on edge afresh.

“Detestably bad style!” she said to herself angrily, giving an unheeding
ear to Mrs. Halse as she watched Miss Newton reply with a little twirl
of her fan to an eager question of Julian’s. “Just what one would expect
in a cousin of that woman.” Then she became aware that “that woman” was
vociferously insisting on changing places with Julian, and that Julian
was acceding to the proposition with considerable alacrity; and before
she had well realised exactly what the change involved, Mrs. Halse, with
much paraphernalia of smelling-bottle, fan, opera-glasses, and
programme, was established at her side, and Julian and Miss Newton were
seated together at the end of the row, practically isolated by the
stream of Mrs. Halse’s conversation.

“So horrid to talk across people, isn’t it?” said that lady airily,
though no crowd ever collected would have interfered with her flow of
language. “This is much more comfortable. My dear Mrs. Romayne, I am
simply dying to rave to somebody about your cousin--he is your cousin,
isn’t he?--Mr. Falconer, you know. What a splendid man! Of course all
the accounts of his work have been most fascinating, but the man himself
makes it all seem so much more real, don’t you know. Now, do tell me, is
he your first cousin, and do you remember him when he was quite a little
boy, and all that sort of thing?”

Mrs. Romayne took up her fan and unfurled it. She was looking past Mrs.
Halse at Julian and Miss Newton, who were looking over the same
programme with their heads rather close together. Her eyebrows were
slightly contracted, and her eyes very bright, and the restless
movements of the slender hand that held the fan seemed to be an
expression of intense inward irritation.

“Oh dear, no; Dennis Falconer is not my first cousin, by any means!” she
said carelessly, though her voice was a trifle sharp. “Third or fourth,
or something of that kind.”

“He is quite a hero, isn’t he?” said Mrs. Halse, gushingly addressing
Loring. “Have you met him?”

Loring, though his glance had every appearance of perfect carelessness,
was watching Mrs. Romayne intently. He had noticed her access of nervous
irritability, and he was curious as to the cause. Was it her son’s
flirtation with Miss Newton? Was it dislike to Mrs. Halse? Or had it any
connection with Dennis Falconer? He had his reasons for a study of Mrs.
Romayne’s idiosyncrasies.

“Yes,” he said. “I met him the other night. A good sort of fellow he
seemed.”

“He’s magnificent!” said Mrs. Halse enthusiastically. “We must have him
at the bazaar, my dear Mrs. Romayne; that I am quite determined. If he
would sell African trophies for us, you know--a native’s tooth, or
poppy-heads--oh, arrow-heads, is it?--well anything of that sort--it
would be a fortune to us! Have you seen a great deal of him? Cousins are
so often just like brothers and sisters, are they not?”

A low laugh and a toss of her head from Miss Newton at this moment
closed the perusal of the programme, and Julian turned his attention to
perusing the pretty black eyes instead. Mrs. Romayne’s lips seemed to
tighten and whiten, and the fingers which held the fan were tightly
clenched as she answered in a voice which rang hard in spite of her
efforts:

“Sometimes they are, of course. But it depends so much on circumstances.
Dennis Falconer and I had not met for years until the other day.”

At that moment the curtain went up, leaving Mrs. Halse literally with
her mouth open, and the instant it fell Mrs. Romayne leant across to
Miss Newton with a comment on the performance, spoken in a rather thin,
tense voice, and with eyes that glittered as though the nervous strain
under which the speaker was labouring was becoming almost insupportable.
Apparently something in her face repelled the girl, for her answer was
of the briefest, and Julian throwing himself into the breach, he and
Miss Newton were instantly absorbed in an animated discussion. It was a
long wait, and Loring, noting every one of the restless movements of the
woman by his side as she talked and laughed so sharply, understood that
to Mrs. Romayne every moment meant nervous torture. The instant the
green curtain fell on the third act she rose, and Loring followed her
example, and wrapped her quickly and deftly in her cloak.

“I can’t say I think much of your American prodigy,” she said to him
with a forced laugh. “I must confess that he has bored me to such an
extent that I really can’t stand any more boredom, and shall go straight
home. Julian!”

She glanced round for him as she spoke, but he was escorting Mrs. Halse
and her cousin, and she was waiting for him in her brougham before he
joined her.

“Suppose you come to the club with me?” suggested Loring carelessly, as
Julian received his mother’s announcement of her intentions rather
blankly. “What do you say to a game of billiards?”

“All right,” responded Julian. “Thanks, old fellow. It was only that I
told Miss Newton we were coming on. Isn’t she a jolly girl, mother?”

Mrs. Romayne smiled.

“Very pretty indeed,” she said lightly. “It’s a sad pity you’re such an
ineligible fellow, isn’t it?”

And Loring, as the carriage drove off, said to himself admiringly: “What
a wonderfully clever woman!”

Reaction from a heavy strain--even, apparently, if it is only the strain
of combating exhaustion engendered by heat--is a terrible thing. When
Mrs. Romayne got out of her carriage after her long drive, her face was
haggard and drawn. She passed into the house, gathered up mechanically,
and without a glance, two letters waiting for her on the hall-table;
told the maid who was waiting for her that she might go to bed, and went
up into the drawing-room.

There was a low chair by a little table covered with dainty, useless
paraphernalia, which she particularly affected. She sat down in it now,
almost unconsciously as it seemed, without even loosening her cloak, and
with a long, low sigh; the moments passed, and still she sat there, a
curious grey pallor about her face, her eyes gazing straight before her
as though they were looking into the future or the past. At last, as if
by a sudden fierce effort of will, she roused herself and began to tear
open the letters still in her hand as if with a desperate instinct
towards occupying her thoughts.

Her eyes fell on the letter by this time open in her hand, and she read
it almost unconsciously, taking in the sense gradually as she read:

“DEAR COUSIN HERMIA,

     “I have just heard to my great sorrow of the death of our old
     friend Thomson, and I think it right to let you know of it. I
     believe I need not remind you that on any future occasion on which
     the help of your now, unfortunately, sole trustee may be necessary,
     you will find me entirely at your service.

“Faithfully yours,

“DENNIS FALCONER.”



With a sudden fierce gesture, of which her small white fingers looked
hardly capable, Mrs. Romayne crushed the letter in her hand and lifted
her head.

“To be thrown upon him!” she said in a curious, breathless tone. “To
have to come into contact--close contact, personal contact--with him!”



CHAPTER XII


The season, as Mrs. Romayne had told Dennis Falconer, was to be a short
one, and its proceedings were apparently to be regulated on the old
principle of a short life and a merry one. Gaieties overtook one another
in too rapid succession, and an unusually sunny and breezy May and June,
with the inevitable action of such weather on human beings, even under
the most artificial conditions, rendered these gaieties a shade more
really gay than usual.

The atmosphere was not, again, so close as it had been on the afternoon
when Dennis Falconer called on Mrs. Romayne, and it is presumable that
the weather must have been responsible for her general unusualness of
mood on the evening of that day; for if she was not quite herself on the
following morning, the touch of self-compulsion in her brightness was
so slight as to be hardly perceptible, and a day or two later it had
entirely disappeared.

Certainly if constant stir and movement are conducive to good spirits,
there was nothing wonderful in Mrs. Romayne’s satisfaction with life.
For she had not, as she complained laughingly, a single moment to
herself.

“It’s a regular treadmill!” she exclaimed gaily one day to Lord Garstin.
“I had really forgotten what a terrible thing a London season was!”

“It seems to agree with you,” was the answer. “There is one lady of my
acquaintance, and only one, who seems to grow younger every day!”

“You can’t mean me,” she laughed. “I assure you, I am growing grey with
incessantly running after that boy of mine! He is as difficult to catch
as any lion of the season. I never see him except at parties!”

Julian’s intimacy with Marston Loring had grown apace, and it had led to
sundry social consequences which were, his mother said, “so good for
him.” Little dinners at the club, to which he had been duly elected;
dinners at which he was now guest, now host; jovial little bachelor
suppers made up among the very best “sets.” Loring himself was very
careful--though he knew better than to make his care perceptible, except
in its results--never to allow himself to be placed in the position of a
rival to Mrs. Romayne for her son’s time and company. He lost no
opportunity of making himself useful and agreeable to Mrs. Romayne; now
using pleasantly arrogated rights as Julian’s friend; now his superior
brain-power and knowledge of the world; until he gradually assumed the
position of friend of the house. But club life necessarily created in
Julian interests apart from his mother--interests which she was
apparently well content that he should have, so long as his ever-ready
chatter to her on the subject revealed that they were all connected with
good “sets.”

It was furthermore a season of very pretty _débutantes_, a large
majority of whom elected to look upon Mr. Romayne as “such a nice boy,”
and to exact--or permit--any amount of slavery from him in the matters
of fetching and carrying and general attendance. “You’re known to be so
profoundly ineligible, you see!” his mother would say to him, laughing.
“Nobody is in the least afraid of you, poor boy!” And she looked on with
perfect calmness as he danced, and rode, and did church parade; looked
on with a calmness which might have been mistaken for indifference, but
for the significant fact that she always knew which of his “jolly girls”
was in the ascendant for the moment.

Miss Newton had gone home on the day following the meeting at the
theatre.

Falconer was to be seen about throughout the season, making his grave
concession to the weaknesses of society. Mrs. Romayne and Julian met him
constantly, and he was asked to, and attended, the most formal of the
dinners given at Queen Anne Street. But the intercourse between him and
his “connection,” as Mrs. Romayne called herself, was of the most
distant and non-progressive type. Julian did not take to him at all. “He
is such a solemn fellow, mother!” he said. “He seems to think that I’m
doing something wrong all the time.” An observation to which Mrs.
Romayne replied by laughing a rather forced laugh and changing the
conversation.

The last event of the season, as it became evident as the weeks ran on,
would be the bazaar in aid of Mrs. Halse’s discovery among charities. It
was, perhaps, as well that the institution in question was by no means
in such urgent need of patronage as might have been argued from Mrs.
Halse’s demeanour towards it earlier in the proceedings; for that lady’s
enthusiasm on the subject had suffered severely in the contest with the
numerous other enthusiasms which had succeeded it, and the affairs of
the bazaar had been pursued by all its supporters with energy which is
most charitably to be described as intermittent. Three separate dates
had been fixed for the opening day; and, after a great deal of money had
been spent in printing and advertising, each of these in succession had
had to be abandoned owing to the singular incompleteness of every
fundamental arrangement--though, as Mrs. Halse observed impatiently,
after the third postponement, there were “heaps and heaps of Chinese
lanterns.” Finally it was announced for the fifth and sixth of July;
and owing to herculean efforts on the part of half-a-dozen unfortunate
men enlisted in the cause; who apparently braced themselves to the task
with a desperate sense that if the affair was not somehow or another
carried through now, by fair means or foul, they were doomed to struggle
in a tumultuous sea of fashionable feminine futility for the remainder
of their miserable lives; on the fifth the bazaar was actually opened.

It was late in the evening of that eventful day, and in various
fashionable drawing-rooms exhausted ladies stretched on sofas were
recruiting their forces after their severe labours. It had been the
fashion for the last week or more among the prospective stall-holders to
allude to the fatigue before them with resigned and heroic sighs of
awful import; consequently they were now convinced to a woman that they
were in the last stages of exhaustion. As a matter of fact it is
doubtful whether out of the sensations of all the “smart” helpers
concerned--with the exception of the devoted half-dozen before
mentioned, who had retired to various clubs in a state of collapse--a
decent state of fatigue could have been constructed; and the reason for
this was threefold. In the first place, so much money had been spent in
announcing the dates when the bazaar did not take place, that there was
exceedingly little forthcoming to announce the date when it did take
place; consequently its attractive existence remained almost unknown to
the general public, and the services of the sellers were in very slight
demand. In the second place, the greater part of the work which could
not be done by proxy was left undone. And in the third place, each lady
had been throughout the day so deeply convinced of the “frightfully
tiring” nature of her occupation, that she thought it only her duty to
“save herself” whenever that course was open to her--which was almost
always.

In the drawing-room at Chelsea, very cool and pretty with its open
windows and its plentiful supply of flowers and ferns, Mrs. Romayne was
lying on the sofa, as the exigencies of the moment, socially speaking,
demanded of her, in an attitude of graceful weariness; an attitude which
was rather belied by the alert expression of her contented face. She
had dined at home--“just a quiet little dinner, you know--cold, because
goodness knows when we shall get it!”--with Julian and Loring at
half-past seven. The bazaar did not close until nine, but all the
principal stall-holders had thought it their duty to the following day
not to wear themselves quite out, and had left the last two hours to the
care of one or other of the hangers-on, of whom “smart” women may
usually have a supply if they choose; and Mrs. Romayne’s quiet little
dinner was only one of a score of similar functions, very dainty and
luxurious in view of the tremendous exertions which had preceded them,
which were being held in various fashionable parts of London. At ten
o’clock Loring had taken his leave, declaring sympathetically that Mrs.
Romayne must long for perfect quiet after her exertions. It was then
that Mrs. Romayne had betaken herself to her sofa and her papers.

“What an immense time it is since we have had such a domesticated hour!”

Mrs. Romayne had laid down her literature some moments before, and had
been lying looking at Julian with that curious expression in her eyes
which would creep into them now and again when they rested on the
good-looking young figure, and which harmonised so ill with the shallow,
vivacious prettiness of the rest of her face. She spoke, however, with
her usual light laugh at herself, and Julian laughed too as he threw
down his magazine and turned towards her.

“It is an age, isn’t it?” he said.

During the final agony of preparation for the bazaar, Julian had been in
immense request. Not that he was one of the devoted half-dozen, or that
he did much definite work; but he was always ready to discuss any lady’s
private fad with her for any length of time, and to rush all over London
about nothing. His exertions, and the exhaustion engendered thereby, had
rendered necessary a great deal of recreation at the club. He had
repaired thither very frequently of late, instead of escorting his
mother home on the conclusion of their tale of parties for the night.

“It is a comfort to think that it is so nearly over!” observed Mrs.
Romayne carelessly. It is never worth while, in the world in which Mrs.
Romayne moved, to express more than half your meaning in words, and
Julian quite understood that she alluded, not to the domestic hour, but
to the season. Her words were not prompted by any actual weariness of
the round of life she characterised as “it,” but the sentiment was in
the air--the fashionable air, that is to say. She and Julian, in common
with the greater part of their world, were leaving London at the end of
the week.

“It has been awfully jolly!” said Julian, leaning back in his chair and
resting his head against his loosely locked hands. “I had no idea that
life was such a first-rate business!”

His mother smiled, and there was a strange touch of triumph in her
smile.

“It is a first-rate business,” she assented, “if one lives it among the
right people and in the right position. I imagine you see by this time
that it isn’t much use otherwise!”

He laughed as though his appreciation of her words rendered them almost
a truism to him, and there was a moment’s silence. It was broken by
Julian.

“It costs a lot of money,” he said, in a casual, indefinite way, but
with a quick glance at his mother.

“Well, it isn’t cheap, certainly,” was the laughing answer: “but I think
we shall manage.” Then noticing something a little deprecating about his
pose and expression, Mrs. Romayne added, with mock reprehension, “You’re
not going to ask me to raise your allowance, you extravagant boy?”

Julian moved, and leaning forward, clasped his hands round one knee as
if the uncomfortable and transitory pose assisted explanation. He
laughed back at her, but he was looking nevertheless somewhat ashamed of
himself.

“No, it’s not that--exactly,” he began rather lamely. “It’s a splendid
allowance, mother dear, and I’m no end grateful; but the fact is, there
has been a good deal of card-playing lately at the club. I don’t care
for cards, you know, but one must play a bit, and I have been rather a
fool. Look here, dear, I suppose--I suppose you couldn’t let me have two
hundred, could you--before we go away, you know?”

“Two hundred, Julian! My dear boy!”

There was a strong tone of surprise and remonstrance in Mrs. Romayne’s
voice, and there was also a very distinct note of annoyance; but all
these sentiments seemed rather to apply to the demand, which was
apparently unseasonable, than to the desirability of the transaction.
She was neither startled nor distressed.

“It is young Fordyce, mother,” continued her son deprecatingly. “It was
awfully foolish to play with him, he’s so beastly lucky. And you see I
must settle it before I go away.”

“And have you none of your own?” demanded his mother, with some asperity
in her tone. Julian’s creditor was a young man who had the reputation of
being a “very good sort of fellow,” who would never “do” in society.

“I’m awfully sorry to say I haven’t!” returned Julian meekly.

There was a moment’s pause, and Mrs. Romayne tapped impatiently on the
papers lying by her.

“It is such an inconvenient moment,” she said at last. “I have just made
all my arrangements for the quarter--I don’t mean that you can’t have
it, of course you can, dear--but it is difficult to lay my hand on it at
this moment.”

“Falconer could arrange it for you,” suggested Julian, alluding to
Falconer in his capacity of trustee for the first time, as it happened.

Mrs. Romayne started violently, and a sharp exclamation of dissent rose
to her lips. She stopped it half uttered, and paused a moment,
controlling herself with difficulty.

“No,” she said at last, in rather a hard tone. “I would rather not do
that. I will think it over and see what can be done. We must raise your
allowance, sir. I can’t have mines sprung on me like this!”

She had risen as she spoke, and as he followed her example she lifted
her face towards him for the good-night kiss which always passed between
them.

“I will sleep upon it,” she said. “Good night, extravagant boy.”



CHAPTER XIII


The stall-holders presented a singularly fresh and unworn appearance,
considering how much they had undergone, as they gradually put in an
appearance at their stall on the following day, and gathered together in
little knots to compare notes as to their sufferings, and here and there
to allude incidentally to their takings--which certainly seemed
disproportionate to the exertions of which they were the result. The
fancy dress idea on which Mrs. Halse’s whole soul had been set in March
had been abandoned when Mrs. Halse found a fresh hobby in April; and
each lady wore that variety of the fashion of the day which seemed most
desirable in her eyes. All the dresses were very “smart,” and as their
wearers moved about, visiting one another’s stalls, exchanging
greetings, and inspecting one another’s wares with critical eyes, they
showed to conspicuous advantage. For, during the first hour at least,
the stall-holders and their satellites, male and female--a mere handful
of people in the great hall--had the entire place with all its
decorations to themselves.

It was the cheap day, however, and as the afternoon wore on the hall
gradually filled with that curious class of person which is always
craving for any link, however “sham,” with the fashionable world, and
makes it a point of self-respect to attend all public functions in which
“society” chances to be engaged. These far-off votaries of fashion
walked about, looking not at the stalls, but at the ladies in attendance
on them, turning away as a rule in stolid silence when invited in
mellifluous tones to buy; or perhaps investing a shilling when long
search had resulted in the discovery of a twopenny article to be had for
that sum, for the sake of making a purchase from one of the leaders of
fashion; some of them, with a vague notion that it was fashionable to
“know every one,” kept up a great show of talk and laughter, and were
constantly seeing acquaintances on the other side of the hall--with whom
they never by any chance came in contact. But no one spent more than
five shillings, and the stall-holders began to find the position pall.

“I call this deadly!” said Mrs. Halse, subsiding into a chair, and
looking up pathetically at Julian Romayne, who stood by. Julian should
have been in attendance at the stall next but one, where Mrs. Pomeroy
and his mother reigned, but Mrs. Halse, in view of the exertions before
her, had summoned to her aid, about a week before, Miss Hilda Newton;
and Miss Hilda Newton was looking irresistibly bewitching to-day in a
big yellow hat. Her spirits, also, bore the strain of the proceedings
better than did those of the other young ladies.

“Suppose we pick out some things--cheap things”--with a little
grimace--“and go about among the people and try and sell them,” she said
now adventurously, looking up into Julian’s face, with her pretty black
eyes dancing. “I’ve done it heaps of times at bazaars, and it always
goes well. Let us try, Mr. Romayne.”

Mr. Romayne was by no means loath, and a few minutes later his mother,
whose eyes had been covering Mrs. Halse’s stall all the time she tried
to persuade into a purchase a sharp-faced girl, whose sole object was a
sufficiently prolonged inspection of Mrs. Romayne’s dress to enable her
to find out how “that body was made,” saw them sally forth together
laughing and talking in low, confidential tones. Her lips tightened
slightly; the reappearance of Miss Newton had found Mrs. Romayne’s
dislike to the pretty, opinionated, self-reliant girl as active and
apparently unreasoning as it had been on her previous visit.

“What a very good idea!” she said now suavely, turning to Mrs. Pomeroy
who sat by, a picture of placid content, and indicating the adventurous
pair as they disappeared among the people. “We must try something of the
sort, I think. Maud, dear”--Miss Pomeroy had recently become Maud to
Mrs. Romayne--“do you see? I really think something might be done in
that way.”

Miss Pomeroy, who was standing in front of the stall, a charming and
apparently quite inanimate figure in white, assented demurely, and Mrs.
Romayne, looking round for a man, caught the eye of Loring. He came to
her instantly.

“You’ll do capitally,” she said brightly, and Miss Pomeroy, making no
objection to the proceeding, was started forth with Loring, the latter
carrying a small stock-in-trade, to emulate Miss Newton and Julian. That
stock-in-trade was quite untouched, however, when about a quarter of an
hour later they returned to the stall a little hot and discomfited.

“We haven’t made a success,” said Loring with a rather sardonic smile;
“Miss Pomeroy says I’m no good! Now, there’s that fellow Julian doing a
roaring trade!”

Julian and Miss Newton, in point of fact, were at that moment visible
returning to Mrs. Halse’s stall, evidently in high feather, all their
stock sold out. Mrs. Romayne watched Julian counting his gains into Mrs.
Halse’s hand, saying laughingly to Loring as she did so:

“You are not boy enough for this kind of thing, I’m afraid!” And then
Julian, with a final laughing nod, turned away from Mrs. Halse, and
came hastily towards his mother’s stall.

“That’s right!” said Mrs. Romayne gaily, ignoring the fact that he had
evidently not come to stay. “I was just wanting you, sir, to go round
with Miss Pomeroy, if she will kindly go with you, and get rid of some
of our odds and ends!”

Julian stopped short and flushed a little.

“I’m awfully sorry!” he said. “I’ll come back and do it with pleasure!
But I have just promised to go round again with Miss Newton. I came to
see if you could give us some change.”

His mother supplied his wants smilingly, and he was gone. She had turned
away with rather compressed lips when a voice behind her said half
hesitatingly, half gushingly, and with a strong German accent:

“We are surely unmistaken! It is--yes, it must be, the much-honoured
Mrs. Romayne!”

Mrs. Romayne turned quickly and gazed at the speaker obviously
unrecognisingly. Nor did the two figures with whom she was confronted
look in the least like acquaintances of hers. They were young women of
the plainest and most angular German type, shabbily dressed according to
the canons of middle-class German taste.

“She remembers us not, Gretchen!” began the younger of the two. And then
a sudden light of recollection broke over Mrs. Romayne. They were two
girls who had been training for a musical career at Leipsic, whom it had
been the fashion to patronise; they had not developed as had been
expected, however, and she had entirely forgotten their existence.

“Fräulein Schmitz!” she said now with distant brightness. “Ah, of
course! How stupid of me! How do you do?”

They were very loquacious. Mrs. Romayne had heard all about their
careers; all the reasons that had led to their spending a fortnight in
London; and was beginning to think that the moment had come for getting
rid of them, when, having exhausted themselves in compliments on her
appearance, they enquired after Julian.

“Though we have seen Mr. Romayne,” said the elder, “since, ah, but much
since we had the pleasure to see his mother. It was in Alexandria in the
winter past--we hoped that some concerts there might be possible, but
there is so much jealousy and favouritism--it was in Alexandria that we
met him. He was travelling in Egypt, he told to us.”

“Yes!” said Mrs. Romayne, smothering a yawn. “He was in Egypt----” she
stopped suddenly, and her eyes seemed to contract strangely. “Where did
you say you saw him?” she said.

“It was in Alexandria! He was there for the day only, and he was to us
most kind. He arrived in the morning early by the same train, and he
showed us much until at night he left.”

“At Alexandria?”

“Surely! At Alexandria!”

“You must have made a mistake. It was some other place.”

Mrs. Romayne’s tone was curiously unlike that in which she had conducted
the early part of the conversation. It was sharp and direct. Fräulein
Schmitz seemed to notice and resent the change.

“But we have not made a mistake, I must assure you!” she said stiffly.
“It was at Alexandria. We saw him go away in the train.”

There was a moment’s pause. Mrs. Romayne was looking straight before her
with those strangely contracted eyes; her lips a thin, pale line. The
sisters waited a moment, evidently affronted. Then, finding that Mrs.
Romayne took no notice whatever of them, they exchanged resentful
glances, and the elder spoke.

“We will say good-bye!” she said formally. “It is time that we were
going!”

Mrs. Romayne seemed to remember their presence--gradually only. Then she
said quickly, and in a voice that sounded as though her throat were dry:

“You are going at once? Right out of the hall at once?”

“At once we are going, yes!” was the reply, and with a stiff inclination
of their heads they moved away.

Mrs. Romayne followed the two angular forms with her eyes until they
reached the entrance and disappeared. Then she swept a quick glance
round the hall. Julian was at the further end deeply absorbed in his
proceedings with Miss Newton. The Fräulein Schmitz had evidently been
unseen by him.

His mother looked at him for a moment with a strange, fixed gaze, and
then she turned her eyes away mechanically, and moved her mouth with a
little twitch as though she felt the muscles stiffening and knew that
they must not take the lines they would; there was a deadly pallor about
her mouth. At that instant Loring came up to her with a witty satirical
comment on the scene at which she was apparently gazing, and for the
next few minutes she stood there exchanging gay little observations with
him, the pallor never altering, her eyes never moving. Then quite
suddenly she turned towards him.

“I want some tea!” she said. “Take me to the refreshment place, Mr.
Loring!”

Julian was threading his way to where she stood, and though she turned
instantly in the direction of the refreshment stall, followed perforce
by Loring, she passed close to him. He stopped and said something, but
she only nodded to him and went rapidly on.

A great many other stall-holders were recruiting themselves with tea and
ices, and they were all more or less in spirits, real or affected, at
the approaching prospect of the end of their labours. Mrs. Romayne was
instantly hailed as one of a very smart group, and took her place with
eager, high-pitched gaiety. She did not go back to her stall, tea being
over, but moved about the bazaar, always with a little party in
attendance, laughing and talking. She and Julian were dining with a
large party of stall-holders at Mrs. Pomeroy’s; they were all to repair
thither direct from the bazaar, and Mrs. Romayne took a detachment in
her carriage. Only one instant of solitude came to her before the
luxurious, hilarious meal; only one instant, when the stream of
descending ladies left her behind on an upper landing. In that instant,
as if involuntarily and unconsciously to herself, the gaiety fell from
her face like a mask, leaving it haggard and ghastly. She put her
hand--it was icy cold--up to her head.

“He told me a lie!” she said to herself. “A lie! Oh, my boy!”

She was very bright and witty as she and Julian drove home together, and
the greyish whiteness which was stealing over her face was unnoticed by
her son’s careless eyes even when they stood in the well-lighted hall.

“Are you going straight up, mother?” he said. “If so, I’ll say good
night. I want a cigar.”

She paused a moment and looked at him with that indescribable tenderness
which haunted her eyes at times as they rested on him, intensified a
thousandfold.

“I’ll come and sit with you for a little while if you will have me,” she
said.

She tried evidently for her usual manner, and succeeded inasmuch as
Julian noticed nothing beyond. But beneath the surface there was
something not wholly to be suppressed--something which looked out of her
eyes, trembled in her voice, lingered in her touch as she laid her hand
on his arm; something which, taken in conjunction with the shreds of
affectation with which she strove to cover it, and with the boy’s
profound unconsciousness, was as pathetic as it was beautiful and
strange.

She drew him into his own little room, and then with a forced laugh at
herself she pushed him gently into a chair, and insisted on waiting upon
him--bringing him cigar, matches, ash-tray--anything she could think of
to add to his comfort, laughing all the time at him and at herself, and
hugging those shreds of affectation close. But there was that about her,
if there had been any one to see and understand, which made her one with
all the many mothers since the world began who, with their hearts aching
and bleeding with impotent pity and love, have tried to find some outlet
for their yearning in the strange instinct for service which goes always
hand in hand with mother love as with no other love on earth.

She lit his match at last, and then knelt down beside his chair.

“My dearest,” she said, “my dearest, you shall have that two
hundred--to-morrow if you like! You did not think me vexed about it, did
you? You know I only want you to be happy, Julian, don’t you?”

Julian laid down his cigar with a merry laugh. “I should be a fool if I
didn’t!” he answered, patting her hand with boyish affection. “It’s
awfully good of you, dear, and I’m frightfully grateful. I won’t make
such a fool of myself again.”

Mrs. Romayne put up her hand quickly. “Don’t promise, Julian!” she said
in a strange breathless way, “you might--you might forget, you know, and
then perhaps you wouldn’t like to tell me! And I want to know! I always
want to know!” She stopped abruptly, an almost agonised appeal in her
eyes.

She was still kneeling at his side, with her eyes fixed on his face; and
suddenly, abruptly, almost as though the words forced themselves from
her against her will, she said, with a slight catch in her voice:

“Julian, I met Fräulein Schmitz to-day!”

He met her eyes for a moment, his own questioning and uncomprehending;
then gradually there stole over his face recollection, vague at first,
which became as it grew definite rather shamefaced, rather annoyed, and
rather amused.

“Oh!” he said; his tone was light and daring enough, though a touch of
genuine shame and embarrassment lurked in it. “Oh, I call that hard
lines!”

He was smiling daringly into her face with an acceptance of the
situation that was perfectly frank. His mother’s hands, as they rested
on the arm of his chair, were tightly wrung together, and her eyes never
stirred from his face.

“Why?” she said rather hoarsely, “why did you?”

He laughed, shrugging his shoulders and throwing out his hands with a
graceful foreign movement.

“I was rather a culprit, you see,” he said. “I only spent those few
hours in Alexandria, and I never gave a thought to your commission. And
I felt such a brute about it that I wasn’t up to confessing!”

It was the truth and the whole truth, and it conveyed itself as such.
Mrs. Romayne knelt there for a moment more, looking into his eyes, her
own wide and strained; and then she rose heavily and slowly to her feet.
There was a pause.

The silence was broken by Julian, evidently with a view to changing a
subject on which he could hardly be said to show to conspicuous
advantage.

“You’re going to write to Falconer, I suppose? You wouldn’t like to do
it to-night, dear, would you? He would get the letter in better time if
it was posted the first thing. You could do it at my table there!”

Mrs. Romayne did not speak. Julian could not see her face.

“Yes!” she said at last, and her voice sounded rather hollow and far
away, “I will do it to-night if you like.” She bent down and kissed him.
“Good night!” she said.

“Won’t you write here?” said Julian in some surprise.

“No, I’ll go upstairs!” she answered, and went out of the room.

She went upstairs, moving slowly and heavily, straight to her dainty
little writing-table, and sat down, drawing out a sheet of paper. She
wrote the conventional words of address to Dennis Falconer, and then she
stopped suddenly and lifted her face. It was ghastly. The eyes, sunken
and dim, seemed to be confronting the very irony of fate.



CHAPTER XIV


“The jolliest week I’ve ever had in my life!”

“I wonder how often you’ve said that before?”

August had come and gone, the greater part of September had followed in
its wake, and a ruddy September sun was making the end of the summer
glorious. In the large garden of a large country house in Norfolk,
everything seen in its wonderful radiance seemed to be even overcharged
with colour, if such a thing is possible with nature; it was as though
all the beauty of the summer had been intensified and arrested in its
maturity into one final glow. The rich green of the smooth lawns, the
colours of the autumnal flowers, the tints of the foliage, the very
atmosphere, seemed all alike to be pausing for the moment at the most
perfect point of radiance. But nature never pauses; and that this was
indeed the final glow, the end of her summer beauty, was revealed here
and there by little significant touches, or written across earth and sky
in broader letters. The birds were gone or going. Even as Julian Romayne
spoke a flight of swallows overhead was wheeling and darting hither and
thither in preparation for an imminent departure; the very glory of the
trees meant decay, and in spite of all the efforts of indefatigable
gardeners, dead leaves strewed the trim lawns and gravel paths.

All these signs and tokens of the approach of the inevitable end were
particularly conspicuous about the narrow grass path shut in by high yew
hedges, up and down which Julian Romayne and Hilda Newton were
sauntering together. Fallen leaves were thick upon it, and in the
flower-beds, by which it was bordered, the summer flowers, whose day was
long since done, had not been replaced by their autumn successors.
Apparently, the walk was a secluded and little frequented one, on which
it was not worth while to spend much pains. Judging from the coquettish
toss of the head, tempered by a certain softness of tone, with which
Miss Newton replied to the insinuated regret of Julian’s words, it
seemed not improbable that those characteristics had something to do
with their selection of that particular spot for their stroll. They had
been staying in this pleasant country house together for the last week,
the hostess having taken a fancy to Mrs. Halse’s cousin in town; and now
in another hour Julian and his mother would be on their way home.

As the half-mocking, half-inviting words fell from his companion’s lips,
Julian turned impetuously towards the pretty, piquant face; it was
shaded by a bewitching garden hat.

“I never meant it so much before, on my honour,” he said impulsively;
adding with a boyish suggestion of tender reproach in his voice: “I
should have thought you might have known that. It’s awfully hard lines
to think it’s over.”

Miss Newton had a large crimson dahlia in her hand, and she was plucking
the petals slowly away and scattering them at her feet.

“Is it?” she said.

“You know it is,” he returned ardently, trying to catch a glimpse of the
dark face bent over the crimson flower. “Won’t you tell me that you’re a
little sorry, too? Miss Newton--Hilda----”

His vigorous young hand was just closing over the pretty little fingers
that held the dahlia; the dainty little figure was yielding to him
nothing loath, it seemed, when from the further end of the grass walk a
third voice broke in upon their _tête-à-tête_, and as they started
instinctively apart Mrs. Romayne, accompanied by their hostess, came
sauntering towards them.

“Taking a farewell look at the quaint old walk, Julian?” she said with
suave carelessness as she drew near them. “The garden is looking too
beautiful this morning, isn’t it, Miss Newton? What a lovely dahlia that
is you were showing Julian!”

She looked smilingly at Miss Newton as she spoke, apparently quite
unconscious that the girl’s face was white--not with embarrassment,
disappointment, or emotion, but with sheer angry resentment--and she
moved on as she spoke, tacitly compelling Miss Newton to move on at her
side, while Julian and the other lady followed, perforce together.

“We have only about ten minutes more, I’m afraid,” she said. “I was just
taking a last stroll round the place with Mrs. Ponsonby. I’m afraid we
shall find London rather unbearable to-night. The call of duty is always
so very inconvenient!”

She was leading the way toward the house, and her little high-pitched
laugh eliciting only a monosyllabic response from the girl at her side,
she resumed what was practically a monologue, carried on with a suavity
and ease which was perhaps over-elaborated by just a touch. Her
farewells, which followed almost immediately on their arrival at the
house, when a little bustle of departure ensued--in which Miss Newton
took no part, that young lady having promptly disappeared--were
characterised by the same manner, about which there was also a little
touch of suppressed excitement. It was not until she and Julian were
alone together in a first-class carriage of the London express that her
gay words and laughs ceased, and she let herself sink back in her
corner, unfolding a newspaper with a short, hardly audible sigh of
relief.

A very slight and indefinable change had come to Mrs. Romayne’s face in
the course of the last two months. It had been perceptible in her
animation, and was still more perceptible in her repose. The lines about
her face which had needed special influences to bring them into
prominence during the winter were always plainly perceptible now; and
they gave her face a very slightly careworn look, which was emphasized
by the expression of her eyes and mouth.

The eyes had always a slightly restless look in them in these days; even
now, as she read her paper, or appeared to read it, there was no
concentration in them; and every now and then they were lifted hastily,
almost furtively, over the paper’s edge. The mouth was at once weaker
and more determined; weaker, inasmuch as it had grown more sensitive,
more nervously responsive to the movements of her restless eyes; and
more determined, as though with the expression of a constant mental
attitude.

There was a good deal of indecision in her face, and its expression
varied slightly, but incessantly, as she fixed her eyes anew on the
printed words before her after each fleeting glance at the boyish face
outlined by the cushions opposite. She laid down her paper at last, with
a little deliberate rustle, apparently intended to attract attention,
and as she did so her face assumed its ordinary superficial vivacity; an
expression which harmonised less well with the rather sharpened features
than it had done three months before.

“A good novel, Julian?” she said airily, smothering a yawn as she spoke,
and indicating with a little gesture of her head the book in Julian’s
hand.

Julian had been holding the book in his hand, ever since they left the
little Norfolk station from which they had started, but he had scarcely
turned a page. His features were composed into an expression of boyish
resentment, about which there was that distinct suggestion of sullenness
which is the usual outward expression of the hauteur of youth. As his
mother spoke he flushed hotly with angry self-consciousness.

“Not particularly,” he said, without lifting his eyes.

There was a moment’s pause, during which Mrs. Romayne’s eyes were fixed
upon him with concentration enough in them now; and then she broke into
a light laugh, and leaning suddenly forward laid one of her hands on
his.

“Poor old boy!” she said, in a tone half mocking, half sympathising. “It
was very hard on you, wasn’t it? It’s a cruel fate that makes young men
so ineligible, and girls so pretty, and throws the two perversely
together! If you’ve any thought to spare from yourself, sir, though, I
think you should bestow a little gratitude upon me for my very timely
arrival!”

She laughed again, and in her laugh, as in her voice, there was the
faintest possible touch of reality, and that reality was anxiety. Then,
as Julian twisted his hand from under hers with a gruff and almost
inaudible: “I don’t see that!” she leant back in her seat again with a
smile.

“My dear boy,” she said gaily; “it’s a very sad position for you, I
admit; but for the present you’re dependent on your mother--not such a
very stingy mother, eh, sir? I think you’ll find it will be all right
for you, when the right young woman turns up, as no doubt she will some
day. Perhaps you’ll find that your mother won’t abdicate so very
ungracefully. But, you see, it must be the right young woman!”

In spite of the laugh in it, there was a ring in the tone in which the
words were spoken which was full of significance, and the significance
and the laughter seemed to be doing battle together as Mrs. Romayne went
on, ignoring Julian’s interjection:

“I don’t think you would have found it a very pleasant situation, to be
engaged to Miss Newton with the prospect before you of keeping her
waiting until you had made your fortune at the bar; and I’m sorry to say
I don’t share your conviction of the moment, that she is the right young
woman. She is very pretty, I allow, and a very nice girl, no doubt.”
Mrs. Romayne’s voice grew a little hard as she said the last words.
“But she’s not at all the sort of girl that I should like you to marry.
She has no money, in the first place.”

“I have enough for both,” said Julian impetuously, and then stopped
short and coloured crimson.

His mother broke into a merry laugh.

“No, poor boy!” she said. “I have enough for both! That’s just what I
want you to remember in your intercourse with pretty girls. After all,
you know, the position has its advantages! You may flirt as much as you
like while you’re known to be dependent on your mother, and no one will
take you too seriously.”

Julian did not echo her laugh, nor did he make any comment on her words.
He sat with his face turned away from her, and a rather strange
expression in his eyes--an expression which was at once unformed and
mutinous. His mother could not see it, but the outline of his profile
apparently disturbed her. The anxiety in her face deepened again, mixed
this time with an expression of doubt and self-distrust. As though to
emphasize the lightness of her preceding tone, she turned the
conversation into a comment on the landscape, and took up her paper
again.

The remainder of the journey passed in total silence; and the drive home
from the station was silent, too. An arrival in London at the end of
September is not a very pleasant proceeding, unless it is approached
with considerable industry, determination, and a large stock of energy.
The butterflies of society, and, indeed, a large proportion of the bees,
have not yet returned. Those who have returned have done so under stern
compulsion to begin the winter’s work; and there is a general,
all-pervading sentiment as of the end of holidays and the beginning of
term time.

The day that had been so radiantly lovely in Norfolk had evidently been
oppressively hot and airless in town, and the general air of exhaustion
and squalor, which such circumstances are apt to produce in London, did
not help to render its appearance more attractive.

Number twenty-two, Queen Anne Street, Chelsea, itself seemed to be
touched by the general depression. The summer flowers in the
window-boxes had been taken away, and their successors were apparently
waiting for orders from the mistress of the house; and as Mrs. Romayne
and Julian entered the hall, there was that indefinable atmosphere about
the house which two months’ abandonment to even the best of servants is
apt to produce--an atmosphere which is the reverse of cheerful. There
were letters lying on the hall-table, one of which Mrs. Romayne handed
to Julian with the comment: “From Mr. Allardyce, isn’t it, Julian? Will
he be ready for you to-morrow?”

Julian’s legal studies were, in fact, to begin in earnest on the
following day; and when, the next morning, he said good-bye to his
mother and set out for the Temple, she followed him to the door with a
laughing “Good speed.” That, at least, was her ostensible motive, but
there was something in her face as she laid her hand on his arm as he
turned away on the doorstep which suggested that the last words she said
to him were those that she had really followed him to say.

“What time shall you be back, Julian?”

And as he answered carelessly:

“I can’t tell; not till dinner-time, I expect,” there came into her eyes
a curious shadow of yearning anxiety.

“Take care of yourself, sir!” she said lightly, and went back into the
house.

That shadow lived in her eyes all day as she went about giving orders
and “putting things to rights,” as she said; striving in fact, with a
concealed earnestness which seemed somewhat disproportionate to its
object, to give the house that peculiar air of brightness which had been
so characteristic of it, and which somehow did not seem so easily to be
obtained as formerly.

Her face was gaiety itself, however, when she stood in the drawing-room
as the dinner-bell rang, very daintily dressed in a tea-gown which
Julian had admired, waiting for her son. A moment elapsed and Julian
dashed downstairs, breathless and apologetic, but rather sparing of his
words. His first day’s work hardly seemed to have dissipated the cloud
which had hung about him that morning at breakfast, and as his mother
slipped her hand playfully into his arm with a laughing word or two of
forgiveness, he turned and led her out of the room without the response
which would have been natural to him.

“Have you had a pleasant day?” said Mrs. Romayne lightly, as they sat
down to dinner.

“Pretty well,” returned Julian indifferently. He said no more, and Mrs.
Romayne, with one of her quick, half-furtive glances at him, began to
talk of her own day. She had paid some calls in the afternoon, and had a
great deal of news for him as to who had and who had not returned to
town; and a great deal of gossip which was both amusing in itself, and
rendered more amusing by the piquant animation with which she retailed
it. It failed to rouse much interest in Julian, apparently, however, and
after a time his mother returned to her original topic--again with a
quick, anxious glance at his face.

“Did you find Mr. Allardyce easy to work with?” she enquired,
interestedly this time.

“Yes: I suppose so,” was the unresponsive response.

“How long did he keep you?”

“I got away at four o’clock.”

Something seemed to leap in Mrs. Romayne’s eyes--to be instantly
suppressed--as she said, with an indifference which any ear keener than
Julian’s might have detected to be forced:

“Four o’clock! And what have you been doing since then, may I ask? You
did not come in till a quarter past seven.”

Perhaps Julian felt the inquisition in the question, though he was
conscious of nothing unusual in his mother’s voice; for he answered,
rather briefly:

“I went to the Garrick with a fellow.”

“What fellow?” demanded his mother in the same tone.

Julian moved impatiently.

“There’s another fellow reading with Allardyce,” he answered.
“Griffiths--he took me in.”

As though the suppressed impatience of his tone had not escaped her,
Mrs. Romayne found herself reminded at this point of something she had
heard that afternoon during one of her visits. And she proceeded to
place her little piece of news before Julian with every advantage that
narration could give it, though her face looked rather thin and sharp as
she talked. Dinner was over by this time, and as she finished with a
laugh, she rose from her seat, and put her hand on Julian’s arm. His
face was somewhat bored and dissatisfied, as though his mother’s effort
for his entertainment entirely failed to compensate him for the merry
house-parties of the last month.

“I think I shall have to come and keep you company while you smoke your
cigar,” she said lightly; adding, with an assumption of a sudden thought
on the subject which was not wholly successful: “By-the-bye, the Garrick
Club must be a most attractive spot if you stayed there from four
o’clock till seven?”

Julian took a quick step forward. The movement might have been due to
his desire to open the door for her, or it might have been an expression
of the irritation of which his face was full.

“I didn’t get there at four,” he said. “I really don’t know what time it
was, but it must have been nearly five. And I walked home; so I left
somewhere about half-past six.”

The irritation was in his voice as well as in his face; and his mother
patted him gaily on the shoulder, with her most artificially
self-deriding laugh.

“He’s quite annoyed at being asked so many questions!” she exclaimed.
“It’s a dreadful nuisance to have such a silly old mother, isn’t it? But
you haven’t told me what Mr. Griffiths is like yet?”

Julian had tried to laugh in answer to her first words; but the sound
produced had been almost as greatly wanting in reality as had been the
ease of his mother’s tone, and he answered now with undisguised
impatience.

“Like? Oh, he’s like--any other fellow, mother. Nothing particular, one
way or the other.” He paused a moment, and then added hastily: “I was
rather thinking of running down to the club this evening, dear, if you
wouldn’t mind being alone. I want to hear whether Loring has come back.
There’s just a chance he might be there, you know.”

He had said that morning that there was no likelihood of Loring’s
returning for another two or three days; but Mrs. Romayne forbore to
remind him of that fact. Nor did she allude to the conviction which had
turned her suddenly rather pale; namely, that his thoughts of going down
to the club had arisen within the last few minutes.

“Very well, dear,” she said, smiling up at him. “Go, by all means. Oh,
no! I shall be quite happy with a book.”

He did not look back at her as he left the room after another word or
two, or the expression on her face might have arrested even his
youthfully self-centred and preoccupied attention.

Loring was not at the club, nor was there any information to be obtained
there as to his movements. Julian played a game of billiards and lost it
through sheer carelessness, and then determined to go home again. He
would walk part of the way, he said to himself, though he had had one
walk that day. He wanted to “think things over.”

The phrase was serious, and by comparison with the process to which it
was attached, grandiloquent. Julian’s mental apparatus was at present as
undeveloped as that of a fashionable young man of four-and-twenty may
usually be taken to be. The process of “thinking things over,” as
conducted within his good-looking head, involved no stern process of
reasoning, no exhaustive system of logical deduction from cause to
effect, no carefully-balanced opinions of the past or decisions for the
future. When he proposed to himself to “think things over,” in short, he
simply meant that he should ring a strictly limited number of changes on
the fact that, as he expressed it vaguely to himself, it was “awfully
hard lines.”

It had taken him some time to come to this conclusion. He had flirted
with Miss Hilda Newton very happily for the last ten days, with a great
deal of wholly unnecessary assistance from that young lady herself,
without the very faintest definite intentions towards her. He had
enjoyed it, and she had enjoyed it; and the idea which had occurred to
him once or twice, that his mother did not enjoy it, had not
particularly affected him. Circumstances alone would have been
responsible for the proposal which had so nearly been an accomplished
fact on the day before. And had the speech to Miss Newton, interrupted
by Mrs. Romayne, reached its legitimate conclusion, and received its
inevitable response, it was extremely likely that he might by this time
have been the victim of a vague consciousness of having made a mistake.
But it had been interrupted; and a deeply-injured sense of having been
thwarted was consequently not unnatural in its author. That sense of
injury which might have passed away in mere sentiment, but which, on the
other hand, might, if it had been left untouched by words, have
developed into a secret breach between mother and son, had been focussed
and rendered definite and tangible, as it were, by his mother’s laughing
speeches in the train. It was as he had sat gazing blankly out of the
window during the last half-hour of their journey, that he had come to
the conclusion before mentioned that it was “awfully hard lines.”

“It makes a fellow feel such a fool!” he said to himself as morosely as
the undeveloped nature of his temperament permitted, as he issued
moodily from his club and started in the direction of Piccadilly. “It
makes a fellow feel such a confounded fool!” He could not reduce this
general principle to detail, but what he really felt was something of
the sensation of the child who realises suddenly and for the first time
the “pretence” of the fairyland of shadows in which he has been
performing prodigies of valour.

All the intercourse with the pretty girls of his “sets” which Julian had
hitherto accepted simply and unquestioningly, had suddenly become flat,
stale, and unprofitable to him. All illusions had gone from it, and the
reality was painfully unsatisfying, and wounding to his self-love. There
is all the difference in the world between a vague understanding and a
practical realisation. Julian had known, of course, from the very first
that he was dependent on his mother, but he had never felt it until the
previous day. He had known that marriage without her consent was
practically impossible for him; but the fact had never before been
brought home to him. The veto which had descended so impalpably and
decisively upon what he was now prepared to characterise as his hopes,
with regard to Miss Newton, shrivelling them to nothingness, had also
shrivelled away all the embellishing haze by which the conditions of his
life had been surrounded.

The background to all his thoughts on the subject; the background which
had grown up almost without consciousness on his own part, with his
first humiliated realisation of the facts of the case, and which
remained a vague, brooding shadow in his mind; was resentment against
his mother; a resentment which, taken in conjunction with the careless
and effusive affection of his attitude to her hitherto, threw a curious
light on his relations with her. But against this background, and
affecting him far more keenly, was a sore sense that life had suddenly
lost its savour for him. The charm of flirtation had vanished utterly
before his mother’s words as to its harmlessness. The privilege which
she assigned to him seemed to reduce him to the level of a shadow among
substances, to put him at a hopeless disadvantage with all the women of
his world, and render his intercourse with them a farce of which both
they and he must be perfectly conscious.

“It’s all such utter humbug!” he said to himself, that being the nearest
definition he could attain of the vague thoughts that were passing
through his mind. Then he ceased to express himself, even mentally, and
walked along, meditating moodily and discontentedly. He was walking
along Piccadilly when he found his thoughts gradually returning to his
actual surroundings as though something were drawing them, unconsciously
to himself, as extraneous objects which one is not even aware of
noticing will sometimes do.

It was about eleven o’clock: not a very pleasant time in Piccadilly; and
the pavement was by no means crowded. The first detail to which he awoke
was the hilarious demeanour of a young man just in front of him, who was
walking, very unsteadily, in the same direction as himself. He was a
young man of the commonest cockney type, obviously in the maudlin stage
of intoxication.

As Julian’s senses became more fully alive he noticed, a pace or two in
front of the young man, the shabbily-dressed figure of a girl. She was
walking hurriedly and nervously, and as the young man quickened his
uneven steps in response to a sudden quickening of hers, Julian saw that
the intoxicated speeches which had first grown into his own meditation
were addressed to the girl, and that she was trying in vain to escape
from them. It was not a particularly uncommon sight for a London street,
and a half-indignant, half-careless glance would naturally have been all
the attention Julian would have vouchsafed it. But as the pair preceded
him up Piccadilly; the girl shrinking and afraid; afraid to attract
attention by too rapid movements; as much afraid, as her nervous,
undecided glances around her showed, of the help a protest might attract
to her as of her pursuer; the man, sodden and brutal, absolutely
destitute for the moment of reasoning faculty; Julian found his
attention fascinated by them.

A spark of natural youthful chivalry, entirely undeveloped by his life,
stirred in him. He quickened his steps, involuntarily apparently, and
with no definite intention, for he was just passing them with a quick,
undecided glance at the girl, when he saw her stop suddenly and shrink
back against a neighbouring shop-front. Whether a faint shriek really
came from her, or not, he never knew, but her eyes met his and appealed
to him almost as if without the owner’s consciousness. The man had laid
a hot, drunken hand upon the worn, ungloved fingers.

Julian stopped.

“Let go!” he said peremptorily. His tone was so sharp, and the
interference was so sudden and unlooked-for, that the man, stupid with
drink, did as he was bidden as if involuntarily. “Be off!” continued
Julian in the same tone.

The man stared at him for a minute, and broke into a maudlin laugh, a
discordant snatch of a comic song, and staggered on his way, as though
the sudden breaking of his chain of ideas had obliterated the girl from
his memory.

She was standing, as Julian turned to her, leaning back against the
shop-front, shaking from head to foot, but evidently making a violent
effort to control herself.

“Thank you, sir,” she murmured tremulously, and was moving to go on her
way with faltering, trembling footsteps, when Julian stopped her.

“This is not a nice place for you to be alone in,” he said almost
involuntarily. “Have you far to go?”

He had looked at her for that moment during which she had stood
motionless, with her face outlined against the dark shutter, with a
strangely mingled feeling that her face was wonderfully unlike any with
which he was acquainted; and yet that he had actually seen it
before--seen it, and experienced the same half-startled, half-wondering
sensation. It was white now to the very lips, and the great, brown eyes,
dark and liquid, looked out from under their soft lashes and level
eyebrows, wide with terror and distress. Her features were beautifully
formed, though they were so thin and worn that it would never have
occurred to Julian to class her among the ranks of pretty girls. But the
real charm of her face lay about her mouth. It was very strong--though
the strength was latent and entirely unconscious; very simple, and very
sweet; and even the pallor of her lips and the slight trembling about
them could not detract from the beauty of the line they made. Her hair,
as Julian noticed, was of a soft black and very luxuriant. She was
rather tall, and her shabby jacket concealed and spoilt the outline of
her figure; but the set of her well-shaped head was full of instinctive
grace.

She paused a moment before she answered him, looking into his face with
a simple directness which had a dignity of its own.

“Yes, sir,” she said in a low voice, which shook a little in spite of
her evident efforts to steady it; “to the Hammersmith Road.”

“But you’re not going to walk, are you?” said Julian.

Apparently her glance at his face had satisfied her. She answered him
this time without hesitation.

“Yes, sir,” she said.

Her voice was very musical and refined. It harmonised better with her
face than with her worn, work-girl’s dress, and the dignified deference
of her manner.

“Then you must let me see you safely part of the way, at any rate,”
said Julian impulsively.

She hesitated, and looked at him again, and this time the large eyes
grew moist with tears.

“It’s very silly of me,” she said tremulously. “I--I think it was his
touching me that upset me so.”

She had been rubbing one hand, all this time, mechanically and
involuntarily, as it seemed, over the hand on which that drunken touch
had fallen.

“I did try to get a ’bus, but they were all full. I couldn’t let you
take such trouble.”

It needed only the unconscious gratitude of those words to convince
Julian that it would be no trouble whatever. And he asserted the same
with an assumption of authority and masterfulness quite new to him.

It was an hour and a half later when his mother, sitting up, wakeful, in
her own room, caught the slight sound made by his latch-key in the door,
and noticed a moment’s pause before the door was opened. In that pause
there had come to Julian one of those sudden flashes of light which
sometimes illuminate a vainly-pondered question.

“Of course!” he said to himself, as he shut the door with a bang. “Of
course! I knew I’d seen her before! In the thunderstorm, the night I
dined with Garstin!”

END OF VOL. I

F. M. EVANS & CO., LIMITED, PRINTERS, CRYSTAL PALACE, S.E.





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