THE click of his latchkey had something so definitely final about it, that young Duncan Seymour stood for a moment without opening the door. He was undergoing a quite novel sensation, and his lips were pressed tight. He glanced at his car, whose headlights sent a soft sheen along the naked surface of Half Moon Street. Across the Piccadilly end flowed the cheerful stream of after-theatre traffic. A hundred yards away a man and a girl were walking slowly, his head bent toward hers. Her cloak was thrown back revealing the white column of her neck. She laughed. Something in the careless happiness of it struck into the boy’s heart, reminding him that this was just one of the things to which he was saying goodbye. At that, his square, kindly and utterly honest face became stern. He went hastily in, mounted to a big room on the first floor and touched a bell.
Entered a man with very wide lean shoulders and a jagged scar on his neck. Annexing hat, coat and stick, he waited for an instant with military impassiveness.
“Take the car round to the garage, please.”
Manders put his chin slightly on one side, which was his civilian form of assent, placed whiskey and syphon beside his master, and stole a curious glance at the young face. It seemed to him unnaturally grim.
“And I want to see you when you get back.”
“Very good, sir.”
Silence in the sitting room. Seymour fingered his glass, but did not drink. Queer what a heap of things there were to think about; and so suddenly. Things that didn’t call for consideration before. His gaze picked up a photograph on the mantel—that of a girl, slight, fair; on a horse. She had good hands, small mouth, straight back, and a sort of old-young face that was undoubtedly pretty but, perhaps, a shade hard. It suggested a clear-headedness and a good all round finish, but not much capacity for emotion. That last point came into his mind now— for the first time. Under the circumstances, he was thinking about it, it might be that emotion would have been out of place. But he would have rather liked just a touch of it. No slosh, but just a few moments of complete tenderness.
Other photographs. A woman of about forty, very gracious and gentle, with an old world charm in her face that had always made him think of lavender. Odd, that an expression should suggest a perfume! That was his mother, dead seven years ago after trying to carry on without Eric, who had reached Loos with his regiment —and stayed there. Eric’s mother had struggled hard to be comforted by the fact that the boy was with a very valiant company, all happy and shrived and shining, but the thing cut too deep and killed her soon afterward. She had remained, however, in Duncan’s memory, very tender and understanding, and, in a fascinating manner, unexpected. He was still picturing her when Manders came back.
“Wanted to see me, sir?”
“Yes. Sit down, will you?”
Manders sat, very gingerly, on the edge of the chair nearest the door. He would have felt more comfortable in puttees, with a bit of mud on him.
“I say, Manders, there’s been a bit of a mix-up.”
“Yes, sir?” The tone suggested that mix-ups were mothers’ milk.
“And the fact is that—er—I’m cleaned out.”
“That's the second time since Christmas, sir, if I may say so.”
Duncan wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. “This is something quite different, and much more serious. The fact is that—ah—I’m clearing out of England.”
“Very good, sir. When do we leave?”
Young Seymour fingered his glass. “I’m—that is—” he took a gulp, “I can’t take you. I’ve got to go alone.” Manders seemed a shade puzzled. His eyes narrowed, and, placing his lean hands on his knees, he bent a little further forward.
“I don’t quite get you, sir.”
“Then try this. The cold truth is that I’m stony, and supplies are cut off—very definitely cut. That's never happened before. I haven’t an earthly, except what I’ll get for the car and a few odd gadgets. What do I owe?”
“Nothing serious, sir. Matter of a couple of hundred would clear it.”
A couple of a hundred sounded like a fortune that night, and Duncan got up. Manders rose instantly and stood at ease. They stared at each other, these two. On one side, forty years of hard-fisted, hard-bitten reality about which there was no doubt whatever; on the other, youth and inexperience and a very naked and uncomfortable sensation. Then youth spoke again:
“Thing is this. I’ve had a beastly row with my father. I can’t explain any more than that. Result is, that I’m cut off like a dead peony. Understand? And dead peonies don’t have menservants. That’s point one. Next is, that I can’t live in England on nothing, and I won’t try. Third is that I’m leaving as soon as I can get a passage to British Columbia—and unattended. Now you can say anything you like.”
The only immediate effect was that Manders sucked in silently a large quantity of air so that his chest expanded imperceptibly till it looked like a large semicylindrical drum, and the square jaw of him jutted a little, while at the same time his head sank a little into his neck, and his cheek muscles took on a slight resemblance to knotted cords. He stood quite still for an instant.
“Very good, sir, and perhaps I might speak to you in the morning. Can I do anything for you now?”
“Night, Manders, and I’m awfully sorry. You’ve been no end of a good sort, and I can easily fix you up with some one.”
“Thank you, sir, but—” He gave a ghost of a smile, and went out.
THE thing had happened and crystallized so quickly that young Seymour almost doubted that it had happened at all. His thoughts pitched back, three weeks now, to a certain evening. The news came in the billiard room at The Moat House, near Lewes, when the elder Seymour, who normally gave his son twenty in a hundred, and beat him, seemed completely off his game. It was when he missed a very simple red loser that he chalked his cue for an unnecessarily long time, and looked at Duncan with a flush on his smooth and rather feminine cheeks.
“There’s something I want you to know now,” he said rather jerkily. “I’m going to be married.”
Duncan, who was attempting a difficult run-through, stared over his shoulder, open-mouthed.
“What’s that, sir?”
“Going to be married,” repeated his father with a slight lift of the voice. “I’ve been meaning to—-well-—. Of course there are things that will occur to you concerning your dear mother. But nothing is or can be altered there. This is a matter of companionship and very deep affection. I’m rather lonely, Duncan. And, of course, you wont be in any way affected, that is for the future—you and Lois.”
There was something in his tone that Duncan recognized as pathetic, but the younger man experienced, nevertheless, a distinct shock. His father had seemed contented and happy—in a mild sort of way. Most things about him were mild. So the idea of such a revolutionary change had never occurred.. But there it stood, and, since the boy was himself in love, he had a glimmer of what his father must feel, even at fifty-five. So he blinked at the run through, put down his cue, and held out a hand.
“I’m awfully glad, sir. Tell me something about her!”
“Thank you, Duncan. I had hoped you would take it that way. It’s a Mrs. Harcourt—her name is Marian and the Cartrights know her. She’s been a widow for ten years. She is,” he hesitated, then added with unnecessary emphasis, “she’s a good deal younger than I.”
“Harcourt?” Duncan had not heard of her. “I hope you’ll be very happy. Have you,” he grinned understandingly, “have you a photo?”
The elder Seymour, blushing more deeply, felt in the inner pocket of his dinner coat. There was something boyish in the action and rather amusing, but Duncan was thinking of another who would sit where his mother sat.
“Yes, but it doesn’t give you her full face.”
The photo was in profile, and of a very gracious looking woman; a strong yet tender face, the head forward, the figure slight and well made.
“We met in town some months ago,” went on Seymour, recapturing it, and soon found out that we—I cared very much. It seems she had an unhappy time with her first husband, but one would not gather that from herself. You’ll find her very understanding. We are to be married in a day or two, to be exact the day after tomorrow, and, if you don’t mind, alone. Then we go away for a little.”
“Nothing I can do for you?” Duncan had himself in hand by now.
“I think not, thanks, except dine with us here the day we get back.”
“Of course—very glad to. When do you get back?”
“On the morning of the fourteenth. I suggested Santa Margherita, but she does not fancy that so we may try Sicily. By the way have you any—er—any news of a similar nature for me?”
Duncan shook his head. “No, nothing settled.”
“Your play, I think. No—that’s my ball. And if I were you I wouldn’t put it off too long.”
His son looked up sharply. “What’s on, sir?”
“Nothing serious, I fancy, but I saw Lois dining with a man last week, and they seemed very happy. Marian and I were just across the room. There’s probably nothing in that.”
Duncan laughed—played—and missed. But the laugh was not wholly natural. “I think I’m at the head of the list, but she isn’t the sort that likes to be pushed. And may I tell her about yourself?”
Seymour looked very self-conscious. “Do!”
“Then do you mind if we knock off now?”
His father was quite willing, having accomplished what he had feared would be a difficult task with astonishing ease; and Duncan, after shaking hands rather formally, went to his room. He stood for a long time at his window staring thoughtfully at the vast lift of the South Downs. The moon shone clear, and the hills looked almost near enough to touch.
He had been always good friends with his father, which, since he left Oxford, was, no doubt, assisted by an allowance of two thousand a year. He did not live within it, but then he was not expected to. He hunted with the West Sussex, played polo at Hurlingham, shot, had a lease on a small Norway river, motored a good deal on the continent, following these pursuits with a healthy zest, and a cheerful confidence that later on Moat House would be his with all that pertained thereto. The other part of him worshipped the memories of his mother and Eric. Eric had been a sort of God, and after he went west at Loos it was Duncan’s habit to ask himself what Eric would have done in such and such a case. He did that now. And, for the last year, there had been Lois.
He became slowly aware of a small irritating uncertainty. Suppose his father were to become a father again? Such things happened at his age, and especially with a wife who was, as he said, much younger than himself. What then? There had been no suggestion that Mrs. Harcourt had any money of her own. If she hadn’t, so much out of the Moat House pot should there come a child. He felt, in a vague way, that men at his father’s time of life did foolish, impetuous things, and most often when they were carried away by a second love. And Seymour, senior, had never been distinguished for forcefulness. It was then quite possible that if—which God forbid— Marian Harcourt was a designing women, she would feather her nest without difficulty. But the photograph did not suggest that. Duncan determined to be extremely polite to his step mother—but this was as far as he’d go—till he knew.
Then Lois. He couldn’t absolutely be sure of her yet. She had let him take her in his arms sometimes of late, which intoxicated him with delight, and, afterwards, he could not be convinced that he came first. But the mere touch of her was a joy. He had the idea, however, that if she would promise him, and wait, he would rather not marry too soon after his father, because when he did marry he would not see much of Moat House. So as things were now, he must find out at once where he stood. He could see the Chester house, a corner of it being visible through a gap in the park, and wondered if she was thinking of him now, and, who was the man she dined with in town.
HE WENT over next morning, three dogs at his heels, and found her in the potting house, with gloved hands, very workmanlike. She let him kiss her, and the softness of her cheek enraptured him. She pretended to be extremely busy, and he doubted which should come first, his father’s affair or his own. Finally he steered a middle and hazardous course.
“I say, who was the man you dined with last week in town?”
“Why?” She sent him a curious glance.
“I’d like to know.”
“Do you mind?”
“No, but I’m frightfully interested.”
“Well, it was John Wragge. Do you know him?”
“No; do you like him?”
“I do, rather. And I don’t dine with people I don’t like. Have you any objection?”
“Not if it’s only rather. Dine with me to-morrow?”
“Sorry, but people are coming here. Your father told you about it, didn’t he?”
“Do you know who was dining with him? Perhaps he didn’t tell you that.”
“The Harcourt woman?”
“She’s a friend of yours, isn’t she?”
Lois gave him a straight look. “We’ve met her several times—that’s all.” Then a pause. “Have you nothing else to tell me?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I’m expecting something. When a man, a widower, is dining a deux with a very pretty companion and has a certain expression on his face its more or less prophetic. Come along, Duncan, out with it. You’ll feel better when its over.”
“You’re right,” he said, grimly.
“Well, I’m rather sorry, but not a bit surprised. Of course it’s quite suitable, and she’s rather lovely, in a way.” She laughed a little. “How soon?”
“The day after to-morrow; then they’re going to Sicily, then back to Moat House. I won’t see her till she’s my stepmother.”
Lois looked rather wicked. “Be careful you don’t fall in love with your stepmother and infuriate your father.”
“I can’t, being in love with you, and that’s what I want to talk about. Come along out.”
She came, but her manner had changed a shade, and when he kissed her again she regarded him with an odd expression in her hazel eyes.
“I say, you know this might be serious!”
“It is,” he assured her. “I’m terribly in earnest.”
“I mean the other thing. Did you come into it yourself at all—your end of it?”
“The governor said I wouldn’t be affected in a property way.”
“How can anyone tell? Don’t put me down as a scheming beast, but just imagine it was in some other family.”
“His word is good for it,” said Duncan with an uneasy feeling that it might not be. “And she’s the right sort, isn’t she?”
“I don’t know much about her. She looked at me rather hard that night, and bowed to John. He had known her in the past. Said she had had a rotten time with her first husband, and had lived on the continent for years to keep down exes. And I don’t imagine she was left anything to speak of.”
“But, if she’s a beauty why didn’t she marry long ago?” Lois gave a little laugh. “It might be that she couldn’t find anyone as eligible as your father.”
“You make me beastly uncomfortable.”
“I’m a little uncomfortable myself.”
He put his arm round her impulsively. “Take me on, and we’ll go the governor one better. We’ve enough to live on anyway.”
But Lois, whose thoughts had been varied for the last few days could not see it in that light. She was fonder of Duncan than of any man she knew and always with him came the vision of Moat House. For years she had wanted Moat House, wanted it in a cool unswerving fashion that was one of the mainsprings of life. And to see her occupation postponed for years to come was a harder thrust than she was ready to admit.
As to Duncan, she was not sure whether she loved him or not, but if he had come to her with Moat House in his hand she would have married him, and given him something in payment that he would not have been able to distinguish from love. So, as things stood, her own course of action was not so different from the one she attributed to Marian Harcourt. Then, suddenly, she found herself in an embrace unlike any she had felt before.
“Marry me,” said Duncan thickly. “I love you and want you.”
The strength in his arms both frightened and pleased her. His face had quite changed, his eyes very large and bright, his cheeks paler than she had ever seen them. She lay, unresisting, for a moment, then had a vision of Marian Harcourt on the terrace at Moat House, and it filled her with a swift unreasoning hatred. But wisdom whispered that Duncan must never guess this, and the prudent thing was to hold him, by encouraging his love, while she, herself, moved very warily and cautiously till the future was a good deal more clear. So, because this only called for an art in which many women are born proficient, she stirred in his arms, and whispered :
“We must wait, dear. If only it had not been for your father-—!”
HE WENT back, hands deep in his pockets, chin on chest, not at all satisfied with himself and conscious of a growing resentment. He knew this was not fair, though it seemed tremendously natural. Why shouldn’t his father marry again? He had money, position and unvarying, though perhaps a little weak amiability; one of the show houses of the southern counties; he could offer everything that most women want.
Seymour, in a state of excitement he made a futile attempt to disguise, was preparing to leave, his cheeks very pink. He nodded cheerfully, and put both hands on the boy’s shoulders.
“Of course,” he said, “you should have given me the lead.”
“Perhaps that will come later, sir.”
“Naturally; and count on me when you’re ready. I wonder,” here he paused and looked grave, “if you realize that you can never mean any less to me on this account. And when you marry there’ll be a new bond between us.”
“I hope so,” said Duncan, rather doubting it.
“When you see Marian you’ll understand, as, of course, you can’t now. Her expression, her charm and gentleness, the complete woman that she is, with a soul like a crystal pool that has nothing to hide. She is the sort that represents all that’s best and highest in her sex.” He broke off, flushing and looking rather ashamed of himself. “That sounds a good deal, eh?”
Duncan laughed a little. “I don’t doubt it, sir.” But he vowed he would never go on like that about Lois, not to anyone.
“You’ll love her, too, after you know her. I often ask myself how she could have waited so long. Other men haven’t been blind. In fact,” here he grinned a little fatuously, “insofar as apparent age goes, she’s more suited to you than me. She knows about you and Lois, that there’s the probability—I didn’t put it more definitely than that-—and she said nothing would please her more. So,” he added quizzically, “I’m quite glad your affections are engaged. Well, goodbye till the fourteenth. No, thanks, nothing you can do for me except be very charming to her when you meet. God bless you.”
He departed so happily, so young-looking and expectant, that Duncan felt a twinge of shame. Marian being as described, his father was perfectly right. Then he hoped that she and Lois would find more in common than the latter seemed to have discovered as yet.
Whereat he wanted Lois more than ever.
HE CAME down to Moat House on the fourteenth in time for dinner, and his father entered his room just before the gong sounded.
“How are you, Duncan?”
“Well, sir. I needn’t ask about you. Good trip?”
“And —and Marian? I suppose I’ll call her that.”
“Splendid, too. We found a charming spot between Palermo and Taormina. It was the more interesting because I discovered that she speaks Italian very well.”
There was a little silence, and the two looked at each other. The elder Seymour exhibited a subtle change of person, seeming more definite, more to the point, holding himself straighter and undoubtedly more youthful. His cheeks usually rather pink and milky, had a coat of sunburn that suggested vigor and masculinity.
“You’re all right,” he said, “so come along. Marian is anxious to see you.”
Regarding Marian across the table a few moments later, Duncan confessed that his father had done more than well. He saw a smooth oval face, large responsive blue eyes, a rather large and finely shaped mouth. He could not guess her age, but assumed it must be less than forty. Her skin was very clear and silky, and her gesture had a gracious ease. He liked her voice, finding it full of color and with little husky notes.
“Well finished,” he was saying to himself, when something about her seemed vaguely familiar. Perhaps it was her type, the sort of type that lingers in one’s mind because it is so infrequent.
“I’ve been awfully anxious to meet you,” she was saying. “I wanted to, before we went away. But your father—” She broke off with a little laugh.
“I couldn’t resist looking forward to this moment after the deed was done,” put in Seymour. “Perhaps I was afraid of the effect you’d have on him.”
She tilted her head at the least angle, chin forward and a shade to the left. “Now tell me about Lois. I thought perhaps you’d bring her to-night.”
Duncan explained that he would do this in a day or two, and, all the time his brain was stirring, stirring, while there came to him a whisper, quite clear, that he had, in fact, seen this woman before; been quite close to her, caught that same tilt of the sleek head and heard that same attractive huskiness of voice. But all he could determine was that the circumstances were far removed from the present ones, and that the thing had happened within the last two years. That was what went on inside. The other, the outward part of him was very polite and spontaneous and talked about fishing in Norway and the last run of the West Sussex.
Seymour, noting this entente, felt excessively happy. Of course Marian was remarkable for looks, tact and charm, but, even so, these affairs were usually a bit difficult at first. Now there was no stiffness whatever. It augured well for the future.
“You must go to Sicily, Duncan,” he said. “It’s quite different.”
“I’d like to.” He turned to Marian. “Father says you speak Italian very well.”
“Not really well, but enough for general purposes. It’s so liquid and the words run into each other so smoothly.”
She had been studying his face, liked it, and felt sure they would soon be great friends. Duncan had a doggy look of sincerity, with large brown eyes that held a great deal of light. He was not handsome, with features more square than his father’s, but they expressed a sort of fidelity that people found reassuring. She had perceived that at once, and that one could depend on him seeing the right thing —and sticking to it. So, while she told him how glad she was to be back in England; wanted to explore the domain of Moat House and meet horses, dogs and cattle, and how they both hoped he would spend much more time here than in London, she was rejoicing in his response, weighing his manner and smile, and altogether, analyzing him with a minuteness of which he had not the slightest idea.
She was thinking, also, of how well he took the unexpectedness of this affair, because he must inevitably be contrasting her with his own mother, whose portrait was over the big fireplace. The painted eyes seemed to be alive, to regard her with a sort of voiceless curiosity, and ask what she was doing there. It was a difficult hour in spite of its apparent ease and poise, but she comforted herself by resolving that nothing would be left undone on her side to make this an admirable home. She was very thankful for the opportunity. Then she met Duncan’s glance. There seemed to her imagination to be a question in that too. For the first time she had a faint sense of insecurity.
“It’s odd,” he said slowly, “but I’ve got it in my head that we’ve met, or at any rate I’ve seen you before.”
“We may have seen each other, but I’m quite sure we haven’t met.” She made a little gesture. “I’d remember it.”
Seymour smiled. “That’s a compliment from Duncan. He’s not impressionable, you know.”
Again that ghost of discomfort; with a swift impulse she changed the subject. “You’ve mistaken me for some one else. Are you playing polo this summer?”
“Yes. Do you like it?”
“I love to watch, and haven’t seen any for years. Will you take me to Hurlingham?”
“Awfully glad to!”
“Marian hasn’t seen much of England till the last six months,” said her husband, “so there’s a lot we must do. She’s been living in France and Belgium, and before that she was in Italy.”
“Don’t see much polo there, do you?” Duncan’s mind was in the curious condition which suggests that one is just about to remember something. He took a glance at the smooth lovely face, and it struck him that a woman like this must know much about men. She had everything to offer that most men desire.
“When were you last in Italy?” he hazarded.
Her white hands tightened under the table, but the blue eyes were calm and clear. “Rather more than four years ago. One gets tired of the unending glare, don’t you think?”
“As a steady diet, yes; but I like it for a couple of months.”
“Speaking of polo, how’s Renwick?” asked Seymour.
Renwick! Renwick was Duncan’s fidus Achates, and at the sound of his name there came a flicker across the screen of memory. Renwick and he had done most things together since they met six years ago at Oxford.
“He’s all right, sir. Cracked a shoulderblade with the Bicester but—-”
He stopped abruptly, while Marian’s face seemed to swim toward him. Renwick’s name had completed the mysterious process of remembrance. He had seen that face before, and Renwick was with him at the time. Two years ago this month— and in Italy—where Marian said she had not been for four years! He felt a little dizzy.
“All right again by now, I suppose?”
Duncan nodded. His eyes had been drawn from Marian to the portrait of his mother, and he got an extraordinary impression that his mother knew also: had known all the time; but, being dead, was incapable of protesting against this other woman sitting where she had sat. It was just as though she had seen what he and Renwick saw two years ago, near Santa Margherita-—the place to which Marian had not wanted to go on her second wedding trip. And what Duncan saw was a terrace overhanging a mountain road, and Marian, in a white dress low at the neck, held close in the embrace of a man who kissed her on eyes and cheeks and lips.
DUNCAN got through the rest of dinner somehow, talking mechanically, his brain in a whirl, and aware that Marian’s expression had undergone a subtle change. His father, happy and exhilarated with the occasion, had seen nothing and carried on with a gaiety that to his son seemed almost ghastly.
“It’s true,” a voice kept repeating inside his head, “it’s the naked truth. You saw her two years ago. You were motoring with Renwick along the Ligurian coast. You stayed at Santa Margherita and next afternoon took the hill road to Portofino Vetta. Halfway up you had engine trouble and loafed over a cigarette. The sun was hot and you both got drowsy in the shade. Then the voices, and you looked over the wall and on the terrace of a villa saw this woman and were struck by her beauty. Renwick was dozing. A man came out on the terrace; she turned and was taken in his arms. They did not speak a word. You took them to be English, but had never seen them before. The two came that night for dinner to your restaurant at Portofino Vetta, and sat where you could see them without being seen. You observed, again, her beauty, and heard the huskiness of her voice. They went off together later, and the padrone told you that they were an English man and his donva bellissima who said she had come to nurse him. Now, that is the woman who is sitting beside you. Your father has married her. What are you going to do about it?”"
All this presented itself, swiftly, vividly, an instantaneous flash that was dreadfully distinct, and it seemed in the same moment that his mother’s portrait signalled she was glad he had remembered—that he also must remember her and Eric and his father, and do what he thought best in the matter. That was jolting about in his brain when Marian rose and, automatically, he stepped to the door. She sent him a strange questioning glance as she passed out.
“We must have a chat when you’ve finished your wine,” said the low quiet voice.
He went back to the table. His father was fingering his port glass and looking so expectant that Duncan knew he must say the obvious thing.
“She’s very beautiful, sir.”
“I knew you’d like each other at sight. Yes, my boy, beautiful and as good as she’s lovely. It’s a great combination. She had a very unhappy life during her first marriage—I’ll tell you about it some day-—yet you see what has survived. Here’s to her!”
He raised his glass, and Duncan’s lips just touched his own. “Anything to get out of this, and have time to think!” he said to himself. Eric and his mother were waiting for his decision.
“You’ll take her out now and then a deux you know, and dance. In every way she’s much younger than I am. One must not forget that. And I do hope she and Lois will hit it off.”
“They should, I think.”
“It will be a little difficult for Marian at first. She’s very sensitive, and especially anxious not to infringe on the past. Of course one like her couldn’t-—but there you are. And she’s greatly interested in you. Any plans for the summer yet?”
Duncan had had several plans, but these had faded during the last few moments. There was something to be done first-—he did not know what—but all else was of lesser significance.
“Nothing much, sir. You’ll be here, I suppose?”
“Yes, Marian wants to stay at home.”
Curious, how strange the word sounded. If truth were truth Marian had no right to be in that house, which was once the abode of a woman who did not lie while looking in one’s face. If it should be home for her, it would not for Duncan. Could that be the solution? He wondered whether Eric would have spoken now-—or kept silent.
Seymour talked on for a while, pleased with himself and everyone else, then pushed over the decanter.
“Then you and Marian ought to have a talk. By the way, how long can you be with us?”
“Two or three days, if—” Duncan did not know what to answer.
“The longer the better.” Seymour got up, slipped his arm into that of his son, and they went together into the hall. The drawing-room door was open, and they could see Marian standing in front of the big fireplace. The shaded light lay soft on her white shoulders, and her neck had a lovely curve. Duncan felt a light quick pressure.
“Chat with her for a while. You and I must try and make up for much that she’s missed in the past. Then bring her to the billiard room.”
THE boy went in, and was met with a steady glance that betrayed nothing. There was no question of the fact in his mind now. He had tried during the last few moments to persuade himself that a woman’s past was her own, but that theory only worked when the woman was unattached and did not attempt to take a place that was not rightfully hers. Duncan’s father and those others were involved now. What should he do on their behalf? He asked this, while he met the clear blue eyes. Then she spoke with what seemed a breath-taking suddenness.
“I’ve been awfully anxious to meet you, Duncan, and wondered so much whether you’d like me. Are you disappointed—or just vexed?”
He selected a cigarette very carefully. “Why should I be?”
“May I have one? You see, I wanted to meet you before anything was settled, but your father wouldn’t. I thought it would be fairer to you.”
He did not answer at once. What if they had met, and he had recognized her then? Would he have spoken? He could imagine some other man—Eric, for instance saying to her: ‘Here, if you go on with this thing I’ll tell my father what I know, so you’d better drop out.’ But now the time for dropping out had passed. It flashed into his mind that perhaps she was going to tell him voluntarily, because there was just this one opportunity. That thought gave him a strange revulsion.
“Suppose we had met before and I hadn’t approved. Would that have made any difference?”
She turned a little so that he could not see her eyes. “My great ambition now is to make your father tremendously happy. I can do that, Duncan.”
He knew she could do it. No question there. His father’s happiness depended on ignorance, while knowledge meant something shameful and destructive. This must often be so with many men and women. Their happiness depended on how much they did not know. But he himself must show her that he knew, and perhaps in the way she took it he would find something to guide him. It was a brutal thing to have to hurt a woman who looked like this!
“You knew all about father when you married him, but did he know all about you?” It sounded like another man’s voice.
She stiffened, her eyes large, her lips quivering. “What do you mean?”
“You can answer that yourself if you will,” he said unsteadily, “or shall I go on?”
The color slowly deserted her cheeks. “I—I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“My father, your husband, is in the billiard-room now. He’s pretending to play, but is really thinking about you and expects us there presently.”
Duncan stood up, very straight. “Look here—what am I to tell him?”
Her cheeks were grey now. “About me?” she whispered faintly.
“Two years ago this month, I was on the road between Santa Margherita and Portofino Vetta. The car went wrong, and I stopped outside a villa near the top of the hill. Renwick was with me You came out on the terrace —then someone else. I saw you again that evening at the ristorante—an English woman and her lover, the padrone told me, and that he had taken the Villa Solaro for some weeks.”
She did not stir. Her gaze was fixed on him with a sort of helpless fascination, her eyes contracting and expanding, her beauty shrivelling before him till she had the appearance of a woman visibly ageing. She made not the slightest gesture, nor gave any sound, but stood, sprinkled as it were with the ashes of despair.
“What does a son say to his father in a case like this?”
He spoke honestly, infinitely sorry for the man in the billiard room and almost equally sorry for her. But, impelled by a nameless instinct, he was fighting for something that bade him fight on, the unspoken code that guards a family name, and keeps the hearthstone sacred. And she, with her beauty and her past, had invaded home.
“What are you going to do?” The words were barely audible. She had no thought of any attempt at denial, and in that moment was as honest as himself.
“What should I do? You’re older—you know both sides—father knows only one. You’ve seen this place, and have heard about the one who went before you. I’m not asking who the man was, and would sooner not know. But the minute I saw you I realized it was not for the first time.”
She took a long, long breath. “Well?”
“Say whatever you like. I’m trying to think straight. Perhaps you can help.”
She was trying desperately to think straight herself. Here, all around her, was such a haven as she had longed for all her life. This boy could not imagine what it meant. But now she looked hopelessly into his anxious eyes.
“Everything you have said is true. What the padrone said is not true. You cannot understand, unless I tell you what led up to what you saw. May I do that?”
He nodded, his lips compressed.
“If you are in love, you will understand and believe me. If you are not; then I cannot expect you to believe. I had been married for some years when my husband died, and had given myself to a brute. Nothing on the surface to show that, and to others he was an ordinary man. Toward me he was a beast. I had no escape, and learned to loathe him within a week of our wedding. As far as the world was concerned, I smiled and carried on, but that was for the sake of my own pride.
“Then, after ten years of this, his death, and such freedom as enables one to live in pensions and cheap hotels because one can afford nothing else. And, since I was alone, men of a certain sort thought I was legitimate prey. I became afraid of all men, and kept moving, moving, always meeting significant looks that needed no interpreting. And months and years passed. You can’t know how women like me count the months, and even the weeks, and search our faces to see what new marks there are, because of all our enemies the most relentless is time. We cannot escape him!”
She paused, her voice trailing out thinly.
“Had anything like that occurred to you?”
Duncan shook his head.
“One is better off without pictures of that kind, but they may help others to understand.”
“I think I understand,” he said.
“I just wanted you to know. Then, one day, two years ago, when the loneliness was at its worst, I walked up that winding road from Santa Margherita to Portofino Vetta. There the padrone told me about an Inglese, a sick man, alone in the Villa Solaro. There was no one to look after him. I went in and found him, young, weak with fever, knowing not a word of Italian.” She looked fixedly at Duncan. “I wonder if you will believe what I am going to tell you now?”
He made a gesture. “Please—quickly—my father is waiting for us.”
“I stayed in the Villa Solaro for a month, looking after him. We were quite alone except for two servants. I knew what I was doing and knew, too, how it would be interpreted if people knew. So I gave the padrone another name. It does not matter now what it was. You see, I balanced my reputation against the chance of really doing something useful for someone—perhaps saving a life. And he got better. Then he fell in love with me. I might have known that was coming.”
“Yes,” said Duncan, “I suppose you might.”
“But you see this was a different kind of love. It is not possible to explain what that meant to me. It was so honest. I could not marry him—he was too much younger than myself—and this was a sort of tribute, and proof that time had not conquered me yet. I could see right into his heart, where nothing was hidden, and there were no calculations. Then there was a scene on the terrace one afternoon that frightened me, and I knew I must go at once, or it would be too late. That evening I persuaded him to dine with me at the ristorante—and after dinner I slipped away to Santa Margherita.”
“That was the end of it?”
“Yes,” she said simply; “the very end.”
The room was deathly still, and she read incredulity in the eyes that had never left her own. Her courage began to waver, but there was one other thing which she owed to herself to say.
“I came back to England,” she went on, dry-lipped, “and, a few months ago met your father. He treated me as I longed to be treated, and I felt that his thoughts were the same. A woman often wonders what a man’s thoughts are, the ones that come when she is not there. Then he asked me to marry him, and I knew that I was worthy. You must either believe that, or put me down as a scheming woman who considers nothing but her own advantage.”
DUNCAN felt torn asunder. The amazing thing was, that while he could not credit what she said in explanation, he nevertheless believed in Marian herself. He believed in the honesty of her intention toward his father. Something had survived out of the past, and he was strangely convinced that this something would mean happiness in Moat House—if Rodney Seymour was alone with his new wife. He believed in this delicate, agonized face, and in the emotion that found so appealing a voice. Such a woman might err through impulse or generosity—but not by deliberate plan. And, accepting this, he realized that his lips must be forever sealed. What profit now, to anyone, in carrying this thing further?
“You see, Duncan,” she whispered, “in spite of everything I’ve kept what is best in me, and to be your father’s wife was like coming into harbor after years of storms.”
He could believe that, too. Whatever she might have given, there was much left yet. And, if it was the best of her, it would be sufficient to secure his father’s happiness. That happiness would depend utterly on Rodney Seymour’s ignorance of what had just been revealed, an ignorance that must be guarded by his son, cost what it might. Strange, that one could, as it were, accept the soul of this woman, and yet discredit her words. He looked at her fixedly.
She had turned away, shoulders heaving, and he caught a strangled sob. Impulsively he put out his hands.
“It all depends on the future, now, not the past. Trust me, Marian. I know what love means.”
But what he had not heard was the faint creak of an opening door, nor did he see the man who stood on the threshold, his features ashen, and those last words hammering in his ears.
SEYMOUR sat in the billiard room, his face between his hands, conscious only that the world had been turned upside down. He was struggling helplessly with what he conceived to be the truth, and those words ‘Trust me. I know what love means’still rangin his ears. The words of a son to his father’s wife.
He seemed to have undergone a kind of searing operation on his eyes, one that burned away the film of infatuation, so that now he saw the forbidding truth. He was not safe against his own son. Marian’s beauty had reacted on Duncan even more quickly than on his father. ‘I know what love means could only mean that Duncan wanted to show her, and in a way that was beyond the powers of her husband. And Marian, being what she was, had turned away, shocked, grieved and sobbing. This was the only bright spot. He could trust Marian, and his honor was at least safe with her.
Out of this conflict, he slowly envisioned what must be done for the immediate future. Moat House was no home for Duncan now, who had violated its essential spirit; the love that the father has for his son vanished, being replaced by a savage resentment. The natural mildness of Seymour crystallized, solidifying into a violent aversion, and he became possessed by those sudden and formidable instincts that spring so strangely at times from the most gentle breasts.
There came a little pause in the storm, and he ferreted about to see if, perchance, he might be mistaken in this matter. There seemed no room for mistake, and perhaps Duncan’s manner, when they met, might tell him something—if he himself could only keep under control. Then the door opened, and the two came in. To Seymour’s questioning eyes Marian looked tired, pale and overwrought, while Duncan spoke with what his father took to be a strained lightness.
“Have we kept you long, sir; and do you feel like a hundred up?” He laughed a little. “Marian’s ready to watch the slaughter of the innocent.”
It was the laugh and that last word that did it. Innocent! Seymour flushed, and gave him a strange glance. gave “It’s rather late, and,” he hesitated, “I think Marian’s had enough. I want to see you for a few minutes.”
He turned to put his unused cue in its rack, and Marian, with a swift sense of alarm, darted a look at Duncan. The boy pulled down his brows, laid his finger imperatively on his lips and motioned to the door.
“I am rather tired, Rodney, so I’ll go up,” she said quietly. “Good-night, Duncan!”
The door closed, and Seymour fought with himself for a tense moment.
“What’s the matter?” Duncan stepped forward, and put a hand on his father’s shoulder. “Anything wrong?”
Seymour winced at the touch, tilting his body so that the hand slipped off. Duncan stared at him.
“I say, why did you do that? Aren’t you well?”
“What were you and Marian talking about?” demanded the elder man abruptly.
Duncan caught his breath. Something had happened in the last half hour. Was it possible that—?
“Travel and one thing and another. Why?”
“Is that all you discussed with her?”
The boy’s heart almost stopped beating. The room began to swim. Looking his father straight in the face, he lied magnificently.
“That is a damned lie!” Seymour was swaying a little, torn by anger and fear.
Duncan blanched, closed his fist, then with an intense effort, became like stone. His brain was working swiftly, flashes of light darted through it, and in them one fact stood out with deadly definition. To tell the whole truth meant to sacrifice Marian and break his father’s heart! To remain silent meant to sacrifice himself. It was something of what he, himself, had said that his father must have heard. Now—in a fraction of time—it was necessary to decide. He sent up an involuntary petition to Eric. What would Eric do? He caught his father’s voice again.
“Have you nothing to answer? I said you lied.”
Utter silence in the room while these two stared at each other. Then uncontrollable resentment swelled up in the boy’s heart.
"Been eavesdropping sir?"
His father trembled with rising excitement. “When a man accidentally overhears what I heard, it is not eavesdropping. You asked Marian to trust you because you knew what love was.”
Duncan felt suddenly horribly old and helpless. He had said that, and now, instantly, perceived its effect. How else could his father have taken it? But had his father heard anything of what came before?
“Well, sir?” he'muttered grimly.
“No answer, eh?” The tone was ragged and strident. “Of course not! There is none. Need I go on?”
“Do what you please, sir.” This with a trace of insult.
“That there may be no doubt in your mind I will go on. I waited here an hour—then came to the drawing-room to see what kept you. I opened the door. Your arms were out. Marian had turned away from you, and was crying. I heard you say what I told you. It was quite enough. Of course she was crying. Any decent woman would, but I could not speak, and came back here, having interrupted a declaration of love from my son to my wife. My son!” He broke off with acrid contempt.
So that was it! Duncan shut his eyes, pressing the lids tight. He felt in a dumb way that it was unfair, horribly unfair, to have to decide like this, without a word for himself. But the stiffer the dose he had to swallow, the more secure would Marian be. There was no question about her being considered first. He had promised that. And his father, whose very ignorance of the truth had transformed him into an unjust and menacing judge, he would be secure too. It came to Duncan, in this moment, that against this unwitting unfairness he must put all that had been done for him, during all the past years, by both mother and father. It was an odd way of repayment, but he must try it.
“Your silence is no defence,” came the voice again; “and I can only thank God that Marian is the woman she is. You leave me no alternative than to protect her.”
“By my absence from Moat House?” Duncan was caustic, his control nearly at an end.
The irony of it was stupendous, but the boy did not flinch. Better that than the truth, and the wreckage of these two others. He stood quite still, his jaws tight, his head a little back as though measuring the distance between them. And it was thus that his father remembered him for many a long day.
“Then I leave in the morning. I don’t return till I’m asked to. Is that clear?”
Seymour winced in spite of himself, but the savagely awakened pride of the man and his sense of outraged virtue were too strong to be conquered.
“I think that will be best. Your allowance will continue as at present.
“Damn the allowance!” grunted Duncan. “I won’t touch it.”
HE WENT upstairs, very slowly, and, passing Marian’s door, saw a light shining under it. He knew what she was thinking about, which must always be a secret between them. It was a strange way in which to begin a relationship.
In his room, he stood gazing again at the South Downs. They looked cold, empty and indifferent. What did it matter? What did any human trouble matter? One person in forty million. He became conscious of the world moving round him, a vast company compared to which he was the size of a gnat. He felt cold and grim himself. Damn the allowance!
Two things he must do at once. First, see Marian. He was much afraid that when she learned what had happened she would revolt—he took it she was that kind-—and come out with the truth, cost what it might. But there was no real sense in that, the thing having been done, and done thoroughly. He conceived her to be a good woman in spite of everything, and did not want to be re-established at the price such a confession would imply. Then the outside world became audible again. Rather intriguing this time, with a note of invitation that seemed to dare him to come out of shelter, turn up his sleeves and demonstrate what he could do for himself.
“I’ve been a bit of a slacker,” he admitted, addressing the South Downs, “and I’ve never done a stroke. Too comfortable. I’m a consumer—that’s it. No real value in me, if it comes down to brass tacks. Why shouldn’t I take my shirt off and go to it?”
He was in this mood when he saw his father’s figure below, pacing the wide drive that swept along the lawn. It was rather pathetic and lonely. Duncan knew what his father was thinking about, too, with his new love, and his family pride, and his sense of shock and outraged decency all battling together. Well, the boy proposed to protect his father now, a reversal of all the years during which he had been protected himself. It was while he watched, wrinkling his young brows and rather piqued with the idea, that h e realized this was the one chance to speak to Marian. Instantly he went to her door, and tapped.
“Who is it?” The voice was faint and uncertain.
“Duncan. I want to speak to you a minute, now, quickly.”
The door opened, and he saw her in a dressing gown, her face tear-stained, not the radiant woman of the dinner table, but an older one, weary, wan, with the drawn look of those who pass through deep waters.
“Marian!” He spoke rapidly, his ears tuned for a step in the lower hall, “I’ve had a split with the governor. It’s all right from your end. Don’t do anything—absolutely. If he says anything about me-—but I don’t think he will because it would hurt him too much—just you say that you’re sorry, and let it go at that. I’m off to-morrow.”
She trembled, putting her hand to her breast. “Why? I don’t understand.”
“Don’t try. You love him, don’t you? I mean, completely.”
“Yes, Duncan, I love him like that.”
“That’s all I want to know, and it makes everything all right. I love him, too, and that’s the reason I’m going. And it’s the reason why you’ll do nothing and ask no questions. Can you trust me?”
Her gaze searched his with a dawning perception of what must have happened. How young and brave he was, with his brown eyes very large and earnest, his square face illuminated into a sort of beauty by the fire of a great decision.
“Quickly!” he repeated. “Promise me! You’re going to be happy. So is father. Help me to help him and you. I’m going to be happy, too. This will clear up, if we only give it time and play the game. I’m going to be something now, and not merely exist. On my honor I am. Now promise!”
She looked at him, her soul in her eyes. “I promise,” she whispered.
The sound of a door closing below, closing deliberately, as by the hand of a very abstracted man. Duncan leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek.
“Good luck—and don’t worry about me. God bless you—both.”
MOAT HOUSE, held a strange triangle that night. When Seymour finally came upstairs, he was uncertain whether to speak to Marian now or let the thing stand till morning had come and Duncan gone. Perhaps that would be wisest. But his thoughts of these two gave him no peace. It seemed that he had gained Marian at the cost of a son.
His memory went back, vividly, poignantly, and he saw Duncan years and years ago, with a bigger boy, on ponies, small, graceful, restless figures full of an inextinguishable life, with Duncan never so happy as when he was doing as nearly as possible what Eric did, the two of them circling, constantly, about a graceful woman to whom they meant the crown of existence. Two of the three had passed on now, and since that happened Duncan had been doubly dear. Then, inevitably, he found his own friends, and Moat House saw less of him. Seymour stood that as long as he could, till he met Marian, and that meeting was something irresistible and significant. Up to that time, he had not thought of marrying again. He was lonely-—yes—but had grown used to it. Then, when he found Marian, loneliness became unbearable.
There had been no campaign on her part. She made no effort to attract, because she attracted most men without effort. She had told Duncan only the truth that evening. Seymour, when she met him, gave her a sense of ease, calm and security. He seemed to be an unpassionate man, and to her, whose unwelcome destiny it had been to arouse men’s passions-—though she never desired to, this meant an enormous assurance. So, because he was mild, and naturally affectionate and would enable her to live as she had always wanted to live; and because she saw the opportunity to achieve that partial privacy which a clever woman can establish for herself in her own house, she was happy when Seymour took the path so many men had taken before him. That was her side of it. Seymour’s was rather different. He felt like a conqueror. He thrilled with suddenly wakened emotion—or capacity for emotion—which he thought was ended long since. Marian congratulated herself that she had done with it, but to him there was something triumphant in marrying such a woman. It meant that he was not getting old, and that in order to be attractive to women it was not necessary-—for him, at any rate— to be on the right side of fifty. And for weeks, he had looked forward with increasing pride to showing Duncan what his father had pulled off.
Well, he had shown Duncan, and, pacing the gravel in front of Moat House, he was conscious of a violent disruption. Could it be, he asked himself suddenly, that the sob he had heard and the utter sorrow in her manner signified that Marian had made a mistake. Had something about Duncan made her wish that it was the son, not the father, she had married. He struggled with this for a moment, then put it away. Quite inconceivable! No, it could only be that she was bitterly wounded. So he must go to her, beg her not to be unhappy, and make it clear that now she was alone with him —and safe. Thus he argued, distraught between love and anger.
She was at her dressing table when his knock sounded.
“Yes, Rodney, come in.”
He put his arm round her, looking into the strained face.
“Darling, I want to be honest with you, always. I’ve had a serious difference with Duncan. I hate to have it happen the very day you get here, but you must promise me not to worry about it.”
How much easier for her, she thought if only he could have been less impulsive, and waited till next day. She revolted at being called to dissimulate so soon. But Duncan had left her no alternative, and, also, she was going to make the future justify everything. Duncan was young and strong, while she felt very old and tired, and not capable of facing the truth and its consequences. She was afraid she must look old to Seymour, too.
“I’m very sorry, Rodney.” Her voice sounded hollow.
“Yes, and—” he hesitated, “I beg you not to let it oppress you. In a way, dearest, I understand—knowing what I feel myself. But there was no alternative. We agreed about that.”
Her heart nearly stopped. What did he mean? Then, in a flash, she understood. He had heard something that—! Her lips were dry, but she could not escape his eyes. Did it mean that he knew-—and had forgiven her?
“I did not realize that Duncan was so impressionable, “he went on, picking his words with extreme care, “and when I taxed him with it—you see I had come to the drawingroom for you, and only caught a word or two, and came away at once-— he would not deny it. In fact he declined to say anything at all. I told him that— well—I spoke out very straight and even then he said nothing to excuse himself. What followed was inevitable, as between us. I had you to think of and protect. That was my first duty.” He put his arm around her shoulder. “I will always do that.”
It seemed to Marian that the very least word from her would be shameful. Nor was it possible to ask a single question without being doublefaced.
“I have come between you and Duncan,” she said tremulously.
“No, no! He will never come between you and me. You are upset now, but I did want to tell you just that to-night. In many ways, it is better for him that he should—should travel for a while. You’ll agree, won’t you? In spite of what’s happened he’s yours now, as well as mine. The boy went mad for a little while, that’s all. He’ll get over it before long.”
“I hope it will be all right very, very soon.” She felt that she would go mad herself if this continued. “Good-night, Rodney! I’m rather used up.”
He nodded, kissing her with a sort of compassion. “My dearest wife. Sleep now, and try and forget all this.”
The door closed softly, and Marian sat very still. A strange and unimaginable night this—the first in her new home. Strange that the son of the man she had married should so swiftly prove himself the finest man she had ever met. Strange that she should be weak enough to accept all this; that the one who did understand should be dispossessed, while the one who did not, should remain in a carefully protected ignorance for fear of what he might do if he knew. Would it not be better, in spite of everything, that he should know?
She fought with this for a tense moment, expecting, nevertheless, her surrender. What if Seymour, being told the truth, did not forgive? He might be the sort that condemns unexpectedly and savagely. Then she would have to go back to the old life of wear and tear and anxiety made infinitely more difficult by what had happened. Reputation in tatters—defenceless—legitimate prey! No, no, anything but that.
She lay awake for a long time thinking confusedly of how lives are altered by apparently the most insignificant events and how sometimes a thought takes possession of one becoming a very part of oneself, and stays always, ineffaceable and eternal. Duncan’s life was altered, and her own inward existence, and her husband’s. And all this, just because, two years ago, John Wragge had put his arms around her on a terrace on an Italian hillside, and then, being frightened for them both, she had persuaded him to dine at the ristorante instead of the Villa Solaro. It was the sort of ristorante where one might as well he on a desert island.
And, after that evening, she had not seen Wragge again, till she looked across from Seymour’s table at Florian’s, and observed him dining with Lois Chester. But Lois, she understood, was to marry Duncan.
DUNCAN’S car slid away from Moat House next morning. Having rather a lump in his throat, he did not look back, even at the turn in the drive. The rhododendrons were thickening in bud, rabbits hopped in the sun, a hen pheasant got up almost immediately beneath the car, and he could hear the dogs still talking about him, in the kennels, with a medley of whimpers and barking. He had been round to say good-by to them, not trusting himself to make any other adieux. Had he glanced back, he would have seen his father’s figure at a window. Nor did he ever know that Seymour’s arm was twitching with the desire to wave to him.
The problem now was Lois. She had to be told, and, to make sure they would not be disturbed, he asked her to sit in the car with him inside the gates of the Chester place. Also he had had a grotesque idea that, perhaps, when she heard the news she would stay in the car, come to town with him, and be married.
She got in, rested her arms on the wheel and regarded him curiously. He seemed very grim.
He had several times rehearsed what he should say, and always it sounded bald and insufficient. But he could think of nothing else.
“Look here, I’ve had a kickup with the governor and I’m clearing out for a while, anyway.”
He nodded. “Just like that, and I can’t say much more. It was —er—a private sort of thing, and we agreed to differ, that’s all.”
“It’s the new wife,” thought Lois to herself, “nothing else in the world.” Then, aloud. “But, Duncan, how did it begin? Can’t you tell me anything?”
“Sounds a bit brief, I know, but I can’t very well. One of those things when the least said soonest mended.”
Lois was quite sure now. “You’ve had a definite break with him?”
“I suppose you can call a two-thousand-a-year break pretty definite.”
“But, Duncan,” she expostulated, very startled, “you must tell me more. Don’t you think I’ve a right to know?”
“Matter of fact, you should know, but I’m rather sewn up. The governor, I’ve got to be fair to him, didn’t cut me off. I did that myself.”
“Sorry, but that’s just what I can’t explain because—well—there are others in it, and—” He took her hand, patting it in a large, reassuring fashion. “I dropped in to give you the cheerful tidings, and see if it made any difference as far as—well— you know—as far as you and I are concerned—I mean together.”
He blurted this out with a kind of assumed heartiness which was his way of camouflaging a very real anxiety. He felt, secretly, that it might make a great deal of difference. But, being really in love, he hung on desperately.
She answered his question with another, because it gave more time to think.
"Where are you going?”
“To Vancouver. Bit of property somewhere about there my mother left me. I may travel.”
“On what, Duncan?”
“I’ve a little, you know. I’ll sell this bus—no use for a bus out there, and—er— other things. You needn’t worry about that, and I expect the row will blow over. Just wanted to know that I was all right with you. First thing I thought of.”
That was exactly what she desired to avoid. She had the conviction that Marian was involved in this. Had Duncan objected to Marian? Or was Seymour jealous of his son? Remarried men of his age were apt to make themselves absurd in such matters. She knew very little about Marian, and was wishing she knew more, when it occurred to her that, probable, John Wragge could tell her, and it struck her now that Wragge had rather neatly avoided the subject that night at dinner. And if this thing promised to blow over, it would be a mistake to break with Duncan. Her brain was thus busy, when she realized that Duncan was looking at her very fixedly.
“I want to know where I stand, old thing? If you consider I’m too stony broke to be considered any longer, why out with it! It’ll hurt, but let’s get it over. Your lead!”
IT WAS strange, but she really liked him very much when he said that, liked the look on his plain square face, and came nearer than ever before to feeling for him something quite tender and genuine. And, in any case, there was no reason to be precipitate now. He would have Moat House some day. And when a man is dealing with a certain type of woman there is a disadvantage in being too obviously honest, too transparently single-minded. Duncan paid for that on this occasion.
“You don’t think that, just because your allowance has been stopped, I’m going to—?” She finished with a gesture, and smiled at him.
He kissed her, regardless of the chance of traffic.
“Gad! I hoped you’d say that, but didn’t dare expect it. You see, I’ve been a bit uncertain the last few weeks. Ridiculous, I know, but there you are.”
“Uncertain about me?”
"Dunno! Perhaps on account of that chap you dined with."
“John Wragge? You are ridiculous Duncan.”
“Well, didn’t I say I was? Nothing in it, eh?”
Lois trod warily, because of late she was convinced that there would be something in it the moment she allowed it. And John Wragge was very eligible. But now she only looked distinctly injured.
“Can’t you trust me, Duncan?”
“Of course. I’m an ass, I know, but— well—just now, especially, it’s awfully good to know how things stand. Of course,” he added, with one of his doggish grins, “it may take a bit longer, but that’s all.”
She nodded, sending him a quick sidelong look. “But what about your father, and his wife, and me, when we meet. We’re bound to, soon. Does she know about you and me?”
“Yes, she knows, and thought you might be over to dinner last night. But the governor hadn’t suggested that.”
“It will be awkward when your name comes up, as it must.”
“Don’t see why it should. As far as you’re concerned I’ve only taken a trip to British Columbia.”
“Is there nothing I can do to—to help matters?” she asked slowly.
He thought for a moment, scanning her smooth capable face. Of course, if she had come to dinner the thing wouldn’t have happened, that night anyway. Now, try as he might, he could not picture this girl and Marian ever becoming close friends. Why was that?
“I don’t think you can do anything, except be as nice as you can to Marian. She’ll need you—they both will.”
Her lids drooped a little. Odd that he should bring Marian in first! Twenty-four hours ago he had not even known her. Then, again, Lois remembered John Wragge.
“I’ll do anything you like, but I don't want to make any mistakes. Are they going to hit it off?”
“Yes,” he said; “completely.”
He looked at her with a very definite appeal in his face, wanting her to do or say something that would make it all easier—or anyway more encouraging—to go. The grotesque idea that she might come up to London with him had passed. No sign of anything like that. And a man who was dead broke could not very well suggest it.
“You love me, don’t you?” he jerked out.
She put her face up to his. “Of course, Duncan. You know that.”
“And you’ll write? A chap’s rather apt to get mislaid, when he goes out there.”
“Of course I’ll write, and you will to me, often. And probably,” she smiled at him cheerfully, “you’ll find it’s all a mistake and turn round and come back almost at once. Is Manders going?”
“Not much-—unless he walks. Manders will stay in the lights of London while I’m tracking grizzlies.”
He waited a little, but Lois, though loving, was also quite composed. Of course, he said to himself, he didn’t want her to cut up rough. But still-—. Then after another long look in which he searched her eyes hungrily, he gave a laugh that sounded rather reckless.
“I’ve simply got to push along, old thing. There’s a heap to do. Going to realize on my assets, so all of the best till we meet again. You’ll get reports pretty often, and—and I’ll hope to find you here.”
His lips clung to hers, till he found himself pushed gently away. Lois had turned pale, and seemed frightened.
“You know, Duncan, you’re rather like a grizzly yourself.”
“I’ll be still more like one when we meet,” he said chokily. “Bless you always!”
He drove off, nearly ditching the car at the next bend, so long did he stare over his shoulder at the dwindling figure by the Chester gate. Then on, till rolling Sussex flattened into Surrey, and the edges of London began to spreadeagle into green fields. He was thinking very hard, conscious that a queer process was going on within him—something like things being pulled up by the roots— things that didn’t want to be pulled up, and he wondered what was to be planted instead. No fear presented itself, and he was rather breathless, being caught up in the pause which often intervenes between shock and the beginning of pain, and he rather anticipated that he would feel worse later on. But if Lois only stuck to him, the whole thing might be a great adventure.
He lunched at his club, meeting various men to whom he disclosed the interesting news that he was going to America to shoot grizzly, and found it awkward when one of them offered to join him. The difficulty was, he explained, that his plans were too indefinite. The only person to whom he could have told part of the truth was Renwick, and then only if it was unavoidable. He wanted to evade Renwick, and felt rather a jolt when that young man hooked his arm in Piccadilly, and demanded to know why he was looking like a wandering sheep— or ram.
“Fact is,” hazarded Duncan, “I’m going to British Columbia for a while to —er—shoot grizzly.”
Renwick, better known as Bunny, took a long hard stare, which Duncan did not meet very successfully.
“Liar!” he said succinctly. “You didn’t know anything about it three days ago. Come and have a spot, and tell me the truth!”
“But it is the truth.”
“Have two spots.”
“I’ve sworn off,” grunted Duncan.
“Since lunch time. What’s up, old boy. Stomach trouble—no—you’re too young for that.”
“Nothing’s up. Do you want a butler-valet-chauffeur chap? I can let you have Manders.”
Now Manders was generally recognized in Duncan’s circle as the last thing in gentlemen’s gentlemen, a precious possession, one to be carefully guarded and never relinquished except in death. So at that remark, Bunny’s face took on a more serious look.
“And if you want a good bus, the real thing and pure wool, you can have mine for three-fifty. You know her.”
Bunny began to feel alarmed. That bus had to his knowledge cost twice this sum a month previously—a sleek full-throated racer that laid her nose to the ground and reeled off a flat hundred-and-ten an hour at Brooklands. Yet she looked like a lady, in Bond Street. And Duncan loved her with a great love.
“Sorry, old chap, I didn’t mean to rag. What’s on—or off?”
“Nothing the matter at all,” said Duncan largely, “and I am going to B.C. I’m not taking Manders, and I don’t want a car there. Do you find any reason in me now?"
“Cornin’ back ain’t you? You’ll want ’em both then.”
“Yes—er—I suppose so, but that can take care of itself. Other fact is, that I’m stony, and need the cash. Ever hear of that sort of thing before?”
Bunny was too wise to suggest what he wanted to suggest, that if a thousand was any use it was available at once. Duncan would only have got red in the face, and felt extremely embarrassed. So he stood, taking off his hat mechanically to people headed for the Academy, and waiting for further information.
None was forthcoming at the moment. Duncan was also busy taking off his hat, and regarded the procession with a meaningless stare that puzzled not a few of his passing friends. It began to express such an obvious animosity that Bunny steered him into Sackville Street, where they paused in front of a place of business whence their own clothing had but recently emerged. Duncan, noting where he was, wondered vaguely if Manders had overlooked this account in his estimate of two hundred. He must have.
“I’ll take the bus,” said Bunny. “Awfully sorry, old man.”
“Thanks—and if I were you I’d chuck the supercharger. It eats petrol, and doesn’t help.” He drew a little pattern on the pavement with his stick. “Governor and I agreed to differ. That’s all.”
“Governors are apt to do that. Mine is. I was cut off three times last year.”
Duncan was not impressed. “Of course there's Lois. I saw her this morning."
"All right with her, I assume?” He had I seen very little of Lois, but did not fancy her. Too tight in the mouth, he thought.
“Ye-es. And—er-—by the way, my governor’s been married.”
There was a pause, while Bunny formed the obvious conclusions. ‘Split over the new wife,’ he said to himself. Then, aloud. “Didn’t know that was in the wind. Who is she?”
“A Mrs. Harcourt—name is Marian— been a widow for some years.”
Duncan spoke slowly, his brain very active, this being his way of trying to find out if Bunny knew more than was good for him-—or Marian. He had been asleep when Duncan looked over the wall j of the Villa Solaro that afternoon two i years ago, and from where he sat in the ristorante for dinner he could not have seen much of Marian’s face. Another thing was that Duncan, after he had viewed the scene on the terrrace, felt so ashamed of being a peeping-Tom that he had never mentioned what he saw, even to Bunny. He was extraordinarily thankful for that now.
“Mrs. Harcourt?” Renwick’s voice held no note to arouse suspicion. “A pretty woman, forty or less, fair, sort of face you rather take to?”
“I met her a month ago—dinner at the Eldridges. I’d never seen her before. Voice has a sort of a catch in it. I say, your governor has picked a good looker.”
Duncan nodded. He knew what Bunny was trying to fathom, and that the odds were he would come to exactly the wrong conclusion. The thing was to try and prevent any conclusion at all.
“I like her very much. She speaks several languages and knows her way about. Just the right woman for him.”
He did it almost too well, but there was not a flicker in Bunny’s eyes. That young man’s thoughts were busily adding fact to fact with voiceless and automatic regularity. ‘Father-—widower—pretty widow i —unexpected marriage-—son engaged to pretty girl next door—new wife comes home-—son cut off—decides to shoot grizzly-—very expensive-—can’t do that if cut off—thinks he’s all right with girl-— sells car—sacks man-—hitch somewhere —where is it?’
“When are you off to-—ah—shoot?”
“Next week—soon as I can get away. Let me know about Manders, will you?”
“Yes, in a day or two. Good man, that. Suppose you haven’t room for another member on your—er—party, have you?”
“Sorry,” said Duncan with a grin. “List closed.”
“The last real luxury trip we had,” murmured Bunny reminiscently, “was in Italy, and the best part of that along the Ligurian coast. I remember the bus gave out on the climb from Santa Margherita to-—”
“And we slept next night at Genoa, didn't we?"
“Yes, filthy hole, too. I got fleas there. Look, here, dine at my rooms day after to-morrow. I’ll get some of our lot, and we’ll give you a push off.”
THERE was one visit he must pay, one that puzzled him, so he thought that that had better be got over at once, He rather funked it, because a very discerning person was involved, this being Miss Sarah Bannister, his mother’s elder sister. Miss Bannister, who was of limited means, very independent and extremely popular, lived in a very small house in Walpole Street, and thither Duncan now betook himself in a state of considerable uncertainty. Old eyes were apt to be sharp.
She was at tea, fortunately and unusually alone, kissed him affectionately, then sent him a very shrewd look.
“You’ve come to tell me something I know already. I heard from your father this morning.”
Duncan felt a slight shock. “What did you hear?”
“That he’d got back with his new wife. I thought he put it very neatly. He said you were to be there for dinner. So tell me about her. He seemed very happy.”
“I like her very much,” said Duncan, which was only the truth.
“Good lad—I’m glad you said that. You never did take sugar, did you? Will I like her—not that it matters much?”
“I’m sure you will.”
He felt, nevertheless, very uncomfortable. Sarah Bannister was a wise woman, with quick intuitive perceptions, whose powers had not suffered a whit with advancing years. Her friends thought they had even increased. Were it possible to go away without seeing her and telling his story over again, Duncan would have been thankful. But with him she came next to Lois and his father.
“From all I hear,” she went on, “he seems to have been very wise. She’s quite lovely, eh, Duncan? I’ve heard that from others as well as him.”
“You realize, of course, that she’ll depend upon you a good deal?”
He put down his cup. “Why?”
“If you were a woman, I wouldn’t have to explain, but your attitude will be very important to her. You can think the rest out for yourself. So if you can do so comfortably I’d spend a little more time at Moat House than in the past.”
“That’s just what I can’t do,” he said, his face very troubled, and at once found himself laboring through his thrice-told tale. The old lady did not interrupt once. But her eyes never left his, and when he finished there was an additional wrinkle on her white brow.
She did not speak for a moment. Her natural wisdom told her that something had gone far wrong, and, however he might put it, the trouble did not lie altogether with Duncan. She loved the boy for himself, as well as for his mother’s sake and loved him more for what she had always found in him. She liked to think that his instinctive honesty was a Bannister trait.
“It’s quite a wonderful story, lad,” she said. “How much do you expect me to believe?”
That cornered him, so he threw himself on her mercy and understanding. “It’s all I can tell you, Tante.” He was smiling, but she knew the symptoms. Whenever in the past she had got that far, she used to let the matter drop, and trust to his instincts. It was hard, however, to do that now.
"Does Lois know?"
“Yes, I told her this morning on the way up.”
“You’re going to the place on the Pacific coast your mother left you?”
He nodded. “Yes, and, leaving out the rest of it, don’t you think it’s a good idea I should do a bit of work?”
“Work never hurt anyone, Duncan, but that’s not what I’m thinking about.”
“If I said to you that I have no regrets, and would do exactly the same thing over again, would that make any difference to you?”
“Stiff-backed young men always talk like that, my dear, but it might, if I knew just what has happened. You’ve come here and told an old woman what you think is best suited to the occasion. I don’t blame you for that, because all my friends think they know what is best for me. But I’m not too old yet to be very curious, and, of course, disappointed.”
He captured her hand, and began to stroke it. “I’ve always come to you—for ever so long—since mother died—and I’ve told you what I would have told her. Of course if she’d been alive this wouldn’t have happened, but—” He stopped abruptly, having said more than he meant to.
Sarah Bannister had a glimmer of light, but was far too wise to betray it.
"Go on, lad."
“You want to help me, don’t you?”
“Silly boy, why should you think that?”
“Well, you can help most by letting me down easy, and no questions. You know, and Lois, and Bunny, and father, and and Marian—that’s her name. Isn’t that enough?”
She put her dainty head a little on one side. “And which of us knows all about it—everything?”
He wanted to tell her that only Marian knew, but the ice was too thin for that, and, searching his face, she felt quite suddenly assured that he was animated by something fine and unselfish. In such a case, she argued, the future would probably be well with him. She was very experienced, sometimes a shade cynical, and knew a great deal about people which was not generally known, because so many of her friends found themselves unexpectedly telling her things they had not meant to tell anyone. But they always rested with her. Underneath all this, she had an abiding faith in a few soundly working first principles, one of which was, that the individual very rarely suffered in the long run by reason of anything deliberately done with good motives.
It was in her head now that Duncan was playing the part of Christopher, and for some unexplained reason had loaded himself with a burden not fairly his. In a sort of way he suggested a Crusader. So she decided to accept the first invitation to go to Moat House, and do a little prospecting on her own account. Then, remembering that he had not answered her questions, she perceived that he did not mean to. And at that something whispered that youth must be served.
“What can I do to help, lad?”
“Write to me, and tell me all you can about Lois.”
“I’ll do that. You won’t mind if a word slips in about myself?”
He grinned. “And illustrated papers. I can stand quite a lot.”
“Very well. What are you going to do out there?”
He waved an impressive hand. “Oh, break in the country—a bit of it—that sort of thing.”
“Duncan,” she said quietly, “I won’t be asking you any more questions for a while, so answer me just this once. Are you convinced you’re doing absolutely the right thing?”
This meant to her, that in the process he would develop himself, because that generally happened, and again she was comforted by the thought that it could do no harm. Possibly a lot of good.
He looked straight into her face, exactly as she had hoped, which he invariably did when very much in earnest.
“Dead certain, Tante.”
“I feel better now. What about money?”
“I’ve enough, thanks.”
“I wonder. You’d say that anyway. I wish I could give you a cheque.”
“That end of it’s all right,” he said cheerfully. “The governor, you know; but it won’t hurt me to pull in my horns a bit. And you don’t wear horns out there.” It was a little contradictory, but she assumed that his allowance had been continued. So the break could not be complete.
“How did Lois take it?”
“Frightfully well,” he said loyally. “She’s all right, and I’m going to find her there when I get back.”
Miss Bannister had her doubts, having seen much further into that young person than most others. Also, there were, she believed, two million more women than men in England, which to her judgment was a very eloquent fact, and she assumed that Lois would not wait longer than quite convenient. This engagement, if such it was, had never appealed to Duncan’s aunt, and she privately hoped it was only a temporary affair.
“When will you get back?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Dunno— suppose it depends a good deal on what I find out there.”
“You mean you might stay?” She sent him a twinkling glance. “Duncan, you know that’s absurd.”
“Well, anyway,” he said, in the sage manner that youth so often affects, “it isn’t a bad idea to get away from things for a while. They look different when you come back. I say, Tante, I must get along. Heap of jobs to do.”
“Will you write to me—soon? I’ll miss you, lad, and I’m not happy about you.”
“Yes, at once. Needn’t worry about me. I’m as right as rain.”
She put her hand on his arm. “You see, my dear, you always meant a great deal to me, and after your mother died you meant more. I talk a lot, my friends say, but really I’m a lonely old woman.”
“You’re a trump and always were, and it’s sporting of you to take this without saying anything more, though I did see you gulp a bit.” An odd gravity came into his expression, and he gave his head a little jerk. “I can say one thing about it that might help.”
“Then say it, lad. I need it.”
“I’m doing what both the mater and Eric would approve of, if they knew. Now I’m off to tackle a grizzly.”
“Thank you, Duncan, and I’m sure you’ll kill hundreds of them if you’re as determined as you look now.”
She watched him from the window, waving her hand at his salute, and, when his car was out of sight, felt that something young, and fine, and fresh, had been taken from her. She adored the boy, admired his code, and was proud of the fact that half of him was Bannister. She had perceived, long since, that the son was of stronger stuff than his father, and sometimes wished that for his own sake he would get to work and show what she knew was in him. But she had never preached, believing that youth had unconscious and mysterious ways of finding it own salvation. So, from that angle, all this might prove a blessing in disguise.
Duncan, feeling somewhat at a loss, spent the rest of the day in an aimless fashion. There was so much to do, that he was not sure where to begin. On former occasions he simply told Manders where they were going, and by what train. Manders did the rest.
The flat would be let furnished, because to sell out would suggest that there was more on foot than a mere shoot. But he had a few pictures that ought to bring decent prices, and he would need the money. After squaring up, he reckoned he would have five or six hundred pounds to the good.
He went to the British Columbia offices in the Haymarket, and stared admiringly at huge jars of bottled peaches, lumps of mineral and enormous sections of timber. The country must be stuffed with potential wealth. He saw pictures of fruit farms with laden orchards, salmon canneries and pulp mills. The young man behind the counter was a British Columbian and a walking encyclopedia.
“What part do you want to go to?” he asked.
Duncan hesitated, not wanting to go. The young man, noting the cut of his tweeds, his build and general out of door air, came to the inevitable conclusion. Lots of that type came to talk to him, and all about the same thing.
“There’s no better sport anywhere. Most any kind.”
“Elk and grizzly, if that’s big enough.” He took a long pointer and indicated on a huge map against the wall the western coast above Vancouver. “Either in the mountains or along there. Up those narrow bays, they’re like fjords, very deep and miles long. We call them Arms. You find the game on the foothills a couple of thousand feet up.”
Duncan stayed, talking and questioning, till the office closed, and went off, his pocket stuffed with circulars and a new taste in his mouth. Then after parking the car in St. James Square, he dined at his club, and sat in the smoking-room brazenly consulting the circulars, to the envy of a dozen men around him. So back to the flat, Manders and reality.
To be Continued