Wherein a Driver takes a mate and a butterfly begins to realize that even a gilded cage has bars
The story: At school John Driver was a sturdy and dominant youth hut coldly practical. Once he fought a bigger boy named Tennant and the latter was glad to have the encounter called a draw.
Returning to the Black Country, where his grandfather owns the great Driver steel mills, John begins, with great energy, to learn the business which he will inherit.
Near-by lire the Burstalls, who supply the coal for the steel p'anl. John’s grandfather wishes him to marry Meg Burstall, who secretiy loves him, but John has always regarded her merely as a sister.
Meg Burstall receives visitors— Auriol Burt, a pretty but fragile girl, and the latter’s suitor, the same Tennant whom John Drive, once fought at school. The three of them visit the plant, and when Auriol gets lost and frightened sh< is comforted by John himself, attired in workman’s clothes.
John falls instantly and overwhelmingly in love with dainty Àuriol and she reciprocates. Auriol tells Meg that she is going to marry John, and Meg, in her proud way, hides her grief.
JOHN, next day, walked about not between converters and blaat furnacea, but among rosy clouds. He traversed not steel floors, but Elysian fields. He saw familiar things through a mist. He perceived not the sharp odor of foundry sand with its acrid, penetrating taste, but the perfumed breath of a newly discovered paradise.
He had left word with the housekeeper about dinner, and as his grandfather had now ceased early hours at the works, it was nearly midday when he saw the old man talking to a shift boss and pointing with his stick at a new machine in the pattern shop. John waited till he was alone, then joined him.
"Well, young man, did you beat the whistle this morning?"
"When will that new converter be on the blow?" "Now— will you come?”
Old James moved deliberately, sniffing as he went. All so familiar, yet, in a way, greatly changed. Installations were bigger. Fewer men about, though the output had doubled in ten years. Presently they stopped near the great truncated, pear-shaped mass of the new converter.
The blow was on. It roared. It bellowed. In a frenzy of heat and power, it vomited long, living, leaping flames. Its incandescent guts reduced solids to fluids. Mineral and metal, laid in the womb of the earth a million years ago, were here broken down, and changed, and ran together like mingling waters. Iron became no longer iron, but steel; steel that simmered like soup, that was poured into ladles like soup, that would be recast, and hammered, and beaten, and forged into a thousand ultimate shapes and uses. A goggled metallurgical chemist watched the changing colors of the vomited flame, another human in a steel cage directed the massive fingers that whisked away the seething caldrons, and, save for these two, hardly a man was visible.
Old James Driver, pressing his lips tight, turned to John with voiceless understanding. It was big and fine; bigger and finer than anything foreshadowed in his dreams. Fifteen tons to a charge, and actually better stuff. The testing room proved that. And it was Driver stuff! Men might make other things and do well out of them, but they’d leave mighty little mark behind to
show for it. Not like that with iron and steel. But you neededthe stuff in your blood to do the trick. He had it. All the dead Drivers had it. And now, by heaven, the boy was showing himself the best of the lot. Thus ruminated old James,
coming perhaps more near to emotion than ever before in his life. Then he waited to hear what John had to say about it.
"I’ve asked Meg and her mother and two friends to dinner tonight,” said John, just as the converter began to pour.
"Eh—what?” The old ears were not what they used to be.
John repeated it. His grandfather, catching something about Meg and dinner, gave him one of his rare wintry smiles.
“Good—that’s good-fine girl—glad she’s coming.”
John felt confused. The thing would have to be put right, but not here. One couldn’t roar into a dull old ear explanations about the most wonderful girl in the world with a big travelling gantry rumbling like a thousand of brick over head.
James Driver, for his part, was greatly encouraged. It was so seldom that John suggested anything of this sort. The Burstall mines! Not a word had been said about them, and now. looking up thoughtfully at the great gantry, he gave a little grunt of satisfaction. Things were apt to come round if one didn’t try and force them, and he would die quite contentedly if this matter were arranged. Burstall to Driver, coal to iron, youth to youth—that was the ticket.
“You’ve arranged about dinner—something special, eh?”
"Yes, sir, that’s all right.”
They walked on, each caught up in his secret thoughts, each holding close to himself that which the other would soon discover. Men’s glances followed them as they went, the young ones eyeing John with a sort of companionable pride. He would be their boss for many a year to come. Older ones watched James Driver, their boss for many a year past, reckoning that, like themselves, he couldn’t stick it much longer. One lot of them shared hope, ambition, anticipation. The other, the grey heads, had memories, and what little might be left of the immediate present.
“Last night I met a fellow I’d been to school with,” said John, when they reached a quieter spot. “Name is Tennant. Lives in London. He’s coming.”
"What’s his business?” Old James always asked this first.
“I don’t think he has any; can afford to live without one.”
His grandfather dissented. No man could afford that.
“Then who is he?”
“Friend of a friend of Meg’s.”
The old man, dismissing Tennant, turned to his own flesh and blood.
“Why don’t you take a month off, with everything running so smoothly? You’ve earned it. We’re well up to our contracts.”
John grinned at him.
“Perhaps I will, a littl later.”
“You’ve been saying that for five years.”
“I mean it, this time. One or two things to settle first.”
“I’ll settle ’em.”
John shook his head, looking so secretive and knowing that once again the old man, hugging his delusion, assured himself that at long last everything was coming right. That took him into abstruse thoughts about company amalgamation and property values. Having had about enough of work and loadcarrying himself, he decided to do the thing handsomely. John would be general manager, with a good, sound, cold-nosed board of directors to steady him—the youngest man in such a position in all Britain. And a Driver. He chuckled at the very idea of it.
“What’s amusing you, sir?”
“Something I was thinking about that I’m going to settle soon.”
“Can I settle it for you?” smiled John.
“Not this time, lad; not thi3 time ”
He went off, making queer little sounds in his dry old throat and sliding his stick ahead of him over the smooth iron floor.
AURIOL, sharply conscious that she was going up for inspection, said very little on the way to the Driver house. Considering how well Meg and her mother must have known the old man, it was strange, she thought, they should have so little to say about him. Such tentative enquiries as she had felt safe in throwing out had gleaned hardly anything. But, she reflected, he was old; so old that whatever attitude he took could not count much for long. That was one comfort.
Never before had she entered a mansion like this, and it staggered her. The first impression was one of great spaces, illuminated by hard naked light, vistas of huge furniture, enormous chairs in which one slid about without coming to rest. The drawing-room, in which old Jame3 awaited them, had a prodigious marble mantel, glaring white like the mouth of a mausoleum. A great cryscal chandelier, studded with unshaded bulbs, hung from the ceiling, and in its blaze he stood stiffly; a relic of the past in his cylindrical frock coat, narrow, tightly folded tie, and square-toed patent leather shoes, his shock of white hair as snowy as the marble behind him. To Auriol he was something new, strange and rather fascinating. But when they were introduced his hand felt like a claw. John had whispered that his grandfather knew nothing—as yet. He hovered about, afraid to be attentive, but devouring her with his eyes.
“You’re looking well, James, and just the same,” said Mrs. Burstall.
“Ay, I’m well, what’s left of me. John’s doing most of it now.” He glanced about, rubbing his dry palms together. “It’s good to see some youth in the house.” Then, to Auriol: “You’re a stranger in these parts, Miss?”
“Yes, but it’s awfully interesting. I’ve known Meg for years.”
“The works; your works,” she said, not a little startled. “We spent an hour there yesterday.”
“An hour! Tck-tck!” He shrugged his old shoulders. “Well, I suppose it’s not in your line. But Meg knows ’em; knows ’em like a book. And you saw John?”
“Just for a minute.” She was aware that Meg was standing very sail.
“Looks a bit cleaner now. eh?” He turned to Tennant. “And you, sir? Your first visit, too?”
“Just for a few days, Mr. Driver. I’m off on Monday —back to London. I live there.”
Old James took that very lightly.
“London—well, we make our money here and keep it in London. There wouldn’t be so much London without the Black Country. Fifteen years since—”
He was interrupted by a hollow metallic roar from the hall that made the two Londoners jump. That gong, a three-foot disc of beaten copper, had sounded in Driver ears for the past half century. But they had no nerves. John, the modernist, had never liked it, but to old James it used to come as music. Now he made Mrs. Burstall a stiff little bow, and took her hand. John, coming last with Auriol, winked at her.
“Don’t be afraid of him,” he whispered. “Talk back. He’s used to it.”
They sat at the Olympian table, isolated one from the other by an expanse of mahogany, Mrs. Burstall on James Driver’s right, Auriol on John’s. John put out his foot but it would not reach. Auriol, he thought, looked fairylike; Tennant very Londonish. He wondered where Tennant got his clothes. Meg had more color than usual, and rallied him on avoiding her in the works. For the first time in his life he considered that she was acting a little affectedly.
Auriol, taking the cue, talked a good deal to the old man in a light silvery voice that was rather penetrating, expatiating on her travels, which had not been extensive, and telling him how she had enjoyed this and that. Also, she assured him, she had never been more interested than she was yesterday. An hour in such a place, she knew very well, was nothing, and she would like to go again—with him.
“Why?” asked old James abruptly, and under no illusions at all.
That confused her, and hastily John came to the rescue, only to discover that his grandfather was not to be diverted.
“It’s not in your blood, Miss.
Anyone can see that. You’d be
off your natural ground. It isn’t that you’re not welcome because you are, but you’ve got to have iron in you, or” —here he glanced shrewdly at Meg—“or coal to get the thing.”
John smiled at her understanding^', signalling that he wanted her just as she was, the less iron and coal about her the better. There would, he realized, be some difficulty in making the old man see this, but he was too full of ardor and confidence to worry about that now. Then Auriol, by some fortunate instinct, asked who started the works and why and when, being driven to this because she could think of nothing else. That was James’ favorite topic, and it kept him occupied for some time.
rT"*HE meal progressed, heavily, inflexibly. The great cups and salvers and punchbowls, polished to a crystalline brilliancy, gleamed from the huge sideboard. Enormous dishes heaped with food came and went in Brobdingnagian procession, while the pantry behind the tall leather screen yielded more food, and still more. John knew instinctively that there was something wrong about this, but it was the custom of the house when guests were present, and he had no power to change it. Dead Drivers looked formidably down from their big gilt and carven frames in solemn agreement. It had been their custom, too. The night was warm, and through the open windows drifted a dull drone from the works, broken by sharp staccato clangings, startling to the visitors but perfectly understood by their hosts. And over them all leaned the old Driver house, a Black Country castle, the home of labor and effort and resolution and accumulated wealth, and no nonsense about it.
John, thinking very hard about the girl he was going to make his, forced himself to talk to Meg.
“Sorry about yesterday,” he said. “I was in a fearful rush and hadn’t a minute.”
“It’s all right. I quite understand.” Then in a lower tone and with a glance at Auriol. “Pretty, isn’t she?” He nodded.
“I want you to tell me about her.”
“Interested?” This with a smile that he quite misread. John leaned toward her.
“More than that! Meg, can you keep a secret?”
“I—I think so,” she murmured, feeling a knife in her breast.
“Then later; not now. I want to talk about her. You’ll understand; you always have.”
“Yes; later.” He just caught it, because the room had
begun to swim and she felt faint. She made a prodigious effort, steadied herself, and heard Tennant describing his fight with John at school It had tickled the fancy of old James, who listened, nodding with umused approval. It was news to him. Auriol was looking at John in a way that she had always found very effective. It expressed admiration, and a sort of wonder that the thing could be true, and the conviction that it could be true of him alone. Meg could not have looked like that at any man. It was too petitionary.
“But,” concluded Tennant, “measuring him now, I wouldn’t chance it again.”
John laughed, feeling very generous toward everyone.
“You’d be perfectly safe. I’ve only got one kind of science. No art about me, I’m afraid.”
“No, thanks. You’d uncork something unexpected. Come up to town for a few days, and we’ll see the real thing.”
“I will—some time,” said John, surprising himself very much.
“Then bring Mrs. Burstall and Meg. Auriol and I will do the rest.”
It was natural and excellently meant, but John’s temples reddened a little. Auriol tinkled her agreement, but the corners of her mouth were quivering. Difficult, thought John, darned difficult! They would all know soon, and now he wished that they knew already. He decided that before the evening was over he would tell Meg, and let it filter on to the others through her. Then he would face his grandfather. He would like to be sure just what impressions the old man was gathering—if any.
Dinner came to a not unwelcome end so far as John was concerned. Mrs. Burstall went into the drawingroom with the two girls, and John talked to Tennant about school days, there being, it seemed, very little else in common. The old man, sitting between them, moistened his lips with Driver port laid down when the works employed only three hundred men, and glanced at these two young faces. They made him feel his age, and he did not like it. There was a lot about John for which, he thought, Tennant would be much the better. But it wasn’t all on one side. John was too grave for his years, too ready to load himself up with burdens he would find it hard to get rid of. Tennant didn’t seem to know what work meant, but did John know what anything else meant? Of a sudden the headof the Driver family emptied both his glass and his mind.
“John, I’ve been thinking. You go to London and spend a week with your friend. I meun it, because I didn’t do that sort of thing myself. Too close to the grindstone like you, and couldn’t see anything beyond it. You can't—through a grindstone. When you’ve had your fling, send for Meg and her mother. The rest—well, you’re no fool, lad, you’re no fool. And the works will run whether you’re there or not. I wus too blind to see that for myself in time. You’ll doubtless agree, Mr. Tennant?”
There was cheerful agreement, the more cheerfql because it cleared up in Tony’s mind the matter of John and Auriol. Meg was the chosen one. His observation had been busy since he came to this house. One could
imagine Meg mistress here, Meg with her calm and poise and judgment, and the kind of sanity of nature that could not be really oppressed by physical things. But Auriol! Auriol in this setting? Unthinkable!
“John can’t come too soon for me,” he said. “I’ll look forward to meeting him there.”
Later, in the drawing-room, he was very attentive to Auriol, while John managed a few tense moments with Meg. He noticed, as soon as he began, that she was a little remote, as though she had put aside something important in order to listen. Not in any way cool or casual; just remote.
“What is it, Meg? Anything happened?”
"Isn’t that what you wanted to tell me?”
He nodded, surprised yet thankful that she was so direct.
“How did you know?”
“One does, sometimes. Well, John?”
“You always did understand me,” he said buoyantly. “I feel —well, I can’t tell you how I feel. It all seemed to happen in a flash the minute I saw her. That’s why I didn’t speak to anyone else. Meg, she’s wonderful! I can’t believe it.”
“I can,” answered Meg out of a strange calm.
“I knew you would. It’s all the more exciting because we don’t really know anything about each other. We’ve got to explore. You know.” He took a long breath. It was fine to have Meg to talk to like this. And there never had been any secrets from her. “That dinner was rather awful, I thought, but she’ll change all that. How do you think she got on with my grandfather?”
“Are you anxious?”
“It wouldn’t make any real difference, but I \Cant things to go smoothly. For the last two or three years he’s been hinting about my getting married, but I’ve always laughed at him. Now the laugh’s on me. It doesn’t leave him very much to say, does it?”
Thus young John to the girl who had loved him all her life, feeling it wonderful to be able to let himself go like this; while to Meg it was like being killed by inches. Then, in a voice that she hardly recognized as her own, she talked about Auriol, remembering that John wanted to hear only one sort of thing. And all the time something beat in her breast, slowly and still more slowly, like the death of u wounded bird.
JOHN’S guests went uway early for several reasons.
The house itself didn’t seem to invite late hours; suggested in a massive and rather formidable fashion that half past ten was late enough for anyone who had a real purpose in life. Meg felt distrait and locked up. Auriol realized that there was no chance of a tête-à-tête; and John, aching to have his arms round her, was desperately anxious to put the thing to his grandfather. In the hall, saying good-by, he could only squeeze her arm, and whisper how much he loved her. Then back to the drawing-room where old James stood like a basalt column with a frosted top in front of the great white mantel.
"Well, sir?” John blurted.
“Hope you thought everything went all right.”
"Ay; why shouldn’t it?”
“ Twas a sort of special occasion for me,” said John, lifting his dark head. “Probably you didn’t guess that.” “Well,” smiled the old man, “perhaps I’m better at guessing than you think. Come along. Out with it!” "Then I’ve taken you at your word, sir. I want to get married.” He got this off with a sort of shaky triumph. How extraordinary it sounded!
“Hah!” His grandfather, inflating his chest, looked very pleased. “Come to it at last, have you?”
“Well, you’ve taken your own time about it, though perhaps that’s all the better. She’s a fine girl, lad; nothing finer. A bit quiet tonight, I thought, but no doubt she was thinking hard. There’s a brain inside that head of hers, and a rare bit of human nature. Go on, tell me the rest, then I’ll tell you something. I’m only wondering what made you so blind all these years.”
John opened his mouth wide, but there seemed to be no air to breathe. There stood old James with a little flush in his dry cheeks, looking younger and more cheerful than in years past, yet he was all wrong—horribly and disastrously wrong— and it would be easier to cut a fossil out of the solid rock than to put him right.
“What has the girl to say about it, eh? Tck-tck! I suppose you’ve settled all that.” He laughed dryly. “Well, there are different ways of doing things, and you’re doing as much for the works as any of those that went before you. Didn’t guess that, did you?”
John’s brain had begun to swim. He blinked. Old James had straightened his shoulders, and was standing, eyes half shut, as though peering at something. He seemed to be having a vision. Then he looked at John, who might have been, so far as the look went, new and strange and oddly significant.
"Driver iron from Burstall coal! Lad, lad, you’ve
turned the trick at last! Now ’twill be Driver iron and Driver coal !”
John, gaping at him, felt as though something big and heavy and irresistible had rolled over Auriol and flattened her. He hated that. He began to be hot instead of dizzy, and was glad, because there was going to be a terrible row in a minute. So the Burstall mines went with Meg! One might have guessed it, but John hadn’t. He had never wanted Meg as he wanted Auriol. Too much like marrying one’s sister. And the old man was figuring on the mines! What had they to do with love? But one had to say something-and quickly, too. He braced himself, chin thrust out a little, his face a bit flattened. Tennant would have recognized the expression.
“Sorry, sir, but you’re mistaken. It’s the other girl !”
James Driver put his lean head on one side, and stood very still; looking, it seemed, into middle space, then at John, then back into space again. He might have been pondering a problem with which John was but remotely connected. New lines deepened in the concavity of his cheeks. Finally he gave a snort. The reflective frown between the white brows hardened to a scowl.
“Not that bunch of feathers!” he rasped.
John started, choked, and took hold of himself with a grip of steel. He was outraged! He felt like the new converter when a blow was on. Then, and equally suddenly, remembering the kind of man he faced, and anticipating every argument that would be hurled at him, he became absolutely quiet. That was the Driver way. 'Twas in the Driver blood. If you were in a hole, keep cool ! If things blew up or broke down, keep your head ! Before you could master things, you must master yourself. If you had to overcome a difficulty, begin by despising it. He looked at his grandfather.
“I’m sorry you said that, sir.”
The old man liked him for this, and felt just a twinge of regret. But it made no real difference. He, too, was outraged. Auriol had been to him like a piece of glass, and he saw clean through her. Too ready to agree. Too full of little remarks of wonder and compliment that she doubtless thought were effective and pretty. Too shallow of mind and body. No wife for a Driver. Nothing there for a tired man to come home to. No real stuff in her. And he loved John. The works wouldn’t mean what they did could he not picture John in the middle of them, doing the old job in his new and better way. But the job would suffer if the boy didn’t marry the right girl. So he slid his arm into John’s, and steered the stiff young body across to the open window.
They looked, both of them silent, into the valley; and the works signalled back that all was well down there. Cupolas stabbed the night with spears of flame. Came the clang of metal on metal. In the glare of the electrics, pigmy skips crawled up skeleton tracks. A trainload of Burstall coal was picked up, wagon by wagon, and dumped into towering bins. No human hand came near it. A slag heap glowed faintly. Coke ovens were being charged by a mechanical monster with a prehensile arm of steel. Two thousand men were there, but not one of them visible. And all this had taken birth because, a century and a half previously, a certain black-browed, thick-jointed Driver had fashioned handmade, wrought-iron chain at a forge that stood somewhere about the present site of the converter house. Which meant everything to old James.
John knew it, too. It was, in fact, one of his earliest memories, that story being his first inheritance. And now the old man was, so to speak, throwing the works at him, putting the works and their future against what he had called a bunch of feathers, hoping to displace Auriol by their mass and momentum. Well, let him hope! He wasn’t in love, and probably never had been.
“Think it over, lad; think it over.” The pressure on his arm tightened a little.
John nodded. He hadn’t changed his resolution a fraction, but he didn’t want to hurt anyone, and just now had a touch of that curious feeling, half pity, half philosophy, that sometimes comes to youth when it looks at familiar old age with the consequence of how little further age can run. And there was another feeling with it—that somehow he would always remember this moment. They seemed so oddly near each other in spite of the difference.
“I’ll take that week off,” he said quietly.
That was all. No further talk. The matter of Meg versus Auriol was set aside. Old James would have liked in a general way to say something about the advantage of taking over the Burstall mines, so that John could think it over while at leisure. But he didn’t. John would have welcomed the chance to talk about his girl, but had no intention of defending her. She didn’t need it. So he gave his grandfather a sort of quiet, noncommittal smile, and old James sent him one of exactly the same kind. This was a Driver habit, and apt to be misleading to others. Then each of them went to his great, cavernous bedroom, and stood at his own window, staring again at the works.
HTWO miles away, Auriol, ready for bed, sat curled up on a sofa in Meg’s room. She wished that John could see her now, because she looked just right, and ’twas a pity to waste it on another girl. She was like that with men, not hesitating to rouse instincts that she had no intention of gratifying. Of them all, Tennant was the only one who had taken her quietly.
Meg, at her dressing table, was having a bad half hour.
“He’s rather an old dear,” said Auriol, “and quite refreshing. I would have been frightened of him if John had not whispered to me to talk back. So I did, and we got on splendidly. I suppose he knows all about it now. I wonder how he took it?”
Meg, who could imagine that part of it, made no answer. Everything in life was upset, dislocated. She did not want to be the thing into which Auriol had developed, but Auriol had got John, so what was the matter with herself?
“Meg, I’d feel entirely different if you thought I’d been poaching. But you don’t, do you?”
“Fair game,” said Meg with a queer smile.
She was trying to despise herself for being hurt and jealous. But, being human, she couldn’t. With this came a sort of shame for having proved so ineffective. She found herself questioning her own standards of modesty and behavior and reserve—the qualities, in fact, that made her what she was. Too proud. She’d been too proud. That killed her allure—if she had any. Probably she hadn’t. The Burstall mines could, of course, buy her a husband at any time. At thought of that, she flushed, and Auriol saw it.
“Thinking about a husband for yourself, Meg?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps I was. There’s no one in sight—at the moment.”
“Then why not take Tony off my hands? You could do a lot worse. I’d be awfully glad because I’ve a sneaking suspicion that he’s not going to behave very well.”
The tinkling little laugh that followed was rather eloquent, and Meg understood at once. If John didn’t play about as would be expected of him, there was always Tony; and at this she got a vision, quite sharp, of John making steel in the Black Country, with Auriol and Tennant not missing much of each other in London.
“Just what do you mean by not behaving very well?” she said stiffly.
Auriol’s brows went up.
“My dear, why so grave? Tony’s in love with me. He always will be, and can’t help it. Neither can I, though I’m not in love with him. It’s happened before pretty often, but he’s the most chronic case. You may think him just gay and flippant, but that’s a mistake. Tony’s a sticker. I say I’m not in love with him—which is true —but I’m awfully fond of him and hate to hurt him. So if your fancy turns that way, I’ll give him a first-class certificate. Why not?”
“You suggest my marrying a man who will always be in love with you? Is that it?”
"Meg, has anyone ever had the nerve to tell you that you lacked humor?”
“I expect so,” said Meg dryly. “Is it one of my weaknesses?”
Auriol leaned forward, greatly interested.
“My dear, the point is, you haven’t enough of them. If I suggested that you were a bit too—well, noble— you’d think I was crazy. But in a way that’s what I mean; and I’m perfectly certain that some pre-engagement tactics that you’d rather look down on often lead to quite happy marriages. Does all this sound a bit lowering? Don’t mind me.”
“I don’t feel lowered. Go on.”
Auriol went on, and, assuming the position of a newly married woman, said perhaps more than she realized. It was a queer mixture, very shrewd, practical and not a little ruthless. It made Meg very anxious for John. It displayed a callous knowledge of the vulnerability of men, but not their strength. In the middle of it she was interrupted by a call to the telephone, and came back looking both puzzled and confident.
“John!” she announced. Then, hesitating a little. “Would you mind if I went back to town tomorrow afternoon?” She gave her light laugh, shrugging her smooth shoulders. “I don’t believe he and I can see much of each other here. Would you think it awfully rude?”
Meg’s pulse set up a flutter.
“Has anything happened?”
“N-no, not exactly. I want to get home and think, that’s all. It’s rather difficult here. You understand, don’t you?”
The chilling truth flashed into Meg’s brain, but she pushed it aside. It couldn’t be that!
“Of course; do whatever you think best.” She paused, trying to make herself say that she’d be sorry to lose Auriol. “ ’Twill be a very short visit—for your first.”
“But we’ll be seeing a lot of each other later on, won’t we? And, Meg, it’s all due to you. I’ll never forget that.” She nodded reflectively, looked at her own small
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white ankles with approval, then, with a curious expression at her friend: “Would it be all right if Tony stayed on for a day after me? Now that this has happened, I don’t think we should go off together— too much as though we were engaged, and John might not like it. Oh, Meg, isn’t it wonderful !”
X/TEG heard this in a sort of vague abstraction. She had almost ceased to think about Auriol.
“Yes,” said Meg slowly. “I suppose it’s wonderful.”
“You suppose!” Auriol sat up straight.
“I’m not criticizing. I’m just a bit— well, out of my depth. I don’t pretend to make rules for others. That w'ould be absurd. But you see,” she added desperately, “you don’t know anything about each other.”
“I know what I feel and he feels. Isn’t that enough?”
“How long do you think you’ll feel it, Auriol?”
“As long as the average girl does. There’s no object in looking farther ahead than that. I’ve a perfectly clear idea of what I want, and I don’t propose to be buried in a—” She checked herself sharply. “Meg, that house! Just think of it. Too awful! I couldn’t live there—ever. Now what about Tony? Will you keep him till Friday if I do the rest?”
Meg felt helpless, uprooted, with nothing to take hold of.
“He can stay if he likes,” she said, “but I don’t think he will like.”
“Don’t you worry about that. And he’ll behave beautifully, just see if he doesn’t.”
At five o’clock next day Auriol was in a first-class carriage, London bound. Tennant had gone to the station with her, and stood on the platform, watching her with a strange expression. It was hungry, but not altogether approving. By what means she had persuaded him to stay over was known only to themselves—but he stayed. The train drew out, she kissed *s her hand, then settled back, snuggling luxuriously into the cushions.
Half an hour later the train slowed for its first stop. She opened the window and leaned out. Suddenly she waved her hand. Her cheeks became flooded with color, her eyes very bright. The train halted. The door of her carriage was jerked open, and John jumped in. The door banged. A guard lifted his hand. The train moved on. They stood for an instant, staring at each other, their breath coming fast. Then John put out his arms.
JOHN, standing at his open window, looked out over St. James’ Park. The air was clear, and, after the Black Country, tasted rather sweet.
He felt extraordinarily happy, and not a little mad, and very glad to be alive.
Auriol was in Kensington, where he had called the day previously. It was a very small flat, very fussy, he thought, with too many cushions about, and low ceilings that made it stuffy. Hardly room to breathe. There he met Auriol’s mother, a little woman built very like her daughter, who talked in a high-pitched voice. He supposed she was excited, and he felt anything but normal himself, because he knew that Auriol had told her all about it. Mrs. Burt had said a good deal about being carried off her feet and not wanting to give up her only child: but John, though he knew little about women, was not greatly impressed, and decided that she was much more like a bunch of feathers than her daughter. All he could really see was Auriol, who sat smiling and making delicious little faces at him, a sort of flower or fairy in a rather drab and dusty setting. He felt thankful that his grandfather did not know Mrs. Burt.
After lunch they had gone to Tennant’s tailor, where John had more sensations.
Then along Piccadilly in the early summer afternoon till they reached the corner of Bond Street, and here John, pressing Auriol's arm, turned northward.
“You’ve had your way so far, now it’s my turn,” he said. “What is it to be?” Auriol’s eyes became a lovely enigma of china blue.
“John, you mustn’t. There’s no need of it. But you did need those clothes.” He laughed so gaily that people looked at them.
“What has need got to do with it? You’re mine, aren’t you?”
The glance she gave him was answer enough.
“Well, won’t you help? I’ll make a botch of it if you don’t.”
Auriol, walking on air, took him as far as Boucheron’s window, where there reposed in a white velvet box a cabouchon emerald ring that she had coveted for a month past. It was not the largest there, but nothing more perfect gleamed in that polished treasure house.
“It—it’s rather difficult,” she murmured. “You make a suggestion. Is there anything here you like?”
“Anything I like—that’s nothing to do with it. Choose something.”
“But I want you to like it, too.”
“I will if you choose it. Look here, I believe you know already !”
“It’s a frightfully expensive place,” she parried, “but every girl in London knows this window. I shouldn't have brought you here.”
He seemed unaffected by that, squeezed her arm again, and walked in.
“There’s something in your window that this young lady wants,” he said to the salesman. “She won’t tell me what it is, so please show us everything there till we come to it. Now then, Auriol !”
She gave a delighted little laugh.
“John, don’t be so absurd. May we look at that small emerald?”
“Yes, if it isn’t too small.”
She slid the ring on and off her finger, held out her hand, gazed at it, head tilted, and gave a sigh of pleasure that went straight to John’s heart.
“N-no, much too expensive, and we shouldn’t start like this.”
John sent the salesman a nod, and felt for his chequebook.
Five minutes later they were on Bond Street again, John in a glow and Auriol too excited to speak. She was rather awed. John had made a cheque for three hundred pounds as though it were pence, and she glanced at him sideways as at something new and strange. This for a beginning! Three hundred pounds was more than her mother’s income for a quarter. She pressed her fingers together to feel the ring.
“John,” she whispered, “I’m ashamed of myself.”
“Try and get over it,” he laughed. “I was never so happy in my life.”
' I 'HAT was quite true, but he, too, was a -*■ little awed. He had signed infinitely bigger cheques than this, and very often, but always for some payrolls, or purchase of material, or coal from the Burstall mines; and there had always been the result to show, whether in labor or steel or some other tangible business asset.
“Well,” he said, turning along Bruton Street toward the park, “that’s that. Now there’s another thing.”
Auriol shook her finger at him. “Isn’t this enough for today?”
“How soon can we be married?” said John.
She gave a gasp.
“Heavens! W'hat a plunger you are! It’ll take me months to get ready.”
“Don’t you want to be married soon?” he asked in an odd choky tone.
(To be Continued)