The love story of an awkward lady who found romance where she least expected it



The love story of an awkward lady who found romance where she least expected it




WILLA saw the golden glow of the opal on the third finger of her left hand blend into deep shades of orange and blood red. as she took the bride’s bouquet and gloves from her. She thought inconsequently, “It’s a very fine opal. Quite good enough for an engagement ring.”

When she had stepped back to her place in the aisle just behind the bride, still holding Dolly’s flowers and gloves, she continued to stare at the stone. Her own engagement ring. There was a hard humor in the grim twist of her lips.

“Willa engaged. Just fancy. Good old Willa.”

Later they’d be saying things like that. Trying not to let her see their surprise.

Her teeth almost met in her underlip, and her eyes—small, brownish-grey slits, slightly almond in shape and set too far apart—held a quality of fiery desperation like those of a hunted animal.

It had always been the same. Good old Willa. Big ungainly Willa, with a white, frightened face and burning eyes. Willa angular and loose-limbed. Always a little different from the others, even at school. Independent Willa who went with a carefully assumed nonchalance from one relative to another or to school friends during the holidays because she had no home. Parents in Ceylon. She had faint, heart-stirring recollections of someone lovely and illusive whom she had addressed as “Mummie.” She remembered very dimly “Daddy,” but he was even more unreal and illusive. His features were blurred in her mind like those in a faded photograph. She knew that he was tall and wore a silky beard. But it was so long ago. Willa was only five when they had gone to Ceylon and left her at Miss Tracey’s boarding school. People, the girls at school and the teachers, had been a bit sorry for poor Willa who never saw her parents.

It was primarily, she decided later, pity which had caused that gay, irresponsible trio, Dolly, Pauline and Theo, to admit her to their charmed circle. For Willa was not gay and amusing. She had not sleek, glossy, golden plaits and Madonna-blue eyes like Dolly had; nor did she possess the sharp wit of Pauline, nor Theo’s fine, clear-cut, unemotional brain. Yet they were friends—Dolly, Pauline, Theo, and Willa who was different, dull and rather plain. When they left school they remained friends. Theo was the first to get married, and the other three were bridesmaids. Then Pauline found her Tommy, and Dolly and Willa stood by her at the altar. Now Dolly; Dolly who was so pretty, the sweetest of them all, Willa thought.

The clergyman was talking in a low voice to the couple he had just married. Willa heard him say something about happiness. She gave a quick vicious twist to the ring on her finger. Happiness. They had talked about it at school, meaning, of course, happiness in love and marriage. Babies, a home of your own, and a man who worshipped the very ground you trod.

At Theo’s wedding and at Pauline’s she had felt happiness in the very atmosphere. The conventional nice kind one talked about at school. Getting married.

“Your turn next, Willa.”

In their kindness of heart, people had tried to comfort her. It made her laugh. Big, gawky Willa finding happiness in the love of a man ! It was not even as though she were clever. Only big, white and clumsy, and always a little afraid of herself. She had not wanted to be Dolly’s bridesmaid ; had not wished to go through it all again.

“Your turn next, Willa.”

Sitting there a little apart from everyone else and hoping that perhaps one of the bridegroom's friends migth think to bring her an ice or a glass of champagne. Feeling

The love story of an awkward lady who found romance where she least expected it

so big and stupid in her bridesmaid's clothes. Wanting to apologize: “It isn’t my fault that I’m dressed up like this. But the others, my friends, they insisted.”

She had argued with Dolly in that low, gruff voice of hers. “I’m too old, darling. Why not have kiddies?”

But you couldn’t hold out long against the pleading of Dolly's moist blue eyes. You had simply nothing to say when she reminded you with an adorably petulant pout: “But you did it for Theo and for Pauline. And I want you to be my chief bridesmaid, Willa dear.”

TT WAS last night, sprawling untidily in front of the fire in her flat in Bloomsbury, that the wild, crazy idea had come to Willa. Savage with pain, she had made her plans without thinking very^ar ahead. An obsession had stormed her brain so that she was not quite sane. She could not, it thundered angrily, sit again at the edge of the fun, waiting for people to comfort her. “Your turn next, Willa.”

She must not allow herself to be kissed by Pauline, Theo and Dolly in turn, and be told how wonderful it was to be fnarried. “You should have a shot at it, Willa.”

Big, gawky Willa, smiling bravely and carrying the wild pain of it all clamped icily in her heart. They were so kind, so gifted, that they could not see the cruel irony of it, those three. They did not know, as Willa knew, how it felt to be so completely alone in the world. You couldn’t count parents in Ceylon who considered they had done their duty by you in paying a thousand a year into your bank. In their ignorance, those friends of hers envied her the flat in Bloomsbury, her complete independence.

"Willa darling, you can do exactly what you like and nobody worries. Isn’t it fun?”

“Nobody worries.” No, not even if Willa threw herself into the sluggish brown water of the Thames, dragging itself wearily under the London bridges toward the sea. Not if she were ill, unhappy. Willa was independent. She could do as she pleased.

The congregation had risen to its feet. The choir sang a hymn and the organ broke into the joyous peals of the Wedding March. Dolly walked down the aisle holding her husband’s arm. People were murmuring, “A beautiful couple.” Willa began to giggle. She loved the way the sun brought out the colors in her opal.

It was sparkling quite as brilliantly as Dolly’s diamond and Pauline’s emerald and Theo’s sapphire.

Back at the house, when the bride and bridegroom’s health had been drunk, she told her news. She had kept her left hand hidden until now. She did not want them merely to catch sight of the ring. She wanted to say it aloud when the excitement began to lull. This was Willa’s big moment, and she was going to make the most of it.

“I’m engaged.” She held out her hand to Pauline who was standing nearby with her husband; and, lowering her eyes, Willa went on: “To an artist. Julian Waye. Perhaps you have heard of him. He’s just gone to America for a few months.”

Mad, crazy idea ! She let Pauline kiss her and drag her over to Theo, then right through the crowd of relations and friends to where Dolly was cutting the cake with her husband’s sword.

Madness, but so very sweet while it lasted, and there was no point in thinking ahead. The paper had said:

“Mr. Julian Waye, the promising young portrait painter who is sailing for America on the Aquitania . . . Expects to be away for three months.”

A small paragraph tucked away on an unimportant page. An indistinct photo showing the profile of a dark young man with a rather brutal face. The man Willa had chosen recklessly, with glorious haphazardness, to be her fiancé, to stand by her in spirit and uphold her bruised pride at Dolly’s wedding. Julian Waye, who for a short time should ease that secret flaming pain which no one but Willa knew anything about.

It had, she reflected now, been so ridiculously easy; even the unearthing of the opal ring which her mother had remembered to send her one birthday and which she had never wom because she disliked jewellery. The kind of ring a promising young artist might give the girl he loved. Expensive and rare.

YY 7ILLA could never be certain whether she was pleased or hurt to the heart at the ’ » surprised commotion caused by the announcement of her engagement to Julian Waye.

“Good old Willa.” They meant to be nice, but you guessed men were asking each other, “What can he see in her? An artist, too.” And the women: “Is it for her money, do you think? They say her people are fabulously well off and Willa is the only child.”

Dolly had gone up to change, and the crowd was beginning to thin out, when Anthony, Dolly’s brother, came over to speak to Willa. He was tall and slimly built, with moist blue eyes like his sister’s. Anthony, who was Willa’s secret pain and had been—oh, for more years than she cared to remember !

“May I congratulate you?” He held out his hand, and she knew a queer gripping feeling inside her as their fingers met. She could recall Anthony as a rather lovely little boy in an Eton suit, then jumping like a young Apollo in white flannels about the tennis courts at his father’s place at Bray. She had seen him only twice since he came down from Oxford; at Pauline’s and Theo’s weddings. When they were children he had been kind to Willa and took her ratting with him once,' but since they had all grown up he had barely noticed her. Good old Willa. Well, Willa was philosophical and had a fair sense of values, so she was not surprised.

You could not seriously imagine Anthony wanting to bother himself about a big gawk with a white face and silly colorless eyes. Not Anthony who, by the sheer force of his physical beauty and his charm, had the world at his feet.

No, she was not in the least

surprised. It only hurt

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unceasingly, with the dull remorseless ache of a malignant cancer in one’s soul.

Now she felt hot and uncomfortable in his presence. She wished he would go away and not attempt to be kind to her. It was unbearable having him here so near and yet so many miles away. She got up.

“I ought to go to Dolly,” she told him.

Anthony laughed. She noticed that he still threw back his head in that quick, defiant manner.

“Stacks of people are helping Dolly,” he assured her. “Mother, Pauline, Theo—”

“Still it’s one of the chief bridesmaid’s jobs.”

Willa moved uncertainly toward the door. Anthony held her back. His light touch on her arm made her tremble violently.

“Please,” he pleaded. “Stop and talk to me. I want to hear all about you and Julian. I used to know him.”

Willa drew in her breath between suddenly clenched teeth. Her eyes looked even more frightened than usual. She asked in a low voice:

“Do you know Julian well?”

“We were at Oxford together. He always seemed a nice chap, I thought.”

Willa sat down again. “He is; at least I think so.” Her lips widened into a slow, scared smile. She was beginning to wonder why she had done this thing; this monstrous, unforgivable pretense of being engaged to a man she had never set eyes on.

Before talking to Anthony it had seemed, at worst, a rather stupid joke. She had not realized that it would mean lying to Anthony. That was awful, impossible. To everyone else, even Pauline, Theo and Dolly, it was just a matter of warding off pity and preserving one’s self-respect. But with Anthony it was so different. The joke— they would see it thus—took on all the ugliness of a rather cheap swindle.

He seemed to sense that she did not want to talk about Julian, for he changed the subject and asked her if she were still living in town.

“I hope you’ll let me see you a bit if you are,” he said eagerly. “You see I’m just back on leave from a two-year job in Vienna ; Diplomatic Service.” He looked boyishly

important. “And I’m going to be lonely without Dolly.’’

WILLA had not known that Anthony had been abroad. They never spoke of Anthony; she, Dolly, Pauline and Theo. Sometimes Willa wondered if Dolly guessed. She had very strong instincts where love affairs were concerned and she was terribly tender-hearted. She supposed she must have been told of his appointment at the time. Being alone so much was apt to make one vague and inattentive, and she had not stayed at Bray since she left school.

Besides, hadn't she resolved at Pauline’s wedding, which must have been just before he went away, that she was never going to think of Dolly’s brother Anthony? It was so silly, so wasteful emotionally, to go on loving Anthony for so many years, ever since she had seen him as a lovely little boy in his Eton suit. Letting the others tease her, too—“Willa doesn’t know anything about love; she’s much too superior”—when all the time she fought with her passion, which made her loneliness all the harder to

“Willa, do come and dance with me one evening this week.” He was looking at her with shy wistfulness. “Please, Willa.” Better say no. It would be sheer insanity to see Anthony again, to dance with him. Be sensible, her reason urged, and say no.

“I shall miss Dolly so much.” His tone was almost fretful.

Willa’s lips hardened into the bitter smile of a disillusioned woman. Sitting there so big and determined-looking, you would not have believed that she was not quite twenty-

“ I ’ll come,” she told him brusquely. “I like dancing.”

Her voice was hard too, with the sharp metallic ache of it; her soul swaying and staggering with the subconscious insult. Anthony treating her like a sister. Knew each other as kids, and that kind of rubbish.

“Tomorrow night; are you free?” He leaned forward. “Do manage it if you can, Willa.”

Willa went on smiling. Her fingers twisted the opal ring round and round. It threw out little shafts of red and gold flame.

“Of course,” Anthony went on as an afterthought, "don’t come if you think Julian would mind. I’d forgotten you’re just engaged and all that.”

Willa’s laugh was more natural this time. “I promise you Julian won’t object,” she said lightly.

“Then I’ll call for you about eight.”

She nodded and said that would do nicely. There was a sound of voices coming from the hall. Willa got up.

“We must go and throw confetti at Dolly.”

PEOPLE began making a bit of fuss over Willa. Pauline gave a wild kind of sandwich, dancing and champagne party for her, in her charming, low-ceilinged studio flat overlooking the river on the Chelsea Embankment. Lots of well-known artists and writers turned up and said very nice things to Willa about Julian’s prospects.

True, she knew a moment of blind panic when someone suggested that a cable of congratulation should be sent to him, but she kept her head and explained airily: “Julian is out of touch, travelling all over America. Even I haven’t an address.” And she felt an undying gratitude to a palefaced young man who backed her up: “Isn’t that just like Julian; he always hates letters, doesn’t he?”

Theo entertained in a more sedate manner. i?ou went to dinner at her slim house at the Pack of Woollands and played bridge afterward with the fringe of society. Willa, whose gaze rested so often upon that quivering yellow opal, found that she was becoming a mild success. People took pains to introduce her to their friends.

“Miss Willa Gayner. She’s just become engaged to Julian Waye. The artist, you

They were giving up speculating as to

what he saw in her apart from her wealthy parents in Ceylon, and talked about her “mysterious charm” and her elusive personality which was so rare; the sensuous whiteness of her. Those who had once called her shy put her quietness down to an unusual depth of feeling. So Willa’s frightened eyes took on an expression of almost hard craftiness, and sometimes she laughed to herself wondering what was going to happen when Julian Waye returned from America.

Pauline and Theo were very tender with her. They loved Willa and were glad that she was going to be married. They informed her at great length about the way to treat a husband and what one needed with regard to house linen. Dolly wrote her from Venice where she was spending her honeymoon:

“Isn’t it marvellous to think how lucky we four have been? Don’t you adore being in love, darling?”

That made Willa smile in a strange, twisted manner. Being in love. She forgot that no one knew how, for three years, she had loved Anthony. Not being able to stop loving him, and going through this last most difficult act of the grim farce; playing sister to him because he was lonely now that Dolly was away. Grim it was, too—lying all the time to Anthony about Julian Waye.

One evening during dinner with Anthony she even went so far as to describe what her wedding frock was going to be.

“Perhaps you’ll be best man, Anthony.”

Under the heady influence of champagne and Anthony’s proximity, she said that. Laughing, with her eyes wild with fright and pain. Lying all the time. Because it meant Anthony would go on taking her about. She looked upon the opal lately as a sinecure for Anthony. For there was nothing compromising in taking the girl who was engaged to a chap you knew at Oxford to dances and dinners three times a week.

“I’m safe,” Willa thought, “so far as he is concerned. That’s why he likes being with me. He’s lonely and he knows he’s safe.” She never refused his invitations; and she chided herself for a poor fool for blushing and trembling when he took her arm to pilot her across the road or lightly held her hand to help her into a car.

During the last week or so, however, she had noticed a subtle change come ovehim. He seemed older, quieter and more remote. They began dining at restaurants in Soho off the beaten track and hardly ever went to dances. When he talked, it was mostly about Vienna and how he was looking forward to getting back. Willa felt embarrassed at the way he would look at her. Staring with fixed unhappy eyes as though she were not there at all, and often she would have to repeat a question twice before he heard what she said.

One day he turned up unexpectedly to tea. He had never been to her flat before except to call on her. Willa’s maid was out and she made tea herself. It gave her a strange aching feeling of intimacy to have Anthony lounging in her favorite chair while she knelt in front of the fire toasting crumpets. He was in a gay mood, and teased her when she dropped a plate and burnt two crumpets in succession.

“Fine kind of wife you’ll make,” he said, picking up broken pieces of china.

Willa agreed. “Still,” she bluffed, “Julian knows what I’m like.”

“Does he? I wonder.” The laughter faded from Anthony’s eyes and he looked glum and unhappy. "Does anyone know the real Willa?” he went on.

V\ TILLA got up from her knees, and

* V poured out tea. Her hand was shaking and a lump had risen in her throat. It came to her that one day Anthony would have to know this ugly trick she had played on her friends, Pauline, Theo, Dolly and him. Lately she had managed to forget that her time was limited. Julian Waye was not stopping in America for ever. And when he came home . . . The girls might understand and forgive. She could hear them discussing it:

“She didn’t mean any harm. Oh, yes,

very silly, but Willa didn’t realize that she was being a bit mean. We know Willa.”

But not Anthony. Never, Willa reflected, scalding her mouth with hot tea. would he condone. Perhaps an older, more sophisticated man might, but not Anthony who was still so young and idealistically raw.

No man as young and nice as Anthony would believe how poignantly you were aware of your big ungainly body and the unbecoming pallor of your cheeks. And you could never explain, “I hate talking to people because I know I only say silly, unimportant things which no one wants to listen to.” Especially as she had never found any difficulty in talking to Anthony. For him she had dug in strange, almost forgotten corners of her heart. She had told him a little about her parents, condoning their neglect of her. “They love each other so much, Anthony, they don’t need me.”

He had not, as she had half-expected, sympathized. His bright blue eyes merely sobered down a little and he said quietly:

“I should like to care for someone like that.”

She watched him now, stirring her tea and staring as though she were not there.

“Julian will be back in a month now, won’t he?” he said unexpectedly.

“Yes.” Willa put down her cup and saucer.

“You’ll get married right away, I suppose?”

She nodded. Another month. That meant two had passed since she stood at the altar holding Dolly’s flowers and gloves, playing bridesmaid for the last time because her three friends were now all married. Two months in which Willa—Willa to whom people were kind because she was big and uninteresting but rather a dear—had become a person of importance in her own small world. Just because of a fiery opal shooting lovely lights from the third finger of her left hand.

She caressed it lovingly. For two months it had given her a little of Anthony, some poor insignificant crumbs, and for this she would always bear it affectionate gratitude. A brotherly Anthony to be sure. Still, during these months she had seen him two or three times a week. And there was still another month to run.

A swift rush of bravado came to her. She felt reckless and strong, as she had felt when she first put that ring on her finger; grotesquely incautious after the manner of the man who spends his last pound on a wing of chicken and a bottle of good wine. She got up from the table and went over to Anthony. She put her arm round his neck and drew his head against her. A rough clumsy embrace it was, but then Willa had had no experience.

“Anthony,” she said, and her voice rang out in harsh defiance, “Anthony, I’m awfully fond of you; have been for ages.”

Her face was even whiter than usual. Her lank, dark hair fell untidily over her eyes, hiding their feverish brilliance. It was the end, of course. For a brief moment—but it was worth it; the ensuing humiliation and the wounding pain which you must carry with you to the grave—you had felt the pressure of Anthony’s head against your breast. Bravely she put up her hand and ran her fingers through his fair hair. Anthony made a jerky, indecisive movement. He sighed and then all at once he began to laugh. Boyishly, with his shoulders hunched and his face buried in his hands.

“Willa,” he said. “Willa, my dear.” Then he got up and went quickly out of the room.

She heard him slam the hall door noisily behind him. For a long time she sat in front of the fire, wondering at that strange laughter of his. It had not been unkind or mocking. Rather did it seem to hold a note of gladness, of release.

SO HE’S DEAD,” Anthony stood at the back of Willa’s chair, reading the newspaper she held in her hands over her shoulder. “Killed in a motor accident, coming back from a party.”

She put in lifelessly: “Rotten luck.” “Yes.”

The paper slid from Willa’s hands to the floor. Rotten luck for Julian Waye. She felt very sorry for him and hoped that death had been instantaneous. She held her hands, palms downward, toward the fire. The opal glowed blood-red. It took on a kind of dangerous quality with the leaping flames reflected in it. Soon, at any moment, the others would be ringing up; calling, sympathizing. Perhaps at this very moment Pauline, Theo and Dolly were discussing “Poor old Willa’s bad luck” with their respective husbands. A little snug in their own connubial security. She would have to tell them the truth now; a fortnight earlier than she had intended.

Julian Waye’s fatal motor accident had, she thought resentfully, done her out of the last two weeks with Anthony, for, although she had been able to keep up the silly masquerade about being engaged to a man she had never set eyes on, she could not mourn his death. Oh, no, she was not as bad as that. She was glad that Anthony had been the one to break the news to her.

“Of course you’ve had a cable,” he insisted. “But I thought you might like to see the paper.”

The funny part was that he had sounded almost triumphant. Willa could not understand. Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered any more. Nothing but a few bitter-sweet memories of the last two weeks when Anthony had been a good deal more than brotherly. Always would she cherish the exquisite anguish of that moment when he had raised her large white hand to his lips, his gay chivalry which might have meant everything or nothing, when he assured her: “I loved the way you stroked my hair the other afternoon, WUla dear.”

She felt his hand grip her shoulder.

“Well, Willa, what are you going to do about it?” There was a note of commanding authority in his voice.

She looked up helplessly.

“Do about what, Anthony?” Silly Willaish question. What could she do but tell him quickly, “This man means nothing to me. I just pretended because I was tired of being pitied. No, it was worse than that. I was raging jealous of the way my friends found men to love and marry them.”

Yet how could you, with Anthony’s fingers pressing into the flesh of your shoulders, caressing you with the steel-likefirmness of their grip.

“I love you, Willa.” He leaned over as though to kiss her.

Willa pushed him roughly aside.

"I haven’t got a bean except my pay and I know you are rich. But does it matter, do you think? I minded at first. But I seem to love you so much that everything else becomes unimportant.”

“But you mustn’t! You don’t, you won’t —when you know,” she cried hysterically. “Anthony, listen !”

“I don’t want to.” He put his arm round her gently. “Willa, darling, you needn’t tell me anything.” He gave the paper lying on the floor a friendly, contemptuous kick. “You see, I happen to know Julian was married two days before he sailed for America. I was his best man.”

Willa made a reeling movement holding out her arm.

"But why didn’t you tell me, Anthony?” She was sobbing violently. “Why did you let me go on ... ”

He held her very tenderly to him.

“Couldn't help myself, my sweet. It was a dead secret. I promised not to say a word until he got back. Difficulties with the girl’s rich father, you see. That’s what’s put the wind up with me about all your cash. Julian wanted to make a pile quickly in America first—poor chap. He didn’t want people to say he was marrying for money any more than I did.”

The telephone bell rang violently. Willa looked up. Dolly, Pauline, Theo—it didn’t matter. Of course, she’d tell them; And they’d understand. But later. For the moment there were only the two of them in the world: Willa, dear old Willa, and Anthony.